Cast: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Ralph Brown, Richard Griffiths
“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!” Withnail
I am not one to believe in fate, but there has to be something magical about the random moment, at the age of seventeen, I was perusing my local video shop looking for a film to rent, and the cover of low-budget, British independent character drama, Withnail and I (1987), shone amidst the variety of Hollywood produced fodder. I picked up the box and for some reason the story of two unemployed actors mooching about at the fag end of the 1960s called to me. Perhaps it was the front cover featuring the debauched and worse-for-wear looking character of Withnail which drew me in? Or was it the casting of Paul McGann as the eponymous ‘I’, an actor I recognised from excellent TV drama, The Monocled Mutineer. Whatever the reasons, I rented the film and a special bond was formed forthwith. It lasts to this day.
Firmly in my top-ten-line-for-line-best-dialogue-ever-movies, Withnail and I (1987) simply bursts with memorable spats, insults, one-liners, and speeches. Another major strength of Bruce Robinson’s elegantly profane screenplay is the relationship between permanently inebriated and cowardly ‘thespian’, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and his buddy, ‘I’ (McGann). It is a strange friendship full of mutual disrespect, petty bickering, and envy, but by the end of the film a kindly form of love is revealed. Withnail may seem an angry man, but ultimately, he’s using that ire to hide pain, sadness, and disappointment.
“I feel like a pig shat in my head.” Withnail
Richard E. Grant is incredible as the paralytic, pathetic and cowardly Withnail, who, along with ‘I’, laments a lack of career opportunities. Such bitterness, jealousy and ranting make him hugely obnoxious. However, Robinson’s exquisite writing and Grant’s subtly empathetic performance actually create an incredibly poignant character. Well, that and he’s absolutely hilarious, Indeed, it’s a hedonistic joy witnessing Withnail drinking every liquid known to humanity as he attempts to obliterate the now and tomorrow. Unbelievably, Richard E. Grant was teetotal, so director Bruce Robinson had to get him very, very drunk in preparation for a role he never bettered in his whole career.
Bruce Robinson, arguably, never reached the heights of Withnail and I (1987) again, although he does have other impressive writing credits. But this screenplay is one of the greatest ever written; conversely making it one of the funniest and tragic films of all time. Lastly, his often quoted but rarely bettered work is one of the greatest I have ever read, brimming with towering poetry, bilious insults, and drunken repartee. I mean there is little plot to the story of two actors getting drunk, going to the country, getting drunk and coming back. However, it remains one of my favourite films of all time, with one of the most memorable characters in Withnail.
Based on: IT by Stephen King – Screenplay by Gary Dauberman
Produced by: Barbara Muschietti, Dan Lin, Roy Lee
Main Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McEvoy, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgard, Isiah Mustafa, James Ransone, Jay Ryan, Andy Bean etc.
Cinematography: Checco Varese
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Stephen King is clearly a genius. To be able to maintain creativity and longevity as a writer, plus give birth, as it were, to any number of iconic narratives, characters and events is a testament to his massive energy and talent. When I was young one of the scariest things I ever saw on TV was the horror serial Salem’s Lot (1979), which was about vampires taking over a small town. His book Carrie (1976) was also adapted into one of the best horror films of the seventies too. Moreover, during the 1980s, TV and cinema screens were peppered with King’s work notably: The Shining (1980), Stand by Me (1986) and the under-rated Pet Semetary (1989). In 1990, Tommy Lee Wallace directed a mini-series of IT,with the terrifying Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown. IT proved to be an excellent horror story until the – faithfully sticking to the novel of course – ridiculously silly ending.
Flash forward twenty-seven years, IT: Chapter One (2017) and Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) was back to haunt the dreams, drains and sewer pipes of Derry, Maine, using subconscious manipulation and fear to lure kids and adults to their death. Directed by Andy Muschietti, the film was a big box office hit and it’s a highly entertaining genre horror movie full of fantastic set-pieces. Thus, it was no surprise we got IT: Chapter Two, with the terrified kids now older, but equally afraid and under threat from that devilish clown.
In preparation for IT: Chapter Two, I re-watched IT: Chapter One and must say I enjoyed it even more second time round. King’s imagination and ability to craft a great story full of memorable iconography such as the clown, balloons, deathly sewers, small-town existence and the strong theme of outsiders/losers versus bullies/abusers resonate perfectly within the jump-scare-horror tropes. The second film, though longer, doesn’t really develop the characters as much and we get more of the same scary scenarios but this time with the adults in place. Having said that the cast led by Jessica Chastain, James McEvoy and the brilliant Bill Hader create excellent characterisations and reflections of their younger selves.
Pennywise himself is arguably not as scary second time round either because his fear factor is lessened by familiarity. But the assorted monsters the ‘It’ creature conjures up still hold some surprise for our protagonists to face. The scariest was Bev’s demon, a creepy old woman who frightened the life out of me during the trailer and the film. What I also liked was the film confronting the frankly insane nature of Stephen King’s actual monster, which we are advised has existed since Earth even began. The filmmakers succeed where the 1990 mini-series failed, in making this inter-dimensional behemoth somehow plausible. I especially liked the in-jokes referencing the criticisms about King’s works often having terrible endings.
Thus, overall, I enjoyed this final chapter horror adaptation of King’s monster novel; and the ending worked this time. While there is a lot of repetition and recycling of horror moments of the first film, the themes of confronting and defeating bullies and demons from the past and present resonates powerfully. Lastly, like many of King’s works, it’s about the power of friendship and strength in togetherness. Because, only together can we overcome the fear of real, surreal and unreal demons lurking in the darkness of our towns, cities, rooms, homes, sewers and most of all, our minds.
Series Producers: Mark Herbert, Derrin Schlesinger, Rebekah Wray-Rogers
Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Vicky McClure, Joseph Gilgun, Stephen Graham, Andrew Shim, Stephen Graham, Andrew Ellis, Rosamund Hanson, Danielle James, Kriss Dosanjh, Chanel Cresswell, Johnny Harris, Michael Socha, George Newton, Jo Hartley etc.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen
Music by: Ludovico Einaudi
Having watched Shane Meadows classic British film, This is England (2006), again of late – review can be found here – I thought it would be fascinating to catch up with the subsequent television series via ALL 4. Thus, Meadows and co-writer, Jack Thorne re-introduce the gritty lives of beloved and some not-so-beloved working-class characters, within the satanic Midland mills of England.
I would strongly advise, if interested in watching this drama, you begin with the film first. That way you can familiarise and experience the events and characters of the show in the correct order. Indeed, this classic series works best when you watch the film and subsequent series, This is England ’88 (2011) andThis is England ’90 (2014) as a continuous whole. That way you get the full power of Shane Meadow’s vision for the characters and the period it is set.
The series for me is an engrossing mix of nostalgia, comedy, drama and socio-political exploration. Opening some three years after the original film, we re-join the “gang” going about their lives attempting to breach the difficult gap between youth and adulthood. After the tragic events of 1983, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) has lost contact with the group but over the course of the four episodes he integrates back in. The others are either unemployed or in Woody’s (Joe Gilgun) case employed and attempting some form of upward mobility. Moreover, Lol/Lorraine (Vicky McClure) and Woody are planning to get married. However, the return of Lol’s father (Johnny Harris) brings back painful memories for her and his presence gives the series the villain of the piece.
The structure of the series echoes that of the film. We start with mostly lighter episodes containing a comedic flavour. The seeds of drama, such as Woody backing out of the wedding at the altar, are planted early on. Nonetheless, the early episodes contain some really funny scenes. These include Shaun’s run-in with the local bullies and a party which gets completely out of hand too. There’s much in the way of bawdy and sexual humour, especially when Gadget is used as a sex toy by local divorcee, Trudy. These scenes make us feel safe and warm, yet we know that trouble isn’t far away for the characters.
Once again, the soundtrack is a fantastic mix of eras with a classic collection of 1960s, 1970s and 1980s rock, ska, punk and pop music. Similarly, the fashion of the characters is a postmodern melange of punk, mod and new wave looks. Politics and sport are also thrown into the mix with the 1986 “Hand of God” World Cup dominating the backdrop of the series.
As the characters and era are established and some laughs have been mined, the drama really kicks in. Lol and Woody’s relationship breakdown causes her to make some poor decisions, as she capitulates in the stress of her father’s return. Vicky McClure is fantastic as Lol. You can feel the trauma in her whole being during the scenes with Johnny Harris’ evil patriarch. The culmination of their conflict is one of the most harrowing scenes I have ever witnessed on a television screen.
Overall, This is England ’86is full of complex emotions, humour and drama. There’s a real honesty to the characters who are just trying to live their lives in the Midlands, despite all the disadvantages it brings. Ultimately, they are striving to be decent but find their loyalties tested by friends, family and their lack of opportunities. Amidst the humour and camaraderie of the series we get some brutal and unforgettable moments of drama which remain long after the credits have rolled. The politicians of Westminster may not care and want to forget about such lives, but Shane Meadows won’t let us forget, delivering a powerful character chorus of laughter, tears and togetherness.
Screenplay by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Based on: Captain Marvel by Stan Lee, Gene Colan
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Annette Bening, Gemma Chan etc.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Not only am I getting comic-book movie fatigue, but I’m also getting comic-book movie reviewing fatigue too. I mean, what else can be said about said collection of films mostly delivered by Marvel and DC over the last decade? Plus, don’t forget the cavalcade of Marvel TV adaptations too on Netflix and other channels.
On the whole I have enjoyed the journey into the Marvel universe and the studio does deliver mostly cracking entertainment within a very solid genre formula. Of course, I can choose NOT to watch them due to being jaded, but I feel invested enough to complete the superhero cycle, especially where the Marvel films are concerned. Thus, with one eye on the Avengers: Endgame (2019) epic that is due for release very soon, I approached Captain Marvel (2019) with relaxed expectations, just out for a bit of a blast before the final Avenger chess pieces all meet to save the world – AGAIN!
Captain Marvel is a 1990s set action-drama prequel which presents a fast-paced couple of hours set in space and on Earth. It comes at a weird release time in the franchise as this kind of origins story has been done ad infinitum, plus the time it is set means much of what occurs could be deemed dramatically redundant. Nonetheless, it begins with a galactic soldier named Vers (Brie Larson), training with Jude Law’s battle-hardened mentor, Yon Rogg. They are part of a crack team of Kree fighting a shape-shifting enemy called Skrulls. These terrorists threaten the Kree civilisation and must be stopped at all costs. Allied to the main conflict, Vers is suffering post-traumatic stress via flash memories which cause her to question her past and identity. Following a planetary raid which goes awry, Vers is conveniently stranded on Earth, with the villains in pursuit. Here she joins forces with, whom else, Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and then her literal journey of discovery really gathers pace.
Putting aside Marvel narrative fatigue I still managed to enjoy the movie immensely. Despite the story and plot weaknesses the final hour of action and battles sequences are very impressive. The first hour though finds the screenplay broken and confused. Indeed, like the character, the film is caught between two identities and also has tonal issues. It’s somehow trapped between the character driven, indie style of directors, Boden & Fleck, and the usual Marvel gags, pop music, alien artefacts and explosions shtick.
I loved that Danvers’ character and Brie Larson were given the chance to show depth of emotion; however, by presenting the story in a flashback-non-linear-amnesiac-plot-style, all emotional resonance was lost in the mix. Thus, the story became broken-backed trying to cover too many bases in the wrong order. For example, the empowerment montage, near the end, of Danvers’ character finding strength from overcoming past failures is terrifically planned and shot. It’s a shame though that it does not carry the dramatic weight it could have.
Having said that, there’s loads of stuff to enjoy, notably: some clever plot twists; a committed cast including the effervescent Larson and Jackson double-act; Ben Mendelsohn as the head shape-shifter, Talos; the Gwen Stefani-driven-pop-kick-ass-action in the final act; loads of great gags, especially the cat ones; plus, a bundle of Marvel in-jokes, call-backs and inter-textual references. Ultimately, Captain Marvel, is a very solid work of entertainment which, while opening up the whole “where was Captain Marvel until now?” plot hole, manages to fill the gap enjoyably before the whole game finally comes to an end.
Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston etc.
**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**
There are very few things as warming and pleasant as taking a trip down memory lane, recalling the fuzzy thoughts of a bygone childhood time when everything was laughter and escape. Escape in this instance came in the form of a black and white television box; while laughter came from watching arguably the greatest comedy double act in movie history on TV every early evening after school on BBC2. To be sure, my youth would have been a lot more depressing without Laurel and Hardy’s comedies to divert my mind away from family strife, school bullies and grey council estate existence.
Watching Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s comedies was a formative part of my early years and I have continued to be a fan of there work to this day. It’s incredible that, when I was a kid, films made nearly forty years before had me in uncontrollable fits of laughter. Even now classics such as: Laughing Gravy (1931), Way Out West (1937), The Music Box (1932), Sons of the Desert (1933), County Hospital (1932), Busy Bodies (1933), Our Relations (1933), The Flying Deuces (1939) etc. to name just a few of their incredible output, retain the power to have me in stitches. Laurel’s skinny dumb man-child perfectly contrasted Hardy’s larger more confident, yet deluded leader of the two. Their comedy derived from their hapless misadventures, usually involving some new business venture or fish-out-of-water situation which resulted in anarchic chaos and silliness all round. But the comedy was not simple pratfalls but carefully constructed sight-gags, complex slap-stick set-pieces and constant battles with wives, girlfriends or authority figures.
After briefly establishing the characters of Stan and Ollie in Hollywood during 1937, the Jeff Pope scripted film moves to the United Kingdom in 1953. Here Laurel and Hardy’s star is on the wane and they have taken a music hall tour to try and make a few quid, while potentially getting a Robin Hood movie off the ground. With their health suffering, especially Hardy’s, due to excessive alcohol and food intake, the two begrudgingly go on tour while bitter acrimony simmers underneath. On top of that the tour is struggling due to a lack of promotion by Bernard Delfont and the whole thing looks like it could be a disaster. I must admit the film is not really that dramatic and stands more as a nostalgic tribute to the power of Stan and Ollie’s friendship and comedic relationship. Laurel is the workaholic always cracking wise and looking for the next gag, while Hardy is the more sociable and relaxed with an eye for the ladies and horses.
Jon S. Baird directs with a deft hand, yet he has two incredible actors in the lead roles. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are absolutely perfect as Stan and Ollie. Their mannerisms and comic timing in capturing the comedy duo are a joy to watch. Moreover, there’s a wistful pathos in the fact a great life journey is about to come to an end. Here, Coogan and Reilly bring a real warmth to the roles and as they resolve their tensions the over-riding emotion ultimately is love. As the tour continues they are joined by their wives, portrayed by Shirley Henderson and the scene-stealing, Nina Arianda. Their relationships at times reflects the hen-pecking women Stan and Ollie would find themselves chained to in their movies, but there’s clearly a lot of love on screen too. Lastly, despite their health issues Stan and Ollie are born entertainers, fully committed to the ethos that the show must go on.
Overall, Stan and Ollie is a wonderful paean to two of the greatest comedic actors that ever lived. It’s gentle in pace and drama but anchored by two mesmerising performances by Coogan and Reilly. Despite the low budget, the period locations and costumes are brilliantly designed, and I especially enjoyed seeing many recognizable London locations. The biggest highlight though throughout is the hilarious re-enactments of many of Laurel and Hardy’s famous sketches, songs and movie moments. These took me back to my youth and days of watching Stan and Ollie on that small black and white box at home, laughing my silly head off without a care in the world.
FAMILIARITY AND NOSTALGIA IN THE FANTASY FILM GENRE
“Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”
― Walt Disney Company
Once upon a Time. . . four simple words which immediately conjure a whole host of possibilities and eventualities in literature and by extension, cinema. In her book A Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, Marina Warner attests that fairy tales are “Stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of greater things. . . this is the principle that underlies their growing presence in writing, art and cinema.” My own personal experience growing up was of reading fairy tales, myths and legends. Indeed, such stories formed a narrative backbone to my childhood and opened my mind to all manner of worlds of monsters, magicians, Kings, Queens, dragons, spiders, ghosts, gold-haired heroines, muscular heroes, acts of love and war, epic journeys; as well as breath-taking battles and feats of unimaginable compassion and bravery.
Such an education conditioned my young mind for an array of imaginative potentialities and in later life my love of fairy tales and stories would bleed through into my love of cinema. But how does one make the leap off the page onto the screen, making that which is fantastic believable to our eyes, hearts and minds? In this article I would like to consider certain ways we have been conditioned and how storytellers develop their narratives in the fantasy genre. How does the unbelievable become believable in our minds? There are many ways in which this is achieved but I would like to focus on two methods which are familiarity and nostalgia.
How does one define fantasy cinema? One could certainly posit the notion that the fantasy genre deals with fantastic themes including: magic, the supernatural, myth, folklore, exotic worlds, and fairy tales; and for the benefit of this article can encapsulate science fiction, horror and superhero movie genres. Essentially, fantasy is that which is not of our perceived rendition of reality, enabling escape into the extraordinary. Fantasy cinema is not simply dragons and wizards but more far-reaching as their stories cast their magic from childhood to adulthood. I myself recall the day when I first saw The Wizard of Oz (1939) as Dorothy’s journey from Oz literally took my breath away. Moreover, only recently I marvelled at the fantastic images and comedy of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) on the big screen.
Lew Hunter’s book Screenwriting 434 is a fine research tool for all budding writers. He opines, “You have to make the audience care about your on-screen people and their dilemmas, and when that occurs you’ve created believable unbelievabilty. Audiences will not just get with a film that starts with what they perceive as unbelievable unbelievability.” Thus, this is an integral rule in getting the audience to suspend disbelief and come into a fantastic world. I mean for every Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which in my view brilliantly brought to life J. R. R. Tolkien’s incredible literary behemoth, you get many films which fail to achieve this. Peter Jackson obviously used, at the time, state of the art special effects to achieve his vision of the book but more important, in my view, is establishing the world and characters in the audience’s psychology and making the unbelievable believable.
As aforementioned there are many other movies which do not arguably work as fantasy films. Of course these are subjective choices but offerings such as: The Island of Dr Moreau (1996), Judge Dredd (1995), Batman and Robin (1997), Van Helsing (2004), Cat Woman (2004) The Lady in the Water (2006), Eragon (2008), Foodfight (2012), Terminator: Genisys (2015), Death-Note (2017), to name a few, could all be argued to have failed to make the unbelievable believable. Be it the poor writing, bad production choices or a lack of cogency in the presentation of the rules of their respective worlds, these are a few examples of movies which arguably did not work. But what of the films that successfully connect with our imagination. How do they achieve that?
Disney Studios has been presenting animated and live action films for close to a century now. As well as developing short animated films centred on iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse, Disney Studios used established texts too. Their first short was Little Red Riding Hood (1922) and subsequently they would win an Oscar for The Three Little Pigs (1933). Thus, the Disney template of utilising familiar stories from folklore or fairy tales was born and since then they have produced many, many such short and feature length productions such as: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Little Mermaid (1989). The suspension of narrative disbelief is achieved because innately we are accustomed to the idea of talking animals or wicked witches or half-woman-half-fish characters as they were familiarised to us in infancy. Indeed, as famous fantasy writer Neil Gaiman confirms, “We encounter fairy tales as kids, in retellings or panto. We breathe them. We know how they go.” Thus, believable unbelievability is achieved due to conditioning as children with the extraordinary. Likewise, our acclimatization with commercial products when growing up, including toys such as: Lego, Transformers, Barbie and the Pixar’s ingenious Toy Story trilogy tap into this familiarity model and the child’s dream that perhaps our toys can actually come to life.
As we grow older though many of us can become cynical and lose the innocence and imagination we had when younger. Thus, the challenge for filmmakers is to make not only children but also adults believe in the fantastic and the unbelievable. One way of doing this is through nostalgia or harking back to narrative conventions established from yesteryear. Academic Frederick Jameson wrote in his seminal essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society, that society entered a key cultural period from around the 1960s onwards where modernism had given rise to postmodernism and that originality per se was being replaced by emulation; more specifically satire, parody and pastiche. He goes on to suggest “. . . individualism and personal identity is a thing of the past. . . stylistic innovation is no longer possible and all that is left is the imitate dead styles.” A cinematic element of pastiche he argues is the “nostalgia film” which consists, not of original narrative, but of film moments and narratives from the previous films.
Indeed, one of the most successful cinema franchises of all time is George Lucas’ series which began with, Star Wars (1977). While containing many original elements in regard to the fictional monsters, creatures, planets, space ships, weapons, heroes and villains it’s structurally very familiar, featuring the archetypal hero rescuing a “Princess in a Tower” narrative. Even the “Once Upon a Time. . .” like beginning is echoed in the now classic opening text: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .” Moreover, the expositional crawl which then follows is inspired by the early Saturday cinema sci-fi adventures such as: Flash Gordon. Lucas’ genius in using such nostalgic devices creates a clear pattern of familiarity and mental preparation for the fantasy elements yet to come in the story. Lastly, and less obvious, Star Wars also draws heavily, in terms of structure and characters, from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Hidden Fortress (1958).
Similarly, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is equally adept at creating a magical world out of nostalgia and familiarity. The films are all structured around the school year and generally begin with an opening set-piece set in a mundane suburban area before slowly introducing the fantasy elements. Of course, some of us may not be so nostalgic for our school years but we are familiar with the educational structure. The Harry Potter books and films are a creative stroke of genius creating both emotional connections for children and adults. Children see the characters of Harry, Hermione and Ron as reflection and wish to emulate such characters; while adults can look back on their school days nostalgically and perhaps also enjoy the magical adventures from a position of halcyon positivity. What Star Wars and Harry Potter both offer is a means to project some incredibly fantastical elements but make it believable by setting their worlds in a recognizable environment such as school or through the stylistic signifiers like the opening Star Wars text.
Ultimately, most of us love reading or going to the cinema in order to be entertained and escape from our reality. However, if the writer or filmmakers have not successfully created a suspension of disbelief we as an audience will fail to enter their fantasy world. Quality writing, production design, costumes, make-up, performance are of course integral to ensuring we believe what we read and see on the screen. However, as I have attested films also work on a more psychological level of drawing us in using methods such as familiarity and nostalgia to tell their stories. We may not even be aware of this but to make the unbelievable believable it paradoxically must connect with our prior knowledge and experiences, especially those we had as children.