Archive for the ‘films’ Category

meera-syal-headshot-2013Meera Syal appeared in a short play on BBC Radio 4 recently. Syal, a versatile actor and writer of Indian extraction, was playing a (presumably white) police liason officer called Jackie Hartwell in this mini-drama. She did a great job as usual, her ethnic background was neither here nor there. It made me wonder; are we entering a new post-racial era for actors, on the radio at least?

To some some extent we are seeing racial and gender lines disappearing across the arts. We have recently seen Maxine Peake playing Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. idris-elba-as-james-bond
Then there were those rumours about Idris Elba taking over as James Bond. Why not? his fans enthused – Idris has the charisma, machismo and sex appeal required to play 007. Did Ian Fleming ever mention anything about his character’s race? And would it matter if he had? Eventually Tom Hiddleston was named as the new Bond, but the fact that Elba was mooted for the role shows that things are shifting.

In JK Rowling’s latest addition to the Harry Potter saga, the play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, Noma Dumezweni, originally from Swaziland, takes the role of Hermione – heartily endorsed by JK Rowling might I add. 812Dumezweni was considered the best person for the role, but her casting is not merely irrelevant to the part, it is an exiting signal. There is a radicalism in opening out a franchise that so exemplifies the white middle class mileu (albeit with the addition of wands and talking hats). Admittedly, this has only happened on the stage, a world away from the risk-averse conditions of the film-industry, but it is a bold move.

So are we looking at a rainbow utopia where anyone can play a character of any cultural background? The answer is no. This cultural tide will only go in one direction, and for understandable reasons. In popular entertainment’s depictions of race, the shadow of ‘blacking up’ and minstrelsy still looms large. White people imitating black people, in stereotyped and clownish ways, continued on British TV up until 1978. For many years, the only black actors in film played nannies and ‘savages’, and black contributions to the moving image continue to go unrecognised. At this year’s Oscars, the lack of black nominees became such a hot potato that it threatened to derail the awards ceremony.

In the UK, the employment options for black actors are arguably worse, with many leaving to seek work in the US. Idris Elba himself took this route, eventually breaking through with his role in The Wire.

jrnarNon-white actors still need all the high profile parts they can get, which is why the instances of white actors playing people of colour is still so controversial. Ridley Scott’s 2014 biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings attracted flak for featuring a cast of white actors considerably ‘darkened’ to play their middle-eastern roles.

Of course, in an ideal world none of this would be a problem. All acting is inhabiting somebody else; attempting to understand the emotions and motivations of a (usually fictional) person who has nothing to do with you. It is a practice requiring the highest form of empathy, an empathy capable of crossing the boundaries of class, age, sex and yes race. You would usually want to make yourself look more like your character too. In purely artistic terms there should be no barriers to inhabiting the persona of another human being.

In societal terms, however, we still see structural discrimination in all areas of life. And until there is parity of opportunity and power regardless of race (and sex for that matter) then screen-based depictions of life will be part of an attempt to redress the balance. It’s not just about the art, it’s more complicated than that. It may be some time before a white actor gets to play Othello again.

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I write this as I emerge from a bout of flu that has kept me horizontal for a week.  This attack has been milder than last year’s instalment – no projectile vomiting or fainting on the bog this time – and I suppose from  a dramatic perspective you could say it’s been a bit of a disappointment. But then, what can you expect from yet another sequel.

When it comes to mainstream entertainment movies it is rare to find a genuinely great film that isn’t conceived as a long-running franchise designed to milk the cash out of you on a long-term basis.

Hollywood has locked itself into a particular business model, desperately fracking the fuck out of any decent idea in order to keep the dollars coming in, all the while undermining the integrity of the original story.


star warsspiderman

We are all awaiting the seventh Star Wars film, while already in the works are reboots of Spider Man, Jurassic World and Pirates of The Fucking Carribbean – world supplies of barnacles and green seaweed are already dangerously low.  This is a trend that says something rather depressing about the human mind – that the warm glow of familiarity is more lucrative than the shock of the new. We would rather slip into the embrace of an old friend than discover the unfamiliar delights of a stranger.

metropolis

Once the film industry embraced new ideas and audiences welcomed it. Innovation thrived in the early days of cinema; Fritz Lang never considered making Metropolis 2, there was no need for a Return to Casablanca – the originals were stand-alone artworks. But in an age where so many entertainment platforms exist, and profit is so unpredictable, sequels and prequels have become the nearest thing to a safe bet. And with the use of comic book-derived stories, where plausibility is irrelevant to the genre, maximising income from sequels is a no-brainer – literally!

This is not to suggest that sequels are always bad – Spider Man 2, The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part 2 are examples often cited as sequels that genuinely improved on the original. In such cases you get a believable story arc over several films; and when originally devised by a novelist – i.e. J.R.R. Tolkein or J.K. Rowling – an extended film series can be a genuine delight.

It’s not necessarily a mass-market technique either, there have been some well-received arthouse sequels. Truffaut’s classic film about a troubled young boy, The 400 Blows was followed up three times with film updates on the main character’s life, while Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, about a chance meeting of two young travellers, became a trilogy.

But sometimes a film is somehow defined by its one-offness; and the news of a sequel has the sickly smell off greed about it.

blade runner

Next year sees the release of Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human. Ridley Scott’s original film stands alone and magnificent, as an iconic…erm, icon in film culture. It’s greatest merit could be that whilst not needing to be re-heated it has inspired so many other films. The last thing it needs is an inferior little sibling hanging around its coat-tails, fucking up its legacy.

How could Scott possibly follow the original? He knows can’t, which is why he’s only co-writing it. Denis Villeneuve is directing. He’s not a well-known director, but then again, neither was Scott when he made the original.  There’s every chance that he can make a perfectly watchable movie, if you forget about the classic that it’s supposed to be complementing.

I suppose the film might teach us all something valuable – replicants may eventually become a kind of sequel to the human race – but they will always be a bad imitation.

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UK-20000DAYS_QUAD7

It was Christmas Day and my step-mum had just given me a present – a DVD of the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. As I studied the cover she told me:
“They were talking about him on Radio 4. They’ve reassessed his life and career…you like him don’t you?”
“Yes, I’ve heard about this film. it’s supposed to be quite good”
“it’s thirty years since he died…”

Huh?

“Er, Nick Cave’s not dead as far as I know” I said “He released an album just last year I think…”
“No” she said indignantly “they interviewed his sister…”
“Nick Cave is definately alive” a family member asserted.
Then the penny dropped.

“Do you mean Nick Drake?”

She didn’t seem sure, muttering something that was lost in the present-opening kerfuffle around us. But I wasn’t about to dwell on the mistake.
“…it looks really good anyway!” I shouted reassuringly.

I’m not into Nick Cave. I respect him but I’ve rarely managed to enjoy any of the pieces of his work that I’ve been exposed to. I’m slightly frustated by that. He’s one of the people I should like. The lyricism, the careful crafting and the mysterious image all put him in the category of bona fide legend. But Nick Cave has a similar effect on me to Leonard Cohen. There’s something about the way he puts chords and melodies together that I find kind of suffocating. There’s hardly any harmonic colour in there.

On Boxing Day my actual mum asked me what presents I’d recieved at my Dad’s house the day before. I mentioned various books and wooly items then:
“Christine gave me this DVD. It’s the Nick Cave film…we can watch it if you want”
“Ok, maybe…” she said “…what else has he been in?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think he does much acting, not that I know of…”
“Leaving Las Vegas. I saw him in that”
“You’re thinking of Nick Cage, mum”

I put the film on and I liked it. We follow Cave through a series of presumably average days – rehearsing with his band, looking through photos with the staff at his archive (everyone has an archive, right?…) and driving around Brighton, where he lives. In these sections Cave randomly picks up a series of famous friends, incuding Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue, for chats about life, art and celebrity.
The whole thing is linked by Cave’s lugubrious voiceovers, discussing his life and work. Here he is on the recording process:

“I love the feeling of a song before you understand it. When we’re all playing deep inside the moment. The song feels wild and unbroken. Soon it will become domesticated, and we will drag it back to something familiar and compliant, and we’ll put it in the stable with all the other songs. But there is a moment when the song is still in charge and you’re just clinging on for dear life, and you’re hoping you don’t fall off an break your neck or something. It is that fleeting moment that we chase in the studio.”

Wise words, Nick. It’s nice when you’re in the studio with people who understand what you’re chasing – that razors edge between spontaneity and finesse. By the way, I always liked “Into My Arms” and “Where The Wild Roses Grow” – the one you did with Kylie. A few more like that and I’ll probably give in and like you.

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One way of sharing your love of film is with a cinema collective. I’ve recently joined one with friends, which has around 200 members and organises via facebook.

cinema collective

Here’s how it works: Every week or so, someone hosts a screening in their home, using a shared projector wired up to a laptop or DVD player. The host lays on some food and drinks and takes a collection at the end to cover the cost (you can ask for a set amount or just leave it informal).

Reasons for setting up/joining a cinema collective:

– Share the films that you love

– Meet new people

– Experience the pleasure of being a host

 

Around twenty people usually attend our screenings. Last night was my first chance to present a film to the collective (I showed it at my friend Ulysses’ house, as my flat is too small.)

The film I showed was Man On Wire, an Oscar and Bafta-winning documentary about French trapeze artist Philippe Petit who walked between the twin towers in New York in 1974.  

The film explains how he planned and executed this amazing feat without the permission of the building’s owners.

Through a mixture of archive footage and dramatised scenes, we get to know the team that helped him, including his long-suffering girlfriend. Petit comes across as a charismatic dreamer who sees wire-walking as a kind of poetry.

It’s a moving story, a must-see for anyone with even a trace of anti-establishment feeling in their soul. 

 

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  Over the last 60 years or so, a distinct sub-genre has emerged across film, TV and literature: the slacker buddy narrative. Inspiring devoted cult followings, these often comic tales follow the misadventures of two males on the bohemian underbelly of society who are usually co-habiting in conditions of abject squalor.

At least one of the pair is often dreaming of stardom in some creative field, but drug-taking or general chaos derails their plans.

The two main characters generally fall into two distinct types: a relatively grounded and rational individual who instigates most of the pair’s schemes and adventures, and a more hedonistic figure who lives purely for kicks and has no sense of consequences.

Plot is often of limited importance in this genre, the events being as spontaneous as the characters themselves. It’s a world where women are on the periphery, but this has less to do with any homo-erotic subtext than the fact that the characters are so warped.

On The Road (Book 1957, Film 2012)

Jack Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness novel introduced the world to two quintessential beatnicks: aspiring writer Sal Paradsise and hyperactive drifter Dean Moriarty (based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady).During their road trip across America, Sal and Dean write-off several cars, party with friends in different cities, listen to jazz, visit Mexico and essentially, live in the moment. This book laid the ground for the ‘beat generation’ and the importance of getting ‘kicks’ over a conventional lifestyle.  

 

Midnight Cowboy (Book 1965, Film 1969)

Sick of his kitchen job, self-proclaimed ‘stud’ Joe Buck (John Voight)leaves his native Texas for New York with the aim of becoming a gigolo. After he falls on hard times, Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman)puts him up in his unheated squat and offers to be his ‘manager’. Having little success in their business venture, the two survive by petty crime, conning and hustling their way through New York’s seedy underbelly. After mixing with bohemians at an arty ‘happening’, Joe’s fortunes pick up, but Rizzo has fallen seriously ill and persuades Joe to take him to Florida, but he dies on the Greyhound bus.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Book 1972, Film 1998)

This novel is a semi-factual account of Thompson’s journalistic assignment to cover a three-day car race in Los Angeles in 1971, which is actually an excuse for herculean feats of drug-taking. Thompson is accompanied by his ‘attorney’, who resembles a demented Dionysis on a mission to imbibe, snort and fuck everything in his path, Thompson documenting the chaos while also ruminating on the demise of the 60’s counterculture. On one level the book is a wild drug adventure, but it is also a diatribe against what Thompson found frightening in America – the forces of police, capitalism and conservatism.

Up in Smoke (Film 1978)

The first film featuring perpetually stoned hippy musicians Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong. Up in Smoke is a road movie wherein the twosome drive around California in search of dope, get deported to Mexico, then re-enter the states driving a van made of hashish. On the way they pick up a pair of girl hitchers, goof around in a police station and say “man” a lot. A LOT. Cheech and Chong went on to release eleven albums and twelve films, the latest Cheech and Chong’s Animated Movie, in 2012.

 

Withnail and I (Film 1987)

Two aspiring actors live in a cold, filthy flat in 60’s London. Out of work and drinking heavily with only their menacing drug dealer for company, they decide to escape to the countryside and stay at a decrepit cottage owned by Withnail’s uncle Monty. At first unable to handle rural life, they struggle to look after themselves until the amorous Uncle Monty arrives…This film has built up a huge cult following, in no small part due to an unforgettable performance from Richard E Grant as the tortured and iconoclastic drunk, Withnail.

Bottom (TV 1991-95)

This grotesque, anarchic comedy series features two seedy batchelors (a continuation of characters they had played in the brilliant The Young Ones) living in a filthy flat. Richie (Rik Mayall) and Eddie (Adrian Edmonson)are both equally sordid, immoral and broke, but Eddie has the edge in terms of stupidity. Their schemes involve such things as trying to attracting women, going on holiday and attempting to get rich quick, with large helpings of comic grossness and cartoon violence.

 

Peep Show (TV 2003-) This comedy differs from the other scenarios in that one of the characters (Jez) is a hedonistic slacker while the other (Mark) is an uptight square with a conventional job. Jez rents a room in Mark’s flat and the comedy comes from the tension in their relationship and their hapless attempts to relate to women, workmates and rivals. The stroke of genius in this series is that we hear the characters’ inner dialogue as well as their spoken dialogue, exposing the chasm between what people say and what they think.

Flight of the concords (TV 2007-)

In this show, New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords star as fictionalised versions of themselves as struggling musicians trying to make it in New York. Brett and Jemaine share a tiny apartment, struggling to find gigs, part-time jobs and female company. Each episode is punctuated by their songs , which comment on the events in the show. Despite, or because of the efforts of their manager, Brett and Jemaine suffer continuous humiliations and failures, but their one fan/stalker stays obsessively loyal.

These examples are part of a wider culture depicting slackers, stoners and struggling creatives. Other examples include: The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (Comic 1968-), This is Spinal Tap (Film 1984), Slackers (Film 1991), the comedy music duo Tenacious D and Kevin Smith’s films featuring the characters Jay and Silent Bob.

 

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