Saturday, July 21, 2007

The End.

Note: I have tried my best to make the following as spoiler free as I can make it. It's not completely foolproof, but I don't discuss specifics. Proceed with caution.

I’ve grown up with Harry Potter. Sounds corny, but it’s true. I was all of seven years of age when I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; last night I was a 17 year old, one of the hundreds of fans queuing for hours outside Easons on O’Connell street in the rain, waiting patiently for the last installment. The last installment. I can barely believe it; even hours after finishing the book, hours after turning the last page, it still seems odd to think that there will never be another Harry Potter book to look forward to.

Like I said earlier, I finished the Deathly Hallows at approximately 8am after seven solid hours of reading. When I say solid, I mean seven hours of reading with continual loo breaks and trips to the coffee machine and pauses to wipe my eyes… I had severely questioned my sanity while waiting in the 7-hour queue, but I’m glad I went through it. I couldn’t imagine sitting here not knowing what became of Harry, Ron, Hermione and the rest.

And is it as satisfying as is required for a series of this magnitude? For something that will hold the attentions of millions of readers across the globe?

It is with great happiness that I can safely say, yes. Yes, JK Rowling has done herself proud. If we forgive a little cheesiness at the close (give the woman a break, she’s lived with this thing for years - it’s only natural she nearly lets her emotion get the better of her), it’s fair to say that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the best Potter book to date. It’s much more action filled than earlier installments; there are a number of thrillingly cinematic set-pieces which were genuinely frightening. Without the usual business of Hogwarts to attend to, Harry, Hermione and Ron (having sworn off returning to their school for their seventh year) have no time to spare revising for exams or practising Quidditch, this story is a race against time. Harry needs to locate and destory the remaining Horcruxes before Voldemort discovers him, save the school from Snape’s greasy clutches and grapple with the mysterious Deathly Hallows of the title.

With all the action going on, you would be forgiven for imagining that Rowling had abandoned the depth of character or rich humour that had infused the other books. We are in her capable hands though, the golden trio grow and change (if attempting to save the world from the most evil wizard the world has ever seen doesn’t mature you, what will?), minor characters are brought back in from the very earliest books and we learn a great deal more about the background of certain important characters; including Albus Dumbledore.

Dumbledore is probably one of JK Rowling’s most endearing creations. It was a testament to her craft that this venerable, wise, kindly old bearded wizard did not garner too many comparisons to that other venerable, wise, kindly old bearded wizard, Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings books; but Dumbledore differed from Gandy in many small ways, and was simply a great character. Lord knows, we could all use a Dumbledore in our lives. However, with the creation of this great man, Rowling risked making him just that little bit too perfect. In Deathly Hallows, she takes a great risk in exposing some of his faults. We are shown, if you will, the nastier side to Albus Dumbledore. There’s nothing overly damning, nothing to make us hate him, but there are certain things in Dumbledore’s past that he was not exactly proud of. I wouldn’t dream of revealing them here, but suffice to say that this plot twist works. It shows that everyone is fallible and how we are all the more better realising this.

Everyone makes mistakes in Deathly Hallows. Even Hermione, the eternal girl scout/librarian (the girl really out does herself in this book; if you thought she was clever before…) is allowed to slip up now and again. Many wise people do the wrong thing or do the right thing badly, with some dire consequences. Although not quite the awful bloodbath I had dreaded, death hangs heavy like a dulling wine over the entire book. From the point very near the beginning where two well-loved characters are killed with barbaric simplicity, it’s plain that we are in dangerous territory. There were numerous passages in which I had to forcibly slow my eyes down to stop them darting to the end of certain paragraphs; and others in which I had to actually put down the book and go for a little walk around the room, to clear my head. In case you’re wondering, yes I cried. Numerous times. Some of the deaths seem awfully correct, like they had been planned from the get-go. Others seemed unnecessarily cruel, especially one which occurs halfway through which had me unexpectedly bawling, but I am glad that she did not chicken out of making this seventh book finally as “dark” and “adult” as the buzzwords have been promising for so long. There is a spectacular bout of cursing from an unexpected source which is delightfull and, best of all, I laughed a great deal. We get to delve deeply into wizard history and explore the intricate complexities of wand lore. There’s even the long awaited snog that will have fanatics practically dizzy with it’s orchestration.

JK Rowling has long been bombarded with criticism that her prose is clunky, her originality ir questionable and her style heavy-handed, but I honestly think that anyone who does not agree that this book delivers on the promise of the preceeding six and does so in a thoroughly satisfying, gripping, thoughtful and moving way is purely jealous.

In a word; magical.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows

I'm too shattered to type out a proper post, and my head is still whirling too fast for me to come up with a coherant sentence, but I would like to announce that I have finished Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. And it was amazing. Thank you, and good night.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Badlands (1973) Terrence Malick

I’ve seen a multitude of films over the past fortnight (including Paris, Je t’aime, Shrek the Third, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Gloria, Of Human Bondage, Punch Drunk Love and welcome rewatchings of Adaptation, Moulin Rouge and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ) and my typing fingers have been itching to review something but inspiration kept failing to strike. Finally, a suitable subject on which to expound hit me like a gunshot in the stomach - Terrence Malick’s Badlands which I watched late Friday night. Perhaps later than I should have, lying flat on my bed with the laptop on my stomach, sleepy head propped up by pillows so I could see the screen. But my lethargic state only endeared the film to me even more than it would have otherwise - I was so undistracted by anything other than what was directly in front of my nose that I was free to wallow in the expansive shimmering scenery that rolled across the screen. It’s a rich, ponderous film that overwhelmed me with it’s beauty before digging me sharply in the ribs; a heady cocktail of dangerous substance. I felt like Sissy Spacek’s Holly, a dreamy-eyed 15 year old, swept up in the glamour and freedom of murder.

In the film, Spacek is seduced by a local garbage man who keeps to himself, a whippet-thin local boy who struts around brooding like James Dean. I can’t even begin to describe what a thrill it was to witness Martin Sheen, decades before the White House came a-knocking, looking younger than he has the right to. He plays the homicidal lunatic with such cool detachment and reckless abandon but such sweet naivety it’s hard not to fall in love with him. Based loosely on the story of Charles Starkweather, a 1950s serial killer (in the film named Kit Charles) who fell in with a teenage girl, murdered her father and set off on a road trip through America. Terrence Malick changed the names (and probably a lot more besides), but factual verification means nothing in a case like this; this film is what cinema was made for. If I had seen it on a large screen, it probably would have knocked me out cold.

When something affects you, it’s hard to detach yourself so completely you can write about it in a rational manner. I’m trying to say intelligent things about the film, but all I can do is throw superlative adjectives at it and hope for the best. It’s rare that a film ever gets everything so right - be it the quiet grandeur of the cinematography showcasing the magnificence of the American scenery, the spot-on casting of Spacek and Sheen, the intentional misplaced jollity of the score, the otherworldly feel captured in Spacek’s innocent voice-over…sigh. The more I think about the film, the more I like it. Despite it’s obvious moral issues, Kit is actually a decent fellow with sound advice (if you ignore the fact he murders folks) to spare, he genuinely cares about Holly and illustrates the importance of staying true to one’s self.

When I was younger, all my favourite kid’s books were set in the USA. I was snobbish about most Irish children’s novels - I wanted to be friends with Ramona Quimby, not Rosie. Sesame Street was my ideal home (how dare they take it off air? who cared if not all the lessons applied to us across the ocean?) The allure and mystique of the U.S. never really left me, not even when two disastrous presidential terms sullied the nation’s reputation in the eyes of the world. It became ridiculously fashionable to denounce America and a lot of people got off on feeling superior to them. This anti-American intent grew and grew until some people were acting as petty and bigoted as the traits they claimed to despise. I don’t mean to overly praise the country, lord knows they’ve majorly fucked things up recently, but this is the land that gave me Arrested Development and The West Wing, Paul Auster and Douglas Coupland, Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart, Nirvana and Tori Amos. It’s been a dream of mine for years to visit New York (although I fret that my experience could hardly live up to my expectations) and to go on a sprawling road trip; in short I am brimming over with good things to say about the country and somehow Badlands crystallised all this into one film. It’s the ultimate road trip, chewing up pop culture and spitting it out, reminiscent of both Bonnie & Clyde and Thoreau’s Walden, showcasing youth, death, murder and the importance of living life to the very full, toying with the audience’s expectations. It’s at once both relentlessly cinematic and somehow broader than a screen. It’s a living, breathing thing. When it came to it’s perfect close, I was left watching the credits pass by, as similarly dazed as I was by Jindabyne.

It’s rare that something can hit you as much as this did me, but when it does you’ve got to be grateful. Boy, am I ever grateful for Badlands.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

For a minute there, I lost myself.

Two bits of musical goodness for a wet Thursday morning.

Firstly, the wonderous 10th anniversary of OK Computer is celebrated over at Steregoum with a free, downloadable cover album featuring 12 lesser-known indie groups covering each track from Radiohead's seminal 1997 masterpiece. I haven't heard it all yet, but the few tracks I've listened to so far are great. Check it out (and await their next album with impatience, I think they've finished with it but just need a label to release it.) I can't really believe it's been four years since Hail To The Thief.

Secondly, I see that the PJ Harvey new album has been confirmed and the tracklisting is up over at Pitchfork. It's due in September, which is when Siouxsie's is due also. 2007 is shaping up to be a great year for female musicians - Bjork, Tori Amos, Feist, Joanna Newsom (she released an EP this year), Rihanna and a couple others. The new Peej album should be a good'un. I read someplace that'll it'll be a quieter, more introsepective album than her last. Whatever, she rocks. Here are two different sides to her:

Angry/rawkish Polly Jean

In love/poppy Polly Jean

Cannot wait! Music has been great this year. Apart from the singers I've mentioned above, we've had The Shins, Battles, Animal Collective etc.

Pop Quiz

What do these three artists have in common?

Bill Bailey

The Shins

Rufus Wainwright

Answer: Yours truly shall be gracing their presence in the coming months. Rawk.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Princess Fire and Music

Here is my contribution to Emma's The Performance that Changed My Life Blogathon.
My choice is Bette Davis as Margo Channing,

For an actress who teeters ever close to scenery-chewing dominance, it is unusual that Bette Davis allows her character, the inimitable Margo Channing, to be introduced by a separate character. Rather than making a flashy entrance on her own terms, we first encounter Margo as seen through the eyes of another. She is sitting at a long dining table at a prestigious awards ceremony, Davis’ infamous heavy-lidded eyes barely bothering to scan the room. She appears disinterested and slightly amused by the whole thing.

The smooth cultured tones of Addison de Witt, which have been gently guiding us through this ceremony from the beginning of the film, introduce Margo in this fashion:

Margo Channing is the Star of the Theatre. She made her first stage appearance, at the age of four, in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. She played a fairy and entered - quite unexpectedly - stark naked. She has been a Star ever since. Margo is a great Star. A true Star. She never was or will be anything less..

Here, Addison’s voice pauses, ever so slightly. Then,

The part for which Eve Harrington is receiving the Sarah Siddons award was intended originally for Margo Channing…

At this point the focus switches to Eve herself, played by Anne Baxter. An aged actor stands up to make a lengthy speech praising Mrs. Harrington on her talent, on her beauty and poise. The viewer, however, is still fixed on Margo Channing, who we see cradling her drink with (possibly) feigned boredom. As the young Eve stands up to collect her award, we see the members of the audience applauding with varying levels of vigour. Margo Channing, of course, does not applaud, merely regards the ceremony from under her heavy-lids. It is small gesture, but one filled with furious protest and indignant superiority. This opening scene of the 1950 classic All About Eve serves as a neat introduction for this cinematic masterpiece and also, curiously, for Bette Davis herself.

“The atmosphere is very MacBethish…what has, or is about to happen?”
- Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe)

Margo Channing was the first role I ever saw Davis play. Indeed, it was the first time I had ever heard of her. For years down at our house, Friday Night was Movie Night and at the end of a school week one of my parents would arrive home with a rental dvd. Here’s where I first encountered Hitchcock, Dustin Hoffman and Studio Ghibli in my formative years, but it was All About Eve that truly captured me. I was doubtful of it at first as I used to dislike black and white films (a fact which still makes me blush when I remember). It was an honest-to-God Classic Film, which I’ll admit used to turn me off, but it was also laugh-out-loud funny and bitchier than anything I’d seen coming out of Hollywood in modern times. It was also relentlessly classy; these people had integrity (although not all of them, obviously!) as well as being witty and cultured.

Even at a relatively young age I was aware that, contrary to the film’s title, Margo Channing was the centerpiece of this story, the film’s beating heart, the character whom all the others revolved around. Bette Davis, quite simply, steals every single scene she appears in, butting heads with Eve Harrington and Margo’s husband, her only worthwhile opponent being George Sanders’ snakelike Addison de Witt.

The crushing fact is that Bette Davis was Margo Channing. At the time of filming she already had two Best Actress Oscars under her belt along with a rake of nominations, but after her contract with Warner Brothers expired in 1949 it had looked like the end of her career. It was only by a lucky twist of fate that Davis ever got the role of Margo. It was originally due to go to Claudette Colbert, who had become injured. Davis had to contend for the role amid other obstacles, namely Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Ingrid Bergman and Susan Hayward, who were all considered for the part. It is almost inconceivable to imagine any of these playing Margo; fine actresses though they are, they could never have matched up to the tour-de-force we are presented with. Davis brought a real fighting spirit to the part, but also a true-to-life world weariness and , touchingly, a sense of her own mortality as an actress.

“You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re marvellous!”

- Addison deWitt ( George Sanders)

Davis’s portrayal of an ageing theatre actress slipping past her prime and in threat of being upstaged by a younger, prettier woman is rendered all the more poignant as it almost mirrors Davis’s own life, but the comparisons don’t stop there. Gary Merrill, who plays her straightforward screen-husband, Bill Sampson, fell in love with Bette for real while filming and they married soon after. He was the last of her four husbands, and the longest lasting. They split up in 1960; as Bette Davis later quipped to All About Eve screenwriter and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz at a party, “Don’t bother with the sequel - it doesn’t work out”. Margo Channing’s husky voice was also purely Bette, who had ruptured a blood vessel in her throat screaming at her ex-husband William Sherry just before the film started shooting. Her croaky rasp was deemed suitable to the character and left in the film. Bette was also just as witty and caustic as her screen persona, as the many barbed quotes attributed to her can testify. Her rival Joan Crawford was the subject of many a tongue-lashing.

“She’s the original good time that was had by all.”

“Joan Crawford has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.”

“One should never say bad things about the dead, only good. Joan Crawford’s dead? Good!”

Any one of those real life lines could have come from the All About Eve script, my vote for the Number 1 Screenplay Ever. Joseph L. Mankiewicz came from a true-blue classic cinema family ( his brother Herman worked on a little known film called Citizen Kane) and his script sparkles. It’s part satire on theatre industry, part Hitchcockian identity-theft thriller, part high-class comedy but with a good, strong heart. Take this exchange, between Davis and her long time friend Karen (Celeste Holm), when the two women are stuck in a broken down car during a snowstorm:

Margo: So many people - know me. I wish I did. I wish someone would tell me about me…

Karen: You’re Margo. Just - Margo.

: And what is that? Besides something spelled out in lights, I mean. Besides something called temperament, which consists mostly of swooping about on a broomstick at the top of my voice…infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave - they’d get drunk if they knew how - when they can’t have what they want. When they feel wanted or insecure - or unloved.

Or this speech, delivered moments later:

Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You’ll forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That’s one career all women have in common - whether we like it or not - being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted…

Couple these lines with the woman who could never find lasting love, even with four husbands, and you have something very tragic.

“I detest cheap sentiment”
- Margo Channing (Bette Davis)

It could also be argued that Anne Baxter (who plays the part of Eve in the film) usurped Davis’ chance at the Best Actress Oscar by pressuring to get a nomination herself. This effectively split the Eve-vote in two - and the award went to Judy Holliday (somehow beating both AAE actresses and that other grande-dame, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd).

Davis’ life post-Eve, after the Oscar Fiasco, wasn’t quite what she had in mind after the mild comeback she enjoyed when the film received rave reviews. For some inexplicable reason, she wasn’t offered any amazing parts and instead frittered away her considerable talent on made-for-TV movies and sub-par horror flicks. The only really notable role she took on in this time period was in the magnificently creepy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and which played more on her long-time feud with co-star Joan Crawford than anything deeper. It’s an enjoyably camp film, with Davis effortlessly lording over Crawford (and rightfully so) and earning yet another Oscar nod in the process, but it’s disheartening to think that this is all the old dame was rewarded with in her twilight years. She suffered from a stroke and breast cancer (which would eventually kill her, in 1989) and underwent a family dispute when her firstborn daughter, BD, published a damning memoir, My Mother’s Keeper. Looking back, it’s fair to say that Margo Channing was Bette Davis’ swansong, her final bitter act of defiance to an industry she both detested and adored. The equivalent of giving the finger to Hollywood, as it were.

“What a story. Everything but the bloodhunds snapping at her rear-end…”
- Birdie (Thelma Ritter)

That’s not to say that the film is a purely melancholic affair. To the contrary, it is a comedy of the highest-pedigree. It’s most famous line (courtesy of Margo, naturally) “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” was ranked 9 in the AFI’s list of best film quotations and has nearly been diluted through over-exposure. In the pivotal party scene in the film (featuring a cute cameo from up-and-comer Marilyn Monroe) positively dazzles with whiplash dialogue that is the natural precursor to programmes like Gilmore Girls. And don’t get me wrong, the part that Davis plays is undoubtedly close to the bone, but she is giving us a performance.

“Don’t get up. And please stop acting as if I were the Queen Mother”
- Margo Channing (Bette Davis)

For example, witness this scene. Margo is hosting a party and her husband Bill is returning home from a trip to attend the bash. At the beginning of this short scene we see Margo joking with Birdie (the much unappreciated Thelma Ritter, who played a similar-but-equally-excellent role in Hitchcock’s Rear Window), and then learning that unbeknownst to her, Bill had already returned from her trip earlier. Baffled as to why he hasn’t come up to see her, Margo descends the stairs to realise that Bill has been preoccupied with chatting amiably to Eve. In this short scene we see her mood swing pendulously, from a humorous, light-hearted exchange with Birdie to concern for Bill. Watch her fake reticence; as she rushes down the stairs to greet Bill, only to slow herself down. Once again, her demeanour changes to sarcastic vitriol (masking a deep hurt), then fidgetting jealousy and finally, a doe-eyed dose of snark.

“Happy birthday, welcome home and we who are about to die, salute you.”
- Margo Channing (Bette Davis)

I call this the “Performance That Changed My Life" with some trepidation. How, exactly, can one acting role “change a life”? Maybe if it was a spiritual role that made me convert to a new religion or an inspirational role that significantly changed my path in life. I did try to come up with something akin to these type of life-changing moments, but came up with nothing. So I had to delve further into what “life changing” could construe. Finally, I hit upon my answer. All About Eve is a film that has stayed with me for a long time, ever since I saw it years and years ago. It was probably the first classic film that I honestly loved and actively engaged with; and the role of Margo Channing is integral to the movie. I consequently began to think a lot about this film, it’s themes of backstage betrayal, friendship, acting and lies. I pondered the similarities between Bette Davis and Margo Channing. It's almost a postmodern part, Davis playing a hieghtened version of herself, not waiting for the audience to "get" the joke. I really grappled with the role, struggled to break it down. It was something to get my teeth into. I longed to discuss it. To find the heart of it. I wanted, basically, to know it.

Bette Davis as Margo Channing was the first part that I ever felt this intrigued by. I’m not sure if it would be hyperbolic to claim that without All About Eve I wouldn’t be as interested in cinema as I am, but heck, let’s just go wild.

So let us raise an eyebrow and tip our martinis in thanks to Margo Channing.

Applause? She wouldn’t dream of it.

Monday, July 2, 2007

do do do do do do do do

Yep, TV Guide recently released their list of the top 30 cult tv shows. I guess a show can be defined as "cult" if half the poplulation has never heard of it (who the hell is Mary Hartman and why does she keep repeating herself?) or has that air of oddball mystique around it (Twin Peaks!). Of course, Doctor Who deserves it's place there and the only thing I'm not happy about is Arrested Development's exclusion. Ah, well. Here's the whole list (an asterix denotes a new addition, another version of this list was first published three years ago).

30) Strangers with Candy (1999-2000)*
29) Absolutely Fabulous (1994-2003)
28) Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)*
27) H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-1971)
26) Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975-1978)
25) Firefly (2002-2003)*
24) Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
23) Dark Shadows (1966-1971)
22) Doctor Who (1963-present)
21) Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

20) The Avengers (1966-1969)
19) Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
18) Veronica Mars (2004-2007)*
17) Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990)
16) Babylon 5 (1994-1998)
15) Family Guy (1999-present)
14) Battlestar Galactica (2003-present)*
13) Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1999)
12) Pee-Wee's Playhouse (1986-1991)
11) Jericho (2006-present)*

10) Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001)
9) Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
8) The Simpsons (1989-present)
7) The Prisoner (1967-1968)
6) Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974)
5) Lost (2004-present)*
4) Farscape (1999-2003)
3) Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
2) The X-Files (1993-2002)
1) Star Trek (1966-1969)

Thoughts? Comments?