Tag Archives: Movies

Book review – Into the Water

The Girl on the Train was a stellar chart-topping publishing success for Paula Hawkins, the psychological thriller selling over 18 million copies worldwide and being adapted into a big-budget Hollywood movie, starring Emily Blunt.

So how does a writer follow that?

With Into the Water, another psychological murder mystery, but told this time from the viewpoint of multiple characters, and across seemingly disparate narrative threads.

In the last days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help.

Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind.

But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped.

And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool . . .

One of the central characters is the fictional Northumberland town of Beckford, where Jules is forced to return for her sister’s funeral, and where she also has her own demons.

I struggled a little in the first part of this book. There seemed to me to be too many narrators, too many “inconvenient women” dying in the Drowning Pool, spanning too many years.

But like a dexterous seamstress, the author pulls together all the frayed ends and disparate threads in a nerve-jangling finale. My friend and colleague Tina, from TripFiction, observes in her own  review that: the book is constructed like a circular eddy, reflecting the motion of the water in the Drowning Pool – the characters, too, go round in circles. 

Exactly.

But – ultimately – I found this an engaging, well written and cleverly constructed novel, that will no doubt also end up on the big screen.

Thank you, Ms Hawkins…..where next, I wonder?

Paula Hawkins – image courtesy of the BBC

 

 

Review of Neruda – a cinematic trip to Chile

Here is my published review of the film Neruda, on TripFiction:

Neruda (a cinematic trip to Chile), in cinemas 7 April 2017 #nerudafilm

If truth be told, I don’t get quite as excited by poetry as I do by a good novel, or by a film. Or by travel, for that matter.

But Pablo Neruda somehow transcends poetry, and a special screening by the BFI of a film by celebrated Chilean director Pablo Larrain about an intriguing episode in Naruda’s life was too good an opportunity to miss. And I have always been interested by Chile since watching Missing, a 1982 film about the coup of 1973, launched almost on the exact same day that Neruda died.

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Why special? An introduction by Adam Feinstein, author of the first English language biography of Neruda, provided perfect context for when and where the film slotted into the complex life of the Nobel prize-winning poet. And animated recitals of several of Neruda’s poems by actors – in Spanish by Jorge de Juan, with English translations performed by Nickolas Grace – offered a glimpse into the prodigious creative output of the poet.

The film covers a 13-month period from 1948-49. At the outset, Neruda is a Communist party senator in the country’s riven government, speaking out loudly against the right-wing President’s increasing oppression of workers and unions. Neruda and his Argentinian wife Delia enjoy a somewhat elitist and sybaritic lifestyle, but that all changes when the poet is forced underground to avoid arrest and potential assassination.

Moving from house to house, thanks to support from Communist party supporters, Neruda’s reputation as The People’s Poet is cemented through his increasingly radical social poems, mocking the government and rallying workers.

But this is far from being a biopic. In fact the director himself calls Neruda an anti-biopic. Larrain intentionally blurs fact with fiction, creating a cat-and-mouse story between the poet and his police pursuer, Oscar Pelucchonneau. Pablo somehow always manages to stay just one verse ahead of Oscar, leaving poems for the hapless policeman to ponder.

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But what is real and what is imagined?

Beautifully filmed, Neruda is an intoxicatingly original concoction of genres….film noir, road movie, thriller, love story, parable. Take your pick.

In a cinematically epic finale, the policeman finally closes in on the poet in the snowy landscape of the Lilpela Pass, high in the Andes, as Neruda has been forced to flee from his home country to Argentina. But who is really the hero?

Luis Gnecco perfectly captures the flawed Neruda. A poetic genius? Definitely. Hero of the people? Probably. Arrogant, debauched and selfish? Maybe.

Gael Garcia Bernal almost steals the film as the nuanced Pelucchonneau, in many ways purer of spirit than his quarry, fedora tilted over his lean, noirish face. If only he were real…..

But there is one certainty: this luscious and thought-provoking film has cemented my desire to travel to Chile. And to read more poetry.

Andrew for the TripFiction Team

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Movie review – The Sense of an Ending

Thanks to my Times+ membership, we’ve just seen a pre-release screening of The Sense of an Ending, based on the Julian Barnes novel of the same name.

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Tony Webster is the divorced, almost reclusive and somewhat curmudgeonly owner of a second-hand Leica camera shop in London. He is in close contact with his ex-wife and heavily pregnant daughter, and yet he is emotionally aloof from them.

He is forced to reconsider his view of family, friends and life though, when he receives a strange legacy. The mother of his old girlfriend Veronica from university days, 40 years ago, has died and has bequeathed him a diary. Unexpectedly, the diary belonged to Tony’s old school friend Adrian, who dated the enigmatic Veronica after she and Tony ended their brief and unconsummated relationship.

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But Veronica refuses to give the diary back to Tony, for some reason, and the film delicately unravels the mystery of why, spanning the generations and uncovering uncomfortable truths for Tony.

This is a very English production, filmed mostly on location in Bristol and London, and featuring a stellar cast delivering beautifully understated acting. In the current timeline, Jim Broadbent is the essentially good Tony Webster; Harriet Walter his slightly acerbic wife Margaret;  Charlotte Rampling the older but still mysterious Veronica; Michelle Dockery is the mature daughter Susie facing motherhood alone.

The lesser known actors playing the main characters in their younger years capture perfectly the period and the zeitgeist of youth.

Out in cinemas on general release on April 14th, I’d urge you to see this slow-burning emotional film, whether you’ve read the book or not.

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Movie review – A United Kingdom

Based on a remarkable true story, A United Kingdom opens in post-war London.

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Young black African Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is coming to the end of his education, and about to be recalled to his home country – Bechuanaland, later Botswana – to rule the British Protectorate as hereditary King of nation and tribe.

But he falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund  Pike), who is from a very humble background and who is most definitely the wrong colour, alienating many in Bechuanaland and in Whitehall.

If the story told in the film is remotely close to the truth, it is yet another episode in British colonial history of which we should be ashamed. Driven by the burgeoning cold war, the new policy of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, and the possibility of finding valuable minerals in Bechaunaland, Seretse is banished by the British government from his own land, initially for 5 years and then for life.

But Ruth has remained in Africa, where she gives birth to a daughter and where she slowly wins round the local people.

The only British politician or diplomat to emerge from this shameful overbearing behaviour is a young Tony Benn, who fights Parliament for the right of Seretse to return. Newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill reneges on an earlier promise to overturn the exile, and Jack Davenport deserves credit for his reptilian portrayal of Sir Alistair Canning, a devious – though fictitious – career diplomat who thrives on wielding colonial power over subjugated nations.

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The film moved me to tears. It is a powerful tale rooted in reality, and told with vivid cinematography, particularly of the African landscapes. But it is related somewhat in stark black and white tones – the evil colonial masters against the wholly good Seretse and his pale skinned wife – when I suspect there were many shades of grey in the truth of history.

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No matter. Good wins out, Seretse returns to his homeland and facilitates a new democratically independent country.

And Ruth is even finally reconciled with her own family.

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Movie review – Moonlight

Did Moonlight really win this year’s Oscar for Best Picture?

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I’m sorry, but I really can’t understand why. I’m glad feel-good La La Land didn’t – despite the almighty cock-up that briefly put that movie’s hands on the gilded trophy – but I thought Manchester by the Sea was a more worthy winner. Or even Lion.

Moonlight tells the story of a young black boy growing up in a rough Miami ‘hood, with a crack-head mother, being bullied at school and slowly realising he’s gay. That’s an awful lot of politically correct boxes duly ticked, especially after the previous year’s Oscar furore at the lack of recognition for Black American and other non-white actors.

The film tracks the hard early life of Chiron in three stages: at school, as “Little”, as teenager Chiron; and – 10 years later, after imprisonment – as fully-fledged drug-dealer “Black”, relocated to Atlanta.

The boy’s mother is well played by Naomie Harris, who finally cleans up her act and asks Chiron for forgiveness.

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The only person who really recognises how Little is suffering in his early life is Juan, brilliantly acted by Mahershala Ali, and ironically the dealer who is supplying Little’s mother.

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The potential for some sort of happiness out of this troubled early life comes in the shape of Kevin, an old school friend of Chiron’s, but who also played a part in him being sent to juvenile prison.

The story is sensitively told, but for me the film was too slow, the language of the street too hard to understand, and – call me superficial – but this was a couple of hours of endurance, rather than entertainment.

 

 

 

Movie review – Lion

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A 5 year-old boy lives in poverty in rural northern India, but is much loved by his hard-working mother and older brother Guddu.

Tragically, he is accidentally displaced to the mean streets of Calcutta, where he survives with other lost children, until swept up into a secure facility. Unspeakable things happen here, but young Saroo is fortunate and is adopted by a caring Australian couple.

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He settles in well – Nicole Kidman as your new Mum can’t be a bad experience, after all – but the family unit is destabilised by another arrival from India. Saroo’s newly adoptive brother Mantosh struggles with demons that he sadly never really overcomes.

Saroo thrives in Tasmania though, and qualifies to study hospitality management at university in Melbourne. He embraces the cosmopolitan environment there, and meets and falls in love with Lucy, sympathetically played by Rooney Mara.

But 25 years after being separated from his real family, Saroo becomes desperate to track them down, with inevitably damaging consequences for his Australian family and friends.

Based on a true story, this is a charming film, if a little mawkish at times. I defy you not to be reaching for the Kleenex when Saroo, played by Dev Patel, finally locates his village and family in India.

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Two things linger in my mind after seeing Lion. The scene where Sue Brierley tells Saroo that she and husband John could always have had children of their own, but wanted to offer a better life to parentless children from a poorer society.  And the caption – as the closing credits roll – that 80,000 children are lost in India every year.

 

 

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.

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……

Movie review – I, Daniel Blake

First Odeon Screen Unseen for a while last night. What a great concept. For just £5, it’s a complete surprise what movie you’ll see. Like Forrest Gump’s words of wisdom from his Mum – life is like a box of chocolates…..you never know what you’re gonna get. 

Well, we got I, Daniel Blake, this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, from film-making legend Ken Loach.

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Dave Johns is Daniel Blake, an ageing carpenter who is signed off work with a heart problem.

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This proud, honest working class man loses his dignity and just about everything else as he struggles to penetrate the opaque benefits system. On one of his futile visits to the Job Centre, he tries to help single mother Katie – played by Hayley Squires – and her two young children, relocated from London to Newcastle and also being stonewalled by the rules-bound staff.

The film is relentlessly bleak in its assessment of the welfare state bureaucracy, but through the despair an unlikely friendship is formed and at least some human decency is glimpsed.

Ken Loach is renowned for his political views…somewhere left of Trotsky. But there’s no denying that he makes films that shatter you emotionally and which resonate with powerful issues of the day.

I remember being wowed by Land and Freedom, his 1995 homage to the communist protagonists in the Spanish Civil War….which coincidentally is also what Laurie Lee experiences in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, which I’ve just finished reading.

Next Screen Unseen in November. Hope it’s got a slightly softer centre than I, Daniel Blake.

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Theatre review – The Shawshank Redemption

The 1994 Oscar winning movie The Shawshank Redemption is regularly right at the top of many favourite film of all time lists.

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Based on a novella by Stephen King, it tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker incarcerated in the infamous Shawshank penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover.

Andy initially remains aloof inside the brutal prison, but slowly forms an unlikely friendship with fixer Ellis “Red” Redding. He continually professes his innocence of the double murder, but over the years inside The Shank he uses his wit and intelligence to make life as bearable as possible.

This intriguing tale has now been transported to the stage. I can’t compare to the movie or to the original book, but it stands alone as a thrilling, life-affirming piece of live entertainment.

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Paul Nicholls plays the wily banker, Jack Ellis the devious Warden Stammas and Ben Onwukwe, as Red, is a convincing double for Oscar nominated Morgan Freeman.

With stealthy set changes and a little imagination, we’re on the inside of the penitentiary with the cast, moving seamlessly from the canteen to Andy’s cell – adorned by a Rita Hayworth poster – into the exercise yard and back into the new library, a reward for Andy’s money-laundering efforts for Warden Stammas.

The cast of just eleven men punches well above its collective weight, thanks to a clever soundtrack and theatrical trickery .

We come to despise prison bullies and rapists Bogs and Rooster, pity institutionalised librarian Brooksie and laugh with the other long-term inmates.

In just two hours, we live with them all through almost 20 years of lies, violence, fear, friendship and – ultimately – redemption.

I might yet see the much lauded film one day, but it’s hard to imagine it could be a better experience than seeing this stage adaptation, on a wet September night in Windsor.

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