Movie review: Fantastic Beasts – The Crimes of Grindelwald

(image via IMP Awards)

 

Quite possibly one of the loveliest things that good fantasy or magically real films do is transport their audiences to a world far away from their own.

While you are technically still sitting in a cinema, every other part of you, the dreaming, yearning, imaginatively-expansive parts of you are off in places far away from the spilled popcorn and occasional smartphone checkers, aloft on grand adventures that might explore familiar themes but contain a magic that you’ll never find on the 422 bus home.

The second film in J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts cinematic universe, The Crimes of Grindelwald, manages this feat of spiriting heart and soul to worlds far beyond our own, but not, it must be said, as successfully as its superlatively-good predecessor Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

It’s not through want of trying.

Continuing on from the first film, where we saw wannabe wizarding world dictator Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) appear, seemingly from nowhere and put the cat among the established order pigeons, The Crimes of Grindelwald, continues its expansion of the world far beyond Hogwarts.

In many ways, it is as  wonderfully transportive as you might want, and expect, following the example of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which took us on an extraordinary journey across the Atlantic to the USA and its equivalent to the world so beautifully outlined in the Harry Potter films, as well into the depth of the suitcase of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) within which exists an entire otherwordly universe full to the brim of the eponymous beasts.

It wasn’t simply that Where to Find Them created these new creatures, places and thing but that it made them into a gloriously alive reality, one in which the characters we came to meet like the hero of the hour, Newt, sisters Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol), jovial Muggle/No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) made sense and in which their adventures were brilliantly realised and came with real excitement and consequence.

 

 

The Crimes of Grindelwald definitely retains and builds on the remarkably world-building of the first film but thanks to a fractured narrative that tries to do too much, negating in the process any kind of cohesive storyline, the effect of its merry, and not-so-merry (the sequel is far darker overall) is dissipated, offering a perfectly fine fantasy film but one which pales in comparison to the adventure that started it all.

Part of its inability to be as magically escapist as Where to Find Them comes simply from the fact that it is addressing far weightier,  more nightmarish scenarios, ones in which Grindelwald is trying to conjure up a fascist world order where the Pure Blood wizards are in the ascendancy and the No-Maj are simply beasts of burden to do their bidding.

From the Nuremberg-esque style of the final rally to the demagogue-enthralled faithful – one thing The Crimes of Grindelwald is not is subtle, telegraphing visually and verbally that Bad Things Are Happening and Are Going to Happen – to the weasel words use by Grindelwald, it is plain that his talk of glorious, freeing self-determination for the Pure Bloods and amicable co-existence are nothing but empty talk.

Like all proto-authoritarian leaders, he tells the crowd what they want to hear, how they want to hear it until it’s too late and they are captive to an agenda that ends up bearing little to no resemblance to the glossy lies dressed as seductively-palatable truth they were sold.

It is clear that this is not going to end up anywhere good – there are three films yet to go in the franchise so it will definitely go much darker before it goes lighter again – and since we are only in film two of five, there is little to leaven the darkness this time around.

That includes precious little screen time for Newt’s marvellous beasts – the glittery bling-acquiring Niffler and tree-like Bowtruckle return and there are new creatures including Scottish mythological creature the Kelpie, the fearsomely-feline Matagot and the Chinese cat-like Zouwu, many of whom live in a multi-environment bigger-on-the-inside basement below his home – who make appearances and have a part to play in the plot but who, alas, do not feature as heavily as they did in the first film.

Partly that’s because the narrative doesn’t have as much room for them or their (largely) whimsical antics – I say “largely” because both the Matagot and the winged skeleton horses, the Thestrals, are the stuff of nightmares –  busy as it is following everyone on mostly solo outings that eventually coalesce but not until well into the film, but it’s also because it’s the people that take centre stage in a story that looks less at the the playfulness of creatures and more at the wickedness of humanity, magical or not.

 

 

Understanding in your head why they’re not there as much as one thing but part of the charm of Where to Find Them was the way the creatures brought so many people, like Newt and Jacob together and drove so much of the plot and in The Crimes of Grindelwald that aspect is noticeably absent, for completely arguably-good reason, and the franchise suffers a little as a result.

The biggest issue with The Crimes of Grindelwald, which is a fine, highly-enjoyable film, though not a great one and certainly not in the first film’s league, is that it simply tries to do too much in too little time.

134 minutes may sound like plenty of time to do lots of things, and on one level you’d be right, but the sequel overreaches a tad, scattering everyone to the four winds, robbing of us of much of the vibrantly-rewarding character interplay that so defined Where to Find Them, giving them to much to do, and stuffing far too much exposition into too small an amount of time.

It makes sense in part – this is the second film of five and so in effect the world is still being built as is the growing, overarching narrative, but the issue is that too much is attempted without the benefit of a cohesive storyline that would allow the film to stand on its own two magical feet.

It is a common issue with the middle films of any franchise which must simultaneously keep building and building but tell a story all their own but The Crimes of Grindelwald fails on the second count, despite its best efforts (Credence, played by Ezra Miller is the character around which everything, technically at least, pivots, and who – SPOILER ALERT – is the recipient of quite a revelatory twist), it is fails to weave the kind of invigoratingly-immersive narrative that made watching Where to Find Them such a diverting pleasure.

For all that though, The Crimes of Grindelwald is overall another buoyantly-escapist diversion from the everyday, albeit one threaded with a dark, troubling reflection of today’s slide nationalistic horrors, that manages to take on yet another voyage into the fantastical, one which we sorely need right now in a world where it’s hard to tell whether art is imitating life or the reverse.

 

 

Up, up and away: Dumbo gains cinematic altitude with new poster + trailer

(image via IMP Awards)

 

SNAPSHOT
From Disney and visionary director Tim Burton, the all-new grand live-action adventure “Dumbo” expands on the beloved classic story where differences are celebrated, family is cherished and dreams take flight. Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists former star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for a newborn elephant whose oversized ears make him a laughingstock in an already struggling circus. But when they discover that Dumbo can fly, the circus makes an incredible comeback, attracting persuasive entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who recruits the peculiar pachyderm for his newest, larger-than-life entertainment venture, Dreamland. Dumbo soars to new heights alongside a charming and spectacular aerial artist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), until Holt learns that beneath its shiny veneer, Dreamland is full of dark secrets. (synopsis via Coming Soon)

Every time I roll my eyes a little at the idea of Disney rather brazenly “leveraging” its animation back catalogue to make live action remakes, and my inner grumpy old man, who’s been a principled so-and-so since my childhood, rails at retread stories over originals, I see a film like Beauty and the Beast (not perfect but I rather liked it) and this trailer for Dumbo and I fall in love with the power of schmaltzy storytelling.

You see, even though I know Disney is doing nothing less or more than employing some fairly sound, if creatively-questionable commercial decisions, and yes there are a million brilliantly one-of-a-kind lurking out there, there’s something about a poorly-treated by some, dearly-loved by others, good vs. evil story of one little flying orphan elephant that gets me every time.

And this trailer, and the exquisite poster that go with it have grabbed my heart heard and are refusing to let go and honestly I don’t have a problem with that.

Well, unless the resulting film sucks to high heaven, to which Dumbo can no doubt fly, but somehow I doubt that … well, that could be my heart speaking but let’s leave it for there now and hope for the very re-imagined best.

Dumbo releases 28 March 2019 in Australia and 29 March in UK and USA.

 

Book review: Squirrel Days by Ellie Kemper

(cover image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

 

I just had the loveliest time sitting down and talking with Kimmy Schmidt.

Having devoured every available episode of her, naturally, autobiographical, post-being trapped inside a bunker by a pedophilic cult leader sitcom – yep, that’s the premise and it works like a charm, an hilarious mix of quirky humour and humanity – it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

And so, in the space of two days (in which to be fair reading had to compete with such annoying banalities of life as eating, sleeping and doing laundry) I talked and talked with Kimmy (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Kelly Erin Hannon (The Office) and Becca (Bridesmaids), or more accurately if you want to be ridiculously pedantic, Ellie Kemper, who gave deliciously-offbeat life to them all – and what a treat it was.

Celebrity books by famous comedians – everyone has to do it at some point which Kemper bravely acknowledges; “There comes a time in every sitcom actress’s life when she is faced with the prospect of writing a book. When my number was up, I told myself that I would not blink.” – are seemingly everywhere these days, and some are considerably better than others which, on the law of averages, makes sense.

“As children, my three siblings and I were not allowed to see PG-13 movies, and the MPAA-sanctioned age of thirteen offered little hope. ‘It’s not as though they are advising you to see the movie as soon as you turn thirteen,’ my mother told me,’ biting into a Hydrox. ‘It doesn’t suddenly become a good idea.’ With such broken reasoning as this, I was forced to turn inward and listen to my own heart. More often than not, my heart old me to watch the forbidden film when my parents weren’t around.” (P. 27)

But when you’ve liked an actor or actress for some time, as I have Ellie Kemper who is smart, funny and gloriously self-deprecating, you want the book to feel like you are sitting down with that person and sharing some off the cuff confessional truths, laced with witty observations, and mirth-filled asides.

No doubt, so does the publisher.

Thankfully when it comes to My Squirrel Days – she liked and tried to befriend squirrels as a child, although sadly said squirrels such as Natalie did not return the favour, choosing mocking over warmth and caring – the book is exactly, and more so, what you hope it will be.

From that first hilarious opening paragraph when Kemper dishes on the terrifying challenges of writing a book and her inner bravery and willingness to take on the challenge and best it – it honestly does feel like you’re sitting down with Kemper for a really, funny, self-deprecating, over-the-top chat where she freely admits many things may be partially or wholly made-up, since like most of us, she can’t necessarily recall everything in crystal-clear detail from her past.

Now, of course, you don’t know if you’re getting Kemper herself or an extension of her public persona, but I’d like to think, based on both my good judgement of people and the glowing endorsements of personal authenticity on the back cover (see below) that My Squirrel Days is presenting us with the unvarnished Ellie – the one who put on Christmas plays with her siblings and neighbour each Christmas, who has an issue with non-existent lentils in a brunch dish, and who may have taken out an old lady in a church in her attempt to touch the garments of one Pope John Paul II.

 

(back cover image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

 

Certainly, if nothing else, Kemper who happily admits to being asked to play ditzy yet loveable women with a pleasing regularity – that is she gets the parts regularly, not that they don’t need Metamucil – is pleasingly adept at channeling the winsomeness and sweetness of her characters who may be sweetness and lightness in one sense but who possess an internal strength and intelligence that stamps them as people who will do quite well in life, thank you very much.

The book is, in many ways, your standard comedian-writes-a-book book.

There are snippets of childhood audacity, takes of time with various stars on set and all kinds of witty observances of life, both pre- and post- the birth of her son James which reveal someone who’s passionate about her craft – her time in the improv theatres and schools of Chicago and New York are a treat – all of it delivered in that kind of self-aware way that these bios of a sort seem to come pre-supplied with.

And yet, having read a considerable number of them, I cam attest to the fact that my sit down with Kimmy, I mean Ellie, has a ring of authenticity that makes it feels less ghostwritten and more like you are hearing from the person themselves (trust me, there is a difference and it’s quite apparent).

“Unfortunately, I share neither my sister’s forbearance nor my brother’s childlike wonder. In addition to getting angry when I am hungry, I also do not find it easy to adapt to changes in plans. And I had been counting on those lentils. I’m not sure I was wrong in doing that – the dish was named Quinoa and Lentils. Suddenly, the universe was spinning. For someone like me, changes like this are upsetting. I become unmoored. Like a bird sitting in a tree and the tree is suddenly cut down, or a bird flying through the air and the air is suddenly filled with kites, I feel out of control, I panic, and I accidentally fly into straight into a closed window.” P. 120)

The pleasure of My Squirrel Days is that Kemper manages to make it feel both like a stand-up comic set and a semi-intimate, possibly-happened-but-who-knows peek into the world of a sitcom star who’s come a long way since those commercials where she had to play a concerned daughter listening to sage, commercially-oriented advice from her wise mother.

There’s much bragging in the book but it’s all laced with a healthy sense of what Aussies like to call “taking the piss”, a sense that while much of what is related in the book actually took place in terms of breaks given, success achieved and famous people who became coworkers and then close friends, that Kemper holds it all at a healthy but hell let’s still enjoy it distance.

Frankly, if many of the things that have happened to Kemper happened to you – a meeting with Tina Fey and husband Robert Carlock for Kimmy at little to no notice which goes surprisingly, but amusingly, well – you would be well within your rights to shout them from the rooftops.

Which Kemper does but again, in a way that feels like a fun, conspiratorial chat, which, yes being the realist I am could mean she just listened to her agent and editor really well, or, and really this is just how it feels, like she just poured out her heart, wove in all kinds of jokes, hilarious oneliners and a healthily-down to earth sense of self, and gave, end of year exhaustive blues be praised, the kind of celebrity tome that actually feels, rather happily like you’re friends with the author and will no doubt be hearing from them again, any moment now.

 

 

 

Can you tell me how to sing … 5 favourite Sesame Street musical moments

(image courtesy Sesame Workshop)

 

Sesame Street does so many things right. From its brilliantly-imaginative teaching of the ABCs and 123s to its hilarious parodies of pop culture touchstones through to its life lessons, it is the gold standard in education for kids (and more than a few adults too). To that illustrious list. you can add the songs that have feature through its five decades of episodes, where big and famous music stars have come onto the show, sung a song about something important like feelings or letters or at thousand other things so kids can try and make some sense of them and just hung out with the muppets like their old friends, which of course they are. Makes me a little envious because I’d love to hang with Grover, Bert and everyone else on Sesame Street but mostly it makes me very happy to see such talented people taking the time to help the next generation learn something special while making us smile and singalong too.


S IS SONGS WITH SIA

I love Sia and honestly she could sing about anything and I would happily listen. In this case, she pretty much does, reeling off a list, with Cookie Monster, Elmo, Grover and Abbey hanging on her every red-nosed, big wig word, of all the kinds of songs that she loves to sing. There are high and low songs, fast and slow songs, songs you can dance to like a monkey, happy and proud songs and songs that make you want to shout out loud. In fact, this is a song about singing songs that extols with exuberant pop vivacity how wonderful music can be. I dare you not to sing a long! Which of course means you love singing songs about how lovely it is to sing songs – how very Sesame Street meta of you …

 

 

SLIMEY TO THE MOON WITH TONY BENNETT

My lord but I love Tony Bennett, who is a sprightly 92-years-old, still releasing music (most recently Love is Here to Stay with Diana Krall) and sounds as gloriously smooth as ever. In this delightful video, he sings a duet, with Big Bird looking on, about Oscar’s faithful garbage can companion Slimey who, with some help from the likes of Snufflealupagus, heads off to the moon, forging all kinds of triumphs for wormkind before returning to his friends on Sesame Street. This adaptation of the classic “Fly Me to the Moon” is a joyful ode to having the right stuff, the only way of course to get to Jupiter and Mars where he can crawl through mud and muck, far from the rubbish of Earth.

 

 

B. B. KING – THE LETTER B

At the start of this gorgeously-cute video, Elmo, dressed as a court jester because of course he is, announces the now late great jazz legend B. B. King as the king and as we learn, a man who, quite naturally, has rather a thing for the letter B. That makes perfect sense! In a rather It’s a Wonderful Life-like way, he proceeds to sing about all the things that wouldn’t exist with the second letter of the alphabet including the Blues, beard, Big Bird and yep, the man himself, and as he sings about them, they vanish in front of our eyes. It’s yet another clever way that Sesame Street, the king of early childhood learning, stamps itself as the very best which, you guessed, also wouldn’t exist. Phew – glad that it does!

 

 

FURRY HAPPY MONSTERS WITH REM

Forget all those shiny, happy people! What we want are furry, happy monsters, especially on Sesame Street where, like everyone else, they are most especially welcome. Michael Stipe is in fine form as are the rest of the band and all the monsters dancing with glee around them can’t help but make you smile, and yeah, dance. I mean, just try and stand still while one of their most classic tunes does its feelgood thing. It acknowledges that you might be sad but you can be happy too and when you have REM singing with you, how on earth could you not be? This clip is an absolute, unmitigated joy and takes me to a very happy place indeed, something true of just about anything from Sesame Street if I’m going to be truly honest.

 

 

DAVE MATTHEWS AND GROVER SING ABOUT FEELINGS

Grover is my all-time favourite Sesame Street muppet and the fact that he, the most feelings-est of all the muppets and that’s saying something, is singing about feelings with Dave Matthews makes me love him all the more. Neither of them are sure about what they’re feeling exactly – is it angry? Sad? Who knows? – and so they go through the song trying to find that elusive word that explains what it is to feel all kinds of things. Its lovely that they acknowledge, Inside Out-like, that you won’t always be happy and that being angry and sad is OK because it’s good to be honest about your feelings and that all the negative stuff will eventually be replaced by happiness again. I now consider Grover, and Dave Matthews, of course, as my own personal therapists.

 

 

(source: Paste Magazine)

Celebrate the weird and let your freak flag fly: Ugly Dolls trailer + posters

(image via IMP Awards)

 

SNAPSHOT
In the adorably different town of Uglyville, weird is celebrated, strange is special and beauty is embraced as more than simply meets the eye. Here, the free-spirited Moxy and her UglyDolls friends live every day in a whirlwind of bliss, letting their freak flags fly in a celebration of life and its endless possibilities, occasionally looking to the sky, where a new UglyDoll will appear and be embraced by the community.

Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) loves her square-peg life in this round-hole town, but her curiosity about all things leads her to wonder if there’s something – anything – on the other side of the mountain which nestles Uglyville. Moxy gathers a group of her closest friends and sets off to find what’s on the other side. They discover another world – Perfection – a town where more conventional dolls are trained in protocols before they graduate and are sent to the “real” world to find the love of a child.

In Perfection, Moxy and her crew are subject to the manipulations of Lou (Nick Jonas), the perfect doll in charge of training recruits. Here, the UglyDolls will confront what it means to be different, struggle with their desire to be loved, and ultimately discover that you don’t have to be perfect to be amazing because who you truly are is what matters most. (synopsis via Bleeding Cool)

When I first saw the Ugly Dolls trailer, an animated film based on a line of plush toys launched in February 2001, I was enchanted.

Here was a bright, fresh, fun and quirky animated tale – pretty much all my favourite things in one – with a very necessary message about valuing people for who they are.

As someone who was teased mercilessly all through school for being different – I was gay and none of the kids was prepared to let me forget it; keep in mind that this was in an era (the ’70s into the ’80s) when discussion of sexuality was nowhere near as open and free as it is now – I love the fact that the entire film is unashamedly celebrating difference and diversity.

 

 

I did a bit of a double take when I found it was based on a commercial line of toys, and yes the theme song is a little bit too chirpy and squeaky-perfect, leading me to wonder if the film might be a tad cloying and hamfisted in its approach, but honestly, if reminding kids once again that being a few steps, or a great many more, out of the mainstream is not just OK but wonderfully so, then I’m all for it.

This is a message that’s still vitally needed in a world where there are still far too many people who seek security and solace in hatred and bigotry rather than love and acceptance and if Ugly Dolls can play some role in changing that, I’m all for it.

Plus c’mon! It’s so freaking cute how can you not want to wallow in this technicolour wonderfulness?

Ugly Dolls opens 10 May 2019 in USA, 27 June 2019 in Australia and 16 August 2019 in UK.

 

 

… and here are posters, many, many cute posters to delight you … well, they delighted me … they may delight you … who knows?

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

(image via IMP Awards)

 

(image via IMP Awards)

The short and the short of it: The Visitor and the majesty of landscape

(image via Instagram (c) Pete Majarich)

 

SNAPSHOT
Armed with a camera drone, I travelled to Utah to capture the alienesque landscape of the desert on film. …Like many people, I’ve always wanted to visit Mars. But, it’s so far away. Last month I did the next best thing: I traveled to the deserts of Southern Utah. The landscapes there are otherwordly. Desolate. Stark. Abandoned. Millions of miles of dry, dusty red rock. You can truly get a sense of the millions of years of wind and water it’s taken to form the terrain. (synopsis via Laughing Squid)

For a film that only runs for 1 1/2 minutes and is dialogue free save for some command centre commentary, The Visitor leaves one hell of an evocative impression.

Telling the story of an astronaut exploring an alien world, it uses what Laughing Squid calls “the “active track” feature on a DJI Mavic Air drone” to turn the desert of southern Utah inside the famed Monument Valley into an alien landscape that is unutterably beautiful and yet desperately, poignantly lonely.

It’s an absolutely astonishingly transportive piece of work by Australian filmmaker and designer Pete Majarich that leaves you feeling as if you are on the planet with the intrepid explorer though from an entirely different, almost god-like vantage point.

 

Bright eyes return: New Watership Down animated series

(image via Variety (c) BBC)

 

As a kid, I read a lot of books. A LOT OF BOOKS.

Despite the vast number, quite a few of them made a real impact on me including Richard Adam’s 1972 novel Watership Down about a burrow of rabbits struggling to survive as their beloved habitat faces destruction.

It is dark and real and profoundly moving, and the 1978 animated film which gave us the tremulously-heartfelt beauty of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes”, beautifully captured everything that so profoundly affected me about the book.

Now 40 years later, the BBC is launching a two-movie mini-series adaptation of the classic novel (released internationally by Netflix), featuring a star-studded voice cast including Peter Capaldi, James McAvoy, John Boyega, Olivia Colman, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Daniel Kaluuya, and Taron Egerton, a song by Sam Smith “Fire on Fire” and no doubt enough tear-inducing scenes to flood my apartment.

It’ll be exciting to see it the novel realised all over again, and I have no doubt it will make every bit as much of an impact now as it did then, especially especially given the environmental perils facing our beloved blue planet.

(source: Variety)

 

Book review: The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

One of the curiously unexpected aspects of deep and prolonged grief is an unnerving sense of becoming unmoored from your life.

One minute all the touchstones are in place, the things that give your life a sense of time, place and meaning, and the next? One crucial piece is missing and try as you might to make it work without that, everything seems off, like your own existence isn’t even yours anymore.

That’s how I felt when my dad died, and it’s very much what happens in The Memory of Running to Smithson “Smithy” Ides, a 43-year-old obesely-overweight Vietnam War veteran who in 1990 loses his mother and father to an horrific car accident, and his sister to her mental health issues which left her living as a homeless person on the streets of Los Angeles until her untimely death in her early ’50s.

Grappling with one death, one piece of life’s building blocks being pulled away, is hard enough but in a very short space of time, Smithy, who uses alcohol, over-eating and social isolation to deal with the issues (he doesn’t think he has) resulting from a near-death experience in Vietnam, loses his entire family.

It’s a devastating blow, how can it not be, and one night he simply jumps on his childhood Raleigh bike, and cycles without wallet or any kind of preparation – remember this is an impulsive emotional reaction borne of overwhelming, unfathomable grief – out of East Providence, Rhode Island for faraway L.A., his mind on only one thing … to get away from his untethered life which no longer feels like his own.

“I felt a shortness or an absence of breath for a second, and this weird feeling of panic spread out of my chest and covered me. I stood up from the kitchen table and walked out to the porch and air. I found some, and I breathed it. Then I walked back to the kitchen and the Los Angeles letter. I read the first part again, but I was too drunk to finish it, so I folded the letter, put it in my pants pocket, and walked back to the porch. That’s when I saw her again.” (P. 61)

At this point, you might be thinking this is all very Forrest Gump-like but really, the running across America bit aside, that’s all these two two stories have in common, plot-wise at least.

What they do share is a sense that in the maelstrom of emotions that follows a traumatic life event that often the best thing is leave what remains of your life and figure it all out someplace else.

Or in Smithy’s case, a whole lot of someplace elses.

As he cycles from one side of the States to the other, Smithy, who is a sweet, caring guy who was devoted to his sister and parents but who lost his way in life and never quite made it back, comes into contact with an array of diverse people.

Some are kind, some are quirky and some are just plain cruel; what all have in common is that they teach Smithy a life lesson or two but not in any sort of overhanded cloying kind of way.

The Memory of Running is refreshingly free of manipulative emotion or overdone lessons; this is thanks in large part to Smithy himself who is intelligent and emotionally self-aware at heart but who takes some time to find those qualities again, his true self emerging more and more as the considerable bulk of weight he’s been carrying falls away from him.

 

Ron McLarty (image via Way to Famous)

 

His epiphanies are small but deeply meaningful and none more so than when he realises that he is in love with Norma, his neighbour across the road who was pretty much a member of his family growing up.

Following an accident where she is hit by a car and becomes a paraplegic, Norma and the Ides almost become estranged, no one quite sure how to deal with the changed dynamic.

Smithy regrets the distance of course but isn’t sure how to tackle bridging it so long after the event, he and his parents attention taken up in large part by his sister Bethany whose mental health issues – it’s never explicitly-stated what she is dealing with exactly but she has hear what the family called “the voice” which causes to strip off, wander away for hours or days at a time and loses all sense of who is – dominate the rhythm and days of their lives.

Smithy as noted though is deep down a self-aware guy and knows that they made a mess of the aftermath of Norma’s injury, effectively abandoning one family member, for that’s what she was in reality, for another.

It takes the death of his family, and the time that being on the road offers him to make peace with what happened to Norma and him and for them, via phone calls on the road – remember this is the age before mobiles so it’s all payphones or nothing – to establish a rapport that confirms that the emotional closeness of their childhood has turned into something quite wonderful in their once-estranged adulthood.

“Somewhere crickets rubbed their legs together. I was happy at least that that night our backyard crackled into the night and left silence behind. We sat and listened to the evening. I thought about Norma, and I had a feeling she was watching. I will never understand, really, why the Ides left our little Norma there. It seems too easy to put it on Bethany. To say we didn’t have any more to give or be for anyone else, even our Norma behind venetian blinds, is not enough. I will never understand.” (P. 211)

As Smithy gets closer and closer to L.A. and draws ever closer in heart, if not geographically to Norma far away on the east coast, many of the demons that have dogged him, with or without his recognition of their presence, slowly find some kind of peace or resolution.

It’s therapy by bike effectively, an accidental purging of the old and the building up of the new that McLarty invests with a huge amount of beautifully-articulated emotional resonance.

So exquisitely well-wrought is Smithy as a character and so affecting are the various aspects of his sojourn across the country and so life-changing for good or ill are the people he encounters that you fall in love with the protagonist of The Memory of Running (the title refers to the way he ran and biked at great speed in his pre-war youth) almost as completely as Norma.

If you have ever suffered the loss of someone near and dear to you, and struggled with the sense that your life and its hitherto comforting setting are no longer your own, then you will find much to appreciate and love in this beautiful, touching book which feels very real and true even in those moments where the narrative feels a little too neat.

Honestly, with writing as good as McLarty’s, you don’t begrudge any of the subtle contrivances of a plot which is, after all, about grief, how we deal with it whether it’s long-gestating or sudden (Smithy has both), and how we come back from the precipice it leads us to in the wild and messy place where the strange discomforts of loss and grieving come face-to-face with our day-to-day life leaving us struggling to find a way forward and wondering how we’ll ever truly live again.

 

(cover image via World of Books Australia)

Some gifts are more than just a gift: This year’s John Lewis Christmas ad

(image via YouTube (c) John Lewis and Partners)

 

SNAPSHOT
Titled The Boy & The Piano, the 12th version of the department store’s iconic ad … tells the true story of how a Christmas gift – a piano belonging to Elton’s grandmother – went on to inspire the music icon’s life, working backwards chronologically from the present day to the moment he received the present from his mum as a young child. (synopsis via Digital Spy)

One of the highlights of Christmas for me these days is the John Lewis ad which always arrive in November and signals that the festive season is well and truly underway.

It’s odd because I have never been to the UK and haven’t shopped in any of the department store’s locations and yet so intimately, movingly beautiful are these ads, that you can’t help but be touched by them and feel a connection that transcends the rather obvious fact that this short film is trying you (well, those in Britain anyway) to buy as many things as possible.

Sure, you could argue that the ads are emotionally-manipulative in a way but honestly, it’s well near-impossible to feel that way, especially when this year’s ad, featuring Elton John, tells such a beautiful story.

 

Taking us back through time tot he sounds of John’s iconic track “Your Song”, with actors filling in for Elton’s flamboyant younger selves, the ad evokes that sense we all have of Christmas being far more than the gifts we get.
It reaffirms that beyond the actual material items, which can be meaningful in their own way, are everything they represent – time with family, your hopes and dreams, their support of your achievement of those hope and dreams and how, all too quickly what lay before you is now behind you, the stuff of warm-and-fuzzy, slightly-melancholic memories.
As a family man himself, with partner David Furnish, Elton John found making this family-centric ad, which can’t help but move you to tears, commercial imperatives be damned, a remarkably-joyous experience.

“The John Lewis Christmas campaign has so many warm memories for me and my family. It’s been a lovely opportunity for me to reflect on my life in music and the incredible journey I have been on, and how first playing my grandmother’s piano marks the moment when music came into my life. The ad is absolutely fantastic and I’ve truly loved every minute of being a part of it.” (in a statement via Digital Spy)

So Christmas is here everyone, and whether you shop at John Lewis, or anywhere else with ads that can only be inferior by comparison, remember just one very important thing – the gift you give will likely have a far more amplified meaning for the recipient than you can ever know so choose wisely and well.

Movie review: Stan and Ollie

(image via IMP Awards)

 

Comedy is one of the great joys of life, a chance to sit back and ignore the serious business of life for a moment in favour of poking fun at, musing on its ups and downs, and sometimes just being plain silly and goofy in a way that is wondrously therapeutic to the soul.

But while comedy might be lighthearted and diverting on the outside, it is often anything but on the inside, taking a considerable toll on performers and their relationships which are anything but humourous away from the stage.

There are, however, exceptions to the rule, such as Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), two comedians with backgrounds in vaudeville who were brought together by Hal Roach as a comedy team for his studio which for much of cinema’s early decades was a production force to be reckoned with.

The remarkable thing is that even though they were in essence an artificial construct borne of business necessity, they became fast and devoted friends, as in sync comedically as they were personally.

Stan & Ollie, directed by Jon S. Baird from a screenplay by Jeff Pope, celebrates the durability of this partnership which survived the ruthless business machinations of Hal Roach, who had the men on separate out-of-sync contracts that meant they could never leave him as an intact team, one or two poor career decisions engendered by Roach’s contractual arrangements and the shifting tastes of comedy consumers.

While there is some tension embedded in the narrative, generated by the need of every biopic to create some drama with a capital “D”, it is largely fabricated for cinematic purposes with the tensions between the two men no more malignant or generated than those between any two long time friends.

 

(image courtesy official Stan & Ollie Facebook page)

 

Contrary to the trailer which suggests a major rupture at play between the two during a make-or-break tour of England and Ireland in 1953, when their star was sadly very much on the wane, their friendship survived everything that was thrown at them, standing them in stark contrast to our great comedy duos such as Abbott & Costello who famously hated each other (or again, so the story goes).

Not that there weren’t pressures aplenty on them.

After riding high through the 1920s and ’30s and into the 1940s on a beguilingly whimsical blend of slapstick comedy with Hardy as the impatient straight man and Laurel the clumsy child-like friend, Laurel and Hardy found themselves in the early 1950s, after an impressive 107 films (short and feature-length), as publicly-perceived has-beens.

They weren’t of course having made their last film, Atoll K, in 1950 and continuing an exhaustive tour of stage shows to crowds who remembered with affection the comedy of a duo where Laurel was the creative powerhouse and Hardy the perfect partner.

But the truth was they were past their prime, professionally and in Hardy’s case, physically, with a congestive heart condition imperilling his ability to perform the necessary slapstick vigour on stage,with the tour acting as a last ditch attempt to secure a film deal that would put them into the cinemas of the world, and erase the idea that they were outdated retirees (a running joke through the film).

The very real pressures facing them, or more particularly Laurel who bore the brunt of the creative and business side of their partnership, form a significant part of the central narrative of Stan & Ollie, with most acutely aware that time is likely against them.

Refreshingly though Pope, who describes the duo as comedy heroes, doesn’t let this thread dominate with far more attention paid to the closeness of the men’s friendship (and the frenemy status of their wives, Hardy’s Lucille, played by Shirley Henderson, and Laurel’s Ida, played by Nina Arianda), and the obvious affection between two men who loved each other as much off-stage as on.

In various low-key but powerfully emotional ways, Stan & Ollie demonstrates again and again how much their partnership extended beyond prat-filled singing, whimsically silly dance routines (usually to their theme music “The Cuckoo Song”) and superlatively simple visual comedy, much of which is recreated as we follow the two men on what amounted to their final big tour together.

 

(image courtesy official Stan & Ollie Facebook page)

 

This closeness is demonstrated when they’re on the ferry to their tour dates in Ireland, where they received a rapturous rock star welcome, where the two men talk openly and honestly about their likelihood of making another film (not high), their love of the same jokes (very high) and how they would miss each when they were no longer performing.

The intimate friendship demonstrated in just this one beautifully-moving scene is buttressed by their final performance on stage in the film where Hardy, heart conditions be sweetly damned, danced through a physically-demanding dance routine because it matter so much to him and he knew, to Laurel.

The odds of him collapsing then and there are quite real but he soldiers on, the two men smile at each other revelling in the ease and comfort of their friendship and on-stage partnership in a way that will leave you smiling at the sheer joy of their transportive rapport.

Even the credits provide a touching homage to how close they were, explaining that even after Hardy died in 1957 that Laurel kept writing material for them until his own death in 1965.

It’s a simple two line update on the legendary comedy partnership but it speaks volumes about two men whose lives are brought to moving, heartwarming but never less than real life in Stan & Ollie, performers who weren’t inured to career struggles and business and creative schisms but whose friendship survived all kinds of ups and downs, allowing them to bring joy and endless amusement (including to yours truly who spent his childhood watching the short films on TV) well past their heyday, reminding us at every turn that it is possible for voluminous on-stage and on-screen laughs to be every bit as resoundingly loud and appreciative away from the spotlight.