James recommends: The Shallows (Film Review)


It has been 42 years since Steven Spielberg’s killer shark blockbuster Jaws splashed onto the big-screen, scaring audiences off the beaches and changing the movie industry forever.

Inspired by the immense cultural – and financial – success of Jaws, many filmmakers were more than willing to jump in the water and try to emulate the magic of this fearsome mechanical shark. But they soon realised the shark movie formula was not as simple as it seemed. Post Jaws, many films failed while others slipped into mindless parody.

That was until last summer, when Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra broke the curse of Jaws with his stylish B-movie The Shallows.

Nancy (Blake Lively), a young Texan surfer and medical student, hitches a ride to a ‘secret’ Mexican beach which holds deep sentimental value following the loss of her mother to cancer.

As a Latin cover of Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side plays, Nancy receives a text from her hung-over friend who is still nursing a headache in the hotel room. Unperturbed, Nancy arrives at the secluded beach and unleashes a beaming smile. It is just as idyllic as her mother’s photos showed it to be.

Nancy pulls on her wetsuit (Collet-Serra’s camera lingers on her bikini for some time) and gets in the water to catch some waves.


The next five minutes are spent in surf heaven with a delicious montage of Nancy in the water, cut to vibrant music. If Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano fancy making a surf movie I am sold straightaway.

That being said, they still throw in a menacing prelude in the form of muffled silence when the camera plunges below the water’s surface. Danger awaits.

This comes when Nancy decides to catch one more wave before dark. She discovers a giant whale carcass and quickly finds herself under-attack from the perpetrator – a colossal shark.

Nancy somehow escapes its deadly jaws to the refuge of a nearby rock, albeit with a horrific wound on her leg. As the shark circles, she must find a way out of her terrifying situation and back to the safety of land.


The Shallows is immensely fun and highly-watchable. I was lucky enough to first see the film in a theatre full of enthusiastic adolescents, ready to immerse themselves in every scare.

I am sure they appreciated the lean 87 minute runtime which maintains a zippy and engrossing pace.

Even still, it is a long time for the superb Blake Lively (I would love to see her in more of these daring roles) to carry the film, especially given that her most prominently featured co-star is an injured seagull which inhabits the rock with her. Fortunately, Collet-Serra finds inventive ways to prevent cinematic gangrene setting in.

The best spoiler-free comment I can make concerns the film’s slick visual style. Labiano’s energetic camera seems to come from every direction. One moment, it floats on the surface of the water. The next, it sinisterly looks up from the depths, and the next it gives an aerial view revealing the expansive beauty – and danger – of the sea.


The intensity of colours also gives life to the stationary setting. During the happier surfing moments, the turquoise blue of the water will leave you yearning for a beach holiday.  This tranquil setting soon becomes nightmarish as the sky  fills with a heavy grey clouds and the water morphs into a menacing dark blue, which occasionally turns crimson.

The Shallows is a film that thrives primarily on singularities (one character and one location) and simplicities (a fun and straight-forward script). It is self-aware, clever and playful.

Finally, we have a shark movie that is good enough to sit alongside Jaws. I suggest you watch The Shallows, preferably with some easily scared friends.

Apart from Jaws, what is your favourite killer shark film?

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The Shallows – 4/5

Dir – Jaume Collet-Serra

Scr – Anthony Jaswinski

Cast: Blake Lively

DOP – Flavio Martinez Labiano

Music – Marco Beltrami

Year: 2016

Runtime: 1hr 27

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Do Your Duty – and go to a Sarah Gillespie gig

THERE are few more versatile – and talented – musicians currently doing the live London circuit than Sarah Gillespie.

With three albums (Stalking Juliet, In the Current Climate and Glory Days) and an EP (Roundhouse Bounty) under her belt, she brings a rich play list to the stage.

Gillespie is difficult to pigeon hole. Her music is a combination of folk, blues and jazz while vocally she is part Joni Mitchell, part Kate Melua. Her music is influenced by her American mother and the frequent trips she made to Minnesota where she soaked in the blues’ sounds. She also busked her way around America.

One moment she is belting out an old Bessie Smith tune (the so called ‘Empress of the Blues’) such as ‘Do your Duty’:

‘I call three times a day

Come and drive my blues away

When you come, be ready to play

Do your duty.’

The next she is marvelling the audience with her witty lyrics, embracing everything from songs about lonely heart ads, tales about her late mother (much missed), motherhood (she has an one year old daughter) and the fragility of love.

She is also not frightened to tell us what she thinks of President Trump (‘my new muse,’ she remarks tongue in cheek, just five minutes into her first set).

A venue such as St James Studio (now renamed The Other Palace) in London is perfect for Gillespie (dark, tight, intimate and atmospheric). But her true home  is the 606 Club on Lots Road, Chelsea.


It is where she worked before breaking into the music circuit and it is where she returns on a regular basis to belt out her tunes. Even though it is usually a Thursday night 606 billing for Gillespie (a quiet night by 606 standards), she always gives her audience value for money. In return she is rapturously received as she was last Thursday (20 April).

She has a super band behind her. Emma Devine, backing vocals, is a star in the making while Tom Cawley (piano), Ben Bastin (bass) and James Maddren (drums) provide exemplary support. Saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, a massive influence on her albums Stalking Juliet and In the Current Climate, is a notable absentee (check out his exemplary playing on the two albums).

Starting with In the ‘Current Climate’, then moving onto ‘How the Mighty Fall’ (where she has her little dig at Trump), she steps up a gear with a Bessie Smith classic: ‘Nobody Knows You’. Smith, she says, is the ‘goddess of blues’.


Gillespie’s lyrics shine through on ‘Signal Failure’, a song about the role of the smartphone in relationships – and in particular how it can feed insecurity.

‘Please call me back, I’m pissed and perplexed,’ she pleads. ‘You don’t read my texts.’

In between the music, there are anecdotes aplenty – including  a recent fruitless search for a breast pump in Cornwall while on tour. ‘I had to get that [tale] off my chest,’ she says as she launches into ‘Another Country Song’.

On ‘Lonely Heart Sads’, she bursts into poetry, using the Evening Standard lonely hearts ads as the basis for the words.

‘I’m lovely on the inside

Friends say I am kind

I will grow slowly on you like a language

Or subsidence in a disintegrating house

Full of hard working innocent people sleeping.’

And: ‘Stigmata with her own bandage factory seeks evangelical atheist to stop her from bleeding.’

Witty words that draw laughter from the 606 audience.

Standouts among the 19 song performance include a rousing ‘Lucifer’s High Chair’ and ‘Rhinestones’ where Devine’s backing vocals shine through.

She is also happy playing solo with just her guitar for company (as on ‘Oh Mary’ and ‘Postcards to Outer Space’).

 The finale – after a stirring version of ‘Stalking Juliet’ – is ‘Million Moons’.

‘Now you’re dreaming of Delilah
And that girl from Ipanema
Having seen her in the tabloids
With her dignity beneath her
And you’re racing like a crazy man
Complaining of the weather
You’re Jupiter in drag
And I love you more than ever.’

Judging on this performance, and the reaction of the 606 audience, we love you (Sarah Gillespie) more than ever.

If you are in Cambridge on Thursday night (27 April), the Sarah Gillespie Quartet  is playing at the Hidden Rooms. At £15 a ticket – £12 for students – it is a musical bargain.

Do Your Duty.

Thank you for reading, Please like, share and comment!

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Weekend watching – Whiplash (Film Review)


SOME are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. In Jazz, you have a cymbal thrown at you.

So goes the story of Charlie Parker, who at 16 years old lost track of chord changes while playing the saxophone, evoking the anger of band member Jo Jones who threw a cymbal at his feet.

The incident, which took place in 1937 at Kansas City’s Reno Club, is said to have helped inspire Parker – known in Jazz circles as ‘The Bird’ – to musical greatness.

It is a story that pervades Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating, tense and relentless teacher-student film Whiplash (2014).

For Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a drummer starting at Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, his cymbal comes in the shape of Jazz instructor Terence Fletcher (a marvellous JK Simmons).

After discovering Andrew practising alone one night, Fletcher plucks the youngster from the second-string class and thrusts him into the high-pressure atmosphere of his lead group.

‘You are here for a reason’, Fletcher reminds Andrew before reducing him to tears in his first session.


Fletcher is a brutal bully. His methods, akin to those employed by iconic Drill Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), see him blend a creative barrage of foul-mouthed insults with fierce intensity and machismo aggression. It is a potent mix to weed out the fragile and test even the most dedicated musician’s resolve.

Andrew is left trying to survive Fletcher’s mind games and his relentless demand for perfection. He avoids dorm parties, retreats to his room to listen to Buddy Rich CDs and practices until his hands are gory and raw. A poster on his wall reads: ‘If you don’t have ability you end up playing in a rock band’. It reflects his desire to reach the pinnacle in jazz drumming.

As Fletcher’s influence takes grip, Andrew adopts a tunnel vision approach that places him in conflict with the few people he is close to. They include his dad (played by Paul Reiser), a failed writer and high school teacher who reveals himself as a pushover. His love interest (Melissa Benoist) is not clear where her future lies as Andrew detaches himself from her clutches.


In Fletcher’s world, there is no room for mediocrity or complacency. He believes there are no two more harmful words in the English language than ‘good job’. His objective is clear: he wants to uncover and inspire excellence – find the next Charlie Parker, even if it means plenty of casualties along the way.

With the help of editor Tom Cross and cinematographer Sharone Meir, Chazelle expertly composes a series of thrilling scenes between Andrew and Fletcher.

By using unsteady cameras (handheld, presumably) he brings an unsettling energy to their verbal and physical interactions. He also uses these camera movements to give the jazz music, played either in a tight rehearsal room or in front of dimly lit audiences, both vibrancy and fluidity.

Sharp cuts and zooms are added in as jolting – or whiplashing – exclamation points.
Just as memorable are the close ups of the drum kits which reveal beads of sweat and blood. If you did not think jazz was serious, you will after watching Whiplash.

Another part of this jazz aesthetic is the use of warm yellowy-orange colours. In important moments of Whiplash, they light up Andrew and Fletcher’s faces, making it hard to tell whether they are in jazz utopia or – more sinisterly – in hell.


This review would not be complete without acknowledgment of a career-defining performance from JK Simmonds. He turns a skinny, bald jazz instructor with a tight t-shirt tucked-in around his waist into an intimidating, unpredictable and nightmarish figure. He plays off Teller’s doughy millennial softness brilliantly.

Chazelle’s La La Land is a bouncy ode to old-school Hollywood, with a poignant message about the dying art of jazz fed through Ryan Gosling’s character. In contrast, Whiplash is an in-your-face reminder of the power of jazz.

It is visceral, impactful and provocative.

If you have not seen it, I urge you to. If you have, watch it again (this was my sixth time). It will whip you into a frenzy of love for cinema.

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Whiplash – 5/5

Dir: Damien Chazelle

Scr: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Miles Teller, JK Simmons, Paul Resier, Melissa Benoist

DOP: Sharone Meir

Music: Justin Hurwitz

Editing: Tom Cross 

Year: 2014

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Rules Don’t Apply Q&A with Warren Beatty

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Rules Don’t Apply Q&A with Warren Beatty

Rules Don’t Apply, out in cinemas this Friday (April 21), sees Hollywood legend Warren Beatty play the role of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

Those present at a sell-out Picturehouse Central screening of the film in London may be forgiven for believing Beatty, who also wrote and directed the film, had forgotten to slip out of character when he turned up for a Q&A with knowledgeable and enthusiastic host Edith Bowman.

Without much prompting, Beatty covered Ronald Reagan, Greta Garbo, Richard Nixon, Stanley Kubrick and pornography in a bizarre 40 minute discussion that ranged from aimless storytelling to uncomfortably abrupt responses.

Most of the audience were well past nervous laughter by the time Beatty had answered ‘I don’t know’ for the fifth time.

Through all this, there were still glimpses of charm that made Beatty one of Hollywood’s most desirable figures – and even left some fans chasing his car down the road when he was whisked away. Beatty clearly has the Hollywood aura which Rules Don’t Apply shows Hughes to have had.


The film takes place in 1950’s Hollywood as the beautiful and virginal Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) arrives in Tinsel town with the promise from Hughes of big-screen stardom.

Along with her God-fearing chaperone mother (Annette Bening), Marla is assigned a handsome young driver called Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) who also dreams of making it ‘big’ with the help of Hughes – albeit through the less glamourous route of buying real estate in the Mullholland valley.

As the title implies, Frank and Marla defy the strict driver-actress rules and begin to develop a close relationship. But the young dreamers’ mutual desire to impress Hughes puts a strain on their burgeoning romance.

An interesting layer to Frank and Marla’s relationship is their sexually repressed Christian upbringings. This transition, from embracing Bible belt values to indulging in the overt sexuality of Hollywood is something many actors of the time, including Beatty, had to deal with.

He told the audience: ‘I had always wanted to make a film about a romantic relationship at the time when I first went to Hollywood in 1958. The ludicrousness of American puritanical sexual hypocrisy and how much it was in conflict with Hollywood, who were trying to sell sexiness all along.

‘I grew up in Virginia as someone who was very influenced by all that Bible Belt guilt. I asked a very famous person (who I won’t identity) who went through the same thing as a southern Baptist because the consummation of that horrendous act happened late. I asked how long it had taken to get over that and he said “about twenty minutes”. I’ve always found the subject sad and funny.’


Once this romantic ‘obstacle’ is played out, Frank and Marla take a backseat to the antics of Hughes for much of the second half of the movie. Beatty, whose last film was Town and Country (2001), clearly revels in this outlandish and comedic part, which bar a few entertaining moments is largely exhausting.

He explained his decision to include Hughes in the film: ‘I did think he would be a terrifically funny character to cause things to happen and not happen. I never met him but I like to think I knew everyone who had met him. The people who knew him did like him a lot.’

After mentioning his long-held lusting for Garbo once again, Beatty got back on track: ‘There was a sort of fictitious mystery that would not be possible today with the technology we deal with today. There is so much information that is so distracting from the attempt to find depth. I’m talking about the news which is now entertainment.’

Funnily enough, Beatty’s dominant performance distracts from fine efforts by Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich (set to play a younger version of Harrison Ford’s Star Wars character Han Solo next year). The film certainly suffers as a result.

When asked about the duo, Beatty did offer praise and some insight into his approach to casting.


He said: ‘I believe in something called the blink. That the unconscious knows a hell of a lot more that the conscious because it’s had a lot of years to be there. Sometimes the more you study a situation the less you know. Particularly when it comes to your concept of a character.’

‘A lot of people say character is plot but then casting is character, so then casting becomes plot. It didn’t take a long time to cast Lily and Alden. I was very struck by their level of integrity and that they were both good actors.’

Another actor he cast for the Rules Don’t Apply is his wife Annette Bening. After praising her fantastic film 20th Century Women (read my review here), Beatty endorsed the prospect of her moving behind the camera.

FullSizeRender (12)

He commented: ‘I feel she should direct. We are seeing a real breakthrough now with female directors. What would I say to try to be impressive? I think it’s the biggest thing happening in the world right now is the liberation and empowerment of the female. Next question.’

As for Beatty, he expects to make more films with his four children soon to fly the nest.  He compared the process of making films to vomiting: ‘It’s not that I like vomiting, I really don’t like to vomit and I don’t vomit very often but sometimes I’ll feel better if I just throw up.’

Rules Don’t Apply certainly is not Beatty’s prettiest pile of vomit – indeed, it left me feeling underwhelmed.

I put it  down to rustiness – and hope this Hollywood icon will  throw up something cinematically special in the future.

Thanks for reading. Please like, share and comment!

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Director Mark Craig talks about the last man on the moon

EUGENE Cernan, the last man on the moon, passed away in January.

The death of this American hero, Commander of the Apollo 17 mission, came as sad news to anyone aware of his incredible achievements, especially those with a passion for space history.

So it is no wonder an audience packed into The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) Headquarters in London to celebrate his life by hearing from a man who got to know Cernan well in the final years of his life.

Director Mark Craig, who has made a documentary chronicling Cernan’s life titled The Last Man on the Moon, spoke for nearly 100 minutes on his relationship and experiences with the great astronaut.

Craig’s film, released in cinemas in 2014, is a brilliant personal study that even the most novice space fan (like myself) can be enthralled and moved by.

It was a project Craig set his sights on after reading Cernan’s autobiography back in 2007.  He revealed the book had awoken a passion for space that he possessed as a child of the 1960’s – a time when the moon was an exciting new frontier.

Space missions were frequent and televised. Space technology was rapidly evolving and astronauts were considered by many as demigods.

Cernan Jump Salutes Flag

Craig soon discovered a film based around Cernan would not be the easiest to get off the ground. Years of frustrating negotiations with lawyers and the usual struggle of finding financial backers left him exasperated. Cernan also needed to be sure he could trust this English filmmaker with his legacy.

Fearing the project may never get approval, Craig emailed Cernan with an emotional plea about the film’s potential to inspire future generations of space enthusiast.

He also received an unexpected endorsement from Cernan’s friend – and Hollywood megastar – Harrison Ford. The actor supposedly gave the astronaut some sound advice: ‘it is not about you, it is about your story.’

The sentiment was enough to get Cernan on-board who then invited Craig and producer Gareth Dodds (a fellow Brit) to his ranch in Houston, Texas.

Here, the two Brits were exposed to Cernan’s lifestyle – the classic Texan cowboy attire, the rodeos and the cattle, admittedly kept for show more than anything else.  Inside his home were artefacts from Cernan’s varied career, including his time as an aviator. Alongside the astronaut paraphernalia was a burnt helmet from a near fatal helicopter crash.


Surprisingly, it was in Cernan’s garage that the duo made their most important discovery. A treasure trove of family photos, professional photos and rolls of home movie film which Craig described as ‘gold dust’ for a documentary filmmaker.

He is right. This collection gives the film an incredible life that many stock-footage-heavy documentaries simply cannot capture. It also allowed Craig to give the film a distinct personal quality.

The Last Man on the Moon narrows in on Cernan as a person without getting bogged down in heavy science – an approach which Craig says favours ‘heart over head’.

As part of this personal tone, they decided to take Cernan back to important locations in his life – such as a launchpad , his home in Nassau Bay, an aircraft carrier and Arlington Cemetery.  Cernan, shown in the documentary to be a great storyteller and charismatic individual, then evokes his memories of these places in a way which would not have been possible had he been interviewed from the comfort of his ranch.

He was also given the courtesy of cinematographer Tim Cragg’s powerful camera (a focal lens of 18-290). Cragg and the crew set up the camera at a distance to allow Cernan plenty of space to reflect and act naturally . This non-intrusive approach is something that Craig believes gets interviewees to speak more freely and openly than being followed around by an in-your-face camera.


For those in attendance at the BIS, Craig showed a few clips that did not make the 97 minute final cut for the theatrical release (the original cut was over three hours).

One clip that ended up on the cutting floor featured an amusing exchange between Cernan and Dick Gordon who were in competition to command the Apollo 17 crew. It had the audience in stitches and hungry for more.

For the time being, The Last Man on the Moon remains on UK Netflix until its licence runs out next month. Terrestrial television will then likely be its next destination.

But what is next up for Craig?

He revealed he wants to make a film about the tragic Apollo One incident with a similar personal touch. The rapport he built with Martha Chaffee – a widow of one of the three Apollo One astronauts and former neighbour of Cernan – during the shooting of The Last Man on the Moon makes such a project feasible.

Let us hope he can make it happen. It would be fitting tribute to the three who lost their lives so young: Lieutenant Commander Roger Chaffee, aged 31, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Gus Grissom, 39, and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ed White, 35.

On the evidence of The Last Man on the Moon, Craig would see to that.

Check out: The British Interplanetary Society

The Last Man on the Moon (available on Blu-Ray)

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