The Small World of Sammy Lee

November 28, 2016 by  
Filed under - Home, Film Reviews

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During the 1960s, Anthony Newley was a prominent figure in showbiz; a former child star turned actor, as well as an acclaimed singer and songwriter, and one-half of celebrity couple with wife Joan Collins. As a child actor, Newley played the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948). As a songwriter, he co-wrote songs including Goldfinger, Feeling Good, and was Academy Award nominated for co-writing the soundtrack to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Sadly, in the years since his death, Newley is mostly a forgotten figure in the world of British entertainment. However, loyal fans of his work will be delighted to see that London-based crime drama, The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963), has been restored and released as part of the BFI London Film Festival this year.

Set and filmed on the streets of Soho, we follow strip-club compere Sammy Lee (Newley) as he races against time to pay off a gambling debt. Ken Hughes wrote and directed the film, based on his 1958 BBC play Sammy, which also starred Newley; essentially the 1963 film is a more detailed version of the original production. Newley is at the helm of this film, with a supporting cast of British actors including Robert Stephens, Julia Foster, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell and Roy Kinnear.

Cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who passed away in October 2016 aged 104, brings to the screen a striking view of 1960s London, and the seedy underworld which existed at that time. Even in one of the busiest cities in the world, the isolation of Sammy Lee is portrayed so strikingly. The image of black & white London, as Newley navigates his way around the streets – meeting various characters and trying to raise the money – is almost a character in itself.

The sense of anticipation regarding whether the debt will be settled in time is less prominent in this production, in comparison with the shorter television play it’s based on. However, in adding to the original plot, and bringing in an array of new characters, a background to the character of Sammy Lee is created. The film is thick with dialogue, giving the actors a great deal to work with.

Although Anthony Newley is likely to be remembered more for his other work in films (Doctor Dolittle, Willy Wonka), as will writer/director Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), The Small World of Sammy Lee is a hidden gem of 1960s British cinema, which may yet create more Newley fans in the decades since its release.

The Small World of Sammy Lee is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years

November 21, 2016 by  
Filed under - Home, Film Reviews

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Image copyright: Washington DC, 1964, Copyright Apple Corps.

Reporter: “What place do you think this story of The Beatles is going to have in the history of Western culture?”

Paul McCartney: “You must be kidding with that question…it’s not culture, it’s a good laugh!”

The Beatles are undoubtedly the most successful group in music history. These four lads from Liverpool – John, Paul, George and Ringo – are estimated to have sold around 600 million albums worldwide since their formation in 1960. They continued to dominate the charts in the UK and overseas, until they split in 1970.

Eight Days A Week brings us the story of The Beatles during their touring years of 1962 until 1966. Directed by Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code), this documentary provides a mixture of interviews, footage, photos and recordings of The Beatles, as they worked their way from small venues in the north of England, to becoming four of the most recognisable faces of the 1960s. Along this journey, we see how their manager Brian Epstein created their image, the recording process of the Fab Four, and the changes in their musical style as we move through the 1960s.

A milestone in the music industry came when The Beatles played to a crowd of almost 56,000 fans in August 1965, at the Shea Stadium in New York. No other artist had attempted to play to this capacity, and their music was spread around the stadium via the tannoy system. Footage of this and other concerts can be seen in the documentary, including the overwhelming reaction of the band as they are faced with the screams of their audience. It is interesting to note that two future Beatle wives were in the audience at Shea Stadium; Linda Eastman (wife of Paul) and Barbara Bach (wife of Ringo).

Interviews with the two remaining Beatles, Paul and Ringo, and former interviews with John and George are in short supply. Eight Days A Week is mostly images and footage, with voiceovers in place. Those hoping to learn about the childhoods, marriages or personal lives of the Fab Four will be disappointed. Additionally, there is no mention of the breakup of The Beatles in this documentary; its entire focus is almost all on the touring years. However, there is plenty of behind the scenes footage of the band and those around them during the early 60s, as we hear how being a Beatle came with both ups and downs. We also see the relationship the Fab Four had with each other during this period of great success.

Any hardcore Beatle fans will not learn anything new from this documentary, but it is still a fascinating glimpse into the early years of a band who have certainly left their mark on Western culture.

The Beatles: Eight Day A Week is on DVD, Blu-ray and Two Disc Special Edition from 21st November. Pre-order now. http://scnl.co/EightDaysAWeek

I, Daniel Blake

November 2, 2016 by  
Filed under - Home, Film Reviews, News

Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake

A blistering and emotional incident of faceless bureaucracy is made by veteran British film maker Ken Loach in his superb new movie, I, Daniel Blake, which deservedly won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

The central character, Daniel Blake, suffered a heart attack at work. Until he is fully recovered he has been strongly advised by his surgeon, GP and physio that he should not attempt to seek gainful employment. After being forced to answer a series of irrelevant questions, a health specialist from one of the companies the government has outsourced its welfare education tests to, notifies Daniel that he is fit for work. Thus, like so many other people, he finds himself caught up in a system of complaints and appeals, waiting for something to change.

At first Daniel’s good humour carries him through. He may initially appear to be a loner, but when he meets single mother Katie and her two children, his warmth and compassion shines through. For a time his own predicament takes a backseat as he fights for her rights – the scene in a local food bank is heartbreaking as we see how much Kate has sacrificed for her children. But Daniel’s case seems to be going nowhere and exasperation with the system finally pushes him to express his exasperation publically.

This is a deeply humane and all-two relevant movie from the 80-year-old Loach and probably his best film since Cathy Come Home, aided of course by a gritty, unsentimental script by his regular collaborator Paul Lavery. Made in the manner of a dramatised documentary, it is angry at a system that demeans people, but has enough compassion for some of the people employed by it whose desire to help those in need is hindered by callous administrators.

Of course the film wouldn’t have the impact it has without two excellent central performances. Dave Johns, previously known as a stand-up comedian, skillfully balances Daniel’s Veneer of gruffness with whip-smart humour, while newcomer Hayley Squires is very moving as Kate.

This undoubtedly is the best British Film of the year and shows all too vividly that no one should be treated as a statistic.

Released nationwide on 21 October 2016

The Girl on the Train

October 26, 2016 by  
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Emily Blunt, The girl on the Train

Spending hours each week on the same train, travelling to the same destination watching the same houses and lives shoot past is a concept that most commuters can relate to, and is the idea behind Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ novel, The Girl on the Train. However, unlike her fellow passengers, Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) becomes fixated with watching the lives of a ‘perfect couple’ living in their New York suburban home, fantasying about their idealistic love for one another.

Triggered by a failed marriage and her inability to get pregnant, Rachel takes to drinking – sad and lonely, her obsession takes its toll on her sanity and after a shocking discovery, she finds herself stumbling late at night outside the house of her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) where he lives with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), just two doors down from the young lovers that have captivated her imagination. Waking to discover she is covered in blood with a cut head, last night memories have sunken into the drunken black hole she has made for herself. After the news that the girl she has watched for months, Megan (Haley Bennett), is missing – Rachel is sure of only one thing – she was there that night and needs to remember what happened.

The film is a highly sexualised rework of the book with rather far-fetched assumptions of the obliviousness nature of daily commuters. Regular flashbacks from the night in question spin and change as Rebecca tries to piece together what has happened twisting the production into a stylised thriller and make it hard to look away.

Blunt does a great job convincing us she is mess both inside and out, with her slurred words and addicts shake – a role set apart from previous, lighthearted characters. Rebecca Ferguson and Haley Bennett are also convincing as wives ruled by their husbands, keeping the mystery alive with many secrets of their own.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film as a non-reader of the book but can’t help wondering whether it’s another over Americanised adaptation of a seriously captivating thriller novel.

Watch the Trailer here

The Girl on the Train is in cinemas nationwide. Released 5 October 2016.

A Quiet Passion

October 25, 2016 by  
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Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in A Quiet Passion

Veteran British filmmaker Terence Davies returned to the peak of perfection with his brilliant chamber piece, A Quiet Passion. This is an absorbing, meticulously crafted chamber piece, centring on the celebrated 19th-century American poet, Emily Dickinson which takes her from the time she left Ladies College at the age of 17 to her death at 55 from agonising kidney failure.

Dickinson was a nonconformist, whether as poet, daughter, or women of faith, she finds herself at odds with the diktats of religion and society, becoming increasingly reclusive, dressing in white, writing her extraordinary original poetry but not publishing it, instead sewing together her own tiny little manuscript books or ‘fascicles’.

Cynthia Nixon is superb as the adult Dickinson, skillfully revealing the many facets of her character – her wit and linguistic command, an inescapable melancholy, and her poetry’s transcendent ability to connect with other people in ways she cannot. A film whose sensitivity, insight and eloquence resonate in the mind.

A Quiet Passion, released 8 October 2016 in selected cinemas nationwide.

Images: Johan Voets

American Honey

October 21, 2016 by  
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AmericanHoney

A road movie without a map is how you can describe Andrea Arnold’s freewheeling, funny, exhausting and unpredictable American Honey. The story follows the journey of teenage star (a sensual, defiant Sasha Lane) from her abusive home in Oklahoma and across the American Midwest with a hard – partying magazine subscription sales team in a large white van crammed with boozy kids and possibilities. Star is at the once smitten by the dangerous charisma of ringleader Jake (Shia LaBeouf), but for Jake romancing Star is just another part of the job. Although overlong at almost three hours – the film would have benefitted from tighter editing – Arnold has nonetheless created a lyrical story with strong characterisation and a rough-edged tenderness.

American Honey is in selected cinemas nationwide from October 14 2016

We Are X

October 7, 2016 by  
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Screened as part of the London Film Festival, We Are X is a British-made rockumentary by American director Stephen Kijak (Scott Walker – 30 Century Man, Stones in Exile) about, “the world’s biggest and most successful rock band you’ve never heard of… yet.” The band in question is X Japan, who have been playing back in their homeland since the 1980s.

It is definitely true to say that back in Japan, the band is massive. They are credited with making rock/metal acceptable in the country. All five of their albums have made the top 20 back in Japan, the first reaching the top of the Japan’s indie chart, and the last three all being No. 1 albums in the main chart. Three of their albums have gone platinum, and they have had four No. 1 singles. They are due to release their next album, their first in over 20 years, when they perform at Wembley Arena on 4th March 2017.

What is holding them back then? Probably the fact that they are not native English speaking, as is evidenced by the fact that the film’s central figure, Yoshiki (pictured in the centre of the above photo), the band’s frontman, drummer and pianist, does speak English but he’s accompanied with subtitles all the way through the film. To quote one X Japan fan, Kiss frontman Gene Simmons who is interviewed in the movie: “If those guys had been born in America, they might be the biggest band in the world.” The film mentions that they did try to break into America back in the 1990s but their attempt failed.

Mr. Simmons is not the only famous name appearing in this movie stating their love for the band: Marilyn Manson, Marvel Comic’s Stan Lee, Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland, Guns N’ Roses’s Richard Fortus, and recently departed Beatles producer George Martin all make contributions to We Are X, so it is clear that the band have the support of the wider rock community.

The film itself details the band’s history, mostly through Yoshiki, as the band prepared to form in Madison Square Gardens in 2014. What is made clear is that one of the recurring elements of the band and Yoshiki’s own personal story is pain: both physical and mental. His father committed suicide when Yoshiki was only 10, the band’s singer Toshi (pictured to Yoshiki’s right) became brainwashed by a cult which resulted in the band breaking up for a decade, and just five months after that break-up the lead guitarist, hide, died in what was thought at the time to have been suicide (it’s now considered to have been accidental). This led to three copycat suicides by fans. The emotional pain is real, as is evident when Yoshiki cries when being interviewed over hide’s death. In 2011, the band’s former bassist Taiji, committed suicide after being arrested on a flight. Another sign of this, not covered in the film itself, is that the Wembley performance and sixth album mentioned earlier were meant to take place in March 2016, but had to be postponed after guitarist Pata (far left of the picture) had to go into intensive care with a blood clot and diverticulitis.

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On top of this, Yoshiki is also so physically frail that it seems a miracle that he too hasn’t died. He suffers from asthma, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, a torn ligament and a deformed neck bone caused by years of head-banging, meaning he now has to wear a neck brace while drumming. He’s so energetic on stage that often he wasn’t breathing properly, so he would often collapse on stage, and when he made it backstage he had oxygen tanks waiting for him because he had so little air inside him he was often on the verge of death. That’s when you know you rock, and rock hard at that. Yoshiki says: “To create some kind of art I don’t think you should be in a normal mental state of mind. It’s a war.”

The band itself were part of what is known in Japan as “Visual Kei” – visual rock. The original look of the band was really over-the-top, with massive haircuts and a glam-look. The band’s original slogan was: “Violence Crime of Visual Shock”, and the look certainly was shocking, even today. While today they may have a simpler look, the music still has the power to move you.

This is the great thing about We Are X – it brings together the music and both the on-stage and off-stage personas of the band, especially Yoshiki, to tell a great story. It is a story that deserves to be told, mainly because X Japan has earned the right to be heard.

It also highlights the difficulty that non-English speaking artists have with trying to make it big in the UK and USA. No matter how big you are back home, there will still be people in this country who won’t listen to you because you don’t sing in English. It says quite a lot about British attitudes to Far Eastern music in that there is only one song that most people can probably name, which is “Gangnam Style”, and even that is more famous for its comical dancing than for the actual music. There are still problems with X Japan’s music reaching a wider audience today, as only two of their five albums and some of their more recent singles are currently available on iTunes.

The people who made We Are X are the same people behind the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. With a film like this they could win the award again, or at least get nominated, and for one hope they do, because it would help establish the name of what should be one of the world’s biggest rock groups.

We Are X is currently screening as part of the London Film Festival. It will be shown at Prince Charles Cinema on 8th October and Vue West End Cinema on 9th October. The film’s official website is http://www.wearexfilm.com/

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words

October 3, 2016 by  
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Ingrid Bergman was born on 29th August 1915 in Stockholm, Sweden. She lost her German mother at the age of two, and her Swedish father when she was 13. After spending the next several years living with relatives, Bergman received a scholarship to attend the Royal Dramatic Theatre School in Stockholm; thus beginning the career of a legendary actress.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words is a documentary from Swedish director Stig Björkman, all about the life and career of the Academy Award winning actress. Using home footage, clips, letters and diary entries, we delve into the life of Ingrid Bergman, and the many challenges she faced in her personal life, and over the course of her career. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, The Danish Girl) narrates by voicing Bergman, in reading her letters and diary entries.

This documentary gives an intriguing insight into the life of the Swedish actress, as it’s literally, “in her own words”. Those hoping to hear interesting stories about the films of Bergman or her place in cinema history will be disappointed, as the main focus is on her life away from the screen. Approximately only 30 seconds of this documentary is dedicated to Casablanca, one of Bergman’s most famous films, in which she stared with Humphrey Bogart.

In addition to the footage and writing from Bergman herself, there are several interviews with those close to the actress, including family members and colleagues. There are also interviews with her four children, three of whom discuss growing up with two famous parents, both often away for long periods of time on film sets.

This intimate and engrossing documentary, standing at just under two hours long, produces an engaging insight into the life of a determined actress; working her way up from small parts in Swedish films, to the heights of Hollywood. Although Bergman doesn’t come across as the most endearing person at times, it’s hard not to admire the determination in pursuit of her career, and the handling of the scandals that she faced along the way.

The diary entries and letters bring you closer to the actress, who died in London in 1982; headstrong and determined of course, but also charming and warmly remembered by her children and those who knew her.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words is available on DVD now.

Hidden Figures trailer

September 21, 2016 by  
Filed under - Home, Trailers

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A trailer has been released for historical biopic Hidden Figures, about the team of African-American women who worked for NASA. Here’s the official synopsis:

Hidden Figures is the incredible untold story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanised the world.  The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.

The film is to be released in cinemas on 24th February 2017.

Bridget Jones’s Baby

September 20, 2016 by  
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Bridget Jones's Baby

Jones is back. The women who taught us it’s ok to drink alone while dancing around your bedroom and that you should never apply makeup in the back of a moving taxi has returned with a few more essential life lessons.

Played by the Oscar-winning Renée Zellweger, Bridget Jones appears to finally have her life in order – having at last lost those few extra pounds and with a job as a top news producer, she is composed and happy. However, with the passing of another birthday, her complicated love life once again takes a turn leaving her in a rather unexpected situation. Now an expectant mother, Jones has to deal with a more pressing matter – who is the father? The men in Bridget’s life are once again fighting for her approval but this time, the dreamy American Jack, played by Patrick Dempsey joins Colin Firth, the collected Mr Darcy, as Jones’s potential suitors.

There has been no fluffing round the edges; our favourite, flustered Ms Jones braces our screens again with her frivolous sex life, outrageous dress sense and overcrowded, London borough flat. With excellent support from Emma Thompson, as Dr Rawlings the film provides a fitting end to the Bridget Jones franchise but leaves us questioning, can the eponymous heroine ever have a ‘happily ever after’?

Bridget Jones’s Baby in cinemas nationwide from 16 September 2016

Photography: Universal Pictures – Giles Keyte

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