Talking Movies

August 12, 2016

Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates

Zac Efron and Adam Devine need nice girls to accompany them to Hawaii for their sister’s wedding. Instead they get Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick.

Aubrey-Plaza-sunglasses-2

The inseparable Stangle brothers Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) live together in a chaotic flat, work together selling liquor to the harassed likes of Marc Maron, and party together just a bit too hard. And so their parents (Stephen Root and Stephanie Faracy) insist that they both find nice girls to bring as wedding dates or be barred from the wedding of their beloved younger sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard). The idea being that the brothers rile each other up when they go stag, whereas some respectable girls will calm them down. But when their Craigslist ad goes viral, they get royally played and end up taking Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick). Soon the self-absorbed co-dependent hedonistic BFFs Tatiana and Alice have wreaked more destructive chaos on the wedding than the brothers stag ever could have.

Bill Nighy at a 2009 L&H Q&A promised with perfect deadpan that The Boat That Rocked contained “a lot of stupid jokes … profoundly stupid jokes.” One might say that Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates is a stupid comedy, a profoundly stupid comedy, without many jokes. It is in fact a variation on the great transatlantic comedy chasm, but unlike previous summer puzzlers Let’s Be Cops and The Heat this is not an obvious thriller script repurposed as a comedy by the addition of crassness, crudity, and mugging for laughs rather than the insertion of jokes and comic characters. Bad Neighbours writers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien have penned a cookie-cutter Apatow gross-out rom-com about accepting responsibility, but without Rogen or Hill to riff absurdly, the improvisation encouraged by SNL director Jake Szymanski produces little of true value.

Continuing the trend noted by Bret Easton Ellis whereby gay characters fade out of spectacle aimed at the international market but proliferate in domestic fare, we have stand-up Alice Wetterlund as Cousin Terry; a bisexual yuppie tormenting Mike in a fashion not dissimilar to Kieran Culkin’s constant poaching of Anna Kendrick’s boyfriends in Scott Pilgrim. Except that, as with Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani’s bizarre cameo as a masseur, in the absence of charm and wit you find yourself unsure how to interpret this. Laughing at and with minorities at the same inclusive time? Is it a bold move or sheer laziness to have Jeanie’s black fiancé Eric (Sam Richardson) be so unambiguously boring? Is the movie’s apparent need for Beard to do what Plaza and Kendrick presumably wouldn’t slightly creepy or predictable? And can zippy pacing and breeziness overcome inanity?

Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, like Suicide Squad, contains lines in TV spots and trailers that don’t appear in the movie. But we don’t need Szymanski’s director’s cut.

2.5/5

Advertisements

January 15, 2016

RIP Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman wasn’t just a movie villain, (nor even that) he was a stage star. The Guardian in taking stock of Rickman’s career noted six theatrical highlights; one of those was here at the Abbey.

images

Rickman left graphic design to enter RADA at the late age of 26, and then became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1986 he had a success de scandale as Valmont, the mordant seducer in Christopher Hampton’s play Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He was nominated for a Tony for the part, but when Hollywood rushed to make two versions of the story he was cast in neither. Instead he made his screen debut as Hans Gruber, the mordant terrorist in John McTiernan’s film Die Hard. Rickman was drily withering at the L&H in UCD in 2009 (when being presented with the James Joyce Fellowship) on the topic of why he always played villains. He didn’t always play villains, of course. People just didn’t see those films, nor did they see his stage work on the West End and Broadway.

He reunited with Les Liaisons Dangereuses co-star Lindsay Duncan and director Howard Davies in 2002 for Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which, like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, also transferred to Broadway after its initial West End triumph. He controversially played opposite Helen Mirren as Shakespeare’s doomed lovers Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre, showed his political activism in directing My Name is Rachel Corrie, which he helped compile from the emails of the student protestor killed by a bulldozer in the Gaza Strip, and conquered Broadway  in 2011 as an unfeasibly abrasive creative writing professor in the premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar. And in 2010 he played the titular John Gabriel Borkman, in Frank McGuinness’ version of Ibsen for the 2010 Dublin Theatre Festival, which again reunited Rickman with Lindsay Duncan, and toured onwards to London’s National Theatre and New York.

a-little-chaos

Ibsen’s 1896 play about a disgraced banker resonated unsettlingly in post-crash Ireland. In a bleak drawing-room Gunhild (Fiona Shaw) battled her twin sister Ella (Lindsay Duncan) for the affections of Gunhild’s son Erhart (Marty Rea) and for Borkman himself in a, for the most part, three-hander between Rickman, Duncan and Shaw – an impressively powerful triptych. Rickman was wonderful, drawing comedy from lines which were funny only because of his sonorous voice, “Remain seated”, as well as intrinsically hilarious material, such as “I loved you more than life itself. But when it comes down to it one woman can be replaced with another”, and his villainous outburst “Has my hour come round at last?!” Rickman had the charisma to make his obnoxious banker heroic as he outlined his schemes for shipping and mining that would have made Norway rich; only he had the vision necessary, but within 8 days of completing his plans his lawyer exposed the fraud. Borkman convinced himself he was as much a victim of the exposure of his speculative use of savers’ deposits as the thousands his actions left penniless, so proclaimed “I have wasted 8 years of my life” in mentally re-staging and winning his trial. Intriguingly Cathy Belton toured with this production as Mrs Wilton; who threatens Erhart’s role as pawn in the mind-games.

Rickman squeezed some laughs in Gambit from being comically obnoxious as vulgar multi-millionaire and ‘degenerate nudist’ Lionel Shabandar, but it was a film unworthy of him, Colin Firth, or Stanley Tucci; all obviously attracted by a Coen Brothers screenplay that got lost in translation. But when Rickman made an unexpected return to directing nearly twenty years after his first effort, The Winter Guest, with a period drama about Versailles’ creation, he found a small showy role for Tucci as his fabulously acerbic screen brother. Rickman’s King Louis XIV was a highlight of the film; weary, cynical, yet somehow also unexpectedly humane; but he kept his role small, and gathered familiar faces around him, including Sense & Sensibility co-star Kate Winslet as Madame Sabine De Barra and John Gabriel Borkman co-star Cathy Belton as Sabine’s devoted servant Louise. Rickman seemed to like creating theatrical repertory companies outside of theatre. Consider his own casting, his reunions with Emma Thompson, and Daniel Radcliffe’s astonished gratitude that Rickman would always appear whenever Radcliffe was debuting a new stage role. So it’s fitting to end with words from a ‘rep’.

Cathy Belton issued this statement yesterday afternoon: “I was deeply saddened to hear the news of Alan’s passing today. It was a joy and a privilege to work with him but it was even more of a privilege to call him a dear friend. His talent was immense, his generosity of heart and time knew no bounds both professionally and personally. His dry Celtic wit was a joy to be around, always challenging, charming, questioning and listening. It was no wonder he felt so at home in Ireland during his many times working and visiting here. His death is such a great loss to us all, my heartfelt sympathies go to his beloved wife Rima, his rock and light at his side for over fifty years.  The world is a lesser place without him and I will miss him greatly.”

December 31, 2015

‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ published in Irish Studies Review

I’m pleased to belatedly report that my essay ‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ has been published in a special issue of the Irish Studies Review edited by Catherine Wilsdon and Giulia Bruni.

photo

G.K. Chesterton’s 1936 Autobiography affectionately re-creates his first meetings with W.B. Yeats, whose critical thought Chesterton parsed in his 1905 book Heretics. Chesterton was dubious about Yeats’s occultism, but attracted by the Irish Revival’s linking of cultural reawakening with small-scale economic independence. His criticism of Yeats’s linking of nationalism and mysticism anticipates Benedict Anderson’s seminal theorising of nationalism. P.J. Mathews’s Revival locates texts in the context of separatist agitation against Joseph Chamberlain’s Boer War. Chesterton’s 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill can be read as a parallel text, explicitly rebutting Chamberlain’s imperialist philosophy, but also repurposing elements of Yeats’s critique of Matthew Arnold’s Celt/Teuton cultural binaries for application to English classes. Declan Kiberd’s idea that Wilde exposed England as deeply colonised by the British Empire usefully situates Notting Hill‘s anti-imperialism. Chesterton grants the English populace the Hellenistic spontaneity of consciousness Arnold denied them, and sets forth a vision of English nationalism that even contains a critique of Anderson’s “official nationalism”. Notting Hill‘s politico-cultural revolution, led by Wayne, a poet-warrior, and Turnbull, a visionary shop-keeper, defeats the forces of imperialist politics, plutocratic economics, and empiricist philistinism, and acts as an English parallel in its concerns to Yeats’s decolonising process.

May 20, 2014

Hill Street

New Irish documentary Hill Street is a fascinating look at the early years of the Irish skateboarding scene trying to legitimise itself as a sport in economically grim 1980s Ireland.

Hill Street 4

Director JJ Rolfe interweaves the evolution of skateboarding culture in Dublin since the 1980s with a parallel strand of talking heads from America explaining the sequential 1950s craze for DIY skateboarding, the use by surfers of drained swimming pools to get airborne, and Tony Hawk’s rise to fame. The initial driving force here was a BMX shop ‘Clive’s of Hill Street’ in the North inner city. Soon Clive Rowen’s BMX business was subsumed by skateboards, home-made ramps outside the shop, a practise room beside the shop, and eventually a temporary skate park in the Top Hat Ballroom in Dún Laoghaire. Eventually the Powell Peralta ‘Bones Brigade’ Team, including the legendary Tony Hawk, visited that skate park for a historic show. This tale is told thru interviews with all the original skaters, along with unseen footage of them in the 1980s.

Hill Street is a very enjoyable movie. Rolfe makes great use of the essentially cinematic nature of skateboarding from the opening sequence (tracking alongside a skateboarder tricking his way across the city and its bridges) onwards. The skateboarder’s view as he sails past people waiting to cross a street is rendered akin to the view of a tracking camera, and later we see how some of the 1980s footage was actually shot by people holding cameras on skateboards racing alongside other skateboards as they did tricks. Rolfe also presents sustained sequences of skateboards in action over ramps accompanied with a superb original score that renders everything dreamily hypnotic and conveys the artistry that Tony Hawk claims for the sport. Rolfe’s interviewees are all passionate and articulate, and footage from the 1980s and 1990s is a great time capsule of nostalgia.

There is one potentially interesting strand that is introduced but never really developed. Hill Street is so focused on celebrating the stubbornness and nonconformity of the skateboarders; these individuals who refused to play soccer or Gaelic like the vast majority of their peers; that it never addresses the hilarious paradox of them not being team players but defiantly being individuals – who then all needed a place to hang out together (being individuals en masse), which they found at Clive’s. Hill Street also never truly grapples with the realities of why security guards; at banks, offices, and colleges; would always chase away these loveable ragamuffin teenagers. The montage of spectacularly painful crashes over the credits suggests one line about ‘kids suing for injuries’ urgently needed to be a serious discussion, rather than being treated as a blooper reel of bone-crunching disasters…

Hill Street is a very well made and enjoyable documentary, especially if your only experience with skateboarders was their intimidation of UCD at weekends.

3.5/5

January 20, 2014

Macbeth

Being one of the Fundit sponsors of this production of the Scottish play at Smock Alley, this is an earnest attempt at a semi-unbiased review of Keith Thompson directing Macbeth.

1497776_554186401338251_2021202708_n

As I did stand my watch upon the hill I looked toward Birnam and anon methought the wood began to move

Thompson has directed and acted in several Shakespeare productions at UCD’s Astra Hall, and his hallmark brevity is at work here as Macbeth comes in at just under 100 minutes without an interval. The play opens with King Duncan (Finbarr Doyle) receiving news from a wounded soldier (Patrick Doyle) of Macbeth (Gerard Adlum) successfully suppressing a rebellion. His generous decision to reward Macbeth with the rebel’s title Thane of Cawdor backfires spectacularly, however, as Macbeth and Banquo (Conor Marren) have just been visited by three witches who prophesied receiving that title would be the first step towards Macbeth becoming King of Scotland. But it is not until Macbeth returns home, with the unexpected news that Duncan intends to stay with them, that the mischief really starts as ambitious Lady Macbeth (Jennifer Laverty) pushes him to murder Duncan and seize power…

There are no lulls until Malcolm and Macduff’s filler scene in this breathless production. Macbeth’s castle on the fateful night is a frenetically busy place, and Cait Corkery’s design cleverly utilises the Romanesque windows of the Boys School space by running stairs up to them to create a balcony, which Macbeth hides under at one point gripped by fear and guilt. The witches are druidic figures, appearing in hooded cloaks on three sides of the audience in the gangway above. And returning soldiers run down these gangways to gain entrance to the stage, injecting tremendous bursts of energy into Shakespeare’s tale of dark plotting. Eoghan Carrick’s lighting design emphasises the nocturnal aspect of the play, while his use of greens and blues in his night-time tints also subtly hints at the supernatural powers at work forcing Macbeth ever bloodily forward.

But a Thompsonian Shakespeare will always have naturalistic comedy, and here Katie McCann as an excitable Ross offers much background joviality, and also an unexpected personal note in her plea to Malcolm (Jamie Hallahan) that in his cause even the women of Scotland would fight against the tyrant. Meanwhile Patrick Doyle in a terrific performance in a portmanteau role at Chez Macbeth transforms the Porter’s speech into a series of ‘knock knock’ jokes told to various members of the audience, casually slits Banquo’s throat ending his indignation, serves drinks afterwards as Macbeth hastily dabs off Banquo’s blood from his cheek, smiles devilishly as he appears on the balcony to check the escape of Lady Macduff (Claire Jenkins) with the faux-innocent question ‘Where is your husband?’ and, as Seyton, stays by his murderous master till the bitter end of Birnam Wood.

Playing Shakespeare with a cast of nine, regardless of the cutting done, requires this sort of doubling; and everything works except for an unfortunately Lynchian moment when Macduff arrives to check on Duncan. Eschewing any crown for instead a chair and a ring,(which Macbeth continually twists on his finger because of his guilty conscience) it’s all too easy to forget that Finbarr Doyle is Duncan/Macduff, so for a second it appears Duncan has arrived to where he is to check if he’s sleeping… Doyle though is a notably gracious Duncan, and his Macduff has pleasing notes of integrity. He also engages Macbeth in a sword-fight which thrills because it is perilously close to the audience in this small venue, and, because of some tweaking of the text, looks rather like Macbeth is going to get the upper hand on Macduff.

Thompson’s cutting of the text puts us inside Macbeth’s head to a degree that makes him approach Richard III, except that instead of gleefully informing us what he’s going to do before he takes action, like Richard, this Macbeth is almost asking our advice on whether he should take action at all by outlining his qualms. Adlum has Macbeth simultaneously tempted and horrified by the witches. He has a painful awareness of what Jan Kott called ‘the grand staircase of history’ in Shakespeare’s plays. He knows that to kill Duncan will put him one level higher on the staircase, and will also create on the step he did occupy an equally lethal challenger to his new status. Laverty’s Lady M tempts him by pricking his vanity; she supplies the pragmatism for murder and immediate advancement, but not for reigning hereafter.

This lean production keeps our sympathy with a hero, first doing wrong out of fear of being usurped, who eventually collapses into amoral madness.

4/5

Macbeth continues its run at Smock Alley until January 25th.

May 31, 2013

Any Other Business: Part VIII

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 an eight portmanteau post on television of course!

Bored-to-Death-007

Hannibal

So, some weeks ago I previewed Hannibal; the blood-spattered new procedural in which Morpheus Laurence Fishburne’s FBI supremo Jack Crawford teams his unstable but gifted profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) with brilliant psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to fight crime. It seemed that the show would be a tale of friendship between future deadly nemeses before they come into celebrated and chronicled conflict, so, Smallville, basically… No, no, it’s not… Lecter is very much already a supervillain, killing and eating people for fun. Not that the fun is obvious. Hannibal is an incredibly gory network show. If this was on HBO or Showtime it would probably be unbearable, but Hard Candy director David Slade has established a visual template for the show that makes it bearable by distancing the viewer with a cold colour palette and a chilly emotionless feel. At times it’s like watching a very precisely directed Criminal Minds, with exceptionally gory crime scenes and dream sequences interspersed with exceedingly crisp dialogue between two of the BAU team. But we don’t need another Criminal Minds, just look at the fate of its spin-off. So what does this show do with Dr Lecter that’s different? Well, he’s very hard to read, apart from an obvious fastidiousness and a psychotic approach to etiquette. But Mads Mikkelsen’s impassive Lecter is definitely having fun underneath. The look of pride as he sees how good Will’s profile of him is (based on just the copycat murder he carried out to help Will refine his profile of the Minnesota Shrike), the restrained glee he takes in making Jack and Will unwitting accessories in his anthropophagic activities; both indicate this, and a perverse desire to render assistance. With respect to Dominik Moll, perhaps they should rename the show Hannibal, he here’s to help.

 

The ‘Freedom’ of HBO – Case Study: Bored to Death

Many years ago I wrote a piece for the University Observer about the unwonted veneration given to HBO, especially the idea that its writers were totally free because they did not have network TV taste and decency guidelines to work within. I pointed out that Carnivale, which I’d previously trumpeted in the newspaper, had been a rare HBO show with restraint. It had HBO’s brilliant production values, and featured a wonderful use of music, a superb period feel, and – crucially, allowable only because it was on HBO – the patience to tell its story in an elliptical way. But halfway through it felt like some executive saw Carnivale and sent its writers a memo telling them they weren’t using their total freedom in the mandatory manner. The freedom from having to conform to taste and decency becomes the obligation to flout those limits of taste and decency. Carnivale transformed from a superior network show into episodes that merely strung together full frontal stripteases and sex with dramatic dialogue scenes. Taking Jonathan Ames’ abruptly cancelled detective comedy Bored to Death as a case study it seems to belatedly bear out this old reading of HBO’s ‘freedom’. Ames’ insistence on writing or co-writing all 8 episodes a season, which drip bad language from its endlessly stoned central trio of Jonathan, Ray and George, mean that Bored to Death was never likely to survive as a 24 episode a season network comedy. But Ames didn’t indulge in ultra-violence or explicit nudity either so it felt quite different to most of HBO’s output. And then you find a deleted scene from season 1 episode ‘The Case of the Missing Screenplay’ and you realise that a scene was reshot, with the same dramatic purpose and dialogue, but with a shift of location and some added dialogue, purely to add a topless woman; the only female nudity in that season. Was Ames explicitly told that he’d not used his total freedom in the mandatory manner and needed to flout taste and decency in that trademark manner to demonstrate that he was on HBO? Probably not, as that’s not how power works. More likely he realised that there was no female nudity in his show, and, wanting to fit in with accepted corporate culture, went back and added some. However that reshoot came about Ames certainly seemed to learn his lesson, as in season 2 he showcased a women’s locker-room in ‘Escape from the Castle!’ as the central trio rampaged thru it, seeing everything as Patrick Stewart would put it. The deleted scenes from season 2 don’t reveal the existence of any scenes reshot for extra gratuitousness. Odd that…

November 25, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part II

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Deja Vu
I’m finding it impossible to work up any enthusiasm either to read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help or to see its very successful film adaptation. The reason is that The Help is what I like to call a ‘self-evident proposition’ work.

JEFFERSON: Isn’t liberty a great thing?
ADAMS: Um, yes. Were you expecting a different response to that question?
JEFFERSON: No, I just wanted to check that it was indeed a self-evident truth.

Having seen trailers, clips and interviews I feel like I’ve already seen the movie and read the book.

THE HELP: Wasn’t racism in the Deep South in the 1960s awful?
AUDIENCE: Um, yes… obviously – got anything else to add?
THE HELP: Isn’t inter-racial class-divide-crossing female empowerment just swell?
AUDIENCE: Get out…

I praised Emma Stone when I reviewed Superbad for InDublin in 2007 but I’m not about to watch predictable platitudes just to boost her to a well-deserved A-list status. Especially not when the platitudes are wrapped in another faux 1960s package, hot on the heels of Mad Men, Pan Am and X-Men: First Class. I’m a bit of sick of people caricaturing a decade they weren’t around for to make themselves feel enlightened.

The Horns of Desolation
I had the misfortune to stumble across the final scenes of Troy some weeks ago. My Delaney sketches can be traced back to one colour piece in the 2004 Christmas issue of the University Observer where I poured as much scorn as 908 words could hold on Troy. A poorly scripted mess that is stunningly disrespectful of one of the founding texts of Western literature and brought to botched life by a mixture of hammy or simply ill-judged performances Troy is a film that few people will ever watch again willingly. Which leads to the intriguing idea that any work wasted on it could be salvaged for use elsewhere. James Horner scores the fall of Troy with blaring horns and trumpets that bespeak desolation and the fall of an ancient civilisation, and I knew the melody they were playing very well. But I hadn’t seen Troy since 2004 so I couldn’t know the music from Troy itself. I seemed to associate the music with another film entirely but oddly also particularly with just such a scene of a culture being traumatically destroyed. And then it hit me, it’s the music from Avatar! The assault on Hometree and then the final battle – it’s the same horns of desolation. Horner, by association of ideas genuinely composed the same melody and orchestration again, or, (as I hope) directly lifted music he’d composed and foolishly thrown away on a much loathed film and re-used it on a much loved film.

November 16, 2011

Funny Bones

Last year, just before they handed the series over to Living, Sky 1 aired a season 1 episode of Bones instead of the expected season 6 episode, and it was stunning how drastically the show has changed over its run.

I wrote about Bones twice for the University Observer. The first time I was writing about the trend in US television of heroes that we already sympathised with being depicted as achingly alone, rather than their loneliness simply being a device to get us onboard with an unlikely hero such as The OC’s Seth Cohen. Dr Temperance Brennan, the brilliant crime-fighting forensic anthropologist, would tell her FBI partner Seeley Booth, “There’s nothing wrong with going on vacation by yourself”, and then do so frequently, when she wasn’t simply working through the weekend. Bones and House suggested that the excellence of these characters at their jobs was only possible by the sacrifice of their personal lives.

I later wrote an article dissecting Bones’ dramatic motor – the unresolved sexual tension between Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth. Bones was not alone in using that device as a dramatic motor but it had perhaps the most obviously thwarted yet plausible of the many frustrated relationships littering the TV schedules in 2007, and one that cried out in season 1 for a symbolic Red State/Blue State reading. Towards the end of season 1 Brennan was in New Orleans identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina when she was drugged and framed for murder. Booth immediately rushed from Washington DC to rescue her only to be upbraided on arrival for his sneering attitude towards Voodoo: “I mean, you believe that Jesus rose from the dead…”, “Jesus was not a zombie! I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff!!”

Brennan and Booth have common values and a genuine attraction that exists despite their ‘ideological’ enmity. Like Barack Obama’s famous 2004 peroration to the Democratic National Convention you can say of their partnership, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America”. Neither is a mere cipher of a political position. Brennan is militantly atheistic and scientific, but supports the death penalty unreservedly and is emotionally distant as a result of being abandoned to foster-care by her fugitive criminal parents. Booth seems modelled on John Wayne’s heroic straight-shooting all-American persona, but is an unmarried father battling to see his son, who uses his FBI job as atonement for his enormous religious guilt at murdering 50 people as an army sniper. Both characters desperately need the qualities of the other in order to be effective.

Zack-and-Hodgins-Playing-under-the-pressure-zackaroni-and-hodgepodge-3852460-1024-683

The penultimate episode of season 1 managed minor miracles in tackling the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. There was of course only so much tension that could be generated by the politico-sexual friction between the two leads. The first episode of the second season saw Brennan complain at Booth’s snippiness: “I thought we were having an interesting discussion about the War on Drugs”, “Can we please just talk about something we don’t disagree on?!” The dead silence that followed exemplified their deadlocked relationship. Little surprise then that creator Hart Hanson introduced new characters as romantic obstacles to keep the leads apart, seeming happy to relinquish to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the task of depicting a Blue State/Red State romance for the 2006/7 season with Aaron Sorkin’s Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes as the lovers sundered by politics and faith.

Regrettably Hanson never seemed to take up that task seriously again and season 6 confirmed a number of alarming developments in the show. Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember the social niceties and her conversation suffered from an almost total ignorance of pop culture. Yet season 6 saw her presented as consciously unconsciously anti-social, if that makes sense. Despite 6 years of working with Booth she acted rudely when surely she must have learnt from his example what to say by now in nearly every circumstance. In many ways her character seemed to have regressed – the hideous attempts at jokes in particular were nothing more than horrible gurning by Emily Deschanel which was as uncomfortable to watch as it probably was to perform. This impulse towards comedy at the expense of character consistency was not an isolated incident though, but part of a trend.

The music changed over the seasons from mere background mood music to cutesy cues to indicate that everything was funny; in other words that the show itself had changed from what it originally was, a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags, to a modestly smart forensics sitcom with no laugh track for its constant modestly funny gags. Any doubt of this change in direction can be dispelled by noting the change in psychiatrist from Stephen Fry to John Francis Daley. Fry was cast because as a tall clever British psychiatrist he could literally look down on Booth in judgement. Daley is a young silly American psychiatrist who Booth literally just looks down on. Similarly when Zach was written out of the show at the end of season 3 he was replaced by a revolving line-up of squinterns, each of which appeared chosen for their particular comedic shtick, even if they would eventually be belatedly granted a modicum of depth. A dramatic imperative was consistently replaced by a comedic dynamic.

The decision to kill Mr Nigel-Murray at the hands of Booth’s sniper nemesis Brodsky, after a lengthy ominously scored montage which put all the characters potentially in jeopardy, was therefore terribly misjudged. The show simply cannot sustain that type of dramatic weight at this point in its development, whereas it still could when Zach was shockingly revealed as the apprentice to the cannibal serial killer Gormagon in the traumatic finale of season 3. By far the best episode of season 6 was the episode that most closely approximated season 1 – Brennan losing her grip on reality as she investigated the death of her apparent doppelganger, a brilliant socially isolated surgeon. Her tearful declaration of love for Booth and subsequent heartbroken acceptance that she had missed her chance for happiness by her reluctance to take a risk on him when he suggested it in season 5 was both incredibly dramatically satisfying and a reminder of what the show used to be.

Season 7 will largely eschew Emily Deschanel – written out for her pregnancy. Can the show survive that and will it ever square its political circle when she returns now that Booth’s romantic anger has subsided and Brennan’s imperviousness/strength balance has reached the point where they can get it together properly?

Bones season 7 begins its run on Living at 9pm tonight.

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.

May 25, 2011

‘I need to do more theatre’

I was struck, reading the Win Win press release, by the sheer amount of theatre work, and acclaimed theatre work at that, undertaken by the lead actors.

imagesCAFGP2YL

“I could be doing that new LaBute play right now”


Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young all have theatre resumes as long as your arm, while Bobby Cannavale, presumably feeling guilty about his lack of theatre work, finally hit Broadway in 2008, and won a Tony nod for his troubles. What’s interesting about the resumes of this particular clutch of actors is the picture it builds up of what good actors, interested in telling emotionally engaging human stories, really want to do. Looking at the plays that they’ve done you can expand out to include more related works to create a convincing picture of just what actors have in mind when they sigh in interviews for crummy films – ‘I need to do more theatre’.

The plays explicitly mentioned in the press release include works by Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov, Stoppard, Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Neil LaBute, Theresa Reback, David Rabe, and Lanford Wilson. You could add to that list a select clutch of other names: Mamet, Sophocles, Pinter, Beckett, Lorca, Moliere, Arthur Miller, Shaw, Ibsen, Shepard, Strindberg, Friel, Hare, Churchill, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, Jez Butterworth, Kenneth Lonergan, John Logan, Martin Crimp. There’s a hit list of great plays and juicy roles every actor wants to have a shot at, and it boils down to a desire to do both the classics (ancient and modern) and interesting new work, which is hilariously contradictory, and also would take up all your life for very little pay if you eschewed film and TV work to do it. But…you can’t help but think that sometimes actors feel, as when Aaron Eckhart lamented to the L&H in UCD ‘I need to do more theatre….’, that it might be a more fulfilling if far less lucrative choice to concentrate on theatre.

Those great plays are nearly always the things I think of when watching good actors in bad movies, when a look of despair/desperation that doesn’t belong to the character they’re playing seems to convey the inner thought process the actor has slipped into: “God. I killed as Teach in American Buffalo a few years ago, now I’m having a nightmare within a nightmare within a really crummy exploitation vampire noir; which in some categorisations might be a nightmare. I need to do more theatre.” I will neither confirm nor deny I have someone from the movie Rise: Blood Hunter in mind when I write that…

This is not to engage in the snobbery, that theatre is a purer art form than cinema, which drove cinephile Michael Fassbender to quit the Drama Centre. It’s merely to recognise that, bar exceptional roles like James Bond, Batman and their ilk, it’s not possible in cinema to measure yourself against the standard set by actors past by taking on an unchanging role. That compulsion, which drove Jude Law to play Hamlet, ensures theatre remains an off-screen siren call…

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.