Archive for November, 2017

Paddington 2

Posted: November 21, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Paul King. Starring Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters and Hugh Grant.

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What could possibly go wrong?

Paddington has now settled into life with the Brown family, and has become popular with all his neighbours, with the notable exception of Mr Curry (a returning Peter Capaldi at his most grumpy). With his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday on the horizon Paddington sets his sights on buying her a present and he’s seen just the thing, a popup book of London. The trouble is it’s expensive, so Paddington takes a series of jobs to save up what he needs.

Unfortunately someone else has taken a shine to the book, an egotistical and once famous actor named Phoenix Buchannan (Grant). When the book is stolen all the evidence points to a bear with a love of marmalade sandwiches. Can Paddington clear his name, and will he be able to get Aunt Lucy the birthday present she deserves?

 

When Paddington burst onto the scene in 2014 it took everyone by surprise. When talk of a live action Paddington film first appeared it was met with unease, we’d all seen too many beloved characters given the big budget movie treatment and sink without a trace to imagine Paddington would be any different. But of course the film blew everyone away with it’s wonderful casting, amazing special effects and a perfectly pitched family friendly tone. It was no surprise there’d be a sequel, but you can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice, can you?

Well it turns out you can when it comes to small Peruvian bears with a taste for orange based preserves. In pretty much every way possible Paddington 2 is as good as Paddington was; that true rarity, a family film for all ages that doesn’t patronise a single member of its audience. This isn’t a film that throws in a few mature jokes for the adults, or dumbs down its plots for the little uns.

As before the living beating heart of the film is Paddington himself, a perfect combination of wonderful CGI and Ben Whishaw’s spot on characterisation. He plays Paddington like a child, only a child with an old soul, always seeing the good in people, always wanting to be kind, yet never remotely a fool. It’s a tough tightrope to walk but yet again the filmmakers manage it with ease.

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If you think there’s a lot of people crammed in here, wait till you see the opposite booth!

Whishaw aside the film is a veritable who’s who of British light entertainment in minor roles, and once again Bonneville is more than happy to play the ever so slightly bumbling straight man to Paddington, his family, and much of the supporting cast. Sally Hawkins plays Mrs Brown with steely resolve, as Paddington’s most vocal supporter. It is a shame the Brown kids and Julie Walters as Mrs Bird don’t get a little more to do, but they do get their moments at least.

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Yes it’s a role he was born to play!

Threatening to steal the show are two newcomers in Gleeson as Nuckles McGinty, a crotchety prison cook whose menu is a crime against cuisine, and Grant, hamming it up for all he’s worth as the washed up Buchannan. Grant in particular is marvellous, and in many respects a more engaging villain than Nicole Kidman was first time around, if only by virtue of not being quite so villainous. (oh and a tip for you, please PLEASE stay for the end credits!)

The script is razor sharp, and the humour works on every level, from clever homages (The Untouchables and even Casino Royale) to broad slapstick worthy of Buster Keaton, which is saying something given much of the slapstick is computer generated, but then it never feels like it because Paddington feels so real, you kinda forget he’s not really there.

There’s action aplenty, and set pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in a Bond film, but at the centre of it all is a heart of pure gold and a lovely message about kindness and acceptance, and if it doesn’t remotely tug at your heartstrings then you must have a heart of stone, certainly I shed a tear or two at the end.

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You don’t see many family friendly gritty prison dramas…

Oh and I almost forgot the wonderfully whimsical design of the film that blends live action with cartoons and a wonderful scene set entirely within a pop-up book. Setting aside everything the film does right, it looks bloody gorgeous into the bargain!

Beautiful to look at, action packed, laugh packed, with wonderful performances from all concerned and a strong central message about tolerance, Paddington 2 is the epitome of a film for all ages. Some may sneer at it faux multicultural and middle-class England where even hardened criminals are thoroughly nice chaps really, but you know what? with Brexit, Trump and all manner of other nastiness in the world, give me Paddington’s brand of niceness any day of the week.

Highly recommended! Now don’t tell me you hate it unless you want me to give you a very hard stare.

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Eventually Paddington realised he was naked!

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How Not To Be a Boy

Posted: November 11, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Robert Webb

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Before he was a husband and father, before he danced for comic relief, before he found fame as one half of a somewhat successful double act with David Mitchell, before he went to Cambridge and became vice president of Footlights…before all of this Robert Webb was just a boy like any other boy.

Well maybe not like any other boy, because he didn’t always seem to think and act like all the other boys, but growing up in the 70s and 80s he was very clearly given certain rules to follow; don’t cry, love sport, play rough, drink beer, don’t talk about your feelings.

Now Robert wonders if these rules are any use, and explores what it means to be male in the 21st Century.

 

As a big fan of Mitchell and Webb, and having read David Mitchell’s autobiography, Back Story, there was no way I wasn’t going to read Robert Webb’s book, although calling it a straightforward autobiography does it something of a disservice. Oh, sure it’s autobiographical, but Robert has a point to make beyond just regaling us with his life story, and for me it resonated quite a bit.

I share a lot of common ground with Robert. Not so much now, what with him being star of stage and screen and me, well me not being a star of stage and screen. I never went to Cambridge and my parents didn’t divorce when I was a child and I certainly didn’t have to experience the trauma of losing my mum when I was a teenager.

But setting aside all of that there’s a lot of the book that felt very familiar. I’m two years older than Robert Webb and, like him, was a working-class boy, so when he talks about a childhood spent in the 1970s and 1980s this is the kind of childhood with which I was acquainted. He talks about the Television shows he watched and it was the same telly I watched; The A-Team, Buck Rogers, Doctor Who etc. But beyond this is how he was described as a sensitive child. A quiet child. God did I ever hear myself described in that fashion time and again, and though unlike Robert I do actually like football (watching it at least) I too recall standing on a football pitch trying to stay as far away from the action as possible and dreading the ball coming anywhere near me.

Anyone expecting a book chock full of celebrity tittle tattle may be somewhat disappointed. Robert does touch on this aspect of his life, and there’s a wonderful story featuring Carrie Fisher, but for the most part this isn’t really about Peep Show or That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s about growing up, about how difficult it is to be a boy, and a man, and how expectations and the unwritten rules affect all of us, especially when it comes to sharing our feelings. It’s no surprise that men are more likely to kill themselves than women after all, but this also helps explain (but not excuse) what’s now referred to as toxic masculinity, because growing up if you didn’t drink lots of pints and shag lots of birds, well what was wrong with you? You weren’t a poofter, were you?

Robert’s prose is a little workmanlike at times, but on the whole its eminently readable. It’s also honest, brutally honest. This is a warts and all life story; he doesn’t hide from any of the things he’s done, many of which he clearly regrets and none of which he seems inclined to excuse himself for, even if at times you kinda think he had a bloody big excuse for being a dick.

This is a book to be enjoyed on several levels, both as a straightforward autobiography, but also as a meditation on masculinity. If, like me, you’re a bloke who grew up around the same era, then I think this will resonate for you too, but I think this is a book that anyone, irrespective of age or gender, can appreciate.

An enjoyable, often very funny, and sometimes very sad, tale of a man who, before he was famous, was just a boy, and a fairly rubbish boy at that, or at least a boy who felt rubbish because of society’s expectations about what a boy should be. Suffice to say I know the feeling, and it’s nice to know I wasn’t alone.

The Write Pace

Posted: November 6, 2017 in Regarding writing
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I love being on Twitter, but as a writer there’s good and bad to this. On the up side I’m now part of a bigger community of fellow writers, and people share a lot of good practice/good ideas. On the downside, not only do I have an appreciation of just how many other writers are out there (which is a sobering thought whenever I submit anything) but you also have to deal with people proclaiming they’ve “just written 1500 words”, or worse, the somewhat dispirited tweets that go along the lines of “Damn, I only wrote 2000 words today.”

If, like me, you might have only written 500 words today, it’s easy to be a little disheartened by these kinds of tweet sometimes. But I shouldn’t, and neither should you. Writing is like many other things, there’s no single right way to do it, there are in fact multiple right ways, and multiple wrong ways, and each of us needs to choose our own path.

There’s a school of thought that says you should write every day—and in fairness I always feel more relaxed if I write every day—and that the only way to succeed as a writer is to make it a habit, which is fine when you can write 1000 words every single day, but if you can’t keep to this kind of schedule for any reason, it’s easy to feel like a fraud or a failure.

It’s worth remembering that most people who write several thousand words a day will be people who have the time to write several thousand words a day. Now, maybe that’s because they’re a professional writer and it’s effectively their day job, maybe it’s because they have a lot of free time, or maybe it’s because they’re exceptionally well organised and are able to break their whole day down into regimented chunks, even though they have a thousand and one things to do.

But just because they can, it doesn’t mean you’re rubbish if you can’t. We all lead busy lives, and if you have a stressful job with long hours, or you have small children, or older relatives to care for, or even if you’re just not the most organised of people, it’s easy to think “I don’t have time to write”, easy to use lack of time as an excuse not to write. “Oh I couldn’t give it the time and attention it deserves, not like those people who write for hours at a time.”

Things writers are good at; procrastinating, feeling like imposters, and using any old excuse not to write.

So here’s the rub. Maybe you can’t write every day, maybe you can’t even write every other day, maybe you can only write for an hour on a Thursday evening because that’s when your husband/wife takes you three year old sextuplets swimming and you finally get some alone time. Let’s say during that hour you can write 1000 words. So there you go, 1000 words a week when some people are writing that (and more) in a single day.

Screw some people.

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Write 1000 words a week and you might have an award winning short story in a month.

Write 1000 words a week and in six months you might have written a novella.

Write 1000 words a week and in fourteen months you might have written a novel.

Sure, if your plan is to create something like Game of Thrones then at that rate it’s going to take you a long time to complete (but hey, you might still finish before George RR Martin does) but with dedication you can still finish it. You can run a marathon in three hours, or take nine hours, or a day, but at the end of the day you’ve still run a marathon. And actually writing is better than marathon running, because if you take a day to run a marathon you’ll never win a gold medal, but you can spend 10 years writing a novel and it can still end up a best seller/Booker prize winner!

Which doesn’t mean you don’t want to make writing a habit, you absolutely do, it just means that your particular habit doesn’t have to be the norm (whatever the norm is). If you can happily write for an hour a day, do so, if you can only spare 15 minutes during your lunch hour, that’s fine too, if you can only write at weekends so what? Whatever works for you is the right choice for you so long as you do one thing, and that’s actually write.

Set yourself targets by all mean, but make them realistic ones. If you can only write while you’re on your annual caravanning holiday to Skegness then don’t expect to finish your epic fantasy trilogy this side of 2050, although you never know, some crazy fools have been known to write an entire novel in just a few days; Stephen King wrote The Running Man during a rather frenzied week! That’s probably not recommended though.

The specifics of your writing pattern are not important, and certainly there’s nothing to be gained by comparing it to anyone else’s writing pattern, what’s important is that you have a pattern and as far as possible you stick to it.

Remember, whether you write 5000 words a day or 500 you’re still a writer. You only cease to be a writer when you write nothing.

The Death of Stalin.

Posted: November 4, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Armando Iannucci. Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko and Rupert Friend.

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“Ok, who farted?”

The year is 1953 and the Soviet Union is ruled with an iron fist by Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin). Within this world even Stalin’s inner circle live in constant fear of saying the wrong thing and being arrested by the NKVD (the infamous secret police)

When Stalin unexpectedly dies the senior most members of the Presidium begin jockeying for power, trying to determine who will replace Stalin.  Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) takes initial charge, but the real battle is between Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi) and Beria (Russell Beale) the feared head of the NKVD. For the victor ultimate power awaits, but for the loser a bullet may be the only prize…

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“Has anyone ever told you you’re kinda funny looking?”

The battle for power at the head of an evil regime notorious for the murder, rape and torture of millions, may not sound like the greatest premise for a comedy, but Iannucci’s film is genuinely laugh out loud funny at times and, based on a graphic novel of the same name, it provides a biting satire that is as chilling as it is hilarious.

Much of the humour arises out of how incompetent many of the conspirators are. These are not exactly Machiavellian geniuses, and yet their very ordinariness makes them all the more scary, and Iannucci provides a terrifying essay of the bureaucracy of evil, where even Khrushchev, one of the most powerful men in the country, is so paranoid of getting on Stalin’s bad side that he has his wife jot down which jokes Stalin found funny and which he didn’t during dinner, and for all the humour Iannucci never lets you forget the horrible things this regime is doing, and how the flick of a pen can find your name added to a list and make you the recipient of a late night knock at the door.

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No pithy comment because in truth there was nothing funny about Beria’s lists

This is an actors film and the casting is flawless. As Khrushchev Buscemi is superb, his innate likeability making you root for him in the ongoing power struggle, making you see him as the good guy, which is of course a fallacy, none of these men were good, but next to Beria of course, they’re all saints, and Russell Beale is also terrifyingly good as the head of the NKVD, a vicious sexual predator for whom no act is too heinous.

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Zhukov gets serious

Almost stealing the show however is Jason Isaacs as Marshall Zhukov, playing the blustering war hero with a broad Yorkshire accent and a chest full of medals that would pull most men to the floor (and is accurate because Zhukov really did have chest full of medals.) Zhukov is larger than life and Isaacs eats up every scene he’s in.

Tambor is astonishing as Malenkov, made up to resemble nothing short of an embalmed corpse, and its testament to his acting ability that he eventually makes Malenkov someone to pity, despite his bumbling arrogance. At the other end of the spectrum is Michael Palin as Molotov, such a party man that he happily denounced his own wife as a traitor.

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You’re playing for Stalin. No pressure!

Whilst primarily a film centred around male performances, there are two female characters, each of whom get to play a substantial role in the story. As concert pianist Maria Yudina, Olga Kurylenko is ironically the only main cast member with a Russian accent, with Iannucci deciding early on to let the actors use their natural accents. Kurylenko is very good as the nearest thing to a conscience the film has, and if there’s a problem with her it’s only insofar as she disappears for a large chunk of the middle of the film.

Andrea Riseborough plays Stalin’s daughter Svetlana as a somewhat schizophrenic character, at times extremely cognisant of her precarious situation, at others a spoiled child who thinks she can have whatever she wants, even a former lover back from the dead. She’s very good and Rupert Friend also shines as her brother Vasily, a pompous drunk who thinks Stalin’s death was part of a plot to send his father’s brain to America!

The set and costume designs are excellent, evoking a very different time and a very different place, but it’s the script and the performances where The Death of Stalin really hits home. The script walks a tightrope with a confident ease that will have you chuckling one moment, and wincing the next.

Whether you view it as a satirical deconstruction of the Soviet Union and a saltatory warning against cults of personality, or simply a surreal 20th Century set, Monty Pythonesque version of Game of Thrones, there’s a lot to like here, and best of all; in a world of sequels and prequels, reboots and franchises, The Death of Stalin is that rarest of beasts.

Original.

So go see it, unless you’d rather end up on a list of course?

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“I can see my house from up here!”