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?

May or May Not.

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Sometimes I find it hard to really sum up my taste in films. I’m definitely a film geek but I wouldn’t describe my tastes as too obtuse. I have friends who hunt out their sustenance in the most unexpected places. Some travel the world to film festivals in far-flung places, others trawl archives and torrents for unreleased gems, most of my friends veer towards the cult subjects – the grimy horrors, the campy sci-fi, the saucy sex comedies of the 1970s British suburbs. My tastes are more mainstream but not actually mainstream. The films that have always fascinated me are the films that were meant to be mainstream. Those weird little aberrations which crop up on every star’s IMDB page. Films which had big casts, proper budgets, everything going for them but… for whatever reason… just didn’t happen. Sometimes they were mis-marketed, sometimes victims of behind-the-scenes politics at the studio, sometimes they were just released at the wrong moment in history. I like finding great, high quality films that vanished. There are thousands of them.

Now, although every star has one and, indeed, every director and producer and writer has one, it’s rare to find a director who worked completely in the mainstream but whose entire career consists of such films. Let alone one whose entire body of work deserves to be recognised as classic cinema. I mean, sure, there are directors who made shitty films for years and, with the assistance of passed time, achieve a level of unintended kitsch glory. But I’m talking about a director who made three incredible movies. Two with A-list Hollywood stars and one with an A-list cast of highly respected character actors. A director whose final directorial effort had a $40 million budget in 1986. How does a director like that, and their entire body of work just slip through the cracks?

I’m talking about a writer/director called Elaine May. You might have heard of her, if you have, it will probably have been for one of two reasons – either because she was a highly respected and influential comedienne or because she was the director of Ishtar. Ishtar, that’s the film of hers most people have heard of. Heard of, but I’d wager, not seen. Most people haven’t even heard of it. It was considered toxic long before it was released, was famous mainly as a punchline and became the frame of reference for a Hollywood flop for a couple of years before it was unceremoniously forgotten about. It was the saddest kind of flop, too. Because it was neither gloriously shit or belatedly discovered. Nobody went to see it. Nobody remembers it. I had to buy a French DVD of it as the UK ‘uncut’ release (a baffling minute shorter than the standard version) is long out of print.

So, if you like your comedy black yet full of pathos. If you like your characters existing on the fringe of society and the brink of sanity and you like your films well-observed, wry and heartfelt, it would be my pleasure to introduce you to the cinema of Elaine May…

A NEW LEAF (1971)

This was May’s first film and she writes, directs and co-stars. I can’t think of another female director from that era working in the mainstream who was allowed such a favoured situation. She hits the ground running. The film tells the story of a vile millionaire playboy called Henry Graham, played with majestically aloof pomposity by Walter Matthau. Graham blows his whole inheritance through financial laziness and, when faced with the prospect of poverty, sets about to find himself a wealthy wife who can keep him in the style to which he is accustomed. Matthau is a misanthrope of the highest order and finds the notion of having to marry to be a massive inconvenience and treats all of his prospective partners with a dismissive weariness. As time runs out, he happens upon Henrietta Lowell, a nerdish, clumsy, uncomfortably comfortable botanist. He bites the bullet and romances her as best he can, planning to fleece her or, if needs be, engineer an accident to finish her off. Like all the best rom-coms, what he doesn’t expect is to come to love her. If that’s what even happens. Like May’s other lead characters, there is something deeply, unrepentantly vile about Graham. He doesn’t deserve love. He’s a bad person. But maybe he isn’t. May has a skill with creating characters who aren’t simply flat stereotypes, they are conflicted, animalistic and intensely human. So as much as we hate Matthau and feel bad for May, the eventual promise of romance is an exciting one. It’s also one of a very rare breed of films – a sneeringly sarcastic romantic comedy. The background is populated by incredulous, snarky old men. The leads are unattractive individually and together. Yet, here is a deeply funny and quite moving little piece. It feels like the kernel that Wes Anderson’s entire oeuvre sprung from and if you dig his films, you should hunt this one out. And so you would expect May’s career to head merrily down that path – the female director churning out the better-than-average spunky little romantic comedies. But no. Four years later, she’s making a film almost completely diametrically opposed in every way…

MIKEY AND NICKY (1976)

What’s the last film you’d expect from a female ex-comedienne director in the mid-seventies? A grimy gangster film. It would be horribly misogynistic to declare surprise that a female director could produce a dark, intelligent, brooding hoodlum flick – and I’m not. But I am surprised that any studio in the 70s paid for that to happen. Surprised and delighted because, frankly, this one is a corker. How Mikey and Nicky is not a bonafide cinema classic is beyond me. it features character acting legends Peter (Columbo) Falk and John Cassavettes as two small-time crooks. Lifelong friends. Cassavettes’ Nicky has stolen some money from the mob and holed up in a cheap hotel ravaged by paranoia and a burning stomach ulcer. Out of his mind, he calls Mikey to help him out. Making Mikey jump through hoops in a desperate bid to help flee the city and not get killed. To begin with, it’s unclear whether there is even a hit out on Nicky but slowly, with the appearance of an impassive Ned Beatty, we realise there might be something to his paranoia. But that’s not all that happens slowly.

The story itself never really develops from the first ten minutes, it’s the story of one night on the streets and hovels of New York in which two friends try to avoid a hitman. What develops – masterfully – is the backstory. The history as to how they got to this point. And that story is Shakespearean. A story of friendship, love, loyalty, betrayal, power, greed, redemption and futility. We don’t just learn these characters’ stories, we learn about every side of their personalities. Again, May’s strength is in creating complex, real characters. We flit between loving and hating these guys. Trusting and fearing them. Some of their actions are unforgivable, they’re randomly violent to innocent victims. They are feral and thoughtless. But they are also damaged and reflective, nostalgic and scared. This is a portrait of the male psyche. At first it seems like there will be no female characters at all in this night-landscaped journey, but the wives and girlfriends start to appear and here May excels.

A scene in which the boys visit Nicky’s ‘girlfriend’ is possibly the most awkwardly uncomfortable sex scene I’ve seen. It is neither graphic nor entirely non-consensual, it is just a harsh illustration of male disrespect and frustration. The scene pays out in real time whilst Nicky patronises, lies and wears down Nellie’s defences, rejects her intelligence and wishes and leaves her no option but to have sex with him whilst his friend waits, listening on awkwardly in the kitchen. When the act is over and Nicky tires of her, Mikey – clearly the nicer of the partnership – approaches her seemingly to make her feel better but, no, he’s just making a move too.

This film is brilliant. When you compare it to the films from that era and genre that have become classics, it’s impossible to figure out why this doesn’t sit amongst them. To me, this makes Mean Streets just seem like a bunch of posturing. The emotional depth and intelligent intensity of Mikey and Nicky seems to stem from the shooting method. Apparently May was fearsomely idiosyncratic in her directing style. According to Wikipedia, she shot 1.4 million feet of film for this – three times the amount of film used in Gone With The Wind. The acting was largely improvisational and the cameras would just roll and roll. This pays off. The two lead actors show their range and their brilliance it’s both a buddy movie and a thriller. Again, it is rife with pathos but also darkness.

ISHTAR (1987)

So, commercially, Ishtar was dead on arrival. The stories of its production had already lead to industry mocking. By this point, May and the film’s stars Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty (who also produced) were known as three of the most difficult forces in Hollywood and this wasn’t helped when May firstly flew the whole crew out to a remote part of the Moroccan Sahara because she wanted perfect sand dunes, only to decide that dunes were cliched and order the crew to flatten a square mile of them instead. What May was attempting was bold – a broad comedy film in the Bob Hope ‘Road To’ mold – but starring two non comedians in the comedic leads. Neither Hoffman nor Beatty were what could be called comic actors but – as you’ll have seen in the clip above – the trio work this to its advantage. The roles are played deadpan with a dimwitted intensity which is consistently pant-wettingly funny. The first half hour alone of failed gigs, wretched songwriting sessions and embarrassing suicide bids is some of the funniest American tongue-in-cheek I’ve ever seen. The thrust of the ensuing narrative – a mistaken-identity style political/military farce is serviceable but the performances never fail to be anything but charismatic and hilarious. The supporting cast features M.Emmett Walsh and the always great Charles Grodin. Fuck, even the extras in this film are brilliant. This is a Sunday afternoon film of the highest order. Is it brilliant? Maybe not, maybe it’s not a classic but it’s so much fun. It bears repeated viewings. It deserves to be fondly remembered. It deserves to be remembered. It deserves to be available.

May wrote a couple more films for her ex-comedy partner, Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) and it’s not like she hasn’t been busy over the years – she did a lot of comedy and a lot of theatre. I’m sure she’s kept busy and achieved a lot but it upsets me that these three films (along with The Heartbreak Kid, a decent Neil Simon scripted Grodin film which she directed) represent her entire body of writer-director work. I would have loved to have seen what else she had to offer. I feel that she was accomplished and talented from the first film to the last, so I’m not so sure that she would have got any better, I just wish she had done more. There is such a scarcity of confident directors who understand comedy, film acting and really grasp the concept of character. Her work is at least equal to that of her contemporaries at the time and although I have no idea whether the absence of any further work is through her own choice or that of the system, I think it’s a massive shame that we were denied more from this rare talent.

Searching For Better, Man.

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OK, so I’m about to start this post by talking about something I really don’t come out of well. It’s an opinion I’ve held for a few weeks now but I’ve been scared to offer it in public or online as I know it makes me look bad. So, before I even type it, let’s acknowledge how it will likely be received. Chances are, it’ll make me look either bitter or obstinately contrary. I understand this and will spend a couple of paragraphs justifying the opinion but for now, I’ll accept the outcome and just damn well say something that needs to be said…

Searching For Sugar Man is a fucking shitty film.

There, I said it. It’s a total piece of shit. I’m so sick of seemingly sane people singing its praises. It’s a piece of shit. Why might that opinion paint me as contrary? Well, it has a 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes – that’s hard to go against the grain on. Everyone – critics and audiences alike – undeniably love this film. And why does it colour me bitter? Well, because my own music documentary (http://www.acpgthemovie.com) came out around the same time, also deals with the cruelty of the music industry, and whilst Sugar Man has gone on to be seen my millions and get Oscar nominated, mine has… not. I could claim not to be bitter but few would believe me and, honestly, I wouldn’t believe me either. But the bitterness is not why I hated this film.

I hate Searching For Sugar Man for several reasons. I was excited to see it but quickly realised how insidious I found it. Firstly, it’s a dishonest film. A dishonest documentary. It’s constructed and marketed in a strange way. There is an implication that the filmmakers themselves are conducting the search for Rodriguez. We even believe this as the film is going on. When they finally find the man, it’s exciting. We are shown glimpses of him through a window as if the excited camera crew have started rolling before they even ring the doorbell. When we finally get an interview with the man, he is almost silent, clearly awkward being filmed. As you would be if you had lived out of the limelight for decades. But then the truth is slowly leaked out as quitely as possible, purely because it’s unavoidable. That truth is that Sugar Man had actually been found some 15 years earlier and hasn’t been missing at all since he’s been touring and performing again for well over a decade. Not only that, but there was nothing exclusive about the central interview. He has been doing interviews over the years for other people and the interviews he’s done in the wake of the film have been far more eloquent and engaging.

Documentary is a tough proposal. There is no such thing as truth, there is only perspective. But the filmmaker is honour bound to either serve to honestly document or to use the footage to clearly express a point of view. To document or polemicize. Not to manipulate an emotional response for the sake of gravitas. The truth is that, had it been constructed honestly, it wouldn’t have been so engaging for its audience. The SEARCH is more important than the Sugar Man. Had the timeline and editing been conducted honestly, it would have merely been a far less interesting or charming version of Anvil: The Story of Anvil – which is an amazingly bold and honest film.

Searching For Sugar Man is akin to that clip of Susan Boyle singing I Dreamed a Dream on whatever shitty Simon Cowell monstrosity that appeared on. A pretty uncommentable everyday event edited and presented in such a way as to illicit an emotional response. I guess ACPG taught me that the bulk of great musicians don’t get rich and famous, maybe Sugar Man was the film that taught that to the world and their response to that injustice was to mistake emotional manipulation for great filmmaking. It’s a shitty film.

Anyway, it got me thinking about amazing music documentaries that haven’t had the appreciation they deserve and there’s a couple that I particularly wanted to turn your head towards. I think what unites them is that their subjects are particularly, distinctly, uncool. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the reason they have been overlooked. It’s an easy mistake to make – why would you want to see a documentary about a band/performer you don’t like? Well, that’s a problem unique to music doc as we’re happy to watch political and social docs about people we hate. I suppose the assumption is that anything made about such performers will be record company fluff but the two films I really want to recommend are by very well established and respected documentary directors and you should check them out regardless of your feelings about the performers.

SHUT UP AND SING (2006)

I know, right? Who’d want to watch a film about the Dixie Chicks? Syrupy country rock pop bleurgh. I had less than no interest in this film before I caught the trailer on some other DVD. My mistake. I’ve watched the film several times since. This isn’t a film about the band, it’s a film about Bush’s America. It’s a film about the corporate stranglehold over the media and it’s a film about how the concept of free speech is misunderstood. The whole story stems from a single comment made by lead singer Natalie Maines on stage at a gig in London at the height of the Iraq war. She says that the band is ashamed that George Bush is from Texas. Whilst they carry on their European jaunt, word filters back to their homeland and a media storm is whipped up. A media storm over here is very different to one in America as it’s not just content that comes and goes, not only does it knock their careers off track as whole media conglomerates refuse to play their music but it also motivates the public to respond in very real ways. There are mass demonstrations and public displays of fury. Their ticket sales take a massive hit. Worse than this, death threats start to appear. We are in the band’s inner sanctum throughout this whole chain of events and, even if you have no time for their music, you grow to respect them intensely as people. There is a constant pressure for them to apologise, even from their friends and management, but they hold true. Their bravery is cast in stone when some very real death threats surface. The band decide to play a stadium gig, in the round, despite confirmed threats from a confirmed and unlocated psychopath that Maines will be shot to death if she goes on stage. This is not just an important social document but it’s edge-of-your-seat watching.

DON’T LOOK BACK (1967)

Have you seen Don’t Look Back? If you’re into music docs, you probably have. It documents Bob Dylan’s UK tour of 1965. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking. Usually we experience stardom and cultural shifts only through a filter. We’re told of cultural relevance retrospectively or analytically, we don’t get to experience it. That’s why so much of it now is fake. Marketing and media have learned how to emulate such documenting and create phenomenons themselves rather than wait for them to happen. But here, we get to experience it from the inside. We get to see Dylan’s fragility and bewilderment as he realises that he is no longer an ordinary man. The world has turned on its head and everyone wants a piece of him. We travel with him in cars as he pleads for someone to get teenage girls off the roof lest they get hurt. He finds normal interviews about his work turned into hostile encounters, having to defend himself from labels other people have put on him. Even his fans boo and jeer him as he tries to move his work on from traditional folk to rock. Everyone wants a piece of him. It’s exciting watching. You are witnessing history being written from a perspective rarely granted an audience. It’s rightly hailed as a classic and I shouldn’t therefore be recommending it to you, just by my own remit for this blog. But there is a reason I want you to remember, or at least, be familiar with it. it’s because I want to talk about what I consider one of the best music documentaries ever and you need to share my frame of reference for it.

GERI (1999)

Unfortunately I can’t find a single clip online for you but I’m telling you now to get hold of a copy of this film. The film starts as Geri Halliwell leaves the Spice Girls. The biggest character in the biggest band in the world. She starts keeping a video diary but – perhaps filled with hubris or an inflated ego – decides that this should be properly documented, so pulls in the UK’s most respected female documentary filmmaker. Molly Dineen. Dineen is one of my favourite filmmakers ever, she has an ability to become part of the story, her empathy and warmth endear her to her subjects in a very real way and allow her to present honestly without ever exploiting. Her most famous film is probably the incredible Home From The Hill about a retired colonel forced to leave the luxuries of his life in Africa for the realities of an impoverished UK pensioner. Dineen quickly becomes Halliwell’s only real human contact outside of her family. It is a worthy sequel to Don’t Look Back. It is shot in a very similar observational but immediate style and echoes the whirlwind/eye of the storm feeling. For the period that Dineen captures, Halliwell is the most sought after person in the world media, yet to be with her at this time is an unerringly lonely and confusing experience. When you watch this back-to-back with Don’t Look Back, it tells the story of how music and culture has changed but media and public hysteria have not. Dylan was a poet, an intelligence, a rare creature who deserved his attention. Halliwell was a corporate product, a puppet, a poor naive innocent. In her quieter moments we see her lack of wits and she is like a sweet child. There’s a bizarre scene in which she is spirited to New York to become an ambassador for the U.N. and as she sits in the meeting an awkwardness falls on the room as those around her realise she thinks she has been given the job because of her potential and ability rather than her fame. It’s observational documentary filmmaking at its best. Compulsive viewing which uses its subject to explore much wider issues. You can get it on Volume 3 of the Molly Dineen Collection DVDs released last year by the BFI. I recommend you buy all 3 volumes, there isn’t a bad film on them and volume 2, which features her TV series The Ark is breathtakingly good.

So, that’s that. Music documentary – it’s not the subject you should be concentrating on so much as the perspective. Of course if you really want to see that in action….

Keep On Keaton On.

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I fucking LOVE Michael Keaton. Here’s a guy, a cinematic energy who has been buzzing around cinema since the early 80s, occasionally poking his head above water but generally just amusing himself with a string of fascinating roles and kinetic, passionate performances.

I’m struck by how unappreciated Michael Keaton really is. He’s basically famous for being the proto-Johnny Depp. For the briefest moment in cinema history, he was Tim Burton’s muse and fronted two of his most significant films. In Beetlejuice, he let rip and created one of the most charistmatic figures of modern cult cinema. That film still defies categorisation in so many ways and his performance, both central to the film but also very much the troublesome agitator rather than a main character is unrivaled in sheer glee, sleaze, glibness and energy. His second Burton collaboration was Batman in which he offered a far more restrained performance and one which, despite being iconic and perfectly professional, probably wasn’t terribly well suited to him as an actor.

This is what never sat well with me. By having played Batman – arguably the biggest blockbuster studio movie of all time, you would assume that Keaton would have become a Blockbuster star. But he never did. After the inevitable Batman sequel, he seemed to step immediately back into his safety zone of strong character-lead performances in unflashy films. I want to suggest you check out a few of his lesser-known offerings.

GUNG HO (1986)

By this point, Keaton has established himself as a dependable comic actor, he’d worked with director Ron Howard as the comic relief in Fonz-lead-mortuary-sex-comedy Night Shift and had played lead in a couple of smaller comedies Mr Mom and Johnny Dangerously. Gung Ho represents his first real performance. It’s a nifty little time capsule of a movie preserving the moment in America where globalisation became reality. Set in a small midwestern town whose entire economy is built around the automotive industry, it tells the story of a factory foreman fighting to smooth the transition of a Japanese corporation taking over the business. It plays on and explores the incalcitrant arrogance of the American blue collar worker and the merciless efficiency of the Japanese white collar executive. Nominally the film is regarded as a comedy but I’ve never really seen that. The film is unafraid to get quite dark, is staunchly critical of both sides of the conflict and presents, in Keaton, a deeply flawed hero. A liar who is usually more concerned with furthering his own situation and being perceived as a hero than he is really solving problems. A very human hero. A very human film.

CLEAN AND SOBER (1988)

Clean and Sober is a muted but completely compelling film which, once again, deals with a central character of highly questionable character. Keaton’s Daryl is a drug addict so deeply fucked up that he checks himself into a rehab program to hide from the police, ironically unaware that he is even an addict. His anger and jaundice with the world prevent him from taking the notion of help seriously until he’s some way along the process. Keaton’s energy is furious and captivating and the only reason we don’t completely hate him is because his performance is deeply honest and he displays his damage for us to see, even if the character is at first incapable. The film is an uneasy redemption story, supported by a strong cast of character actors including M. Emmet Walsh and Morgan Freeman in quiet, deferential brilliance. It’s a visually stark piece, I don’t think there is any sunlight in the whole film. It feels muddy and squalid but never self-conciously so. It can be a tough watch but the quality of performance is always fascinating. It’s one of those films that couldn’t happen now. Every performance in modern equivalents feels geared towards Oscar glory rather than meditative honesty.

MY LIFE (1993)

I will never understand how My Life is not just not a better-known film, but also not regarded as a classic. It’s one of my very favourite films. It is unique and nuanced. Written and directed by Bruce Joel Rubin, it concludes what I have always considered his unrecognised trilogy of death. He also wrote Ghost – a film about the grieving process and Jacob’s Ladder – a film about the physical moment of death. My Life is his musing on the very process of dying. When you think about how many characters have died in cinema history, it’s striking how few decent films there are about the process of dying itself. This film starts with Keaton’s character – an unfairly young entertainment agent called Bob Jones – being diagnosed with terminal cancer. At the same time, his wife played by Nicole Kidman is revealed to be pregnant, a brilliant device which allows Keaton’s emotionally closed character to reveal so much in the videos he makes for his unborn child. The film sounds, and is frustratingly marketed, in a mawkish sentimental way but is a deeply intelligent, unflinching and genuinely charming piece of work. Keaton nails the role and offers one of my favourite film performances ever, we see every side of this character. The selfish, angry man, the sweet, nostalgic soul. We follow his whole journey as he mends bridges, becomes crippled by fear and eventually accepts and embraces his destiny. It is, ultimately a very life-affirming piece of cinema but, like the best things, it makes you work. It’s an exhausting film to watch but you feel all the better for having stuck with it.

THE LAST TIME (2006) and THE MERRY GENTLEMAN (2008)

Keaton seems to have drifted away from his career in recent years. He went through a spate of playing smaller supporting roles as fathers in teen movies, popped back up briefly in the lead of the excellent horror film White Noise and has subsequently vanished into an ether of DTV movies and voicing animations. The Last Time is a bold idea failed by an inexperienced writer/director. Keaton plays a nasty piece of work, a cutthroat cocky salesman who is unliked by all and espouses a subdued nihilism to his own life. He is paired up with naive Brendan Fraser to save the sales team of a company that is fast disappearing down the toilet. The reason I mention the film, which I wouldn’t particularly recommend, is how interesting it is to see Keaton still keen to explore these fundamentally unlikable yet charismatic characters. He has aged well, which is perhaps a little frustrating as I feel he has some wonderfully cantakerous old codger roles awaiting him. The Merry Gentleman is interesting in that it his debut as a director. Unfortunately, like so many films directed by actors, it eschews storytelling chops for overly indulgent, long and fairly boring scenes of acting. That said, he takes on a far more toned down role than he usually might. A quiet hitman looking for a little salvation. There are some great moments in this film and I might be generous but I feel the problems lie more in the screenplay and editing than in Keaton’s directorial eye.

I get excited about Michael Keaton, there is no other actor like him. He has carved out this brilliant identifiable but infinitely adaptable screen persona. He plays characters who are touched by darkness, have a certain moral ambiguity and self-interest yet are incredibly charismatic. He brings with him a manic energy – sometimes anger, sometimes enthusiasm – which explodes with honesty and depth. I might be pushing it here, but to me, Keaton somewhat sums up America. There is a vile detestable fundamental to it, an arrogance and uninformed self-righteousness but that gets coloured by this irresistible chaotic energy, reluctant decency, enthusiasm and warmth.

So yeah, watch more fucking Michael Keaton films!

What do you reckon? What do you make of him? What films have I overlooked?