I am officially declaring 2020 the year of the novel – come what may. By the 31st of December 2020 my novel will have been rejected / accepted by a publisher and on its way… More
Title: The Floating Theatre
Author: Martha Conway
Category / Box Ticked: A book by a female author
I love a character driven novel. There’s something special about knowing you’re going to miss the presence of a fictional character in your life the moment you close the book. And boy am I going to miss May Bedloe. With the book set in 1838, she was undoubtedly on the Asperger’s spectrum ahead of her time. Honest to a fault, unable to understand sarcasm or social cues, and more comfortable in her own company than surrounded by others, I quickly found myself on her side. A talented seamstress, she finds herself a job on the famous Floating Theatre, a flatboat that makes its way down the Ohio River, stopping to perform at towns along the way. She soon manages to make herself indispensable to the troupe and in spite of herself, finds that she comes to care a great deal for her new working family.
However, it’s 1838, and the Ohio River is the natural division between the ‘free’ North, where slavery is outlawed and the South or ‘slave states’. With the Floating Theatre stopping on both sides of the river, tensions will mount and people will be forced to choose sides. Because as we know from our own experience, both past and present, when a topic of such prejudice is involved, one cannot truly remain neutral. And what’s more, a character from May’s past will use the ruse of a debt to be repaid to exploit her position on the boat, compelling her to become involved in the underground Abolitionist movement of transporting slaves from one side of the river to the other, endangering everyone who has become dear to her.
The book is wrought with tension, although I wouldn’t call it a thriller. It’s an easy and very pleasant read. The characters absolutely bring it to life, whether you love them or hate them – apart from May, you’ll probably hate them. Life on the boat and the Ohio River are so beautifully detailed they had me wanting to delve into the history books to learn more about the era. The descriptions of slavery are accurate and enough to raise your blood pressure, without being overly sentimental and manipulative of your emotions – which I find books like this often tend to be. So, praise must go to the author for her restraint in this regard. It would be much easier to write paragraph after paragraph on the evils of slavery and have the reader in tears than to use the subtlety she did and rather get the reader thinking.
Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable book to start the year, picked for it’s beautiful cover and intriguing title, it certainly lived up to the promise.
When you’re starting out with this challenge it’s really hard to know which box to tick because you’re not sure what else you’re going to be reading. I was really hoping there would be an ‘historical fiction’ category, but alas, no. So, I’m going with a broad category out the gate and hoping it doesn’t come back to bite me.
It’s not often I’ll post on consecutive days, except for when world events get me riled and I need to rant. The 2018 matric results were released today. Usually these aren’t of much interest to me. Yes, I am one of your typical “It was much harder to pass in my day”, “Can you believe how easy these exams are?”, “The pass mark is disgracefully low!” people, but beyond that I don’t interact much with that demographic and so it doesn’t really affect my life. However, for the past five years I have been sponsoring my domestic worker’s son’s education and this year he wrote matric, so today, the results were of huge significance to me. Treading as lightly as I can on my white privilege, we have a very uncharacteristic relationship with our domestic worker. I’m about to say a whole bunch of stuff you’ve heard white people say about their domestic workers before, only I genuinely mean them. I love Betty like another mother. I love her son Bongani like a little brother. Our home is their home. Betty has been to our wedding, we have been to her home and met most of her extended family. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for her.
Bongani went to a school in the township that he lives in. I tried to move him to a better school closer to where we live but his English wasn’t good enough to do English as his home language. I sent him to Saturday school for extra English, Maths Literacy, Geography and Computer lessons. I sent him books to read and movies to watch to try and improve his English. It did improve markedly, but not to a point where he could transition to studying English as his home language. His education at school was sporadic. Teachers would come and go. He would be taught in isiZulu but tested in English. He would run out of stationery and out-grow his uniform but be too proud to ask me for a new supply – I had to learn to pre-empt him. His marks were erratic. He would get 60% for a subject one term and fail the next, with no explanation. This continued throughout his schooling. On paper, he failed grade 11, yet in January 2018 he was starting matric.
At the beginning of matric he told me he could no longer go to Saturday school because he had to attend his regular school on Saturdays to get through the syllabus. He couldn’t come to me for extra help during the school holidays because he would be attending classes then too. My heart ached for this poor boy whose childhood it seemed was over. The first term report card arrived and he had failed again. He just scraped through terms two and three. In grade 8 he had spoken excitedly about becoming a teacher, which required university entrance. In more recent years he had tailored his ambitions to possibly pursuing a trade – something where he could start at the bottom and work his way up, perhaps attending a Technikon while he worked. But now we were staring down the barrel of a matric rewrite.
So, imagine my utter astonishment this morning when I typed his examination number into the system and flashing back at me it said “Bachelor Degree Pass”.
Can someone please explain to me how someone went from failing, scraping through, to a Bachelor. Degree. Pass? To get a Bachelor Degree Pass you must:
- Obtain at least 40% for your Home Language.
- Obtain at least 50% for four other High Credit subjects.
- Obtain at least 30% for two other subjects.
I know Bongani worked extremely hard, I have no doubt about this. I am quite confident he achieved points one and three. But the marks he would have needed to achieve point two seemed almost unobtainable.
I know this is the point at which I make enemies but it needs to be said: a university education is not a right, it is a privilege and leading young people to believe it is a right does them a disservice and sets them up for failure. I was lucky enough, privileged enough to go to university, and I know how difficult it is. I know that Bongani would not cope. His level of English is not good enough to cope with lectures. If he were studying a BEd he would struggle to handle the workload and the course content. Inevitably he would fail and be forced to drop out. He would lose years of his life and take a massive blow to his self-esteem. None of this is Bongani’s fault. He has been failed by an education system that did not adequately prepare him for tertiary education and a school system that has somehow made him eligible for something he will not be able to cope with.
I can already hear the cries of racism ringing through the air, but this has nothing to do with race. This useless, corrupt system is colour blind. I have no doubt it is failing children of all colours, creeds and languages the country over. Sending them to university with dreams in their hearts and stars in their eyes to fail at courses that they are not equipped for because their high school education did not prepare them for it. It is a lovely notion that everyone is entitled to tertiary education, but tertiary need not necessitate university. It can include colleges, trade schools and Technikons. So please, if you got your results today and you got that Bachelor Degree Pass out of nowhere. By all means go bonkers and celebrate. But then please take a moment before deciding on your next move. Become a statistic for the right reasons.
So, it would appear the WordPress powers that be punished me for not blogging enough last year, and shut me down, almost forcing me to start a new blog. I guess that would make one of my new year’s resolutions be to blog more, but if you’re at all familiar with me or my work, you’ll know my feelings on new year’s resolutions and my belief and that they are an evitable path to failure. Generally speaking, they are just grand, vague empty promises you make to yourself about the better person you’re going to become in the new year. But the problem is, you have no idea how to become that person. You’ve identified the destination, but you have no road map for how to get there.
2018 was by no means an easy year for me. Perhaps marginally better than 2017, I only had one hospital stay, but just as many doctors’ visits. I went through shoulder rehab, fell off the shoulder rehab wagon, and then climbed back on the wagon late in the year. I went through a serious bout of seasonal depression, found out my inner child was still really angry about a lot of stuff and I lost my last remaining grandparent. However, I also went on an amazing holiday to a Greek Island. I saw Ed Sheeran live. I welcomed a nephew into this world and I saw my beloved Seahawks kick some serious ass live, with my Big Bruv. Hubby and I went on an incredible trip to the Kruger and watched an unforgettable lunar eclipse together. And even though I no longer have grandparents, for most of my life I had the best grandparents, and that’s more than most people ever get.
I know undoubtedly that part of what made 2018 marginally easier was that I had a road map. No more vague destinations in mind, but clearly defined landing points. Perhaps not exact GPS coordinates, but definitely instructions on how to get there. I also learnt (and am still learning) that change is a skill that requires practice. You can’t change overnight, it requires deliberate and consistent action in the right way and the right order, over time. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. As you would build on any skill, if you want to make a change, you have to practice getting better at making changes.
I still need to lose a significant amount of weight. I still need to get fitter and healthier. I still need to read and write more. However, I am currently following a healthy eating plan and have cut down significantly on my junk food intake (no small feat for me). I am exercising every day – almost miraculous considering where I was in the middle of the year. I have done a full edit of my first draft of the first novel I ever completed and plan to continue working on it in the new year, and I am ready to tackle the 52-book reading challenge this year. I have a schedule of when I write and I already know most of the books I will be reading to fulfil each category of the book challenge. See. Roadmap.
These sound a lot like resolutions and I guess they are, although I prefer to call them goals as they are long-term changes in mindset and not whimsical, vague ideas of transformation. To anyone looking to make genuine resolutions for 2019 I would recommend picking low hanging fruit. Pick something small, simple, and repeatable that you’re guaranteed to succeed at. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just matters that you succeed with it. This will help you to practice change. Master change first and then up the ante on what you’re trying to change.
My commitments for the year are as follows:
- Treat days on Wednesdays and Sundays only.
- Follow exercise programme from biokineticist.
- Work on novel every day.
- Work on blog Tuesdays and Fridays.
- Read an average of one book per week.
I plan to post throughout the year on my goals and their progress. Please follow me on my journey – I welcome encouragement – and share yours with me. A prosperous 2019 to you and yours!
The lack of discussion around The Post winning best picture is a real sign of how much The Academy has changed over recent years. On paper (no pun intended) The Post is an Oscars dream, a shoo-in. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in one movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, centred around the journalistic uncovering of a governmental scandal spanning four US presidents. And even though it’s set in the 1970s, it still covers issues that are extremely relevant today – freedom of the press and women in the work place. So why is it only nominated for two awards? (Best picture and best actress for Streep). Movie critic Dave Schilling believes that last year’s ceremony which saw Moonlight take home the best picture statuette marked a departure from the traditional “Oscar bait” of the past, opening the way for new, previously marginalised genres. You don’t need the big names anymore, the big budgets and the big, provocative storylines to get the nod anymore. Noted.
Of the nine nominated films that I’ve watched over this two-week condensed period, The Post was comparatively enjoyable to watch. No arty farty melodrama, no overblown action sequences, no cryptic undertones – just wonderful actors playing out a simple story. My tired brain welcomed it blissfully! The story begins with Daniel Ellsberg, a disgruntled American military analyst who has become jaded with the depths of his government’s efforts to cover up the truth about the futility of the war efforts in Vietnam. He takes action by copying top-secret documents that would become known as the Pentagon Papers. At first the New York Times publishes explosive expose stories based on the leaked documents but are then hit with a court injunction. Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee is eager to take up the cause, but it isn’t as simple as all that.
The Washington Post is owned by Katherine Graham, left to her by her late husband, and owned by her father before that. In a state of financial difficulty, she has taken the company public and cannot risk any “catastrophic incidents”, say, like being held in contempt of court. Determined to remain competitive, Bradlee has managed to track down Ellsberg and get a copy of the Pentagon Papers but the decision of whether or not to publish, and whether or not to risk the entire future of the paper rests with Graham alone. She wants to protect her family’s legacy and fight for her own place in the paper’s future, but she also wants to fight for the freedom of the press and the belief that America’s democratic ideals are being held upright.
As one might expect, there are a few history vs Hollywood inaccuracies in this one. The main one being that once the New York Times broke the story and were punished, The Post were well aware of the legal repercussions they were facing should they continue to publish. Thus, it was the Times and not the Post that took the risk. Current journalists at The New York Times feel Spielberg gives the Washington Post too much credit for breaking the story. Lastly, and you don’t get to type this often, Nixon is unfairly cast as the villain of this piece. His administration was not even mentioned in the Pentagon Papers and so anything he did was to protect previous presidents’ reputations and to set a precedence for protecting future state secrets. All this aside, the public still had a right to know what was in those papers though. He never banned Washington Post reporters from the White House as the movie depicts. However, adding the completely unrelated Watergate event to the end of the movie really consolidates that Nixon was a bad, bad man anyway!
The Post is very watchable and ten years ago may have been an Oscar contender. But the bar has just risen since then, as evident by how few categories it is nominated in. Even Meryl Streep’s nomination seems a token gesture. With this being her 21st nomination and only three wins, I’m actually starting to get embarrassed for her. She is a phenomenal actress, but they really don’t have to nominate her just for appearing in a film. This year we rather could have had Jessica Chastain for Molly’s Game. It’s not like she’s going to win. Frances McDormand has had her name etched on that baby since festival season opened. But anyway, it gave me a nice way to wind down this evening and it will provide something to vote for, for those in the Academy with more traditional taste.
Call Me By Your Name is another film on the Oscar watch list that I was not keen to watch. In fact, in this case, I would go so far as to say I was morally opposed to watching it. After all, the premise of the film; a seventeen-year-old boy has a summer-time love affair with a twenty-four-year old man in 1980s Northern Italy; seems a little at odds with all of the activist movements going on in Hollywood at the moment, and indeed around the world. Now, passionate fans of the film, of which there are many, will immediately shout me down with: “It is a consensual relationship!”, “Elio is very mature for a seventeen-year-old!”, “His parents are supportive of the relationship!”, “But the film is so transcendent and sensual, it is a coming of age tale, it is not perverse or predatory at all”. Yet these same fans who proclaim Elio is mature beyond his years, intelligent and sophisticated, gush over his adorable innocence when it comes to matters of the heart. Aren’t we now entering dangerous territory when an older man enters the fray?
But all that aside, I promised myself I would give it a chance. After all, I was perfectly capable of enjoying Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for its literary merits even if its controversial subject matter didn’t sit well with me. And for heaven’s sake, my all-time favourite female protagonist Buffy the Vampire Slayer is dating a 242-year-old vampire at the age of sixteen. That opens all sorts of doors that I have never cared to explore, but they’re there. I gave Daniel Day Lewis a fair shot, I can give this movie a fair shot.
First of all, it’s beautiful. “Somewhere in Northern Italy” as the opening credits set the scene, should get an acting credit because it’s probably the most enchanting part of the movie. Our young protagonist Elio (played by Timothee Chalamet) lives here in his family’s 17th century villa with his mom and dad, who is an eminent professor specialising in Greco-Roman culture. (I got this from IMDB. I’m assuming the person who wrote it got it from the book upon which the movie is based, authored by Andre Aciman, as this is all a bit vague in the movie, he just seems to look at statues a lot). Elio passes his time reading, translating music, playing various instruments, riding his bicycle, swimming in rivers, and generally moseying around without a shirt on. Then Oliver (played by Armie Hammer) arrives on the scene. Apparently, he is a 24-year-old American college graduate student working on his doctorate and is the annual summer intern tasked with helping Elio’s father. Again, I’m assuming you get this from the novel or are left to guess who he is because his appearance is never really explained in such explicit terms. I only really knew who he was because of the reviews I had read, otherwise I would probably still be confused. As an aside, I hope it was an unpaid internship as he spends most of his time playing volleyball, riding his bicycle, wooing the local women and swimming, and very little time helping the professor.
At first Elio is unphased by his arrival, but soon becomes hyper aware of his presence. At first, he tries to channel all of his sexual energy into his relationship with a local girl, Marzia, but he can only deny his connection with Oliver for so long. Now credit to the defenders of the moral fibre of the film, Oliver does not pray on Elio and does in fact do all he can to hold him off and even during their relationship he is very careful to protect him and his feelings. They do share an undeniable, special connection – although the chemistry between the two actors doesn’t exactly sizzle onscreen – but I wasn’t really wooed by the whole “call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine” bit. Which I guess is maybe the whole point of the movie?
To be honest, I wasn’t really wooed by any of it. Except Italy. Italy was very, very pretty. And Chalamet shows definite potential as a big-time actor of the future, but I need to see him play something other than a pouty teenager before I commit fully. Other than that, I was bored senseless from beginning to end. It was like watching the travel channel, focused on one peach farm in Northern Italy for two hours. As petulant teenagers go, Elio made Lady Bird look like the dream child. Your parents give you unlimited freedom, they own a mansion in Italy that you holiday in every summer, winter and Easter; cheer up kid! Speaking of which, his relationship with his parents was beyond unrealistic; No teenager is that close to their parents, regardless of circumstances, it’s ridiculous to expect us to buy that.
The only shining moment for me is when his dad has “the talk” with him after Oliver leaves and has these words of wisdom to share: “To make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything, what a waste. Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once, and before you know it, your heart’s worn out. And as for your body, there comes a point when nobody looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain; don’t kill it. Keep it with the joy you felt.” Two minutes and fifty-two seconds of joy in two hours and twelve minutes of pain.
I tried, I honestly did. I guess this is just a perfect example of different strokes for different folks. I honestly don’t see how anyone garnered any kind of enjoyment from watching this film. And if it wins best picture tonight I might just break my TV.
If you don’t already know about my love for history and all things World War II please refer to my review of Dunkirk and my ode to Mrs Gold, my gem of a high school history teacher. Everyone deserved a Mrs Gold. Darkest Hour is a wonderful companion to Dunkirk. Although it is not about the evacuation of the troops stranded on the beaches in France, it does cover what was happening politically in London while the battle was being fought in Christopher Nolan’s land, sea and air visual masterpiece (even if it was somewhat lacking in storyline). Darkest Hour kicks-off straight into action with the resignation of Neville Chamberlain and the appointment of Winston Churchill as the new Prime Minister. He was no one’s first choice. Both Chamberlain and King George VI wanted Lord Halifax, but he turned down the position, feeling Churchill would be a more suitable war leader, and likely feeling as though he could take over if Churchill failed. There is no doubt they were handing over a country in a complete shambles.
Almost immediately Churchill is under pressure with almost the entire British Expeditionary Force in danger of being wiped out or taken prisoner in Dunkirk. Furthermore, the British forces will suffer major material losses on the ground even if they can evacuate, having to leave behind tanks, huge supplies of ammunition, guns, motorcycles and cars. They have a small force of 4000 men stationed at Calais, that Churchill immediately decides to put into action to try and buy the men in Dunkirk more time. While he desperately tries to come up with a miracle to rescue the 300 000 men stranded on the beaches in France, even calling in a favour to American President FDR whose hands are tied by peace treaties, pressure mounts on him to engage in peace negotiations with Hitler, using Italian president Mussolini as a mediator.
The film is wonderfully orchestrated, largely filmed in the War Room, you almost feel the claustrophobia. Although we the audience have the value of hindsight I found myself yelling at Lord Halifax, who was really pushing the issue of peace talks. How naïve can a person be? Had they learned nothing from Czechoslovakia, and then Poland, followed by Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, and now France. Did he honestly believe that Hitler, in a position of such strategic strength would give them terms that left them with any amount of sovereignty? He would have had the Swastika flying over Buckingham Palace before the sun rose. And as usual, Churchill seemed to be the only one to realise this. As he yells as them: “When will the lesson be learnt? When will the lesson be learnt? How many more dictators must be wooed, appeased, given privileges; before we learn? You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”
With no support in the War Room, Churchill turns to the people. Ditching his usual taxi ride, he decides to take the London Underground for the first time in his life and he engages with his constituents. He gauges their opinions on how they would feel about surrendering to the Germans. The decision is unanimous. They would rather fight in the streets, to the death, with broomsticks if they had to, than surrender. Next, he goes to the Outer Cabinet and other members of Parliament. They also fully support him, should the worst come to the worst and the Germans invade, they will defend their small island rather than surrender. Later, when Churchill addresses the whole of Parliament with his infamous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, he even gets Chamberlain’s support and all thoughts of peace negotiations are forgotten. With the help of civilian vessels, such as fishermen’s boats, yachts and pleasure cruisers, 338,226 men escaped Dunkirk, including 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian troops. Churchill gets his Dunkirk miracle.
When it comes to History vs Hollywood, the embellishments are pretty easy to spot. Although I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he did have a very close relationship with his wife Clementine, especially as Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance was excellent. The majority of Lily James’s character Elizabeth Layton’s storyline was fictional as she only became Churchill’s secretary in May 1941. She also did not have a brother who died in France. Churchill was however well-known for being hard on his staff, so that part is accurate. The late-night phone call to President Roosevelt is also fictional as that phone line did not exist until 1943. However, Churchill did write a letter to FDR on the 15th of May asking for help. Churchill had been corresponding with Roosevelt since he had become First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939. The late-night visit from King George VI is also pure Hollywood; while Churchill and the King did grow to become close friends, it took a lot longer than a few short weeks. Similarly, Churchill’s ride on the London Underground is pure fiction. While Churchill did often disappear, and it is believed he went to mingle with the people of London, it is beyond extremely unlikely he would have ventured on such a journey at such a perilous time.
As Gary Oldman said in an interview with Film 4, Winston Churchill knew all about branding before anyone even knew what the word meant. The distinctive Victorian era suits, the bow ties, the top hats, the cane, the cigar. Even the gait of his walk and the distinctive way he had of speaking. Televisions were not widely available in homes yet and photographs in newspapers only provided minimal insight. He needed to create an image, and that he did. He made sure that even if he arrived in the remotest village in the outskirts of his little island, the people would be in no doubt that they were in the presence of Winston Churchill. Even to this day, people the world over can coax up an image of Winston Churchill, probably somewhat resembling a bulldog, in a tuxedo of sorts, wearing a top hat, smoking a cigar. They probably have no idea what Teresa May looks like.
When I saw the trailer for Darkest Hour I was blown away. I was like, “Holy crap, they’ve risen him from the dead!” The make-up and prosthetics seemed unimaginable. It was like looking at Winston Churchill. It was like listening to Winston Churchill. I have loved Gary Oldman for a good many years. I praised jeepers when he was cast as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series. I was livid when he lost out on the Oscar for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to an actor no one had ever heard of and has never heard of since – as so often happens. I was excited. This was his year. Everyone was saying it. The bookies will give you virtually nothing. He has the Oscar in the bag. They might as well give it to him now. But the trailer is only two minutes and twenty-one seconds long. The movie is two hours and five minutes long.
It absolutely breaks my heart to type this but… I have seen Helen Mirren be the Queen. I have seen Daniel Day Lewis be Abraham Lincoln. I have seen Joaquin Phoenix be Johnny Cash. It wasn’t long before the magic wore off and I was very aware that I was watching a man in a fat suit and prosthetics pretend to be Winston Churchill. And I was hearing Gary Oldman’s voice, not Winston Churchill’s. And it was very distracting. He was brilliant, don’t get me wrong. But he wasn’t Winston Churchill. Too many great actors have won Oscars because they are great actors and they deserve to have that golden statue on their mantelpiece and I fear Gary Oldman is about to become one of them. I watched Phantom Thread and Darkest Hour on the same day. You only have to read my review of Phantom Thread to know I am not Daniel Day Lewis’s biggest fan, but if I am honest, he put in the better performance this year. He already has three Oscars, he doesn’t need another one. Like I said, it breaks my heart. I want Gary Oldman to be an Oscar Winner. Just not like this.
I don’t really know what else to say. It was a good movie. A good telling of a pivotal moment in history that ultimately shaped our world. If Halifax had taken over goodness only knows what we would be looking at today. It was a little bit too Hollywood here and there. The costumes were amazing. The make-up broke new ground. Gary Oldman was superb. If he hadn’t been playing such an iconic man… But he was.
When I began my quest to watch and review all of the Oscar nominated movies before the awards ceremony back on the 17th of February I honestly did not anticipate sitting at my laptop the night before the ceremony typing furiously, with four reviews still unwritten and two movies yet to even be watched. What can I say; I got cocky. I didn’t factor in my immensely hectic TV series watching schedule. I didn’t anticipate getting addicted to The Handmaid’s Tale (A late bloomer, I know). And I forgot that the Six Nations was starting. (Go Ireland!) I reviewed a movie that was nominated for best adapted screenplay and nothing else and doesn’t even stand a chance to win that, (no regrets, Logan was a well spent 2hours and 17minutes). I would probably feel better if I, Tonya was nominated for more than three awards, not necessarily because it deserves it, but just because of the amount of time I put into the review. I probably should have used that time to watch another movie.
When I started this process, I had already decided I would NOT be watching Phantom Thread. They had me at Daniel Day Lewis. I have never been a fan of “method acting” even if that’s what it took for my beloved Leonardo Di Caprio to FINALLY win his Oscar in The Revenant, but Daniel Day Lewis takes it to a whole other level of creepy! When playing Christy Brown who suffered from cerebral palsy in 1989’s My Left Foot, he refused to leave his wheelchair for the duration of filming, had to be carried around set and insisted that his meals be spoon-fed to him. Three years later for The Last of the Mohicans he learnt how to track, hunt, and skin animals and would only eat food he had killed. When filming Gangs of New York he caught pneumonia because he refused to wear a warm coat because it wasn’t in keeping with the times. The only movie I enjoyed him in was The Boxer, which, being about Northern Ireland, I feel more obligated to love than anything. And for that role his obsession was to spend eighteen months learning to box, which as the movie is about boxing, seems reasonable. Obviously his technique works. He’s got the little gold statues to prove it. Although he seems to be losing his hair.
In Phantom Thread he plays Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned dressmaker in 1950s London, who designs exquisite, once-off gowns for royalty, movie stars, socialites, and heiresses. He works closely with his sister Cyril, who runs a tight ship at The House of Woodcock, handling the business side of things and even managing his personal life for him. Women come and go through his life, providing inspiration and companionship, but when their time is up, Cyril must do the dirty work. His life is his work, often all-consuming and overwhelming and so he often retreats to their country home to recuperate. It is on one of these trips that he encounters Alma, a waitress at a local café, who immediately captivates him. He is attracted to her physicality – she is the perfect canvass for him, and her initial doe-eyed infatuation creates a false perception of submissiveness. She seems perfect.
Reynolds has spent time and effort constructing his life just the way he wants it. After all, when someone is a genius and has been told as much their whole life they have grown accustomed to getting their own way. When Alma doesn’t slide as smoothly into the role he has written for her as he had hoped an interesting battle unfolds. For a while we almost fall into a romantic comedy of sorts, with the darkness of knowing that sometimes someone will just never love you the way you want them to.
And then comes the kicker that will ultimately determine whether you love or hate this film (or possibly get up and walk out). I have always said that you can never judge anyone else’s relationship because you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. What works for two people might not work for anyone else, but as long as it works for them, that’s all that matters. This film really puts that theory to the test. Because what if what works is a little bit twisted? What if the only way to make your relationship work is to be vulnerable, or to force your partner to be vulnerable? To put them completely at your mercy and then bring them back from the brink. It’s odd. Some might say psychotic. But if it works, then who are we to judge?
This movie surprised me in the most wonderful way possible. Yes, Daniel Day Lewis was annoying and creepy, but he also made me laugh out loud a few times. He was superb, I won’t attempt to take that away from him. Reynolds Woodcock was not a real person, so he drew on many famous characters from the world of fashion for inspiration. And in preparation for the role the most bizarre thing he did was re-create a Cristóbal Balenciaga sheath dress inspired by a school uniform. I can cope with that. Co-star Vicky Krieps, who plays Alma, admitted that she found it difficult on set because he always remains in character, but eventually she dealt with it by remaining in character herself and socialising with him between takes like that.
In a year of strong female performances, Vicky Krieps was another real treat. Alma was flippin kickass (Perhaps the psychotic streak aside, as a disclaimer). There are times when Reynolds acts as nothing short of an ungrateful, petulant toddler, trying to justify himself with his ‘brilliance’, but she’s having none of it. Reynold’s sister Cyril, played by the nominated Lesley Manville, also puts in an immaculate performance of a woman of steel. At one point it’s almost as if the two of them team up trying to stage-manage this drama queen that they both love but at the same time want to strangle.
The only thing this movie needs is a new trailer. The trailer makes it looks seem really dark and intense and melodramatic, which is what put me off. In reality, it’s nothing like that. It’s actually quite airy and there are some moments of perfect humour. And of all the movies I’ve seen in as long as I can remember, it’s the most honest depiction of a real relationship that I’ve seen onscreen. (Once again, perhaps psychotic streak aside, but each to their own). It’s about what happens after the butterflies calm down and you have to begin to navigate that territory of joining two lives into one. It’s about the compromise that goes into that. And what works for some, is psychotic to others.
It’s a difficult thing to communicate that you find World War II extremely interesting without coming across as massively offensive. After all, what are the phrases that you usually use, “Oh my god, I love World War II!”. “World War II was the best!” “Wasn’t World War II just completely fascinating?” Probably not to all the millions of people who died during it – no! You have to choose your words carefully. I blame my high school history teacher. She was phenomenal. Her name was Mrs Gold and without again meaning to sound incredibly offensive, she was like a piece of history herself. I don’t ever remember taking notes in her class. I just remember listening. She spoke about Napoleon as though she were Josephine herself. When I visited Paris a few years ago, I knew I had to go to Versailles, and I swear I could hear her voice in my head giving me a personal tour of the Hall of Mirrors.
She told us extraordinary tales of Grigori Rasputin – a family friend of Tsar Nicholas II – who simply refused to die. But then she also told us the tragic story of the execution of the Russian Imperial Romanov family, including the Tsar’s five children, during the Russian Revolution. It was almost as though we were in the room with them. We experienced the highs of the roaring 20s and the lows of the Great Depression in that classroom and learnt all about how Roosevelt’s New Deal was going to fix it all. We learnt about how Stalin’s failed revolution was killing his own people and we learnt that no one really won the Vietnam War. We learned about Hitler’s rise to power and we grew to hate Neville Chamberlain as we watched his policy of appeasement unravel (oh the value of hindsight and all that). Credit to Mrs Gold, she was able to show us, through her vivid storytelling, that an ordinary person, just like you and me, very well might have supported Hitler in the early 1930s. He sure did give a rousing speech, and in that moment, there was very little sign of what was to come.
With a teacher like that, how can you not be passionate about the past? The good, the bad, the tragic and the truly gruesome and grisly? Because Mrs Gold didn’t just give us facts, she told us stories. She didn’t just tell us about the Battle of Dunkirk, she made us feel as though we had been there. By May 1940, Germany had successfully invaded The Netherlands and Belgium. By the 26th of May, German advances into France had pinned the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) – some 400 000 men – and the French First Army in a corridor to the sea. They were flanked by two massive German armies and had no way out except across the sea. In a matter still debated to this day, on the 24th of May, Hitler gave a Halt Order, ordering his troops to halt their advances on the Allied troops in Dunkirk. Some believe this is because the terrain around Dunkirk was thought unsuitable for tanks and his advisors believed his land forces could be put to better use elsewhere. There is also the argument that the commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring, wanted the glory of destroying the forces at Dunkirk from the air. Whatever Hitler’s reasons, he was clearly confident the Allies were already doomed either way, but nonetheless, rescinded the Halt Order on the evening of the 26th of May. However, he had already given the Royal Navy enough time to co-ordinate an evacuation plan of British and Allied troops.
From the 26th of May – 4th of June 1940, 338,226 men escaped, including 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian troops, together with a small number of Dutch soldiers, aboard 861 vessels (of which 243 were sunk during the operation). The docks at Dunkirk were too badly damaged to be used, but the East and West Moles (sea walls protecting the harbour entrance) were intact. The last of the British Army left on the 3rd of June, and at 10:50, Captain William Tennant – in charge of the operation – signalled home to say “Operation completed. Returning to Dover”. Churchill insisted on coming back for the French and the Royal Navy returned on the 4th of June, to rescue as many as possible of the French rear-guard. Over 26,000 French soldiers were evacuated on that last day, but between 30,000 and 40,000 more were left behind and forced to surrender to the Germans.
I am somewhat saddened that this was not reflected at all in the movie. In reality, the entire evacuation at Dunkirk was only made possible by the fact that the French army held the perimeter around Dunkirk for long enough, buying time for the ships to evacuate. This 12th Infantry Division literally fought to the last minute on the 4th of June, protecting the evacuation, but unable to embark themselves. They were taken prisoner on the beach. Not one of them made the movie. There is only one French soldier in the entire movie. He pretends to be a British soldier so he can try and escape on one of the incoming boats. He even saves all the soldiers from drowning below deck when it is hit by a torpedo by opening the hatch from the outside. Yet when they find out he is French, they want to kill him. This seems a little fickle as Operation Dynamo – as the evacuation came to be known – rescued thousands of French soldiers. So, what’s one more? I felt this part of the storyline gave a really false impression of what the operation was all about. Yes, the young British soldiers were scared and wanted to save themselves first. But at the end of the day, Dunkirk was about saving all the Allies, not just the Brits. We didn’t need to see battle scenes on the perimeter but a one line mention of them would have been nice. I felt the movie massively undermined the role of the French to a disgraceful degree!
My love of history has always been about the stories, the people. That is what makes you connect with that moment in time. You don’t “love” World War II because of the horror and the brutality and “man’s inhumanity to man”. You “love” it because it showed what the human spirit can overcome under the most devastating of circumstances. You “love” it because it showed the unselfishness of people to come together and make immense sacrifices for the greater good at huge personal cost to themselves. And you “love” it because it showed that ultimately, good will triumph over evil. And sadly, for me, this is everything that Dunkirk lacked.
Apart from Mr Dawson and his two sons who make the journey on their pleasure boat to do their part and suffer a personal tragedy along the way, I made no personal connection with any other character. No one else has a story, hell most of them don’t even have names. If you scroll down the list of character names on IMDB it is littered with “French Soldier 1”, “Petty Officer 3”, “Stretcher Bearer”, “Lieutenant”, “Able Seaman”. Even characters with fairly significant speaking roles, played by well-known actors like those of Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, I couldn’t have told you their names after a one hour and forty-six-minute movie. No one spoke about their family. No one had a wife or a child to get home to. There wasn’t even a hint of a spirit of comradery between the soldiers – except maybe between the two RAF pilots (apparently called Farrier and Collins). When I compare this to every other war movie I have ever seen, I am just left hollow in this respect.
I know I was spoilt by Mrs Gold, I know this. When she told us about Dunkirk we were on a ferry belonging to a young man from Glasgow. It had been passed down from his great-grandfather. He left a young wife at home with a baby on the way to sale to Dunkirk to bring those men home. She told us about Al Deere, a Spitfire pilot who shot down a German Dornier before being hit in his cooling system and having to crash land on the beach. A woman in a nearby café tended to a wound above his eye before he made his way to the moles to be boarded onto a ship. Soldiers hurled abuse at him, asking where the hell he’d been, feeling completely abandoned by the Airforce as most of the action had taken place out of sight of the beach. And she definitely would have told us about the French 150th Infantry Regiment who held off the encroaching German forces, making the whole thing possible.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is very pretty to watch. It is well edited. The sound mixing and editing are excellent. Visually it is clean. It must have been a bitch to direct. There are a lot of people in it and a lot going on, so kudos there. But as a story it is cold. A very heavily edited history lesson. There is very little to connect to. I “love” World War II but I didn’t love this very detached retelling of a pivotal part of it.
I don’t think any movie has touched my soul (and my tear ducts) quite like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. To say it’s special does it an injustice. It really is in a class of its own. It won three Academy Awards, for cinematography, art direction and make-up. He may have lost out on screenwriting and best foreign language film, but those wins tell you everything you need to know about a Guillermo del Toro film – visually, they are masterful! Born and raised in Mexico, he studied make-up and special effects under the legendary Dick Smith, known for pioneering new techniques and developing original materials throughout his long career. del Toro spent almost ten years as a make-up supervisor, while also directing and producing Mexican television programs. This experience definitely gives him a unique way of approaching the visual presentation of a film that other directors lack. I know I’m biased, but I just look at the poster for The Shape of Water and I get chills. It is beautiful, ethereal. It is otherworldly, yet not discomforting. Even the supposed monster of the piece is wondrous to look at. When the announcements were made it came as no surprise to me that it lead the Oscar race with thirteen nominations… and this was before I had even seen it.
Set against the backdrop of 1960s Cold War America, The Shape of Water is essentially a love story about a lonely, isolated cleaner who forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held captive in the top-secret government research facility where she works. If you’re already shaking your head, going “this shit is too weird for me” please don’t, Elisa (that’s the cleaner’s name) and Amphibian Man (very aptly named) deserve a chance. You see Elisa is an orphan. Also, she’s mute. So, if you walk out now, that’s just discrimination.
Elisa lives a very quaint life above a cinema, according to a very strict routine that somehow has her always arriving late for work. But fortunately for her, she has Zelda, the co-worker from heaven who always squeezes her into the punch-in line. And on shift it doesn’t really matter that Elisa is mute because Zelda does enough talking for the both of them. At home, Zelda’s neighbour Giles is an advertising artist of a bygone era, having been replaced by photography. He enjoys visiting the diner across the street to be served pie, more so to attempt to flirt with the male server than to eat the pie. He is a man caught between two eras – too late for one and too early for the next. But he has a TV and cats and can communicate with Elisa through sign language and the two of them share a special bond that will come in handy when she needs his help to transport an Amphibian Man from a top-secret research facility to her bath tub.
Amphibian Man was brought to the lab from the Amazon, where he was worshipped as a God, by Richard Strickland, a brute of a man, who sees him as nothing more than a monster. After a fair amount of gruesome torture, it is quickly determined he is of no value, beyond what an autopsy might uncover, and his death is scheduled. Elisa, who in a short time has developed a strong bond with him over a mutual appreciation for boiled eggs and an uncanny ability to communicate with each other, knows she must do everything she can to save him. After all, as she explains to Giles, when he looks at her he really sees her, he sees all of her, she feels whole. You can’t argue with that. And so, with the help of her friends and an undercover Russian agent who is defecting (but only sort of) Amphibian Man makes it to her bathtub. But what now?
Richard Strickland, a man whose life is his career has lost major face and will leave no stone unturned to find the creature, or at the very least find those responsible for “the incident”. But who would suspect the lowly cleaners? This is a man so determined to succeed, he won’t even give up on the reattachment of two of his fingers that Amphibian Man previously bit off, even when the reattachment has clearly failed. The flesh is blackened, his family and colleagues are complaining of the smell and still the fingers are there. This is one determined man. And creepy, did I mention creepy? Will he crack the case before the rains fill the canal deep enough for Elisa to release her Amphibian soul mate? Will she have the strength to let him go? Will he have the strength to leave her? The suspense is killing me, and I know what happens…
I cannot heap enough praise on this movie. A single phrase comes to mind: “They don’t make them like this anymore”. When I look at the list of other movies nominated for Best Picture, The Shape of Water is so out of place. It’s a fairytale. It’s visually beautiful to look at. It packs emotional punches but they’re not brutal, they’re precious. Unless you choose to look really hard and be over-sensitive, it has no political agenda and it’s not offensive. It’s extremely weird. Gloriously, stunningly weird. It’s what the world needs right now. A movie you can just watch and enjoy. And for representation sake, there’s a disabled person, a black female and a gay guy. Tick, tick, tick. #justsaying.
I’m really glad it leads the race with the most nominations, but I am under no illusions that it will come away with the most wins. For an actress with no lines, Sally Hawkins sure managed to communicate a lot. But she won’t win best actress. Richard Jenkins was just wonderful as Giles, but I think everyone knows Sam Rockwell has best supporting actor in the bag. I love Octavia Spencer and I think she’s brilliant in everything she’s in, but I did find her nomination puzzling. She seems to be the Academy’s new go-to nominee – look out Meryl! I don’t think it matters though. The moms of I, Tonya and Ladybird will be fighting over that one. The sound mixing and editing awards usually go to action movies these days, so Dunkirk and Blade Runner pose strong competition. Although Amphibian Man’s costume is astoundingly realistic, there is a movie about a fashion designer in Phantom Thread and two other period pieces, as well as Beauty and the Beast to contend with for best costume design. I’d love to say they’re a shoo-in for production design, but one never knows. The music was… I’m running out of adjectives… I’ll have to use beautiful again… and really added to the magical wondrousness of del Toro’s world so I think they have a shot at best original music score. I won’t pretend to know enough about cinematography or film editing to say whether or not they outdid the competition here.
When it really comes down to it, all I really want is for Guillermo del Toro to feel some love. He’s nominated for best picture, best director and best original screenplay, all hotly contested categories. As special as this movie is, it might still be just a little too weird for the Oscar voters when it comes to best picture, and Three Billboards has been sweeping this category at all the other awards ceremonies. Fortunately for Guillermo, Three Billboards director Martin McDonagh is not nominated for best director. However, Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson are, for Dunkirk and Phantom Thread respectively. Both have multiple nominations but no wins in their history. Could one of them swipe it simply because it’s their “turn”? Best original screenplay is too close to call. Three Billboards seems to be the bookies favourite, but Greta Gerwig is Hollywood’s darling right now. And don’t forget Jordan Peele’s boundary breaking debut masterpiece Get Out. This might be another category where The Shape of Water is just a little bit too weird.
I would love him to sweep all three, but if he can only have one, let it be best director. Because that’s what he was this year. The best director. In a cruel and cynical world, he had a whacky and wonderful idea and with passion and otherworldly creativity he made, not just a movie, but a world, that we could escape to for two hours and three minutes. A world where you don’t need a voice to be heard; a world where the sea monster is a creature of illustrious beauty; and a world where the bad guy doesn’t win. Three Billboards is being sold as a story of a woman who took matters into her own hands; but isn’t that exactly what Elisa did? Instead of needing rescuing from a monster she rescued her own monster and saved herself in the process. Tell me she’s not the real heroine of this Oscar season? And tell me her creator doesn’t deserve an Oscar for his mantelpiece?
Rating: 4.75 / 5 (Nothing’s perfect, right?!)
In a year of #MeToo and #TimesUp we have strong female characters and a very hotly contested best actress category (that I still think Frances McDormand will walk away with hands down) but it also seems to be a year of very vicious mother-daughter relationships. Three Billboards told the tale of a mother fighting to give her daughter a voice from beyond the grave but also showed that their relationship was far from perfect while she was still alive. Lady Bird tells a beautiful story about a teenage girl suffering from growing pains as she struggles to find acceptance from a mother who truly loves her but struggles to understand her. We watch as they stumble awkwardly around each other trying desperately to communicate and find some kind of middle ground. And then we have I, Tonya. A mother that can be described as nothing short of vicious and volatile, who uses her daughter for her own gain and shows her not a shred of affection. Worse than that, she is physically, mentally and emotionally abusive throughout and it’s a wonder Tonya Harding come out alive.
I think this review can contain very few spoilers as it seems everyone and their mother knows the Tonya Harding / Nancy Kerrigan story. Although I didn’t know anything about it until I heard about this movie. I don’t know if that’s because of my age or because of the great American bubble – where they assume that because it was a big deal in America it must have been a big deal everywhere. To be fair, here in South Africa we were quite consumed with preparations for our first ever free and fair democratic elections to be too bothered with the upcoming Winter Olympics. Basically, the gist of it is, there is an unspoken law that figure skating is for your hoity toity types. The girls who went to charm school and learnt to sip tea with their pinkie fingers stinking out, who have naturally straight pearly whites and know all about the airs and graces. Either no one told Tonya Harding this, or they did, repeatedly, and she just didn’t care. She is the exact opposite of what a figure skater is meant to be, but she still kicks freaking ass at it. But as we all know, this tends to displease the hoity toity powers that be.
She is one of only eight women in the history of the sport to land a triple axel jump in competition. In 1991 she became the first ever woman to land it in the short program. She was the first woman to successfully land two triple axels in one competition, and she was the first woman ever to complete a triple axel combination with the double toe loop. However, despite these record-breaking performances, which all occurred in 1991, she was unable to replicate them, and her competitive results began to decline. She placed fourth in the 1992 Winter Olympics and sixth in the World Championships, failing to qualify for the 1993 World Championship team. In preparation for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer it seemed she was back on her game, but her qualification would still come down to her performance at the US Figure Skating Championships in January.
Then the unthinkable happened, Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s long-time competitor and arch rival was attacked with a baton to the knee after a practice session and was unable to compete. Prime suspects: Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her self-appointed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt. A media frenzy ensued. Jeff was found to be the ‘mastermind’ behind the plan, while Shawn hired two men to carry out the attack itself. They all served time in jail for their roles in the crime. Harding’s only crime was not coming forward and turning her ex-husband over to the authorities once she found out they were responsible for the attack. She denied any prior knowledge of the attack and still denies her involvement to this day, but many find it all just a little too convenient. With Nancy out of the way, Tonya won the US Championships, securing her place on the Olympic team. Fortunately for Kerrigan, the injury to her leg was only a bone bruise and she recovered in time to compete and win silver at the Olympics.
Harding finished eighth, returning home to plead guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of the attackers. She received three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $100,000 fine. After conducting its own investigation of the attack, the United States Figure Staking Association stripped her of her 1994 US Championship title and banned her for life from participating in USFSA-run events as either a skater or a coach. They concluded that she knew about the attack before it happened and displayed “a clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship, and ethical behavior”. It was as good as a life sentence in prison. She didn’t even have a high school education. She was twenty-four years old and all she knew how to do was skate and she was bloody good at it. To ban her from doing it was one thing. But to stop her from coaching, or from being involved at any level? At the age of twenty-four? To me, that’s cruel.
So that’s the story. The film itself is shot documentary style, or ‘mockumentary’ style at times, it gets so outrageous. Screenwriter Steven Rogers based his script on actual interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Gillooly (held separately of course), whose stories he said were so contradictory they didn’t even agree on what they did on their first date. The film lobs around from one person’s perspective to the next, with ridiculous and ludicrous plot points, it’s hilarious to see actual interview footage in the end credits and discover that those things actually happened. The film deals with some harsh issues around alcoholism, child abuse, and domestic violence and treads a very fine line between taking them seriously and turning them into a farce. Margot Robbie plays the part of Tonya with such ferocity that she paints a clear picture of a woman who gave as good as she got. She was born into a harsh world where she only encountered harsh characters and never, ever caught a break.
It’s hard to do a History vs Hollywood on this one because the movie isn’t specifically based on an historical account, but rather on multiple viewpoints and recollections of the past. I must say, I felt quite manipulated after having watched the movie, as it is very obviously told with a sympathetic nudge towards Tonya. I cried when they banned her from all skating activities, but then, when I reflected afterwards I thought “But if she did arrange to have that chick hit, then she should be banned”. It was sheer fluke that baton only resulted in a bone bruise, I have no doubt the intention was to completely shatter her knee cap. A lot of sympathy is garnered through the abusive relationship she has with her mother, but we only have one half of the story here. The screenwriter and Oscar-nominated Allison Janney who plays the part of LaVona, Tonya’s mom, admit that a significant portion of the character is fictional, largely because they couldn’t track down LaVona to speak to her. It seems most likely they couldn’t track her down because they didn’t look, because Inside Edition had no trouble finding her for an interview in November 2017.
I think we just have to accept that there are some parts of this story that we may never know, that will forever remain a mystery – one of those questions I would love to ask the powers that be if I ever got the opportunity: Like who killed JFK? Did OJ do it? Whatever happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Was Tonya Harding in on the plan to kneecap Nancy Kerrigan? Whether or not she was, no one take away the triple axel from her. She was a tremendous athlete, excelling in a world that didn’t want her. They can take away her right to compete, but they can’t erase those jumps from history. In fact, they had to use computer graphics to recreate them for film, because only two women are capable of doing them today and they wouldn’t risk it for a movie that close to the Olympics. So, say what you want about her, but the girl sure could skate.