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Aw c’mon guys, gimme an Oscar

I'm too young to pay tax

I'm too young to pay tax

Is Anybody There? – John Cowley

Is there a nation on earth more contemptuous or contemptible about the old than the British? Politically and socially we under-resource shamefully large numbers of the elderly literally to the point of starvation; or we freeze them to death. Politicians with a toxic self-serving sentimentality exploit them. We ‘vanish’ them: either literally into care home ghettoes or socially into isolating flats or their now decaying houses. We squander their experience, their insight and their wisdom. We dishonour lives which at this point in history looking back, faced death in a World War and the hardship of a bankrupt post-war Britain. Men and women who have faced more profoundly radical change in their work and personal lives than any generation in history, including the present generation, are lectured to and patronised by the snake-oil salesmen of business – gurus – for whom change is merely a product to sell not a reality that has been lived and successfully embraced. Then they are discarded because they are supposedly unable to adapt to change. They have raised families with a tithe of the material security of the present generation and given the frequent fecklessness of their children’s, my, generation many of them have raised a family twice.

As if the old haven’t suffered enough, they now have to be used, patronised and exploited as emotional wallpaper to provide Sir Michael Micklethwaite with a movie vehicle with which to try to massage a lead role Oscar out of Hollywood.

Golden Rule: never, ever trust British critics reviewing likeable British actors or supposedly heart-warming, poignant, touching ‘British’ films. Whether out of genuine but self-defeating desire to promote our financially dependent industry, or some mysterious form of contagious mindstorm, they take their brains out to lunch and don’t come back. Is There Anybody There? Has been described as ‘tender’, ‘sweet-natured’, ‘gentle’, ‘warm-hearted’ and ‘poignant’. Hogwash. (If you want the truth and don’t believe me, check out David Frear – Time Out New York; or Rob Nelson – Variety)

ITAT or as we might say I-TAT, is manipulative, meretricious, irredeemably condescending and emotionally shallow. One half-way decent performance manages to claw its way to the surface to escape burial in cardboard stereotypes and that is by a 13 year-old – Bill Milner from Son Of Rambow.

Alfie Elkins, Harry Palmer, Charlie Croker, Jack Carter, Frank (Dr, Bryant), Ray Say. What’s the difference between these Michael Caine roles and Dr. William Larch and the nominally challenged ‘Elliot’?

Many of you will get the films which illustrates my point. The first six characters above were in: Alfie (’66), The Ipcress File (’65), The Italian Job (’69), Get Carter (’69), Educating Rita (’83), Little Voice (’98).

These six for me at least, are indelibly memorable Caine roles: each in its way good enough for an Oscar. Each was a leading role. In contrast, the last two were in The Cider House Rules and Hannah and Her Sisters and won Caine his two Oscars – both in supporting roles. I can vaguely remember Elliot in Woody Allen’s over-rated chamber comedy of marital infidelity; Dr Larch I can bring to mind as little as my vague memory of the sentimental tosh of the film he was in.

I raise the question because 76 years-old Caine’s portrayal of 83 years old ex-conjuror Clarence in I-TAT has “please give me an Oscar” written all over it. Never a shrinking violet, our sometimes less than lovable Knight has been complaining bitterly about his punitive tax payments and the layabouts who he, judging by his remarks, solely supports in their idle life of luxury on the dole. Between these shaming and shameful observations Sir Michael has been touting himself for an Oscar for I-TAT. Forgive my less than deferent response to a Knight of The Realm but – on yer bike Mike: equally sincerely meant in both contexts.

I won’t get into the political thing lest you conclude my dislike of I-TAT is simple prejudice against Sir Micky, whereas in fact he is pretty peripheral to my contempt for the movie. I will simply express relief that all of Sir Michael’s begrudged money is going to support the undeserving unwashed. That means my meagre taxes can be directed towards helping to educate kids, save lives, keep people healthy, and supporting determined honourable people trying to make ends meet or bringing up a child on their own. There is honour in paying your dues and I’m not talking about Knighthoods. I wonder what real percentage of total income the nouveau pauvre Sir Mick actually pays in tax. Not a lot of people know that. If even now it’s 40% I’ll eat my hat and he can fire his accountants.

Oh no dear reader, this film is bad in so many ways there is no need to resort to prejudice to demonstrate its inadequacies.

Everything in this film is knowing: from conception, screenplay, casting down to Michael Caine’s technically accomplished, emotionally empty performance. The only character in I-TAT who even begins to come to life is Milner’s 10 year old Edward trapped by his unqualified parents’ financial need to turn their house into a care home for the elderly in the ‘there is no such thing as society’ Thatcherite 80s. The rest are cardboard stereotypes, actors and characters alike who John Cowley plonks into scenes and moves about like full-sized Aardman Wallaces but with none of the animation, flair or affection.

Leslie Phillips does Leslie Phillips to evoke the ‘eeeuuw’ factor of the dirty old man; either Thelma Barlow or the late Elizabeth Spriggs to whom the film is dedicated, just sits around watching TV while popping bubble wrap like a semi-comatose Catholic with a plastic rosary; Sylvia Simms is there emoting something old and pathetic, I just can’t remember what; and finally the once menacingly powerful Peter Vaughan’s Bob whose Parkinsonian – James not Michael – tremors are a running gag. No I’m not making this up. This culminates in the movie’s big scene where Bob loses part of his anatomy to give Sir Mike a sight gag and Cowley his moment of PATHOS!

The only thing of any interest about the inmates of Lark Hall for Cowley is that they are old, pathetic, senile, ludicrous and pointless. They have no intelligence, personality, character (sic) or real life. I suppose we should be grateful he spares us the incontinence jokes – solid or liquid. Yet visually his film still seems to reek of stale urine. That is an achievement of sorts I guess.

To this collection of never-was-es, comes has-been travelling magician Clarence billeted to Lark Hall by the council in the time-honoured British tradition for the inconveniently indigent old of finding somewhere to dump them, forget them and house them on the cheap. Clarence is angry – at age, life, people, the world. We know this because with his excellent mastery of technique, Caine semaphores it to us as he is reluctantly drawn in to a kind of friendship with the slightly freaky young Edward. This offers the lad a father-substitute to his own life-worn Dad (David Morrissey) trying to recover his youth by having a crap haircut and hitting on Tanya their dogsbody helper.

Clarence offers Edward a break from lying under the beds with his tape-recorder preserving the sound of dying inmate breaths for posterity. The increasingly forgetful old derelict conjuror and the boy strike up a relationship with a join-up-the-dots predictability. Only Milner’s instinctive presence on camera mitigates Caine’s visible technique to create moments you almost believe in. Through a series of inconsequential events with a few good and many very sticky moments the movie emulates its characters by fading to an unremarked, unremarkable, unlamented end.

If tax over-burdened Sir Michael conjures an Oscar with Clarence I’ll eat my other hat. If you want to see a real film looking with imagination, insight, respect and genuine affection at the poignancy of time and age – a film that actually lives up to the fatuously misplaced claims for I-TAT, then go and see Benjamin Button.

We get most angry not with people we don’t like but with those we do, who let us down. And Sir Michael’s reactionary, self-important political pronouncements do him no credit. As a mere consumer of the Michael Caine public image he has always seemed a likeable down-to-earth-guy with an ‘own-man’ ironic independence and great sense of humour. A televised acting master-class he gave a few years back is one of the best, most insightful things I’ve ever seen about movie acting. Yet, and yet, perhaps with a pre-occupation with the money only we ex-working class lads can muster, he has mugged his way through so many crap films he has had to hold up that he has come to offend the very principles he illustrated in the master-class. His film star screen presence has gradually infected his performances. I-TAT looks like a stage play trying to get out. On stage this performance would work: on film one just wants to scream:

“Less Michael”…… “no less”…..”even less”.
“But I’m not doing anything now.”
“Perfect.”

Come on Mike – you must have one superb movie you can Direct. Don’t let this pap be your legacy: Alfie, Harry, Charlie, Jack, Frank and Ray will never forgive you. And nor will we.

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