Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Chairman (1969)

I really dig the poster for this film...

Unfortunately the film itself is a load of old bin juice.

The Chairman (also known, here in the UK at least, as The Most Dangerous Man In The World - for fear cinemagoers would presume a film titled The Chairman would be about big business and not the leader of Red China, Chairman Mao Tse-tung) is a ludicrous 1969 spy thriller from director J. Lee Thompson and adapted from a novel by Jay Richard Kennedy. It stars Gregory Peck as a Nobel-prize winning, London based scientist Dr John Hathaway, a man who has, in his time, done a spot of espionage on the side. When American intelligence learn of a new agricultural enzyme being developed in Communist China that allows crops to grow in previously inhospitable regions, they naturally want to steal it for themselves and so they turn to Hathaway to undertake the mission. Unfortunately, since the death of his wife in a car crash three years previously, Hathaway has learnt that life is sacred and must be cherished and therefore is reluctant to undertake any mission that may involve violence, preferring instead the quiet academic life. However, after one quick phone call from the President his reservations are immediately forgotten and off he goes behind enemy lines, via Hong Kong. There's just the small matter of the tracking device Hathaway needs to take along so as to allow the military in England (Arthur Hill's eyepatch wearing sceptic representing the US, Alan Dobie flying the flag for Great Britain, and Ori Levy completing the uneasy alliance as a representative of Russia) to keep a check on his progress...

A tracking device that has been implanted in Hathaway's skull.

Yup, you've read that right. The device works as a one way radio transmitter which allows them to hear all of Hathaway's conversations as well as allow him the opportunity to provide a running commentary on the mission. It's also capable of providing an up to the minute progress report on Hathaway's pulse, heartbeat, blood pressure and overall peace of mind! But wait, here's the best bit...

The device is also packed with explosive just in case the mission fails and Hathaway needs to be terminated!

I mean c'mon, not even Ian Fleming came up with anything that fantastically dumb! Unfortunately The Chairman seems to be determined to completely ignore how stupid it is and instead delivers its silly story not with its tongue in its cheek but with a po-faced sincerity that makes the film a real, plodding chore. Poor old Gregory Peck (continuing that tradition of aging Hollywood leading men fronting British shot spy productions around this time) may have the ability to appear completely earnest whilst talking to himself... ahem, I mean talking to his superiors back at base...but it fails to acknowledge that its audience may find these scenes rather laughable. After an arduous slog that is at least enlivened by the location shooting in Hong Kong, the film manages to ratchet up some much needed tension in the traditional down-to-the-wire climax which sees Peck's Hathaway struggle across China's barbed wire border with Russia whilst the Red Army give chase and his superiors consider detonating the device. Though quite why he elects to crawl under this electrified fence rather than shoot through it with his gun was frankly beyond me. These scenes were actually filmed not in China, but in the rugged Welsh mountains of Snowdonia.

Ultimately, The Chairman's caught on a cusp; in 1969 it was far too late for the Bond-influenced, colourful gadget-strewn spy boom of the swinging sixties, but also too early for the more complex, dour and cynical plots of conspiracy and political intrigue that New Hollywood so enjoyed in the 1970s. The film wants to be in the latter's camp with its serious intent and its message of cold war piracy in Hathaway's discomfort at stealing China's scientific advancements for the West, but is chained to the former with its central conceit. J. Lee Thompson made some really good films in his time, but this isn't one of them and, it's easy to see this as being on the cusp of his own career too; the good stuff was perhaps behind him and what was mostly left from here on in were the many, many Charles Bronson action flicks he chose to helm. 

But hey, you do get to see some bloke purporting to be Chairman Mao playing table tennis whilst discussing political theory with Peck and admittedly that's not something you see everyday.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Dunkirk (1958)

Given that Dunkirk played to audiences in 1958 it’s undeniable that many of the real men who had found themselves tiptoeing through Nazi infested France with dwindling resources and diminishing hopes of survival, holding their breath at what lay behind every field and hedgerow or what lurked in the skies above their heads,  will have taken their seats at the local cinema, whilst the men and women who had at least known someone (and potentially even lost someone; 3,500 British soldiers were killed during the operation) who had endured such an experience, will no doubt have sat beside them. It’s hard for us modern viewers to contemplate what emotions and memories the film stirred within them, but it’s irrefutable that this film had much more punch and impact for an audience than Christopher Nolan’s recent retelling had, by sheer virtue of being made eighteen years after the event and just thirteen years after ceasefire.

Read my full review at The Geek Show

Saturday, 16 September 2017

RIP Harry Dean Stanton

David Lynch once asked Harry Dean Stanton how he'd like to be remembered. His response? 

'Doesn't matter'

I'd always hoped that meant that it didn't matter because he planned on living forever, but it was not to be. The news came today that Harry Dean Stanton, the greatest American character actor, has died at the age of 91. So let's raise a glass to him, as he takes himself down that last big, empty highway


Friday, 15 September 2017

Gig Review: Stewart Lee - Content Provider @ Liverpool Philharmonic 14/9/17

Stewart Lee returned to Liverpool this week with his latest tour, Content Provider, for a two night residency at the Phil. I had previously reviewed an early version of this latest show when Stew showcased it almost a year ago and which you can read both here and, astonishingly, on Stewart Lee's own website here - I am flabbergasted to think that Stew has seen/read my little rambling about that gig and decided to use it in the review section of his site and yes, this post is essentially my shameless attempt at getting noticed once again!

Having seen an embryonic version of the show, I was intrigued to see what changes had been made along with just generally being unable to resist the opportunity to see Stew live once again. This time around I potentially incurred Stew's wrath by not only bringing a friend along, but a friend who has only recently got into Stew's comedy! Thankfully, despite such noob credentials said friend has already become a massive and confirmed Stew fan. As a result, it felt safe to take our front row seats!

There was actually very little difference between the show tonight and the show I last saw in November 2016, and that's fine - because the humour is of such a high standard that it bears repeated dividends. It's perhaps in the first half, amidst the familiar routines of merchandise, tax and touring, that the show has had some reworking applied; there's a little bit more on Brexit (inevitably), an energetic routine about mythical charity shop home deliveries that left me exhausted just from watching, as well as an absolutely hilarious piss-take of twentysomething comedians who may baulk at Stew's criticism of Russell Howard, and a joyously destructive attack of the set which is, once again, made up of the second hand DVDs of lesser stand ups. Some of the most amusing new bits here where, I suspect, those that were unique to the night itself and were, in the comedian's own words 'self indulgent digressions'; these included Stew momentarily losing his way in his routine and requiring some help from the audience when he was unable to read his own writing of the prompts he scrawls on the back of his hand, an amusing insight into how his career is viewed by his own family and his reactions to some restless audience members who were perhaps itching for their interval drink or toilet break. One throwaway line about audience reactions to his fondness for Turkish funk (which was the interval music) especially amused, as Stew claims in Liverpool this remark gets a laugh whereas in Manchester, the home of Factory Records, it receives the encouraging recommendation to start a club night. Coming from St Helens, a small town between those two North Western behemoths and being neither one nor the other, I can see both sides.

Aside from a few very good bits of business, the second half seemed, as far as my recollection goes, to be virtually unchanged from the previous November. I'm really happy to report this actually as it means that my favourite bits remain intact. These include the amusing little aside about the odd, seemingly unworkable bedfellows of jazz and folk being reminiscent of his own partnership with Richard Herring, the difference between modern day Tinder and late '80s Dateline, Game of Thrones digs ("Peter Stringfellow's Lord of the Rings") the tear-streamingly funny impression of someone under 40 addictively using their iPhone and, best of all, that wonderfully surreal and utterly deliriously hilarious routine about Stew's grandparents practicing a sort of make do and mend S&M in '30s Kidderminster. One new thing I did learn from the second half however was that Stewart Lee buys his boxer shorts from the same place as I do! I didn't expect Stew to drop his trews as a reply to someone tweeting that he had got fat but it was another laugh out loud moment to a very entertaining night.  

Unfortunately, despite Stew manning a particularly enticing merch stand immediately after the show I was unable to stick around this time to buy anything or get anything signed due to the massive queue that had formed and the pressing need to catch a train home, but I'm determined to catch Stewart Lee when he's in town again (hopefully with a show entitled 'Managed Decline', the term used to describe Thatcher's abhorrent policy towards Liverpool in the '80s, and one which he wryly referred to as being how he viewed his own career now) and I recommend all fans of good, intelligent comedy to do the same.

PS: A small note to anyone booking for an event at the Liverpool Phil who may receive as I did an email offering you the opportunity of securing a spot and a free drink in their 'VIP bar', the 1840 room. for just £7. It's not worth it. For a start, 'room' is totally the wrong way to describe the corridor with a bloke at a table at the end serving drinks that the 1840 actually is. Granted you can dodge the queues at the main bar here, but you can also dodge the queues by crossing the road and enjoying a drink at The Phil pub.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Great Silence (1968)

Hey Tarantino, I haven't seen The Hateful Eight but I'm guessing that even with a Morricone score, a snowbound landscape, characters of dubious morality, and plenty of bloodshed, you've still made a film that is nowhere near as good as this, probably because you simply don't have the personal politics that Sergio Corbucci had - and that's a key ingredient in The Great Silence. As Donato Totaro said of the film, and in particular the meaning to be found in its title, it is "suggestive not only of the great white expansive snow, the lead character's muteness, but the late 1960s political defeats that impacted Corbucci's mood that led him to make one of the grimmest Westerns ever made". Whereas Tarantino is led to make films simply because he wants to replicate something of those he has seen and admired, in the same way that a kid with his toys might set out to recreate what he has seen for his own amusement.

In setting his film during a severe blizzard in Utah (in reality the snowcapped Italian Dolomites) Corbucci delivers a bleak and unforgiving setting that compliments the tone of his tale. An Italian left wing radical, he was inspired by the deaths of Che Guevara and Malcolm X to tell a story that condemns corrupt and authoritarian capitalism, using the bounty hunters of the old West as a means of exploring our unequal society. As personified by Klaus Kinski's cold hearted Loco, bounty hunters are greedy, ruthless murderers for the state, who use the flimsy excuse of the law to sate their natural bloodlust and monetary avarice. The banker Pollicutt (Luigi Pistilli) is also a clear example of the wholly amoral nature of authority figures who may otherwise be sainted in several Hollywood productions. 

The sympathy here is for the outlaws, those disenfranchised people who turn to crime because society is simply too far stacked against them to allow them a fair deal, and turn to a mute gunslinger known as Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to fight their corner. Equally, Corbucci must be praised for his use of strong female protagonists among his heroic and sympathetic outlaws, in particular black actress Vonetta McGee's memorable turn as the vengeful Pauline, who is depicted as someone whose pain and loneliness is on a par with our central male hero with whom she shares an love scene which is progressive for the time given its interracial status. Tellingly, it was the only love scene Corbucci ever included in his work in the genre. 

The Great Silence may be deeply nihilistic but the film's closing title card suggests what occurred brought about a change in society. The great Alex Cox argues that the film's moral coda is that there's a great nobility in doing the right thing, even though you know you will personally fail, and therefore, pay the highest price for the cause. Whilst Corbucci ends his tale on such a small crumb of comfort we perhaps only need to look at the world we live in today to see, as Stewart Lee (who I'm off to see in Liverpool again tomorrow night, woohoo!) is often want to remind us in his columns for The Guardian, that parallels can be drawn between the divisive here and now and the moral repugnance at the heart of many politically charged spaghetti westerns. Our society hasn't received that change hinted at as the credits roll here; capitalism still exists, sadly.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

RIP Sir Peter Hall

The great Sir Peter Hall has died at the age of 86. The giant of theatre had been suffering with dementia since 2011.

The son of a railwayman, Hall founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 at the age of just twenty-nine and left the company in 1968 to take up the role of director of The National Theatre from Olivier in 1973, where he was responsible for moving the theatre from the Old Vic to the purpose-built complex on London's South Bank where it still stands to this day.

A hugely influential figure, may he rest in peace.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Pride and the Passion (1957)

The Pride and the Passion is a 1957 film from Stanley Kramer. It is set in French-occupied Spain during the Napoleonic Wars and concerns an enormous siege canon left abandoned by the Spanish army in their defeat. Locating its whereabouts, a group of Spanish guerrillas and a British naval officer commit to trekking 1,000km across Spain to use it to recapture the fortified town of Avila before handing it over to the British to continue the fight against Napoleon's forces. 

Anyone who may have initially missed the Freudian implication of watching Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra lug an enormous canon in Sophia Loren's wake will have almost certainly have cottoned on to it by the time Loren performs a very sexy flamenco dance - because by that stage any red blooded male in the audience will have developed a giant canon of their own. I know I did.

Based on Hornblower author CS Forester's 1933 novel The Gun (an undeniably bland title but really is The Pride and the Passion any better? It sounds less like an actual film title and more like a strap line. The implication is, I guess, that Grant's British naval officer is proud whereas Sinatra and Loren's Spanish guerrillas are passionate, being Latin and all) Stanley Kramer's 1957 epic is about as thrilling as you would expect from a two hour six minute film which concerns one hour fifty five of its run time with the logistics of getting a canon across Spain. For the audience, much like the protagonists, it's a bit of a dry and thankless slog. However, I found the rich colour palette, the use of literally thousands of extras, and its three stars appealing enough to forgive The Pride and the Passion it's mistakes. 

Whether you enjoy it or not I guess depends on if you can accept Cary Grant as a British naval hero (yes, Grant was a British, and not only that, but he hailed from Bristol which has a fine naval tradition, but by this stage in his career he was just too Americanised to truly convince and he seems less comfortable in period swashbuckling romps than he does in urbane contemporary settings) and Frank Sinatra as a Spanish freedom fighter. Adopting a Spanish 'accent', Sinatra isn't that bad really, but every time he has to say the word 'you' (which is a heck of a lot by the way) I did keep thinking of that perceived slight Woody Allen had in Annie Hall, when he felt sure someone said to him 'No, Jew?' instead of 'No, d'you?'

Thursday, 7 September 2017

If You Value Free Speech, Help Craig Murray

I wish to draw everyone's attention to the plight of Craig Murray. The former diplomat turned human rights activist and author of Murder in Samarkand is currently being sued for libel by the associate editor of the Daily Fail Online, Jake Wallis Simons, a journalist who claims to have 'exposed' Labour's anti-Semitism.

You can read the details (or rather as much as he can currently say) on Craig's blog here - which is also where you can pledge via paypal, visa, direct debit, maestro or mastercard a donation to a fighting fund which will allow him to defend his case from 7th November. Please, please, please give Craig's blog a read and do as I did - give what you can. I can only repeat what the man himself has said;

"If you have ever enjoyed this blog - join the fight. If you dislike this blog but support freedom of speech - join the fight. If you support the right to defend Palestine without being labelled anti-Semitic - join the fight. If you despised the anti-Corbyn media campaign - join the fight. If the Daily Mail sickens you - join the fight"

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Out On Blue Six: Royal Blood

A piece of music that's currently being discovered by anyone who has gone 'ooh what's that song?' every time the trailer for the second series of Doctor Foster is shown on the BBC, it's Royal Blood and Figure it Out

Series two of Doctor Foster starts on BBC1 tonight at 9pm.

End Transmission

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Day of the Jackal

Just a heads up/plug to say that the new Blu-ray release of The Day of the Jackal from Arrow Films is released today, with a booklet featuring a new critical essay entitled Making the Hit: The Making of The Day of The Jackal written by yours truly.

Out On Blue Six: Nena/Ultravox/Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Watching the Top of the Pops repeats on BBC4 can sometimes feel very strange. We're in 1984 now, which means Nena's 99 Red Balloons, Ultravox's Dancing With Tears In My Eyes and Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Two Tribes are all big hits. Of course they are, they were responding to the fact that 1984 was a very scary time to be alive as the threat of nuclear war seemed increasingly imminent. But they seem prescient now, almost like these transmissions from 1984 are tapping into and reflecting the present world in some strange semi-conscious way, because these tracks feel just as timely now in the frightening current world climate.

End Transmission

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Millionairess (1960)

'Talking Pictures TV has advised that the following film contains scenes of outdated racial representation that some viewers may find offensive'

This advisory note headed up the Talking Pictures broadcast of Anthony Asquith's 1960 romcom The Millionairess and refers to Peter Sellers, who 'blacked up' to portray Ahmed el Kabir, a socialist Indian doctor working in London's East End. To be fair to Sellers though, he delivers a sensitive performance that doesn't set out to poke fun at the character or indeed, perhaps most crucially, his ethnicity; this is far from the comic stereotype of Indian and Pakistani characters that populated much of British comedy at the time, such as his Goons co-star Spike Milligan's portrayal of an Indian in Johnny Speight's somewhat ill advised sitcom Curry and Chips. In short, whilst the very act of 'blacking up' to portray a different ethnicity may be offensive, Sellers' intentions in his performance do not seem to be.

The story is a loose and modern day update of George Bernard Shaw's 1936 play of the same name which would later receive a more faithful adaptation from the BBC in a 1972 Play of the Month production starring Maggie Smith, alongside future Doctor Who star Tom Baker who donned the 'blacking up' make-up alongside a fez ("I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool") to play the good doctor. This version stars bombshell Sophia Loren as Epifania Parerga, the richest woman in the world and a wilful and arrogant heiress whose fortune derives from her late father. 

Following an unhappy, ill-suited marriage, Epifania contemplates suicide by drowning herself in the Thames. There she meets Sellers' doctor and falls immediately in love. The doctor however is impervious to her charms, so she sets out to win him by purchasing the rundown East End neighbourhood surrounding his clinic and building a modern, cutting edge facility for him to run instead. Intimidated, Kabir refuses to be bought or return her affections and manufactures a challenge for his bride-to-be laid out by his mother on her deathbed. This challenge states that he can only marry a girl who can take a dowry of 35 shillings and earn her own living from it for three months. Undeterred, Epifania accepts the challenge whilst revealing her own late father's challenge for any potential husband she intends to wed; a dowry of £500 is given to Kabir which he must then turn into £15,00 within the same three month period. 

It's quite apt that The Millionairess was made in 1960 as I think it's a production that is caught bang in the middle of two periods in British cinema, specifically in the comedy genre. As a film, it conjures up both something of the previous decade and the immediate post-war years as well as the swinging decade that was to come. The general storyline, tapping into the still relatively new NHS and the social make-up of the UK, along with casting of Alistair Sim, Alfie Bass and Dennis Price in supporting roles speaks of the Ealing-esque traditions, whilst the casting coup of the unbelievably glam and beautiful Eurocutie Sophia Loren, sweeping through sets that are bold and colourful and infatuated with gadgets and technology (automatic electronic doors that swish open like Epifania lives on the Starship Enterprise) point the way forward to later glitzy, zany and star-studded Sellers vehicles like Casino Royale and What's New, Pussycat. As such, The Millionairess falls between two stools and is never truly satisfying. The ingredients are there, but in its presentation it is both out of fashion and before its time.

The film itself is perhaps now best known for the off screen relationship between Sellers and Loren. Sellers claimed to all and sundry that he was in the midst of a mad, passionate love affair with Loren which subsequently led to the break up of his marriage to first wife Anne Howe, the mother of his two children Michael and Sarah. Loren however claims that their relationship was never more than strongly platonic, a claim that has been backed up by many insiders and close friends of Sellers who believe that the chameleon immersed himself too deeply in the character of Kabir, deluding himself that the on screen love affair was also happening in reality. 

Both performers possess a natural chemistry together that help to enliven proceedings when its needed the most, but the best chemistry in the film is perhaps on display when Loren performs opposite her mentor, the director Vittorio de Sica who has a small cameo role as the employer of a pasta sweat shop Epifania arrives at to comply with Kabir's late mother's test. Elsewhere, Alistair Sim quietly steals the film as Epifania's lawyer and it's a delight to see: but then, as a sleeve note to an Ian Dury album once said, 'everyone loves Alistair Sim'.

Speaking of music, The Beatles producer George Martin, who was at that time the producer of Peter Sellers' comedy recordings, came up with the idea of an in-character comic duet between Sellers and Loren entitled 'Goodness Gracious Me', with the intention of it being incorporated in the soundtrack of the film. 

The film's producers however did not agree and so the song appeared as a stand-alone single. It instantly became a chart hit in and succeeded in publicising the film and is still somewhat fondly recalled to this day. In short, the film producers were idiots.

Baby Driver

My dog is such a poser...

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger

He is a man both energised by ideas and intelligent discourse, and eager to learn from the perspectives and experiences of others even at his advanced age. Indeed, the years fall away from him during this segment as he paints illustrative pictures with his ever-moving hands,  speaks economically yet eloquently on the notion that heaven and hell have been supplanted by capitalism and communism (it is only in hell, he posits, where solidarity still means something) and passes his hipflask round the table. Watching him here I was suddenly struck by the amusing idea that he suddenly appeared a curious hybrid between Samuel Beckett  and Trevor Peacock in The Vicar of Dibley; the former because of his craggy, well lined features and thick snow-white hair, and the latter because of his soft ‘r’s’, the glee he clearly possesses from social communication, and the fact that this artificial round table talk seems to be taking place in a room not unlike a village hall!

See my full review at The Geek Show

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Out On Blue Six: Joe Dolan

Surely one of the most underappreciated ballads of the 1960s. Eat your collective hearts out Tom Jones, Tony Christie and Engelbert Humperdinck, it's Ireland's own Joe Dolan! (Be advised, this has a habit of staying in your head for days!)

End Transmission

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Spellbound (1945)

The central issue with Hitchcock's 1945 film Spellbound is one of expectations which are perhaps best summed up by Francois Truffaut. The French filmmaker, in his series of conversations which led to the acclaimed book Hitchcock Truffaut, argues that one expects a Hitchcock film about mental frailty and psychoanalysis to be 'wildly imaginative' and 'way out', in a similar vein to the later Vertigo. Though I haven't read it, I believe the novel on which Spellbound is based, The House of Dr Edwardes, is apparently very wild in its approach to the notion of 'the lunatic taking over the asylum', so - like Truffaut - you'd be forgiven for thinking Hitchcock would use such a melodramatic and offbeat approach. However, Hitchcock instead turned in a 'sensible picture', full of logic and a sympathetic, somewhat earnest approach to psychoanalysis since both the film's screenwriter Ben Hecht and the producer Davis O Selznick were keen proponents of the science. However it's fair to say that we've come a long way forward from our understanding of the subject since 1945. It's commendable I guess that a Hollywood production is tackling a psychiatry in such a respectful light, but I can't help but wish Hitchcock went against the grain of his colleagues and cocked a snook at all this Freudian talk, because what we have here is a very dull picture.

Something that staves off the dullness at times is Ingrid Bergman's performance, which I really liked. It's so refreshing to see her, a woman in the 1940s working in a male dominated environment, essentially running rings around her colleagues and swatting aside their attempts at flirtation and chauvinistic remarks. However, this notion of a strong and independent woman is somewhat lost the minute Gregory Peck arrives on the scene purporting to be the asylum's new chief doctor. One minute she was effortlessly undermining all the blokes sniffing round her and the next she's sighing wistfully at the thought of Peck's liverwurst sausage on an impromptu picnic, and I'm not sure if that's intentionally Freudian or not!

As for Peck himself, he's a little stiff and unconvincing here (Truffaut voiced his disappointment to Hitch, claiming the lack of expression in his eyes, combined with a shallowness, stopped him from being a comfortable or archetypal Hitchcockian actor) and, despite both he and Bergman being attractive leads, their is surprisingly lacking given they apparently hit it off romantically off screen. Still, Hitchcock knows how to shoot them at least; look at that moment where they kiss - the doors opening. Just sublime.

Indeed, what does pretty much save Spellbound in the main is the way Hitchcock enlivens so much of the plodding nature with his trademark visual audacity; those doors, the unique use of POV - firstly inside the glass of milk Peck is drinking and later of the gun pointed directly at Bergman - and the breakthrough moment that reveals Peck's childhood flashback in all its vivid horror as both he and Bergman are skiing towards a sheer drop. But perhaps most famous of all is the film's unique dream sequence designed by none other than Salvador Dali in all his ommetaphobic glory. Hitchcock initially wanted to shoot this sequence outside with bright sunlight to break the tradition of dreams being presented in a hazy manner and to offer up something more sharp and hyper-real, but unfortunately the budget wouldn't stretch to it alas.

Whilst Spellbound is occasionally visually splendid, the same cannot be said for its aural nature. Miklós Rózsa's score is so overbearingly used, carpeting every scene and giving the action no opportunity to breathe at all. I suspect Hans Zimmer took notes from him here! Overall, this is a disappointing miss-fire from Hitch. The potential is there, but it doesn't come through to the end result. It's only because of the way he shoots the damn thing, that it bags itself three and a half stars. Under any other director, this would be easily forgettable.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

England Is Mine (2017)

"Stop being such a mardarse"

The fact that this is almost literally the first thing said in England Is Mine tells you that it is indeed a biopic of the early years of one Steven Patrick Morrissey. It's up to you whether you regard him as an infuriating miserabilist or genius. Or perhaps both.

I approached England Is Mine with some trepidation - not because it's 'unauthorised' (would we ever expect Morrissey to give his blessing?) but because it's had some pretty terrible reviews. To which I must say, where they watching the same film as me?

I think where people have gone wrong is in expecting the film to be an out and out Morrissey biopic - and, to that end, a biopic of The Smiths; the amount of whispers I heard in the frankly deserted screening I attended that were along the lines of 'this is just gonna be about his life before The Smiths isn't it? - rather than a touching and heartfelt coming of age drama about life as a 'back bedroom casualty'. When watched in that context, it's obscene to think that England Is Mine has received so little praise, because I genuinely think it handles the concepts of loneliness, isolation and of struggling with mental health issues with an empathetic and deft touch. 

Much of this success comes from not only the strong characterisation found within the script written by director Mark Gill with co-writer William Thacker, but in a superlative central performance from Jack Lowden as the lad himself. Both the performance and the writing acknowledge that what we're actually witnessing here is a chrysalis moment: a series of transitional states that turns Steven Patrick Morrissey into Morrissey, arguably the most important frontman figure in British music in the last thirty years. The initial stages of the film are devoted to Morrissey as the gauche, square peg in a round hole. An ill at ease, awkward in his own body youth (two jeering teenage girls refer to him as 'Lurch' when he refuses to engage in their chat), this is someone who cannot accept his own self, let alone his place in the world. He has the innate sense that he is different, that he wants different things, but he hasn't the ability or confidence to bring this about for himself. It's only when, aided by the encouragement from his art student friend Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay) and appalled by the notion that he's spend his days as a wage slave at the local Inland Revenue office, he finally finds the courage to use music as his outlet. This happiness is short-lived however when he realises the chance of stardom is not open to him, and the next persona of Morrissey we see is one he has no say in choosing for himself; Morrissey the youth in the midst of a breakdown. Finally, on coming out of his depression thanks to some sound advice from his doting mother (Simone Kirby) he starts the journey of becoming the Morrissey that we all know now (or at least think we know) and that fateful encounter with one Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston).

Built around this great central performance are some really solidly written, identifiable and well played supporting characters - three of which are enjoyable female. Katherine Pearce's Anjie Hardie (she who utter the immortal 'mardarse' comment at the top of this review) is wonderfully reminiscent of every socially shy, reticent boy's put-upon, long suffering and sarcastic girlfriend (and I know I had one myself). She's immensely protective of Morrissey - her radar for rough boys looking for kicks ensures he doesn't 'get twatted' on the way home from a club - and shares his morbid fascinations (picking up a book about The Moors Murders in Morrissey's bedroom she wonder aloud if he ever thinks that the fate that befell those poor children could have just as easily happened to them; an accurate reminder of just how much of a shadow was cast from those heinous acts over children of the northwest in the '60s and '70s - indeed, I once heard someone in a pub perhaps rightly claim that Manchester never had the swinging sixties because of Hindley and Brady) as well as his belief that he is something special, but she's frustrated by his inability to be proactive: "The world isn't gonna come to you" she complains after another example of her social wet nursing and hand holding falls flat because of his suffocating shyness.

More successful in terms of coaxing Morrissey out his shell is Linder Sterling who enters the story just when he needs her the most. The photomontage artist is portrayed by Jessica Brown Findlay, casting that I was initially wary of, not because I dislike Brown Findlay - I don't, I really like her - but because I feared she was too known from previous high profile performances for the role. Now I see that this wasn't a baggage but a blessing: It's only right that Linder has some star appeal as it not only helps to point out right from the off that this is someone destined to go places, but also imbues the role with the necessary quality to convince both as Morrissey's verbal sparring partner and a prime mover on the Manchester punk scene. 

Lastly, there's Jodie Comer as Christine, one of Morrissey's co-workers at the Inland Revenue (an accurate depiction of the drudgery of the civil service, that is blessed by a wonderfully comic caricature of a small-minded and ineffectual manager played by Graeme Hawley). Vacuous and attractive, Christine is a character that both repels and (to an extent) appeals to Morrissey. He's awkward from her attentions and despairing of her banal tastes and, by keeping her at arm's length, he will ultimately suffer at her hands, but her character is just as important as Linder or Anjie's - she's the archetypal 'heroine' of some of the many cutting and critical lyrics in the songs that Morrissey would go on to pen.

So many of the reviews for the film raise the fact that none of these songs put in an appearance as evidence that England Is Mine is a disappointment. But again, did they really expect to hear tracks by The Smiths in a story concerning the period before The Smiths? For me personally, I think England Is Mine tells the story it wants to tell in the best possible way it can and, barring a few scenes of Morrissey watching his beloved kitchen sink dramas or Coronation Street or rubbing shoulders with other budding Mancunian musicians who went on to become Joy Division etc, I really can't see how the film could be improved upon. It's a deeply evocative and atmospheric piece, more reminiscent (to me at least, at times) of Terence Davies trilogy than of Corbijn's Control. Slow, and low key yes, this is an origins story if you like.

A final aside; the screening I went to (just over a fortnight ago now) at Liverpool FACT's Picturehouse had just ten people in it including myself. Two of these were an elderly couple whose presence rather surprised me. They spent much of the film whispering, laughing and then finally - the man at least - snoring. I'm not sure whether Morrissey would disapprove or approve of that.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

It’s hard to put into words the surprise I first felt when, watching this in the ’80s as a family video rental, my child eyes took in arguably the first ever same-sex kiss I ever witnessed, but the muscle memory is still there and even now I can feel something of its shockwave with each rewatch as Johnny and Omar reveal to the audience their true feelings for one another. This was the 1980s remember, when depictions of homosexuality were still, in the main, of the Mr Humphreys, Larry Grayson and Kenneth Williams variety. It is most emphatically here that My Beautiful Laundrette is at its most real: addressing something previously unspoken in society whilst simultaneously challenging cliche and stereotype in one fell swoop. Here, homosexuals aren’t camp comic relief or sad men in rainmacs doomed to a life alone, they can by the unprepared sight of  Daniel Day-Lewis’ donkey jacket clad streetwise tough too – someone who just so happens to like men. And what’s more, his like is for an Asian man in particular,  something which adds a whole new dimension to the character’s shameful past allegiance with the National Front and his ongoing friendship with the ragtag gang of bovver boys he continues to hang around with. 

Read my full review at The Geek Show