Wet Wet Wet

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Recently, Britain has been in the grips of a not-entirely-unpleasant heatwave and I’ve been in the grips of a new job replete with a 5 hour daily commute, meaning that by the end of the day I find myself tired, hot and way too far from the coastline to cool down in the most acceptable manner (I’m told, by staff, that hurling yourself into the Sainsbury’s mixed veg chest freezer is now considered unacceptable). So this week, I’ve been cooling down before bed by watching films from the 60s and 70s set in bodies of water.

ORCA (1977)

Orca might be one of the most misunderstood films in cinema history. As a kid, I remember seeing the video box art with a massive, furious killer whale, mid-air against an angry red sky, bursting through a boat while tiny men with spears try to destroy it. It was kind of sold as a horror film and was quickly assigned to eternity as one of the endless schlocky rip-offs that came in the mighty wake of Jaws. It didn’t even garner the cult approval of Joe Dante’s Piranha, now rightly considered the best of that bunch. Orca just kind of vanished. I saw it as a kid and didn’t understand it. To me, then, it was clearly a Jaws rip off but with no action, just a lot of sitting about, talking. As an adult, watching it again years later, I can see how this film slipped through the cracks. To an audience wanting a schlocky Jaws rip-off, there’s not much here for them. It’s an intelligent, nuanced, melancholic film. Fans of more literate cinema, who really might appreciate it were unlikely to see a film marketed as it was – the original title ‘Orca The Killer Whale!’ had an exclamation mark in it. No highbrow audience will tolerate an exclamation mark in their titles.

So, the story: Richard Harris plays Nolan, an Irish fisherman working the coast of Newfoundland. He gets his first glimpse of a killer whale when he sees one saving a diver from a shark attack and he becomes intrigued. Always after a challenge and a profit, he decides to trap one to sell on to captivity in an amusement park. Despite the protestations of Charlotte Rampling as a marine academic who he gathers his information from, he sets out on his mission. The mission immediately goes wrong and, although I assert this film is not a horror film, the story catalyst comes from a scene which is horrific not through fear or gore but sheer awfulness of event. Aiming to get his prey with a harpoon with which to reel him in, Nolan manages only to clip the beast’s fin but fatally wound his mate. The stuck female Orca tries to kill herself on the ship’s propeller before Nolan can pull her on to the boat to try to help her. As he reels her in, hanging from the crane, she gives birth to a stillborn. The scene is one of great distress and emotion to everyone – Nolan is distraught, his crew are traumatised, the female whale screams throughout and, in the water, watching helplessly, is her partner.

The notion of a killer whale ‘out for revenge’ sounds like the province of the very worst of the b-movies. Indeed, the only other film to even broach such subject matter was the risible Jaws The Revenge, but the first act of Orca sets up the intelligence and empathy of the species really well, not just through Rampling’s expositional dialogue but through extended glorious footage of the orcas interacting in the wild. So well established is the intelligence of the creature that what follows is a work of careful building tension and drama rather than a plot which sounds far hokier than it is. The creature wants revenge. It has seen Nolan, it knows who he is and it knows how to get him. The whale sets a scheme in place to alienate Nolan from the small coastal town he takes refuge in, he challenges him and when Nolan refuses to take the bait, the orca goes after his crew until Nolan has no choice but to square off against the beast.

The narrative owes more to some kind of Japanese samurai film. It is brutal but mired in actions of respect, duty and dishonour. It kind of feels like a Western too. A High Noon feeling of an inevitable showdown pervades. There’s even a bizarre Herzog-Kinski quality to the piece with Richard Harris slowly succumbing to madness against an alien landscape. The quality of this film is high. Harris is on top form. Rampling could have been given a bit more to do but she brings gravitas and dignity to the film. Character actor Will Sampson makes one of his rare screen appearances here, best known as the Chief from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest but, always in my heart, Taylor from the rarely-credited-as-amazing Poltergeist 2. It’s directed by Michael Anderson who gave us Logan’s Run and The Dam Busters. He also made the worth-a-look oddball sci-fi Millenium.

The only downside in Orca are the few hokey moments, all of which being the few deaths in the film. In a narrative sense, it makes perfect sense that these deaths should happen and in the manner which they do happen but even Anderson’s skilled hand struggle to save them from a slight b-movie monster glaze. That said, they really don’t characterize the film and it’s a film that is truly worth seeing. It has aged very well, it’s a smart film which is both reflective and driven. A tight drama but also a great seabound adventure. I think the thing that surprised me the most is how successfully it gave the whale a personality and story arc. In Jaws, the shark is just an obstacle. Orca is a character.

THE DEEP (1977)

I can only imagine the bewildered disappointment that must have hung over cinema audiences as they trudged home after having watched this film. Released two years after Jaws, it was clearly put together to snare that same audience which had broken box office records. Also based on a sea-based novel by Peter Benchley, also starring Robert Shaw in the barnacled, bare-knuckled hard-ass role and also sold by a poster of a buxom young swimmer in peril, one could be forgiven for expecting something in a Jaws-y vein. But no. The Deep is a Bermuda-set thriller about treasure hunters and drug dealers.

Jacqueline Bisset and a remarkably young Nick Nolte play a couple holidaying in Bermuda and doing a bit of scuba diving. They find a submerged shipwreck and recover a medallion and a strange vial of liquid. They’ve uncovered a double shipwreck – one containing historical Spanish treasure, the other, more modern, filled with a highly valuable cargo of drugs. Robert Shaw plays the local lighthouse keeper and treasure hunter who identifies the former, Louis Gossett plays the Haitian crime boss who will do anything to get the latter.

Directed by Peter Yates, a solid journeyman director, this is a perfectly watchable but instantly forgettable thriller. John Barry’s score lifts it somewhat, the underwater photography is admirable and it contains a whopping slugfest of a battle between Shaw and Gosset’s sidekicks which should be noted as one of the great screen punch-ups of all-time. All this aside, The Deep only barely makes it out of the bracket of TV movie in its lack of ambition, fairly mundane story and the inability of Bisset and Nolte to really make the film come alive. Shaw and Gossett give the whole thing buoyancy and keep it watchable but this is one of those films which quickly sank from public consciousness and is barely worth a snorkel to explore.

JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL (1973)

Once in a while, you see a film and walk away from it unsure if it was brilliant or utter dross. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is very much one of those films. Based on the best-selling novella by Richard Bach, it tells the story of a seagull ostracized by his flock for daring to push the limits of speed. The film was critically piledrivered into the ground upon its release with Roger Ebert walking out at the 45 minute mark and declaring it banal and garbage.

This somewhat surprises me as Ebert was always a very fair reviewer and I think there is a case to be fought for this film to be seen. Primarily on a visual level. This is a gorgeously photographed film. Cinematographer Jack Couffer was deservedly Oscar nominated for his work in this piece and it really is exceptional. It’s rare to see live-action nature footage shot for beauty and specifically to tell a fictional story rather than as documentary. The editor was also nominated for an Academy Award, also deservedly, for crafting this collection of stunning single shots into a coherent narrative. The cinematography and Editing alone are sublime. This puts the film in a pretty unique bracket.

Unfortunately, these factors are balanced out by some pretty uniquely terrible ideas too. The seagulls inner monologues are constantly presented by a variety of hammy actors. This renders it a little like an airborne episode of Peep Show, drained of all cynicism and world-weariness. The second mistake is the melodramatic and frequently tedious song-score by Neil Diamond which adds a surreal waft of cheddar to the whole affair. The real problem here is neither of these choices but, simply, the running time. What could have been an enchanting 30 minute filmed parable turns into almost two hours of self-obsessed seagull prattle and stadium ballads. I would imagine there was cocaine.

All that said, I can’t bring myself to slam the film. I liked it. It was interesting, it was unique, bold and absolutely stunning to look at. I think it would be incredible on a cinema screen with a live score by pretty much anyone but Neil Diamond.

THE SWIMMER (1968)

The Swimmer is a strange but mesmerising film which manages to keep you on the back foot from beginning to end without ever feeling like a J J Abrams web of twists, shocks and revelations. It’s as charismatic and enigmatic as the character the plot hangs on, a Connecticut businessman called Ned Merrill who, on turning up unexpected at the house of some old friends, decides to swim home through the network of friends’ pools that span the valley.

He’s a strong, lithe go-getter in his mid-fifties yet there is clearly something going on behind his eyes that imbue his folly with a little darkness. The nature of the journey breaks the narrative down into bite-sized, utterly compelling and unique little episodes. In each one, we learn a little bit more about who Ned is and he learns a little bit more about himself. Ex-lovers, ex-colleagues, old friends, people he’s wronged, people who have wronged him, some pleased to see him, some furious at his appearance.

Between the pools, Ned traverses the landscape, the wilderness. Paths, forests, fields, all terrains. The director, Frank Perry resists the oncoming cinematic trend for psychedelia yet uses a keen experimental edge between episodes to show us Ned’s internal state. Sometimes reflective, sometimes deluded. Little montages that fit perfectly those moments when Ned is alone and processing the things he is learning.

It stands somewhat alone in terms of genre. I suppose the closest fit to it would be The Graduate which, to some extent shares this breaking-down of the psyche of America’s materially wealthy but spiritually empty but whereas Benjamin Braddock was navigating his way out of his parents’ facile world, Merrill is very much the architect of his own isolation.

The performance is a great one. Over the journey, we see every side of this man, from many angles, many perspectives. Most film characters are flat stereotypes – we know if we should love them or hate them. This character is a lot more true, a lot more complex and human and by the end of the film, in many ways, he remains a mystery, even if his story has been satisfactorily told.

I just think this is a great film. Beautifully, thoughtfully, directed, an incredible central performance, a unique way of telling a story, something to say for itself, tightly structured and perfectly crafted.

Beyond The Mouse.

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When people talk about Disney movies, they’re usually referring to a pretty clearly defined golden age that ran between the release of Snow White in 1937 and Sleeping Beauty in ’59. The era of feature-length animated classics. There was the odd one produced here and there in the next three decdes – The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, my personal favourite The Fox and The Hound – but, generally, the period spanning the 60s right through to the 90s, when the studio underwent a renaissance kicking off with Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, is considered a fairly barren one for the studio.

Barren of enduring animated classics, perhaps, but the studio was never less than prodigious in its output. Although they continued to produce animated films, they seemed to opt to turn a faster buck in live action. Bizarrely, for such an iconic studio, very few of this vast catalogue of releases are considered anything even close to resembling a classic. The reason for this is, simply, that the quality threshold on these films was generally pretty low. Stories have emerged from filmmakers that there was a heavy executive hand at play in the post-production of these films and generally they emerged not representing anyone’s vision or best hope for what the finished product might have been. There are some interesting artifacts from this era – both Jodie Foster and Kurt Russell owe their film acting breaks to the studio at this time. Creepily, the last thing Walt Disney did before he dropped dead was write ‘KURT RUSSELL’ on a piece of paper. Nobody knows why he did that. There are even some oddly wonderful films – The Black Hole, a strangely boring yet fascinating sci-fi flick that seemed keen to cash in on the success but not the charm of Star Wars. Condorman, which managed to throw away both a great superhero concept and the undeniable appeal of Michael Crawford. There are some legitimately brilliant films – Tron was a Disney film, as was the fantastic, yet seldom remembered, The Rocketeer. Mainly, however, this era is characterised by saccharine sunshiney films of innocent youths in polyester getting up to hijinks in their summer holidays. Most of these films were pretty disposable and bear little regard (I’ve always been far more enchanted by the grittier, far less polished UK versions of such fare which were produced by the Children’s Film Foundation and are currently being archived on DVD by the BFI). There’s a few that are worth a look, though…

THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980)

The Watcher in The Woods has a very special place in my heart as it was the very first horror film I ever saw. Yes, it’s a Disney horror film and, impressively, it manages to be creepy, haunting and even has a couple of great jumps, all under the auspices of a PG rating. Of course, horror was a different affair back then and this has all of those wonderful tropes you don’t see so much of now – creepy kids writing words backwards and being a bit possessed, big scary imposing buildings, suggestions of significant past events that nobody wants to talk about, windows breaking, visions of young blindfolded girls in mirrors, point-of-view shots from unseen entities gliding through the creepy forest. It still retains a pretty effective atmosphere. It stars Bette Davis as the creepy old woman who owns the house, deep in the British countryside that a predictably annoying American family have decided to rent for a summer. Quickly, the arrival of the daughters seems to whip up a flurry of unexplainable creepy occurrences. It transpires that, 30 years previously, during a strange initiation ceremony with her group of friends, Davis’ young daughter died in a fire in the chapel. No body was ever found. Oldest daughter Jen takes it upon herself to not only work out what actually happened that night but to see if things might be put right. The tension builds nicely and the young cast are supported by a fantastic bevy of seasoned older actors. The ending is anything but predictable and, bizarrely, it turns out that three completely different endings were actually shot for this film. The most conservative one is the one which made the cut but the alternatives are worth a squizz on sheer weirdness alone. I guess what most impresses me, to this day, is the notion that you can make an effective horror film with a PG rating. That real fear and menace doesn’t necessarily come from gore or images of torture or depravity.

The film was directed by John Hough, an established director from the Hammer stable who spent a career genre-hopping, notably he also directed the pulpy Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and the should-have-been-good lost 80s big screen Biggles misfire.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY (1963):

The Incredible Journey is a strange little film. There’s a fine tradition of animals being front and centre of kids films but it’s a rarity that they be real animals and there not be a human counterpart hogging their screentime. It does what it says on the tin insofar as telling a story of three housepets – a bull terrier, a labrador and a siamese cat – who, being looked after by a kindly bachelor, whilst their family are away (visiting Oxford, no less!), decide to set out for home. Home is 250 miles away across the wilderness of Northern Canada. The film is narrated, in that deep yet chipper Orson Welles kind of a way, throughout and the furry trio certainly cross paths with the occasional human being but this is very much their film. Despite being a scripted, narrative piece (based on a novel) it has the feel of those fantastic old nature documentaries that cropped up on TV as filler in the summer holidays. I have a minor obsession with a Canadian filmmaker called Bill Mason who produced a slew of them, most beautifully a narrative piece called Paddle To The Sea (you can watch that here: http://www.nfb.ca/film/paddle_to_the_sea/) – and this fits right into that genre. Part narrative but also, somehow, part documentary in that it documents a landscape, a time and animals doing what animals will do. I try not to dwell on how they achieved certain performances from their animal cast. The dogs, for the most part, seem to be having a riot, dancing through the wilderness. The cat, however, does seem to have drawn the short straw, spending a lot of the film in various scrapes including getting chased by a lynx (it’s ok, the lynx gets shot in the face by a heavily armed 7 year old boy), spending a long time in a dangerously fast flowing river (even the labrador looks traumatised by his time in there), having a fight with a massive brown bear and generally being asked to endure rainy and snowy conditions.

It’s a great film, it’s by no means a classic but it’s a lovely time capsule of a landscape and culture presumably erased and an era in kids films which was more about letting the kids explore the wonder of nature than having animated animals talking like surfer dudes. Disney did, in fact, remake the film in the early 90s and, of course, felt the need to give the animals voices this time round. As much as I love Michael J. Fox, Sally Field and the late great Don Ameche, I can’t see their voices bringing any more charm to the film than the original had in spades already.

POPEYE (1980):

There are some films that it amazes me people don’t discuss regularly. Popeye is one of them. On paper, it is perhaps the strangest cinematic venture ever to have emerged. As a character, I think Popeye has now been lost to the past. He is one of the classic cartoons which just hasn’t transferred to the current generation. He was still a big icon when I was a kid and they were still trying to modernise him up to the 90s when there was some terrible Popeye & Son cartoon on TV. This film was probably the last nail in the coffin, but what a way to go! It should be immediately established that this is not a good film, but it is a fascinating film and, I’d say, for several reasons, still very much worth seeing.

It was directed by Robert Altman. Altman, who died fairly recently, was generally considered an auteur and a guiding light in American cinema. MASH, Nashville, Pret-A-Porter, Short Cuts, The Player, Gosford Park, his films were ensemble pieces that seemed to examine the American condition. I would love to know what drew him to Popeye. Popeye was a bold big-budget comic book adaptation. It’s hard to target exactly why the film doesn’t work but my feeling is something to do with the central performances. It was well cast with Robin Williams in his first big-screen role, supported by Shelly Duvall, clearly grateful to be freshly released from the Overlook Hotel and a bunch of seasoned character actors. Yet, there’s something strange about the dialogue and delivery. Our hero mutters. He only mutters. Even when he takes centre stage and sings – for this is a musical – he kind of half-sings at half-volume. Because he only mutters and that muttering feels improvised, he never really feels like a main character. The same goes for Olive Oyl, she doesn’t mutter so much as fuss and coo but, again, it feels like she improvises this fussing and cooing rather than has any real dialogue. Every other part is the same. The dialogue actually all feels like it was dubbed on later, as if it were a foreign film but… muttered. The effect this all has is that it feels like you’re always watching what’s going on with the extras in the background and that the camera has somehow missed the actual main cast who are presumably having a wonderful romp somewhere just off-screen.

This means the notion of story evaporates fast and we’re left with a kind of exercise in tone, which is actually quite compelling. The set design on this film is magnificent. The whole port town of Sweethaven was constructed by the sea in Malta and it’s a sight to behold. It retains a heavy comic book aesthetic whilst resisting the urge to push into a garish palate. The stuntwork is exceptional, there’s an air of the Jackie Chan to this film where stuntmen have been given the chance to prove what they can do comically for once and offer some truly impressive physical schtick. And, again, it’s a musical. Bizarrely, the songs were written by heavy drinking ‘Everybody’s Talkin” legend Harry Nilsson. The music bears no resemblance to anything else in his entire body of work and… it’s not really all that good… but… it’s a live action Nilsson musical of Popeye directed by Robert Altman. Produced by Robert Evans, too! How is that not worth seeing?

Altman integrates many cartoony elements – especially in the action and dancing scenes, the characters are not bound by usual live action laws of physics. This element is interesting and almost works but has recently been eclipsed by the rather spiffing live action Asterix films coming out of France, which have used CGI in a very clever and sparing way to enhance the cartoony science of that world. Ultimately, this is not a great film, but like most of Disney’s live action offerings… it’s interesting. It’s worth a look.

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983):

I guess in 1983, we were too tied up in Return of The Jedi, Octopussy and Superman 3 to notice what Disney had to offer us. Of all the live action Disney output, this is perhaps the most curious and almost certainly the most worthy of reappraisal. Adapted by Ray Bradbury from his own novel, this film tells a story of unrelenting darkness. Even though the main protagonists are two young boys, I struggle to see how this film could ever claim to be for kids. When I talk about unrelenting darkness, I mean darkness in all of it’s forms; evil, intensity, fear, crushing melancholy. From the uneasy opening through to the resolution, this film is almost oppresively bleak. It’s also beautiful. Truly beautiful. Lyrical, poetic and thoughtful.

Set in America’s Midwest right around the time of the depression, this is a Norman Rockwell world at Halloween. Autumn, pumpkin fields, lightening rod salesmen, amputee barmen, big bearded barbers, down at heel cigar store owners. A small town filled with people hiding behind their own smiles. Perhaps the only people with their eyes truly open in the town are young best friends Will & Jim. Excited by the midnight arrival of Mr Dark’s Panemonium Carnival, the boys stumble across something sinister in the fairground and watch helplessly as the town is subjected to a reign of supernatural brutality at the hands of Mr Dark.

If anything, this film evokes the brooding creepiness of Night of The Hunter, where a charismatic central antagonist pursues the young heroes relentlessly through the American heartland. It’s a strange, upsetting film with moments of genuine pathos and something strong to say on the subjects of fatherhood, regret and the power of libraries. It features outstanding performances from the bottom to the top. Jonathan Pryce is wide-eyed and menacing as the tattooed Mr Dark. Jason Robards proves his screen acting mettle. Pam Grier makes an impressive genre leap to portray the powerful and seductive witch. The character actor supporting class each get their moments to shine. James Horner’s score is worth the price alone. I can’t help wondering if this one soundtrack hasn’t provided Danny Elfman with a career’s worth of inspiration. I’m somewhat dumbstruck that Tim Burton has yet to remake it with Johnny Depp as Mr Dark.

It defies genre. This has all of the intensity of a horror film but no gore. All the adventure of a kids film but no optimism. The quality of this film is exceptional. It is smart, atmospheric, utterly beguiling.

Here’s the thing; so none of the films I’ve talked about here could be considered classic films but every single one of them is interesting. Every single one of them is, even on paper, a difficult proposition. They all, to some degree, defy genre, none of the could be considered formulaic or even tried-and-tested. None of them have big stars at the centre of them. They’re all from a major studio, though, and they’re all made for children. How long has it been since anything this interesting has been made for kids? Now, kids cinema is completely – completely – formulaic. Not just that, there is very very little made for them which not only steps outside the standard aesthetics but also which treats them with intelligence and respect and as capable of processing quirkier material. Wisdom dictates that it’s better to have tried and failed then never to try at all and Walt Disney Studios did just that for decades. Their live action commissioning may not have weathered the decades but it was bold, progressive, artistic and idiosyncratic and, as a body of work deserves higher regard than it has historically received.

REEVEisitation.

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I’m not excited by the prospect of Man of Steel. I wasn’t excited by the prospect or finished product of Superman Returns. To me, Superman is a character stuck in the past or in comic books. The character would require radical reinterpretation to make it relevant. Superman represents the ideals and aspirations of an America long gone. It’s as laughable and dated as a Norman Rockwell painting. We don’t live in innocent times now. People are cynical and greedy. The current crop of Marvel films have dealt with this concept excellently – a couple of decades back, Iron Man wouldn’t have worked as a film but right now he’s the most credible superhero for our age. A millionaire arms industrialist with questionable motives. Captain America was cleverly reinvented and Thor’s costume is for special occasions. Even Wolverine, a Fox property, has never come close to the banana yellow suit of his comic incarnation on the cinema screen. Yet, Zak Snyder’s modern interpretation of Superman is, surprise surprise, a man in lycra with a big logo on his chest wearing a cape. A fucking cape.  If there’s one thing Zak Snyder is incapable of it is reinterpretation. The man’s body of work barely stretches beyond using established graphic novels as storyboards and reaping the kudos. I’m not going to pay good money to see it. And if you are, you should check your stupid head and read David Mamet’s book Bambi vs Godzilla or Mark Kermode’s The Good, The Bad and The Mulitplex.

All that said, I adore the original Superman movies. The first one is an amazing, thoughtful and artistic piece of mainstream cinema. It’s a tour-de-force from director Richard Donner who has the curious position in Hollywood of having directed some of the great genre-defining movies (The Omen, Lethal Weapon, The Goonies) without ever being singled out as the brilliant filmmaker-of-the-people he so clearly is. Superman 2 was taken away from Donner midway and completed by Richard Lester (director of Robin and Marian – one of my favourite films of all time – and A Hard Day’s Night) – it’s still a great film, owned by Terence Stamp – but differs slightly. Maybe a little too much humour. Superman 3 embraced the humour fully and presented a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek hamfest with Robert Vaughan centre stage and Richard Pryor providing the comedic spine. The less said about Superman 4 the best but it at least deserves kudos for being a contributing factor to the failure of Cannon, a film studio of glorious ill-repute.

The lynchpin of the franchise was, of course, Christopher Reeve’s central performance. I often wonder if people realise just how precise a performance the role demanded and really just how good Reeve was. Superman, as a character, is ludicrous – a garish po-faced do-gooder in pants and tights with a kiss curl. The movie was sold on the tag line ‘You’ll believe a man can fly’ – a claim they delivered on. But I can’t help think it might have just as well been ‘You’ll believe Superman is not just a massive, massive twat’. Reeve imbued the role with gravitas where a knowing wink would seem the only credible option. Athletic without looking like a ‘roided up eyeball roller and intelligent whilst still fostering an other-worldly enthusiasm and slight confusion. His real achievement, however is the multi-levelled personification of Clark Kent. He effortlessly channels Harold Lloyd with a clumsy yet graceful air showing Kent’s deep-rooted decency and stuttering deference but continually lifts the curtain to show the true intelligence, isolation and frustration of the character.

So while everyone is yukking on about this new beardy Supertwat, I think it’s about time we looked at the tragically short body of work that Reeve left us…. out of tights.

SOMEWHERE IN TIME (1980)

Somewhere In Time is a curious offering. It doesn’t so much fit into a cinematic genre as that of a 1970’s Mills & Boon paperback found at the back of the bottom rack of a charity shop display spinner. It has that weird soft-focus lavender and lace chaste passion that doubtless set many a repressed spinster heart a flutter 40-odd years ago. The story tells of a modern-day playwright who finds himself on a course of action which dictates he use self-hypnosis to travel back in time to fulfill his own destiny and experience the love of his life. It sounds a bit Christopher Nolan put like that but it’s worth remembering that the director’s most significant credits have been Jaws 2 and Santa Claus The Movie, so this is not highbrow stuff. It is rather compulsive viewing, though. The time travel angle is somewhat underplayed, although when it features is far more interestingly presented than the standard ‘time machine’ angle. Instead, the focus is on the building of an old-timey 1912 romance with the painfully lovely Jane Seymour. It’s a little clunky and the film, rather than being timeless, hasn’t aged well but it retains a striking intensity and lack of humour which sets it apart from other old romance flicks. Fans of cheese will not be disappointed – this is a big, stinky stilton of a film but Reeve gives it his all. His performance, the first in a line of WASPy, slightly naive guys guided by an arrogant self-belief that would define his non-lycra career, is well-pitched. Rather than playing it as Mr Darcy, it is entirely Reeve’s skittish weirdness that renders him heroic. The film rests on his shoulders and he supports it admirably.

DEATHTRAP (1982)

Deathtrap is almost impossible to talk about without revealing spoilers that would genuinely mar your enjoyment of the film, which is intensely worth seeing. The leaking of one key plot point, a very controversial one for mainstream cinema in 1982, was generally held responsible for the film’s poor box office and subsequent undeserved obscurity. The film is, essentially a two-hander between Reeve as a talented aspiring playwright and Michael Caine as his washed-up tutor who, desperately in need of a hit lures Reeve out to his rural home with ill-intent. Genre-wise, it’s a hard film to place. It’s incredibly dark and unsettling but is in some ways played for laughs. It’s based on a stage play, so I suppose the broader moments touch upon farce but the intensity of film shades it darker. It’s one of Caine’s better performances, cold and harsh, but Reeve steals the show. His character changes dramatically according to certain situations and revelations, to the degree that he almost seems to be playing two completely separate roles (could it be Superman that got him this gig?). The film offers both actors scope to be the hunter and the hunted, to swing from terrified to terrifying and Reeve’s performance in particular is just perfectly honed. Moment to moment, beat to beat, he’s doing something interesting and is always on the money. What’s particularly odd about this film’s obscurity is that, not only is it based on a successful Broadway play, but it’s directed by Sidney Lumet. You’d think it would be better remembered. It doesn’t seem to have ever had a UK DVD release and it’s currently out of print in the US. I was sure I had the US DVD but it doesn’t seem to be on my shelves, which is somehow apt for a film which flummoxes you at every turn.

SWITCHING CHANNELS (1988)

This is a gem of a comedy and I’m disappointed it’s not more fondly remembered. Fast-paced, intelligent, witty and warm, it feels like a bridge between those old 50s screwball movies and the quick and smart action that Aaron Sorkin ended up doing on TV. The story mainly concerns a hectic day in a TV news room. Burt Reynolds rules the roost as head honcho Sully who, with great swagger attempts to manipulate ace-reporter and ex-wife Kathleen Turner away from her new beau and dreams of an easier life to cover the news story of the year. Reeve relishes the role of Turner’s romance, a thinly veiled yuppy narcissist of the highest order with highlights in his hair who goes by the name of Blaine Bingham. Reynolds wonderfully dismisses him as a ‘dildo’ and that about sums him up. Reeve surfs the tone of the film, which impressively goes from the very broadest of comedy (Reeve’s stand-out moment being his glass-lift vertigo induced panic attack which sees him lying on the floor calling for his mummy) to a touching sub-story involving the always reliable Henry Gibson as a good man on Death Row who only Reynolds and Turner can save. This is Reynolds’ film. A shade above his usual sexy Southern man schtick, this film truly allows him to show the range and sheer quality of his comedic talents. Turner brings gusto and sweetness to the mix but it is, surprisingly, Reeve who puts aside ego to play the perfect foil. This is supportive acting of the highest order and his final meltdown, in which he expresses his anger by stating that he owns an apartment opposite the UN building, is priceless.

STREET SMART (1987):

There are many reasons why it blows my mind that this film is as obscure as it is. The first is, of course, Reeve. I think this represents his greatest screen performance and best exemplifies that defining quality he has as a screen actor to show several distinctly contradictory, yet coherent, sides to a single character. In this film he plays print journalist Jonathan Fisher, a WASPY, preppy, hubristic oaf who, frustrated at his inability to write a sensational, hard-hitting piece, decides to just fabricate one. It works. His story in which he spends a day on the streets of New York with a pimp as his guide becomes the toast of the town. The problem is, it’s too on-the-money. Although the pimp is a complete work of fiction, the police quickly recognise him as the dangerous criminal they’re trying to nail for murder. They start pushing Jonathan for his notes and he quickly finds himself in a position where he could either end his career or end up in jail. things go up a notch when the suspect himself realises what Jonathan has done and that Jonathan is now in a position to provide him the perfect alibi. Reeve’s character is loathsome and arrogant, yet he plays it deftly enough that the audience is always on his side. The suspect, the pimp, is played by a young Morgan Freeman. Freeman got an Oscar nomination for this role, yet the film remains forgotten. Freeman is incredible. At first, likeable and charismatic but quickly he reveals himself to be dangerous and unpredictable. Every bit as commanding a performance as Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. All of the performances in this film are top-notch and the story plays out like a spider’s web in which all of the characters are caught and the more they struggle, the worse it gets for them. It’s a gritty, sleazy, 1980s Times Square kind of film. The film was directed by Jerry Schatzberg, who has the dubious honour of having directed probably the most inexplicably obscure classic of the 1970s – the Hackman/Pacino vehicle Scarecrow which has NEVER been available in the UK on any format! Street Smart probably suffered by being a Golan-Globus production, the bizarre genius-idiots behind Cannon Films. The film was a pet project of Reeve’s and it was funded as bait to get him to sign on to Superman 4 for that company. There’s a great piece of footage in a documentary the BBC made about Cannon in which producer Menahem Golan, fresh off the phone discussing this very film, explains that Reeve just doesn’t understand that if he’s not dressed as Superman, he’s not worth shit. Sadly, this seems to have been a pervasive view in Hollywood and the riding accident that rendered him paralysed denied him the chance to ever conclusively shake this assumption off.

Cracked Screen

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screen

A few weeks ago, I almost died. I don’t think I’m being needlessly dramatic when I say that. I’d been in Edinburgh with my crew filming an interview for the new documentary (which I can’t tell you about for a while) Having completed a great interview with a chap of no small pop-culture significance, Hank and I set off home. As we reached the Lake District, the road suddenly turned white and a freak sleet storm threw the entire motorway into chaos. We skidded, then got clipped by another skidding car and started spiralling across the middle and fast lanes of the motorway, we did three complete spins and then crashed into the central reservation, facing the oncoming traffic in the fast lane. We were lucky at every point. We weren’t hurt, nothing else hit us, the car – although written off – didn’t blow up like it seemed to be threatening to do as we staggered out of it. We were also lucky that all of the film equipment was undamaged and the hard drives containing the footage were intact too.

A few days before the crash, we heard that one of the interviewees we had been chatting to and had agreed to be filmed had suddenly died. Slightly less dramatically, one of the interviewees we’d been trying to track down also showed up dead, but not quite as recently. Having grown up hearing of cursed film productions – notably Poltergeist which was legendarily shadowed by the young deaths of several of its cast – it got me a little antsy. But we’re fine, as was everyone else. I heard 14 cars came off the road in that storm and nobody was hurt at all.

It did make me think about how what happens when a film is being made is often every bit as interesting as what happens in front of the camera. We’ve not been documenting the documentary (it’s just too meta a thing to do) but it did put me in a place where I felt like I needed to watch some documentaries about behind-the-scenes strife in films more notable than ours to put myself straight again.

Just a few to look at today – and I’ve focused on actual standalone documentaries, not DVD special features of which, obviously, there are legion (the Alien box set being the best!). Also not covered is the most prominent of the genre Hearts of Darkness, which chronicles the making of Apocalypse Now… I’ve apparently lent my copy to somebody so wasn’t able to rewatch it. It’s worth hunting out, though.

http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4200467/overnight_movie_trailer/

OVERNIGHT (2004)

Overnight is a tough film to watch on many levels. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great film but it’s a pummeling experience. Remember that golden period in the 90s when Miramax was just ruling the roost in Hollywood? Finding incredible untapped talented filmmakers and launching them into the stratosphere? Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith were the most famous beneficiaries of the Miramax magic wand but the shake-up was industry-wide. Overnight is the story of the almost-ran at the Miramax stable. Life seems good when we meet Troy Duffy, a barman who wrote his first ever script and sold it to the studio for $300k in a deal that promised him a further $150k to direct and a budget of $15,000,000. He has hired his friends to document his meteoric rise and is enjoying the media attention and all of the Hollywood stars who suddenly want to be his friend. Swayze, Wahlberg and a bunch of others all want to be part of the new big thing but drift away as the story quickly sours. Although undoubtedly a victim of selective editing, there is no way of denying that Duffy is a blowhard asshole. Ego barely covers his condition and there are many excruciating scenes of horrible, horrible self-importance. The filmmaking brilliance is not just in how the makers capture this but more how they capture it through the subtle expressions of everyone else in Duffy’s life. The unspoken awareness in the eyes of his friends and family that he has become a total monster.

Quickly, he moves his focus away from his friends and subordinates and on to his employers, superiors and betters. He needlessly creates a power struggle and is forced to confront the reality of a Miramax blacklisting. It’s compulsive viewing, Duffy is a larger than life character, a caricature, but you’re also aware that such behaviour is born out of serious, damaged insecurity and it’s hard to turn a blind eye to the fact that the man is clearly a long-term alcoholic. This makes it less fun that the trailer might suggest and the very definition of ‘car crash’ entertainment.

LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002)

Anyone who has ever made a film will feel the pain of this film with the intense empathic familiarity that every man on the face of the planet experiences when he sees another man get hit in the balls. You feel it welling in your soul. Lost in La Mancha is, essentially, the making-of Terry Gilliam’s epic Don Quixote film. “But.. I didn’t know Gilliam made a Don Quixote film!” I hear you mutter as you scramble for IMDB. You won’t find it there. And Lost in La Mancha tells you why. Never has a film been more beset by curse and never has a documentary crew been so lucky and sharp as to capture it in such devastating detail. On paper, it all looked great: a decent budget, Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, esteemed French actor Jean Rochefort as Quixote… but as soon as Gilliam arrives in Spain to commence production, the cracks start to appear. Contracts aren’t really nailed down. Scheduling is looking a little tight with contingency fast evaporating. The studio that has been hired is useless for sound. None of the actors are even in the country. Gilliam’s nervousness is clearly on the rise but they muddle forward regardless and busy themselves. In time, things start to fall into place, Rochefort arrives and is clearly the man for the part, Depp arrives in a motivating blaze of creativity and filming begins with gusto.

Then it gets horrible. It’s not so much the cracks getting worse as completely unexpected forces suddenly decimate the production – the desert they’re filming in experiences a storm which destroys the sets and washes away all of the film equipment. Rochefort develops a prostate infection rendering him in agony and unable to sit on a horse, which is really the bare minimum of what his part demands. Insurance issues arise and the production quickly goes to shit.

It’s a delicately filmed piece, a fantastic work in character study and actually it shows Gilliam in a great light. He has always been unfairly tarnished as a maverick filmmaker after his battles with the studio over Brazil and vastly over-reported problems during the filming of Baron Munchausen. Here we see a man of great vision and spirit rendered dumb by sheer bad luck. It’s an incredible watch.

EVERYTHING OR NOTHING (2002)

Here is the perfect example of a trailer missing the point of a film. I’d imagine something more honest might have been a harder sell but although, yes, this film is the story of the Bond cinema franchise, really it’s the story of two men. This is not to dismiss the fantastically candid interviews with past Bond actors – Brosnan and Lazenby being particularly unguarded and hilarious and Connery conspicuous in his absence as we find out just how difficult he was. The meat of this story, though is the previously barely-explored relationship between the producers – Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli. It’s a dramatic, epic journey through decades of ups and downs where we get to learn who these incredible characters were and what inspired them to make the choices they made. The ups and downs of their own relationship had me welling up. It evokes a time in film history long gone where impressarios and dreamers ruled the roost rather than money men and hacks. It also brought home to me how anything behind the scenes about film very very rarely actually explains who a producer is and what they do. The director still gets all the kudos, the actors still got all of the attention but, quite simply, without a producer there is no film. Each producer, each production, differs from the next – some are creatively hands on, some are economically forceful. Some control, some support. Some hinder, some help. It surprises me that so little focus is ever put on their role.

Anyway, my producer is amazing. Hank Starrs. If it hadn’t been for his quick instincts in how he dealt with the car skidding, it could have all ended up a lot worse for a lot of people. The true heroes are rarely the ones in front of the camera and the best drama is what’s happening off-screen.

Showing Off.

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musicals

Today sees the DVD release of Les Miserables which is a film I unapologetically totally dig. It unexpectedly had everything I was looking for in a film – career defining performances from Jackman and Hathaway of genuine depth which seems quite the rarity in modern Hollywood. A genuine epic quality which has seemed absent in cinema for quite some time – and by epic I don’t just mean sweeping vistas and large crowds, I mean a story which takes place over many years and generations of characters. This would all be great were it not enhanced for me by the highly enjoyable naffness of Russell Crowe. I’ve never really understood the Russell Crowe thing, he seems to owe his career to a string of leading roles in Ridley Scott films. Not dissimilar to Di Caprio’s dominance of later-era Scorsese, I remain confused as to why a director would donate such a large portion of their output to promoting the career of quite a dull talent. I assume blackmail. Anyway, what I love in Les Mis is how director Tom Hooper gives Crowe all the space he needs to be truly, enjoyably, abysmal. He is seen, predominantly, striding stroppily around high walls. When he sings, it’s the voice of a mortally wounded David Essex protesting with a traffic warden over having parked his jag in a disabled space. There’s a great comic turn from Sacha Baron Cohen too. It, of course, has its problems. A lot of the camerawork is inexplicaply ropey but this is mainly due to presumably experimental framing on the part of the director. The hand-held camerawork throughout is a doggedly adhered-to choice which usually doesn’t suit the film but I can forgive Hooper all of this stuff because he’s trying to do something different. It’s better to try and fail than just hammer out another shitty Hollywood formulaic crapfest. So fair play to the man. Of course, the best thing about the film is the music. I like music. I like musicals. I think that proclaiming to dislike musicals is as pat as dismissing vegetarians and pop music. When I hear ‘people just suddenly burst into song – that NEVER HAPPENS!’ I want to scream back ‘THAT’S WHY IT’S AWESOME!’ What a great conceit for bringing the internal monologue out. Anyway, as they say, ‘fuck the haters’ – here are some great film musicals you might have missed.

XANADU (1980)

Xanadu is one of those films which kind of defines a genre all of its own that nobody was ever really going to embrace. So, of the roller-skating-disco-musical-nods-to-classic-Hollywood-musicals, this is certainly the most… only… example. It’s a strange confection. Nominally the story of a man who paints billboard versions of album covers who meets Glen Miller’s clarinetist and opens a roller-disco-jazz-joint with the help of a heavenly muse. it doesn’t make a lot of sense, yet it’s notable for a bunch of anomalies that kind of set it apart from how awful it should be. To begin with, the film is endearingly tongue-in-cheek. It knows just how kitschy it is and tempers the glitter with a wry humour and some genuine pathos. I think there’s an intelligence behind it – I know there is – as the director Robert Greenwald went on to become one of the better social documentary makers of recent years. His film Wal-Mart The High Price of Low Cost is perhaps the best filmed polemic on capitalism you’re ever likely to see. The pathos comes entirely from Gene Kelly in his last screen performance and holy shit is he having fun. He has embraced the new generation and surveys the disco era with a warm and grandfatherly pride which, it must be said, doesn’t stop him from strapping on a pair of skates and leading the dance. Fantastically, the role he plays is – although not explicitly stated – a continuation of the character he played in Cover Girl back in 1944, this is a disco sequel to a film 26 years its predecessor. Olivia Newton-John, although billed as the star of the film seems oddly unnecessary, she’s an awkward actress, always was, but she brings it all to the singing and the musical numbers are great. Oddest of all is the lead character played by Michael Beck who, just two years earlier was the sullen, deadly Swan in The Warriors. It’s really weird to see him singing and dancing like a big camp wally but it all adds to it somehow. I think what I like best about this film is the visual effects. There’s a quality to those late-seventies/very-early-eighties effects films, when they were pushing the limits of optical printing, Superman-era stuff, which is so endearing. Seeing characters exuding a neon glow and heaven as a landscape of smoke and glowing lines, kind of Tron-like but fuzzy due to the restraints of the technology always places me firmly back in a childlike joy.

SWEENEY TODD (2007)

It’s funny with Tim Burton, isn’t it? He’s spent so many years now cranking out black-and-white or psychadelic hued films based on existing properties with his wife and Johnny Depp that he’s ceased to become terribly interesting. Even the Goths seem to have looked away. When this one limped out in 2007, it was horribly mis-marketed with trailers and advertising which didn’t even hint at the fact it was a musical, confusing already indifferent audiences. Traditional musical audiences avoided it like the plague due to highly graphic throat-cutting scenes throughout and the audience who love a good throat-slash aren’t generally up for a bit of a sing-song. It’s a rather niche audience for this film and I happily count myself among them. All of Burton’s tired tropes seemed to coalesce into something really special here. It’s one of my favourite film renderings of historical London. Heavily stylised yet convincing, it’s a Dickensian dollhouse nightmare. Depp plays the character straight and silently troubled, occasionally lapsing into ghoulish but always rooted in story. It’s a tragedy rather than a horror piece and the beautiful Sondheim score and lyrics just elevate it to something else. It’s not always an easy watch, it is unrelentingly, sickeningly gory even by modern horror standards and since the death is the one part of the equation which is not stylised or campy it sets a strange tone but strange is very much the order of the day with this one. I genuinely think this is a film which will find critical reappraisal in the future. I don’t think anyone really knew what to make of it but in many ways it seems to me to be the zenith of what Burton has been doing for a long time.

THE TALL GUY (1989)

I know this one doesn’t technically count as a musical but I seem to have lost my Godspell DVD, so this is what you get. No, The Tall Guy is not a musical. It is Richard Curtis’s first cinematic outing and really the only one which isn’t a massive pile of fucking mawkish shit. Unlike the vile wretchedness of Love Actually, The Boat That Rocked and Four Weddings (I have a soft spot for Notting Hill, although I’m aware it’s guilty of many of the same crimes), The Tall Guy has some of that Blackadder bite to it. It’s the story of a comedian’s straight man who falls in love. It’s not complicated but it’s well-observed comedy. Jeff Goldblum takes a weird career sidestep to appear in a low-budget very British comedy and it pays off. The film has bags of charm and a nice cynical edge which never appeared again in Curtis’s cannon of work. So, why have I included it here? Well, because Goldblum’s character eventually quits his gig and lands the lead role in a West-End production of a musical based on the story of John Merrick, the Elephant Man. The third act shows us quite a lot of the production itself and I adore it. It brilliantly satirizes that era of Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh pillaging of history and literature to turn into profit (an era fondly remembered now that all the West End seems to pillage is succesful films of the 80s/90s). The musical is both heartfelt and ludicrous and so well staged that I’m sure I’m not the only one who silently wishes someone would actually stage the thing. Maybe I am the only one – nobody ever seem to have even heard of the film these days.

THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE (1983)

This is one of my big ‘WHY ISN’T THIS A MASSIVE CULT HIT???’ films. It has every single element it needs to be huge yet it remains incredibly obscure. A campy, tongue-in-cheek, wonderful musical about a disgraced superhero, shut down by a 1950s Mccarthy style government intervention, the 80s finds him a tramp drinking meths on the streets in Australia. When his great nemesis – a brilliant Christopher Lee enjoying every second of his singing and dancing extravaganza – returns, the current American president demands the locating and rehabilitation of Captain Invincible. Invincible is played by Alan Arkin who, only now after Argo is receiving the mainstream credit his genius deserves. it features songs by Richard O’Brien and Richard Hartley – the team behind Rocky Horror and it’s genuinely great stuff. Clever lyrics, catchy tunes. How many superhero musicals are there out there? Surely this is a film which a huge audience would really enjoy. It’s well directed with great songs, fantastic performances and it’s a completely unique proposition. The plot becomes a little confusing and flimsy at times but it’s still an immensely likable proposition.

CHORUS LINE (1985)

In some ways Richard Attenborough’s unexpected follow-up to Gandhi is the purest film musical being, as it is, a very straight adaptation of an existing musical which barely uses the film medium to bring anything to it – most of the film taking place inside the theatre itself. I think I like it as a time capsule more than anything. It has that early-80s ‘anything is possible’ innocence about it whilst also showcasing the heartbreak and cruelty of the acting life. Never having seen the original production, it feels very much like the original script has been used as there is a lack of reality or grounding in any of the characters but there’s a convincing case to be made that musical actors of the generation genuinely were brainless overbearing caricatures of themselves. It all adds to the charm, though. What renders it particularly enjoyable is a an engagingly cunty performance from a pre-Gekko Michael Douglas as a dark and intolerant director who strips the film of its potentially fluffy edge and adds a frisson of psychological unpredictability.

I’ve always found the film musical an excitingly anomalous genre. It shouldn’t work, it often doesn’t, but when it does it can give an unexpected emotional depth and creative vision. I’ll always love them. Which ones have I missed here? Which should be seen?

My Favourite Film-maker.

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I’ve been kind of working up to this post for a while. Friends who read this blog have been asking why I haven’t covered this subject yet as my favourite film-maker’s oeuvre is perhaps the best distillation of everything this blog was set up to represent – the promotion of films which should be better known. This guy has been making films since 1979. Wonderful, funny, warm yet satirical films – often with big stars – yet his films seem to go generally unacknowledged. With the exception of 1999’s The Muse (which starred Sharon Stone before her career waned) not one of his films has been released on DVD in the UK. I find this scandalous as there is nothing obtuse or niche about his work, it’s accessible and hilarious to a wide audience. If any cinema owners or rep screening clubs are reading this, you should really let me program a season of his work. Anyway… who is this genius? Well, you might know him – he’s the bad guy from Drive.

In this country, Albert Brooks is definitely best known as an actor. You’d recognise him. Despite his fantastic malevolent performance opposite Ryan Gosling, he’s known as the sweat-soaked Aaron in Broadcast News, Tom in Taxi Driver and for voicing Marlin in Finding Nemo. He’s a regular guest voice on The Simpsons and made his name as a 70’s stand-up who also contributed some great short films to the first season of SNL.

The best way to describe him is an everyman Woody Allen. His films are all about social situations and how people relate to one another. Like Allen, Brooks writes (well, co-writes), directs and plays the flawed leading man in all of his films. Brooks is a more likable, as neurotic, less intelligent version of the Woody persona. He always plays a man with a good heart on a mission to achieve something worthy but who always overestimates his own intelligence and ability to cope. He flits between puppy-dog enthusiasm and cow-eyed dejection. His films are a genre unto themselves; gently satirising society through the actions of a modern man trying to do well. They’re all infused with a Frank Capra kind of quality but retain a healthy cynicism. Maybe Brooks’ character represents what Jimmy Stewart might have been had he fallen foul of 60s faux spiritualism and landed on his face in 80s yuppydom. Brooks has only made 7 films to date, so I figure I might as well introduce you to each of them. They are all available on Region 1 DVD, which will play in most UK machines.

REAL LIFE (1979)

Brooks’ first film was probably his most daring. It’s certainly the most challenging in terms of genre. It’s a faux documentary in which Brooks both directs and plays himself – at his most endearingly buffoonish – directing. Essentially, he has decided to make the ultimate documentary about the modern American family. The fact that the director is in almost every frame of the film is a great comedic riff about the arrogance of documentary filmmakers trying to capture social reality whilst putting themselves slap-bang in the middle of it. It’s an incredibly refreshing style and not only is it very funny – holding its own against Spinal Tap in this traditionally hard-to-master category – but it’s very very clever. Brooks skewers the pomposity and arrogance of factual filmmakers but also manages to somehow be 25 years ahead of his time and make a film which managed to predict exactly where television would go and exactly how ludicrous it would be. In this age of reality TV, fly-on-the-wall and instant celebrity, Real Life is actually more relevant than ever. Brooks is supported by the brilliance of Charles Grodin as the father of the family.

MODERN ROMANCE (1981)

Modern Romance is just a joy of a film. It reminds me a lot of Curb Your Enthusiasm in the way we just get to see a central character having to deal with the general stresses of daily life (if you’re a Curb fan you might just recognise the other chap in that clip too, he happens to be Brooks’ brother in real life). Nominally this is a rom-com but that tag doesn’t do this film justice, I can see how it would be a hard film to market as it doesn’t have any real romance in it and is far more a study of a semi-intelligent man’s neuroses about being in a relationship. I have no idea how authentic it is but it has always seemed a nice little time capsule about the life of a filmmaker in LA in the late 70s/early 80s, it has a lot of delicious background texture rooted firmly in that era, exploring the comedy endemic in the trappings of the time including jogging, quaaludes and the endless manufacture of shitty sci-fi films desperate to cash-in on the success of Star Wars. Like all of Brooks’ subsequent films, it plays at a leisurely pace and story takes a back seat to essentially a series of wonderfully dry comic sketches featuring some of the best character actors of the era being given the space to excel.

LOST IN AMERICA (1985)

I think this is one of the great films about 1980s America and the Baby Boom generation. It kills me how few people seem to have seen it. Brooks plays a highly successful advertising exec who, childishly wounded by being passed over for promotion, decides to liquify his assets, sell his house, buy a winnebago and live a nomadic life in which he and his wife will ‘discover’ themselves and their country. It embraces and lambasts all of the bullshit which came with that generation. The hypocrisy of the dual pursuit of material wealth and spirituality. All is going well for the couple when, a couple of days into their journey, his wife blows their entire ‘nest egg’ (and the way Brooks just says ‘nest egg’ throughout the film cracks me up every time) in a Las Vegas casino and renders them genuinely impoverished, nomadic and forced to confront what is really important. The answer to which is as wryly cynical as it should be.

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991)

This is really Brooks’ masterpiece. A film unexpectedly high in concept and with surprisingly large production values set, as it is, in Judgement City a bureaucratic afterlife processing area. This is conceptually some kind of Woody Allen/Terry Gilliam/Frank Capra mash-up and, holy shit, if it’s not right up there as one of the boldest, oddest yet most perfect films I’ve ever seen. Brooks plays Daniel, very much the stroppy materialistic continuation of his character David from Lost in America. Within minutes of meeting Daniel (suffering from an inferiority complex whilst picking his brand new sportscar up from the dealership when seeing it waiting for him parked next to a better one) we see him drive head-on into a bus and shift immediately from his mortal coil. He wakes up in Judgement City, a heavenly place landscaped to put the recently-dead Middle American at their ease, where he must attend a legal hearing in which a prosecution and defence will debate as to whether he should be reincarnated or whether he has learned enough in his time on earth to ‘move on’. At the centre of the film is this courtroom comedy in which both parties screen relevant moments from his life to the judges and Daniel is forced to… defend his life. This is Brooks at his most whimsical, there is a philosophical bent to it and a really touching romance at its core with Meryl Streep playing Julia a woman he falls for who represents not just someone he loves but everything he wishes he had been. It’s not as cynical as most of Brooks’ other films and although the humour remains dry, it’s a very sweet film. It has the appeal of those lush romantic comedies of the fifties. That rare thing, comfort viewing for people who aren’t idiots. Of his whole body of work, this is the film which truly deserves to have reached a far wider audience. Real Life deserves to be reassessed as a work of brilliance but it’s this film which should be considered a classic.

MOTHER (1996)

Perhaps one of the best things that Mother does, one of the great indications of Brooks’ intelligence is the casting of Debbie Reynolds. The film industry is so fickle that once a star’s brilliant youth has passed, the roles – particularly for women – dry up or force them into boring stereotypes. This beautiful two-hander sees Brooks play a man so wounded by his recent divorce that he decides to move in with his mother, convinced that if he can resolve his issues with her he’ll finally crack his problems with women and himself in general. Reynolds is at first introduced as comic foil but quickly displays depth and subtlety and, really, how she wasn’t even nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for this one dumbfounds me. The film plays like a missing Neil Simon play and not since Psycho has the mother-son dynamic been so engagingly explored. Of course, there is plenty of broad comedy but, as had become trademark for Brooks by then, the cynicism is tempered with genuine heart. He’s never been afraid to play the fool but it would have been very easy to have made Reynolds the butt of the jokes, instead, as the film develops, it’s Brooks who is forced to understand and respect rather than excoriate and scapegoat.

THE MUSE (1999)

The Muse feels like Brooks’ angriest film. It’s the only one directly pitched at the L.A. film industry in which he has spent his career and it’s spiky with disenfranchisement and ire. Brooks plays Steven Phillips, an Oscar nominated screenwriter who finds himself being told by clueless executives that he has indefinably ‘lost his edge’, frustrated and at the end of his tether, a friend played by Jeff Bridges, tells him about someone who might be able to help. Sharon Stone plays Sarah – a beautiful woman who might or might not be a muse of myth and legend. She has certainly built up the reputation as such in Hollywood and Brooks finds himself fighting for her attention and power against the rest of the town (including fantastic cameos from Scorsese and James Cameron as themselves) as her demands become more lavish and her help more scant. This film has palpably less heart than his previous offerings and is not just cyncial but somewhat wound-licking too. Brooks works out his frustration on camera and, like whenever a funny man becomes angry, the film is all the better for it. Movie executives in this film are so beautifully lambasted that one thinks he must have hit the nail on the head as to their idiocy because somehow a handful of them must have allowed him to actually make this film which tears them so masterfully to shreds.

LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD (2005)

Brooks most recent film explored two fascinating, and seemingly unlinked, subjects; international diplomacy and the roots of comedy. His character is despatched to the Middle East by a presidential committee to prepare a report on the culture’s comedy in the hope that his findings could better enhance relations between the two nations. Removing Brooks from his usual L.A. backdrop is strangely unsettling. It made me realise that as New York is so important in Woody Allen’s films, L.A. is practically the other part of Brooks’ double-act. Obviously, there is a danger in portraying another culture with the gusto in which he usually lampoons his hometown but Brooks’ intent is never to mock any culture other than his own. It’s not as bold a film as the title suggests it might be but a return to the warm tone of a good-hearted schlub marching unwittingly out of his depth yet protected by his genuine nature.

Brooks has been writing, directing and starring in his own films for 34 years now, he has created a solid body of work which displays a unique and idiosyncratic style complemented by a very sophisticated yet accessible humour of great intelligence and profound warmth. I think in America he is rightly seen as a great talent but there is no reason why his reputation has never transferred to the UK. I first saw Defending Your Life in the mid-90s and had to work hard in those pre-Amazon, pre-IMDB days to track down his films on NTSC VHS. He has been my favourite film-maker since then. In these non-carb days, his films are my mashed potato and my Ben & Jerrys. He is the solution to a grey day. He’s the guy who shows us that, yes, everything is shitty, nothing makes sense, so let’s hold that awfulness up for ridicule and just laugh at it and laugh at ourselves because there’s not much you can do and laughing always – always –  makes you feel better.

Shadow Boxing

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After my last post, I had a great conversation with my pal Stuart Barr (@maxrenn) about Bob Peck. I really love his performance in Slipstream and remember fondly his fantastic episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller but, aside from Jurassic Park, hadn’t seen this guy’s chops in much else. Stu was shocked that I hadn’t seen Edge of Darkness – a seminal BBC mini series from the mid-80’s. I’d been aware of it but had never really thought to bother. This led me to thinking how we’re kind of living in a box-set culture right now. We’re all addicted to the gluttonous consumption of great TV shows not, as once we would, in weekly instalments, but all saved up for a massive televisual binge. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I am surprised in the narrow scope of what we’re opting for. We all seem to be hooked on the same things. Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, The Wire, The Killing, Breaking Bad… all great shows and deserving of their success but I felt there was room for a blog about some of the box sets you might have missed, all of which highly worthy of an eye-binge.

EDGE OF DARKNESS (1985):

The word ‘riveting’ doesn’t even begin to do justice to Edge of Darkness. Its deftness is in how it effortlessly straddles the lines of several genres meaning you never get that awful burnout you tend to feel with shows like 24 which endlessly need to ramp up the adrenaline or Abram’s Lost or Alias where after a while the stories get so twisty and convoluted they become tiresome. Edge of Darkness jumps tracks episode to episode, leaving you constantly in a state of engagement with either the story dynamic, the emotional framework of its characters, high-tension action, mystery and intrigue or just the surprisingly poetic nature of the storytelling. It’s a drama, a thriller and a political parable but kind of not rolled into one. It’s like three states co-existing happily on their own levels with dignity and confidence. It’s a completely unique experience. Peck plays Ronnie Craven, a policeman whose daughter is brutally murdered in front of him on their doorstep. The assumption is that the gunman was out to kill him but it quickly becomes obvious that she had quite the secret life going on as an anti-Nuclear activist whose exploits were having an effect at the highest echelons of world politics and commerce. Craven launches on a mission to uncover the truth. It doesn’t sound so gripping, perhaps but the simpleness of the set-up allows the complexity to come in the fibre of the piece. Craven is a man suffering post-traumatic stress who stumbles into a world of manipulation. Hugely charismatic characters whose true agendas remain firmly hidden. The casting is exceptional, most notably Joe Don Baker as Falstaffian CIA agent Jedburgh. I wouldn’t dare venture into spoiler territory but the conclusion is unexpected and perfect. Peck’s is perhaps one of the greatest small-screen performances in the history of the format. A man of few words but great expression. We feel what he is feeling. We have total empathy for the man. Running alongside this political thriller story we get the tale of a grieving man who is either losing his mind or genuinely accompanied everywhere by the ghost of his murdered daughter, guiding him to avenge her. This show hasn’t aged a day, it is as fresh, smart and sophisticated as anything HBO are currently offering us. If you haven’t seen it, pick it up.

FREAKS AND GEEKS (1999)

Freaks and Geeks is one of those shows that you either know very well and love or you’ve never heard of. It’s certainly never made much of an impact in the UK. I think I’m right in saying it never aired here and you can only buy it on US import DVD. Strange considering how it was the germ of an entire cinematic movement – its executive producer Judd Apatow is now the writer/director behind most of the not-completely-shitty-but-still-not-very-good multiplex comedies of the current era. The cast also went on to big things – some with him, especially Jason Segal who has become an Apatow stalwart but it also launched the careers of Seth Rogan and James Franco. Put simply, Freaks & Geeks is an American high school show set in 1980 but where most such shows would focus on the average kids, this one resolutely sticks to the sidelines. The freaks and the geeks. The freaks being the stoner latchkey kids and the geeks being the nerdy suburbanites. Bridging the two worlds is Lindsay, a high-achieving girl with a talent for math(s) who is cautiously making the transition from ‘mathlete’ to burn-out. The beauty of this series is its genuine pathos. It really isn’t a show for everyone. Which, I guess, is why it remains marginalised and unknown. But for those of us who have been in either or both of the show’s factions it’s a gorgeous touchstone to the excitement and insecurity of teenage, before we learned how to fit in and deal with life. It’s a really nicely observed piece and whilst it’s very very funny, it’s also touching and can find poignancy in the most unexpected but perfect places. If you love John Hughes films, this is for you. Refreshingly for a period piece it resists ever falling into being kitsch and cheesy, which renders it quite a transporting thing back to the textures and atmospheres of that time. It’s not political or particularly moral, it doesn’t feel like it’s espousing any kind of message. It’s just a very well-considered and fond look at good kids who are kept on the fringes.

SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1990)

This one is, perhaps, the wild card of today’s selection and I’d struggle to recommend it per se. To some people it will just be utter crap but it has several merits that make me feel rather fond of it. Mainly, I find it interesting. There aren’t many shows like it and no fucker has ever heard of it and, conceptually, it was a bold move. This was a US/European co-production and the first series (of 2 – both are included in the box set) is entirely UK based. When the European money was pulled, the series retitled itself as ‘Love and Curses’ and scuttled back to LA for a far less worthy run. The basic premise is that an American mythology student, studying in the UK, is attacked on the moors by a werewolf and subsequently becomes one. Which gets in the way less than you might expect – she doesn’t even seem to become a werewolf in every episode. Mainly it’s a series about a student and her professor (played by Neil Dickson who played Biggles in the much-maligned-when-remembered 80s cinematic outing) traveling the UK and investigating local myths and paranormal goings on. Which, as you are no doubt thinking right now, is an ACE concept for a series. The 80s American TV-ness both gets in the way a bit and enhances the fun of it all. This show has a serious Garth Merenghi asthetic to it and you feel that without the slightly annoying American lead, this could have been Hammer Studios’d up into being a peculiarly British (pre-emptive) answer to The X-Files. The series was created by Mick Garris – who has a fine pedigree in genre TV having been a principal contributor to both Amazing Stories and Masters of Horror. If you like Buffy, Being Human or generally have a hankering for some 80s pop video stylings, this is worth picking up cheap and wasting a rainy weekend on. Oh, and top crazy fact – when the character is a werewolf, she’s portrayed by Jet from Gladiators. Oh yes.

WONDERFALLS (2004)

It’s not that I wonder why Wonderfalls was cancelled after just one fantastic season, I’m just blown away that it ever got commissioned in the first place. It’s one of those concepts and scripts which you read and say ‘well, this is brilliant but there is nothing commercial about it and it’s so defiantly odd without being ‘cool’ that it doesn’t stand a chance.’ The premise is about a recent graduate who finds herself living a wasted life working in a gift shop at Niagara Falls and living in a trailer. She’s too smart for that life but too aloof to really do much about it. One day she starts hearing voices. Well, not really, inanimate animal objects start to talk to her. Wax lions, stuffed donkeys, that kind of thing. They try to guide her to being a better person, each episode finds another souvenir animal pushing her towards saving another lost soul – all of which she does with an understandable and endearing petulance. It’s a completely odd and off-kilter series which makes little sense in many ways but is never less than a great view. It’s quirky, kooky, spunky, all the good ‘ky’s and it deserved to be seen by more people.

ALIEN NATION (1989)

Like Wonderfalls, it was odd that this show ever got commissioned based, as it was, on a movie that really not many people saw and which remains basically unremembered. It was a solid film. James Caan playing a cop of the very near future (now the distant past, headfuck fans) in a downtown LA a year or so after an alien spaceship has landed. The aliens have been quarantined and, found to be friendly and basically humanoid, are now just the latest wave of immigrants to face stigmatization in the land of opportunity. Caan is paired up with an unrecognizable Mandy Patinkin as an alien cop to solve a series of murders. In a sense, this was always a better concept for a series rather than a one-off film as there is so much to explore in such an idea. The film itself was an enjoyable buddy-cop thriller. The series so much more. The series was spearheaded by a guy who I adore, a writer/director/producer called Kenneth Johnson who is the brain behind my two favourite TV shows of the 80s – The Incredible Hulk (in which he managed to pull a nuanced and emotionally resonant series out of painting a bodybuilder green and having him running about shouting, no mean feat!) and V which was a beautiful allegory for the holocaust to a new pop-culture generation of Americans.

Alien Nation really gets its teeth into the social construct of America’s ‘classless’ society. It looks at issues of immigration and racism. It does what sci-fi does best – it holds a mirror up to society and uses a fantastical story to reflect the truth about what is happening in reality. Neither Caan nor Patinkin return but their characters are taken over by Gary Graham and Eric Pierpoint, both of whom ably bring a charm an gravitas to their roles. The series is a constant journey of Graham, a reluctantly decent beer-swiller of a guy – being endlessly confronted by his own prejudices and forced to learn or change. It has a lot to say about institutionalized racism in organizations such as the police force along with polemics on the nature of immigration and resultant poverty. Pierpoint’s George Francisco, the first alien to become a detective in the LAPD, is also endlessly faced with the need for reflection, as a high achieving alien, he is viewed by many as a sell-out. As he embraces America’s middle-class trappings – social integration, moving into a ‘good neighbourhood’ and the participation in human ritual, such choices have to be questioned and his good-natured family often have to pay the price. The relationship between George and his son, who finds himself disenfranchised and painfully drawn into alien gang culture, is particularly well observed.

Although the show only lasted one season, regular TV Movie follow-ups were made throughout the 90s. These are also available and worth seeing but felt slightly bloated in comparison to the tightness of the original episodes.

RESCUE ME (2004)

This isn’t an underdog of a series like the others – it lasted 7 seasons and bowed out when it was ready to. Yet I never heard of it. Completely under my radar until recently and I think it’s great. Denis Leary is a strange guy, back in the 90s we had a love-hate relationship with him. His No Cure For Cancer stand-up material was blistering and he had an energy like no other but when it transpired he’d ripped a lot of his material off from his estranged friend the true comedy genius Bill Hicks, he kind of became persona non grata. It didn’t get better, with Hicks dead and Leary scrambling for new material, he kind of became detestably un-PC. He wasn’t satirising the right or lampooning the left, he just came off as a grumpy, unreconstructed shit. He moved away from standup and made a bunch of crappy films (and some good ones – The Ref and Demolition Man, notably.) Maybe that’s why this passed me by, I wouldn’t have much interest in a TV show starring and written by him. I picked Season 1 up on a whim as it was reduced to £7 in the HMV death bonanza. I was expecting a mildly diverting, hopefully kinetic and angry thing that I could have on in the background of an evening. That wasn’t what I got. I was sucked in immediately and got through all 4 discs in just 3 nights. Yes, Leary plays what you would expect him to – an unapologetic blue collar alpha male firefighter. Smarter than the average wageslave, heavy drinking, ferociously opinionated and indulgently wankersome. The surprise was that he chooses to play all of these things resolutely as weaknesses. Had this series been set in the 70s or 80s, it would have been gloriously misogynistic, racist and fuck-you in attitude but this is a firehouse in the shadow of 9/11. These guys are all suffering from crippling post-traumatic stress and their lives are falling apart. Although the racism and misogyny is rampant, it is never showed as anything but pathetic. These guys are dinosaurs, they even find themselves vile but can barely function in the modern world with their mental well-beings in constant danger of collapse. Leary’s character Tommy Gavin is on the ultimate tightrope – he is the alpha male of the house, they look to him for guidance and as a role model but he can barely maintain the artifice of functionality. Everywhere he goes, he is tailed by an ever growing squadron of ghosts of the people he couldn’t save. His colleagues from 9/11, a little girl with a cat, a young black boy, all covered in horrific burns. He drinks to ignore them but they’re always there. Sometimes angry with him, sometimes questioning. He doesn’t know how to ask for help and he is becoming a liability in emergency situations where his men are slowly starting to be aware of him talking to the dead. But it’s not a paranormal show at all. That is just a nice creative flourish. It’s still a straightforward drama about a man trying to get through life. His ex-wife, his lover, his burgeoning relationship with his dead best friend’s wife (the ultimate fireman taboo) His co-workers all have their own problems too – illegitimate children, failing marriages, engagement with previously untapped sensitive sides. The show is funny, melancholy, thoughtful and lively and I adore the way it dissects notions of masculinity in the modern world.

So, those are my recommendations. Have you got any for me? Have you seen any of these? Let me know your thoughts!

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