Wednesday 20 February 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King

It's been nearly eight years since Joe Cornish's terrific debut Attack The Block, a film that, in 2011, put him in the middle of the Venn diagram of British directors making excellent, modestly-budgeted sci-fi (cf. Duncan Jones, Gareth Edwards) and British directors making impressive first features (cf. Richard Ayoade, Paddy Considine). Cornish has hardly been dozing in that time, but it's interesting to note that if you were born when Attack The Block came out (unlikely, given my readership stats) then you're now more or less exactly the target age for his second film.

The Kid Who Would Be King concerns twelve-year-old Alex, the crushingly ordinary only child of a single-parent family from a suburban housing estate in London. When he stumbles across a sword wedged in a concrete pillar on a building site and successfully extracts it from its cementy sheath, Alex unexpectedly finds himself the sworn protector of the realm. Will he use the sword for good, overcoming apparently insurmountable odds to defeat evil and discover the true meaning of destiny, or will he turn to knife crime and carve a bloody swathe through the rest of Year 7, swinging the decapitated heads of his enemies in the air like claret-spurting bolas? Well, the BBFC have rated the film PG for "mild threat" so severed noggins are probably not the order of the day, sorry kids.
Opening with an inspired and, frankly, incredibly useful primer on the Arthurian legend in comic-book-style animated form, The Kid Who Would Be King warns us that the evil Morgana, once defeated by King Arthur, "will return when the land is lost and leaderless again." Establishing shots of a Britain weighed down by a grey drizzle of misery, homelessness, unspecified war and the unspoken but blindingly obvious shittitude of Brexit give off the kind of pessimistic world view that makes you want to give Cornish a hug and ask him if he's OK hun. More pertinently, though, the scene is set for the return of Morgana, played by Rebecca Ferguson with a sore throat and a severe case of split ends. The idea that Brexit and the failure of the current British political system have dredged up the most abhorrent evil known to the United Kingdom in millennia is floated, but Cornish - having made his point for the adults - dedicates the rest of his film to giving their offspring as much fun and entertainment as he can before they have to leave the cinema and grow up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of embarrassing isolationism and delusional nationalism.

And there is a ton of fun and entertainment here: mouldering zombie warriors on flaming steeds rampage through the streets like Nazgûl who got too close to the barbecue; kids undergo swordfighting training with helpful, animate trees, and Merlin - in the form of Angus Imrie (son of Celia) - provides consistently eccentric running commentary, useful magical assistance and the kind of wacky hand-jiving spell-casting that kids will be practising in the playground for weeks after viewing.
As with Attack The Block, Cornish wears his influences on his sleeve. The unremarkable suburbia and broken families that characterised 1980s Steven Spielberg productions are all here, the mythology of Star Wars and Harry Potter are openly acknowledged and swooping shots of the rolling countryside of Cornwall and Somerset recall the grandeur of Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Squint and you might also make out the kind of children's fantasy absurdism that buoyed Time Bandits (terrifying supernatural forces appearing in kids' bedrooms are never not fun), or the social-malaise-manifests-as-demonic-threat plot of Ghostbusters II. Even Lance, the film's blond, arrogant, easy-to-hate bully, is modelled on Draco Malfoy, Game Of Thrones' Joffrey or - most despicably - an early Take That Gary Barlow.

But there's plenty of room for originality, and Cornish conjures a series of set-pieces that will delight school-age audiences - not least of which is the transformation of Alex's 'Dungate Academy' from Grange Hill-style dreariness to a knight school: a fortress of resistance against the forces of evil, laden with ingenious traps and armoured schoolkids.
The Kid Who Would Be King has a huge problem though, and that's the tiny slice of the cinemagoing market that are really going to dig it. The film skews very young: it's uncomplicated, hugely earnest, and mild of peril (despite the stakes, not a single character suffers so much as a scratch in the final battle). None of which are necessarily criticisms, but it's a kids' movie for kids who've yet to reach the age where cynicism and a general dismissal of everything sweet and lovely becomes the norm. At the other end of the scale it's potentially too scary for under-8s, with its hellmouths in the back garden and fiery monsters trying to murder innocent children. It's also two hours long, which is buttock-testing enough even for those of us not hopped up on Sunny D, or whatever legal crack the kids are fed these days.

In endowing his film with a big heart, a child's imagination and a wide-eyed innocence, Cornish may have drastically limited its audience, and that's a huge shame. But The Kid Who Would Be King does prove that the once and future Cornballs absolutely knows what he's doing at the helm of a movie, and there's no reason why he shouldn't be let near the kind of budgets that Duncan Jones and Gareth Edwards have been given. And if it takes another eight years for that to happen, I'll be here. Impatiently drumming my fingers and looking at my watch, sure, but I'll be here.

Friday 15 February 2019

That's Rogertainment! Rogisode 11:
The Quest

It is with a heavy heart that I must once again draw your attention to another film starring Roger Moore that is, in the words of Charles Dickens, a steaming mountain of cackapoopoo. Why Rog cursed himself with all this guff remains a mystery, although clues can often be found where there's an exotic location, a large paycheque and a minimal amount of effort involved. And so we journey to Thailand under the direction of none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme for The Quest, a martial arts extravaganza in which, sadly, the Muscles From Brussels at no point engages in hand-to-hand combat with the, er, Briton From Britain.
"I must warn you, I'm Roger Moore"

The Quest is the first slice of Rogertainment that isn't, strictly speaking, a Roger Moore film. It is, of course, a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. You can tell because JCVD's name is above the title and Rog's isn't - a state of affairs which our hero recalls in his autobiography My Word Is My Bond as a Judas-level betrayal. Quite right too: like most films we've covered on these pages, Roger Moore is the only thing that makes The Quest worth watching. Aside from his gimlet-eyed turn as a Flashman-esque bounder, the film is an uninspired and laughably feeble excuse for a series of mixed martial arts fights, directed by its meat-slab star with all the panache of an actual slab of meat.

Van Damme opens his film with a truly stupid framing device. He's an old man in a bar (the old man makeup extends to a grey wig and a couple of wrinkles) who beats up a generic gang of punks despite the encumbrance of his age and hairpiece, then drifts off into a misty-eyed reminiscence of that time he met Roger Moore in 1925 and fucked him out of his above-the-title credit. We see young JCVD in New York, in clown makeup for some reason - quite possibly in tribute to Rog's unforgettably dignified depiction of James Bond in Octopussy, where he put on a red nose and some floppy shoes to defuse a nuclear bomb. Van Damme isn't a suave spy though: he's Chris Dubois, a Fagin-like bum who hangs around with a mob of street urchins living hand-to-mouth and stealing to feed themselves. Also he is unbelievably ripped and a highly skilled fighter, but for some reason those qualities do not seem to have helped him find gainful employment as yet.
Consider Yourself... DEAD MEAT

A number of obvious questions arise from having an absurdly buff man hanging around on street corners with a pack of under-age boys who would do anything for food, but The Quest isn't about to address them. Instead, through a convoluted series of unlikely events, Dubois is forced to abandon his pre-pubescent pocket-picking pals and ends up a stowaway on a boat heading for the far east. Despite being shackled in chains by the crew for some time he remains unbelievably ripped, and his fighting skills are put to good use when his boat is boarded by pirates led by Admiral Lord Edgar Dobbs, aka Sir Roger George Moore KBE. Van Damme the director at least has the good grace to give Rog a terrific first shot (literally):

A ruck ensues, and Dobbs notes that Dubois is "the best fighter I've ever seen," even though all Van Damme does in this sequence is kick a guy in the nuts then do a flip. Dobbs rescues Dubois only to sell him into slavery, and six months later their paths cross again in Bangkok while Dobbs is trying to get into the knickers of Carrie Newton, a sexy American journalist half his age. Classic Rog! This unlikely trio, along with Dobbs' bosun Harry and an American boxer called Devine, team up to get Dubois into the Ghang-ghen, a World Cup of mixed martial arts where great fighters from around the world compete for a large and frankly cumbersome gold dragon. Dubois aims to win the dragon to save his under-age Manhattan muppets from the streets, but Dobbs fancies the dragon for himself because he is, at heart, a right twat.

The remainder of this sub-Enter The Dragon / Kickboxer mash-up is a half-hour sequence of fights in which every competitor is a cringing racial stereotype: the Spanish fighter prances about like he's dancing a flamenco; the Brazilian entrant does a lot of fancy capoeira; the Scottish guy wears a kilt; a Japanese sumo wrestler is accompanied by a gurgling sound effect every time his flab wobbles, and a black man wearing assorted tribal gear is there to represent the "country" of Africa. And let's not forget those inscrutable orientals, all of whom are either villains, servants or accomplished martial artists.

Predictably Dubois wins the competition, but not the golden dragon; it turns out that the freedom of his friends and implied intercourse with the film's only female character (who serves literally no other purpose) were the real prizes all along. In his closing old-man waffle speech, Dubois casually tosses off the fact that he got the kids off the streets of New York anyway, rendering the entire story utterly pointless.
Although he does do the splits in mid-air so it's not a total waste of time

Throughout all this Roger Moore achieves the inconsiderable feat of being the best of The Quest's leads, and you have to wonder if one of the reasons he accepted the role was the implicit guarantee that he couldn't possibly be the worst actor on the show. Naturally more charismatic than, well, everyone, Rog twinkles as Dobbs: an absolute cad, an untrustworthy rogue, a liar, a thief, a mercenary and an opportunist. He represents the charming, smug face of the British Empire, smirking and smiling while doing dodgy arms deals, selling slaves and generally fucking everyone over for a few quid. Whether Van Damme intended this biting historical critique when he scrawled down his story in crayon is up for debate, but Rog seems well aware of it. He doesn't get much action beyond that early gunfight and a brief stint in a stolen German zeppelin (he did his knee in on location and spent much of the film in a cast), but he clearly relishes playing against type as an antihero.

In his memoirs, Rog describes Van Damme and The Quest's producer Moshe Diamant as the only two people in showbusiness he really dislikes (temporarily forgetting all about Grace Jones), meaning his appearance in the film of a man having a good time suggests he's a much better actor than he's usually given credit for. His scenes with Jack McGee as Harry, the Smee to Rog's Captain Hook, are relaxed and warm, possibly because McGee's on-set flatulence was a constant source of irritation to Jean-Claude Van Damme and amusement to Roger Moore. I don't doubt for a moment that a spinoff series of films about Dobbs and Harry's globetrotting twattery (preferably written by George MacDonald Fraser) would have been a colossal lark for Rog and a cinematic treat for the entire world. Alas, it was not to be: the remainder of his acting career would consist of cameos in films that people only watched while under eight years old, or drunk, or both.
"I say old chap, have you recently launched a
stink-rocket from your hidden underground base?"

So it's a workmanlike but welcome Rogerformance, one that just about makes The Quest worth watching but hardly a shining example of our magnificently-eyebrowed hero's finest work. After making this ill-advised disaster headlined by actors of limited talent, Rog would leave crass incompetence behind him by moving on to (*checks filmography*), uh, Spiceworld: The Movie. But that's another story.


Bonus fun: at the very end, it turns out that old JCVD has been reading from a book entitled The Quest by Carrie Newton, who it turns out was good for more than just a congratulatory shag to reinforce the hero's masculinity after all that oiled-up, semi-naked grunting and grappling. With apologies for the low resolution (I wasn't about to buy The Quest on Blu-ray), I encourage you to read the first page of this book, as presented in the film, to the end.

Friday 8 February 2019

Thunder Road: Forlorn in the USA

To begin at the end: the first of refreshingly offbeat com-dram Thunder Road's end credits reads: "Written, directed and performed by Jim Cummings". Out of context, that "performed" sounds a little ostentatious, maybe even pretentious. But coming after 90 minutes of what is practically a one-man show, it's bang on. Cummings is front and centre in every scene of his first feature, which is based on his 2016 short of the same name, and it's a showcase for a wired and wild performance that will either leave you hungry to see what he does next or send you screaming from the cinema like your legs are on fire.
Thunder Road opens with a twelve-minute unbroken shot of Cummings' anxious, skittish cop Jim Arnaud delivering a babbling eulogy at his mum's funeral. This single scene filled the whole of the short film on which it's based, except that here Arnaud's attempt to sing and dance along to the titular Springsteen song is thwarted by a banjaxed CD player; maybe The Boss wasn't as relaxed with the rights to his music as he was three years ago. It works though: the sight of an officer of the law in full uniform, doing a catastrophically bad dance to a song that's only in his head, in front of his mother's coffin, perfectly sets the tone for what's to come.

"Everything went normal," Arnaud later remarks to a colleague of his bananas funeral performance: neither the first nor last hint that he may have some deep-seated mental health issues. The film sees him constantly teetering on the vertiginous edge of a total breakdown, struggling to connect with his pre-pubescent daughter and barely holding on to his job, friends and reality. Throw in an irresponsible ex-wife and a fractious relationship with his siblings and you've got all the ingredients for a feelbad weepie. But Cummings sees the funny side in emotional trauma, and invests the film with an almost schizophrenic ability to make you spit out your beverage of choice laughing just as you were glugging it to numb the pain. As hilarious as it is heartbreaking, Thunder Road walks this tightrope between melodrama and bad taste for its entire running time.
Cummings' performance is remarkable and unpredictable: barking mad at times and bursting with energy, then calming right down for some genuinely affecting quiet bits. There's a hint of early Jim Carrey in his most manic moments, but without the showboating. Arnaud is a complex ball of resentment, enraged by his own inability to deal with life, and that manifests as explosions of frustration peppered with fleeting glimpses of love and humility. There are other actors in the film, but Kendal Farr as his sassy daughter Crystal is about the only one allowed to make an impact.

Cummings uses Arnaud's personality disorder to take an affectionate look at male bonding, the abrasive nature of familial relationships, the blind terror of raising a teenage daughter and the permanent threat of repeating the mistakes of the past, but never foregrounds or labels the character's problems to the point where they become the focus of the story. Thunder Road is about real people dealing with real problems, usually quite cack-handedly, and skilfully avoids mawkishness with unexpected lols and an underlying sweetness that's never allowed to get cloying.
So to end at the beginning: for a second or two, the first shot of that first scene shows a hymn sheet on a piano. The words "He who would valiant be" are just about discernible before the camera pans away, and an hour and a half later you realise this could easily have passed as an alternate title for the film. Arnaud is desperate to show the world he's a man who can take everything life throws at him, but bravery isn't just about facing your problems, it's about facing yourself too. He's the hero cinema needs right now, brought to life by one of the most original new voices in independent filmmaking.

Friday 1 February 2019

Melody Faker:
The albums I only own to make
myself look good

I like music. Who doesn't? Apart from my wife, she likes Take That. Anyway because I am a real and proper music fan who enjoys looking down his nose at people, I own all my music on clunky and cumbersome physical media like vinyl and so-called "compact" discs. This means I have no room in my lounge for seats or people, and moving house last year was a colossal ballache, and I am contributing to the mass production of plastic which will one day cover the earth's surface killing off all life as we know it, but I am definitely still superior to you streaming types somehow.

One of the bonuses of owning physical media is that you can subtly leave stuff lying around that speaks volumes about what kind of person you are or, more accurately, what kind of person you would like people to think you are. An original pressing of Kind Of Blue casually propped up next to the turntable, for example, or a worn-out copy of Blonde On Blonde protruding slightly from the IKEA Kallax shelving, is the perfect catalyst for a conversation in which you can casually toss off an "Oh, that old thing? Haha, I'd forgotten I even owned it! Aren't I a silly old deadly serious muso who cares too much about what people think!"

Of course the secondary benefit of owning albums like Kind Of Blue and Blonde On Blonde is that they contain genuinely great music. However over the years, I have managed to build up a small but robust collection of CDs and LPs that I've played once or twice, frowned at in confusion, and then - rather than doing the sensible thing and giving them to the Cancer Research shop round the corner - deliberately left them on display to make myself look good. What a prick. What follows is a small sample of these items with which I would like to confess my awfulness.

Grace by Jeff Buckley
Many moons ago I became obsessed with Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list, and one of the entries I hadn't heard was Jeff Buckley's only studio album, Grace. Well, I thought, here's a bloke with a guitar who's well-loved by the music press but largely ignored by the mainstream, I like those. So I bought the CD, probably at some point in the mid-2000s, and played it a couple of times. Eh. Bit whiny. So on the shelf it went, and there it has remained, because owning it makes me look like a sensitive type to anyone familiar with the album, and to anyone unfamiliar with it I just look like I have a more extensive knowledge of music. Also it says out loud "I was familiar with Hallelujah before that X Factor woman sang it, *SNORT*". Obviously I should have bought Leonard Cohen's Various Positions to make this argument truly fly, but oh my god have you heard him? Cheer up mate!!!!

Intro by Pulp
When Pulp became massive after the release of Different Class in 1995, it was the done thing to point out that actually you'd been a fan since His 'n' Hers a whole year earlier, like you'd given birth to them or something. Obviously this amateur snobbery ignored their three previous albums, but literally nobody owned those unless their surname was Cocker. So I took the next best measure and bought Intro, an obscure compilation of songs that was released a whole other year earlier, BEAT THAT. Unfortunately it isn't very good but I can't have people thinking I was a late Pulp adopter because that would be the truth, and that's the last thing I want people to know.

The Classical Collection
In a supremely dick move I bought this 8-CD set of classical music from Woolies when I was a teenager because I liked the stuff I'd heard in films or on aftershave ads. I have never listened to any of it, yet there it is, a fucking massive box set leaning into the room, pushing its glasses up its nose and saying on my behalf: "Actually it's the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth, not 'the Die Hard theme', you TOTAL MORON". I am lots of fun at parties.

Pretty much every jazz album I own except Kind Of Blue
I started "getting into" jazz about five years ago, and under the advice of a trusted friend my first purchase was Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue. I do not own this album just to make myself look good because it is legit terrific, a complex bastard of wonder that's perfect listening at any time of any day or night. However, over the next few years I probably bought another ten or fifteen jazz albums because I thought they'd be as good as Kind Of Blue, and right now I would struggle to hum a single tune from any of them. If you put one of them on I would not be able to tell you whether it was Oscar Peterson or Cannonball Adderley or Horace Silver, and I'm fairly sure that's a jazz sin. But hello, I've got over a dozen jazz albums ON VINYL so I think you'll find that not only are my tastes pret-ty eclectic, but I am also an exceptional lover.

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet by Public Enemy
My interest in hip hop also arrived pretty late in the day (discounting Stutter Rap by Morris Minor & The Majors, which I bought on release in 1988), but when it did I quickly amassed a crushingly obvious collection of albums that could have been issued under a collection entitled "So You've Decided To Get Into Hip Hop". Painfully aware that this made me look like the whitest and lamest music fan in history, I decided to dip my toes further into the rap pool and bought the only two Public Enemy albums I'd heard of. Sorry guys but they're unlistenable. Still, I look 0.4% less lame for owning them so they stay on the shelf.

Every album by The Beatles
My father in law bought every Beatles LP as soon as they were released, and as a dowry for taking his daughter off his hands he gave them all to me, THIS IS A JOKE I LOVE MY WIFE AND AM LUCKY SHE AGREED TO MARRY ME. These touchstones of pop culture, these invaluable blasts of music history captured forever on beautiful jet-black vinyl, sit proudly in my collection where everyone can see them and envy my ownership of such rare and precious artefacts. What's that? Do I actually play them? Oh God no, I barely even like The Beatles. Except for Abbey Road, that one is so completely brilliant I have listened to it at least four times.

David Bowie's difficult period
I genuinely adore Zavid, and have really, really tried with the seven albums he made in the nineties and noughties, but there's no avoiding the fact that these are the ramblings of a man who'd lost his way. Thank God he subsequently squirted out a couple of actually brilliant records before he sensibly left us to rot in our own imbecilic filth, thereby leaving his legacy a little less tarnished. Don't think I'll be selflessly helping to fund a cure for the cancer that killed him by taking those CDs to the charity shop though, don't you realise the cachet that comes with owning every Bowie album? I've got a reputation to uphold you know.

Led Zeppelin II & Led Zeppelin IV
Another couple of albums I bought because I felt like I should, Led Zep's imaginatively-titled II and IV are the only survivors of a brutal cull that saw I and III consigned to the nearest chazza after a couple of plays. There's every chance I might actually enjoy them if I ever get round to putting them on again, but when is it ever appropriate to listen to a Led Zeppelin album? I'll tell you: the 1970s. And at a push, the 1990s, when the world's worst people briefly resurrected the 1970s because even they couldn't stand the 1990s. I like to think that owning them makes me look good but am vaguely aware that in fact it makes me look either 60 years old, or like someone who subscribed to Loaded and never missed an episode of TFI Friday.

Zuma by Neil Young
I can't actually even look at this album, let alone play it, because the cover is so phenomenally crap. So I have to trust in the readers of Rolling Stone who declared it the 7th best Neil Young album, because I'm definitely never going to play it. Still, look at me, I own a Neil Young album other than Harvest, bow down before my wild and unpredictable tastes, mortals!

Some crusty old 78s
The pièce de résistance of my collection of albums I only own to look good is a ragtag bunch of 78s pressed on shellac, which is so laughably fragile that every time I move them the collection gets smaller. I took these from my Grandad's house after he died, along with a gramophone to play them on (because that would make me look unbelievably hip), but sadly the gramophone was about as functional as my Grandad so I gave it to a friend to be repaired. That repair is still ongoing two years down the line, so while the records themselves tell the world that I really am an audiophile of the most superior order, I couldn't even play the fuckers if I wanted to.