The Mercy

It is impossible, frankly, to write about this film without spoilers. It just cannot be done. That being said, it is arguable that the very idea of spoilers here is ridiculous, considering anyone can Google the name of Donald Crowhurst. My recommendation is don’t do it. Refrain from any such temptation, and watch this film first, as I did (and of course, don’t read any more of this post until you have)

mercy2So if you’re still here, I’ll assume you have either seen the film, have no interest in ever doing so, or already know the tragic story of Donald Crowhurst, a very human story of a flawed man who became his own undoing. I should begin by stating that Johann Johannsson brought me here, not the first time the late Icelandic composer brought me to a film that he had worked on, but sadly possibly the last. I only knew of The Mercy because its soundtrack was the last to be released prior to his sudden passing, and Johannsson was possibly the last film composer whose soundtrack albums I would buy heedless of the film or music itself. The music did not disappoint, with new material and old it teased a sombre and moody film.  I must say, having now seen the film, it is clear that Johannsson was the perfect choice for the film’s score- the music is typical of the composers work- intimate, fragile, tender, mournful, yet enlightened with moments of joy.

Which is where, I suppose, we now come to the film itself. As I have stated, I came to the film knowing nothing about the true story behind it- I only knew that it was some kind of sailing adventure, perhaps one of those stirring and daunting nautical tales of man against nature, likely similar to the film All is Lost. Well, I was both right and wrong.

The story, part mystery, part tragedy, is well known, apparently- though naturally it was new to me. Donald Crowhurst  (played here by Colin Firth) was a failing businessman and amateur yachtsman who took part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968, a competition to be the first person to sail nonstop single-handedly around the world. Crowhurst was not a good enough sailor, was under-prepared, underfunded, handicapped by a boat that was unfit for purpose- but incredibly the competition did not scrutinise entrants for sufficient experience or ability. Crowhurst’s attempt was hopelessly doomed, but haunted by the threat of bankruptcy and ruin (his financier held Crowhurst’s house as collateral if he failed to finish the race), he stayed out at sea for 240 days and attempted to hoax the press and public that he’d managed the circumnavigation. Crowhurst believed that if he could convince, through fake log-books, that he had managed the voyage, if one of the other entrants won, he would not come under any scrutiny. His schemes unravelled when the majority of the other competitors dropped out during the daunting race and when it seemed that he would succeed in the setting of the fastest time, he realised he was undone and could not maintain the lie under the scrutiny of winning. While thousands, including his wife Clare and his children, waited his triumphant return home, Crowhurst could see no way out. Radio contact ended, Crowhurst disappeared, and when his trimaran was found, derelict in the mid-Atlantic under a single sail, there was no sign of him, and the log-books that he had left revealed a tale of a tragic fall into desperation and madness, a descent into oblivion.

mercy1The story of the failed hoax, when it broke, proved to be a huge scandal, but The Mercy wisely raises above just that story, and tells us about the flawed, driven individual who loved his family but whom fate and hubris drove him to tragedy (and left his wife and children to face the fallout). While it starts all light and positive, it takes a very dark turn that was quite unexpected by me. Indeed, its one of the most depressing films I have seen in quite awhile, but nonetheless a fascinating one. Colin Firth is very good at portraying the best in Crowhurst, perhaps less so in showing his failings. Inherently Firth has too noble a screen persona and while this ultimately works against the film it does mean the eventual twist and downfall is possibly all the more shocking. Rachel Weisz as his wife Clare proves to be the heart and soul of the film, albeit she is perhaps too beautiful, too perfect? Well, that’s an issue I have often found with Weisz, as she usually gravitates towards very normal, ordinary characters in her film choices, but here it raises the question of what fool of a man could ever leave this idyllic wife and mother of his children for a dangerous journey risking life and everything? As usual, David Thewlis is excellent: here playing the dubious, provincial hack reporter Rodney Hallworth, who was hired as publicist and whose hype and tall tales fanned the flames of race fever that would eventually drive Crowhurst to foolish ruin.

Its a very sober tale of the human condition, I thought, and I found this film to be both riveting and horrifying, frankly, especially as I had no idea of the story’s dark denouement. Carried along by the beautiful light and darkness of the music of Johann Johannsson, with all the poignancy that his own passing itself entails, I found this to be a very fine film. It feels very much like an anxiety-dream,  a terrible fall into hopelessness and quite harrowing.

The Mercy is currently available on Amazon Prime, and on DVD and Blu-ray.

Still Open All Hours: Season Six

Well, here’s a strange one to post about here, but I thought it might be apt, tying in with a few thoughts regards some genre shows etc of late.

still1First, a moment to explain what this show is for anyone outside the UK unfamiliar with the programme. Still Open All Hours is a British sitcom which airs on the BBC, and is a belated spin-off (how timely is that, in this day and age) of Open All Hours, a sitcom that aired between 1976 and 1985 (the pilot episode of which actually dates to 1973 when it formed part of an anthology show). Like the original series, Still Open All Hours is based around a corner shop in Balby, Doncaster; once run by his late uncle Arkwright (whose ‘ghost’ still gently haunts the shop), Granville, who used to be Arkwright’s assistant  now runs it with his son Leroy.  Its a very old-fashioned, very traditional show that really feels totally out of its time- which is, I suspect, much of its appeal with viewers. Having now totalled 41 episodes over six seasons Still Open All Hours seems to have quietly had some considerable success, arguably surpassing that of its shorter-lived predecessor (ratings not withstanding). Much of this is likely the charm of  David Jason, who has had a decades-long career on British television across all sorts of programmes, chiefly of course his role as Derek ‘Del-Boy’ Trotter in Only Fools and Horses, which is most probably the most successful British Sitcom of all time. Possibly its because it must be fairly cheap to produce, and is in this day and age, frankly, the ratings don’t have to be as high as they used to when such programming was more popular.

I never used to watch Open All Hours– back when that show aired I was a kid more interested in playing outside and my viewing was mostly more exciting stuff like Star Trek, Space:1999, The Tomorrow People or Dr Who. As I have grown older though, I have to admit its clearly part of Still Open All Hours charm and appeal that it calls back to such old-fashioned and gentle comedies of a bygone era. I’m sure many people sneer at it and some (the majority, even) think its quaint and traditional comedy old and irritating, but for an harmless thirty minutes of escape from modern-life anxieties its rather perfect. Comfort food, perhaps, for those who think the world has passed them by.

still2The success of the show is largely due to its ensemble cast, who on the whole are pretty good comic actors the majority of whom are old veterans of the genre clearly in the twilight of their careers (if not indeed actual semi-retirement). Much of the comedy is predictable, even hokey, but I suspect that’s part of the appeal, the audience being ‘in on the joke’ and ahead of things the majority of the time. While much of it centres on Granville and his relationship with Mavis (Maggie Ollerenshaw), a woman he met during his youth and whom he still loves- its something that mirrors Arkwrights pursuit of Nurse Gladys of the original series, the appeal for many are the recurring plot-lines surrounding the ensemble cast of characters. There’s Mr Newbold (Geoffrey Whitehead)  trying to escape the attentions of ‘The Black Widow’ Mrs Featherstone (Stephanie Cole)  Eric and Cyril’s (Johnny Vegas and Kulvinder Ghir) comic duo of foolish men somewhat frustrated by their middle-age and lost youth- its quaint and silly really, like the banter between the middle-aged and elderly women bemoaning the antics of their men. The (currently) final episode was a Christmas episode that ended with a surprising, and really quite effecting, coda that perhaps indicates the series is better than even its fans think, and while it manages a fitting moment of closure, it also suggests a certain affection for the characters and the humour that surprised me.

My point is, this show is not trying to be anything groundbreaking. It knows it audience and is quietly, gently efficient in being what it needs to be. The cast aren’t going to win any awards, and neither is any of the writing, but it works, and while the ratings possibly are somewhat niche, I suspect (and certainly) hope that they are sufficient enough to merit a seventh season. All the episodes have been written by Roy Clarke, a veteran of British television who is now ninety years old and clearly someone of another era who is writing what he knows as a throwback to those days of old, as he did in his other popular sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine (which incredibly ran for 295 episodes over thirty years). Clarke is just writing what he does best, and it works.

Compare this to some of the current incarnations of other long-running and ‘classic’ genre shows like Star Trek, Dr Who and film series like Star Wars. Taken over by a new generation of creative teams and aiming to update the franchises for modern audiences and more up-to-date social agendas, the series seem to be struggling to succeed at pleasing both old fans and new, and managing to sustain the properties of the originals with all the new updating. It suggests that possibly some of these shows should be less ‘new’ and more familiar (or ‘honest’?) to the originals. While there might be frustration with that, it does seem to be the dichotomy inherent in trying to bring back franchises of old if show-runners are going to take them in unusual or odd directions and lose the appeal of those originals. It would be much more preferable, I think, to just do something entirely new (like The Expanse, for instance) than keep on trying to utilise the old and familiar as a mechanism to exploit established IP and fanbases. Maybe.

So anyway, maybe that excuses writing a post about a show like Still Open All Hours. Normal service resumes tomorrow….

Star Trek: Picard Episode Two

stpicard2Where I think a lot of the current genre material, on both television and film, gets into trouble is that it often feels a bit like trying to get square blocks into round holes- it doesn’t really fit right. I don’t know if its a general lack of imaginative, new thinking creatively or just the Corporate pressure to keep resurrecting old properties (because its easier to update/reboot/sell old stuff than come up with something genuinely original) but when you think about it, a lot of the genre stuff we see now is Star Trek or Star Wars or based on Marvel and DC comics we read as kids back in the 1960s or 1970s.  Its rather like the old saying, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, after all, I’m not adverse to anyone making a show or movie based on a 1920s Lovecraft story or bringing back Conan or Tarzan or John Carter. But Star Trek was a 1960s show and of its time, retconned somewhat in the 1980s for The Next Generation, and Star Wars likewise was a 1970s/1980s film series. Bringing them back in the 2010s and now, crikey, the 2020s… well, its certainly causing a friction because a lot of our ‘wiser and more progressive’ thinking , as it is often referred to, is pretty much a bad fit for some of our genre classics.

Moreover, people rather forget that back in the day, there wasn’t a dozen other shows competing with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and while there were a few sci-films etc (The Black Hole, Star Trek: TMP, Battlestar Galactica, take a bow) there wasn’t really much competition with the Star Wars films either. These days there are so many genre shows and films being made I think the talent pool is really pretty thin, and I think we’re getting films and shows written and made by people who just aren’t up to it, but are finding careers easy to pursue in an arena where Netflix and Amazon and Disney are throwing so much money into it. Genre stuff is too popular now and I think as we’re getting so much of it general creativity and the quality of writing is sinking fast.

I don’t think JJ Abrams was a proper fit for the Star Trek reboots and I don’t think he was a proper fit for the new Star Wars films either. His Star Trek films tried to refit so much of the old shows mythology but never seemed right, with characters and plot-devices (teleportation to ships in warp or across star systems) that just weren’t correct to established logic or mythology. I know, I sound like a raving geek all the time raising that stuff, but it gets to a point at which Star Trek stops being Star Trek, and it may as well be something else entirely, but of course the Corporate heads want to exploit already established and easily marketable IP. What, after all, does Star Trek: Discovery really have in common with Star Trek that isn’t just in name only,  if the Klingons don’t look or act like Klingons, the Vulcans don’t look or act like Vulcans, and Star Fleet doesn’t look or behave like Star Fleet proper? Its the same thing with the new Star Wars films, which I have frequently berated elsewhere on this blog- if characters or events are so indistinguishable from what was established before in the Original Trilogy or elsewhere, when is it frankly no longer Star Wars and something else?

Its happening now with the current iteration of the BBCs Dr Who, with established cannon being sacrificed, far as I can tell, to just excuse bad writing or lack of creative responsibility to the franchise. Fans and critics are being blindsided by a lot of ‘progressive’ and blatant  ‘social agenda’ material being thrown in, but on the whole its disguising the real tragedy that is a really crummy, lazily written show that is really Dr Who in name only.

Its not that everything is creatively redundant. Ironically some new stuff is very good- The Expanse, for instance, is terrific and is perhaps thriving because it isn’t beholden to decades of established mythology and fans who are experts on those decades of material. Characters in the show can be fresh and exciting and challenging because in behaviour they don’t have to be true to anything established decades before, only what has been written in novels written by genuine talented sci-fi writers who know what they are doing.

Which brings me, finally, to the subject of this post, which is the second episode of Star Trek: Picard. Yeah, I got here eventually. Its not that I dislike this show, its certainly watchable (if only much of that is simply from the presence of Sir Patrick Stewart) but it certainly has its problems, and a lot of this is the writing, the creative choices. Its not a disaster on Dr Who levels, but it does have the feel that the core idea for this series is from some other franchise. Maybe somebody at Alcon had an idea for a Blade Runner series on Netflix and retconned it into a Star Trek story, because all this talk about synths and rebellions Off World (sorry, Mars) feels more Blade Runner, or maybe Westworld, than it does Star Trek. I can almost imagine a pitch meeting where one of the suits responded “yeah, nice idea but that Blade Runner flick flopped, can you maybe write it for the bald guy from Trek, I hear he’s looking for a gig?” I’m sure that’s not how it happened but it feels like it could have. Or maybe the suits looked at HBOs Westworld and thought, “yeah, I fancy a bit of that on my streaming channel, what IP do we own that we can retcon?”.

The result is something that looks good, and can even be entertaining, but doesn’t quite feel right. I enjoyed the first episode because for all its issues, it at least felt more like Trek ‘proper’ than Discovery did, but with its second episode that feelings getting a little stretched. Moreover, returning to my point about the talent pool getting thin, some of the writing here is really pretty atrocious and slipping to Dr Who levels. The rooftop fight (and explosion, remember) of the first episode, has been cleared up, the evidence disappeared, we are told, as if it never happened. Picard doesn’t wake up in hospital but in his villa back in France and his testimony apparently the ravings of a crazy old fool. Going back to the apartment of Dahj we see that it has been cleared up, all traces of the fight (and murder of her boyfriend) all gone, until some magic gadget can recreate what happened in a 3D Hologram until some point at which even that has been erased clean (my sorcery is more powerful than your sorcery!). If it wasn’t for the charisma that Stewart had, or the fact that this show would still be watchable if it was just him reading names out of a phonebook, I doubt I’d be sticking with it. You see, in the old days of Babylon 5, Fringe, the BSG reboot etc, when shows like this had mysteries or multi-episodic arcs, they were often worth sticking with, because I could have confidence in the creative team and the main arc winning through, but on the evidence of so much current genre stuff I really have my doubts here.

And really, I don’t know if its the writing, but other than Stewart, some of the acting is really pretty bland and dire.

Here’s hoping it gets better!