My chat with Jane Asher

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Wild: the review – Exercising And Exorcising Demons

Ah, the good old hiking movie. Okay, admittedly there haven’t been many in recent years, which is why Wild is such a breath of fresh air.
The pet project of actress Reese Witherspoon, it’s the fascinating story of Cheryl Strayed, who in 1995 decided to hike 1000 miles through the PCT.
Well scripted by Nick Hornby, himself a fan of the novel, the screenplay ticks over like a well oiled timepiece, until the rather abrupt finale which seems to tie things up in a rather neat bow.
In retrospect it’s easy to provide a check list of cliches.
Shot of rattlesnake threatening: tick. Sinister hillbilly reminiscent of an extra from Deliverance: tick
Encounter with cuddly wildlife, reminding us that nature really is fantastic: tick.
Despite all these familiar tropes, Wild is a compelling watch. Witherspoon delivers a terrific performance as the troubled protagonist, while Laura Dern gives one of the best performances of her career.
The latter plays Strayed’s endlessly upbeat screen mother, whose mortality is in question from the word go.
Reese does a good job of playing a number of ages. She’s as convincing as a high school student as she is later in her life as the morally conflicted walker.
After 10 minutes, once I got past the stomach-churning scene of Cheryl removing one of her toenails (this might have happened; I’m not sure as I had my eyes shut at the time), I was hooked.
Discovering the reason for Cheryl’s personal quest is not immediately apparent and the fact we don’t find out straight away is part of Wild’s strength.

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Done In – The Review

The short film can be a thing of beauty, getting to the point obviously far faster than most features 10 times their length.
So I am happy to say that Done In, starring one of my favourite actors, Guy Henry, is the best short film I have seen in many a moon.
Little wonder it created a buzz at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
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Image: Dark Art Films Ltd

Beautifully written, lit, acted and directed, it’s a poignant tale that unfolds elegantly.
However, in the last few seconds I had hoped it wouldn’t stray down the avenue of predictability, and was handsomely rewarded with one of the best pay-offs of the past 12 months.

Obviously I’m not going to reveal too much here. I’ll just say it’s the tale of one man, a rather important letter and a finale that leaves you uneasy, in the best possible sense.
At a little over eight minutes there is little chance of ‘Done In’ outstaying its welcome.
(I wished most mainstream features would pack such a punch in their often over long running time).
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Image: Dark Art Films Ltd
Writer/director Adam Stephen Kelly is definitely a film maker to watch out for in the future. I cannot wait to see what he does next, and whether he can sustain this level of brilliant storytelling over 90 minutes or more.

There is a professionalism to his movie which leaves me quite depressed. Not because of the quality of the film, but because it is directed by a man in his early 20s. I wished I’d had the chance to create something as clever at that age.
But then again, great film-makers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Orson Welles had all made an indelible mark on cinema by the time they were a similar age.

It’s a shame movies are so obsessed with 90 minute plus features rather than the good old short film format.
Kelly’s is a great reminder of what fine work can be achieved in such a brief running time.

In an age where online video sharing is more and more common, it seems the short film has been given a new lease of life. So it’s a shame we don’t get to see more bite-sized films on TV and in cinemas.

Back in the day you would regularly see short features accompanying mainstream films.
I’m not sure why that genre dried up, but it would be great to see it make a return in multiplexes.
Failing that, I’d love to see the return of the anthology movie like classic 1970s shockers Asylum or From Beyond the Grave.

Relatively recent offering The ABCs of Death may not have been outstanding, but it reminded me how handy anthology movies are for dipping into. After all, for viewers weaned on channel hopping and fast cutting, they seem like the way forward now 3D has outstayed its welcome.

I don’t normally do the whole star rating thing, but if I had to Done In is an easy five out of five.

Brian Clemens RIP

Brian Clemens was one of the most influential British writer/producer/directors in history having created The Avengers, The New Avengers and a string of international hit series and films.
Weaned on the adventures of Purdey, Steed, Captain Kronos and others, like many fans I was saddened by his loss a few days ago.

In the spring of 2014, I chatted to the writer and director about The Professionals, Avengers, Kronos and his controversial take on Highlander. Here are some of the highlights.

What was the seed of The Professionals – was it a need for a British Starsky and Hutch?

Oh well it began like that. Brian Tesler of London Weekend Television having liked the way we did The Avengers said he’d like a buddy show in the Starsky and Hutch mould, or at least as a rival to them. And I came up with two ideas. One was about two undercover cops. The other one was The Professionals. He liked The Professionals and said “I’ll commission the script, If I like it, we’ll make 13”. A bit unheard of these days, but that’s exactly what happened of course.

Did you have any idea how influential The Avengers would be when you made that first episode?
Not really, no. You never really know you’re going through a golden age. Golden age is always back then, it’s never now. But we were going through a golden age.

I’m a big fan of Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. What were your memories of making that?
Oh that was great fun. Great fun. They keep threatening to bring that out again, you know, remastered. They keep threatening to remake it too. That’s the trouble with this country, nobody actually does anything.

It was a great format as well
It was intended to be a format, yeah. He’s called Kronos because that’s Greek for ‘time’. I thought I could take him through all sorts of time warps. He could turn up anywhere. He says it in the film, “where ever there is evil to be fought…” So the world was my oyster, or my lobster. (laughs).

It must’ve been great that lightning did strike twice for The New Avengers?
Yep, but it wasn’t an accident though. I like people to think it was an accident. It’s an accident after a great deal of work.

And it turned Joanna Lumley into an overnight star
Yes, I had to interview several hundred young actresses. We tested about 20 on camera. And I always knew it was going to be Jo Lumley, but I had to go through the motions to convince the people around me.

Were there any lesser known projects that were personal favourites?
Well I liked (sitcom) My Wife Next-Door. They’ve never really done (repeated) that. I think it must be something to do with the artist holding that back or re-shown.

How was it working on Highlander II?
Oh, that was fun. I was in Hollywood for that, and that was Hollywood big time. That’s always good fun.

Did the producers want something different from the first film?
They didn’t know what they wanted. I got it because I came up with the idea who the Immortals were. They came from another planet with a different time warp, so when they lived for a minute, it was 400 years.

What’s been the secret of your success?
I love everything I write at the time of writing, and I don’t go for bullsh*t. I don’t send ‘messages’. There are messages to be found that are not upfront, and I think that’s what’s wrong with a lot of British products at the moment. It’s too social. It should be entertainment first and social under the cover as it were.

What was the most memorable day of your career?
When I was given the OBE by the Queen. That was quite something. I felt kind of proud of myself… a bit. They don’t give you any money though (laughs).

Into the Woods – The Review

Director Rob Marshall’s latest movie is a curious one.
I had no knowledge of the Stephen Sondheim musical on which it was based, so had no idea what any of the songs would be like.
Thankfully many of them were a joy. The excellent cast, including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, and Chris Pine, were all on good form.
Streep chewed the scenery, as usual, as the wicked witch; Blunt showed off an incredible singing voice, while James Corden did his usual regular Joe shtick as the baker drawn into the Forest-centric fairytales.
Chris Pine was terrific as Prince Charming; the agony song was an unexpected pleasure.
Cleverly overlapping a series of tales, we have Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella, all vying for the most screen time in cleverly woven series of stories.
A little like Wicked, there was a sense it was so frontloaded, the second half didn’t have a chance of living up to the first.
Problems develop around the two thirds mark when it feels like the movie is reaching a finale. However, we experience another half an hour at least as the regular fairytale format is deconstructed and the happy ever after we thought, is a little longer in coming.
Sadly, the cleverness of creating a nuclear family out of the remnants of characters from assorted fairytales came too late in the story for me to care.
The third act was so dull I considered walking out. Which is a shame as for the most part this was a lot of fun with a terrific score.
However, Johnny Depp’s uncomfortable appearance as the lascivious big bad wolf was easily one of the most disturbing scenes in any Disney movie of the recent years.
It was also clear this Disney epic was shot on a relatively modest budget ($50m); a Sondheim adaptation clearly more risky than their pending version of Cinderella.
In 1984, director Neil Jordan gave us The Company of Wolves, which addressed similar issues, on a much smaller budget and with arguably a much better forest set.
Given the calibre of the songs, I would probably give the movie a second look and perhaps enjoy it more. After all, seeing after Foxcatcher there was a sense of fatigue setting in, so perhaps it deserves a look on its own.

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Foxcatcher: the review

There’s a sense of doom-laden portent about Foxcatcher which lingers throughout. It’s also one of the few films of recent years where you could probably turn off the sound and watch it as a silent movie; it would still make perfect sense.
Channing Tatum is on good form as Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz, forever living in his brother’s Dave’s shadow; he’s also an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler.

Mark seems to live a lonely, uneventful existence, until a phone call out of the blue changes his life for ever.

Eccentric tycoon, birdwatcher and wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carell) brings him to his Pennsylvania estate and invites Schultz to join his private wrestling squad – Team Foxcatcher. In return for a hefty wage, Mark will train for the World championship.

John also wants his brother Dave to attend, and after some initial reluctance the family man joins the team.

What unfolds is at times disturbing, yet compelling. It’s a study of brotherhood, loneliness, eccentricity and a desire to follow one’s dreams whatever the cost.

Director Bennett Miller, who also made baseball movie Moneyball, wisely provides very little score to accentuate the drama. Rarely are you told what to think or how to feel and throughout the film tension lingers like an early morning Pennsylvania mist.

Then there’s that feeling: none of this is going to end well; it’s just a case of what happens when and to whom. When the denouement comes, it’s incredibly powerful and shocking.
Essentially a three-hander between Channing Tatum, the barely recognisable Steve Carell and the excellent Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher is a film that gets under the skin and stays with you long after the closing credits have rolled.

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Exodus: Gods and Kings

Ridley Scott, in my opinion, had not made a great film in years, so I didn’t hold out much hope for his latest, the biblical saga Exodus: Gods and Kings.
However, like 2014’s Noah, this huge, visionary epic holds together well and is worth a look on the big screen.
Christian Bale is on good form as Moses, while Joel Edgerton channels Marlon Brando as Ramesses, his ‘brother’ who exiles Moses upon realising he’s a Hebrew.

Scott is at his best when it comes to world building, and as with his other stunning offerings Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, he and his army of set designers, builders, plasterers and other construction crew do wonders depicting this ancient world.

Of course, dealing with a subject as sensitive as religion is never easy for any film maker, and Scott does a fine job of tackling the God complex by depicting the Almighty as a young lad while Moses’ visions are possibly the result of being hit on the head by a rock.

Continue reading “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

Birdman – The Review

Michael Keaton gives the performance of his life in Birdman, a stunning, surreal, funny, at times savage study of one man’s obsession with a Raymond Carver stage play which he’s adapted, directed and is starring in on Broadway.
The fact he once played the eponymous superhero in a series of blockbuster movies but has since tried to put that behind him is bound to attract obvious comparisons with Batman; his character is supposed to have last played Birdman in 1992, when Keaton last donned the bat suit for the final time, a terrific in-joke.
Keaton seemed like a supporting actor in those movies, at times playing second fiddle to Jack Nicholson’s Joker or Danny De Vito’s penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman.
Here he may be surrounded by a terrific supporting cast, including Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough among others, but Keaton steals every scene he’s in, acting as though his life depended on it.

It’s the sort of career-defining performance that fast tracks any thespian for Golden Globe, Bafta or Oscar winning glory.
Most smart movie lovers know some Globes noms are often dubious at best (Pia Zadora for Best Actress…really?), while the Oscars noms can often be just carbon copies of the Globes.
It scarcely matters whether Keaton wins or not. Any viewer with any sense knows he’s been one of the best actors of his generation for decades, whether in a Bat suit; playing Shakespeare in Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing, or propping up Elmore Leonard movies such as Out of Sight and Jackie Brown (playing the same role in both).
Birdman may be reminiscent of Black Swan, addressing the subjects of obsession, depression and the creative impulse, but this is far lighter in its tone. The feathered crime fighter is only glimpsed in a couple of scenes, but is instantly a cult hero, and is bound to inspire his own range of cult merch.
There’s no getting away from the fact at times this compelling comedy drama bites the hand that feeds it, sending up cookie cutter superhero movies, but it’s also a super film about a hero who retains a talon-like grip on the audience for the duration.

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