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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Hannah Directory

Last week, by picking up a booklet at Wakefield Jelly (a monthly co-working event for those of you looking baffled right now), I became aware of the Hannah Directory. It's a print and online publication that aims to address three questions according to the website:
  • What great stuff is happening in places in England's north now?
  • Who is doing it?
  • How can more of it happen?
Those are pretty brilliant things to be asking, especially at the moment. There's plenty going on, but sometimes discovering it all is the hardest thing. 

As well as the website they have a Twitter and Facebook presence so, please, take a look and see what's coming up that you might be interested in. I'll certainly be keeping an eye out. 

Monday, 30 March 2015

The End of Downton

On Friday it was announced that the sixth series of Downton Abbey will be the last. It'll wrap up with a final episode on Christmas Day, meaning that we've got nine episodes of the award-winning drama left.

I suspect I'm not the only person who's relieved by the news. I love Downton, don't get me wrong, but I think ending on a high is the way to go. If you start losing the core cast of Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery etc then the show will change beyond recognition. The departure of Dan Stevens left a gap that, really, hasn't been filled, and finding a suitable mate for Mary is one of those tricky things the final series will have to contend with.

There are numerous little story-lines that fans need resolved and numerous little things they'd like to see. We all have our favourite characters and the problem is that giving them all a suitable send-off is going to be difficult.

Whatever happens, Christmas Day 2015 is going to be memorable for Downton fans.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Classic Film Review: On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront stars Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, an ex-boxer who now runs errands for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and is immersed in the corrupt world of the dockers union. At the beginning of the film Malloy unwittingly lures a man to his death and when he encounters the man's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) he feels guilty about it. Along with Father Barry (Karl Malden), she tries to persuade him to break the wall of silence around the union and help his fellow workers. The cast also includes Rod Steiger as Charley Malloy.

This is one of those phenomenal films that actually lives up to the hype. Brando is excellent in the lead role, his acting style melding perfectly with the quiet character of Terry Malloy, but I probably enjoyed Karl Malden a little more - I'm coming across his work more frequently now and he never fails to disappoint as a strong screen presence. The scene where Father Barry tries to rouse the workers in the hold of a ship is one of the most memorable of the film. Perhaps the most memorable scene of all, however, is the extended final sequence with Malloy standing up to Johnny Friendly. It's brutal and real, with some clever direction putting you in Malloy's head.

It's a very atmospheric film, dark in all the right places, but with flashes of light like the dance between Malloy and Edie. The development of their relationship feels authentic and Eva Marie Saint does an excellent job in her first film role. This is certainly a film I'll revisit in the future. While it's not my usual fare, there's no denying it's a fantastic piece of cinema.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Book Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

This book focuses on Edie Middlestein, her family and the way they deal with her obesity. After thirty years of marriage her husband Richard walks out, surprising everyone especially their children Robin and Benny. While Richard tries dating, his daughter struggles with her own commitment issues and Benny tries to deal with his neurotic wife and their growing children. Richards actions have caused an upset in his little world, but her children are so focused on what should happen that they don't stop to think what Edie wants.

On some levels this was a really easy book to read. Attenberg has a very lucid style of writing and it's fairly short at under three hundred pages. It's split down and covers the viewpoints of the all the major characters in various chapters. The past is revealed in chapters which document Edie's shifting weight over the years. At first, starting with Edie's mother carrying her overweight child up a flight of stairs felt like a strange way to begin the novel. It fits with the later digressions into history which pervade the novel and, in that sense, it's a very real novel. Recollections fit within the larger narrative and by the end you feel like you know these characters very well.

The relationships The Middlesteins depicts are flawed and real, which makes it difficult to like some of the characters. Edie herself is the most fascinating character with her love of food and her general attitudes to life. It makes the end of the novel both inevitable and sad. One thing I didn't like about the novel was the occasional authorial interruptions in the middle of the narrative that explained what happened to Robin etc in the future. I felt like I wanted to get to the end of the book before learning these things but, on the other hand, it fit within the sliding time frame of the novel perfectly.

This book was read as part of the 'New Author' reading challenge, details here.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Classic Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (1940)

An adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice stars Laurence Olivier as Mr Darcy, Greer Garson as Elizabeth, Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, Ann Rutherford as Lydia, Mary Boland as Mrs Bennet, Edmund Gwenn as Mr Bennet and Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine. The screenplay was co-written by Aldous Huxley.

If you take this adaptation as a completely different animal to the book then you'll probably enjoy it a lot more. It takes a lot of artistic licence, not least bringing the drama out of the Regency period in order to make the most of costumes. Compressed and with some plot points altered, it nevertheless manages to be an entertaining piece of cinema if you separate it from the book.

Laurence Olivier generally shines and this film is no exception. It's fairly difficult to tell most of the Bennet sisters apart in the early stages of the film and, really, Mary Boland and Edmund Gwenn are much more vibrant in the first portion. Greer Garson grows into the role, but it could be that the necessity for scene-setting stifles her characterisation at points. I enjoy Edna May Oliver in any role and she manages a disagreeable character very well. Most of the cast actually inhabit their roles well; it's just that the characters aren't necessarily what they were in the book.

Overall, this is a very 'Hollywood' adaptation of Jane Austen. It works on one level because of the cast but if you're a serious Austen fan I'd be inclined to stay away.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Classic Film Review: Father of the Bride (1950)

Father of the Bride stars Spencer Tracy as Stanley Banks, a man who recounts his experiences dealing with the financial and emotional troubles associated with organising his daughter Kay's (Elizabeth Taylor) wedding. Joan Bennett plays Stanley's wife Ellie and the cast also includes Billie Burke as Mrs Dunstan, Don Taylor as Buckley Dunstan and Leo. G. Carroll as Mr Massoula. Also, watch out for an appearance by a young Russ Tamblyn as Tommy Banks.

As a family comedy this film works brilliantly. Elizabeth Taylor is charming as Kay with Joan Bennett also wonderful as Ellie. However, this film is Tracy's through-and-through. The warmth and humour he injects into the role without being too over-the-top is yet another sign of his brilliance and he's certainly cemented himself as one of my favourite actors. His rapport with Joan Bennett is good, but it's his reactions to the wedding insanity that make the film. There's a brilliant scene where he is trying on an old suit, something few actors could make as entertaining and realistic as Tracy manages to.

There aren't many twists and turns in Father of the Bride but it's still very entertaining. It doesn't become mawkish thanks mainly to Tracy, though it still manages to show the very real emotion behind Kay's marriage, and shows a very human set of people. As a Billie Burke fan, I enjoyed her small role and all of the actors who play even a small part make the most of it. You can tell when a film is lovingly directed and Vincente Minnelli rarely disappoints on that score. Overall, this is a brilliant gentle comedy well worth watching over and over again.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Yet Another Lesbian Television Tragedy

As I prepared to watch the series finale of Call the Midwife yesterday I already expected something bad to happen to the lesbian couple. A couple of months ago I doubt I would've been so pessimistic, but since then we've had a pregnant lesbian mown down by a car the day after her wedding in Last Tango in Halifax so I've been watching Call the Midwife with a deep sense of foreboding. It turned out to be justified, since Delia Busby was knocked off a bike just as she was preparing to move in with her secret girlfriend Patsy Mount. Delia woke up in hospital with amnesia and is going back to Wales with her mum to recover. Is there something in the guidance for Sunday night BBC television that insists lesbians have to be killed or maimed by the end of a series? It's certainly not a phenomenon contained to the BBC though, or British television. Sure, there are some exceptions but, examined in context, these two storylines are particularly frustrating.

First, a little lesson from my viewing history. One of the first lesbian storylines I became invested in was from the now-defunct British soap Family Affairs in 2002. It followed Kelly's love for her married friend Karen and her willingness to become a surrogate mother for her. Long story short - Karen fell in love with Kelly, they were caught out after the baby was born, they tried to make a go of it and, accidentally, Karen's ex pushed Kelly down the stairs. Lesbian storyline ended in the morgue and Karen reconciled with her ex.

Fast forward to 2015. Any suggestion that Kate's death in Last Tango in Halifax was necessary to propel the narrative and to fix a family rift between Caroline and her mother is a ridiculous defence. It meant that not only did we lose a lesbian (and a black lesbian at that) but the casual homophobia and racism peppered throughout the dialogue was never challenged. At the end of the series, while everyone else celebrated her step-sister's wedding, Caroline sat outside with baby Flora chatting to the ghost of her dead wife while, quite literally, covered in manure.

As for Call the Midwife... Well, I was prepared for this storyline to progress badly. However, the way I expected it to go was completely in-keeping with the challenges of the era: I thought homophobia and the pressures of a secret relationship would get to Patsy and Delia. That would've been sad, yes, but comprehensible. However, a road accident and amnesia feels just like a deliberate attack on the lesbian characters. The heterosexual couples in this series faced difficulties, yes, but they were based on deeper issues than chance: Shelagh and Patrick Turner had a few ups and down regarding their workloads but came through it as a strong couple; Chummy and Peter lived separately for a while to aid the health of their son but were solid throughout; Fred and Violet overcame shyness and family objections to marry by the end of the series; and Trixie and Tom were drawn apart by differing expectations and her drinking. All very human problems but the lesbian couple? Car crash and amnesia. It doesn't fit, does it?

When you watch the end of a series and your one consolation for the lesbian characters is 'at least you're not dead' then you know there's a pretty serious problem of representation, usually reliant on tropes. These shows were written independently of each other so how do you explain two such disasters in two months?

I suppose Call the Midwife could salvage this storyline in the next series. I might be convinced by a continuation where Delia slowly regains her memory and falls in love with Patsy all over again. But is that likely? I don't know. I'll just have to cross everything. In the meantime, the first couple of months of 2015 had been lousy for lesbian representation on popular programmes. Exactly what has changed from 2002?

Monday, 2 March 2015

Classic Film Review: The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Gay Divorcee stars Fred Astaire as Guy Holden, a dancer visiting London who comes to the aid of Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) when she traps her skirt in a trunk in the middle of customs. Guy is enamoured but Mimi apparently less so. While he is literally scouring London for her, she and her Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) are trying to orchestrate a divorce from Mimi's unwilling husband. They turn to a reluctant old solicitor flame of Hortense's, Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton), who also happens to be the friend hosting Guy in London. The idea is for Mimi and a co-respondent to be caught in a hotel in Brighton but a depressed Guy, who still doesn't know the truth about Mimi's situation, is dragged along by Egbert and the stage is set for an amusing showdown.

This is only Fred and Ginger's second film together but, for the most part, they've already found their rhythm. Leaving aside the dance numbers, the comedic interplay between the pair of them when Mimi's dress is stuck at the beginning is brilliant. These two could bounce off each other as well as Hepburn and Tracy and it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable film. Equally, the main supporting cast of Alice Brady as the forgetful aunt and Edward Everett Horton as the bumbling solicitor are brilliant, not to mention the fact that Betty Grable has a small role. Watching Horton and Grable dancing together in 'Let's K-nock K-nees' is a delight, especially since Horton is no natural dancer.

The other songs are pretty good too. I was charmed by 'Needle in a Haystack', a song and dance solo performed by Guy as he gets ready to go out. The stand-out song from the film is 'Night and Day', part of a beautiful yielding moment when Mimi gives in to her growing feelings - only for another spanner to be thrown in the works quite quickly. Watching Fred and Ginger dance that number together is riveting, there's no other word for it. 'The Continental', coming in at over seventeen minutes long, is spectacular with its rows of dances and catchy song, but it does tend to flag a little when Fred and Ginger aren't involved.

Ultimately, this is a gorgeous musical comedy, with Fred and Ginger melding together perfectly as they would in another eight films. It's not their best collaboration but it's no less enjoyable for that.