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Documentary about two Rather Pitiful Men, 27 August 2016

In 1968 ABC was in the doldrums in terms of its political coverage. Lacking sufficient resources to provide wall-to-wall coverage of the conventions of that year, the company had to look for other means to attract viewers.

It came up with the idea of staging nightly discussions of the proceedings involving Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley jr, two highly public figures who heartily disliked one another, while representing both extremes of the political spectrum. Vidal was a liberal, a lifelong advocate of free thinking who had scandalized the Establishment ever since the late Forties when his novel THE CITY AND THE PILLAR had appeared, with its open attitude towards homosexuality. Buckley was a right-winger, the forerunner of many public figures today; the founder and editor of the NATIONAL REVIEW, who, while not actively supporting continued racial segregation, nonetheless blamed members of the African American community for the country's economic woes.

The rest, as they say, is history. After a series of increasingly fractious nightly discussions, Vidal and Buckley finally came to blows, both literally as physically, during one live broadcast when Vidal denounced Buckley as a "crypto-Nazi," and Buckley responded by calling Vidal a "queer" and threatening to smash his face in. Buckley soon realized what a televisual faux pas he had made, and spent the rest of his life trying to atone for it.

Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's documentary could be approached as an exercise in nostalgia, an evocation of a time on television when pundits actually said what they thought rather than simply expressing anodyne views, and discussion-programs always had that element of danger about them. Other memorable moments like this included an episode of THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS (1963-4), when a member of the audience took exception to the views expressed by journalist Bernard Levin and tried to punch him in the face.

On the other hand, the documentary also underlined what happens to people when they come to believe in their own celebrity so much that they pay little or no heed to what they are saying. Vidal and Buckley were both highly intelligent men; but their exchanges seemed somehow pathetic, as they tried to score intellectual points off one another rather than engaging critically with the political issues of that time. They did not appear interested in communicating with viewers, but rather tried to enhance their screen images. If that was indeed the case, then both signally failed in their task; they came across as members of the chattering classes, to be ignored rather than listened to.

Pride (2014/I)
Vivid Dramatization of a Turning Point in Contemporary British History, 27 August 2016

PRIDE is one of those films which makes you realize that the cinema as an art form can still be highly political without sacrificing other qualities such as story, plot, and characterization.

In terms of subject-matter it resembles Mark Harmon's BRASSED OFF (1996), as it tells of the effect of the miners' strike of 1985-6 on a local community threatened with pit closures. In the earlier film the subject centered on a brass band; in PRIDE director Matthew Warchus looks at the ways in which a South Welsh community reacts to the help offered them by a London-based group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.

The initial reaction might be to recall Matt Lucas's classic running gag in the television comedy LITTLE Britain, where he played Dafydd Thomas, "the only gay in the village." Perhaps, predictably the Welsh villagers resent the group's presence among them - especially the aggressively masculine miners who feel that gays somehow threaten their status as opinion-formers. Yet such opinions soon change, due in no small part to the efforts of the wives, led by Hefina (Imelda Staunton) and supported by closet gay Cliff (Bill Nighy). In the end everyone comes together in a show of support for the miners, even though their cause is ultimately hopeless.

While the feelgood factor is obviously high, as director Matthew Warchus shows how people of different socio-economic backgrounds learn to accommodate one another in a show of solidarity, we cannot help but feel angry at what happened to the mining communities as a result of Prime Minister Thatcher's policies. Coal-mining as an industry might have been expensive to maintain, but there was really no excuse to impose such a swingeing program of pit-closures that destroyed individuals' lives. The motivation was entirely political: the Conservative government wanted to extinguish the power of the trade unions, especially the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill, and were prepared to go to any lengths to achieve their aims. By doing so they helped to create the social and regional inequalities that persist in contemporary British society.

In hindsight films such as PRIDE show how pointless such policies actually were. The only real result was to deprive working people of their livelihoods and destroy long-established communities. And that is not really much of a legacy for any government.

Romanticized Retelling of an Actual Event, 27 August 2016

On 8 May 1945, the official end of War in Europe was celebrated, and London went wild. Spontaneous parties broke out in the streets, celebrations continued long into the night, and the bars, clubs and other areas devoted to pleasure did a roaring trade.

In Buckingham Palace the young Princesses Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), than aged nineteen, and sister Margaret (Bel Powley) yearn to join the celebrations, but their stuffed-shirt mother Elizabeth (Emily Watson) and King George VI (Rupert Everett) are particularly reluctant to allow their daughters the freedom to do so. Eventually they agree, so long as the girls are accompanied by two chaperons, Lieutenants Pryce and Burridge (Jack Laskey, Jack Gordon), from Chelsea Barracks.

There begins a wild night of partying, celebration, and chasing, as the two Princesses lose their chaperons and end up moving from place to place - from Piccadilly, to Soho, and thence to Chelsea Barracks - being exposed to aspects of London life that they have never previously experienced, including making the tea. During their one night of freedom they learn something about what ordinary people think of the Royal Family and their role in society.

Based on a true story, and with more than a nod towards classics such as William Wyler's ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953), where a princess (Audrey Hepburn) enjoys a similar night off the leash of protocol, A ROYAL NIGHT OUT tells a picaresque tale, as Princess Margaret gets blind drunk and has to be rescued by her sister, who eventually reveals her true identity when things threaten to get a little out of hand. There are some amusing moments, especially when the Princesses try to communicate with ordinary Londoners in their marked RP accents, thereby proving just how sheltered an existence they have hitherto led.

Gadon and Powley give creditable impersonations of the young princesses, although Powley's accent veers towards the Sloane Ranger rather than the upper-class gell of the Forties. Everett's George VI bears more than a passing resemblance, both vocally and facially, to the current Prince Charles, while his spouse comes across as a snob with a perpetual desire to drown her sorrows in a gin and tonic.

Director Julian Jarrold makes some important points about the ways in which Princess Elizabeth (especially) learned a lot about her people as a result of this night. What a shame, therefore, that when she acceded to the throne, she should become so remote that she failed to understand Princess Diana's extraordinary popular appeal. But that judgment is made with the benefit of hindsight. As a lighthearted piece of entertainment, A ROYAL NIGHT OUT is definitely worth looking at.

Shame (2011)
The Empty Life of a Sexual Athlete, 24 August 2016

Not much happens in SHAME. Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a successful thirtysomething in contemporary New York, has a series of brief flings with both men and women and ends up dissatisfied as a result. His sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) pursues an equally hedonistic life and tries to commit suicide.

The point about Steve McQueen's film is that there is no point. Brandon remains pathologically unable to engage with anyone; he knows his own shortcomings and tries to compensate for them through visceral means - watching endless porn videos, masturbating in the bathroom, paying for soulless sex with a series of whores. The "shame" of the title refers to his gradual understanding of his own inadequacies, and his inability to deal with them. There are shameful moments - such as when Sissy discovers him masturbating - but they are nothing compared to Brandon's overall sense of shame.

The film gains much of its power from the contrast between the opulent New York settings - Brandon's well-appointed office, and his equally classy apartment with its stunning views over the Hudson River - and the squalid existence he pursues in seedy bars and ill- lit clubs. The degenerate nature of his life is summed up in one sequence taking place in a darkened pool hall, where he tries to pick up someone else's girlfriend by offering her instant sexual gratification. The result, inevitably, is that Brandon is given a good hiding by the jealous boyfriend.

Yet perhaps Brandon actively seeks after such retributive treatment; unable to achieve any form of fulfillment, he harbors a masochistic desire to be punished. The film's end is strongly reminiscent of the beginning, with Brandon sitting alone on a subway train ogling unknown women. Nothing, it seems, can distract him from his path towards destruction.

Director Steve McQueen's handling of the material is highly sexually explicit yet un-erotic. The screen sex is mechanical, devoid of any passion, despite the participants' attempts to spice it up with a few well-timed moans of pleasure. What is perhaps more memorable is the sight of Brandon's and Sissy's expressionless faces as they either walk through New York's unfriendly streets or try to forge an existence together in Brandon's apartment.

Years ago Martin Scorsese painted a bleak picture of New York and its endemic violence in TAXI DRIVER (1976). SHAME offers an equally pessimistic interpretation; the city might have spruced itself up architecturally, and more money might be made in the bourgeois Manhattan streets; but the inhabitants are equally alienated from their environment.

Selma (2014)
Dramatization of a Defining Moment in American Civil Rights History, 23 August 2016

In 1964 and 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) became heavily involved in a protest movement in Alabama designed to give all African Americans the vote. As with most of his campaigns, he advocated nonviolent methods, but was often met with violent responses from the white majority, orchestrated by Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). Dr. King became involved not only with the local community but with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who was intransigent at first, but eventually swayed by force of circumstance into passing a bill removing all restrictions on the African American vote.

Ava DuVernay's film tells a straightforward tale punctuated by memorable individual sequences. At the beginning Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) enters the courthouse in Selma in a vain attempt to register to vote; she is summarily denied by the white official. Nothing much is actually said but gestures signify everything; the humiliation experienced by Annie Lee set against the arrogance of the official. Later on, in the wake of the first abortive protest mounted by the African American community as they try to cover the fifty or so miles from Selma to the state capital Montgomery, three African Americans enter a diner and pretend to order food, in the vain hope that they will escape the pursuing white state troopers. The troopers enter and summarily beat them senseless, taking the life of Jimmy Lee Jackson (Lakeith Stanfield) in the process.

The film's moral stance is unequivocal; in a world still riddled by institutional racism, the African Americans have a justifiable cause to plead. As performed by Oyelowo, Dr. King comes across as a tenacious personality, unwilling to give up his cause even in the face of overwhelming odds. Every time the President protests his inability to help, Dr. King goads him; we understand from such confrontations just how scared the President actually was of allowing too many concessions to the African American community.

Brilliantly staged, with careful attention to detail, SELMA deserves to be considered a modern classic, marred only slightly by Roth's rather artificial Southern accent as Governor Wallace.

Bakgat! II (2010)
Teen Sequel to an Unexpected Hit with a Rugby Theme, 23 August 2016

Following on from 2009's BAKGAT! (WONDERFUL), an unexpected hit in South Africa, Henrk Pretorius's film can hardly be accused of subtlety.

Modeled on the American PIE series in the USA, it is a gendered comedy in which the males are obsessed with sex and strength, while the females are all "available," save for our heroine Katrien Swanepoel (Cherie van der Merwe) who remains sternly faithful to her fiancé Wimpie Koekemoer (Ivan Botha), despite the unwelcome attentions of rival Werner 'Killer' Botha (Altus Theart). Meanwhile Wimpie's male friends enjoy testosterone-filled lives.

The plot, such as it is, is a straightforward one: having established himself as an indispensable member of the team, Wimpie is offered a contract to play professional rugby in the English Premiership. After several agonizing moments debating whether to go or not, he decides to follow the career path -- until the final reel, that is, when he returns to his fiancée.

The film contains some rather obvious jokes, but is perhaps interesting in the way it represents white South Africans' passion for rugby as a symbol of nationalism, unity, and power. Wimpie is shown videotapes of old Springbok games, and Katrien tells him pointedly that@ "We South Africans don't give up hope." Later on the virtues of the Springbok team are extolled to the sound of music owing distinct origins to CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981). The country might have changed since the removal of apartheid in the mid- Nineties, but old loyalties remain.

Romantic Comedy about OCD that Flags at the End, 22 August 2016

James L. Brooks's film contains good examples of the kind of acting (often labeled "great acting" that wins a lot of plaudits but consciously draws attention to itself in a way that might seem superficially attractive but palls in the end.

Such is the case with Jack Nicholson's Melvin Udall, a curmudgeonly writer suffering from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and living on his own in a well-to-do New York apartment. His particular forte consists of being excessively rude to everyone, from his gay neighbor Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), to Simon's African American friend Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding jnr.) and the cleaner Nora (Lupe Ontiveros). Some of Melvin's put-downs are so outrageous that we wonder why anyone puts up with them.

Melvin's character starts to change when he is unwillingly deputed to look after Simon's little dog Verdell (Jill), while Simon is in hospital, and a relationship develops between the human being and the animal. Meanwhile Melvin shows a hitherto undiscovered streak of generosity as he pays for a high society doctor to treat Carol Connelly's (Helen Hunt's) little son who suffers from a rare form of asthma.

As the film develops, so Melvin's softer side begins to show itself; we discover that the reason for his OCD lies largely within himself and his reluctance to admit his true feelings. The story takes a sentimental turn, especially when Melvin, Simon, and Carol go off together for a trip to Baltimore to see Simon's parents.

While Nicholson obviously enjoys monopolizing our attention, we nonetheless get the feeling that he is consciously acting for the camera: every little gesture and facial expression is scrutinized in minute detail as we learn something of the soft underbelly of the character he portrays. The ending is predictable, and somewhat implausible, as Melvin sloughs off his OCD in remarkably quick time and learns something about how to treat his fellow-human beings decently.

Helen Hunt does what she can with a thankless role; throughout this lengthy film we get the sense that she exists as no more than a foil to Nicholson's star persona: all her gestures and facial expressions depend on how he reacts. She remains perfectly plausible as a server trying to make the best of her humdrum life, but we end up wanting to know more about her complex psyche rather than witnessing yet another (slightly clichéd) exchange between herself and Melvin.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS is an entertaining film, with Mark Andrus's script containing a fair share of witticisms, but the tone changes for the worse as the action unfolds, as director Brooks substitutes hard- edged comedy for sentimentality, with the plot chugging towards its predictable end. The film represents something of a missed opportunity to look at the consequences of OCD and how it can destroy a personality.

Hugely Influential Television Drama from the BBC's Golden Age, 21 August 2016

Issues of morality - whether we agree or not with director Ken Loach's view of his characters - are not really significant here: what makes CATHY COME HOME such an enduring classic half a century after its original release is its essential boldness.

Produced at a time when television drama actually could make a difference to public opinion, and the BBC regularly produced single plays dealing with contemporary issues, CATHY COME HOME tells a straightforward tale of the eponymous protagonist (Carol White) and husband Reg (Ray Brooks), who begin in relative affluence yet end up sliding down the housing ladder until they are left with absolutely nothing. They are forced to lead separate lives, with Cathy taking two of her children to a prison-like hostel while Reg has to find an apartment of his own. The action culminates in a memorable sequence taking place in an Essex railway-station where an indifferent gaggle of Social Service workers take Cathy's children away from her, leaving her in a tearful heap, bereft of anything and anyone.

Stylistically speaking Loach's production was highly influenced by the British documentary film movement of the previous decade with its cinéma-vérité style of fluid action, short sequences and voiceovers including Cathy herself as well as a variety of so-called do-gooders justifying their particular behaviors, even though none of them appeared to want to help the stricken couple. In an era still wedded to the idea of studio-bound drama, CATHY COME HOME came like a welcome breath of fresh air with its determination not to sentimentalize its characters and single-minded commitment to exposing social ills.

The harrowing final scenes, as Cathy's children are taken into care, caused an outrage. Within days of the broadcast, Loach and writer Jeremy Sandford had been summoned to a meeting of Birmingham Council's Housing Committee, as councilors were furious about the ways in which they had been portrayed. The homeless charity Shelter was established in a wave of anger at the way people had been treated.

Fifty years on, some of the attitudes might now seem dated - especially the casual racism and the basic distrust of nonwhite people - but the problem of homelessness still remains. How many more Cathys are there still roaming the streets of Britain's inner cities, relying on hand-outs and food banks for sustenance?

Subtle Adaptation that Follows one Thematic Path but Shifts as the Action Unfolds, 21 August 2016

As with most adaptations, a comparison with Joseph Conrad's source- text might prove insignificant: suffice to say that Tony Marchant's screenplay bears as much relationship to the novel as Charles Bennett's version for Alfred Hitchcock's SABOTAGE (1936). The plot and characters are there, but Charles McDougall's BBC production is best approached on its own terms.

From the beginning we are plunged into the familiar world of BBC Victorian London - a miasma of darkened streets, thick mud and rickety buildings illuminated with blue-gray light. The interior of Verloc'; (Toby Jones's) seedy Soho shop is illuminated by dim yellow lights that suggest that the wares on offer are not the true reason for the shop's existence. And so it proves: Verloc is a double- agent working both for the Russians and the British, as well as presiding over meetings of an anarchist group attended by the Professor (Ian Hart) and Yundt (Christopher Fairbank), among others.

Director McDougall contrasts this nether-world with the stylish bourgeois world of the embassies, where the Russian consul Vladimir (David Dawson) sits behind a desk in a bejeweled room, the very epitome of surface respectability. Through such contrasts the production makes a pointed criticism of so-called "Victorian Values," where lower- and lower-middle class tradespeople like Verloc are employed to do the upper class's dirty work for them, and cannot really resist for fear of being socially exposed.

Yet things take a much darker turn after the second episode when Verloc's plan to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich goes horribly wrong, and his brother-in-law Stevie (Charlie Hamblett), an innocent young man with learning difficulties, is killed instead. We are made painfully aware of the true consequences of terrorism; it is not the perpetrators who suffer but civilians instead. Verloc tries his utmost to exonerate himself; but with metaphorical blood on his hands, he just seems like a coward unwilling (or unable) to take responsibility for his actions. He meets a violent end which seems somehow right in terms of the story's logic.

But the story has not finished yet: although the Greenwich bombing causes something of a stir in the press, as well as in Parliament, the Establishment manages to close ranks, with no one really being brought to justice for the crime. Assistant Commissioner Stone (Tom Goodman-Hill) preserves his reputation, enabling him to attend the best society parties, while Vladimir continues in his role as a Russian diplomat engaging in subversive activity. Verloc's death causes no more than a ripple of disquiet among these people; he might be gone, but there is always another double agent ready and willing to take his place, who might be equally dispensable in the future.

In the end we feel little else but a sense of frustration at an amoral world where former prisoners such as Michaelis (Tom Vaughan- Lawlor) are automatically suspected of committing further crimes, even though they have never been near the actual scene where the felony took place; and the ruling classes seem to continue the endless whirl of parties, balls, and other gatherings with little or no thought for others' suffering.

This is an angry production, one which castigates everyone with even a tenuous connection to state-sponsored terrorism for the crime of indifference, while suggesting that there is little or no solution to this problem. The cast are uniformly excellent, especially Hamblett as Stevie and Vicky McClure as Verloc's unfortunate spouse.

Biography of a Well-Known Television Comic Actor, 21 August 2016

Best remembered for his long-running role in HAPPY EVER AFTER and/or TERRY AND JUNE, Terry Scott was a fine comic actor best suited to the role of the bumbling middle-class husband outwitted by a series of sophisticated women.

He began his career in the armed forces before graduating to radio and television, making his name in the Sixties with the long-running sitcom HUGH AND I with Hugh Lloyd that ran from 1962 until 1967. He also starred in a few Carry On movies, notably CARRY ON UP THE JUNGLE and CARRY ON UP THE KHYBER, where he played a memorable Tarzan exchanging bawdy jokes with Jacki Piper.

Offscreen Scott was both a hard worker and a perfectionist, who frequently became frustrated with colleagues whom he felt were not pulling their weight. Although ostensibly happily married with four daughters, he was not above enjoying a dalliance or two, even though the news was kept firmly under wraps in the press.

In the Eighties Scott's stage career underwent something of a revival with starring roles in Ray Cooney's RUN FOR YOUR WIFE (among others). His screen partnership with June Whitfield lasted until 1987. Thereafter he continued to work hard in pantomime as well as on television until his death from cancer in 1994.

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