Monthly Archives: March 2013

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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The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be….

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It feels a bit like we’re drifting away from the post-apocalypse. In the 80’s, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting some crappy film with a bunch of street punks dumped into the desert to fight in knackered old cars. I suppose Mad Max was to blame, maybe with the remake surfacing fairly soon, we’ll see the genre re-embraced. Maybe not. It kind of feels like we are living in the future now. All of the technology we dreamed about two or three decades ago has arrived, been surpassed and all feels a little moribund now. Except for jetpacks. And, honestly, did we ever really want jetpacks? Politically, also, it feels a bit like we’re already living in Orwell’s 1984. The government’s oppressive and pushing more and more people towards poverty, the corporations have taken over. The aesthetic of Blade Runner now feels fairly current. These visions feel kind of parallel universe rather than nightmare future.

Anyway, the post-apocalypse has always been a genre which showcases innovation and imagination, so I wanted to share with you a few you might have missed…

REIGN OF FIRE (2002):

Well, the trailer does it no justice whatsoever. In fact, it makes it look a bit shoddy and one of the things I adore about this film is the level of attention to detail which it has been made with. It’s an incredibly tight film, it’s a unique vision, it’s well written, well directed and the acting is fantastic. I think they undersold it by trying to take it to an action audience. I think all of the action in the whole film is in that trailer. It’s actually quite a slow mover. It’s contemplative and more about human relationships and community than kick-ass dragon killing (although when that comes, it does kick ass!). Set mostly in Northumberland of the future, it shows an England completely destroyed. Twenty or so years after excavations in central London awoke a long buried Dragon, the beasts have bred quickly and burned the world so they could eat the ash. Everything is gone. Some communities remain in hiding but life is hard and communication between them poor.

Christian Bale plays Quinn, he leads the Northumbrian community, all holed up in an old castle and living the Hell’s kibbutz lifestyle. There is unrest in the people, hungry, tired and pessimistic but Quinn manages to somewhat hold it together. There’s a brilliant down-at-heel reality to all of this which could only be achieved with a magnificently crotchety British cast. It’s a rare glimpse at what could be possible if the British film industry had Hollywood budgets and told Richard Curtis to fuck right off. But, of course, this is a Hollywood film and, right on queue in the second act, America invades in the form of a troop of crack dragon marines led by Van Zan – played by a gloriously charismatic Matthew McConaughey who seems to have accidentally wandered for two minutes away from the constant effluent stream of romantic comedies he’s spent the last couple of decades heading up. And thank god he did. This is an alternate universe McConaughey – shaved, tattooed, ‘roided up and manic. He’s fantastic. And then the film turns into an interesting study of the culture difference between the UK and US. Quinn advocates caution and security, Van Zan fights for a mission to London to take down the only male dragon in a death-or-glory bid.

This is a really special film for me. It’s become the film I watch if I’m ill, that means it’s replaced the Star Wars Trilogy (yes, trilogy). In fairness to Star Wars, I think I’d just found the limit for how many times you can watch it without going insane. As a film, it hints at what the action genre could become, should aspire to become. It doesn’t need to be a shitty, completely derivative genre, when injected with just a little bit of thought and intelligence, it can become transcendental. As evidenced most recently in The Grey which is an amazing film, as if Pinter had been hired by Joel Silver. Anyway, Reign of Fire – if you haven’t, you should!

SIX STRING SAMURAI (1988):

Here’s a film which makes me sad. OK, the film itself makes me grin from ear-to-ear but what makes me sad is that NOBODY I speak to has even heard of it, let alone seen it. It makes me sad that its writer-director Lance Mungia is not currently a decade and a half into a huge-budget Hollywood career and it makes me sad that the world he created was never allowed to expand. There should have been sequels, TV series, comics (there was one comic which accompanied the film’s minimal release). The world should know about Six String Samurai.

Set in an America in which the atom bomb was dropped in ’57, the tale begins with the death of the king. Elvis, who had been declared leader in the aftermath. With Elvis dead, a battle ensues for the throne drawing contenders from all over the country to journey on foot across the desert to reach Lost Vegas and stake their claim. Our hero is Buddy, a post-apocalypse-not-dead-in-a-plane-crash version of what Buddy Holly might have been had he needed to fight for his life. He keeps his samurai sword sheathed on the back of his guitar and is equally prone to shredding out some riffs as slicing and dicing his opponents. He is pursued by Death himself (looking not unlike Slash) and his heavy metal band. Buddy is played by Jeffrey Falcon, a martial artist who co-wrote the film. It can definitely be classed as a martial arts film, it is a journey in which Buddy has to fight at every stage, but it’s a martial arts film like no other. It has none of the standard tropes. This film is a pop-culture mash-up which should have had Tarantino quaking in his boots. It’s Bruce Lee as Buddy Holly versus the Russian Military in The Wizard of Oz.

Mungia is an incredible director. Remember that this was a low budget, independent movie. The visuals are breathtaking in their epic scope and quirky idiosyncrasy. Gorgeous shots of wide, empty canyons with a lone figure, guitar and sword strapped to back, carrying a tattered old umbrella walking nonchalantly through them. Despite being epic, beautiful, thrilling and unique, Six String Samurai is just a huge amount of fun. In writing this, I discovered that it’s finally been released on DVD in the UK, so that tatty old NTSC VHS in the photo above is soon to be replaced.

SLIPSTREAM (1989)

Imagine this:

From the Director of Tron and the producer of Star Wars. An epic air-based post-apocalyptic sci-fi action/adventure starring Bill Paxton in the lead, backed up by Luke Skywalker as the bad guy and with supporting roles from Ben Kingsley and F. Murray Abraham.

It happened. It’s real. But the film was a difficult production, it bankrupted producer Gary Kurtz and misfired hideously, it didn’t even get a cinema release in the U.S., which seems crazy. I’m not going to pretend this film is a masterpiece but it’s a fascinating watch and well worth a Sunday afternoon. You can see every piston firing on this film but, sadly, just not quite in unison.

The story is of an earth ravaged by an apocalyptic wind (and, yes, it is hard to watch without being aware of the constant possibility in every line of dialogue for fart-based euphemism) which has seen humanity scatter into the cliffs or below ground. The only way to travel now is by ‘riding the slipstream’ (I know), only the most talented pilots can venture out in their light aircraft. The film opens with Mark Hamill and Kitty Aldridge as Tasker and Belitski, what remains of the law, pursuing an enigmatic man in a suit – Bob Peck as Byron – for murder. They catch him but are quickly gazumped by Paxton’s Matt Owens, a roguish chancer, who can see a large bounty for being the man who brings Byron in.

Bob Peck’s performance is central to this film. It quickly transpires that he is an android but one who is becoming aware of life. Obviously, this theme is explored better in the tedious A.I. but Peck brings a really edgy quality to the role. Even he’s not sure whether he is dangerous or not but his constant self-exploration and openness puts the behaviour of the film’s real human beings to shame. Hamill turns in a solid bad-ass performance, Paxton – so rarely offered a lead role – is ebullient and fun and unexpected supporting roles from Kingsley and Abraham actually lend the picture a lot of gravitas. It’s intelligently written and always interesting in what it is trying to show and say.

So, what’s the problem? Well, the problem is the director. Steven Lisberger, he only ever directed three films. Tron was the first, this the last (bizarrely the middle one was a crappy 80’s John Cusack teen movie called Hot Pursuit). It showcases a similar problem to one that has always sullied Tron for me. Here’s a director who understands how to make an epic film. He has vision and a strong sense of dynamic aesthetic yet he seems to have no interest in directing, or even particularly turning the camera on to, actors. The character sequences seem like a necessary evil to him which he plods through to get back to showing gorgeous shots of crazy vehicles in crazy environments. He does gliders, kites and hot air balloons like nobody else. I think in both films he landed on his feet by casting strong actors but the director’s job is to hold these performances together, to fit them around each other, to make sense of them. What we end up with here is a whole which is significantly less than the sum of its parts. I think the script is fascinating, I think every individual performance is great, I think the visuals are stunning but the problem is that they just don’t all sit together well. That said, I’d take an interesting film over an unadventurous one any day of the week. I’d watch this three times in a row over having to sit through that new Die Hard film. It deserves better than it got and it’s worth seeing just as a curiosity.

So, what do you think? What are your favourite post-apocalyptic flicks?

Crying On The Inside

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I recently went to a gala preview thingy for A Liar’s autobiography, which was immediately shunted out on DVD to, it strikes me, very little press coverage or acclaim. I think that’s a shame, so I wanted to write something about it and use it as an excuse to look at film biographies of troubled comedians, which is a genre seldom explored. ALA walks a bit of a tightrope in this genre. You could argue that it’s a documentary but I think it just about qualifies as a dramatization due to the manner of its production. Anyway, buckle up for some tears and giggles…

A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2013):

This is as strange and unquantifiable a film as its subject clearly deserves. The long-dead Graham Chapman narrates his own life story, which is played out in a series of animated sections with the rest of the still-living Pythons playing the voices of every other role. It’s a beautiful curiosity. Filmmakers Ben (son of Terry) Jones and Ben Timlett created the voiceover from the audiobook version of Chapman’s autobiography, rather charmingly mixing it up with the out-takes from that session. They then turned it over to 14 different animation studios, all with their own very distinct styles, methods and aesthetics to bring it to life in whatever way they felt best. The animation is hit and miss, some sections feel like pretty shoddy CGI, whilst others are like works of fine art. The section detailing Chapman’s cold turkey withdrawal from substance abuse, achieved through painting on panes of glass is a thing of wonder. Likewise some of the silly stuff, especially the section detailing his sexual appetite leap of the screen (literally if you see it in 3D – which I recommend) in both narrative approach and animation achievement. Sometimes the silliness and the constant visual assault on the eyes takes away slightly from giving you a bit more of a serious insight into the man himself but you somewhat feel that might be the point. He remains a bit of an enigma in death as he was in life and really rather than scrape around for his inner demons, this film revels in celebrating the spirit of a true eccentric.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS (2004):

This is another odd film and not entirely a successful one, despite being worth watching and having quite a lot of interesting things going on. The casting of the film is both its success and its failure. Geoffrey Rush is simply the wrong choice to portray Sellers. I’m not sure why. It could be his age, his shape, his general demeanor which doesn’t feel quite in tune with the piece. Films like this are tricky, the central actor has quite a task ahead of them in channeling the spirit of the subject without just doing an impersonation. I think an audience is always prepared to suspend disbelief as to how much they look or sound like their inspiration, as long as they feel like them. Rush, who does a valiant job, aside, the rest of the casting is impeccable. Steve Pemberton and Ed Tudor Pole are inspired choices as Secombe and Milligan. Stanley Tucci plays a wry Stanley Kubrick and John Lithgow brings a wired energy to Blake Edwards. What I really like about this film is the approach it takes to its central figure. It plays big on the notion that Sellers didn’t really have much of a personality of his own and was as confused as anybody else by his own choices and behaviour. It leads to some fabulously bizarre scenes like the one where we has dinner on the set of Dr Strangelove with his mum (Miriam Margolyes) but conducts the whole meal in character as Strangelove. Rush does do justice to Seller’s private rages and the scenes of his homelife are horribly sad, complemented by really great performances from the very young actors playing his children and suffering his manic fury. The direction is excellent, with some really odd misdirections and unexpected storytelling moves. It’s not perfect but it’s so worth a watch.

NOT ONLY BUT ALWAYS (2004):

So, here is the opposite phenomenon, a film, perhaps less ambitious in storytelling scope, but whose central figures are impeccably cast. Rhys Ifans was practically born to play Peter Cook, with his disconnected yet cutting gaze and heady mix of arrogance and umbrage. Aidan McArdle, an actor I’m unaware of outside of this film is the perfect Dudley Moore – the put-upon stooge who finds his confidence, much to the chagrin of his arguably more talented partner. Written and directed by playwright Terry Johnson, this really catches that fantastic tension that made Cook and Moore so special. Cook is incredibly cruel to Moore but never in a way that could be considered anything less than hilarious. It shows the hell that a troubled genius is to other people and captures that aloof pain in all of Cook’s relationships. It resists the chance presented to paint Cook as some kind of monster or fuck-up and it’s this dignity which it affords all participants which marks it out as a particularly classy film.

LENNY (1974):

One of those films where all of the elements are perfect. Dustin Hoffman at his absolute prime, playing Lenny Bruce, probably the most brilliant comedian ever and unarguably the father of modern stand-up, directed by the rarely-recognised genius Bob Fosse. This film is so raw and so voyeuristic that it feels like documentary. It doesn’t feel acted. Bruce was essentially hounded to death by the police and authorities on constant obscenity charges for his act which, by today’s standards seems positively tame. The swearing and sexual references which are pretty much tired and passe now were revolutionary when he employed them and he became a martyr for not so much free speech – he was a comedian, not a political campaigner – but the right to express oneself freely and use the words they choose. The final courtroom scene where an exhausted but frenzied Bruce is subjected to a complete dissection of his act removed entirely of context, is a masterpiece of frustration. Bruce actually has some faith in the judge and complete belief in the value of what he himself has to say, he is convinced that if he is just allowed to perform his own material to the judge, then it will be understood. Dismissing his representation and trying desperately to express himself honestly, hitting a zenith when he says ‘Your honour, I so want your respect…’ only to be threatened with contempt of court. He is broken down to nothing, it’s the perfect illustration of the system crushing an outsider. As he’s dragged off, he cries  ‘you need a deviant! you need that madman to stand up and tell you when you’re blowing it!’ His last line, a wretched, sincere, childish plead of ‘please don’t take away my words, they’re not hurting anybody!’ it’s an incredibly emotional film which pulls you through the wringer a bit, leaving you frustrated and sad but aware that you have just experienced a work of incredible quality.

MAN ON THE MOON (1999):

And this is my favourite of the genre. One of my favourite films of all time, really. It nails it in every way the preceding films do individually but with even more emotional depth and cogent analysis. Andy Kaufman was not one of the most famous comedians even of his time and endures as a cult figure but I’d argue not a particularly well-known one. Most famous for playing Latke on the sitcom Taxi and less-so for a string of performances on Saturday Night Live, he’s probably best remembered now in the world of wrestling for his bizarre gatecrashing of that sport with his inter-gender bouts and his feud with Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler. This film, directed by Milos Forman and written by the two guys who are simply the best at biopics – Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (they also wrote Ed Wood and The People vs Larry Flynt), engages so deeply with Kaufman’s character and insecurities. The film was made with the total involvement of Kaufman’s family and friends, many of whom appear in the film in cameos or even playing themselves and this lends the piece a huge amount of heart. When I heard the film was being made, I was excited, when I heard Jim Carrey had been cast, I was despondent. Ace Ventura. He was an obvious choice but would undoubtedly trash it. I was so wrong. Carrey nails this part so perfectly that he’s completely lost in it. To me, he is directly channeling the spirit of Kaufman. He is Kaufman. It’s a heartfelt performance of a man who was never afraid to experiment, never afraid to test himself. No matter how many times I see this film, it still reduces me to tears by the end. It deserves to be seen. It deserves to be talked about more.

So, what do you think? How do you feel about biopics? What are your favourites? can they ever do their subjects justice? Which comedians are crying out to be eulogised with a film like these? Post a comment!

Apples & Pears

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I’ve got an enduring love for London. I’ve never actually lived there but in the 12 years I’ve lived back in Oxford, I don’t think a week has passed that hasn’t found me there at least once. It’s one of the greatest cities in the world and historically one of the most fascinating. I’ve always felt London was a little unrepresented on film. I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say as, since the first film camera rolled, London has been captured every day and whole waves of filmmaking have always emanated from it. Currently, you only have to dip in to Sainsbury’s to see that we’re in a golden age of shitty London gangster films and shitty comedy horror which seems to be an entire economy built around keeping Danny Dyer and Noel Clarke in bountiful employment.

I love seeing London on film but have never really appreciated the touristy approach – the shots of Big Ben and Beefeaters and the charming appeal of the South Bank on a Sunday morning (and it is charming of a Sunday!) I recently watched the Dustin Hoffman vehicle Last Chance Harvey and it seemed to be entirely composed of charming walking conversations between him and Emma Thompson up and down between Waterloo Bridge and the Oxo Tower. This in itself felt very ripped off from Truly, Madly, Deeply – the only pretentious film that I will defend to the death. I guess what rankled was that it was a film set in London that, to me, had none of the actual flavour of London. So, inspired by that, I decided to identify the films which scream London to me and chart the changes that have kept the city amazing through cinema’s short history.

WONDERFUL LONDON (1924)

OK, so I’m starting with a little cheat as this isn’t a fiction film. I’ll always take any opportunity I can to plug the BFI DVD label, my favourite label by far. Wonderful London is a collection of, essentially, travelogue films. Back in the day, before our cinema ‘program’ consisted of car ads, trailers for upcoming films which leave you wondering if they’re very clever satires or very very bad ideas (always the latter) and some baffling crap filmed at a premiere hosted by an animated M&M, cinemagoers would be treated to short films, comedies, news reels and even supporting features. These short documentaries were fun slices of life. This is a beautiful collection of pre-sound short looks at different areas of London. All shot at 18 frames per second, with a gorgeous sepia tint and endearing title cards. I doubt this DVD sold many copies and I can see how it might not sound exciting and appealing but it’s a magical watch. Precisely because it is filmed merely to capture sights rather than construct drama, we’re transported back in time. Streets filled with people and pets long gone. Films of ghosts. Particularly great is that the filmmakers explore all of London – the backstreets, the rough parts of town, the markets, the canals. Occasionally you see a street you recognise but free of modern cars, neon and advertising, nobody’s on a mobile phone, not a Primark bag in sight. Perhaps because it is unstaged, it really just takes you there.

HOPE AND GLORY (1987)

I should probably have chosen one made at the time but Hope and Glory has always stood out to me as the great Blitz film. World War 2’s impact on London has been explored a lot but it tends to veer between heavy drama or rambunctious comedy, all infused with the good old British spirit that hardens the cock of even the most impotent BNP voter. Hope and Glory does something very different. It’s an autobiographical film from John Boorman who tells his story from the point of view of a 10 year old boy. The Blitz is presented neither as tragedy or adventure but as a force which tears through the boredom and monotony of suburban London. Even when the bombing gets scary, there is an inherent excitement in it that you feel the main character would choose without hesitation over dull routine. It’s such a spirited and off-kilter film. its poignancy comes through its sense of humour and pathos but it also paints a picture of the end of childhood in this country. You get the feeling that this was the generation whose seen-but-not-heard shackles were cut as the middle class kids were left to run wild whilst their parents focused on more important matters. We follow Bill through the bombed out houses, his interaction with gangs of kids and their early sexual awakenings. There’s a Lord of the Flies quality to it all and life turns on him in an unexpected way. A lot of the film takes place away from London but what interests me in the context of this blog is how insightful it is into the psychology of the city. It shows you what the Blitz wiped away and the seeds it sowed for the London that would follow.

UP THE JUNCTION (1968)

I love this film, it feels like the key to the Baby Boom generation. It examines the ugliness of London in the sixties. It tells the story of a wealthy Chelsea girl who wants to taste life so decides to slum it, getting a factory job and a tiny flat in Battersea. Suzy Kendall plays Polly, the lead, with compassion rather than naivete but is dwarfed by brooding, hungry Dennis Waterman as her boyfriend Pete. I know. As much as Polly craves for a real life away from the vacuous bigots of her own social scene, Pete is disgusted by his working class background and their lack of sophistication or ambition. It’s an ugly world of pub fights and backstreet abortions but it also captures a rich mix of colourful London characters which seem to have been marginalised or eradicated by modern life. The casting is incredibly good, the performances are very real, haunting and devastating. The director Peter Collinson went on to make The Italian Job. Although Up the Junction opts for depth and social commentary over the humour and bombast of his more famous offering, it’s an incredible dissection of the social forces at play in London in a time more often captured on film as bright and carefree.

SITTING TARGET (1972)

Sitting Target is a strange film. You spend most of it wondering what the director is hoping to make you feel. Oliver Reed plays Harry Lomart. A bastard. Harry breaks out of a high security prison to kill his wife, who has just reasonably revealed to him that she is pregnant by another man and not prepared to wait for Harry – who isn’t due for release any time in the next few decades. So, a convicted killer on a bloody mission to kill his pregnant wife. Somewhat beyond the label of even anti-hero. But, Reed being Reed, he plays it with such smouldering wide-eyed charisma, we find ourselves somewhat, troublingly, on his side. The reason this stands out to me as a London film is its depiction of a modern city. Much of the action takes place in and out of the high rise tower blocks which have now replaced the slums which haunt Up The Junction. It’s an age where modernism is accepted and good. The buildings are crisp, clean and white, filled with habitat furniture but also breeding anonymity and vulnerability. When Reed prepares for his assassination attempt, we see how one small rifle sight can observe any window, how all of these peoples lives have been contained in one simple, easy to maintain and observe fish tank.  It’s actually a great film, Ian McShane plays Reed’s wingman and an unexpected third act revelation provides a wallop of moral fibre which leaves us in no doubt how we should actually feel about Harry.

MADE IN BRITAIN (1982)

Ten years later and how far society has changed. The tower blocks, once new and optimistic have become lawless and wretched. The true underclass have had their communities taken away along with their jobs, dignity and hope. This generation of teenagers is nihilistic and angry. There were plenty of skinhead/hooligan films that sprung up around this time but Made in Britain remains the most scathing indictment of Thatcher’s Britain. In one of the great screen debuts, Tim Roth plays Trevor, a skinhead with a difference. He’s violent, deeply anarchistic and racist, despite having a black best friend. The difference is that we grow to see Trevor’s intelligence. His curse isn’t his social status it’s understanding that status and what it means for his future. Nobody wants him, nobody is going to help him, he lives in a world designed to keep him quiet and, more importantly, keep him out. His rage is the fury of a worthwhile person considered utterly worthless. By the time redemption is offered, he’s too far gone and pursues a course of action to pointlessly martyr himself as a representation for his kind. It’s the work of Alan Clarke, the director of Scum and The Firm, who probably had the greatest political and social eye in British cinema. This film shows a bleak London. It doesn’t glorify or justify the mayhem, it just presents a view of a failed system where the divide between rich and poor, that seemed in the 60s vaguely possible to heal, was only to get worse.

LONDON RIVER (2009)

London River is the kind of film which should have been made decades ago. An important portrayal of London as it really is – an immigrant city steeped in a multitude of cultures. It’s the film that should be screened at UKIP conferences (rallies?) to explain the capital city to people. This notion of Britishness we seem to be endlessly confronted with – fish & chips (brought over by the Eastern European Jews, thank you), Winston Churchill, Spitfires and cricket greens – exists mainly in the eyes of the confused. I’m sure if your only experience of London was a citybreak twice a decade which extended to a boat down the Thames, a look at Big Ben, Phantom of the Opera and a slap-up dinner in an Angus Steak House, then it would be easy to see London as a bastion of colonialism. But it isn’t. It never has been. It has always been an immigrant city, a port town. London River is the first film I’m aware of to embrace this in a significant manner. To begin with, it’s a French film. From a French writer/director with most of the dialogue being French with English subtitles. Brenda Blethyn stars as a Guernesy-based mother drawn to London by a complete and worrying lack of contact from her daughter following the 7/7 bombings. She quickly finds her fate entangled with a man from Africa, played by Sotigui Kouyaté on a similar mission to find his son. As it becomes clear that their children were a couple, both find themselves wondering not only if they died but whether they might have been a part of the attacks. It’s a great film played with fantastic gravitas by its leads. Kouyaté is a film actor of the highest order, his entire performance being incredibly visual and played out through his eyes, silence and stillness. The film takes place amongst the Muslim community, there is barely a white face in the film and rarely a London accent. Not that this is, in any way, a point the filmmaker is trying to make. In telling this important story, he opens up the real London, the London so rarely seen on film. The non-white, non-English speaking London which represents a large part of the true culture of the city.

So what do you think? Have you seen these films? What have I missed out?