Monday, 20 March 2017

We All Begin As Strangers

The debut novel from journalist, Harriet Cummings, is a piece of historical fiction set around the year 1984, a hot summer when a burglar universally referred to as 'The Fox' is terrorising the small village of Heathcote near Oxford.  Cummings' novel tells the story from four differing viewpoints - opening with Deloris, the policeman Robert, vicar and nice guy Simon.

The problem I had with the book was the difficult opening of Deloris, a character who is unhappy in her marriage and sets about leaving her husband, Harvey, including taking a job in a hotel in London.  Apart from mere mentions of the Fox breaking into neighbour's properties, the story focuses on her plight and it comes across as a bit needy and unnecessary to the plot.  When Deloris appears later in the book, she is better on the periphery.

The four differing viewpoints is something we have seen in all manner of popular culture, most famously Akira Kurosawa's 1951 film Rashomon, where the differing viewpoints alter the narrative and who is telling the truth when all people claim ownership of the truth.

In this novel, the truth is not fully revealed until the last viewpoint entwined with Simon's personal problems of identity, this leaves the reveal of the Fox as almost secondary and when it was revealed, it was somewhat out of nowhere and underwhelming.

This is a shame as I had high hopes for this novel with it's beautiful book cover and the setting of 1984 for social and political context.

In conclusion, this is a novel that will garner critical attention, but may struggle to capture the imagination of the mainstream reader.

We All Begin As Strangers is published by Orion Publishing on 20th April 2016

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Olive Tree

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Iciar Bollain, the acclaimed director from Spain, returns with a poignant story about a determined young woman on a journey. With a screenplay written  by her partner Paul Laverty (Sweet Sixteen, The Wind that Shakes the Barley); El Olive (The Olive Tree) tells the story of tenacious Alma (Anna Castillo) who embarks on a journey from her home town near Valencia on the East Coast of Spain to Germany in order to retrieve an ancient olive tree precious to her ailing grandfather.

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Encountering new acquaintances and with the help of two valuable friends, Alma learns a lot about herself and the virtue of honesty and the consequences that arise from with-holding the truth to those you love.

Bollain shoots with a vibrancy to match her leading lady, Spain looks gorgeous in the sunshine throughout in contrast to the gloomier grey of Germany upon arrival where they discover the tree in the lobby of a big energy firm that has used the tree as their company logo.  Laverty writes this as a David v Goliath clash reminiscent of the work he has done with Ken Loach, and there is a hint of Bread and Roses (2000) here.

However, like many films, the story is not about the end result of the journey but how you got there and who with; Alma learns a lot more about her family especially her uncle Alcachofa (Javier Gutierrez) and finds love with selfless Rafa (Pep Ambros).  

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Bollain is lucky in that she has three capable actors at her disposal, the scenes involving the three in the cab of the truck they take to Germany are vital to the flow and spirit of the film (there is a great dialogue scene when the penny drops on the two men outside of the energy company and Alcachofa asks Rafa, 'So this is our fault?' a token line but delievered impeccably); there is no over-sentimental streak fighting to get out, there is a naturalness to proceedings that combines with the lightness.

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Other films may have used an overbearing soundtrack for a crucial phone call near the film's end, instead Bollain rightly utilises the look in the eyes between Gutierrez and Castillo to speak volumes and garner the universal message.

A film that is fleeting in its message but nevertheless has universal themes that will steal your heart and stay with you long after you hear the last greenfinch.

The Olive Tree is released from Eureka Entertainment on Friday 17th March. 
My thanks to Eureka Entertainment for the screener.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017


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A glowing documentary that follows the post-NFL career of New Orleans Saints specials teams player, Steve Gleason, who shortly after retirement is diagnosed with ALS - Amyotrophic Lateral Sceloris or Lou Gehrig's Disease - and how his once physical body quickly detoriates and a sound literal mind slowly vanishes over a year.

The director Clay Tweel is lucky in respect that an unsung player such as Gleason becomes this incredible walking and talking document about the human spirit and how we can overcome. Tweel is the director and editor of the film, yet the narrator and producer of the content is Gleason himself; a sportsman who does not suffer from vanity or brand awareness, Gleason documented much of his life by means of videotaping or camera phone from his teenage years to college days to archiving his off-season trips overseas when experiencing adventure holidays.

This zest for life continues for Gleason in his retirement and led to him meeting his rock, Michel, a free spirit too who becomes his wife and mother to their son, Rivers.  Their relationship is one of enlightenment and joy, and then Steve starts feeling pains in his arms and chest.

After the diagnosis, Michel becomes pregnant and they go on a two month road trip to Alaska, on this trip Steve's body starts diminishing which hurts Michel yet Steve is eager to not have it stop him experiencing life to the full.  Steve starts a video blog for his unborn child - teaching him about relationships and family, and also a video diary of his day-to-day realisation that he is slowly going more inward as the condition takes hold.

What set Steve Gleason apart from other NFL players was his determination and drive to achieve, Gleason played linebacker at college for Washington State, however, he was considered too small for the position in the professional game yet his speed and desire to win led him to be drafted by the New Orleans Saints who utilised him as a special teams gunner, a player who specifically attacks the punter when he kicks the ball away to attempt a turnover or block to regain possession for the offence.

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In the annals of the Saints franchise, Gleason has a play for which he is synonymous - the blocked punt of the Atlanta Falcons' punter in the first few minutes of the first game back at the New Orleans Superdome following the horror of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The game was September 25th 2006, and Gleason's play became christened 'The Rebirth' and helped galvanised a city and fanbase that desperately needed something to cheer about.  Much is made about the way Gleason played, with a hunger and a controlled anger, coming from a broken home his Dad alludes to the fact that the field of play allowed Steve to be cathartic and let out his anger.

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Gleason's Dad also says maybe the illness stems from the way Steve played - so hard, so fast - yet ALS is apparent in adults not on the physical level of Gleason and there is no discussion on the CTE discussion so prevalent in the NFL currently.

Nonetheless, the film is a moving document on the treatment of ALS and the fight Gleason shows is paramount to him overcoming his illness as best he can becoming more of an inspiration in retirement than he did when playing - his foundation Team Gleason raises money to help similar ALS sufferers to go on trips with family and he went to Congress to pass the Gleason Act meaning the technology to help ALS sufferers talk via computers be available on Medicare; a legacy perhaps far more reaching than a blocked punt. The punt was a second was a moment; the Act will live on and help far more people.

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The film takes time to show the tragedy of the illness on the Gleason family, how Michel has to cope with a newborn child and an ill husband; the living grief she suffers as a chasm slowly comes between their loving relationship yet she is able to grow as an artist and be extrovert in that respect whilst supporting Steve.

There is also a telling sub-text on the dichotomy and difficulty of father-son relationships; how Steve's with his own father has altered over time due a difference of opinion on faith and religion, yet they have slowly grown closely together due to the illness. This is juxtaposed with the closeness Steve - who will be unable to touch and talk to his new son - and how he endeavours to create a vital relationship by way of his video diary and creating a bond by any means.  Gleason due to his intellect also becomes an insightful interviewer such as the moment he asks Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam, Gleason's favourite band and huge supporters of his cause) about his own absent father bringing the rock and roll star to tears himself.

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A complex subject is given a touching and emotional documentary which at times will have you tearing up, yet Gleason remains an uplifting film about the overcoming of obstacles in your life, how only you yourself can create the legacy you want to leave behind and how debilitating illness does not necessary mean the end of the road.  This is as much a film about patience and how it pays off if you have it.

Gleason is released in cinemas on Friday 17th March from