Sunday, 30 November 2014

She's Got Anime Eyes

This is the young American actress Hayley McFarland. 

Look at those eyes; aren't they just unreal? They're like those of an anime character

I'm currently rewatching the series Lie To Me starring Tim Roth as Dr Cal Lightman, the human lie detector, on DVD. The series starred McFarland as Roth's daughter Emily. Her expressive eyes are truly striking.

I believe that since Lie To Me ended in 2011, McFarland - still just 23 - has gone on to star in films like The Conjuring and a regular role in Sons Of Anarchy. I wouldn't know, I stopped watching SOA around Season 5 because it was getting stupid, and I haven't seen The Conjuring. But I do believe she's a talented little actress with a great ability to convey emotion with those eyes alone.

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)

The neighbourhood patrolled by the 41st Precinct of the NYPD had something of an infamous and ignoble reputation which ultimately shaped the station house itself; a decaying, crumbling solitary monolith nicknamed 'Fort Apache', it presided over a hostile environment that had high unemployment, high crime rates and a high number of non English speaking immigrants. Its problems were well documented in the press, police memoirs and TV documentaries. Another document was added in 1981 thanks to the Daniel Petrie film Fort Apache, The Bronx starring Paul Newman as jaded patrol officer Murphy. 

There's a disclaimer at the start of Fort Apache, The Bronx that states that as the film is concerned with law enforcement then it naturally must also be concerned with law breakers and, as such, The Bronx and the men and women trying to make something good and live honest and decent lives in that disadvantaged borough of New York will be overlooked. 

Well, what a wasted opportunity. Because there was a genuine chance to produce something here that was socially realistic and had a thought provoking message about the community the film crew descended upon. Why couldn't they have focused some of the storyline on those trying to turn the neighbourhood around like social workers and community groups and the like? It would certainly have made for a more interesting movie than this frustrating mish mash of tropes usually served up in 70s TV cop dramas and old John Wayne movies.

It truly is a bizarre movie with storylines that initially seem important but lead to absolutely nowhere. Take Pam Grier's turn as a junkie prostitute for example; we first see her in the film's opening scene wandering the streets seemingly doped up only to suddenly sharpen up and blow two cops away. Suddenly the boys of the 41st are on the hunt for a cop killer and the audience settles in. A few scenes later and Grier's slicing the carotid artery of one unlucky 'John' with a razor blade she had secreted in her mouth - talk about the kiss of death! By now the audience is wondering just when Newman and his swaggering Italian Stallion partner (Ken Wahl) will join the dots. Then a few more scenes later, Grier tries the stunt with a Puerto Rican smack dealer and he stabs her to death! End of story and the crimes go unsolved. There's no completion, there's no insight into her character's motivation....NOTHING. 

I guess the writer was trying to say something here; that real life isn't as cut and dried as Hollywood. But that kind of statement jars incredibly when everything around it reeks not of reality, but of, at best, Hollywood and, at worse, of a dreadful TV movie or third rate episode of TJ Hooker.

Things get even more frustrating, irritating and downright offensively and dangerously stupid with the film's romantic subplot. Newman starts dating a nurse played by Rachel Ticotin (the actress was 23 at the time whilst Newman was 56. The age gap is incredibly noticeable but you kind of forgive it because it is Newman and let's face it, the blue eyed charming fucker looks better at 56 than most of us probably looked at Ticotin's age!) and, after spending the night with her, he discovers she's using heroin. Ticotin's character then has some dialogue that actually dares to send out a message that it's OK to do smack once in a while and treat it 'like a vacation'!?! She's fine because she's not an addict and has no intention of becoming one. And what does Newman the good cop do? He accepts this stance and offers to bring her some smack from the station house!?!

Then there's the story strand where Newman witnesses fellow cop Danny Aiello kill an innocent bystander and it's clear to all that from there on in the film wants to be Serpico, without seemingly realising that Serpico the film has beaten them to it by eight years. And then there's eye rolling moments that depict Newman delivering a baby (to prove his soft side) or abseiling down the side of a hospital to break up a hostage situation (to prove his tough side) or act even wackier than the knife wielding wacko to get him to surrender (to prove his funny side), or tossing his badge at the Captain (to prove his idealistic side)'s every hoary old cliche in the book. You just about stick with it all because it is Paul Newman, but this material certainly does him no favours.

There's a germ of a good idea here if only the film makers would allow their film to address the issues and the flaws inherent in the system that makes deprived areas so problematic. Occasionally you get the feeling that that kernal of honest intention was there all along in the script - Ed Asner's by-the-book feather-ruffling newly installed station Captain for example seems promising - but it was smothered at birth by the sensationalist and melodramatic silly nonsense ultimately on display.

1981, the year of the film's release, was also the year that the brilliant Hill Street Blues made its debut on TV, thus immediately showing this utter guff how it really should have been done. It's not that the film doesn't have a certain polish to it - it may be full of cliches and it may go nowhere but it isn't that it's poorly made - it's just that it's downright offensive. 

When the film was released there were several demonstrations against it by the ethnic groups who resided in The Bronx. Having watched this film now, I can damn well so why. It trivialises important issues, sends out totally the wrong message and only introduces black or Puerto Rican characters to commit crimes or take drugs. 


Silent Sunday : Keeping Abreast Of Things

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Monuments Men (2014)

Warning: This Blog Post Contains

The Monuments Men from star/writer/producer and director George Clooney and his co-writer/producer Grant Heslov is a traditional, star studded WWII movie the likes of which were made some ten to fifteen years after the war. Indeed so traditional is it that it does exactly what many of those productions from the past did - it sidelines much of the efforts from the French Resistance and the British army (it's telling that the only British and French actors in the production; High Bonneville and Jean Dujardin, are the first to be killed off thus allowing the American actors the spotlight) Indeed the film immediately starts off on a lie, depicting Clooney's character Stokes proposing The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Programme in 1944 as a result of the bombing at Monte Cassino, when in actual fact it existed some two years earlier thanks to the British efforts in Libya. These contributions from the Allied Forces as a whole should never be underestimated or overlooked and it's shameful and frustrating that the film makers chose to do so here. History accuracy is a real bugbear of mine and I'm not altogether sure what's worse; neglecting to educate people about the work of Alan Turing (as we've seen in reactions to The Imitation Game) or attempting to educate people, yet deliberately placing greater emphasis on some facts rather than others.

Where Clooney's effort excels is in the casting; himself, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett. These are all names that immediately demand our attention, but they're also names that get our expectations up too, and sadly this film fails to deliver upon them. It also doesn't help that, in some instances, the love of art just doesn't ring true with some of the actors on display here. In fact, TV star and comedian Miles Jupp, who has a brief appearance as a British officer, looks more like a curator than some of the big name stars here. 

Back in the '70s when the disaster movie reigned supreme as a genre,  the likes of Irwin Allen would throw star names at such films because he knew that audiences would instantly buy into their characters and feel something when they inevitably failed to make it out of The Towering Inferno or were lost at sea during The Poseidon Adventure. I think that kind of thinking was on display here too when Clooney thought his audience would feel something when Bill Murray sits teary eyed as his wife or significant other serenades him with a home recording of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', but given we're barely introduced to Murray's character in the first place (and the hasty introductory montage over the opening credits really doesn't help) why on earth should we give a toss about a partner and family we've never even heard of until now? The answer is of course, we don't. The moment doesn't work because, and to quote The Smiths here Mr Clooney, 'You just haven't earned it yet, baby'.

The Monuments Men is a story that deserves to be told and told well, and this cast deserve to have that telling, but Clooney's film does not pull it off at all and we're left with John Frankenheimer's excellent 1964 film The Train as the most interesting telling so far. It's episodic to the point of meandering, tonally uncertain, its laughs are fudged and its drama awkward. The message is however surprisingly clear; a fight will always result in a winner but no one will win if we destroy our culture in the process. Indeed, kudos to Clooney to be so unabashed in his stance on why the real monuments men could, it may be argued, place art before life as that's something The Train preferred to leave as an interesting philosophical conundrum. But then Clooney's always been interested in telling entertaining stories that are about the noble intentions his protagonists have in preserving something of our way of life. At his best this is witnessed in the excellent Good Night and Good Luck, at his worst...yes, it's The Monuments Men.

Despite its disappointment, I safely predict that The Monuments Men will be the film that routinely appears in the Christmas TV schedules for years to come, he film that, whilst sitting cosily in our sofa and armchairs, we mutter "Well I dunno what all the poor reviews were about, this isn't that bad is it?" before falling asleep long before the midway mark stuffed on turkey and booze.

Mother, Jugs and Speed (1976)

Mother, Jugs and Speed is a deeply uneven 1970s black comedy concerning the exploits of a private Los Angeles ambulance company that chases their shouts with a maniacal passion, eager to beat any and all competition. In short, making a buck and getting through the night comes before the welfare of the patients who end up in their rigs. 

The central non PC and self explanatory titular trio consist of 'Mother' Tucker (Bill Cosby) a hard drinking and driving seen-it-all veteran who keeps a beer cooler in the front of his ambulance, a gun in the glove compartment and likes to harass nuns trying to cross the road, 'Jugs' (the gorgeous Raquel Welch) the firm's switchboard operator who has been studying to become an ambulance woman in her spare time and is the butt of the office jokes and come ons thanks to her beauty and prodigious chest, and 'Speed' (Harvey Keitel) a former Vietnam ambulance driver who takes on the job whilst suspended from the police force for allegedly dealing speed. 

Other characters in this ragtag organisation include Larry Hagman as Murdoch, an unsavoury character who tries to rape a comatose college student in the back of his ambulance en route to the hospital, a young Bruce Davison who is tragically shot down by a druggie in one of the film's most dramatic moments and Allen Garfield as the slobbish, shyster owner of the company.  Sadly these supporting characters come and go and have little or no real depth as the film concerns itself with our three leads. This would be OK if the leads were that well written or well played. No real offence to Cosby, Welch and Keitel but the film's tone is so uneven that each one of them seems to be performing in a different movie, specifically Keitel who gives his usual dramatic and thoughtful turn which jars considerably when much around him is being, rightly or wrongly, played for laughs. When the film attempts a romantic subplot between Keitel and Welch it is distinctly unconvincing and ill thought out. Welch might look fantastic and Keitel might be a great actor but it's probably Cosby who judges the material the best and walks the tightrope in the most effective manner. Director Peter Yates really needed to give better notes to the trio because, whilst the film has its moments of both high comedy (such as Raquel Welch having to tend to an overweight man with his you know what caught in his zipper) and high drama (the aforementioned shooting and the death of a woman in child birth having been turned away from one hospital) the actors veer wildly and uncertainly between the two.

There's a feeling here that Mother, Jugs and Speed wants to be something akin to M*A*S*H but in cynically choosing to emulate and ape such a unique mixture of the hard edged and the slapstick that Altman's anti-war film had, it falls somewhat flat because there's no real depth or heart to it. The other difference of course is that M*A*S*H may have had eccentric, foul mouthed anarchic heroes but you knew instinctively that they were giving their all to save lives, Mother, Jugs and Speed's characters are often so deeply obnoxious (and Hagman's is especially a case in point) that such a fundamental core of good naturedness and professionalism is often entirely absent.

Still, you can't beat that earthy humour and cynical edge 70s cinema had and whilst there are better 70s movies out there, there are also worse ones.

Got Wood

Lana Wood

Friday, 28 November 2014

World of Leather

Dita Von Teese as Catwoman

Stripes (1981)

It's sometimes hard to revisit an old favourite from childhood as their previous appeal tends to get lost in the intervening years and I'm sorry to say that Stripes is one of those experiences. An anarchic spoof of military life this could be best described as a Buck Privates or even a Carry On Sergeant for the '80s, but Stripes is very much a 1980s movie complete with the nudity, sleazy humour and cliched stereotypical and somewhat offensive characterisation that populated that era.

Yes, Stripes has dated rather badly.

Stars Bill Murray and Harold Ramis would, along with director Ivan Reitman, go on to score BIG in 1984 with Ghostbusters, but Stripes - a surprising hit of 1981 in the National Lampoon mould - certainly paved the way for that subsequent success taking them from SNL to Hollywood as well as helping to shape the Police Academy series that certainly mimicked the themes and humour explored here. 

Bill Murray stars as the slobbish John Winger who, on something of a whim, decides to enlist and persuades his somewhat wimpy but dryly funny friend Ziskey (Ramis) to join up with him in a platoon that includes a hard as nails grunting cameo from the legendary Warren Oates as the drill sergeant, the ever funny John Candy, gawky Judge Reinhold, a pair of female MP's played by PJ Soles and Sean Young who are saddled with the eyecandy roles rather than any realistic depiction of women in the military - seriously, no offence to either of them, but the film makes them act like giggling, jiggling shampoo models rather than military police officers and it's indicative of the script's attitude towards women that Soles' character's eventual fate after becoming a military heroine is to pose for Penthouse magazine.

Stripes also struggles from being a movie of three parts; the slacker opening which presents Murray's Winger as a down on his luck cabbie dumped by his girlfiend and Ramis attempting to teach English to immigrants, the middle half which is essentially boot camp and ends in a classic passing out parade  and the final act which becomes a ridiculous behind enemy lines (America, Fuck Yeah!) rescue mission that turns our unlikely, anarchic soldiers into revered heroes. In many ways I would have actually preferred Stripes without its main military plot and, for a film about life in the army, that's got to be a serious flaw.

Stripes gets three stars out of five simply for the talented cast and some lingering affection, but if I'd seen this for the first time today I think I'd struggle to give it a two and a half.

Roller Girl

Theme Time : Dale Cornelius - The Doctor Blake Mysteries

The BBC's daytime TV schedule is often enlivened by some afternoon drama, be it the single drama strand Moving On or imported drama such as Australia's 1950s set mystery series The Doctor Blake Mysteries, which has recently returned to BBC1 afternoons for a second season. 

If I'm being honest The Doctor Blake Mysteries, which stars former Neighbours and Bugs star Craig McLachlan, are at best a passable distraction. The thing that makes it stand out for me is the wonderful theme tune from composer Dale Cornelius.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

RIP PD James

The veteran novelist, primarily known for crime fiction, PD James has passed away at the grand age of 94.

James (or, to give her her full name Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE FRSA FRSL) had a long and eclectic literary career and was responsible for the Adam Dalgliesh series of thrillers (subsequently adapted for TV first starring Roy Marsden and later, Martin Shaw, in the title role) the murder mystery sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Death Comes To Pemberley (an adaption of which was a highlight of Christmas TV last year) and the dystopian novel Children of Men (also adapted to much acclaim for the cinema by Alfonso Cuaron in 2006)


All Is Bright aka Almost Christmas (2013)

Is it too early for Christmas films? I'm not usually the sort of person to go for a Christmas movie (my Christmas film tradition, ie the film I watch each Christmas, is Comfort and Joy whose quirky charms only really pay lip service to the season) But last night, flicking through Sky On Demand with two hours to kill before The Apprentice or I'm A Celebrity I came across the opportunity to watch two actors I'm very fond of; Paul Giamatti and Sally Hawkins.

All Is Bright (or Almost Christmas, the original title for which it seems to be known here in the UK) is a somewhat underwhelming and uneven, all too traditional ie formulaic redemptive tale for Christmas which sees newly released con Paul Giamatti return to Quebec to find his wife now living with his former partner in crime (Paul Rudd) and, worse, his wife has told their infant daughter that he is dead. 

Desperate to earn some relatively honest, straight money in time for the holidays, Giamatti pushes himself into Rudd's business venture of selling Christmas trees across the border into the US and New York City. 


The film is not without some ragged 'on your arse' blue collar charm which is refreshingly honest in its depiction of the hardships and unfair expectations faced by the working classes in this economic downturn. It occasionally conjures to mind the kind of sardonic urban landscape and stories Hollywood didn't shy away from in the 1970s or, for viewers in the UK, a kind of Alan Bleasdale or Clement and La Frenais scripted Christmas TV movie - if you could ever imagine such a thing! - and it is helped immeasurably by strong performances from Giamatti in particular, as well as Rudd and also Britain's own Sally Hawkins who is perhaps most famous for her excellent central role in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky and in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. Hawkins' role isn't especially original - a hard drinking straight talking Russian immigrant - and as such it doesn't require her to tap into her extraordinary talent all that much, but she cannot help herself and one scene near the end, involving her playing the piano, notably raises the bar.

A few more laughs in the often bleak mix would have saved it from becoming the sluggish affair it often is and its fair to say that the lugubrious tone makes this is a sombre Christmas film for adults more than kids or family.

But it was worth a watch I guess and passed the time. And let's face it, how many films partially set in French Canada do you see every day?