Talking Movies

March 17, 2015

Any Other Business: Part X

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 tenth portmanteau post on television of course!

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Hurlers on the Ditch Jersey Turnpike

GAA USA, a new four part series, begins on TG4 at 9.30pm tomorrow night. Dara Ó Cinnéide, former All-Ireland winning Kerry captain and award-winning broadcaster, investigates the extraordinary and largely unknown history of Gaelic games in the United States. Produced by Éamonn Ó Cualáin, and directed by Sean Ó Cualáin, the series sees Ó Cinnéide visit NYC’s Gaelic Park & Yankee Stadium, and Milwaukee’s Hurling Club, as well as attend the 2014 North American Championships in Boston. In conversation with Irish people who have made a home for themselves in America, he encounters an enduring love of Gaelic games, and resourcefulness and passion, that since the 1870s, kept the GAA the most important Irish cultural organisation in America, intimately linked to continuing Irish emigration.

 

Episode 1: Go Meiriceá Siar – West to America, (1840-1918)

Dara investigates the earliest reporting of Gaelic games in America and the devastating effect baseball had among the immigrant Irish of the eastern seaboard; discovering compelling evidence of ‘pay for play’ long before the amateur ethos was enforced. In 1888, the newly formed GAA organised an American tour of visitingIrish athletes. A huge surge in interest followed this ‘Irish Invasion Tour’ as record numbers of new clubs were founded in dozens of cities. As the self-help movement became militarised, huge support for Irish independence in America funded and armed the IRB and IRA. And yet, despite huge interest in Irish affairs and the evolution of strong competitions across the country, when America entered WWI thousands of Irish-Americans left to fight Germany, and the playing of Gaelic games virtually ceased.

 

Episode 2: Idir Dhá Shaol- Striving for an Identity, (1918-1945)

The GAA reflected a profound dilemma faced by Irish-Americans driven by the idea of Irish Independence while striving to carve out a new identity in America. The health of the GAA mirrored America’s mood during the Roaring 20s: hopeful, bold, brash, expansionist. In an illustration of the resurgent interest in Gaelic games, the Kerry team played in front of a crowd of 60,000 spectators at Yankee Stadium in 1931. But, even as American newsreels began to notice Gaelic games, reportage was very much coloured by stereotypes of the Catholic Irish prevalent at the time; which had been fostered aggressively by the Scots-Irish since the 1840s. Rare 1930s footage demonstrates such racist propaganda: hurling was a brutal ‘thug sport.’ In the early 1930s St Mary’s College in California introduced hurling to its students, only to disband the team under pressure from the local baseball league. The Great Depression and WWII crippled the American GAA. To stand any chance of revival an unprecedented sporting spectacle was required.

 

Episode 3: An Ré Órga – The Golden Age (1945 -1980s)

In 1947, the All-Ireland final was staged at the Polo Grounds in New York. This unlikely event gave the GAA in America a much needed shot in the arm. The Polo Grounds are long gone, but Dara locates the only remaining part of the historic arena, a small stairway that once overlooked the stadium. The 1947 All-Ireland final coincided with a reopening of the floodgates at Ellis Island, and the consequent dawn of a golden age of Gaelic games in America. Never-before-seen colour footage of matches from the Polo Grounds show crowds in excess of 25,000 cheering their teams, as well as visiting teams (including legendary Cork hurler Christy Ring).This success was matched by increasing political influence. But this couldn’t prevent strict new immigration laws in the mid-1960s.

 

Episode 4: An Chéad Ghlúin Eile – The Next Generation

After the 1960s, in response to tighter immigration laws and a reluctance among the children of Irish immigrants to get involved, American clubs looked to Ireland; importing players, paying them to play for entire summers. The wealthiest clubs got the best players and the most championship wins. In recent years it’s estimated American clubs raised in excess of $100,000 to win local championships. By the late 1990s, it was clear that change was needed. All across America, ordinary members of the GAA made a concerted effort to focus on youth development, spending money on the development and training of American-born children. This, he discovers, is where the real future of the GAA in America lies. And on the evidence he finds, that future looks bright.

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They call it award-winning Celtic Noir now

The feature film version of An Bronntanas is enjoying a strong run at international festivals, and recently received the Jury’s Special Award at the Boston Irish Film Festival. An Bronntanas started life as a TG4 series, noted hereabouts in a piece about Celtic Noir a few months back. A contemporary thriller set on the coast of Connemara, it found a lifeboat crew responding to a distress call on a stormy night only to discover a fishing boat with a dead passenger and a cargo of over a million Euros worth of drugs, tempting them to leave the body and sell the drugs… Directed by Tom Collins (Kings), with Cian de Buitléar as DoP, and produced by Ciarán Ó Cofaigh of ROSG (Cré na Cille) and Tom Collins, it starred Dara Devaney (Na Cloigne), Owen McDonnell (Single Handed), Michelle Beamish (Crisis Eile), Charlotte Bradley, Janusz Sheagall, and, in a previously hailed stroke of casting genius, the unexpected Gaeilgeoir John Finn (Cold Case). The TV show was re-edited into a feature film, which has recently screened in Barbados and Washington, and will soon be screening in Boston, Chicago, and Rome. Producer Ciarán Ó Cofaigh says:

“We were very proud of the success of the series when it was broadcast recently on TG4, but it’s apparent that the film version has its own legs.  The production of An Bronntanas was an enormous challenge and we believe we have achieved this production to a high international standard.  Winning this award in Boston and the film’s selection for many other festivals will further promote the film and the Irish language.” With Hinterland and An Bronntanas winning acclaim Celtic Noir is definitely an award-winning thing. We just need a dark thriller series from Brittany now to make things complete.

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“I do not believe that’s how psychos behave” (with apologies to Dr Seuss)

Complaining about The Blacklist’s many shortcomings, or even attempting to catalogue its pilfering from other shows and movies, is apparently a futile gesture. But I have to say something about its pilfering from Ridley Scott’s Hannibal. Peter Stormare’s introduction as super-villain Berlin at the end of season 1 was somewhat compromised by the fact that someone like Peter Stormare is not going to guest star and be anyone other than Berlin, try the script ever so hard to convince you otherwise with various feints. But the revelation of his identity; disguised by his appearance at a hospital with an amputated hand as a victim of Berlin, and the “lexical ambiguity” of the witnesses as to what happened between the prisoner and the guard as the plane crashed – “He cut off his hand”; screamed Hannibal Lecter cutting off his own hand at the end of Hannibal in order to escape from Clarice Starling’s handcuffs. But… while Hannibal’s actions were just about plausible (if not very likely) given his observance of etiquette towards Clarice (she could after all have an amputated hand reattached when the emergency services arrive), it just becomes farcical when Berlin cuts off his own hand instead of cutting off the guard’s hand and making a break into a crowded city from the downed plane. As always The Blacklist favours blindly following previous exemplars rather than think anything out for itself, but by following Hannibal’s lead here it seems to suggest that psychopaths are defined by masochism and an ability to endure self-mutilation for the sake of their freedom. Whereas you’d imagine psychopaths, on the whole, would skew more towards sadism and an ability to casually sacrifice other people’s body parts to ensure their freedom…

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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.

November 19, 2013

Potentials: Francis Lawrence

In this, the first of a series of occasional features, I’m going to argue the case for Francis Lawrence having the potential to be a great director of the future.

Francis-Lawrence-Camera

Who the hell is Francis Lawrence? Glad you asked. Francis Lawrence is the director of ConstantineI Am Legend and Water for Elephants. He came from music videos, just like David Fincher. He had a happier initial time of it in mainstream commercial movies than Fincher’s Alien 3 nightmare debut, even if the ending of I Am Legend got completely changed in post-production on him, but it appears that that bruising experience was enough to send him into mini-exile. Lawrence took some time after I Am Legend before helming another movie. Before 2011 IMDb at one point listed him as being involved in developing 7 different projects simultaneously – all with the same proposed release date… While this exercise in development hell or development indecision was going on in Hollywood, Lawrence turned to TV; directing Ian McShane in the drama Kings, a modern re-telling of the rise of King David in the Torah. Kings was inevitably cancelled and so Lawrence hitched a lift on the Twilight bandwagon with 2011’s period romance Like Water for Elephants starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.

I’m a bigger fan of Lawrence’s three films than most. I’d rate Constantine as Keanu’s best film since The Matrix, at that time. I’d rank I Am Legend very highly as an exercise in suspense, until the dog dies and everything goes to pieces. And I actually think Water for Elephants is a good film, despite its critical mauling. But more importantly I think all three films display some qualities that bode well for Lawrence really imposing his style on Hollywood. Water for Elephants is as measured in its pacing as Lawrence’s previous two films, even if it seems a world away in content. In an age of action editing that reduces everything to a CGI Impressionist swirl, Lawrence is willing to hold shots, wring the suspense out of his sequences, and make the geography of action legible. But his liking for restrained CGI in his two blockbusters explains the joy he found in working with animals, his visual style does convey magic at times; even managing to impart beauty into night-vistas glimpsed from the train which are obviously CGI.

Another strong point derived from his liking for sustained shots and measured sequences is that he has a neat eye for framing, a skill declining rapidly in a world of steadicam. And framing to a large extent is what lies behind an ability to do stomach-churning suspense that Hitchcock would have appreciated. Just think of the expert lengthening of the shadows when Will Smith is suspended in a street with vampire dogs waiting to rip into him when he falls into shade. Lawrence also has a genuine skill for getting fine performances from his actors, especially in supporting roles. Jim Norton is genuinely affecting in what should be a walking cliché of a role in Water for Elephants, much as pre-Oscar Tilda Swinton made her mere handful of scenes immense in Constantine. Then there’s villains…

Lawrence does villains exceedingly well. Christoph Waltz’s August in Water for Elephants is as nuanced a villain as previous Lawrence antagonists. Socrates says that no man would knowingly do evil. Gabriel in Constantine thought she was doing good, that mankind was not worthy of the gift of salvation and needed to be truly tested. The vampires in I Am Legend are the next evolution of humanity, they have bonds of kinship and leaders that motivate their actions. August is a man desperate to escape the Great Depression by pushing his animals and performers, and when he whips the elephant he is overcome with remorse, and offers all his whisky to soothe her wounds as well as explaining that he was enraged by his wife’s endangerment. The fact that we see August commit animal cruelty but only hear about him red-lighting people makes his end rage seem like an Othello-like product of jealousy rather than motiveless malignity. The subtlety of August’s portrayal was not obvious from the trailer. And even Touch, the unloved Kiefer Sutherland TV show had a pilot directed by Lawrence in which Titus Welliver’s villain was revealed to be a damaged hero rather than a true villain. Lawrence didn’t write that, but it’s hard not to think that such a reveal attracted him to Tim Kring’s script. Such an ability to invest villains with real complexity is unusual, and it would be refreshing to see it in a blockbuster where another quality he’s displayed finds a natural home. If August’s nuances were not obvious from the trailer for Water for Elephants then neither was the chasteness, a few stolen kisses, of the romance between Jacob and Marlene until they literally jump. It echoes the chaste relationships in Constantine and I Am Legend, and it seems tailor-made for PG-13-land…

Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire is Lawrence’s next movie, and it’s out on Thursday, with Lawrence already committed to directing its two sequels. I think Lawrence has the potential to be a future great. Whether he realises that potential is largely down to whether he’s brought his skills truly to bear on his greatest opportunity.

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