Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Out On Blue Six : Cilla Black

ITV's brilliant biopic Cilla concluded triumphantly last night in 1968, with Cilla Black (Sheridan Smith) launching her TV career with her signature tune, Step Inside Love, penned by Paul McCartney...

The three part drama, written by Jeff Pope has been a brilliant production that has seen Cilla return to the top 40 music chart, with her 1964 hit Anyone Who Had A Heart making a surprise comeback and Cilla's first chart position in 40 years. Of course, the interest that has saw such a renaissance stems from Sheridan Smith's own vocal performance of the hit - which, for my money, was far better than Cilla's own.

Let's face it, Cilla Black as portrayed by the wonderfully talented Smith was far prettier, sexier, warmer, funnier and a better singer. Whatever your thoughts on the rather Marmite Black, Jeff Pope's beautifully tender and funny biopic made her immensely likeable - though her ego getting in the way of a prospective solo singing career for her then boyfriend and road manager, soon to be hubby and manager, Bobby Willis (played brilliantly by Aneurin Barnard) showed a ruthless side to Black that even non fans may not have contemplated.

This has been a great series with another stunning performance to add to Sheridan Smith's CV. I thoroughly enjoyed the authentic 60s setting and the accurate reflection of Liverpudlian life, though it was amusing to see venues such as The Adelphi Hotel pretending to be at one time Blackpool and New York!

It was a lorra lorra fun! (sorry, couldn't resist!)

End Transmission

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956)

When is a B Movie not a B Movie?

When it's Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.

Like the pod people, the film's disturbing threat, this 1956 movie looks familiar and like something it isn't. Sure it has all the hallmarks of a B Movie; it's low budget sci fi, it has a cast of largely unknown journeymen and women of film and TV, it has the clunky expositional dialogue and ludicrous leap of deduction which exist solely to expediate the plot that is utterly familiar to the genre, yet Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is a work so intelligent, so accomplished and so of the moment that it refuses to comply with its limitations and successfully transcends its trappings to become something whose indelible and distinctive handprint  can be seen on almost every suspense packed sci fi and horror movie that followed.

Director Don Seigel, producer Walter Wanger and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (adapting Jack Finney's serialised magazine story) may deny the metaphors at play here. They may argue that no one intended it to be an allegory of Communism and McCarthyism, but it's beside the point whether theye did or they didn't. The point is they literally caught the zeitgiest, whether they did it consciously or not. They were working in an America whose spine was constantly beset by ice cold shivers -  the fear of dehumisation and loss of identity from reports of brainwashing techniques in the Korean War, the loss of autonomy witnessed in communist systems across the world, the growing concern regarding what many saw as a harmful idealogy creeping like a virus into public consciousness, the bland conformity of 50s America, and the fear of a possible Nuclear War - all of these things helped shape the mindsets of those involved in the production, intentionally or not, and subsequently shaped the minds and appreciation of the film's audiences.

It's a quintessential Don Seigel picture, displaying his flair for a particular kind of taut and lean efficiency that cannot help but impress. Claustrophobic and relentless in its haunting of the viewer (though the optimistic ending - and prologue -  at the request of the studio bosses does ultimately neuter the intentions of writer, producer and director) it's wonderfully executed and equipped with an effective, unsettling score from Carmen Dragon.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers may be a B Movie, but it's a Grade A one in my eyes.

Monday, 29 September 2014

The Front (1976)

This was a first watch for me.

Yes you read right, a first watch not a rewatch. I know, I'm a huge Woody Allen fan and a committed socialist who, at 34, has only just got round to seeing this.

Hey, what can I tell ya?

The Front is a film from that wonderful, socially conscious director Martin Ritt and that equally wonderful, socially conscious writer, Walter Bernstein. It sees auteur Woody Allen as an actor for hire, in his straight(ish) debut, playing - somewhat ironically - a front for hire for blacklisted communist sympathising writers of 50s America. 

Allen's character Howard Prince may come from the pen of Bernstein but it's easy to view it as an extension of the familiar Allen persona. Prince is a wisecracking cowardly loser, distinctly small time. Through accepting the adulation for better men who must remain in the shadows on account of the paranoid and ignorant McCarthy witch hunts this small time chancer initially becomes even smaller, before unexpectedly shining nobly in the final reel.

It's a well crafted tale of the rise, fall and rise again from Ritt and Bernstein that sees Prince - and no doubt possibly some viewers - have their eyes opened to the injustice of the time. Naturally the politics and sentiment of the film immediately find favour with me and I must confess my admiration increases to near teary eyed levels when the closing credits reveal that not only were Ritt and Bernstein blacklisted in the 50s (which I was aware of) but so too were the film's stars Zero Mostel, Herschal Bernardi and Lloyd Gough. Mostel's character in particular - whose fall, seen through the example of him taking a significant cut in wages to perform at one club, was based on fact - has an extra added dimension of poignancy with the knowledge that he faced such an ordeal in reality.

I must also mention Dave Grusin's simple yet utterly effective two note piano soundtrack in places - really haunting.

I think I'll watch this again very soon. I can't help but feel it will impress even more on a second watch.

Smoking Hot


One Night At McCool's (2001)

A half baked Rashomon style narrative is the central conceit that somewhat scuppers Harald Zwart's 2001 pulpy black comedy One Night At McCool's.

Liv Tyler plays Jewel Valentine, a goddess of a woman who walks into the lives of three men (Matt Dillon, John Goodman and Paul Reiser) and creates havoc. She's represented in each narrative strand as a different thing to each of them, which is rather telling example of the male psyche and its desire to see only what it wants to see in its potential partners.

Tyler naturally has the looks to play the goddess femme fatale and much of the film rightly plays on her God given attributes of great beauty. But this is more than a Liv Tyler wank bank for the audience (though if that's all your after there's plenty on display here, so fill yer boots!) and she cannily chooses a performance that invests Jewel with a pleasing childlike naivety rather than suggests her as an intentionally scheming character. 

Not that that is necessarily the real Jewel - because the audience, like the male characters in the film, are witness to an unreliable testimony at each turn. Indeed each male character is also depicted as something different to how they ultimately perceive themselves which is certainly an intriguing premise for an audience to consider, even if it means there's little for us to engage with throughout the 90 minutes. This becomes something of an issue within the film as, with no certainty, One Night At McCool's continuously threatens to break from its moorings - moorings that are creaky at best, given that much of the premise is told in flashback from each man; Dillon to professional hitman and keen bingo player Michael Douglas (on seedy form) Reiser to shrink Reba McIntire (the C+W singer moonlighting with Hollywood) and Goodman to priest Richard Jenkins (a deeply underrated comic character actor) 

Another key issue with McCool's is its misfiring comic element. Jokes occur on screen that should be really funny (case in point, the Village People stuff at the end) and I'm sure they were on paper, but on the screen, Zwart fluffs the delivery at every turn. More is made of some deeply questionable humour, like the Falling Down in-joke than the genuinely funny material and, for a comedy, that's somewhat unforgiveable really. There's wry smiles and chuckles to be had - enough to make it a likeable film, at least -but you're always waiting for the big belly laugh that's promised but is never delivered.

Perhaps in trying to stand shoulder to shoulder with the complex multiple narratives of other slabs of tongue in cheek noirish Americana like Pulp Fiction, One Night At McCool's ultimately tries to be too (Mc)Cool, when really it should have just concentrated on being engaging enough on its own merits.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Pleasantville (1998)

It's the ineffably sweet moments of Pleasantville and the truth that it contains that ultimately wins us over, rather than enjoyment of the film as a whole. That's not to say that writer/director Gary Ross' modern day parable isn't a success, it's just that on occasion it is the tenderness and surprisingly strong social  message/commentary that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

Opening in late 90s America (which to some extent now looks far cornier and dated than the fantastical 50s scenes do!) warring  teen siblings Tobey Maguire and Reece Witherspoon squabble over the TV remote, only to find themselves zapped into the black and white world of Maguire's favourite TV rerun; a quaint little sitcom of key American traditional values and never ending sunshine called Pleasantville.

It is these values that archetypal 90s teen girl Witherspoon starts to deconstruct with a zeal that is part missionary and part mischief. It sees the teens of Pleasantville awake from their slumber and find, for the first time in their one dimensional lives, a world beyond their picket fence and mom's homemade apple pie existence - a world with colour, blossoming out from the cracks in the monochrome in a slow but sure fashion. Progress writ large! 

Eventually even Maguire, the show's biggest fan also starts to see that all is not well with the cosy world of Pleasantville he enjoyed and fantasised about as a viewer and equally helps to introduce the community to a reality that he has perhaps taken for granted.

Perhaps the most touching 'conversions' are those of Jeff Daniels' simple soul of a diner owner and Joan Allen as the sitcom families mother. Their scene together, finding a love of art and the colour in life is one of the most tender and beautifully played in the whole film and it's one that has so much to say - the notion of being true to oneself and never apologising for or hiding what you really are. 

Its that kind of depth within the film that is truly unique, with its philosophy almost creeping slowly up on us throughout the duration. One of the most striking moments is when Maguire shields his newfound, newly technicolour girlfriend from the local monochrome bullies; they sneer at her for being 'coloured', loading that word in exactly the same way that smalltown 50s hicks would use towards black Americans - the side of life which 50s TV did not depict. 

Ultimately the lesson from Pleasantville is to appreciate the nostalgia for the good old days but don't be too quick to consign the qualities of life we enjoy from the moment we live in now. Things may look better and more innocent and amiable back then, but that's because we see them through rose tinted (or maybe just black and white?) glasses. Pleasantville teaches us to embrace the here and now in a life affirming manner, because we are lucky.

It's not a perfect film, but it's one which contains a great message.

Silent Sunday : Hallelujah

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Out On Blue Six : Sad Café

End Transmission

Behold A Pale Horse (1964)

Another day, another Spanish Civil War movie...

Behold A Pale Horse is a cat and mouse drama concerning a loyalist hero of the Spanish Civil War (played by a gnarled Gregory Peck) his old enemy, a venal  captain in the Guardia Civil (Anthony Quinn) and the benign young priest who stands between them (Omar Sharif) is almost fatally short on the key ingredients required for any thriller, tension and action, but just about sustains our interest as a character study between the three leads and their effects on the film's supporting cast of go-betweens, notably Marietto Angeletti's orphaned boy.

When director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, The Day Of The Jackal) does invest the drama with moments of rare tension, he does so with a very distinctive and unusual approach; most notably when Angeletti is struck by hiccups when he discovers a traitor in Peck's ranks. Otherwise, Zinnemann's key strengths here are in the location shoot and in the capable performances of his cast.

The film was based on a novel with the curious title Killing A Mouse On Sunday by Emeric Pressburger. With that fact in mind, I can't help think how Behold A Pale Horse would have played out in the hands of The Archers instead. That really would have been something. As it is, this production is an earnest effort that just about keeps our attention.

Friday, 26 September 2014

For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943)

This adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's Spanish Civil War epic novel For Whom The Bell Tolls suffers from being heavily sanitized (removing much of the political message in a manner which I think, if watched now by someone wholly ignorant of 30s Spain, would leave people confused and in the dark) and unnecessarily overlong at 170 minutes (it feels like an eternity when watched on TV complete with ad breaks!) but remains likeable enough. 

Gary Cooper's capable screen persona may mean that Hemingway's hero, US college professor turned International Brigade soldier Robert Jordan, loses some of the intensity (and youth) on display in the book but he remains, as ever, an enjoyable enough lead nonetheless. 

Ingrid Bergman looks stunning with her curly sunkissed locks, her olive tan and wide teary pale blue eyes, but her María seems to happy for the horrors she has endured, which again is the fault of the sanitised Hays Code era the film was made. 

It's a shame that the interesting relationship Hemingway depicted on the page - along with its characters preoccupation with mortality - is all but excised to become a more traditional and therefore jarring boy meets girl tale on the screen, albeit one that occurs whilst hiding out in the guerrilla camps of the Spanish hills, waiting to blow up a bridge.

The Spanish guerrillas are played by the likes of Akim Tamiroff, Mikhail Rasumny, Arturo de Córdova and Katina Paxinou to name but a few, the latter securing an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress - the film's only win despite featuring in all the major categories. The characterisations are drawn well enough, though perhaps suffer from the Hollywoodisation of such amiable peasant roles; all comic relief and strong spirits, but its perhaps in director Sam Wood's assured visual style that they flourish and impress the most, capturing their dark, dirty and rugged features peering out with determination for the cause from the depths of the caves like figures from classic oil paintings.

Ultimately For Whom The Bell Tolls is more indicative of the time the film was made than the novel and its themes itself.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Hilary Mantel might look like how Walt Disney might depict a poorly shaved owl kitted out in a maternity smock but she's alright by me, because she's given us this great little alt history, in her recently released short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, which you can read in The Grauniad here

Naturally a phalange of right wing critics have slammed the author for her fictional depiction of the former Tory PM's murder in 1983, with the Telegraph refusing to publish the story despite paying a substantial sum to gain the rights! Mantel has hit back at her critics, saying ''I think it would be unconscionable to say this is too dark we can't examine it. We can't be running away from history. We have to face it head on, because the repercussions of Mrs Thatcher's reign have fed the nation. It is still resonating.''

Here here! It seems that, now Thatcher has actually carked it, much of our Establishment wish to treat us like children, reminding us how disrespectful it is to speak ill of the dead. Nonsense. This is a woman who, even they must agree, had always divided our nation and, as time has moved on, the genuine horrors of her reign - such as her lying about her government's activities that led to and continued through the miners strike of 1984/85, and the still shady arena of the cover up from the Hillsborough disaster - are slowly stepping, much delayed, into the white light of truth. As such we simply must continue to address our feelings towards her and reappraise them at each turn. The reason why those who have taken it upon themselves to act as 'our betters' do not agree to such a process is because they are fearful of us finding or fanning the flames of the same contempt at dissatisfaction in the current Tory led government.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

In Sane

I'm currently in the throes of rehearsing and helping to write and create this theatrical production for its debut on World Mental Health Day, 10th October....

It's a wonderfully joyous experience and I'm getting loads out of it though, with so little time now 'til the performance and things needing to be learnt and tightened up I'm wondering if I'm perhaps a little In Sane for getting such a buzz from it! 

If anyone is in the St Helens area, why not come and watch!

Out On Blue Six : Blur

End Transmission

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Primary Colors (1998)

It's very hard to watch Primary Colors and not associate the action on screen with that of the Clintons, but to say that the film is a thinly disguised satire of that power couple would do it a tremendous disservice. Primary Colors, now sixteen years old, remains an insightful, wise and at times very funny account of both the campaign trail and the  nature of the political animal in general.

What I love about this movie is the script from Elaine May has a distinctive beginning, middle and end and that her long time collaborator Mike Nichols - in the director and producer chair - steadily takes the audience on the journey that such a treatment deserves. At almost 2 hours and 20 minutes it could be argued that the film borders on outstaying its welcome, but its worth considering that the story told is so informative and detailed it's an impressive feat that it doesn't go on for longer, and that our attention is held both coherently and satisfyingly throughout without the film ever talking down to you.

I admire the performances of all involved. Whilst John Travolta and Emma Thompson are our stars, creating three dimensional characters who can be both engaging and frustrating and embellishing their roles with all that we think we know about you know who...it's worth remembering that the film neatly avoids ever really getting under the skin of either protagonist.  In keeping them at arm's length, the film holds a mirror up to our own relationship with politicians and figures in the public eye, acknowledging the charisma and complexity of such characters and how they essentially mean different things to different people. There are no answers in Primary Colors - and it seems some actually and, in my view, unfairly hold that as a negative to the film - the joy is the behind the scenes speculation and gossip provided by the campaign's staffers played brilliantly by Adrian Lester (why the phone never rang for him in Hollywood again, I do not know) Billy Bob Thornton and, in a truly powerhouse supporting role, Kathy Bates. There's also a great cameo from JR himself, Larry Hagman.

An accomplished feature, Primary Colors remains one of the best political movies in American cinema.

Wordless Wednesday : A St Helens Dream

Monday, 22 September 2014

F.I.S.T. (1978)

F.I.S.T. is a 1978 film directed by Norman Jewison from a script by Joe Eszterhas and the film's star Sylvester Stallone which is a thinly disguised account of the life of Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa.

Stallone plays Hoffa-alike Johnny Kovak who, following a stand off with his employer over an unfair sacking, rises through the ranks of the fictionalised Federation of Inter-State Truckers union (F.I.S.T.), initially taking a defiant and just stand for his members rights before succumbing to underhand methods, corruption and an unsavoury association with the mob.

Much like 1976's Rocky - Stallone's breakthrough film just two years prior to this - F.I.S.T. spends the first half of its running time exploring the cliches of  the poor boy big lug who, through sheer conviction, gets his shot at the big time. The difference here is that whilst for many Rocky seemed out of time in nostalgically harking back to those 1930s B movies, F.I.S.T. is initially set in the 1930s  and therefore feels quite authentic to the point of feeling like its been shot in aspic. Laszlo Kovacs' cinematography invests a halycon glow to the proceedings that is perhaps at odds with the hardships of a USA gripped by the Great Depression yet feels somehow right.  It's these scenes that satisfy the viewer the most as we see Kovak's rise and ultimately his class betrayal, allowing the mob into his efforts, to keep the power and everyone on side. It's not perfect, the more personal side of Kovak's story such as his wooing of a local girl tends to jar with everything else going on around it (though I love the comedy of him trying to make small talk  about the weather with her mother as he calls on her) and feels somewhat forced.

But it's really the 1950s set second half, which sees Kovak become the union president and in turn captures the attention of the senate committee who have naturally started to smell a rat, where the film loses some of the viewer's good will. The authentic working class reality of the characters salad days gives way to a less inspiring and all too familiar superficially glossy success story. Though it must be said structurally  the film remains sound by exploring a different type of betrayal here, that of a personal betrayal done seemingly to save the foundations of the union.

It's an interesting and serious performance from Stallone displaying the character's arrogance and pigheaded abrasive edge to get what he wants for his members but sadly he doesn't convince in the inspiration or charm stakes that such a character has to possess to get men to follow him. It's especially disappointing that this is the case as it's clear it is a failing in both his performance and in his co-authorship of the script. Stallone surrounds himself with actors who are just as authentic and compelling, but a superior script may have served them all better.

Ultimately F.I.S.T.'s message seems to be that a union needs to be as dirty and corrupt as any other American institution, and one which sees those who once took a stand against oppression and corruption from above turn to it themselves once in power. It's a pessimistic message, but one cannot deny the truth of such a message - one need only look at Hoffa, the real life character the film takes inspiration from - and there's a certain bittersweet pleasing tone in the notion that it is an equally vain and ambiguous senator, played with a seemingly affectionate nod to the old days of the political Hollywood by Rod Steiger, who ultimately goes after Kovak; suggesting the establishment will only really let someone get so far and how only so much power in life before they have to teach them a lesson and put them back in their place.

Overall, F.I.S.T is a film of two halves.