Category: movies

Memoir: Ghost in the Bone by Penny Bunton – A remarkable tour de force

Ghost in the Bone - Penny Bunton

Confession, reflection, defence, distortion and misdirection, catharsis from pain, reliving joy, a chance for cold revenge on one’s enemies, rediscovering ourselves through our past,  or simply to set the story straight from yours, truly: These and many more are reasons to write a memoir.

Besides, we’re an insatiably curious and reflective species: Basho, the 17th-Century Haiku poet and traveller, wrote:

It is deep autumn

My neighbour

How does he live, I wonder.

I admit freely that I wonder, too. And more: I wonder, of others, what that argument was about, and what made the person behave like that, and who did what to make the child such a monstrous adult.

Hell, if I could only – and invisibly – peer over my garden fence into the neighbours’ backyard during summer time while they all chinwag, or magically appear at their childhood home or even those of perfect strangers (besides those whom are famous), and take notes unhindered of family gatherings and private thoughts and conversations.

But since I’m not the sort to shamelessly – what a shame, what a loss! – to listen in, nor – god forbid – to jam my ear lustily onto a down-turned glass – itself jammed up against the wall dividing my neighbour from my curious self – instead, I’m sure I must – at least in part – be overly compensating by reading and joyfully amassing oodles of published memoirs, journals and diaries, personal correspondence and biographies.

Not only, of course, has the memoir long been published – how could I not reference Augustine’s astonishing Confessions, of the 4th-century AD – it has also long been read. In fact, they sell in their millions: we buy them by the juggernaut-load – and, throughout the 1990s to date, they have remained one of the biggest selling categories of book, with publishers and us readers never seeming to get enough of them. Remember the appetite for Angela’s Ashes; A Child Called “It”; Night; Dreams of My Father; Thinking in Pictures; Me Talk Pretty One Day; Eat, Pray, Love; Prozac Nation; Girl, Interrupted; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Lucky; Chronicles: Volume One? No doubt each of you recall many others, including those of your personal favourites.

Besides the endless avalanche of memoir published by celebrities, actors, designers, artists, politicians and leaders past and present, fashionistas, scientists, has-beens and wanna-bees – most of the aforementioned, sadly, written by ghost writers – there are also those written by unknowns or relative unknowns: that is, often until they publish their story and we few or many are given the opportunity to delve into their past with them, simply by opening the covers of a book.

And now we have Ghost in the Bone, by Penny Bunton (UK paperback and Kindle edition here, and the US Kindle only edition here). It’s the memoir of an “unknown” – though in fact you may well have seen the author any number of times on screen or in a TV drama and simply not known her, as she’s been an actress in supporting roles for decades, including RED 2 (2013), The Murder of Princess Diana (2007) and the long-running British TV serial hit, Medics (1990).

While I must have read hundreds of memoirs over the years, some famous and some less well-known, Ghost has already become one of my favourites and, having read it twice, I know without hesitation I’ll be reading it again. Why? Because this book is a tour de force. Not only is this the author’s first ever published book, but also in one swoop she has mastered the art of the memoir, which is such a difficult and challenging form of writing.

After all, if you were to write one, just consider the overwhelming choices you’d have to make: which memories do you include and which should you leave out? Should your story be episodic, thematic, or only chronological? What of those many moments of guilt, of embarrassment, of intimacy, anger or failure? How much do you reveal about your relationships with lovers, friends, family, professional colleagues, your own thoughts and feelings about them, and what of the anxiety about how they’ll react on reading it?

I imagine all these and more as obstacles and the struggle with myself to attempt to account for them, but soon give up even in my imagination, because I feel friends, family and my past breathing down my neck, peering over my shoulder as I struggle with the conflict between telling my version of the truth and being reasonable to the outside world, yet wanting to spill my guts and blood and tears over all my pages, come what may. Yet my significant others look over my shoulder still and at what I’m typing on my screen. I hear them tutting, muttering, twittering, derisively sniffing and roaring with laughter – all in the wrong places, mind. And didn’t I just hear eyeballs rolling in the back of their heads, too? So for these reasons and more (a lack of courage, a lack of perspective), I don’t think I’ll ever write my memoir.

My hats off, then, and most of my head in joyful obeisance to those who not only have written their memoirs, but who have also, like Penny, been gifted enough as writers to produce something remarkable, too.

It’s the story of a little girl told at the awfully tender age of two by her Dickensian character of a mother – of whom, more in a mo – that, before she was born, she “grew in another lady’s tummy. When you came out, you were kept in a special home with lots of other babies […] It doesn’t mean we love you any the less; we love you just the same. Because we chose you.”

As an adult looking back at this scene, she writes:

In that instant, my heart became a piece of jigsaw, with a hole in one side and a rounded bud looking for another hole on the other. In the space of those few minutes, the state of anomalousness in which I lived had been revealed to me, and I embraced my status as though granted the key to grace. The knowledge was an escape, an exculpation, a release. I had been as it were given back to myself – and to my mother. My blood mother.

This is the story not only of the impact of the life of one individual who has been adopted, but also the psychological duress she endures growing up in an emotionally sterile house through which “there ran beneath the surface activity a current of unspoken thought, of covert observation and singular psychic combat.”

We learn of the emotional abuse inflicted on her by Helen, her adoptive mother, whose almost unceasing mood swings, occasional histrionics, calculating looks and sociopathic indifference to Penny, besides her cruel remarks and actions, make everybody tip toe around her in nervous fear. Here’s Helen for you, then:

My mother took to being an invalid. On the excuse of […] a history of weakness in her chest (one always knew where she was in the house by the boom of her catarrhal cough), my mother retired to the sofa and to her bed, and ruled the house from a horizontal position. Every exertion required a corresponding amount of ‘rest’: after cooking, marking exams or homework [she’s a teacher of physics at a training college], after going for a walk, carrying a vase from one room to another or brushing the dog my mother would feel the need to ‘put her feet up’, and off she would limp to an appropriate horizontal surface. We were required to creep about and keep quiet while her eyes were closed.

And, when her adoptive parents permanently separate, her father John soon living with another woman and in the proceeds of a divorce, mother remains hungry to devour news of her ex, sinking her teeth into Penny’s neck for the nourishment:

Back in the chilly Cambridge house, greedy for pictures of the alternate ménage from which to torment herself, my mother picked at my experience of my father’s life much as a child will a scab on its knee. Often a sore was exposed, and she would lick at the blood. What did we eat for dinner? How often did we have steak, would I say?: three times a week? More?

(Note: steak to Helen was an outrageous extravagance she could never tolerate, being so tight-fisted and miserly – she keeps unwanted gifts over the years in a “Present Drawer”, parcelling them up anew for everybody else, including many joyless ones for her own children up to, and including, their adult years.)

Her adoptive mother’s miserliness is also only the surface residue of a deeper, almost savage cruelty that lurks below and appears with such insouciance. Explaining the reason for the ungraciously tiny amount of money Helen is to leave Penny in her will, Helen has this to say:

‘Because you haven’t been a very good daughter. I think that’s fair enough, don’t you?’

A fretsaw wheels in the corner of my eye. I feel dizzy.

‘I don’t know, Mummy,’ I say. ‘Do you really want me to answer that?’

‘Yes,’ she says, with decision. ‘Why not?’

Yet Penny manages to give a marvellous, brightly defiant response that must have been so hard to say with a beating heart and ears still ringing from being battered by words of such coldblooded indifference:

‘Well, if you’re asking me whether or not I think it’s fair that you do what you wish with your own money, then the answer to that is yes. If you’re asking me whether or not I think it fair that you are leaving me a smaller portion because you think I haven’t been a very good daughter, then the answer is no. I don’t, for instance, think that you’ve been a very good parent.’

‘Is that so?’ she says, surprised; and then, as though she found this of academic interest: ‘When do you mean? Now? Or then?’

‘Well – both,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ she says. She might have been told that no post had come today. [My italics.]

But this is not a relentless “misery” memoir of those childhood years, despite the fact her “mother’s unhappiness was a net that she threw over everyone […]”.

In fact, there is more pensive reflection and sadness and rarely a note of anger, nor an ounce of revenge, even though you feel Penny would have been more than justified in expressing rage and moving across the page of her memoir-writing with a daggerly pen. Instead, and throughout the memoir, it is clear how much she loves all of her adoptive family – and this, despite their many wrongs against her. Rather, she is one to pull no punches on her own account, despite you feeling she deserves to be so much kinder to herself, she doesn’t hesitate to be unswervingly self-critical:

Facing my mother is ordeal enough, without facing my brother, too. I will lose my breath, I will drown in my guilt and my shoulders will snap like twigs. I know that were we to meet, my brother and I, he would look down pleasantly on my face, would surprise me with his mildness of manner […] so what am I frightened of? The inarticulate weight of our history, the dark lane between us in which our parents war and walk; my own frailties and failures, my stupidities and fecklessness – my brother is a mirror of all these things. I have bewildered him with my difference, and he has taken it in as betrayal.

Now I do feel the need to hasten and reassure you it is far from all doom, gloom and shocks in the tradition of Mommie Dearest. When you turn the pages you find there are many moments in this memoir that express genuine happiness in her young life and, among those she loved were her father, John, who in turn loved her so as a child:

[…]When my father came home, the air moved. He opened the front door on a Friday night and my heart along with it, bringing with him life from Outside, a small breeze that blew all weekend-long, and which was shut off as he pulled the door to on his way out on a Sunday evening. After that, until the following Friday, the au pair and I were sealed in with my mother.

And, whenever there are good times to be experienced among her growing pains, the author relishes them, never hesitating to be appreciative of them and to portray lovingly those whom are good, kind or just plain delightful to remember.

Take two of her childhood friends, Mary:

Mary kept hamsters – a source of great envy […]. In fact, the appearance of either of the younger brothers would prompt her immediately to say, in her quick, energetic way, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here; and out she would flounce, leaving me to follow on like an apprentice geisha. Mary was a sly, practical child, her thoughts always a hundred moves ahead of my own, which churned slowly like cake dough in a mixer.

…and Kirsten:

The other spectacular thing I would discover about Kirsten [her Canadian cousin] was her temper. It was no mean thing. When seized with a fit, her voice would warble up to soprano heights, her nose would go red, and complaint was often accompanied by the stamping of a foot – even both feet. These tempests were aw-inspiring. Shocking, thrilling. I admired them tremendously. I admired her tremendously: at six years old, she struck me as a person fully formed: commanding, imperious, funny, dear. She was by quite some margin the most interesting person I had ever met. And her voice (due to a host of household allergies […]) had a hoarseness to it that distinguished her. If a lamb could talk, it would sound as Kirsten did at six years old.

She’s no less marvellous, too, at capturing adults:

Her nose was prominent, her skin sallow, and she possessed a particular voice, thin, slightly broken, like a tricking tap. Her natural expression was that of a person whose thoughts are sad and far away. Mrs Anderson was a beautiful woman.

On Brenda, her elderly stepmother (the second wife of Penny’s adoptive father):

Bathed in the orange light of the close-curtained room she lay in the vast white bed, a tiny frail immobile creature, the suggestion, only, of a body beneath the thin cotton sheet […] The once strong mane of hair was thin and puffy now, the blonde reduced to smoke. A pinprick of red, showed at her temple, and above the knobbly protuberances of her cheekbones her small eyes shone black with her anger. She was very, very angry.

And she’s just as good at quiet, sweet-and-sour comedy drawn from her observations of those around her: Of being in Palm Springs, she writes of a fleeting moment that most memoirists would most likely have overlooked, but thankfully Penny is a true writer, so doesn’t:

At breakfast, from the cool interior of the brasserie we have chosen, I gaze through the window at the palm trees plugged into the sidewalk at intervals of about ten feet. These have great hives of old leafage around their trunks: apparently all sorts of things make their homes inside – even rats. Not that I’ve seen anything either entering or exiting – not even a bird. Hopeful of seeing a rat, I have been looking carefully.

I become aware of a man and woman at the table next to ours. Sotto voce I say to Andrew:

‘I wonder if they live here, or whether they’re on holiday.’

The woman is English, but dressed in sporty American style: white trousers, crisp white shirt, wedge trainers, the uppers made of some sort of quilted material. An expensive pair of sunglasses sits on her cleavage, attached to a gold chain.

‘You never support me,’ she is saying to the man. ‘I sit there, saying what you ought to be saying, while you say nothing.’ Her energy is enthralling: it is concentrated, utter, directed. It is only seven o’clock in the morning.

The man is looking out of the sheet glass window, probably waiting for a rat to pop its head out of the palm tree. […]

                ‘Are you listening to me? Why don’t you respond when I’m speaking to you?’

The man does not take his eyes from the palm tree. Maybe he’s seen the rat and I’ve missed it.

Dear reader, I confess I laughed my tits off at that passage, and re-read it immediately and several times with much joy, in awe of the sheer control, and the delicate observation of what was obviously a tense, difficult moment between a couple in public, while admiring the brilliant seam of humour that cheekily shines through it and makes of the piece something both sad and joyfully funny at the same time.

I’m sorry-not-sorry for quoting so much from her memoir, but I do so in large part because I wish to convey to you the sheer excellence and vividness of her writing, of how wondrous she is at capturing people as well as the turbulence and see-saw of her significant experiences, from her first boyfriend to the loss of her adoptive father, adoptive mother, and the journey you take with her from her childhood of the 1960s (she was born in 1961), in middle-class but stultifying Cambridge, to the 70s, of two glorious holidays in Vancouver with her adoptive father’s brother and his own family, with a fast-forward-and-back to an astonishing account of her attempts in the millennium years to connect with her birth mother, much of which is nerve-wracking yet utterly gripping to read.

Allow me to quote one last time for you and to remark on it further. This, on Brenda, again:

[She] died three years after my father, in December 2009, a cramped wizened bird of a being, thin-skinned, twig-fingered, possessed of an enormous appetite for scones, which I fed to her in tiny bite-size pieces, laden with jam and cream. She ate with astonishing zeal, chewing with her mouth open. This was not, as might be imagined, a function of advanced decrepitude, but a life-long habit. Surprising in one for whom extreme femininity had been a calling card.

Isn’t that simply astonishingly good writing? It would be perfectly at home in the fiction of Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Anne Porter, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, and echoes the steely intelligence and driest of wit of the brilliant but neglected Ivy Compton-Burnett.

It’s probably obvious to you by now that I found no imperfections in the writing. But while this is not a criticism, in terms of story I do admit to wanting to know all about a vast swathe of her life that Penny doesn’t touch on at all: of her studies and time at Oxford University (her adoptive parents seemed to believe not a jot in her intelligence or talent; and neither, sadly, did she when growing up), and, too, her no-doubt many adventures as an actress in her adult years (albeit we do have a fleeting glimpse in her late teens of a friendship with Colin Firth during a brief spell at the National Youth Theatre).

On every page, you’ll find time and again there’s always something to bookmark, underline or note in your journal, and to share with your bookloving friends. It is a memoir of writing so touching, moving and funny, so gentle and loving and thoughtful, it is literature of the first rank. It deserves to win prestigious nonfiction awards and those for first-time published authors. It deserves them all, and then some.

If you are a true booklover, you know well the excitement felt when you’ve read something wonderful and excitedly wish to press a copy on every friend you know who also loves literature. And, if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you may access it for free straightaway – lucky dog, you! The physical copy is a lovely edition, with a beautiful cover, and the price to purchase a copy is generously low. I would love to know if you read it, and your thoughts. Do drop me a quick comment, below, or at the least, anyway, do please promise yourself that you’ll look out for a copy and add it to your list of books to read next…

A final thought: one of the telling signatures of a great book is that, as a reader, you want more and don’t wish it to end, anticipating the sadness and disappointment of reaching the final page; the rush to the first page, again, to re-read it straightaway. So, I do hope the author will return at some point with another memoir, to reflect on those other times, too. I’ve no doubt, based on this book, how captivating it would be. But then, whatever she may write, the same confidence in it would be justified, because Penny Bunton is the real deal: a gifted, funny, sad, moving, thoughtful writer.

The most visually stunning horror/thriller of all time?

Click on the image to buy a Region 2 (European or multi-region only) DVD

Out of all the horror/thriller movies I’ve ever seen, Tarsem Singh‘s The Cell (2000) remains for me the most truly stunning in terms of spectacle for both costume and set design; both are the most beautiful and disturbing designs and creations I have ever seen. Costumes (Eiko Ishoka) and set design (Tom Foden) are themselves worthy of Oscars (though in 2001, it was sadly only nominated for Best Makeup).  (By the way, if you want to buy this movie in the DVD Region 1/US version, click here.)

Besides that it is incredible visually, the film also has one of Jennifer Lopez‘s stronger performances, and deals with an endlessly fascinating subject: the serial killer/psychopath. In this film, however, you experience the reality of one psycho’s world, fully realised. It makes Hieronymus Bosch‘s paintings of the 15th century seem like gentle fairy-tale pictures in comparison.

Unfortunately, while the early part of the following clip — in fact the official Trailer — here does not do the movie full justice in terms of its visuals, it does give you a vivid sense of the growing tension and creepiness that is to be enjoyed. However, from the 1:13 mark (1 minute 13 seconds into the clip), you are then given some real treats as to what’s in store for you.

Not only is it Jennifer Lopez’s best film (likewise, Vince Vaughan‘s; the last time on film he looked sexy!), but also I think it is genuinely unique in terms of the quality and depth of how it presents the inner world of a particular serial killer psychopath. While the film firmly places itself within the serial killer genre – the quality of the imaginative visuals makes it stand out across all the genres of horror, drama, thriller — and the surreal.

As the cliché, goes: Hand on heart…It is an amazing, brilliant film, and greatest tour de force hats-off to Tarsem Singh, the director, and the original script writer, Mark Protosevich.  As for Tom Foden and Eiko Ishoka — you are frickin fabby fabpants fabulous and anyone who says otherwise is a frickin kumquat!

Leonardo: STOP. Grow up and act accordingly. Puhl-lease?!

Hello, mummy. I'm a child star playing an adult playing an actor playing an adult. Yippee!

Sorry, Leonard DiCaprio, but when is anyone in Hollywood ever going to tell you what everyone in the audience has been thinking for a long time? So let me tell you on behalf of us all: Stop! Yes, please stop accepting roles that you look too young to perform and are too young in terms of acting experience to interpret. Now either a Hollywood producer mogul or famous director is making you believe that you can perform roles years beyond how you actually can appear in the films, or that both that and/or you agree according to some misinterpretation of your own acting ability that you can perform roles way beyond your years. But you keep on doing this – you keep on repeating this same mistake and supposedly great movie directors who should know better – Scorsese and Spielberg – can’t get the magic He-Makes-Box-Office-Stardust out of their eyes. So they follow the money and keep on giving him roles he can’t handle. Now, given that we, the audience, are supposed to believe you have star power for umpteen years, now, and the fact that you can deliver a Box Office success in its first weekend, I fear that you/the Hollywood producers/your gullible fans, don’t question one fundamental observation:

Yes, you seem like a lovely, sincere, genuine guy but you ARE TOO FRICKING YOUNG FOR MOST OF YOUR ROLES. STOP! Let me give you some examples:

1. The Aviator (Howard Hughes) (2004). Real age of DiCaprio:  30. Actual age on screen, even within “aging make-up over 2 hours?” 24!– HELLO?! – CONVINCING AS A TEENAGE HOWARD but, NOT beyond that. Yet the film was supposed to convince us that you were the real shindig Howard Hughes through formative years? Anyone who has seen real-life photos of Howard Hughes during the period that you depicted him will know that you came as close to depicting him as I do to Marilyn Monroe (and I wouldn’t get close to be compared favourably to her butt-crack, if you’re asking)

2. Inception (2010)  – I’m a cool guy that has seen it all, but I look 19 years old. Hello?!

3. J. Edgar (2011)  A 25-year-old actor giving the impression he’s the most formidable and powerful presence on the American political scene. Intimidating, scary and paranoid-inducing to those who really knew him. YET:  In this movie, de Caprio looks like a young hick nobody and about as intimidating as a fart in a breeze.

4. Shutter Island (2010): Come on: We, the audience, are supposed to believe that this teenager not only has survived World War II, but has lost a wife and two children AND is a full-blown detective before we end up realising he’s a fricking nut?Hell-loooo!?

5. The Departed (2006): A guy from the wrong side of the tracks becomes an under-cover cop and is part of a major conspiracy-busting ring. Really? But he looks 12 years old! Hello!

6.  Catch me if you can (2002):  So he’s supposed to be the youngest white collar brilliant criminal ever at such a young age. OK! I give up. It’s based on a true story. But does Frank have to appear so consistently young throughout the entire two-hour movie? No!

7. Blood Diamond (2006):  Yes!  Well-meaning, well-deserved as a script. an important plot and themes. But are we really supposed to believe that this late teenager is a highly-experienced diamond smuggler. At the age of 25? Maybe there are such smugglers. But does he convince you? Thought not.

I won’t go on further. Since DiCaprio has appeared on the acting/Hollywood scene, he has increasingly, relentlessly been given roles way beyond not only his acting ability, but far beyond any credible age he can play; until he stops looking like a twenty-something, he should stay clear of any character outside of that age range. Maybe in another fifty years when he grows some real hair on his face instead of baby fluff. Nuff said.

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: Fabulously camp & great fun

Did you see Guy Ritchie‘s first movie interpretation of the legendary genius detective, Sherlock Holmes? Well, whether you did or didn’t, This reviewer will vouchsafe this sequel: it’s wonderful.

But if you don’t like camp, homoerotic relationships, silliness, relentless plotting, amazing (but difficult-to-follow) action sequences – smothered with humour and a smorgasbord of stars having a lot of fabulous time, then don’t see this.

It is great, tremendous fun. A perfect film for the festive and any other holiday season. Well written (by the same writers as the first, but they’re both even sharper and camper than with their first script), Ritchie once again proves that, without the clutches of Madonna, he is and has and does creative, fun, tremendously entertaining films as good as they get.

I loved the first film – saw it several times on DVD. This latest? Better – by far. There are those who were somew legalistic and conflicted in their praise (including the usually superb Philip French. Problems with it? Sure: there’s a mutual metaphorical intellectual masturbation couple of scenes between Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ (and, well, the world’s) evil nemesis, as he and Holmes verbally scale ever greater heights in praising the other. Two gigantic egos doing battle to praise the other out of actual narcissistic self-value; as if to say, I’m so brilliantly clever, I therefore can understand how brilliant clever you are. No YOU are clever. No, nay, YOU are more clever. And so it goes on. Tiresome and unnecessary. Flatulent and fatuous and unnecessary (as if F & F are necessary – ahem).

But, but:  It is hugely entertaining. Visually gripping, a rich plot, consistently fun and engaging performances and more crack-of-the-whip speed than it takes to switch on a light bulb. A thousand times. That’s it’s only other problem: Ritchie is known for his montage sequences and tremendous, sophisticated, clever action scenes, but the time between one split moment and another, even within a montage, is so fast, hundredths of a second, that one’s human eye (or, at least mine) can’t keep up with the visual escapades. This is doubly frustrating, because you want to see the action sequences and what fiendish elements that Holmes sees to be demonstrated in at least sufficient slow motion (is half a second per split screen really too much to ask?! – yes, it seems to Ritchie), yet you are prevented from doing so because everything happens so fast that you are unable actually visually to comprehend exactly what happens. This was the dominating flaw of the first Ritchie Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and the problem is exponentially increased to ridiculous proportions in this sequel.

Actions literally happen so fast that, even in supposed slow-motion (actually not true in itself, as the slow-motion is only a sequence between extremely fast editing that is less than a fraction of a second, preventing you from understanding exactly how marvellous, potentially, how superbly executed, the scenes are).

But, BUT! If you enjoy camp, fun, silly, clever, witty, lighthearted humour; if you appreciate the quality of two grown men who love each other yet cannot name it – their love – fully – but demonstrate it fulsomely in action, if you want action galore and more, then … God yes: I recommend this movie.  Tremendous fun, quick, sharp; it’s the fastest and most entertaining two hours and nine minutes I have ever passed in a cinema. Highly recommended.  If you can’t swallow camp, however, and silliness and tend to take Holmes as an icon beyond dispute or disrepute, then this film isn’t for you. Downey is Downey and what he does best (but the same as in every other film); Law plays foil to Holmes superbly; Rachel McAdams is convincing and Watson’s dog has more magic than Lazarus himself. And Professor Moriaty, as played by Lane Pryce (probably most familar to us in his fab role as Lane Pryce in the Mad Men series) is excellent; albeit Lane Pryce with a beard. If you delight in a delicious sense of humour and frivolity and just simply want to enjoy a couple of hours of maximum fun in the dark room of a cinema: this is that film that will deliver on such expectations. In other words: highly recommended. Have fun, laugh out loud on a few occasions (all the audience did, including me, when I saw it, and enjoy cinema as it is meant to be when it’s not serious but has underlying important messages: great entertainment, well done, well-told and well worth the price of admission.

Really? A clever, witty, FUN movie about the US Supreme Court?

Click on the image to buy (multi-region/US version only)

While some hold the view that Hollywood is mostly incapable of producing worthwhile, meaningful films on important matters, First Monday in October  is one of those glorious exceptions that would engage even the most cynical critics of Hollywood.  In other words and in this instance: Yes, this really is a clever, witty, fun movie on the  US Supreme Court.

Made in 1981, this wonderful film addresses serious issues in a way that is thoroughly engaging. The script and the acting are sharp, focused and entertaining and the plot is, interestingly, actually subversive of the view held in the 1980s by male-dominated politics – well nothing’s really changed on that score – ahem – that a woman shouldn’t hold a place on the US Supreme Court of Justice:  This fab film sets the record straight with a firm ruling, and makes clear that such a notion is absurd as it is sexist.

Not only is this a deeply intelligent, humane, funny, well-thought out movie – it is also, continuously, wonderfully engaging – most especially from the star performances of Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh – besides how it addresses the issues of politics, gender and power.

The great dialogue races along, all the while covering a range of subjects as they’re presented in legal form before the Court, in turn thereby addressing genuinely important matters, US capitalism and free speech among them.

First Monday in October is a joy from beginning to end (and, as with all great Hollywood movies, all supporting roles are entertaining and well-cast), besides being a marvellous way of learning about the machinations of the Supreme Court, constitutional politics and the  ‘battle between the sexes’.  The one disappointing note is that it’s only available to buy in the NTSC/US/multi-region DVD version – a great shame and it doesn’t seem to be online (please do let me know if you find a version!).

La Vie En Rose – A stunning movie of Edith Piaf’s life

Click on the image to buy the Region 2 DVD with free worldwide delivery. To buy Region 1, click the link at the end of this review's first paragraph

Unsurprisingly, yet entirely deserved, the actress Marion Cotillard, won the Oscar for Best Actress for her truly bravura performance, capturing Edith Piaf’s sad, tortuous, pained, joyous, complex life (the other Oscar won was for Best Make Up – I presume for when the creative talent had to age her dramatically, plus the colour of her skin from liver deterioration).  A powerful film (2007) about one of the most important 20th century singers, it captures your heart, not only by the quality of the performances all-round of a troubled artist and her peers, but also by the quality of the script by Olivier Dahan (also the director), and Isabelle Sobelman. (Click here to buy the Region 1 DVD.)

It’s a no-holds-barred interpretation of Piaf’s life; it includes Piaf’s most important performances, and makes clear from the outset how her own unique talents led her from the gutters/street life of Paris — typically the way she earned enough just to keep her friend and her going in food, wine and rent – to become the most celebrated singer of France.  Her first success due to Louis Leplee, a Parisian club-owner, played by Gerard Depardieu, fortunately not to be seen peeing anywhere or then later making a pathetic, self-excusing joke of it and himself (oops, sorry,went wobbling off-track there, but my eldest sister said if she was there when he did that, she would have knocked him out. Erm, you don’t want to mess with my sister — I certainly don’t; bless you, Cat, if you’re reading this — eek!), whose instinctive sense for real talent invites her to audition when he finds her singing on a street corner.  Of course, an honest film about Piaf must include her painful self-destruction, and this the film doesn’t shirk from nor does it exploit it salaciously/tabloid-style; the portrayal of Piaf apparently lacking any real core self-worth (contrary to appearances, her fame and some of her grandiose Diva-like gestures), is painful to witness.

However, where she seemed consistently to be resilient, defiant, strong and always true to herself was on stage, singing; in that specific and hugely important regard, it is fair to regard her as a feminist icon; through everything she experienced, she never let go of her voice, its passion and her commitment to singing despite how she felt or what else was going on in her life.  That in itself is remarkable and worthy of recognition as a powerful form of creative and determined self-recognition of value. Unfortunately, as with many truly talented individuals, as with anyone of us, frankly, one positive aspect of one’s life does not necessarily colour those other parts of ourselves that may be negative. After all, who among us can claim to be fully integrated and cohesive selves.  Yet this characteristic failure (a decidedly human one) should not deter us from celebrating Piaf’s incredible attributes as a true artist with a genuinely unique voice (and how refreshing to use the much overused/abused noun/adjective ‘unique’ and know its application here is sincere; unlike endless products and companies and rubbish modern-day ‘celebrities’ who have nothing in common apart from not being unique at all but the opposite).

Beautifully filmed, poignant,  touching with astonishing ‘renditions’ of Piaf’s singing, it is a modern classic about an incredible, enigmatic, troubled artist. It’s difficult to imagine a better film being made about Piaf’s life or a finer performance.  Mind you, I thought that when I first saw Capote (2005), with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s amazing interpretation, only to be then bowled over by Toby Jones’ version in Infamous (2006), the latter film also including a broodingly delicious, intelligently menacing, conflicted Daniel Craig in what I regard as his best performance to date.

Love, Hate, Robert Mitchum and The Night of the Hunter – a movie classic

It’s probably more than likely that most cinema goers now, especially those who love the sinister psychological horror/thriller genre, may view this 1955 movie as no longer carrying the shock or disturbance that it once did on release, even though it’s loosely based on a true story about a man who presents himself as a Reverend and, in his mind and social behaviour, seems to believe this genuinely, preaching the word of God in small town middle America. But all the while he’s in fact on the look out for widows with money, so that he can steal it and kill them. And this view exists, despite the novel being a bestseller at the time and beyond its publication date of 1953; and despite the fact that it was written by a respected and talented American novelist, Davis Grubb, and the novel has since been reprinted in various editions, continues to remain in print and is definitely worth reading.

“Love beats hate every time.” (Subtext: “I’d LOVE  to strangle your hateful neck with my bare hands. Ohyeh, Praise Jesus.”) Please note: if you click on the image, you’ll be taken to the famous scene in the movie in which Mitchum’s character explains the fight between “love” and “hate”.
Novelist Davis Grubb, taken in 1985

Besides which — given this is, primarily a movie appreciation (but what’s a movie without a great script and often a novel to base itself upon?! — the film continues to be recognised as a Hollywood classic and The Library of Congress has deemed it important enough to merit preservation of the original film stock; no small achievement in itself).

But why is the film so great?  Because of the wonderful dialogue, co-scripted along with Laughton — via a number of rewrites and detailed instructions from him — by the famous American writer, James Agee (author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), who was also the screenwriter for The African Queen).  For just one example of the glorious, compelling writing and acting and sinister undertones of the movie, just click on the DVD cover on the right; it’ll take you to what is probably the most famous scene in the film (note of course, it’s a sound file, if you happen to watch it at work!).

Even more impressive is the way the film’s made: the photography, the scene set ups, the camera angles, the amazing inter-play of light and darkness – all these are terrific.

And, without a doubt, it has one of the two most compelling performances that Robert Mitchum ever gave on-screen (the other, to me, being, Cape Fear (1962) [Region 2 DVD]; click here for a Region 1 DVD, which also is a Collector’s Edition with special features).  At the start of the film, the Reverend Harry Powell is in jail and his cellmate is telling him about a stash of stolen money he has kept hidden away on his farm. And so the plot kicks off, as Mr Powell gets a twinkle in his eye and you know where he’ll be heading next. It’s no coincidence that his character is both sinister and charming, subtle yet bold, dark and light and, yes, full of love and hate, his favourite words to preach upon and that are tattooed on his knuckles, one word on each hand, using them in over the top thespian fashion in what you know is a many-times recited miniature morality play. Nor is it a coincidence but rather a lovely symbolism, obviously, that, like the black widow spider, his evil character kills widow women. Mitchum’s is a genuine tour de force performance.  (Shelley Winters is also in it, but her acting is at the time, while conveying a certain naivety of the character and charm, is nothing compared to how brilliant she became as an actress over the next 10 years and beyond, marked especially by her vivid realisation of a selfish, vindictive, cruel mother in A Patch of Blue (1965), which was the benchmark role for her against which many of her later acting was measured against.)

Besides which, it is astonishing to think it was directed by an actor without any earlier experience of directing a movie before: by that truly brilliant actor, Charles Laughton (FYI, that link takes you to the official excellent site for Laughton – it’s very comprehensive in terms of its resources, links, etc.).  When you consider it’s a cinema classic and that it was his first film, inevitably Citizen Kane by Orson Welles springs to mind for the same reasons.  And yet typically Kane is ranked as the best film of all time and appears often as No.1 of the top 100, and The Night of the Hunter doesn’t appear anywhereat all in that list just linked.

Charles Laughton: One of the best actors of his or any other generation. A master of the art and genius one-time director of The Night of the Hunter. We love you, Charles!

However, at least there’s compensation in knowing that Laughton remains justifiably appreciated as one of the best actors of all time.  (I believe you can see some of his superb performances/films on YouTube, such as The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) (BTW, a far superior version than Brando’s in 1962), and Hobson’s Choice (1954).)

Laughton’s own intimacy with – and deep understanding of – acting and the cinema — of photography and lighting, especially— and his distinctive intelligence and sophistication – are all reflected through this film. It also remains a powerful, troubling one and, while not shocking to contemporary audiences in terms of portraying a killer/psychopath, it remains an accomplished, enthralling movie in its own right.  I commend it to all cinephiles.

Road Kill – A psycho thriller in The Hitcher movies tradition

Just when you thought it was safe to drive in nowheresville America ...You sh*it yourself because of a freakin psycho serial killer nut on your tail

This movie is an evolution of earlier films of this type, beginning with Spielberg’s first smash-hit, Duel (based on a script by the fabulously talented horror writer Richard Matheson, and starring Dennis Weaver in what is arguably his best role ever; utterly convincing as a mild-mannered travelling salesman who unintentionally angers the driver of a huge truck and for the course of the film, is on a hell-bound journey while ironically trying to escape this demon), as well as the classic first Hitcher film scripted by Eric Red, Hitcher (1986), which is a cracking whizz of a thriller, with Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and he also wrote The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting (2007), but sadly, even though it still has C. Thomas Howell (still looking good), this is far from scary and doesn’t merit comparing with the first.

In other words, adolescent innocents are stalked by a psychopath while driving on the highway. While this is a gripping movie — the tension, the acting, the dialogue all work — the one element that frustrates, overwhelmingly so, is the brother in this film, who brings on/invites all the trouble that later occurs.

For that reason, you’re continuously anger/p*issed off that the idiot older brother, has initiated the trouble because of his dumbass prankster behaviour. Having said that, it’s still a tightly plotted, high testosterone movie, with great performances by Steven Zahn — the idiot older brother/prankster — Paul Walker — convincing in his role, and has a certain charm on-screen that you can’t help but be drawn into — and the always gorgeous, multi-talentedly convincing Leelee Sobieski (and who, no matter how many years pass by, seems to keep her teenager looks; I think there’s a picture in an attic somewhere.  The psycho of the film is, appropriately, relentless and terrifying; like all psychos, bless em: nothing will satisfy him save death of those he stalks and, if necessary, himself. But he’s too clever by half.

The only really damning criticism of the film is that Steven Zahn/older brother is such an absolutely irritating frickin moron, So irritating, because you know he initiated the nightmare with his prank that he insists his younger brother should play, that the rest of the film remains on a level of tension entirely to do with the audience’s awareness that he‘s caused the problems in the first place. I just wish they’d found another way of getting chased and terrified by the psycho, because Zahn has a natural charm on-screen and it’s a shame to spend time during the movie thinking “turdbrain!” “MUPPET!”, and “why does his brother go along with this cosmic-sized a-hole?!”

But please do be reassured the movie is genuinely a fuel-driven, high-testosterone, relentless ride of tension and anxiety and the dramatic scenes, of which they are plenty, are played very well. (Interestingly, too, J. J. Abrams co-wrote this script; it must have been one of his early ones, but you can see already his understanding of dramatic plot developments and intense scenes; no wonder he’s since become one of the darlings of Hollywood – one thinks of his scripts for Mission Impossible 3 (Single Disc), Region 2, not viewable outside Europe  — this is the link for Region 1 DVD version, besides his originating Lost, the inexplicable worldwide smash hit series, which I did admittedly want to smash and hit often.)  Worth watching?  You betcha.  Just make sure you keep your seat belts on when you see it, because it’s one helluva ride.

Does he blow? Does she? Does it? Blow – a movie review, not p*orn sp*am

If you use DVD Region 1 (US & Canada only), you can click on the image here to buy Blow (as it were - ahem) from

Based on Bruce Porter’s enthralling tell-all biography of George Jung, drug-trafficker — Blow: How a Smalltown Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellin Cocaine Cartel and Lost it All  — Blow (2001) is a great film, both entertaining and informative about the drug culture that grew exponentially from the early 70s through to the 80s. For the convincing picture it portrays of this period, the DVD is worth the price alone…

If you use DVD Region 2 (non-US/Canada), then you can click on the image here and buy Blow (sniff, snort - oh, dear, sorry. Poor joke, again!) from

It is also one of Jonathan Demme‘s best directed films (you’ll recall, he’s likely still far better known for The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993) and the disappointing remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004)).

Arguably, this movie has Johnny Depp’s best performance to date and, through him and the film in general, you are shown the magic, wonder, riches and, ultimately, self-destruction, of the drugs trade. However, all of this is portrayed without any patronising judgement and conservative morality; the events and characters speak for themselves and that is the most damning evidence to convince and compel us to believe in what we are seeing on the screen.

As mentioned above, this film is based on George Jung’s life story, in which he tells you about starting off in drugs as a small-time dealer in marijuana and then, over time and because of his entrepreneurial spirit — is that rare in spliff smokers — or maybe I simply mean the get-up-and-go-drive-to-action?! — as opposed simply to getting the munchies, staring at the ceiling and laughing occasionally (so I’ve heard – ahem)? — he ends up being, it seems, the biggest dealer/importer of that drug in the US — from the Medellin cocaine cartel in Columbia — within a few years.  As the blogger thacourtjester comments below to this post, it seems Jung was the only non-Hispanic member of the cartel, which was radical to say the least during that period. (BTW, cheers for your input and corrections comments —clearly I must’ve been smoking the wrong thing…or, erm…maybe too much of the right thing, when composing this post!)

Thereafter, he began dealing massively in cocaine, which led ultimately to his downfall (not only has he spent many years in prison for the trafficking and dealing of cocaine, it seems he lost all contact with his only daughter, whom he loved dearly; apparently, according to Wikipedia, he’s 69-years-old now and is still serving a 15-year sentence).  His biography, listed above, is both compelling and sad (and no, I’m not saying he was justified in his actions!).

For those interested in films about this subject, there are several more, most of which are now regarded as movie classics, or certainly classics of this genre.  To save you time/avoid searching, each movie title (not listed in any order) is linked to take you directly to the relevant page on the International Movie Database (IMDB) website.

  • American Gangster (2007), with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, directed by Ridley Scott
  • Half-Baked (1998), with Dave Chappelle, Guillermo Diaz and Jim Breuer, directed by Tamra Davis. Cheers and thanks to thacourtjester for this fun recommendation
  • The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), with Frank Sinatra (probably his best performance ever) and Kim Novak, directed by Otto Preminger
  • Traffic (2000) with Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Benico del Toro (in fact, this movie really launched him into stardom), directed by Steven Soderbergh
  • Scarface (1983), with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, directed by Brian de Palma
  • Tell Your Children (1936), aka, Reefer Madness when reissued in 1938, it seems. This is a classic bit of religious conservative nonsense in the form of a movie – so listed simply for amusement or, perhaps, bemusement; it’s highly critical and fantastical on the dangers of smoking marijuana; not surprising, given it was made in 1936 and financed by a group of religious conservatives – I make this point without judgement; it’s only a matter of fact!  A cast of unknowns, directed by Louis J. Gasnier
  • Midnight Express (1978), with Brad Davis and Irene Miracle, directed by Alan Parker
  • Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978; talk about a massive contrast to Midnight in the same year of release!). This is an out-and-out zany, wackidoodle, yet often very funny comedy, with Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, directed by Lou Adler

Enjoy, you groovy dudes, you! And, BTW, if you have any favourite drug(s)-related movies I haven’t listed, please do let me know by zapping me a comment or a tweet and I’ll update the list with an acknowledgement of your recommendation.  All the best.

Thank You For Smoking – A great comedy movie on Big Tobacco and Washington, D.C. lobbyists

Go oooooon - have another one. It's good for you!

This is a thoroughly entertaining, fast-paced, well-drawn satire of the power of American lobbyists.  The script is sharp, snappy and fun, while raising important questions about the nefarious influence of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. In this case, the satire focuses primarily on Big Tobacco, through the spokesman Nick Naylor, played wonderfully by Aaron Eckhart, and complemented by the two other “MOD” squad members (Merchants of Death, as they happily refer to themselves; the two others being Maria Bello‘s character, a hardcore drinker representing the alcohol lobby, and David Koechner, playing the guns fanatic for the firearms industry. Both of them are entertaining and funny in their performances — especially because they play them so seriously).  So clearly it’s a great cast, which also includes fab performances by William H. Macy, yet again playing another loser role; this time as the senator for Vermont going after Big Tobacco (in an embarrassingly incompetent way), J. K. Simmons once again playing a hard ass so well (as Naylor’s militaristic boss), and Robert Duvall (utterly charming, ruthless, and a Southern Gentleman, who plays ‘the Captain’, the last almighty oligarch of Big Tobacco).

Jason Reitman’s film, for which he wrote the screenplay as well as directed is thankfully nothing like Juno the dull, pretentious movie with the enormously irritating and snotty female lead role, or Up in the Air, the half-baked, completely compromised satire on the insipid life of business. Perhaps because it is based on something substantial, namely the successful satirical novel Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley (ironic, given that he’s the son of the now-deceased American political neo-conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of The National Review and who helped Reagan come to power).

The film’s satiric quality and sheer value for entertainment has also made me relish the prospect of reading Buckley’s other satirical fiction. (Interestingly, like his father, Christopher also had a privileged education and began as a conservative (even being a speechwriter for George W. Bush in 1981), but over time his talents and politics turned to a criticism of the neo-conservatives, and he became known as an author of satires such as this, as well as God is My Broker: A Monk-tycoon Reveals the 7 1/2 Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth (note: God is My Broker is out of print as if 2011), Little Green Men, The White House Mess, and No Way to Treat a First Lady.)  And, the movie has given me hope once again in Jason Reitman: that he may come up with the goods and deliver another wonderful movie, rather than the fecal matter of Juno (real name it merits: Juno it’s Sh*it? Answer: Yes, I do, thanks) and Up in the Air (as in, Up its Ars*e).

Shooter, with Mark Wahlberg, or: Bloody hell – he can act (sometimes)

Yes, it is big (you should see my other one). Ohhh - the gun, right, right....

Not only is this a terrific action/thriller film, it’s one of the best – and most believable – conspiracy movies made in the 21st century. Surprised that Wahlberg could be in such a quality movie?  Well, not if you’ve seen him in some of his other polished performances, among them, The Perfect Storm (2000), Three Kings  (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997).

But here Wahlberg is centre stage and must carry this conspiracy movie about an apparent assassination attempt on the life of the American president). He does so with what appears to be effortless panache and focus.  It’s a powerful, compelling performance in which the character he plays, Bob Lee Swagger, is at the heart of a story about the abuse of American foreign policy/power.

Noam Chomsky: Not only is my mind the size of a frickin planet (which I must say is rather nice), but I'm charming and modest, too. Photo © John Soames

Based upon Stephen Hunter‘s Bob Lee Swagger series of thrillers, beginning with Point of Impact, the author himself acknowledges in one of the DVD’s fascinating bonus featurettes that his original inspiration for his novel was the Marine  Carlos Hathcock, a true-life, phenomenally accurate sniper.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into this thriller, but my impression is that the intellectual, political viewpoint that underpins this comes from the brilliant Noam Chomsky, in his well-researched, evidence-based critiques and examples of American imperialism, such as in Hegemony or Survival : America’s Quest for Global Dominance, and Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy; these viewpoints add substance to what otherwise may have been a lacklustre conspiracy thriller. Wahlberg’s performance is a marvel (there, I said it on record), and thankfully worlds away from his ridiculous role and his even more terrible muppet-like acting in the bottom-wiped-floating-tu*rd remake, Planet of The Apes(2001).This film is a genuine, legitimate and compelling interpretation of the use of illegitimate, unjustified force for the sake of ‘democracy’. It has the narrative drive you would expect of a thriller, combined with touching, sensitive moments, as exemplified by the role and relationships with, first, Kate Mara, the gorgeous actress’s endearing Wahlberg’s character’s saviour and subsequently love interest  is terrific; her acting conveying the hurt and pain of having lost her husband, Wahlberg’s sniper buddy in the film, while still behaving according to a set of beliefs that are honorably focused on an essential understanding of ethics. Her face displays an intelligence, sensitivity and complex anguish that arguably merited an Oscar in Best Supporting Actress role.  And there’s Michael Peña‘s compelling role as a junior FBI agent, who has the intelligence and wherewithal to distinguish facts from fiction (though Pena’s acting is somewhat cardboard-like, I’m afraid, his character is still interesting). It is dramatic, intelligent, well-written, -plotted, -thought through and thoughtful in its range of issues covered.  Amazing, eh? I confess I’ve watched it a few times (I know, I know – life’s too short and there are thousands of other things to read/see/do!) and — every time — I appreciate once again the quality of the sharp, fast dialogue, the acting, the plotting and the very satisfying conclusion. (It is, admittedly, very much a  Hollywood movie in the sense of Wahlberg’s glorified revenge.)  Shooter, then, is a bona fide US conspiracy action-thriller and is absolutely crammed with action, ideas and thrills.  Not only this, but the Special Features of the film give you a deeper insight into its background and inspiration for it.

I may be a Quaker hillbilly, but I'm gonna getcha. Golla, golla, golla!

I also found the stories about the real-life Gunnery Sargeant Carlos Hathcock to be truly fascinating in their own right and merit the price of the DVD alone, because Hathcock really did have the amazing skills Wahlberg demonstrates as the character Bob Lee Swagger, and he was a genuine, top-secret sniper for the US government — with, it seems, abilities in that role that were unprecedented. (Interestingly, on this last point, I was reminded of the 1941 movie, Sergeant York , as the named character — a Quaker pacifist who fights in World War 1, played wonderfully by Gary Cooper, and who is not only a soldier but also a truly brilliant marksman/sniper/shooter.)

If you fancy learning more about Hathcock, his story is told over two biographies, both of which are available now.  The first is Marine Sniper and the sequel is Silent Warrior. Click on the relevant image to find out more about each and/or to buy them.

Click on the image to find out more about the book and/or to order it with free delivery

This is an intelligent film that has all the elements you want in a thriller/conspiracy movie; yep, it’s the real deal: a movie that makes you think, feel and engage about geo-politics, American foreign policy, and the ramifications of all the above — while thoroughly enjoying yourself and being entertained at the same time as Wahlberg defies the odds, kicks a*ss and, of course, wins the day (and the beautiful, clever love interest — but of course!).

FYI, for those of you who wish to buy a copy of Shooter, with free worldwide delivery, then for the Region 1 DVD, click here; for the Region 2 DVD, click here.

Click on the image to find out more about the book and/or to order it with free delivery

Sideways – drink! arse! women! feck! And yes, it’s a great movie, too

Paul Giamatti - happy as a lamb (to the slaughter). Photo © Matt Baron/BEImages

As any fan/previous viewer of Paul Giamatti’s acting will know, no one does miserable/depressed/self-loathing/angst-ridden/complicated/face-like-a-slapped-bottom better than him. In fact, when you reflect on some of his notable roles, such as Lady In The Water (2006), where he plays Cleveland Heep, a miserable, depressed caretaker/superintendent; American Splendor (2003) — in which he plays Harvey Pekar, the depressed, famous underground comic book novelist — and his vastly underrated film, Cold Souls (2009), in which his role is a version of his ‘real’ actor’s self, I mean Paul Giamatti’s own, angst-ridden to the maximum degree from losing his actor’s soul, and neatly echoing Malkovich’s angst at the integrity of his own being compromised by others entering his own head, in the marvellous Being John Malkovich (1999) — well, he has clearly been chosen precisely for his ability to convey such negative and complex emotions; his face is a portrait worthy of a hybrid Hieronymus Bosch/van Gogh/Edvard Munch painting).

In other words, he is a master of complex, confused misery; there is no other actor I can think of who does what Giamatti does better than him.

Sideways - click here for's region 2 DVD offer
Sideways - click here for's region 1 DVD offer

Sideways (2006) is a lovely, touching movie, that uses as its springboard a venture into Californian wine country, as a holiday between two male friends, one of whom, a surface-only, self-centred and good-humoured guy who is about to get married and wants to have some last flings before doing so (Thomas Haden Church plays the role very well; he’s probably most well-known for playing the Sandman in Spiderman 3 (2007)), and the other, of course, is Giamatti’s character, an unpublished novelist, depressed and self-loathing, obsessive wine connoisseur, who still suffers from the divorce from his wife two years earlier.

The two female leads are

Virgina Madsen

Virginia Madsen, who plays the love interest to Giamatti’s character, and Sandra Oh,

Sandra Oh
Real men, real wine! (aka: just drink the stuff, mofos!)

who plays the sex/passion interest of Thomas Haden Church’s character. Both of them perform their roles with charm, a sense of humour and a touching, gentle and real grace, for characters that are lively, bright, fun and independently minded – my idea of a real feminist woman; this is refreshing, especially considering they could

have been treated in the traditional Hollywood manner of simply having to act as two-dimensional foils for and second-rate characters to Church and Giamatti; kudos to the male director/co-writer and co-writer/novelist of this film (see two paragraphs below for their names).

While some critics and bloggers have described this as a slow/or slow start movie, I would argue differently and say it’s a drama that builds gradually on a simple premise and, as it does so, it unravels/reveals a mesh of complex themes around love, desire, denial, depression, hypocrisy, friendship, self-respect, integrity and passion. It is a great complement to the road movie and the buddies genres.

I’ve now watched it a good few times, and enjoy it all the more each time. The dialogue is crisp and sharp, the acting from the entire ensemble is top-notch and it’s a joy, joy, joy to imbibe (never mind the wonderful education you get about some terrific Californian wines along the way). The director, Alexander Payne, and screenwriters Rex Pickett (from his original novel), along with Alexander Payne, and the cast, all deserve their accolades and are to be congratulated for such an utterly charming film. Highly recommended to all lost souls, lovers of the pressed grape, romantics at heart and/or under the table (after some great vino, of course). As some say in England when about to celebrate each other’s company and when drinking something fancy: bottoms up!

Memoirs of a Geisha – What makes it such a great movie?

The only thing that’s incomprehensible about Memoirs of a Geisha, the movie, is that it only won three Academy Oscars (for Art Direction, Costume Design and Cinematography). Anyone who watches this wonderful movie, will also, I’m sure, award it Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress (for Ziyi Zhang, who plays the Geisha at the heart of the film, and Michelle Yeoh, respectively; not only are they truly beautiful, but they are terrific actors), besides the fab performances of Ken Watanabe and Koji Yakusho), and the terrific, touching and – yes! – sentimental– see next paragraph! – musical score by John Williams.

If you have a Region 2/multi-region DVD player, click this image to link you to a Limited Edition special offer for a box set containing both the DVD (Region 2 only) and Golden’s novel. (With apologies to Region 1 users.)

The film is gorgeously sentimental.  Not, I hasten to add blech-icky-saccharine-swallow-a-cup-of-cold-sick-yuckiness-type sentimental. Yes, I confess I’m getting defensive here, because I think there’s a vogue for disdain and ridicule about the term and I believe this misconstrues its meaning.  The majority informal view, it seems, is that it means a somehow frivolous, fake and over the top expression of emotions, thereby demonstrating a shallowness and hypocrisy of personality; that there’s an absence of any real feeling or depth of such; that it comprises an excess of emotions, all of which are fundamentally piffle and surface stuff only (akin to the emotional verbal diarrhoea and personality of the monstrous Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice). But I prefer to side with the definition given by a hugely popular online dictionary – 50 million unique monthly users worldwide, besides other impressive stats about the use of their site –  as being expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia.  So, while there is vulnerability in such feelings, there is clearly no justification for the term and experience itself to merit ridicule. Instead, it is a genuine expression of powerful, deep feelings, as defined. Well, that’s what you experience with this film. Fair enough? Hope so!

Considering the power of the film to make you suspend your disbelief – a rare ability nowadays of many Hollywood films – so that you believe you actually are witnessing the real world of Geishas from the period of the 30s-40s – it is all the more remarkable that none of the writers/producers/director is in any way Japanese: they’re all American.  And I don’t mean this to sound patronising about the abilities of Americans to understand other cultures – eek – I appreciate some of the most famous anthropologists to date have been American. Anyway, as you’ll read in a few seconds below, two of the most important people to impact positively upon the film’s quality are also American (well, three in fact, when you take into count John Williams’ sumptuous music).  Moving on from Williams, since he’s now been cited, how then did the movie manage to do this? First, because it’s based on the wonderful, compelling novel by Arthur Golden, of the same title and, just as importantly, if not more so, is the influence that Liza Dalby, cultural consultant to Memoirs, academic and memoirist, had on the film.

Back in 1975, Dalby was the first female outsider – i.e., non-Japanese woman – in fact – yes! – she’s an American – ever to gain training as a Geisha. (The only other outsider accepted, it seems, was Fiona Graham, an English woman, who entered the world of the Geisha in 2008 – and you’ll see from that link that she was misrepresented as being the first outsider to do so in 400 years of Japanese  history;  in 2011 she was compelled to leave that world and role, apparently, due to ‘clashes with fellow members’.) Not only this, but Dalby went to Japan in 1975 because of her Degree studies in anthropology and because she wanted to research the world of the Geishas.  Not only did she succeed in being accepted into their world to do her research, she was also trained as and experienced the life of a Geisha, and even had a successful career as one. And, of course, all of that led to her highly successful memoir.

So because of her ability, her lived experience in that unique and closed world, and the huge benefit gained from her anthropological perspective, she was brilliant at giving sound advice, training and mentoring to the cast – most especially – and crew about all the elements that go into making a successful Geisha.  From manners, personality, dance, charm, singing, voice, body language and movement, conversation, the culture and atmosphere of entertainment, the patterns of life in an okiya, Geisha dress, make-up, etc., Dalby seems to know it all inside-out and back-to-front. As a result, she was really able to empower the cast and crew to learn about and appreciate the detail and depth of thought and action that goes into that world – if you watch the feature documentaries included with the DVD, you will see the justification of this claim – and thereby the movie is even more convincing than it may otherwise have been without her co-operation (because the world of the Geisha is still effectively closed to outsiders, despite some memoirs).  Thanks to Dalby’s mentoring, she ensures added depth and conviction to the acting, sets, cinematography and music.

The plot

The film focuses on the life of Chiyo, who we see at the start as a girl (nine years old), living with her sister, Satsu, their mother (who is dying from ill-health) and father, in an isolated Japanese village.  The father sells the two girls because he is too poor and desperate to take care of them.  Taking a long train journey, they arrive in Kyoto city and are then sold into two separate Geisha boarding houses in Gion, a renowned Geisha district. Over the course of the movie, we witness her many trials as Chiyo grows up, from being bullied and treated as a workhorse by Hatsumomo, a Geisha of the okiya, to facing the challenges of learning and mastering the ways of the Geisha in a ridiculously short space of time – thanks to being trained by Mameha, a famous Geisha, until Chiyo becomes the most famous of them all in Kyoto.

When Chiyo’s world changes because of the onslaught of WW2, we continue to follow her difficult journey until, at last, years later, she finds true love with a Japanese business man – the very same one whom she first met as a child living in Gion, when at that encounter she felt especially forsaken, sad, and hopeless for her future, and then for a time as a Geisha in training with Mameha, who introduces her to him and his co-business partner – and who was also the only one at that time to treat her with loving kindness.

So is it worth watching? Hello?! (ahem)

The acting, photography, pacing, script – all, and more – make this a sumptuous film to absorb, fall in love with, and absolutely sigh with happiness by the end. It is a touching, passionate (in every sense), romantic, wonderful love story, and for me it inspired the same intense emotions I experienced from reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (Wordsworth Classics), and her sister, Emily’s Wuthering Heights (Wordsworth Classics). The stunning visual beauty of kimonos of the Geishas and their remarkable talents and traditions are all amazing and fascinating to behold. In all ways it is a memorable film and is one of those rarities that, on its own – filmic – terms, not only complements and does justice to the original novel, but also transcends it through its impact on one’s other senses. So is this truly glorious, romantic, inspirational film, filled with tension, heartache, and – ultimately – love requited and achieved – worth watching? Ahem! And it’s much more, besides: it deserves the ultimate accolade of cinema: it’s a movie classic.

Want to learn/read more about Geishas, Japanese culture and society?

For those of you who, like me, absolutely love, love love Japanese culture and would like to learn more about their society, including the world of the Geishas, I would recommend the following excellent true memoirs and various cultural studies – books on art, literature, society and aesthetics. They’re all thoroughly enjoyable and full of insight; of course, this is a purely personal set of favourites, so I would welcome any feedback/recommendations from you about great books you’ve read that I’ve not included, if you can find a mo?). FYI, all links for the books are to Book Depository, the online book retailer, as it ships free worldwide and has an outstanding customer service (besides which, I can avoid the need otherwise to cite separate US/UK editions). As to editions listed, I have referred to those I believe are lowest in price while also retaining a durable quality. I hope this sounds fair.

Geisha Memoirs

Cultural Studies


  • Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology by Donald Keene (note: this was last published in 1994, so there are no authors published after that year. Importantly, however, in his lifetime, Professor Keene was one of the foremost authorities on Japanese literature and he is an excellent guide, with great taste and understanding
  • Two Japanese novelists to cite in particular, out of the thousands (sorry: simple explanation: it’s because they’re my two absolute favourites: they’re both extraordinary and both have been incredibly influential on Japanese literature at different periods, past and present):




  • In Praise of Shadows by Juni’chiro Tanizaki (an excellent, reflective essay by one of Japan’s most famous novelists)

Requiem for a Dream – Aronofsky’s brilliant drug addiction movie

Click on the image to buy the Region 2 DVD with free worldwide delivery

This powerful movie about drug addiction and materialist society is co-written by Hubert Selby, Jr. – and based on his own brilliant, harrowing novel of the same name – and director Darren Aronofsky.  Aronofksy is known for a number of distinctive films, including most recently The Black Swan, besides Pi, his first, best and most controversial film, besides this one here; The Wrestler (which gave Mickey Rourke his come back role and opened the doors for him to Hollywood once again, albeit in a limited fashion compared with his earlier success and fame); and, of course, the highly wackidoodle The Fountain).  Requiem for a Dream, both the film and the original novel are overwhelming, incredible experiences: nightmarish, and provocative, and always convincing about the world of drug-addiction (both illegal and legal). (You can buy the book with free worldwide delivery here and the Region 1 DVD with same delivery here. For a Region 2 DVD, just click on the image to your left. )

What makes this especially disturbing and powerful – though never exploitative or morally judging, like some movies about drug addiction – are the brilliant montage sequences that inter-play between the drama (trauma) of Burstyn’s story and three other lives. These are her son, played by the actor Jared Leto; his co-accomplice drug-dealing and drug-taking friend, played very well by the under-rated Marlon Wayans and mostly known for his silly Hollywood comedies; and a moving performance by Jennifer Connelly, drug-addicted, estranged from her rich parents, girlfriend to Leto’s character, and who gives in to sexual exploitation in exchange for the drugs she so desperately needs. Recommended without reservation; albeit with a caveat…It’s important to note that if you feel you could not cope with the ugly, underbelly reality of drug-addiction, then I’d stay well-clear of the film.

However, should you wish to – and I hope you do – there are three strong justifications reasons to watch it/buy it/rent it and know that it is truly one of the most stand-out films of recent years:

1. It has the most amazing, deservedly Oscar-winning performance for Best Actress, as performed by Ellen Burstyn and is truly one of the best performances ever in cinema, by an actor or actress. She is truly phenomenal as she portrays her character’s devastating downward psychological spiral as a result of doctor-prescribed diet pills. The only disgusting, shameful thing about the Oscars in this regard, is that in 2001, when Burstyn was up for nomination, bizarrely, incomprehensibly, Julia Roberts won for her pathetically easy role as a loud-foul-mouthed lawyer’s assistant in Erin Brockovich (understandably, some critics and bloggers referred to the character as Erin Brockobitch – perhaps a bit strong and it sounds cruel, but I think the term reflects the strength of feeling if injustice in awarding the Oscar to Roberts and not to Burstyn).

2. The ensemble cast works incredibly well together, from Jared Leto, to Marlon Wayans (who should have gone on to do to bigger and better, more demanding roles – he clearly has the talent), Jennifer Connelly (also her best role to date), besides all the supporting cast.

3. The original musical score (by Clint Mansell), cinematography (Matthew Libatique) and editing (Jay Rabinowitz) are truly outstanding. Clearly a tremendous amount of artistic dedication from all involved in the film and energy went into the structuring and filming, to make this the tour de force it undoubtedly is.

Sandra Bullock’s drug addiction movie 28 Days – a confessional review

I'm cute, have a wickle button nose, wear snuggly-wuggly baggy cardigans in lots of my movies. But don't let that fool you, cos I eat children innit.

I confess that the first pleasure I gained from watching this movie was enjoying Bullock suffer so much (but since it was due to drug addiction, I admit that sounds rather twisted/nasty). I also confess that Bullock is one of my least – no – the least – favourite actresses. Why? Because she’s so incredibly limited, including in her comedy, which mostly comprises her falling over herself and being silly/talking silly, clutzy, and acting through her cute button nose and obsession with baggy cardigans (the latter only when her character is in either a sorrowful or ‘look I’m cute and innocent’ frame of mind, that is. So most of the time, yeh).

However, this movie about Bullock’s character’s forced stay in a drug rehab centre in the US, while curiously unclear about being a satire/straightforward comedy on such a centre, and otherwise a celebration of the quirky (read: drug-addicted) characters, resolves into a film that addresses some interesting issues about different kinds of drug addiction. Having said that, I still couldn’t figure out by the end of the film if the ridiculous American-style chanting among groups in the movie, was sincere (i.e., worthwhile, meaningful) or the opposite. Having been a counsellor in a former life, all I can say is I hope that the chanting was a satiric take on such activity, as I’ve never known it to be effective (besides which, there are no studies, as far as I know, that confirm otherwise).

Still, it is genuinely charming to see Bullock’s druggie-character transition over time to an individual who not only is struggling, but confronts and deals with the trauma in her life (especially in regard to her helping others). On top of which, and this is the best part of the movie, you have the wonderful

I love people you know, but it's like sometimes I think a lot of them are turkeys. Why? Because a lot of them come up to me and are always saying "gobble, gobble". Go gobble someone else.

Viggo Mortensen, playing an alcoholic, yet also endearing, and – surprise, surprise (no! — ahem), Bullock and Mortensen fall in love with each other but – wisely – this is a matter of deep appreciation of each other, not fulfilment for each other’s sake.

Besides the love interest, all the “quirky” characters are well-drawn and amusing and involve strong actors in their own right. While I think it is, ultimately, an entertaining engagement about drug problems, as opposed to a warning or serious movie about the issue – in contrast, one thinks of Hubert Selby Jr’s and Darron Aronovsky’s film Requiem For A Dream (to buy, click here for the UK/Europe version, and here for the US edition). None the less, it still does take time to address seriously some of the issues involved. Especially, given the actors’ efforts to impress their characters as bonding with/as well as challenging each other. Also, especially, Steve Buscemi, impresses as the lead-drug-addicted counsellor. And Viggo is, frankly — as always — thoroughly convincing and gorgeous in his role. No matter whom he plays as a character (in Lord of the Rings, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence), he comes across, just as he does here, as beautifully genuine.

So: my last confession: yes, Bullock can act, but for me this movie is the only proof. And what a charming, thoughtful and even occasionally amusing movie it is. And, yes, it is consistently, intelligently entertaining. Recommended.