Darkest Hour – Keep Clem and Carry On

I find it hard in these strange times to watch a film without viewing it through the prism of Brexit. After all, what other reason can there be for making a film now about Churchill? And this is not the Churchill of the Boer War, not the Churchill of Gallipoli, not the Churchill of the General Strike, not the Churchill who lost the election in 1945, in fact there are very few warts in this portrayal of him at all. This is a film about a glorious leader who stood firm while all of Europe fell and the Yankees kept away. So why else, and why not now, if not to give the Brexiters a vision of how the world was and could be again? For here is the England that the Brexiters so desire. An England with a strong leader, an England King with pomp and ceremony, where the Empire is still ours, still some way from independence, where the underground runs on time and the streets are full of Mary Poppins characters, not Polish bricklayers or Afghan refugees, or Calais camp young men masquerading as adults, a land of certainty, solidity, security, standing alone against the perfidious Germans, the capitulating Belgians and the weak and hopeless Frenchies; a land where the little women stayed in the shadows, where men had watch-chains and pin-striped suits and all dressed like Nigel Farage and drank whiskey from crystal tumblers served by footmen and smoked on the tube and made ringing speeches in the House; a land where there was no Gina Miller to darken the doors of justice and try and cheat us out of voting to cut our own throats. Darkest Hour portrays the few weeks in May 1940 when the great appeaser Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup) was forced to resign and a coalition was formed with Churchill at the helm. The film is book-ended with his two speeches – it starts with him offering the House nothing but tears, toil and sweat and ends with his vow to fight them on the beaches and never surrender. And in between, we see him developing a relationship with the King (George Vl played by Ben Mendelsohn) who sounds like Jonathan Ross, all ‘thwones’ and ‘must twy harder,’ being nice to Clemmy, impressing a young typist (Lily James), sparring with Lord Halifax who is desperate to sue for peace and then blithely sending 4000 men to their deaths in Calais in order to buy time to save the nation. There are two main characters in the film – Churchill (of course) and a young typist – Miss Layton – played by Lily James. The typists in these sorts of films are always portrayed in the same way: they’re impossibly beautiful and gloriously slim, they start out nervous and make mistakes and want to run away until the Great Man nurtures them and then they blossom. There’s always a moment when the Great Man thaws and takes them under their wing and shares secrets, as here when Churchill takes her into the (forbidden) map-room and shows her all the little pins denoting the German forces encircling our brave boys. And there’s always a little tear as here when Lily mouths the words of the no surrender speech which she has just typed for the gruff (but nice really) Mr Churchill. Just once, just once mind you, why can’t the typist look like Mrs Doubtfire with a face like a bag of spanners and a body that’s lived-in instead of lain-on and just get on with being a woman with a job of work instead of a simpering, blossoming young girl? Kristin Scott-Thomas (Clemmy) is still beautiful, although looking increasingly brittle and cadaverous; her cut-glass posh accent is still the best. She does her best with little to do. There is an odd moment where she berates Churchill for spending too much money and says they can’t pay their bills any more but this story arc never goes anywhere and we don’t find out if they ever make any money. (As Churchill – I always thought rather oddly – subsequently received the Nobel prize for literature, one assumes they didn’t stay broke for too long). There are bits that may be factually correct but certainly didn’t ring true. Did Churchill really ride the underground for the first time on his way to the House to give his ‘no surrender’ speech? Did he really get the idea of ‘no surrender’ by talking to housewives, working class men and spunky children and quoting Shakespeare with an African immigrant in a pork pie hat? And in the days before social media and television would everyone really have recognised him immediately? Did the underground really take quite that long to travel one stop? Did Churchill really not know the meaning of the two-fingered gesture? His knowledge of English history would surely have seen him fully aware of its origins with the bowmen of Crecy. Much of the film takes place in the Cabinet War Rooms, although as London was not being bombed in May 1940 it is hard to see why this was necessary. (And Clemmy remains upstairs in 10 Downing Street, presumably happy to be blown to bits as long as Winnie survives). It did give the film-makers the chance to show the claustrophobic conditions underground, the cramped meeting rooms, the dingy map room, typing pool, the toilet just for Churchill’s own use – all familiar to those who have paid the price of admission (and now no doubt will do again) to see this outpost of the Imperial War Museum. Gary Oldman as Churchill has been rightly lauded and his performance is a tour-de-force. There were times when he seemed to walk a bit too easily and too quickly portraying a man of 65 who was very over-weight and smoked incessantly. But still, he was appropriately jowly with thinning hair and made a good stab at the accent, although the perpetual cigar often appeared unlit. Director Joe Wright also made Atonement, a much more profound and layered work about class and war. Parts of that were about the retreat to Dunkirk and it sometimes seemed as if Wright had some film left over which he used to show the defence of Calais. Darkest Hour is an enjoyable movie and a decent film. However, I can’t see any great reason for anyone much under 50 to see it – unless they’re ardent Brexiters, of course – last year’s Dunkirk covered much the same ground and although that was a pretty terrible Brexit film, there are some decent action sequences and Mark Rylance and Harry Styles are in it.    

Star Wars – The Last Remainer Jedi

I think I’ve worked it out – the whole Star Wars franchise is really a parable about Brexit. I mean, of course it’s all nonsense but if you believe enough, you can leave Europe and it will all turn out fine. Stay with me on this… The First Order (the baddies) are the Brexiters of course, led by the evil rasping voiced Snoke, played by Nigel Farrage. The Resistance (the goodies) are the Remainers, locked in a ceaseless, never-ending battle for the soul of the universe (Britain), led by Princess Leia, played by Anna Soubry. In the background, hovering like the King across the water, in a grubby cloak with a cowl hood, hush puppies, lank hair and a homeless man’s beard is Luke Skywalker, played by Kenneth Clarke. The young, female lead – Rey – is played by Nicky Morgan – she searches for Luke who lurks on the back-benches on a mystical island and seeks to persuade him to return to the fray and defeat the evil Kylo Ren, played by Boris Johnson but with black hair and a fitter body. Kylo (the son of Leia and Han Solo) is scarred and conflicted – he does not know whether to embrace the xenophobic, racist, oppressive dark side of Snoke/Farrage or join with Rey/Nicky. Meanwhile, General Hux, played by Michael Gove with black boots, commands his battle-cruiser hurling ineffective thunderbolts at Anna Soubry who leads her dwindling band of plucky resistance fighters. Hux, who has red hair and is therefore clearly mad, commands an enormous battle-fleet of deluded little Englanders and spends all his time and the whole film chasing Leia and her loyal followers across the universe trying to reach the sunlit uplands of free trade and sovereignty. As a consequence, no governing takes place throughout the galaxy and so social care, education, the police service and prisons, the NHS, transport, defence and everything else gradually falls to pieces while the traitorous remoaners, mutineers and enemies of the people are hounded across the galaxy. And now, back to the film. There is a dreary, unnecessary minor sub-plot involving John Boyega (Chuka Umuna), a former cleaner who hatches a plot with the curious Rose, played by Dominic Grieve. Together they travel to the corrupt city of Cantobight (Brussels) in order to persuade a traitorous master code-breaker (Benicio del Toro, played with stuttering relish by Iain Duncan-Smith) to assist them to break into Hux’s battle-ship and disable the tracker which is chasing down Princess Leia’s cruiser. When Leia and the other rebels climb into the escape pods (soft Brexit) Leia’s deputy, Admiral Holdo – played by Theresa May, previously a reluctant Brexiter and now a reluctant Remainer – stays behind and turns the Cruiser around and heads straight for Hux’s battle-ship (at light-speed) and thus departs the film, sacrificing herself for the good of the country. And, just like Brexit, this fight between good and evil can play out indefinitely, through endless sequels and prequels, because the Remainers, though small in number and subject to attacks from all sides, will never give in and will never be defeated, while the Brexiters, superior in numbers if not in intellect or moral authority, will chase them to the ends of the pound until England lies waste, miserable and poor with only a glittering trade deal with New Zealand for company. Oh, and just like Brexit, there is no role or part for Jeremy Corbyn to play. If you buy the whole Star Wars shtick – Force, Jedi, Darth Vader, Luke, Leia, Harrison Ford, Obi Wan Kenobi, silly robots and fantastic beasts, Yoda, Chew-Bacca, Death Star, an alternative universe where there is no loneliness or food banks and the guns always work and the light sabres never lose their shine –  then Star Wars – The Last Jedi is a pretty good film.  It’s well done, the battle scenes work, most of the characters stay the right side of parody, John Williams’ great theme is played (and played and played), the story moves along reasonably, the female lead – Rey – is bright and strong and independent, the CGI is passable,  the giant space battle-ships are impressive, the script shows some surprising and welcome flashes of humour and there is no reason why they can’t make another 50 of these films. And they will… Carrie Fisher dying was unfortunate timing and Mark Hamill can’t live forever but they’ve found some decent alternatives – Rey and Finn and the other one, and the storm-troopers are in costume (Princes William and Harry amongst them, so it is rumoured) and can therefore be endlessly filled by new extras and Kylo Ren wasn’t killed so he’ll be in the next instalment. It’s not without faults – the Finn/Rose sub-plot doesn’t work, it’s too long, there are a few too many ‘with one bound he was free’ moments, C3PO still has that stupid Ealing comedy accent, there is too much green screen and the story is old hat – resistance, evil empire, plucky hero learning from reluctant old master, unconsumated love conquers all, etc. It also suffers from the same problem as all other 12A films – lots of people get killed but no-one gets hurt and there is a little unpleasantness but nothing to give the youngsters of all ages nightmares and, just like Brexit, everything is black and white. And if you don’t buy the whole Star Wars shtick (and I don’t and haven’t seen the first 7 films) it might be nonsense but it’s still rattling good entertainment and about a hundred times better than the dreadful Murder on the Orient Express.        

Chris Froome – puff the Magic Dragon

Chris Froome’s failed drugs test (for that is what it is) is a disaster for him, for Sky, for British cycling and for cycling as a whole and caps a year for him and Sky that is triumphant and catastrophic at the same time – a rare achievement. It is hard to see how he can fail to be stripped of his Vuelta title and given a lengthy ban; after all both Diego Ulissi and Alexander Petacchi both served bans for the same offence and the amount of salbutamol found in their bodies was less than that found in Froome’s. And if he manages to escape a ban by proving it was as a result of dehydration (Ulissi tried that and failed) or some other physiological effect, people will say he got off because the sport does not want to see its current greatest rider brought down, or that Sky somehow bought him off – shades of Contador’s infected steak and Armstrong’s easy ride by the UCI for too long. That, in many ways, would be even worse. And can Sky survive? The Lanterne’s earlier post on Sky’s travails stated that Sky’s sponsor – Sky (believe it or not) – would not put up with any more cock-ups. What makes this worse is that Sky has just been sold to the Disney Corporation; I can’t see them putting up with a reputational or doping cloud hanging over them for any longer than it takes to end (or break) a sponsorship contract. As other commentators have pointed out, salbutamol is not performance enhancing and Froome – as the leader of the Vuelta – would know he would be tested every day and so why would he risk it? Unfortunately, none of that is relevant. He is responsible (not the team doctor) for what is in his system and for how it got there. He either has less than the permitted dose in his system or he doesn’t. And he did. And it seems both the A and B samples show the same result. Froome may be better advised to stop fighting it, plead guilty, serve a ban and come back in time for the Tour in 2018 or the Giro in 2019. The more he fights it and protests about how he’s not a doper, the more people will lose faith. I, for one, haven’t lost faith; I don’t believe he’s a doper but he’s made a catastrophic error and that I find hard to forgive. He was never my idol but even those who aren’t my idols turn out to have feet of clay. At the moment the Sky brand is looking toxic and they will struggle to regain their reputation – if they ever can. However, every cloud has a silver lining and I suppose it gives Geraint a chance to be leader at the Giro and it might make next year’s Tour interesting.    

Britain’s Cycling Super-Heroes; the Price of Success – BBC2 19 November 2017

BBC2’s investigation didn’t teach us very much. Sir Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton were unrepentant; two men obsessed with winning won a lot. And if some bodies fell along the way and a few people got upset, well it was a price worth paying. Why no interview with Jess Varnish? Sutton denied telling her to go have a baby but admitted to telling her to ‘lose some timber.’ Emma Pooley complained about the regime but neither Laura Trott or Victoria Pendleton or any of the other fine lady cyclists were interviewed or contributed: why not? paralympian complained about them being called ‘gimps.’ Disgraceful if true: Sutton denied it but why could they only find one Paralympian to complain about him? David Millar waxed lyrical about Sky’s shortcomings and the cortico-steroid for Wiggins. ‘It’s better than EPO,’ he said. Well, he should know. Millar, a convicted doper, is now the go-to rent-a-quote and sits in judgement on others; you couldn’t, as they say, make it up. Here’s the thing. I used to run a business and I was a hard task-master. I expected loyalty and unremitting hard work, I didn’t tolerate slackers or people who weren’t prepared to put in 100% effort. However, I was never (intentionally) rude and I don’t believe I bullied people, although you may find people who felt otherwise. I accept that there are other ways of managing and there may well be better ways; but it was my way and I was well-paid to achieve results. Similarly (not that I would compare myself…) Brailsford’s regime at British Cycling/Sky was brutal and tough; it got results but sometimes it probably went too far and changes needed to be made. However, we must be careful about throwing out the baby with the bath-water. For me, the worst moment was when Sutton spoke about Wiggins’ TUE. He said that if an athlete was at 95% and a TUE could get them to 100%, then he’d do it. He implied (or I inferred) that he’d do that, even if the athlete wasn’t really ill. Brailsford (the better politician) added the caveat that the athlete needed to be ill. There, perfectly encapsulated, was the difference between Brailsford and Sutton, and the reason that Brailsford is still in his job and Sutton is out of his. The jiffy bag issue remains a mess. UKAD can’t prove anyone guilty and won’t declare anyone innocent. Dr Freeman is too ill to tell anyone what was in the bag (he must be pretty ill) and still says that the dog ate his homework, or his lap-top was stolen, or something. Brailsford says he was told it was fluimicil and Wiggins isn’t saying; he plans to become a rower. Chris Froome wasn’t interviewed. Barring accidents or injury, he should win at least one more Tour, in Sky colours. And British cycling success at the 2020 Olympics? Time will tell.    

Le Ride

The 1928 Tour de France was one of the toughest on record. The route circled the whole of France (no plane transfers in those days), was 3340 miles in length – much of it on gravelled roads – and of the 168 riders who started, only 41 finished. It was also notable for the participation of a team of riders from Australia and New Zealand – testing their prowess against the best riders in the world and with little prospect of success. Film-maker and keen cyclist Phil Keoghan decided to ride the whole route, following the exact same roads as much as still possible, on the same steel bikes that would have been used at the time, weighing twice as much as a modern bicycle, with rudimentary brakes and a single gear. Le Ride is the film he has made of the endeavour and it is a triumph. Phil and his ride partner Ben are supported by a small team including a cameraman who takes most of his film from a motor-cycle. Some of the stages are almost impossibly brutal – over 200 miles – and they cross the Pyrenees from west to east in 2 stages over 2 days – a trek that took me 6 days of tough riding. The film follows their journey with stunning images – some filmed from a drone – and you really feel the pain and struggle that it must have entailed. You feel every weary pedal stroke as they grind up the Tourmalet, the Aubisque and the Galibier and your heart is in your mouth as they descend these mountain passes with brakes that are barely effective. The film is interweaved with film of the 1928 tour and of the four Antipodeans – Harry Watson, Hubert Opperman, Ernest Bainbridge and Percy Osborn, who, despite all the odds and expectations, numerous punctures, crashes and disasters, all finished the tour. Keoghan’s achievement is to make a film which is informative, interesting, funny, uplifting, triumphant and moving in equal measure. This was no massive undertaking with multiple support vehicles but a small scale endeavour – he and Ben did it because they wanted to push themselves, to see if it could be done. Remarkably, they finish the journey without a single puncture and without any crashes – although it almost ends on their first day when Phil’s ancient stem breaks and he is forced to wrap it first with gaffer tape and then cannibalise some of the camera equipment to hold it together, until they can get it welded back together. Their journey ends at the site of the iconic Paris velodrome, the Parc des Princes which no longer exists. They cross a makeshift finish line, noticeably thinner and greyer, greeted by the small crew and their families. The film ends with descriptions of the subsequent lives of the 4 Antipodeans – they all lived into their 90s, tribute perhaps to the beneficial effects of cycling on the body. I saw the film at a ‘demand screening’ – if you see it advertised, catch it if you can – it is superb.    

Murder on the Orient Express – train wreck

Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, produced by Kenneth Branagh, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring er… Kenneth Branagh has several faults, the chief of which is Branagh himself. Branagh has chosen to play Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as a sort of Indiana Jones with a funny accent and a silly moustache. The accent drifts in and out like a man in a coma who hears his wife shouting at him while the moustache bestrides his face like a walrus, all grey bristles with a funny tuft on his bottom lip like a pile of ash. He uses his walking cane as a weapon, using it to break open a locked door, catch a bad guy and fight another bad guy. Poirot should not be a physical character; the whole point is that he does everything with ‘ze little grey cells’ and uses his wit and intelligence to escape physical confrontation. Branagh gives himself most of the lines and casts Johnny Depp as the villain of the piece. (Plot spoiler; he gets murdered). Depp used to be one of the world’s most beautiful people and was once one of the finest actors of his generation (until Pirates of the Caribbean); now, he looks like the picture of Dorian Grey, all the drug and drink fuelled wife-beating ravages of time etched on his ageing swarthy face. Is the scar on his face make-up or the only thing he got from his disastrous marriage? Who knows. Oh Johnny, where did it all go wrong? The other cast members are the usual British thespian suspects. Appearing in an Agatha Christie film is the artistic equivalent of old people who move to God’s waiting room in Eastbourne or Bexhill; it’s where they go before they die. They have little to do and do even less; this is Branagh’s film and don’t you forget it. The sainted Judi Dench dials in a Judi Dench performance, Derek Jacobi tops up his pension with a couple of lines, Willem Dafoe takes a break from voice-overing commercials, Penelope Cruz wields her Spanish accent, Michelle Pfeiffer shows there’s always a role in Agatha Christie for faded Hollywood stars while Olivia Colman speaks a few lines in German. Wow, acting from the woman now cast as our Queen! Oh, and a couple of starlets get their shot at playing starlets. The whole film is a triumph of style over substance and the joys of CGI. But even crucial elements of style are missing. This is the fabled Orient Express, but there is little opulence on show, nothing that makes you want to catch the train. Even the avalanche that derails the train on a rickety bridge so that the mystery can happen, stranded in the snowy wastes of Bulgaria, looks fake. The trouble with the story is once you know the solution, you know the solution and Branagh makes no attempt to introduce any tension or suspense – ‘you know the story’ he seems to be saying, ‘so why should I make an effort?’ And he doesn’t. The whole point of a Christie story is the big reveal at the end: Poirot gathers the characters together in a drawing room or an opulent parlour and goes through the mystery, teasing out the solution and the guilty culprit. Not for Branagh. The big reveal here lasts for a few minutes and takes place in a tunnel, not in the train. There is no explanation of how Poirot has solved the mystery; just that he has; perhaps he read the book. Branagh’s main problem is that this has been done before and so much better. Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and David Suchet have all played this character and filmed this story and done it so much better. If this was an ITV production, showing on the telly on Christmas Day and you could watch it, drifting in and out of consciousness, sated with brandy butter and too many Quality Street, it might pass the time, but on the big screen, in a cinema where you’ve paid good money to see it? Forget it. The other main problem for me was the beginning. For some reason, Poirot is in Jerusalem solving the mystery of a theft from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the three suspects are a Christian, an Arab and a Jew. (Sounds like a joke). We see the fastidious Poirot checking his breakfast eggs before solving the mystery and catching the bad guy with his trusty Indiana Jones walking cane. He then catches a boat to Istanbul and boards the train. Why? No idea. The film ends with Poirot leaving the train and being met by someone who says he’s needed in Egypt because there’s been a death on the Nile. Which is amusing until you think about the Christie story and Poirot’s involvement and then it’s all wrong: a bit like this film.

The Death of Stalin

‘Comedy is tragedy plus time,’ says Alan Alda’s character in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours. And later, ‘if it bends it’s funny, if it breaks it’s not funny.’ For various reasons I was in Moscow in 1957, shortly after Kruschchev assumed power and at about the time that Molotov was shot. Which is to say that the events portrayed in Armando Iannucci’s new film are within living memory; which is my only problem with his film. I’m not precious about comedy or bad taste; there are few topics which I would regard as off-limits but with one caveat – it must be funny. James Corden’s ill-judged ‘jokes’ about Harvey Weinstein had two main faults – it was too soon but worst of all; his jokes weren’t funny. Iannucci’s film has that second saving grace – it is very funny. However, there is a difference between satire – his film doesn’t make fun of the events of Stalin’s death, so much as find the events themselves funny and there’s a subtle but crucial difference. The film is swiftly summarised; it charts the hours leading up to, and the hours, days and weeks following Stalin’s stroke and subsequent death. The main characters are the leading members of Stalin’s politburo – weak and malleable Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), brutal Beria (Simon Russell Beale), fawning Molotov (Michael Palin), the arch-plotter Krushchev (Steve Buscemi), joker Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse) and Marshall Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). While Stalin is alive, we see them hang on his every word (sometimes literally), fawning at his every utterance and laughing at every joke (Buscemi as Krushchev has his wife write down every joke he makes in Stalin’s company so he will know in future what topics Stalin finds funny) and following his protracted death we see them plotting how to fill the gaping hole in their future. The cast is uniformly excellent. The stand-out character and performance for me was Paul Whitehouse’s Mikoyan. His is not a major role but his character is most believable. He comes across as a true working class boy made good, like an old-style union leader. And he has the funniest line – ‘fuck me, I’m knackered’ he says at the end, ‘it’s been a long week.’ As Beria’s ashes are shovelled into a heap. At times the film – like the Stalin regime – is brutal, terrifying, horrifying and casually and routinely cruel. We see innocent people dragged from their beds and summarily executed; prisoners in gulags are shot where they stand against a wall, innocent civilians are mown down in the streets. Following Stalin’s death, the NKVD move in and all the staff from Stalin’s dacha are dragged away and shot. Lavrenti Beria – Head of the NKVD (secret police and forerunner of the KGB) – is a terrifying character; utterly grotesque, immoral and totally without scruple. He hands out lists of people to be killed; ‘shoot this man’s wife first,’ he says, ‘and make sure he sees it.’ After Stalin’s death, the other members of the politburo turn on him and he is dragged into a shed, summarily tried and shot in the head. The other members then stand around as a soldier pours petrol on his body and they watch him burn in the back yard of the Kremlin. And this is a comedy? Beria was responsible for the death of thousands of people and the rape of hundreds of women; should we cheer as he gets his just desserts or mourn the lack of due process? So many of his victims were denied a fair trial; should his fate be any different? The film is superb at portraying the utter madness of the period. All the good doctors have been executed on Stalin’s orders, so who can they find to treat his haemorrhage? Eventually, they round up a strange assortment of the old, the young, the sick and the mad who together decide if Stalin is alive or dead. The film starts with a very funny episode. Stalin is listening to a live performance of a Mozart concerto on the radio and telephones the studio to demand a recording of it. But it has not been recorded. So, the director has to persuade the orchestra and pianist to perform it again so that he can record it. The conductor falls and bangs his head so another conductor is found and dragged from his bed still wearing his dressing gown, while his neighbours are being dragged from their beds and shot in the street. Half of the audience has left so, in order to re-create the sound of the audience that Stalin heard, drunks and waifs and strays and other people are dragged in off the street. In a world that is insane, the film seems to say, the only (relatively) safe way to be is insane too. And so a collective madness overwhelms the state, the poilitburo, the army, all terrified of transgressing the unwritten law. It wasn’t just the presence of Michael Palin as Molotov that reminded me of the Doug and Dinsdale Piranha sketch from Monty Python. ‘He nailed my head to the floor.’  ‘Why? What had you done?’ ‘I don’t know, he didn’t tell me that. But I deserved it.’ Maybe Iannucci is playing a clever game of double bluff. ‘Look at you,’ he says, ‘you’re laughing at this but this isn’t funny. This happened, this is real life.’ But I don’t think so. Iannucci is following Alan Alda’s rules – he thinks enough time has passed and if it bends, it’s funny. I’m still uncertain about the time span – I was alive when Molotov died – but the film does bend. But I can’t help thinking; would he make a comedy about the holocaust? About Hitler’s last days – Goebbels poisoning his seven children, Hitler and Eva Braun blowing their brains out as the luckless Berliners are raped and pounded by Zhukov’s Red Army? The script by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows is excellent and gratifyingly, the actors do not try and talk with Russian accents but talk in their normal voices – so Buscemi and Tambor are American, Paul Whitehouse sounds like Paul Whitehouse, Palin sounds like a Monty Python character, and so on. The sets are fabulous and I loved the clothes – great big, baggy, shapeless ’50s suits and a wonderful over-the-top uniform dripping with medals and braid for Marshall Zhukov.And just like The Thick of It, it is gloriously and wonderfully sweary. I loved the film. I laughed – a lot, although not quite as much as some of the people in the cinema. It never reaches the biting, bitter heights of satire as portrayed in The Thick of It and Beria, for all his grotesqueness, is still not as horrible a character as Malcolm Tucker. But maybe every generation and every country gets the Beria it deserves – so in our current Tory cabinet of unscrupulous fools and bastards, who’s ours?  

The Party

I was always in the kitchen at parties, hiding behind the pots, avoiding the pot, the fun and laughter and the people getting off with each other. And I was all set to hate The Party.  A few years ago, I went to see Transformers 9:  Revenge of the Batteries with my son and I said to him that it was a film designed for teenage boys – just like you, I said. When I told him I was going to see The Party, he said ‘it’s a film for people like you’. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, eh? People like me, then: beyond middle age, comfortably middle-class, pretentious, vaguely intellectual, naturally left-wing, a fan of black and white films and Woody Allen (before the fall), good food, wine, Kristin Scott Thomas (so radiant and distant in The English Patient – until she died), stage plays, jazz, linen, beards, record players and amplifiers (remember them?), vol-au-vents (do people still eat vol-au-vents?), wooden floors and rugs, book-cases over-flowing with books,  occasional acerbic wit, a knowing and rather tiresome cynicism. And all the better for it. The Party – written and directed by Sally Potter – is a short film, set in the three rooms (living room, kitchen, bathroom) and garden of a newly appointed Secretary of State for Health – Karen – played by Scott-Thomas, and her tired, drunken, crumpled, stubbled professor husband played by Timothy Spall, and it charts the shattering events which occur during a dinner party held to celebrate her new role. As such, it is really a stage play or a Play for Today masquerading as a film. The other characters are April, a wonderful, world-weary embittered performance by Patricia Clarkson, her partner Gottfreid (Bruno Ganz – Downfall seems a long time ago), Martha and Jinny – two central casting lesbians played by Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer, Tom (Cillian Murphy), a cocaine snorting ‘banker wanker’ (bankers are always portrayed as cocaine snorting – they can’t all be, can they?) and Mary-Anne, Tom’s wife who (no plot spoiler here), is never seen. It is a tragi-comedy which passes the (short) time not unpleasantly. If not perhaps quite as clever, witty, acerbic, cynical or sharp as it likes to think it is, that is not the fault of the actors who are uniformly excellent (although Timothy Spall over-acts wildly). There are some very funny lines, although not quite as many as the beyond middle-age, etc, etc, audience that I saw it with thought there were. The ending is sudden, sharp and surprising and leaves some loose ends where they should be – loose. It is hard to care much about the characters, none of whom are likeable (with the possible exception of April) and so their ghastly middle class tragedy leaves not a scar as you drift into the night and home to some soft jazz and a nice glass of Merlot. I guess my son was right; it’s a film for people like me and I rather enjoyed it.

Blade Runner 2049

Philip K Dick was a truly visionary writer whose massive oeuvre of science fiction novels has proved fertile ground for film-makers. Ridley Scott’s 1982 re-telling of Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ – filmed as Blade Runner – has gained cult status over the years for its beautifully realised post-apocalyptic Los Angeles landscape, beautiful and mesmerising leading lady Rachael (played by Sean Young), Harrison Ford in a thoughtful role as Deckard (the Blade Runner of the title) and Rutger Hauer as a rogue, marauding, killer replicant with an ultimately tragic demise. It is a measure of a film’s cult following when it commands a ‘Director’s Cut’ to restore a vision which the director feels has been changed by the studio. Dick’s central idea (although the book is different to the film) is to explore the very notion of what it means to be human. In a world where robots are outwardly indistinguishable from humans, how do you tell a human from a robot? Dick’s belief was that it was through an ability to show empathy for the plight or sorrows of others that was ultimately the true test of humanity. And so a test was devised to allow Blade Runners (policemen employed to hunt down and destroy rogue replicants) to identify whether their target was a replicant or a human. Deckard’s salvation and tragedy was to fall in love with a replicant, Rachael, played by Sean Young. The great mystery of the original Blade Runner was whether Deckard himself was also a replicant (and if he was, did he know he was) and, before the coming of the internet, the internet was awash with rumour, conjecture, argument and dispute as students sought to resolve this thorny issue. Where once intellectuals debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, we now debate whether a fictional character in a fictional vision of a fictional future is real, or not. I suppose we must call that progress. The original Blade Runner was made in 1982 and it has taken 35 years to release this follow-up. Why the wait? I can’t answer that but if they were waiting for a decent script – by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green – then it was worth the wait as Blade Runner 2049 is, in almost all respects, a triumph. It is difficult to explain too much of the story without giving away the plot and this is one film that deserves to have its plot left unrevealed but suffice to say that it does an excellent job of updating and developing the story as it seeks to explain what became of Deckard and Rachel. The film stars Ryan Gosling as a Blade Runner in Los Angeles in (yes) 2049. He works for the LAPD and (as with Deckard) his job is to hunt down and ‘retire’ (ie kill) rogue replicants. Replicants are mainly used as slave labour to build new colonies in space but sometimes they go wrong and mis-behave. This Los Angeles is very similar to the future vision portrayed in the original film. It is a place of darkness and garish neon lighting, of teeming masses of people, of damp, rainy streets, a world of (self-driving) flying cars. Reassuringly, despite the changes the world has gone through, some of the big multi-national brands have survived and their giant signs illuminate the sky – Sony (of course, after all they made the film), Coca Cola (which will survive when all of civilisation has gone), Atari (oddly) and, equally oddly – Peugeot (of all the car makers to survive, who would have thought that it would be Peugeot to make Gosling’s flying car)? Having retired the bad replicant (should one be reassured that even 30 years into the future the LAPD are still shooting to kill?), Gosling discovers a buried coffin. Reporting back to his boss – played by Robin Wright – the coffin is examined and found to contain the bones of a woman. Who is the woman, how and why she died and what is the cause and meaning of her untimely death is the reason for the film. Blade Runner 2049 – superbly directed by Denis Villeneuve – is visually stunning and the music (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) matches the visuals perfectly. It is a thoughtful film which (like the original film) poses interesting questions about what it means to be human and about what is real and what is not real. Would we rather live in a world that is unreal but seems real, or a world that is real but seems unreal? Gosling makes a workmanlike and believable character. He is by no means a great actor; his face has a limited range of expressions but it suits the role. He’s pleasant enough to look at and makes a very good replicant (yes, he is). Ana de Armas plays his love interest but whether she is a replicant, a hologram or an implanted memory I was never entirely sure. Suffice to say that, in the future, the love interest is reassuringly easy on the eye. Harrison Ford reprises his original role as Deckard and seems to be making a habit of cropping up in sequels of films in which he was the star. He did the same in Star Wars and they killed him off – here he survives and maybe still has another sequel in his contract. He’s grizzled and grey with a face full of stubble and a voice full of attitude. He still does good fight and seems to have his own teeth. Surprisingly, he’s very good. Edward James Olmos, who appeared in the original film, briefly appears, living in a care home (they don’t change) and (plot spoiler), he’s still doing his origami. There are two aspects of the film with which I was less comfortable. Robin Wright’s role and performance is odd. She has a washed out, colourless face with fiercely brushed back hair, wears an odd black leather coat even when inside, and ends up being killed in a rather unpleasant way. She’s famous now after House of Cards, but her choice of roles (she also appeared in Wonder Woman), are not doing her skills justice. The film is also uncomfortably sexist and sexualised. There are hot girls in hot pants and mini-skirts and quite a lot of bare flesh is shown – although it’s exclusively female (of course). The original film suffered in the same way – made in 1982, it was set in 2019 and while it envisioned flying cars, they still believed that in 2019 actual photographs would still be taken! Philip K Dick was a writer of the 1950s and 60s and his books reflect his own and the time’s attitudes – they are uncomfortably sexist and often mysoginist; his vision of the future did not include equality for women. It is unfortunate that the film-makers chose not to update this vision. Sean Young appears briefly although it’s hard to work out whether it’s actually her or a CGI version of her (or is it both – see the film) – after all she must be getting on a bit now (as of course is Harrison Ford) and yet she’s just the same as in the original film. Maybe she’s a replicant. It’s a very long film but the time is well-used and I didn’t once  look at my watch or wish it was shorter. And they left room for another film as the story is unfinished. I’ll look forward to it.  

‘Anquetil, Alone’ by Paul Fournel

Paul Fournel’s Anquetil, Alone is part biography, part hagiography, part limpid, poetic treatise and part a prose meditation on one of the greatest ever cyclists; the first to win 5 Tours de France and the first to win the Tour and Vuelta in the same year. Fournel traces Anquetil’s life through a series of lyrical vignettes, told partly in Anquetil’s voice and partly in Fournel’s voice, as he grows up and admires the great man from afar. Anquetil was nothing if not his own man – a rider who made no secret of the fact that he rode for money, who was unrepentant about his drug use – ‘Do you think we can do this on pain aqua (bread and water)’ he once famously asked, and a rider who was happy to take money to throw races if it suited him. His private life was equally unconventional – his great love Janine left her Doctor husband to be with Anquetil who then brought up her children as his own. And when he retired from cycling and fancied a child of his own, and Janine being too old, he had a child with Janine’s daughter, Annie – his own step-daughter – and thereafter lived in a happy menage-a-trois until it all fell apart, at which point he took up with the wife off his step-son. (Curiously, the great Coppi also had an affair with a Doctor’s wife which scandalised the Italian nation and led to their ex-communication from the Catholic Church – what is it about Doctor’s wives and cyclists?) And when Anquetil retired – at the age of 35 – he hung up his bikes and never rode again. Instead he became Lord of his Normandy manor house and threw massive parties for his many friends and hangers-on. He died in 1987, too young at 53 from stomach cancer. Fournel recounts a wonderful story of how Anquetil, having won a time trial in Italy – the Grand Prix of Lugano – six times on the trot was offered money by the organisers not to take part. He agreed. They then changed their minds and offered him money to ride after all but asked him to let an Italian win. So he went to Ercole Baldini and said, if you give me your appearance money I’ll let you win. And Baldini said fine. So then Anquetil rode, and of course he won (because he always won time trials) and got paid 4 times for his trouble. It couldn’t happen now, could it? Fournel also recounts Anquetil’s great rivalry with Raymond Poulidor – the eternal second who was nonetheless adored by the French public, far more than Anquetil himself was. When Anquetil was dying Poulidor went to visit him. Anquetil said ‘Poor Raymond, so I’m going ahead of you. Yet again, you’re going to come second.’ Fournel – author of that other great cycling book – Need for the Bike – has written a wonderful but too short book. The translation by Nick Caistor is superb and captures the wonderful rhythms and lyricism of Fournel’s prose. Recommended.

Maudie

‘Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot – Oscar. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man – Oscar. John Mills, Ryan’s Daughter – Oscar. You’re guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.’ Kate Winslet in Extras, written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. We’re all outsiders in a way, or at some time in our lives. Gingers, left-handed, bald, too fat, too thin, disabled, gay, wrong colour, poor, squinty-eyed or slack-jawed, crippled, hunch-backed, not very bright, slow, incontinent, inarticulate – there are few amongst us who are perfect. And so we are all at the mercy of a big world, often unkind and cruel or thoughtless and mocking. Maud is an outsider for us all and Maudie is a film that shows us that for every outsider there is an inside somewhere, even though it isn’t always clear where it is or how to get there. Maud has unspecified issues  – arthritic yes with difficulty in walking and slow or backward but we aren’t shown quite why or how, although there are glimpses of an unutterably cruel past.  But what is important is not how she got here but where she is going. Maud lives with her Aunt Ida in an unloving, uneasy fractured relationship; her wicked brother Charles sells their house, left to him when their mother dies and Maud is effectively abandoned to Ida’s grudging mercies. Hanging around the general store in town one day, in comes a man – Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), large and lumbering, quick to rage, clearly illiterate. He asks the shop-keeper to write him a sign to say he is seeking a house-maid. Maud rips the notice down from the notice-board and trudges, limping, leg-dragging, painfully slowly but ever persistent to Everett’s shack on the edge of small-town Nova Scotia. And so begins their uneasy, initially cold, sometimes abusive but ultimately loving relationship and eventual marriage. Everett is another outsider, raised in an orphanage although we never learn his back story. He scrapes a meagre living, selling fish and bits of wood to the townsfolk. He pushes a big wheel-barrow across the fields and soon Maud sits in the wheel-barrow and swings her legs. ‘There’s me,’ says Everett, ‘then the dogs, then the chickens and then you.’ Bereft of company, Maud finds a tin of paint in the shack and starts to draw. Tentatively at first, simple naïve representations of flowers and birds on the walls of the shack. She has an innate skill and a wide-eyed sense of wonder about the world she sees. An outsider in normal social company, she is an insider when it comes to nature; nature does not shun her or judge her, or laugh at her, or throw rocks at her like the school-boys do. One day, Maud is alone in the shack when a fancy lady from New York – Sandra – visits to complain about Everett failing to deliver her fish. Spying some of Maud’s paintings, she immediately spots Maud’s talent and offers to buy some examples of her work – for 5 cents. Maud’s fame grows and she advertises ‘Paintings for Sale’ in the window of the shack. Soon people from all over the country are writing to her, asking for painting, including Vice President Nixon. ‘I’ll send him one,’ says Maud, ‘if he sends money.’ As Maud flourishes, Everett’s fish-selling brings in less money but his love for her and their dependence on each other grows and develops. Maud harbours a dark and terrible tragic secret and the reveal is heart-breaking; the scene plays out in silence, told in furtive glances and stolen glimpses of a world that might have been. But there is no way back in for Maud and she clings to Everett, her hard shoulder on the hard road of her life. Maud is a chronic heavy smoker and develops emphysema – soon she can only walk a few halting steps and her growing arthritis makes it harder to hold the brush. ‘You’d better get another dog,’ she says to Everett, as she feels the end drawing near. ‘I don’t want another dog’, he says. She dies peacefully with Everett by her side. He goes back to the shack, removes the paintings for sale sign and retreats inside and closes the door; the film fades to black as he shuts out an unwelcome world. Maudie (based on a true story) is a beautiful, sad, but uplifting and intensely moving film. The Nova Scotia landscape is dull, bleak and grey, wind-swept and empty. The changing seasons are shown simply – the ground is covered with snow-drifts or it isn’t but rarely does the sun shine and Maud always wears a coat. The feel of the film reminded me of Manchester by the Sea – that same small-town bleakness where it always seems to be raining. But it doesn’t rain in Maud’s heart. It’s a film to show all outsiders that somewhere there’s an inside. Sally Hawkins is superb – she plays Maud simply but effectively; the acting is there but it isn’t over-blown or too obvious or showy. It is under-stated and her eyes, gazing through her shock of hair, upwards from her hunched and little crippled body, show all. Guaranteed to win an Oscar. And well deserved.

Dunkirk – froth, bubble and a lot of noise

Christopher Nolan is a director of rare skill, depth, thoughtfulness, profundity and power. Memento, Inception and Interstellar, in particular, are brimming with ideas and you leave the cinema thinking, discussing, dissecting and struggling to understand what you have just seen. Unfortunately, Dunkirk is none of these things. It is a film, full of sound and fury, signifying not nothing, but not very much. The story (for those under 50) is swiftly told. It is the early days of the second war and France and Belgium have been swiftly over-run by the Germans. The British Expeditionary Force is hopelessly outnumbered and trapped in Dunkirk. Do they stay and fight or should they be evacuated? They are evacuated with the assistance of a flotilla of little privately-owned motor-boats and yachts. And er, that’s it. The film re-tells this story mainly through three inter-weaved characters and story lines. Fionn Whitehead plays a young Tommy, desperate to escape. Mark Rylance is the plucky, retired, tweed-suited owner of a small motor launch while Tom Hardy is the stiff upper-lipped, strong-jawed Spitfire pilot who mostly mumbles through a mask, just like in The Dark Knight. They all survive. Some secondary characters, various German airmen and a lot of extras don’t and are variously blown to bits. Kenneth Branagh plays the senior Naval Officer who gazes wistfully towards the white cliffs of Dover and says ‘home’ when asked what he is looking at. A tear forms in his eyes. Harry Styles plays another Tommy, alternately nasty and then good, who also escapes. Styles doesn’t have a great deal to do but he does it well enough; he may have an alternative career if the singing thing doesn’t work out. I sound cynical but I don’t (entirely) mean to be. The trouble with Dunkirk is that it has no depth, there is no story to speak of, there are no sub-plots, there is no deeper meaning. It is what it is – some soldiers escape and some die and Britain lives to fight another day. Nolan is not English but this is jingoistic nonsense and we’ve seen it all before, but even ‘Battle of Britain’ (Christopher Plummer and Susannah York consummate their doomed love affair above the skies of Kent, made in 1969) had darker under-currents; Dunkirk has none. This film is all on the surface. The images are searing and visceral, the sound-track is pounding and in your face, the messages are clear and the good guys survive. But… it’s a 12A so although lots of soldiers are blown to bits and some very realistic models of warships are destroyed and sunk, there is very little blood, no real pain and because you don’t know, or particularly care about the characters, you’re not really affected by it. Saving Private Ryan (Stephen Spielberg’s not dissimilar 1998 film about the D-Day landings) recreated the Normandy beach scenes in horrific, shocking eyeball-searing  images – you saw and felt the pain of injury and death. In Dunkirk, you don’t. You can see Dunkirk as a Brexit film – we leave Europe and spend the rest of our days sitting in steam trains in backward sidings reading Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech in a newspaper sold to us by plucky, dirty-faced boys in shorts: Britain wins! Or you can see it as a remainer film – we depart from Europe by any means possible, our tail between our legs, beaten and bowed, while the rest of Europe sails on, into a sunlit sea. Britain loses! I prefer the latter view. And the French lad, trapped in the ship; does he drown? Thought so.  

Tour de France 2017

So, another Tour over and what have we learned?
  1. Chris Froome is the foremost stage rider of his generation. A consummate time-triallist and a more than good enough climber is an unbeatable combination. He will never have the affection of the public; maybe because he’s British in name only, maybe because of his metronomic, controlled press conferences and performances and maybe because he’s not Wiggo. Will he get a knight-hood or win SPOTY? Somehow I doubt it but he certainly deserves it.
  2. Kittel is the best of the current crop of sprinters. When on form and in the absence of Gaviria he is unbeatable and he has that aura now where others are afraid of him and almost wait for him to come past. His abandonment was unfortunate as he would certainly have won on the Champs Elysee. The rumour is that he is leaving Quick-Step and joining Katusha Alpecin (shampoo manufacturers) to replace Krystoff who is out of favour; Belgium’s loss will be Germany’s gain – not for the first time.
  3. Cav’s injury was unfortunate but in truth he shouldn’t have been at the Tour; recovering from glandular fever, he was not fit enough. He would have been well beaten by Kittel and that would have been demoralising. He says he’ll be back next year; let’s hope so – but he won’t beat Gaviria or Kittel. In his absence, his team worked hard and were rewarded with a stage win for Edwald Boasson-Hagen, five years after his last win.
  4. Sagan’s disqualification seems overly harsh. His wayward elbow looked more like the act of a man trying to balance himself rather than a deliberate punch and the race jury punished the result (Cav’s injury) rather than the offence itself. But he’ll be back and his absence gave others a chance. To give Cav his due, he admitted that he has not been averse to the odd elbow in the past.
  5. Fabio Aru promised much but ultimately failed to deliver. A combination of tactical naivety, a weak team, an inability to time trial with the best and fading legs, did for his chances but his stage win on Peyragudes was well-taken and he was the only non-Sky rider to wear the yellow jersey.
  6. Rigoberto Uran’s achievement in coming second was remarkable, especially considering he didn’t have a great team behind him, while Romain Bardet proved, once again, that until he learns to time trial, he will never win a grand tour.
  7. Contador is past his best, Voeckler has retired, Cummings is probably now too old and Valverde’s crash on the first stage was unfortunate in more ways than one. Andrei Greipel looks like last year’s German compared to Kittel, who is this year’s. Pinot faded fast. Quintana was anonymous and tired; his Giro/Tour double attempt seems in retrospect a step too far. There were times on certain mountain stages when he resembled a little boy, lost in a man’s world. John Degenkolb seems a nice guy but destined never to win a stage.
  8. New faces that should go far: Lilian Calmejane, Primos Roglic (well-deserved victor on the Galibier and looks a future winner), Arnaud Demare (until he missed the time cut), Dylan Groenewegen, a worthy winner on the Champs Elysee.
  9. Michael Matthews deserved the green jersey and I think he would have won even if Kittel hadn’t abandoned. He didn’t win as many stages as Kittel but hoovered up the intermediate sprints and was the better climber.
  10. Barguil was a worthy winner of the Polka Dot jersey but the jury’s decision to award him the most combative rider award, instead of Thomas De Gendt, was disgraceful. But De Gendt did himself no favours by complaining; he should have kept his mouth shut and been a better loser.
  11. Sunweb were the stand-out team apart from Sky. Sky’s ruthless and single-minded pursuit of victory at all costs is not always fun to watch but boy, is it effective. They proved once again that marginal gains are good, but a big budget is better.
  12. Mikel Landa was the best rider in the whole race and him and Kwiatkowski ensured Froome’s victory. Landa made some ill-judged and petulant comments to journalists about sacrificing his own chances – he was a domestique and did the job he was no doubt paid very handsomely to do. Some of his glances at Froome were reminiscent of those that Froome himself gave Wiggins in 2012. He will no doubt go to another team and try and win next year. But Sky will buy someone else just as good and who would bet against Froome joining the greats with 5 wins?
  13. Eurosport’s decision to show all stages from start to finish was brilliant and overdue; one could see how breaks develop and fail and follow the ebb and flow of a race. Jonathan Edwards made a good front man but Gary Imlach is still the best. Boardman is the most eloquent and insightful summariser; Lemond is inarticulate and looks more like a retired pro wrestler. David Millar is almost too smart for his own good and Ned Boulting is still not as funny as he thinks he is. Juan Antonio Flecha’s impenetrable Spanish accent and dopey grin make him a perfect replacement for Manuel (Fawlty Towers for those under 50). Sean Kelly? Make your own mind up.
Bring on the Vuelta!  

‘Bike Nation’ by Peter Walker

Peter Walker is cycling correspondent for The Guardian and his book is a polemic about what it means to be a nation centred around the bike, instead of the car. It is full of stories, reports, statistics and interviews with leading lights in cities and nations that have transformed and are transforming the way that people live. There is a lot about the Dutch, the Danes, parts of the US and specifically Utrecht (Holland), Odense (Denmark) and Portland, Oregon. Walker starts with compelling data about the risks to health caused by that largely hidden modern disease – sedentary living and how regular activity (eg by riding a bike) could reduce this. He makes some interesting and compelling points, backed up by evidence. Proper cycle lanes require physical barriers (eg raised kerbs) between them and the cars, not just painted lines; Boris Johnson’s cycle super-highways in Central London which have caused so much controversy are a good start but here in West Wickham there are some painted cycle spaces beside the main roads which are usually blocked by parked cars and broken glass. Cycling must become a natural day to day activity, undertaken by all ages and as natural as walking; he describes 6 year olds in Holland cycling to school. There is an interesting chapter on that spiky subject of wearing helmets: Melbourne introduced a cycle share scheme (like the Boris bikes) but helmet wearing is compulsory in Australia, so take-up has been low (this is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences). Walker ponders how many early deaths have been caused by people not cycling, as compared to injuries saved by the wearing of helmets. There is a very interesting chapter on how cycling and cyclists are generally viewed in this country. He describes cyclists as an ‘outgroup’ – best explained as the ‘them’ in an us and them situation. So car drivers are seen as the ‘us’ who own the roads and pay road tax while cyclists are seen as ‘them’  – jumping red lights, riding on the pavement, slowing down traffic, generally a nuisance and the (usually) right-wing press reinforces this view with negative stereotypes. My own view is that until car drivers, cyclists and all other road users are viewed as a single group who must share the space and treat each other with respect, cycling in Britain will continue to be seen as an activity outside the mainstream. Cyclists in this country ride road bikes with drop bars, they wear lycra and funny shoes, they wear helmets, they assert themselves on the road and in many respects, regard themselves and behave as outsiders. Visit most European cities however – Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Vienna, Stockholm, etc – and cyclists are ordinary people, of all ages and abilities, riding upright bikes often with shopping baskets, wearing normal clothes and they (almost) never wear helmets. If I have one criticism, it is that Walker is very good at outlining and illustrating the problem but less good at proposing solutions. I would like to have seen a final chapter with his manifesto – a 10 point plan on precisely how, when and at what cost Britain could become a true Bike Nation; something for the politicians to ponder while they consider the cost of building HS2.  

War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes is the best film I have seen in 2017. In many ways, it is perfect. The story is sensible, makes sense and can appeal to adults as well as a younger audience; the script is literary but not too wordy; the acting is uniformly excellent; it is moving and exciting in equal measure; the music is appropriate without being overwhelming; the CGI is clever and not too obvious; the blatant product placement is thankfully absent; the scenery is breath-taking; the battle scenes are exciting and not too long; the ending is sad yet uplifting; the baddies get their comeuppance; it is not weighed down by ‘stars’ or celebrities; it is not too long; there is a mute young girl (played by Amiah Miller) who is rescued by the apes and plays her role of vulnerable innocence to perfection; the hero (Caesar, played by Andy Serkis) is heroic but not without flaws; there is a minor character (Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn) who injects a small but welcome element of humour; the direction (by Matt Reeves) is pacy and assured. In short; what’s not to like? I expected to have trouble suspending my disbelief (medical science gone wrong, talking apes fighting pitched battles; give me strength) but in fact I had no trouble at all – you’ll believe an ape can cry. I had seen previous films in the franchise and found them silly and tiresome and couldn’t get past my innate scepticism; this film was anything but and I sat through hooked, drawn fully into this fully realised world. The film draws heavily on, and is influenced by, others. The main two, for me, were The Outlaw Josey Wales and most obviously, Apocalypse Now. In Josey Wales, Clint Eastwood (the Director and star in the title role) draws together a motley band of waifs and strays and embarks on a vengeful journey through a ravaged Civil War landscape in search of those who betrayed him and killed his family. Eventually, after many adventures, in which they are chased as well as being the chasers, they reach a promised land where they can settle and be left in peace. In Francis Coppola’s brilliant Vietnam war-set retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – Apocalypse Now – a US Army Captain (Martin Sheen) is sent to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ a US Colonel (Marlon Brando) who has gone rogue and set up a proxy kingdom in the jungles of a war-ravaged Cambodia. Sheen is accompanied by a motley crew as he makes his way up river to Kurtz’s hide-out. Kurtz is hugely overweight (not part of the story but this is how Brando was then), bald, mad, power-crazed and has his own warped ideas of how to win the war. In War for the Planet of the Apes, the Kurtz character is played by Woody Harrelson as a rogue Colonel (why is it always a Colonel?), shaven-headed and topless (but not fat) in army fatigues and wearing shades, who has created an army base which he is reinforcing with captured apes who are forced to re-build the crumbling fortifications. The homage to this film is literally spelled out (for those who don’t get it) by graffiti on the walls of a tunnel which runs beneath the army camp – ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ – it reads). All the apes are excellent but Serkis is extraordinary. Presumably all of the ape bodies, hands, feet, hair, facial features, etc are rendered in CGI and the actors perform in front of green screens; however, the eyes have it. All the ape troubles, triumphs and tragedies are viewed in Serkis’ bloodshot tired, searching eyes. They don’t give Oscars for his kind of performance, but they ought to; it is well-deserved. It would take too long to explain the genesis of the story (there is a short synopsis of the previous films – Dawn of the PotA and Rise of the PotA at the beginning; forget Charlton Heston) but it isn’t necessary: strip away the apeness and CGI, mad Colonels and medical science gone wrong and it is a simple story and one of the oldest plots in history – a journey (by a small group drawn together by troubles) through darkness into light, where good triumphs over evil after a series of obstacles are overcome. It is Josey Wales twinned with Apocalypse Now and it is no exaggeration to say that those two superb and iconic films are equalled by this one.        

Spiderman: Homecoming

The latest Spiderman film takes the story back to early teenagehood. In some respects this is quite an interesting idea – do Superheroes emerge fully formed as adults or do they go through the normal stages of puberty like everyone else? This film takes that idea – Spiderman is really Spiderteenager – and shows how he became what he became under the watchful eye of his mentor Tony Stark aka Ironman. Peter Parker is a high school freshman and somehow his careers advisor has arranged for him to intern at Stark Industries (never happened to me). Meanwhile, after school, Peter dons his costume and roams the borough of Queens helping old ladies, retrieving stolen bicycles and solving petty crimes. But he longs for the big time and constantly hassles Tony Stark and his trusted henchman Happy (Jon Favreau) by phone, text and email (he must be the last person on earth to have a Blackberry; oh the power of product placement) to be given more important crime-fighting jobs to do. Parker’s fat, nerdy Asian American (is that the correct nomenclature?) buddy Ned would rather hang out and build Star Wars Lego models but in one of those necessary but clever film reveals, learns of Parker’s alter ego and longs to share the secret with his class-mates. The film then charts Parker/Spiderman’s constant quest to impress Tony Stark while desperately wooing the comely Liz (Laura Harrier) who, in one of those necessary but ultimately incongruous film reveals, doesn’t have a date for the school homecoming dance until Parker (surprise, surprise) asks her. Spiderman’s nemesis (Michael Keaton) is a New York salvage contractor who, due to Government intervention which robs him of his livelihood, turns into a super-villain with a collection of hi-tech alien-inspired weaponry with which he hopes to do something naughty (although I never quite worked out what). There are some clever set-pieces, most notably a rescue sequence on the Washington monument and a big battle on the Staten Island ferry where Ironman has to come and clean up Spiderman’s mess and it all culminates in an over-long final battle (they always are in these sorts of films – teenagers have short attention spans except when it comes to the final battle) with the inevitable result. The film ends with Parker being awarded the role with Tony Stark which he has always longed for and a reconciliation with Aunt May. There is also a frankly cringe-making scene between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) and his long-suffering Secretary/Girlfriend Pepper played by Gwyneth Paltrow. I know it’s ageist but Paltrow is now a bit too old for this role and should probably have known better. Tom Holland is the third actor to play Spiderman (after Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) and he makes a good fist of the role – simultaneously innocent but touchingly keen and eager – while Robert Downey Jnr dials in his performance as Tony Stark, but are his wise-cracks maybe getting a touch tiresome? There is a lot of web shooting and swinging between buildings by Spiderman and the new talking computer controlled suit given to him by Tony Stark is full of gadgets and talks back to him constantly. ‘Shall I engage kill mode?’ she says when Spiderman encounters a villain. ‘No!’ says he, horrified. The real star of the film though is Jacob Batalon as Ned who is thoughtful, lovable, witty, tongue-tied and desperately keen to show off his friend-ship with Spiderman. At one point Ned sneaks into school and is on his computer searching for information while Spiderman is fighting the bad guys and the School Principal comes into the room and asks what he is doing. Unsure of what to confess and desperate to protect Spiderman’s secret he finally says ‘I’m watching porn.’ Film reviews are invariably written by adults (I’m 61) even though the film might be designed for children. So the film is viewed through the jaded, cynical world-weary eyes of a pensioner when the true audience is a testosterone fuelled 14 year old boy. I didn’t think it was a great film by any means but it was fun and enjoyable and quite funny in places. 14 year old boys (and girls) will probably love it.

Baby Driver

Walter Hill made a film in 1978 called The Driver which stared Ryan O’Neal as an enigmatic, monosyllabic crack getaway driver and Edgar Wright’s superb new feature film reprises the same idea, only now the driver of the title is young and baby-faced and called…Baby. Baby’s mother (an amateur singer) and his father (of whom nothing is learned other than he used to hit Baby’s mother), were killed in a car accident which left him with tinnitus and the whole film, although on the surface about robbers who employ Baby as their getaway driver, is really about sound and the absence of sound. Baby now lives with his foster father, a wheel-chair bound, mute and deaf black man; they communicate in sign language. Baby is obsessed with music, owns hundreds of iPods and carries a little portable tape recorder which he uses to record sounds and conversations so that he can put them to music. He makes and has hundreds of cassette tapes (remember them?) each neatly labelled with a name for the music and sounds he has created. His most precious tape is of his mother singing and is labelled simply ‘Mom.’ Baby wears his earphones constantly and listens to an eclectic collection of music. And it is loud music which is the driving force of the film. Baby works for a Mr Big (Kevin Spacey) who brings together a crew of robbers for each heist. Spacey rather dials in his performance but he’s so good you don’t notice. His is a villain we’ve seen before, most notably Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crowne Affair, Pierce Brosnan in the remake of the same name or Keyser Sose in The Usual Suspects, in which of course Spacey also appeared. The robbers are the usual collection of ethnically diverse tattooed hoodlums, here played by Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Jamie Foxx (scary and excellent), Eiza Gonzalez (as the stereo-typical floozy with a gun) and her boyfriend played by an unshaven, snarly Jon Hamm. Of them all, I never quite believed in Hamm; perhaps I’ve seen too many episodes of Mad Men, or maybe it’s that he just takes too long to get his come-uppance and hogs the screen. (Or maybe it’s because his favourite song is Queen’s Brighton Rock). Baby is played by Ansel Elgort who is excellent – young, fresh-faced, handsome, charismatic, a brilliant driver and totally believable in the role. He has a touching romance with the beautiful Debora (Lily James) whom he meets in a diner and they fall hopelessly in love. He is tongue-tied and inarticulate but they share a love of music – he has one song called Debora on his iPod. ‘It’s by Trex,’ he says. ‘You mean T Rex,’ she replies. It’s a good line but if he knows that much about music, wouldn’t he know that? (And it’s always nice to see Marc Bolan earn a few extra posthumous dollars). The film charts Baby’s journey across a series of violent heists. There are echoes of Heat in the gun-shot exchanges with the cops but they’re well-handled by Wright who directs with verve and assurance. We have seen so many car chases in the movies now that it is difficult to make them fresh but Wright manages it – and whoever the stunt drivers are, they deserve top billing. The film is exciting, sharp, witty (Spacey’s character makes a very funny Monsters Inc reference at the end of the film), well-acted, edge of the seat stuff and if the ending is pretty much what you expect, who cares? The sound-track is to die for – classic rock, Motown, modern stuff, there’s something for every age in the audience; someone has great taste. I saw it with my son. We both loved it. ‘You remember that Simon and Garfunkel song, Baby Driver?’ I said to my wife when I got home. ‘I hadn’t thought of that when I saw the film’s title. But it plays over the end credits.’ ‘Didn’t you?’ she said. ‘It was the first thing I thought of.’ She could always do the pun pics better than me.  

‘Lanterne Rouge’ by Max Leonard

Leonard’s book is not a biography of the author of this occasional column (unfortunately) but an investigation into the ‘award’ given to the rider who finishes last in the Tour de France. This prize used to be well-regarded and even fought over although nowadays it is not much respected. Before the days of high salaries many riders earned the bulk of their income by riding criteriums after the Tour was over and the Lanterne was usually invited and so had a chance to make a few francs. Leonard’s book recounts the stories of some of the various Lanterne Rouges over the years and puts their exploits into the context of each year’s Tour. And so there is a roll-call of largely unknown riders whose claim to fame this is – Arsene Millochau (the first in 1903), Englishman Tony Hoar in 1955, Gerhard Schonbacher (twice a ‘winner’ in 1979 and 1980), Wim Vansevenant (three times a holder), Spanish brothers Igor and Iker Flores in 2002 and 2005 and others. Some are now known for other exploits  – for example Svein Tuft ‘won’ in 2013, although most are largely forgotten. Leonard’s thesis (essentially) is that winning is not everything and there is a nobility and a place in heaven for those that come last and the stories of the losers are as deserving of re-telling as those of the winner’s. This may well be true and coming last is (probably) better than abandoning half-way through the Tour, but some riders became so desperate to be last that they resorted to cheating; hiding in bushes while the peloton passed or deliberately riding slowly. I see no nobility in this; cheating is cheating whether you do it to win or to lose. However, Leonard writes well and clearly loves his subject and his book casts a light on one of the more unusual aspects of our sport. It seems all the rage now to regard losing as the new winning (see the Labour party at the recent election) so perhaps the Lanterne Rouge prize will be resurrected this year. After all, whether one likes it or not, where there’s a winner, there’s a loser and, like the child’s birthday party, maybe everyone deserves some sort of prize.

‘Ventoux’ by Jeremy Whittle

Whittle’s new book is – believe it or not – about the famous Giant of Provence, that fearsome mountain in the south of France, described by Lance Armstrong (no less) as the toughest climb in the Tour de France. Every cyclist knows of Ventoux and many have ridden it (including me) but its chief claim to fame is that Tom Simpson died on it during the 1967 Tour. The book is interspersed with an imagined interior monologue by Tom Simpson as he rides, and then dies, on the Ventoux.  There’s something a bit odd and tasteless about this and it adds nothing to one’s understanding of Simpson, or of the mountain. There is a whole section devoted to Team Sky, Chris Froome running, Sir Dave Brailsford, the jiffy bag incident and a general suspicion of Sky and their achievements. But I’m not sure what it’s doing in this book and other than raising the usual questions (Brailsford doesn’t respond to Whittle’s email, much to his annoyance!) it adds nothing to one’s understanding or appreciation of Ventoux. There is also a long description of a film called Le Roi de Ventoux which uses archive footage to pit 5 victors on Ventoux – Merckx, Pantani, Virenque, Bernard and Garate (me neither) – against each other to determine the winner. However, as they rode at different times, with different equipment, in different stages, against different opposition, in different weather conditions and with different drugs in their bodies (allegedly), it is difficult to see what one learns. In any case, the film is available on You Tube and you’re better off just watching it yourself and making your own mind up. (Interesting idea but not a great film). The rest of the book describes the mountain, its history, location and place in the Tour and details Whittle’s climbs of it and the surrounding area. Interviews with Lance Armstrong (yawn), and Joanne Simpson (Tom’s daughter, quite moving), pad out the rest. There is a small selection of not very interesting or inspiring photographs – a missed opportunity as there must be many fascinating vintage post-cards and photos around. The book is nonetheless readable and Whittle is a decent, journeyman writer who writes like what he is – a journalist on the Times offered a book deal – but his prose never takes flight; it never leaves the forest to scratch the bare, moonlike scree above Chalet Reynard; it never reaches the beauty, glory, profundity and utter fearsome strangeness of the Giant of Provence.

‘Higher Calling’ by Max Leonard

Last year I undertook the Raid Alpine – from Geneva to Nice across the Alps. One of the iconic climbs on the route – and the only one I didn’t complete (the flies and the heat did for me) – was the Col de Bonette, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. Coincidentally, the Bonette forms the centre-piece for Leonard’s book which is described as an investigation into the fascination that cyclists have for climbing. The book intersperses Leonard’s climbs of the Bonette with interviews with Joe Dombrowski – then with Team Sky, now with Cannondale – descriptions of great climbs, including Teide in Tenerife, the Galibier, Tourmalet, Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, etc, accounts of the building of the great Alpine passes, an explanation of the latest craze for ‘Everesting’ (climbing 8000 metres in 24 hours)  and descriptions of some of the great climbers of the past, including Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes. Leonard (coincidentally, author of Lanterne Rouge – review coming soon) is a fine writer and his book is a lyrical, at times poetic, and elegiac evocation of the attraction of climbing and descending in the high mountains. The interview with Dombrowski unfortunately provides few insights, but why should it? Dombrowski is a cyclist, not a poet. To my mind, Leonard never really answers his own question but then maybe there is no answer. He starts his book with a description of George Mallory’s famous answer when asked why he sought to climb Everest – ‘because it’s there.’ And ultimately, I guess that’s why we do it and why we love it so. I saw a sign on a Sportive a few weeks ago – ‘It’s a hill – get over it.’ Maybe that’s all you really need to know.