Monday, 15 October 2018

The Comfort of Strangers (1990)

The Comfort of Strangers plays out rather like an art-house version of the then-popular mainstream Hollywood (erotic) thriller sub-genre of the yuppies-in-peril, except it isn’t altogether clear to audiences just what peril our yuppie couple are facing, so abstract and shadowy is its approach. We know that Robert is a wrong ‘un (of course he is, he’s played by Christopher Freakin’ Walken!) and we know that he possesses an unsettling interest in Colin and Mary long before they do, as Schrader allows us to glimpse him in the distance surreptitiously following them down the cloistered shadowy backstreets of Venice. That Schrader chooses to set the film in Venice (McEwan’s novel hints at this setting but doesn’t ever stipulate) means we have echoes here of Don’t Look Now, and the half-glimpsed figure of the menacing Walken is as elusive and distinctive in his white suit as the dwarf in her bright red coat. Shot beautifully by Dante Spinotti, the strange and feverish, dreamlike Gothic atmosphere of the city and Pinter’s screenplay makes The Comfort of Strangers the ideal companion piece to Roeg’s earlier film.

Read my full review at The Geek Show.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Batman (1989)

Is there a greater pain for a kid to be too young to see a film at the cinema?That was the predicament for me in the summer of 1989 when, at ten years old, I was too young to go to the cinema to see the 15 rated Batman. So, until it was released on VHS rental, I had to experience the film vicariously instead. Thankfully because Batman was the summer blockbuster that year, I had plenty of opportunity to do just that; thanks to toys, comic books and sticker/trading cards. My mum worked at the local shop/off licence at the time and me and my friends would forever be going back and forth there, buying the crappy Batman bubblegum just to get a hold of those stickers/cards. I learnt what the word 'sabotage' meant from them - it accompanied a photo of the Batmobile racing through The Joker's lair leaving explosions in its wake. Whenever I come across the word now, I still think of that. 

Now, Tim Burton films aren't really my bag but Batman is the exception that proves the rule. Burton wasn't/isn't actually a superhero comic book nerd but despite, or perhaps because of that, he creates arguably the finest Batman movie. His  sensibilities perfectly match and compliment Bob Kane's creation; the skewed Gothic landscape of Gotham City, those jutting architectural monstrosities that pierce the sky whilst garbage (both in litter and human form) line the streets below is reminiscent of Ivan Reitman's equally Gothic depiction of New York  in 1984's Ghostbusters, shaping my view of that city. Even better, Burton understands Batman because he is an auteur who is all about the lonely outsider figure - and you can't get much lonelier than Bruce Wayne or much more of an outsider than his alter ago, Batman.

It's a popular held belief that mainstream movies from Hollywood in the 1980s were aspirational, selling the capitalist dream, but I don't think that's strictly true. Not every movie from this period was a glossy, America Fuck Yeah(!) recruitment advert for the US military (Top Gun) or misappropriated by the very people they were attacking (Wall Street). The more 80s movies I've revisited in this project the more I see how preoccupied they were with class, something America as a society claims they have no issue with, and the failings of the American Dream. John Hughes in particular was renowned for addressing how distinctly less green the grass actually was on the other side of the fence, with just as many dissatisfied and sensitive kids from the right side of the tracks struggling with the family they were born into (Cameron in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) as those on the wrong side (Bender in The Breakfast Club). As a character, the billionaire Bruce Wayne, a man who can buy anything he desires ("Where does he get those wonderful toys?") and resides in a mansion so large some rooms are unknown to him ("You know, to tell you the truth, I don't think I've ever been in this room before") could come off as twattish as any of Hughes' yuppie villains (James Spader's sleazy Steff in Pretty in Pink or Craig Sheffer's equally obnoxious Hardy in Some Kind of Wonderful) but Burton and his star Michael Keaton manage to avoid this pitfall in a way that is not too dissimilar to how Hughes conveyed Ferris Bueller - they make him charming. This is a Bruce Wayne who is such an outsider that he is capable of attending his own party without being recognised. Compare this to Christopher Nolan's subsequent approach to the character where the party is only a party when a seemingly drunken Bruce Wayne deigns to show up, accompanied by leggy models on each arm. Nolan's Wayne may only be playacting to distance himself from his crime-fighting alter ego  (much like the aristocrat Sir Percy Blakeney would play the fop to distract attention from his heroic alias, The Scarlet Pimpernel) but his behaviour is obnoxious as anything Hughes could come up with, enabling the belief that you can behave however you please providing you have enough money and pull. In contrast, Burton understands that money cannot buy Wayne's happiness and certainly not when you consider his fortune came with a price he didn't ever want to pay - the murder of his parents. Bruce Wayne may have reached the top of the capitalist society and achieved the American Dream, but all he wants to use his wealth for is to fight injustice, not just for the parents he could not save, but to make Gotham a better place for those less privileged than him too. In short, Burton's Bruce Wayne is eccentric, reclusive, grieving and totally at odds with the outside world. Sound familiar? He's Edward Scissorhands. This is why Batman is such a perfect Tim Burton character, it's also why Burton totally understands that the only Batman story worth telling is why Bruce Wayne is Batman. Anything else is ultimately just a generic superhero adventure. 

It's perhaps why Burton identified that generic failing that his follow up, Batman Returns faltered and why he subsequently left the franchise to Joel Schumacher who ultimately made it as camp and cartoonish as the Adam West series had been. As a response, Nolan's later films took great pains to convince us that they weren't just 'generic superhero adventures'. Seemingly embarrassed by the immaturity inherent in such a genre, Nolan created instead parables on how America have dealt and continue to deal with the war on terror. They became political, gritty and 'real' which, ironically, only served to highlight the silliness Nolan wished to avoid - just how gritty and real and serious can your movie be when your character is running around in tights and a mask? Burton manages to walk the line in a far more satisfying manner, acknowledging the goofy premise but ratcheting up the chills by creating a stylised world for his characters. In the wake of the box office success Nolan's films achieved, superhero movies have become darker and more action-packed and totally missing the nuance that Burton hit upon almost thirty years ago. Hollywood may now be flooded with tentpole movies featuring every single Marvel character you can think of but really, is there anything they offered that has been more singularly and knowingly enjoyable and original than Jack Nicholson's Joker throwing shapes to Prince whilst 'improving the paintings' in The Flugelheim Museum?

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Death Wish II (1982)

Michael fucking Winner. A repulsive tyrant of a man who couldn't direct traffic, he reached his nadir (or found his level, depending on which way you look at it) with the Death Wish movies - films that allowed his tacky impulses and base crude desires to run wild.

The original 1974 movie Death Wish was based on the novel of the same name written by Brian Garfield some two years earlier. Garfield's inspiration came from his own brushes with crime; his wife's purse being stolen and his car vandalised. On each occasion, Garfield's immediate response was a desire to kill those responsible, but he quickly brushed such thoughts aside as the primitive impulses they clearly were and decided to write instead about a man who not only succumbs to those initial thoughts and impulses but who finds he's unable to escape them once he's exacted his revenge. The novel was released to favourable reviews but was not a bestseller. Despite this, film producers Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts showed an interest and purchased the rights for a big screen adaptation. Their original plan was for Sidney Lumet to direct and Jack Lemmon to star as the vigilante, with Henry Fonda co-starring as the detective on his trail. 

Let's just pause for a moment to think how brilliant that would have been. 

But it was not to be. Lumet chose to direct Serpico instead and the project went to Winner, who immediately cast Charles Bronson. The veteran tough guy thought he was miscast, suggesting instead a "weaker kind of man...(like) Dustin Hoffman" (presumably he must have just seen Straw Dogs?), but was drawn to the premise of the film because he too admitted to a secret desire for vigilantism. It proved to be a massive boost to his career and, thanks to the sequels, kept him in work for much of the 1980s despite really being, in the words of 80s hero Roger Murtagh, 'too old for this shit'.

Garfield himself was appalled by Winner's take on his story, arguing that it advocated violence rather than condemned it. "They made a hero out of him. I thought I'd shown that he'd become a very sick man" he said, immediately penning a follow-up novel entitled Death Sentence to repent for the sins of the film adaptation. A loose adaptation of that novel would eventually see the light of day in 2007 with Kevin Bacon in the lead. But it was in 1982 that Death Wish got its first official sequel, thanks to the persistence of Hollywood's most outspoken outsiders, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon Films, who were hungry to capitalise on the market potential of a movie franchise.

The story is pretty much a retread of the original film. Now residing in LA, architect Paul Kersey decides to dole out his own brand of hard justice once again following the rape and murder of both his housekeeper and his daughter, the latter of whom was still catatonic from the rape she endured in the first film. So we get a wide-eyed, mute Robin Sherwood staring directly to the voyeuristic camera whilst she is gang-raped in unflinching detail. Cheery stuff hmm?

Winner, who sickeningly proclaimed "rape doesn't date!" when promoting the production, immediately fell foul of the British Board of Film Classification thanks to the unsettling voyeuristic and salacious male fantasy tone he brought to the the two rape scenes. The BBFC censor edited James Firman described the film as being "about as irresponsible a filmmaker could be about the treatment of rape for purely commercial ends. This director is simply trying to stir up as much controversy as possible because he's in desperate need of a hit". Four minutes were subsequently edited from the film for its release in the UK and this edited version is still the only one available in the UK (though the previously censored rape of the daughter is shown in the Cannon Films documentary Electric Boogaloo to highlight the film's trouble with the BBFC. It is, as you would expect, sickening; the film's original screenwriter and Cannon scribe David Engelbach described, in the same documentary, Winner's directorial choices when approaching rape as simply there to "to get his rocks off. The script did not need it" Needless to say Winner had heavily revised Engelbach's screenplay prior to the commencement of shooting). It's interesting to compare how censorship differs in the US and the UK; here censors are more mindful of violence whereas in the US, the MPAA get the scissors out for sex. However, in regards to this film, they clearly found sexual violence less of a problem than they might have done with consensual sex. I find that quite disturbing really.

Repugnant, exploitative, sleazy and grubby, Death Wish II no doubt achieved everything Cannon and Winner wanted. After all, neither producers or director ever seemed to aim for greatness, preferring instead publicity, notoriety and money.  The offensiveness doesn't just stop at the premise and the action on display either; the screenplay never once gives any attention, insight or motivation to Bronson's character, which means there's a huge void at the core of the film. This lifelessness carries over into Bronson's lethargic acting style and Winner's sleepwalking direction, which only ever comes alive when some poor actress is made to strip before the camera ahead of being brutalised. Perhaps tellingly, Winner never once shoots his leading lady, Jill Ireland, in the nude - why? Because Ireland was Mrs Charles Bronson and he'd have clearly done some violence for real if Winner ever suggested she disrobe in such a distasteful, disturbing scenario.

Oh and let's add something else to the litany of unsavoury things Winner was - lazy. Isaac Hayes was recommended for the score to this film but Winner chose instead Led Zep legend Jimmy Page. Why? Because Page lived next door to Winner. Page's score was subsequently nominated for a Razzie, but let's face it the whole stinking film deserved to be put in the incinerator.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Malicious (1995)

Malicious is story of a college student whose long term girlfriend won't put out in the public library. Annoyed, he decides to fuck the next woman he talks to (in her open top convertible, in a rainstorm, on a baseball field - don't you love the 90s?) A little while later (and another fuck later, this time on a boat - 90s!) the girlfriend decides she should put out in the library after all, and the guy realises what a mistake he made fucking the other girl. Unfortunately, the other girl isn't the type to accept she was just a piece of disposable ass to him (what is she, one of those feminists or something?) and decides to get revenge in your standard bunny boiler way of killing a household pet, attempting to murder his mother, framing him for assault, to name just a few. And to think, none of it would have happened if his gf would have just put out in the first place. Tsk, wimmin huh?

I guess the moral of the story is in two parts; the first is there are two types of women in life, the frigid sweetheart and the hot psycho, and the second is it's so hard being a man and having a cock and stuff. Boo hoo hoo.

By rights I really should hate this kind of offensively sexist Fatal Attraction knock off  but I enjoyed every cheap and tacky 1990s TV movie moment of it, thanks in no small part to the genius casting of former John Hughes princess Molly Ringwald as the woman scorned. 

Ringwald is clearly relishing the opportunity to play a role that is hot temptress one minute and deranged villainess the next. You can see why she signed on for it, affording her the chance to step away from the teen movies that made her name - a move that is best exemplified by her decision to go topless in one of the film's sex scenes (a gorgeous sight to behold I might add) - but the sad truth is that she outshines everyone else on screen, barring perhaps John Vernon in a very small (though nonetheless second billed) role. The weak goatee'd Patrick McGaw is the weak willed man and is so dreadfully wooden, he makes Keanu Reeves look like Olivier, whilst Sarah Lassez has the thankless role of his virginal girlfriend.

It's not just the poor acting and the sexist nature of the storyline that stick in my craw about Malicious, there's also the way in which it uses child abuse as the reason why Ringwald's character is the way she is. Despite the revelation that her father abused her, the film refuses to offer a shred of sympathy for her character, because sympathy is of course solely reserved for the man who thinks with his prick and treats women like shit.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell To Earth

I'll keep it brief, I loved it! 

"Swiss Army with added Sheffield Steel!"

Jodie is wonderful in the role (of course) there's great chemistry between her and her 'gang', and there's no weak links to be found. It was a funny and dramatic, deeply atmospheric story with great heart (much more so than the cringeworthy attempts at mature emotion that RTD or the Moff could often give us) and a gruesome bad guy. But best of all, there were clear line deliveries, crisp sound design and beautiful, subtle music - great reworking of the theme tune too!

RIP Ray Galton

Very sad to hear that legendary comic scriptwriter Ray Galton has died at the age of 88.

Surrey born Galton was working as a clerk for the TGWU when, at sixteen, he knew something was seriously wrong with him. He was 6ft 4in but weighed only nine stone and suffered from a bad cough, sweats and little energy. Diagnosed with TB, he was packed off to a sanatorium in Milford, near Godalming where his future in comedy was set thanks to a chance meeting with fellow patient, Alan Simpson (who sadly also passed away last year at the age of 87). 

Working together, the pair's first great success was writing for Tony Hancock; between 1954 and 1961 they wrote some 150 scripts for the comedian and secured his status as the nation's favourite comedian. When Hancock decided he wanted to go it alone, Galton and Simpson devised a one-off Comedy Playhouse about a warring father and son rag and bone team. Their script, entitled The Offer, went on to become Steptoe and Son, a long-running BBC series that stands to this day as one of the finest sitcoms.

Away from Simpson, Galton worked with Johnny Speight on the police comedy Spooner's Patch, and with John Antrobus on Room at the Bottom and Get Well Soon, the latter a sanatorium-set sitcom inspired by Galton and Simpson's initial encounter.


Saturday, 6 October 2018

Out On Blue Six: Freddie Mercury & Montserrat Caballé

Sad to hear of the death of Montserrat Caballé today. This was a barnstormer of my youth, prepare to have your hairs stand up on end...


End Transmission

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Fame (1980)

Fame is a bit like Saturday Night Fever in that the collective consciousness seems to be labouring under a misapprehension as to what kind of film it is. Like Travolta's disco classic, Fame is wrongly considered to be a glitzy piece of music and dance - cinematic fluff from the tail end of the 20th century. Mention Fame to most people and they'll probably explain it via Irene Cara's hit of the same name which features the euphoric, we-can-do-anything lyric "I'm gonna live forever, I'm gonna learn how to fly - high!". To these people, Fame is a musical; precocious students with impromptu dances during their lunch hour. All jazz hands, sweat bands and lycra. 

But whilst Fame certainly is that (and the subsequent TV spin-off series was almost exclusively that), as a film it is also something a whole lot more. Something darker, more downbeat and ultimately more real. Abortion, poverty, racial inequality, homosexuality, suicide, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic strife and a harrowing '#MeToo' moment (for the aforementioned Cara's character)  all feature in Fame. When you take all that into consideration, it's not exactly High School Musical is it? 

It is this contradiction of grit and glamour that is there for all to see in the film's tagline; "Fame is the glamour of the Great White Way of Broadway and the squalor of 42nd Street" and, Directed by Alan Parker, Fame captures the oft unspoken truth of the pursuit of a career in the performing arts. The central message of Cara's theme song, which features such an exuberant outdoor dance sequence that literally stops traffic, may be about living forever through their success, but the film's actual narrative does little to suggest that such immortality and adulation is waiting in the wings for any of them. The old adage that school is the best years of your life seems to be incredibly apt for our youthful protagonists as the innocence of their dreams are resolutely lost by the time the credits roll. As talented as they may be, the chances are they'll most likely be waiting tables once they graduate, as evinced by the fate of the former school golden boy Michael (Boyd Gaines). 'Remember my name' the lyric may well implore, but the truth is, they'll be lucky if they remember to tip. In keeping with its surprisingly gritty flavour, it offers no consolations or solutions for any of its characters. All they have, as the film pointedly and poignantly ends with them performing together on stage for one last time, is their shared experience and their bond.

Fame is an episodic and occasionally frenetic, Altmanesque snapshot of life for the students at the school, from nervous auditions through to their senior year and graduation. It boasts some excellent performances that show a real change occurring within each character (specifically Maureen Teefy's Doris and Ralph played by Fever's Barry Miller who seem to grow before our very eyes) and a unique perspective on American culture from Englishman in New York, Parker. Whilst it's arguably a little overlong at two hours ten minutes, its place in popular culture is assured, if a little mistaken by audiences.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Out On Blue Six: Charles Aznavour, RIP

I'm also sorry to hear today that the legendary Gallic singer Charles Aznavour has died at the age of 94.

The French Sinatra was the son of Armenian immigrants and grew up in poverty. Nevertheless he went on to use his incredible talent to break out of such deprivation and sell more than 180 million records and star in over 60 movies.

My father has always been a bit of a fan, this - arguably Aznavour's most famous hit - being a personal favourite


End Transmission

RIP Geoffrey Hayes

September was a pretty bad time for celebrity deaths and I'm sorry to report that October has started in much the same manner with the news that Geoffrey Hayes has passed away at the age of 76.

It's somehow always that little bit sadder and more affecting when the celebrity death is a part of your childhood. I guess it's like a reminder that your own childhood is now so very long ago.

Geoffrey Hayes was known to millions as 'Geoffrey from Rainbow' having presented the childrens favourite for eighteen years from 1974 to 1992, sharing his house with Zippy, Bungle and George and playing host to musical trio Rod, Jane and Freddy. 

What isn't perhaps widely known however is that prior to Rainbow, the Stockport born Hayes was a serious actor, playing DC Scatliff in long-running BBC police drama Z Cars. When Rainbow was axed after a 1,000 episodes, Hayes admitted he found work hard to come by as, "directors could only think of me as Rainbow's Geoffrey". Indeed I recall him saying that when the show that made him a household name and a favourite uncle for children everywhere came to a close he immediately sought work on The Bill, because other than Rainbow, he'd played a detective in Z Cars and that was what he knew. The thought that he could appear in The Bill was a naive one, but it perhaps sums up the man really; a sweet innocent who couldn't comprehend how TV had moved on whilst he was doing a wonderful job entertaining children. Work was hard to come by and he became a supermarket shelf stacker and minicab driver. What entertainment work he did find included public appearances, panto, and guest appearances on game shows like Never Mind the Buzzcocks in 2002 (opposite Coolio!) and most recently, in 2015, Pointless Celebrities

He died in hospital and leaves a wife and son.