Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

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It must be over 30 years since I last read Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret, but I can still remember large sections of it word-for-word.  I was a bit nervous about seeing the film, because it’s such an iconic book that it would’ve been awful if they’d made a mess of it; but they’ve done a really good job.

In 1970, Margaret is 11.  She’s the daughter of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, but isn’t being raised in either faith and instead chats away to God about her life and problems – to the horror of the censors in several American states.  The family have a close relationship with her widowed paternal grandmother, but have been cut off by her maternal grandparents.  When they move from New York City to suburban New Jersey, Margaret meets know-all Nancy Wheeler and joins her “Pre-Teen Sensations” gang (although the gang name wasn’t given in the film, for some reason), and tries to cope with worries about periods, bras, religion and boys.

The one big change from the book to the film is that the adults have been given a bigger role.  Reading the books as a kid, it never occurred to me that Herb and Barbara, Margaret’s parents, would also have found it hard to settle into a new place where they didn’t know anyone, that Sylvia, her grandma, would have been devastated that her family were moving away, or even how devastated Barbara must have been when her parents disowned her because of her choice of husband.  In the book, Margaret’s always known what happened with her maternal grandparents, but in the film we see Barbara telling her, and it’s quite a powerful moment.

I do, however, remember wondering what on earth the “Y” (again not mentioned in the film, but mentioned several times in the book) was – I’d have got “YMCA”, because of the song, but “Y” on its own completely threw me – and being confused by the term “real estate agent”, which made me wonder if the Simons had at some point been dealing with a fake estate agent.  Why I can remember this after over 35 years, when I can never remember where I put my keys down two minutes ago, is a mystery!   But I do remember it very clearly, because, as I said, it’s such an iconic book.  And the film does do it justice.  Watch and enjoy!

 

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The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan

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I still think of D’Artagnan as Dogtanian, but I think most people who were kids in the ’80s have that problem!   Anyway, this film, which is a) part 1 of 2 and b) in French with English subtitles, is satisfyingly full of swashbuckling swordplay and horseriding, although it could have used a few lighter moments.   It was entertaining watching on a miserably wet Bank Holiday morning.

Dashing young D’Artagnan makes his way from Gascony to Paris to try to join the Musketeers, and makea friends with The Three Musketeer pals, Porthos, Athos and Aramis.  He also falls in love with Constance, the Queen’s confidante.  There’s then a lot of plotting and fighting as Cardinal Richelieu and Milady de Winter try to bring down Queen Anne, who’s having an affair with the Duke of Buckingham, and Athos, whose brother is the leader of the Huguenots.

The plot against Queen Anne is foiled, Athos is pardoned, D’Artagnan becomes a Musketeer and it looks as if all’s going to end well … but then Constance is kidnapped and D’Artagnan is knocked unconscious, setting the scene for the start of the second instalment.

It’s all a bit mad, but, as I said, it’s very entertaining … even if it does annoyingly flip between “Your Majesty” and “Your Highness” at random, and refer to the Holy Roman Empire as just “the Holy Empire”.  Still prefer Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, though!

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

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  I really enjoyed this.  It isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s a great hour and half’s entertainment.  Documentary maker Zoe, on learning that her childhood friend/boy next door Kaz is going to have an arranged marriage, agrees with him and his family that she’ll make a film about the process.  It’s billed as a romcom, but it also makes some serious points about the issues surrounding finding a partner when you’re expected to marry someone from the same religion and culture, and the fact that Zoe, looking for a love match, can’t find a partner and is lurching from one drunken one night stand to the next.

There’s an interesting sub-plot about Kaz’s sister, who’s been disowned by the family after falling in love with and marrying a white, non-Muslim man.  Kaz’s other sibling, a brother, is married to someone “suitable”, but it was a love match after they met through a Muslim Harry Potter discussion group.  Meanwhile, Zoe’s mum is desperate for her to find a husband, and is rather envious of her neighbours that they’re getting to help find a wife for their son.

One particularly positive thing about this film is that the sort of people who think that the BFG wearing a black cloak or Farmer Boggis having a black tractor is racist have obviously been kept well away from it.   There are plenty of one-liners which aren’t at all PC, but the audience in the cinema was about 40% white and 60% British Asian and no-one was taking offence at any of it: everyone was laughing, together.

Kaz agrees to a marriage with Mahmouna, a girl in Lahore.  This bit of the film didn’t actually work that well.  The film emphasises that arranged marriages are now more “assisted” marriages, and that couples get to know each other and find out if they’re compatible before the marriage takes place, but, whilst we were told that Kaz and Mahmouna had spent loads of time talking on the phone and on Skype, we only saw one Skype meeting and it didn’t seem to go that well.   However, the mehndi and wedding in Lahore were gorgeous and glamorous.

Then came the twist in the tale.  Well, two twists in the tale.  I won’t post spoilers, but this film really is well worth seeing.

Corsage

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This is a film about the Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, born a Bavarian duchess, known as Sisi, and still obsessed over by the Viennese tourist industry.   Despite the presentation of her, especially in a series of sentimental films in the 1950s, as a fairytale princess, she was a deeply troubled woman, as this film, set in 1877/78 when she was 40/41, shows.   She was obsessed with maintaining her slim figure, and ate very little whilst maintaining a rigorous exercise regime.   She also travelled a lot rather than spending time in Vienna.

The film gets what would now be described as anorexic behaviour right, and shows her travels including a visit to Northamptonshire, although it ignores her close connection with Hungary.   It also shows how she struggled with her official duties and the attention they brought.   I was a bit confused by the title, though: I would take “corsage” to mean a small bunch of flowers attached to clothing, but it seemed to be intended more along the lines of “corset”.  Sisi wore her corsets laced extremely tightly – and a title of “corset” would obviously be a metaphor for the restrictions of the Empress’s life.  So maybe something got lost in translation (the film is mainly in German, with English subtitles).

It ends with a suicide attempt off the coast of Italy, which is fictional and was rather depressing, but the general idea of the film, the pressure on female royals and to some extent on female celebrities, and the effects that that can have, is obviously still relevant today and rings very true.  Don’t watch this if you’re looking for something light and festive, but it’s worth seeing if you’re prepared for what’s really a rather gloomy story.

Your Christmas or Mine?

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Young drama student couple James and Hayley are both heading home from London for Christmas, he to Kemble (which, thank you Google, is a village in Gloucestershire), she to Macclesfield.   Macc itself, not the posh areas outside it!   At the last minute, they both decide they want to spend Christmas together, so she jumps on to his train and he jumps on to hers.   Heavy snow means that all the trains are cancelled, so each is stuck with the other’s family, and each finds out that the other hasn’t been quite straight with them.  It’s more than a bit silly, and of course, it all turns out happily in the end, but it’s an enjoyable seasonal film and will make you smile.

Cue a load of really cliched stuff about the posh boy meeting the ordinary family and the ordinary girl meeting the posh family.  It turns out that he’s the grandson of an earl and lives in a stately home, where people refer to tea as “supper”, whilst her family are like the Royle family.   His father, like Captain von Trapp, has made the house austere and gloomy ever since being widowed, whilst her family are laugh a minute. 

Neither family knows about the relationship.  His family think he’s at Sandhurst, and her family think she’s still engaged to her ex.  It’s all laid on with a trowel and a bit daft;  but, hey, it’s Christmas, and it’s all quite entertaining.   And available for free on Amazon Prime.   If you’ve got time, give it a go.

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

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This is a novel about the severe blizzard which, after an ordinary-seeming morning, hit the Great Plains one afternoon in January 1888, killing  235 people and causing many others to lose limbs or digits to frostbite.   It’s sometimes called “The Children’s Blizzard” because, due to the timing, many of the victims were school pupils trying to make their way home at the end of the school day.

As readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder will know, teachers at that time and place could be girls of just 15 or 16, little more than children themselves.  They were the ones who had to decide whether their pupils should wait out the storm in the schoolhouses, try to get home, or try to reach another place of shelter.  Two of the four threads of the book are those of two such teachers, sisters, one of whom was hailed as a heroine in the national press as well as locally, the other of whom was vilified for making what turned out to be a bad choice.  The other main characters are a hired girl and a “booster”.

Boosters, who featured a lot in The Beautiful Snow, aimed to persuade people from Europe, mainly Scandinavia, and the eastern US to settle in Minnesota and Dakota Territory, giving a very over-favourable impression of the farming conditions and climate there.   Most of the characters in the book were Norwegian immigrants, and the author seems to contend that the US authorities and eastern US society weren’t overly concerned what became of them.

For some reason, there aren’t a lot of books about Scandinavian settlers in the Great Plains.  Vilhelm Moberg’s four The Emigrants books, about a Swedish family, spring to mind, and Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions Norwegian neighbours;  but most people’s image of immigrants in the late 19th century US is of people from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe crowding into New York City.   And, other than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s brief reference to a black doctor, I can’t think of any other books mentioning black settlers in the area, as this one does.  And the settlement of the area in general doesn’t get much attention, with the obvious exception of Laura’s books. Incidentally, I just did a “Goodreads” search on “pioneer”, and 8 out of the top 10 results were books by Laura.  Other than Willa Cather, none of the other authors or books in the top 25 were well-known.  Yet both the Native American Wars and the Dust Bowl have attracted a lot of attention from different quarters.  It’s strange.

It’s an interesting subject, not least because it’s had so little coverage; but it’s not the most gripping of books, which I think is largely because it’s so focused on the one incident, and goes into it very quickly.  We don’t really have chance to get to know and care about the characters before they and we are swept up in the blizzard.   But it’s still a fascinating story, about the hardship faced by the pioneers, many of whom had thought they were going to a land of plenty.   And, without wishing to get political, it’s interesting to think how often, in the past, there were places which were desperate for immigrants, so desperate that they deliberately gave a falsely favourable impression of the lands they wanted settling in order to get people in; and how that’s changed.

The best part of the book was actually the last few chapters, about what happened to the girls after the blizzard.   What happened sounded far-fetched, but is based on real accounts of the time.  The hired girl and the “right” sister briefly became the 1880s’ equivalent of tabloid celebs, benefited from a “Heroine Fund” set up by a newspaper and were able to start new and better lives.  The “wrong” sister ended up teaching at an “Indian school” in Montana and being horrified by the abuses committed there.   I think the author felt that she had to include that, given the current (unfair) fashion for criticising the Little House books.   And both the booster and the hired girl’s mistress were overcome with guilt over the way they’d treated them, which felt rather like a 19th century American moralising novel.  Somehow, that all made for better reading than the drama of the blizzard, maybe because we actually got to know the characters better.

All in all, I don’t think that I’ll be reading this again, but I’m certainly glad that I’ve read it once.  If you can find a reasonably-priced copy, it’s worth a go.

King Richard

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Back in the day, the BBC used to produce an annual Wimbledon preview magazine/brochure, which my teenage self used to read assiduously.  The 1992 edition claimed that an 11-year-old kid called Venus Williams was set for stardom, and that her 10-year-old sister, Serena Williams, was shaping up to be even better.   Jennifer Capriati had made her professional debut at just 14, and Monica Seles had won her first Grand Slam title at 16 and Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario had both won theirs at 17 … but predicting stardom for kids of 10 and 11 still seemed a bit mad.   The rest, as they say, is history.

Tennis won’t be the same without Serena.

For Jennifer Capriati, it was too much, too young.   But the Williams sisters, the girls from a working-class background, who grew up playing tennis in public parks, got it right.  It was their dad, Richard Williams, who planned their careers, who’s the King Richard of this film – no crusades, depositions or Princes in the Tower!  Venus and Serena were involved in the making of the film and it does rather eulogise Richard, who by some accounts can be very difficult to deal with – but the fact is that, yes, he got it right. 

There’s been a lot of unpleasantness over pushy tennis parents, and there’ve also been players who’ve either burnt out and or been unable to cope with the pressure of fame; but Venus and Serena have both handled it very well, and without any family fallings out.   

As the film shows, Richard Williams pulled them out of the Rick Macci Academy and stopped them from playing in official junior tournaments, and that worked for them.   But it was a gamble.  The film does a good job of showing how expensive tennis is, and how, for that reason, a lot of players in the 1990s were desperate to turn pro and get professional sponsorship.   It’s not like football, where clubs will sign kids at an early age, and where there’s no pressure to move to a specialised academy.   It’s a lot of money.  And, for that reason, most players are from relatively well-to-do backgrounds – and the film shows how there can be snobbery and even racism at some of the famous/infamous American country clubs.

It’s not such a problem in the UK, because the LTA has a lot of money with which to help out young players, but it is elsewhere: the Kazakh Tennis Federation persuaded Elena Rybakina and several other players to take Kazakh nationality, using its oil money.  Richard gambled – and won. 

This film didn’t get very good reviews, but I quite enjoyed it – but then I was bound to enjoy a tennis film.  One minor quibble – referring to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario as “Vicario” rather than “Sanchez Vicario”.  That wouldn’t have happened.  And, whilst most of it was about Venus, because originally most of it was about Venus, as she was the eldest, I thought they could have shown a bit more about what it was like for your sister to be your main rival, but I can understand that they didn’t want to go down that route.   

All in all, it really wasn’t bad.  It’s an amazing story.  It’s really quite creepy that a parent should decide that their children are going to be professional tennis players (or professional footballers, singers, dancers or anything else) when those children are barely out of nappies, and yet it’s all worked out for them.   That in itself is amazing, and that makes the film worth seeing.

The Railway Children Return

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I’m pleased to say that this film is about evacuees from Salford.  It’s a bugbear of mine that stories about evacuees practically always feature children from London, as if no other part of the country were affected.  There’s been so much publicity about it that I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the children concerned are sent to Oakworth – although much of the Oakworth village set is actually Haworth – where they’re billeted with the former Bobbie Waterbury, her daughter (the headmistress of the local school, referred to as “the head teacher” as kids today apparently can’t be expected to cope with the word “headmistress”) and her grandson.

The shots of the village and the surrounding countryside are glorious, and there’s plenty of Blytonesque running around in fields, having conker fights and collecting eggs from chickens.  The plot wasn’t really very dramatic, though.   It followed the original film in that the children helped someone in need and stopped a train, but the suspense and emotion weren’t really there.  Maybe the scriptwriters focused a bit too much on appealing to a young audience demographic?

(Don’t read the rest if you don’t want any spoilers at all!)

I’d been expecting a spy story.  Instead, we got a wartime racism story.   It might have worked better in an adult film, but there wasn’t enough sense of menace here.  It was obviously aimed at a young audience – I could have lived without seeing kids using the outside of a train as a toilet, and the remarks about farting, but, OK, I’m not really in the target demographic – and maybe that was why the fear of the military police just didn’t come across very well, despite the talk of our man possibly facing hanging if he were caught.  The police just never seemed very intimidating.   Also, it was hard not to wonder why no-one seemed to notice kids just disappearing from school in the middle of the day, or why everyone’s rations seemed to stretch so far that they could hold food fights and feed biscuits to their dog.

Having said all that, the racism story was historically accurate.  We know that there were major issues over the segregation in the US Army, especially concerning black soldiers engaging with white British women: the film actually borrowed the true story of the Battle of Bamber Bridge, in which US military police attacked black soldiers drinking in a pub.   The idea in this film was that a young black soldier had deserted as a result.  He was discovered hiding out by the four children – the three evacuees, an older girl with a younger brother and sister, as in the original film, and their new pal, Bobbie’s grandson.   It was then rather unconvincingly resolved (I won’t say how), and he was allowed to gallivant around the countryside and then return home to his mum, thanks to all the children stopping the train (but without red underwear) and the intervention of Ric Griffin from Holby City.

It was all right, and it was worth seeing for the shots of the countryside.  And it was also lovely to see a film in which the Brits were the goodies.  The liberal elite will hate that … which is probably a recommendation in itself.  But don’t be expecting a classic, and don’t be looking for an unforgettable moment like the legendary “Daddy, my daddy” scene, or you’ll be disappointed.   It’s OK, but it’s not great.

 

Downton Abbey: A New Era

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I enjoyed every minute of this.  If you’re looking for a couple of hours of old style, feelgood escapism, and you’re able to get to the pictures to see this, then I highly recommend that you do so.  Yes, all right, it’s all a bit cliched and predictable, and no doubt some people will complain that it doesn’t even touch on the terrible hardship faced by so many people in the late 1920s; but it’s entertaining, and it feels like catching up with old friends.

And it’s got some of the more glamorous aspects of the 1920s down to a tee.  ITV were guilty of a few anachronisms in the TV series, but the film, like the first film, gets it spot on.  Especially the costumes.  The tennis whites.   I’m so glad that the AELTC still make players wear all white clothing, and I’m also glad that coloured cricket pyjamas have so far been kept out of Test matches!   And the hats.  Lots of wonderful hats!

There are two main storylines.  One is that the Crawleys have been approached by a company wanting to use Downton Abbey as a film location.  Lord Grantham and Carson are both horrified, but the money is needed for repairs to a leaking roof.  And it all gets a bit Singin’ in the Rain as the film is turned from a silent movie into a talkie. The other is that the Dowager Countess has acquired a villa in the South of France, left to her by an old admirer, and intends to hand it over to little Sybbie.  Cue a party from Downton heading off to the glamorous Riviera, with Edith, resuming her career as a journalist, writing an article about the appeal of the area to the likes of F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  All very 1920s.

Lady Mary stays at Downton to oversee the film making.  The beautiful leading lady turns out to be rude and unpleasant, but it turns out that she’s worried about her Cockney accent ending her career now that talkies are coming in.   She eventually learns to do an American accent, and heads off to find fame in Hollywood.  However, they need someone with a posh voice to dub her lines in the film they’re making at Downton.   Now, who could possibly step in to save the day?  And the suave leading man, whom all the women fancy, turns out to be gay … and Barrow is in need of a new love interest after his previous boyfriend decided to marry a woman.  Nul points for working out what happens, but it’s all good fun.

Meanwhile, in the South of France, Carson is refusing to dress for the climate or to learn a word of French, and is going around muttering about how the English do everything properly and the French haven’t got a clue, Lord Grantham fears that the marquis whose villa it was may have been his natural father, and Lady Grantham is worried about her health.  Of course, everything turns out OK in the end.

Tom and Lucy get married at the start of the film.  Daisy and Andy are already married.  Edith and Bertie are happy with their new baby … and everyone seems to accept that Marigold is Edith’s illegitimate daughter, but not to be bothered about it.  Anna and Mr Bates are also happy with little Johnny.   Miss Baxter is after Mr Molesley, and Mrs Patmore is after Mr Mason: the course of true love never doth run smooth, but you know that both ladies are going to bag their chaps in the end.  The only person who isn’t happy is Lady Mary, but that was because Matthew Goode wasn’t available for the film, so we’re told that Henry is off doing something with cars.

There’s a sad storyline towards the end, but it was made clear towards the end of the previous film that that was coming.  And, after it, the film does end on a high note.

Don’t be expecting to be too intellectually challenged by this, but do expect to enjoy it, and to come out with a big smile on your face.  It’s lovely.

 

 

 

The Chaperone

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  I have to admit that I don’t know very much about Louise Brooks apart from what’s in the OMD song: I was quite into OMD in the early 1990s.  However, although this film involves Louise Brooks, it’s actually a fictional story about a woman who never existed but who, in the film, is Louise’s chaperone when Louise leaves Kansas for New York.  And is played by Elizabeth McGovern from Downton Abbey.

It’s quite an involved and imaginative story: we learn that the woman was, as a toddler, left at a New York orphanage run by nuns, and was then shipped out to Kansas on a train carrying young children to be adopted.  It sounded so horrific, and the horrified woman, when she found out, said that it sounded like some sort of slave market.  The nuns pointed out that – like Anne of Green Gables, I couldn’t help thinking – she was taken in by a loving couple and given a good life.  But what if she hadn’t been.  Everyone knows the story of Anne, but somehow you never think very much about these children who were sent out across the US and Canada, and how it was all the luck of the draw as to who took them in.

She was hoping to find her birth mother, and she did find her, but none of it was very convincing.  And then we learnt that, after her adoptive parents had died young, she’d married a rich lawyer, but then caught him in bed with another man.  She ended up leaving him for a young German man who worked at the orphanage.  It was all extremely far-fetched, and didn’t really have anything to do with Louise Brooks, so I’m not sure why the story involved her at all.  But anyway, it was something to watch!