Tuesday, 3 January 2017

My brief appearance on BBC Guernsey


Yesterday afternoon, in the middle of re-watching the fantastic Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was invited by my good friend and counterpart Oscar Pearson to appear on BBC Guernsey to talk about the celebrities we have lost in 2016. It's been a while since I've done live radio, but I accepted.
You can listen to the results here for the next 30 days (though you will need to install the BBC Media Player app if you are reading this on a phone or tablet). Hopefully my comments weren't entirely rambling and nonsensical; if this is the case, you can find a more thoughtful and composed variation in my list of 2016 obituaries and the subsequent piece about counting my blessings as we begin 2017.

P. S. My first review of this year, Austenland, is in the works. Watch this space...

Monday, 2 January 2017

2016 End of Year Review: Things I Am Thankful For


Well - we've made it. 2016 is dead and gone, and 2017 is here (admittedly I'm a day late, but never mind).
In my collection of obituaries from 2016, I promised you a more positive slant in my follow-up post. It's been an eventful year which has brought many trials and much cause of despair, but also so much to celebrate. Sure, Brexit happened, Donald Trump was elected president and David Bowie died; but on the other hand, I am now a happily married man, as are three of my best friends.

So rather than mourn for the state of our world, berate my own personal shortcomings, or list a set of resolutions to which I am unlikely to keep, I thought instead that I would count my blessings and list all the things for which I am thankful. Apologies if this comes across as self-indulgent, but given the amount of darkness and hate which dominates our public discourse, I hope you will forgive me.

In no particular order (hopefully I haven't missed anything out!)...

I AM THANKFUL that I have a God who loves me, who is continually working in my life to shape me to serve His purpose, who constantly encourages me to look beyond the here and now, and who has blessed me with so much thus far.

I AM THANKFUL that I have a wife in Aimee who loves me deeply and unconditionally; a wife who never takes herself too seriously, who always looks out for me (as I hope I do for her), who has a brilliant way of reading human behaviour, and who combines a heart of gold with a tongue of razor wit.

I AM THANKFUL to have a family who love me, parents who support me in my chosen career, a sister who always wants the best for me, a grandmother who is unflinching in her compassion, and a new family (Aimee's side) who are warm, welcoming and immensely loyal.

I AM THANKFUL to have so many friends to make fantastic memories, whether writing musicals, visiting quirky places or just sharing a good pint. I am also thankful that it is relatively easy to see so many of them socially, even if it involves travelling a short distance.

I AM THANKFUL that I have a steady job which give me enough to keep a roof over my head, and that this job is something which is both meaningful and enjoyable. Whatever complaints or struggles lie therein, I am in a better position than many in my country and in the world as a whole.

I AM THANKFUL that I live in a country where I can worship how and who I want, say what I like, go where I please and read or write what I wish. Not everyone is so fortunate.

I AM THANKFUL that I have the means to travel to see more of this country, for which - in spite of everything our current leaders may do - I remain proud.

I AM THANKFUL that, while I could be lighter on my feet, I am generally healthy and have plenty of means at my disposal to improve my health - including a huge park and a swimming pool practically on my doorstep.

I AM THANKFUL that I have access to culture, whether film, TV, plays, music or other, which make me think and improve my understanding of the world.

I AM THANKFUL that you took the time to read this blog, and I hope you continue to enjoy it in the weeks and months ago.

Happy new year and God bless you all :)


Saturday, 31 December 2016

RIP in 2016


We've finally reached the end of what has been for many a tumultuous, depressing and downright despair-ridden year. Which means, of course, that it's time to take a look back and grieve for all those the film world has lost in 2016.
If there is anyone I have inadvertently omitted from the list, drop your own tributes in the comments section below. I'll be posting a quasi-review of the year with a somewhat more positive slant on the other side of Auld Lang Syne. See you all in 2017!


January 1 - Vilmos Zsigmond, Oscar-winning Hungarian-American cinematographer (The Deer
                   Hunter), cause of death unknown, 85.
January 2 - Leonard White, British TV producer (The Avengers), natural causes, 99.
January 4 - Frank Armitage, Australian-born American painter and background animator (Sleeping
                   Beauty), cause of death unknown, 91.
                - Robert Balser, American animator (Yellow Submarine), complications from respiratory
                  failure, 88.
                - Robert Stigwood, Australian band manager (Cream) and film producer (Grease), cause
                   of death unknown, 81.
January 5 - Christine Lawrence Finney, American painter and animator (Aladdin), cause of death
                   unknown, 47.
January 9 - Angus Scrimm, American actor (Phantasm), cause of death unknown, 89.
January 10 - David Bowie, British singer-songwriter, musician and actor (Labyrinth), liver cancer,
January 13 - Brian Bedford, British actor (Robin Hood), cancer, 80.
January 14 - Alan Rickman, English actor (Die Hard), pancreatic cancer, 69.
                  - Robert Bank Stewart, Scottish TV writer (Doctor Who), cancer, 84.
January 17 - Dale Griffin, British drummer (Mott the Hoople), Alzheimer's disease, 67.
January 18 - Glenn Frey, American songwriter, musician (The Eagles) and actor (Jerry Maguire),
                     complications following intestinal surgery, 67.
January 19 - Sheila Sim, Lady Attenborough, English actress (A Canterbury Tale), dementia, 93.
January 26 - Abe Vigoda, American actor (The Godfather), natural causes, 94.
January 30 - Frank Finlay, English actor (Othello), heart failure, 89.
January 31 - Sir Terry Wogan, Irish radio and TV broadcaster, cancer, 77.
February 4 - Jimmy Haskell, American composer and arranger (Big), cause of death unknown, 79.
February 6 - Dan Gerson, American screenwriter (Monsters, Inc.), brain cancer, 49.
February 9 - Donald E. Thorin, American cinematographer (Scent of a Woman), cause of death
                     unknown, 81.
February 15 - George Gaynes, Finnish-born American actor (Police Academy), cause of death
                       unknown, 98.
February 19 - Umberto Eco, Italian philosopher and novelist (The Name of the Rose), pancreatic
                       cancer, 84.
                    - Harper Lee, American author (To Kill A Mockingbird), died in her sleep, 89.
February 22 - Douglas Slocombe, British cinematographer (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the
                       Lost Ark), complications from a fall, 103.
February 25 - Tony Burton, American actor (Rocky), complications from pneumonia, 78.
                    - Jim Clark, British film editor (The Killing Fields), cause of death unknown, 84.
February 26 - Antony Gibbs, British film editor (Dune), cause of death unknown, 90.
February 28 - Frank Kelly, Irish actor (Father Ted), heart attack, 77.
                    - George Kennedy, American actor (The Naked Gun), heart disease, 91.
March 6 - Nancy Reagan, American First Lady (1981-89) and actress, heart failure, 94.
March 7 - Michael White, British film producer (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), heart failure,
March 8 - Sir George Martin, British composer and producer (The Beatles), died in his sleep, 90.
March 10 - Sir Ken Adam, Oscar-winning German-born British production designer (Dr.
                   Strangelove), short illness, 95.
March 14 - Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, British composer and conductor, Master of the Queen's Music
                   (2004-14), leukhaemia, 81.
March 15 - Sylvia Anderson, English film and TV producer, writer and voice actress (Thunderbirds),
                   short illness, 88.
March 17 - Paul Daniels, British magician, brain tumour, 77.
March 18 - Barry Reeve, English author (A Kestral for a Knave), Alzheimer's disease, 76.
March 24 - Maggic Blye, American actress (The Italian Job), cancer, 73.
                 - Johan Cruyff, Dutch footballer and manager, lung cancer, 68.
March 28 - Peggy Fortnum, English illustrator (Paddington Bear), cause of death unknown, 96.
March 31 - Ronnie Corbett, British actor and comedian (The Two Ronnies), motor neurone disease,
April 3 - Erik Bauersfeld, American radio dramatist and voice actor (Star Wars: Episode VI - Return
               of the Jedi), cause of death unknown, 93.
April 6 - Dennis Davis, American drummer (David Bowie), cancer, 64.
April 12 - David Gest, American TV producer and reality show contestant, stroke, 62.
April 13 - Gareth Thomas, Welsh actor (Blake's 7), heart failure, 71.
April 16 - Rod Daniel, American film director (Teen Wolf), Parkinson's disease, 73.
               - Kit West, Oscar-winning British special effects artist (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of
                 the Lost Ark), cause of death unknown, 79.
April 20 - Guy Hamilton, French-born British film director (Battle of Britain), cause of death
                 unknown, 93.
              - Victoria Wood, British comedian and actress (dinnerladies), cancer, 62.
April 21 - Prince, Oscar-winning American musician, songwriter and actor (Purple Rain), accidental
                 overdose of fentanyl, 57.
April 24 - Billy Paul, American R&B singer ('Me And Mrs Jones'), pancreatic cancer, 81.
May 10 - Gene Gutowski, Polish-born American film producer (The Pianist). pneumonia, 90.
May 13 - Makiko Futaki, Japanese animator (Spirited Away), unspecified illness, 57.
May 18 - Ian Watkin, New Zealand actor (Braindead), cause of death unknown, 76.
May 19 - John Berry, American musician (Beastie Boys), frontal lobe dementia, 52.
             - Alan Young, English-born Canadian-American actor (The Time Machine), natural causes,
May 24 - Bert Kwouk, British actor (The Pink Panther series), cancer, 85.
May 31 - Carla Lane, English TV writer (The Liver Birds), cause of death unknown, 87.
June 2 - Willis Pyle, American animator (Bambi), natural causes, 101.
June 3 - Muhammad Ali, American three-time world heavyweight boxing champion (1964, 1974,
              1978), septic shock, 74.
June 6 - Theresa Saldana, American actress (Raging Bull), renal failure, 61.
           -  Sir Peter Shaffer, Oscar-winning British playwright and screenwriter (Amadeus), cause of
              death unknown, 90.
June 16 - Jo Cox, British politician, MP for Batley and Spen (2015-16), shot and stabbed, 41.
June 19 - Anton Yelchin, Soviet-born American actor (Star Trek), blunt traumatic asphyxia, 27.
June 23 - Michael Herr, American author (Dispatches) and screenwriter (Full Metal Jacket), cause
                of death unknown, 76.
July 1 - Robin Hardy, British film director (The Wicker Man), cause of death unknown, 86.
July 2 - Caroline Aherne, English comedian, actress and writer (The Fast Show), throat cancer, 52.
           - Michael Cimino, Oscar-winning American film director (The Deer Hunter), cause of death
             unknown, 77.
July 4 - Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian film director and screenwriter (Certified Copy), gastointestinal
             cancer, 76.
July 7 - James Gilbert, Scottish TV producer (The Two Ronnies), cause of death unknown, 93.
July 13 - Hector Babenco, Argentine-born Brazilian film director, producer and screenwriter (Kiss
               of the Spider Woman), heart attack, 70.
July 14 - Eric Bergren, American screenwriter (The Elephant Man), liver cancer, 62.
July 17 - Fred Tomlinson, British singer, composer and critic ('The Lumberjack Song'), cause of
               death unknown, 88.
July 19 - Garry Marshall, American director, producer, writer and actor (Pretty Woman),
               pneumonia, 81.
July 22 - Shawshank tree, North American white oak featured in The Shawshank Redemption, blown
               over by strong winds, c. 180.
July 25 - Tim LaHaye, American Christian evangelical minister and author (Left Behind), stroke, 90.
July 26 - Sandy Pearlman, American record producer and band manager (The Clash), pneumonia as
               a complication from a stroke, 72.
July 29 - Ken Barrie, British voice actor and singer (Postman Pat), liver cancer, 83.
August 11 - Roly Bain, English priest and clown, cancer, 62.
August 13 - Kenny Baker, British actor (Star Wars), short illness, 81.
August 21 - Sir Antony Jay, English broadcast, director and writer (Yes, Minister), cause of death
                    unknown, 86.
                  - Norma Moriceau, Australian costume designer (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior), cause
                    of death unknown, 72.
August 29 - Gene Wilder, American actor (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), screenwriter
                    and author, complications from Alzheimer's disease, 83.
September 11 - Alexis Arquette, American actress (Pulp Fiction), cardiac arrest, 47.
September 16 - Edward Albee, American playwright (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), cause of
                          death unknown, 88.
September 28 - Shimon Peres, Polish-born Nobel Prize-winning Israeli President (2007-14) and
                         Prime Minister (1977, 1984-86, 1995-96), stroke, 93.
October 2 - Sir Neville Marriner, British conductor (Amadeus) and founder of the Academy of St
                   Martin in the Fields, cause of death unknown, 92.
October 5 - Michiyo Yasuda, Japanese animator (Princess Mononoke), cause of death unknown, 77.
October 7 - Wolfgang Suschitzky, Austro-Hungarian-born British photographer and
                    cinematographer (Get Carter), cause of death unknown, 104.
October 8 - Gary Dubin, American actor (The Aristocats), bone cancer, 57.
October 13 - Dario Fo, Italian Nobel Prize-winning playwright (Mistero Buffo), serious respiratory
                      illness, 90.
October 23 - Pete Burns, English singer-songwriter (Dead Or Alive), cardiac arrest, 57.
                   - Jimmy Perry, English actor and screenwriter (Dad's Army), short illness, 93.
November 7 - Leonard Cohen, Canadian singer-songwriter ('Hallelujah'), poet and novelist,
                       complications from a novelist, 93.
                     - Sir Jimmy Young, British radio personality and singer ('Unchained Melody)', cause of
                       death unknown, 95.
November 8 - Raoul Coutard, French cinematographer (Breathless), cause of death unknown, 92.
November 11 - Robert Vaughn, American actor (The Magnificent Seven), acute leukemia, 83.
November 15 - Mose Allison, American jazz pianist, singer and songwriter ('Young Man Blues'),
                          natural causes, 89.
November 23 - Andrew Sachs, German-born British actor (Fawlty Towers), dementia, 86.
November 24 - Al Brodax, American film and TV producer (Yellow Submarine), cause of death
                          unknown, 90
November 25 - Fidel Castro, Cuban politician, Prime Minister (1959-76) and President (1976-2008),
                         cause of death unknown, 90.
    December 6 - Peter Vaughan, British actor (Citizen Smith), cause of death unknown, 93.
    December 10 - A. A. Gill, British writer and restaurant critic (The Sunday Times), lung cancer, 62.
    December 13 - Alan Thicke, Canadian actor (Growing Pains), talk show host and songwriter,
                             ruptured aorta, 69.
    December 18 - Zsa Zsa Gabor, Hungarian-born American actress (Touch of Evil) and socialite, heart
                             attack, 99.
    December 19 - Lionel Blue, British rabbi, journalist and broadcaster, complications from Parkinson's
                             disease, 86.
    December 24 - Richard Adams, British author (Watership Down), complications from a blood
                             disorder, 96.
                           - Rick Parfitt, British singer-songwriter and guitarist (Status Quo), infection, 68.
                           - Liz Smith, British actress (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), cause of death
                              unknown, 95.
    December 25 - George Michael, British singer-songwriter (Wham!), suspected heart failure, 53.
    December 27 - Carrie Fisher, American actress (Star Wars), novelist and screenwriter,
                             complications from a heart attack, 60.
    December 28 - Debbie Reynolds, American actress (Singin' in the Rain), dancer and singer, stroke,


        Wednesday, 28 December 2016

        Broadclyst Theatre Group: Dick Whittington & His Magic Cat


        Christmas has come and gone, with Aimee and I ferrying ourselves around deepest, darkest Devon visiting our respective parents and gorging ourselves in turkey and chocolate. But having returned to Somerset, and with little planned in the way of new year celebrations, my thoughts now turn to our next trip to Devon in what is becoming an annual tradition of ours: Broadclyst Theatre Group's annual pantomime, which this year is Dick Whittington & His Magic Cat.
         Very loosely based on the life of real-life Mayor of London Richard Whittington, Dick Whittington has been a fixtured of English folklore for centuries, with the first pantomime version being performed in 1814. Like all pantomimes, there are a few common or recurring elements - Dick as the hero with his trustworthy cat, King Rat as the villain, the main character fleeing and then returning to London to become Mayor, and so on. And as has become typical of Broadclyst, you can expect a high standard of singing and choreography, with a witty script and slapstick which is anything but slapdash.
        As I've made clear on numerous previous occasions, I've performed as part of this theatre group and many of its members have become extremely good friends. But it's not out of mere sycophancy or nostaglai that I choose to publicise their work. I genuinely believe that they have set a bar to which all amateur companies should aspire; they never treate the material or their audience with contempt or low-ball the production for the sake of getting cheap laughs. Just as pantomime should not be a by-word for lazy writing and shoddy production values, so local theatre can often be as vibrant and creative as the professionals, and Broadclyst's track record is evidence of that.
        Dick Whittington & His Magic Cat will be performed at Broadclyst Victory Hall on January 267th, 27th and 28th; there are performances every night at 7.30pm, along with a matinee at 2.30pm on the 28th. Tickets are £9 for adults and £5 for under-12s, and are available from Broadclyst Post Office or online via TicketSource. We will be there for the final performance on the Saturday night - hope to see you there!


        Friday, 23 December 2016

        LETTERS OF NOTE: Merry Christmas from Ronald Reagan


        Aimee and I are in the midst of packing and last-minute present wrapping before we drive down to Devon to spend our first Christmas as a married couple with our families. I will be staying clear of all things blog and computer-related over the long weekend - at least, to the best of my abilities - but there's just time for a seasonal Letter of Note which should help you get into the spirit.
        In 1981, Ronald and Nancy Reagan were enjoying their first of eight Christmases at the White House, following the former's election win against Jimmy Carter in November 1980. To mark the occasion, and to say thank you for all the support she had given him, Ronald wrote a letter to his wife on Christmas Day, saluting the many attractive attributes of her character which he felt deserved wider recognition. I was reminded while reading it of Alfred Hitchcock's tribute to his wife Alma after he accepted the AFI Life Achievement Award only two years prior to this letter:
        For all the obvious jokes that could be made about Reagan's background as a Hollywood actor - most of which have already been made by Spitting Image - there's little about his letter to Nancy which feels staged or overly scripted. 'The Gipper' may have used film references to cover over his lack of knowledge - as this illuminating Salon article details - but his letter, while corny and somewhat contrived, feels genuine. At the very least, it's a reminder of the need to be thankful for our families at Christmas and never taking them for granted no matter how busy we are or how demanding our work may be.
        You can read Reagan's letter in full here. If you're after more festive Letters of Note, check out these offerings from John Steinbeck, J. R. R. Tolkien and Mark Twain. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and will see you after the Bank Holidays are behind us.


        Wednesday, 14 December 2016

        REVIEW REVISITED: Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who (2007)


        This is a reprint of my review first published on Three Men on a Blog in 2011, with a number of significant revisions. You can read my original review here.

        Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who
        Directed by Murray Learner & Paul Crowder
        Starring Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Keith Moon

        Like any kind of biographical project, rock documentaries have the potential to be nothing more than exercises in ego inflation. When The Who's first film The Kids Are Alright was released in 1979, singer Roger Daltrey sold it on the basis that it made the band look like "complete idiots". He quipped that The Song Remains The Same – Led Zeppelin’s bloated vanity project from three years earlier - was made "for the sole purpose of making Robert Plant's dick look big."
        Amazing Journey is a natural companion to The Kids Are Alright, covering much of the same ground in a more detailed and serene manner, as well as providing some (but not enough) much-needed coverage of the band's activity after the death of Keith Moon. It is the weaker and less engaging of the two films, but newcomers to the band will find much that is engrossing or entertaining, while existing fans can revel in all the new footage which is on offer.
        When making a documentary about a famous band, it would be very easy to just regurgitate all the most famous anecdotes, inter-cut with their greatest hits. Considering all the things Moon is alleged to have done in his short but eventful life, you could have filled up the two hours with an exhaustive list of every last prank. Such an approach would be detailed but also tiresomely inaccessible; no-one wants to watch ageing rockers and roadies arguing over whether it was a Rolls Royce or a Lincoln Continental which Moon drove into a swimming pool.
        Fortunately, for fans and newcomers alike, Amazing Journey rarely falls into this trap, and when it does approach stories of drum kits being blown up or televisions being flung out of hotel windows, it makes some effort to clarify the facts rather than just revelling in the mythos that Moon and the band cultivated. The film is very well-researched, drawing on a variety of sources to tell the story of The Who. Alongside a series of interviews with Daltrey and Pete Townshend, there is footage of the band's TV appearances, live performances at Charlton and Kilburn (which featured in The Kids Are Alright), and various clips from their promotional videos and forays into filmmaking. In certain sections animation is employed - for instance, the cover art of A Quick One is animated while Townshend's mini-opera is discussed.
        The most interesting section of the film, for both fans and newcomers, is the opening section up until the arrival of Moon in early-1964. This section explores the genesis of The Who's unique sound, describing the musical landscape of 1950s Britain and the young musicians' relationship with London skiffle and American blues. It may be a cliché to describe life in 1950s Britain as being in black-and-white – words used by Daltrey early on - and to set the scene by showing footage of bombed buildings. But through this section you come to understand the band's initial fire and fury, and how much of their music was a reaction against 1950s culture, both musically and socially.
        One of the coups of the film is the eight minutes of footage of the band, then called The High Numbers, performing at the Railway Hotel in London in 1964. This footage is interesting both for its rarity and for capturing the band on the brink of finding their own sound and thereafter success. Daltrey is still singing blues covers in a style somewhere between Lonnie Donnegan and John Lee Hooker, but all the other ingredients are beginning to come through: Moon's exuberant drumming, Townshend's jagged power chords and John Entwistle's complex, jazzy bass lines.
        Amazing Journey is far from a po-faced affair, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments to keep us entertained. It's hard not to chuckle when Entwistle rips on their label-mate Jimmy Hendrix, or Townshend impersonates the Beach Boys with equal amounts of playfulness and vitriol. And then there is the montage of Moon's various incarnations, ranging from a pirate to an SS officer and a Dickensian bookkeeper.
        There is also a lot of self-deprecation on the part of Townshend and Daltrey. While the former occasionally covers himself in glory, describing himself as "on the edge of things" and calling Quadrophenia "magnificent" (which it is), Daltrey is much more understated and welcoming. His posture throughout interviews is downbeat, frequently holding his hands near his face and at points being close to tears. He's not asking for sympathy, but nor is he reigning himself in to play to his stereotype of being the band's hard man.
        This sense of self-deprecation helps to partially mitigate one of the problems of Amazing Journey, namely the chumminess of its outside contributors. The film features contributions from The Edge, Noel Gallagher, Eddie Vedder and Sting, all of whom makes no bones about their adulation of the band and its influence on their own music. Some of them have direct connections with the band - Sting played the Ace Face in Quadrophenia and Gallagher performed with them in 2000. But for all The Edge's knowledge of 1960s music, he doesn't have a lot to contribute, and Vedder frequently resorts to platitude to praise his heroes.
        There are other problems too. Firstly, there is the question of whether or not it is cinematic; the film had a very short theatrical release before being released as a 2-disc DVD set. It may be a consequence of seeing the same clips being endlessly repeated in TV documentaries, but portions of Amazing Journey do feel like they are more at home on the small screen. The directors use an interesting device to get around this, namely structuring the film like a double album; the film stops to turn the record over, and the footage occasionally skips and distorts like sound on a scratched LP. But about halfway through this device is phased out and the niggling feeling remains in your mind.
        From a fan's point of view, the film does begin to canter through the history after 1975. It treats the later works and the gaps between reunions rather more brusquely, when in fact there is some interest in exploring the various behaviours of the band outside The Who. We get a mention of Moon's drunken exploits in 1974, but the film versions of Tommy and Quadrophenia barely get a look-in, and neither do the band's various solo efforts. You can understand the filmmakers wanting to keep the running time down, and the need for the film to play to a mainstream audience, but long-time fans of the band will still feel like this was a missed opportunity.
        The overarching problem with Amazing Journey, however, is that it is a little too civilised for its own good. It doesn't have the raw, shambolic energy of The Kids Are Alright, so that even in the bits which are laugh-out-loud funny, or which feature Townshend being outrageous, it feels a little too carefully controlled to properly capture the atmosphere of the band. There is an argument for shooting in a more serene style, since some of the band's energy has waned and both surviving members are a lot older and wiser. But the recent footage of the band touring Endless Wire throws the former claim somewhat into question, so that while the film is engrossing it is also frustrating.
        Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who is a well-made and informative attempt to catalogue the highs and lows of one of the world's greatest rock bands. The sheer amount of archive material gives it a comprehensive feel, and as an introduction to the band it is very accessible and entertaining. But long-time fans of the band may be disappointed in places, both in the lack of coverage post-1982 and in the calmer style of presentation. It's good but not great, and definitely not The Kids Are Alright.


        You can check out my thoughts on Quadrophenia by checking out The Movie Hour podcast here. If you want more on Tommy, check out this article on the album's 40th anniversary, which I wrote for The Warwick Boar back in 2009.

        For my thoughts on the other film called The Kids Are Alright, click here.

        NEXT REVIEW: Austenland (2013)

        Tuesday, 13 December 2016

        GREAT FILMS: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)


        Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (UK/ USA, 2005)
        Directed by Tim Burton
        Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter

        The sad death of Gene Wilder earlier this year saw not only an outpouring of tributes but a re-examination of his work. The cult status of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Wilder's performance therein, has swelled over the the last 45 years to the point where the film has become a lynchpin among classic children's films, like Mary Poppins before it. For some people, Wilder will always be Willy Wonka, and no-one could ever hope to equal him, let along exceed him. 
        In the face of such a popular performance, not to mention the other memorable aspects of Mel Stuart's film, you wouldn't think that any remake would have stood a chance. Tim Burton's only previous attempt at a remake - Planet of the Apes - had tarnished his reputation badly, and while he had redeemed himself with Big Fish, there were still big question marks over his treatment of beloved source materials. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Charlie hereafter) is now 11 years old, and like its predecessor it may take another few decades for audiences to properly appreciate its qualities. But even this far out, it is a great adaptation which, if anything, is more faithful to the book and closer to the spirit of what Roald Dahl wanted to get across.
        Like Burton's Batman, Charlie took a long time to make it to the screen. Dahl had disowned the original film due to the changes made to his screenplay, and the producers' refusal to cast the late Spike Milligan as Willy Wonka. In light of this, Dahl refused to release the rights to the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and after his death in 1990 his estate became increasingly guarded about adaptations of his work. 
        Out of Sight screenwriter Scott Frank and future director of The Hunger Games Gary Ross came close to getting the green light in February 2000, but both left the project 18 months and several rewrites later. Martin Scorsese was fleetingly tipped to take over before he chose to make The Aviator, and there was even talk of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective director Tom Shadyac taking the reins with Jim Carrey as Willy Wonka - a prospect thankfully vetoed by the Dahl estate. Burton finally got the job in 2003, bringing with him Big Fish screenwriter John August; Dahl's widow Felicity had been impressed by Burton's work as a producer on Henry Selick's version of James and the Giant Peach, and the pair bonded over their mutual dislike for the original adaptation.
        The first thing that Charlie gets right is the way that it looks. Despite having a decent colour palette, Stuart's film looks for all the world like a TV movie: with the exception of the famously terrifying tunnel sequence - the only truly great scene in the film - every scene feels small and hemmed in, as though the "pure imagination" could only be seen from a certain angle. From the outset, with a typically elaborate opening credit sequence, you feel like you're in an extraordinarily creative and yet gruesome world, with magic lurking in even the tiniest item on show. There's still an intimacy to it, thanks to both the performers and Danny Elfman's score, but there's much more of a wow factor (or yuk factor) to both the set-pieces and the journeys between them.
        Much like James, Charlie wrestles with the need to adapt a very British story in a way that American audiences would understand. In this respect at least, Burton deserves credit for not straying too far from the source; while Selick's creative choices on James did work well, some viewers weren't all that happy with the mechanical shark, the pirate crew or not seeing the terrifying Cloudmen from book. Unlike a lot of American directors, Burton resists making the British scenes unbelievably twee and touristy; by rooting the look of his film in the fantastical (for instance, siting a tumbledown thatched cottage right near a towering factory), the project retains an international flavour which compliments the characterisation and makes its themes easier to translate. 
        Charlie nails both the themes and spirit of the original story in a way that the previous version simply didn't manage. The book is, at its heart, a warning about materialistic excess and greed, using the Western world's slavering desire to consume chocolate as a cautionary tale of how modern society makes us lose sight of the most important things in life. Grandpa George's illuminating deconstruction of money is just as effective in this regard as the montages of the various searches for the golden tickets. Burton brilliantly contrasts the soulness, empty actions by which the other children find their tickets (ripping bars off the shelves, employing factory workers, hacking the delivery system or just eating yourself sick) with the special, personal joy experienced by Charlie. The film rises above mere sentimentality and captures that childlike sense of ecstasy so very well.
        This brings us to one of Burton's more controversial decisions, namely the backstory invoving Willy Wonka's father. Making him a dentist is a natural choice, and Christopher Lee is as good here as he was in his all-too-brief role in Sleepy Hollow. But it does pivot back to James, and the debate about fidelity to the book as a means of judging the film's success. Dahl's main complaint about the original was that it focussed too much on Wonka and too little on Charlie. The remake does better, but it can't help pivoting back to Wonka in the later stages as the unfinished business with his father is resolved.
        Notwithstanding the obvious fact that being faithful to the source is no guarantee of quality (cf. the first two Harry Potter films), the introduction of Wonka's backstory actually adds to the character. Wonka in both the books is an elusive figure, with Charlie being the only other person able to get onto his wavelight; he doesn't deliberately withhold information or lie to the other protagonists, but you always sense that there's more going on in his head than he's letting on. In other hands the backstory chosen by August would seem pat and perfunctory, but Burton plays it very carefully to illuminate one of Wonka's main contradictions: he is simultaneously a rebellious free spirit, who hates rules and responsibilities, and someone who is very guarded, serious and principled on matters of the heart - including his family, whether biological or, in the case of Charlie, adopted.
        This combination of guardedness and wacky creativity is captured beautifully in Johnny Depp's performance. Comparisons with Michael Jackson are largely superficial, with critics of the time focussing too much on the make-up and not enough on the demons lurking beneath the childlike smile and giggle. As Burton observed, the character is much closer to Howard Hughes (making Scorsese's involvement in the project rather ironic). Beyond the skintight gloves and fear of human contact, Wonka reflects Hughes' obsession with his work, his consternation over the tiniest details, the variety of his talents and his paralysing fear of death and ageing. The scene with the grey hair is beautifully played by Depp as both a wry dig at modern psychiatry and a genuine moment of existential terror. 
        Depp's performance is also balanced out nicely by the rest of the ensemble. Freddie Highmore may be more overtly fresh-faced than his 1971 counterpart Peter Ostrum, but he resists playing him simply as a goody-two-shoes; his more emotional moments don't come across as mawkish, and he enjoys a strong bond with Depp (with whom he previously worked on Finding Neverland). Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham-Carter are a good fit for Charlie's parents, and David Kelly (best known for his work on Fawlty Towers) is a standout as Grandpa Joe. Credit should also go to the underrated Missi Pyle, who makes Violet's mother more interesting than she is in the book, and the endlessly duplicated (and eternally patient) Deep Roy, who plays every last one of the Oompa-Loompas. 
        The only fly in the chocolate with Charlie is its music - or more specifically, its songs. They may replicate the lyrics from Dahl's book, but the sound mixing is atrocious: even after several watches to pick up all the misheard words, the mix feels needlessly crowded and chaotic. Burton doesn't have a tin ear for music - as he would subsequently prove with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - but he is surprisingly awkward and clueless about how to integrate these moments into the plot. Likewise the sequence outside Wonka's factory featuring the melting puppets is either a failed nonsequitur or just a waste of time; it has no reason to be there, serves no purpose in the plot, and robs Depp of the distinctive entrance he deserves.
        In spite of its musical stumbles, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great adaptation which is both more faithful to the original story and more completely rewarding than the Mel Stuart version. Burton uses the familiar territory to his advantage, giving Dahl's tale a timeless quality and registers emotional depth where others would have merely settled for sentimentality. It may never win over fans of the Wilder version - including Wilder himself - but it remains a compelling adaptation with warmth and subtlety to spare.


        NEXT REVIEW: Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who (2007)

        Sunday, 6 November 2016

        ACTION-ADVENTURE: Die Hard (1988)


        Die Hard (USA, 1988)
        Directed by John McTiernan
        Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Bonnie Bedelia 

        IMDb Top 250: #121 (6/11/16) 

        We are rapidly approaching Christmas, and with it comes the usual slew of articles and listicles about the greatest Christmas films. And regardless of what film may top said lists - Whistle Down The Wind would be my personal choice - there is one thing of which you can almost be certain: Die Hard will be somewhere on those lists. In the 28 years since it first graced the silver screen, John McTiernan's tour de force has become regarded not just one of the definitive 1980s action films, but also the definitive alternative Christmas film.
        It is tempting to presume, in light of all the inferior sequels featuring an increasingly uninterested Bruce Willis, that the original has become a victim of its own hype. We remember it as being great, not because it is great, but because everything that has tried to imitate it has paled in comparison. It is certainly true, with the benefit of hindsight, that it is not quite the best action film of the 1980s; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would take that crown, with Raiders and Mad Max 2 vying for second place. But it remains a really entertaining, well-assembled spectacle, with humour, bravado and efficiency to spare.
        One of the little-known bits of trivia about Die Hard is that it was quite closely based on a novel. An awful lot of the structure and storyline of Robert Thorp's 1979 thriller Nothing Lasts Forever has survived in the finished film; many of the character names remain the same, the plot still revolves around terrorists attacking a corporation's headquarters at Christmas, and some of the setpieces are replicated exactly, including the sequence with the C4 in the lift.
        Thorp had written Nothing Lasts Forever as a follow-up to his 1966 novel The Detective, and had hopes that any film version would star Frank Sinatra, who had played the titular character in 1968. Sinatra, who was 64 when the novel came out, declined the role despite the acclaim which the original film had received. The project was subsequently declined by Sylvester Stallone, Don Johnson, Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger (though stories of it being shaped as a sequel to Commando have been denied by co-writer Steven E. de Souza). The script was eventually retooled as a standalone and the studio took a big gamble on Bruce Willis, then best known for his work on the TV series Moonlighting.
        One of the single biggest assets of Die Hard is the simplicity of its execution. While McTiernan's previous work Predator took a long time to figure out what kind of film it was, it's very easy to get into the zone with Die Hard. The good guys and bad guys are clearly defined, the action unspools at an efficient yet methodical pace, and the editing manages to keep things sharp while resisting endless fast cuts or needlessly complex camera angles. It is, as Mark Kermode once described it, "cowboys and Indians in The Towering Inferno" - a reference to the fact that Thorp's novel was originally inspired by the John Guillermin film, produced by 'the master of disaster' Irwin Allen.
        In light of this, the phrase that springs to mind about Die Hard is that it "comes from a simpler time". The argument goes that it was made during the Cold War, when we knew exactly who our enemies were, and at a time before technology and digital surveillance superseded macho, hot-headed mavericks who could take down said enemies single-handed, a la James Bond or Riggs and Murtagh in Lethal Weapon. You couldn't make an old-school action film like Die Hard today, just as you couldn't make an old-school western after Unforgiven. Audiences are increasingly aware of how complex and nebulous the world and people are, and just falling back on lazy stereotypes isn't going to cut it any more.
        This is an enticing line of reasoning, especially given the popularity of films like Skyfall, The Bourne Ultimatum and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which focus on infiltration, betrayal and the system turning on itself to justify its existence. But while the argument broadly holds up, there are certain aspects of Die Hard which remain relevant, if not forward-looking. The terrorists who hold up the Nakatomi Plaza are not after political power or ethnic cleansing; they have financial motivations, foreshadowing the electronic terrorism of Goldeneye or the rise of hacking in the internet age.
        The film also teases the idea of such groups using politics as a means of leverage rather than a goal in itself. Hans Gruber makes demands regarding the freedom fighters (which he only knows about because of Time magazine) to distract the authorities - a tactic that could easily be employed by contemporary terrorists, using awkward relationships between states to buy time for their own ambitions. The clash between John McClane and Gruber is to some extent one of class and culture - the earthy, street-smart, lowbrow cop against the erudite, snobbish and book-smart criminal.
        One of the most common complaints made about action films, both then and now, is that they come with such poorly-written characters that the audience has nothing to connect them to the pyrotechnics. Characters in such films are often written so closely to an archetype - the hero, the villain, the love interest and so on - that they lack distinctive personality traits, and with it the ability to behave in an empathetic, idiosyncratic manner. Die Hard may be structured as a straightforward fight between good and evil, but the characters feel three-dimensional, with flaws and foibles which keep them memorable and make the film all the more rewarding on repeat viewing.
        German film critic Philipp Bühler said, very accurately, that McClane works as a character not because of his strengths, but because he is vulnerable. Writing in Movies of the 80s, he said: "He's scared of flying, and he's scared of a world that no longer has a place for men like him... What distinguished him from human tanks like Schwarzenegger and Stallone was his sensitivity and vulnerability, which helped make Die Hard an action movie for people who don't generally like action movies." I said in my review of Red 2 that Willis often betrays in his performances how much he really wants to be in a given film. Here, his performance is disciplined, responsive and very convincing, and besides Twelve Monkeys it remains his finest hour. 
        Alan Rickman's career-making performance as Gruber is a similar indication of the quality of the script. Rickman's villainous turns often get lumped together in such a way that they have become a pastiche of the archetype, but there is a world of difference between Gruber and the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The Sheriff is nothing more than an over-the-top, pantomime bad guy, whose hilariously drawn-out death throes give Nordberg's calamities in Naked Gun a run for their money. Even when he's bellowing "where are my detonators?!", Gruber is a more complex, guarded and reptilian beast, who teeters between funny and terrifying thanks to a script which gives the character sufficient scope to explore motivations and pressure points in depth.
        As far as its spectacle is concerned, Die Hard still holds up extremely well thanks to its use of physical effects. The set used for the Nakatomi Plaza was at the time the headquarters of 20th Century Fox, with several scenes being shot on floors which were still under construction. Not only did this give McTiernan the power to wreck things as he saw fit (captured by Paul Verhoeven's cinematographer-of-choice Jan de Bont), it also brings an organic sense of entropy to proceedings which CGI cannot match. The injuries McClane sustains are mirrored by the growing destruction of property, and all the setpieces connect and flow beautifully.
        For all its good points, Die Hard does have a couple of flaws which somewhat tarnish its glowing reputation. Roger Ebert, who did not like the film, made a valid point about the role of the police as the action unfolds. The stupidity of Al's boss, and by extension the journalists and FBI, serve as a distraction from the central conflict and undermine the script's hard work on making the central characters relatable. Al himself is likeable enough, but he's still an unnecessary concession to generic convention, and the resolution of his arc is far too neat.
        The other flaw with Die Hard is its ending. McClane's fight with Karl has such a fitting climax that to bring him back seemingly from the dead for one last jump-scare moment is cheap and unnecessary. After that, the film winds down into standard, American yuletide schmaltz; having held off for so long, it suddenly remembers that it's Christmas and gives us a jarring, sentimental ending, rather than saying true to the novel and letting McClane die. We forgive the film of these fumbles because of how good it has been up until then, but it's still a shame to finish things off so illogically. 
        Die Hard remains one of the must-see films of the 1980s, being an action film with brains and heart rather than just brawn. Willis is excellent in the role which made him a star, ably supported by Rickman, and it remains as entertaining on the first watch as it does on the 50th. Aside from a few niggling flaws, it is both an easy film to relax into and a must-see for anyone interested in Hollywood cinema. Whatever happens to John McClane in the future, this will always be the gold standard.


        NEXT REVIEW: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)