Friday, 18 April 2014

Lawrence of Belgravia (2011) - Paul Kelly

Okay so the briefest of history lessons first. Despite what you might have read, heard or remembered the eighties was actually a phenomenal period for music. Back then Lawrence had a band called Felt. They were influential, heavenly, and easily one of the best bands of that era. Lawrence’s plan was to release ten albums and ten singles during the eighties and then split the band. Which is basically what happened. Lawrence desperately wanted to be a star, play Top of the Pops, sell a ton of records and live the whirlwind life of the fabulous. His records sounded like nothing else around at the time, the guitar heroics of Television fed through The Velvets swagger and topped off with a healthy dose existential poetry. Lawrence was ready for stardom, he sang about it, craved it, demanded it, but it never came. Felt were, and I suppose still are a cult band.

Paul Kelly’s remarkable documentary, Lawrence of Belgravia, picks up Lawrence’s story twenty years after Felt’s demise. Things aren’t too good for Lawrence when we catch up with him, he’s facing eviction and is suffering from mental health issues. That said he’s still recording and releasing music as Go-Kart Mozart, and dressing like a thrift store Brian Jones at his most dandyish. Still living the dream, still clinging to the vague hope that at any moment his boat will come in. Through a series of interviews with various interviewers, we get to meet Lawrence the person as opposed to Lawrence the failed pop star. All sorts of topics are covered from the formation of Felt right through to Lawrence’s opinions on the internet. Lawrence is an entertaining interviewee, coming across as someone who could wax lyrical and say something pithy about almost any subject dropped in front of him. One of the things that impressed me most about this documentary was that at no time is Lawrence ever made a figure of fun, you never get the feeling that anyone involved in the film is laughing at him in any way. It is funny, in places hilariously so, but the amusement always comes from Lawrence himself. One scene in particular of him trying to paint a door is painfully comical.

I’ve been trying to see this documentary for years, and have only just managed to do so. Being a huge Felt (and Lawrence) fan, I was worried that I’d built up what could have been unattainable expectations. Yet Lawrence of Belgravia didn’t disappoint. The whole documentary looks gorgeous, and is largely comprised of static shots, allowing the action to unfold within the frame. Which works well and allows Kelly’s great eye for composition to really come to the fore. Kelly’s background in photography is something that really shines through in his films. He's also aces at super-fast montage sequences, one of which manages to compress the whole history of Felt into a few seconds of screen time. Very nice.

The great thing is that you don’t have to be a fan of Felt, or even music to enjoy this, since it’s a portrait of a rather eccentric individual, who when given a platform tends to make amusing comments about everything. Please, someone just give him a TV show.

Lawrence of Belgravia is thoroughly watchable and for a Felt fan like myself an utter joy. For the eagle-eyed, there are some sublime cameos (my personal favourite being Pete Wiggs popping up for a second behind a door), Pete Astor, Martin Duffy and even legendary producer John A. Rivers turn up at various points. If you get the chance to catch a screening of this, then you’d be a fool to miss it. Hunt it down, you won’t regret it.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Metalhead (2013) - Ragnar Bragason

Adolescence isn’t easy. We’ve all seen plenty of films that tell us that, from James Dean fighting against whatever was in front of him in Rebel Without A Cause, through to John Bender sticking it to the man (well Mr. Vernon) in The Breakfast Club all the way up to Lukas Moodysson’s seminal Fucking Åmal. Being a teen isn’t easy. Even in Iceland it would seem. That’s what Metalhead is about, along with a few other things.

Metalhead kicks off back in the early ‘80s, on a dairy farm in rural Iceland (for rural read rocks everywhere). It’s the bleakest landscape imaginable that could still be described as beautiful. Very fitting for a film dealing with alienation. Iceland looks like the moon fell into the sea. Hera’s (Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð) older brother manages to run himself over with a tractor after she distracts him and dies soon after. The film is about how she and her parents come to terms with their loss. Which sounds like the sort of thing that could so easily be trite and send most people reaching for the off button, but hold up because if Metalhead does one thing well, it’s confounding expectations. On the day of her brother’s funeral Hera storms out of the church marches home burns her clothes and kits herself out in her dead brother’s wardrobe. She blames herself for his death and takes on his persona, falling headfirst into the middle finger to everyone world of Heavy Metal.

Cut to ten years later and not much has changed. Rather than heading into Reykjavík and finding a life, she punishes herself (and her parents) by staying in the tiny community she’s lived in all her life. A community by the way where she is the token weirdo, and she does her absolute best to live up to that title. All of this is played out to a soundtrack of metal tracks that I have to admit was sort of lost on me, but still sounded pretty good. There’s plenty of name dropping, Dio, Maiden, Judas Priest etcetera and there are enough metal band t-shirts to keep the most ardent metalhead trainspotter happy. There are various sub-plots too, that push the story onwards, a new priest arrives in town (I know, but it turns out better than it sounds), her parents gradually dissolving marriage and her childhood friend obviously having the hots for her. There’s also a musical thread about Hera writing and recording her own music. She plays a pretty mean Flying V guitar don't you know.

Anyone who’s ever found themselves at the edge of society will recognize themselves in the character of Hera. One of the things I really liked about this film was the fact that it’s central character is an atypical female, not the usual thing you find in films where women are only there as a prop for the male characters. Hera does things that are questionable but never clichéd. Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð is superb, and really throws herself into the role. It’s hard to say much more about the film without spoiling things. It’s a drama that finds time for humour, there are moments in the film that a different director would have milked for as many tears as possible, but writer/director Ragnar Bragason doesn’t seem in the slightest bit interested in any of that. Which is a relief.

In short I have to say I really enjoyed this. It’s a strange little film and maybe that’s why I liked it so. How many other films can you think of that deal with adolescence by having the main character make herself up in Black Metal warpaint? See, for that alone this deserves a pat on the back, and it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see how this could at heart, be inspired by the recent financial woes that Iceland has endured. Oh and it’s also got the most beautiful church in it that you’ll see at the cinema this year.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Blackfish (2013) - Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Okay so first up I should say that I’m a vegetarian and have been since about the age of sixteen. So that’s about twenty five years now. Also I don’t like zoos or the idea of wild animals being held in captivity for any reason other than their own safety. One last thing, I abhor the idea of animals being used for entertainment or to make money. Okay so with all that out in the open I think it’s fair to say that I brought a healthy amount of baggage with me when I watched this documentary. Probably enough to ensure that I’d have to pay a surcharge to get it all on the plane.

So what’s Blackfish all about? Well the long and short of it is this. Tilikum is a killer whale who ‘works’ at SeaWorld in Florida. You know what SeaWorld is, it’s one of those places where hordes of people pay money to see dolphins and other marine life jumping out of the water and performing tricks for them. After which you can head off to the restaurant to spend some money, before buying some cuddly toys on your way out. Problem is Tilikum has been killing his trainers and has so far notched up three kills. SeaWorld just like any good capitalist, fudges the evidence and manages to convince the outside world that it’s not Tilikum but the trainers that were at fault. After all you gotta keep those people flowing through the gates, and those dollars in the till haven’t you? And that’s mighty hard to do if your public think that the star attraction is a serial killer.

So anyway that’s the skinny. The documentary itself is very one sided purely because SeaWorld refused to be interviewed or give any kind of statement about what has happened. So instead it focuses on asking why is it that killer whales in captivity have a staggeringly huge record of injuring and in some cases killing humans, when in the wild that sort of thing never happens? Unlike a lot of documentaries Blackfish actually manages to get to the bottom of this mystery with surprising ease. In fact to be honest, I kind of knew the answer going in myself. It’s the exact same reason why Roy Horn (of Siegfried & Roy fame) was attacked by one of his tigers, and the same reason why Timothy Treadwell was ripped apart by the bears that he loved so much. These are wild animals, and as such are unpredictable, once you forget that and start treating them as your pets then all is lost. It’s just a question of time before they snap and decide that they’ve had enough of having some leather-skinned chappie sticking his head into their mouth, or having someone on their back as they swim around a tiny pool. And who can blame them?

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has fashioned a superb documentary out of some great talking heads footage (ex SeaWorld employees and killer whale experts), and some utterly gruesome home video footage of the whales flipping out. You’ll have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it. I think most people will watch it through a permeant stream of tears. The film it shares a lot of themes with is 12 Years A Slave, mothers being forcefully separated from their children the idea of a living being being little more than property etcetera. As I said there will be tears. I’ve always hoped that in a few generations time they’ll look back at our era and think, “Really they kept animals in cages, what were they thinking?” Hopefully this documentary will make a few more people think about what to do on their family day out, and head for the beach, or the woods, or the fun fair or whatever, just as long as it’s not to a zoo or marine park. Well worth seeing.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Rush (2013) - Ron Howard

Motorsport and Hollywood have never been the best of friends. Over the years there have been numerous attempts to get them together, but every single film has failed to capture the excitement that any racing fan will tell you lies at the heart of the sport. The big problem is that Hollywood seems to feel that the idea of some bloke hurtling around a race track in a flimsy car loaded with highly flammable fuel isn’t quite interesting enough. So usually a love story or some other old cliché that worked in other films is bolted on, while all the things that make motor racing so watchable in the first place - team politics, strategies, the various personalities of the drivers are quietly let go.

The best (and I use that word in the widest most general sense) racing film ever made is John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966). It’s a real stinker of a film, staring a pudgy James Garner as an American Formula One driver making a comeback. Awful film, utter rubbish with two huge exceptions. The racing footage is superb, and there’s a raft of cameos by most of the world’s greatest drivers including Jack Brabham, Jimmy Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio and for me the best of the bunch, the none more English Graham Hill. If that’s the best then just image what the others are like.

So with that in mind my expectations for a Ron Howard film about the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship battle between Niki Lauda and James Hunt were low. Extremely low. But it’s an absolute triumph, not only a great film about motor racing, but also a superb drama about obsession and rivalry. Not just that though it also manages to ask why would anyone do anything as crazy and dangerous as motor racing, and provide resonable answers to boot.

I’m not going to go into what happens during the film, since if you don’t already know, you don't need me to spoil it for you. I’ll just say that you really don’t need to know or love Formula One to get the most out of this, in much the same way you don’t need to be into sharks or swimming to enjoy Jaws. However if you do know your Balestre's from your Ecclestone's then there's lots of goodies in here for you.

So why does this work where Grand Prix, Le Mans, Days of Thunder and Driven all failed so badly? Well for starters it’s scripted by Peter Morgan who of course wrote the aces screenplays for The Queen and The Damned United as well as Frost/Nixon for director Ron Howard. It’s a good tight script that sticks closely to the facts and events of that ’76 season. Next up are the two main actors who not only look the part but manage to act it too. Chris Hemsworth as the cocksure James Hunt and Daniel Brühl as the intense perfectionist Niki Lauda. Both are totally convincing, even if at times the brushstrokes on screen are a little broad, sometimes in order to cram as much into a reasonable running time you need to simplify things. The third reason for me loving this film so much has to go to Danny Boyle’s regular cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who goes all out and gives the film a look somewhere between the frantic hyper editing and multiple camera set ups of a modern film, and a world seen through Timothy Leary’s 60s specs. So business as usual for ADM then. Visually it’s one of the most sumptuous films I’ve seen for a while, and yet despite using every modern trick in the book, it still manages to convince as a period piece. As such, Rush begs to be seen at the cinema, the sound alone is astounding with the cars screaming around the circuits to a suitably propulsive Hans Zimmer score.

I really can’t recommend this film enough, it does everything it promises and more. Who would have thought Ron Howard would have it in him? That he would have the savvy to not take the easy way out and pile on the melodrama, to have the faith to stick with the truth. The fact that he has made a film as good as this makes me feel that I’ve misjudged him badly in the past. Having said that though, there is nothing in his filmography that I would ever want to return to ever again. Except this, which I’m sure I will watch again and again and again.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Thursday's Children (1954) - Lindsay Anderson

Along with most Brits of a certain age I have a special place in my heart for Lindsay Anderson. Film critic, director, and most importantly of all the individual that gave British film a much needed kick up the arse back in the mid 50s as the founding father of the Free Cinema movement. He didn’t make all that many films, but when he did they were always, always, worth seeing. However, as much as I adore If...., This Sporting Life and Britannia Hospital, it’s his documentary shorts O Dreamland and Thursday’s Children that I return to time and time again. Both were shot in the British seaside town of Margate, and have a pull on me that I can’t really explain.

The better of the two is Thursday’s Children, which is about a school for deaf children. Every time I watch it (which is at least once a year), I cry. A lot. Narrated by Richard Burton using his best earthy brown vocals and lensed by the legendary Walter Lassally, it packs a lot into it’s brief 25 minute running time. We get to meet various children and two of their teachers. We see how they learn to form sounds and words, slowly. Very slowly.

It’s a painful watch, since as the documentary unfolds you can't help but wonder what is going to become of these poor kids? What does the future hold for them? Remember this is 1950s Britain, so any real sort of understanding of their disability from the general public is going to be a hard won battle. It’s heartbreaking to think about. The kids in the film are so happy and full of life, so much so that I can’t help thinking that once they leave school (where they live too), that their happiness will be quickly knocked out of them by the harshness of the outside world.

Back in the mid 80s, my junior school had a deaf unit. None of the children from that deaf unit were accepted by the other kids in the school, they were treated as outcasts and mainly used as a punchline for many cruel jokes. I got to know one of the kids, Robert. He was a sweet guy who lived down the road from my nan. Maybe it’s this memory that makes Thursday’s Children such an emotional watch for me?

Thursday’s Children picked up the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 1954 Academy Awards. Which is neither here nor there really, but it does show that it had appeal outside of Great Britain, and probably allowed it to reach a far greater audience than a film like this should have any hope of finding. Whenever I watch it I can’t help but wonder what happened to all the kids? How did their lives turn out? How are Dennis, Linda or Katherine doing? I’ll never find out, I know that, but it never stops me from wondering. If you’ve never seen this, then you really should. It’s even on YouTube, so there’s no excuse. Just be ready to shed some tears.
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