Friday, October 20, 2017


Another film about Kennedy? Yes, that's just what we need. I'm being sarcastic, naturally, but as it turns out this is the Kennedy film we probably needed. No conspiracy nonsense, no smut - just a straight account of the events of November 22 1963 as it affected a number of those indirectly involved - Abraham Zapruder, who took the famous 8mm movie; Dr Jim Carrico, who found himself pumping the President chest in the Emergency Room at Parklands; the Dallas FBI agents who not only feel they've messed up but who, it turns out, actually have messed up; and Lee Harvey Oswald's baffled brother Bob.

Parkland (2013) was the directorial debut of Peter Landesman, who also wrote the script. The cinematography is a work of art, switching from stock footage to recreation to art-house effects at times. Landesman's determination to avoid cliché is most memorably demonstrated when we get our first glimpse of the assassination film reflected in Zapruder's horn-rimmed glasses. Given that the eyes behind the glasses belong to Paul Giamatti, the impact is incredible.
All the performances are either as good as Giamatti's or make a damn creditable effort. Zac Efron as Dr Carrico is so convincing I didn't even realise that was him; Billy Bob Thornton as local Secret Service boss Forrest Sorrels, also unrecognisable; and Robert Badge Dale as Bob Oswald. I should also mention, in roles with less screen time, Jacki Weaver as barking-mad Mother Oswald, Jeremy Strong, whose resemblance to Lee is positively disquieting, and the always great Marcia Gay Harden as Head Nurse in the Parkland ER.

The script was so good that even I, who can absolutely remember where I was on November 22 1963 and who has read all the significant literature, didn't know. First, that Oswald had walked into the FBI office only a couple of weeks earlier and threatened an officer, and second that when he was gunned down by Jack Ruby they took him to Parklands - cue Marcia Gay Harden's finest moment, "Not in here!" And the final sequence, where radio and TV reports of JFK's funeral are intercut with Bob Oswald's attempts to bury his brother in someone else's plot in a long neglected cemetery in the middle of nowhere - magnificent film making and deeply moving.

 I only watched because British TV is so currently so bloody awful that there was nothing else I remotely wanted to watch on all those free-to-air and Sky channels. So I suppose I can thank Rupert Murdoch for lowering the tone of TV in general and thank a previous generation for the refuge of Film 4.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


Antoine Fuqua's 2015 boxing movie is unbelievably hoky in terms of plot, structure and character development, saved by a trio of outstanding performances. The premise could not be more blunt: good guy family man boxer versus slick gangsta challenger. You don't need subtleties like black and white hats when your hero is All-American Billy Hope, the upstart a Colombian called Escobar. It's a redemption story, as most boxing movies are - but what is Billy being redeemed from? His only sin seems to be leading with his face in the ring and being congenitally dim outside it. He doesn't do drugs, he doesn't meaningfully drink. His life spirals out of control when one of Escobar's crew inadvertently shoots Billy's wife dead. How is that Billy's fault?

Perhaps his great sin is taking a bill-paying fight while he's still grieving. He just stands there and takes it for 12 rounds. We've all seen that in real fights. He ends up knocking out the referee who really should have stopped the fiasco much earlier. For this he gets a one-year ban. Really?

Within days, apparently, his mansion is sold and he hits the streets. His daughter is taken into care when Billy tries to kill himself. OK, then, maybe the uncaring state is the antagonist. Nope, because the state is absolutely caring and considerate.

Meanwhile, thankfully, Billy starts over, under the nurturing wing of Titus 'Tick' Wills, a man with a serious backstory which we never get to see. From that moment, we are never in the slightest doubt what will happen.

It's hard to see how anyone could claim to have written this guff, let alone a serious TV writer like Kurt Sutter (of Sons of Anarchy and The Shield). I gather it started out as a vehicle for Eminem, which might explain a certain lack of demands. Instead, we get Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy, a truly outstanding physical performance, albeit the characterisation couldn't be more basic. Forest Whitaker is magnificent as Wills, the best performance I have seen from him in years. This is unexpected, given that Whitaker and rubbish material - a not infrequent combination - usually results in a display of actorly mannerisms and tricks from the Whitaker repertoire. Here, I only spotted one, the spread-arms stance, denoting a mix of helplessness and defiance. The third star is Oona Laurence as Billy's pre-teen daughter. I will state up front that I am a man who would run a mile, despite my debility, to avoid ninety minutes of kiddie acting. There are, however, exceptions - Anna Paquin in The Piano, Natalie Portman in Leon, both of whom have gone on to adult success. I very much hope young Miss Laurence can do the same, because she is really the standout performer in Southpaw, utterly credible throughout.

In case you get the impression that I'm touting Southpaw as an acting fest (Rachel McAdams is also good as the murdered wife, but isn't in it long enough), let me point out that we have Curtis "Fifty Cent" Jackson as Billy's sleazy manager. Perhaps that was the original pitch - "A mash-up of Rocky and The Champ, with Eminem and Fifty Cents!" I have not seen Eminem's 8 Mile and thus cannot comment on his acting skills. On the evidence of Southpaw Mr Jackson cannot act to keep his feet warm and has the onscreen menace of Bambi. He does however wear a slick suit very impressively.

The filmography, to be fair, is magnificent, and Fuqua handles the fight action brilliantly. The music was, sadly, the last score of the great James Horner, he of Titanic fame. Rap fans will be thrilled to learn that Slim Shady provides the song for the end titles. It too is rubbish.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Roger Wood's Biblioblog: Good & A Nightingale Sang... - C P Taylor

Roger Wood's Biblioblog: Good & A Nightingale Sang... - C P Taylor: C P Taylor was a Glaswegian Jewish Marxist autodidact playwright who lived and worked in Newcastle and who died ridiculously young in 1981. ...

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

William Henry Hunt - rural studies at the Courtauld Gallery

Hunt (1790-1864) is one of those rare painters more esteemed in his lifetime than subsequently. That does not mean he was rich, but he certainly sold a lot of paintings. Overall, he was considered inferior only to Turner as a watercolourist. That said, the drawings on show at the Courtauld are not what paid the bills and kept him in relative comfort to the end of his days. Known as ‘Bird’s Nest’ Hunt, he was famous for his intricate paintings of flowers and fruit. His handling of bloom on fruit was his signature technique (colour stippled over opaque white). Like Turner, he was actually a thoroughly urban Londoner, born near Covent Garden. In his early years he painted scenery in Drury Lane, and you can’t get much more London than that.

He was typically Victorian in appearance, that is to say, unusual. His growth was recognisably stunted from an early age and he may never have topped five feet. His head was large for his body, his shoulders disproportionately bulky. He could not walk far and painted sitting down. He is said to have taken as long as a fortnight to finish a watercolour, a combination of detail and disability.

His nature paintings are not what is on show here, though. This exhibition focuses on Hunt’s single figure studies of rural life, the men and women who work with and try to control nature. It consists of twenty watercolours and drawings. Some of the drawings are worked up into fine watercolours; others are clearly preparatory drawings with washes of colour added as notes for future reference.

I doubt very much that Hunt ever intended the latter for show. Certainly for me they are the weakest things on show.

The images of women – of which there are only two or three – are feeble and contrived. Hunt married and had a daughter, but when creating these images he overlooked any claims women might have to character or even individuality. The men are very different – distinctly characterful and carefully posed. Thus the broom-maker positively bristles with energy. I particularly enjoyed the paired images of poacher and gamekeeper. There was also a little sketch of the gamekeeper’s gun and the way it is typically held which showed the lengths Hunt went to in his quest for rural reality.
Some of the drawings are clearly unfinished.  I feel the commentators who describe them as expressionist are deluding themselves. Some are frankly dreadful – probably only kept by the artist because he forgot where he threw them. The maltster, for example, is either a giant or possesses a very indistinct dwarf cat.

In the finished pieces Hunt is very good at simulating texture and scraping-out, often for textural effect. There are several salt glaze pots where the scraped-out highlights are especially evocative. The Courtauld tries to make the case that Hunt anticipates the pre-Raphaelites. Had they used watercolour that might have been true. It might also be more relevant to his flowers and berries or his seascapes, albeit they were painted while the pre-Raphaelites were at the height and their powers and notoriety. I can’t help thinking the thesis relies more on the similarity of names – two William H Hunts, albeit no relation to one another.

I don’t want to be downbeat. About half of these images are well worth seeing, with the rest as a sort of supporting cast, illustrative of Hunt’s process. It is exactly the sort of close-focus display that I hope the Courtauld will continue to mount in their fabulous new drawing gallery.

I would like to have learnt a little more about the man himself. He sounds fascinating. In the 1850s his work was selling in Paris for more than that of Delacroix, yet he delighted in the company of tramps and street entertainers.

Funnily enough, as I was heading back to Euston I spotted Hunt’s blue plaque on Marchmont Street – next door to the flat where Kenneth Williams used to live.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

In the Dark

I had been looking forward to the new midweek cop drama on BBC 1 for some time. That needs to be put in context. First, anything new and more interesting than the national weather forecast was ringed on my calendar during the wall-to-wall onslaught that is the BBC's coverage of Wimbledon. On the other hand, I like Mark Billingham's novels - I am currently reading one, as a matter of fact - and I have long been keen to see what MyAnna Buring can do outside the corsets and wigs and over-cooked dialogue of Ripper Street.

So ... a slam dunk winner then, surely? God no - it was dreary old tosh. The script, by the slightly overrated Danny Brocklehurst, was functional at best. The lack of pace on the page was faithfully reproduced on the screen. I don't know who directed it but whoever it was needs to binge-watch Lethal Weapon (the TV series) to see just what can be achieved with a thinnish premise. The casting, other than Ms Buring, was the usual rent-a-prole that TV in general adheres to in dramas northern. Basically, anyone who can talk down their nose and, in women, can diet down to heroin skank proportions.

It only lasted 52 minutes. It seemed much longer. I was so detached, I'm not really sure what the inciting crime was supposed to be. I got the message that Buring's character was pregnant, but that could have been via the endless trailers over preceding weeks. If that's the only twist on offer, In the Dark can stay there as far as I'm concerned.

Now that Lethal Weapon has ended its run, thank goodness for Walter Presents and the upcoming new thriller from Jane Campion, the successor to her magnificent Top of the Lake with Elizabeth Moss.