Talking Movies

June 30, 2019

Notes on Yesterday

Richard Curtis’ Beatles rom-com Yesterday was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Danny Boyle may be the director but this is a Richard Curtis film, and it would be much better if it weren’t. A world in which The Beatles have been erased from existence save for the memory of one struggling musician is a high concept comedy, but Curtis insists on making it a ho-hum rom-com. Kevin Willmott’s CSA showed that you have to rein in the butterfly effect for alternate history because everything would become unfamiliar. Would the Beach Boys be as important without Pet Sounds, their riposte to the Beatles? Curtis displays no such interest, save an Oasis joke, in exploring the butterfly effect of his own bloody high concept. Kate McKinnon is the most reliably comic element of this film, and she is lip-smackingly playing a caricature record executive – Hunter S Thompson’s famous jibe mixed with notes of her SNL Hillary Clinton. But then all the characters in this film are caricatures. This poses a problem when Curtis wants you to care about the romance as if it involved characters with some humanity.

The romance is already scuppered by Jack (Himesh Patel) and Elly (Lily James) patently having the chemistry of hopeless dreamer and dutiful girlfriend in the opening scenes, until it’s bafflingly revealed they’re just friends. They do not hold themselves as fast platonic friends like Holmes and Watson in Elementary. When she complains she always wanted more, and Curtis writes improbable scenes doggedly making this fetch happen he, like Nick Hornby in Juliet, Naked, defies the felt experience of human nature. But this aggravating drive to the grand romantic gesture reaches a new low for Curtis. GK Chesterton once quipped that art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere. I draw the line at Curtis; in the vein of his Doctor Who episode in which he shamefully zipped Van Gogh to the future to hear Bill Nighy valorise him then returned him to the past to kill himself to general hand-wringing; resurrecting the murdered John Lennon as septuagenarian sage giving Jack a pep talk to make the finale’s grand romantic gesture. No… No. No. No!

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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 25, 2016

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that the Feds give you make you Sherlock Holmes for twelve hours

elementary

 

INT.HILL OF BEANS PRODUCTION OFFICE, BROOKLYN-DAY

 

CRAIG SWEENY, writer/producer, clenches and unclenches his fists as he walks along a corridor. He slows as he approaches the office at the end of the corridor from which we hear two loud voices. He gulps. Sweat trickles off his unclenched fist.

 

TITLE: 18 MONTHS AGO.

 

Sweeny slowly pushes open the door, and hovers in the doorway while ROBERT DOHERTY jumps to his feet to bellow at a phone on speaker emitting a dial tone.

 

DOHERTY: AND GOOD DAY TO YOU TOO, ‘SIR’!

 

Doherty picks up the phone and throws it off the desk. The receiver lands on the hard wooden chair on the supplicant side of the desk, while the body dangles in mid-air as the cord is attached on the other side of the desk.

 

DOHERTY: (looks up at Sweeny) Telemarketer.

SWEENY: Oh. Uh, hey, uh, Robert, do, uh, do you have, uh, a minute? Maybe?

DOHERTY: What? A minute? Oh, yes, certainly. Take a seat. In fact, it’s great that you’re here, Craig, I want to explain to someone a fantastic wheeze I just concocted.

SWEENY: Well, actually I-

DOHERTY: I said sit down sir!

 

Sweeny dives into the supplicant chair, and ends up sitting on the receiver. He tries to subtly move it out from under him while Doherty relaxes back into a leather armchair.

 

SWEENY: SO… I got this offer-

DOHERTY: If we get cancelled I have come up with a golden parachute to beat the bank. Have you read any of the Game of Thrones books?

SWEENY: No.

DOHERTY: Ah! Neither have I, and one of us needs to, so that means you. Read them all in the next week and report back to me then. Also make some character notes. And some notes on the house style employed.

SWEENY: I-

DOHERTY: Don’t interrupt! Now, George RR Martin is a decrepit old man. We all know this. What we all know but are too hidebound by bourgeois niceties to say is that, like Robert Jordan, he is going to die before he finishes writing the novels. Indeed he may well die before he even finishes the next book as he clearly has no interest in actually writing it. But, and how many times have I tried to impress this on you Sweeny, never present just a problem, always present the solution too. So! The solution – we pull a Patterson.

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: Would you stop interrupting me?! Now, if James Patterson can come over all medieval craftsman and give anonymous people 50 page treatments which they then flesh out and he later okays before putting it out under his own name, then why can’t we do the same for decrepitly old George RR?

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: He tells us, verbally, so that he doesn’t have to strain himself with the idea of committing something to paper, his ideas on what happens next, be they e’er so vague. We secretly record it, as the whole occasion will happen in front of a roaring fireplace as we get him roaring drunk. You transcribe it, I read it, work up a treatment, give it you, and you write it all up with the help of whoever we can keep on from the writers’ room.

SWEENY: Alright…

DOHERTY: And everyone’s happy. A new novel appears, it seems RRish enough to be going on with, and it’s been done fast, so nobody’s dead, and nobody’s left millions of fans howling at him for wasting a good chunk of their lives.

SWEENY: Right…

DOHERTY: Now we just need to pitch it to his publishers. If only I had the requisite confidence you need in these situations… (gazes abstractedly at the roof)

SWEENY: Um, Robert?

DOHERTY: Oh, I thought you’d gone. Why haven’t you gone?
SWEENY: I’ve been offered another gig.

DOHERTY: What? You traitor! Where??
SWEENY: CBS.

DOHERTY: You double-dealing traitor! I have nursed a viper in my bosom! (He goes to throw the phone at Sweeny, realises he’s already thrown it, makes a few attempts to lean over his desk and grab it, but grabs only air, and slumps back in his chair)

SWEENY: They want me to develop Limitless.

DOHERTY: … The Bradley Cooper film?

SWEENY: Yes.

DOHERTY: I don’t see it as a TV show.

SWEENY: Well. I thought it might make for a good procedural.

DOHERTY: How so?

SWEENY: Well, suppose that we have Cooper appear in the pilot as a Senator. Suppose he wants NZT kept on the down-low, but suppose the Feds know about it, and then suppose that he cultivates a guy inside the Feds to keep them guessing.

DOHERTY: A healthy amount of supposition! So, set-up. What’s the week by week?

SWEENY: Why would the FBI keep a guy around? NZT makes you smarter. So he can see patterns nobody else can, the drug makes him the best analyst they have!

DOHERTY: (lilts) One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that the Feds give you make you Sherlock Holmes for twelve hours. (mutters) Haha, said the title.

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: Some day, Sweeny, you may join myself and Deadpool in an elite club. Yes, I think I can see this working qua show.

SWEENY: So, are you okay with me working on it?

DOHERTY: Yes! I see great possibilities. I was talking to a network lawyer and he said that he’s fairly sure that with a bit more screen-time he can get Clyde the turtle a SAG card, and then we can all share the health benefits with a nod and a wink to a tame doctor. Do you think you can give your hero a pet turtle that he uses for expository purposes?

 

Before Sweeny can answer BORIS sticks his head in the door.

 

DOHERTY: NO! THAT LINE REMAINS! DAMN TASTE AND DECENCY! YES! WATSON CAN DIRECT ANOTHER EPISODE IF SHE REALLY MUST! AND IT HAS TO BE PURPLE! PURPLE! PURPLE! PURPLE! IF HE CAN’T DISTINGUISH BETWEEN PURPLE AND MAUVE HE SHOULDN’T BE A PRODUCTION DESIGNER!

 

Boris nods at the answers to the three questions he didn’t get to ask, and sidles away. No matter how many times Sweeny sees Doherty do this, he is always amazed.

 

SWEENY: How did you?

DOHERTY: Do you need to ask? Honestly, Craig, this is the level you need to be at to ascend to show-runner. Incidentally I have an idea for a Ferris Bueller episode.

SWEENY: That sounds more like a season six conceit.

DOHERTY: AHA! I’m so proud, I knew you had it in you. My tutelage is second to none. Well of course it’s a season six conceit, but I have no confidence in getting that far so let’s put it in your show.

SWEENY: WHAT?! I haven’t written a final draft pilot script! I can’t start putting nonsense conceits in the show from the get-go.

DOHERTY: Nobody’s saying make the pilot bonkers, or the first regular episode barmy, wait till about episode 7. Also, I’ll be coming aboard your ship if mine sinks.

SWEENY: (suspiciously) As what?

DOHERTY: It’s nearly Thanksgiving, I might come as a turkey. (beat) (beat) (Doherty waits for raillery from Sweeny) (beat) (realises it’s not coming) Sorry, my mistake I thought we were doing something there that we weren’t actually doing. Creative Consultant.

SWEENY: Will you actually just be a creative consultant? Or will you try and be a backseat show-runner.

DOHERTY: Creative Consultant. Advise and Consent. A hopeless yes-man. I am a shy and retiring individual, as you know.

 

Boris sticks his head in the door again.

 

DOHERTY: F****** LILAC?!!! IS THIS SOME ILL-CONCEIVED APRIL FOOLS’ DAY PRANK?!!

August 18, 2011

Medium’s Realism

Allison DuBois sees dead people. And yet despite the show’s high concept being supernatural in the extreme Medium has been one of the most realistic shows on TV…

When I trumpeted Medium in the University Observer in 2005 I noted that it derived its emotional impact from the way creator Glenn Gordon Caron and ace Dark Angel writer/producers Moira Kirland, Rene Echevarria, and later Robert Doherty, were able to weave together domestic dramas and bizarre visions in an utterly plausible fashion. The initial hook of the show was second-guessing how Patricia Arquette’s cryptic visions would help the police solve baffling crimes. But the real hook for long-term viewing was the emotional meat of the show. I dubbed it, despite my love of the Cohens in The OC, the only portrayal worth a damn on US TV of a normal married couple raising children, with the little triumphs and little pitfalls that go with the territory. When the two strands combined, as in the episode where the ghost of a serial killer from the 1880s stalked eldest daughter Ariel, the results were truly heart-stopping, not least because that episode played out in flashbacks that implied Allison had failed to prevent her murder – a point to be returned to later. Medium’s realistic family dynamic only became more impressive an achievement over time as the strain on Joe of handling his wife and daughter’s abilities began to show, and the daughters not only became more rebellious as they aged but also more susceptible to the Roland family gift/curse for picking up psychic flashes.

It may seem odd to characterise long-takes, a favourite trick of showy directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Alfonso Cuaron, as being realistic, but Medium has always used handheld cameras that, without descending into the shaky-cam madness of JJ Abrams or Paul Greengrass, add an air of rough immediacy to proceedings, and when these cameras, so often deployed by the last-named auteurs for rapidly edited shots, suddenly do long-takes it affords an almost theatrical intimacy; especially as these long-takes are quite often gruesome confessions by killers, plot revelations achieved by a simple shift of the frame to one side to reveal an obscured detail, or horrendous crimes being unnervingly observed with an unblinking eye.

Medium was also depicting money worries in a middle-class family in the American Southwest years before the acclaimed Breaking Bad ‘broke new ground’ by doing so. The 7 seasons of Medium can almost be characterised by Joe’s fluctuating fortunes in the job market as much as by Allison’s murder cases. From happily employed to then working under stress at large corporation Aerodytech, to helplessly unemployed, to starting his own company, to working on his own invention for another corporation, to working again as a drone for yet another corporation under an inspired maniac, to replacing said maniac, Joe’s career has been a rollercoaster reflecting the sheer uncertainty of the modern economy which valorises flexibility while ignoring what that actually means. The sheer terror of being bankrupted by frivolous or half-plausible but unjust lawsuits, because you have very little savings left after the business of living has attacked your paycheque, has been dramatised repeatedly in Medium. It’s never been a given that Joe and Allison will escape financial armageddon because, unlike Breaking Bad’s excessively all-pervasive bleakness, there’s always been an unnerving lack of guaranteed happy endings in Medium. It has repeatedly demonstrated that for all her paranormal powers Allison can’t always get her man. In some cases she has egregiously failed to catch the killer and never got a second bite at the cherry. Against the backdrop that things don’t always end well, Medium has created a good deal of dread from bad familial and financial situations.

Finally there’s the realism factor engendered by the remarkable fact that they don’t do supernatural crimes on Medium, despite the occult premise of the show. Indeed one scene, during an investigation of a priest’s death, which suggested that a demon had actually possessed a possessed girl was absolutely terrifying because it broke with two seasons’ worth of assurances that the supernatural solved crimes but had no part in committing them. Sure there have been moments that get close to supernatural crimes, such as David Arquette as Allison’s ne’er-do-well brother letting John Glover take control of his body, but what Glover does then isn’t particularly supernatural as a crime; he merely uses his charisma as a motivational speaker to tempt people to succumb to an addiction they’ve been fighting, such as cigarettes or alcohol. Similarly while Allison has variously gone deaf, lost control of her hand, or lost her ability to recognise English, none of these conditions has been anything but ‘hysterical blindness’ writ large; as Rena Sofer’s doctor dubbed it in the final season: a psychological reaction to an emotional trauma. Medium as a show has dealt in realistic crimes, but these have been frequently been at the extremely chilling end of the spectrum of psychosis, as it’s been very concerned with violence against women and children. Despite being driven by a strong female lead character it’s never shrunk from depicting women as extremely vulnerable physically to the predations of disturbed men. Serial killers aplenty have committed crimes against women in Allison’s Phoenix stronghold, Eric Stoltz’s killer a terrifying example, and there’s been incredibly disturbing attacks on children too, including a horrendous crime that Det. Lee Scanlon unwittingly failed to prevent when he was a beat cop.

Medium lost some great writers along the way but it kept its standard high to the very end, and its controversial finale proved it was never afraid to be realistic to a fault.

Medium continues its swansong seventh season on Living, Fridays at 9pm.

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