A man spends a romantic evening with a beautiful woman, and thinks: “I’ll grab my binoculars and go into protective mode.” She thinks he’s Cape Fear and gets a restraining order.
Or does she?!Continue reading
A man spends a romantic evening with a beautiful woman, and thinks: “I’ll grab my binoculars and go into protective mode.” She thinks he’s Cape Fear and gets a restraining order.
Or does she?!Continue reading
It’s “Stunde Null” – zero hour – for a defeated Germany following WWII. Sadly for audiences of The Aftermath, time stands still.
The screenplay puts us in the picture: more bombs flattened Hamburg in a single weekend than were dropped on London during the entire conflict. Among the scores who died in the firestorm, was the wife of non-Nazi architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård).
Top British officer Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) requisitions Lubert’s palatial home, but being a decent fellow, doesn’t send its owner packing. Joining the mansion share – it could be a reality show – is Morgan’s wife Rachael (Keira Knightley), still grieving the death of their only son Michael in the Blitz.
If she’s a bit chilly with Lubert and his resentful daughter Freda, things are quite tepid in the Morgan marriage too, with Rachael angry her husband would rather save Germany than confront their loss.
The obvious love triangle relies on the actors’ good looks to sell a shift from mistrust to lust. When Lubert lunges at Knightley it’s only because he resembles Skarsgård that it isn’t terrifying.
(Personally, I find Clarke a far more attractive option.)
Sacrifices have to be made from page to screen, but it’s like the filmmakers dropped a payload on the book, with the final romantic twist axed, and Lewis’s political role reduced to nothing.
The cast try to do justice to the novel’s well-developed characters, and things are picturesque enough to want to Google “houses on the river Elbe”.
We first meet Rachael Morgan, muttering to herself on a train, as she travels to Germany with her 11-year-old son Edmund. The death of her older boy Michael has caused her to ‘think with a limp’.
Now her war-weary husband wants her to sleep with the enemy – staying in the home of widowed German architect Stefan Lubert and his teenage daughter Freda.
Rachael’s pretty, but provincial – not a fashion plate. She mixes with the class-conscious army wives, all ‘uncultured cuckoos in the fancy nests of other birds.’
Freda notices how the Englishwoman talks to herself, how her hands shake. But Herr Lubert’s boyish enthusiasm reanimates Rachael, as he talks about his professional ambitions, art, and grief. In this zero hour, they both want a better world, where people talk about their feelings.
It’s a slow burn between two people brought together by loss – compared to the onscreen soap opera, where Keira can’t get her kit off fast enough.
Clueless Lewis belongs to the stiff upper lip brigade, yet when he’s not battling the world over Germany’s fate, he’s drawn to his translator Ursula.
With their parents busy, Freda and Edmund roam. Joining fellow Hamburgers clearing rubble, Freda meets a Nazi youth interested in Chez Lubert’s occupants, while Edmund befriends a feral gang – including the enterprising Ozi – who are in thrall to a sinister older boy.
The Aftermath has a compelling premise. Its subdued emotional heart and historical-political suspense lead to a dramatic finale, unlike the film’s thin action.
Jane Fallon describes her work as chick noir. I’ve never read any of the non-noir variety, but this is my third Fallon, and I looked forward to another fab read with a happily-ever-after. Continue reading
Jennifer Lawrence stars in this grisly thriller as Dominika, a Bolshoi prima ballerina whose dance career is kiboshed when her clumsy partner (Sergei Polunin from Orient Express) delivers a gruesome, bone-shattering injury during a live performance.
Dominika’s uncle Vanya doesn’t believe in bad luck. High up in Russian Intelligence, he informs her that her dance partner is shagging her understudy, provoking Dominika to club them with her walking stick.
After forcing her to seduce a gangster in scenes that end in a bloodbath, Vanya recruits his niece for sexpionage, shipping her off to become a ‘Sparrow’. She’s then deployed to Budapest to entrap a CIA agent called..drum roll..”Nate Nash” – yes really – who is handling a Russian mole, code named MARBLE.
Who is MARBLE? I’m not saying, but Nate Nash shares more chemistry with them during a brush-past in a nighttime park than he does in an entire movie with JLaw, who has unfortunate magnetism with Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts).
The comparison was inevitable, but Red Sparrow isn’t a Black Swan-style psychological thriller. It’s also not the action movie you might expect – there aren’t any scenes where Dominika uses her dance skills to shimmy between laser beams or strangle adversaries with her thighs.
Instead it’s a bleak thriller that defines itself with icky, graphic nudity and sadistic violence, all while garroting itself with gibberish like the scene where Dominika alters her appearance with a home hair dye kit, transforming from raven to platinum. If only!
It doesn’t help the authenticity, especially when it’s already a stretch to buy the premise that a limping Moscow ballet star could slip undercover for Mother Russia.
Director Francis Lawrence decided against having an actor portray the real-life Russian president in the movie, because
he was too scared it would have been a “different movie”! (Like that would have been a bad thing?!)
Putin does get to feature in Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel. The movie had already set the barre (haha) pretty low for me, so I really only expected a trashy airport read. But the author is former CIA, and the novel bristles with tradecraft and insights into modern Russia.
Dominka is born into privilege – her parents a revered former musician and a revered academic – and she’s a child prodigy with the curious gift of synaesthesia.
She studies at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, until a rival ends her promising future. When her father dies, her uncle reels her into his dirty work before offering her a clerical role, which she rejects, demanding entry to the Foreign Intelligence Academy (AVR) – the first woman to be admitted.
Book Dominika is fiercely idealistic and patriotic, wanting to serve her country in an elite job. She finds herself belittled as a female operative and abused and betrayed, before she turns double agent, whereas movie Dominika is more out for herself.
She spars with Nate over politics, but ultimately their romance felt pretty tepid on the page too. Uncle Varya doesn’t look like Matthias Schoenaerts, and there are no incest overtones.
It’s still quite icky, and they torture the shit out of people – the filmmakers didn’t go out on a limb in that regard! But it’s an ambitious thriller that might have been improved with a series.
While scuba diving on your dream honeymoon, you discover something sinister. Do you a) report it to the authorities b) speed away and pretend it didn’t happen, or c) get in way over your head?
Sadly some people – like film school grad Erin and her jobless banker husband Mark – don’t make good choices.
Catherine Steadman’s debut isn’t exactly a hidden gem. In the UK I couldn’t avoid the hype, and across the pond it was a New York Times Bestseller and a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. (Steadman is an accomplished actress herself, with Downton Abbey among her credits.)
With Witherspoon’s new production company Hello Sunshine set to make the Something in the Water movie, normally I would have been all over this like a shark in a feeding frenzy, but it was described as a ‘beach read’, which put me off.
Luckily, I took the plunge when Jonetta @Blue Mood Cafe recommended it!
After a much-admired opening chapter, we head backwards as our narrator Erin plans an exclusive London wedding and a honeymoon on Bora Bora, with sumptuous descriptions of super-first class travel and deluxe wedding menus.
Their showy lifestyle is funded by Mark’s job in investment banking, while Erin has a creative background and is working on a documentary about prisoners on the verge of release.
Her greatest catch is gangland legend Eddie Bishop, who knows a scary amount about Erin. But she has bigger problems; before the honeymoon, Mark lost his job in spectacular, escorted-from-the-building-by-security fashion.
Then they find something in the water that could literally change their fortunes forever – if they’re smart. Ahem.
The narrative is shadowed by the fear and mistrust caused by the financial crash, and the subtleties of the class system. When Erin visits the home of another one of her prisoners, she is paranoid about sounding condescending or bourgeois.
Yet while Mark – used to babysitting wealthy clients – flies First Class like it’s no big deal, Erin is a fish out of water. She quickly learns that having real money isn’t all about buying nice things, so much as it’s about avoiding the rules.
The sickly way Mark talks to Erin – like she needs constant soothing and reassurance – grates, but then she really ramps up the stupid, making rookie criminal mistakes (not that I’m an expert!) and being really, really slow on the uptake, so maybe he was right.
I know some readers expected more confrontation or climax, but the story is less about who the bad guys are and what they want, and more about what greed and dishonesty do to normal people, and how much we ever truly know each other, even that stunning Millennial couple with the perfect life.
“Careful what you wish for…”
The Shoebill is a prehistoric-looking bird that exists in the marshes of East Africa. Scientists know that these intensely private creatures rarely raise more than one chick; a second is insurance in case the older one doesn’t make it.
A similar philosophy underlies the dynamic of the royal heir and the spare. While the lionized firstborn is groomed to rule, being second-born can be trickier; modern spares must accept indifference and resentment from the press and public, especially as cute toddlers pile up in the palace nursery.
This was the fate of HRH Princess Margaret Rose, younger sister to Elizabeth II. The Crown renewed interest in the glam yet troubled royal, whose star had faded long before Diana arrived to swipe her tiara. Luckily for Princess Margaret’s new admirers, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling was published last year to gushing reviews.
Subtitled “99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret“, he takes a magpie approach. He includes letters, palace statements, interviews, snippets from memoirs penned by creepy footmen, plus anecdotes from VIPs who, er, encountered the queen’s sister.
Having only Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal of Margaret as a spoiled, party-loving Millennial to go on, I didn’t know just how frosty and demeaning she could be.
The princess loved to party, but nobody could break protocol by leaving before her. She was drawn to celebrities, and the feeling was mutual – she was a princess, after all. Girls copied her clothes, while Picasso was among the many men who wanted to marry her.
But celebs and diarists also swapped horror stories. Of all the jaw-dropping anecdotes, it’s hard to top the time she turned to a disabled guest at a party and asked: “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?”
Or when she was opening an old folks’ home and was presented with a specially cooked chicken dish. “That looks like sick.”
While her sister was meeting ambassadors and presidents, birth order discrimination pushed Margaret to the background. She was destined for a lifetime – as Brown puts it – of opening “scout huts and pumping stations.”
Ma’am Darling becomes repetitive with examples of bad behaviour, but Brown throws in some counter-factual flourishes too, such as Queen Margaret delivering a DGAF Christmas speech.
There’s been speculation that Princess Margaret’s life was ruined by the Townsend saga – when she supposedly couldn’t marry her beloved Group Captain without losing her royal status and income. Brown doesn’t seem to buy the fairy tale, and is skeptical of the 16 years older Group Captain.
Princess Margaret eventually married Antony Armstrong-Jones, photographer to the rich and famous. The Snowdons, as they became known, lived a bohemian life, but the marriage was unhappy, with Brown accusing Snowdon of ‘gaslighting’ – that terrifying common tactic of abusers and bullies everywhere.
A whimsical book, I didn’t find Ma’am Darling as hysterically funny as some critics. I got exhausted by all the ‘famous’ names from the mid-century arts world and high society. But Brown looks at Princess Margaret from many angles, you pity her and dislike her at the same time.
Carrie Fisher once gave a cow tongue wrapped in a Tiffany box to a film producer who allegedly attacked her friend. My first thought was “poor cow”, and my second was “yep, that sounds like Fisher.”
It’s a tale that surfaced in October 2017, as #MeToo was going viral. Fisher was already gone, dying from sleep apnea and “other factors” in 2016 while promoting her memoir about life as teenage space royalty and the affair known as Carrison.
Having previously written about her addiction and Bipolar disorder, this memoir is based around the journals – which are really an opus to Harrison Ford – that Fisher kept while filming the original Star Wars (“the only girl in an all-boys fantasy“). She rediscovered them while renovating her Hollywood Hills home.
She starts pre-Leia, ambivalent about following her mother, Singin’ in the Rain’s Debbie Reynolds, into showbusiness. Reflecting this, the shy and retiring Carrie:
She admits she might have been kidding herself. For all the hardships actresses face, their daughters seem drawn to the limelight (including Fisher’s child Billie Lourd).
Carrie herself was born during Reynolds’ marriage to 50’s singer Eddie Fisher, who left his family for Liz Taylor – which, in Carrie’s words was “one of the great midcentury tabloid feeding frenzies.”
Although Fisher writes with her trademark wit, she was traumatized by her mother’s love life and her father’s abandonment, and undermined by self-loathing.
After successfully auditioning for George Lucas, she was ordered to lose ten pounds – then worried she’d be fired when she didn’t. She quips that although just 110 pounds, she “carried about half of them in my face”.
Insecurity makes girls easy prey. At a party the crew plan a “joke” abduction – before Harrison Ford intervenes. Soon they’re having “sleepovers” at her flat, with Fisher falling obsessively in love with the married Ford. Some rescue.
A selection of diary entries and poems from her journals take up the book’s mid-section. They’re not her best work, but are disturbing in their intensity. Fisher poured her heart out on paper because she couldn’t talk to Harrison – who to be fair, doesn’t have a rep for easygoing chattiness.
Fisher explains that she presented a false appearance, a “kind of ironic, amused, disenchanted creature.”
She must have just seemed like a hip, rising young actress from a famous family, living in a fancy London flat. With the Harrison affair, she was good at “hiding in plain sight, mocking the suggestion that there was anything going on” – a bluffing technique she says she’d use throughout her life.
Well-matched onscreen and hooking up off of it, Fisher still thought Ford was out of her league, destined for greater stardom. Was she bitter? “…not so you’d notice“.
Of course she could never have foreseen the phenomenon Star Wars would become, or her own enduring fame. It rankled to the end that, aged just 19, she had signed away all merchandising rights relating to her image for the “little space movie”.
In the final third of the book, Fisher laments “celebrity lap dances” AKA signing photos for money at fan conventions AKA “has-been roundups”. She discerns a lack of empathy among some of the fans – something Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best might recognize.
But Carrie still had compassion for the “sweet and mystifying” fans who’d wait in line for hours, including the poor kid named Leia Carrie and the man who thanks Fisher for his childhood and walks off. She knows he didn’t mean his whole childhood, “just the good bits. The parts he escaped to”.
It must have felt like listening to the prayers of the galaxy.
Carrie Fisher is often remembered as a tough rebel leader. Online tributes call her a feminist icon and a “bad ass” role model, skimming over her profound problems – essentially confusing her with a fictional character! In this surprisingly raw book, Fisher’s wit and wisdom fail to disguise her lifelong pain, revealing a side to a woman who was deeply damaged, but charming to the last.
“Mudbound is the Oscar movie we need right now,” admonished The Washington Post.
Distributed by Netflix (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere), the film is a female-helmed drama about two families – one white, one black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South. The script is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’).
It’s perfectly-timed, with the industry currently under scrutiny for #OscarsSoWhite. There was a landslide of articles emphasizing the tough shoot and the transformation of star Mary J. Blige, warning voters that the movie must not be overlooked.
Mudbound sees stubborn Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) drag his kids and wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), plus racist father Pappy, to a dilapidated farm in the Mississippi Delta where the frequent rains strand them in acres of mud.
Their lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson (Blige), who keeps house for the McAllans. They are joined by Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jackson’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), both returning from WWII Europe.
The veterans form a bond that riles Pappy, while Laura becomes infatuated with her brother-in-law – although unlike the prickly character of Laura in the book, she isn’t checking his shirts for lipstick, or taking her frustrations out on Florence.
Writers have described the movie as focused on Florence and Laura as two Strong Women whose differing views of the world are shaped by race and class etc etc. According to Refinery39, “both women…feel the growing weight of a patriarchal society bearing down on their shoulders...”
This is an interesting projection, as – in what is a very long and slow movie – writer-director Dee Rees seems to concentrate on the friendship between 6’2 leading man Hedlund, and quirky little character actor Mitchell, miscast as the noble Ronsel.
Rees keeps Jordan’s strategy of spreading narration between six characters, but Hedlund emerges as the hero.He’s more enlightened than his book counterpart – instead of being shocked by interracial dating, Hedlund leers: “Ever been with a white girl?“.
It’s a shame that, along with other splashes of dark humour, his drunken encounter with a hapless cow has been culled.
What the picture does achieve, despite its small budget, is a truly epic look, especially in the flashback scenes. We get lots of stunning farmland vistas courtesy of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography, which earned her the distinction of becoming the first woman to be Oscar nominated in the category.
Deferential Oscar voters also handed Blige a best supporting actress nod for doing little more than look dignified with her arms crossed, while Dee Rees earned an adapted screenplay nomination for turning a historical suspense into solemn prestige.
The Girls was one of the biggest, most hyped books of 2016. Debut author Emma Cline’s manuscript sparked a bidding war and was optioned by a powerful Hollywood producer long before it even reached shelves.
Amy Adams-lookalike Cline is young, enigmatic – and like the heroine of her coming-of-age novel – she grew up in sun-kissed California. There the similarity ends, with The Girls set during the late sixties, with a story inspired (rather luridly) by the infamous Manson cult murders.
The novel focuses on its 14-year-old narrator Evie Boyd. Her parents are newly divorced; her father lives with his young girlfriend in another town, while Evie’s mother is busy dating and following every New Age trend going.
Evie studies the studio portrait of her late maternal grandmother – a famous, beautiful actress. “The realization was bracing” she thinks, “we looked nothing alike.” Evie’s dour best friend dumps her for a new best friend, who throws a drink in Evie’s face.
Bored and crippled by insecurity, Evie’s the kind of girl Russell Hadrick preys on. He’s teaching his followers about a “new kind of society”, that’s “free from racism, free from exclusion, free from hierarchy.” Except it’s not Russell, but his teenage lieutenant Suzanne, who holds a dark pull for Evie.
Some of the girls in thrall to Russell have vague histories of abuse and violence, but Suzanne’s a sly one – her past, motives and feelings for Evie remain obscure. During her long summer at the group’s decrepit ranch, Evie becomes less passive, acquiring coarser edges from Suzanne and co. as they scavenge, steal, and drop acid.
It’s been compared to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, another queasily authentic look at the horrors of being an ordinary, unpopular teenage girl.
Sections with the older, adult Evie aren’t as successful, with Cline struggling to write a character much older then herself. But The Girls is a bleak, woozy, sometimes overwritten debut about the forces that shape and ruin girls’ lives.
In the summer, my cat makes me sit outside where I can’t get any WiFi. Apparently she is too scared to stay in the garden by herself, and just feels safer when I’m there.
I suppose I could spend my enforced no-WiFi time doing Yoga and meditating on how I became so devoted to such a demanding creature, but it’s actually a great chance to catch up on some reading.
My Sweet Revenge was written under the furry supervision of author Jane Fallon’s diva moggy Ollie (she’s a girl) Fallon-Gervais, so it’s only right it should be read while under the paw too.
Ollie has her own Twitter account (37,000 followers) and my familiarity with her social media antics clued me in that I would love Jane’s world. Not that Jane writes Ollie’s Tweets, of course.
So I really have to thank Olls – because this isn’t the kind of book I’d grab off the shelf. I know it’s not necessarily a popular term, but ‘chick lit’ isn’t generally for me. (Fair play to all such writers out there – I would never have the talent to write it.)
As expected, Jane Fallon’s work has too much drama and deceit to be fluffy or girly. It’s chick lit written by an evil feline genius.
The heroine, Paula, works in a bakery (hence that mouthwatering jacket cover) and her idea of getting back at her (apparently) cheating husband isn’t just to fling a cream pie in his lying face.
(See? That would be the plot of my own romantic revenge novel.)
Paula and her husband Robert met at drama school; his acting career took off, hers didn’t. Robert’s not exactly Benedict Cumberbatch famous, more like second-billed lead on a soap (or ‘long-running drama’) famous, and beloved by the nation’s grannies. The couple’s teenage daughter Georgia is the only celeb sprog on the planet to not be an aspiring actress/photographer/model, and has her heart set on medical school instead.
Their life is shattered when Paula makes a discovery leading her to believe that Robert is having an affair with a gorgeous co-star named Saskia, who is married to a producer on their show Farmer Giles (!). Paula doesn’t confront her husband, deciding instead to execute a scheme for retribution that will make him fall back in love with her, while scuppering any chance he has of happiness with Saskia.
It’s playful, addictive, and about as likely as a sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, calorie-free pastry ever tasting good. Paula is a great main character – likeable and with enough gusto to keep the reader engaged. I honestly could not see the twists coming. The book has been an absolute joy and a great vacation read.
Verdict: I haven’t enjoyed a story set in an bakery so much since Pushing Daisies.