Category Archives: Film

Melbourne Noir – Jack Irish (Film Review)

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Guy Pearce is an actor whose name, face, presence immediately conveys, for me,  one particular role. He is, always will be, Detective Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley in L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson 1997)  His cool, careerist counterpoint to Russell Crowe’s terrifying Officer Bud White is a thing of beauty and brought him to the attention of moviegoers everywhere.
So. How does he fare as grieving Melbourne lawyer turned gumshoe/fixer, Jack Irish, in ABC’s  telefilm adaptation of Peter Temple’s novel Bad Debts? Bloody well mate, I’d say. In Pearce’s hands, Jack’s battle with the bottle following his wife’s murder becomes a necessary rite of passage rather than just self-pitying indulgence. And when, a few years later, one of his former clients is murdered, Jack feels responsible, shakes off his lethargy and sets out to track down the killers.
I’ve read a couple of Temple’s novels, Truth and The Broken Shore, both about policemen and criminality. The central characters in those stories are men who, to some extent, live in the shadow of their fathers but eventually emerge to become their own men. Jack Irish is similarly cast. His father was a hard case Australian Rules player, fondly remembered by the old boys – characters – who Jack drinks and talks horses with at his local, The Prince of Prussia. And as Jack moves laconically around the race tracks, pubs and dark places of Melbourne’s underworld, he reveals not only an awareness of his debt to the memory of that version of Australian manliness but also a steadfast, self-deprecating attachment to principle and loyalty that evokes a different Australia. It’s entirely to Pearce’s credit that he is able to convey these complexities of his character and never allow them to get in the way of the story-telling.
I liked this movie a lot. It has a good feel for black humour, evocative locations, credible plotting and a smashing central performance. It was also great to see Roy Billing again, this time as Jack’s shady, sometime employer, Harry Strang.

There are at least 2 other Jack Irish telefilms starring Guy Pearce. Of these, I’ve seen Black Tide which is also well worth seeing.

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Thatcher’s Gangster – The Long Good Friday Film Review

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The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie 1979/80) provided Bob Hoskins with his breakthrough role. His character, Harold Shand, is a villain from London’s East End who has a grip on organised crime in England’s capital and an obsessive ambition to create lasting wealth and legitimacy by obtaining abandoned docklands property and on-selling it as a site for an 80s Olympics. To help him do this, he courts an American Mafia boss (Eddie Constantine) presenting him with a promissory corsage of ‘hands across the ocean’.

The story, and therefore the film, has a touch of genius about it. As the events of Good Friday unfold, many things are revealed. When Harold’s empire is threatened by unknown assailants, Harold reverts to type; his ’10 years of peace’ in the London underworld, of which he is so boastful, is roughly put aside in favour of torture and threats. Harold is desperate to find out who is bombing his buildings and killing his lieutenants. And although what we see is brutal, it is also very funny. Barrie Keeffe’s screenplay and John Mackenzie’s direction enable Hoskins to invest Harold with elements of both Bertolt Brecht’s Arturo Ui and Johnny Speight’s Alf Garnett. So at once, the manner of Harold’s protestation that ‘you can’t crucify people on Good Friday’ serves to destroy the notion that great killers may command respect through the device of having him complain about the car bomb in a way that a disgruntled West Ham fan might when the referee disallows a goal.
But Keeffe and Mackenzie are shrewd enough to realise that there has to be more to Harold than just a vengeful cockney vulgarian. His scenes with his lover, Victoria (Helen Mirren) are tender and their beauty and the beast relationship is complex. Her radiance and intelligence are at odds with everything that Harold is, or ever will be. But these fine actors make it work, make it credible, infuse the characters with emotional depth. Toward the film’s conclusion, the two are parted as Harold’s world collapses around him. At that moment of realisation, the shared anguish is palpable. It jolts us back into our own sometime world of unplanned consequences.

But the film’s ultimate triumph – what sets it apart – is how it resonates down the decades. Not just in the way that other characters such as Arturo Ui and Alf Garnett are invoked but in how Harold’s ambitions to make Britain great once more through exploitation and corruption so perfectly coincide with the arrival  of Margaret Thatcher, Reaganomics and the greedy eighties. The metaphors abound and, planned or not, lend the film a preternatural quality, ensure its greatness. An enduring masterpiece.
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Author’s Note
On the subject of resonance, I do believe that Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is the perfect companion piece to The Long Good Friday. Made 10 years later, in 1989, this black comedy’s central character, Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), is a violent criminal who has gourmet pretensions. Helen Mirren’s presence amongst the cast lends further symmetry.

A King’s Gotta Do What A King’s Gotta Do – Henry V – A Review

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But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.’
King Henry V has these thoughts on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in October, 1415. He leads an English army, depleted by sickness and weary from hard campaigning in France. He wants to march on to Calais and safety but the much larger, better equipped French army has been shadowing him and is shaping for a battle. Henry has told the French herald that he is in no condition for a battle and would prefer to avoid one. But he adds, that if battle is offered by the French, then he will accept the challenge.
The challenge for director, Thea Sharrock and her Henry, Tom Hiddleston, is how to play Henry. This production is the final play in the series The Hollow Crown and many of the actors, including Hiddleston, have been carried over from the two Henry IV plays. So we’ve seen Prince Hal making his bones, shedding his profligate ways and assuming the mantle of kingship. We know he’s canny, shrewd. A prince who feigned at a dissolute character in order to seem all the more appealing when he shows his true colours as king.
For many, the two most well-remembered  portrayals of Henry on film are Laurence Olivier’s war hero (1944) and Kenneth Branagh’s ruling class hooray henry on a day trip to France to see what booty may be had. (1989) Hiddleston chooses a different path. We sense a diffidence about him. His key speeches at both Harfleur and Agincourt are personal, intimate – made to small groups and individuals. Not on a white charger, splendid in golden armour. It’s almost as if this monarch is already wearying of the rhetoric he’s fated to deploy. The gestures, the costumes, the action all seem just a little jaded; ‘I’ve got to do this, you know. Reclaim my birth right. Finish the unfinished business here in France. But it is a bloody business, so it is,’ seems to me to be the sub-text.
I suppose this approach might explain the absence of so many scenes that usually appear in this play; Canterbury’s detailed explanation to Henry of how the French have employed the principles of Salic Law to deny the English claim to the French throne; The plot against Henry at Southampton before embarking for France; The French nobility bragging about their prowess and likely victories on the eve of the battle and, most perplexing of all, the slaughter, by the French, of the English boys guarding the baggage train at Agincourt – particularly as Henry still delivers his ‘I was not angry since I came to France until this instant.’ response. This omission also places a quite different interpretation on Henry’s order to kill the French prisoners, the baggage train incident usually being seen as a justification for a reprisal. But this and the other changes all serve to create the idea of a pragmatic, canny king who is all too aware of his historical obligations and perhaps just the slightest bit contemptuous of them.
I should add that adopting this, I suppose, more cerebral approach, utterly compromises the two scenes which feature Princess Katherine (Mélanie Thierry), the daughter of the French king, Charles VI, to whom Henry becomes engaged. Usually serving as light relief from the bloody business of war and a handy way to reach détente, in this production, these scenes become almost incongruous, charming not sitting easily alongside quotidian but necessary violence.
So, yes, a masculine Henry. But a Henry caught in a time of unease both at home and abroad. A Henry keenly aware of his obligations to history and his country but wary of the weight of those obligations. I liked this Henry. The portrayal is flawed. But I liked it none the less.

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Author’s Note
; The BBC have set down a tentative date of 2016 for screening of the second part of The Hollow Crown, comprising Henry VI, parts I, II and III as well as Richard III, thus completing the full cycle of the ‘history plays’ encompassing The Wars of the Roses. It’s worth noting that the Princess Katherine mentioned above was Katherine de Valois. After Henry’s death, she married Owen Tudor and it was their grandson, Henry Tudor, who defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field and was crowned Henry VII.

War and Honour – Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 – A Review

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‘Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay Him before His day. What need I be so forward with Him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter. Honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.’

These words are spoken by Sir John Falstaff at the commencement of the Battle Of Shrewsbury. The troubled king, Henry IV (Jeremy Irons), is about to take on the Percys of Northumberland and their allies in the latest rebellion against Plantagenet rule.
Director, Richard Eyre, has constructed an intimate account of the making of a king, Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston), by having him act as the pivot between two contrasting worlds; the royal court at Westminster and The Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap. And everyone we meet seems to have a point of view about honour. Falstaff, Hal’s drinking companion, sees it as a worthless label – ‘a mere scutcheon’. The king is troubled by his own lack of honour, having deposed another king who ruled by divine right. And Hotspur, the rebel, is consumed by the quest for honour – so much so that his judgement is blinded by it at a crucial time. This production has Hal weaving his way through the machinations of his father, the king, the boastful and self-serving posturings of Falstaff and the noble, but rash, actions of his adversary, Hotspur. By the conclusion of Part II, Prince Hal is ready to become Henry V, the product of his own tutorial.
A brilliant cast bring Shakespeare’s play to the screen, making the text – and therefore the ideas – accessible in a way that creates a new standard I believe. Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff brings  a rhythm, a cadence to Falstaff’s lines that open up his character, make him transparent – not only to Hal but us, the audience, as well. The argot of Eastcheap is a hip hop away from rapping in the ‘hood. Shakespeare wrote for the pit and everyone connected to this production plays it that way. I mentioned in my earlier review of Richard II, the first in this series of  The Hollow Crown, the sense of visual narrative allied to a deep knowledge of Shakespeare that had created an organic account of history in the making. This splendid production has built on that fine beginning to bring us an intriguing and satisfying account of the making of a king.

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Five Films That Stay With Me

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Alan Stuart is a sometime musician, writer and critic who lives in Wellington with his wife, Pat, and George the Wonder Dog. His ramblings and miscellanies may be found at Wise Blood.

There are a bunch of strange ideas going on in The Last Sunset (Robert Aldrich 1961) At least they seemed odd to my 14 year old sensibility. The main character, Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) crosses the border into Mexico because he’s on the run and wanted for murder in the US.  Now that’s badly wrong for starters. How can Kirk Douglas be wanted for murder? No way.

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I mean, look at that face. I was fascinated by the guy. Not tall, Not dark. Not handsome. But the camera loved him and so did I.
Brendan arrives at the ranch of a former lover, Belle (Dorothy Malone) and her husband John (Joseph Cotton) and this is where it starts to get really complicated. The sheriff (Rock Hudson) pursuing Brendan turns up and the two men agree to take a herd of cattle back to Texas, yeah Texas, for the ranchers, whose surname is – wait for it – Breckenridge. They have a daughter. No, not Myra, Melissa (Carol Lynley).  Melissa reminds Brendan of the young Belle and guess what? Yep. They’re soon petting on the front porch. Well, that September/April thing is always a bit iffy but when Belle reveals that ‘Missy’ is Brendan’s daughter, I was unable to get out of my seat to refresh my Kia Ora orange juice. So, it all ends up in a gunfight of course and Kirk deliberately doesn’t load his gun so it’s kinda suicide –  a penance for carrying on like a member of the British aristocracy I suppose.
I was pretty upset by all of this and no one really wanted to talk to me about murder, incest and suicide when I got home –  so it just all kinda sat there. Stayed with me.

I don’t quite know how anybody would ever be able to get Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder 1959) out of their mind. Quite possibly the best comedy ever made and in many top 10s drawn from all genres and languages.

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Casting Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two musicians on the lam from the Chicago mob in prohibition America is inspired. Having them cross-dress in order to join Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators is a stroke of genius we can attribute to Wilder and co-writer, I A L Diamond. The plot will, by now, be familiar to most readers; the ‘boys’ meeting  Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the train trip to Florida, the French farce romancing, the run in with Spats Colombo (George Raft) and his gangsters, the denouement and Joe E Brown’s best ever pay-off line.
The miracle of this movie, though, is how its central premise of men dressed as women never wanders into anything questionable. There are numerous opportunities where that could happen but sure-footed direction and playing ensure the laughs are never gained cheaply. I saw the movie with my father when it was first released. I’ve never forgotten how the magic sparkled off the screen that night.

 

In truth, I could select almost any film by Alain Resnais for this article. His ideas about the creative process and the human condition send out grappling hooks that may not be easily dislodged. I have chosen ‘Providence’  because I have only seen it the once, when it was released in 1977, and have been unable to track down a VHS or DVD, so I might lay its ghosts.

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There’s been an awful lot printed and said about this film and its influence and significance on what followed. I do have a point of view but that’s not what I’m here for. David Mercer’s script, Miklós Rózsa’s evocative score and Resnais’ direction of his brilliant cast (Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud, David Warner and Elaine Stritch) under the swirling lens of Ricardo Aronovich, conspire in space and time to achieve a dizzying treatise for mind and heart. Are those near to us a sort of construct, there to channel our artistic obligations into abstract but parallel creations? Heady stuff. I have to see it again.

 

‘To our Television Audience: In the aftermath of violence, the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes a matter of interpretation or misinterpretation of facts. “Taxi Driver” suggests that tragic errors can be made’. The Filmmakers.

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The disclaimer shown at the conclusion of Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976) when it was shown on US television was unexplained. Maybe John Hinckley Jr provided an explanation when he tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981. Sporting a Mohican haircut and a fixation for Jody Foster, maybe he thought he was Travis Bickle. But he wasn’t. Robert De Niro was Travis Bickle. Is Travis Bickle. And Travis Bickle is Robert De Niro. They are indistinguishable. I cannot tell them apart.
De Niro, like Charon, ferrying his passengers across the Styx and the Acheron into New York’s Hell. Travis, wanting a big rain to come and wash all the scum off the streets. De Niro, sidling up to the Secret Service agent with that crazy, mock self-assurance. Travis telling Sport, ‘Suck on this’. Alienation and suffering. Travis is the American experience. I don’t think he dies in the shoot-out either. He survives; becomes Willard and kills Kurtz in Cambodia. Travis lives. He’s here now.

 

I’m including a New Zealand film, In Spring One Plants Alone (Vincent Ward 1980) because more than anything I’ve seen, more than Tony Fomison’s paintings perhaps, it opens up a kind of limbic channel into our pre-history.

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The true story is of an elderly Tuhoe woman caring for her mentally ill son in the Uruweras. The rituals and small details of their isolated existence provide the narrative. Leon Narbey and Alun Bollinger ask their cameras to be still; to allow their subjects to wander into frame. Jack Body’s spartan music serves only to underscore the loneliness, the tragic beauty of lives far removed from our own. The only one of the five that I will properly describe as haunting.

 

 

 

When Plantagenets Fall Out – Richard II – A Review

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For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchise, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

These lines from Act III of Richard II have been chosen by director, Rupert Goold, to also serve as a prologue to BBC Television’s 2012 production of  William Shakespeare’s play. This production is the first of three TV films under the title, The Hollow Crown, also taking in Henry IV parts I & II as well as Henry V. Richard speaks these words on a Welsh beach as he arrives back from campaigning in Ireland to learn that his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, has returned from exile to reclaim the estates, taken from him earlier by the king.
This beginning, and the style of what follows, evidence an approach that places Richard in a historical flow. He doesn’t just materialise at the beginning of Act I. He’s been king since he was 10 years old. He has ridden out to put down The Peasants Revolt when not yet 16. He has ridden out the attempts of the Lords Appellant to take control of government. And in 1398, in his 32nd year, when the play commences, he is confident in his empowerment by the divine right of kings. Yet the prologue tells us that history, like justice, is blind. It tells us that a king’s divine right may be challenged if that right is not tempered by care and charity. Indeed, the warning is echoed by Richard’s successor, Bolingbroke, as Henry IV, when he reflects, ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’ And he should know.
So Shakespeare understood then that what happened between Richard and Bolingbroke at the conclusion of the 14th century would reverberate on English, British and European history – not just through the ensuing Wars of the Roses –  but far beyond that. And the Bard of Avon is wonderfully well assisted in bringing this least-produced of the ‘history plays’ to the screen by director, Rupert Goold and co-producer, Sam Mendes. Goold’s knowledge and working experience of Shakespeare and Mendes’ feel for visual narrative combine to achieve a compelling, organic account of how history is made by two men – not myths – but men whose very polarity obliges them to collide. Ben Whishaw as Richard, portrays a monarch grown disinterested by his power. When his uncle, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart) dies, Richard, already having mocked the dying man, confiscates his estates and possessions to bolster his failing exchequer. Gaunt’s son, Bolingbroke, is banished and disinherited.
What Richard does appear to be concerned with though, is developing a martyrdom complex. He appears frequently in flowing, white robes and makes extravagant gestures to the heavens. His fascination, in an early scene, with a painting of the death of Saint Sebastian, is an eerie augury for his own death. I was struck by a similarity in the way Whishaw plays these scenes and the way Peter O’Toole plays similar scenes in both Lawrence of Arabia and The Ruling Class. I suspect that may be something to do with Sam Mendes – who in turn may have been channelling Ken Russell? In any event, it’s clear that Richard is unfit for the role of king. When he hands over the crown to Henry, he does so as a peevish child.
So. What of Henry Bolingbroke? In the hands of Rory Kinnear, he is at first staunchly loyal to Richard and then incrementally more and more guilty as his quest to restore his name, his honour, transforms into his usurping the throne – almost as if by accident. One fault of the production is that we never get to see the crowds or the armies that  would support a popular uprising and that does detract from the central proposition that the two protagonists are irrevocably bound as opposites. Shakespeare then arranges Richard’s murder to echo the death of Thomas Beckett at the hands of an earlier Henry; Zealous supporters interpreting the king’s words to rid him of a troublesome burden. Probably safer in Tudor times to rationalise regicide that way, than suggest, as historians do now,  that Richard was killed by starvation and neglect, wasting in the dungeons of Pontefract Castle.
A sumptuous production then, filmed mostly on location, with excellent leads and great support from the likes of David Suchet as York and Patrick Stewart as Gaunt.(His ‘scepter’d isle’ monologue delivered as a tragic valedictory is a brilliant thing) This bodes well for the following two films which I hope to view in the next few weeks.

 

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I Did Not Have Sex With That Film! – Movie Review

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Performance (Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg 1970) joins ‘The Wizard of Oz’  (Victor Fleming 1939) and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (Stanley Kubrick 1987) in a select trio that I describe as ‘movies of two halves’. Which, in this case, is appropriate, given the film’s cult status and reputation as ‘the greatest seventies film about identity’.
The first half of the film is a London gangster tale. Chas (James Fox) is an enforcer for Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) and goes on the run after shooting a local bookie.
The second part of the film is set in Turner’s (Mick Jagger) Notting Hill house where Chas lies low as he arranges to leave the country. Turner is a whacked-out pop star who has put himself out to grass, so to speak, with two women in a ménage à trois.  This part of the film borders on the experimental, the surreal. The transition from Get Carter to Belle de Jour, if you see what I mean, is uncomfortable and nervous. Roeg’s cinematography is too close to both Richard Lester and Joseph Losey without being its own thing. The interior shots are mostly askance with all of the de rigueur psychedelia in focus; oriental carpets, tapestries, incense – the lot. So what happens is that Cammell and Roeg are busy telling us, telling me, that they’re making a film. Not telling a story. Not really. So they don’t direct their actors with any precision or feel for story telling. It’s all too loose and disconnected. The numerous sex scenes and displays of angst over sexual identity are all servants to the way the movie looks. If one of the principals connected to the production had made a grand statement about trying to transfer Brecht’s theory of alienation from the theatre to a film, I might have tried harder, I suppose. As it was, I just felt excluded most of the time – the one notable exception being when Mick sings ‘Memo from Turner’ on the soundtrack. Isolated intimacy.

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Author’s Note
I was encouraged to write an account of ‘Performance’ by Wellington Musician, Mikey Jamieson. He and I go back a ways as friends and musical collaborators and so I was pleased to do the right thing – although I have a feeling that he may well disagree with the sentiments I’ve expressed above. I’d like to just add, for Mikey, and anyone else’s, benefit,  one of my lovely dad’s observations about developments in film during the late 60s; ‘If you get your gear off in a British film, it’s a sex film. If you do it in a French or Italian film, it’s cinematic art.’