Tuesday 30 May 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “Rules Don’t Apply” (2016, film, directed by Warren Beatty)

Rules Don’t Apply is Warren Beatty’s first film as a director for eighteen years and as an actor for fifteen, and has the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, played by Beatty, at its centre. It is also a song within the film, actually composed by Eddie Arkin and Lorraine Feather, but for the purposes of the plot it is written and sung by Marla Mabrey, played by Lily Collins. The song applies as much to her as Hughes, the maverick who, despite his wealth and power, is shown too behaviourally odd for the template of corporate America. Similarly, Marla, a writer of songs rather than a singer, does not fit in with the expectations of Hollywood, where she has arrived with her mother (Annette Bening) from Virginia, as a contract actress, one of many, for Hughes’s film studio. Back home she had won a beauty contest, but a demure one since both mother and daughter are devout Baptists. Beatty, who also wrote the script, sets the film in the late 1950s/early 1960s and captures the church-going conservatism of Eisenhower era America. Eventually, the mother becomes tired of failing to have any meetings with Hughes, the promises of screen tests that never take place, and the general vacuity of Hollywood. She returns to Virginia, leaving her daughter with warnings of Hughes’s notoriety for bedding his contract actresses.
Frank Forbes  (Aiden Ehrenreich), the driver assigned by the studio to Marla, soon falls for her, and she for him, but they are both restrained not only by their religious backgrounds, Frank is a Methodist, but also by regulations imposed by Hughes. After Marla finally gets to meet Hughes, a triangle of sorts emerges, although this is not realised by Frank until the end of the film.
Marla does loosen up, but only as brief lapses from her Baptist upbringing. There is no trajectory into promiscuity or alcoholism. This is after all a romantic comedy, and Beatty successfully maintains a genial tone. In a similar vein, Frank’s personality becomes a little more steely when he is promoted from driver to one of Hughes’s close aides, but he retains his essential humanity.
Beatty obviously relished the role of Hughes and has great fun playing him, and this communicates to the audience, which is not a bad thing for a comedy to do. Hughes’s eccentricities were many, and Beatty plunders this fund for our entertainment: e.g. the obsession with TV dinners, burgers and banana nut ice cream; the repeated private viewings of Hell’s Angels, the World War One flying film he produced and co-directed in 1930; the ludicrous use of doubles  (Hughes employed more than one to fool the press and others). A more tragic side to Hughes, his addiction to codeine, is only mentioned in passing.
If ever there was a life open to fiction it was Hughes. In a way, he seems like a character from an American comic: supporting the conventional money making values of America, while paradoxically defined by strangeness and deviance. Currently, another ego-driven billionaire businessman is strutting the planet as US President. I think it is preferable when, like Hughes, they hide away.
Through this film, Beatty has created an opportunity for an impressive ensemble performance, which includes Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and Steve Coogan. As well as the pay cheque, I think there was probably the motivation of working with Beatty and contribute to his welcome return to filmmaking,
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). Two of his publishing projects were recently represented at a festival in Rome, and he is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Monday 29 May 2017

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Deaths of the Poets" by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

A recent Radio 4 Book of the Week, Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape), is a thought-provoking and wildly amusing literary journey. The authors explore the legacies left by some the world’s most-notable poets, largely by visiting the geographical places associated with each poet’s final moments – taking in Britain, Europe and America. Opening with the death of young Chatterton, then exploring the tragic figures of Keats, Thomas, Plath and Sexton, to name but a few, the authors, employing an unusual first person plural in terms of voice, attempt to address the notion that poets – as opposed to novelists, say – are a unique breed of creative, in that they often carry a self-destructive urge to bow out of life when it proves too much to bear, or by enjoying the more visceral aspects of experience and often cutting their lives short. 

I came to this as an avid fan of several poets within the selection, and it made me feel better knowing the same voyeuristic, ‘net-twitching’ need to peer beyond the curtains of pure, biographical fact was felt by other writers out there, too. Treading the ground of more familiar stories leads to some genuinely illuminating discoveries, including the works of Rosemary Lightband and Frank O’Hara, which I did not know prior to reading this study.

 Where the writing is consistently high-quality, the structural design is less successful. Ironically, most sections would have benefitted from including more poetry, showing the connection between economy of form and a life short-lived, perhaps. The first half is also edited with a sharper eye: poets are grouped according to theme with some genuinely stand-out observations made by the authors.  ‘We know London had something to do with it. Indeed, a monochrome, peeling, puddly, just off-rationing country seems bound up with Plath’s suicide.’ Yet, the second half of the book is more meandering. A fatigue sets in for both writers and reader, as we take in yet another tragedy – outcomes of contractual commitments appearing to being played out, rather than the authors trying to prove an over-arching hypothesis. So that by the final poet, Farley and Symmons Roberts take their collective foot of the gas, reducing some of the impact of the study, overall. 

That said, this is not meant to be construed as high literary criticism – it is more about two poets essentially wondering if their own works will be canonised if they remain with us much longer, and the ways in which art is commodified for consumers. Vain enterprise, indeed, to be human. Or, as Keats states more helpfully in 'Ode to a Nightingale': ‘Thou was not born for death, immortal bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down.’ 

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at Warwick University. He has enjoyed a long and varied teaching career in the disciplines of English/Theatre Studies and is following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University. His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and 20th century literary criticism.

Monday 22 May 2017

Interview with Kim Slater

Kim Slater is a full-time Nottingham author, writing in two genres. 

Her first Young Adult book, Smart, won ten regional prizes and has been shortlisted for twenty-five regional and national awards, including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the Federation of Children’s Book Groups Prize and her first two novels, Smart and A Seven-Letter Word, have both been nominated/longlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Her third YA novel, 928 Miles from Home has just been published in hardback by Macmillan Children’s Books (May 2017).

Writing also as KL Slater for digital imprint, Bookouture (Hachette), Kim’s first two adult psychological thrillers, Safe with Me and Blink, reached the top five in the Amazon UK chart and top ten in the Amazon US chart. Her third thriller, Liar, is published June 2017. To date, she has sold over 300,000 digital copies of her adult crime books.

Kim holds a first-class honours degree in English & Creative Writing and an MA in Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University. She lives in Nottingham with her husband. Her website is http://kimslater.com/.

Interview with Jonathan Taylor

JT: What originally drew you to the genre of Young Adult fiction?

KS: I chose Writing for Children and Young Adults as one of the modules on my MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University as I thought it would be interesting. Up until this point I never really fancied writing for younger readers as I thought it would feel limiting and ultimately be censured by gatekeepers. In actual fact, I found it to be quite the opposite. I wrote a short story called Smart for my assignment piece and fell in love with writing strong, young voices. And I have always found librarians, teachers and my publisher, to be embracing of the difficult and diverse subjects I often choose to tackle in my books.

JT: You write in two genres: crime fiction and YA fiction. In your YA novels, there is a kind of detective work, where the young narrators try to understand a complex and mysterious adult world. What do you feel are the differences and overlaps between the two genres?

KS: Adult crime was always my first love, it’s what I wrote (unpublished) almost exclusively up until embarking on my MA course in 2010. So, it felt natural for me to thread a bit of a mystery through my YA novels. It serves to keep the reader (both adult and young readers) turning the pages which is particularly important in writing successful adult commercial crime. 

For me, the similarity between all genres, not just these two, is in writing complex, believable characters. My characters are often flawed and it’s a challenge to get the reader to empathise with them but I enjoy revealing all their different facets when writing both YA and adult crime. Young readers and commercial crime fans all like a good story, so crafting a compelling narrative is a definite similarity, too.

A difference I find when I’m writing is being able to explore interesting issues more thoroughly in my YA fiction whereas in commercial crime, I can’t afford to dwell too much on anything that slows down the pace. That might sound a bit prescriptive and it’s easy to be sniffy about it but I love writing in this genre. I feel I have a good handle on what my adult readers are looking for - in what they deem to be a good book - and I enjoy crafting the characters and stories.

JT: Both Smart and Seven Letter Word are written from the perspective of teenage boys. I found the voices both compelling and convincing. How do you inhabit a teenage boy’s voice and, indeed, psychology like this?

KS: …and now a third teenage boy’s perspective in my latest novel, 928 Miles from Home
In the beginning, I never set out to ‘write boys’ but the character always comes first for me, even before I know what the full story will be and all the main character voices – in my YA fiction – have thus far been boys.

This has had an unexpected and welcome outcome in that schools inform me the books are very popular with their boys. I get asked by lots of girls in schools if I’ll write a YA female protagonist and my answer is that yes, of course I will . . . if she presents herself!

I inhabit a teenage boy’s voice in exactly the same way as I approach any voice I write: male, female, young, old . . . I put myself inside that person’s head. For some time before I start to write, actually. I get to know the character, listen to the little quirks and personality traits that make them the person they are. At the same time, I think about their world and the sorts of things that might happen. 

I don’t like to put labels on people, psychologically or otherwise and this allows me to write characters on a human level, from the perspective of their own experiences and how it feels to be them . . . regardless of what the experts might say. Within reason. I call it ‘simmering’ and it’s a very important part of the process for me. When I get a feel for that character and the world he or she lives in, then the words begin to flow.

JT: What would you like younger readers to take from your novels? What’s your aim in writing for them?

KS: When they’ve read a Kim Slater novel, I would like young readers to feel that they have walked in someone else’s shoes for a short time. Often my main characters are young people who feel excluded and who feel different to their peers in some way. By the end of the book I’d like to think that the reader identifies with them, that despite apparent differences, people are essentially all the same. 

I enjoy exploring issues when I’m writing YA and my aim is to get young people talking about difficult and often contentious subjects. I try and avoid being too political, I like to show both sides like a debate and for them to think about how they might form their own opinions. Happily, my books are popular in schools for this very reason.

JT: What do you enjoy most about writing, and being a writer? What do you enjoy least?

KS:The thing I enjoy the most is reminding myself that my passion is now also my career. Now I’m writing in two genres, the financial rewards are excellent but if I wasn’t a professional writer I’d be working a day job and writing for no money at all – indeed, as I did for many years!

The thing I enjoy the least is also, ironically, I believe the secret to success; getting so utterly wrapped up in a fictional world and its characters that one forgets real life and real people are just outside the door. Writing draws me in every day like a powerful magnet and it’s not until I physically get out into the fresh air it releases its insatiable grip!

JT: What are you working on at the moment?

KS: I’m currently ‘simmering’ my fourth YA novel for Macmillan Children’s Books which is again set in Nottingham and explores issues such as poverty and the affects that crime can have on a family. And I am working on my fourth adult psychological crime novel, writing as KL Slater.

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk 

Sunday 21 May 2017

Review by Jeremy Sumner of "Get Out"

Is there anything scarier than realising whilst watching a fictional movie that it could almost certainly be a reality? 

Recent trends in cinema would seem to suggest that the horror films that hit a bit closer to home are becoming more and more popular. Films such as The Purge (somehow) have been so well received that they’ve found themselves in the position to continue making sequels until audiences have had enough of watching the general public disintegrate into sadistic psychopaths for twenty-four hours. Even upcoming movies, such as Life, which focuses on the discovery of hostile life from Mars, hits a lot closer to home than possessed dolls and vengeful poltergeists. It should be no surprise then that Get Out has captured the attention of the public and critics alike.

The story revolves around Chris Washington having to go and meet his girlfriend Rose Armitage’s parents for the first time in an isolated rural environment; a scary enough prospect for most. However, the draw of the film comes with the added factor that Chris is concerned that Rose hasn’t told her family he’s black, leading him to worry of any hostilities he may (almost certainly will) encounter. As the dream weekend evolves into a perpetual nightmare, Chris slowly begins to understand the gravity of the situation he has found himself in.

I confess I haven’t found myself connecting with many horror films I’ve watched. The best that I’ve watched in recent memory was The Witch, which depicted the supernatural fears and trials faced by a tormented family in medieval England. I admired this film for its boldness in avoiding cliché jump scares at all cost, with the real horror stemming from the despair and trauma faced by those inhabiting the world. Ever since then, I’ve always admired films that have been able to induce moments of pure terror and fear in an audience just by the placement and structure of the scene in regards to the plotline; Get Out follows this pattern wonderfully. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got anything against jump scares. As a matter of fact, this film has a fantastically placed jumpy moment that caught the entire audience off guard. However, the real power in this film is the tension that is built up throughout. From the first arrival at Rose’s parent’s house, myself and the entire audience were on the edge of our seats, genuinely worrying for the well-being of Chris in this completely alien world. Without revealing any spoilers, the final scene of the movie was so powerful in its terror that it caused outcries of fear and disbelief from everyone in the room, including myself.

In the starring role, Daniel Kaluuya acts fantastically as the sceptical and reserved Chris Washington. I found myself drawn to how effortlessly he handled a character with such emotional depth and trauma, and how easily he managed to develop Chris in a believable manner. His mannerisms when faced with the cringe-inducing racially charged questioning from the other guests at the Armitage family house almost mirrored that of my friend’s reactions when they were watching it with me. The reality from which this film draws is replicated on screen to such a level that it becomes even more horrifying to me that extreme racism like this does indeed occur in our world.

The Armitage family themselves prove themselves to be worthy opponents for Chris, with notable mentions to Allison Williams for her compassionate and understanding portrayal of Rose, and the hypnotically calm depiction of the malevolent Missy Armitage by Catherine Keener. Betty Gabriel, as the hauntingly ever-present maid Georgina, fantastically provides the strongest point of unease in this film, her excruciatingly calm voice and exterior clearly masking a tormented soul underneath. 

A great success of this film also comes with its moments of comedy, primarily provided by Chris’s best friend Rod Williams, played by Lil Rel Howery. This is an area in which director and writer Jordan Peele has thrived, with his success in comedy coming from his Emmy winning TV series Key and Peele. Howery’s scenes offer brief moments of relief and humour as he interacts with Chris over the phone, reflecting the difference in worlds they currently find themselves in.

As a horror film, Get Out has it all. The unbearably strong tension and fear built up throughout the entire film finishes with an incredibly horrifying yet satisfying climax; as clichéd as it sounds, the actors really did bring the characters to life, and scarily so; the director and producers shot a fantastically picturesque yet haunting film with a similarly spooky soundtrack to go with it (it’s safe to say that I will never be able to listen to “Run, Rabbit, Run, Rabbit” ever again). What’s even more impressive is that this film has come at the perfect time. As the world around us appears more and more bleak, this film challenges us with the frightening reality of racism that is taking place in our world every day. Walking out of the cinema, I couldn’t help but worry about just how real that film could be, and how many Armitage families and their friends are in this world.

In terms of ticking all the right boxes and operating within the realms of reality, I can safely say that Get Out will go down as the best horror film I have ever seen.