My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985)

My Beautiful Laundrette
One of the regular entries on “best ever film” lists, but one I’d never got round to seeing. No excuses, really. It used to be on Channel 4 regularly for a few years but I was, as a young heterosexual male growing up in the 70s and 80s, very uncomfortable with the idea of watching a film about gay lovers and made no effort to watch it despite having been told how good a film it was. Now, being more mature and less threatened in my own identity, I can watch films about gay men just on the basis of the story being told, without prejudice, I hope.

From a Hanif Kureishi script, filmed and set in 1980s Britain, at the height of Thatcherism and at the end of the last big UK racist street movements, the film concentrates on the families of Pakistani immigrants through the story of Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a young man who is earmarked by his father, an alcoholic who has failed to transfer his intellectual and political genius to Britain, to go to college and succeed where he has failed, but is drawn to the seedy world of his uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) and the opportunities presented by his various car and property businesses around London. Nasser and his assistant Salim (Derrick Branche) are the epitome of Thatcherite ambition and ruthlessness, caring not at all for the problems of other people as they relentlessly chase the goal of making money.

Omar sees an opportunity for himself in one of Nasser’s failing businesses, a run-down launderette, and recruits one of his boyhood friends, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) to help him. This friendship is fraught in a couple of ways. Omar’s father always suspected them (rightly) of being more than just friends but made efforts to help Johhny. But Johnny is white, working class, and his friends are racist thugs – and Johnny is compromised by his association with them.

As Omar and Johnny make the launderette work, using money pilferred from one of Salim’s more insalubrious business, drug trafficking, Nasser starts to regard Omar as a potential husband for his independent-minded daughter Tania (Rita Wolf) in order both to keep her in check and to keep his businesses in the family. Salim, resentful at Omar’s drug-money sting, and watchful for an opportunity to get back at him, starts to suspect something is not ‘right’ about them and plans to expose their relationship, even as Tania plans to exploit Omar and Johnny to effect her escape from the stifling control of a traditional Pakistani family.

The themes of culture clash, or rather culture clashes, of opportunities and ethics, and of personal identity politics are deftly mixed and, having watched this, the more recent film based on UK Pakistani identity, East is East, really looks lightweight and clumsy in comparison. Most of the cast are good, Saeed Jaffrey and Daniel Day-Lewis especially, though Gordon Warnecke’s Omar is rather wooden, especially when called on to do more than the mundane, leaving a bit of a vacuum where the heart of the film ought to be.

Still, a film well worth making the effort for, even if it took me a while.


Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973)

Enter the Dragon
I’ve seen bits of this before but never sat through it and properly watched it, and it was something of a revelation. Yes, it’s dated, sexist and formulaic with some of its plot points having become dreadfully cliched, even if they might not have been at the time, and Bruce Lee squawks like a chicken; but the action is terrific and the plot is quite tight and makes more sense than many an action-thriller does today.

Bruce Lee’s hero (also called Lee) is recruited from his Shaolin temple to investigate a brutal drug smuggler who runs his business from his own private fiefdom, an island from which he runs a martial arts competition each year. The drug smuggler, Han (Shih Kien), is an alumnus from Lee’s temple, an embarrassment to them since he has taken their fighting skills but none of their ethical instruction, and he is also responsible for the death of Lee’s sister, giving Lee and his masters sufficient cause for them to get involved in the “worldly” affairs of police business. In addition, Lee is an ideal candidate to investigate because he is a viable candidate for the martial arts competition and so can travel undercover.

Parallel to Lee’s story, we also follow two other candidates for the competition, Williams and Roper (Jim Kelly and John Saxon), friends from Vietnam with contrasting post-war experiences; Williams has maintained his integrity in the face of the racist establishment while Roper is in hoc to gamblers and needs the prize money from Han’s competition if he is to pay off gangsters to whom he owes money. Both characters are going to get drawn in to Lee’s mission.

The action is nicely paced and, whilst still fantastical, more humanly possible, more tangible and more brutal than we’ve come to see over the subsequent decades. Just as a historical marker of martial arts action films, this film is an interesting watch but it’s also a pleasingly entertaining watch for its own sake.

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

The Devils
The charms of Ken Russell films have always escaped me in the past but this is reputed to be his masterpiece and a groundbreaking piece of cinema so it had to be worth a try. And what a repayment on the effort! It’s not an easy watch, and it is little surprise that it’s offended censors, particularly in the USA; its depictions of religious-sexual hysteria could have been deliberately designed to offend the conservatively religious (and perhaps were).

The background to the film is the tail-end of the Wars of Religion in 17th Century France when, after the peace established by Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes, Cardinal Richelieu took a more doctrinaire attitude towards Protestantism and systematically weakened the independence of Huguenot cities of the South West. This was done both for religious ‘purity’ and also for political reasons, as he established a more centralised state around the person of the King (here, Louis XIII).

The particular case is the (historically broadly true) story of Loudun. As the governor of the city is dead with plague, the rule of Loudin is taken by a priest, the charismatic and humane, but fatally flawed, Grandier (Oliver Reed), both appointed as regent by the previous governor and a favourite of the King. But one of Richelieu’s agents, Baron De Laubardemont (a magnificently ironic turn from Dudly Sutton) arrives to take down the city walls. In a face-off between Grandier and Laubardemont, there is a stalemate, with advantage to Grandier. Grandier goes to plead the city’s case to the King and seems to be in a strong position. But Grandier has weaknesses; he has a history of sexual liaisons, dangerous for a priest, and has fallen in love, to the extent of heretically marrying his lover Madeleine (Gemma Jones). Also, unknown to him, he has become the object of fascination to the Nuns of a local convent, and particularly the hunchbacked Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), who is about to unleash accusations against Grandier that will tear Loudun apart.

The film has standout performances from Redgrave and Reed; it’s hardly a surprise that Redgrave could turn in a performance like that but, amidst his descent into alcoholism, it was easy to forget just how good Reed really was. It also boasts some fantastic cinematography and a soundtrack by Peter Maxwell Davies that absolutely works in establishing a disturbing, fractured and scary mood. Add in what looks like a witchfinder, Barre (Michael Gothard) who looks like he’s come directly from Carnaby Street and naked nuns given license to behave as madly, not just as they want, but as madly as they can (in order to save their own skins) and you have a disturbing and utterly memorable spectacle of the horrors unleashed when religious fanaticism, self-interest, political opportunism and outright sadism coalesce.

A brilliant film.

The Amazing Spiderman (Marc Webb, 2012)

Amazing Spiderman
I was not certain whether to welcome this film or not. On the one hand, I really liked Toby Maguire’s Spiderman, and it seemed too soon to ‘reboot’ the film again; on the other, Spiderman 3 was one of the worst films in the Marvel stable (only Wolverine is more unremittingly terrible) and Andrew Garfield, a decent actor and a genuine Spiderman fan, was making all the right noises about what they were trying to do.

Anyway, their are several things to like about this version. Garfield is indeed a good Peter Parker, less comic than Maguire but just as convincingly geeky. Rhys Ifans’ Lizard/Dr Curt Connors is convincing both as the initially well-meaning scientist and later as the deranged iteration, determined to change the world in his own mutated image, though much of his character and story arc looks very much like that of Dr Octopus in Spiderman 2. Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) is the love interest rather than Mary-Jane, who sadly makes no appearance – she should be the girl-next-door Peter has overlooked as he frets about Gwen. In addition, Webb and his team of writers have taken the opportunity to ‘correct’ some of the things that rankled in the previous series, most notably that the web-shooters are again an artificial invention rather than an utterly implausible (even by the standards of comic-book superpowers) ‘mutation’.

There are a couple of other innovations that stand out. The “bitten by a radioactive spider” origin is radically reworked into a genetic engineering experiment. This has multiple benefits: it makes the origin (again, with the proviso that this is a superhero movie) more plausible; it ties in nicely with the supervillain story, who gains his powers while trying to use lizard DNA to regrow limbs, with his own amputated arm being a powerful incentive; and it allows the writers to investigate the death of Peter’s parents and make more of his orphan-status in the drawing of his character. Martin Sheen and Sally Field are great as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, though Field is so different visually to the comic version that it took me a while to warm to her.

Overall, the film is fine. It tells an interesting story efficiently and with good performances. But it’s not different enough, for me, from the previous series to really get too enthusiastic about. Perhaps, if the sequels develop a more nuanced story arc (and avoid making clunkers like Spidey 3), I’ll look back on this film more favourably.

Lloyd Cole, Harrogate Theatre 10th July 2012

Lloyd Cole
To the rather lovely (and surprisingly spacious, given its frontage) Harrogate Theatre to see 1980s indie-darling, Lloyd Cole. Sporting a rather unfortunate moustache, greying hair and carrying a little more weight these days, he was supported by his son William, looking more like the young Lloyd than Lloyd himself now does. Cole’s first three albums, as Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, were pretty big on the indie scene but, once Cole relocated to the US and released albums as a solo artist, he pretty much disappeared from UK airplay. He’s understandably a little sensitive about this, as his comment “those of you who’ve followed me since 1985…” shows. His post-Commotions work, with the exception of 2006’s Antidepressant, probably isn’t quite up to the standard he’d set in those first three albums, but each of the remaining albums has moments and all of the albums are at least pretty good – just not quite so memorably catchy overall.

Here tonight, Lloyd (and William) provided acoustic versions of songs from throughout his career, and included a song to be included on his next album due next year. The songs from his Commotions days get a little reworking, so that they work with just two guitars, and William takes the lead guitar role throughout, also joining in on occasional vocals, and they alternate vocals on a cover of the Velvet Underground’s Pale Blue Eyes. The mood of the gig is indulgent and warm (too indulgent in the case of one pisshead who was overly enthusiastic each time he recognised a song, sang along loudly to one song and had to crawl up the steps midway through the first half to get out of the theatre, either to replenish his lager or to empty the previous ones).

There is no warm up act, with Cole taking an interval midway through. This catches out many of the audience who have timed their arrival to see only the second, “main”, half. Consequently, the first half is not performed in front of a very full auditorium, and is disturbed frequently by people finding their seats. This isn’t too much of a problem as Lloyd doesn’t seem phased or insulted by the (fairly low-key) disturbances in the audience. There are frequent changes of guitar, and tunings, between songs but this doesn’t take too long, Lloyd chats to the audience and explains that, with only two guitars providing instrumental support, they have to take more than normal pains to ensure they remain in tune, so the gaps aren’t irritating. Lloyd is not the most chatty of frontmen, but he appeared affable and relaxed and there was a real charm in the evening.

It’s the earlier work, as is to be expected, that usually gets the best response but the fairly heavy representation from 2010’s Broken Record, the last record to have been released, drives me back to play the CD again and it impresses me more on each listen.