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Whenever I hear this piece of music, I’m transported back to my childhood in the 1970s every bit as much as when I hear Get It On, All the Young Dudes or Rebel Rebel. Those were all singles that I’d buy, hear on the radio several times every day and see performed on Top of the Pops.

Funky Fanfare by Keith Mansfield wasn’t available to buy at my local Woolworths or any other record selling outlet. It wasn’t released as a single. I never heard it once on the radio and never saw it being performed on Top of the Pops.

I did though hear it – or, more accurately, an eighteen second clip of it – often enough on visits to the cinema, usually accompanied by the sound of popcorn being munched and Kia-Ora slurped. Even today, if I listen to it, it brings up in my mind’s eye that red, pink, orange, green and black swirling psychedelic background and animated white text that I must have seen hundreds of times as I’d wait expectantly to watch some double bill of kung fu flicks or American B-movies in my local – and long demolished – Caledonian cinema, with plumes of cigarette smoke rising from the right-hand (smoking) side of the theatre. Yes, the cost of admission and snacks was reasonable, and you often got two films for the price of one, but there were negatives about the film-going experience back then.

I had no idea who was behind the track and hadn’t yet heard the term ‘library music’. I’m still no expert on the subject but I do now know that this was a parallel musical universe where anonymous tracks were produced by work-for-hire musicians as a cheaper alternative to hiring a composer or using pre-existing music by known artists who owned the copyright to their tunes.

This suited many film production companies and TV and radio shows, but I reckon it’s safe to say that nobody chose to work in the field of library music (sometimes also referred too as stock music) to achieve fame and fortune. And not only that, their music could be used in some godawful movie in a way that its composer considered inappropriate.

These composers could surely never have imagined that some of this work would live on and still be appreciated decades after being recorded.

Albums of this speculative music were only ever pressed in very limited quantities to be sent off directly to potential clients. Nowadays these are prized possessions for crate digging enthusiasts and prices on eBay are soaring. Songs have been sampled by big name artsts. Albums have been compiled by companies like Trunk and Recur. A documentary on the subject is on its way and books written about it, such as David Hollander’s Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music. Such was that book’s success that an album has recently been released to accompany it on Anthology Recordings.

It kicks off with Funky Fanfare, which, if you’re younger than me you might recognise as being one of the few tracks be used in more than one film by Quentin Tarantino. In Kill Bill: Volume 1, it’s heard just after the appropriation of the Shaw Brothers’ SB logo against the frosted glass backdrop. It also opens Death Proof.

Before Keith Mansfield had forged his reputation in British library music circles, he had worked largely as an arranger, working with everyone from Robert Plant’s first band Listen to Roy Harper and Dusty Springfield.

keith mansfield

He also issued material available to the public such as his All You Need is Keith Mansfield album from 1968. This mainly featured his covers of big hits of the day like All You Need is Love and A Whiter Shade of Pale but also a few of his own compositions, Soul Thing and Boogaloo, the former being an early, less polished version of the track that became Funky Fanfare.

Mansfield might never have appeared on Top of the Pops in person, but he did have a hand in creating hits that were showcased on that high-profile programme.

In January 1968, sales of The Love Affair’s second single Everlasting Love shot through the roof. This later proved a little controversial as the band, apart from singer Steve Ellis, didn’t play on the record and later admitted this live on TV. Instead, Ellis sang along with a backing track supplied by the Keith Mansfield Orchestra.

The tune went on to become a British #1 and it wasn’t to be Mansfield’s last involvement with a chart-topper.

He also arranged Marmalade’s take on a Beatles’ track from the White Album, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da. This became Britain’s first new number one of 1969. It isn’t a favourite of mine so, instead, here’s an earlier Mansfield arranged track, Marmalade’s breakthrough single Lovin’ Things:

Sadly, Marmalade singer and guitarist Dean Ford passed away on the final day of 2018, due to complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Dean Ford (born Thomas McAleese) 5 September 1946 – 31 December 2018.

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Morvern Callar (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Morvern Callar Soundtrack

Morvern Callar (2002)

After naming You Were Never Really Here as my favourite film of 2018, I thought I’d start 2019 taking a look at another Lynne Ramsay film, her second feature film Morvern Callar, in particular, the music utilised in the course of its 93 minutes run time.

Already known for her use of professional and non-professional actors, this was the first time Ramsay had worked with someone with a marketable reputation, Samantha Morton having recently worked with Woody Allen on Sweet and Lowdown and with Steven Spielberg on Minority Report.

In Scotland at least, some critics did criticise the fact that Morton was English and spoke with an English accent – one of a number of changes from the novel by Alan Warner – although Morvern Callar had been brought up as a foster child (as had Morton).

And talking of the 1995 novel, a buzz had been building up about it before it had even been published. Warner had a number of connections with Irvine Welsh. Occasional drinking buddies, they’d shared the stage at many readings and the pages of the many of the same litzines. Both had been featured in the Rebel Inc. anthology Children of Albion Rovers and Sceptre’s Disco Biscuits in 1997. And both their debut novels were made into movies by up-and-coming filmmakers.

Some in the media even began touting Ramsay’s film along the lines of the next Trainspotting, or the female Trainspotting. I’m not sure if any of the folk responsible for this hype had ever read Warner’s novel.

They were very different books, and they would be very different kinds of film. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting begins with a frenetic chase down Edinburgh’s Princes Street with Iggy Pop’s visceral Lust for Life accompanying the action together with Mark Renton’s Choose Life monologue. Morvern Callar starts with a near static female lying on a floor and caressing the back, bloodied wrist and hand of a man who we will soon discover is her dead boyfriend. Lights from a Christmas tree blink on and off, her face in darkness every few seconds. The only noise a whirring hum from the CPU fan of her computer, which displays a READ ME message on its screen.

Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar

This film is nowhere near as plot-heavy as Boyle’s film although, despite claims to the contrary, there is a storyline to Morvern Callar, albeit it is more of what Ramsay has called a ‘psychological journey’.

As Warner warned The List just before its premiere: ‘The first twenty minutes of the film are brutal; the seats’ll be snapping up at Cannes, I tell you. I really don’t see it doing a Billy Elliot; it’s too good a film.’

Morvern Callar is the story of a young Oban – although that town is never named in either the novel or film – supermarket worker who prints off a manuscript of her dead partner’s novel and sends it off to a publishing firm. But not before she deletes his name and adds her own.

She also empties his bank account and blows a chunk of the cash on visiting a tacky resort on the south coast of Spain with her best pal Lanna. But Morvern infuriates live for the moment Lanna with her distinct lack of any ‘mad for it’ hedonism once there. Indeed, it’s not too long before she decides that exploring the hinterlands of Almeria might be a more rewarding way to spend her time than with young lager-lager-lager Brits on tour.

Morton does a fantastic job portraying Morvern’s interior conflict throughout all this. The fact that she reveals so little only encourages viewers to concentrate harder in attempting to read her thoughts. Is she grief stricken and vulnerable? Or an amoral chancer? Or a bit of both?

I’ll go for the latter, but it’s hard to be sure. Ramsay has never been a director to offer everything up on a plate to audiences. Morvern Callar is a memorable character, but she’s far too inward, too elusive to ever dent the consciousness of a generation in the way Mark Renton, Begbie, Spud and Sick Boy managed to.

Music did play a big part in both films, though. Trainspotting featured a mainly indie and dance music soundtrack with a lot of big names like Blur, New Order and Underworld, while Morvern Callar, favours more generally left-field sounds, drawing heavily on the catalogue of the Warp label’s catalogue (Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin and Broadcast) along with German experimentalists Can and their bassist Holger Czukay – who Warner had dedicated his novel to – in a couple of solo outings. These are among the acts collected in the mix-tape cassette labelled ‘Music For You’ that her partner has left for her.

We’re also treated to the skewed pop sensibility of Stereolab, some Ween (the one track that fails to work for me) and even a dash of Gamelan drumming.

Some older acts, who the hipsters of the day would have approved of, are additionally thrown into the mix. The Velvet Underground’s perky oddity I’m Sticking With You is used to audacious effect (I won’t spoil it for you but just mention that the song’s title isn’t literally appropriate for the action). Reggae pioneer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry makes an appearance as does my favourite ever duet, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s Some Velvet Morning, which masterfully soundtracks Morvern in slow-motion, as she makes her way to the fruit and veg counter where she’s about to start a shift.

I’ve featured this one on here before, where I described it as ‘a hypnotic and surreal masterpiece that’s even a little disorientating and also to my mind a lot more psychedelic than anything the likes of The Grateful Dead ever recorded.’

The ending of the film, not surprisingly, is open ended with Morvern, seemingly alone in a noisy club.

Has she returned to Spain? Or is she still in Scotland? Could this even be a flashback? Again, Ramsay lets the viewer work this out for themselves.

In an echo of the opening scene, strobe lights flash across her face. Instead of any dance music, though, we hear the sun-drenched harmonies of The Mama and Papas’ Dedicated to the One I Love, which she listens to on her Walkman. Why? I have no idea but since it’s one of those songs that always make me feel happy I sense it likely suggests some kind of optimistic future for the character.

Sadly this track isn’t part of the soundtrack album issued by Warp and sadly too, the sync on the video below is slightly out here but the song is so glorious that I couldn’t resist including it here:

Quentin Tarantino has spoken recently of limiting himself to only ever directing ten movies. He’s currently working on his ninth.

Ramsay has made four full length features, her first Ratcatcher, in 1999. I would dearly love if she was more prolific but her oeuvre is so exceptionally consistent that I can’t complain. Quality over quantity and all that.

Hopefully, she’ll make more than ten films eventually although to do so she might require a similar kind of career longevity to Agnès Varda, who’s been making films since the mid-1950s and still going strong.

If you want to find out more about Alan Warner’s book Can’s Tago Mago, click here.

Best Films of the Year: Part Two (10-1)

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Best Films of the Year 2018

10. American Animals

True-crime documentary meets bizarre heist flick in George Layton’s inventively imagined drama which I reviewed here.

9. Under the Tree

The best thing about Icelandic hit Under the Tree is the performance of Edda Björgvinsdóttir as Inga, a spectacularly bitter woman with a heart as cold as a Rekyavik winter.

8. Nancy

Nancy premiered at Sundance and went on to receive generally good reviews although in a one-star review, Slant described it as American indie miserablism and a condescending fantasy. I’ve yet to see Nancy on another best of the year list and if I was writer/director Christina Choe, I definitely wouldn’t be getting my hopes up for any Oscar action.

I was mesmerized by it though, particularly by Andrea Riseborough in the lead role. Nancy is a fantasist but not an especially skillful one. She pretends, for example, to have recently visited North Korea as a tourist to make herself appear more interesting. Her co-workers aren’t impressed.

When she sees a news item about a girl who’s been missing for thirty years, she convinces herself that she might have been kidnapped as a child (or pretends this anyway) and that she might be the girl. The results of this will have the potential to wreak havoc on the emotions of the girl’s parents when she contacts them.

Some movies pulsate throughout with a dynamic verve. This doesn’t, believe me, I felt nauseous for large chunks of it but it did also keep me riveted throughout, to the extent that I failed to even notice that its aspect ratio apparently widened out in the middle of proceedings. A highly promising debut.

7. Cold War

I only saw Paweł Pawlikowski’s period drama a matter of days ago but it did make a big enough impact on me to decide on ditching one of the movies in my provisional top twenty list to make way for it. Sorry Disobedience, I do regret not finding a place for you here.

This is a decades-spanning romantic drama but one that is far from traditional notions of that genre and it’s loosely inspired by the lives of the director’s own parents. The first names of the two leads here, Zula (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) are even the same as Mr and Mrs Pawlikowski’s.

Cold War is shot in a boxy format and looks stunning, its rich black and white tones perfectly conveying the post-war bleakness of the Eastern Bloc. It also reminded me of some of the Czechoslovak New Wave films of the 1960s. This is one that I just know I’ll want to see again in 2019.

6. Shoplifters

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest takes a compassionate look at the plight of a contemporary Tokyo family (of sorts) that steals in order to survive.

Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the first Japanese Palme d’Or winner since 1997. In August, it was selected as the Japanese entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Oscars.

5. Mandy

Nic Cage in good film shocker! Dario Argento reds. Nightmarish David Lynch style imagery. Monsters of anarchy on motorbikes and chainsaw battles. Cage in his underpants downing a bottle of vodka while howling like a maniac.

You might not like Mandy but I’ll guarantee that the hyper-stylized, ultra-ultraviolent second film by Panos Cosmatos will linger long into your memory.

Andrea Riseborough is pitch perfect again here as Mandy – she’s had another great year, especially in films where she plays the titular character – and Linus Roache, as cult guru Jeremiah Sand, behaves in a way that you won’t see his father doing in his role as Ken Barlow in Coronation Street. Unless that show has completely changed since I last tuned in.

4. The Shape of Water

In my review of the Best Films of 2017, I wrote that I’d seen a preview of this, and it was ‘visually stunning’.

It is immaculately well-crafted, with the kind of amazing imagery you’d expect from a master like Guillermo Del Toro, who also coaxed fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer.

Okay, some have groused that The Shape of Water is nowhere near as magical as Pan’s Labyrinth but how many movies are?

My one complaint? I know it’s a modern fairy tale but the beastiality thang really should have been dropped.

3. Roma

Roma is set in the 1970s in the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood where director Alfonso Cuarón grew up. Seen largely through the perspective of a servant Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio in a jaw droppingly good debut, Roma is poetic and looks ravishing, Cuarón shooting it in 70mm in shimmering, silvery monochrome and making use of the kind of extended takes that are becoming less and less common on cinema screens. I watched it on one of those although most will see it for the first time on the increasingly influential streaming giant Netflix.

Was my money well spent? I’d say so.

2. Lucky

The cinematic swansong of the great Harry Dean Stanton, John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut Lucky is a movie about human connections and mortality that eschews the kind of sickly sweet sentimentality that tends to blight films about very old characters. You may well find yourself imagining your own final days and how you might want to die as you watch the story of Stanton’s Lucky unfold. I reviewed the movie here.

1. You Were Never Really Here

Adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name, the fourth film by Lynne Ramsay features the ever reliable Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a hoodie wearing hitman with a liking for green jelly beans.

A lumbering and hirsute hulk of a man with deadened eyes, Joe is capable of extreme violence but also is shown to be a dutiful son, showing some real tenderness as he cares for his ailing mother (Judith Roberts).

When we first see the two together, Joe’s mum has watched Psycho on TV and she’s still scared, this scene becoming unexpectedly poignant later, when she comes across some ruthless men on Joe’s trail, although we don’t see her encounter with them.

We do witness plenty of violence elsewhere, when it explodes on the screen for only a matter of seconds. Sometimes we glimpse it from a distance on low grade CCTV screens, sometimes it takes place offscreen, at other points we are only shown its aftermath.

This, though, is not just a film about violence, with political corruption, trafficking, childhood trauma, post-traumatic stress disorders and redemption being explored too.

I’ve followed Ramsay’s career since her days in the 1990s when she began making a series of intriguing and acclaimed shorts such as Small Deaths and Gasman. She hasn’t put a foot wrong since then but this very uncomfortable watch that might be her best work to date.

You Were Never Really Here might also feature Jonny Greenwood’s finest ever contribution to the world of film. His score is mostly dissonant enough to grate nerves though occasionally, when the London Contemporary Orchestra’s strings come in, it can be gorgeous too – although as he told NME, they can also be quite brutal with their instruments. ‘Strings can do so much more than just be pretty.’

There’s also some found music utilized including, strangely enough, Eileen Barton’s fluffy post-war pop hit If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d Have Baked a Cake and a burst Albert Hammond’s The Air That I Breathe, a song that Radiohead channelled in their breakthrough hit Creep (to the extent of giving Hammond and co-composer Mike Hazlewood a share of the writing credits).

I did admire Thom Yorke’s work for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria ‘cover version’ but in the battle of the Radiohead men, Greenwood likely just edged it.

Best Soundtracks 2018

Also worth mentioning in the musical front is Mogwai’s work on Kin, although the actual movie isn’t one that I remotely thought about including here. Likewise Anna Meredith’s first cinematic outing, her score for Eight Grade impressed although the standout musical moment is when she sneaks in existing composition Nautilus for the disoriented entry of a socially awkward thirteen year old vlogger to a poolside birthday party where she isn’t particularly welcome.

I remember the first time I heard Nautilus, I felt disoriented myself.

Another of my favourite scores of 2018 was by celebrated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for Mandy. His music was brilliantly in-sync with the constantly bizarre events onscreen, which only makes it sadder that he would die so soon after composing and recording it. He was only 48. A truly sad loss.

For more on Jóhann Jóhannsson, click here.

And for more on Jonny Greenwood, click here.

 

Some Favourite New Books of 2018

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Some Favourite Books of 2018

Before I get down to my ten favourite films of the year, a quick mention for three new cinema related books published in 2018.

Firstly, All the Colours of Sergio Martino (Arrow Books), Kat Ellinger’s compact but highly informative introduction to one of the great maestros of Italian genre cinema. I only know Martino from gialli like Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and Torso but after reading this I’ve been delving deeper into his diverse filmography – he also directed westerns, comedies, crime dramas, cannibal, sci-fi, mondo movies and more.

Editor-in-Chief of Diabolique magazine, Ellinger is also an increasingly popular choice for supplying audio commentaries for genre greats – in fact, I’ve just received a review copy of Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte where she does just that and I’m looking forward to hearing her views on Robert Aldrich’s ‘hagsploitation’ thriller. She’s also provided a new video essay Sex and Death with a Smile on giallo icon Edwige Fenech for Arrow’s upcoming 2K restoration of Strip Nude for Your Killer. I admit it. I’m excited about this!

A Whole Bag of Crazy: Sordid Tales of Hookers, Weed, and Grindhouse Movies by Pete Chiarella (aka 42nd Street Pete) is a terrifically entertaining read where he recollects his youth, which was mostly spent in sleazy fleapits in New York’s Deuce, watching double or even triple bills of far from high falutin’ exploitation flicks as the spectre of the Vietnam War hung over his head.

Finally, as a Coen brothers fan, I’d recommend Adam Nayman’s The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together (Abrams Books). This is a gorgeously designed and comprehensive – I’d say maybe even definitive – look at the remarkably consistent oeuvre of the Minnesota born brothers from Blood Simple through to Hail, Caesar!

The Ladykillers

I purchased this in hardback form and am glad that I did as there’s so much visual imagery to pore over and enjoy, including film stills, photos and illustrations. This is one I’ll be enjoying for years to come.

Best Films of the Year – Part One (20-11)

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Films of the Year Part 1

Was 2018 a vintage year for cinema?

I’d give it a 10 myself. If I was marking the movies at my local multiplex. 10 out of 100, that is.

It’s been yet another year of superheroes, sequels, spin-offs and reboots. More punters paid to see Fifty Shades Freed than The Shape of Water. Avengers: Infinity War topped the British box-office moneymaking list while You Were Never Really Here failed to dent the Top 100. Dwayne Johnson has somehow become the planet’s second highest paid ‘actor’.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy many films that started their British theatrical runs or made their streaming debuts during the course of 2018.

20. Pin Cushion

At times, Deborah Haywood’s Pin Cushion looks like television. The script is uneven. Much of the acting is mediocre at best, and there’s an off-screen incident that illustrates why the adage ‘Show, don’t tell’ became a screenwriting truism.

So why is this in my top twenty? Two reasons. Joanna Scanlon (who’s still maybe best known as Terri in The Thick of It) and newcomer Lily Newmark. Both are in staggering form here as a highly eccentric mother and daughter duo – Dafty One and Dafty Two – beginning a new life for themselves in a small Derbyshire town.

19. Annihilation

A science fiction/horror hybrid written and directed by Alex Garland, this features a great turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh. I’m surprised Annihilation wasn’t a bigger hit at the box-office. Maybe it doesn’t spell things out enough for the type of cinema-goers happy with hyped-up blockbusters aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator audiences.

18. Burning

A fantastic ensemble piece from South Korea that is never predictable. Underappreciated in the West, this is one of the most watchable chillers of 2018.

17. The Night Comes for Us

Timo Tjahjanto’s film Indonesian Triad crime epic might be the goriest movie of the year.

At least ten minutes of the running time could have been cut and it’s a little confusing at times but the fight choreography is generally breathtaking and the cinematography so inventive that these flaws can be forgiven.

16. At Eternity’s Gate

Last year, Loving Vincent, an animated feature about the life of Van Gogh, was one of my favourite films, and Willem Dafoe gave one of my favourite performances in The Florida Project.

In 2018, he again turned in one of the year’s best performances, this time as Vincent Van Gogh in his deeply troubled final days.

An artist himself – making his name with giant canvases covered in thickly impastoed paint and broken crockery – Julian Schnabel directs and Mads Mikkelsen and Emmanuelle Seigner impress in supporting roles.

15. Hitler’s Hollywood

Rüdiger Suchsland’s documentary examines the rigid political and cultural censorship applied to the thousand or so films made in Germany during the reign of the Nazi Party and I reviewed this one here.

14. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Joel and Ethan Coen’s anthology of six Western-set tales of varying lengths starts brilliantly but doesn’t quite maintain that promise. It is, though, generally very entertaining and proves that even on their B game, the Coen brothers are still head and shoulders above most of the opposition.

13. Private Life

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, Private Life is often laugh out loud funny and occasionally devastatingly sad. Paul Giamatti is, as ever, excellent but newcomer Kayli Carter is every bit as good as his twentysomething niece Sadie. Keep an eye out for her.

12. Lady Bird

An initial 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes was without doubt over-generous. In fact, Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age drama quickly became the most-reviewed movie ever to maintain a 100% on that review-aggregation site.

It has fallen now to a mere 99% due to a negative review from one Tomatometer-approved critic Cole Smithey, who dared to observe that: ‘There are dozens of coming-of-age films that far outweigh this lightweight contender. Think ‘Kes’ or ‘Murmur of the Heart.’

I wouldn’t judge Lady Bird as lightweight myself but it’s not exactly deep either, is it? The film is certainly an assured debut by Greta Gerwig, funny and with all round top-notch performances, especially from Saoirse Ronan.

But Kes and Murmur of the Heart are better films. As is a more similarly themed movie from 2001, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, which came to mind as I viewed Gerwig’s debut.

11. First Reformed

Now forty plus years into his career – the man who wrote Taxi Driver Paul Schrader returned as writer/director of First Reformed.

Ethan Hawke is Reverend Toller, who preaches at a beautiful though sparsely attended church in upstate New York. He is a complex man with a painful background. who is in poor health which he tries his best to ignore.

He’s also experiencing a crisis of faith, and this is sent into overdrive after he meets a depressed environmental activist, and then a man heavily involved in pollution. Who coincidentally is a major donator to the First Reformed Church. Similarities with Travis Bickle begin to emerge. Every hour is the darkest hour.

The movie is overly reliant on Hawke’s voice-over but the actor is superb here and Amanda Seyfried is surprisingly good too. This haunting and powerful work might be Schrader’s best directorial effort since 1990’s The Comfort of Strangers. A real return to form.

Look out for numbers 10 to 1 in the coming days.

Best of the Year: Film Reissues

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Best Reissues of 2018

10. Shampoo (Criterion)
This is one of a great run of 1970s movies directed by the great Hal Ashby, who was the subject of a enlightening documentary Hal, that I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival this year. Shampoo starred Warren Beatty, Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn but it was Lee Grant who picked up an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Felicia Karpf.

Here’s some more on this re-release from Criterion.

9. The Serpent’s Egg (Arrow)
Legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s sole Hollywood excursion. It might also be his darkest ever work.

8. Early Hou Hsiao-Hsien: Three Films 1980-1983 (Eureka)
The pick of these three early works by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien has to be The Boys from Fengkuei, which I reviewed here.

7. Iron Monkey (Eureka)
The first of two appearances on this list from Hong Kong action superstar Donnie Yen – and the first of two big screen depictions on the list of real-life character, the legendary martial artist Wong Fei-hung, although Yen doesn’t play Wong in either movie.

Here’s my review for Louder Than War.

6. Midnight Cowboy (Criterion)
I love this. I love this. I love this, and that final scene on the bus from New York to Florida never fails to bring a lump the throat. Controversial on its release, it was given an X-rating and went on to become the only X ever to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (albeit that classification no longer exists).

Today it might just be best remembered for Harry Nilsson’s take on the Fred Neil song Everybody’s Talkin, although the main theme by John Barry is my musical highlight.

5. Smithereens (Criterion)
A blast from the punk era set in a grimy NYC. Which I reviewed here.

4. Gas Food Lodging (Arrow)
A film that deserves to be better remembered. This release comes with some neat extras including Reel Women (Chris Rodley, 1995), a documentary looking at the challenges women face in the movie industry in the 1990s – and it would be interesting to hear what these directors think of the same situation today. I’ll take a closer look at Allison Ander’s finest film in my American Indie series at some point in 2019.

Seeing this again even let me forgive her for helming the ill conceived Four Rooms segment that starred Madonna, and becoming involved in Sex and The City.

3. Daisies (Second Run)
A true cinematic one-off. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll always remember it. This new digital transfer, with restored image and sound approved by the director, makes the colours dazzle and the release comes with some fantastic extras including two separate audio commentaries, one by Peter Hames and Daniel Bird, the other by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan. Reviewed here.

2. Once Upon a Time in China (Eureka)
Jet Li at the peak of his powers stars here as the aforementioned. The first in the series is fantastic. The second – where Donnie Yen co-stars – arguably belongs in that rare category of sequels that actually improve on a classic original. Okay, things tail off as the series moves into a franchise but as a whole this might just be the best martial arts box-set ever released.

1. Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema (BFI)
Released this summer to mark the sixtieth anniversary of influential British independent production company Woodfall, this nine disc collection includes eight films from the Angry Young Man/Kitchen Sink/British New Wave era.

These are – Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959); The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960); Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960); A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961); The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962); Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963); Girl with Green Eyes (Desmond Davis, 1964) and The Knack… and How to Get It (Richard Lester, 1965).

Richard Burton was miscast as original Angry Young Man Jimmy Porter in Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of John Osborne’s celebrated play Look Back in Anger. Once seen as a radical leftist figure, Jimmy now comes across as a boorish dick but Mary Ure is excellent as his downtrodden wife Alison. Oh and that sentimental ending!

Things soon pick up, especially with the trio of Kitchen Sink classics Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a trio of films that can truly be said to live up to that revolution in British cinema claim.

There are also some fascinating extras here that include experimental shorts made around the same time that the features were made, and new cast & crew interviews from those involved in the main films.

Stan & Ollie

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Stan and Ollie

A shot of two very iconic bowler hats on a hatstand opens the film, kicking off a bravura tracking shot that introduces Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Hollywood at the height of their success. Natural performers, they play up to their head scratching and finger twiddling big screen personas as they interact with passers by on their way to the studio set where Way Out West is being shot in 1937 and where they are about to perform their celebrated At the Ball, That’s All dance.

Stan_&_Ollie_on_set

They’re two of the biggest stars in the world, and everyone loves them. It would be hard, if not impossible, for the pair to imagine that sixteen years down the line they would find it difficult to make ends meet and have to agree to embark on a variety theatre tour of Britain, hoping to revive their careers and maybe improve the chances of Stan’s proposed Robin Good screenplay being greenlit.

As they arrive for dates in Newcastle, this begins to look increasingly unlikely. Despite their legendary status, tickets sales are poor. The rise of television is one reason for the relative lack of interest and their supercilious British promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) concentrating his efforts on ‘blazing new young talent’ Norman Wisdom isn’t helping either.

Inspired by A. J. Marriot’s book Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours, Jeff Pope’s script concentrates on this late period in their careers, highlighting their on-going desire to make themselves and their audiences laugh, while also focussing on simmering resentments that can surface when the pressure mounts.

Stan_&_Ollie_hats

The film’s directed by Aberdonian Jon S. Baird, whose Filth I enjoyed – I also enjoyed the Q&A afterwards on the night of its Glasgow preview screening with Baird and Filth author Irvine Welsh making a pretty good double act themselves. That film featured an inspired piece of casting. James McAvoy was something of a left-field candidate for out of control cop Bruce Robertson, but he supplied a scorching performance that soon made it difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.

Here, the casting of the two leads is even more crucial – even today, Laurel and Hardy are immediately recognisible to a majority of the planet.

Baird has again chosen wisely. John C. Reilly must have been a fairly obvious choice for Ollie. An under-rated actor who has managed to appear in some of my favourite films of the last two decades or so – Boogie Nights and We Need to Talk about Kevin for starters – he naturally exudes likeability. He’s also a little chubby, though not obese like Ollie – that’s a fat suit he’s wearing here and very realistic it looks too.

Steve Coogan takes on the role of Stan Laurel. With his ears pegged back and artificially elongated jaw, he also resembles his fellow Lancastrian enough to convince. Both actors also capture the pair’s physical mannerisms and verbal tics masterfully.

Stan & Ollie

Although there’s a ‘darling new young Queen’, this is a drab post-war Britain where rationing still exists and where pea-souper fogs are commonplace. When Stan and Laurie step onstage, though, there’s fun to be had. The tour zigzags across the country including a date at the infamous Glasgow Empire – the site of which I walked past on the way to see the film – where they perform Shine on Harvest Moon. The shows go down well and when the duo partake in some additional promotional work, ticket sales shoot up. By the time they reach London, a theatre with a bigger capacity is required.

This gives both men a real boost and they’re both also delighted when their wives arrive from the States to join them for the remainder of the tour.

Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel and Shirley Henderson (Trainspotting, Filth) as Lucille Hardy are often as funny as their famous husbands, constantly aiming bitter little barbs at each other. You could easily imagine a movie where they were the two central characters. ‘Two double acts for the price of one,’ Delfont quips during one of their verbal jousts.

Stan and Ollie and Wives

Just when it looks like Stan and Ollie’s luck is on the rise, Stan’s film deal falls through and Ollie suffers a heart attack while about to judge a bathing beauties competition in Worthing, an event that will prompt another not so nice mess. ‘You cannot go on stage again in your condition,’ he’s warned by a doctor.

Dates will have to be cancelled, and Stan faces a dilemma over Delfont’s plan to foist a new partner on him in the shape of Nobby Cook. Laurel & Cook? That would never work, would it?

This is an undemanding, slightly cosy though very entertaining watch, an affectionate tribute to comedy’s greatest ever duo.

I’m not sure it knew when to end and I didn’t buy into the scene where a film production company receptionist fails to recognise Laurel and then repeatedly calls him Mister Lauren but watching Coogan and Reilly recreate some classic routines is such a joy that I left the cinema happy and in the mood to rediscover some Laurel and Hardy classics.

How the film will perform at the box-office in an age of fantasy epics, superheroes and Star Wars sequels, I have no idea, although the promising news is that it has been nominated for seven British Independent Film Awards, including Steve Coogan for Best Lead Actor, while Reilly has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.

Stan_&_Ollie_onstage

Stan & Ollie premiered in October at the BFI London Film Festival. It will be released in America on 28 December 2018 and in Britain on 11 January 2019.

For more on the film: https://stanandollie.co.uk/

 

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