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The Strange Things Boutique




Blu-Ray / DVD region 2. Network.

Empire StateThe 1980’s were a bad time for British cinema. With tax breaks and financial inducements closed off by the Thatcher government, the only films being financed were through organisations like the BFI or Film Four, which meant that only a small number of movies ever got made, and they were usually made by the darlings of these media circles rather than anyone with a proven commercial talent (I know, it’s not much different now – but believe me, back then it was much, much worse). This tended to mean that, twee costume dramas from Merchant Ivory aside, most British films were grim-faced polemical tracts that felt like being beaten across the face with a copy of the Socialist Worker for 90 minutes – all very worthy perhaps, but rarely fun to watch.

Empire State, watched now, feels very much like an archetypal British film of the time. Set in an East End that was seeing the old swept away by the new (the Docklands development is under construction during the film), with assorted Cockney wide boys, yuppies, property developers, rent boys and old school gangland villains clashing in a struggle for power, money and status, with the action vaguely centered around (and culminating in) the nightclub of the title, a thoroughly ghastly hellhole packed with dreadful people.

Empire StateAnd that is part of the problem with the film – everyone is horrible. The slimy yuppies with slicked back hair and loud suits, the gay street hustler Lahhhnden boys, the grasping, greedy women and the thuggish gangsters – there is no –one here to relate to. Instead, you get a mix of performances (and accents) that range from the passable to the astonishingly awful – something not helped by dialogue that often feels like a monologue rather than anything someone would ever really say, frequently delivered with all the passion of a station announcement.

Like too many films of the period, this has a grey, flat television play feel – the splashes of colour, glamour and flashy excess seeming just as drab as the derelict buildings. And for the most part, very little actually happens other than a bunch of characters who are too thinly drawn and too unpleasant for you to give a toss about going about their desperate, empty lives to a soundtrack of horrible Eighties pop that feels like having a nail hammered into your ear. There’s an impressively brutal no-holds-barred scrap at the end (all very symbolic) a shoot-out and the chance to see Martin Landau being slapped by a gay prostitute (he likes it rough - "but not too rough"), but that is hardly worth waiting for.

I’d still probably take Empire State over the ‘gangster-by-numbers’ crap that dominated the British film industry in more recent years – at his dullest, director Ron Peck is worth a dozen Nick Loves – but there’s no avoiding the fact that this is a typical product of British cinema’s lowest point.

Network’s release does, however, pull out all the stops. The Blu-Ray / DVD double set offers up a commentary from Peck and co-writer Mark Ayres, screen tests (is that really film critic Steve Thrower being picked up in a nightclub? I believe so!), deleted scenes, audio research interviews and a hilarious segment from Channel 4’s Right to Reply, with irate viewers complaining about the language and violence (both fairly tame by modern TV standards). Slap the DVD into your computer and you’ll find the screenplay, storyboards, press clippings and a lot more. It’s an impressive package that I wish was accompanying a more interesting film.





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