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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Loncraine’

Who says this blog never does seasonal? When I was much younger and a bit more assertive, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to confront some of life’s little irritations and annoyances head on and do my best to rid myself of them. And so I went out and bought Slade’s Greatest Hits on CD. That may have gone by a bit fast, so allow me to elucidate: a reliable source of grumpiness throughout the 1990s was the regular-as-clockwork domination of radio and TV, for a whole month of the year, by the Wolverhampton rockers’ Merry Xmas Everybody. Quite why this jolly little stomper hacked me off so badly I honestly can’t recall, but it became a standing joke with my family that even a short burst of it would likely put me into a proper strop.

This clearly would not do, and so I decided to desensitise myself to the song and – who knows – just possibly teach myself to love Slade, using their Greatest Hits as a therapeutic resource. Well, you know what, learning to love Slade was not nearly as difficult as I had expected. These days the band is remembered predominantly for Merry Xmas Everybody, which is not surprising as it sold well over a million copies (some sources say over two) and charted at least half a dozen times. Of late, ironically, it has become much less ubiquitous (except in Rusty Davies’ Doctor Who Christmas shows, funnily enough) – apparently I was not the only one who found it a bit overplayed, as 40% of people polled at Manchester Airport in 2003 said they were irritated by it too (resulting in the song being banned at the airport itself).

But by 2003 it was too late for me, as I was already a non-ironic Slade fan. They tend to be remembered as a glam rock outfit but there’s not much sign of that on their recordings, which are solid, rocky stuff, driven by a combination of Noddy Holder’s extraordinary vocal technique and some terrific guitar parts – even a minor song like My Oh My contains an epic, tooth-rattlingly monumental guitar solo which often leaves me breathless. David Bowie and Marc Bolan sang about riding around on swans and flying off into outer space; Slade sang about getting wellied on whisky and receiving handjobs from prostitutes. Even the look of the band is more absurd than actually glamorous.

So, I was rather pleased when Slade in Flame (also known just as Flame) popped up on TV the other night. Released in 1975 and directed by Richard Loncraine, this film has acquired a strong reputation as an authentic piece of rock cinema – even the eminent Dr K, who I wouldn’t quite have pegged as a Slade fan, has described it as ‘the Citizen Kane of rock musicals’. To be honest this strikes me as being memorably quotable rather than accurate, but there you go. (No matter what the merits of Slade in Flame, I think I would rather have seen the proposed-but-rejected movie project The Quite A Mess Experiment, a spoof horror movie in which Slade would have battled aliens and triffids, but that’s just me I suppose.)

sladeflame

Supposedly set in the 1960s – though there isn’t much on screen to indicate it’s not contemporary with the time it was made – the movie opens with an also-ran pub rock group looking for a new drummer. Given that the guitarists involved are Jim Lea and Dave Hill (the band aren’t supposed to be playing themselves, but they don’t seem to be playing anyone else, either) you would expect the singer to be the Black Country glitter Aslan known as Noddy Holder, but it is not: it’s a guy called Jack Daniels (Alan Lake). Anyway, the new drummer they recruit is Don Powell, and we get various scenes of gigging band life, most of them mildly comic. Many of them depict a rivalry with another local group fronted by… well, this time it is Noddy, but given some of the things he’s required to do (singing a not-entirely-serious song about being a vampire while trapped in a coffin) one wonders if his character is based on fellow local boy Ozzy Osbourne.

Anyway, various amalgamations and line-up changes result in Jim, Dave, Don and Noddy playing together (audience breathes a sigh of relief) and we get a proper number from the band, the first of several (though there aren’t as many as you might be hoping for, if you’re an actual fan of Slade). However, their agent (Johnny Shannon) is essentially a small-time gangster and the group falls out with him. At this point, they are approached by a representative of a major industry figure (the rep is Kenneth ‘Admiral Piett’ Colley, his boss is Tom ‘Down a hole with Batman’ Conti) – the band has potential and could go right to the top with the correct management and packaging (‘I’m not a fish finger,’ complains Jim when told of this). As ever in this kind of story, of course, success comes at a price – increased friction within the band, and tension between the band’s new managers and their old agent, who still believes he has a claim on them and wants his piece of the action…

Well, the first thing to say about Flame is that it is not at all the kind of film you would expect a band like Slade to make – Slade’s records are boisterous, cheerful, exuberant, and a tiny bit manic. Flame is none of these things – at times there it almost looks like this is an attempt at something in the style of A Hard Day’s Night, complete with Don Powell as the comedy drummer, but most of the time this is naturalistic to the point of actually being miserable. Terraced streets, filthy canals and pigeon lofts feature prominently as backdrops – we see very little of what you’d call your actual rock and roll lifestyle in this film, but then given Slade were family favourites at the time there probably wasn’t much scope for showing the sex and drugs this would no doubt entail (sounding just a little bit Peter Hitchens there – Merry Christmas, Peter, if you’re reading this).

Slade apparently weren’t keen on trying to compete with The Beatles’ movies, which is understandable, and this is probably why Flame has the tone it does – and probably why Slade are not playing Slade in the film. The most obvious consequence of this is that the film can’t include any of the band’s big hits from the years before its release, such paeans to remedial spelling as Cum On Feel The Noize and Mama Weer All Crazee Now – the film includes the decent Far Far Away and How Does It Feel?, but these are wistful power ballads rather than the rock stompers you might be hoping for. Not being able to openly play themselves also puts a little bit more of a burden on the band members, too – fantastic musicians and showmen they may be, but let us be kind and say they are not all obviously gifted actors.

The lads make a typically restrained choice of outfits.

The lads make a typically restrained choice of outfits.

The film makers seem to have felt this could have been a bit of an issue, too, as the script seems to have been carefully written so as not to depend on the band carrying the bulk of the storyline. Most of the time they are sharing scenes with accomplished performers like Conti and Colley, and only quite rarely is there an extended scene with just the band members interacting – even then it’s usually Noddy and Jim. Don Powell gets a few nice character bits with other actors, but Dave Hill is gently kept in the background (his wardrobe is unusually reserved, too). There’s also a lot of material in which Slade themselves barely feature, most of it revolving around murky, borderline-criminal music industry dealings (some of this stuff is surprisingly dark and brutal).

This is really my problem with Flame – I sat down to watch it expecting Slade: The Movie and found myself watching a fairly glum drama about the music industry, in which Slade occasionally pop up and perform one of their less-celebrated songs. They almost feel like cameoing guest stars, even though they get top billing. The two main plot strands concern the growing tensions inside the band, and dodgy dealings of their various representatives, and the decision to give the dramatic material to the professional actors unbalances the film – we’re told a lot about how Flame are falling to bits, arguing constantly, and so on, but not shown it enough. The industry stuff is okay, but, crucially, it doesn’t have Slade in it! – which is a problem in a movie being sold on the strength of the band.

So in the end this movie is a curiosity more than anything else – the central irony, of a vicious struggle taking place for control of a band which is on the verge of dissolving anyway, is never really articulated in a properly satisfying way, and the conclusion of the film is startlingly abrupt, if predictably downbeat. Still, at least Slade don’t disgrace themselves, and compared to the other glam rock movies the ailing British movie industry was putting out at around the same time – Side by Side, Never Too Old To Rock – this looks like a towering masterpiece. Nevertheless, this is still best enjoyed as a drama in which Slade happen to appear, than a movie entirely focussing on the band.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 20th 2006: 

Hello again, everyone and welcome to another edition of the film review column you really shouldn’t get your hopes up about. This week we take a look at a thriller with aspirations to be Hitchcockian, but which instead comes perilously close to falling several syllables short of that ambition.

Ah, when I was a lad, Harrison Ford was probably the biggest movie star on the planet, battling evil and standing up for the decent thing to do, all the while using that funny hoarse-but-rumbly voice he’s got. He still is a big star, of course, but — to paraphrase Norma Desmond — of late the pictures he’s in have become smaller. So it is with Firewall, a rather conventional thriller directed by Richard Loncraine and apparently a bit of a remake of a TV series he made back in the 1980s. Here, our erstwhile megastar plays Jack Stanfield, the head of computer security at a small but prosperous bank. (Making the audience accept that the now-slightly-wizened Harrison Ford is actually a computer programming whiz is but the first of several knotty credibility problems the movie is forced to navigate.) Jack has a palatial house, a lovely view of Seattle from his office window, a beautiful — and obviously much younger — wife (Virginia Madsen, who in her own way is equally a movie veteran, but less wizened), two cute and fairly well-behaved kids, etc, so you just know he’s in for a hard time in the rest of the movie.

Well, after a tough day fending off the hackers and standing up for the integrity of his bank against the corporate slimeballs who want to merge with it (key amongst them Robert Patrick, who’s only a bit wizened), Jack is talked into having a quick drink with a young and thrusting all-American entrepreneur, Bill (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany, not wizened at all). But no sooner does Jack excuse himself so he can shoot off home for Pizza Night with the family (all say ‘Aaaah’ and/or copiously vomit), than Bill casts aside his American accent and reveals himself to be British — and as we all know, British people in this kind of movie are always callous, brilliant and occasionally slightly gay evil geniuses! So it proves, for Bill is a bank robber whose lunkheaded fratboy henchmen have kidnapped Jack’s wife, kids and dog and turned their lovely mansion into the Big Brother house! Bank robber, bank manager — I’m sure our founder would appreciate how wonderfully their two jobs dovetail. Bill’s plan is fairly simple: he’s going to hold Jack’s nearest and dearest hostage until Jack lets him into the server room at the bank so he can download all the money. But Jack, being played by Harrison Ford, didn’t get where he is today by taking any nonsense off uppity Brits and eventually the moment comes when he whirls ferociously into action against his tormentors. Although there is of course a limit to the amount of ferocious whirling that can reasonably be expected from a 64-year-old bank manager.

Now, you may very well be asking yourself the following question: beyond the fact that it’s a snappy and techno-literate-sounding name, what reason can there be for calling this film Firewall, given that the robbery in it still revolves around the bad guys physically sneaking into the bank? And the answer consists of two words, the second of which is ‘all’, and the first of which we have all had surgically excised from our brains, being the conscientious h2g2 habitues that we are (well, you’ve a number of options, but they’re all equally likely to deprave, so purge the lot of them). The fact is that Firewall is incredibly desperate to show how modern and zeitgeisty it is, which is why the plot revolves around (to name but a few) identity theft, online gambling, camera phones, iPods and GPS tracking. This is a largely futile attempt to conceal how incredibly old and hackneyed this particular story is, not to mention silly and predictable (well, to some extent — I was slightly startled when, after Harrison Ford attempted to escape roughly fifty-seven times in the first day of their acquaintance, Paul Bettany’s response was to start shooting members of his own gang, although this may explain why he hasn’t got further in the bank robbery line).

Of course, Harrison Ford looks fairly old and hackneyed himself these days, as I believe I may already have mentioned. He is in fact probably a bit too old to be doing this sort of thing: towards the end, where a younger actor would be doing a flat-out sprint, Ford restricts himself to a moderate trot. This is before we even get to the concluding bout of fisticuffs. But for all this, he still has presence and charisma — star quality, in fact. It’s only Ford that keeps this from being a totally forgettable and routine straight-to-video thriller. There are signs that it could have been more: there’s a very effective segment where Ford is on the run from his former colleagues and the police, having been neatly framed for all sorts of rum doings, and he desperately has to avoid them while simultaneously hunting down Bettany and his gang. But this is only a short section very near the end of the film, rather too little too late. Also quietly effective is Mary Lynn Rajskub (even less wizened than Bettany) as Ford’s much-put-upon secretary, who has nearly as bad a time as him in the film but doesn’t get to growl about it as much.

Firewall is not actually a bad film, it’s just tremendously average and predictable. It’s interesting that it should be in UK theatres at the same time as Inside Man, another film concerning a rather unorthodox bank robbery. The two films are of course different in almost every way, but it’s the unrepentantly retro and traditional Inside Man which is by far the superior piece of work, while the achingly contemporary Firewall very definitely gets the second prize. But it’s watchable, and I suppose it’ll keep Ford in shape in case two-fisted archaeology ever comes back into vogue…

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 14th 2004:

Pop-quiz, everyone: if you had a film to release about the Wimbledon tennis tournament, which happens every June, when do you think would be the best time to release it in order to cash in on its popularity? Would it be a) early summer b) Christmas or c) the back-end of September?

Well, anyway, I expect the makers of Wimbledon (directed by Richard Loncraine) have their reasons because it’s out at the moment. The ever-watchable Paul Bettany plays Peter Colt, an ageing British tennis player coming up to his last Wimbledon as a wild card. Retirement beckons, something he’s not keen on. However, a chance encounter with top American player Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) leads to sparks a-sizzling and a certain steely quality appearing in Peter’s forehand. Before you know it he’s thundering into the second week. However, Lizzie’s dad (the equally watchable Sam Neill) takes the quite reasonable view that all this soft-focus fumbling to a David Gray soundtrack is putting his daughter off her game. But if she can’t win if they’re together, he can’t win while they’re apart… so what’s a boy to do?

I normally try and avoid spoilers in this column but I don’t think I’ll be ruining anyone’s day by revealing that Bettany wins Wimbledon and ends up with Dunst. This is of course a rom-com, possibly the most predictable genre at the movies, where the conclusion is never really in doubt, and the film’s success or failure is mainly determined by how entertained you are along the way. And, to be fair, Wimbledon does a pretty good job. For all that he’s second-billed, this is largely down to an engaging performance from Bettany. He’s not the most obvious choice of romcom lead (and, let’s face it, were a certain floppy-haired performer whose name rhymes with Lou Brant ten years younger he’d be the obvious star of this film) but he does a very solid job, bringing an appropriately fraught quality to the less romcommy elements of the story. Dunst is fine as his love interest, but never quite manages to bring her character to life. There’s a rather distinguished supporting cast (Neill, Eleanor Bron, Bernard Hill, Jon Favreau) but none of them really gets very much to do, which I suppose is a shame.

At the risk of sounding fatuously obvious, the main thing about Wimbledon that distinguishes it from all the other Working Title Brit-boy-courts-imported-American-star pictures is the tennis. The tennis sequences themselves look fine, thanks no doubt to the input of Pat Cash and some unobtrusive CGI, but more interestingly the film in passing makes some interesting and genuine-sounding points about the realities of tour life for the various pros. This more than makes up for the sense one gets that the writers were given a tick-list of Wimbledon cliches to include in their script – rain delays, strawberries and cream, dodgy line-calls, mad dads, lesbianism, etc.

Wimbledon is good-natured and entertaining fun, with a nice central performance, inventive direction, and some originality to its background. It’s not quite as funny or as convincingly romantic as it would probably like to be, but if nothing else it presents us with the sight of an Englishman winning the mens’ singles title – so it has novelty value as well. Worth a look.

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