Movie review – Spectre

Watching a new Bond film is as comforting as pulling on a favourite old jumper during the winter.

As the opening credits roll and morph into the inevitably epic action scene, you know you’re going to be wrapped up in a ludicrous plot to save the world, whisked around the globe, sleep with a couple of glamorous – but feisty and post-feminist – women, almost die at the hands of a brilliant, psychopathic villain. And survive until the closing credits. Just.

Sam Mendes, curating the enduring Bond franchise for the second time, doesn’t disappoint.

The plot unfolds in London, Mexico, Rome, Austria and Morocco.

The feisty females are played by Monica Bellucci , at 51, the oldest Bond “girl” to date, and Lea Seydoux.

Licence to Thrill: Léa Seydoux, Daniel Craig and Monica Bellucci joined forces at the world premiere of the new James Bond film Spectre

Christoph Waltz is the villain, good old Ernst Stavro Blofeld, reincarnated with his famous white cat to outwit Bond. Almost.

Yes, the plot is naturally imagination-stretching…..but it is timely, revolving around the replacement of MI5 & MI6 – and their obsolete 007 operatives – by a single overarching Joint Intelligence Service, ostensibly providing security through constant global electronic surveillance.

Ring any bells? Read my review of Dave Eggers’ book The Circle, and look at the recent hacking of Talk Talk, to be reminded of the dangers lurking in this increasingly digitised and tech-driven world.

Daniel Craig is James Bond, for the fourth time. But will it be his last? I rank him up there close to Sean Connery as the best, and certainly several martinis better than the other pretenders to the 007 throne.

Craig exudes intelligent, muscled menace, with a nod to the past but with a 21st century ironic humour and social awareness.

Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Whishaw as Q and Naomi Harris as Moneypenny are more developed and contemporary characters than their desk-bound Whitehall predecessors, playing their roles is this latest, lean, stripped-back, menacing version of a series of 24 films, stretching back over 50 years.

A James Bond for our times? Yes….but still the same old jumper.

Book review – A Whole Life

The oft used adage less is more has never been more appropriate than when applied to this charming book:

I chose A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler as my first selection for Steve Dover’s West Surrey Book Club, not quite at random but certainly serendipitously. And because of my own affinity with mountains.

Its brief description on Amazon captivated me as completely as seeing the sun rise on a single mountain, clad in fresh overnight snow.

Andreas Egger lives a simple, hard existence through the first half of the 20th century in a remote valley high in the Austrian Alps. He is at one with his natural habitat, often sleeping on the grass outside his ramshackle hut….and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.

He falls unexpectedly in love and – almost wordlessly – marries Marie. She, together with their unborn baby, dies in an avalanche. He leaves the valley only to fight on the Eastern Front in World War II, spending 8 years incarcerated in desolate conditions.

He returns home to continue working amongst his beloved mountains, helping to construct lifts for the burgeoning ski market. He stumbles into a late career as a mountain guide. He dies.

The book is a mere 149 pages. I read it in not much more than 2 hours. Its simplicity, honesty and beautiful prose captivated me from first to last.

As far as he knew, he had not burdened himself with any appreciable guilt, and he had never succumbed to the temptations of the world: to boozing, whoring and gluttony. He had built a house, had slept in countless beds, stables, on the back of trucks, and even a couple of nights in a Russian wooden crate. He had loved. And he had had an intimation of where love could lead. He had seen a couple of men walk on the Moon. He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death. He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.

Charlotte Collins has done a remarkable job translating Herr Seethaler’s original German text.

Read and enjoy A Whole Life….both what it says and how it’s said.

Movie review – Jumpers for Goalposts

This was so much more than a movie….

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, and the welcome trend to beam live events to cinemas around the country, we sat in posh seats at the Odeon in Guildford on a Thursday night in October and saw Ed Sheeran.

The ginger music phenomenon was in Leicester Square, patiently enduring endless selfies with screaming fans and scribbling autographs, before heading inside for the official launch of his first concert movie.

But before the credits rolled, he picked up his guitar, swigged from a bottle of water and played three live numbers. Brilliantly.

What a transformation. Outside, he was shy and struggled to be the star he so clearly now is. But inside, as soon as that strap went round his neck, he became the self-confident singer songwriter who has taken the music industry by storm over the last few years.

Jumpers for Goalposts is a fitting record of the scarcely believable progress he’s made. In July 2015 he played 3 gigs at Wembley Stadium to 240,000 fans. He’s 24 years old. He’s only released 2 albums. Nobody else has ever performed at Wembley completely alone.

The film follows the Wembley performances, picking out tracks from each night and threading in interviews with Ed and his team before and during the concert series. But this is not a self-congratulatory, puff, promotional exercise.

It’s all about the music.

He stands there in front of 80,000 acolytes….just him, the guitar, that versatile voice and the corruscating lyrics. And that clever looping machine, magically layering Ed upon Ed upon Ed, and giving a mesmerising depth to some tracks more effectively than a 5-piece support band could.

At one of the performances, Sir Elton joins him for a couple of numbers. One of them is a fading star, one is shining as bright as a supernova.

Elton was notorious for his hissy-fits and prima donna posing, Ed is a shy, modest guy who has remembered those who helped him along the way to mega-stardom.

And as he says in the movie……I’m just getting started.

 

Movie review – Black Mass

Well, I suppose it had to happen.

The lights can’t always be green, right? And I guess Novak Djokovich will lose a tennis match one day.

Last night was our third foray to Screen Unseen, the Odeon’s lucky dip movie night. You roll up and have no idea what you’ll be seeing, other than that it’s guaranteed to be a mainstream film, and that it has yet to be released to the wider UK audience. And for just £5 it’s worth the risk it might be a celluloid dog.

We lucked out with our first two ventures – animated Inside Out from the geniuses at Pixar, and the offbeat coming of age movie Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

Last night’s surprise was Black Mass, a biopic of James “Whitey” Bulger. Jimmy was a low-level mobster born and bred in Boston’s rough south side. But for almost 20 years from the mid 1970s he became untouchable, thanks to an unholy alliance with the FBI.

The relationship was intended to bring down the Italian Mafia gang running the city on the other side of the river. It did – eventually – but it also gave Bulger and his gang carte blanche to commit crime on an epic scale.

Johnny Depp plays Whitey. He’s a smart pyschopath, murdering anyone who crosses his path, or who rats him out. And yet he’s an FBI informant, convincing himself it’s just business. His criminal mayhem really gets out of control after losing his son and mother, but he’s clever enough to escape from Boston when it all finally unravels in 1994. He evaded capture until 2011 and is now serving multiple life sentences in a Florida penitentiary.

 

The FBI agent who facilitated Bulger’s criminal ascent was John Connolly, a childhood friend of both James Bulger and his brother, Billy Bulger. Connolly is arguably a more nuanced character than Whitey, brilliantly acted here by Joel Edgerton. The FBI agent’s own career, and income, soar in direct proportion to Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang’s lawlessness.

Connolly’s innate sense of loyalty extended to not informing on Bulger when the alliance was finally aired, despite Whitey ordering the murder of his long time collaborator. The ex law agent has been imprisoned since 1999 on multiple charges, including taking bribes, informing Bulger of his imminent arrest, and 2nd degree murder.

Amazingly, Billy Bulger becomes a senator and the most powerful political figure in Massachusetts, at the same time as his brother is murdering, drug-running and racketeering. His own demise only happens when he contacts his fugitive brother. Benedict Cumberbatch is an unlikely choice to play the politician, but he does it well, straddling the corridors of power and the rough neighbourhood he was brought up in.

The film is inevitably violent and contains the usual mobster movie f-word blizzard. But it’s a low-rent Goodfellas, a wannabe Godfather, recounting an incredible true story, but without being nearly as engaging as either of those mob classics.

Unless Whitey is reading this….in which case it was a f***ing great movie, Jimmy.

 

 

 

 

 

Run, Andrew, Run

Forrest Gump is one of those engaging films that unpeels another layer every time you watch it.

One of the most memorable scenes is where Forrest feels he just has to run, sad after his sweetheart Jenny has moved on. So Forrest runs. And runs. And runs. For 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours, covering 19,000 miles across the USA several times. And then he stops.

 

I’ve never had quite that strong an urge to run, but just occasionally a jog near where we live, a session on the treadmill in the gym, or even a competitive 10k or 5k run gets the old competitive juices flowing.

A few years ago, I squeaked under a 10k tape in 44 minutes and 58 seconds, beating my target for that year by the tiniest margin. Much longer ago, before Forrest was even a character in a screenwriter’s imagination, I ran a few 10ks in the Bermuda International event.

And today, I ran the Charterhouse Club Trail Run for the first time, aged 58 1/2. Out of the three distance options – 5k, 10k or 15k – I was really glad I had chosen the shortest distance, after spending most of the week ill or entertaining….but certainly not training.

I breasted the tape – wheezing like a 70 year-old smoker with lung cancer, thighs and hamstrings as taut as Robin of Sherwood’s bow – in 26 minutes and a handful of seconds. Not too bad, considering my training-free week and the vicious, hilly course….but no need for Mo or Jess to feel threatened just yet.

Running is one of those things in life that you know is essentially pretty dull, but which at least gets the ageing limbs on the move again. The nervous anticipation before, and the pain during, an event is just about cancelled out by the satisfaction of completing a target, and by a few minutes of post finishing line endorphins.

Watching Forrest Gump run across the USA again is a whole lot more enjoyable…..

Movie review – Suffragette

As the final credits roll for Suffragette, the years that women achieved equal voting rights in different countries is listed.

Hard to believe, but women were disenfranchised in Switzerland until as recently as the 1970s. And the vote was only granted to French and Italian women in the 1940s. The wait in Saudi Arabia goes on.

This powerful new movie tells the story of the British suffrage movement from the critical point in 1912, when peaceful efforts for voting equality were rejected by David Lloyd George’s government. From that moment, the militant members of the movement – led by Emmeline Pankhurst – are impelled to use anarchic measures to make their voices heard.

The film is directed by Sarah Gavron almost as a dramatised documentary, mainly through the fictional character of Maud Watts, an impoverished, abused laundry worker in London’s East End. In a bravura performance by the ever-brilliant Carey Mulligan – Oscar nomination on the way? – Maud’s life disintegrates as she allies herself to other suffrage women.

The tragic insoluble dilemma of her desire to improve womens’ lives whilst preserving the love and security of her family is hard to watch, but easy to understand.

Strong supporting performances, from Helena Bonham Carter as a posh chemist, Anne Marie Duff as Violet – a fellow laundry worker – and Natalie Press as the fated Emily Davison, underline the swelling tide of the movement.

A two minute appearance from Meryl Streep as the hunted figurehead Mrs Pankhurst doesn’t even qualify as a cameo performance, I’m afraid.

Ben Whishaw – unrecognisable from his imminent role as Bond’s gadget guru Q – plays Maud’s baffled and ultimately weak husband Sonny. Brendan Gleeson, as mesmerising as always, is the sinister policeman Steed, compelled to uphold the patently discriminatory laws of the day.

Some of the scenes didn’t transport me fully to the early 20th century, but the story – rooted in frankly appalling historical truth – and the acting carry the movie persuasively to the awards season.

The sands of time

I wrote recently about a brutally fascinating book, Being Mortal.

It struck several chords, rather loudly. Not just how best to spend your end of life, when you know that you’re probably going to die quite soon. Hopefully, at that stage the medical profession will give you some palatable, more humane options, instead of fulfilling their surgical obligations to maintain life as long as possible, through any means available.

In sporting parlance, I’m close to hearing the bell for the start of the final lap of the 1,500 metre race that is my life.  At 58, I’ve hopefully got a long final lap still to run, but I think it’s fair to say that my PB is some distance behind in the rear view mirror.

I never used to read obituaries in the newspapers, but I find myself increasingly drawn to them. Most are about people who have had incredible, interesting and rewarding lives. Poets. Soldiers. Politicians. Writers. Sporting icons. Movie stars.

Listening to Desert Island Discs is also a source of simultaneous joy and envy. Hearing an interesting guest uncover their life story and achievements, to the soundtrack of meaningful music, is a delight. But it’s also a violent kick in the shins, the pain screaming that my own days are numbered. And demanding to know what I’ve achieved, compared to titans of industry, sporting giants, artistic legends.

To continue with the sporting analogies:

“You might be on the back nine of life, but it’s good to finish strong.” 

Morton Shaevitz, Refire! Don’t Retire: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life

So much to do, and so little time…..

 

Book review – Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

I feel close to Nick Hornby. He was born 3 weeks before me, and his novels have traced a large chunk of my own adult life.

Fever Pitch, his first published book in 1992 , was an autobiographical mini-classic. Except that it was all about a young man’s passion for Arsenal Football Club. Hard to take for a lifelong Tottenham fan, but I could identify with the author’s sentiment, and the writing was fresh, funny and acutely observed.

High Fidelity, published in 1995, was Hornby’s first novel. And damned funny it was too. About a compulsive, list-making, neurotic record collector in north London, it was cleverly transplanted to Chicago for the film adaptation, and beautifully brought to life by John Cusack and an emerging Jack Black.

About A Boy, published in 1998, was very different from Fever Pitch and High Fidelity. This told of the unlikely relationship between a shy young lad, Marcus, and a slightly selfish 30-something man called Will, who didn’t have to work and who was struggling for a focus in life. The movie adaptation is known for finally giving Hugh Grant a role that wasn’t the same one as in all his other films.

Other novels followed: How to be Good (2001); A Long Way Down (2005); Slam (2007); Juliet, Naked (2009); and now Funny Girl (first published in 2014).

Mr. Hornby has chosen to write what feels like a very old fashioned novel, with real echoes of Kingsley Amis. Instead of Lucky JIm, Funny Girl is about Barbara Parker, a young girl crowned Miss Blackpool in 1964 but who rejects the tiara in favour of the bright lights of London. There, she changes her name to Sophie Straw and stumbles into the life-defining role as one half of enduringly popular TV sitcom series Barbara (and Jim). The brackets are important.

The story is funny, poignant and nostalgic. Of course it’s well written, as all Nick Hornby books are, but it relies largely on reported conversations between the show’s actors, writers and producers. And – sorry, Nick – it all just feels a little, erm, fluffy. Nothing wrong with that, but somehow the characters didn’t quite have the extra layers that you usually give them. I needed a bit more to peel away….

Perhaps I’m being overly critical because I’ve enjoyed your earlier work so much. And perhaps I’d like to see you embrace the present as much as you obviously do the past.

But maybe I’m just envious. Look at what you’ve achieved in your 58 years, compared to me.

Still, I’ve got 3 weeks to catch up….

 

Investing in coffee futures

Our embrace of coffee culture continues unabated. Every High Street is dominated by The Big 3 – Costa, Starbucks & Caffe Nero – and the back streets increasingly proliferate with ever funkier artisan shops providing the perfect espresso.

I’ve succumbed to the addiction, seeking out the individual caffeine havens tucked away in the lanes of London, Paris & Australia, and anywhere else we explore. Poor Gill….she’s a tea person.

I actively avoid The Big 3, despite being a small shareholder in Costa owner Whitbread. Apart from when they emailed me a free £5 download voucher, obviously.

And now I’ve also invested in a bundle of Starbucks outlets, through a franchise operator who was the first UK franchisee and which is now looking to further expand its portfolio of home counties shops.

Yes I know, Starbucks are the work of the devil, vilified a few years ago for their minimal UK tax payments. But I’m afraid I’m not a particularly ethical investor and besides, they’ve addressed a lot of their corporate shortcomings.

I can’t see us being weaned off the caffeine addiction any time soon, and this franchisee looks like a slick operator. This is part of an attempt to de-risk our pension portfolio away from direct equities, and – if the investment goes according to plan – should result in a profitable exit a few years down the track.

So keep on ordering those skinny lattes, espresso macchiatos and flat whites. And who needs more clothes shops when you could be drinking coffee?

Theatre review – Carmen

Carmen – review for Essential Surrey website

Andrew Morris enjoys a timeless story of Latin passion, love and tragedy, at G Live in Guildford

Well, that was a multinational introduction to opera.

Carmen is a classic opera, with something of a complicated bloodline. The score and text were written by the Frenchman Georges Bizet in the 1870s, adapted from a novel by Prosper Merimee and a poem by Aleksandr Pushkin. This performance was produced and directed by Ellen Kent, a prolific English purveyor of opera and ballet, while the cast hailed mainly from Eastern Europe, and the Orchestra was from Moldova.

The story takes place in Spain, a timeless story of passion, love and tragedy that unfolds in Seville and its wild surrounding mountains.

The honest and naive corporal Don José is besotted when fiery, beautiful Gypsy Carmen shakes her flouncy Flamenco dress in his direction. He has soon deserted both the army and his childhood sweetheart Micaela, in the belief that his and Carmen’s passionate attraction will endure. Unfortunately for poor Don José, a life of crime hidden in the mountains doesn’t sit as well with him as does the wayward Carmen, and he soon finds himself torn between blind devotion and his duties.

Carmen, on the other hand, is soon distracted by the glamorous toreador Escamillo, and they fall in love, with Carmen taunting the hapless Don José. Well, everyone knows Carmen’s affairs only last 6 months.

With that, the tragic die is cast, and the inevitable, fatal dénouement takes place outside the bullfighting arena back in Seville.

Bizet’s musical score is rightly acclaimed for its melody, atmosphere and orchestration. This production captured its ability to represent the differing emotions of the protagonists. We’re introduced to the exotic, free-flying Carmen in one of opera’s most famous arias, Habanera (officially titled l’amour est un oiseau rebelle – love is a rebellious bird), and when Escamillo shows up with his flashy entourage in Act 2 you can’t help but hum along with the rousing Toreador aria.

The actors suit their roles as well as the music. Liza Kadelnik was born to be independent-spirited, buxom flame-haired Carmen, while Maria Tonina perfectly captured the sweet nature of Micaela, and Iurie Gisca as Escamillo strutted around in his cape as though he had already slain 1,000 bulls. Ruslan Zinevych was a timid Don José, and it was no surprise when Carmen moved on to the dashing bullfighter.

As thrilling as the story and music remained, however, this production felt strangely disjointed.

The English translation, scrolling through on a panel high above the stage, was a boon for Carmen virgins. Unfortunately, it conveyed dialogue and speeches that were more stilted than flowing and passionate, and perhaps also a little condensed from the original French words.

The evening was spread over 3 ¼ hours, with one intermission after Act 1 and another just before the final Act 4. Some of the transitions between scenes were a little clunky, and I’m afraid the time taken to change the set between the middle two Acts dragged on so long that the audience could be heard asking if the cast had gone home.

Despite these weaknesses, it was still an enjoyable evening. Merci, Monsieur Bizet. Grazias, Carmen. Thanks, Ms Kent.