Friday, 19 May 2017

The Rack Pack (2016 film)

Having recently been immersing myself in appreciation of snooker's "golden age" - from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s - I decided to watch the 2016 film "The Rack Pack", a comedy-drama which is set in that era, focusing primarily on the rivalry between Alex "Hurricane" Higgins and Steve Davis.

The early portion of the movie introduces us to the two main protagonists, capturing and invoking the contrast between the freewheeling maverick Higgins and the more reserved and clean-cut Davis. The "retro" settings and stylings are surprisingly convincing, and there is excellent utilization of classic Seventies rock and pop music (Led Zeppelin, T.Rex, The Who, Thin Lizzy etc).

I must say that I was impressed and drawn in by Luke Treadaway's performance as Alex Higgins. Alright, some might argue that he is too good-looking, and that he doesn't always exude the mercurial shakiness of the character. However, he does nail down much of the famed truculence and swagger, and some of the on-table mannerisms. Kevin Bishop is likeable and entertaining in a somewhat "cartoonish" portrayal of Davis' manager, Barry Hearn.



As is often the case with "biopic" type projects, facts, incidents and anecdotes are packed into a condensed timespan. Any inaccuracies and distortions here will only irritate the anoraks and those intimately cognisant of the true history and chronology. Allowances must be made for the comedy element of this production.

The snooker scenes are very realistic and credible, leaving me wondering whether the actors might have been selected for their roles because they had some modicum of proficiency at the game.

In emphasizing the contrasts in temperament, approach and playing style between the two main players, the film-makers may have slightly over-laboured the supposed "nerdiness" and squareness of the young Steve Davis. This was probably done to entrench the notion that the two men represented polar opposites.

A major sub-plot in "The Rack Pack" is the increasingly corporate and commercial nature of snooker, as orchestrated by Barry Hearn, Higgins' perceived exclusion and alienation from that milieu, and the increasing bitterness and resentment which consequently built up within him. Indeed, though this is ostensibly a work which chronicles and examines the Higgins-Davis dynamic, much of the most vibrant and penetrating dialogue is that between the Higgins and Hearn characters.

The one scene which rather jarred with me was the one featuring a nightclub "altercation" between the Hurricane and Cliff Thorburn. Did anything remotely like this actually happen in reality?  A few things like this were doubtless added for dramatic effect, like they are in many similar pictures, and they didn't really tarnish my overall appreciation of the piece.

Another intriguing sub-text is a depiction of the relationship between Alex Higgins and Jimmy White, the latter gradually inheriting the mantle of "People's Champion" from the former. The narrative seems to imply that White learned from some of the mistakes of his "mentor", being prepared to make minor concessions to pragmatism and conformity in order to fit in with a changing sport and a changing world.

The decline of Higgins is, I would contend, quite deftly, touchingly and sensitively handled in this movie. It dovetailed with one of the central messages of the film, about the "cultural" tensions and the changing of the times.  Alex played a pivotal role in creating and popularizing modern snooker, but found himself being marginalized and left behind as others prospered both on and off the table.

Overall, I found "The Rack Pack" to be an enjoyable and well-produced film. It concentrates mostly on the personalities and the human aspects, rather than the intricacies of snooker itself, and largely succeeds as a result.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Russians Are Coming - (Only Fools and Horses episode)

Another notable episode from the first series of "Only Fools and Horses" is "The Russians Are Coming", in which the Trotters build their own nuclear fall-out shelter.

The premise of "The Russians Are Coming" is not exactly original, as lots of movies, television shows, comedies and the like were eagerly tapping into unease and paranoia about the Cold War and nuclear weapons in the early and mid-1980s. In the event, this episode contains some of the most affecting observations and passages of any of the show's plot-lines. Their impact and poignancy is perhaps heightened by the humour with which they are surrounded and occasionally clothed.



The plot stems from a business deal concluded by Del, a by-product of which results in him inadvertently "acquiring" an experimental "do it yourself" atomic fall-out shelter. The family decides to assemble it and spend some time living in it, as their own form of emergency planning.

Following an amusing effort to replicate the panic of the four-minute warning, and a simulation of the journey to a prospective location of refuge, the story really takes off when Del, Rodney and Grandad are safely ensconced in the shelter itself. The logistics and practicalities of surviving Armageddon are the source of some good, strong material. The highlight is perhaps Grandad's monologue about the true nature and horrors of war, delivered to chastise and rebuke Del for some of his excessively gung-ho and glib talk on the subject.

Whenever the subject matter threatens to become too serious and heavy, John Sullivan's comedic genius kicks in, and the mood lightens. The "captive" situation in the shelter creates an atmosphere conducive to sharp, taut and rich exchanges, and all three of the actors are on fine form, with great use of lighting to accentuate the intimacy. There is a noticeable absence of filler or padding in the script, and the shelter sequences are indeed very concentrated, fluent and absorbing. A real high point of the early days of OFAH, on more than one level.

Some speculation on the likely social consequences of a nuclear war adds to this episode's resonance and charm. Besides the humorous ruminations on the likely effects of the feared catastrophe, this is an intelligent and finely judged piece of work, addressing a difficult and emotive topic with more simplicity ,honesty and acuity than many more "serious" works arising from that era. It is also highly entertaining and funny.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Go West Young Man (Only Fools and Horses episode)

Following on from my "review" of "Big Brother", let's take a look at the episode which followed it in the first series of "Only Fools and Horses", namely "Go West Young Man".

This episode sees Del (and Rodney) venturing into the second-hand automobile arena, and also looking after Boycie's Jaguar E-Type, with fairly predictable outcomes!



The dialogue in this episode has much more charm to it, and in addition it is delivered more naturally. There is a more confident air generally, with Del's contribution feeling more rounded and convincing. Perhaps the actors were beginning to find their roles? There are a few signs of the Del Boy who we would come to know and love.

The jokes are more vibrant and potent, and the mood more relaxed, possibly because there was less pressure to introduce the characters and the back-story?  It is also true that the plot of "Go West Young Man" offered more possibilities, and was more conducive to a flowing and invigorating slice of situation comedy. 

Here we also witness the writer John Sullivan, and the production team, acquiring the knack for delivering "set-piece" scenes with truly memorable lines. The two night-club scenes in this episode are right up there in the OFAH pantheon, as is Rodney's assertion that he had "never smoked astro-turf".  Some of the most effective humour,as in later episodes, stems from their feeble attempts to impress women.

It is also possible to argue that the inclusion of more locations in this one imbues it with greater verve. The action is not confined to the Trotter flat and The Nag's Head.  The aforementioned sequences in the night-clubs provide a more colourful edge, and help to diminish the "austerity" which characterizes other early episodes of the show.

Boycie is introduced, but the character does not make as deep an impression as he would in, for example, "A Losing Streak", where we are exposed to more of his personality traits. It really needed the appearance of Marlene as a visible presence, and the "tension" which went with this, for Boycie to become a truly prominent and important character.

This episode is not perfect, as it meanders and goes flat a little at times, but it has some impetus and atmosphere of its own.  The magic formula was just on the horizon....

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Big Brother (Only Fools and Horses episode)

Recently, I have started re-watching episodes of the great British sitcom "Only Fools and Horses", and thought I would put together some articles on noteworthy or important episodes.

For the uninitiated, "Only Fools And Horses" followed the lives, loves, fortunes and misfortunes of the Trotter family from London. They eke out a living by market-trading and assorted black-market activities, engaging in various "schemes" which they hope will make them into millionaires.  The two main characters are Derek "Del Boy" Trotter (played by David Jason) and his younger brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst).

Starting from the beginning, let's take a look at the very first episode of the first series, entitled "Big Brother".....



The first thing which I noticed was the state of the characters. Del Boy in particular is nowhere near as rounded and subtle an entity in these early days as he would later become.  Del even displays signs of "sophistication", and there is not always the requisite dose of bathos to balance things out. Traits which would become familiar are under-cooked and undeveloped. There were rough edges to smooth over before the character found its comforting, natural and pleasing equilibrium. The same applies to the character of Trigger. The path to the "polished" characterizations would be uneven.

It is perhaps unsurprising that these early episodes were erratic in quality and atmosphere, as any ambitious brand new concept has to be given time to find its feet and evolve. Even the talents of David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst don't always transcend the issues.

The tone in these early days was darker and grittier than the later seasons, and the humour was not as homely. As others have observed, some of the dialogue, and its delivery, seemed forced at times, at odds with the seamlessness, freshness and naturalness which would later become one of the hallmarks of "Only Fools and Horses".

Although the plot of this opening episode ostensibly concerns a batch of "dodgy" briefcases, it is really a vehicle for introducing us to some of the elements of the "situation" in the sitcom, and to the relationship between Del and Rodney in particular. Bits of exposition and back-story are liberally sprinkled amongst the narrative.

"Big Brother" invokes one of the strands which permeates the show through all its incarnations - Rodney's yearning to escape from the shadow of Del, to achieve more independence, in this case by running away. However, Rodney usually ends up returning to "the fold".  By the same token, Del, although on the surface confident and self-reliant, is somehow incomplete and lacking in zest without his brother as his sidekick. Expediency and brotherly love both have a bearing on this.

The "Grandad" character, so beautifully played by Lennard Pearce, hits the ground running, fully formed, more than the other participants, partly because of the nature of the actor's performance, and partly because the Grandad persona was less complicated and intricate.

Making some allowances, this is still quite a weak and unsatisfying episode, not as watchable even as some of the other episodes in the first season, which betray more of the OFAH charm and depth. This is "Only Fools and Horses" in raw, incipient, prototype form.

You would have been hard pressed in 1981 to envisage it achieving classic and culturally iconic status in the UK. It must have seemed like something which might be confined to a cult following or a niche. "Big Brother" is still worth seeing, for curiosity value, and as a measure of just how far John Sullivan and his creation traveled in the years which followed.




Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Beautiful Team - In Search of Pele & The 1970 Brazilians - Garry Jenkins

This book had been residing on my shelves for some time, but I had never read it properly, feeling that in some ways it outwardly appeared a little on the flimsy side. I am now more than happy to retract any such verdicts.



The Beautiful Team is essentially an examination of the celebrated Brazil team which triumphed so memorably in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. As part of his project, author Garry Jenkins was able to interview most of the members of that famous footballing outfit, and also to take in the legacy and historical and cultural context of its achievements.

For some little time I have nurtured a feeling that the team of 1970 was a bit overrated, and increasingly became irritated at the "lazy", even corny, eulogies spouted by even seasoned and knowledgeable football pundits. However, this enjoyable effort has helped to partially negate some of those sentiments.

Although I think that the 1974 World Cup, and even the 1982 edition, were superior by many footballing parameters, my appreciation of the 1970 vintage Brazilians has been enriched and buttressed by learning some more about what made that team tick, and what made its collective heart beat.

There is much insight into the behind-the-scenes side of things, such as the meticulous preparation, the evolution of the team's tactical approach, and the personal dynamics within the squad. It is interesting to note, for example, the prominence of Gerson, both as a guiding influence on the pitch and as a prime mover in the cohesion of the ensemble overall.

Anyone wishing to learn a little something about Brazilian domestic football in the period prior to the Mexico tournament will also be rewarded. The cultural and social importance of the game is amply and capably illustrated.

It is worth mentioning that this work was first published in the late 1990s, so some of the observations and assertions about "modern football", and the game in Brazil itself  might not now hold as much currency or credibility, but still an intriguing read.

The Damned United (2009 film)

Some time ago I wrote a short blog post about the 2009 movie The Damned United. I recently watched the film again, and thought that I would put together a slightly more substantial and considered assessment.

The film chronicles the ill-fated forty-four day tenure of Brian Clough as manager of Leeds United football club in 1974, and is adapted from David Peace's book.



Michael Sheen delivers a superb performance in the Brian Clough role, although some may contend that the depiction of Clough's well known character traits and mannerisms is slightly exaggerated and lacking in nuance. However, as the film progresses the portrayal does become more rounded, showing frailties and insecurities.

The "aesthetic" of the picture to me brings across some of the gritty authenticity of English football, and indeed England in general, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Images of terraced houses and so forth evoke feelings of "dark Satanic mills". There is not much sunshine and levity, but much honest toil and plain-speaking.  I find some modern films to be bland and clinical in their visual backcloth, but this doesn't fall into the trap as much as most.

A large portion of the movie is given over to "flashback" sequences which chronicle the relationship, and the animosity, between Clough and the long-time Leeds manager Don Revie. The football action sequences are deeply unconvincing, the actors being too old and not athletic enough, although these scenes do succeed in creating atmosphere and context for the overall story. The producers sensibly employed archive footage to help document the tale.

When I first viewed the film, I did not fully appreciate or take in the excellence of Timothy Spall's performance as Clough's assistant Peter Taylor.  In this depiction, Taylor was often the voice of reason and common sense amidst Clough's excesses and flights of fancy.  Assertive, pugnacious, but less egotistical.

Whether the characterization of Taylor presented here is an accurate representation of the true picture is another matter, but it makes for good drama, and occasionally even good comedy. The movie also acknowledges and emphasizes Taylor's input and contribution to the partnership - his eye for a player, his practicality, his contacts and his all-round knowledge of the game.

I won't ramble on about any technical or historical inaccuracies which spring up, because they always occur in films of this nature. Anyway, they are kept to a tolerable minimum, as far as I could ascertain.

As a supporter of Leeds United, I will try not to be overly paranoid concerning the film's portrayal of the club and of Don Revie. Overall, I would say there is relatively little to complain about on this score, and after all, some of the characteristics and tendencies which are highlighted are ones which we relish and glory in...

Michael Sheen has been lauded for his portrayal of Brian Clough's public persona, but for me the most impressive aspect of his performance was how he conveyed the sense of doom and helplessness, as the forty-four days unfolded, and as his position at Leeds gradually unraveled. Lonely, isolated and vulnerable, and missing the wise counsel and comradeship of Peter Taylor.

So, still a film very much worthy of  a watch, and praise also for the use of "Flight Of The Rat" by Deep Purple!

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Fever Pitch (1997 film)

Fever Pitch the movie is a 1997 fictionalized adaptation of Nick Hornby's acclaimed autobiographical novel, with the screenplay courtesy of Hornby himself.

I first saw the film a few years ago now, and thought that it was alright, if nothing special. Recently I subjected it to another watch, to see whether my perceptions of it might have shifted at all.

The movie centres on the character Paul (played by Colin Firth), and his obsession with football, and more specifically his beloved Arsenal. His consuming passion does not always sit easily with his personal relationships and his interactions with the "real world". This is all set against the backdrop of Arsenal's challenge for the 1988-89 League championship title.



I haven't read Hornby's book, a serious oversight I admit, but at least this didn't mean that I was constantly comparing film to book, invidious though such comparisons would have been anyway.

For me the best thing about the picture is the performance of Colin Firth as Paul. I've generally not been a major fan of his, but here he is immensely likeable and endearing as an "everyman" figure, genial but, like all of us, flawed.

Paul's new girlfriend Sarah (played by Ruth Gemmell) might initially seem like something of a stereotype, but the character injects the "tension" which is essential to making the whole thing work. I am perhaps not qualified to comment on the performance of the actress, as I haven't known many people like her character! Holly Aird, who I have always been a fan of, provides some good moments as Sarah's friend Jo.

This movie is now a bit of a time capsule, largely set as it is at a time when football was still seen by many as an undesirable, murky sub-culture. The post-Italia 90 broadening of the game's appeal, and its attendant new-found respectability, make some of the dialogue seem quaint, and I'm not sure whether this would have worked as well if it was set in the 21st century football/cultural environment.

Like so many modern films, it is well-produced and comfortable in that bland fashion. The dialogue is relatively subtle, though, even oblique, and the "philosophizing" is well-pitched and quite credible, doubtless due to the involvement of Nick Hornby.  So many similar works overdo the "meaning of life" angle, but here it is done sparingly and adroitly.

There are some retro/flashback sequences, mostly set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which help us to trace and comprehend the origins of Paul's obsession. These are quite sweet, and Luke Aikman does a good, convincing job as the young Paul, as does Neil Pearson as Paul's father.

I guess that the main themes of the film are those of "growing up", and the extent to which we need balance in our lives between the practical and the more "irrational" pursuits. Do we need both in order to be truly happy, content and fulfilled?  However much we kid ourselves, some of our impulses can never be truly suppressed. They endure, and perhaps what matters is how we manage them.

"Fever Pitch" does have very faint echoes of the romantic comedies which were so prevalent during the 1990s, but the vacuity and schmaltz are thankfully absent.  In its understated way, it is more like an art film, although elements of the ending border on the corny.

Not a masterpiece by any means, but entertaining and heart-warming.