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3D Cinema Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides


You can rely on Disney’s well known Pirate franchise for one of the universal laws of cinema. As sure as night follows day and the tide washes in and out, each successive film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series will be worse than the last. Like a basket of juicy fruit left to rot on a sunny beach, the individual ingredients that made the first film so fun gradually lose their enjoyment. You can also bet your house that in increasingly more desperate attempts to recapture the magic of the Black Pearl’s virgin voyage, the plots will acquire more baffling layers with each new instalment. And this film’s ending proves once again that there will always be room for yet another adventure.

However this film does break some new ground. For example for the first time ever, the title is as confusing and vague as the many competing strands of the story. The tides are certainly no more or less important than before and there is nothing strange about the film; within Captain Jack’s world at least mermaids and myths are pretty standard fare.

Things get off to a familiar but promising start. Our beloved scallywag Jack Sparrow is in London to rescue sidekick Mr Gibbs from a trial, which would be swiftly followed by a hanging if the bloodthirsty crowd had their way. After some costumed shenanigans and typically camp stalking about, Jack and Gibbs find themselves at the King’s palace. The crown wish to find the fountain of youth before the crafty Catholics in Spain and they’ve heard Sparrow knows the way.

Jack gets an audience with the King in a sumptuous room and Depp gets ample opportunity to showcase the physical comedy and wordplay audiences have come to love. The King is played by Richard Griffiths in a delightful cameo. Needless to say Jack manages an escape. Later in the film Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa takes the time to mentally plan an escape route, presuming that’s what Depp’s madcap Sparrow does, only for Jack to reply that he sometimes “improvises”. The running and jumping through an impressive CGI London in the film’s opening segment, is ad hoc Jack Sparrow action at its best.

Sadly the film simply cannot maintain the entertainment levels as chase follows chase and sword fight follows sword fight. Most of the action is surprisingly inventive, especially since we’ve had three films already but at times even Jack’s luck over judgment leaps of faith enter ridiculous territory. The stunts become monotonous by the end because of the film’s relentless opening barrage, tarnishing the drama of the finale. There are no explosive cannon battles for those who love their ships and nautical duels. Instead of boarding we get an awful lot of trekking through the jungle.

Having said this, two standout scenes are exciting and engaging. I’ve already mentioned Captain Jack prancing his way around London but the first mermaid attack scene is also terrific. Only the Pirates franchise could deliver such a scene. It’s got frights and bites, fangs and bangs. The mermaids are less interesting by the end, but here they are introduced in a lengthy scene as seductive and dangerous. The attack comes as a real shock and well managed change in pace after they are lured in to enchant some pirates left as bait.

The mermaid battle is an epic, long scene and the film is so long that it loses much of its epic feel. Sub plots like a half formed romance between a mermaid and clergy man could have been slimmed considerably or dropped altogether .The runtime is literally bladder bursting, as a friend of mine dashed from the room as soon as the credits rolled. I was content to sit and watch the names of the cast fly at me in 3D however, because of Hans Zimmer’s magnificent music, which remains the best thing about the Pirates of the Caribbean. There are some nice variations and new additions to the main theme in this instalment but I can’t help feeling it’s time he focused his talents on new projects, rather than continually recycling one stunning track.

Hang on though; surely this is still worth seeing just for another outing from Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow? Isn’t he the single most important pillar upon which the blockbusters are based? I always assumed, like many critics, that the romantic pairing of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in the previous films was holding back Depp’s brilliance. But having seen On Stranger Tides, in which Depp must mostly steer proceedings alone, his performance is somehow less effective without them.

He is at his best in this film when dancing around other characters, making light of them. Penelope Cruz is suitably sassy and sexy as a pirate, albeit with an unrealistically attractive cleavage for a hardened sailor, and she and Depp have some fun exchanges, but putting Sparrow at the heart of a love story doesn’t work. Even the filmmakers realise this by backing out of it somewhat at the end. Captain Jack Sparrow is not the emotional type. And what made him so attractive to audiences, was the way he mocked the clichéd relationship between Bloom and Knightley. Making him part of the conventional storyline robs his performance of some of its power.

Depp is still fantastic fun at points though, rising above an overcomplicated script with a bizarre fascination for throwing in random and rubbish rhymes. This film may just go through the motions and it may be far too long, but it’s undeniably grand and fairly pleasing despite the odd yawn.

Rather than fork out for its occasional 3D gimmicks of a sword jutting out of the screen though, I would recommend ditching the high seas for inner city London and Joe Cornish’s critically acclaimed directorial debut, Attack the Block. I saw this just hours before Pirates 4 and without adding anything new to the chorus of praise around it, I will just say go and see it. It is funnier and more thrilling than Rob Marshall’s blockbuster and doesn’t deserve to sink.

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After AV and election humiliation: what next for Clegg and the Lib Dems?


The result was crushing. A firm no to electoral reform and a pummelling at local level for Lib Dem councillors is a devastating double whammy. The road back to even slight popularity will be rocky and steep, with huge risks of even further falls on the way. The media were quick to pounce on the misery of Clegg and the tensions within the coalition. Whilst exaggerated, there is no doubt that the coverage accurately reflects a permanent shift in the dynamic of the parties in partnership.

Firstly then why was the defeat so bad? And why did the Conservatives not only escape punishment but considerably strengthen their position with gains? In many ways it is pointless to dwell on the results. What’s done is done. Liberal Democrats across the board are declaring the need to move on and get on with the job, seemingly out of bitterness, but also out of practicality and necessity. It is perfectly understandable however that some big names, such as Cable and Huhne, have lashed out at their Tory coalition partners in the dizzying spiral of disappointment and defeat.

They feel, rightly, that their party has become a human shield. They feel that they are victims of immense unfairness, ironic given that the core of their policies on tax, education and indeed the voting system, are intended to increase fairness. The Liberal Democrats had to enter into coalition with the Conservatives. Labour was never a viable or democratic alternative. A minority Tory government would have been ineffective and lacked any Lib Dem input on policy, whether as a restraining or creative force.

They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Clegg would never have been forgiven had he passed up the chance to introduce a host of coveted Liberal measures. As I’ve argued before Clegg also saw an opportunity to open up politics. By showing that coalitions could work, the old seesaw between Labour and the Conservatives would be challenged. Consensus and cross party collaboration would produce broader ideas and solutions to the bigger issues, in a 21st century where ideology is far less important than results, to voters at least.

Where they went wrong is debatable. There are obviously a range of reasons. But primarily it seems to be that too much eagerness and what’s been described as “personal chumminess” between Cameron and Clegg, was on display. The broken promises therefore appeared to be callous and genuine deception, rather than an inevitable concession from the minority partner in coalition. On tuition fees the Lib Dems made the mistake of trying to claim that the new policy was a better one because of changes they instigated. They needed to make a greater show of their overwhelming reluctance to charge fees at all, whilst still championing the restraining measures for fairness that were their doing.

Ultimately it all comes down to Clegg’s economic gamble though. I am still not sure just how fully he buys into George Osborne’s interpretation of the crisis and his drastic solution. It may well be that privately Clegg still stands by his pre-election comments, that the deficit should be reduced gradually with a focus on growth in the short term.  Adopting the Tory approach could be the primary price of going into government for the Lib Dems. But publicly he has signed his party up to comprehensive cuts in public spending that are at odds with the instincts of most Liberals. And you’d have to say that Clegg must believe the Conservative plan will eventually lead to growth, because if it doesn’t his party will be battered once more come the next General Election.

Certainly earlier this year I wrote about a speech in which Clegg made the most compelling argument thus far in favour of extreme deficit reduction, which essentially boiled down to longer term sustainability and strength in diversity for the economy. I still think he may be torn though and that he might accept some of Labour’s arguments that claim a slower pace of cuts would have restored greater growth sooner.

With regards to the referendum on AV Clegg clearly made an error when choosing the date. The key reason for Yes2AV’s failure was that their argument became inseparably embroiled with party politics and the local elections. Clegg’s personal unpopularity rubbed off on the campaign for reform, mainly because of dirty tactics from the No camp. Yes2AV also made ridiculous unrealistic claims about accountability, rather than keeping their argument simple. Celebrities made a late push for reform at a rally but by then it was too late, the argument should have been made more forcefully outside of the political sphere weeks before May the 5th.

Of course the important and interesting question now is what do the Lib Dems do to recover? And how will this affect the coalition? Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain’s third party, was on Question Time on Thursday. He spoke eloquently and with reason on foreign affairs, prompting cheers and claps from the bulk of the audience. But when it came to domestic politics he found himself bogged down by the harsh public opinion of Clegg, so very different from the polls after the TV debates over a year ago. He valiantly defended the courage of his party’s leader under fire but could only react with frustration when the audience flatly refused to hear him out.

Clegg continued to show that courage in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. Given the pictures of his gloom and the mountain to climb left by the results, Clegg gave remarkably assured answers and honestly asserted that he’d misjudged things, and that the Lib Dems needed to have a “louder voice” in the coalition. He spoke of the need to sing about the unexpectedly high number of Lib Dem manifesto policies being implemented. But in many ways all this was predictable and necessary.

The efforts to give his party an individual and distinctive again will undoubtedly begin to heal the wounds of defeat. He needs to show greater reluctance when he must go along with Conservative plans, pick the Tory policies he does oppose carefully for maximum impact and point out measures that perfectly illustrate the moderating influence of his party. Clegg has already worked out that NHS reform is the best way to begin a recovery, threatening to block it and demanding changes are made to meet concerns. However what would really give the Lib Dems a distinctive voice back is to propose and explain policies they would be implementing without the Conservatives.

What I mean by this is to set out policies, on tuition fees for example, that the Lib Dems would implement if they had the ideal (but unlikely) scenario of a majority government. These policies should be calculated to appeal to Labour voters and those within Labour potentially open to coalition. The Lib Dems need to reach out to Ed Miliband or those around him with influence, to stop him pounding the human shields of the coalition as opposed to those in the driving seat.  A senior figure in the party, perhaps likeable President Tim Farron, should be chosen to run what would almost be an alternative Lib Dem opposition.

I accept this would be difficult to handle and could shatter trust and cooperation with the Tories. Many might say it’s impossible. But as long as Clegg and key Lib Dem ministers weren’t directly involved, the group did not challenge specific government policy and simply proposed Lib Dem alternatives not covered by the coalition agreement, there would be little the Tories could do to stop it. AV may be lost but the Lib Dems have plenty of arguments they can still make that are unique to them. They must take the philosophy behind AV, choice and fairness, and tie it to attractive policy. For example their manifesto went further on tax, transport, energy and the House of Lords. Choice is the key to freedom in a modern society and the Lib Dems must make the case for the state actively empowering individuals. The Liberals must show how they would liberate.

It’s probably better for Clegg to keep his head down for a while and continue to soak up pressure whilst his party recovers independently. Clegg’s popularity will take longer than his party’s to heal. But this does not mean he is the wrong man to lead it. He has for the most part taken bold decisions both in the national interest and to achieve greater fairness sought by his party’s voters. He has had to concede costly economic compromises, but to overcome these he must be bold again. Frankly after the tactics of the No Campaign, so wholeheartedly backed by Cameron, Clegg must dirty his hands a little. A louder voice will only convince dispirited voters if it hints at what the coalition is doing wrong because of the Conservatives, as well as what it’s doing right because of the Lib Dems.

The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.

Transforming and adapting the essence of simplicity: Never Let Me Go


The way in which I discovered the story to Never Let Me Go is typical to our cultural age. Last year I discovered a trailer which hinted at a marvellously moving tale, stuffed with fine acting, a soaring soundtrack and an intriguing premise. Then there was a second trailer, less gripping and more melancholy than the first, which turned out to more accurately reflect the film. Haunted and beguiled by the tremendous first snippet though, I sought out the novel and determined to read it before the film’s release in 2011.

It was the first time I’d read a book by Kazuo Ishiguro and I’ve since become a fan. It was satisfying to discover the subtle, incredibly English tone of the book so well mirrored in that first trailer. It was rewarding too to delve deep into the joys of Ishiguro’s fabulously realised narrator Kathy H, so attractively played in that teaser by Carey Mulligan. Ultimately the book felt so real, raw and affecting, and the writing was so beautiful, that my allegiances switched devotedly to the original work, despite that snapshot of film hooking me in the first place. However in our modern world of innumerable choice, adaptation and interpretation, I realise the futility of being a snob about such things. Just because I’d embraced the true complexity of the original work, did not diminish the potential power of the film.

I say complexity, but the real merit of the novel was its immense simplicity. It’s perhaps this that the film struggles to adequately capture. Cinema usually requires more than the touchingly mundane. I’ve commented before on my blog that the adaptation would struggle to balance the different chronological segments of the novel. Reading it leaves you with a vivid sense of childhood nostalgia and an unquestionable understanding of the importance of youth and school to Kathy H and the other main characters, Tommy and Ruth. The sinisterly picturesque boarding school of Hailsham is clearly of paramount importance to the characters in the latter stages of the film too, but it was not as vibrantly established earlier on.

That said the filmmakers do a wonderfully thorough job of making the childhood scenes convincing. The younger incarnations of Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan in particular look remarkably spot-on. More importantly all the key performances from the younger actors are excellent. Ella Purnell, as the young Ruth, even gives a far superior performance to Hollywood starlet Knightley as the grown up. If you’ve read the novel you’ll appreciate the way Purnell better captures Ruth’s good and bad sides, whereas Knightley seems rather one dimensional in her portrayal of Ruth as predominantly vindictive. If you haven’t read the book you’ll still see the Pirates of the Caribbean star’s turn as the weakest of the three leads.

Mulligan continues to impress. She stole the show in what’s widely hailed as the best modern Doctor Who episode, Blink, and has gone from strength to strength ever since, breaking through internationally with her performance in An Education. Here she does a wonderful job with some tricky bits of voiceover. As a general rule, voiceover as a story telling device can either be atrociously bad or astoundingly good. Mulligan’s efforts to replicate the tone of melancholic memory from the first person narration of the book ensure that in Never Let Me Go, voiceover tends to tread closer to the positive end of the spectrum.

She’s also regularly fabulous in her scenes with Knightley and Andrew Garfield. Her pained expressions and displays of emotional restraint come just about as close as possible to the brilliant subtlety and ambiguities of the novel. She’s as likeable as Kathy H should be. Garfield also adds another respectable notch to his CV, coping admirably with Tommy’s notorious rages and his place at the centre of a slow burning, heart wrenching love triangle. Despite Knightley giving the least classy and layered performance, she also doesn’t do a bad job. In many ways she may have been limited by a necessarily narrow interpretation of Ruth’s character in the book and a lack of time for her character to redeem herself in hospital scenes with Kathy on screen, as she does on the page.

The book was finely crafted, composed and executed, to produce a tender, touching and intelligent final product. To an extent the film is also brought to life with bags of quality. There are some luscious shots from director Mark Romanek that conjure feelings of nostalgia; windswept British landscapes and colourful toys abandoned in the summery grass. It’s for the most part perfectly acted, with good contribtutions from Charlotte Rampling as Miss Emily and Sally Hawkins as Miss Lucy alongside the leads. In general the whole film is full of evocative and eerie period detail, given the slightly sci-fi premise.

On the page the fact that there was a mere whiff of sci-fi, that didn’t actually lead to some groundbreaking revelation, was perhaps a minor disappointment. But in a way it allowed for a more pure distillation of relationships, love and the human capacity (or perhaps a very British ability) to cope with suffering and endure with dignity, rather than run away. The film was always going to require some more direct references to the purpose of Hailsham and its children. And because there is no huge, thriller like conspiracy, Never Let Me Go will feel a letdown to most and unbelievably light on plot and originality. There’s simply never a sufficient peak to the drama, just a constant tasteful simmering of emotion.

It certainly would have been a mistake for Alex Garland’s script to transform hidden truths, memories and secrets into contorted plot twists. Part of Never Let Me Go’s refreshing realism, maturity and originality is its subdued approach. But it also led to people leaving the cinema in front of me bemoaning the whole idea of the story as weak. Somehow the film needed something more and if the novel had one fault it was its lack of a satisfying, big reveal. The poignancy of the writing meant the lack of drama mattered less that it does on film.

However just because Never Let Me Go is an inferior adaptation with a fatal flaw and is often a bit dull, does not make it bad. Some scenes really stand out with every little ingredient almost perfect. It’s undoubtedly superbly made. Even those cinemagoers leaving with disappointments around me were singing the praises enthusiastically of the acting talent on show. It’s a mystery to me how the actors at least did not get some awards season nominations for this film. And as a fan of the book it’s disappointing the film failed to capture its distinctive essence and live up to the intoxicating promise of earlier trailers. I guess the only real way to judge Never Let Me Go, whether you know the story or not, is to see it yourself. Personally for its refusal to be bombastic and sensational alone it’s a worthwhile watch.

Two Eds really are better than one


It has been one of those weeks in politics. As well as dull but incredibly important legislative procedure on issues like voting reform and the EMA, there have been the scandalous, newsworthy, headline-grabbing stories which get everyone interested and have the potential to set the tone of debate for the foreseeable future. On Friday the big story was supposed to be the once charismatic, fallen and tainted PM Tony Blair giving evidence for a second time at a historic war inquiry. Instead both of the major parties faced employment crises that sent morale on an undulating, yo-yoing rollercoaster ride.

At the end of that ride it seems Labour, against the odds, have emerged with their heads held high and full of hope. The resignation of David Cameron’s long-term spin doctor Andy Coulson proves them right on a point they’ve been making in Opposition for months. With little policy of their own to use as ammunition against Coalition cuts, Labour have relished the niggling issue of Coulson’s shady past at the News of the World. By finally quitting Coulson has reinforced Labour’s attempts to expose the “new” politics of the coalition as the same old dishonest, elitist governance of old. Coulson may have tried to serve his employer well one last time with the timing of his announcement, shrouded as it was in theory by the gargantuan story of a Labour frontbench reshuffle so soon after the selection of the original line-up. But for the moment at least it’s Labour that are buoyed by events and the Tories feeling somewhat dejected.

Back in October I aired my views on this blog about the announcement of Ed Miliband’s first Shadow Cabinet. To me the appointment of Alan Johnson was a mistake, and far be it from me to blow my own trumpet, but events have proved my initial musings correct. Johnson went from gaffe to gaffe, showing a worrying lack of knowledge for his brief. Labour continually failed to land palpable hits on economic issues, despite a plethora of targets laid bare by Con-Dem cuts. Meanwhile Ed Balls, after a dynamic and impressive leadership campaign, languished largely unnoticed as Shadow Home Secretary. No one seemed to be pro-active enough to take the fight to the Conservatives on damaging policies in a noticeable way. Balls’ wife, Yvette Cooper, also wasted away shadowing the foreign office brief, despite widespread backing in the party and the potential for public support. The only Labour frontbencher scoring economic points was Shadow Business Secretary John Denham, and even he has left glaring gaps in his arguments and been error prone.

Alan Johnson’s sudden resignation due to personal issues so soon into his new, vital job may be a blessing in disguise for Labour and everyone wishing to see credible Opposition to Coalition cuts. Despite the mistakes, Johnson has once again proved in his short tenure his capacity to be likeable and approachable to ordinary voters. The revelation that it was in fact his wife having an affair, not him, ensures the prospect of return to the Labour frontbench in a smaller, popular role in the future. With Johnson’s static, timid fiscal presence brushed aside though, Labour can at last forge a bold new and distinctive direction on all things economic.

I praised Ed Balls during his leadership campaign for going a long way to reshape his bullyboy image. More than any other candidate, Balls looked as if he’d give Labour a truly individual position on policy. Continually described as Labour’s “attack dog” Balls will now have much greater freedom to bite at the heels of the Coalition. As Shadow Chancellor he’ll have to respond to hot, topical issues like tuition fees and bankers’ bonuses; fresh and emotive in the public consciousness. He’ll also have to start winning the argument on growth and investment vs. spending cuts.

Already though he has shown signs of defending Labour’s past record more effectively, explaining his decision to now back the plan he once opposed to halve the deficit within four years, by citing better figures driven by Labour’s spending whilst in government. He’s also been wise to already criticise the government, not for risking a double-dip recession, which looks unlikely, but for wasting an opportunity for greater growth and wider prosperity because of ideological decisions. And growth, Balls will emphasise, is the swiftest, most sustainable route to deficit reduction.

There are still those warning against the potential problems of two Eds at the top though. The primary fear is a return to the Blair-Brown standoff that came to define and overshadow New Labour. This concern adds the extra interest of a helping of recent political history to the mix of this story. Will Labour repeat past mistakes, despite Miliband’s proclamation of a new generation? Even if the new team propels Labour back to government, the same old potentially lethal questions will hang ominously over the partnership between the leader and the treasury.

However I think the doubters are at the very least premature to suspect Balls of wanting to derail Miliband’s revival of the party. Despite the fact he ran for leader, it’s no secret that the job Balls has always wanted is Chancellor. Finally in a position to seize his goal, he is unlikely to turn his fire on his own party. Much more likely is that Balls will electrify the chamber, as one Labour source believes he will, and unleash an avalanche of devastating balls of criticism at the government. He’ll add much needed guts and yes, “Balls”, to Labour’s Opposition. He’s already proved his aptitude for Opposition politics during his leadership campaign.

Balls’ wife will also have greater opportunity to play a key role, replacing her husband as Shadow Home Secretary. She’ll no doubt start picking apart government policing plans. But once again Ed Miliband showed a disappointing lack of courage with his emergency reshuffle. Already he’s failed to take climate change seriously or offer serious backing to voting reform or a graduate tax. And by handing Balls Johnson’s old job, not his wife, he once again missed an opportunity to make his generation truly a new one.

Failing with his initial selection of a cabinet though meant he simply had to give the role to Balls. Who will, I believe, do a genuinely excellent job and accelerate Labour’s journey back to power. The two Eds plan to have adjacent offices and the fears of a Blair-Brown fallout seem unfounded to me. Nevertheless they will not disappear and had Miliband boldly plumped for the equally qualified Cooper, he would have avoided the shadow of New Labour he is so desperate to escape.

Catfish


When I first heard about Catfish, it sounded like a ramshackle film cobbled together to capitalise on Facebook fever, and in particular, the enormous success of David Fincher’s The Social Network. Looking deeper, at the artwork and a synopsis of the plot, I was inclined to think the same thing. The visual design of the title and posters, whilst clearly modelled on the Facebook logo itself, unavoidably now conjure associations with The Social Network, a wonderfully shot, acted and scripted film that seems destined to claim best picture at the imminent Oscars ceremony. The vague summaries of the plot of Catfish all make it sound like the generic, potentially lucrative tale anyone would decide to tell about the phenomenon of social networking. It’s described as a “reality thriller” and the production companies settled on tag-lines like “Think before you click.”

But then there was the avalanche of positive critical comment surrounding the film. A quick check on Rotten Tomatoes will show up a healthy 81% fresh rating but dig deeper once again and you’ll find some reviews that give Catfish unbelievably glowing, game-changing references.  It’s enthusiastically endorsed by various newspapers; The Mail, The Guardian, The Mirror, The Telegraph and The News of The World. The decisive factor that swayed me to ensure I saw it a.s.a.p. however was the recommendation of characteristically cynical movie blog, Ultra Culture.

Ultra Culture hailed Catfish as its film of 2010. The explanation of this choice is eloquent and as funny as always and does an admirable job of trying to touch on all the big, intellectual reasons Catfish is so masterfully compulsive and spot-on, as well as the smaller reasons it’s a quality piece of filmmaking. Any review of the story will fail to capture the myriad of ways it could be interpreted. Such is its nature and its accurate reflection and encapsulation of the interconnectivity of our times.

Let’s start with those smaller reasons Catfish is just, plain and simple, good. It has a captivating original soundtrack, which perfectly complements the action of the story. In many ways the soundtrack is as varied as the narrative itself, encompassing everything from sentimental, heart-warming songs to lively, modern pieces which keep things interesting during transitional moments consisting mainly of screen-shots from a computer. These in-depth snippets of technology are crucial to the feel of the film; quotes from Facebook chats, pictures, YouTube videos or Google earth animations, all handled beautifully and interestingly. Catfish feels at once relevant and familiar, without ever becoming boring.

Then there’s the dubious documentary status of the movie. Catfish falls into that guaranteed hype-inducing category of projects that may or may not be staged. Most reviewers, myself included, conclude that Catfish does not feel faked, despite some clearly crafted moments. More importantly the majority of verdicts on Catfish state in black and white that they couldn’t care less whether or not the events are real. As David Edwards in The Daily Mirror says; “Is it real? When a film’s this good, that becomes secondary.”

What’s the general gist of this snapshot of contemporary life then? Well, as is so often the case with genuinely fantastic films, to say too much would spoil the experience. It’s also so many things and deals with so many themes, that it’s impossible to categorise. Essentially though Catfish is a refreshingly hands-on, unique take on the internet, and specifically relationships conducted over the web and purely by virtual means. The key figure, Nev, begins the film receiving inspirational packages from an eight year old girl, who paints. Her creations are increasingly based on Nev’s photography and then his life and appearance in general. Nev and his filmmaking friends eventually journey to meet his artistic pen-pal and her family. Nev’s even fallen for her older sister. But who are we to know what love really is?

In many ways the transformation of the film from an uplifting hymn to the connecting, liberating power of the web into something darker, is predictable. The warnings it holds about forged identities and the potential for sinister outlets are there. But as several reviews, including Ultra Culture’s, point out, Catfish is not meant to be a powerful cautionary tale about complacent trust online. What confirms this is the surprisingly insightful explanation of the title, delivered in working class tones by a simple character as the film concludes. Catfish, he explains, were used to exercise cod fish as they were shipped on long journeys. This kept their flesh fresh and stopped them becoming tasteless. We need enigmatic, metaphorical Catfish in our lives, to “keep us on our toes” and give life spicy variety.

To inadequately sum up then: Catfish is a gripping mystery, packed with incredibly emotional moments. Its twists and turns are always beguiling, stunning and (mostly) unpredictable. It is both sinister and disturbing, and heart-warming and stirring. At 83 minutes it’s the most concise and thrilling “documentary” you’re ever likely to see. It’s funny. Most importantly of all it’s a study of the realities of our modern existence. It highlights more themes than I can mention but ultimately uncovers the unifying, depressing deceptions of millions of lives. You’ve never seen anything quite like it.

 The Social Network is a worthy Oscar winner and a truly fabulous story about the origins of Facebook and the excesses of its creators. Catfish however, is the real movie about the internet, about the actual effects of social networking. I now understand the marketing around Catfish and it wasn’t all about jumping on the Facebook bandwagon. The Social Network was rarely about Facebook itself; Catfish explores some of the same universal themes of the human condition, and more, and is genuinely THE Facebook movie.

Daily Telegraph Ghost Story Writing Competition


In my idle hours today I stumbled across The Daily Telegraph’s ghost story writing competition. I decided to while away my time contributing an entry, but had little idea what I wanted to do, other than something different. The result of my endeavours I entered into the competition, but I suspect it is nowhere near as cleverly composed and close to the original genre as required. I wanted to challenge the idea in the article by the Head Judge that comedy kills a ghost story, but my efforts may prove her right. I think the tension builds a bit too slowly and in the wrong places and the finale is rushed. But I like some of it and will post it here as evidence of my development and boredom

Link to competition here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/8093081/Telegraph-ghost-story-writing-competition.html

“May I sit here?”
“…”
“Excuse me, may I sit down?”
“Oh yes…ah, sorry. Of course.”

He was reading, wading through the thickets of what looked like a cross between an ageing government dossier and an academic paper. Thumbing down the page, he let the bulky scroll slap onto the table and hoisted his bag, a rustic looking holdall bursting at the seams, with a solitary wire peering out from within like a periscope or antennae, onto the seat next to him. I shuffled gratefully into the vacated space. I commenced a brief wriggling and squirming search for comfort. Ritual complete, I fixed my new companion of circumstance with my widest polite grin. His eyebrows flicked briefly in acknowledgement before darting back down to the task at hand. I remember thinking that he resembled Father Christmas on a business trip, a tedious contractual quest for toys that sucked the joy out of his life’s passion. Or Dickie Attenborough in Jurassic Park. Funny that even then his kindly, disinterested face had monstrous associations.

I didn’t so much as glance at the man with the white beard sitting across from me, with the mysterious bag and endless reams of type, for the next hour and a half or so. Once or twice I sensed him slowly twirling his neck in my peripheries but for the most part I was absorbed in my marking and he in his mammoth read. I had only bothered the poor guy, for that’s all he was to me then, a stranger I had briefly inconvenienced, so I could use the table to mark my lower sixth’s Crimea essays. I should have done them days ago but had got caught up in her company, as usual. It was typical of me lately to have left things for a last minute slog on the train, but at that moment I didn’t much care. I scrawled my half-thoughts in the margin, racing to finish and bathe fully in recollections of the weekend. I was oblivious to the gradually darkening sky outside and the black clouds amassing in the distance. I didn’t watch as the night was born prematurely of a congealed, thickening, all consuming blob that would quickly engulf the train galloping towards its jaws. I was blissfully unaware of the twitching forks of lightning flashing electric blue warning signals on the horizon. I did not then regard him or his eccentric belongings as suspicious. I did not regard him at all.

The next thing I knew the carriage’s sickening sway had jerked me awake. Shamefully my head was lolling lifeless on my shoulder, oozing an indulgent drool. The last essay lay untouched on the table in front of me. I wiped the slobber on the back of my hand and scrunched the sleep from my eyes. He was hastily stuffing wires back into his bag, snatching glances at me from the corners of his eyes. I observed him groggily in the black sheet that used to be the window. Total, absolute night had fallen during my slumber. The never-ending blackness was only interrupted by the occasional shaft of sinister blue, winking at me, warning me again. Again I was ignorant; choosing instead to gaze dreamily at the distant amber twinkle of streetlights, rendered a blur by the patchwork of water droplets. He was reading again, deep in thought. A frown furrowed his forehead as I watched his reflection in the mirror of night.

The wobble of the carriage really was unusually vigorous. So I was relieved when the automated squawk of an announcement about suspicious bags was interrupted by the neutral, but alive, voice of the on duty guard. He said something about stopping at the next station for maintenance in a barely audible mutter, laced with boredom and tiredness. I looked briefly about the carriage to find empty seats everywhere. The poor guy must know how few passengers he was addressing and how few were left awake to care what he was saying. I briefly considered hopping across the aisle to the now completely vacant table opposite. But my unintended sleep made this more awkward than staying put, I thought.  The wind howled.

The promised pit stop seemed to stretch on and on. At first I was curious, then concerned, about a series of loud bangs and jolts that didn’t normally accompany such maintenance in my experience. Dickie too, was bothered; even pushing aside his report or whatever it was, going all alert like a Meerkat.  Still though no words were spoken. Eventually sleep crept up on me again, tempting me to embrace the boredom and the rhythmic, soundless splashing of water visible through the gloom on the platform.

This time I woke up dying for a piss. We were no longer stopped. In fact we seemed to be hurtling through the blackness, the whole carriage snaking to the sounds of a gale. I think he was reading as I staggered past him to the WC, but now I’m not so sure. He might have already started. On reaching the toilet I find a makeshift “OUT OF ORDER” notice plastered across it. For some reason I decide it would be embarrassing to retreat past Dickie to the other end of the carriage and the other WC, so I head onward to the next carriage and salvation on the horizon. I considered simply going back to my seat, but I literally felt as if I was about to burst. I jabbed a finger impatiently at the button for the door to the next carriage. The doors didn’t open and the darkness beyond yawned at me through the glass as I hopped and jigged on the spot, frantically pushing the button and then scrambling ineffectively at the join in the door. I wheeled around in a complete circle; no one around to help, no one official. Suddenly the intensity of the blackness in the empty, unreachable next carriage struck me as odd. I peered through the glass at the rows of red seats shrouded in gloom, all the while shaking stupidly. Was there something wrong? Something going on here?

I walked briskly back into our carriage, Dickie now the solitary occupant. He had definitely stopped reading by this point and he had his wires out. This time there was no attempt to hide the contraption he cradled on his lap. The luminous green digits on the carriage clock had faded out to almost nothing, with the exception of a “1” and a “7”, which flashed on and off every few seconds, broadcasting the message “17”. Despite my still swelling bladder, I can’t help but stand rooted to the spot, transfixed by this. I hadn’t been following the time, but I’m sure it must have been approaching midnight when I got up for the toilet. I still needed the toilet. This basic urge and the spectacle of the clock meant I didn’t hear Dickie speaking.

“Spooky isn’t it.”

At first I ignore him and make to head off down the carriage towards the other toilet, but something held me back. I didn’t want to be alone. So I flopped, no for fear of an embarrassing mishap I eased myself back into my seat, and indicated his pages and pages of text.

“Quite the mountain you’re climbing.”
“Oh this? It’s alright really; I’ve read it all before but needed to recap some things. I might have missed something important…”
His voice trailed off. I was about to ask what exactly he was reading when he spoke again, raising his eyes from the device he was fiddling with for the first time.
“You went to the toilet and it was out of order.”
“Yes…” full marks Dickie, I thought.
“Would you like to know why it was out of order? Why so many things have been malfunctioning, why they’ve discretely cordoned off these three carriages, why it feels so cold, why the power fluctuations? Why the number seventeen?”
He reeled off these enticing questions not with any air of mystery or power, but with one of indifference, whilst he went back to manoeuvring wires and turning a large dial at the centre of his gadget, his toy, his gizmo. 
“How can you…? Do you work for the train company? Did I miss an announcement? The number is just a coincidence…”
“Oh no it’s all connected. And I work for humanity.”
“…”
“That is to say for the good of mankind. For its protection.”
“…”
I stared at him blankly. I still needed to pee and didn’t have time for this old guy’s games. Just my luck, Dickie was insane. Bad choice for a partner in a power cut. I started to get up with the intention of finally relieving myself in the other toilet. I told myself to man up and get over my stupid irrational fear of the lonely rattling murk.
“A paedophile slashed his wrists in that toilet almost six months ago and this train has been plagued with problems ever since. It’s riddled with faults. They refuse to admit that the issue is supernatural. I’ve told them again and again they would need my help. The number just confirms it.”
“What!? What are you…?”
Dickie wasn’t finished.
“His case notes show that the deceased consistently claimed that the girl he raped and later murdered, claimed she was seventeen years of age. She was eleven.”
I had frozen in the aisle. Dickie was sick, I thought. Could Dickie, I wondered, also be dangerous? At that moment the dial on his blob of wires clicked loudly into place. My whole frame shuddered involuntarily. Dickie twisted the dial and a high pitched beeping began.
“Yep. He’s here.”
The remaining lights went out.

*

I’m pretty sure a lot of what happened after that is still suppressed somewhere in my mind. She keeps telling me I should get some therapy to sort it out. But why inflict that on a therapist? They’d either label me insane or join me in the madhouse if they truly understood. I don’t understand what happened, neither could they. Why spread the misery? I do remember Dickie telling me not to move. For quite a while I remember him urging me, in a low, gentle voice, how imperative it was not to move, not to disturb his “zone”, not to anger him. Then the monologue began.

It was definitely Dickie’s voice doing all that ranting and raving, and yet it was not Dickie’s voice. Every now and then what sounded like the real Dickie would break through and manage to say something to interrupt the flow in a choking, rasping croak. Distressingly though whenever it did really sound like him, he simply reiterated the same unhelpful advice; do not move. I wanted to run and keep running. I remember staring at the only source of light left; that blinking 17, trying to block out the tortured tale emanating from Dickie’s body, which I could feel writhing in its possessed state over my shoulder. My natural defences have done a reasonably good job of deleting that twisted monologue, but certain phrases still come to me at night in dreams, vivid and alive like he were whispering in my ear. Then I wake up, sticky and warm all over with sweat. And in my half-awake, half-asleep state, I imagine I am covered in blood, his hot, dirty, vile blood in that clattering WC. Then I vomit and an attendant comes in with a mop.

I really wish I could remember how Dickie came to be on top of me, covered in blood, a cold corpse. How the window came to be smashed, how his beeping gizmo had vanished. How the howling tube, speeding through the storm, came to be serenely waiting at the platform, undamaged, unblemished. How the knife got into my pocket, covered in my DNA, my fingerprints, Dickie’s blood. But I don’t need counselling, therapy doesn’t work and I don’t believe in ghosts.