Archives for February 2014

Towering Gabriel Byrne can’t save BBC’s “Quirke”.

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke.

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke.

The must see television of the last decade or so, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, or for that matter Buffy, Friends, The Simpsons, South Park, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Girls and Louie – even Letterman, early Conan or The Today Show  – all have one thing in common; their writing.

On the one hand it was their ability to draw you in with precisely delineated storylines that stretched across entire series and beyond. And on the other, it was the care and craft that was invested into each and every one of their episodes.

So it’s hugely disappointing that instead of prioritising the scripts for their collaborations on Quirke, RTE and the BBC invested all their time and effort on its sets and costumes. The first of the three feature length episodes had too much plot, the second not enough. The whole thing could be summed up by that advertising slogan from a few years ago;

“we won’t make a drama out of a crisis”.

A series of incidents happened one after the other, without ever amounting to drama. Some of them Quirke managed to piece together, others he all too easily chanced upon.

The eponymous protagonist – whose name was repeated endlessly in much the same way that old school salesmen begin every single individual sentence by repeating your name at its beginning – was played by Gabriel Byrne, who was by far and away the most impressive thing about Quirke. If anything, his towering performance somewhat imbalances everybody else’s.

Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold in Entourage;  happier times.

Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold in Entourage; happier times.

But it was the clunkiness of the plotting and the predictable manner in which each of the scenes unfolded that really bogged the whole thing down. It looked great, but to absolutely no end.

Perhaps I was expecting too much. After all, the man they got to write it, Andrew Davies, is the BBC’s go to man for sanitized and securely safe versions of Jane Austen, And the chap ITV turned to for its replacement for Downtown Abbey, with the monumentally dull Mr Selfridge starring poor old Jeremy Piven, who deserves so much more. Next up, Davis is applying his middle brow metrics to War And Peace. Oh dear.

And the source material is just John Banville in mufti. I suppose really it was exactly the sort of thing one ought to have expected to find at half past nine on RTE1 of a Sunday eve. Not to much The Sopranos,  more the Onedin Line.

Quirke was little more than a slightly darker Downtown with a bit  more swearing and whiskey with an E.

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Spike Jonze’s “Her”, a Classic New Hollywood Film.

Spike Jonze's "Her".

Spike Jonze’s “Her”.

Her, the new film from Spike Jonze stars Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams and Olivia Wilde, with music by the Arcade Fire. In other words, it’s indie royalty.

Phoenix plays a creative type in an office job who falls in love with his computer’s Operating System, voiced by Johansson, in a soon to be realised future Los Angeles. Adams is his best friend, and Wilde the skin and bones human that he tries to have a physical fling with.

Scarlett Johansson in Venice.

Scarlett Johansson in Venice.

It’s a charming, slightly offbeat and visibly clever rom com that’s thoroughly enjoyable and, not withstanding a lacklustre ending, wonderfully engaging. It’s genuinely romantic and often funny. And it really is great fun. But it’s wafer thin. You’ll need to give your brain the evening off and bid it engage elsewhere.

Jonze  directed Being John Malkovich (’99) and Adaptation (’02), both of which were scripted by Charlie Kaufman, and this is his first original script after his version of Where The Wild Things Are from 2009.

Watching Her, you get that same sense of gentle disappointment after the initial thrill that you got after watching his previous films, those of Wes Anderson and the better films of Sofia Coppola, to whom Jonze was briefly married.

Joaquin Phoenix an Olivia Wilde in "Her".

Joaquin Phoenix an Olivia Wilde in “Her”.

You leave the cinema with a smile on your face. But the further you walk, the less there was to think about. And it’s hard not to think of Gertrude Stein’s famous comment on California,

There’s no there, there.

It’s like watching a brilliant firework display. You’re dazzled by the flashes of light that illuminate the darkness. But you’re immediately left starring into the blank blackness wondering what it was that you’d seen up there, and feeling slightly ashamed at being so easily impressed by something of so little substance.

Her is great fun. But that’s all it is.

You can see the trailer here.

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Nils Frahm’s note perfect new album “Spaces” Sings.

Nils Frahm's Spaces.

Nils Frahm’s Spaces.

31 year old German pianist and composer Nils Frahm has been quietly building a fan base for a few years now. His latest album, Spaces, a collection of live recordings of pieces old and new is the perfect introduction to a singular talent.

Melding Contemporary, Jazz and Classical, the obvious touch stone here is the imperious Keith Jarrett.

Jarrett is clearly evoked in Said and Done (track 3), the nearest thing Frahm has to a signature track, which originally appeared on The Bells (2009). And the vocals that drift to the surface on

Hammers (t7) is a conscious echoing of a Jarrett trope. Although the melody itself seems to be an unconscious(?) nod in the direction of the Rolling StonesPaint It Black. And Jarrett is openly acknowledged in the knowingly titled Improvisation for Coughs and Cell Phone (t6).

The imperious though somehow not African American Keith Jarrett.

The imperious though somehow not African American Keith Jarrett.

It’s not all Jarrett though. Familiar (t5) nods to Philip Glass. Whilst the hypnotic waves of Says (t2) call to mind Vangelis, who also resurfaces for the genuinely epic For – Peter – Toilet Brushes – More (t8).

Jean Michel Jarre and Michael Nyman are also obvious reference points, as the boys from Pitchfork note in their review of it here, where it gets a 7.8.  And you can read what Frahm himself has to say about his musical forebearers in the interview he did with Tristan Bath for The Quietus here – though the F word is conspicuous by its absence.

What’s so impressive about Frahm is that he transcends all of these elements to produce something that is very much his own sound. As such, he’s continuing the journey begun by Miles Davies, Thelonious Monk and Keith Jarrett before him.

You can hear Says here.

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BBC2’s “Royal Cousins At War”, a 1st WW programme that’s Actually Worth Seeing.

Royal Cousins At War.

Royal Cousins At War.

This you’ll have noticed is the centenary of what was the Great and then became the 1st. World War. So by about, oh some time around next week, you’re going to be thoroughly fed up with yet another programme marking the anniversary.

On the plus side, unlike WWII, no-one’s going to be dressing up their jingoism by pretending that it was a black and white battle between good and evil, and not just A N Other example of good old fashioned, imperialistic Empire-building.

In its stead, expect much furrowing of the brow, wringing of the hands, and carefully pained declaiming of Oh the humanity

BBC_First_World_War_centenary_logoVery unusually, this was one of the very few wars that nobody involved was keen to pursue. What this programme did so fascinatingly, was to take one element and to show how disastrously its accidents played out.

Most people will be vaguely aware of the story’s outlines, without probably knowing very many of its details. Essentially, it centres around the three cousins who would grow up to become Wilhelm II, the last Emperor of Germany, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and George V of England.

As well as untangling the complex web of intermarriages that the various European royal houses were constructed with, and the way that these provided the currents that powered the different allegiances and tensions that shaped the continent, Royal Cousins at War presented a number of monumental What Ifs.

What if Wilhelm II hadn’t had a breech birth, which left him with a withered left arm? And he hadn’t therefore been shunned by his guilt-consumed mother, but had grown up as part of a loving family, before developing into a confident, care-free and considerate monarch? Instead of rebelling against his liberal parents to become an insecure, socially awkward, reactionary bully?

Or what if his grandfather, Wilhelm I had lived to be 80 instead of 90? And his father Friedrich III, had lived for ten years longer after he succeeded him? Friedrich and his liberal wife would have had 20 years to steer the nascent Germany towards the kind of constitutional monarchy that they so admired in England.

Margaret McMillan's The War That Ended Peace.

Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace.

Indeed, his wife, Princess Victoria had been sent to Germany by her mother Queen Victoria, for precisely that end. And Queen Victoria herself was three parts German, and her adored husband entirely so. England would then have cemented its ties to its natural ally Germany, and how different the history of the 20th century might have become.

But he ruled alas for barely three months.

This last What If was voiced by Margaret MacMillan, one of the many impeccable historians who contributed to this wonderfully engaging programme. Her book The War That Ended Peace was universally praised throughout 2013 as a definitive examination of the war, and sits on my Kindle undisturbed, quietly mocking me.

Get that book, and if at all you can, watch this two part programme.

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