0 New

20 October 2016

Book Review: Serious Sweet by AL Kennedy

Ahead of the announcement of the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize next week, I'm posting reviews of two of the books that I've enjoyed from the longlist. This second review is for AL Kennedy's Serious Sweet, which was published in May by Jonathan Cape/Penguin Random House. I received a review copy of the novel, which was on the Booker longlist, via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

AL Kennedy’s novel Serious Sweet unfolds over the course of 24 hours in the lives of Meg, a bankrupt accountant and recovering alcoholic, and Jon, a senior civil servant still reeling from his divorce and on the brink of taking an action that risks his career for his principles. They meet because Jon, in an effort to ward off loneliness, has started a letter-writing service whereby he, using a pseudonym, writes letters to lonely women. He and Meg forge an unexpected connection, however, sensing that underneath their superficially opposing worlds, they have something in common.

It is as much a novel about city life, particularly in London, as it is about loneliness and human connection. The events of the day are peppered with vignettes of London life — the view from Telegraph Hill, in south London, where Meg lives; interactions with passive-aggressive taxi drivers; unremarkable Tube journeys — that give the novel a real energy and sense of motion, even though not very much happens. It’s a fun book to read when you’re in London: I was sitting on the 453 bus just as I was reading a scene that featured it, and the Charing Cross Road, London Bridge and South Ken are among the other locations that appear. 

In the wrong hands, this could easily slip into tedious mundanity but Kennedy has a sharp eye and her keen observations elevate her prose into something almost poetic. Although we only get a 24-hour snapshot into the lives of Meg and Jon, more of their back stories is revealed through flashbacks and reveries. The central tension of whether they will indeed be able to meet up on this particular day and, more broadly, whether they have a future together, is a surprisingly suspenseful one, in part because Kennedy’s two protagonists are, while far from perfect, utterly relatable and sympathetic.

You wouldn't call Serious Sweet a page-turner, but it is both serious and sweet, as well as warm, rich and intricate.

18 October 2016

Book Review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Ahead of the announcement of the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize next week, I'm posting reviews of two of the books that I've enjoyed from the longlist. First up is Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen, which was published earlier this year by Jonathan Cape/Penguin Random House. I received a review copy of the novel, which is on the Booker shortlist, via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

Eileen, the young heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel of the same name, is trapped. Trapped in her dead-end job at a youth prison; trapped in her mundane, small-town life; and trapped caring for her curmudgeonly, alcoholic father. “I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life — the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible,” she says. It is 1964 and in fact, Eileen is more Peggy Olsen than Joan of Arc. Eileen takes place during a single wintry week in which Eileen’s life changes irrevocably and she finally gets the opportunity to escape her Massachusetts hometown for good and seek the life she feels she has always deserved. “In a week, I would run away from home and never go back,” she announces early on in the novel.

The catalyst for this dramatic turn of events is the arrival at the prison of Rebecca Saint John, the glamorous and charismatic new education director, who comes with a degree from Harvard (not Radcliffe) and a feistiness that appeals instantly to Eileen. Before she meet Rebecca, Eileen has little to look forward to in life. Her father, a bitter ex-cop, berates her constantly and compares her to her older sister Joanie (“not a hanger-on like you, Eileen”). She pines for a prison guard named Randy, who she thinks is probably out of her league, and she shows some signs of disordered eating. But after they bond over combination locks of all things, Eileen and Rebecca become fast friends. Finally, Eileen thinks, someone sees her for whom she really is — and whom she has the potential to be.

As events come to a head, Moshfegh explores themes of ambition and identity, self-loathing and reinvention. Eileen is a complex character. At first she seems sympathetic: she has had a hard life, a challenging relationship with her father, and few close friends or family members. As the novel progressed, however, I had to wonder how reliable a narrator Eileen really is. After all, it soon becomes clear that a major and unforeseen event takes place later in the novel and Eileen’s narrative could be seen as her effort to justify or explain the actions she has taken — to whom, it is unclear; we only know that the 70-something Eileen is looking back on the events of that week. And many of Eileen’s remarks — the ‘Joan of Arc’ comment included — make it clear that she believes she is destined for a better life than the one into which she was born. 

Whether this should be seen as ambition and determination or ruthlessness is never really resolved, but despite my initial sympathies for her, by the end of the novel, I didn’t like her much and nor did I fully trust her spin on the events of December 1964. “We weren’t terrible people, no worse than any of you,” she argues, her previous disdain for the ordinary life she sought to leave behind thrust aside.

Nonetheless, Moshfegh’s novel is an excellent, meticulously detailed character study — and a portrait of small-town New England during a very particular period of US history.

17 October 2016

London Film Festival 2016 Part IV: Free Fire

Although Armie Hammer appears in both Nocturnal Animals, which I saw on Friday night, and Free Fire, which was last night's BFI London Film Festival closing night gala, the two films have little else in common. It's a sign, perhaps, of Hammer's versatility, and I enjoyed them both a great deal.

Free Fire is the latest film from Ben Wheatley and if you don't like movies that involve a lot of blood, violence and swearing, it probably won't be your cup of tea. However, the 90-minute shoot-'em-up, which unfolds entirely inside a warehouse near Boston in the 1970s, is tightly edited, thrilling and, frankly, hilarious.

The set-up is reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs and the plot is thus: Justine (Brie Larson) arranges for ne'er-do-wells Ord (Armie Hammer) and Vern (Sharlto Copley — pictured in my second red carpet snap above) to sell some weapons to Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy). Both gangs show up at a disused warehouse and before they have even got to the stage of trying to screw one another over, gunfire breaks out between two of the more junior gang members (Sam Riley and Jack Reynor). Before long, it's a full-on bloodbath and, given the number of bullet wounds within the first 20 minutes, I did wonder whether any of the characters would live to see the halfway point of the film.

There are all sorts of surprises and betrayals along the way. Will anyone end up with the suitcase full of dosh? Will anyone even survive? Do we even want any of the characters to survive? These questions miss the point somewhat: no one has any particularly redeeming features and it doesn't matter who, if anyone, 'wins' because the film, in its dark and gory way, is hugely entertaining. It's also very stylish with a great soundtrack and some very '70s hairstyles and costumes.

The characters think that they are so smart, cool and hard, but in fact, Wheatley frequently shows them for the greedy, impulsive fools that they really are, and there is a strong sub-text of irony and self-knowing running throughout the film. There is a particularly brilliant use of John Denver's Annie's Song in one scene that in itself generated much laughter in the audience. Again and again (and not for the first time in a Ben Wheatley film), we have to ask ourselves: should we be enjoying this quite so much?

Copley, in particular, steals every scene he is in — so much so that I was desperately hoping for Vern to make it through to the end. Vern gets all the best lines, but Copley's comic timing and delivery are so impeccable that he turns even lines like, "redeem yourself and get that case", into something so funny that you question whether you should really be laughing quite so hysterically amid such intense violence. Hammer's performance is also very impressive. His character, Ord, originally seems to be the straight man, but as the film progresses, his funny, stoner side comes out too, and he too has wonderful comic timing. Murphy is as good as always, conveying so much with just a glance, and Larson, as the only woman in the film, more than holds her own against all the Y-chromosomes.

Last night, Wheatley was joined on stage at the Odeon Leicester Square by most of the cast (there are only 14 people in the cast) — Larson was the notable absence — and from the way they were jostling one another, laughing and taking selfies, you could tell how much fun they had making the film, which was actually filmed in Brighton. I won a ticket to the gala in the BFI ballot (having already spent all my pennies on three other tickets, I still felt I couldn't turn it down) and I was really glad to be in the front row. It was a great end to a wonderful London Film Festival experience.

15 October 2016

London Film Festival 2016 Part III: Nocturnal Animals

After tonight's UK premiere of Nocturnal Animals at the London Film Festival last night, I saw someone tweeting that Tom Ford's talents are wasted as a designer. I don't agree with that and yet it is remarkable that Nocturnal Animals is only Ford's second picture. It is literally breathtaking, beautiful and devastating with a superb performances from Amy Adams, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Before heading into the cinema, I managed to snap a few red carpet shots, including of Mark Kermode interviewing Ford and Taylor-Johnson; co-star Armie Hammer and his wife; and the arrival of Amy Adams (wearing Tom Ford, of course).

They were joined on the stage by one of the young co-stars, Ellie Bamber, to introduce the film along with London Film Festival Director Clare Stewart. Ford didn't say much about the film: "it should speak for itself," he explained.

I hadn't read much about Nocturnal Animals beyond the description in the LFF programme — and after reading the blurbs about dozens of films, I didn't remember a great deal. This actually worked in my favour as Nocturnal Animals is the kind of film best experienced from a blank slate. Although, as usual I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, it's hard to discuss this film without going into some of the details about the plot so you may wish to click away now if you want to see this film completely fresh.

The opening scene is one of the most arresting I've ever seen: visual striking, it is at once brash and enigmatic, beautiful and sad — much like the film itself. It turns out that the sequence relates to the new opening at Susan (Adams)'s gallery. She and her businessman husband Hutton (Hammer) live in a beautiful house in Los Angeles and appear to have a perfect life and yet, she confesses to her friend at a party, "I feel ungrateful not to be happy." Her friend asks if she still loves Hutton but she never gets the chance to answer.

The following morning, Susan receives a package in the mail from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) — a proof copy of his first novel, entitled Nocturnal Animals. "I didn't know he could write," sniffs Hutton, before heading off to New York. Susan, meanwhile, begins to devour the book, and the film splits into three at this point, alternating between Susan's life in LA and her reactions to the novel; the dark story-within-the-story of the novel; and flashbacks to the earlier years of Susan and Edward's relationship.

In the novel, for reasons that remain unclear, Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) drive off in their car through rural Texas late at night. But, after a terrifying car chase, they are driven off the road by a gang of young thugs headed up by Ray (a terrifying Taylor-Johnson), who clearly have far worse things than carjacking in mind. Later, Detective Bobby Andes (an understated but brilliant Shannon) must try to get to the bottom of the crime — and to ensure that justice is served.

Although the tone is more languorous than fast-paced, Nocturnal Animals remains supremely gripping as we try to unravel the various mysteries of the film and determine exactly what point Edward's novel is trying to make. Fragments of dialogue — sometimes even single words — seep from the flashbacks into Edward's novel and cause present-day Susan substantial pain. Watching her react to chapters of the novel immediately after we have, although with a very different perspective, is narratively very interesting. Adams excels in this challenging role, conveying so much just with her eyes. There are also some fabulous cameos from the likes of Michael Sheen (Susan's friend's gay husband), Jena Malone (a fellow museum board member whose 'creative' outfit trumps even her Hunger Games costumes), and Laura Linney as Susan's overbearing mother ("Just wait," she threatens. "We all eventually turn into our mothers.").

Visually, the film is as gorgeous as you would expect from Tom Ford, cutting from the twinkling lights and modernist architecture of LA to sunrise in the Texas desert. Abel Korzeniowski's haunting score could have slipped right out of a 1950s film noir and is the perfect complement. I left Nocturnal Animals feeling emotionally bruised (in need of a stiff whiskey, like Susan) and yet wishing I could watch the film again; I think I would get even more from it the second time. Complex, beautiful and tragic, I think it might make my top five films of the year.

12 October 2016

The Caffeine Chronicles: Crol & Co

When the betting shop on the corner of Dunton and Lynmouth Roads closed down earlier this year, I crossed my fingers that this part of Bermondsey would finally get a more interesting proposition. The shop is on my commute home from work so I was able to follow the redevelopment in real time and before long, it became apparent that I was in luck. Crol & Co opened its doors at the end of September and when I stopped by last weekend, it was already looking lovely. Isn't the font on the windows particularly awesome?

Crol & Co is the name of owners Nico and Vanessa's online vintage and antiques business and their new Bermondsey coffee shop has the same name. Usually, the biggest upselling risk in a coffee shop is that you will end up upgrading to a single-origin coffee or buying a cake, but at Crol & Co there is a good chance you will go in for a coffee and come out with a new (to you) antique!

By the time I arrived during the early afternoon on Saturday, the lunch rush had left some of the food offerings in short supply — a good sign of what a busy first week they had. There are a few small tables inside and another on the pavement (which also has a place to leave your bike); the latter was a less appealing prospect when the autumnal rain set in. The furniture is mismatched and you can pretty much pick your furniture era — either side of mid-century. I opted for a cosy armchair and then went to the bar to order.

The coffee is from Grind and there are just espresso-based drinks on offer for the time being. I ordered a macchiato and an avocado toast and then went to admire some of the art on the walls. The 'hipster' in the frame is actually Nico's great-great uncle and the picture of the gorgeous Belgian orchards used to hang on his wall.  It's great to get a story with your coffee.

My macchiato (£2) was good, with a strong, smooth shot of espresso at its heart. I don't think I've tried Grind's espresso outside of their own cafés, but the barista pulled a nice shot. The avocado toast was also excellent: a generous serving, with little dishes of chilli, salt and pepper that allow you to season to your taste. The rest of the food menu is fairly minimalist for now, with a couple of quiches and a couple of tortillas.

Most of the cakes had already sold out (Nico was, Vanessa told me, on a cake run) but luckily for me, there were still a few slices of millionaires' shortbread left (£2.50) — these were particularly delicious and, unusually, came infused with rosemary, a pairing that worked very nicely.

Crol & Co was pleasingly busy even on a rainy Saturday. The location is a little out of the way, but only five minutes' walk from the numerous buses of the Old Kent Road and Southwark Park Road/Grange Road. It's also right on the Waterloo–Greenwich cycle quietway (hence the bike rack at the front). Although there are a few coffee spots on Bermondsey Street and, of course, closer to the river, the Monmouth roastery, it's wonderful to have such a lovely café even closer to home. I hope that its arrival will encourage other small businesses to come to the area.

Crol & Co. 77 Dunton Road, London, SE1 5TW (Tube: Bermondsey). Twitter. Instagram.

10 October 2016

London Film Festival 2016 Part II: Manchester by the Sea

Much as I usually dislike spending time in Leicester Square, the BFI London Film Festival is one notable exception. As soon as I arrive for my first film gala each year, I find myself swept up in the excitement of the festival. I booked three tickets this year and then was pleased to find I had also won a ticket to the closing night gala, Free Fire, in the ballot. Usually, the events I attend are split between the Vue cinema and the big, showy Odeon Leicester Square, but this year, they are all in the latter. On Saturday night, I went to two events, including the surprise film, which I've already blogged about. First up, though, was the European premiere of Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea.

I timed my arrival well and spotted both the gorgeous Michelle Williams and the film's lead actor Casey Affleck on the red carpet. Naturally, my LFF excitement levels immediately rose quite dramatically.

I had managed to book a seat in the third row — a little closer to the screen than I usually prefer, but it did mean that when Lonergan, Williams, Affleck and several producers took to the stage to introduce the film, I had an excellent view. Talking about the writing process — and the difference between writing and directing — Lonergan noted that it was amazing how you could be writing a film on a boat outside Manchester-by-the-Sea, a small town on the Massachusetts North Shore, and then a year later you're making a film about a boat outside Manchester-by-the-Sea. "It's the kind of film people should see," Lonergan added. "Even if you don't like it."

Well, although I thought that Lonergan's last film Margaret was interesting but flawed, I was very taken by Manchester by the Sea, a heart-wrenching family drama that leaves its audience as battered as the boat that gets so much screen time. Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, who is working as a janitor in Boston. He is good at his job but hates small talk and yet, as we see in a serious of vignettes, he is forced to try to listen to his clients' personal problems as well as to try to fix their plumbing. Some of these interactions are quite amusing (Lee overhearing a client ask her friend if it's wrong to fantasise about the man fixing her toilet), but the overall impression is that Lee is not a happy man. He seems to have particular problems letting people get close to him.

Then, a phone call bearing tragic news brings him back to his hometown, the eponymous Manchester by the Sea, where he must take care of his teenage nephew Patrick (the excellent Lucas Hedges). Uncomfortable in his father-figure role, Lee struggles to offer Patrick the support he needs, especially as his return to Manchester has awakened all sorts of demons from his past. Through a series of masterfully constructed flashbacks, Lonergan gradually reveals what happened to Lee. It isn't fair to say that he is reflecting on happier times — one has to wonder whether Lee is even capable of being happy — but he has a good relationship with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and his three young children, plenty of friends and a supportive older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). So where did it all go wrong?

Although Manchester by the Sea could benefit from a little tightening up, the story kept me gripped, partly owing to Lonergan's subtle show-don't-tell storytelling techniques: for example, the recurring presence of Lee's three framed photographs, whose contents are never revealed, and the origin of the name of the family boat. In less skilful hands, these plot details would have been handled through clumsy exposition, but they feel all the more poignant here. Lonergan's treatment of sound is also excellent: from the loud, jarring organ music, to the mobile phone vibrating during a funeral, to the complete lack of audible dialogue during the funeral scene itself, leaving the audience to imagine what might have been said during these critical interchanges.

It is also a very visceral film, both emotionally and physically. A lot of the characters are in pain — there's a particularly nasty moment where Patrick bashes his head on the freezer door; we see it coming but are powerless to stop it, just like the emotional deluge that is about to break free. But despite the dark themes, Manchester by the Sea has some great comic moments. There are some funny lines — Hedges, in particular, has great comic timing — that help to lighten the tension.

But it's Affleck who holds all of this together. His Lee is broken-hearted and just plain broken: he wants to do the right thing but isn't sure that he can anymore. Afleck flips with ease from the lighter quips ("those are the Misery Islands — where your aunt Randi and I got married") to frustrated bouts of hot-headedness (he has a nasty habit of punching people in bars). This is a very on-the-nose portrayal of a man who has lost (almost) all that is dear to him and for whom life holds little attraction. His chemistry with both Williams, who is terrific in her very limited screen time, and Hedges what could otherwise be a brutal and devastating film a strong emotional core.

9 October 2016

London Film Festival 2016 Part I: Surprise Film

My 2016 BFI London Film Festival experience started last night with a double-bill of Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea (review to follow) and the surprise film. Although the surprise film has disappointed me more often than it delighted me in the five times I attended between 2009 and 2014, it's still usually my favourite event of the festival. There's just something very exciting about going to the cinema when you don't know what you're going to see. Last year, I was in Lisbon during the surprise film screening, so I was glad to get a ticket for this year's event.

I didn't have time to do any more online research as to the likely candidates for the surprise film than a quick scroll through the #surprisefilm hashtag on Twitter. Looking through people's guesses online often creates overly high expectations, I have found, but on the plus side, at least if one of the suggested films gets picked, you might know a little about it — and the running time, which is quite crucial when you've just got out of another 2h15 film and there are no working female loos in the Odeon Leicester Square!

London Film Festival Director Clare Stewart and her colleagues were having a little fun this year ahead of the reveal ("did you book a surprise film?" / "I thought you were going to do it") but they must have known they were onto a winner. What kind of audience would be disappointed with the selection of a Clint Eastwood film in which Tom Hanks plays the 'hero of the Hudson'? That's right: this year's surprise film was Sully. It was a safe choice, for sure, and as someone who has sat through epic Chinese-language martial arts films and Michael Moore invectives in past surprise films, I was very happy to get a preview of an upcoming blockbuster, even if it is one that is already on general release overseas.

As for the film, it was an exhilarating ride and I enjoyed it a lot. It tells the story of Captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger (Hanks), the US Airways pilot who famously landed a plane in the Hudson River after bird strikes took out both engines; notably, all 155 people on board survived. The story reached the UK, of course, and indeed, I flew into New York just two weeks after the 'water landing' ("it wasn't a crash," Sully insists), apparently without concern, but I don't think I ever heard much of the follow-up story.

Eastwood's film opens as Sully has already made the landing but is having nightmares in which he is flying a plane right through the middle of New York's Midtown, crashing into the skyscrapers in horrific fashion. Meanwhile, as the whole nation hails him as a hero, he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are called into meetings with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who say that the evidence suggests that after the engines failed, Sully could indeed have landed the plane safely at La Guardia airport or another nearby New Jersey airport. Sully initially is confident that he did the right thing in the situation — his actions based on four decades of flight experience — but the doubts soon begin to creep in. Is he really a hero or is he a fraud?

In many ways, Sully has more in common with David Fincher's The Social Network than with, say, Robert Zemeckis's Flight, a hugely fictionalised version of the story, in which Denzel Washington's Whip Whitaker, manages to land a rapidly disintegrating plane (coincidentally, I also saw this film as a 'surprise film' of sorts at a press/bloggers film showcase). A lot of the film focuses on Sully's NTSB hearings, there are a lot of lawyers and there's a lot of flying/pilot jargon. Eastwood turns this into compelling cinema viewing partly thanks to the quietly convincing performance of Hanks and partly thanks to the various flashbacks we get of the ill-fated flight. Even when you know the outcome, those scenes are still nail-bitingly tense, as is the final run-in with the NTSB where Sully finds out whether or not the human simulations will back up his actions as the right call.

The film is also surprisingly concise for a Clint Eastwood film, running at just 1h36. At times, it veers into melodrama: the scenes with some of the passengers on the flight (the inevitable family who very nearly missed the flight, for example) were a little weak, although I see that there had to be some way of showing the impacts of Sully's actions on the people he saved. I preferred the shots of the real Sully and the real passengers in the end credits — this was a nice touch.

In real-life, the interactions with the NSTB took place over almost 18 months, Aaron Eckhart told us in a Q&A after the film, but were necessarily condensed for the film. Everyone knows the story of Sully, but not what happened with a safety board. Eckhart himself didn't get the chance to meet the real Jeff ("he's an active pilot so he has a busy schedule"). "Sorry for not being Clint Eastwood or Tom Hanks," he quipped  when he came on stage (we'd been told to stay in our seats at the end of the film). I don't think anyone was disappointed! He also confirmed that Tom Hanks was indeed the nicest man in Hollywood.

Overall, Sully is a compelling portrayal of a hero — a remarkable man who was exceptionally good at his job. Eastwood's storytelling is often understated — apart from during the fight scenes — but engaging and Hanks's performance, while subtle, perfectly conveys what the real Sully must have gone through as his reputation, his career and even his conscience are put at stake. Thanks, BFI: I approve of this surprise film choice!