blogging, book blogger, book blogging, books, fantasy, fucking beautiful, fucking tragic, history, must read, reviews, slavery

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Anyone paying attention to my weekly reading rundowns of late will know that October and November weren’t exactly stellar reading months. I can’t even remember when I started The Underground Railroad but it was at least the beginning of October. I only finished it last week. Admittedly, I took a quick beak in between so I could read And Then There Were None but still. It took me fucking ages. Not because I didn’t enjoy the book but because I’m such a terrible reader. It’s been a couple of months of work madness and illness. The kind of nights when I’d settle down to read only for my eyes to immediately start to droop. I genuinely never thought I was going to get through it. But I persevered. I mean I had to. This was ‘THE’ book of 2016 and we’re nearing the end of 2017. I couldn’t leave it any longer. Although, having still not read loads of my most anticipated reads of the last 2 years, I guess I could have guessed it was going to be a struggle. One day I’ll learn how real book bloggers do it and get through multiple books a week. Though, I suspect to do that I’d have to give up work. Although, after the day I’ve had, I wouldn’t be dead against that idea.

I’ve not read anything by Colson Whitehead before so I wasn’t really sure what to expect here. I mean I’d heard nothing but amazing things from it. It was near the top of basically every best books list of 2016. Any book that was endorsed by Barack Obama is probably going to be worth checking out, right? It also sounded really amazing; a strange mix of history and fantasy/science fiction that is based on the abolition of slavery. Surely if there was any book that was going to grab someone’s attention then it’s that. Whitehead takes the narrative that we all know and gives it a new spin. The underground railroad was, as we all know, a metaphor for the network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape their captivity. In The Underground Railroad that concept becomes a fully-fledged network of rail tracks that span for miles deep underground. It is both a simple and brilliant idea that manages to bring a sense of wonder and magic to such a harrowing subject.

We are taken on our underground journey along with slave Cora who is encouraged to escape from her vicious owner by a fellow slave, Caesar. The pair find themselves running for their lives and placing their safety in the hands of strangers. After a tense wait, they are quickly ferried away in a rickety old boxcar to start their new lives. The train leaves intermittently so any fleeing slaves are forced to wait and see what their future holds. As they travel between new communities and try to forget the past, the pair are being pursued by a ruthless slave catcher, Ridgeway, who has a personal vendetta with Cora. Or, at least, her mother. Years earlier Cora was abandoned when her mother, Mabel, escaped from the same plantation. Ridgeway was unable to track her down and it is a failure that has haunted him ever since. He vows to make amends by capturing her daughter and returning her to her rightful owner. There is an unending sense of doom throughout this novel even as Cora steams ahead on her journey. It always seems highly unlikely that she will ever be free.
Despite how long it took me, The Underground Railroad was a fantastic read. Whitehead’s prose is beautiful and his descriptions of the railroad itself are spectacular. He has a rare ability to mix fact with fiction without ever ruining the sense of realism. You know there is a lot of artistic license at play here but there is such a strong undercurrent of fact that it always feels possible. The novel isn’t exactly an exploration of slavery and American history as it is a way to recapture the history of slavery. One of the key ideas within the novel is how people remember certain events or, in most cases, remember incorrectly. The topic of black history is so often taken over by white people. It is their description of events that make up the foundation of the past. Whitehead is taking back the history of the black American struggle not by faithfully reconstructing it but by representing it incorrectly. And it is all the more effective and memorable.
My only issue, if I had to admit to one, isn’t actually one to do with the novel itself. I’ve read a lot of reviews praising Colson Whitehead for not holding back. As one review describes he “opens his eyes where the rest of us would look away”. I guess he does but I can’t say that I really found the things he was saying that different to any other slave narrative; I mean aside from the fantastical elements. The novel does a great job of highlighting the plight of the slave and the danger of escaping the clutches of an evil plantation owner. However, it isn’t breaking new ground. Whilst I was studying for my Postgraduate degree I did a module on empire and race in the Romantic period so I had to read a fair few first hand accounts of people who were kidnapped and sold as slaves. The Underground Railroad is, for the most part, just another account like this but, really, less realistic. A lot of people I’ve seen on Instagram have said this was a difficult read because it was so harrowing: I have to disagree. I think, for the most part, the violence is underplayed or glossed over.
I’m not saying it’s a bad novel or not worth reading but I can’t agree with the people who believe it is breaking down boundaries. It’s not the happiest read but it’s also not the most gratuitous. Not that I’d want it to be torture porn or anything. It handles the conditions of slavery with a deft hand and that’s a good thing. However, it is in no way a comparison to the real-life accounts you could read. What Whitehead does it open a dialogue about slavery and the the reaction to race in the modern world. His themes are all very relevant today and throughout history. You can see it in the way he alludes to classic literature and modern events. He uses the backdrop of slavery and one young woman’s situation to show us a deeper truth. But it’s not a truth about slavery. That’s been available to see for years… just not written inside a novel.
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Ben Stiller, cliche, films, fucking funny, fucking sweet, fucking tragic, Michael Sheen, midlife crisis

Tuesday’s Reviews – Brad’s Status (2017)

For me, the experience of applying for university was a nightmare. I had to apply twice because I had to resist one of my A Levels. For my friends A Level results day was a time to celebrate and look forward to their journey ahead. Me? I ended up in tears and having to call my mum to look after me. I didn’t get a place so was faced with either going through clearing (something my head couldn’t deal with) or taking a year out and trying again. That was back in the day when there weren’t many places left in clearing so I, inevitably, went for the latter. This means I experienced my fair share of open days. They always left me feeling more than a little overwhelmed. I once went to one at Sheffield, which I attended on my own as part of a last minute decision. In hindsight it was probably a bad choice because, in those days, I wasn’t exactly known for my ability to navigate. I somehow managed to find my way to where I needed to be but promptly got lost in the city during a break. Now I’m so old that this was before we all carried smart phones with handy maps in them so I just wandered around until I eventually made my way back to campus before my tour began. It probably made me a

better person and gave me a handy answer for the question “tell us about a time when you had to solve a problem under pressure”. In the end I went to Lancaster University for my undergraduate course. My first visit to my alma mater was on Valentine’s day, a fact I remember because my father, when he had briefly wandered off, was given a heart chocolate from a student. I made that sound way creepier than it was to; people were handing them out to everyone. Still, I’ll never forget that first visit to the place that shaped so much of my life. I’d never really gotten over the fact that I lost my place at Sheffield the year before so it was decision that I was never sure about. Well not until about one week in to my first term. Everything just started fitting into place and I realised that I was exactly where I was meant to be.

The reason for my nostalgia comes from having just watched Ben Stiller’s new role as an anxious father taking his son on college tours. By the time I was applying for universities my parents had already been through the process with my older sister. Of course, this time they were having to deal with both myself and my twin going through the motions. They may have already gone through the stages but having to do it twice at the same time must have been interesting. It certainly is for Brad Sloan (Stiller) who is using his son’s future as a chance to reflect on his own life and have a bit of a breakdown. More of a breakdown, it would seem, than his son, Troy (Austin Abrams), who is handling the stress with maturity and a quite confidence. With Brad’s wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), busy at work, the pair are left to travel to Boston on their own. As Troy tries to make the most of the experience, his father descends deeper into an ever bleaker state. When speculating on his son’s success, Brad can’t help but think it will just be another reason for people to see himself as a failure.

As we quickly learn, Brad has been unhappy with the trajectory that his life took after he left college. His friends have all gone on to bigger and better things whilst he settled into a suburban life in Sacramento. He hasn’t found fame or fortune but heads up a non-profit organisation. For many men this would be a positive but Brad can’t help but compare himself to his headline grabbing buddies. There’s the talented director Nick (Mike White) who lives in a huge mansion in Hollywood; hedge-fund manager Jason (Luke Wilson) who married into money and a lucrative career; Billy (Jermaine Clement) who lives a dreamy and hedonistic existence in Hawaii after retiring at 40; and, finally, celebrity author and political pundit, Craig (Michael Sheen). Through his television screen and the pages of magazines, these four appear to have the perfect life and leave Brad feeling as though he wasted his potential.

Brad’s Status always keeps us up-to-date on what Brad is feeling thanks to the constant voice-over. I admit that I found this incredibly irritating at the start of the film and it seemed like nothing more than an easy way to keep the emotional crisis moving. It’s clunky and obvious and is certainly not helped by being horribly cliche-filled. I can’t say that I ever really warmed to it but the constant insight into Brad’s thoughts ended up becoming fairly easy to ignore. I don’t think the film needed it but it’s not the most disastrous of voice-overs.

However, the basis of this film and White’s script is full of great things. The basic premise is something we’ve seen countless times before but it is a film full of shrewd and funny insights into the human mind. Brad’s feelings are things that everyone will understand so he never comes across as indulgent or selfish. White is holding up a mirror to his audience but never making any real judgement calls. Brad is held captive by his frail masculinity and his dual feelings concerning money. It is White’s script and some measured performances by the cast that mean Brad’s Status doesn’t feel tired and unoriginal. The chemistry between Stiller and Abrams is excellent and you can feel the tenderness that exists despite Brad’s jealousy of his son. Michael Sheen provides the film with one of its standout scenes as the vicious and deplorable Craig.

Brad’s Status is one of those films that I really enjoyed but felt that it definitely could have been better. I’ve always had a massive love of Michael Sheen and think that it certainly helped. Although, I hate it when he plays a dickhead character. I find myself still kind of in love with him whilst hating him with a passion. It’s very confusing! Stiller is on top form here but it is a shtick that we’ve seen from him countless times now. If he’s not careful it will become as familiar as his comedy standbys. White’s script is that same quality we’ve come to expect but his direction leaves something to be desired. The overall result is sloppier than it should be and it makes everything feel a bit flat. There are plenty of key moments that are sensational but this films could have been great.

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books, British, film, films, fucking sweet, fucking tragic, Jim Broadbent, Man Booker, meh, reviews

Tuesday’s Reviews – The Sense of an Ending (2017)

Despite all of my best efforts I am still without a computer of my own. Not, I would like to point out, because of my limited skills but because of the postal service. I am awaiting an important component to arrive before I attempt to revive my busted laptop. So, I’m once again writing today’s post fairly quickly during an interval in which I have access to the internet outside of my phone. Which is a shame because I’ve wanted to see this film for ages. The Julian Barnes novel it was adapted from sat on my bookshelf, unread, for years. As winners of the Man Booker Prize go, it’s a pretty small book but I just couldn’t bring myself to read it. Until a few years ago when I did and promptly realised that I probably should have waited for a bit longer. It was a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I think it deserved a better reader. It was one of those books that really takes you to the heart of a character and explore’s the idea that our individual history’s will always be, in some respects, unreliable. I definitely want to read it again because Barnes is a great writer and it’s such a complex but readable story. So, when I discovered it was being turned into a film starring the fabulous Jim Broadbent I knew it was going to be a must see for this year.

The other week, as I was going to sleep, it suddenly crossed my mind that, one day, Judi Dench is going to die. I mean it’s an inevitability but it was an incredibly sad thought that kept me up a good few hours. I never really thought of myself as being terribly attached to Judi Dench but this nighttime realisation really hit me. She’s both a brilliant actor and, from what I can tell, an incredibly lovely human being. I try not to get too caught up in the social media frenzy of melodrama when news hits of a the death of a famous person but I would be genuinely saddened by this. I only mention this because, upon watching The Sense of an Ending, I felt the very same thing about Jim Broadbent. He’s the kind of actor that turns up in things that you wouldn’t really expect and, as such, has probably been a big part of my cultural upbringing. Having the ability to turn his hand to anything has meant he has been seen in some of my favourite films and television series. Without wishing to sound like an absolute dickhead, a world without Jim Broadbent would be a sadder one.

It is Broadbent, after all, that makes the film adaptation of The Sense of an Ending so compelling to watch. As is often the case with book to film manoeuvres, there is a lot that has been lost in translation. The film really only scrapes the surface of the novel and neatens everything off into a pleasant Hollywood ending. It never quite reaches the dizzying heights that Barnes managed to. Yet, thanks to Broadbent’s turn as Tony Webster, the film is perfectly watchable and quite enjoyable. The role is ideal for the actor and he gets to play every old man stereotype perfectly whilst also exploring the deeper history that is hidden away. This isn’t the jolly old gent that has become the Broadbent staple of the past few years. Tony is a curmudgeonly man who tends to put his own interests first. He’s a little pompous and rude but has a deep love for his daughter (Michelle Dockery) and ex-wife (Harriet Walter). He is content to live his life as he always has until a blast from his past forces him to review his version of history.

When the mother of his first love dies she leaves him something in her will. Whilst this is confusing enough, matters are further complicated when his ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to hand over the diary. It was written by Tony’s best friend from school Adrian (Joe Alwyn) who committed suicide whilst he was at university. Adrian, Tony and Veronica had been part of a love triangle of sorts after Tony introduced his friend to his lover. Instead of reacting in the understanding way that he’d always allowed himself to remember, Veronica reintroduces Tony to the awful truth regarding the end of their friendship. A venomous letter, written in the heat of the moment, not only destroyed the relationship of the young men but set about a series of events that had a monumental affect on many people’s lives. Tony must come face-to-face with this truth and, as a result, come to terms with the man he really is.

The Sense of an Ending is, at its most basic, a story about how history is recorded. We are told history is written by the victors to highlight their heroism but, by that same token, it must also be written by the bad guys who wish to diminish their role in proceedings. Once Veronica comes back into his life Tony comes to understand that the good guy he thought he was was merely a whitewashed version he allowed himself to remember. I really enjoyed this film but I was a fan of the book. It isn’t the greatest of adaptations so I can see that some people might not see the appeal. The narrative that takes us back to Tony and Adrian’s youth are wonderful and vivacious scenes that work well with the slower insights into contemporary London. Full of their references to Dylan Thomas and a youthful hunger to learn and impress people with their knowledge. However, as the film plods on the message wears a little thinner and the final reveal doesn’t quite have the same impact as the book. It all feels a little flat by the end.

That’s not to say that it isn’t perfectly enjoyable in its own right. Jim Broadbent and co are all remarkable in their roles and bring the complexity of each relationship to light. The story has its absorbing moments and themes that really resonate through the whole narrative. However, for a film all about first love there is a lack of passion on show. It’s as is the film didn’t really know what ending it was supposed to be showcasing and everything got a bit muddled. There is a sense of a grandeur here that only a film adapted from such a critically acclaimed novel really has. It never allows itself to ease into the story or the characters and is constantly aware of everything it has to do. It’s a shame because, really, the performances are all rather enjoyable and Broadbent carries the whole thing off remarkably.

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Christopher Nolan, films, fucking beautiful, fucking sad, fucking tragic, Kenneth Branagh, reviews, Tom Hardy, war, world war II

Tuesday’s Reviews – Dunkirk (2017)


So, I guess I have to start off today’s post by apologising for a lack of Rundown this week. I’ve been away this weekend for a big family celebration. August 20th 2017 was the 40th anniversary of my parent’s marriage and my older sister’s 1st anniversary. To celebrate the entire clan made their way to a lovely cottage in Scotland. The rest of my family managed to get the Friday off work but I had to travel up after I finished my shift. It meant the latter half of my week was pretty intense. It was my intention to either get ahead with my Sunday post or do it on Monday, when I got back. Neither of those things came to fruition and I decided it was better to just not do one. Which is a shame because I’ve actually done some fucking reading this week. Anyway, I’m back now and ready to get on with my regularly scheduled uploads. Starting with a review I wanted to write in reaction to this weekend. My twin sister’s boyfriend made the very bold statement that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk wasn’t worth watching. An opinion that goes against everything that everyone has ever said about it. So, because I’m really stubborn and love proving people wrong, I decided it was time I watched it myself. Because I refuse to believe something that looks that good could ever be described as much worse than Saving Private Ryan.

When you talk about World War II on the big screen there will be very few people who won’t reference the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and for good reason. It is still one of the most iconic opening sequences in film history. Spielberg places his audience in the midst of a very bloody, dramatic and, ultimately, realistic depiction of American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach in 1944. It’s awful but shows the true cost of the conflict. After that, well, things get more Hollywood and it turns into a kind of ridiculous narrative littered with sequences of war porn that will keep any young boy on the edge of his seat. You can see why people love it but, when it comes to realistic portrayal of WWII, it’s safe to say that Spielberg kind of loses his way.

There’s a danger that every Hollywood depiction of any major historical conflict will eventually forgo accuracy in favour of excitement and action. I can see why; for one thing we want to celebrate the sacrifice that young men made for our future as well as satisfying the modern film audience. Well, that’s where Dunkirk makes itself stand out. For starters the film is based around an important military defeat. French, British and Belgian troops were trapped by German soldiers and we forced to evacuate. It was only luck and some bad German strategy that so many men were able to be saved. Nolan never intended to write a film about the great victories of WWII but, instead, to create a realistic interpretation of what happened on and around that beach. We don’t know who his characters are or where they came from because, ultimately, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is this moment. Will they survive or be blown to pieces by German fighter pilots?
Dunkirk isn’t anything like Saving Private Ryan. It doesn’t create an overly sentimental narrative that provides plenty of opportunity for heroic acts and men laying down their lives for others. It shows a bunch of scared young men who would do anything in their power to get home. It doesn’t use any real trickery, besides a fantastic score by Hans Zimmer and some sensational visuals, to really bring home the horror. Nolan does everything within his power to confuse your senses and splits the narrative into three distinctive parts. The story is told from land, air and sea and, thanks to the editing, time becomes a rather meaningless and fluid concept. I won’t pretend that the split isn’t a little frustrating and awkward. However, I can appreciate the overriding impact that it has on the film. It all adds to the chaos that Nolan is trying to create and, for the people involved, time would have become meaningless anyway. When you’re potentially seconds away from death with nowhere to hide what does it matter?
For a war film, Dunkirk is a fairly static film. It’s a deceivingly slow and quiet film that creates a real sense of tension, chaos and horror. It lacks much in the way of dialogue but shows you, first-hand, the kind of scenes that will have taken place in 1940. It’s a claustrophobic experience that places you in the very heart of the story. When bombs start dropping you find yourself there not just watching, horrified, from the sidelines. The image that came so prominently out of the trailers was the sweeping shot of a bunch of soldiers crammed into the mole, a pier-like structure that is being used to get men onto awaiting ships. When a German bomber flies overhead the men below are penned in like fish in a barrel. It’s an impressive and haunting visual that really sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Dunkirk works so well because of the images that have been created on screen but it is carried along by the stunning performances on display. The ensemble is, quite frankly, amazing and, though it scares the shit out of me to write it, even Harry Styles himself proves to be pretty watchable. Thee isn’t really anyone who puts a foot wrong here. It’s all sensation, from Tom Hardy’s resolute and ever so slightly gung-ho pilot, Farrier to Mark Rylance’s quiet but steely sailor who is one of the civilians caught up in the rescue mission. Dear old Kenny B oversees all the action with a broody intensity as he closely watches the skies for a glimpse of enemy planes. You meet these people so fleetingly and get no real sense of their characters before they are plunged into danger and chaos. Nolan and his cast have done an amazing job of creating that feeling of being anonymous in a crowd. No single person matters more than anyone else and everyone becomes an equal in the scramble to rescue as many soldiers as possible. It doesn’t even matter that you might not remember who everyone is. That’s the point. It’s the reality of war.
However, despite all of this horrible reality, Dunkirk doesn’t fall into the trap that films like Saving Private Ryan do. It chooses to avoid the R rated violence in favour of a different message. The Dunkirk evacuations were a failure in terms of British military efforts but, at its heart, it is a real underdog story. This is the story of survival and the British spirit that allowed it to happen. What Dunkirk chooses to show instead of bloodshed is the connection between military men and the normal civilians who put themselves in danger to rescue them. I fail to believe there can be a dry eye in the house when the fleet of civilians boats float towards the beach to the sound of rapturous applause from the awaiting men. This film doesn’t attempt to glorify violence or war. Instead it shows the important of people coming together. The strength that can be found in unlikely places. We don’t really see any German forces in this film and, save for a brief reference at the end, we hear nothing from Winston Churchill himself. Dunkirk isn’t really a war film: it is a film of survival and the human spirit. And, no matter what my sister’s boyfriend says, I think its perfect.
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books, fucking beautiful, fucking sad, fucking tragic, must read, reviews, women, Women's Prize for Fiction

Tuesday’s Reviews – First Love by Gwendoline Riley

I’ve not read any of Gwendoline Riley’s previous four books and, really, only picked up her most recent one because it was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It sounded so amazing that I couldn’t resist. I bought this one and The Power as soon as the list was up because I’ll do anything a bunch of literary prize judges tell me to. I’ve been in a bit of reading slump lately so as soon as I finished The Best of Adam Sharp I decided to try and to read Riley’s novel. It’s pretty short and something I’ve been keen to read. Thankfully, this weekend I was in London visiting a friend so I had a train journey to fill with reading. I managed to finish it by the second day. My friend works in publishing so is as obsessed (if not more) with books as I am. So she’s always interested to hear what I’m reading. The trouble with First Love is that I find it so hard to explain what’s going on. I managed to garble out a nonsensical plot summary that really didn’t do the book justice so, when I’d finished it, I decided it was worth another go. Therefore, my Tuesday review this week is either going to be great or just a terrible mistake. We’ll see.

First Love is at it’s simplest a character study. It tells the story of a 30-something female writer, Neve, and her marriage to her older husband, Edwyn. At times the marriage is full of the typically nauseating couple-isms like pet names and affectionate cuddles. However, there is a deep tension waiting just below the surface threatening to bubble over at any second. For every time Edwyn calls Neve “Mrs Pusskins” there will be a cavalcade of insults where she is described as a “fishwife shrew”. It is an uncomfortable marriage that comes out of Neve’s desire to love and need to feel loved. She has spent her life trying to fake independence but is always looking for that relationship to make her feel complete. The steps in her life had lead her to Edwyn who, for all intents and purposes, hates women. Neve knows the relationship is toxic and the novel is her attempt at self-reflection. However, like in real life cases, this self-reflection never quite runs deep enough to self-realisation and an ultimate call to change something.

Instead, the novel spends its time weaving in and out of Neve’s past and present relationships. Her marriage to Edwyn is interspersed with tales of her abusive father and the American musician who would never commit. Her father, who’s death still haunts Neve, found comfort in simultaneously showering his daughter with affection and contempt following her mother’s decision to leave her violent marriage years earlier. Whatever control he delights in taking over the women in his life, Neve’s father has no self control, as evidenced by his death: the man ate himself into an early grave. It is a relationship that has shaped Neve’s adult life and is still holding court over her marriage to Edwyn. It is not exactly difficult to see that her relationship with her husband and her father are linked; it’s something that Edwyn himself is all to keen to remind her of whenever he feels the need.

First Love isn’t the happily-ever-after tale of a young woman who finally finds happiness. Little is written of her first meeting with Edwyn and the growth of their affection for each other. The first snippet we see is her moving her boxes into his pokey flat so it is difficult to understand why she puts up with chaos. This is a narrative that just keeps getting worse and more uncomfortable as it moves on. However, as it descends deeper into a realm of despair most people would be unable to imagine, the novel also gets even more brilliant and engrossing.

There is some light to be found, thankfully, and it mostly comes courtesy of Neve’s self-absorbed mother. There are some fantastic moments in the book where her stream of consciousness monologues take over everything. She’s a fantastic character who, since leaving her abusive husband, has failed to find either herself or a man worthy of her affection. She ties herself to men who don’t have a strong interest in her but she forces her way into their lives one way or another. She lives the kind of happy and solitary existence that is, surely, only served with a side of chronic depression. Whilst the moments the mother and daughter spend together cannot be described as positive, there is something about their sheer absurdity that brings a certain relief to the, otherwise, relentless dim existence of our narrator.

Having not read any of her previous work I’m no expert on her style but if First Love is anything to go by then I’d be a huge fan. It is a bleak work, that cannot be denied, but there Riley is able to pick the perfect words to make everything seem poetic and beautiful in its own right. The prose is, frankly, gorgeous and some of the best writing I’ve read in a really long time. You can’t escape the idea that words have been carefully picked so as to get the exact response that Riley had wanted. There is an effortlessness within the writing that only comes with great care, attention and skill. What is the quote from that Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem? The oxymoronic phrase “so casually coifed”. Riley’s writing can only be described as “so casually coifed” and it’s fantastic. I may only have picked this up because of the Women’s Prize but I’ll never regret having done it.

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anime, fucking awesome, fucking beautiful, fucking sad, fucking tragic, Japan, TBT

TBT – Ghost in the Shell (1995)

I’m super late getting this post up today because I basically fell asleep as soon as I got home from work today. I’ve basically been fighting to stay awake since about 5pm and I totally forgot it was Thursday. Still, better late than never, right? After watching the remake of Ghost in the Shell last week it seemed only fair to watch the classic 1995 anime for my TBT post. As we saw with Beauty and the Beast last week, the problem with remaking films that are pretty much perfect is that you just remind people of all the great things about the original. The scenes that the newer version lifted directly from the anime just made me want to watch that instead. I understand that the budget and approach were different but it still felt too similar. It’s not that the new films are bad it’s just that they are too tied to what has come before. It’s the thing that made the Ghostbusters reboot so frustrating: it could have been so great but it was too preoccupied with making references to the first film. We almost need these franchises to do what JJ Abrams did with Star Trek and just start completely from scratch. Reset the clock and try again a different way. The only thing these half-arsed reboots are going to do is make the original films all the more popular.

After all, the 1995 anime based on the Manga series is still regarded as one of the best anime films ever made. Now I won’t admit to being vastly knowledgeable about anime but I’ve seen enough to know that Ghost in the Shell is special. Maybe 2029 seemed a long way off in 1995 but we are now ridiculously close to getting to that point. It is also looking increasing more plausible with the continue advances in technology. James Cameron once called the film “a stunning work of speculative fiction” but I, in 2017, speculative doesn’t just cut it anymore. Terrorism is happening virtually and countries are under threat of hacking. This is a future where data and communication are the lifeblood and must be handled with increased care. Hmmm… familiar.

Thankfully, forces exist to keep this information from falling into the wrong hands. One of those forces, Section 9, is headed up by Major Motoko Kusanagi, who as it happens is actually a human brain inside a robotic body. The Ghost in the Shell of the title. This is a world where human beings are enhancing themselves with technology to improve themselves. Major is able to plug herself into the data-stream using her body and find information with relative ease. Which helps in her search for the illusive hacker The Puppet Master, a terrorist who is able to hack into the ghosts of ordinary citizens to force them to carry out cyber crimes for him.

Over the course of the narrative, Kusanagi delves deeper into the question of what it is to be human. This is a very existential film that spends as much time discussing memory and the human soul as it does kick ass. How can Kusanagi be sure that the ghost that lingers inside her mechanical body is actually really her or just a false version implanted by into it? More than the recent version, the Major is a complex character who fights bad guys and her inner demons. The story doesn’t simplify itself or pander to its audience. It is complicated and asks genuine questions about humanity. The opening sequence shows Kusanagi’s transformation in her new body and is presented as a form a birth. It’s a haunting sequence that proves, in this new world, even reproduction has become a mechanical and not a human process. This is a serious film wrapped up in anime action sequences.

But that’s not to say the action sequences are not important. The animation here is fantastic and there are some incredible chases and fight scenes to see. It is a beautifully crafted film that, even without the budget or the technology of the 2017 film, still manages to offer a veritable feast for the eyes. And, unlike the new film, the 1995 version isn’t afraid to keep things melancholic. Where the Scarlett Johannson version craved emotional resolution, this films offers no comfort. There are serious questions on display here and there are no easy answers. The animation goes even further to isolate Kusanagi and show the ultimate emptiness of the world she inhabits. It’s a fantastic film that, no matter what you think of the new film, everyone should watch.

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adaptation, death, Felicity Jones, films, fucking beautiful, fucking sweet, fucking tragic, review, sad, Sigourney Weaver

Tuesday’s Reviews – A Monster Calls (2017)

I’ve literally just got back from watching Logan and am desperately trying to finish today’s review. My original plan was to watch something yesterday and write it up ahead of time so I wasn’t rushed. Instead I spent most of my day off asleep and only just had time to watch today’s film. As I have such a small window here I’m waiting until next week to write up Logan because I want to do it justice. Although, spoiler alert, I fucking loved it! I knew I would but it was so good. Despite the fact the we waited for a post-credits scene and there wasn’t one. It was just nice to sit and take events in whilst listening to Johnny Cash. I guess it’s good that there wasn’t actually anything after the credits. It ensure that the ending was as powerful as it needed to be. Gah, it was an emotional experience which means after watching A Monster Calls yesterday means I’ve been emotionally drained for the past 2 evenings. I need to start watching some happier films.

I’ve only ever read one Patrick Ness book and, if I’m honest, I really didn’t think that highly of it. It was The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which has to be one of the most disappointing reads for me. It sounded like such a good concept but it was wasted. So I haven’t bothered with any more of Ness’ works because it just seemed like the type of YA nonsense that gives Young Adult fiction in general a bad name for me. I know there must be good YA out there but I haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of it. Anyway, as a keen member of the Bookstagram community I have heard plenty about his children’s book A Monster Calls. Certainly enough to get kind of excited when I saw the trailers for the film and heard Liam Neeson’s voice coming out of the titular monster. However, I knew it was going to be sad but I wasn’t prepared for just how bloody sad it is.

A Monster Calls is the story of a young boy, Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), who is dealing with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal cancer, his overbearing and stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), the school bully, and his absent father (Toby Kebbell). After waking from the same nightmare night after night, Connnor encounters a monster (Liam Neeson) that springs to life from the Yew tree that he can see from his bedroom window. The monster will visit Connor and tell him 3 true stories. After the third tale, Connor must tell his own story and reveal his truth. The stories help Connor come to terms with his situation and force him to face the awful truth that he has been trying to suppress.

A Monster Calls is such a simple and heartbreaking idea. What must it be life for a young boy who is watching his mother die of cancer? It deals with very dark and mature ideas but does so in such a tender and beautiful way. The fantastical elements and the Monster’s animated stories all work well against the bleak nature of the tale to make it a deeply engrossing and incredibly poignant film. Everything builds toward the final act and when the payoff comes it has the ability to absolutely destroy it’s audience. It may slightly hammer its point home but it never loses sight of what it’s trying to do. It is offering wisdom about an important and horrible topic whilst never losing it’s compassion for the character’s involved. It’s not quite perfect but it does what it needs to.

I think my only thoughts would be that the film is still slightly too dark for a very young audience but older members will be drawn in with the visual aspects and engrossing tale. The monster itself, played by Liam Neeson using motion capture, is incredibly realised. There can be no denying that the film is a technical marvel. Everything integrates together to create something that is very unique but perfect for the story it’s trying to tell. It is a tale about art, legacy, truth and humanity. It is the story of about the love between a mother and child and the impact that can have on the people involved. The visual aspects of the film help give this a sense of fairy tale and allow it to transcend reality.

However, thanks to the fantastic performances from the human characters, the harsh reality of Connor’s situation always remains. Connor is a boy who is having to grow up too fast and deal with emotions that he is not ready to deal with. He has nobody to turn to and is left unsure of where to turn. You can’t help but be drawn to him and Lewis MacDougall’s performance is vulnerable and hard to ignore. Something that works so well with Felicity Jones’ role as his mother. She is both strong and weak. A mother wishing to shield her son from pain but realising that she no longer can. It is a heartbreaking performance that, along with MacDougall’s, will have everyone weeping before the credits role.

A Monster Calls has a difficult job to do and a difficult story to tell. Whilst it doesn’t always manage to establish the type of tone it was striving for or achieve the purpose it wanted. However, it always manages to keep you guessing and always avoid being predictable. It is repetitive and unsubtle but is manages to be something that will keep you watching. It’s the kind of dark and creative kid’s that will no doubt be mostly appreciated by an older audience. I’m just glad that I didn’t watch it in the cinema. It would have been a pretty messy affair.

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Colin Firth, films, fucking beautiful, fucking tragic, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, TBT

TBT – A Single Man (2009)

As I mentioned in my previous posts this week, I’ve been away for a few days this week. I got back home yesterday evening and it was my intention to watch something for today’s post once I was unpacked. What actually happened was me lying in bed for an hour unable to do anything. There was a point when I had no energy or inspiration to even contemplate completing something to post. Still, as I’m such a consummate professional I managed to get my act together and rewatch a film I hadn’t seen in ages. Following on from Tuesday’s review of Carol I wanted to revisit another beuatiful film that deals with LGBT issues… cos, you know, neatness. A Single Man was a film I loved when I first watched it but, clearly, just never felt the need to watch again. I’m the kind of person who watches certain films to death and eventually start to resent them for being so familiar. Although, the films in that category don’t tend to be the best films. They’re normally the guilty pleasures that I have a craving to watch. As much as I’d love to watch Oscar winning films again and again, my love of cheese and simple humour overrides everything. So, it turns out, this TBT post is actually doing me a favour and giving me the chance to remember films that I might otherwise have never watched again. It makes me super glad I summoned up the energy to get this review written.

I have a confession to make: I’m not the biggest fan of Colin Firth. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate his skills as an actor but I’m just a bit biased against him. I think it’s mostly due to how many women fawn all over him because of Pride and Prejudice. He was a fine Mr Darcy but I definitely didn’t go weak at the knees when he emerged from that lake. I kind of feel that Firth’s misplacement as a sex symbol has affected my opinion of him. I’m not saying it doesn’t make me a terrible person but it’s the truth. So, I never get too excited about seeing him do something dramatic and serious. I forget that, actually, he’s really good. There are moments in Tom Ford’s A Single Man in which the actor is effortlessly able to get a complex mixture of emotions across to the audience without ever opening his mouth. It’s quite breathtaking.

In A Single Man, Firth plays George, a college professor, who is still dealing with the death of his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). The film marks one day in George’s life as he goes about his daily tasks having just accepted that they will be his final moments on Earth. As George sets about sorting out the loose ends in his personal and professional life, he flashes back to his life with Jim and the massive hole he has been unable to fill. In between the final errands, he has encounters with his lifelong friend Charley (Julianne Moore), who has been in love with him for years, and his young student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). George starts to see the world in a different way and isolates the brief moments of beauty and life that he sees, supposedly for the last time.

A Single Man is one of those films that, on the surface, seems simple and unexceptional. However, it has the ability to get into your head before you know what’s happening. It will speak to so many familiar and long-forgotten feelings in everybody. The way it handles the themes of life, love, and loss make them all seem new instead of the same old thing. A Single Man takes a fairly ordinary story and allows it to transcend to something greater. The main reason for this being Colin Firth. His performance is the thing that holds the narrative together and gives every scene such depth. So much of this film is held on Firth’s face and it manages to hold back everything whilst telling us everything we need to know. George, as a gay man in 1960s America, is used to hiding his true feelings but, after being shut out of Jim’s funeral, he has finally reached a point where he no longer wants to be invisible. Firth’s performance is strong, affecting, and heartbreaking.

Of course, everything about this film is beautifully put together as one would expect from fashion designer Tom Ford. However, despite what a few miserly critics may have said at the time, this isn’t just style of substance. Yes, the aesthetic in A Single Man has been carefully considered and is fantastic but it all serves a purpose. This is a film about people who paint a picture for the outside world to hide the truth bubbling away under the surface. It is a film that deals with the most gut wrenching grief and portrays it in such an astonishingly beautiful way. Ford understands the bitterness to this story and the visuals only help to make them stand out. We see George acting as the person that he needs to be to get through his life and that includes the picture perfect lifestyle. In order to remain safe and invisible, everything in George’s life must be perfect. It is only in his grief that things start to fall apart and George’s actions start to stand out against the picturesque backdrop.

A Single Man might seem like the kind of film that you don’t need to watch a second or third time but, as it turns out, is exactly the kind of film that you should watch again and again. There are so many details and minutiae to the tale that demand a better look and the performances are definitely worth repeated attention.

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Cate Blanchett, films, fucking beautiful, fucking sweet, fucking tragic, review

Tuesday’s Reviews – Carol (2016)

I’m currently away for a few days with my family and, during my week off, I had planned to watch today’s film and have the review ready to go. As usual, my aims for the blog didn’t quite work out so I only got round to viewing it on Sunday. Then I madly tried to scrabble the post together in between packing. So I have little hope that this will be my finest work. Nut considering I put off seeing this film for so long it was probably doomed from the start. I really wanted to watch Carol last year but I never got round to it. I suppose it was because I’d only heard amazing things about it. It always worries me when I desperately want to see something and it gets astounding reviews. It can only lead to disappointment. It seemed to have everything though: the brilliant Cate Blancett and Rooney Mara and a vintage feel. Still, as a lifelong cynic when it comes to romance, I may have been a little put off by the concept. An epic love story that builds from that classic rom-com cliche love at first sight. Now that I’m no longer 8 years old and wish I were a Disney Princess. I’m just not really into that concept. Although, considering the films is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel I was fairly confident that it wasn’t going to be too similar to those awful Tom Hank/Meg Ryan rom-coms from the 80s. I just needed to wait until my excitement had died down before I finally watched it.

There is a dreamy haze that settles over Carol and makes the 1950s seem like some sort of fantasy world. It means that the story, about a woman who’s unhappy marriage is ending falling in love with a young woman, has an unrelenting air of romance and mystery. Which, when added to the incredible performances from it’s leading women, makes it impossible not to get swept away with everything. Carol is such a visually spectacular film and director Todd Hayne’s has created a world full of delicate little details. Everything in Carol is suggestive yet subtle. Sex oozes from everything on screen but every single detail on screen is perfect and thought out. It is a visual battle that emphasises the battle going on before you eyes: the one between an expected 1950s stoicism and the secret passions bubbling underneath. This is a film that deals with the inner struggle between going after what you want and hiding your deepest desires because society doesn’t approve. It’s captivating from start to finish.

Carol has been adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, originally written under a pseudonym. The film depicts the relationship between a woman (Cate Blanchett) heading towards a divorce and her chance encounter with a shop assistant (Rooney Mara). Whilst trying to buy her daughter a Christmas present, Carol, takes the advice of Therese and orders a train set to be delivered to her house. Having left behind a pair of gloves which Therese returns, Carol insists on spending more time with the young girl and the pair eventually fall in love. Unfortunately, Carol is going through a divorce with her frustrated husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Feeling angry and betrayed at the discover that his wife was having an affair with a woman and is about to embark on another, Harge threatens to take their child away from her mother. Carol must decide what it is she is more willing to do: live a lie to keep her daughter or allow herself to be truly free.

It’s a film that is built on these types of dualities; something that is so key with all of Highsmith’s novels. Cate Blanchett is on top form as the woman struggling with this decision. It is an unforgettable performance that mixes a predatory older woman with a youthful smattering of self-doubt. Carol has put on a front for most of her life but, when she meets Therese, she becomes vulnerable and open. She doubts herself and her motives. It’s such a considered portrayal and Blanchett is only making is more difficult to top herself. Rooney Mara is equally captivating and offers a delicate performance full of fear, confusion, and isolation. Therese has an almost endless stream of potential male suitors but always feels that something is missing. Her first glimpse of Carol in the toy department starts to make things a little clearer. It’s a fantastic scene in which the camera pans past Carol only to pan back to focus on her. It’s a beautiful and life-changing moment.

Carol is a beautiful film in every aspect and everything comes together to convey this love story. The costume, set design, and the colour palette portray world that seems both alien and familiar. The decision to film on Super 16mm gives it a historic feeling but everything still feels contemporary. Everything that we see or hear in Carol is trying to hammer home the idea of doubles. The facade and the hidden faces. It is a society that resents the love that we see grow so sweetly. We see two women unable to openly admit their feelings or show the world the depths of their passion. They must play the role expected of them whilst secretly coming to terms with their new relationship. It is a heart-wrenching story that manages to both romanticise the experience of being a lesbian in the 1950s whist also showing the depressing and difficult reality. The performances and production are incredible and come together to make a film that I wish I’d seen earlier.

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America, films, fucking beautiful, fucking tragic, history, John Hurt, natalie portman, president, real life, review

Tuesday’s Review: Jackie (2016)

I have to be honest, if it hadn’t been for John Hurt’s death last month I probably wasn’t ever going to see this film. It wasn’t that I thought it would be bad but it discussed a prominent American figure that, really, I didn’t know a great deal about. I mean I know enough about Jackie Kennedy but, when it comes down to it, my knowledge of American history is pretty limited. It’s probably something I should rectify but my historical education really just focused on the United Kingdom. Although, I guess everyone knows about JFK, Jackie, and the assassination. However, the name Jackie Kennedy only really brought images of pink Chanel suits and pillbox hats to my mind so I didn’t really see much need in seeing Natalie Portman playing her on screen. Then, we heard the tragic news about John Hurt’s death in January. Jackie was one of his final films before his death so I decided it was a good reason to see the film. John Hurt was one of the finest actor’s around and could turn his hand to any part. Yes, he wasn’t a traditional leading man but he has been a significant part of some great films. I can think of worse reasons to want to watch something.

I was worried when Jackie started and I first heard Natalie Portman speak. I had the horrible feeling that her attempt to emulate Jackie Kennedy’s soft spoken and breathy accent was quickly going to descend into a terrible parody. Thankfully, the actor manages to keep a hole on her mimicry and keeps the vocals situated in something resembling reality. It all adds to the character of Jackie Kennedy that director Pablo Larraín is attempting to capture. A woman who, having already been catapulted into the spotlight, suddenly finds herself having to deal with the ultimate tragedy whilst the whole world watches her. The wife of the President of the United States who is caught between a state of mourning, helplessness, and desperation to preserve her husband’s legacy. To prove me extra wrong, Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie is absolutely brilliant.

The film’s narrative is framed by an interview Jackie gave to Life magazine reporter Theodore H White (Billy Crudup). As the interview takes place Kennedy makes it clear that she will have ultimate control over what is printed and she wants her husband to be remembered the way she thinks he should be. She is a woman who is perfectly in control. Until she relives the horrific moment when her husband was shot twice as he sat next to her. She breaks down as she remembers trying to keep the contents of his head from spilling over her lap. This, obviously, is the kind of thing that she does not give approval to be printed. Jackie takes the public figure that everyone things they know and show the emotionally lost person underneath.

The story flits back and forth between Jackie’s life before and after the assassination. We see her conduct a television tour of the White House and it is a different image of the First Lady. She is unsure of herself and self-conscious. She attempts to justify her redecoration of her new home in order to bring a sense of history. She wants to surround herself with beautiful and significant things. Something that her husband and potentially the American people just don’t understand. She wants to present her husband and his presidency as she thinks it needs to be remembered. This is the age where television gives everyone an eyewitness account of every moment so she understands the importance of her performance.

The narrative then jumps around between the days after the President was killed, whilst Jackie tried to arrange a funeral on the same level as Lincoln, and in the future when Jackie speaks with a Priest (John Hurt) about her fears and doubts. Really, these different narrative aren’t necessary as the most important and stand-out sections occur in the aftermath of JFK’s death and Jackie’s desperate attempts to get her own way with the funeral. The time when she has to wrestle with the public image of a grieving wife, the statesmen like role of the First Lady, and lost woman who has no idea what her life will become now her husband is dead. The woman who has become synonymous with her looks is unable to find order within her wardrobe. In fact, the most memorable scene is the one in which a numb Jackie peels off the infamous pink Chanel suit and tights that are covered in her husband’s blood. It is a devastating and poignant scene.

As with all of these types of biopics, you won’t rid yourself of the sense that the reality on show still isn’t being completely truthful. However, the narrative opens up the figure of Jackie Kennedy beyond what was on show during her public life. It gives you the chance to view her from a perspective that you may not have considered and, thanks to the great performance by Natalie Portman, presents her in a measured and understanding way. The film is a stark look into an important and difficult time for both the Kennedy family and America. With a great supporting cast, including a short but memorable turn from the late John Hurt, and an incredibly haunting score from Mica Levi, Jackie is a film that I’m so grateful I took the time to watch. It would have been a shame to have missed such a wonderful film.

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