DVD review: Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story


Director: Steve Sullivan. Running time: 105 minutes
Back in the 1980s, a Manchester man called Chris Sievey started appearing in public wearing an oversized Papier-mâché head. At first, he called the character, ‘John Smith’ before changing it to ‘Frank Sidebottom.’ Frank soon became something of a success. You may well have seen him yourself. This documentary tells his story, or rather, the story of his creator. Chris Sievey ended up playing Frank for the rest of his life.
Chris appeared live as Frank as well as on Saturday morning kids’ shows like Motormouth and in the comic, Oink! He worked with a few people who later became famous such as Mark Radcliffe (interviewed here, before his recent illness), Caroline Aherne and Jon Ronson. Ronson later wrote a book about his time with Sievey, which later became the 2014 Michael Fassbender film, Frank.
He was never hugely famous himself, despite once introducing Bros (at the height of the short-lived ‘Brosmania’ era) at Wembley stadium. He played songs and told jokes, appearing with a ventriloquist’s dummy made in Frank’s image called ‘Little Frank’. He was often not very funny and his songs were often not good.

Despite this, it’s hard not to be won over by the warmth of this affectionate tribute to Sievey (who died in 2010, aged just 54) from director Steve Sullivan. There was certainly a dark side to Sievey: his success with Frank Sidebottom came only after years of persistent failed attempts to launch his own music career notably with band, The Freshies. A song called, ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk’ came closest to success. Like Sidebottom, he seems to have been possessed by a child-like optimism and a naivety about such things as paying taxes and bills which must have made him very hard to live with. He seems to have grown to resent the fact his only real fame was achieved through a made-up character. No joke intended, but he also seems to rather have let the success he did have as Frank Sidebottom go to his head.
Supported by interviews from fans like poet John Cooper Clarke and comics Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas as well as Chris’s son, Harry, who was subsequently tragically killed in a cycling accident in 2017, this is a first class documentary about a minor popular culture icon who deserves to be remembered.

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What if the Brexit vote had never happened?

Today’s headlines…

Cameron To “Step Down As PM in 2020”

David Cameron's Last Day As The UK's Prime Minister

Prime Minister, David Cameron today gave his strongest hint yet that he intends to step down as Prime Minister within two years of winning the forthcoming General Election. Speculation has been mounting that Mr. Cameron is close to announcing the date of the next election as May 22nd. This would coincide neatly with the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament.

The last General Election in May 2015, resulted in a surprise overall majority of 12 for the Conservatives. This has since fallen as a result of recent by-elections although Mr. Cameron has resisted calls to strike any sort of deal with either Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats or the similarly-sized Democratic Unionist Party.

Having entered Downing Street in June 2010, Mr Cameron is now the third longest serving Prime Minister since 1945, after Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. At 52, he remains younger than Mrs Thatcher when she became Britain’s first (and to date, only) woman prime minister in 1979.

According to a report in the London Evening Standard, Mr Cameron’s cabinet colleagues, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and Michael Gove are expected to join the race to succeed him.

Labour’s Jo Cox has been amongst those urging unity in her own party, ahead of the expected election announcement. UKIP has, meanwhile, renewed calls for a referendum on continued UK membership of the European Union. Opinion polls currently indicate support for a UK exit from the EU, but also that it is low on the list of voter priorities at this time, ranking way below concerns over the NHS and education.

Opponents of a vote suggest it would be a colossal waste of time, money and energy, inviting economic uncertainty, political uncertainty and disunity at a time of growing prosperity.

Meanwhile, in New York, maverick billionaire and 2016 Republican Party nominee, Donald J. Trump has announced plans to challenge President Hillary Clinton for the White House in 2020. Trump, who will be 74 by the time of next year’s election has made repeated claims of foul play surrounding his 2016 defeat although no evidence has thus far emerged.

In 2017, Trump resumed his role on the US version of TV’s ‘The Apprentice’.

Campaign 2016 Debate

 

 

 

Book review: Napoleon. His Life, His Battles, His Empire

Napoleon. His Life, His Battles, His Empire. By David Chanteranne and Emmanuelle Papot. Published by: Carlton Books, March 7th 2019

I know almost nothing about Napoleon Bonaparte.

I studied International History up to postgraduate level. Despite this, I don’t remember being taught anything about him during my entire twenty years in education.

I know roughly what he looked like, that he was born in Corsica and that he married Josephine. I know he rose very fast through the ranks after reviving France’s fortunes following the bloody chaos of the French Revolution. He became very powerful and very important, very quickly but, like Hitler later, came badly unstuck trying to invade Russia. He died in exile, at a relatively young age (51).

I don’t get the impression he was anything like as bad as Hitler, Stalin or Mao in the 20th century. He didn’t unleash genocide and probably did some good along the way, reforming France’s legal system and the like. His wars nevertheless wrecked and destroyed thousands of lives. On balance, I suspect, he was more of a “baddy” than a “goody.”

What else? I know,  “My, my. At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender” because Abba told me so. But are 1970s pop lyrics really a reliable source of historical information? There is plenty of doubt, after all, that Rasputin was in fact, as Boney M argued, “lover of the Russian Queen.” As to whether he was really “Russia’s greatest love machine?”: well, it’s now almost impossible to verify.

This book was thus very helpful to me in filling in the considerable gaps in my knowledge of one of history’s key figures. With 180 illustrations, it would probably appeal to children, but I doubt I’m the only adult who found it useful.

After all, as a wise person once pointed out: “the history book on the shelf. It’s always repeating itself.”

The Oscars: A timeline

1927:

The first ever US Academy Awards are held. First World War-based thriller Wings wins the first ever Best Picture Oscar.

1933:

 In a scene reminiscent of the early scenes of the 2001 comedy film Zoolander, comedian Will Rogers opens the Best Director envelope and says, “Come and get It Frank!” Unfortunately, there were two directors called Frank nominated in that year. Frank Capra was half way to the podium before Rogers clarified that it was Frank Lloyd, director of Cavalcade who had won, not Capra. Happily, Frank Capra later won for Mr Deeds Goes To Town in 1936. In future years, the awards are always announced in a heavily scripted way, in the hope of preventing such an embarrassing error ever happening again.

1940:

Hattie McDaniel becomes the first black woman to win an acting Oscar (Best Supporting Actress: Gone With The Wind). Having been barred from the film’s Atlanta premiere due to the state’s racial laws, she is made to sit at a segregated table during the Oscar ceremony. She is only allowed to attend at all due to the Ambassador Hotel making an exception to its usual strict ‘no blacks’ policy. Her white agent sat with her at the ceremony.

1941:

How Green Is My Valley beats Citizen Kane for Best Picture. Citizen Kane subsequently became the most critically acclaimed film of all time.

1964:

Sidney Poitier (Lillies Of The Field) becomes the first black actor to win an Oscar.

1968:

A very rare occurrence: A tie in the Best Actress category. Barbara Streisand wins for Funny Girl. Katharine Hepburn also wins for The Lion In Winter (her third). As most Oscars are determined by votes from several thousand Academy members, a tie is a frequent possibility.

1970:

George C. Scott wins Best Actor for Patton. He chooses not to attend and instead stays home and watches a ball game on the other channel.

1972:

Native American Sacheen Littlefeather surprises viewers by attending to reject Marlon Brando’s second Oscar won for The Godfather on his behalf. t “He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry,” she says. She is actually not a political activist herself but a small-time actress who later appears in Playboy magazine.

1973:

In a famously impromptu remark, host David Niven comments on a streaker who disrupts the ceremony:  “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?

1974:

Robert De Niro wins his first Oscar playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Marlon Brando played the same character in 1972’s The Godfather. It is the only time two actors have won Oscars for playing the same (fictional) person.

Tatum O’Neal becomes the youngest ever person to win a competitive Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress – Paper Moon). She is ten (she turned nine during filming).

1978:

Annie Hall beats Star Wars for Best Picture. Director and star Woody Allen begins a long tradition of not attending the Oscars (choosing to perform jazz music elsewhere on Oscar Night instead). He finally attends in 2002.

British actress Vanessa Redgrave (Best Supporting Actress: Julia) is audibly booed after she attacks opponents of her documentary film, The Palestinian as “Zionist hoodlums”. She also attacks former President Nixon.

1979:

Jane Fonda (Best Actress: Coming Home) uses sign language during her acceptance speech to highlight awareness of deafness. It is her second Oscar: she also won for Klute in 1972.

1981:

Robert De Niro wins his second Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The timing is awkward as the new President, former actor, Ronald Reagan has just been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. His attempted assassin John Hinckley was reportedly inspired by Scorsese and De Niro’s 1976 film Taxi Driver and a desire to “impress” his teenaged co-star Jodie Foster (she is not impressed).

T

1982:

Katharine Hepburn wins her fourth and final Oscar for On Golden Pond. No other actor, male or female, has ever won four Oscars. Cate Blanchett later wins one for playing Hepburn herself in The Aviator in 2004.

Hepburn’s co-star Henry Fonda becomes easily the oldest ever Best Actor winner at 76. Too ill to attend the ceremony, his daughter and co-star, Jane Fonda collects the award on his behalf (he dies a few months later).

Screenwriter Colin Welland shouts “The British are coming!” following the success of Chariots of Fire this year. In fact, the next decade will prove a very lean one for British cinema, although Gandhi does win Best Picture in 1983.

1984:

Sally Field wins her second Oscar for Places In My Heart. “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect,” she says. “The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Seen my many as overly sentimental, Field’s speech is often misquoted as: “You like me, you really like me!”

Mar 26, 2000; LOS ANGELES, CA, USA; NORTH AMERICAN SALES ONLY 72nd Academy Awards: OSCARS 2000. Best supporting actress ANGELINA JOLIE. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chris Delmas/ZUMA Press. (©) Copyright 2000 by Chris Delmas

1991:

Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost) becomes only the second black actress to win Best Supporting Actress.

1992:

Silence of the Lambs wins in all of the “Big Five” categories: Best Film, Actor (Anthony Hopkins),  Actress (Jodie Foster), Director (Jonathan Demme) and Adapted Screenplay. This is the only the third time this has ever happened (the previous films were 1932’S It Happened One Night and 1975’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest).

Rumours abound that Jack Palance read out the wrong name during his announcement of the Best Supporting Actress winner Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinnie) In fact, though a surprise result, Tomei undoubtedly won. That said, Palance did seem to be in a somewhat “tired and emotional” state as he announced the award.

1993:

Couple Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon use the Best Film Editing category as a political opportunity urging the government to let HIV-positive Haitians being held at Guantanamo into the US.

1994:

“Oh, wow. This is the best drink of water after the longest drought of my life.” Steven Spielberg (Best Director: Schindler’s List) finally wins. Schindler’s List is the first black and white film to win Best Picture since The Apartment (1960).

1995:

Tom Hanks wins two Best Actor Oscars in consecutive years for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, a feat not achieved since Spencer Tracey in the 1930s, He delivers highly emotional acceptance speeches both times, inadvertently “outing” a high school teacher as gay in the first (a moment which later inspired the Kevin Kline film In and Out) and in the second stating “I feel like I’m standing on magic legs.”

Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) loses the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Martin Landau (Ed Wood). Lipreaders can see Jackson clearly says “shit” on hearing the announcement from 12 year old, Anna Paquin. Jackson is unrepentant afterwards, arguing he deserved to win.

1999:

George Clooney, Nick Nolte, Ed Harris and many other actors refuse to stand or applaud Elia Kazan’s Lifetime Achievement Oscar. The On The Waterfront director testified to the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952

2002:

Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) becomes the first black winner of the Best Actress Oscar.

2003:

Filmmaker Michael Moore (Best Documentary: Bowling For Columbine) provokes a mixed reaction with an attack on President George W. Bush: “We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious President. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons…Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you. And any time you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up.”

Adrien Brody (Best Actor: The Pianist) kisses actress Halle Berry on receiving his award.

2004:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King becomes the third film to win eleven Oscars. The others are Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997). All About Eve (1950) and Titanic remain the most nominated films (14 each). The Return of the King is the only fantasy film to win Best Picture (no sci-fi film has ever won it) and only the second sequel (the first was The Godfather Pt II in 1974).

2007:

Martin Scorsese finally wins (Director: The Departed) after years of being overlooked. “Could you double check the envelope?” he quips.

2010:

A showdown between Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and James Cameron’s Avatar. The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture. Bigelow becomes the first woman to win Best Director (she and Cameron were married between 1989 and 1991).

2012:

The Artist is the first black and white film to win Best Picture since 1993’s Schindler’s List. Contrary to popular belief, it is not technically a silent film. Wings, the very first Best Picture winner, remains the only silent winner in this category.

Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor: Beginners) becomes the oldest ever performer to win a competitive actor Oscar. He is 82.

Meryl Streep wins her 17th nomination (and her third win) for The Iron Lady joking: “When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no. Come on… Her, again?’ You know. But, whatever.” No actor has ever been nominated as many times as Streep has: Katharine Hepburn won four times but was only nominated a still impressive 12 times. In 2018, Streep received her 21st nomination for The Post. Her other two wins were for Kramer Vs Kramer and Sophie’s Choice.

2013:

Daniel Day Lewis wins his third acting Oscar for Lincoln. Only five other actors have achieved three Oscar wins: Katharine Hepburn (who, as previously mentioned, won four), Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman.

2014:

John Travolta messes up his introduction to a performance from Frozen by Idina Menzel: “Please welcome the wickedly talented, one and only Adele Dazeem,” he says.

2016:

The Oscars are widely criticised for a lack of racial diversity in the nominations.

Leonardo DiCaprio finally wins Best Actor for The Revenant.

2017:

In an embarrassing cock up, La La Land is briefly announced as Best Picture, instead of the actual winner, Moonlight. The mistake – which seems to have resulted from veteran actor Warren Beatty being given the card revealing La La Land actress Emma Stone’s Best Actress Oscar in error, and Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s understandably confused reaction – is only corrected after two minutes (“There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture…This is not a joke. Moonlight has won best picture”) by which time the La La Land team are midway through their acceptance speech.

Casey Affleck wins for Manchester by the Sea despite widespread controversy over sexual harassment allegations. Actress Brie Larson, an advocate of sexual assault victims, presents the award to Affleck, but seems unhappy with the result.

2019:

Comedian Kevin Hart steps down as host of the Oscars after controversy emerges over a slew of allegedly homophobic tweets he sent in the past. It is decided the Oscars will not have an official host for the first time since 1989.

Film review: Vice

Director: Adam McKay Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry

The office of US Vice President was for a long time commonly overlooked. The position was deemed “not worth a pitcher of warm spit” by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner while as Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) points out here, the job is essentially based around the principle of doing nothing other than waiting for the president to die.

Dick Cheney was a different sort of Vice President, however. Whereas some leaders, such as the late George H.W. Bush have been fully aware of the potential opportunities afforded by the position, (Bush had, after all, spent two terms as Veep himself) and have thus deliberately picked non-threatening buffoons like Dan Quayle as their Number 2, Bush’s own son (played here by Sam Rockwell) recognised he was hopelessly out of his depth and thus when his turn came in 2000, delegated unprecedented power to an older man, much more experienced than himself. Cheney seized this opportunity head-on and exploited it to the full.

Richard Dreyfuss has already played Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W (2008). Now Adam McKay – a director once known for comedies such as the rather good Anchorman and the rather less good Talladega Nights and Anchorman 2, turns his focus onto the last US Vice President but one.

We first meet Cheney (Bale) at a low point. As a drunken hell-raiser in the 1960s, he is encouraged out of his decline only by the words of his strong-willed wife Lynne (Amy Adams, excellent). We then cut to the extremely dramatic aftermath of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Whisked away to a “secure location”, the Vice President turns this terrible occurrence into a golden opportunity for him and his ilk. Using the new atmosphere to test the limits of his power to the limit, Cheney, aided and abetted by the conservative cheerleaders of Fox News conspire to make war against Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the attacks whatsoever.

Gruff and lacking in charisma, the real Cheney, 78 in 2019, has never been an obvious candidate for dramatic portrayal. Despite this and the fact he bears no real physical resemblance to the man himself, Christian Bale aided by prosthetics which increasingly make him resemble a modern-day Chevy Chase as he ages from his twenties to his seventies, is brilliant as the heart-attack prone Cheney. As with Sir Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), it has taken a Welsh actor to most perfectly capture a pillar of modern American conservatism.

Steve Carell, who in McKay’s Anchorman played the idiotic weatherman Brick Tamland, (a man who we were told later “served in a senior role in the Bush administration”) is also great here as Bush’s defence secretary and Cheney’s long-time friend and rival, Donald Rumsfeld (he of the “known unknowns).

As in The Big Short which explained the reasons for the last recession in easy language, McKay deploys numerous clever tactics here – a scene performed in iambic pentameter, a false ending, a mystery narrator. Some of these work better than others: a sequence in which Alfred Molina’s waiter offers Bush’s cronies a “menu” of legal options in a restaurant, for example, just seems weird.

But, overall, this is a compelling, well-acted insight into the banality of evil.

A quick survey…

1.            Hello.

a)            Hello

b)            What?

c)            Yes, I am actually.

2.            Do you consider yourself to be psychic?

a)            No.

b)            Yes.

c)            I anticipated your question and have already answered it in question 1.

3.            Imagine the following scenario. You are completing an online survey when the following question arises. Is this…?:

a)            True.

b)            False.

4.            Which of these fictional characters best characterises your leadership style?

a)            Animal from The Muppet Show.

b)            Flipper the dolphin.

c)            Skeletor from He-Man.

d)            Donald Trump.

5.            Have you ever suffered from déjà vu?

a)            Yes.

b)            No.

c)            For God’s sake…

6.            You have survived a plane crash in the mountains. Everyone else on board has been killed. In addition to the human cargo, the plane had been transporting a large consignment of hazelnuts. Unfortunately, you are allergic to hazelnuts. You are starting to starve. What do you?

a)            Take a chance and eat the nuts. You have an epipen anyway.

b)            Start eating one of your dead colleagues. Hopefully, they won’t have been eating any nuts recently. If they have, it doesn’t really matter.

c)            Reject the whole question as being in rather poor taste. Although if I found out the person framing the question had a nut allergy himself, that would make it okay. Even if he hasn’t been in a plane crash.

7.            Have you ever suffered from déjà vu?

a)            Yes.

b)            No.

c)            For God’s sake…

8. You think you’re pretty clever don’t you? With your degree and everything. Well, I don’t think you are. In fact, I reckon I could have you. Do you want to have a fight?

a) Don’t be absurd man. We can resolve this like adults.

b). Yeah, alright. Do you want some? Come on then? Outside now.

9. Why do birds suddenly appear, every time that you’re near?

a) To be honest, I do always keep lots of bird seed in my pockets. That might be it.

b) I am Tippi Hedren.

10. Why?

a) Why not?

b) Why what?

c) Because.

d) Because because because because because because of the wonderful things he does.

11. You have arranged your perfect dream dinner party featuring a range of guests both living and dead, real and fictional. However, Trotsky has totally let you down by forgetting to bring the salad he promised to make for starters. Churchill seems to have been drinking before he even arrived and is in heated discussion with Napoleon, even though neither understand can each other as they both speak different languages. Alexander the Great is chatting to Stephen Fry but looks bored. Brian Cox the actor is proving much better company than the TV astronomer who you meant to invite would have been but Penelope Cruz and Uncle Bulgaria have already left together. Do you like Pepsi more than coke?

a) No.

b) Only if I am blindfolded first.

c) Aren’t they both coke anyway?

12. When will I be famous?

a)            I can’t answer. I can’t answer that.

b)            How old do you think I am? First, Tippi Hedren and now this. What’s the next question going to be about? Juliet sodding Bravo?

c)            I was actually still thinking about Uncle Bulgaria and Penelope Cruz from the last question.

13. You walk down a narrow corridor and come to a cavernous poorly lit room. As you advance forward you see hear a loud snoring sound. As your eyes adjust the sleeping body of a huge malevolent green OGRE homes into view. As you attempt to run away, the ogre’s eyes flick open. It is clearly angry and wants to fight. Do you…?

a) Roll a dice. Get a 6 and you successfully kill it and thrust a sword into its evil still beating heart. You get to carry on with the survey. Get anything less and the ogre bites your head off and you die. Redo the survey endlessly from question 1 until you can advance beyond this question. Good luck!

b) Pretend to roll a dice and get a 6. Way hey. You win. That’s what everyone else does. I bet you don’t know where your dice is anyway. Or die. Whatever.

14. Look at these words. Do they look better…like this? Or like…this?

a) The first one.

b) The second one.

c) They are both about the same.

d) Er…not sure…could you do it again please?

15. Have you ever attempted to conduct a citizen’s arrest on a serving police officer?

a) Yes.

b) No.

16. Which is scarier?

a) The Laughing Cow

b) The Jolly Green Giant.

c) Being sued for copyright infringement

17. You accidentally phone your old telephone number by mistake and inadvertently get through to a ten-year-old version of yourself from the past. What advice do you give to your young self?

a) Don’t bother watching Lost.

b) Buy some shares in mobile phone technology.

c) Don’t believe what people tell you. Father Christmas is real. Your parents are the ones who don’t really exist.

Thank you for your time…

Film review: Begin Again (2014)

Review first published on Movie Muser, November 2014  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, James Corden, Catherine Keener Directed By: John Carney. Running Time: 104 minutes. UK Release Date: November 10, 2014 . Certificate: 15. Your Rating: 4 out of 5

Gretta (Knightley) is young, English and has some talent as a musician. She also has a good comedy sidekick/friend in Steve (James Corden). But her dreams of musical success in New York lie in tatters. After her recent break-up with boyfriend and collaborator Dave (Levine), she is bound for the next flight home.

Dan (Ruffalo), meanwhile, is middle-aged and seems to be on the way down after both a successful producing career and his marriage come to an end. He happens to see Gretta performing at an open mic session on her last night in town. Could this meeting be exactly what these two lost souls need?

Admittedly, this film from Once director John Carney sounds predictable as hell on paper and to some extent, this is true. But Ruffalo is great, making a potentially sleazy character likeable. Knightly can sing and has some nice scenes bonding with Dan’s teenage daughter. There are no real villains here – even Gretta’s ex has redeeming qualities and yes, this is relentlessly feelgood. But it’s not stupid either. So what’s wrong with that?

There is a “making of” featurette and some music videos on the DVD/Blu-ray. Haters of James Corden or Keira Knightley (and, yes, such people do exist) will want to steer clear and the music might repel some. But everyone else should find this an uplifting and rewarding musical treat.

Overall Verdict: The Hulk and Anna Karenina: together at last and unleashed on New York.

Special Features: The Making of Begin Again Featurette, Music Videos

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

Film review: Calvary (2014)

Review first published on Movie Muser, August 2014  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Domhnall Gleeson

Directed By: John Michael McDonagh. Running Time: 100 minutes. UK DVD Release Date: August 11, 2014. Certificate: 15

Your Rating: 5 out of 5

Review: Father James (Gleeson) is a priest. Once driven to alcoholism by the death of his wife, he appears to have found solace in his vocation, living a peaceful existence with his dog in an apparently serene Irish coastal village.

Or at least that would be the case if the villagers ever left him alone. Chris O’Dowd’s local butcher Jack, for example, has serious marital problems, his wife “sharing” him with another man. Then there’s the local millionaire Michael, played by Dylan Moran. Prone to alcoholism and urinating on priceless Holbein portraits, he is just one of the village’s many eccentrics whose grievances range from sexual frustration to an elderly American man (M. Emmett Walsh) who wants Father James to shoot him to death

Things get more personal, however, when the priest’s daughter (Reilly) turns up after a suicide attempt and Father James soon finds himself and his church subject to a series of threats and outright attacks from foes known and unknown.

Initially, it appears we might be in for a tale of whimsy and humour with the populace resembling the eccentric Craggy Islanders of Father Ted. But McDonagh (director of the lighter although similarly excellent The Guard, also starring Gleeson) makes it clear we’re in for a much darker adventure from the very first scene. There is humour here, yes. But all the characters seem deeply troubled, often by unspecified problems in their past. Moran’s Michael clearly has serious problems while some such as the doctor played by Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen seem to be positively evil. Although a genuinely good man himself, Father James soon faces the wrath of a very angry community reflecting an Ireland still scarred by the after-effects of the numerous real-life scandals concerning paedophile priests.

This is a superb film which benefits from all the cast truly giving their all even to the tiniest role.

Overall Verdict:

Another darkly humorous instant classic from the hugely talented John Michael McDonagh.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: Just Like Heaven (2005)

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The following review was first published in DVD Monthly magazine in 2005.

Sub-heading suggestions: Reese almighty/High spirits/Spirited away/While she was sleeping.

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Jon Heder, Donal Logue, Dina Spybey, Ben Shenkman

Director: Mark Waters

Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures Original Release: 2005

The Lowdown: When ER doctor Elizabeth’s overworked, socially undernourished existence is brought to an abrupt halt by a wayward truck, she soon finds her spiritual form sharing her flat with lonely semi-alcoholic, widower architect David. But is Elizabeth really dead? Why can only David see her? And can stoner bookshop employee Darryl help?

Review: While few men would balk at the prospect of suddenly discovering Reese Witherspoon was their room-mate, Just Like Heaven is a rom-com with a supernatural twist. For as with Brad Pitt at the start of Meet Joe Black, here we’ve barely had a chance to get familiar with the overworked singleton lifestyle of Witherspoon’s medic (a sort of cross between Bridget Jones and the one of the cast of ‘ER’) before she has a close encounter with a runaway lorry and is killed.

However, as with the unfortunate couple in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, the next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment and railing against the intrusion of new resident David.

We’ve been here before, of course. In addition to the films already mentioned, Just Like Heaven draws on everything from (most obviously) Ghost, to the 1930s Topper movies and even has shades of While You Were Sleeping. But happily Just Like Heaven is (just) cute enough to get away with it’s somewhat less than groundbreaking premise.

Partly this is down to Reese Witherspoon. While (as with Sweet Home Alabama) she’s clearly working with less incisive material than in her best work (Election, Pleasantville) she is never less than her usual luminous and quirky onscreen self. As David, Ruffalo is less good, never really proving that he has the aptitude either for physical comedy or for the dour ‘sad Tom Hanks in Sleepless In Seattle’ type romantic lead role the screenplay demands of him, though this isn’t a serious problem.

Indeed, comedic honours probably go to Jon Heder who as semi-psychic alternative bookshop assistant Darryl is good in his first significant if small post-Napoleon Dynamite role, a sort of stoner answer to Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost.

The film has its problems. For one thing, it’s rarely that funny. The early scenes detailing Elizabeth and David’s fractious first encounters wherein both argue vigorously over who is intruding upon whose flat are fine. Elizabeth (who like the ‘dead people’ in The Sixth Sense doesn’t know she’s a ghost) reasons that the drunken David is a vagrant who has wondered in off the streets. But the film gets funnier once David recognises Elizabeth is more than a product of his lonely alcoholic mind and enlists a range of solutions to vanquish her from the flat: namely a New Age guru, some amateurish ‘Ghostbusters’ and a priest who repeatedly intones “The power of Christ compels you!” to no discernible effect.

Some too, might lament that Waters, who did, after all, direct the dark edged Mean Girls in addition to cheerier fare such as Freaky Friday hasn’t produced a blacker film. But darkness and romantic comedy can be uneasy bedfellows and it’s probably to its benefit that Just Like Heaven is good-natured to its core.

Sadly, the extras never really rise above the average. The ‘Making Of’ featurette is the usual promotional fare and is supplemented by a similar and fairly unnecessary ‘Meet the Cast’ featurette (high court judges aside, even before Walk The Line was there anyone out there unfamiliar with Reese Witherspoon?). And despite the slightly surprising revelation that the film is based on a French novel (Marc Levy’s ‘If Only It Were True’), you’ll soon find your attention wandering during the filmmaker’s commentary.

Although in fairness this isn’t really the sort of film that readily lends itself to hours of dissection and analysis. For make no mistake: while this won’t linger long in the memory, Just Like Heaven is against all odds, one of the better romantic comedies of the past year. It’s just that as with ‘Great Films Starring Hilary Duff’ and ‘Intelligent Statements Made By President Bush’ this isn’t exactly an overcrowded field.

Final Verdict It’s not going to change the world but if you do fancy a Friday night date movie, you could do a lot worse.

Rating FILM: 6 EXTRAS: 5

Text By Chris Hallam

Book review: The Cold War by Norman Friedman

The Cold War: From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism. Published by: Carlton Books.

Nothing about the Cold War is simple. When, for example, did it start? Most people would say after the Second World War but a case could be made for saying it started as soon as Russia turned towards Bolshevism (that is, Communism) in 1917. Certainly the West was hostile to the new state from the outset, numerous powers attempting to crush it with a series of military interventions during the post-revolutionary Russian Civil War. But as the USSR was on the Allied side during the war with Hitler, most people view the Cold War as starting in the late 1940s, particularly after the USSR obtained nuclear weapons in 1949. This book does the same.

When did it end then? With the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? (it was in fact demolished later). With the collapse of the USSR in 1991? Were there, in fact, two Cold Wars, the first ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the second starting with the sharp decline in East-West relations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979?

Indeed, with China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos still Communist, could a case even be made for saying the Cold War is still on? Certainly, plenty of spying and intrigue still goes on and the world is hardly free of international tension particularly since the succession of President Trump in 2017. US defence spending is now far higher than it ever was during the official Cold War. This is essentially madness.

This thorough nicely illustrated and accessible account wisely restricts itself the key period, however, chronicling events from the botched aftermath of the Second World War, through to the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, Korean War, nuclear confrontation, the space race, Detente and ultimately a largely peaceful resolution, mostly attributable to Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It is well worth reading.