Hooked on History

There’s a lovely moment in the documentary about the making of “They shall not grow old” when the woman from the Imperial War Museum describes Peter Jackson’s decisive pitch - “I want to make something which will interest 15-year old kids in the First World War.” He said it, and he meant it, and the resulting collaboration is just stunning - old footage, painstakingly converted into colour, with sound effects added, plus a running commentary precisely selected from hours of recorded archives. There’s no central character, no personal drama, but if you were teaching this in school, this is the resource you’d want to have.

And then there’s Peterloo. Similar case, really. Important part of our history, often not taught, and certainly not taught in detail. Mike Leigh’s film was made for all the right reasons, and wears its heart on its sleeve, but there’s no way any teacher’s going to be showing this to their kids. It’s solemn, far too long and desperately one-sided. If the Prince Regent, the government and the local bigwigs are just going to be shown as “people in costume who don’t care”, why bother giving them screen time? We could have the marchers’ eye view, powerfully presented, in half the time. I wanted to like this, wanted to recommend it, but came out of the cinema bored and angry. .

Early Man

So I wanted to see the latest nick Park, but because it's animation they have it down as a kids' film, and aren't showing it in the evening. I dutifully turn up at 3.30 on a Thursday afternoon at the Bridgnorth cinema - and i'm the onl person there. OK by me. i'm used to watching films on my own, and though there are very few films with as many laughs to the minute as this one, I'm quite content to chuckle in solitude. It's a weird sort of mixture of Brexit politics and old-style English affection, with some shrewd satirical nudges for football aficionados along the way (just as Chicken Run drew powerfully on all those war movies we watched as kids). Oh yes, and there's a light dash of feminist assertion, but the whole thing is just a glorious celebrations of daftness fused with intelligence. Not to mention wonderful cast, with Rob Brydon talking to himself as two football pundits. I came out feeling much better about the state of the world, and not many movies do that.  


There's a ton of good films around at the moment, and it was a buzz following the Oscar chat thinking "yup, seen that...and that..and that." But then along comes Loveless, and it's a completely different game. This is Russian in every sense - bleak, uncompromising, wintry settings and lives under pressure. It's a portrait of a couple splitting up, the separate affairs that they have, their spite towards each other and their son, who literally gets lost between them - wanders off, and isn't found. It sounds grim, and it is, but it's beautifully done, with a series of stunning still shots that are like a sequence of Breughels. It helps that we don't know the actors, we just think that they "are" these people, but they are totally convincing, both in their passionate love affairs and in their grubby little arguments. Oh yes, things can be this bad. Not a feelgood movie, and i know a lot of people who wouldn't and shouldn't go near it - but in a year rich with films this was a special, different experience. 

I, Tonya

It's a good time for movies. A few really good ones - like The Shape of Water - but also some weird surprises, of things that might have been tacky but weren't. film Stars don't Die in Liverpool, The Battle of the Sexes, and now I Tonya, the potentially depressing story of a tough, working class kid who happened to be brilliant at skating - despite failing to fit into the prescribed categories for girl skaters - petite, demure, styling and obedient. In one sense it doesn't help that her mum is a ruthless tyrant, though her mum - a brilliant Alison Janney - might well argue that it's that that got her through. early family life is bad, marriage is eventually much worse, and the trail of misfortune, from her no-good husband to his deluded friend, who hires incompetent hitmen to break the leg of Tonya's biggest rival...If anything could go wrong, it did. But the film is a marvel of honesty and commitment - good actors making tough choices and completely convincing me, at any rate, of the reality of what I'm watching. Margot Robbie probably won't get an Oscar, but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong.     

Darkest Hour

The cinema was packed. "Oh, you'll love it," a friend confidently assured me. And the friend I was with did love it. So maybe I'm just eccentric, but I thought Darkest Hour was terrible. Gary Oldman's terrific, ditto Kristin Scott Thomas, but the basic idea, the shoddy superficiality of the script, just appalled me. If I were feeling really gloomy I'd say it was a hymn to Brexit, a celebration of the people's vote which sets us free. Quirky, lovable Winston Churchill, uncertain under the pressure of smooth appeaseniks like Lord Halifax, isn't sure whether to sticj to hios comabtive guns. so he goes down into the underground, for the first time in his life, talks to randon strangers, and then comes back to the surface to rouse the houses of Parliament by quoting the sage advice of his new-found friends. Just like Ed Miliband on a bad day. The German ambassador got it exactly right. A country which takes comfort in wtaching such films id deeply delusional about his history, its identity and its future chances of survival.  

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

It's the week for "films which are much better than you'd think." On Friday I watched The Battle of the Sexes, which turned the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King circus into a really interesting piece of social history, not to mention an affair between King and her hairdresser which could have been sentimental or tacky but was really moving (Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough, both excellent).

And now, three nights later, comes Film Stars don't Die in Liverpool. Real life story of aging Hollywood actress having an affair with younger Liverpool actor. Lots of tackiness potential there - but it's rivetting. Really clever movement back and forth through time, initially explained with subtitled headings, but then as it gains momentum we're trusted to work out for ourselves what's happening, and when.  and if you're of a certain age, the fact that the 'when' is mainly 1979-81 is a bonus, because they've really worked to take you back there. On top of that, the story's consistently changing, as we revisit episodes with a fuller awareness of what's going on for both the main people. Who are terrific. Annette Bening was no surprise, but if all you know of Jamie Bell is Billy Elliott, then prepare to be knocked sideways. It's a touching, varied, profound study of a relationship - a real treat.  

Ken Burns' Vietnam

So that's it. All over, just like that. A mere ten hours of compulsive watching, and we've done the Vietnam war. I remember, way back, watching the Ken Burns series on the American Civil War. A bit solemn, but so patient, and with wonderful photographs. The jazz was similarly good to look at, though a bit more controversial in terms of what he did and didn't cover, what kind of look-in contemporary music got. But Vietnam is safely distant in one sense, although - as the programme showed - in some cases the wounds still linger on. But the detail and the photos were stunning, and they've assembled an amazing array of witnesses - Americans, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, first hand accounts of what went on, from a range of angles. There is a sad, wise recognition that american exceptionalism has been a hugely expensive curse for the whole planet, let alone America, but although that wouldn't got down well in the White House for the rest of us it's long overdue. It's moving to watch people grow over the length of the war - how a loyal marine gradually becomes a vet against the war, and then witnesses John Kerry's astonishing testimony to congress about what the war has cost. Plus, of course, the astonishing soundtrack. We always said there was no time like the sixties, and here's the proof.   

Al Gore

Got a last minute e-mail warning me of a showing of Al Gore's latest film, at the Telford Odeon cinema. (For some reason, the only places in Shropshire which got this gig were the two cinemas in Telford). the film doesn't go on general circulation till next week, but there was a bonus of a streamed interview from a big London cinema, featuring Al Gore, responding to a range from questions which varied from the profound to the trivial. He dealt with them all with economy and grace, never stuck for a word, hugely equipped to produce relevant information. He is phenomenal, determined, relaxed and very warm, heartened by the commitment and idealism of young activists, who have - as he was keen to point out - always powered large movements which achieved radical change - civil rights, feminism, gay liberation. It's a big, tough challenge, but in his company there's no question of simply ducking it or giving up. His wheeler-dealing at the Paris summit, finding the right contacts and clout to help India choose solar power over coal-fired energy, was really impressive. Perhaps, despite Trump, we still have a chance.  

American Werewolf in Dudley Castle

Not a movie you've heard of, but that's because it was an unique and unforgettable night. Flatpack Festival is a terrific Birmingham even, annually in April, but they also run occasional one-offs. (I will admit an interest: it was set up and is run by my son Ian). On Friday we went to the grounds of Dudley Castle, with camping chairs and lots of warm clothing, to camp round the illuminated grounds of Dudley Castle, and watch an evening showing of the John Landis film American Werewolf in London. a freaky choice, maybe, but it worked brilliantly, with the added taster of a short filmed intro from Landis, who looked faintly amused by the idea of us watching his movie alongside animals in the zoo, but he wished us a good night nonetheless.

We were walking back afterwards, my wife carrying our chairs, when a couple of girls offered to help her with them. she thanked them but said she was fine, and they then were very keen to know if we'd enjoyed the film. We assured them we had, and they were delighted. They'd gone because it was one of their mum's favourite films. A gorgeous, warm little cameo to end a fabulous evening. 



Letters from Baghdad

I usually manage to get to Ludlow Assembly rooms cinema, because they have a good programme. In May and June I've been seven times, often for exotic stuff which has attrracted an audience of single figures, but while they keep doing it i'll keep going, because the reqwards are so great. Last night, for instance, was Letters from Baghdad. I heard someone in the foyer describe it as “a little gem” and that’s about right. Based on Gertrude Bell’s letters about her travels and work in Iraq, it mixes the letters, read by Tilda Swinton, real-life comments from friends and enemies (using actors in costume), her own still black and white photos, and film footage from the time (1910 – 20s), in a seamless mixture which feels like a contemporary documentary. Utterly wonderful.    

A Quiet Passion

We don't have a ton of British film directors whose style is immediately distinctive - in a good way. But there is Terence Davies, and his biopic of Emily Dickinson is just stunning. All the trademarks - slow, lingering camera, beautiful music, often playing for longer than you'd think. And thoughtful, feeling faces, telling us all we need to know. There is a script, sometimes a very witty and articulate script (also by Davies himself - I was amazed), but that's only a minor part of the overall effect. And at the heart of it is Cynthia Nixon, whom I'm not sure I've ever seen before, but certainly will want to see again. It's a cliche that actors carrying their previous big parts looped around their necks like an albatross, and I'd guess there are gains and losses from having been in Sex and the City, but that certainly shouldn't be held against her. I've never seen a film about a poet which convinced me so completely that yes, this person was actually involved in writing poems, and as a bonus we get a lot of them recited over the sumptuous pictures we're looking at. a total treat. 


I'm back on the Ludlow commute, driving 20 miles each way, roughly three times a month, because I can see films there that aren't on anywhere else. but for how long? Last night I drove on my own, sat in a huge cinema with seven other people, and saw a wonderful Romanian film. Somehow the Easter Europeans have a closer, tougher view of how hard life can be, especially for decent people who are trying to do the right thing. All the people in this world have a realistic sense that they are surrounded by corruption, and negotiating through that on behalf of their loved ones will be an uphill struggle, possibly doomed. It sounds as if it's simply depressing, but it's much more intelligent than that. Thoughtful, intricate, often surprising, this is a movie to make you think as you come out. I just hope that they can afford to keep showing them. 

Hidden Figures

Now that's what I call a movie. It's not world shaking or - apparently - Oscar material. But it is very definitely an enjoyable evening, and I feel so much better for going. Partly, it's just a fascinating, almost unbelievable bit of social history - three black women working at NASA and fighting for recognition in sixties America, all hopeful and Kennedy optimistic, but also stone age in attitudes to gender and race. All that was convincingly done, but not heavily, and the whole thing had an energetic vitality that carried you along - with a lot of help from some marvellous music. This was a feelgood movie in an entirely positive way, and during the credits they showed each of the three main actresses, merging with their real-life equivalents in the sixties, and then shifting forward to their current sparkling old age, triumphant survivors with a stunning story to tell. 

From Whiplash to La La Land

I never wanted to see Whiplash, the film about a young drummer and his sadistic instructor. It sounded remorselessly macho, and the trailer was quite enough. But after really enjoying La La Land, also "written and directed by Damien Chazelle", and realising that Whiplash was now on offer via Netflix, I thought I'd give it a go.

I almost wish I hadn't. All my previous misgivings were massively reinforced: two unpleasant, aggressive self-important egos battling for supremacy regardless of the cost to anyone. The outrageously unbelievable finale features an endless drum solo by the young start. He overrides what's meant to happen, appals the people he's playing with, goes on faster and louder than anyone else, and gracious mutters that he'll cue them back in when he's finished making an exhibition of himself. Is that what drumming is about? 

So what happened between this disaster and La La Land, which has a sense of humour, a subtler feeling for jazz, and room for lively and intelligent female characters? the romantic in me thinks - maybe he met a girl? fell in love? was taken out at the back of a jazz club by an experienced player who told him that jazz was not a one man band? Sadly, no. He had the La La Land idea, and the script, six years ago. But it was only the success of Whiplash which enabled him to get it made. It is, as they say, a funny old world.   

Manchester by the Sea

There's good films, and there's great films. In a celebratory fit of independence - look, I can drive again! - I've been to the movies four times this week, and seen some good stuff, including La La Land. But Manchester by the Sea is exceptional.

Not cheerful, not easy, and it takes its time. But its never dull, and it's beautifully photographed and acted. Some of the best bits are dialogue free - filmed action and music, where we know exactly what's going on, because these people, this town, have been so carefully established that we can follow precisely - but we're drawn in all the deeper because there's no dialogue. It's about all sorts of different pain, but it's never indulgent and never settles for easy resolutions. As the backstory unfolds, full of grief, loss, anger and guilt, we recognise that this is a difficult situation, but we end up wiser and better for having been immersed in it. I don't know how they do that, but I'm so glad that they do.   

The Castle of Cagliostro

Everything they used to say about summer TV remains true, maybe even truer. I don't know why, (tiny crowds? strange time zones? getting old?)  but I haven't recaptured the enthusiasm with which I watched the Olympics four years ago, so that really doesn't leave very much on the telly that I want to watch.


Which is great, since it lets me work my way through an my back catalogue of films on DVD. In the past week that's included Boyhood, Bringing Up Baby and City of Hope. No common thread there.  Last night it was The Castle of Cagliostro, a studio Ghibli comic romantic thriller which is sumptuous - clever, witty, beautifully drawn. It's like an old style adventure, with fights, clambering up castle walls, extreme goodies and baddies - but it also has subtle political touches, gorgeous jokes and a spectrum of lively, convincing characters. in short, none of the crude slushiness we think of as 'cartoony'  - this is high quality entertainment for grown-ups. I'll be coming back to this one.  

Finding Good Movies

I regularly drive twenty miles to Ludlow, because they have a film programme which includes stuff I wouldn't get to see any other way. A couple of weeks ago I caught The Club, a south American movie about a group of disgraced priests, living together in a hostel. It was terrific - humane, witty, thought-provoking and moving, yards better than Spotlight, which tackles similar territory in a much more predictable way. sadly, I shan't be making such trips again any time soon. This evening I sent to see Eye in the Sky - Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and a dramatic exploration of drones - what's not to like? Onlt the fact that the equipment didn't work. We could have queue for half an hour to get tickets for the same film tomorrow night, but then there's no guarantee it would be shown then. they'd tried it this afternoon, and it was fine, as the charming volunteers kept explaining...There's only so many timer you can drive twenty miles for a film you don't get to see. 

The truth about Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs was an interesting and important guy, so it's not surprising that people wrote his biography. I really enjoyed the movie, selectively based on Walter Isaacson's biography, a couple of months ago. But I've just read "Becoming Steve Jobs", by Schlender and Tetzeli, and the puicture's changed completely. I've read Isaacson on kissinger, and what you get is endless detail, but a bit static and soulless. Schlender and Tetzeli are much closer, and more concered. one of them saw Jobs regularly, and they chart a convincing transformation, not simple, sudden or complete, in which Jobs moves from total pain to eccentric but imaginative boss - hence the 'Becoming' part of the title. it's given me a much more complex, rounded view of Jobs, and I'm glad to have filled out the picture. but one thing worries me. in the movie, Kate Winslet played Joanne Hoffman, Jobs' long-term assistant who seems to have been one of the few people who could work with him. Winslet talked closely with Hoffman in preparing for the role, from which it seems both benefitted. but in the Schlender/Tetzeli biography, so much fuller and more intelligent in many way, Hoffman doesn't appear, not even in the index. so what's going on there?  


...And that is more like it. Sometimes I go to movies in hope, almost in desperation - been a while, need to see a film now and again. But just now and again I go and come back knocked out that the film was yards better than I'd expected. Trumbo is terrific - it does the McCarthy HUAC politics really well, filling in the background, but also tracing tactical differences between Trumbo and his long-term mate. and it does the family stuff, too - the way his wife and kids stick by him, but at what cost, and - eventually - how close that takes them to break-up. Intelligently written, powerfully acted, not a dull moment - loved it all the way through. How something as ordinary as spotlight gets Oscars while this doesn't feature at all I shall never understand, but it's daft to get sidetracked by celebrity nonsense. Let's just say that this is a really good movie that nothing like enough people will get to see. 

Not Much Joy

"If you liked that, you'll love this!" We know Hollywood works that way. David O Russell, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert de Niro. Great in Silver Linings Playbook, so let's reunite the team and have "Joy". Actually, no. It's dire. I worship Jennifer Lawrence, and will happily watch her read the telephone directory. Here, she does a great job with what she's given, but what she's given is dire. It's all about her, none of the other characters is taken seriously, it's disjointed and unconvincing, and finally sentimental - none of the poise, wit and economy - not to mention heart - that made SLP so enjoyable. It doesn't matter who the stars are. If the script's not right, the film's not right - and this was a wasted eveneing.