Talking Movies

April 30, 2018

On Urbanity

Prefacing my attack on Legion last month I noted decorum was important, and that urbanity was important as a stylistic and aesthetic goal, and noted one could stretch to call it an ethical goal too.

What then is urbanity? When I was writing for the University Observer I used to think our house style was aiming for the droll elegance of the New Yorker.  I’m not sure anybody else did. I’m not sure I would even have been able to pin down where I got that notion of the New Yorker from, possibly a refracted Dorothy Parker vibe from the Gilmore Girls. Having recently, deliriously enjoyed James Thurber’s The Years with Ross I think that I wasn’t far off in my peculiar sense of the magazine’s house style. Although it may have been just Thurber himself rather than the New Yorker writers en masse in possession of that style. Certainly the current New Yorker writers are en masse in possession of a house style, and the deployment of it by Gladwell, Gopnik & Co can be maddening in its repetition.

The New Yorker film reviews these days mostly overshoot urbanity and instead sound jaded, and snobbish. Richard Brody’s review of Ready Player One is a recent particular lowlight. Brody seems to have the shakiest of grasps on the commercial realities of movie-making, and indeed how movies are remembered by non-critics. His notion that a blockbuster themed around 1980s nostalgia should chuck The Shining for Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre is tragicomic; once you stop laughing in astonishment, you realise he’s serious, and then need to lie down. But how should one write film reviews? I went from writing a movie column for the University Observer titled ‘Fergal’s Guide to Misanthropy’ to reviewing for InDublin. In thrall at the time to Hunter S Thompson I wrote reviews in a style that I would now never countenance. Hunter S Thompson is a great stylist, but he is not urbane.

It doesn’t matter that Hunter S Thompson is not urbane, because he is Hunter S Thompson. But it matters a great deal when people who are not Hunter S Thompson are neither urbane nor Thompsonian despite their best efforts. And those best efforts usually betray fierce labour as they attempt to do the Gonzo style without being the man who was Gonzo. As I wrote more and more film reviews for InDublin I began to appreciate that reinventing the wheel with snark and wildness each time was not sustainable. So, as I have recounted before, I turned to an earlier mentor, Michael Dwyer. I pored over his 300 review in an effort to understand how it worked, and especially how he could write so many reviews with such apparent ease; given their clarity and simplicity. I adopted my interpretation of his technique as my model.

Initially though the interpolated technique was all structural. It was only over time and ever more reviews for Dublinks.com and Talking Movies that the mature style revealed itself; borrowing a structure from Michael Dwyer had seamlessly led to an Augustan style. Films were reviewed without hyperbole over their strengths or hysteria over their weaknesses. As a result they could be reviewed with astonishing speed; my review of Prometheus took 26 minutes from first keystroke to published post. It wasn’t vitriolic, like so many reviews, it maintained an even keel. But it had taken 5 years to get to the point where that review could be penned in 26 minutes. What one looks for in urbanity is the appearance of effortlessness concealing much effort; the sprezzatura of Castiglione so promulgated by WB Yeats as the ideal of lyric poetry. Which brings us back to James Thurber…

Thurber’s droll story ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ concerns a bear that gets too fond of honey mead at the local bar:

He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

But our hero sees the error of his ways. He becomes a teetotaller, and a physical fitness freak, and boastful of how the two are connected:

To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

The simplicity of the gag makes you feel like you always knew it just after you first read it, and of course belies what must have been careful paring and paring by Thurber to get it just right. That is the key. It appears effortless; elegant, graceful, simple; and it took much effort to make it appear so. Thurber was in a contract with himself as much as the reader not to let go of the piece until he’d finely chiselled it to perfection and then polished it to remove all trace of the chisel marks. And it’s that determination to do oneself and others justice that I argue can move urbanity from aesthetics to ethics. To write urbanely is to do more, to be beneficent.

PG Wodehouse once wrote “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well”. One might advance a similar notion when it comes to urbanity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully laboured non-apology apology for the Cambridge Analytica flap:

“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”

A billionaire, surrounded by expensive lawyers and media consultants, who can take five days (which I like to imagine were spent brainstorming on a luxury houseboat moored in the dead centre of Lake Tahoe), to write and/or approve something as inelegant as that italicised sentence… Well, I opine, in identical manner to the man who cheats at golf, a man capable of writing like that is capable of anything.

John McGahern is the endpoint of the notion of urbanity as an ethical goal. His description of fictional Leitrim farmer (and, as Graham Price persuasively has it, dandy) Jamesie sitting in Ruttledge’s passenger seat on their way to the market I have characterised in my Irish University Review article ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ as a Stoic benediction: “He praised where he could, but most people were allowed their space without praise or blame in a gesture of hands that assigned his life and theirs to their own parts in this inexhaustible journey”. That may be the ideal of urbanity I wish for in journalism. How it got muddled together with Thurber’s New Yorker drollness in my head is a puzzler, but there it is. Socrates said that nobody would willingly commit evil. An evil-doer is in possession of imperfect information. Nobody sets out to write badly, paint badly, compose badly, or to direct a bad film. In reviewing one should try to nudge where possible, and always offer solutions when identifying problems. One should only eviscerate if something is positively harmful, and even then try to do it with a light touch. A bad review done with urbanity is a judo flip. Identify what is obnoxious, and, if possible; and it is surprisingly often possible; see how the work can be read against itself, so that it is condemned out of its own mouth.

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April 21, 2016

Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle is star, co-writer, and director in this long-gestating passion project, an impressionistic portrait of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

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Miles Davis (Cheadle) at the end of the 1970s is in a funk. And not the good Prince kind, either. Rattling around his chaotic brownstone in an equally self-destructive New York City he just gets high, listens to his old hits on the radio, waits for royalty cheques, and absolutely refuses to even touch the trumpet, much less record any new material. And then Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) barges in, eager for an interview, a cover feature on Miles’ comeback. Miles’ what?! An angry trip to Columbia HQ sees Miles inadvertently set the stage for a crazy nocturnal chase across NYC alongside Brill on the trail of an upcoming jazzman (Keith Stanfield), his manager Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), his scary bodyguard (Brian Bowman), and the purloined tape of Miles’ secret 1978 session. But addled flashbacks slow his progress…

The flashbacks principally tell the tale of Miles’ romance with dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). As much as Cheadle is really interested in telling a tale, for Miles Ahead is actually at times reminiscent of the impressionistic dreamily floating in and out of scenes through time approach of The Price of Desire. And that biopic of Eileen Gray was so critically savaged at JDIFF 2015 that its British release was pushed back to late May 2016… There is no stricture that a biopic about a musician involving much flashback ought to hew to the template established by James Mangold for Walk the Line. But without such formal rigour there is the danger of not much detail about anything adding up to very little, almost as if Cheadle is presenting two films: a cool jazz romance and a Gonzo blaxploitation flick.

Cheadle (complete with rasping whisper) is an engaging central presence, and under his direction Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography and Hannah Beachler’s production design impressively transform Cincinnati into rundown 1980 NYC. But the WGA credits Cheadle and Steven Baigelman (Get On Up) with the final script, based on a (presumably straighter) story from biopic specialists Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkins (Nixon, Ali, Pawn Sacrifice). So we get a hazy Finding Forrester intercut with fascinating scenes of Miles orchestrating sessions and, in some unusual historical accuracy, Miles’ proclivity for white women in a Jim Crow time landing him in trouble when a beat cop takes violent exception to his hailing a taxi for a white woman. Such gems amidst confusion make you wish Cheadle had hired Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, who scribed his storming 2007 Petey Green biopic Talk to Me

Miles Ahead is not an entirely satisfying film, especially as you eventually feel Miles was just innovating his way down a cul-de-sac, but there’s enough shambolic charm, good performances, and great jazz to attend.

2.75/5

March 21, 2016

Politik: Part IV

It has been, mercifully, nearly two years since this blog last strayed in the direction of politics; and yet now, very regrettably, it’s happening again.

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“What’s his angle?”

JK Galbraith once memorably quipped that every time an Old Guard Republican leaned over to nudge a compadre and muttered “What’s his angle?” while they listened to some liberal do-gooder proposing something fiscally irresponsible if not downright treasonous, there, in the heart of McCarthyland, you could justifiably claim spoke a true red Marxist, rummaging through fine words for the base economic motive. Whenever I hear someone from Fine Gael’s caretaker Cabinet proclaiming “We will not cling to power at any price” I hear “We will not cling to ministerial salaries, ministerial pensions, ministerial cars and drivers, ministerial prestige, patronage to reward our friends, the apparatus of the state to harass our enemies, and free travel to far-flung destinations on St Patrick’s Day power at any price.” And it sort of changes how seriously I take their sentiment.

 

50+1+3+7+2+6+5+…

Hunter S Thompson once mischievously wrote that Ted Kennedy was not President because he never learned to drive properly. One might say we are still without a government because a deplorable number of TDs never learned to add properly. The magic number is 79. There is a party with 50 and a party with 44. This is not that hard. But instead the country is being cast in the role of an increasingly exasperated parent trying not to step in and solve the problem while its child tries to mash all the small numbers together first to come up with less than 79 over and over again before looking at the actual obvious solution of putting two big numbers together. But it gets worse.

 

Shunning S(h)inners

The magic number, 79, is actually quite easily reached. Fine Gael (50) + Labour (7) + Sinn Fein (22) = 79. Hey! How about that? Only Fine Gael have decided that Sinn Fein cannot be in government. But then across the aisle Fianna Fail are letting I dare not wait upon I would for the ‘end of Civil War grand coalition’ because they have decided that Sinn Fein cannot be in opposition. Surely this is approaching insanity. Are we seriously to have another election because Sinn Fein cannot be allowed in government or in opposition? Perhaps the simplest solution at this point is to simply proscribe Sinn Fein. If people will insist on voting for them then surely it’s moot whether it’s more anti-democratic to not allow them vote for Sinn Fein than to disregard their votes afterwards.

March 30, 2014

Phantom RIP

It’s been a strange experience listening to ‘105.2 FM’ for the past two weeks. It’s the strange afterlife of Phantom, before TX FM starts tomorrow…

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“They’ve closed the chapel at Brideshead … the priest came in … and took out the altar stone … then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy-water stoop and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary, and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday … I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room. I can’t tell you what it felt like.” – Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

There is, you see, an appropriate Brideshead quote for almost any occasion. It was a very odd feeling listening to the last hours of Phantom on Sunday the 16th of March, before this strange automated playlist ghost of a station took over, calling itself ‘105.2 FM’ not ‘Phantom 105.2’, and playing more Smiths and Pumpkins and Jeff Buckley in the daytime than we’ve been accustomed to. Having talked about the latest disastrous move by management as being ‘Phantom’s death rattle’ for years, it was unexpectedly moving to hear the actual death rattle as favourite DJs like Richie Ryan and Jack Hyland disappeared one by one. You see I’ve complained about it like nobody’s business over the last few years. I moaned about Michelle Doherty being moved off Finest Worksongs, I griped about John Caddell moving from Key Cuts to Finest Worksongs, I tiraded whenever they changed anything about Cinerama (and especially when they cancelled it), I mocked the decision to hire Vogue off of Fade Street as a DJ, I was outraged by the firing of founder Simon Maher, and, well, Joe & Keith, well, ’nuff said surely. But I was complaining because I was still listening – to the end.

I have spent hours sitting at my desk writing to the sound of Phantom blaring out of a farcically aged clock radio for many years. And I mean many years. I first discovered it as a pirate around this time of year in the months of frantic revision leading up to the Leaving Cert, and their later jingle ‘we’re the reason you own a radio’ rang quite true. I discovered Garbage and The Jam purely from listening to Phantom as a pirate. And when it was on legal hiatus the only shows worth listening to on official radio tended to be those presented by Phantom alumni (Jenny Huston, Dan Hegarty), because, well, what else was there to listen to out there? Especially in the desert of daytime radio… Phantom is the reason I listen to Metric and Death Cab for Cutie. It’s what finally made me appreciate LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire after years of resistance. TX FM’s playlist tomorrow may be similar but the gutting of Phantom removes my abiding affection and loyalty and makes tuning in a questionable decision. John Caddell said Phantom had made mistakes as a commercial station. Sure, but I thought of another quote:

“McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.

Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?” – Hunter S Thompson, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72

Phantom RIP.

December 20, 2011

The Rises and Falls of Michael Moore

Michael Moore is still making entertaining documentaries using the same methods he’s employed for the past 20 years, so why does no one care anymore?

I had this thought when I heard that Moore was in town doing a show in the Grand Canal Theatre to promote his new book, and realised that, no matter how good this new book was, only a fraction of the number of people who proudly displayed Stupid White Men on their book-shelves as a symbol of right-on resistance to George Bush Jr would bother to buy this one. It’s not like Moore’s writing has suffered an obvious fall-off and that’s the reason that people are eschewing it. Stupid White Men is very funny but also very sketchy at times in its logic and arguments, while Dude, Where’s my Country? is filled with excruciatingly childish sneering at conservatives. But both sold phenomenally well. No, whatever the quality of this book its reception will be muted because Moore’s time as de riguer reading has simply passed.

Moore’s time was quite short, lasting only around 4 years or so, but of course it wasn’t his first coming. Roger & Me launched Moore to fame in America in 1989, and set the tone for his whole career with its partisan satirical railing against corporate greed in the traditionally more neutral documentary genre. I fondly remember Moore’s TV show appearing on Channel 4 in the mid-1990s where he door-stepped businessmen and generally afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. He faded out of view for quite some time and then, almost out of nowhere, Bowling for Columbine and Stupid White Men gave him a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic. I welcomed him back as an old friend while watching Bowling for Columbine but it was clear that attacking capitalist excesses wasn’t enough anymore. He aimed higher, and ironically brought himself down.

Fahrenheit 9/11 went after George Bush Jr on a petty if entertaining level but was undone by its own indiscipline. Despite the opprobrium heaped upon it, it is a very good polemic – either side of a truly terrible half-hour about Iraq and vague conspiracy theories. More people saw this any of Moore’s other films and that’s why it was dangerously ill-judged. Fahrenheit 9/11 was designed to topple Bush from power but instead he was re-elected with a thumping majority. I think ordinary cinema-goers were inclined to view Moore’s film as a failure in propagandising, both because of its practical lack of success and its aesthetic clumsiness, and the more political among them were inclined to blame him for Bush’s victory by his populist rabble-rousing spurring the GOP into more effective voter-turnout drives. But if this was when Moore’s stock fell other circumstances wiped it out.

The tide turned quickly for a President who had boasted of spending his huge political capital, and after Hurricane Katrina, and with increasing popular discontent with the fiscal and emotional cost of the never-ending occupation of Iraq (especially its maiming of a generation of volunteer soldiers), Bush was as toxic electorally as Moore had wished to make him. Sicko thus appeared when it was already clear that Bush’s neo-conservatism was out of favour, and Capitalism: A Love Story was released at a time of utter irrelevance for any American elections. The replacement of Bush with Obama was, for the rest of the world, akin to Hunter S Thompson’s characterisation of the political demise of Lyndon B Johnson – an evil king had been overthrown, and now we all could stop worrying about over-reaching American politics. And that meant not caring about American healthcare or capitalism either…

Which is a pity because Capitalism is a fascinating watch, filled with archival gold and provocative arguments, while Sicko’s polemic for a better healthcare system is quite devastating, and might have aided Obama’s strenuous and half-successful efforts at reform – except of course that no American conservative would watch it, never mind a Tea Party member. Americans seem to have turned away from Moore as being either counter-productive or treasonous, while the rest of the world apparently has turned away from his work because it’s simply become bored with an America that patently has lost the ability to project its power as it once did, either economically or politically, and is so dogged by polarised partisan infighting as to arguably be on the verge of a constitutional crisis; because if the legislature refuses to engage with the executive but merely engages in monolithic opposition deadlock ensues.

I strongly believe that within the next thirty years we will all have absorbed, by a process of osmosis, a basic knowledge of Chinese history and culture merely as necessary background noise to understanding what will then be the world’s pre-eminent country. We will know exactly what Confucius said, and be able to talk about the origin myth of modern China in the Opium Wars with the British, and know when the various dynasties ruled as readily as we roughly know when various houses of monarchy were on the throne in England. Part of that realpolitik adjustment might already have begun in an abjuration of interest in American politics as it can now be regarded as purely a domestic American concern with greatly decreased international impact. Moore’s future success might then be dependent on American domestic politics again forcefully impacting the rest of the world.

Can Michael Moore stage another comeback? The odds are stacked against him, but who knows, the Tea Party may yet do the unthinkable for them and make him fashionable again.

November 2, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

George Clooney’s writing partner Grant Heslov directs his collaborator in an adaptation of British journalist Jon Ronson’s book, which, while consistently amusing, never becomes the laugh-riot we had hoped for concerning American military attempts to weaponise (non-existent) psychic powers.

Goats does though at times recall the Peter Cook sketch involving Lord Streebling who had been training ravens to fly underwater for decades but when asked by Dudley Moore’s reporter how many ravens he had actually successfully taught to fly underwater sheepishly replied ‘Ah, none’. Clooney as Lyn Cassady in 2003 Iraq endlessly talks up his awesome psychic powers to Ewan McGregor’s credulous newspaperman Bob Wilton then does something brutally violent before explaining how he just achieved his objective predominantly by mental means.

In flashbacks it’s another story entirely, as Wilton isn’t around to fact-check… These flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s contain by far the funniest sequences in the film as Cassady’s mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) bruised by his experiences in Vietnam, and a baffling near-death vision, investigates various New Age movements as a research mission and then tries to train an army unit to use their gentleness as a weapon – it’s like watching The Dude taking over David Mamet’s The Unit… Cassady joins Django’s unit and learns to dance, which (naturally) leads on to finding kidnap victims using remote viewing as his mind soars over the planet to the strains of Boston’s More Than a Feeling.

There are good gags dotted throughout the film like Wilton’s annoyed response to some training by Cassady: “‘Attack’ me” “What’s with the air-quotes, like you think I’m only capable of ‘ironic’ attack?” What’s most interesting though is that Heslov and Clooney have used Ronson’s book to make a film which is really about the American/capitalist tendency to militarise and/or crassly commercialise everything so that even positive discoveries invariably turn sinister or inauthentic. Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper represents this dark side of the force as an ambitious recruit to the unit who aspires to lead a full on psychic warrior division. Cassady, under pressure from Hooper, does in fact kill a goat by staring at it till he makes its heart stop but in doing so the Jedi Warriors (as the New Earth battalion are known – have a good laugh at McGregor being an ex-Jedi, now stop) turn to the dark side, and they are cursed from that moment on for having misused their powers.

The film’s insane finale in a secret army base in Iraq would feel at home in both MASH and Inglorious Basterds as it outrageously rewrites recent history with a more positive version of American liberty. It’s while watching this final sequence that it hits you Heslov’s point is really just Hunter S Thompson’s 1971 musing on “what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon”. Amen to that.

3/5

October 22, 2009

The Goods

Jeremy Piven stars in a raucous comedy produced by Will Ferrell who also makes a cameo. Will Ferrell involved in a raucous comedy?! What won’t they think of next? Some sort of telephony device enabling you to talk to people who aren’t in the same room as you?

This is a film for people with simple expectations from comedies, like boobs, but unlike last year’s Sexdrive which turned out far funnier and subversive than it had any right to be this is a comedy which makes tasteless jokes without being hilarious or subverting stereotypes. Piven is obviously having the time of his life in the lead role of Don Ready, whose business card reads “I move cars mother****er”. Ready is the ultimate smooth-talking used-car salesman, whose speech about smoking on planes as an act of patriotism earns the applause of all the passengers before he turns the flight into the Zoo Plane from Bill Murray’s Hunter S Thompson film Where the Buffalo Roam. His associates are Ving Rhames and Anchorman stalwarts David Koechner and Kathryn Hahn. It is Ferrell’s cronies who raise concerns… Ready pimps out Brent Gage (Koechner) to the bi-curious Ben Selleck (James Brolin), owner of the car-dealership Ready is in town to save, leading to endless homophobic jokes. Meanwhile Hahn’s pouting redhead Babs Merrick spends the film lusting after a 10 year old boy who she tries to get drunk so she can ‘wrestle’ with him. The boy in question looks 30, thanks to a ‘hilarious’ medical condition (pituitary gland disorder), but acts 10. Still, obviously a comedic idea conceived before Roman Polanski got arrested.

There are good moments dotted throughout the film. There is a nice gag about the three types of girls who become strippers, Ready displays an admirable disregard for logic in his quest for a new woman and his long-lost son, and Charles Napier (Austin Powers’ General Hawk) has a number of godlike sequences including inciting a riot, and assaulting a Korean salesman in revenge for Pearl Harbour after Ready makes a speech about how their mission to save the dealership by selling the entire stock over the 4th of July weekend is the apotheosis of patriotism. Will Ferrell’s cameo is as bizarre and unfunny as his brief appearances in Starsky & Hutch and Wedding Crashers but even so he does deliver the line “Oh Christ, that dildo’s back” wonderfully well.

Piven is a talented comedy performer and he carries this film well. Director Neal Brennan has worked with Dave Chappelle but screenwriters Andy Stock and Rick Stempson are newcomers and they do not impress. This raises enough laughs in its incredibly short running time of just about 82 minutes if you’re looking for undemanding viewing on a drunken night in, but, just as its faithful adherence to clichés of comedy films make it feel longer than it is, the laughs that it raises are from profane outrageousness rather than genuine wit and will leave a nasty taste in the mouth afterwards.

2/5

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