The thing that marks out this spectacularly honest documentary is Aretha Franklin’s melancholia.
It’s as if she’s been transported there by another being. Her God? She is so in the moment. So devoid of ego, unlike her entourage, as to make it a truly ‘religious’ experience, not just for her but for the viewer too.
The melancholia manifests itself as a lost look. Separated from the action, the film making onluy there for one reason. To sing.
And there is zero theatrics. Zero showmanship. Zero bullshit.
just an honest to goodness outpouring of singing as best as she can muster and her best will just have to be good enough. Cos that’s all she’s got.
I’ve never seen a music documentary so compellingly believable about the motivations of its maker, that motivation appears to be the love of her God and her fellow humankind.
Another in BBC Radio 4’s excellent Intrigue series, to sit alongside the superb Tunnel 42.
This time a nine-part series follows the search for the truth behind the death of WWII Nazi officer, Otto Wachter, who is alleged to have been responsible for mass murders of Jews in Poland between 1942 and 1945.
The Grandson of one of the deceased (murdered) Jewish victims (his entire family was wiped out in the Grand Action) Phillipe Sands is determined to expose the murderer for what he is and sets out on his trail by meeting Otto Wachter’s own son, now in his 70’s, who lives in a castle in Austria.
What follows is a complex tale of espionage, counter surveilance, cold war intrigue and the role of the Vatican in an unGodly cover up and escape from retribution of a whole succession of senior Nazis who seemed to be more palatable than communists to the Italian illuminati in the Cold War era.
For those familiar with the heart breaking tale of the Underground Railroad, so beautifully brought to life by Colson Whitehead in the book of the same name, The Ratline is effectively the rather less palatable Nazi version of it, in which mass murderers of the Third Reich were ‘Persil Cleaned’ and set on their way to anonymity and freedom (or a bit of Commy bashing) by the Italians.
Writer and narrator Phillipe Sands is to be congratulated for his composure in telling the sordid tale without completely losing it as his grandfather’s despicable killer is followed through a jigsaw of clues back through his footsteps in the lee of the war, showing not a morsel of humility or reconciliation.
Wachter’s poor, deluded grandson believes him to a good man at heart, and offers up a lot of evidence of his activities to Sands, his friend, (strange and unexplained but the key to the door) but it’s pretty compellingly set out that he was a murdering bastard and got all that was ultimately coming to him.
It’s a grand, if complex, reconstruction of history that rewards careful listening.
David Dimbleby, let free of his BBC shackles finally has the chance to say what he really thinks. He doesn’t of course, but it’s what he implies, nods, winks that tells you he is deeply cynical of the liar Tony Blair and the fool George W Bush who fell in man-love over the opportunity to blow the fucking shite out of somewhere. That somewhere was Iraq.
The pretence was to rid the nation finally of the evil autocrat Sadaam Hussein, but the two lovers got all tangled up in revenge for 9/11 and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, a sworn enemy of the Iraqi state.
We all know we were lied to, but this truly great podcast uncovers not just how and why but also quite how flimsy and pathetic the so called evidence was. Some of it was gleaned from cab drivers, but Blair’s chief proof point was the evidence from an exiled Iraqi biochemist, living in safety in Germany, and codenamed Curveball. (A man who had never been in a weapons factory in his puff and who got all of his ‘evidence’ from the internet).
I mean, it’s comedic.
Dimbers puts Tony Blair through his paces in one to two episodes, exposing him for the c*** we all know he is. It’s a cringe fest as we listen to him weasel his way around the story. But it’s great listening.
Dimbers is brilliant. Just amazing. He is effortlessly statesmanlike and so compelling to listen to.
The most horrifying part of the whole thing is the denouement. The rebuilding of Iraq post Hussain. The complete destruction of its moral order and the breeding ground for ISIS more like. Governed by more fools who didn’t give a flying fuck about the country, it has left Iraq in a worse state than it was under Hussain.
What would you prefer? A life of terror under an evil autocrat that is singleminded in his madness. Or a hotbed of turmoil, inter-tribal, religious civil war with some of the most heartless terrorists in history?
Truly great work from Something’ Else Productions.
“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’
The long paragraph above, from Martin Luther King’s essay “Loving your enemies” is surely his response to biblical scripture in which the main tenet of Christianity to “love thy neighbour as thyself” is stress-tested to extremes in the civil rights movement’s strongest card: that Black (then called Negro, and much worse) Americans should rise above the injustice that was being meted out upon them.
Jim Crow American ‘culture’ (pah!) and ‘politics’ (more accurate) was so obscenely in violation of basic human rights as to make the “land of the free” as much a work of fiction as the gospels. But King’s advocation of noncooperation with evil, the absolute root cause and ultimately the ace card of the civil rights movement, was what made it, and him, irresistible – good will eventually triumph over evil and if good transcends (through violence and hatred) into a mirror image of its perpetrators’ behaviour then stalemate, or worse, will result.
Taking the moral high ground may well have been the ace to play. But it needed played with dignity, clarity, consistency and conviction. The hallmarks of King.
Today we live in an America where its President would luxuriate in the heady glow of Jim Crow time, where his racial hatred would be given an outlet in which he could fully exploit his white supremacy. He could read his nazi doctrine to the nation free from the shackles of wokeness. His wall would have long been complete.
So, the irony of his marriage to an immigrant. The irony that Germany is possibly the high water mark, as a nation, in humanitarian treatment of minority peoples, people without a land to call their own cannot be overlooked. The war against oppression is no longer the war against hitler. And America can no longer wipe its hands of Jim Crow.
The fact that a fascist is in power, despite all that Colson Whitehead tells us of in the pages of the Nickel Boys, is America’s shame. And having hosted many ‘Democratic’ Americans in our home, as Air BnB hosts, my wife and I are very aware of the shame that they carry around the globe on their hunched, apologetic shoulders.
The criminal that is the current POTUS is an ugly stain upon the integrity of what was (largely but by no means exclusively) a great nation until 2016, and will be again I’m sure.
Well, it will be a great nation when, once and for all, it rids itself of its institutionalised racism. Not in every corner, but in enough of them for it to still matter, to still manifest itself through police brutality and murder of innocent victims: murdered black children, women and men who were the consequences of shoot first, ask later.
This has to stop and anyone who has any shred of belief in my view will find it cemented further by reading The Nickel Boys.
It’s a short novel and a fictitious account of the life of one man (two in truth) whose very existence is entirely defined by racism. Elwood, the main protagonist, is a black American, brought up in Tallahassee, Georgia.
We meet him, aged around 10, in 1962. His maternal grandmother has just bought him the greatest gift of his life, a record of the speeches of Martin Luther King, featuring extracts from his Loving Your Enemies Essay.
Little could the bright, ambitious and bookish young Elwood know that cruel fate and prejudice would thrust him centre stage into that essay.
For spoiler reasons I won’t tell you how teenage Elwood ends up, not in college, but in the young offenders institution called Nickel. Nearly sixty years later an unmarked burial ground of battered and scarred young black men’s bodies has been found by property developers.
Not battered, no. Tortured.
It triggers a return to the haunting ground.
What marks out Whitehead’s writing as equal only, in my view, to Cormac McCarthy’s is his ability to storytell about extreme subjects without resorting to, in any way, flag-waving politico.
Although this book is, cover to cover, about the injustice of racial prejudice it’s not even remotely tub-thumping. At no point does the reader think ‘if only he’d drop the politics for a bit’ and yet every single page is suffused with them.
How he does this, apart from being a peerless craftsman, is to side-eye his observations. Although this book is about life in a torture chamber of racial oppression its narrative does not dwell on this. Hitchcock’s 15 minutes of tension is worth a minute of shock is equally applied by Whitehead, except his tension is more of a contextualisation of racism where the reader sees it italicised in their peripheral vision, not up front in caps.
Hardly any of this book describes torture. Hardly any of it lists the daily criminality of the regime or the sheer burden of difficulty their lives endure. For that you’ll need to read the ice cold litany of terror that Jonathan Littel describes so shockingly through the eyes of a WWII nazi officer in the brutal “The Kindly Ones”.
No, this book riffs off, time and again, King’s essay as the oppressed inmates of Nickel strive to overcome evil. By doing good. By keeping clean. By being undetected. By righting their passage.
It’s a work of staggering genius.
Not a sentence in this novel goes to waste. Many you have to read two, three times because Whitehead may have decided 200 pages was sufficient to tell his story (in places rip-roaringly so) but no way was he going to make it easy for us.
He lays traps everywhere. He writes half sentences that pack more storytelling punch than any writer I know. You have to work it out. Sometimes you complete a paragraph and realise that buried in it were two or three words that so upend its meaning, and the book’s direction, as to entirely discombobulate you. This means you have to navigate this novel as if in a minefield. Gently, softly, guddling the trout. One false move and you’re back a chapter.
And what chapters. What vision. In one he tells, as a complete side story, but as a keystone, about the annual boxing tournament at Nickel. The competition that has been won for the last 15 years by the black kids. Yet, at no point in this hideous exemplar of racial torture are you able to double-guess the chapter’s outcome. That’s partly down to his masterful storytelling, but it’s also down to that knack he has of simply not overdoing the message despite, as I said earlier, suffusing the book with the message.
As it nears its conclusion Whitehead throws in a plot device that is so explosive, so monumental, that it made my heart skip a beat and reappraise the entire novel. It’s unprecedented in my experience and it’s what cemented this into its outcome as one of the greatest books I’ve ever read.
I mean, I really don’t think that if you have The Underground Railroad (and its Pultizer Prize) on your CV you can really expect to step up any further.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a white supremacist became an American political phenomenon. David Duke’s rise to power and prominence—his election to the Louisiana Legislature, and then his campaigns for the U.S. Senate and the governorship—was an existential crisis for the state and the nation.
That’s how Slate sells the fourth in their outstanding Podcast series (The Watergate Scandal 10/10, The Clinton Scandal 9/10 Tupac – didn’t enjoy that, and now Duke.)
Heavy stuff with heft.
Slow Burn really is an outstanding editorial platform with a great track record and this adds further weight to Slate’s enviable reputation with a gripping tale, riddled with back stories and sidebars that add colour and context to the rise of a fascist to a position of influence, but no power.
Who could ever imagine a fascist in power in the USA?
Until 2016-2020. When it became a reality.
The difference between Duke and Trump is that Duke, ex Grand Wizard of the KKK was an acknowledged Nazi who tried to cover up his past, whereas Trump is only waves the flag of fascism (No brown short and swastika) albeit with the ability to create an authoritarian police state in the world’s third largest country.
Duke sought a Nazi state, for sure, but under the auspices of The GOP, The Republican Party.
Just like today.
And, yes, the GOP was embarrassed to shit by Duke, as those that will admit it are of his fascist successor.
Where Duke failed was through his ostentatious official past. His espousal of anti-semitic, anti black politicking stated for what it was. The cross burning couldn’t be airbrushed from Duke’s history, whereas Trump gets the police to enact his enmity and racism with only a powder puff hairs and an orange fake tan that says;
“Me, a Nazi, looking like this? Oh come on.”
It’s wonderfully narrated with relish, and a degree of awe (fear really) by Josh Levin. His anguish is palpable as he tells the tale of what could have been…
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.
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 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 Ones – reviewed 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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)
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 .
Teenage Fanclub – Boring. At Leith Theatre – left after 45 mins.
Twin Peaks – Show about breast cancer billed as a comedy but not funny.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you Netflix for having the bravery to commission this.
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.
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?