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Superb gig
26 December 2012
I was at this gig with my teenage sister, and it remains one of our great musical memories. Looking back, it seems that Kate was trying something possibly new in rock concertry at that time - not just a gig with a band playing all her hits etc, but a full-on visual extravaganza. In this she was years ahead of the kind of show we see at stadia nowadays, led by Madonna, Beyonce etc. However, where Bush was different was that you felt it was more like an artwork than an all-singing, all-dancing musical show - rather akin to the offbeat videos she made of her songs, early technology but intelligent and creative. I believe Bowie also flirted with this idea in his gigs - I remember one where he showed the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou instead of having a support band - but apart from his costumes his concerts were more conventional. Of course, the times rather limited the special effects available to Kate at Hammersmith Odeon, but even now you can feel the ambition of the designers of the gig. Thank god someone thought to capture this moment on video, but alas at time of writing it's not available on DVD.
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Wet Job (1981 TV Movie)
Should have been titled "Rush Job"
12 February 2012
Just a note to one of the other reviewers (rev-584-459122), Wet Job is NOT a remake of the original play A Magnum for Schneider, which formed the basis of the Callan movie. This is a sequel to the original popular TV series in which an aging Callan has been forcibly retired from the security services, but is reactivated for yet another job. Though the performances of Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter and some others aren't bad, it's very poorly made with a tenuous plot, frequently incompetent camera-work, and irritating incidental music. Having watched it when it was first shown and again recently on DVD I suspect the production was hurried and with a smaller budget than it should have had.
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Poor euro-thriller
23 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This film has a lot going for it - it has a good cast, an interesting director, and an offbeat theme. But the result is no better than an average TV movie, maybe slightly worse. I suspect Stanley Johnson's source novel wasn't quite so bland as this by the numbers conspiracy tale in which all the bad guys are one-dimensional, and shadowy figures are constantly bumping off inconvenient characters without the police or press having much to say. There's the usual crusading journalist, who is brought in to report some internet research he's done but nobody else thought to do to advance the plot. And what a strange plot too: the Euro industry commissioner becomes a patsy in a business war, engineering a chain of events that leads to the near destruction of the European chemical industry, with the impression given this is somehow heroic rather than an enormous error, caused it seems by his naivety.

On the way to this point, there's a lot of rotten dialogue that seems the stamp of these co-productions; somebody actually says the following: "I have no doubt that recent events have proved beyond any doubt that...". It would have been good to explain somewhere what a European commissioner is and what he does, since there's no evidence the hero does anything but work on this one issue and tell his secretary to tell a phone caller that he'll call back. A somewhat ill worked out subplot regarding the hero's relationship with his wife and a sexy fellow commissioner is daffy because from early in the film Morton is portrayed as a serial womaniser. It's not really clear whether he falls in love with the other commissioner or what she sees in him, and the wife very conveniently disappears from the scene. The whole thing seems very poorly made: the camera seems to repeatedly be on the wrong person, music swelling up at the wrong times, dialogue often inaudible, clear continuity howlers, etc. It's not often you notice the costume designer, but I found the use of scarves very over the top. I also thought it was needlessly slow: at one point Morton asks someone if they want a drink, then the camera watches him disappear out the room while he makes it, brings it back and gives it to her...

John Hurt is poor casting for the key role - his James Morton doesn't seem a good or creative administrator, he's not sexy, a bit old school Tory in his attitudes particularly towards women to be successful in Europe, and rather petulant when things go wrong. He only seems to come alive when he's screaming and swearing at someone - he is admittedly very good at that. He's not the only strange casting: one wonders whose idea it was to have Alice Krige pretending to be American, presumably for the US market, or Alan MacNaughton as a German - both very good actors but British. But Morton should have been a career politician who finds himself becoming committed to a cause, discovering integrity, and repairing or clarifying his relationship with his wife - without this central arc the film is lifeless, and it's not clear whether Morton is any different at the end of the film than the beginning.

The whole thing was made in Britain, Germany and Belgium. It must have been a good few months work for all concerned.
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Astley's Way (2001 TV Movie)
Expert view
3 April 2011
This short film on Edwin Astley was shown late night on BBC2 in 2001, the "minority" terrestrial BBC television channel, and to my knowledge was never shown again. A pity, because this is exactly the kind of documentary the BBC excels in - well researched, informative and presented not by someone who is on TV because they're a friend of the producer or someone wrote a review of their Edinburgh comedy show in the Guardian or a barking mad "TV natural" academic, but by someone who knows what he is talking about - that is, a fellow musician. Perhaps because Jools Holland is obviously a fan, he manages to get the interviewees to talk about the subject in a candid and informative way. Edwin Astley is an unsung hero of popular music, and it was good to hear that his innovative themes and incidental music were noticed by other people in the 1960s and 1970s. I don't consider myself musically inclined, but I used to enjoy Astley's music very much watching TV as a child. Holland tops the programme off with an excellent and exciting version of one of Astley's best themes, High Wire (the theme from Danger Man), which seems to include a new middle 8 that's entirely fitting. One of my only two criticisms of the programme is that this performance should have closed with Astley's original ending to this piece, which I always found unusual and attractive, instead of the standard rock ending Holland uses with this tune on his own CD. The other small cavil I have is that it should have been made clear that the composition of the original Saint theme was always credited to the author of the original novels, Leslie Charteris, though clearly Astley put a distinctive stamp on the tune. I hope the BBC sees fit to show this first class programme again soon.
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Callan (1967–1972)
Early episodes now available
11 March 2010
Warning: Spoilers
UPDATE: Callan: The Monochrome Years (Network DVD, 2010) For decades fans of Callan have been shown on TV and on video/DVD the colour 1970s series. Now the rest of it is available, or apparently what hasn't been erased, in a four disc set – entitled Callan: The Monochrome Years. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, owing to agreements with unions designed to discourage the broadcast of repeats over new material, a British television drama made largely in the studio would be typically broadcast once and then re-run several months later within two years. Since it was rare that anything was shown again after that, since it would require renegotiation of contracts, television companies felt safe in erasing much of their library stock, even the popular material. Luckily, part of the first series and all of the second have survived, though Network DVD have edited one episode for this set that only existed in unedited form.

Callan was a highly regarded and very popular television drama about the seamy side of espionage – more Le Carre than Fleming. The protagonist is a professional killer – ex-army, ex-convicted criminal. He's good at his job, but he hates to kill. He is employed – variously freelance or on the staff – by a shadowy organisation called the Section, which does the state's dirty work up to and including murder. Somehow, probably due to the spot-on casting and acting of the principals and the quality of the writing, the series struck a chord with television audiences in Britain and around the world. It was directly through fans of Callan that Edward Woodward managed to get some of his most admired work: with Laurence Olivier's Old Vic in the theatre, as Breaker Morant in film, as The Equalizer on TV etc This compilation is principally for the show's existing fans, but it's a fascinating look at how British television drama developed over what is often referred to as a golden age. The first series of Callan, produced by ABC Television, was developed from the Armchair Theatre play A Magnum for Schneider, which is included here, which itself was a heavily cut-down version of James Mitchell's novel. The early episodes seem to be very plot heavy, with little time to develop character, and heavily influenced by film, with the theme often played distractingly over every scene without dialogue. You can see the basic themes of the series developing: in the first episode proper, Callan's boss Hunter (Hunter #1, played by Ronald Radd) threatens him with death if he won't do a job. Once you've gone there you can't go back, but it's quickly seen that the producers have painted themselves into a dramatic corner, and subsequent Hunters motivate him in other, more subtle ways. Sometimes there's a bit of 1960s surrealism, as in one episode particularly memorable for Callan's employment of various hats – this kind of whimsy soon is dumped. By the time the second ABC series and the colour third series, produced by Thames TV, appears, there's more character development, more scenes highlighting the relationship between Callan and the other characters, more drama through dialogue, less running about, less gunplay. However, several of these episodes, notably "Death of a Hunter", in which Callan is tortured with mind altering drugs, Ipcress File-style, to think that his boss is a double agent, are very satisfying. (Incidentally, particularly here the character of Toby Meres seems a lot more sympathetic than in the better known later episodes, more vulnerable, not so much an upper class sadist, and genuinely upset at having to shoot Callan.) Network DVD can only be praised for putting out this very good compilation. However, there's little restoration of the material, which is a shame as Network did such a good job with this on the Public Eye series. Sadly also there are no subtitles – important when the sound is so primitive. I'm very glad they've left in the ad break separator cards that were such a good feature of older British TV. (Incidentally, there's a number of reminders that modern TV is vastly technically superior to the old – I was fascinated that the studio clock card is now visible behind the ABC Television ident at the beginning of the programmes. I'm also wondering if there may be other Callan tapes floating around: I've seen a section of another black and white episode on YouTube. The search goes on.
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Low budget but top quality
4 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is a very good film noir - low budget but after a few minutes scene setting relentlessly tense until the end. It deserves to be better known, as it's superior to several highly rated inexpensive noirs such as D.O.A. The plot is a simple one: a worn down bank clerk dreams of escaping the monotony of his life. An idle daydream to rob his bank becomes an obsession, but as he puts his plan into practice - in true film noir fashion - obstacle after obstacle appear in his way. This is without doubt one of Joseph Cotten's best movies. He was an actor who perhaps didn't have the ambition of some of the people he worked with over the years, and some of the films he was in, such as Citizen Kane, somewhat overshadowed him, being notable for other reasons. But he was a reliable actor and comfortable in various genres including noir - in Niagara or Shadow of a Doubt for instance.

As it seems to have passed into the public domain, The Steel Trap can be viewed for free on Veoh, where I watched it this week.
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D.O.A. (1949)
Tight noir, but a little too tight
25 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
A "race against time" story about a man trying to solve the mystery of his own murder, caused by a slow acting but foolproof toxin. DOA is certainly gripping. However, though I'm a fan of many of these low budget thrillers from the golden age, this one is a little bit overrated, principally because it's just slightly too cheap and, because of that, ill thought through. The tale should be about a boring and timid small-town accountant forced to travel on a job to San Francisco where he is dragged into a world of easy sex, gangsters and murder. Edmond O'Brien's a good actor, but in this the transition seems invisible – like Charles Bronson in Death Wish. This makes the first quarter hour of the film excessively slow. It's a silly set-up - the hero plans a hedonistic holiday alone in the city, clearly to the chagrin of his longstanding girlfriend - and the poor dialogue fails clearly to define the characters. Even the famous opening to the film, where the hero reports his own murder, sounds better in the telling than in the movie itself, where it's clunkily put together. Later, in a SF hotel, we endure a rather silly procession of babes – dubbed on the soundtrack with musical wolf whistles – that we're meant to think are just dying to sleep with this portly bean counter. Even in 1948 this would have seemed a bit far fetched.

The story really gets going when Bigelow (O'Brien) agrees to go to a hep club with his boozy hotel neighbours and becomes irritated with the world they embody. Nevertheless, in the world of film noir you have to pay for your pleasures: he's given a drink laced with toxin. Suddenly the pace of the film hots up, and Bigelow finds himself dashing around San Francisco and Los Angeles to find his "killer". This is the film's one offbeat idea, and clearly the makers thought they didn't need any others. For instance, it strikes one as odd even just after World War II that a professional auditor would be running round flashing a revolver without any internal debate about it. It's also somewhat unconvincing that somebody would be given a slow poison which would in fact aid the police in determining the background to the crime - the illegal trading of radioactive substances - when all that was required was for Bigelow to be got out of the way. Interestingly, the fact that we are told (with a second opinion!) that Bigelow will surely die in the course of the film subtracts from the tension somewhat, as the audience would want him to be trying to find a cure. More worryingly this certain doom nullifies the subplot involving Bigelow's relationship with his girlfriend Paula largely consists of stodgy telephone conversations between the pair of them, instead of an exploration of their characters under pressure. When Bigelow finally meets her again, after she has followed him to Los Angeles, he won't level with her but leaves her in a hotel lobby promising to come back – a promise that he can't possibly keep. Of course this leads to an unsatisfying lack of closure at the end of the film. Bigelow doesn't seem to have learned anything about himself apart from that he's in love with Paula, and this is a missed dramatic opportunity.

Nevertheless, the film has many enjoyable moments. Neville Brand, a cult actor in his own right, is notable in a one-dimensional part. However, Luther Adler steals the film as the urbane gang boss Majek, apologising for having to order his psychotic gunsel bump off Bigelow and explaining why. Much of the movie is filmed in the streets, which gives an edge to the drama it wouldn't have otherwise had. But it's the kind of film that you'll enjoy once, but not so much a second time.
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The Organization (1971– )
Labyrinthine office comedy drama
10 June 2009
The Organization is a very droll allegory about power politics set in a PR division of a multinational company. It was scripted by Philip Mackie, best known probably for his adaptation of Quentin Crisp's memoir The Naked Civil Servant, and is a highly intelligent and insightful series. The quality of direction and of acting - Donald Sinden, Peter Egan and Bernard Hepton are particularly memorable - is sure throughout. Alas, it's been years since it was last shown on terrestrial TV, as part of Channel Four's admirable but apparently junked policy of reclaiming forgotten masterpieces (though since I first wrote this review it has been released on DVD). It's rather topical though - a clear and very detailed expose of the kind of thinking that goes on at the top. Look out for this on cable - highly recommended.
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One for the theorists
2 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
An intelligent though rather solemn conspiracy fantasy, based on the lame premise that Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson may have felt JFK was not the victim of a lone gunman. The film blends colour fiction with black and white documentary footage, largely successfully, even if you count difficulties with look-alikes for Oswald and Ruby. Clearly there's been some research, and the script by Dalton Trumbo is competent albeit concerned with the cold mechanics of the operation. The questions that people were asking when the film was made in the early 1970s are still being asked – such as why the Dallas police, confronted with the biggest crime they would ever see, decided to interview the prime suspect without recording the conversations or making notes. If on the other hand you're sceptical about conspiracy theories you may find the story a little unconvincing in places. For instance, the film assumes that Oswald was, as he himself claimed, a patsy. But could it be possible that conspirators were able to enter the Texas School Book Depository without being spotted, while being sure that during the assassination Oswald would be alone and without an alibi? Also, even if Oswald hated the president, and it's by no means clear even now what his motivations were, if he weren't the shooter wouldn't you have thought he'd be taking at least a peep out of the window of the Depository just to see his nemesis JFK go by, instead of buying himself a Coke in the warehouse lunch room? Oswald's bizarre behaviour after the shooting is skipped over somewhat. But the main problem with the film, and for me it's a big one, is that the makers have chosen not to make the conspirators very interesting, hoping that hiring actors of the weight of Lancaster and Ryan would do the job for them. Dialogue is expository, crammed with information, leaving not much sense of human beings interacting. The effect is of watching a paint-by-numbers picture, worth watching, but ultimately maybe a little too clinical. If you enjoyed reading James Ellroy's American Tabloid, which covers much the same ground in to my mind a similarly unconvincing manner, you'll like it.
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Sorry sequel
18 November 2008
Warning: Spoilers
If only they'd invent a machine for erasing memory selectively. They could keep one in cinema foyers, next to the sweetie boxes.

For some reason, they seemingly brought in a crack team of twatters to make this one – all the mistakes that you could possibly make (the ones that weren't in Casino Royale) are here. First of all, it's made like a music video, very confusing – there's little engagement with the viewer's modest needs for understanding plot and character motivations, little things like that. In the opening scene you can't figure out whether Bond's being chased or he's chasing somebody else, because all the cars are black. Almost immediately there's another chase sequence, demonstrating how little the makers cared about pacing their film.

Then we have daffy CGI fights, lots of preposterous plot points, crap title sequence, unnecessary dodging around the globe, one dimensional women, a clunky reference to Goldfinger, a crazy "empty hotel" finish etc. Big disappointment after Casino Royale – they obviously thought people would go to see the sequel in droves so they might as well not bother.

And yet there was room for so much drama. Drama I say, not action sequences punctuated by breaks, as though dialogue is some sort of filler. Here we have M almost being murdered by her own bodyguard, after being told by a suspect that his organisation is everywhere. You'd have expected a scene where the minister told M her organisation was on notice and all the 00 agents needed to be suspended or vetted etc. You'd also have expected M to be confined to the UK, not turning up in Russia at the end - unless she disobeys the minister's orders, which would have been interesting in itself. And the death of the carabinieri in the opening sequence could have certainly led to a police hunt for the perpetrator, piling the pressure on 007.

What good ideas there were are time and again wasted or confused. Bond's suspension later in the film seems to be forgotten about after a scene with Mathis, who tells him he can't supply passport, credit card etc, as they turn up in foreign parts. But the issue returns at the end, this time with M seemingly accusing Bond of leaving the service of his own accord.

This would lead you to conclude that, despite all the money spent on it, there's a lack of creativity at the heart of the film. What imagination in it is surface, like a video game demo. I suspect though that there was a lot of monkeying with the original script. For instance, instead of covering Fields in oil for the thrown away scene at Bond's hotel I bet in the original script the murderers left her on the bed seemingly intact. Bond realises there's a smell of oil, presses her chest maybe, and the oil spills out of her mouth. Then the scene where Bond leaves the villain out in the desert with a tin of oil to drink would have made some sort of sense.

Daniel Craig's great though – the only believable thing in the entire weary picture. Anyone else and we'd have left the cinema halfway through. Whatever they're paying him, it's not enough.
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Maybe not such a good film as others would lead you to believe
11 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I hate to say it, since so many others have found this film excellent, but I found myself rather glad when it ended. I was a big comics fan as a child and still read graphic novels, so that's not the problem.

First, I felt that the characters were rather two dimensional and leant far too heavily on the acting of the excellent cast. Some of them, notably Morgan Freeman, may have well have had their eyeballs painted on their eyelids, so routine was their contribution. A lot of this lack of character came from the plot's being needlessly complicated, ruining any chance of genuine suspense: time and again set pieces felt rushed through to get on to the next thing. The best part – the Joker's two bomb, two ship conundrum – could have been the centrepiece of the last section of the film and could have built up some tension through the development of the characters on the boat, but this scene was used and dumped. Nolan should have really cut back on the spectacle and invested more time on people, as the earlier Christopher Reeve Superman movies tried to do: in this movie, there were simply too many things going on. There's nothing in this film, nothing at all, that hasn't been done over and over again in previous films. This film might do it better, but the incidents are still hackneyed. I wouldn't mind though, if any of the constant crises of the plot had any point. Blowing up a hospital probably was a great effect, but did it advance the plot or the characters? There could have been plenty of tension in the practicalities of having the very ill patients being moved and the Batman having to help when say he should have been somewhere else, maybe saving his girlfriend. Instead in a rather old fashioned manner Batman kept turning up often without any explanation, like the cavalry. (Indeed, Batman zips off at the end cornily like the Lone Ranger.) The lack of character interest in the film was particularly apparent in the film's casual attitude towards violence, with seemingly hundreds of people being shot and killed and forgotten about as in a video game, not to mention scenes of torture in police custody that in the context of the film was put forward, surprisingly given Guantanamo etc, as a good thing. This led to the viewer not really caring about anybody in the cast or what happened to them. I didn't care for the tasteless use of knives on the part of the Joker, but this has a particular resonance for people here in Britain at the moment, and seems to be a lot more troubling area for us than probably for American filmmakers.

While the Tim Burton version of Batman was set in a kind of art deco fantasy, which to my mind worked better, this film was set in a recognisably real city. This led to the various sillinesses of comic book movies being more obvious and irritating. Why for example would you design a car with a hidden motorbike? How can you fall off a tall building onto a car from penthouse to ground level and not kill yourself? (Indeed, how can you glide with a cape in the first place?) How does the Joker recruit anyone to his gang when he deliberately murders them during jobs? And why when his lover dies, a woman he's supposed to have known from childhood, does Bruce Wayne not even bother to go to the funeral? More worryingly, why are men and women's roles in Gotham City seemingly no further ahead than the 1950s? (For instance, when her children are menaced by Two-Face, here was a great opportunity for the minor character Mrs Gordon to have a few surprising and challenging lines - instead she doesn't say anything.)

As in so many movies these days, the effects and technical quality were excellent. My difficulty is just that for me this film was like watching a poor children's animation – well-made but unreal, uninvolving, with no character interest, and if longer than 20 minutes a bit tiresome. Fair enough if you like that kind of thing, but would any of the undoubtedly many fans of this film really want to watch it more than once?
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Some mishtake surely
15 March 2008
There seems to be some error here. The Dyke and the Pornstar was a two-hander play by Bayla Travis that probably didn't make the transition into film but is seen on tour around the world from time to time. This is exactly what it sounds like - what happens when a pornstar meets a besotted female fan. Double Entente however is about a businesswoman whose drink date with her lover is unexpectedly cancelled, but who decides to go to the bar anyway, where she's soon picked up by a sexy butch. They leave for a steamy encounter, with a fun twist at the end. The short has at least two versions, one of which is slightly more raunchy, and is available on a DVD called Watching You: Intriguing Lesbian Short Films. An example of a good erotic short.
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Citizen X (1995 TV Movie)
Fine, and finely acted, telemovie
17 June 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Deserving to be far better known, Citizen X is a first class and often moving HBO telemovie. Based upon Robert Cullen's book The Killer Department, it shows in some detail the hunt for Russia's notorious serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who butchered 52 male and female victims. Though the culprit was an unintelligent man, it was eight years before he was caught. Somewhat bravely I think, the killer (Jeffrey DeMunn) is portrayed with much sensitivity: he is a weak, small, incompetent powerless man, who like too many such people feels himself only able to assert his masculinity by murder and rape, a true representation of what's sometimes called the 'banality of evil'. By contrast, the detective in the case, Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea), is dogged and focused, although rendered powerless by other factors: Soviet bureaucracy, apathy and lack of police expertise, institutional homophobia, special protection for party members, Burakov's own growing mental fatigue, as well as the erroneous assumption that serial killers were a product of decadent Western society. Learning from his slippery mentor (Donald Sutherland), Burakov learns how to secure the tools he needs for the job. The film is solidly acted throughout, but there are a handful of superb scenes featuring Max Von Sydow as Bukhanovsky, the psychiatrist who ultimately becomes the one person ever to understand this sad little sociopath. The one flaw in the film to my mind is the use of apparently Eastern European accents, needless considering everyone is speaking English. This aside, this humane and unsensationalist film is highly recommended, particularly for those who found Zodiac impenetrable.
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The Sandbaggers (1978–1980)
Great British TV, but before its time
19 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
The Sandbaggers is one of the most intelligent series dramas to come out of British television, and it has devoted followers wherever it's been aired. Despite this, it is one of those shows which always seems to be forgotten about in TV retrospectives or histories. I think the principal reason for this is that it is a "niche" programme in the days before there were such things. Up until 1980 or so, British TV was not as narrowcasted as it appears now, and a drama shown on a weekday evening where there were only three channels would be assumed to have wide appeal throughout the arcane letters and numbers of marketing/advertising categories. But The Sandbaggers is resolutely for the ABC1 audience - a similar viewership to, say, The West Wing. It's complicated, fast moving, dialogue heavy, with most of the action revolving around people walking in and out of offices, talking, arguing and picking up the phone. Sometimes - as in the episode "My Name is Anna Wiseman", in which Burnside helps to fake a defection knowing that the subject will certainly be caught, tortured and tried - it functions as highly political drama, as good as anything in contemporary agitprop theatre. Nowadays, if it were made at all, The Sandbaggers would be on late night, or on a cable channel. Some British series, such as Callan, Public Eye, or even the earlier ITV spy series the Rat-Catchers, fitted the format of 50 minutes plus ads better; others, such as Rumpole of the Bailey, used their popularity to allow special "movie length" stories from time to time. But The Sandbaggers was apparently too shortlived and wasn't liked enough by the general viewing public to gain leverage.

And yet it's gripping. The situations the series deals with are global ones, involving the shifting, tenuous balance of power between the powers during the tail end of the Cold War. Our "hero", Neil Burnside, is the workaholic director of operations in the British security services abroad, in charge of a group of "sandbaggers", the secret heavies who to take on the dirty, secret jobs. He is an obsessive, with little in his life apart from the job and the struggle against the KGB and their pals. He is also - and this is where much of the drama comes - a liar and a cheat, prepared to do anything up to and including misleading or defying his bosses to achieve his (albeit worthy) goals. But the world of The Sandbaggers is packed with deceit. The apparently relaxed and compliant Jeff Ross, his opposite number at the CIA, poses as Burnside's friend and confidant, but is not averse to double crossing the British whenever the situation calls for it. Similarly Wellingham, the man from the ministry and Burnside's ex-father in law, seems to be Burnside's protector to his colleagues and bosses, but is not averse to stabbing his back if needs be.

Unusually in series TV drama, most of the characters including our protagonist are simply not very nice people. Though Burnside (an ex-sandbagger himself) is fiercely protective of his men, the security service seems to function on office politics between departments, personal ambition, back covering. And though it's never said explicitly, the class lines are very clear: Burnside is ambitious, but you know he will never move up the line.

There are lots of incidental pleasures. The clothing - Burnside's no nonsense three piece suits contrast with the Savile Row or civil service tailoring of his bosses. (Indeed, a similar case for symbolism could be made for the hairdressing!) The appalling treatment Burnside dishes out to his secretaries, whom he affects to consider to be little more than coffee makers. (Luckily, they're spunky enough not to take the treatment.) Burnside's poor diet - he always seems to be at a Chinese restaurant ordering his "usual", at a McDonald's, or making himself a rather disgusting fry up at home. The endless sniping over saving relatively minor amounts of money in the service. The highly creative use of locations, in which some of the less picturesque parts of Britain are meant to stand for grim places beyond the Iron Curtain. The fact that no-one in the production team seemed to know whether the creator was Ian MacKintosh or Ian Mackintosh. Plus, despite the subject matter, The Sandbaggers can also be very funny.

The faults in the programme are almost entirely due to the curious set-up in British commercial (ie not BBC) television at the time it was produced. The series fell into the slot after the "watershed", the arbitrary 9pm line beyond which adult television could be shown, and the News at Ten, which at the time was an unshakeable institution. What this meant was that The Sandbaggers, which demanded a more extensive length, often had to cram the plot of a 70 minute show into 50. The editing is so sharp as often to give a shock to the viewer. The dialogue is fast and furious, with little time for pacing. The endings often seem too pat. Some of the stories and themes cry out for a more leisurely approach. For instance, Burnside's love affair with Laura Dickens seems hurried and not properly examined, and her death at the end of series one (murdered on Burnside's orders) needs more explanatory scenes. Some other times, complex plots can only be wound up by overly explanatory dialogue scenes. Imagine The Sopranos existing under similar restrictions.

The still unexplained disappearance of Ian Mackintosh was a genuine tragedy and one which led to the series ending somewhat abruptly. The new writers were good, and rounded off the third series neatly, but it was decided that there was a certain quality missing. Principally, this was the impression that Mackintosh, rumoured to be an MI5 agent himself, had the insidere knowledge to know exactly what he was talking about. Nevertheless, it's a great, great series.
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Get Carter (1971)
Superior gangster film
27 February 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Michael Caine deserves all the plaudits he has received for this film. He shoulders the burden of the story with ease (there are very few scenes where he doesn't appear). His Jack Carter is calculating and uncaring, happy to murder or cause hurt to anyone who stands in his way – even if, as the cases of Keith, Glenda or Albert, he knows they are innocent. His dead eyes reveal a cold spirit, and you never for a moment feel that he's morally superior to any of the other characters. You're not even sure whether his quest to find his brother's killer is prompted by fraternal revenge or by simple rebelliousness against those telling him to pack it in and go home. There's no attempt (thankfully) to humanise him or find "reasons" for his criminality, as in so many poorer pictures. And yet you're carried along with Carter, fascinated by his destruction of the Newcastle criminal infrastructure.

We see the different faces of gangsterism close up. The violence, the amorality, the sexism we've seen in countless other films. But here we also see in detail the many quirks that we know real gangsters are prone to: cleanliness fetish (Carter obsessively polishing his British Rail spoon), hypochondria (Carter's apparently useless nose drops and pills), cruelty (Carter taunting his frustrated landlady in the famous phone sex scene), sentimentality (Carter crying at the Teacher's Pet porn film, while having demonstrated little interest in his niece – or possibly daughter – Doreen), callousness (his lack of compassion towards Keith after he is beaten up), fussiness (wanting his beer in a tall glass not a mug), foolish bravado (Carter walking naked into a street full of marching band members, carrying his shotgun), and untrustworthiness (Carter and Kinnear make a deal, selling out a fellow villain, then right away doublecross each other.) Then there's the chilling sight of Eric Paice's terrified eyes when Carter pulls off his shades – many a real-life gangster would understand that.

Each time I see this film, and I've seen it probably two dozen times – I'm always taken by the clarity of the narrative, by the well rounded characters (even those in bit parts), by the haunting Roy Budd score. But it needs to be said that, to the film's benefit, a number of unusual risks have been taken. For instance, the depiction of the characters benefits from offbeat casting. Glenda (Geraldine Moffat), Edna (Rosemary Dunham), Doreen (Petra Markham), Peter (Tony Beckley) and other well chosen actors fit their parts perfectly. Caine makes no attempt to hide his grown up, pale, lumpy body even when naked. The violence is not gratuitous, but when it appears we are shown its shocking effects full on. Plus, it also must have taken some courage to set the film in Newcastle – not usually first choice as a location for major films – which here, largely owing to the excellent Wolfgang Suschitsky photography, becomes a character in its own right.
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Even if you liked it, it's still rubbish
19 February 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I watched this film with a sort of dangerous fascination, like a hedgehog trapped in the headlights. There is no doubt that (even if you enjoyed it) it's a bad movie, but the important question is why? It has a good cast; it's lively; it's prepared to tackle sex head on, with some of the characters actually getting some of it here and there, which is unusual for a British comedy. It also has Johnny Vegas and Mackenzie Crook, Marmite performers agreed but they've had their moments in the past.

What it's principally lacking is charm. The characters are impossibly idiotic, unbelievable and alienating, so that instead of a film of Men Behaving Badly the producers have made Game On. Any mediocre writer wanting to make a film about the sexual attitudes of dozy, sexist British men would have got hold of a few copies of Loaded, Zoo or even Viz to read Sid the Sexist and the thing would have written itself. Instead, the producers clearly tried to make up some moronic, difficult to care about, characters. Character comedy - as opposed to slapstick etc - only works if the audience can recognise some human truth to the situation. But watching this film is like being told an annoying joke that you know is not going to end up funny but you can't stop it.

Sadly, the film is also poorly made. The plot structure is weak, there's little character delineation or development, and many of the scenes aren't funny. Time after time the same lame reggae chips in to divide scenes, pointlessly and gratingly. There's a lot of needless repetition - when you've done one joke about parking outside a sex party you don't need to do it again. One wonders what the UK Film Council saw in the script.

This is a world where most men are rakes, and most women are continually up for it. The Apartment and Alfie satirised much the same world view, but the producers of this film accept it without criticism. Thus they've ended up with a kind of inferior update of Confessions of a Window Cleaner. Somebody British needs to have another go at this kind of thing, and do it properly – a good next project for Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright I think...
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Lucky Feller (1975– )
Underrated but not forgotten
15 February 2007
This was a shamefully underrated ITV comedy of 1976, written by Terence "There's a girl in my soup" Frisby and produced by Humphrey Barclay. Also set in south-east London, the basic set-up can be seen as a dry run for Only Fools and Horses, except with David Jason playing the "Rodders" part. There are two brothers: a sex god (Randolph Mepstead, played by Peter Armitage) and a shy nerd (Shorty Mepstead, played by Jason). The nerd is in love with a girl (Cheryl Hall); the girl is sexually infatuated with the sex god. Put like that it sounds a fairly standard romcom, but the quality of the writing was high and the comedy of social misunderstandings was highly inventive.

It was attacked by critics and only lasted one series, axed by the production company London Weekend Television. Years later it was reported in the press that LWT, presumably hoping to make some money out of the popularity of Del Boy Trotter, had approached David Jason to ask if it could be reshown. Alas, Jason turned them down. He apparently still felt aggrieved that LWT had not got behind such a superior project. But this is the kind of show that is ripe for revaluation.
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Waste of talent
23 January 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I felt this film was very much a missed opportunity. The plot, of a small group in a building being menaced by killers, is a staple of movies, even taking into account Rio Bravo, from which the original Assault film borrowed. Done well, with enough suspense and plot twists, such a story makes a decent, credible movie.

The problem is, this picture comes across as a primer of How Not To make a successful thriller. Not one of the characters, up to and including Ethan Hawke's pill-popping sergeant and Laurence Fishburne's overly literate gangster, is anything other than stereotypical. Dialogue is cliché ridden, often needless, and devoid of humour. There's little tension, just repetitious action, explosions, violence. The producers don't seem to realise that each major character needs their own mini-story to make them interesting to the viewer, and there's very little personality clash apart from the most obvious. Some of it is just not believable even on its own terms: for instance, a professional counsellor would right away put a stop to any flirting on the part of a patient, assuming it to be manipulative behaviour. In keeping with the film's somewhat prepubertal attitudes, there's no romance or sexual tension among the characters – indeed, we're not even sure who the female love interest is.

All of which makes for a rather uninvolving couple of hours, unless you are the kind of viewer who loves stories packed with grenades, guns with red-dot sights, car crashes, smashing windows, bullet stricken foreheads, unexplained helicopters, noise etc – video game movies in fact. Others may feel that, in a good film, in order for such things to be effective they need to be kept to the barest minimum in favour of such low-tech fripperies as character development or suspense. Trouble is the former type of viewer is increasingly becoming the only type of viewer.
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Art school comedy pulls its punches
21 December 2006
Though Ghost World is without doubt the best of Daniel Clowes' forays into film, Art School Confidential is closer to the bulk of his recent graphic art work. I admire Clowes' books very much and, like David Boring or Ice Haven, Confidential uses a somewhat surreal tone to tell us something about the Way We Live Now. But because it's slightly weird, with a virgin innocent hero in a world of self-obsession and serial murder, this movie is not the funny, scabrous attack on the art world that you'd wish for, especially if you've read the hilarious rant with the same title, available in Clowes' Eightball comic compilation. It should have been a competitor to Roger Corman's delirious Bucket of Blood. But Art School Confidential the movie doesn't tell us anything more about the art scene than Ghost World did, largely because even though the cast is uniformly excellent they're playing the sort of characters you've seen in college pictures repeatedly - self-obsessed student-hating lecturers, closeted but obvious gays, John Belushi types, neurotic lesbians etc. More of Clowes' real-life art school experiences and less of the contrived plot would have improved it greatly. It's an entertaining film, but only mildly so.

Tony Hancock's The Rebel is still the funniest in a rather tiny subgenre of films about the art world - long may it reign.
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Casino Royale (2006)
Top class Bondery
24 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I saw Dr No at the cinema when it first appeared and have been watching Bond films ever since. For me the best ones are those which take the 007 character and therefore the viewer seriously, and for that reason I've found the Roger Moore films and even some of the Brosnan ones unwatchable.

This film is a real return to the basics of Bond. The producers have tried to get to grips with the character as though they were making a real movie, not another lucrative addition to a fantasy franchise. Look, James Bond is a cold killer who knows he himself could well die at any minute, and he wants the best of everything and won't take second best - food, cars, clothes, hotels, girls. Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, even George Lazenby nailed this - and now Daniel Craig shows us how a man such as that is created.

I think many of the film's detractors are expecting the elements that the rest of us have seen so often they've become clichés - the villain's lair (always totally destroyed), the Bond girls, the expensive clothes, the improbable gadgets - and have not appreciated this laudable attempt to put new twists on old, tired material. Principally what these people are missing is the best Bond since Connery (in an extraordinary, human performance from Daniel Craig) and the best Bond film since the days of Connery. I thought such elements as the opening sequence, title sequence, use of the theme tune etc were intelligent and well judged. I particularly liked how Bond's relationship with Vesper Lynd was allowed to carry on after the principal bad guy was vanquished. (I've often wondered whatever happens to the Bond women after the end credits roll...)

My only criticisms are minor ones, including -

* a long, daft chase sequence involving freerunning (why didn't Bond just wait for the guy to come down off the crane?)

* some improbable situations (what's 007 doing with a defibrillator? - though they could have got round that if Le Chiffre's heart was bad and M didn't want him to die at the tables)

* and some missed opportunities (Felix Leiter gives the impression the US has money to burn - no, he'd have asked for interest on the loan or a cut of the take, and that would have placed more pressure on Bond to deliver)

* I couldn't really believe that Bond would have put in his resignation. More likely, he'd have kept it in draft form, never quite getting round to sending it. (Vesper: "Have you told M yet?" Bond: "I'm still working on the email. I want it to be just right.")

But, forgetting it's Bond, it's a very good film. This I suppose is the mistake the producers have made in the past - how many of the Bond films stand on their own as good movies?
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Better than average erotic film - but don't expect the novel
5 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I saw this film some years ago, and was struck by one well-handled early scene of the heroine's life in which she inadvertently witnesses her mother's lesbian affair with a younger woman, which apparently forges the girl's interest in sexual matters. This is a better than average erotic film, but it has to be pointed out to fans of Emmanuelle Arsan that the plot of this film bears no relationship whatsoever to her novel Nea. The book is about a young, rather manipulative girl who seduces a succession of both men and women including her sister, her headmistress and her father. The main plot of the novel concerns Nea's allegation of rape against her sister's lover, Maurice. He goes to prison for this, but she carries on her relationship with him and eventually has him released. Nea suddenly becomes rich and builds a kind of sexual retreat for her lovers and others, which she rules. The book ends on the depressive, faux existential note of many French novels falsely claiming intellectual depth. Nea ends up, as she puts it, "waiting for death". Neither the film nor the book merits the publicity line that was put on them, "A young Emmanuelle" - Nea is an entirely different character.
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The Contender (2000)
Don't neglect the bit parts
25 July 2006
This is without doubt a first class and complex political film, well deserving of the plaudits it has received. It deals with an issue which isn't covered much in recent movies - discrimination against women - and it does so with sardonic wit and courage. Women are still being discriminated against, and this can't be pointed out enough. I particularly appreciated the way the movie got away from the television portrayal of the White House you see in the West Wing; here politicians are portrayed not as the good guys just doing a job, but as a mixture of greatness and pettiness. Even the protagonist is not seen as perfect, just a decent human being trying to resist indecent pressure from her enemies and even her colleagues.

The principal performances in particular are well judged, but watch out for an extremely good turn from Kathryn Morris as Paige Willomina, the deceptively bumbling young FBI agent, whose handful of scenes are entirely satisfying.
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Inventive biopic
5 June 2005
I too feel that this intelligent, well made film deserves better than the reviews would lead you to believe. Critics are often more conservative than audiences, and you can find no better example of this than in this movie, which was roundly attacked in Britain and I believe in the US too.

Instead of using the standard biopic conventions, Spacey bravely chooses to tell the story a little differently, structuring Darin's life around a fantasy meeting between the man Darin and himself as a child. The effect is probably more truthful, that after a firework of a career, Bobby Darin was almost destroyed when he was forced to come to terms with the truth of his childhood. Spacey is excellent as usual, but the quality of his singing and ability to put over Darin's often technically difficult songs does make for a lively picture. Darin was a fascinating figure - a highly popular singer, actor and prolific songwriter, the truth of whose life was somewhat shrouded for much of his career in teen publicity, but who bravely attempted to reinvent himself in the 1960s - and this movie does help to throw some light on him.

This film will be reappraised at some later date, but in the meantime I hope the critical reaction to Beyond the Sea won't stop Spacey from considering a further shot in the director's chair.
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Public Eye (1965–1975)
Fine downbeat series
11 February 2005
Public Eye was a fine series and deserves a place in the British TV Hall of Fame. Luckily, it's available on DVD, and the British channel Talking Pictures TV shows it regularly.

It was part of Alfred Burke's brilliance in the part that Frank Marker was a character with no real character traits. We knew nothing about his background, a mystery which was never solved for us by the writers. Originally, the character of Marker was going to be a tough, Lee Marvin figure, but casting Burke was an inspired move on the part of the producers. With his lined, seen-it-all face and his sensitive, laconic manner, Burke rooted the concept firmly in reality. Marker dealt with the dark, petty underbelly of the world, and was only ever a few pounds short of bankruptcy. It seemed only natural that one day he would be arrested (framed for handling stolen goods) and go to prison (ending the original ABC TV series). When he emerged some time later (Thames TV taking over production), Marker has quit Birmingham for seedy Brighton for a masterly 1969 series entirely penned by Roger Marshall. Here, Marker is dealing as much with the repercussions of his own lonely, solitary character as he is with the shadow of prison. Later (with the advent of colour TV), the character moved from there to the more upmarket locale of Windsor, where for a time he became partners with the sharp, ambitious alpha-male Ron Gash.

Marker always eschewed the term "detective" in his dealings with clients, preferring the term that real British private eyes use, "enquiry agent"; at a stroke, this narrative move cut Public Eye off from all other detective series and encouraged a more downbeat approach. In this, it followed its source: Anthony Marriott was a real-life enquiry agent whose techniques and experiences were the basis of the show. A movie made from the material might have been a British classic.

One other point: the haunting bluesy theme for some reason is rarely mentioned, was never released on record, and is not credited on IMDb.com. It is by veteran TV bandleader Bob Sharples (under the pseudonym Robert Earley).
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Dragnet (1951–1959)
Worth another look
10 February 2005
I've been watching some older episodes recently, courtesy of a couple of bargain four-episodes DVD I got in a Brighton 99p shop, and my attitude towards the series has changed somewhat from when I first saw Dragnet some decades ago. I now realise that the very tight, plodding format with the story told mostly through voice-over - much satirised, most memorably in Police Squad! and in a classic parody in an early Mad magazine - can somewhat blind the viewer to some of the show's more subtle strengths. The show does seem to make an effort to show the often tedious and legwork-heavy aspects of police work, and avoids violence and gratuitous gunplay as much as possible. But there's often a very sympathetic tone in Dragnet episodes towards the culprit, understanding that crime is often tragedy - such as in an episode called Big Porn, where in the final minutes a pornographer is revealed as a sad, tired old man, reliving his old days as a movie director. I particularly like an episode called Big Shoplift where the criminal turns out to be a lonely woman suffering from kleptomania, for whom even Joe Friday recognises that jail is not the right place. This compassion was a step forward from the efficient but rather cold film that inspired Dragnet, He Walked by Night, in which Webb had a bit part.

When I first saw Dragnet, I think in particular I underestimated the performance of Jack Webb, who seems to approach his suspects with a very human demeanour which is entirely realistic and such an antidote to the overplayed performances of many later TV cops. Webb produced and often wrote and directed the shows, and he displays a sure, experienced touch. Incidentally, the series didn't always take itself that seriously: look out for a wildly campy episode which alters the opening titles to read "Badge 417".
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