Monday, 23 July 2012

George Lucas

Bye George
George Lucas is retiring to his garage to make ‘hobby movies’. But before he goes, he’s bankrolling a second world war film, to the tune of $93m
Jeff Dawson Published: 10 June 2012, Sunday Times Culture

I have a bone to pick with George Lucas. More specifically, the knuckle on my right little finger, recently cracked by my six-year-old son’s red lightsaber. “You’re lucky it was just a toy,” Lucas chortles. “Don’t try to have a laser fight with someone who’s innately superior.” Famously, when 20th Century Fox allowed Lucas to forgo his director’s fee in return for the merchandising rights to Star Wars, the request seemed laughable. “I mean, no movie had ever done what Star Wars did,” Lucas says. “Movies didn’t do that.”
Four decades on, the tills of Star Wars Inc have kerchinged to the tune of $30 billion (£19.5 billion), more than $23 ­billion of it splashed on “consumer ­products”. Throw in Lucasfilm, his studio, ­Skywalker Sound, the special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic, the THX audio system, his founding of Pixar and his creation of Indiana Jones, and Lucas is far, far away the most commercially successful film-maker in the history of motion ­pictures. His personal worth is $3.2 ­billion; last year, according to Forbes, he trousered a casual $90m.
Did nobody take note of this? For when Lucas began touting his latest project — family-friendly derring-do, aerial dogfights and wholesome jock heroes socking it to evil-empire baddies — you’d have thought Hollywood would have reached for its spangliest Princess Leia two-piece to entice him into bed. But no. “I knew nobody would finance a movie like that,” he grumbles down the line from his home in northern California. “But I didn’t expect that people wouldn’t even release a picture like that.”
The problem? Lucas’s picture, Red Tails — starring Nate Parker, David ­Oyelowo, Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr — is the story of the first ­African-American flying outfit in the United States Air Force. “They don’t feel that movies with an all-black cast can make any money,” he gripes. So Lucas personally anted up the entire $58m budget of Red Tails, with another $35m invested in distribution/promotion. More fool the naysayers. When the film opened in America in ­January, it shot to No 2 at the box office, and it looks set to double its return once it premieres internationally.
Red Tails is “inspired by true events”, gleaned from consultation with the remaining pilots — the fabled “Tuskegee Airmen”, named after their Alabama training base. “Forty of them in the beginning,” Lucas says. “There are seven left. The best guys I’ve ever met.” In 1942, after Congress yielded to pressure to allow the training of “coloured” airmen, the newly formed squadron was dispatched to North Africa. They became highly decorated bomber escorts, their ­­P-51 Mustangs identified by crimson flashes on the tailplanes.
A script for the film had come to Lucas in 1988. “I thought it was a great story. Very inspirational.” The only obstacle, then, was how to stage the aerobatics. Lucas preferred to wait for technological advances that would allow the combat sequen­ces to be staged digitally, rather than shot using vintage planes. There’s no question that the simulated rat-a-tat-tatting has gone down well, thanks to a whopping 1,400 effects shots. “It’s the first feature film that’s got dogfighting the way you really want it to be done, which is on a level with Star Wars.”
There has been less enthusiasm for the stuff on the ground. Some of the ­dialogue and characterisation have been dismissed as simplistic, devoid of a political dimension. Indeed, save for an opening caption from a US Army War College study — “Blacks are mentally inferior, by nature subservient and cowards. They are therefore unfit for combat” — the film is almost all action, not affirmative action. “They expect you to make the civil-rights movie. The critics wanted The Help, poor black people being oppressed, then, at the end, the white guy getting his comeuppance. This isn’t like that at all. This is, ‘Hey, these guys are great guys, they’re heroes. They fought in the war, they are patriotic.’ It’s a different take on the stereotype.”
Indulging in a liberal guilt trip is to miss the point of Red Tails, he tuts. “It’s not an esoteric movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s like Star Wars, in that it’s designed to be an old-fashioned 1940s gung-ho movie — a corny old war movie.” Some attribute Lucas’s aroused black consciousness to his relationship with Mellody Hobson, a leading African-American financier, friend of Obama and Oprah. At recent functions, Lucas has been hobnobbing with Spike Lee, Al Sharpton and other African-American luminaries, who have rallied round the film. He still felt insufficiently empathetic with the material to direct Red Tails, that task going to the black director Anthony Hemingway, best known for The Wire, but he did end up unofficially co-directing, steering it through reshoots and complex ­special-effects insertions. “Something,” he sniggers, “I know how to do really well.”
At 68, Lucas remains an enigma: a card-carrying progressive, yet an arch capitalist; bubble-gum mainstream, yet a confirmed outsider, operating from his Skywalker Ranch; in sensibility, more Silicon Valley mogul than Tinseltown (like Bill Gates, Lucas has just vowed to give half his fortune to charity); and, astonishingly, a screen titan who has ­formally directed only six films. After his debut, THX 1138, and fresh from the ­success of his Oscar-nominated American Graffiti in 1973, he went off, he says, “and did this young people’s ­Saturday-matinée movie with dogs flying spaceships. A lot of my friends were doing something important — and I got hijacked by it”.
Some would say it was more a case of Stockholm syndrome, with Lucas obsessively re-editing and reformatting his space opera. (The Phantom Menace has just been rereleased in 3D.) But you can’t deny him his place in the pantheon, bracketed as one of the “movie brats”, that group of film-makers who burst onto the scene in the early 1970s and redefined movies as we know them. “I didn’t think we were going to change cinema, but, you know, whether it’s the Renaissance or Paris in the 1920s, we happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he muses. Between the passing of the tycoons and the takeover of the business by multinational cor­porations, there was a change in the structure, he says, a “crack in the door” that allowed the young creatives to rush in. Lucas and Steven Spielberg were the class nerds; their affection for their craft is adolescently pure. “We went to film school and made movies because we absolutely loved them.”
After trippy beginnings at the Uni­versity of Southern California — surrealist films about cloud formations — Lucas made his full directorial debut with the low-budget sci-fi THX 1138. Two years later came his tale of hot-rodding ­Californian teens. “American Graffiti I did on a lark because Francis [Ford Coppola] challenged me to make a comedy instead of these weird artsy-fartsy movies,” he says. “That sort of sent me down a path I didn’t expect to go.”
Lucas announced recently that he was jacking in mainstream film-making, going back to his roots. “I’m gonna retire from the company and the business, and all the things I have,” he confirms. “I’m gonna just go back to my garage, get out my hammer and nails and build hobby movies — model movies that I can fly around in the back yard.”
Some garage. There’s Indiana Jones 5 in the offing, and talk of Harrison Ford (70 next month) reaching for the whip again. “I’m working on a script for those guys, but they have to approve it,” Lucas says. “It took me 14 years to get ’em to do In­di­­ana 4. Harrison wanted this and Steven wanted that...
“In the beginning, it was easy. I said, ‘This is the script, we’re shoo­ting it, let’s go to work.’ Now they’re all superstars.”   
Red Tails is reviewed in this section

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

I hate the tendency to pseudo-intellectualise popular entertainment and stand guilty as charged on multiple counts. If anything has come to exemplify highbrow vacuity it's the guff surrounding Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight series, perpetuated both by the makers and the feature writers.

I attended the multimedia preview of The Dark Knight Rises last night and found the film to be overblown, confusing, disjointed, often inaudible and with too many subplots shoehorned into it for its own good (someone please explain to me the Matthew Modine business). I may stand in a minority here but, for me, Christian Bale — good in other things — simply lacks the requisite charisma.

It is of note that the current cinematic wave of superheroes surfed in on the back of 911. Where the first Spider-man film had the Twin Towers sensitively airbrushed from the movie, ten years on and the likes of The Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man and now this film are trashing Manhattan with gay abandon.

In the case of the The Dark Knight Rises there is something sinister about its destructiveness, a devil's advocate suggestion that there are times when it is acceptable to mass-slaughter civilians — I mean, they brought it on themselves, right?

It seems an unimaginative word to use to describe the film but, moreover, I simply found The Dark Knight Rises nasty, the unpleasant aftertaste compounded by knowledge of Bale's real-life abusive tendencies and the tragic death of Heath Ledger, whose ghost still seems to haunt this picture.

I'm not against violence in a movie at all, but this seemed — in its cod-French Revolutionary tone — a wilful exercise in amorality. The online venom unleashed on sceptical film critics is shocking but weirdly in sync. And now I just hear on the radio about the thing in Denver...

Of course one can't hold the film or its makers responsible for such a terrible crime. They made a film. No more, no less. But $250m is a lot of money for a very bad vibe.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Idris Elba

Man On The Move

It's Idris Elba’s year, the one where he gets to play Ahab, Luther and Nelson Mandela

Jeff Dawson Published: 27 May 2012 (Sunday Times)

Pinning down Idris Elba isn’t easy. There is a vague plan to meet in Atlanta, where he lives... No, hang on, New York... Er, make that Atlanta again. An 11th-hour switch finds us in LA, where Elba has jetted in on his day off, a Sunday, from shooting the thriller No Good Deed. Even then, there’s a mix-up with the time, until our elusive subject is tracked to Soho House on Sunset Strip, ensconced on the penthouse terrace, thumbing fruitlessly at his flatlining iPhone.

Elba extracts himself from a swallow-you-whole sofa, an imposing presence. He’s built like a heavyweight: 6ft 3in; solid muscle; 15st-16st? He has a trim beard, tattoos — every inch, physically, the man who played Stringer Bell, the mesmeric, malevolent drug lord in the super­lative television police series The Wire.

Appearances can be deceptive. Ask America, where, until Elba’s BBC detective drama, Luther, began to be shown, there was frequent confusion on talk shows over his cockney tones, the locals having assumed him to be one of their own. Dressed in jeans, Nikes, a D&G flat cap and a bluey-white T-shirt that looks suspiciously as if it has been chucked in the wrong laundry pile, he’s a long way, too, from the suits — the sharp ones of Stringer or the ­crumpled ones of poor John Luther, he of the perennial hangdog expression, by comparison with whom Elba seems exceedingly perky.

He springs over, pumping my hand. “Wanna drink?” he chirrups, having already performed sterling work on an industrial-size G&T. On a scorcher of an afternoon, we have a panoramic vista across the LA basin, humps of the Hollywood Hills to the left, all the way to the ­skyscrapers downtown. Though his name may not be household — “There was a trend in the reviews where it went from ‘little-known British actor’ to ‘formerly known as Stringer Bell’, then to ‘Elba’,” he jokes — this year could change all that.

Exhibit A comes in the shape of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s hotly anticipated prequel to the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien. Elba plays Janek, a spaceship skipper, blasting off into the void in search of the key to life on earth. The marketers are in hyperdrive back home, I say: the trailer premiere during Homeland; the live Twitter responses; blah, blah, blah. And there’s the rub. For the intrigue of the promotional campaign, viral ads and all, lies in titillation, not revelation.

“The great thing is, it doesn’t spoil the surprise. In our culture, everything is wanted now, now, now,” he says, suggesting that, in story terms, you take your hints from the Greek myth — Prometheus was the Titan who filched fire from Zeus and gave it to man. “Of course, the Alien films are embedded in us, but I wasn’t fanatical,” he adds. “It was that Ridley’s a great film-maker. He said, ‘Hey, I’m doing another instalment. Would you like to be in it?’ I said yes without even reading the script.”

In space, they say, no one can hear you scream. Or the smoke alarms going off, apparently. Janek, an employee of the technology giant Weyland Corp — “very much a working man, a sea merchant, if you like. Ridley told me to read Moby-Dick to understand him” — chomps heroically on a stogy throughout. It recalls an amusing detail in the original, where the astronauts, released from their pods after years in suspended animation, reach immediately for their cigarettes.

Elba has worked with Scott before, on the film­ ­American Gangster. He likes the way the British director does things — CGI to the minimum, the more “real” stage sets the better, lots of tricks to get the cast playing off each other. “There are mind games going on.”

He’s quite tactile, Elba, touching your arm to emphasise a point. (When we part, I get a man hug.) He has been in the States, what, 10 years? “Bit longer, coming up for 15.” In the wake of Luther, shooting Prometheus at ­Pinewood afforded him another chunk of time on home turf. “I use it as an excuse to live in parts of London I haven’t lived in. I found a beautiful house in Richmond. Mick Jagger lived up the street. I’m an east London boy, and east London boys don’t move to Richmond.”

Born to immigrant parents from Sierra Leone (father) and Ghana (mother), Idrissa Akuna Elba is a card-­carrying East Ender — “Hackney, then Canning Town, then East Ham.” Where he came from, a career in acting was not high on anyone’s agenda. As a kid, he says, he got hooked on Saturday cinema matinées. Later, a school visit by Paul Barber — Horse from The Full Monty — convinced him thesping could be pursued professionally. “All the boys thought it was a bit nancy doing drama. It was, ‘You’re going to college to do what? Scene painting, dancing? Wait, what-what-what? Dancing?’”

Yet he had always been a performer. When his DJ uncle got drunk at weddings, the 14-year-old would take over. Elba still works the decks, under the handle 7Wallace. He has rapped with Jay-Z  and hangs with his new showbiz chum P Diddy. Three years ago, he cemented himself in the bling firmament by starring opposite Beyoncé in the popcorn bunny-boiler Obsessed (Elba in yet more bespoke cloth, Beyoncé catfighting in her pants).

He toured with the National Youth Music Theatre, did ­jobbing work in Crimewatch reconstructions, juggling it with the night shift at Ford Dagenham before full-time exposure on the soap Family Affairs.

Already up against the classical actor Adrian Lester for parts, however (“I thought, ‘I can’t be in the same room as him.’ He was a god”), he did something highly ambitious. “I figured to myself, ‘There’s that glass ceiling. Smash!’” So he moved to New York with his wife, selling the house to “live our dream”.

Already up against the classical actor Adrian Lester for parts, however (“I thought, ‘I can’t be in the same room as him.’ He was a god”), he did something highly ambitious. “I figured to myself, ‘There’s that glass ceiling. Smash!’” So he moved to New York with his wife, selling the house to “live our dream”.

The marriage didn’t last. (Elba lives in Atlanta to be near his daughter.) The job market, too, was tough. “My accent was horrible. I was in a pool of actors — Omar Epps, Mekhi Phifer, Taye Diggs — and I was never gonna get jobs against these guys.” He reverted to being a club DJ, commuting back to Britain for the odd acting gig. One show, Ultraviolet, was picked up in America. It was followed by Elba’s acclaimed turn as Achilles in Peter Hall’s off-Broadway Troilus and Cressida, which led to a part in the television series Law & Order. That put him in the frame for a gritty new HBO cop series set in Baltimore.

When Elba auditioned for The Wire, he concealed his British origins. “Even though Dominic West was in it, with the Baltimore street characters, [the creator] David Simon was, like, ‘I don’t want anyone that is fake.’” The bluff worked, and Russell “Stringer” Bell was his. The rest, as they say, is history.
Much ink has been used extolling The Wire’s virtues, more recently in Britain, where it wasn’t broadcast in earnest until 2009. For Elba, it’s old news. He has barely watched an episode of the three series he graced (“I’m a horrible critic”), though he acknowledges the show’s impact, with its morally complex drug dealers and the brooding Stringer merchandising his product in line with orthodox economic theory. Stringer cast a long shadow. “It’s some big shoes to fill once you’ve done something as magnificent as that, as well written and so culturally on point.” Later, Elba got involved in London anti-gang initiatives. “I just felt a sense of responsibility, because Stringer Bell was so glorified, and the glorification is dangerous.” Careerwise, he was stereotyped, not least with the thematically similar American Gangster.

No surprise, then, that the projects that have followed have been deliberately diverse — comedy (he has had recurring roles in the American version of The Office and The Big C), some Andy McNab-ishness (Legacy: Black Ops) and what they call in America, employing a clumsy demographic euphemism, “urban” films, most notably Daddy’s Little Girls.

It’s tiresome to bring up, but in several interviews, Elba is reported to have griped about the limitations for black actors in Britain. Not so, he says, bemoaning the repeated regurgitation of this non-remark. He does some arm-touching again. “My audience, you know, we’ve just evolved. We’re not seeing in black and white in the same way as we did before, and that’s worldwide, interestingly enough.”
If anything exemplifies this, it’s Luther. “I love Luther,” he trills. So does the BBC. So do the Americans. In ­January, they gave him a Golden Globe for it. Luther’s director, Sam Miller, is helming Elba’s current film, and there has been talk of a big-screen version of the London cop. “It’s on the cards, yeah,” he says. What is certain is that Elba will begin shooting a third series of Luther in London in September, his only complaint being the insistence on doing it over the winter — necessary for all those moody, drab exteriors.

“Warren Brown, who plays Ripley, a good friend of mine — there’s about 15 scenes where he and I have bloodshot eyes. After work, we’d go out and get a proper drink, because we knew we had to do the cold in the morning, and we’d wake up with horrible hangovers.”

There are other things in the works: another sci-fi extravaganza, Pacific Rim, for Guillermo del Toro, and a return to his role as Heimdall in Thor 2. There are smaller projects, too, including Swift, about a street kid turned star athlete, made by Elba’s production ­company, Green Door, which he didn’t realise was also the name of a notorious porn film, but now finds amusing. All thoughts, however, will soon be turning to Nelson Mandela, for Elba has just been cast as the former South African president in the film version of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which covers the 27 years of his incarceration.

The pressure is enormous, he concedes: “Absolutely. More than any other role. One, because Mandela’s very old. More so because the family have chosen me. It goes without saying he is an adored human being. He’s a saint. I won’t lie to you — I can’t put into words how fortunate I feel as an actor.”

Elba clearly feels a connection with Africa. He has appeared in Sometimes in April, about the Rwandan genocide, and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, shot in Botswana. “I grew up in a household that taught me everything I wanted to know about Congolese music, about Ghanaian food, about Sierra Leonean tribesmen, about Ethiopia. My dad has a wealth of knowledge about Africa, is so proud of Africa, and Mandela is very much part of that pride.”

He’s in demand, is Elba. A feature of our conversation is its interruptions by glad-handers — the director Antoine Fuqua; the actor Gerard Butler, with whom Elba swaps stories about fluffing sitters in charity football matches, and how Elba (an Arsenal fan) was coached in his most recent celebrity hoofing by none other than Harry Redknapp. Afterwards, downstairs, while Elba waits for a limo, his girlfriend, Melissa, on his arm, the producer/director Jon Favreau shuffles over to press the flesh.
There’s a big birthday coming up. “Four-zero,” Elba says. He quotes his father (channelling Edward Young): “A fool at 40 is a fool for life.” He’s been getting himself together, he says. “Taking huge strides to be a better man. As I approach 40, I’m at the pinnacle of my career.” Half-time in the game of life, I say; munching on the oranges.

“And, right now, I’m hopefully not getting a bollocking in the dressing room,” he chuckles. “I’m getting, ‘You’re doing well, son, keep it up.’”  
Prometheus opens on Friday.

Jeff Dawson travelled to LA as a guest of 20th Century Fox

Tony Iommi

Rock on Iommi
Losing his fingers didn’t stop Tony Iommi, and now he has reunited Black Sabbath and brought out a book. Meet a rock legend
Jeff Dawson Published: 27 November 2011 (Sunday Times)

You could say that heavy metal was an industrial accident. It was on a slack Friday afternoon in 1965 that Tony Iommi, a welder by trade, was reassigned to operate the sheet-metal press at a Birmingham foundry. “They said, ‘You push that through here, you put your foot on it there,’” he says, describing the guillotine contraption that slammed the steel under thousands of pounds of pressure — a machine he had never operated before.

Like an episode of Casualty where they tee up an impending mishap, you just know where it’s all heading. Cue a momentary lapse in attention and the press coming down on Iommi’s right hand, trapping the middle two fingers down to the top joint.
He mimes the instinctive reaction to yank your hand away. “And, as I pulled my hand back, I pulled the ends off.” He was reacquainted with his fingertips at the hospital later, stuffed by a colleague into a matchbox, but by then they’d turned black, beyond hope of a happy reattachment.
“I was in shock. Terrified. All my world just collapsed.”
In what seems the cruellest of ironies, it had been the then 17-year-old’s final shift. He had jacked in the day job to become a professional guitarist, set to tour Europe with a pop combo, the Birds & the Bees. Worse, he was left-handed — it was his fret fingers that had been mangled.
In pre-litigious times, his boss popped round with his compensation package: a Django Reinhardt EP. The jazz guitarist had been similarly handicapped. Look on the bright side, son.
Inspired, Iommi melted a Fairy liquid bottle, took a soldering iron and fashioned a pair of “thimbles” that he fixed to his vestigial digits with superglue and gaffer tape, coating them, for purchase, with leather cut from an old jacket.
It was, he says, “a bit of a Heath Robinson job — but it worked”.
Playing was painful, and still can be, with the skin liable to split open. But Iommi’s loss was hard rock’s gain. To ease the strain, he slackened his strings, tuning down three semitones. He kept his strumming to a deep, riff-driven chug. Inadvertently, he created a brand-new sound.
It’s a signature we are set to hear once more. A few days back, Sabbath announced that their original line-up — Iommi, the vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, the drummer Bill Ward and the splendidly named Geezer Butler on bass — are about to record again, 43 years and 70m album sales after the band’s formation. Next summer, they will play the metal mecca that is Donnington. Iommi also has an autobiography out — Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath — spanning six decades in the music business. “People ask, ‘You must have had some times?’ And we did have some good times. They’d say, ‘Why haven’t you done a book?’ So I just did.”
He’s an affable bloke, is the Black Sabbath axeman: a laconic Brummie, solid, down to earth and with an accent you can cut with a knife. But let there be no doubt that this gentleman is a rock god, a man whose palette runs the full Henry Ford — any colour you like, as long as it’s black: jeans, bomber jacket, his trademark Gibson SG guitar propped against the wall of the hotel room. Iommi’s glasses are tinted. So, one might venture, are his hair and goatee. Around his neck hangs the huge gold crucifix he has worn for 40 years. “It’s just something you do, like putting your watch on — put your cross on,” he says.
People ask, ‘You must have had some times?’ They’d say, ‘Why haven’t you done a book?’ So I just did
One thing you can say about Sabbath: they were never fashionable. Yet, after the paisley whirl of the late 1960s, the nihilistic grind of working-class West Midlanders seemed perfectly in sync with a Britain riddled with unemployment, strikes and casual violence. “Where we came from was what we wrote about. It was bleak and grim.”
Osbourne’s reinvention as a television personality may have exposed the band to a new audience, but a feeling persists that Iommi has never received the public recognition he deserves, never being put on a level with vir­tuosos like Hendrix and Clapton, or an iconic licksmith such as Jimmy Page.
“Well, with the type of music we did, it wasn’t mainstream,” he shrugs. “We weren’t a pop band. Paranoid was the closest we came to it. Doing Top of the Pops, for us, was a kiss of death.” Yet Brian May, Eddie Van Halen and Dave Grohl rate him as one of the most influential rock guitarists of all time, rappers sample his riffs and he’s a constant poll-topper among the cognoscenti.
Iommi tells the story of 2002’s Party at the Palace concert, after which he strolled into the Buckingham Palace reception to be accosted with a yelp of “Tony! Tony!”, and a frothing Anthony Blair, prime minister and amateur twanger, all over him like an excitable puppy. “He said, ‘I’m a big fan, I’ve got the albums.’ He told me how he played Iron Man.”
The memoir runs from the pub’n’club days through to Sabbath’s later lapses into self-parody, playing to enormo-domes full of college youths flashing devil signs, and with a revolving door of band personnel (26 at the last count). So confused did their roadies become, when one briefly associated singer, Tony Martin, stage-dived into the crowd, they refused to let him back on, assuming him to be a fan trying to rush the band.
Iommi has flown in Elvis’s jet, and been jailed, mortar-bombed and involved in intra-band punch-ups that make the Gallaghers look like Jedward. Moreover, he has been the continuum throughout, the only ever-present Black Sabbath member. The catalogue of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll can make for uncomfortable reading at times. On tour in America, fearing that a groupie had died on them, Iommi and the band’s manager, Patrick Meehan, had gone to throw her from the hotel balcony. The fortunate young woman came round just as they were heaving her over. Iommi shakes his head — “That was awful, awful.”
Mercifully, most of the stuff is funny. And if some of it sounds very Spinal Tap — like the commissioning of an oversized Stonehenge stage prop based on a misinterpretation of the dimensions scrawled by Butler — that’s because Tap drew heavily on Sabbath. Like Tap, Sabbath had their own dancing dwarf. There was the incident, too, where the band, in full rock rig, were booked to play a dinner/dance for couples in black tie and ballgowns. They even had a line in combustible drummers — Bill Ward was hospitalised with third-degree burns after Iommi poured cleaning fluid over him and set him on fire. (“I’m surprised he’s still alive. I mean, it’s horrible to say that.”) Cozy Powell, who featured in a later band assembly, expired in a car crash while talking on his mobile (famous last words: “Oh shit”).
Born into a family of Italian immigrants who ran an ice-cream shop, Iommi nearly wasn’t part of the success story at all. Though he had founded a band in 1968 with Ozzy and Geezer, he left soon after to join Jethro Tull, appearing in the film Rock and Roll Circus with the Rolling Stones and John Lennon. Uncomfortable among the London glitterati, he returned home, shaping the erstwhile Polka Tulk Blues Band into Earth, then something more distinct, taking a new name, Black Sabbath, from a Boris Karloff movie. Righteous Bible-thumpers have been protesting outside gigs ever since.
Clearly someone has been watching over Iommi, though. He has outlived a number of his contemporaries, not least John Bonham, the fabled Led Zep skin-smasher and best man at the first of Iommi’s four weddings. Yet, after cranking out an album a year for eight years, combined with constant touring, even the iron-constituted “Sabbs” were heading for a crash, snowed under in an avalanche of cocaine. “Yes, we got through loads of it. As soon as it was mentioned that we were going to LA, it was, ‘Oh, good [he rubs his hands together]. What? We’ve got some gigs as well?’ But we were really young, and you experienced whatever you could.”
Osbourne cracked first, in 1979. After Ozzy had been given the heave-ho, there was no question of disbanding, Iommi says. “You work in a factory, when someone leaves, you don’t close it down, you carry on.” Enter Ronnie James Dio for Sabbath Mark Two. The original Sabbath did reunite for 1985’s Live Aid, and toured again in 1998, winning a Grammy for their live album, Reunion.
The recent settling of a lawsuit in which Iommi and Osbourne had wrangled over the use of the band’s name had suggested that a comeback might be on the cards. (Iommi’s last line-up had been performing as Heaven & Hell until Dio’s death from cancer last year). “We talked a lot and had met up. We had a bash and, yeah, it was good to play some of the songs.”
He doesn’t rate a lot of the nu-metal plank-spankers. “You go back to the old players, Pagey and Ritchie Blackmore and Brian [May] and myself, and you can tell who’s who.” He’d rather listen to Sinatra or, as ever, Django.
Iommi still can’t pick up a guitar and play spontaneously, not without his thimbles. It has caused him embarrassment in guitar shops, he says. The leather jacket he still uses to patch them is down to a few square inches — “I’ve got that much left” — a measure of his longevity. These days, though, he no longer moulds his own. He has an arrangement with a hospital that sends him rejected prosthetic arms. He snips off the fingertips and discards the rest. It has, he says, alarmed a few bin men.
Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath is published by Simon & Schuster at £19.99

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Chris Hemsworth

It's time to play up his serious side

Superhero roles have made Chris Hemsworth hot property in Hollywood. Now he’d like to start acting
Action hero: Chris Hemsworth on his latest role in a mega blockbuster (Sunday Times, May 20, 2012)

Pacific breakers crash. Wetsuited surfers glide. When Chris Hemsworth bounds along the bluffs of Malibu — flaxen mane, tan, ripped torso and enthusiastic back slap — all that’s missing is a bottle of Old Spice. As it turns out, the chipper Australian is no slouch in the surfboard department (the California curls are not up to much, he asides, compared with the stuff back home). With his slashed-open linen shirt, eyelashes so dark they look like he’s been snaffling the testers in Boots, he seems the epitome of leonine hunk. But in the film business, all is not always what it seems. Take our venue, a faux chateau rented out by some billionaire for such occasions, upon whose terrace assistants fawn. “When I first got to LA, I had a gung-ho attitude. I got a couple of films, I thought, ‘Great, I’m off’ — then I didn’t work for a year,” Hemsworth says. “I’d run out of money and was becoming bitter. I was about to give up.” Hollywood only loves you when you’re hot.
At this moment, there is no screen actor more microwave-pinging than the genial 28-year-old. At 6ft 3in, and possessing the deepest lady-shaking boom of a voice since Teddy Pendergrass, he rocks back on his chair at the huge oak dining table and looks out of the picture window commanding spectacular views out to Catalina Island.
Hemsworth’s mischievous horror film The Cabin in the Woods has earned him new fans around the world recently. More impressively, he’s reprising his role as the tooled-up Norse deity Thor in the superhero romp Avengers Assemble, which has been busting box-office records, passing the $1 billion mark in worldwide returns during its third week on release. Now here comes Snow White and the Huntsman, a swashbuckling inter­pretation of the fairy tale, tipped to be one of the biggest movies of the summer.
“My initial reaction was, ‘I don’t want to do another fantastical film with a weapon that’s not too far from a hammer,’ ” Hemsworth quips (it’s an axe this time). “I then had a meeting with [the director] Rupert Sanders — and just kind of fell in love with what he had in mind. The idea was to make it different, much dirtier, rougher.” Sanders has steered the tale, long since whitewashed by the hi-hoing of Disney, towards its origins. It was first published in 1812, Grimm by name and nature. And what better statement of darkness than to cast Kristen Stewart from Twilight, high priestess of glum, as the film’s titular dwarf-fraterniser? Charlize Theron as the evil queen and the up-and-coming British actor Sam Claflin as Prince William (a different one) round out the leads, with digitally shrunk versions of Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and Ray Winstone in the heptarchy of mini-miners. And to avoid the movie sounding like something from the adult section, the “woodsman” — as it is sometimes translated from the German — has become a “huntsman” (Eric, to you and me).
Should you require further proof of Hemsworth’s status, bear in mind the actors he beat to this role: Viggo Mortensen, Hugh Jackman and Michael Fassbender, with Johnny Depp also mentioned. He laughs when I raise this. “I don’t know whether they were asked to do it and didn’t want to, and I was the only one,” he shrugs, a tad embarrassed. You might call it the passing of the flame. The film follows another version of the same fairy story, the Julia Roberts film Mirror, Mirror. “When it first came up that there was another Snow White movie, my initial reaction was ‘Oh shit’. Pretty soon I realised theirs is in the realm of a comedy, this is on a much more epic scale. It’s The Lord of the Rings, the feel.” It certainly looks the part, having been shot at Pinewood, in the misty forests of the Lake District and on the windswept sands of Pembrokeshire. Eric comes across as a sort of gunslinger, “a western reluctant hero”, whom we first meet in a drunken street brawl. (The film is co-written by the Clint Eastwood collaborator John Lee Hancock.)
It can’t escape notice that Hemsworth plays him with a Scottish accent. Antipodean gentlemen doing dialects in medieval romps can go either way — Mel Gibson or, you know, Russell Crowe (whose Maximus you can hear in Hemsworth’s Thor voice). “The idea was to separate Eric from the queen, Snow White and the prince, who were all doing RP,” Hemsworth explains. “We wanted to feel like he was a man of the forest and the earth.” In the Brothers Grimm version, the Huntsman has to bring back Snow White’s heart and lungs as evidence of her execution. And when it comes to chopping out offal, you imagine Hemsworth would be your man. He and his two brothers grew up on a remote cattle station at Bulman, an aborig­inal community in the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory. “My dad and my uncle were mustering cattle. We, as kids, were just bouncing around with them. It was amazing. They were my earliest memories — what a great introduction to life. There are crocodiles, buffalo walking down the street. You didn’t own a pair of shoes. It’s too hot. Your feet become like leather. We were the only white kids at this little school of 40 kids. It was a beautiful thing and a privilege. It is a special part of the world.”
The family (his mother is a teacher) later relocated to their native Victoria; Hemsworth spent his teen years on the surfing mecca of Phillip Island. Stuck for an idea as to what to do after school, he tore a leaf out of his older brother Luke’s book and tried his hand at acting. “I thought, this could be good: I love movies, I love storytelling. I can pretend to do all those things I wanted to do.” He was soon followed by his little brother, Liam, who has also established a screen career (he appears in the thematically similar The Hunger Games, as another huntsman, Gale) and was last seen squiring Miley Cyrus. Hemsworth got a stroll-on part in Luke’s regular gig, Neighbours. “The local mechanic shop had been robbed. I walked in and said, ‘What’s going on? Did you call the police?’ ” It led to a three-year stint in the other branch of the Australian thespian academy, Home and Away, as the resident ab-cruncher Kim Hyde.
Among a host of film actors who began by sashaying around Summer Bay and made it in America (Hemsworth has been in LA for six years), the name Heath Ledger leaps out. Hemsworth resembles him. “He was probably the biggest inspiration for me,” he concedes. “Just a few years older. It was a similar sort of path.” Hemsworth did return home to demonstrate his populist credentials in the Aussie version of Strictly Come Dancing — to quash any notion of him “becoming pretentious and wanky” — but his American film career kicked off with a pair of low-budget crime flicks, A Perfect Getaway and Ca$h, released over 2009-10. Then, as he says, it all dried up.
Ultimately, that proved to be a blessing. “When you just stop caring, the auditions start to loosen up a lot. It was just go and have fun.” Having failed to land the part of Thor, his brother Liam, who had gone further down the selection process, gave him a heads-up on what its director, Kenneth Branagh, was really looking for with the character. The newly loosened-up Hemsworth took note, and a gamble, by resubmitting a videoed audition in which his visiting mum was reading back Anthony Hopkins’s lines. The tape arrived just as J J Abrams’s Star Trek opened, in which Hemsworth had bagged a small but crucial part as Captain Kirk’s father. Branagh liked what he saw. “Look, luck is probably a bigger piece of the puzzle than anything else,” he says. “It’s ‘right place, right time’.” So Hemsworth became an Immortal, a very tongue-in-cheek one.
He fiddles with his trendy thumb ring and fashionably clunky watch, a gift from his Spanish actress wife, Elsa Pataky, with whom he has just had his first child, a girl. It’s clear that what he really wants to do is act, though first we have to watch him in the popcorn fodder of Red Dawn, a remake of the 1980s commie-scare picture, which, like The Cabin in the Woods, was actually shot more than three years ago. “I’ll be like Benjamin Button this year, getting younger,” he says.
The big test will be the film he’s currently working on, Rush, directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan, a biopic of the British racing driver James Hunt, a part for which Hemsworth lobbied hard and has had to lose weight: lots of running and “no beer”. The rakish, gangling “Hunt the Shunt” (the polite version of his nickname) remains one of the great enigmas of British sport — dying prematurely after a turbulent playboy existence, the conquests, in and out of the cockpit, conducted in a fug of drink, drugs and depression. “He had a woman’s push-bike, which he’d ride to work for commentating in the last few years,” Hemsworth says. “He’s kind of fascinating, quite contradictory. On the one hand there’s this arrogant, brash, hot-tempered person, but there was a gentle side to him. Barefoot and shirt off, that was kind of how he was the whole time. He considered himself a hippie.” Hunt’s greatest moment, the 1976 Formula One cham­pionship, is often regarded as a case of victory by default, given the horrific accident that nobbled his rival, Nikki Lauda, and scarred him for life. “But he still beat everyone else on that course over that year,” Hemsworth says.
The documentary Senna has upped the ante in terms of how motorsport can be portrayed, and Howard and co know it. “I don’t think in previous driving films you ever felt the risk. Or felt you were in that seat going ‘Holy shit’. Ron’s focus is to make it that way.” And the best part? “I’m not swinging any hammers or axes or weapons.”

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Moneyball and Football

Piece I wrote for the late lamented Word Magazine, December 2011 issue (with sidebar)...

Game Changing

Here’s a little-known sporting fact. On the eve of the 1966 World Cup Final, Alf Ramsey had considered dropping Bobby Moore — or so claimed George Cohen, having eavesdropped on a conversation between Alf and his trainer. 

Moore was the captain; a national hero; he was the tournament’s star defender. It cut no ice with Alf. The West German forwards were nippy. The quicker Norman Hunter might cope better.

For Ramsey, victory meant ruthlessness. He had already discarded Jimmy Greaves. Remote and aloof but always pragmatic, his philosophy was simple. There was no room for sentiment in sport. Not if you wanted to win.

In summer 2002, in the packed clubhouse of the Oakland Coliseum, home of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, sat a kindred spirit to Sir Alf. As he listened to his scouts on Draft day — baseball’s annual equivalent of the transfer deadline, in which the clubs traded players or picked college hopefuls — Billy Beane was a tightly-wound coil of frustration.

A former prodigy, one whose promise had fizzled out, the 40-year-old general manager was a cynic. The meeting represented no thrill of possibility, merely an act of confirmation — of a multi-billion dollar business, entirely beholden to sugar-daddy CEOs who, illogically, entrusted the acquisition of their key assets, the players, to a misguided tier of middle-management.

The evidence was there before him, the blowhards scratching their bellies and chewing their tobacco, each enthusing about some kid with “the tools”, who had “wheels” (could run) or a “hose” (a strong arm) or, astoundingly, just looked the part — who had “the Good Face.”

At Beane’s side was a Harvard graduate with a laptop. Paul DePodesta had never played the game, invoking immediate suspicion, but had proven himself as a statistician in the application of a new analytical system called Sabermetrics. 

Sabermetrics — from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research — enabled an empirical evaluation of a player’s performance beyond the traditional tallies of “home runs” and “stolen bases”, stats that had little relevance regarding overall team play — methods of calibration, moreover, that had been formulated before the Civil War.

To Beane it was crystal clear. The Athletics — the “A”s — operated on a fraction of the budget of big-spenders like the New York Yankees. To compete, they couldn’t live on dreams. They would have to “exploit the inefficiencies of the market”. To “count cards at the casino.”

The coaches were resistant but Beane played hardball. Out went stars who could command a decent price, in came unknowns and has-beens but whose “on base percentage” (DePodesta’s sacred denominator), would yield a whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

The upshot was a fairytale. The second worst team in baseball stormed to the top of their division. By season’s end, the “A”s had broken baseball’s all-time record with a twenty-game winning streak.

Michael Lewis 2003 non-fiction book about it — Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game — became a national bestseller. The former bond trader had coined a phrase that is now common currency across the Pond and is proliferating here. With the advent of the film, starring Brad Pitt as Beane and Jonah Hill as DePodesta (in the movie, “Peter Brand”), prepare to hear “Moneyball” even more.

Inevitably the film has tweaked things. The “A”s aren’t quite the Bad News Bears portrayed. They had gone to the World Series three years on the bounce from 1988-90. But the movie, directed by Bennett Miller, has been a hit in the States, suggesting an Oscar nomination for co-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin who, as he did with The Social Network, conspired in the filming of the unfilmable.

What the movie can’t show — unlike the book — is the real star, Bill James, the man who invented Sabermetrics. In 1977, the amateur statistician had produced a photocopied pamphlet, Baseball Abstract — “the search for objective knowledge about baseball” — which sold just 75 copies. In 1999, Stats Inc., the data corporation built on James’ obsession, was sold for $45m.

Amusingly, James blames baseball’s skewed thinking on a visiting English journalist named Henry Chadwick. In 1859, Chadwick had drawn up the blueprint for player assessment employing the principles of cricket. And thus followed a century and a half of misinformation. 

Despite common origins, Sabermetrics doesn’t apply too handily to our own summer pastime. The IPL notwithstanding, cricket has simply not been subject to the vagaries of the free market. Baseball and football, however — both with long traditions, both run on the same irrational business model — have an awful lot in common. 

In 2010, football writer Simon Kuper and statistician Stefan Szymanski attempted a ‘football Moneyball” with their book, Soccernomics (retitled for the domestic market, Why England Lose). 

While they found a similarly and nonsensically cavalier attitude to the transfer market, they also confirmed one inconvenient truth about top-flight soccer in England — the deeper the owner’s pockets, the more likely a club was to succeed. 

Indeed, their study of Premier League football over the ten year period from 1998-2007, showed that a side’s finishing place in the table correlated almost exactly[ital] to the size of its wage bill (not its transfer fees). The bigger wage bill, the better the players. And it is the quality of the players, more than anything — not the coach, not the tactics — that will always be the barometers of success.

Of course there had[ital] been individuals to buck the trend — most notably, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, who had made Derby County then Nottingham Forest punch way above their weight in the 1970s. But, Kuper expands, for the majority of teams, a manager has no impact whatsoever on a club’s long term trajectory. He is simply “the ex-pro seen as good person to present to the fans and the media, hired because of what they look like — good-looking, quite masculine, conservative.” And who, to boot, is rarely in the post for more than three years.

“Only about 10% managers add value to their teams,” he says. And some more surprisingly than others. “We did an estimate of which managers add most value over and above the players’ wage bill and Tony Pulis (manager of Stoke) has consistently done so. Pulis is right up there with Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson.”

Though if you’re looking for the domestic equivalent of a Billy Beane, our most hardened moneyballer, without question, is Sam Allardyce, currently manager of West Ham and whose prior record with over-achieving Bolton Wanderers is now looking sorely underappreciated.

It’s no coincidence that Allardyce had spent time in the US, where this unlikely student of sports science, a pioneer of the computer evaluation system ProZone, learnt to model the humble Trotters exactly along the lines of an American outfit.

Interestingly, in an assessment of attacking midfielders (“passes completed in the final third”), Allardyce regular, Kevin Nolan, can be ranked alongside Xavi and Steven Gerrard. Though, like “Big Sam”, he just isn’t popularly recognised — he doesn’t have “the Good Face.”

Sports science has improved vastly in the last ten years and football has embraced it. But the skill lies not in amassing the data but in interpreting it. “You have all the numbers,” says Kuper. “But the problem for most teams now is what do they all mean?”

In one notable incident, Alex Ferguson, momentarily enthused with the new possibilities of stat-gathering, sold defender Jaap Stam to Lazio in 2001, not because of comments in Stam’s autobiography, but rather due to the Old Trafford number-crunchers identifying a marked decline in Staam’s tackling ratio. At 29, he was ripe for moving on.

“Now we know that tackles are not a good gauge of a defender,” says Kuper. “Paolo Maldini never made a tackle in his life.” Staam had simply improved his positioning, affording him an extended swansong in Italy. Ferguson, unusually, admitted it a "mistake."

Billy Beane, it turns out, has been a fanatical convert to Premier League football. And his idol? Arsene Wenger (a man with a Masters in Economics) — because of “his ability to spend money and extract value” from players, or so declares the Gunners’ new owner Stan Kroenke.

Kroenke is one of several American sporting magnates who has landed on our shores — along with the Glazers at Manchester United, Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, and, significantly, John Henry who, a year ago, bought Liverpool.

Henry also owns the Boston Red Sox. And it was Henry, so impressed with Oakland’s rise, who decided to moneyball his own team in an attempt to end a ninety-year absence from the summit of the MLB. In a scene in the film, Henry is shown trying to recruit Billy Beane, something that almost happened were it not for a last-minute change of heart on Beane’s part.

Henry, instead, hired good old Bill James as a senior adviser. In the ultimate revenge of the nerd fantasy, James is believed to have been influential in rostering up the Red Sox team that bagged World Series triumphs in 2004 and 2007. (Although a reversion to profligacy, coupled with poor performances, has since made the Red Sox a bit of a joke).

The more cash you have to play with, the less your need for recourse to the stats, seems to be the conclusion, which is why Manchester City, though newly state-of-the-art in the data department, will probably continue to measure talent — even ostracised shorties like Carlos Tevez — in bundles of fivers.

At Liverpool, Henry’s first order of business was to bring in, as his director of football, the Frenchman, Damien Comolli an avowed moneyballer, both a friend and disciple of Beane — the idea to restore a rational, stable economic transfer policy.

His first purchase? Andy Carroll from Newcastle for £35m…


Sport is a notoriously poor translator to the movies. How can a piece of scripted drama, made years after the fact, possibly match the live spontaneous theatre of the real thing?  

Team sports, especially, tend to look rather ludicrous when the action is choreographed. “John Colby, West Ham United and England,” says Michael Caine in Escape To Victory. Not unless there’s a minimum weight restriction.

The best sporting flicks — like Chariots Of Fire, Seabiscuit or The Damned United — tend to concern human drama, events on the field a backdrop.

There are two notable exceptions — films about baseball and boxing. One because they tend to made with the muscle of Hollywood behind them. And secondly, as individual sports — or in baseball’s case, a team sport full of static, individual moments — it does not take too much of a stretch to accept Kevin Costner, Robert Radford, even Madonna, as a plausible ball player.

Plus, with the National League founded in 1876, baseball — unlike basketball or American football, which only came into their present incarnations relatively recently — has a wealth of history, tradition and a whole mythology to draw on. As somebody once said, “Baseball is America.”

Pride Of The Yankees (1942)
Lou Gehrig was the star second baseman of the New York Yankees, till stricken with the motor-neurone disease that nowadays bears his name. Released a year after Gehrig’s death, at the age of 37, the film has one of cinema’s all-time tearjerker finales as Gehirg (Gary Cooper) bids farewell to the crowd from the middle of the diamond. He didn’t get “a bad break,” he tells them. “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Bull Durham (1988)
Ron Shelton’s film is an affectionate stroll down a well-worn path — the old dog teaching the new dog its tricks, in this case veteran catcher “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner) and rookie pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). The addition of groupie Annie (Susan Sarandon), in heat for both of them, has made for a consistently favourite pick among all-time great sports flicks.

Eight Men Out (1988)
Indie filmmaker John Sayles tells the story of the Chicago White Sox and their infamous throwing of the 1919 World Series. The “Black Sox” scandal is still spoken of in hushed tones, though Sayles sides with the players during the trial, denied by their feudal owner from earning an honest buck. Includes the line issued to star outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson (DB Sweeney) that has gone down in baseball lore — “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

The Natural (1984)
Robert Redford could deflect fast balls with the Colgate whiteness of his smile. Oft-dismissed as a bit of schmaltzy idolatry, the story of the late-comer to the game, who steps out of nowhere to play in the major leagues at 35, has a touching ring of hopefulness about it. “Wonderboy” Redford plays with a bat he made himself from the tree that was struck by lighting and killed his Pa. In the hands of a lesser mortal you’d be killing yourself.

The Odd Couple (1968)
Not a baseball film per se but one that demonstrates its place in American culture. Sportswriter Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) is pulled from the press box at Shea Stadium to take an “urgent” call from prissy flatmate Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon), just as the Mets are about to achieve a sensational victory. Felix warns Oscar not to eat hot dogs because they’re having franks and beans for dinner. “A triple play. The greatest thing I ever saw,” yells his colleague on return. “And you missed it, Oscar. You missed it!”