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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March 16, 2016

Sing Street

Writer/director John Carney builds on his American debut Begin Again’s success with another funny can-do tale of musical swashbuckling, this time set in 1980s Dublin.

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Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a rich kid whose cosy private school adolescence comes to a crashing halt when parents Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) announce an austerity drive. A fish hopelessly out of water at Synge Street CBS he is viciously bullied, but after being befriended by entrepreneurial fixer Darren (Ben Carolan) he meets aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and ascends the pecking order at school after forming a band to impress her. Older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) provides sardonic mentoring while multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) provides the musical foundations over which Conor, soon renamed Cosmo, lays lyrics about Raphina. Cosmo increasingly clashes with school Principal Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley) as the band ‘Sing Street’ become increasingly disruptive in their appearance and attitude. But will Conor’s increasingly ambitious efforts be enough to stop Raphina emigrating to London?

“But is there a difference between liking a thing and thinking it good?” – Brideshead Revisited

Bridey’s question is extremely pertinent for Carney’s movie. The original music is great, especially the band’s first song ‘The Riddle of the Model’. Carney’s script is very funny, and Reynor is on terrific form as the stoner older brother. But this feels like a backward step from Begin Again on a number of fronts. Reynor’s character is almost a mash-up of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Zooey Deschanel’s roles in Almost Famous, and, though Sing Street captures elements of the period perfectly; school exercise books, constant smoking; there is also an air of total fantasy (doubly odd in a film which so obviously wants praise for its grittiness) which has Brendan as its focal point. He’s almost a time-traveller from 2015 landed in 1985 in the social critique he lays on his parents’ marriage and the Christian Brothers’ ethos. His dismissal of Genesis makes a nonsense of his affection for Duran Duran, and then you realise his taste is temporally inconsistent. Brendan ought to be agonising over whether Bowie, Springsteen and The Clash have sold out on their latest albums, and avidly listening to The Smiths and REM, not watching Top of the Pops. And then there’s U2… Never mentioned, never listened to, in 1985 Dublin.

Raphina never convinces as a real person, she is merely an object of desire, and the film has so little interest in Conor and Brendan’s sister; especially her reaction to their parents’ separation; that you wonder why she’s there at all. But while the female characters fare poorly, compared to Conor and Brendan, they’re not alone. Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) is also sidelined, and Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice) are interchangeable comic relief. Sing Street’s set-up recalls The Inbetweeners but pretty boy Cosmo, living in a three storey house, is not likeable. He humiliates the school bully; fully aware said bully is a victim of abuse; and aggravatingly ‘rebels’ against Brother Baxter; who has to contend with regular students’ violent behaviour without Cosmo’s New Romantics nonsense; with Carney stacking the deck by creating an uncomfortable unfounded expectation of molestation.

Sing Street is an entertaining film made with much confidence, but that doesn’t excuse its many puzzling artistic choices and the most ridiculous ‘upbeat’ ending since The Way Back.

3.5/5

December 22, 2012

Long we’ve tossed on the open main…

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.

Author Patrick O'Brian

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!

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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