book of the month: The Nightcomers by Eric Ambler

nightcomers

 

I have long threatened to engage with this man’s work. He had been writing since the mid 1930s but this particular novel was published in ’56; just before Spymania was beginning to dominate the paperback shelves. I had led myself to believe that this is where Ambler’s work would reside. But from what I read here, his genre would have to be considered more political.

We begin after the Second World War with Steve Fraser, an English engineer working in one of the Dutch East Indies many provinces alongside a group of Westerners. Prior to this point in history, Indonesia was like a hot potato. It changed hands from the Dutch to the Portuguese to the Japanese and was now barely getting to grip with independence.

Fraser and his team are finishing up the construction a dam that will no doubt line their pockets.

He has a few days to waste before his flight home and accepts the offer an apartment, given to him by an Australian acquaintance who also recommends a good tailor to visit during his stay.

Added into the mix is a Eurasian woman named Rosalie who agrees to keep him company for the last days of his stay. Such was the style of the time.

Everything seems to be fine until explosions begin to be heard around the city. There is rebellion under way as the rebels of the North plan their attack on the Nasjah government. The pair has now become hostages of the uprising, held in a half captive/half protective situation by Suparto, a representative of rebel General Sanusi, who may or may not be happy with the direction of the rebels leadership.

What really impressed me here was the relaxed, matter of fact nature of Fraser. He does occasionally judge the locals very quickly but often his instincts are quite accurate.

Some really good insight, for example, is the importance of saving face. Fraser who has a good grasp of the local dialect knows it’s better not to use this and instead lets local officials speak their poor version of English, despite everything taking twice as long to do.

The commentary on the bribe culture of the area is deft in tone and something many travelers still warn about to this day, as well as the ridiculous nature of promotion within any organisation.

Another aspect of Ambler’s writing is that he moves things along very quickly. A siege or hostage plot can drag quite easily if not handled well.

Here the writer provides just about enough detail regarding the layout of the apartment as well as the simple pleasures of having enough food and water to sustain themselves. He also renders Rosalie’s sarong very well, that most durable of item of apparel. It is these themes that really make the story work. Fraser is for now no better off than the locals, and plans his life hour by hour instead of more long term.

Having lived in Jakarta a decade ago, I could easily picture the scene around the old Dutch quarter, back then. An area long since dilapidated, with its few narrow bridges to remind the settlers of home.

As I recall it was a massive sprawl of a city and when I think of the intense sewerage and water treatment difficulties even in my time there, it made me laugh when they put Fraser’s character in charge of fixing a complex generator in the basement of the apartment block.

All in all, it works quite well as a brief historical document. Those who might be offended by the way westerners take advantage of local young women might steer clear. Does it help that Fraser remains a gentleman throughout? That he is constantly looking out for Rosalie’s safety? Maybe not.

But I think it captures the state of confusion that must have been felt in this time. How after six hundred odd years of colonialism the end was in sight for the local people and the potential for different factions to start fighting amongst themselves the closer they were coming to independence.

I must say too that my knowledge of South East Asian geography did not really affect my enjoyment. During the reading of the story, I had assumed the place names and names of the factions he was using to be apocryphal.

A political thriller with a light touch, I would read more from Eric Ambler quite happily.

Film of the Week: We Are Your Friends

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Let’s get one thing absolutely straight. Well, maybe two things. Number one, I know about as much about dance music as I do Caravaggio. That is to say, I am an admirer but no aficionado.

And B, I like Zac Efron and rate him as a movie star.

It’s important we get that out of the way. Because when this film was released a couple of years back it seems a lot of folk couldn’t get past their bias. It scored poorly with critics and the likes of Rotten Tomatoes. The latter usually has a reliable batting average so I did approach this with caution.

Efron plays Cole Carter, a flat broke dance music enthusiast slumming it in the San Fernando valley, hoping to one day become a world-class DJ. Before he does that, however, he needs to earn enough coin to buy lunch, preferably in the local sushi bar beside the strip club. To earn his pocket money, Cole must work in a fairly exclusive nite club, selling comps like those poor unfortunates you might see in Malaga outside Linekers.

On one of these nights, he meets Sophie( played quite nicely here by Emily Ratajkowski) who quickly dismisses him as part of the help.

Cole learns a quick lesson in the food chain of life but as far this night goes, his journey is only just beginning. Like all great friendships, he ends up meeting a new pal over a high grade joint at the back of the nite club. This well to do friend( James played by Wes Bentley, who is once again enjoying posh skunk after helping Spacey let his freak flag fly in American Beauty) turns out to be a formerly successful dance music DJ himself. James invites him to a high-class party and lets him stay the night on his couch. The next morning he is reacquainted with Sophie who turns out to be James’s girlfriend, because, well, of course she is.

This chance meeting leads to open doors and an opportunity to fulfill his dream. There are ups and downs, ill-advised trips to Vegas and the pursuit of job security at an untrustworthy estate agent. Cole makes mistakes and learns, sometimes the hard way, sometimes in a more enjoyable manner.

If this was Chartbusters you might see this film displayed in a very bright coloured box. And I do mean the box. You know like when you used to get those Disney films and the actual plastic case was red and then they put the inlay card over it? Yeah like that. The box for this would be maybe neon green.

It has some pretensions for sure. The opening titles owe a lot to those surfer movies of the 70s and there is a real effort to make the frames tell the story of a night on amphetamines. In one really superfluous but admittedly pretty cool scene, Cole ends up at a posh house party/ LA art gallery deal and suddenly sees the people around him turn into fluid two-dimensional Adobe illustrator models. If you’re not in the mood you’ll hate it.

But I was in the mood. I wanted my emotions to be manipulated and was willing to be won over quite easily. In a sub two hour film you can go for a lot of things and you can do it with subtlety or with a sledgehammer. This was closer to the latter as we are treated to the rise and fall and rise again of Cole Carter. He deserts his old friends, he betrays new ones, he thinks he’s decent at the music thing, is told he’s not as good as he thinks he is. He works harder and gets better. It is all quite conservative when you list it out like that. So why does it work? Well for one Efron.

I have seen him in a number of films now, either playing a jock, playing soccer, playing a frat house neighbour and playing a Waspish grandson of Robert De Niro with interesting results. He never gives anything less than his all. Once again here, he is totally believable as a working class L.A slacker who has a certain determination to better himself.

Alongside that, to these untrained ears, the music is okay too. It’s unlikely I will add the soundtrack to my iTunes but there are a few numbers that sit quite well with me. I initially found his first main tune, where he explains to Sophie his fascinating theory of 128 bpm being the ideal rate to get a dancer on the buzz, better than the one he actually closes the film on. But after a few more listens the closer won me over.

All in all, it’s a pretty decent way to spend a few hours. The American dream is in there. Being washed down with San Pellegrino albeit, but still there.  

SCRAPPERMANIA III

BULLET

 

Are you ready?

 

When the host for the evening asks you the question you have to say yes. Even though you have no idea what’s going to happen, no clue as to how these players of pavlovian theatre will draw you into their mad, magical world.

I am a wrestling fan, albeit slightly lapsed lately. The most recent Wrestlemania in Florida was watched with my finger firmly on the fast forward button( or the scroll in the case of Dailymotion) Four hours is a huge commitment and not altogether justified for what’s on offer. I often am more entertained by Internet fans decrying the mistreatment of their favourites, than the actual action and storylines. I daresay it keeps Vince McMahon up on many a night, trying to figure out a means of monetizing these informal Facebook fan pages.

All this means that I am, on the whole, disenchanted by the sports entertainment experience. I have gone through these stages in my life a few times. In my early teens, maybe 1994, our housing estate lost Sky One for a year and by the time it came back all WWF action had been moved to the Sky Sports channels( bar maybe one lousy hour of kid-friendly stuff on Sunday afternoon). This obviously had an effect on my engagement.

I think I rediscovered my interest around late 1996. Word of mouth, positive feedback by the true believers( and those with access to a Sky digital box) Since then it’s been very much peaks and troughs. Like any long running saga of television if you stick around long enough you will be prone to repetition. Nothing as bad as seeing the same thing over and over again.

Why is all this relevant? Well because I am pretty sure I’m speaking for many like-minded folk when I say that I still want to feel that magic every now and again. There remains that intangible, impossible to explain, buzz that comes from a live wrestling show. On a screen in your living room is good enough, but to be there in person? Wow!

OTT( Over the Top) is a wrestling promotion based in Dublin, whose product is heavily focused on the more mature, discerning fan. They are about five years in now I reckon. Their home turf is the old Tivoli theatre in Francis Street. Those of an ECW disposition might consider this their Philadelphia Spectrum. Over the last few years, the company have gradually built upon the solid foundations laid by Mainstage, Irish Whip and Wresling.IE amongst others. Domestic and British talent have competed in contests that aren’t exactly run of the mill.

There is a certain expectation that the OTT crowd has. To me the origins of the company was borne out of a desire for a more hardcore product, with cooler, more three dimensional characters and tougher, in ring action( though blading and excessive violence is rare). Mic time is a key component of whether a wrestler will be successful. Can he or she make that connection with the crowd. Coarse language is not only welcomed but encouraged. Also as an extension pre-recorded video packages are often leaked on social media in the weeks building up to a big event. These are often zero budget and hilarious.

For all this though, there seems to be an acknowledgment amongst the company’s owners that comedy and colloquial chants will only get you so far. And with the onset of the internet and fans having access to action the world over, professional wrestling has now become a far more international and artistic affair.

Since the late 70s, Japan has been the undisputed second kingdom of wrestling. Perhaps the mecca if you’re talking to certain people. Stars such as Antonio Inoki, Jushin Liger and Tiger Mask have built a cult following over here while creating enormous fan bases at home. In that time they’ve welcomed a host of North American based talent into their ranks, either on a touring or more long term basis. Notable successes here would be Stan Hansen, Dynamite Kid, Owen Hart, Chris Benoit and even Hulk Hogan who was always greeted with appreciation( not least because he gave it a little bit more over there)

The cross-pollination of Japanese and North American wrestling has always interested me. WCW made a few decent stabs at it in the 1990s but ultimately couldn’t sustain the impact due to being an absolute basket-case of a business. In the modern era though there are only two words you need to remember when it comes to the West invading the East.

Bullet Club!

But more of them later. Believe me, they won’t be ignored or overshadowed.

In the past few years, friendships have been made and reputations solidified to the point that performers more used to crowds of 60,000 in Tokyo, New York and beyond now consider Dublin to be a key area in the world map of professional wrestling. No doubt, we can’t compete with stadium-sized crowds(yet) but for enthusiasm, we certainly can.

So to Scrappermania and OTT’s maiden journey onto the wider expanses of the national stadium on the South Circular Road. The famous old boxing arena, being utilized due to its increased capacity, has surely never seen such a night of wild, inexplicable pleasure. Upon arrival, myself and my buddy Niall are told by the taxi driver that the queue was three times as long an hour previous. It is about 7.15pm and there’s about twenty minutes to first bell. Most are settling into their seats, many others queuing for beer. I am already buzzing at that this point, alcohol would help but if doesn’t happen, it won’t bother me none.

The master of ceremonies is Aengus McInally junior, whipping the crowd up into a frenzy they are halfway to already. Surely his dad never saw such rabid patronage back in the Irish masters days at Goffs?

The first match sees Grado defeat Charlie Sterling. Grado is kind of a comedy act who has developed a huge following that now far extends his original Scottish base. Despite all the tomfoolery, he is actually a decent hand, as they say. We don’t get to see much evidence of this here as the contest turns into a bit of a farcical affair. Sterling is slightly de-robed for much of the match, inviting the crowd to replace their ‘we want Brexit’ chants with ‘pull your jocks up’. In the end Grado wins, Madonna plays and we’re warming up nicely.

The next few fights are good enough. Jigsaw beats Scotty in a solid enough featherweight encounter. The exchanges are chained together well and the crowd acknowledges the artistic merit with applause. Paul Tracey, the Lord of the Manor and one of my favourites brings his old school heelwork to bear on the crowd. Tracey is made wait a ridiculous length of time by Jurn Simmons, a Dutchman with an affection for epic 80s rock and a chest as hirsute as any Fabulous Freebird could wish for. The Dutchman wins.

The Gym Nasties then face up against their former friend Justin Shape and his new partner Logan Bryce. I am kind of disappointed to see Bryce has temporarily shelved his Leinster rugby fan gimmick. Here he and Shape wear black. It is a solid match, with only an occasional botch. But the crowd are with it.

Next out is the ladies six women tag match featuring Session Moth and champion Katey Harvey. The Moth is majorly over these days. Glow sticks are handed out amongst the fans and the scene is immense. The Moth and her partners win but their celebratory rave is cut short by a shocking heel turn. My key takeaway here is that Katey Harvey is an excellent worker. I already knew Session Moth was.

The next one I nearly totally miss. Toilet time beckons and the queues are oh so long. I hear the oohs and the aahs behind me and curse my weak bladder. By the time I return from the bar it feels like I have been missing for an hour and the Lads from the Flats are all but finished against the Kings of the North. This is a contest that has seen so many iterations down the years. Martin and Workie have not always been slack jawed junkies in Adidas tracksuit bottoms. Time was they were as earnest as a couple of 1997 era Hardy boys with arguably brighter tights. I love everything these two do. I can’t think of the amount of times they mesmerised me in the likes of Good Counsel and Drimnagh. It’s a beautiful thing to see that while the costumes have changed, they remain as tight and as watchable as ever. So many high spots, so much agility. They are now joined by a third disciple in Paddy M. He has won the crowd over the past year or so. Corvin, Bonesaw and Dunkan Disorderly bring the power from the North but it’s a perfect clash of styles. I could watch them forever but of course I can’t. The northies win, which shocks the home support. But maybe they deserve a big show win at this stage.

We’re getting into the bewitching hours now. Maybe three hours in. I should be bored out of my tree but the double rums are working their magic and Marty Scurll is up next, Scurll wears his ROH TV title down to the ring which really adds an aura of class to proceedings. He fights a New Zealander called Jay White who reminds me a bit of Kerry Von Erich. This is a very classy affair and feels like the match of the night. There is a quality here that really shines through. You can tell the pair know each-other well. Scurll wins the match and in me, a new fan.

Angel Cruz fights Zack Gibson, a lad from Liverpool, loses. It is pretty well received and a nice warmer upper before the big one. On we go.

Finally it is the turn of Uptown Funk against the Bullet Club. Now I say the Bullet Club, but obviously not every member is here. Still we have three of them and they are great. The Elite Squad are hilarious but technically excellent and Kenny Omega is a Canadian superstar in every sense of the word. He carries himself like the lead singer of a super cool rock band and one can only imagine he would have his pick of any ring rat, if he wasn’t happily married. The match itself is very special. A thirty odd minute stunt fest which is as dynamic and rapid as nothing you will see on Monday Night Raw. Smiley, Will Osprey and Lio Rush set a ferocious pace all the way through and it’s a great tribute to the audience that none of the six phone this in. Why would they, when it’s been shown on ppv all around the world?

The Bullet Club get the decision but Uptown Funk are perhaps only a handful of cheers behind on the audience scorecard. The night isn’t over yet. Smiley insists on a dance off which even Omega engages in. Soon, the ring is full with the night’s other talents now inside, enjoying one last dance off. Seemingly disgusted by all this sentimentality the Bullet Club revert to type and super kick everyone out of the ring. The stage is theirs alone.

*

Overall the night has to be seen as a rousing success. Scrappermania as an entity has surely cemented it’s place as Ireland’s big night of squared circle action. In the end all tastes were catered to. The local talent remains a key factor and while it’s no guarantee they could have sold 2200 seats without Omega’s name on the card, it’s been clear for the past year or so that OTT are outgrowing their beloved Tivoli.

The groundwork that has been laid the past few years is phenomenal. The team have put on some great shows. They’ve fought in rocker bars and fringe festivals, gathering a groundswell of support to add to their hardcore base. The production too has also improved vastly since my days as a humble ringside cameraman with Mainstage. Now not only is the event filmed by a proper professional crew, the entrance ramp is often illuminated by a decent amount of pyro as well two big screens to display the latest promo offering. Last night it was on these very screens I learned that none other than Mick Foley himself will be making a guest appearance in the next big show in August.

This is a genuinely great time to be watching wrestling in Ireland. I looked around last night and wished I was a bit younger and had just a few less commitments, thereby allowing me to immerse more in this madness. But the key takeaway for me is this. OTT is very much on the map and I have no idea how big they can get.

 

Some good related linkage

 

1.For a proper review of the show, check these guys out. I used to know all the names of the moves. But we’re a long way from cobra clutches and figure fours these days. These lads will more than cover my shortcomings.

http://backbodydrop.com/blog/reviews/ott-scrappermania-iii-april-15-2017/

 

  1. The OTT twitter page is a great resource for Fan footage, wrestler retweets and other general updates

 

https://twitter.com/OTT_wrestling

 

  1. If WWE’s network of old Koko B.Ware matches ain’t doing it for you, perhaps check out FloSlam. This is basically where to go for news, views and all things international wrestling has to offer.

 

http://www.floslam.tv/

 

Film of the week: Breakdown

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Sometimes when I’m watching old films at home with the folks I feel it’s out of a sense of duty. Who else from my generation for example would watch Tom Selleck without a moustache or Brian Dennehy being sinister if not me?

These are made for TV movies however. The likes of Ike & To Catch a Killer are cheaply produced, low risk ventures that rarely end up hurting feelings or studio execs wallets.

Somewhere between these and the tent pole blockbusters there are worthy films to be had however. B movies that are upwardly mobile with notions of greatness. Manys a career has been launched in this way. Or in the case of Breakdown perhaps relaunched.

Kurt Russell might not have been born into Hollywood royalty but he surely would struggle to remember a time when he wasn’t surrounded by all the bells and whistles of production . His uncredited debut came in an Elvis movie at the age of twelve but I remember seeing him in an episode of The Fugitive where he can’t have been much older.

As the decades rolled on he remained a staple of television programming and the darling of domestic Walt Disney output. A lot of this stuff was before my time and I’m unlikely to catch up on it now. But we can safely say he had a good grounding before what was his undoubted big Hollywood break with the The Thing in 1982.

After this turn as a Kristofferson doppleganger in the snow covered Antarctic, Russell had confirmed his abilities as a potential leading man. John Carpenter went back to him a few times afterwards( Escape from New York, LA and Big Trouble in Little China) He also worked with Meryl Streep in Silkwood, Mel Gibson in Tequila Sunrise, Stallone in Tango and Cash not to mention teaming up with his long term partner Goldie Hawn in Overboard.

The nineties saw more hits come along. Backdraft in 1991, Unlawful Entry 1992, Tombstone 1993, Stargate 1994 and Executive Decision 1996. Nothing that would give Ingmar Bergman sleepless nights but all made good money nonetheless.

But here is where it got hairy. In 1998 a film finally arrived in theatres called Soldier. It was at that time one of the biggest box office flops ever produced and almost certainly would have killed off Russell’s claims as the blued eyed American hero of blockbuster cinema.

That Breakdown came out before it is perhaps the flaw in my argument, until you realise Soldier was in production first. The sci fi opus had actually been in development for 15 years at this stage and only when Russell agreed to sign on in 1996 could they go ahead.

Director Paul Anderson(no, not that one, the other one) is quoted as saying that Kurt decided to commit to intensive physical training before cameras rolled. This fascinates me. Sure you want to look your best but surely he must have known the script was a dog at that point. Guess there’s some things Imdb can’t tell you.

Either way it is my opinion that Russell was worried. He had his box office radar on and couldn’t see a happy ending for Soldier. So after a quick look around the Screenplay super store he managed to spot Breakdown. It’s a quick enough shoot and turnaround and it makes good in the cinemas and the long and successful career of one of Hollywood’s golden boys carries on.

Think I’m wrong? That with the dates and everything else it just doesn’t make sense? Fine, go ahead and watch Breakdown again. Look at everybody’s clothes. Okay so maybe Russell and his wife would have nice clean clobber; they are on their way from Boston and wanting to make a fresh start. But then look at the Canadian tuxedo JT Walsh is sporting. Not a spec of dust. Could it be that this whole production had a small window of opportunity to get done and nobody on set had the time to age the clothes? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe JT just liked to look clean.

Anyway the film itself is based on a very decent Jonathan Mostow script and basically tells the age old story of city slickers offending simpler world weary folk and paying the penalty. Russell plays Jeff, who in his new red Jeep Wrangler that he still owes money on, is driving to San Francisco  with his wife Amy in the hopes of getting a new job and leaving his woes behind him. In a split second of distraction Jeff almost crashes into a big black pickup truck, waking his slumbering wife in the process. So sets off a chain of Hitchcockian events that do little to disprove that Democrats don’t like blaming themselves for anything and that you really shouldn’t let your wife take a lift from a trucker in the desert.

I watched this with a great appreciation for the craftsmanship of mid 1990s filmmaking. Around this point in time stuntmen and women were at the top of their game and the foreboding presence of all that cgi in Titanic was still considered by many to being an anomaly.

Looking back on it now, it seems a bit tired, a bit lacking in real sheen. The music is nondescript and everyone involved seem a bit preoccupied. Like as if they know they don’t have more than three red jeeps to destroy or that JT Walsh is getting on a plane first thing in the morning and the first or second take of this scene will have to do(JT I’m sure was golden every time, I’m more pointing the finger at the director)

Of course time waits for no man and maybe it was around this time that Kurt maybe realised that the action hero schtick had probably passed him by.

In the years that followed he has been in numerous projects that have provided him with more challenging work. This year he’ll do what everyone else does nowadays and star in a Marvel movie: playing Chris Pratt’s dad in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Proof, if it was even needed, that Kurt Russell is now proudly an elder statesman of the Hollywood set.

Unfortunately we said goodbye to JT a few years back and as such were deprived of his perpetual excellence. If you’re ever feeling nostalgic I suggest The Grifters or The Negotiator for further viewing.

As for Breakdown well I had seen it a couple of years ago ago and maybe once was enough. Anyway, it’s still pretty good, better than Soldier anyway.

FILM OF THE WEEK: OFFICE SPACE

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It’s funny how some films pass you by. It’s much more difficult to miss things these days with media coming at you from multiple angles. Or maybe that’s the problem.

Office Space will be familiar to a generation of meme enthusiasts, perhaps more so than the film itself. Its chief protagonist in these images is the hateful, malignant Porsche driving boss Bill Lumbergh( played by Gary Cole). A character as despicable as Willy Wonka was disinterested.

The film sees Peter, a twenty-something American male whose employment involves fixing the potential Y2K issues that might affect the accounts which are all computer based at this point. His main concerns are forgetting to put new cover sheets on his documents, wondering if his girlfriend is cheating on him and trying to pick the right lane on the freeway while commuting to work.

His colleagues, Samir and Michael Bolton(just coincidence) are slightly more technically minded on the I.T side of things, though no less alienated from society.

Trouble is brewing when a couple of guys from personnel arrive, trying to save money by firing a few heads. Everyone is on edge, except Peter, whose worries have recently disappeared since a visit to a hypnotist.

In the aftermath of the clinic visit, he suddenly becomes a self-aware, carefree soul who pays no heed to the wants and whiles of Lumbergh. Nor does he have any fear of asking the cute waitress(played here by Jennifer Aniston, how did they find the money to afford her??) out for lunch.

Of course, this production is not built on plot alone. The character driven piece is designed to get the viewers(hopefully real life slackers) to both root for and rage against familiar types they might recognise from their own cubicle partitioned gulags. It is to Gary Cole’s and to a lesser extent Steve Root’s eternal credit that they are so memorable.

The film itself is no ground breaker. It has the usual ahem…staples. Anti-social psychopathic men with soup stained shirts, easy living next-door neighbours behind paper thin suburban walls. As a critique on modern American working culture its themes are easily identifiable.

Production wise it looks and feels more like a one camera comedy you might see on Comedy Central. The colour grade is dull but yet carries the assured glean of daytime television. In a way, it’s ideal for these characters who know their limitations all too well.

The film itself ranks high in the all time Imdb lists, a cult classic that steadily become more iconic with each passing year. Directed by Mike Judge(he of Beavis and Butthead fame) it remains a fine addition to that most valued of genres, the slacker comedy.

 

Beyond Caravaggio

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There is a lot to be said for going to an art museum. Especially on weekdays if you manage it. Unfortunately, times being as they are, there will be a strategically placed gift shop for you to negotiate. Once you have either ignored or surrendered to all those Da Vinci fridge magnet’s however, you’re into a new and magical world.

One exhibition that drew my attention recently was the Caravaggio display in National Gallery of Ireland, near Lincoln Place in Dublin. I had promised myself the past few weeks that I’d head in. So I decided to do so, albeit on the warmest day of the year thus far.

I was warned beforehand that it wouldn’t be wall to wall original work from the man himself, but rather a selection from those who studied under him from the early 17th century onwards.

The exhibit has been well promoted on the radio waves the past few weeks. There was one such documentary on Newstalk that is well worth catching up on. I learned among other things that our pal Caravaggio was a lot like our other pal Fyodor; he didn’t much like his landlords.

Moving onto the work itself. All in all, there’s about 30 pieces in the display. The artists hailed from Western Europe; France, Germany, Netherlands and of course Italy. All inspired by the style that made Caravaggio so familiar. The spotlight style, I like to call it.

From what I can discern there is a question of how he managed to attain this light. Legendary photographer David Hockney has stated he believes it was through the camera obscura, others aren’t so sure. What was clear to me in that collection was that Caravaggio definitely managed to get his models to stand for him longer than most; he was not known to use sketches as a reference.

All art is quite rightly subjective but for this scribe, you really can’t argue with realism. Detail is often derided as merely replicating what you see, that it lacks a personality all its own. What people might forget is that without Caravaggio’s innovation, this might never have become an argument.

His unique means of lighting his subjects have long since become standard, not only in fine art but also in modern film-making.

A strong, stark light casts itself on the subject, offering pin sharp detail wherever its beam lands. In turn, this can create wonderful atmosphere, depth and shadow. Unlike so much two-dimensional work that preceded him, one can only imagine the excitement of seeing such realistic depictions back then.

Caravaggio3

In his most famous work ‘The Taking of Christ’ the central character is brilliantly detailed. The angry tones of red warning everyone of impending doom. But what struck me with seeing both this and ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ up close was the attention paid to the co-stars(for want of a better description) This became really noticeable when compared to the other works on display.

That’s not to dismiss their paintings completely. I counted about 15 pieces that really grabbed my attention.

Out of those my favourites were

  • Nicholas Tournier: Dice Players (great detail on the hands)
  • Dirck van Baburen: Man with a wine flask (full of personality)
  • Cecco Del Caravaggio: A Musician (beautifully rendered ruffles!)
  • Orazio Gentileschi: David And Goliath (epic, just on the size of the canvas alone)
  • Giovanni Antonio Galli: Christ displaying his wounds ( full of attitude)

There were recurring themes in a lot of the work. The prevailing mood of the day seemed to be quite jovial with games of Dice documented a few times. There were also two very different retellings of a scene from Sodom, which were both shocking in their origin but only one was truly graphic.

I suppose a lot of these were painted because of society’s wants at the time. There was surely commissions from the Church to depict biblical scenes but many artists seem to be cowed by this responsibility, often being too reverential to the subject matter. Not so Caravaggio and a number of these younger prodigies. I can imagine depicting Jesus Christ in such a real and vulnerable state would have raised a lot of eyebrows back then. Caravaggio certainly wasn’t the first to depict him as such, but few if any managed to deliver such moments with the fury and intensity that he did.

As a layman and a guy walking in off the street I can’t say I know much about it but I know what I like. The gallery’s crimson walls are ideal for this collection. Some of them work better than others but for those that do, you’ll be left with these images painted into your psyche for days afterwards.

 

Film of the week: Get Out

GetOut_Chair_UK

I have no great affection for the horror genre overall. That is to say if I hear a film is good and it happens to be a horror, I’ll go and watch that bad boy. Though I wouldn’t actively seek such films out over, say a crime drama.

I often think I might be missing a trick. Historically many horror films have been very innovative. Just from a technical level, the likes of Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) and Roman Polanski (Repulsion) used camera trickery and live action effects to overcome budget constraints, both to great effect.

Unfortunately, though I think I have been desensitized to the gore by overused tropes and hammy acting. That is a sweeping statement I’m sure I’ll live to regret but I’ll digress.

…Why did I make an exception here? Well, word of mouth really.

This was selected as the secret film at the ADIFF recently and from what I could tell afterward, it really went down well with the audience that afternoon.

I overheard mention of liberal revenge and sharp irony and couldn’t resist. It’s very rare for a horror film to aim as high as wanting to make a political statement so I had to see for myself.

The film opens in a moonlit suburbia scene all too familiar to young black men. That it’s handled with such a deft touch as Peele manages here offers great hope for what’s to follow.

We are then introduced to the main players with Chris( Daniel Kaluuya) about to visit his girlfriend’s (Rose: played by Alison Williams) in-laws for the first time. The thought of that might be scary enough for some and it certainly makes Chris wonder what awaits him. By now it’s obvious that Chris is black. If you have missed the point he will remind you. His GF doesn’t think it matters but Chris remains uncertain. We also learn that he is currently trying to quit cigarettes. Concentrate, there will be a test later. Rose tries to assure him that his dad will be over friendly if anything(and that he would have voted for Obama 3 times if it were possible)

They set off on their journey in a well marked red Lincoln. Red for Danger? Lincoln for America? Or is it too paranoid to wonder these things? Already I’m on edge as I watch! When Chris’s friend (Rod: played brilliantly by LiRel Howery)  calls him on the cell phone there is playful chit chat as well as mild flirting with Rose. Just as this ends, a reindeer jumps out straight in front of the vehicle. Damage is done to the car but thankfully not the passengers. A policeman arrives and can’t help but racially profile. Chris is a lot more accepting about this than the Rose. They continue their journey to the house.

I realise this is perhaps an overly descriptive account of events. And that to continue down this path would render your viewing of the film quite redundant. But I felt it important to show how normal the set-up is here.

This could easily still turn out to be a black(sic) comedy or the type of earnest Oscar bait well-meaning drama that Hollywood is convinced we all adore. All in all, it’s a gamble to play it out like this. But when you reach the end some 90 minutes later, all of these pieces of string have been neatly tidied up in a bow.

Director and writer Jordan Peele manages to gently tweak the tension slightly. We see the dad as a harmless, perhaps overtly liberal white apologist. Then the roguish son Jeremy, a kind of Heath Ledger( Monster’s Ball era), Calvin Candie hybrid who fails to hide his contempt as well as the rest of the family.

But where do I go from here in this review? Do I continue down the path of telling you the whole plot? I don’t think that would anyone any good.

Peele has created a situation that would be familiar to many living in L.A. The uneasy question of how rich white people still view black people. The question here doesn’t carry the same sledge-hammer style introspection seen in Crash( a film that decides to answer everything for you anyway, whether you like it or not) but more of the uncomfortable grey area variety.

There is one such scene that I didn’t give too much thought to. At least until I read a review after seeing it. The reviewer had expressed doubts about the relevancy of the gardener sprinting around at night time. At the time of watching I did wonder that myself. It was certainly worthy of a horror film in its framing alone. An ominous figure emerging from the shadows and hurtling towards Chris at great speed.

Then I began to think. What if this was a call back to the earlier comment from Jeremy? He had launched into a slow burning rant at the dinner table, talking about the black man being a superior athlete because of simple genetics. He had then insisted on a playful grapple with our Chris, before getting reined in by his parents.

That the son was a bigot was not in question. But there are a great many people in the world who genuinely believe that athletes of African American origin do have a genetic advantage in sports. Personally, I can’t consolidate the fact that while a white man hasn’t won the 100m at the Olympics since the 1980s, for every Usain Bolt, there’s a Daniel Sturridge just waiting to collapse in a heap. You can’t just assume a person is a superior specimen because of the colour of their skin, yet so many people do.

Point being the film is ratcheting up the tension by asking the audience these uncomfortable questions. But not dwelling on them long enough for it to become preachy. Before we know it we’re once again been creeped out by the behavior of the housekeeper, seemingly overindulged to the point that Rose’s parents can’t bring themselves to fire her.

Again, I’m trailing off slightly. I just really liked this film. For a number of reasons. Perhaps though, the most praise should fall to Catherine Keener.

I don’t think I’ve ever not enjoyed her. She’s basically acting the way Meryl Streep used to before the great Dame started getting bored. These characters she creates are so subtle, so brilliantly devised. Keener must surely study people for hours to get this kind of nuance.

But aside from that, I was thoroughly entertained for the two hours. That Hollywood is seemingly obsessed with white heroes shows an ideology at odds with the modern world. And there is little doubt that people are turning their backs on these stereotypes. Box office takings are down year on year and while television can take a fair share of responsibility, there is little doubt that the big studios are not keeping up with the times.

I think it’s pretty sad that Get Out can be seen as groundbreaking in 2017. That it has to be even seen as such. There have been hundreds of films over the last 40 odd years, which could be considered black cultural artifacts. But perhaps they too have fallen into the trap of stereotyping and small mindedness.

The great trick of this film is in its charm and ability to make some rich white folk admit they’re not cool, not ready and still want things their own way.

All that from a comedy horror? Yes, but if I try to explain anymore I’ll give away the fun bits!

 

Book of the month: The Legendary Lugs Branigan by Kevin C Kearns

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I decided on a change of pace this month. Something true, something Irish. A story to take me back to the rare old times, when men were perennially drunk and the local lawman was uncompromising and fearless.

Lugs Branigan is an interesting character no matter what your perspective. Born in the south inner city of Dublin in 1910, he lived through the formation of the state and bore witness to the social change, both gradual and manic, until his death in 1986.

This book attempts to chart his early beginnings from within the relative comfort of his family home on the grounds of what is now St James’ Hospital right through to his final years in rural County Meath.

Of course, most people would be more interested in the space between, his forty-three years of service to An Garda Síochána.

The book is broken down into a straight chronological timeline of the early years right through to retirement. We are offered useful bits of information along the way. One important note was that Branigan hated being called Lugs. It was an allusion to his prominent ears which jutted out far beyond his head. Very few people had the nerve to call him this to his face. And those that did, we are assured,  were quickly corrected.

We also learn that Branigan had early thoughts of being a vet, until family finances precluded such an arrangement. Instead he chose a career in the Irish Railway company. There he suffered badly from bullying though the writer seems unwilling to really delve into why except to say his co-workers took an immediate dislike to him. This is an early hint of what’s to come from Kearns.

We are brought along quickly as Branigan elects to take a job in the newly formed Garda Siochana. We are told how tricky it is to get a job in the service at this time, with key emphasis placed on physical size. Jim Branigan eventually becomes a sturdy seventeen stone but at this early age, he remains rakish.

After making the cut by the skin of his teeth, he begins to take a strong interest in physical fitness and among his numerous past times decides boxing is the one he likes best. This leads him to the kind of opportunities very few working class Irish people could have dreamed of back in the 1920s and 30s. A pre-WW2 trip to Germany chiefly among them.

We trudge along from there. Going from his daily beat in Dublin’s liberties and getting to know the locals to his battles with the Animal gang, a vicious mob of angry young men, employed by unscrupulous bookies amongst others. The ensuing battle at Baldoyle Racecourse, where we get to see the first signs of his maturity as a policeman come to the fore. Omnipresent throughout this are his trusty leather gloves, which according to this record at least are the only weapon Branigan ever used. The suggestion that these gloves were lined with anything foreign is quickly denounced here.

I could checklist the rest of the book and recite each chapter heading but I won’t. It’s all there, all the good stuff anyway. Marrying a fine Irish girl : check. His bodyguard duties to the likes of Cliff Richard and Liz Taylor : check. Dealing with the changing face of Irish youth from respectful, quiet Catholics to more rebellious Teddy boys and other assorted bus traveling bowsies, it’s all here.

I guess what the writer really wanted to do was to tell the story of this man’s career. What he saw and what he did to make things better. At his disposal, he has endless newspaper reports, the eyewitness accounts of younger Gardai who served with Branigan and of course the man’s family as well.

It is a very positive account of the man. Little in the way of criticism gets in the way and the reader is often subjected to repetition and bombast. Kearns is a writer I have no prior engagement with but even a cursory glance at his previous works might indicate he has something of an obsession about dreary old Dublin. It comes across here as a miserable god fearing place for the most part, with the demon drink never too far away and only one sheriff willing to clean the whole damn mess up.

For all that though, it is impossible to ignore the impact Jim Branigan had on policing Dublin city. We might only hear one side of it in this instance but there can be no doubt he was a hugely popular figure around the south inner city in particular. There are endless anecdotes about him going out of his way to protect long-suffering women from drunken spouses and more still of Branigan’s fatherly approach to would be criminals. His meticulous research before going to court and his special relationship with the judges who served there is all highlighted as well.

One advantage of Kearns stringent chronological style is that you can really imagine Dublin’s development from before the War right up until the early 1970s. Tenement houses are falling down daily as the local authority tries to keep up with the demand for new accommodation.

Unemployment is a constant as well as the trouble it brings around the city. Branigan’s attitude and response to this is largely seen as necessary action. His superior’s attitude to him is questioned later in the book, as well as the stress of poor pay and narrow scope for promotion, all of which many wouldn’t find surprising even nowadays with the Gardai.

All in all, it’s a bit one-sided but pretty informative record of the man and the service he did.

More critical accounts of his behaviour could probably be found elsewhere but this is all about a legend and the mask rarely slips.

Film of the week: Wild Tales

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I am regularly disappointed by the output of Film Four’s TV channel. So often it just seems to be endless repeats of the X Men films and Vin Diesel led rubbish. So when something different comes along these days, it really is a pleasant surprise. Relatos Salvajes (aka Wild Tales, Argentina 2014) is just that.

The film is a collection of six short films, bearing no relation to each other, with no crossover of stories or characters. The glue binding it all together instead seems to be dark comedy and perhaps poetic justice.

The opening film is based on a large commercial flight, where a charming middle aged professor gets talking to an equally pleasant fashion model. Within minutes they’ve discovered they share a mutual acquaintance. Was it mere luck that brought them together, or kismet? It would be a shame to spoil it for you.

The other stories are also based not quite in the every day, but certainly in the bad but plausible category. There are annoying late night cafe patrons, a vehicle owner who becomes a victim of a ruthless car towing company, road rage merchants, inexperienced drivers getting bailed out by parents and a wedding with a restless bride and groom.

With Pedro Almodovar as one of the producers, there’s always a chance that domestic bliss will be challenged and that the mundane will be portrayed in epic terms, all with beautiful, crisp staging and normal people going a little bit crazy. If you’re a loyal fan of his, then you won’t go far wrong here.

But if that endorsement means nothing to you or worse yet, turns you off, it really shouldn’t. The director Damian Szifron has a long, creditable body of work in his native Argentina, many projects of which have been based in the short film format.

It really is an impressive skill to convey a story over a shortened duration. The key thing I noticed here was that while I felt the characters were important enough to care about the story, I was quite prepared to see anything happen to them, all for the benefit of the payoff. It is often a mistake I feel to put your character on some kind of impregnable pedestal.

As a writer, you are going to end up in a cul de sac of predictable behaviour, simply because you have decided that your hero needs to please everyone else. Here both Szifron and his team of writers have collectively nurtured characters who are sleazy, selfish, cowardly, stubborn, psychotic, greedy and in more than one case very much an arsehole.

In these stories too, the director doesn’t seem afraid to criticize what many people might see as perfectly reasonable. Excessive wealth is questioned but so too is extortion. Would your stereotyped beliefs allow for the fact that some men can’t change a tire properly? Or what about over exuberant wedding parties that have become new normal and that the newlyweds find comfort in the discomfort of others? it really has some good thought-provoking stuff in here.

That it is framed as well as it is, probably owes a lot to the financial backing it received. But I for one, would love to see more of this type of short film anthology style coming out of Ireland.

And the fact that it’s an international film with subtitles ought to figure positively in your decision. A good habit should be to watch something in a foreign language at least once a week. When I stick to my own rule here, I rarely regret it.

Credit to Rory Cashin on Joe.ie, .never would have heard of it but for his recommendation. Keep an eye on Film Four listings for a repeat screening.