MARK O'CONNELL

Writer, Author, Bond Fan

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THE STORM BEFORE THE CALM – Reviewing SPECTRE and Bond’s newest bullet

SPOILERS!!

Bally-Boot 3

“The dead are alive” whispers a humble caption as an audacious and sinister opening shot soars, swoops and tracks into one of Bond’s greatest opening overtures. As a lone figure pushes through a pulsing exodus of Day of the Dead carnival goers, it’s Samedi Night Fever on the streets of Mexico City. Spinning senoritas, sexy La Catrinas and cadavarious cads jostle and party in a glorious and ghoulish ‘one take’ melange of remembrance and skulduggery. Pinned to one ‘continuous’ and brilliantly mounted five minute take, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camera finds our man James and his corpse bride already embroiled in a deadly hunt of cat and louse. Cue all manner of roof hopping, cuff shooting and a remembrance funday the likes of which Craig’s Bond has never done before with such zest, scope and ball-busting ambition. With Tambuco’s pounding percussion, Chris Corbould’s wholly logical special effects, Jamy Temime’s bravura costume design and Gary Powell’s heart-pounding stunt work – these are department heads at the utter peak of their Bond game. And this is just the first ten minutes of Spectre. Not even that. But already this breathless, apocalypse wow of a helicopter fight over the Zócalo puts this movie’s opening gambit up there with any Union Jack parachute or jetpack escape.

That playful sense of relief and victory has been slightly absent from the Craig era. It didn’t sit with the internal dramatics and renovated psyche of our man James. But in Spectre these opening heroics are fierce, epic and nail bitingly victorious. Craig and director Sam Mendes utterly earn that moment when Sam Smith’s mid Sixties strings fire like familiar harpoon guns into a John Barry-savvy ocean and Daniel Kleinman’s inky titles begin their wraithlike dance. As writhing snakes form the cornea of an eye, eye sockets burn like it’s 1973 and Live and Let Die all over again and Kleinman pays apt reverence to Salvador Dali’s multiple eye motif (from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound), Spectre’s notion of surveillance and watching is readily apparent. The turbulent wake behind a speeding bullet becomes the tentacles of an octopus that grips, smothers and seduces; and a naked Daniel Craig stares at the audience as various hands and arms flail for his attention (in a homo-baiting visual not totally dissimilar to a topless, faceless George Lazenby in a OHMSS teaser poster). As the titles make one of cinema’s most utterly reassuring declarations that once again “Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions presents”, a million shards of glass do indeed haunt Bond from his past when the Ghosts of Bond Films Past, Le Chiffre and Silva twist and remind like story phantoms. Contrary to some of the naysayers bashing Sam Smith, it is a wholly fresh notion to cast a male vocalist and a pained love song that retracts the traditional and bombastic momentum of a Bond song with a quiet falsetto or three (Communard Bond anyone?!).

3895702_the-teaser-trailer-for-spectre-is-here_45059d09_mAnd before you know it, we’re back through that double tufted leather door and Ralph Fiennes’ vexed M bashing Bond for being a Guardian headline. The world’s security agencies and MI6’s Double O Section are allegedly at a crossroads – a cyber sea-change in an ever prescient world of refugees, holiday resort terrorism and identity theft. The rigid, Apprentice contestant sneering of newcomer Andrew Scott and his bureaucratic Max Denbigh are flagging up change for everything that M and Bond know . A new shared surveillance network called Nine Eyes proposes replacing agents in the field with “drones” and previously guarded nations will rather spuriously now “share” information. The thrust of Spectre is utter Edward Snowden and his damaging and downright petrifying claims about government surveillance techniques. This is not surprising for Eon and this particular Bond film. Producer Barbara Broccoli currently has her film making sights on Glenn Greenwald’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, No Place to Hide – Edward Snowden, the NSA and The Surveillance State. In Spectre the NSA is the fictional CNS – the Centre for National Security – or perhaps a rather dubiously managed central nervous system rife for abuse and personal intrusion. Once again out on his own and saddled with diktats from above that even M cannot stop, Bond must not only pursue the mission he is already on when the film starts, he must also do so with the least interaction with the home side.

LAS-48_AW_29320-Spectre-1000x500In Spectre there is a wonderful stuck in boarding school during the holidays dynamic about the M, Moneypenny, Q and Tanner foursome. With Denbigh pitched as Spectre’s blinkered and dangerously naïve Ofsted inspector, Fiennes beleaguered, but principled turn as MI6’s headmaster is one of the film’s highlights. Still imbued with that ex-army, Northern Irish veteran life alluded to in Skyfall, Fiennes’ M is a fiercely principled man, defending with pride the skills of “my quartermaster” and of course top agent, Bond. Echoing one of Bond’s educations in 2008’s Quantum of Solace and probably the key thrust of Spectre, Fiennes firmly believes “a licence to kill means knowing when not to kill”. Playing down some of the near idiot savant tics of the character in Skyfall, Ben Whishaw’s Q relaxes his quartermaster into a supporter of 007. Less cool and aloof geek, he is now more Airbnb savvy hipster getting himself embroiled in a perilous field trip with only the thinnest of escape options. It is a seriously encouraging state of affairs when Bond’s home side are made up of at least three possible future Knights of the British acting fraternity – Fiennes, Kinnear and Whishaw.

1$_V?_Job NameOne almost passing moment of M dining alone (at Rules – Covent Garden’s real dining refuge as featured in the spy worlds of writers Graham Greene and John Le Carre) is so well pitched as an out of hours Moneypenny and Q show concern for Bond, the mission and their careworn boss. Once again London is a support character in Spectre. But this is a very different London to that so gloriously used in 2012’s Skyfall and the wake of the Jubilee and the Olympics. This is a London for loners. Bond lives alone in a decidedly sparse apartment, M dines alone or is on the lamb with only a meagre holdall of his possessions, a lone Q operates into the early hours out of his own refuge, Moneypenny walks down empty streets at night and MI6’s abandoned base at Vauxhall now cuts a lonely, derelict sight.

Cut to an Italian job in Rome and a funeral rendezvous with Monica Bellucci’s striking and life worn widow, Lucia Sciarra. “Can’t you see I’m grieving?” she barks as Bond’s coy “No, I can’t” is not long followed by quite a passionate bout of Catholic baiting nooky. Not even the Pope could absolve Bond of his sins now. Spectre is a decidedly passionate film. After Lea Seydoux’s Dr Madeleine Swann and Bond are embroiled in a highly brutal train fight with Dave Bautista’s burly Hinx, an urgent instrumental version of Sam Smith’s title song spills into what is a really passionate embrace and a great Roger Moore inspired answer to “well, what do we do now?”. Seydoux’s Madeline Swann is a markedly downbeat Bond woman. Played by rising French actress Seydoux (Blue is The Warmest Colour, Grand Central, Midnight In Paris) the Proustian Madeleine Swann is a play on words and continues Skyfall and writer John Logan’s literary cameos. A madeleine cake was famously referenced at the beginning of Proust’s Swann’s Way – when the subject marks how a nostalgia-making madeleine brings back a tumult of hard emotions and childhood remembrances. Further underlining the nod, Swann’s Way was the first chapter of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la Recherché Du Temps Perdu, 1913) which translates as the more familiar Remembrance of Things Past and is all over Spectre as Bond, Madeleine and Oberhauser almost trip over their childhood photos and regret.

A long time casting wish for the Bond camp, Monica Bellucci’s presence is a beguiling, yet all too brief one. It is a slither of an appearance, but one that sets the film up for one of its masterstrokes – the reintroduction of criminal organisation, Spectre. One gate-crashing bout of Bond’s best Italian language skills later and it’s For Your Eyes Wide Shut as Bond infiltrates a cult-framed criminal summit – a ruthless enclave of vengeful business, dubious start-up schemes and the minutes of terrorism. Fearful accountants attempt buoying up middling business success, murderous assignments are tendered out to the most tender-less of candidates and one particular new board member makes a viciously violent play on the phrase ‘by the pricking of my thumbs’. And there is a microphone. And a tannoy. There is no monorail alas, but in a world of mass cyber communication it is refreshing to see how a starter business like Spectre still relies on a pointed microphone. On a stand.

Actually, Spectre the film is refreshingly tech-free. All keyboard tapping intrigue is kept to a minimum, a trickling line of spilt beer is as good a way of finding hidden rooms these days, a secret hand gesture rather than a retina scan gets you into villains lairs, an alpine clinic demands all phones and guns to be handed over upon arrival and the DB10 is not fully fledged just yet (but it does boast a Frank Sinatra cd – in a possible nod to one of Cubby Broccoli’s close pals). In the best John Glen era swagger, Bond is very much “on his own this time” as the story and M require Bond to not communicate with anyone.

And so to Christoph Waltz. Alongside Javier Bardem, the double Oscar winner was the Bond films must-have villain. The National Theatre of Eon now has its most apt actor to nail that necessary sense of European villainy so memorably pioneered in the SPECTRE-bound likes of From Russia with Love and Thunderball.  As Franz Oberhauser, Waltz crafts a very still and quietly calculating nemesis. Nothing however quite matches that doom-ladened boardroom entrance as Oberhauser drops the name “James” into the minutes with foreboding precision. In sockless slip-ons, humdrum slacks and a Nehru suit jacket he refuses to properly button up, Oberhauser emerges almost as an aloof Jeremy Corbyn at a seaside conference. Possibly disadvantaged with constant references to previous Bond villains, Oberhauser may also ultimately emerge as somewhat of a lesser force. He certainly upholds Dr. No’s skills at picking the right dress size for his visiting Bond women, Rosa Klebb’s ability to sour a hotel room for guests and Helga Brandt’s penchant for torture (the Craig era does love to strap its lead to a chair). Obviously the elephant in Spectre’s room is 007’s most famous adversary. But if anything this film is about the children of Spectre – the next generation of flame keepers. And flame throwers. It is a sinister beat when Bond and Swann are in separate rooms at Oberhauser’s Moroccan base and are unnerved to see framed photos on the walls of their childhoods.

The lurking white cat that is Mr White has been sauntering under the radar for three Bond movies now. The Austrian scenes between Jesper Christensen’s White and Bond are one of Spectre’s triumphs. Once again Christensen drags with him a Jacob Marley sense of impending, inescapable doom. But there is now a conscience and a resignation to his fate and actions. Rather than wholly using the Hannes Oberhauser strand of Ian Fleming’s 1966 short story collection Octopussy & The Living Daylights as expected, it is Mr White who is afforded writers John Logan, Robert Wade, Neal Purvis and Jez Butterworth nod to the source material. Instead of Octopussy’s father in the 1983 film being provided with an honourable alternative to court martialling and an shameful death, it is now Mr White in a scene that comes back to haunt Bond in quite a marked, devilish way.

SPECTREThere is of course more Fleming DNA weaved throughout this Bond bullet. An unused Fleming title is finally put to good use, Fleming’s great nephew Tam Williams plays an all-important, but faceless lover and a torture scene lifts directly from Kingsley Amis’s 1968 continuation Bond novel, Colonel Sun.

And talking of Mr White (and taking one of Roger Moore’s Bond Women tropes of the 1980s), Spectre has a lot of Daddy issues. Lea Seydoux’s ele-quaint turn as a White Swann of haunted memories, divorced parents, a hatred of weaponry is oddly affective alongside her striking love for Commander Bond. And Franz himself is clearly blaming his father and his relationships for his life choices. But the one figure who is refreshingly free of such familial angst is James Bond himself. The much touted back story of the Oberhausers and a teenage James are almost superfluous to Spectre. This then leaves Craig’s 007 to utterly enjoy the Bond ride in the first of his four films (to date) which is just a fun mission.

One of the successes of Spectre is how it reinstates – and earns – that Bond swagger. As composer Thomas Newman’s choir and Vatican establishing shots fanfare that Bond Arrives ™ moment, this twenty-fourth 007 bullet is peppered with joyous beats and assertive tangents. This is a Bond film with abundant champagne on ice, an alpine clinic with remote control shutters, a rather useful watch and a real lack of second unit domination. And that unashamed heterosexuality is back. Quite right. Craig’s Bond has not yet bedded a Bond woman who stays with him as the end credits hit. There is even space for not one, but two ‘c’ word gags. That potty mouthed Judi Dench and her Skyfall expletives have a lot to answer for.

Sam Mendes second spin of the dice is less the bespoke, mahogany hued world of Skyfall. The Mexico City scenes have a contemporary immediacy to them whilst conversely the Morocco scenes aboard a vintage train and later in the desert reek of Agatha Christie movies as an anachronistically dressed Bond and Swann await an appointment with death. Cue EON Productions’ Chauffeur Complex (and one close to the heart of Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan). Nearly every Bond film features a suited chauffeur. Spectre is no different as an approaching and beautiful Rolls Royce Silver Wraith shimmers out of a desert mirage like a wheeled Omar Shariff and reminds of Kleinman’s title wraiths.

Talking of Lawrence of Arabia, there is a marked nod to David Lean in Spectre. Pursuing the hot and cold motif of Mexico and Morocco versus the freezing climes of Austria, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography has the romantic visual sweep of Doctor Zhivago and that duality of ice and sand. Antique trains thread through the desert, shadows are thrown at Spectre HQ like Ken Adam drapes and aerial shots show Bond and London from the eye of an eagle. Hoytema’s work here underpins one of the most romantic looking of Bond movies. Freddie Young (who shot Zhivago, Lawrence and 1967’s You Only Live Twice) would be proud. The dusty hues of Mexico City are awash with that key marigold Day of the Dead colour, Austria is lent a drab February ski trip grey and Rome is suitably romanticised and Catholicised with candle-light auburns and oranges. One pull focus gem sees a resigned Lucia Sciarra and her last ever nightcap flanked by death only for Bond to turn the tables in one slickly orchestrated beat.

This is not a 007 adventure that feels the need to keep the action plate spinning. Casino Royale was sometimes fearful of its central card game motif so threaded in constant physical peril and stairwell skirmishes. The action beats in Spectre are all pinned to the story. As in Skyfall, the stunts inform the narrative rather than pause it. Gravity is the action motif here – the gravity of Bond sliding down a crumbling Mexican wall onto an abandoned sofa, the gravity of a fiercely realised fist fight aboard an out of control helicopter, the gravity of what goes up must come down, the gravity of a wingless plane chasing a fleet of jeeps down an Austrian mountain on nothing but momentum, the gravity of a playful parachute descent in Rome and the gravity of a last act jump off an exploding building.

From Pale Kings to pain authors, Spectre is a breathless triumph that breathes, thrills, romances and glows with a sinister, retro pride. It is Mendes’ Kubrickian opera of baroque quirks, wit and deliberately strange imagery.

Many thanks to EON Productions for the screening.

Spectre is released nationwide in the UK on Monday 26th October and 6th November in the US.

Reviewing THE SILENT STORM – Neon Films / Eon Productions new drama

storm 5Balor (Damian Lewis) is an anachronistic reverend, ex-naval officer and turn of the century bible-thumper. Pitched in a post WWII world of revived gender, sexual and even atheist confidence, Balor is a defiant Presbyterian cart-horse charged with keeping afloat the dwindling Christian instincts of an unnamed Scottish island (though shot on the Isle of Mull) in an unnamed year. “To expect happiness in this life is a form of arrogance” says Balor to a life-weary parishioner. Married to Aislin (Andrea Riseborough), Balor is both stranger and religious drill sergeant to his kindly spouse. Recovering from the loss of their child singlehandedly, Aislin is dutiful but privately proud of her resistance to Balor’s sense of a God. Hers is a world of nature and nurture, of quietly ignoring her husband’s sense of Christ and the medieval guilt that comes with it. But such defiance comes at a price – and one Aislin has long assumed is her lot to accept in a world without friends and where leisure time and reading in the bath is heresy.

silent stormEnter Fionn (newcomer Ross Anderson), a strapping, ex-shipyard tyke assigned by mainland naughty-boy wrangler Mr Smith (a far too brief John Sessions) to possibly reform, or at best learn the error of ways he knows were never errors. Respectful and patient himself, the hardworking Fionn admits to sorting contraband for the dockers and shipmen of his orphaned youth whilst learning all about women along the way – an admission that betrays a quietly curious Aislin and her lack of decent male contact, be it physical or emotional.

Pallid and glacial in his emotions, Damian Lewis’s Balor is cut from a similar cloth as Stanley Baker in Zulu or Richard Harris in This Sporting Life – marked by a simmering and very British onscreen masculinity at increasing odds with a femininity and modernity he cannot control. Prone to bouts of [almost] Pythonesque martyrdom (almost because the hyperbole levels are deliberate) and Calvary-inspired physical acts, Lewis creates a crumbling bull of a man at odds with the modern world and the breakdown nailing him to his own cross. A cracking sequence sees Balor singlehandedly haul the contents of his austere chapel onto his own Ark – and one with no dove of peace or chance of salvation.

Riseborough’s Aislin is less clear-cut. Equally pallid yet not the indulgent witch she is painted as, Riseborough plays the God widow with a sympathy that avoids sentiment. With her abilities to cure an ailing ram through herbs rather than prayer, Aislin is at one with the nature of an island she equally loathes. As all her femininity is almost pared away, Riseborough’s wife holds an earthly wisdom and controlled sexuality that grates with husband Balor. Aislin knows that God is not found on the hard wooden pews of a remote chapel but the private herbs, fauna, flora and respect for others she surrounds herself with. Ross Anderson’s Fionn is possibly the soul of the film. Handsome, agile yet still the child who can be scolded, Anderson allows Fionn to become the audience’s entry point to a sad story of a couple that already feels over when the film opens.

Writer/director Corinna McFarlane forever steers the emotions of The Silent Storm (or clear lack of them) to various cliff edges of revelation or despair, but often pulls back from what is expected when telling the tale of such matrimonial decay (a rot that has mostly already set in before the film starts). The burgeoning friendship between Aislin and Fionn is loaded with preconceptions that do not always manifest where moments of reconciliation and hope are often swiped aside. The tonal upshot is ultimately one of emotional honesty and a romance not always dealt the obvious cards by the writing. At times reminiscent of the God/protagonist divide of Peter Mullan’s Orphans, The Silent Storm is never a sermon.

storm 4Cinematographer Ed Rutherford’s stark palette of pastel blues, enamel tea cups, grained chapel pews and ashened skies of course underline the film’s characters and McFarlane’s intent but never over-define it. Just as Aislin’s lot verges on a Dickensian misery, Rutherford and McFarlane refresh proceedings with rich burnt oranges, greenery and beautifully shot flora and fauna. A treasured book of poetry is prized by Fionn because of its contents, but McFarlane’s eye marks it out simply because it is blue in a palette of Calvinistic browns and greys.

Likewise, Sharon Long’s costume work is a sallow wardrobe of braces, reverend bibs, collars and hair ties holding back the emotions within just as long as things look in order to the outside world. Credit too must go to Alistair Caplin’s blustering, Calvinistic roar of a score. At times intrusive and almost too heavenly in its bombast it also reminds – like Riseborough’s Aislin – that God is in every cliff edge, moss-covered tree, cave nook and mountain stream. Providing a more contemporary Celtic sound than the film’s austere visuals, Caplin’s orchestral and choral work (he contributes his own vocals more than once) ably serves the film with a hope and religious scope The Silent Storm needs to work before it can pull it down. Or at least kneel before it with what it knows and wants us to know about the human condition and spirit.

Developed and produced by Barbara Broccoli, Michael G Wilson, Eon Productions and producer Nicky Bentham, The Silent Storm is a sparse but progressively forceful work.

The Silent Storm – a Neon Films production in association with Eon Productions and West End Films.

The film opens in the UK on May 20th 2016.

The Silent Storm’s world premiere was held during the 2014 London Film Festival with Damian Lewis, Andrea Riseborough, Ross Anderson, Corinna McFarlane and Nicky Bentham on hand to introduce the film to the gathered crew, artists, executive producers and at least one James Bond.

Photo © Mark O’Connell / 2014

Photo © Mark O'Connell / 2014

Photo © Mark O’Connell / 2014

Photo © Mark O'Connell / 2014

Photo © Mark O’Connell / 2014

Photo © Mark O'Connell / 2014

Photo © Mark O’Connell / 2014

Photo © Mark O'Connell / 2014

Photo © Mark O’Connell / 2014

CALIFORNIA DREAMING – Catching EON Productions’ sterling FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL

‘Life isn’t everything’ chants Elton John towards the end of 1978’s Song for Guy and the beguiling dressing room opening gambit of Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. But life is everything if you don’t have much left of it, especially if yours has always been seen through the lens of 1950s Hollywood. Continue reading

IN HIS ELEMENT – Sölden unveils its innovative new Bond cinematic installation, 007 ELEMENTS

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If you’ve got it, haunt it – Reviewing GHOSTBUSTERS

Spoilers.

 

Despite Melissa McCarthy’s Chewbacca Mom schtick now running very thin, a weirdly bipolar it is/it isn’t linked to the originals stance, a distinct lack of that SNL ’84 bite from these SNL ’16 ladies and some fun, but wanting cameos (who ultimately underscore the film’s schizophrenic relationship with its source material), oddly and rather refreshingly Ghostbusters – Answer The Call is still miraculously heaps of slick fun, creepy when it needs to be and is not quite the childhood-destroying proton beam the cackling undead of the internet’s movie fan community needed it to be.

Yes, it’s no Bridesmaids II. But it’s not Ghostbusters II either. Losing Dan Aykroyd’s ever passionate pursuits of ancient ghost-foolery versus society’s ills is no bad thing. And whilst the original 1984 classic is understandably held aloft with great reverence it too is not that perfect a movie. If the original and surviving cast members couldn’t get this third Gozarian off the ground then possibly it was for a reason.

Admittedly director Paul Feig (The Heat, Spy) has bargained with a franchise devil and maybe not wholly stood up from the séance as victor. The now reviled initial trailers for this new movie were actually fine. But they did tap into a heritage – the ’84 fire house, the New York was saved before mantra, the suits, the proton guns – that the subsequent trailers and this final film oddly try to distance itself from when it suits. This is a 2016 world where no Ghostbusters have ever existed….yet a subway graffiti artist nails their logo without trying, a real estate suit shows the new gang around that Tribeca fire station and the cameo wrangler clearly has the ’84 original on loop somewhere. For a film whose director and press tried to distance itself from the first two movies, it makes no sense that Ghostbusters – Answer The Call (that seemed to be the title we got in our cinema but who knows what this alias of a movie wants to call itself) repeats the beats of the ’84 original. From an opening phantom menace to some cool and kickass calls to duty, the unbelieving world of academic elders (Charles Dance is sorely wasted), camp venue managers, a finale haunting in a late 19th century apartment block and meddlesome city bureaucrats, the film that doesn’t want you to know it is Ghostbusters III is about as convincing at subterfuge as a Halloween kid under a white sheet.

And so to the ghostly white elephant in the Manhattan library room. Does the all-lady ensemble work? Yes, it does. Very much so. When the end credits roll (and not the eye-gougingly awful spectacle of Chris Hemsworth trying to add some Slumdog Millionaire flash-mob er fun to proceedings) one is left with a guilty moment of “I think I want to see those characters again“. Yes, they are shameless photocopies of the original line up of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson (with the exception being that Wiig is not Venkman with the “smallest bowtie in the world“). Wiig especially has the onscreen ability of being the comedy ring leader without pitching for the bigger laughs. That is left to Leslie Jones and the comedy balls she brings to the haunting. And likewise Kate McKinnon’s science lesbian Holtzman and the gentle hots she has for Wiig’s Erin Gilbert works more than not, despite being kept at arm’s length. If anything, a film that is/isn’t based on the 1984 Columbia Pictures stalwart needed a love story in the ecto-mix to echo that Dana and Peter dynamic. And not with Hemsworth’s dire receptionist. We really don’t need to talk about Kevin – a terrible, terrible homage mix of Rick Moranis dumb and Annie Potts phone answering swipes whose dumb blonde comedy gold must have stormed that first cast read-through, but maybe not since. Whilst it obviously panders to the ladies (and some of the boys) leaving the cinema, a film that has weathered such female-skewed criticisms should have thought a bit more about whether having a dancing Hemsworth flashing pictures of his topless torso was quite the 2016 statement about onscreen gender it could have been.

But politics was never Ghostbusters thing – though there is a great “Jaws mayor” gag at Andy Garcia’s expense. It is great to see the various ages of New York be that summer blockbuster Big Apple again (albeit one shot in Boston and Harvard), the effects straddle cartoon and creepy well enough and that klaxon of a title song never ceases to stir. In a world of social media (who you gonna tweet?) and countless haunted reality shows, Ghostbusters – Answer The Call doesn’t maybe feel the contemporary statement that the ’84 classic was. The original tapped into the cult of inadvertent celebrity, academia and both city and American politics with more skill than here. But for two hours of your Summer movie time, director Feig and his ensemble have not buried our childhoods alive. They have not killed a franchise that has been dead of its own accord for nearly thirty years. They have raised a movie spirit that is knockabout, visually rich, fun when it needs to be and is a stylish piece of matinee fluff. In the kneejerk “jumpers for goal posts” nostalgic-steered attacks it is worth noting that 2016’s Ghostbusters is more of an Eighties comedy blockbuster than maybe even 1989’s Ghostbusters II was. This is a successful ensemble pantomime with a gloss, a pace, likeable characters and no need to mentally string out four sequels before the credits have even rolled. In an age when the gatekeepers of summer cinema are comic book movies obsessed with endless teaser-y teasing to movies not yet made, it is refreshing to just have a self-contained film that has a confidence in itself. That is more Eighties cinema than not. If you’ve got it, haunt it.

Ghostbusters is on general release both in the UK and US from 15th July 2016.

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KEY PERSPECTIVES – Exploring the soul-feeding glitter-ball that is Key West

KEY WEST - May 2014 - © Mark O'Connell (959)I had just proposed to my boyfriend over the phone from Key West, Florida when a skinny silver-haired pavement philosopher named Durf caught my eye with a “wanna see what I do?” invite. Elated by my man’s answer and an overwhelming experience on what is the Florida Keys biggest and most glittering of baubles I too offered a firm “yes”. Durf instantly sat cross-legged on the kerb between two parked cars and produced a flat pane of wood and a magnifying glass. Possibly endorsing a mantra written on his own pushbike – “Key West – where the weird go pro” – Durf proved that the Key West weird can also go beautiful as this literal burning man continued a magnifying glass sun-seared portrait of John Lennon onto the idle piece of wood. And with no need for a dollar tip or faux interest on either side, the encounter was over.

Despite its growing scene and historic queer pockets, the state of Florida is not historically known for its LGBT tolerance. The infamous orange juice magnate and crucifix licking Anita Bryant became one of America and Florida’s most famous homophobes in the 1970s (and in turn gave the queer scene a great, inadvertent platform to prove her sentiments wrong). But things change. Even America. And even Florida. So leading that particular march at the southern tip of the United States is Key West – the lowest hanging glitterball on the American map. And just like Durf and his John Lennon portraits, it is not afraid to put its gay culture under the magnifying glass and let the sparks fly.

Just 127 miles off the Miami coast, Key West is nearer Cuba than mainland America and shares the climate and flora of the Bahamas. It is estimated about a third of Key West’s population identifies as LGBT, with the other two thirds possibly identifying as not bothered. Pink icons Divine, Sylvester, Grace Jones and Madonna would appear at the now-gone disco havens The Copa and The Monster, long-term resident Tennessee Williams penned landmark works in his Duncan Street pad, a significant 1980s tourist push fuelled predominantly by LGBT businesses taking a punt on ailing streets and premises gave a renaissance to the island, openly gay men and women are elected to political, police and civic office without fanfare (the Key West of the 1980s boasted one of America’s first out gay mayors) and today it is estimated nearly a quarter of a million LGBT folk a year visit from around the globe.

There’s a sort of Saturday-whatever-the-day feel to Key West. Moped-straddling tourists clutch half-quaffed Mojitos as they weave through the chilled tsunami of mopeds and push bikes, palm trees stand sentry over gingerbread timber cottages with wraparound verandas and freshly rolled cigars are as plentiful as the keynote roosters crossing the road like feathery drag queens on the 5am walk of shame home. Boasting a near Caribbean climate (there is no winter as such) and flanked by the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, Key West may well be only four square miles in size but climate and attitude facilitate plenty of year-round allures.

Gay Spring Break, Kamp Key West, Key West Pride, the SMART Ride, the annual LGBT Cocktail Classic Competition, Fantasy Fest, Tropical Heat, Womenfest, the Headdress Ball and Hot Pink Holidays are just some of the more official circles on Key West’s gay calendar. Often spearheaded by the LGBT Key West Business Guild (whose welcoming Information Centre on Truman Avenue comes with its own must-see, free and camp-as-Christmas Tennessee Williams exhibition), these wholly inclusive events are testimony to Key West’s commitment to celebrate not tolerate. And it doesn’t take much for a celebration in Key West.

Montage 2

 

Often at the epicentre of these events is the popular Island House resort. Habitually heralded by the likes of OUT Traveller as “the best gay resort in the world”, Island House is an all-male, timber-decked enclave of contemporary and sizable rooms with all barely a towel flick’s distance from a pool and its well-equipped bar, food, hot tubs, steam rooms, gym, sundeck and sarong stash. The clothing optional Island House welcomes non-residents (as do many of the key B&B’s) and is often the happy hour launch pad for many a raucous night on KEY WEST - May 2014 - © Mark O'Connell (566)the Key West tiles. Likewise, the Equator Resort and Alexander’s Guesthouse are notable pins on the LGBT hotel map with an equal focus on poolside hellos, hook ups and cocktails. Equator possibly caters for more of the male traveller, his partner and any new friends that might be collected along the way in that glass bricked hot-tub, whilst Alexander’s Guesthouse and Lighthouse Court have a fresher, more bespoke slant and perhaps a more inclusive clientele that bucks the [sometimes] male demographic of Key West’s scene. Lighthouse Court was a striking base for this writer with its émigré fixtures, canvas canopies and lush greenery. Ernest Hemingway’s elegant home and nearby mid-19th century lighthouse are neighbours – with the latter becoming my really useful marker when doing that walk of shame home alongside those roosters and the former becoming a tranquil, iced-coffee-in-hand antidote to the revelries of Duval Street only a block away.

Should you not want to walk – though it is sometimes the quickest way to navigate the connecting back-alleys and witness the flourishing Bahamian vegetation, side bars and pop-up eateries – local companies offer easy moped and push bike rentals. Though please remember some bicycles’ reverse brake mechanism as this cycle-novice writer didn’t and nearly had to do some major back-pedalling when almost crashing into a loaded hearse and its mourners wending out of an episcopal church. With a camera in hand meander on foot from Duval Street’s main drag of bars, wine and song to Mallory Square’s family and sunset skewed plaza – a sort of 1950s Disney take on a Cuban precinct. Or go in the opposite direction and literally walk to the southernmost point of America and witness the southernmost line of tourists waiting to get a southernmost snap of themselves being southernmost. There is something gloriously yesteryear about cycling through Key West, seeing your passing reflection in the bay window shop fronts, checking the small planes overhead as they soar the line of the telegraph wires and throwing that new shirt into the basket for him back home. Assuming you do not rise to kerbside bar-flies jokily suggesting one challenges the neighbouring car to a drag race start when the lights change – I did, and lost – the bike option is much recommended. As is remembering where you’ve parked said bike after a few early evening libations at the island’s many drinking holes.

KEY WEST - May 2014 - © Mark O'Connell (789)Of course the Bourbon Street Pub complex is now a Key West gay classic with an ever unfurling array of drinking zones, dance-floors, outdoor pools, hot tubs, bars and carpeted split-level sundecks. One spacious bar houses the nightly go-go dancers – a smiley, ever rotating mix of ‘Men of Bourbon’ carefully navigating folk’s drinks and comfort zones like a laser-lit, Yo Sushi chorus line. It would be a lie to say we didn’t pocket a dollar or two away (to see just where some tattoos ended) but it is all done with a knowing wink from a uni-twink or two just “working their way through college”.

The Key West Pub is a brand new LGBT drinking pin on the map and provides the best Dark & Stormy cocktail (I know because the writer pals I was with got me one on engagement day and I have yet to find one as good – and I have put in the field work, believe me). The drag-sync circuit is ably served by 801 Bourbon and the Aqua nightclub and its fierce queens, the Aquanettes. Despite a seemingly regular crowd of out-of-town college girls and hen nights hard at work Instagramming just how queer-friendly they are, the likes of former Miss Gay America Maya, the gymnastic Elle and her fellow Aquanettes ably hold court.

And just behind 801 Bourbon is Saloon One and its Friday night Cock Shock – a veritable appendage ‘competition’ far less daunting and tawdry than it sounds. This writer believed the morning-after prizes on his bedside table were for “most travelled” member – which made reassuring sense as my journey from London and a flash of the passport was surely enough to bypass any podium displays of said appendage. When the vodka and cranberry clouds cleared a few days later I remembered there was a “ginger prize” too. And I may have won that. Here’s hoping the judging criteria at 1.30am was clutching at straws and nothing else. But that is the allure of Key West. The wheels come off. And often stay off.

Key West’s most striking attribute is easily its vibrant sense of community. There is an infectious passion to the restaurant, bar, hotel and shop owners. It is predicated on a pride of produce, a pride of location and a pride of community. The eateries particularly are not always awash with tourists. These are places everyone goes to – locals, workers and those keen just to hang out. Of course there is an influx of folk at the weekends. But one of the inadvertent spectator sports is watching the straight, middle aged rocker couples slowly falling out as she wants to stay and he has realised there are gay bars on all sides.

Food wise, at the more lavish end is the palatial Pier House and its Harbourview Café. The deck seating, syrup-hued evenings and the Crispy Tailed Yellow Snapper with jasmine rice is a beyond sexy combo. As is the marina backdrop to any lunch at the Hyatt Resort and Spa – a veritable game-show prize of moored yacht indulgence and recovery cocktails. More low-key is Square One – the restaurant legacy of a gay couple who worked up its reputation before moving on but have left one particularly skilled veteran barman Patrick (known brilliantly as Patticakes) who can spin up a mean Manhattan to flank your crab-cakes and shrimps. Aside from the family run Abbondanza Italian restaurant and its nifty cannelloni, one of this trip’s dining highlights was easily the pared down but no less polished Flaming Buoy Filet Company. Run by Star Wars mad couple Scot and Fred (but fear not – aside from a Boba Fett figurine propping up the bar this ain’t a fan diner), the force is mightily strong with their vision of a neighbourhood restaurant and a pan-seared Fresh Catch with a Banana Salsa and broccoli cake sent from heaven (or Endor).

Wine buffs are notably served, with restaurant and wine bar staff very agile at explaining the reasoning behind their best bottles. VinO on Duval is a sprawling, elegant example (with a great hidden door switch for the restrooms – well, it was great after that second glass of Merlot); as is the insight of Mark Certonio’s Lush bar. The quietly passionate Mark has not only created the annual Key West Food & Wine Festival (January-February), but also hosts a fascinating chocolate bean-to-bar experience at Lush with carefully chosen wines to augment the chocolate tasting, and vice versa. Provided with a hot pestle and mortar, crushed cocoa nibs, butter, chipped fruit and Mark’s savvy palate, the chocolate bar creating and wine tasting session at Lush is a full-on workout of the senses, arm muscles and preconceptions. And you get to take your efforts home with you.

Likewise, Paul Menta’s First Legal Rum Distillery is a blessing for the rum and Coke fans. Aptly housed in a former 1903 Coca-Cola bottling facility, Menta’s workplace and zeal is equally addictive. Flanked by pipes, coolers, barrels, gauges and all manner of fine-line physics, Menta’s distillery is a lesson in patience and knowhow. See, it’s that passion again.

Hot on the notion of protecting and promoting that “community” is Kate Miano. A welcoming firecracker of a Key West hostess, Kate owns The Gardens Hotel – a graceful tropical retreat of luxury Bahamian style apartments and gardens. The likes of Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney fill out the guest book and a Sunday gin, jazz by the pool and maybe another gin is a local favourite for residents and non-residents alike. Miano will read out local notices and announcements, underlining that sense of community and you realise you have bumped into a lot of faces twice already (though hopefully not at Cock Shock). Another similar drinking hole is La Te Da. A restaurant, hotel and cabaret venue (the beautiful upstairs Crystal Bar is worth a reservation or at least a look), La Te Da is a hardwood and check-tiled social marker boasting high-end drag and cabaret performers, a lobby piano bar and classic Conch dining. La Te Da is also where the chattiest, friendliest women seem to be found and is all the more refreshing for it.

Duval Street particularly (where the majority of rainbow flags hang) has maybe the more diverse array of shops, stores and art galleries. Yes there are the ubiquitous beach shops shifting plastic and nylon, but Towels of Key West is now stocking a great range of original vintage tees designed by the owner Kent Henry (including bygone airline logos with Florida links – such as Pan Am), Graffiti is a flashback-dream of belts, trainers, shirts and delicious satchels and Evolution stocks the Long Lost Tees range of fresh eyed t-shirts and logos from the island’s 60s and 70s clubbing, air travel and bar heritage.

Like all islands, Key West – or Bone Island as it used to be historically known (oh the schoolboy sniggering we had when ghost tour guide David Sloan asked why that might be) – has a water culture that informs and steers the island. This is still a key dictated to by the elements. But assuming they are on side (and they usually are), take the time to explore the waters. The team at Lazy Dog took us on a glorious, hangover-busting kayak trip through the mangroves. From someone who it seems cannot stop a pedal bike, taking to the iguana flanked waters could have posed dicey. But under the relaxed tutelage of the Lazy Dog team this became a seriously great chapter of the trip as a detailed kayaking tour of the crabs, jelly fish, sponges and birds of the mangroves and environs soon unfurled.

 

A slightly grander [gayer] trip is the rainbow flagged Blu Q cruise. A predominantly male only trip, this is nevertheless an energised sail out onto the dolphin-flecked Atlantic with snorkelling, kayaking, lunch on a sand bar or doing absolutely nothing as options. There is something fairly addictive about pounding along with Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album at full blast, clutching a Sangria and mentally sticking two fingers up at the sedate boats and married passengers realising the rainbow flag means a boat load of scantily-clad gay pirates who will pounce – or flounce – at any time. Of course like a lot of Key West the Blu Q trip has a clothing optional element but I didn’t partake – mainly because my prize-winning Celtic ginger undercoat would not have benefitted from such snorkel and flipper accessorising.

Equally exquisite was possibly my highlight of the entire trip. Danger Charters (who are anything but) mount a nightly Wind and Wine Sunset Sail into the Gulf of Mexico on a bygone schooner. Never one to get totally excited by sunsets (Key West is very proud of theirs), I had my mind changed in, well, the time it took for the sun to descend quite spectacularly onto the ocean’s horizon. Attended to by the lovely Amber and her lush platter of fresh hors d’oeuvres, the sunset sail is marked by at least seven individually sourced wines, beers and Champagnoise. With plentiful top ups and a realisation why the skipper asks all passengers to keep hold of the ropes when standing, this final night trip was the stuff of pipedreams you never realised you had. That syrup-hued sunset, petrol blue waters and the timber silhouettes of fellow schooners was beyond incredible and easily the greatest visual gift the keys gave me (aside from one or two of the tattooed go-go boys at Bourbons and maybe a chicken literally crossing the road).

Key West is within quick reach from Miami International Airport. American Airlines operate their uber-easy Eagle service for the final leg and the small Key West Airport is a pared-down delight of a cute terminal with at least one hot security frisker one should try and make a post-fluffing beeline for. Key West is a place of great privilege – with perhaps the utmost benefit being the people you will meet. It is a soul-feeding glitterball hanging off the coast of Southern America, a brassy mistress of an LGBT destination.

KEY WEST - May 2014 - © Mark O'Connell (887)

With thanks to Steve Murray-Smith, Carol Shaughnessy, Jo Thomas, the Key West Business Guild, the Florida Keys & Key West Group and KBC PR & Marketing. And of course Douglas Baulf, Kenny Porpora and Collin Spencer.

For further information, or to visit Key West, go to: www.fla-keys.com

This article originally appeared in Beige magazine.

All photos © Mark O’Connell

Through the LOOKING glass… HBO’s new gay by the Bay series reviewed

LOOKING2From an opening fumble in the cruising bushes of a San Francisco park, HBO’s new series Looking makes great play of not really being another gay show that starts with an opening fumble in the cruising bushes of a San Francisco park. Our main guy Patrick (Jonathan Groff) is already on the phone joking with his nearby pals like friends lost in a zoo no-one visits anymore. Already the path-paving brilliance of Russell T Davies’ Queer As Folk and its American remake cousin with all their nubile young lovelies and their helium heels hauled skywards now somehow seems so turn of the century.

Less a gold lamé baton handed on from the hindsight, camp and shock of Tales of The City, Will and Grace and Queer As Folk respectively, HBO’s Looking is not about running forwards. Like British director Andrew Haigh’s previous [and pitch-perfect] feature Weekend (2011), this is about half-seen exchanges outside busy bars and stolen conversations on various Lower Haight sofas as the work talk and weed pipes get passed round as inconsequentially as the prawn crackers from a Thai takeout (not a euphemism!). “I’m proud of you – you’re a pervert now” dismisses one of Patrick’s friends as Looking quickly proves it is not about coming-out stories, Cher gags, fantasy Madonna dance-offs in the bus queue or bottom licking commotions. This is not Sex And The City but just done with gay men replacing the ladies. We’ve had that. It was called Sex And The City.

Everything the possible detractors will level at Looking is exactly why it works. It is not a peaks and troughs screaming queen of a comedy-drama with sexual pratfalls and verbal grenades. Nor does it wear its politics on its leather/denim/tattooed sleeves. Equal marriage, Prop 8 and DOMA is not its agenda as it is not all of ours either. The show and us are aware of the principles at stake, but how many of us really fuss about it 24/7? When very straight comedies and dramas are tapping gay marriage as a narrative normality, it would be wrong of Looking to be throwing its bouquets out the pram in every episode (a wedding episode obviously touches upon such matters but from Patrick’s perspective of messing life up with his intended plus-one).

The opening story especially is a wilful almost inconsequential slow build – an afternoon-paced overture to these characters lives that may lose some viewers, but please stick with it. Episode Five is a beautifully languid Before Midnight exploration of a day off in Golden Gate Park, the planetarium and the kind of affecting character interplay which only Haigh’s Weekend ever got right in recent times. Yes, Looking is savvy enough to throw in a Golden Girls put-down (what isn’t, Rose?), but its gay pulse is not predicated on them.

Spring-boarding off creator Michael Lannan’s previous short film Lorimer (2011), there is actually an affecting delicacy to the lives and exchanges of games designer Patrick, lost artist Augustin (Frankie J Alvarez) and nearly-forty waiter Dom (Murray Bartlett). Like San Francisco itself, the differences and expressions of everyone’s sexuality is a given. There are no closeted jocks or intimate-shy handmaidens here. Moving too fast is a deliberate fault of some characters sex lives, but never the show’s writing or insight into at least three generations of contemporary gay men. These are [almost] nice people doing their thing – the Augustin character is a deliberate hard sell and carved with such pitfalls of attitude one realises he is totally familiar. The difference here is that for gay audiences – for good or bad – this is our thing now; and as one character astutely notes, “guys are guys”.

A key motif of Looking is “being who we think we are”. For the trio of main characters “looking” is indeed key. But looking for what? Maybe some are looking for love, intimacy, a better street to live on, better praise from their peers, better sex from a threesome (or not) or just looking for others who are also dissatisfied with their lot to validate everything (Augustin’s problem). All held together with a solid cast, the show slowly pulls you in. Whilst how Groff’s Patrick really knows Alvarez and Bartlett is perhaps not flagged up enough early on, the friendships are believable with a pleasing short-hand and explanations do arise without surprise.

Likewise Lauren Weedman’s Doris is a savvy, bubble-bursting best mate, Raúl Castillo’s Richie is a hot and kind Mexican and Scott Bakula is an old guard Castro florist with age and hindsight on his side – “we still had sex, but it was friendlier” he notes about the one-night stands of the 1980s and 1990s. Cyber-dating is of course a support app of the show – unavoidably used but not exclusively. Though there will be many a moment when some of us in the audience look to our overpriced brogues with acute embarrassment at the behaviour on show. Patrick and pals research their past and present dalliances and shag-obsessions on the Instagrams, okaycupid.coms and Grindrs of this world. Characters over-worry about the Instagram photos of a dinner date and the successful exes now with their own Wikipedia page. But their real stories are often advanced from chance encounters on the MUNI train, accidental glances through a bar doorway, in an empty sauna and works drinks nights. The relationship between Patrick and Richie is particularly lo-fi, not remotely reliant on new technologies. The politics of “friending” on social media and being “an 82%” match“ is rolled out, but so too are the real-life concerns about what messages Patrick gives his new Brit boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) when working overtime on a Sunday and when exactly does a three-way become a problem or a plus? And just when is it no longer polite to mock the Brits after too many bottles of free Bud?!

But is it identifiable to non-San Franciscan, non-American audiences? Of course it is. In the same way Haigh’s Weekend chimed with Top Ten film lists the world over, Looking is a wholly identifiable show, carved with the same incisiveness of its creators previous work. “If I was embarrassed about it, I wouldn’t do it” is a telling line from content, well-earning sex-worker CJ the adrift artist Augustin desperately wants to be like. Not every piece of dialogue need be a barnstormer. Not every quip requires its own t-shirt. Though “you gave him a winky, smiling face? What are you – a Japanese teenager?might do the rounds. It is never a glib show. Nor is it a dot.com, labels and luxury lifestyle fest. With an easy blend of ages and social backgrounds, Looking is thankfully never about whiny, white rich gays. The basement apartments, corridors and streets of Looking are worn and lived in. Like the characters and their love lives, not everything is new and shiny but all of it is functional. That is what San Francisco affords this series. And that is why it is the vital fourth character. Real-life Castro drag artists Peaches Christ and Honey Mahogany are on well-manicured hand, the Castro Theater cinema is the noble granddame backdrop it always has been, the leather-bound Folsom Street Fair plays itself to great effect mid-way through the series, Dolores Park plays Dolores Park, The Stud bar is a location must and the forever-vintage streets of Mission Dolores, Market, the Castro and their pizza [and men] by-the-slice sidewalks are recognisable to anyone familiar with the worlds of Maupin and Milk. What San Francisco brings to Looking is what the show itself gets very right. It is that sense of community, of a neighbourhood of characters and shared experiences often ticking over through nothing but an inexplicable and shared shorthand.

We may not have had the best timeline of televisual representation over the decades. But what doesn’t always embody us makes us stronger – and all that article-writing jazz (maybe).  The landmark likes of Tales of The City, Queer As Folk, Will And Grace, Angels In America, Beautiful People, Queer As Folk and the queer Carrington boy in Dynasty may have been all we had. But they were still ours. Looking represents a smart new chapter. Season Two has been greenlit and audiences – despite a minority of initial and lazy reactions declaring “it’s boring” (it’s not) – have grown and spiked just as the series and its wise writing has. And in the fun, warm, unexpectedly raw, real and fresh-telling style it has on offer, going through this Looking glass could well bring us to a wonderful wonderland.

 

Looking began in the US on HBO on January 19th 2014 and in the UK on Sky Atlantic on January 27th 2014.

 

Mark O’Connell is on Twitter and the author of 1980s gay childhood memoir, Catching Bullets – Memoirs of Bond Fan. With thanks to Sky Atlantic.

A THINKING, TAILORED, BOLDER SPY – Catching Bond’s golden bullet, SKYFALL

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