Friday, February 26, 2016

rams

Moira+I went to the Watershed cinema last night (yes, twice in two days for me!) to see Grimur Hakonarson’s film about two ageing Icelandic brothers who haven’t communicated for forty years – despite being neighbours - until their sheep flocks are threatened by disease.
For some time now, Iceland has provided a rather strange and attractive fascination for Moira and me - which only increased after we both read Sarah Moss’s “Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland” as one of Book Group books (recommended!), so it seemed only natural that we should see this film.
To be honest, even with the benefit of a little time for reflection, I still don’t quite know what to make of the film.
Lots of rather beautiful, bleak, wintry scenery… plus keen observation, sardonic humour and fine performances from the two brothers (Gummi, played by Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, and Kiddi, played by Theodor Juliusson). It’s a film about independence, self-reliance, isolationism, reconciliation… and stubborn stupidity(!).
The film was the winner of last year’s “Un Certain Regard” prize and apparently enjoyed a rapturous standing ovation. Judging by the audience’s somewhat stunned reaction at the end of last night’s showing, I find the standing ovation a little hard to understand… but, hey, what do I/we know?
Not quite an Icelandic saga, but it definitely made engaging viewing!
If Trump becomes the next US President and the EU referendum vote goes the wrong way, I might consider becoming an Icelandic sheepfarmer…
PS: I rather liked that the film credits included the names of the some of the sheep “stars” (including one named “Saga”)!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

bone tomahawk

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon (and our friend Sarah was there too) to see S Craig Zahler’s film entitled “Bone Tomahawk”. To be honest, I’d only made up my mind to see it this morning – it wasn’t one of those films that I’d earmarked as a “must-see” movie. I just fancied another trip to the cinema.
On the face of it, it all seemed like a typical Western movie – you know the plot: a tribe of American Indians is terrorizing a frontier town. But this is no ordinary tribe of Indians. Certainly not.
These are cannibalistic cave-dwellers called Troglodytes!
Essentially, late one night, the Indians kidnap the local doctor (Samantha O’Dwyer – played by Lili Simmons), an imprisoned outlaw and the on-duty jail guard and take them off to their cave in the distant hill country. The town sheriff (Franklin Hunt – played by the excellent Kurt Russell) puts together a somewhat pathetic posse, consisting of himself, his ageing deputy (Richard Jenkins), the doctor’s husband Arthur (played by Patrick Wilson) and a rather sinister, conceited gun-fighter (Matthew Fox).
It’s a slow-burning, powerful film (at times, I felt that it was almost too slow) which keeps its focus and tension to the end. I’m still trying to come to terms with one particular moment of suspended disbelief (well, it was for me anyway), when Arthur (the other three had gone on ahead due to his badly-injured leg) takes an age to perform the minor surgery of removing a bone ornament from a cannibal’s throat whilst muttering aloud to himself: “Is that jewellery?”… and then proceeds just to “know” that, if he blows the aforementioned piece of jewellery, it will make an eerie sound that will be readily identified by the Troglodytes (and act as a lure or decoy). But, hey, perhaps I’d just closed my eyes at the wrong time and missed something?
I don’t think I should divulge any further details… except, perhaps, to say:
a)      that the film IS violent (or, as the Watershed’s blurb describes it: “violent, with a capital V!”),
b)      that it probably contains the most brutal death scene I’ve ever seen in the cinema,
c)       that I’m going to be practising my own, ghastly, primeval roar to terrify potential burglars, inconsiderate car drivers and the like (you’ll know what I mean if you see the film), and
d)      that I feel somewhat silly in not realising that the film title referred to a weapon… and not to someone’s name or piece of china!
I’ve just read a review by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw (who rated it a four-star film) and he reckons that “cult status could beckon” for this film… and I think he could well be proved right.
I certainly think this is a film you should see… BUT I strongly advise not to watch it immediately following a large meal!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

february 2016 books

More book stuff:
The Old Ways (Robert Macfarlane): I’m a great fan of Macfarlane (I’ve previously read and greatly enjoyed two of his other books: ‘Mountains of the Mind’ and ‘The Wild Places’). He’s an extremely gifted, intelligent writer who has a captivating, almost poetic, writing style. Essentially, this is a book about what it is to follow a path (on land or at sea). John Banville reckons that ‘Macfarlane reminds us of what it is to be civilised’ and I certainly wouldn’t argue with that. This paragraph, from near the end of the book, gives a “feel”: ‘As I walk, scenes open up in my memory from the paths I have followed, coming fast and clear as lantern slides: the green phosphorescent wake of Jubilee as she trundles north to Sula Sgeir, the white paths of the English chalk country, Manus’s three-stoned cairn-tracks overflown by gannets, the mirror-line of the Broomway. Bodily recollections surface: the rasp of limestone in Palestine, the slim iron needles of the Spanish pine woods, the sandstone dust of the Black Mountains, so soft underfoot. The remembered senses of spaces small and wide: the beehive shieling set in the open moor of Lewis, the cool interior of the qasr near Ramallah, the dark glassy water under a stone arch on the Shiants. And so many people, so many path-followers’. I absolutely LOVED this very special book.
Why I Wake Early (Mary Oliver): I love Oliver’s poetry. She has a natural gift for conveying the wonder of the ordinary (even if perhaps, for me, this book lays a little too much emphasis on the creatures she encounters on her morning walks!). The book’s title is particularly apt for me (early morning creature that I am!) and I can imagine her taking her unhurried, daily morning walks amongst the local pinewoods, ponds and hills. I love the fact that she sees (and celebrates) things that most people might never notice. Looking, seeing, reflecting, celebrating the simple things in life. Another beautiful book.
A Heart So White (Javier Marias): This is our Book Group’s latest book. The original’s written in Spanish and, I must admit, I struggled with the rather stilted style of the translation at first. The book has a somewhat unnerving, haunting quality as it chronicles the unremitting power of the past. There are clearly family secrets, and Juan begins to ponder what he doesn't really want to know. Juan’s job means he has to shuttle between the UN in New York and the Hague for six to eight weeks at a time, while his wife remains behind in Madrid to establish their home together. In Juan's absence she develops a close relationship with her father-in-law, a charismatic art dealer named Ranz who, though in his seventies, has not lost the charm that enabled him to marry three times despite the fact that his first wife died mysteriously and the second committed suicide upon returning from their honeymoon (and he ended up marrying his second wife’s sister!). Juan is dogged by feelings of unease and suspicion. It's a novel about the nature of relationships, truth, deception and much more. Juan's slow narrative style, and his thought process, slowly creep under the one's skin. Beautifully written and cleverly conceived. I’m looking forward to hearing what our other book group members make of it!
Epitaph To ‘Nickle Eck’ (Eric Yates): Coming from Birmingham myself, the sub-title to this book (“Childhood Mischief in Wartime Birmingham”) rather appealed. It tells various tales of two brothers (Eric and John) during WW2 and, on the face of it, might have been quite interesting. Unfortunately, I rather think the author (he worked for Bass Charrington for 20 years – ironically, my brother also worked for them in the early 1970s - and was also a one-time presenter for BBC Radio Birmingham and ‘into’ amateur dramatics) saw himself as God’s gift to story-telling. Sadly, he isn’t. Eric Yates’ wife put the book together after his death and, although he was clearly a ‘character’, I found her descriptions of his talents just a little over-the-top (“About The Author”). Here’s just one example: “he and his wife performed in Salcombe, where he is celebrated in the South Hams for his performance in the famous music hall sketch ‘Dinner for One’” (really?). The book is mildly amusing, but hardly the “treasure trove of Second World War stories” that the cover claims! Sorry!
Night Cycles (Beth Morey): This book is a collection of raw poetry centred on a theme of spiritual death and resurrection (drawn from Morey’s own experience of that desert place Saint John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul). This all sounds pretty bleak – and, certainly, some of it is – but I actually found her words encouraging and hopeful. She writes with a simple directness and with the ability to articulate emotions and feelings. I’ll certainly be dipping into these poems on a regular basis.

Monday, February 15, 2016

valentine’s day massacre…

Yesterday, for the first time for over 20 years (yes, I know, shameful!), I attended a Villa home game.The opponents were Liverpool and I sat alongside my great mates Steve and Dan Eyre (great mates – even if they’re also Liverpool supporters!)
Well, as anyone who has the remotest interest in football will know, things didn’t go too well for the Villa… This is a slight understatement.
They lost 0-6.
It was their worst ever home defeat in the Premier League.
Liverpool didn’t actually play brilliantly either... they really didn’t need to (they scored six goals from nine shots on target!).
Villa’s performance was extremely painful to watch… embarrassing for all concerned. Lack of skill; lack of passion; lack of leadership; lack of ideas; lack of organisation; lack of talent… and, perhaps not surprisingly, complete and utter lack of confidence.
Villa were pretty much clueless in defence (frequently statuesque). In their current plight, the manager must surely look to the senior players to use their experience and to help and encourage the younger players. In the event, Lescott and, in particular, Richards (both England internationals) had terrible games. Lescott’s positioning was dire throughout the afternoon and Richards just didn’t seem interested in playing at all (and he’s the team captain!)
Villa’s midfield was poor (they failed to support the attack in any numbers and left the defence wide open): Westwood was one of the few players who seemed prepared to battle (but I really question if he’s a premier league player – not for much longer anyway!); Bacuna had an awful game (riddled with errors); ironically, defensive midfielder Gana looked reasonable going forward, but lacked any the cutting edge to counter the opposition’s midfield; Veretout was largely anonymous and never really got involved.
All too often, when Villa DID attack, it involved just one isolated forward. Agbonlahor was ineffective and apparently went off with vertigo (yes!); although Gil was probably Villa’s most skilful player, he again lacked support; the “talented” Sinclair (he came on after 58 minutes) consistently fails to “produce the goods” (but he did hit the post and was Villa’s most effective player - not particularly high praise in the circumstances!).
Villa’s performance yesterday was abject.
They’re clearly going to be relegated this season – on paper, they COULD escape but, in reality, based on this performance, it’s just not going to happen… and, frankly, they don’t deserve to avoid relegation.
People talk of Villa being “too big a club for the Championship” and that they’ll have no problem bouncing straight back up to the Premier League the following season. Frankly, without a wholesale cull of the existing playing staff and new investment, this is just a fairytale.
I’m old enough to remember Villa dropping down from the old First Division to the old Third Division in four seasons (1967-1971)… and, believe me, it was a very tough job clawing their way back to Division One (which they did in 1975).
One might have imagined that the fans would have booed the team off the field at the end (yes, there were SOME boos, but not that many in the circumstances) or to have simply staged a mass walk-out 20 minutes before the end… but no. Instead, the wonderful Holte End supporters ended the game in full voice (constant chanting+clapping)… and bragging to the Liverpool supporters that THEY were making more noise at the end of the game!
Dan+Steve were very magnanimous at the end of the game – almost embarrassed by how easy it had been. In the meantime, I’m expecting a letter from Villa’s Board of Directors asking me not to attend another home game for at least another twenty years!
Photograph: the huge Villa banner being paraded at the Holte End before the game (the “exit” sign, top right, seems somewhat apt in the circumstances!).

Monday, February 08, 2016

trumbo

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Jay Roach’s film “Trumbo” – about the Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (played by the excellent Bryan Cranston), who was blacklisted in 1947 after refusing to testify in the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The ‘Hollywood Ten’ (all screenwriters, directors or producers) were cited for contempt of Congress and blacklisted after refusing to answer questions about their alleged involvement with the Communist Party. Yes, Trumbo was ridiculously na├»ve (in my view), but one forgets how frightening the McCarthy era of the 1940s/50s was – heightened political repression against communists and a campaign spreading fear of their influence on American institutions. Trumbo was subsequently sent to prison… and, when released, found it virtually impossible to get work.
The era brings to mind the Nazi persecution of the Jews… and the power of the State to hoodwink an entire population (virtually). It’s sickening to think about the number of lives (individuals and families) that were blighted, or even lost, by such policies. Ironically, this morning, my friend Jennie posted this photograph of political prisoners being rounded up political prisoners being rounded up in the 1930s to be taken into Dachau concentration camp: “the gentlemen shown are socialists, communists and Trade Unionists”.
Anyway, back to the film…
Trumbo ends up “ghost writing” screenplays in order to avoid recognition (and to earn some money) and Kirk Douglas persuades him to do this on his “Spartacus” film – for which he ultimately DOES receive recognition (and an Oscar)… I was just a little disappointed that they didn’t get to use the line: “I’m a communist”… “no, I’m a communist” in the Trumbo film!!
A powerful, very impressive film… and a reminder of just how difficult it is to stand up against a government or an institution.
PS: Somewhat frighteningly, the House Committee on Un-American Activities wasn’t disbanded until 1975.
PPS: There are an awful lot of cigarettes smoked in the film!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

spotlight

Moira and I took the usual step of going to the Watershed this MORNING to see this Tom McCarthy film about the Boston Globe reporters who, in 2001/2, uncovered a widespread scandal of child abuse and cover-ups within the local Catholic Church.
It’s based on actual events and, as you can imagine, it’s not a film that contains many laughs…
BUT, I found it absolutely compelling.
It reminded me of “All The President’s Men” (about the Watergate scandal - made in 1976 and starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford). The Boston Globe newspaper’s small, tenacious “Spotlight” team of reporters slowly unravel a series of systematic cover-ups of child molestations within the Massachusetts priesthood. It all takes time… and huge determination – against a Catholic Church who, despite repeated allegations of misconduct against minors in its care, simply moved accused priests from parish to parish rather than allowing them to face justice.
The team starts off believing they have evidence against a couple of priests within the Massachusetts area… then the list of names grows to five, then nine, then 13… then, through an ex-priest who worked trying to rehabilitate pedophile priests, they conclude that there should be approximately ninety abusive priests in Boston. Through their research, they develop a list of eighty-seven names, and begin to find their victims to back up their suspicions. At every stage, the Church (assisted by top-flight lawyers) blocked their investigations.
In the end, the journalists are the victors (and some of the surviving victims obtain justice).

You’re left feeling a sense of utter outrage against the Catholic Church as an institution. At times, it felt rather like a story of shameful Popes of the 15th+16th centuries – all powerful and untouchable. It reminded me of some quotes about the holocaust (eg. …“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me”).You can also imagine that if the Boston Globe had only uncovered evidence of misconduct by perhaps a couple of priests, then we might still know nothing of the widespread nature of these atrocities… with the Church making reassuring noises.You’re also left feeling a sense of admiration for those journalists (and their superiors) who were prepared to invest huge amounts of time, effort and money to try to investigate these matters (and taking massive risks in the process).
Thank goodness they did.   
The film ends with a massive list of locations throughout the world where similar cases of misconduct have subsequently been exposed. It’s simply shocking. It left me feeling sorry for the victims, and innocent members and priests of the Catholic Church… and for other Christians throughout the world who’d also been betrayed by what had happened.
The Spotlight team proved that Cardinal Bernard Law (Archbishop of Boston) had not only known about the extent of the problem, but had chosen to ignore it.
The film finishes on a powerful, albeit ironic, note when, in the final credits, it simply states that, following the events in the film, the Catholic Church had reassigned Cardinal Bernard Law to a senior position of honour in Rome.
You really couldn’t make it up!
A very powerful, quite brilliant film – and one which I definitely think you should see.