You Were Never Really Here, a new film from Lynne Ramsay.

You Were Never Really Here.

Lynne Ramsay is one of the few, genuinely exciting film makers working anywhere in the world, and You Were Never Really Here is her latest offering.

She arrived on the scene with Ratcatcher in 1999, which covers exactly the sort of terrain you’d expect from a first film, but in an unexpected and impressively enigmatic way. Next up was Morvern Callar, from 2002, which comfortably confirmed all of the promise that had been hinted at in her debut.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Mundane events, in what appears to be a conventional genre film, are presented in an off-kilter and distinctly left of field manner. And everything is transformed by her insistence on fully exploring the cinematic language and grammar at her disposal. So that sound is used every bit as expressively as the visual elements, and pace is as pregnant with meaning as any of the sparse if carefully considered lines of dialogue.

We Need To Talk About Kevin came next, in 2011. Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s contentious novel was as viscerally disturbing as the source material demanded, and was one of the stand-out films of that year. So is this, her fourth.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here.

You Were Never Really Here centres around Joaquin Phoenix as one of those nebulous, violent fixers prepared to do the sorts of things that well brought up, middle class people wouldn’t dream of doing themselves, but which they are perfectly happy to pay others to do for them. When a high level politician’s 12 year old daughter is abducted and enslaved, Phoenix is dispatched to recover her.

Over the course of the film, we move back and forth between the sinister events of the present day thriller, and the equally dark episodes from his past. The abuse he suffered as a child, and his experiences as a soldier in whichever one of the US wars he was sent over to pointlessly partake in.

Boorman’s Point Blank.

You Were Never Really Here could have been, indeed is essentially, a genre piece. But what might have been little more than a conventional thriller is elevated into something significantly more substantial thanks to Ramsay’s very distinctive stamp. So that the sort of violence which ordinarily washes over us so easily is rendered shocking and even surprising because of the stylised way in which it is presented.

Rarely is anything shown in an expected manner, as key events take place off screen but are heard, loudly, or are seen at one remove, on the CCTV in the corner of a corridor. While Johnny Greenwood’s score, though sparingly used, further adds to the heightened sense of dislocation and the constant sense of threat.

Morvern Callar.

All the performances are pitch perfect and Phoenix is exceptional, but the real star of the show is Ramsay who delivers infinitely more in 90 minutes than just about any other film maker around manages to do in twice that time. And, although there are clear shades of John Boorman’s Point Blank, particularly in its dissonant, staccato editing, and of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in its themes, this is a triumphantly original piece. She might not yet have produced that definitive masterpiece, but Ramsay’s first four films, and particularly the last three, herald the arrival of a gloriously distinctive and impressively original cinematic voice.

You can see the trailer to You Were Never Really Here here.

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Ready Player One, the new Spielberg film. Yawn.

Ready Player One.

So Ready Player One, the New Seven Spielberg film, is a formulaic, painfully predictable pastiche of the genuinely cinematic. So what? What should we expect from the latest Hollywood blockbuster?

For what it’s worth, the story revolves around a Steve Jobs type tech wizard and his creation of the Oasis. This is the virtual reality video game world where everyone in the universe, that is to say in America, escapes to in the year 2045. By then, we will have so thoroughly trashed the actual world that life will only be bearable in the virtual one accessible through our ubiquitous screens.

Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Before his death, this latter day Willy Wonka announces that he has hidden three keys within the world of the game, and whomsoever retrieves them shall be bequeathed his entire fortune and, more importantly, the world of Oasis.

And so our teenage orphan-hero teams up with a motley crew of juvenile waifs and strays in a race to retrieve the three keys before the evil rival corporation gets their hands on them first. And, much more importantly, to win the love and respect of the inventor father figure, who continues to live on in the world of the game.

It’s not hard to see what they were trying to do here. A few decades ago, Hollywood film makers looked at the way merchandising was threatening the world of film making, and they chose to address it head on by making Toy Story, one of the best trio of films that Hollywood has ever produced. And so, watching today as all of those dollars disappear into the abyss that is the gaming world, they’ve tried to make a Hollywood film about, and addressed to, gamers.

Toy Story.

Bizarrely though, they’ve drowned it all in a sea of cultural references from the 70s and 80s. Not one or two sly nods to Back to The Future and Atari. It’s a never-ending barrage of increasingly tedious and, worse, poorly chosen references. So they’ve produced a film aimed at the under 30s which will only appeal to the 40s, and, much more likely, the 50s, 60s, and overs. There’s one especially cringe-inducing scene in a virtual club that’s the cinematic equivalent of seeing your uncle trying to breakdance to Bon Jovi at your cousin’s wedding.

The fact that this is the new Spielberg film shouldn’t, I suppose, surprise us. After all, it’s a long, long time since he made Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1975 and ’81. His only film of note in the last 30 years or so was Catch Me If You Can and the first hour and a half of Minority Report, both in 2002. And let’s not even mention the execrable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Catch Me if You Can.

No, what’s so disappointing about Ready Player One is its look and feel. It’s so thin and flimsy, so undifferentiated and inconsequential, so cheap looking and just so, well, digital. A digital screen can be wonderfully engaging in the privacy of your own space. But up on the vast expanse of the silver screen it gets lost, and is reduced to being horribly flat and lifeless.

Very unwisely, Spielberg references Stanley Kubrick (reviewed earlier here), his cinematic hero and father figure, in one of the key scenes. But all this does is to remind us of why it is that real film makers go to such trouble to source actual locations, proper period furniture, tactile costumes and physical trinkets.

Barry Lyndon.

So with a film like Barry Lyndon, and not withstanding its many, many flaws, it still has a magnificent physicality and a tangible solidity to it, because of the manual process through which the images were put together. In contrast, when you know that the edge of the cliff that your hero might be about to drive over is merely made up of pixels, you couldn’t care less.

But much more to the point, and most obviously of all, who wants to watch a video game you’re not allowed to actually play? Imagine peering over someone’s shoulder, and being told you have to stand there and watch as they spend two and half hours playing a game that you’re never going to get a turn on. Who the hell was the Hollywood genius who agreed to green light that idea?

You can see the trailer for Ready Player One here.

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What’s happened to RTE’s Other Voices?

St. James church in Dingle, co. Kerry.

What’s going on with the once great Other Voices? The first episode in this the 16th season began exactly as you would have expected, with BBC Radio 1 dj Annie Mac delivering an intro promising music from the likes of Perfume Genius (reviewed earlier here) and Django Django, with reports and footage from festivals in Berlin, Belfast and at the Electric Picnic.

The usual heady mix then of left of field, broadly indie fare mixed with the best in Irish music, and all set against the picture postcard-perfect backdrop of a church in Dingle. But that intro, it transpired, was for the series, not for the episode at hand which was considerably less auspicious.

Ibeyi, from Paris via Cuba.

First up were Picture This, who hail from Athy. If you’ve ever passed through Athy, you’ll know that at its centre sits Shaws, the drapers where every local mother brings her son and daughter to get fitted out for their first holy communion, conformation and debs. And which famously ran an ad declaring, gloriously, “Shaws, almost nationwide!” Which is all the more delightful in its refusal of the obviously correct “nearly nationwide”.

Had it been penned by a beard in Williamsburg it would quite rightly have been hailed as a brilliantly biting deconstruction of what advertising copy is supposed to do. Let’s just assume that’s exactly what was intended by whoever came up with it here. Well, Picture This sound exactly what you’d expect a band from Athy to sound like.

Wyvern Lingo.

Next up were a couple of numbers from Sigrid, an oh so earnest Swedish would-be teen queen whose dreary synth pop is obviously going down a storm with the pre-tweens, and who was clearly as surprised to find herself on stage singing as we were to see here performing on it. No doubt she’ll have a host of hilarious stories to tell her class mates once she goes back to college to finish her degree in architecture or interior design, before settling down to bring up her kids.

After the break we had a couple of songs from Wyvern Lingo, a genuinely compelling trio from Bray who set their mellifluous melodies to glitchy indietronica, very much in the mode of Sylvan Esso – who themselves are made up of one part of Mountain Man, who Wyvern Lingo were compared to when they started out.

Katie Kim performs at the RTE Choice Music Prize 2016, by Kieran Frost

After that, we were given a haunting performance from singer songwriter Maria Kelly, and it looked as if the programme was back on track. But immediately after that it was up to Belfast, and who did they find to record there? Only Picture This. And, sure enough, after Belfast it was back to Dingle we were treated to no fewer than four further tracks from Athy’s finest, and another three from Sigrid, the very much not Stina Nordenstam.

So three quarters of the programme was devoted to a pair of young-fogey, pub-rockers from the midlands, and the least threatening Swedish chanteuse you’ll ever hear.

There’s nothing wrong with devoting three quarters of your programme to just two acts, so long as the acts in question merit that attention. If the focus had been on, say, Katie Kim (reviewed here), Lisa Hannigan, Brigid Mae Power or Rejji Snow from these shores, or, from further afield, on the likes of Cigarettes After Sex, Ibeyi (reviewed here) or Car Seat Headrest (reviewed here). Or, most obviously of all, if they’d turned the show on its head, and given three quarters of it to Wyvern Lingo and Maria Kelly, and just the 20 minutes to Picture This and Sigrid.

Car Seat Headrest’s brilliant Teens of Denial.

There’s nothing wrong with Picture This, but their debut album went to number 1 here (and there’s a prize of a Curly Wurly and a sherbet dip for anyone who can correctly guess what they called it), and there are any number of outlets where they play that sort MOR music wall to wall, night and day. The whole point about Other Voices is that the music it gives voice to is supposed to be precisely that, other.

Here’s the video for Wyvern Lingo’s Out of My Hands and the video for I Love You, Sadie also from Wyvern Lingo.

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Buster Keaton’s magisterial “The General”.

Buster Keaton, a force of nature.

Orson Welles said of Buster Keaton, that he was “one of the most beautiful people who was ever photographed”. And he said that Keaton’s signature film The General, from 1926, wasn’t just Hollywood’s greatest comedy, but the best film that was ever produced there. “It really deserves that tired word, masterpiece.”

Keaton grew up as part of a family vaudeville act and he made his way inevitably to New York in 1917, where he teamed up with Fatty Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios – sticking by the latter, both publicly and financially, after his spectacular and unmerited fall from grace.

Buster Keaton’s The General.

By 1920, he’d married one of the Talmadge daughters and had moved out to Hollywood where he set up and ran his own, independent film studio. There, he produced a succession of spectacularly successful shorts, including the justly renown The Playhouse, in which he plays all of the dozen and more characters who people the first ten minutes or so – although beautiful he might have been in a suit, but I’m afraid he very much failed to cut it when trying to sport a dress.

By the middle of the decade, his ambitions had expanded and he moved into fully fledged features, which eventually produced The General. At the time, it was the most expensive film that had ever been made, but tragically it flopped, and he was forced to close down his studio, losing his much cherished independence in the process. And at exactly the same time, Al Jonson could suddenly be heard in cinemas throughout America, as over night the arrival of the talkies rendered the silent era redundant.

6 Keatons look and listen on, as Keaton conducts in The Playhouse.

Predictably, his wife Natalie left him, taking all his money and both his sons – generously forcing them to change their surname – and, following in his father’s footsteps, he slipped into alcoholism and increasing anonymity. But, after briefly marrying and divorcing a nurse at the institution he’d been confined to, he met and married his third wife, Eleanor in 1940.

At 22, she was literally half his age and neither of their friends held out any hope for the union. Remarkably, it lasted for over a quarter of a century, and she can largely be credited with helping him to turn his life around.

Beckett’s Film, starring Buster Keaton.

There was a second act of sorts, in television and with cameos in the likes of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As well of course as in Beckett’s only foray into the medium, Film of 1965. And he seems to have borne it all, once he got over his alcoholism, with remarkable equanimity. But there’s no getting away from it, his talents were criminally overlooked in the course of his own life. And it’s really only now that people have come to fully appreciate the scale of his genius.

In a way, it’s not hard to see why The General perplexed those initial viewers. It doesn’t have the same madcap mayhem of those earlier shorts, and is a far more measured, mature and sophisticated a piece. It still has any number of those jaw-dropping feats of physical daring that so thrilled audiences then. As a matter of fact, it’s probably we who fail to fully appreciate the physicality of his film making, so used are we now to just assuming that everything we see on a screen must obviously have been doctored and massaged.

Evidently, a man’s man.

Have a look at this 5 minute clip here, and then have a look at it again. There are no special effects or stunt doubles, and the only trick photography he ever uses is the sort of sleight of hand that is self-evidently a trick. Like the time he appears on stage in The Playhouse playing all 9 members of the chorus line, as well as each of the members of the orchestra below. Other than which, everything you see him do, physically, he really does actually do.

That he was the greatest physical actor of the 20th century is without question. What he shows in The General is that, beyond that, he had an astonishing gift for depth and subtlety and a God like sense of timing. Never has the great stone face been put to more impressive if impassive use, and the performance he conjures up in between literally death defying stunts of Archimedian precision is a sight to behold.

He was quite simply an irrepressible force of nature. So the next time you have 78 minutes to spare, watch The General which you can see here.

 

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BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s secret sleeper star

BoJack Horseman.

Season 4 of BoJack Horseman aired on Netflix this past autumn, and if you’ve yet to be pointed in its very particular direction you’re in for a treat. It’s the latest in the long line of animated, adult dramedies that stretches back to South Park (reviewed earlier here), King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead and of course the Simpsons.

Ensconced in his hilltop, penthouse apartment in the mythical LA suburb of Hollywoo, BoJack is a washed-up hasbeen who used to the star of the squeaky-clean sitcom Horsin’ Around, who spends his days in a drug-fuelled, alcoholic haze of privileged self-pity.

Diane, Todd and BoJack.

The show’s stiletto humour stems from two sources. On the one hand, it’s a gloriously acerbic picking apart of the media landscape as the worlds of film, television and publishing are gleefully trashed. Brilliantly barbed one liners are fired back and forth with sarcastic brio, in the way that was supposed to have been done in the, whisper it, disappointingly overrated His Girl Friday.

And on the other, half of the characters are, by the bye, animals. So Bojack is in fact an actual horse. But his stoner houseguest Todd is a 20 something guy, and Diane, his soulmate and ghost writer is a 20 something girl. She though is married to BoJack’s best frenemy Mr. Peanutbutter, who’s a golden Labrador. And his agent Princess Caroline is a cat, who later hooks up with a wealthy mouse, heir to the Stilton Hotel fortune. What all this allows for is some fantastically laboured puns and slapstick, together with a plethora of ridiculously elaborate setups that eventually produce wonderfully silly pay-offs.

The main man, Raphael Bob-Waksberg.

All of which would be enjoyable enough. But what really elevates the series is the emotional depth and complexity that they manage to reap from the soapy storylines that they hang all this on. They do this, as Emily Nussbaum writes in her piece in the New Yorker here, by expanding the show’s horizons from season 2 on, by giving each of the protagonists their own storylines, instead of just focusing on BoJack, as they do in season 1. So you end up being as invested in Todd, Diane, Princess Caroline and even Mr Peanuttbutter, as you do in BoJack.

The result is both the funniest, and the most engaging show currently being aired anywhere on television. And it’s hard not to conclude that its showrunner and chief writer Raphael Bob Waksberg is some sort of a latter day Dorothy Parker. If you’ve yet to sample its delights, then by all means begin at the beginning, with season 1. But be warned, it gets significantly better from season 2 on.

You can see the trailer for season 4 of BoJack Horseman here. And here’s a 10 minute compilation of some of the funniest bits from season 2 here.

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