Friday, 19 December 2014

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I’ve not read Kate Atkinson before; she’ was in that list of novelists that I’ve always meant to have a look at. I had been told that ‘Behind The Scenes of a Museum’ is worth having a look at, but to be honest there has always been something else that I wanted to or had to read. This book was personally recommended to me, right up your street, I was told. That always intrigues me of course, a) because of the potential subject matter and b) is the person recommending the book correct in the assessment?

Well, here we have Life After Life. This is story of Ursula Todd born in 1910 in the snow; the book follows her life through the two world wars. Except that is not really accurate, it follows her lives up to and through the two world wars. You see the clue is in the title, Life After Life, it’s her life repeated again and again. It’s the chances her subconscious has to eliminate catastrophic events from the course of her life. This struck a chord with me; I mean who hasn’t wished for this to happen?

I suppose there are a number of philosophies and theories on display here. People have talked about points in time where we reach a pivotal point where one course would mean one thing and the second another. There’s multi universe theory where all of these possibilities are played out across the multitude of universes that are thought to be possibly out there. There are, of course, theories of reincarnation where beings die and are reborn. This is different though, this is the same person born again and again, and it’s almost as if there’s some kind of natural selection in play here; being the survival of the fittest Ursula.

I’m not in a position to check but the book seemed very well researched. Kate Atkinson has been doing this long enough to know how to do all that background work and also to weave in all that knowledge without it looking arduous and clunky. She has a great knack of writing the lives of children without the reader being mired in sentimentality. That’s all about portraying true emotion and not cloying or coddling. Due to the subject matter the book, of course, does not fit into the framework of beginning, middle and end; or maybe it does, hang on a minute!

It could be argued that the book is ultimately depressing. The Catholic Church calls life on Earth, the veil of tears, before they get to heaven, and from their perspective this would almost be hell. Ursula is born to a privileged family and often has an awful time in her life. She spends her early adult life in the Second World War and goes through a variety of awful experiences. The book does well it not romanticising the war at all. To live through the war once must have been bad enough but to do so a number of times?

I’m not sure that this is a great work of literature; it is however very well paced. It does the job of connecting with the reader and enabling the reader to empathise with Ursula. It does this without resorting to over sentimentality. I like the way that of course there are the different possibilities and then other possibilities that she misses within those. At one point in World War Two someone remarks on Ursula’s ability to solve crossword puzzles and she dismisses him out of hand. It’s an engaging, effective and affecting book, efficiently written and would qualify for A Good Read on Radio 4. What I have to do now is to work out whether I have read this book in a previous life.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Was I amazed by this? I’m not sure, but he’s still hyphenated. There are some amazing things that happen here, some things are maybe not so amazing. The story seems to concern itself with Peter Parker’s relationship with Gwen, of course the daughter of a dead police officer. He told Peter to leave her alone as he was convinced that due to his shenanigans; harm would come to her. There is as well Harry, Peter’s friend who is the son of an industrialist who set up Oscorp, a massive company with a number of issues. Big corporate business is course evil and immoral, does nobody investigate and regulate these companies. Their health and safety at work practices leave a lot to be desired.
The there’s Max; he’s a put upon employee of Oscorp who becomes Electro, after he falls into a vat of electric eels. He seems to be an electric version of Dr Manhattan, surely not. He jumps to big conclusions to start hating Spider-man after previously being a friend of his. As well as Oscorp he has issues of his own as well.
I have a few issues though that I can’t get over. The suit now looks like one of those all over Lycra suits that men wear to stag nights, to clubs, to football matches and fancy dress days at cricket, the ones where they cover the face as well. How hilarious was it when they had Andrew Garfield making jokes about England in the oh so accurateUniversity of Oxford office in New York. I know it’s a comic book but, if you’ve not seen the film look away now, Peter’s father’s lab as a subway train that he presses a button to activate and it still works after twenty years, and it’s still clean! And now after five twenty first century films I still actually prefer the 1970s cartoon, there I said it.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

American Hustle

A film about identity, but then what film isn’t? This one though is about duplicity and betrayal, no still not unique. It’s about con artists conning con artists and the FBI using dubious tactics to take down elected officials who in turn may not have told the truth in their efforts to get elected. It’s also about hair and in 1978 that was a whole different ball game compared to todays. It’s easy to get transfixed by Christian Bale’s, Bradley Cooper’s and Jeremy Renner’s hair.

Perfume is another key to this as Jennifer Lawrence goes at length to explain about wonderful smelling perfume having something rotten mixed in their to make a more complex scent. This maybe the key to a good scam, a bit of argument to make it real, Harrison Ford adlibbing in Star Wars, Aberdeen footballers shoving each other around before taking a free kick.

The thing is though; we may be being scammed as well. We’re told at the beginning that some of this actually happened. What did happen, what did we just see? The ensemble are so beautifully balanced that Russell’s got you believing that their real people. He also uses that Scorsese confessional voice over as well; those are real people aren’t they? It helps as well when you can see what the characters could lose and what they could gain, and how when you reach the crest of that wave there’s always a chance that you’ll come crashing down into the surf.

Music is very important in this film. This is evident from the first bars of Duke Ellington at the beginning as Sydney and Irving connect at the pool party. Throughout we’re treated to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and The Jean Genie among others. The highlight though is Jennifer Lawrence’s cleaning session while she lip synchs to Live and Let Die. Christian Bale is also given the opportunity to exercise his Welshness when he sings along to Tom Jones’s Delilah, although Jeremy Renner may have been more enthusiastic. As it’s set in 1978 there is the trip to Studio 54 as well, Don’t Leave Me This Way, indeed. The only song that seems to be missing is Do The Hustle.

There aren’t many films that are as cleverly plotted as this, whilst remaining credible and funny at the same time. Jennifer Lawrence’s character has such a beautiful skewed logic as well that alleviates many a tricky situation. I love the way that she can turn the destruction of a microwave oven into a diatribe about how she didn’t want it in the first place. It’s delicately and finely balanced, wonderfully written, paced and plotted and gorgeously acted.

Thursday, 16 January 2014


The title could refer to the force that keeps us from floating out into space, although it could be a reference to the seriousness of a situation, things here are indeed heavy.

This film then is another in line of films, some based on reality some not, where things have not gone to plan on NASA missions; Apollo 13, Apollo 18, Capricorn One, The Planet of the Apes. Here though we have Sandra Bullock and George Clooney on the Space Shuttle Explorer attempting to break spacewalk records and to repair the Hubble telescope. Unfortunately a Russian satellite goes awry causing all sorts of havoc. Anyway in space it seems that no-one can hear you talking to yourself. Sandra Bullock takes a tour of space stations floating around the earth in an attempt to rectify her situation.

At the beginning we are told about the absence of sound in a vacuum which takes a little while to get used to. We are treated to a lot of Sandra Bullock's heavy breathing in her space suit. The silence though becomes kind of reassuring. Like those marvellous holidays taken far away from civilization, except you're spared the potentially incredibly noisy countryside. The way that sound is dealt with is part though of the whole restrained tone of the film. We see Bullock ache with restraint, also with great pain, as she deals with her misfortunes. The restraint and the subject matter lead to images of great beauty of the Earth for one example, but also of a serene, solitary tear floating in the space station at one point.

There is throughout the themes of vulnerability and ultimately chance. When I think of human space exploration and the deaths that have occurred in that, I’m not surprised that people have died, I’m surprised that more haven’t. At one point Bullock almost emulates Jane Fonda in Barbarella when she enters the International Space Station. The way she does this though reinforces the vulnerability of the situation. She is after all a woman being protected from the vast vacuum of space by the ultra-light heavily engineered materials to make her space suit and the space station.

What makes this different from most of those other films about space exploration, is that when it comes down to basics, when all else has failed, when the umbilical cord has broken; you're on your own.