An alternative view from the cinema seats

I HAVE a new job. I’m a film critic. But let’s put this in perspective; I don’t get paid, and I’m no expert on the cinema.

A few weeks ago, I was invited onto the chat show on a local television channel, to talk about this blog. One of the things the hosts were most interested in was my film reviews.

I was invited to come back every week, and talk about a film I’d seen in the last seven days. It’s fun, so I said yes.

Now they’re introducing me as their film critic. Which is flattering, but probably should be categorised as one of those alternative truths I hear so much about these days.

We’re heading who knows where

THE Current Mrs Feeney and I had a short break in Bristol this week. We wanted to visit Clifton Village on the way home. We’d been there twenty years ago (although I have no recollection of it) and TCMrsF was keen to go back; apparently, the antique shops were very good.

I had taken the precaution of printing a route map from the city centre, but we decided to back that up by entering the post code on the car’s SatNav system.

As I entered the post code, the display suggested various destinations. I assumed they would all be within close proximity of each other, and clicked OK on the top one – Moor End Cottages.

Big mistake. It turned out that these were, indeed, cottages at the end of a moor – somewhere deep in the North Somerset countryside. I knew we’d gone wrong when I saw the sign for “last petrol before the motorway.”

Using radical methods – asking for directions and following road signs – we eventually found Clifton Village. Where it turned out that most of the antique shops had been converted into places to eat.

Still, my “luxury fish finger sandwich” was very nice.

Family roots become more tangled

STARTLING developments in my search for information about my Irish great-grandfather, William Henry Feeney. He may not have been Irish at all.

I’d established that he married an Elizabeth Protheroe in Tenby in 1870. They subsequently moved to Swansea. I’d thought that WHF had moved in search of work. Now it seems he may have had a far less commendable motive.

Thanks to the help of other – and better – researchers on the Who Do You Think You Are? website forum, I’ve discovered that a Henry Feeney was a defendant in Tenby magistrates court in 1870. He was charged with assaulting a Thomas Protheroe. That was the name of my great-grandfather’s father-in-law. It’s unlikely to have been a coincidence, and would help explain why WHF and his new wife decided to leave Tenby.

This wasn’t the first time that Henry Feeney had bothered the court. The previous year, he was up before the bench for beating a drummer boy. And here’s the thing; he was a soldier in the British Army, and he was born in Ipswich.

If this is my great-grandfather, why did he say, in three census returns, that he was born in Ireland? Perhaps to cover up his past?

On the last census return before his death, he put his place of birth as Trimley. I had thought this was a misspelling of Timoleague, or Drimoleague, which are both in County Cork. But now there is another possible explanation.

While we haven’t been able to find any record of a Henry Feeney born in Ipswich around 1840, there is a record of a Henry Finnie, born to an unknown mother, admitted to a workhouse that year. And he was subsequently raised by his Uncle George Finnie – in the nearby village of Trimley St Martin.

While I’ll be saddened if it turns out there is no Irish link, I’m intrigued to see where the search leads.

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This tale of a lost child’s long journey home delivers sentimental clout

LIVING ROUGH: tens of thousands of children end up living on the streets of India every year
LIVING ROUGH: tens of thousands of children end up attempting to survive violence and exploitation on the streets of India every year

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Film: Lion

Director: Garth Davis

Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel (The Man Who Knew Infinity 2016, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2015), Nicole Kidman (Before I Go To Sleep 2014, The Railway Man 2014), Rooney Mara (Una 2016, Pan 2015, Carol 2015).

Plot: The true story of Saroo Brierley who was separated from his family in India as a child, and adopted by a Tasmanian couple. As an adult, he uses Google Earth to locate his home village.

What I thought of it: I enjoyed this film, and so did The Current Mrs Feeney (who shed a few tears as it reached its conclusion.)

Last week we went to see Manchester By The Sea (see review below), and Lion shares a similar theme, as far as both films are about lost men who make a long journey home (Lion is the more visually arresting film, replacing the grey seas of New England for the colourful vibrancy of rural and urban India.)

A NEW TALENT: Sunny Pawar is astonishing in his first film as the young Saroo
A NEW TALENT: Sunny Pawar is astonishing in his first film as the young Saroo

In Lion, the main character is literally lost. The child Saroo (Pawar in his first film) is separated from his brother, and becomes accidentally trapped inside an empty locked train that travels for two days across India until it reaches Calcutta. Unable to speak the local Bengali language, the Hindi-speaking Saroo becomes one of the city’s thousands of street children. He is admitted to a large home for lost children, before being adopted and flying to a new life in Australia.

WELCOME HOME: Nicole Kidman gives her best performance for years as Saroo's adoptive Australian mum
WELCOME HOME: Nicole Kidman gives her best performance for years as Saroo’s adoptive Australian mum

This first part of the film is more interesting than the second part, where the adult Saroo (Patel) uses the internet, and Google Earth, to locate his home village. It is difficult to wring much drama out of a man sat on a sofa with a laptop looking at maps, though Davis has a very good stab at it on his feature film directorial debut.

A NEW MAN: Patel (with Rooney Mara as his American girlfriend) gives his first truly adult performance
A NEW MAN: Patel (pictured with Rooney Mara, as his American girlfriend) gives his first truly adult performance

Patel gives his best performance since his breakthrough in Slumdog Millionaire in 2008. He was little more than a child then, so it is ironic that in Lion he is overshadowed by the extraordinary discovery Sunny Pawar, as the wide-eyed child with the inner strength to survive the threats of violence and sexual exploitation faced by children forced to live in poverty on India’s city streets (there are 80,000 lost children every year in the sub-continent).

While I think Manchester By The Sea has more emotional complexity, there is no denying Lion has the sentimental clout. A shame then that the finalé, where Saroo returns home to discover joy and sadness, feels rushed.

Despite this, and the film’s second-half slump, Lion is a well directed and well acted film that deserves your attention.

Retired Bloke Rating: ***** A very good way to spend an afternoon.

Manchester By The Sea is a restrained study in grief and loss

THERE'S A GRIEF THAT CAN'T BE SPOKEN: Affleck and Williams discover that their love cannot bear the burden of their sorrow.
THERE’S A GRIEF THAT CAN’T BE SPOKEN: Affleck and Williams discover that mutual love cannot bear the burden of separate sorrows.

Film: Manchester By The Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret 2011)

Starring: Casey Affleck (The Finest Hours 2016, Interstellar 2014, Out Of The Furnace 2013); Kyle Chandler (Carol 2015, The Wolf Of Wall Street 2013); Lucas Hedges (The Grand Budapest Hotel 2013); Michelle Williams (Oz The Great And Powerful 2013).

Plot: Lee Chandler (Affleck) is scraping a living as a janitor in Boston when the sudden death of his brother (Chandler) means he has to become the guardian of his teenage nephew (Hedges) – and return to the small New England seaside town where he suffered the traumatic event that has destroyed his life.

What I thought of it: Manchester By The Sea lacked the extreme emotional impact that I had anticipated from the reviews I had read of audiences reduced to sobbing  and – in one memorable example – “howling like wolves” at the screen. None of that happened when I saw the film, though The Current Mrs Feeney did find it very sad, and admitted that she could easily have let the tears flow freely at the scene where Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Williams) meet and talk, still in love but condemned to be apart by the inconsolable grief they both carry.

The film certainly has more than its share of emotional topics – including alcoholism, broken marriages, teenage angst (and lust), and sudden and violent death. There is also an intrusive musical score that very obviously tries to manipulate a response from the audience.

It would have been very easy, in these circumstances, for the film to descend into clichéd melodrama – not so much Manchester By The Sea as EastEnders On A Boat. That it doesn’t is partly down to the restrained and controlled direction from Lonergan, who belies his comparative lack of directing experience, and does a very good job of handling his material.

But mainly the film triumphs over its conventional plotting thanks to the performance of Affleck as a man so traumatised by personal tragedy that he has reduced himself to a cipher of a human being. Lee habitually avoids women and regularly punches men; this is not a happy person. Affleck conveys the inner grief with complete conviction; in close-up scenes, everything sinks into his dead eyes, and nothing shines out. “There is nothing left,” he tells Randi in their climactic scene, and you believe him utterly.

He is very ably supported by the other main players, especially Hedges as Lee’s sparky nephew Patrick. Their awkward, funny, angry and slowly developing relationship is the light balance to Lee’s dark journey of the soul. But this is Affleck’s film; expect Oscar nominations.

Retired Bloke Rating: *****  Very good,  but with a ****** Outstanding performance from Affleck at its heart.

World Crime Atlas: Chile

PROTEST MARCH: workers demonstrate in support of President Allende
PROTEST MARCH: workers demonstrating in support of President Allende in the days leading up to the military coup of 1973 in Chile

The Shadow Of What We Were, by Luis Sepulveda, translated by Howard Curtis. (Europa Editions, 2011)

Plot: Three ageing revolutionaries wait in a city warehouse for a meeting with an anarchist who will lead them on one, final act of defiance. But a twist of fate means the day will turn out very differently from what they had expected.

Where and when: One rainy day in Santiago.

The detectives: Inspector Manuel Crespo, a man who “liked to take things calmly. That was his only method, the only way not to be overwhelmed by imponderables” and his female assistant, Detective Adela Bobadilla, “proud to be part of the first generation of police officers with clean hands, those who were not even born yet in 1973, or were too young to be torturers or the allies of drug traffickers.”

Sense of Place: The above description of Detective Bobadilla sets the scene. Nobody is murdered in this crime novel, and yet this is a book filled with deaths. Santiago is a city of ghosts – the thousands of militant supporters of President Salvador Allende who ‘disappeared’ after the military coup of September 11, 1973, led by General (and soon-to-be self-elected President) Augusto Pinochet: “Their youth had been scattered in hundreds of places, burned by electric prods during interrogations, buried in secret graves that were slowly being discovered, in years in prison, in strange rooms in even stranger countries.”  Sepulveda, who was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime for political activism, is not blind to the doctrinaire absurdities of the Leftist factions – Marxist, Maoist, Hoxhan, Anarchist, Socialist, Workers Revolutionary – that competed and plotted to impose their particular narrow ideology in Allende’s Chile. But, after the coup, the same fate awaits them all: “the military prison at Calle do Londres, the concentration camp at Puchuncavi.” Even three decades on, Santiago remains “a hostile city filled with the scars of what had once been,” peopled by men and women who are nothing more than a shadow of what they were, flitting between the bright lights of “the prosperous country of the victors.” 

Retired Bloke Verdict: This is a very unusual crime novel; there is very little action, and a lot of conversation about the past. I found it both absorbing and discomforting.

Where Next? Hong Kong: The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang.

What’s enjoyment got to do with it?

THE Current Mrs Feeney and I this week renewed our season tickets for Swansea City FC, despite the fact that the team has struggled in the relegation basement of the Premier League all this season.

It goes to show the amount of misery that the dedicated fan is willing to endure. People who do not follow football (that’s soccer, if you’re reading this over the pond) sometimes ask me; “Did you enjoy the game?” They really don’t understand.

Being a supporter (unless you follow one of the very few clubs guaranteed success – and I think that just makes you a pothunter) involves hope, belief and healthy doses of delusion. Enjoyment very rarely comes into it.

It’s all a matter of opinion

EVERY football fan, of course, has an opinion on the team. It’s amazing really that club managers, who have nothing except years of their own hard-earned experience at their disposal, do not make more use of all the free advice that is colourfully dispensed from the stands at every game.

It’s the same with films (see the comments below on my thoughts on La La Land.) I watched a DVD of Italian director Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty one afternoon this week. I persuaded TCMrsF to watch it too.

I – who am overly fond of this sort of arty European movie – thought it was absorbing, playful and visually striking. TCMrsF thought it used up two and a half hours of her life that she will never get back.

On these occasions, we sit down and talk through our differing views in an open-minded manner, before agreeing that TCMrsF was right all along.

It’s murder at Christmas

WE are still catching up with the television programmes we recorded over Christmas. On successive nights we watched both parts of Witness For The Prosecution, based on Agatha Christie’s novel, and all three parts of Rillington Place, based on the notorious serial murderer Reginald Christie.

The two series had more than a surname in common. They both told dark stories that cast a spotlight on deep shadows in the human condition – or the soul, if you believe there is such a thing; perhaps that makes them more suitable for Christmas than they first appeared.

When I was a child, Christmas television always featured a World War Two film in the day, and big family entertainment shows in the evening. Now the scheduling seems to involve films for the kiddies all day, followed by murder and evil at night.

PS: so much for Agatha Christie being nothing more than the cosy middle-class creator of chocolate-box village mysteries. The woman knew how to insert and twist the knife.

I especially liked the bit where, um.

SWANSEA is a long way from London (well, it is if you’re British; I once had a neighbour who had lived for a while in the United States, and explained the difference between Brits and Yanks as follows: Americans think 100 years is a long time, while British people think 100 miles is a long journey.)

Anyway, we don’t get to see London theatre very often, which is why the increasing trend of live screenings from the West End to cinemas nationwide is very welcome.

We saw the National Theatre production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land on Thursday. Pinter is often described as a writer who was as much a poet as a playwright. There were wonderful performances from Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, but an hour after the play finished, I couldn’t recollect a line of Pinter’s dialogue.

I have no idea what that says about the relative importance of the actor and the play, or the quality of Pinter’s writing, or the state of my memory.

La La Land is overhyped, overpraised and overrated

LET'S DANCE: Stone and Gosling tread uncertainly in the footsteps of Astaire and Rogers
LET’S DANCE: Stone and Gosling tread uncertainly in the footsteps of Astaire and Rogers

Film: La La Land

Director: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash 2014)

Writer: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys and The Big Short both 2016), Emma Stone (Birdman 2014).

Plot: The course of true love story does not run smoothly for aspiring actress Mia (Stone) and frustrated jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling).

What I thought of it: La La Land has already garnered seven Golden Globe awards, including wins for its director and stars. It has collected an astonishing 11 BAFTA nominations. Critics (with a very few exceptions) have been showering it with praise and five-star reviews.

Does it live up to all of this praise and hype? No. It is a perfectly pleasant musical comedy, but it simply does not have the wow factor that we have every right to expect from any film that has attracted so much acclaim.

Director Chazelle has been credited with single-handedly reviving the Hollywood musical. That is way over the top, even though La La Land very deliberately taps-in to the genre’s rich history.

It is (at first) about young people trying to get their break into the world of performing arts; so think Fame! It is a Hollywood musical about Hollywood; think Singing’ in the Rain. Stone prepared for her role by studying the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And there are very obvious parallels with the French musical film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Those are all big tap shoes to fill, and it’s not surprising that La La Land does not manage it. Gosling and Stone can hold a tune adequately, but they are not very good dancers.

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WE NEED TO TALK: Gosling and Stone search for the chemistry in their relationship

The songs are weak; the test of a musical, surely, is whether you leave the show humming or whistling the tunes you’ve been listening to for the last two hours. And in its final third, when the love story turns sour, the film almost ceases to be a musical; the music stops, almost literally.

That said, I thought it actually finishes strongly, although the signalled nod to Casablanca in Gosling and Stone’s last encounter once again only invites comparison to La La Land‘s detriment. There’s been much written about the on-screen chemistry between Gosling and Stone, but Bogart and Bergman they ain’t.

So, why has it been so extravagantly praised by critics, and so rewarded by awards judges? Could it be that the film’s simple charms (and it does have them) struck an unusually receptive chord after what was for many liberal-minded people a depressing year?

If so, while La La Land may not herald the revival of the musical, it may encourage more simple feel-good movies in 2017.

Retired Bloke Rating: a perfectly inoffensive way to while away a winter afternoon. *** 

Murder Stone inspires retired teacher to become local history author

imgp6990GEOFF BROOKES spent 41 years working in the education sector. He taught English and drama at a sixth form college (1973-81), was appointed Head of English at  a comprehensive school (1981-91), and then spent 20 years as the deputy head teacher at another comprehensive school up to his retirement from teaching in 2011. He worked part-time as a Curriculum Quality Champion until 2014. He has spent his retirement researching and publishing books about Swansea’s history.

THE beginning: Geoff's first published local history book
THE beginning: Geoff’s first published local history book

Why did you retire when you did?

“I wanted to retire whilst I was still doing the job properly – I didn’t want to hang on too long. I started to think that all the bright new ideas teachers were expected to embrace were just ridiculous. As a manager I had to be positive about the changes but I am afraid I couldn’t. I thought so much of it was pants. I was in danger of not being a manager but a moan-ager.”

You’re not the first retired person I’ve spoken to who has said this. Is it the ideas that are wrong – or is it us?

“It’s largely to do with us. As you get older, you become more resistant to change, and the rate of change seems greater and faster. You’ve made yourself comfortable in what you do, and change seems to be driven by people with less experience than you. But they are building their own careers, and their own image of themselves, just as you did when you were their age.”

How did you prepare for retirement?

“I was able to work part-time for four years. My last year working in school was in fact split 50/50 with working for the local authority in an advisory capacity. When I finished in school, the work for the authority continued until 2014.

“I became aware that the balance was wrong – I needed to work less and write more.

“I handled personnel issues as part of my role; I arranged, talked about and advised about retirement, but I did find it hard when it happened to me. I think that you can prepare for it intellectually but nothing can prepare you for the emotional impact.”

So, did you approach your retirement with anticipation or trepidation?

“Trepidation. It’s a leap into the unknown; the end of the normal structure of your life. I was apprehensive about the idea of not being involved, of becoming just another grumpy old man wandering around shopping centres on wet Tuesday afternoons in February.

“Retirement represents, by its very definition, the end of something – your work – but there is no need to make it the end of your youth or your usefulness. I think it is important that you move on from the idea of an end and turn it into a beginning.

“I have deliberately stayed away from school. I haven’t been back even though it was once so important to me. It belongs to someone else now. For me, the idea of a clean break is important.”

What effect did retiring from full-time employment have on you?

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LOCAL History Man: Geoff with some of the books he has written in retirement.

“I enjoyed my job. It wasn’t as if I retired from a job I hated. There are still things I miss – the relationships I had with the people I worked with, and I especially miss the contact with young people. The future belongs to them, and I feel separated from that to some extent. I don’t know what they are thinking.

“But it also set me free to think and write and research things, and see where they lead. We are also free to travel to visit our children and grandchildren.”

How did you adjust or respond to your changed circumstances?

“I made a very important decision. I can’t stop getting old but I was not going to become an old man – one of the most dangerous of all sub-species. Bitter, bored and bewildered by a changing world, imaging simple assertive solutions to a world which is suddenly far too complicated but which has given them money and a vote.

“I was determined to keep my mind agile and to continue to question things to avoid becoming the manipulated victim of predators.”

You described retirement as the end of the normal structure of life. Have you replaced it with a new structure?

“We have routine, of course. We have breakfast in the morning, and open a bottle of wine in the evening; it’s important you don’t mix them up! But while  I still live with routine, now I can also respond to opportunities.”

What new opportunities did retirement create for you?

“Indulgence, I suppose. Suddenly retirement makes you time-rich. I now have a full-time hobby and the space inside my head to pursue it. I like to uncover old stories and bring them back to life – an act of respect in my mind for all those who came before us and lived their lives as best they could, dealing with many of the same issues, especially emotional, that face us, and so many other issues from which we are protected – like grinding poverty, for example, or illness.”

You’ve talked about the need to write; tell me more about this impulse.

“I spent my professional life analysing and criticising the writing of other people. But did I have the right to make comments about them, if I wasn’t writing myself? I felt the need to prove to myself that I could do it.

“I started writing articles for educational supplements, then I was asked to write guides for authors being studied in schools.”

How did your interest in local history begin?

“Somebody told me about the Murder Stone in Cadoxton graveyard. I went to see it, and wanted to find out more. There are at least six of these Murder Stones in Wales. I sent an article to Welsh Country Magazine. I now have a

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MURDER Stones were intended to attract one man – the ‘murderer’ who had escaped detection. They are aimed at the murderer, in the hope that he will be struck by conscience. They also serve as a warning to others.

imagesThe inscription on the Murder Stone at Cadoxton reads: “1823/To Record/ MURDER/This stone was erected/over the body/of/MARGARET WILLIAMS/aged 26/A native of Carmarthenshire/Living in service in this Parish/Who was found dead/With marks of violence on her person/In a ditch on the marsh/Below the Churchyard/On the morning/Of Sunday the Fourteenth of July/1822/Although/THE SAVAGE MURDERER/escaped for a season the detection of/man/Yet/God hath set his mark upon him/Either for time or eternity/and/THE CRY OF BLOOD/Will assuredly pursue him/To certain and terrible but righteous/JUDGMENT”

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series in the magazine; I write about different graves in Wales, and the stories behind them.

“These articles were put together into a book. That was my first local history book.

“Writing is a hobby, not a profession. There are other things in my life that are more important. I do what I do because I enjoy it, and I will stop when I don’t enjoy it any more.”

How do you feel now about retirement?

“I think retirement is a gift. So many other people across the world – and certainly our ancestors – do not have the opportunities and possibilities it presents to us.

“When you go to work you sell your freedom for money. And then when you retire they give you money to be free. Not a bad arrangement.”

Visit http://www.geoffbrookes.co.uk for more information on all his books.