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.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight)

A curious adaptation of several of Shakespeare's historical plays aimed at giving Falstaff centre stage, Orson Welles's 'Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight)' is regarded by some as his masterpiece.  It certainly doesn't suffer from the troubled production it had and that so many of his later films fell prey to.  Also, given his lack of resources, it looks never less than stunning.  The frenetic pace in editing and staging he invests in some of his works, works very well here, and the whole film holds one's attention throughout.  Again it is a beautiful film, beautifully made as well as shot.  However, and not withstanding his iconic make-up, I never felt the love for the character that Welles so obviously did.  Sure, he's a lovable old rogue, but he never seems to be anything other than for himself (Stevenson's Long John Silver somehow manages this selfishness far better) and foolish along with it.  When at the coronation I should have been tearful, instead I was saying, 'What the hell are you doing, you old idiot!'  It may well have been my fault; though I am familiar with the plays, the Shakespearean dialogue often got the better of me.  Whatever it was, and wonderful though Welles' take on the character was, it just did not grab me.  Certainly a high point in his career though and essential viewing for film buffs.

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Sunday, January 03, 2016

Saint Joan...Up from the Ashes

For completion's sake, I have just finished watching Otto Preminger's 1957 film version of Shaw's 'Saint Joan'.  Adapted by Graham Greene, it has some changes, notably in the use of the epilogue to act as a frame for the tale, but the fundamentals are there.  I didn't have too much of a problem with Jean Seberg in the role.  She emphasised Joan's frailty far more than the strength that comes across in the play, but I don't doubt the sincerity of her interpretation.  I would have liked to see the more definitively Shavian Wendy Hiller in the role, but sadly that can never (and even in 1957 could never) be.  Richard Widmark may over play the buffoon as the King, but again, to be fair, the role calls for such a comical performance.  Generally it isn't a bad interpretation.  To Seberg's credit she showed me some of the more subtle possibilities of the role.  Hiller would have been perfect for it though.  Think of her in 'I Know Where I'm Going!'  And apparently Hiller originated the role of Catherine Sloper on Broadway in 'The Heiress' (playing opposite Basil Rathbone as her father! What a production that must have been).  She could do weak and strong.  Anyhow whatever about what might have been, Preminger's take is a good deal better than cinders.

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Visual Correspondence

Visual Correspondence - Historical Letters from a new perspective

Just in passing, if anyone has an interest in historical correspondence, I have created a web site devoted to that very topic.  Using basic information that is common to almost all letters, I try to map where historical figures were over their lives.  I also try to chart their social circles and provide a lot of different tools for seeing what they got up to, as letter writers that is (but actually not just as that).  The site is Visual Correspondence and it would just make me feel a bit better about wasting so much time on it if more than one or two people (mostly me) actually used it.  At present there are over 156,000 letters dealt with, featuring everyone from Karl Marx to Robert De Niro (I kid you not; do a search on the site).  And if you are aware of any online collections of correspondence that you think might be suitable for the site, please let me know.  So remember folks,

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Saturday, January 02, 2016

Saint Joan

Shaw's account of the rise and fall of the curious saint, 'Saint Joan', is a peculiar beast.  It is a battle of two sides, each obsessed with religion, told by an atheist.  Shaw's dialogue is clear, angular, and a delight, but his characters never seem more than mouth pieces.  Don't read this play looking for an insight into the historical figure; Joan starts out a 'saint' and ends a 'saint' and experiences nothing by way of character development along the way.  This is very much a play of ideas, and not the worse for that.
I am always a little bemused by the amount of attention lavished on Wilde, O'Casey, Yeats, Beckett and all the other Irish greats, while Shaw seems to get just a perfunctory once off revival every now and again or a brief aside on how clever he was.  He wrote over 60 plays after all.  Shouldn't we see more of them?  Or maybe it's just I haven't devoted enough attention to him.  (I've spent more time inside his namesake pub than reading him, I will admit.)  Well, there's a New Year's resolution for me!

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In the Heart of the Sea

Ron Howard's adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick's 'In the Heart of the Sea', an account of the sinking of the whaling vessel, The Essex, the supposed basis for 'Moby-Dick', does what it says on the tin, I suppose.  We get some big whales, sailors in lifeboats and dubious cuisine.  However, we also get Chris Hemsworth doing Thor at sea and some fairly unconvincing visuals.  Perhaps Hemsworth himself is a CGI-generated being much like the other behemoths rolling through the fake oceans.  Anyhow remedying matters a little  is Brendan Gleeson playing one of the aged survivors; he is actually better than I've seen him in a while (and he's never too far off the boil anyhow).  The strange thing for me though is the story itself.  A rogue white whale attacking a ship and harrying its mariners!  It all makes better fiction than fact, and I don't quite buy it all.  Granted I came out of the cinema wanting to read the well-regarded book (to get a handle on just how reliable the whole plot is), but for the moment I'll stick with 'Moby-Dick'.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Literary Bleach

Starting to get reading again.  In the last few weeks I have finished a whole murder of horror collections, most of which I had started at some point in the past.
King's 'Nightmares and Dreamscapes' has its fair share of dodgy material, but with so many stories this is to be expected.  It's still entertaining and what I always take from King is his storytelling ability.  The stories are not always the greatest - just look at what too often ends up on the silver screen - but the telling is worth the journey.
Then I finished off Dennis Etchison's 'The Dark Country'.  A totally different kettle of fish.  Aiming more at the high-brow, his stories are resolutely downbeat.  After a point I got a little weary of the whole maliciousness of it all.  I put the book down over midway through some months back.  However, with less left to read I thought I'd try it again.  I am not sure what his problem is with organ transplants, and sometimes the ambiguity of the whole thing irritated me, but in the end he is definitely a voice worth hearing.  Not entirely my cup of tea, but fine in sips.
When I was young, Ray Bradbury, ripe prose and all, was someone I associated with the Twilight Zone style of story and as a result was one of my heroes.  Then I read some of 'Quicker than the Eye' in my later years and started to get a wee bit disillusioned.  Am I just maturing, getting older, or losing my childlike sense of wonder?  Whatever it is I read Bradbury's 'The October Country' a while back to give him another chance.  Not bad.  Some tales are nice and dark (the one about the husband and wife in Mexico, for instance.)  Still though it didn't blow me away and I started on 'The Illustrated Man' more for completeness sake than out of enthusiasm.  After a while I put it down.  Again in the last few days I thought I'd finish it off, and so I did.
I had read some of the stories in this collection before and okay, it is good.  But ultimately there's a superficiality to everything that kind of bores me.  The downbeat bleakness I took from other stories by Bradbury (such as 'The Small Assassin' or 'The Playground') is too tempered by an overdose of sentimentality here.  It's sad stuff, but paper thin too.
I suppose it's the likes of Etchison and particularly the next author I read that has raised my expectations a little.  Robert Aickman's apparently most 'accessible' collection, 'Cold Hand in Mine' is BIZARRE.  He is an excellent writer, but what on earth is he doing?  His description of his own stories as 'strange stories' is the most appropriate description anyone has ever made of their work.  Each one is full of unease, sexual tension and some sort of horror, but rarely is there any closure, and seldom any attempt at explanation.  'The Same Dog' is horrible, but what the hell just happened?!!  'Meeting Mr Millar' is full of the adult character you do not get in Bradbury, but again what is going on?  As to the masterpiece of the collection, 'The Hospice', I really do not know what it was all about, I just know it was nasty.  What was the cat bite about, not that it seemed to be a cat?  Was it a rest home for fans of the Seven Deadly Sins?  What was with the food, the lightbulb, the woman with the perfume, the changing Banner, the EVERYTHING?  Never before have I reached for my phone so many times to look up Aickman to find out what were his views on religion, women, Freud - who the hell was this guy.  He is bizarre, definitely not for everyone, but for those who can take the lack of solid answers, strangely addictive.  It says something that the one story that seems most straight-forward, 'Pages from a Young Girl's Diary', was for me the least interesting.  As a slow, slow reader I was surprised to find I had finished the book in just over two days.  Addictive.
Algernon Blackwood's 'John Silence' stories should be just the thing I like.  Silence is an investigator, or rather specialist, in the supernatural, something along the lines of Hodgson's Carnacki, and acting as a precursor to Kolchak and the X-Files.  However, the stories despite dealing with shape-shifters, mummies, possessions and devils are almost always too genteel to really get the blood racing.  After three or four stories again I had put the book down.  Anyhow there were only three stories left so I picked it up again last night.  'Secret Worship' deals with a coven of Satanists masquerading as monks running a posh, isolated school for toffs (not a million miles from Argento's 'Suspiria', for instance).  You can see immediately how influential it has been as a theme, and Blackwood's John Silence is always at the centre of truly mythic themes.  The story starts well following a former pupil's mysterious compulsion to visit his old school and it builds well too.  You can practically see poor old Christopher Lee, may he rest in peace, as Kalkmann the monk who opens the door and makes the visitor so welcome.  The tension builds.  Even the appearance of the devil is original enough to keep things on a good footing.  However, the entrance of John Silence (previously largely missing from the tale) is something of a damp squib.  He is literally compared to Jesus, and the best sort of English man, while the German monks are equated with evil.  Blackwood slyly amplifies this ludicrous dichotomy with an alignment of merchants and silk-selling with the forces of Goodness.  Capitalism is a very Good thing apparently!  Anyhow I will finish the thing, but Blackwood, for all that he wrote 'The Willows' and 'The Wendigo' is still an awfully silly, not to mention too laid-back, a writer.
Anyhow I am finally starting to clear the reader's block.

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Reader's Block

Got two books on the go, Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers' and Andrew Matt's 'A History of the World'. Also really want to get back to Arthur Schlesinger's Diaries if I can find the time. I want to read!

Friday, February 08, 2013


Apparently telling the story of the making of Hitchcock's seminal 'Psycho', 'Hitchcock' misses almost every target it aims at.  Its high class cast of Hopkins, Mirren, Johanssen, Huston, etc. at best are competent, at worst distracting.  Danny Huston is particularly awkward, but Hopkins, in the huge role of Alfred Hitchcock, is never anything other than Anthony Hopkins; you never see Hitchcock on the screen.  The direction is bland, the editing amateurish, and for a movie about a movie characterised by one of the most memorable scores in film history, the jaunty bubblegum of this film's soundtrack is never anything less than a let down.  And then there's the script....  Can I count the ways...?

  • The basic adultery plot is insultingly slender;
  • The 'challenges' faced by Hitchcok in making his movie are less than impressive;
  • The Ed Gein conceit simply doesn't work;
  • The tone is completely misjudged;
  • There is no insight into either Hitchcock or the making of 'Psycho'.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock and his obsessions would already be far ahead of this screenplay's 'insights'.
A wasted opportunity.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

The Words

'The Words' tells of the ultimate sin: Plagiarism!   After suffering rejection for so long, can a budding writer resist a masterpiece that just lands in his lap, just because it isn't his?
The film boasts a strong cast - Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde, Dennis Quaid - a Glass-style score (by Marcelo Zarvos), nice production values and a convoluted story within a story framing device.  It positively reeks of artistic intent.  However, look beneath the surface, and things are a little less convincing.
For a start, the high-powered cast doesn't always deliver; there's some ham from Irons, blandness from Cooper, and a strange campness from Quaid.  Mitigating things somewhat are good performances from Saldana, Wilde and Ben Barnes.  The score is pleasant, but forgettable, trying as it does to sound like 'The Hours'.  The real test though is the script itself, the real words.
Its tricksy framed narrative, with its sly questioning of what's real and what's fiction, strives to fool the viewer into believing this is a profound piece of cinema. It handles its story within a story structure well, but its a measure of how well-worn this approach has become that there is no risk of any audience member being challenged.  And that reflects the film in its entirety.    This is not a profound film; it just thinks it is.  Ultimately it's a simple, sentimental tale told with purple prose..
Whatever its pretensions, there is a sincerity in its willingness to tackle guilt and its effects on people.  It just doesn't have too much more to add to what other better films (such as 'Crimes and Misdemeanors') have already taught us.  Its one good insight is to stress how words can complicate, confuse and ultimately spoil the good things in life.  The young soldier and his French love are never more happy than when they share only one word in common.  It's a trite and simple lesson, but one that nevertheless resonates.  However, do we really need three(?) writers, several fictional books and a title to drive the point home?
In a way, yes, we do. You see 'The Words' is pretentious, and yes, there are many flaws, but for all that I still kept watching.  The writerly aspects (rejections, doubt, exhilaration) rang true for me.  In terms of its narrative structure, it really couldn't but take the approach it does.  They are cheap tricks that it uses, but they are bookish tricks. And then I am a softie at heart (I'd just wiped up my tears after having watched 'Up' again beforehand), so sentiment is not the kiss of death it might be for others.  For all my harsh words then, I can't just dismiss this one.  Simple, sentimental, defiantly middle-brow, it is still a guilty pleasure.  If you see it in a bargain bin, pick it up.

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