Movie review – Manchester by the Sea

I like a film that has the confidence to play its hand slowly. Very slowly. One that keeps the audience guessing, rather than ramming its plot down your throat from the opening credits.

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In the opening scenes of Manchester by the Sea we see a shell of a man. He’s a janitor, living in a single room in the basement of a block of flats in a Boston neighbourhood. He shovels snow every day. He does the plumbing. He unblocks toilets. He’s disinterested in the siren calls of two women. He drinks alone. We see a man who is both isolated and angry, going through the motions of an empty life.

It’s only in flashbacks that we come to understand the backdrop of Lee’s separation from life, and when he has to return to the workaday seaside community where he once lived, an hour or so north-east of the city.

Back for his brother’s funeral, Lee is shocked to hear that he has been made the legal guardian of his 16 year-old nephew.

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The unwanted relationship, forced on both Lee and young Patrick, is painful to watch. The confident teenager has a much fuller life than his sad uncle, but it seems that he will be forced to move to Boston with Uncle Lee.

But gradually they come to understand better each other’s difficult situation, and we also grasp the tragic reason why Lee is sleep-walking through life.

The acting is understated in the extreme. Casey Affleck, as Lee, says more with his haunted expressions than a mountain of words could ever portray. His is a performance that fully deserves the Best Actor nod. Newcomer Lucas Hedges is sensational as teenager Patrick. And Michelle Williams, Lee’s ex-wife Randi,  will break your heart all over again.

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Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea is not a feel-good movie, but the quality of the writing and the acting, the beauty of the cinematography and the slowness of the hand-playing make this a cinematic joy.

Book review – Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith burst onto the literary scene, like a dazzling meteor, with the publication of White Teeth in 2000, written while studying English literature at Cambridge.

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That debut novel captures perfectly the complicated relationships between the English and migrants, particularly those from the old colonial countries. Based in her native north-west London, as most of Smith’s novels are, friends Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal are beautifully drawn characters, with depth and warmth. Their story and the writing linger long in the memory.

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Swing Time also has its roots in north London. Two young brown girls (mixed race, like Smith herself) meet at a community dance class. Tracey is talented and wild. The never-named narrator is smarter, but not such a great dancer.

The novel tracks their stories and relationship over the next 25 years of adolescence and young adult life.

Tracey has some brief but minor stage success, but descends into council estate poverty, with bitterness and with several children from different fathers.

The narrator finds that a weird globetrotting existence, as PA for a Madonna-like superstar, suits her aimless ambition. With no life of her own, she is glued to Aimee’s whims and changing directions. Based mainly in London and New York, as the writer herself is, the story takes on a different dimension when Aimee decides to fund a girls’ school in West Africa.

The lesser characters in Swing Time are subtly drawn. Aimee is besotted with much younger Lamin, from the African village, and wants him to become part of her inner circle. Beautiful young Hawa, also from the village, chooses a different escape route. Intellectual philanthropic facilitator Fernando from Brazil falls in love with the narrator.

The novel has been well received, but I’m afraid it falls short of the lasting impression I had after turning the final page of White Teeth. Zadie Smith’s novels have won prizes, she is often included in most influential people lists, and she lives a gilded life spanning New York and London. But somehow Swing Time feels a little too much like a hook for her personal concerns and political beliefs, than a well-formed story with wholly believable characters.

Maybe I’m being excessively critical, but you set the bar very high with White Teeth, Ms Smith. Can you please find another meteor?

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Movie review – La La Land

For once the hype is justified.

Well, almost….

Winner of a record 7 Golden Globes – in every category for which it received a nomination – La La Land is surely bound for Oscar glory too.

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The movie is written and directed by the enviably talented Damien Chazelle, still only 31 and the creator of Whiplash, another jazz-themed original piece of artistic brilliance from a couple of years ago.

La La Land sets out its musical stall in the dazzling opening set-piece. Gridlocked LA commuters jump out of their cars and onto the freeway tarmac, bursting with colourful, choreographed energy.

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Chazelle has created a musical drama very much for the 21st century. There are too many nods to old-time Hollywood song-and-dance classics to call out, but La La Land is a brilliant and original updating of the genre.

Emma Stone is Mia, a wannabe actress pouring coffee for stars in the Warner Bros film studios between her own unsuccessful auditions .

Ryan Gosling is jazz pianist Sebastian, forced to betray his musical principles to pay the bills.

Mia and Sebastian meet, They fall in love. They break up.

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So far, so very Hollywood. But the freshness comes from Chazelle’s use of music, dance and lush cinematography – and the chemistry between Stone and Gosling – to bring the story to sumptuous, vibrant life.

With a critic’s hat on, the movie feels a little like a game of two halves. The first is musical, the second more conventionally wordy. And I’m not totally convinced by the Sliding Doors-like alternative ending to the love story…..

But these are churlish observations.

Leave your cynicism at the cinema door, open your cold English hearts and embrace the cloudless skies and musical warmth of highly original La La Land.

And start counting those Oscars……

Christmas Wine Taste Test Results

We sniffed, we looked, we held to the light, we checked for tears and legs, we sipped….and then we guzzled.

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Christmas Day in the Morris household (thanks, Paul & Carol) got off to a flying start, with a rather special wine tasting challenge.

I wrote before Christmas about how I was about to break open my first prized bottle of Sassicaia, from the renowned Tenuta San Guido estate, near the Tuscan coast. And how I didn’t think my oenophile brother would be able to tell the difference between a £120 bottle of wine, and a more modest £10 one.

I moved the goalposts a little, I must admit. The contenders were a decent Barolo (£20) and a more modest Cabernet-Merlot from the Barossa Valley in Oz (£10). Neither of which were direct Cabernet Sauvignon competitors for the mighty Sassicaia.

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So the test was all about price v taste.

How did we do?

It’s all a bit of a blur, to be honest. The only thing I can report with any confidence is that nephew Steve was the only guzzler to get all 3 wines in the right order. Take a bow, Steve. Move over, Bruv…the baton has been passed to the next generation.

What conclusions can we draw?

Absolutely none.

I probably didn’t let the wines breathe for long enough. They were all transported close to a lot of cheese. And some cranberry jelly. And we’d already drunk a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc, with some smoked salmon and other nibbly stuff. And we swallowed, rather than spat. And perhaps we just know a lot less about wine than we thought….

But it was fun.

I think the next bottle of Sassicaia will be opened in splendid isolation. No fraternising with cheese during transportation. No confusion with other wines, however extravagant or humble. And decanted, aerating for much longer. And perhaps eaten alongside some rather buonissimo Italian food.

But in the end, I guess all that matters is enjoyment. Whatever the price. A metaphor for life.