Saturday, 19 August 2017

RIP Bruce Forsyth

The big, sad news yesterday was of course the death of veteran entertainer Bruce Forsyth at the age of 89.

As with many tributes, I have to say that as a kid growing up watching TV in the '80s and the '90s, Bruce Forsyth was everywhere and, given that at this point his career had already dated back some thirty years to the '50s, it was a testament to his popularity and staying power that he continued to be at the top of his game. I well remember game shows like Play Your Cards Right, You Bet, The Price Is Right and even the largely forgotten Takeover Bid, but best of all was the successful '90s revival of his '70s game show The Generation Game. I even remember sitcoms like Slinger's Day and his chat show Bruce's Guest Night. Bruce Forsyth was as much a part of the public conscious and the framework of British popular society as he was showbusiness. You knew all the catchphrases, you knew at least one person who did a Brucie impersonation, you may even have done it yourself.

And then in the '00s, when most people would rest on their laurels and waltz off into a retirement consisting of more time on the golf course, Forsyth came back bigger than ever with the BBC's hit Saturday night show, Strictly Come Dancing which he presented for ten years from 2004 until 2014.

I have to put my cards on the table and confess that I never truly bought into the BBC's adoration of Bruce at this stage in his career or that he was the last of the variety entertainers and therefore the only man who could possibly present Strictly Come Dancing. There are other all round entertainers in showbusiness (Brian Conley immediately springs to mind) but the BBC wanted Bruce and, in doing so, they perpetuated the myth that he was the last of his kind. He was very good on Strictly, but he could also be very poor too. Those corny gags at the top of the show and the painful, prolonged bits of shtick between the dances, the fumbling could be pretty hard to watch at times if I'm being brutally honest. And yet there were moments of genuine stardom, moments were you realised this was a man born to entertain a live audience. When you saw Bruce at his best you saw every bit of his many years experience working a room to its fullest. Ironically, it was often the impromptu moments, the times when the show wasn't perhaps going to plan - those moments away from the puerile scripts - that Bruce thrived. In those moments (such as the ones included below) you were instantly transported back to The Generation Game, watching him come in between some hapless couple making a hash of things, and equally the years seemed to drop away from him too. This was an entertainer who instinctively knew how to read both a moment in time and the audience he was playing too - an entertainer not born for wireless earpieces and the auto-cue. 

In short he may in later years have been something of a man out of time but its to his credit that he continued to entertain so many millions of people, young and old, and picked up new fans and audiences too.


Thursday, 17 August 2017

Massacre In Rome (1973)

Based on screenwriter Robert Katz's own controversial 1967 bestseller, Death in Rome, the 1973 film Massacre In Rome is from journeyman director George Pan Cosmatos and tells the true story of the 1944 partisan roadside bombing that killed thirty-three members of the SS Police Regiment Bozen, and the subsequent Nazi reprisal, ordered by Hitler, that saw a staggering 335 Italians executed in what became known as the Ardeatine massacre. Katz's book achieved notoriety because it accused the then incumbent Pope, Pope Pius XII, of kowtowing to the Nazis and refusing to intervene in or condemn the slaughter of innocents. As a result Katz was sued by the Pope's heirs and was incarcerated in gaol.

The film plays fast and loose with history and perhaps the most major example of this is in the way it depicts SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, the officer responsible for rounding up those to be executed. Kappler was a thirty-something Nazi zealout in reality, but in the film he is played by Richard Burton as a jaded, pragmatic and natural soldier; a character in the stereotypical tradition of 'the sympathetic Nazi'. It's a curious approach to seemingly sanitise a man who was still, at that time, serving a life sentence for war crimes (he would subsequently escape from prison some four years after this picture was released, via his wife's suitcase no less! At the time, Kappler was suffering from terminal cancer and weighed just 47kg - she simply carried him out!) but, given that so much of Katz and Cosmatos' screenplay is shown from the POV of the occupied forces it was perhaps necessary to depict a leading Nazi in some form of sympathetic light.

Starring opposite Burton is Marcello Mastroianni as a composite Vatican official, a character inspired by both Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty (who would subsequently be portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1983 film The Scarlet and The Black) and Don Pietro Pappagallo (who was the inspiration for Aldo Fabrizi's Pietro Pellegrini in Roberto Rossellini's 1947 film Rome, Open City) The supporting cast is made up of Italian actors and several British character actors including Leo McKern, Anthony Steel and Peter Vaughan, as well as the British expat Italian star John Steiner whose urbanity, combined with his gaunt features and slicked back hair makes him the embodiment of Nazism. 

The real story requires something more than this plodding Euro pudding and, weirdly, Cosmatos seems to struggle with the suspension required for the film's setpieces. Nevertheless, where the film's sluggish pace rather curiously excels is in the sobering logistics of just such a massacre and the cold, unfeeling emotion such an action requires; scenes of Burton painstakingly writing out by lamplight the death warrants of the hundreds handpicked for execution, or condemning Jews with little compunction, are especially striking and thought provoking, putting me in mind of that infamous 'banality of evil' quote concerning another Nazi steeped in blood, Adolf Eichmann.

The events of 1944 still cast a long shadow; in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared Pius XII 'venerable', the first step towards canonization, ie Sainthood. It was a move that created significant protest across the world both in light of his inaction during the Ardeatine massacre and from Jewish groups who cite Pius XII as not doing enough in the face of the Holocaust.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Sebastiane (1976)

I felt like I should be watching Sebastiane with a Red Triangle in the top left corner of the screen. (Though that Wiki article appears to have blown what I presume is a popular misconception then, as Sebastiane doesn't seem to have been broadcast for that strand) Even in just the opening minutes alone we're treated to a Lindsay Kemp dance routine which ends with him sprawled on the floor having fake ejaculate sprayed all over his face bukkake style from the large fake phalli of several lithe young men, and punk goddess Jordan shows the world her muff at a party that would make Elton John blush. And all that's before we reach the serious homoerotic subject matter.

Jarman's first film is an astoundingly good piece of work and shows how he clearly started as he meant to go on. Don't be fooled into thinking this is a film solely for a homosexual audience, that it is some kind of arthouse (and therefore respectable) gay porn, because Sebastiane is a serious film that works on several levels and should appeal to all kinds of audiences.

The story is based on the life of Saint Sebastian who was martyred during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. Jarman's film draws on the subtext found in the Renaissance depictions of his martyrdom to argue the case that he is a homosexual icon. Naturally, Jarman's film departs from the perceived wisdom of the saint's life and instead depicts Sebastiane's fall from grace as Diocletian's favoured Captain when he pleads mercy for the life of a young catamite; an action which results in him being reduced in rank and exiled to a remote Roman garrison on a breathtaking Mediterranean island with a group of bawdy fellow soldiers. 

With an authentic location in the white, sandy beaches and jutting rocky outcrops of Sardinia, Sebastiane gains further credibility in the cinéma vérité style it employs to record the life of the nine Roman soldiers posted there. For a start the film is spoken entirely in Latin, and this ancient tongue delivering obvious banter between the troop helps to capture a flavour of the life of a working Roman soldier in some distant  outpost of the Empire. Boredom clearly prevails and the needs of red blooded males are a pressing concern. Almost inevitably, these roughhousing soldiers, with no feminine outlet available to them, start to indulge in homosexual acts. Refreshingly, little is actually made of this; Jarman makes it clear that, unlike the so-called modern society, this ancient society saw little unusual and certainly nothing repulsive in a man being attracted to another man, it was simply the accepted norm. One key character, the bullish and unpretentious Max who wears a black pouch upon his nose to hide its syphilitic decay and is played by Neil Kennedy (who would go on to play a former soldier of the same name in Jarman's second film Jubilee) makes it clear that he is heterosexual, but that he will accept a man at a push. The ensuing scenes of homoeroticism are dealt with tenderly and beautifully, in marked contrast to the pantomimic display on offer with Kemp's troupe at the party thrown by Diocletian in the film's opening scene. 

Unsurprisingly Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio, a quiet, nuanced performance) is something of an odd one out in this group. His Christian faith, along with his refusal to train and fight and his disinterest in homoerotic horseplay and practical jokes around the camp, is something that is initially met with amusement by his fellow soldiers. However, when the centurion officer Severus (Barney James, a great and complex turn) starts to become sexually interested in him, only to find his advances repeatedly rejected, the mood in the camp starts to change and Sebastiane is increasingly viewed with suspicion and contempt by all except the kindly natured Justin (Richard Warwick). It isn't long before Sebastiane, immune to the repeated punishments laid out by Severus for spurning his affections, is considered a dangerous cancer within the group and, like all cancers, he must be dealt with swiftly and surely.

Jarman, along with co-writer/director Paul Humfress, delivers a film that is a beautiful, lyrical composition that dreamily luxuriates in the sunkissed beauty on offer - both in the musculature of the male form and the Sardinian scenery - and boasts some truly exceptional slo-mo setpieces and a sublime finale. The cinematography by Peter Middleton is exquisite and atmospheric, whilst Eno's minimalist electronic score is like a mercifully restrained Vangelis.

I mentioned at the start of this review that it felt like I should be watching Sebastiane with the Red Triangle familiar to Channel 4 viewers in the 1980s. However, as a straight man in 2017, I cannot imagine how utterly gratifying it must have been for a gay audience in the '70s and '80s to have watched Sebastiane, with its presentation of same-sex relationships, homosexual impulses and feelings delivered so matter of fact as to be accepted as a complete non-issue. Even now, I think Sebastiane must still rank as special in that regard. And that's Jarman's first film in a nutshell; special.

Daisy Miller (1974)

Largely considered to be Bogdanovich's folly and a film made simply to showcase his then lover Cybill Shepherd in a starring role ("Peter was pussy-struck," William Friedkin, his partner in the Directors Company rather bluntly put it "He could not see that Cybill was not a great actress") Daisy Miller's reputation is that of a critical and commercial dud, with the head of Paramount remarking after a screening that Bogdanovich was Babe Ruth, "and you just bunted". 

Who was to blame? Well, we could say it's Timothy Bottoms' fault, for it was he who - on the set of The Last Picture Show and crushing hard on Shepherd but losing out to their director - gave the actress a copy of the novella by Henry James as a gift. Whether he intended the irony or not isn't clear. What is clear is that Shepherd fell in love with it, and in the midst of falling in love with Shepherd, Bogdanovich fell in love with the book too. He became determined to make a movie of it with Shepherd in the starring role.

Charles Bludhorn, chairman of Gulf and Western and the owner of Paramount tells a slightly different story though, involving Bogdanovich sitting at the feet of the great Orson Welles who mentioned Daisy Miller as a book recommendation. Eager to impress his hero, Bogdanovich misinterpreted Welles' intentions and immediately brought an adaptation into production, hoping to persuade Welles to return to direct both Shepherd and himself as the leads. When Welles declined, Bogdanovich took the helm and cast Barry Brown alongside his beloved instead, but there was no denying this was considered a vanity project in the industry.

However it's not strictly true that Daisy Miller tanked. Yes, it brought about the first truly bad notices for Bogdanovich but Vincent Canby of the New York Times praised it to the hilt and named it one of the eleven best films of 1974 (The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made published in 1999 included it, but the review was subsequently removed in the 2004 reprint, rewriting history to catch up with popular opinion that Daisy Miller was a dud just thirty years later) whilst Time Out found much to enjoy in Bogdanovich's translation of Henry James novella to" the brusquer world of Howard Hawks"

It's that Hawksian scattergun approach to the dialogue that still leaves me sitting on the fence with Daisy Miller. I read the novella several years ago before I first saw the film and I didn't find Bogdanovich's vision to chime with how I personally interpreted James' work. The screenplay by The Glittering Prizes novelist Frederic Raphael (though Bogdanovich disputes how much of Raphael's screenplay was used, arguing that the dialogue is lifted from James' novella and that it was Bogdanovich alone who wrote the only original scene in the movie) takes what James describes as Daisy's "sweetest, brightest audibleness" and her ability to "chatter as freshly and freely with two gentlemen as one" with conversation that was an "odd mixture of audacity and puerility" and showcases it as a constant chatterbox and cross-talker. It's an unexpected style for a nineteenth century period drama but, as Bogdanovich remarked, the dialogue is truthful to what is there on the page, it's just the interpretation that is somewhat different. I have to say that, on this watch, I have found myself more acclimatised to it, but coming straight off the novel first time around it was something of a culture shock.

Much of the criticism, both from the critics and from those closest to Bogdanovich (see that Friedkin comment), was that Shepherd was miscast and didn't possess the talent to depict the titular heroine for whom society, and her bewitched would-be suitor Winterbourne in particular, is left to wonder whether she's an innocent or a reckless flirt. But, as we later went on to see in Moonlighting, Shepherd was born to be a Hawks-style heroine, and she makes what could easily be seen as a spoilt and thoughtless madam into a likeable character who clearly bears no ill will and pinpoints the hypocrisies of nineteenth century society and Victorian values. It's also worth hearing out Bogdanovich's argument that, if he simply wanted to make a vanity project for his girlfriend, surely he'd have picked something less challenging? Unfortunately the reputation that comes with Shepherd is already stacked against the film, which means the parts of her performance that she truly excels with are all too often overlooked and given little credit. I may be biased though, as a five year old I used to have a photo of Shepherd on my bedroom wall, thanks to her role in Moonlighting. Whatever, I don't necessarily think she's helped all that much by her co-star Barry Brown who doesn't bring any likeability to a character who is essentially our guide for the story. As such, it's hard to grasp the way Winterbourne is forced to wrestle not only with the complexities he believes to be inherent in Daisy's character, but also the society and morality around him. Far better are the supporting cast, which includes Cloris Leachman, Mildred Natwick and, best of all, Eileen Brennan as an unforgiving Mrs Walker.

In conclusion, Daisy Miller isn't the unmitigated flop that many would have it, but something clearly got lost in translation from script to screen which is all the more odd when you consider how faithful an adaptation it is. Something's off here and it's hard to put your finger on just what. Many will cite the talent in front of the camera, but actually I'm left to wonder whether it was Bogdanovich who just wasn't cut out to helm such material that is just as responsible. As for the director himself he remains unrepentant and believes that Daisy Miller was simply ahead of its time. Had it been made a decade later at the time of Merchant Ivory, he feels it would have been a different story. There could be something in such an argument but let's not kid ourselves that this could ever have held its head high alongside the similarly themed A Room With a View.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Interiors (1978)

Coming as it does between Annie Hall and Manhattan, Interiors is Woody Allen at the height of his creative powers. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that Interiors is a film about creativity. What is surprising is that it is a straight drama - something his audience simply wasn't ready for at the time.

Borrowing from his beloved Bergman and Chekhov (Three Sisters springs to mind) Interiors is a glacial, distinctly European-style exploration of familial angst that is ignited when the marriage of the parents of the three women Arthur (EG Marshall) and Eve (Geraldine Page) breaks down. The theme of creativity is especially apparent in the careers and frustrations of the sisters.

Diane Keaton's Renata is an established and acclaimed poet whose undiagnosed anxieties surrounding mortality (she seems to be presenting with panic attacks throughout the film and talks of an understanding and fear of death) have impacted on her writing process leaving her, in her own words, impotent. The only daughter to provide her parents with a grandchild, Renata has literally created, but doesn't have the emotional attachment to raise or develop her offspring. 

Equally creatively successful is Flyn (Kristen Griffith), an actress whose beauty ensures she is seldom out of work. However, Flyn is practical enough to know that her career is not a secure one and that the looks that keep her in such demand will not last forever. Equally she is concerned by the notion that her art lacks the substance that Renata's possesses and, when Renata's partner Frederick (Richard Jordan), a frustrated and unappreciated writer who feels creatively inferior to Renata and therefore unworthy of her love, attempts to physically seduce her sister, his stinging criticism that 'You only exist when you are being looked at' really hits home with Flyn. 

Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) is ostensibly the film's lead, a sibling whom Renata describes as possessing 'all the anguish and anxiety of a creative soul with none of the talent'. An artist without talent, or at least a field to work within (Renata's damning criticism comes from Joey's unsuccessful attempts at photography), Joey is troubled by her inability to effectively express what is inside her and, of all the siblings, she seems to exist specifically in her mother's shadow. She feels like she is the one who bears the brunt of Eve's neuroses and is afraid of turning into her at the same time. She treats her lover Mike (an impossibly young Sam Waterston) poorly and confesses to not understanding why he doesn't just leave her, given the grief she gives him. When she discovers that she is pregnant, her immediate reaction is to abort, again perhaps because she is fearful of becoming Eve. 

The real creative force in Interiors however is Eve, and it is a distinctly negative creative force that she possesses and uses that permeates across the family. A meticulous, mentally fragile interior designer, the matriarch treats her immediate family like objects to be appreciated and controlled, co-ordinated to her tastes accurately and effectively in the family home and her existence. She even designs Joey and Mike's home to her own taste, once again proving that Joey is submitting to her mother at all times. The family home, which she has fashioned in complimentary subdued tones of greys and creams feels not unlike a doll's house and especially so in the way Allen frames the flashback sequences of the sisters' childhood. The house overlooks the sea, whose untameable nature serves as a potent metaphor both in contrast to Eve's controlled tastes and in how Allen purposefully shoots Renata, Joey and Flyn looking out of the windows upon the sea - effectively trapped in their own interiors.  Played effectively by Geraldine Page, Eve is a character whose fragility initially evokes feelings of sympathy in the audience and indeed, for all her negative influence on those closest to her, the family remain protective and concerned for her no matter what. It is a peculiar but all too believable passive aggressive relationship in which Eve's manipulative actions are repeatedly excused. Only the political Mike - mindful of history repeating itself perhaps - has the outspoken ability to protest and acknowledge her behaviour, revolts against the stifling hold that masquerades as Eve's artistic vision by moving the vase she specifically selected for his and Joey's bedroom into the living room.  For Allen, writing from a women's POV for the first time, it is important to view Eve as the first in what becomes a recurring character type in his films; the dominant mother. At a time when British comedy was preoccupied with mother-in-law jokes, Allen was subverting the trend, creating the Eve character from his experience of just such a relationship with his first wife Louise Lasser's mother. 

Eve's greatest creation is her husband, Arthur (we know she views her husband as coldly as such because it is referenced how she personally footed the bill to put him through law school) and so when he announces his desire for a trial separation and ultimately requests a divorce because he has met someone else, his actions are viewed as the ultimate betrayal which causes a relapse of Eve's suicidal depression (though it could be argued Eve's initial suicide attempt is a manipulative action intended to bring him back to the marriage). Arthur's 'other woman' is Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), an unmistakeably transformative character dismissed as a 'vulgarian' by Joey (speaking her mother's thoughts?) because she does not comprehend the arts as they do, has simple tastes, and dances wildly and alone at her own wedding reception, accidentally smashing one of her mother's vases as a result. Arthur appreciates Pearl because she makes him feel both alive and relaxed, things he could never be with Eve. Pearl's lively, ebullient character is best depicted by her warmer colours; she is a redhead, who wears red dresses and warming red furs. She brings new colour into the austere lives of our protagonists and is the one to attempt to breathe life into Eve following that stunningly shot climax in a manner not too dissimilar to the new life she has breathed into Arthur. 

This is Allen at his most visually creative and there are many stunningly framed shots and setpieces here to recommend Interiors. I especially love his use of tracking shots here, as well as his use of sound; he offsets his traditional naturalistic sound design with harsh, brutal explosions of noise - the crashing waves in the almost soundless climax, the sweeping of candles and the vase to the floor, the harsh sound of the tape as it seals the windows during Eve's attempt to gas herself - that really make you sit up.

If this were any other filmmaker, Interiors would be hailed as a landmark film in the new age of Hollywood of the 1970s. However, because it is Woody Allen, it came with far too many expectations. His first straight drama, it confounded audiences and critics alike and, even today, you'll see online people expressing how they were 'looking for the jokes' in a way which they simply do not do with his later dramas such as Crimes and Misdemeanours or Match Point. That said, there are some funny moments in Interiors, most notably from Stapleton's culture clash with her new family around the dinner table. That she genuinely considers her son to be running an art gallery in the lobby of a Vegas hotel and that she fails to understand the emotional depth in a play they're discussing raises a chuckle, but it also points perhaps an accusing finger to our own bourgeois tastes and the elitist belief that one type of art is superior to another, but that there is such a thing as a correct and incorrect personal relationship with art itself.

I'd waited a long time to see Interiors, it's an Allen film that never gets shown on TV, and now I'm kicking myself that I didn't just buy the DVD sooner than this week. Then again, if I had bought and seen it years ago when I first wanted to, perhaps - like the audiences of the day - I wouldn't have appreciated it as much as I do now? I'm just glad I've finally seen it, and I feel sure that it will only grow in my already high esteem on repeated viewing.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Out On Blue Six: Glen Campbell, RIP

Sad to hear that Glen Campbell has passed away at the age of 81. The country legend had been battling Alzheimer's since 2011. The man may have gone, but we'll always have the gift of his glorious music


End Transmission


Shown nightly all last week, BBC4's Queers (part of the BBC's Gay Britannia season to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Wolfenden Report) was like a gay version of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. That's not a criticism by the way: any television monologue since Bennett is bound to draw comparison with his work, but the good news is Queers can take its place alongside it with pride (literally).

Curated by Mark Gatiss (which basically means produced and directed, with the opener The Man on the Platform being scripted by him) these twenty minute dramas are each set in the same pub and chart a course across the last one hundred years to sketch the gay experience in the UK. Uniformly, they are excellent. Each skilfully sketches its character and their world in a way that slowly envelopes and absorbs you without even noticing thanks to both the superb writing and performances and the intimacy that goes hand in hand with stories being told directly to camera. 

Some are of course better than others. I must confess to feeling a slight lull and sag to the middle of the series with the third consecutive night which brought the episodes I Miss The War by Matthew Baldwin and Safest Spot In Town by Keith Jarrett, but the course was immediately righted with a stunning performance by the-national-treasure-in-waiting Gemma Whelan as Bertie the cross-dresser masquerading as a dapper gent in the 1929 set A Perfect Gentleman, penned by Jackie Clune. Other highlights include the series opener, Gatiss' own The Man on the Platform, which features an exquisitely sensitive and well drawn performance from Ben Whishaw as WWI soldier Perce (and who is pleasingly delivered full circle with a brief passing mention in the finale, the 2016 set Something Borrowed by Gareth McLean and starring Alan Cumming as an anxious groom awaiting the wedding day he never expected or indeed dared hope for); Brian Fillis' wryly comic, 1987 set More Anger which stars Russell Tovey as a gay actor who, fearing typecasting as an AIDS sufferer, finds his big break as unstereoptypical gay character Clive in a new soap well intentioned but disappointingly dull; Michael Dennis' touching A Grand Day Out which stars Dunkirk actor Fionn Whitehead as a naive 17 year old up in London for the first time on the night the government voted on the age of consent in 1994; and lastly, Jon Bradfield's 1957 set Missing Alice, which is the only monologue to feature a straight character, the titular Alice played by the marvellous Rebecca Front. Set around the publication of the Wolfenden Report, it tells the tale of a woman married to a homosexual man and how she has slowly come to accept and even enjoy his life. It's so beautifully written and so superbly performed, you really could have spent a whole 90 minutes or more in Front's company. 

This beautiful, simple yet touching series also boasted a score to match, thanks to a piano instrumental theme tune from singer/songwriter and Elton John's protege Bright Light Bright Light, aka Rod Thomas

The full series is still available to view on the iPlayer

Smoking Hot

Jayne Mansfield

Monday, 7 August 2017

Out On Blue Six: Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire's glorious new single. I especially love that Abba-esque piano

End Transmission

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Lobster (2015)

The Lobster was a confusing experience, even know I'm not totally sure what to make of it. All I know is that I wanted to like it more than I actually did. In this post (which contains spoilers pertaining to the events of the film itself) I hope to explain why I feel like I do. 

So, here we go and remember

First of all, I was dazzled by the world that Yorgos Lanthimos and his  longtime collaborator Efthymis Filippou created and was intrigued just as much by what was not said or shown than what actually was. The process of having to go to the hotel for 45 days with the hope of pairing up initially appears mandatory and this is further backed up by the scenes in the city where authoritarian police officers root out singletons. But the parents of Lea Séydoux's Loner Leader seem oblivious to the harshness of their world and there's just too much disparity between the hotel residents to convince that this is some totalitarian regime; why are some much younger than others? Why has Ben Whishaw's Limping Man arrived just five days after his wife had died? Is the truth of the matter more worrying than we initially suspect - is access to the programme actually (in part) voluntary?

What frustrated me is the fact that the film is just too fast and loose with its own rules. Lanthimos and Filippou have created something here that is undeniably intriguing, but their outright refusal to expound further or to follow their ideas to any logical conclusion makes for frustrating viewing. I was amused by the deadpan, stilted, Wes Anderson-like delivery the cast adopted, but ultimately I too longed for something with a bit more warmth and humanity. If this really is a satire on the pressures we in society impose upon ourselves when it comes to forming and maintaining successful relationships, then why couldn't our protagonists be a little more easy to relate to and empathise with? The style of The Lobster inevitably keeps viewers at arm's length which is frustrating as there was the potential here for a much warmer, more quietly life affirming film in which our protagonists find a degree of contentment and happiness in the last days of their following of the absurd rules that will see them compliantly taking steps to their own 'animalized' fate - a film could have existed here which had something overall to say about the human spirit despite the arbitrary and impractical, unforgiving conditions we indeed set ourselves.

After a time, I wondered if the style of delivery was, in fact, the key. Characters struggle with communication, in a way which seems to suggest their isolation may stem from their social impairment and an almost autistic like behaviour. But this theory doesn't hold water because, as we are told, several of these singletons did once have partners. So why do they speak and behave as they do? Could it be that they are so determined, so wrapped up in the facade of presenting themselves favourably to their prospective partner - by highlighting their similarities and concerning themselves solely with what they believe the other wishes to hear - that their real identity, their true self, is absent? Satirically this works just as well I guess as, in pursuit of love, we all to a degree try to present what we believe others wish to see in us rather than what we truly are.

I also want to know why our protagonists set so much store in the notion that they could only be in a relationship with someone they have something in common with. The notion that opposites attract is not entertained at all in the world of The Lobster, as each character searches for, in essence, their mirror image, with a quality that they share. Interestingly, aside from Olivia Colman's hotel manager who shares a fondness for singing with her partner, these qualities always seem to be an impairment; the Limping Man's late wife also had a limp and, when unable to find someone with the same disability at the hotel, he cheats: faking nosebleeds to be with a girl who is a natural sufferer of this complaint, played by Jessica Barden. Likewise  in desperation, Colin Farrell's David - with just a few days left of his stay - elects to fake an unsympathetic character to be with Angeliki Papoulia's heartless woman. These relationships, based on lies, are shown to be unsuitable but highlight once again the arbitrary goals we in fact set ourselves when looking for love. Most intriguingly, this belief continues in the wilderness with Farrell falling for Rachel Weisz's character because they are both short-sighted. Why, when free from the hotel and society's restrictive formula for romance, do these people still conform - is this a statement on pre-conditioning? Ultimately their refusal to see (oh how ironic) any other possibility for romance leads to David considering self mutilation when Weisz has been cruelly blinded by Séydoux in an attempt to scupper their burgeoning romance. She is blind, he is not, therefore in her logic their connection is broken. The film closes ambiguously on this harrowing act in a way which was, to me at least, reminiscent of the hotel manager's dilemma when confronted by the loners; his lack of compunction in firing a (unbeknownst to him) empty pistol at Colman, suggests he was happy to sacrifice her life to ensure he selfishly saved his own skin, even though he was precariously positioning himself as a loner as a result. In essence, their prized couple status was built on nothing more than sand. However, when it comes to the crunch, Farrell's David seems unable to sacrifice his sight to achieve his ultimate goal of coupledom and the acceptance of the world around him.

Many critics have cited how the first half of the movie, with its hotel setting of leisure and luxury which belies the fact that it is actually a prison reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan's iconic '60s TV series The Prisoner, is far superior to the second half, and it's something I completely agree with. I get that the film is trying to tell us that there is virtually no option open to David, as the world he inhabits is completely unforgiving whether you are willing to conform to coupledom or whether you wish to rebel and remain a loner. There is no freedom here, and the loners hiding out in the forest are just as ruthlessly and coldly insistent on their way of life as the hotel management are of theirs. But like the action in Lilliput in the first half of Gulliver's Travels, it is the world you are first introduced to that captures your attention and provides the most fun. No one gives a stuff about Brobdingnag - which reverses the roles to have Gulliver the Lilliputian in this land of giants - really do they? What is even more damning for the film's second half is the fact that so much of the potential afforded to it before this stage is now squandered, notably the whole 'animalization' process which was arguably the film's main concept. Again, it's just too fast and loose with its own rules, discarding concepts when it suits. This would be fine if what they moved on to built on and improved what had previously been, but the film loses its fizz with each abandonment. There's just no escaping the fact that this new raft of characters, though well played, are less interesting and engaging than those who came before them. This flaw is all too apparent in the film's use of narration from Weisz who, again despite the strengths in performance and the key nature of her character for David's story, is arguably the film's least compelling character. Narration in film requires some kind of investment and empathy for the audience and that cannot be secured when you only introduce your narrator half way through the proceedings.

Overall The Lobster may have gained a lot of love and acclaim but personally it was a case of nearly not quite for me. The hunt continues...

Silent Sunday: Riot Shield

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Revengers Tragedy (2002)

Alex Cox's cinematic adaptation of The Revenger's Tragedy, the 1606 Jacobean revenge tragedy once attributed to Cyril Tourneur but now commonly accepted to be by Brian Middleton, updates the action from the 17th century Italian court to a freakish, post-apocalyptic 2011 version of Liverpool and loses the apostrophe along the way. It's a bold and experimental offering - part Luhrmann's take on Romeo and Juliet, part Jarman and, most eccentrically of all thanks to Frank Cottrell Boyce's script, part Brookside ("Villain! I'll kill thee!" wail Marc Warren and Justin Salinger's conspiratorial brothers as one of their many plans are foiled, "Fuck off, ya cheap pair o'bastards" Stephen Graham's retorts in full scally, immune to their grandiose threats) - that succeeds thanks to Christopher Eccleston's fine performance as the vengeful and anarchic malcontent Vindici, and the decadent charm of Eddie Izzard's Lussurioso, heir to Derek Jacobi's lip smacking villain, the Duke: the Shakespearean knight resplendent in a funereal suit, silver ponytail, designer shades, pancake and excessive lippy!

When asked why he mixed things up so, Cox said; "To emphasize, in a filmic way, the absolute absence of change!  The injustices of the early 17th century are those of the early 21st.  Corrupt and powerful forces oppress the poor and the meek.  The poor rise up.  They are suppressed.  And a younger generation of poor, angrier and with access to weapons, rises up to take revenge...  Just as US foreign policy in Central America was the same in 1856 as in 1986, when we made Walker.  The anachronisms weren't a stunt: they were an inevitable consequence of the narrative" So, when Cox and Cottrell Boyce depict the death of the wife of Antonio, Duke's rival (a comely yet pure younger bride played by Sophie Dahl) they deliberately recall to mind the carpet of flowers and tributes and the mass outpouring of grief that followed the death of Princess Diana, whilst two pub bores discuss the possibility of a rogue bullet in her demise that brings to mind the conspiracy theories surrounding JFK's assassination. This may be a 17th century tale, but the film is committed to pointing out that the themes and events remain both original and utterly contemporary. 

The film opens with Eccleston's Vindici arriving back home from a self imposed exile on board not a death ship, like Nosferatu, but a death bus. It appears that the bus has been ambushed on entering this violent and dangerous city, killing all occupants bar the fortunate Vindici. It soon becomes clear though that Vindici is a man who has literally come to Liverpool from death itself.  Armed only with a knife and the decaying skull of his bride, poisoned by the Duke on their wedding day for daring to spurn his sexual advances, Vindici longs for the eponymous revenge of the piece from Jacobi's silver haired old villain and reunites with his family to achieve this ambition. With both Cox and Cottrell Boyce being natives of Merseyside, they have great fun transposing the events of the play to their Mad Max style vision of a futuristic, post industrial, corrupt and blighted Liverpool. Their tale is set in a United Kingdom whose southern region had been destroyed by natural disaster (sadly not convincingly explained enough in the finished product, though to know it makes more sense of the young savages who roam the city threatening anyone they suspect of being 'cockney' - a past-time they'll soon regret when challenging Vindici) and it is delightfully embraced by a local crew consisting of production designers Cecilia Montiel and Remi Vaughan-Richards, costumer Monica Aslanian, makeup designer Lesley Brennan and cinematographer Len Gowing. Liverpool itself is a character in the film, when Izzard's Lussurioso stands before doors which bear a logo reminiscent of Imperial Rome, albeit S.P.Q.L (Senatus Populusque Liverpudliensis) for Liverpool as opposed to the more traditional S.P.Q.R for the ancient empire, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a neat touch from the production designer, but it's not: that very legend really is on the door of Liverpool's spectacular St George's Hall. 

With a score by Chumbawamba and both a post punk and a late '90s clubbing sensibility, Revengers Tragedy is very much a film of its time. A full on tale of bloodlust that tackles both incest and necrophilia, some audiences may be turned off; either by its overblown camp and flamboyancy, its refusal to polish its own rough edges or by its self conscious glee in the amateur (less of the Brookside alumni would have helped as Michael Starke, for example, seems especially out of place and out of his depth), but the whole pell-mell affair is pitched with such breathtakingly frenetic commitment that it's hard not to be swept up by it. Just be warned though that, like revenge itself, it may in conclusion somehow leave you a little disappointed.