Talking Movies

April 13, 2020

Any Other Business: Part L

As the title suggests, so forth.

Modern Family goes big

11 years is a long time for a sitcom to run, Cheers and MASH did it, but they didn’t have child actors built into the premise of the show like Modern Family did. Modern Family is the only American network sitcom that I would stand beside Arrested Development, and for much the same reasons. The faux docu-format, the lack of a soundtrack, and the delight in absurdity made it stand out in a world befouled by Chuck Lorre crudities. What made Modern Family so great for so long was the sheer variety of comedy in play: cross purposes, mistaken identity, sight gags, slapstick, word play, parody. Its weakest moments came in seasons that wobbled towards parody in the way that the final Naked Gun movie seemed to run out of comic invention and leaned too heavily into parody and ex nihilo zaniness. The triumph of the show is that it managed to course correct, perhaps as the maturing of the child actors into adults opened up new realms for the writers to explore. As a result this final season, now airing on Sky One, has had episodes; in particular ‘The Prescott’; that have been dizzying in the sheer number of plates kept spinning for twenty minutes, while the ‘Paris’ special feels like a North by Northwest moment as the writers grabbed one last big chance to do stuff they’d always wanted to but never got to.

Supernatural returns

E4 have finally got round to airing season 14 of Supernatural, two years after season 13. Since then RTE2 have shown the second revival of The X-Files, which seemed at times to be directly pitting itself against its spiritual descendant. Supernatural is not the show it was back in 2005, not least because someone turned on the lights in season 6 after creator Eric Kripke left and they’ve never been turned off again since, which has changed the goriness and mood of the show. But starting season 14 now is an odd moment, because you can’t but be aware that season 15 is coming to an end in America, and its final episode will be the finale for the entire series. Supernatural began in 2005, first aired in Ireland on TV3 in summer 2006, and will likely finish its run on E4 in 2021 or 2022 depending on their dilatoriness. That is an incredible amount of time to have spent with the characters of Dean and Sam Winchester, and their treasured Chevy Impala – which as we know from Chuck turned out to be the most important object in the history of the universe.

The democratic revolution continues

Today is the first day of a further three week period of what feels rather like martial law, imposed by a government rejected by the people but which has refused to leave office – and nobody in the media seems to want make a fuss about that. Far from all being in this together the Garda Commissioner has been actively encouraging people to inform on their neighbours. That feels a bit too much like Soviet Russia for my liking, and, it should be noted, comes just months after Drew Harris wanted access to everyone’s business on their phone ‘to fight serious crime’. That was before the pandemic. As the idea of testing and tracing for a relaxation of lockdown in Germany involves accessing data on phones it’s not hard to see Drew’s snooping being double downed as ‘for the sake of public health’. And yet… a temporary crisis is always a perfect moment for doing away with civil liberties on a permanent basis. By all means lockdown the country for public health, but let’s have more discussion. And if a national crisis needs national unity then form a national government. The refusal to do so should be seen for what it is, and discussed for what it is, a shameful attempt by Fine Gael to profit politically from a pandemic. Their failed election campaign centred on scaremongering that only they could handle the crisis of Brexit. And now they cling stubbornly to power to … make their point that only they can handle a crisis…? Remember Varadkar blustering he wanted to go into opposition? What exactly does it take for Fine Gael to leave government when they lose an election? Must we send the entire Cabinet abroad for St Patrick’s Day and change all the ministerial locks?

June 17, 2019

Notes on Balloon

An old-school nerve-shredding Cold War German thriller was the film of the week yesterday on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

30 years ago the German Democratic Republic aka East Germany was still in existence, an insanity propped up by Russia. This film is set in 1979 with two families desperate to escape to the West, and taking the unusual approach of running the border by hot air balloon. The first attempt is a failure, and the wreckage of the balloon 200 metres from the border leaves enough evidence for Stasi Lt. Col. Thomas Kretschmann to find them, given enough time. Resources are not a problem. He has 300 agents working by the end on catching 4 people who wanted to live 10 kilometres to the south. As Kretschmann closes in our heroes decide to go for broke and build a second balloon, and composer Ralf Wengenmayr does his best Hans Zimmer and really elevates the film with rhythmic percussion, scurrying strings, and swoops of synthesiser. Director Michael Herbig is best known in Germany for comedy, but this film is a chilling portrait of a society drenched in fear and paranoia, and dripping with well-crafted suspense.

Listen here:

November 25, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg returns with a true Cold War spy story that’s thankfully imbued with far more energy and clarity of purpose than his meandering Lincoln.

ST. JAMES PLACE

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a deep cover Soviet spy apprehended in Brooklyn in 1957, who is assigned as his counsel insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); after some arm-twisting by Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters Jr (Alan Alda). Watters, and Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan) are soon surprised by the bond that develops between wry Abel and the stolid Donovan, and Donovan’s dogged determination to demand the rights promised by the Constitution be granted to an illegal alien from an enemy power. The Donovan children Peggy (Jillian Lebling), Roger (Noah Schnapp), and Carol (Eve Hewson) are as uncomprehending as Joe Public of their father’s actions. But when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in May 1960 Company man Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) brings Donovan to Allen Foster Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to be entrusted with a secret mission.

First off, history… English playwright Matt Charman’s screenplay was polished by the Coens, but in a BBC Radio 4 interview Charman didn’t mention Giles Whittell’s 2010 book Bridge of Spies. Perhaps it’d raise uncomfortable questions; like why Hoffman and Dulles tell Donovan their intelligence suggests the GDR is about to wall off East Berlin when the CIA, despite Berlin crawling with so many spies Willy Brandt derided it as grown-ups playing Cowboys and Indians, had no idea till secretly stockpiled barbed wire went up overnight. Also master spy Abel (Willie Fisher during his British adolescence) perfected his Brooklyn cover, as a retiree taking up painting, at the expense of actually spying. Despite prosecutorial fulminations he wasn’t charged with acts of espionage, because there was no evidence of any. And the arrest of Yale doctoral student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is total melodramatic fiction; the Stasi were simultaneously extremely sinister and blackly hilarious. Their ineffectual interrogations of Pryor were True Kafka.

There are three moments in this tale spun from historical elements; a polite mugging, a pompous phone call, and a fake family; that are pure Coens, but this is Spielberg’s show. His visual storytelling is concise and expressive; especially the opening FBI pursuit of Abel, where we recognise Agents by glances, and Powers’ dismayed expression at his Moscow show trial, where a craning pull-out emphasises his isolation. Janusz Kaminski mostly reins in his diffuse supernova lighting to showcase Adam Stockhausen’s decrepit design, while Thomas Newman stands in for John Williams with orchestral flavours akin to Williams’ JFK score. Donovan’s line, “It doesn’t matter what other people think, you know what you did,” is the moral of the film, emphasised visually twice over. And his bloody-minded defence of the 4th amendment seems extremely pertinent when the 1st amendment is equally beleaguered.

Twitter lynch-mobs wouldn’t appreciate the nuance Donovan tries to impart to Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) but Spielberg’s film is a call for decency over outrage that is alarmingly timely.

3.5/5

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