Sunday, 30 September 2018

Out On Blue Six: Tears For Fears

This blast from the past has been in my head a lot this past fortnight thanks to it appearing in an episode of the BBC's rather good newspaper drama Press starring Ben Chaplin and Charlotte Riley, which is managing to plug the gap I've been feeling ever since The Newsroom ended. It's Tears For Fears... 

End Transmission

Thursday, 27 September 2018

RIP John Cunliffe

Very sad to hear that the children's author John Cunliffe has passed away at the age of 85.

Cunliffe (no relation to me I hasten to add - at least, not that I'm aware of!) was born in Colne, but it was his six years residence in Kendal that inspired him to create his most famous and evergreen creation, Postman Pat, basing his fictional Greendale on Longsleddale. His other well-known creation was Rosie & Jim, which he created for television in the 1990s, and appeared in as himself navigating the waterways on the puppets canal boat, before branching out into books.


Book Review: In the Silence by M.R. Mackenzie

In the Silence is the debut novel of of Glaswegian author M.R. Mackenzie and is another fine addition to the Tartan Noir genre.

The story concerns former Glasgow girl now Rome-based academic Dr Anna Scavolini who returns home in the run up to Christmas 2009 for the birthday of her best friend from school, redheaded party girl Zoe. Within hours of touching down, Anna not only meets up with her school crush but she goes on to find his dead body in snowy Kelvingrove Park! With the police alternating in treating her as a suspect and an irritant, Anna feels she has no option but to investigate the murder herself but, as the bodies start to stack up and it becomes clear a serial killer is in their midst, Anna may come to regret her impulsive decisions.

This was a real page turner of a book. I know its somewhat cliched to say such a thing but I genuinely haven't read a crime novel that has kept me both gripped and guessing such as this in a long, long time. Mackenzie's flair for a gripping storyline is apparent in his central mystery densely populated by red herrings, and it is matched only by his knack for both setting and dialogue. Just like the very best in Tartan Noir, Mackenzie's novel is set in a recognisable and atmospheric Scottish city, in this case Glasgow, and boasts an ear for the dialect and wit of that area. He gives his best lines to the character of Zoe, who provides some much needed light relief in what becomes a strong, bloody tale of revenge and redemption. With themes including gender inequality, the inherent failings of the justice system, rape, domestic abuse and mental illness, In the Silence is (like the very best work of Denise Mina - in particular her Garnethill trilogy), is a novel which possesses a strong social conscience and it does not shy away from the big issues, often in powerful, uncompromising detail. With that in mind, it  therefore needs a character like Zoe to balance out the drama and remind us that ordinary life is continuing in parallel to the dark underbelly of the city.

But what of Dr Scavolini herself? Well, I've seen some reviews on Amazon say she's a little unlikeable (albeit with good reason as it soon becomes clear) but personally I don't see that criticism all that much. Perhaps she comes across a little aloof precisely because she's effectively a stranger in her hometown and so clearly the chalk to Zoe's more down to earth cheese. But  I actually found it very easy to sympathise with Anna right from the off, especially when she arrives in frozen Glasgow for Zoe's party and is all but ignored by the party girl and left to her own devices on the corner of the dancefloor for the whole night! Bit off, Zoe! The revelation that Anna has her own problems, namely bipolar disorder and is rather foolishly foregoing her pills, is sensitively and intelligently handled and adds a texture to some of her subsequent actions and social interactions that feels authentic. If I had one criticism regarding this side of her character it's that I'd actually liked a little more time focused on the implications and some greater clarity on her initial decision making, but I guess the central mystery has to come first.

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable debut novel that has much promise for the future. I personally hope that we return to Glasgow and Anna and Zoe but I've a feeling whatever M.R. Mackenzie chooses to do next will be worth your attention. If you like Denise Mina and Tartan Noir then do yourself a favour, head over to Amazon and buy this book, you'll love it. The long winter nights are just around the corner and this will be perfect for them. Just don't have nightmares!

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Out On Blue Six: Timbuk 3

I rewatched the old early 90s film Kuffs with Christian Slater on Netflix the other day. It's still crap mind you, but it does kick off with this stone cold feelgood classic...

End Transmission

Saturday, 22 September 2018

RIP Chas Hodges

And there's been yet another sad loss announced today; Chas Hodges, one half of legendary musical duo Chas & Dave, has died following a battle with esophageal cancer at the age of 74.

Despite his well earned fame with Chas & Dave, it's only a fraction of the music legacy Chas Hodges has left us. As a young session musician in the late '50s, Hodges worked for the legendary producer Joe Meek, backing such rock and roll superstars as Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent (pictured below) and performing in The Outlaws with Ritchie Blackmore and Mike Berry.

In the early 1970s, Hodges played bass guitar and gave vocals in country rock band Heads Hands & Feet and performed tracks on The Old Grey Whistle Test

His bandmate with Head Hands & Feet was Albert Lee and the pair went on to play in the band Black Claw alongside Dave Peacock, a former session player for Joe Meek who would go on to become Chas' long running partner in Chas & Dave. However, in 1975, the pair played on Labi Siffre's Remember My Song album, including the track I Got The, which their guitar and bass riff was later lifted as a sample for Eminem's hit My Name Is

By the close of the decade Chas had joined with Dave Peacock to develop a musical style that merged rock music and the cockney singalong that they termed 'rockney'. Chas & Dave was thus born, with their breakthrough single Gertcha peaking at number 20 off the back of an advert for Courage Bitter. It proved to be the first of eight top 40 singles, nine charting albums, four FA Cup singles for their band Tottenham Hotspurs and a host of TV specials. They opened for Led Zeppelin at 1979's Knebworth Festival, played Glastonbury in 2005 and counted Tori Amos and The Libertines as some of their famous fans. 


Thursday, 20 September 2018

Petitions to Labour NEC

Momentum believe it is important that the Labour Party have an open selection process and no MP veto. Please sign the following petitions to ensure this happens because the NEC may block them come Saturday. It's time to put an end to the divisions within the Labour Party and make it a more democratic place that has MP's who want to work for the will of the people, rather than feather their own nest.

No MP Veto Petition

Open Selection Petition

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

RIP Denis Norden

Another sad loss announced today is the death of Denis Norden, the comedy writer and host of the one-time ITV staple It'll Be Alright on the Night, at the age of 96.

Norden had apparently been ill for some time, residing for a number of weeks at London's Royal Free Hospital where he died earlier today.

Born in Hackney in 1922, Norden was a contemporary of Kingsley Amis at the City of London School and at the age of sixteen was accepted by the Daily Express to accompany their foreign correspondent in Spain to report on the civil war - it was only his parents putting their foot down that nixed his plans. Unperturbed, Norden left school to become the countries youngest cinema manager at just 18, before joining the RAF on the commencement of WWII. There he met Eric Sykes and the pair soon branched out into entertaining the troops with ENSA. It was with Sykes and a fellow comedian Ron Rich that Norden came across the recently liberated camp Belsen, appalled by the inhumanity and the starvation they witnessed among the inmates who had yet to be repatriated, the trio immediately hurried back to base to collect as much food as they could, handing out rations to men, women and children on the brink of death.

After demob, Norden teamed up with fellow comic Frank Muir and the pair began writing scripts for radio. Theirs was to become one of the most successful and enduring partnerships in the history of British comedy and together they wrote three hundred episode of Take it From Here which ran for eleven years, launched the career of June Whitfield and placed phrases like 'trouble at t'mill' and 'disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' into common parlance. The pair would go on to work in TV appearing both in front of the camera as well as creating the school master sitcom Whacko with Take it From Here star Jimmy Edwards and legal comedy Brothers in Law with a young Richard Briers and writing for The Frost Report and Marty. In film they gifted Carry On movies such classic lines as 'Infamy, infamy, they're all got it infamy' as memorably cried by Kenneth Williams in Carry on Cleo. Norden also co-wrote the screenplay for Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell starring Gina Lollabrigida for which he received an Oscar nomination. He also penned the screenplays for films such as The Best House in London and Every Home Should Have One.

It was the famous Blue Peter clip of the elephant making a mess of the studio that led to Norden's twenty-nine year run as the clipboard wielding presenter of ITV's blooper clips show It'll Be Alright on the Night. He had been reminiscing about that moment with producer Paul Smith one lunchtime in 1977 and wondered if there was any mileage in an outtakes show.They soon get their answer: a commission was made by LWT within half an hour. Despite Norden's reservations over the title, the show was a huge success for ITV in a time when the internet wasn't even a gleam in the eye, let alone YouTube, and Norden became a household name as a presenter, something the writer never expected - indeed his famous clipboard was said to be something he used just to preoccupy his hands. Failing eyesight as a result of a haemorrhage in the back of his eye meant he had to retire in 2006 when he could no longer view the clips. His successor was the rather faithful Griff Rhys Jones but the show's heyday was over, unable to compete with the aforementioned YouTube and the many imitations it had spawned. It has recently had an attempted relaunch as David Walliams Presents It'll Be Alright on the Night, an even worse title than Norden considered original to be, by virtue of its association with the irritating Walliams who has replaced Jones. 


Monday, 17 September 2018

Last Year In Marienbad (1961)

What did I make of Last Year In Marienbad and can I put it into words without sounding pretentious? Hmm. 

Find out by reading my review at The Geek Show

Entebbe (2018)

José Padilha, the director of Narcos (I believe it's a popular drama series on Netflix, m'lud) delivers yet another dramatised account of the 1976 hijacking of an Air France flight by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two German members of the Baader-Mienhof Gang and the subsequent successful Israeli commando rescue mission entitled Operation Thunderbolt, in his film Entebbe (I refuse to call it 7 Days in Entebbe, deal with it)

It has always surprised me how cinema seems fascinated by these events because it offers relatively little in cinematic terms. Operation Thunderbolt was swift (it lasted just over 50 minutes) and devastatingly accurate, making any recreation relatively straightforward and, crucially, very short. As a result, any film purporting to depict the events accurately must concern itself wholly with ratcheting up the tension leading to this military action, focusing on the uneasy, fractious relationships both in Israel's political arena and on the ground in Entebbe itself between the hostages and their captors. Thus is the direction of Padilha's film, but any hope that this would be a more even-handed study is quickly lost when you realise that not only is there little in the way of a voice for Palestine in the proceedings, there's crucially nothing for France either ('not their problem' dismisses Tel Aviv, and subsequently the film itself), and very little for the hostages themselves who are extremely faceless in terms of the proceedings as a whole. The latter is an especially odd move when you consider the main aim of the film is to address the threat these people faced and how important it was to secure their safety. Instead, Padilha and his screenwriter Gregory Burke solely concern themselves with the two German revolutionaries, Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike), and with the Israeli PM, Yitzhak Rabin, and his Minister of Defence, Shimon Peres (Lior Ashkenazi and Eddie Marsan).

Can we talk about Eddie Marsan - crucially what has happened to him recently? I don't mean his increasingly ugly and belligerent tweets that seek to condemn anyone on the left, spin the idea that Corbyn hates all Jews, and demand that we 'Make Britain Great Again (though all that in itself is concerning enough), I mean his sudden inability when it comes to acting. Seriously Marsan was once one of my favourite character actors but he's delivered some stinking performances of late (Their Finest, The Limehouse Golem, Atomic Blonde) and his depiction of Peres as a malevolent toad, ominously croaking  in favour of violent retaliation in Rabin's ear doesn't reverse this trend. Every time he appears with his strange make-up, delivering even the most innocent of lines with heavy portent and an 'Allo, 'Allo style foreign accent, I was left to wonder just what he was thinking. It's tonally very off-putting with the rest of the film and is in stark contrast with Ashkenazi's performance and indeed everyone else he shares screen time with.

The acting honours here must go to Pike and Brühl. The latter may be typecast to play the German villain in any Hollywood movie these days but the characterisation of Böse is that of the film's conscience. He may be viewed by the world as a terrorist, but he possesses both an idealism and a desire to challenge injustice that has brought him to this moment and he stays true to his beliefs by refusing to play the Nazi. He gets some good scenes to address this alongside French actor Denis Ménochet as the Air France captain. Alongside Brühl's sympathetic turn, Pike also refuses to play the part of Kuhlmann as the mad, unfeminine (and therefore somehow more threatening, more reviled) terrorist that other dramas have a habit of depicting her, and delivers the kind of eye catching and satisfying performance that she has become renowned for. There's one key scene that shows the humane side of her that I shan't give away and may have been corny in a lesser performer's hands. It's just a shame that their Palestinian comrades are not given the same kind of privilege of three dimensional characterisation too. For a film about the Israel and Palestine conflict its galling that the POV of the latter is routinely expressed via two white people.

The imposing figure of the monstrous Idi Amin of course loomed large over Entebbe and it does so here too, played by the statuesque Nonso Anozie. It's all too easy for an actor to go big and chew the scenery when given the opportunity to play someone like Amin, but Anozie chooses instead to underplay. It's a restrained performance that  further highlights the ball-dropping nature of Marsan's approach. 

I suppose the major hurdle facing Padilha is to offer something different from the films that have gone before him and he does this not only via some of the choices the script and the performers make that I have mentioned here, but also in the depiction of some key events. The death of Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu is one that is always considered a great act of heroism but is instead depicted her as one of a spectacular error of judgement. The experienced assault force commander chose to give up the element of surprise by killing the Ugandan sentries and was shortly killed by a sniper whilst standing outside of the terminal building. There are many theories as to why Netanyahu made such a mistake (in his book Yoni: Hero of Entebbe, Max Hastings suggests he was simply burnt out) but the overriding theory Padilha wants us to appreciate here is that Yoni's death led to his brother commencing a career in politics - his brother of course being Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli PM who is unlikely to ever seek peace with Palestine. 

Perhaps Padilha's own personal stamp on the story is most clearly felt in his decision to incorporate the rather artistic flourish of a series of modernist dance performances by Israel's Batsheva Dance Company during the raid itself. This arises from his decision to depict one of the commandos (Pride star Ben Schnetzer) as being in a relationship with a dancer. It's a divisive decision; a distracting turn-off for some or an intriguing parallel of skilled choreography for others. Personally, I didn't mind it but I can see why others would complain that it pulled them out of the crucial events. 

On the whole, Entebbe has been considered a bit of a flop but I found it a solid enough reconstruction with strong production design that is heavily redolent of the 1970s and a glossy sheen. It's only the refusal of the film to acknowledge that both the Palestinians and the hostages have a story that ought to have been addressed here much more comprehensively than it was that has ultimately left me feeling somewhat cheated.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

RIP Zienia Merton

The Burmese born actor Zienia Merton who played Space:1999's Sandra Benes has died at the age of 72.

Merton became an actress as a teenager in the 1960s playing the Chinese girl Ping-Cho in the 1964 Doctor Who serial Marco Polo. Her other credits included the Beatles film Help!, Jason King, Strange Report, Return of the Saint, Dennis Potter's Casanova, The History Man, Angels, Tenko, Grange Hill, Bergerac, Dempsey and Makepeace, The Lakes, Casualty, The Bill, EastEnders, Coronation Street, Doctors, Wire in the Blood, Law and Order: UK, and The Sarah Jane Adventures.


RIP Dudley Sutton

I am utterly gutted to hear that the great Dudley Sutton has passed away at the age of 85.

Sutton will be best known for his role as Tinker Dill, the eccentric 'barker' in the 1980s/'90s Sunday night favourite Lovejoy, but his impressive career dates all the way back to the 1950s and the groundbreaking work he did at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. In the early '60s he worked with director Sidney J. Furie on two controversial movies; The Boys (1962), about a group of teddy boys facing the death penalty for murder, and 1964's The Leather Boys, in which he played a gay biker at the time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. 

Possessed with a magnetic and often eccentric screen presence that could alternate between loveable and comic and edgy and menacing, Sutton overcame a notorious period of hellraising in the 1960s and went on to become a familiar face on our screens for over fifty years. His TV credits included roles in The Saint, The Baron,The Avengers, Dixon of Dock Green, Softly Softly, Department S, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Porridge, The Sweeney, Shine On Harvey Moon, Widows, Smiley's People, The Beiderbecke Affair, Bergerac, The Comic Strip Presents, Casualty, Holby City, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, EastEnders, Doctors, Skins, and Wallander.

On film, he appeared in several Ken Russell productions, most notable as the sinister interrogator Baron De Laubardemont in The Devils, the spaghetti western A Town Called Bastard, Fellini's Casanova, Derek Jarman's Edward II, Sally Potter's Orlando, The Walking Stick, The Tichborne Claimant, Tomorrow La Scala, Dean Spanley, Cockneys Vs Zombies and The Football Factory. As well as some very ropey 1970s productions like the Mary Millington sexploitation flick Playbirds, the James Bond rip-off Number 1 of the Secret Service, the dismal Michael Winner remake of The Big Sleep and the Michael Caine turkey The Island.


Thursday, 13 September 2018

Salvador (1986)

Fear and Loathing in Central America

Salvador is a typical Oliver Stone film in that the filmmaker paints his characters with vivid colour and strong brushstrokes onto a broad canvas. Unlike some of his later work, however, Salvador is a more rough and ready guerrilla experience as befits the reality of filming on the hoof in Mexico for seven weeks with a whole lot of passion.  It’s also a film that curiously sees Stone pull his punches at a crucial moment; with Boyle condemning both sides to be just as bad as one another after the battle at Santa Ana. It’s a strange choice for a film that starts with the very best of committed intentions to highlight the realities of Reaganite policy to feel the need to suddenly find a fence to sit on, and it’s not one Stone would make now.

Read the full review from me at The Geek Show

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

RIP Fenella Fielding

It's a bit of a bad time to be a Carry On fan; first the sad news that Liz Fraser passed away, and now the announcement that Fenella Fielding died yesterday following a stroke at the age of 90.

One of the great eccentrics of England, Fielding will forever be known for her performance as the camp vamp Valeria in 1966's Carry On Screaming, the second of her two Carry On appearances (the first having been Carry On Regardless five years earlier. But whilst her appearance was iconic, it's only a fraction of the grand lady's work, as The Independent put it in a 2007 article;

"One of the mysteries of British life that Fenella Fielding, whose wit and distinctive stage presence captivated figures such as Kenneth Tynan, Noël Coward and Federico Fellini, should have drifted into obscurity rather than being celebrated"

Her illustrious and wide-ranging career included notable stage roles in productions of Ibsen (her Hedda Gabler was considered a performance of a lifetime) Shakespeare, Wilde and Chekhov, a starring role in Peter Cook's debut comedy revue Pieces of Eight, and TV roles in the 1990s CBBC series Uncle Jack as the villainess The Vixen, Hancock's Half Hour, The Morecambe and Wise Show, Danger Man, The Avengers and The Prisoner, in which she lent her husky vocals to the role of the unseen Village announcer. Indeed, Fielding's lush tones were so identifiable and used to great effect in the big screen spin-off of The Magic Roundabout, Dougal and the Blue Cat in 1970, as the eponymous Madam Blue. Further film credits included two Doctor films (Doctor in Distress and Doctor in Clover), Sapphire, No Love for Johnnie, The Old Dark House and Guest House Paradiso.


Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Out On Blue Six: Morcheeba

OK, hang on to your tits people, but this track from Morcheeba is now twenty years old


Just HOW?? 

I loved this back in the day...which I had until this point presumed was only, like, yesterday!

End Transmission

Atomic Blonde (2017)

I finally did it. I finally played GTA: Berlin '89.

No sorry, I mean I finally did it. I finally read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold whilst listening to Now That's What I Call The Best Of The '80s.

No sorry, sorry, I mean I finally did it. I finally watched Atomic Blonde....but you can see why I might be confused.

Despite some favourable reviews, I found this just too gimmicky. I got that David Leitch watched the rather good German TV series Deutschland '83 and has decided to culturally appropriate it within the first 20 odd minutes when he chose to use three tracks - Blue Monday, 99 Red Balloons and Major Tom (Coming Home) - that series had previously used, but far too much of this feels like one of those music videos that accompanied the Bond films in the 1980s as opposed to an actual good spy film in itself. 

I find it really interesting that this has scored highly in the wake of #MeToo whilst Red Sparrow has fallen foul. I really fail to see why Atomic Blonde with its male-centric gaze towards lesbian sex and the death of Sofia Boutella's character, whilst conveniently dressed in skimpy underwear, gets the thumbs up? To me, Leitch's film is superficially empowering but ultimately depicts the same kind of wanky fantasies that Red Sparrow has been criticised for. Overall, I think I actually preferred Red Sparrow because that at least was a relatively mature movie whereas this was just too loud, too all over the shop and too plain silly. Oh and the CIA are of course the best - is this a comedy? Whilst MI6 give a much sought after list of agents the 'code name' The List - seriously is this supposed to be a comedy?

In its favour, Charlize Theron really knows how to pick projects. Coming after her brilliant showcase in the excellent Mad Max: Fury Road this is the perfect follow up to establish her action movie heroine credentials and she produces - for much of the movie at least - the most bad-ass British secret agent since Mrs Peel (which makes me wonder why cinema is more concerned with Marvel's Avengers than ABC's The Avengers because there's clearly a market for a revival that is bound to be better than the turkey from the '90s). However the only sequence I truly engaged in was the one where her attempts to transport Eddie Marsan to the West went pear-shaped. It's telling that the only action sequence in the movie that plays it all totally straight, rather than a kid on Ritalin watching a Bourne film alongside the weekly TOTP 80s repeats on BBC4, is the most effective.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Red Sparrow (2018)

Based on the novel of the same name by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow tells the story of Dominika Egorova, a promising ballerina whose career is abruptly and violently called to a halt. With a sick mother to support, she has no option but to perform favours for her sinister uncle and when one such favour sees her witness more than she ought to, she is coerced into enlisting at the Sparrow Academy (or'whore school' as Dominika later calls it), becoming one of a number of young and attractive Soviet agents schooled in the art of sex and seduction known as 'sparrows' 

Arriving at the height of the #MeToo movement this year, it's perhaps understandable that a narrative about sexual objectification and how men use young women as little more than meat to their advantage in order to procure greater power was about as welcome as Jonathan King at a children's birthday party. For many critics, Red Sparrow was simply too much of an ordeal, too much of a backward step. Far be it from me to say that this reading of Francis Lawrence's film is in any way wrong,but I do feel that the film's message - that these are the actions of an oppressive state and patriarchal system - is overlooked in any criticism. Much like every time that the TV critic and professional numpty Alison Graham bemoans a serial killer drama that consists of the murder of female sex workers, I do wonder if we run the risk of being pressurised into avoiding the harsh, sickening realities of life in the desire to showcase the ideal we all desire of gender equality and female empowerment. To me that's not what the #MeToo movement ought to be about.

What I liked about Red Sparrow is that it's a studio picture for mature audiences, something of a rarity in an overcrowded market of Marvel and YA blockbusters. With a storyline that could easily have been set in the Cold War past, Francis Lawrence delivers a kind of throwback to the kind of sex and violence driven movies of the late '80s and early '90s too; the type of film that Paul Verhoeven and Brian De Palma would have had a field day with. But Lawrence is not Verhoeven and De Palma and, whilst he does a very capable job on the whole, his film still has some flaws. Having been a fan of the likes of Le Carre and Deighton all my life, I am familiar with the somewhat measured pace of complex espionage procedurals, but Lawrence's approach is sometimes a little too dry even by this standards. The two hour fifteen running time, whilst in the main necessary, feels its length which I fear is another reason why Red Sparrow was a turn off for some.

Lawrence scores with his casting of Jennifer Lawrence as our heroine Dominka and the director and actor (who are no relation to each other) are a world away from their previous collaborations on The Hunger Games series. Lawrence is genuinely effective as the complex and ambiguous Dominka, keeping our sympathy and support throughout all the plot machinations that showcase her as a potential double and triple agent. There is at times a blankness to her performance that is both satisfying and utterly right for a character whose heart has been hardened by the cards fate has dealt her and the suggestion of trauma or even abuse in her past are skillfully, subtly conveyed. Of course, Lawrence the director knows that he has one of the most attractive and photogenic leading ladies of the day at his disposal in the role of a deeply alluring 'honey trap' agent and he showcases her natural beauty to full effect which, again, may pose problems for some audiences. 

The film's leading man is Joel Edgerton who performs the role of CIA agent Nate Nash with his usual blandness. Maybe it's just me but I find Edgerton a rather beige performer. There's a scene in Steve Coogan's excellent and much missed sitcom Saxondale where his character has to come up with words that people feel ambivalent towards, in the end he plumps for 'Dennis Quaid' and I think Edgerton fits that category too. As I was watching this I came up with a phrase that may have crossed the director's mind whilst casting this and it's 'Joel Edgerton -  for when you can't quite afford Jeremy Renner' and it left me daydreaming how much better Renner would have been in the role of Nash. That said, Edgerton is never less than acceptable and, crucially, his attraction to Lawrence - even when flying in the face of all evidence that he is being played - is always believable. Much better is Matthias Schoenaerts (or Matty Schoo as I like to call him) in the role of Dominka's dangerous uncle, a man who thinks nothing of using his niece as a pawn in the great game. Schoenaerts possesses a chameleon-like quality here that separates him from previous, more sympathetic roles, and his characterisation is helped immeasurably by his decision to seemingly play this shady government official with the looks and mannerisms of Vladimir Putin.

The film also boasts a strong supporting cast of mostly British performers. Standing out in this field in particular are Jeremy Irons as a sort of KGB elder statesman (if Red Sparrow had made in the early '90s by a Verhoeven or De Palma type then Irons may have taken the uncle role) and Charlotte Rampling as the anonymous no-nonsense 'Matron' of the Sparrow Academy. There's also Ciarán Hinds, Douglas Hodge and, perhaps more surprisingly, Holby City's Hugh Quarshie in there too, as well as Joely Richardson as Dominka's ailing mother. I've never really liked Richardson, finding her the least talented of the Redgrave/Richardson dynasty, so it came as something of a relief to me that her role was relatively short. I also want to comment on Mary-Louise Parker as a duplicitous US official as I've read some reviews that refer to her performance as camp, tonally off and feeling like it belongs in another film. Given that she has one scene in which her character is roaring drunk I feel that is rather unfair.

As a spy movie, Red Sparrow doesn't reinvent the wheel, but if you enjoy the cloak and dagger genre then you won't be disappointed. It boasts some fine wintry cinematography from Dutch DoP Jo Willems and, alongside Mother! (her other recent bold choice of film) establishes Jennifer Lawrence  as something much more than a YA heroine which should do her career no harm at all. Should Hollywood consider adapting the other two Red Sparrow novels in Matthews' trilogy, I would hope Lawrence would continue to be on board. I know I'd happily watch another instalment though, given the reception for this, I probably won't hold my breath.

Friday, 7 September 2018

RIP Liz Fraser

If the death of Burt Reynolds wasn't bad enough, the news that the divine Liz Fraser has passed away at the age of 88 has certainly left me reeling. 

The death of Liz Fraser following complications from surgery signifies the end of a golden era of British comedy. With her blonde hair, natural sparkling beauty and her buxom figure, Fraser was often cast, understandably enough, in the dollybird role in films that featured some of the very best comic talents including Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Norman Wisdom, Benny Hill, and the Carry On team. But Fraser was much more than just a mere pretty stooge - her expert comic timing and acting abilities ensured she was just as capable as the comedians around her and both this and the audiences appreciation of her talents ensured the long and varied career that she enjoyed.

Her first film was 1955's Touch and Go, an Ealing comedy starring Jack Hawkins. The following year she starred opposite Peter Sellers for the first time in The Smallest Show on Earth. It was another Sellers film, 1959's I'm All Right Jack that changed everything for Fraser - her performance as Sellers' daughter saw him gain a Bafta nomination for Most Promising Newcomer. In the 1960s Fraser began her long association with the Carry On films, making her debut in Carry On Regardless. She would go on to appear in Carry On Cruising, Carry On Cabby, and, in the 1970s, Carry On Behind. With her busty blonde appearance she could have arguably taken the mantle that Barbara Windsor would enjoy within the series but a remark about the perceived poor marketing of the films saw her fall foul of the series producer Peter Rogers. Whilst this is a disappointment for fans it's fair to say it did no real damage to her career as the 60s saw Fraser go from strength to strength appearing alongside Norman Wisdom in The Bulldog Breed, Sid James in the films The Pure Hell of St Trinians, Doctor In Love, opposite Sid James in Double Bunk and Desert Mice and on TV in Citizen James, and Tony Hancock in The Rebel. The decade also saw her branch out into more dramatic roles; she appeared as the lead in the thriller The Painted Smile, starred opposite James Garner and Julie Andrews in The Americanisation of Emily, and gave memorable performances in kitchen sink dramas The Family Way and Up the Junction. She also starred in notable Cult TV programmes such as The Avengers, Jason King and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).

The 1970s started promisingly enough with Fraser taking on the role of Mavis Pike in the big screen spin-off of the popular BBC sitcom Dad's Army, but changing tastes in comedy and a more open minded approach to sex and nudity found Fraser appearing in a raft of sex comedies that probably seemed like a good idea at the time but have not aged especially well. However, she managed to appear in instalments of both the Adventures films and the Confessions films, rivals in smut, including Adventures of a Taxi Driver and Adventures of a Private Eye alongside Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Confessions from a Holiday Camp, as well as Under the Doctor and Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse. She also appeared in an episode of The Professionals. and starred in the Sex Pistols film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.

From the 1980s onwards, Fraser concentrated more on drama appearing in the likes Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, Shroud for a Nightingale, The Bill and the crime drama film Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, but she still managed to appear in lighter fare such as Minder and sitcoms like Birds of a Feather, Last of the Summer Wine and the controversial Hardwicke House. She continued to work right up until her death and most recently scored guest appearances in Holby City, Doctors, Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders.


RIP Burt Reynolds

I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of Burt Reynolds at the age of 82 

His was a star that had fallen out of favour for some time (1997's Boogie Nights brought him back from being a Hollywood joke and from the wilderness of Vision Express adverts here in the UK and, though it seemed to promise a comeback, this second act failed to materialise and the film remains his last major screen role of renown) but I would be lying if I didn't say that, as a child growing up in the 1980s, Burt Reynolds was my first ever screen hero.

Our family must have watched every film he ever made and I was hooked on his laidback, easygoing screen presence. Here was a very obviously masculine hero but he was one who was just as quick with his wits as he was with his fists, and he always seemed to be never afraid of the opportunity to send himself up or to play for laughs. That kind of hero always appealed to me, indeed it still does.

For a long time now I've said that Reynolds' films deserve a major reappraisal (beyond the evergreen Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run films and the stone cold classic Deliverance many are just seldom seen on UK TV) so it's somewhat bittersweet that it is only with his death that people may start to return to those movies once more.


Wednesday, 5 September 2018

DIY SOS: Grenfell

DIY SOS is a long-running BBC programme that transforms homes for disadvantaged families or builds much needed community projects using a team of experts, skilled tradesmen and volunteers. A two part special starts on BBC1 tonight that sets the team the task of rebuilding the Dale Youth Amateur Boxing Club that was originally situated on the second floor of Grenfell Tower and was destroyed in last year's horrific blaze.

I'm aware I may be something of a lone voice here, but I don't think the BBC should be doing this. Let me explain why.

The one thing that Grenfell highlighted to the nation is the criminal lack of attention, consideration and funding that the area was given. With the BBC sweeping in and doing this rebuild, they are simply letting the government and the local council off the hook. It's especially galling when you consider that, one year on, something like Grenfell could happen again tomorrow as there is still not enough responsibility or culpability being taken by the government and councils, not just in on that estate, but in estates like it across the whole of the country. There are still tower blocks without sprinkler systems, still tower blocks with that cladding. There are residents who live in fear and in direst poverty, still residents who haven't been re-homed, and all the government want to do is pass the buck, lie, shut their eyes and ears to it all and continue with their austerity driven program that keeps the rich rich and the poor in its place.

I'm sorry DIY SOS, charity is all well and good, but I still believe that this is something the government should be doing first and foremost.

Monday, 3 September 2018

RIP Jacqueline Pearce

Saddened to hear that Jacqueline Pearce, famous for her role as Blake's 7's alluring bad girl Servalan, has died at the age of 73.

It was the role that put Pearce on the map. The wicked sociopath Servalan was the Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation and her ambition to destroy Blake and his fellow rebels who made up the crew of the Liberator was a role Pearce embraced with relish, making her the originator of strange and complicated feelings within the pubescent boys in the audience at home and a firm fan favourite on the sci-fi circuit.

Born in Woking, Pearce trained both at RADA and the Lee Strasberg Actor's Studio in Los Angeles. Her career began in the 1960s with roles in TV series such as Man in a Suitcase, The Avengers, Callan, Danger Man and Public Eye and she starred in two Hammer classics from 1966; The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies. Her other credits include the films Sky West and Crooked, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, White Mischief, the 1988 version of The Bourne Identity and Princess Caraboo, the 1985 Doctor Who serial The Two Doctors, and TV shows such as Dark Season, Moondial, David Copperfield, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Daniel Deronda, Doctors and Casualty. Most recently she appeared alongside her friend John Hurt in several Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventures and appeared on Pointless Celebrities.


How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)

How to Talk to Girls at Parties is less ‘Croydon, 1977’ and more ‘Instagram, 1977’

Nicole Kidman is ACTING at every turn, Dick Van Dykeing it all over the shop with the most ridiculous Cockney accent. There’s a bit near the end where she leads her punk children in a charge against the aliens elders that is so daft and cheesy that it feels more like a sequence from a prospective Ben Elton-penned punk jukebox musical – something which I’m sure you’ll agree is about as far away from punk as you can actually get!

Remember Jonathan Glazer’s visceral, creepy and hallucinatory Under the Skin?  Well now go on and remove all of those qualities and remake it with Rentaghost‘s budget and overall panto aesthetic, with a cast of performing arts students.

That's How to Talk to Girls at Parties.

See my full review of this stinker at The Geek Show

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The Foreigner (2017)

I'm always a little apprehensive about thrillers that decide to resurrect an old real world terror for plot purposes. With that in mind, it could be argued that Martin Campbell's The Foreigner, with its depiction of an IRA splinter group commencing a new mainland bombing campaign is in poor taste, is ludicrously anachronistic, or is worryingly prescient in post Brexit Britain. 

Anachronism is definitely something at play here, because The Foreigner often feels like the kind of thriller that would have played out back in the '90s off the back of Patriot Games and the like. That's because it's actually based on a novel from Stephen Leather with the less PC title of The Chinaman which was published in 1992 when the Troubles when the IRA's mainland bombing campaign was still active. What makes Campbell's adaptation topical however is the depiction of Pierce Brosnan as a former IRA soldier turned politician; that often controversial issue of just where the IRA ends and were Sinn Féin begins is explored at length in the film in the same way that it was following the death of Martin McGuinness last year. Ultimately however, I'm just not really convinced by the IRA resurgence or their aims here.

The late, great Ken Campbell believed that Jackie Chan was the greatest living actor of his generation (this opinion was reached during a seance in which Campbell asked the spirit of Sir Laurence Olivier who was the greatest actor currently out there!) and it's fair to say that, as Chan gets older, he's showcasing more and more of his acting chops as the stunt work clearly becomes less feasible for the sixty-four year old action star. The Foreigner is certainly no exception; as a grieving and sullen father seeking revenge for the murder of his daughter, Chan certainly convinces. There are moments at the immediate start of the film where you suspect Chan is going to play not only his age, but a somewhat everyman figure; an aging, mild mannered family man based in London, and I think Campbell elicits a fine performance from him. This is all a bluff of course as, once Chan commences his vendetta and his particular skillset with violence becomes more and more apparent, its revealed that he was in a former life a US trained special forces soldier, just like everyone always is in these kind of films. This plot development allows for the kinetic action set pieces that Chan has built his career upon to take place of course, although the use of CGI and stunt doubles are much more noticeable now. They're still rollicking fun of course, but the real plus to this film is when Chan really is acting - playing a deeply hurt man lost in both a sea of grief and vengeance - and a world away from his usual high-kicking comic screen persona.

Speaking of acting, anyone who has ever read me banging on at length here or on LB about how poor I found his Bond films will know I'm not a huge fan of Pierce Brosnan, however his performance here ranks among his very best and is certainly on a par with his work in The Tailor of Panama or Polanski's The Ghost. Fellow Irishman Dermot Crowley also delivers some strong support as a warring lieutenant and the pair get to snarl and explode at one another in several tense dialogue heavy scenes. Sometimes these politically-conscious sequences feel like they belong in a different, more realistic movie and we have to remind ourselves that Jackie Chan is hiding out in the woods somewhere going full-Rambo. It's that kind of strange movie really, it doesn't always come together and it sometimes feels like it needs a kick up the arse, but its not a waste of time by any stretch and is nowhere near as offensive as 'imagine Jackie Chan taking on the IRA' sounds.

The only niggling thing about the anachronism left over from Leather's novel is that Chan's character is repeatedly referred to by the eponymous description of 'The Chinaman' throughout, so it's rather surprising that the film chooses to call itself The Foreigner instead - something that no one says at all. I get that it's more PC, but the title does sort of comes out of nowhere. Surely another title altogether would have been better?