Russia on the BBC: part 1.

Putin Vs The West, 2023.

Nor­ma Per­cy makes the sorts of doc­u­men­tary series which shouldn’t work but some­how do. And, after the equal­ly reveal­ing Iran and the West, from 2009, and The Iraq War, from 2013, she this month presents us with Putin Vs The West, screened recent­ly on the BBC. And which is yet anoth­er extra­or­di­nary win­dow on to today’s geopo­lit­i­cal landscape.

What she does is to per­suade many, and often most, of the prin­ci­pal play­ers to sit down and talk to her about some of world’s most con­tentious trou­ble spots. And the remark­able fact is, that as soon as senior diplo­mats, civ­il ser­vants and even for­mer world lead­ers vacate their posi­tions of pow­er, they’re more than hap­py to spill the beans about the con­fi­den­tial and high lev­el con­ver­sa­tions they were only recent­ly privy to. 

Iran and the West, 2009.

Far from being bound by any sense of omer­ta, they’re all too ready to tell tales out of school. They are, it turns out, no bet­ter than the rest of us. And it makes for riv­et­ing viewing. 

The most reveal­ing of Putin Vs The West’s three remark­able episodes was the sec­ond, detail­ing the plight of Syr­ia in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. One of the first to react to the chaos that then erupt­ed was Gaddafi, who turned on the peo­ple of Libya with a vicious­ness that even they were unac­cus­tomed to. 

So the West went to Rus­sia hop­ing to per­suade them not to veto the sanc­tions they want­ed to impose on him, assum­ing that their request would be denied. But at that time, in March 2011, Medvedev was pres­i­dent and, to their sur­prise, he enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sup­port­ed the idea of sanc­tions. So long, of course, as there were no talk of regime change. Absolute­ly not, the West assured him.

So Rus­sia abstained in the UN vote, but with­out impos­ing its veto. And the sanc­tions were passed. 

The Iraq War, 2013

But Putin, who then held the junior post of prime min­ster, pub­licly chas­tised Medvedev for hav­ing fool­ish­ly tak­en the West at its word, and for not recog­nis­ing the ‘cru­sade’ the West was on to destroy them. And sure enough, two months lat­er the West declared that actu­al­ly, the only thing that would save Libya was in fact regime change. 

Medvedev was furi­ous, and Putin used the West’s betray­al of him as the cen­tral plat­form in his bid for re-elec­tion, which, the fol­low­ing year, he won in a landslide.

A year lat­er, in 2013, John Ker­ry trav­elled to Moscow in the hope of repair­ing rela­tions between East and West, so that they could join forces to do some­thing about Assad and the hell he’d been unleash­ing on the peo­ple of Syria. 

Haven’t you learnt any­thing about your ruinous efforts at regime change, they replied. Look at what hap­pened after your dis­as­trous inter­ven­tions in Libya, and in Afghanistan and Iraq before that. 

But when evi­dence sur­faced that sum­mer that Assad had begun using chem­i­cal weapons, Obama’s famous red line had been defin­i­tive­ly crossed. And Oba­ma joined forces with Hol­lande and Cameron, the French pre­mier and British PM, deter­mined to inter­vene in Syr­ia with air strikes. 

But when Cameron put mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion to the vote in Par­lia­ment, he lost. And sim­i­lar­ly, Oba­ma learnt that he would very like­ly lose a sim­i­lar vote in con­gress. So when Putin, very much to everyone’s sur­prise, offered his word that he would under­take to force Assad to sur­ren­der his chem­i­cal weapons, if the West promised to refrain from tak­ing mil­i­tary action, Oba­ma, to everyone’s amaze­ment, agreed. 

Which, obvi­ous­ly, was an extreme­ly good thing and was absolute­ly the right deci­sion. But the way it was reached was, to put it mild­ly, murky. And, polit­i­cal­ly speak­ing, it was a dis­as­ter. The West had blinked. Red lines were, clear­ly, mean­ing­less, and the West was mired in dis­uni­ty – Hol­lande felt par­tic­u­lar­ly left out in the cold. 

The Black Sea.

A year lat­er, in 2014, Isis took over swathes of Syr­ia. And the fol­low­ing year, two days after address­ing the UN assem­bly, and to everyone’s com­plete aston­ish­ment, Putin sent his air force in to bomb Syr­ia, under the guise of attack­ing Isis – which of course was exact­ly the same excuse that the West was using for doing the same thing else­where. And for the first time in decades, Russ­ian troops were deployed on for­eign soil. 

The West’s response? It decid­ed to do noth­ing. Which, again, was absolute­ly the right response. But the mes­sage that it sent out to Putin couldn’t have been clear­er. The West was weak, divid­ed and spent, and Rus­sia was back on the world stage. And in a part of the world that was vital to its strate­gic interests. 

To the north, it had gone into east­ern Ukraine in 2014, with the cru­cial access that gives it to the warm water ports in the Black Sea – and in response to which, again, the West had done noth­ing. And to the south, it now had a pres­ence in the Mediterranean.

None of which, to be absolute­ly clear, in any way excus­es what Putin has so unfor­giv­ably inflict­ed on the peo­ple of Ukraine. But it does help explain his actions, and put them in context. 

We’ve very quick to mar­vel at how blind­ly peo­ple in places like Rus­sia accept the pro­pa­gan­da they’re fed. But we rarely stop to ques­tion the pic­ture we’re being giv­en. Putin is not the insane, unpre­dictable, car­toon vil­lain we’re con­tin­u­al­ly pre­sent­ed with. He’s pur­su­ing a clear polit­i­cal strat­e­gy that has its roots in the re-uni­fi­ca­tion of Germany. 

Thir­ty years ago, the West promised Rus­sia that that re-uni­fi­ca­tion would cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly not result in any expan­sion of NATO into the east of Europe. Since when, 14 of the 15 coun­tries to the east of Ger­many have all joined NATO. All but one; Ukraine.

What this film demon­strates so well is that Russia’s attempt­ed inva­sion of Ukraine is every bit as com­pli­cat­ed as the rea­sons behind the sec­ond world war, which so many peo­ple like to com­pare it to. And is no more black and white than that was. 

Paint­ing Putin as an irra­tional lunatic is lazy and lets us off the hook. Because it fails to acknowl­edge the arro­gance that we’ve dis­played towards Rus­sia since the breakup of the Sovi­et Union. And it con­ve­nient­ly ignores the chaos we’ve inflict­ed on numer­ous oth­er coun­tries over that same time.

None of which, final­ly, should in any way be read as any kind of sup­port for those two insuf­fer­able clowns that we Irish have sent over to the Euro­pean parliament. 

And none of which will do any­thing to ease the suf­fer­ing of the poor peo­ple of Ukraine.

Watch the trail­er for Putin Vs The West here:

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Tár: a Good Film that Could Have Been So Much More


Tár is a metic­u­lous­ly craft­ed film, boasts a tow­er­ing per­for­mance from Cate Blanchett, and tack­les a seri­ous sub­ject in a care­ful­ly con­sid­ered and mea­sured way. So why does it leave the view­er qui­et­ly deflated?

Todd Field made his direc­to­r­i­al debut in 2001 with In the Bed­room, and fol­lowed that up with his adap­ta­tion of Tom Perrotta’s Lit­tle Chil­dren, in 2006, both of which are superb. 

All his films are clear­ly a con­scious riposte and anti­dote to a cul­ture that seems to have trad­ed seri­ous­ness and depth for ephemer­al triv­ia and emp­ty if imme­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion. And in each film, the lives of com­fort­able but sym­pa­thet­ic mid­dle class pro­tag­o­nists are sud­den­ly uproot­ed by exter­nal threats they’re inca­pable of comprehending.

Lydia Tár, played by Blanchett, is that rare thing, a respect­ed and suc­cess­ful con­duc­tor in the world of clas­si­cal music, who hap­pens to be gay. Though hap­pi­ly ensconced with her part­ner and their 7 year old daugh­ter, she clear­ly is or was roman­ti­cal­ly engaged with her assis­tant, Francesca, and had ear­li­er had some sort of a tryst and or rela­tion­ship with a musi­cal pro­tégée called Krista. 

Enter Olga, the new­ly arrived and much younger cel­list in the orches­tra, who Blanchett instant­ly devel­ops a crush on. Indeed, the only rea­son Olga secures her posi­tion is pre­cise­ly because of said infatuation. 

In the Bed­room, 2001

But when, and with­out giv­ing any­thing away, it’s dis­cov­ered that Krista has com­mit­ted sui­cide and has some­how impli­cat­ed Blanchett, her com­fort­able exis­tence begins to unravel. 

The prob­lem is, the film spends far too much time estab­lish­ing its clas­si­cal music cre­den­tials, and not near­ly enough explor­ing the dra­mat­ic ques­tions it rais­es. What exact­ly is Blanchett accused of doing, what does she think she did, what actu­al­ly hap­pened, and how big is the gap between the pub­lic per­cep­tion of what she’s accused of and what she actu­al­ly did?

If the film had failed to ful­ly address any of its dra­mat­ic ques­tions, and had insist­ed instead on remain­ing stead­fast­ly enig­mat­ic over the course of, say, a 90 minute film, then that might have been one thing. But Tár goes on for the guts of 2 and ¾ hours. 

And what you get instead are extend­ed dis­cus­sions of Mahler’s 5th, and the mild­ly con­tentious ques­tion around the tem­po of its adagi­et­to, and reams and reams of her jog­ging, rehears­ing and com­pos­ing. The open­ing scene in par­tic­u­lar, in which she’s inter­viewed by the New York­er’s Adam Gop­nik, goes on for ev er.

Lit­tle Chil­dren, 2006.

You’d love to have sent them away for a month with their script and a rig­or­ous script edi­tor. Or alter­na­tive­ly, to have been left alone with the fin­ished film and a pair of scis­sors in an edit­ing suite.

When it does focus on the dra­ma, as for instance with the scenes between Blanchett and Olga, or between Blanchett and her wife and daugh­ter, the film siz­zles and sparks fly. It just fails entire­ly to pro­duce any kind of sat­is­fy­ing third act.

Tár is impec­ca­bly made and impres­sive­ly seri­ous, and it’s com­fort­ably one of the best films to come out of Hol­ly­wood in years. But, dis­ap­point­ing­ly, that’s all it is. When it could and should have been so much more substantial. 

You can see the trail­er for Tár here:

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Bones and All”, “Aftersun”; teenagers times two

Bones and All.

As I came out the cin­e­ma after watch­ing Bones and All, I won­dered briefly whether that was per­haps the most instant­ly for­get­table film since what­sit­called with what­shis­name, you know, that one that was nom­i­nat­ed for all those Acad­e­my awards. And I pre­sumed that that would be the very last time that it ever crossed my mind. 

But over the few weeks that fol­lowed, to my baf­fled bewil­der­ment, a slew of star­ry-eyed review­ers lined up to loud­ly sing its prais­es. The Guardian, the Sun­day Times, the Irish Times, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent and even, if you don’t mind, the New York­er’s august Antho­ny Lane all man­aged to momen­tar­i­ly divest them­selves of their crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties to be born forth on its agri­cul­tur­al rhythms. 

raio Argen­to’s Sus­piria.

It’s like watch­ing some­body sit­ting on an inflat­able pool toy as it rests stub­born­ly motion­less on your liv­ing room floor. While they flash you an excit­ed smile, bob­bing game­ly this way and that, telling you that the water is amaz­ing, and won­der­ing why you’re not jump­ing in to join them. 

Let’s get one thing straight. Bones and All is absolute­ly not a bad film. It’s very com­pe­tent­ly made and is as inof­fen­sive as you could pos­si­bly wish for. And if you’re famil­iar with Guadagni­no’s films, you’ll not be sur­prised by what you’re being pre­sent­ed with.

As with his point­less remake of Dario Argen­to’s tow­er­ing Sus­piria (reviewed ear­li­er here), where he neutered any sense of beau­ty to focus instead on pro­duc­ing an accu­rate­ly researched repro­duc­tion of drea­ry, drab, dull, grey 1970s Ger­many, here he con­cen­trates care­ful­ly on recre­at­ing grim, grimey rust-belt, mid­dle Amer­i­ca, cir­ca 1989. 

It’s com­mend­ably con­vinc­ing, but utter­ly devoid of any­thing approx­i­mat­ing dra­ma, and is entire­ly free of tension. 

Obvi­ous­ly, if you’re a teenag­er, con­fi­dent in the cer­tain­ty that you have all the time in the world, then the prospect of watch­ing two attrac­tive would-be teenagers gaze lov­ing­ly into one another’s eyes, as they amble aim­less­ly across the plains of Amer­i­ca from one trail­er trash dive to the next, will quite pos­si­bly strike you as time well spent. 

But for any chick­en for whom spring is, alas, a now dis­tant mem­o­ry, you’ll be left qui­et­ly seething at hav­ing fruit­less­ly wast­ed more than two gold­en hours on glo­ri­fied Wallpaper.


After­sun is about a teenag­er, but is very much a film for grown-ups. And is in fact one of the films of the year, and com­fort­ably so. As such, it’s the ide­al palette-cleanser for Bones and All.

I’ll say very lit­tle about the plot. Indeed, there’s lit­tle to say about it. It’s slow, mea­sured, appar­ent­ly lan­guid, and yet there’s a ten­sion that qui­et­ly and then omi­nous­ly builds. 

Paul Mescal is the bare­ly thir­ty some­thing year old father of an 11 year old daugh­ter, played by the daz­zling new­com­er Frankie Corio. And he’s tak­en her to a resort in Turkey to spend some qual­i­ty time togeth­er, now that he and her moth­er have separated. 

Metic­u­lous­ly paced, pre­cise­ly shot and care­ful­ly con­sid­ered, its shoe­string bud­get is vis­i­bly but fleet­ing­ly. Oth­er than which, it’s con­scious­ly cin­e­mat­ic in a way that few films any more both­er to be. Writ­ten and direct­ed by first time Scot­tish film mak­er Char­lotte Wells, it’s the most con­fi­dent and impres­sive fea­ture debut for many a moon.

You can see the trail­er for After­sun here:

And the trail­er for Bones and All here.

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Triangle of Sadness’ — Gallic shrug emoji

Tri­an­gle of Sadness

Tri­an­gle of Sad­ness won Swedish direc­tor Ruben Östlund his sec­ond Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly won in 2017 with The Square. So I was slight­ly per­plexed by the reviews it gar­nered when it was released, which seemed to sug­gest that they’d enjoyed the film, but had remained qui­et­ly under­whelmed by it. 

Sure­ly a clas­sic art house film either daz­zles and bewitch­es, or leaves you shak­ing your head in utter bewil­der­ment at what all the fuss had been about — vide Par­a­site, reviewed here. And yet.

The prob­lem with the film is, in a word, its obvi­ous­ness. It’s not just that its plot is lift­ed from, amongst oth­ers, an episode of The Simp­sons. A group of upstand­ing cit­i­zens get strand­ed on a desert island, and their social hier­ar­chy is turned on its head. Nor even the fact that it takes Östlund the guts of 2 ½ hours to do what The Simp­sons did in 24 min­utes. It’s the fact that the film is sup­posed to be a social satire. 

O Lucky Man!

The tar­gets you’d expect an art house film to be satiris­ing are the sorts of peo­ple who go to, or make, award-win­ing art house films like this. Hence, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (’60), Lind­say Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (’73) and Bunuel’s The Dis­creet Charm of the Bour­geoisie (’72). Tri­an­gle of Sad­ness aims its poi­soned darts at the fash­ion world, and the 0.1% who fund it.

The prob­lem with Östlund goes back to and stems from the suc­cess he enjoyed with his third fea­ture, and his break out film, Force Majeure, from 2014. Which was won­der­ful­ly unset­tling, and looked and felt for all the world like quin­tes­sen­tial art house fodder. 

But it’s obvi­ous from The Square, which was some­thing of a mess, and now this, that Östlund is one of those very com­pe­tent but con­ven­tion­al Hol­ly­wood film mak­ers, who just hap­pens to be work­ing in Europe. In much the same way that the likes of Alan Park­er and Jim Sheri­dan used to do in the past. 

Bunuel’s The Dis­creet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Which is absolute­ly fine. But what it means is that how you respond to Tri­an­gle of Sad­ness will depend on the type of film you’re hop­ing for. If you’re look­ing for a lush, plush and com­plete­ly unchal­leng­ing com­pan­ion piece to The Dev­il Wears Pra­da, that’s beau­ti­ful­ly shot, impec­ca­bly act­ed and whol­ly pre­dictable, then you’re in for a treat. 

But if a duel win­ner of the Palme d’Or cre­ates expec­ta­tions of gen­uine sub­stance, I’m afraid you’re going to be as under­whelmed by its longueurs and as per­plexed by its suc­cess as the rest of us.

You can see the trail­er for Tri­an­gle of Sad­ness here.

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Gilla Band’s new album, Most Normal

Gilla Band, Most Nor­mal

After the tour around their sec­ond album, The Talkies, was put on hia­tus because of the pan­dem­ic, Girl Band found them­selves with less to do and a more than usu­al amount of time to think. 

And they decid­ed that, rather than wait to be picked up by the gen­der police and hauled in front of the court of pub­lic opin­ion, they’d change their name from Girl to Gilla Band. Dis­cre­tion being the bet­ter part of val­our. So this, Most Nor­mal, is the third album from what is now the Gilla Band

Gilla were part of a trio of bands to come out of Dublin in the lat­ter half of the 2010s, the oth­er two being Fontaines D.C. and The Mur­der Cap­i­tal – though the lat­ter are flavoured as much by the Riv­er Lee as they are by the Liffey. 

Each pro­duced a vis­cer­al, indus­tri­alised squall to gut­tur­al lyrics that were declaimed rather than sung, angri­ly decry­ing despair and urban alien­ation. Mur­der Cap­i­tal and Fontaines found imme­di­ate, overnight suc­cess, the for­mer to a man­age­able degree, the lat­ter stratos­pher­i­cal­ly so. But Gilla Band seemed some­how to have got left behind. 

Fontaines D.C. enjoy­ing their success.

First, after being signed to Rough Trade and then releas­ing their first album, Hold­ing Hands With Jamie, in 2015, the band were forced to take their first hia­tus. As their lead singer, Dara Kiely, focused, quite cor­rect­ly, on the men­tal health issues that were threat­en­ing to over­whelm him.

Then, when they even­tu­al­ly got back togeth­er again to release their very good sec­ond album, The Talkies, in 2019, Covid once again put them on hold. But this, it turns out, was a bless­ing in dis­guise. Because it sent them back into the stu­dio, and the result­ing album, Most Nor­mal, is a sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward again. And is in fact one of the most excit­ing albums of the year.

The album’s strength come from two quar­ters. First, instead of only pro­duc­ing music that can be played live, they focused instead on using every­thing at their dis­pos­al in the stu­dio to pro­duce the noise they were look­ing for. The result is a sound that’s even more unnerv­ing, and some­how even loud­er and more grat­ing than the one pro­duced on their pre­vi­ous pair of albums. As dis­tor­tion gets processed to pro­duce an even more per­ilous assault on the ears.

What it sounds like at times is that part of the sound­track on a David Lynch film where the sounds are so dis­tort­ed and dis­so­nant, and what you hear is so unset­tling, that you avert your eyes in fear of what’s about to happen.

As to what the album address­es, if the pro­tag­o­nists from CamusThe Stranger or Sartre’s Nau­sea were cat­a­pult­ed into the 21st cen­tu­ry and locked inside a record­ing stu­dio, this is very prob­a­bly what the result­ing album would sound like. 

The Mur­der Capital.

And sec­ond, and as facile as this undoubt­ed­ly is, it’s impos­si­ble not to con­clude that the suc­cess enjoyed by Fontaines and the Mur­der Cap­i­tal has knocked the edges off the songs that they’re now producing. 

Where­as the absence of that suc­cess has ensured that Gilla Band con­tin­ue to be and to sound as angry about being over­looked and ignored by the world they find them­selves in as they were five and six years ago. Not the music busi­ness world, the world in gen­er­al. The real world.

It’s the sound of jump leads, one thrust into a brain, the oth­er into the gut. And as such, it’s glo­ri­ous­ly unmediated. 

The boys from Pitch­fork give it an impressed 8.4 here, and cor­rect­ly point to The Weirds as the stand­out track.

You can see the video for Back­wash, the lead sin­gle, below. Just don’t expect it to chart any time soon.

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