FiLM REViEW: Identity, 2003

We watched this last night. Quite a star-studded cast. John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Jake Busey, Rebecca DeMornay, Alf Molina. Set on a very rainy night, a bunch of random folk wind up in a motel. And then people start being murdered.

Although it gets off to a quite compelling start, once underway, the first two-thirds of the film are quite familiar territory, in some respects. But there is an undercurrent that’s kind of perplexing, suggesting we might be heading towards a supernatural thriller.

But we’re not, thank goodness! But it’s not far off that. There is a major twist, which kind of turns things upside down, or inside out. I won’t give it away. By the time the film ends, I was both impressed with, and simultaneously somewhat disappointed by, the various turns the movie took.

I liked the rainy setting, and the whole grim dark ambience. The cast and direction are good. It’s pretty dark and violent (my wife Teresa didn’t like it, because of the latter). As it recedes from me, I start to feel it wasn’t quite all that. A good ride whilst watching, with one quite clever idea, but otherwise quite formulaic.

So… downgraded from four to three stars. Entertaining but far from essential viewing.

MUSiC: Giant Steps/The Ole Folks At Home, Taj Mahal, 1969

Released as a double album in vinyl days of yore. Disc one, Giant Steps, is, oversimplifying rather, an electric band blues album, whilst disc two, De Ole Folks At Home, is a solo acoustic ‘roots’ affair.

Recorded/released c. 1969, both albums are brilliant. Taj Mahal’s band at this time features Jesse Ed Davis on lead/rhythm guitar, Gary Gilmore on bass, and Chuck Blackwell on drums. Taj is superb as the band leader, and the guys are simultaneously tight and loose, so to speak. Musically perfect, in that ‘sweet spot’; the Goldilocks zone, neither too little nor too much.

The rootsier solo album.

Both albums mix covers and originals. And some are very trad, esp’ on ‘disc two’, whilst others are interesting adaptations of more modern pieces (Bacon Fat is by Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson of The Band). The energy of Giant Steps is joyful and infectious. The nostalgic introspection of De Ole Folks is warmly reverential, but also refreshingly diverse and invigoratingly raw and fresh.

Really stunningly good music, of a type you don’t hear enough. So much more refreshing and diverse/eclectic than most stodgy modern blues and blues/rock. Taj Mahal is criminally underrated. Like Ry Cooder, with whom he played in The Rising Sons, he’s both ethnomusicologist and superb performer.

Essential listening for awakened ears/minds!

FiLM REViEW: Cold Light Of Day, 1989

With ITV having both ‘Des’ and The Real ‘Des’ viewable on their on-demand streaming service currently, and having watched both recently, I thought I’d revisit this much older film on the same subject.

Cold Light Of Day is remarkable for several reasons, one being how much nearer to the crimes it was – Nilsen was arrested in 1983, the film came out in 1989. The other is that the director, Fhiona Louise was only 21, and still a student, when she made it. Knowing this, it’s really quite impressive.

A great camera angle.

But it must be admitted that, compared with the slicker bigger budget films made since, and all the new information that’s come to light – much of the more recent Nilsen stuff owes lots to the work of Brian Masters, who isn’t in this film at all; it depicts events prior to his involvement – this is a flawed depiction of the historical events.

But thanks to how close to those events it is, first it looks more authentically period, and second it’s impressive in how close it gets, given the more limited knowledge of it all and the only semi-pro nature of the production.

Greenhill is dreadful; Flag, is superb.

One of the most obvious markers of this as a semi-amateur work, in addition to the almost non-existent budget, is the rather overdone acting. Bob Flag* is excellent as Jordan March, the Dennis Nilsen character. But Geoffrey Greenhill, as Inspector Simmons, is – ironically- the worst offender! Or maybe the fuzz really do/did shout and bully suspects as he does?

Given that this was made by a 21 year old student, and almost certainly on a budget that wouldn’t cover the hot beverages on a normal movie, it’s actually extremely impressive. But, at the some time, given we’re all used to much higher production standards, it’s difficult not to find it a tad underwhelming, as well.

Still, it’s worth seeing.

*Bob Flag’s performance is what makes this film, frankly. Intriguingly he was the face of Big Brother in the John Hurt 1984 (a non-speaking part!). And he was a musician (possibly even a drummer?), on and off, as well as an actor. See him being pretty gonzo here.

Flag as Big Brother!

MUSiC: Let It Bleed, Rolling Stones, 1969

Most Stones albums have one or, very often, two bona fide classic tracks, per disc. Usually these are also the hit singles.

Let it Bleed is slightly unusual in that it’s overall stronger than many of their other late ‘60s early ‘70s records, and still has the expected pair of classics – Gimme Shelter and You Can’t Always Get What You Want – but they were neither of them hit singles.

It also belongs to the transitional period over which Brian Jones was tragically unravelling. He was fired from the band as a result of drug-induced unreliability, and died, by drowning, shortly thereafter. A terribly sad waste of talent. And a sign of the times.

Keef n Jagz, 1969.

Mick Taylor joined, as his replacement. The album was pretty much finished, so Taylor only appears on two tracks. Keith Richards doing the lion’s share of axe duties. Whilst Jones was famously both a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Taylor was more a six-string specialist. So it could be argued that the Stones’ sonic palette shrank a little with the loss/passing of Jones.

But Let It Bleed doesn’t support such an idea, largely thanks to the presence of a sizeable roster of guest musicians. These include Byron Berline, countrifyin’ things on Coubtry Honk, with his fiddle, and Ry Cooder, whose mandolin on Love In Vain adds to the minestrone of Americana influences …

Thanks to much stronger supporting material throughout – sometimes the non-hit Stones stuff can, to me, be very variable quality filler – like Love In Vain, Let It Bleed, Midnight Rambler, even the jammy feeling You Got The Silver, Let It Bleed is more consistently strong than a good many of the other Stones albums over this classic era.

Up there with the best of The Stones, and definitely recommended.

PS – One funny little footnote is that the cake on the cover was made by the then unknown chef, Delia Smith!

MEDiA: Manhunt, 2019

Excellent.

It seems my penchant for ‘true crime’ is, pardon the tasteless pun, alive and kicking.

Whilst the direction of Manhunt is not especially remarkable – the subdued almost monochrome grey-ish palette is standard practice in English crime thrillers nowadays (for obvious reasons, climatic and subjective) – that’s actually a strength. It’s understated in a perfectly appropriate businesslike and very functional manner. Exactly right for a police procedural; PC plod going about their business!

The cast of this drama are uniformly (can’t seem to staunch the flow of puns!) superb. Martin Clunes, as SIO Colin Sutton, heads up a roll call of actors most of whom are not previously known to me, with one or two exceptions (such as Sutton’s long-suffering partner*, played by Claudie Blakly, and…?).

At one point, Sutton is about to fly to Spain for a family wedding, and we see him reading Wicked Beyond Belief, which I’ve only recently read (see my review here). It’s a great credit to Sutton and co. that this killer, Levi Bellfield, was caught so much sooner than Peter Sutcliffe. It seems lessons have been learned.

It’s also very interesting to see what has evolved technologically and what hasn’t, in terms of detection. The ubiquity of cameras brings new avenues of pursuit, but the evidence this yields – vehicles used by the perp’ – still requires masses of slogging through databases and wearing out of ‘shanks pony’/shoe leather!

Obviously computers, and forensics have all developed massively since Sutcliffe’s reign of terror. But it’s fascinating to see the parallels in the Bellfield case, regarding how hard it can be to amass the required amount of evidence to make the crucial arrest.

As with Michael Bilton’s excellent book on Sutcliffe, the approach here is to follow the coppers, not the killer, which I can see has a certain advantage, morally speaking, over the potentially more salacious and prurient voyeurism of following the murderer.

In the Sutcliffe case, it was (if I recall aright?) just one car that the rozzers needed to trace. Here they discover that the perp’ used numerous different vehicles. And yet they were able, thanks to all the CCTV footage, to do much better this time around, than back in the Sutcliffe investigation.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with the series. As I’ve watched three episodes, and it seems to have finished. But I also see it being advertised as ‘starting on Monday’, and there seems to be footage in the trailer suggesting something different from what I’ve watched online.

Anyway, what I’ve watched is well done, and both enjoyable and interesting viewing.

*A theme in WBB is the toll this demanding work takes in the marital lives of coppers.

FiLM REViEW: Frozen Ground, 2013

This movie tells the story of the infamous ‘butcher baker’ of Anchorage (Alaska), Robert Hansen. John Cusack plays the killer.

Sadly, as with most movies of this sort, they take great liberties with the story, for the sake of making a slicker movie. I can see why film-makers do this stuff, but it is a shame. And it has the effect of potentially muddying knowledge of the real events.

Incidentally, for me personally there’s a big dose of irony here, in that the main copper is played by Nicolas Cage. And I recently lamented the fact I keep watching movies with him in, despite many of them being appalling turkeys. This is fortunately one of the better ones.

The film starts with a scene that’s fairly true to life, when ‘the one that got away’, Cindy Paulson, er… gets away. Cindy, played by Vanessa Hudgens, was coached on the role by Paulson. From there on in a rather complex fiction is woven around her, which is where the film diverges from fact into fiction.

This whole thread reaches a kind of climax in a scene where ‘Bob’ Hansen and ‘Sgt Jack Halcombe’ (Cage’s cop, somewhat based on real fuzz Glenn Nothe) are both hunting Cindy, in a sleazy nightclub/sex-joint. It’s a clever conceit, because that’s what got Hansen off, hunting his victims like he hunted game.

The bleak washed out Alaskan settings lend themselves to the cold grey near monochrome aesthetic the film favours. The Frozen Ground works very well as ‘good watching’; well shot and structured, with a decent cast. It’s a shame they fiddled with the facts as much as they did, and somehow the depth and length of the case, despite being referenced numerous times, feels weaker than I’d have liked.

Cusack, a very capable actor, is pretty good as Hansen, but I think they ought to have had more about how and why he wound up doing what he did. His characterisation here is a bit thin. And only having the thinnest of allusions to his raison d’etre adds to that lack of depth.

The top line cast are good, but the lower ranks, in the fleshpots scenes in particular (these include rapper, Fiddy-Cents!), struck me as a bit formulaic. Apparently The Frozen Ground was a flop when it came out. But it’s proved popular on subscription channels. Far from perfect, it is pretty decent, and I like it.

MUSiC: Brand X, Unorthodox Behaviour, 1976

Phil Collins was a busy little body in 1976! Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering with Genesis, and this opus de fusion.

It’s funny, because, apart from Phil Collins the other players – John Goodsall (guitar), Robin Lumley (keys) and Percy Jones (bass) – aren’t exactly household names. And yet they play with the fire, chops and intensity of jazz-rock-fusionistas of the first rank.

Perhaps the biggest and most obvious potential criticism might be that at numerous points the influences are very transparent. It’s a heady mix of Weather Report, Mahavishnu and suchlike. The thing is, it’s so well done, that I don’t frankly care about this. It simply means if you like that other stuff – and I do – here’s more, in a similar vein.

In fairness to these guys, however, I should add that despite wearing their inspirations on their sleeves, this still remains a unique, or rather, more accurately, a spirited enough combination to stand on its own.

The intensity levels are sky high, stratus-pheric, one might even say. Part of me feels, listening to it now, aged 49, that this level of energy really makes this young man’s type music. And I think to some degree that holds. But then again, Brand X are still going! And they – any surviving original members, that is – must all be late 60s, early 70s?

MEDiA: The Last Secrets of 9/11

A fascinating if rather grim documentary, detailing the gargantuan forensic project that arose from the smouldering hell of ground zero.

Interestingly the global scale of the disaster is brought home through the story of Geoffrey Campbell, a British man killed in the attacks.

Geoff Campbell, at right, with his bothers.

Just as technology advances during war time, the science of forensics has been advanced by the unprecedented work required.

At one point, the investigation had to be halted, as the DNA work that could be done, had been done. Of the nearly three thousand victims, a little over half had been painstakingly identified.

The scale and intensity of the carnage was so extreme that very few remains – about 300 people – could be identified in the quickest normal ways: visuals, such as facial recognition, fingerprints, teeth, tattoos, scars, etc, yielded very few results.

Rubble is sifted for human remains.

Ultimately ground bones and the DNA they contain would be the key. Both in the initial investigation, and again in the second wave of analysis. And so a larger tranche of results became available. And in 2013 a third wave of new identifications occurred, but only four victims could be ID’ed.

So there’s a law of diminishing returns at work. And still there’s a pretty large number of relatives – about 40% – who have no remains at all with which to commemorate their loss. This is a very particular angle on these momentous events. Fascinating and heartbreaking.

FiLM REViEW: Bernie, 2011

Wow! What an odd but very interesting film.

Based on a real story, Bernie mixes the reflections of real life ‘talking heads’ with actors delivering a very polished (and rather stylised) re-imagining or re-creation of events. Of the two quotes on the image above, ‘murderously charming’ is the better and more accurate. There is an element of gentle humour, but ‘absolutely hilarious’? Hmmm… not really.

Bernie Tiede was, if this film is any guide, a slightly odd but basically very nice guy, who ultimately befriended a rich widow, who, by all accounts, was not an easily likeable person. Bernie got an in on a ritzy lifestyle, and Mrs Nugent got a friend and dogsbody. Which, if either, of the two was using the other?

Was Tiede playing the long game, as a gold-digger? Or was he simply who he seemed to be, a loveable oddball? His behaviour after his arrest and incarceration suggests the latter. But then again, he shot and killed a defenceless old biddy, and stuck her corpse in a freezer!? And carried on living an ever deepening lie, whilst generously splashing her cash around.

Jack Black gives a great performance, and the entire cast conspire to make the whole thing both a little zany and yet totally believable. The ‘real people’ are worked into the fabric of the film expertly. And throughout – but especially when the camera lingers on the faces of Tiede’s jury – you feel this is a film that, as unusual as the subject may be, gives a glimpse of the real America so absent from mainstream Hollywood generally.

Not sure this a ‘great’ film. But it’s very good. And really interesting. Oh, and very entertaining as well.

MEDiA: 9/11, Inside the President’s War Room

I was working at the home of my illustrator pal Tim Oliver, on Sept 11th, 2001. I was outside the house, working in a wooden shed studio in the back garden. Tim came running in, clearly agitated and excited, saying I had to come inside and see what was on the TV. I think it was a sunny day in the UK/The Fens, just as it was in the US.

Now, 20 years later, it’s still very powerfully affecting, seeing the footage and images of that fateful day. And there are a number of interesting ‘twentieth anniversary’ type programs on TV and other media, about these unbelievable events. This particular program is particularly fascinating, as it’s a view into the nerve centre of the American government as it came under attack.

I remember the way one thing after another kept happening: first one plane, then another, hitting the first and then the second tower, then a plane crashing into the Pentagon, then one tower coming down, then the other. It was a series of hefty punches, raining down, one after the other. This program conveys that well.

As well as the panoply of illustrious and powerful talking heads – all the key players: Bush, Cheney, Rice, etc. – who so suddenly seemed rendered powerless, there’s a cleverly deployed visual timeline. The combination of source materials, such as footage of the events themselves, audio recordings, and stuff like the computerised data of aircraft in flight, is incredible, and very well presented. The whole adds up to a very powerful experience.

One could argue that this might be official and therefore hagiographic propaganda. And maybe it is? A joint production by Apple TV, and the BBC, it appears, at first glance, to be independent. Certainly it’s very candid, with full and frank admissions as to the unpreparedness of US govt’ for such events.

The chief protagonists come across very well. Bush in particular impresses. Compared to some of the buffoons that have disgraced high public office on both sides of ‘the pond’ recently, the levels of eloquence and dignified calm in the face of such trauma are salutory.

Bush was doing a meet ‘n’ greet at the Emma Booker Elementary School, Saratoga, Florida, when he learned of the unfolding events. Watching how he reacted to learning the news is powerfully compelling viewing. And as things escalated the President and his entourage had to work out how to react; where to go, what to say.

This programme shows how uncertain things were. Bush wanted to go straight to Washington. But the bureaucratic machinery around the President overruled him, and they went instead to USAF Barksdale, and then a secure bunker in Nebraska.

One thing that this brief but impressive doc’ doesn’t address, which is something many non-Americans will think about (hopefully some Americans also?), is how America is happy to use violence abroad, but is so shocked when it comes home to roost. And of course there’s the irony of violence begetting yet more violence.

NASA Astronaut Frank Culbertson‘s photos of 9/11, from way above Earth.

One of the things about Bush and his coterie of advisors at this point is that they were clearly very competent. It’s good to hear the former President acknowledge the importance of such resources as the teams of advisors he had around him, and to see that this was real and meaningful advice – willing and able to contradict him if need be – not just place-serving ‘yes men’ (and women!).

But after all of this, Bush felt, and undoubtedly rightly so, that he had to get to somewhere visibly ‘central’, which for him was Washington, and be seen and heard to be calmly in command. Bush, an assertive and competitive man, was psychologically exactly the right kind of leader for this ver challenging moment.

I may object to his religious platitudes, apple pie Americanisms and machismo, but Bush handled the unfolding events pretty damn well. On the day. But maybe the longer term legacy of such blue-blooded American posturing hasn’t been so good? To their credit, the production team don’t duck this issue (see below).

Bush aboard Airforce One, where com’s were not ideal.

BBC ‘Do you think your actions after 9/11 made the world a safer place?’
GB ‘I’m comfortable with the decisions I made.’

One particularly poignant thread, amongst many, is that of Ted and Barbara Olson. Ted was, at that time, a very high ranking official in the Justice Dept, and his wife, Barbara was a conservative journalist/pundit. Barbara took a later work-related flight than originally planned, in order to share Ted’s 61st birthday with him, leaving a love note to her husband on his pillow (which he reads, very movingly, in this film). A note he would first see and read very late on the very same day he knew she had died.

Towards the end of the documentary, and in real timeline terms, on the 14th Sept – so three days after the events – Bush and his entourage visited ground zero. ‘It was almost like Pompeii’, says journalist David ‘Stretch’ Gregory.

All in all, this is an excellent programme, that gives an incredibly powerful, unprecedented and surprisingly candid insight into some very powerful era-defining events. Definitely well worth watching.