Archives for March 2014

BBC4’s “The Walshes” is Mesmerically Unfunny, But Don’t Worry, it’s British.

Irelands' Richard Harris...

Ireland’s Richard Harris…

For many years the best and brightest from Ireland enjoyed dual citizenship in Britain. So, after his performance in say This Sporting Life, or A Man Called Horse, Richard Harris was referred to in the press there as “British”.

But when the following week he was arrested after yet another drunken brawl in a seedy pub, he was described by the same august organs as Irish.

Decades were spent gnashing teeth and crying into innumerable pints cursing perfidious Albion for its cultural rape and pillage.

But times have changed. Money, Sky Sports and Ryanair have all contributed to a change in our attitude to our friends across the way. And we’ve mostly managed to shed the chip that had weighed so heavily on our shoulders.

Indeed, recently we’ve been returning the compliment. So Daniel Day Lewis is plainly Irish. And The Walshes, like Mrs. Brown’s Boys before it, is clearly British. It has nothing to do with us. Seriously.

The Walshes, as the fella said, shit on a stick without the stick.

The Walshes, as the fella said; shit on a stick without the stick.

On the face of it, it’s made up of exactly the same ingredients as Father Ted. Stock characters in contrived scenarios behaving in an all too predictable way. One cliché after another.  But the characters – and therefore the performances – in Father Ted were all really appealing. And it was this that made their situations comic. None of the characters in The Walshes are remotely attractive, and many of them are vaguely unpleasant.

There was a split second, after a scene in which the da sits chuckling at an episode of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, when I wondered if I’d got it all wrong. Maybe it’s meant to be this unfunny. Perhaps this is the most brilliantly subversive sitcom ever made. And they’ve ruthlessly wrung anything that could in any way be considered comic, never mind an actual joke, from every single scene, to brilliantly deconstruct the very notion of what we understand by the term “sitcom”.

The plainly Irish Daniel D in the underrated The Age Of Innocence.

The plainly Irish Daniel D in the underrated The Age Of Innocence.

But there’s no getting away from how visibly pleased everyone involved is with what they’ve created, and how funny they all seem to find it. You can almost hear the guffaws emanating from the set. Which is to put it mildly baffling.

Still, not to worry. Like I say, it has nothing to with us. BBC production. It’s British through and through.

Unless of course… It’s all part of a brilliantly executed post modern joke. What do you think?

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Not Even Scarlett Johansson Can Inject Life into “Under The Skin”.

The pulchritudinous Scarlett Johansson.

The pulchritudinous Scarlett Johansson.

Under The Skin has divided critics straight down the middle, with some declaiming it a masterpiece, and others tearing their hair out. Which is odd. As it’s pants. Neither remotely interesting nor in any way offensive.

It’s perfectly stylish, and competently shot, as you’d expect from an accomplished commercials and music video director. And Scarlett Johansson is as talented as she is alluringly voluptuous, so the whole thing is significantly more engaging than it has any right to be. But once again we find ourselves back with Gertrude Stein’s famous comment on California; there’s no there, there.

All you get are a number of scenes that a beautiful alien drifts in and out off that suggest any number of possible narratives.

Nicole Kidman was similarly wasted in "Birth" ('04).

Nicole Kidman was similarly wasted in “Birth” (’04).

When you’re making commercials or, especially music videos, presenting archetypes and suggesting narratives is wonderfully evocative and endlessly appealing, as his video for Radiohead’s Street Spirit (Fade Out) ably demonstrates here.

But when you’re telling a full story over 90 minutes or more, merely suggesting a number of possible narratives that involve archetypes drawn with big, bold brushstrokes becomes boring, tedious and eventually irritating. As Ben Wheatley showed in A Field In England, reviewed earlier here.

This is Glazer’s third feature, after the disappointingly conventional, bog standard mockney gangster flick Sexy Beast in 2000, and the icy Birth in 2004. As with the latter, Glazer once again pens the script. And as Michel Gondry and so many others have demonstrated, if you want to graduate from commercials to feature films, you really have to hook yourself up with a proper screenwriter. You need someone to give a body on which to hang your pretty clothes.

So how do you account for some of the stellar reviews Under The Skin has got? What are we to make of what Donald Clarke, one of, in fact the only film critic worth reading in Ireland, had to say in the Irish Times here?

Godard declaimed here in his 1967 film' "the critic is as close to the artist as the historian is to the man of action". Godard of course began as a critic on the Cahiers du Cinema.

Godard declaimed here in his 1967 film’ “the critic is as close to the artist as the historian is to the man of action“. Godard of course began as a critic on the Cahiers du Cinema.

Well, film critics watch films under very specific circumstances. They go to at least 3 or 4 screenings a week, for free obviously, and in the process they inevitably become pally with the distributors, and often the actors and film makers themselves.

So on the one hand they are much more blasé about the films they see, and on the other they try to find something nice to say about them. The few reliable film critics, and Clarke is one, spend a great deal of time and effort guarding against this. But I respectfully suggest  he’ll be a tad embarrassed about this review in years to come. If at all he ever thinks about it.

For most people, watching a film involves a ritual and a pleasurable amount of time and effort. Whether that means getting up and going out to the cinema, getting your hands on a dvd or going to the trouble of downloading it. That investment of time and effort deserves to be rewarded. And anyone that invests 3 or 4 hours of their life in getting to and then watching Under The Skin is going to be thoroughly irritated. And somewhat surprised.

You can see the trailer for Under The Skin here.

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The 5 Worst “Director’s Cut” Films.

Beatrice Dalle in Betty Blue.

Beatrice Dalle in Betty Blue.

There are two ways that a Director’s Cut gets released. Either the director and the studio fall out, and they each release a different version of the film, as with Cimino and Heaven’s Gate in 1981. Or alternatively, a director returns to a film to un-do the changes that were forced upon him at the time, which is what happened to Lawrence of Arabia (’62), when David Lean went back to it in 1989.

For those of us who chose a film based on who has directed it, a Director’s Cut ought to be a godsend. And yet remarkably, and with the honourable exception of Lawrence of Arabia, so far they have all been worse than their originals. Here are the 5 worst offenders:

5 Blade Runner.

Looking at the all too conventional films Ridley Scott has made since, it’s pretty obvious that Blade Runner became a cult classic despite rather than because of its director. And none of the slight changes that Scott made to the many alternative edits are an improvement on the version released by the studio.

On the contrary, both the voice over and the so say “happy” ending that they  insisted on are perfectly in keeping with its noir feel.

4. Nuovo Cinema Paradiso

When Tornatore complained that he’d been forced to edit down his remarkable debut, we all of us wondered how on earth his new director’s cut would improve on the original version we’d all been so charmed by. Well it didn’t.

The Producer’s cut was leaner, sharper, and significantly better paced. And a proper director oughtn’t to have needed his producer to deliver it. Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, nothing Tornatore has done since has lived up to that early promise.

Nastassja Kinski and Gerard Depardieu in The Moon InThe Gutter.

Nastassja Kinski and Gerard Depardieu in The Moon InThe Gutter.

3. Betty Blue

So explosive and compelling are the opening 20 minutes or so of this, that you try to ignore the fact that as it progresses, the film comes increasingly to sag.

Secretly though you wonder whether perhaps the film’s palpable appeal might be down to the chemistry and sparks produced by the two fiery leads. The Director’s cut alas, answers that.

Beineix’ casting is impeccable, as it was in Diva and the underrated The Moon In The Gutter. And all three of those films look fantastic. But as the longer version of Betty Blue shows, Beineix has alas no feel for drama. And he too has sadly if all too predictably faded from view.

2. The Abyss

It’s not hard to see what happened here, when you’ve watched the two versions of The Abyss side by side. Originally intended as a dreary special effects vehicle, the project was clearly hijacked by the two leads who turned it instead into a charming love story.

The “special” version, as James Cameron called his Director’s cut, mercilessly takes whatever charm the original cut had and clubs it unceremoniously to death. And never again would a couple of pesky actors be allowed inject a sense of humanity into one of his projects. From that point on, all of his films would be “special”.

Steven Bach's magisterial Final Cut.

Steven Bach’s magisterial Final Cut.

1. Heaven’s Gate

One of the myths surrounding Heaven’s Gate is that it ran aground because Cimino was forced to release the truncated version. As a matter of fact, they’re equally awful. It’s just that one of them is awful for a lot less of your time.

There’s stuff everywhere. Props and costumes and noise and sound effects and music and noise and dialogue, really, really bad dialogue, and noise and just about anything you could care to mention, except anything approximating a believable story. Or any character made of anything other than cardboard, and constructed using more than the one single dimension.

It does have one saving grace though. It led to Steven Bach writing his magisterial Final Cut here, one of the best, and one of the most beautifully written books on modern cinema. 

If anyone can think of a Director’s Cut that was an improvement on its original, I’d love to hear about it.

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Hew Strachan’s “The 1st World War” on BBC4 is Unmissable.

Hew Strachan's 1st. World War on BBC4.

Hew Strachan’s 1st. World War on BBC4.

The 1st. World War is a ten part series that was first broadcast on Channel 4 in 2003 and in currently being reshown on BBC4. Produced and narrated by Jonathan Lewis and based on Hew Strachan’s universally admired 2001 book, this is quite simply the definitive series on the war.

On the one hand, and unlike so many contemporary programmes, it’s based entirely around one man’s views on the topic. So instead of bolstering its polemic with the views of various other academics, or worse, feigning impartiality by presenting a so say balanced view, what you have instead is a good old fashioned, God’s eye view that fans of John Grierson and the BBC of old will be familiar with.

The balance of power in Europe in 1914.

The balance of power in Europe in 1914.

And on the other, it tells its clear and wonderfully concise narrative through a combination of the letters that the individual soldiers sent back home to England, Germany, Russia, Japan and Africa, with rare archive footage, and easy to follow graphics that walk us through the peaks and troughs of the various campaigns.

So episode 3 for instance (last week’s episode) explained how what had begun as a regional power struggle quickly escalated into a global war.

Germany had encouraged its ally Austria to take revenge on Serbia for the assassination of its Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June of 1914. Serbia was allied with Russia, and Russia had signed a treaty with the French. When then the Germans attacked France via Belgium, they gave Britain the excuse it needed to weigh in, as the British were the guarantors on Belgian neutrality.

The Battle of the Falklands in December 1914 where the British finally caught up with the brilliant Maxamilian von Spee.

The Battle of the Falklands in December 1914 where the British finally caught up with the brilliant Maxamilian von Spee.

Thus Britain, France and Russia were drawn up against Germany and the Austro Hungarian Empire, and inevitably the Ottoman Empire to the East was soon involved. So  Germany decided to distract the British, French and Russians by threatening their interests in the far flung reaches of the globe in the hope of diverting their resources from the Western front. And a succession of campaigns were conducted by rogue German military mavericks in China, the Americas and on the coasts of Africa. In this way, a European conflict became a genuinely global one.

Impressively, the programme managed to maintain a delicate balance between telling a gripping story of the struggle for power between competing global empires, and the effect that that struggle had on the lives of ordinary Africans and Asians who were thoughtlessly used as their fodder.

Maxamilian con Spee and his two sons eventually went down with their crew at the Battle of the Falklands.

Von Spee and his two sons eventually went down with their crew at the Battle of the Falklands.

This obviously is entirely dependent on the reliability of your guide. Happily, Strachan is as authoritative a pair of eyes as you could wish for. The book which the series is based on was originally commissioned by the Oxford University Press and is the first part of what is planned as a trilogy. You can read Robert McCrum’s review of it in the Observer here, which was just one of a slew of stellar reviews it got.

The book on which the series is based.

The book on which the series is based.

Refreshingly, and in stark contrast to either Sir Max Hastings or Niall Ferguson, both of whom had programmes on the BBC last week, and both of whom wear their biases as a badge of pride, whatever Strachan’s personal prejudices are on the War, he keeps them firmly in check. And what he produces instead is the definitive overview of the events that shaped the 20th century.

The 1st World War is a combination of all the very best that the medium of television is capable of. And don’t worry if you’ve missed the first few episodes. Each individual programme is themed and is designed to stand alone. You can catch up with it on Tuesdays on BBC4.

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