’71 (2014)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 November (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

A Freeview TV première that’s showing on Film4, ’71 is a very tense drama set during the Troubles in Belfast, a period of almost unbearable unease thanks to the sheer number of political factions involved and the incapability – at least at the time depicted in the film – of the small British army to handle itself within a hostile environment. There’s an element of confusion over who can be trusted, the shifting of allegiances that seems to turn on single events, and this environment adds to the film’s overall tone of disorientation. Into this mix is tossed Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a young private who gets cut off from his unit and left to fend for himself. As local Nationalists try to find and kill him, and the army just tries to find him, Hook is stuck on the back streets, terrified and bewildered, and much of the story tracks his efforts to get back to base.

Viewers are invited to watch ’71 as either a political drama or a thriller, though it works better as the latter, the events at their dizzying finest as the camera tracks Hook scrambling forlornly for safety. O’Connell, increasingly established as a rising star when he featured in this, is fantastic in the lead role. Early scenes show him larking around with his little brother, who’s in a care home, the antics of the pair suggesting Hook is little more than a child himself, albeit one with a gun as he enlists with the army. His character is never portrayed as a hero, and rightly so. Hook gets lost, panics, has strokes of good and bad luck, is badly hurt, and becomes lucky to survive. His first slice of poor fortune is to be sent to Northern Ireland rather than West Germany. It’s clear the army is out of its depth, pushing raw recruits like Hook and his comrades into the scene of a street riot, the unit led by a typical posh boy (Sam Reid) who has as little clue as anyone about how to handle the situation.

Overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the people closing in on them, the unit departs quickly, leaving Hook and a comrade behind, the latter shot dead simply because he’s confronted by a young man (Martin McCann) with a gun in his hand. Hook bolts. The man, Haggerty, chases, loses him, and takes to the streets with Quinn (Killian Scott) and a boy called Sean (Barry Keoghan) in a car, searching for the lost soldier. They represent a more youthful and militant branch of the IRA, incessantly violent, and in conflict with older heads represented by Boyle (David Wilmot) who’s in contact with the British counter insurgency unit, which has a typically grizzled and jaded Sean Harris at its head. All are looking for Hook, who makes friends with a Loyalist boy, only to find the pub he’s taken to blown up thanks to a makeshift bomb going off. By now seriously injured, he’s picked up by a Catholic ex-army medic, Eamon (Richard Dormer), who does his best to repair the damage and then contacts Boyle to help get him back to his barracks. But Boyle’s being tracked by the younger men, who converge on Hook’s position, forcing him back out into the open.

’71 was directed by Yann Demange, better known for his work in television and relishing the opportunity to make a sharp thriller. Sheffield was chosen for filming as it looks more like the downtrodden Belfast streets of the early 1970s, most of which have since been pulled down. The washed out palette adds to the sense of dourness, a poverty stricken and desperate community that’s at war with itself. Kids play in the streets, mess around with fire. Guns are stored beneath the floorboards of bedrooms. Much of the shooting is done using a handheld camera, as though audience members are running alongside Hook, adding a kinetic and fast-paced energy to the action. It’s as good a chase scene as they get.

The film’s attempt to grasp humanity emphasises the violent showdown between Hook and Haggerty, a sequence that ends with the two holding hands as one of them dies, sharing sympathy even though they’re enemies. There’s no attempt to highlight anyone as a villain or hero, just people with goals and jobs to do. The only ‘good guy’ is Eamon, and even he’s motivated by a mixture of fear and cynicism, the doubts in his mind teased out by Dormer’s great performance. Harris is good also, the man who can see the big picture but with the knowledge that there’s little chance he will be able to influence it. It’s such an authentic performance that you can imagine him walking straight off the actual streets of Belfast and onto the set. And then there’s O’Connell, carrying ’71’s energy as he continually tries to evade danger. There’s a reason he’s so highly regarded. He’s electrifying. As is the film itself, which stuffs swatches of authenticity and action into its running time to produce a mix that is quite intoxicating.

’71: ****

24 Hour Party People (2002)

When it’s on: Saturday, 11 April (12.25 am, Sunday)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I’ve watched a few films over the years but I have never been in one. The closest I got was in the early 2000s. I was working at a university in Manchester and one day a film crew arrived holding auditions for extras in a production that would be shot locally. Along with a colleague, I decided to go along and found the film required people to be revellers in a mocked up Hacienda, the legendary Manchester nightclub. Despite my claim that I’d been to the real life Hacienda I didn’t hear from them again, a result I think of pushing 30 at the time, not to mention the fact I can’t really dance. At least I got to see the film, a retelling of the musical life of one Anthony H Wilson that is 24 Hour Party People.

The title comes from one of the earliest hits by the Happy Mondays and is also the name of Wilson’s biographical account of the period, from which the film is a loose adaptation. It helps that I love much of the music churned out by Factory Records, Wilson’s label. Factory’s willingness to give its artists free expression was legendary, leading to some real messes that were nevertheless released, along with the sublime Joy Division/New Order, the label’s one real spark of sublimity. The Mondays were something else entirely. Shambolic and loose fitting, they were the unlikeliest band imaginable, virtually incapable of avoiding trouble and occasionally putting out records that were like nothing I’d ever heard. I am playing one of their albums whilst typing these words and can’t really decide why I like it as much as I do.

In 24 Hour Party People, Wilson is played by Steve Coogan. He looks nothing like the Granada TV presenter cum would-be mogul, but his impersonation is flawless, getting across Wilson’s blend of pretentiousness and musical rapture perfectly, portraying him as a more solidly Mancunian Alan Partridge. Wilson breaks the fourth wall all the time, stepping away from the action to narrate his own story direct to the audience, at one stage advising us we’re entering the story’s second act when he doesn’t think we can grasp it for ourselves. As a real life figure, I never engaged with Wilson all that much, feeling he was essentially up himself, and I still think that’s true, but what the film really suggests is a dreamer, turning up to the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, attended by forty people, and having an epiphany, seeing the band’s attitude as the future of rock music. That the Sex Pistols didn’t become as big as they might have isn’t the point, he argues; it’s all in the posturing, the anger, the willingness to just get on stage and have a go, a complete antidote to the saccharine chart hits of the time. It’s a philosophy he develops, first by booking bands for a night at the Russell Club in Moss Side and later creating his own label to produce their records. His aim is to showcase Manchester bands, both good and bad, and success or failure isn’t what matters so much as enjoying the ride and sharing the love.

Soon enough, he’s signed Joy Division, or at least written a contract in his own blood to seal the deal. It turns out to be the perfect group for Factory, capable of producing music that reflects the despair and desperation of existence allied with strange, minimal soundscapes, all teased out by the production values of Martin Hannett. As played by Andy Serkis, Hannett is an experimental producer who’ll do things like walk up a hill and attempt to record silence. Whilst Wilson describes him as a genius, he’s hard work, demanding and meticulous in his effort to get the sound just right. Sean Harris, for me one of the best screen actors of his generation, portrays the band’s singer, Ian Curtis, as a tortured soul destined for suicide, but also capable of having fun. I prefer his take on Curtis to the character played by Sam Riley in Control, which honed in on in his personal life more to try and depict his misery as brought on by illness, an extra marital affair and struggling to cope with being a father. The other band members include John Simm and Ralf Little and both, in their limited screen time, get their characters across flawlessly.

Following Curtis’s death, the action moves to the early eighties when Wilson opened the Hacienda, which from the start is depicted as an eternal drain on Factory’s resources, the last word in artistic hubris. Wilson doesn’t care because the club looks good and mirrors his vision as the place the city deserves, but even when it becomes successful it loses money because its clients take Ecstasy rather than visit the bar. By the end, the dealers have taken over and guns talk loudest outside and ultimately inside, which adds levels of unwanted controversy.

In the meantime, Factory takes on the Happy Mondays, led by Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham), a ramshackle collective that Wilson insists is creative gold. He sees Ryder as the new W.B. Yeats, whilst the singer subsists on endless narcotics and is clearly out of control. As the label struggles on towards its own doom, the Mondays play at being a band, fail to record any meaningful music and play a significant role in ruining their own paymasters. All this is watched on with something approaching horror by Wilson’s ‘business’ partners, Alan Erasmus (Lennie James) and Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine), the latter a particular delight as his soft spoken veneer gradually gives way to violence when it all collapses around him. Factory’s philosophy is both undermined and defined by the final piece in the jigsaw, designer Peter Saville (Enzo Cilenti), who produces great artwork that Wilson loves, but always too late or at insane cost levels. His signature moment comes when he designs a record sleeve for New Order’s 12″ single Blue Monday, which has holes cut into the sleeve to represent a floppy disc. It’s so expensive to produce that the only saving grace is Wilson’s argument that no one will buy it; Blue Monday goes on to become the bestselling 12″ of all time.

That’s one of the many true, though from a business perspective almost unbelievable, stories that are replayed in the film. But there’s also fantasy, as in the scene where Wilson’s wife, Lindsey (Shirley Henderson) screws Howard Devoto (Martin Hancock) in revenge for his own indiscretions. As the episode ends with Wilson getting his car keys from the very toilet cubicle in which they’re shagging, the camera cuts to the real Devoto, who claims he has no recollection of this incident ever taking place. Wilson justifies the story by quoting John Ford, arguing when legend becomes fact, print the legend.

24 Hour Party People features a string of guest appearances from British, mainly northern, actors, including Peter Kaye, John Thompson, Simon Pegg and Christopher Eccleston, the latter shining very briefly as a philosophy spouting street beggar. It’s directed by Michael Winterbottom, who often filmed using a handheld camera, shifting in and out of focus to reflect the near chaos taking place on the screen. It only settles down when it cuts to the vignettes of Wilson working for Granada, usually on location and covering some banal event, the sort of ‘And finally’ news broadcast that finds him discussing working the Rochdale Ship Canal with its oldest operator, a man who can barely speak. Wilson can barely contain his boredom during these moments, almost unable to juxtapose internally between the day job and his efforts to shape Manchester as an artistically vibrant city that deserves to be on the map. It’s all headed for failure, of course it is, but what failure. It’s a great film.

24 Hour Party People: ****

PS. A bit of quiet time for the site now as I’m away for a week, in fact by the time this piece is published I’ll be on my way home. Normal service to be resumed shortly.

Films on the Big Box – a trip to the Cinema

The act of posting a brief film critique on a daily basis isn’t easy. It’s not a chore, but time is a factor. The ratio of titles I’ve seen previously to those I’m catching for the very first time is about 1:1, and many of the former are a case of blowing dust off the box before playing again. That means I [have to] watch at least a film per day, just to do the thing justice. This I often do alone, as Mini Mike believes there was no cinema before 1977 (Star Wars was apparently the invention of the motion picture) and Mrs Mike has her own interests. Besides, she laughed all the way through Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger; fair enough in many respects, but this is a serious business, god damn it!

A full-time job, family commitments, film viewing and writing eat up my days, and the unhappy upshot is that I rarely get to see the films other people post about. I try my best, and it’s especially frustrating because so many blogs I read elsewhere make their subjects sound fascinating. But, as an example, Pursued, the review of which was written up weeks ago with Colin’s usual panache at the excellent Riding the High Country, is still cued up and ready.

In the meantime, I used the last day of this welcomingly long Bank Holiday weekend to put in a rare trip to the pictures. I’ve been looking forward to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus for some time, not least because the visual flair of the auteur who happens to be from my neck of the woods warrants a viewing on the big screen. Unlike many, I didn’t go expecting an Alien prequel. Whilst Prometheus takes place in the same ‘world’ as Alien, it’s quite a different animal from the dirty, working claustrophobia of the Nostromo and tells a much more expansive story. It’s a brave move from Scott, who could no doubt have pumped out more of the same and entertained us, though I suspect it would be impossible to replicate what people really want – that visceral, sublime jolt of horror when John Hurt’s chest blows wide open.

Not that Prometheus isn’t scary. It is, on several levels. There’s the same unsettling sense of dread that built slowly in Alien, not to mention the element of well-intentioned characters being manipulated by forces unseen. The acting’s incredibly strong. Top marks go to Michael Fassbender, in the ‘Ian Holm’ role but given the time to invest his android character with an attempt to understand humanity, which has unexpected consequences. Sean Harris plays a sardonic, Mohican-sporting geologist, and it’s a measure of the cast’s calibre that such a strong performer takes on a supporting role.

But it’s Scott’s compositional talents that really shine in Prometheus. From the first, gorgeous sweeping shots of a world in development, the film is a feast for the eyes. I found myself comparing it with Avatar. Scott doesn’t need to toss in floating islands to get across the awe of exploring a new planet. Everything’s in the sense of scale, the perspective, the ship that looks tiny compared with the ancient alien settlement it’s exploring. It leaves James Cameron’s box office beater behind. This is an adult world, within the context of a grown-up film, and its respect for its audience really can’t be appreciated enough.

Getting, at last, to the point of this post. I got in to the film for free, thanks to my Odeon card, and could even stretch to a Premier seat, which is well worth the extra quid in aiding the spine of a middle-aged office worker. The theatre was around two-thirds full. No one talked during the film. My concentration wasn’t broken with the chime of texts received; neither did I catch the light of a phone in use. The slurping from coke tubs and crunch of popcorn was largely absent. The back of my chair was never kicked. There wasn’t a steady stream of toilet goers. It was that strangest of cinema visits – people going to see the film because they wanted to see the film.

I find it very sad that these instances are now rare indeed. Last month, we caught Avengers Assemble and I was sat next to a bloke who spent much of it glued to his phone, whilst his child, all of three years old, became increasingly agitated. My previous visit was taking Mini Mike to see the 3D version of The Phantom Menace. Incredibly, the good bits were still good in three dimensions; the boring bits were just as dull, but it was during the latter moments that kids got fed up and were allowed by their parents to tramp around the theatre. They walked down the steps, along the bottom of the screen and up the staircase on the other side, a process repeated ad nauseum until the pod race or Darth Maul’s appearances.

I appreciate that moaning about these things is kind of old hat. We’ve all experienced moments of cinematic madness caused by fellow ‘patrons’, whether it’s the curse of teenagers who disrupt in the calculated knowledge that the staff are unlikely to do much about it, or the utter twunt who tried to smoke throughout a packed showing of The Return of the King. Yet it doesn’t make it any less of a shame.

Several of my best childhood memories involve moments of magic during those times spent in a pitch-black room containing an enormous screen. The endless adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Luke’s forlorn fight with Vader that rounds off The Empire Strikes Back. That bit in The Black Hole where the Cygnus suddenly lights up. I remember enjoying all this – and much more – in comfort and without interruption, even though the fleapits of 30+ years ago had nothing like the top of the range sound systems, air conditioning and seating we get to enjoy now. Added to which is the cost of a cinema ticket in 2012 – had I paid for yesterday’s seat, I wouldn’t have got much change from a tenner, and that’s for a midweek, afternoon screening in a northern town. I don’t think I’m being too expectant in proposing that, having coughed up, I should be allowed to enjoy my film.

These days, my cinema visits are dropping. The chances of being disturbed (and in the process snapping out of any atmosphere the film tries to create) make it less a pleasure than a vague hope that the ignorant are happy to wait for the DVD or just watch the inevitable sicked-up torrent. Instead, it’s often enough me opting for the home version. DVDs are certainly cheaper, but something’s lost. I would certainly regret it if I wound up seeing Prometheus for the first time on a 32” screen, yet too many times it’s the only resort for an uninterrupted watch.

Anyway, rant over. Normal service to be resumed tomorrow with a fine offering from the French.