Monday, 31 December 2007

HAPPY NEW YEAR

We're just under 3 hours away from the new year as I type this, and it's time to shut down my PC for the last time in 2007. I'd like to thank everyone who has taken time to stop by and look at this blog and those who have left comments; particularly Jeremy (Moon In The Gutter and Nostalgia Kinky blogs), Herman (Bloody Italiana blog) and Kimberley (Cinebeats blog). Such kindness and support helps keep me going, as I realise my writing requires much improvement and I need to post more frequently. I also need to lose some of my 172 pounds (too heavy for a guy standing just 5ft 5"). So, I guess the above are my new year's resolutions. I'd just like to close by wishing you all a happy and safe new year.

THE RANGE ROVER MURDERS

On the evening of December 6th 1995, three men were shot at point blank range on an isolated farm track in Rettendon, Essex. The bloody remains of Pat Tate, Tony Tucker and Craig Rolfe were discovered by local farmers in a range rover, their faces so disfigured that they could only be identified by fingerprints. The trio were involved in organised crime and had recently had a fall-out with Michael Steele; a local drugs dealer who had reputedly supplied them with a shipment of 'bad drugs'. Tate had allegedly boasted he would kill Steele, who had formed a close relationship with Tate's former girlfriend. Two men were arrested for the murders, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Since then, Jack Whomes and Michael Steele have always protested their innocence, and two appeals against their convictions have been turned down. In the light of new evidence, a new appeal is underway, and it seems there could well be another reversal of a miscarriage of justice hitting the headlines in the not-too distant future. Whomes and Steele's convictions were purely down to the word of one man: Darren Nicholls - drug peddler and police informant - turned Queen's evidence and testified that he received a phone call from Whomes asking him to pick up Steele and himself from the scene of the murder. Years later, fresh examination has revealed that none of the calls made from Whomes' mobile were made from the scene of the crime. 'Supergrass' Nicholls now has a new identity and is living in secrecy, doubtless looking over his shoulder and wondering if the underworld will one day track him down. So, did Nicholls lie in court? Well, he was facing a lengthy jail sentence after being caught in possession of 10kg of cannabis, so lying to the court was certainly a get-out-of-jail card if ever there was one, with the assurance of police protection and a new career in a new town. He also received royalties from a book written pre-trial ("Bloggs 19"), and part-payment for a TV programme that was never aired. Bloggs, followed by a number, is used to identify inmates of the Protected Witness Unit (which does not officially exist). It houses members of criminal gangs who have decided to break the underworld code and turn 'supergrass'.
Now, over 10 years later, we may be moving closer towards the truth but if Whomes and Steele are innocent, who carried out the murders? Carlton Leach, a close friend of the trio, doesn't know the answer but Julian Gilbey's film does offer a few very interesting theories. I'll be continuing my look at this controversial story with a review of Gilbey's film and the DVD throughout the course of this week.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

GANGSTERS PARADISE?

I've been spending the last few evenings with a DVD just released by Optimum Films on Region 2. Their 2 disc special edition of RISE OF THE FOOTSOLDIER is an astonishing account of the infamous Rettendon 'Range Rover Murders', where a trio of Essex criminals were shot dead one cold December evening in 1995. I can vaguely remember reading about this case in the papers and watching TV accounts of this horrific act of violence, and now it seems the case could well be in the headlines again very soon. Julian Gilbey's film tells the story of Carlton Leach - ex football hooligan and nightclub bouncer - who associated with the murdered men, and tells his story, finishing with a RASHOMON-style account of what may have happened that fateful night. Two men are currently serving a life sentence for the murders. Predictably, the UK broadsheets (and a few of the tabloids) savaged this film, highlighting the extreme violence and writing it off as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, bereft of any redeeming features. While this has to be the most violent film I've ever clapped eyes on, I'd also hail it as one of the best British films in many a day. Over the course of the next week, I'll be posting my thoughts on this film and going through the background of the murders, explaining why I feel there may have been a miscarriage of justice. I'll also be looking at the DVD release, which has just made it as an eleventh hour addition to my Top 10 discs of 2007. More on my choices later this week.

Monday, 24 December 2007

A CHRISTMAS MESSAGE


Christmas Eve. It's seemed a long haul the last couple of weeks, but I finally finished work just over 2 hours ago and have 3 days off before work beckons again on the 28th. Time to relax for a while. For many of us, Christmas inevitably reminds us of loved ones who are no longer with us. At this time of year, I remember my father, baby brother and my little sister who was taken from us a few weeks before Christmas in 1967 just as she was beginning to work out that something special was just around the corner. Christmas is also a time for being grateful for what we have, and I feel truly lucky to be blessed with a wonderful wife and a loving mother. My biggest wish is that my remaining family are still here this time next year and in good health. I wish the same for everyone who reads this.

Merry Christmas to you all!

SHANE, KIRSTY AND THE BEST CHRISTMAS SONG EVER








They've got cars big as bars




They've got rivers of gold




But the wind blows right through you




It's no place for the old




When you first took my hand on a cold Christmas eve




You promised me Broadway was waiting for me








This month marks the 20th anniversary of The Pogues 'Fairytale Of New York', released as a single in 1987 off the album 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God'. Those of us who quickly fell in love with this song were disappointed (and, in some cases, a few quid lighter from the bookies) when the Pet Shop Boys took the Christmas number one slot in the UK singles chart with their cover version of 'Always On My Mind'. Written by lead singer Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer, this song was originally intended as a duet for Shane and base player Cait O'Riordan who left the band before the song was completed. Cait had performed lead vocals beautifully on the excellent 'Haunted' single from Alex Cox's terrific SID AND NANCY film, but her absence may have proved to be a blessing in disguise as the late Kirsty MacColl was enlisted and was perfect for the song. Fairytale is a gorgeous marriage of The Pogues Irish folk rock and lyrics which are a mixture of the good, bad and downright ugly, beginning with an inebriated lament in a New York drunk tank, and moving through savage call and response before ending on a glorious reprise of hope for the future. The two lead singers are simply astonishing here, with Shane's gruff vocals inviting MacColl to kick back with grace and purpose. Naturally, this classic has been getting a lot of airplay on national radio, and BBC Radio 1 caused consternation by dubbing out the words slut and faggot on the 18th December. Following complaints from the band, Kirsty's mother and the general public, Radio 1 had backed down by the same evening, and Fairytale now plays uncensored once again. Quite right too, as it's raw beauty and lyrical power are, I think, only matched by Nick and Kylie's 'Where The Wild Roses Grow', and it remains the most moving Christmas song of all time.




I was lucky enough to see The Pogues in concert on two occasions. They performed Fairytale both times, but MacColl was unable to join them due to prior engagements. it's always been a genuine regret that I never got to see her join then onstage, and I was greatly saddened by her death on December 18th 2000. There's a memorial bench to Kirsty in London's Soho Square and on the Sunday nearest to her October 1oth birthday, fans gather to pay tribute. It's good to see that people remember her. Fairytale was, I think, her finest hour and this song is yet another testament to the great Shane MacGowan. Although I don't do youtube, It's a fairly safe bet this song is on there somewhere, Search it out if you have yet to encounter this classic tune.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

THE HAUNTING SEASON #4 M.R. JAMES




Outside, the cold wind is howling. Tree branches scrape across the window sill and the moon lights up a snow-covered lawn where a procession of footprints lead to the front door. Inside, it's warm. A roaring log fire, one glass of mulled wine on the table alongside a plate of mince pies. All is quiet now, save for the sound of a ticking clock which will soon be drowned by the chimes of midnight. It's late but still time for one more story before bedtime. One more tale from the master of the classic ghost story.



Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 near Bury St Edmonds. He was educated at Eton and Kings College, Cambridge and elected a fellow of Kings in 1887. From 1913-15, James was vice chancellor of Cambridge University and was appointed provost at Eton college in 1918. During his time at Cambridge, James would gather together his friends and colleagues and entertain them by reading a series of his ghost stories, making those winter's evenings seem a good deal darker. Today, those blood-curdling tales seem more popular than ever, with DVD's, audio CD's and TV productions introducing James to a new generation of admirers. For me, his magic works best on the printed page and his book "Collected Ghost Stories" is essential reading for any dedicated fan of supernatural fiction. Here' you'll find 30 tales which serve as a warning to the curious of the dangers involved in the pursuit of knowledge. The author specialised in medieaval manuscripts supplemented by decoration, and also biblical texts of uncertain authenticity where the authorship was in question. In James' stories, the central character is usually a scholar who arrives at a historic building with the aim of deciphering ancient manuscripts; an action which invariably awakens dark forces. James' work succeeds on a number of levels: He's an absolute master at manufacturing tension, taking what first appear to be mundane characters and prompting us to become immersed in their work, before moving on to shake us with lovingly applied descriptions of things/beings we'd rather not know about. For sure, our local church has never seemed the same again after reading 'The Stalls Of Barchester Cathedral' and olde worlde English hotels have often brought to mind his 'Number 13' ; a story where something is most definitely rotten in Denmark as a trio of petrified men play unwilling hosts to unearthly cries that eminate from a room that doesn't exist. (un)Fortunately for us, James insisted his ghosts be largely malevolent types rather than spirits who are driven by the forces of good, and the pacing of his tales ensure their appearances hit home with real menace. Check out 'The Wailing Well': a story of boy scouts who witness the most hideous of ends for one of their number who dares to encroach within an off-limits area known as 'The Red Ring'. Many of James' stories have been translated into TV productions. WHISTLE, AND I'LL COME TO YOU' and A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS are both available on BFI DVDs, and Christopher Lee's 'Ghost Stories For Christmas' on the BBC featured Lee reading 'The Ash Tree', 'Number 13', 'A Warning To The Curious' and 'The Stalls Of Barchester'. My own favourite TV production was first broadcast on BBC2 in 1986. Here, Robert Powell gave beautiful readings of 'The Ash Tree', 'Wailing Well', 'Oh Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad' and 'The Mezzotint'; the latter being a story that has often compelled me to fearfully glance back at many of the paintings I come into contact with. Ultimately, I think James greatest strength was his ability to transform everyday places of learning into palaces of the damned. Just imagine sitting down in a library whose silent population decreases as the hours go by. Where shadows lengthen and even the tiniest sound takes on enormous magnitude.



James understood the meaning of fear, and his stories still send those icy shivers down the spines of his readers.

SPOOKS: SEASON 6 FINALE




Earlier this week, BBC1 screened the final episode in series 6 of SPOOKS. This absorbing drama began in 2002, and follows the work of MI5 officers in London. The debut series drew many complaints from viewers who objected to the torture and killing of a junior case officer. As SPOOKS is screened after the 9.00pm 'watershed', scenes of a graphic nature have peppered all 6 seasons, reflecting the often bloody struggle against terrorism. Storylines including Al-Queda terror cells, the sale of blueprints for nuclear weapons, London in peril from flooding and a deadly virus along with other acts of terrorism all ensured that SPOOKS was rarely out of the headlines as the show built and retained a loyal core audience. The likes of Jenny Agutter, Matthew Macfayden, Peter Firth and Keeley Hawes all figured in season 1 and now, 5 years later, we have Rupert Penry-Jones (introduced in the 3rd season), Miranda Raison (debuted in season 4) and Hermione Norris (season 5 onwards) who are currently amongst those raising our hopes and fears. It's particularly good to see that Firth is still at the wicket as Sir Harry Pearce - head of counter-terrorism at MI5. Together with Penry-Jones' Adam Carter, he's the mainstay of this excellent drama and is aided and abetted by a fine cast of actors. Indeed, one of SPOOKS' strongest weapons is that it's blessed by some remarkably good acting, which compels viewers to care deeply about the characters. Of course, the subject matter often draws criticism from those who point out that our daily news contains coverage of terrorist atrocities, items concerning increased nuclear capabilities and vicious fighting between troops from warring nations. This is reality, so why should be require fictional accounts of the same? I'd say that over 6 million viewers are drawn to SPOOKS for a number of reasons. It's fascinating to watch the political intrigue; particularly between MI5 and the government, giving us chance to witness instances of inner turmoil, some of which may not be too wide of the mark with regard to the real-life situations that play behind closed doors in Downing Street. I think this series also leaves us with a greater appreciation of the men and women who work 24/7 to continue the fight against terrorism, and in SPOOKS we can identify with their work and take some comfort in the fact that our country and the world are that much safer because of their efforts. We may not always approve of the methods employed, and some of the storylines are a little too hard to swallow but, overall, it's hard not to go with the bigger picture. The final episode of season 6 is a case in point as 2 MI5 officers are captured and held hostage while their colleagues race against time to foil another terrorist plot. In this episode, the kicker is that senior officers are charged with risking the lives of two colleagues for 'the greater good'. While I don't intend to divulge the ending, I will say that a glass of whisky and a cigarette were the first things I reached for after witnessing the harrowing final frame which brought season 6 to a close with the customary monochrome negative image that compresses into a white line against a darkened screen. Sleep did not come easily on this particular night.



There are already rumours in the press concerning season 7 which may see the death of a prominent member of the cast. SPOOKS has never been averse to taking out key cast members. As in the real world, no-one is safe. Whatever happens, the next instalment can't come quickly enough for me.

Friday, 21 December 2007

JOE STRUMMER. 5 YEARS AFTER




Tomorrow will mark the 5th anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer. I'm at work most of the day, but didn't want to let this sad occasion pass without saying a few words. My opening post on this blog featured a look at THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN; Julian Temple's excellent film on Joe, and I can remember I first heard the news on a radio programme. Soon, I was to receive emails and phone calls from friends who wanted to talk about his passing and remember all the great concerts we saw by one of the finest UK bands. Joe died from a congenital heart defect. He was just 50 years old. Strummer's first taste of fame came with pub rockers The 101'ers who were supported by the Sex Pistols at one of my old haunts The Nashville Rooms in London. Their "Keys To Your Heart" single was a taste of great things ahead for Joe, who went on to form The Clash after being asked to sing lead vocals with a band called London SS. When LSS folded, Mick Jones, Paul Simenon and Terry Chimes became The Clash. Following a blistering debut album, Chimes left the band (Levene had already been fired) and we had the classic line-up of Strummer, Jones, Simenon and Headon. Over the next 10 years, the band would record some classic vinyl and turn in some of the finest gigs I've witnessed. In fact, I'd have to nominate some of their shows as the very best I've attended, even surpassing the likes of The Jam and Siouxsie And The Banshees. When The Clash split, Strummer turned his back on many attempts to get them to reform, eventually forming a band titled The Mescaleros using reggae, jazz, funk and punk to create some exciting music. Joe's last gig was on November 22nd 2002 in Liverpool. A week earlier, Jonesy had joined the band live onstage. It was the first time the pair had shared a stage in almost 20 years, and would also be the last. The pair shared vocals on "Bankrobber", and the encores included "London's Burning" and " White Riot". I'm pleased they got back together again, if only briefly, as this duo had been through so much together.



I was listening to a BBC radio programme the other evening and came across "London Calling": a show where Joe had acted as DJ, talking about and playing some of his favourite tunes. The first song I heard him introduce was "Blitzkreig Bop" from The Ramones. This song reminded me of the time I saw this great American band play at a vastly overcrowded Rock City, Nottingham, and I could tell Joe also had fond memories of this group. It was so good to hear his voice again, to hear his love of music and of life. So, at some point tomorrow, no matter how busy I am, I'll think of Joe and all the good times. Of a heady night at Derby Kings Hall in 1977 when I saw the greatest British band that ever trod the boards, and caught their act on a further 10 occasions. I'll probably even shed a tear when I dig out the "Give 'em Enough Rope" album and play Jonesy's emotional "Stay Free" song which could have been written for Joe Strummer. A giant of a man, I wish he was still here.



Sunday, 16 December 2007

SIGHT AND SOUND BEST OF THE YEAR


My favourite film magazine, Sight And Sound have just printed their best of the year list in the latest issue. I thought it would be interesting to reveal their choices; particularly for those of you who live outside the UK and don't have access to this magazine.


1/ 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (Cristian Mungui)

2/ INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch)

3/ ZODIAC (David Fincher)

=4/ I'M NOT THERE (Todd Haynes)

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Florian Henckel von Donnnersmarck)

6/ SILENT NIGHT (Carlos Reygados)

=7/ THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (Andrew Dominik)

SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Ethan and Joel Coen)

EASTERN PROMISES (David Cronenberg)


As my wife and I live a fair distance from our nearest cinema, we've only managed to see three of the films on this list and two of those will appear in my forthcoming post on my own choices for the best DVDs of 2007.

We're certainly looking forward to spring 2008 when a new 12 screen cinema will open in nearby Derby and make cinema visits far easier and a lot cheaper.

Of the films in the S&S list, I'm especially interested in checking out the Coen's latest. I've been a keen fan of theirs since I caught BLOOD SIMPLE when it was first released at the cinema and 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS - winner of the Palme d'Or and FIPRESCI awards at Cannes - sounds fascinating. You can check out indivdual critics choices for this list at http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/



Wednesday, 12 December 2007

THE HAUNTING SEASON #3 THE STONE TAPE

THE STONE TAPE


When it comes to the paranormal, the written word so often triumphs over the moving image. Sometimes, it's nice to sit back and let imagination take you through some dark places, away from over-zealous film directors showing you more than you really need to see. Sometimes, however, we encounter celluloid chillers that succeed in establishing an icy grip on the senses: The Haunting, The Changeling, Session Nine, The Others and The Woman In Black are just a few examples of films that can lower the room temperature and freeze the blood. The Stone Tape is another worthy member of this select group of spookers.First broadcast on 25th December 1972, The Stone Tape must have ruined Christmas for many viewers, adopting a 'less is more' approach which delivers a handful of spectral apparitions, and a series of blood-curdling screams - the rest is down to Nigel Kneale's screenplay and several fine performances.Director Peter Sasdy's declaration of intent is unveiled right from the word go as Jill Greely (Asher) - a woman clearly on the edge of a nervous breakdown - almost comes to grief with a large truck bearing the name 'Ryan Electronics'. Jill recovers from what could have been a fatal crash to begin work at Taskerlands - a building that dates back to the 18th century - where she will oversee the installation of computers and sundry data equipment.A crack team of electronics experts - led by bombastic Peter Brock (Bryant) - hope to design a revolutionary recording medium, and confound the market leaders, affectionately known as 'old nippon'. With an eager team wanting to press ahead, the schedule is thrown off-kilter when workmen down tools, refusing to renovate one room in particular. A general feeling of unease appears to be their main cause for concern, though matters come to a head when Jill - blessed/cursed with mediumistic powers - sees the ghostly apparition of a young woman at the top of a flight of stairs that lead...... to nowhere.The discovery of 30 tins of spam and a letter to Father Christmas ("All I want for xmas is please go away") become pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that includes a maid named Louisa Hanks; two attempted exorcisms back in the mists of time, and the reluctant testimony of a fightened local who mentions "the others".As the unquiet spirit screams and screams again, Jill is joined by several of her colleagues who can now see and/or hear what may be a psychic echo of a past tragedy. Peter eventually joins the ranks of the believers, and embarks on a ruthless pursuit towards self-advancement, with no thoughts for the safety of his team or his mistress.Approached from a purely supernatural perspective, The Stone Tape hits the back of the net on many occasions, with its aura of evil practically reaching out from the confines of a television screen to suck you into that infernal room where past events intrude on the present. The aural and visual manifestations are frightening enough, but Sasdy's film reaches its peak when a solitary figure enters the time-slip vacuum, breaching the darkness to confront a silence that is deafening.It's a scary trip, and maybe Sasdy hasn't received the credit he deserves: due, no doubt, to another visionary screenplay from Nigel Kneale. Just witness the animated conversation regarding the possibilty of history in the making; a new recording device that will condense hours of audio material onto a tiny piece of software, and 13 channel TV - "Porn channel 1, porn channel 2, DIY...." Kneale even extends his take on the shape of things to come into a sidebar concerning brusque businessman Crawshaw (Marsh) who fights for a piece of Taskerlands to aid development of his own invention - a self-programming washing machine capable of sorting its own load. Together with Kneale's Year Of The Sex Olympics script, The Stone Tape casts an eye to the future with more than a degree of accuracy, and creates a foundation for Sasdy and his cast.On the debit side, there are several scenes which grate a little - mostly in the form of OTT performances from some of the largely male cast, and the sight of 'ghostbusters' attempting to 'clear' the room by using primitive outside broadcast equipment looks a tad amateurish. Still, many films (with the advantage of state-of-the-art resources) have cheerfully cribbed from The Stone Tape's ghost-laying technique, and its desire to move on from the bell,book and candle approach should ultimately be applauded. Some dodgy FX scenes near the end momentarily threaten to undo the good work, but a late rally puts things to right, taking us into the haunted room which may be about to welcome at least one new occupant.Sasdy's film is sadly out of print in the UK on VHS and DVD. While I don't own a copy of the latter, I have viewed the disc and, given its age and the source material, picture quality is as good as one could hope for. The BFI disc includes a commentary track from Kneale and writer & reviewer Kim Newman, and there's also a DVD Rom extra in the form of a Kneale script, 'The Road'.I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of The Stone Tape at London's National Film Theatre, a few years back. Afterwards, Kneale was interviewed onstage and briefly discussed 'The Road'; a ghostly tale of Roman centurians returning from the grave. Kneale lamented the fact that the tape of this film had been wiped by a BBC employee, and is lost forever. A crying shame, but think of it as an unfilmed gem that may see light of day from one of the UK's rising young directors. Until then, stoke up the fire, sit back and let your imagination take hold.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

THE DINOSAURS ARE BACK


Last night, the legendary Led Zeppelin played what may or may not be a one-off gig at London's o2 arena. The concert was a charity event for Ahmet Ertegun - music promoter and record mogul - who died last year. Such was the interest in this reunion that the 20,000 tickets had over 20 million applications, with tickets costing the princely sum of £135 each. By all accounts, LZ played a blinder, with a set lasting 125 minutes and containing the following numbers:

Good Times Bad Times
Ramble On
Black Dog
In My Time Of Dying
For Your Life
Trampled Under Foot
Nobody's Fault But Mine
No Quarter
Since I've Been Loving You
Dazed and Confused
Stairway To Heaven
The Song Remains The Same
Misty Mountain Hop
Kashmir
Whole Lotta Love
Rock And Roll
For their legions of fans, last night's gig raised hopes that their favourite band may well reform for more concerts, though band members were tight lipped about any such possibility. My first encounter with LZ came about through a friends record collection with the Four Symbols album and the Physical Graffiti double getting a spin or two on my record deck. The release of the album Presence in 1976 drew great excitement from a lot of my friends but, by then, things had moved on. It was time to open the window and throw out the old guard as a certain J. Lydon entered the fray and told us to junk all the crap and join in something a lot more exciting than rubbing violin bows over guitar strings (yes, Page did that little trick again last night). The rest, as they say, is history but things are coming full circle again with the likes of Genesis reforming while The Stones just keep on trucking. Now we have Zep back: a band with more than their fair share of baggage. Tales of extreme groupie abuse, the trashing of hotel rooms and a possible curse relating to Jimmy Page's interest in The Black Arts are the stuff of legends, and their concerts and recordings are still revered by old die-hards. Last night, fans of long standing were well represented but reports also indicate that a percentage of the audience was made up of people who weren't even alive when Plant and co were in their prime. Such was the demand for tickets that the concert was attended by people from all over the world, though it would have been somewhat galling for true fans to see reports of some of the lucky ones who did get tickets: Noel and Liam Gallagher from the wonderful Oasis, Naomi Campbell, Lisa-Marie Presley, Kate Moss and The Spice Girls being just a few of those who got tickets in preference to the 'common people'. Par for the course for this kind of event, but still bloody annoying for those who spent time and effort trying to secure their place.
On BBC radio this morning, the daily phone-in veered away from normal political matters, and devoted an hour to the Led Zep phenomenon, asking should these old bands reform or simply grow old gracefully? The result seemed to be a 50/50 split between those who welcomed a comeback and others who denounce Zep as ageing dinosaurs who should have been put out to grass for all time. I'd agree with the former camp. If bands wish to reform and folks want to see them, that's fine. Many people were either too young or not even born when some of these groups were recording and playing live. Personally, I was pleased some of my top bands like The Jam never got round to reforming. I prefer my memories to consist of bands that went out on or very close to the top of their game, rather than trying to recreate a moment that lies in the past. Perhaps the re-emergence of Led Zeppelin and other old-timers tells us a lot about today's music scene and, perhaps, it tells us a lot about ourselves too.


Monday, 10 December 2007

LOVE CONQUERS ALL. ED WOOD Jr





Today marks the 29th anniversary of the death of Ed Wood Jr.
Born in 1924, Wood was responsible for making what many would claim to be virtually unwatchable films, full of bad acting, absurd plots and truly dire special effects. Wood's productions were indeed littered with the aforementioned catalogue of disasters and much more. You want cardboard gravestones, flying saucers on strings and stock footage inserted at ever increasing intervals? Ed was your man, using a team of close friends, has-beens and never-will-be's to concoct a filmography that has been well and truly slaughtered by discerning critics. Me? I love the guy and while I'm far from being blind to his ineptitude, I also find much to enjoy in his work. He gave Steve Reeves his first film role in the noirish JAILBAIT, brought Bela Lugosi back in front of the camera and gave us a production line of so-bad-they're-almost-good 'stars' such as Paul Marco, Duke Moore, Tor Johnson and, yes, Dolores Fuller. Hampered by an acute lack of business sense, Wood productions were invariably on/off affairs with hefty gaps in filming while additional funds were sought, and backer's offspring's given starring roles in order to secure investment. The fact that Wood made so many films was purely down to his tenacity and self-belief, though these were qualities that would eventually desert him. Still, the golden (turkey) years gave us much dubious entertainment, with the 'Paul Kelton Trilogy' and GLEN OR GLENDA gaining the most notoriety. The former is a semi-autobiographical look at transvestism which shocked Dolores Fuller to the core, as she did not realise her lover had a fondness for cross-dressing; a secret that came out during a private screening. As usual, Wood's reach often exceeded his grasp but he did succeed in making a brave plea for tolerance, helped considerably by his own situation. At times, GLEN OR GLENDA falls squarely into the arthouse genre and if the 'Fellini Of Failure' had more than a few rocky moments, he should generally be applauded for this work. There's even a spot of mild bondage thrown in and the shot of Lugosi surveying the busy streets and sidewalks ("Pull the string!") is one of my favourite Wood moments. Of course, much has been written of his 'masterpiece', PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, and I'd seriously recommend those who hate it with a passion should attempt to experience it in a theatre if at all possible. i managed to see PLAN 9 as part of a film festival several years ago, and sharing it with a packed auditorium made the bad bits even funnier and the half-decent scenes - including Tor's resurrection - seem like they belonged to a different and better film. NIGHT OF THE GHOULS is another film I'd love to see on the big screen, if only to witness reaction to that unbelievable seance. I'm sure that one has them rolling in the aisles on the rare occasions it plays, although it has to be said there are several eerie moments that should draw respect for the man's efforts.

On 1st December 1978, Ed Wood and his wife were evicted from their apartment in California. 9 days later, Ed died of a heart attack.

Jean-Luc Godard once said, "To make a film, all you need is a girl and a gun." All Ed Wood required was guts, perseverance and a belief he could shoot movies that would make people remember him.Tim Burton certainly did, and his ED WOOD feature is still my favourite Burton film. It shows a director trying his best and succeeding in getting his visions on screen. Love of cinema pulled him through. For that much, no-one should begrudge him his 15 minutes of fame and a place in the history of cinema.

On this day, I'll remember Edward D. Wood Jr as a man who did his damnedest to entertain us. I think he did exactly that.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

THE HAUNTING SEASON #2








Yesterday saw hundreds of people out in Derby to protest at the closure of our Playhouse theatre. While the search for a buyer goes on, I thought I'd post a review of one of the most memorable shows I've seen there. I'd read Susan Hill's novel many years ago, and was chilled by this tale of revenge from beyond the grave. A good place to continue my theme of ghost stories for Christmas.




THE WOMAN IN BLACK.




Fact. Old fashioned ghost stories are few and far between these days, and haunted house junkies are often forced to reach for well-thumbed blasts from the past in order to get a regular fright-filled fix. Stories by M.R. James, Shirley Jackson and Peter Straub have kept me awake on many occasions during the wee small hours, and I'd nominate Susan Hill as my current chairperson of the 'Sleep Deprivation Society'. THE WOMAN IN BLACK is an atmospheric chiller that never fails to unnerve me, demonstrating the written word can often be as powerful as the moving image. This terrifying story centres on a young solicitor named Arthur Kipps, who is instructed to attend the funeral of one Alice Drablow. Kipps takes the train to the town of Crythin Gifford, intending to carry out a speedy appraisal of her private papers and return to his London firm with all relevant documents.




Situated on the bleached salt marsh beyond Nine Lives Causeway, Drablow's Eel Marsh House can only be reached by crossing the causeway at low tide, and Kipps soon discovers the place is given a wide berth by the locals. Arthur tries to break the villager's wall of silence, but ultimately finds their fear to be something more than superstitious nonsense. Who is 'The Woman In Black', and how does she relate to a tragic event which claimed the lives of three people many years earlier?




THE WOMAN IN BLACK has entered a record breaking 18th year at London's Fortune theatre with the show also playing intermittently on a regional basis, drawing lavish praise from audience and critics alike. Even so, I harboured grave doubts this powerful story would successfully translate to the stage. Surprisingly, the opening minutes are high on chuckles and low on chills. Ian Lindsay took the role of Arthur Kipps who enlists the help of a young actor (Ian Targett) in order to prepare for the opening night of a play. Kipps believes that reliving his nightmare in the company of strangers is the only way to exorcise The Woman In Black. Right from the word go, Lindsay and Targett gel perfectly as the actor berates for his clumsy interpretation of Hill's wonderful opening paragraphs. At times, their witty repartee verges on downright hilarious but guys, if Susan says it's a long corridor than it most assuredly is! Yes, that memorable first page will never read the same again, but the humour does work. Witness the scene where Kipps enquires how a stage play could accommodate all the key elements of the book. This was actually a brave move on writer Stephen Mallatratt's part, raising questions that must have been in the minds of many theatre-goers. Once again, this double-act had us in stitches, this time introducing a series of props and sound effects which represented Kipps' train journey and that eerie pony and trap ride across the Nine Lives Causeway. Targett added that audiences would certainly use their imaginations, and that was made easy by the sheer quality of the production. Thanks to Kevin Sleep's superb lighting and Michael Holt's excellent design work, The Playhouse stage became Eel Marsh House; the haunted nursery in particular truly living up to Hill's blood-curdling description. Ron Mead's sound design was also top-notch, joining hands with some spooky visuals that made the audience jump out of their skins on several occasions. This is certainly not a play for the faint-hearted. It frequently succeeds in recreating the heart-stopping terror of the novel, and the vein of humour running through this production ensures that when the shocks occur, they hit home with considerable force. Robin Herford did a fine job as director, and must have found the two Ian's to be a joy to work with.




Lindsay does relinquish his Kips character fairly early in the play, and treats us to colourful interpretations of some pretty sedate literary characters: Drablow's financial agent (Mr. Jerome), a wealthy landowner (Samuel Daily) and the valiant Keckwick who knows better than anyone the terrible truth about Eel Marsh House. Susan Hill's creations are all present and correct, and I roared with laughter at Lindsay's portrayal of, sniff, Tomes the clerk. While Lindsay is busy livening up the population of Crythin, Targett puts himself in Arthur Kipps' shoes, giving a lively performance that never falters. There are times when his exuberance enters the realms of over-acting but his enthusiasm was so contagious, it was hard not to get carried along with him. So far, I've name checked most of the cast and crew but what about you-know-who? Did The Woman In Black appear? Well, I hate to break it to you but Lindsay and Targett were the only actors in this production, and a quick perusal of the programme and front-of-house-stills confirmed this. It seemed that the ghostly lady is confined to the pages of Hill's novel, though I could have sworn that on 3 occasions I saw....... maybe not. Maybe I should put it down to over-imagination. It was that kind of night.




Several years after the Derby show, I caught THE WOMAN IN BLACK again at The Fortune Theatre in London with two friends who enjoyed it as much as I did.




In 1989, the ITV channel screened a television production of THE WOMAN IN BLACK on Christmas Eve. This television drama was directed by Herbert Wise, and Nigel Kneale adapted the story from Hill's novel. On (admittedly) a single viewing, I have to say the TV drama didn't really hit the spot for me with perhaps a few changes too many when compared to the book. However, I attended, some years later, a screening of THE STONE TAPE at London's National Film Theatre and Nigel Kneale was on hand to do an enjoyable Q&A and also screen clips from several films. THE WOMAN IN BLACK was one of them and I have to say the clip shown was enough to give me nightmares later that night. Universal now hold the rights to this drama and it seems unlikely the film will be released on DVD anytime soon. It is easy to find copies on Ebay but, as these copies are illegal, I'm sure none of us would even dream of purchasing one.




Look out for my review of THE STONE TAPE - a classic ghost story - later this month.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

A CAUSE WORTH FIGHTING FOR


On Thursday 30th November, the Derby Playhouse Theatre staged what may prove to be its final show. Earlier that day, the board of trustees took the theatre into voluntary liquidation after a last-ditch rescue package was rejected; an offer which involved the joint artistic director putting up £282,000 of his own money. The city of Derby - some 14 miles from my own hometown - is currently enjoying a resurgence with a brand new £350 million shopping mall and the promise of 2 new cinemas which will be up and running in Spring and Summer next year. In terms of audience figures, The Playhouse was one of the most successful theatres in England but, as is so often the case, a severe lack of funds has hampered operations since 2002. It seems absurd that such a thriving city is unable to host live theatre, but there is a glimmer of hope as the administrators are now willing to accept bids from parties wishing to buy the business.
Like cinema, live theatre offers both light and intellectual entertainment. It's a place where people can go to escape for a few hours. Somewhere they can enter the lives of others, and go on new journeys. I believe it's important such places such be allowed to thrive, and I'm sure there are many other cinemas and theatres threatened with closure the world over. We should do everything we can to support entertainment venues because, next time, it could be somewhere near you.
The Playhouse holds special memories for many folks. It was the place where I savoured every moment of a wonderful stage adaptation of AMADEUS; where I marveled at the superb special effects of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN and was chilled by Stephen Malatrat's version of the classic ghost story, THE WOMAN IN BLACK. My first visit to this venue was a film screening of Don Lett's THE PUNK ROCK MOVIE, but live theatre was soon coursing through my veins, leading me to check out some top shows during frequent visits to London. Fingers crossed I'll have some good news to report in the next week or so because, up to now, the whole thing has been handled very badly.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

THE HAUNTING SEASON #1





December. The time of the year when we all look forward to the Christmas holidays, grabbing a few days off work to be with family, and reflect on the absence of loved ones who are no longer with us. It's also a month when many of us like nothing better than to settle back and read a good old fashioned ghost story, or to watch a particularly spooky film. I thought it would be nice to take a look at a few of my own favourites and hope you enjoy my choices. First up is this offering from 1987 directed by Ching Siu-Tung




A CHINESE GHOST STORY


Leslie Cheung, Joey Wong, Wu Ma, Jin Jiong, Wai Lam, Sui Ming Lau, Jing Wong, Zhilan Xue


The recurring theme of 'Love From Beyond The Grave' invariably provokes a dewy-eyed response from cinema-goers everywhere, and A Chinese Ghost Story also features tear-stained moments of romance from a love that can never blossom. Ching Sui-Tung's remake of The Enchanted Shadow (1960) certainly has a few of those lump-in-your-throat scenes, but it also moves like an express train at times, combining action, humour and amazing pre-CGI effects.The much-missed Leslie Cheung takes the central role of Ning Tsai-Shun - a debt collector down on his luck - who seeks shelter from the rain and ends up at the Lan Yeuk temple. It's here he encounters the beautiful Siu Sihn (Joey Wong); a girl with "cold hands and a pasty complexion"."You seem really kind. It's a shame you came to the wrong place", declares Sihn. Before long, this heartfelt admonition casts a shadow over Shun and his newfound ally, Master Yan (Wu Ma); a Taosist swordsman who will soon risk life and limb in a duel between two worlds. The deal here is that Sihn is a ghost who is forced to lure young men into the temple where a tree demon is waiting to devour their souls. An arranged marriage to the evil Lord Of The Black Mountain places a seemingly irremovable object between Sihn and her earthly lover, leading to a battle royale in the underworld.Horror/fantasy cinema has been responsible for some chilling visions of Hades, from the barren landscape of The Beyond to the fluorescent colours in Mario Bava's Hercules In The Haunted World. The Hell depicted in A Chinese Ghost Story must rank as another major achievement, as a single soundstage is transformed into a mist-shrouded abyss of the damned. It's here the fertile imagination of producer Tsui Hark really goes into overdrive, constructing a series of pulsating set pieces that may well leave you out of breath.Hark really does throw some blistering scenes of mayhem into the mix, while reminding us that he's a master of subtle changes of pace when the script demands: listen out for numerous lines of madcap humour, and feast your eyes on some beautifully lit scenes accompanied by a gorgeous swirling soundtrack which occasionally shifts gear to reveal cues reminiscent of David Bowie's 'Low' album.Widely acknowledged as a classic slice of Eastern delight, A Chinese Ghost Story casts its net further afield, with zombie riffs (albeit of the more docile kind) and nods to the tree horrors of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead.This really is a visual treat, and the Region 2 DVD from Hong Kong Legends does it full justice. HKL's presentation looks remarkably crisp and colourful with blue ground mists, the warm glow of candlelight and those different shades of green in the New Territories exterior scenes all looking better than ever. Blacks are also spot on, and there's plenty of detail in night-time scenes - check out the 'company of wolves' scene in the forest.This sumptuous transfer gives plenty of bang for your buck, and there are further praiseworthy aspects to consider.The ubiquitous Bey Logan travels solo on an audio commentary that's a mixture of historical background, anecdotes and sharp observations drawn from his considerable experience as a writer and an actor. We learn about Poo Song Ling ("The H.P.Lovecraft of his day") whose novel, 'The Magic Sword', inspired the original film and this remake; the careers of cast and crew - included the 7 DOP's Tsui Hark employed for this film - and get the lowdown on the revised ending.This wealth of information is delivered at something approaching breakneck speed, yet it's easy on the ears and greatly increases ones admiration for the film and its cast and creators.Logan is never slow in making personal observations regarding the various production techniques employed here, expressing a preference for physical props as opposed to CGI, admiration for the stop-motion and steadicam work, and great enthusiasm for the performances of the main players. Logan's talk also takes in a few cultural sidebars, revealing that the supernatural is widely accepted as solid fact by the Chinese people.HKL have also thoughtfully provided two interviews. The first is an informative 23 minute chat with Tsui Hark who expresses his admiration for Cheung (who initially refused the role of Shun); explains why Joey Wong wasn't first choice for playing Siu Sihn, and offers his reasons for frequently casting singers in many of his films. The second interview - a 29 minute Q&A with Wu Ma - is just as enlightening, revealing this actor/director has worked in the industry for 41 years. Wu Ma tells us why he feels Hark is an incredibly demanding person to work for; gives his reasons for believing that aspiring actors should begin their careers in TV rather than movies, citing Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung and Andy Lau as prime examples of the benefits of this route, and like Hark, chats about Leslie Cheung, hoping that his spirit is at rest.The remainder of this disc contains trailers for some mouth-watering releases from Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia - including clips from The Warrior, Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain and Naked Weapon - and all of them look in excellent shape. You'll also find 2 trailers for A Chinese Ghost Story: the UK version has a female voice- over which works really well, and makes a refreshing change from the norm.There is one more feature to tell you about, and my advice is to make this your last port of call. 'A Star Shines In The East' is a short text and stills tribute to Leslie Cheung. Here, the words of Bey Logan convey the sadness surrounding Cheung's suicide, and pays tribute to his short time amongst us. It's a sad note to end on, but reminds us that this talented actor/singer left so much to be remembered for.


It's a sobering thought that it's 20 years ago since this made a splash on the cult circuit in the UK. Nice to remember it here. Next week, I'll be taking a look at the ghost stories of an absolute master, MR. James.


WE'VE COME ON HOLIDAY BY MISTAKE















"London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade, and there's going to be a lot of refugees".










It's 1969. The fag-end of a decade forever known as 'The Swinging Sixties'. In Bruce Robinson's feature debut, two out of work actors are living - make that existing - in a small flat in London's vibrant Camden Town. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) stagger through life with booze, lighter fuel and pills playing an important part in their struggle against a system seemingly stacked against them. Worn down by squalid living conditions (self-inflicted, I might add), the pair are granted temporary respite when Withnail's Uncle Monty (the splendid Richard Griffiths) offers them the use of his country retreat. Upon arriving at this haven of solitude, our two would-be thespians find the countryside to be a hostile place, with unfriendly locals and wayward livestock forming a united front of oppression. Add to this the amorous attentions of a rampant Monty, and Withnail's assertion that "We've come on holiday by mistake" proves to be entirely prophetic as the film progresses.




Best experienced on the big screen as part of a packed audience, WITHNAIL AND I is a cult film in the truest sense of the term, with a loyal audience built up over the 20 years since it's release. This legion of die-hard fans can often be found drunkenly spouting lines of deliciously quotable dialogue in bars all over the UK en route to their next DVD viewing. Anchor Bay UK's wonderful 3 disc tin boxset is currently the finest home video incarnation of this film, boasting a nice remastered print and some nifty extras. Here, the films troubled production history comes under the spotlight, revealing that WITHNAIL was almost shut down inside the first 4 days of filming after Dennis O'Brien (one of the producers) declared it simply wasn't funny. More power, then, to director Bruce Robinson who fought tooth and nail to get his debut off the ground and onto our screens. The film itself is partly autobiographical, with Robinson using McGann's character to paint a picture of his own life in London, while Withnail was inspired by Vivian Mackerrell - a close friend of Robinson who died at an absurdly young age. Amazingly, WITHNAIL also marked the feature debut for Richard E. Grant, and is almost certainly the film he'll be remembered for. Grant is superb as the flamboyant Withnail; a cowardly, drunkard who places the arse of his friend in mortal danger in order to further enjoy a class distinction that is fast leaving him behind. In the supplementary section, Robinson tells how he instructed Grant - a non-drinker - to get rat-arsed drunk so he would know how it felt to be under the influence and boy, did it work! This is probably the finest portrayal of a boozer in British cinema and on a par with Jeremy Irons' sad, inebriated figure in BRIDESHEAD REVISTED (cf to DEAD RINGERS), though there's a lot more to this role than simply acting drunk. Witness the final scene where an emotional Withnail gives a magnificent reading of lines from HAMLET to a pack of wolves in London Zoo. It's a supremely moving moment, and suggests that perhaps Withnail really does have it in him to progress in his chosen career. Of course, his friend Marwood seemed the more likely to secure gainful employment, but it's Withnail who possesses all the qualities needed if only he would just believe. Wide-eyed Marwood is a perfect foil to his exuberant friend being introverted, inexperienced in the art of life-and-how-to-live-it and capable of the most brilliant cutting humour : "I have just narrowly avoided having a buggering and come in here with the express intention of wishing the same on you". Thank God that Robinson relented and re-instated McGann after firing him.They do make for a marvellous double-act, but strong support is forthcoming from both Griffith and Ralph Brown who plays Danny; a wise fool with a hilarious knack of making utter nonsense seem profound.



Delve into the extras and you'll find some wonderful stories concerning this dream team of actors, and there's also a featurette, 'Postcards From Penrith'. Here, Richard Sparkes and Mark O'Connor head out to the Lake District - one of the wettest places in the UK - to revisit our favourite locations. We get to see the phonebox where Withnail called his agent (and they even reveal the phone number -no I didn't try it!); the famous Bull's Gate; the stream where Withnail went shooting fish, and the lovely Haweswater where Withnail told the world "I'm going to be a star!" We are even taken inside Monty's Cottage, now a dark, eerie ramshackle place where fans have made a pilgrimage to visit and scribble their favourite lines of dialogue on the front door: "As a youth I used to weep in butcher's shops" being just one of those lines from a film with more quotable chunks than any Tarantino production. This 3 disc set (including a truncated soundtrack) really is a testament to one of our national treasures, but why has this film stood the test of time and ingrained itself into our imaginations ? Well, even those who worked on both sides of the camera seem at a loss to explain. Ultimately, I think many of us can identify with the two lead characters; particularly those who once had a dream and gradually realised that, maybe, things would probably not work out as they had hoped. And, there are many who will nod sadly at the moment the pair realise circumstances dictate that a longstanding friendship has come to an end. That golden moments will become memories that can never be repeated. Whatever, WITHNAIL AND I continues to weave its spell, and will probably outlive the bloody lot of us! Perhaps a sequel will eventually appear, but I doubt it. The continuing adventures of Withnail and I are probably best left to the imagination, though I for one occasionally have a yearning to discover where they are now, some 20 years on/

LIKE TEARS IN THE RAIN


3rd December 2007 marks a very special day for fans of Ridley Scotts's cult classic. At long last, this influential film will see light of day in 5 different versions via a sumptuous 5 disc boxset. BLADE RUNNER may have been a box office flop, but home video gave it a new lease of life enabling the film to gain a new and wider audience. Now, Scott's film is about to experience the reverential treatment is has long deserved with a wealth of supplementary features providing an exhaustive look at the making of the film. This has to be the most eagerly awaited release of the year. Here's the spec on the UK Region 2 release.


Commentary on The Final Cut by Ridley Scott
Commentary by Executive Producer/ Co-Screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Co-Screenwriter David Peoples, Producer Michael Deely and production executive Katherine Haber
Commentaries by visual futurist Syd Mead, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, art director David L. Snyder and special photographic effects supervisors Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich and David Dryer
Documentary: Dangerous Days - Making Blade Runner - A feature-length authoritative documentary revealing all the elements that shaped this hugely influential cinema landmark. Cast, crew, critics and colleagues give a behind-the-scenes, in-depth look at the film -- from its literary roots and inception through casting, production, visuals and special effects to its controversial legacy and place in Hollywood history.
1982 Theatrical Version: This is the version that introduced U.S. movie-going audiences to a revolutionary film with a new and excitingly provocative vision of the near-future. It contains Deckard/Harrison Ford's character narration and has Deckard and Rachel's (Sean Young) 'happy ending' escape scene.
1982 International Version: Also used on U.S. home video, laserdisc and cable releases up to 1992. This version is not rated, and contains some extended action scenes in contrast to the Theatrical Version.
1992 Director's Cut: The Director's Cut omits Deckard's voiceover narration and removes the "happy ending" finale. It adds the famously-controversial "unicorn" sequence, a vision that Deckard has which suggests that he, too, may be a replicant.
Featurette The Electric Dreamer: Remembering Philip K. Dick
Featurette Sacrificial Sheep: The Novel vs. The Film
Philip K. Dick: The Blade Runner Interviews (Audio)
Featurette Signs of the Times: Graphic Design
Featurette Fashion Forward: Wardrobe & Styling
Screen Tests: Rachel & Pris
Featurette The Light That Burns: Remembering Jordan Cronenweth
Deleted & Alternate Scenes
1982 Promotional Featurettes
Trailers & TV Spots
Featurette Promoting Dystopia: Rendering the Poster Art
Featurette Deck-A-Rep: The True Nature of Rick Deckard
Featurette Nexus Generation: Fans & Filmmakers
Workprint Version: This rare version of the film is considered by some to be the most radically different of all the Blade Runner cuts. It includes an altered opening scene, no Deckard narration until the final scenes, no "unicorn" sequence, no Deckard/Rachel "happy ending," altered lines between Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his creator Tyrell (Joe Turkell), alternate music and much more.
Introduction by Ridley Scott
Commentary by Paul M. Sammon, author of Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner
Featurette All Our Variant Futures: From Workprint to Final Cut.


Best book some time off to explore this beauty. I'll be back a little later for a look at Anchor Bay's Region 2 boxset of WITHNAIL AND I.