Sunday, 27 December 2015

Rush (2013 movie) - more thoughts

When it was first released on DVD, I composed a blog post reviewing the 2013 movie "Rush".  This is the Ron Howard film which tells the story of the Seventies Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt.  I recently watched the movie again, and wondered whether my views and impressions might have shifted in the intervening period. I propose to leave aside for the most part any historical inaccuracies which I noticed.

From my late 2015 standpoint, I might describe the feel of "Rush" as being slightly "forced", a little airless and compressed. It is visually impressive, but lacking a touch of elegance, guile and finesse, notwithstanding the inclusion of a few powerful and insightful scenes.

It has been suggested that the movie's comparatively modest budget, and associated time constraints, might have contributed to its flavour and to some of its flaws. My thoughts on this are ambivalent - in places the film has a very "professional" look, but elsewhere one can see where corners might have been cut. For my own tastes "Rush" is a touch too "digital" and post-modern, lacking the charm and fluency of some earlier racing films.

Part of my assertion that the film is "forced" is based on something which I observed when I first saw it almost two years ago. The makers appear to have had a "checklist" of anecdotes and stories (some apocryphal) which they felt they had to pack in during the early portions of the picture. My sensitivity to this phenomenon may be traceable to my status as a 70s-F1-anorak. I appreciate that this would not occur as much to more casusl viewers.

The performances of the main actors attracted much comment. Daniel Bruhl rightly received much praise for his portrayal of Niki Lauda. Quite apart from the physical resemblance, he also managed to capture many of the Austrian driver's traits and mannerisms.

Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt was less universally acclaimed, and it is true that he does not quite evoke the nuances of James' inimitable persona, or the voice. The comparison between the two actors is invidious, though. It may well be more difficult to convincingly play Hunt than it is with Lauda.

I think that "Rush" really gets on track during the scenes relating to the close season of 1975/76, when we are shown Hunt's struggles to get a drive for the forthcoming season, as well as his personal problems. Cliches aplenty, of course, but some very fine moments too. In these sequences Hemsworth is very good.  The movie improves at this point because it becomes less about "back-story", composites of events and time-compression and more about a straight account. The dramatic raw-material is also better....

The Nurburgring sequences I think were well produced, without being excessively long or sensationalist, and the hospital scenes were handled more delicately than one has come to expect in films of this sub-genre or in "biopics".

The dialogue between Niki and James at Monza is convincing and credible, and the press conference where Lauda speaks is actually better than similar scenes in most movies. However, the bit where the journalist is beaten up has rightly been deplored as over-the-top and misrepresentative. A real fly in the ointment, that one. On the plus side, the imagery used at the start of the Monza race is highly effective in conveying the tension and the apprehension.

As for the racing action scenes in "Rush", well on reflection they are a mixed bag. Some are good, and CGI is used to fine effect, but others are less dazzling. One wonders why this was.  The "arty" close ups of crash helmets, suspension parts and so forth are entertaining, and a feast for the senses, but hardly original.

The build-up to the final 1976 race at Fuji is also well done, with a "less is more" ethos concerning dialogue. Visuals, sound and music all help to create the mood and the tension before and during the event.

The final scene at the airport is noteworthy both for its quality and its plausibility. It also comes as quite a surprise to have something this reflective and pensive after what had preceded it. Philosophizing, yes, but in a believable and poignant vein.

Looking at it honestly, "Rush" is a good and entertaining, if unexceptional, piece of cinema, its main strengths being Bruhl's performance, the inherent attractiveness of the subject matter and the occasional amusing or poignant scene.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Formula 1 on Channel 4

Earlier today it was announced that UK terrestrial television coverage of Formula 1 racing will be taken over by Channel 4 in 2016, as they assume the role previously performed by the BBC. Under the three-year deal, 10 races per season will be broadcast live.

The reaction to this news among British F1 followers appears to have been mixed, but I am more sanguine than most about the announcement. It has been confirmed that under the new agreement there will be no advertisement breaks during the actual races to be shown live on Channel 4.  The ad breaks were a bugbear of some fans when the sport was previously shown on commercial terrestrial TV (ITV) in the UK.

I have generally quite enjoyed Channel 4's coverage of sports, a good example being their presentation of Test Match cricket a few years back. They have a reputation for doing things slightly differently in comparison to other British broadcasters, so with luck this ethos will help to ensure that their Formula 1 coverage introduces some innovations and a fresh approach.

Much will depend on the personnel recruited to act as presenters, commentators and pundits on Channel 4's show. My ideal scenario would be for some of those on the previous BBC team to be involved, with a few fresh faces to spice things up.

It is good that F1 will remain on terrestrial TV in Britain. Interesting times ahead....

Friday, 18 December 2015

Beatles Thoughts

A couple of days ago I spent an invigorating couple of hours listening to the music of The Beatles, shuffling from album to album. Immersing myself in this music is always a life-affirming and uplifting experience, but a few things occurred to me, mostly concerning the nature of the songs written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

The songs were credited to "Lennon-McCartney", but many of them were primarily individual efforts, written in full by one songwriter or the other. Some opinion-formers have tended to pigeon-hole the two men, asserting that John Lennon wrote the edgy and perceptive stuff while categorizing McCartney's songs as more shallow and superficial. I never subscribed to this assessment, and closer inspection of the Beatles canon supports my view.

It was around 1964 that the songs started to become more "mature" and profound, but it was not always the frequently cited "contemporary" influences which had a direct affect on the subject matter in the songs. One interesting thread is what I call Paul McCartney's "kitchen sink" songs, such as "Eleanor Rigby", "She's Leaving Home" and "Lady Madonna". In those tracks everyday concerns are explored, but these are ones which the English in particular find awkward to discuss openly. Middle-aged loneliness, rather than youthful heartache. The generation gap between parents and offspring. The struggles of single mothers.

McCartney was often accused of being excessively sentimental in his post-Beatles career.  In the Fab Four, however, balancing factors were at work, and they helped imbue some of his songs with real authenticity, realism and focus. Of course, these balancing factors worked both ways, and this mechanism and its consequences were part of the magic of the group. One musician's presence or influence placed a check on the perceived "excesses" or flights of fancy of the other. And of course when there was genuine collaboration, the results were often spectacular, as witnessed on "We Can Work It Out" and "A Day In The Life", for instance.

The personal and creative dynamics operating within the Beatles contributed significantly to a highly developed and acute feel for quality control, as if they possessed some kind of sixth sense which helped them to determine what worked, and what didn't work. Considering the volume of material which they released in a relatively short period of time, and how experimental and innovative they were, there were very few lapses in taste. People have offered quasi-mystical explanations for this sensitivity and chemistry, but I prefer to believe that it was just a happy combination of circumstances, personnel and psychology.  These elements help to explain why The Beatles always appeared "relevant", seeming to be in tune with their audience, and with the times, without having to try too hard.

Incidences of this "sixth sense" can be found in the sentiments expressed by McCartney in songs such as "Yesterday", which is more often acclaimed purely for its melodic and musical strengths. "For No One", from Revolver,  is in the same vein. And of course "Hey Jude" exhibited that habit of harnessing and articulating universal feelings practically, simply and memorably without appearing mawkish.

Was John Lennon's approach more intuitive, instinctive and mercurial? A lot, but not all, of his stuff was introspective, existential or abstract, perhaps reflecting his innate personality and his background or upbringing, just as McCartney's temperament may go some way to explaining the character and backdrop of his own songs.

I find myself having these reflective moments whenever I go back to listening to Beatles records intensively. This is another thing which makes them so special and unique, setting them apart from those bands which, while possessing abundant technical and virtuoso proficiency, could never match The Beatles for humanistic depth and that ability to touch the soul.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Bodyline Autopsy - David Frith - book review

If I had to make a shortlist of my favourite sports-related books, then pretty near to the top would be Bodyline Autopsy by David Frith, a beautifully written and carefully researched account of England's acrimonious 1932-33 cricket tour to Australia.

The book was originally published in 2002, and the game of cricket has changed a bit since then, but the erudition and sweep of this work are timeless. The author's love for the game and its history leaps from every page, as does an appreciation of the world beyond cricket.

Thankfully, this book does not overplay the political and social importance of the Bodyline series, but at the same time it stresses the context in which the controversy unfolded. The world was a different place in 1932, and the relationship between England and Australia was different to what it is in the 21st century.

Much of the early going is taken up with an exploration of the similar controversies and debates which preceded the infamous tour, and how the tactics of Douglas Jardine and his bowlers might have evolved. This all helps to place what happened in some kind of perspective.

Quite apart from examining the Bodyline phenomenon, this book gives us a lovely window on the world, and cricket, as they were back then. The haphazard and piecemeal nature of England's selection process for the tour, and the informal and leisurely nature of the tour schedule and the social scene, evoke great nostalgia. There are also some charming anecdotes from England's ship journey Down Under.

This was also a world which was only just beginning to grapple with the notion of mass communication, and it was also a time before attention spans began to ebb away and finesse in all things was gradually dispensed with.

Frith sets out to analyze the drama from all angles, dispelling some myths and misconceptions along the way, drawing attention to anomalies and contradictions in the cliched popular version. The level of thoroughness is admirable. A wide range of sources and evidence are drawn upon to paint a vivid and balanced picture. The use of photographs is very tasteful. They are integrated nicely into the text, and their character augments the scholarly texture.

The accounts of the Test matches are absorbing and well-paced, making the reader feel that he or she was really "there". Naturally, the pivotal Adelaide match is accorded special attention, and there is an exhaustive "forensic" examination of the leak of details of the dressing room exchange between the Australian captain and the England management. The fact that a "leak" such as that was so emotive in the Thirties again illustrates just how much times have changed.

Reading this book again, the thought "what was the big deal" springs to mind, but we have to place these events in the context of those times. Bodyline stood out because it was seen to breach unwritten rules. At the same time, it was not really a historical watershed either; it didn't signify the imminent breakdown of civilization, and normal service was resumed, for a while anyway.

One of the book's strong points is the depth of its analysis of the aftermath of Adelaide, the sentiment harboured in both countries, and the attitudes in the corridors of power. The relating of the diplomatic toing-and froing is rounded and realistic, not exaggerating the gravity of the episode, but emphasizing the role of statesmen and civil servants. The priority of the politicians appears to have been to limit the damage beyond the portals of cricket.  The precariousness of the economic and trade situation is also highlighted (these were Depression years, of course). In retrospect, one wonders what might have happened had fences not been mended successfully, given what was to transpire globally in the late 1930s.

A sizeable proportion of Bodyline Autopsy addresses the fall-out from the tour, including the efforts to conciliate the two cricketing cultures, and the machinations which affected Harold Larwood and Douglas Jardine in particular. Interestingly, there is also some effort to look at how perspectives changed in some minds over time. There is a look at the later lives of many of the key participants, as well as how Bodyline was perceived in later decades.

This is a beautifully written work, endlessly stimulating, meticulously researched and also thought-provoking. A perceptive and authoritative look at a seismic sporting controversy, as well as a revealing glimpse at how things were back then.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Likely Lads (1976) - movie review

In the 1970s and early 1980s there were lots of cinematic spin-offs from British television sitcoms, and the artistic quality of these projects was variable to say the least. One of the better of these spin-offs was "The Likely Lads" from 1976, starring Rodney Bewes as Bob Ferris and James Bolam as Terry Collier.

The original "Likely Lads" TV series from the 1960s followed the fortunes of Bob and Terry as young men, and the follow-up "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads" picked up the story when they had reached the brink of their thirties, at the time of Terry's return from a stint in the Army.

This film appears to be set a couple of years after the end of the timescale of "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads", with Bob going through some kind of emotional, existential crisis. Indeed, the central themes of the movie are "there must be more to life than this" and "where has the past gone?", universally understood sentiments which engage the viewer. Times change, but our own routine becomes and remains tedious, and we ask whether the grass is greener elsewhere.

Even more so than the second television series, this film screams "Seventies!", from the fashions, to the backdrops, to the cultural references and the social mores. Added to this are Bob's Vauxhall Chevette, the boutique and the predilection for caravanning!

As ever, the writing of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais drives proceedings charmingly. The storyline is a good, solid one, with a nicely conceived ending which inverts the conclusion of the original 60s series. The writers specialized in extracting great comedy from mundane, everyday things, and the eccentricities of the tenets of English life. The script of this film, to me, celebrates nostalgia whilst at the same time hinting that there is no easy escape from the pressures of the present. The grass is not necessarily greener, and we sometimes envy the lifestyles of our peers whilst overlooking the pitfalls of those lifestyles and the virtues of our own hard-won stability and security...

One thing which does not feature that prominently in this movie is the tension between Bob and Terry's relative social aspirations, an angle which dominated parts of the 1970s TV series. The emphasis here is on more elusive emotional and spiritual concerns. That said, the characterizations are still endearing and natural.

Rodney Bewes does a fine job in this film of portraying the angst-ridden and preoccupied Bob. The character has moved on from the "upwardly mobile" persona which he exuded during the second TV show. His life has reached a disconcerting and bewildering plateau.

The settings are different from "Whatever Happened To...", but I see this as a strength, as it helps to endow the movie with an identity of its own. The pleasant location shots of the North East England countryside and coastline also contribute to an overall visual appeal, and the "Whitley Bay" sequences are truly evocative!

There are some fine individual scenes, most notably the first one in the boutique, which kick-starts the central portion of the movie. As ever, the most effective comedic exchanges between Bob and Terry are tinged with poignancy and sadness, such as the conversation on the ship near the end.

To my present-day self, the overall effect of this picture is to induce sorrow and regret at a period gone forever, when life was simpler, or so we like to believe. It was released during my childhood, and the imagery brings back fond memories. This kind of nostalgia leavens the sterility and uncertainty of the present.

Opinion of this film among critics has been mixed, but I really like it. It has charm as a period piece, quite apart from the richness of the writing, the humour and the acting. Fine entertainment, and rather heart-warming...

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Houses Of The Holy - Led Zeppelin - album review

Of the records released by Led Zeppelin, perhaps none is more enigmatic than Houses Of The Holy, released in 1973.

The reasons for this status are varied.  This album is sandwiched between the first four, issued in quick succession, and Physical Graffiti, seen by many as their magnum opus. In addition, Houses Of The Holy has a curious flavour to it, containing more "progressive rock" than other Zeppelin efforts, and also a couple of "pastiches" which did not find universal approval. However, closer scrutiny reveals a fine record.

By 1972/73, the "wow" factor induced by the band's early efforts had begun to wear off, and many will see this album as lacking in the raw energy and power of the previous ones. For the reasons touched on above, it is often perceived I think as something of a stop-gap work, but that assessment does not do justice to some of the music within. Included are a few songs which have endured for longer than more "famous" Zeppelin counterparts...

This record has been seen as a departure of sorts for the group, in that it is more layered and less spontaneous than their earlier work, but hints of the direction in which things were moving can perhaps be discerned on the fourth album. Some might opine that they went too far on this one, and that some kind of happy medium or equilibrium, between "classic" bluesy, rootsy Zeppelin and more experimental impulses was only established on Physical Graffiti, with the space permitted by its four sides. That again pleads the case for "Graffiti" being the definitive Led Zep work, as it encompassed all facets of their output.

The new complexity is showcased on the opening number, "The Song Remains The Same", from which the title of the band's later concert movie was derived. Some pleasing tempo shifts hold the interest, and parts of the track have that distinctively hypnotic flavour which characterizes many Zeppelin songs.

"The Rain Song" is one of the group's most atmospheric and affecting tracks, with its elaborate, intertwining guitars, and an understated but expressive vocal by Robert Plant. The production's separation allows the various melodic nuances to be appreciated, and of course John Paul Jones's keyboards are an integral part of the picture.

For reasons which I find difficult to fully elucidate, "Over The Hills And Far Away" has never quite grabbed me or captured my imagination in the way which it has evidently done for countless other people. The folky, acoustic feel is endearing, but somehow it does not fully realize that early potential. As a basic, uncomplicated rocker, "Dancing Days" serves its purpose, with the augmentation of the guitar textures, and a meaty rhythm section constitutes a solid base.

"No Quarter" is another tour-de-force by John Paul Jones. The electric piano (?) sound is quirky but intoxicating, and the Jimmy Page guitar riff instills some real steel. This is the kind of track which demands an attentive listen, as it can easily wash over you. The "treated", eerie vocal from Plant completes the imagery, and is another case of the band's experimental zeal.

As the closing track, the simplicity and basic riffery of "The Ocean" serves partially as light relief, and the thundering clarity of John Bonham's drumming is a joy after the outlandish fare which preceded it. It was almost as if, by signing off with this song, Zeppelin were reminding everybody that they could still rock with the best of them, and the "nostalgic" feel of the coda was also in keeping with these sentiments.

Which leaves the two "genre exercises", which in large part cause the slightly ambivalent attitude which this album has inspired. "The Crunge" sounds OK, the drums, bass and scratchy guitar evoking a "funk" sensation, and it is not quite the "fly in the ointment" which I remembered from my earlier exposure to it. In fact, it is arguably superior to similar excursions by certain other rock bands.

I am less sure about "D'yer Mak'er".  The drums are obtrusive and heavy-handed, and the whole thing kind meanders to no great effect.  Again, my present-day mellower and more tolerant self is more willing to forgive than my more pedantic persona of twenty years ago. These two songs are on reflection not real pastiches, but they are more classifiable as "tributes", although this also leaves them sounding somewhat bland and indeterminate.  They are among the weakest items in the Led Zeppelin canon.

It is not fully accurate to assert that this was the transitional stage in Led Zeppelin's career, as "III" and "IV" exhibited the guys spreading their wings and going off on various tangents. It was just another part of their journey and evolution. It was not as visceral as the first two records, a "thinking man's" Zeppelin in many respects, and well worth a listen.