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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Justice film review: A slick and competent thriller

Who would have guessed that the best picture of the week would star Nicolas Cage? Certainly not me.

Director Roger Donaldson has made some entertaining movies in the past, notably Thirteen Days and No Way Out, but a good deal of his output has been Hollywood hackwork.

His latest exercise is typically well-crafted, and stars a subdued Cage as Will, a New Orleans teacher who becomes distraught when his much-loved wife (January Jones) is raped.

Slick, competent thriller: Nicolas Cage stars as Will Gerard in the thriller Justice

A mystery man (Guy Pearce) turns up at the hospital and offers to help bring summary justice to the assailant. Will agrees. 

But then the mystery man demands favours in return, and Will finds himself the target of a sinister group of vigilantes.

There’s an interesting idea behind the film, which is how far the breakdown of law and order after Hurricane Katrina may have prejudiced ordinary people against the authorities; but the tone is kept so light, and the characters so under-developed, that social issues are never explored.

There’s so little attempt to analyse the rights and wrongs of vigilantism, that it makes Michael Winner’s Death Wish look like a thinkpiece.

All-star cast: Guy Pearce (left) stars alongside Nicolas Cage (right) in the film

Donaldson’s thriller is nowhere near the quality of the last film to feature Cage in New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, but it may fit the bill if you’re looking for a modestly entertaining chase thriller.

Donaldson’s skilful at orchestrating the action sequences, and there are two plot twists that should take you by surprise. At least you won’t be bored.

Even better news is that Cage doesn’t have to pretend to fall in love with a baby.

Nervous breakdowns. Fights over money. Electrocution. How the musicians behind Rod Stewart's classic were hit by the curse of Maggie May

Maggie May is the song that made Rod Stewart a superstar.

Released 40 years ago as a B-side, it took everyone by surprise by becoming a huge hit in Britain and America.

Reaching Number One on both sides of the Atlantic in the second week of October 1971, it stayed there for five weeks.

Cursed? Maggie May is the song that made Rod Stewart a megastar - but the creative powers that shaped the song experienced much mishap

It was originally put out that August on the flip side of Reason To Believe, but Maggie May began to get more airplay from DJs and after two weeks was reclassified as the A-side.

Rod hadn’t even been sure about including it on the album, Every Picture Tells A Story, but the song, a lament to an older lover, proved to have colossal appeal. And it changed his life.

By the end of 1971, Rod had gone from being the not-terribly famous singer with the Faces to the Rod we know now: a sandpaper-voiced troubadour, all tight trousers and cockerel hair, with millions in the bank and a blonde on his arm.

In the years since he has proved to be one of the most popular singers in the world, with a ?100?million fortune, three marriages and eight children.

Badly treated: Ray Jackson, who played the mandolin on Maggie May, was paid just ?15 for his work

But the story of how the ballad came to be is almost as unexpected as its success. For few people know of the series of tragedies that befell the creative powers who shaped Maggie May, now an acknowledged pop standard.

Rod’s backing singer Maggie Bell saw her fianc? and bandmate  Les Harvey electrocuted on stage by an unearthed microphone a few months after the song was released. Their band Stone The Crows broke up and, despite being tipped for greatness, she never became a star.

Ray Jackson, the man who played  the mandolin on Maggie May — surely the most famous solo featuring that instrument  — was shabbily treated by Rod, going uncredited on the album and being paid just a stingy ?15 for his work.

Two other musicians who worked on the song died young. But most poignant of all is the fate of the song’s co-writer — the highly-strung guitar genius Martin Quittenton, who also wrote Rod’s other classic You Wear It

Well. I can reveal that Quittenton, once the star’s close pal, has been in retreat from the music business for decades and has long struggled with mental illness.

So the famous ballad may have launched Rod into the stratosphere, but it seems to have been close to a curse for the others he brought together.

Rod had enjoyed some success with the Faces, but had been sent to the studio by his record label Mercury to put together a solo album that would fare better than his first two efforts.

He chose the Morgan Sound Studios in Willesden because they had a mock pub upstairs — and Rod liked to rehearse, have a few drinks and then go back to record.

Drummer Mickey Waller was brought in and he introduced Rod to Quittenton, a guitarist with his own band, Steamhammer.

Before going solo: The Faces pop group, left to right, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, Kenny Jones, Ian McLagan and Ronnie Lane

They got on so well that Rod let Quittenton — a quiet, nervy young man with a classical background — stay at his house in Highgate while they were working on the album. In an interview 18 years ago, he recalled: ‘Rod found me and gave me work. He was very kind.’

Rod wrote some of the songs while touring America with the Faces. Maggie May was named after a notorious Liverpool docks prostitute. The song told the story of his first sexual experience, which he said had happened in a tent at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1961.

He told Q magazine: ‘I was 16 and it lasted precisely 28 seconds. She was older and bigger than me. I don’t think her name was Margaret.’

He first played a version of it with Faces guitarist Ron Wood in a U.S. hotel room. Then Quittenton helped him write the chords and composed the acoustic intro — the melody coming to him while he was on a Piccadilly line Tube train.

It was finished in a hurry at Morgan Sound Studios. Rod was always keen to work quickly, because studio time was expensive — and seems to have made up the words off the cuff in a few minutes.

Accident : Backing singer Maggie Bell saw her fiance and bandmate Les Harvey electrocuted on stage

‘We didn’t think it was very good,’ said Quittenton. ‘Never in anyone’s wildest dreams was it a pop standard.’ A touch of magic was added by Ray Jackson, a musician from Newcastle who had been a member of folk/rock group Lindisfarne.

He had been asked to play on the track Mandolin Wind and Rod then said: ‘I’ve got this other song called Maggie May. I might not even use it, but I’ve got nothing to put on the end. Can you put some mandolin down?’ So Jackson did.

‘I had two minutes to improvise it,’ he said. ‘Suddenly they liked the song. The people at the mixing desk were looking at each other in delight, applauding.’

His contribution is generally recognised to be truly significant — a mournful, nostalgic melody. He told me: ‘At the time I didn’t realise what I had done was special. You never know when you are recording how it will go down.’

Sadly, he was not treated with generosity by Rod. He was paid ?15 — the standard Musician’s Union fee for a three-hour session. In the sleeve credits, it says: ‘The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind.’

This wretched piece of meanness rankled with Jackson. In 2003 he threatened to sue Rod, saying he might have lost up to ?1?million through not being credited as a writer.

What tipped him over the edge  was that the mandolin solo was used in a bank advert, probably netting Stewart and Quittenton ?50,000 each in royalties.

Star: Rod Stewart had unbelievable talent - but did he overshadow some of the other contributors to his success?

A spokesman for Stewart described the claim as ‘ridiculous’, saying it was accepted Ray played on the song, but not that he had any part in writing it. He said: ‘As is always the case in the studio, any musical contributions he may have made were fully paid for at the time as “work-for-hire”.’

The case never came to court. Jackson, who runs an art gallery in Witney, Oxfordshire, and paints old buses, describes what happened as ‘a bit disappointing’.

He told me: ‘You have to let it go. I am proud of the work I did.’
His fellow musician, Liverpudlian guitarist Sam Mitchell, was discovered by Rod in a London folk club, but never fulfilled his early promise.

He died in 2006 aged 56 after suffering chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. His friend Chris Jagger remembers him living hand to mouth. ‘It was a very sad scene,’ Jagger said. ‘He was a heavy drinker.’

Rod’s violinist was Dick ‘Sweet’ Powell, a well-known figure on the London jazz scene. Legend has it that the star paid him ?10 for his work on the song Reason To Believe. He died young, too, in his 50s, of a cerebral haemorrhage.

Legend: Rod Stewart, right, pictured with his wife Penny Lancaster has a cult following even to this day

And what of Martin Quittenton? He lives in a large house at the end of a country lane in Llanrhyddlad, Holyhead. He received an income of around ?25,000 a year from Maggie May royalties. In his sole interview in 1992, for the Stewart fanzine Smiler, he said: ‘I didn’t think there was anything to the song at the time and when it hit Number One I was working part-time in a music shop for ?7 a week.

‘I was going to work on a No 31 bus and I heard it coming from a jukebox in a pub. Then someone told me it was Number One. I couldn’t understand all the fuss. I didn’t think it was very good.’

Rod had invited Quittenton to join the Faces, but he felt he would hate the heavy drinking and hotel-wrecking. ‘I couldn’t mix with what went on backstage,’ he said.

In 1976, Rod left Britain for America. Quittenton turned down the star’s offer to work on his album Atlantic Crossing — and then they lost touch. ‘I opted out,’ he said. ‘I didn’t really fit into the sort of world I’d fallen into.’

After a nervous breakdown Martin Quittenton left the business. He moved to Anglesey and lives there anonymously with his wife Dorothy and their Yorkshire terrier. ‘I don’t think I was meant to be in pop music longer than I was, and I wouldn’t want to be in it now,’ he said.

Shooting stars Alice Englert and Elle Fanning will have a blast in upcoming film Bomb

 Fashion forward: Elle Fanning at the Chanel show during Paris Fashion Week

Hollywood ‘veteran’ Elle Fanning and relative newcomer Alice Englert are about to go nuclear.

The teenagers will lead Bomb, director Sally Potter’s new film about two young rebels at the forefront of political, social and sexual change.

Bomb is set in London in the early Sixties at a time when the Cold War met the sexual revolution.

Filming on the BFI and BBC Films production begins in early February in and around London and the South Coast, with Elle (who appeared in this summer’s blockbuster Super 8) playing Ginger, described as the ‘brainy’ one who wants to get involved with the anti-nuclear movement.

Alice, as Rosa, is more interested in boys.

Elle will play a more grown-up 16 on screen than her real-life 13 while Alice, 17, daughter of Oscar-winning director Jane Campion and film-maker Colin Englert, will play a year younger than her age.

Potter, best known for her celebrated movies Orlando and The Tango Lesson, confirmed the casting, noting that Elle has a ‘subtlety and range beyond her years’. 

‘She can move you to  tears, then light up the room with her radiant smile.’

She said Alice ‘is a beautiful, intelligent young woman with the movies in her bones. Together, playing teenage rebels, they are sure to be a pair of firecrackers.’

Elle has more experience, having made her first major film, I Am Sam, opposite Sean Penn when she was two.

Her credits include The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and Cameron Crowe’s forthcoming drama We Bought A Zoo.

Co-star: Alice Englert will star alongside Elle Fanning in the upcoming film Bomb, set in London

Alice started as an open-mic performer in Sydney and started acting when cast in Roland Joffe’s movie Singularity, which is shooting now.

And she walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival (not her first visit) this year with her mother, so the art of cinema is very much in her blood.

Potter and her producer Christopher Sheppard used Facebook to get candidates to audition.

In all 1,500 girls sent in videos of themselves and Potter and her team met 30.

But, in the end, the two leads were cast the old-fashioned way using gut instinct and a casting director.

The Awakening review: Rebecca Hall in a chilling old-fashioned ghost story

Winter and Christmas are traditionally times for ghost stories, and The Awakening is a classy one.

More than anything, that’s down to a sensitive, intelligent performance by Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart, blue-stocking author of Seeing Through Ghosts.

She’s a ghost-hunter who doesn’t believe in the paranormal, and is called in by a Cumbrian boys’ school, circa 1921, to solve the mystery of a boy ghost who may have frightened one of the pupils literally to death.

Spooky: Rebecca Hall and Dominic West in the ghost story The Awakening which is out today

The headmaster is played by John Shrapnel; the schoolmaster with whom our heroine has the most rapport is Dominic West; and the matron who recommends they send for Florence is played by Imelda Staunton.

So, acting-wise, we’re in safe hands, and the child actors do their bit to make everything plausible too, especially Isaac Hempstead-Wright as the lonely Tom, who sees dead people.

The ultimate explanation leaves quite a few questions begging — I never did understand the mystery of the bulging pillow, or how and why the spooky dolls’ house kept moving from place to place, or indeed the rules governing the afterlife, and why some dead people haunt, while others don’t.

'The ultimate explanation leaves quite a few questions begging'

Most of all, the script by Nick Murphy and Stephen Volk cheats the audience by withholding too much information about the heroine until too late. A better screenplay would have dropped a few more clues.

All the same, co-writer and director Murphy creates a genuinely spooky atmosphere. This is an old-fashioned horror film, in that it doesn’t rely on gore and mutilation for its thrills.

It’s in the tradition of M.?R. James and Algernon Blackwood. The recent films it most resembles are The Others and The Orphanage — though it’s not quite as frightening or effective as either. There are nasty shocks, but mostly the film delivers suspense, creeping unease and a leading performance that is well above average.

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