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 Davis, 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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