Talking Movies

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: There Will Be Blood

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds my sceptical review of the greatest film performance of all time in a work of staggering genius.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar winning saga of oilmen in early 20th Century America opens with a dialogue free 15 minutes. In them, Daniel Day-Lewis’ monstrous capitalist Daniel Plainview scratches in the ground for gold before striking oil for the first time. Every critic worth their salt has jumped on board the ‘Hey let’s compare 2001 and There Will Be Blood’ bandwagon and so will I. Comparisons to the opening sequence of 2001 are, indeed, apt. Both sequences showcase a director more intent on confirming their auteur status by showing off their long tracking shots than on actually telling a story or giving a proper introduction to the characters. It is not coincidence that the scores of both films are given such praise, oftentimes nothing else of value is happening.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score is tremendous. He early on uses a very 19th Century style of lush Romanticism that stretches harmony to breaking point before settling into a more modern dissonant and percussive mode that conveys the energy and darkness of Plainview. There are sequences when Greenwood’s use of pure percussion with gradually added staccato strings overshadows the boring visuals it scores. The problem is that screenwriter/director Anderson is so deeply in love with his pointless tracking shots (see Magnolia…) that it works against his storytelling. Major themes are flagged and then never engaged with. You keep waiting for the film to kick up a gear, then realise it’s never going to interrogate God versus Mammon, or do more with charismatic charlatan preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The final half-hour is terrific but it sees the film veers towards deranged comedy including Day-Lewis’ infamous delivery of the line “I drink your milkshake!”, which is, by itself, worth sitting through 157 minutes for.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance could never justify its hype as one of the finest in the history of cinema. The surprise is that it’s not even the finest of his career. His Oscar seems to be an apology by the Academy for not recognising his terrifying turn as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. The first sign that something is rotten in the state of Daniel comes with his first speech, delivered in an accent suspiciously like his 1870s fop Newland Archer, from The Age of Innocence. Later he starts phrasing like Anthony Hopkins before finally edging towards Sean Connery’s accent.

This film is a classic example of the dangers of hype. Seen blind Day-Lewis gives an accomplished performance in an overlong film that meanders badly but has some wonderful set-pieces of oil accidents, deranged greed and religious mania, with a number of truly memorable exchanges between Plainview and Sunday. Seen after all the Oscar hoopla you downgrade a respectable 3 star film to 2 stars. This is worth seeing, just disregard the hype.

3/5

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.

February 11, 2015

JDIFF: 2015

Jameson are ending their sponsorship of the Dublin International Film Festival in grand style as Russell Crowe and Kim Cattrall have been confirmed as guests.

the-water-diviner-russell-crowe-slice1

Russell Crowe’s new movie The Water Diviner will screen on Friday 20thMarch, and the Academy award-winning actor will introduce it and participate in a post-screening Q&A at the Savoy Cinema. Crowe makes his directorial debut with a timely WWI tale about the formative trauma for the Antipodes of the slaughter of the ANZAC in Turkey. TV writer/producers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios provide the screenplay, which is a step away from their usual crime caper comfort zones, in which Crowe’s farmer and water diviner Joshua Connor travels to Gallipoli in 1919 in search of his three sons, missing in action since 1915. He is aided in this likely fool’s errand by Istanbul hotel manager Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) and heroic Turkish major Yilmaz Erdogan (Once Upon A Time in Anatolia), while familiar Australian faces like Damon Herriman (Justified), Isabel Lucas and Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher) round out the cast.

Grainne Humphreys JDIFF Festival Director says, “The Water Diviner is an impressive, beautifully shot epic war drama. Russell Crowe has created a powerful portrait of loss and redemption with fine performances, not least his own as lead. It’s a pleasure to welcome Russell to Dublin for the festival screening of The Water Diviner and present the film to his many Irish fans”.

Tickets will be officially on sale for The Water Diviner as of today and can be purchased online http://bit.ly/1McTsGv or www.jdiff.com or at their Box Office which is now open Monday to Friday 11am – 5pm on 13 Lower Ormond Quay.

The 13th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival takes place from 19th – 29th March 2015. The full line-up for the Festival programme will be announced on Wednesday February 25th at www.jdiff.com. The JDIFF 2015 Season Ticket is currently available to purchase at €245 along limited edition merchandise. Also new this year is the Bring A Friend Season Pass, two season tickets for €425.

The Water Diviner will be released in cinemas by Entertainment One on 3rd April 2015.

Sensitive Skin

Meanwhile Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall will be attending JDIFF to screen exclusively to Irish audiences episodes of her new Sky Arts TV series Sensitive Skin, and will also be participating in an elite master class at The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art.

Episodes of Sensitive Skin will screen in Movies@Dundrum, with Cattrall in attendance. This Canadian black comedy, based on the critically acclaimed 2005 British series of the same name starring Joanna Lumley, stars Cattrall as Davina, a former model and actress in the midst of a middle age crisis. Feeling as though she is losing her zest for life, she struggles with sexual temptation and professional jealousy, while trying to cope with her fear of the future alongside her husband, Alan (Don McKellar – Slings and Arrows). The couple have sold their comfortable family home and moved into an ultra-modern condo in downtown Toronto in an effort to stay relevant and start again. Unfortunately, their insecurities quickly take them on a path they could never have anticipated.  Cattrall has executive produced the series along with McKellar who has directed all episodes to date. Cattrall says: “I am very much looking forward to attending the Dublin International Film Festival and screening my new show Sensitive Skin. I have always felt welcomed and at home during my visits and I am looking forward to the Festival.”

As part of her visit to the Festival, Cattrall will be the focus of a master class hosted by The Lir Academy for their students. Following the success of Stanley Tucci’s Q&A to the students last year this will be the second year that The Lir will host these master classes. Loughlin Deegan, Director of The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art, says, “This growing partnership between The Lir Academy and JDIFF is of enormous benefit to our students who get to meet with and learn from some of the finest actors in the world. Kim Cattrall in particular will have much knowledge to impart from a fascinating career that has balanced TV and film work with an on-going and recently renewed interest in working in the theatre.”

Sensitive Skin will air in the UK and Ireland on Sky Arts 1 on Wednesday 1st April.

Founded in 2003 by the much missed Michael Dwyer, the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival continues to lead the way in the presentation of outstanding Irish and international film. Over the past 13 years the Festival has hosted over 500 major guests along the way – from Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Daniel Day Lewis, and U2, to Al Pacino, Mark Wahlberg, Glenn Close, Joss Whedon, Danny DeVito, and Richard Dreyfuss. The Festival has screened world cinema from 52 different countries, a total of almost 1,500 films, of which 300 were Irish features including world premieres of Once, Ondine, In Bruges, Calvary, The Stag, and The Secret of Kells. In addition ongoing International out of Festival events have showcased Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Cranston, and Ennio Morricone.

January 27, 2010

RIP Michael Dwyer

I was saddened to hear of the death of Irish Times film critic Michael Dwyer. Many words have been written about Dwyer’s contribution to Irish cinema, his founding of the Dublin International Film Festival, and his work in building an audience for foreign films in Ireland. I can add little to such perspectives, what I can add is a personal note on what I think he meant to me and other film fans of my generation.

As the elder statesman of cinema at the Irish Times from a ridiculously young age Dwyer was more influential than anyone with the exception of Barry Norman in forming the archetype for a whole generation of what the role of a film critic was, and what films were worthy of recognition and championing in the ongoing narrative of cinema. My own personal experience of Dwyer’s writing falls into, yes, a three-act arc. First was the period of adoring respect – the religious reading of the Irish Times every Friday to see what films were good, what films were bad, what directors deserved respect, and the continual processing of his casual asides into an expanding mosaic of just what films from cinema past and present were important and good.

Then inevitably came the teenage age of rebellion. This began for me with sneering at his (still) frankly embarrassing laudatory review of Titanic in 1998, and then found greater expression in criticising his Top 20 Films of the Year lists which seemed to take a peculiar joy in not featuring films from the Top 20 Highest Grossing Films of the Year lists. Eventually this perception of an utter disjunct between critic and audience led to a jaded boredom with his perspective and a cynical distaste for the clichés of his style, especially when writing about sex and violence in movies, which found voice in a polemical University Observer piece about the tired and tiresome predictability of critical responses to films like 9 Songs and The Passion of the Christ.

The reappraisal came later, after I had finished writing my abrasive film column for the University Observer and had started writing reviews, when I realised just how difficult it sometimes is to sum up your reaction to a film in a short word-count. Indeed I could not possibly have hacked it as a film critic for InDublin, writing up to 6 reviews a week, had I not downloaded Dwyer’s review of 300 and taken it apart to understand how he structured his reviews – which gave him the head-start needed to make the sometimes tortuous work of reviewing seem easy. At this juncture, having cycled back to a position of mature rather than adoring respect, it was fitting that I finally met Michael Dwyer at a press screening of Youth without Youth. He was charming and talkative about the decline of Coppola and the history of InDublin and made me feel like I truly belonged to Graham Greene’s ‘mornings in the dark’ corps.

Other people have written about Dwyer’s tangible legacy but from my perspective his legacy is to forever be the voice in your head which asks, “Yes, this film is fun, but will it endure?” In a way every Irish film critic of my generation, professional or amateur, will have Barry Norman’s sardonic “…And why not?” and Michael Dwyer’s critical perspective internalised for life. And so long as we all keep hearing that voice then a part of him lives on forever in his readers.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.