Talking Movies

May 29, 2020

Any Other Business: Part LIV

As the title suggests, so forth.

Emily Maitlis punished for telling the truth, Domic Cummings given free pass for breaking lockdown

Dominic Cummings broke the rules, the country can see that, and it’s shocked the government cannot.

The longer ministers and prime minister tell us he worked within them, the more angry the response to this scandal is likely to be.

He was the man, remember, who always got the public mood, he tagged the lazy label of ‘elite’ on those who disagreed.

He should understand that public mood now. One of fury, contempt, and anguish.

He made those who struggled to keep to the rules feel like fools, and has allowed many more to assume they can now flout them.

The prime minister knows all this, but despite the resignation of one minister, growing unease from his backbenchers, a dramatic early warning from the polls, and a deep national disquiet, Boris Johnson has chosen to ignore it.

Tonight, we consider what this blind loyalty tells us about the workings of Number 10.

We do not expect to be joined by a government minister, but that won’t stop us asking the question.

Peter Mandelson was an essential part of New Labour; in the triumvirate of himself, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown.

Tony Blair fired Peter Mandelson, twice.

How pathetic a man of straw must Boris ‘Bullsh-t and Bluster’ Johnson be to fear firing Dominic Cummings even once?

SEAL Team: Mandy & Jason!

Hey now! That was unexpected. Almost exactly two months ago I was noting that Jessica Pare’s burnt CIA analyst Mandy had been notably underused in season 3, so it was nice to see her unexpectedly get tactical alongside Blackburn and Davis as Havoc fell, and impose herself on the action in her guilt-ridden determination to rescue her kidnapped asset. I said then that her ‘work the problem drive’ and firefight skills gave new hope to shippers that Mandy and Jason would get together, despite the awesome kismet that exists in Emily Swallow as Jason’s partner Natalie; uniting as it does Supernatural‘s Amara with Buffy’s Angel. And now, thanks to the coronavirus tanking the last two episodes of the season, season 3 has ended with the very unexpected knock on the door of Jason to Mandy. In a visceral twist on Bones and Booth’s imperviousness versus strength equation they are now finally suited as romantic partners because they are both as damaged as the other.

Will the NCH survive this?

I completed a survey the other day from the National Concert Hall looking for feedback on the various options they are exploring for re-opening under COVID-19 conditions in the coming months. It provided considerable food for thought. Should there be no intervals to avoid people stampeding to the toilets and queuing too closely for refreshments? How much of the hall should be left empty? What about temperature checks and the end of physical tickets? How disconcerting would all this be? How likely would it be that you would simply wait for a coronavirus vaccine before venturing out to hear live music again? After reading thru all these puzzlers I began to wonder if the NCH will actually survive this. After all its audience does skew older so would be more likely to eschew mass gatherings prior to a vaccine. And if many seats have to be left empty will the prices perforce rise for the remaining seats creating a doom loop where demand falls because of high prices causing even higher prices to try and stabilise revenue? And how does one even programme in the absence of an interval? The logic of a concert like Arvo Part’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten followed by Grieg’s Piano Concerto followed by an interval followed by Brahms’ 2nd Symphony falls apart if there is no interval. Can large symphonies even be performed under social distancing? Or will there need to be many re-orchestrations of gargantuan orchestral works for chamber orchestras? There were a number of concerts I had planned to attend that have fallen victim to the government lockdown – Maxim Vengerov playing and conducting, Barry Douglas leading the Beethoven Triple Concerto, the RTE NSO tackling among other works Sibelius’ 5th Symphony, Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, Debussy’s La Mer, Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, and Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto. I don’t know if programmes like this will exist in the near future, and I don’t know if I will be willing to put myself at risk to hear the music performed live.

2020: The Year the Final Curtain Fell

There has been much talk in a spuriously optimistic life gives you lemons make lemonades vein about how Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest works during the plague. There has been less talk of how Shakespeare’s company took commercial and artistic advantage of the decimation of their rivals by the plague. And the stop-start nature of the Elizabethan theatre looks to be the most salient point of all. This may be the end of theatre as we know it for quite some time. A general shuttering of the theatres akin to Cromwell might last for some years with intermittent ineffectual re-openings in between resurgent waves of the coronavirus. Theatre as an art form might come back eventually, after a vaccine is found, but it is unlikely that all the individual theatres currently around will be there to return at that point. There will be something between a winnowing and a purge. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Gate Theatre need to be founded anew in 2028 for its second attempt at reaching 100.

By gad, sir, that’s leadership”

Leo Varadkar went for a picnic in the park with friends, days after his Assistant Secretary General Liz Canavan publicly told people not to go for a picnic in the park with friends. “If you’re visiting a public amenity try not to stay too long at the site or have picnics. Please do your exercise and then go home.” People accurately heard “try not to … have picnics”. Leo tried to, with some level of organisation, and succeeded. How did Canavan respond? Claiming she had not seen images of Leo having a picnic in the park with friends. Indeed… Well, hold the briefing for a second, and the assembled press corps can pull up the pictures and hold their phones up and then, having seen them, she can comment on them; unless she averted her eyes to maintain an increasingly implausible plausible deniability.  The damage control centred on insisting that Leo had moved residence since lockdown, despite telling off people for going to their second homes, and therefore he was allowed to go for a picnic in the park with friends because it was within 5km of his residence. Nobody cares that Leo was within 5km. Some people might care that he’s escorted by Gardai when he moves residence when everyone else was being stopped by Gardai for attempting to do so. Everybody cares that Leo’s staff told everyone else not go for a picnic in the park with friends, while Leo himself was clearly planning to do just that himself. Perhaps he wanted to ensure an empty park for ease of social distancing? Canavan’s defence was, “Again this is guidance. We’re asking people to use their head.” We are using our heads. If it’s guidance that doesn’t apply to Leo, then it shouldn’t apply to anyone else either, so why bother mentioning it at all? Defending the indefensible is the one thing politicians do that infuriates more than any other infraction. There was no apology, no contrition. Not unlike Dominic Cummings, who flagrantly breached the rules he was instrumental in drawing up and promoting, and can’t stop lying about it. No apology, no contrition, just increasingly outlandish excuses and explanations. To drive from one end of England to the other for childcare is the act of a caring father? Meanwhile people walking their dogs in a deserted area are shamed by police drones, people attempting to enter supermarkets as couples to speed up their shopping are shamed by officious stewards, and people attempting to sit in parks are hysterically abused at close quarters by braying police officers. Elsewhere England’s father of the year is busy bundling his wife and kid into a car for a 30 mile drive, to check if he can see beyond the bottom of the driveway. One would have thought it might make more sense, paternally speaking, to make that suicide run a solo mission. But then of course by an astonishing coincidence it was his wife’s birthday when the Specsavers Special steamed into a noted beauty spot. Meanwhile in America Senators Loeffler, Burr and Perdue are also stoutly maintaining the coincidental defence: they did not run from a classified briefing on the coronavirus to find a quiet corner in the Capitol to shout “SELL FOCKING EVERYTHING!” down the phone at their stockbrokers, before brainstorming which stocks would likely rise in a global pandemic, and ringing back their stockbrokers with instructions on what to buy. When the elite decide not to follow the rules, they should not be surprised if the plebeian masses suddenly out of nowhere get the idea not to follow the rules either. Pericles died in the plague that devastated Athens in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles will be remembered forever. One wonders if the current crop of leaders will be remembered that far into the future? Or will they have created a world that thinks of Pericles only that he should have sailed to Sardis to test his eyesight…

December 9, 2018

From the Archives: W

A penultimate dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up Oliver Stone’s forgotten and rather pointless George Bush Jr takedown.

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This George W Bush biopic reunites Oliver Stone with his Wall Street co-writer. It is thus very disappointing that there is no trace of that film’s searing indictment of American greed, but perhaps even more amazingly the man who directed JFK has lost his visual flair.

W is a very odd film, it’s not satire and it’s not a factual drama. It attempts to straddle, and falls short of, both genres. 13 Days made the Cuban Missile Crisis gripping simply by showing how Kennedy dealt with it blow by blow. Channel 4’s The Deal made the trade between Brown and Blair fascinating, even if it was largely speculative. BBC 4’s The Alan Clark Diaries made real politics hilarious. W hopelessly tries to combine all three approaches. We follow the run-up to and fall-out from the Iraq War, while flashing back to the pivotal moments in W’s life that led him to the White House. Stone though has nothing to say about these moments except that Bush has ‘daddy issues’, and that’s why he went to war. This insight isn’t profound or original but could have been heard in bars, on both the sides of the Atlantic, after too many drinks, for the last five years.

James Cromwell alone among the cast does not try to imitate his character and so nicely counterpoints Brolin’s Jr. Cromwell’s George Sr (or Poppy) appears cold and disapproving but we realise that his shepherding of his son Jeb rather than W towards the Presidency is because he wishes to shelter W from the strain of a job that does not suit his temperament. Josh Brolin is extraordinary as W. He perfectly captures the voice and mannerism of Bush Jr but also makes us care deeply for this uncomplicated jock. When W loses a 1980 run for Congress and storms into his backyard exclaiming “I’ll never be out-Texased or out-Christianed again!” we feel his pain more than the obvious satirical anticipation of his 2000 run for Presidency that Stone intends. W’s born-again Christianity is handled with surprising (and welcome) warmth, but while personally Bush saw the light, politically it led him to some dark places. However to expect that sort of complexity is to want a different, less obvious, film.

And Stone does get very obvious… Jeffrey Wright plays Saint Colin Powell while Richard Dreyfuss needs a moustache to twirl villainously as Dick Cheney. Characters say in private their most infamous public gaffes while Condoleeza Rice is written out of history, perhaps because Thandie Newton’s forced attempts to get Rice’s voice right make her screen presence too painful to dwell on. George Bush is not a bad man, he’s just a very bad president, the worst since Herbert Hoover, who also made way for a charismatic Democrat offering change, FDR. But, Oliver, we already knew that…

2/5

June 22, 2011

One Day (like this a year will see me right)

Regular readers will know that I appeared on Dublin South FM’s The First Saturday Book Club a couple of weeks ago, discussing David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day with Sorcha Nic Mhathuna, Eoghan Rice, and host Eve Rowan. Click here to listen to a podcast of that show.

Book Summary
Working-class Emma Morley and rich-kid Dexter Mayhew meet for the first time on the night of their graduation in 1988. They bungle becoming a couple, but an intense bond develops through Emma’s long letters to Dexter as he travels the globe. Dexter becomes a famous TV presenter given to patronising Emma, who is reduced to waitressing, but when she becomes a teacher her relationship with the increasingly arrogant Dexter falters. Dexter’s career implodes due to his alcoholism, while Emma becomes a successful children’s author, but Dexter’s shot-gun marriage foils their coming together. Will Dexter and Emma ever both be in the right place at the right time? And do they deserve a happy ending?

Structures & Pitfalls
BBC scriptwriter David Nicholls previously wrote Starter for Ten, and this starts off as another class conscious romantic comedy before it develops into something a good deal more ambitious; almost a history of social change in Britain between 1988 and 2007. The gimmick blazoned on the book cover, ‘Twenty Years. Two People. One Day’; referring to Nicholls’ audacious decision to only cover in detail the lives of this odd couple for the 15th of July each year; serves two purposes. The first of these is to allow him to gallop over a vast span of time and draw out the pop culture of each year. The second is to allow him to surprise the reader with sudden shifts between chapters. The latter is a trick well-worn by Patrick O’Brian in the Master & Commander novels, where cliff-hangers chapter endings routinely lead into chapters set months later that make no reference to how the cliff-hanger was resolved till half-way thru. Here it allows Nicholls to present conversations where you’re unsure if Dexter is addressing Emma or yet another bimbo girlfriend, and where characters change jobs and locations radically in a page.

The first purpose becomes an increasing problem as the novel progresses as there are too many attempts to cram every possible event in recent British history into the narrative. Dexter presents a show that is basically The Word, and then Channel 4’s failed rival to Later with Jools Holland, before ending up in the impeccably trendy organic food business. Emma bounces around from waitressing to teaching to becoming sort of JK Rowling. Emma’s disastrous meeting with a publisher is the nadir of this technique as it sees her standing on the South Bank afterwards recalling how jubilant she was the last time she was there, celebrating Blair’s 1997 landslide; of course Emma was there celebrating Blair’s victory you groan, Nicholls just had to tick that box… The gimmick works well for the first sections of the novel, as this is a day that the characters would consciously mark, and it becomes that again in the closing section, but during the middle sections of the book (as Dexter becomes ever more obnoxious) it feels very contrived.

Em & Dex: Rom-Com or Hardy-Com?
The character of Dexter is a problem. Emma is loveable and believable from start to finish as she manages to slowly sort her life out, but the privileged Dexter who is initially charming becomes increasingly irritating as he diligently works his way thru every cliché of Britpop excess. By contrast Nicholls’ protean minor characters are brilliantly drawn, from Dexter’s co-presenter Suki Meadows, whose bubbly personality is imagined as liable to start a letter of condolence with the word ‘Wahey!’, to his elegant bohemian mother Alison, who likes Emma precisely for the moment which embarrassed both Emma and Dexter; when Emma called Dexter’s father a bourgeois fascist for his views on Nicaragua, Alison saw a girl with some spine who would stand up to Dexter as he would desperately need his partner to. Alison sees the chemistry between Emma and Dexter that sustains the novel, until its circular ending which reveals more of their magical first day together, despite the truth of Emma’s unfunny stand-up boyfriend Ian’s observation that Dexter takes Emma for granted.

The ending suggests that Nicholls is so in thrall to his beloved Thomas Hardy that he chooses this particular ending merely to cast a backward profundity over what has gone before. The tragedy is that Nicholls does not need do this. Sure, there are moments that are reminiscent of other works. Dexter’s meeting with his agent is straight out of Extras, Emma’s feeble attempts at writing strongly suggest Spaced, and a disastrous sequence involving Dexter is practically lifted from Meet the Parents. But Nicholls has an undeniable skill at summarising cultural shifts in gags; in the 1980s of The Clash and Billy Bragg all the boys wanted to be Che Guevara, thinks Emma, in the Loaded and FHM zeitgeist of Britpop all the boys now want to be Hugh Hefner; and his greatest ability is not this sort of cultural commentary, but what seems to embarrass him.

Dexter’s long letter asking Emma to join him in India features the most memorable romantic comedy gesture I’ve read recently. Dexter tells her to stand in the centre of the Taj Mahal at noon wearing a red rose and holding a copy of Nicholas Nickleby, and he will find her; he will be wearing a white rose and holding the copy she gave him of Howards End. But Dexter forgets to post this letter; which will have you screaming, ‘No! Dexter!!’, at your book. An author capable of conjuring that level of emotional involvement with his characters and such deliriously heightened moments shouldn’t apologise for being a cracking rom-com writer, not Hardy…

Read the book, don’t wait for the movie. Any production which casts Anne Hathaway as Emma rather than Spaced‘s Jessica Stevenson obviously hasn’t a clue.

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