Monday, 19 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - SPOILERS

I'm putting this here so you don't find it by mistake. A quick look at the stats for this little known page shows that there have been precisely no views today, nor any since December 13 when one person somehow stumbled across it. No doubt they were looking for something relating to real, actual fire hazards.

The reason for the secrecy and the inevitably lower readership which will ensue is that most people will not yet have seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just yet. It was only released four days ago. I was supposed to be waiting until tonight myself but at some point during the last few days I remember waking up sweating having remembered that it is the Merseyside derby tonight (Monday). All of which just meant that I could bring my viewing forward a day to Sunday. I didn't fancy Bournemouth v Southampton much anyway. For now though, please do not continue to read this if you have not seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and still intend to.

Set between episodes III and IV of the saga (that's Revenge Of the Sith and Star Wars A New Hope for those confused by the chronology) Rogue One tells the story of how the rebel alliance brazenly lifted the Empire's plans for the Death Star which was destroyed by a Force-assisted Luke Skywalker in episode IV. I don't think that is a spoiler. If you haven't seen Star Wars: A New Hope by now you are probably not all that inclined to. It has been 39 years after all. If you haven't seen it then Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will make very little sense to you. It seems to exist solely to explain how the rebels arrived at a position where they were able to attack and destroy the Death Star. But in that sense it adds something to the saga, unlike the Force Awakens which just blatantly steals from earlier episodes and recycles the same ideas.

The chief protagonists here is Jyn Erso, mostly played by Felicity Jones but we initially see her as a small child (Beau Gadsdon) escaping from white-suited Imperial Bastard Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). He has come looking for Jyn's father Galen (Mads Mikkelson) who he needs to recapture so that he can force (no pun intended) him to continue his work on a project that turns out to be the Death Star. Galen is reluctant to go with Krennic and his menacing band of black-clad stormtroopers but once his wife is killed and Jyn is safely out of sight he surrenders. Jyn's been given instructions for exactly this eventuality, which involve hiding in a dark hole until she is rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whittaker). The latter is desperately under-used which is one of the few things about this film that I didn't like. If you are going to hire such a big name actor then at least have him involved a little longer. If not, you would be better off not bothering with a big name and just casting someone that nobody knows. It is cheaper, you know? And anyway one of the reasons Star Wars was so easy to get carried away with is that the cast were unknowns when the first film was released all those years ago. Since then the saga has become a little too celebrity-heavy, though Whittaker does a more than passable job in the role of Gerrera who we are told raises Jyn before losing touch with her. We never see any of this which significantly weakens any sense we might get of a strong bond between the two when their paths cross again later.

The next time we see Jyn after her rescue by Gerrerra she has morphed into Jones. We find out that we have jumped 15 years to a time when she is scavenging and surviving on her instincts (echoes of Rey in episode 7 perhaps?) and has little time for the rebel alliance. You'll remember them? All X-Wing fighters and frog-faced admirals. Yet when news breaks that her father is still alive her ears prick up. Via that timeless Star Wars staple the holographic message she learns that yes he has been working for the Empire to build the still unfinished Death Star but also that he has deliberately placed a small flaw in the system which, he tells her, could see the weapon destroyed if she can convince the rebels to launch a mission to steal the plans. The same plans that Darth Vader is looking for at the beginning of episode IV. See, it all fits.

But persuading the rebels proves difficult. They say Galen is right with the Empire and is only trying to lure rebel forces into an aerial battle they cannot win. All of which forces Jyn to take on the mission with the help of just a few friends, all totally new characters to the Star Wars universe. As well as Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), there is defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), smart-arsed droid and 3PO for the new generation K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Force-summoning martial arts whizz Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and some other random they pick up along the way called Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). With the help of the finally convinced remainder of the rebel alliance they complete the mission (which we know they must because remember Vader is looking for the stolen plans in episode IV) but at a particularly awful cost. Ever wondered why there is no mention of Jyn And The Gang in any of the original Star Wars films set after Rogue One? You work it out....Seemed a bit draconian for me with a high risk of upsetting any children watching, but narratively it was the only way to go.

There has been some controversy about the use of CGI to resurrect a classic and frankly essential Star Wars character played by an actor who has now left this world. The argument is that the audience is quite capable of accepting a new actor in any given role and that it is not necessary, and may not even be all that ethical, to use a CGI version of a dearly departed human being. But the family must have provided consent and may even take a deal of pride in the results. What is not in dispute is that the hardcore Star Wars fan will be hugely delighted at the reveal and to use a new actor would have denied them that pleasure.

Let's be clear we are not talking about Darth Vader here. The much beloved Lord Of Sith has a limited role, appearing in only two scenes, but he doesn't waste his screen time and is not just a CGI image. This is particularly true of his second and final scene near to the film's denouement, the first and only time that we see any lightsaber action in Rogue One. You wouldn't call it a duel as it is far too one-sided for that, but it looks good all the same. The disenfranchised David Prowse is not inside the suit. Nor should he be at 81 years old although if they had wanted to be really clever and authentic about it they could have thrown a huge amount of money at Hayden Christensen to do it. Instead both Daniel Naprous and Spencer Wilding take over the role, with James Earl Jones returning to voice cinema's greatest ever baddie.

There has been some grumbling about whether we needed Rogue One at all. It is fair to say that it exists only to close the plot hole from episode IV, namely how and why did the Death Star get to have what seems like a rather careless flaw that could be exploited later on by the rebels? Maybe you take the view that the why in episode IV doesn't bother you and that we don't need to know. But while that is a valid argument Rogue One is no less fun or interesting for all of that. Certainly an improvement on the wretched homage to the original trilogy that was The Force Awakens. Rogue One might very well be the best Star Wars film outside of that original trilogy.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016


Creed is an overly sentimental, overblown and often cringe-inducing fiasco which is not to be taken seriously under any circumstances. But it's no less enjoyable than many of the other memorably demented Rocky sequels for all that.

Acutely aware that nobody is having Rocky VII as a concept, Sylvester Stallone and the co-producing Winkler-Chartoff axis have rather cleverly made Rocky VII and called it Creed. That's because it follows the fortunes of the spectacularly talented and self-taught Adonis 'Donny' Johnson, the illegitimate son of former Rocky rival turned mentor Apollo Creed. In a barely believable and cliched fashion, Johnson's rags-to-riches-to-rags journey sees him hook up with legendary former champ Rocky Balboa and pursue his hobby of knocking people out. He's his father's son alright.

Once Michael B Jordan's Donny leaves the luxury of Apollo's old mansion the tale begins it's relentless homage to the Rockys of the past. Rocky, like his own trainer Mickey, is a reluctant trainer for Donny but agrees to it eventually in a stunning display of what-the-heckery. He's sold on Donny's parentage, although any of the facts that Donny throws at him to prove his origins could have been gleaned by spending a couple of hours watching Rocky III. By this time he's already been fobbed off by the son of Apollo's former trainer in LA and fled to Philadelphia, and his and Rocky's visit to that city's art museum was for me, despite the many Liverpool locations featured (St George's Hall, Goodison Park, The Liver Buildings and the Radio City Tower to name a few) the one exciting 'I've been there' moment.

We'll get on to where Liverpool fits in later but for now Donny's only boxing experience to date are the 15 legally dubious contests he fought out in Mexico. The name of his trainer (and not his father because he's not telling anyone about that just yet, he wants to make his own legacy) is enough to get him a match with the local pro at Mickey's old gym. He's 17-0 in his pro career and if you were taking this shit seriously you might question the choice of opponent for Donny's first official pro fight. But you're not so you accept it, just as you accept it's unlikely outcome.

First step on the road to stardom completed, Donny's life is complicated slightly by his relationship with hard of hearing bar room singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson). She's no Adrian but she's passable love interest fare and a reasonable device for helping us find out more about what Donny's really made of. Which is pretty stern stuff as it turns out, although Jordan's mannerisms fail to invoke the spirit of Apollo for me. He lacks his wit also. When Apollo boasted that he'd retired more men than social security some time in the late 70's or early 80's the writers were deliberately channelling his inner Ali. Donny's too serious for that. He's confident but focused. He's not so far ahead of the competition that he can laugh his way to victory like his father could. And the entertainment value drops accordingly to a degree.

And so to Liverpool. If Donny's first pro fight was a stretch to believe, his second is the kind of match only made in Rocky Heaven. Needing a financial boost after some gun-related tomfoolery in Toxteth (no, really) light heavyweight champ Ricky Conlon gets wind of Donny's heritage and is persuaded by his mockney cardboard cut out manager Tommy that it could be a nice little earner. Just one condition for a shot at the title. He has to use the Creed name. Cue more reluctance and nore what-the-heckery and the fight is on.

Now remember those great Rocky foes of old, including Apollo? Clubber Lang? Ivan Drago? They weren't the most rounded of characters but the use of an actual actor did offer a certain something. Conlon is played by Liverpool light heavyweight Tony 'Bomber' Bellew and consequently the character development is kept to an absolute minimum. Clearly the wooden attempts at thespianism were too weak even for a Rocky film, so Conlon is limited to press conference insults, in-fight trash talking and of course physical violence.

The final fight scene is a horrid mangle of styles. The early rounds are all gritty close-ups until with the fight nearing its conclusion we go back to old school Rocky wide shots in which every punch thrown is a preposterous haymaker. In another nod to the franchise there's always someone who can't be at the fight watching at home on television. That used to be Adrian but in her absence Apollo's wife, who had taken Donny in at a young age but lost him when she forbid him to box, will suffice. Without giving the end away the climax is dying on its arse before it is boldly rescued by the one thing the film has lacked to this point and is the only sure fire way to give it a boost. The Rocky theme. This is now officially Rocky VII, whatever they want to call it.

This being Stallone you might expect his unwillingness to let Rocky go spawn more Creed sequels. That is still possible but the way that Creed explores Rocky's mortality suggests that Sly might just be seeing the end of his most famous incarnation sliding in to view. Rocky VIII to be the last, last, last hurrah anyone?

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Joy (spoilers)

Joy is anything but joyful for the most part. Through the narration of her grandmother (Diane Ladd) it tells the almost relentlessly despair-ridden tale of Joy Mangano, divorced mother of two who clearly overcame some adversity (but not as much as the film suggests, surely?) to become one of America's most successful capitalist bastards. I mean entrepreuners.

She did this by inventing a self-rinsing mop with a cotton head that can be cleaned and re-used. Which mundanity is probably the reason why the storytellers decided to have so much go against Joy and to make so many of the people close to her such outstanding piss-hats. A divorced mother of two, Jennifer Lawrence's Joy pays the mortgage in a home which accomodates not only her and her children but also her dad played by Robert De Niro, her mum (Virginia Madsen) and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramiez). Her dad has already ruined her wedding day some years previously and goes on to bring preposterous greed-loving Trudy (Isabella Rosselini) into the house after meeting her on a dating website for widows and widowers. He's not even a widower but he has split from Joy's mother, who spends an unrealistic amount of time in her bedroom watching the same monstrously bad soap opera. Before Trudy, Joy's dad Rudy (I know...) shares the basement with Tony, with whom he gets along with about as well as Teddy Sheringham got on with Andy Cole. Half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) pops up less frequently, but is no less contemptible.

Joy's life is perfectly awful, so it's understandable that she tries to find a way out through her invention. She was Valedictorian, which is American for the brightest pupil in her high school, and she puts those brain cells to good use designing her invention with her daughter's crayons. Which is really where the film starts to get bogged down in the legalities of patents and fraud and what-not. Despite attempts to make it dramatic it is hard to get past the fact that it's just a mop. Yes the stakes are high for Joy and even for the rhyming Rudy and Trudy as the triumphs and disasters come at them thick and fast, but it's still just a bloody mop. Perhaps Tony, a wannabe singer from Venezuela who to his credit is a much better friend to Joy than he was a husband, is the one who realises this first as his role is significantly and bafflingly reduced in the second half of the film.

The strength of Joy is in its performances. Lawrence is this writer's definition of watchable but despite that bias I don't think many would argue that she's not the best actress in film at the moment. She even makes you care about Joy, which is going some. It's just a mop, remember. Bradley Cooper delivers a brief but diverting turn as a high powered QVC executive, but despite their best efforts the trio of Lawrence, Bradley and De Niro can't get near the heights of their work in the cinematic gem that is Silver Linings Playbook. I fell asleep during American Hustle which also featured all three, but it was my love of Silver Linings Playbook that persuaded me that Joy might be another pleasant surprise.

It was not, but remained watchable if only for another stellar performance from Lawrence.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Star Wars - The Force Awakens - SPOILERS

If you haven’t seen Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens yet then please leave now. Assuming that you haven’t seen it and you still intend to, that is. What follows is positively spoilertastic, and I don’t want your ruined Christmases on my conscience. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to then feel free to stay, though it is unlikely that you will make it through this paragraph without nodding off if you are going to be that much of a philistine about it.

Still with me? Then we’ll crack on. We’ll start on the bombshell that is the news that I am that one, the only person in a sea of galaxies far, far away who was not overly impressed by The Force Awakens. As someone said recently, the Force could have done with five more minutes. Everything I had read beforehand, and most of what I have read since, has seen nothing but praise heaped upon the seventh instalment of the Star Wars saga so what could I, a self-confessed Star Wars devotee, possibly have to complain about?

Basically, The Force Awakens is a remake or rather an amalgamation of previous episodes, in particular IV and V, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The plot contains scarcely anything in the way of original thought to the point where it insults your intelligence. Set some thirty or so years after Return Of The Jedi (which is handy because it is some thirty or so years since Return Of The Jedi), The Force Awakens finds us in a universe controlled by fear by the First Order, who let’s be clear are not the Empire. Well they are a bit like the Empire, but not the Empire. The Stormtroopers have changed anyway. Forget everything those miserable prequels told you about clones with Kiwi accents, Stormtroopers in this day and age are snatched from their families at birth and brought up to kill anyone who finds First Order rule disagreeable.

One such unfortunate is the man who soon comes to be known as Finn (John Boyega), whose insider knowledge will come in very handy once he’s freed imprisoned pilot Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac) from the clutches of Darth Vader tribute act Kylo Ren. Ren is played admittedly with a nice mixture of menace and vulnerability by Adam Driver. So enamoured is Ren with the redeemed Dark Lord that he insists on wearing a mask that he has no obvious need for, and on impersonating James Earl Jones’ vocal talents. Amusingly he is prone to temper tantrums that Vader would have found wholly undignified, though not quite as undignified as the flagrant recycling of a classic Star Wars plot twist with which Ren's origins are established. At this point Ren lost some if not all credibility for me, and it was all I could do not to leap up in the cinema and shout ‘noooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ as Star Wars characters are wont to do. Quite why Ren wants to use the dark side to emulate a man who last we heard had been dragged back into the light is not yet explained. Maybe in Episode VIII....Ren also has to battle Domnhall Gleeson's shouty General Hux for the attentions of the supreme leader and suspiciously Palpatinian Snoke, a dynamic which I found strangely odd. Always two there are, Yoda once told me, a master and an apprentice. Here there appears to be three, and it is not clear what Hux is for other than to shout, shout and shout again in a manner which deliberately evokes images of Hitler and his friends.

At that point I was already struggling with my own dark side as I decided whether or not to allow the film’s other significant plot set-up to stand, or whether to just get up and leave. But this is Star Wars and so I had to stay. No matter how much we Star Wars fans are suffering through another Star Wars foul-up, we’re staying and we’re probably coming back just to make sure that the whole affair is as much of a travesty as we think it is. I’m planning a second viewing as I write. Back to the plot, there’s a cute comedy droid beeping around on a sandy planet, annoying people. But he has important information which only he can access. Now where have we seen this before? But before you can say ‘help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope’ it is revealed that the droid, BB-8, has a map to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker who is still, after all these years, the last remaining Jedi Knight. Apparently he had been training some others, but somewhere along the line it had all gone At-At’s up so he just got off, like an inter-galactic Reggie Perrin. Mark Hamill’s contribution to The Force Awakens is significant in terms of where the story might be heading, but in terms of actual time and effort it only just outweighs my own.

BB-8 is not just there for comedy and the re-telling of old tales, mind. He’s used quite well as a comic device also, and to help introduce the film’s female action hero. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is just a mere scavenger on a planet called Jakku when BB-8 insists on following her around and well…….who can resist a cute comedy droid that knows where Luke Skywalker is? This brings Rey together with Finn (remember him?) and in turn that leads to the re-introduction to the Star Wars universe of Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew and Carrie Fisher, reprising their original trilogy roles as Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess (now General) Leia Organa respectively. Ford and Mayhew provide the film’s best comedy moments and I will concede the view of most others that their double act outshines any of the clunkingly awful attempts at humour in the prequels. We’re back in original trilogy territory here and refreshingly it feels like a continuation rather than a re-hashing. Excellent performances from Boyega and Ridley add to the chemistry between the whole group. But alas it does not last as the need to move the plot along takes over, and the inability to come up with a new idea paralyses the whole project.

Which brings us to the spew-chuckingly dismal denouement. The First Order may not be the Empire, but they have a very similar view of how to rule a universe and eliminate a rebellion. What you do is you build a huge space station which has the power to destroy whole planets. But crucially what you must also do is neglect to attend to one small flaw in the system which will allow a fleet of X-Wing pilots to swoop in and shoot the shit out of the weak-spot. Of course, you will need to lower the deflector shields on the thing before you can send in the pilots. All that is missing are the fucking Ewoks! The X-Wingers are led of course by the returning Po. He had been feared dead after crash-landing a stolen First Order spacecraft from which Finn escaped (you can’t call it Imperial, I wouldn’t have thought) but here he is rocking up for the glory, a Han Solo for a new generation.

If the original trilogy had never been made then The Force Awakens would have been a highly convincing, thrilling ride, beautifully setting up its inevitable sequels where the destinies of Rey, Finn and the others might slowly unfold. But the awful truth is that we have been here before, twice in some instances. If this is going to convince people that this is how you go about continuing the Star Wars saga, then we could be using the same plot devices for generations, to the point where the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of a Sith Lord wakes up one morning feeling a little bit like I used to on a Tuesday when I was unemployed and all of a sudden you have a synopsis for Episode XXVIII.

Maybe it will be better second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) time around.......

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Bridge Of Spies (spoilers)

I've been to Berlin. I didn't like it very much. If you were of a mind to do so you can read about it in this column's big sister, Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard. I mention it here because I was reminded of it by Bridge Of Spies, a new Tom Hanks film that is part courtroom drama and part espionage thriller. And wholly and refreshingly good.

It's 1957 and the height of the Cold War. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are at their frostiest. Both sides have developed an intense paranoia about the possibility of being nuked to extinction by the other, and so both use spies to try and gather the information they think they need to survive. Or at least get their retaliation in first. Pick up a paper or turn on your television in 2015 and you will see that levels of paranoia are only just below what they were 58 years ago. Only the list of people we're supposed to fear has got bigger.

Back in '57 one such Soviet spy is Rudolph Abel played by Mark Rylance. Abel's house is ransacked by US police looking for evidence of espionage. They find some stuff, but it turns out that they haven't got a warrant so none of it is admissable. Not that this bothers cranky, Soviet hating, God-fearing, salt of the Earth Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) when Abel is charged regardless and brought to court. Defending him is insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Hanks) who seems to know very little about criminal law and appears to have been appointed by the government for that very reason. Never mind due process. There is too much at stake and Abel must not go free. Yet he must be seen to have been given a fair defence, hence Hanks must take the fall. The best he can do is to persuade Judge Byers not to hand Abel the death penalty, successfully arguing that it would be useful to have a Soviet spy in their possession should they ever need one to trade for one of their own.

Lo and....yes......behold that is exactly what happens. While Abel is at kangaroo court a US pilot is shot down over Soviet airspace while guessed it.....a spying mission. In the briefing before the mission he and his colleagues are expressly ordered to sacrifice themselves to avoid capture if necessary. They don't want secrets about their new technology getting out, nor do they want the Soviets to know that they've been spied on from above with what at that time constituted state of the art camera technology. One pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) loses his bottle on the whole sacrifice thing and so eventually, after a bit too much deliberation and debate, a trade looks on.

But there's a complication. At around about the same time an American student is captured trying to escape East Berlin as the Berlin Wall goes up. This is where my memories of Berlin come in. It was snowy and -13 and we couldn't get hime for days because English airports had closed. Yet it was an awful lot worse in the 50's and 60's . As the student tries to flee several people are shot dead trying to get over the wall while at Checkpoint Charlie a stream of unfortunates are routinely stopped, questioned, threatened and generally bullied by the authorities. Communism is rising, and suddenly the Americans have two people to retrieve and only one spy to trade with.

As that spy Rylance has been in several Oscar conversations. His performance is solid, even powerful, but the calm indifference of his character has to make things easier. It's surely easier to act indifferent to your fate when it's all pretend anyway. It may have been more challenging for Rylance if Abel had behaved like the gibbering, desperate wreck most of us would be if facing charged of espionage in the US, and then having to worry about what might happen to you if and when you are turned back over to your own side. Will they accept that you did your job well or will it be assumed that you betrayed your country as a bargaining tool?

Hanks is his usual colossal presence in screen while still managing to make you believe he's plain old Jim, while my only real gripe is with the pacing. It becomes fairly obvious what is going to happen at a certain point, but it still takes an awful lot longer than it should to get there. I guess that is what happens when you are dealing with material based on a true story. You have to stay true to it where possible, but a little side-step over the minutae here and there would have made this belter of a film perhaps even better.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Theory Of Everything (spoilers but come on, it's been ages)

Sometimes I surprise myself. I remember starting a blog about film some years ago, and then giving up on it shortly afterwards due to lack of interest. Both my own and yours. It made sense to me that less of you would be interested in reading about what I think of various films than in reading about me slipping down the slope through Thatto Heath Park and falling on my arse.

But I didn't give up quite as quickly as I'd thought. There are 15 or 20 reviews on the clumsily named Film Musings Of A Fire Hazard, spanning a two-year period. Not all of them are any good but they were interesting to look back on. Having made a tentative return to the subject of film with last week's utterings on Mockingjay Part 2 on my regular Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard I thought I'd take another dip at it. You know? Just for my own interest if nothing else.

So finally arriving at the point the subject of this piece is The Theory Of Everything, the Oscar-hogging biopic of physics boffin and miraculous motor neurone disease survivor Professor Stephen Hawking. Emma never fancied this one, so I never got along to the cinema to see it. I had to wait until just the other day to find the time to watch it at home. Not that I'm always busy particularly, but more that there is always some sports-related material clogging up my planner which needs watching before it becomes history material fit only for Yesterday or Sky One. I'd actually recorded The Theory Of Everything a few months ago, but those Bundesliga highlights continued to take precedence until now.

The other reason I hadn't got to it if I'm totally honest is that I'd kind of been putting it off. I'm always very wary of any film dealing with the subject of disability. So often they are either a massive let down or just downright offensive. I get enough of that in the real world without escaping to it. Yet The Theory Of Everything pleasantly surprised me. It's moving without being mawkish, funny without being patronising, and clever without bamboozling the viewer.

Hawking, played by posh gong gatherer Eddie Redmayne, is perhaps best known for his research into the origins of time and the universe and well.....everything........but it is his almost 30 years of marriage to his first wife Jane that provides most of the narrative here. Lazy people like myself might have assumed that Jane, played beautifully here by Felicity Jones, got the rock out of dodge pretty quickly when the full implications of Hawkings' illness took hold. She did no such thing. Hawking was given just two years to live at the time of his diagnosis in the mid 1960's, yet is still with us some 50 years later. Jane continued to be devoted to Hawking, attending to his every need until 1990 when they eventually divorced. And that wasn't to do Hawking any favours or to show a united front in public. She genuinely loved the great man and yes.....continued to enjoy a physical relationship with him. The youngest of their children was born in 1979, over a decade after his diagnosis and way beyond the point at which his body had failed him. True, she eventually drifted in to the arms of Jonathan Hellyer (played here by Boardwalk Empire and Stardust's Charlie Cox) who she met at choir practice and who had helped with Hawking's care for years, but only after Hawking had taken a shine to his therapist Elaine (Maxine Peake). She had been hired by Jane to help with Hawking with his communication after a bout of pneumonia finally robbed him of his speech. Eventually he would develop the now distinctive speech synthesiser which led a generation to believe he is an American. British accents are available with that technology now, but the shrewd astro-physician knows a saleable trademark when he sees it and has left well enough alone.

What the film fails to explore is just how the blazes Hawking has managed to survive for so long with a disease that does for most of its unfortunate sufferers in less than two years. Perhaps medical science has not deciphered that conundrum yet, or perhaps it really is down to his indomitable spirit and ludicrous work ethic. He's just been too busy to be ill for very long over these last few years. He continues to inspire, and to be 7,000 times more capable than most folk who would offer their pity. To that end, if we really want to educate people about what can be achieved by people with disabilities we should do away with disability awareness courses and international days of disability and just get people to watch films like Inside I'm Dancing and this excellent addition to the debate.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


The way I go about choosing which films to see at the cinema is pretty basic, truth be told. I look at the cast, decide if I can stand two hours of the participants without wanting to ram a screw-driver through my head, and go from there.

This is how I arrived at Lawless, a mobster flick set in early 1930's Virginia and apparently based on a true story. Historians among you will not need me to tell you that this means Prohibition, the banning of the sale of alcohol in the United States during that era. Trying to get around this and thus make a stack of cash are the Bonderant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia Laboeuf). They rule the Franklin County moonshine trade with the proverbial iron fist, which is both the most memorable thing about the film and one of it's major weaknesses.

Some of the violent events in this film are so grotesque that even the director (John Hillcoat) seems to have balked at the idea of actually showing them and instead resorts to strong implication. The censors might have had their say on that also, to be fair to Hillcoat. Amid the carnage is Jack's coming of age tale and big brother Forrest's struggles to hold on to both his power and his life, while Howard runs riot and provides more than his fair share of the psychopathy on offer. Of which there is lots. Chipping in is Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes, a corrupt police officer trying to geg in on the financial gain and keep the Bonderants in his pocket. The normally reliable Pearce whips up the mania and hysteria a little too much, especially in the film's heavily sign-posted denouement. From the very first scene I had a reasonable idea of what might happen at the end, and I wasn't wrong.

It's not that Pearce can't play a baddie. His turn as Fernand Mondego in The Count Of Monte Cristo was among the most memorable villainous stints I can recount. It just doesn't quite work here. He seems to be trying to emit the same suave, charming nature of Mondego before surprising you with a shockingly murderous act or some foul piece of torture. But Rakes lacks the humour of Mondego aswell as the propensity for betrayal which made the latter so compelling. Betrayal trails in the wake of revenge, greed and thirst for power in Lawless.

Quite what the makers of this film were thinking when they wasted the time of Gary Oldman I am still struggling to work out. He appears as Floyd Banner, a feared mob leader who seems to have nothing much to do with anything. He does business with the Bonderants and the film hints at his violent nature and his feared reputation without ever really making him a factor in the stories of the main protagonists. Following Tinker-Tailor and The Dark Knight Rises I am wondering whether somebody just wanted to keep Oldman and Hardy together for a while longer. Maybe they just really, really enjoy each other's company.

Love interest for Forrest and Jack is provided by Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain complete with gratuitious nude scene if you like that sort of thing) and Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) respectively. Maggie is a dancer from Chicago who has run away from trouble and found a whole lot more, while Bertha is the daughter of a preacher who is less than excited about Jack's interest in his little girl. Yet these characters are not much more developed than Oldman's and seem to serve only to distract you from what is really going on.

Lawless is a capable but underwhelming mobster story with some heavyweight actors seemingly below their best form. Which is what I get for choosing my cinematic pleasures by looking at cast lists and virtually ignoring synopses.