Talking Movies

April 15, 2016

Master & Commander: good solid research

Australian director Peter Weir’s 2003 film Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World is noteworthy for being remarkably faithless to the letter of the novel on which it is based, The Far Side of the World, and yet admirably faithful to the spirit of the Aubrey/Maturin series of which that novel is the tenth instalment. Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on that adaptation.

It is hard not to watch Weir’s film and be struck by how he is picking lines of dialogue and character moments from disparate books all across the series: one deleted scene alludes to the future laudanum addiction of a supporting character. One of the subtlest joys of the movie is the depiction of Jack dining with his officers, only on repeat viewings do you note definitively that all concerned are never entirely sober in any of these scenes; a consequence of the endless series of ‘A glass with you, sir’ toasts O’Brian presents. And so is presented in the best context the infamous weevil joke, “Do you not know that in the service, you must always choose the lesser of two weevils?” This is word for word as O’Brian wrote it, and Weir has Stephen riposte it with a quote from a different book – “He would that make a pun would pick a pocket.” Stephen critiques Jack’s corny wit in The Far Side of the World, with a quote applicable to all the officers across all the books, “Shakespeare’s clowns make quips of that bludgeoning, knock-me-down nature. You have only to add marry, come up, or go to.” And yet the humour of the books is based on solid research. Some of the peevish admirals Jack encounters in the novels recall Lord Chancellor Thurlow’s outburst at a deputation of Nonconformists, recorded in TH White’s The Age of Scandal, “I’m against you, by God. I am for the Established Church, damme! Not that I have any more regard for the Established Church than for any other Church, but because it is established. And if you can get your damned religion established, I’ll be for that too!”

“He will continue to respect historical accuracy and speak of the Royal Navy as it was, making use of contemporary documents” promised author Patrick O’Brian in his introduction to The Far Side of the World. And indeed not many pages pass before a reference is made to the late 18th century concept of ‘bottom’; which TH White defines as not just a precursor of the modern concept of ‘guts’, but also a marker of financial resources and emotional stoicism. But it is in rendering dialogue accurately that O’Brian is a marvel, men of the Napoleonic Wars speak as they would have done, of the things they would have spoken of, and with the gradations of class that would have inflected their dialect; so that when O’Brian describes the intake of the Defenders to the Surprise, the narration becomes coloured by the slang and sentence structure of the able seamen, “A few were striped Guernsey-frocked tarpaulin-hatted kinky-faced red-throated long-swinging-pigtailed men-of-war’s men, and judging by their answers as they were entered in the ship’s books some of these were right sea-lawyers too.” By hewing so closely to O’Brian’s dialogue, Weir adds unusual authenticity to a Hollywood historical action adventure, from the cries of ‘Huzzay’ to Jack’s ‘Thankee, Killick’ to his servant.

Click here to read the full piece.

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January 30, 2015

Son of a Gun

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Ewan McGregor rediscovers his charisma as Australia’s most notorious armed robber in what’s probably his best movie since Moulin Rouge!

Innocuous surfer dude JR (Brenton Thwaites) arrives in jail, where his flowing locks are transformed into a buzz-cut. A pretty boy like him has much to fear on the inside. His cellmate is raped every day by hard-man Dave (Sam Hutchin), and JR’s interest in famous prisoner Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor) is frowned upon by Brendan’s protection detail Sterlo (Matt Nable) and Merv (Eddie Baroo). However, after JR reveals a flair for chess Brendan decides to take him under his wing. All he needs is a small favour once JR gets released in a few months… And so begins JR’s initiation into the dangerous world of the Russian mob led by Sam (Jacek Koman). A trip to arms dealer Wilson (Damon Herriman) and a visit from Sam’s much younger girlfriend Tasha (Alicia Vikander) later and JR’s part of a heist…

Son of a Gun is a hard-edged caper movie with a strong romantic undercurrent. Director Julius Avery makes his feature debut working from his own script, with a polish from Master & Commander scribe John Collee, and it’s bursting with confidence. The chemistry between Thwaites and Vikander is palpable from their first meeting and Nigel Bluck’s cinematography of their night-time drive in a fast car is positively swoon-worthy. McGregor’s movie career has never lived up to the promise of his first few features, but this is the first film he’s made in quite some time where he’s giving a damn fine performance in a damn fine movie. His Lynch is charming, but also ruthless at the flick of a switch; combining both in a deliriously jump-started interrogation scene where he doesn’t have the patience to properly torture someone for information.

In a strong ensemble Koman, Moulin Rouge!’s resident narcoleptic, also switches between businessman and thug, while Vikander’s moll is a no-nonsense creation, and Herriman’s arms dealer is as eccentric as you’d expect from Justified’s Dewey Crowe. The only wrong note is Tom Budge as Sam’s nephew Josh – a character scripted purely for structural reasons. When Sam insists that entitled brat Josh be part of the intricate gold heist you set your stop-watch to see how long till he screws it all up. That quibble, and a slightly over-extended finale, aside Avery’s movie rattles along with confidence. There are a number of excellently choreographed set-pieces; a prison break worthy of Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a gloriously worked-out heist of a gold-mine, a terrific car-chase; while the romance between JR and Tasha and a number of double-crosses keep you engaged and second-guessing yourself.

Parker is the most recent Hollywood reference point for this popcorn mix of violence and romance, and McGregor’s sparkling turn outdoes fellow Brit The State’s criminal mastermind, while the romance is far better developed.

3.5/5

December 22, 2012

Long we’ve tossed on the open main…

Author Patrick O'Brian

Last year I wrote about the best way to read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander books, but I’m just about to conclude a macro version of that advice.

I said then that the best way to read the Aubrey/Maturin saga aka Master & Commander was a chapter or two at a time, but spaced out with days between chapters so that the entire (usually) 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. I am now one chapter away from finishing Blue at the Mizzen, book 20 of the 20 books in the Master & Commander saga. Yes, O’Brian was working on book 21 when he died, but it’s unfinished and therefore un-canonical and I’ve still to reach a decision on whether I do want to gawk over the great man’s shoulder as he’s writing. For me, this represents home shore at last…

Book 18, The Yellow Admiral, gave a chill indication of how the series might end: the ships paid off, everyone thrown on half-leave, and no more war. And then Boney escaped exile and everyone was greatly relieved… But the shadowy existence of book 21 gives comfort, the characters continue to live on – Maturin will continue to ignore comfort to observe rare beasts, and Aubrey will continue lecturing on navigational mathematics. I first started reading O’Brian’s great epic in January 2004, in a tie-in film edition of books 1 and 10 with Russell Crowe emblazoned on the cover. I’d seen Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World in December 2003 after a disastrous cock-up involving tickets for the extended The Two Towers and been sufficiently intrigued to try my hand at the revered books which had been its source.

So starting in January 2004 and ending in December 2012 I have slowly worked through all 20 books in the series, including book 10 twice; having started with it as it was the alleged source of the plot of the film. Over that time I’ve revisited the film at least 5 times, and each time been struck anew by just how much of O’Brian Weir worked into the texture of the film. Dialogue appears from across the gamut of the series and character moments are equally widely sourced. Even deleted scenes on the DVD reveal a super-subtle allusion to the future addiction to laudanum of a character in the books. And of course the books have been equally coloured by the note-perfect renditions by Crowe and Bettany of Aubrey and Maturin, even if their physiques become increasingly unapt in print.

Saying goodbye to House after 8 years was emotional, but leaving behind O’Brian will be even more wrenching as more imaginative effort always goes into the act of reading than merely viewing. Three cheers for O’Brian – Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

July 12, 2011

New Approaches to Richard Yates

I delivered my paper ‘Revolutionary Road: Modernist Novel, Realist Film?’ to the New Approaches to Richard Yates conference held in Goldsmiths University of London in June last year. With that paper since revised and submitted as a journal article, I thought I’d look back at the illuminating proceedings organised by Leif Bull and Catherine Humble.

Saturday 5 June

Plenary Speaker: Jo Gill (University of Exeter)
‘“The Important Thing Was to keep from Being Contaminated” –
    Suburban Malaise in the Fiction of Richard Yates’
Session 1: An Old Fashioned Realist

‘The Metarealism of Richard Yates’
Leif Bull (Goldsmiths University of London)

‘What’s Wrong with the Suburbs: Living the Dream Down Revolutionary Road’
Catherine Humble (Goldsmiths University of London)
Session 2: Revolutionary Road on the Big Screen

Revolutionary Road: Modernist Novel, Realist Film?’
Fergal Casey (University College Dublin)

‘Undermining Hollywood: Richard Yates’ Project of Exposure’
Kate Charlton-Jones (University of Essex)
Session 3: Suburban Dreams

‘Generational Confusion in the Work of Richard Yates’
David Fernley (University of Nottingham)

‘Liquid Lunch: The Collapse of Capital and the Rise of Suburbia and Consumer Culture in the Writings of Yates, West and Ellis’
Dean Brown (University of Sussex)
Summary Note: Leif Bull
Richard Yates’ long and shameful neglect by a modish academia is thankfully coming to an end and this conference demonstrated that far from being easily dismissed as a ‘mere realist’ there is in fact rich grounds for many critical schools in the work of the Yonkers native. Indeed it was striking that even though a number of us covered the same text, the inevitable Revolutionary Road, our papers all approached it from radically different angles. Plenary speaker Jo Gill noted the language of disease used by Yates to describe suburban psychological malaise on the part of men and women in Revolutionary Road and a number of other texts, and incisively located this in both the explicit health concerns behind the rise of suburbia in post-war America and the coded racist concerns about desegregated education post-1954. Catherine Humble gave a rigorous Lacanian psychoanalytic reading of Revolutionary Road that saw the infamous symbolic picture window receive appropriate scrutiny, as well as bringing out the difference between Frank’s rebellion, satire of society without change, and that of April. I read debts to the high modernism of F Scott Fitzgerald into Revolutionary Road’s temporal fluidity, ironic tone, characters with shifting identities and ambiguity of plot, while examining how Sam Mendes’ film simplified precisely those elements to achieve Hollywood realism. Dean Brown placed Revolutionary Road in continuum with The Day of the Locust and American Psycho and dazzlingly contextualised the progress of the rise of credit consumerism contemporary to each text allied to decline in self-generated identity in their characters.

Other speakers focused on other works with equally kaleidoscopic approaches. Leif Bull examined Disturbing the Peace and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness to show Yates’ blending of objective reality and literary history delivering satirical black comedy with an emotional weight and meta-textual awareness that anticipates the new postmodernism of DF Wallace. Kate Charlton-Jones used the short stories ‘A Glutton for Punishment’ and ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’ to illuminate Yates’ abiding concern with the damage done to people by imitating cinematic archetypes which amplified a simplistic political message of hope and re-invention. David Fernley persuasively used Disturbing the Peace, The Easter Parade, and Young Hearts Crying to rescue Yates from being a spokesman for the 1950s by showing Yates satirising in his work characters who foolishly fossilised themselves in constructed generational roles. Richard Yates is not just a realist linked to his time. He can be subjected to hard-core theory, explored for modernist currents, located in the material realities of his time, and read for meta-texuality and characters that resist easy categories. Richard Yates studies, long delayed, is here in force now…
Postscript:
Goldsmiths College is located near enough to Greenwich on the Tube for a Master & Commander fan like me to connive to stay in Greenwich and exult in the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, looking at old ships, old naval clocks, and even the coat Nelson was shot in. If you’re staying in Greenwich I highly recommend the lovely (and highly literary) B&B where I stayed, No 37.

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…

June 22, 2011

One Day (like this a year will see me right)

Regular readers will know that I appeared on Dublin South FM’s The First Saturday Book Club a couple of weeks ago, discussing David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day with Sorcha Nic Mhathuna, Eoghan Rice, and host Eve Rowan. Click here to listen to a podcast of that show.

Book Summary
Working-class Emma Morley and rich-kid Dexter Mayhew meet for the first time on the night of their graduation in 1988. They bungle becoming a couple, but an intense bond develops through Emma’s long letters to Dexter as he travels the globe. Dexter becomes a famous TV presenter given to patronising Emma, who is reduced to waitressing, but when she becomes a teacher her relationship with the increasingly arrogant Dexter falters. Dexter’s career implodes due to his alcoholism, while Emma becomes a successful children’s author, but Dexter’s shot-gun marriage foils their coming together. Will Dexter and Emma ever both be in the right place at the right time? And do they deserve a happy ending?

Structures & Pitfalls
BBC scriptwriter David Nicholls previously wrote Starter for Ten, and this starts off as another class conscious romantic comedy before it develops into something a good deal more ambitious; almost a history of social change in Britain between 1988 and 2007. The gimmick blazoned on the book cover, ‘Twenty Years. Two People. One Day’; referring to Nicholls’ audacious decision to only cover in detail the lives of this odd couple for the 15th of July each year; serves two purposes. The first of these is to allow him to gallop over a vast span of time and draw out the pop culture of each year. The second is to allow him to surprise the reader with sudden shifts between chapters. The latter is a trick well-worn by Patrick O’Brian in the Master & Commander novels, where cliff-hangers chapter endings routinely lead into chapters set months later that make no reference to how the cliff-hanger was resolved till half-way thru. Here it allows Nicholls to present conversations where you’re unsure if Dexter is addressing Emma or yet another bimbo girlfriend, and where characters change jobs and locations radically in a page.

The first purpose becomes an increasing problem as the novel progresses as there are too many attempts to cram every possible event in recent British history into the narrative. Dexter presents a show that is basically The Word, and then Channel 4’s failed rival to Later with Jools Holland, before ending up in the impeccably trendy organic food business. Emma bounces around from waitressing to teaching to becoming sort of JK Rowling. Emma’s disastrous meeting with a publisher is the nadir of this technique as it sees her standing on the South Bank afterwards recalling how jubilant she was the last time she was there, celebrating Blair’s 1997 landslide; of course Emma was there celebrating Blair’s victory you groan, Nicholls just had to tick that box… The gimmick works well for the first sections of the novel, as this is a day that the characters would consciously mark, and it becomes that again in the closing section, but during the middle sections of the book (as Dexter becomes ever more obnoxious) it feels very contrived.

Em & Dex: Rom-Com or Hardy-Com?
The character of Dexter is a problem. Emma is loveable and believable from start to finish as she manages to slowly sort her life out, but the privileged Dexter who is initially charming becomes increasingly irritating as he diligently works his way thru every cliché of Britpop excess. By contrast Nicholls’ protean minor characters are brilliantly drawn, from Dexter’s co-presenter Suki Meadows, whose bubbly personality is imagined as liable to start a letter of condolence with the word ‘Wahey!’, to his elegant bohemian mother Alison, who likes Emma precisely for the moment which embarrassed both Emma and Dexter; when Emma called Dexter’s father a bourgeois fascist for his views on Nicaragua, Alison saw a girl with some spine who would stand up to Dexter as he would desperately need his partner to. Alison sees the chemistry between Emma and Dexter that sustains the novel, until its circular ending which reveals more of their magical first day together, despite the truth of Emma’s unfunny stand-up boyfriend Ian’s observation that Dexter takes Emma for granted.

The ending suggests that Nicholls is so in thrall to his beloved Thomas Hardy that he chooses this particular ending merely to cast a backward profundity over what has gone before. The tragedy is that Nicholls does not need do this. Sure, there are moments that are reminiscent of other works. Dexter’s meeting with his agent is straight out of Extras, Emma’s feeble attempts at writing strongly suggest Spaced, and a disastrous sequence involving Dexter is practically lifted from Meet the Parents. But Nicholls has an undeniable skill at summarising cultural shifts in gags; in the 1980s of The Clash and Billy Bragg all the boys wanted to be Che Guevara, thinks Emma, in the Loaded and FHM zeitgeist of Britpop all the boys now want to be Hugh Hefner; and his greatest ability is not this sort of cultural commentary, but what seems to embarrass him.

Dexter’s long letter asking Emma to join him in India features the most memorable romantic comedy gesture I’ve read recently. Dexter tells her to stand in the centre of the Taj Mahal at noon wearing a red rose and holding a copy of Nicholas Nickleby, and he will find her; he will be wearing a white rose and holding the copy she gave him of Howards End. But Dexter forgets to post this letter; which will have you screaming, ‘No! Dexter!!’, at your book. An author capable of conjuring that level of emotional involvement with his characters and such deliriously heightened moments shouldn’t apologise for being a cracking rom-com writer, not Hardy…

Read the book, don’t wait for the movie. Any production which casts Anne Hathaway as Emma rather than Spaced‘s Jessica Stevenson obviously hasn’t a clue.

December 22, 2010

The Way Back

Australian auteur Peter Weir lethargically releases his first film in seven years. Sadly, it’s not worth rising from your post-Christmas stupor to see…

Weir’s laziness is usually matched by the quality of the movies emanating from his sabbaticals (The Truman Show, Master & Commander). But, like a pianist going without practice for too long, Weir’s directing skills have become rusty, and he hits wrong notes everywhere. Across the Universe star Jim Sturgess is our bland Polish hero Janusz, sent to a Siberian gulag in 1939 after the Russians defeat his army. Here he meets imprisoned actor Mark Strong, American immigrant Ed Harris, and Colin Farrell as the hardest of hard chaws, Valka. Farrell steals the film from the anaemic leading man on the showy side, while Ed Harris steals it on the Bogart side, but this miscasting is not the worst of Weir’s blunders.

By the end of this ‘inspiring’ true story it’ll feel as if you have trekked from Siberia to India so colossal is the accumulating boredom. Sam Mendes recreated tedium in trying to depict the effect of tedium on soldiers in Jarhead; Weir makes a film that is endless and gruelling in depicting men on an endless and gruelling trek. The trouble is that it’s hard to care about their hardships as Weir introduces these men so cavalierly. A reprise of Master & Commander’s subtle depiction of an all-male closed-society is abandoned almost instantly as the 7 trekkers escape to freedom in a terrifyingly vague fashion. If you later know for sure the name of the first of the trekkers to ‘poignantly’ die then I take my furry Russian hat off to you. Weir puts his characters in peril, and only then remembers that he was supposed to make us care about them first.

His attempts to retrospectively make us care by fleshing out minor characters are sunk by the tragicomic desertion of a star, which leads to the horrifying realisation (much like Speed Racer’s telegraphed story-structure) that we’re only half-way thru the trek, and we still have the guts of a continent to go… Saoirse Ronan tries to keep this section afloat by wringing as much pathos as she can from the weak material but all too often everyone is on auto-cue delivering platitudes. As for pay-off, The Way Back features the dumbest ending imaginable; its level of insight into character psychology heralded by Janus’ Forrest Gump like explanation of how he escaped a Siberian gulag, “I just kept walking”. And keep walking he does, by God, with his ever-ambling shoes super-imposed on a newsreel montage of the Cold War’s flash-points before 2010’s most inane finale.

It may seem harsh as a judgement but only co-producers National Geographic get their money’s worth on this picture. It educationally displays the varied climates and fauna of Asia. Meanwhile you, the paying audience, get less for your money in terms of suspense, action, and emotional involvement than 3 episodes of Bear Grylls’ ever-preposterous adventures back to back provides.

2/5

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