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Stan & Ollie

This love-letter to Laurel & Hardy, the greatest film comedy double-act, features remarkable performances by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. Devotees of the beloved duo, who will have watched Stan & Ollie’s films countless times, will be astounded by the authenticity on show in director Jon S. Baird’s elegiac and moving dramatisation of their 1953 tour-of-Britain swansong.

The actors go beyond mimicry to capture much of the pair’s soul and comic chemistry. Prosthetics can only get you so far (Reilly’s double chin and Coogan’s extended ears), but their eyes, voices and movement are uncanny. At times it feels like watching the real thing. As their English promoter (Rufus Jones) says, after Laurel & Hardy perform an inspired ‘double door’ routine, “that was pure magic!”

We start in 1937, on the set of Way Out West, when Stan & Ollie were the biggest stars in Hollywood. The pair are captured performing their immortal dance routine (surely the inspiration for La La Land’s star-crossed lovers). But all is not well. There are wife problems, gambling problems and money problems. Stan, the writer and creative force behind their films, wants them to own their pictures, but Ollie is more easy-going, happy to stay hitched to studio boss (and, we learn, Mussolini fan), Hal Roach.

Cut to dark and rainy Newcastle, England, 1953. Laurel & Hardy book themselves into the Bottle & Glass Inn, where the welcome is less than warm. The receptionist says that she thought they’d retired. At first their British tour attracts meagre crowds in second-rate halls. Time has moved on – they have been overtaken by Norman Wisdom and Abbott & Costello. The comedown is cruel.

But as our aging heroes are forced back together, performing highlights on stage from their films (“boiled eggs and nuts! Hmm!”), they re-discover the old magic. By the time they reach London their publicity stunts ensure a sold-out fortnight at the Lyceum Theatre. Then their wives arrive at the Savoy and old tensions re-surface.

Now we get two double-acts for the price of one: in Stan & Ollie Ida (Nina Arianda) and Lucille (Shirley Henderson) get as nearly as many laughs as their husbands. Laurel’s wife is a no-nonsense Russian blonde who recalls the hard-boiled dames from L&H’s heyday; Lucille is petite and squeaky-voiced, perhaps channelling Hardy’s wife (Stan in drag) in Twice Two (1933).

‘The Boys’ fall out and ‘Babe’ Hardy has a minor heart attack. Rather than cancel the last dates of their tour, the promoter suggests that Laurel team up with Nobby Cook, an unfunny English comedian. But disaster is averted and there is a heart-warming finale in which love and talent triumph.

It might be too much to hope that a new generation flock to see Stan & Ollie and are inspired to seek out the real thing. But Baird’s film honours their memory beautifully. A little too quiet, post-war drab and melancholy for a young modern audience, perhaps, but Coogan and Reilly have worked wonders in bringing Laurel & Hardy to life.

There is a lovely technicolor scene from Stan’s imagined film ‘Robin Good’, in which Ollie (Friar Tuck) falls into a pond. The long-suffering look he then gives to camera and the unhurried way he spouts water from his mouth are pure Oliver Hardy. I never thought anyone could get close to capturing Ollie’s portly elegance, his baroque hand gestures and good-humoured stoicism, but, in those moments, it is truly like we are watching a long-lost Laurel & Hardy film. Magic.

Shoplifters

This understated, moving and humane Japanese drama (direct translation: ‘Shoplifting Family’) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018 and it’s easy to see why: the film gets under your skin and stays with you long after the credits have rolled. Writer-Director-Editor Hirokazu Kore-eda inspires naturalistic and nuanced acting from his ensemble cast and creates several memorably cinematic scenes amidst the small-scale canvas of domestic life.

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Shoplifters feels like a Ken Loach film in its compassionate and unsentimental depiction of poverty. It also put me in mind of The Florida Project (2017), which shows us ‘diamonds in the rough’ of breadline America.

The Shibata family appear to be an unusually happy family, doing all the fun things that many families do – going to the seaside, watching fireworks, making a snowman and slurping noodles. But here the grown-ups teach the kids how to shoplift, rather than sending them to school. “We’re connected but we’re not normal,” says father figure Osamu (Lily Franky). This is an unconventional family unit based on love and choice, rather than bloodline, and Kore-eda asks us to ponder the question: would we be happier if we could pick our own family?

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Shoplifters starts with Osamu (Lily Franky) and his ‘son’ Shota (Kairi Jo) stealing groceries in a supermarket, using a practised routine, syncopated to the film’s music. On the way home they encounter a skinny little girl who is seemingly living on the street. As it is freezing cold, Osamu invites her to stay the night at their house.

The next day Osamu and his partner Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) try to take the girl, Yuri, home, but overhear her parents arguing, the dad saying “I didn’t want to have her too”. As a result, Yuri stays with them, despite concerns that the outside world will judge them to be ‘kidnappers’.

The Shibata family squeeze into a cramped and cluttered Tokyo apartment which resembles the back room of a charity shop. Osamu and Nobuyo work part-time and grown-up daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) is a sex worker, but they supplement their income by shoplifting. “Whatever’s in a store doesn’t belong to anyone yet”, says Osamu. This ramshackle family are free spirits and live in apparent harmony and kindness, in contrast to other more traditional families depicted in the film.

As the disturbing truth about the Shibata family gradually emerges, Kore-eda overturns our preconceptions and challenges us to judge his characters’ behaviour. We might to agree with Nobuyo that “giving birth doesn’t automatically make you a mother.” ‘Grandma’ Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) says she chose to live with Nobuyo because she didn’t want to grow old on her own – “Sometimes it’s better to choose your own family.”

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In her last film before her death Kirin Kiki is a warm, wise and twinkly granny, who gets many of Shoplifters’ best lines. After Aki models her latest top, she asks “so side tits are popular now?”

In a film that is mostly confined to interiors, its standout scenes include a train ride to the seaside and the aerial shot of the family watching fireworks. Here we do not see the fireworks at all, only upturned faces responding to them. As ever, Kore-eda is unconcerned with pyrotechnics; he is more interested in how his family interact with each other and the outside world.

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The Witch Hunters (Zlogonje)

This charming, moving and funny Serbian/Macedonian children’s adventure has been winning awards at film festivals around the world. It is both fresh and old-fashioned, dealing with disability in a no-nonsense way, while harking back to remembered childhoods of home-made train sets and outdoor play.

The Witch Hunters is a long way from the CGI bombast of Hollywood’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. At heart it is a gentle, quirky comedy about friendship and imagination, about how children create their own stories and folklore from the mysterious and baffling behaviour of adults.

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10-year-old Jovan (Mihajlo Milavic) has partial cerebral palsy. His condition has shaped his everyday life and made him think of himself as invisible to others – particularly his parents and classmates. In the world of his imagination, however, he is The Shade, a masked superhero in a blue cape who can vaporise the bullies who call him “gimp.”

With a bit of help from mum Jovan has created a fabulous model city (Shade City) in his bedroom, where he can retreat into his fantasies. With its glow-globe and primary-coloured Tintin book spines, Jovan’s room will arouse nostalgic childhood feelings in viewers of a certain age. He plays Monopoly with his parents (“the market forces are fierce,” says dad) and gets hold of a pair of old walkie-talkies, but he also plays screen games such as ‘Salem’.

Jovan’s life is shaken up by the arrival of a new classmate, Milica (Silma Mahmuti), who sits next to him in class. At first he is put out, drawing a line down the middle of the desk they share. But as he becomes friends with the brave and determined girl, she breaks down the barriers that Jovan has built around himself.

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The two unaffected young actors are a joy together and a smart script gives them some great lines. In Jovan’s nightmare at the start of the film a gang of ruffians chase him into a run-down factory. One says “I didn’t know you degenerates were allowed out after dark.”

Sitting together in his bedroom Jovan asks Milica, “What’s a degenerate?”

“Someone who drinks urine,” she replies.

When Jovan takes Milica to look in the cellar of his dead grandmother’s house, they find a playing card with an old crone on it. Milica tells him about her stepmother, who she says is a real witch. She might look like a real woman, but Svetlana has bewitched her father: “no one can fall in love twice – it’s not natural.” She makes him drink potions and do yoga exercises. She writes symbols on the walls. But “the worst thing of all is the black salt” that she sprinkles on his eggs.

“Old people are such fools,” says Jovan.

Milica invites Jovan to join her on a real-life adventure – to save her father from this witch. The quest offers Jovan a reality beyond anything he could have imagined, but to become a real superhero Jovan must first learn to accept himself for who he is.

Frustrated that he cannot climb a few steps, Jovan tells his therapist at the hospital that he wants a new body. The therapist tells him that his condition cannot be cured, but it can be improved by exercise. Most importantly, Jovan can’t do it by himself – he needs to accept help from other people.

As Jovan and Milica embark on their night-time mission, he gets on a bus for the first time with a bit of help from a burly biker. The two children sit and watch the night-time world go by, and their smiles are priceless.

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The Guilty (Den Skyldige)

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This stark and gripping Danish thriller succeeds in packing a punch, despite self-imposed limitations. The Guilty confines its visual action to a single location – the interior of a police control room in which officers responds to emergency phone calls.  It is like an audio play, with ‘voices off’, one that becomes psychologically darker and more complex the longer we spend with the main character, Asger (Jakob Cedergren). It has also been described as a cerebral action film, and the audience is forced to listen more intensely, to imagine what is happening off-screen as if we are listening to a radio drama.

The Guilty brings to mind Steven Knight’s Locke (2014), another claustrophic ‘audio’ film, in which Tom Hardy’s character juggles multiple unfolding dramas over his car phone. Locke, though, has movement, and the occasional cinematic flourish – spangled motorway lights blurring in the rear-view mirror. In The Guilty there is no escape from a static location and there is little in the way of visual distraction. As two parallel dramas threaten to overwhelm him, Asger retreats to an inner office room and closes the blinds. We are, effectively, in his head, and it is getting very dark in there. If Samuel Beckett had scripted a thriller for cinema it would have looked and sounded something like this, but there would have been more props and black comedy.

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The film begins with Asger fielding a couple of ‘trivial’ calls, one from a student freaking out after taking drugs, the other from a man who has been mugged after visiting a prostitute in Copenhagen’s red light district. “This phone duty is shit,” says a colleague. But Asger takes his work more seriously when he receives a call from Iben (Jessica Dinnage), a mother who has been abducted by a violent partner, leaving her six-year-old daughter and baby alone at home.

Asger tries his best to resolve the situation, separately counselling the distressed Iben and her daughter. “I’m with the police,” he reassures them, “we’re protectors,” but this confident assertion is tested as we learn more about his own situation. Asger has a court case the next day and a witness who is worried about sticking to the script. He apologises to his colleagues for his behaviour – “not just today but recently.” As the film goes on we gradually learn who is ‘guilty’, and there is a jaw-dropping twist.

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Director and co-writer Gustav Möller pulls off the seemingly impossible trick of engaging his audience for 85 minutes without resorting to eye candy or any other distraction. The music is minimal, the camerawork unobtrusive. Jakob Cedergren plays Asger as a blank page which is filled in bit by bit. His face is in our faces most of the time, but it is not a particularly interesting or expressive one. A light sheen of sweat on his forehead is the only clue to the mounting stress he is under. As our imaginations follow the offscreen drama we are forced to direct our own version of Möller’s script in our own heads.

Monsters, Myself and AI

Homerton College, Cambridge, October 27th, 2018

As part of events to mark Homerton College’s 250th anniversary its Principal, Professor Geoff Ward, took part in a discussion on Monsters and Artificial Intelligence, exploring what it means to be human. He was joined by Dr Beth Singler, Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence, and Dr Melanie Keene (History and Philosophy of Science).

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photo Louise Walker

Professor Ward, who is also a literary critic and novelist, began by discussing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 200 years old this year. He marveled at the sheer longevity of the monster, created by a teenager, observing that “there’s a Frankenstein for everyone.” After publication the novel was picked up quickly by the London theatre and a silent movie version came out in 1910. Boris Karloff is the stereotypical lumbering monster (1935) but in the text Frankenstein’s creature moves at superhuman speed. In all these versions the monster appeals to us because it is fighting back and “expressing our desire to release our spleen and anger.”

The “first big gothic novel was written in very gothic circumstances,” said Ward. In the summer of 1816 Mary Shelley, husband Percy, and his best friend Lord Byron were staying in a villa by Lake Geneva. The weather was “frequently apocalyptic” due to the worldwide effects of a major volcanic eruption in Indonesia (Mount Tambora) the previous year. Forced indoors, Byron proposed that “they each write a ghost story.” Mary’s contribution was inspired by a terrible nightmare about a monster coming alive.

Beth Singler started her presentation with a quote: “intelligence is knowing that Frankenstein is not the Monster; wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster.” In the realm of Artificial Intelligence there is a tension between greater intelligence and life, between creators and their creations: are robots tools or slaves? What are the values of the people exploring and developing AI? Many worry that they are playing God.  Religions now exist that ‘worship’ AI – Way of the Future in Silicon Valley, for example.

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photo Louise Walker

Dr Singler showed us a montage slide of ‘distubing children’ from films such as Children of the Damned and The Shining. She talked about the myth of The Changeling, an idea that seeks to explain why children might behave in a disturbing way (they have been replaced by fairies). Reproduction or Production? asks Singler, quoting Kahlil Gibran: “they come through you but not from you,” (On Children).

Although Mary Shelley came from a radical background, Frankenstein is quite conventional, said Ward. Its’ message is: ‘if you go too far, you will be caught out.’ It is a general warning about transgressing or overreaching in science, for those who run away from the consequences of their creations. Once you have created, you cannot un-create, and there is a danger of being pursued by your creation if you abandon it.

Singler wondered how humans could get the ‘shoulds’ into AI, asking “where do the transgressions lie for AI beings?” Who is the regulator now that it is no longer the church? The state? Or science?

Dr Keene queried whether advanced AI was ‘unnatural’: “is this just one step beyond?” In a world that already has ‘virtual assistants’ such as Amazon’s Alexa, with its ‘pleasing’ female voice, people are trying to develop more advanced forms of AI that can have relationships with humans. But now that the genie is out of the bottle there is a fear of being ‘out-thought’ by our creations.

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photo Louise Walker

To illustrate this unease about AI, Singler cited ‘uncanny valley’, an aesthetic idea from the 1970s, which suggests human-like robots elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. She gave the example of the CGI used in the film The Polar Express, which many viewers thought ‘too creepy.’

Questions from the audience started with one about Stephen Hawking, whose “last thoughts were fears for the future of AI,” according to the questioner. Was our dependency on technology and gadgets making us less intelligent? Singler thought not – it was “changing the form of our intelligence, rather than depleting it.” We adapt, said Ward.

Another member of the audience asked whether the notion of conscience was a unique characteristic of our biology. Singler said it was also a social thing that we develop with each other. In Frankenstein, the monster starts out ‘innocent,’ a noble savage’ who wants to like humans and be liked in return, but it does not have a social network to develop any interaction.

Debates are happening around art and music – a work of art made by AI was sold by Christie’s in October for $432,500. If you take a look, it might make you feel a bit ‘uncanny’ and bring out your latent luddite tendencies (https://www.christies.com/features/A-collaboration-between-two-artists-one-human-one-a-machine-9332-1.aspx).

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The panel ended the discussion by conjuring up the fascinating and frightening  prospect of us evolving into a fusion of human and machine, a cyborg that can ‘terminate’ our own death.  New AI might even be able to solve problems like global warming and inequality.

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old is a fascinating and eye-opening documentary about World War I, which uses new technology and expert editing to illuminate the experience of ordinary soldiers fighting on the Western Front. With its colourisation and steadying of shaky old black and white film, its dubbing of sound effects and snippets of dialogue, Peter Jackson’s film humanises these men, bringing them back to life.

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Director Jackson was given around 600 black and white silent films from the Imperial War Museum archive, much of it previously unseen, which he has spent the last four years working on. The film is narrated by the voices of 120 veterans taken from BBC and IWM interviews recorded in 1964.

They Shall Not Grow Old has been shown in UK schools and selected cinemas before being broadcast on the BBC to coincide with Armistice Day. Children may already be familiar with some of the gruesome details of life in the Trenches from reading Horrible Histories – the lice and the rats, the mud and the latrines (“to have a clear-out was terrible”) – but they probably won’t have seen dead bodies swarming with flies in such clarity.

It is unlikely that today’s teenagers would volunteer for such a conflict, but back in 1914 many young men were keen to escape their boring jobs. Only those between the ages of 19 and 35 were supposed to be eligible, but many 15, 16 and 17 year-olds joined up. If a volunteer confessed his real age, he was likely to be told by the recruiting officer: “you better go outside and have a birthday.”

We follow the soldiers’ progress as they are given piecemeal clothing and hard, ill-fitting boots (“I used to urinate in them and leave it in overnight,” says one veteran), then disciplined and marched into shape by sergeants. By the time they pushed off to France they were all “glad to be going.”

As we approach the devastation of the Front the black and white film becomes colourised and sharpened, though the palette is a muted one in the mud of the trenches, emphasizing the redness of poppies and blood. Amidst the continuous shelling the soldiers got used to the “nasty, sickly smell of death”. Some describe how they killed Germans, making a distinction between the “civilised” Bavarians and the “cruel” Prussians. “A lot of the Germans were good, decent people,” says one.

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When there is a “big advance” and the infantrymen are ordered to go over the top, Jackson uses monochrome comic-strip images to evoke the combat. But the words of the servicemen are most effective, describing the “inferno in the air and in our heads” and the machine gun bullets strafing them “like hailstones … we were literally walking over the dead bodies of our comrades.”

When the end comes both sides agree “how useless war was”, questioning why it had needed to happen. The Germans “couldn’t care less who won, as long as the war was finished.” When the last gun fell silent there was no celebration, just a feeling of relief. Nearly one million British and Empire servicemen were killed between 1914 and 1918; estimates of total military and civilian deaths range from 15-19 million.

The surviving soldiers wondered what they were going to do next. They returned to mass unemployment and a widespread lack of understanding of what they had been through. “We were a race apart from the civilians,” says one. “You couldn’t convey the awfulness of the war. It developed into something ghastly. How did we endure it? The fear of fear. And not wanting to let comrades down.”

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Robert MacFarlane – “The Undiscovered Country of the Nearby”: Walking into Wandlebury

West Road Music Hall, Cambridge, October 18th, 2018.

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photo by Louise Walker

“We can compare him a little to Sir David Attenborough,” says Ros Aveling, chair of Cambridge Past, Present & Future, introducing writer and academic Robert MacFarlane. “You can only be disappointed by what comes next,” he replies, going on to quote Dorothy Parker about meeting her heroes: ‘if you like duck paté, don’t meet the duck’. “I am your duck,” he declares, smiling.

Macfarlane shares with Attenborough a passion for nature, conservation and activism. Both men are natural communicators, evangelical about the benefits of enjoying the great outdoors. They are boyish in their enthusiasm, have a great sense of fun, and wear their formidable learning lightly.  Macfarlane peppers his talk with quotations from writers and artists, but he is never stuffy. He has a forensic intellect and his diction is fast and precise, but he remains down-to-earth, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye whenever he goes off on a tangent to discuss such subjects as people leaving their ‘doggy bags’ hanging from the branches of trees: “I heard them called ‘Farages’.”

As a patron and volunteer for CPPF, MacFarlane has been invited to talk about Wandlebury, the country park on the edge of Cambridge, near his home. He uses ‘Wandlebury’ as a metonym for the chalk upland landscape stretching from the Beechwoods to Gog Magog Down. It is a place that he has “slowly come to love,” somewhere that he has done a lot of thinking, philosophising and remembering – a place full of history and mystery.

Wandlebury is part of the “bastard countryside” that MacFarlane discusses in his book Landmarks (2015), the transit zone between city and country. To him, Wandlebury is “not quite pastoral or bucolic, not exactly picturesque or sublime”, but instead somewhere that takes time to learn to read. A lover of mountains, it took him 15 years to appreciate ‘the Cambridge Himalayas’, but now finds the Gog Magog Hills and environs “one of the most remarkable places that I know, a miracle of archeology, history and nature.”

‘Place is always moving, like a sleeping cat,’ quotes MacFarlane from Japanese sound artist, Toshiya Tsunoda. He has come to watch the sleeping cat through repeated visits, closer attention and deeper knowledge. ‘Close looking’ informs both his writing and outlook. He admires the “lynx eyes” of Dorothy Wordsworth and cites three writers who have helped him ‘see’ Wandlebury: J. A. Baker (The Peregrine (1967); Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain, 1977) and Roger Deakin (Waterlog, 1999; Wildwood, 2007).

Baker’s book is “a dazzling masterpiece” which struck literary Britain like a peregrine from out of the clear blue sky” when it was published in 1967. These falcons have come into the city from Cherry Hinton chalk pits. He shows us a photo of a peregrine next to two eggs that he took through a high window at the University Library.

MacFarlane nudges his own English students towards the wildlife that few are aware exists on their own doorstep. Trips to Wandlebury leave them de-stressed and “buzzing.” It is a great place for children, he says. Many teachers say that it is their favourite school trip, one in which they watch a resistance to nature crumble. He shows us a photo of a scowling boy “with the attitude of a 15 year old”  – his five year old son – and tells us he “ran into the woods, got lost, thought a wolf was coming and had a panic attack.”

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photo by Louise Walker

Children are voyagers, says MacFarlane – they are excited by the fact that “these paths have been walked by the legs of Roman legionaries,” and they are “making poems of our places all the time.” The artwork on the cover of The Gifts of Reading (2016) is inspired by the beech tree avenue at Wandlebury which leads to the Roman Road. All proceeds from this book were donated to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station. Among the many charities he supports, Macfarlane is patron of Gateway to Nature, a Lottery-funded mental-health initiative designed to improve access to nature for vulnerable groups and individuals.

Looking to the future, with Cambridge booming, “we need to foresee and anticipate the city’s growth … we need to think of Wandlebury, not as an island, but as a connective place.” MacFarlane would like to see a footpath between the Beechwoods and the Roman Road. More generally, “exciting things can happen if the right people seize the initiative. Green places bring us recovery and sanity.” He concludes with a quotation from American writer Wallace Stegner:

“Such places offer a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures. A part of the geography of hope.” (Wilderness Letter, 1962).

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photo by Louise Walker