Homecoming Seasons 1 and 2 on Amazon Prime: TV Review.


Watch Homecoming - Season 1 | Prime Video

Prime’s finest moment to date. IMHO.

They’ve taken Gimlet Media’s astounding podcast and adapted not one, but two, TV series from it.

In the first, Julia Roberts not only allegedly bought the rights but assumes the title role of Heidi Bergman, a case worker at a mysterious ‘facility’ in which homecoming American war veterans are treated for PTSD. Why? You’ll have to watch to find out.

I’m no Roberts fan and although her performance is good I’d like to have seen Catherine Keener take her aural role on-screen. Likewise, I think both Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer might have made better jobs of their roles than the TV replacements.

But that’s actually a quibble, because what we get is an excellent rendering of the story with outstanding direction, music and camerawork.

It’s an oddity, especially at its 20 minute length (echoing the podcast).

What the TV does, that adds value, is add the aforementioned production values to the already high quality that Gimlet achieved. The design, overall, is stunning; with a touch of the Kubricks.

But I’m left thinking, good as it is, a little was lost in the translation.

The same cannot be said of Season 2.

It’s now a significant diversion from the podcast.

We meet a new lead in Janelle Monae who plays Jackie (or is it Alex?) an employee of Geist (or is she), the company that administered (shadily) the ‘Homecoming’ initiative in Season 1.

She is almost literally lost at sea as the series opens. We have no idea who she is or how she got there, what’s more, neither does she.

This is a big ask for Monae who takes on her first lead role, to my knowledge, and has to rise to the challenge of carrying the series. I felt she was on the brink of failing the task at a few points, after all she’s a singer not an actor, but at each tipping point she just gets over the bar so that by the end I believe we enjoy a fine performance.

Steven James raises his game as Walter Cruz and his character gets much more rounded, but the real ‘find’ is Chris Cooper as Leonard Geist, the mill owner gone rogue, feeling overwhelmed by his own bastard creation.

Show-stealing, on an epic scale, is the filthy performance of Joan Cusack as (Officer) Bunda.

Season 2 shifts a gear. It’s even darker, it’s less familiar to us ‘Poddies’ and it’s found its TV voice. It just gets better and better.

The circular plot device means that nothing is clear until the very end of the final episode and that’s one of the reasons, the excellent Monae aside, that it makes such gripping viewing.

I loved it. More, more, more. Please.

Dolly Parton’s America: Podcast review.


Dolly Parton's America : NPR

After my last two journeys into the dark side of the human condition this is the flip side.

Dolly Parton, sorry Saint Dolly Parton, is such an American dream and institution that it’s about time a tribute as glorious as this was created, whilst she’s still alive, fighting fit and full of vim and vigour.

This extended interview series with the queen of country charts her life and songbook but places it all in the context of an America that exists around her.

We hear much about American politics, religion and culture and how Dolly and her extensive business empire and philanthropy fits into the broader cultural mix.

It’s delightfully presented by fanboy Jad Abumrad and reported and produced by Shima Oliaee at WNYC Studios and OSM (awesome, get it?) Audio.

It’s a sheer delight from start to finish but touches on the darker side of Dolly’s life: her women’s rights attitude that has been in evidence since her earliest, surprisingly bleak output through to her refusal to air a view on Trump (half my fans are Republicans why would I state an opinion on this?)

I’ll predict now that Dolly WILL come out with a view on Trump, before the election, and it WILL NOT aid his cause. Because Dolly is a Bellwether. Her view can influence American opinion – nothing she says is ill-considered or trivial – apart from maybe her own self-deprecating boob gags.

This is uplifting entertainment with a serious undertow.

I highly recommend losing 8 or more hours in Dolly Parton’s America.

You will thank me.

Dr. Death: Podcast review.


My first Wondery Podcast and an absolute peach.

This six parter tells the true story podcasts

of Dr Christopher Duntsch an American Neurosurgeon who is so incompetent that it’s inconceivable he’d ever get past first year in medical school, never mind freely operate on Spinal chord ailments in Texas, again and again and again, leaving a trail of destruction and, obviously, death behind him.

The story is a whydunnit? Why did he do what he did and more importantly why wasn’t he stopped.

It leaves medical practitionership in the US in an uncomfortable place. Ethics are clearly at a premium as money speaks louder than morality, but what really grips is the descriptions of what he did in horrifying detail.

If it wasn’t true you would think it a tad far fetched. But that’s what makes so many great podcasts so great.

Wind of change: Podcast review.


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Patrick Radden Keefe of the New Yorker wrote and presents the latest odyssey by Pineapple Street , Crooked Media and Spotify. it’s produced by Pineapple Street’s Henry Molofsky and it’s enthralling.

It’s a conspiracy theory story with unexpected depth and more rabbit holes than the disused railway line that sits across from my house.

The idea stems from a rumour that Radden Keefe heard from his friend, Michael, an ex-CIA undercover agent that The Scorpion’s global blockbuster hit, Wind of Change, was, wait for it, written by the CIA.

Follow The Moskwa down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change intones Klaus Meine the frontman of The Scorpions, better known for classics like “Another piece of meat’.

But Meine is not normally the songwriter, those duties are taken by the bands guitarist, so it’s surprising that their biggest hit is from their equivalent of Ringo.  It was huge, I mean mahoosive, all over the Easter Bloc.

It’s a beautiful ballad about change running through post Berlin Wall communist states (but written two months before its fall).

What this leads us on is a journey through CIA intervention in popular culture (Dr Zhivago, Satchmo, Nina Simone, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Argo) and sets up the hypothesis that the song, is, not for the first time, propaganda intended to foment insidious cultural unrest in the Eastern Bloc towards the end of the Cold War.

It brings in drug running and secret plea bargains.

(Even the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles get a namecheck.)

It’s fascinating.

It’s brilliantly scripted, narrated and produced.

It’s bonkers.

But is it true?

You’ll need to tune in to find out.

I’d recommend that you do just that.

 

Homecoming: Podcast review.


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I’m late to this but given that less than 1% of the population probably listen to podcasts I’m betting you are too.

I’m increasingly drawn to the medium of the podcast because they are so absorbing and allow you to do other things while you are listening.

So far this year I have enjoyed:

  • Athletico Mince (for some time now in fact)
  • Desert Island discs (of course – and also for years)
  • Soul Music (from Radio 4)
  • The Media Show (from Radio 4)
  • More or Less (the wonderfully nerdy stats programme from Radio 4)
  • The CoronaCast (from the BBC)
  • Stay Free: The Story of the Clash
  • Slow Burn (the Watergate series – brilliant)
  • Slow Burn (the Lewinski series – Brilliant)
  • Slow Burn (the Tupac series – nah)
  • Thirteen Minutes to the Moon  (Apollo 11)
  • Thirteen Minutes to the Moon (Apollo 13)

But I’m saving the best for last (unless Wind of Change continues as brilliantly as it has started).  That’s the electrifying Homecoming in which Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer set fire to your earphones.

It’s been adapted (unsurprisingly as it is so great) for TV by and starring Julia Roberts in Catherine Keener’s role as a ‘caseworker’ in a mysterious military establishment who looks after ‘homecoming’ ex military who are suffering from PTSD.

But the motives of the mysterious organisation that runs the facility in collaboration with the DoD  (Department of Defence) is, at best, questionable.

So sets in motion a 12 part, 20 minute game of cat and mouse (and dog) that is full of twists and turns and keeps you guessing until the, admittedly slightly disappointing, finale.

To say any more would be to stray into spoiler territory, so just suffice it to say, it’s as good as any movie you will watch this year.

It’s gold.

Love it with your ears, then thank me.

 

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: Book Review.


Everything Is Illuminated - Wikipedia

This is a quite remarkable literary experience.

It’s kind of three books in one that overlap and interlink in ways that are often difficult to grasp and that come together in a strange and inexplicable way.

It does no justice to the novel, written at the turn of the millennium, to try to literally explain it.  Indeed much of its joy is in deciphering it as you go along.

In turns horrifying and hilarious it tells the stories of a young American (and very Jewish) novelist visiting the Ukraine to trace the history of his ancestors as he writes their story, beginning in 1791, in the village of Trachimbrod – a Jewish settlement on the River Brod.  The village plays host to so many inconceivable traditions, that are often ludicrous, that it becomes an entity and character all of its own.

The novelist, Jonathan (also the author) speaks no Ukranian and enlists a translator (Alex) whose grasp of English is learned through Thesauri which leads to the mangling of the English language (with so many words seemingly out of place, but after pondering on them are simply inappropriate synonyms for what he is trying to say) in a way that bestows much of the book’s humour.

Post-trip, the author and the translator communicate (we only see the letters of the translator, with amusing references to the return correspondence) as the translator writes his own (awful) novel about the trip and ‘critiques’ the efforts of Foer as he pieces together his, and Trachimbrod’s, history.

The stories are interlinked and culminate around a terrible Nazi atrocity that occurs at the end of WW2.

What Foer achieves in writing so badly, telling a story so ridiculous, but underpinned with holocaustal horror, is like nothing you will ever have read before.  Think Monty Python meets Jonathan Littell (The Kindly Onesreviewed here).

It’s unique and compelling and funny and savage all at once.

That said, it’s a difficult read.

I’m not sure I really fully unravelled it and the whole experience would probably benefit from a second reading.  But it’s magical in many ways.

It’s one to read in only a few sittings with a real focus on it.

I fear I took too long to break it down.  But if you have the patience and the time to commit to it I’d strongly recommend it.

 

To face-mask, or not to face-mask?


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When it all comes to pass and the difficult questions are being asked, the one about the British Government saying facemarks don’t do anything to stop the spread of Coronavirus will be a particularly bum-tightening one.

The big lie.

I’m not a scientist so my view on this is of little or no validity.

But, I do have a brain.

And this is what I see and what I hear.

Firstly, I see a Health Minister (Matt Hancock) floundering under the pressure of office, but putting in a pretty decent shift overall.

However, I also see a Health Minister trapped in the party politics prison that won’t allow politicians in office to admit they don’t know the answer to things, or that they made mistakes.  Or that they simply can’t make happen what they really want to make happen.

Like conjure up half a billion facemarks.

As time goes by Matt Hancock is experiencing two things that are becoming the walls that are closing in on him.

PPE and testing.

He’s lied or misinformed for some time now about the availability of both and this is what I feel is giving him no choice but to mislead us on the use of  facemarks.

Because he simply doesn’t have any to spare.

So, instead of just saying (admitting) this he spreads and/or propagates a mistruth.

That facemarks don’t work outside of a clinical situation.

But our scientists repeatedly tell us that facemarks clearly DO have a role to play.

But it’s on an altruistic level only, in not SPREADING the disease.

Hancock prefers to opt for disseminating a convenient truth, that it doesn’t protect the INDIVIDUAL wearer particularly well from CATCHING the virus.

That way he stops a run on facemasks, ekes out his PPE supply. (Helped along with a few more statistical lies and long grass dates that he hopes journalists will forget: they WON’T though.)

This saves him actually LYING about the truth.  Instead he can push a convenient half-story.

But the real truth is bearing fruit and being enacted on the streets of more succesful viral-containing nations; that facemasks DO stop the SPREAD of Coronavirus, even if they don’t stop you personally CATCHING it.

It’s a shame that this truth isn’t being propagated by Matt.

World 2.0. After the lockdown. Can I help?


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It can surely be no exaggeration to say that the business world needs to hit reboot.

I’m not really sure when, or how that might start to happen (although starting now, to get ahead of the pack, might not be such a bad idea) because we will be entering a new reality.

I’m calling it World 2.0 for simplicity’s sake.

World 2.0.  The new reality?

We’ve had three Industrial Revolutions so far – in turn they were the consequences of the steam engine,  science and mass production, and the rise of digital technology.  They were all born of opportunity and technological advance.

None of them were caused by nature and all of them created booms.

But we’ve also had the opposite.

That has been the domain of World Wars and crashes; one of them financial (2008/9) and one of them (1929) founded on greed and wild speculation.

When we return to our desks, post-virus, post-furlough and scan our opportunities, most likely with a sense of doom, we’ll need to prioritise.

Big style.

It’s highly likely that workforces, everywhere, will be trimmer.

It’s highly likely that plans will be in disarray.

It’s highly likely that the idiom regarding loneliness at the top will never have been truer.

What’s the last thing you’re likely to be looking for?

Consultancy.

That’s what.

I dislike that word at the best of times but, you know, it’s what I do.

I bring to bear the biggest asset I have in my toolkit.

Experience.

The thing is though, I’ve never weathered an apocalypse, because let’s be honest here, that’s what we’re talking about.

So I don’t actually have any experience to offer you.

Right.  So should you read on?

Please stick with me, because my core skills will be as valid as ever as difficult decisions need to be taken about future investment, planning, positioning and your business’ true value proposition.

It simply won’t cut it if they’re flabby, comfortable – designed for World 1.0.

A trimmed down offer.

I’ve been using the lockdown as wisely as I can – or at least I think I have been.

I’ll be honest with you.  I gave up my latest role (with The Marketing Centre) only weeks before the tsunami struck.  I was looking to operate differently anyway, to go back to my own personal basics – little did I know just how differently that might be.

Since the turn of the year I’ve been exercising, dieting and then – enforced to some extent – resting and building up my energy for World 2.0.

Of course, that’s not all of choice.

My business has been hit hard.

Total and utter cessation of income at this point in time.

And at the time of writing I’m, physically, 17.8%  leaner as a result of my efforts.  I have aspirations to progress further but I can only report on fact. (Something much overlooked by many authorities in recent months.)

See these rocks?

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They weigh exactly 17.8% of my body mass.

I’ve been building a wall of them for months.

It’s a metaphorical wall now; one I can help you smash through as you look to re-establish your messages, your proposition, your value in this new world.

And I’ve decided that my contribution to your leaner outlook should be leaner fees, that’s why I’m knocking 17.8% off my World 2.0 invoices – every little helps.

I can help you with your marketing strategy, your business strategy and in visioning what World 2.0 might look like for you.

You never know; it might actually be a better place.

 

 

The baby boom there won’t be.


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I love Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’.  It’s a programme about statistics (and data) and it’s brutally anoracky.

But I care not if you think this makes me socially unacceptable, because you learn fascinating things .

Like how misguided you are when your friends say, “Well, there’s gonna be a massive baby boom in nine months after this, eh?” and you nod; because of course there will be.

Well, I have news for you.

There won’t be.

Never is one.

When big events like this happen, and people are unexpectedly shacked up together, for long and even short periods, it simply doesn’t happen.

Not even once.

Not after epidemics, pandemics, floods, power outages, wars.

Never.

That’s what I learned on this week’s episode (available here for a bit).

Here’s why it won’t happen.

a) The biggest cause of pregnancy is teenagers fooling around without protection – but they are all at home: masturbating.

b) In vitro fertilisation has stopped.  It’s bigger than you might think.

c) Family planners have stopped planning families – would you want to conceive right now?

On the other hand…

d) Prophylactics have vanished from the shelves because they’re mostly made in China.

So mistakes will happen.

But a, b and c outweigh d.

I thank you.

 

 

Borostounness Episode 5: The Articulate one.


OK.  As we settle into lockdown Helen and Rab have one small advantage.  Their pals Jeanie and Bill have already had the virus so they can come and go as they please.

They’ve popped round to cheer Helen and Rab up with a friendly game of Articulate.  (The Game in which you have to describe the words you see on cards under the category that your playing piece is on.)

It can be a little frustrating.

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Virus reading. An excellent novel about the aftermath of a global pandemic in animals. Tender is the Flesh: by Agustina Bazterrica. My review.


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Clearly this will not appeal to everyone.

As we ride out the early stages of a global viral pandemic it struck me as a good time to read a novel about a global viral pandemic.

This one infected animals so that their meat became poisonus.  Consequently a global order was put out to kill ALL animals.

Then there was ‘The Transition.’

In a carnivorous world what meat will carnivores then eat when there is no ‘meat’?

Well, obviously they eat human meat, but not wanting to sound like cannibals the authorities do not allow the citizens to call human meat, ‘human meat’ – that’s punishable by death,  and the sale of the resulting cadaver as ‘meat’.

So they are called ‘Heads’, have their vocal chords surgically removed just after birth so that they can’t talk/scream, and are raised to a variety of quality standards.

The hero of our novel is a slaughterhouse manager who is responsible for the buying of Heads and their processing, by way of slaughter.

But his life is complicated.

His beloved Dad is dying, his sister is horrible and leaves him to manage the care of their father, his wife has left him and his young son has died.

He’s lonely, he hates his job, his life and his family.

Then, one day, as a thank you for doing good business with a Head-seller he is given his own young, living, prime-grade female to take home and butcher.

This is an Argentinian novel and is quite heavily stylised, with little or no emotion – that’s left to the reader to take their own views on the proceedings, much of which describes this new, very odd and strangely acceptant society, in dispassionate terms.

It’s short, sharp and to the point and much of it is an allegory for how we consider the meat we consume today.  In that respect it’s a great book for vegetarians/vegans to enjoy triumphantly.

The way Bazterrica describes the slaughtering and butchering process is exactly how our animal meat is processed today.  Her trick is to anthropomorphize the process and, in so doing, begs the question as to whether this is morally acceptable.  “You wouldn’t do it to humans…’ is the central tenet here, if not actually stated.

It’s clever.  It’s interestingly, if a little coldly, written and it’s page turning.

It’s a really good political polemic and I found it engrossing.  Much is made of societal mores – class, privelege, behaviour, tradition, sexual politics.  It’s actually a pretty complex and multi-layered read.

I recommend it.  (But only for those of a stout literary constitution.)

Boris’ ‘I have a dream’ moment beckons…


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By now it’s well known that Boris – a man for whom I hold little in the way of regard – has an almost febrile desire to be considered Churchillian.

Little could he have known that Brexit was not to be his Dunkirk, but that an even greater opportunity lay waiting, just around the corner.

His fight with an invisible enemy would put the ‘Empire’ on a war footing that even he, in his most Winstonesque wet-dreamlike states, could not possibly have imagined.

A legacy waiting to be grasped, as he sets out to tame the greatest threat to have hit peacetime Britannia since 1939, or, as The Donald would call it, ‘ The Chinese Virus’.

This should be his speech to The House before it goes into recess next week.

“Even though large tracts of Britain and many old and famous counties have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Corona and all the odious apparatus of Viral rule, we shall not flag or fail. 

We shall go on to the end.

We shall fight in Frome, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the benches, we shall fight on the breeding grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British NHS, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, Donald, fronting the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Perhaps the great unwashed will then forgive him for calling the search for ventilators ‘Operation Last Gasp.’  Or his Dad for responding to Boris’ hopeless attempt to reduce social gatherings by asking our hostelry owners to take on the consequences of shutdown with no hope of insurance support by saying ‘Bugger that, I’m off to the pub.”

But then, you can’t choose your parents.

Odious creeps or otherwise.

 

True History of the Kelly Gang: Movie Review


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Some 20 or so years ago I lay by a pool in the Algarve, Portugal, and read Peter Carey’s source book of the same name for this movie.  It had just won the Booker Prize and, if I’m honest, it didn’t blow me away. In fact, judging from the last page corner fold (p266 0f 408) I didn’t even finish it.

I wasn’t exactly blown away by the trailers for the movie either so I approached with extreme caution, not least because IMDB’s reviews were, at best, lukewarm and, at worst, damning.

I’m not even sure why I shelled out – not just for me but for my wife and daughter too.

Anyway, suffice to say, it was a good choice because this is a great movie in the tradition of modern ‘Westerns’ that include the 2007 masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  

The trivia link?  Nick Cave. His son Earl Cave features in this Australian outback ‘western’ and Cave contributed the soundtrack to ‘Jesse James.’

The main damning criticism of the movie is, in fact, one of its strengths.  It’s languid.  Many say slow. No s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w.

For me, its pace allows it to breathe.  It allows the deep psychological distress, that has shaped Ned Kelly’s life and informed his young adult behaviour, to gestate.

The story concerns Australia’s most notorious outlaw’s life and times.  He and his gang assume personas as devotees of a secret society known as the Sons of Sieve, who disguise themselves through cross-dressing in reverence to legendary bushranger Steve Hart.

Their attire of dresses, charcoal face makeup and metal bucket masks, fashioned out of old ploughs, is entirely discombobulating as they are ruthless killers. It makes for an exciting visual impact.

Justin Kurzel (a director new to me) and his sidekick lighting cameraman Adam Arkapaw have conjured up a work of art.  And that’s why so many cinema-goers have loathed this film, expecting instead a blood and gore shoot out.  These come, but they are limited.

One such scene, towards the end of the movie, when a team of armed police advance on the Kelly Gang at the infamous Glenrowan siege, is electrifying and dazzlingly conceived.  Set to discordant music (Jed Kurzel, the director’s brother) the long line of the law are shot, at night, in rain, dressed in long rubber capes that, through a combination of stroboscopic lighting and some sort of weird white light, make them appear as a line of luminous KKK-like ghosts foretelling Kelly’s ultimate demise (at the age of 25).  It’s a searingly spectacular scene that literally took my breath away and is worth the admission fee for this alone.

George Mackay, who carries the year’s best movie (1917) almost singlehandedly, performs another excellent, but much more collaborative role here with a bunch of outstanding supporting players, notably his mother (Ellen Kelly) and his would be nemesis Nicholas Hoult (will he ever play a likeable character) as Constable Fitzpatrick. Russell Crowe astounds in my favourite performance of his career, albeit not much more than a cameo, as his early and wholly evil mentor.

This does have blood and guts, but its 18 (R) rating feels unjustified.  It’s a beautiful evocative celebration of early Irish immigrant exclusion, prejudice and societal revenge.  It’s a portrait of some sort of descent into mental chaos (although more subtly rendered than Joaquin Pheonix’s tour de force in Joker). But mainly, it’s just a damn fine movie.

 

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: Book Review


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I’m a lifelong McEwan fan, but he has been infuriating me in the last decade with his inconsistency.

I have previously reviewed and lamented Sweet Tooth and Solar – both stinkers, but sandwiched between them was The Children Act, a book of great beauty and provocation.

I’m glad to say that Machines Like Me finds McEwan right back at the top of his game and it’s clear to me that what is making him write his best work these days is moral ambiguity and his adeptness at turning that ambiguity into superb storytelling.  It’s at the heart of  what makes this book, and The Children Act, so great.

The moral conundrum here is truth.

Humanity allows us to decide the difference between ‘white lies’ and despicable self- serving perjury.  But can Artificial Intelligence be expected to compete?

This novel works on many levels.  It’s essentially a sci0fi book about Artificial Intelligence yet it’s set in the past.

A fake past.

1982 to be precise.

A 1982, in which Thatcher has just lost the Falklands War, Alan Turing is alive and kicking, Britain is contemplating a form of Brexit, the poll tax disputes are raging and many of today’s political challenges are being reframed as 1982’s.  Most notably the rise of an elderly Labour leader (Tony Benn) has swept to power on the back of an adoring youth.

It’s playful and brilliant.

McEwan plays with the value of things like money.  Everything seem so cheap: cheaper than the reality of 1982 prices. (The effect of a global recalibration of worth?  It’s unexplained.)

Into a 32 year old dropout’s life (Charlie) arrive, almost simultaneously, a stunningly beautiful but enigmatic 21 year old neighbour (Miranda) and a ‘robot’ of almost perfect physical attributes (Adam – one of 25 AI humanoids – 13 male, 12 female).

Charlie’s bought Adam thanks to an inheritance from his mother and the book explores the relationship between the three main protagonists, but throws in a secondary moral dilemma in the form of a four year old abused boy, Mark, who inveigles himself into their lives.

In Miranda’s past an event of monumental emotional significance has consumed her and the repercussions of this form a significant strand of the moral backbone of the story.

So we have fun (made up history) sci-fi (lite but fascinating in the form of a humanoid robot, whom it turns out is capable of great knowledge – Google, before Google existed- but also a form of moral judgement) relationships (tangled) and simply brilliant storytelling.

The science is interesting, the philosophy just light enough to engage dullards like me and the story so compelling as to turn pages lightning fast.

The whole premise throws up so many genuinely interesting questions that it’s like manna to McEwan who feasts on the riches that his great invention feeds him.

I adored this book.  One of McEwan’s best ever and leaves only Nutshell, out of his 17 novels, for me to read.  It’s a noughties write, so who knows.

 

 

Parasite: Movie review.


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I am going to be unpopular here because it’s unfashionable to do anything other than laud Parasite from the rooftops.

Let’s get a couple of things straight before the off.

  • I have no issue with the ‘One inch barriers” to universal film appreciation that director Bong Joon Ho describes subtitles as.  I have seen thousands of subtitled movies and Scandi Noirs.
  • I have no, unlike Mr Trump, political bias against (sorry, not bias, prejudice in Trump’s case) South Korean cinema.  Indeed I recently reviewed Chan Wook-Park’s The Handmaiden as 10 stars on IMDB. (Oldboy is a classic from Park, too.) I also loved Ho’s Okja and The Host, although I thought his English-speaking Snowpiercer was truly awful.

So this is not the problem, and just because I’m not raving about this doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, I did.  I just feel the praise that’s being lavished upon it is greater than my appreciation.

I read one review on IMDB by ‘mysticfall’ that suggested anyone who didn’t love this was a moron and clearly didn’t understand it.

I had no issue with understanding it.

It’s essentially a movie about class and privilege in which Ho brings together South Korea’s richest and poorest in one household, with the poorest as servants, and sets up a scenario where he does not judge either for their caste.

Except he does.

As the film progresses it’s clear that the master of the house has an ingrained prejudice against the poor that manifests itself in his inability to understand or articulate that it’s their ‘smell’ that reeks of poverty, and is therefore undesirable.

Variously described as a comedy and horror it leans far more to the former with some extremely funny lines and a pretty strong dose of slapstick – as seen in Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s excellent Inside Number 9 episode – A Quiet Night In in which two cat-burglars attempt to steal paintings from an occupied house without a word of dialogue.

Almost all of Act 2 of Parasite was essentially this episode.

The horror that we are promised is actually gore, and is reserved for Act 3.  It’s very much in the school of Tarantino, and, of course, Tarantino himself is heavily influenced by Asian film-making, so a certain circle is squared.

The  performances are universally excellent but I feel that, on occasion, Ho strays into slightly heavy-handed territory – much in evidence in his direction of Snowpiercer.  It’s not enough to spoil anything, but it clashes with the adulatory reviews I’ve read.

The cinematography is simply beautiful.

It’s a fine movie, but in my view 1917 was a more immersive cinematic experience and consequently deserved the Best Picture Academy Award.

Call me what you like, but I’m saying what I’m seeing.

 

 

 

American Factory: Documentary review


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I didn’t think I’d see a better documentary than For Sama this year, and having viewed Netflix’s American Factory last night, the Oscar winner in the documentary category, I stand by that view.

However, this is a fine piece of work.

It tells the story of a Chinese windscreen-manufacturer reseeding the site of a massive General Motors factory in Dayton Ohio some three years after its closure.

The main premise of the film is that this is a meeting of two cultures, both business and anthropological, and how the rise in Chinese commercial enterprise, even deep in rust-belt, Republican USA, is a success that won’t go away.

But the Chinese drive a hard bargain: much lower wages, poorer health and safety ideology, an intolerance of unions and a hard work ethic (in China overtime is compulsory, not optional).

The filmmakers – Stephen Bognar and Julia Rheichert  – are seasoned pros and have an interesting technique that makes this such an agreeable watch.  It’s not controversial, there’s little humour and there are no pyrotechnics.  It’s just a laconic stroll through the lives of the people on both sides of this cultural ravine, gradually exposing what it’s like for each of them.

They take no sides, they critique no-one, but clearly there is stuff in here that could enrage a very large percentage of its viewers, no matter their cultural persuasion.

That’s what makes it work.  That and a good soundtrack and a pleasing use of cinematography.

It’s not doc of the year, for me, but it IS an intelligent piece of documentary film-making that is as far from the Michael Moore one-sided tidal-wave of opinion and argument as one could get, and, for that, it is to be admired.

13 Minutes to the Moon: Podcast review.


Episode six of this forensically detailed story of the race to deliver JFK’s dictat, in 1961, – that Americans would be first to the moon before the decade was out, consuming at times 4% (YES 4%) of the USA’s GDP and employing 400,000 people – reveals, for me, its greatest and most sage moment.

Jim Lovell is co-piloting the lunar capsule as it orbits the moon and is trying to help his Commander, Frank Borman, badly photograph the earth as it rises above the moon’s horizon.

With Lovell’s help the result is ‘Earthrise’ – one of the most famous photographs ever taken.

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But it’s the commentary from Lovell that stopped me in my stride…

“I’m not a religious kinda guy.  But my perspective is – God has given mankind a stage on which to perform. How the play turns out is up to us.”

A truly frightening thought for this time as Climate Deniers support the ongoing rape of our planet.

The BBC’s World Service is to be congratulated for its attention to detail in pulling together this eight hour marathon, with breathtaking music by Hans Zimmer and a superb narration by Kevin Fong.

It grips from the first moment (the music) to the last – the entire landing, through the recordings of the actual Mission Control tapes, captured in real time.

The eponymous 13 minutes refers to the time it took from firing Eagle’s booster rockets to the Eagle landing on the lunar surface.

In a series of flashbacks, readings, interviews, archive material and Fong enthusiasm (but in a controlled way) we learn of the mission, its predecessors and the lessons and learnings from them, until the actual landing itself.

It’s riveting.

And it’s packed full of facts. (Software was invented thanks to the Apollo missions, you could push a biro through the metallic skin of the Landing Module (the LEM) – to save weight – and the average age of the Mission Control team is 26 or 27, depending on which commentator you believe.)

On more than one occasion I was moved to tears by the sheer human endeavour of it all.  Because it’s presented by British producers the American nationalism is left at the door of the edit suite.  Instead, we have old men and women’s stories brought searingly to life and its monumental scale is, at times, simply overwhelming.

I loved every second of this astonishing documentary and stronly recommend it.

You’ll find it on BBC Sounds.

 

 

Mouthpiece: at The Traverse by Kieran Hurley


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The tricky disclaimer

I have to first declare my physical challenge with this night in the theatre, one of my favourites, and not previously the purveyor of spasming pain in my right knee.  However, tonight the cramped legroom of Traverse 1 caused me such physical discomfort that I was counting the minutes till the end.

It was probably me, but the seating didn’t help.

The common gripe

This is the second Kieran Hurley show I’ve seen. Square Go by Paines Plough, like this, started brilliantly but seemed to run out of steam.  This less so, but it was a game of two halves for me.  The first pain-free, the secondly most certainly not.

The difficult narrator issue.

Narrated plays when the performers talk about what they are up to as they do it is not my cuppa, I’m afraid.

The describing of structure as the structure unfolds in episodic real time.

See above.

The holding of mirrors up to middle class audiences technique.

Herein lies my real problem with this production.

The performances by Shauna Macdonald and Angus Taylor are both very good and the story is engaging, but it’s about working class (underclass) strife meeting middle class privilege – a bit Pygmalianesque, but trying very, very hard not to be.

This whole ‘theatre-holding-a-mirror-up-to-its audience’ schtick, as we look in on how others live (it happens a lot in black theatre, queer theatre and class theatre) is starting to tire me out.

In this, Hurley intermingles the fortunes of a deprived teenager with a failed but privileged early-middle-aged writer, but in such a way that life starts to imitate art, become art, debunk art and eventually question art to such an extent that I started to run out of emotional connection.

Hurley does his best to take the whole ‘Rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’ cliche and subvert it, so that Mrs Higgins rapidly descends from hero to villain and Master Doolittle morphs from victim to hero to victim to hero so much that I began to wonder if I was really all that bothered any more.  Or maybe it was the knee.

The site-specific thing

If you haven’t seen it you won’t get this reference.,  But it is very clever.  I liked that.

The Martin Creed references.

You know what, I’m moaning a bit here.  This was a good production.  I’m just a grippy bastard sometimes and it had too many flaws for me.

But, at the end of the day…Everything’s going to be all right.

 

 

 

11pm, Friday January 31st 2020. The hour the music dies.


Just because I’ve shut up about Brexit recently doesn’t mean I feel any less saddened, deeply saddened, by the UK’s xenophobic attitude towards its island nation state.

We now have a fool, a dangerous one at that, at the helm, leading our country into a black hole, one that no right-minded economist recommended.  One where international trade deals are talked of in multiple-year time frames, some even in decades.

The fool continues to gainfully employ the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg – a man who in any other capacity would find himself on the dole queue for his outrageous sociopathic views and utter disregard for humanity, despite his fervour about the Roman Catholic faith – a faith that proclaims love of thy neighbour; ABOVE ALL ELSE.

As the bell tolls I will be contemplating what it means to live in Scotland – a nation that rejected this nonsense, OUT OF HAND – although that doesn’t mean I will be banging the drum for Scottish Independence.

One of its 2014 clarion calls was that Scottish independence was the only way to guarantee remaining in Europe (at best an optimistic call even then).  That prospect, (or at least the prospect of re-entry to the European family), if the last 36 months or so is anything to go by, seems an unlikely one now and a colossally difficult task.

For those bunting-waving leavers that will be popping their English sparkling wine and guzzling their John Smiths on Friday night, you were warned of the consequences of this before you voted for change ( I’m particularly looking at you Sunderland and South Wales).

I won’t be schadefreuding you in years to come.  I’m doing it now.

London didn’t vote for this nonsense, Northern Ireland didn’t vote for it and certainly Scotland didn’t vote for it.

Even Nigel Fargae didn’t vote for this outcome.

God bless Europe.

 

 

What to do with the EU Commemorative filth. An idea that may do just a little good.


I’ve read about people saying that receiving the new 50p coin can be compared to the reaction you get as a Scot when you give a London cabbie a Scottish tenner.  People are saying that they’ll refuse them.  That’s not fair on the shopkeepers who try to pass them though.

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I have a better idea.

Let’s do something constructive.

I will give them to homeless folks I meet on the street.

Wanna join me in this?

1917: Movie Review.


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I have a recurring dream.

It’s a common one.

In it I am a soldier trying to evade the grasp of my enemy in a war zone.  I sneak around fields, towns, villages often being spotted, running for my life.  Sometimes I spot the enemy from afar preparing to attack and a sense of dread overwhelms me.  It last all night.

The dream interpreters, not particularly surprisingly, suggest this reflects some form of conflict one are facing in one’s life.

Today, in the cinema I witnessed that dream come to life, imagined by Sam Mendes in a Hades like no other.

It’s terrifying.

Totally and utterly terrifying.

It’s a true story based on the experience of Mendes’ grandfather, Alfred, who shared a fragment of what happened with his grandson.

Mendes’ career is largely theatre-based, and many film critics believe theatre makers do not make good film makers.  Yes, they might be strong on dialogue and characterisation but they tend to be weaker on cinematography.

One way to resolve this is to create your movies with Roger Deakins, surely the greatest cinematographer in history – given not only his ridiculously great eye but also the technology he has to further enhance his art.

There can be NO doubt that this is as much Deakins’ movie as it is Mendes’.  He was Oscar nominated 12 times before he finally landed one for Bladerunner 2049 (along the way his greatness has blessed No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo and The Assasination of Jesse James…). This will be his second.  There can be no doubt about that.

The combination of stunning grading, extremely long takes and unworkeoutable steadycam technique defies logic, description and understanding.  It is mesmerising.

Remember the first 20 minutes of Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan, arguably the greatest War movie of all time?  Would you agree with me that the remaining 90 minutes is patchy at best?  Well, 1917 begins more slowly, but no less electrifyingly, as we settle into Deakins’ art.  The difference though is that the remaining 90 minutes of 1917 grab you by the throat and do not let off.

It’s completely overwhelming.

Technical movies of this competence don’t always have great acting performances.  And this won’t win George Mackay an Oscar, probably not even a nomination, but he does not let the side down, neither does his supporting actor Dean-Charles Chapman, but although this is SUCH a human story it’s the sheer scale and bravado of the overall thing that is what makes it such a compelling piece of filmmaking.

Some will lament the fact that this is so, but I believe Mendes has found the balance.

One other thing; Thomas Newman’s soundtrack is so gripping, so menacing that jeopardy is maintained for its entirety – it’s a significant achievement.

He has created a nightmare vision that out-horrors even the likes of The Exorcist, because this is no fantasy, this is reality, and it feels like it.

Truly a seminal cinema experience.  This will only be half the movie on your TV set so get up and get down to your local big screen, before it’s too late.

Peerless.

The movie of the year (although I’ve yet to see Parasite) in an already epic year.

Note:  I have now and I think 1917 is a better movie.

 

 

 

Worth Dying for: The power and politics of flags by Tim Marshall: Book Review


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The title is a statement, not a question.  So is the author suggesting that, yes, flags are worth dying for?

In this terrific book Tim Marshall explores, over about 300 pages, why it is that flags have become such strong semiotic devices across the 21st century globe.

As Amazon says in its splurge; In nine chapters (covering the USA, UK, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, international flags and flags of terror), Tim Marshall draws on more than twenty-five years of global reporting experience to reveal the histories, the power and the politics of the symbols that unite us – and divide us.

I absolutely loved this.

Marshall has a nice line in sarcasm although he keeps that to a minimum.  Largely the book is a fascinating historical insight into the power of flags, usually three colours or less.

Why green is so important in Islamic countries.  Why blue can represent sky, sea and many other things.  Why red is typically the colour of blood.  Or, of communism.

Why maybe a half of global flags have a religious significance, almost all of those crosses are, yup, crucifixes.

Why regions congregate around themes.  Ever wondered why all the Scandi flags are left biased crosses, just with different colour ways?  Find out here.

It’s not just political flags either, we read about the chequered flag, the Olympic flag, the red cross and more.

A great read and a great opportunity to increase your score on University Challenge.

 

The Two Popes: Movie Review


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Blimey, not only are the male actors on fire this year, but so too is Netflix.

This is another cracker in which Anthony Hopkins and, even more so, Jonathan Pryce show that two hours of religious dialogue between a couple of pensioners need not be a great big crushing bore.  In fact far from it.

The movie tackles the challenges that the ailing  and conservative Pope Benedict (Hopkins) is trying to leave behind as he tries to persuade the Argentinian papal prospect to become the incoming Pope.  But he is extremely reluctant (but very popular).  We know him now as Pope Francis  (Pryce).

The acting is extraordinary and the dramatic action is interwoven with multiple documentary sources so that the movie actually moves along at a fair old crack.

One doesn’t feel that one is being subjected to a Catholic propaganda machine, simply a brilliant study of two human beings in the face of monumental decision making, age and fraternal respect.  Against a troubled political background. (Pope Benedict did not cover himself in glory around the whole child abuse scandal.)

Many scenes are shot in the Vatican, especially in the Sistene Chapel, and it has a feel of a decidedly juicy behind the scenes look at something that is actually meant to be a huge secret.

There’s nothing particular in director Fernando Meirelles’ back catalogue to suggest a film of this nature was lying in wait (Both City of God and The Constant Gardener are good movies, but are nothing even remotely like this drama-documentary).

It’s funny, it’s engaging and most importantly it’s a masterclass in acting.

My God, the best actor category this awards season is going to be a hotbed of disappointment for at least three great actors.

Recommended.

 

The funeral of Jack Merritt.


I don’t know if Nick Cave and his wife Susie had a family connection with murdered graduate Jack Merritt, but I do know Cave demonstrated his boundless humanity by playing my all time favourite song, live, at the end of the young man’s funeral.
A song so achingly and nakedly emotional that I can’t imagine how he even got a performance out of himself in such tragic circumstances.
Indeed it is the song that will be played at the end of my funeral too.

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did, I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Oh, not to touch a hair on your head
Leave you as you are
If he felt he had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms
And I don’t believe in the existence of angels
But looking at you I wonder if that’s true
But if I did I would summon them together
And ask them to watch over you
Both to each burn a candle for you
To make bright and clear your path
And to walk, like Christ, in grace and love
And guide you into my arms
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms
But I believe in Love
And I know that you do too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you
So keep your candles burning
Make her journey bright and pure
That she’ll keep returning
Always and evermore
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms

Solar by Ian McEwan: Book Review.


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This slipped under my radar, having read every one of his first 13 novels, novellas and short story collections.  I used to consider McEwan my favourite writer but that title has been lost after two out of three damp squibs.  This being one of them.

Solar was followed by the awful Sweet Tooth and it’s kind of a companion piece of sorts.  Although Solar is nominally about climate change, it’s really about a misogynistic old man’s sexual desires and, in that respect, riffs off the follow up which explores sexuality from the female side. Although Sweet Tooth is written in the first person (a terrible mistake as McEwan is a long way detached from a 20 something female’s perspective) this is written in the third person narrative, although I use the word narrative with reservations.  It doesn’t make it any better.

It’s just plain boring from start to finish, is the problem.  Long ponderous descriptive set pieces, deep dive examinations of a character’s character from the despicable anti=hero’s perspective – the deathly dull Nobel Prize winning philanderer Michael Beard.

McEwan creates a character that is so unremittingly unlikeable that it’s difficult to find any purchase in the proceedings.  I simply didn’t care about him one whit.

Writing about unsympathetic or unpleasant characters is by no means a forlorn task.  Jeckyl and Hyde, Frankenstein, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume; all feature monsters that are utterly compelling.

This just features a monster.

The cover blurb states that it is the winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction.  I am incredulous at that as it is simply not funny.  Grotesque perhaps, but funny – no.

If McEwan hadn’t followed up sweet tooth with The Children Act I’d say his career was over, but The Children Act is a formidable piece of writing and storytelling that sits along his best.

This and Sweet Tooth, by contrast, feel self-indulgent, knocked off with particularly thin premises for their existence.  Thank God it’s over.

Avoid.

The Irishman, movie review: Yet another Scorsese masterpiece.


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Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence and now The Irishman.  Most Directors would give a limb to have made just one of these magisterial films.  That list numbers 12.  And then there’s a bunch more of note sitting just below these.

The cinema industry is up in arms at Netflix pinching surely one of Scorsese’s last great outings from under their noses.

£200m was pumped into this movie that’s been sitting around, unmade for a decade.

It tempted Joe Pesci out of his retirement and put Pacino, Pesci and De Niro under Scorsese’s gaze for the first time.

And what a gaze.

In a 210 minute film that gives about 5 to women this is a man’s, man’s, man’s outing to outman all of its lofty predecessors, but there were many women in the audience of the big screen showing I attended and they loved it.

Anna Pacquin, De Niro’s daughter, is the only female character of note in the movie (the wives are fairly incidental).  Her single scripted word screams volumes from the screen and makes her appearance meritorious despite its paucity.

Pacino and Pesci are wonderful, but it’s a De Niro movie.  Scorsese’s real muse this bookend’s both of their careers starting with Taxi Driver and surely ending here.  It’s a massive performance full of grit, humour and pathos.  It’s simply breathtaking.  Especially when you consider the mid – late career crud that De Niro has been serving us.

Note this, Phoenix has competition for the Oscar that we all thought was surely a shoo-in only a month or two ago.

The humour is unexpected and one scene, in particular, where an absurd conversation about a fish takes place in a car, reminds us of the Chicken Royale scene in Pulp Fiction.  Clearly Scorsese has been noting the competition and, here, matches or possibly even exceeds them.

This demands to be seen on the big screen.  The monumental running time sits better with a cinema screening where you can tackle it, in its full immensity, without trips to the teapot (or wine cellar – it’s a two bottler).  What it allows Scorsese is the time to tell a complex tale languidly.  It gives him room to explore male relationships, bonding and latterly reflection on a life that has had much shame.

That Scorsese takes maybe 30 minutes to conclude a movie that in other hands would last five is telling.  But it’s exactly this that lies at the heart of an epic that sadly many will just say is boring.

It’s anything but.

Much has been made of the ‘de-aging’ technology, mostly critically, but it really helps to tell a four-decade story using the same actors throughout.  OK, it made De Niro a little rosy-cheeked at times, but it gets away with it.  And the ageing of Pesci, in particular, is amazing.  His final scenes of a man in very old age are moving and gripping.

I was blown away.

 

Sorry We Missed You: Movie review of Ken Loach’s latest drama.


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Sorry we missed you, says the card from the DPD driver.  Your parcel is in your wellingtons in the back garden.

Well, that’s a familiar message to us middle class online shoppers.

How we curse when our delivery man (looking a bit stressed) arrives late.

What we don’t know, until now, is perhaps why he’s late and the repercussions.

Loach and his usual writer, Paul Laverty, have crafted another slice of life drama out of real delivery man stories, real care worker stories.  But the problem with this latest opus is that they have basically lumped all of the worst case scenarios onto one family.

The outcome is, therefore, an almost unbelievable tidal wave of misery.  Of course this story is possible but it’s too contrived.  It’s like following the proverbial gambling addict backing red but black coming up time after time after time on his worst ever losing streak.

Add to this Loach’s penchant for using under-exposed (or non-professional) actors and he runs the risk of it not coming off.  And in this case there are too many misfires from his earnest, but variably talented, cast.

In the lead, Kris Hitchen does a good job of holding the whole thing together, although it’s the relationship with his charming daughter (who largely steals the show) Lisa Jane that is the emotional heart of the movie.  Sadly his world-weary care-working wife, Abbie, played by Debbie Hollywood fails to match up.  She has no previous pedigree and I don’t expect she will progress on the back of this, despite a valiant attempt to pull off a difficult role.

I don’t intend to spoil this with plot detail but I can tell you this is RELENTLESSLY bleak.  To the point of being unbelievable:  few in the gig economy can have ALL of this bad luck but I totally understand that many have some.

If only the misery had been doled out to more characters, and if only the acting had been of a universally higher standard this could have been a Loach great.

But it’s not.

I, Daniel Blake had few of the faults of this latest outing and all of its strengths.

Saying that, Ken Loach is one of our great polemicists and his voice is vital in our hideous Tory-driven self-centred economy.

Boris will never watch this, and if he does he’ll scoff at it.  But, then, we scoff at his privilege.

I’m sorry I can’t rate this amongst Loach’s best, but it deserves to be seen, albeit with a slightly forgiving viewer attitude.

A great director performing at sub-par is nevertheless a great director and I still rate this a 7/10.

 

 

As the General election campaigning starts this would be good to keep in mind.


In 1999 the small Scottish agency, Yellow M, took the king’s shilling…but produced my all time favourite political poster.

A poster that for me sums up the legacy of one man.

It’s this one.

But Tony’s one big lie, which now defines him, pales into insignificance as it was committed, he argues  (wrongly, and unforgivably, in my opinion) in what he says was the nation’s interest.

Twenty years later we can revisit this poster but in a far less oblique way because, dear voters, if you vote for charming, scruffy, chuckly old BoJo, you are voting for a liar.

An outright fibber of the first order.

A Billy Liar in fact.  A man barely capable of telling the truth.

A man who will do ANYTHING to protect his chums, his fortune, their fortunes.

A man with no integrity.

A serial adulterer.  (Who therefore lies to his closest family.)

This man is not fit to be elected as our Prime Minister and he wasn’t elected to that position by the British Public.

If you do vote for a liar.  A barefaced one. We will all have to suffer the consequences.

The 1999 poster, without the aid of Photoshop, can be updated accordingly.

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