Monday, 28 December 2015

In The Heart of the Sea

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Coming along on the crest of a wave following their successful collaboration on Rush, Ron Howard directs Chris Hemsworth again in a big seafaring action-adventure In The Heart of the Sea, an adaptation of Nathaniel Pilcrick's novel itself based on Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick.

Told in flashback by the last living survivor of the Essex disaster, Thomas Nicholson (Brendan Gleeson) to a determined Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) who is eager to hear about the truth of the Essex following the whitewash of an inquiry.

Nicholson tells the story and how the two conflicting attitudes and backgrounds of Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth) spelt trouble for the cursed voyage from the departure.

With a demand to get 200 barrels of whale oil within a year paramount to the voyage, the men are at loggerheads with each other before they encounter the great big whale in the waters of the western coast of South America.  The ship is destroyed by the whale, and the men abandon ship yet 2000 miles from land.

Then begins the story of survival in the vein of Tom Hanks in Castaway or 1992's Alive, where men must bear witness to deplorable things and abominable acts to survive in the harsh waters more akin to a desert than an open expanse of water.

Ron Howard has done men marooned miles from home before in Apollo 13 but this larger crew allows a greater vantage of human experience on this palette of man versus nature. The cast are excellent throughout led by the ever improving Hemsworth who displays a stoic heroism befitting the  role, slowly becoming a key leading man in Hollywood and shows he does not need a cape to be heroic.

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Cillian Murphy does good things in his support role as mediator between the two leaders on the boat, yet the key scenes between Gleeson and Whishaw are the quiet most impressive scenes of note holding great swathes of gravitas and dramatic tension in the still of the night; the two actors grip in the short moments they have on screen.

The scenes at sea are wonderfully shot by Anthony Dod Mantle and the sweeping score by Joque Rosta adds to the epic feel. While the scenes with the whale may not match the glory of battle in Master and Commander by Peter Weir, you cannot fault the ambition or determination of Howards's intention in doing justice to the tragic event or the influence it had on Melville's epic tome.

Impressive and expertly produced, while the film has mind bogglingly been ignored by Americans in terms of box office the film deserves to be seen and especially on the big screen.

In The Heart of the Sea is released on Digital HD on 18th April and on 3D, Blu-Ray and DVD on 2nd May from Warner Bros.

Friday, 18 December 2015

EXPOSURE by Helen Dunmore

Set in London during the first year of the swinging Sixties, Helen Dunmore’s newest novel tells the story of a married couple whose life is turned upside down when a work colleague asks for a favour one night. In a world, where a spy could be a friend or a neighbour, or a colleague or lover.

The Cold War has made people very wary of trusting people, and the shadow of the Iron Curtain looms large over London. Simon Callington and his wife Lily, live happily in London with their three children while he works for the Ministry of Defence.

Simon comes from a privileged background and has turned the back on his family owing to his difference to his older brothers in size and style. Lily, was a Jew born in Germany, and her Mum left Germany before the war for England and made Lily forget about Germany and her language and she has to learn English word for word from scratch.

Simon’s work colleague with the favour is Giles. An older man who is going to be out of time during the 1960s. A man of more softer times who prefers the way things were after VE Day. Giles likes to drink during work hours and this drinking leads to an accident at his home.

From there on, the plot thickens as Simon becomes embroiled in espionage and ideas above his station promoting arrests, backstabbing and that puts Lily’s welfare in danger as well as the introduction of the villainous Julian Clowde.

Dunmore has created a good novel, in the sense that this reader found it engaging throughout with a delicate pace and tone, helped by the tricky notion of switching focus intermittently from initially Giles to Simon and then predominantly Lily for the second half of the novel. Dunmore delicately navigates the tricky matter of sexual behaviour with great candour and honesty, not apologising for it nor excusing the behaviour of those involved and how experimentation in your youth does not set a course for the rest of your adult years.

In the hands of a less accomplished writer, the book may well have floundered like the seaweed on the Kentish coast following a storm, yet there is enough intrigue to sustain the readers attention and enough characterisation of Lily to hold our sympathy.

The book has been brilliantly researched mentioning moments of the era to evoke a different time and place effectively such as the mention of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and even the way people talk with their mannerisms.

In a time where the notion of gender politics is very much at the forefront of the social conscience, it is pleasing to see a novel with a headstrong female character doing what she does not for materialistic values but instead for the core values of family, loyalty and hope.

Lily does what she does for the good of her family, and after the shocking revelation to her eyes and ears, she accepts the man she fell in love with prompting a fitting finale that will look good on the screen should that ever materialise.

Exposure is a page turning novel full of twists featuring a bevy of characters entwined in a story featuring betrayal and menace.

It is published by Hutchinson Books on 28th January 2016


Marking his return to the theatre after 10 years away making hit films such as In Bruges, Martin McDonagh's new play Hangmen is a chamber piece set over two nights in an Oldham pub run by Harry (David Morrissey), the second best Hangman in England, who is being interviewed by a young reporter Clegg (James Dryden) for the Oldham Gazette, about the abolition of hanging and the death penalty in 1965.

From the outset, when we see Harry perform a routine hanging of a soul pleading his innocence alongside his assistant Syd (Andy Nyman), McDonagh does not hold back in depicting the broad strokes of the characters promptly. Harry is a man who likes his work, is respected and proud of the service and identity the work provides, whilst Syd is beneath Harry and will start there in stature and class.

The play has a real rat a tat about the dialogue, a back and forth usually seen in 1930s Screwball comedies, you have to keep your wits about you otherwise you might miss some information but McDonagh is always gracious enough to stop and take a breathe with a well placed shit or fuck to halt proceedings.

The introduction of Mooney (Johnny Flynn), an upstart Londoner into the pub looking to rent a room out, prompts a shift in tone from light to sinister as Mooney may well not be the lad about town people think he is.

The play at 2 and a half hours long with an interval is breezy and flies by, this is in part thanks to the writing ably helped by the stellar cast throughout lead by Morrissey's strong central performance, his arc from begrudging self-satisfaction to acceptance of his changing role in a changing time is delicately handled by such an accomplished actor.

Flynn as Mooney plays him with the right menace and needle as the diffident outsider with a hint of Malcolm McDowell from If... and A Clockwork Orange in there, and while Nyman as Syd does do meek and weak well, this reviewer would have greatly liked to have seen Reece Shearsmith's performance where laughs and pathos would have mixed better.

And a special mention to Simon Rouse as half-deaf Arthur who gets the cheap laughs as part of the three man Greek chorus of Harry's regulars, and brings the house down with an innocuous line 'At least Shirley is safe, that's the most important thing', a line of heartfelt intent but misguided context.

Matthew Dunster's direction is tight and the use of the conversation between Harry and Clegg where they look out to the audience instead of each other is handled well, and the set design and period detail by Anna Fleischle is pitch perfect to a tee from Harry's three piece suit to Mooney's pencil tie.

Stop hanging around and go see Hangmen before its life is cut short.

Hangmen is at the Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Road and is a Delfont Mackintosh Theatre.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The 200th Americarnage

Americarnage  is one of the most entertaining podcasts across the world wide web, a show that covers all of the American sports - NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB - and all things pop culture from films to music in a show that runs for approximately one hour recorded on a weekly basis.

This week beginning 14th December 2015 the show celebrates its 200th podcast with all the crew
assembled, experienced NFL broadcaster Nat Coombs, American sports specialist Iron Mike Carlson, stand-up comedian Dan Louw and the esteemed producer Harry Holgate. This week's guest is one of the All-Pro line up who has featured frequently on the pod, comedian and actor Marek Larwood.

In the last year, the podcast has taken a leap forward from something of jovial fun and fraternity mantra, to the go to podcast for NFL fans in the UK thanks to Coombs and Carlson’s stellar work on Channel 4 last year and which is much missed this season. Although their work on the NFL games at Wembley in October and November were highly praised.

The show still pays studio rates for the studio time, it is a freelance production under the umbrella of Nat Coombs' MeMo Interactive, with sponsorship now from male grooming company ManCave, where customers can email the show weekly with many answered on the show.

This interaction with the listeners and subscribers is vital to the longevity of the podcast over the last 200 shows. The hosts like their fans want genuine heartfelt analysis on a sport that when the show started in 2010 was very much on the sidelines. Now when Tom Brady and Deflategate was rampant in the off season, the BBC put the story on their Sport website as a lead story, and now it shows highlights. The sport is now closer to the centre than the margins, and it is the output of podcasts such as Americarnage, Fourth Down and Out and Double Coverage.

The quality of the show is undisputable, the quality and knowledge expressed in the show is second to none. The continued on the hoof content serves the pod well and while people may get lost in the shuffle with so many strong personalities on display, it is where the straight man of Coombs can maintain control. Although the quality of the show is apparent when some parts are missing, last week's #199 starred David Whitney who with Nat and Dan (Mike is absent) they have three side splitting moments of high hilarity starting with Old Tom Coughlin still in charge of Whitney’s favoured New York Giants in twenty years time,

Get me a banana on the field. Take Beckham out and put a banana in!’
‘Sir, Beckham stopped playing for us 10 years ago’

As any podcast it has these slight tangents and diversions that in other less able producers hands would turn into a mess but Harry’s sure hand makes it a great lesson, even when he has little or one microphone to work with.

With Carlson off this week, the guest is David Whitney (stand-up comedian) whose knowledge of NFL is as strong as any die hard fan, and in spite of his absence Carlson has still produced a 60 second NFL round-up of the week's action - an example of how much the show means to him. In an email I ask Carlson about the show, 'the biggest problem is reach, on C4 we can reach a hundred thousand people, many of whom aren't fans. We're always looking for ways to reach potential audience; we're better on sports than any humour site, and funnier than most sports sites.'

This continued mix of light heartedness and serious analysis is a facet of the shows popularity and staying power.

For this writer, having met the crew behind the scenes I am overjoyed they have reached this milestone. Usually you say here is to the next 200. But how about a different toast, here is to the first
TV show, After Dark Americarnage.

If you have not listened to the show please attempt to do so at and follow the show and stars on twitter: @Americarnage @NatCoombs @DanLouw @dwhitters

Follow me @NextToTheAisle

Thursday, 3 December 2015

I Am Big Bird

In the last week I have watched two movies about the artistry of being a puppeteer. Last week it was Being Elmo, the story of how a young black man from Baltimore, Kevin Clash, became the star of Sesame Street in the form of the beloved Elmo.

This week it was the turn of Caroll Spinney, a 79 year old man (at the time of filming) who for nearly 50 years has been the man inside of the other character synonymous with the Children's Television Workshop, Big Bird.

Beginning with his appearance on a panel show where contestants have to figure out who of three people is the real person, depicting both the unheralded acclaim of his work but also his anonymity of his profession.

Throughout his career, Spinney has been a collaborative force in the role of Big Bird on Sesame Street, from Jim Henson meeting him in happenstance in Salt Lake City to his conflictive relationship with writer-director John Stone.

The film naturally focuses on the milestones of his career, from the live shows on the road with the human members of Sesame Street to the PBS special Big Bird in China, to the feature film Follow That Bird, up to the present day when he has been usurped by Elmo back to praise for his longevity.

There is much to admire in a career that has spanned this length of time, and how it challenges the man himself from his work with Big Bird but also the character Oscar the Grouch, another seminal Sesame Street icon.  The director makes sure to show you opposing sides of the Spinney personality. While Big Bird is the child inside of Caroll, Oscar is the darker side but maintaining a heart of gold.

Yet as praise worthy as Caroll's career is, the film also tells the love story of his marriage to his second wife Debbie, who embraces his career and art - unlike his first wife - and this union is imperative to the love and warmth that surrounds Spinney's work from his puppetry to his drawing and painting. This balance of work and home is a good recioe for success and love in equal fold.

There are moments that will make you cry, such as when Big Bird learns about death of a friend ('But he will be coming back won't he?) to his amazing performance of 'It's Not Easy Being Green' at the Jim Henson Memorial Service in full costume and character, you will be aghast at how Spinney was able to maintain composure when grieving for the loss of a friend and the man who gave him his break.

While Being Elmo was the more cuddly story about the character breaking out and becoming a huge star, I Am Big Bird is a story of more humility, subtlety and heart felt emotion more in keeping for a career rich in longevity and happiness.

In a way the title is misleading but explains why people have this connection with the Muppets and Sesame Street, they reflect the best of us in a form we find comforting and reassuring. So perhaps not only is Caroll Spinney, but maybe I am Big Bird to.

I Am Big Bird is available and was viewed on Netflix.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Michael Robotham Interview

Michael Robotham: "I truly believe that <i>Life or Death</i> is the best one I've written."

Last month I reviewed the book LIFE OR DEATH by the Award winning author Michael Robotham, in a follow up to my enjoyment of the book, I wanted to ask the author some questions directly about the creation of his CWA Golden Dagger novel.  Mr. Robotham was very forthcoming with his time and here are his answers.

Follow him on twitter @MichaelRobotham

 Life of Death UK cover

What was the genesis of the novel?
Almost 20 years ago I read a few paragraphs in a newspaper about a man escape from prison on the eve of his parole. The idea stuck in my head. The big question was why?

The actual story involved a convicted killer turned model prisoner called Tony Lanigan, who had spent most of had adult life in jail for violent crimes, only to escape from the Malabar Training Centre days from his release. In real life, Lanigan has never been seen since. It has now been 19 years since his escape and he’s probably Australia’s least wanted fugitive, but it’s still a mystery. And like all lovers a crime fiction – I can’t resist a mystery.

I kicked this idea around for ten years until I came with a reason why someone might escape from prison the day before his release. Then it took nine novels before I felt I the skills to tell the story properly. I needed to practice. I needed to learn. I needed to get better.

Most writers will tell you that the story in their heads is never quite the one that makes it to the page. They can never quite capture exactly what they envisage. With LIFE OR DEATH I think I’ve come closest to matching the two stories. It’s never going to be perfect, but it’s very close to what I wanted to achieve.

Why write a stand alone novel when you've enjoyed such success with a recurring character? Was it a new challenge to yourself?
If someone told me that I would have to spend the rest of my career writing only about Joe O’Loughlin and Vincent Ruiz you would have to keep the sharp objects away from me. I love them as characters, but there is a limit to how long I can keep them fresh and create new stories for them. Another problem is that I have aged them both in real-time and given Joe Parkinson’s Disease. There is limit to how long they can both keep going.

Writing a stand-alone was important to me because I wanted to prove to myself and my publishers that my readers will come with me regardless of whether Joe or Vincent are part of my novels.

What does your normal writing day entail?
I start work at about 9.00 a.m. working in my garden office, which my daughters call ‘Dad’s Cabana of Cruelty’. Apart from periodic coffee fixes and lunch or a walk along the beach, I’ll work until 6.00 p.m. This happens every day, including weekends.
I usually begin by writing long-hand, to get me away from the Internet and the computer screen, often working in local cafes. Later I’ll transfer these words to the screen and do my editing.

How many drafts did you have of the book?
Usually six or seven. I spend seven or eight months on the first draft, which is very close to the finished product. Each subsequent draft takes less time, until the final few take only a matter of days.

Life of Death cover US

How hard is it to write a book with this pace and drive, the momentum of the book is a wonder of plotting, yet how can you maintain control of the plot without it becoming far-fetched? 
I don’t plot in advance, which surprised a lot of people. I begin with the premise and the characters and let the story unfold from there. It is a very organic and exciting way of writing, where I am constantly surprising myself with the twists and turns. It also means I end up throwing a lot of material away. Writers have to be prepared to ‘kill their babies’. Cut often and cut hard. Don’t fall in love with your prose. Storytelling is about conflict and pace.

You won the CWA Golden Dagger Award for the book, how did that recognition feel?
It is enormously gratifying to win one of the world’s great crime writing awards, particularly considering the shortlist and the past winners. I keep looking at the trophy, expecting them to call and say they judges made a mistake and they were supposed to announce Stephen King.
It was particularly gratifying to receive dozens of wonderful messages from other crime writers like Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Linwood Barclay, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling.

What are you working on currently?
I am working on two novels – one featuring Joe O’Loughlin as the main character, who discovers his father has a second family; and the other featuring Joe in a minor role, investigating the theft of a newborn baby from a maternity hospital.

Would you be involved if Life or Death was adapted to the screen?
The film rights have been optioned by a Hollywood company and I will hopefully be involved in script development and approval, but I have no great desire to take on a larger role. I don’t really care if my books are made into films or TV. I became a novelist because I love writing books and I don’t feel as though my career will be topped off or made complete by having someone make a film our of my work. What if it’s terrible?

You've worked in television, what crime shows do you watch?
I wrote for newspapers rather than work on TV, but I do like watching crime shows. The first series of True Detective was outstanding, but the second series a major disappointment. But the two truly stand-out crime series have been THE WIRE and BREAKING BAD.
And finally, what are you reading?
The best recent crime novels I've read  have been The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly, The Whites by Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt) and Cartel by Don Winslow.

Life or Death is published by Sphere in the UK

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