Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Paradox, BBC One

Hot off the press, here's a review of tonight's Paradox wot I've written for Orange.

We'll always have cops and docs, but a lot of those TV drama box sets we can't resist are "high concept" – series with big ideas like Lost, Fringe and FlashForward. The BBC has given it a go before, with stuff like Life on Mars and Survivors, but unfortunately the first episode of new crime series Paradox has come out a bit soggy.

Paradox stars Tamzin Outhwaite as flinty detective DI Flint – a no-nonsense copper who seems to have too much time on her hands. Tonight, she got her whole team involved when intense(ly annoying) boffin Dr Christian King (Emun Elliott) came across a collection of images that seemed to have come from the future and suggested that Something Very Bad is about to happen.

However, while FlashForward gave us widescreen vistas of devastation across LA and Fringe pinged us into an parallel New York where Leonard Nimoy's got an office in the World Trade Center, tonight's Paradox unfortunately culminated in a chase down a Lancashire B-road to prevent a sleepy driver crashing his lorry into a low bridge.

But even allowing for a tighter budget, the time-scale for the action seemed implausible and a death toll of 73 looked a bit unlikely from the explosion we saw. Meanwhile, the dialogue included razor-sharp zingers like "Find the nearest manned signal box with a land line and ring them!" You can't exactly hear that bursting out of Jack Bauer's mouth, can you?

The concept promised us something new and shiny, but the delivery was as humdrum as Doctors or Casualty (and that isn't a dig at those popular shows). In fact, this could almost be relabelled as Holby Time Cops, if it wasn't already set in Manchester (or some strange alternative version of the city devoid of Mancunians).

I feel bad dumping on this, as it's exactly the sort of thing I've always enjoyed. The idea's obviously intriguing, but it's executed at such a pedestrian pace that it looks like a very poor relative of the US shows it'll inevitably be compared with.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Glorious 39/Stephen Poliakoff Q&A, BFI

This is a bit after the event (Blame it on St Ives), but the other week we saw Stephen Poliakoff’s Glorious 39 at the BFI, followed by a Q&A with the writer/director, as well as cast members Romola Garai and Bill Nighy.

(I’ve since lost the notebook in which I was furiously scribbling during the Q&A, so unfortunately I’ll have to rely on my addled memory for what was said.)

Glorious 39 is Poliakoff’s first film for the cinema in more than a decade. He said he hadn’t planned to stay away that long, but enjoyed the creative control he was given while working in TV. Since the success of recent work like Gideon’s Daughter, he’s been waiting for the right story to come along for his return to cinema.

The film is an atmospheric thriller set around an upper-class family – headed by MP Alexander Keyes (Nighy) – on the eve of World War II. Anne (Garai), the family’s adopted daughter, finds her life threatened when she stumbles upon what seems to be a conspiracy by pro-appeasement activists to prevent Britain being drawn into the war.

However, the mystery deepens when Poliakoff raises the possibility that Anne could be an ‘unreliable narrator’ and imagining the whole thing. The events of the film are seen almost entirely from her perspective, which takes on a nightmarish quality that suggests she could be suffering from paranoia.

A few things in the script don’t quite add up, but it’s a complex and cinematically rewarding film. It’s more than a little Hitchcockian in the way it draws an ‘innocent’ into a world of danger they struggle to comprehend. While there aren’t many thrills and spills, the atmosphere and imagery are effective and the outcome remains uncertain to the very end.

Afterwards, Poliakoff spoke about how he came up with the Keyes family’s story to embody the vital struggle that was taking place in political circles as war approached. Even though we know the appeasers failed, he sought to create tension by dropping us into history and making us identify with a character at the heart of the mystery who doesn’t know how it’s going to turn out.

He also uses the theme of being betrayed by one’s family to reflect what happened to those who were suddenly persecuted by the Nazis in communities where they had previously felt secure. Throughout the film, imagery evocative of the Holocaust raises the spectre of what is about to happen across Europe.

Naturally, Poliakoff’s Jewish heritage makes this an even more vital theme; he claimed that most people remain unaware of how close the UK came to reaching an agreement with Germany that would almost certainly have led to the creation of a Vichy-style government in the UK and the eventual application of the Nazis’ murderous agenda.

From a screenwriting point of view, Anne also offers a useful lesson in how you can give your characters aspects that allow you to explore the theme of your script in a dramatic but natural way. She is seen throughout as something of an outsider; as well as being adopted, she’s also a film actress – a less-than-respectable profession that marks her out as the black sheep of the seemingly upright family. This makes her increasingly vulnerable when it seems the rest of the family is closing ranks against her.

In terms of structure, Poliakoff also stressed the importance of the present-day framing section that bookends the film. He included it to remind the viewer that this vital moment in our history occurred within living memory. He also wanted to draw a link to the 1930s as a living period, rather than the cosy fictional ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ world that drama set in the period often defaults into.

I’d never really engaged with Poliakoff’s work before, so I can’t judge Glorious 39 in the light of what came before it. However, despite a few glitches and a slightly bum-numbing running time (129 minutes), I enjoyed it as a fairly engrossing if slow-moving thriller - thanks in no small part to Romola Garai's performance.

Interview with Stephen Poliakoff (Writers and Artists)
Preview of Glorious 39, focusing mostly on production (Screendaily)
Set visit (4-min video, BBC)
Cast and crew interviews (6-min video, BBC)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

My Son The Fanatic (1997, Hanif Kureshi)

As I’ve written before, while I love Hanif Kureishi’s ferocious intelligence, I’ve always found it hard to recognise his vision of London. So, My Son The Fanatic, which is set in Bradford, offers an interesting chance to view his work in another context.

Adapted by Kureishi from his own short story, the script tells the tale of Parvez (Om Puri), a Pakistani taxi-driver in the city. At the start of the film, he is thrilled that his son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) is assimilating into British culture to the extent that he’s engaged to the daughter of a senior police officer.

However, his life starts to unravel through two strands of action that highlight the gap between his native culture and that of his adopted country. Firstly, Farid calls off the engagement and becomes entranced by Muslim fundamentalism. Secondly, Parvez begins to develop a relationship with Bettina (Rachel Griffiths), a local prostitute who is one of his regular fares.

The film is Puri’s, for his moving portrayal of the compassionate Parvez, but it’s a lot less successful in explaining how his son becomes radicalised. However, the image of Farid and his three friends walking away near the end, complete with backpack, was oddly prescient of the 7 July bombings.

Parvez and Bettina embark on a physical relationship that scuppers his already poor standing in the community and finally drives away his wife and son. He’s alone at the end of the film, but enjoying the freedom represented by the whisky and blues music that were previously restricted to his basement den.

In addition, despite everything that’s happened, he’s achieved dignity and a level of redemption by dumping the degenerate German businessman (Stellan Skarsgard) who hired him to procure girls for sex parties.

The script operates on a more domestic level than some of Kureishi’s other work, and particularly succeeds in playing out political, religious and social tensions through personal relationships. It also provides a compelling portrait of an immigrant who’s pulled in two directions by the duties and pleasures of his native and adopted cultures.

BFI screenonline: detailed synopsis and analysis

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Execution of Gary Glitter, C4

Here's a review what I wrote for Orange of last night's slightly odd drama The Execution of Gary Glitter.

Paedophilia and the death sentence are two subjects that people generally have pretty strong views about. So how did this oddly conceived dramatised imagining of the fictional execution of Paul Francis Gadd (aka Gary Glitter) turn out so utterly unengaging?

For a start, the format of the programme was a bit of a mish-mash. Emphatic title cards told us that “THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION” and “WE ARE IN AN IMAGINARY BRITAIN” where the death penalty was re-introduced after the Soham murders of 2003. However, it then became a mix of conventional drama and documentary-style interviews with the characters involved in the case.

It got even weirder when politician Ann Widdecombe, journalist Miranda Sawyer and media rent-a-gob Garry Bushell turned up to add their tuppenceworth. It only became clear later that they were playing fictional versions of themselves, commenting on the action depicted in the drama.

Hilton McRae gave a suitably creepy performance as the devious and manipulative sex offender, but there was very little suspense as the film trudged through the legal proceedings leading to his execution for child abuse in Vietnam. In fact, the first bit of tension came 10 minutes from the end of the 90-minute film, when it seemed like the Home Secretary might offer him a reprieve.

Presumably the programme was designed to spark Heated Debate over the rights and wrongs of the death penalty. However, the “members of the public” who popped up to offer both sides of the argument were totally unconvincing; one was even given the immortal line, “If you don't like it, go and live somewhere else”.

The drama culminated in a bizarre sequence on the day of Gadd's execution, when the condemned popster freaked out after hearing a remix of 'Leader of the Gang' that included samples from his court room evidence. After he smashed the radio, he was taken to the gallows and hanged. Everyone went home again. The end.

There's obviously compelling drama to be drawn from the debate over the death penalty, how we should deal with paedophiles and the effect celebrity can have on society. However, The Execution of Gary Glitter seemed to miss the target completely and turn such emotive subjects into something surprisingly bland.

Friday, 6 November 2009

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

(We've come to a decision here at Oompah Central. I enjoy the critical exercise of blogging, but my working routines are changing, so I'm going to have to squeeze the amount of time I spend on it. So, from here on, I'm going to try and keep my posts to a 300-word limit.)

We saw The Bad and The Beautiful the other night, as part of the 'Passport to Cinema' series, run by the BFI and NFTS. Written by Charles Schnee (who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay) and directed by Vincente Minelli, it's a portrait of Jonathan Shields, a monstrous but charming Hollywood producer, played by Kirk Douglas.

It's got an interesting flashback structure, with Shields never appearing in 'real time'. A director (Barry Sullivan), film star (Lana Turner) and screenwriter (Dick Powell) are summoned to the office of Shields' assistant and offered the opportunity to work with him again. Then, each of them recalls their experiences at his hands that made them swear never to go near him again.

However, Shields is a complex character. Despite his selfish deeds, it's clear that he's a man of considerable ability and charm - not quite the typically monstrous blowhard you might expect.

Ironically, his ruthlessness made their various collaborations successful and paved the way for all three to enjoy future prosperity. As the film ends, it's clear that he retains sufficient charisma for the trio to find themselves being drawn in to his proposed project.

I'd never heard of the film before seeing it in the BFI brochure, but it's an entertaining look at the dark side of Hollywood, with quite a bit of edge. And any film with a screenwriter as one of the main characters has got to be worth a look.

So how'd I do... 241 words! Welcome to the Golden Age of Brevity!

Analysis and detailed synopsis (FilmSite)
Trailer (Spike - after a Family Guy ad)