Talking Movies

June 8, 2020

Any Other Business: Part LV

As the title suggests, so forth.

Status Maroon 5

Well, today is the first day of Status Maroon 5. Libraries are to re-open, public transport is to become more frequent (for all the use you can make of it), county wide car wanders can be undertaken, and the cocooned can be visited briefly (with exceptionally discomfiting provisos). And what next? Status Crimson Tide on June 29th with the hastened re-opening of churches, museums and galleries, pubs that serve food, alongside the planned socially distanced cafes and restaurants. But when do we return to life as it was in the first week of March? It seems that public patience with lockdown is fraying, and perhaps with good reason. The global population is reckoned at 7.8 billion and COVID-19 has killed 397,000, whereas the endlessly invoked exemplar of the last global pandemic the Spanish Influenza killed between 17,000,000 and 50,000,000 of a global population of 1.8 billion. And that global population had just suffered thru the privations and depredations of a world war. If we had just all started wearing masks in February, modelling ourselves on Hong Kong and Taiwan, could we have avoided such a crippling lockdown?

Hannibal, he’s here to tease

Around this time in 2013 I previewed, and then later weighed in on, Hannibal; the blood-spattered procedural in which Laurence Fishburne’s FBI supremo Jack Crawford teams unstable but gifted profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) with brilliant psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to fight crime. I thought a tale of friendship between future deadly nemeses before they come into celebrated and chronicled conflict sounded suspiciously Smallville. And it wasn’t, Lecter in the pilot was very much already a supervillain; eating people for fun. Not that the fun was obvious. Hannibal was incredibly gory for a network show. At the time I thought that had it been on HBO or Showtime it would be unbearable, but Hard Candy director David Slade made it bearable by distancing the viewer with a cold colour palette and a chilly emotionless feel. At its most plot-driven it could feel like a very precisely directed Criminal Minds, with exceptionally gory crime scenes and dream sequences interspersed with exceedingly crisp dialogue between two of the BAU team. And yet, as I try manfully to finally finish the last 8 episodes of that first season 7 years later, it occurs to me that I was right to ditch the show after 5 episodes back then. Why? Well, because now it reminds me not of Criminal Minds but of Mindhunter. Far too much of Hannibal’s runtime is taken up with psychobabble sessions and lame dream sequences. There is a chilly emptiness around gory schlock to portend a great depth, which simply is not there. God forbid that plots should drive, that character should be revealed in action, that dialogue scenes should arise spontaneously and, like House’s trademark, feature two topics simultaneously – procedural and personal. The Engineer put it nicely, saying he had abandoned both shows because he was sick of being drip-fed plot like sugar water to a diabetic.

…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

It is wrong to continually think about a fictional character in relation to a real person, but The West Wing re-runs on TG4, focusing as they currently do on the electoral battle between empathetic intellectual Jed Bartlett and know-nothing jackass Rob Ritchie, make it hard not to think about Trump and the sheer vacancy he represents. Stomping all over the First Amendment he swore an oath to protect, he had protestors tear-gassed and baton-charged so he could do a strange stroll to sullenly stand in front of a Church and hold up a copy of the Bible. Holding it in such an awkward way that its proper use seemed as alien to him as if he had been clutching a Torah scroll. Did he read a passage of scripture from the holy writ? No. Did he attempt some Nixonian gesture of empathy towards the protestors? No. Did he attempt to defuse the tense situation as Bobby Kennedy had when he spoke to a crowd the night MLK was shot dead? No.  And then think of Bartlett extemporising a speech from the Biblical quote ‘Joy cometh in the morning’, of Bartlett’s desk only being seen empty in The West Wing two days after his inauguration when he thought Leo’s office was the door to a closet. And think of how Trump’s desk is empty, all the time. Trump would never read from that bible lest it show him up, because you cannot paraphrase and riff the Word of God. And that’s a problem if you cannot actually read. The empty desk betokens an empty man. Inside the bible Trump held, James said:

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabboth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: The Jane Austen Book Club

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Following her husband’s decision to end their marriage Sylvia’s friends console her by starting a Jane Austen book club and trying to set her up with its sole male. Romance at the club though takes a familiarly Austen twist.

Sometimes bad books are the best ones to adapt. I remember this book getting slated on its release for having the temerity to include Jane Austen in the title when it was mere frothy chick-lit. Well guess what? In the hands of Little Women screenwriter Robin Swicord, who also directed, it becomes as refreshing as a cappuccino. This film is not going to win much critical acclaim for startling insight but its darned enjoyable and that’s a high achievement. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is distraught at her philandering husband ditching her after a speech in which he seems to imply he deserves a medal for staying married for 20 years. Her single friend Jocelyn (Bello) sets up a Jane Austen book club, which will read one Austen novel each month, and invites a younger man she meets a dog breeder’s conference to join. Her plan is to set him up with Sylvia. In a riff on the plot of Emma Jocelyn is blind to her own feelings and when, after Grigg has done everything in his power to woo her, he starts to show interest in Sylvia she gets jealous.

Mario Bello and Hugh Dancy are the heart of the film and both give winning turns. Emily Blunt though steals the show. She gives a tremendous performance as Prudie, the buttoned down daughter of a hippie, who is fatally attracted to a flirtatious student as she falls out of love with her good ole boy husband. This is a world away from her hilarious scene stealing in The Devil Wears Prada. Her performance here is very controlled as she brilliantly conveys that Prudie is battening down a lot of passion in a desperate effort not to become her mother, who briefly appears in an over the top cameo by Lynn Redgrave. Prudie has fallen out of love with her husband Dean (Marc Blucas: Buffy fans still hate him for a short-lived role) who places his career before their marriage. She thus picks Persuasion, Austen’s novel about giving love a second chance, for her turn in hosting the book club.

The highlight of the film comes as Blunt has a very LA Story moment when about to make a calamitous decision with Kevin Zegers’ tempter student. In a scene sound-tracked by Aimee Mann’s terrific ‘Save Me’, a traffic-light starts to flash ‘What Would Jane Do?’ at her. Silly but sweet, and the happy endings that occur are all the sweeter for being somewhat unexpected. No higher compliment can I pay this film than to say its depiction of the power and emotional insight of Austen’s Persuasion has made me eager to go out and get an Austen book I never read.

3/5

May 31, 2013

Any Other Business: Part VIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into an eight portmanteau post on television of course!

Bored-to-Death-007

Hannibal

So, some weeks ago I previewed Hannibal; the blood-spattered new procedural in which Morpheus Laurence Fishburne’s FBI supremo Jack Crawford teams his unstable but gifted profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) with brilliant psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to fight crime. It seemed that the show would be a tale of friendship between future deadly nemeses before they come into celebrated and chronicled conflict, so, Smallville, basically… No, no, it’s not… Lecter is very much already a supervillain, killing and eating people for fun. Not that the fun is obvious. Hannibal is an incredibly gory network show. If this was on HBO or Showtime it would probably be unbearable, but Hard Candy director David Slade has established a visual template for the show that makes it bearable by distancing the viewer with a cold colour palette and a chilly emotionless feel. At times it’s like watching a very precisely directed Criminal Minds, with exceptionally gory crime scenes and dream sequences interspersed with exceedingly crisp dialogue between two of the BAU team. But we don’t need another Criminal Minds, just look at the fate of its spin-off. So what does this show do with Dr Lecter that’s different? Well, he’s very hard to read, apart from an obvious fastidiousness and a psychotic approach to etiquette. But Mads Mikkelsen’s impassive Lecter is definitely having fun underneath. The look of pride as he sees how good Will’s profile of him is (based on just the copycat murder he carried out to help Will refine his profile of the Minnesota Shrike), the restrained glee he takes in making Jack and Will unwitting accessories in his anthropophagic activities; both indicate this, and a perverse desire to render assistance. With respect to Dominik Moll, perhaps they should rename the show Hannibal, he here’s to help.

 

The ‘Freedom’ of HBO – Case Study: Bored to Death

Many years ago I wrote a piece for the University Observer about the unwonted veneration given to HBO, especially the idea that its writers were totally free because they did not have network TV taste and decency guidelines to work within. I pointed out that Carnivale, which I’d previously trumpeted in the newspaper, had been a rare HBO show with restraint. It had HBO’s brilliant production values, and featured a wonderful use of music, a superb period feel, and – crucially, allowable only because it was on HBO – the patience to tell its story in an elliptical way. But halfway through it felt like some executive saw Carnivale and sent its writers a memo telling them they weren’t using their total freedom in the mandatory manner. The freedom from having to conform to taste and decency becomes the obligation to flout those limits of taste and decency. Carnivale transformed from a superior network show into episodes that merely strung together full frontal stripteases and sex with dramatic dialogue scenes. Taking Jonathan Ames’ abruptly cancelled detective comedy Bored to Death as a case study it seems to belatedly bear out this old reading of HBO’s ‘freedom’. Ames’ insistence on writing or co-writing all 8 episodes a season, which drip bad language from its endlessly stoned central trio of Jonathan, Ray and George, mean that Bored to Death was never likely to survive as a 24 episode a season network comedy. But Ames didn’t indulge in ultra-violence or explicit nudity either so it felt quite different to most of HBO’s output. And then you find a deleted scene from season 1 episode ‘The Case of the Missing Screenplay’ and you realise that a scene was reshot, with the same dramatic purpose and dialogue, but with a shift of location and some added dialogue, purely to add a topless woman; the only female nudity in that season. Was Ames explicitly told that he’d not used his total freedom in the mandatory manner and needed to flout taste and decency in that trademark manner to demonstrate that he was on HBO? Probably not, as that’s not how power works. More likely he realised that there was no female nudity in his show, and, wanting to fit in with accepted corporate culture, went back and added some. However that reshoot came about Ames certainly seemed to learn his lesson, as in season 2 he showcased a women’s locker-room in ‘Escape from the Castle!’ as the central trio rampaged thru it, seeing everything as Patrick Stewart would put it. The deleted scenes from season 2 don’t reveal the existence of any scenes reshot for extra gratuitousness. Odd that…

April 25, 2013

Any Other Business: Part VII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not  nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into  a seventh portmanteau post on television of course!

hannibal_tv-series_topslice

Hannibal

Sky Living is trailing the hell out of its new show Hannibal; starting May 7th, in case  you didn’t know. The cast is certainly imposing: Morpheus Laurence Fishburne as an  FBI director who convinces his top profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) to consult  with a brilliant psychiatrist Dr Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), and, once introduced,  together they fight crime. But the premise of the show feels more than a bit  familiar. Future deadly nemeses, one a storied super-villain of sorts, are the  best of friends in the undocumented years before they come into celebrated and  chronicled conflict. It’s Smallville,  basically…

Confuse a Jools

This is the first season of Later…with Jools Holland in its new studio  in Maidstone, Kent. And it appears that the shift of location from central  London has addled proceedings considerably. The old title sequence with its  delightful ‘Jools no longer on the Tube’ in-joke has regrettably had to be  ditched owing to no longer making a lick of sense; being as it was Jools’ adventures using bus, tube and taxi to make it to the studio in time when his  own car breaks down. But now the new title sequence takes a virtual tour of the  studio naming the bands featured in the episode and to hell with the traditional  group riff played by all the musicians as the camera circles the room with the  names of the bands popping up. Except now the group riff is played at the end, after the biggest act’s  showstopped…

614583174

Herb Shriner 1 – Craig  Doyle 0

DVD as a format throws up some gloriously random things as extras, none more  so than an episode of a 1950s TV show on which Orson Welles appears for a few  minutes as a feature on a 5 disc set of Welles films. The 2nd ever  episode of The Herb Shriner Show from  1956 is the episode in question. What’s startling, especially after watching Conan, is just how early in the game the  format was nailed. Shriner begins with a monologue making fun of the  presidential race between Eisenhower and Stevenson, and mocks Elvis, and even,  very Conan, self-deprecatingly joshes his own show. Add a comedy cheerleading  musical number, a sketch about small-town life in Indiana, and a celebrity guest  (Welles, who’s there to recite some Carl Sandburg poetry and trade barbed  Mid-Western insults with Shriner) and you have a show. American television  networks nailed this format a few years after their creation, yet Craig Doyle  faffs about on RTE about apparently clueless. Here’s a helpful tip: never tape  the show live! Record it in the afternoon, before anyone in the audience gets  drunk, so that they don’t heckle the guests or the host.

 

February 2, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha, Marcy May, Marlene; the various names and personae of star Elizabeth Olsen in an intriguingly elliptical tale of a young woman emerging from a dangerous cult.

Marcy May is a young woman who in the arresting opening sequence flees a ramshackle farm at dawn and, evading the pursuit of two women and a man, makes it to the diner of a nearby town where she rebuffs the tender/menacing entreaties of that man before choosing not to return to the farm but instead calling her startled sister Lucy, who comes and picks her up. Lucy (Sarah Paulson) is startled because Marcy May is a new name taken by her sister Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who she hasn’t heard from in two years – time during which Lucy got married to Hugh Dancy’s architect. Lucy takes the traumatised Martha to her summer place in Connecticut, but beside the paradisiacal lapping waters Martha drowns in flashbacks to her time with the cult in the Catskills ruled over by Patrick (John Hawkes).

Writer/director Sean Durkin adopts James Mangold’s trademark use of disruptive flashbacks as dialogue from the past is answered in the present and vice versa as Martha slips between her personae. You wonder what caused her to leave Patrick’s ‘family’ as you follow her growing investment in the solidarity of the cult, and Durkin lets you ask questions rather than pushing answers in your face. The answers when they come are all the more shocking for it, with one showy slow pan around Marcy May as bales of hay are gathered ending with an absolutely chilling detail as its pay-off. Lucy’s concern at Martha’s obvious mental fragility is increased by her bizarre behaviour. “Interesting choice of swimwear” is the droll comment from Dancy’s Ted when Martha skinny-dips in broad daylight in a communal lake, but her sexually aberrant behaviour escalates disturbingly.

Studio 60’s Paulson excellently layers Lucy’s relief at getting her sister back, with her guilt at having perhaps driven her away originally, and her mingled desperation and despair over curing her. Olsen makes her film debut, in a role you feel sure Maggie Gyllenhaal would have secured a decade ago, and is startlingly assured – making her character by turns naive victim and spiteful malefactor. Dancy’s compassion fatigue is well played, especially his snapping at Olsen’s jejune anti-capitalism. John Hawkes is as scary and charismatic as his memorable Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, with his performance of ‘Martha’s Song’ accompanying himself on guitar guaranteed to chill your blood. This recalls Take Shelter in its measured pacing and intensity, and even shares a tautly ambiguous ending which leaves the viewer sick with dread, but unsure whether you’re just sharing Martha’s paranoia…

Martha Marcy May Marlene may be a cumbersome title, but once you’ve seen the movie you’ll have no trouble remembering its name for your Top Films of 2012 list.

5/5

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.