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?

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music.

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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right of bel­low, and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I’ll keep you post­ed on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!