Michael Shannon has unfairly gotten a reputation as the go-to guy for intense unstable and often violent characters, but he has far greater range than that as his filmography and theatre credits demonstrate. In Midnight Special he plays Roy, a loving and protective father who is on the run with his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), having escaped from a cult where Alton was seen as a prophet due to his supernatural powers.

Roy and his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are racing to get Alton to an unspecified location by a certain time where Alton believes that he will be able to communicate with other beings and perhaps find out why he possesses his powers. On the way they collect Roy’s wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) who was excommunicated and hasn’t seen her son for years. NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) has interviewed members of the cult who attest to Alton’s abilities and believing Alton to be a potential threat to national security, the FBI pursue Roy with the aim of separating him from his son and imprisoning Alton.

Midnight Special is both a sci-fi thriller and a meditation on what it means to be a parent. When Alton tells Roy that he needn’t worry about him, Roy’s response is ‘I like worrying about you’, a simple answer that sums up parenthood beautifully. Shannon’s performance is brilliant and the rest of the cast are uniformly excellent (the more I see of Adam Driver the more I like him). Nichols’ script is restrained and intelligent. A hallmark of his filmmaking is that he trusts the viewer to fill in the blanks which makes a welcome change from the usual Hollywood spoon-feeding.

Shannon has appeared in all four of writer-director Nichols’ films: Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, and now Midnight Special. They are great collaborators and all four films are worth seeing, so head to Midnight Special in the cinema now and then if you haven’t seen Take Shelter rent it. Shannon won armloads of awards for his performance as a man haunted by visions of the apocalypse, and again he was a loving husband and father. See? He doesn’t just play cold-hearted crazy villains!

 

My version of reading the Sunday papers is browsing through the latest posts on both Longreads and Longform, sites which feature long-form journalism or creative writing from around the web. I’ve often discovered writers that I now follow and publications I’ve never heard of before.

Over the weekend I discovered Narratively. In their own words: ‘Created in September 2012, Narratively is a digital publication and storytelling studio that prides itself on looking beyond the news headlines and clickbait, focusing instead on ordinary people with extraordinary stories.’ The site features video, photography, comics, and writing, and has received numerous awards and accolades.

I spent an hour browsing and found some gems:

‘Keeping New York Weird’ by Grace Bello – A profile of New York ‘comedic punks’, performance artists Tobly and Bob McSmith, which also explores the gentrification of Manhattan and what it means for artists.

‘My Acerbic Aerobics Class with O.J. Simpson’ by Robert Kerbeck – An account of being an extra in O.J. Simpson’s workout video which was filmed one week before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

‘Secret Life of a Fashion Week Peon’ by Lacy Warner – A look inside a buyer’s showroom, where the real business of New York fashion week is done.

‘A Super Strange True Love Story: My Disappearing Fiancé’ by AnnaLisa Merelli – A first-person account of love gone wrong.

and

‘A Second Super Strange Love Story: I was the other woman’ by Riol Dankó – The follow-up to the above, where love goes horribly terribly wrong.

The best place to start on Narratively are the collections which group together different stories with similar themes, but be warned, once you start browsing you may lose an hour or so!

Donald Trumbo is a screenwriter whose most well known novel I reviewed on the blog a few weeks ago, and who is now synonymous with the Hollywood Ten; movie industry professionals blacklisted for refusing to answer questions in Congress related to their support of communism.

It’s a shame that the blacklist is what he’s most known for as it overshadows a huge talent, as evidenced by his prolific output including screenplays, essays, novels and non-fiction pieces. When blacklisted he wrote Roman Holiday and submitted it under a friend’s name and when the screenplay won the Academy Award, Trumbo watched the ceremony with his family at home, unable to take credit for his work. The same thing happened with his screenplay for The Brave One and it was only when he was publicly credited for his scripts for Spartacus and Exodus, released in the same year, that the blacklist crumbled.

Trumbo was a deeply moral and honourable man, which at times made him a nightmare for his family to live with. He questioned and challenged friends and enemies, didn’t shy away from conflict, and lived by his own code no matter what the cost. He was prepared to sacrifice everything for his beliefs, including an eleven-month prison sentence for contempt of Congress, and he expected his family to support him without question.

In a way, it seems ridiculous that a group of artists could have been witch-hunted, unable to make a living in a country where the right to free speech has been enshrined in the constitution since 1791. But take a minute and imagine Donald Trump as President of the United States and perhaps it doesn’t seem quite so implausible.

There are many things to admire about Trumbo: the period perfect costume and set design, the cinematography, and the performances above all. Diane Lane who plays Trumbo’s wife Cleo is always a pleasure to watch, and Helen Mirren is brilliant as Hedda Hopper, a racist bigoted gossip columnist, much more powerful than the TMZs and Enquirers of today as she had exclusive access to Hollywood’s elite. Bryan Cranston is magnificent as Trumbo, making him admirable, sympathetic and infuriating all at the same time. Having now seen all the performances in the category for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, Cranston would have been my pick for his performance.

 

I used to describe myself as an atheist but a while ago I realised how incredibly arrogant that was and so like Sir David Attenborough (and many others) I now think that agnostic is a better description of my spiritual inclinations.

A few years ago I came across this video of Sir David interviewed by Laurie Taylor talking about divine design, mythology, and religion, of which he says ‘I shrink from the word’. When asked in the interview why he was agnostic rather than atheist, he made a comparison involving termites.

He uses the analogy of taking off the top of a termite hill and watching the termites go about their busy lives: looking after the queen, building walls, clearing the nest, caring for the pupae. They haven’t the faintest idea that he is there watching them because they do not have the ability to see him. Therefore he feels as if he may be similarly lacking the sense organs to appreciate some sort of greater influence in our lives.

Atheism is a confidence that Attenborough feels he doesn’t have while his friend Richard Dawkins would say that he was ‘rather feeble’. I admire his humility and open-mindedness and his termite analogy is one I have often used as it’s very simple yet very effective. Enjoy and have a lovely weekend!

 

In 1937 F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s days as a successful novelist synonymous with the glamour of the roaring 20s were lost to the past. He was broke and in poor health, his wife Zelda was in a psychiatric institution, and his daughter, Scottie, was in a very expensive boarding school. When he was offered a lucrative contract by MGM studios, he decamped to Hollywood along with many of his New York contemporaries including Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, forming a commune in the famous Garden of Allah Hotel.

West of Sunset is Stewart O’Nan‘s imagining of this period in Fitzgerald’s life, and it’s well researched and a compelling read, recounting his desperation, loneliness and financial stress, and his constant struggle with alcohol; good days when he would abstain and instead drink numerous Cokes, and the inevitability of a bender, starting with a double gin and tonic and ending with a blackout.

It also depicts his relationship with Sheilah Graham, who was as reserved and controlled as Zelda was hedonistic and abandoned. Sheilah was much younger than Fitzgerald, an ambitious independent gossip-columnist who entered into a relationship with him despite the fact that he was still married to Zelda. No matter Fitzgerald’s attraction to Sheilah, he had an inescapable bond with Zelda. In a letter to a friend dated in 1920 he said that he ‘fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect…Zelda’s the only God I have left now’.

Fitzgerald died at age forty-four from a heart condition, presumably exacerbated by his lifelong love of partying and his struggle with alcohol. His observation that ‘There are no second acts in American lives’ was eerily prescient. When he died many of his books were out of print and there were no signs that he would become one of the most influential American authors of the 20th century.

A novel written from Fitzgerald’s point of view will of course draw comparisons with his own prose, and as he was a rare talent this is where the risk is for the author. O’Nan’s writing is lyrical and emotionally complex as befits the subject. I wished that I had read something of O’Nan’s before this, so that I would have a better understanding of his work and could place West of Sunset in a proper context, but it’s a great introduction to O’Nan and I’m interest to read more.

Here’s an interview with the author which is illuminating and interesting, and which thankfully doesn’t give too much away so you can watch it without spoiling your enjoyment of West of Sunset.

 

 

There are some songs that transcend genres, decades, and fashions, and end up being an inspiration for the ages. ‘Under Pressure’ is, as the staff in Whelan’s will tell you, one of my favourite songs to end a DJ set, and one of my favourite songs of all time.

Two geniuses on one track is rare. Freddie Mercury ranks among the superlative singers in any genre of the last century, and Bowie’s style and influence is inimitable; together they created magic. ‘Under Pressure’ is twenty-five years old this year but has the true hallmark of a classic: it sounds just as contemporary as the day it was recorded.

And the lyrics are pretty powerful:

‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure’

This version has been doing the social-media rounds recently, I suppose due to Bowie’s death and a renewed interest in every detail of his career. It’s the vocal track from the song, just Mercury and Bowie, no other instruments, no autotune, no bullshit, just two gifted singers at the top of their game. Do yourself a favour and check it out. It sends shivers up my spine.

 

Amongst the plethora of high profile Irish nominees at this year’s Academy Awards, a little-hyped Irish film won Best Live Action Short: Stutterer, written, directed and edited by thirty-two-year old Dubliner, Benjamin Cleary.

The titular stutter, Greenwood (Matthew Needham), describes himself as ‘a reclusive typographer, invisible to the naked eye, communication skills of an infant, excels in the art of self-pity’. Greenwood is a bookworm who is sharply intelligent and deeply frustrated by his inability to speak fluently. He has been messaging Ellie (Chloe Pirrie) for six months and their correspondence verbose and witty, but when Ellie suggests meeting face-to-face, Greenwood is understandably hesitant.

Stutterer is a wonderful film, touching and funny, with quietly beautiful cinematography by Michael Paleodimos and a lovely piano score by Nico Casal.

Stutterer is now available to view on the RTEPlayer and I highly recommend it. A huge congrats to Mr. Cleary who will no doubt have Hollywood knocking on his door and a very promising film career ahead.

 

The Heavy, the band that sound like they’re from New Orleans but are in fact from Bath, the band beloved of music supervisors everywhere, release their fourth studio album Hurt & the Merciless on 1st April 2016. Irish people might be familiar with their track ‘What Makes A Good Man’ from the Guinness ad, ‘Sapeurs’, which brilliantly depicts La Sape, the elegant dandies of Congo.

 

 

‘Since You Been Gone’ is the first single and the black and white video tells the story of a couple having a fight. (As a rather long aside, my jukebox brain tends to associate certain words or phrases with songs, like when I first downloaded the Hailo app and got the Foo Fighters’ song ‘Halo’ stuck in my head every time I used it. The title ‘Since You Been Gone’ has reminded me of the Kelly Clarkson pop hit, but I’m hopeful that repeated listenings to The Heavy will knock that on the head.)

 

 

I prefer the recent single ‘Turn Up’, which will be a stormer live and no doubt the soundtrack to TV shows in the near future. It has no official video yet but here’s the lyric placeholder.

 

 

So far, the two lead singles don’t indicate new territory for the band, but I’m still interested to hear the album. And when the vibe is this good, there’s something to be said for not fixing what’s not broken, right?

Dalton Trumbo is most well-known these days for being one of the Hollywood Ten, the film industry professionals who were blacklisted due to their suspected support of communism as a result of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Trumbo was a screenwriter responsible for scripts including Roman Holiday and Spartacus, and he also authored one of the most powerful anti-war novels of the last century, Johnny Got His Gun.

Johnny Got His Gun was published in 1938 and is the story of twenty-year-old American soldier Joe Bonham who is in hospital following his injury in World War I. The book begins as Joe awakens in hospital, in pain and hallucinating, and as he comes to, he realises that he is deaf. Joe goes in and out of consciousness, alternating between fantasy and reality, remembering episodes from his childhood, his friends and his girlfriend Kareen. In his lucid moments Joe begins to understand that he has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue), and his appearance is so disturbing that he has been covered up to avoid distressing the nurses who attend to him. But his mind is unaffected, making him a helpless prisoner, unable to communicate with anyone.

As Joe struggles to stay sane, he thinks about war, about what it means to die for democracy, about death before dishonour: ‘You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life. They’re plenty loud and they talk all the time. You can find them in churches and schools and newspapers and legislatures and congress…Nobody but the dead know whether all these things people talk about are worth dying for or not. And the dead can’t talk.’

The reader is trapped with Joe inside his head and his gradual awareness of the hopelessness of his situation is devastating. Joe rages against the brutality of modern warfare and how innocent working-class men are sacrificed for high ideals that mean nothing to them. Johnny Got His Gun is a scathing attack on the immorality and ultimate futility of war, while also being one of the most emotionally affecting books I’ve read in a  long time.

In 1971 Trumbo directed a film of the book, starring Timmy Bottom, Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland. You can have a look at the trailer below, but I recommend reading the book to appreciate the true brilliance of Trumbo’s  writing and ideas.

(And if the movie looks familiar, it’s probably because Metallica used scenes from it in their video for ‘One‘, which is inspired by the book.)

 

 

Another one of my much looked forward to movies has been ticked off. I’d been looking forward to The Big Short for months and I’m very glad to say it didn’t disappoint.

The film is based on the 2010 best-selling novel and is set during the lead up to the Great Recession. It centres on a disparate group of financial professionals who realise that the American economy is about to implode and decide to take advantage of it.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a successful hedge fund manager who foresees the housing bubble a few years early and engages with various banks to create credit default swaps and to bet against their investment. Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears of Burry’s prediction and sees the opportunity, so together with hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) bets against the housing market. Two young investors randomly discover Vennett’s proposal and they decide to become involved in credit default swaps together with retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). The end result was that all of these people made enormous profits when the housing market collapsed. Burry alone earned a personal profit of $100 million and a profit for his investors of more than $700 million.

On paper it sounds like it could be a slog, but Adam McKay’s script together with the lead performances turn this into a very funny look at a serious subject. There are several celebrity cameos throughout the film, there to explain certain banking concepts, and so people like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain illustrate subprime mortgages and CDOs while breaking the fourth wall. Again it sounds like it shouldn’t work but they actually help the audience’s understanding, and it’s a smart way to avoid the dreaded info dump.

The Big Short also manages to acknowledge the fact that although its main characters won betting against the housing market, and won big, for the rest of America and the world, most people lost. The scenes of Mark Baum’s team in Florida doing on the ground research show the human side of the crisis, with corrupt real estate agents and morally bankrupt mortgage brokers taking advantage of clueless buyers.

The Irish Times reported a couple of weeks ago that The Big Short was the favourite to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Betting on a film about betting on the housing market seems fitting! Definitely highly recommended and one to watch.

 

The Multiverse

is a blog from an Irish writer and DJ which takes in a wide range of subject matter as follows: Monday’s blogs are related to literature and writing; Tuesday is fashion, style and beauty; Wednesday is music; Thursday is TV and cinema; and Friday is a miscellany.

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