Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921 eBook

I recently had a hand in creating the 'Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921' ebook, a collection of correspondence by the participants in the Treaty negotiations that ultimately led to Ireland's civil war.  Reading it I was bowled over by the size of the task the negotiators had (the British threw everything at them), the personalities involved and the tragedy of the whole enterprise.  The characters who really jump off the page for me are Griffith, Childers and Lloyd George.
It is clear Lloyd George and Griffith have tremendous respect for each other, but it's also clear that that is something that might compromise negotiations.  Griffith was certainly aware of this danger, but whether it ultimately did have this effect is difficult to say.  Lloyd George had a difficult game to play with his compatriots one way or the other.
Erskine Childers constantly amazes me.  His detailed memos on defence treaties and the ramifications of failing to properly provide for Ireland's security are detailed to the point of mesmerism.  How he could bring all of this together given the limited communications at his disposal is a miracle.  His keen acumen is clear and his vision of the future far-sighted (understandably though, coming just after the First World War, the only possible superpower he can see threatening the stability of Europe is America).   In contrast, his final account of the cabinet meeting that debated the finished treaty is necessarily ambiguous (they are just blunt jottings) and heart-breaking.
As to De Valera, I don't need to say anything, nor do I want to.  The debates will go on regardless of my own views.  His skills and commitment are clear, but so too are his failings.  As they say, he condemns himself out of his own mouth.
Anyhow don't take my word for it.  You can download the ebook as an epub or mobi file (or even a PDF) for free:


Joyce Carol Oates

I had the good fortune to attend a reading and Q&A by the respected American author last week.  She proved to be refreshingly straight-forward in her discussion of her work and the influences that drive her.  I was a little surprised though at the basic level of analysis.  I am no perceptive critic when it comes to weighty literature, but some things appear obvious.  One was  the similarity between the heroine of her latest novel and Oates herself as documented in her recent account of widowhood.  Jerusha McCormack nodded sagely beside me as Oates appeared to spontaneously note this resemblance, but anyone with ears to listen could not have failed to see it far earlier in the discussion.

One incident did distress me a little.  A fan in the audience asked a 'question' that ran on for several minutes. Everyone, myself included, began to sigh as the never-ending 'question' rolled on and on.  The questioner was obviously a little star-struck in the presence of her idol, but she couldn't fail to feel deflated when Oates prefaced her answer (one she had to interrupt to give, it must be said) with the remark that she'd hate to have to have the question repeated.  Humorous though this might be, the effect of the put-down could only have been exacerbated by the round of applause the remark got.  Much as she initially annoyed me, I felt for the fan.

Labels: ,

The John Ford Symposium

Someone did a fine job in organising a wonderful discussion of the work of John Ford.  Going on over four days, I ended up attending a directors' panel (Jim Sheridan, Thaddeus O'Sullivan, Brian Kirk,and John Boorman), a writers' panel (Patrick McCabe, Eoghan Harris, Colin Bateman, and Ian Power), a composers' panel (David Holmes, Kyle Eastwood, and Christopher Caliendo) and - highlight of the symposium - an interview with Peter Bogdanovich.

The Directors' Panel, contrary to what you might expect, was dominated by Brian Kirk ('Game of Thrones', 'Middletown') and Thaddeus O'Sullivan ('Nothing Personal', 'Veronica Guerin').  Kirk showed a real passion for Ford and backed up his arguments with solid observations on the director's work.  O'Sullivan complemented this with some astute film school type analyses of scenes and styles (he gave a lucid commentary on a scene from 'My Darling Clementine').  Chairing the discussion was critic and novelist, Kim Newman, but good though he was, he couldn't rouse Boorman to do more than recount one or two amiable stories about Ford (predictably concerning his drinking habits).  If Boorman proved difficult, reigning in the obnoxiously rambling Sheridan was impossible.  Not only did Sheridan confess to only a cursory knowledge of Ford's oeuvre (why was he there then?), he constantly droned on and on, often losing the train of his thought and evidently taking his audience for some crowd of imbeciles ("I just turn up on set and the camera just appears in some place.  I don't know how films get made.").

The Writers' Panel, though it featured some astute comments from Bateman (less so from tyro Power), was largely a battle of wills between McCabe and Harris.  Harris proclaimed his love of rhetoric; a speech by Fonda's Lincoln in 'Young Mr Lincoln', dealing with ideals and lofty notions of right and wrong, was his quintessence of drama.  McCabe objected; this was cornball stuff and didn't take account of the complexities drama should really respect.  Black and white is appealing, but it hides a multitude of sins.  While I get misty eyed with the worst of them when confronted with an aspirational speech, I can tell you I was firmly in the McCabe camp.  What we all wanted was a Celebrity Death Match between the two, or failing that just a no holds bared debate.

The Composers' Panel was dominated by host, Dave Fanning, and guest David Holmes, for all the wrong reasons.  Eastwood (who has written a lot of music for his father's films) seemed to have little to say, Caliendo a lot more; one way or the other neither could get a proper word in between Fanning's phone going off ('My son wants me to get him tickets for Jay-Z for tonight.') and Holmes' monopoly of the event.  Obviously Holmes, a self-taught DJ and composer, has a story to tell, but narrative is not his strong point and he rivalled Sheridan in his rambling.  Worse, he showed little respect for his fellow guests or the audience.  At one point he stood up and walked out to go to the toilet.  Fair enough, but as if this attention seeking was enough, he got up again close to the end claiming he had to run for a train.  When the event did end and we left the auditorium, he was standing outside chatting away.

The highlight of the whole event was the interview with Peter Bogdanovich.  Anyone who has read 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' cannot consider Bogdanovich without a little distaste.  Like Coppola and many others, fame went to his head in unpleasant ways.  He curried favour with many of the greats in what strikes me as a queasy way (Welles staying over, hobnobbing with Ford).  He's kind of like the slick teacher's pet everyone loves to hate.  Then there was his peculiar later life (something tactless interviewer Paul Byrne seemed determined to bring up).  However, now in his seventies, he has become absorbed into that very pantheon of classic directors he once paid excessive obeisance to.  So when he compared himself to Welles with Tarantino in what had been his role ("I stay over with Quentin"), I think the audience forgave him.  Certainly his string of on the money impressions of old stars like Cagney and Stewart won me over in the end.

Labels: , ,

American Gods

I finally got around to reading Neil Gaiman's tale of ancient gods squabbling in modern America.  It is a big book filled with nice characterisations and some stand out scenes, but it never seems to become anything more than the sum of its parts.  Well written though it may be, the climax is weak, the premise equally so.  The ostensible villains of the piece, a collection of new 'gods', hardly warrant the name and often you get the feeling that this just wasn't thought out well enough.  A subplot concerning an ideal American town with a dark secret, is grafted on with only a modicum of relevance to the main plot.  It's almost like Gaiman wanted to fit so much into his great American novel, that he felt obliged to include a pseudo-detective story as well.  It's all very entertaining (and I believe there's a television adaptation in the works), but not nearly as important as it thinks it is.  Much more engrossing are the extracts from Gaiman's website dealing with the process of turning his manuscript into a best-selling book.

Labels: ,


I had one of the finest rib-eye steaks in a long while at a small, unimpressive restaurant just off the main avenue.  Later we went to Toledo and were suitably impressed (what a cathedral!), though the El Greco Museum was closed.

All in all a fine week's travelling.



I had a wonderful trip to Lisbon (thanks Kellie).  Coupled with trips to Sintra (a beautiful royal getaway) and Estoril (nice beach), I had the pleasure of being doused in pigeon dropping while riding in an open top bus.  Cronenberg's 'Cosmopolis' was having a premier there and though I didn't get to it, I believe I saw Cronenberg stride down the red carpet as I watched from my bus.
I also got to wrestle a 'Russian spy' at a firework lit celebration on the main square too (kicking off the June festival).  While sitting outside a restaurant, waiting for a fish meal, street performers struck up a clown car race right beside us.  I went to take some pictures when suddenly man covered in a fur rug was thrust at me and I was ordered to keep the Russian spy captive.  That meant being wrestled to the ground at which point I felt my duty had been performed and I let him go.

Really not wanting to go home when it came time to leave, we changed our plans and went instead to...

Labels: ,

Peaks, Valleys, and the Hillsides Between

The last few weeks have had a few cultural high points, or at least points of interest, from my perspective.  The next four or five posts reflect those.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Killer Joe

When Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) lets his gambling get him into debt with a local loan shark, he fixes on a novel way of getting the money he needs; hire a hitman to kill his mother for her insurance policy.  The hitman he hires is dirty cop, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).  Things get out of hand though when Cooper demands Chris's sister as 'a retainer'.  Then there's Chris's father and stepmother to consider, one not the sharpest tool in the machine shop, the other perhaps too sharp for her own good.  And is little sis just going to take this lying down?  And so the black comedy that is 'Killer Joe' begins.

Adapted from his own stage play by Tracy Letts, 'Killer Joe' centers on a 'white trash' family of stereotypical losers who inadvertently invite the devil, well, Matthew McConaughey, into their home.  Its violence, amorality and clever dialogue remind one of Tarantino, but these similarities (no doubt things that attracted hit-starved Friedkin to the project) are somewhat superficial.  This was a play afterall and despite attempts to broaden the action out, it often plays like one.  On the plus side, there is a real playwright's attention to the organic integration of plot and character.  Similarly Letts doesn't allow his command of dialogue get in the way of the drama; while not so obviously showy as Tarantino, it is almost always precise and effective.  However, there is also a tendency to talk rather than show and unless the director is really on song this can paradoxically mute a movie.

Is director William Friedkin on song?  His career has been patchy at best since his high-rolling days of 'The Exorcist' and 'The French Connection'.  With 'Killer Joe', he attempts to resurrect his moribund reputation with something designed to provoke.  His notion of provocation though is simply to trot out a lot of female nudity and some awkward misogyny.  Reveling in the low Texas milieu of the characters he ends up concentrating on what is in my opinion the least successful aspect of the screenplay, the 'white trash' ideology.  From the dim-witted dad to the gambling son to the incipient incest Dottie seems to provoke, the portrayal of the trailer park anti-heroes encourages an easy point-the-finger attitude in its audience.  This family should be exemplars of humanity as a whole, demonstrating our worst excesses much in the manner of a Jacobean tragedy like Middleton and Rowley's 'The Changeling'.  To concentrate on who they are without opening them out allegorically, is to take easy potshots at a bunch of stereotypes.  Friedkin doesn't open the play out at all.  True, it is no doubt all in Lett's script, but Friedkin is too slavish to that screenplay.  He floats on the surface showing us the hoods, the strippers and the self-destructive trailer folk, but seems unable to get beneath their skins, the system that holds them or the world that binds them to us.  If you want a contrast, think of the Coen Brothers' black comedy, 'Fargo'.  A similarly themed story of a man in debt's botched attempt to extort money using a family member; hired thugs prove his undoing too.  However, 'Fargo' never lost sight of the fact that its characters were not really too far from its audience.  There but for the grace of God....

Friedkin is not without his talents though, and this is a kind of return to form.  'Killer Joe' never flags and never loses our engagement.  If I dislike the ideology behind it, I can still respect it for the solid entertainment it is. It's also one boosted by selfless performances from all involved (with the possible exception of Hirsch, who hams it up a wee bit too much).  In particular, and against the odds, Matthew McConaughey succeeds admirably in the menacing role of Cooper.  If this is not the film to resurrect Friedkin's career, it may well be the one to resurrect McConaughey's.  (No doubt he was thinking of John Travolta in 'Pulp Fiction' when he signed up to the project.)

With a current cinematic landscape that is so bland, any film that pushes the boundaries should be welcomed.  'Killer Joe' is certainly not bland and consistently tries to go beyond the pale.  Brandishing two fingers to the cosy mores of today's sanitised Hollywood, it strikes a distinctly seventies pose.  But there were bad aspects to the seventies too, things like misogyny, stereotyping and polarisation.  These surface here too.  'Killer Joe' pushes the boundaries, but one has to wonder if it pushes them in the right direction.

Labels: ,

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Red Lights

Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Elizabeth Olsen...don't be fooled by the cast! 'Red Lights', a tale about paranormal investigators (played by Weaver and Murphy) coming up against a formidable blind clairvoyant is pure hokum. Weaver is excellent, De Niro nothing special, Murphy by the numbers, and Olsen completely wasted (remember her in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'), but the real let down is with director and writer Rodrigo Cortes. This is a classic case of someone taking on too much.
There is the seed of an interesting story here. Paranormal investigators, especially modern thoroughly scientific ones (do they really exist?), are appealing characters and provide a fertile environment for spooky happenings. More particularly Cortes is aiming at a Shyamalan-esque big twist (yes, there's one of those) that has a lot of potential too. However, at almost every turn he fumbles the ball. Starting off with a weak joke (Murphy wakes Weaver to tell her to get some sleep), we then get the obligatory debunking scene (to show what they do, how good they are, and the types of charlatans and issues they may encounter). All very well. But when weird things do start to happen the rigour and curiosity they initially showed seems to go out the window. We get unlikely, unbelievable encounters (Murphy visits a fraud he helped put in prison and expects help; Murphy assaults a fellow academic and then expects to be put on the man's committee) and bewildering non sequiturs (What is Silver doing giving private audiences? And how does he not recognise Murphy?).
The big twist is barely effective given the muddle that has gone before. Things are not helped by a consistently hyperactive approach to direction. High angles, a busy camera and rapid cutting (Cortes is editor too) all make the most mundane scene painfully bloated or portentous. Again 'muddle' is the word that comes to mind. He seems to have no sense of building tension, no understanding of structure. The climactic confrontation is hardly involving at all given that Cortes has already displayed all his wares in previous less important scenes. Cortez obviously got this gig on the strength of his earlier (overrated) 'Buried'. That film was set entirely in a coffin. Getting out of that box doesn't seem to have helped him much.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ray Bradbury RIP - A Star Dies

The grand old man of fantasy and sci-fi is dead. As a kid, his name under a title was a sure sign of quality and I grew up with Bradbury's star shining brightly in my firmament. As I grew older, his light occasionally flickered (I didn't like some of his later short stories), but purple prose and all, he was a true original. (To think one of his first stories was 'The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms'....) We are definitely the poorer for his passing. It's probably appropriate that his death was marked by an astronomical rarity like the transit of Venus across the sun. He was a far more impressive rarity. He'll be missed, by me especially.

Labels: , ,