Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review of Prostate Wimp

The following review appeared in Readers' Favourites, and is by Java Davies

Like many people, I'm sure, I thought that all prostate issues were due to cancer. Reading Diary of a Prostate Wimp by Mike Crowl showed me other types of prostate issues. Mike Crowl wasn't kidding about this being a diary. It's a combination of diary entries on his blog, entries from other men suffering from prostate issues, and letters to God, whom Mike refers to as "Dad," in the style of Jesus referring to God as Dad in Aramaic. While the title of this compilation is Diary of a Prostate Wimp, these men carried themselves with strength and humor for the most part, with some fear and doubt thrown in the mix on occasion.

At the very beginning, Mike Crowl warns people that the squeamish shouldn't attempt this book, and the warning is well advised. Mike doesn't flinch when discussing the pain of catheterization and its side effects of peeing on himself in public when the catheter dislodged, having irritation at the penis tip where the catheter can rub, discomforts along the sexual front, exhaustion, leaving home for a vacation, and even weight gain from the inability to exercise regularly. Mike also talks about different levels in the quality of medical care, and the lack of information from the doctors when you don't know what to ask. Frequent visits to doctors and clinics made me wonder what the healthcare system is like in New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, it's a combination of private and public provision, depending upon the illness or injury.

I was intrigued by the frequent references to Celia, Mrs. Crowl. She and the rest of the family seemed to be very supportive during the long months of catheterization, the prostate scraping surgery, and the slow recovery. Throughout, the author talks about the things he misses and can't wait to get back to. I was rooting for his eventual, successful recovery. If the reader, or someone the reader knows, is suffering from prostate issues, I recommend this book.

A footnote to this review: Davies is correct in that the NZ Health system is a combination of public and private. Due to increasing delays in getting treatment through the public system, many people now opt to pay for health insurance, in order to be able to be treated more speedily in the private sector. Ironically the doctors often work in both areas. Still, for all its failings, the health system in New Zealand is still better than in many places in the world. 

Mumbersons reviewed

The following review comes from the Readers' Favourite site, and is by Michelle Stanley:

The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret (Grimhilderness Book 2) is a children’s fantasy by Mike Crowl and Cherianne Parks. A haircut turned into an ear cut when Billy Mumberson went to the barber. Things got more peculiar when a bedraggled looking elderly couple barges into his home, claiming to be his grandparents, and takes over running it. A text from his father asks Billy to meet him at the factory, but when Billy and his friend Olivia arrive there, they walk into a trap. The barber who had nipped his ear forces him into a room to extract more blood. Quick thinking Olivia rescues Billy, who wonders why his blood is in demand. They soon learn that the Mumberson family are in more danger, especially when Grandpa decides to sell his diamonds and the villains find out.

The Mumbersons and The Blood Secret is the sequel to Grimhilda! by Mike Crowl and Cherianne Parks. It is a charming story with magic, action, and a nice mystery that will keep children engrossed. I think the first chapter is very interesting since it gives readers a perceptive look into Billy’s character, his family, and Olivia’s too. The authors are creative in their writing and they seem to enjoy keeping readers in suspense since almost everyone that Billy meets and events that occur always appear suspicious. I like the main characters, Billy and Olivia, but found the others amusing, given their descriptions, attitudes and conversation. I highly recommend this fantasy book.

The Disenchanted Wizard heads for the finish line

Blog posts about the book I'm writing have been few and far between recently, mainly because I've been writing. (#amwriting, as the Twitter hashtag goes...)

The latest posts on the topic seem to be here, and here. However, such has been the nature of this particular beast, that what I say in one blog post seems to get sideswiped by what I say in a later one, because this book has changed so many times.

It started life as a NaNoWriMo exercise, you might say, though I'd had the idea for the book in my head for some time before that. The NaNoWriMo version is so different to the draft I've been working on today, that you might almost say there's no comparison. The hero took second place to a heroine and the couple who were going to be the reason for the book's existence have vanished entirely. Though I regard it as the third in the Grimhilderness! series, there's no mention of Grimhilda or anything else to do with the place: there was, but even that got excised. 

A good character got shunted out and a bad character who'd had a very small role took his place. Dogs became wolves, to avoid confusion when reading the book aloud (something I hope will be done!). Those who were wizards in the first version stopped being wizards and became ordinary human beings...and then one of them became a wizard again! One character who played an ambiguous role in the original version, changed sides several times before he settled down to being a 'good' character. Soccer was intended to play a big part in the story, was reduced to almost nothing, and now plays a big part in it again. And certain people flying was an exciting idea I had originally which got abandoned, and now plays a big role in the current version. 

My 'beta reader' as you might call her - her name appears on the first two books in the series - has finally deemed that we're getting to the point where the structure of the book is working. Now it's down to the nitty-gritty of detail, which is what I've been working on today. 

I've predicted that I was nearly finished this book at least twice before, and ended up with egg on my face. This time I think you can save the eggs for eating. I hope!

If you haven't read the first two books in the Grimhilderness series, these are the details: 

Grimhilda! - a fantasy for children and their parents. Kindle or Smashwords
The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret. Kindle or Smashwords

Both books are available on iTunes, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and a bunch of other sites. Just search for the titles on these. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two Maori movies

We watched two recent New Zealand movies over the last few days, firstly The Dark Horse (2014), with Cliff Curtis and James Rolleston, and Fantail (2013), with Sophie Henderson - who also takes the lead role.

Fantail, for my taste, is rather too slow in its set-up. There's a kind of dreamy quality about the first half hour or so, and you begin to wonder when the story is going to appear. Henderson is terrific in her role of a young girl working all night in a petrol station while caring for her invalid mother in the daytime. Her younger brother (Jahalis Ngamotu), who's plainly Maori - while she's plainly white - is likely to go off the rails, and does. The daytime worker, played by Stephen Lovatt, is a fatherly figure who cares a lot about Sophie's wellbeing. It's possible he is her actual father, though we never find out. And then there's the 'regional manager' a loser trying to impress. This is a comedy role, played nicely enough by Jarod Rawiri, but it's sometimes at odds with the rest of the movie, which heads deep into drama territory.

The film's basic story is strong enough, except there's just not enough of it. Too much of the movie's weight is loaded onto Henderson's shoulders; we certainly get to know her, but the three supporting roles seem a bit underwritten. The small budget means there are few other characters, mostly seen only briefly. It's a bit of a puzzle why this petrol station needs someone working there all night when there are hardly any customers, and when the customers appear to prepay to get the petrol (a couple don't, which is one of the inconsistencies). It seems highly uneconomical. There are other inconsistencies too; none of them are major, but they film loses credibility as a result of them. And the ending, which is certainly dramatic enough, isn't quite believable. I won't say what happens, because the movie is worth seeing; it just felt that a bit more tension might have been useful.

The other film has a bigger budget, a top-notch star in the main role, and a bunch of strong actors around him. Cliff Curtis eschews his normal good looks, and appears here padded with a pot belly; he walks oddly, and is missing some teeth and hair. Rolleston, who is excellent, has a smaller role, but some vital scenes. This young man seems born to the screen.

The story is (loosely) based on the true story of Genesis Potini, a brilliant chess player who had mental health issues most of his life. He was in an out of institutions much of his adult life. In the movie, his older brother, Noble, (Kirk Torrance) who taught him to play chess as a child, is officially in charge of him now that he's out of the hospital, Noble isn't interested in looking after him (Potini winds up sleeping rough); he's even less interested in seeing his son yearning for the kindness and gentleness that Potini exudes. Noble is also a longstanding gang member, and wants to initiate his son (Rolleston) into the gang. Meanwhile, Potini has seen potential in a bunch of kids from poor backgrounds who are part of a chess club formed by an old friend, and decides he can help. It's also a way of his staying sane, though whether the idea of taking them to Auckland for a Chess Championship is sane is another matter.

The format of the story is by no means new, but it's given plenty of energy and life by the actors. The gang scene is portrayed as a vicious dog eats dog world where the only way to keep alive is to be as bad as everyone else. Drugs, alcohol, loud music abound (as they do in a sequence in Fantail), and violence is common. This is possibly a world many pakeha (white New Zealanders) don't know a lot about, particularly at my end of the country.

Dark Horse is a two-hour movie that might have done with a bit of trimming. Nevertheless, Curtis and Rolleston keep the screen alive throughout.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Prisoners: morally ambiguous

Prisoners is a disturbing movie, less for its subject matter - the abduction of two little girls - than its moral ambiguity. Are we really supposed to believe that a father who prays the Lord's Prayer before he allows his teenage son to shoot a deer, and who much later prays the same prayer with a great more difficulty, would become such a vigilante character as to beat a suspect almost to a pulp? And I mean 'pulp'.

Another character, supposedly once a Christian, also goes on about doing her now evil work in order to make people stop believing in God. At least I think that's what she said. Sorry, run that by me again? It sounded like a last minute motivation pulled up out of the hat.

There are also some rather iffy plot-holes by the end of the movie, and quite honestly I almost lost my own plot when late in the piece there was lots of stuff about mazes and snakes, neither of which, as far as I could tell, had much to do with the overall mystery.

Okay, gripes over and done. Hugh Jackman is terrific in his role of the ambiguous father. I couldn't much believe in him as a Christian, but I could understand a great deal of his pain and frustration as a father. Jake Gyllenhaal (whatever happened to movie stars having pronounceable names?) is his opposite number: just as determined to solve the case but only through legal means, and frustrated that those legal means can sometimes cause unintended dire effects. Gyllenhaal always seems to bring great integrity to his roles, and here, even though he plays someone who mostly keeps his anger at bay, he's extremely effective. In fact I thought he was the star of the movie; it's actually Jackman who gets top billing.

The rest of the cast are excellent iu their own quirky ways. The black couple who also lose a daughter aren't made of such tough metal as Jackman's character; you long for them to bring integrity and honesty to the brutality that Jackman is imposing on the suspect. When they continually wimp away from this I found it frustrating: why don't they speak out against from Jackman is doing? He's obviously not the friend they'd thought him, and worse, he's likely to get them all put away in jail.

The production values are terrific in every way. Some have complained about the music score; personally it never intruded at any level for me, so it obviously did its job well. I think the movie is overlong. Over half an hour before it finished I was beginning to wonder: how long is this going to go on? There were plenty of places where judicious cuts could have been made, which would have made an already suspenseful movie into an even tauter one. But, this is the movie as it stands, at nearly two hours. There are plenty of great moments along the way.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

A Nigerian movie, and an old Hitchcock

Last night had a bit of a splurge on movies, watching two, one made in Nigeria in 2013, and the other made in Hollywood way back in 1954. 

The first was B for Boy, a movie by first-time feature director, . Apart from being drawn-out in some places, and having an ending that arrived abruptly - leaving the viewer to decide for themselves what happened next - this a very moving film about a difficult subject. 

In Nigeria, even amongst Christian families, it's still deemed acceptable to bring in a second wife if the first wife doesn't produce a boy child. Amaka (Uche Nwadili) and Nonso (Ngozi Nwaneto) are a happily married couple, and as well off as many Westerners. Their home and workplaces are little different to those seen in Western homes, but there are some scenes set in Nonso's village that hark back to a different age. 

In spite of Nonso's mother introducing a very young and naive second 'wife' into the picture, Nonso refuses to have anything to do with her. He's in love with Amaka, and won't be ambushed into adding to his spouses. The trouble is that the couple don't have a son, 'only' a girl of between eight and ten. Amaka has had two miscarriages, and now, nearly forty, is expecting again. Is it a boy? At first she refuses to have an ultrasound because she's afraid of finding out that it's another girl. When she does have an ultrasound, her brother-in-law dies suddenly the same day, and from there everything spirals out of control for her. It's a complex story, made more so by people not talking when they should talk, and thus missing out on information that would change the course of their lives for the better. As so often happens in real life, the needed conversation is put off for one reason or another, and in this story, the consequences are drastic. 

Nwadili is wonderful in her role as a somewhat imperious mother and wife, one who's admired by her staff, even though she's plainly a fairly tough employer. Nwaneto plays the husband with great compassion and gentleness, and it's not entirely his fault that things go so awry. To tell you more about what happens would spoil the story; suffice to say, even given some shots that seem to be held for rather too long, this is an absorbing story. Anadu makes a bit too much use of hand-held cameras, I felt: sometimes a shot seems unnecessarily jumpy, even on a smallish screen, and occasionally it's as if the camera hasn't quite caught the person or object it should focus on. This apart, the direction is excellent, and the script, which has an air of presenting real life, is well-constructed. 

The second movie was that Hitchcock masterpiece, Rear Window. I"ve seen it at least twice before, and thought it might have lost some of its lustre, but it stands up brilliantly. The story concerns a professional news photographer, played by James Stewart, who's holed up in his apartment with a broken leg; so broken that the cast goes from thigh to foot. Bored by being cooped up when he's used to adventure, shooting photos around the world, he fantasizes about some of his very visible neighbours, making up stories about them. This leads him into thinking that his neighbour across the courtyard has murdered his wife. At first we believe this to be possible, although there's one tiny shot that causes some doubt, and then Stewart and his girlfriend (the girlfriend of all girlfriends, Grace Kelly, whom remarkably, Stewart is only half in love with), after having convinced themselves that they're right, convince themselves that they're wrong again, when an old detective friend (Wendell Corey) not only pooh-poohs their amateur sleuthing, but shows that all their 'facts' could easily prove a completely different scenario. But something else causes them to shift gear again, and this builds to a wonderfully exciting climax. 

Thelma Ritter plays the insurance nurse who comes in daily, and who also gets involved in the climax; always a wonderful actress, she's so in tune with her role here that you never question that she could be anything else. The only disappointment in the film, I think, is Raymond Burr, who, like most of the neighbours, is seen for most of the film only at a distance, or through a telephoto lens. Burr, who plays the possible murderer, seems not quite a home in the movie: it may not help that he barely gets any actual lines to speak, because he's always too far away to be heard; but it just seems that he isn't quite sure of what role he's playing. 

Being far away from the camera doesn't stop the various actors and actresses playing the other neighbours from giving real life to their roles: the pirouetting musical comedy dancer, the female sculptor, the newly-married couple, the dog-owning couple who sleep out of the fire escape because of the heat; the love-song composer, and 'Miss Lonelyhearts', the woman who nearly commits suicide in her loneliness. Ironically, this is visible to us, but Stewart and co are so concerned with their 'suspect' that they nearly miss seeing it happen.  

Scene from Stewart's 'apartment'; showing some of the
other dwellings. 
The enormous set, which is four storeys high and surrounds a courtyard, was built in the studio. There's a busy street just visible through an alleyway, with a working restaurant, and cars and trucks driving past. Pedestrians walk and delivery men deliver; birds fly around. There's even a downpour that sends the couple sleeping on the fire escape scuttling inside. We know that these various apartments aren't real, from the skimpy bed-sit to the room big enough to take a grand piano, but they become real for us as we share Stewart's voyeurism. 

The organisation of the movie is scrupulous in its details (including Hitchcock himself winding up a seven-day clock in the musician's apartment at one point). And the sense of claustrophobia is maintained until the end. Then there's the script, which is wonderfully articulate and full of great lines; Stewart at his best, Kelly at her best and Hitchcock somehow providing all this magic in his apparently casual way. 

Friday, November 06, 2015

News from a country not yet visited.

Another quote from The Narnian by Alan Jacobs, page 314. These are C S Lewis's words. They were read  at Kenneth Tynan's funeral. 

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things  - the beauty, the memory of our own past - are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard; news from a country we have never yet visited. 

At risk of adding to Lewis's excellent words, this should encourage us that what we write is always more than we know. 

Begin with images

I don't often repeat posts from one of my blogs to another, but in this case this extract is not only apt for Christians, but also for writers in general. Alan Jacobs, in his book, The Narnian, a biography of C S Lewis as well as an overview of his books, shows how much effective a story is if we start from images rather than 'themes' or theories. 

"Everything began with images," he wrote: "a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a
magnificent lion.  At first there wasn't even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord."  There was not, he says over and over again, an evangelistic plan in the making of Narnia, no apologetic scheme: "Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age-group I'd write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out "allegories" to embody them. This is pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way at all."

Or perhaps he could have, but knows that it would have been a dreadful mistake, a giving over of his imaginative life to the "expository demon." What he has to do instead is trust the images that come into his mind - or, more accurately, trust that he is being formed as a Christian in such a way that the images that come to his mind are authentic ones, ones that lie at, or at least near, the centre of his soul. He can do this only if he rejects not only the market-driven questions of modern authors and publishers ("What do children want?") but even the more morally sound question of the Christian apologist ("What do children need?"): "It is better not to ask the questions at all.  Let the pictures tell you their own moral.  For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life."

This is a terrifying, or liberating, word: liberating in that one need not expose oneself to the sanctimonious drudgery of drawing up lists of Christian truths and hammering out allegories that will meet the desires or needs of children. But terrifying because as those images rise from your mind you discover what you are really made of: you discover whether you are one whose moral and aesthetic responses have been shaped by the Christian narrative or whether you remain a person "without a chest," lacking in true spiritual formation.  Trusting the images, you find out who you are.

Pages 243-4 The Narnian. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

More lasting than themselves

I'm writing notes for a programme for the ladies' choir I conduct. Something that strikes me over and over again is how often a published but extremely minor poet, a poet who is now all but forgotten (except perhaps on Wikipedia), has managed to survive longer into the future than might otherwise have been the case, because one or two of his or her poems were set to music. By a much more famous composer.

The songs I'm thinking of are mostly from the British art song period - from the very late 19th century into the first few decades of the 20th, but the same thing applies to much German lieder. The composers are remembered, and there's information about them online - often at length. But the poets are almost entirely forgotten, in spite of having produced reams of poetry, or twenty or thirty novels, or various other writings in their lifetime. And even if the poets are still visible online, their work is forgotten: a mere list of names of books that few libraries would have copies of.

Billy Collins wrote a delightful poem called Marginalia, about the sorts of things that people scribble in the margins of books. In one stanza he writes:
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoriajotted along the borders of the Gospelsbrief asides about the pains of copying,a bird singing near their window,or the sunlight that illuminated the page -anonymous men hitching a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than themselves. 
Those last two lines are apt for what I've written above: like those Irish monks, the names of the poets would be forgotten if it wasn't for the vessel, the composer (or perhaps the song), being more lasting than themselves. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Don't sweat the small notes....

I attended a singer's singing lesson yesterday, and a particular phrase the teacher said stuck in my mind. I thought I'd make a note about it here, in order not to forget it. 

It's wisdom, and yet it's simple enough. 

During the course of the lesson the singer, whom I'll call B, was getting frazzled by a particular note in a phrase. The teacher, J, gave her a technical way of approaching it, and that helped immensely. She did more: she pointed out that a strong physical gesture at the time of the note being sung would help B to have a sense of pushing the note out to the listeners. 

And then when B was still feeling somewhat unconfident, the teacher said - 'Make friends with it!’ That is, (and these are my words) be comfortable with this particular bar in the music and don't let it become a kind of bugbear that jumps out and frightens you in advance each time you approach it. 

Almost every piece of music, even the simplest, has at least one spot where you have to work much harder in order to play or sing it as easily as the rest of the piece. I've found this over and over in learning pieces. Even recently, in playing a relatively simple Mozart accompaniment for a clarinettist, I found a bar where the left hand had to go running down an awkward phrase. It wasn't an ordinary scale, and it wasn't something that you'd come across normally: it was just one of those phrases that ran oddly across black and white notes. 

My left hand has never been as adept as my right, and as soon as it comes across anything tricky, it insists on hours of practice or else it won't play it at all. Well, I did practice this piece, made sure I knew what the fingering was and got it running smoothly without qualms. In fact, the left hand felt quite good about itself for being able to play it evenly and without hesitation. 

Some of the time. Each time I came back to the piece, up until the day of the performance, the left hand would find itself approaching that phrase and the tension would appear. It was like going into a dark bedroom and not being quite sure what might jump out and frighten you. 

I reassured the left hand that it knew exactly how to play this phrase, and all it had to do was relax and play it. But as the singing teacher had pointed out, we get nervous about a difficult moment in a piece of music and it becomes our whole focus, and unsettles our brain. If the brain is unsettled, the fingers become unsettled, and before you know it, you've stumbled over the phrase, much to your annoyance. 

I've known what to do about this for a long time, so I was already doing my own form of J's 'Make friends with it'. I told the left hand that it knew exactly how to play this phrase and that it was very clever for doing so, and would be exceptionally pleased with itself when it performed it without concern on the day, or even the next time we ran through the piece. And on the day of the performance it breezed up to the phrase, ran down it without blinking an eyelid, and carried on, congratulating itself for being so clever. 

At the end of the day, however, flubs in performance are essentially unimportant. I once saw a professional musician stop completely in the middle of Debussy's La Cathedrale Engloutie; I think she must have had a memory lapse. The audience stopped breathing for a moment, and then the pianist carried as if nothing had happened. I only remember it because I knew the piece quite well. Most of the audience will have long forgotten the incident. And I read somewhere recently that in a professional orchestra the musicians make, on average, seven mistakes a minute. (I don't know how anyone would have calculated this, but...) Do we notice? Probably not. 

I often say to other singers and musicians: just enjoy it. If we don't enjoy what we're singing or playing, then all our time is spent worrying about technique and correctness and, worst of all, perfection. Few musicians achieve perfection, and if they allow themselves to be upset by the odd wrong note or underperformed phrase, they'll only make things worse for the next difficult phrase. You just have to keep moving ahead in music, or else you destroy the whole thing. 

It concerns me when a child (or even an adult) comes off stage after a good performance in a competition or concert and immediately fusses about a wrong note or two. Why do it? The notes are long gone, and wrong ones can be fixed for next time. Focusing on them and not on the overall good performance undermines confidence in your ability. Better to say: I did well with that. Sure, some things might have gone better, but I enjoyed doing it, and the audience enjoyed hearing it. 

We can get too precious about performance, too concerned about perfection. Far better to be keen to show the audience how much you love the piece by performing it to the best of your ability. 

99.99% of them won't notice the errors anyway. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Giving up on books

I love Goodreads and think it's a great site for all manner of things related to books. I enjoy being able to keep track of what I read (previously I just made a list of titles for each year, which was okay, but didn't have any detail), but I find one aspect of the 'My Books' section a bit frustrating.

I've always been one of those people who doesn't finish every book he starts, but Goodreads doesn't seem to like this idea much. You almost get the feeling you should finish everything you begin. Well, sorry, Goodreads, I just can't. Some books get to the point where they're either overtaken by something more interesting, or where I've got the general idea and find the author's just repeating him/herself, or where they just fail to keep on grabbing me. This can happen early in the book, or late, but there comes a time with some books when finishing them is just wasted effort for me.

This can include 'classic' novels like le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which, in spite of its stylish writing, just failed on a storytelling level for me. Not just confusing, but almost opaque. I got about halfway through it before giving up.

So what do I do with books like that? You can make up your own category: Books I Failed to Finish if you want, but they'll still show up as books that aren't done with. (In fact I do have two categories along these lines: one's called 'Put aside for the time being'  and the other is 'Giving up on'. 

But the books in these can't officially be put in the 'Read' category. Well, it looks as though I'm going to have to pretend I've finished them, and put a note (mostly for my own benefit) in the review section to say that I couldn't get any further with a book. And why.

I've started doing that, but feel as though I'm being sneaky and that Goodreads will catch up with me soon, and give me a slap on the hand.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Weight of Elephants

The Weight of Elephants is an odd arthouse-type movie filmed in Invercargill, New Zealand, by first-time feature director, Daniel Joseph Borgman. Borgman is a New Zealander, though most of his earlier film work has been done in Denmark, where he has made several short movies.

The great strength of the movie is the outstanding performance by Demos Murphy, an 11-year-old first-time film actor. Murphy brings all the vulnerability and depth of a lonely boy to the screen, a boy on whom the weight of the world (let alone of elephants) seems to have landed. His mother has left (there's no word of a father); his grandmother is bringing him up with a lack of warmth that's hard to credit; his live-in uncle is chronically depressed; he's bullied at school and even his reasonably close friend betrays him, preferring to side with the macho boys in the school.

Even the girl next door, who's a little younger - she's played by Angelina Cottrell with considerable intensity - seems to want to boss him around and hone in on his tenderness. Only her little sister is open and warm towards him.

All of this angst is beautifully filmed in a recognisably semi-rural New Zealand.

That's the plus side of the movie. The negative is that there's no story: bits and pieces float along together, but form no cohesive whole. The mystery element (three small children go missing) is mishandled and left hanging. Such incoherence might convey how Adrian, the boy, feels about his life, but it's an unsatisfying experience for the viewer. Given a child who can act with such depth of feeling as Murphy can, it's a shame to have almost wasted him in a part that seems to go nowhere.

The script cries out for someone to pull all the elements together; unfortunately this hasn't happened, and we're left with a half-story with lots of long reflective pauses that finishes up stopping in the middle of nowhere. Just before the screen suddenly went dark, I was thinking: the writer has painted himself into a corner. And he has. Borgman himself is the writer, and he's loosely based his movie on a bleak Australian story by Sonya Hartnett, a story bleaker than this movie by all accounts (!)

To his credit Borgman provides the kids mostly with dialogue that rings true. However, a number of the lines given to Nicole, the girl from next door, might ring true in the mouth of an adult. In the mouth of a child, they just sound false.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Secrets and Lies re-viewed

It’s rather puzzling that I don’t appear to have ever mentioned seeing Secrets and Lies, the one Mike Leigh both my wife and I enjoyed on first viewing ˗ and watched again last night. It was made in 1996, before I was blogging, and perhaps I've talked about it in one of my older journals, which exist only in print, and aren't easily searched. 

The story is about factory-worker Cynthia (played by Brenda Blethyn) a fortyish mother of a sour-faced 21-year-old illegitimate daughter, Roxanne (Clare Rushbrook), and, as it turns out, also the mother of Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an optometrist in her late twenties. Hortense was adopted at birth and never seen by Cynthia (who was only 16 at the time). Cynthia is not surprisingly shocked when she discovers that her first illegitimate child is black, and has been brought up by black parents (both now deceased). 

A second set of related characters, Maurice and Monica (Timothy Spall and Phyllis Logan) live out a sour marriage. He's a photographer and is also Cynthia's brother. But Cynthia and Monica don't get on so he doesn't often see his sister. Roxanne has a boyfriend, a seemingly-drippy scaffolder (who redeems himself with one line towards the end of the movie). And the eighth main character (though she only appears infrequently) is Maurice's assistant, Jane (Elizabeth Berrington)

Second time around, the movie seemed somewhat overlong: there are some irrelevant scenes (in particular, the one where the former owner of the photography business turns up drunk, out of the blue, utterly negative about life), but the acting is terrific, and Leigh allows his actors just to get on and play out scenes without filmic fuss. Thus the long scene where Cynthia and Hortense get to know each other is played with the camera square on, no distraction of extras in the background, and just two actors doing a wonderful several-minute scene. Leigh does the same thing with all eight main actors later, at the birthday barbeque, when the camera just watches them zipping dialogue back and forth and doing all sorts of business. It’s a brilliant scene, perfect cinema, in spite of there being no camera movement. 

Both Spall and Blethyn were new to me when we first saw this, and both have gone on to much bigger things. But every actor in the movie is excellent, right down to the innumerable people being photographed in Maurice's studio - a number of whom appear for only a few seconds. (Included among these are some quite familiar faces.)

The movie is quite dark for much of the time, though there's plenty of comedy within that, but by the time we've reached the end, with its wonderful uncovering of all the secrets, and its reconciliations, a huge corner has been turned into the light. 

Leigh's well-known approach to filmmaking of allowing the actors to create their characters from scratch works superbly here, though obviously there has been much refining in the finished film. But this method means that the actors have thoroughly inhabited their characters and bring a great deal of subtlety to even the smallest of scenes.