Book Review: The Dark Philosophers – Gwyn Thomas

Chekhov with Chips’ – that’s how the author himself attempted to characterise his own novels when asked, and I’d be loathe to disagree much with that assessment.  Thomas (1913-1981) grew up in the Welsh Rhondda Valley, before gaining a scholarship to study at Oxford but it is evident in his writing how formative his experiences as a young man were to his personality and politics. In these stories first published in 1946, one senses a strongly autobiographical element bolstering the lives lived and explored in an impoverished South Wales neighbourhood – or The Terraces – as they are consistently known. That he would regularly choose to adopt the first person plural – we- as a narrative device attests to to a forceful identification amongst those of whom he is writing.

As one might expect of book set in these times the world inhabited in this pages is certainly bleak: containing variously elements of violence, revenge, bitterness, abuses of power –  physical and spiritual – and a population that is struggling to get by on not very much at all – and in Thomas’ view, even that ‘not much at all’ was still still rather too much for the more objectionable personalities in power quite taken in by a stately greed. Yet, there is a welcome counterbalance to the destitute setting, in its rich wryness of humour, that is as affectionate as it is sharp.

Within each tale there may lie monstrous tyrants, but there is also no small amount of warmth to be found in certain of those who survive there. The eponymous friends in the middle story – Ben, Walter, Arthur and John ( the narrator ), along with Idemeno the Italian cafe owner, Willie and Margaret are infused with a form of stoic tenderness for example. The stories also feature the familiar association of welsh valley boys who like to sing – a feature most explicit in the final novel Simeon too.

In addition to the more appealing characters available,  the dry humour serves a style that is as distinct in it’s tone as in it’s structure, one allowing a sardonic voice that belies a savage anger at the warrantless cruelty of authority – both men and state – whilst equally offering up a Camus-esque sense of the absurd, of the irrelevance of notions of choice for those living here.   There is a verbose precision to the style, conveying a meaning efficiently, whilst maintaining a full bodied structure to the sentences; eschewing any form of slang or diminutive language formation. As an example, here’s an excerpt from book two, ‘The Dark Philosophers’:

We found Mrs Radnor’s house to be one of a group of small houses in the top but one Terrace. The woodwork of the house looked as if the landlord thought paint was a deadly poision to be obtained only after getting a note from the doctor, and not even then if the tenants lacked the means to burn down the woodwork and move off to some quarter that had a fresher look.

While waiting for the door to open, Willie, whispering in a very important way, told us that the two rooms of this house, that were not occupied by Margaret and her mother, where lived in a voter called Hector. We knew this Hector by the back. A backward element who looked like an ape and acted like some animal that had not been found yet and has not been named for that reason; unless you want to take a short cut and call it Hector.

The  portrait of the house is indicative of a subtle but effective means of satirising the climate of the Terraces, both understated but also -taken as part of the whole – damning of the living conditions.  Politically, almost every character large or small in all the books are introduced as ‘voters’, which can  be viewed either as an ironic suggestion that these individuals are genuine agents of their own future destiny, or that they are complicit in their own fate. At any rate, it always keeps the spectre of political change, however futile it may be, at the front of the readers’ consciousness. The term element is also ubiquitous to the book, and both a method of distinguishing Thomas’ voice in the writing. It can underscore how each individual is both remarkably insignificant in the world, a disparate disconnected soul who taken on it’s own can offer up nothing on his own, but in parallel to that it also invokes it’s opposite too – the coalescing of elements creates a more unified and stronger whole – which given the Marxist politics of Thomas would certainly be appropriate to his line of thought.

 Oscar

The first of the tales then is full of political allegory – the Mountain and Oscar are synecdoche’s for a distant government’s crushing policies that have disenfranchised the communities, and left it in poverty and ruin. The narrator Lewis is a young man who takes work with Oscar, like many others in the tale, simply as it’s the only expedient option available to procure any form of wage. Through his eyes, and interactions with Oscar, his friend Danny and assorted local characters we have a window into the world of The Terraces.  He is the detached yet clearly troubled embodiment of the next generation who has grown up in this environment, learning and accepting that pragmatism in survival comes with a moral cost, yet the alternatives as seen through the weakened and destitute characters such as his neighbour and friend Danny indicate a lack of viable options available, life in the welsh valleys in the 20s and 30is about surviving, and even that’s a tricky business.

As mentioned above, despite the bleakness of the surroundings there is an absurdity  in the bleak humour of the existence. The Harp’s Landlord plainfaced concern over the missing Moral Sense is amusing coming from a man who watches over many insalubrious acts within his pub, one that regularly hosts the greatest source of local misery for the populace –  Oscar – attending to his rapacious desires for women, food and drink. Oscar’s overwhelming and overbearing presence pores into every area of effectively his own little dominion from start to finish, here but the resident wry humour applied to the narrative, creates tentative hope for rebellion.

The Dark Philosophers

A more established tale that’s overtly political and philosophical in it’s treatment of the characters and the environs in which these voters resides, Thomas is more explicit in aligning himself with the story, with the use of the ‘we’ pronoun. It serves to help establish a link to the reality that is described, lending a more personal vision to this imagined world having a very real sense of place in Thomas’ past. The frequent references to the Terraces’ and the poverty therein has a very acute sense of familiarity about it – not least as seen in the unavoidably polemical tone the book has in it’s opposition towards certain traits possessed by Mr Dalbie and Reverend Emmanuel. The latter in particular holds the “Philosophers” ire due to the volte-face in attitudes he displays from his pulpit once his sponsor Mr Dalbie – a coal-owner – criticises the younger Emmanuel for calling attention to trivial issues such as the abuse of labour and the impoverished state of the “voters.”

The eponymous characters chiefly feature the narrator himself (John), and friends: Ben, Arthur, and Walter who congregate at The Library and Institute and act as the weary observers of life in the valley, enjoying respite from the ardours of work and life in a cafe. They are a community unto themselves, held in suspicion by many others, for not subscribing to the doctrines and sermons preached by the now much-changed Rev. Emmanuel, whose absurdist spin on the troubles on the region reflects statements that do meet with experiences of those who are living through this period. As they chew the fat in the cafe – run by a friendly but broke Italian named Idomeneo – they come into contact with young Willie, whose naivety clearly contrasts with the dry-witted cynics. Willie’s courting of a young girl – Margaret – jump-starts a narrative that intertwines the lives of all of the main characters with that of the Rev. as past histories are brought to a darkly apt. climax.

Simeon

The shortest of the three novellas, but also the darkest. The humour and one-line wit remains, but the brutality – and his revolting abuse of power – physically, sexually and mentally of the eponymous character tips the ballance into a bleaker more savage tone. Colenso, Emrys and the narrator – Ben – are a younger group of friends, around 16 – and a generation removed from the Dark Philosophers but between possess the similar qualities of naivety – Ben – and hardened experience – Colenso and Emrys. The trio know Simeon as a man who gives them some money in exchange for hearing them sing a few songs, until one day Simeon offers Ben a job working for him, an offer that appears infinitely preferable to Ben’s current occupation. It doesn’t take too long to realise though that all is not as it seems in the household and with Simeon himself.

It was not a surprise to read in the introduction by Elaine Morgan that the Gollancz were unwilling to publish at the time – late 30’s, due to it’s bleakness of tone, but it didn’t stop many reviewers on it’s release in 1946 also finding his voice distinctive and original, and certainly as a social critic, with Thomas’ own characterisation in mind you can see the Russian style inflecting his commentary on the times, but the peculiarly Welsh voice stands above this classification and certainly well worth a wider audience.

Documentary Reviews: Blackfish / Grizzly Man / Searching For Sugarman

Last year I stumbled across some excellent documentary films through my generic film rental account and wanted to flag them up here. They encompass diverse subject matter and themes which are variously: fascinating, thought provoking, dramatic, entertaining and eminently watchable in their content.

Blackfish (2013) is a focus on the ethical issues involved in the capture of Orcas for performance show at parks such as SeaWorld. The film’s narrative chiefly follows the fate of one Orca in particular, Tilikum, but also situates the controversies and the concerns in its broader place within the entertainment industry. It is a very powerful documentary that involves interviews with several former SeaWorld employees, and one present. It shows how the animals were captured, separated from family members, trained and taught to perform for the entertainment of the audiences, and how the trainers bonded with the animals.  It also has footage of several trainers receiving serious injuries from the whales, in three cases leading to tragic deaths.  The trainers involved who were now testifying, clearly had great affection for the animals, and felt naively, in their own words, that they were forming positive relationships with the Orcas and weren’t subjecting them to any indecent cruelty.

The witnesses do come mostly from former industry insiders ( trainers ) and  long term critics; and  footage available from the 80s when the whales were captured and during the training certainly helps support and facilitate engagement with the arguments put forth by those most critical. Whilst there is a defending voice present in the documentary, a current employee who attempts to downplay the concerns, the general thrust is understandably polemic in it’s approach. That is not a criticism: from the  evidence and testimony put forth, it becomes a drama in which critics seek answers to the failings that led to multiple human deaths and also whale injury as a result of the practices. It tries to hold SeaWorld in particular to account for its actions, and for anyone watching it seems to hard to deny there is serious negligence and culpability involved to some degree. In doing so it also raises the ethical spectre of capturing wild animals for human amusement.

It is shocking, well narrated and very interesting, at the very least provoking further questions over the means by which animals in general  are utilised for human entertainment. Where is the ethical line which must not be breached? As a starting point, this film highlights at least one tragic case where this has already been crossed.  Ever powerful viewing, it leaves an indelible mark on the mind long after the film has ended.

Searching For Sugarman (2013) – is an altogether different film, removed from such controversial debates. Sixto Rodriguez was an early 70’s musician who after an initial fleeting success appeared to fade into obscurity, in western consciousness, but had become a huge success in South Africa during Apartheid amongst the liberal rock fan community.  After his success has ended there, the rock community has been awash with rumours that ‘the man-the myth’ had committed suicide in outlandish fashion, with the method of death varying from rumour to rumour.

The documentary is made by Malik Benjelloul, who came across Sixto’s story whilst travelling through Africa, and struck by the tales attached to this musician, he charts two particular fans efforts to discover the truth behind the rumours, with plenty of material and interview footage developed in the process. It is a film about music, obsession and questing, as much a reflection of the makers mindset as it is of the subject matter itself, if not moreso.

It is  clearly a very personal project, which is the film’s greatest strength charting the search by a pair of South African music fanatics, with their enthusiasm self evident as they discuss the impact of Rodriguez on their youth in the political climate of Apartheid, and the soundtrack is obviously full of the artists recordings which provide a wonderful rhythm to proceedings. It is worth noting that  the less you know about how the documentary unfurls the better, as it accentuates the enjoyment that little bit further, so I won’t reveal any more details, suffice to say it is a very heartfelt story that is knitted together so well by Benjelloul who ran his funds to the limit, requiring the use of his mobile phone camera for a spell to help complete the project.

Grizzly Man ( 2005 ): It’s a return to human-animal relationships here, with Werner Herzog’s documentary on the life of Timothy Treadwell – a man who has a clear love / obsession with Grizzly bears. The film meshes interviews with those who knew Treadwell with footage that Treadwell himself had taken whilst out filming the bears in the wild. What starts out as an innocent profile of a man with a very keen interest becomes a complex study of his personality entirely. It is clear that Treadwell fancies himself as an educator for children, of promoting an affection for animals in nature, he even believes strongly in the ability to form close bonds with the animals themselves – and these claims and the man himself are examined chiefly through his own words and images themselves. The footage he takes of the animals is clearly very impressive, he gets remarkably close up to the bears – and other animals whose paths he crosses – and is suggestive of a man who has found his calling, yet the portrait develops into an altogether more complicated image.

It is an extraordinary watch, and Herzog has had to go through many hours worth of reel to weave together a profile of the man, of what he – Herzog – believes he can conclude from this tale of obsession. It is an identity that is inevitably partially rooted in how Treadwell’s youth shaped him – interviews with family members suggest he had his struggles – whilst Werner as narrator vocally provides his own impressions too – but it is possibly the confessional nature of Treadwell’s own lens that often prove most revealing of a personality that becomes ever more disturbing and odd the more we see.  The nature of attention and a certain sort of fame he begins to attract, evidently takes hold in his psyche, and affects his own perception of his relationship with the animals.

That there is a tragic conclusion to the tale becomes inevitable after his repeat journeys year on year; he invites a friend up to join him one particularly fateful summer when food shortages have left the bears hungrier and bolder, leading to an unsurprising fatal attack.  We have the coroner marking the final moments of Treadwell in bizarrely detached fashion, whilst the sight of Herzog himself listening to the final moments of Treadwell – the recording equipment was on – heightens the impact further especially when Herzog then immediately warns anyone not to listen to the tape for their own good.

As is the norm with anything Herzog does, there is no set polemical judgement available but rather a profoundly complex distillation of a certain kind of life that reflects the many lights of a human spirit across its broad spectrum, and it leaves you fundamentally engaged and entranced in its encapsulation ( in my view ) of the limits of man’s relationship with nature.

Book Review, Politics – ‘A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain’

Reading political books such as these never fails to frustrate, annoy and impose itself onto my conscience due to the rising tide of anger it incites along with the obligated sense of purpose it instills in me to spread the word. Normally, I just rage inwardly or adopt the usual exasperated mood of resignation but once in a while, some books demand a little more than that, however self-consciously awkward it makes me feel to get so irate, and Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell’s book which came out last year is essential reading for anyone, regardless of place on the political spectrum who holds onto at least some hope for an open democracy.

It’s premise is looking at the inevitably dangerous relationship between wealth, power and influence – a problem that is hardly new to human civilization as any anthropologist / historian / sociologist / common sensist will tell you. The focus in this instance though is through the contemporary practice of (specifically corporate) lobbying.

Lobbying, of course, is at its core a perfectly legitimate democratic act and is available – in theory – to any individual who seeks or petitions change at the governmental level to existing practices to suit their interests: from social legislation to get rid of discriminatory attitudes, to how best investment programmes or austerity cuts should be allocated or targeted. It is also a very human act – it is the relationship of power dynamics between people and is visible in any area where influence is sought – however minor. The authors of the book express this explicitly – acknowledging that in the writing of this book, they are also hoping to lobby for their own opinion of the network between politicians, lobbyists and PR business’ to be influenced by reading this text.

That understood, the great problem comes in our access to understanding and being aware who is exerting these influences. We know that authors of a text are trying to persuade of particular values or ideas through the imprint of their names on the front cover, in addition to a synopsis on the back cover. We have an idea on the perspectives and / or qualifications involved on those who are producing this text.  We can inform ourselves happily enough of the credentials of those seeking our favour.

At the other end of the scale, we have governments with huge reserves of cash and influence to offer, and a select few people who seek to buy and control those ‘products’. And of this, we know disturbingly little – the disturbing component derived from many examples taken from private money’s interventions into the NHS, Education, Foreign Trade etc. This fact won’t come as a huge surprise to those with the vaguest awareness of the problems with politics today. Anyone with a pulse can sigh and put forward the suggestion to “follow the money.” Yet, whilst this is true, I suspect too few of us go on to explore the detail and consider the wider ramifications of these secretive arrangements between the un-elected, unaccountable power brokers.  This book provides an undeniably ambitious compendium of lobbying in Britain in the 21st century.

Whilst the chapters are on occasion quite dense, chock full with cited references, and an array of politicians and personalities for whom keeping track of names and professions can be frustrating, the value of its over-riding thesis remains starkly evident. The imposition of agendas by those who wield spectacular power, with feeble checks available against this, is concerning. We see how the waters have been muddied in communication discourse on legislative agendas from the smoking ban ( see the pernicious influence of the Phillip Morris International group ) to Citigroup and the financial industry’s opposition to regulation. The consequences of deregulation in the financial sector in the past few decades are certainly not hidden.

The nature of frequently disingenous re-framing of arguments, have helped sway political decisions their way, and the media bigwigs themselves come in for their fare share of criticism – the fourth estate often style themselves as the unofficial extra check against abuse of powers, yet they themselves act as the primary medium through which messages from top to bottom and vice-versa are channeled – and how far this medium is manipulated is examined intensely in this book. Even in the age of the “open-access” social media and twitter revolutions, the controlled messages from the more established wings of the press core face far less scrutiny than one would like from so-called professional journalists. A very contemporary example to support this claim can be seen with the allegations surrounding the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of tax fraud concerns with HSBC.  The erosion of trust within media organisations only serves to make it harder for the average man and woman to find out what exactly is going on behind the headlines.

This is arguably the book’s strength, focusing on these concerns, and providing examples of associated  lobbying craft – so called astro-turf campaigns for example – established to promote a cause by lending it the appearance of an ‘independent’ grassroots movement that supports a companies agenda.  These movements often have figureheads that appear detached from external influence and seem to be superficially an appropriately connected person, but conceal a particular agenda. An example cited in the book is that of Nurses for Reform, an organisation that sounds genuine  with the NHS always battling against underfunding and its consequences for patient care. Yet further investigation  reveals that she’s an advocate of private health investment, and referred to the NHS as a ’60 year mistake, halfway to Moscow and admired by Hitler’.  She was given unchecked prime airtime on Radio 2 and had an audience with David Cameron a month before the 2010 elections. Nurses for Reform was heavily supported by lobbyists and right wing think tanks – yet how much of that information was available to the average listener on the radio show or in the news at large for them to be able to appreciate the vested interests? None. Liberal Conspiracy explore the issue further here.

There are many others, supported by numerous references within the book providing empirically based concern as to why the imbalance in influence in our country is having deleterious effects on such fancy notions as democracy, and public accountability.

On the down side, as well as the dense nature of some of the early chapters – which can be difficult to read through with any great ease, come the flaws in over extending its reach. The book takes on examples of malign influence across a wide spectrum of corporate greed’s influence – where perhaps one would like to see more focus attached to one industry itself – and the limitations that inevitably come with a business practice that demands secrecy means that often we have merely strong inferences rather than outright proof of the links between each wing.

Nevertheless, it is of great value to any discerning reader interested to know more of the shady practices that are allowed to manipulate and frustrate our politics when transparency is taken off the agenda. Please Read!

13 Random Must See Films in Micro-Review

Realising that my earlier attempt to type up reviews of films I’d seen in the past 12 months or so would lead to a rather unwieldy list, I’ve broken it down to more arbitrarily manageable chunks. Here, I’ve chosen 13 films that – film-buffs aside – may not have received the audience their films necessarily deserved, whether it’s due to low budget, limited screenings, a blast from the ancient past (in film years) or owing to it’s foreign language, I’d like to promote some excellent options for your viewing pleasure. I’ve chosen a cross-section of genres from the madcap to the slow burner to mix it up:

 

1. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013): Jim Jarmusch gives us this gorgeous meditative piece centring on two vampire lovers who have been attached to one another across the centuries, though not always at the same moment. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is holed up in a flat in Detroit, with a great passion in evidence for the musician’s art, composing many works with his accumulated array of guitars, whilst Eve (Hilda Swinton) his enigmatic lover is currently residing in Tangier. They are clearly very much in sync and there is a beautiful shot of both leads in their separate residences spinning in circles, brought together in harmony by the camera work. What plot there is, is minimal, as this film instead explores this couple’s expression of love for each other, with reflections on existentialist absurdity within an immortal frame; though there are some terrifically funny lines, (one referencing a friend Ian in particular to look out for) and featuring a great cameo from John Hurt – whose character is called Marlowe, and it plays with the Shakespearean reference charmingly.  Adam’s sister Ava, (Mia Wasikowska), enters their idyll with her evident characteristic chaos to add some flow to proceedings, but mostly, this is a very slick, flowing film rich with charm that simply demands you be taken in by the two main leads til the end of proceedings – and you are. 8/10

 

2. Chico and Rita (2011): A Cuban love story that literally spans the ages. This delightfully animated film centres around the turbulent love story of the eponymous leads – Chico the lothario pianist, and Rita the sultry singer.  It is bristling with energy, passion and colour, with a musical flavour high on 40’s-50’s Jazz, set in exotic locations covering Havana, Paris, New York and even Las Vegas as the lovers lives continually intertwine. The pace rolls along with the rhythm of the music, whilst the warm aesthetic of the visuals keep you hooked. Beyond love and lust it is also a narrative that explores, memory, love, loss and all sentiments human. A joyful experience and suitable for everyone! 8/10

 

3. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974): Werner Herzog at his more accessible best, with this humane study of alienation, innocence and corruption and the gratuitious objectification of the outsider. Set in a late 18th/early 19th century time period, the titular lead, Kasper,  has been raised from birth in complete isolation from human influence, and treated as an animal. He cannot talk, and he doesn’t know how to walk. One day he is released – with no explanation and abandoned in a village, with a letter prepared for him in hand directing him to a loca officer. He is taken in, by a well meaning local who is intrigued by him, but soon he becomes scrutinised and the subject of attention from across the village. In return, the increasingly communicative Kasper is studying these people in return. A satire that is at times funny, charming sad and biting, it is well worth a watch, not least for the central performance by Bruno S in the titular role – who captures the character to perfection. 9/10

 

4. Persepolis (2011): Animated film adapted from the french graphic novel of the same title, but featuring the resplendent voice-acting of Sean Penn, Catherine Deneuve and even Iggy Pop amongst others. They fully support the engaging  Chiara Mastroianni and Gena Rowlands who both narrate the life of ‘Marjane’ who grows up in Iran before the Revolution, moves to Vienna and France before returning to Iran after the revolution. It is part biography of a young girl growing up joined cleverly to satire and comment on the changing political climates and challenges that also arise with the broader generational shift. The animation is striking, with the black and white artwork proving very effective in contrasting or lighting the films’ emotional or darker thrusts forward, also aided by a score that underscores the shifting tone very well. The use of colour – or it’s lack of it – also acts to universalise the difficulties of living under oppressive regimes, without departing from the specifics either. It is a heartening and immersive experience in the presence of a woman growing up in such different climes, and all the more welcoming for that most intimate perspective. 8/10

5. and 6. The Raid and The Raid 2 (2012 and 2014): Indonesian martial art action thrillers from Gareth Evans which are high octane and ultra violent, but glorious entertainment. In the first film, Rama is an Indonesian cop in a region of Jakarta that evidently struggles with extreme corruption. The premise – to assault the gang’s power base – the top of a tower block of flats full of residents loyal to their upstairs enforcer – and capture / kill the Big Boss. It is simple, but very taut, and the choreography for the fight scenes is magnificent. I can’t claim to be familiar with the canon / genre particularly, but this is a superbly executed film directed by Gareth Evans. 9/10

Part 2 sees Rama return, with a plot that follows on tangentially to the ending of the first film, for more action. This film is longer than the first, and the plot more complex, yet it doesn’t fall foul of sequels that over-do the wrong elements at the expense of what works. The fight scenes are just as exhilirating, with an extended sequence that evokes the bloody spectacles of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Enjoyable in a more adventurous fashion than the first, but together they make a fantastic double bill.  A third film is rumoured to be out in the next couple of years and I am definitely looking forward to that one. 9/10

 

7. Nebraska (2013): An  endearing film that follows Bruce Dern’s Woody – a grumpy old man – as he makes a 750 mile trip to collect a prize he believes he’s won from a junk mail prizedraw. His son David (Will Forte) joins him, having failed to persuade him not to go – and so the journey begins. Along the way other characters from get wind of Woody’s alleged windfall, and develop their own designs on a share of the spoils, concocting back-dated favours owed as David and brother Ross ( Bob Odendirk) look to help their father avoid the lurking avarice. We meet characters past and present from Woody’s life – family or not, in a tale that is largely a story of the peculiarities of the travails of a father-son relationship, but is infused with many subtle reflections on family life. It also features a particularly funny scene involving Woody’s wife at a graveyard, which was emblematic of the films skill in marking a path between reflective sentimentality and outbursts of laughter. A wonderful film, whose inherent warmth sustains it’s quieter moments. 9/10

 

8, 9, and 10 all share a similar ‘ coming of age’ theme whilst developing distinct identities:

Mud (2012): Jeff Nichols, who specialises in films set in the American South with family/absent family related themes, matures with his finest oeuvre to date. It stars Matthew McConnaughey during his “McConnaissance” as a fugitive who’s remote hiding spot – a boat up a tree – is stumbled upon by two kids Ellis and Neckbone who are seeking their own adventure. Their lives intertwine, as both kids seek to assist Mud (McConnaughey) both hide from capture and pursue Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). A very male-centric focus as is typical with Nichols,  but superbly executed nonetheless and one of the best films of this genre around. Buoyed by a typical Southern score which is particularly suggestive of mood, the narrative is thoroughly heartwarming. 9/10

 

Kings of Summer (2013): Entering into this mood of revival is this charming indie-piece from Jordan Vogt-Roberts. It’s mood is certainly lighter than Mud and doesn’t have as much dramatic thrust, but it is still emotively charming, plotting the lives of three boys, Joe, Patrick and Biaggio, who one summer after school ends, desperately seeking independence, build their own fort-home in a secluded woodland spot. There are the youthful tensions involving rivalries of the heart amidst the exuberance of their adventure, whilst supporting roles provide entertaining cameos from Alison Brie and Nick Offerman, more well known roles in sitcoms Community and Parks and Rec. Whilst light and sweet it is rarely saccharine, and filled with some delicious dialogue it’s well worth watching. 7.5/10

 

The Way Way Back (2013): completing this thematic segment, and from the directorial hands of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (another Community association) comes another equally light attempt at portraying the travails of finding ones place as an adolescent, with Liam James as Duncan the teen, unhappily forced to decamp to a beach house with his mother and step father (an interestingly straight portrayal from Steve Carrell). The inevitable frustration leads Duncan to seek refuge in a nearby water park, where he’s drawn to a relaxed carefree ‘father figure’ character Owen ( the excellent Sam Rockwell) who bonds with him return. Themes of responsibility and growing up affect both characters within the drama, and with a supporting cast that  includes an amusingly drunk Alison Janney, Best bits involve Owen and Duncan more than other parts, and it’s coming of an age element is weaker than the others, but it’s entertaining and still worth a watch. 7/10

11. Her – (2013) Spike Jones’ directs a beautiful, yet haunting,  tale of love and loneliness, in a near-future science fiction plot whereby the development of computer operating systems and artificial intelligence has enabled a world where people can interact and – in Theodore’s ( Joaquin Phoenix ) case even fall in love with these animated computer spirits. Helped by a screenplay that also contains a lot of humour, Phoenix and Scarlett Johannson (the voice) provide a thoroughly ( and almost disturbingly ) engaging ‘relationship’ that serves as an acute comment on relationship forming in the digital age. 9/10, loved it.

 

12. Winter’s Bone (2010): Terrific low budget film from Debra Granik adapting a 2006 novel of the same name, featuring a younger Jennifer Lawrence just before she exploded into stardom, but putting up a just as fine a performance as her more well known roles. Set in the rural Ozark area of Arkansas, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is a teenager girl who is the de facto matriarch of the household, with her mother suffering a form of dementia,  who must locate her father in order to protect herself and her siblings from eviction. It is a slow burning thriller, where family estrangement and familial feuds provide the tension, as Ree incurs great personal risk along her journey. Despite the bleak background and situation, the narrative that unfurls is woven through with a tender threads, with a direction that has a sensitive eye for the complexity of human expression. 8/10

 

13. Stroszek (1977): Another feature involving Werner Herzog and Bruno S brings another memorably Herzogian exploration of the human condition, a satire on its foibles, economics and interactions between each other. At turns tragic, absurdist, bizarre and damning of humanity, the film chronicles the aspirational journey of a trio of assorted misfits, from small town Germany to the United States. Bruno S is a sensitive busker who has fallen for a prostitute called Eva who he defends from the clutches of some violent thugs. Together with their elderly neighbour Scheiz, they plot a new life in America through a relative of Scheiz’s in Wisconsin. Initially the new life begins well, free from the cycle of violence of before, content with their own space to explore. Yet, through Herzog’s direction, all does not continue to plan, and the chimera of the American Dream soon leads to a darker and despondent upheaval in their worlds once more.  As with Even Dwarves Started Small and The Enigma of Kasper Hauser there are reflections on the absurdity of existence and human foibles, again often demonstrated through a couple of bizarre scenes involving animals in an empty funfair and through the carcass of a frozen turkey. Despite its inherent downbeat mood it is still such a remarkably odd film that it demands repeat viewing in it’s provocative criticism of a world that hides behind a mask of dreams, and misleading sales pitches. Bruno S  is once more outstanding in the role given to him.  9/10

 

 

There are plenty of others I’ve enjoyed recently, but I think that is a good start. Feel free to agree or disagree, or add your own!

 

Film Review 2014 Part 4 – Summer Blockbusters

feat. X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy

A film review round up wouldn’t be complete without some of the spectacular action adventures of the past year, so here’s the three I saw. I know I also witnessed Spiderman 2, but that was pretty plain and unmemorable compared to these three. Kicking off with the latest in the X-Men franchise: X-Men: Days of Future Past we have an ambitious spectacle that seeks to maximise its star quality whilst weaving a dazzling and and pacy thriller.

The premise is established swiftly: after a special effect laden opening battle, a world on the verge of the apocalypse needs to be save through interfering with, and returning to, the past in order to prevent the assassination of Bolivar Tusk (Peter Dinklage) which has led the rise of an indestructible foe. Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde is the mutant with the particular power to enact this distortion of space and time assisted by Patrict Stewart as the original / old Professor Xavier. Logan / Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the character charged with returning to the old timeline – conveniently at a point allowing the ‘new’ cast of McAvoy and Fassbender et al. to reprise their roles once again.  Logan, as the central character who overlaps both worlds is a focal point for some very entertaining dialogue set-pieces, and keeps the plot moving with a reasonable degree of coherence.

The narrative is both complex and satisfyingly engaging, as the movie seeks to make good use of it’s spectacular array of acting assets – a feat it acheives remarkably well – creating a network of personal agendas that help service the overall plot effectively. I’m not a fan of describing the plot scene-by-scene and for this film it would take more concentration than I have available right now, suffice to say, trusting in the hands of Bryan Singer and the cast-list that also features the reliably excellent Jennifer Lawrence, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry and Nicholas Hoult in addition to those mentioned does not leave you disappointed.

The action set pieces are blockbusting yet retain a welcome level of restraint, that ensures they do not become the predominant feature, which often ruins other action or comic-book based films for me. Their use is well judged here, and the screenplay and story from Simon Kinberg and the Vaughn / Goldman combination lends it the successful fusion of wit and drama necessary in any good yarn of this ilk. I am not familiar with all of the films (including the Wolverine ones) within the canon, so cannot speak to issues of placement within the previous installations in the series. I know it is said that has effectively excluded the less popular Last Stand, for example, but I am only judging this as a stand along film, although I did also particularly enjoy First Class too.

9/10 Strengths: Great cast, thrills and good humour, all the staples of a proper blockbuster were executed stylishly and entertainingly. Weakness’: towards the end and the wrapping up of the plot, I must admit to getting a little confused, and not having seen the film since, I’m still a little puzzled with the Magneto story arc, but it’s not important. For the length of the film’s duration I was suitably thrilled.

Next came another sequel in a re-booted series, no ubermensch here but instead genetically enhanced apes, and Matt Reeves’ direction of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Again, my familiarity with the canon is quite limited, so whilst I’ve seen the immediate pre-cursor to this with James Franco, I still look to judge the film on its’ standalone merits first and foremost.  Still, with Andy Serkis returning as Caesar, the newly established leader of the intelligent apes, and featuring Gary Oldman there was plenty to look forward to.

Set ten years after the pandemic that began to ravage human civilisation at the end of the previous film, we soon get a hint of things to come in an early encounter that sees Caesar’s son Blue Eyes wounded by a panicked shot from human called Carver. Carver is part of a small group exploring the forests, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) in turn part of a dramatically reduced population of survivors.  It leads to a confrontation during which Caesar orders the men to leave to avoid further conflict. Malcolm then seeks to later reconcile with Caesar in order to gain access to a power station that could be vital for the human’s survival hopes.

This agreement then reached promotes a proximity of human and ape which inevitability sparks the familiar tropes of mistrust, grievance and suspicion – the initial mis-treatment of apes in the first film acts as a traumatic memory for many of the older apes. The aim of maintaining harmony between these two species becomes doomed to fail, due in part to weakess’ of character on both sides of the divide. It provokes the usual questions of guilt and responsibility and the challenge of reconciliation between opposing forces, whilst engaging in a dramatically exciting face off action narrative before the somewhat predictable sequel-inviting end.

7/10 – Strengths: well paced, enjoyable action-drama. Serkis as Caesar is great. Weakness’: not enough Gary Oldman, Clarke as the lead man is fine, without being overly engaging. Plot finale was a little predictable.

Finally, and my most recent cinema trip for one reason or another, was Guardians of the Galaxy.  Timing it just right I secured a cinema seat in one of the few showings that survived until after the school term had returned, so featured a welcome reduction in youths he says trying not to be too prejudiced. But honestly, kids in cinemas can be complete gits. However the film was so deliciously  immersive and unashamedly good fun, I probably wouldn’t have even begrudged a few outlandish vocal interjections by would be co-attendees.

The plot centres around a much coveted orb that space adventurer Peter Quill picks up on one of his scavenges. The value of this orb is clearly well known and soon many nefarious hands try and appropriate it into their own grasping palms, and the result of early skirmishing forces Quill into a self-serving pact with assorted misfits in order to try and retrieve the orb, and  save the world while they’re at it. A classic plot device but terrifically executed and never less than thoroughly entertaining throughout.

Chris Pratt, who like most other fans of his, know him mostly as the adorable Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation, absolutely thrives in the leading role, his comic background in evidence as he subsumes the character of Quill with natural ease.  Bradley Cooper provides an excellently sly voice for Rocket the Raccoon, and sounds like he’s having tremendous fun in the process, whilst Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Zoe Saldana and James Gunn provide enthusiastic and engaging support. There are no weakness’ that spring to mind in the casting, nor are there many in either plot or direction.

As has been said frequently elsewhere by its many fans, there is a more innocent joy about this adventure which evokes a somewhat 1980s feel to the film, which is perhaps somewhat appropriate given that this is the decade from which Quill finds himself abducted from as a child. The soundtrack further adds a vibrancy to proceedings, which in itself has a particularly centrality to Quill’s character. The mix-tape he brings with him, provides a  talismanic quality to it, especially given the strong sentiments attached to it.

Additional to this 80’s feel of the film is the role of Quill, who as a scavenger looking out for himself, could be said to share similar qualities to another lead from a fantasy series – that of Han Solo. A nostalgia audience can see much to revel in, in this film whilst the plot and the action lends itself to swashbuckling fights witty retorts, spectacularly evil baddies who clearly LOOK evil, from their garish ware. It’s part star wars, part indiana jones, and also part lego movie, though perhaps that’s the Pratt effect.

The director Michael Gunn does not try and re-invent the wheel with the direction, simply ensuring that the simple things are done well: personable leads, a good dialogue, well paced action which weighs spectacle against plot needs (similar to X-Men: DOFP) and provides a satisfying development of character and plot in a narrative bursting with energy at the seams. Great entertainment and as a last film of the year to see on the big screen, it was one of the best.

9/10: Strengths: Tonally perfect, Pratt is wonderfully magnetic in the lead, and the cast. Weakness: a couple of the supporting roles weren’t as fab as the others, but I am being pernickety here. 

 

Film Review – American Interior

I was going to plump this review in with a list of other films, as per the last few updates but I wouldn’t wish it to become lost among blockbusters that are already well known. This is a wonderful indie film that deserves more recognition, and so here gets some special privilege.

This is American Interior, a film that I was fortunate enough to see in a tent at the Green Man Festival in August 2014. The film is the creation of Gruff Rhys the Welsh singer of the band Super Furry Animals. It is a documentary that charts Rhys’ efforts to follow in the footsteps of an ancestral relative John Evans, who in the 1770’s was obsessed by the  apocryphal tale of a 12th century Prince Madoc who supposedly discovers America before Columbus. The legend continues on to suggest there remained a welsh-speaking native american tribe still in existence somewhere in the margins of the american wilderness.  In a literal sense then the film is about Gruff Rhys going to America to retrace the footsteps of Evans to see how far he got in tracking down this elusive tribe. It inevitably has far more strings to its bow. 

From the moment we are introduced to John Evans’ old home in Wales, we are following Gruff via both cut-aways of him hosting small solo gigs across town halls in America as well as the direct documentary footage of his trek across the American plains. Accompanying Gruff is a very sweet puppet representation of the old relative (a pretty useful indicator of the film’s tone ) as off they go across the seas in search of connection.

It is artistically shot, and accompanying some of the more expansive depictions of the vast geography of the route undertaken is a pulsating sound track performed by Rhys himself,  providing an equally enjoyable accompanying album also entitled American Interior. It is the meeting with and discussions he has with characters over there that are most interesting, particularly one with an elder of the Mandan tribe – for whom linguistic extinction is a very real threat. As a proud Welshman, this clearly resonates with the myth and Gruff himself, and makes for an engaging reflection on the inseparable relationship that connects, language, culture and collective identity. We also learn of the value that John Evans’ expeditions then gave to the mapping of the lands in the northern areas of America, and thus the boundary of the very young American territory, among many other snippets of wisdom, folklore and historical discovery.

It is funny, eccentric, and constantly engaging: journeying through a film full of american cambrophiles, somewhat potty local historians, eloquent Native Americans, and the diversely challenging physical terrains of the North American landscape, not to mention  the winding narratives of history. It is an ode to mythology as much as it is a biopic of Gruffs ( very) great uncle. It’s heart is so warm, it can’t fail to charm the pants of anyone watching it, whilst the musical accompaniment that helps tell the tale, invigorates the travelling soul and fires the curious spirit within,  challenging you reflect on what your old ancestors got up to too!

8.5/10 Strengths: A rhythmic journey of exploration, that is made so charming and entertaining by a slightly mad, proud Welshman, full of historical intrigue. Weakness’: I wanted to know more

 

Book Review: War Report A Record of Dispatches Broadcast By The BBC’s war correspondents June 5th 1944 – to May 1945

 

Still procrastinating from reading more Camus, my next review retains it’s Second World War theme as I noticed a new release of War Broadcast Correspondence from the BBC during the final year of the conflict from Operation Overlord ( D-Day ) through to VE Day in 1945. As a stubborn defender of the BBC in the current climate and with this historical period always proving intensely fascinating, I tucked in with my curiosity piqued.

It is in short, well worth a read. It covers all the key period’s of the fighting in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany during this period, with each segment of the transcripts contextualized by an authorial overview at its head, from the beach landings through the liberation of Cherbourg, the winter battle in the Ardennes, the march through Germany and liberation of concentration camps. With such a broad span to cover, the book succeeds through these dispatches in providing an intimate narrative of how the war appeared to be progressing from a first person viewpoint.  There are frequent references to guns being fired immediately overhead, tanks rolling by mere metres away and explosive devices landing remarkably close: italicized references to the sounds heard on the transcript provide a sense of the atmosphere these reports must have contained.

The transcripts are essentially word for word what was spoken down the line, and highlight the degree to which these reporters were embedded at the front line. They received professional army training before heading out and were welcomed pretty warmly by the soldiers themselves, for whom the value of hearing the latest reports from across the battle fields was paramount.  Furthermore of course, there was also its well known value as an aid for Resistance movements, not least de Gaulle’s Free France network, and the provision of essential communication between covert groups and alliances.

Although there is always a slight panegyric tone with books like these, it also seems hard to disagree with the notion that during this war in particular, the stock of BBC broadcasting was universally high at this point. BBC transmitters, masts and receivers that had to be transported and set up on the Normandy beaches, then taken in-land with the Allied advances,  were utilized by an international cross-section of reporters, including many American, Canadian and Australian reporters. As someone who’d enjoyed the film Good Night and Good Luck – a biopic of Edward Murrow an American anchor during McCarthyism –  it was additionally interesting to discover entries here from the same reporter during the war.

It’s influence extended to vast swathes of the populations of France, Belgium, Netherlands and even Germany too, eager to try and stay updated with the war’s progress. There is even a testament from a German citizen who valued for the BBC for being relied upon for truth –  which evidently could not be said for the inevitable propaganda propagated by the Nazi’s, and when the BBC reported an Allied victory it was accepted by many Germans, whose personal experience of the war was no longer tallying with the messages espoused by their own communications.

Perhaps of particular interest from my own perspective, is it’s revelation of contemporary attitudes to elements of the conflict, that those of us who have grown up well after the event and read about from a safe vantage point, perhaps don’t always appreciate. When they reach Germany for example there are frequent examples of many of the locals looking to welcome the Allied troops with a celebrated air of relief, at times cheering them on, or if they’re a soldier immediately surrendering and asking where the prisoner of war line started. It was, no doubt at the end of the war, but it was also fascinating to see how the Allies responded with a cool indifference to this approach, avoiding any sense of overt intimacy with an enemy, an approach that unsettled the locals. The cool response becomes more obviously understandable when the unmasking and liberation of the concentration camps occurs, and you realise you are reading the words of those who are coming across this scenes for the first time and attempting to articulate a response that convey the fury felt well before any of the testimonies of the likes of Primo Levi or Robert Antelme later shocked the world.

The book provides an accessible history and chronology of the conflict, viewed through the multi-vocal perspectives of numerous war correspondents from around the globe, interspersed with many contributions from vital actors in this combustible theatre:  pilots, commanders, soldiers and local inhabitants all contributing too. It is  a fascinating document of war journalism at it’s best and provides a useful perspective in it’s eye-witness serialization of a subject matter that is frequently read about from voices several generations removed from the events portrayed.