Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dara Ó Briain - Craic Dealer

Giddy, is the best description of Dara's mood last Wednesday as he took the stage in Vicar St. Downright giddy.
Mind you, I think I'd be giddy too if I'd just finished presenting three live television shows on one of my favourite subjects in the world and was selling out most gigs on my current tour. Dara says himself that he knows this show lacks the single idea that has given some of his previous shows an obvious hook--the neutrinos from two years ago, the Milky Bar kid, the Gillian McKeith stuff--but it is still a special show, and it did seem to have a clear theme from where I was sitting: Dara's turning forty and he's having a little stocktake.
Milestones are mentioned at several points during the evening. When he lines up his helper elves in the audience, for instance, he reminds everyone that he's been doing this job for nearly twenty years now and so has only a hazy idea of what it is that real people's jobs actually entail. And how could he have? Even at his level of fame, life has become an odd round of being photographed, imprinted on, ignored, or complained about. Not that he minds any of this, really. It's just another phenomenon in the universe for Dara to study and try to make sense of and get a laugh from, along with racism, astrology, the logical conclusion of the necessity for balance on television programmes, last summer's riots, whether we should just put all our resources into girls from now on, what is really the best thing to say to a burglar who breaks into your house at three in the morning when you're having "adult time", and bullshit modern nativity plays that feature characters from Toy Story alongside proper biblical figures.
This is all suffused with the kind of unapologetic intellectualism, massive doses of cheery swearing, and surreal asides that (since we're taking stock of almost twenty years of a career here) used to remind me of Eddie Izzard but have become as ingrained a part of Dara's shows as his callbacks to his helper elves in the audience (I love how people now lean forward to watch him do this, as if he was going to do a magic trick). But this time he also managed to include a couple of wistful stories about his youth that, for me anyway, gave the second half of the show a particularly personal feel as well as reminding people of just how far he has come.
So, yes. See the show if you get the chance. It is honkingly, snortingly good.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Nice interview with Elmore Leonard about Raylan

Thanks to Sinead Mac for digging out this CNN interview with Elmore Leonard for me. It must be a real joy for a writer to see one of their characters realised like this on screen:

I've always liked him. He's just one of my favorites. Now when I see him on the screen I can't believe it. He acts exactly the way I write him. He's so laid back and he always has the best line in the scene. He's perfect, boy. The way he talks I hear him just the way I heard him when I'm writing it.
That's just about the best review a television series can get from the source material's creator, I would think.
Might just treat myself to that new book, as well.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Like French silent movies?

Thanks to Twitter pal Paul Duane (@punkyscudmonkey) for posting this. I'm parking it here to look at later, and also so that you can look at it later, should you so wish.

Ménilmontant (1926) was written, directed, produced, edited and co-photographed in Paris by Dimitri Kirsanoff. And it is, on any terms, a remarkable piece of writing, direction, production, editing and cinematography.
From  Notebook.

You could spend all day on Mubi. It's a fantastic time suck of a site.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Inmytune 2011: Clock Opera "Belongings"

Some of my friends and acquaintances are organised enough to share their music with each other. I don't do this, for several reasons.

  • It's illegal! And wrong! Right, kids?
  • I operate at a staggering level of laziness and disorganisation. Honestly. You would be amazed.
  • I have never really learned how to upload music.
  • I will never again have to impress/warn off (delete where applicable) a new potential boyfriend with examples of my taste in music, so making mixtapes is a skill I'm happy to leave behind.

Having said all that, I did listen to this song about six million times in 2011, so I thought I'd share it with you. It's that kind of big song I really like. I know Clock Opera aren't exactly flying under the radar, but another two or three plays can't hurt, right?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A special treat for me: Margin Call and Shame at the Screen Cinema

Excitement abounds in Dublin artsy circles (alright, my Twitter stream, but that's got more people from Dublin's artsy circles in it than I've any right to) because the Lighthouse is reopening.
This is good news, of course, but I've never been a Lighthouse person. Even in its original home up on Abbey St., the Lighthouse was never my stomping ground. I've always been a Screen girl. Ever since it stopped being the Metropole and started being the home of first-run, mainly American, slightly left-of-centre movies, the Screen's been my spiritual home. I remember bunking in from She's Gotta Have It to Raising Arizona with my brother and his friends, and my brother almost having to be stuffed under the seat because he was laughing so much he was disturbing the other punters. I went there on a weekly basis in my second year of college because I had a rich friend who was prepared to pay for my ticket (and for a naggin of vodka to split between our small Cokes) just to have someone to go to the cinema with. We laughed a lot more at Talk Radio than I think you were supposed to.
Moving to the country and generally falling out of love with the city and chatty people in the cinema meant a parting of ways between me and the Screen for a while, until I started following them on Twitter and became a bit more organised about going to see things. At Halloween last year they ran a lovely print of Don't Look Now, and there was no yap at all during it. Result. I decided to make an effort to go to more films there in 2012.
So, after the slog of being ill over Christmas and New Year and constantly having to talk to people (even though those people were the ones I love most in all the world), I decided to treat myself last Friday and took myself off to the Screen to see Shame and Margin Call on their opening day. Perhaps not the obvious choice for a double bill, but they've more in common than you might think: both low-budget New York movies, both portraits of a short but pivotal period in the lives of the protagonists, both examining that moneyed lifestyle and frantic duck-paddling that goes on underneath it.
I don't have a whole lot of insight to add to the mountain of praise that has been heaped on Shame, but I would say this: you know the way that Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott think they're a great partnership? They have nothing on Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender. Fassbender seems to be able to do anything McQueen requires of him, and McQueen returns the favour by making Fassbender look like a work of art even when he's not behaving like one. It's not a perfect film, and I wouldn't go and see it with your mam if I was you, but it is both entertaining and artistic.
Margin Call is a bit more functional. It has a story to tell and it tells it. Some of the characterisation is a bit basic: this one loves his dog, this one has kids, this one is trying to give up smoking (this handing out of the identifying attributes always reminds me of the stories about the Magnificent Seven, how McQueen (the other one) would only relinquish top billing if he was given the rifle, or something), but that's a small quibble.
I've heard other reviewers complain that the top brass keep asking for things to be explained to them in simple terms--"as if you were speaking to a child, or a golden retriever," Jeremy Irons says at one point--because wouldn't these guys know the jargon? But of course, that was part of the problem. The younger guys, the Penn Badgeleys and Zach Quintos, came up with new algorithms and bundles that the people above them didn't understand, but they let the money ride on them anyway because hey, they were covered either way.
The limited number of sets, the fact that the action takes place across a single night, and the coded conversations between vaguely threatening, suited men, all combine to give the feeling of a David Mamet play, or something by Pinter. Do not, whatever you do, take someone to this movie who insists on knowing every single thing that's going on at all times, because the constant whisper of "what are they talking about?" will drive you mad. You don't need to know what they're talking about. Half of them don't know what they're talking about. What the film is trying to get across is that these are just people. They might not be particularly good people, but they're not particularly bad people either, and rather than hating them personally, you might want to think about changing the system that rewards their behaviour.  I'm not sure I believe that, but I'm prepared to accept that others do. Unsurprisingly, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Jeremy Irons are all great in this movie. I wasn't even particularly surprised by how great Zach Quinto and Penn Badgeley were. Simon Baker, though, his performance kind of snuck up on me. I've always written him off as one of those pretty faces whose popularity I don't quite get, but he was really sly and hard and imposing in this. Well done, everyone.
(See how I didn't just talk about Paul Bettany? See? I am getting better.)
Also: did you know the Screen sells wine now? And that you can see a movie there for less than €7? Well, you can. And you should.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Two things that annoy me: search engine optimisation and unnecessary origin stories

Jareth, aged 4
Psst, says the Guardian website's article about the Labyrinth prequel, want to read an article about DAVID BOWIE and LABYRINTH? Look, here's a picture of DAVID BOWIE in LABYRINTH just to prove to you that that's what the article is all about. See? Clicky clicky, all nice now...
Ha ha, it's not about David Bowie at all. It's about a graphic novel prequel to Labyrinth, which will "cover Jareth's past" and tell you all about how he's "pulled into the labyrinth for the first time." So, you're a sucker, first of all.
Second of all, I don't know about you, but I am sick to death of origin stories now. Everybody from Darth Vader to the women from Sex and the City apparently have an origin story worth mining for cash, and they all turn out to be humourless rubbish*. I'm done with it. I have no curiosity at all about how Jareth got into the labyrinth. He has always been there. I kind of assumed he built it. But I don't really care either way, because the important thing to remember about Jareth is that people only like him because he's David Bowie. If he's not David Bowie (and a graphic novel character is not the same as David Bowie) then he is just some creepy middle-aged dude who will go to great lengths to get with a teenage girl, and I'm not cool with that.
(Although, he's not as bad as a werewolf who falls in love with a baby, which is what happens in the most recent Twilight movie, I believe. I haven't really checked, it all sounds a bit too body horror for me.)
*Actually, I quite enjoyed the original Wicked, but that would spoil the flow of the post.
There, that's a nice zeitgeisty blog post for you. Hello, random googlers! Move along, nothing to see here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Broken Lines

It's almost more annoying to watch a film that could have been good, and has flashes of really good things in it, than to watch one that's just crap from start to finish. Because with a film that could have been good, you give it a lot more thought than it maybe deserves, and you see ways in which it could have been improved in order to make it the award-winning triumph its makers maybe hoped it would be instead of a little-seen labour of love that takes three years to get released.
The film concerns two couples: Jake & Zoe and Becca & Chester. The death of Jake's dad takes him back to Finsbury Park where he meets Becca (or B), who works in her cousin's cafe. They are two trapped and wounded people who seek solace in each other, but also use each other to punish their respective partners. It seems pretty simple. The problem is that the story is not remotely balanced. Paul Bettany, who plays Chester, admits as much in his interview on the DVD. He says that he was lucky in a way to be playing Chester, because Chester has the most interesting predicament. He used to be a boxer, but since he had his stroke he's become an agoraphobic and angry burden on B. She loves him, but he keeps pushing her away while simultaneously guilt-tripping her into remaining with him. It's strong stuff, competently acted by Doraly Rosa as B (who is ridiculously good-looking, as well), and as for PB, well...
Look, I know you know I like him. But honestly, really, I'm not kidding you, he is Gary Oldman good in this film. And I know a lot of that is because he's got the really juicy part. But god, he looks and sounds convincingly wounded and seedy and just finished.  The dialogue in the scenes between Chester and B is also believably natural in a low-key, repetitive-to-the-point-of-being-boring way.
By contrast, Jake's  predicament is that he is haunted by his family and his relationship with his parents in some way that's not really clear to me. Something to do with a traditional Jewish upbringing, I'm guessing, given that one of his first actions after attending his father's funeral is to go to a cafe, still wearing his yarmulke, and order a bacon sandwich. DO YOU SEE? There's also something about his mother having had an affair? The trouble is that this is all told rather than shown, and frankly not really all that interesting, even if his mother is Harriet Walter. Also he is trapped by Zoe in some way that's not very clear either. Is she too middle class? Not Jewish enough? I didn't get it. She seems nice, and I think I was expecting her part to be bigger because, hey, it's Olivia Williams, and why would you get Olivia Williams in if you weren't going to give her anything to do?
So, if it was me, I'd have shifted the centre of the story away from Jake & Zoe onto B & Chester, with some Jake on the side. I'd have expanded her family's roles (her aunt is Rita Tushingham, for god's sake), got rid of all of Jake's back story, thrown in a few fucking jokes just because there's only so much drear you can take, and bish bash bosh, job's a good 'un. A better one than this, anyway.
However, in case you think there's nothing to like about it if you don't rate Paul Bettany, it does at least make a nice antidote to Working Title England as depicted in movies like Notting Hill and, oh look, Wimbledon. This movie is like the anti-Wimbledon. 
It also captures pretty well that feeling you have when you walk around the bits of north London your friends live inand wonder who else lives in these nothing little houses and flats and what do they do with themselves all day? Who are the people who work in these anonymous local cafes and carry thin plastic bags around with them everywhere they go? Well, here are some of them. Happy now?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Breaking National Film Board of Canada News

Thanks to Queenie again for supplying the link to the National Film Board of Canada's free online archive. This is an absolute treasure trove of material, some of which will take you back to your childhood when gaps between programmes were filled, not with a tenor singing about car insurance, but with short films from around the world (where "the world" is Canada and Poland).
You can also pay to download many of these films, which I strongly urge you to do.
To get you started, here's The Big Snit.
Also, three recommendations from pal Jonathan (@jonzo1), an actual Canadian: The Log Driver's Waltz (which played on the telly every day when he was a kid), The Sweater (warning: contains comedy accent), and The Cat Came Back (which was nominated for an Oscar, and will certainly end up on the home page of Eoghan's My Cat is an Asshole blog, if he ever makes good on his threat to set that up.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

National Film Board of Canada news!

My sources (hi, Queenie!) tell me that the National Film Board of Canada is going to put its archive on the Internet for free for everyone to look at. This is very exciting news.

In celebration, here is my favourite cartoon in the whole world ever. It is from the National Film Board of Canada.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Happy birthday, David Bowie

There comes a time in everyone's life when they realise they're never going to look like the cover of Low, (at 15, since you didn't ask), but at least there comes a time in everyone's life when they realise they can look at the cover of Low forever if they want.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

More book-related wanderings AND a list of last year's book-club books

Happy new year from Accentmonkey
 and Dave the Shoulder Monkey
The Christmas holidays saw me stricken with a chest infection, an illness precisely timed to begin on December 25th, at a time when we were sleeping on a blow-up mattress in a room-between-rooms in ComedyB's house in Essex without access to the armoury of medicines and comfort we've built up at home. Two weeks, no sleep, a lot of driving in heavy rain on unfamiliar roads, and a course of antibiotics later and I'm just coming back to life enough to be able to think about looking at my book again, and of course it just looks awful and I wonder what I was ever thinking.
Luckily for me there are plenty of distractions about. I joined BookCountry a while ago (under my married name. I'm not really clear why I chose to use my married name, except that I suppose it just makes it very slightly harder to join up all the different versions of me that exist online) and, separately, acquired a writing buddy, so while I'm flailing around whingeing about the life choices that have left me fit for almost nothing except making subpar banana bread (I don't even put fudge chunks in it, what kind of animal am I, exactly?) and walking dogs, I can at least read other people's books and offer them the benefit of my critical faculties. For example, I recently helped someone on BookCountry by telling them that they had spelled "debacle" incorrectly. You're welcome, everyone.
Continuing the desperate procrastination theme, here's a list of the books I read last year for the two book clubs I'm in. I can't be arsed reviewing them all properly now, I have too much reading to do.

Classic Book Club, year two:

  • Hunger by Knut Hamsun - this is reading a bit like a proto-Ripley Bogle to me at the moment, but I'm only a third of the way through it, so it's too early to tell.
  • The Golden Bowl by Henry James - tough going. Twitter pal @FictionWitch likens reading Henry James to observing fascinating people through a really grubby window, and that seems right somehow. I'd like to read one of James's earlier books to see if that's any easier.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot - wonderful, amazing, engrossing, romantic, funny, sentimental, philosophical, modern, etc. etc. I'm very glad to have read this at last, and could happily have carried on reading it or listening to it forever.
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - fabulous, modern, detailed, funny, scathing, etc. etc. Very glad to have read this too. An unqualified success.
  • The Caliph Vathek by William Beckford - utter rubbish. However, it's short and of its time, fitting in with the whole vogue for Orientalism/drug-taking/writing things all in one night/seeing oneself as a renaissance man while actually being nothing more than a trustafarian mentalist (in addition to being an atrocious writer, Beckford also fancied himself as an architect, designing and causing to be built Fonthill Abbey, which had to be pulled down 30 years later because it was badly designed and poorly constructed). Beckford himself is much more entertaining than this book.
  • The Red and the Black by Maurice Stendhal - ugh, just ugh. Managed to struggle through half of it before giving up. Other members of book club may have liked this more.
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins - flawed but highly entertaining. Kind of like a JJ Abrams show, in that you're fine as long as you career through it at breakneck pace and don't stop to think about the logic, but as soon as the words "wait a minute..." cross your mind, the book becomes full of holes and is doomed. Also notable for introducing me to the Victorian meme of Italians with white mice, which I had no idea was a thing until it was mentioned here and again in Middlemarch.
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen - amusing in spots, kind of boring in others. Definitely nowhere near as good as the Big Three, but still funny and still head and shoulders above most other things.
Twentieth-Century Book Club, year one:
Most of my thoughts on these fall squarely into the "so that's what happens in that book I've always seen in second-hand shops but never read. Okay then," area rather than the "oh wow, so glad I read that, my life is changed," area, but they are much quicker reads than the ones in Classic Book Club, so it's okay. I realise that at this point some readers might be wondering what the hell I read for my English degree if I didn't read any of the books listed here, to which I say "up yours".
  • Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis - funny and scabrous, but there is absolutely nobody in this book to like, which can make even the shortest book a bit wearing.
  • Scoop by Evelyn Waugh - interesting in its contemporary detail rather than for the story itself, but still amusing enough and fairly bang on about press/media warmongering.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler - chosen purely on the basis of this piece in the New Statesman. This was crisp, no-nonsense interwar intrigue, but is very badly let down by a massive mistake on the protagonist's part at the end. You just wouldn't do something so stupid. 
  • Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey - horribly dated prose style and story construction, but if he was the first to come up with a lot of these ideas, then no wonder people loved him at the time. Also, he knows how to write an exciting horseback chase. Still, there's only so many times you can see the word "sage" written down before you go a bit mad. This does seem like the kind of writing that was superseded by movies and television.
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn - surprisingly cheery despite the subject matter. Of course, this is just one day, and you are constantly being reminded that it is a good day. All around the protagonist, bad days are happening to other people, and a bad day in the gulag is a very bad day indeed. This book makes an interesting companion to The Emperor of Lies, given that they both feature slave labour, rags wrapped round feet instead of shoes, thin soup, hoarded bread, and closed environments where the inhabitants are reduced to railing against the smallest of things rather than the outside enemy that has landed them here. 
  • The New Machiavelli by HG Wells - haven't actually started this yet, it's for our next meeting. 
Other confections coming up in Twentieth-Century Book Club this year include Orlando by Virginia Woolf, Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham, The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell, and maybe Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, maybe. I said maybe, Ray.

Friday, January 06, 2012

The Emperor of Lies - Steve Sem Sandbergh (translated by Sarah Death)

I spent all of Christmas reading this novel, so thanks a bunch if you're the reviewer who originally caused me to go "ooh, that does look really good, think I'll lift my Holocaust-related-materials embargo for that one."
(I do really wish I could find that review, by the way. I was convinced it was in the LRB, but a search of the archive there turns up nothing. It certainly wasn't this Guardian review, because if I'd read that beforehand I would have run a mile from the book. But it must have been a magical review if it persuaded me to buy and read a novel about the Holocaust that has been translated from the original Swedish.)
It's a beautiful book. Heartbreaking, yes. Depressing and sad and terrifying, certainly. But beautiful. It manages to neither use the Holocaust as a mere backdrop to an uplifting story about the triumph of the human spirit, nor focus on the awful details for prurient effect. Rather, it tells a beautifully rounded story of the people who live in the Lodz ghetto between 1942 and 1945, and the things that happen to them. It just so happens that the things that happen to them are the worst things you can imagine, and then even worse than that again.
Look, I'm not proud of my ignorance or anything, but I didn't know anything about the Lodz ghetto or Chaim Rumkowski before I read this, and maybe the novel wouldn't have had such an impact on me if I had. However, it seems to me to be a remarkable book whether the details are accurate or not. Reviewers talk about its Dickensian scope and characters, and there is something to that. It is a closed world in which the only events discussed are those pertaining to the ghetto; you're not going to learn anything about the wider war here, or even anything about Lodz outside the ghetto. But there aren't any funny names here, and there aren't many laughs either. What there is, though, is a prose style so beguiling and a set of people so vivid that your forget that you know what happens to almost all of them. Even with the benefit of reader's omniscience, I found myself hoping for good outcomes where I knew there would be none, and believing, albeit fleetingly, the lies of the ghetto administration because I wanted them to be true.
This New York Times review sums up a lot of what I felt about it as well.
Next on the reading list: the first seven chapters of War and Peace, because a bunch of my friends are reading it a chapter a day (it has 366 chapters) in this leap year. But also Hunger, because we're reading it for Classic Book Club. Non-stop laughs for the next little while, then.