Talking Movies

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.

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February 1, 2018

Wes Anderson @ the Lighthouse

Wes Anderson has a new movie arriving soon, so the Lighthouse will spend the month of March presenting a full retrospective, finishing with a massive Wes Anderson party on opening night of Isle of Dogs on 30th March.

Tickets : https://lighthousecinema.ie/EVENTS/fantastic-mr-anderson

Bottle Rocket

March 5th 3pm & 8.45pm

Based on his short black & white film of the same name, Bottle Rocket was the world’s first introduction to the colourful world of Wes Anderson and his frequent collaborators the Brothers Wilson. Bottle Rocket is a crime caper and a road movie about three friends who embark on a (mis)adventure in the world of crime, with James Caan playing what we would now recognise as the Bill Murray role.

 

Rushmore

March 9th 10.45pm

March 10th 3pm

The film that got Wes Anderson noticed internationally, Rushmore follows Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a student obsessed with his school, Rushmore Academy, but less for its academia than for extracurricular events. Rushmore features the first of many superb supporting performance for Anderson from Bill Murray. Here he is a wealthy industrialist who becomes a friend and love rival to Max for the affections of teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). Anderson’s aesthetic started to develop its mature style in this icon of 90s indie cinema.

 

The Royal Tenenbaums 35mm

March 13th 3pm & 8.30pm

March 16th 10.45pm

March 18th 3pm

Arguably Anderson’s masterpiece, The Royal Tenenbaums is an elegantly told story about a family of child geniuses who grow up to be, in their own ways, disappointing. It earned Anderson the first of his three Oscar nominations for best original screenplay, although more than a few reviewers thought JD Salinger’s stories of the Family Glass were an inspiration. Anderson’s trademark camerawork; all whip-pans and tracking shots; stylised production design, and autumnal colour palette do not swamp the deeply flawed characters brought to life by an ensemble cast led by a combative Gene Hackman.

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The Darjeeling Limited 35mm

March 14th 3pm & 8.30pm

March 17th 3pm

Anderson made a notable comeback after The Life Aquatic‘s treading water with The Darjeeling Limited. The film follows three American brothers (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody) as they try to reconnect with each other on an epic train journey through India. Darjeeling is a gorgeous film, making use of an extensive colour palette based on the Indian setting, and where could Anderson’s propensity for elaborate tracking shots find a better home than the carriages of a train. More impressive was the emotional maturity in tackling weighty themes of grief, abandonment, and romantic and filial resentment.

 

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

March 21st 3pm & 8.30pm

March 23rd 10.45pm

4 films in and Wes Anderson experienced the cinematic equivalent of difficult 2nd album syndrome. Expectations were high for the adventures of a rag-tag bunch of seafarers led by Bill Murray. But, despite a soundtrack that uses Bowie innovatively, and some wonderful comedy from Willem Dafoe, this ramshackle Moby Dick; Zissou aims to track down and exact revenge upon a mythical shark who killed Zissou’s partner; is to Wes Anderson’s oeuvre as Dune is to David Lynch.

 

Moonrise Kingdom

March 24th 3.30pm

March 28th 3pm & 8.45pm

Anderson’s films have all had a certain nostalgia for a past that never actually happened outside the pages of the New Yorker. And Bob Balaban’s fantastical narrator here brings us a tale of young love set to the music of Benjamin Britten on a New England island in 1969 just before a major storm is about to hit, the least of the forces of law and order’s worries as they attempt to apprehend two runaway underage teenagers with amorous intent. Moonrise Kingdom features a wonderful turn by Ed Norton and a devastating existential riddle on the goodness of dogs.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Prosecco and Patisserie

March 24th 12.00pm event, 1pm film

Andrew Marr quoted a joke that if you put a few Viennese people together for long enough they will do two things: found a University, and start a patisserie. The Lighthouse are thus appropriately hosting a very special “prosecco and patisserie” afternoon screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel on Saturday 24th March. Your ticket will include a glass of prosecco or a Grand Budapest-themed cocktail, along with beautiful patisserie treats inspired by the film, and a ticket to a screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel at 1pm.

 

Fantastic Mr Fox

March 25th 3pm

Behold Anderson’s first foray into the world of stop-motion animation. Based on Roald Dahl’s short novel about a fox whose main thrill in life is baiting three farmers who live nearby, Anderson injects more of himself into the story than one would have thought possible. George Clooney voices Mr Fox, who, despite his love for his wife and teenage son, can’t quite bring himself to move on from his glory days of chicken-killing and settle into domestic life. There is a tremendous tracking shot to the strains of the Beach Boys as well as a peerless critique of songwriting by Michael Gambon’s antagonist.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 29th 3pm & 8.30pm

Anderson’s most recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel is a curio: it tells the story of an old writer remembering when he was a young writer who met an old man who told him a story about when he was a young man and knew the hero of this film, Ralph Fiennes’s M. Gustave. An uneven tale, Anderson showcases an unexpected flair for sinister suspense, but there is a sourness to the comedy that is unexpected, and not really a showcase as promised for the world of Stefan Zweig.

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Wes Anderson Party + Isle of Dogs

29th March Party – 9pm, Isle of Dogs Screening – 00.00am

The Lighthouse will be hosting a Wes Anderson Fancy Dress Party on 29th March. Don’t miss your chance to share a cocktail with fellow fans and walk amongst a plethora of Tenenbaums, Zissous, Lobby Boys (and girls!), and maybe even some fantastic Mr Foxes, topped off at midnight with the first chance to see his new film, Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation with an all-star voice cast on hand to bring to life a boy’s quest to find his lost dog on a polluted Japanese island.

 

***Season artwork at the Lighthouse is by Steve McCarthy is a Dublin based designer and illustrator. His style is bold, colourful, and a mix of practical and digital techniques that he describes as feeling most comfortable somewhere between the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and Dumbo’s pink elephants. In 2016 he won best illustration at the Irish design awards, and in 2017 his second children’s book ‘A Sailor went to sea’ won the Bord Gais children’s book of the year. He also worked as a background designer for the Oscar-nominated animated feature Song of the Sea.

October 16, 2015

Simon Rich: Absurdist Conscience

Simon Rich’s work as a staff writer at Pixar finally saw the light of day with Inside Out, and with a second series of Man Seeking Woman coming soon to FXX, here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on how Rich has moved from pure absurdism to something more like a biting satirist.

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“‘Chess players are not naturally confrontational. But by the time I entered the number five spot, my opponents were growing bolder. ‘We know you’re cheating,’ they’d say. Or, ‘You’re obviously cheating.’ Or, ‘Please, Terry, why won’t you stop cheating?’” – Elliot Allagash

Rich’s first novel was published in 2010. A novel of scheming and anecdotage (and the anecdotes are mostly about scheming), its tale of a bored teenage billionaire upending his school’s social hierarchy was labelled a Pygmalion riff and optioned for cinema by writer/director Jason Reitman. Elliot and his raconteur father Terry have obvious predecessors in Percy and Braddock Washington in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, with the innocent John T Unger being reinvented as Rich’s narrator Seymour Herson. Seymour becomes president after Elliot destroys rivals with schemes that include diabolical exam cheating. But as Seymour edges closer to Harvard he reaches his limit with Elliot’s antics… To read Elliot Allagash is to want to tell people, verbatim, just how Terry became the Harvard chess champion without understanding chess, what the secret of ancestor Cornelius Allagash’s private club was, and how Elliot took revenge on the restaurant that refused him service. It’s that hysterically quotable.

Click here for the full piece on HeadStuff.org covering the evolution of Simon Rich’s prose comedy from Ant Farm to Spoiled Brats.

January 28, 2014

2014: Fears

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 7:25 pm
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300: BATTLE OF ARTEMESIUM

Noah
Arriving in March is Darren Aronofsky’s soggy biblical epic starring Russell Crowe as Noah, and Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s dad, the oldest man imaginable Methuselah. Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Logan Lerman round out the family, and Ray Winstone is the beastly villain of the piece. Aronofsky doesn’t lack chutzpah, he passed off horror flick Black Swan as a psychological drama in which Natalie Portman did all her own dancing after all, but this will undoubtedly sink without trace in its own CGI flood because it apparently tackles head-on the troublesome references to the Sons of God while somehow making Noah an ecological warrior – which neatly alienates its target audience.

300: Rise of an Empire

The ‘sequel’ to 300 finally trundles into cinemas 7 years and about three name changes later. Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) urges the Greeks to unite in action against the invading army of Persian ruler Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), while Athenian Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads the Hellenic fleet against the Persian fleet (which we’re supposed to accept is) led by the Greek Artemisia (Eva Green). 300 is a fine film, if you regard it, following PG Wodehouse’s dictum, as a sort of musical comedy without the music. Zack Snyder took it deadly seriously… and has co-written this farrago of CGI, macho nonsense, Bush-era patriotic bombast, and deplorable history.

TRANSCENDENCE

The Raid 2: Berandal
March sees the return of super-cop Rama (Iko Uwais), as, picking up immediately after the events of the first film, he goes undercover in prison to befriend the convict son of a fearsome mob boss, in the hope of uncovering corruption in Jakarta’s police force. 2012’s The Raid was bafflingly over-praised (Gareth Evans’ script could’ve been for a film set in Detroit, and in the machete scene a villain clearly pulled a stroke to avoid disarming Rama), so this bloated sequel, running at nearly an hour longer than its predecessor, is a considerable worry. At least there’ll be some variety with subway fights, and car chases promised.

Transcendence
Nolan’s abrasive DP Wally Pfister makes the leap to the big chair in April with this sci-fi suspense thriller. Dr. Caster (Johnny Depp), a leading pioneer in the field of A.I., uploads himself into a computer upon an assassination attempt, soon gaining a thirst for omnipotence. Pfister has enlisted Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, as well as Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, and the inimitable Clifton Collins Jr, and Jack Paglen’s script was on the Black List; so why is this a fear? Well, remember when Spielberg’s DP tried to be a director? And when was the last time Depp’s acting was bearable and not a quirkfest?

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

May 2nd sees the return of the franchise we didn’t need rebooted… Aggravatingly Andrew Garfield as Spidey and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey are far better actors than Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, but the material they were given felt inevitably over-familiar. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci wrote the sequel, and, after Star Trek ‘2’, their Sleepy Hollow riffs so much on Supernatural it casts doubt on their confidence in their own original ideas, which is a double whammy as far as over-familiarity goes. And there’s too many villains… Electro (Jamie Foxx), Rhino (Paul Giamatti), Harry Osborn/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), and Norman Osborn(/Green Goblin too?) (Chris Cooper).

Boyhood
Richard Linklater and Michael Winterbottom as transatlantic parallels gains ground as it transpires they’ve both been pulling the same trick over the last decade. Linklater in Boyhood tells the life of a child (Ellar Salmon) from age six to age 18, following his relationship with his parents (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette) before and after they divorce. Linklater has spent a few weeks every year since 2002 shooting portions of this film, so Salmon grows up and his parents lose their looks. Hawke has described it as “time-lapse photography of a human being”, but is it as good as Michael Chabon’s similar set of New Yorker stories following a boy’s adolescence?

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Edge of Tomorrow

Tastefully released on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Tom Cruise plays a soldier, fighting in a world war against invading aliens, who finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, though he becomes better skilled along the way. So far, so Groundhog Day meets Source Code. On the plus side it’s directed by Doug Liman (SwingersMr & Mrs Smith), who needs to redeem himself for 2008’s Jumper, and it co-stars Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton. On the minus side three different screenwriters are credited (including Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth), and, given how ‘development’ works, there’s probably as many more uncredited.

Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return in July, oh joy, in 3-D, more joy, with a tale of a young woman (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she shares the same DNA as the Queen of the Universe, and goes on the run with a genetically engineered former soldier (Channing Tatum), oh, and he’s part wolf… The cast includes the unloveable Eddie Redmayne, but also the extremely loveable Tuppence Middleton and the always watchable Sean Bean, and, oddly, a cameo from Terry Gilliam, whose work is said to be an influence on the movie. Although with bits of Star Wars, Greek mythology, and apparently the comic-book Saga floating about, what isn’t an influence?

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

An unnecessary prequel to 2005’s horrid Sin City follows the story of Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) and his dangerous relationship with the seductive Ava Lord (Eva Green). Shot in 2012 but trapped in post-production hell the CGI-fest will finally be ready for August, we’re promised. Apparently this Frank Miller comic is bloodier than those utilised in the original, which seems barely possible, and original cast Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis and Jaime King return alongside newcomers Juno Temple and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But who cares? The original’s awesome trailer promised cartoon Chandler fun, and delivered gruesome, witless, sadistic, and misogynistic attempts at noir from Miller’s pen.

Guardians Of The Galaxy
Also in August, Marvel aim to prove that slapping their logo on anything really will sell tickets as many galaxies away Chris Pratt’s cocky pilot (in no way modelled on Han Solo) falls in with alien assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), warrior Drax The Destroyer (wrestler Dave Bautista), tree-creature Groot (Vin Diesel’s voice uttering one line), and badass rodent Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper’s voice), going on the run with a powerful object with half the universe on their tail. Writer/director James Gunn (SlitherSuper) has form, and reunites with Michael Rooker as well casting Karen Gillan as a villain, but this silly CGI madness sounds beyond even him.

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Far From the Madding Crowd
Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a wilful, flirtatious young woman unexpectedly inherits a large farm and becomes romantically involved with three widely divergent men: the rich landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the exciting Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge), and the poor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel is a formidable predecessor. This version is from slightly morbid director Thomas Vinterberg (FestenThe Hunt), in his first period outing, and, worryingly, he co-scripted this with David Nicholls of One Day fame; whose own tendencies are not exactly of a sunny disposition. Can the promising young cast overcome Vinterberg’s most miserabilist tendencies?

The Man from UNCLE

Probably a Christmas blockbuster this reboot of the 1960s show teams CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB man Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) on a mission to infiltrate a mysterious criminal organization during the height of the cold war. Steven Soderbergh nearly made this with George Clooney from a Scott Z Burns script. Instead we get Guy Ritchie and his Sherlock Holmes scribe Lionel Wigram. Sigh. Hugh Grant plays Waverley, while the very talented female leads Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki will highlight the lack of suavity and comic timing of the male leads; particularly troublesome given the show was very dryly done tongue-in-cheek super-spy nonsense.

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Exodus

Another year, another Ridley Scott flick among my greatest cinematic fears… Thankfully Fassbender is not implicated in this disaster in waiting. Instead it is Christian Bale who steps into Charlton Heston’s sandals as the leader of the Israelites Moses in this Christmas blockbuster – don’t ask… Joel Edgerton is the Pharoah Rameses who will not let Moses’ people go, Aaron Paul is Joshua, and the ensemble includes Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Emun Elliott and John Turturro. But Tower Heist scribes Adam Cooper & Bill Collage are the chief writers, with Steve Zaillian rewriting for awards prestige, and Scott’s on an epic losing streak, so this looks well primed for CGI catastrophe…

December 4, 2012

The Talk of the Town

Emma Donoghue’s original script promised to be one of the highlights of the Dublin Theatre Festival but this much-hyped take on the life and work of New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan failed to do justice to its subject and cast.

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Director Annabelle Comyn reunites with her The House actors Catherine Walker, Darragh Kelly, and Lorcan Cranitch for another period piece. We meet Brennan (Walker) just as she has swapped Ranelagh for Manhattan and joined the New Yorker. But while cartoonist Addams (Kelly) and writer St Clair McKelway (Owen McDonnell) welcome their editor William Shawn (Cranitch)’s lippy new recruit, her ambition to write the Talk of the Town column staggers them.

Brennan though is good enough to quickly secure that coveted job, and then to start filing the magazine with chilling, incisive short stories about her miserable childhood. We glimpse that traumatic past complete with voiceover in scenes staged on a set within Paul O’Mahony’s set in which her parents (Barry Barnes, Michele Forbes) play out their psychodramas. But these flashbacks are quite overplayed, and, like the play, far too fragmentary.

This feels like a screenplay in disguise. There are scenes which last about a minute to play and are there purely for the sake of one good line. This approach largely kills any dramatic momentum, and a perverse decision is taken to ignore an obvious curtain at Brennan’s “atomic age marriage”. Kelly is nicely acerbic, McDonnell swaggers with some depth, and Cranitch has some wonderful moments as the long-suffering editor.

Walker is nicely acidic, but we never get a real feel for the quality of Brenna’s writing, which lessens her despair at writer’s block, while the happy ending is as perverse in its historical opportunism as Scorsese’s The Aviator.

3/5

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