Category Archives: Criticism

Queen – One Of A Kind of Magic

On June 3rd, 1986, “A Kind Of Magic”, the twelfth studio album from Queen was released. The European Magic Tour supporting the album began four days later at the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden.

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A cartoon figure from the “A Kind of Magic” cover inflates on The Magic Tour

It was the first Queen album I’d purchased as a Queen fan, the others being purchased after Live Aid and after this album (by early ’87, I had all Queen’s albums on vinyl and still do.)

Highlander Poster

With Queen contributing many songs from this album to epic fantasy film Highlander, there was a sort of return to thematic elements of Queen’s early albums minus the quirky, Tolkienesque lyrics about ogres, titans and fairy fellers. This was Queen doing a concept album 80s-style with syths and Highlander’s immortality theme playing into the tragic reality about to engulf Freddie and the band.

Highlander star Christopher Lambert explains how Queen’s involvement grew:

 “Highlander coming out was a very exciting time for me. What was also very interesting is that Queen were meant to do only one track – it was the opening credits, ‘Princes Of The Universe’, that was the deal. So they sat down for a private screening for them in a movie theatre and Freddie Mercury when he came out, he said all excited: “I’m doing the whole fucking album! This movie is too fucking great!”. They went and wrote the songs in four weeks and went into the studio and it was one of the biggest selling albums of their career. So you know it’s strange, it’s like nobody ever thought that Highlander was gonna be, thirty years later, still a cult movie, music included. About Freddie… there are many good singers, but to be really great it’s not enough just to sing correctly. You have to do it with the heart and he is the best at it.”

Although it was hard to imagine during Queen’s post-Live Aid second wind, “A Kind of Magic” would be the end of an era for them in many ways. It would be the final album before Freddie’s HIV diagnosis in April 1987 (“Innuendo” would be recorded under time constraints and Freddie’s increasing availability issues due to illness). The Magic Tour would be Freddie’s last with the band.

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Queen with producer Reinhold Mack

It was also the last time they worked with German producer Reinhold Mack. Mack first worked with Queen on “The Game” album in 1979 at Musicland Studios in Munich. He had produced some of Queen’s biggest hits including “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Another One Bites The Dust”, “Under Pressure”, “Radio Ga Ga”, “I Want To Break Free” and “One Vision.” Brian May said that Mack had been “quite a find” for the band. He was responsible for a different, stripped-back Queen sound, the antithesis of the elaborate, complex sound of previous Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker. With Baker, Queen played every track in the studio until the take was perfect. Mack said they didn’t have to do that and that he could drop in snippets of different takes. This surprised the band and saved them a lot of time. Mack even persuaded Brian to drop his Red Special and play a Fender Stratocaster belonging to Roger on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

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The great Mr Mack today

“A Kind of Magic” would also be the last time Queen would do several songs for a movie (here’s hoping the James Bond producers giver Queen + Adam Lambert a shot at the next theme tune).

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Larking about shooting the “One Vision” video

“A Kind of Magic” is a very listenable album. I can listen to it all the way through unlike some of the late seventies albums which were a smattering of big hits and filler. As with Queen’s concerts on The Magic Tour, the album kicks off with the extended version of “One Vision” which teases out the intro superbly until Freddie’s ethereal vocal cry echoes across the synths just before Brian’s euphoric riff kicks in. “A Kind of Magic” the single follows.

One Year of Love

A John Deacon song “One Year of Love is next and it’s the kind of classy, smoky ballad that Sade did so well at the time (saxophone courtesy of the guy who played on “Careless Whisper.”) “Pain Is So Close To Pleasure” is a rare sojourn into Motown stylings for Freddie Mercury (“Cool Cat” on “Hot Space” and B-side “Soul Brother” would probably be the closest tracks to this).

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“Friends Will Be Friends” ends side one. Even though it’s a self-conscious attempt to repeat “We Are The Champions” and didn’t make the UK top ten, I still like it as a song.

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Who wants to live forever? photo shoot

Brian’s “Who Wants To Live Forever” starts side two and, from here on in, it’s all songs from the Highlander soundtrack. Seal and Ronan Keating said this song made them cry the first time they heard it and it is a very beautiful song with lush orchestral accompaniment. It worked well live on The Magic Tour too, although it was still “a new song” as Freddie said and hadn’t found its place among their other hits with the audience yet.

Oh well

Brian Blessed’s Vulcan says “who wants to live forever?” in the battle scene near the end of “Flash Gordon,” Queen’s last big fantasy soundtrack outing. It’s possible Brian unconsciously remembered that line from the previous film but it’s a perfect iteration of Highlander’s themes.

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Brian May playing a flying V guitar – a Washburn RR-V

Brian’s rip-snorting “Gimme The Prize” erupts with a cascading Brian May solo, it reaches a crescendo and a sound clip from the film Highlander kicks in (a news reporter comments on one of the many decapitated bodies in the film: “A head, which at this time, has no name.” Clancy Brown’s Kurgen responds with “I KNOW HIS NAME!”). “Here I am!” Freddie declares, “I’m the master of your destiny” (one reviewer at the time compared him to Alice Cooper on this).

Roger’s unsurprisingly drum-heavy “Don’t Lose Your Head” pounds in. It began life as the B-side to the single “A Kind of Magic” under the working title “A Dozen Red Roses For My Darling.” Some thought this was filler (black singer Joan Armatrading pops up to say “Don’t Lose Your Head” over and over for no apparent reason, maybe an attempt by the band to counter negative publicity over their Sun City shows in Apartheid-era South Africa around that time.) It does get a little repetitive but I don’t hate it.

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Queen with Christopher Lambert at the video shoot for “Princes of the Universe”

Then we come to the final track on the album – “Princes of the Universe.” It’s Freddie’s only solo writing credit on the album (almost hard to believe considering he wrote most of Queen’s early albums single-handedly). The title is outrageously camp but the song builds up an incredible head of steam. With Princes, “One Vision” and “Gimme The Prize”, “A Kind of Magic” is probably the closest version to a heavy metal version of Queen we ever got. The single of “Princes of the Universe” was released in America and the video featured Highlander star Christopher Lambert crossing swords and sawn-off microphone stand with Freddie.

Lambert Versus Freddie
The Highander Vs The Messenger of The Gods

It would be three years before the next Queen album was released, the longest gap there had ever been between albums up to that point. There followed a frenzied period of activity to get new Queen material out before Freddie’s inevitable demise. So “A Kind of Magic” is a demarcation point between what went before and the beginning of the end of Queen Mach 1 (two more would follow with Paul Rodgers and now with Adam Lambert.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

 

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The Fallacy of Cultural Appropriation

The featured image above shows a quote from Picasso being “appropriated” or stolen by Banksy in an ironic demonstration of the efficacy of the quote.


NettaIsrael won the Eurovision Song Contest last weekend and there were howls of derision. The spectre of “cultural appropriation” raised its ugly head again. Israeli singer Netta Barzilai had the temerity to wear a Japanese kimono on stage during her performance of the song “Toy” and that was enough. The internet went into meltdown about it referring to it as “yellowface.” (Some would instead baulk at the idea of culture being used in association with the Eurovision but let’s park that one there for now.)

Why is wearing the national dress of another country automatically seen as negative? It is possible that the person involved is honouring the culture and traditions of that country and is not mocking or “stealing” them.

We even see cultural appropriation in the casting of movies today. It is now being demanded that only ethnically-accurate actors are cast in roles.

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Scotsman Sean Connery won his only Oscar for playing an Irish cop in “The Untouchables” and he was terrific in it. As an Irishman, I’m not offended by his performance in the slightest (even though we all know that non-Irish people attemping Irish accents can be a crime against humanity sometimes.) Connery culturally appropriated again when he played a Russian submarine commander (with a Scottish accent) in “The Hunt for Red October.” Just as well he can’t “appropriate” any longer as he’s been in retirment since 2004.

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Screenwriting guru Robert McKee said something similar about Quentin Tarantino. At the time of the release of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” it was pointed out that he had virtually heisted the plot of Hong Kong film “City on Fire” (sometimes even shot-for-shot scenes) in his crime film. Perhaps that’s true about great artists doing that but copyright infringement, the intentional stealing of other people’s ideas for your own glorification and remuneration, is shabby behaviour. I believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work and especially when it comes to writers who put so much into their work for usually very little return (don’t even get me started on those leeches who offer copyrighted works for free and take food out of the mouths of writers’ kids.)

Cultural Appropriation

“Cultural appropriation” or cultural stealing is something different. There is no copyright on culture. Those ideas have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years and the people who originated them are long gone. There are many examples of artists taking elements of other cultures and fusing them together to form something radically new. That is how culture refreshes and revitalizes itself as it brings new interest in old ideas.

Shakespeare

Shakespeare borrowed from all over the place. Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet? They’re set in Italy. Hamlet? That’s Danish. Macbeth? That’s Scottish. If Shakespeare had not culturally appropriated and only written about England, we’d have missed out on some of the greatest works in the English language. It goes even further than that…

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The BBC described David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust as “one of the most iconic creations in pop history.” Bowie based the look of Ziggy on the make-up of the Japanese Kabuki theatre.

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If Bowie was launching that character in the 21st century, he would be bombarded by negative social media posts about cultural appropriation. As many do, he would probably give in to the pressure and drop the character and we would miss out on all that amazing imagery and music.

George Lucas borrowed liberally when he wrote and directed “Star Wars” (1977). His Jedi knights were echoes of England’s Knights of the Round Table from Arthurian legend.

Darth-Vader

Darth Vader’s helmet was meant to resemble that of a Japanese Samurai warrior (indeed, “Star Wars” apes Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” by telling the story from the viewpoint of droids C3PO and R2D2, the lowest characters in the story).

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“May The Force Be With You” is very similar to “The Lord Be With You” from Christianity which began in the Holy Land. Again, would we want to miss out on a cultural phenomenon and all that has followed from it because of cultural appropriation?

Marlon Brando once described Hollywood as “a cultural boneyard.” I fear that the whole world has become a cultural boneyard of our own making now. Conformity is king. Try anything different and you’ll attacked for it by faceless, anonymous keyboard warriors out there in the dark on social media. I noticed this recently while out walking. Every gang of young girls that I passed were clones of each other. They all had the same hairdos, same clothes. They’re afraid to take chances because of peer pressure not to. That is happening in every aspect of our lives. As I’ve said before, you don’t get great art by playing it safe.

So who are these people who cry cultural appropriation at the drop of a hat? They’re a generation of “right-fighters.” FamilyResource.com defines it thus: A right-fighter is someone who gets overly emotional or angry when people do not agree with them and their opinions or beliefs. A right-fighter is someone who insists on having the last word in an argument or refuses to back down no matter what.”

TV guru Dr Phil McGraw elaborates further that a right -fighter is “one of those people who spend far too much energy convincing the rest of the world that they’re right. They’re right as parents, they’re right at work, they’re right in their relationships, they’re right about politics — and they are all too ready to fight about just how right they are. These insecure people are too fragile to ask themselves how things are working for them, because they might not like the answer one bit. It might mean making a change or admitting they’ve been (dare I say it?) wrong.” Do we really want an army of right-fighters dictating what is culturally acceptable and what isn’t for the rest of us? I think not.

It’s the “echo chamber” idea, that if you only hear opinions that concur with yours, you never have your opinions challenged or hear new ideas and so don’t grow and change.

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I saw a white girl get slapped with the “cultural appropriation” label in a tweet recently for having dreadlocks. This is the height of absurdity and it’s only getting worse.

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Would you really want to miss out on the works of Shakespeare, Star Wars, Ziggy Stardust, Harry Potter and countless other great works only to gain the pyrrhic victory of being self-righteous? I know I wouldn’t. In the final analysis, the hysteria over cultural appropriation is a politically-correct strait-jacket that is stunting our growth in ways we can’t even measure fully.

I’ll leave you on a laugh. This humourous tweet sums up the fallacy of cultural appropriation perfectly.

Cultural Appropriation Scottish Toilet Bowl Gag

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

The Shape of Water: Beneath the Waves

Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a continuation of the monstrous themes Del Toro has pursued in his previous films like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos, Blade II and both Hellboy movies. The story concerns a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) who works at a secret US government facility where she meets and develops feelings for an aquatic creature that has been captured in South America and brought there for research.

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It’s another Beauty and the Beast tale in the style of The Phantom of the Opera, King Kong and The Hunchback of Notre Dame that Hollywood is so fond of.

If there is one central, recurring theme in American movies, I believe it is this: individual righteousness is more important than the group ethic. “The Shape of Water” is set before America has put a man on the moon. It is mentioned that the structure of the creature’s lungs could be used as a model for a prototype breathing system for an astronaut in space. They try to x-ray the creature, but its density prevents anything being seen. So, it’s proposed to end its life and perform an autopsy to study it properly. Now if she was following the group ethic, she would say that the creature must die for the common good, but she chooses not to do that. Her individual righteousness supersedes the group ethic and she decides to rescue him from certain death. You see this theme in everything from “Serpico” to the Jason Bourne movies and “Dances with Wolves” to “Avatar.” Is it any wonder that whistleblowing is so widespread when the whisteblowers themselves are consciously or subconsciously absorbing this theme from the time they watch their first American movie?

Return of the King

“The Shape of Water” is only the second fantasy film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, the other being “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” If you’re doing fantasy correctly, you can have all the fantastical surface elements but get in some subtle social commentary underneath and this movie does it beautifully.

The heroes are all minority underdogs; the creature is being tortured and experimented on because of the way he was born, the heroine is has a disability and can’t speak, she’s friends with a black woman and there’s a scene showing the civil rights struggle on an old black and white TV, the heroine is also friends with a gay man and he is going through his own struggles. It even plays into the whole #MeToo thing with a scene of sexual harassment. The film is set in the 1960s, but it is made for an audience of today and cleverly comments on issues of equality and diversity that we’re still struggling with now.

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Guillermo del Toro won the Best Director Oscar at the 2018 Academy Awards, but his victory was clouded in controversy after claims that “The Shape of Water” was plagiarised from another work.

Let Me Hear You Whisper

The backlash first began on social media with some people tweeting about glaring similarities between “The Shape of Water” and a 1969 one-act play titled “Let Me Hear You Whisper” by the late Paul Zindel. Then the comparisons really began and it was alleged that there were 61 similarities between the play and the film. Paul Zindel’s family became aware of the allegations and filed a lawsuit. “We are shocked that a major studio could make a film so obviously derived from my late father’s work without anyone recognizing it and coming to us for the rights,” David Zindel, the author’s son said.

Del Toro has denied all claims of plagiarism directed towards his film, but the film did lose out at the Writer’s Guild Awards and didn’t get the Oscar for Best Screenplay, probably due to the negative publicity.

“I have been at this 25 years and have an unimpeachable reputation,” the director said in his defence.

Dark Universe

Universal Studios own the rights to “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and they’ve recently tried to reboot their horror characters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man) in something called The Dark Universe. Their stated goal was to make their remakes as big as Marvel is, unfortunately there’s no great demand for these old characters at the box office. The first film in the Dark Universe, “The Mummy” with Tom Cruise, flopped badly and it looks like the other planned films have been shelved for now. Del Toro actually pitched “The Shape of Water” to Universal as a remake of “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” They were initially interested until Del Toro said that the girl was mute and Universal thought it was a crazy idea and passed. So Del Toro took his idea to Fox Searchlight, had a huge, Oscar-winning and the rest is history. Universal must have been kicking themselves that they passed on it. The rest is history while the while lawsuits rumble on.

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

Aliens – The Best Sequel Ever Made?

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Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979 and was a big hit. By 1986, it had faded away into the eerie mists of time somewhat when the sequel Aliens was unleashed by Twentieth Century Fox and writer/director James Cameron.

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Hot off The Terminator, Cameron was just the right guy to take on this sequel. He loved the original and had the sci-fi and technical know-how to push the franchise forward into thrilling new territory. Aliens was a huge hit that summer and earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (unheard of for a science fiction movie at the time but indicative of the performance Cameron pulled out of her on set.)

Aliens, like all the best sequels, takes the original concept and expands upon it, deepening the meaning of it. We learn that Ripley’s first name is Ellen and that she had a daughter back on earth who died while she was drifting in space for 57 years (with nothing left for her back on earth, the traumatised Ripley is forced to return to the depths of space and confront her old alien enemy like the Minotaur in the labyrinth of legend.) We learn the name of the Alien species – the Xenomorph (interestingly, both Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are using that term to describe the Alien in interviews promoting the new film. James Cameron pulled off a similar trick in Terminator 2, another contender for best sequel of all-time, naming the liquid metal T-!000 a “mimetic poly-alloy.” T2 is making a welcome return in summer 2017 in a new 4k 3D version supervised by Mr Cameron.) The original Alien life cycle was based on an African wasp which lays its eggs under the skin of humans before the hatch out. Cameron expands this concept by making the Alien species a hive organism with a giant queen laying eggs at the apex of the hierarchy. Cameron even names the Alien planet LV-426. (They’re on LV-223 in Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott again paying homage to the superior sequel Aliens.) The weapons and futuristic forklifts the space marines use delighted audiences with their ingenuity.

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the British crew gave Cameron a hard time as they thought they were making an inferior sequel to a British director’s classic original. They even dubbed Cameron “Grizzly Adams” at one stage. Cameron said: “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. We despised them and they despised us. The one thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that I would drive out of the gate of Pinewood and never come back.” If you’re wondering why Cameron painted the Brits in such a bad light in Titanic, now you know.

 

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It was also a difficult shoot for Sigourney Weaver using flame-throwings, shooting weapons and having to carry two heavy guns strapped together and the child Newt on her hip. Weaver injured her back from it and you can tell from the way she struggles to run from the Alien Queen near the end.

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Jim Cameron was responsible for so many shoot-‘em-up moments in the 80s; The Terminator’s single-handed destruction of a police station, John Rambo’s single-handed destruction of the Viet Cong, the Soviets and the team of Nixonian American mercenaries who double-crossed him and left him for dead. He does it again in the finale of Aliens when Ellen Ripley lets rip with flame thrower, machine gun and grenade launcher to decimate the hated Alien Queen and her precious eggs. (Ripley has lost her daughter and denies the Alien Queen the right to be a mother also, a perfect and clever fusing of character arcs by Cameron.) Strange that by Avatar in 2009, Cameron’s heroes are a blue Smurf-like race worshipping a glowing tree like hippies on another planet. (There are FOUR sequels to Avatar coming in the next decade, folks. So prepare to make more love and not war, man!)

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As with the team of mercenaries in Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron), the team of colonial marines in Aliens are a bunch of arrogant jerks that get taught a lesson later in the film. The late, great Bill Paxton, back with Cameron again after a brief Terminator appearance, adds so much humour and energy to the film, even ad-libbing the line “Game over, man, Game OVER!” (his voice cracking with emotion on that last line brings the house down.) Most actors would try to steal scenes by being macho; Paxton does it by being a hysterical (and hysterically funny) coward. It’s a brilliant performance from a fine actor. RIP, Bill.

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Another Cameron regular, Michael Biehn, is a commanding presence and potential love interest for Ripley. He replaced James Remar not long into shooting and is a welcome addition to the film.

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In 1992, a director’s cut of Aliens appeared adding 17 additional minutes to the running time.

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That was the same year we got the shoddy Alien 3 and those extra 17 minutes were a soothing balm to seething fans of the franchise. All the characters we loved from Aliens were callously and stupidly killed off in the opening minutes of the third film. It immediately threw away any chance of being a worthy follow-up right then.

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Concept art for a possible fifth Alien movie

(Neill Blomkamp has proposed a fifth Alien film which ignored the disappointing third and fourth entries and continues where Aliens left off. James Cameron has approved the concept while Ridley Scott has shot it down saying it will probably never happen. Meanwhile, Ridley continues with his perplexing and unnecessary prequels. Not many people want them, they want the sequel that should have been but it seems as if it will never happen now. Fox need to give the audience what they want instead of forcing them to accept the opposite. Scott is doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars essentially; he directed the original but the sequel is better as with The Empire Strikes Back. Now, decades later, he is unwisely returning to direct a series of unwelcome prequels that only serve to remind us how great the first trilogy was and make us long for it again.)

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I’ll go see Alien: Covenant, but I’m not holding out much hope for it or the franchise. The prequels seem to be explaining too much about the Alien, robbing it of its mystique. We don’t need to know the xenomorph’s backstory, it’s a slimy monster that’s going to get you. That’s all we need to know. Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror films, but movie studios are determined to squeeze every drop of cash out of a franchise. Let’s hope they see sense and give us the one we really want – Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Further Reading

Nightfall by Stewart Stafford

The Vorbing by Stewart Stafford

Stewart Stafford’s Quotes

Scarface: The World Is Pacino’s

“The most popular movie I’ve ever made is Scarface (1983), all over the world. It’s amazing to me. It’s wonderful. We sometimes forget that it was Oliver Stone who wrote it. He is a political creature, and I think that is an undercurrent in the movie. And the combination of him and Brian De Palma made for this kind of fusion or explosion. It worked.”

– Al Pacino

Scarface Poster

Brian De Palma’s Scarface is a remake of a 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name.

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Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932)

It was a fictionalised version of the life of real-life Chicago gangster Al Capone whose nickname was Scarface. (Tony Montana has an unhealthy obsession with stopping his sister being with other men. It’s possible screenwriter Oliver Stone based this character trait on the brother in the Capone story below, directly connecting it back to the origin of the nickname Scarface.)

Capone Scar

By the early 1980s, Universal started to revisit the works of Howard Hawks to remake them. John Carpenter’s The Thing was first out of the gate in 1982 and was hated by critics and died a death at the box office.

Thing Wallpaper

Scarface was next on the agenda. Pacino had seen the 1932 original in a cinema a few years previously and was amazed at Paul Muni’s performance as Tony Camonte, the Scarface of the title. He went outside, called producer Martin Bregman and told him he wanted to star in a remake. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had also planned a Scarface remake but Pacino got there first. So the wheels of production started. (Four years after Scarface, director Brian De Palma would tackle the real-life Scarface’s story with Robert De Niro playing Al Capone in “The Untouchables” (1987).)

De Niro Capone

Scarface is quite Shakespearean, something Pacino, a stage-trained actor and renowned aficionado of The Bard, must have noticed. Tony Montana murders his way to the top of the Miami underworld just as Macbeth murders his way to the Scottish throne and both men pay dearly for their immoral actions. As in Hamlet, everyone dies in the end (imagine how many bodies would litter the stage at the denouement if Scarface were a play!).

End of Scarface

The over-the-top nature of the film and its characters has been called “operatic” and I believe this is the correct way to look at its excesses (particularly that ending where a cocaine-fuelled Montana raves and rants while being shot to pieces from all angles by a hit squad like he’s demonically-possessed). Opera gets away with it though as its arty, Scarface with its gaudiness, drugs, f-words and blue collar aspirations was given none of that slack. (It’s surprising that nobody has thought of doing Scarface as an opera yet, I can see it now.) It was attacked by everyone. Critics found the ultra-violence deplorable, particularly the chainsaw lobotomy scene in the shower during the botched drug deal. In the film’s defence, Colombian cartels did use chainsaws to savagely dispose of enemies and rivals. So Oliver Stone was merely holding a mirror up to society and reflecting back an uncomfortable modern truth that he discovered in his extensive research. Cubans took the depiction of Montana as a slur on their people and the director and producer of Scarface began getting death threats and switched the shooting schedule from Miami to Los Angeles.

Scarface Pastel Gun

Pacino outlined how he prepared to take on the role of Tony Montana: “I worked with an expert in knife combat, with a physical education guy who helped me get the kind of body I wanted for the part. I used the boxer Roberto Durán a little bit. There was an aspect of Durán , a certain lion in him that I responded to in this character. And I was very inspired by Meryl Streep’s work in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). I thought that her way of involving herself in playing someone who is from another country and another world was particularly fine and committed and… courageous.”

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Like Brando’s Godfather, Pacino disappears inside his character in a way he rarely has before or since (he mostly plays thinly-disguised versions of himself with big, shouty moments.) Like Brando’s Vito Corleone, his Tony Montana has instantly recognisable lines (his “Say hello to my little friend!” is up there with “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”) and mannerisms (do an impression of Scarface or The Godfather and people know virtually straight away who it is, even if they haven’t seen the movies each character comes from.) Both Vito Corleone and Tony Montana are immigrants to the United States who set about establishing crime empires on the east coast (Corleone in New York, Montana down south in Miami, Florida). Both endure assassination attempts and both fight back ruthlessly against their enemies to retain control. The Godfather belongs to a timeless, monolithic, mythic storytelling tradition, Scarface was compared to a spaghetti western by critic Pauline Kael, she called it “hot and raw.” With its 1980 fashions, hairstyles and Giorgio Moroder disco score, Scarface seems more dated than The Godfather, even though it was made eleven years later.

Al Pacino remembered the shell-shocked reaction to Scarface after its premiere: “We couldn’t show our faces after it opened. I was at a party after a screening at Sardi’s. I walked in and the faces looked like those in a wax museum. People were sitting so still. Liza Minnelli was there. She hadn’t seen the movie. She came up to me and said: ‘What did you do to these people?’ And yet it survived.”

Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, another Howard Hawks remake that was mauled, Scarface eventually found an audience on home video and a cult reputation began to emerge. Eventually, it became a part of popular culture, even being referenced in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective by Jim Carrey. The black rap community took Scarface to their hearts (you’d be hard-pressed to find an episode of MTV Cribs featuring a rapper who didn’t flash a DVD of Scarface at the camera as it went through their home.) Universal even wanted to release a remixed version of Pacino’s Scarface with a new rap soundtrack at one point but director Brian de Palma refused to allow it.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) was a western that was a remake of a Japanese film called The Seven Samurai (1954). Recently, we had the remake of the remake with the studio recycling the old cowboy movie again instead of having, say, seven mercenaries protecting a village from a Taliban warlord or ISIS. Pacino’s Scarface was a remake of the old Howard Hawks 1932 film. Now we’re getting the remake of the remake again and it appears they’re just going to recycle the 80s Cuban druglord story again instead of, say, having Montana be a criminal mingling in with the Syrian refugees flooding the world now. (Sure, you’d have the PC brigade down on you for that but so did Pacino and Co. in the 80s. They took risks that paid off spectacularly. They took an old story, updated it and made it ultra-relevant again. Studios now only want safe bets. You won’t see them taking huge risks on new stories and talent as they did in the 70s now.)Pacino Diego Luna

Diego Luna has been cast as the new Tony Montana and he has his work cut out for him already having to go up against Pacino’s monstrous Tony. I don’t know how you could top or even match that performance. It’s epic scenery-chewing.

I give every remake the benefit of the doubt. Nobody liked Pacino’s Scarface, but it’s now looked on as a classic. They’ll release new versions of the 1983 Scarface to coincide with the release of the remake too, it will probably get a 4k scan and new extras on disc. Another reason to welcome the remake, even if it seems unnecessary. The world is and always will be Tony Montana’s, whoever plays him.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Film Review: Trainspotting 2

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…”

– John Cougar Mellencamp, Jack & Diane

“Thou shalt not be middle-aged” could almost be the theme of every review written about the sequel to Trainspotting. The critics moaned that Renton & Co. have gone “mainstream” with “Dad rock anthems” on the soundtrack.

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Like when The Young Ones started singing with Cliff Richard for charity (forgetting that their sitcom started life on the BBC, the very heart of establishment Britain). All the stars of Trainspotting have taken the Hollywood shilling decades ago (Ewan McGregor has done three Star Wars films, Robert Carlyle was a Bond villain, Ewan Bremner will be in the new Wonder Woman movie). There’s nothing wrong with that, most actors are out of work and fair play to any of them that can make a living at it, but these critics are making moot points.

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It’s like a Sex Pistols reunion; same band, same music, same (older) faces but the heart doesn’t pump as angrily as it used to. It can’t really. Johnny Rotten has done butter commercials but we all conform and sell out as we get older as we have more to lose and life’s too damn short. The cold isolation of youth rebellion loses its allure as we crave acceptance and, yes, easy cash (sorry to drop that nugget of reality on ya). Today’s rebel is tomorrow’s leader, that’s the way it always has gone and always will go in the future.

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“I’m 46 and I’m fucked,” Ewan McGregor says at one point in T2. A brave statement, as middle-aged men are meant to be invisible and consigned to life’s scrap heap to await the slow death of retirement. It’s wrong, especially when older men have so much life experience to bring to the table. But nope, ageism is rife in our society, just ask all those talented older guys who can’t get hired because of a number beyond their control. Not only are men of 46 meant to be ignored, movies aren’t meant to be made for them either. You can feel the hostility of the younger critics reviewing the movie towards these older characters and men of that age in general. They almost feel that it would have been better not to have made the movie at all. Films can only be about teens with superpowers for spotty teens with no power at all. That’s your demographic now.

Trainspotting 2 has flaws, sure; director Danny Boyle unwisely uses too many flashbacks of the first movie that begs for comparisons, almost as if he’s desperate to make people like the second one as much. There are snatches of Iggy Pop from the first movie and remixes of other songs from that classic soundtrack, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. There’s even a new riff on McGregor’s classic “choose life” voice-over from the first film. Okay, it doesn’t have the same scathing, anarchic, raging tone and has a mid-life crisis feel about it but it is surreal hearing that same voice addressing things happening now (even if the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been with us for most of the last decade, so it’s not that new.) The George Best references seem out-of-place (Archie Gemmill’s orgasmic goal seems to have lost its allure) along with that “where did it all go wrong?” story Best told on Parkinson donkey’s years ago (see my ageism creeping in reader? Stop it!) It also lacks that razor-sharp, documentary-style deconstruction of detox and the surreal sequences that peppered the original. However, the characters have grown up and gotten over their addictions, even seemingly Spud (we do get a scene of Renton and Sick Boy suddenly shooting up for no apparent reason, again that should’ve been cut but Boyle loses his nerve a little there, giving the audience what they want).

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The most unbelievable thing is the cameo by Kelly McDonald. She played the underage nymphomaniac who went drinking on a school night and slept with Renton minutes after meeting him. We’re supposed to believe that she’s now a convenient, plot point lawyer instead of the mum-of-three on welfare that she almost certainly would’ve been. Still, fans of the original will skip over that and enjoy her appearance.

This isn’t Trainspotting: The Male Menopause Years, though. On the plus side, it’s very, very funny (the audience I saw it with laughed throughout); Renton’s improvised song in a Loyalist club about no Catholics being left after the Battle of the Boyne is probably the best scene in the movie (that, along with the George Best scenes, make it seem more like a Northern Irish film at times).

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As for the characters having lost their balls, Robert Carlyle’s escaped convict Begbie is, if anything, a beast even more fierce now. With a head like a flaming football, Begbie tears through the film like a Celtic Joe Pesci, annihilating anyone and everything that gets in his way (he’s even made out to be like Jack Nicholson in The Shining when he smashes through to where Renton is hiding, sticks his head through the hole and roars at him.) There was a picture of De Niro in Taxi Driver in the first one and the style of Boyle’s flick was pure Marty  Scorsese with narration, freeze-frames and classic rock on the soundtrack. In T2, we get a parody of Raging Bull called Raging Spud.

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Ewan Bremner’s ne’er-do-well Spud is the vulnerable heart of the film and, while Bremner sometimes overdoes Spud’s child-like glare, his character perhaps shows the most progress going from a lonely, suicidal addict at the start to a blossoming man of letters.

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Jonny Lee Miller’s bleach blond Sick Boy returns and, as he’s a bigger star now than he was in 1996, he’s given a lot more to do. He seems to leech off a bit of Begbie’s violent, bullying energy in shouty, showy scenes, maybe they rewrote some of Begbie’s schtick to satisfy his agent.

Queen’s Radio Ga Ga makes a sudden, loud appearance during a trippy scene and this is probably what annoyed those young critics the most. Freddie and the boys are rock royalty and not the edgy, druggy types like Iggy and Lou Reed, but who cares? It’s a great rousing scene. It’s fun. What’s wrong with that?

The script also takes piquant pops at the EU; Renton is greeted on his return to Edinburgh after 20 years away by a Slovenian girl handing out leaflets, Sick Boy is running a blackmail scam with a Bulgarian hooker and the boys get involved in trying to hook up with a £100k EU grant scam. Brexit is the unmentioned ghost at the feast.

Sequels are delicate balancing acts; you have the give the audience something similar to the first one but in a new way. Rehash everything from the first film and the audience will get bored, but go in a totally new direction and it won’t feel like a real, true follow-up. Trainspotting 2 does move the characters on and tries to do something different with them. It updates them while giving us echoes of their past selves and, in that, screenwriter John Hodge does a solid job. It was always going to be a near-impossible task catching lightning in a bottle twice. Danny Boyle acquits himself admirably. He’s too talented a filmmaker to just phone it in.

There’s talk of a Trainspotting 3, and, as I thoroughly enjoyed Trainspotting 2, I’d love to see it happen. The pressure will be off in the threequel and they can wrap things up by making the Trainspotting franchise into a trilogy. I can almost hear those young, angry critics groaning; but that’s life, kids. Choose life.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Film Review: Spotlight

This review is spoiler-free.

Spotlight is the story of how journalists at the Spotlight newspaper in Boston exposed child abuse in the Catholic Church at the turn of the century. It desperately wants to be All The President’s Men, but just isn’t good enough. Ben Bradley Jr. is a character in this film. His father, Ben Bradley, was editor of The Washington Post when they broke the story of the Watergate break-in that ultimately brought Richard Nixon’s presidency to an ignominious end. Spotlight also tries to get into the nuts and bolts of what a day in the life of a newspaper is actually like. From all the staff meetings and editorial decisions that have to be taken to the subsequent journalistic legwork on the street, it’s structurally identical to All The President’s Men. (This movie is set in 2001 and it is strange how none of the information the journalists need is gleaned from the internet. It all comes from books, paper files or knocking on doors. There’s another deliberate attempt to ape President’s Men. Spotting something on a computer screen is nowhere near as dramatic as a shock face-to-face revelation with actors.)

The Spotlight team comprises Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams among others. Keaton has already played a newspaper man in 1994’s The Paper. There were some key early acting beats that Keaton fluffed, I thought (that comic bouncy walk of his is all wrong for this movie), but his performance gets better as the movie goes on. Maybe he’s miscast in this and someone with more gravitas might have been better.

The film kicks off with some forced comic relief (no one in the cinema laughed, that’s flawed writing) as the makers know there are a litany of depressing abuse stories ahead and try to lighten the load for the audience. It was similar to Suffragette in that way.

There are further problems with the script. At one point, Mark Ruffalo even yells “We gotta nail these scumbags!” in one of many righteous rants from various characters in the film. That’s a cliché straight out of every cop movie you’ve ever seen. They don’t need to overdo convincing an audience that child abuse is wrong by judging their characters like that. “I was just doin’ my job!” is another chestnut, the equivalent of a Holocaust movie where a former Nazi says they were only following orders (the parallels are deliberate and subtle as a sledgehammer. The character that says that line is Spotlight’s equivalent of the informant Deep Throat from President’s Men, thankfully there are no references to Deep Throat in this as it would have been entirely inappropriate given the sensitive subject matter.) There’s another cliché recycled from Thrillersville later on when there’s a race-against-time to get a crucial source to confirm vital information. Guess what happens.

The church administrators are all soulless, dead-eyed politicians using every trick in the book (guilt trips, threats, intimidation and the law itself) to keep the truth of clerical abuse from being made public. It’s a simplistic black-and-white good vs evil story with some unforgivable hackneyed moments in it. (Even the title plays into black-and-white simplicity, with the crusading journalists shining a spotlight on the darkness of the Catholic Church’s sins. The journalists are such martyrs that they even injure themselves putting on their dishwashers due to the stress of the investigation) Great movies play around in the grey areas more, as that’s where realism lies. The acting, writing and direction in Spotlight are okay, nothing remarkable.

You could sense the movie’s lack of buzz at the announcement of the Oscar nominations recently. Every time Spotlight got one, there was silence. It does feel like it was conceived as worthy Oscar-bait and, as such, it follows the awards rulebook to the letter.

Spotlight is a good film striving for greatness that’s beyond its reach.

Perhaps Spotlight’s best moment comes when it fades to a black screen at the end and lists the names of all the places where abuse scandals involving Catholic clergy have come to light around the world. The screen is filled with them page after page after page. That is truly chilling. Images speak louder than words.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Segregation of Shock

“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness” – Pablo Picasso

I have written a fantasy/horror novel about war with vampires called The Vorbing. It is hard to deal with either of those subjects without dealing with bloodshed. Yet, I have discovered, to my great surprise, that there is discrimination by book reviewers against books with “gore” (which they find “tacky” and on the same level as porn) and “extreme violence” (which they find “offensive.” That’s strange as fiction isn’t about real pain or suffering so there’s nothing to be offended by. It’s all make believe). They had better not read The Bible then or anything by Shakespeare.

In Act III, Scene VII of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the elderly Earl of Gloucester has his eyes gouged out by the Duke of Cornwall with the words: “Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?” Pretty graphic stuff but it perfectly illustrates the upside down nature of Lear’s kingdom once he mistakenly divides it up between his three daughters.

The crucifixion of Jesus in The Bible also has scenes of graphic torture followed by the slow death of Christ that follows. Again, this is deliberate to make the reader or the listener in church live every wound with Christ as he dies for our sins (or so The Bible says, believe or don’t believe what you want, dear readers).

Where did this ludicrous squeamishness appear from suddenly? Why are books being prejudged for their content without being given a fair chance?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” the old adage goes. Equally, don’t judge a book by its content until you’ve read it. If you dare to write extreme scenes, you are essentially barred from getting not just a fair review but ANY review. This is wrong on all levels. It is holding back writers that want to try new things and push boundaries. You don’t get great art by playing it safe but that is the message being sent out loud and clear by these reviewers. Conform and be unimaginative is their coda.

It is a form of censorship and all that entails (I always get images of Nazi book-burning in my head when I think of censorship) My old acting teacher told me never to censor myself as that’s when all the good stuff happens. She was and is right. I never have censored myself and I never will. Nor will I allow others to censor me either. The glorious freedom of writing is a beautiful thing that must never be stifled.

I am not saying be outrageous or controversial for the sake of it. That is petulant attention-seeking. Some writers are acutely aware that there are two ways to get your message out there – advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). Being cynically controversial is the cheapest and fastest way to sell anything. The media and chattering classes see to that. I am saying take risks because your characters and their world take you there or demand that you do. Even if these lily-livered reviewers want you to water down your work, I say don’t. Why? I’ll give Shakespeare the final word: “To thine own self be true.” Amen.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

In Pursuit of the Mighty Whoosh: The 21st Century Writer

Being a writer in the 21st century is like being the driver of a very jerkily-driven vehicle. You’ve dreamt up ideas, written them, shaped them, rewritten and edited them and published them. Then you have to switch hats and sell your work. Now you find yourself measuring your book’s merit and your own self-worth by reviews, ratings, rankings, likes, shares, follows, analytics and sales. If they rise, your confidence rockets with them. If they mysteriously drop, you become frozen with doubt. You can control your writing up to a point. After that, it’s up to readers, reviewers and bloggers to spread the word. You can’t make people buy something they don’t want no matter what social marketing gurus say (who are biased witnesses involved in the hard sell).

It is healthy to get away from that draining stuff for a while. Major writers have people to handle sales of their work. They have agents, managers and the might of publishing houses behind them with their huge advertising budgets and key media contacts. Self-published writers only have themselves and their savings to rely on. That only goes so far unless they have great connections or access to bigger sums of money. If not, they may have to accept defeat on their beloved project when the cash runs out.

Some people say make your own luck but if everyone could do that, we’d all be successful. Life is never that simple or easy. Luck is mostly being in the right place at the right time. The wind catches your sails and whoosh, you’re off. Nobody can plan for that. It just happens. Word of mouth is another way. A neglected work slowly begins to pick up. Sales rise, reviews become more plentiful and positive and you’ve caught the Mighty Whoosh again.

Being an author now is a marathon, not a sprint. The idea that you could hit the send button, publish your book and it would become an instant bestseller really is a fantasy. It will take many months, if not years, to build up a loyal readership and a solid body of work. There is even the possibility of posthumous recognition Van Gogh-style. To become rich and famous when you’re no longer around to enjoy it would be cruel but better late than never. At least your heirs may benefit from your delayed Mighty Whoosh.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

The Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2014

Here’s the Kirkus Reviews end-of-year list of the teen titles that really impressed them. Some fine work by trailblazing writers here. I’m more than happy to pass on the information to you.

Click here to read it.

If you haven’t read Kirkus Reviews appraisal of my fantasy/horror novel, The Vorbing, you can view that here or on my website here.