Catch 22, perfectly pretty candyfloss.

Catch 22.

Catch 22 is the new George Clooney project and the latest attempt to transfer Joseph Heller’s acclaimed novel to the screen. Like the Handmaid’s Tale, it’s a co-production between Hulu and Paramount and is clearly an attempt to replicate that show’s success. 

Unfortunately, it’s precisely when compared to something like the Handmaid’s Tale (reviewed by me earlier here) that the core problem with Catch 22 becomes obvious.

Margaret Atwood’s futuristic depiction of a dystopian society, which she published in 1985, was rendered terrifyingly prescient after the election of you know who, in 2016. In contrast, Heller’s novel, which he published in 1961, clearly comes from another century.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

For thousands of years, the world was divided into two groups; peasants, and the aristocracy. But the turn of the twentieth century ushered in an age of meritocracy. And in this world, you were either an ordinary (and still probably manual) worker, or, you were part of a tiny elite, and one of the very few who had an actual career. 

This latter group was made up of doctors, lawyers, bank managers and anyone lucky enough to be part of the government, the church or the army. These people were unimpeachably honest, trusted and universally revered. 

Hugh Laurie in Catch 22.

So, if you wanted to know if, say, the harvest was likely to be delayed this year, or whether or not the great powers were going to go to war, you would ask one of these august gentlemen (they were all men of course). And whatever they told you, you would take as writ. And you would then plan for the rest of your year accordingly. 

So when Heller’s novel came out in ’61, his depiction of the army was thrillingly subversive and genuinely satirical. The officers in this army were every bit as venal, petty, dim-witted, thin-skinned and self-centred as the ordinary privates forced to carry out their orders and to service their every whim.

Orson Welles in Mike Nichol’s Catch 22.

But by the time Mike Nichols released his film of the novel, a mere nine years later, in 1970, that world had been turned on its head. The sixties had rendered pillars of society, figures of authority and all institutions, especially the army, hopelessly suspicious. 

Now, half a century later, the idea that the army, and of all things, the American army, might once have been respected and even revered, rather than the object of ridicule, seems almost literally unimaginable. 

So when the latest Catch 22 depicts a scene in which an army private on the make tries to sell a truck load of clandestinely acquired tomatoes to his superior, it doesn’t read like a caustic critique of universal values subverted by the pursuit of person profit, and the sacrifice of ideals at the altar to capitalism. It just looks like a young guy selling a slightly older guy a few crates of tomatoes. 

George Clooney in Catch 22.

It all looks sumptuous, and the acting is uniformly superb. And, as wonderful as it is to see Giancarlo Giannini given something grown-up to do, against the backdrop of a pristine and Acadian southern Italy, it lacks any real substance. As Gertrude Stein said so memorably of California, “there’s no there, there “.

You can see the trailer to Catch 22 here

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The Handmaid’s Tale: the future of television.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

In the first decade of the new millennium the music industry was destroyed, felled in a single strike by Napster. Suddenly, indeed overnight, every song that had ever been recorded was freely available over the internet.

Traditional media was a thing of the past, and any day now, television, newspapers, magazines and all of those other relics of the twentieth century would likewise be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Napster himself, Sean Parker.

But as we move into the third decade of the new century, newspapers and magazines are still around, TV is thriving and even the music industry is actually doing rather nicely, albeit in a diminished form.

There are two perspectives on the digital revolution. One says that the future is digital, and everything else is doomed to go the way of vinyl. The other slightly more nuanced view goes as follows; we all have a certain amount of money that we enjoy spending on stuff. All the digital revolution does is to change the way that we distribute whatever that sum is, by adding a new outlet to channel those funds into.

So if you had a certain amount of money that you looked forward to spending on cds in any given year, the fact that any album you might be interested in is now freely available on the internet will very probably mean that you now spend little or none of that cash on actual cds.

The handmaids.

You’ll still spend that money on the music industry though. It’ll just be on going to gigs, on downloads or on merchandise, say on a rare, deluxe cd boxset, or on a vinyl edition of an original recording.

Indeed, what all the research shows is that you’ll very probably spend more than you used to now, whether that be on music, film, television or publishing. As the internet creates further synergies for all of the other mediums, in much the same way that television, and then video and cable did for cinema, in the 50s, 70s and 80s. Having access, in other words, to all that free music just makes you want to spend even more of your money on music than you used to, before everything was available for free.

Amazon’s Seattle bookstore.

The same thing has happened in publishing. When ebooks began to take off about ten years ago, the death of the printed book was confidently predicted and was, more over, a matter of days and weeks.

But ten years on, ebooks have plateaued and been superseded by audio books. Neither of which, we now realise, are going to replace the printed word. Rather, ebooks and audio books are an added source of revenue for a rejuvenated publishing industry. And it’s not just the industry that’s bouncing back. Independent book stores are experiencing a mini renaissance as well. Indeed, the big bad wolf itself, Amazon, has started opening up its own bricks and mortar, actual physical books stores.

Most obviously of all, television is alive and well and booming. Which isn’t to say that the digital effect has been negligible. Far from it, digital has completely disrupted every conceivable corner of the media landscape. So that the way that we now watch, read and listen to films, television, music, the radio, books, newspapers and magazines has been completely transformed. It’s just that none of them are about to disappear any time soon.

Apple’s view of the future.

If you want to see what the future of television is, all you have to do is look at screen size. Mobiles want to be smart phones, smart phones want to be laptops, laptops want to be desktops, desktops want to be TVs and TVs want to be cinemascope. Everything is getting bigger, not smaller. And all content is following suit, and is trying perpetually to move in the same direction. How many TV stars do you know that dream of one day being on the internet?

Try watching the Handmaid’s Tale and see how you feel. Of course you could watch it on your laptop, or even on your mobile. But as you do so, you’ll have this increasing itch to see it on a proper screen and with a grown-up sound system. So you can really luxuriate in the tactile sound of an old fashioned fountain pen, as it scrawls and scrapes its italic script clumsily across the fibres of an actual piece of old fashioned paper. And you can pick

out with pleasing clarity the dusky book covers as the Commander runs his finger lovingly over their corners, as he appears from the depths of the shadows to gaze greedily on his mahogany bookcase.

Elizabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes square off.

And the people who make the best television, and the television being made at the moment is some of the best that’s ever been made, the Handmaid’s Tale being a case in point, feel exactly the same way about making their programmes as we do about watching them.

Nobody’s going to choose to watch something on a laptop if given the choice of seeing it on a 32 inch television. And no-one’s going to be satisfied with watching it on that 32 inch screen if offered the chance to see it on a 55 inch one. Television’s not dead. On the contrary, it’s getting bigger and bigger.

You can see the trailer of the Handmaid’s Tale here.

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Habaneros, BBC doc on the Cuban revolution.

Havaneros – You Say You Want a Revolution.

Habaneros, the BBC’s brilliant new documentary charting the history of Cuba, completes an unlikely comeback for Julian Temple, one time enfant terrible of British cinema.

Temple shot to fame in 1980, when he documented the rapid rise and demise of the Sex Pistols in The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. In it, Malcolm McLaren cleverly presents himself as the evil Svengali pulling all the strings, and the brains, therefore, behind the band’s success.

On the back of which, Temple was handed the reigns on Absolute Beginners in 1985, which duly became the most expensive film ever made in Britain, and which was supposed to have established Goldcrest as a rival for the big Hollywood studios across the pond.

Absolute Beginners.

Instead of which, the film bombed, the quote studio unquote crashed – aided by the disaster that was the Al Pacino vehicle Revolution – and Temple departed with his tail between his legs in the general direction of the Hollywood hills.

One of the peculiarities of the film industry is that it is always better to have made something, anything, however vacuous, than to have more prudently done nothing at all. So once there, they gave him more money to make his second feature, the instantly forgettable Earth Girls Are Easy, from ‘88. He spent the next decade making equally forgettable if impressively expensive music videos for big name artists like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Kinks and David Bowie.

The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.

But his unlikely comeback began in 2000 with The Filth and the Fury, his well-received Pistols doc which went someway to correcting the biases of his earlier venture. While in 2015, he made the Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, one of the many, many impeccable Storyville docs that BBC4 has been producing over the last decade (reviewed earlier here). And now this, once again under the auspices of the BBC, this magisterial doc charting the history of Cuba over the past hundred years or so.

The first half of Habaneros charts the history of Cuba in the run up to the revolution in ’59. The repeated interference of the US throughout the first half of the century, which eventually produced the Batista revolution in 1933. But he quickly proved himself to be every bit as corrupt as the regime he’d revolted against, and he and his acolytes bled the island dry before retiring to Florida in ’44. But he returned once more in ’52 when he was re-installed as a US puppet – imagine that, a US backed military coup to overthrow a democratically elected foreign government. Well there’s a first.

Havaneros.

But in ‘56, the exiled Fidel Castro sailed back to the island with 81 troops, only to be immediately ambushed on landing. Just the 12 of them survived, fleeing in desperation for the hills of the Sierra Maestra, with the sum total of seven rifles between them. But in what must surely be the most unlikely successful revolution ever embarked upon, just three years later he and Che Guevara marched triumphantly into Havana on News Year’s Day of 1959, having taken control of the entire island.

This first half of the film is undoubtedly the more lively of the two, as Temple brilliantly mixes media, telling the breathless story of the lead up to the revolution through a montage of carefully chosen interviews, archive footage and animation, on to which he superimposes newspaper and magazine pages that comment on the visuals and voice over underneath.

The second half then follows the history of the island in the wake of that revolution, from the Bay of Pigs, to the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war and the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc in the‘90s, which resulted in their sole source of funding disappearing into the ether.

Viva la revolucion!

As scrupulously fair as you’d expect from one of the many projects overseen by the peerless Alan Yentob, the second half is inevitably less exciting than the pre-revolutionary fervour that precedes it. As on the one hand, the revolution continues to be celebrated by some, who rightly point to the heroic resistance that the island has maintained against the avaricious interference and oafish grandstanding of its bullying neighbour to the West. And on the other, there are all those who lament how inevitably disappointing that revolution proved to be for the lives that so many of the islanders were forced to live.

It’s a brilliant film, intoxicatingly so in its first half, and everyone involved, especially Temple, should take a very deep bow.

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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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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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