Apparently, the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad — ideally naked and purring on the hood of a new car. I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honour. Currently accepting in my absence is my German doppelganger. While the court can’t make me active in radio, I am asking it to make me radioactive to advertisers. — Tom Waits
Browsing twitter, I noticed Chris Brooke posted a link to an interview with a Tory MP in which he reveals that U2 is his favourite band.
Now I happen to really like U2. It’s difficult perhaps to separate them from their stratospheric success (and Bono’s messianic shenanigans) and appreciate them musically. But just because Achtung Baby and Zooropa sold a kajillion copies doesn’t stop them being two of the most sonically interesting records of the 90s. As with The White Album… sometimes the stars align and what is popular achieves harmony with what is Truly Great. The albums just before and just after Achtung Baby and Zooropa had wonderful moments, but (and this not a popular opinion among my more musically discerning friends) those two were perfect slices of musical Greatness.
Crucially though, what they are not is political. There’s veiled social commentary here and there, but it’s mostly love songs, songs of regret, songs of personal loss and a whole bunch of Irish Catholicism. All played out across an Eno-produced soundscape of rock, electronica and complex polyrhythms. It’s what Can would have sounded like if they’d formed in 1989 and had an ego-maniacal philanthropist from Dublin as a lead singer.
As I say though, it’s not political music and they are not – in general – a political band. Sure, no band goes 30 years without doing some political stuff, but overall that’s not what they’re about, and an appreciation for U2’s music is no indication of political leanings (unlike say, Billy Bragg… if you say you’re a big Billy Bragg fan there’s a better than evens chance you’re left wing). Meanwhile, I doubt there’s a great many left wing Ted Nugent fans.
So it does not surprise me that a Tory MP would be a U2 fan. No more than it would surprise me that a Tory MP might be a big fan of Miles Davis.
What I did find surprising about Sajid Javid MP’s interview, however, was his claim that his favourite film is It’s A Wonderful Life. Because that film is overtly political. It’s a film that is vitriolic about the effects of capitalism on community life. Sure, sure, some see it as an ode to a simpler, kinder capitalism (a golden age that never existed) but that’s hogwash – Master’s degree in Critical Theory and Film Studies be damned! – it’s as close to a socialist manifesto as mainstream American cinema is ever likely to achieve.
And if that last scene where the whole town gathers together and pools their money to help out a down-on-his-luck neighbour is too subtle a metaphor for the average Tory MP; the film even has a character who clearly and unequivocally represents the capitalist establishment… represents Toryism. So how difficult must it be to list It’s A Wonderful Life as your favourite film when it chooses to depict you as Henry Potter?
I finally got around to watching Takeshis’, the first of Takeshi Kitano’s anti-mainstream trilogy (and I do mean anti-mainstream as opposed to merely non-mainstream… there’s a whole bunch of deliberate subversion and outright mocking of mainstream movie tropes going on). The story goes, that after his mainstream international success with Zatoichi, Kitano became disillusioned and frustrated with himself. He’d become too safe. Too predictable, in his own eyes. And while I personally thoroughly enjoyed Zatoichi, it’s definitely a million miles from the existential meditations of Dolls, Hana-bi or even the earlier Sonatine.
And so, he set out to make a trilogy of films that would quite deliberately alienate the wider audience he’d garnered via his samurai action movie. Films that abandoned all notions of traditional narrative; that made no concessions to accessibility… instead placing a priority on artistic integrity. He would gather up all that existential angst, dream-logic and plain weirdness that passes through his mind as he’s lying in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness; and he’d dump it onto the screen with no explanation.
Take that mainstream audiences!
The result is mesmerising and more than a little startling. Certainly not a film for anyone who needs such trifles as “plot” or “sense” to hold their hand for an hour and a half while they watch a screen. At the heart of the film are two characters, both played by Takeshi Kitano. The first is “Beat Takeshi”, a successful actor and film-maker who specialises in gangster / yakuza movies. The second is “Mr. Kitano”, a convenience store clerk and failed actor who spends his days daydreaming about living the life of his idol – Beat Takeshi – when he’s not being rejected at auditions.
Early in the film, there’s a chance meeting between the two Takeshis and Beat Takeshi signs an autograph for Mr. Kitano. Afterwards, we watch as Mr. Kitano walks home to his small apartment above a mechanic’s shop and falls asleep. From then on, the viewer never knows whether the scene they are watching is a dream being had by one of the two Takeshis, or a convenience store clerk’s fantasy of being a successful actor, or a successful film-maker wondering what it would be like to live the life of a failed actor. Or indeed, a successful film-maker imagining what the fantasies of a failed actor about being a successful film-maker would be like. It’s no surprise that the original title of the film was Fractals.
Characters from the director’s previous films show up in incongruous situations and it definitely helps the viewer if they’re familiar with Takeshi Kitano’s past work. There’s a huge amount of self-referentiality in the movie… scenes from previous films (most notably Sonatine and Hana-bi, but pretty much every movie he’s done gets a look in) are revisited in unexpected ways, with characters crossing over from one to the other. Indeed whole sections of Takeshis’ appear to be deliberate “self-iconoclasm”, with some of the most haunting and affecting scenes he’s ever shot being savagely undercut and turned into absurd parodies – most notably the final beach scene from Hana-bi (in my view, one of the most beautiful scenes in the history of cinema) is suddenly transformed into a bizarre action-film caricature with Kitano machine-gunning a whole range of characters from his past films (along with about 500 riot police).
There’s a great deal of wit in Takeshis’ and while it only made me laugh out loud a couple of times, I spent much of the film with a wry smile on my face. As with all of his films the humour veers from the ridiculously slapstick to the almost-too-cerebral, with plenty in between. And as ever, music plays a large role. Traditional Japanese folk music cuts brutally into high-tempo electronica and back again. Also, the tap-dancing interlude goes on for quite a bit longer than you’d expect.
It’s like a very weird remix of his past films, and at no point have you any idea who or what you’ll be seeing next on the screen. Personally I absolutely loved it and am looking forward to watching Glory to the Filmmaker! (the second film in the trilogy). But I suspect plenty of people who see Takeshis’ will hate it, and no small percentage will fail to reach the end. But for fans of the obscure, the odd and the original, Takeshis’ provides an absolute feast for the senses. And the imagination.
A few days ago in my review of 2011, I mentioned that one of the films of last year I wanted to see – but hadn’t – was The Guard. Well last night I rectified that situation. And I’m truly glad that I did, because it’s easily one of the best films of last year… indeed it’s easily one of the best films of the last few years.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh and starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, the basic plot involves an FBI Agent (Cheadle) assigned to the West of Ireland and teaming up with a local cop (Brendan Gleeson) to investigate a massive drug-smuggling operation. On the surface – and indeed based on the publicity surrounding the film – you get the impression it’ll probably be a gentle, whimsical buddy-cop comedy. You could almost write the thing yourself… backwards Connemara guard annoys big city agent with his slow, rural ways and naive casual racism before demonstrating the quaint wisdom of those ways and foiling the smugglers. Ultimately of course, both rural cop and big city agent learn something from one another.
Because I’m such a massive fan of Gleeson, I still wanted to see The Guard despite the concern that it would be an underwhelming cliché of a film. The trailer only makes the vaguest of hints that, actually, that’s most certainly not the movie we’re talking about…
In fact, it’s a glorious subversion of that lazy archetype. This is nicely conveyed by the very first scene which concludes with Gleeson’s guard, at the scene of a fatal car wreck, dropping a hit of acid and intoning, “what a beautiful fucking day”. It was at that moment I realised I was in for something far less conventional than I’d expected. The Guard does a good job of resisting the temptation to romanticise The West beyond recognition and is most definitely set in modern Ireland as opposed to that timeless Hollywood Ireland that plagues many films. At the same time, it doesn’t shy away from presenting the viewer with the stark beauty of Connemara. The financial crisis, thankfully, hasn’t messed up the scenery.
The screen chemistry between Cheadle and Gleeson is an absolute joy, though it’s very much Gleeson’s film. He discusses Russian literature and amyl nitrate with his dying mother, spins wild yarns about his exploits as an Olympic athlete, cavorts with prostitutes, has a casual chat with the local IRA man (a cameo by the excellent Pat Shortt) and drinks pretty much constantly. And all the while he delights in winding up the FBI man… “Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, those men are armed and dangerous and you being an FBI agent, you’re more used to shooting unarmed women and children”.
On top of the excellent performances by all involved however, the film elevates itself above the run-of-the-mill fare I’d been expecting, thanks to the wonderful script and plot. I’d never encountered the work of John Michael McDonagh before (in fact, aside from being the writer of a 2003 remake of Ned Kelly, which I never saw, this is his first foray into feature films… we can expect good things from this man). But his regular confounding of my expectations throughout the film was very welcome indeed. I shan’t elaborate and risk spoiling them, but events do not transpire as they normally would in this kind of film. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece of avant-garde film-making, radically redefining the very notions of narrative. Far from it. I’m just saying that so far as mainstream film-making goes, there are quite a few surprises along the way. And sadly, that’s unusual these days.
If I have one concern it’s that I’m not sure whether some of the humour, which at turns is both dry and broad, might not go over the heads of non-Irish viewers… Gleeson’s Galway accent is good for a Dublin man, though it’s not so thick as to be incomprehensible… but the cultural references which would give a chuckle to most of us here in Ireland might not translate (such as the line about going undercover with the mob and “having to go down to Limerick for that sort of excitement”). But I don’t think there’s too many of them; certainly not enough to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the film; and ultimately I can offer an unconditional recommendation for The Guard. It’s funny, surprising, well-written and wonderfully acted. It has plenty of charm without being twee and while it’s not “a feel good” movie, it definitely leaves you feeling good. If you know what I mean.
Greetings dear reader, and welcome to 2012. I hope your journey through 2011 wasn’t too arduous and you managed to avoid the worst of the nastiness it contained. It wasn’t all nasty of course. Far from it. But the continuing financial crisis certainly made it feel that way at times. Incidentally, I’m trying to come up with a better phrase than “financial crisis” with which to label the ongoing state of affairs. Something that better encapsulates the wholesale transfer of public wealth into the coffers of a small number of private corporations and institutions currently being sanctioned by our governments. Because despite the political sloganeering that claims “we’re all in this together” and speaks of “sharing the pain”, an examination of the facts would suggest that the “financial crisis” isn’t actually happening to the powerful or wealthy. In fact, with a few exceptions, they seem to be doing rather well out of it.
Perhaps “the return to feudalism” might be a better label than “the financial crisis”? It conveys both the huge increase in inequality that’s underway. along with the complete loss of democratic accountability. Though perhaps it’s a little abstract for the general public. After all, we’re talking about populations who consume reality television in massive doses while electing right wing governments without exception. And yes, even those populations who elect nominally “centre left” governments are in fact electing right wing governments; the centre has shifted so far to the right that even the leftist fringes have given up talking about large-scale nationalisation and content themselves with demanding relatively minor changes to the taxation regime and slightly stricter regulation of the financial sector. Don’t get me wrong… that’s better than the status quo but it’s not exactly the million miles from the status quo that we should be moving with all haste.
Anyway, enough of that for now. I have a new post brewing on the subject of Ireland withdrawing from the euro in which I’ll be discussing the return to feudalism (nah, it doesn’t trip easily enough off the tongue… I welcome suggestions for a better label) in greater depth. For now, sit back and enjoy a brief round-up of the highlights – from my perspective – of 2011. There were a few hidden among the carnage.
From a purely personal standpoint, I continued to share my life with a wonderful woman. The lovely Citizen S remains the best thing in my world and I can’t thank her enough for putting up with my many foibles. I also became an uncle and godfather for the first time, which was groovy. Financially things could have been better (hint: job offers welcome!) but we didn’t go hungry, had a roof over our heads and managed to pay the bills. We even had a little left over to visit Serbia a couple of times, have a short break in Kerry and generally enjoy life. So whatever else might have happened in 2011, here in the Bliss household, it didn’t suck.
Sporting highlights of 2011
With each passing year I find myself becoming more and more intrigued by sporting events. I’m not sure if this is a symptom of growing old or just that I’ve found myself spending more time with sports fans and gaining an appreciation through them. Either way, I was delighted when Dublin won the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final for the first time since 1995, in what even the losing fans agreed was one of the most exciting matches in living memory. As fine an advertisement for amateur sports as you’re likely to see. The image to the right shows the moment – deep into stoppage time – that Dublin goalkeeper, Stephen Cluxton, kicked the winning point. Truly a “leap into the air whooping” moment if ever there was one. Apologies to readers from Kerry, but despite your loss I’m sure you’ll agree it was a wonderful match, objectively speaking.
Elsewhere in sport, Ireland had a somewhat disappointing tournament in the rugby world cup in what was probably the last chance for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ to win the competition. It’s a shame really… players as supremely talented as Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and the rest were good enough to have retired with a World Cup Winner’s Medal around their necks; they just never managed to find their best performances when it really mattered. However, our soccer team managed to qualify for the European Championships next year, the first time we’ve qualified for a major tournament in over a decade, which almost makes up for the unjust manner in which we missed out on the 2010 World Cup (I don’t think the Irish nation has yet forgiven Thierry Henry).
In golf, Irishmen (albeit Northern Irishmen) had the world at their feet. Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke each won one of the four Major Championships. The previous year, Graeme McDowell also won a Major. And that came only a couple of years after Dublin man, Padraig Harrington, won three Majors in two years. Lately we’ve been punching above our weight for a small island. Long may it continue.
Last year I also followed tennis for the first time. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic became world number one and had one of the game’s greatest years ever, completely dominating the sport by winning three of the Grand Slam tournaments and a whole bunch of other competitions. All of this on the back of leading Serbia to its first ever Davis Cup win. Oh how we cheered in the Bliss household.
Also Tottenham Hotspur, the only premiership team worth watching, have had a wonderful 2011. So that’s nice.
Musical highlights of 2011
I wish I could say that 2011 saw lots of great new albums, films and TV shows. But it didn’t. I got into Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea in a big way in 2011, but that was actually released in 2010 so doesn’t really count I suppose. Still, get hold of it if you’ve not already as it’s really rather good. I seem to be a year behind with Eno and have yet to get hold of his 2011 album, Drums Between The Bells, but from past experience, I suspect I’ll enjoy it when I do.
The two albums released in 2011 that I have got hold of (though only very recently) and which I heartily recommend are Uf! by the astonishingly wonderful Serbian band, Disciplin a Kitschme and In Love With Oblivion by Crystal Stilts. The Crystal Stilts album continues their Joy Division meets Jesus and Mary Chain vibe, though this time it seems to be passed through a late-60s psychedelia filter rather than the Americana of the first album… there are definitely shades of The Doors and The Velvet Underground hidden within the fuzzy guitars and echoing vocals, though with the occasional return to their earlier sound as on the excellent Alien Rivers. Best track (in my view) is the album closer, Prometheus at Large. An altogether wonderful noise.
Perhaps even more wonderful is the driving bass and drums of Disciplin a Kitschme. The new album is probably the most commercial thing they’ve done, but don’t let that worry you, they are still a long long way from the mainstream. The excellent single, Ako ti je glasno… (“If it’s loud…”) is about as mainstream as they get. It’s a grinding four minute kickass tune, cut down from the nine minute heaviness of the album version, which kicks off Uf! and heralds the onset of a really great record. One I’ll be listening to for many years to come and – from my perspective – the best release of 2011. Despite digging the band’s vocals, my personal favourite tracks – though it’s genuinely difficult to pick – would probably be the two long instrumentals; Nimulid Rok and the weird Manitu VI which veers perilously close to jazz and has a didgeridoo, yet still manages to sound awesome. For some reason, those YouTube uploads truncate the tracks, which should be nearly 6 and 10 minutes respectively.
Ako ti je glasno…
Aside from that, there was little that really grabbed me musically in 2011. The X-Factor continued to chip away at the collective soul of humanity while Adele, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z continued to sell records by the pallet-load. Clearly lots of people enjoy that stuff, but it doesn’t float my boat. In fact, it actively threatens to torpedo my boat and machine-gun any survivors who make it to the life-rafts. Bastards!
Movie highlights of 2011
I have to admit, I didn’t see many of 2011’s crop of new movies. I saw a few of the blockbuster releases, not one of which impressed me very much. I’m not sure whether big budget spectaculars have gotten worse in the past few years, or whether I’ve just become jaded (I’d like to think it’s the former, because I’ve always loved the whole roller-coaster-ride aspect of Hollywood spectaculars and would hate to think I’ve lost that sense of childlike wonder when it comes to shiny things moving at high speed and then exploding). So whether it was Thor or X-Men: First Class or the frankly risible Super-8 (an ET / Godzilla mash-up might sound great at 2am after some fine skunk, but it’s the kind of idea that should really be forgotten the next morning) there was a lot of “being underwhelmed” going on. Slightly better were Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau, both of which suffered from the same problem… a fantastic first half hour followed by an increasingly frustrating descent into nonsense and cliché. In particular I was annoyed by Limitless which – like Inception the previous year – took a glorious premise and completely squandered it.
Another notch up the ladder were Unknown and Battle: Los Angeles. Unknown did the same thing as the previous two films, but took longer to become crap, so at least the viewer has a good thriller for more than an hour before realising it’s going to end badly. Battle: Los Angeles, on the other hand, never promises more than it can deliver, even though it doesn’t promise much. A bunch of stereotypical Hollywood soldiers fight a running gun battle with technologically advanced aliens on the streets of Los Angeles. For two hours. Exciting while it’s directly in front of you and instantly forgettable. But at least it doesn’t leave you with a sense of wasted potential.
Much much better was the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost science fiction road movie, Paul. The critics may have dismissed it as lightweight, but frankly I consider any film that can have me laughing from start to finish a more than worthy accomplishment. It’s easily one of the best comedies of the past few years and just because comedies tend not to win awards doesn’t actually make them any less important. I highly recommend Paul to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. If you’re not a science fiction fan you will miss quite a few of the references, but I suspect you’ll still find plenty to laugh at.
About as far from Paul as it’s possible to get was the excellent The Sunset Limited which slipped under the radar somewhat but was no worse for it. Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones discuss religion and faith in a small room for an hour and a half. That’s pretty much it. It’s based on a Cormac McCarthy play and kept me rivetted to the screen for the duration despite the simple premise and basic setting. Just as Limitless provides an object-lesson in the damage that can be wreaked by bad writers, so The Sunset Limited demonstrates the power of good writing.
There are several of 2011’s most talked-about movies that I’ve yet to get around to seeing, so I completely accept that it may have been a far better year – filmically speaking – than I’m currently aware of. I’m really looking forward to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I thought the original film was excellent and usually hate American remakes of European films… but, well, it’s David Fincher isn’t it?) I also suspect I’ll enjoy John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (starring Brendan Gleeson), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and low-budget British science-fiction flick, Attack The Block when I get around to them.
Television highlights of 2011
As regular readers will know, I have a very high opinion of good television programmes. I think TV can be just as good as cinema, and – culturally speaking – more important. But only when done properly. Unfortunately it’s almost never done properly and the number of shows that make the grade, in my view, is absolutely tiny. As with every year, 2011 contained a couple of flashes of brilliance amidst an ocean of pure shit. 99% of television is soul-destroying and it’s very difficult to justify the existence of the medium even by pointing to the good bits. But 2011 did have the occasional good bit.
Probably the best thing broadcast last year was the glorious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon dialogue, The Trip. From start to finish it was pure excellence and veered from the sublime to the pleasantly ridiculous without ever feeling forced. I enjoyed every moment of The Trip and will definitely be rewatching it before too long. Part of me hopes they make more, but part of me sees it as a perfect little gem that could be sullied by trying to stretch the idea any further.
As far from The Trip as The Sunset Limited is from Paul was the epic Game of Thrones. This HBO spectacular is based on a series of swords’n’sorcery novels that I’ve not read, but I was nevertheless engrossed by the twisty plot, the sumptuous production values, the fine scripting and the wonderful characters. I’m looking forward to Season 2, though I’m a little concerned that they may not be able to sustain the sense of dread that hovers over the whole affair.
I was going to include the amazing BBC update of Conan Doyle, Sherlock until I realised it was actually broadcast in 2010… where the hell has the time gone!? So instead I’ll just remind you all what a great show it is and point out that the second season has just begun (Sunday nights, BBC1 and on iPlayer if you can access it). Best thing on TV right now.
Beyond that, 2011 didn’t have anything new to offer, televisually. I’m told The Killing was rather good but I missed it. New seasons of old shows were either as good as ever (Breaking Bad and Community) or a bit of a disappointment (Bored to Death… still better than 99% of what’s out there, but failing to scale the dizzy heights of the first two seasons). Black Mirror was apparently fantastic, but I’ve yet to see it – though I intend to.
So yeah, not a great year for TV. But it never is, sadly.
Literary highlights of 2011
Errr… I’m well behind on my reading, so I can’t really do a decent “best books of 2011″ bit. William Gibson’s Zero History was wonderful, but was published at the end of 2010 so doesn’t count. The same is true of Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game which was enjoyable though not quite as good as his previous chilling novel, The Execution Channel which was a brilliant dissection of The War Against Terror and the sinister places it might lead us.
In fact, I’m struggling to think of a single book published in 2011 that I’ve read. I would say that’s terrible, but it’s simply a function of the size of the “book queue” I have to get through. Unless something very very special comes out (a new one by Pynchon perhaps) books tend not to skip the queue. So I suspect I’ll get around to 2011’s crop of new ones early in 2013. So many books, not enough time. However, I will list a random selection of other books I read last year and which I’d recommend (the first five that pop into my head). None of which were published in 2011.
Well, I don’t want to stray too much into politics or economics in this entry as they tend to be the subject of most of my posts and I’d like to keep this one a little bit lighter. Still, there are a few things worth mentioning, but I’ll keep it brief. Firstly – and most obviously – we had the overthrow of despots in a few countries in North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia and Libya). This is unquestionably a good thing, but I still feel it’ll be a while before we know the full ramifications of the Arab revolutions. Let us hope for a better future for the people of those countries… they’re not there yet.
In Ireland the General Election demonstrated that the population really doesn’t know what’s good for it, but at least we elected Michael D. Higgins as President. Yes, it’s a largely ceremonial position and no, he wasn’t my first choice. But the fact that we didn’t elect Seán Gallagher – as it looked as though we might – means that the nation isn’t entirely off its head.
I guess the fact that the global economy didn’t completely implode can be seen as a bit of a highlight of 2011. Personally I’m hoping for a more gradual, orderly powerdown than the total collapse that threatens to occur thanks to the criminally irresponsible actions of those in power. But we shall see.
There were no major new wars, things didn’t get dramatically worse in the already war-torn and famine-struck regions of the world (even if they didn’t get substantially better) and nobody nuked anybody. All of which shouldn’t be considered highlights, but in these troubled times we’ll take what we can get.
And so there we have it. 2011 has done its worst and we’re still standing. There were high points as well as the much-publicised low ones. And overall, I’m damn glad I lived to see it all and look forward to saying the same in 12 months time. I’m often confused by how terrible the world can seem, because pretty much all the people I know personally are kind, decent, thoughtful and just want to make the world a better place. I guess it boils down to that line from Nietzsche, Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. All the same, maybe if the kind, decent, thoughtful folks raise their voices a little louder this year, we might just drag the rest of the world to a better place. Have a wondrous 2012, dear reader.
Christopher Nolan’s new film had me intrigued the moment I heard about it. After the runaway success of his big-budget comic book caper, The Dark Knight, it felt like he’d been given a blank cheque and told to let his imagination run wild. What could the writer and director of the excellent Memento do when given a blockbuster-sized palette to paint on?
Now, personally I was far less impressed by The Dark Knight than most people seem to have been. By trying to force comic book characters into the real world, it fell uncomfortably between two stools. It went to such effort to depict a gritty and believable world, yet was littered with obvious fantastical elements that just didn’t gel properly with the setting. It’s perfectly acceptable for Superman to don a pair of glasses and become Clark Kent, unrecognisable even to those closest to him. It’s acceptable because we know this is a comic book and we expect to suspend our disbelief on such matters. But when the film-makers seem to be suggesting that Gotham City is a fictional place but one that plays by the rules of the real world, then Batman’s disguise (a mask that fails to cover most of his face and a silly voice) just becomes a hole in the plot.
That said, it was visually impressive. Undeniably so. Despite the partial retreat from comic book sensibility, it remained stylish and sumptuous. Shades of David Fincher. And it was this that made me so interested in Inception. The constraints you must accept in order to get your hands on a major studio franchise put serious limitations on a film-maker’s creativity (as Kevin Smith explains in this wonderful anecdote about working on a draft script for Superman). So given how amazing Memento is, I was more than willing to credit Nolan with the good parts of The Dark Knight and absolve him of responsibility for the bad.
Which is why Inception held so much promise. Suddenly Nolan had the big budget and the creative control. Plus Leonardo Di Caprio plays the lead character; an actor whose recent work with Scorsese has been excellent. And then I heard the majority of the film was set inside the dreams of a character and my anticipation turned to genuine excitement.
But, as you’ve probably guessed from my tone, I was setting myself — or rather, the movie — up for a fall. The basic story is a good one… di Caprio plays a spy who, with a combination of training and technology, can enter the dreams of others (and bring a team of accomplices with him). While in the dream, he can subtly direct the attention of the dreamer and so access their memories and unconscious. He uses this ability to steal top secret information for high-paying clients. Then, one day, he gets a different request… to enter someone’s dream and plant an idea that will blossom into conscious action once the dreamer awakes. Specifically, Cillian Murphy — who has just inherited his father’s industrial empire — must be convinced to break up that empire.
Frankly that’s a fantastic plot and it could definitely make a great book or movie.
Unfortunately, it’s never going to be a great movie in the big-guns-shiny-metal / Hollywood action blockbuster genre. Having a shed-load of money to throw at a film set in dreams could have resulted in something utterly spectacular. Instead we have car-chases through mundane streets, fist-fights in hotel rooms, gun battles in the snow; all of which go on for far longer than they need to. That there are three separate sequences occurring at three different levels of the same dream is a good plot device. That they are three rather clichéd action scenes is a terrible waste. Especially since none of them seemed in any way dream-like, with only the shift between them illustrating that they’re part of the same dream.
And ultimately this is my main criticism of the film. It’s great failing. The dream sequences that take up the majority of the film are almost never evocative of real dreams. There’s an occasional Escher-influenced staircase, a couple of set-pieces where the environment shifts in unpredictable ways and one or two other optical illusions that provide pleasing little jolts, but almost nothing is authentically dreamlike.
Dreams are the product of a collision between our conscious and our unconscious minds. But despite plenty of talk about it, Inception never truly accesses the unconscious. Everything feels solid and rational even when the characters insist it’s not. The interminable fight scenes are no different to the fight scenes in any action movie. A train suddenly appears out of nowhere during a car-chase, but you don’t think “oooh… just like in a dream!”. Because it’s not just like in a dream.
Yes, the bit when di Caprio’s character finally gets to “the bottom level” of the dream gets vaguely interesting, but it only lasts for a few brief minutes (unlike the constant fist-fights).
In the end I emerged from the cinema feeling distinctly underwhelmed. I’ve subsequently read reviews that complained that the plot got too convoluted, which — frankly — was the precise opposite of my impression. The plot took a glorious premise, one that could have become a brain-bending, visually magnificent masterpiece and instead played it dreadfully safe, offering up an action movie with a minor twist. Which is sad, because I know there was the seed of a great film in there, and based on Memento I suspect Christopher Nolan could have made it.
Last week I was lucky enough to get free tickets to a preview screening of American: The Bill Hicks Story. I’ve been a huge fan of Bill Hicks since the early 1990s. To my eternal regret, I discovered him about two weeks after his last gig in the UK. I remember first watching a video of Relentless* — the Montreal show that paved the way for his international success — and realising immediately that almost all stand-up comedy I’d encountered ’til that point had been complete shit.
At the time I was fascinated by the idea of rockstar-as-shaman; the jester figure who nonetheless holds the power to effect real change… shifting consciousness and perspective. And by extension, culture and politics. I saw Bill Hicks doing the same thing in a different medium. The least mediated of all ‘the media’, in fact. People were showing up, and paying, just to hear him talk. And not always simply because he made them laugh… some at least, wanted to listen to him proselytize. To hear what he had to say.
And I was one of them. When his comedy veered too far into polemic he’d joke about being “at the wrong meeting”, but I always wanted to know where that other meeting was. And could I go? Even now, sixteen years after his death, a new film about Bill Hicks is an exciting prospect to me.
But is it an exciting film? Well, the first thing to point out is that any film liberally peppered with clips of Hicks at work is going to find it hard to make me dislike it. And I certainly didn’t. But I’d be lying if I said it was all I’d hoped for. If anything I was itching for more clips of Bill and less of the surrounding narrative. Not because an exciting film can’t be made about the life of Bill Hicks, but because this one sadly falls a little short.
Perhaps there is an inevitability to that, though. When the subject of a biography is famous for his consummate skill as a speaker, it’s always going to be a let-down when most of the film involves other people speaking about him. In many ways, the 1994 documentary (It’s Just A Ride) produced by Channel 4 and found on the Totally Bill Hicks DVD is better because it tells more of the story through Bill’s own performances.
Using animated photo montages and the occasional ‘talking head’, American: The Bill Hicks Story is told in a rather matter-of-fact manner that never really gets at the deeper issues that inspired and drove him. We’re told about his strict parents, religious upbringing and consequent rebellion against that authority. We learn of his battle with alcohol, his psychedelic awakening and his sense of futility when faced with the twin walls of indifference and hostility that the American public threw up around him. But it’s all conveyed in a rather blank and unengaging way. It’s like someone reading out the recipe for your favourite meal, but never allowing you to taste it.
Sixteen years ago Bill Hicks became one of my major influences. Mix tapes I put together at the time had snippets of his material between some of the tracks. Phrases and phrasing from his routines became shared jokes among my friends; and not always because they were the funniest lines. Often it was because Hicks simply got to the root of an issue more succinctly than anyone else could… is there a better analogy for the US military-industrial complex than “Pull up G-12″? Can anyone top his “… so I said “forgive me” as an example of the deep contradictions we routinely gloss over in our lives? Thanks to Bill Hicks it became possible to enunciate the words “Drink Coke” in such a way as to make reference to the inherently pornographic nature of commercial advertising and the tendency of modern society to reduce even the most sacred of things to yet more fuel for the engines of profit… to be consumed and shat out like everything else. All that; merely by adding a pause and a particular intonation to an existing advertising slogan.
Even today, among fans of Bill Hicks, that short-hand is still going strong. When a TV commercial tries to sell us something using the music of a once-respected artist, the phrase “sucking Satan’s pecker” comes unbidden to our minds. When we hear yet another X-Factor wannabe popstar clone sleepwalk through a classic song, we silently scream “play from your fucking heart!” at our TV or radio. And every time a politician scares us with tales of some foreign threat to our way of life, we see Bill Hicks playing the role of Jack Palance in Shane.
Hicks was an incredibly funny man. Not to everyone’s taste, certainly, but if you got him then you really got him. Beyond that, however, he was a cultural commentator and social critic with truly rare insight. A man who courageously spoke the truth even when he knew it was torpedoing his own career. In our modern world of crass commercialism and unfettered consumption, where the corporate media is working overtime to hide from us the consequences of our suicidal lifestyles, the voice of Bill Hicks is sorely missed.
As for American: The Bill Hicks Story? Any film that allows you to see snippets of Bill’s stand-up on the big screen is to be recommended. And perhaps the fact that — as a longtime fan — there was little in the film that I hadn’t already seen or didn’t already know, means that I’m being unfairly critical on what may well be a wonderful treat for those less familiar with his work. Overall, it’s far from a ‘bad’ film. And if it turns a few more people onto the work of the great man… then it’s a very welcome addition to the unjustly slim body of work by — and about — Bill Hicks.
* Those of you looking to track down Relentless should be warned that the 2006 DVD release is rather poor when compared with the original VHS. Firstly it’s a different performance (same festival, different night) and Hicks isn’t having quite as good a show. On top of that, the image quality — bizarrely — is worse than the video. But most annoyingly of all, almost 15 minutes of material has been mysteriously left out. The DVD still represents a great hour of stand-up, but if you can track down an old VHS copy, you’ll have a much better experience.
I read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Road when it was first published. It was one of the first novels I read upon my return to Dublin and it royally pissed me off. See, I’d written about four chapters of a book that — had I continued it — would have been described as derivative at best, and a total rip-off at worst. In my version, a boy and his mother were walking across a post-apocalyptic America in the hope of somehow getting a boat that would take them to Ireland. I vividly recall the moment, not far into The Road, when my rising frustration erupted into a bellow of “Fuck it!”
I threw the book across the room and went to see if anything of my own work could be salvaged. It couldn’t. Not only were the plots too similar, but — once I’d finally calmed down and read the whole thing — the central themes turned out to be almost identical. It’s fortunate that I hadn’t got further, I suppose.
Anyhoo, that’s neither here nor there. Having just watched the film, it’s that I want to discuss. And it’s a film that merits discussion. As regular readers of my writing will be aware, I believe that humanity is approaching a crisis… may indeed be in the early stages of it. I don’t believe we’ve reached the point where disaster and complete collapse are inevitable, though. I feel that the sooner we begin planning and implementing steps to avoid calamity, the more chance we have of preventing the sort of bleak outcome envisioned by McCarthy.
Our writers and film-makers — artists of any kind — are often the best weather-vanes our culture has got. Fiction about disasters, whether on paper or celluloid, is certainly nothing new, but the huge amount of it over the past few years seems, to me at least, to be an obvious response to our collective anxieties about Climate Change, peak oil… unsustainability in general. Storm clouds are gathering on our horizon and this has not gone unnoticed.
None of which is meant to imply that the grim and very upsetting picture of the future painted by McCarthy and John Hillcoat (the director of the film adaptation) is likely to happen, or even that I think it’s a genuine possibility. The dark view of humanity presented in The Road isn’t one I necessarily share. Certainly people are capable of even the worst of the atrocities described in the story, but I tend to question the proportion of “bad guys” to “good guys” (to use the parlance of the film). In both book and film we are presented with a world where the people determined to keep the fire of human decency alive are vastly outnumbered by those who have resorted to savagery. It’s my belief, and fervent hope, that this is a pessimistic assessment of the human soul.
The film itself is an amazing piece of work. From the opening scene of vibrant greens, yellows and reds — trees and flowers soon to be extinguished — to the dark browns and greys that characterise the blasted landscape of the majority of the film, The Road is never less than visually impressive. “Visually impressive” may seem like a strange way to describe a film that draws almost exclusively from a palette of washed-out grey, but there’s a haunting quality to the cinematography that prevents it from ever being dull to the eye.
The basic plot revolves around a father and son (The Man and The Boy) attempting to make their way south to the coast. The planet has all but died and almost everyone who remains has resorted to cannabilism to eke out some extra time. The Man is played by Viggo Mortensen in yet another role that marks him out as a truly accomplished actor. He was brilliant in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and even more mesmeric here as a man torn between his willingness to do anything to protect his son and his desire to offer the boy a glimpse of something other than the ugly brutality of the world they find themselves in. He wants to raise his son to be good and decent and noble, but is aware that those traits might well turn out to be liabilities… could even get him killed some day. In one of the central scenes of the film, the boy rebukes his father by telling him that he can no longer tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.
Indeed, we soon come to realise that just as the father is trying to teach his son to be one of the good guys, it is only through this very effort that he himself retains a grip on goodness. Without the need to provide an example to the boy, we suspect that Mortensen’s character would himself be lost; if not to brutality then certainly to death.
The young actor who plays Viggo Mortensen’s son — Kodi Smit-McPhee — is probably the weak link in the film. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a criticism of the kid. He truly and honestly does as good a job as any actor his age could do with the role and he certainly doesn’t constantly irritate the way so many child actors do. But the fact of the matter is, the kind of performance required by the role isn’t one that any child has the emotional maturity to achieve. As I say though, he does as well as anyone his age could and never spoils things.
Quite aside from anything else, Mortensen’s something of a method actor and his haggard looks suggest several weeks of borderline malnutrition. In the one scene where we see the boy’s body, his shrunken torso is clearly the result of some clever CGI… subjecting him to the kind of dietary regime that left Mortensen looking genuinely underfed would be nothing short of child abuse, and this is revealed in his obviously well-fed face. Again though, that’s hardly the kid’s fault.
One of the two most unpleasant images of the book was omitted from the film, but the other was retained (albeit only briefly). Indeed I was quite surprised that the film so rarely strays from the book. On the one hand this has made it a good deal better than almost any of Hollywood’s other apocalypse movies. On the other hand, it ensured that the relentlessly grim atmosphere of McCarthy’s original seeps out through the screen and leaves you feeling rather drained and mildly depressed after watching it.
That said, I’d recommend The Road to fans of good, thoughtful cinema. It’s dark, horrific at times and rarely offers a smile (there’s a single blackly cynical line from Robert Duvall’s character that provides perhaps the only humour in the entire film). Overall, The Road will leave you feeling quite deflated and perhaps even a little troubled. But for all that, it’s a fine film that never betrays the original vision of the book. And how often does one of them come along?
I went into this film with fairly low expectations. I’ve nothing against Hollywood blockbusters and feel no shame about admitting that Michael Ironside intoning “They sucked his brains out!” in Starship Troopers remains one of my favourite cinematic moments of all time. My tastes are quite eclectic; Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano is probably my favourite film-maker (in fact, I watched the glorious Hana-bi again recently. It really is one of the greatest films ever made… dreamlike, moving, violent, funny, hypnotic and as far from a Hollywood blockbuster as you’re likely to get), yet I’ve happily grinned my way through all four Die Hard movies.
Even so, I was quite sceptical about the latest James Cameron spectacular. I’d read some scathing reviews and pretty much convinced myself that the 3D technology wasn’t going to be effective.
That said, I wasn’t going to miss it either. Even the most negative review grudgingly admitted Avatar is visually spectacular. How could it not be, given the absurd amount of money spent ensuring it would be? Throw enough money at a cinema screen and some of it will stick. Plus, there was always a chance that the silly glasses would really work. So if I was going to see it at all, then it probably had to be on a big screen. It’s like being at a U2 concert or watching the space shuttle blast off… whatever you may feel about the content of the experience, if you’re close enough then the way it engages the senses is incredible. Our small monkey brains can’t help but be awed by the sheer scale of what’s happening.
And “awe” is not too hyperbolic a word to be bandying about when it comes to Avatar. The film didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them into a billion tiny glowing bits and sent them floating around me like a swarm of fireflies. The 3D effect was far better than I’d expected. It was genuinely magical at times. I’d never been to a 3D film before, but it’s safe to say I’m an instant convert. Thankfully it involved a good deal less “gratuitous objects flying towards your head” than I thought it would. In a movie low on subtlety, the use of 3D was immersive without being over-the-top. Credit to James Cameron for his restraint there, even if nowhere else.
Clearly he knew the visuals were breath-taking enough to generate plenty of “whoa!” moments all by themselves. The clever use of the 3D technology just draws the viewer that little bit further into the experience. So when one of the primary locations in the story is a tree that would dwarf the Burj Dubai, adding a convincing depth of field is more than enough to start the brain reeling. Forcing the viewer to duck as projectiles shot towards them every thirty seconds would merely serve to distract from the splendour.
Which isn’t to say that there’s none of that more obvious use of 3D. The plot of the film involves human colonists (in the form of a dastardly mining corporation backed by gung-ho space marines) trying to relocate, and eventually annihilate, the Na’vi (the indigenous culture on the ecologically pristine planet Pandora). The blue-skinned Na’vi fight with spears and bows-and-arrows. This, of course, allows the spectacular battle sequences to contain the requisite amount of “objects flying at your head” action.
In the reviews I’ve read, the primary criticisms of Avatar centre around the plot and the dialogue. With regards to the plot though, there’s a part of me that disagrees. Yes it’s simple. But, fantastical setting aside, it’s telling an archetypical tale that echoes back into history and is alive and well on our planet today. The destructive exploitation of our ecology at the expense of indigenous cultures — and ultimately ourselves — is not a tale that can be told too often. Nor too loudly. Especially now.
Having said that, I’m well aware that there’s an argument which says that particular story can’t be told in a Hollywood blockbuster. That the medium is the message. An argument convincingly put forward by Citizen S, with whom I went to see Avatar. She found the film entertaining and the 3D very impressive despite not being a fan of the Big Guns & Shiny Metal genre. But she looked upon me with something akin to pity when I started to praise “the message” of the film.
The Big Mac Avatar Meal: Not a parody
The essentially commercial nature of the enterprise undercuts and invalidates any anti-commercial message it tries to send. The calculated manipulative techniques used by the medium to generate the maximum audience, and then the businesses that have grown up to part that audience from their cash — from popcorn to action figures to… well, just think about that pictured tie-in, to the right, for a few seconds… these things are themselves precisely the kind of colonialism the film claims to decry. When the soundtrack swells with those “strings in minor key”, tugging your heart down proscribed pathways, and then shifts abruptly to major chords when the hero strides towards his destiny, you are being trained in a very specific way of looking at the world. And you’re being encouraged to have a hamburger and Coke while you do so. You just can’t dress up an anti-colonialist story about ecological sustainability in half a billion dollar’s worth of industrial light and magic part-sponsored by the McDonald’s Corporation.
I think that was the gist of her argument.
Certainly it began with: “it’s a Hollywood action film. Get a grip.”
And you know, despite the sensory delight and sheen of subversion, there’s certainly something to that.
Although I think perhaps it goes even deeper than that. When what is already the most successful film in history, turns out to be a thinly veiled attack on the very system that allows it to exist, it’s yet more evidence of our deep cultural crisis. Our collective schizophrenia.
Wouldn’t it be mind boggling to encounter a previously unknown Amazonian culture and discover that their most popular story-tellers regularly portrayed the tribe as cynical hypocrites filled with avarice and malice, always in the wrong? And yet the past few decades have been littered with fiction of precisely that nature. Whether it’s Dances With Wolves (of which Avatar is essentially a remake with an upbeat ending) or Cameron’s own Aliens (“You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage”) or the plethora of “apocalypse as thrilling entertainment” flicks. Besides our own, is there a single culture we’ve ever known, whose great stories and myths regularly portray themselves as the bad guys?
Whether or not we can take heart in the positive aspects of Avatar’s plot, it is clearly part of a body of work that suggests we are a culture in the grip of a nervous breakdown.
And how much hope can we take in the fact, that while the most popular film in history is not telling a story that celebrates unsustainability, its very existence does?
The Invention of Lying is painfully unfunny. Ricky Gervais is talented and can be a funny man, but he missed the target this time. A one-joke film in which the joke makes less and less sense the more you think about it. Within ten minutes I was finding the entire premise irritating rather than amusing. There’s a hint of clever satire but it’s completely drowned as a painful romance between Gervais’ character and one of the least likeable and sympathetic characters ever to appear on screen plays out in a world requiring more belief-suspension than is technically possible.
The Invention of Lying: Not a funny film, sadly.
Nobody can tell a lie, it seems. You can just about buy into that idea for 90 minutes. But it appears that everyone must always blurt out their worst thoughts at inopportune moments even when not asked a direct question. Not that they’re in a constant stream-of-consciousness; it just happens for comic effect. So it becomes a world filled with obnoxious tactless morons, not honest people. Even that might have survived as an enjoyable film had the writing and plot risen above the average, but they don’t. The protagonist falls in love with the most shallow and unlikeable woman in a world full of them, making it impossible to feel anything but relief when she spurns his advances and incredulity when she finally succumbs to his charms. Charms which consist essentially of (a) that she occasionally laughs when he’s around — though we don’t actually see very much of that, and (b) his dishonestly-acquired wealth and success. Her conversion is complete when she encounters a “chubby” kid being bullied in a park in one of the most cringe-inducing scenes in cinema history (she didn’t want “chubby, snub-nosed children”, you see?)
An idea that might have had some potential is squandered by writing that tries at turns to be mainstream romcom, social satire and crass sex-comedy and never convinces with any of them. Overall, avoid.
And Zombieland is just that — a comedy. If you’re in the mood for a horror film, or even for a comedy-horror film, then Zombieland won’t scratch that itch. There’s blood and gore aplenty plus more Harrelson-on-Zombie violence than you can shake a banjo at, but because the entire film is played for laughs, and because the violence is of the Itchy ‘n’ Scratchy variety (one zombie is even killed by having a piano dropped on it from a building), there’s never a single moment of genuine horror. I’m not even sure there’s a single moment where the viewer is supposed to jump in fright; it’s a screwball action comedy set in a post-Zombie-Apocalypse America.
But it’s a very funny screwball action comedy set in a post-Zombie-Apocalypse America. The film follows Columbus, a college student, as he survives against all the odds in a world where pretty much everyone else has become a zombie thanks to a contaminated service-station burger (“Remember mad cow disease? Well, mad cow became mad person became mad zombie…”) The four characters (and with the exception of one of the great “As Himself” cameo appearances in cinema history, and a couple of brief flashbacks, there are only four characters in the film — the rest are interchangeable undead) are referred to by the name of the town they were born in — the aforementioned Columbus who narrates with a wonderfully dry self-deprecation, the girl he’s trying to get together with (Wichita), her 12-year old sister (Little Rock) and the ass-kicking Tallahassee played by Woody Harrelson who gets most of the good lines and steals almost every scene (“When Tallahassee gets going, he sets the standard for “not to be fucked with”).
The central running gag concerns The Rules For Surviving Zombieland, as drawn up by Columbus, which appear as three dimensional text that interact with the scene whenever they’re referred to. It’s not overdone and because the film — aware of its limitations and realising it’s more a live-action cartoon than a feature film — is only 88 minutes long including credits, you’re left wanting more rather than ending up tired of the joke.
And speaking of cartoons, it didn’t surprise me to learn that the film was co-written by Rhett Reese, one of the writers of Pixar’s glorious animated comedy Monsters, Inc. Despite the over-the-top gore and violence of Zombieland, there’s a similarity to the humour that shines right through.
The motivations of the characters (beyond mere survival) are similarly cartoonish. The two girls are travelling across the country to go to an amusement park they used to visit. Columbus was originally trying to return home but quickly realises he’s playing the “cherche la femme” role. And Tallahassee’s on the road trip because he’s searching for a final Twinkie before they all go out of date (“Pretty soon life’s little Twinkie gauge is gonna go empty”). Together they kill a bunch of zombies in imaginative ways and exchange some of the funniest Tarantinoesque dialogue to hit cinema screens for a few years. The way Harrelson delivers lines like “I hate coconut. Not the taste; the consistency” or “I haven’t cried like that since Titanic” had me clapping my hands with mirth, and right at the end of the movie his delivery of the three words “It’s too soon” had me weeping with laughter. You’ll understand if you see it.
I’m struggling to think of a film I enjoyed more this year. It’s as low brow as they come. It’s unashamedly silly and lightweight and isn’t going to change anyone’s life. But it is pure, unadulterated fun. It had me laughing from the first scene and rarely let up until the credits arrived. If you’re haemophobic, then it’s probably not the movie for you. Everyone else should check it out for an hour and a half of genuine hilarity.