Talking Movies

January 15, 2015

Wild

Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Coast Trail solo in the mid-90s to find herself, now Reese Witherspoon hikes it cinematically in search of another Oscar.FOX_3558.psd

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), an ex-junkie recently divorced from patient husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), sets out to walk from California to Washington State, a distance of over 1,000 miles – solo. As she walks she’s aided in her ambitious trek by friendly farmer Frank (W Earl Brown), helpful hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), and unlikely named journalist Jimmy Carter (Mo McRae). But while other people can help with the logistics of hiking the PCT (her backpack is instantly nicknamed Monster by fellow hikers for its excessiveness), nobody can aid her when it comes to the inner emotional journey which takes up just as much screen-time, and is the reason for the PCT attempt: dealing with her grief over the early death from cancer of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), and her anger at her ne’er-do-well brother Leif (Keene McRae) not pulling his weight.

Wild is not a likeable film. When Strayed begins the trek; not having tested how heavy her backpack would be when full, not having practised setting up a tent, and not having checked what kind of fuel her portable stove takes; you can only flashback to the detestably naive protagonist of 2007’s Into the Wild. Witherspoon is transparently attempting to win an Oscar. You can almost see the calculations on the back of a napkin: true story, multiple nude scenes, hard drug use, a story of redemption – Bingo! Worse, you start to suspect from Nick Hornby’s script that wannabe writer Strayed did the trek purely to be able to write a confessional non-fiction book about doing the trek. The American wilderness seems to inspire cinematically a sort of drivelling poetical mash-up of Frederic Jackson Turner, Teddy Roosevelt, and Jack Kerouac.

Strayed writes mottoes from great writers in station-books, and Dallas Buyers Club Jean-Marc Vallee is reduced to having her accompanied by a highly symbolic CGI fox… Wild is uncomfortable viewing because, as college boys Josh (Will Cuddy), Rick (Leigh Parker), and Richie (Nick Eversman) note, Strayed is the ‘Queen of the PCT’ – people obsequiously make things easy for her, because she’s a woman – but she’s also constantly threatened with rape, especially by roving hunters TJ (Charles Baker) and Clint (JD Evermore). It’s also unrewarding, because Strayed’s reaction to grief is Jennifer Lawrence’s self-destructive spiral in Silver Linings Playbook. But we see it, and are then asked to give a Kerouacian mystical assent to sex addiction and heroin as being somehow positive because they led her to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington – and her perorating non-epiphany of an epiphany.

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’ is effectively used, the scenery is great, Dern is vivacious, and Strayed’s interior monologue is wise-cracking, but Wild while engaging lacks true heart.

3/5

November 19, 2014

Any Other Business: Part IX

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 ninth portmanteau post on television of course!

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Celtic Noir

It seems I wasn’t hallucinating at the cinema a few weeks ago when I saw a teaser for An Bronntanas; in which a severed arm floated past with dead fish on a conveyor belt, a reveal I’d been expecting from the music and cinematography of the sequence; and immediately thought that was something that belonged in a Nordic Noir. TG4’s Deputy CEO, Pádhraic Ó Ciardha, says the series has broken new ground for the channel by establishing a new genre: Celtic Noir. “The direct audience feedback on social media, as well as in media commentary and reviews at home and abroad, confirms to us that An Bronntanas has hit the spot,” he said. “Regular viewers of our channel confirm that it delivers on their requirement for a súil eile approach to drama. Others remark on the innovative visual style and unique dramatic atmosphere – the Celtic Noir that has grabbed their attention in ways not unlike some recent Scandinavian TV crime drama”. TG4 has, as usual, gazumped RTE in showing the likes of Borgen and The Bridge, so it’s unsurprising that its audience noticed the family resemblance. Series Producer Ciarán Ó Cofaigh says, “We believe that we have delivered a drama series that can compete on a world stage. Personally, it is particularly satisfying to achieve this through the Irish language.” TG4 commissioned Fios Físe, a viewer panel solely comprising fluent Irish speakers, and found An Bronntanas being watched by over 60% of the panel, with approval ratings over 90%. Official TAM Ireland figures show the contemporary thriller has been seen by 340,000 people during the opening four episodes, making it one of TG4’s most popular original drama series ever. The show developed by Galway production company ROSG and Derry’s De Facto Films, cannily cast Cold Case star John Finn (famously unexpectedly fluent in Irish) alongside Dara Devaney (Na Cloigne), Owen McDonnell (Single Handed), Janusz Sheagall, and Charlotte Bradley; and added an impeccable sheen through cinematographer Cian de Buitléir capturing Connemara for director Tom Collins (Kings). The series finale of An Bronntanas airs tomorrow, Thursday 20th November, at 9.30pm on TG4. Check it out – its ambition stands in stark contrast to the drivel being perpetrated by RTE2 these days.

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Bright Lights, Tendentious Theses

I’ve been stewing in annoyance at Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities for some months now; and perhaps it’s the fact that rival art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has lately completed the second of two far superior BBC 4 shows (Art of China, The Art of Gothic) which has finally brought my ire with Dr James Fox’ series to the boil. Fox set out to show that the 20th Century had been shaped by events in three cities in three particular years: Vienna 1908, Paris 1928, New York 1951. So far, so interesting. Fox, however, frequently seemed to be less interested in presenting a coherent argument than in maintaining his snappy title’s cachet. Jack Kerouac, probably the worst case, was shoehorned into New York 1951 by dint of the fact that he wrote On the Road in 1951. On the Road was published in 1957. How can a work be influencing the zeitgeist if it’s not been published? It doesn’t matter when it was written. For all we know JD Salinger wrote the Great American Novel in 1985 but it’s lost in a steam-trunk in his old shed. But if it was published now it would be coming it devilishly high to talk about it as a critical intervention in the culture of Reagan’s America. Kerouac was the worst but by no means only example of Fox’s tendencies: Brando’s 1951 film performance in A Streetcar Named Desire was hailed, and the fact that he’d originated that part on Broadway in 1947 ignored; Lee Strasberg and his Method were hailed, and the fact that his pupil James Dean didn’t become a star till 1955 ignored; the Method was hailed in vague terms, but any in-depth analysis was eschewed – especially the cult-like tendencies of its adoption in America. The Sun Also Rises was too early for Paris 1928, so instead A Farewell to Arms was praised to the skies; despite being verily self-parody, and featuring a heroine rightly dismissed by Richard Yates in writing workshops. Gershwin’s An American in Paris was rendered more important in the scheme of things than Rhapsody in Blue because it fit Fox’s thesis; and to hell with any internal logic between shows as having bowed down to Schoenberg’s atonal serialism in the previous episode Gershwin’s melodicism was now equally valid – what is ‘modern’ is always wonderful, even if it contradicts what was ‘modern’ last Tuesday (which is no longer modern and therefore no longer valid). Fox is absorbing when he talks about art, but when he ventures into other fields he should take Andrew Graham-Dixon’s lead and, instead of creating titles that act as prisons, embrace wide-ranging titles that allow you to link between a few but carefully selected ideas in service of a convincing argument.

October 12, 2012

On the Road

Acclaimed director Walter Salles tackles Jack Kerouac’s classic 1957 novel only to demonstrate directors shied away from it for 55 years for a good reason…

On the Road is a fiercely autobiographical work as all the ‘characters’ are barely disguised real people. Our hero, aspiring novelist Sal Paradise aka Jack Kerouac (Sam Riley), lives in Queens, NYC. In conservative 1947 his best friend is flamboyantly gay aspiring poet Carlo Marx aka Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge). Into their bohemian scene roars Dean Moriarty aka Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund), a literary borstal boy with a 16 year old wife Mary Lou (Kristen Stewart). But hanging out with bebop trumpeters like Terrence Howard’s cameoing saxophonist cannot satisfy Dean’s wanderlust and so he drags Sal and company across America on a series of road-trips. Sal works as a picker in California, Dean gets romantically entangled with the icy Camille (Kirsten Dunst) in San Francisco, and both men hang out with the genteel junky Bull Lee aka William Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen) in the Deep South. But what drives Dean onwards?

Hedlund is not the Dean you’d imagine from the novel, but he improves on his inert Tron: Legacy hero even if he occasionally channels Tyler Durden to an embarrassing degree. Control star Riley is equally unlikely casting; especially in affecting a curiously wheezy American accent. Mortensen impresses most as an unexpected voice of common sense who accuses Dean of ‘compulsive psychosis’ and ‘psychopathic irresponsibility’. Poor Sturridge, doing a good Ginsberg, exemplifies this film’s failure. Compared to David Cross’ Ginsberg in I’m Not There Sturridge’s version is unbearably annoying – because Kerouac’s dialogue shorn of Kerouac’s dazzling and comic prose makes ‘Carlo’ appear incredibly self-important and self-involved. The fact that the hackneyed ‘mad ones’ riff is spoken as voiceover when Dean and Carlo are literally monkeying around hammers home the problem that it’s impossible to like these characters, or believe they’re talented (not least as Dean seems to take 18 months to read 1/5th of Swann’s Way.)

Jose Rivera’s script dashes thru the novel’s events without obvious purpose, and Salles’ direction veritably trumpets minor appearances by major actors (Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss). This film is simply soaked in sex, drugs and freeform jazz, yet is desperately dull. It never actually feels like fun on the road, and you groan when you realise the Mexican road-trip is still to come. Salles’ visually recreates an impressively detailed post-war America, but prioritises swivelling camera shots observing the Hudson roaring past along the road to another set of encounters rather than ever lingering in the car observing; so that he never conveys the hypnotic beauty of driving that drags these characters back for more.

Salles so fails to capture the spirit of the book that watching Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho might better serve cineastes unwilling to just read Kerouac’s original.

2/5

July 6, 2011

On Reading

I’ve just failed, yet again, to achieve one of my long-standing perfect reading scenarios and it’s made me reflect about my various ways of reading novels.

The perfect reading scenario in question involves reading F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while listening to Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin. This of course involves reading the sparkling prose of the poet laureate of the Jazz Age to the accompaniment of the music of the Jazz Age’s pre-eminent composer, whose works might well have been performed at Gatsby’s parties. This should be done lounging outside in the sunshine; usually possible if done on the 4th of July – which is a vital component of this scenario; and drinking something deliciously iced, but undertaken; as ‘a broken series of successful gestures’ if you will; over the course of an afternoon and evening so that you get to Nick Carraway’s magnificent peroration about night falling on Gatsby’s mansion just as the sun goes down…

Oddly enough, purely by accident, I achieved a perfect reading scenario recently for Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon; in this case the scenario being entirely weather appropriate. I read the first 70 pages outside in the summer sunshine, perfectly suiting the reminiscences by Grady Tripp of his Kerouac wanderlust youth. The second half of the book, however, found me reading and reading on a thunderously wet day even as Grady Tripp, Terry Crabtree and the other characters resolved all their complicated problems during a terribly rain-sodden Pittsburgh weekend. And then, amazingly, just as Tripp achieved a final epiphany during the downpour I heard something. Birdsong. The rain here had stopped, the sun had come out, the birds were singing their relief; and damn if Chabon’s epilogue didn’t immediately return to a sunny small town in Pennsylvania.

That sort of thing, however, hardly ever happens. Most of the time the way I read is decided by the book’s length, not esoteric synchronicities. A short book like I Am Legend or Fight Club I tend to blast thru in one sitting. Meanwhile Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, masterpieces of pared-down quip-laden pulp fiction, are best devoured in three (one hundred-page) sittings over three days. Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan thrillers are longer and more substantial, so they’re best lapped up over two consecutive weekends. Finally there’s the way to read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander novels. A chapter or two at a time, but spaced out so that the entire ten chapter novel takes at least two weeks. Only that way can one truly savour the flavour of each chapter, and O’Brian’s hilarious predisposition to writing chapters that deliberately ignore the preceding chapter’s cliff-hanger.

Nearly all these ways of reading require setting aside a chunk of time for that purpose. But of course one could say the same about writing anything worth reading…

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