Films of 2016

 

© Sidney Kimmel Entertainment / CBS Films / Lionsgate

 

2016 was generally a bloody horrible year but it at least produced some decent films.   Here’s my top ten favourite movies of 2016.  I realise that some of them were made (and released in their home countries) in 2015.  But since they didn’t reach British cinemas and / or DVD outlets until the following year, I’m treating them as 2016 films.  Be on your guard for occasional spoilers.

 

Anomalisa

The Guardian’s excitable film critic Peter Bradshaw described Anomalisa as “unforgettably, skin-crawlingly strange”, though I found its wistful and amusing story of a middle-aged celebrity finding love in a big soulless hotel more reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) rather than anything by David Lynch.  There’s even a scene in Anomalisa that does for Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun what Lost in Translation did for Roxy Music’s More Than This.

 

However, Anomalisa is based on a play by Charlie Kaufman, who scripted and co-directed it with Duke Johnson, so it’s also flavoured with brain-bending oddness.  David Thewlis’s harassed customer-service expert, in Cincinnati for a conference, suffers from Fregoli Delusion, i.e. he perceives nearly everyone in the world as the same person, including his wife, son and ex-girlfriend.  All have the same bland face and same bland voice (supplied by Tom Noonan).  When he meets a young woman who somehow bucks the trend and possesses some individuality (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he promptly falls for her.

 

What makes Anomalisa odder still is the fact that it uses stop-motion animation – Thewlis, Leigh and Noonan are speaking through puppets.  If, like me, you still associate stop-motion animation with the Ray Harryhausen movies of yesteryear – featuring cyclopses, gorgons, dinosaurs and giant octopi – the scene where the Thewlis and Leigh puppets indulge in cunnilingus will blow your mind.

 

© HanWay Films / Paramount Pictures

 

Bone Tomahawk

I’ve already written about Bone Tomahawk on this blog so I’m not going to say much more about it – save that S. Craig Zahler’s bold exercise in combining a traditional western (for its first hour, giving us time to get to know and like the characters) with a bloody in-your-face horror movie (for its last half-hour, when we get seriously worried about what’s going to happen to those characters) was one of 2016’s unexpected pleasures.

 

It doesn’t end well for Deputy Nick, though.

 

Green Room

Three years ago writer / director Jeremy Saulnier treated us to the melancholy modern-day noir classic Blue Ruin.  He maintains his high standards with Green Room.  A down-on-their-luck punk band get a chance to make money playing a gig at a bar in the remote Pacific Northwest.  The catch is, it’s a ‘boots-and-braces’ crowd, i.e. the audience are neo-Nazi skinheads.  The band survive the gig – despite performing the Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks F**k Off – but then see a murder committed backstage and end up trapped in the titular green room, besieged by some shaven-headed psychos who want to eliminate the witnesses.

 

Saulnier skilfully cranks up the tension in this nasty but blackly funny thriller.  Rarely in a movie have attack-dogs appeared more terrifying.  And equally terrifying is Patrick Stewart as the bar owner and the skinheads’ cerebral but malevolent leader – Stewart no doubt welcoming a chance to ditch his Goody-Two-Shoes Star Trek image for a while.

 

© Broad Green Pictures / Film Science / A24

 

Hell or High Water

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) updated to the 21st century, Hell or High Water has two Texan brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, adopt an unusual strategy to rescue their family farm from a mortgage deal with a bank.  To pay it off, they start robbing local branches of the same bank.  Will their scheme succeed before the investigating Texas Rangers, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, catch up with them?  Director David Mackenzie deftly orchestrates the drama – we have two pairs of characters whom we like, but we know the results are going to be unhappy when their paths finally cross – and the bank robberies receive extra tension from our knowledge that this is happening in Texas, a state where the customers are as heavily armed as the robbers and security staff.

 

Oh, and Jeff Bridges just gets better with age.

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

As I grow older and more curmudgeonly, I find fewer comedy films capable of making me laugh.  An exception is the work of New Zealand writer / director Taika Waititi: Eagle vs Shark (2007), What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and now this film.

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about grumpy old misfit Hector (Sam Neill) and chubby juvenile delinquent Ricky (Julian Dennison) taking to the New Zealand mountains pursued by police, social services, vigilantes and the media; along the way encountering hardship, killer wild boars and an affable lunatic called Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby), but also forming a precious friendship.  Waititi creates a funny and affecting movie but avoids easy laughs and cloying sentimentality.  The characters here take some hard knocks and the happy ending is hard won.

 

© Gamechanger Films / XYZ Films

 

The Invitation

Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation takes a familiar dramatical trope, the dinner party that goes wrong – see Rope (1948) or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – and turns it into a horror movie.  For most of its length, though, it’s more about social awkwardness as a group of well-heeled trendies get together for a meal in the Hollywood Hills and find their hosts a little too vocal about the New Age fad they believe has turned their lives around.  Logan Marshall-Green is good as the guest who suspects something sinister is afoot – but is he just overacting to his hosts’ happy-clappy goofiness?

 

Kusama shows Hitchcockian skill in stoking up and then dampening down Marshall-Green’s suspicions at different points in the film.  Meanwhile, hulking character actor John Carroll Lynch gives a memorable turn as an unexpected party guest.

 

Krisha

Krisha was the year’s other great dinner-party-goes-wrong movie – not in a macabre way but in a painful, all-too-human one.  During Thanksgiving, the sixty-something Krisha of the title turns up at her family’s celebrations as a not entirely welcome guest.  Long considered the black sheep of the family because of alcohol and substance abuse, Krisha is on a last warning to behave herself.  Inevitably, as the day progresses and subtle but niggling pressures mount, Krisha’s self-control begins to fray.

 

Shot over nine days in 2014 with a budget of just $14,000, Krisha feels claustrophobically intimate because director Trey Edwards Shults filmed it in his parents’ house, using members of his family and his friends for the cast.  Making it feel more intimate still is the fact that Shults himself plays Trey, Krisha’s estranged son; while Krisha Fairchild, his real-life aunt, plays Krisha.

 

Krisha is a low-fi marvel and it’s easy to see why indie filmmaking guru John Waters named it his film of the year.

 

© A24

 

Room

More claustrophobia is served up by Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, scripted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name.  This Canadian-Irish co-production sees Brie Larson abducted and imprisoned for seven years in a small, fortified shed that has the amenities of a grotty caravan – sink, toilet, bathtub, TV, gas cooker.  Larson’s abductor also subjects her to a sexual relationship, the result of which is a young son, played by Jack Tremblay, who knows nothing of the world but what he sees in the cramped quarters around him.  To him, ‘Room’ becomes as huge and all-encompassing a concept as the ‘Earth’ or ‘Universe’.

 

Eventually, Larson and Tremblay escape from Room.  But faced with uncomprehending and emotionally-traumatised relatives and by sensation-hungry journalists, you wonder if spiritually they’re going to be prisoners of Room forever.  It sounds like a discouragingly bleak film but, thanks to Abrahamson and Donoghue’s treatment of the story and to the performances by Larson and Tremblay (the former winning an Oscar), the ultimate result is surprisingly positive and uplifting.

 

Train to Busan

Yes – Zombies on a Train!  It’s easy to dismiss Yeon Sang-ho’s high-concept horror / disaster movie as a case of what you see being what you get – and what you do see and get is plenty of spectacular and nail-biting action set-pieces.  However, there’s more going on than you might initially think in Train to Busan, which has a zombie apocalypse erupting on the Korean peninsula and some survivors on a train trying to get past zombie-overrun stations and avoid the infection spreading on board to reach the southern, zombie-free city of the title.

 

© Next Entertainment World

 

While blue-collar characters like Ma Dong-seok’s streetwise bruiser and Choi Gwi-hwa’s homeless man act in defence of their fellow passengers, suited CEO scumbag Kim Eui-sung has no compunction about sacrificing everyone else to save himself – and the train staff are alarmingly and maddeningly deferential to him.  In fact, he embodies the corporate rottenness that contributed to South Korea’s real-life MV Sewol disaster in 2014.

 

The Witch

Finally, praise for Robert Eggers’ The Witch, which was stupidly marketed as a straightforward, scream-a-minute horror film.  This baffled audiences of adolescent horror buffs who came to it expecting something like Sinister (2012) or The Conjuring (2013), but instead were treated to a slow and unsettling tale of a Puritan family being torn apart by superstition, mistrust and paranoia in the Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque setting of 17th-century New England.

 

At least Stephen King got the right measure of The Witch, calling it “a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral.”

 

© Rooks Nest Entertainment / Universal Pictures

 

Death log 2016 – part 1

 

© American International Pictures

 

You may have noticed that one or two people died in 2016.  Here are some folk who passed away this year who’ll be particularly missed at Blood and Porridge.

 

January 10th saw the departure of musical legend and stylistic chameleon David Bowie, who was commemorated in no fewer than three postings on this blog:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6104

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6114

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6130

 

Die Hard (1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
Shown: Alan Rickman

© Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

The British actor Alan Rickman died four days later.  Rickman’s career, and especially his talent for playing delightfully fiendish villains in movies like Die Hard (1988) and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991), was also celebrated at Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6183

 

January 9th saw the passing of American actor Angus Scrimm, who’ll be fondly remembered by horror-film fans for playing the Tall Man in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies.  And Scottish writer Robert Banks Stewart died on January 15th.  Banks Stewart was well-known for creating the TV detective shows Shoestring (1979-80) and Bergerac (1981-91) and he also scripted two of the scariest stories of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons and 1976’s The Seeds of Doom.  The alien monsters in the former adventure, the repulsively slimy and sucker-covered Zygons, proved so popular that forty years later they’re still menacing Peter Capaldi in the revived Doctor Who.

 

© BBC

 

Another British actor to depart in January 2016 was actor Frank Finlay, who passed away on the 30th.  Finlay played Porthos in the classic trilogy of Musketeers films directed by Richard Lester in 1973, 1974 and 1989; Van Helsing in the BBC’s stately adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1977; and Dr Fallada in a less reputable vampire epic, Tobe Hooper’s hilarious Lifeforce (1985).  He also had the curious distinction of playing Inspector Lestrade in two different films where Sherlock Holmes investigates the Jack the Ripper killings, 1965’s A Study in Terror and 1979’s Murder by Decree.  The final day of January saw the death of Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, whose twinkly-eyed, possibly toupee-bearing visage seemed to symbolise the BBC during the 1980s as much as Ronald McDonald did McDonald’s or Colonel Sanders did the KFC.  Equipped with a soft brogue, gentle wit and inability to take himself or anyone else too seriously, the ubiquitous Wogan could host any ropey old chat-show or game-show and make it entertaining.

 

Italian author Umberto Eco died on February 19th.  I always thought his acclaimed novel The Name of the Rose (1980) was overrated, but at least the film version six years later gave Sean Connery one of his last good film roles.  On February 22nd, the British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe passed away at the venerable age of 103.  Slocombe’s half-century career included such highlights as Dead of Night (1945), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Servant (1963), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974) and the first three Indiana Jones movies (1981, 84 and 89).  Another great behind-the-scenes man of British cinema, production designer Ken Adam, died on March 10th.  Not only was Adam responsible for the spectacular and now iconic sets of seven James Bond movies between Dr No (1961) and Moonraker (1979), but he designed the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), reckoned by Steven Spielberg to be the greatest movie-set ever.

 

© Hawk Films / Columbia Pictures

 

Another Kubrick veteran, the actress Adrienne Corri who appeared in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, died on March 13th.  Among her other credits was a role in the bloody but fairy tale-like Hammer horror movie Vampire Circus (1972).  Two days later saw the death of Sylvia Anderson, the one-time Mrs Gerry Anderson, co-producer of such classic kid’s puppet TV shows as Stingray (1964-65), Thunderbirds (1965-66), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68) and Joe 90 (1968-69) and such adult sci-fi TV shows as UFO (1970)  and Space 1999 (1975-77).  In Thunderbirds, she also provided the voice for the gorgeous and glamorous, though frankly plastic, Lady Penelope.  Author Barry Hines died on March 18th.  His most famous work was A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), which a year after its publication was filmed as Kes by mighty British director Ken Loach.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

The comedy world took a treble hit in spring 2016.  The English comedienne, actress, writer and director Victoria Wood died on March 24th; the Scottish comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett on March 31st; and the great American stand-up, actor, writer and producer Gary Shandling on April 20th.  The passing of the impish and fruity-toned Corbett prompted this tribute from Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6367

 

© BBC

 

Welsh actor Gareth Thomas, who played intergalactic freedom-fighter Roj Blake in the BBC’s downbeat 1970s space opera Blake’s Seven, died on April 13th.  Surely the most traumatic TV moment ever came at the end of Blake’s Seven’s final episode, which sees Blake bloodily gunned down by his second-in-command Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) who wrongly suspects him of treachery.  (“Have you betrayed us?  Have you betrayed… me?!”)  A week later, on April 20th, film director Guy Hamilton passed away.  Hamilton was another James Bond alumni with four 007 movies under his belt, most notably 1964’s Goldfinger.  And April 21st was a day when another great musical talent was snuffed out: Prince.  Blood and Porridge paid its respects to the saucy purple one here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6441

 

On April 24th we bid adieu to two character actors who’d enlivened many an old British B-movie: Australian Lewis Fiander, who’d had supporting roles in the horror movies Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) and was the leading man in Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s splendidly creepy Spanish film Who Can Kill a Child? (1976); and British-Chinese actor Burt Kwouk, who was best known for playing Inspector Clouseau’s manservant Cato in the Pink Panther movies, though he’d appeared in a lot of movies and TV shows besides.  Kwouk was a big favourite at Blood and Porridge, which published this tribute to him a year ago:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5707

 

By June, the month when the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, it was clear that 2016 was going to be remembered as a monumentally shite year.  This unhappy fact seemed to be reinforced by the passing of the great Muhammad Ali on June 3rd, which was recorded on this blog here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6607

 

From www.wantedinrome.com

 

June 12th saw the death of one of Scotland’s more outré eccentrics, Tom Leppard, aka the Leopard Man, who was reckoned by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world’s most tattooed man.  A former soldier, Leppard had his body covered in a leopard-skin pattern of spots and spent much of his later life living in a remote bothy on the Isle of Skye.  On June 19th, the American-Russian actor Anton Yelchin died in a tragic freak accident.  Aged just 27 at the time of his death, Yelchin had made a name for himself in impressive movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), as well as in the rebooted Star Trek movies where he played Chekov.  And Bud Spencer, the burly Italian Olympian swimmer and comic actor, died on June 27th.  In partnership with Terence Hill, Spencer made 20 movies of rumbustious and destructive slapstick that regularly turned up as supporting features in British cinemas during the 1970s.  Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974) and Crime Busters (1977) are particularly fondly remembered at Blood and Porridge.

 

Finally, June ended and July began with what Blood and Porridge dubbed ‘the curse of the Radiohead video.’  No sooner had the avant-garde British rock band released a video for their new song Burn the Witch, which combined the look and the Claymation animation style of the classic British TV children’s shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969) with the plot of the classic British folk-horror movie The Wicker Man (1974), than: (1) Gordon Murray, producer and animator of those children’s shows died on June 30th; and (2) The Wicker Man’s director Robin Hardy died on July 1st.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge had to say about Hardy:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6706

 

© XL

 

To be continued…  Unfortunately.

 

Christmas in Colombo

 

 

For a country where just seven percent of the population professes to be Christian, Sri Lanka sure seems to love Christmas.  That’s the conclusion I draw after tramping about Colombo for the past couple of weeks and snapping pictures of the many festive-themed adornments to the city-streets.

 

For example, here’s a Nativity scene that’s been created on a little platform just inside the front wall of St Peter’s College on Galle Road.  Brightly-coloured figures kneel, bow and pay homage amid the straw: red-robed Magi, blue-and-red-winged angels, the usual little sheep that look like they’ve strayed from a toy farm set.  A narrow strip of wood runs from the wall to the platform, looking a bit like a drawbridge that Mary and Joseph can pull up when they get tired of the visitors.

 

 

Further down Galle Road, silhouettes of Father Christmas and his reindeer decorate an arch in front of the entrance to the Majestic City shopping complex.  I have to say that Santa here looks particularly horrible.  He’s a brown, shapeless and worryingly faecal-looking blob with a red Santa-hat on top.  They say that you can’t polish a turd, but evidently you can stick a red hat on one and call it ‘Santa’.

 

 

Meanwhile, there’s more Santa-related shenanigans down on Marine Drive, where I spotted this life-sized image of him hanging outside a balcony several floors up an apartment building.  The building itself looks pretty grotty with rusty-brown stains creeping down the masonry below the satellite TV dishes and air-conditioning extractor fans, and I can’t help wondering if Santa is desperate to climb into the place or climb out of it.

 

 

Further down Galle Road at the entrance of another shopping centre, Crescot City, these Christmas ice-palace fortifications have been erected.  They’ve become selfie-central for Colombo’s well-heeled young shoppers.  When I was there the outside temperature was about 30 degrees Celsius, so it was no surprise that the clumps of snow on the palace’s stonework seemed to be melting.  Or that the heavily-clad elf at the top seemed to be flailing with heat exhaustion.

 

 

Next door to Crescot City is the Cinnamon Grand Hotel.  Entering its lobby, the song Pretty in Pink by the Psychedelic Furs immediately started playing in my head because pink is the colour scheme the hotel management have adopted for their Christmas-tree and holly-wreath decorations this year.  Downstairs, a floor has been given over to a Christmas Market.  During my visit the market’s fish-stall seemed to be selling only long, thick, roasted, smoked and silent-screaming eels.  Out of festive delicacy, I will avoid traumatising you by showing pictures of their dead, gaping faces.

 

 

Finally, I have to say my favourite Christmas sight in Colombo is this cheap, humble but charming Christmas tree standing outside the Vespa Sports Club, one of the ‘man-pubs’ in the city that I frequent.  Sitting drinking beer next to a tatty Christmas tree on a ramshackle veranda in the tropics – for me, that’s what the Spirit of Christmas is all about.

 

 

Greene ups the auntie

 

© Audible Studios

 

I certainly felt ready to read Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt a few months ago. I started this novel just after Britain’s ruling Conservative party had held its annual conference, which itself came after the British electorate’s vote to leave the European Union. Most Conservatives being anti-EU, their party conference this year was shrill and gloating, loud with jingoistic rhetoric about the greatness and specialness of Britain and with xenophobic rhetoric about pulling up the drawbridge against immigrants, Europeans and foreigners generally.

 

And I began Travels with my Aunt with the words of Prime Minister Theresa May ringing in my ears. In her keynote conference speech, May made it plain that in her view the decent thing to do is to stay at home and not sully yourself with such dangerous concepts as living and working overseas (and presumably associating with foreigners). “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she intoned, “you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word ‘citizenship’ means.”

 

Having lived and / or worked at different times in Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, the Republic of Ireland, North Korea, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Myanmar, Mauritius and – my current place of abode – Sri Lanka, I thought: “Wow, that’s me told. Sorry, Theresa!”

 

Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t think that at all. What I really thought was: “Bog off, you ignorant, parochial, narrow-minded, curtain-twitching cretin, you.”

 

After that, I was eager to get into Travels with my Aunt, written by Graham Greene in 1969. Its story, the back-cover blurb assured me, was a humorous one about an unadventurous Englishman having his mind broadened and horizons widened by foreign travel. And the process whereby he becomes a citizen of the world, rather than remaining a citizen of the stultifying Little England beloved by Theresa May, has an unlikely facilitator – his elderly but still sprightly and impetuous Aunt Augusta.

 

And for most of its length, that’s how the narrative of Travels with my Aunt unfolds. Henry Pulling is a fifty-something retired and never-married bank manager, living in a sedate part of London with a garden of carefully cultivated dahlias (“the Polar Beauties and the Golden Leaders and the Requiems”) and an ex-army major next door. His main plan for the future is to produce some home-made jam since “a man in retirement has to have some hobbies if he is not to age too fast”. Had he lived 47 years later, the timid Henry probably wouldn’t have voted to leave the EU – he would’ve been a reluctant Remainer. But I’m sure that, generally, he would’ve admired the cut of Theresa May’s jib.

 

One day Henry attends his mother’s funeral, which passes with an efficiency and lack of fuss that he approves of: “The flowers were removed economically from the coffin, which at the touch of a button slid away from us out of sight. Afterwards in the troubled sunlight I shook hands with a number of nephews and nieces and cousins whom I hadn’t seen for years and could not identify. It was understood that I had to wait for the ashes and wait I did, while the chimney of the crematorium gently smoked overhead.” At this point he meets Aunt Augusta, his mother’s younger sister, whom he hasn’t seen for more than half-a-century.   Henry soon decides it was a good thing his family saw nothing of her for so long: “She had a temperament my mother would not have liked.” But almost immediately, he finds himself entangled in a web of eccentric acquaintances, far-flung locales and not-entirely-legal activities that somehow surrounds the old lady.

 

By page 12, Henry is visiting his aunt’s apartment above a London pub, which she shares, seemingly intimately, with a burly middle-aged Sierra Leonean called Wordsworth. By page 26, Henry is having visitors of his own – the police, eager to examine the contents of his mother’s ashes-urn, which he unwisely took with him to his aunt and Wordsworth’s flat and which they believe now contains something besides human remains. And twenty pages further, the same police are informing him that there’s “more cannabis than ashes” in the urn.

 

Meanwhile, Henry also gets roped into accompanying his newly-discovered aunt on her travels. By page 30 she’s made him escort her to Brighton, where she tracks down an old friend called Hattie, who’s now a fortune teller. Giving Henry a tea-leaves reading, Hattie predicts: “…you’re going to travel. Across the ocean. With a lady friend… I see a lot of confusion too and running about.” Henry retorts, “That’s most unlikely… I lead a very regular life. A game of bridge once a week at the Conservative Club. And my garden of course. The dahlias.”

 

Needless to say, Hattie’s predictions are on the money. By page 60, Henry finds himself heading for Paris in the company of Augusta and a dodgy-looking red suitcase that proves to be “stacked with ten-pound notes”. By page 91 he’s with her on board the Orient Express, bound for Istanbul where she has a rendezvous with a mysterious General Abdul. He makes the acquaintance of an American hippy-chick called Tooley, who offers him a cigarette: “It had an odd herbal flavour, not disagreeable. ‘I’ve never smoked an American cigarette before,’ I said.” And by page 183 Henry is journeying across the South American interior to Paraguay, summoned by Augusta after she’s installed herself there with a former lover called Mr Visconti. There’s no surprise when it transpires that both of them are up to their necks in a smuggling operation.

 

During their travels Augusta regales Henry with stories – tales of past adventures and lovers that are rambling, fanciful, at times ridiculous and no doubt economical with the truth. But they indicate that the old lady has led a life – in contrast to Henry, who’s managed to spend most of his life in the same bank-branch, first as a clerk, then a cashier, then a manager. The funniest of Augusta’s stories involves a chancer called Curran, with whom she once set up a fake church in Brighton. Called the Doggie Church, it catered for the spiritual needs of canines and, obviously, was designed to fleece the congregation’s owners. “It was Curran who set me reading theology,” she tells her nephew. “He wanted references to dogs. It wasn’t easy to find any – even in St Frances de Sales. I found lots about fleas and butterflies and stags and elephants and spiders and crocodiles in St Frances but a strange neglect of dogs.”

 

The exchanges between the feisty Augusta and the fusty Henry – who, despite himself, develops a wanderlust and taste for adventure as the book progresses – are a constant delight. Modern readers will have problems, though, with how Greene depicts the character of Wordsworth. Specifically, they’ll be uncomfortable with how he milks Wordsworth’s Sierra Leonean patois for easy and nowadays politically-incorrect laughs: “The telephone talk all the bloody time while you not here… Oh, poor Wordsworth not understand one bloody word. Ar say to them you no talk English. They go away double quick.” Yes, I know, Greene wrote the book in an era when awareness of racial stereotyping, among British authors anyway, was practically non-existent and it seemed acceptable to use coloured characters for comic relief. But still. I found myself cringing every time Greene had Wordsworth open his mouth.

 

That said, Wordsworth is allowed some development and by the book’s finale he’s become its most virtuous character – certainly its most loyal, probably its most principled. Gratifyingly, Henry’s attitude towards him changes. After viewing him at the start with shock, suspicion and probably lightly-disguised horror, he reacts to Wordsworth’s reappearances in later chapters with the joy of someone reunited with a dear old friend.

 

Travels with my Aunt is a funny book but there’s a point, near the end, when it suddenly stops being funny. Greene suddenly switches mode from entertainer to moralist. Henry and Augusta have had a lot of fun on their travels, but much of that fun has involved illegality and now there’s a price to be paid. Thus, the story finishes on a sour note. A sympathetic character gets killed, the nephew and aunt find themselves in cahoots with another character who’s utterly unsavoury, and in the final paragraph Henry makes a couple of admissions that show his escape from his mundane existence as a retired English bank manager and transformation into a well-travelled man of the world have cost him his decency.

 

I still think Theresa May is talking objectionable drivel with her citizen of the world / citizen of nowhere claims. However, if I were debating the matter with her, Travels with my Aunt probably isn’t the book I’d use to back my argument. She might read the ending and jeer: “See? I told you so!”

 

© Daily Telegraph    

 

He’s Spartacus

 

© Universal International

 

David Bowie, Umberto Eco, Prince, Michael Cimino, Gene Wilder, Edward Albee, Leonard Cohen…  During 2016 the Grim Reaper has cut a swathe through the world’s great musical, literary and cinematic figures.  At times the bodies were dropping so thick and fast that he didn’t seem to be using his scythe on the global arts community, but driving a combine harvester through it.  And the year isn’t over yet.  I just hope that for the remaining twenty days of 2016, Neil Young, Philip Roth and Robert De Niro are holed up somewhere safe with ample supplies of food, drink and antibiotics.

 

Therefore, with death all around, it’s nice to be able to report on a 2016 news story involving longevity.  For yesterday saw the 100th birthday of dimple-jawed Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas.

 

During the late 1950s, it seemed that cinematically Kirk Douglas could do no wrong.  (I’m not old enough to have seen his 1950s movies when they were released in the cinema, of course, but they never seemed to be off the TV when I was a kid in the 1970s.)  As Ned the harpooner, he rescued James Mason from that pesky giant squid in Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954).  As Vincent Van Gogh, he sawed off his own ear in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956).  And as Doc Holliday, he overcame his tubercular cough to help out Burt Lancaster in John Sturges’s Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957).

 

He played a Norseman alongside Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine in Fleischer’s testosterone-charged, hardly-historically-accurate but thoroughly enjoyable The Vikings (1958).  It’s Borgnine, not Douglas, who gets the film’s best line – after listening to treacherous English nobleman Lord Egbert (James Donald) describe the custom back home of dropping prisoners into a pit of ravenously hungry wolves, he exclaims, “You see?  The English are civilised!”  But an earlier retort by Douglas to Borgnine is pretty funny too: “Oh, stop shouting.  You sound like a moose giving birth to a hedgehog.”  The Vikings, though, isn’t all fun and games.  Watching it as a kid, I was traumatised by the scene where Douglas loses an eye to Curtis’s very pecky pet falcon.

 

© United Artists

 

In 1960, of course, he played the leader of Rome’s rebellious slaves in Stanley Kubrick’s epic Spartacus.  The film’s most moving and memorable scene is still surely the bane of the British police force on Saturday nights, when it has to deal with damage caused by a drunken stag parties / rugby clubs / gangs of engineering students.  “All right.  Will the person among you who broke the window identify himself, please?”  “I’m Spartacus!”  “I’m Spartacus!”  “I’m Spartacus!”  “I’m Spartacus!”  Etc.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8h_v_our_Q

 

But it’s in another Kubrick movie from the same era, 1957’s Paths of Glory, that Douglas perhaps enjoys his finest hour.  He plays Colonel Dax, a French officer trying to save three of his men when they’re court martialled for refusing to take part in a suicidal assault on a German position during World War I.  The film’s historical and anti-military themes proved so controversial in France that it was denied a showing there until 1975.

 

After that, Kirk Douglas’s film roles were never quite as good again, although I’m partial to his turn in Anthony Mann’s tale of World War II Norwegian resistance fighters The Heroes of Telemark (1965), a movie that’s engrained on my memory because during the 1970s the BBC seemed to show it on TV every other week.  And I like him in Burt Kennedy’s The War Wagon (1967), where he spends most of his time getting wound up by John Wayne.  (“How are we going to take it?  With the Prussian Army?”  “With three other fellas.  Five of us.”  “Five.  I’m kind of glad I didn’t kill you tonight.  You’re funny as hell.”)

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Perhaps his last good film was Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978).  Still, afterwards, he managed to improve the quality of a couple of movies just by being in them – even though essentially those movies were puddings.  I’m thinking of Don Taylor’s shonky fantasy The Final Countdown (1980) about a modern US aircraft carrier being catapulted back in time to the week before the attack on Pearl Harbour; and Stanley Donen’s sci-fi misfire Saturn 3 (1980), in which Douglas and Farah Fawcett are menaced by a killer robot that’s had Harvey Keitel’s libido programmed into it.  (I suspect these days Martin Amis keeps it quiet that he wrote Saturn 3’s script.)  Not even Kirk Douglas, though, could redeem Alberto De Martino’s Holocaust 2000 (1977), a British-Italian horror movie about nuclear power plants and the Antichrist that truly has to be seen to be believed.

 

He’s given great performances in some of the most robustly-entertaining movies that Hollywood has ever produced.  Congratulations, Kirk, on reaching treble figures.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Grouty’s greatest hits

 

© BBC

 

I suppose I shouldn’t feel too upset about the passing of the great British character actor Peter Vaughan.  He’d enjoyed an excellent innings – he was 93 when he died three days ago – and his seven-decade acting career had lasted right up to the present with his performance as Maester Aemon in the blockbusting HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.  But I’m still sorry to see him go, primarily because he was one of those thespians who’d seemed so enduring and ubiquitous that I fancied he was going to continue popping up in films and on TV shows until the end of time.

 

Here’s a selection of my favourite moments from Peter Vaughan’s acting CV.  I haven’t picked his acclaimed performance in the award-winning 1996 BBC TV series Our Friends in the North because I haven’t seen it – I wasn’t living in the UK when it was broadcast.  And I haven’t mentioned Game of Thrones because, believe it or not, I’ve never watched it either.  (Though someday I’ll take half-a-year off and devote it to a seven-season Game of Thrones boxset binge.)

 

Fanatic (1965)

When the famous British studio Hammer Films wasn’t making gothic horror movies in the 1960s, it was making small-scale psychological thrillers.  These included Taste of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963) and this film, which despite some predictability and a disappointing ending is a lot of fun.  It benefits from a great little cast and from deft low-budget direction by Canadian filmmaker Silvio Narizzano, who’d later direct 1966’s classic Georgy Girl and the 1970 movie version of the Joe Orton play Loot.

 

Fanatic has Stephanie Powers crossing paths with and being imprisoned by a rich, elderly and demented religious fanatic, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Tallulah Bankhead.  In the roles of Bankhead’s husband-and-wife servants – who do her bidding because they hope to get a generous inheritance after her death – are Vaughan and the formidable actress Yootha Joyce.  By the late 1970s Joyce would be Britain’s indisputable Sitcom Queen, thanks to playing the dragon-ish Mildred Roper in Man about the House (1973-76) and George and Mildred (1976-1980).

 

© Hammer Films

 

The pleasure of Vaughan’s performance in Fanatic is what a total scum-bucket he is.  His character is by turns shifty, scheming, greedy, sadistic, thuggish, lecherous and cowardly.  You can’t help but cheer when near the end Bankhead shoots him in the face.

 

An additional bonus is that playing the household’s mentally subnormal handyman is a young and before-he-was-famous Donald Sutherland.  Yay!

 

Straw Dogs (1971)

Set in rural Cornwall, dealing notoriously with vigilantism, violence and rape, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs sees Vaughan essaying another scummy character.  He’s local patriarch, boozer and brute Tom Hedden, who leads the climactic assault on Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s house after the village idiot accidentally kills his daughter, flees and takes refuge there.

 

© ABC Pictures / Talent Associates

 

When the village magistrate, played by T.P. McKenna, arrives at the house to try to defuse the situation, Vaughan blasts him apart with his shotgun.  Then Vaughan starts climbing in through one of Hoffman’s windows.  Hoffman tackles him and things don’t end well for him when his shotgun goes off again during the struggle.

 

After viewing Straw Dogs, one sick-minded friend of mine was prompted to quip, “Peter Vaughan never really found his feet in that movie, did he?”

 

Symptoms (1974)

Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz’s British-made horror film is a languid, dreamy and quietly effective piece of work that’s regarded now as a minor classic.  Little seen for many years, it was finally scheduled for DVD release this year with the help of the British Film Institute.  Lorna Heilbron plays a young woman invited by a new, slightly-odd friend (Angela Pleasence) to spend time with her on her remote country estate.  However, Vaughan – playing yet another unsavoury character, the creepy groundsman – is soon dropping hints to her that she isn’t the first young woman to have been invited to the estate; and the previous one may not have left it.

 

© Finiton Productions

 

In the supporting cast is Mike Grady, who along with Vaughan would later become a regular in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith.  About which, more in a minute.

 

Porridge (1974-1977 & 1979)

I can understand why Vaughan was bemused at how a generation of Britons identified him completely with Harry Grout in the BBC’s classic prison-set sitcom Porridge.  He was in Porridge for only a couple of episodes and the 1979 movie adaptation.  However, he certainly made an impression.

 

Usually funny, occasionally serious, Porridge follows the adventures of a cynical old lag (Ronnie Barker) and his naïve young cellmate (Richard Beckinsdale) as they try to keep their heads down, serve their time with a minimum of trouble and navigate a safe path between the prison authorities on one hand and the prison’s more criminal elements on the other.  Representing those criminal elements is the prison’s Mr Big, the fearsome Harry Grout – Grouty as he’s referred to, under whispered breath.

 

Despite being a convict, Grouty lives a life of luxury with his every need attended to by obsequious fellow-inmates and crooked warders.  He’s clearly inspired by Mr Bridger, the character played by Noel Coward in the popular 1969 caper movie The Italian Job.  But while Coward plays Bridger for laughs, swanning about his lavish cell like a member of the Royal Family, the bear-like and quietly-intense Vaughn imbues Grouty with genuine menace.  You have no doubt that if you cross him, he’ll arrange for someone to break your legs.  And if nobody’s available to do it, he’ll break those legs himself.

 

© BBC

 

Citizen Smith (1977-78)

A BBC sitcom scripted by John Sullivan, Citizen Smith was a political satire starring Robert Lindsay and set in 1970s south London.  Lindsay plays Wolfie Smith, a hopeless Che Guevara wannabe and leader of a revolutionary, but equally hopeless organisation called the Tooting Popular Front.

 

Peter Vaughan would have been a shoo-in for the role of local gangster Harry Fenning (actually played by Stephen Greif), whom Wolfie frequently rubs up the wrong way while he tries to engineer a people’s uprising.  Instead, however, Vaughan landed the slightly milder role of Charlie Johnson, the father of Wolfie’s comparatively-sensible girlfriend Shirley (Cheryl Hall).

 

Much of the show’s charm came from the bickering between Wolfie and the conservative, no-nonsense, old-fashioned Charlie.  The latter’s sarcastic tones as he repeatedly refers to his prospective son-in-law as ‘Trotsky’, ‘Chairman Mao’ and ‘the yeti’ are a joy.   Citizen Smith lasted for four seasons, but it was never quite the same after Vaughan left at the end of season two.

 

The Time Bandits (1981)

Director / writer Terry Gilliam’s fantasy The Time Bandits is a lovely film with a lovely cast – and I don’t just mean the various Hollywood stars in (mostly) cameo roles, but also Craig Warnock as eleven-year-old hero Kevin and David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Jack Purves and co. as the time-travelling dwarves.  Vaughan appears as a cantankerous, feeling-his-age and self-pitying ogre called Winston: “You try being beastly and terrifying… you can only get one hour’s sleep a night because your back hurts, and you daren’t cough unless you want to pull a muscle.”  He shares a houseboat with his wife, Mrs Ogre, who’s coincidentally played by another Sitcom Queen – Katherine Helmond, who was Jessica Tate in the legendary American comedy Soap (1977-81).

 

© Handmade Films

 

When Winston catches Kevin and the dwarves in his fishing net, he and Mrs Ogre make plans to eat them – “Aren’t they lovely?  We can have them for breakfast!” – but the dwarves turn the tables on him after he unwisely agrees to let them massage his sore back.

 

Terry Gilliam liked Vaughan so much that he cast him in his next movie, Brazil (1985).  Writing on Facebook the other day, Gilliam urged his followers to “put on Brazil or Time Bandits and lift a glass to him.  Farewell, Peter!”

 

The Remains of the Day (1993)

James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day is much admired but I’m not a huge fan of it.  Perhaps this is because before I saw it I’d read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel on which it’s based; and I prefer the book to the film.

 

Vaughan plays Stevens Sr., father of the main character played by Anthony Hopkins – James Stevens, a duty-obsessed and unthinkingly loyal butler to a 1930s aristocrat.   Stevens Sr. was once a distinguished butler himself, equally dutiful and loyal.  As his health and abilities fail, however, he loses his standing and dignity in the household and ends up a lowly cleaner.  His plight becomes a warning to his son about what lies ahead.  An added tragedy is that the son is too self-consciously reserved to show his emotions at the old man’s decline.

 

And for me, the most memorable thing in the movie version of The Remains of the Day is Peter Vaughan’s poignant performance.

 

© Merchant-Ivory Productions

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: the Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery

 

 

When I was a wee boy at Christmas-time, when the Christmas tree in our house had been fully decked out with tinsel, baubles and fairy-lights, I would look up at it and indulge in a fantasy.  I fantasised that I’d shrunk to the size of one of the tiny snowmen, fairies and Santa Clauses hanging from the ends of its branches and I was living in the centre of it in an equally miniature treehouse.  So that all around me were those shiny, shimmering, glittering Christmas-tree decorations, now fantastically big and a thousand times more spectacular.

 

Having lunch one day at the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery brought back memories of that childhood yuletide fantasy.   This famous eatery does business in El Mercado in the Texan city of San Antonio.  It celebrated its 75th anniversary in October this year and is as much a restaurant and bar as a café and bakery.  And it’s so elaborately decorated that its dining experience is like having a meal at the heart of a gigantic Christmas tree.

 

Covering the ceilings are dangling constellations of big multi-coloured stars and floating galaxies of glinting fairy lights.  The columns supporting those ceilings are wrapped in artificial greenery, which itself is so wrapped in coloured lights and tinselly decorations that it’s impossible to tell what the greenery is meant to be – pine, ivy, whatever.  Adding to the phantasmagorical effect of the café’s interior are golden orbs, glittery ribbons, baubles shaped like hot-air balloons, miniature piñata, little snowman and angel dolls, sparkly-winged butterflies and squares of shiny coloured foil.

 

 

At one end of the premises is a drinking establishment called the Mariachi Bar, about which I scribbled in my trusty notebook at the time: “…rather less glitzy and, dare I say it, less chintzy…  Its comparatively sparse decorations include a cello, mounted at a skewed angle on the wall, and a big wooden eagle raising its wings dramatically before the central mirror of the gantry.”  However, this photo I took of the bar-sign hardly suggests sparseness and a lack of glitz and chintz.

 

 

At the café’s opposite end is a room containing a remarkable mural that folds around two walls.  It depicts an array of Hispanic celebrities and political heavy hitters who’ve achieved prominence over the years, especially in the United States.  I have to ashamedly confess that I recognised very few of them – only a handful whose fame has crossed the Atlantic like guitarist Carlos Santana, director Robert Rodriguez, actor Edward James Olmos and the dog whisperer himself, Cesar Millan.

 

I’m told that the mural includes the San Antonio-born Henry Gonzalez, who served as a Democrat member of the US House of Representatives for nearly 40 years and who was in Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas on that fateful November day in 1963; the civil rights activist and labour leader Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association; and the surrealist and folk artist Frida Kahlo, whose feminism-inflected work was once described by Andre Gide as being like a ‘ribbon around a bomb’.  The mural began life in the 1970s, has gradually expanded since then and today incorporates over a hundred people.

 

 

Meanwhile, another corner of the same room houses a shrine dedicated to Selina (Quintanilla-Perez), the Mexican-American ‘Queen of Tejano Music’ who was murdered in 1995 by a former friend and employee.  Since then her adulation by the Hispanic community has reached Elvis-like proportions; to the point where George W. Bush, when he was the Governor of Texas, was moved to designate her birthday ‘Selina Day’.  The shrine is topped by a big framed picture of her singing on stage, the picture sounded by a purplish mane of tinsel, fake flowers and artificial birds.  Smaller framed photos of her from various stages in her life crowd around the shrine’s base.  There’s also a figurine of the Virgin Mary, enveloped in a halo of light, standing guard over the shrine on one side; and a statue of a girlish-looking angel acting as a sentry on its other side.

 

 

When I was there, the entrance area was dominated by an additional shrine.  This was a Dia de los Muertos – Mexican Day of the Dead – shrine dedicated to deceased members of the family who’ve run the café for three-quarters of a century, most notably Pedro and Cruz Cortez, who in 1941 founded it as an early-morning breakfast place for market-workers.  Back then it contained all of three tables.

 

A green-robed angel stood at the shrine’s summit, with a somewhat H.R. Giger-esque arrangement of horn-like spikes forming a vague halo behind her.  There were also dolls, flowers, candles, papier-mâché skulls with cartoonishly-drawn features and the inevitable clutter of framed photos.  I visited the café shortly before Dia de los Meurtos, which takes place from October 31st from November 2nd, and I don’t know if this shrine was a temporary one erected especially for the holiday or if it’s a permanent feature there.

 

 

During my visit, I was so busy making notes about the décor that I forgot to record anything about the Mexican food I ate.  All I can say is that I don’t recall having any complaints about it.  Actually, if you’re likely to be in San Antonio in the future and fancy trying the place out, here’s a link to its menu:

 

http://www.mitierracafe.com/menu

 

By the way, the Mariachi Bar has a Happy Hour every weekday evening from five to seven o’clock.  However, if there’s a Christmas-loving wee kid inside you, any hour spent inside the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery is an enchantingly happy hour.