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.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Fahrelnissa Zeid at the Tate Modern

Fascinating mini documentary from the Tate. There's a compelling comment towards the end, when her pupil says "She is excluded from history because of her gender and where she came from." I suspect it was more a question of where she came from. But she's back now, big time.

The exhibition is at Tate Modern until October 7 2017. I hope I can get there.

Monday, May 29, 2017

American Gods - Black Dog - Neil Gaiman

Conundrum: should I review Black Dog here or over on my biblioblog? It is a book, after all, albeit an ebook in my usage. On the other hand I reviewed the graphic novel here, as media and culture, and it was definitely that stunning cover image by Swedish artist Daniel Egneus that attracted me. Decision made: it has to be both.

So Black Dog isn't a graphic novel, it's a novella (short, even by novella standards) within the American Gods series. It features, front and centre, the flawed hero of the series Shadow Moon, who seems to have wandered into a mash-up of American Werewolf in London and Reservoir Dogs. My favourite kind of hangout. He duly admires the mummified cat they dug out of the pub foundations, he pals up with odd couple Moira and Ollie, who literally provide Shadow with shelter from the storm. Ollie is big on local folklore, primarily the black dog, barguest, boggart or padfoot, the demon dog who brings death to your house the way lesser dogs bring fleas. Moira used to be an item with Cassie, who now seems set on becoming an item with Shadow. This causes Shadow no misgivings whatsoever as Cassie reminds him of his old flame, the Egyptian cat goddess Bast.

Gaiman is truly on top of his game with this one. The ideas fizz. Take for example how he draws the parallel between the folkloric black dog and Churchill's anthropomorphised depression. I loved the cats and dogs material. I loved every minute of it. But I'm still not forking out to watch the TV series on Amazon Video. I will, however, fork out regularly for more of the source material, especially if it features artwork like the above.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Herman Wouk - 102 today!

Of course I'd heard of Herman Wouk. Who hasn't? He wrote The Caine Mutiny, for goodness sake. But did I know, 66 years on from the publication of Caine, he was still alive? No. I'm amazed, impressed, and glad. I've celebrated by ordering a copy of Caine, which like many others I expect, I have never read. I've also given the movie a wide berth and suspect I will continue to do so.

I did read his other biggie, though, back in the 'Eighties. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both star-studded TV mini-series. Back then, of course, Wouk was only in his late sixties. Who would have imagined he would still be publishing books (Sailor and Fiddler) in his centenary year?

Herman Wouk is making a valiant attempt at living forever. Good luck to him. So far so good. This year I will be celebrating by reading the novel that made him. In their works, it goes without saying, all writers live forever.

Discover more by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

New header

Decided to change the image that tops this blog. I read in The Times obituaries this morning that Martin Froy died back in January. Froy, who was ninety years old, had a long career in art and was always well known without hitting the heights. One work that received great attention at the time (1953) was his mural for the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. That is the new image:

The reason I chose it was that I used to work at the Belgrade back in the Eighties. I think it was the job I enjoyed most in my short but colourful theatrical career. I really liked the building, too.

If anyone is wondering why a theatre in Coventry is called the Belgrade, it is that the great Serbian city donated the timber for the building which was part of the massive postwar reconstruction of the city after the murderous German bombing in the war. Back in the Fifties and Sixties the Belgrade was at the forefront of the kitchen sink drama movement, premiering plays by the likes of Arnold Wesker. Nowadays, sadly, it sticks to musicals, touring shows and general dross.

Friday, May 12, 2017

American Gods - Black Horse graphic novel

As those who visit my book blog will know, I struggle with Neil Gaiman. I admire the man hugely. I loved Black Orchid (1988-9), adored Neverwhere (1996) - I even liked his episode of Doctor Who when the Tardis became Suranne Jones. But I struggled badly with Anansi Boys (2005). Meanwhile, ignoring my opinions rightly and completely, Gaiman has gone on to big and better things. Right now his 2001 novel American Gods is slaying them on Netflix. Not having Netflix, I opted for the graphic novel version, launched by Black Horse in March 2017. Even better, I downloaded it as an e-book to my Kindle Fire.

Turns out the e-reader is the perfect vehicle for graphic novels. I used to be a huge fan of American comics in my youth (actually until my mid-twenties) but only dipped my toe in the grown-up version with the aforementioned Black Orchid three or so years ago. I'm now going to focus on them digitally.

Gaiman didn't actually write the graphic novel - that is the work of P Craig Russell. He's done a good job. When you look at analytically there's a heck of a lot of story in the 20-odd pages of Issue #1. Moreover, he's not afraid to lose the words and let the pictures convey the mood.

The pictures are by Scott Hampton, who is very much in the forefront of contemporary comic art. He worked on Gaiman's Sandman and the revamped Batman. He has a detached, edgy style which suits the material here perfectly. I loved the layouts, like the above example, with its tightly cropped, almost columnar off-centre panels.

Good news. I'm intrigued to view more (but not intrigued enough, yet, to splash out on Netflix).

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Visit the Rijksmuseum - online!

I've recently discovered the Rijksmuseum's fabulous site, via Open Culture. Very quickly I found this typical double portrait by Piero di Cosimo. Painted around 1485, it's an oil on board, and features Giuliano da Sangallo, a Florentine architect, and his father Francesco.

Piero shows us that Giuliano was in the design business by the drawing tools resting on the table or sill below him. Francesco was also an architect, apparently, but he also liked a tune according to Piero. Francesco had recently shuffled off his mortal coil - no real surprise, by the look of him. Did Piero know him in life? Did he work from a separate portrait, either by him or someone else? Or did he rely on the son's description? I doubt the latter: if Giuliano disliked his father so much that he described him as a human gargoyle, why would he want him included in the painting he was paying for? Actually, I rather suspect it was Francesco's legacy that paid the fee. Piero (1462-1522) was a well-regarded artist in Medici Florence, on terms with Leonardo and Michaelangelo. Typically, his work on the Sistine Chapel was painted over by the latter. Piero was also solitary, unsociable, a bit odd.  That's why I love him so much. He reminds me of me.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Broadchurch Season 3

I just finished binge-watching the third and final season of Broadchurch on ITV1.

Everyone loved Broadchurch season 1. I reviewed it in effulgent terms on this blog. Nobody much liked season 2, and I certainly didn't. Season 3, however, was back on form. Indeed, I consider it to be the best of the three, largely thanks to a stunning performance from the magnificent Julie Hesmondhaugh as the victim.

It's a rape story, not a murder, and the victim is a middleaged woman, a daring and incredibly powerful twist. Trish has a teenaged daughter, an estranged husband, and friends and contacts throughout the community. Morever it necessitated an entirely different investigatory technique from the Robin and Marian of Wessex Police, Hardy and Miller (David Tennant and Olivia Coleman). Hardy had to be on his best behaviour with Trish whereas Miller could ask the awkward questions, of which there turned out to be many.

As it happens, I guessed early on who did it, though I was unclear about the exact arrangement until Episode 7. It didn't matter at all. As in all three series, absolutely everyone is a suspect - including the legend that is Sir Lenny Henry and the human teddy bear that is Charlie Higson (both of whom were on top form). Linking series 3 with 1 and 2 was a rather clumsy, often toe-curling, storyline about the parents of the original child victim. Mum (Jodie Whittaker) had a proper role in the rape storyline but poor old Dad (Andrew Buchan) was marooned in some improbable search for truth.

Notwithstanding the odd clunk, this was an appropriate and impressive end to a landmark trilogy. Writer/Producer Chris Chibnall now takes up the reins of Doctor Who. Hopes are high.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Wallace Collection #1

I took this picture in the garden of Hertford House, home of the Wallace Collection, on February 28, when I took myself off to London to try and cheer myself up. The trip itself was great but it could not help my mood. I plunged into a deep depression, something I've always suffered from but which has got much worse since my pituitary apoplexy. Anyway, today I have started treatment and decided I would post this on my media & culture blog as a kind of place-holder, a token marking my determination to write more about my major cultural fix of the year so far.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Leon Russell and the Shelter People

Leon died last year, one of so many musical stars of my generation. The loss of Bowie still feels raw; he was my inspiration in so many ways. Leon, on the other hand, was my first idol back in the early Seventies. His first, self-titled album was probably the first I ever bought, from a record shop downstairs in the Arndale Centre, Nelson, Lancashire. I'd be fifteen or so, I suppose. It was the photo that attracted me - I wanted to look like that. I did grow the hair and I've now got the beard. Sadly the two never really coexisted for me. Then, scanning the tracks, I saw 'Delta Lady' and realised that Leon had written it. I took it back to my grandma's house, where I was staying for the week. She didn't have a record player, so I had to wait to hear the album, Then - well, a lifelong fan was born.

So much for historical background. Leon Russell and the Shelter People was the second studio album. It wasn't second I bought. I suspect I got it later, in the mid-Seventies, perhaps while I was at university the first time round. I didn't take to it straightaway. 'The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen', the opening track on Side Two, was a disappointment. I loved everything to do with the Joe Cocker/Leon Russell collaboration, so naturally that is where I started. The other tracks on Side Two are variable. 'Sweet Emily' is typical of Leon's country drift. 'She smiles like a river' is a classic and Leon's gothic take on George Harrison's 'Beware of Darkness' is undiluted genius. The Dylan cover, 'It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry' ... well, it's not half an hour since I heard it and I've already forgotten everything about it.

The Dylan cover on Side One, 'A hard rain gonna fall', is the complete opposite, the best cover of that song ever for me, and I include Bryan Ferry in that assessment. In fact, all six songs on Side One are essential Leon listening: 'Stranger in a strange land', 'Of thee I sing', the Dylan, 'Crystal Closet Queen', 'Home sweet Oklahoma' and the magnificent 'Alcatraz', later covered, with considerable aplomb, by the now-forgotten Nazareth.

On the subject of Leon covers, let us not forget that this is the man who wrote 'Song for you', now referred to on TV talent shows as 'Donnie Hathaway's "Song for you"', covered by well over 100 other performers. This is the man who was a brick in Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, who was musical director on Harrison's concert for Bangladesh, who launched the second, 'Delany and Bonnie' phase of Eric Clapton's career and who collaborated with them all, from the Beatles and Stones to Elton John in 2010. In 1971, the year of Leon Russell and the Shelter People, he wasn't yet thirty but had already formed his own record label, Shelter - hence the title.

Yes, cry for Bowie as we all still do, but spare a warm thought for the creative force that was Leon.