“It was the rooftop summer, drinks or dinner, a wedged garden with a wrought iron table that’s spored along its curved legs with oxide blight, and maybe those are old French roses climbing the chimney pot, a color called maiden’s blush, or a long terrace with a slate surface and birch trees in copper tubs and the laughter of a dozen people sounding small and precious in the night, floating over the cold soup towards skylights and domes and water tanks, or a hurry-up lunch, an old friend, beach chairs and takeout Chinese and how the snapdragons smell buttery in the sun.
This was Klara Sax’s summer at the roofline.”
Don DeLillo, Underworld,
A deceptively simple passage that offers so much in so few lines. Stripped away of unnecessary ‘fluff’, no room for those adverbs that pave the way to hell, as Stephen King once opined. DeLillo’s blend of simple description with introspection drops the reader into the scene, a silent witness, viewing and feeling the scene as the narrator sees it. Prose that bears the hallmarks of Joyce, Hemingway, and Woolf, with the added eye for detail and economy that comes from a literary apprenticeship served as copywriter among the Mad Men of 50s NYC. A passage of simple brilliance, a ‘show, don’t tell’ masterclass, hidden within the pages of DeLillo’s Pulitzer nominated American opus.
The ‘rooftop summer’, an immeadiate image, outside, on high, warm. ‘Wedged gardens’ precious, small sanctuaries, high within a crowded city landscape; the elegant quality of wrought iron furniture, its character defined by its rust; well-worn, faded from its former glory, but loved and full of story, perhaps. The heavy metals, the iron and copper, softened by the climbing roses, the ‘maiden’s blush’. It’s an idyll, an image that our narrator may be romanticising, looking back through nostalgic eyes at a time made more glorious through the passing years. ‘Maybe they’re French roses’ (maybe, perhaps, not?). It was lunch, it was night, it was drinking soup, eating Chinese food.The cascade of fractured memory, pieced together to create a beautiful bridge between fiction and truth.
Remembering that time, the warmth, a setting sun on an angular skyline, laughter, the smell of buttery snapdragons.
A time that was over too soon, unreliably, romantically recalled: forever ‘precious in the night, floating…’
A deceptively simple passage that offers so much in so few lines. Stripped away of unnecessary ‘fluff’, no room for those adverbs that pave the way to hell, as Stephen King once opined. DeLillo’s blend of simple description with introspection drops the reader into the scene, a silent witness, viewing and feeling the scene as the narrator sees it.
Prose that bears the hallmarks of Joyce, Hemingway, and Woolf, with the added eye for detail and economy that comes from a literary apprenticeship served as copywriter among the Mad Men of 50s NYC. A passage of simple brilliace, a ‘show, don’t tell’ masterclass, hidden within the pages of DeLillo’s Pulitzer nominated American opus.
The ‘rooftop summer’, an immeadiate image, outside, on high, warm. ‘Wedged gardens’ precious, small sanctuaries, high within a crowded city landscape; the elegant quality of wrought iron furniture, its character defined by its rust; well-worn, faded from its former glory, but loved and full of story, perhaps. The heavy metals, the iron and copper, softened by the climbing roses, the ‘maiden’s blush’.
It’s an idyll, an image that our narrator may be romanticising, looking back through nostalgic eyes at a time made more glorious through the passing of time. ‘Maybe they’re French roses’ (maybe, perhaps, not?). It was lunch, it was night, it was drinking soup, eating Chinese food.The cascade of fractured memory, pieced together to create a beautiful bridge between fiction and truth.
Remembering that time, the warmth, a setting sun on an angular skyline, laughter, the smell of buttery snapdragons.
A time that was over too soon, unreliably, romantically recalled: forever ‘precious in the night, floating…’
Watching new films I’m often guilty of looking for references, influences and comparisons to other films. In the case of 12 Years A Slave my mind, at various occasions was drawn towards Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, Cast Away and, to my surprise – some of the viscerally ghastly torture-based horror films that have found prominence in the past decade.
Indeed, with the opening of the film artist-turned-director Steve McQueen appears to, quite deliberately, offer a set up that harks directly towards classic genre horror – contrasts of light and dark, cranking sinister sounds punctuating moments of total quiet, with the ever growing sense of threat and dread.
Rarely has so brief an introduction to a film been filled with such a profound sense of foreboding.
12 Years A Slave may borrow from horror conventions but this is no Saturday night popcorn throwing thrill ride. Oh, it’s certainly a movie chock full of horror – but it’s a very real kind of horror. A horror that will stir your emotions and remain with you long after the lights have come up in the theatre.
Solomon Northup (played wonderfully by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a family man and gifted musician, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in an 1840s America growing ever more regionally divided. Based upon Northup’s own memoirs the film depicts his nightmarish descent into a brutal, hell on earth existence where freedom, dignity and humanity are stripped away as easily as the bloodied shirt upon his back.
Whilst seen through the harrowing eyes of Northup, the African-American man plunged into this awfulness, McQueen lets us see wider than the main protagonist’s own plight, examining the ways in which slavery as a system strips away the humanity from all who exist within its constraints.
We see this most vividly in the shape of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) the sadistic slave owner under whose control Northup falls. Clearly cast to be Northup’s villainous nemesis, akin to the relationship between Andy and the Warden in Shawshank, the subtle difference here being that, for all the revulsion and disdain at his acts, there is a sense that our overriding emotion should be one of sadness at this retched, pathetic man – a soul tainted and destroyed by the society to which he contributes.
Indeed, as a counterpoint is the other slave owner given prominence in the film, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). A godly man, clearly of a more genteel and passive nature whose benevolence and empathy seems to stretch only so far, leaving him conveniently blind to the horror of which he’s a part – his tepid kindliness serving, ultimately, only to make the dreadful predicament worse.
As strong as these supporting roles are, it is the central performances of Lupita Nyong’O as fellow slave Patsey and Ejiofor who bring this heart-breaking story to life.
It’s through Patsey, as much as any other character, in which we’re given real insight into the true hideous cruelty of this world. Subjected to the appalling whims and varying moods of ‘Master’ Epps Patsey is the representation of an entire race of people rendered devoid of help or hope.
As for Ejiofor, under the pitch-perfect direction of McQueen, this remarkable actor produces one of the singular most moving performances you’re likely to witness. It’s a stunning display of physical acting – a man forced into servitude, his every moment in bondage, threatened by violence, torn of dignity – represented by the changes to demeanour, posture and loquacity.
As one might expect, there’s violence – albeit only occasionally on screen. However, when it arrives, it does so with a harrowing, unflinching eye that, at times, can be hard to bear on the viewer. Ironically though, it’s not these punctuated moments of violence that sears the heart and wrings the disgust as much, oddly, as some of the more seemingly benign moments. Acts of supposed kindness serve only reinforce who is in charge while, chillingly often, the white folk simply don’t even notice the existence of the slaves, certainly not on any human level. Epps leans upon the head of a slave as though nothing more than garden gate while Paul Giamatti’s slave-trader sells his ‘stock’ like cattle at the farmers market. And in one astonishing scene we witness this nonchalance of life as the audience is forced to view Northup’s terrible suffering as normality continues on around him.
Make no mistake, this is a quite stunning film and McQueen delivers every scene through a careful eye and considered mind. No movement, no sound, no word is misplaced, wasted or without meaning. From Epp’s dripping saliva in one moment of brutality with Patsey to the desperate cries for help from Northup, calling out in the shadow of the Capitol building.
The end, when it comes, may appear as somewhat swift, somewhat out of the blue and without any great epic action – there’s no elaborate escape plan in operation here, for instance. But that is to reflect upon the way it did happen, the reflection of Northup’s oft times helpless (but no less strong) situation. A story which requires no additional drama and delivering, in its finale a moment of simplicity that will devastate your emotions.
Eli and Charlie Sisters are brothers, co-workers and notorious killers. Hired guns sent on a job to track down and murder the wonderfully named Hermann Kermit Warm, accused of stealing from the mysterious, powerful and sinister boss-man known only as The Commodore.
Set in 1851 during the Gold Rush this is the set-up for Patrick DeWitt’s gloriously entertaining Western novel, a surprise but deserving addition to 2011’s Man Booker Shortlist. Following the brother’s fraught and adventure-packed journey from the Oregon Territory into California it’s a picaresque through the West at its wildest with episodes that blend effortlessly from slapstick and dark humour to brutal violence and just plain dark before taking us into realms of pathos and a genuinely sad finale.
It’s a simple and oft-told tale but the joy comes not from the originality of plot but the delightful way the story is told. On the surface the novel can be read as nothing more than an entertaining trip into a world of overweight horses, doomed prospectors, casual violence and the discovery of dental hygiene. However, with every step further into the journey we delve a little deeper into more thought-provoking, psychological territory. The story, seen through the eyes and spoken through the words of Eli, the younger and more conscientious of the two, is an introspectional exploration into family ties and notions of duty over ambition as well as being a fascinating journey into the darker realms humanity – from lust and greed to good old-fashioned self-loathing.
American fiction has a history of portraying outlaw heroes; anti-heroes. In The Sisters brothers DeWitt has quite masterfully added to the tradition as he somehow manages to create a pair of hardened men of callous and often brutal murderous violence with whom we cannot help but like and indeed root for. Surrounding them with compelling, colourful characters of exquisite eccentricity and typical of the genre without descending into cliché or parody this is a version of the American West that teems with vibrant, if not always pleasant, life.
It’s easy to draw comparisons through both style and content to past works, notably Elmore Leonard, but as each page is turned, as each episode unfolds the story merits broader relationships, in turn bringing to mind the writing of Steinbeck and Dickens or even through its kinetic ‘road’ style, Kerouac. Of course, with its Western familiarity and short, episodic chapters one cannot help but see this as a modern filmic novel of the sort that would fit snugly upon the CV of Hollywood’s own version of Charlie and Eli, the Coens.
Beyond the comparisons however, this is a hugely enjoyable blend of page-turning fun and thoughtful, lyrical and moving prose with characters, incidents and themes that linger in the mind long after the metaphoric ride into the fictional sunset.
Many years ago I got stuck in a lift. The lights flickered, the whirring of the wires ceased and silenced and the doors remained closed as the small metallic compartment ground to an unexpected halt halfway between the 3rd and 4th floor of the hotel I was staying in at the time.
Almost immediately I felt the cold shiver of sweat as every pore on my body went into panic stricken overdrive. My heart rate sped up then slowed down then sped up again sending me into a vertiginous spiral of giddiness and terror. I was trapped and in all likelihood, I was going to die. Slumping against the side of the lift I reached out and banged the walls, thumped the buttons and contemplated adopting the foetal position and sobbing.
The lift, as though embarrassed into action by my overt lack of courage, shook and rattled into life. The lights came on, the wires whirred and we reached the 4th floor whereupon the doors opened into the hallway of freedom.
It was the scariest 30 seconds of my life.
About 15 minutes into 127 Hours, the Danny Boyle film about the canyoneering adrenalin junkie (some might say nutcase) Aaron Ralston, I turned to Mrs Me and suggested that I wasn’t altogether sure I was going to like this. Not that I thought it wouldn’t be a good film – Danny Boyle doesn’t really do bad films – just that, well, I figured that I wasn’t really up for being terrified.For those who don’t know, this is a film about a man who falls into a narrow crevice, getting trapped courtesy of a rock pinning his arm to the wall, whilst out trekking all alone in the rocky Utah desert. He remains trapped for the 127 hours that is the film’s title.
From the very moment that Ralston (played quite brilliantly by James Franco) gets himself trapped I could feel myself tense up. Virtually all of the action takes place within the confines of the narrow crevice, the walls looming up and around both Ralston and the viewer causing minor empathetic palpitations from this claustrophobe. As Ralston struggles to free his arm, first by pulling maniacally at it, then trying to hit, stab, and verbally abuse the rock into shifting, then by devising a makeshift pulley system that proves futile I found myself short of breath, wanting to look away, maybe even turn the DVD off and go for a walk, get some open space. In turn however, I found myself hypnotised, unable to actually move or shift my eyes from the screen. The horror, and horror there truly is in this movie, was all too gripping and all too real for me.
Many, I realise, will not get this reaction from the film. It is a personal thing – I hold a genuine and mortal fear of being trapped, and the thought of something similar happening to me sends me cold with absolute dread. However, the film is more than a personal attack on my phobias. It’s also a superbly well made film. Boyle intercuts and offers relief from the situation through flashbacks and dream, fantasy sequences. But the respite is painfully brief, always being brought back to the canyon before sufficient relieving breath can be drawn.
As with all of Boyle’s films, 127 Hours also boasts a killer soundtrack. But, unlike other contemporary film-makers, the music plays integrally to the story, rising and falling with the mood and character development and like with previous film Slumdog Millionaire, the backbeat and sound always adds some organic element to the atmosphere, as though the music itself is as much a part of the landscape and world as the inhabiting characters – in this case, the literal chasm between Ralston’s high adrenaline life and the sudden chilling stillness of his incarcerated predicament.
Those who know the story will also know that Ralston’s ultimate plan to escape, the decision he finally needs to make in order to have any chance of ever leaving the canyon, is the centrepiece of the movie. We move inexorably towards this moment, a slow and deliberate trek. For those who don’t know what this course of action is then I won’t spoil it. However, be warned, if you are of a particular squeamish disposition this is a prolonged scene, albeit remarkably well crafted in which we don’t really see as much as we think we do, which is as tough and as grisly to endure as any you are likely to see on screen. Forget the guff and nonsense of Saw or Hostel or any of those other torture porn flicks that have invaded our senses in recent years – this is the real, visceral and horrific deal that will have you wincing, panting and, according to a recent interview from Boyle on Radio 5’s Wittertainment show, in some cases humming.
127 Hours is hard work. I got there in the end, persevered through. It’s a brilliantly made story that plays upon a fear that is very personal and terrifying to me and I’m sure to many others. But more than that, it’s another example of Boyle taking a simple idea, a simple tale and telling it superbly well, with an unflinching eye, allowing the horrors and indeed the joys and elations to unfold naturally and without too much prodding.
I loved it but, if I’m honest, I’m not sure I could endure it again.
The Dark Knight Rises (at 5am for the opening view).
Four years ago I paid an impromptu visit to the Odeon cinema in Cardiff Bay after a long night working, too wired to sleep, intent on seeing a film – any film – that might kill a few hours in the dark. It was a rainy morning and that summer, like this one, had had way too many rainy summer mornings.
I opted for the Dark Knight – it was that summer’s must see blockbuster and a film that, having enjoyed Batman Begins, was appealing enough to pay some cash for, without generating any great levels of excitement or expectation. There was, sadly, an intrigue in seeing the film for Heath Ledger on account of his tragic and untimely death that year.
Sitting in the theatre with no more than twenty other similarly loose-ended punters, I sipped a coffee and let the film wash over me – becoming ever more drawn into the story unfolding. Of the battles against corruption, the cop and the lawyer trying to do good against a tide of bad – aided by this mysterious superhero, sidetracked by a wild clown faced terrorist. At the start of the film I was tired, sleep deprived. By the end I was exhausted – worn out and oddly emotional. This was a bloody comic book adaptation for heaven’s sake. What was there to get emotional about?
Leaving the theatre that day I distinctly remember the thought that continued to swirl around in my head – Had I just watched the greatest movie of all time?
Looking back I would probably have to concede that perhaps I hadn’t. That perhaps there were other, more worthy films that could claim that prize. Nevertheless, rarely has a film engaged me more thoroughly than the Dark Knight. A film that dared to take a superhero story, a typical summer blockbuster franchise idea, a story that has been done before and let’s be honest, put through the wringer a little too often – and then lace it with intelligence, believable, realistic characters and a story of depth – a story that took Shakespearean themes of vulnerability, corruption of power and, more than any other, of tragedy and thoughtfully work them through a story about, well about Batman.
Frankly, I was blown away.
So, when this morning I ventured to the 5am showing of The Dark Knight Rises, I was aware that, for me, this was a movie that had a lot to live up to. And, for the first hour or so I suspect that the film suffered for this comparison. Not because it wasn’t as good – not at all – but simply because the last time had taken me by surprise. I found myself comparing. Does the story have the same depth without the charisma of Ledger’s Joker? Without the central story arc that we had with Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart)?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it – yes.
In the Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has delivered another master class at how to turn a big budget action-adventure in a work of beautiful and thoughtful art simply by staying true to the notion of good story-telling. An opening act that has the courage of its convictions to take its time – choosing to focus on the fragility of the central character, the relationships and the apparent calm of the city while, with our early (and spectacular) introduction to the film’s villain Bane, allowing a tension and sense of foreboding to bubble and rise. And when the tension finally cracks and the terror is unleashed it comes in a spectacular, devastating fashion.
Bale revels in the lead role, bringing an edgy blend of heroism and self-destructiveness as we feel the full weight of his pained, troubled double existence as the grief-stricken billionaire and the redundant vigilante that had brought a sense of purpose to his former life. Bale is ably supported by Anne Hathaway’s impressively sultry, femme fatale turn as Selina, aka Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the young cop with intriguing parallels to Bruce Wayne and the ever brilliant Michael Caine and Gary Oldman as Alfred and Commissioner Gordon with the former’s portrayal as Wayne’s butler / surrogate father, standing helpless as his beloved employer sinks deeper into the abyss, a truly heartbreaking aspect to the film.
As for the villain of the piece, Bane (Tom Hardy) may suffer slightly by having to follow Ledger’s turn as the charismatic Joker but he delivers a performance of genuine threat and malevolence nonetheless, bringing a similar sense desire for destruction, albeit born out of misguided purpose rather than the Joker’s gleeful nihilism.
This is a wonderful film that enhances an already magnificent series – the Dark Knight may rise, but not without plenty of fall’s that are painfully deep and uncomfortably believable. Nolan is a brilliant master of infusing the fantastical with the real – as seen in his last epic hit Inception. In his Bat World it is the blend of superhero with everyman, turning the ultimate cops and robbers stand off into a battle scene straight from Middle Earth and in, what is surely a deliberate nod to Inception, a deliciously typical Nolan finale that again asks us to question what is real and what is fantasy.
GJH 2012 (@lenny_n_carl)
PS – Have Just heard news on radio of the awful tragic events at a showing of the film in Colorado. This is a truly tragic occurrence and really rather overshadows all of the triviality above. Condolences to all tragically effected by this news.
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