Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Nixon (1995)

Whilst my fellow film fans are spending their time watching films featuring the likes of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, I decided to witness the real bogeyman of America in the run up to Halloween.

Oliver Stone's 1995 film Nixon remains my favourite of the director's works. Granted some of the striking imagery - a trademark of Stone's specifically in his previous film, the first in the presidential trilogy JFK - may appear a little heavy handed, dated and ill employed now, but this is still a toweringly provocative and blackly rich work.

I think it was Hunter S Thompson in his book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (which followed Nixon's road to gaining a second term in '72) who said that the trust and faith in the presidency was lost in LBJ's reign, a tenure which showed up the horrors of unlimited power to the world, warts and all. Personally though, and perhaps because I'm British rather than American, I have never truly been one of those people who placed the leaders of the US on a pedestal and so, I don't feel that turn towards the darkness from LBJ onwards. The general consensus may be that Richard Milhous Nixon was the one to shit in America's bed but, as I believe absolute power corrupts absolutely, I tend to believe the sheets needed changing long before then. It's a stance I think Stone is inclined to acknowledge too as he sets about depicting Nixon's biography as that of a classical tragedy. He never once excuses the man's actions, but he helps to create a character who is deeply flawed and complicated and even, in some instances, can elicit audience sympathy.  

The film is a wonderfully constructed piece, deploying the usual non linear/flashback structure, and creating a White House that is with heavy irony a dark and shadowy place and a seething, bubbling cauldron full of bile, anger, lost and wasted opportunities and blind revenge. A decaying Camelot being dismantled brick by brick from within, it's fascinating to see how the ghosts of the Kennedy's linger and loom large behind Nixon's shoulder.

Anthony Hopkins may be no one's idea of a Nixon look-a-like (who is?!) but it really doesn't matter. He captures the essence of the man as Stone wishes to depict; the loneliness and the loneness inherent in the characterisation is something Hopkins excels in, making the aforementioned bogeyman, this vilified public figure of hate, sympathetic and utterly hapless. It's a stunning performance that is often overlooked when considering the finest work of the Welsh wizard. 

There's no slacking in the supporting cast too with a note perfect Paul Sorvino as Kissinger, Joan Allen, Bob Hoskins, Ed Harris, Larry Hagman, JT Walsh and James Woods in one of my favourite performances.

A deeply absorbing experience, for my money Nixon is one of the finest films of the 1990s.

Theme Time : Alan Parker - Angels

Angels was a BBC drama series which ran from 1975 to 1978, before returning as a twice weekly soap opera from 1979 to 1983. Described as 'the Z Cars of nursing', the show could be considered a forerunner to the likes of Casualty and Holby City which achieved greater success in the 1980s and '90s and continue as flagship programmes for the BBC to this day. 

Devised by Paula Milne, the first three years of the show were set in Battersea add St Angela's Hospital (which is how the series got its name) and followed the private and professional lives of six student nurses. The programme helped launch a succession of actresses such as Lesley Dunlop, Fiona Fullerton, Pauline Quirke and Angela Bruce, who remain TV staples to this day.

The conversion from 50 minute weekly drama to twice weekly episodes of 25 minutes each was helmed by soap supremos Julia Smith and Tony Holland (who would go on to create EastEnders two years after time was finally called on Angels, and later would be responsible for the infamous flop Eldorado) and saw the setting switch from St Angela's to Heath Green Hospital, Birmingham. During this tenure the show was committed to tackling authentic issues hitherto unseen in the soap opera and medical drama format. Contraception, alcoholism and promiscuity all featured as part of the nurses lives much to the disgust of those who felt the show was painting the nursing profession as an unglamourous one. Smith defended the tone and her programme well, stating "There are a lot of tensions in a young nurse's life; it's no wonder some turn to drink. When you're eighteen you've got a lot of growing up to do"

The show's theme tune entitled Motivation was by Alan Parker. A deeply catchy tune, it still crops up regularly on TV as standard library music now, and, comparable to other hit programmes of the day such as The Sweeney, suggests the intentions of realism in the changing face of 70s television.

The first two series of Angels have recently been released on DVD

Out On Blue Six : Gerry Rafferty

Another sad passing, the saxophone player responsible for the fabulous solo on this track, Raphael Ravenscroft, has passed away from a suspected heart attack at the age of 60.


End Transmission

Monday, 20 October 2014

Out On Blue Six : Everything But The Girl

End Transmission

RIP Lynda Bellingham

Lynda Bellingham has sadly lost her battle with cancer aged 66.

If I'm being candid, she was never what I'd call a favourite actress of mine, but the fact remains if you grew up in the 1980s she was a big part of TV, playing maternal stereotypes such as the Oxo mum in the famous series of adverts for the cooking stock (pictured above) and as the second actress to play Helen Herriot, wife of James Herriot, in the BBC adaptations of his books, All Creatures Great and Small (below) before going on to star in ITV sitcoms such as Second Thoughts and its sequel Faith in the Future

She also gained cult credentials appearing in the likes of The Sweeney, Blake's 7 and Doctor Who's epic 1986 season The Trial of a Timelord


Saturday, 18 October 2014


Sky Atlantic and Sky Living have engaged in some 'blue sky thinking' and decided to axe two very funny sitcoms; Mr Sloane and Trying Again after just one series each.

I really hate these kind of short sighted decisions. Granted you could argue Mr Sloane, the 60s set sitcom starring Nick Frost, Olivia Colman and Ophelia Lovibond, had something of a beginning a middle and an end in its solitary season to satisfy viewers, but Trying Again, written by and starring Chris Addison, alongside Jo Joyner, ended on something of a cliffhanger and featured characters I'd really liked to have seen again.

Mr Sloane's team, which included show creator and Curb Your Enthusiasm director Bob Weide, have taken to Facebook to confirm the cancellation and to express how they found the fate of the show ''baffling''. Make that you and me both. 

"Sky had been very supportive during the first series, and claims the show to have been a success for them by every measure" they said, adding "There is a new channel head at Sky who, it seems, has a new agenda for the channel that doesn't include our pal Sloaney. What that agenda is, we imagine, will become more evident in the coming year"

Sounds like there's an idiot in charge of Sky then and that the new agenda is for its channels to be a laugh free zone. 

Breaking news: Someone's started a petition to get Trying Again's cancellation reverted. Please sign it here

Friday, 17 October 2014

Out On Blue Six : Joe Jackson

Brilliant song, with one of the best single covers ever...it just sums up the song meaning beautifully in one very clever photo...

We've all been there, right?

End Transmission

Girls With Guns

Plus size pin up model Gia Genevieve

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Out On Blue Six : Ian Dury and the Blockheads

An interactive bench sponsored by Warner/Chappell Music in memorial for their artist Ian Dury has fallen into disrepair.  Despite having offers of repair work from fans of Ian's, the music corporation has yet to reply. They may have forgotten Ian Dury, but his fans have not. Please sign this petition here

End Transmission

Sack Lord Freud

Lord Freud was caught making prejudicial comments concerning his belief that disabled people weren't worth the minimum wage in employment and could be paid much less. 

This is the kind of comment that proves the real thinking of the Tory government, who have never wanted to help those most disadvantaged in our society.

Please sign this petition demanding he be sacked from his role as a government minister here

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Red Shift (1978)

God love the BFI. Another near forgotten treasure is released from the vaults this month; Red Shift is an adaptation of The Owl Service author Alan Garner's sci fi fantasy children's novel (and let's use the term children loosely) that appeared in the acclaimed Play For Today strand in 1978. It's a mark of the quality and distinction TV had at the time that the two plays that sandwiched Red Shift were David Hare's Licking Hitler and Jim Allen's The Spongers. Remember when the BBC gave a toss about intelligent drama and showcasing a variety of voices? This was then.

Time figures much in Red Shift. The story is set in South Cheshire and the slip roads leading to the M33 (the 'red shift' of the title; its triangular formation allegedly being something seen by the naked eye from space to have a red glow) and beyond, the hills of Mow Cop (the subject of today's Wordless Wednesday). But, whilst the setting may remain static, it literally shifts across three time periods; a heartfelt but strained romance in the 70s is our introduction and meat of the piece, before we flit back to a beleaguered militia coming into contact with a pagan goddess in Roman times and a bloodthirsty massacre during the English Civil War. 

In each segment the narrative focuses on a disturbed and troubled youth, Tom, Macy and Thomas, each linked by his location, the discovery of an axehead and 'visions' that appear like fits when words can no longer be summoned up. As you can see from such a description, it's a deeply elliptical and disturbing piece that neatly fits the burgeoning 70s preoccupation with folklore, the ancient characterisation of women having the ability to heal or hurt man, specifically when they are fated to hurt already, and paganism - an echo of which Garner appealingly suggests runs through the arteries of the modern day motorways that course through our ancient countryside. It commences like the standard fare one perhaps stereotypically expects from a Play For Today, depicting the 70s setting as little more than a tale of small town frustration featuring a verbose and intelligent yet clearly pained young man trapped by his overbearing yet well meaning parents as his modern thinking girlfriend looks set to move on thanks to a career opportunity in London. One can only imagine what the unexpecting viewers at the time thought with the sudden shift to a different timezone.

Directed beautifully by Long Good Friday director John Mackenzie and starring some truly excellent television actors including Lesley Dunlop, Bernard Gallagher, Ken Hutchison, James Hazeldine and Michael Elphick, BFI have restored the original print in crisp HD, present this beguiling headscratcher to a new generation.

Wordless Wednesday : Mow Cop

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

W. (2008)

I was pretty disappointed with W. on its initial release some six years ago. The third in what could be classed as Oliver Stone's president trilogy, having been preceded by JFK and Nixon, I found it somewhat premature, coming in too early in the fall of Bush's presidency to have any real comment on the legacy of his premiership. Where its predecessors excelled was in exorcising the ghosts of a nation, of the world even, whereas W. served as little more than a hasty obituary on a dying patient. 

Rewatching it today, I found that some distance has helped it but not enough to have it stand alongside JFK or Nixon. I still feel that if Stone had waited some years - maybe a couple more years time from even today - to commence this project it might have had more impact.

Of course part of the problem is the age we now live in. Much of what is depicted in W. was already public knowledge thanks to numerous press accounts and tell all books regarding Bush's life before politics, his relations with his family, his time in office, 9/11 and the Gulf Wars. Facts and theories that do not require reinterpretation in the manner that Stone's other presidential, or indeed generally political (as Platoon and Salvador with its views on US foreign policy and modern warfare equally fall into this example) did. As such the 'shock and awe' (to quote a post 9/11 Bush favoured phrase) one normally associates with Stone's films isn't really in evidence with W. and that too explains our disappointment. 

Stone had to take a different route with his character study and exploration of recent history and it came as some surprise perhaps that he seemed keen to show the humanity and likeability in a man who, for many citizens of the world, was a figure of fun at best and a figure of utter hate at worst. By using an episodic non linear narrative that flashes back and forwards from 'the present day' of Bush's time at the White House to his days at college and his inability to hold down a succession of jobs, Stone depicts a figure that the audience can have empathy with. We see how he never truly made his parents (James Cromwell as George Bush Snr and Ellen Burstyn as Barbara) proud and, thanks to his love of partying, reckless behaviour and ultimately his alcoholism, gave them cause to despair. Their favouring of their other son Jeb resulting in sibling rivalry between the brothers, is shown to explain Bush's character and its a universal theme for any family to comprehend and provoke sympathy. That Stone manages to do that with a President we believed to have an either/or opinion about, one who fraudulently went to war and helped bring about economic collapse, is pretty impressive. His narrative choice is clearly one of a man who blindly reached his esteemed position through luck, opportunity and accident. His Bush is just a good ole boy (and how those 60s and 70s scenes remind one of a Burt Reynolds movie or an episode of Dallas) who got in way over his head. Because this isn't a savage indictment, it's implicitly implied rather than outright stated that Bush is an incompetent president, conferring to the forthright opinions of some of his staff, specifically Dick Chaney (Richard Dreyfuss, stealing the film with a jaw droppingly convincing turn) Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and Donny Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), whilst exasperating others such as Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton performing like a Spitting Image puppet of Condy) and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright - the embodiment of biting your lip) It's an interesting approach, suggesting that we really ought to have been looking at those closest to Bush, than Bush himself. As such, Stone never lets us get close to the Machiavellian powers behind the throne, nor to those who ultimately deferred to Bush's will which ultimately allowed him to sustain his families legacy, in all likelihood against their own predictions.

Besides my criticism that it came too soon, the film has other flaws. You're never quite sure what it is Stone wants to really say about Bush, other than he is just a man. But he's a man who believed it was God's will that he should become president. In a world where normal people who believe they have heard voices get sectioned, why is it just accepted that a president - the man with nuclear codes - heard a voice telling him to obtain office? There's also the issue of Brolin having to play Bush at each stage of the man's life. It's faintly ludicrous to see the 40 year old Brolin play a frat boy alongside actors of the right age, but its the necessity of the narrative that Stone selected.

It's an accomplished and polished looking film with a strong cast but I can't really shake the notion that it could have truly achieved greatness if approached further down the line. In the film's closing moments, Bush is stumped by the press who ask him what his role in history will be...maybe it is only history that will allow us that answer.

Smoking Hot

Anne Francis

Powder Room (2013)

Based on Rachel Hirons' hit stageplay When Women Wee, Powder Room the debut of female director MJ Delaney, is an authentic and fresh film about female status anxiety explored over the course of one chaotic and calamitous night for two groups of twentysomething girls at a Croyden nightclub, with much of the action taking place in the titular ladies loos.

A fine ensemble of young female talent including Sheridan Smith, Jaime Winstone, Oona Chaplin and singer Kate Nash invest much into the realistic earthy dialogue and funny scenarios that will chime with any female nightclub goer, and indeed clubbers in general.  We'll all know a shitty club like this, the kind of club that is the only option in a modern day British urban town if you want to have fun after a certain time of night, and we'll all recall nights like this in some small way.

The heart of the film is Smith's character, a woman whose night out finds herself torn between two groups; Winstone's more loutish, girls-just-wanna-have-fun mob whom she works with, and old friends Chaplin and Nash who, having found some success in new media circles, are perhaps more obnoxious - albeit for different, distinctly snobbish reasons. The crux of the film ultimately concerns the lies Sheridan's character spouts to keep her circle of friends apart and why she feels she has to present herself differently in the first place - a situation I expect we've all found ourselves in in one form or another.

Flashy direction from Delaney helps to open out the film from the trappings of its stage origins, but its just decoration (though admittedly a visually pleasing one at that) and the real meat is to be had in the dialogue. Granted, if we're to compare it to what has gone before, well it's not Andrea Dunbar quality writing, but it's a far better representation of a generation of working class girls than something that ITV2, BBC3 or E4  churn out with alarming regularity, and it is at least one that is singularly being told by that gender, which should be applauded not derided like some reviews have been keen to do. Receiving its TV premiere on Sky Movies this week alongside Matt Whitecross' delightful ode to Stone Roses fandom, Spike Island, it's somewhat promising to see such aspects of British youth culture being depicted with a degree of unique parochial identity, charm and panache (other recent films like Svengali also fit such a category)  and whilst its clear they'll never trouble BAFTA I don't think that spoils the overall enjoyment to be had from this fare. Who knows , Powder Room and its contemporaries may become something of a sleeper cult in a few years time.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Milk (2008)

Milk, The biopic of Harvey Milk - politician, activist and the first openly gay man to be elected to US public office, cruelly assassinated by a bitter colleague in 1978 -  was a long time coming. First slated as an Oliver Stone produced, Gus Van Sant directed feature, entitled 'The Mayor of Castro Street', in 1991 it was reported that comic actor Robin Williams would play Milk. Van Sant subsequently left the project in '93 after numerous other A listers were attached to star in the lead role including James Woods, Richard Gere, Al Pacino and Daniel Day Lewis.  Stuck in development hell, with Bryan Singer the last name to be attached in the mid 00s, Van Sant set out to make his own Milk biopic based on a new script by Dustin Lance Black which would eventually win a screenplay Oscar. By 2007, Sean Penn signed up to play Milk, a stunning performance that earned him the Oscar for Best Actor. The film was released in 2008 to coincide with the 2008 Californian referendum on gay marriage.

I'm not a big fan of Sean Penn in general, but I cannot deny his skill as an actor in certain roles. It's perhaps best not to dwell on his somewhat ignorant yet 'right on' personal politics that see him tie himself in knots to appease people. For example, whilst he rightly earned much respect and plaudits for his sensitive and committed performance here it's worth pointing out that Penn's respect in such quarters wasn't universal, with some citing his mutual support of the anti-gay rights Cuban government, who have a track record for placing homosexuals in latter day concentration camps, is hypocritical at worst and plain dumb at best.

There's a strong supporting cast including James Franco and, one of my favourite US actresses, Alison Pill who proves what a versatile actress she is which only further puzzles me that she hasn't been given a more prominent role beyond the excellent HBO series The Newsroom.

Much of what impresses me in Van Sant's film is the very naturalistic vibe it possesses, with scenes that don't necessarily feel like 'acting' and a subtle yet committed and authentic depiction of mid to late 70s San Francisco. The screenplay is an assuredly good one that benefits greatly from the research Black invested in it, making the viewer feel like we're really witnessing the experiences of the people depicted at that very time and place. It vibrantly captures a moment, an inspiring step forward, perfectly.

It is in the film's third act, that we perhaps see it struggle. With a strong depiction of Milk on the outside trying to get in, the film starts to wobble a little as it details his role in office towards its conclusion. Perhaps the flaw is that much of what has gone before sets the viewer up in terms of strong political narrative and a sense of an impending martyrdom that so many biopics of tragic public figures are often steeped in. However the demise of Harvey Milk doesn't easily fit such narrative tropes. He was assassinated, it seems, not for his campaigns or for his beliefs, but for a perceived slight from a bitter and humiliated colleague (Josh Brolin) who may or may not have been a closeted homosexual. There's almost too much emphasis or what if's trying to be placed on what was a most arbitrary and needless murder - not only of Harvey Milk but also of the San Franciscan Mayor George Moscone.


Dirce Funari

Sunday, 12 October 2014

All Is Lost (2013)

It's perhaps a big ask of today's cinema goers to watch a film set entirely upon a small yacht on the Indian Ocean, with the bare minimum of dialogue and just one (veteran) actor, but that's the ask assured director JC Chandor (Margin Call) makes with All Is Lost and he does so with the eternally magnetic Robert Redford who makes it a compelling and deeply emotive and thought provoking movie.

Unfortunately, it proved to be an even bigger ask for the academy who snubbed the film in all bar one category (Sound Editing) and robbed the 77 year old Redford of a Best Actor nomination that he so richly deserved.

There's something sobering about seeing Redford, this once beautiful young Adonis of a man now cutting a solitary, craggy and mysterious swathe across the film's perilous action. As he calls upon his reserves of courage and inner strength and faces up to the his own mortality, so to do we, the audience, as we ponder just how we would fare in such a situation and how long ago Redford's golden heyday was now. He's still a first class actor and an absolute star; he still has the ability to attract the viewer and hold their attention and that's exactly what the technical requirements of Chandor's film needed to have, but this is unmistakably a personal acknowledgement from Redford regarding his senior years in a manner which his contemporaries would hesitate to admit or fail to deliver as effectively. Is this film really just an existential metaphor on human ageing and impending death? Do you know, it just might be.