Talking Movies

March 4, 2011

Personal Movies

What then might a ‘personal movie’ be?

I would define a ‘personal movie’ as a film which may not be that great objectively, but which holds for you a deep personal meaning; which is either enigmatically inexplicable, or, is incommunicable except in emotional connection with a time, place and person. A work of art can often become a kind of mental hook on which we hang experiences. I first read Brideshead Revisited mere days after picking up my Leaving Cert results and then immediately afterwards buying Blur’s Parklife album. To this day there are times when I’ll be reading Brideshead and the sound of the brass intro to ‘Badhead’ will float through my head, not as a discordant note in a story set in the inter-war period, but as an essential part of my first experience of reading this rich novel while I waited to start college. I’m sure everyone has similar Proustian moments of hearing a song and instantly associating it with a certain time and place.

I think the same is true for personal movies. They will take on a resonance which can be almost completely unrelated to their quality, and the resonance of that first encounter will forever echo thru subsequent viewings. A friend of mine became hopelessly devoted to The Holiday, fully aware that it’s a terrible film, because of the emotional resonance of particular architecture featured in the film as well as its theme of betrayals in love. Another friend had something of a Joycean epiphany while watching Betty Blue as a teenager and has, perhaps not coincidentally, ended up living in France. Resonance can come from within a film or be introduced into it from without, and sometimes can just be a matter of timing. I avoided the release of Almost Famous in early 2001, and only finally saw it on television in early summer 2004, which meant that the film resonated with me more than it ever could have in 2001 as in the interim I had discovered Led Zeppelin…

Just over a year ago, as preparation for my Top 10/Worst 10 Films of the Decade one-off return to the University Observer, I posted Films of the Decade? This provisional list of 20 films featured a few personal movies but I felt I could argue they were also either great movies or reflected the decade exceptionally; in other words that there was some sort of Eliotian objective correlative for the personal meaning they held for me. I saw Roger Avary’s 2002 film The Rules of Attraction just days before my birthday during its extremely limited release in 2003. I’ve since heard others say it’s the best film from Bret Easton Ellis’ work and an improvement on the source novel. The film’s unflinching bleakness struck a chord because I was at a low ebb when I saw it; tremendously frustrated with problems in writing my PhD dissertation. Since then it has repeatedly aired on TV, uncannily nearly always when I’ve felt hopeless, and the ecstatic bliss of its nihilism has lifted me out of my ruts.

I think everyone has a stack of personal movies like this, and who knows, perhaps the reason old classics are classics is simply because, however odd it may sound, they are deeply personal movies – for millions of people.

October 15, 2010

Mr Norris Changes Trains

Yes, as you may have guessed from the Christopher Isherwood referenceing title, this is the official announcement of a slight modification of the aims of Talking Movies.

Regular readers will have noted this modification in action over the last few months with several television and theatre thinkpieces and several theatre reviews popping up. I’ve knocked out 60 pieces in the 58 weeks since I started writing this blog weekly at the end of August 2009, and I feel it’s time to shake things up a bit. I set out to produce a weekly blog that mixed film reviews with film features serious and nonsensical, and to keep things interesting, funny and unpredictable to write as well as read. Talking Movies will, true to its title, remain predominantly a weekly film blog but part of keeping it interesting, funny and unpredictable for me as well as for you involves being more varied in content as well as form. There will be more theatre reviews, as well as features on books, music and television, mixed in with, but not replacing, the usual film reviews, features and colour pieces.

We live in an interesting world and there are many other mediums beside cinema which produce work worth writing about so it’s time for me to return to my eclectic origins in the University Observer where, before my film column, I was writing on comedy, theatre, television, books, music and occasionally even politics. I’d like to thank everyone who’s read the blog over the last year (sic), especially those who commented on it, linked to it, or gave feedback in other media, and hope that you regard this modification as enriching it rather than diminishing it. In the near future I’ll be writing pieces about The Corrections, CSI: NY and Auf Der Maur, as well as Alexandre Aja, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, 3-D, typecasting and nostalgia.

Well, that’s enough hostages to fortune to be going on with…

‘Keep watching the skies!’

Or at the very least this url: fergalcasey.wordpress.com

July 13, 2010

Keanu Takes Stock

Keanu Reeves will be 46 in a few months, so how is he dealing with mid-life cinematically?

Back in 2004 when I wrote a profile of Keanu for the University Observer he had just refused to play Superman for Warner Bros, and now (not being connected to any lucrative franchise) unlike the era of George Reeves, he’d be considered about 20 years to old to even get an audition.  In that piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles” but didn’t have time to expand on my meaning, which was that Hollywood leading men tend to lose their cachet on hitting 50 so their 40s are the years where they have the maturity and the box-office clout to take on big roles – like John Wayne doing Red River and The Searchers, Gregory Peck doing Moby Dick, Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird and even Michael Douglas doing Romancing the Stone, Wall Street and Basic Instinct.

Since Keanu turned 40 he’s appeared in only seven films Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in the movie. His turn in Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem both their lives. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find sustained audiences. Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if flawed film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as mature roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing and a fine sense of metaphysical horror that was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix. Keanu seems to have moved away from franchise movies but that might just reduce the audience for his upcoming roles. He faces a dilemma it seems – does he take on another box-office behemoth or just cameo in indie movies?

Where he goes from here is a choice we leave up to him…

July 11, 2010

Ride the Lo-Fi Country

My beloved 1993 CD player died yesterday, forcing me to turn to its sister tape player for the first time in years, and muse over living lo-fi in a hi-tech world…

Not only is my beloved 2004 Auf der Maur album stuck in the CD player with no means of escape, I can’t listen to her new CD (which I just bought) on the thunderous speakers which echo around the room, instead I have to settle for throwing it into the laptop and listening to the tiny volume that it delivers in comparison. Small wonder that I’ve instantly turned to my long-neglected tape collection to still use the speakers and their great potential for noise. As a result I’ve spent the last two days listening to the Stone Roses, Bryan Ferry, The Beatles, and the Chemical Brothers. And that was just picking the tapes that were at the top of the pile. I know that somewhere in the dusty stash is The Goon Show not to mention the Pixies, Lightning Seeds, Bowie, Ash and The Doors.  And then there’s all the tapes I’ve forgotten I even made, which is going to be a treasure-trove of 1992-2004 time capsules for me to dig through.

But this has happened when I’ve just seen Tom Stoppard’s dazzlingly clever and utterly hilarious Arcadia which is nonetheless a simple enough play to stage, and as I’m ploughing my way through Jonathan Franzen’s epic family drama as state of nation saga The Corrections which is modern in style and content but very old in its ambitions, and as thoughts, possibly blog-worthy, possibly not, about each mull around in my mind. These pieces of work are very old-fashioned, lo-fi, if you will, but still impressive, just as the music I’m blaring from my tapes is fantastic, regardless of the ancient method of its delivery. It’s brought home to me just how at ease I still am at living a lo-fi life in a hi-tech world, how what’s dismissed as ‘obsolete’ is really often just ‘different’, and how the obsession with instant gratification can blind us to the qualities of older forms and the greater rewards provided by work that demands more active engagement. After all, filling out an 8-track led to Parklife

I write a weekly blog but posting it can be the only time I venture on-line each week, as I write on a lap-top with no internet connection, about films which, for the most part, I have seen once in the cinema and then analyse from memory. This to me is normal, but I can imagine other people being crippled without access to IMDb or YouTube, just as I can imagine few people would be able to understand that I improvised dictation of nearly a year’s worth of articles down the phone to my co-writer for the University Observer, and wrote nearly half of my PhD thesis long-hand and had it supervised in that way.

I still am lo-fi, it’s just the world that upgraded.

January 27, 2010

RIP Michael Dwyer

I was saddened to hear of the death of Irish Times film critic Michael Dwyer. Many words have been written about Dwyer’s contribution to Irish cinema, his founding of the Dublin International Film Festival, and his work in building an audience for foreign films in Ireland. I can add little to such perspectives, what I can add is a personal note on what I think he meant to me and other film fans of my generation.

As the elder statesman of cinema at the Irish Times from a ridiculously young age Dwyer was more influential than anyone with the exception of Barry Norman in forming the archetype for a whole generation of what the role of a film critic was, and what films were worthy of recognition and championing in the ongoing narrative of cinema. My own personal experience of Dwyer’s writing falls into, yes, a three-act arc. First was the period of adoring respect – the religious reading of the Irish Times every Friday to see what films were good, what films were bad, what directors deserved respect, and the continual processing of his casual asides into an expanding mosaic of just what films from cinema past and present were important and good.

Then inevitably came the teenage age of rebellion. This began for me with sneering at his (still) frankly embarrassing laudatory review of Titanic in 1998, and then found greater expression in criticising his Top 20 Films of the Year lists which seemed to take a peculiar joy in not featuring films from the Top 20 Highest Grossing Films of the Year lists. Eventually this perception of an utter disjunct between critic and audience led to a jaded boredom with his perspective and a cynical distaste for the clichés of his style, especially when writing about sex and violence in movies, which found voice in a polemical University Observer piece about the tired and tiresome predictability of critical responses to films like 9 Songs and The Passion of the Christ.

The reappraisal came later, after I had finished writing my abrasive film column for the University Observer and had started writing reviews, when I realised just how difficult it sometimes is to sum up your reaction to a film in a short word-count. Indeed I could not possibly have hacked it as a film critic for InDublin, writing up to 6 reviews a week, had I not downloaded Dwyer’s review of 300 and taken it apart to understand how he structured his reviews – which gave him the head-start needed to make the sometimes tortuous work of reviewing seem easy. At this juncture, having cycled back to a position of mature rather than adoring respect, it was fitting that I finally met Michael Dwyer at a press screening of Youth without Youth. He was charming and talkative about the decline of Coppola and the history of InDublin and made me feel like I truly belonged to Graham Greene’s ‘mornings in the dark’ corps.

Other people have written about Dwyer’s tangible legacy but from my perspective his legacy is to forever be the voice in your head which asks, “Yes, this film is fun, but will it endure?” In a way every Irish film critic of my generation, professional or amateur, will have Barry Norman’s sardonic “…And why not?” and Michael Dwyer’s critical perspective internalised for life. And so long as we all keep hearing that voice then a part of him lives on forever in his readers.

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