July the 4th is of course a very patriotic day for one nation in particular. Us Brits like to moan about the Yanks now and again because perhaps old rivalries never quite die no matter how close the friendship. We have an even fonder tendency to exchange banter with our French friends across the channel. On Independence Day the story of one of their most fascinating monarchs arrives on DVD.
Henry of Navarre (aka Henri 4) has all the ingredients of an epic historical romp. Its visceral battle scenes, complete with frenetic handheld camerawork as well as sweeping shots, have been likened to Ridley Scott’s iconic set pieces by Variety. Its period details are meticulous and vivid, from costume to setting. Its themes of religious freedom, love and power are at once more inspiring than modern day concerns and still relevant. And of course, as addictive TV dramas such as The Tudors and Rome have proved, no story of royalty and betrayal is complete these days without plenty of nudity and animalistic sex.
Henri, played by Julien Boisselier, is a charmer from childhood. The film begins with the prince of Navarre, a small region of France, paying the girls as a mere boy for a glimpse up their skirts. He goes on to seduce, overpower and caress several other women throughout the course of the film. The first set of bedroom scenes, with a Catholic he is told to marry to secure peace, verge on the violent, fuelled by religious resentment and suspicion. They scratch and bite like tigers just released from a zoo. Henry of Navarre is not a film short on beautiful women or erotic encounters.
But Henri is still likeable despite his cavorting, which prompts his second wife to describe him as a “horny old goat”. Boisselier plays him as a man disillusioned by the role and world he was born into but determined to change things pragmatically. The film begins with Henri leading the Protestant Huguenots against the greater part of France controlled by the Catholic Medici family. Henri is encouraged into a peacemaking marriage in Paris and during this part of the film within the city walls and the Louvre palace, overwhelming tension and intrigue builds, with relationships in the court difficult to decipher. Henri is well meaning but naive and the betrayal eventually comes with the tragedy of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre.
At this point it’s hard to understand why Henri doesn’t flee but eventually he wins the trust of the traitors and escapes successfully. He returns to his roots in Navarre and builds up the strength of his home. By the end of the film Henri is King of all of France, with the price being his religious belief and identity. But despite his growing wisdom, Henri’s childhood innocence and kindness is also preserved by Boisselier’s performance. This is a very modern film because Henri puts aside labels of religion and ancestry to cherish things that really matter in life and leadership; loyalty, friendship, love and freedom.
Henry of Navarre has its faults. It could do with being half an hour shorter but the two and a half hour runtime is more than filled with the substance of Henri’s fascinating life. Not all of the acting is assured, with Ulrich Noethen’s performance as Charles IX too over the top and caricatured regardless of the troubled nature of the monarch. The battle scenes, despite their initial impact, become repetitive. You are carried through it all though by the compelling complexity and emotion of Henri’s story and the appeal of his character. This would appear to be a diverse film faithful to history that both entertains and educates.
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Do you think you could hack it behind bars? If you’re a Daily Mail columnist you probably dispute the fact that prisons even have bars anymore. They’ve all been replaced you see, with tasty sticks of rock more in keeping with the dangerously liberal, comfortable satellite TV approach to treating filthy criminals. Being locked up is preferable to a five star hotel. Prisons are merely lavishly furnished warehouses for feral beasts that will be released back into the wilds of society unchanged. The fear factor has gone.
Bring back that shit yourself punishment and all of Britain’s ills will be cured. All this claptrap about human rights and civil liberties has been diluting the taste of our justice system since the 60s, so that it’s nothing more than a bitter sip of lemonade. Prisons should punish first and foremost, to act as a deterrent to the bad apples on the nation’s tree. When they fall they need to be crushed into a pulp and left to rot as an example to others; so the argument roughly goes.
Of course films are not the place to look for a frank and faithful look at the realities of prison life. Just because I’m put off a casual mugging by the possibility of gang rapes such as those in The Shawshank Redemption, doesn’t mean that actual perpetrators within the system encounter such things or that they are deterred by them. Cinema is a place for drama, tension and excitement. But a certain mould of gritty British drama always seems to capture something true about the cooped up existence of convicts, whatever the exaggerations.
In the case of Ghosted, the debut film of writer/director Craig Viveiros, the principal truth is that for many men, the haunting consequences of their crimes are punishment enough. There is also a heightened but believable look at the community of prison life, with its rival factions and dominating personalities pulling the strings. And much of the dialogue is insightful but understated, with main character Jack musing that, if nothing else, empty hours in a cell day after day give you plenty of time to think.
Jack (John Lynch) is a sensible prisoner, keeping his head down and away from trouble, serving his time. He is approaching the end of his sentence and desperate to get out to see his wife. But at the start of the film she fails to visit him and blanks him when he calls. Just as freedom is within sight his marriage collapses, destroying his hopes for a life on the outside. Gradually we find out more about Jack, eventually getting confirmation that his young son is dead. He burns most of his pictures of him because “sometimes the reminders are too hard in here”.
With just months until Jack is free, a new inmate arrives in the shape of young Paul, played by Martin Compston of The Disappearance of Alice Creed fame. Paul is immediately welcomed by the manipulative Clay, who is described on the marketing material as a “wing overlord”, which sounds like an all powerful evil super villain, but in reality just means a nicer cell, a mildly lucrative drugs racket and the odd fellow prisoner to bang. After the initial niceties Clay starts to use Paul, so Jack steps in and gets him moved to his cell.
This puts Jack in the firing line, resulting in some tense standoffs. The balance of the prison politics is disrupted and Clay is humiliated more than once, prompting him to get revenge. But despite the palpable sense of threat, the really interesting part of Ghosted is the relationship between Jack and Paul.
Jack is the heart of Ghosted and Lynch relished playing him, praising the creative talents of newcomer Viveiros: “It’s been a long, long time since I read a script that’s centred absolutely one hundred per cent on the characters”. In return the director praises his cast who “pumped blood into the story”. Both men are right.
Ghosted is well acted, with even the thugs coming across as something more than just two dimensional bad guys; they have their vulnerabilities too. But Ghosted is also well written and confidently directed so that it does not feel like a debut. Some of the scenes in which Jack and Paul open up to each other, often simply discussing old memories such as when Jack was in Brazil or when Paul was in care, are exemplary examples of characterisation rarely seen in today’s commercial world of cinema.
Ghosted is released in cinemas on the 24th of June and will be available on DVD from the 27th. See it to support a quality British drama with an all star cast, which simultaneously pays tribute to classic prison stories and approaches the issue from a new angle. Try to spot the emotional hammer blow of a twist at the end.
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Last night I watched the last in the series of Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2. I actually watched it on TV! You can watch it here on iPlayer:
I really enjoyed it and will be trying to see the first two episodes somehow. This episode chronicled the death of silent cinema, which Merton shows to be at the height of its creative powers when the technology for talkies arrived. Silent films starred ingenious performers, and were shot in inventive, imaginative and inspiring ways. They could afford to make classic escapism for the masses as well as experimental pictures, which also more often than not turned into hits by capturing the public’s lust for the cinema in new ways.
Talkies, Merton argues, brought the quality and the standards crashing back to basic levels. Yes audiences could hear the tinny voices of their beloved stars but they lost much of the magic of cinema when it was silent. They lost the live musical performances accompanying the pictures in theatres. They lost the moving camera angles, zooming in and out to visually dazzle and excite. They lost the cults of intoxicating mystery that grew up around actors, as soon as they heard their ordinary or often foreign accented voices. Instead there was wooden dialogue in front of static cameras. Imaginations were stifled and limited.
It’s impossible not to compare the arrival of the talkies with that of 3D films in the 21st century. In my view it’s obvious that the shift is not so dramatic. Sound is a far bigger leap forward than three dimensions. This seems an odd thing to say; when in theory 3D should mean the action literally happening in front of you. But we know the reality of 3D is mostly gimmicky after seeing the offers of studios in cinemas.
This might suggest that greater efforts are needed to improve the technology, so it’s truly as transformative an experience as listening to sound for the first time in a movie theatre. However Merton’s documentary focuses on the ability of good storytellers to adapt. Irving Thalberg, who died in his 30s, was the extraordinary man at the centre of last night’s episode.
A German immigrant, Thalberg grew up in New York, after being born with a weak heart. He spent long periods of his childhood mollycoddled and stuck in bed through illness. During this time he read classic literature, plays and autobiographies. And followed the fortunes of the film business.
Then he got his big break and headed to Hollywood as a secretary to the head of Universal Studios. He was unexpectedly promoted to Head of Production, because of the qualities he showed his employer, where he established a reputation in his early twenties, before moving to MGM in the same role. His influence transformed MGM‘s studios into a vast dream factory with all manner of storytelling resources on site. He handpicked films for suitable directors, mixing traditional stories with bolder projects. He ensured that before release all his films were screened to members of the public, which led to scenes being re-shot frequently. A modest man, his name never appeared on any posters.
Thalberg’s MGM was at the top of its game when talkies arrived, courtesy of rivals Warner Brothers. But before his death Thalberg oversaw a successful transition to sound, with that same focus on good storytelling. As a producer he called the shots, made decisions in the company’s financial interests, but never compromised a good story.
3D audiences have been declining and champions of the technology pin their hopes on Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon. In press previews the 3D is said to be cutting edge, mind blowing and the best yet. But as this Guardian writer, Ben Child, points out, Bay’s films are so loud and bombastic that they simply become tedious. And the only real hope for 3D is that someone, a great individual of Thalberg’s ilk, can steer a truly great and inventive film project to fruition. One that makes the best of 3D‘s unique assets but one that, above all, tells an unbelievably good story.
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Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.
It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.
Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.
Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity.
Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.
Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.
And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.
Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.
At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.
But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.
The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.
Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.
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After things really seemed to be getting somewhere with episodes 2 and 3, last night (the first time I have watched The Shadow Line as scheduled, 9pm BBC 2) things once again became a blend of baffling plot lines and bad dialogue, punctuated by the odd superb scene. This is one of those programmes so determined to keep us guessing that no sooner are we given a clutch of answers, a bucket full of more questions is splashed into our bemused faces.
The answers come in the form of customs officer Robert Beatty, who was the guy sultry sidekick Honey had a fight with last time. He’s one of these deep cover types working beyond the police, doing things they can’t like he doesn’t give a shit. It turns out that the drugs murdered Harvey Wratten used to get his rare Royal Pardon were already his. Beatty also reveals there was a second requirement for the Pardon; saving the life of a cop. In this case information was given to save him and his family from a car bomb. But it quickly emerges that the bomb was probably planted by Wratten too. So Wratten arranged a get out of jail free card for himself. Well mostly free, just minus millions of pounds worth of drugs.
Obviously Gabriel thinks this is getting somewhere with the case, that he’s been given three extra weeks to save. But it’s difficult to say where this breakthrough leads or what it means and his boss has a problem with that. Even though they’ve got a blurry picture of Gatehouse on CCTV too AND they’ve linked him to a big drug deal, where Gatehouse appeared to be acting on behalf of the vanished but ever present Glickman, who was in turn acting for Wratten because he was banged up. Confused much?
And that’s just the professional side of the police case. We haven’t even mentioned Gabriel’s personal problems. He didn’t have any agonising moments staring at that inexplicable briefcase full of cash this week but the mother of his secret child told him to tell his wife of their existence, who is finally pregnant. This is the cue for just one of many terrible lines in this episode. Gabriel, clearly in a sticky situation, blankly says “I’m in hell” only for the mother of his child to hit back with “No, we’re in limbo”. She then says she won’t have her son growing up in the shadows, which is far too forced a reference to the show’s title.
On the criminal side of the case, Bob Harris is sweating his hairy backside off because one of his supply lines has been compromised by customs, which is how the police know about Glickman getting the drugs for Wratten. How do I know he has a hairy backside you ask? I don’t for sure but I’m judging by the rest of his portly, sagging, ageing body. We’re treated to a scene with Harris and a gay lover, with Harris sporting a pair of very tight pants and awkwardly resting on his side like a beached whale, and the lover wearing nothing at all. He is sprung from a police station by an anonymous benefactor at the beginning of the episode and ever since has been stuck in camp seductive mode. He also gets some terrible lines and provides Harris with the information that apparently Jay Wratten is responsible for the busting of his line.
Jay of course, has been told by Andy Dixon the driver, that Harris killed Harvey. So he has a reason to piss him off. But Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede interrogates Jay and he insists he didn’t do anything. We see very little of Bede this week, apart from when he’s questioning Jay and Glickman’s girlfriend, but Jay does get to pay another over the top, intimidating visit to Glickman’s son. And this is where we see the mysterious, deadly Gatehouse again.
Perched atop a mountain of office furniture, Gatehouse is across the street from Glickman’s son with some very fancy tech for listening to phone conversations etc. Eventually he decides to pop round to the home of Glickman’s son and play the kindly old fashioned gentleman card. Glickman’s sceptical daughter-in-law is won over by his harmless demeanour and Gatehouse gains access to the downstairs loo. After opening and closing the window briefly, he lets himself out. After calling her husband about the visitor, the wife goes upstairs to check on the wailing baby, prompted by the baby monitor. Their little girl is not there.
I was glad when Gatehouse showed up eventually last night because the rest of the episode had been poor. With Gatehouse though you know things are going to be suspenseful and tense and that something is going to happen, even without him doing very much. Here he’d magically whisked the baby outside, simply by opening and shutting a window in the toilet. Surely he must have had help? After dashing about the house absolutely distraught, she finds her baby and then Gatehouse, who chillingly tells her to call her husband “NOW” via the baby monitor. Glickman is then told Gatehouse wants to hear from him.
This episode has time for one more confusing but majestic scene. The journalist, otherwise known as that bloke from Casino Royale, who has been investigating police corruption throughout the series, features strongly in this episode asking people questions without really getting anywhere. Then he’s given the job of city editor at his paper, along with a far from feasible pay rise. Prior to this Gatehouse calls him up for an anonymous meeting but does nothing; not even speaking to him. Instead he gets hold of his home address pretending to be a deliveryman. Then comes the outstanding scene.
McGovern (name of said journalist) rides out of the city in his leathers and into the countryside towards home and his wife, where he can tell her the good news of his promotion. The tension slowly builds as it’s evident something will happen. Then we see a car in the distance on a straight road, with McGovern heading towards it. Both vehicles, bike and automobile, disappear into a dip in the middle of the road. We hear a screech and only the car emerges on the other side. The episode ends with a close up of our fallen journalist, in the middle of a sun drenched road, blood dripping in vivid drops from his helmet against a background of bright blue sky.
Scenes like that are the reason I continue to watch The Shadow Line. Some of them use too much style but most are refreshingly well executed, subtle and classy. This episode was full of irritating performances, including McGovern/Casino Royale man’s intonation that made everything sound like a question, hardly a subtle portrayal of an investigative journalist. It also had some of the worst dialogue so far and perhaps more of it. And the plot development became frustratingly unsatisfying too. But occasionally I am still gobsmacked, even in this mostly bad episode, and I am still intrigued.
With some questions answered new ones arise. Why kill the pestering journalist when he appeared to know very little? More interesting still, why did Gatehouse kill him, when he was investigating police corruption? Do Gabriel and Gatehouse know each other? Perhaps Gabriel simply can’t remember with that bullet inconveniencing his brain. And how exactly did it get there? Was Gabriel responsible for the death of partner Delaney? Can Chiwetel Ejiofor put in a good performance despite increasingly ludicrous plot twists for his character and sledgehammer emotional dialogue? Will Bede and Glickman’s girlfriend get together? Will next week be more enjoyable and make more sense? Will I get to see Bob Harris completely naked?
I’ll keep watching for the answers.
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