Imagine Five French Hens as a Hollywood film with this huge cast…!!

I love the way films and live theatre give us as an audience the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a story through the eyes of the characters we meet. It’s fascinating how a few lines on a page, a book or a script, can be turned into something visual and vibrant in front of our eyes. Several years ago, I was part of a cast performing Steel Magnolias on stage and I had a great time working on a lively script with strong, talented actors. I watched the film of the play out of interest, and it was great to see older female actors playing feisty roles, investigating the themes of family and friendship. I thought about how few films there are out there that cater for older actors as protagonists, especially women. Some of the most popular ones include Calendar Girls, The First Wives’ Club and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. There were a few more films with one or two older females in the cast, Philomena, On Golden Pond, but there aren’t many that show groups of women in their older years having fun and living life.

I often consider how my own novels would be cast as movies as the stories are often quite visual, they have colourful locations, and the characters are older women and men who enjoy life and have fun. Having seen Steel Magnolias on screen, I imagined that the eponymous characters of my novel Five French Hens came from an American city, not a small town in the UK, and that the five fun American women who visit Paris were played by Hollywood actors.

Imagine all those incredible older Hollywood superstars we could choose from. I’m thinking big here with my casting, and I mean really big. I haven’t held back on glamour, fame or talent. Nor have I held back on the characters’ energy, sass and big personalities. Imagine the frocks in the casino scene…. (Imagine them all together on set before filming starts!)

So, this is my imaginary, dream cast list:

Jen: Jen would be played by Sally Field, who was Forest Gump’s mum and the ex-wife in Mrs. Doubtfire as well as M’Lynn in Steel Magnolias. She’s a great choice as she has the ability to be both calm, strong and thoughtful, but also there is a sense of vulnerability and sensitivity. She would be enthusiastic and excited about her marriage to Eddie, but she would convey Jen’s doubts and the desperation not to be alone. Moreover, Jen is lively, popular but with the capacity to be quite secretive; Sally Field has the warmth and depth to make this character take the story forward.

Della: I’ve chosen Queen Latifah as Della. She would bring an energy and strength to the character: she would be playful and feisty in her marriage but caring and full of loyalty for her husband. Queen Latifah would steal a few scenes in Paris. I can imagine her in the final scenes too, when she comes home to her beloved Sylvester and everything isn’t as she expected.

Tess: I’d select Goldie Hawn to play Tess. She’s really good at comedy roles and I can imagine her in an awful marriage with Alan at the beginning of the film, and yet, once in Paris, she flourishes and becomes a party animal. Goldie Hawn would bring initial vulnerability to the role, later showing her strength and compassion.

Rose: I’d choose Brenda Fricker to play Rose. Initially hesitant and quite solitary, Rose is transformed into a leader and a trouper. She is talented, but her skills are wasted at home; Paris brings out the flamboyant best of Rose and I’d love to see Brenda play the final role on stage as Rose becomes Rose-On-Wye, accompanying Greta Manchester on the piano!

Pam: I’d choose Cher as Pam. She is strong, independent, feisty and nobody’s fool. Athletic and a leader, Pam is the one who knows her way around Paris well and supports the other four hens when they need it most, but she has her own secrets. Her external toughness hides her vulnerability and her shadowy past. After her great performance in Moonstruck, I can imagine Cher embodying this role so well.

Eddie: I’d select Robert Redford. He is dashing and dapper, so we can understand why Jen is so attracted to him. He is personable and persuasive too: Robert Redford has that sense of clean-cut honesty which might draw Jen in and impress her with his potential to be the perfect husband.

Vladimir: Robert De Niro. Enough said. Great actor. Full of the promise of a better match for Tess. Big hearted, generous, expansive. Nothing else to say except that he’d be perfect as Vladimir.

Alan: I’d cast Richard Dreyfus as Alan, Tess’s husband who’d rather play golf than spend time with her. Richard Dreyfus is talented and would have the ability to hint at Alan’s duality and untrustworthiness, cranking up his unpleasantness as the role progresses.

Daz: I was surprised how few really young Hollywood actors I knew: in the end, I chose Taron Egerton who is a versatile performer. He has a warm personality, is outgoing and has a sense of fun. He’s a strong character actor and he can sing too. Perfect.

There are lots of other roles that need consideration, from Elodie, the woman who fortells the Hens their futures, to the unfortunate Celia and the lovely Sylvester. I can’t think who’d be most ideal.

I’m sure there are lots more talented actors in their older years who’d be absolutely perfect to play The Hens. It’s great fun casting hypothetically and there are some wonderful names to be considered. Why not imagine yourself as director and, if you come up with a perfect cast, do let me know.

My top five living-life-and-loving-it feel-good films

My novels have often been described as uplifting or feel-good, and I like this epithet very much. While I enjoy a good gothic tale or a thriller as much as anyone else, the idea that my stories entertain and make people feel positive about life is a great compliment.

Recently, I was sent a message on social media from someone who was feeling low: now we’re back in lockdown, the blues had set in and she was searching for films to watch on during the evening to lift her spirit. I recommended something and then wondered what else she might watch.

So I set myself the small task of putting together my top five feel good films to cheer people up. This was much more difficult that I thought it might be: my favourite film in the world, Everything is Illuminated, is uplifting but it also contains scenes of such pathos that I felt the need to re-examine my definition. So, if I mean by ‘feel-good films’ that they will make a person whose mood is low feel more positive about life, then I have to ensure that there is nothing at all in the film that will detract from that fuzzy sensation of warmth, benevolence and uplifting joy.

Let’s be clear: one or two films from the list below wouldn’t necessarily make the list of my top favourite films. I do like a thought-provoking movie, a film that makes me laugh or ones which are cleverly contrived or well-performed, but I’ve made a point of omitting anything that might not be universally perceived to be uplifting, so it’s goodbye for the time being to Inglourious Basterds, Withnail and I and Parasite.

So here goes with my top five:

Number 5. Rocketman

I didn’t expect to like this film. I’m not a great fan of Elton John’s music; Bohemian Rhapsody was just out and achieving great reviews; the musical theatre style of the film seemed an odd choice and the opening scene where Elton attends counselling in full regalia before the film whooshes back to his early life seemed a too-predictable beginning. However, the film really works: I watched the whole thing with an open mind and I loved it. Taron Egerton’s performance takes it to another level and it is an inspiring and moving film.

 Number 4. Mary and Max

This is a brilliant Australian stop-motion adult animated comedy-drama film written and directed by Adam Elliot. It is a beautiful story of the pen-pal relationship between two very different people, Mary Dinkle, a lonely eight-year-old living in Melbourne and Max Horovitz, a Jewish man who has Asperger’s syndrome and lives in New York. Their correspondence becomes an emotional lifeline for both characters and reveals the details of their unhappy existences. Superbly performed by Toni Collette, Barry Humphries and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Number 3.  The Intouchables

 This film is a French comedy-drama with a powerful rapport between the two main characters. Philippe is a wealthy quadriplegic who employs Driss, a man who has no interest in the role whatsoever, to be his caregiver and driver. It’s an interesting ‘buddy’ film which is funny and poignant. It has been labelled a heart-warming film; it has also been called condescending, and I can understand both responses: it does rely on some racial, social and cultural stereotypes. But it is watchable and, in its purest form, it shows that friendship, love and respect can be found in many places. It’s definitely a feel-good film.

 Number 2. The Commitments

I adore Roddy Doyle’s novels and Alan Parker’s films. The story is set in working-class Dublin in the 1980s, where young music enthusiast Jimmy Rabbit assembles a soul band called the Commitments. Poignant, well-acted and thought-provoking, this film is funny and heartfelt with some belting tunes, brilliantly performed. It takes the viewer on a musical journey full of laughs and yet it remains authentic and thought-provoking.

Number One. The Birdcage

Robin Williams is, as we know, a superb performer who gave the world so much joy with many roles, from Jakob the Liar to Dead Poets’ Society. In The Birdcage, he plays Armand, a gay nightclub owner who pretends to be a straight cultural attaché when his son brings home his fiancée and her traditional parents. Armand lists the help of various people to change his apartment and act out the deception with truly hilarious and heartwarming effect. Highly recommended – it will make you laugh out loud and fall in love with the characters. That’s perhaps, a true definition of feel-good.

If The Old Girls’ Network was a film, who would play the roles…?

Perhaps every writer dreams of seeing her or his work produced on film.  After all, great stories make good theatre and good television, or good movies. I love to imagine who’d play the major roles in my novels if they were made into films. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of casting and, whenever I’ve directed plays in the past, I was told I was quite good at selecting the right person for the role, both physically and in terms of the ‘energy’ they communicate to an audience.

There are two ways of getting the casting ‘right’: one is to select the obvious choice that ticks all the boxes for most people – think Tom Hardy as James Bond – or, alternatively, we can go with instinct and pick an actor who may not be everyone’s obvious first choice for that role but there is something essentially quirky about them that will make it work – think Heath Ledger as The Joker, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan or Robert Downey Junior as Chaplin. Instinct and essence are right up there and can often work better than predictability.

When I cast my novels as films, I’m dreaming beyond my wildest dreams, of course – should a TV director come knocking, it would be incredible to have access to a range of the most talented and famous actors, although I’ll gladly concede that there are thousands of brilliant actors out there who, although yet unheard of, are yet to make their name and if they are going to steal a scene, I’d love it to be a scene in one of my books.

Before I reveal my dream choice of cast for The Old Girls’ Network, I have to say that when I’m writing a book, I don’t start with famous actors’ faces or voices in my head. I don’t design a character in a story so that it can be played by a particular personality. Nor do I expect my chosen actors to match the character descriptions, age or background of the ones in my book: it’s the essence of the character I’m looking for, not the exact fit. You’ll see exactly what I mean.

The setting of the book is a Somerset village, and I’d need to create a community dynamic between all the villagers, both in terms of tensions and compatibility. So, let’s start with Barbara – she’s in her late seventies, starchy and difficult at first, but also vulnerable; she’s been hurt in the past and she steels herself against further complications in life by being austere. So, to play Barbara I’d go for the staccato voice, the vulnerable facial expressions and the strong character of Emma Thompson who, although she’s much younger than Barbara, is such a talented actor that she’d interpret perfectly the nuances between crotchety and kind; she’d have the subtext of each moment perfectly played out.

Pauline is a softer character but she’s no pushover; she is strong, independent and yet capable of loyalty and warmth. I’d choose Celia Imrie, whose comic background, poise and CV are impressive. Again, despite being ten years younger than Pauline, Celia would be the perfect actor to interpret her strength of character and her resilience while also showing her softer side.

Bisto is easy to cast and I have to say, I had several contenders for this role and changed my mind a few times. Small of frame, mischievous, intelligent but deeply wounded by his past, Bisto would be played by Colm Meaney who would demonstrate vulnerability, warmth and an ability to appeal to an audience through comedy and pathos. He’d be a heartbreaker.

To play Len Chatfield, the love-struck Romeo farmer who is often rendered speechless and awkward, I would select Bill Nighy. He’s a great comic actor and, although he often plays more verbose characters, I think he has exactly the right measure of pathos and warmth to make Len the audience’s darling. A Gabriel Oak character, Len is strong on the outside and gentle inside: Bill would be a perfect magnet for the audience’s sympathy.

Dizzy, the hairdresser whom Barbara says is named after a potato, would be played brilliantly by Amanda Lawrence, who is an ex-theatre student of mine and was in the film Suffragette several years ago. Check her out. Sparky, funny and adorable, she’d be ideal as Dizzy. Hugo, the man from the manor, would be Rhys Ifans, yes, really – he’d do a great job in a smart suit. Kostas the Greek hunk who cleans windows would be Baris Arduç, a Turkish TV presenter who fits the bill in terms of the physical ability to embody the role.

Jamie Bell would play Len’s son Gary: again, he doesn’t exactly match the physical type from the novel but he can blend a broodiness with a sadness that will make Gary not entirely unlikeable. Chrissie the vicar would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, who would bring a briskness and a bit of glamour to the character. Imagine her wanging that welly!

There are several other characters I would cast and, in my dream world, I’d want to use relatively unknown but up-and-coming actors to take all the other roles. The following are ex-students of mine who work in the industry. James Elston would play Andy; Pierre Roxon would play Fabian; Demelza Randall would take the role of Tilly Hardy, the author of raunchy romance novels. I’d like to stay loyal to actors I’ve worked with whom I know are super-talented and industrious.

Then again, just imagine if Hollywood called me with a huge budget and asked for a completely new setting: what if the whole book had to change location and Winsley Green became somewhere in downtown New York? Then I suppose I’d be auditioning De Niro for Bisto, Samuel L for Len, Streep for Pauline and Streisand for Barbara. Now that’s a whole new and very different fantasy!

So, who is the best actor to play Lemmy in a biopic?

I often cast films in my imagination. If I read about a character in a book, an actor will come to mind and I think ‘he or she would be perfect for that role.’ Many times, I’ve considered actors who might be in films of my own novels: Brendan Gleeson and Julie Walters feature a lot when I’m hypothetically casting one of my books in my head, as do Colin Farrell, Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton. So, when I heard there was going to be a film about the late, great Lemmy Kilminster’s life, I immediately started wondering about who’d be the best actor to play the role of that incredible man.

I saw Lemmy performing with Motörhead in London not long before he passed away; he was quite static on stage but his indomitable spirit, his energy, his love of music that was so loud it made your eardrums buzz and his devil-may-care attitude were tangible. The actor who would play Lemmy on screen would need to do him justice; it would need to be someone who could embody his intelligence, his iconoclasm, his mischief and his rebellious streak. He would need to be magnetic, full of charisma.

I’m quite open-minded about actors who are cast as rock stars: they are actors first, so imitation and interpretation are everything – they don’t need to look exactly like the character they are playing.  Val Kilmer embodied Jim Morrison so well in The Doors. Rami Malek looked nothing like Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody but he managed to portray him with such panache and skill that the character was utterly credible. Taron Egerton was inspired in his performance in Rocket Man: I even conceded that I liked the music, although I’m no Elton John fan. So, for me, the actor who plays Lemmy doesn’t necessarily have to be a look-alike or a predictable choice as their talent comes first. So, here are some of my choices for the role of Lemmy.

The obvious ones:

Johnny Depp is a reasonably good choice to play Lemmy. He’s a musician, a rock star, an experienced actor; by his own admission, he understands the ravaging effects of an alcohol and drug-fuelled lifestyle. He’s a middle-aged sex symbol who can act. He could probably use a good role right now at this point in his career. It seems he ticks all the boxes to play Lemmy.

Robert Downey Junior. As above, probably.

Tom Hardy. He is possibly one of the most gifted actors on screen. He pulled off the roles of both Kray twins in one film; he rescued Venom from the depths of banality and he took the role of Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders to such heights that he managed to get away with a character that, in other circumstances, might have been perceived as a bit risky to say the least. He played Heathcliff with such passion that he achieved empathy where the character deserved no sympathy. He is a genius. Just imagine how he’d play Lemmy.

The less-obvious ones.

Benedict Cumberbatch. Not remotely like Lemmy, not in your wildest dreams. But he’s played everything from Hamlet to Dominic Cummings, so I wonder what he’d make of Motörhead’s front man? He could do it, certainly.

Russell Brand. Russell may be some people’s choice; he has the patter, the charisma, the confidence, the bravado to play Lemmy but he lacks Lemmy’s rawness and natural charm. Not for me.

Orlando Bloom. I was really surprised that, as the initial idea of Orlando Bloom as Lemmy made me burst out laughing, the choice really grew on me. Orlando has served his time playing undemanding roles of young, well-meaning fresh-faced heroes such as Legolas in Lord of the Rings, Paris in Troy and Will in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It would be a challenge for him to take on the gritty role of Lemmy and I think he’d do it justice. I can imagine Mr. Kilminster chuckling over his bottle of Jack Daniels to think that he’d been portrayed by a man who once played the love interest of Keira Knightley, and an elf.

Jason Momoa. He’d be ‘superhero Lemmy’ in the animated version. A hilarious thought!

Joaquin Phoenix. After an incredible physical performance in Joker, Joaquin can do anything in my opinion. He’d make Lemmy leap from the screen.

Jared Leto. He is possibly my first choice to play Lemmy. Jared Leto is an incredibly versatile actor who would be able to show Lemmy’s progress from his early days in Hawkwind where he became a member because the bass player didn’t show up for a gig to his arrest for drug possession on the Canadian border, creating an empathic staging of Lemmy’s final days as Motörhead’s anarchist bassist and well-loved antihero.

Of course, it depends on the demands of the screenplay: will the film be a linear story of Lemmy’s life, or a glossy romanticised depiction of his early days as a young man whose youthful experiences were steeped in sex and drugs and rock and roll, or will we see the wistful older Lemmy reminiscing on his life as the speakers blast out the strains of such famous songs as No Remorse and Built for Speed.

Whoever is chosen for the role, I’d certainly watch the film. It will be very interesting to see how the director portrays Lemmy and I hope the film goes some way to do justice to a fascinating and unique musician who remains widely admired by so many people.

This leads me to reflect on similar films to come. We’ve had biopics about Freddie Mercury, Sid Vicious, Ray Charles, Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf. Now I’ve heard there will be a film about David Bowie’s life: I wonder who they’ll pick to play that role. And who would be a good choice to play Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Tom Petty, Marc Bolan, Kurt Cobain or Dolores O’Riordan? Are there roles here for established actors or could someone new cut their teeth on such a huge part? It is fascinating to speculate on casting and to look beyond the obvious choices.

Several films I wouldn’t normally watch…

I work on the basic principle that novels and films are always valid if the person or people for whom they were created enjoy them. I’m not a fan of self-indulgence on the part of writers but I try never to criticise a genre because it isn’t for me, because there may be others who derive much more pleasure than I do from a film or a book and I’m simply not target audience.

My own taste in films is fairly broad. My favourite films range from Everything is Illuminated to In Bruges, from Withnail and I to Stuart: A Life Backwards, from Jean de Florette to Korkoro. I wouldn’t expect others to like the same films as I do. But, partly because I’m a writer and partly because I’m inquisitive, I like to watch things from other genres I might not necessarily like myself in order to expand how I view the world, although I do try to approach them positively and supportively.

Recently, because it was raining and I was on a running machine for a long time, I watched a few daytime romance films on television. I’m not sure what I expected but I was struck by the sameness of them all. The main protagonists were all women, mostly in their twenties, although one character was approaching forty and a single mum. The women were all modern, long haired, attractive, middle-class slim Caucasians, all heterosexual, with mostly professional jobs: actor, writer, film maker, editor, business woman, model, PhD, wedding planner, cup-cake maker. They had few defining characteristics either in terms of their personalities or their appearances: no-one had bright red hair, spectacles, Asperger’s Syndrome, a wheelchair, OCD, shyness. They all dressed uniformly smartly, drove tidy cars, lived in nice houses and had friends. None of them was, in fact, like me or anyone I know. The one thing the women had in common was a failed romance and the thrust of the storyline was, generally, that they weren’t looking for love so, clearly, the viewer expected them to find it by the end of the film.

The ‘male interest’ was invariably of a similar age, usually a bit older, Caucasian, professional, middle class, smart, etc etc. There were a couple of traits the men had which the women didn’t: a tendency to conceal their emotions, not to admit their feelings, or to be stubborn (in an attractively needy way…) There were no awkward men, thin men, unintelligent men, myopic men, stutterers. Mostly they had thick hair, cleanly parted, and square jaws. There wasn’t a bald man although one had a beard but that was because he was the outdoor type! They were all physically strong, with clearly defined leadership qualities. I found all of them boring.

To accompany the above minimal character differences, the story lines were very similar. The couple met, they didn’t get on well, then they pretended they didn’t get on well to cover their attraction to each other, then they fell out over a mistake or a misunderstanding, then in the final five minutes they admitted that they had feelings for each other. The final shot in every film was a kiss – on a boat, up a mountain, on a veranda, at a wedding – but it was always the final shot. This left me wondering what happened next, after the film: their lives would probably be happily predictable and bland. There was a tangible lack of passion, lust or genuinely deep feelings. It was as if life has to be sanitised within the boundaries of an underexplored romance story. It wasn’t for me.

So my most recent film exploration has been a foray into (sort of) action movies, ones with a bit of bloodshed and violence, which is, I suppose, the other side of the romance coin. Many of the storylines are equally predictable. Male heroes in this broad genre are invariably in charge, fearless Alpha males, all demanding a high status, strong and brave in the face of all types of danger. Women’s roles range from the kick-ass sidekick to the needy damsel or the corpse.

To a certain extent, the success of the movie depends on main character and plot. Based on this, for me, all films featuring Steven Seagal aren’t worth pursuing, due to the egocentricity of his roles and the marginalisation of all female characters.

One film I enjoyed was Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which is one of those rare second films that is as good as the first one. Due to a lively script, clever humour and a sparky character played by Taron Egerton, it is saved from being simply a parody, and some of the action scenes are well staged and funny. The cameo from Elton John is hilarious.

Even better is Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, which has a clearly political motive and achieves everything it intends to spectacularly and in a very moving way. It is violent, intelligent, scary in places, but based on real people in the real world and it is very cleverly contrived.

Bad Times at the El Royale was a strange film, a little Noir and very violent in the Tarantino style. At the beginning, I found it slow, but it developed into a more interesting film and by the end I thought I’d enjoyed it, as it was explosive and surprising. It was an example of a film you have to embrace from the outset, to make excuses for tropes and stereotypes as it goes along and invest in the characters and storyline: in short, I had to cut it some slack. It is long and indulgent but, by sticking with it, I managed to get something positive from watching it.

Another film in the category of ‘move the boundaries of your expectations before you start to watch’ is Venom. The film would have been silly but for Tom Hardy who managed to create the title role with sensitivity and quirky humour. He made it watchable in the sense that the viewer sympathised with his vulnerable and fair-minded character and therefore tolerated the screeching cartoon figure who yelled in his ear. I’m not sure if I’d watch a sequel, though.

Finally, I branched into fantasy/ action and watched Aquaman. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was interesting. The film had a thin storyline with strong female roles who stood persuasively behind their hero. Aquaman himself was a hybrid between Atlantan demi-god and American goofball. Tenuous links to Camelot were a bit obvious – his name was Arthur; he pulled out the trident that no-one had managed to pull before. Multilingual, with a classical home-education derived from his human father the lighthouse keeper, the character of Aquaman didn’t quite work for me, although the ‘save the planet’ references were very pertinent. The greatest success of this film was the huge number of people who must have been employed to create the impressive CGI. I’m a sucker for all that clever animation stuff and, watched in the cinema, the fragmented story line and token characters wouldn’t matter: the film was a spectacular triumph of scenery, colour and action.

It’s an interesting exercise, trying different genres one mightn’t be normally inclined to watch. I’ve done this with war films, Hitchcock, horror, western, Noir, old movies, fantasy and epics. I’m not sure where to go next. Science Fiction is often beyond my comprehension and I can’t sit through a whole film of Chicago or Wayne’s World. Right: historical it is then.

‘Mary and Max’ – ‘All humans are imperfect’

Mary and Max is a 2010 stop motion animated film by Adam Elliot. It is narrated by Barry Humphries: Mary is voiced by Toni Collette and Max is voiced by Philip Seymour-Hoffman.

Mary is a young Australian girl with a distant, overworked father and a kleptomaniac, alcoholic mother.

Mary is bullied at school and lonely. She finds herself in a post office and discovers a telephone book of American addresses. A curious child who has no-one to answer her questions, she selects a random address and her correspondence with Max begins. Their letters to each other are natural and honest. Mary tells Max about a neighbour who is agoraphobic.

He’s scared of outside, which is a disease called homophobia.

Max is a 44 year old Jewish atheist who is morbidly obese and has Asperger’s Syndrome. He is isolated and, despite having an anxiety attack when he reads Mary’s letter, he is compelled to write back to her. A bond develops, despite Max having difficulties relating to other people.

Max knew nothing about love. It was as foreign to him as a salad sandwich.

Their relationship is poignant and charming and it begins because they both have a liking for chocolate and a TV cartoon show. Max is able through his letters to explain to the young Mary that he has problems with relationships.

People often think I am tactless and rude. I cannot understand how being honest can be improper. Maybe this is why I don’t have any friends.

Their letters serve to develop their characters. Mary is unsupported at a time in her life where she is looking for a strongly influential role model and, in Max, Elliot is showing us a caring and heroic individual who is thoughtful and generous, even though he is misunderstood and marginalised by society.

I was born Jewish and used to believe in God but I’ve since read many books that have proven God is just a figment of my imagination. People like to believe in God ’cause it answers difficult questions, like where did the universe came from, do worms go to heaven and why do old ladies have blue hair. And even though I’m an atheist, I still wear my yarmulke as it keeps my brain warm.

Max has a breakdown: he is institutionalised and his correspondence with Mary stops for several years. Then on his 48th birthday, Max’s fortunes change with a lottery win.

Not much has happened since I last wrote except for my manslaughter charges, lotto win, and Ivy’s death.

Mary has grown up, married childhood sweetheart Damien (Eric Bana); she goes to university and writes a book on Asperger’s Syndrome with the intention to cure Max. He feels misunderstood, exploited and rips the letter M from his typewriter.

The rest of the story line is not to be spoiled for people who haven’t seen the film, but the characters’ lives take unexpected turns and the tension is palpable.

At the end of the film, Mary and her baby visit Max in New York. The ending is surprising, powerful and  the music Que Sera Sera is used as an ironic semiotic for the unexpected things which happen in life.

The impact of Mary and Max is twofold. Firstly, it is the intention of Elliot not to avoid the important discussion of issues such as loneliness, childhood neglect, alcoholism, depression, suicide, anxiety, isolation and the importance of friendship. Asperger’s Syndrome is dealt with in detail and, although not everyone with AS will manifest all of Max’s problems, the film serves to show clearly that autism and other ‘disabilities’ are in fact not the lens through which we should see the whole individual, but that the individual should be accepted wholly for who they are. Max writes to Mary:

Dr. Bernard Hazelhoff said if I was on a desert island, then I would have to get used to my own company – just me and the coconuts. He said I would have to accept myself, my warts and all, and that we don’t get to choose our warts. They are part of us and we have to live with them. We can, however, choose our friends, and I am glad I have chosen you.

The second strength of Mary and Max is the remarkable impact of the medium of stop-motion animation which renders the film both informative and funny. The characters are beautifully created and the use of music and the witty script are completely effective and the rapport between all the characters is bittersweet and heartwarming.

Taken for what it is, an animated film which has a message but is, at the same time appealing, moving and thought-provoking,  Mary and Max is a really good film to be enjoyed and treasured. It is certainly not just for children.

Tetro, anyone? Not for me, thanks.

Have you ever seen a trailer for a film and thought ‘This looks brilliant. I must watch it.’ Then you watch it and all the best bits were in the trailer and the rest of the film is just not for you? That’s Francis Ford Coppola’s black and white film, ‘Tetro’.

It’s quite an old film now – it came out in 2009 – and I hadn’t seen it, but the trailer depicted a lively film with a strange and quirky rapport between two brothers, one a young ingénu and another eccentric and jaded. The younger, Bennie, is now a waiter on a cruise ship and he visits his older brother, Tetro, in Buenos Aires. Tetro is crotchety, not pleased to see him, he refuses to call him brother. He lives with Miranda, a psychiatrist who has nursed him back to health and now she panders to his every need.

At first it looks like Tetro – played quite well by Vincent Gallo – is an interesting character. He’s mercurial, enigmatic, charismatic and petulant. At first, it feels like we’re watching a play by Tennessee Williams: both men share an overbearing father who somehow destroyed their lives and, in particular, was the abusive driving force behind Tetro’s disappearance. So when the brothers meet, there is some unravelling of their past to be done and sparks will inevitably fly.

The acting is good. Certainly, Gallo as Tetro and Maribel Verdú as Miranda do their best with an implausible script. Alden Ehrenreich as Bennie is credible, despite looking like Dicaprio as Arnie Grape.

 

 

The film has several problems for me: it is indulgent, boring, contrived, implausible, over-complicated and pretentious.

Harsh words, certainly, but just watch the scene where Tetro walks towards the awards ceremony carrying an axe and his subsequent interchange with Bennie,  where the poor actor playing Tetro has to repeatedly beg his ‘brother’ to kill him. It just doesn’t work.

Subsidiary characters are stereotypes. The camera shows several women’s bodies from an aesthetic male viewpoint: the film stems from a rigid concept where women exist to serve men and I was never going to get much from such a conceit. Poor Miranda does everything for Tetro, only to be harangued, blamed, stood up and ignored. She even pours his breakfast coffee and gives him spiritual and career guidance. We see in flashback the scene where she fell in love with him. She was his psychotherapist and he was aloof and damaged, a gifted writer burned out and in need of being rescued and revived. So of course this beautiful woman rescues him and dedicates her life to his genius and continues to do it against odds and abuse. Not my sort of film at all!

The story which follows includes Tetro’s patriarchal misuse at the hands of his father who is a genius conductor. Tetro is damaged for so many reasons: flashbacks show us his part in a car accident involving his opera singer mother and his loss of true love, provoked by his egomaniac father. Bennie’s mother is in a coma. Some of these scenes are shown as ballets and we’re supposed to drop our jaws at the meaningful moment. It doesn’t work: it is pretentious and improbable and all the while, the women are rag dolls, drudges, dupes or dead.

There is a scene where Tetro is driven to Patagonia by Miranda where he will, finally, be rewarded for his genius. We see the sparkling light from the sun on the snow of the mountain range reflected in his eyes like daggers, blinding him and making him look hollowed and mesmerised. This is just too indulgent.

It’s hard to equate Coppola with this film; here is the director who brought us ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Godfather’.

I suppose everyone has their off days. ‘Tetro’ was certainly his!

‘Howl’ is a fantastic fusion film.

Love the poem, love the man, love the film.

‘Howl’ is a 2015 film about the landmark obscenity trial in 1957, concerning ‘Howl’, Allen Ginsberg’s signature poem. It features excerpts from the poem as we see beat poet Ginsberg reading his work to an adoring audience of famous writers such as Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. The film takes us back to a time in the fifties when jazz was blowing in the clubs and there were fixed ideas about what made poetry valid and acceptable and what was considered to be breaking the boundaries of decency. Ginsberg is a pioneer poet and his work changed public perceptions.

We cross cut to the trial where ‘Howl’, Ginsberg’s first published piece, was considered obscene because it dealt with  subject matter and used language which had been previously taboo. A few years later, in England, D H Lawrence’s Lady ‘Chatterley’ was put through the same ordeal. Both writers works are seminal and influenced the freedoms we share as writers and readers.

‘Howl’ is considered to be one of the great works of American literature. It has a hallucinatory style which tumbles from the page and the tongue. It is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met in a psychiatric institution.

‘Howl’, the film, will not be to everyone’s taste. I think it may be better suited to people who love poetry, performance poetry and who are interested in the seminal jazz age and have a vested interest in hearing James Franco, who plays Ginsberg, read chunks of the poem out loud in his strong, musical voice. It’s not your standard linear story.

It’s not an easy  film: it’s not divided into three or five acts. Three strands interweave and some people may find this halting as it interrupts suspension of disbelief or emotional investment.

For me, the three parts of the film worked well. Franco as Ginsberg reading his work or being interviewed by an unseen reporter is the main element of the film,  which fills in detail and biography. The trial of ‘Howl’ which, interestingly Ginsberg doesn’t attend, is fascinating in its own right for the comparison of witnesses: experts who demonstrate hypocrisy by suggesting that ‘Howl’ is obscene  and has no literary merit contrasting with others who consider the talent of Ginsberg to be a breakthrough in literature.

The third strand is an animated interpretation of the poem, which we see as a graphic interpretation as Ginsberg reads. It may be somewhat crude and dated as animation, but it serves perfectly to illustrate the poet’s intention and puts his own experiences at the heart of his writing.

James Franco is well cast as Ginsberg. He recreates the poet’s conviction, his vulnerability and his  engaging personality credibly. The era of the Beat Generation with its new thoughts about freedom, the music, the influential characters and the integral arts movements are evoked colourfully and I found the film worked well.

Some people will prefer an interpretation which is less documentary and more linear and perhaps therefore more satisfying as a biopic. I can see the merits of such a film but, although not a Hollywood blockbuster, ‘Howl’ is interesting for its unusual interpretation. Its format of poetry, trial scenes and visual graphics works well on screen and it is a celebration of Ginsberg’s unique and thrilling talent.

I watched ‘Howl’ with people who knew nothing of the Beat Generation or the poetry of Ginsberg, and they found it exciting, so it’s not just for poetry fans like myself.

The brothers Grimsby: definitely mad for it.

When it came out on DVD, I bought a copy of The Brothers Grimsby because the two main actors are both highly skilled. Mark Strong is a ubiquitous performer who has excelled in so many films, from  Our Friends in the North to Sherlock Holmes, from Kingsmen to Anna Karenina and RocknRolla. He has been in Prime Suspect and also in Twelfth Night. Strong is a versatile and consummate performer and in this film he stars alongside Sacha Baron Cohen.

Baron Cohen studied History at Cambridge before being tutored by a French drama teacher called Philippe Gaulier,whose style of physical theatre, mime and clowning owes much to Jacques Lecoq, the guru of movement-based theatre. Other students of Gaulier include Emma Thompson, Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite and Helena Bonham Carter, who have all acquired strong skills under Gaulier’s tuition. Baron Cohen’s training has been evident in all of his clown roles and Grimsby is no different.

I could take or leave Ali G: I didn’t like Bruno and I refused to be offended by Borat. I did quite enjoy The Dictator and I believe that there is a place in comedy for iconoclasm and pushing barriers. This said, I laughed out loud at The Brothers Grimsby from start to finish. It is a genuinely funny film.

The story is straight from the Blood Brothers genre: separated as orphans, Sebastian becomes a secret agent with MI6 and his elder brother, Nobby, is a heavy drinking football- mad father of eleven who lives in an English fishing town. The brothers have been separated for 28 years but Nobby is ever-hopeful that they will be reunited one day. They finally meet at a benefit where Sebastian is attempting to foil an assassination attempt. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong and there are scandalous occurrences involving Daniel Radcliffe before the brothers embark on a picaresque adventure to save the world. Their exploits culminate in a climax of action in Chile at an England vs. Germany football final.

There are some hilarious scenes. Without giving away too many spoilers, the spy on the run and his hapless brother hide from assassins inside an elephant’s vagina. Nobby imitates James Bond in South Africa and seduces the wrong woman. Nobby’s kids save the day more than once and there is a beautiful speech, Braveheart-style, at the end of the film where Nobby incites the football fans of Grimsby to rise up and fight against oppression. The end of the film is predictable but hilarious as fireworks explode in strange places and even Donald Trump has a minor role, albeit an ignominious one.

The Brothers Grimsby is a film which didn’t receive good ratings. This is probably because the same old jokes about penises and oral sex and bottoms are reinvented in a new context. I found it funny, quite harmless, charming, satirical and, in its own way, a bit of political lehrstucke in the Brechtian style as family loyalty is supremely important for Nobby. It’s not the type of film I watch often, but it is pure escapism  and it’s lively and iconoclastic and well performed. It’s best watched as a mates’ film, with a few beers and some tacos after a hard day when belly laughs are needed most.

It is also quite uncanny how Baron Cohen and Strong evoke a parody of Liam Gallagher and Vin Diesel as two bungling spies. It’s conceptually both clever and ridiculous, as most of Baron Cohen’s stuff is. I enjoyed it!

 

 

Cumberbatch’s ‘Third Star’ left me startled

I’d just been out with friends to The Star, my local pub, for a very lively evening and we came back home and chose a movie. What better than to settle down and  watch ‘Third Star’? We were all in the mood for a strong plot, with an actor who always delivers a fine performance, and the film has great reviews. We opened a bottle and pressed play.

It’s at this point that I have to warn you, you have to be in the mood for this movie.

Another film which passed me by at the time, Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘Third Star’ is a story which many people will love. It came out in 2010, and it will suit people who like bittersweet films with a strong element of catharsis and a powerful lachrymose ending.

‘Third Star’ is at times poignant, comical and utterly credible. It features superb acting by Cumberbatch and his three co-stars, Tom Burke, JJ Feild and Adam Robertson. It was the debut film of Australian director Hattie Dalton

It is about four friends who take a camping trip to Barafundle Bay in West Wales, so the film features some incredible scenery, which is one of its great strengths.

The story line, without spoilers, is that Cumberbatch’s character, James, is terminally ill and his three closest friends decide to grant his birthday wish and they set off to Wales with an unwieldy wheelchair, a pack of morphine, some fireworks and a tree.

The characters are not always likeable but there are real tensions between them which make the story line work well. There are moments of clever comedy and the script contains some genuinely funny one-liners and some surprisingly raucous scenes, such as the punch-up outside the pub.

Two minor idiosyncratic characters help the well-crafted plot along: the four friends meet a ferryman, complete with unsubtle makeup who asks a ludicrous price for the return journey, and a semi-naked beachcomber in search of Darth Vader.

There are moments where the characters bond; moments where the angry James strikes out and moments where there is friction and dislike, creating characters which blend and fracture and a storyline which breathes pathos. It is an ironic tale of coming-of-age.

Audiences will gasp in delight at the scenery: the beach, the forests, the big skies and sunsets and the dark nights lit by a log fire around which the friends meet to talk, to argue and to celebrate. The film is also abundant with visual metaphors: blown-out candles on a cake, flying crows, crumbling gravestones, rolling waves, fireworks, open skies (both night and day).

Some people will find the film clichéd and sentimental: some will find it beautiful, mesmeric and tragic. Some will think the ending morbid and hard to watch while others will find meaning and comfort in the final scenes.

The four actors explore the theme of friendship and male symbiosis well and their skill creating credible, although at times difficult individuals and a strong but changing rapport is impressive.

It is a film which may divide audiences: some will find it uplifting, others will think it morose, but you can’t fault the cinematography for it’s images of savage natural beauty or the acting for its accuracy and conviction. Again, Cumberbatch excels, and it is his talent which propels the film forward and makes sense of the the contrived ending.

For me, the film isn’t a post-pub pic: I’d have been better watching something with more vibrant action or with a tendency to satirical comedy. But when it’s raining outside and you want to feel really miserable, or if you’re in the mood for a film where you know you’re fortunate to be in good health, then this is a great choice.

I will certainly be travelling to Pembrokeshire, having seen this film, to seek out the fabulous beaches. ‘Third Star’ ignites the desire to go camping with friends and sit around log fires enjoying star-filled skies and wild landscapes.

I won’t be going in the sea, though!