Friday, 31 August 2018

I, Tonya (2017)

Time was, Hollywood would make a Nancy Kerrigan biopic. A story about how, an exceptional figure skater and appropriate ambassador and role model for America was heinously attacked and suffered potentially career-damaging injuries but, to the amazement of all, overcame the odds to win a silver medal at the Winter Olympics. Cue stirring music over look of triumph on the actor's face, fade to black and wait for the Oscars to roll in.

But something very interested has happened to Hollywood in that the focus has shifted. Now, the industry want to tell the morally complex stories. They're more interested in the ambiguous (anti) heroes and heroines who occupy the grey areas, or simply the out and out villains, than they are the good guys now. This approach can often fall flat on its face (Pain and Gain), other times it can divide audiences (The Wolf of Wall Street) and sometimes, it's pulled off like a triple axel. I, Tonya is that triple axel.

Everything about I, Tonya more or less works. The soundtrack is brilliant, Margot Robbie delivers an incredible performance, and there's a good balance between the drama and the humour. This last bit in particular is key, because the absurdity of what occurred in 1994 cannot be ignored. They say truth is stranger than fiction and Craig Gillespie and his screenwriter Steven Rogers certainly get that in their approach to the subject matter. Earlier this year I read Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, a book that explores how the TV series Seinfeld not only impacted upon the world at large but that it also seemed to subconsciously shape it too. Was it really the reality of 1994 that a man called Newt Gingrich was in the senate and that the rivalry between two figure skaters led to a brutal yet deeply incompetent assault, Keishin Armstrong argues, or was it a Seinfeld episode? Gillespie addresses not only the bizarro situation by willfully heightening its comic potential (Paul Walter Hauser's Shawn Eckhardt is clearly a Newman-like contact of Kramer's) but by repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge the wildly contradictory opinions expressed by the real-life protagonists. In doing so, he borrows liberally from Michael Winterbottom's excellent 24 Hour Party People. That's the kind of thing that can be very foolish to do, but if you're going to steal you may as well steal from the best, and thankfully Gillespie manages to make it work for his own purposes.  

It's not a flawless film though. It could be argued that Gillespie is too cavalier with the incidences of violence that occur throughout (and are integral to) the movie. The scenes of domestic violence are played almost comedically, as if it's just another happy-go-lucky chapter in the life of Tonya Harding and that can send out all kinds of wrong messages. This is further expounded by the fact that, in choosing to represent all sides of this conflicting tale, he allows Jeff Gillooly to dismiss any accusation that he was ever violent towards Tonya, just as later Tonya is shown to shoot at a fleeing Jeff, before turning to camera to assure us that, from her POV at least, this never actually happened. It is here that the film is most reminiscent of Winterbottom's aforementioned Factory Records biopic, with its infamous scene of Buzzcocks' Howard Devoto cleaning a toilet in which his fictional self is seen screwing Tony Wilson's first wife, Lindsay. "I don't remember this happening" he says to camera. In both films, it's a funny scene, but it ought to be remembered that these scenes stem from personal pain someone has gone through and that they only exist to act as a compromise in order to avert lawsuits. 

Likewise the film has a duty to Kerrigan that it often fails. Gillespie becomes so fixated on Tonya's story that he forgets to pay the victim in all of this the respect she deserves. It's a real shame that, for a film that was keen to address how hard a hand life had dealt a talented young woman like Tonya Harding, it didn't want to give any such due to Nancy Kerrigan. Maybe I'm a touch to sensitive but when the film was released I did have to wonder what Kerrigan made of all this sudden interest in the people who, the court found, attempted to ruin her life. Maybe the truth is Kerrigan wanted nothing to do with the movie, I don't know, and that's fine of course and totally understandable too, but Gillespie ought to have known when to draw the line at some of the opinions expressed in Rogers' screenplay purportedly from Harding herself.

Overall, it might not have got the full marks from the judges, but I, Tonya comes damn close. I really enjoyed this and I think Robbie thoroughly deserved her Oscar nomination and probably should have got it with her performance here. I wish I could say the same about Allison Janney who did pick up the gong for Best Supporting Actress. Don't get me wrong, she's really great in it, but it's an easy Oscar win for a part that has all the work already done for a performer. The Academy love those grouchy scene stealing turns.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Theme Time: Fiona Bevan - Age Before Beauty

Drawing to a close last night was the BBC drama Age Before Beauty. Written by Debbie Horsfield, the Making Out and Cutting It creator who brought Poldark back to our screens, the programme starred Polly Walker, Kelly Harrison (stealing the show at every turn), Robson Green, James Murray, Madeleine Mantock, Lisa Riley and Sue Johnston and told the story of the complex lives and loves of a Manchester based, family-run beauty parlour.

The theme tune heard over the closing credits was something of a sweet sounding hidden gem. Entitled Slo Mo Tiger Glo, it's a track from a 2015 album entitled Talk to Strangers by Suffolk born singer/songwriter Fiona Bevan and had previously been used in an advertising campaign for HSBC in the UK and Ireland.

Now, because I am 39 this year I hadn't heard of Bevan - a woman who co-wrote Little Things, a worldwide smash for One Direction with Ed Sheeran - before so it was only by looking at the programme's closing credits that my ignorance could be halted. Here is the song performed in full...

Jumping Before He Was Pushed

The notion that the Labour party is riddled with anti-semitism continues again today as it is revealed that veteran Birkenhead Labour MP Frank Field has resigned his role as the Labour whip.

This really is a non story. The Brexiteer Field was within a gnat's whisker of being deselected on account of his decision to vote in favour of propping up Theresa May's weak Tory government. It's as simple as that really.

He's currently mouthing off on the BBC's Northwest Tonight about 'political thuggery' within the party against anyone who is not on message with Corbyn, adding that Westminster is a place that hates him, whereas Birkenhead is a place that embraces him. This is nonsense. Field's constituency placed a vote of no confidence in him following his decision to support Theresa May, securing her future with a margin of just three votes. It is not 'political thuggery' to demand that your MP represents the views of your constituency and opposes the government. If you ask me, the sooner the selection process is fully implemented within the party once again the better.

As for the anti-semitism slur Field makes, well it is becoming increasingly clear that this is a Trojan horse used by the Blairites within the party who wish to see Jeremy Corbyn removed from the leadership. Statistically, it is proven that Labour has actually become less anti-semitic under Corbyn's leadership and is certainly still less anti-semitic than the Tory party (who also have a troubling issue with Islamophobia which the press are conveniently ignoring) and Field's decision to cite it as a reason why he - a man whose views on immigration and the EU make him less Blue Labour and more Redkip - resigned today is extremely shallow and deeply convenient for the plotters. 

Out On Blue Six: Portugal. The Man

Anyone watching TV of late ought to know this song as it's currently being used in a rather fun trailer between BBC programmes for Radio 2 that sees a mum who can't help but dance the minute the song is broadcast on the station, much to the amusement of her little tot.

I was in a CEX store yesterday and the song was playing as I was in the queue at the tills. Just like in the trailer, the girl standing in front of me immediately started dancing - clearly it's contagious!

End Transmission

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Blow Dry (2001)

Blow Dry is the perfect example of a big Hollywood studio wanting to replicate an unexpected low budget British hit...and failing!

In 1997, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, producer Uberto Pasolini and director Peter Cattaneo scored a surprise worldwide hit with their film, The Full Monty. A defiantly British and parochial film, it owed a self-confessed debt to the films of Ken Loach in its tale of a group of men on the scrapheap in post Thatcher's Britain but, in giving them a reversal of fortunes in the unlikely guise of male stripping, its emphasis was much more on the comedy inherent in the premise and in  particular a kind of feelgood factor that Loach does not concern himself with. Four Oscar nods (with one winner in the shape of Anne Dudley's score) ensured that Hollywood sat up and paid attention. It was only a matter of time before they wanted to get some of that magic for themselves.

Enter Miramax who option another Beaufoy-penned screenplay entitled 'Never Better', once again set in post-industrial Yorkshire, and the town of Keighley, the unexpected home of the National Hair Championships competition . Beaufoy had hit upon the idea for his next project after watching 'Strictly Hairdressing', a documentary about the competitive world of championship hairdressing. Miramax must have thought they had another hit on their hands.

But, as is often the case with Hollywood, they seem to deliberately ignore everything that made something like The Full Monty a success and they start to interfere and call the shots. They don't get that films like The Full Monty were a hit precisely because they were so different to US audiences and because they were so quintessentially British. So instead they take a British production and try to tailor it to US audiences instead, with terrible consequences. I'd love to know what the real story is behind Blow Dry because it's clear to anyone who as much as casts an eye over the credits that something went very wrong here. For a start Beaufoy doesn't actually have a standard writing credit. Instead, his credit reads 'Based on the screenplay Never Better by Simon Beaufoy'. 'Based on', as I'm sure you'll agree, isn't 'written by' and it seems very telling here as to why Blow Dry is such an oddity of a movie, where the compromises made behind the scenes are palpably clear for all to see on screen.

For a start, whoever decided to cast Josh Hartnett as a young Yorkshire gents barber needs shooting. Hartnett is immediately hamstrung by his sheer inability to master the Yorkshire accent, disguise his own American accent, and convincingly play the part of Alan Rickman's son. I get that Hartnett was flavour of the month at the time and Miramax etc were determined to cast him in everything but he  is staggeringly wrong for this role. Just completely, utterly wrong. I know that Hollywood like an American actor in any film they have a hand in that is shot outside of the US because they think it'll help pull audiences in stateside who would otherwise ignore a film with actors they aren't necessarily familiar with (ie British actors without major Hollywood credits) but their decision to do that hre makes no sense when you consider they had already cast one American actor, in the shape of Rachael Leigh Cook, to play Bill Nighy's daughter. Mercifully, Rachael Leigh Cook doesn't have to adopt any other accent other than her own as its quickly explained that she lives in America with Nighy's ex wife. So there was already a Hollywood star in the cast here, why couldn't they cast a young and unknown (to Hollywood) British lead opposite her? Someone like Paul Nicholls would have easily fitted the bill and would have been far more convincing. But really the film delivers a terrible own goal by believing the main plot is about these two star-crossed lovers when it really ought to be about their parents whose individual stories - particularly Rickman's and that of his estranged wife played by Natasha Richardson - are far more interesting.

Incidentally let's just break off to acknowledge that there's a lot of talk in this post-Weinstein era about just why Hartnett disappeared off the radar; the implication being was it something to do with the (allegedly) rapey mogul. How about he just doesn't work much now because we all realised he was shit? It's much more interesting to ask why Rachael Leigh Cook's career has seemingly crashed and burned if you ask me. 

Director Paddy Breathnach had scored a minor cult hit with 1997's I Went Down but he seems all at sea with this large scale production. In the DVD liner notes he makes a big deal about the 'faded prosperity' and 'raw beauty' of Yorkshire and the culture clash on offer between the region's no-nonsense attitudes and sharp humour and the avant garde world of hair and fashion, but he fudges the clash each time and this makes for a tonally inconsistent film. There's a real dark edge to some of the humour (Hartnett practices his hair styling technique on the dead bodies in the local morgue he also works at) that sits uneasily  with the more frivolous, campy humour of the competition itself. The film also loses sight of the other competitors by focusing squarely on our protagonists and antagonists. There's a subplot featuring a love triangle between the 'Kilburn Kutters' (Peter McDonald and Michael McElhatton) and their model (Heidi Kulm no less!) that feels a bit left over from a previous draft as a result and ultimately adds nothing to the film overall.

The real talent on display here lies in the British casting, perhaps because they are just totally comfortable in the setting. Alan Rickman may not be anyone's first choice to play a dour gents barber in Keighley, but he's convincing enough with the dialogue ("It's one of them 18th century baroque jobs" he says, when casting an eye over one of the competition's hairstyles. "They were very popular back when that Amadeus was on at 'tpictures") and when you consider that his circumstances are a self-imposed exile from the glory days of the '80s when he was the champion of international high fashion hairdressing competitions. His rival is played by Nighy and, whilst its hard to believe a man with such crippling arthritis in his hands could ever cut hair effectively, he has a ball as the nearest thing the film comes to a villain. Again, there's a conviction to their interplay - you really can believe these two go back a long way. The late, much missed Natasha Richardson stars as Rickman's ex wife and Hartnett's mother, and the real reason why Rickman went into retirement, as its revealed she ran off with his hair model, Rachel Griffiths. The rest of the film is populated by eccentric some stunt casting (not only the aforementioned Heidi Klum, but also Peter Kay ?!) and several faces who are instantly familiar to anyone from the UK or lover of British TV and cinema in general; people like David Bradley, Ben Crompton, Hugh Bonneville, a blink and you'll miss him appearance by Stephen Graham, Mark Benton and, best of all, Warren Clarke, another late and much missed screen presence. Clarke steals the film as the Keighley mayor whose confidence grows with each stage of the competition culminating in his glorious lip-synch performance to Elvis'  I Just Can't Help Believin' over the film's closing credits. Easily the high point of the film!

Overall Blow Dry is a bit of a dog's dinner with some scenes feeling like a spoof of 'oop north' storytelling; Rickman trying to convince Hartnett to not shoot for the moon telling him how they just 'cut hair' with the same gravitas a coal miner may speak of the pit to his daydreaming/ambitious son is especially inadvertently Pythonesque or Ripping Yarns.  But there's a likeability to it for all its obvious flaws. Maybe it's just because I'm fiercely, proudly northern and all these kinds of films inevitably appeal to me, but I do think there's a good film struggling to get out from under the mess Miramax made of it and the answer probably lies in Beaufoy's original screenplay.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

RIP Neil Simon

Sad to hear that the brilliantly funny playwright Neil Simon has died at the age of 91 in his native New York.

As a child I was a huge fan of The Odd Couple, both the film and TV series (I've previously professed my love here), and from there I discovered other gems such as Barefoot in the Park, Plaza Suite and California Suite.


Monday, 27 August 2018

The Violent Enemy (1967)

The Violent Enemy is a passable late '60s British thriller that is actually based on an early Jack Higgins novel (back when he was writing as Hugh Marlowe) entitled A Candle for the Dead. Anyone familiar with Higgins will spot his trademarks here; the former committed IRA man who now finds himself with a conscience forced to do one last job is a premise that the author would go on to explore in a number of novels (and their film adaptations) including The Eagle Has Landed, A Prayer for the Dying and those dismal '90s made-for-TV cheapo thrillers starring the likes of Rob Lowe and Kyle McLachlan. Here, it's the turn of Tom Bell as Sean Rogan, an explosives expert who is persuaded to break out of an English gaol to sabotage a Dublin electrics base that helps makes arms for the UK military.  

Bell was a fine actor who didn't get much opportunity to become the leading man he could so easily have been, so it ought to come as no surprise that he dominates what is effectively a small B movie. I haven't read the novel on which it is based (Higgins novels are something of a rites of passage for blokes, along with those of Sven Hassel or Alistair Maclean, and I stopped reading Higgins novels as a very young man when I realised how interchangeable and unoriginal they all were) but I'm guessing on the printed page Rogan was an older man than the one that Bell depicts. There's a lot of talk about the old days and the cause he shares with mastermind Colm O'Moore (played here by Ed Begley, and sporting a surprisingly not too shabby Irish accent it has to be said) that seem a little silly coming from such a young man and it doesn't convince that both he and the much older O'Moore were once brothers-in-arms. It's a stretch of credulity I don't mind though if it means we have Bell.

As for the rest of the cast well, Susan Hampshire is sadly miscast as Rogan's love interest, Hannah, an idealistic young Irish woman who has fallen for the romance of the old tales of rebellion and is initially immune to the realities of the here and now. Hampshire struggles with the Irish accent, as does Bell too on occasion, and seems altogether too 'nice' to convince as the character. The distinguished Irish actor Noel Purcell lends a touch of much needed authenticity as a former revolutionary now lame and running a sympathetic pub and acting as the fixer, though there's some unintentional merriment for viewers in one scene where he instructs his guests to the sitting room, as his brogue and whistling teeth makes it sound more like 'the shitting room'! 

Another trope of Higgins' work rears its head in the appearance of two London gangsters who are employed to help with O'Moore's plot, get up Rogan's nose, and who the audience would have to be incredibly dense not to suspect of having an ulterior motive that means they are the real villains of the piece. These characters are played by Jon Laurimore and that archetypal '60s face, Michael Standing. I always liked Standing and lament the fact that his career was all but over by the mid '70s. He is of course best remembered for being the man who didn't realise he was 'only supposed to blow the bloody doors off' for Michael Caine in The Italian Job. Paired up against Bell, the pair get the most from the fractious protagonist/antagonist relationship within the screenplay. 

I'd love to be able to say that The Violent Enemy is one of those unsung gems of British '60s cinema but it's actually just one to file alongside the likes of When Eight Bells Toll and, like that film, feels and looks not unlike a slightly bigger budget episode of the action orientated TV dramas of the era - many of which Sharp directed. It's also one of those sentimental films that depict IRA men as misty eyed romantics clad in long grey overcoats walking to and from the pub to the sound of fiddly tin whistle march on the soundtrack. Watchable, but nothing more.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

RIP Lindsay Kemp

Deeply saddened to hear of the death of Lindsay Kemp at the age of 80.

Kemp was a truly avant garde artist, a groundbreaking dancer, mime and choreographer whose influence cannot be underestimated; he taught Kate Bush to dance, taught David Bowie mime and helped him to create personas such as Ziggy Stardust, and worked with film auteurs such as Ken Russell (Savage Messiah) and Derek Jarman (Sebastiane and Jubilee). He even appeared in the seminal cult horror classic The Wicker Man

Born near Liverpool in 1938, Kemp grew up in poverty in a South Shields one-parent family. He discovered his love of performing in the region's working men's clubs but it wasn't until he saw his first ballet at the age of 17, with fellow Bradford College of Art student David Hockney, that he transformed himself, studying dance in London with Hilde Holgar and mime with Marcel Marceau. He formed his own dance company in the 1960s and met the 19-year-old David Bowie in Covent Garden in 1966. He became Bowie's mentor and lover, choreographing the singer's Ziggy Stardust concerts. In 1974 he took the Edinburgh Fringe by storm with his performance of Flowers, based on Jean Genet's Notre Dame des Fleurs, and his fame and success was secured.

He taught Kate Bush to dance finding the future singer 'shy'. She later dedicated her song Moving to him, pushing a copy under the door of his flat. It came as a surprise to Kemp as he had no idea she was a singer. Later, Kemp starred as the enigmatic guide in her film, The Line, The Cross & The Curve (pictured above) Today, Bush paid tribute to her mentor; "To call him a mime artist is like calling Mozart a pianist. He was very brave, very funny and above all, astonishingly inspirational. There was no one quite like Lindsay. I was incredibly lucky to study with him, work with him and spend time with him. I loved him very much and will miss him dearly. Thank you, dear Lindsay"

Kemp died at his home in Italy, aged 80. To pay tribute, here's that Kate Bush track that he was he unwitting inspiration for.


Thursday, 23 August 2018

Theme Time: Bad Manners - Educating Marmalade

Bad Girl Warning! Bad Girl Warning! Bad Girl Warning!

Alright cock? Today's Theme Time concerns the worst girl in the world, Marmalade Atkins who first came to life in Andrew Davies' 1979 children's novel Marmalade and Rufus about a badly behaved little girl and her horse. Davies went on to pen several adventures for his juvenile heroine (see here) and two classic ITV series, Educating Marmalade and Danger! Marmalade at Work, which saw the late, great Charlotte Coleman bring Marmalade wonderfully to life.  

The title track was performed by the utterly suitable Bad Manners

Monday, 20 August 2018

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

I haven’t read the original novel but I’m told that the screenplay (which is the work of three scriptwriters; two Americans, Don Roos and Tom Bezucha, and an Englishman, Kevin Hood) dispenses with both its epistolary conceit and some of its characters, presumably to convey the story in a more filmic and accessible manner. As such, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, or TGLAPPPS, as no one is calling it but which I will do henceforth for convenience’s sake, is a highly polished ‘heritage’ production from Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell. It is a film that feels both cosily familiar - calling to mind the recent WWII period films Their Finest and Another Mother’s Son, along with a suitable dash of 1987’s 84 Charing Cross Road for good measure – and perfect for Sunday evening viewing. This last factor is no doubt helped by the casting of several alumni from ITV’s internationally successful period drama Downton Abbey.

Read my full review at The Geek Show

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Following hot on the heels of other Le Carre adaptations like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (very good), A Most Wanted Man (good), and The Night Manager (good until they ruined everything with a different ending that saw the bad guys lose) comes Susanna White's 2016 film Our Kind of Traitor. When considered alongside those recent successes, White's film is not that good. But it's not actually the film's fault.

Though John Le Carre is one of my favourite authors even I would have to admit that among the many outstanding novels that make up his body of work, there are also a few utterly disposable ones propping those classics up. His 2010 novel certainly fell into the latter camp; the finger-on-the-pulse topicality of its plot aside - shady Russian oligarchy gaining a foothold in the city of London's banking district with a little help from some extremely corruptible and morally bankrupt Blairite British politicians  - this was slim, easily digestible fare from the master, so it should come as no surprise that this screen adaptation is equally rather forgettable.

The screenplay by Hossein Amini strips clean to the bone what was already (and by Le Carre standards at least) a lean novel. Ewan McGregor stars as our hapless man in a muddle, an academic who unwittingly stumbles into the plot whilst trying to salvage his marriage to Naomie Harris on holiday in Morocco. Le Carre's book was thoughtful enough to explore these characters, digressing into the backstories of a sporty and left leaning Oxford professor disillusioned with his country following the invasion of Iraq, and a rising young barrister whose parents were bohemian actors, but Amini's script has neither the time nor the inclination to provide us with such colour, leaving McGregor and Harris to flounder somewhat. Harris in particular has a really thankless role as 'The Wife', and the emotional journey of their characters never rings true. As the Russian mafiosi who wants out, Stellan Skarsgård delivers another of his many gregarious and crass, dangerous foreigner turns - the kind of role he can play in his sleep. Meanwhile Damien Lewis has clearly got in touch with Michael Caine's tailor to portray the idealistic MI6 operative who is trying to keep them all safe.

White has some impressive TV productions under her belt but this, only her second feature, plays things a little too safe and generic. Nevertheless, this is a competent production that will draw you in rather than wow you. Much like the book itself.

Oh and the moral of the story is if you ever have to go on the run or enter witness protection then please take the mobile phone off your mopey daughter and check that she hasn't had to break off a love affair to come with you, because the chances are that boyfriend is working for the people who want you dead and she's bound to phone him up one lonely, hormonal-charged night and land you all in the shit. Movies tell us this will always happen, listen to movies.

Friday, 17 August 2018

The Proud Valley (1940)

Paul Robeson first discovered the struggles of the Welsh mining communities when he met a deputation of blacklisted miners on a hunger march to London in 1926. Appalled by their hardships and touched by their resilience, Robeson's allegiance with Wales started here, culminating in 1957 when, blacklisted by McCarthy and denied the right to a passport, he performed in a transatlantic telephone exchange concert with Porthcawl's Eisteddfod from his home in the US. But it's this film that preserves that special relationship for posterity and managed to be, of all the films he made, Robeson's own personal favourite.

Written by the socialist husband and wife writing team of Herbert Marshall and Fredda Brilliant and the novelists Louis Golding and Jack Jones (who also appears in the film) The Proud Valley is based on the true story of an Afro-American miner from West Virginia who had drifted to Wales, by way of England, Looking for work. Robeson plays the hero, David Goliath, as down-on-his-luck man in a similar situation who arrives in the valleys and wins the respect of the musically orientated community there through the gift of his powerful bass baritone. Welcomed into the bosom of the Parry family, David is given board and lodging and a start down at the pit in exchange for his participation in the forthcoming Eisteddfod.

However, this harmony is shattered when a mining disaster takes not only the life of his friend and choirmaster Dick Parry (Edward 'Mr Grimsdale' Chapman) but also the livelihood of the whole community as the mine is closed down. After a year of hardship, unemployment and penury, David convinces Parry's son Emlyn (Simon Lack - the surname clearly short for lacking, as in 'he's lacking the ability to do a Welsh accent or convince at all') and some of the other miners to walk the 200+ miles from the valleys to London to confront the pit owner at his office and demand the opportunity to work once more. 

Fortunately for the men, war with Germany has just broken out and the country requires coal. The owner accepts their demands and the men return home to get the mine operational again. However, a second disaster occurs leaving them entombed within. It's left to David to sacrifice his life to save the men who accepted him as one of their own.

What's remarkable about The Proud Valley is that, in many ways, it refuses to capitalise on the screen presence of its lead. So many of Robeson's films accentuate his physique; his towering 6'3" stature or the barrel chest from which that impressive voice burst forth from. Instead, and tellingly, The Proud Valley places Robeson within the community on the cobbled streets of the Rhondda and refuses to address the differences in their appearance. In doing so, defies its audience to tell the difference. The message is clear; we are all the same, his problems are my problems, his hopes are my hopes. It is the solidarity of the workplace and of the working class community and it is best exemplified in the one scene where race rears its head; one miner voices his suspicion of this black stranger who has been given work at the pit just to secure his place on the choir and is immediately silence by Parry's rhetoric of “Aren’t we all black down that pit?” This communal message resonated with the star himself, who later said that “It’s from the miners in Wales that I first understood the struggle of Negro and white together.” The only thing that separates Robeson's David from the people around him is his incredible singing voice, but even then this is(of course) a valley full of singers and it is only here that David feels he has come home, perhaps using that voice to full effect for the first time.

Directed by Penn Tennyson who was sadly killed in action just a year later, The Proud Valley was an extremely progressive movie by 1940's standards. The film refused to glamourise or sentimentalise the characters or their plight and depicts its working class characters not as the comic stereotypes that many films of the period elected to do, but instead as multi-dimensional characters who possessed heart, humour and generosity. Equally, Robeson secured one of his finest roles precisely because the film refused to conform to racial stereotypes too; David is not an 'Amos and Andy' style comic relief or a noble savage, he is a working class man first and foremost with all the admirable qualities that that implies. The colour of David's skin barely matters upon the film and, as such, Robeson is allowed to portray the kind of heroic role that was all too lacking for black actors at that time as well as having the chance, as he once said, “to depict the Negro as he really is—not the caricature he is always represented to be on the screen.“ It's easy to see why the film was Robeson's personal favourite, its the perfect fusion of the man's artistic and political attitudes and his belief that the message of working classes coming together, regardless of their colour or nationality, was a deeply important one.

Aside from the impact of the outbreak of war upon the storyline (coming from Ealing, it does, in its later stages at least, share similarities with many of the propaganda pictures that were to come from the studio, serving as an impeccable recruitment drive for the Bevin Boys) he film may share some similarities with Carol Reed's big screen adaptation of AJ Cronin's The Stars Look Down which was also released in 1940, but its USP remains the remarkable Robeson.

Thursday, 16 August 2018


Today marks the 199th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre and the official launch of the artwork of Mike Leigh's forthcoming film by one of its stars, Christine Bottomley. It has been announced too that the film will, fittingly, receive its premiere at Home in Manchester in October) and that Mike Leigh has called for the events of Peterloo to be taught in schools.

And quite right too. It appalls me that our education system is, like so much of society, is weighted in favour of the establishment and the status quo. Even here in the north west, I don't actually recall ever learning about Peterloo at school. As a result, its shameful the blank looks and confusion that the word receives. We are the generations who have been taught about our 'betters', of kings and queens, but never about the rich history of dissent or of the working classes and it needs to stop. Like the political climate itself, things need to change.

Of course it's no surprise that Peterloo hasn't been taught in schools. The truth of Peterloo is dangerous, highlighting as it does, the blame that must be laid squarely at the door of the establishment. The fact that, 199 years on, it still isn't being spoken about in schools should set alarm bells ringing: what will the generations to come learn about us almost two hundred years from now - will they be taught about Hillsborough, about the miners' strike, the Iraq war and Grenfell?

Out On Blue Six: Aretha Franklin, RIP

Another glorious star has gone out, Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul, has died aged 76

And with such tragic news, let's all say a little prayer for Aretha


End Transmission

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Alan Rickman Is The Equalizer

Hitting UK cinemas this week is The Equalizer 2 the sequel to Antoine Fuqua's 2014 big screen reboot of the classic 1980s TV series that was a firm favourite show of mine. Once again, Denzel Washington stars as the former secret agent turned avenging angel, bringing his own unique brand of justice to mean streets of America.

I've discussed both my love of the original series starring the great Edward Woodward before and the near decade-long development hell the big screen spin off has endured here and here and, as you'll know (or see from those posts) my original hope for an Equalizer movie was for Ciaran Hinds  to step into Woodward's shoes. For me, it was a no brainer; Hinds had the same gravitas and had played the role of 'the cleaner' in Spielberg's Munich in such a manner that hinted at his potential for the role. Plus, we'd seen how his friend and fellow Irishman Liam Neeson had performed as an aging action man in Taken. However, Hinds clearly wasn't a big enough Hollywood name, and Sean Bean, Timothy Dalton, Russell Crowe and Neeson himself were all at one time or another touted or attached to the project before Washington was announced.

Washington's McCall is a far cry from Woodward's. There's a darkness to the character that makes his character morally ambiguous and sometimes hard to separate from the villains he goes after. This is an interesting approach, but I personally felt it was overdone in Fuqua's film (and I don't expect it to be toned down in the sequel either) I wondered then, if there was a way to marry together both this darker persona and the more quintessential characterisation from the TV series. I was reminded of a chat in the pub with mates back in the early-mid 00s when the news that Hollywood planned a remake and one friend suggested Malcolm McDowell for McCall. An interesting idea I'm sure you'd agree, but could McDowell really pull off a good guy role after so many anarchic and villainous turns. Thinking about it again this past week I immediately hit upon the idea of an alternative universe (I love alt universe film ideas) where Hollywood pursued the both original British nature of the protagonist as well as the original series concept of The Equalizer, along with the darker, more ruthless streak that Washington's cinematic offering has given us, all via an actor who had a reputation for playing bad guys but could convince as heroes too - and I came up with Alan Rickman. 

Here's some fan posters I conjured up using Rickman's likeness and the typeface of The Equalizer movies...

Can you imagine if Rickman had played The Equalizer perhaps for the first time circa 2008/09 say? How good would that have been?