Film No 16 (2015) : Parkland

parkland 1I was only an embryo on 22 November 1963 but one of the questions I’ve heard that many people with memories of that year can usually answer is ‘where were you when JFK was shot?’ I can certainly remember my own reaction on hearing of the untimely death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Such momentous events are carved into our national consciousness, regardless of our political beliefs or views on the monarchy. Both deaths have spawned endless conspiracy theories and controversies which continue to form the basis of popular speculation.

‘Parkland’ examines the assassination of JFK from another perspective, namely that of the staff at the Parkland hospital to which the President was taken after the shooting. The film is not an attempt to unravel any of the conspiracy theories, but instead depicts the events immediately following the assassination. Zac Efron is a credible Dr Jim Carrico, who continued chest compressions for several minutes after the President was obviously dead. It took a senior doctor to call time on the resuscitation attempts.

There are several unsettling vignettes during the film. For me, the most shocking was when Jackie Kennedy unclenches her hand in the ER. She hands over a small, bloodied chunk of skull and brain tissue. It was later claimed that it was this which she had tried to retrieve from the back of the moving car, just seconds after the fatal shot. Then there are the frantic attempts of Kennedy’s entourage to get his coffin onto a plane; unbolting seats, sawing down a partition and straining to push the heavy casket up the steps. Even hours later, several of the men are still wearing their bloodied shirts from the scene of the crime and the hospital.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the shooting, throwing an ordinary family into confused disarray. Oswald’s mother, Marguerite (Jacki Weaver) is portrayed as a very peculiar woman, whose concerns about money seemed oddly misplaced given that her son stood accused of murdering the President. Far more palatable are the reactions of Oswald’s brother, Robert (James Badge Dale) for whom I developed some sympathy, especially when he had to call upon a group of press photographers to act as pall bearers at the scene of his brother’s burial.

Peter J. Ling, biographer of John F. Kennedy awarded ‘Parkland’ 3 stars out of 5 for historical accuracy. I found it highly watchable despite its somewhat morbid subject matter, and I am sure I picked up some of the more elementary facts surrounding the assassination, about which I had been woefully ignorant. Now I just can’t help getting sidetracked by the conspiracy theories.

Book No 18 (2015) : The Tent, The Bucket and Me

the tent 2A few months ago, a lovely friend of  mine had a great idea for a fun night; DIY Desert Island Discs. Using the popular Radio 4 programme as inspiration, we guests all arrived armed with our favourite 3 music tracks, a luxury and a book to take with us to our imaginary desert island. One of the guests cited Emma Kennedy’s ‘The Tent, The Bucket and Me’ as her book choice. I’d never heard of it but she was so enthusiastic about it that I downloaded it on to my Kindle.

Autobiographical, the book recounts the exploits of Emma Kennedy and her parents, Brenda and Tony, during the 1970s. Whilst holidaying in the UK and further afield, the author’s family falls prey to a bewildering number of unlikely mishaps, the recounting of which lends a kind of slapstick to the anecdotes. The Holiday Gods are always on their tail.

Be warned – this is a seriously funny book. One of those that you can’t read in a public place or when you are drinking cola, for fear of snorting it out of your nose when you laugh.  Emma Kennedy captures the scenarios brilliantly, usually putting herself at the centre of the shenanigans, with a healthy dollop of self-deprecation. I am not a fan of camping and this book totally vindicates my opposition to sleeping in a damp tent, eating Spam and playing gin rummy whilst trying to ignore the gang of rowdy teenagers smoking hash outside. Whether you camp or not, anyone who has had a disaster on holiday will sympathise with the Kennedys.

And in case you are interested, my Desert Island choices were:

Music:
Can’t Take my Eyes Off You : Engelbert Humperdinck
Headlights : Eminem feat. Nate Reuss
Luxury : Clinique ‘Aromatics’ perfume
Book : A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Book No 17 (2015) : The Miniaturist

miniaturistJessie Burton’s debut novel ‘The Miniaturist’ has reached the Sunday Times No 1 Bestseller list twice, and was the Waterstones Book of the Year 2014. Surely it must be exceptionally brilliant? Well, meh. To be honest, the book left me distinctly underwhelmed. I’ve since had a look around t’Internet at other reviews and opinions and I am not alone. There is a prevailing view that the book promises but does not deliver; it starts off interestingly but peters out towards the end, leaving readers dissatisfied. I recommended the novel to a book group and hadn’t quite finished it when we came to discuss it, but my friends’ views tallied with most others.

It is 1686: Petronella (Nella) has been married off to a wealthy merchant and is sent away to his house in Amsterdam to begin married life. She finds herself in a rather unconventional household, living with her sister-in-law, Marin, and two servants. Soon after her arrival, Nella is presented with a dolls’ house as a wedding gift from her husband. She commissions some pieces for the house and is surprised by the miniaturist’s uncanny knack of capturing the likenesses of the people and objects within the young bride’s dwelling. Although not unkind to Nella, Johannes, her husband, does not seem keen to consummate the marriage and is often away from home. On a surprise visit to Johannes’ place of work, Nella discovers the reason for his aversion to intimacy. When Johannes’ secret is discovered by others, his life is put in danger and Nella’s strength is put to the test. Meanwhile, the enigmatic miniaturist remains hidden but continues to produce perceptive and prophetic replicas.

The storyline and setting are unusual, which is one of the charms of the book, giving some insight into the lives of early Dutch traders. Sugar had only just begun to be available and it is interesting to see how what we see as a commonplace ingredient was treated with such reverence. But these details were not enough to sustain my interest as I did (extremely unusually for me!) manage to guess the main plot twists. The relationships within the household are complex but ultimately unconvincing; I didn’t sympathise with the characters’ dilemnas.

Dolls’ houses actually freak me out. I can’t explain why, but I think it might be something to do with a now-forgotten experience during a visit to Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle when I was a child. I am not a fan of miniatures in real life and, sadly, Jessie Burton’s work failed to persuade me of their attraction.

Film No 15 (2015) : Les Miserables

les mis 2You know when they do those Christmas special programmes, the ‘Top 100 Top Gear Moments’ and the like? Well, I hope that when ‘The Top 100 Best Movie Moments Ever’ is made, that a scene from the 2012 screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’, is right up in the top 10. My vote would be for Anne Hathaway as Fantine singing ‘I Had a Dream’. Although I liked Susan Boyle’s BGT rendition, it wasn’t a patch on Anne’s.

I first saw ‘Les Miserables’ at the cinema and having watched it again on Netflix this week, I think it needs a big screen to do it justice. It is an epic movie with virtually no spoken dialogue. Instead, the plot is progressed via the action, the lyrics of the songs and a musical script. Not a format everyone enjoys, but the musical score of the film is so strong that I was swept along.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has served his sentence for stealing a loaf of bread and is released on parole. But he skips parole and chased through the years by police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean succeeds in making some sort of life for himself and rises to the position of mayor in Montreuil. When Fantine, a worker in one if his factories, is driven to prostitution and later dies, Valjean agrees to take care of her daughter (Cosette). The course of Cosette’s life does not run smoothly; she falls in love with a young revolutionary called Marius (Eddie Redmayne) whose eventual predicament leads Valjean to an act of courage and devotion which ensures the young lovers can be together.

The themes of the story are biggies; isolation, fear, love, poverty, freedom. The only slight reprieve from the gloom comes from the grotesque but nevertheless comedic characters Mr & Mrs Thénardier (played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen).

Other than that the film is, as the name suggests, miserable. It is difficult to pinpoint an occasion when it would seem like a good idea to settle down to watch 158 minutes of toil and trouble, when there are so many more light-hearted options available. But despite the melancholy, or maybe because of it, ‘Les Miserables’ is compelling as it examines the bleakness of the human struggle. It is one to watch – but probably not if you have just had a row with your partner or opened your bank statement. Unless, of course, you just need a really good wallow!

Film No 14 (2015) : Still Alice

still aliceSomewhat tactlessly, I bought a copy of Lisa Genova’s ‘Still Alice’ for a friend’s birthday; as the subject matter is a 50-year old university lecturer who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, it was no doubt a little thoughtless. However, it’s a great read. The novel is extremely poignant and moving; the film adaptation probably more so given the number of us in the audience who spent at least part of the showing with tears rolling unchecked down our cheeks.

Alice is a university professor and she has a particular interest in the acquisition of language. It is a cruel twist of fate when she starts to forget words; how to choose the appropriate one and the meanings of long-familiar ones. As her faculties begin to falter, she seeks the advice of a hospital specialist who diagnoses Alzheimer’s Disease. The film depicts her gradual deterioration from a high-functioning, articulate academic to a shadow of what she was. By the end of the film, Alice is almost completely dependent upon her family for her care and support.

Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the eponymous Alice and it is easy to understand why. She plays this part with such respect for Alice, so that the character’s dignity is never diminished, despite the cruel progression of the disease. There are moments of heart-wrenching sadness, hence the communal tears. The main resonance of the film is the insight into the fact that Alice’s debilitating illness is not confined to the older generation. When we left the cinema, there were some volunteers (also crying) collecting for the charity ‘Young Dementia UK‘. What a worthy cause.

Book No 16 (2015) : Harvest

harvestJim Crace’s ‘Harvest‘ has been hanging around on my bookshelves for a couple of years; it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013. But every time I am in that delicious limbo, choosing between the end of one book and the start of another, it always seems to get passed over for something more engaging-looking. This time round I decided to give it a go and didn’t regret my decision. This was an interesting read, ostensibly with a very small focal point but actually taking in a wide scope.

We live in a time where the progress of technology threatens us; as more and more occupations become mechanised and humans are replaced by automatons, sometimes we mourn the passing of the ‘olden days’. Well Crace’s tale is set in those days, where the threat of advancement came in the form of sheep. Yes, those white, slightly stupid creatures that we rather take for granted were once a sign of change.

In the village where Walter Thirsk has lived for twelve years, the subsistence agriculture which supports the community is about to give way to wool production. But within the village itself, the inhabitants are busy bringing in the harvest, with its associated rituals and celebrations after a lot of hard work. Into the midst of this arrive three strangers, whose advent coincides with a destructive fire in the barns of the landowner, Master Kent. The visitors are blamed and the two men are imprisoned in the pillory for a week. It is over this week that the whole novel takes place, culminating in a series of events which leave the village decimated.

Ever since I have lived in a village myself, my awareness of the turning of the seasons has been more heightened. The changes in the fields, the landscape and wildlife around my home has given me a greater appreciation and admiration for Mother Nature and all her helpers. This interesting novel did make me consider our ties to the land and the way in which, for the majority of us, those bonds have probably been broken.