Talking Movies

April 30, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XVI

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 sixteenth portmanteau post on television of course!

To Be Young, Gifted and Bad

FX’s Legion came in for some harsh criticism here recently so here’s some cheerleading of a show that is actually telling a story with minor characters in the X-Men universe, Fox’s The Gifted. The Gifted reminds me both of Heroes (the powerless but still commanding father of teenage mutant girl) and Dark Angel (relentless pursuit by shady government agency, a decrepit building that looks like the Pulse hit it), so even while it was still in its first season it felt like the return of a long lost friend. The most interesting element of the show has probably been Polaris being tempted by the dark side, as it were. The stunning finale in which she gave vent to her fury was a masterstroke in developing a villain from hugely misguided good intentions. But there were plenty of other interesting elements in the show, a highlight being 3 x 1: the cloned daughters of Emma Frost, who entice mutants to join the Hellfire Club. The perfectly synchronised movements, the identical dresses, the sharing of sentences between all three sisters, the telepathic mind-games – all were touches both chilling and exciting.

Stop. Sip. Sleep. Wait, what?

Another Any Other Business, another gripe at government-funded nonsense… From the very first time I saw this short advertisement by the Road Safety Authority it has bothered me, because it offended my sense of logic. Why would you drink the coffee and then attempt to get a 15 minute nap?! If you were fatigued, wouldn’t you have the nap first, then drink the coffee to energise yourself anew? I mean, don’t many people stop drinking coffee a certain amount of time before they go to bed because otherwise they won’t be able to sleep? Who approved this?

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Uneasy lies the studio head that pays The Crown

Claire Foy says she feels naive she didn’t ask for the same pay as Matt Smith for The Crown. Except, as the producers initially made plain, and which was the truth, she didn’t get paid less because she was a woman and he was a man, she got paid less because she was Little Dorritt and he was Doctor Who. I thought Foy was great in Little Dorritt and followed her career with interest, but I suggest most people would have recognised Matt Smith when they saw trailers for The Crown, and not known who she was. The bigger star gets paid more, just as the bigger star gets billed first; unless they get billed last – witness bizarre fights like Dunkirk’s scramble to be the last ‘And…’. Jennifer Lawrence got paid more for Passengers than Chris Pratt. She also got first billing, despite the fact that structurally his character was the lead, and as a result he had more screen-time. Pratt got paid 8 million dollars less for doing more work than Lawrence, but nobody cried foul. Why weren’t they paid the same? If your answer is the truth; J-Law is a bigger deal than CP; why doesn’t that apply to The Crown too? Foy is as big a deal as Smith now, probably bigger – look at the forthcoming Lisbeth Salander reboot sequel. But she wasn’t then, so giving her ‘back pay’ seems very odd, and merely, par Bret Easton Ellis, a corporate gesture to just make the internet noise stop.

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.

April 18, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XV

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 fifteenth portmanteau post on television of course!

His Faults Are Legion

Decorum is important. So is the stylistic and aesthetic goal of urbanity. One might go so far as to call it an ethical goal too. But then Legion season 2 hoves into view… I had never seen any of Noah Hawley’s Fargo TV show, but I tuned into season 1 of Legion because it starred Dan Stevens and Aubrey Plaza, who have featured prominently hereabouts in best acting nods. 3 episodes in, my notes were: “great verve with music, offbeat as hell, style to burn – literally nothing has happened”. That was a fair judgement. Because, despite highlights such as Plaza shouting “Unhand the reptile, space captain!”, this is an FX show where the only FX are the cable logo. It’s like all the money for action was spent on the pilot, and Hawley was left wondering how to hide its absence for the remainder of the episodes. His solution? Take Wes Anderson’s X-Men to heart, apparently. Almost zero content was hidden with funky stylistic affectations, endlessly repeated scenes, and an industrial quantity of psychobabble. When you see as many analysis and interrogation scenes as in this you can be sure something has gone badly wrong in the writers’ room. This is a show pretending to be deep and smart that is in fact entirely empty, and incredibly slow-moving and boring. Even Dan Stevens’ charisma wilts under the strain, Plaza alone remaining undimmed by the tedium to the end. And then there’s the pretension to high art and social conscience with the ‘treatment of mental illness’. … The only reason this show exists is because he does have superpowers. Pretending that it’s a serious treatment of schizophrenic delusions is tacky and almost irresponsible. I will not be watching season 2 because I have rarely seen a show disappear up its own arse so quickly. Sherlock at least took three seasons. Apologies for failures in decorum and urbanity.

 

Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC

“I could wear a hat!”

Among the many pleasures of Blindspot is Ennis Esmer’s recurring character of Rich Dotcom, hacker supervillain turned hacker supervillain on a tight leash. Rich has managed in season 3 to pull off to a degree what he proposed in season 2 when he memorably pitched the set-up of The Blacklist to the Blindspot characters, with himself in the Red Reddington role of supervillain CI; hence his desperate final gambit as he was led back to prison – “I could wear a hat!” Rich’s misadventures this season have included getting sidetracked from stopping an arms deal by live-snarking Boston’s new boyfriend, outwitting Reade’s insistence he not go to a hacker party by insisting a secret meet with an unwitting criminal happen at said party making it a work event, where there just happen to be high quality pharmaceuticals on tap, but he’s sniffing because the carpet is activating his allergies. This is the kind of stress for which you might put in a request for a therapy llama, to say nothing of the fear that leads you to keep a bag of clean urine strapped to your leg at all times. When you have as lunatic a character as Martin Gero has created, “You’re using JFK against me?! He was way sluttier than I am!!” it is wise to use him sparingly; as that kind of lunacy at the centre of a show would turn the whole show as mad as if Brian Finch on NZT was-

 

Brian Finch on NZT maketh a show as mad as he

It Never Got Weird Enough For Limitless

I caught the The Bruntouchables episode of Limitless on RTE 2 last night, not long after star Jake McDorman was interviewed eating al fresco in Cork by an RTE presenter apparently unaware this charming American was an actor. The sheer barrage of whimsy, madness, and fun that is Limitless made me recall what in retrospect seems a huge blunder that at the time was not obvious at all. On its initial run on Sky the episode with Pulp Fiction style chapters following different characters ended on Hill Harper’s Boyle, and with minimal dialogue in these scenes we were instead given an Emma Thompson-Stranger Than Fiction-style voiceover about his activities. Unusual, but hardly crazier than most of the show’s conceits; after all shortly after my sketch about its creator Sweeny and Elementary show-runner Robert Doherty surreptitiously ghost-writing the end of Game of Thrones by recording a drunk George RR Martin, Limitless travelled to Russia and a key plot point was getting George RR Martin on the phone to narrate the end of Game of Thrones. It was only later that I suddenly wondered, what if there wasn’t supposed to be an Emma Thompson-Stranger Than Fiction-style voiceover for that final chapter? What if someone had accidentally turned on audio description while flicking switches to go to ad break? Stranger things have happened… But it says something for Limitless that something so bonkers could seem unremarkable.

April 16, 2010

Who the Hell is … Kevin Durand?

In this, the first of a series of occasional features, I’m going to celebrate a character actor who I always cheer when I see hove into view.

Kevin Durand is a Canadian stand-up comedian turned actor who has been consistently thwarted by his own physique. Durand first came to my attention as Joshua in season 2 of James Cameron’s Dark Angel. Joshua was the original genetic experiment by the shadowy genetic scientist Sandeman who founded military program Manticore to create super-soldiers after putting a bit too much canine DNA in the mix for Joshua. Buried under layers of prosthetics and make-up Durand gave a fine performance as the hulking dog-faced man, mixing humour with tragic nobility, that helped raised the show’s game considerably after its misfiring first run. After this turn though Durand’s great height, 6’6″, started to get in the way of his natural comedic talents. In a world of leading ladies like Kristen Bell (5’1″), Hayden Panettiere (5’1″), and Ellen Page (5’1″), you can see how it might be just a bit of a problem in getting leading man roles in romantic comedies…

He floated through half of America’s TV shows in one-shot guest roles, notably as a terrifying psychopath in a very chilling episode of The Dead Zone, before a far bigger role in season 4 of LOST as the psychopathic leader of the mercenaries dispatched to the island to kidnap Ben, and then returned as a slightly more rounded version of the same villain in the frankly ridiculous parallel universe used as filler for season 6 of LOST. This of course led to a higher profile and an appearance in Wolverine followed, as the Blob. Sadly no one either noticed or could win the argument over relative star billings that Durand rather than the miscast Liev Schreiber was the natural choice to play Wolverine’s half-brother Sabretooth. His role as the Blob though was perhaps the best use anyone had made of his uniquely endearing mix of comedic timing and imposing physique since Dark Angel. It was certainly more rounded than his thugs in 3:10 to Yuma, Smokin’ Aces, The Butterfly Effect, or his vengeful archangel in Supernatural knock-off Legion. Thankfully, and probably courtesy of his Yuma gang-leader Russell Crowe, he’s essaying a rare good guy role in Robin Hood next month, he is of course playing Little John…

Can Durand overcome his own physique and escape from the pigeonhole of one-note psychos or insanely script-specific good guy parts? Here’s hoping that Robin Hood marks the beginning of more varied and high-profile roles for the man who should be the next Donald Sutherland, sharing as they do an ungainly height, a goofy grin, and a flair for playing villainy, comedy and pathos equally well. Oh, and did I mention he’s Canadian too?

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