by Niall McArdle
You know, sometimes this reviewing thing can be a real chore, especially when you’re faced with work that is neither great nor awful, just plain and ordinary and sort of stuck in the middle of the road.
It’s all very well if I read a book that I really enjoy, or if I see a film that I find laughably bad, but very often I am faced with stuff that is, well, just okay, or not very interesting. I often don’t bother writing reviews of this sort of thing.
A while ago I promised I would review X-Men: Days of Future Past, mainly to keep all you Naked Jennifer Lawrence perverts happy (honestly, fellas, get over it.) Anyway, I saw it. And it was, well, meh. For a start, the film is packed with mutants and wastes half of them. Halle Berry is there for a matter of minutes. Ian McKellen doesn’t do much except look glum. I think I saw Anna Paquin for a split-second, but I’m not really sure.
It has one spectacular scene with a mutant called Quicksilver, but the rest of the film is a noisy and confusing time-travelling mess. And it’s not very engaging at all, which is a shame considering the possibilities that its 1970s Nixon-era setting offers.
But, yeah, J-Law is blue and naked, so there’s that.
Another mildy disappointing moment for me came when I saw the BBC adaptations of Benjamin Black’s Quirke novels. Long-time fluffsters know that I regard John Banville highly (if he doesn’t win the Nobel Prize next week, I’ll be surprised, as I think he’s due.) Black, his alter-ego, has created a morose pathologist, Quirke, who gets into trouble by sticking his nose in where it isn’t wanted in a miserable 1950s Dublin.
The crime novels are a cut above the usual genre fare, mainly due to the attention to detail and the splendid writing. Consider, for example, a character who “had that smell, hot and raw and salty, that Quirke recognised at once, the smell of the recently bereaved.” Or another who was “the kind of person who enters sideways through a doorway, slipping rather than stepping in … he had the look, Quirke thought, of a man arriving unwillingly at the wake of someone with whom he had been barely acquainted.” Or look at the splendid opening passage of Elegy for April (the third and best Quirke book.)
For days a February fog had been down and showed no sign of lifting. In the muffled silence the city seemed bewildered, like a man whose sight has suddenly failed. People vague as invalids groped their way through the murk, keeping close to the house-fronts and the railings and stopping tentatively to feel with a wary foot for the pavement’s edge. Motor cars with their headlights on loomed like giant insects, trailing milky dribbles of exhaust smoke from their rear ends.
How can a television adaptation match that? In short, it can’t, although it certainly tries. The look and feel of damp, dreary Dublin has been captured well, and Gabriel Byrne is well cast as Quirke: although he doesn’t physically resemble the character at all, he has the air of misery and guilt. The other actors are less impressive, with some playing that is more suited to the broad stage of the Abbey than to the small screen.
Perhaps it is because I am a native Dubliner, but I was distracted by the phoniness of some of the accents (several actors with well-bred, theatrically-trained vocals were straining to sound like they emerged from the diphthong-ridden Liberties.) And after decades of listening to American actors put on dreadful Oirish accents, it’s nice to know the boat goes both ways, with Irish actors putting on bad American accents. And Sandymount, even on the nicest day, cannot pass for Boston. Also, and this might seem petty, even though there is a current complaint about seagulls in parts of Dublin (they’ve lost the run of themselves, apparently), the noisy soundtrack to the series made it sound as if every street in the city was mere seconds away from the harbour. The series is not bad; I just wish it could have been better. But it was nice to see my old college pal Aidan McArdle show up (no relation, by the way.)
Perhaps the series was disappointing because it is impossible to fully adapt a book: either you cut chunks out to streamline the story, or you leave everything in, which can bog cinema down. Take, for example, White Bird in a Blizzard, which I caught last week. I went in knowing absolutely nothing about it. It’s about what happens to a family when the mother mysteriously disappears. The film, based on a novel by Laura Kasishke, is an odd little wisp of a movie, its lyrical moments alternating with standard adolescence-in-the-burbs-melodrama, and although the shots are well-composed, and the film has a distinct look, it is hampered by Woodley’s unnecessary narration, which I assume is lifted from the novel.
For some reason it is set in the 1980s, and the production and costume designers have gone to town on that. It’s a decade that hasn’t received much notice cinematically. We’re still grooving on the 1970s, and apparently the 1950s (see above.) So it is refreshing to see the late 1980s on screen.. Was there really that much pastel and wicker furniture? Were there really teenagers out there who wore both Depeche Mode and Prince teeshirts, and who were fans of MC Escher, and who listened to both Siouxsie and The Banshees and The Cocteau Twins?
It’s not terrible. In fact, it has a lot going for it, mainly the performances. Shailene Woodley must be determined to throw off the yoke of her YA credibility: she gets naked and talks dirty. Christopher Meloni, meanwhile, has ditched the Law & Order detective’s suit, and is a bit of a sad sack as a doormat of a husband, with a Flanders moustache and an air of permanent defeat. His wife is Eva Green, and she looks and behaves like she belongs in a different film. I think this is deliberate, as she is something of an exotic creature in the bland house and boring small town where they live. Thomas Jane also shows up as a scuzzy policeman.
In spite of its flaws, I found the film somewhat haunting, and it stayed with me several days after I saw it. I guess that makes it not quite in the middle and a little closer to the edge.
There were other films I took a look at recently that I am putting in the couldhavebeenbetter pile: Bad Words, We’re The Millers, The Signal. I Wanted to write about them but frankly I hadn’t the energy.
I was resigned to my film-watching for the next little while to be middling at best.
And then BLAM! Like being kicked repeatedly in the gut before having my head bashed against a concrete wall and my body flung from a balcony, I saw the blood-splattering, bone-crunchingly brilliant The Raid: Redemption and its not quite as good but still pleasurably sadistic sequel, The Raid 2: Berendal. I realise I am playing catch-up here, as the original film is from 2011. Its plot bears a resemblance to Dredd, which was a guilty pleasure of mine a while back. The Raid: Redemption makes Dredd look like a children’s Nativity play.
Some won’t like the Indonesian martial-arts thrillers, but If you are in any way a fan of films in which tiny men do seriously violent things to each other, then I heartily recommend them.
Except I am brought back to where I started: reviewing can sometimes be a chore, even, it turns out, for a film I really enjoyed. How exactly can I describe these films? Are they review-proof? All I can really write is my impression of how writer-director Gareth Evans must have written the script:
SNAP! CRACK! CRUNCH! BANG! SPLATTER! …. REPEAT