In this latest episode, journalist and James Bond aficionado Lee Kenny joins me to discuss the BBC radio play adaptations of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. The first was broadcast in 2008, the most recent in 2020, and they all feature Toby Stephens as Bond, as well as other recurring cast. We talk about how they capture the overall strangeness of atmosphere present in Fleming’s stories, and how they provide a counterpoint to both the books and the more famous film series.
In this episode of my Cult Film Microcast series, I look at Perry Henzell’s 1972 Jamaican film, The Harder They Come. The poster above is from the American New World Pictures release, and makes a clear attempt to market the film as a blaxploitation crime picture. Like many films of the blaxploitation cycle, it has an anti-authoritarian ethos, and the music and soundtrack is a vital component in generating its mood.
In this recording, I focus on the stylistic techniques, the performance by reggae star Jimmy Cliff as Ivanoe Martin, and the famous scene set in the Rialto cinema in Kingston, where Martin goes to watch a performance of the spaghetti western Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966).
As part of my Newton Talks podcast I have started a spin-off series of short ‘microcasts’ on cult cinema, much shorter than my regular episodes. Each episode will see me introducing a different cult film. The first of these is all about Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979). I hope you enjoy it. Have a listen here;
Three songs by Lady Trash.
The latest version of the Robin Hood folklore story has been met by mostly poor reviews from critics. One of my film fan Twitter followers has claimed it has prompted her first ever cinema walk-out. The Telegraph reported on the 26th November that it is 2018’s largest box office bomb – the biggest flop, in fact, since Guy Ritchie’s similarly maligned King Arthur.
The comparisons to Ritchie’s movie are also relevant because Robin Hood takes a similar stylistic approach – CGI heavy, grungy, and a clear attempt to make the iconic hero ‘cool’ again. At times, the design approaches the steampunk aesthetic – as characters wear anachronistic clothing and work in what appear to be industrial revolution era factories. Nottingham itself is rendered as a sprawling, industrial metropolis, with high rise buildings, slums, and narrow streets.
It is this approach that struggles to convince, and stops the film succeeding. English medieval countryside and towns do not have to be enhanced and made modern to look fantastic on screen. In doing so, the film only sabotages its setting, one of its main potential selling points. The look is dark and artificial with little deviation in the brown and charcoal colour scheme – sometimes striking, but mostly preventing us from enjoying one of the exciting elements of the original story (stories) – its medieval locale. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with costumes that reflect the period, rather than the standard and predictable Nazi-esque clobber of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his soldiers.
Ironically, the most obvious attempt at modernisation also results in the film’s most effective scene. Robin is drafted to fight in one of the crusades, and Bathurst recreates a War on Terror style troops under fire action sequence, clearly reminiscent of news footage and documentaries following soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, for the only time in the film, the action is hard and spectacular, and effectively defines the character traits of three of the central figures in the story. It is the definite highlight. But the overall seriousness of it all undermines the other attractive element of the Robin Hood story – the tone of ‘derring do’. This tone is almost entirely missing.
The cast however, is terrific. Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, and Paul Anderson, are usually superb performers when working with the right material, and they struggle manfully with what they are given here. The film tries hard to be fun, politically relevant, and up to date – but doesn’t succeed in any of these endeavours. The best cinematic Robin Hood remains the 1938 version starring Errol Flynn, and the Robin of Sherwood 1980s TV series starring Michael Praed could possibly the strongest and most interesting version of them all.
Ocean’s 8 is a sequel to the earlier Oceans franchise starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, among others. Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Clooney’s character, who has since died. Debbie is determined to pull off a heist she has been preparing for while in prison, ever since she was double crossed and set up by her ex-boyfriend. To help, she assembles a crew, including Cate Blanchett, Rhianna, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Mindy Kaling.
The most positive aspect of the film is the occasional use of rundown locations, such as disused and repurposed industrial buildings, a frequently unobtrusive camera, and scenes which are very often underlit. All this hints at the possibility that director Gary Ross was flirting with the style of seventies’ films such as The French Connection or The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Most intriguingly, is the recurrence of shots through glass or which use reflective surfaces. Windows, glass panels, phone and computer screens, and precious jewels dominate the mise-en-scene.
These more interesting stylistic elements – the attempt at seventies style grit, combined with the dominance of shots which reflect the overall plot (the heist of a diamond necklace), are too tentative, and are drowned out as the film opts for the more predictable foregrounding of slow motion walking, or shots designed for no other purpose than to make the principle cast look cool. These are the weakest moments of the film. Sadly, they populate the movie too often, and are clear attempts at creating a slick crowd pleaser which is at odds with the detached and restrained performances of Bullock and Blanchett in particular. This creates an uncomfortable fit between two stylistic approaches which ultimately fail to hold together.
It all falls apart during the climax, which resorts to having characters explain what has just happened out of the view of the audience – complete with flashbacks of events which the viewer previously knew nothing about. We are also not shown the ultimate fate of the villains, and due to the effortless criminal competence of the lead characters, there is very little tension during the heist and subsequent fall out. The film is compromised stylistically and narratively. This is a common problem for Hollywood films which are concerned above all else with making its cast look untouchable.
This is not to say that Ocean’s 8 is unenjoyable. The cast are all excellent, and a genuine double act is formed between Bullock and Blanchett. Any sequel which gave them a tougher task, or put them under a bit more narrative pressure, could work well. There are also several effective moments of dialogue, and some entertaining interplay which is entirely expected of a cast this strong. They look like they all had a good time during shooting, and while this is not always desirable, in an ensemble piece the spark and connection between the leads is necessary.
Ocean’s 8 is an attempt to create a low key Hollywood movie which is dependent on a quality cast, good writing, and solid directing. It succeeds in moments, but overall doesn’t quite achieve the promise of its earlier scenes.
Our new film, Irvin, is available now on You Tube. It was made after a period of extensive research into sex offenders. The script is based on case studies, and was built from primary and secondary research.
Originally, the plan was to create a narrative based on the character, but we felt that the interview structure enabled us to address many of the issues in a more direct and thorough way. It reduced the need for us to ‘narrativise’ events. The acts and events described by Irvin are from multiple different sources. They are not presented in any linear order, which leads to contradictions and repetitions in Irvin’s account of his crimes. We felt that this accurately reflects not only the full realm of the material we researched, but also the contradictory nature of Irvin’s personality.
The character is repulsive and sympathetic. He is intelligent, and capable of both self-awareness and self-pity. This reflects the different dimensions of the character and the complexity of the wider subject of what it means to be an offender and the topic of institutional sexual abuse. Irvin is shot almost exclusively in close ups. This forces the viewer into an intimate relationship with the subject, despite the uncomfortable nature of his crimes. It offers them no easy way out of confronting the issues at hand, and allows the viewer very little relief. Irvin is available to view in its entirety here;
This is the first episode of my web series Keeper of the Tombs. In truth, I am merely experimenting with the format. The individual films were not intended to be made as a web series. Instead, it began as a stand-alone film. After shooting it, I decided it would be better constructed as an episodic narrative. Around this time I began to research the idea of making a web series. I decided to put the two together and use the footage as an experiment. So, Keeper of the Tombs is now a web series where I intend to experiment with the format, with a view to producing one from scratch sometime in the future.
It stars Paul Richards (who also co-directed), and was shot by Mark Castro and Max Philo.
Episode #2 is currently being edited and will be available soon.
Deliver is a short film that originated as test footage for a character we are working on. The process of testing the character through a lens, rather than working through ideas in a traditional writing session proved useful. It has led to us altering some fundamental elements of the character and the script we are working on, based on the results of this experiment.
We shot this on an old Kodak Zi6. It is a decent piece of kit that aids shooting very quickly, and I may consider trying to get hold of a Zi8 if I can find one for a decent price.
Here is the YouTube upload of the finished film. It was shot in a day, in and around Canterbury.
Below is the transcript for an introduction I gave at the University of Kent on 4th February 2014 for Burma VJ (Anders Ostergaard, 2008). The event was part of the campus takeover/politics week run by Kent Union.
The screening took place in the Lupino, the university’s dedicated screening room.
Burma VJ has an unusual production history. Much of the footage is shot in Burma by activists on the ground during political demonstrations. But the film was compiled in the West, after the footage was smuggled out of the country. I am not going to talk much about how the film was made, because that will become evident as you are watching it. The film is, in many ways, about its own creation. Instead, I am going to briefly discuss some of the vital themes the film touches on.
Though the film deals with a very specific set of events from a particular place and time in history, it is an important indicator of some of the ways protest and activism has changed around the world. In particular, the film chronicles how effective the use of camcorder and video recording technology can be to political activists.
Camcorders are used in the film to expose authoritarian and institutional abuse, and to expose the often brutal reaction by authorities to direct political action. In protests worldwide we can see how the use of camera-phone footage dominates reporting on civil unrest, with much news footage comprising of pictures taken by the citizens involved.
Burma VJ is a prophetic film. The year after the film was made Neda Soltan was killed by police during an anti-government protest in Iran. Her death, captured on mobile phones by her friends, was broadcast worldwide, and was used to shine a light on events in Iran happening at the time.
In the UK, in a political climate far less intense than either Burma or Iran, we saw how footage captured by civilians can be used to hold authority to account. Ian Tomlinson died during the G20 protests in the same year as Neda Agha- Soltan – 2009. The first police reports of his death, ones which were repeated widely in the media, were that he had collapsed, and that protesters had bombarded the police as they attempted to resuscitate him. These stories were soon contradicted by eyewitnesses, and several days after Tomlinson’s death video footage emerged which confirmed that he had in fact died after contact with police, and that protestors had not thrown anything or attempted to prevent police from giving first aid. The incident culminated in a police officer being tried for manslaughter.
These incidents highlight a recent development in political activism. We have to acknowledge that the process of recording is a two way process. The police use video to record protesters – and protesters will increasingly use video to record the police. Both are vital to democratic processes. Rather than providing a full stop to this debate, Burma VJ helped to mark the beginning of a new era of political activism.