1982 was a funny old year if one conveniently ignores the Falklands War, the Lebanese Civil War and the Bijon Setu Massacre. For the purposes of this review, we’re going to – although of course, I’ve just reminded you of them. Sorry and all that. Nope, despite all protestations to the contrary I am resolute on this one; in amongst all the murder, mayhem and social upheaval, 1982 was a vintage year for connoisseurs of the downright peculiar. If there are any boffins out there in cyberspace reading this with a firm grasp of the impenetrable mysteries of this fine old universe of ours, then perhaps they could tell me what fantastical, incomprehensible alignment of the stars could account for the following three scenarios.
1. Aston Villa win the European Cup.
2. Shakin’ Stevens achieves his third UK Number 1 single.
3. Sylvester Stallone wins critical plaudits for his performance in First Blood.
Well didn’t I tell ya it was a weird one? Just to reiterate, in 1982 Aston Villa were the best football team in Europe, Shakin’ Stevens was very popular in the UK, and Sylvester Stallone was a highly regarded actor. And they said turning water into wine was far out! Fast forward 32 years and Aston Villa are the best team in Aston (if you exclude Aston University’s Men’s Football Club), Shakin’ Stevens is very popular in Moldova and Sylvester Stallone isn’t a highly regarded actor anymore. Hard to imagine a time then, when Rocky was garnering Stallone Academy Awards and glowing reviews that saw Roger Ebert compare him to a young Marlon Brando (and in A Streetcar Named Desire no less!). Of course, it didn’t take long for that early promise to fade like dreams in a long night, but amongst the smattering of early roles that highlighted his potential, First Blood stands out above the admittedly tiny crowd.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, First Blood introduced the world to John Rambo, a troubled Vietnam Vet with enough demons to keep the Ghostbusters very busy indeed. The hostile reception he receives on his return home from ‘Nam pales in comparison to the welcome afforded him by the Sherriff of a small, rural town who has an intense dislike for drifters with mullets and concealed combat knives. After some unjust rough treatment at the hands of the local law enforcement brings memories of ‘Nam flooding back, Rambo goes apeshit, beating up a police station, stealing a motorbike and quite literally, running for the hills. Naturally, the Sherriff ain’t happy and sets out in hot (but essentially rubbish) pursuit. Equally naturally, Rambo ain’t no ordinary Vietnam Veteran – he’s an ex Green Beret, a man whom his old mentor Colonel Trautman describes as “expert in guerrilla warfare, a man who’s the best!” . In the words of Harry Hill, “Fight!”.
Most folks hold up First Blood as the best Rambo movie – and they’re right. The rest of the series is usually criticized for being utterly absurd, a macho cockfest for silly little boys brimming to the gunnels with implausibility’s and downright stupidity. But to suggest First Blood is really any different is also pretty dumb. Alright, so it’s slightly less absurd (if you think jumping off a very high cliff, smashing your ribs against several branches of a massive tree and walking away with a cut on your arm isn’t absurd), and slightly less of a macho cockfest than the other Rambo’s (in so much as Stallone doesn’t once strip to the waist allowing the camera to linger longingly on his sweaty biceps, although Trautman is always on hand to remind us of how fantastic he is at everything at every opportunity*) – but Jane Austen this ain’t. And that can only be a good thing.
When Bishop Berkley spoke of the willing suspension of disbelief, I’m not convinced he had First Blood in mind; but if one can get over oneself for 90 minutes, Rambo is a visceral tale well told – implausabilities and all. In essence, a chase movie where the hunter becomes the hunted, Stallone inhabits the role of a confused, damaged soul like an old shoe. Although not required to say a lot, his climactic speech is delivered in such a way that the Brando comparisons don’t seem too wide of the mark, conveying the horror and lingering, abysmal effects of war in a mumbling, teary monologue. He did have talent once, it’s just a shame it was eventually consumed by an ego the size of his biceps.
*Colonel Trautman, whilst vital to the machinations of the plot is primarily concerned with ensuring that Rambo is verbally tugged off at all times. For instance, “With guns, with knives, with his bare hands! A man who’s been trained to ignore pain! To ignore weather! To live off the land! To eat things that would make a billy goat puke! In Vietnam his job was to dispose of enemy personnel…to kill, period! Win by attrition… well Rambo was THE BEST!”
Carlito’s Way saw the first reteaming of Al Pacino and Brian De Palma since 1983’s Scarface. Eager not to be pigeonholed, the pair performed a complete artistic volte-face, exchanging the dark world of the eponymous Cuban gangster for the rather sunnier subject of the dark world of a Puerto Rican gangster. For my money, Carlito’s Way is every bit as good as it’s illustrious predecessor and in many ways, can be viewed as something of a companion piece. It tells the story of Carlito Brigante, a drug dealer released very early from a long jail sentence due to the exploitation of a legal loophole by his brilliant lawyer. Keen to grasp this second chance at life, Carlito is a new man who dreams only of running a car rental agency in the Bahamas, vowing to go entirely straight once he’s raised the $75,000 stake needed. Although I’m sure Pacino and De Palma could have made riveting entertainment out of this unlikely scenario, things don’t quite pan out that way.
Carlito Brigante is essentially Tony Montana had he gotten older and wiser instead of high and dead. Carlito knows the only way out of his profession is with a bullet in the head so he’s understandably quite keen to break the mould. For him the wild days are over, but as we’re constantly told, we’re each and every one of us a product of our own environment – and when your environment is the mean streets of Harlem and your friends are all gangsters, getting out ain’t that easy.
Al Pacino brings all of his considerable talent to the role of Carlito, investing the character with a fierce passion and a deep sensitivity. Those sad Paul McCartney eyes of his are used to full effect, turned on full beam to convey all the suffering, all the mistakes, all of the terrible things he’s seen and done, and all of his hopes for the future. Al Pacino does a lot with his eyes. In the grand tradition of cinematic anti-heroes Carlito is a man of many parts; simultaneously noble, flawed, tragic and capable of deadly violence; bound to a code of conduct forged from a lifetime of conflict from which he can never truly escape. For some peculiar reason there are people who see Tony Montana as some kind of aspirational figure which I suppose explains how he ends up mentioned on rap records, immortalized on posters and emblazoned on t-shirts. This is a fate unlikely to befall Carlito Brigante, a character who sees the lifestyle for what it really is – a one way ticket to the morgue.
But this isn’t just the Al Pacino show. Plaudits also belong to Sean Penn who is marvellous. His contemptible lawyer is one compelling creation; all gaudy excess and low morals – and his hairstyle has to be seen to be believed! De Palma’s vision of Carlito’s world is as stylish as you’d expect, but it’s bleak as hell. There’s a smothering intensity at work that has the audience constantly looking over its shoulder, with New York itself as the bogeyman. In Carlito’s Way the Big Apple is a kind of claustrophobic purgatory, a coffin in the shape of a few dingy blocks just waiting to claim its next victim- a more nightmarish prospect than a thousand Freddie Kruegers or Michael Myers. This is stark brutal reality. Crime don’t pay kids.
‘Nuthin’s over ‘til it’s over’ proclaims Rocky Balboa in this sixth instalment of the long running series, a typically rough hewn piece of street philosophy from the headmaster of the school of hard knocks. It really should be over. The world and his wife had him out for the count long ago with the release of Rocky V – and deservedly so. Rocky V sucked great big donkey balls, and by rights this should be even worse.
This time round, poor Rocky’s all washed up. Adrianne is dead and The Italian Stallion hasn’t taken a theatrical tumble to the canvas, before throwing the kitchen sink at an opponent culminating in victory against all the odds™ for twenty years. Lonely widower Rocky is reduced to reliving past glories, whether on an annual tour of his and Adrianne’s old hang outs, or in regaling customers at his restaurant with well worn “classic” ring anecdotes like a morose Jimmy Tarbuck. With only Paulie for company to alleviate the all-pervading gloom, this looks increasingly like the Rocky movie where he ends it all by hanging himself from the dilapidated roof of Mighty Mick’s Gym with a sweat stained skipping rope. But of course, this is Rocky and naturally “it ain’t about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.” Positive mental attitude and all that.
As a self-aware anachronism, an embarrassment to his own son, and a rudderless ship without Adrianne and the sport that made the legend, what he needs is a shot at redemption. Does he get it? What do you think? When a computer simulation pitches the reigning Heavyweight Champion, Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon against Rocky in his prime, there can be only one winner. Dixon, characteristic of a new breed of highly efficient fighters is taking stick for lacking heart and for failing to connect with the fans, something people’s champ Balboa never had any problems with. Cue an exhibition match, numerous lessons learned, that theme tune and the sight of Rocky – haggard but definitely Rocky – in a grey tracksuit running up some stairs. What’s there not to like?
Rocky Balboa is vindication for Stallone. Like Rocky’s prospects against Dixon, everyone expected it to be an abject washout. A 59 year old Sly would surely require a stairlift to reach the giddy heights of The Philadelphia Museum of Art with an ambulance crew on standby at the top. But that’s a cheap shot for which the doubters should be deducted 2 points. The 2006 model Rocky is a guy way past his prime, yet still willing to try, because hey – determination’s all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have. Although these days his body closely resembles the side of beef he’s so desperate to tenderise, Stallone’s actually in great shape, and it’s to his credit that Balboa’s final slugfest is almost plausible. In tone this is closest to the first and best of the series, devoid of the cartoon heroics and 80’s excess of Rocky III and IV. Like the original, this is part fairytale part fanfare for the common man; a story of grit and redemption on the mean streets, bringing the series full circle and providing it with the ending it truly deserved. The Italian Stallion commits suicide will have to wait for the inevitable Rocky VII.
After the groundbreaking success of The Idiot and Lust For Life, a third collaboration between Iggy and Bowie must’ve seemed like a no brainer. Shame then that by 1986, both men’s muses were missing, presumed dead. Where once their work together sounded vital, Blah Blah Blah is the dictionary definition of a bad 80’s record, marred by insipid production, shoddy songwriting and an almost total absence of invention. Real Wild Child was a rare hit for Ig, but along with the other nine tracks here, it could just be the single, least dangerous thing he’s ever recorded, not that his wallet cared a jot. If you want a truly tragic example of just how far the mighty can fall, then look no further than Blah Blah Blah.
Believing that Rod Stewart was once the frontman of what American’s might call a “kick ass” rock band is as hard to accept as the fact that Michael Jackson was once a chubby little black boy, or that Katie Price was once a celestial virgin. After 30 odd years of embarrassing self parody, Rod is known to millions as the randy granddad with the leather trousers, dodgy mullet and even dodgier tunes, instead of being feted as the most soulful rock vocalist who ever drew breath. Stewart effectively created a rod for his own back with his shameless shenanigans, but if you can forgive his many crimes against decency and taste (not to mention my godawful pun!), be assured there’s a legacy of outstanding music just waiting to be discovered.
Good Boys When They’re Asleep is a pretty decent place to start. Before Rod found solo fame, he was a singer in a band, and it suited him right down to the ground. The Faces were a rag tag bunch who played dirty ass rock and roll. Comprising of leftover members from the disbanded Small Faces, plus Rod and Rolling Stone in waiting, Ronnie Wood, The Faces might well be the sloppiest bunch who ever took to the stage! For six years they blazed their rambunctious trail, and at 19 tracks, Good Boys is a pretty comprehensive account of their career highlights.
Perhaps best known for Stay With Me which rocks with gleeful abandon, The Faces were capable of so much more than their reputation as hardy boozers suggests. Take Debris, a fragile little miracle, full of pain and yearning, which like the band itself, threatens to fall apart at the seams. Over the course of this best of, the quality never dips, and their funky final single You Can Make Me Dance, Sing Or Anything [Even Take The Dog For A Walk, Mend A Fuse, Fold Away The Ironing Board, Or Any Other Domestic Short Comings], offers a tantalising hint at what might have been. Don’t let the mullet put you off folks!
The Man Who Would Be King is a rare instance of the planet’s aligning to create the perfect combination of director, star and story. If veteran helmer John Huston had gotten his way (and he usually did), The Man Who Would Be King would’ve been filmed twenty year earlier, with Humphery Bogart and Clark Gable in the lead roles as two British adventurers making their way across 19th Century India. Mercifully, the fates conspired against this paring, delaying Huston’s plans and paving the way for a one time double act of Sean Connery and Michael Caine to weave their magic and bring these loveable rogues so memorably to life.
Based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King is a grand cinematic achievement and a joyous throwback to an era when the epic ruled the Hollywood roost. Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carnahan (Caine) are two irrepressible conmen, recently demobbed from Queen Victoria’s army and always on the lookout for a new scam. Their golden opportunity comes in the dangerous shape of Kafiristan, an isolated kingdom utterly hostile to foreign interlopers. With only each other for company and their military training to aid them, they set off for Kafiristan, intent on conquering its warring tribes, installing themselves as Kings and claiming its fabled treasures as their own. Before long, Dravot has exceeded their wildest expectations, acknowledged by all and sundry as Sekunder, long lost God of Kafiristan. And that’s when the trouble really starts….
As much as this is a film about colonialism and the British Empire’s nasty habit of taking the natives to the cleaners, it’s a film about friendship, that most elemental of bonds that keeps them going through driving snow, in the face of insurmountable odds and certain death. Everything they achieve is as a result of their camaraderie, and when things begin to go inevitably awry, it’s at the precise moment that that friendship is considered secondary to Dravot’s new found God complex. In the hands of Connery and Caine, Dravot and Carnahan are larger than life, but never anything less than human, with all our inherent strengths and weaknesses – quite the problem for a mortal masquerading as a God. Whether he can maintain that deadly deception and escape Kafiristan alive is one of cinema’s great questions, and one that keeps me coming back for more.
When The Kinks finally called time on their long and storied career, it was regrettably with damned good reason. By 1996, those last bastions of Englishness had gone thirteen years without a hit and were a quarter of a century past their imperious best. When the break up came, tears of mourning were tempered with a huge sigh of relief as we realized the hallowed legacy of our 60’s idols was now safe from further desecration at the hands of these middle aged imposters. If we’d known then that it’d be another decade before Ray Davies resurfaced, then maybe the waterworks would’ve drowned out the sighs.
2006’s Other People’s Lives saw the welcome return of Ray Davies. It was good, but not vintage; the old black magic present in fits and starts. Working Man’s Café followed a year later, and understandably expectations were cautiously optimistic. Thrillingly, our man was in no mood to conform. If Other People’s Lives was the sound of a veteran artist feeling his way back in, then Working Man’s Café sees Davies back with a bang. Out went the formers meandering, overly polished vignettes, replaced here by tighter songwriting and a raw, looser sound, full of vim and vigor. Over the course of 12 tracks, Davies takes us on a whistlestop tour of the 21st Century; and perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn’t always like what he sees.
The title track finds England’s staunchest preserver of village greens in typically wistful form, lamenting the decline of the greasy spoon and the Americanization of our high streets. Possessing a gorgeous melody and a lost soul lyric, Working Man’s Café is another of Davies classic outsider anthems, fit to rank alongside his very best work. And the standard is maintained elsewhere. From the opening Vietnam Cowboys, a rock and roll rally against the sweeping tide of globalization, to the closing The Real World which questions the very existence of such a high fallutin’ concept, Davies has the big themes on his mind. Happily on Working Man’s Cafe his observations are sharper than they’ve been in many a year, lending his assault on the modern world the weight it needs and ensuring that when he throws a punch, it lands squarely on the target. Ray Davies might not like the 21st Century much, but the 21st Century sure needs Ray Davies.
Seven years and a thousand emptied whiskey bottles before he put the wild back into the west in his bloody masterpiece The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah concocted Ride The High Country – an elegant send off to the classic western.
A turn of the century frontier town. The streets have sidewalks, the smell of petrol pollutes the clean mountain air. These fancy Dan’s have got cars goddamn it. Down on his luck ex-lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is an anachronism with his horse, his shabby clothes and his antiquated set of values. But old timers like him have certain skills, talents that still have their use in this new and civilised age. The bank needs Judd and his expertise with a gun to collect a large shipment of gold from a nearby boomtown and then to return it safely to the bank. Judd has a reputation as a reliable man, but that was forged a lifetime ago. The bank have their doubts but Judd is determined to prove his worth. Recruiting his old partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and cocky youth Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), the three men saddle up on a journey that will see old loyalties tested, codes of conduct compromised and reaffirmed, and of course, some good old fashioned six gun action.
Ride The High Country is an old man’s film in the way it exudes the maturity and wisdom that can only be earned from a lifetime in the saddle, where each bump along the trail is felt deep down in your bones, a lifetime that’s seen youthful eminence change irrevocably to moth eaten irrelevancy. It’s astonishing to think that Peckinpah was 36 when he made it, yet in only his second feature film he establishes the modus operandi that would permeate his entire western output. In many ways one could view Ride The High Country as The Wild Bunch’s or Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid’s gentler cinematic Father. The films share similar thematic concerns, namely the death of the west and the question of where these men fit into a rapidly changing world where the old ways have become the wrong ways. Peckinpah is aided in this by pitch perfect casting. The film’s stars Scott and McCrea were further down the road than their young director, and like the characters they played, were on the verge of becoming obsolete as the Golden Age of Hollywood faded to black. Their long histories in the genre brought to mind a thousand half remembered gunfights and Peckinpah uses this audience association to full effect. Their presence in RTHC is verging on the mythic, two stone effigies come to life for one last gunfight with the feral Hammond clan, to prove one last time that the old ways still had legs – even if they were starting to buckle under the weight of the years. Tough, taciturn and honourable to the core, I reckon the world could do with a few more Steve Judds and Gil Westrums.
I don’t want to say anything more of the plot; to do so would spoil a truly tremendous experience and I wouldn’t be so callous. I saw the film as a boy and it touched me deeply then as it still does now. Perhaps I didn’t understand it’s myriad complexities then, maybe I still don’t, but I can tell you now that it has that something that only the finest films have. It doesn’t matter that it’s a western (although if you like ‘em it certainly helps), Ride The High Country is about an ideal, it’s about maintaining your standards when every other son of a bitch has sold out, given up or drowned in the moral gutter. It is a sentiment and a movie I heartily applaud.
Few artists in rock inspire such rabid devotion as Ian Hunter, and true to form, the faithful turned out en masse to see him play Bath’s Komedia on a drab October night. It struck me as I took my place in the long, snaking queue that Ian Hunter attracts a very particular following; not so much fans more like brothers in arms. Perhaps unique amongst concerts I’ve attended, there was a certain bonhomie in the air; a warmth and familiarity with each other and their common cause that could only come from a lifetime of nights like this. Never before have I seen such a diverse selection of tour t-shirts adorning such a narrow band of grizzled rock and rollers. The 1980 Welcome To The Club Tour, the ‘99 tour, the 2009 Mott Reunion shows; all of these and more were proudly displayed like campaign medals on the breast of an old soldier; and here they queued, ready to march behind their leader once more.
When Ian Hunter took to the stage to a collective roar , it was quickly apparent how much he valued their support. Not much of a chatter in between tracks, he preferred to let the music do the talking. So many of his songs directly address his audience, testimony to the symbiotic relationship between the man and his people. You don’t have to look far to see their shared history. It’s all there in the rousing Saturday Gigs, a loving tribute to the early days of Mott the Hoople, to rock and roll itself, and to young and innocent days. What sounded merely nostalgic back in 1974 is profoundly affecting in 2012, as a thousand misty eyed veterans raise their arms aloft and ask “Do you remember the Saturday gigs? We do, we do.” And they do as well; they’ve got the t-shirts and the wrinkles to prove it.
Last night’s set drew heavily from his latest record When I’m President, with a liberal sprinkling of solo and Mott tracks thrown in for good measure. Despite dicky sound on Hunter’s vocals (he spent most of the night drowned out by the tremendous racket made by his band), the grand old geezer of rock made a mockery of his OAP status, putting in an impressive shift whether setting the world to rights on When I’m President or mourning his old mate Mick Ronson on Michael Picasso. Of the new material, Life and Ta Shunka Witco (Crazy Horse) particularly impressed, with the former the latest instalment in that forty year dialogue with his fans. “I can’t believe after all these years, you’re still here and I’m still here” he sings, still bemused by it all at 73. I however, can. Looking around at the audience, I got the distinct impression that so long as he keeps on keeping on, that they’ll always be there.
The early 70’s was a boom time for hard bitten crime thrillers. Directly following the saccharine 60’s when the film noir of the 40’s and 50’s was about as fashionable as a frock coat and a top hat, the advent of a new decade brought with it a renewed cynicism that made Mitchum’s noir heroes look as fatalistic as Doris Day. All of a sudden the good guys were in short supply, everywhere you looked bad men abounded. Raised on a diet of clean cut heroes, audiences were now increasingly asked to root for morally reprehensible lowlifes who, whilst rotten to the core, were not quite as evil as those on their tail. To survive in a dangerous world of back stabbing and low down double dealing, you had to be one bad mother, and Charley Varrick is a tough little cookie indeed.
Brought memorably to life by Walter Matthau, Charley Varrick is a middle aged, trailer park dwelling crop duster, turned violent bank robber. After a marvellously orchestrated opening heist on a small town bank swiftly descends into chaos, Varrick’s life is turned upside down as his easy $25,000 score turns out to be a $750,000 bloodbath. Varrick is nobody’s fool, and quickly realizes the origin of the extra $725,000; and that being chased by the police is the least of his concerns. What follows is a thrilling game of cat and mouse, as he attempts to outwit a psychopathic mob assassin with both his skin, and the loot intact. Charley Varrick is different to most films of its type in that its hero is less reliant on the ability to shoot his way out of trouble, instead favoring a deadly ingenuity that elevates the movie to something more than mere genre piece. Matthau excels as a character for whom his gift for improvisation is all he has, and it’s to his credit that he makes a bad man a compelling, if not wholly sympathetic lead. Varrick ain’t the sort of chap you get to know. His emotions, whatever they might be, are all internalised. Whatever hand fate deals him, Matthau’s hangdog features betray nothing, other than a steely determination to stay alive; and over the course of 111 thrilling minutes that proves to be quite a task.
To reveal anything more of Charley Varrick would be to spoil it completely, suffice to say that is a lean, tightly plotted, and entirely satisfying experience; acknowledged as a profound influence by Quentin Tarantino, and greatly enjoyed by yours truly.
Of all the so called heritage acts still plying their trade, none seem more at home with the tag than Ray Davies. Whilst some of his peers would run a mile from such a musty sounding label (although they’d be too slow to get very far); on the evidence of last night’s show Ray Davies is one contented man, happy as a pig in the proverbial curating a travelling museum devoted to his lifetime’s observations on a peculiar brand of lost Englishness.
For nigh on fifty years he’s been dancing to his own beat. Ray Davies, the perennial outsider; a rock and roll pervert who spent the summer of love tucked away writing songs about steam trains and village greens. Ray Davies, the introverted extrovert who prefers to walk down the street unrecognised, a man who freely admits to sabotaging The Kinks chances of success whenever it looked most likely with detours into music that few wanted to hear. At 68 years old he shows little sign of changing. Take this tour, the snappily titled Ray Davies October 2012 UK Tour. In typically twisted fashion, there is no new material to promote; this is rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake and it’s really rather refreshing. The newest number he plays is five years old and it’s a good one, but that’s not why we’re here and whatsmore, Ray knows it. We want Autumn Almanac and Victoria and Dedicated Follower Of Fashion and Waterloo Sunset. Like a child’s Christmas list, our demands are lengthy; but Davies duly obliges like a rock and roll Santa Claus, dispensing the songs we know and love as gifts to his delighted audience. The favourites came thick and fast, and the Forum quickly assumed a Last Night of The Proms atmosphere with Ray’s regular encouragement to sing-a-along turning the old theatre into a cacophony of noise. I saw a lot of happy faces last night.
Of course, some people wouldn’t have liked it. They’d call it a nostalgia fest like that’s a bad thing, and how wrong they’d be. Oh it’s a nostalgia fest alright, but that’s precisely why it’s so good. Last night I witnessed a performer and his audience, still joined at the hip after all this time by the songs that soundtracked their lives. In fact, to call them mere songs is to serve them a gross injustice as they are so much more than that. They are part of our collective DNA. They and the great tunes of the past by so many titans of popular music are the glue that help keep us together, now and forever. Last night was a joyous celebration of our shared history, a living history that is rich, vibrant and oh so melodic; the story of us condensed into three minute miracles encapsulating a time, a place and a way of life that once was but can never be again. Times may change but the village green lives on in song and that’s ok by me.
Browsing through the options on Netflix, Righteous Kill stood out like a straight man at a Kylie Minogue concert. In a nutshell, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino play two veteran cops, hot on the trail of a vigilante killer who may well be one of their own. Hardly a trailblazing synopsis for sure, and a Netflix user rating of 3 out of 5 was mediocre at best; but the promise of De Niro and Pacino, properly together for the very first time was too much to resist. Surely it couldn’t be that bad? Could it….?
Righteous Kill is the sort of film that makes a whole host of alternative, intrinsically unappealing activities seem a darn sight more attractive. For example, in the 96 minutes it took to sit through this ode to shite, I could’ve listened to half of Steve Wright’s “Big Show” on the BBC IPlayer, or for that matter, had a catheter fitted through my bumhole. Talking of catheters, I’m pretty certain the dream team of Rob and Al know all about them, as they stretch the definition of veteran cops to breaking point. Apparently, veteran cops don’t retire, they just become elderly cops; good news I’m sure for all you frightened citizens out there. So, the revised synopsis. De Niro and Pacino play too decrepit cops, hot on the trail of a vigilante killer who may well be one of their own. Did I say hot on the trail? I didn’t mean hot. I meant cold. I meant fucking Baltic. The NYPD might as well have put the boys from The Last of The Summer Wine on the case. I’m not sure if it’s the script or the fact the cast are now older than Jesus, but the art of detecting has surely slowed down some since the glory days of Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Hell, even in the 80’s this would’ve taken Al and Rob all of five minutes to solve. As it is, the pacing of Righteous Kill makes the average episode of Miss Marple seem like The Bourne Identity. You know things are really bad when a Brian Dennehy cameo can’t liven up the proceedings! At the point when 50 Cent appeared, I was contemplating getting a tattoo; by the time De Niro got his vigorous sex on, I wanted to go back to work. Avoid like a land mine.
There’s our hero, clad in a fetching combo of shiny suit and dapper hat; a little older, a little rounder, just as angry. Or so we hoped…..one question buzzed incessantly around my head like a fidgeting fly coated in itching powder; what if Elvis has gone soft? The signs were there in ominous neon, a hundred feet high. Happily married, doting dad, living in Canada….What if Elvis has gone soft? There it was again; the nagging doubt. And then he strapped on his telecaster and began to sing. Any lingering fears as to the mellowing effect of multi-millionaire middle age were instantly dispelled, as he launched into a blistering version of I Hope You’re Happy Now, sneering and snarling like it was 1978 and he was directly addressing a doggy dropping. Marvellous! Sorry I ever doubted you Mr Costello.
After rattling off a few innovators to get the party started, attention turned to the giant wheel that dominated the stage; the famous spinning songbook; essentially a fairground apparatus with 40 different songs and themes displayed around its garish face. Assuming the guise of mischievous MC Napoleon Dynamite, Costello donned a top hat and twirled his cane with fiendish relish, quipping and hustling as though his life depended on it, whilst his ravishing/ravishable assistant prowled the aisles, selecting random members of the audience to spin the wheel and have their song played whilst they danced onstage in a cage. And why not? Whilst my inner Costello says the Spinning Songbook is a labour saving device designed to alleviate the pressure of choosing a setlist from such a diverse back catalogue, it made for an undeniably entertaining spectacle, as well as producing a show that touched bases with career highlights and obscure gems, as well as the occasional all out snoozefest. But whenever things threatened to get a mite too grown up and sophistimicated, an Accidents Will Happen or a Watching The Detectives was never too far away to relieve the tedium of the old, “here’s one off the new album” syndrome.
Elvis and his Imposters sound as though they’ve been playing together since the dawn of time, which if your worldview began with the birth of punk, then I suppose they have. Essentially The Imposters are The Attractions with a different bassist. These boys have got history and you can tell, whether on an out of control Oliver’s Army or a show stopping, even more psychotic than usual I Want You. It’s all there in Steve Nieve’s swirling organ patterns and Pete Thomas’s pounding drums, with that voice right upfront, telling it like it is; like he always has. And in amongst the gimmicks and distractions, that was all that mattered.
Once upon a time when the world was flat and inhabited by black and white people, the western was very popular indeed. It’s estimated that during the Golden Age of Hollywood, westerns accounted for up to 30% of all feature films produced, such was the insatiable demand (and low production costs) for tales of the American frontier. With literally 100’s of westerns rolling off the production line each year for the best part of three decades, separating the wheat from the chaff can be an arduous business. Most of them are at best, routine; aimed at an undemanding audience who liked their good guys squeaky clean and their bad guys very bad indeed. Things were simple then. After 70 minutes of helpless heroines, derring do and dastardly villainy, justice would be dispensed with the crack of a six gun and all would be right with the world. But every now and again, a very different beast reared its idiosyncratic head.
Take The Gunfighter, a film about reputation and its nasty habit of following one around. Gregory Peck stars as Jimmy Ringo, the titular shootist and possessor of one very unwanted legend. In every town and every saloon, Ringo’s reputation as the fastest gun in the west precedes him. Deadly confrontation lurks around every corner from an endless supply of young punks, eager to make a name for themselves as the man who shot Jimmy Ringo. No matter how hard he tries to avoid it, his fame is such that he cannot survive without killing; and survival is the aim of the game. Only by doing so can a reformed Ringo reunite with his estranged wife and the young son he has never seen, if of course he can escape the gun toting shadows of his past.
The Gunfighter is very unusual in that it depicts a thoroughly depressing profession for what it really is. The Wild West has rarely seemed so grim. Gunfighting here is not something to aspire to, it’s something that gets you killed. Ringo’s proficiency with death isn’t a blessing it’s a curse, an albatross around his neck dooming him to forgo a normal existence in exchange for a daily struggle for survival with death as his only company; always on the move, ever wary of a bullet in the back. His dreams of starting a new life are hindered at every turn by some new adversary, each more determined than the last to blow his sorry head off. Reconciliation with his family is the hope that springs eternal, but it’s a forlorn hope at best. Unlike your typical western female of the time, Mrs Ringo is neither helpless nincompoop nor brassy broad; she is a realist long since resigned to life as a single parent and a widow to a walking corpse. Over the course of 85 taut minutes, we watch enthralled as Jimmy Ringo battles to prove her wrong and postpone his date with death. Westerns don’t get much better than this.
Zulu Dawn is remembered as the lesser regarded prequel to Zulu (when indeed it is remembered at all), which is a great shame for a lovingly crafted epic of the sort they just don’t make anymore. Where Zulu told the story of triumph in the face of insurmountable odds, Zulu Dawn is chiefly concerned with the dark heart of Empire and with military folly on the grandest of scales. With such lofty themes at its core, it’s hardly a surprise that it failed to capture the public imagination in the same way as its more straightforward predecessor. Time then for a revaluation.
Zulu Dawn examines the deeply flawed political and military decision-making that resulted in the invasion of Zululand, leading to the catastrophic defeat at Isandlhwana – the worst inflicted on the British Army by a native force. Although the campaign would ultimately end in some kind of victory for the British Empire (read up on the history and decide for yourself what kind of victory that is), this is a film about defeat. The fate of the men on the ground is sealed from the very beginning, when wheels are set in motion that cannot possibly be halted. Determined to pursue a course of action designed to destroy the Zulu kingdom, the political leadership of Sir Henry Bartle Frere (John Mills) is rotten to the core, and motivated by a borderline Fascist desire to “provide a final solution to the Zulu problem”. Lt. Gen Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole), the military commander on whose orders men live or die is shown to be blundering at best, and vain, incompetent and responsible for the death of 1300 at worst. In one of the film’s best scenes, Chelmsford lounges beneath a marquee packed with yes men behind a dining table fit to grace Buckingham Palace, where he quaffs wine, fills his belly and denounces the bad manners of a fighting man more concerned with the welfare of his men than the quality of the claret. He is naturally completely oblivious to the slaughter occurring several miles away.
Riding the wave of revisionism prevalent in 70’s filmmaking, Zulu Dawn attempts to give a balanced account of the campaign, and so it is that the Zulu’s themselves are given a voice. Happily, the filmmakers steer clear of presenting them as noble savages. Their rituals and customs are shown to be cruel and barbarous and alien to the British mindset, yet this was not the reason given by the British for declaring war. Sound familiar? Columns of Redcoats advance on Zululand in the name of an Empire built on cruelty and barbarism, an Empire completely alien to those they seek to conquer. When two great powers founded on blood collide, the results are never going to be pretty.
Zulu Dawn sacrifices some of the gritty claustrophobia of its predecessor for a bigger, if not necessarily better feel. The story is played out on a broader canvas, with garden parties, Governor’s offices and the wide open spaces of the savannah to the fore. No expense is spared in recreating the South Africa of 1879. The costumes and pageantry are as sumptuous as one could hope for, whilst the battle itself is skilfully brought to life. The moment when the doomed British realise the full extent of their predicament as 20,000 Zulu warriors bear down on them is chilling indeed, whilst the panic and desperation of a rapidly deteriorating situation are effectively evoked as the outnumbered redcoats are overwhelmed and slaughtered with frightening ferocity.
At the end of Zulu, the survivors of that remarkable action trudge shell shocked through the smoking battlefield as the narrator reads the names of the 11 men awarded a Victoria Cross; a triumphant note to finish on if ever there was one. Zulu Dawn has no such happy ending. Oh, the Zulu’s walk triumphantly over the fallen alright - but their victory would be short lived. Zululand would be crushed beneath the boot of Empire before the year was out. As for the British Empire, glory is out, folly is in. Ultimately, a bad decision can prove as fatal as a spear in the gut. Either way, it’s the little guy who loses out.
The introduction of Timothy Dalton as 007 breathed new life into the ailing franchise after the worst excesses of the Roger Moore era. Gone were the days when a brave stuntman would pretend to be a 58 year old secret agent, swinging from a vine and emitting a Tarzan call whilst wearing Roger Moore’s cast off ginger wig and an ill fitting tux. As the march of old father time caught up with Granddad Rog, and the sensible mid 80’s tightened their icy grip on everyone’s favourite sex addict; godawful jokes, Grace Jones and rogue geniuses intent on destroying the world were yesterday’s news. In their place came a gritty realism (for a Bond film), not seen since the glory days of Sean Connery. Bringing a harder edge to the role (which essentially means less smirking, less sex and no jokes), Dalton’s Bond is a capable Bond, adept at navigating the murky waters of a cold war world where the cartoonish, megalomaniac villainy of old has been supplanted with something far less principled – and far more sinister.
In Licence To Kill, Bond faces an adversary firmly rooted in the headlines of the 1980’s. Franz Sanchez is an international drug dealer, and by all accounts, not a very nice man. This is apparent, not only from his morally dubious profession, but from the manner in which he feeds Bond’s best friend to a shark, forcing 007 to embark on a mission of violent revenge. In the old days, the bad guys were always quite cuddly. Despite possessing a set of metal teeth here, or a deadly bowler hat there, one always got the feeling that their heart wasn’t really in it. In the Moore era, villainy wasn’t a serious business; it was as though the baddies were in it for the craic, and if their evil plan came off, so much the better. Licence To Kill is different. There is an utter ruthlessness at work here, practically unique to the franchise. As the only Bond movie to be awarded a 15 certificate, its home to a great deal of unpleasantness. Over the course of its running time, heads explode, bodies get shredded, and people generally die pretty horribly. You see, in the Timothy Dalton era, sharks don’t swim menacingly by; they stop for lunch, fully intent on a three course meal. Whilst this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s an approach that perfectly suits the darker nature of Dalton’s portrayal. Never comfortable punning his enemies to death, Dalton looks totally at ease playing a man for whom unpleasantness is second nature. For his 007, sex and high jinks are secondary pleasures at best, a world away from the playboy of old. In Licence To Kill, the mission is everything, and Bond will do whatever it takes to achieve his deadly aim.
Ultimately, this new fangled approach to an old favourite alienated large sections of its audience, but don’t let that put you off. Some people have no taste. Whilst Licence To Kill is undeniably something of a departure from the formula committed to stone tablet all those years ago, it has enough typically Bond-ian ingredients to keep the faithful happy. The globe is well and truly trotted, women’s clothes still fall off with inexplicable ease, Q is still a gadget geek and ultimately James Bond emerges triumphant. Reassuringly, some things never change.
To anyone who thinks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary output is restricted to tales of a smug twat with a penchant for puzzles, pipes and heavy duty narcotics, think again! Arfur’ (That’s Sir Arthur to you!) dabbled with pretty much every genre under the sun in his 43 year writing career, including excursions into the Supernatural, Science Fiction and Erotica. Only joking about the Erotica. A Study in Schlongs is sadly an unrealised project! I digress. As to his actual body of work, that some of those worthy efforts have fallen out of print, and that all of them are doomed to cower unloved and ill-remembered beneath the looming shadow of his most famous creation is a great shame, and ultimately a greater loss to the reading public.
Take The Lost World, arguably Conan Doyle’s second most recognised work. It is in every respect the equal of the adventures of Messrs Holmes and Watson, providing thrills aplenty for the dedicated connoisseur of good old fashioned entertainment, yet it enjoys a fraction of the reputation afforded to Sherlock. If you said The Lost World to your average human being (and there are a lot of those about), they would probably think first and foremost of the rather unnecessary sequel to Jurassic Park. Which is frankly unfair. The only thing the two Lost Worlds have in common is that they both have people in them. And dinosaurs. We can’t overlook the dinosaurs I suppose.
The Lost World is very much a product of its time. When Sir Arthur put pen to paper in 1912, it was slap bang in the middle of the golden age of exploration, a period in time when great swathes of the earth remained unexplored and ripe with untold promise; when a mere mortal could become a God, simply by conquering the unconquerable with little more than a pack of huskies and a Swiss Army Knife. Simple. It is such a quest that forms the basis of The Lost World, a novel that sees Conan Doyle exchanging the familiar gas lit alleyways of turn of the century London for the untamed wilderness of deepest, darkest South America.
Now if I were to swap my mundane suburban existence for the myriad joys of the jungle, I am willing to bet both my kidneys and a signed photograph that all I’d get for my efforts is malaria and the unwanted attention of some very angry drug runners. But The Lost World isn’t reality, it is fiction; glorious, wonderful fiction, from a bygone age when derring-do was to the young men of the day what stabbing Policemen is to their contemporary counterparts. This jungle is home to Apemen and Indians, to Pterodactyls and Plesiosaurs. It is every little boy’s wildest dream brought to life by a master craftsman, an opinion I think he would’ve appreciated given that the preface to the book states:
I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.
A more admirable reason to write I cannot imagine. And if the promise of adventure isn’t quite enough for you, Conan Doyle creates some wonderfully memorable characters to share the experience with. I ask you, who wouldn’t want to travel to a mysterious plateau to prove the continued existence of Prehistoric life with the rambunctious Professor Challenger for company? And who wouldn’t want to hunt the deranged missing link in the evolutionary chain with the heroic Lord John Roxton and his trusty rifle at their side? If the answer to either of those questions is “Me” then I have absolutely no wish to know you and I ask you to leave this website immediately!
For a fella with a reputation as the grand master of horror, Vincent Price didn’t half make a lot of rubbish films. From The Tingler to The Pit and The Pendulum, the amount of godawful Vincent Price movies clogging up a bargain bin near you could bridge the water between Dover and Calais, whilst the good un’s can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Thank heavens then for Theatre of Blood, the one undoubted masterpiece in Price’s lengthy oeuvre, and an absolute hoot from start to finish.
Theatre of Blood is the perfect vehicle for Price’s particular brand of horror, with a character and plot seemingly tailor made for him. He excels in the role of Edward Lionheart, a notoriously dreadful Shakespearian actor with a serious taste for ham. Sick to death of the ‘groundless’ vitriol directed at him by his many critics (played by a veritable who’s who of British character actors), Lionheart decides that enough is enough, embarking on an orgy of murderous revenge – with a Shakespearian twist. As you do! Throwing himself at the role with gleeful abandon, Price is like a kid in a sweet shop as he hams up soliloquies dressed as a French chef, brandishes a rapier whilst trampolining, and pretends to be a gay hairdresser named Butch, amongst many other acts of inspired lunacy.
If the thought of Vincent Price camping it up doesn’t sound very frightening, then you may well be surprised. All of Lionheart’s macabre revenges are styled after the works of Shakespeare himself, meaning that they are innovative, unpleasant, and far too clever for the likes of me and you. The moment when a lone critic is butchered in an abandoned building by a mob of meth drinking maniacs (in homage to Julius Caeser don’t you know?!), is genuinely unnerving; whilst other fates are either too hilarious to be true, or far too horrible to contemplate. When played out in such an over the top manner, the cumulative effect is of a nightmarish pantomime where the baddie is not only behind you, but intent on feeding you your own dog in a pie. If that ain’t the definition of horror, I don’t know what is.
Ultimately, Theatre Of Blood is a delight; a genuine one off and a technicolour oddity in a black and white world. I suggest you seek it out.
When debating Clint Eastwood’s best western, its generally agreed to be a two horse race between the spaghetti-licious The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and his autumnal masterpiece, Unforgiven. And it’s just that kind of attitude that gets me all riled up! Unforgiven?! I’ve never heard such hogwash in all my life. After I’ve finished pistol whipping any loudmouthed Unforgiven aficionado into bloody submission, I’d like to make them a cup of tea and sit them down in front of The Outlaw Josey Wales (and not in the good chair I might add!). By the time it’s finished, they’ll be dancing to a different tune! Probably “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”……
The Outlaw Josey Wales is a sensational piece of filmmaking, directed by the man himself at the top his game, and fit to stand alongside the finest westerns of Ford, Peckinpah, and Leone. The greedy so and so also excels in the title role as a peaceful Missouri farmer turned gun toting renegade, bringing all of his grizzled charisma to a character he was born to play. Josey Wales seems happy enough letting the American Civil War pass him by, tending his fields and generally looking contented with his lot. But after the brutal murder of his wife and child at the hands of mangy Yankee scum, he puts down his pitchfork and picks up his six guns to kill those responsible – or die trying.
So far, so typical right? But if you think you’ve seen this kind of thing a thousand times before, you’d be very wrong indeed. As much as this is a story of revenge, it is a tale of redemption, following Wales from his lowest ebb as a soulless killing machine, forged in the fires of a brutal age, to his gradual re-assimilation into polite-ish society. But that don’t mean Vicar’s tea parties and country rambles; no sir! The bulk of the film sees Wales pursued through hell and highwater by those he seeks to annihilate, with all the attendant gunfights and narrow escapes you could possibly wish for. The violence here is swift and deadly, and not played out according to any code of conduct. Everyone is affected by it, as evidenced by the ever expanding retinue of strays and waifs who accompany Wales on his savage flight, each in need of his fearsome protection. In the company of this surrogate family of world weary Indians and desperate pioneers, Wales attempts to find some kind of peace with himself, en route to the inevitable bloody showdown.
The Outlaw Josey Wales belongs to a very select band of westerns that convey an authentic vision of the American frontier. Like the foul landscapes of TGTBATU and Unforgiven, Wales’s world is a harsh environment, populated by rapists and ruthless killers for whom a moral compass is something to be shot in the back. Around every corner lurks death, but hey, it could be worse! As Wales himself would have it, “Dying is easy for men like you and me. It’s living that’s hard.” And The Outlaw Josey Wales is hard living indeed.
With Arthur, The Kinks (for whom eccentricity and willful perversion ran through their veins in place of blood), attempted that grand rock statement of years gone by; the concept album – and in doing so crafted the finest record of their long and varied career. For an effort described by Greil Marcus as “the best British album of 1969”, Arthur ain’t half a hard sell to the uninitiated! It tells the story of a very ordinary chap and his very ordinary life from the cradle to the grave. Born into the twilight years of the British Empire on whom the sun never set, we follow Arthur through the ups and downs of an average existence, as his hopes and dreams are systematically snuffed out, one by tragic one. The Grease soundtrack this ain’t, but for anyone prepared to face up to the harsh realities of a mundane suburban existence, all packaged in some of The Kinks most delightful melodies, Arthur is a must listen.
The success of a concept album hinges on the strength of its story, not to mention a great set of songs. Happily Arthur has both in spades. Its concept lends itself particularly well to The Kinks, allowing Ray Davies songwriting to flourish in a setting he’s clearly very comfortable with. On Arthur he touches base with of all his favorite themes. From the nostalgia of “Young and Innocent Days”, to the ode to the working class that is “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina”, this is classic Kinks territory, as bittersweet as a cherry sour and as English as Yorkshire Pudding.It is this sense of all pervading Britishness that forms the albums core, a national identity that shapes Arthur’s life, an identity moulded from conflict, from class, and from blind faith in his betters, the very shackles of Britishness from which he can never hope to escape. For Davies, the scars of Empire run as deep as the Mariana Trench, with the rot setting in from the first lines of the barnstorming opener, “Victoria”. Right from the off its clear that Arthur is a very insignificant cog in a monolithic machine, and whatsmore he knows it; but hey, it’s fine because that’s what the likes of Arthur do. You’re born, you do your bit, you die. Bleak eh? As the years wear on and Arthur’s impact on the world around him diminishes, alongside that of the Empire he holds so dear, he experiences hope, loss, ambition and disappointment; that is to say real life pouring out of your speakers in Dolby 5.1. And just in case I’ve fooled you into thinking it all sounds a wee bit depressing, never fear. Whilst Arthur features some occasionally glum home truths, when they’re told by The Kinks at their irresistible best, it’s hard to stay glum for long.