Turks & Caicos

Bill Nighy


Turks & Caicos is the second of the Johnny Worricker trilogy of TV movies made by Carnival Films (of Downton Abbey fame) for the BBC and boasting the sort of cast that was still rare at small screen level in 2014. Christopher Walken and Winona Ryder are the properly big names, though Dylan Baker, Helena Bonham Carter, Rupert Graves and Ewen Bremner (returning from the first movie) are hardly kitty litter. Ralph Fiennes, though present and correct, is only on screen for a few seconds and so doesn’t really count.

For those coming in cold, there is absolutely no need to have watched the first one (Page Eight) to enjoy the second. All you need to know, and it’s easy to work out within seconds, is that Bill Nighy’s Johnny Worricker (now posing under the ho-ho nom de guerre of Tom Elliot, poetry lovers) is an ex-spy who is hiding out in the paradisical British Protectorate of the Turks & Caicos Islands, having fled the UK after dynamiting his career.

Whether the laconic, supersmart Worricker really did just “take the first flight” he saw on the departures board at Heathrow, as he claims, or has some agenda is never really established, but the tentacles of extraordinary rendition continue to exert a strong grip, with the island full of wealthy businesmen who have all profited hugely from the off-the-books, over-the-odds shady deals they’ve been able to do with the US government thanks to the “war on terror”.

Returnees will remember that Page Eight came at the subject from a different direction – how the US had co-opted allies into playing along with illegal rendition on black sites, with writer/director Hare making the point obliquely that, to avoid the charge of being a vassal state, countries often carry out the US’s wishes with more enthusiasm than is strictly required.

Winona Ryder and Bill Nighy
Winona Ryder and Bill Nighy



Here Hare is much more interested in the interface between the US government and private companies, who made a bundle out of rendition, and since seediness is the charge, business associates Gary Bethwaite (Dylan Baker), Dido Parsons (Zach Grenier) and Frank Church (James Naughton) all have the complacent, badly dressed look of New Jersey mobsters who’ve accidentally gone legit. And as if we hadn’t twigged that they are not good guys, Hare throws in a sexual subplot involving all three and their company PR, the appropriately named Melanie Fall (Ryder).

Melanie Fall is meant to be a damaged character and Winona Ryder goes at her with eyes wide and all the bonkers lights flashing. She’s madly brilliant at it, even though you kind of wonder how much of what Ryder is doing is acting. Even more fun is watching every scene where Nighy and Walken interact, both of them masters of supremely mannered delivery, with each one obviously trying to make the other one corpse by ladling on ever increasing amounts of whatever it is that they do. Vastly enjoyable.

Walken gets the best speech, a remarkably prescient one for 2014, which inveighs against America’s endless wars and their cost and warns that people back home are “sore… it’s dusk in America,” a sentiment picked up months down the line by Donald Trump.

Even though the sunny Turks and Caicos settings mean it threatens to turn into an episode of the cosy BBC whodunit series Death in Paradise at any minute, it’s a more satisying film than Page Eight, clicking along like a precision watch and with a politics that seem more grounded in the consensual neoliberal stasis of the day. Along with Worricker’s James Bond-alike ability to set female loins aflame, these mark out Turks & Caicos as a film from what now seems like another era.

The last of the trilogy, Salting the Battlefield, would follow later in the year. And my review of that will be along shortly too.




Turks & Caicos, the second of the Johnny Worricker trilogy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Wild Mountain Thyme

Anthony and Rosemary at the gate

 

From the very first shot of Wild Mountain Thyme I was thinking “Good god, surely people aren’t still making films like this!” The opening shot being an overhead of the lush slopes of rural Ireland while the soundtrack twiddled away in madly shamrocky fashion.

It got worse. A beejaysus-Irish voiceover announces “I’m dead”, by way of an introduction. The whimsy-ometer starts climbing into the red zone. And then I realised it’s Christopher Walken doing the bad Irish accent. The letters W, T and F start to appear in the air.

What the actual, it actually gets even worse, as we’re introduced to one Oirish character after another. Enter Walken as old farmer Tony Reilly, who’s wondering who to leave his farm to. His neighbour, Aoife Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy) is having similar thoughts but she’s got a sensible, if whimsically pipe-smoking daughter, Rosemary (Emily Blunt) as an obvious heir. No such luck for Tony, whose son, Anthony (Jamie Dornan) is a big useless lump. So useless that Tony decides to ask an American cousin (Jon Hamm) if he’d rather have the farm instead.

There’s also the matter of a small bit of disputed land connecting the two farms, but we can ignore that since it makes no difference to anything, though writer/director John Patrick Shanley keeps returning to it as if it did.

What we can’t ignore, because it’s what the film is really about (apart from Irish-American Shanley’s affection for the old country), is the thing between Anthony and Rosemary. They love each other. Well, she loves him, even though he’s a big useless lump, but he seems indifferent to her, which is odd because it’s Emily Blunt, if you know what I mean.

Enter Jon Hamm from that America, driving a Rolls Royce up muddy, narrow country roads, to illustrate what a massive tool he is, and to indicate that massive disruption threatens. What if he got the farm… and the girl?

Are you still reading? If so, you’ve probably got a soft spot for this sort of thing, begorrah and to be sure. And, to be fair, there are things in the film’s favour. Imagine a faintly comedic retread of those French adaptations of Maurice Pagnol’s novels like Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (or Daniel Auteuil’s under-appreciated The Well Digger’s Daughter). It’s cosy, big-hearted and engaging. Everyone in it is on the comedy spectrum (even Dornan, whose performance brings to mind Ardal O’Hanlon’s dim-bulb priest Father Dougal in the Irish comedy series Father Ted). At one point Dornan falls into a lake off a boat, in classic “I just threw myself into the lake” style.

 

Jon Hamm, Jamie Dornan and Christopher Walken
Face off: cousin Adam (Jon Hamm), Anthony (Jamie Dornan) and Tony (Christopher Walken)

 

Wild Mountain Thyme is also a relentlessly charming film. There are a some lovely Irish songs. Most of all there’s the thing between Anthony and Rosemary. Anthony is such a dork you have to root for him, and Dornan plays him straight, no winking to camera. The only concession he makes is to bend his Irish accent slightly towards Walken’s, which is eccentric to say the least. But then pointing out eccentric speech patterns in Walken isn’t going to shake the planet to its foundations.

And Blunt and Dornan just fit so well together that each improves the other’s performance. It’s chemistry, invisible magic, but there’s a pragmatic reason too. They know that if they don’t get this relationship right, the film will sink.

Writer/director John Patrick Shanley is best known as a playwright for the theatre, though he notably won an Oscar for writing Moonstruck, another romance about mismatches. You can laugh at his desperate padding of this film’s plot to get the running time up to length. In fact you can be amused by all sorts of things in this film – that Hamm is in it at all! Or Walken! – and it is a bit of a mad custard, but in the end it is also simply rather lovely. Got to be a space for a bit of that in everyone’s life. To be sure.

 

Wild Mountain Thyme – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

The War with Grandpa

Cheech Marin, Robert De Niro, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken in a huddle

 

In 2016 Robert De Niro starred in Dirty Grandpa, as the titular disgusting (in lots of ways, but mostly sexually) senior giving uptight grandson Zac Efron lessons in letting it all hang out.

It was a funny film, though a 5.9 rating on the imdb (as I type) suggests that not everyone loved it. I didn’t love it either, but a few good gags and a suggestion that even the oldies like to part-ay is, in these frigid times, enough for me.

The War with Grandpa was made one year later and then sat on a shelf for three more, thanks to the Harvey Weinstein scandal (the Weinsteins were set to distribute it). It’s quite a diffrerent proposition, a family comedy with a plot contained pretty much in the title – Grandpa (De Niro) goes to live with his daughter (Uma Thurman) and family, causing her son Peter (Oakes Fegley) to be ejected from his room so Grandpa can have it. Peter is relocated to the attic, where rats, spiders and what have you lurk. He is not happy and declares war on Grandpa. Grandpa, forced to abandon listening to mawkish 1940s music (Hollywood still not being able to accept that it’s boomers who are now the oldies and 1960s music would be more appropriate), declares war back.

It’s a guerrilla war of escalating tit-for-tat – Peter switches foam sealant for grandpa’s shaving foam, grandpa responds by removing all the screws from Peter’s bed so it collapses when he bounces on to it. Grandpa doctors Peter’s homework. Peter loosens the heads on Grandpa’s golf clubs. A python is let loose at one point. But it’s an honourable war, with Peter and Grandpa swearing to keep this between themselves, so the rest of the family don’t find out (and also conveniently allowing the film to continue).

 

Robert De Niro and Oakes Fegley
Grandpa and Peter enjoy a momentary pause in the hostilities

 

That’s about it, plotwise – they skirmish, practical jokes and physical comedy abound. Fleshing things out a touch are Peter’s schoolfriends, a nerdy bunch who are plagued by a school bully crying out for comeuppance. Grandpa also has friends, played by Christopher Walken, Cheech Marin and – once Grandpa’s recruited her from a local supermarket – Jane Seymour.

It is quite a starry cast and it doesn’t leave much space for Rob Riggle as Peter’s dad. Riggle mugs gamely to camera, making the best of being a virtual unknown in a sea of names, but actually he’s the key to the whole thing. Because what we’re really watching is an updated version of a 1960s Disney live-action comedy featuring smart kids, mild jeopardy, and a good-natured but ineffectual parent (Riggle aka the Dickless Disney Dad) whose job is to act as a catch-up sounding board.

Everything about it is also 1960s Disney Family Movie – its bright looks, the way the family interacts (Laura Marano as the slightly older daughter interested in boys, for example), a game of dodgeball between the seniors and juniors that doesn’t result in a shattered pelvis for any of the oldies, and the sort of humour that’s come out of a tin marked “hoary old standbys”. At one point grandpa grabs a ladder outdoors and climbs up it to fix some party lights up near the guttering. Is the ladder going to slowly swing backwards away from the house with grandpa gamely clinging on and making “Oh-oh-oh-oh-OOOH” noises? Of course it is. Is grandpa going to be seriously injured? Of course not.

Don’t look too carefully and you’ll not notice that the oldies are a bit creaky, or that Marin and Seymour don’t have that much to do, nor does the slightly better used Walken for that matter. But isn’t it great to see them?

Though never a gut-buster, it’s extremely good natured, and relentlessly so, at pretty much every level. Over the end credits is footage of the cast and crew all dancing on set and they do seem to be having a great time. One other plus – De Niro has finally realised that his downturned-mouth gurning isn’t the great comedy motherlode he clearly once thought it was. I think I spotted it only once. Instead De Niro tries acting. He’s pretty good at it.

 

 

The War with Grandpa – watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

King of New York

Christopher Walken surveys his kingdom in King of New York

 

 

 

I used to work at a magazine and would get a lot of DVDs in for review purposes. King of New York was the one that really got all my co-workers misty eyed. They started quoting lines from the script, remembering the best bit of the film, asking me if I could have the disc after I’d finished with it. No wonder. It’s a hugely influential piece of work and you can see its impact on almost every mob drama since. It was made when Christopher Walken was in his pomp, here he plays the self-styled King, a classically ruthless gang boss with a strangely benevolent streak, a man who tries, in his own odd way, to wash the scum off the streets. The scum, unfortunately for them, being his business rivals. Being late Eighties, King of New York is big on gold chains, stretch limos, huge restaurant menus, rap music and, of course, Vivaldi. Walken works his shtick of unpredictability to the max, and has a mesmeric effect on the audience and his co-stars – Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, none of them slouches, all raise their game. In any debate about Abel Ferrara’s best film, people usually come down on the side of King of New York or Bad Lieutenant, another film that Ferrara drenches in unglamorous grunge – there is no Goodfellas Scorsese sheen here. King of New York also has one of the squeakiest death scenes you’ll ever see in a mainstream film. Time Out London called it “quite easily the most violent, foul-mouthed and truly nasty of current gangster movies.” When it was first screened in New York it got an incredibly hostile reception – among those who walked out were Ferrara’s own wife. Come on, you know you want to watch it now…
© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

King of New York – at Amazon