Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Letters to Father Jacob

Postia pappi Jaakobille, or, Letters to Father Jacob, is a movie by Finnish director, Klaus Härö. 
It has two main characters, a female ex-con, and an elderly and blind priest. A postman plays a smaller role, and there is a man at the beginning who asks where Leila, the pardoned prisoner, is going to go. That's the cast. The setting is a remote rectory with a leaky roof, and bundles of letters stored everywhere. The nearby church has been unused for some long time, it appears. 

Leila reluctantly accepts the offer of a live-in job not as the priest's housekeeper but as the reader of the letters he receives every day from people far and wide asking for prayer and help. She is also expected to write the replies he dictates. Leila is not much impressed with the job; she's obviously long since given up on God, and believes what she did that caused her to be put in prison is probably unforgivable. The priest has more faith than this, though he too has a struggle at one point in the story. 

The film takes its slow way forward, allowing for plenty of subtlety and reflection, and relies heavily on the skills of the two leading actors, Kaarina Hazard and Heikki Nousiainen. Though Nousiainen was only sixty-four when the movie was his face appears much older, full of lines and crags. He has been an actor since the late sixties, but because we don't know him, we can come to him fresh in this movie, without the baggage of having seen him in dozens of other roles, and can believe in the sanctity that surrounds his character. 

Finland is a country in which Protestantism is the registered faith of around 75% of the population, though few of those actually go to church most of the year. Christmas and Easter are the main times when people attend. So it would be easy to expect that the film would take a somewhat negative approach to Christian belief; in fact it presents a Christian faith as a perfectly reasonable thing, and doesn't undermine it at any point.

I've been using Clippings Converter for two or three years. It began as a way of uploading clippings from my Kindle into a format like Word or Evernote (I prefer the latter) and being able to access them more readily while using my PC. They've now shortened their name from Clippings Converter to, and are heading for another step up in their online journey, with added features that will enhance their site considerably. The main addition is the Google Chrome extension, which you can use to speed up the shift from the Kindle itself to your PC or Mac. There is a small charge per month for this extension (previously Clippings Converter was free), and no doubt there will be many people who take advantage of it. At $2.49NZ it's a good deal. With this extension you no longer have to plug in your Kindle to your PC; the extension will read clippings from your phone or iPad or other Windows devices. It'll be interesting to see how that works. 

If you're already a follower of this site, you can encourage others to use it through Twitter, FB or Google+. Just click on any of the links below. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

No sales tax

As an Auckland resident (which I'm not) I'm told that if I make any purchases from I won't have to pay sales tax. Although that apparently excludes any shipments to Florida that I may make. I'm not sure if Florida has recently transplanted itself to Auckland, New Zealand, but I guess it's kind of possible. They have similar climates at certain times of the year, and lately Auckland has been getting more and more tropical weather of the typhoon/tornado kind. Aucklanders, who continually tell those who live in the rest of the country how badly off they are, have been losing their roofs, windows, trampolines and more in a series of hectic winds. We've never lost our trampoline, though it did shift place a little once. Nor have we ever had the roof blown away. Thankfully. However, glass from the glasshouse is prone to fly off and smash in a high wind, and that has happened to us. We can't be protected from all things down here in the South. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Promise

Over the last few days we've watched the four episodes of Peter Kosminsky's TV film: The Promise. Like much of Kosminsky's TV work, it's quite provocative, and your sympathies change as the story unfolds.

Two stories interweave: one is set in Palestine just after the Second World War. A young sergeant is caught up in the historic events of the time, when the British were keeping the peace - as far as possible - between the new Jewish settlers who'd returned to their homeland after the horrors of the concentration camps, and the Palestinians who had lived in the area for centuries and were suddenly finding themselves kicked out of their country by a people who apparently forgot, very quickly, what it was like to be treated badly because of who you were.

The second story is set in the present day: the Sergeant is now an old man dying in a hospital. His unsympathetic daughter and his granddaughter (who's barely known the supposedly grumpy old man) set about clearing out his house. The daughter, Erin, finds the old man's diary, with photos and newspaper clippings. Against her mother's orders, she keeps the diary, and takes it with her to Israel where she's going with a friend whose Israeli background means she has to go into the Army for two years. Erin is a typical know-all teenager who begins to find out a great deal more about the Israel-Palestine conflict than she would ever have learned in her native country, and also matures quickly as a result of trying to repair something that had gone wrong back when her grandfather was a young man.

The two stories gradually cohere. There are perhaps too many coincidences in the plotting, and the filmmakers slide over some questions about motivations that probably should have been asked, but for all that the film carries you along as you increasingly struggle - like Erin - to make sense of a country where a people who were hated almost universally for centuries (the Jews) and then were slaughtered in their millions, show almost no care or concern for a people who by accident live in the country the Jews claim as their homeland.

Kosminsky doesn't offer us easy answers: we begin by thinking that the Israelis are a pretty reasonable bunch of people, but gradually discover - as both the grandfather and the granddaughter do - that they have almost no sympathy for the Palestinians, and show little concern about killing them or destroying their property if the need, or mood, arises. Try as you might, by the end of the movie, it's likely your opinion of the Israeli people may be much less sympathetic than at first. Whether this is a more one-sided view on Kosminsky's part than is fair is left to our judgement.

Claire Foy plays the initially sulky teenager with ease - there are times when you want to wipe that sulky look off her face, even late in the film. Nevertheless, she makes the journey from sulkiness to a degree of wisdom effectively. Christian Cooke, as the Sergeant, has a face that often makes it look as though he's going to burst into tears, yet he convinces us that he's a man who can make wise decisions, is loyal, is strong in a crisis, and much more. He's particularly strong in his last scenes when everything he's tried to do for a Palestinian family goes wrong, and he's treated as a deserter and thrown into prison.

The rest of the enormous cast are superb, and with the film shot entirely in Israel (with places standing in for Hebron, Gaza, and the West Bank. Even the Ben Gurion airport stands in for Heathrow. The series in general received high praise when first shown, though there were a number of voices claiming that it was anti-semitic in tone, something which can be justified, if that's what you're looking for.

Since writing this review I've become more aware of the concerns that were raised over Kosminsky's series. This article goes into detail about these and provides some balance to the way in which Kosminsky nudges his viewers more and more into an anti-Israeli bias.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Other Son

The Other Son is an intense, emotional film set in Israel and Palestine (there's a great deal of coming and going across the border between the two areas, and many views of the wall), and it's quite a tear-jerker, though in best sense.

It has a slightly improbable story, perhaps (although the starting point of the story is as old as the hills): two babies are literally swapped at birth because of fears of a Scud attack.One baby is Jewish but is given back to the Palestinian mother, and the other baby, of course, is Palestinian, and given back to the Jewish mother.This only comes to light when the 'Jewish' boy is about to turn eighteen and a blood test reveals that he couldn't possibly be the son of his parents. The other parents are informed, and there's a great deal of struggling to come to grips with the issue, both on the part of the two young men, but even more so on the part of the fathers. The mothers manage to begin to work through the problem much quicker than their husbands, of course, but even for them it's a major upheaval.

There are four languages spoken in the film: Hebrew, Arabic, English and French - the Jewish father is French by birth, and it appears that the family has spent some time there, but the 'Arab' boy has also been studying there.

The director is Lorraine Lévy, who also co-wrote the screenplay. She makes a fine job of bringing out the emotional aspects of the story (there's little 'action' in it), and is supported by a wonderful cast, all of whom are unknown to me, though plainly very experienced. When you see foreign movies you realise again and again what a vast world of actors, directors, writers there is out there whom we barely know about. We're so inundated with Hollywood and British movies and TV that we remain quite insular. 

This is a great story, and well worth catching up with. There's an interesting interview with the director here.

Writing and reading

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

Anne Lamott

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Payu2blog gone?

Over the years I've done a lot of posts here for a site called It seems that they've run right down, however. I've had no assignments for a few months, and they're not answering any emails (not that they were ever very good at that). They've begun to use Twitter as an alternative to blog posts, but the Twitter approach doesn't seem to be working. I never got paid for the one assignment they offered that I've tweeted, and the latest assignment along these lines is so confusingly laid out, I've had read trouble trying to figure out what they're talking about.

It's a pity, because Payu2blog was a reasonable source of small income over several years; my PayPal account was kept topped up by it. Ah well, that seems to be the way of the Net. Some things have their day and then suddenly they're gone, when the crowd moves on...

Monday, June 30, 2014

Brass comps

I'm playing for the National Brass Band Competitions next week, in Invercargill. At the moment there are two contestants playing one of my favourite brass pieces. Variations on a Welsh Theme by Peter Kneale. I've written about this piece before on this blog, and possibly I've written about it at some other time as well!  The great satisfaction about this piece is that the piano part is as interesting as the soloist's. That's not entirely unusual in brass band solos, but this one in particular is a delight to play.

Another contestant is playing Mace by Philip Sparke, a conductor and prolific composer whose music is played everywhere brass players play. Mace has a lovely slow melody opening the piece, but then it goes crazy. As far as I can make out it was originally written for soloist and piano, rather than soloist and band. The soloist has a hectic part in the fast section, with hardly room to breathe, and a massive cadenza.The pianist doesn't really have anything like as much to do, except make sure he or she keeps up: there's a constant shifting between 2/4 and 3/4 and counting beats (for me, anyway) is a major task. There are only a couple of awkward spots, one with impossible to play thirds. The rest of the time it's a matter of making sure you and the soloist stay together. It'll be interesting.

Another player is doing a piece called Concerto No 1 for Tuba and orchestra (although the soloist here is a bass trombonist). It's by Alexej Lebedjew, another prolific composer, especially for the tuba. This accompaniment, interestingly enough, even though it was composed for orchestra, sits under the pianist's hands very well. There are some nasty moments but in general it's more pianistic in style than orchestral. Perhaps the composer rewrote it himself for piano, rather than someone just transcribing it from the orchestral score. It's a big play and I'll probably leave the soloist behind while I'm enjoying myself...

There are some other pieces which are more traditional in style: the old thing of the pianist just having to keep hammering away while the soloist does all the fiddly bits. They have their place, but it's good that modern composers have moved well away from this style.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Bletchley Circle

Things have been a bit quiet on the blog scene in general of late because I've been focusing on writing the first draft of the sequel to Grimhilda! This has been completed (insofar as you can ever say that a first draft is 'completed') and I've now scribbled all over the printed-out version of it, making notes galore, amending, re-writing, fiddling, reconsidering, and generally hacking it to pieces. As you should with a first draft. The beginning and the ending both need thorough rewriting and expanding (now that I have a better idea of how things fit together) but there are some sections between them that are pretty satisfactory. Two lines in the entire draft actually made me laugh out loud when I came back to reading them again. Two lines! That's promising.

So the next job is to get on and do the rewrite. Should be fun.

We watched all three episodes of the series The Bletchley Circle last night because I had to stay up till one am to ring the US about something that couldn't be done any earlier. A very-well crafted series, with meticulous attention to detail of costume and design, and excellent photography.

Anna Maxwell Martin plays the main character, one of four women who'd worked at Bletchley during the war and were now effectively twiddling their thumbs nine years later, not using the gifts that had made them so valuable a decade earlier. I don't find Martin my favourite actress, perhaps because when I saw her in Bleak House as Esther Summerson, she seemed not to have got hold of the character: too lacking in the almost irritating modesty that Esther exhibits, and too little warmth.

Here she's given strong support by Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle and Julie Graham. The four re-unite, after a bit of dubiousness, in order to solve a series of murders that have obviously been done by the same man.The police are at a loss, but Martin's character sees links in the locations of the murders, and believes she can predict where the next abduction, murder and rape will take place - at least as near as anyone can - and will hopefully prevent another death.The police pooh-pooh her rather, and her husband thinks she's acting oddly. Certainly she's suddenly out and about a lot more than she's been in a long time.

The plot has a few holes - you want to know who's suddenly looking after the kids when Martin is gallivanting around, and also why she goes hiving off on her own, at night, to a place that's obviously closed down and inhabited by one person. Who she realises is the murderer she's looking for. That peculiarity apart (although it's common enough in suspense stories for the woman to do that daft thing of putting herself in considerable danger in a dark house with a stranger) this was well-worth watching. The other three women are great, and though the men mostly come off looking a bit like twats, the story is absorbing enough to keep us involved throughout.

The series was originally a one-off piece, but there's been a sequel. This was done a couple of years later, and should be worth looking out for. Hopefully it lives up to the standards of the first series.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Assassin of the Tsar

We recently got a package DVD which includes ten movies - mostly from the 90s, I think - and have only watched a couple so far. Last night it was the turn of a strange movie called Assassin of the Tsar. Made in Russia by a Russian director and with a Russian cast and crew, it stars Malcolm McDowell who plays a psychiatric patient, Timofeyev, with his usual intense on-the-edge approach, and also plays a real-life person, Yurovsky, the man who, along with a number of 'comrades', murdered the Tsar and his family. The other main actor, Oleg Yankovskiya well-known actor in his native country, plays the new doctor at the asylum where McDowell has been hospitalised for many years, as well as the Tsar. Confused? You should be. 

Even for people who know the story of the assassination, and the botched assassination of the Tsar's father (which is also in the movie), I suspect this film would appear confusing. Timofeyev believes he is Yurovsky, and on a certain date each year (July 16th, if I remember rightly) a wound appears around his neck, a circle like that of a hangman's rope. On another date in August, he also shows extremes symptoms of a stomach problem. Both of these are somehow related to the assassinations. In due course the doctor takes on the role of the Tsar in order to try and treat Timofeyev, but in the process comes to see himself actually as the Tsar, and dies - though not by assassination. Why he comes to take on the Tsar's persona isn't adequately explained, except with a bit of psycho-babble. 

The scenes set in the past where the Bolsheviks are planning to kill the imperial family are full of tension. The scenes in the asylum seem random and unrelated to the rest of the movie, and the whole nonsense of the doctor dying makes no sense. Then there's the woman who's lost her child and who's waiting outside the residence where the Tsar and his family are confined. We have no idea what she has to do with the story. Some reviewers see the film as a kind of releasing of guilt of the Russians in modern USSR. I have no idea, and couldn't see the connection.

The film is in English, presumably with the Russian cast dubbed. Curiously, while they all have accents, McDowell for the most part doesn't. By all accounts there's a version in Russian in which McDowell is dubbed. The soundtrack is also odd: there's music playing a good deal of the time, the usual sort of music that accompanies any film, but it seems to be coming from another room, and is often quite faint.

How this film came to be made and how McDowell got involved in it isn't obvious. McDowell gives it his all, as you'd expect, and is worth watching. But beyond that the film makes too little sense to really engage an audience. 

Monday, June 02, 2014

A couple of movies from 1993

The Warehouse had a sale of DVDs on the weekend, so we picked up a few to replace a bunch that were surplus to requirements, movies we'll never watch again (wouldn't want to watch again) and some that we had double-ups of for whatever reason.
On Saturday night we watched a DVD of The Remains of the Day, which we'd seen at the cinema when it first came out. Neither of us could remember much about it; in fact there was very little of that visual recognition you usually have when you're seeing a movie again. Perhaps we're losing our visual recognition as we get older, which is a bit scary!
Anyway, this movie, with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson both at their best, is a story about a butler in a large aristocratic home, Darlington Hall, owned by Lord Darlington. The Lord, though he is an honourable man, is an amateur in his political dealings; he foolishly sides with the Nazis during the war, and probably should have been charged with treason. Hopkins, the consummate butler, always there, always perfect in behaviour, claims he never hears what goes on around him: he's too busy doing his job. But in fact he's closed off to human relationships for the most part. When he employs his own father as an under-butler, he calls him Mr Stevens rather than father. It's only as his father is dying that he manages to speak as though there is some relationship there. Even when his father is lying dead upstairs he believes his duty is still to serve his Lordship first.
Thompson plays the housekeeper who gives as good as she gets from Hopkins, but also falls in love with him. In spite of himself, he's in love with her, but his nature is such that he can't admit to it, and so both their lives go awry as a result.
There's a top-notch cast including Hugh Grant, Christopher Reeves and Ben Chaplin among the more familiar faces. The direction by James Ivory is quiet and assured, and the script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala gives the performers ample room for subtlety and subtext. A great film, with much in it to be admired. 
In the same year, Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman starred in a much less well-known movie, My Life, which, if it had been done as a TV movie with a TV actor would have ended up requiring a box of tissues. It narrowly avoids this because of Keaton's solid performance in which he has ample room to both clown and play to his serious side. 
Keaton plays a man who has only a few months to live because of cancer, and like many in that position he doesn't want to die, especially as his wife is expecting their first child. He manages to stay alive long enough to see his son grow through his first months before succumbing to the continually invasive cancer. As in too many movies about illness, the cancer gets put on the back-burner too often: it has a brief dramatic appearance at the beginning (sorted out by some magic pill that works instantly) and hardly turns up again until the end. In the meantime, unlike most cancer patients, Keaton, on the surface at least, appears to be as healthy as the next man.
Before he dies he makes a series of home movies that he wants his future child to be able to view, but in the process he comes face to the face with the fact that he's never forgiven his own parents: he particularly felt that his father was never there for him because he worked so hard at his business. But he has to face the fact that he's actually no different: he's a workaholic too. 
For the most part it's Keaton who makes the movie work (Kidman has a bit of a wishy-washy role that doesn't give her room for much depth unfortunately) in spite of its forays into occasional silliness. The rest of the cast, including Bradley Whitford (from West Wing, and sporting the worst false moustache you've ever seen - it looks as though belongs in the 70s rather than the 90s), Michael Considine and Queen Latifah don't really get much chance to get to grips with their roles because they're basically underwritten. Latifah doesn't appear till almost the end, comes in with a whiz and a bang and is then given nothing to do. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Hue and Cry II

I was about to write a blog post saying that in spite of the fact that I'd had the DVD of the movie, Hue and Cry, on my shelves for some time, I'd never watched it. To my surprise, when I checked back, I did watch it in 2007, and wrote about it then. Both my wife and I said last night, I don't remember ever seeing this before. Which is puzzling, because I usually have a reasonable visual memory for movies, and so does she, and at least some aspects of the first viewing will be remembered in the second.

So I don't need to say any more about the film, except to say that it was just as enjoyable on a second viewing as I'd obviously found it on the first. However, what I don't seem to have noted at the time is the detail. Right from the opening credits, which are white-washed onto a real wall, with boys playing, running, fighting in front of them, and with a bit of humour thrown in (Wot? no producer? says one, and Stick no Bills in another, with a tatty Ealing Studios poster fluttering alongside) there's an attitude of 'Let's see if you pick this up, audience.' Added to this is Auric's opening music which fits beautifully to all the zipping around and punching that's going on.

Every time the main group of boys appear - and there are around a dozen of them, and one girl (Joan Dowling, who later married Harry Fowler, the main 'boy' in the film, and who sadly committed suicide at the age of 26) - not only do we get a sense of their individuality, but all manner of other 'business' is going on. In one scene one boy is holding a bag of chips; the arm of another reaches over several times to pinch a chip while the others are talking. One boy is being buried in bricks from the bombed-out building site in another scene, and is left to fight his own way out when the others all rush off. One boy has a pet mouse (which has a couple of important scenes later) and it's casually walking up around his collar when we first see him. There's a scene where the first 'The Trump' - a boy's adventure weekly that plays a vital role in the film - is snatched back and forth between three or four of the boys, including its owner. Nobody ever stands around in this movie: the boys' characters and movements are distinct and well-worked out. Charles Crichton, the director, obviously had a good eye for how boys of that generation behaved, and the movie is full of things to keep the eye attentive.

And there's plenty of comedy: in one notable scene that takes place in a department store at night the boys are waiting for the crims to arrive: the owner of the mouse is hiding under a mannequin's skirt. The mouse escapes, and heads over to a speak-your-weight machine. The boy dives for the mouse and the machine speaks his weight. The shop's caretaker arrives and tries to get the boy and the machine speaks their combined weight, and then other boys come and then the police and the machine, with its pompous voice, can hardly keep up.

Alistair Sim has only a few scenes, and plays a character who can hardly sit still. Crichton has him up and down around his cluttered flat, talking nineteen to the dozen, and performing as only Sim could do, and doing so many bits of business that brain must have been whirling. He gets star billing in spite of appearing for about ten minutes all up, but as Sim always did, he makes those ten minutes unforgettable.

I mentioned in the previous post that a great deal of the film was shot on location, outside in the bombed-out streets of London. In the background of several shots you can see workers rebuilding, and further away still, the barges and boats on the Thames. The film manages to be a documentary of a particular time in the city's history as well as an entertaining story.