Alastair Sim – Mark Simpson (2008) – A Real Life Review

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Perhaps the most surprising thing about this biography of one of Britain’s most loved film stars of the 1950s is that there’s really not an awful lot to know about him. Mark Simpson portrays him as an intensely private man who shunned anything to do with the celebrity trappings of showbiz, spurning all autograph hunters and rarely giving interviews. Nowadays, it would not be possible to become a household name and demand (and get) such privacy but Alastair Sim’s world was a very different place.

Born in Edinburgh in 1900 the young Sim was a keen public speaker and became a teacher of elocution, eventually lecturing at the university. He gave this up to set up his own drama school and ended up coming to London performing verse plays and hoping to become a West End director but instead finding more stage and then film work. Part of his reticence towards publicity, Simpson suggests, might have something to do with his wife, who was 14 years younger than him and who he met when she was a young looking 12 and he a very mature looking 26. There was no evidence of impropriety between the two but the budding actor would have been very aware as to how this would have looked to outsiders, and particularly, sections of the press. In fact, Alastair and Naomi Sim were fairly inseparable until the end of his life.

Simpson is keen to play down any salacious suggestion from his subject. Sim was also a strong mentor to the young George Cole, with Cole living with the family and regularly working with Alastair. Simpson airs the rumours that fluttered around this but doesn’t dig too far or feels that there was anything behind it. Anyone looking for scandal isn’t going to find it here.

alastair2Alastair Sim & George Cole from “St Trinians”

Most of us will know Sim from a run of films in the 1950s which have been regularly shown on television ever since. From this it’s possible to think he was on screen more than he actually was. He was actually more prolific  in long-forgotten films from the pre-war years which were being churned out to fulfil quotas for British films in British cinemas. Such were the lasting popularity of his work in his golden years that I realised I had seen virtually all of them, despite them being from before I was born. “St. Trinian’s”, “The Happiest Days Of Your Life,” “Scrooge”, “London Belongs To Me”, “School For Scoundrels” all allowed Sim to play Sim (even in a dress as headmistress Miss Fritton) and this is just what the British public and I loved. In that sense he is very much the male counterpart of another great British eccentric, also famed for playing variations of herself, Margaret Rutherford, and when the two are paired together it is an absolute joy.

Alastair4Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim

I did feel that Simpson’s biography is a little under-stated but sources are inevitably limited for a man who was said to be “uninterviewable”. I’m actually glad that there wasn’t scandal. I wanted my admiration for this unique actor not to be tainted in any way. He was a complex, aloof man whose dogged obstinacy got in the way of his career and yet was one of the great warm-hearted eccentric characters of mid-twentieth century British cinema.

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Alastair Sim was published by The History Press in 2008.

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Crazy Rich Asians (2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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In my review of Kevin Kwan’s debut novel posted this week I said I thought it was ;

“an obvious choice for a film adaptation if Kwan’s balance between the slight plot, winning characterisation with great cameo parts and sheer opulence is maintained.” 

Yesterday I took my chance to find out.  I rarely go to the cinema, probably once a year is a reasonable estimate, despite me having the two-for-one-deal for Tuesdays and Wednesdays from those pesky meerkats.  We have two cinemas on the Isle Of Wight, one the multi-plex Cineworld in Newport where I can use my two-for-one vouchers and The Commodore in Ryde which is continuing to battle alongside the big chains with its staff of what seemed like yesterday one person and cheap entry prices.  I paid £4.50 a ticket for the afternoon showing of “Crazy Rich Asians”, which makes it comparable with the two-for-one at the other cinema which was showing the same film but at a less convenient time.

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The Commodore, Ryde -a cinema from another era! (Free bingo available)

There were just four of us in the auditorium to witness Kwan’s novel come alive on the screen, which might have been the smallest audience I have been in ever.  (The other couple did not even sit next to another but had a couple of seats between them which meant when they talked they had to do so across a bigger space, reminding me of one of the main reasons I don’t go to the cinema that often- the other main reason being the film trailers for forthcoming productions which end up showing so much of the film that when you watch it on DVD some six months later you end up believing that you’ve seen it before).

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I did enjoy the film but the richness that I wrote about in Kwan’s cataloguing of the wealth is largely lost in making a fairly standard rom-com.  What I really liked about the book was that it dealt with a level of richness that was beyond the norm, so much so that it became unobtrusive, the Youngs were so wealthy that normally wealthy people did not know who they were.  When Rachel Chu visited her college friend’s opulent mansion in the book her family did not know of the Youngs nor of the grandmother’s vast estate that was situated in their neighbourhood.  In the film they knew all about the Youngs.  I was looking forward to seeing this extra level of wealth portrayed but obviously it couldn’t be conveyed successfully, so we got a super-wealthy family rather than a super-super wealthy and throughout I felt that the richness was toned down.

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The book offered a wealth that we had never seen before in its description of the stag and bachelorette parties and the wedding that provides the main focus.  In the film these came across as less splendid, even a touch tacky.  The only thing I’d never seen before was the bride and attendants wading through a water-filled aisle.  Who wants that?!

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Stars Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding

Other than that niggle (quite sizeable as it was my fascination about this that made me want to go and see the film) it more or less had everything I was looking for.  There was a playing down of some of the characters – the subplot of Astrid and her husband’s philandering was much pared down and you did not get that same great sense of family and the inter-relations between the characters.  One character who had their part beefed up was Rachel’s friend Peik Lin played by American rapper Awkwafina.  She, together with her trashily rich dysfunctional family stole the show as far as I was concerned.  They lit up every scene they were in.  Constance Wu was spot-on as Rachel Chu.  She brought a maturity to the part (Wu is 36) that lifted it above many rom-com heroines.  I had never seen her before but Time magazine have her listed in their current 100 Most influential people in the world list, so a great choice to play Rachel.  British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding was also spot on to play Nick Young and his dazzling handsomeness shone through even in a cinema of four people.  Although how Rachel did not know he was from at least a well-off family with such a posh British accent was a little mystifying.

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Awkwafina, Constance Wu and Nico Santos 

Kwan’s vision of the film has hopefully been rendered successfully with its all-Asian cast.  He reputedly optioned the film rights for $1 with the proviso that he remained in creative control after a suggestion to turn Rachel into a white American rather than Chinese-born American.  The whole thing is light and frothy, with a plot as slight as the novel but like the book it managed to win me over.  In the book v film argument I would say that this time it is the book that has the edge.
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Mudbound (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Times have changed. Nowadays you don’t even have to go to the cinema to see a film just nominated for this year’s Oscars. On the day that “Mudbound” got a UK theatrical release it also appeared for streaming on Netflix and even in I watch nothing else this February then this will be worth the monthly subscription.

mudbound5Mary J Blige

“Mudbound” has been nominated in four categories: Best Adapted Screenplay (it is based on a novel by Hillary Jordan which I have not read), Best Supporting Actress for Mary J Blige, Best Original Song (performed during the end credits by Mary J Blige) and Best Cinematography for Rachel Morrison. Of the four the last was the one I was unsure about. It all starts off very dark, a storm is brewing at dusk and a hole needs to be dug. For the first five or ten minutes it is not always easy to see what is going on. Personally, that drives me more nuts than mumbled dialogue, as usually if you can’t hear there’s a subtitle option. I wasn’t happy about not being able to see, but I do recognise that this, on this occasion, is largely for dramatic value, rather than someone not paying the electricity bill, and the general air of gloom does lift.

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The film’s main setting is a farm in Marietta on the Mississippi Delta, an area, unsurprisingly, given the title, with more than its fair share of mud. It is the tale of a black and white family who both have men who have gone to fight in the Second World War. In the Jackson family it is Ronsel, who becomes a sergeant and drives a tank for the 761st Battalion. Jamie McAllan is a fighter pilot. A tough farming life continues for those left at home but when the soldiers return the racial inequalities of thee American South seem more ludicrous.

mudbound3Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund

The narrative is framed by the characters’ words. At one point Laura, wife of Jamie’s brother and mother of two uprooted from a very different life in Memphis to this mud-drenched rural environment says;
“Violence is part and parcel of country life. You’re forever being assailed by dead things.”
We know that the plot is building up, there’s a tragic inevitability about the whole thing because of what we learn in the first few minutes of the film but this does not make it any less suspenseful or appalling when things do begin to play out.

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There are some great performances. Mary J Blige is getting the recognition for her excellent world-weary portrayal of Ronsel’s mother, Florence, but there are a number of other strong contenders, namely Garret Hedlund and Jason Mitchell as Jamie and Ronsel, British actress Carey Mulligan as Laura and Rob Morgan as Ronsel’s father who had me really wincing when he tries to speed up the healing of an injury so that his family do not suffer for him being out of action on the farm.

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Rob Morgan with Jason Mitchell

I think that films that deal with issues of race are still very important, especially with the current US administration and this film tells a history lesson which is always worth repeating. The fact that it is getting official praise in the form of healthy Oscar nominations and is easily available in our own homes should ensure a sizeable audience. It deserves this as it is impressive in all areas and hopefully this will turn into some awards on Oscar night.

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Mudbound is available to view on Netflix in the UK.

 

Stronger (2017)- A What I’ve Been Watching Special

 

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The good folks over at Nudge-book.com in conjunction with publicists Thinkjam contacted me regarding a book to film adaptation.  Due to unforeseen circumstances the book has not yet arrived but I have had the opportunity, thanks to Liongate to view the film which opens this week.

Stronger is the real-life story of Jeff Bauman who, in an attempt to win over his ex-girlfriend decided to stand at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon in 2013 with a congratulatory poster praising her achievement.  This meant he was at the wrong place at the wrong time as a terrorist bomb explosion shattered his life and led to a double above-knee amputation.  “Stronger” is the tale of Jeff’s attempts to fight back and get his life back on track.

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To be honest, this is not the sort of film I would normally seek out.  It makes for tough viewing and there is little in the way of light relief but it is undeniably very well done.  The film is directed by David Gordon Green, a screenwriter and producer, who has worked in different film genres and also in television since his critically acclaimed 2000 debut “George Washington” (not about the President) which he wrote, directed and produced.  It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Bauman and Miranda Richardson as his mother, Patti.  Both performances deserve to be given consideration at Oscar nomination time.

We first meet Jeff in the middle of a losing streak.  His relationship with Erin has ended, he is botching things up in his job as a chicken roaster for Cost Co, he’s living with his mother who has a drink problem and socialises with a group of boorish macho sports fans.  His relationship has ended because “he never shows up”, the irony being when he does show up to cheer Erin on he gets blown up. 

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I do think that this is a film which will resonate more with an American audience.  There’s an entrenched Americanness which is inescapable.  It’s rooted in American working- class culture, depicting Jeff as an ordinary guy, which here comes across via sport, beer and macho male banter.  I did initially feel quite distanced.  There’s also the American sense of “Gung-ho” and flag-waving patriotism which we British viewers find a little strange.  In many ways the film does challenge this.  In a very unsettling scene Jeff has become a beacon of hope for the Boston community and the embodiment of the “Boston Stronger” campaign.  He is asked to come on to the rink with a flag at an ice-hockey game far too early in his rehabilitation and is unable to accept the title of “hero” which is bestowed upon him.  His family find this difficult to comprehend leading to a showdown with his mother when she invites Oprah Winfrey to interview him.

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The whole thing is extremely sobering and powerfully brings home the long- lasting repercussions for Jeff and those around him.  A couple want their photo taken with him because they seem him as an example of “don’t let the terrorists win”.  Jeff’s response is that the terrorists have won- they have taken his legs from him.  It’s not possible to watch without sensing that taste of bitterness in the mouth.  A scene of reckless behaviour whilst drunk and high and the official response to it would have seemed too much if it was not obviously rooted in truth.  None of this makes for easy viewing.

We can tell from the title and the existence of an autobiography that at some point Jeff has to begin to put his life back together, but it does seem a long time coming.  A long-delayed meeting with the man who saved his life begins that process and we are left, inevitably and thankfully, with a feeling of hope for this extraordinary survivor.

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Jake Gylennhaal is a fair chunk older than Bauman who was 28 at the time of the bombing but he gives the part the right sense of experience and gravitas to make the painful scenes plausible yet watchable as it is hard to keep your eyes off him.  Moments where I felt an urge to close my eyes (there’s removal of bandages) I found myself fixed on Gylennhaal’s reactions.  Tatiana Maslay as Erin is so often the voice of reason and Miranda Richardson as his mother plays a significant part in the success of the film.

DSCF7354_RJake Gylenhaal with Jeff Bauman

It’s not an easy film to watch and would certainly not be first choice for a festive night out but one man’s determination to succeed should entice audiences.  I did emerge from it feeling like I had been pulled through the wringer but Jeff Bauman’s fight-back deserves to be told and this production has done his real-life story justice.

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Stronger is released in cinemas nationwide in the UK on December 8th.  View the trailer here. Many thanks to Nudge for the opportunity to do this.

La La Land (2016) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Now here’s a confession………..In the last 10 years I have been to the cinema exactly twice.  I saw “Dreamgirls” which I loved and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” which I didn’t.  It wasn’t so bad that it put me off going but the two cinemas where I live on the Isle of Wight are not exactly local and the running of the guest house meant that I did not often have the leisure time to go to the cinema and when I did have the time sitting in a darkened room with an overpowering smell of tortilla chips and popcorn was not top of my priority list.  It’s not that I don’t watch recent films, it’s just that by the time I get my act together they are out on DVD anyway.

So, was it this much-hyped film which caused me to return to the multiplex after so long an absence?  You might conclude that seeing one of the last films I ventured out to see was a musical.  You might think “he’s a musical buff waiting for the right film to come along”.  Fair assumption, but it’s largely wrong.  The main reason was 2 for 1 cinema tickets for a year thanks to those meerkats and a switched insurance policy when I moved from the guest house.  They can be used on Tuesdays or Wednesdays and I’ve had them three months already and not had time to use them.  This week I merged the fact that I was available on a Tuesday with more than a passing interest in what this film is about and returned to La La Land.

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I’m not sure what my preconceptions about this film were or really knew why it was receiving such critical acclaim.  When I returned from the cinema I discovered it received the highest ever Oscar nominations for a musical beating Mary Poppins and is up there in the all-time list of nominations ever.  Is it partly to do with a need for escapism in a nervous post-Brexit vote, Trump-ridden world.  I cannot normally predict what my response to musicals are, I’m a little wary of relating to actors not known for singing and dancing (Ryan Gosling).  Sometimes (in the case of “Les Miserables” I’m blown away, other times “Into The Woods” springs to mind I’m seriously underwhelmed).  There’s also my ultimate can’t make- up- my- mind- about- it movie that fits into this category.  I’m strangely fascinated by “Moulin Rouge” but watching it makes the hairs stick up uncomfortably on the back of my neck and my hands go clammy with what I think is embarrassement.  Part of this response is the way in which familiar pop songs are used in a manner reminiscent of the old children’s TV favourite, the “Crackerjack” finale with Peter Glaves and Ed “Stewport” Stewart fitting chart songs into some lame comedy sketch but I discovered I did not need to worry about this.  “La La Land” has its own score of surprisingly melodic songs which work really well in the context of the film and a couple which might last beyond that.  (The Oscar panel seem to think so as two are nominated for Best Original Song “City Of Stars” and “Audition”).

I was nervous about the two leads but needn’t have been.  Ryan Gosling (Seb) has charm if not brimming with charisma and Emma Stone (Mia) is well cast.  I’m not totally convinced that both should be up there for Best Actor Awards but there is undeniable chemistry between them.  (They have worked together in films before).  The singing is okay and much of the dancing is up to mid-season level of “Strictly Come Dancing” but it all works well.  Some of the quite elderly audience on this Tuesday afternoon showing were expecting Fred and Ginger all the way, but it’s not and that needs to be accepted if you are going to get the most out of it.

Undeniable chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

It does come out of the stalls running with a colourful, brash choreographed traffic jam scene which is visually very impressive and the first half of the film certainly lived up to the audience’s expectations of a musical.  By mid-way through the story had moved to more standard boy meets girl/loses girl fare and there was momentary snoring in the audience (now I remember why it’s been ten years – other people).  I think the audience (and maybe me if I’m honest) expected the glitz and glamour of the first half to last but then it might have ended up a visually impressive but ultimately shallow experience.  We had the glitz, then we had story, with an alternative story glitzy ending which made a lot of sense.  We can’t have too much of a good thing – it is 2017 after all!

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I enjoyed John Legend’s contribution to the film which gave it a more contemporary feel and I loved  that it was a film about passion, for acting in Mia’s case and (especially) for Jazz in Seb’s.   There’s a quote in the film, and I don’t have it verbatim (I wasn’t taking notes!) when Mia is persuading Seb to follow his dream and open a jazz club which he thinks would be unprofitable about how people are seduced by the passion of others and this rang very true with me.lalaland7

John Legend

All in all I had a really good couple of hours.  It has brought me back into the world of cinema, which I adored for most of my life so really not sure what this hiatus has all been about, other than I got out of the habit of going.  I don’t think “La La Land” will be the best film I’ll see this year but I’m certainly praising it for triggering my latent enthusiasm and getting me back to the cinema.  I’ve already made a mental note to seek out “Figures” starring the excellent Taraji P. Henson (Cookie in “Empire”) as soon as it comes out.

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