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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVD, Picks of the Week: Kes, Gnomeo and Juliet


Gnomeo and Juliet (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.-U.K.: Kelly Asbury, 2011

This movie seems to have a totally crazy idea — a musical animated feature riff on William Shakespeare‘s unbeatable Romeo and Juliet, with two sets of feuding lawn ornaments (mostly gnomes, but also a green plastic frog, and a pink plastic flamingo) battling and cussing out each other on the lawns of two feuding next-door neighbors: Juliet’s Reds (on a lawn owned by Richard Wilson’s Mr. Capulet)  and Romeo’s Blues (owned by Julie Walters as Miss Montague).

But, dopey as it sounds, it’s more entertaining than you’d expect. I haven’t seen a better Shakespearean gnome romantic musical comedy ever. (Then again, I haven’t seen a worse one.)

The live gnomes, wearing conical red and blue hats (perhaps to indicate political persuasion), are led by their lawn ornament rulers Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith).  There’s a Tybalt (a hard-case gnome voiced well by Jason Statham), a Benvolio (Matt Lucas as “Benny“ of Benny and the Jets), a nurse (Ashley Jensen as the plastic frog Nanette), a friar (Jim Cummings as an out-of-sight pink flamingo named Featherstone). Ozzie Osbourne and Dolly Parton supply the voices for (I kid you not) a Fawn and a busty bombshell called Dolly Gnome. Hulk Hogan voices the main non-Tybalt heavy: a psychotic lawnmower called Terrafirminator. And Bill Shakespeare, or at least his statue, appears, sounding just like Patrick Stewart.

Meanwhile Gnomeo (James McAvoy) proves to be a sturdy little scamp with a roguish fringe of beard, and gnome-sweet-gnome Juliet (Emily Blunt) is an adventurous lass in a Dutch Girl outfit. They’re pretty cute together, but the show is totally stolen by the lesser known Jensen and Cummings, as that weirdly flirtatious frog-nurse and that Peter Sellers-ish bizarrely accented flamingo.

I never thought I’d say it, but Michael Caine and Maggie Smith make pretty good lawn ornaments. Kelly Asbury (co-director of Shrek 2) directed; plenty of people worked on the script. (And it shows it.) One of the movie’s main attractions is the song score by Elton John (who has family connections here), mostly a greatest hits assemblage that includes “Crocodile Rock,” “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” and the seemingly inevitable “Your Song.”

I like John’s songs, they work amazingly well in cartoons, and it’s fun to hear them here, even socked across by swinging lawn ornaments (voiced mostly by John).

But I wish they’d dreamed up some plausible reason, such as an invasion of Elton-Gnomes, to explain why the songs keep suddenly coming on. Then again, as far as gnome movies go (if not Shakespearean adaptations), this one is, uh, fairly well-motivated. Gnomivated.


“Kes” (Two Discs) (Four Stars)

U. K.: 1970, Ken Loach (Criterion Collection)

Kes — the story of a boy from Northern England coal country and the kestrel hawk he finds and trains and loves and loses — is a masterpiece of British cinema realism, made by one of the great British social realist filmmakers (maybe the greatest in fact): Ken Loach. It’s a movie that few who see it forget, and though the subject — a poor boy and his wild pet — may seem a bit “Lassie-ish,” or potentially teary, the treatment is so harshly real, the images so poetic and true, the acting so convincing and unmannered, that all sentimentality is drained from the story and the emotions left behind are pure, hard and unrelenting in their impact.

Loach never made a better film than Kes. Even though he‘s had one of the most distinguished and uncompromising careers in the post war British cinema — making (as Graham Fuller notes in this DVD’s fine booklet) a string of classic and film festival prize-winners that includes Riff Raff, Raining Stones, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, My Name is Joe, and “Sweet Sixteen (after Kes), and the shattering, legendary TV drama, Cathy Come Home (before it, in 1966), this film remains the one that he — and cinematographer Chris Menges and producer Tony Garnett — are best judged by.

It’s their prime legacy, and a splendid one — a film that mixes flawless naturalism, scathing social criticism and sarcastic humor, with an understated but deeply moving poetic sense of the landscape and people around Barnsley in South Yorkshire: the cheerless houses, the verdant fields, the young kids at school, their sometimes maddening teachers, their trapped working class parents and the sometimes rowdy coal-mining adults. Kes gives us all these people, and their ties to each other, and to the world around them: to a way of life that was disintegrating even the and now has largely vanished.

At the center of Kes, is the boy Billy Casper, 15, played by a non-professional first time actor named David Bradley whom Loach discovered at open tryouts in the Barnsley area. Bradley is one of the main reasons the movie is such a classic. With his solemn, grave expressions and hurt-looking eyes, his complete absence of affectation or the usual self-salesmanship, he’s one of the most memorable young actors of that era.

As we watch him here, we can almost sense Billy’s thoughts, feel his feelings. We accept him as both a typical and a fervently exceptional example of his region, of his class, of his generation.

Billy lives with his mother (Lynne Perrie) and his older brother Jud (Freddy Fletcher), in a dreary home so small that the boys have to share a bed. Jud is already down in the mines. Billy is in a time of transition, from school eventually to work. And a great deal of the movie (logging more time than the scenes with Kes) is spent with Loach’s and writer Barry Hines‘ mostly sarcastic portrait of Billy’s teachers and advisors: the bumptious soccer coach Mr. Sugden (Brian Glover, another non-professional giving a classic performance), the sour-faced bully Mr. Gryce (Bob Bowes), the testy Youth Employment Officer (Bernard Atha), and, the one sympathetic teacher, Mr. Farthing, played with enthusiasm by pro Colin Welland, the actor-writer who later won an Oscar for the script of Chariots of Fire (memorably yelling “The British are coming!” at the Academy Awards Show.)

Loach and Hines (adapting Hines’ novel, “A Kestrel for a Knave”), concentrate on Billy’s relations with these adults a bit more than they do on his interactions with his fellow kids, who, except for a few schoolyard bullies, tend to be a sometimes volatile mass — or even than they do on his relations with Kes, the wonderful wild bird he finds in the stony remnants of a medieval monastery. The adults, except for Mr. Farthing (the only teacher who sees Billy with Kes), are part of the joyless environment that oppresses Billy, severely limits his options.

Kes by contrast is the soaring friend whose realms he escapes to, who gives Billy a sense of the limitless worlds outside Barnsley. When we see them together, see the bird flying and circling and see Billy spinning his lure, we can feel the boy‘s exhilaration, the hawk’s natural grace. (Kes can not be tamed, the film says, only trained.) And we can sense what a wealth of opportunities is being lost in 1970 Britain to Billy and others.

That’s Loach’s signature theme. Although he’s a resolute left-winger and socialist, many of Loach’s films, including Kes, are about the failures of government to take care of the poor, the betrayals of the welfare state. Loach and Garnett’s famous TV play Cathy Come Home (included in this DVD package) painted such a dire and true portrait of Britain’s housing crisis among the poor, that it resulted in actual housing legislation. (But not, Loach sadly noted, years later, a resolution that lasted.)

In Kes, we don’t know what will happen to Billy. But we know that he and all the other children are ill-served by the system meant to teach and care for them. Billy learns more lessons from the kestrel than from the sometimes absurd adults who have him as pupil. And certainly his spirit is more uplifted by the sight of his bird, climbing the sky.

One problem with Kes, at least for American audiences, has always been the thickness and, for many, incomprehensibility of the Yorkshire accents of the local people who fill the cast. This Criterion package includes both a new restored digital transfer of the original soundtrack film, and the other, international version (made for other English-speaking countries) which contains a post-sync alternate soundtrack. (The original track, however, is not subtitled. I mostly love Criterion‘s catalogue, but they should really start subtitling all their English soundtrack releases, and especially one like this original, heavily accented Kes. Other than that, it’s hard to complain about anything in this marvelous DVD.

Kes marked the high point of the collaboration among the gentle, soft-spoken Loach, his more extroverted producer Garnett, and the matchless cinematographer Menges, whose ultra-naturalistic, documentary-like style, helps disclose all the beauties and ugliness of the world around Billy. Menges and Garnett went on to notable careers, with and without Loasch and young David Bradley left Barsley for a productive acting career, that included a stint on TV’s “Z Cars,” and roles in Zulu Dawn, and Absolution. (He shouldn’t be confused with the even more productive actor “David Bradley” who plays Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films; perhaps to avoid confusion, Kes’s David is often billed as “Dai Bradley.”) All four of them talk lucidly and fondly of their mutual shining hour here, on Criterion’s interview extras.

The people of Barnsley fared less well. After the collapse of their industrial base, they’re still there, still troubled Yorkshiremen, still waiting. But thanks to Ken Loach and the others, they had one brief, shining momet. The local premiere of Kes and its huge success throughout Great Britain (and Europe) in 1970, is still remembered as one of the two or three great events in the history of Barnsley. For them and for us, the wild bird still soars, swoops, and lives.

Also included: Cathy Come Home (U.K.: Ken Loach, 1966) Three and a Half Stars. A young married couple (Carol White of Poor Cow, and Ray Brooks of The Knack) and their young children are thrown into homelessness and the dysfunction of the social welfare system by accident and misfortune. One of the great British social problem films.


Plus two versions of Kes: a restored print of the original soundtrack version and the international post sync release.


Extras: Documentaries (one from the South Bank Show) on making “Kes” and on Loach’s career; Trailer; Booklet with Graham Fuller essay.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon