August 25, 2013

Scúp – clár nua as Gaeilge

TV image
4 out of 5 stars

This year a hAintín Beeb aired a new Irish-language drama series. Scúp begins with Don Wycherley’s character Rob joining an an Irish-language newspaper and follows the team’s reportage on community issues.

[“I wish they would subtitle the Irish signs,” Claire grumbles.
Nuacht means ‘news,’” I answer.]

Tonally Scúp bounces along with a gentle-entertainment sort of air; it has a light feel despite the venture into heavier themes of enforced prostitution and suicide. However it’s strange that the writers would engage with this kind of subject matter yet not include any reflection on the politics of running an Irish-language newspaper in Belfast.

There are some curious inconsistencies in the use of language too; a central Irish-speaking character is ‘Michael’ rather than ‘Mícheál’. The subtitle translations can be erratic (idiomatic expressions used in English when there are established Irish versions). There are also some very enjoyable loan-words in the mix; hence a pair of sweethearts might be said to pass an evening ag shagáil.

Unfortunately some of Northern Ireland’s multiracial community appears to have learned no Irish at all and must make do with English. For shame.

The cast is strong and includes alumni of the Irish stage (and in two cases, Father Ted) Dennis Conway, Kelly Gough, Donncha Crowley and Caitríona Ní Mhurchú. Writer Colin Bateman – whose Murphy’s Law launched the career of the poisonously irritating James C. Nesbitt – may be forgiven on the grounds of this latest venture.

July 13, 2012


Movie image
The Amazing Spider-Man
2 out of 5 stars

The first time I saw a Spiderman film, I was very drunk indeed. Ireland had just been knocked out of the World Cup by Spain, on penalties. My sorrow-drowning had reached the point where I needed to ask why there were two Hobgoblins.
‘You’re fucked, Christ,’ Paddy said. Paddy liked to call me Christ, or Jesus; Iosa if he felt Hibernian, or Yahweh when the Old Testament tickled his fancy.
‘They played so well,’ I mourned. It was the year of Roy Keane and Saipan.
Some time later I saw the film on DVD and decided it was alright. Tobey Maguire was good for the Peter Parker role. Kirsten Dunst bugged me a bit; that dead expression of hers.

Now I am so very old that I have lived to see a Spiderman reboot. It is 2012 and the idea of Ireland getting to penalties against Spain is science fiction.

The Amazing Spider-Man – in addition to a hyphen – has the chap from the Facebook movie in it, and a love interest I care less for even than Dunst. It’s heavy-handed stuff. Morality-spinning Uncle Ben can’t die fast enough for my liking, and Spidey shouts ‘woooooo!’ in a very American way whenever he is swinging off things.

The cinema in Singapore is always freezing. People talk quite loudly during the film.

Spiderman needs to (a) become Spiderman, (b) indirectly cause the death of a tiresome relative to teach him a thing or two, (c) make a mortal enemy, (d) meet a girl who gives him a prospect of touching a boob some day, (e) prove his worth vs some low-ranking criminals, and (f) confront the horrible monster and smash up some buildings. The Amazing Spider-Man ticks all of those boxes in a perfunctory manner, by way of a giant lizard with an English accent. This is not a major spoiler as people with English accents usually turn out to be evil, or so cinema has taught me.

There’s a silly plot development with a mathematical equation. When will it end?

For a time I worked in a book shop under the management of a silly fellow who had a curling moustache, a cigar, a collection of Hawaiian shirts, a resonant voice and, I suspected, a closet of considerable size. Naturally I enjoyed imitating him, including an occasion when he phoned up the shop and I answered it in his voice. Hellooo-oo-oo! Anyway, I did a comic bit around the shop in which he was friends with Spiderman, and he would complain about one of his many foes in this world, ‘Well I can’t stand her, and my wife can’t stand her, and Spiderman can’t stand her.’ His dog was called Midge.

They’re still duking it out, Spiderman and the lizard. Get a job!

I have just googled this film and the Wikipedia entry includes the utterance, ‘Rhys Ifans compared this film to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the grounds that Spider-Man can be redone many times on film.’ Well, there’s the only time this production will be mentioned in the same breath as a Shakespeare play.

November 09, 2011

Dark Republican

Should we really want another Christopher Nolan Batman film?

As the curtain descends on The Dark Knight, it’s easy to be caught up in the nobility of the character: offering himself as a scapegoat, pursued by police dogs down some unpleasant alley, probably pretty tired from all of his Joker-bashing. The onlooking James Gordon explains Batman’s self-sacrifice to his son: ‘Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves. But not the one it needs right now.’ In this typical Hollywoodese nonsense, this formulation of credible-sounding obscurity, the contrast between desert and need isn’t clear at all: making some utterance with an air of sentiment is all-important, even where there isn’t a coherent message therein. There’s considerable sleight of hand in this move also, which distracts us from absorbing the implications of Batman’s latest actions, which absolve district attorney Harvey Dent: creating a great deceit about the actions of a political figure turned bad, lying to maintain the public perception of an incorruptible justice system. This is literally textbook conservatism – the practice is cited in Plato’s Republic– but there’s more at stake here than factionist name-calling. Over the course of his films Christopher Nolan has had substantial and chilling things to say about control, power, capitalism and restrictions of human freedom.

Does any character champion the rich, white man as Batman does? His response to the injustice following the death of his parents is a Great Tour of Asia, from which he can safely return to an inherited fortune. Returning to Gotham City in Batman Begins, he sets out with a vague desire to crack heads, a goal to be realised with the assistance of expensive gadgets. There’s nothing to indicate that the World’s Greatest Detective is smarter than you are, he just has a better phone than you do.

Sympathetic with privilege, Nolan reinforces the idea of a tiered society with his Batman. The myth of Batman’s creation in DC comics centres on the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents in a mugging; a crime that is terrifying for its seeming randomness. But in Nolan’s telling, the mugger is affiliated with crime lord Falcone, evidence of the remarkably rigid social-structure in Nolan’s vision: either you’re a criminal and you’re part of a big gang of criminals, or you’re a wealthy Gotham socialite, or you’re a servant who knows his place like Alfred/Lucius Fox, or you’re one of the faceless hordes in the middle. Nolan is least interested in the last of these groups; when he does depict the average Joe it is unflattering: (s)he is weak, takes bribes, contemplates blowing up a boatload of people to save his own ass. In turn this validates the patriarchal Batman with his stern hand of discipline. The weakness of humanity, coupled with the threat of insane criminals, allows Batman to bestow himself with imperium, consulting no-one as he assumes power to do whatever he sees fit. This leads most troublingly to the climax of The Dark Knight, in which Batman has rigged the cellphone network so that he can spy on the entire city.

In The Dark Knight, Lucius Fox is on hand to raise objections to Batman’s surveillance network, but evidently the tactic resonates warmly with Christopher Nolan, who follows that film by focussing more centrally on extraordinary intrusions into human privacy and freedom in Inception (2010), in which a team infiltrates the unconscious of a scion, manipulating his dreams to persuade him to break apart the energy conglomerate he has inherited, in honour of the grand pursuit of capitalism.

Perhaps this is small potatoes compared to the torture-porn mentality at the heart of the latest Batman incarnation, in the interrogation scene, and more broadly in Nolan’s manipulations to make his viewers really want Batman to Settle the Joker’s Hash. Depressingly this mode has thrived in main-stream entertainment in the last decade, probably best demonstrated by the long-running success of 24, whose tactic was repeatedly to scare and threaten its audience into wanting Jack Bauer to offer relief by hurting people in imaginative ways. Thus the post-9/11 politics of fear and revenge writ onscreen. In Nolan’s Batman films, villains are emphatically terrorists, caricatured to pursue only destruction and/or chaos rather than material acquisition. Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, and Heath Ledger portray villains excellently who don’t want money or power per se, but to end the American way of life. Neeson’s Asian henchmen and Cantonese Lau exploit new-millennium America’s great and ambiguous fear; the East. As The Dark Knight progresses it loses coherence, even becoming ridiculous in its episodic shifts of focus; but this is in keeping with the random and incomprehensible manner in which popular media have tended to portray terrorism: this is the feared attack, the dreaded invasion.

When Bruce Wayne flies home with Alfred in Batman Begins, he speaks of becoming a symbol of justice and hope. This becomes meaningless because fundamentally Nolan is uninterested in the populace and therefore how they react to Batman. A few wide-eyed children get to meet Batman, but we don’t see anyone being inspired or ennobled. This would be impossible because Nolan’s Gotham requires a citizenry that is selfish, stupid and scared. Throwing a hand-grenade into this playground gives us the world in which Nolan’s Batman is enacted. He works well with a strong origin myth and the inherited gallery of villains, accentuating the Gothic flavourings and choosing the right cast. But I think there are limits to what Nolan’s political vision can offer, and it may be time for the world to move on from the kind of fears he plays upon.

April 24, 2011

Bristol riot

masked rioter
Bristol riot

This weekend’s riot in Bristol was a mixture of wayward anti-corporate protest, racially-motivated attacks, and students fantasising about resisting oppression. I’m not putting up all the pictures again in this blog, but there is a gallery here.

March 11, 2011

Sub–Legendary Fisting

3 out of 5 stars

Pious, honest Chen Zhen would be the first to admit he’s a made-up person

Legend of the Fist

When the excellent but largely made-up Fearless was released in 2006, Beijing Film Studio was sued by the heirs of Huo Yuanjia, a prominent member of the legendary Jing Wu Athletic Association of martial arts. Huo’s descendents were offended by the film’s inaccuracies, particularly the characterisation of Huo himself, who seems a rascally fellow in Jet Li’s treatment. Why, Jet Li was even summoned to court to explain himself, under oath not to use his Northern Fist to get out of answering the questions. Given this fuss over an alleged biopic, one can only imagine Jing Wu’s bemusement over cinema’s fascination with Chen Zhen, a supposed disciple of Huo who never actually existed.

Chen Zhen first appears in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (1972) as a Jing Wu student who discovers that Huo Yuanjia was poisoned by the Japanese and sets about avenging the murder. In reality Huo’s death is a mystery, and he may have poisoned himself with a traditional medicine that contained arsenic. Yet the fiction of murder and the retaliation of Chen Zhen has remained potent, and Fist of Fury has been remade in versions staring Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen, and Gordon Chan’s excellent reimagining of the fiction in Fist of Legend (1994) with Jet Li.

Legend of the Fist is a sequel to Donnie Yen’s 1995 TV series based on Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. Presumed dead at the hands of the Japanese, Chen Zhen has skipped out to Europe to fight in World War I, and turns up in Shanghai to help the Chinese resistance of the Japanese occupation. Tonally the treatment is light, and very much in homage to Bruce Lee: Donnie Yen makes Lee’s obligatory cat noises when fighting, and – when he is not concealing his identity behind a moustache – Chen Zhen distributes vigilante justice disguised as the Green Hornet. Yet there’s too much plotting, far too long between action scenes at times, and falling back on formula makes much of the film predictable.


Two favourite clichés have driven recent kung fu films. One is the Chinese fighter challenging foreigners to restore national pride, as in Fearless, Ip Man and True Legend (in reality Huo’s Russian and British opponents backed down from fighting him and left town, while Ip Man never really duelled with people). The other is the showdown at the Japanese general’s dojo, a staple of Chen Zhen-based films and [spoiler alert] a major player in Legend of the Fist. Unfortunately, Donnie Yen expends a lot of energy trotting out conventional storylines.

The character of Chen Zhen is useful for imagining possibilities of heroism amid thorny Sino-Japanese relations, but in a limited way. Donnie Yen could do better for his career than recreating Bruce Lee, and there are real-life martial arts heroes that might deserve film treatments rather than rehashing the Fist of Fury fiction. Legend of the Fist attempts to peg a new ending to this fiction, but it’s not enough.

November 09, 2010

The Hoodlum Homecoming

4 out of 5 stars

He may be the mayor of Baltimore, but he’ll fucken burst ye


Good staff can be hard to find, and it seems to apply to henchmen as much as any other kind. Love/Hate opens with middleweight goon Nidge looking up Internet videos on how to operate his new firearm, but his girlfriend bursts in demanding to be taken to Dundrum Shopping Centre. So it goes: as playwright Stuart Carolan tells it in this series, nothing seems to unfold cleanly.

Least happy with this arrangement is the homesick Darren (Robbie Sheehan), who returns to Dublin to celebrate his brother’s release from prison, only for said brother to be gunned down before he’s even had a few scoops or gotten a ride. Revenge is a complicated matter, with Darren at the whim of gangster overlord John-Boy (Aidan Gillen), who reacts to all situations by curling his lip ambiguously and refusing to let us know what he gets off on (although it is bound to be something bad as he is emphatically a knacker). Meanwhile Darren attempts to get back with his ex, Rosie (Ruth Negga), currently in thrall of a man named Stumpy, Nidge decides to get married, and ultra-scobe Hughie (Brian Gleeson) reaches for a cue-ball in a sock if you look at him the wrong way.

We see a lot of Dundrum Shopping Centre as it turns out, and futility and frustration gradually edge out the simple pleasures of evading the police with a truck full of drugs, or some species of female companionship termed ‘Praha Prozzies’. The gangsters in Love/Hate drive around in SUV’s listening to hip-hop, but they don’t derive any satisfaction from the fantasy of being in the Wu Tang Clan or, indeed, The Wire. Poignantly, it’s a despairing sort of violence that makes them wonder why they bother, if it wasn’t that some other fella started it.

January 16, 2010


Movie image
Sherlock Holmes
2 out of 5 stars

What would ol’ Clay make of Guy Ritchie’s bare-knuckle boxing, Frenchman beating, second-act lulling, occult-battering bromance?

It seems that the best way to solve a mystery is to slap it about the head, or electrocute it, or give it a hearty spanking with one’s cane. So it is that we first encounter Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, who meditates on the best means of clocking some chap who obstructs his path to Mystery Solution and then – mark you – he knocks the fellow out, the confrontation proceeding exactly as he deduced it would in the cornball slow-motion sequence. ‘Aha’, we say to this internal narrative, ‘clearly this Sherlock Holmes fellow is some manner of Thinker.’

An IMDB entry for Sherlock Holmes tells me that ‘it is made to be a rollicking good time’. Anyone who says ‘rollicking’ is bound to be a total prick (even, if not especially, in that overworn mode of irony), but the prick has a point. The result of the commitment to Rollick is that Conan Doyle’s world and characters are merely the dressing for a fairly conventional action-adventure movie. Sherlock Holmes is given the 21st-century comic book reboot, and not much of the literary original turns up for the adventure. Look at the fucking promotional posters – they’re like ads for superhero films:


Ritchie has one good idea in livening Holmes up, as opposed to depicting him in his traditional screen incarnation as a pipe-smoking, contemplative bore. Robert Downey Jr is good as a troubled, eccentric Holmes too, but no-one can seem to think what to do with the character other than chase scenes and fighting villains or, when there isn’t a chase scene to be had or a villain to fight, boxing people after dinner. Aspects of Watson’s military past are evoked with the consequence that he is multi-dimensionally dull. Our ultimate problem, then – with Moriarty creeping into view, trying to nick stuff – is that we have reputedly brilliant characters under the volition of idiots. Thus our team of creators has Holmes rushing around in a sort of Victorian Dark Knight affair with explosions, and gadgets, and Holmes predicting in idle moments everything the next century of science will bring in a tongue-in-cheek manner that makes me wonder whether a bad script provides grounds for a cinema refund.

Anyway, there’s this evil chap called Lord Blackwood, whose name is evil, and who looks evil, and he’s trying to stick a knife in some virgin. Holmes stops him, to Blackwood’s chagrin, and the ensuing tussle inexplicably consumes over two hours of our time, with the subplots of Holmes trying to do some woman (Rachel McAdams) and Watson planning to marry some other, funny-looking woman (Kelly Reilly). Moriarty slips into the darkness, anticipating a chance to creep back for a sequel, although I’ll understand if he decides to give it a miss, and stays at home.


January 06, 2010

Terrorist alert!

When an Irish passenger was detected carrying an electric razor, a quantity of chocolate and several works of literature, airport security thought they might have their man.

I had the co-pilot

What business had I carrying a 9-volt battery? This was one of the questions posed in my arduous experience getting through security checks in Boston airport at the weekend. I had to go through the standard screening process twice, removing my jacket, shoes and belt on each occasion. Additionally I was subjected to two ‘random’ tests that involved groping. I am not sure why I qualified for the 4-star treatment while other passengers continued on their way, and I wouldn’t mind hearing the odds of my being selected for two ‘random’ searches.

Most protracted and frustrating was the interrogation that followed when the airport police emptied my rucksack on a table and asked about all of the contents, the details of my visit for the peace-loving MLA convention, and pretty much any aspect of my life that it pleased them to wonder about – and as it happened, they wondered about a great many things.

The guard set about reading my PhD dissertation. He must have been aware that one of the parties mentioned – a Mr Shelley – was known as an insurrectionary figure. He looked at Duncan Wu’s biography of William Hazlitt as though he was considering conducting a controlled explosion on it. His companion paused at various others of my possessions, for it took two of them to investigate the details of my attendance of an academic convention. Compact discs and hand-written notes were deemed especially suspect, as was a gift I had bought that included a chocolate sauce, while socks passed without close examination.

What was I doing in X? How long had I been doing Z? Could I name a person in the vicinity of P or Q? What was I doing in X and how long had I been at Z again, with varying phrasing to see if my answers would be consistent?

Reports tell us the CIA failed to respond to a tip-off. This was a bizarre lapse in vigilance. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been subjected to investigation prior to his setting foot in an airport, so how thoroughly non-suspects are prodded in transit only addresses a small aspect of the problem of international security. Additionally, it will be a victory of sorts for the terrorists if the annoyance of travel to the US kills American tourism. The strategies for approaching terrorism need to be re-thought. The answer is not to be found by rummaging around in my trousers.

Shelley - known supporter of Irish revolution in 1811

November 20, 2009

Les Fleurs du Mal

With Freedom Fries on the menu and talk of boycotting L’Oréal, it seems that the hand of Henry has stirred up more trouble than he could ever have anticipated


It sounds like Ireland came to a standstill in the aftermath of the playoff with France. Controversially, my mother was too depressed to speak to me on the phone afterwards. Across Europe the outrage made front-page news. Twitter and Facebook may yet be overloaded with the torrents of abuse and indignation that have arisen. Government officials from both nations have called for a rematch, yet FIFA have dismissed the idea.

My brother-in-law even elicited a comment on the incident from Gillette:

Hello Stephen and thanks for your email.

Gillette is aware of the HENRY handball incident in the France v Ireland
World Cup qualifier. Thierry Henry has publicly acknowledged that it
was a handball. It is not our place to comment on the refereeing in the
match. This incident does not affect his relationship with us.

Kind regards,


When I sent him a link which provided access to the e-mail address of all 343 French senators and joked about whether he had time to contact them all, he replied darkly in the affirmative. For this, he would make time.

Popular conspiracy theories attacked the principles of FIFA when it was announced that the play-offs would be seeded, with a consensus that football’s governing body wanted to do its best to ensure that France and Portugal progressed to South Africa in 2010. The alleged reason for such bias was that millions in sponsorship revenue would be lost if Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo were not participants. Ironically, Henry has lost some of his lustre as a sponsorship figurehead in this kerfuffle, and the goal that eliminated Ireland was not a passage of play to shift many football boots.

The Guardian’s Richard Williams is right to observe that Henry missed his chance for a place in history as an exemplar of sportsmanship. I’m far from being a Liverpool fan but I must acknowledge Robbie Fowler’s protest that he had not been tripped when the referee awarded Liverpool a penalty against Arsenal in 1997. Elsewhere a villain, Paolo di Canio once refused to take advantage of an injured goalkeeper in a clear scoring opportunity. These things linger in the mind long after the results do.

The outraged public response to the perceived injustice of the game is amusing, some press commentary assessing sportsmanship and officials’ decision-making processes is thought-provoking, but reactions from people within football are just depressing.

Henry has admitted that ‘the ball had contact with my hand’, but initially implied that it bounced off him while it was clear that he redirected its path intentionally with two strikes of his palm. His implication that everything happened so fast that he forgot that he was playing football rather than some other sport is similarly unconvincing. It’s notable too that he declared graciously that Ireland should be granted a replay only after FIFA had announced that this would not happen.

The referee Martin Hansson, seeming to perceive that his decisions affect himself and no-one else, wished himself well in a comment striking for its idiotically amiable philosophy: ‘I cannot comment on the game itself but life must go on and I hope I will survive this too.’

David Beckham – surely the last person who should be consulted about anything, ever – came to Henry’s aid in the press with a bizarre, narcissistic non-sequitur: ‘I’ve had a few headlines in the past which have not been nice but I don’t think he is a cheat.’

Roy Keane’s outburst attacking the FAI and the Irish team has the air of a man struggling to establish his relevance from the remote climes of Ipswich as he dredges up World Cup 2002 for no credible reason. ‘Me! Me!’ he shouts, ‘I still count’.

UEFA’s website makes no mention of the controversy surrounding the decisive goal. Wagging its finger, FIFA has scolded that ‘referees must be respected’, not offering any reasons why, nor contemplating any scenario in which respect might be won or lost. ‘As is clearly mentioned in the Laws (Law 5) of the game during matches, decisions are taken by the referee and these decisions are final.’ They seem to think it unacceptable to question why laws arise, or whether they can be amended.

Broader contexts are that football is one of the few professional sports not to allow the review of video footage by match officials, and that match-fixing scandals are being investigated most recently in Germany in the fine Italian tradition. These are signs that football is a bullshit sport. World Cup 2010 will be a dreary sham of showboating poster-boys. I predict Gillette vs Adidas in the final.

June 07, 2009


Movie image
Terminator Salvation
1 out of 5 stars

Grrrrrrr! Christian Bale growls as he emerges from some mud.

Roar! Christian Bale shouts as he fires a machine-gun at a robot that has beef with him.

Noooooo! The script-writers have watched Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and think it’s top drama to have upset characters shouting Nooooooooo! to let us know they’re ticked off.

Blair! (Is that character’s first name really ‘Blair’? Really?)

Help! Christian Bale looks around vainly for a way out of this franchise:

The Terminator films didn’t need, or deserve, another sequel. The first two were built around Arnie’s admittedly perfect performance as the relentless robot, and the attendant chase scenes. The films were set in the good old 20th century and the science-fiction storyline was pretty thin, and was alluded to more or less just to facilitate more high-speed chases and blowing things up. Terminator Salvation proceeds without the (now old and busily Republican) lead actor by building on the flimsy sci-fi mythos. From Judge Dredd to The Matrix, tales of machines taking over the world are commonplace, and the direction of a Mr MCG does nothing to avert the dangers of predictable plot and overall unoriginality. Many robots are harmed in the process, but even this seems detached and flat somehow, Bale is wooden and there isn’t an ounce of personality in the whole thing.

a terminator
Smiling doesn’t get you off the hook for this dross, sonny.

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