Sunday, 23 November 2014

Out On Blue Six : Barbra Streisand

End Transmission

Housekeeping (1987)

Director Bill Forsyth seldom managed to convince audiences that his distinctive storytelling style and quirky outlook on life, seen previously in Scottish Gregory's Girl, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy, could be translated to the US but he succeeded here in his little seen American debut, the offbeat and bewitching Housekeeping.

It's a strange yet enchanting tale concerning two young sisters Ruthie and Lucille (Sara Walker and Andrea Burchill, both of whom have frustratingly faded into obscurity or retired from acting altogether) and their eccentric, mysterious Aunt Sylvie played perfectly by Christine Lahti.  We first meet the sisters as infants in the late 1940s, taken on a sudden trip out by their mother to the sleepy curious but conventional Pacific Northwestern town of Fingerbone - a town famous for and somewhat haunted by a rail disaster in its past - ostensibly to visit their grandmother. Soon after they arrive however the girls mother leaves them to commits suicide, leaving her daughters in the care of their grandmother, elderly great-aunts and lastly the once estranged and forever strange sister of their late mother, Sylvie. An ambiguous guardian, Sylvie has a penchant for collecting newspapers and tin cans, seems unperturbed when their home is flooded and is drawn to the railways and given to taking long walks which lead to the fearful suspicion for the girls, as they worry she too is suicidal or may leave them. Ultimately as the girls grow older and we reach the mid 1950s, Lucille grows apart from Sylvie seeing her eccentricity as strange and restricting her desire to be popular or 'normal' whilst the more introverted Ruthie grows closer, finding her behaviour compelling and attractive.

Of course it helps that, for his first US production and his first non original work, Forsyth chose a novel by Marilynne Robinson that shares much of his own peculiarly charming and unconventional, almost magical world view. In adapting the novel, Forsyth concentrates on characters who seem inwardly amused by their own eccentricity or behaviour and largely keep themselves to themselves, leading them to feel curiously surprised when others try to intervene in their lives. When the townsfolk of Fingerbone become concerned enough to offer help to Sylvie and her charges, Lahti's cannily depicts a bemused and quiet affront which remains beautifully infused by her slyly secret inner privacy and amusement.  

Beautifully shot in British Columbia and extremely evocative, Housekeeping is a whimsical feature that is truly one of a kind. It can be described I guess as being a film about someone who is, to all intents and purposes, a madwoman but her actions are endearingly shown as a positive. For Forsyth, one man's normal is another's insane and its that kind of theme that runs most satisfyingly through his best work. Housekeeping can stand comfortably in that category.

Silent Sunday : Lone Wolf

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Lenny (1974)

Lenny Bruce is perhaps still America's greatest most revered stand up comedian, but he wasn't always the case and like Van Gogh, it is perhaps only in death that his real talent was truly assessed. Bruce knew that stand up comedy was hard and he knew that the rewards could be glorious, but all too often Bruce's cruel and unwarranted reward was castigation, persecution and punishment. A pioneer of the form, Bruce was a liberating proponent of speaking that which had never been spoken aloud before; in saying what he thought he made an audience both laugh and think as well as ultimately being responsible for changing the rules of what is deemed acceptable. 

The comedian's death aged just 40 in 1966 from 'acute morphine poisoning caused by an accidental overdose' was a tragedy which, when combined with the hounding he faced right up until his premature demise from law enforcement and the establishment, made him a martyr and goes some way to explain his revered status today. It was Julian Barry's 1972 Broadway stage play Lenny which first asked us to reassess the man and, two years later, director Bob Fosse adapted the play for cinema.

Fosse, with his background in theatre and choreography, naturally captures the atmosphere of Bruce's world - the strip joints, cabaret nights and dive bars - in all its grubby and authentic glory. Captured in stark monochrome only serves to make the film's visual style even more real and impressive, with many scenes and moments looking like captured in the moment photojournalism. This documentarian  approach is further sustained by the narrative which sees an anonymous biographer interviewing those who were close to Lenny (his wife, his mother and his agent) Citizen Kane style which allows a framework to explore the non linear anecdotal scenes that depict Lenny's rise, his brief but glorious moment in the sun and ultimately his bitterly hard fall.  

It's perhaps more telling to consider the Lenny Bruce this movie does actually give us. Personally, unless you're a fan or have even the slightest of appreciation for the man's work I don't think you're going to come away a convert. As I say, Bruce's moment in the sun, his period in which he achieved a reputation for being a funny, enjoyable night out with material that is hilarious as well as challenging and thought provoking, was all too brief and the film shows that in a similarly brief manner. Much of Lenny is mainly made up of his whirlwind love affair and subsequent turbulent marriage to Honey, a stripper played by the striking Valerie Perrine, and his decline which saw him rabidly reciting transcripts of his own trails to rapidly dwindling audiences. From this, it is clear that Fosse and Barry (who adapted his play for the film) are more keen to push the notion of Bruce, the unfairly maligned performer, than a genuinely funny act. The makers are more preoccupied with giving us a victim of society who tried to make his audience and his establishment wake up, rather than actively persuade us of his merits. Like I say, it's perhaps not for newcomers to Bruce.

Though his now ludicrous 'crimes' are shown and fixated upon, what we are not shown is the period, shortly after Bruce's marriage, which saw him fraudulently raising $8,000 in donations for a fictional charity for leprosy which he made up and pretended to be a priest and representative of, all because he wanted to make enough money to allow his new bride the opportunity to retire from stripping! His drug issues, for which he was renowned, are also somewhat skirted over as is his near Messianic complex following his first arrest for obscenity in 1961. Bruce is, to Fosse and Barry, a hero and is thus portrayed as such, when we all know that no one is so clear cut or uncomplicated.

As with many a biopic, the real Lenny Bruce and what he means to varying people remains ambiguous and elusive.  Equally the other characters and their actions are also depicted somewhat gossamer like; Valerie Perrine's Honey is unmistakably a damaged individual (in real life she began stripping as a runaway teenager and served time in prison for several thefts, referenced in the film) who struggled terribly with drug addictions, but all too often Fosse is content to present Perrine's natural voluptuous beauty laid bare, rather than explore it too deeply which makes the threesome she has with a girlfriend and Lenny a somewhat frustrating hook for both audience titillation (as is her, authentic but long lingering, striptease scenes) and later a narrative drama that allows her and Lenny to fight. It's a credit to Perrine's acting prowess that she manages to create a three dimensional and sympathetic character here in her own right rather than just a sounding board for Dustin Hoffman's Lenny and a piece of meat to be aroused by and later to sympathise for. 

Which leads us to the star himself; Hoffman is, naturally, brilliant but he never once tries to emulate Bruce and his recreations of Bruce's act are delivered in a manner which keeps the power of the words but allows the humour to largely get lost in translation, perhaps to keep the general tone of bleak drama, hypocrisy and unfairness within the film rather than lighten the mood in any way shape or form. Again, this antiseptic approach is unlikely to draw in new devotees of the comedian. 

A superbly directed and shot film, dripping with the nightclub atmosphere, makes Lenny a stand out - it's just a shame the presentation of its subject matter, the life of the man himself, remains as black and white as the footage; ultimately biased and unconcerned with reaching out to the masses. There are however moments that continue to intrigue despite never truly reaching their potential, moments like those of Bruce in full gaudy Messianic mode, 'preaching' to an equally gaudy adoring or would be hip audience, that remind me a little of the Peter Finch character Howard Beale in Network, a man whose howls of pain and insecurity were exploited as examples of modern day prophecy. It's a shame the film didn't explore that more complex idea a little more.

Reign Over Me (2007)

I'd normally take great pains to avoid an Adam Sandler movie but Reign Over Me from 2007 is not your typical Adam Sandler movie. As such, it's worth a watch.

The film is written and directed by Mike Binder and concerns dentist Alan Johnson, played by Don Cheadle, who spots his former college roommate Charlie Fineman (Sandler) out on the street one day, looking somewhat unkempt and preoccupied with his own thoughts. From this chance encounter it quickly transpires that Charlie is no longer a dentist and that his life has ground to a halt following the death of his wife and three young daughters, who were passengers on one of the hijacked airliners that crashed into the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Charlie is suffering from PTSD and has retreated into a private world of avoidance, numbing himself to the loss via computer games, music, Mel Brooks movies and comic books. Alan, a concerned friend despite having his own problems - which include being harassed by Saffron Burrows who wants to orally pleasure him and having a wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) who feels he's cutting her out of his life  - decides its time to help Charlie and arranges him to see a psychiatrist friend of his played by Liv Tyler.

It would be easy to dismiss Reign Over Me as nothing more than a dumb/zany comic performer's attempt to be taken seriously - a traditional path that has been taken by many a comic actor including Jim Carrey, Robin Williams and Jerry Lewis over the years. It would be just as easy to claim Reign Over Me, with its depiction of a mental health disorder brought on by America's greatest tragedy, was hurling itself at the Oscars. Combining these two cynical approaches and considering Sandler, dressed like a late 70s Dylan and displaying the obsessive compulsive muddled adolescence, to be imitating Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. But to approach the film so cynically would mean doing it a terrible disservice as Reign Over Me actually includes one of the best, most intelligent and sensitive depictions of PTSD I've witnessed.

PTSD is a terrible conditon which effects men and women in many different ways. In Charlie we witness clear examples of avoidance and numbing symptoms (as previously mentioned) as well as arousal symptoms; a sense of alertness that gives the sufferer an almost paranoid preoccupation with everyday exchanges leading to outbursts of anger over the most innocent remarks, as well as confusion and an inability to concentrate and focus. Having worked with PTSD sufferers myself, I can say that Binder's film tackles the condition with insight and sensitivity. Ditto, Liv Tyler's performance of Charlie's psychiatrist was pitched just right, with her soft acting style displaying the levels of tact and empathy such a profession requires.

There's also a great soundtrack (The Pretenders, The Who - obviously, Springsteen, Jackson Browne) and a somewhat unexpected cameo from Donald Sutherland. It's not totally perfect, and things are wrapped up for everyone a touch too neatly by the film's close, but it's a nice little tearjerker that for once handles its message maturely enough.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Plus Size Comes To Pirelli : Candice Huffine

Candice Huffine, a favourite on this blog by me and its readers, has become the first 'plus size' model to feature in the legendary Pirelli Calendar for 2015, with this stunning photograph by Carine Roitfeld and Steven Meisel. 

Candice has gone on record as being somewhat awed by the shoot; "I brought myself to tears...just thinking about how big it was going to be, what it was going to mean, that I was the face of it"

"The whole thins is amazing. Part of me need to find, probably a new word for it, but it was quite a surreal experience" the curvy stunner has said about her history making moment.

Don't Be Reckless With The Beast Of Bolsover

God bless Dennis Skinner (dead ringer for my late grandfather) for taking to task the odious UKIP MP Mark Reckless during his swearing into the Commons following his success at the Rochester and Strood By-Election. 

Good old Dennis pointed to Reckless and the only other UKIP MP in the house, Douglas Carswell, and rightfully accused them and their obnoxious, racist party of wanting to deport foreigners from the UK. Claiming that he had 'a United Nations heart bypass' carried out by a Syrian cardiologist, a Malaysian surgeon, a Dutch doctor and a Nigerian registrar, Skinner argued that such skill set would be lost in the UK if UKIP, a party that allegedly has our countries best intentions at heart and which Reckless was on record this week as saying would consider deporting long term immigrants, ever came to power.

See Skinner's memorable and well received address here

Far be it from me to suggest anything to the great man, but maybe he sould have included the fact that not only would UKIP wish to deport such talented medics, they would also wish to privatise the NHS completely.

Once again I am staggered by the stupidity inherent among certain members of our voting public. Shame on Rochester and Strood for giving this literally Reckless man and his party a position of power, and praise be for the likes of Dennis Skinner.

Havana (1990)

Unperturbed by Richard Lester's 1979 film, Cuba, a box office flop that also attempted to recreate the fall of the Batista regime from an outsider's point of view, and unashamed in their remaking Casablanca in all but name, Sidney Pollack and Robert Redford bring us Havana; a romantic film that displays a love for the place rather than a love between its central characters. 

I love the cast, I like the director but this is little more than a beautiful misfire. Pollack reunites with his Out of Africa, The Way We Were and Three Days Of The Condor leading man Redford, casting him as the apolitical jaded Jack Weil, a professional cardsharp who enters Cuba ready for the biggest poker game of his life. His love interest is Lena Olin's Bobby, a beautiful woman married to Raul Julia's revolutionary contemporary of Castro. 

So far, so Bogey/Bergman and Heinried right? 

Except there's little to no chemistry at all between Redford and Olin, scuppering the film completely. Indeed, Redford is much more electric and charismatic bouncing off the male cast such as Tony Plana's journalist and a nicely wry turn from Alan Arkin as his backer, casino owner and Meyer Lansky's man Joe Volpi.  

As much as I adore Redford, I'm not actually sure I bought him here; his natural real life core of idealism shines through instantly, making Weil's slow turn from non-partisan to involved participant rather unconvincing, especially given how bland a relationship he has with the woman who changes his outlook on life. I can't help but wonder how this might have been if Redford had been replaced by Harrison Ford (Bogey's natural successor) or even Warren Beatty (who is similar to Redford, yet always seemed capable of a sleazier edge thanks to his publicised personal life - in fact I always think he'd have been better in Indecent Proposal too)  

Meanwhile Lena Olin, saddled with a script that largely tells us how beautiful and beguiling she is rather than actually take the time to show us, remains muted and in some scenes positively chilly.  They may have been trying to display a certain kind of an aloof mystique that Redford ultimately falls for, but it just comes off as uninterested and as passionate as a wet week in dead end Rhyl rather than a steamy hot and unpredictable week in Cuba.   


Ultimately the 40million budget, lavish recreation of 1958 Havana in Santo Domingo, some nice cinematography, direction, set pieces and the overall feel of the piece and a country on the brink of change (the era and locale fascinates me) doesn't save the overlong and sprawling Havana from mediocrity.  And yet, I still have a soft spot for it. I wouldn't say I love the film, it has too many faults and flaws for that, but I do quite like it.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Out On Blue Six : Jimmy Ruffin, RIP

And yet more sad news as it's revealed that Motown legend Jimmy Ruffin has passed away aged 78


End Transmission

RIP Mike Nichols

A true directing great, Mike Nichols has sadly passed away following a cardiac arrest at the age of 83. 

Nichols would be perhaps best described as an actor's director. He really got the best out of his cast and it shows in his eclectic and extensive body of work, which included an Oscar for the 1967 film The Graduate - one of my favourites.

His first movie in 1966 can be pretty much taken as a statement of intent for what was to follow, it was the brilliant Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (another favourite of mine) starring the acting heavyweights Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The films that followed, including Primary Colors, Working Girl, Catch-22, Silkwood, Closer, Postcards From The Edge and Charlie Wilson's War, were strong movies, well performed.


The Beguiled (1971)

I've always had a soft spot for The Beguiled because it's a film that is so out of left field for both its director Don Seigel and its star Clint Eastwood.

Anyone new to the film and expecting a traditional western or actioneer similar to the pair's other films (both Coogan's Bluff and Two Mules For Sister Sara precede this film, with Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz coming later) will be somewhat bemused and surprised by this slice of pure American Gothic. Whether that surprise is a pleasant one is dependent on the viewer I guess.

Eastwood stars as a wounded Yankee soldier who is taken in behind enemy lines and tended by the ladies of a Louisiana seminary in the closing days of the Civil War. Ensconced within, Eastwood becomes something of an object of desire for each of the ladies from the 12 year old girl who first found him right the way up to the spinsterly school mistress played by Geraldine Page.

Knowing he is safe in their care and knowing they risk accusations of treason for harbouring him, he begins at first to charm and then both manipulate and terrorise the women, including the tempting Jo Ann Harris and the virginal Elizabeth Hartman. Thus begins a baroque and twisted story of the nature of desire, suppressed and repressed feelings and long simmering rivalries being brought to the boil, touching on paedophilia, incest, and Freudian trauma. 

This rich, dark and heady brew of heightened, claustrophobic emotion is ostensibly an arthouse movie masquerading through its director and star as populist entertainment. It was said to be Seigel's favourite of all his work and it's certainly his most elaborate and ambitious film  which, coming in some twenty five years after his directorial debut,  clearly shows a director who was extremely progressive and devoted to the craft of film making. The conviction Seigel always seemed to bring to his work, the desire to show cruelty and hate at its most unflinching, non sanitised state is still most evident in The Beguiled, but it's conveyed in such a curious, eerie whisper that when it hits, it punches through the strange atmosphere even harder.

If you're a fan of The Wicker Man or Picnic At Hanging Rock and would walk past anything that seems to be a Western, I recommend you rectify that by checking this one out. 

Suitably spooky artwork for Thomas Cullinan's original novel

Utterly beguiling.

First Time For Everything : Stand Up Comedy

Last night I tried my hand at something I have loved to watch for years but had never really thought of doing it myself; Stand up comedy. 

It's all the fault of my friend Paul who I know from Collective Encounters a group I am involved with in putting on stage plays to address social issues like mental health etc.  Paul's something of a jack of all trades, acting, directing and performing as a comic and his plan was to establish a comedy night in St Helens that would occur on a monthly basis entitled Starfish Comedy Club at a local bar called The Rendezvous.

I agreed to help Paul out largely by being a sounding board and designing a poster and leaflets for the show. But I had my arm twisted to write some material as Paul believed I am a funny guy. Without wishing to sound immodest, I can be very funny but it's always been among friends and family in pubs and social occasions.  I must admit whilst writing the material I did wonder what it would be like to be up on stage performing it, and tentatively agreed to maybe trying it out in a couple of months time, should the first night go so well we were able to secure a regular spot.

Come Monday night, Paul decided to tell me he had gone ahead and figured me into the first night, placing me second on the bill!

This gave me just a day to rehearse the five minutes of material I'd managed to write up and build up the courage to go out there and do it.

All day yesterday I felt funny and on edge. I've performed on stage before - most recently with Collective Encounters - but never like this and never on my own (unless you count a bit of karaoke) This really was in at the deep end!

The show started at 8pm and was opened by a lovely experienced stand up called Glen. Mid way through his act, the mic failed. As I was on next, this meant I had to perform my first ever set without a microphone. wishing I'd put on my brown trousers, I sat through the rest of Glen's hilarious set and waited my turn.

Paul, acting as the night's compere as well as overall organiser, introduced me and advised the audience that this was my first ever time performing stand up. I was a comedy 'virgin' and he expressed a hope that they would treat me gently.

And up I went. I must admit a lot of it was a blur...but it was a blur with laughs! Yes my hastily drawn up material concerning being 35, single and my past experiencing of the horrors of online dating got plenty of laughs. I also got a lot of lovely feedback from many of the paying punters afterwards at the interval at the bar, with a lot of them saying they could not believe that was my first time out. Even Glen remarked it was impressive for a first effort and that I should stick with it. 

The night continued with some excellent acts including the lovely John Richards AKA The Woollyback Teletubby and, closing the show, Liverpool's surreal genius Liam Bolton. The audience managed to drink most of the pumps at the Rendezvous dry and a good night was most certainly had by all...especially me, I got a real buzz from doing it.

We'll be back in the new year, January some time. So, if you're in St Helens and want to watch some comedy, keep 'em peeled.

Who knows, I might have another go!

Theme Time : Area Code 615 - The Old Grey Whistle Test

Area Code 615 was a Nashville country rock band in the 60s and 70s who took their name from the Central and Eastern Tennessee telephone area code.

Their track, Stone Fox Chase, became the theme tune for BBC2's long running music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test (1971-1988) which was, quite simply, the finest TV platform for music ever, 

The title of the show derived from a Tin Pan Alley phrase from years before; when they first got a pressing of their record, they played it to the old doorman, resplendent in their grey suits. If the doormen were later heard to whistle the song, they knew they would have a hit on their hands.

With its bare studio and its unashamed trendy older brother style hosts - the show was especially at its peak with its second incumbent, the legendary and much imitated 'Whispering' Bob Harris, who fronted the show from 1972 to 1978 - The Old Grey Whistle Test basked in its 'minority appeal', offering a more sensible and mature approach than the bubblegum pop frippery of BBC1's more mainstream Top of the Pops. Playing host to many seminal acts of the 1970s, the programme was extremely influential and its foundations can still be seen today with the likes of Later...with Jools Holland  

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Wordless Wednesday : Crossing Delancey

Space Station 76 (2014)

If you were expecting Anchorman in Space from first time director Jack Plotnick's feature Space Station 76 you'd be sorely disappointed. This riff on the 70s depiction of our space age future is much more subtle a comedy than Will Ferrell's spoof classic. In fact this is a very dry comedy, drier than a ship's biscuit even, with laughs that are played dead straight by its cast, making the production more akin to Abigail's Party meets Star Trek.

The basic premise of the movie is one that cleverly understands the notion that Gene Rodenberry's seminal series and film franchise was essentially little more than a space opera and as such details the lives of loves of the crew on board the Omega 76 Refueling Station. There's Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson), a mustachioed ultra 70s man with a drink problem and a propensity for staying in the closet.  Engineer Ted (Matt Bomer) has an archiac artificial hand and is married to the material and passive aggressive Misty (Marissa Coughlan) who spends more time with the ship's resident computer psychiatrist Dr. Bot - who offers such sage automated advice as "I’m going to adjust your dosage of valium to.... As much as you like" -  than she does her 7 year old  daughter Sunshine (Kylie Rogers), a bored latchkey kid forced to wander the endless gleaming white corridors of the space station with a melancholic air to match her perennially unanswered questions.  The smooth (silent) running of Omega 76 is somewhat shaken up by the arrival of the caring new Lieutenant Jessica (Liv Tyler) who begins to take an interest in everyone's well being.

As a child of the 1980s who avidly sat through things like Star Trek, the original Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Space:1999 and cheesefest films like Battle Beyond The Stars and Disney's The Black Hole, I can appreciate the 70s vision Space Station 76 lovingly pastiches. That notion of a future so unimaginable yet essentially consisting of consumerism, leisure activities and technology largely akin or at least one step further to the time the production was made (thanks to not very imaginative production teams) immediately strikes a nostalgic chord with me and makes this a wryly funny experience. The humour and enjoyment within the piece is especially enhanced by the authentic 70s space age period design and costume detail as well as the knowing cameo from 2001's Keir Dullea (it's very clear that Plotnick is influenced by Kubrick) But ultimately it is the satire of the 70s New Age and the Me Generation, along with the ennui, keeping up with the Joneses preoccupations and general isolation of 70s suburbia, transplanted to the science fiction genre which makes this a rather satisfying redux of 1976.

Glorious design detail and a cohesive approach glow in Space Station 76 in a manner which outshines the occasionally flawed mixture of deadpan absurdity and poignancy. I can understand why this was likely a miss rather than a hit for some, but I've a feeling that, personally, Space Station 76 may grow on me with rewatches.