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.