Two Hollywood stories caught my eye recently as I flicked through my newspaper and sipped my coffee in a local café. The first was the revelation that comedy actor Richard Prior and brooding macho heartthrob Marlon Brando had been lovers. Generally, I don’t go in for celebrity tittle tattle. I really don’t care who does who as long as it’s consensual and they don’t frighten the horses, but it was the statement from Richard Prior’s widow that, given enough cocaine, her husband would…
…f**k a radiator and send it flowers in the morning…
that had me spitting out my americano. What a woman. I’m not sure I would have been quite so magnanimous.
The second story was the news that British-born actor John Mahoney had died at the age of 77. John Mahoney found fame later in life as the crabby blue-collar dad in ‘Frazier’ who delighted in pricking the pretensions of his snobby sons. He was often handed the best lines and one of the best was…
Boy, things have really changed since my day. Back then, if a girl got into trouble, her family would send her away to relatives in another state and if anyone asked, just lied and said she went to Europe. Then when she came back, they’d raise the baby as a little sister. Not like today, we had morals and values back then.
I remember those values. And I see them coming round again.
There’s been a flurry of historical war films lately and more to come, I’m sure. It’s not surprising, given the various centenaries involving the Great War of 1914-18 and the knock-on remembrance of other major conflicts. As a general rule, I don’t do war movies. I’d much rather watch Maggie Smith in bustle and bodice than endure the blood, sweat and tears of the trenches. One exception was the cinematic tour de force, Dunkirk – a masterpiece. Then came The Darkest Hour, a fictionalised account of the first few weeks of Winston Churchill’s premiership during the Second World War; France is finished, the Brits are trapped, the Americans are hedging their bets and Churchill must decide whether to parley with Hitler. The days don’t get any darker than that. We were drawn in by reports of Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston and his Churchillian prosthetic transformation.
I’ve liked Gary Oldman ever since he played Joe Orton, the controversial and irrepressibly gay sixties playwright, in the deliciously naughty but tragic biopic Prick Up Your Ears. In The Darkest Hour, neither Gary nor the prosthetics disappoint – both are superb. And what of the film in general? It’s a witty script that doesn’t whitewash Churchill’s considerable flaws, ruthless streak or periods of mental paralysis. But it’s the performance that makes it. Expect a few gongs for Oldman and the clever people in the rubber department.
We also recently saw the latest Star Wars blockbuster – The Last Jedi. The critics loved it, the fans less so. I’m with the fans.
We’ve seen a few films recently, most notably God’s Own Country, a windswept tale of romance and raunch between a monosyllabic, emotionally-repressed Yorkshire hill farmer (Josh O’Connor – the literary one from the Durrells) and an enlightened and worldly-wise labourer from Romania (a superbly self-possessed Alec Secăreanu). It’s a kinda coming out tale for the Brexit generation and a tad ironic given the reception gay people usually receive in Romania. Liam thought it was all a bit too Wuthering Heights. I enjoyed the desolation but only because it was finally relieved by a bit of boy-gets-boy at the end. The critics praised the film but damned the redemption. Critics seem to love grim tales that leave you reaching for the gin and pills.
We also saw The Party, a dark satirical farce filmed entirely in black and white about a soiree of smug, fizz-swigging Islington intellectuals whose lives (and leftie credentials) visibly unravel before your eyes. They wriggle while the vol-au-vents burn. I really wanted to like this film but didn’t. There were some great lines…
“You’re a first-class lesbian and a second-rate thinker,”
…and a great twist at the end but it all got a bit too slapstick – and not half as clever as it thinks it is. I nearly reached for the gin and pills.
And then came the main event. Murder on the Orient Express is arguably Agatha Christie’s most ingenious plot. I’ve seen the 1974 star-studded version many times so I know whodunit but did I care? Kenneth Branagh’s re-make (both as director and as Poirot – the Belgian sleuth, sporting gravity-defying face furniture) may be slightly less stellar, cast-wise, but it more than made up for it with spectacle and opulent period detail, dishing up characters less cardboard cut-out than the usual Christie servings. The famously snowed-in train provided an afternoon of pure escapism that really dried out a rainy day. It sparkled – from the dramatic Istanbul skyline to Branagh’s anguished Poirot. Later, we raised a gin or two to the new Hercule. No pills required.
Generally, I don’t like war films. They tend to be way too violent or jingoistic (or both) for me. I don’t do gore or mindless nationalism. But then we read a five star review of ‘Dunkirk’ which told us to go see it on the biggest screen possible. So we did as we were told and took our seats at the local multiplex. From the opening sequence to the closing credits, we were on the edge of our seats, teeth clenched and knuckles whitened. Utterly mesmerising and amplified by a devastating Hans Zimmer score threaded with Elgar, the film has ‘epic’ stamped all over it. The story of Dunkirk is the stuff of national legend – hundreds of thousands of allied troops trapped on the beach and rescued by a flotilla of hundreds of small civilian boats. But this film isn’t about plucky Brits snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It isn’t about the gung-ho glorification of war or the sins of the enemy – not a single German is seen. It’s about survival by the skin of the teeth. It’s about a miracle. And it’s brilliant.
Billed as the road movie for the silver generation, ‘The Time of Their Lives’ stars Collins’ Joan and Pauline supported by ex-Italian stallion, Franco Nero. Clapped-out former screen goddess, Helen (played by Joan – no typecasting there then), hearing about the death of an old squeeze from her glory days, escapes the knacker’s yard, determined to ham it up at the funeral in France. Along the way, she picks up dowdy and downtrodden housewife Priscilla (Pauline) and the grey fugitives race côte à côte in a stolen Renault Captur. Franco Nero is the old stud in a battered 2CV with the hots for Pauline. There’s a full-frontal scene where he jumps naked into a pool. Now I know what perked up Vanessa Redgrave all those years ago when she played Guinevere to his considerable Lancelot in Camelot.
‘The Time of Their Lives’ has shades of ‘Thelma and Louise’ and ‘Shirley Valentine’ about it but, sadly, it’s not a patch on either. A tighter script and better lines would have helped. For us, the funniest moment came when the Norfolk broad in the row behind us dropped her gin – over her lap, over her seat and over her giggly companion. And with the best will in the world, Trump-loving ‘national treasure’, Joan, can’t match her fellow theatrical dames for pathos (or politics). Nevertheless, it was a charming excursion and diverting way to pass a Sunday afternoon.
I’ve always been a sentimental old fool. I only have to hear Vanessa Redgrave’s voice-over at the start of Call the Midwife and I start to well up, knowing the everyday trials and triumphs of East End childbearing during the fifties and sixties will leave me drained and limp. So I should have known better when we decided on a distracting afternoon at the flicks to watch Lion. Based on a true story, it’s a heart-churning tale of a five-year-old Indian boy who, by tragic happenstance, finds himself lost and alone on the mean streets of Kolkata, far, far away from the dusty plains of home. Following near misses with the truly unthinkable and a stint in a teeming orphanage, he’s plucked from the crowd by a well-meaning Australian couple and re-homed in comfortable Tasmania. Job done, lucky boy, you might say. But 25 years later, haunted by vivid flashbacks of his childhood, he sets out to find his long lost family in an attempt to calm his troubled mind. Lion speaks volumes, not just about the casual horror of life on the streets but also the cultural dislocation and guilt felt by those airlifted to affluence. Dev Patel is excellent as the man on a mission to rediscover his past. But the undisputed star of the show is the extraordinary Sunny Pawar as the lost child. Take a box of Kleenex. You’ll need it.
John Hurt, the first Chancellor of the Norwich University of the Arts, was a talented, versatile and prolific character actor. His superb portrayals of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, Max in Midnight Express and Caligula in the BBC’s I, Claudius immediately spring to mind. There are many, many others in a career spanning six decades. But for me, it was his role as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant which resonated the most. It was 1975 and I was 15 and fretful. The film was a revelation. Not because I wanted to do a Crisp by slapping on, dragging up and renting myself out for a few shillings. No, because I suddenly realised that if Quentin could live an unabashed life during the most hostile of times, then my own coming out might not be so traumatic. Apparently, John Hurt was strongly advised against taking the part. It would be career suicide, he was told. Hurt ignored the doomsayers and I’m so glad he did. And despite a few initial wobbles, my step from the closet turned out just fine.