Clive James

This blog is about celebrating, and occasionally eviscerating the world of cinema and television; it’s not the place for obituary notices. But for Clive James, the clown prince of critics, it’s worth making an exception. As a television critic, he was peerless, a genuine wit who watched the medium because he loved it.

In those days, critics didn’t wrestle access from PR companies, then write a review in the hope of a pull quote for a poster. James wrote what he saw, and then what happened  after he switched channels because the first show bored him. He wrote about sporting events like Eurovision or Wimbledon or the endless movable feasts that were David Coleman, ITV telethons or disco competitions or even Ski Sunday. He wrote about the continuity announcements, on drab current affairs like Nationwide; one festive column saw him switching between BBC films Where Eagles Dare and The Sound of Music, with the triumphant von Trapp family eventually invading Germany and accepting the surrender of General von Paulus.

James has a way with prose which captured the best possible kind of commentary, adding an idiosyncratic series of observations on whatever he reviewed. He was an intellectual who enjoyed mass entertainment. He would write passionately on Shakespeare or Jack Rosenthal, decry what he perceived as laziness in the work of Pinter and Lindsay Anderson, yet get sucked into the schlock of The Poseidon Adventure or Martin Sheen’s performance as a ‘drug-addicted, plague-carrying gigolo’ in The Cassandra Crossing. He was sensitive to the gift for individual detail he saw in the work of Victoria Wood, but also find the space for a boyish snigger at the eroticism he happened upon in the innuendos of hapless BBC sports commentators. ‘He’s pulling the big one out now,’ was a well-caught slip describing the athlete Brendan Foster.

And James did pull the big one out. Time and again, he captured moments in prose that endure. There was terse disapproval on observing Princess Anne at a rugby match, visible chatting away during the national anthem and offering up ‘an uninterrupted stream of chat.’ He aptly described the It’s A Knockout judge Eddie Waring’s rocking on-camera movements as ‘cogitations’, and accused the Germans of preparing for some ludicrous slippery-pole game ‘since the end of World War Two’. He fearlessly pilloried Rupert Murdoch, specifically because he percieved him to be a snob about he arts. He noted a worthy tv drama that finished with a sudden scream, then wearily confessed ‘It was mine.’ He banqueted on drama, from The Borgias to Dallas, making pithy observations about Sue Ellen’s mouth or the Poisoned Dwarf that made the tiresome programmes more fun to watch. He railed at variety shows, and domestic tv figures like Max Bygraves or Dick Emery, but was more than happy to launch into withering descriptions of the on-stage indulgences of big international stars like Liza Minnelli or Frank Sinatra.

James went on to interview Sinatra as part of his tv work; like Terry Wogan, his wit seemed to be gradually blunted by his proximity to his subjects, and absorbed into his understandable desire to be part of the continuing cultural soap-opera he wrote about. He was a tv natural, with a sing-song delivery and a genuine desire to amuse; the clip below comes from his Clive James At the Movies single show for ITV, in which he examined risible clips from old movies; his joy is evident, and the sound of his laughter will be missed.

(Some of the quotes above may be inaccurate, I didn’t check them, they are as I remember then forty years after reading them.)

Grass 2018 ****

GrassWebsite

‘I’m not a writer, I’m just writing,’ is a telling line from Hong Sang-soo’s delicate miniature of a film, a conversation piece that ploughs a highly individual furrow. Screening in the UK as part of the touring London Korean film festival, Grass has a unique structure that could easily be adopted by any streaming service; giving actors time and space to create vivid characters in a simple location; in essence, a hang-out movie played out through duets.

In this café we find Areum, played by Kim Min-hee, sitting at her laptop, listening into to conversations. A man and woman discuss someone recently deceased, and she berates him for his lack of feeling. An actor tries unsuccessfully to find someone to work on his screenplay, while another seeks a home. A grieving man seeks some kind of justice for a friend who has ended his own life after being spurned. Areum takes all of this in, as does the audience, before getting dragged into the stories herself.

Of course, there’s a reflexive quality to this; is the girl listening in to these conversations, or is she inventing them? A key moment comes when we see another female writer indecisively up and down a staircase; she’s seeking release from something holding her in place, but what, and how? It’s possible to read the film as describing a male-female divide, but the stories are not schematic enough for such a simple meaning, and the way they cross over towards the end reduces any sexual, political meaning and creates a welcome surge of warmth.

Shot in black and white, and with long static takes, Grass isn’t for everyone, but it’s a hugely rewarding film that might appeal to those mesmerised by the possible worlds featured in Chunking Express. While the presentation is very different, both films rejoice in the ways that lives, troubled as they may be, intersect and grow like blades of grass. This is a tiny but beautiful film, barely an hour in length, but well worth seeking out. Even the description offered by the google search engine captures the right mood, almost like an extended haiku.

‘In the corner of a small café, Areum types on her laptop. At the tables around her, other customers enact the various dramas of their lives: A young couple charges each other with serious crimes, an old man tries to rekindle a flame with a younger woman, and a narcissistic filmmaker works to put together his next project. Is she merely writing what she hears? Or is she hearing what she has written? As the dramas inside the café unfold, the plants outside grow taller.’

Grass is screening at the London Korean Film Festival runs from 1st-14th November in London before embarking on the annual UK tour 18th-24th November. The festival tours to: Edinburgh Film House, Watershed Cinema Bristol, Belfast Queen’s Film Theatre, Glasgow Film Theatre, Manchester HOME, Nottingham Broadway Cinema, until 24th November 2019. Further details at http://koreanfilm.co.uk/

The Beach Bum 2019 ***

Beach-Bum

Oscars tend to be followed by complete career suicide films; Matthew McConaughey managed to completely sabotage his own reputation with efforts like Free State of Jones, The Dark Tower and Serenity. Teaming him with Harmony Korine, whose let-it-all-hang-out approach to drama has made him a must for mojo-seeking actors, was a smart idea; whatever else the actor is doing in The Beach Bum, and he seems to be breaking narcotics laws in practically every scene, he certainly seems to be, if not being himself, then living up to public perceptions of himself.

The Beach Bum is a writer called Moondog, Charles Bukowski- style, whose main subject seems to be capturing and immortalising in poetry the ruins of himself and his relationships. He’s married to Lingerie (Isla Fisher), and doesn’t seem bothered that she’s in a sexual relationship with another man (Snoop Dogg). In fact, he doesn’t seem to care less about her, or anything, other than getting high, until a plot twist forces him to face his demons, stop living such a hedonistic lifestyle, and get his act together to satisfy a legal stipulation.

Korine is a divisive film-maker, and The Beach Bum is something of a provocation, asking us to take an interest in a selfish, arrogant, mean-spirited and general detestable character, although there will be a small group who will see Moondog as some kind of holy fool. Either way, it’s simultaneously entertaining and repellent watching Moondog screw, blunt, dance and mug his way in and out of rehab, with Zac Efron, Jonah Hill and Martin Lawrence all adding to their outré credibility by phoning in lively if short cameos.

The Beach Bum is Korine’s best and most accessible film to date, hinging on an out-there star performance that’s worth celebrating for its sheer extremity; it would be worth voting for awards recognition just to see how a clip of The Beach Bum would look in the sizzle reel. McConaughey seems to be having fun, and there’s a reasonable punch-line to this shaggy dog story; one that suggests that the popular actor has got his own mojo back in some erratic style.

Blue Finch Film Releasing presents Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum in select cinemas 25 October and on demand 30 October 2019

 

 

King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen 2017 ****

cohen

The late Larry Cohen’s name may not mean much to your average multiplexer, but his name is synonymous with the kind of imaginative, off-the-wall and defiantly original fare that’s worth putting money down to see. Cohen was an artist and a commercial film-maker, who write every day, played the system, and won; repeatedly, over decades. Writer/director Steve Mitchell knows that the films are all elsewhere; a few tantalising clips are all that are needed, but King Cohen is a talking heads documentary and all the better for it. And what heads! JJ Abrams throws the first ball, with a story involving Cohen, a broken down car and a mutant baby doll, and it’s clear that Abrams was severely star-struck. Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, John Landis and others play tribute, but it’s Fred Williamson that steals the show with his smoothly-delivered recollections, which don’t match up exactly with Cohen’s version of events. Even hard-core cineastes and horror fans are likely to learn something new here, about Cohen’s prolific tv work, his debut feature Bone, or his habit of shooting on the fly that led him, quite literally, to J Edgar Hoover’s door. Despite mainstream success, he remained a maverick and an underground film-maker; after years of searching I finally bought my copy of God Told Me To from a pop-up street-vendor of obscure movies in NYC’s Union Square, within sight of the Chrysler building where he used the construction scaffolding to shoot action scenes for Q-The Winged Serpent. This rapid-fire doc should encourage fans and casual viewers alike to check out the canon of this unique, idiosyncratic talent.

The Dark Half 1993 ****

Stephen King’s writing is so cinematic, it’s frustrating how easily film-makers are seduced into altering his words, structures, characters and themes. George A Romero was a friend of the author, and his adaptation of King’s The Dark Half is an underrated horror film that’s got both a pulp fiction sensibility but also a playful literary intelligence. Timothy Hutton is developing into a real horror icon post Haunting of Hill House; here he delivers two memorable performances as writer Thad Beaumont and someone claiming to be his pseudonym George Stark. The word pseudonym is tentatively used here, since a big part of The Dark Half’s appeal is working out who or exactly what George Stark is; lawman Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) is as baffled as everyone else as he tries to solve the murders the plague Beaumont and his wife Liz (Amy Madigan). Beaumont does not know that as a child, the foetal remains of an undeveloped twin were removed from his brain; how this might have led to an evil twin figure isn’t fully explained, but the suggestion of Beaumont’s colleague Reggie (Julie Harris) is that Beaumont has somehow willed this Dionysian figure into life. There isn’t room for the two of them on this earth, and the gatherings of sparrows that appear in the Maine skies, specifically in the Castle Rock area, suggest that the devil is ready to drag one of them to hell. The Dark Half was reportedly King’s last work before he sobered up, and it’s easy to see why he’s get on the wagon. There’s a dangerous, self-destructive theme here about a writer too willing to delve into the deepest, darkest areas of his psyche; in King’s book, fictional protagonist Alexis Machine’s rampages set the violent, nihilistic tone. Romero gets it, and fashions a perceptive look at the dualism inherent in the male psyche, with Hutton doing an incredible job to evoke both men, and Romero not afraid to make the horror scenes genuinely horrific. Various financial reasons stopped The Dark Half from reaching an audience, but it’s one of Romero and King’s best. It also bears remarkable resemblances to Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Luner Park, which doubles down on the roman a clef notion of an author plagued by his own creation. The Dark Half fuses elements of Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll myths and comes up with something dark and disturbing; hopefully the current (2019) vibe for all things King will attract the audience it deserves on streaming.

JT LeRoy 2018 ****

JT_LEROY_ONE_SHEET-1There’s plenty of films about hoaxes; the nature of a disguise works well in cinema. Savannah Knoop was the young girl who appeared in public as the reclusive author of three autobiographical works; as with other hoaxes, it did not end well, and she published a memoir explaining what she did and why. That memoir is now the subject of a sophisticated film by writer/director Justin Kelly, who manages to avoid any tabloid trashiness, yet still manages to evoke the personal, private horror of a private arrangement that explodes in the public eye. Sister of Geoff (Jim Strugess), Savannah (Kristen Stewart) arrives in San Francisco only to fall under the spell of his girlfriend Laura (Laura Dern). Laura has had literary success as JT Leroy, but needs someone to attend book-signings and literary events. With a blond wig and glasses, Savannah fits the bill, but once an actress (Diane Kruger) is wowed by Laura’s phone-sex skills, a mooted movie-version of LeRoy’s second book threatens to bring a spotlight that shines too brightly for the conspirators to hide from. That Kruger’s character Eva iseemsbased on Asia Argento (whose LeRoy adaptation The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things premiered at Cannes) adds the further layer of notoriety; if nothing else, Kelly’s film illustrates William Goldman’s film industry maxim that nobody knows anything. Eva is presented in a very negative way, offering sex in return for the rights to the book, and then moving onto another relationship once they are secured.’ I made this film for you,’ Eva shrieks, while both Laura and Savannah come out of Kelly’s film with some bonds of friendship intact. Most films about the media have a tin ear; JT LeRoy feels painfully real, not least because Stewart is a great, vulnerable lead, but also because Dern oozes self-assuredness, not least when she’s playing Speedy, an invented personal manager and fixer for LeRoy whose strangulated English accent and colourful wig brings to mind perennial British media non-entity Janet Street Porter.

JT LeRoy is in UK  Cinemas and Digital from 16th August 2019.

The Rewrite 2014 ***

rewriteWriter/director Marc Lawrence is something of an invisible auteur, making a series of popular rom-coms with the likes of Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock which generally do well, yet his name is unnoticed. The Rewrite is one of his best, pitting Grant’s jaded screenwriter Keith Michaels into the academic snake-pit of an East Coast college. Despite his slovenly manner and non-existent teaching methods, Michaels becomes a hit with his class, and gets to strike romantic sparks with Marisa Tomei. While some of the details of the class are unpersuasive, the atmosphere of the classroom is warm and enjoyable, and as the rain-drops fall on the windows outside, Grant’s wayward teacher is good company in this undemanding comedy with few laughs but more than a little heart.