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This is a biopic of the jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker that pulls the same trick as two other recent films about troubled musicians, Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead and Bill Pohlad’s Love And Mercy, by dramatising and flicking between two distinct and different periods in the life of its subject. So we encounter Baker (Ethan Hawke) in black and white, on the way up and playing the legendary New York jazz venue Birdland, where his West Coast swing is dismissed by an unimpressed, bepop-playing Miles Davis (‘come back when you’ve lived a little’). But these are reveries experienced by the trumpet player as he wistfully makes his way through the mid-1960’s, in colour, having lived a little too hard. In this later period we find him struggling to stay off the dope, trying to settle down with actress girlfriend Jane (Carmen Ejogo) and attempting to relaunch his career (following a bad beating in which his teeth are knocked out by a dealer, which gives rise to the oft-used ‘you’ll never play again’ line). The two periods momentarily cross over in an interesting fashion, with a film-within-a-film structure employed briefly by director Robert Budreau, but for the most part the action stays with Baker and Jane in sunny, beige California while the musician and the actress struggle to find work and ponder a future together. (Jane is a fictional character, apparently based on several different girlfriends Baker had around that time, and her main purpose here is to shed light on the fact that in this story the musician’s one true love is heroin.)

Plenty of attention has been paid to the film’s formal elements, such as the lighting, framing, period set design and costumes, while there are some nice touches to telegraph Baker’s semi-return to former glories: for example, a volume control slider in a studio becomes a tool by which those of us with untrained ears can measure Baker’s playing as it improves; put simply, as he gets better he is recorded at a higher volume. Additionally, Hawke’s performance is excellent; possibly his best to date, in fact, and he successfully captures Baker’s soft voice and languid mannerisms while also portraying the musician’s fragility and self-doubt in a believable, understated fashion. He’s at his best and his most affecting when singing, surprisingly, and it feels like a definitive portrait of Baker despite the fact that the writer/director has taken some liberties with the facts.

Despite these pleasing elements, and despite the fact that Born To Be Blue rejects the conventional linear biopic structure in favour of something…uh, jazzier…Budreau’s screenplay still routinely touches on all the usual subjects – the drugs, the relationship break-ups, the low ebb, the stirring comeback – as if he’s ticking off the boxes on a standard music biopic checksheet. Additionally, while the scenes set at Birdland may give jazz aficionados the willies, for me they lacked the magic of similar scenes from Pohlad’s film, in which Paul Dano’s Brian Wilson orchestrates the Pet Sounds recordings; also there’s something a little reductive here in terms of the way the film distills an entire music industry to just a couple of important/unimportant stages, one recording studio, one manager and one tour promoter. (This could of course be a decision that was made due to budgetary constraints.) Still, Born To Be Blue certainly make for an interesting counterpart to Cheadle’s movie, and is worth seeing for Hawke’s turn alone, which dovetails extremely well with the melancholic, soulful nature of Baker’s music and the film more generally.

Directed by: Robert Budreau.
Written by: Robert Budreau.
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Stephen McHattie, Janet Laine-Green, Kedar Brown, Kevin Hanchard.
Cinematography: Steve Cosens.
Editing: David Freeman.
Music:
David Braid, Todor Kobakov, Steve London.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
97.
Year:
2016.

2 Comments

This biopic about the late, great jazz musician Miles Davis is flawed but intermittently entertaining, lifted by a committed central performance by Don Cheadle, who also produced and directed the film (in fact this is something of a passion project, as Cheadle co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Baigelman and contributed to the film’s original score). The majority of scenes here are set in 1980, when the trumpeter was nearing the end of a five year career hiatus and beset by drug addiction. He’s portrayed as eccentric, reclusive and liable to fly off the handle, and this unpredictability makes him a fascinating character to watch, particularly as it’s so hard to second-guess what his reaction will be to … well, pretty much anything. The narrative blends flashbacks – during which Davis reflects on his earlier career and marriage to Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) – with a 1980-set gangster caper, in which Davis and Ewan McGregor’s fictional Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill forge an unlikely partnership. The story with regard to that latter thread is fairly thin: an impasse develops between Davis and his record label – eventually personified by Michael Stuhlbarg’s asshole A&R man – and this subsequently escalates during the course of a weekend to incorporate theft, gunplay, threats and car chases. Though Cheadle and the producers raised funds for the film from a number of sources, including one well-known crowdfunding platform, apparently the casting of McGregor was vital in terms of securing enough money for Miles Ahead to enter production, the theory being that the film would likely perform better in some countries with the Scottish actor on board. The problems casued by the casting – or the need to write or adjust a screenplay to incorporate the character – are obvious: first of all it’s a sad indictment of Hollywood that a film about one of the greatest black American artists of the 20th Century can’t secure enough funding without having to heavily foreground a white actor; secondly, who turns up to a movie about Miles Davis wanting to see the adventures of a fictional rock scribe anyway? (An entirely separate Lester Bangs biopic would be just fine, thanks.)

It’s not my intention to slate McGregor unnecessarily, but I’m sorry to report that on top of the casting decision Miles Ahead is the second new film I’ve watched in the past three days that suffers from a so-so performance by the Scot. Cheadle – by contrast – exhibits much more confidence in his role, which is perhaps unsurprising given the scale of his involvement in the film, though he’s also a better actor full stop. You could argue that the Starksy and Hutch-style silliness featuring the two is supposed to equate to the improvisational solos you hear in many jazz recordings and performances, which means the usual musical biopic scenes of the artist’s rise/fall/drug addiction/rediscovery of artistry, etc. is supposed to represent the rhythm of a track. In actual fact Cheadle tries hard to find the notes in-between with regard to the latter, giving over more time to a wrongful arrest, for example, than any of Davis’ recording sessions, or his wedding day, or his reliance on heroin. A more conventional musical biopic might have paid greater attention to Davis’ relationship with the talented musicians around him, especially arranger Gil Evans, or perhaps his importance within the scope of 20th Century music. Cheadle’s film feels incomplete as a study of the life of a famous person because of everything that’s left out, and it doesn’t find time to muse about what really made the man tick, but it’s also slightly more interesting and offbeat than most because of its refusal to adhere to type. The actor/director’s decision to aim for something a little different is certainly welcome, and Cheadle also makes some noble attempts to artfully match-cut scenes and move between different eras. However the excessive screen time he gives to McGregor’s character eventually becomes the film’s albatross, and ultimately it is a shame that all of the figures who actually did play a significant role within Davis’ life and career – such as Evans, Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus or John Coltrane – are excluded or are incidental to the main action. Additionally, I wonder what the musician would have thought of the suggestion that 48 hours with a fairly-unreliable Rolling Stone journalist would have inspired him enough to break out of a creative rut. Still, it’s further evidence that Cheadle is wasted playing second fiddle in Marvel blockbusters, if it were needed.

Directed by: Don Cheadle.
Written by: Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle.
Starring: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Keith Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Cinematography: Roberto Schaefer.
Editing: John Axelrad, Kayla M. Emter.
Music: Robert Glasper, Miles Davis.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Year: 2016.

7 Comments

By concentrating on and linking together two different but key periods of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s life, Bill Pohlad’s Love And Mercy sheds light on his creative talent while largely sidestepping the usual music biopic formula that sees stories moving conveniently through three distinct passages: the humble beginnings and the rise to fame, the subsequent travails (artistic, personal, artistic and personal) and finally death or some kind of redemption, depending on the star in question (that’s all present here but the focus is firmly on the management of mental health issues). We have Paul Dano playing Wilson at 23, already a successful artist but one who stops touring with his band in order to concentrate on the recording of Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys’ symphonic, experimental response to Rubber Soul by The Beatles; and we also see John Cusack as the damaged, fragile Wilson of the late 1980s, a man struggling to cope with the radical therapy and controlling behaviour of Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) but simultaneously falling in love with second wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

Pohlad deals with the rise of The Beach Boys swiftly, an opening montage detailing their popularity as America (and then the rest of the world) briefly goes ga-ga for their catchy tales of California sunshine, girls, cars and surfing. It’s a smart decision, in that it indicates to the viewer at an early stage that they will not simply be watching another music biopic, and it’s also executed with aplomb: Dano and the rest of the relevant actors re-create familiar promo shots, concerts and the like, while the manipulated footage looks suitably authentic.

A panic attack on a plane is given as the catalyst for Brian’s decision to stop touring with the band, leaving brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald) as well as cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) and friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers) to enjoy life on the road while Brian sets about making the record that critics regularly suggest is one of the best albums of all time. Subsequent scenes will be enjoyed by Beach Boys fans in particular: the introduction of Wrecking Crew musicians such as Hal Blaine (Johnny Sneed) and Carol Kaye (Teresa Cowles) will give nerds a frisson of excitement, despite it being one of Love And Mercy‘s clunkier passages, and seeing Wilson excitedly tap out the intro to I’m Waiting For The Day on a passing drum is indicative of the many nice touches as the band sets about recording their constituent parts. This attention to musical detail continues later, but is linked more to the star’s increasing mental health issues: Wilson placing a piano in a sandpit and forcing session musicians to wear fireman hats is now the stuff of rock legend, and those stories are usually told to amuse, to sum-up mid-’60s LSD-influenced experimentation and to reinforce the belief that a fine line exists between genius and madness, but here Pohlad is keen to show that it’s not just some wacky drugs anecdote and is in fact indicative of something far more serious. (Interestingly the same events were covered sympathetically in Allison Anders’ underrated Grace Of My Heart, in which Matt Dillon played a character that is Wilson in all but name.)

We cut back and forth between the Pet Sounds period (as well as the recording of abandoned follow-up Smile) and the scenes with Cusack’s Wilson, who meets Ledbetter when she tries to sell him a new car. Where the swing of the ’60s in this film is defined by the presence of many principal characters and extras (extravagant recording sessions, pool parties, band meetings and so on) the ’80s is a marked contrast: a handful of actors are used, California appears paler, quieter, and the musician is sad, withdrawn and child-like, as indicated by his desire at one point to ‘make out like teenagers’. Pohlad’s transitions between the two decades are smooth, partly thanks to the performances of Dano and Cusack (the latter being able to watch and reference the performance of the former), partly through the connective symbolic use of water, but also notably in the appearance of dual unsympathetic father figures: the domestic violence perpetrated by father and bitter former manager Murry Wilson (Bill Camp) is highlighted, as is an unpleasant streak of jealousy, while in the later period Landy takes his place, keeping watch on his cash cow at all times and even employing a chaperone / bodyguard as Wilson and Ledbetter go on their early dates. Those familiar with real life events will know all about the svengali, from his large salary and his mis-diagnosis of Wilson’s condition to his rather unpleasant attempts to take control of the star’s musical career and legacy — my CD liner notes for Pet Sounds even refer to Landy as an ‘executive consultant’, despite the fact he began working with Wilson in 1975, ten years after the album was made. The screenplay points out that the Landy years tellingly began after the singer went through a period of reclusivity in the wake of Murry’s death.

While it’s perfectly understandable that Giamatti is required to make an impact and to portray the psychotherapist as devious and occasionally monstrous, it must be said that his performance seems more in keeping with a cheap TV movie than this particular film; in fact one scene, in which an unseen, eavesdropping Landy suddenly reveals his presence in a studio recording booth was greeted by loud guffaws in my cinema – not the intended effect – as presumably it reminded many viewers of this kind of thing. The usual response is to round on the actor in such cases, but it’s hard to tell whether Giamatti is at fault, whether it is Pohlad’s direction, or whether it’s a combination of both. Whatever the reason it left me considering this to be a good ensemble performance, as opposed to one of the year’s best to date.

And so … the leads: the ever-likable Cusack hasn’t been this good for years, while it’s pleasing to see Dano continue his excellent run of form. The point has already been made many times over, but it’s worth repeating that while Dano clearly looks like the real 1960s singer, Cusack bares little resemblance to either his co-star or the middle-aged Wilson (except for the shape of their respective mouths). Thankfully even the fact that the two leads have different-coloured eyes doesn’t preclude the viewer from accepting that it’s the same man, while interestingly Oren Moverman’s presence as co-screenwriter (he worked on Michael Alan Lerner’s original script) brings to mind his earlier involvement with I’m Not There, the magnificent Todd Haynes’ film in which several different actors played Bob Dylan.

The surprise is, arguably, Elizabeth Banks; Melinda is sympathetic and kind, while her lack of comfort as she suddenly has to negotiate this odd world of cranks and superstars is telegraphed well, but she is more than a simple saviour and Banks reveals the character’s strength, resilience and defiance with a welcome subtlety, especially as she shares a number of her scenes with Giamatti. It’s too early to get into all this nonsense once again but it’s no surprise that there’s talk of an Academy Award nomination for her work here. We’ll see.

The support is very much ‘the support’. To wit Dennis and Carl Wilson, two complex figures in real life,  only really feature as sounding boards for their brother, while Erin Darke’s part as Marilyn, Brian’s first wife, is sadly underwritten. Max Schneider makes a very brief impression as songwriter Van Dyke Parks (mainly because he gets to stomp off during a band meeting) but only Abel’s Mike Love manages to step successfully from the background into the foreground, primarily due to his entertaining clashes with Wilson over the band’s direction. Love famously wanted to ditch the experimentation and return to the formulaic pop that made The Beach Boys stars; he repeatedly questions the methods of Dano’s Brian here, and after Pet Sounds is released his anger regarding it’s disappointing chart position is somewhat amusing, given the benefit of hindsight.

Finally the sound design must be singled out for praise, especially for the way in which Atticus Ross’s soundtrack dovetails with the foley work to establish the oppressive nature of the cacophonies Brian hears (these auditory hallucinations are believed to be linked to his father’s beatings, but were almost certainly exacerbated by Wilson’s use of LSD). One scene in particular stands out, in which the cumulative effect of cutlery noise during a dinner party causes Wilson to scream in agony moments before the audience does the same. It’s both fitting and telling that great attention is paid to the sound in Love And Mercy, as it’s wholly in keeping with Brian Wilson’s own ability to make sense of the sounds he imagined and indicative more generally that Pohlad, his writers and his crew have thought long and hard about the man at the heart of the story. This is a very good biopic, which makes Giamatti’s performance an even greater shame.

Directed by: Bill Pohlad.
Written by: Michael Alan Lerner, Oren Moverman. Based on Heroes And Villains by Michael Alan Lerner.
Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Bill Camp, Brett Davern, Kenny Wormald.
Cinematography: Robert Yeoman.
Editing: Dino Jonsäter.
Music: Atticus Ross, The Beach Boys.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 120 minutes.
Year: 2015.

2 Comments

theoryofeverythingpicz

After seeing this new biopic charting the marital and academic life of Professor Stephen Hawking, the pre-eminent scientist and author on the subject of time and black holes, I thought of last year’s Dallas Buyers Club and its subject Ron Woodroof. The lives of Texan hustler Woodroof and Cambridge graduate Hawking appear to be poles apart at first glance, but there are connections that exist between the two men, and the two high profile films about them: both are diagnosed with terminal diseases and given a finite time to live, for example, and both stories chart their respective triumphs in proving their doctors wrong; Woodroof managed more than 2,500 days after being told he would die from an AIDS-related illness within a month, while Hawking is still alive today after hearing in the mid-1960s that he had motor neuron disease, and a mere two years left.

The frustrations caused by life with these two illnesses make for engrossing and moving drama. In Dallas Buyers Club Woodroof is exasperated by the actions of the US government’s Food and Drug Administration, while in The Theory Of Everything different types of frustration resulting from Hawking’s physical disability are shared by the scientist and his first wife Jane Wilde Hawking. Both films follow a conventional storytelling path, with the peaks and troughs experienced during the protagonists’ lives alternating in a clinical, metronomic fashion; this reveals a compliance with certain biopic norms, honed for decades by others in order to ensure mass appeal, as viewers’ emotions are manipulated by contrasting scenes of joy and tragedy.

In both cases the films are worth seeing, first and foremost, for the quality of acting on display, though both are well-made and deserve praise for other reasons, even if the bittersweet journey we embark upon as viewers feels all too familiar. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Academy Awards for their acting in Dallas Buyers Club, and Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones will presumably both be nominated this year for their performances here, as Stephen and Jane Hawking. Redmayne’s consistent and highly-physical performance is a revelation, while Jones effectively captures Jane’s turmoil as the couple’s love for each other gradually diminishes, attempting to reconcile her burgeoning love for helper and choirmaster Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) with her sense of duty toward Stephen and their children.

Based on Jane Hawking’s second memoir about her life with Stephen, Travelling To Infinity, and adapted by Anthony McCarten, James Marsh’s film begins by detailing their meeting at Cambridge University in the early 60s. As a young student Redmayne’s Hawking is shy and awkward, but impish and witty when comfortable, and the actor foreshadows the later wheelchair-bound life of the scientist by adopting certain postures as his salad days go by. The picturesque university setting is used as you would expect, with The Backs and other famous views serving as backdrops while Stephen and languages student Jane meet and fall in love. Depending on your outlook you might well be moved by their first kiss on the beautifully-lit Bridge Of Sighs, but you might just as easily roll your eyes toward the many black holes above us as a boat full of punting students conveniently enters the frame at the same moment; however this entire sequence – which takes in a traditional May Ball prior to the lip-landing – is technically very impressive, particularly with regard to the lighting. (Interestingly both Stephen and Jane Hawking appeared on set for the first time, independently even though they remain on good terms, during the filming of this crucial scene.)

The film is shot by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, who did fine work a decade ago on The Proposition, and he captures a series of Cambridge-based images – firework displays, refraction of light, turning bicycle wheels, swirling coffee – that all allude to Hawking’s later work on space and time. His camerawork is otherwise pleasantly unobtrusive, and he makes good use of the browns and greens that colour university life via the typical clothes and interiors (pubs, classrooms, labs and offices) of the 1960s and 1970s, gradually desaturating to reflect the film’s change in tone as Hawking’s illness takes hold.

At Cambridge, under the tutelage of cosmology professor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis, a safe pair of hands, and now resembling his old Harry Potter co-star Alan Rickman), Stephen shows signs of brilliance, tempered by an apparent clumsiness that is later revealed to be the onset of motor neurone disease. There’s something predictable about the academic scenes, from the star pupil effortlessly outshining everyone else in the tutorial group to the sudden proclamation of his brilliance by three of the finest minds in his field, but I guess if anyone deserves such a cinematic treatment it is Hawking, given that he is a bona fide genius. The screenplay attempts to grapple with some of the professor’s ideas but, understandably with audiences and profits in mind, ditches the more complex maths and physics, and concentrates on matters of love (though within the relationship at hand the nature of Stephen Hawking’s work, coupled with Jane Hawking’s faith, ensures a series of brief and mutually-frustrating theological discussions from their first conversation onwards).

As Stephen’s condition worsens Jane sacrifices her own studies and career to care for her husband and, eventually, their children. Stephen’s struggle to control his movement and speech intensifies and, in one heartbreaking scene, he is watched by first son Robert as he attempts to drag himself up a flight of stairs; eventually he is forced into a wheelchair, a milestone of sorts later matched by the introduction of the Equalizer speech program, which gives the professor his electronic American voice. The film is respectful but unflinching in the way it examines Professor Hawking’s physical deterioration, never losing sight of the cruel irony that one of the world’s greatest intellects is at times as helpless as a newborn baby, and Redmayne’s work in capturing the anguish that such a disease can cause is admirable.

The film suggests the increasing pressure on Jane, with three children and Stephen to care for, as a catalyst for the eventual break-up of their marriage. Stephen’s insistence on not employing a full-time live-in carer is partly for financial reasons – this part of the story takes place before he writes A Brief History Of Time – but eventually the aforementioned widower Jonathan enters their lives to help out. Jane and Jonathan’s mutual attraction is stymied as a result of their joint devotion to the church and their belief in the sanctity of marriage, though after a tracheotomy Stephen meets nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), who would eventually become his second wife. The cast – particularly Felicity Jones – handles this love quadrangle well, benefitting from the maturity of McCarten’s script, which thankfully avoids histrionics and teacup-throwing. Instead there are uncomfortable, understanding glances, resigned looks, and eventually a painful acceptance that happiness lies elsewhere.

It’s easy to sympathise with all of the characters and their situation, particularly as a result of the commanding performances, and despite being fully aware that your buttons are constantly being pushed The Theory Of Everything will likely cause the hardiest of souls to shed a tear or two; indeed Stephen Hawking reportedly cried when he watched the film for the first time. Yet, like Dallas Buyers Club, it is also a life-affirming and uplifting film. The decision to follow the conventional, linear path much-loved by biopic makers has been criticised, with the ending the first bold attempt to marry the centrality of the concept of time to Professor Hawking’s work with the structure and editing of the film, but though it feels ‘safe’ I think James Marsh – previously best known for the documentaries Project Nim and Man On Wire – has made a wise choice. There will be plenty of angry voices shouting in the wind about yet another unspectacular and predictable Working Title release but, crucially, the chosen format allows for the full crippling extent of Hawking’s illness to be clearly understood by the viewer, as well as the gradual buildup of unhappiness that resulted in the marriage ending. The recent release of The Imitation Game, regarded by many as a similar work on account of its period setting, subject matter and central acting performance, perhaps highlights the presence of a formulaic approach but The Theory Of Everything is worth your time and your money nonetheless, not least for the performances of Redmayne and Jones. Unfortunately notable actors such as Thewlis, Emily Watson and Simon McBurney are a touch underused, though the latter pair provide a touch of familial tension and warmth respectively.

The Basics:
Directed by: James Marsh
Written by: Anthony McCarten, based on a work by Jane Wilde Hawking
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 123 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.4

12 Comments

2014-MR.-TURNER-014

This ambitious, blustery period piece by Mike Leigh explores the later years of the life of Joseph Mallord William Turner (played by Timothy Spall), covering a period from 1828 until the artist’s death in 1851, at the age of 76. Copying to an extent the typical colour palette of Turner’s own landscapes and with an attention to period detail that leaves countless Dickens adaptations trailing in its wake, Mr Turner is a visually-impressive biographical film and, at times, an intiguing dramatisation of the man’s later life.

Spall is on-screen for nearly all of the film’s 150 minutes, often delivering a guttural grunting noise as his Turner goes about daily business in London, by the sea in Margate and elsewhere. This expressive ‘grrr’ can, and does, mean anything during the course of the film: a dismissive snort, an acknowledgement of somebody else’s fine humour, an approval or an agreement, a ‘thank you’, a ‘no thank you’, and so much more besides. If you thought ‘I am Groot’ was 2014’s phrase of a thousand different meanings then I suggest you watch Mr Turner and marvel at Spall’s ability to turn a simple noise into just about anything. Not that you win the Best Actor award at Cannes for simply grunting for two-and-a-half hours, of course. Spall delivers the rest of his lines with just as much relish, and this is a triumphantly-vibrant performance full of verve and gusto; it certainly assists in evoking the hustle and bustle of Georgian and Victorian life in London at the tail end of the industrial revolution.

Leigh’s film begins quietly in the Netherlands, with Turner standing atop a hill, painting a nearby windmill. The colours of the sky, thanks to the light of the fading sun, are suggestive of the pastels the artist favoured during his career, and it is an early sign that cinematographer Dick Pope’s work is to be informed by Turner’s art; later on the connections are made a little more forcefully, with ethereal whiteouts and foggy seascapes awash with pale yellows, pinks and blues. Soon, though, we return to England, and during the next two hours we see several glimpses into the man’s private life in various houses, shops and other locations crammed with the typical fixtures and fittings of the age. He lives primarily with a loyal housekeeper named Hannah Danby (an equally-impressive performance by Dorothy Atkinson), who he uses for sexual gratification, and denies that he is the father of two girls with another woman, Hannah’s aunt Sarah (Ruth Sheen). For prolonged periods he relocates to the seaside town of Margate, where he enjoys another relationship with the landlady and widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who herself appears to be barely interested in Turner’s status and talent.

Turner’s bond with his father and studio assistant, William (Paul Jesson), dwarfs the other relationships. Theirs is a jovial closeness borne partly out of the sectioning and subsequent death of Turner’s mother, Mary Marshall, who passed away in 1804, and it’s worth noting that Leigh addresses both men’s deaths in a similar fashion, which seems to strengthen their connection. In this film Turner isn’t quite the same after his father dies, and there is a suggestion that the father’s death is the catalyst for Turner’s highly experimental later period, which causes much harrumphing at the Royal Academy.

The Academy scenes, incidentally, are great fun; they are filled with various highly-strung artists throwing hissy fits about the placement of their work on the walls, though it doesn’t seem to bother Turner himself when one of his landscapes is hung in an ante-chamber. Leigh teases us with a glimpse of Turner’s rivalry with that other celebrated British landscape painter of the era, John Constable (James Fleet), before cruelly dropping the thread after a minute or two. The lively and entertaining dialogue in the Royal Academy gives some insight into the prevailing tastes of the period: both Turner and Constable are credited with changing attitudes toward landscape painting within the snooty art world, elevating it to the same status as historical painting, although later we see Turner publicly mocked for his early brand of abstract impressionism at a ribald comedy show. The general public’s take on his work seems to bother Turner far more than the opinions of noted art critics of the day like John Ruskin, played here by Joshua Maguire, who invites Turner to an art discussion that bizarrely turns into a debate about gooseberries. Even comments by Queen Victoria (Sinéad Matthews), who dismisses his work as faulty on account of the artist’s fading eyesight, are merely met with a resigned shrug; you get the impression Spall’s Turner would grunt right in front of her if he could.)

As with many biopics the film is structured in a linear fashion, though the passing of time is mainly perceptible through encroaching illness and the sudden introduction of new technologies (Turner is intrigued by the workings of the camera, for instance, and even encourages the skeptical Mrs Booth when she dismisses the idea of sitting for her own Daguerreotype). The signs of aging are perceptible and the roughness of the diseases of the day allow for some fine make-up work by the team of Christine Blundell, Alexandra Joyce and Chris Lyons, with Hannah Danby’s skin in particular acting as a different, gruesome canvas. Keen fans of the artist will no doubt be able to chart the passing years by the paintings that hang or sit on the floor in his studio as well, I would imagine.

At times Leigh’s Mr Turner is a lurid, bawdy biopic and at others the writer-director successfully engages with more highbrow subjects that remain relevant today, such as the commercialism of art and the influence of changing technology on artists. He approaches it all with a masterly confidence, creating a broadly-focused and unhurried biopic that reinforces his status as the finest British filmmaker working today. Spall has delivered his best work to date here, and considering his excellent performances in the earlier Leigh films Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy, that’s saying something. Highly recommended.

The Basics:
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Written by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jeeson
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 147 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9.0

8 Comments

‘New York has the haircuts, London has the trousers … but Belfast has the reason!’ shouts a triumphant Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer) to a crowd of punks near the end of Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa second film Good Vibrations. Hooley – a record shop owner and label boss who played a big part in Belfast’s punk rock scene in the 1970s – looks to his left and spies the ghost of Hank Williams looking on approvingly, as if to tell the man that his work here is done. And it is … kinda.

This funny, warm-hearted and spirited biopic is a summary of Hooley’s life the 1970s, when he opened the record shop Good Vibrations on Great Victoria Street in Belfast (nicknamed ‘Bomb Alley’ because of the amount of explosive devices that went off on the road during the height of The Troubles). An idealistic, radical free spirit who inherited his father’s hardline attitude to politics to a certain degree, Hooley was dismayed by the break-up of his group of friends and the apparent death of Belfast’s nightlife when the conflict between Irish Republicans, Ulster Loyalists and the State security forces escalated, and decided to open the shop after encouragement from his wife Ruth (played here by Jodie Whittaker).

Politically-neutral, Hooley discovered the burgeoning local punk rock scene through his record store (one terrific scene here, in which Terri attends a gig by local band Rudi, tells you all you need to know about the sheer abundant joy music can bring to the already-converted); he started his own Belfast-based indie record label, also called Good Vibrations, and despite difficulties attracting the interest of the London-centric music industry initially, he put out the debut Teenage Kicks EP by Derry band The Undertones, which became a hit after being championed by influential Radio 1 DJ John Peel. Peel was so enamoured with the song he played it twice in a row on his Radio 1 show in the late 1970s, another joyous moment captured in this film, and his interest led in turn to the band signing with Sire Records. It remained Peel’s favourite song of all time until his death in 2004.

Hooley actually sold the rights to Teenage Kicks to Sire for a nominal amount, turning down offers from other labels in the region of £25,000 (a huge sum today, never mind 1978) because he felt like he shouldn’t profit from a song he hadn’t actually written himself. It’s a refreshing attitude given the number of cutthroat sharks that supposedly operate within the music industry, and this honesty and integrity presumably explains why Hooley has both succeeded and failed repeatedly during his years in business in Belfast; the film’s closing titles reveal, amusingly, that Hooley’s shop closed in 1982, reopened in 1984, closed in 1991, reopened in 1992, closed in 2004, reopened in 2005 …

It also says much about the man himself. Dormer’s performance as the good-hearted, soulful man at the centre of this film is excellent, and his portrayal of Hooley manages to keep you rooting for him even when his marriage goes south following the birth of his first child (which he misses in a montage that made me roll my eyes and involuntarily sigh ‘Oh Terry….’ out loud). Dormer captures Hooley’s friendliness, sense of humour and desire to help others out without personal reward very well indeed; the performance itself radiates good vibrations throughout.

Dormer’s turn brings to mind Steve Coogan’s role as Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, which covered the birth of Factory Records in Manchester. Wilson launched Factory around the same time that Hooley started his label, and there are several parallels shared by the two films (and indeed the two indie impresarios they focus on – although Hooley seems like a rank amateur in bad business dealings and self-promotion when compared to Wilson, who turned both into art forms).

Unfortunately in focusing on Hooley the other characters suffer a little; Whittaker is good as the love of Terri’s life and she has a fairly big part, but it would have been good to know more about the other characters that appear. Michael Colgan, for example, plays Hooley’s friend and sometime business partner Dave Hyndman, but we learn little about him and he appears to be present simply to act as the voice of skepticism while Terri’s flights of fancy take off. It’s also a shame that The Undertones are built up in the film – particularly the part of lead singer Feargal Sharkey (Kerr Logan) – but as soon as the band signs with Sire they disappear, only to briefly appear in a Top Of The Pops clip some time later. Perhaps that’s exactly how it happened. In fairness this is a biopic, so the focus on just one man is hardly surprising.

Hooley was motivated to try and do something positive for the city of Belfast while it went to hell in a handcart. As such, this is a feel-good movie, but it doesn’t ignore The Troubles at all. There are no deaths here and minimal violence, but the sectarianism is shown via archive footage and feels like a part of everyday life in the city. In one excellent sequence near the beginning the history of the conflict up to 1970 is squeezed into a rapid-fire thirty seconds, which gives enough background for the purposes of the plot; Hooley remains non-sectarian throughout, but even that neutral stance is enough to get him into trouble.

This film gets a hell of a lot right. It captures the buzz and DIY ethic of punk rock superbly and contains some imaginative, otherworldly imagery: it begins with a beautiful sequence showing the young Terri running round his front garden while Hank Williams’ I Saw The Light plays on the soundtrack and there’s even an odd animated segment as Terri snorts a line of coke and travels across London to meet with various record company execs (which works perfectly, as it happens). Visually arresting at times, the invention on display lifts it above a great many music-related biopics as a result. It’s a shame that the supporting characters aren’t quite as memorable as those in 24 Hour Party People or even the vaguely-similar High Fidelity, but the restrained performances allow Dormer and Whittaker to shine in the spotlight. This was the critic Mark Kermode’s favourite film of 2013 but unfortunately it had a limited cinema release; hopefully it will find a larger audience on DVD, as it is a film with genuine heart and soul and a thoroughly uplifting experience. Good vibrations indeed.

The Basics:
Directed by: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Written by: Colin Carberry, Glenn Patterson
Starring: Richard Dormer, Jodie Whittaker
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 102 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 7.4

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A frail, old Baroness Thatcher (Meryl Streep) pays for a pint of milk in a typical London corner shop, before asking the shopkeeper what the price of a pint of nice-cold-ice-cold actually comes to these days. To many viewers this will be nothing more than an innocuous, self-contained introductory scene, but to others a degree of irony will be appreciated. To many above a certain age Margaret Thatcher became synonymous with the drink, earning the long-standing nickname ‘The Milk Snatcher’ after her government stopped the provision of free milk for the over 7’s in schools in order to meet election pledges on tax.

A further irony is that, for much of Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic The Iron Lady, Thatcher is anything but iron; the film depicts her in her later years: as a frail, brittle old woman who is suffering from the onset of dementia. In this film she is pretty much under house arrest, wandering from room to room while secretaries and assistants schedule the occasional public appearance. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Coleman) visits, but the former Prime Minister is focused more on the past than the present.

As a portrayal of dementia it’s actually disappointingly light; Thatcher enjoys whimsical ‘visits’ from her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent, who mistakenly plays Mr Thatcher as a kind of domestically-inept merry prankster) and there are plenty of other signifiers of her mental illness, but the film shies away from depicting the utter despair and frustration that sufferers often experience as a result of their confusion, and it isn’t particularly concerned with the mental strain on other family members either (while Carol appears flustered, her son Mark is only mentioned in passing).

Though Margaret Thatcher and the policies of her Conservative government completely polarized opinion in the UK, the one thing pretty much everyone can agree on is that she was, while in power, a person of strong will. The trick of The Iron Lady is to contrast the old, suffering Thatcher with the rise of the politician through a series of flashbacks, yet while this is interesting to a point it’s something the film repeats and repeats with ultimately unsatisfactory results. (Nothing encapsulates the divisive nature of this politician more than her funeral, earlier in 2013. The streets were filled with supporters who admired her and also many, many protesters who still remain bitter about her tenure today. In some UK towns they held a minute’s silence and in others they burned effigies that hung from hastily-erected gallows.)

The Iron Lady covers Thatcher’s fairly ordinary beginnings as a grocer’s daughter (father Alfred Roberts is played by Iain Glen, who currently appears as Jorah Mormont in Game Of Thrones, and the younger Margaret is played by Alexandra Roach), and follows her rise within the political world – initially as an MP in the 1950s and 1960s, then as Education and Science Secretary, opposition party leader, and finally Britain’s first female Prime Minister. She then looks back on several key events of the 1980s, such as the Brighton hotel bombings and the long-running terrorism campaign by the IRA, the miner’s strike, the Falklands War with Argentina, the re-development of London’s docklands, the Brixton riots, her friendship with Ronald Reagan, the introduction of the Poll Tax and the eventual loss of support from her cabinet that led directly to her loss of power.

It’s such a huge amount of material to incorporate into a standard running time that it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that not a bit of it is being explored to a satisfactory extent. Given the magnitude of some of these events in real life and their importance to Britain (and, in some respects, to the rest of the world) in the 1980s you could make an entire film that just deals with, for example, the IRA’s campaign or even the rise (or political demise) of Margaret Thatcher (in fact an entire film has already been made about the re-development of London’s docklands: The Long Good Friday.). The Falklands War is dealt with in a couple of scenes that are bookended by stock footage of military skirmishes and troops returning home to celebrating crowds. One scene shows the decision being made to sink the Argentinian ship the ARA General Belgrano in 1982, which was attacked by the British army as it moved into an exclusion zone. Over a thousand soldiers died, and the actions of the government and the army came under heavy scrutiny afterwards, but with no framework provided here the scene is drenched in a kind of dramatic militaristic triumphalism that seems ill suited to the actual event depicted. “Sink it!”, Thatcher orders with relish.

Liberal blood will boil even more during another scene in which the victorious Thatcher chastises Labour leader Michael Foot for his anti-war stance in the House of Commons. In reality, Foot gave his backing to Thatcher when the government expressed a desire to send a task force to the islands, something which the then Prime Minister appreciated considerably, despite their many battles over the years.

What excuses Lloyd is the fact that her film filters all of these events through Thatcher’s own eyes, and it is worth saying again that these are the eyes of a lady who is suffering from early signs of dementia in her mid-80s. She is an unreliable witness, and that just about explains certain other inaccuracies. There are no other female MPs seen in the House of Commons, to enhance the idea of this woman breaking through the glass ceiling of Parliament, which is patently ridiculous. Not only that, for dramatic purposes she is seen just yards away from the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell) as he is killed by a car bomb, despite the fact that in real life she was carrying out official duties elsewhere at the time. Those who recall Margaret Thatcher’s indifference towards Nelson Mandela may also raise an eyebrow to a scene that shows her happily dancing with the South African leader, too. Even though an artistic reason for it has been given, the lack of accuracy ultimately takes credibility away from the film.

That all said, some of the flashback scenes are good. One that stands out in particular is the cabinet meeting where Thatcher gives her deputy Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) a dressing down in front of senior ministers, all watched by the opportunistic Michael Heseltine (an underused Richard E. Grant), who would later challenge for the party leadership. Unfortunately it only lasts for a couple of minutes, such is the amount of material that the director and the writer Abi Morgan (Shame) attempt to cram in. The film moves far too quickly at times, and doesn’t allow enough time for such events to really bed in. The relinquishing of power becomes just one more flashback scene among many

Meryl Streep received her 17th nomination and won her third Oscar for her performance as Thatcher, and it is certainly a worthy win considering how accurate a portrayal of the former Prime Minister this is. (This truly is an incredible record of achievement, given that the first of these was for The Deer Hunter, a film which only came out 35 years ago.) Her acting, complete with nuanced ticks and facial expressions that say as much as any dramatic monologue, goes beyond just mere impersonation (though, that said, if impersonating such a well-known figure so successfully isn’t worthy of an Oscar win on its own, then what is?). The meticulous method actor to a tee, Streep certainly appears to ‘inhabit’ the character, particularly in her older, mentally-troubled state, which is no mean achievement when you consider that most of the available footage of Thatcher will be of those earlier years as a political heavyweight. The actress studied archive footage of Thatcher for months, and spoke to many of her old friends and foes to enhance her insight. It is a memorable turn, though perhaps not flawless, and a sizeable make-up crew must also be mentioned for their excellent work.

Streep brings a degree of warmth and frailty to a public figure that was resolutely cold, overbearing and tough, which was perhaps a necessary thing to show for the later out-of-office years, but she doesn’t quite feel different enough in the flashback scenes. The public Thatcher that so many people remember was harder, more dogmatic and more imposing than the one Streep has created here; this Thatcher is slightly unsure of herself, with a degree of self-doubt depicted on screen that the real Iron Lady would never publicly show. But hey, it’s an interpretation, and I’m certainly not in a position of authority to suggest that Meryl Streep of all people should have gone about it differently.

This warm, disappointingly uncritical portrait of Margaret Thatcher is a fairly straightforward biopic, the latest in a long number that simply follows the template set down in Citizen Kane. Much of it will be tough viewing for viewers of a certain political persuasion, and overall it feels like a distillation, a glimpse of only one side of the politician’s public life. That side is the same one that helped the ex-Prime Minister to gain popularity in the USA (which makes it odd that her relationship with political soulmate Ronald Reagan is largely glossed over). Perhaps this is part of the reason for the film’s financial success in the United States and in other countries.

Much reading between the lines is required for a fuller picture, and that won’t be easy for many non-UK viewers who are unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of 1980s British politics to do. As a result The Iron Lady feels incomplete and lop-sided. Despite an excellent central performance, and some other well-cast supporting roles (Coleman and, briefly, Glen and Head), it fails to make good use of some other supporting cast members, and Jim Broadbent’s usual high standards drop with a strangely wacky, impish portrayal of Denis Thatcher. The film is mediocre, but contains a performance from Meryl Streep that is far from ordinary; unfortunately there is a failure to truly capitalize on Streep’s work.

The Basics:

Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd
Written by: Abi Morgan
Starring: Meryl Streep, Olivia Coleman, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Year: 2011
Rating:
 5.0

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