During the course of the year, I have, from time to time, offered up my opinions on Facebook and other social media about books, films and plays which I’ve enjoyed – or not. I find these swift thumbnails helpful in keeping my own critical faculties sharp, but I also hope they offer suggestions to friends about what to read or watch – or to avoid. Here is a fairly random selection of these sketches, divided into three sections: Sparklers, Worth a Look, and Stinkers.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Victoria Wood and all the Trimmings
📺 My cup runneth over.
Fabulous parody of ‘Brassed Off’. Love the band’s fear that Tony Blair is going to make everywhere ‘The South’.
Best character: Willie Eckerslike.
🎬 A great Irish film set in a school where rugby is an obsession and bullying is rife. Two boys take different routes to self-awareness about their sexuality, but the movie is as much about identity as sexual orientation. ‘Never speak in someone else’s voice’ is the challenging moral focus offered by the English teacher (as usual) played by Andrew Scott – and if a film has Andrew Scott in it, it’s going to be worthwhile. Nicholas Galitzine is indeed a handsome devil and Fionn O’Shea puts in an intelligent performance as a boy who does not play rugby and is ostracized for his difference. The bullying at the centre of the film is endemic and very ugly. I thought for much of the film that this was Dead Poet’s Society with teeth. It’s true that when Conor comes out in the changing room and then goes on to win the big match for the school to universal acclaim, credibility is stretched a bit. This is mitigated by the fact that his kicking is as feeble as mine was at school, until, that is, the final magical conversion. But why not? What’s wrong with a happy ending for once?
The Olden Days
📺 I really enjoyed Hislop’s series on the ‘Olden Days’. He is brilliant on how pastoral is always re-invented by succeeding generations – not a new idea but one which often needs repeating – especially to those who believe history to be a simple march of progress. I thought he was especially astute on how the changing landscape of the countryside becomes a metaphor for our internal landscaping of time: a childhood of fields and flowers compared with fear of a mechanised old age.
I learnt about Tolkien and his vision of Birmingham as Mordor (one which I share). He was funny about Ambridge and The Archers, an Arcadia suspended in time by the BBC but so brilliantly mediated that contemporary issues (gender, sexuality, GCSE’s) can be discussed amid the rustling of straw (old sound tape) and the lowing of cattle (recorded).
Hislop was excellent on Larkin too, I thought.
An erudite programme, but without self-regard. It felt – well, grown-up.
🎬 A masterpiece. It contrives to be very very dark and yet, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. It’s humour is usually down to the cuckoo Irish illogic of Colin Farrell’s Ray, and the foul-mouthed excesses of Ralph Fiennes’ Harry Waters. The latter’s destruction of a telephone is a scream. Brendan Gleeson’s Ken is subtly and affectionately played and I’m aware that I’m talking about a hitman. However, he knows he is at the end of the game and acquires some twisted dignity. The film is incredibly quotable but to do so would trigger a spoiler alert. For the same reason, don’t Google it, just watch it. Nothing in the plot is predictable, especially the pyrotechnic ending. Acting, lighting and direction are all sensational as is the city itself. *****
🎬 Simon Spier is a high school boy who is forced to out himself because of blackmail while attempting to discover the identity of the anonymous classmate with whom he has fallen in love online. Sounds corny but it really, really isn’t. Wholly enchanting. I am not surprised by its 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Sensitive and beguiling performance by Nick Robinson as Simon, Tony Hale as the loopy Vice-Principal and Natasha Rothwell as Simon’s feisty drama teacher. Slick direction. And, hey, what’s wrong with a happy ending twice in a while?
📺 I caught a couple of episodes of the BBC’s ‘Civilisations’ when it was first aired. I am now binge-watching the whole series. This is the kind of stuff which justifies the licence fee.
Worth a Look
The Spiderwick Chronicles
🎬 I thought The Spiderwick Chronicles would serve to ‘fill the time twixt then and supper’. Good fun, although the goblins became a bit boring and the dysfunctional family plotline all too familiar. The best thing was the boy actor who played both twins. I took me a while (and a Google check) to realise that this was Freddie Highmore (who played Norman so superbly in Bates Motel). Brilliant even as a sprog.
🎬 I think the critics were too harsh. I found it very watchable though there no adrenalin pumping shocks and nothing like the visceral horror of Silence of the Lambs or even Red Dragon. But ‘Silence‘ is a masterpiece. Considered in its own right, I’d give this one a tentative.
🎬 I sometimes forget what a long way we have come since 1993 and I have not seen this film for a decade. A generation will grow up without knowing what it was like to live in a world where fear of AIDS generated virulent homophobia. It is a good thing that that is the case. Such evil attitudes belong to the past, as do witch hunts.
It remains a very powerful movie. Denzel Washington is perfect as the initially homophobic lawyer who at first refuses to take Tom Hanks’ character’s case. The fact that he is black is a reminder that persecution of difference always begins with dehumanisation.
Great that this film came out of the USA. Let’s hope that that nation rejects its current governance as soon as possible and returns to the first principles of its constitution.
On Chesil Beach
🎬 I’m a great fan of Ian McEwan but I couldn’t like the book. When all allowances are made for era and class and her abysmal father’s influence, I cannot like Florence. I can understand her, but I cannot like her. Edward seems to me to be trying so hard to be patient, gentle and civil. The film is beautiful to look at, and explores a wider contextual range, and the beach itself is metaphorically charged but the equation stands. The story is set in 1962 and, as Larkin tells us, sexual intercourse only ‘began in 1963’. All the same, Florence is afflicted with a very particular pathology, in my view, and I doubt if she is very representative. So, while I can understand Florence’s alarm at poor Edward’s premature ejaculation, her disgust is unpleasant. Feminists may not like it but some things work both ways. I find Florence toxic.
📺 Watching ‘Swan Lake’ which is nice.
Pity the Royal Ballet can’t afford trousers for the boys.
That’ll be austerity, that will.
You know, the cuts.
The Producers 
🎬 Quite fun but can’t compare with the 1967 original. Only Gene Wilder can play Gene Wilder. Far too long, however. After the ‘Springtime with Hitler and Germany’ big number, it was just a protracted anti-climax. The added musical items were all unmemorable and some were outright dreck. Why the remake anyway?
🎬 There is some serious rubbish on Prime. This ragbag of clichés, soft porn, tomato ketchup, orchestral blare, actING, and every other kind of amateurish nonsense bored me silly. The screenplay is completely undisciplined. Much of the time I didn’t know what was going on and when I did, I didn’t care.
One of those films where everything is hyperactive and fortissimo, so there is no tension or surprise. The camerawork suggests that the crew suffered prolonged seizures in the medieval mud and murk.
The direction, or rather lack of it, suggests a riderless horse with chillies up its bum.
The bubonic plague was probably more fun than this.
Arthur and Merlin
🎬 I am now watching Arthur and Merlin. Unimpressed after half an hour. The acting is wooden and the screenplay very stodgy.
PS: Had to abandon it. Slow and ponderous and a long way up its own arse.
La Grande Bouffe
🎬 Four gourmandisers occupy a house with the intention of eating themselves to death. They hire prostitutes to complete this feast of the senses and somehow manage to involve an institutrice with a Rubenesque figure. I only watched to the end because I’d paid for it, and because, allegedly, it is a cult film. Baffling, unfunny, gross – and boring. It left me feeling flatulent, crapulous, bilious – you get the idea – the filmic equivalent of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Void – I mean ‘avoid’.
The Hogfather and The Jungle Book
🎬 Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather: Disappointing. The man’s genius is best left on the page.
The Jungle Book is infinitely worse. Atrocious would be apposite.
📺 Tried watching ‘The Plague’ but I’m giving up after two and a bit episodes. I no longer know nor care what’s going on. If you crossed a tortoise with a sloth, you’d get something like this. I find buboes lose their attraction with constant repetition. I should persevere for the sake of my Spanish but the show is too low on jokes for me.
🎬 Disaster Movie? Movie disaster.
Star Rating: Zero
The Strangers [2008 – Horror Channel]
🎬 Don’t turn it on. It’s hopeless. Unintelligible dialogue. Saturated with clichés: knocking on the door in the small hours, stuck record, lights going out, masks. Can’t stand the lead woman’s baby voice. Was amazed when the leading male lit a fire by piling three logs and applying one match – no kindling – he then left without looking back. Moments later there was a comforting blaze. When in the history of the world in Space has that ever happened?
Reviews are mixed but I like the one that characterises the principal couple as ‘colossally stupid’. I agree: he is a dim bulb but I think I can call her a ‘stupid woman’ without fear or favour.
Star rating: Zero
Going to bed.