Hidden Figures – A Review

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I went to a special screening of the film Hidden Figures at the Nova Cinema Sunday night.

Hidden Figures celebrates the African-American women whose calculations enabled the Moon landings, and were then forgotten for 40 years. All profits from the event go to Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE), an organisation led by women of colour that fights for reproductive justice in poor, and particularly black, communities. It is on the front line of the struggle against Trump. This is the first of hopefully many events to raise funds for those resisting the right-wing tide.

The event raised $1500 – a great achievement because it was organised at short notice and solely through social media. It didn’t take long to fill the cinema.

NASA’s “Colored Computers”

Hidden Figures is entertaining, empowering, and an all round excellent film. And as most of the advertising hype suggests, it is a story long overdue in the telling, focusing on the journey of three clever women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

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I consider myself well-read and I have a double history major, yet I never knew about the “colored computers” as they were referred to by NASA.

Before IBM mainframes took over NASA’s number-crunching duties, the organization’s “computers” wore skirts. While an all-male team of engineers performed the calculations for potential space travel, women mathematicians checked their work, playing a vital role at a moment when the United States was neck-and-neck with (and for a time, running behind) the Soviets in the space race.

In tandem with the space race between America and Russia is the burgeoning and increasingly effective civil rights movement. Clips from real life news broadcasts and newspaper headlines are shown and there is some re-enactment of protests, but the film’s focus is detailing the achievements of three women who were crucial to the success of NASA’s program. They also trail-blazed for not only African-American rights but rights for all women to be treated as intelligent as their male counterparts.

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The Evils of Segregation

The film, set in the early 1960s shows the struggle for desegregation being fought state by state. Like Apartheid South Africa, coloured people are barred, separated, and herded by the predominant white authorities:

  • coloured drinking fountains,
  • coloured waiting rooms,
  • coloured toilets,
  • coloured canteens
  • coloured offices,
  • coloured counters in cafes and shops,
  • and of course coloured seats at the back of the bus despite the brave actions of Rosa Parkes.

This segregation appalling when seen on the screen, especially regarding the effect on innocent children. It’s almost impossible to understand what it must have been like – and it is not that long ago!

Thank goodness we have films like Hidden Figures and Selma to remind us of our common humanity and the evils of bigotry and hate.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

At NASA’s Langley, in the 1940s and 1950s, the women were split into two pools – the East computing unit for white women, and the West computing unit for black women. This segregation a requirement of Virginia state law that continued into the 1960s.

The three African-American women heroes were crusaders for both feminism and civil rights in segregated Virginia and helped put an American into orbit, which ultimately led to America beating Russia in the race to put a man on the moon.

NASA at least recognised the ability of women to work in the field, but in 1962 the “colored computers” were not afforded the same rights or treated with the same respect as their white male colleagues.

The detailing of overt and ingrained racism some of the most powerful and poignant scenes in the movie. Although the focus is always on the contribution and efforts to achieve a successful launch into space, the three women challenge and defeat prejudice and unfairness in the workplace.

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Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, was the first black supervisor in charge of West Computing and is one of the main characters in the film.  One of the first computer programmers when tasks from the engineers came in, she would allocate the work and show her team what they needed to do. Her ingenuity and intelligence and determination to be ahead of the game and yet protect her team, absolutely awesome.

She often goes toe to toe with her white manager, Vivian played to condescending perfection by Kirsten Dunst who has a face you itch to slap. As a woman, Vivian recognises discrimination yet refuses to accept her own attitude and behaviour as racist, not supporting Dorothy’s right to the title and pay of supervisor and saying such lines as:

“Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all”

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Katherine Johnson played in the film by Taraji P. Henson, was a brilliant geometry expert who worked as a human computer – a person who computes – she was a child prodigy and calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

In the film, there is also a scene where astronaut John Glenn asks for Katherine to check the calculations for returning safely to earth before he gets into the spacecraft.

NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, explains that the film, which has been nominated for a slew of awards, depicts many real events from their lives. “One thing we’re frequently asked,” he says, “is whether or not John Glenn actually asked for Katherine Johnson to ‘check the numbers.'” The answer is yes: Glenn, the first American in orbit and later, at the age of 77, the oldest man in space, really did ask for Johnson to manually check calculations generated by IBM 7090 computers (the electronic kind) churning out numbers at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Though the film shows Glenn asking for Johnson’s approval from the launch pad, she was actually called in well before the launch. Calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took a day and a half. Her calculations matched the computer’s results exactly. Not only did her conclusions give Glenn and everyone else confidence in the upcoming launch, but they also proved the critical computer software was reliable.

When she is transferred into the all white domain in the West Computing Wing the tension and underlying resentment from one male worker, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons plays the stereotypical subdued white collar racist to perfection)  is palpable. It is the scenes in the operational room before and during the space launches that provide the most tension in the movie.

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Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was a mathematician and aerospace engineer. She petitions a judge to let her take the necessary night courses in the all-white high school that will allow her to apply for an open engineering position at NASA.

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Hidden Figures is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures, The Untold Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, a TIME magazine top 10 nonfiction book of 2016.

We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft. Those guys have all told their stories. Now it’s the women’s turn.

Margot Lee Shetterly

There is plenty of humour in the film as well as a great soundtrack. The fashions – from beehive 60s hairdos to colourful and impractical stilettos and skirts and cardigans detailed to perfection to brighten the sets. There are classic gas guzzling cars too.

Real footage of the times from speeches by JFK, shots of Dr Martin Luthor King Jr, and scenes of space launch successes and disasters all used to good effect in the film.

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Two days after the United States announced its intention to launch an artificial satellite, on July 31, 1956, the Soviet Union announced its intention to do the same.

Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957, beating the United States and stunning people all over the world.

  • October 4, 1957, First artificial satellite – First signals from space Sputnik 1
  • November 3, 1957, First dog in orbit ( Laika) Sputnik 2
  • April 12, 1961, First human spaceflight (Yuri Gagarin)

The footage of the Russian efforts as reported by world news reminded me of my Dad singing a ditty about Yuri Gargarin. Britain wasn’t that involved with the space race and so the Russian success was probably looked upon with more admiration on Scotland’s side of the Atlantic!

YURI GAGARIN

Chorus
Oh dear, Yuri Gagarin,
He flew tae the moon when it looked like a farthing,
He said tae the boys at the moment of parting
“Ah’m juist gaun away for the Fair”

Now inside the ship he lay down like a hero,
The doors were sealed up and the countdown was near-o
Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-zero
An Yuri went up in the air

Now when he took off he was shook tae the marra
He circled the poles and he saw the Sahara,
He gave them a wave as he passed over Barra
The day he went up in the air

Now when he went up it was just aboot dawning,
The time when the rest of the world wis still yawning
Then Yuri returned to the land he wis born in
Withoot even turning a hair

When he came tae London they tried the saft pedal,
A wee bowler hat and a rolled-up umbreddle
But the foundrymen went an’ they struck him a medal
An gied it tae him at the fair

This song is in praise of the first man to go into space and orbit the earth, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on 12th April 1961.

The song was written in the vernacular by Glasgow actor and writer Roddy McMillan to the tune of ‘Johnny’s So Long At The Fair’ and has been published in a collection of traditional and new Scots songs as a resource for primary schools, Gallus Publishing  Great Britain, 2013.

Praise Long Overdue

Hidden Figures acknowledges the commitment of all those involved in the pioneer space program, including for the first time the contributions of the African-American mathematicians, engineers and computing experts.

Poetic licence sees the sequence of real events compressed and Kevin Costner plays the head of the Space Task group with dramatic flair, along with his crewcut, conservative collar and tie, and constant gum chewing; he’s a man of the times.

This is an important movie and it will trigger many memories for baby boomers – most of us were sent home from school in 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. In many of my writing classes that day looms large in memory but I guarantee no one knew about the amazing Hidden Figures.

I hope you enjoy the film as much as I did. I’ll leave you with an apt quote from the first man to go into space…

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Manchester By The Sea – a Review

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Last weekend, I went to see the recently released, Manchester By The Sea, at the Palace Cinema, Brighton with my daughters, Anne and Mary Jane.

Anne has been a fan of the actress Michelle Williams since she was a teenager and has a collection of her movies. When one is released we always try and see it because the subject matter and execution of Indie films are usually more enriching than the Hollywood blockbusters and populist ‘bums on seats’ fillers.

It’s the difference between enjoying reading a lightweight novel, but the stereotypical characters and plot forgettable compared to a novel, where the characters live with you for a lifetime, the story challenges or introduces a different perspective on life.

I want stories that tug at your heart and soul before adding another dimension to what it means to be human.

And there are so many scenes in this film that are touches of brilliance; they add to an already memorable story and characters.

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Michelle Williams plays Randi, Lee’s ex-wife and doesn’t disappoint in Manchester by The Sea – she has been nominated for the best supporting actress award.  The few scenes she has, and a gut-wrenching one, in particular – engages the audience the way good acting should – a total suspension of disbelief.

We are with her, feel her love, anger, pain, sadness, joy, guilt and grief. The whole gamut of emotions.

The logline of the movie is simplistic  “An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.” There are many stories in the subtext of this screenplay.

This is a film about broken lives and how easily tragedy and change can happen to any of us. It is a story exploring the journey and stages of grief and the effects of sorrow – different for everyone – especially if it compounds on other bereavements.

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Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan has won multiple awards – and I can see why – this film is a powerful story, but he has done a wonderful job of showing not telling, the pacing and tension breath-taking and balanced like any good page-turning novel. 

His choice of casting excellent with Casey Affleck playing a broody, moody Lee Chandler struggling to come to terms with inner demons. The first few scenes in the less salubrious suburbs of Boston sets the tone of the movie and reveals Lee’s personality.

In modern parlance, he has issues. 

He’s grumpy, socially disconnected, drinks alone and has violent outbursts yet he’s young, physically fit, reasonably good-looking and a competent handyman employed as a janitor for a landlord too cheap to pay tradesmen and prepared to ignore building regulations.

For a minimum wage, Lee Chandler does everything from cleaning, plumbing, electrical repairs, moving furniture, clearing snow, and changing light bulbs while demanding tenants treat him as if he’s invisible, beneath them, or to blame for their maintenance woes. Who wouldn’t be moody and pissed off?

But we sense something more to Lee’s surliness and brooding aloneness, especially when after a bout of solitary drinking in a local bar, he explodes into an inexplicable verbal then physical assault on two strangers.

We are intrigued.

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A phone call leads to a mercy dash to a hospital over an hour’s drive away. The pace of the story picks up as Lee is catapulted into a family crisis.

Through flashbacks, we start to piece together the life Lee Chandler left – the familial bonds, the close-knit community, the love for his brother who has just died. The unravelling of his past explains his choice of a life away from the Massachusetts fishing village where his family have worked for generations.

And when the full story comes to light, it is one of those moments, if it was a book, you would place it on your lap, close your eyes and struggle to get your breathing and blood pressure back to normal.  

On screen, these emotionally engaging moments are powerful indeed.

All the important storytelling elements keep the audience engaged with the use of scenery as clever metaphors. The movie begins in winter and ends in spring.

There is a brilliant scene where Lee is arranging his brother’s funeral but because it is winter the burial (they are Catholic) must be delayed, the snow covered ground too hard and the cost of heavy machinery too expensive. When Lee and his nephew Patrick leave the funeral parlour unhappy with the reality Lee can’t find his car because they’ve both forgotten where it was parked. Their actions and dialogue removing the angst and sentimentality often seen in other movies but so believable.

Anyone who has been left numb by grief will relate to trying to cope with the bizarre situations that occur as you go through the motions of dealing with death and funerals, especially if there are fractured family relationships (Patrick’s mother is still alive but left years before), complications of  beliefs (Patrick is not religious), cost and tradition.

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Lee struggles with coming to terms with the unwanted burden his brother has placed on him – legal guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick. The relationship between Lee and Patrick, the adjustments and revelations provides much-needed and natural humour as well as penetrating insight into teenage grief.

The scenes where Patrick is trying to consummate a long-standing relationship with a girlfriend and even involves his Uncle Lee to keep an overprotective mother busy are hilarious.

My girls and I discussed the irony of wanting to see a film where one of the main characters is a teenager dealing with the death of his father. They were thirteen and sixteen when their father died.

However,  afterwards, as we discussed the movie they both agreed that the portrayal of Patrick’s reactions, the reactions of his friends, and scenes where his anger explodes are spot on and will deeply resonate with young people who have had to cope with a similar tragedy.

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There is a richness to this film with its multiple layers of stories and character development. Several scenes will haunt me for a long time because my life has been touched by grief – death by accident, death by illness and disease, the horrific shock of suicide and the natural process of ageing. It is strangely comforting to reflect that there’s a commonality with people from a different demographic and different country.

The actors convey real emotion and believability and as Lee Chandler tries to make a go of this new hand he has been dealt, we root for him and really want it to work so that he can be healed too.

(The film begins and ends with scenes on the family fishing boat showing a bond between Lee and Patrick although the events occur eight years apart.)

This story of broken lives reminds us how easily lives can be shattered:

  • a lapsed moment of concentration
  • a bad or rash decision
  • being in the wrong place at the wrong time
  • and good old Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong will

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We can’t always distance ourselves from the past, we can’t always beat our demons but we can be open to love and just as chance tragedy can change the direction of your life so can a random spark of friendship and love.

Sometimes we just need a reason to reconnect with that healing journey…

If you go to see Manchester By The Sea, I’ll be interested to hear your impressions and insights.

Visually the film is appealing – Manchester Massachusetts, in the United States, is known for scenic beaches and vista points. 24 miles from Boston, at the 2010 census, the town population was 5,136.

Tonight I’m attending a fundraiser for Hidden Figures – a very different film! I’ll review that in a few days!

 

 

Courageous Catalyst For Change

 

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Yours truly with Yordy

 

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe

Throughout my life, I’ve been involved in movements for social justice, and privileged to meet, see, or read people who leave an indelible mark on my psyche, challenge my opinions, confront me with new knowledge, inspire me – and usually leave me feeling glad there are such amazing, vibrant spirits around working to touch the life of others in a positive way.

The Power of Storytelling And Art

Attending the preview of the film about the making of the stage play, The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe at the Nova Cinema and meeting theatre director and filmmaker, Ros Horin and one of the “African Ladies”, Yordanos left me humbled and richer for the experience.

The after-screening discussion a privilege because we heard responses from refugees and asylum seekers, teachers and writers, radio broadcasters and actors. The raw honesty of so many people working to promote a strong message that violence against women is wrong, and there must be cultural shifts throughout the world – whether first or third world countries, institutions or the home.

Below is a snapshot from an extensive gallery online:

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From the stage production of the play

A Film and A Play

The only time I feel jealous of Sydney is when there is an art exhibition, festival, play or other performance that doesn’t venture south of the border. Melbourne may be the world’s most liveable city and we have memorable art venues and events here, but we missed out on a groundbreaking stage production.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe stage play never came to Melbourne although it did tour overseas. A great hit at the WOW  (Women Of the World)  festival in London.

I first heard it mentioned on Q and A by Tony Burke MP who supported the project. (In the film he has a cameo appearance when the then Governor-General Quentin Bryce  and other supporters like Tony, go backstage to congratulate the cast). On Q and A, Tony mentioned how powerful the play is regarding exposing the effects not only of violence against women in war but within families and communities.

Watching the film of how these four inspirational African women came together to not only tell their harrowing stories but work with Ros Horin to celebrate their survival by telling it on stage is the next best thing to actually seeing the play.

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Yordy and Ros at the Nova

 

As an extension of the work of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe theatre production, this film seeks to share the powerful stories of these four women and their traumatic experiences of civil war, rape, sexual abuse and violence to a much larger Australian and international audience.

The film reveals their extraordinary journeys of struggle, empowerment, and healing through the arts, as the four African women, former refugees, play themselves in a moving story based on their own terrifying experiences.

A Thought-Provoking Film

An inspirational story of courage and resilience, that reveals the transformative power of storytelling through the arts.

I Came By Boat Project

I was invited to see the film preview because I donated to the crowdfunding for the I Came By Boat Campaign another project using the power of storytelling to challenge people’s assumptions and change attitudes.

I guarantee your emotions will be engaged when you hear the stories of the “African Ladies” but also uplifted when you see the empowerment of the women and pride of families, especially their children.

 

The aim of this unique and exceptional project is to be a catalyst for open dialogue about violence within communities all over the world. It needs to reach as many people as possible including schools, government bodies, and social impact groups.

 

Check out their website for screening dates, and if you can, please support the distribution of this film to the wider audience it so richly deserves.

It was such a privilege to witness the honesty and openness by Ros, Aminata, Rosemary, Yarrie and Yordy.  They not only shared the stories for the play but so much more about their personal journeys about acting for the first time – performing as the cold observer on their own story.

There are glimpses in the film about playwriting and acting and it was fascinating to hear all the contingency plans Ros had in place to protect the women from the emotional trauma of retelling their stories.

Yordy had a breakdown and withdrew from the project. Being the cold observer impossible but we see her recover and rejoin the troupe. There is a lot of joy in this film.

I hope The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe has the viewing and success it so richly deserves.

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Suffering Suffragettes – Women Do Laugh!

 

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from BBC archive – women in Lancaster

It is holiday time and I relaxed at the movies with my youngest daughter Mary Jane and two longtime friends and writing buddies, Barbara and Maureen.

‘Three generations watching Suffragette,said MJ, ‘coffee afterwards should be interesting.’ And it was!

MJ is 26, I’m 62, Barbara 78, and Maureen almost 80. Four women with varying degrees of knowledge about the ‘first wave of feminism’. Four women who have experienced very different lives and education. Women who have lived through legislative changes towards gender equality, and some profound changes in attitude.

Maureen and Barbara can remember WW2 and along with me, experienced restrictions and unfairness because of our gender. I joined Women’s Liberation in the 70s.

And of course, with today’s newspaper headlines, MJ can quite rightly ask, ‘How far have we really come?’

We wanted to come away from the movie feeling empowered and uplifted, although under no illusions that the struggle for equality and respect continues in 2016.

Instead, we left the cinema angry, sad, and with a list of disappointments about aspects of the script, the choice and performance of actors, and a storyline that tried to cover too many topics, too frugally.

Was Meryl Streep chosen to play Emmeline Pankhurst to attract funding? Her cameo role came across as wooden, the dialogue bland rhetoric and any personality buried under too many layers of period costume.

 

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BBC archives -Women’s Social and Political Union 1908

Criticisms aside, I hope people see the film, think about the issues raised, have conversations and initiate discussions – especially with fathers, husbands, brothers, sons and daughters.

Unless you deliberately seek information about the suffragettes, they receive a glance in history classes at school or are ignored altogether. Many universities no longer support Women’s Studies.

However, I’m at a loss as to what audience the film hoped for, because if it was to educate men (and new generations of women), I think it will fail to attract bums on seats.

If it is ‘preaching to the converted’ it disappoints.

If it is aimed at all women, or the general public, they should have placed more emphasis on success and focused on inspiration and the political journey.

At the end of the film’s action,  a scrolled list of various (not all) countries and the dates when women were allowed to vote is a lost opportunity. The list is not put into any sort of context to make it memorable. (A headline from a newspaper, or file footage of the achievement and public reaction against the dates would have been nice.)

Many women already know why the women’s movement developed and will go to see the movie to learn the history. They’ll seek a reason to celebrate, be entertained, empowered – there are so many women who were amazing at that time. Why the story had to be told through the life of a fictional character seems strange.

I was looking forward to a film celebrating the first wave of feminism and hoped for something as inspiring as PrideWhen that movie ended in the Kino Cinema there was spontaneous applause. The audience walked out of the cinema emotionally engaged, aware we had experienced something special;we  better understood and appreciated an important historical struggle, saw the best and worst of the human spirit.

I wanted that feeling after Suffragette. The courage and vision of those women not only gave me rights I enjoy today, but the inspiration and impetus to join the Women’s Liberation Movement when I started university in 1971.

I’ve been committed to telling and promoting herstory for years through my community involvement, my parenting, my writing, teaching, and social activism. All the issues raised in the film, including the right to vote (and why many women don’t) and wage inequality are still relevant today.

Meanwhile, domestic violence, especially the murder of women in the family home, a place where they should feel the safest, is the subject of a Royal Commission here in Victoria to grab people’s attention and effect real change.

Unfortunately, Suffragette is bleak and the sacrifices and gains the women made buried in a script that tries to do too much and tell too many important stories without giving detailed justice to most of them.

Why a fictional character when any number of women’s life story could have been told to make the same points?

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In the film, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) becomes a suffragette, not so much by choice but by a series of accidents: she gets caught up in a direct action campaign of window-smashing, is approached by a fellow worker who cajoles her to attend a meeting.

Suddenly, from a reluctant convert begged to join, she’s blowing up mailboxes and Lloyd George’s country manor. Instant radicalisation and a speedy character arc that leaves a lot of unanswered questions about personal growth and why such violence.

Suffragette is clear about the power of men and entrenched patriarchy – from the deviousness and duplicity of politicians and police, to the tyranny of husbands and employers, but it introduces subjects like sexual abuse and exploitation, domestic violence and the abrogation of women’s rights over their own children, money and property – huge social topics – depicted briefly and focused on a handful of women as if they are the movement.

An empowered Maud rescues a young girl from the clutches of an employer who also abused Maud from twelve years old. She fought for this girl’s rights, but apart from a crying tantrum she lets a couple take her son after her husband puts him up for adoption because he can’t cope as a single parent.

The scene included to expose the lack of a mother’s rights but was a storyline that deserved longer exploration and didn’t gel with Maud’s feisty character.

Where was the sisterhood? The band of guerrillas Maud joined, would surely have stepped in. These were women prepared to damage property, suffer indignities in prison including barbaric force-feeding (the physical consequences down played in the movie).

If they couldn’t stop the adoption, they’d have encouraged her to kidnap the boy or at least make a public fight for her rights. Some of those women had money as well as influential husbands, who were not all anti suffragette.

Check out the Changeling, a movie on the profound power of a mother’s love, set in 1928 LA and based on a true story of single mother Christine Collins. A movie that tackles a host of social and political issues but never loses sight of the determination of a mother to get her son back. Ironically, 1928 is the year some British women get the vote – years behind the empire’s  ex-colonies.

This is another point of contention. There is not even a mention of the advances in other countries, no mention of our Australian hero Vida Goldstein, and no exploration of why British women had to resort to violence when Australia achieved voting rights with the help of the Women’s Suffrage Petition.

It wasn’t a documentary, but what exactly was the film when a key suffragette like Pankhurst is almost airbrushed out.

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Women’s Suffrage Petition Memorial Melbourne

Suffragette emphasises at the beginning how devoted Maud is to Georgie, he’s her only son, she adores him. Why would she not put the same effort and commitment fighting for him as she does to the suffragette cause? The Maud they created in this film would explore every avenue, would demand the others help.

Edith Ellyn (played brilliantly by Helen Bonham Carter), a radical activist, based on the real-life suffragette Edith Garrod, and her supportive and committed husband would surely have helped Maud. (There is a brief mention that Edith’s husband went to prison twice for the cause and he plays an active albeit almost silent part!)

In fact, Georgie and Maud are too clean and well-dressed for the average worker in 1912 living in the squalid housing around the industrial factories of London. the opening scenes show the drudgery and relentless labouring required in places ignoring basic health and safety guidelines.

Another niggling point is when Georgie has a cough and is taken to Edith and her pharmacist husband for examination and free medicine. Given some barley sugar he doesn’t say thank you. Maud would have admonished his lack of manners. I mean this is a boy whose father makes him salute and thank the King’s picture every night.  The class system in Britain ingrained politeness and courtesy towards ‘your betters.’

Another minor irritant was Maud’s husband accusing her of wanting champagne on a beer budget… really? Doubt if that was a common expression among laundry workers in 1912 – he’d more likely berate her for trying to copy her ‘posh’ friends.

Perhaps the biggest failing in the film is not offering some joy.

I know the times were bleak for women, but I also know when a group of women with a common cause get together, we laugh, we dance, we take the mickey – and committed activists look after each other. They would not have Maud sleeping in a disused church if she is one of the inner circle.

Where were the fun scenes reliving successful operations? The frenetic scenes preparing banners, making the sashes and placards – some visual relief from the drabness and oppression?

I have happy treasured memories of Women’s Liberation meetings, Union of Australian Women events and International Women’s Day celebrations and marches. Despite  critics  wanting to portray feminists as dour, frigid and bitter, the term sisterhood is powerful has a different connotation for most women.

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There could also have been more use of actual footage of the times for impact if the film was deftly edited like Selma. The actual footage used at the end of Suffragette is powerful and it shows the movement was a lot bigger than what the film suggested, but achieving the goal of the vote is years away.

In Suffragette, one scene comes close to showing camaraderie of sisterhood – when two of the characters (Violet and Maud) find a room to rent after a distraught Maud is locked out of home by her husband. The women sit on the ‘bed of nails’, which collapses accompanied by their giggles and laughter.

Women are adept at laughing in the face of adversity – gallows humour if you like – similar to soldiers under fire. The film lacked that important essence to take us on an emotional roller coaster – the audience needed to feel the ardour of these women, breathe their fire, be touched by their soul and sadness, but also their laughter, love, humanity and the solidarity that gave them the courage and spark to continue.

Two scenes stand out – a riot revealing the brutality of the police and onlookers and the tense scene where Emily Wilding Davison stepped out in front of the King’s horse. The film suggests it was deliberate suicide, yet this is debatable, especially when you look at archived footage.

Personally, I’d love a film to be made on the life of Emily, beginning with that horrific media grabbing action and then showing her journey. How and why she became a suffragette. And why so few people actually know or care about her life, preferring to define her by that one action.

We need to inspire more women and men to question how far we have come and the structural changes needed for equality and basic human rights.

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Youth And Reaching For The Stars

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I love this still from Youth; it’s a great metaphor – are we all in cages waiting for the inevitability of death? Are we there from choice?  Do we talk ourselves into being ‘old’? What will it feel like to take flight, defy assumptions?

When you see the movie, you’ll understand the significance of this scene.

When I was invited by StudioCanal to the Premiere of Youth at the Classic Cinema, Elsternwick, I didn’t have to think twice about accepting because Sir Michael Caine was one of the main characters. I can’t say I’ve seen every film he’s ever been in, but I’ve seen many, and he rarely disappoints.

Youth is billed as a comedy/drama, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, and it has won several awards already in Europe, including the trifecta of Best Director, Best Actor (Caine) and Best film!

The storyline revolves around two elderly friends(70s/80s) on vacation in an elegant hotel/health resort at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) are linked since adolescence, but also as in-laws – Mick’s son married Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), but at the beginning of the film we learn that marriage has broken down.

Fractured relationships and how you cope with them, a major theme of the film.

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Fred, a famous composer/conductor, is retired from the music world. Mick, a well-known film director, is working on his last testament, a final masterpiece and is surrounded by a bevy of young screenwriters thrilled to be near and to learn from ‘the master’.

There is laugh aloud moments, and several others when quiet chuckles ripple through the cinema. The movie is shot in the eastern part of the Swiss Alps; the magnificent mountainous scenery used to good effect with excellent camera work.

I loved a delightful scene with Fred in a field observing the rhythm and musicality of nature. He begins to conduct the cud-chewing cows, Swiss cowbells tinkle, there’s a rush of a flock of birds taking flight… the music throughout the film another delight.

David Lang’s score integral to the film, especially the emotional development of Englishman, Fred, who refuses a request from Queen Elizabeth II, to perform his most famous piece, Simple Songs. He’s told; it is the only music Prince Phillip listens to, and the Queen’s emissary is persistent and insistent that Royalty does not take no for an answer.

However, Fred wrote the piece for his wife who we discover has senile dementia and is in care. He hasn’t visited her for ten years but is determined he will not conduct or have anyone else conduct another diva singing the piece.

Fred’s memories haunt him. His past behaviour is a source of conflict with his daughter who accuses him of neglecting his wife and family. Fred finally admits, ‘You were right. Music is all I understand…’

The difficulties yet the importance of communication reinforced nicely in a scene where a young masseuse at the resort massages Fred. Few words are spoken, and she mentions the power of touch and what you can say without words. Fred understands.

Multifaceted human beings are another constant with scenes of the development of various characters (including the young masseuse) needing no words. I enjoyed the visual feast of many of the scenes and how the notable cameos and subtext were interspersed throughout the main story arc. (Watch out for Paul Dano, Maradona and Jane Fonda.)

The expository dialogue in a couple of major scenes, done I assume to reduce the film’s length, but no doubt some pedants in the industry will be quick to criticise. This is where I differ from screen purists. I just love the power of story, regardless of the method of execution and being a writer for text, not screen; I’m more forgiving.

Caine’s facial expressions, his body language and the delivery of some pithy lines like ‘intellectuals have no taste’ are brilliant. We empathise with the inner turmoil of a man coming to terms with ageing, dealing with the present while reflecting on the past, contemplating the meaning of life and wondering how, or if, to make amends. He mentions several times that he’s been judged ‘apathetic’.

Death is inevitable but the quality of life is important, and it is not about trying to reclaim an idealistic ‘youth’. A quote by one of my favourite poets, Rabbie Burns,  springs to mind ‘nae man can tether time or tide…’ 

There are several threads of humour and running gags in the film. One is the daily conversation Fred and Mick have about whether they’ve managed to pee and how much. (It will raise a smile for all of us oldies obsessed with signs of deteriorating health!) The other is a Buddhist monk (Dorji Wangchuk) meditating each day trying to levitate. (For all of us still reaching for the stars and determined never to give up!)

If you’re wanting an escapist entertainment experience like the latest Star Wars release, Youth is not for you. Apart from the fact the films are vastly different genres, Youth has few special effects. You have to pay attention to each character to discover their story arc; there is no assumption of backstory knowledge like the huge Star Wars fan base.

In Youth, there are scenes where nobody speaks nor appear to be doing much yet another layer of intrigue is added to an engrossing story. One poignant mini story that had my writer’s imagination working overtime is the young escort taken to the resort by her mother.

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Harrison Ford in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

For me, there are similarities with Star Wars: The Force Awakens – and not just because that movie has another of my favourite actors, Harrison Ford. In both movies wit, humour and dialogue are delivered with panache, and you’ve been entertained. What going to the movies is all about, first and foremost.

I went to see the latest Star Wars release with my daughters at 12.20am and the sleep deprivation was worth it. I loved the buzz inside the cinema complex and the enthusiasm of the audience that spanned several generations. So many had turned up in costumes.

None of the seductive sedation of Youth at the end of The Force Awakens as the audience chattered with energetic excitement reliving scenes, discussing minute details. Moviegoers were deeply moved by Youth too, but we sat and pondered in silence.

The appreciation of what you have just watched on screen is something Youth and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have in common. They both share themes of fractured relationships, ageing, relationships with children, yearning for lost passion and celebration of talent and achievement.

I took along a younger movie buddy to Youth, and she loved it – the hour long tram and train trip home (Elsternwick’s on a different line to Frankston) certainly gave us plenty of time to mull over the 124 minutes of the film. I put Youth in the same category as Still Life, another movie seen this year that I loved.

We deconstructed the dialogue, the scenes, the characters, the music, the metaphors, the message – there is a lot packed into Youth, and the contemplative silence at the end was not just the reluctance of people to leave the extremely comfortable seats in The Classic.

See it when it is released and let me know what you think. I’m happy to hear about Star Wars too – a step out of my comfort zone (I did see the original movie, but don’t consider myself hooked). However, my daughters are educating me…

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Getting with The Program

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Thanks to a complimentary ticket from StudioCanal I went to see The Program ( the apt title explained here) at the Nova in Carlton. I was surprised at how much I  enjoyed the film, about American cyclist Lance Armstrong’s rise to multiple winner of the Tour de France and his dramatic fall embroiled in a drugs scandal involving so many participants that for many people, the sport is sullied forever.

I can remember when the amazing success of Lance Armstrong dominated the media a decade ago. A cancer survivor, he returned to cycling to win the most rugged and difficult cycling  event in the world – not once but seven times. Worshipped by adoring fans because of his courage and talent, he set up a successful charity for cancer patients and research, he had speaking engagements, wrote inspiring columns and a book – he became a sporting celebrity and motivator. One of the world’s greatest.

And then he was revealed as a cheat, not only winning because of performance enhancing drugs, but repeatedly lying and involving others in his web of deceit. The film shows how practised he became at lying.

His famous interview with Oprah admitted guilt, but not remorse. Instead, he justified his behaviour by saying other athletes used drugs!

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Some people may avoid the film because there have been books and documentaries about Armstrong. However,  I’d recommend seeing The Program, even if only to appreciate how amazing Ben Foster is as Lance Armstrong, and to understand the scope of what the cyclist managed to get away with and how he fooled authorities.

The biopic as it unfolds is gripping viewing on the big screen. I found the other characters  based on real people fascinating too. The contribution of bit players in great historical moments often forgotten.

Foster captures the mannerisms and nuances of Armstrong, who I’d describe as a sociopath. There are moments when you feel sorry for him, but they are few. What drives him to punish his body in such a way? The single mindedness that drives his choices regardless of who he hurts is disconcerting, but amidst the ruthlessness he genuinely cares for cancer victims and raises millions of dollars  for cancer research.

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The opening scenes where the twists and turns of the long, mountainous road is traversed by a solo cyclist, a fabulous metaphor.

Lance showed determination and courage conquering his cancer and the difficult terrain of the Tour de France, but the narrative he wove to justify bullying, cheating, lying and manipulating, ultimately left him isolated. He pushed himself to the limits of endurance, yet his arrogance, desire,  and determination to win were instrumental in his downfall.

To coin a cliche he was hoisted on his own petard!

Lance Armstrong is still alive as are most of the people mentioned in the movie so I can imagine the production’s legal team worked overtime.

However, the screenplay by John Hodge is adapted from “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong” by David Walsh, the Sunday Times sportswriter played by Chris O’Dowd and most legal issues have probably been raised before and sorted.

The dogged determination of Walsh to prove his suspicions about Armstrong is one of the main threads of the movie. When Lance’s ability to lie and bully effectively isolates Walsh from the other journalists, the vision of him standing alone in a city square, dwarfed by Armstrong’s fancy hotel another powerful metaphor.

This is what film does so well – moves the story along, engages your emotions without words or explanations.

As the drug scandal unfolds, The Program concentrates on the fall from grace of Armstrong and the other cyclists in his U.S. Postal Service team. It only briefly touches on private family lives, these glimpses great additions with deft editing by Danny Cohen.

We don’t see what background shaped Lance and influenced his choices but we do see the emotional rollercoaster of Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), and his transition from idealistic young cyclist from a traditional Mennonite community to winner of the Tour de France and then whistleblower and architect of Armstrong’s disgrace.

I wonder how much of his Christian values Floyd Landis absorbed because if he had not been caught by the testing doctors and then abandoned by Lance, would he have confessed?

Jesse Plemons does a wonderful job of showing a man struggling with guilt, with choices, with his conscience, but it is extremely disquieting how easily Floyd and Lance lied to journalists, race organisers and government officials before they were caught and cornered.

They may not be monsters but their monstrous actions destroyed reputations and credibility in a sporting event that many people relied on for their livelihood. And their legacy has left a cloud over subsequent sporting events.

Sadly, many people like me now see world record breakers, not first and foremost as great athletes, but as people clever enough to avoid performance enhancing drugs being detected in their system!

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The narrative sticks close to the title, explaining the origin and execution of the doping ‘program’ designed and operated by the Italian physician and coach, Dr Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) and adapted and organised by Armstrong for his team.

The sweeping camera shots of cinematographer Danny Cohen makes the cycling scenes live and when melded with actual footage of the races the cinema audience is ‘there’.

The scenes of injections, blood transfusions and of Lance’s cancer treatment so realistic I closed my eyes at times. The editing and camera close-ups used to good effect.

I’ve been through operations and chemotherapy and it’s mind boggling that after cancer treatment Armstrong willingly punished his body to the extent the doping regime demanded.

This film could be a great tool in classrooms to discuss ethics. The  emotions and opinions generated by the hype around Lance Armstrong as opposed to the reality, interesting topics to explore. And how culpable are people who are complicit by remaining silent when race or match fixing is suspected or known?

Australia is a sports mad country and there is big money in sport. Where is the tipping point if money corrupts? How difficult is it to make the “right” choice?

There is an interesting and amusing scene where celebrity Lance endorses products he dislikes. The insincerity of celebrity advertising revealed.

For Lance the end justified the means when it came to making money and seeking adulation. Was he always a cheat? Maybe a film exploring what influences create a Lance Armstrong will be made!

The movie ends acknowledging the source of the material and with short bios of what happened to the main players.

The evidence of the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team-run scheme is overwhelming and is in excess of 1000 pages, and includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including 15 riders with knowledge of the US Postal Service Team (USPS Team) and its participants’ doping activities. The evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.

Statement From USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart Regarding The U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team Doping Conspiracy

The Program has had mixed reviews. Variety  considers Director “Stephen Frears’ cautious study of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace doesn’t crack the cyclist’s implacable veneer.” Whereas The Empire and Time-Out give it four stars, which would be my inclination too.

The Program kept me engaged for the full 103 minutes. It gave my friend and I lots of fodder for an interesting discussion over coffee. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it and have a much deeper understanding of what is involved in doping in sport. And certainly know a lot more about cycling.

Drugs and corruption are recurring themes in Australian and world sport, a film like this is relevant even if about ‘history’ – go see it!

 

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You will ‘crack up’ at Man Up

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man up  – to fulfill your responsibilities as a man, despite your insecurities and constant ability to place yourself in embarrassing and un-manly scenarios.

Urban Dictionary

Thanks to Dean at Studiocanal I took the opportunity to attend the preview of Man Up on Wednesday at Hoyts, Melbourne Central. This Rom-Com is a UK/French production starring Britisher Simon Pegg and American Lake Bell, although she does very well maintaining a British accent throughout. (Apparently, this was helped by her staying in character even when not filming.)

The blurb sets the scene:

Nancy (Lake Bell), is done with dating. 10 times bitten, 100 times shy, she’s exhausted by the circus. So when Jack (Simon Pegg) blindly mistakes her for his date, no one is more surprised than her when she does the unthinkable and just goes with it. It’s going to take a night of pretending to be someone else for Nancy to finally Man Up and be her painfully honest, awesomely unconventional self… but will Jack also Man Up, and be able to get over her duplicity? Best just to let the evening unfold, roll with the consequences, and see if one crazy, unpredictable, complicated night can bring these two messy souls together.

From the outset, I knew my demographics (60-somethings) not the target audience for this movie and was glad my daughter Mary Jane (20s) came along because the generation gap gave us different perspectives and made for an excellent discussion afterwards.

Regarding the scene where Nancy has a rant about raunchy sex (entirely mythical) between her and Jack to get back at Jack’s vindictive ex-wife Hilary (Olivia Williams) Mary Jane said, ‘I’m glad you didn’t know half of what she was talking about!’

However, we mainly did laugh at the same things, and this is a whimsical feel good film. It’s not super original as far as the genre goes, but there are some subtle touches and the lead roles are well-chosen. Even Nancy’s parents Bert (Ken Stott of Rebus fame) and Fran (Dame Harriet Walter of Sense & Sensibility and Atonement) are well cast.

It’s a modern film – blind dates are not new, but the intrusion of technology is there although the line about Nancy not being on Facebook and yet she was supposed to be a journalist I found a little unbelievable, considering everyone seems to have an online profile these days. However, she was meant to be unconventional.

Nancy’s reaction when she runs into an old school friend Sean (Rory Kinnear) who honestly is a creepy, crazed stalker was also bizarre for a 34-year-old professional woman jaded but still experienced with men. (Even with the suspension of disbelief.)

I found Sean more disturbing than funny, and my daughter agreed. I don’t know whether the part is as the writer Tess Morris envisaged. Shooting scripts and screenplays can differ widely, but considering the enormous amount of violence against women – cyber and actual – a creepy stalker who demands a ‘blowjob’ as the first trade off to keep Nancy’s real identity secret made both MaryJane and I squirm. There are several ways that subplot could have been written differently and still been funny.

The film happens all in one night, and it works well even if the amount of shots and bottles of alcohol consumed overdone. It’s difficult to believe they could remain standing; think rationally and speak naturally, but that and a slightly weird ending is to appeal to the followers of Hollywood Rom-Coms according to my daughter.

Those particular points aside, this is a light, entertaining comedy that has some seriously funny lines and scenes carried off superbly by Simon Pegg and Lake Bell and well-chosen supporting cast.

There is a poignant scene with a beautiful expression of advice to those who have lost love, lost self-esteem, seek love and need something to go right but don’t know if it ever will. Nancy tells Jack he’s an emotional jigsaw at the moment, in pieces and he just needs to find the blue bits.

I loved this metaphor; it reminds me of a fantastic book Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart. This book helped me through grief when I lost the love of my life. Even in comedy there can be a serious message.  Nancy’s parents still in love after 40 years of marriage – looked at from one perspective Nancy can think she’s a failure or she can see that a long lasting, loving relationship is achievable.

This fast-paced film matches Jack and Nancy’s roller-coaster evening of dropping barriers and getting to know each other while living in the moment.  The soundtrack great too, ensuring you stay in the mood and leave the cinema upbeat and happy.

Romantic Comedies may not be your favourite genre, but Man Up is different enough from some of the usual offerings to make it an entertaining night at the movies.  And if you go intergenerational there’s great conversation over coffee!

A Different Angle on a Legend

LEGEND 
1. a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.
synonyms: myth, saga, epic, tale, story, folktale, folk story, fairy tale, fable, mythos, folklore, lore, mythology, fantasy, oral history, folk tradition; urban myth
2. an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.
synonyms: celebrity, star, superstar, icon, phenomenon, luminary, leading light, giant; Mor

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My older sister came to stay from interstate this week and I took the opportunity to use complimentary tickets for Studiocanal’s latest promotion Legend “the notorious true story of the Kray twins“. The film focuses on the notoriety of identical twin gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, and their criminal empire in the East End of London during the 1960s.

To be honest, I doubt if I would have gone to see this film without the free tickets because I grew up in an era with the Krays forever in the news – and it was all bad as these headlines from UK newspapers show:

I didn’t want to see a film glorifying violence or justifying the appalling behaviour of these would be celebrities. Thankfully, Legend does not do either of these things. There are violent scenes and offensive language, but the movie concentrates on the love affair between Reggie Kray and Frances Shea and a very short time in the life of the Krays London-based criminal empire and gangster status. Frances is the narrator and we know what she wants from the relationship early in the film:

Frances Shea: You could go straight…
Reggie Kray: Life isn’t always what we want it to be.

While there is an attempt to show the human and vulnerable side to Reggie, the ultimate reality and tragic consequences dispels any sympathy you may feel for the main character. Legend is definitely not Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey!

The storyline is almost palatable when centered around the brief courtship and marriage of Reggie and Frances with the criminal activities as subplots. However, trying to make Ronnie and Reggie behave in a loving way towards anyone, even each other, an impossible task if you also depict the documented behaviour of the Krays and the other psychopaths and morons who were their associates. The episodic violence and scattering of references to celebrities, politicians and other gangsters of the time leaves unresolved and confusing subplots, but also destroys any sympathy for the people in their social circle.

However, the acting of Emily Browning as a ‘fragile’ Frances Shea and Tom Hardy as both Kray brothers lifts the film from mediocre to memorable. There are also some solid performances from recognisable British character actors showing good casting from writer/director Brian Helgeland. Christopher Eccleston plays a suitably frustrated Detective Nipper Read who eventually gets his ‘man’ and Tara Fitzgerald is a fearless and angry Mrs. Shea devastated at her daughter’s infatuation with Reggie.

Legend reveals both brothers as paranoid and violent. Their delusions of invincibility divorced from reality, although only Ronnie diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. This quote early in the movie sums him up:

Dr. Humphries: Your brother Ron is violent and psychopathic, and I suspect he’s paranoid schizophrenic… to put it simply he’s off his fucking rocker!
[thrusts a bottle of pills to Reggie]
Dr. Humphries: Make sure he takes these…, or they’ll be serious trouble. 

The doctor’s comment an understatement! Check out Monty Python’s ‘Pirhana Bros’ sketch lampooning the Krays. This pretty well sums up what people of my generation familiar with the real life ‘legend’, thought of creeps like the uneducated Krays who were not bright or smart, but epitomised the adage ‘brawn over brains’.

Perhaps the one lesson to take away from Legend is that there was a time in British justice when murderers were gaoled for life – Ronnie Kray (62) died in prison and Reggie (67), sentenced to 30 years, served 33 because of his prison behaviour and released on compassionate grounds, died 6 weeks later from cancer. The Krays had an older brother Charlie (73) not mentioned in the film. He also died in prison a few months before Reggie.

The film has had mixed reviews since its release and I can understand why. The acting is superb and I loved the soundtrack of mainly 60s music.  The set design offers the authenticity we’ve come to expect from British period productions. Movie trivia reveals:

“The Blind Beggar pub featured in the movie is The Royal Oak on Columbia Road in London. The pub has featured in many British TV programmes. It was the same pub used in ’90s sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart and was also the scene of Victor Meldrew’s failed reunion with friends in the last episode of One Foot In The Grave.”

However, in depicting the truth about the Krays, even a condensed version of their vicious amoral life, there is not much to enjoy. You leave the cinema with a sense of relief it’s over.

We don’t learn enough about the police officers involved or see how the Krays are eventually charged and sentenced to understand what real impact they had on London. Reggie’s dramatic about turn in his treatment of Frances so sudden and out of character it strips away all pretence that the movie is a love story and makes you realise that storyline arc not developed well at all.

Yet, for all the criticisms, I think the viewing public, accepts the film on face value, acknowledging Tom Hardy’s amazing triumph acting identical twins in such a way that audiences are convinced it is two separate people. And, as mentioned before, Emily Browning is stunning as the vulnerable and fragile Frances even though we could have done with more of her backstory. The glimpses of humour mainly provided by ‘mad’ Ron are not overdone and are believable for that character.

“In the UK, Legend (2015) became the highest grossing 18-rated British film of all time, surpassing Trainspotting (1996)….”

Despite the fact:

“Critic Benjamin Lee of The Guardian wrote a negative review of the film, giving it only two stars: a poster for British distributor Studio Canal displayed these, but placed them between the twins’ heads, so that at first glance The Guardian appeared to be one of many outlets that had run four- and five-star reviews (until Lee himself pointed this out on Twitter).”

Fortunately, the violence is not as graphic as it could have been and the film does not glamorise gangsters or criminal activity – you leave the cinema glad the Krays are no longer around. There are many unexplored threads, especially in relation to Ronnie’s mental illness and treatment juxtaposed with the depression (?) Frances obviously suffered and the pills she popped.

There is also a hint that Reggie is psychopathic too:

Ronald Kray: [on his twin stabbing Jack] Why did you kill him?
Reggie Kray: [walks up, so he is pressing his forehead against his twin] Because I CAN’T KILL YOU!

Mind you by the end of the film I think most people in the audience empathised with those sentiments! Perhaps even extended hopes of retribution, vengeance and justice towards both Krays and everyone in their circle of friends who took part in the attempt to build a ‘gangster kingdom’ in 1950s/60s Britain!

Please let me know what you think of the film if you see it.

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Still Life – still alive!

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Feverish and aching from flu I couldn’t settle to read so took advantage of modern technology and decided to relax in front of the ‘goggle box’. The limitations of free to air television were soon apparent, so I chose a DVD I’d had for awhile, but never got around to watching, a film I’ve also wanted to write about because it has what all writers seek: a memorable character, engaging storyline that makes an emotional connection, conflict, and an unforgettable climax and resolution.

I saw Still Life last year with my older sister Cate and was so impressed that I never stopped talking about it – according to daughter MJ – and when JB HiFi had a sale, I received the DVD as a gift.

Now, choosing to watch a movie promoted as: “A council case worker looks for the relatives of those found dead and alone,” may seem a strange choice when your feeling so ill you might be his next case, but that’s what I did – and like the first time I experienced this film, I was profoundly moved by it’s life-affirming message and deep belief in humanity. Rare messages in a world terrorised by ‘the war on terror’ where refugees and ‘the other’ are demonised. A world where Nihilism often triumphs.

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For watchers of British drama, you’ll spot one of the best English character actors this century in Eddie Marsan, who plays the lead, John May with the right amount of melancholic sympathy and detached compassion you’d expect from a bureaucrat trying to instil dignity for those dying alone without becoming maudlin. ‘Mr May’ has been doing his job for 22 years when we meet him, finding the next of kin of those who died alone, or officiating at the funeral for those without friends or family interested in saying farewell.

The poignant opening scenes of sole mourner, John May choosing the music, listening to eulogies he’s written about the deceased using information on public record or gleaned from their belongings, and then solemnly sprinkling ashes on carefully selected flower beds is powerful cinematic storytelling. Beautifully scripted and shot by Uberto Pasolini, producer, director and writer of Still Life.

The film took four awards from the 2013 Venice Film Festival, but if you want to read a sour review Village Voice has a very critical, and in my opinion, harsh appraisal whereas FilmSchoolRejects understands “Still Life is a simple, small movie, but it has something big to say about the need for human contact.”

Conflict occurs almost immediately when John May is told he is being made redundant. His meticulous and organised search for relatives and then ‘appropriate’ arrangements for those left alone deemed too expensive and unnecessary in the world of bean counters and government economy drives.

When the downsizing is announced, John manages to gain a reprieve to finish his last case and this quixotic journey transforms his own life as well as others. His spartan dull life slowly changed, his obsessive neatness that borders on OCD challenged and a courageous liberating pattern of breaking the rules begins – all sparked by the realisation that the final “nobody” was Billy Stokes, a neighbour – unknown and friendless living in a flat across the walkway from John’s.

The wonder and talent of cinema is that so much story can be told visually, without words, explanations, exposition… Still Life is one of the finest examples of this I’ve seen in a long time – although I’d never set myself up as an expert on screen! The scenes where John pastes photographs of the deceased into a huge family album speaks volumes – not only about his own aloneness, but about giving a family to those who were friendless and isolated.

We writers must always consider our audience and filmmakers have the same brief – for me Uberto Pasolini’s “Still Life” ticks all the boxes. If you can borrow the DVD please watch it and I’d love to hear your opinion – and you don’t have to wait until you have a bout of flu!

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