A review of Louis Theroux’s ‘Drinking to Oblivion’

Last week, the ever popular Louis Theroux returned to our TV screens for a one off documentary exploring the issue of alcoholism. In common with much of his work, Theroux, rather than drawing on statistics and expert evidence chose to explore this topic by talking to those affected themselves – the people experiencing alcoholism and various associated others (spouses, partners, boyfriends etc.) In watching this latest offering, I was left with a whole range of different impressions and emotions in comparison to his earlier work.

Louis Theroux - Drinking to oblivion review pic

Charting Louis Theroux’s career to date is an intriguing exercise. In his earlier output, Theroux came across as somewhat smug and sneering as he engaged with various perceived fringe groups in western society, whether they be ‘survivalists’ or those who believe in the existence of UFOs. This trend for engaging with alternative sects continued throughout Theroux’s career into the early and mid-2000s, minus the smugness and sneering I’m glad to say.

Whether it was leftfield groups or charismatic celebrities, the Oxford graduate soon built something of an imitable trademark style – altogether emotionally neutral, deadpan yet also charming and relatable. This odd mix of qualities perhaps helps explain why he has been able not only to gain access to notorious groups and people but also able to build relationships with them, bringing out their human side alongside their oddities.  All of this has made for rather compelling viewing over the years. Did ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ continue this trend?

Perhaps the first thing to say about this latest documentary is that its subjects are fundamentally different from any of Theroux’s others. As already noted, Theroux has built his career on being able to engage with society’s fringe, and whilst alcoholics are in many ways similarly seen as fringe, they are in many ways seen as far more relatable, visible and knowable (if not literally, then certainly culturally) than any other group Theroux has explored. We are far more likely to know an alcoholic for example, whereas how many of us can say that we know a survivalist or a member of Westboro’ Baptist Church?! We are also far more likely to ‘know’ about alcoholism in as far as we know (even if on a basic and/or flawed level) what it is. In comparison, I might have heard of the survivalists or Westboro’ Baptist Church but not much more than that – who they are, what they believe or how they behave for example.

Further, the way Theroux relates to those he meets in ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ is patently different to how he has done so in the past. Here, he seems to wear his emotions much more openly, he is visibly saddened and stirred by the way in which alcohol has gripped and destroyed the lives of a number (if not all, thankfully) of those he meets. Accordingly, he comes across as much more attached than in the past, it is clear that he dearly wants to help those he meet escape alcohol’s clutches. This is no more apparent than when Joe, in the depths of an alcohol induced crisis decides (whilst at hospital) that he wants to go out and buy a bottle of vodka, to which Louis responds by imploring him not to. It isn’t merely the words he says to Joe, but the way in which he almost begs Joe not to that sticks in the memory.

All of which leads the viewer to respond to ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ in a wholly different way than to previous Theroux offerings. In the past, we might have been entertained by Theroux’s dalliances with people to whom many feel deserve our mockery, derision and laughter. This certainly isn’t the case here. Rather, Drinking to Oblivion is an often uncomfortable, hard-hitting and altogether sad watch. Indeed, we aren’t encouraged to be entertained, intrigued, and to mock, deride and laugh but to lament, be saddened, discomforted and moved by how this terrifying affliction can affect significant numbers of people. Thus, given the subject matter, Theroux’s change in tone is welcome (I say this as someone who has enjoyed much of Theroux’s earlier work).

In summary, drinking to Oblivion is indeed hard, discomforting and saddening, and it is all the better for it.

The Vanarama Conference – A Half-Term Impression

It’s hard to believe, but 2015 is almost upon us. I can’t be the only one asking ‘Where did the last year go?’ Yet time rests for no man, and no doubt many football fans will now see this time of year as an apt time to assess their club’s stock thus far this season. The Conference is no exception. Some fans will be rejoicing, some will not. Followers of Barnet will surely be sipping their port counting down the days until their seemingly inevitable promotion back to the Football League. They may be counting their chickens, and stranger things have happened, but I find it hard to believe that any side below them will overhaul their seven point lead at the top of the table. We shall see.

Other clubs meanwhile will hardly be able to believe their eyes at their standing in the table, both in the good and bad sense. Take Surrey side Woking for instance. Who would have believed that come the half way point of the season The Cards would be sitting pretty in fifth place? Not me that’s for sure. A great deal of credit must go to Gary Hill and his side for a job well done so far.

On the other side of the coin you arguably have four sides who for different reasons have cause for concern. The first pair, Forest Green and Eastleigh, despite having millions at their disposal (and thus able to attract considerable talent such as James Norwood and James Constable respectively) are not sitting pretty as you might expect. Forest Green despite trying for a number of seasons to throw money at the title, find themselves toiling in 11th, whilst Eastleigh are just two points better off in 8th, 3 points off the playoffs, albeit with two or three games in hand and this being their first crack in the division. Thus, whilst things certainly aren’t desperate for these two, it does a least show that having millions doesn’t make promotion out of this league a foregone conclusion.

If Forest Green and Eastleigh might expect to be doing better, fans of Dartford and Nuneaton might consider themselves lucky to even be playing at this level this term. Had it not been for the financial mismanagement of better placed sides Hereford United and Salisbury City last season, The Darts and Boro would not be here this. Yet, barring more financial tomfoolery this season both sides placed 21st and 23rd in the table might not be around in the division much longer.

If the above serves as a brief summary, let me now elaborate on a more general observation. Whilst many have remarked (perhaps with good reason) that ‘anyone can beat anyone’ in this division, (see my side Lincoln City’s rather surprising 2-1 away win and table topping Barnet for example) a definite trend has emerged regarding who has tended to do well. That is, sides in the top 12 tend to be full time outfits whilst part time operations often predominate the lower 12. Indeed, only the aforementioned Woking and Halifax buck the trend in the top half, whilst only Lincoln City and Aldershot in the bottom half ply their trade on a whole-time basis.

The question remains though – why is this is the case? It is one thing to say there is a correlation between league position and full/part time status, but quite another to imply a directly causal relationship. After all, (hypothetically) most of the teams in the top 12 could wear red and white stripes but it would be silly to suggest this is a key factor in their table position. On the other hand, there are many plausible reasons why being full or part time could make a difference to a table placing.

Firstly and perhaps most obviously, full time squads have longer training periods during the week, meaning they arguably have greater scope to develop attributes such as match fitness, set piece ability, and so on. Secondly, the prospect of full time full football may attract higher quality players both from part time leagues below, and loanees, free agents, ‘up and comers’ and those ‘on the way down’ from the Football League. This could be due to the more financially lucrative packages on offer to the prospect of the training time and facilities a full time club can provide. This isn’t absolute however, with a handful of part time clubs being more financially attractive for footballers than some full time outfits.  Some players for instance take a ‘second wage’ at a Part Time outfit in addition to a relatively paid full time career in another profession.

Thirdly and finally, given the national nature of the Conference from clubs as far north as Gateshead and south as Torquay, being part time could be a serious constraint in terms of preparation time, match sharpness and so on. Players who finish work, travel to a mid-week evening match, arrive back home at 3am,only to be up again at 6am for work face a different reality to full time players who can spend the day training, travelling to a match in good time and then have time off the following day.

In summary, half way into the Conference season we can see a definite full time/part time split emerging and it’ll be interesting to see if this trend is as pronounced come April. As far as the teams themselves are concerned, Barnet are out on their own at the top with Bristol Rovers, Macclesfield, Woking and Grimsby making up the play-off spots. Telford occupy bottom place, some 12 points away from safety, whilst Nuneaton, Dartford and Alfreton occupy the other relegation berths. Whilst I wouldn’t be surprised to see the teams in 1st and 24th places remain as they are, there is still much to be played for elsewhere, albeit with the top twelve and bottom twelve effectively competing in separate ‘mini-leagues’.

My top tracks of 2013

Unlike some previous years, 2013 didn’t see the emergence of a new ‘super genre.’ However, very much in character with underground music, this year seemed as diverse as many before it, with great tunes from across the electronica spectrum. Here are my top tracks of 2013 in no particular order! If you like the sound of any of them, why not support the artist and buy the track? All what is listed here should be available via Beatport.

1. Nicole Moudaber – Roar (Intec)

As the track title suggests, this is a booming, barnstormer of a track from Techno stalwart Moudaber. With hints of euphoria and high female tones this is a track is best enjoyed with Roast Beef, Venison Sausages, or alongside ex-Arsenal starlet and current FC Augsberg goalkeeper Alex Manninger.

2. Felipe Valenzuela & Dani Casarano – 1000 Tones (Melisma)

Oh yes, this REALLY is the track of 1000 tones. South American bright young things Valenzuela and Casarano dazzle their audience with minamalist lashings of elderflower and pomegranate, cheese and fruits of the Citrus Tree.  This tune is best served with Pan Fried Salmon, sweet potatoes, cardamon and Costa Rican footballing sensation, Paulo Wanchope.

3. Floorplan – Chord Principle (M-Plant)

American Techno pioneer Robert Hood  was, through his side-project Floorplan, responsible for producing this organ heavy gem. This production is best enjoyed with crisps and alongside everyone’s favourite Ukranian, Andriy ‘The Wind of Passion’ Shevchenko.

4. Rustie – Slasherr (Numbers)

Scotland’s Rustie burst onto the electronica scene this year with this bass music slammer. Best served at between 23 and 25 degrees celsius with the lights on, this is best served ‘as it comes’ with generous helpings of soiled mattresses. Ronald ‘Little Snowflake’ Koeman is said to be a fan.

5. Samuel L Session – Dystopian Life (Raw Mix) (Klap Klap)

You’ve had the meatballs, you’ve had the furniture and in 2013 you might have had this track from Sweden’s Samuel L Session. To really experience this piece of atmospheric Techno, serve with panfried scallops on a beach in Scarborough.

6. Foals – My Number (Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs remix) (Warner Bros.)

This lovely melancholic number from Oxford born producer TEED (real name Orlando Higginbottam), is as much at home on the dancefloor as it is in the lounge whilst you’re doing the washing up.

7. Emptyset – Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station – Snowdonia, Wales (Subtext)

Without doubt the most experimental track on my list, this cheeky little ditty from British duo Emptyset was recorded at the above named decommissioned Nuclear Power station using the resonances of the building’s interior. Clever stuff, and a real treat to listen to. For best results, listen at 3am in pitch black darkness, or in a quintessential Georgian tea shop.

8. Royksopp – Running to the Sea feat.Susanne Sundfor (DJ HMC remix) (Dog Triumph)

An unlikely electronic coalition between Norway and Australia combine here to produce a track as tempestuous as the title suggests. Don’t be fooled however into thinking you’ll be unceremoniously tossed like a unloved Caesar Salad; this is an offering which whilst being sufficiently stormy, is also warm like a well functioning log fire.

9. Len Faki & Johannes Heil – Maniac (Figure)

Slightly terrifying yet enchanting, this main room dominator by Germans Faki and Heil really catches the attention. Uncompromising yet useful in a number of situations, such as jogging, this is what I call ‘al dente techno.’ For a laugh, try bursting into your 87 year old granny’s bedroom at 4am playing this at full blast.

10. Tessela – Hackney Parrot (Poly Kicks)

As well as being known for it’s prolific Cider production, the South West is also known for churning out its fair share of Electronica. This year was no exception, with West Country beat masher Tessela announcing his entrance with Hackney Parrot, a track which epitomises the emergence of UK bass music this year. The special request VIP is also worth a cheeky gander. To fully appreciate this shanty, play at full volume outside your car window in the balmy afternoon sunshine, or whilst playing Scrabble at your parents on Christmas Eve.

11. And.Id – Eternal Return (Mobilee Records)

Over to Greece now and we here we have a track out on Anja Scheider’s Mobilee Records which lingers on the palate whilst offering a floaty finish, whatever that means. This is an example of memorable, creative and original tech house which will is sure to please the listener.

12. Marc Romboy @ KINK – Over and Out (Systematic Recordings)

A track which brings back memories (perhaps) of Kennth Wolstenholme’s iconic ‘they think it’s all over’ 1966 World Cup line. This tune is one that is more ‘up high’ than ‘down below.’ This offering also further cements Bulgaria’s KINK as a main electronic music player. Enjoy with figs.

13. Monika Kruse feat. Robert Owens – One Love (Nick Curly remix) (Terminal M)

Once again, Tech House mainstay Curly demonstrates his consistency with his remix of this splendid house offering. Presenting veritable smacks of vanilla and mint, this should be best served with Kansas Fried Chicken, a bird of paradise and Rotterdam’s answer to Lionel Messi, Winston Bogarde. Thus, greatly enjoyable even despite the creepy lyrics!

14. Ben Sims – Smoke & Mirrors (Jerome Sydenham’s Carbon Dub 2013) (Drumcode)

Techno heavyweights Sims and Sydenham team up to offer an upfront piece of techno cheesecake. Fun fact; Sydenham is a place in ‘Sarf’ London and has three national rail stations, Sydenham (which also has an overground line), Sydenham Hill and Lower Sydenham.

15. Maceo Plex – Going Back (Ellum Audio)

Established underground producer Maceo Plex through his own label Ellum Audio has here succeeded in creating something that is both brooding and weighty whilst also being suitable to jive to. As versatile as a Swiss Army Knife.

16. Talbot Wood – Dream Sequence (Curle Recordings)

New entrant to the scene Talbot Wood impresses here with this dreamy (hence the name) tech house meander. This Belgian producer could be someone to watch come 2014.

17. Mike Parker – Lustration Six (Megalith) (Prologue)

2013 saw US Techno mainstay Mike Parker launch his album (his first full length in 12 years) ‘Lustrations’ on German label Prologue. Lustration Six is my highlight, hence its inclusion here. Repetitive, either annoyingly or brilliantly depending on your preference. Lustration Five is also a pleasure to listen to.

18. Technasia – I am somebody (Suara)

Moving onto more subtle climbs, Technasia (real name Charles Siegling) gave us this track, part of the ‘I am Somebody’ EP. This tune succeeds in being both subtle and compelling, drawing in the listener in the process, therefore producing on the listener an expression rather like the Cat on the EP front cover.

19. Bonobo & Grey Reverend – First Fires (Maya Jane Coles remix) (Ninja Tune)

Coles continues to demonstrate her distinctive and exciting production skills with this remix, out on London label Ninja Tune. Groovy, Catchy, Danceable are all adjectives that would suitably describe this unique little number.

20. Mark Reeve – Weird Faces (Stripped down remix) (ELEVATE)

Heavy in many senses of the word, this is an atmospheric and throbbing Techno number from Germany based Brit Reeve. As DJ Judge Jules might say, ‘so sweaty you’ll need to bring a de-humidifier.’

Honourable mentions

21. Francesco Tristano – Ground Bass (Kirk Degiorgio remix) (Detsche Grammophon)

http://www.beatport.com/track/ground-bass-kirk-degiorgio-remix/4052204

22. A.Mochi – Squeal 3 (Figure)

23. Sam Paganini – Chocolate (Drumcode)

24. Inner City – Good Life (Ian O’Donovan remix) (KMS Records)

25. Chase & Status – Count on Me (Virgin EMI)

26. KINK & Rachel Row – Follow the Step (KINK Bass and Beats Mix) (Defected)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2k7I24lQkw

27. Gary Beck – Video Siren (Bek Audio)

28. Foremost Poets – Reasons to be Dismal? (Steve Bug edit) (Pokerflat Recordings)

29. Milton Bradley – Far Beyond the Quiet (Do Not Resist The Beat!)

30. Gary Beck – Stranger (Cocoon Recordings)

A review of my stay in Barcelona

montjuicSo, as I come to the end of my time here in Barcelona, I thought now, as I sit in the departure lounge/on the plane on the way home to the UK, would be a good time to share some of my lasting impressions of the city they call…. Barcelona.

The first distinct impression I gained was that the Catalonian Capital was a city of ‘a lot.’ By the term ‘a lot’, I mean that it appears to be a city that offers much for people of all interests, whether that be architecture, greenery, food, culture, arts, bars etc. This I felt was particularly amplified in my particular visit for two reasons. First, I was only there for a weekend, thus I may have felt differently had I been there for a week, and second, the weather, which for significant portions of my stay was distinctly wet. Yet herein lies the rub. Because of the rather changeable weather, I think I may have got a particular sense of this latter quality, one minute I was strolling around in sweet smelling parks and taking in the architecture from outside, the next, due to the onset of rain, I was prancing like a gazelle around a museum dedicated to the works of renowned Catalan artist Joan Miro.

In saying this however, the three particular highlights of the trip are pursuits undeniably best enjoyed outdoors, La Rambla, Bari Gotic and Montjuic.

The first of these can best be described as a long street and area in the centre of the city, which showcases attractively authentic Catalonian ‘old school’ (hey, I’m no architect!) architecture, in the form of picturesque flats, shops and so on, whilst the second, translated as ‘Gothic quarter’, is a small area of ‘Las Ramblas’ especially Gothic in nature. As with most of these things, you can only get a real sense of what this area is like by visiting it in person, needless to say that it was a pleasure to walk around the brown/terracotta coloured landscape and be taken in by the associated ambience. Before moving on, one must also give a mention to the Cathedral (note, NOT the same as the Sagrada Familia), which is also situated in this area, which with its unmistakable Gothic style is also worth a gaze.

Moving onto ‘pastures green’ so to speak is my third highlight, Montjuic, a vast green expanse in the South West of the City. To me, this park is remarkable in many ways, from its lush, sweet smelling flora to the striking buildings that lie within it, most notably perhaps those encompassing the area of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In a city as metropolitan and densely packed (in the centre at least) as Barcelona, Montjuic provides a fascinating and tranquil other side to the city, and one could quite easily spend a whole day meandering like a dazed goat around the well kept yet wholly natural appearing grounds. What is more, if you do happen to be at Montjuic at the appropriate time of the day, there’s also a rather pretty fountain display to enjoy, undoubtedly worth a watch and a few photos.

As far as my dwellings for the duration of my stay were concerned, I decided after much deliberative research to plump for the ‘Feetup Garden Hostel’ which can be found near the metro station of Valldaura, to the north of the city. My reasons for plumping with this particular accommodation were basically twofold. Firstly, it had an overall rating on Google of over 90%, with many people leaving overwhelmingly positive comments about the place, and secondly, for a rate of 25 odd euros per night, it represented what I considered at the time to be very good value for money for a private room.

Upon arrival (the hostel provided clear instructions via email) I was greeted by a friendly Australian girl, who promptly checked me in and showed me to my room, which she termed as ‘quite small.’ Indeed she was right. The space, although very bright and clean, was rather diminutive in size, if I had to describe it in a phrase, I would say ‘tropical prison cell.’ In addition, I was somewhat surprised to discover that instead of a conventional duvet (I assume duvets are conventional in Barcelona) I was provided with an orange towel like blanket and white sheet to keep me warm. A week earlier, when it was apparently much sunnier and warmer, this might not have been a problem, the week later when I was there however it did however leave me feeling a bit chillier (even with an extra orange blanket provided by the nice staff) than I would have liked. In addition, (and again thanks to the less than helpful weather) due to the room being ‘outside’ (think of it as having a similar vibe to a conservatory/posh shed attached to a house) it was particularly sensitive to noise, whether that be the rain, people talking (in fairness the hostel was on the whole pretty peaceful) or the annoying sound of the vending machine outside my room. Thus, this did prove more disruptive than was perhaps ideal. Apart from the room however, the wifi worked very well, the staff were friendly and helpful and it was in a very quiet neighbourhood, disturbed only by annoying vending machines. Overall then, my stay at the feetup hostel was a mixed experience.

The food on the other hand was certainly not a mixed experience. On the contrary, it was rather good, if on the expensive side. Having tried various tapas bars during my stay, I think the eating of tapas should be a practice which should be imported to the UK at the earliest possible opportunity. For those unaware of this ‘concept’, tapas are basically small dishes of meat, fish or vegetables of various flavours and textures and for those prone to indecision like me they provide a very tasty alternative to a single, larger main meal. Of all the tapas bars I visited (which were all pretty excellent), my pick was an Argentinean place in Caller de Ciutat, which although pricey, was very satisfying and enjoyable, my favourite dish being one that centred around Partridge (that’s the bird, not the comic figure Alan Partridge.)

If what I have described to you so far is the filling of my holiday sandwich, allow me to conclude by elucidating on the proverbial slices of bread. Starting at the beginning (as is conventional), I woke up at 4am on Thursday, and was out the door ready to catch my bus to the train station by 5. It was rather exciting actually, I felt like James Bond on a top secret mission to deliver some classified package, although I doubt whether Bond would use public transport to get to his destination, even if it as integrated as it is in London. I digress. The progress on the bus was swift, such that I was able to get on an earlier train to Stanstead airport, Bond would have been proud.

Upon arrival, there was no need to check in (thanks to compulsory check in with the good people of Ryanair) so I progressed onto security, which despite being slightly berated by a member of staff (with a good Essex smile it has to be said) for not taking off my belt, getting my laptop out etc, went rather smoothly. With plenty of time to spare, I then indulged in a Weatherspoon’s breakfast, feeling the need to share with Facebook a picture of the half eaten contents. Then came boarding, which again, was as smooth as a sausage. Being one of the first onto the aircraft, I managed to get a window seat and was then accompanied by a very pleasant South Korean couple; we chatted about many pressing issues, including the gospel of Jesus Christ, which was nice. Fast forward to the flight home and again, it was relatively pain free. Security was rapid (less than 10 minutes I reckon) and the nice Ryanair staff even let me take my slightly oversized Joan Miro art print as part of my hand luggage, Cashback! And on that note, and in a fun sort of way, we’re back where we were right at the beginning of the article, that being the end of my time in Barcelona.

In summing up, my time in Barcelona was enjoyable. My highlights were Montjuic, La Rambla and Bari Gotic, and the main lowlights were the weather and the hostel. Would I visit again? Quite possibly. Should you bother going? Yes!

Thanks very much for reading.

UPDATE: The following morning (after waxing lyrical about the food) I experienced what can only be described as ‘complete rectal failure’ (plus a malfunction ‘at the other end’) which may or not have been caused by the Partridge which seemed so pleasing just the day before. I’m willing to give the Partridge the benefit of the doubt on this occasion however, and put it down to a 24 hour stomach bug of some kind. For leaving you with that thought, I apologise.

Media reaction to Michael Winterbottom’s new film – ‘Everyday’

EverydayDebuting at the London Film Festival, Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Everyday’, was screened on Channel 4 earlier this month. Filmed over five years, it follows a family affected by the imprisonment of the father, played by John Simm. Shirley Henderson starred as his isolated partner, while the children were played by four real-life siblings who we see growing up as the film progresses.

On the whole, mainstream media reaction has been positive with the film receiving 4 out of 5 stars by both The Guardian and Evening Standard. On the Guardian website, writer Catherine Shoard in commenting on the Films depiction of the effect of imprisonment on family life says:

‘In showing the accumulating effect of Simm’s imprisonment, Winterbottom has made a film that’s almost unbearably moving. Rarely is one quite so intimately involved with people about whom one knows so little.’

David Sexton, writing for the London Evening Standard meanwhile, draws particular attention to the fact that ‘Everyday’ as much as being a film about Imprisonment is also about Family life:

‘The sole subject here is the family and how such a long separation can be survived: specifically, what, in such circumstances — the brief meetings, in prison visits and then on parole days — are like. ‘

This could have been your average prison drama, all nasty warders and slamming doors. But it’s not.’

Dave Calhoun, of Time Out London also chooses to pick up on this theme of Family Life in his comprehensively positive review of Winterbottom’s offering. He, like Sexton, argues that as opposed to being a story primarily about Crime or everyday life inside the UK Prison system, Everyday is first and foremost:

A tender study of a fractured family adapting to new circumstances ‘

Whilst many critics felt engaged by ‘Everyday’, others did not, one critic writing that he struggled to feel involved and engage with the primary characters in this offering. Hence, rather than feeling ‘unbearably moved’ like The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard, David Nusair of Reel Film Reviews pulls no punches in saying:

The movie remains hopelessly uninvolving for much of its brief-yet-not-brief-enough running time’

It’s only as time progresses that Everyday slowly-but-surely begins to morph into a curiously tedious piece of work, with Winterbottom and Coriat’s uneventful and increasingly repetitive sensibilities resulting in an absence of momentum that’s nothing short of disastrous.’

Thus, whilst in some senses Everday has divided critics, with some feeling wholly engaged by the family, and others not, the majority of the critical reaction to this new UK offering has been very positive. Intriguingly, many of Everyday’s advocates felt that the film’s excellence came from the fact that it focussed on the life and dynamics of a family undeniably affected by a father’s imprisonment, and how this is liable to change over the passage of time.

American Beauty film review

What is the point of film? Is it to entertain, to amuse, to teach or to question elements of our society which we as human beings deem ‘normal’? Indeed, film in its much earlier form was conceived to distract the populace from the hum drum monotony of everyday life. The same can arguably be said of much of the film produced today. Whether it be Bond defeating the bad guys or the Jonas Brothers making young teenage girls giggle with excitement the same fundamental motives are there; to entertain a mass audience and bring in the reddies. So, when a film manages to entertain without being too shallow, to amuse without being forgettable, to teach without being preachy and to question without being condemning it is justifiably worthy of mention. This is precisely the reason why American Beauty is such a worthy watch and is labelled by yours truly as a classic.

In more succinct terms, American Beauty succeeds greatly in making a relevant and poignant social statement for our time. It succeeds in getting behind the exterior appearances of 21st century post modernism. Yet to the greater credit of director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball American Beauty makes this sincere and serious statement whilst being able to deliver wonderful and consistent black comedy moments. This then is a key difference between American Beauty and other societal themed offerings. The latter can sometimes leave a guilty and sour taste in the mouth of the viewer. American Beauty whilst being a challenging watch certainly is not culpable of this.

The ability to make an impact on the viewer whilst also being rather light hearted is encapsulated in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham. Lester, whilst being rather droll and an instrument of amusement is the central character through which the points of the film are made. A paradoxical statement this may be, yet paradoxes are a key pillar of American Beauty. They are present throughout and are created with a brilliant effortlessness, giving it an ebb and flow throughout its 110 minute screen time.

Despite the superb performance by Kevin Spacey the efforts of the other characters are very commendable indeed. There are many intertwining individuals and stories here, each of them are explored fully and you therefore get to know intimately the situations of each of the ‘supporting’ characters, and more importantly the crucial points they have to make throughout the picture. Each part has been cast superbly, and this contributes to the balanced nature of American Beauty, we are therefore not relying on Spacey as a central character to deliver the important punch lines or laughs.

One irritation of this epic is the that a number of these key players in rebelling against the exterior based Western society, seem to become rather self centred, doing what only satisfies their innermost desires, and disregarding the feelings and needs of others which are dependent upon them. Yet, the beauty of American Beauty (no pun intended) is that the script allows and fosters noticeable imperfections to creep into these characters. This perhaps contributes to the wholly relatable nature of this picture. Thus, none of these characters despite their righteous rebellions are protected from failure and suffering.

In conclusion, American Beauty is a classic for many reasons, not least the reason that despite being made nearly ten years ago it is still vividly relevant for today’s audience, exploring issues around success, image and self worth without being preachy in the slightest. What is also extremely impressive about this offering, is its subtle pointing to the fact that there might be something else more important in life than money, possessions and external beauty. Also, in the current financial climate, it is terrific value for money! I got my copy for two quid off Ebay!

9/10

Review of Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Everyday’

David Binder gives his thoughts on Michael Winterbottom’s new film on the impact of a father’s imprisonment on his family. The film featured at the BFI Festival and will be screened on Channel 4 this November.

Films and TV programmes documenting crime and prison life are nothing particularly new, and (for the most part) have been well received by audiences and critics alike. One only has to look at the successes of shows like the US smash ‘Prison Break’, the Oscar winning film ‘Shawshank Redemption’, or in the UK,  cult favourites like ‘Porridge’ and more recently, the BBC1 series ‘Prisoners Wives’, for confirmation of this. Clearly then, there’s something in the western cultural psyche that’s fascinated by the prison world and whilst many might question the portrayal of prison and prisoners in the aforementioned shows and films, it is evident that offerings depicting penal society (whether in TV or Film) aren’t going away any time soon.

With this in mind, Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, ‘Everyday’ debuting at the London Film Festival in October this year, seemingly looks to continue in this vein by taking a five year period of the life of a family deeply affected by imprisonment, John Simm’s Ian playing the father in and out of the cell. Yet as much as focussing on Simm’s time in jail, Winterbottom chooses to centre in on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of those left on ‘the outside’, with Karen, played by Shirley Henderson being the mother and wife left to raise four young children in rural Norfolk.  As such, Everyday purposely doesn’t have a start or end point, Winterbottom wishing to demonstrate that as much as being a film about prison and its effects on the family, Everyday is an offering exploring the passage of time; the key message being that life continued for the family before the film, and will carry on well after, despite numerous uncertainties (the latter being a theme we will return to later).

Moving on, Everyday should be commended for its committed realism in conveying (for the most part) prison life itself and its effects on the family. One really got the sense for example of the reality of single parent life with four children, and moreover, it was clear from the outset that Winterbottom and his team had done their research in regard to the UK prison regime. It was good to see for instance how accurate visiting times and the corresponding interactions between Ian and his children were depicted and perhaps more affecting on the family. In addition, the common movement of prisoners between prisons around England and Wales (Ian being subject to this in the film) and its related consequences for the family was also explored. It is often taken for granted that frequent movement of a father between different prisons can adversely affect the family in terms of unearthly wake up times, long and arduous journeys to the prison and the need to take the children out of school in order to see the parent. This difficulty was excellently encapsulated in one scene where things had got just a little bit too much for the youngest son Shaun who became rather tearful due to ‘tiredness’ (according to mother Karen) when visiting his father.

Another theme which went a long way to adding authenticity to this offering’s portrayal prison and its effects of the family was that of uncertainty and its relationship to the concept of desistance. This was especially demonstrable through Simm’s character. That is, throughout the film we were left wondering about Ian’s desire to change his behaviour. On the one-hand, we had various impassioned pleas and commitments throughout, particularly directed at his wife. Yet on the other, his behaviour leads the audience to question the extent to which his desire for change is genuine. Again, this added a welcome element of realism, and shed valuable light on the simplistic notion of someone entering prison, being reformed, and coming out the other side a totally new man or woman.

Indeed, one could not consistently applaud the film for its realism without giving due credit to the excellent performances of all the family, particularly the children (played by four siblings from the same family, the Kirks) who despite their tender years, gave extremely mature performances. Yet, one felt it would have been nice to hear and see more from the two daughters in the film. Whilst Winterbottom might have been attempting to portray the relative shyness of the girls in comparison to the two boys, this I felt wasn’t made clear enough and it very much felt that the girls and their insights were side-lined at the expense of the other characters. In addition, and perhaps due to the conscious decision discussed earlier to have the film without any definitive bookends, the screenplay at various points seemed somewhat unfocussed, lacking clarity and purpose. The problem wasn’t so much that at points there wasn’t much going on, but that these sections lacked purpose and didn’t seem to be heading anywhere. Thus, at times ‘Everyday’ looked slightly unpolished, lacking in focus at one or two points.

All in all though, this offering has much to commend it. It succeeds in being both nuanced enough not to crudely impose a certain ideology on its audience and realistic enough to reveal the often difficult realities of the effects of the imprisonment of a parent on those who are left behind to keep going. It was also somewhat refreshing to see the picture offer no overly simplistic answers regarding both the criminological and family issues presented in the film. It is to Michael Winterbottom’s credit that he persists with the theme of uncertainty right until the end, and it is the audience who is left asking at the end whether Ian’s latest release from prison will be his last and intriguingly, how eldest son Robert’s subtle withdrawal from the rest of the family unit will manifest itself in later life. Thus, whilst Everyday is not without its flaws, it is a worthwhile and mostly engaging watch, and with it due to be shown on Channel 4 in November it is well worth looking out for in the TV programme listings!