Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (2015)
Director: Mark Cousins
Synopsis: The Atomic age viewed from its inception, to the epochal bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on to the present day.
Review: This classy, intuitive documentary by Mark Cousins takes exactly the more rewarding angle by seeking through aestheticisation rather than exegesis to capture the strange, sensory ethos of the atomic age. In ambience and effect, Atomic is loosely similar to Terence Davies’ ode to Liverpool, Of Time and the City, in that they both employ free-association to explore their subject matter. Using Mogwai’s ethereal electronic soundtrack as his conduit, Cousins takes us through the history of the atomic age through sound and image alone (there’s no overt narration) – even trying ambitiously to suggest that splitting the atom and creating atomic weapons weren’t in themselves immediately malign developments but almost the end-game of a form of natural evolution. Hence, Cousins finds in the famous, awe-inspiring images of the mushroom clouds a correlative to more common sights of proliferation in nature (a bud that grows, a flower that blooms, sperm that fertilises an egg).
It’s the politicisation and militarisation of this scientific development that Cousins laments – his sometime quasi-Eisensteinian editing hammering home the human and environmental cost of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and the Chernobyl reactor meltdown. Being such an empassioned filmmaker, Cousins has to work hard to rein in his power as director and a tendency to over-determine the moral of his subject matter, but that aside he has created a truly outstanding and memorable tone poem here to the haunting strangeness of our atomic times. (August 2015)
This summer, while everyone was off on their holidays, I went on my own epic expedition through time and space. I was whisked from the Trojan Wars to the Battle of Bosworth, from the shores of Bohemia to when Birnan Wood came to Dunsinane, and from the wild cliffs of Dover to the rotten state of Denmark. I’ve experienced the whole range of the human condition, from profound, all-consuming love, to filial strife and incest, even civil war and genocide – and most radically of all, a man who passes his whole time trying to pluck up the courage just to do something….In short, I’ve read the entire dramatic canon of a certain William Shakespeare – starting on June 1st and finishing on August 15th – that’s 38 plays in 76 days (a play every two days – not easy to balance alongide a regular job, but I pulled it off!)
Come with me as I take you on a journey through my impressions and analyses of the plays, all wrapped up in a highly subjective and controversial running of them all!
38. The Taming of the Shrew
You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst,
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom (Petruccio, II i, 185-187)
Almost all of Shakespeare’s lesser works possess some inherent charm and a redeeming feature or two – but not this one. It’s easily his most irritating play; a tedious, forced comedy about the battle of the sexes – stacked ridiculously and borderline chauvinistically in favour of the men. The Petruccio-Katherine ‘hilarious’ taming of the shrew subplot was sad exposé of Shakespeare creating two of his most charmless characters, and the work’s bizarre, early framing device has no reflective purpose on the main body of the play at all.
37. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
He after honour hunts. I after love:
He leaves his friends to dignify them more,
I leave myself, my friends, all for love. (Proteus, I i, 62-64)
The one thing you’d rarely accuse Shakespeare of is timidity and a lack of ingenuity, but this early play of his is irredeemably tame – almost as if he was tentatively marking through the familiar rom-com ingredients (divided affections, lovers in disguise, clownish servants) for later, grander works. The shallow, fickle undermining of one of the female characters doesn’t help either.
36. Antony and Cleopatra
O thou day o’ th’ world
Chain mine armed neck; leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing! (Antony, IV ix, 13-16)
I find something slightly distancing and ‘unfelt’ in many of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – particularly this one. Cleopatra and Antony’s love is too ornate, inscrutable and grandioise, and the play also suffers from devolving badly into awkwardly staged and written battle scenes, where nothing ever really feels at stake.
35. Henry VIII
Heaven will one day open
The King’s eyes, that so long have slept upon
This bold bad man (Lord Chamberlain, II ii, 41-43)
This dense and weighty plotting of some of the politics at the time of Henry VIII’s reign is reasonably cogent, but suffers from two obvious problems. There is no real focal point or ‘tragedy’ (Cardinal Wolsey and Queen Katherine have ‘downfalls’ at best), and some of the worse parts of the play – notably the prologue – clearly weren’t even written by Shakespeare.
34. The Merry Wives of Windsor
Wives may be merry, and yet honest, too
We do not act that often jest and laugh.
‘Tis old but true: “still swine eats all the draff”. (Mistress Page, IV ii, 95-97)
Shakespeare’s one comedy set exclusively in England is an excessively bawdy number – its success predicated on the degree to which one finds the bit-part comedy player of the Henriad, Falstaff, funny and entertaining. The flow of the work isn’t helped by being written exclusively in prose (befitting the earthier players on show), and though there are some good smutty jokes, and it’s all light-hearted enough, it’s just a touch unmemorable.
In Pericles, his queen and daughter seen,
Although assailed with fortune fierce and keen,
Virtue preserv’d from fell destruction’s blast,
Led on by heaven, and crown’d with joy at last. (Gower, xxii, 110-113)
This epically weird fable – a poor man’s The Winter’s Tale, if you like – is a bizarre work whose only saving grace is a certain lyrical and fantastical charm. I’m not sure the intermittent narration by the curiously named Gower really serves any purpose other than being a tool to propel the story across its clunky leaps in continuity and time. And there was clearly something amiss in the opening incest/riddle skit which is completely overlooked for the rest of the play.
32. Henry VI, Part 2
Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous.
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand. (Gloucester, III i, 142-144)
Lots of gore and bloodlust makes for a plotty, patchy play – notable only for a bizarrely comic subplot involving the idiot Jack Cade’s attempted revolt, plus the first appearance of a certain ‘Richard Crookback’….
31. Much Ado About Nothing
I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another is fool when he dedicates his behaviour to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love. (Benedick, II iii, 6-9)
This rich fiesta of a rom-com is an acquired taste. Its dense wit and pedantry doesn’t have the poetry and genius of the loosely similar Love’s Labours Lost; Twelfth Night was a much more pleasing, less forced ‘romantic entanglement’ piece; and Benedick and Beatrice’s shrewish bickering struck me more as tedious than clever, funny or charming.
30. All’s Well That Ends Well
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs which we ourselves dull. (Helena, I i, 212-215)
In truth, this is a play whose raw materials warrant ranking much higher, if it wasn’t for the completely indefensible and illogical central plot twist that sullies the nice build-up of characterisation and beautiful verse that came before. With a ‘conceit’ that would set feminism back centuries were it to happen now, our ‘heroine’ Helena swaps places with the local wench, so that she can trick her idol Bertram into sleeping with her instead and getting her pregnant! It might make sense if it was a “fuck you” case of sacrificial, self-whoredom, but it’s all reduced to a simpering validation of Helena’s desire to be betrothed to the ‘superior’ Bertram. There’s no apparent overarching meta-commentary on how pointless the act is in proving Bertram a vile lech of a cad, completely unworthy of Helena in the first place….
29. The Merchant of Venice
If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? (Shylock, III i, 59-62)
This is strangely unsatisfying despite the compelling raw materials of moral drama/romance/thriller. It feels like one of Shakespeare’s meekest, most unrevealing works about human nature, and Shylock – though not quite a cut-and-dry evil villain – is still a cipher of “boo, hiss” detestability to set against Bassanio and Antonio’s leniently portrayed friends.
28. Measure for Measure
Well, heaven forgive him, and forgive us all!
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall. (Escalus, II i, 37-38)
Measure for Measure improves upon the justice theme of The Merchant of Venice, and the duped sex shenanigans of All’s Well That Ends Well, but despite its comprehensible moralising on themes of hypocrisy and the relativity of justice, the play is a bit wordy and expository, and there’s a long build up to a comeuppance which is glaringly predictable for the final two acts.
By Jupiter, an angel – or, if not
An earthly paragon. Behold divineness
No elder than a boy. (Belarius, III vi, 41-43)
A real curio – mixing tragic and comic tropes, having a dense (almost confusing) plot, and a cacophony of characters all somehow estranged and disguised from each other until the late reunion. And that reunion suffers somewhat from that rare Shakespearian faux pas of having an overly expository section where the narrative is ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’.
26. Julius Caesar
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once. (Julius Caesar, II ii, 32-33)
Some meaty quotations aside, Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s more moderate tragedies – a bit portentous and directionless after Caesar’s murder. In retrospect, Shakespeare was able to iron out the kinks of this play in better, later works – Macbeth (the emptiness of violence/ambition) and Othello (the perils of manipulation).
25. The Comedy of Errors
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?
Until I know this sure uncertainty,
I’ll entertain the offered fallacy. (Antipholus of Syracuse, II ii, 187-189)
Comedy of Errors does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a ‘Comedy’ of ‘Errors’, and a simple, purely theatrical farce where appreciation depends upon the degree to which one finds mistaken identity repeatedly funny. That said, if played by a talented troupe of actors, it can be an entertaining physical tour de force of gusto and slapstick, though it’s certainly not much of a poetic piece.
24. Titus Andronicus
Give me a sword, I’ll chop my hands off too,
For they have fought for Rome, and all in vain;
And they have nursed this woe in feeding life (Titus Andronicus, III i, 72-74)
Blood begets more blood in this crazed, orgiastic cocktail of a Roman power play. Forget any semblance of nuance or deep enquiry into the nature of politics (à la Coriolanus), this is just a pretty relentless, one-dimensional dirge of sadism, sex and murder – with some casual racism and misogyny thrown in too. It’s strangely enjoyable though, but in a nutty, carnivalesque way!
23. Troilus and Cressida
I tell thee I am mad in Cressid’s love;
Thou answers’t she is fair, Purest in the
open ulcer of my heart (Troilus, I i, 51-52)
One of the best of Shakespeare’s Greco and/or Roman plays, Troilus and Cressida is a cerebral and rich deconstruction of not only the famous Trojan wars and their personnel, but also of themes such as love, honour, statesmanship and warfare. The ending is a touch abrupt as Troilus and Cressida’s parting and divided love is left underdeveloped, and Hector emerges almost too late as a tragic ‘sacrificial’ hero.
22. Henry VI: Part 1
Believe me lords, my tender years can tell
Civil dissension is a viperous worm
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth (King Henry, III i, 72-74)
This is a great romp of a play – highly exciting and full of ripe, juicy characters. It’s arguably lacking in a little poetry and grandiosity, and at times Shakespeare is a touch clunky in managing his disparate plotlines (especially the early York/Lancaster skirmishes). All in all though, a breezy read!
21. King John
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conquerer,
But when it first did help to wound itself. (Bastard, V vii, 112-114)
An interesting hotch-potch of a history play, almost playing as proto-commentary on/satire of the sheer incestuousness of royal families in the Middle Ages. The plot meanders a touch, although there are lots of well-realised, three-dimensional characters, and Arthur and King John get quietly affecting death scenes.
20. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
And as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (Theseus, V i, 14-17)
A lovely, ethereal fantasy-cum-nature play whose enduring popularity is due as much to the fact there’s nothing else quite like it in the Shakespeare canon. It’s gorgeous to read, presumably fun to watch, and perhaps my only quibble is it’s a touch undramatic – though that’s strangely in keeping with the play’s cyclical/eternal beats.
19. Richard III
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York (Richard I i, 1-2)
Breezy and colourful, Richard III jettisons the more panoramic canvas of its three predecessors for a riotous, almost pantomime portrayal of Richard’s vainglorious, bloodlusting (and at times, comic) move for the crown. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in pure theatricality, as Richard makes the audience guilty conduit on his giddy journey to the throne. Richard III is a ripe role for an actor, though Macbeth is the deeper, more serious work about the mitigations of violent ambition.
18. Timon of Athens
O, the fierce wretchedness that glory brings us!
Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt,
Since riches point to misery and contempt? (Flavius, IV i, 30-32)
This is a much more philosophically forceful and searching treatise on the folly of materialism and the true value of friendship, than Shakespeare’s more vaunted morality piece – The Merchant of Venice. The second half of the play as Timon descends into a base, savage existence is really quite ‘Learian’ and apocalyptic. The play’s only fault is that it’s more of a moral exercise than a dramatic piece, and the events seem borne from a playwright’s attempt to proselytise rather than coming organically from story and characterisation.
17. King Lear
We are not ourselves
When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind
To suffer with the body (Lear, II ii, 279-281)
An unremittingly bleak and unquestionably strong treatise on man’s primal obsolescence against the forces of nature – Shakespeare, radically in the play, compels his king from the hubris and pomposity of the opening act, to a poor, homeless madman almost immediately. In some respects, it’s less a ‘tragedy’ than a colossal dirge or an exercise in apocalyptic pessimism, as all the characters either die, go mad, are forced to beg or change their identity. The only reason I don’t quite uphold Lear’s ‘connoisseurs’ reputation in the Shakespeare canon is that it’s not very entertaining and a touch pulverising in its profundity.
16. Henry V
He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian. (Henry V, IV iii, 41-43)
Rousing, soaring lyricism and oratory lies at the heart of this play that sets the civil strife of the English history tetralogies aside for one chapter, to characterise the glory of Henry V and English military success in France. Its patriotism veers between the uplifting and the xenophobic, but the play does touch on the morality of kingship familiar from the other history plays, and there is enough humour and cynicism to offset the jingoism.
15. Henry VI: Part 3
I that have neither pity, love, nor fear (Richard, V vi, 68)
What a rip-roaring, page-turner of a political thriller this is! All out civil war has struck, and the nobles, armies and even the French switch sides countless times between Lancaster (Henry VI) and York (Edward IV). Richard Crookback though is now the key panto villain in all this – people even call him Dick! – ready to assume his life’s dream ‘role’ in/as Richard III.
His nature is too noble for the world.
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident
Or Jove for’s power to thunder. His heart’s his mouth. (Menenius, III i, 255-257)
Coriolanus is a thorough, lucid and masterly treatise on the mitigations of courting public opinion – and the difficulty in maintaining the honour of one’s personal conscience amid the swirl of politicking and nefarious interests. Unsurprisingly it has a very contemporary resonance, and although there’s a lack of true poetry or epic tragedy, it’s a brilliant plot, and Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most three-dimensional protagonists.
13. Henry IV: Part 2
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. (Henry IV, III i, 31)
Henry IV: Part 2 is the complete counterpoint to Part 1. Where Part 1 was youthful, boisterous and a quasi-essay on mentoring and maturation, so Part 2 is solemn and stark, with all the characters – but particularly Henry IV – beset by illness and malaise. Hence Falstaff’s lone voice of comedy transmits less as the jovial source running through Part 1, but now as more immoral, deceiving and out-of-step with the tone of proceedings.
12. Love’s Labour’s Lost
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to find our oaths. (Biron, IV iii, 337-338)
An exhilarating, if exhausting, exposition of wordplay, puns, pedantry and poetry – Love’s Labour’s Lost is a linguistic feast. It’s almost too rich a feast at times, as there really is little respite from the relentlessness of the play’s wit and intricacies. There are some sensational pay-offs though. The verse is at times gorgeous and rhythmic, and there’s real ingenuity in the piece’s theatricality – notably when the four suitors sequentially reveal their love poems (some are even sonnets) in a Russian Doll-style conceit. Even if Shakespeare is showing off a touch, this is a literary tour de force.
11. Two Noble Kinsmen
We are an endless mine to one another:
We are one another’s wife, ever begetting
New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance (Arcite, II ii, 79-81)
A massively underrated little gem of a play – Two Noble Kinsmen is a classic ‘tragicomedy’, getting huge dramatic mileage out of Palamon and Arcite’s feud over Emilia, and the quandary it places both of them (and Emilia) in. The play also operates with tongue firmly in cheek – regularly lampooning the sometime fickleness and pomposity of the mens’ heroic posturing. There’s also a thematically rich subplot about the lesser characters, including the pathos-ridden Jailer’s Daughter. In fact, it’s one of the best and most justified ‘servile characters’ strand of any of the comedies.
10. The Tempest
This is as strange a maze as e’er man trod,
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of. (Alonso, V i, 245-247)
Clearly a work enveloped in notions of mortality and recompense, The Tempest is a deceptively rich, beautiful fable which melds together natural and fantastical tropes for a staggering ode to one man’s playing out of his final deeds. Though technically a touch wordy, allusive and ‘undramatic’, on a third reading, I now detect a much greater sense of poignancy and humanity.
9. As You Like It
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts. (Jaques, II vii, 139-142)
Perhaps Shakespeare’s most underrated play? It’s a work abundant in humanity, philosophical richness, lyrical pleasure and dramatic sophistication. It’s also his happiest, most joyous and loving play. There isn’t a single character who doesn’t have at least one redeeming feature (or indeed achieve ‘redemption’ at some point in the play), and Rosalind is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest female character – resilient, charming, funny and clever.
8. Twelfth Night
I do I know not what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate, show thy force. Ourselves we do not owe.
What is decreed must be; and be this so. (Olivia, I v, 298-301)
An almost perfect romantic comedy where Shakespeare built upon (and corrected) the ragged raw materials of The Comedy of Errors for far greater effect. The whole thing floats along effortlessly – from the gorgeous verse, the clever tonal balance between the ornate (almost to a comic extent) aristocratic characters in Orsino and Olivia, and the gaggle of drunks, clowns and servants. The subplot involving the humiliation of Malvolio is a crowd-pleaser each time I see it, and the cross-dressing/mistaken identity theme is movingly done.
7. Henry IV: Part 1
I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun. (Hal, I ii, 192-194)
This is a cracking page-turner of a play with so much going on in the course of five acts. It’s a political intrigue piece, a light bawdy comedy, and a ‘coming of age’ drama all in one. A lot of focus goes on the Hal/Falstaff scenes, but the ‘rebel’ moments with Hotspur and co have their own ironic vein of humour, and the play offers rich analysis of various father/son, mentor/apprentice paradigms.
6. Romeo and Juliet
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I never saw true beauty till this night. (Romeo, I v, 51-52)
This is a quite staggering treatise on young, all-consuming, doomed love, scored to some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and with some devilishly cruel plotting thrown in!
O beware, my lord, of jealousy,
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on (Iago, III iii, 169-171)
Othello is perhaps Shakespeare’s most bravura exposition of stagecraft. It’s a simple tragedy in essence – laid bare plainly in the opening scene when Iago puts forth his plan to ruin Othello. This Iago does by displaying the skills of an arch dramatist – through language, insinuation, and the clever (sometimes improvised) manipulating of the incidents that swirl around the bevy of players. It’s a beautifully realised play, and Othello himself is a great character case-study – a vulnerable, artificially constructed ‘outsider’ brutally exposed by Iago.
4. The Winter’s Tale
To mingle friendship farre is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me. My heart dances,
But not for joy, not joy. (Leontes, I ii, 111-113)
A beautiful, evocative fable – it functions as a tonal riff on polarity and redemption: from the cold court of Sicilia, to the pastoral utopia of Bohemia; the sixteen year time gap; the younger characters mirroring some of the crises/dilemmas of the previous generation. It has a lovely, moving conceit at the end with Hermione, and Leontes’ sudden, violent lurch to tyranny in Act One, Scene Two (perhaps the best scene in all of Shakespeare’s plays?) is gripping stuff.
I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more
Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Macbeth, III iv, 135-137)
A thick, pungent, uncanny atmosphere hovers over this profoundly wise and timeless essay on the wilful corruption of a man’s soul. The beauty of the play is how it conjures ‘evil’ out of roots so unlikely, so banal (but therein lies the genius), as phantasmic predictions, an ambitious wife, a hasty act, and a growing sense of weariness and malaise, all conspire against Macbeth.
2. Richard II
For well we know, no hand of blood and bone
Can grip the sacred handle of our sceptre
Unless he do profane, steal or usurp. (Richard II, III iii, 78-80)
A play of genius that opens on a seemingly minor quarrel between two noblemen – mediated fecklessly by the cocooned monarch, Richard II – but which goes on to have far-reaching effects for British history and the nature of kingship for ever more. The play’s an ever-so clever deconstruction of the monarchy’s loss of sanctity (why we still have a monarchy some four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote this I will never know), and Richard II is one of the great Shakespearian characters – as another commentator put it, he’s like a “petulant child” as he poetically processes his sheer disbelief and grief as his reign disintegrates before his very eyes.
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable…And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet, II ii, 250-255)
Shakespeare’s crowning glory – a philosophical text to rival any world religion (and without any superstition required – this actually engages with all the existential elements relevant to the human condition). It’s a dramatic tour de force too – each scene is immemorial, each soliloquy (not just Hamlet’s) is a minor masterpiece, and it’s his most moving play, his funniest play, and his most ingenious dramaturgical work too (there’s even a play-within-a-play!)
Here are the five films that best remind me of my mother – a mixture of films she loved, films that best represent her spirit, and films that we enjoyed together….
Elephant Walk (1954) dir: William Dieterle
When my mother was a young girl, she lived for a period of time in Libya in the mid-50s – due to my grandfather being stationed out there with the British army. Libya wasn’t the turbulent country of today, but was actually a fairly benign colonial outpost (ironically enough, my mother even lived in Benghazi – now, sadly one of today’s most dangerous cities in the world). One of my mother’s most evocative memories of growing up there was watching Elizabeth Taylor in Elephant Walk at one of the huge open air cinemas. I love this memory – not just because it combines two of my favourite ‘things’, cinema and travel, but because there was always something about Elizabeth Taylor that reminded me of my mum: romantic, beautiful, a sometime tempestuous temperament (though maybe not the seven marriages!) – and I love the correlative of Taylor’s character’s travails as a young English woman starting an exotic life in colonial Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), with my mother watching that story during her own ‘adventure’ in Libya!
Indiscreet (1958) dir: Stanley Donen
Anyone who knew my mother will attest to the fact she had a great eye for interior design and décor, and it was that sensibility that attracted her to this little-known, but really rather classy, old-school Fifties’ two-hander Indiscreet, starring Cary Grant and the great Ingrid Bergman. I think it fitted into a rather swanky ideal she had of an urbane Central London lifestyle, and I love the fact the film was directed by Stanley Donen – the great who directed Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – another childhood classic that my mum introduced me too….
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) dir: James Foley
The great thing about my mum’s professional career was that even though she achieved a lot and could be deemed quite ‘successful’, she never lost her sense of humour and perspective, nor allowed her ‘soul’ to be subsumed in the (sometime) horrors of office/business culture. Some of her anecdotes about the wretched characters and situations she came across during her many years in employment were brilliant, and I think that’s why she felt an immediate kinship with the mercilessly satirical ethos of Glengarry Glen Ross.
The New World (2005) dir: Terrence Malick
The film that speaks most to me about my feelings for my mother is this: a ballad to pure love, the transcendence of things of beauty, the strength of one woman, and the sheer preciousness that this fleeting gift of life is amid the permanence of nature. As Mark Cousins brilliantly understood the film: “it was about rapture and the end of rapture”.
The Guard (2011) dir: John Michael McDonagh
My mum liked to laugh and had a wicked, earthy sense of humour – a definite by-product of her Irish DNA. It’s apt therefore that the last film I remember seeing with her was this highly scabrous and silly Irish comedy, The Guard, which was basically a huge gallows send-up of the earnest police procedural stuff from ‘across the pond’. The pièce de resistance of irreverence, which had my mum and I in stiches, was when Brendan Gleeson’s cop has his head in his hands, seemingly in despair after a nasty run-in with the gangster – only to transpire that all he was struggling with was his milkshake headache! Simple, but ever so funny, and a lovely experience to share with my mum. (July 2015)
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Director: Martin Brest
Actors: Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton
Synopsis: Maverick Detroit street cop, Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy), takes himself off to the unlikely climes of the sun-dappled, upmarket city of Beverly Hills to investigate the brutal murder of his friend….
Review: I am of a certain age where Beverly Hills Cop (along with say Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club) represents a specific point in my cultural consciousness – not just through the obvious (I went on to become a huge film buff and cinephile), but as it also memorialised that halcyonic moment in my youth where ‘Americana’ and Hollywood fare in general seemed awfully exciting and exotic, and many a mid/late-Eighties’ summer holiday would be wiled away – in part – by running down to my local Blockbusters store and bringing back one of these ‘gems’ to watch with my brother, sister and fellow kids in my street. While those three other films I mentioned have gone on to achieve a huge level of cult and critical esteem – and I’ve revisited them all in the last decade or so – I can’t recall having seen Beverly Hills Cop for the best part of twenty-five years, so when I recently realised my housemate owned a copy of the film on DVD, I was more than happy to take a trip back down ‘Amnesia Lane’, to piece apart the ‘reality’ of the film from its totemic status in my mind.
Perhaps the most obvious and recognisable feature of the film is its quite brilliant soundtrack by Harold Faltemeyer. Sadly, it’s also the only worthwhile thing about the film, and even then – almost as if the filmmakers knew what mediocrity they were working with – Faltemeyer’s soundtrack is almost too ubiquitous, clearly trying to gloss over the cracks of a paper-thin scenario. Even the film’s two-fold comic ingredients of having foul-mouth black Detroit cop Axel Foley turn up in the seemingly crime-free, ‘by the book’ Beverly Hills, and Foley’s rapport with the ‘Abbot and Costello’ cop sidekicks Rosewood and Taggart, are both lame and obvious conceits – and this film was a reminder that away from Murphy’s iconic comic status and star quality at the time, he was a limited dramatic actor – making almost untenable the tauter moments of the narrative that one needs to buy into for the film to work. Still, it’s inoffensive enough for a ninety-plus minute nostalgia-fest, and Faltemeyer’s brilliant synth score (including the immemorial ‘Axel F’) stands the test of time. PS – I’m pretty sure the filmmakers of the recent 21/22 Jump Street franchise gleaned a fair few of their ideas from this movie and scenario. (July 2015)
Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
Director: Shane Meadows
Actors: Paddy Considine, Toby Kebbell, Gary Stretch
Synopsis: Richard (Paddy Considine) is a soldier recently returned to a small town in the Peak District. He sets his sights on terrorising a small band of petty criminals – implicated in the humiliation of Richard’s ‘simple’ brother, Anthony….
Review: Dead Man’s Shoes feels like an extended short film or promo for striking and provocative (but somewhat shallow) sequences which would need fleshing out on a far more expansive narrative canvas to do justice to the subject matter. What we have is evidently a very competent technical director replicating scenes of very formulaic visual tableaux (the black and white flashbacks, the sentimental Super 8 inserts, long distance shots of forlorn brothers wandering off into a bleakly beautiful Peak District setting – scored to a reflective folk tune), all in the service of a slightly juvenile ‘vigilante’ narrative where the cards are stacked far too neatly in favour of the avenging Richard.
As with other Shane Meadows films, some of the best moments are in the relaxed fringes of his stories. He’s a wonderful director of actors – and here he draws a staggeringly good performance from Paddy Considine in the central role, and the rogue’s gallery of petty criminals that Considine’s character terrorises is a selection of lovely little (mainly comic) turns. Meadows has a great ear for dialogue, and his work comes alive when he taps into the almost gallows sensibility of his bleak Midlands milieu – but in also honouring the photographic potential of the region too. (August 2015)
Three Colours: Red (1994)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Actors: Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Pierre Lorit
Synopsis: Young Swiss student, dancer and model, Valentine (Irène Jacob), runs over a dog, and traces it to its owner – a reclusive, retired Geneva judge, Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Valentine is initially put off by Joseph’s surliness and his side hobby in eavesdropping on neighbours’ telephone calls, but slowly Valentine and Joseph develop a special bond, seemingly related to the travails of young lawyer, Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), whose girlfriend is cheating on him…
Review: The set-up of this film’s ‘odd couple’ hook about the growing bond between a gamine, proto-Amèlie ‘innocent’ (Valentine) and a gruff retired judge (Joseph) is actually quite familiar, but in the hands of master filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieslowski – it transcends the formula of its scenario to become something altogether more powerful and resonant.
Not only is it masterful in terms of look and tone, with Kieslowski once again making the conceptual in his remit of basing a film around the sentiment of a colour (in this case, red) tenable, but it’s also sage dramatically. We never know more than the characters do, and the transcendent, ambiguous unfolding of the narrative works a treat – hinting at an almost cosmic link between Valentine and Joseph (maybe they’re lovers across a temporal divide, or is Joseph harbinger of Valentine’s love-life to come)? Perhaps in retrospect, with contemporary cinema’s sophisticated honing of ‘clever’, intertextual, portmanteau-style narratives, the conclusion to Kieslowski’s trilogy appears a tad tame and dated (huge spoiler alert – all the main couplings from the trio of Three Colours films survive a ferry accident in the English Channel of all places), but that’s not to overlook the mesmerising craft Kieslowski has exacted over his ambitious trilogy to get us to this moment of ‘epiphany’. (July 2015)
Three Colours: White (1994)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Actors: Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos
Synopsis: A Polish man, Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), recently married to French woman, Dominique (Julie Delpy), rapidly finds himself ‘disenfranchised’ in Paris when Dominique divorces him, he loses his passport and belongings, and is even locked out of their home. Somehow manufacturing a return to Poland, Karol sets about rebuilding his life and status, as a means to just possibly reconnecting with Dominique….
Review: Though unquestionably well made, with a clever and very concentric vein of humour and storytelling verve sustained throughout (it’s essentially a very classical ‘Comedy of Manners’), White is where Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy felt at its most conceptual and ‘forced’ – in essence, having to contrive a narrative out of the colour white and the idea of ‘equality’. Don’t get me wrong – with that tough remit, Kieslowski undoubtedly succeeded and in a sense deserves credit for making something so tonally opposite from Blue, but after that film’s near perfection, this can’t help but feel ever-so-slightly disposable and insubstantial in comparison…(July 2015)