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.

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.

 

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.)

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.

 

 

The Testament of Gideon Mack, by James Robertson: Book Review.


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Gideon Mack is a Scottish Minister, a man of the cloth.  Indeed the son of a man of the cloth.  But he doesn’t believe in God.

His Dad of the cloth was an absolute bastard and that probably contributed to his lie of a life.

Awkwardly, he also fancies his best mate’s wife and, more importantly, and centrally to the story, falls into a river near the fictional Scottish village of Monimaskit – where a raging river flows under it.

In trying to save a dog, who wanders too close to the edge of the canyon that carries the torrent into the unknown, Mack slips and falls to his death.  Or so the villagers think.

In fact, he survives the fall and meets, in an underground cavern, that the raging river takes us to, The Devil, with whom he strikes up an agreeable relationship before returning to his kinsfolk three days later, bruised and bloodied, but very much alive.

What follows is Mack’s difficult reconciliation of his shot-to-pieces faith, the retelling of his unlikely story that nobody believes and the death of an old friend.

James Robertson’s tale is a stirring Scottish romp through the double-standards of the Scots’ particularly Calvinist take on Christianity, duty, sanity and illicit love.

It’s a terrific yarn with much to recommend although I think it found its level on the Booker Prize Long List; any further would have been to have exalted it a little above its station.

Nevertheless, a most agreeable read.  Reasonably strongly recommended.

 

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.

 

 

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

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.

 

For Sama: Documentary review.


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Baby Sama. On the front line.

If you are looking for gratuitous expositions of the Syrian war this isn’t for you.

If however, you are looking for an in-depth and long-term study of how human beings driven by principle and humanity behave with integrity, in an absolute hell-hole that is East Aleppo, then it is.

It’s a heart-wrenching (but actually also heart-warming) exploration of what makes human beings, on the right side of the fence, great.

It’s set throughout the siege of Aleppo and follows the story of Waad Al-Khateab her daughter Sama and her husband (a doctor/surgeon/activist who runs an unofficial hospital) Hamza whom she meets, marries and has the aforementioned child, Sama, with during the documentary.

Waad films the proceedings, but the end product is a collaboration with co-director Edward Watts (who has several ISIS-based, and award winning, TV documentaries on his CV).  Both deserve immense credit.

It’s essentially a love letter to Waad and Hamsa’s daughter, as Waad narrates her story of the battle to her daughter whilst showcasing the incredible humanitarian work of her fearless husband in conditions that are beyond credible.

ISIS targeted the hospitals of Aleppo (a HUGE city of 4.6 million inhabitants), systematically blowing them up and sending them underground into what look like unsanitary conditions but somehow seem to function throughout the siege.  They are constantly bombed and on many occasions makeshift operating theatres become awash with blood.

The scenes of devastation that slowly unfold in the last few weeks of Aleppo’s intolerable siege are quite horrendous.  We are talking about a blitz here – and the city becomes a shell, very reminiscent of both London and Dresden in WWII.

And yet, life goes on.  Despite the torture, and the many deaths that we graphically witness, there is a strong sense of defiance and just getting on with it.  (Keep Calm and Carry On.)

One scene, in particular, when we witness the birth of a, perhaps, still born baby is so deeply distressing that you will never forget the images.  It’s mind-blowing.

This is a (very warped) joy of a film.

It’s not blessed with any frills AT ALL.  No music, no SFX, nothing.  Just a story that is devoid of schmaltz or emotional manipulation.  It just says what it sees.  It places not blame. It vilifies nobody.

But what emerges is a heroic culture that everyone should see.

Expect success in the next awards season.

 

 

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.


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I am a lifelong Atwood fan, but she blows hot and cold (in this case, I’d say, warm).

I love her sci-fi and future-gazing stuff most, but I also was mesmerised by The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace.

Some of her more hippy stuff leaves me a bit cool.

This, the 35 years later follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale (THT), bagged her her second Booker Prize (shared) but, amazingly THT wasn’t the other, it was the aforementioned Blind Assassin.

She wrote this, the follow up to THT in response to endless requests from fans to explain how THT played out and decided to make it both a prequel (from Aunt Lydia’s point of view) and a sequel (from Baby Nicole’s point of view – Ofred’s daughter that she smuggled out of Gilead at the end of THT).

Another key character shares the storytelling duties but I shall leave that to you to find out who it is, if you care to indulge.

It’s very different to THT (and less satisfying as a result) because what made THT such a treat was the shock and the graphic detail in which Atwood brought her excellent brand of feminism to a dystopian tale that was truly horrifying.

The Testaments is a completely different vehicle.  She’s done the shock: this time she’s simply telling a story, a thriller really, to explain what lay behind THT.

Gilead is a key character in the plot.  It’s the state that has created these vile, corrupt, religious extremist men and it turns out that far from being the worst enforcer imaginable in Gilead Aunt Lydia is, in fact, a rather more complex, and sympathetic, character.

Essentially Lydia has realised that the concept of Gilead has gone too far.  It has run away with itself and it’s time for some reparation, how this is carried out is both complex and, at times, confusing (particularly in the first half of the novel).

It gradually unfolds as a rip-roaring story, well told, but for me it lacks the terrifying set pieces that makes THT so brilliant.  It slowly becomes a page-turner but that, for me, isn’t what makes prize-winning writing.

Atwood has a real ability to personify her characters, and the novel benefits greatly from most of its readers (surely) having watched Ann Dowd’s awesome portrayal of Aunt Lydia on MGM TV’s outstanding THT.

Atwood’s ability to switch character from niaive wife-to-be, to angsty teenage rebel, to elderly overseer is notable, but some of the naivety of the characters’ talk, written in a first person vernacular, renders elements of the book quite simplistic and, so, less engaging than it might have been if written in the third person.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but is it Booker winning standard?

Not in my book.

 

Hotel Mumbai: Movie Review.


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The Taj Hotel in Mumbai; setting for this atrocity.

This Sky Original movie simultaneously released in theatres and on Sky and we watched it on its opening night, free from either having read reviews or expectations.

To be honest, the real life incident that spawned the movie had actually faded in my memory so common, now, are such mass-murder terrorist events.

Some critics are calling it exploitative with an unacceptable level of Hollywood gloss, personally I found it perfectly acceptable and well told with enough sympathy in its direction to justify the horror that lies behind the script.

That didn’t really matter though, because whether or not one is familiar with this event, there are plenty others that it might have been.

It’s an ensemble cast production with stand-out, but un-showy, performances from Armie Hammer, Dev Patel and the head chef, played beautifully by Rohan Mirchandaney – all are trapped in the high class Taj Hotel in Mumbai as it is laid siege to by a group of Islamic terrorists acting under instruction from an off-screen telephone dictator known only as “The Bull”.

Whilst the terrorists enjoy a fair amount of screen time, it’s their prey that the movie, rightly, focusses on rather than glorify the terrorists’ actions.

It’s utterly chilling, pretty much from start to finish.  The head count of close-range and strafing machine-gun deaths is colossal, brutal and completely emotionless.  Indeed the film strangely fails to emotionally engage; rather it leaves you horror-struck at the ability of a less than elite bunch of assassins to wreak havoc, with little or no police/military intervention for many hours, making their killings become almost sporting-hunt-like.

The story is peppered with crescendos of killing and then quieter periods where the prey take stock of their situation and gradually formulate plans for their escape.

It’s cat and mouse throughout and gripping in its intensity.

I very much doubt this will trouble major awards juries, but as a piece of thought-provoking ‘entertainment’ it does its job without resorting to cliche, heavy emotional bribery or OTT special effects.

A good job, well done.

 

The Lehman Trilogy by The National Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes


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Thank you NT Live.

I’m not in London so this was never going to make it onto my ticket list and after 45 productions in the Edinburgh Festivals and Fringe last month neither my wallet nor my body could have managed a trip to the big smoke.

So it was a great and lovely surprise when I saw this show pop up as an encore screening at my local Vue Cinema in Edinburgh.  (By the time I took my seat it was sold out.)

NT Live has pro’s and cons.

On the plus side, it gets so close into the action that you can see in extreme close up the power of performance, in this case exceptionally so, by three astounding actors; Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley.

The downside of that is it does have the effect of transposing the experience to cinema rather than theatre and, on this occasion, the negative side of that is that many of Es Devlin and Luke Hall’s simply majestic set (and set pieces) were slightly lost.  I’d like to have seen them as they designed them, in panorama.

At times the monochromatic combination of wardrobe, lighting, set and video makes for some of the most stunning tableaux you will ever see in a theatre.

I’m surprised this show won no Olivier’s (particularly when you see how many the distinctly average Come From Away walked off with) but that is not to diminish this monumental theatrical achievement by Sam Mendes.

Over the course of three and a half hours we see 150 years of the Lehman Brothers’ (and hence industrialised America’s) history presented by the three brothers, their heirs and a supporting cast of dozens of minor characters, all played, largely in third person narrative, by the three actors – apart from their principal roles they cover everything from screaming infants, to coquettish muses to an ageing Rabbi.  It’s remarkable.

The evolving set, whilst intriguing is, at times a little intrusive and this becomes irritating but at other times it’s a work of genius.

The piano music is described as the fourth character and that is so true, played as if in a silent movie throughout, almost completely underscoring the play, by Candida Caldicot.

This is a tour-de-force.  A remarkable production and a must see.  Despite the flaws it comes highly recommended from me.

 

My Edinburgh Festival and Fringe 2019.


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It’s been great.

It always is.

Have I seen a life-changer yet?

Not sure I have, but I’ve seen a lot of class.  (Update, since I first wrote this I have.)

I hate star ratings, but for convenience I have chosen this methodology to save time.

Those in bold are official Edinburgh Festival shows

5*****

The Rite of Spring by Yang Liping’s Peacock Dance Company – This is the life-changer.  A mind-bogglingly beautiful contemporary dance show, weaving together the quiet innocence of Nepalese temple dance with the power and fury of Stravinky’s masterpiece.  Truly outstanding.

Ontroered Goed, -Are we not drawn onward to new erA – I’ve seen this bonkers Belgian political theatre company, from Ghent, before, doing LY£$.  They specialise in Climate Change polemics.

But this was a step up in class.  The entire play is a palindrome; as you will have spotted from the title.  This means it is performed backwards and then replayed in reverse as a film.  How they manage to speak backwards is simply brilliant.  And funny.  And thought provoking

The Patient Gloria – Traverse.  Outstanding theatre about a psychotherapy experiment from the 60’s by Abbey Theatre

Baby Reindeer – Richard Gadd’s masterpiece in the Roundabout at Summerhall.  Awe inspiring performance and story

Efterkalang – The Festival Music strand was a triumph this year.  Few household names but curated with love and real knowledge of quality.  Efterklang closed this year’s offering and they were simply terrific.

Villagers – The best live performance at Leith Theatre. Perfection

This is the Kit – (No this was).  A sublime performance both by TITK and support and beautifully lit by Grant Anderson.  Outstanding sound quality.

The Incident Room – superb story about the Yorkshire Ripper enquiry at The Pleasance

Peter Gynt – outstanding and hilarious take on mid 19th century classic at Festival Theatre

The Shark is Broken – Jaws – the back story at Assembly.  An amazing and very, very funny three-hander by actors playing Robert Shaw, Rod Steiger and Richard Dreyfuss

4****

Anna Calvi – wonderful performance at Leith Theatre

Matt Forde’s Political Podcast – Interviewing Nicola Sturgeon.  (Scotland’s First Minister.)  A delightful hour of Boris-bashing and independence speculation.

Crocodile Fever – tremendous co-pro between The Lyric Belfast and The Traverse.

Fish Bowl – Hilarious French physical comedy at The Pleasance

The Last of The Pelican Daughters – very funny Pleasance show that I had to leave after 30 minutes due to fire alarm

Oedipus – Would have been five stars but for the subtitles. The Kings

Shit – Ultra-sweary, hilarious but deeply moving Ausie show at Summerhall.  Brilliant.

Nightclubbing – Grace Jones inspired Summerhall Performance art.

Kala Kuti Republic – Tremendous dance show about Fela Kuti.  Met, and made best mates with, Bobby Gillespie at The Lyceum

Elgar’s Kingdom – Great tunes from The Halle and Edinburgh Festival Chorus.  Rubbish lyrics. At the Usher Hall

Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation – outstandingly original NTS show by Tim Crouch. At Festival Theatre Studio.

Once on This Island – Forth Children’s Theatre. My own company’s show.  A truly beautiful musical with a fabulous ensemble and several great performances .

Tartuffe,  Assemble Rooms – a great Scottish cast performing an abridged version of Liz Lochhead’s classic Moliere adaptation.  Very funny.  Great work from all four in the case (including Grant O’Rourke and Nicola Roy)

3***

The Burning – great performances but treacle-like script, at The Pleasance

Cométe – nice festival opener – pub band that may have gone to 4**** with a bigger audience

Who Cares – polemical Summerhall stuff about the care system but no narrative to properly engage with

The Crucible – too hard a story to tell through dance at The Playhouse

Best of the Fest – mixed bag, not the best of the Fest or it would have been 5*****

Ed Gamble – Work in Progress gig. Great warm up chat but the ACTUAL material was…meh.

Trips and Falls –  The spirit of the Fringe alive in this interesting but poorly cast and largely poorly performed Glasgow Uni production.  The Chief of police and the Granny were good though.

Square go – Started great but fell away, Scottish playground romp at the amazing Roundabout, at Summerhall.

If You’re Feeling Sinister by Avalon and BBC Arts in association with Tron Theatre at The Gilded Balloon.  Thios was always going to be tough to deliver a play about an album by Belle and Sebastiane, but by and large the two hander cast pulled it off .

2**

Teenage Fanclub – Boring.  At Leith Theatre – left after 45 mins.

Twin Peaks – Show about breast cancer billed as a comedy but not funny.

1*

Dynamite – it wasn’t – utter student improvisational crud by Bristol Uni Improv Soc.  Felt sorry for the excellent small girl with a pony tail (Katie) – not enough to save her blushes.

 

 

 

 

 

Review of The Patient Gloria by Gina Moxley and Abbey Theatre in association with Pan Pan Theatre at The Traverse; Edinburgh Fringe.


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I’ve seen some cracking stuff this year already; The Incident Room, Shit, Baby Reindeer, Nightclubbing and Peter Gynt (EIF) are all there or there about the 5 star mark, and I expect all to win prizes this year.  There are at least two Fringe Firsts in that bunch.  Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer Summerhall, in particular, left me speechless.

But tonight we went super A-list with the classic Abbey Theatre of Dublin in a co-pro with Pan Pan Theatre Co and Gina Moxley.

It’s a three woman piece written by and starring the diminutive Gina Moxley who is a dab hand at playing male psychotherapists.  She shares the stage and the story with the titular Gloria; a 1964 divorcee aged 30 with a still high sex drive and a nine year old inquisitive daughter in tow.

In an experimental film in 1965 the real life Gloria was a guinea pig in three psychotherapy experiments that were filmed to observe different approaches to understanding Gloria’s motivations and drives.

The play brings these sessions to life against a rich tapestry of theatrical techniques and outrageously brilliant acting from both Moxley and Liv O’Donoghue (the beautiful Gloria).

The two make an odd couple, not least because of the notable difference in height.

They are wonderfully supported by Jane Deasy as the one-woman bass-playing Greek Chorus.

I can’t begin to describe how many moments come together to make this piece of theatre so magical; obviously the script, story and acting are the foundations but the direction by John McIlduff is like a master class.  The set design and costumes are stunning and the sound design an important contribution too.

It’s gripping, thrilling, ballsy feminism at its extreme best.  I’m a feminist so I wasn’t in the least uncomfortable: but bring an ounce of misogyny into The Traverse and you’ll be going home with your ball sack shrivelled inside you.

Catholisisim gets a good kicking (or at least its Irish educational sub divisional torture chamber).

It’s brilliant, inventive, hilarious, thought provoking, visually and aurally stunning theatre at its very, very best.

 

 

 

 

The Virtues: Channel 4.


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This is Stephen Graham, Channel 4, Shane Meadows and just British TV overall at its very best.  The Russians and the Poles can make movies this depressing but the Brits excel at it.

Occassionaly.

And this is one of those occasions.

I thought Stephen Graham was decent in Line of Duty, but that was a mere warm-up outing for this career-defining hour of TV.  He is simply breathtaking.

The second act, in which he gets smashed to drown the sorrows of the loss of his son who has emigrated with his new ‘dad’ to Australia, is indescribably brilliant.

Doing a drunk is tricky.  (Even Gillian Anderson struggled in All About Eve) but this captures it astonishingly, in no small part because of the direction of Shane Meadows and genre-bending camera work.

It was deeply disturbing TV from start to finish with a constant barrage of depression. But that’s what makes Meadows such a unique talent.  What lies ahead one can only guess but you can be sure of one thing.  It ain’t gonna be comedy.

Wonderful, wonderful TV.  Thanks guys.

Come From Away; West End Musical Review.


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This show has been an absolute smash in North America and I can see why.  It has a certain saccharine sweetness that, for me, gets in the way of a more gripping retelling of a charming and heartfelt story.

Maybe there is no hiding from the truth.  It’s just nice.

Also 9/11 happened there and this is one of the few shows that doesn’t mourn it but finds a nugget to celebrate the human positives that emerged.

The actions concern those of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland, (The Rock) home of the biggest airport in the world that no-one ever uses anymore (since jet planes’ fuel tanks got bigger the planes don’t have to stop there for transatlantic refuelling – for the record).

The residents of Gander’s is a modern day ‘evacuees’ act of human kindness, in that they took the 7,000 stranded passengers, strangers, of 38 planes, that couldn’t land in New York, on 11 September 2001, into their community and then to their homes.

But it’s all a bit hokey for me.  The relentless 180bpm Oirish/Newfie folk music gradually starts to do your head in as its one tune relentlessly ploughs a furrow towards your amigdila but in my case bypassed it and hit the cranial nerve instead.

It’s storytelling on steroids.  $ for $ you get more words here than you will anywhere else in the West End.  But it feels too crammed in – too worthy perhaps. just too much.  There’s absolutely no room made to stop and take stock.  No light and shade (or very little anyway).

Sure, it has its moments and some of the subplots are interesting (real). For me the most successful concerns a mother who’s  fireman son is working on the twin towers and she is beside herself with worry.  It leads to one of the few really poignant moments in this marathon jig.

The showstopper numbers; the opener ‘Welcome to the Rock’ and ’38 planes’ are certainly enthusiastic and well received and the finale has significant gusto and was met with the audience leaping to its feet almost as one.

But, I’m sorry, it missed the spot for me, almost completely, and I found myself sneaking looks at my watch despite its 90 minute run time.

One last thing.  The seating in The Phoenix Theatre was clearly designed for Victorians at a time when people were six inches shorter than today.  Horrendously uncomfortable.

After Life : TV Series Review


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Ricky Gervais has never, ever written a bad script.

And although he is pigeonholed as a comedian, writing comedy-drama he is far more than this.

He is an observer of the deepest human emotions and psyche. How else could David Brent exist?  How else could Derek be considered even remotely acceptable to be the star of a comedy, let alone have Gervais portray the part he had written, rather than cast an actor with learning difficulties?

In this latest offering, brought to us by Netflix, Gervais has reached a creative zenith.  In episode four there is a moment with a rice pudding that is the funniest thing I have ever seen on TV.  In episode 6, I wept for 15 minutes solidly.

It’s the story of a local free newspaper journalist who works to live, it’s not a career, it’s a job to fill the time between leaving his home, and his beloved wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman – Godly talent more like), and returning to spend each and every night with her.

The trouble is she’s just died of cancer and Tony (Gervais) can’t cope.  Only the dog is keeping him alive and it brings his dark cynicism and sarcasm to the fore. It gives him a super-power.  The power to be a total **** to everyone and anyone.  Sometimes to bad people who deserve it, like the school bully, but at other times to borderline cases (like a cheeky chugger).

His dad has Alzheimers and doesn’t recognise him.

His therapist is a moron.

His colleagues, led by the truly outstanding Tony Way as ‘photographer’ Lenny, are all ‘arseholes’.  Except they aren’t.  They’re just ordinary people.

He gradually falls for the nurse who works in his dad’s care home and that has a touch of joy about it.

But more than anything this show just shows that people are largely good.  Even the bad ones like Tony’s naughty postman.

The moments in the graveyard with a grieving widow, played by the magnificent Penelope Wilton, are pure philosophy.

And we have Diane Morgan (Philomena Cunk).

And during the cremation of a junkie that results in Tony standing in the smoke with a nun, it means he has to say to her, “Don’t breathe that in sister, you’ll be off your tits.”

We watched all six episodes back to back and I urge you to do the same.

Better than any TV I have seen in an awful, awful long time.

Utterly perfect.

Thank you Netflix for having the bravery to commission this.

(Oh, and the soundtrack is brilliant too.)

(And so is the dog.)

 

Scottish Football’s new low.


I was listening to the radio last night to hear of Brendan Rogers cheering on Leicester City’s first win as their new manager.

What the Brendan Rogers that is manager of one of the biggest clubs in the world, Celtic FC?

The team that’s on the verge of a historic treble, treble under his management?

The club that is on the verge of a historic ten league titles in a row.

To go to a mid rank English team that spanned a Championship win a few years ago before returning to mediocrity?

Nah, can’t be him.  He was managing Celtic, one of the world’s biggest clubs two days ago in a 4 – 1 win over Motherwell.

And then I heard that Neil Lennon, whom I admire greatly as a manager but have severe concerns about his mental health, a problem that led to him being fired from his previous job for calling the club MD, my club,  a ******* ****, is taking over till the end of the season.

A man who incites massive sectarian hatred in Glasgow.

He’s taking over?

Nah, he said he couldn’t handle that sort off shit any more.

Must have been a dream.

If it was real the Celtic fans would all be going daft.

A ferocious, brutal and hilarious piece of theatre that will take your breath away. Ulster American at The Traverse Theatre from 20 Feb.


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I saw this at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  It was the best show in The Traverse’s best Fringe for years.  Gobsmackingly brilliant and it’s back with the same cast.  A bigger venue, but what could possibly go wrong?

At the time I described it as the bastard child of Aaron Sorkin, Frankie Boyle (maybe Jerry Sadowitz) and Martin McDonagh.

I can’t recommend it enough.

But it’s sweary, violent, sexist, outrageous, scary, rude, bawdy.  If you don’t like any of those things you’ll just have to fuck off and watch Strictly.  (You twat.)

Inside Europe: Ten Years Of Turmoil, review.


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I actually thought this three part documentary was the story of how Brexit came about.

In fact it’s nothing to do with Brexit, although the buffoons who triggered it, specifically the Bullingdon Club Pig fiddler himself, do make appearances, mainly in episode 1 (of 3).

It’s a colossal achievement in storytelling, forensic research, casting and filming of pretty much all of the characters you’d want to hear from as we look at the financial crisis, the near collapse of the Euro, The Greek, Italian, Irish and Spanish crises, the rise of populism, the refugee crisis (although most of the key players refer to the 2 million or so displaced people as refugees the BBC VO insists on calling them migrants – why is this? my only gripe in an otherwise peerless political documentary.)

We meet and hear from, sometimes in great detail, Tusk and Junker, Matteo Renzi (Italian PM) Mark Rutte (the Dutch PM), Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu extensively from both Hollande and Sarkozy, the idiot that is Yanis Varoufakis and fellow fools;  Cameron, Osborne, Darling, (maybe not Darling) Clegg and Hague.

It’s breathtakingly exciting as deals, counter-deals with the IMF, The European Central Bank, Barack Obama, The Japanese Stock Exchange all feature.

But the star of the show for me, the goliath of European politics with a huge humanitarian heart (who knew?), an ear for listening, a mind for turning, a brain for evaluating is the one and only Angela Merkel.  At one point we actually see her weep, she cares so much about doing the right thing.

It’s electrifying.

Merkel stands out in this like only one other politician in this timeframe, Barack Obama. The two together are utter class and her steady hand at the tiller and her unerring attitude towards compromise and bargaining makes Theresa May look like what she is – a one-track, narrow-minded buffoon.

It’s so sad that her humanitarian management of the refugee crisis has led to an upsurge in German right wing populism and the decline of her own party and her personal status.  Not in my mind though.  Not in the minds of good, caring human beings.

Me?  I’d give her the Nobel Peace Prize.

It was brilliant from start to finish and is must watch TV.  On the BBC2 iPlayer now.

 

If Beale Street Could Talk: Movie Review.


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Only 48 hours ago my wife and I belatedly watched the Oscar-winning Moonlight (a very odd choice for the best movie Oscar in my opinion), also written and Directed by Barry Jenkins.  Today we saw Jenkins’ follow up. Across the two movies it’s notable that Jenkins doesn’t do ‘action’,as both are glacially paced.  He also doesn’t do white actors.  There are none at all in Moonlight and only 3 or 4 in Beale Street.

Visually, Beale Street is stunning.  Jenkins is not left down by his cinematographer, James Paxton, who was also shot Moonlight.  This has moments of jaw-dropping beauty, and in Kiki Layne and Stephen James he has two faces that make for simply beautiful close ups.  In creating a love story Jenkins has certainly cast a couple that you truly believe are besotted with another, and that is both sweet and charming.

The movie also boasts am excellent soundtrack that has an epic central theme and a great deal of jazz to create mood where dialogue is in short supply.

But the movie is letdown by a pretty unengaging story, some very dense dialogue (it’s famine or feast in that respect) that is virtually indecipherable in places and central performances by the star struck lovers that are more lovely than moving.

The only performance that, for me, leapt off the screen was that of the mother of Kiki Layne, Regina King.  It is nuanced, engaging and powerful and she deserves the recognition she is getting.

This is a year of huge black movies: Black Panther, BlackkKlansman, Green Book and this, all of which have been heavily nominated at The Oscars and BAFTAs.  Of the four through it’s only Spike Lee’s terrific KKK movie that does it for me.

It’s slim pickings in the best movie department in 2019.  Roma is a terrible bore, The Favourite is excellent, but is Lanthimos’ third best feature.  For me the movie of the year is Cold War with The Favourite and A Star is Born close behind.  Not this, that’s for sure.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher: Book Review.


I finished this short Penguin Modern Classic (written in 1956) in the cafe of the National Library of Scotland and as I climbed the stairs to the reading room I spotted this incredibly apt advertisement for one of the Library’s WWI exhibitions.

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It’s apt because the book is about a group of people seeking a ‘land of milk and honey’ in the aftermath of a global disaster wherein all of the grass on the planet (and therefore food for all the ruminants we eat) dies.

It’s a post-apocalyptic vision about environmentalism that is indeed, as the cover suggests, prescient.

It was written in the Cold War era where nuclear annihilation was a real and present danger and the future of civilisation genuinely threatened.  Indeed, one of the government’s strategies to deal with the loss of cereal crops is to drop ‘atom bombs’ on all of Britain’s cities in a bid to wipe out half the population and leave the rest, post-apocalypse, to live on fast-growing and nutritious potatoes, other root vegetables and pigs.  (The impact of nuclear fallout radiation was neatly overlooked as a potential flaw in this strategy.)

It’s a novella really, easily consumed in rapid order and although it suffers terribly from the rather proper vernacular of its time, it’s great.

It’s institutionally racist and terribly, terribly sexist, not to mention class-biased and awfully niaive.  You won’t find a single bally swear word in its entire 194 pages, although you will find murder, rape and underage sex.

Nonetheless, if you forgive its ‘product of its times’ flaws it is an undeniably clever book, a good yarn and a pretty scary (and strangely believable) vision.

It has precursors of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road (it’s essentially a road trip from hell to heaven) and chimes with The Lord of The Flies as it speculates on who would take control in times of martial law and civilisation breaking down.

I have to say I galloped through it, chuckling at times at the dated language.  It’s even more of a museum piece in that respect than Dickens, but it’s a compelling read and I recommend it, flaws and all.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: Book Review


6dd2691efe3dd93d052f16345fe4364badd03c26-book.jpgI wanted to like this ‘ornery Joe memoir.  I really did.

It started reasonably well with a recounting of JD’s childhood in Hillbilly country; Ohio and Kentucky specifically and in the Appalachian Mountains precisely.

Brought up in a small town called Middletown known locally as Middletucky, because it’s ‘in the middle of Kentucky’ this is a story about JD’s remarkably impoverished childhood with a narcotics abusing mother, a hugely aggressive grandmother and a series of stepdads.  It’s not easy.

JD had an unremarkable schooling largely due to the string of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that he had to endure. But several stars aligned to help him escape this awful childhood, firstly his grandparents, then the marines, then college and finally an unlikely entry to Yale where he studied law and walked into a high level job.

So it’s got to be a can’t put down page turner, right?

I’m sorry to say it isn’t.  The early momentum that Vance establishes gradually turns into a bit of a lecture about poverty, lack of opportunity and just downright dull storytelling.

It needs judicious editing because even though it’s not very long it becomes a Groundhog Day read with endless reploughing of the same old furrow.

By the end I was bored to tears and most of my sympathy had deserted me.

I can’t recommend this, although the sentiment is admirable.

Also, the front cover puff suggests insights into both Brexit (Brexit? It’s set in Rust Belt America) and Trumpism.  Trump isn’t even mentioned.

 

 

 

BlacKkKlansman: Movie Review. A spike Lee Joint.


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Kaboooooooom!

That’s the sound of Spike Lee returning with a bang.

Lee’s work has been lean pickings for me since his heyday in the late 80’s and early 90’s with movies like Do the Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It.

But the rest of his cannon (maybe through ignorance on my part) has failed to engage me.

But this almost nails it.

My one overall criticism is that, at times, I’m not sure if Lee wants to make a comedy or a searingly monstrous docu-drama.

For me the hate he brings to the screen out punches the comedy 10:1.

Two characters in the movie should have been booted into touch: both are lampoons and detract from what is otherwise a great whole.  These are the hate-filled racist local cop (Officer Clay Mulaney) and the KKK sidekick Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser – hilarious in a similar slapstick role in I Tonya, but misplaced here).

They are minor distractions but become grit in your eye, detracting from the overall menace and subtle humour surrounding a subject that is far from humorous.

What Lee does with this is face up, full on, to the endemic prejudice that fuels the police force and the local white population in small town Colorado.

He creates a sense of time and place that is authentic and cool man. As you would expect from a Spike Lee Joint the black cast are dealt most of the best hands, but Adam Driver (as a Jewish cop – only one step removed from being black in this chapter of the KKK’s eyes) performs an excellent supporting role as the white man who infiltrates the KKK on behalf of his black colleague (John David Washington).

You’ll know the plot constuct by now so I won’t bore you with that.

What makes it a great movie is the sense of time, place and politics, the soundtrack and the unflinching ability of Lee to capture the racist poison that is encapsulated in the performance of Jasper Pääkkönen as Felix Kendrikson; by far the most committed and cynical of the Klansmen.  And yet it is underpinned by nice comedic moments (other than the slapstick I described earlier).

There’s a scene in which the Chapter watch a screening of Birth of a Nation where, although underpinned by some humour, that hatred really does come across compellingly.  It’s chilling.

It’s a great (true) story that is extremely well told.

At times the cinematography is truly outstanding – in particular the scene in which a visiting black political speaker (Kwame Toure, played by Corey Hawkins) addresses the local black student population.  Lee creates a montage of faces from the crowd that echoes Queen’s seminal Bohemian Rhapsody video but so stylistically and handsomely that it’s art on screen for just a few fleeting moments.

It’s seared on my mind.

Recommended.

The Favourite: Film Review.


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I am a big, big fan of Yorgos Lanthimos whose two previous deadpan comedic features (The Killing of a Scared Deer and The Lobster) are outstanding movies.

The feature of both of these movies is Lanthimos’ extremely black humour delivered in a unique style.

However, for The Favourite Lanthimos has taken a big decision in abandoning the scriptwriting and handing the duties over to Deborah Davis (her debut) and Tony McNamara (lots of minor TV but no cinema history).  It’s  strange choice of writing team because they don’t bring any previous to the mix, and neither are fresh-faced youths.  But what they bring is an entirely different tonality to Lanthimos’ work and that leaves him to focus on direction, with cinematography provided by Robbie Ryan, who made a big contribution (in my view) to American Honey.  Indeed, the cinematography is a major talking point after the writing.  Gone is Lanthimos’ naturalistic, almost clinical, lighting of the Lobster and “Deer” instead, although we again go au natural, it’s through a gloom of candle and fire light that renders the screen largely black for a great deal of its 2+ hours.

His frequent choice of extreme wide angle (almost fish eye) lens to capture the scale of the huge palace rooms is highly unusual in cinema and is much more like stills photography. One scene, shot in a long corridor, makes it look like a u-bend when in fact it is completely straight – unlike the principal characters!

But the real meat here is this terrific all female star line-up.  In the #MeToo era this is a real vote of confidence in female actors with attitude and sheer quality.  Come March it is entirely possible that all of the leads; Olivia Coleman (national treasure that she is), Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone will be career Oscar winners because Coleman’s performance is quite brilliant.  The other two already hold this distinction and each has a good chance of adding to their trophy haul.

Although, As Queen Anne, Coleman (who gained 2.5 stone top play the gout-ridden Queen’s part) is the designated lead the film is essentially a three player ensemble with some ineffectual men put into bat to be made to look ridiculous and, oh, they do in Sandy Powell’s outrageous costumes and Beverley Binda’s even more outrageous hair and make up.  (“You look like a dead badger’ Weisz tells the Queen as she sets out on a royal engagement.)

The story echoes All About Eve as Queen Anne’s favourite lady in waiting, and lesbian lover, Lady Sarah Marlborough, The Wife of the Duke of Marlborough who is leading the war with France, is gradually pushed out of favouritism by one time lady and now servant girl, Abigail (Emma Stone).  Although she does not go without  fight.

This is where the scriptwriting team get the nod to create a bawdy and vicious rivalry set in a Draughtsman Contract-esque world.

Overindulgence, poisoning and illness leads to all three leads vomiting at least once each, reflecting this world of excess.

The music track is at times intrusive, but to my mind in a good way; it’s a sort of early 18th Century version of Atticus Rose and Trent Resnor’s soundtrack to The Social Network.

What everyone is talking about is the lead performances. Each is supremely talented and each is given so much scope to truly flex their acting muscles that what results is an acting master-class.  In the trailer it seems like a knockabout farce but in reality the movie is actually quite slow paced with moments of true hilarity and enough foul language to shock some of our more prurient audience members.  That said, my wife who abhors the C-word volunteered that it was used to great effect several times in this.

The lesbian relationships Queen Anne enjoyed are worthy of note. In a life that saw her lose 17 children (5 still born and many miscarried) her tipping of the velvet was, apart from a bulimic relationship with food, one of her few pleasures.  Both Lady Marlborough and Abigail are adept in their duty to pleasure their monarch.

Coleman comes steadily into her own as the movie progresses.  The first half belongs to Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone plays a beautifully judged and paced part in which she will do anything to get ahead but in the end it’s Coleman who wins the day with the last 20 minutes belonging to her as she suffers the vagaries of her life.  Her portrayal of Queen Anne as a stroke victim is as good a performance as you will see anywhere this year.

It’s a fascinating movie, although I’m not convinced it’s quite as good as its hype.  That said, for lovers of history and lovers of Olivia Coleman it has to be seen.