Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Anna Karenina (2012)

Anna Karenina. Gah. I really struggled with this one. 

Joe Wright's decision to film all the action in a rundown theatre is something of an immediate head fuck that initially repulsed me, then I found myself trying to come to terms with it by considering just how inventive it was and how it invested a familiar story with bold auteur like creative vision. After all, it's not totally unusual, Ken Russell confined the whole action of The Boy Friend to one down at heel end of the pier theatre. 

But ultimately in creating such a subversive and intentionally inauthentic hyperreal setting, it is a move that stifles the story and robs it of its heart. It's hard to engage with the emotional heft of the story and some of the mannered and/or larger than life comedic playing does little to change that either. I'm not convinced by the casting either; I like Knightley more than most but this is possibly the least impressive performance she's given for Wright. Aaron Taylor-Johnson continues to look slappably callow but fails to convince us by the agonies the character ultimately endures, whilst Domhnall Gleeson does very well with a story that feels very much sidelined; after all, when the main story of Anna is itself sidelined for the visual flair of the fantasy setting what hope does a secondary story have?  

I've seen Wright's creative vision being likened to Powell and Pressburger but frankly that's a load of old tut. I admire Wright and I give him kudos for trying something so distinctive and different but it is deeply flawed and in no way reaches the creative heights of The Archers. This was more Baz Luhrmann, and let's face it though I have no real problems with that Aussie auteur, he's hardly likely to be mentioned in the same breath as P+P now is he?

In conclusion, beyond my initial alienation and misgivings, I can't help but find this a rich and visually stimulating affair but it works to the detriment of the story and as such it doesn't quite come off. Wright has previously cited David Lean, and specifically his Doctor Zhivago, as a major influence upon his work, such a shame then that he didn't take his cue from that epic and make something just as impressive but more straightforward.

I may have to watch this again sometime, and I may change my mind - I've a feeling it's the kind of film that begs for reevaluation - but for now, this is a beautiful, though hollow, misfire.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Only Terry Gilliam...

I was a child when The Adventures of Baron Munchausen came out and I recall being very excited about watching it. When I finally got round to it, I must admit its baroque bloatedness did alienate me a little in places, but I was still somewhat besotted by it.

Twenty Six years on and watching it with adult eyes rather than that of a child, I still feel more or less the same. I'm not alienated as such, but the faults and errors are readily apparent within the otherwise boldly beautiful structure. As with a lot of Gilliam's work it's nearly but not quite, hampered almost inevitably by bad luck and mismanagement from the studios. If ever a film would benefit from a director's cut it's this one.

Some of the miss-steps include not having enough emotional contact with the town that is besieged throughout. We're no sooner introduced to it than we rush headlong into the visiting acting troupe (headed up by a fabulous Bill Paterson as Henry Salt) and their wrangling with Gilliam's in joke towards financiers played (far too OTT) by Jonathan Pryce. The main problem with the piece is I think its pacing, everything feels like its working against the clock leaving us breathless in all the wrong ways by Gilliam's bold creative imagination. The film needed time to breathe, time to allow the ideas and concepts to grow and flourish. 

Some of the highlights though are of course the fabulous set and costume design, the cinematography and the direction as well as the sheer charm of so many of the set pieces. Richard Neville was something of an infrequent screen presence, preferring the theatre to the big screen, which is a real shame as he holds everything together wonderfully here and it is perhaps his elusive yet familiar nature that nails the Munchausen character. He's ably supported by the talented beyond her years presence of Sarah Polley as Sally Salt and the pair have a real chemistry both loving and fractious that's a joy to watch.

An epic such as this needs big characters and Gilliam pulled out all the stops bringing us the likes of fellow Python Eric Idle, a very young Uma Thurman, Oliver Reed (who, at the time, was at his most fun for ages) and the late Robin Williams - or Ray D. Tutto, 'king of everything' as he was credited.

Warning: Sting is also in it. But only briefly. Phew.

Cars & Girls

Jane Asher

Tonight's Tele Tip : Only Connect

Thanks to BBC2 come 8:30pm tonight, Mondays won't feel so bad

Yes Only Connect is back and it's made the big move from BBC4 to BBC2. Expect brain teasing rounds and mind boggling walls all presented by the wonderful Victoria Coren-Mitchell.

Despite the big leap from 4 to 2 (the trailer made much fun of that) it hasn't actually been a huge gap between series, but how I've missed the show...and her


Blue Nude,

Georges Wino, '73

Saturday, 30 August 2014

High Rise Excitement

I can't wait for this. A favourite novel of mine the cast list is mouthwatering; Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Reece Shearsmith, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Sienna Guillory, Peter Ferdinando and Dan Renton Skinner, all directed by Ben Wheatley. Eeek! Is it 2015 now please?

The Man In The White Suit (1951)

The joy of Ealing comedies is they're so often considered to be the domain of homely traditional English values, all quaint and innocuous. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and the very best of Ealing's output were trenchant affairs that took an obvious delight in their scalpel like incisions into the underbelly beyond their seemingly cosy appearance.

The Man In The White Suit is a prime example of such style.

Alexander Mackendrick, American born and raised in Scotland, was perhaps more disposed than most in turning a critical almost outsider like surgically aloof eye to the Ealing ethos and, in Alec Guinness' wonderful turn as inventor Sidney Stratton, he explores beautifully what his biographer Philip Kemp claims was his favourite theme, that of a 'lethal innocence' in his protagonists. Guinness captures an intoxicating level of dreaminess and haplessness as his invention of an indestructible, dirt resistant artificial fibre which spreads havoc in the Lancashire mill town. Across The Man In The White Suit's modest running time Mackendrick spares no one, focusing on both the boardrooms and the unions with the luckless Guinness, who only wanted to improve our lot, stuck in the middle. The thorny dilemma that Mackendrick wields his satirical scalpel at is the notion that in the creation of such a valuable resource, leads to hardship; the workforce and business will become untenable as no one would need purchase replacement suits. What will become of us all? is literally the question raised and suddenly the audience doesn't know who to root for, though we remain sympathetic to largely all concerned, and the script doesn't make it easy on us by offering us 'the answer', though it does end on a delightfully ambiguous, playfully sinister finale.

In approaching the subject matter in such a manner Mackendrick perfectly captures the vibe of the early 50s; a point in time that saw the nation moving slowly away from the post war hardships it had long endured towards the Tory prosperity of Macmillan's 'You've never had it so good' pledge.

The Man In The White Suit is a classic piece of British cinema as durable as the fibre Stratton created.


TTIP. It's an extremely important newsworthy story and yet you don't actually hear much about it in the news. So what is TTIP? Well stands for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a fancy name for a terrible trade deal between the EU and the US. 

If we don't beat it, big business will be able to sue our government for protecting people and the planet, and the privatisation of the NHS and public services will be irreversible. 

Business Minister Vince Cable's department is in charge of TTIP in the UK. He'll decide what we sign up to - he could make or break the deal. He needs to know that we see him personally responsible for protecting our NHS and from stopping big business from walking all over our government. If he hears how important TTIP is to the public, he may do the right thing.

Please sign this petition here to stop privatisation, now.

The Kiss of Eternity

Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder looking beautiful as the cover stars of Premiere magazine's Bram Stoker's Dracula special

Ah the glamour of 90s cinema *sighs*

Friday, 29 August 2014

Toys (1992)

It's hard to admit, given how raw his tragic and incredibly premature demise is, that there were moments when Robin Williams' shtick of incessant and risque motormouth humour crossed the floor to mawkish sentimentality territory to become utterly infuriating. But it did, and Toys is a prime example of that moment.

Barry Levinson's Dada and Surrealism inspired, utterly distinctive colourful and creative vision concerns itself with Williams' naive pacifist toymaker, who just wants to make the world laugh and play, coming up against his more pugnacious uncle (Michael Gambon with an accent that surely drowned on its way across the pond - though at least they jokily acknowledge/explain it) who, upon inheriting the family business, is intent on taking it into a new direction and making War Toys. And that's pretty much it; like a Doctor Who script from the McCoy era - The Greatest Show In The Galaxy and The Happiness Patrol immediately spring to mind - it tries to create an idyll upon whom the horrors of a violent regime begin to impinge and provide a saviour in the shape of a zany little man. These kind of stories were big in the late 80s/early 90s, and its clear Levinson meant this to be an anti war message in the Post Gulf War world of 1992.

Just as you can't deny such a peaceful message, you really can't deny Levinson's aforementioned beautiful creative vision that, in cinematography, set and costume design, tips its hat to the work of Magritte. The sublime and diverse score from the likes of Enya, Tori Amos, Grace Jones, Hans Zimmer, Trevor Horn, Tchaikovsky and Seal is also undeniably strong too. But the sad truth is you cannot help but be infuriated by the complete lack of plot focus on display, as time after ponderous time the film prefers to concern itself with navel gazing and up its own bottom disappearing 'character' moments that actually hold little substance in terms of character anyway and are the cinematic equivalent of wet farts.

Levinson had assuredly handled Williams in the excellent Good Morning, Vietnam but he loses him completely here in a performance that is 80% beatific boredom and 20% out of character inventive motormouthery. It reaches a point where you actually hate Williams, you want to grab him and shake him out of this sentimental schmaltz before its too late...or before What Dreams May Come and Bicentennial Man at least! I'm a pacifist left winger, yet even I'm on Gambon's side here! This was the time when Williams' screen persona of the outsider who challenges the stiff and unjust establishment through his eccentric manner was stretched to its limit. At its best, this persona gave us Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam and even Good Will Hunting, at its worst it gave us these tepid and soppy 'boy who never grew up 'affairs which should have stopped at its most natural conclusion; Hook, a less than wholly successful project from the previous year.

It was said that Levinson spent twelve years getting Toys off the ground and that it was the first movie he had ever wanted to make. It shows. He hung onto this idea for so long he became too immersed in it and besotted by it to see its failings. Visually extraordinary, all concerned on Toys clearly believed they were producing great art, with not only something vitally important and philosophical to say but also said beautifully too, when in fact much of its ideas are half hearted, empty and unclear. It's probably one of the greatest and most infuriating miscalculations in cinema and the obvious sincerity on display from all concerned only further serves to irritate. 

Just as one felt it cruel though necessary to criticise a film so unbelievably wet  for its peaceful 'all you need is love' message so today do I feel cruel to do so all over again knowing Williams is no longer with us.

Out On Blue Six : The Skatalites

The Skatalites version of Dimitri Tiomkin's score for The Guns of Navarone

End Transmission

RIP Bill Kerr

'The boy from Wagga Wagga' himself, Bill Kerr has passed away in Perth aged 92.

Kerr's may be a name that has faded from familiarity over time, but it was a well known household fixture in the 50s and 60s thanks to his role as one of Tony Hancock's sidekicks (alongside Sid James, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams) in the radio series Hancock's Half Hour and a string of film appearances including The Dam Busters, Penny Points To Paradise (alongside The Goons) The Night My Number Came Up, The Wrong Arm of The Law (with Peter Sellers) Doctor in Distress, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and roles in television in the early soap Compact and Doctor Who

Indeed it was his role in the Doctor Who serial The Enemy of the World (above) that hit the headlines once again last year after it was found in Nigeria having been missing since its original transmission in 1967/68.

Born in Cape Town in 1922, Kerr was raised in Australia living a self confessed "Huckleberry Finn life" in New South Wales. he made his stage debut as a babe in his mother's arms and would go on to become known as a child star of the Australian stage, often likened to America's Jackie Coogan.

Kerr moved to the UK in the 1950s, gaining his big break as the laconic but often dim witted butt of Hancock's jokes on the radio. 

He returned to Australia in 1979 for the second act of his impressive career appearing in key Australian new wave films such as Peter Weir's WWI movie Gallipoli alongside Mel Gibson (his is the first voice heard in the film, encouraging its young sprinter hero to 'run as fast as a leopard') and the Ozploitation horror favourite Razorback (above) He would also appear in the 2003 film version of Peter Pan.

According to family, Kerr died peacefully and happily at home in Perth watching television, specifically Seinfeld. His son Wilton has spoken to ABC News"Mum said she could hear him laughing to Seinfeld. That was one of his favourite shows"


Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

"I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too."

- Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.

It's fair to say that John Ford's Oscar winning adaptation of The Grapes Of Wrath is not as politically strong as its great source novel by John Steinbeck. It's fair to say that, as committed Republicans, John Ford and Daryl F Zanuck, were perhaps unlikely choices for the director and producer and indeed did dilute the allegedly pro communist views within the novel. It's fair to say that,  despite the above quote, it focuses more on the family unit, as represented by the Joads, rather than the family of man and their arduous and unjust struggle under capitalism. And it's certainly fair to say that the film fudges its second half and finale to offer more optimism than the novel ends upon. It's fair to say all of those things, but it's still a damn good adaptation with a powerful message to behold. 

Though quite why we continue to allow such injustice is beyond me.

When I saw The Grapes of Wrath as a teenager it felt both like a social and historical document accurately representing the blight of the Great Depression and the dust bowl migration, as well as an almost post apocalyptic fantasy - like the series Survivors (which I think was running on UK Gold at the time) it featured a rag tag set of characters, ostensibly identifiable as a family unit, travelling through desolate miles in search of work, sanctuary and a better life, only to be cheated and beaten at every turn. Either way, what I'm trying to say is it felt almost intangible, a thing of the past or a thing of a fantastical future.

Yet watching it in recent years you realise it really was something of the future, but not at all fantastical. This can now be perceived as a warning from history as we endure yet another crippling recession.

Whatever his politics John Ford nails the tone and atmosphere with a bleak beauty. It's a very mature and uncompromising film for 1940 and some scenes with their sense of longing, suffering and the weirdly social embarrassment of being poor are almost too much to bear. 

I love the way he, and celebrated cinematographer Gregg Toland, shoots John Carradine as Casy for example in that character's penultimate scene. The former preacher has found a new truth to spread to his people and he leans forward in great swathes of darkness from inside the tent with only the storm lamp catching and illuminating his eyes - the truth of his words shine from him like a beacon and its instantly passed to Fonda's Joad, a man previously imprisoned for killing a man in a barroom brawl. When he kills again, just minutes later, its to avenge Casy; his victim, a brute with a tin badge, a vision of oppression for Joad and his kind. It may be the same action, but Joad is a changed man; fighting legitimate targets. "Maybe it's like Casy says," he tells his Ma later, reflecting on the man who showed him the light "A fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul. The one big soul that belongs to everybody" And it's passed on further too, as Ma - played by an Oscar winning Jane Darwell - becomes more and more resilient, avowed to keep her family together despite what The Man throws at them.

That's not to say the film isn't without some humour however, I am always particularly charmed by how the Joads naturally presume Tom has 'busted out' of the pen rather than him having been paroled.

The Grapes of Wrath is a true American classic and, in Henry Fonda's sublime and honest performance as Joad, America has one of its finest characters. The message is still there and still true for all to see. People just need to listen and, with news that Spielberg intends to direct a remake, maybe they will. But Spielberg has some big shoes to fill.

"I ain't never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn't have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared.... Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain't no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out, they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, cos we're the people"

In Which We Serve (1942)

In Which We Serve was broadcast on BBC2 for the umpteenth time Saturday just gone and, regardless of my familiarity with the film, I just knew I'd want to watch it again and so pressed record on my Sky+. Then the news came in that one of its stars and one of my favourite actors Lord Richard Attenborough had passed away. So it was with some poignancy that I watched this durable classic today.

I can vividly remember watching In Which We Serve as a war film loving child and, having been used to more straightforward actioneers with beginnings, middles and ends, being really confused by the film's non linear, episodic narrative and propaganda tone.  It was all rather lost on me on my first viewing but it is one that became clearer and clearer and much loved as I grew older.

In Which We Serve is undoubtedly a propaganda movie. Made in the very heart of the war, the call went up at Two Cities Films for an ode to the Royal Navy (following the sinking of Lord Mountbatten's HMS Kelly in the Battle of Crete) from a well known scriptwriter and it was Noel Coward who answered the call and took on both directing (alongside a young David Lean who handled the action scenes) and  lead acting honours as well. Yes it's rather ludicrous to believe the dressing gown and cigarette holder, clipped bon mot utterer could really be the character of Captain Kinross, the tough and experienced naval officer of the HMS Torrin (even the studio believed his performance to be ''always interesting, if not quite convincing") but there's something rather wonderful, quaint and stirring about this Henry V/Churchill/kindly patrician amalgamation that his character ultimately is. He may not convince as a professional man of war, but his performance is spot on for the film's timely and important message of unity and faith in one another.

Class is an issue that cannot help but be raised in such a production, especially when we see such a cross section; from Coward and Celia Johnson's extremely posh couple sinking copious amounts of gin before going up to tuck the children into bed (!) to John Mills' amiably chipper working class hero Shorty Blake (that line of his, after an act of extreme valour; "Someone had to do it" still gets me) looking for love on leave and finding it in the shape of Kay Walsh, but the joy of In Which We Serve is we see its structure working seamlessly and hand in hand from officer down to ordinary seaman and stokers. Coward's message really is 'we're in this together' and it's really meant too. He doesn't expect or ask any of his subordinates to do something he would not do himself and, as such, you really feel you get the spirit of the war.

And then there's Richard Attenborough's turn as the young stoker who, when it comes to the crunch, finds his character doesn't cut the mustard. It's amazing to think he was just eighteen years old here and that, in a career spanning some truly great and diverse performances (though he would often return to the more nervy, cowardly roles too), it is this one - his film debut - that can still be so fondly remembered and held up with the affection and admiration it deserves. That impassioned scene in the pub, where he tries desperately to get drunk enough to drown his sorrows, and its subsequent pay off on the Torrin's raft, "Oh play another tune for God's sake!") is wonderfully credible. 

The co-direction of Coward and Lean make for a film that transcends the war movie genre. Partly that's because of its propaganda tone and the message that is inspiring enough to still mean something to this day, despite a more selfish individualistic tone creeping into our society as a whole, but also it's because of a certain element of artiness that both men shared. It makes for an unusual and distinctive quality production that raises itself above the more generic trappings. That David Lean would go on to direct another film, ostensibly a war movie, that is in fact about a whole lot more and is much more unusual, ambivalent and complicated than a mere genre movie could ever be is perhaps not unexpected. That film is of course Bridge on the River Kwai.

RIP Lord Attenborough.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Out On Blue Six : Kate Bush

Because she's most emphatically back.

I am not jealous of anyone lucky enough to have got a ticket to one of the 22 live shows.

I am not jealous of anyone lucky enough to have got a ticket to one of the 22 live shows.

I am not jealous of anyone lucky enough to have got a ticket to one of the 22 live shows.

I am not jealous of anyone lucky enough to have got a ticket to one of the 22 live shows.

I am not jealous of anyone lucky enough to have got a ticket to one of the 22 live shows.

I am not jealous of anyone lucky enough to have got a ticket to one of the 22 live shows.

I am not jealous of anyone lucky enough to have got a ticket to one of the 22 live shows.

End Transmission

Above The Law

Shaun Wright failed in his duties to protect vulnerable children. There can be no confidence in his abilities as police commissioner of South Yorkshire. Yet he feels he is still the best man for the job and that he has done nothing to bring about his resignation.

So it's time to call for his dismissal.

Please sign the following petitions;





Following the refusal to suspend Peter Fahy from GMP it seems the police feel they are above the law and do not have to adhere to the same things ordinary citizens have to.

Let's tell them they are wrong.

Wordless Wednesday : Street Fight

The Trench (1999)

Novelist and screenwriter William Boyd's directorial debut, The Trench feels like an echo from the past. Not quite the past it is set in however - which is the eve of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 -  but more like the past of a certain kind of celluloid depiction of war from the 40s through to the 70s.

Much of  the success of The Trench is down to the emotional interplay between the platoon as they endure firstly the banal minutiae of trench life and eventually a growing anxiety for the dawn attack as its deadline steadily approaches. It's strong on character and a class identity, the sense of men from all works of life and various regions thrown together to defend the one common bond that is their country. In that regard it really does evoke memories of classic films which focused primarily on the men of war rather than the action of war itself. 

It certainly helps that the cast assembled to depict these characters is quite a strong one; Daniel Craig (a really strong performance as the firm but fair Scouse Sergeant), Paul Nicholls, Julian Rhind-Tutt, James D'Arcy, Danny Dyer (surprisingly restrained) Ben Whishaw and Cillian Murphy, as well as several other 'oh-what's-he-been-in?' faces, all help to make these characters a little more three dimensional than perhaps the script intends or can offer  - or perhaps it's just that we care more when viewing now because these young actors have in the intervening fifteen years achieved some varying degrees of success and acclaim from Hollywood A list to regular TV fixtures. 

That the film is considered stagebound - shot almost entirely on a sound stage and contained within the claustrophobic trenches - often appears as a criticism in many reviews but, on the whole, I'm someone who is perhaps more amenable towards films that are described as 'stagey' than some and I do think it helps create something intimate and contained about the trench setting in a manner that a more realistic on location depiction may not have done.  Equally it continues that produced-in-aspic like approach that the film seems happy to embrace, making it appear not unlike a 1940s war film or an earnest late 60s TV play. Even the film's funereal score feels familiar and certainly tips even the most historically unaware viewer the wink that this will not be a film for happy endings.

The wait before the dawn, and the growing realisation of doom that these characters come to terms with is conveyed palpably by both Boyd's direction and the accomplished cast. The film takes the very firm 'lions led by donkeys' stance towards WWI, a generally conceived wisdom that has only this year in the conflict's centenary started to be reassessed and challenged (when we've a Tory government in power eh? Like they've nothing to gain from a reevaluation that suggests 'our betters' weren't incompetent have they? ) Personally I remain steadfast in my belief that WWI was a barely organised ruthless catastrophe that saw thousands upon thousands mown down before they could even fire a shot themselves. It did not matter how well trained a man was, or how stiff his upper lip could be, the tactics Haigh and our other generals had belonged in a totally different era. That they held an almost Jesuit like belief of the ends justifying the means saw an almost unimaginable 20,000 killed on the first day of the Somme, and a further 40,000 wounded - the single worst day of casualties and deaths in the history of the British army - is the cold hard fact that no amount of revisionism can alter or deny. 

Where perhaps The Trench ultimately fails is deciding to try and depict that fate for our protagonists in a manner not unlike that seen in Peter Weir's 1981 film Gallipoli. Poignant and poetic it may be, but it is also makes the small scale of the previous 90 minutes lost and a little foolish on the big reality of the arena of war.

In the end what perhaps makes The Trench's glory elusive is the fact that we've seen what it has to offer before, in films both better and worse.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Jane Asher at the Labour Party Conference, 1972

The following lovely photos come from the excellent Jane Asher fan blog http://janeasher-source.blogspot.co.uk/ Please check the site out because it's fabulous and a must for all Jane fans.

The photos - which I'd never seen before their blog post - date from Thursday, October 5th, 1972. Jane and the political cartoonist and then new man in her life (now her husband) Gerald Scarfe attended the conference held in Blackburn, Lancs. As Gerald set about capturing the politicians' likenesses for his caricatures, Jane listened to the economics debate.