An American Pickle

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This is absolutely brilliant.  I thought it might be silly – man gets pickled in brine for 100 years – but it’s an incredibly clever film about modern life and culture wars, specifically in New York but it would work in a lot of other places too.  If you’re the sort of person who takes yourself very seriously and gets offended at the slightest thing, you won’t get it at all.  If you’re not, you will love it – you’ll laugh a lot, but it’ll make you think too.

Our hero is Herschel Greenbaum, who, along with his wife Sarah, decides to flee Eastern Europe after a pogrom at their shtetl.  They move to New York, in 1919, i.e. 100 years before most of the film is set.  The dates don’t work brilliantly, which may upset pedantic historians such as my good self, but anyway.  They’re expecting the American Dream, but, instead, Herschel can only get a job trying to kill rats at a pickle factory where workers get very low pay and health and safety regulations don’t exist.  One day, Herschel falls into a barrel of pickles, as you do, and apparently no-one – including his wife and child! – looks very hard for him.  The factory is condemned and abandoned, and Herschel remains in the pickle barrel for 100 years, until some kids messing around accidentally find the barrel and, hey presto, Herschel emerges into the present day, the same age as he was when he was, er, pickled, having been preserved perfectly by the brine.  Maybe don’t think too much about the science behind this 🙂 .

His wife and son are long dead.  His only grandson and granddaughter-in-law were killed in a car crash.  But there’s a great-grandson, Ben.  Herschel asks his great-grandson to take him to Sarah’s grave – but the part of the cemetery it’s in is no longer used, it’s derelict and overgrown, and there are even advertising hoardings there.  Someone’s putting up an advert for Cossack vodka.  Herschel loses his rag and attacks them.  He and Ben are arrested.

Herschel demands to know why Ben hasn’t been looking after the family graves, and why no-one seems to care that a cemetery, which should be a revered place, has been allowed to become waste ground – and this is something that does happen in real life.  It transpires that Ben hasn’t been doing anything much for the last five years other than working on his computer, trying to get “ethical” investors for an internet business.  Now, his final hopes are dashed, because he’s been arrested, so “ethical” businesses won’t touch him, because the arrest is the first thing that comes up when they Google his name.  He throws Herschel out.

Herschel, hurt but undeterred, buys a load of cheap cucumbers and some salt, collects a load of old jars, puts the cucumbers and salt in the jars, lets the jars fill up with rainwater, and sets himself up as a street vendor.  It catches on – because he’s recycling jars and using 100% natural ingredients.  People in New York love it.  Long queues form at his stall.  Videos of him go viral.  Everyone wants to buy his stuff.  But, hey, he then gets closed down by the New York equivalent of the Food Standards Agency, because he’s violating ten zillion health and safety protocols.  Oh dear.

He gets going again, but then he’s told that he needs to promote the business by going on Twitter, and, preferably, proving that he’s being “inclusive” by “reaching out” to different demographic groups.  He posts things which are typical for someone from his background – 100 years ago – and aren’t meant to be the slightest bit offensive; but, of course, next thing you know, he’s being accused of being sexist, homophobic, ableist and everything else-ist.  Young virtue-signalling snowflakes besiege his stall, and he’s “cancelled” on line.  Meanwhile, right-wingers hail him as a defender of free speech and applaud him for exploring the boundaries of the First Amendment, which he understands about as much as Prince Harry does, and even call for him to run for political office.  Celebs on both sides decide that they’re experts on it all, and have their say.  It’s all over the papers.  It’s debated on TV and social media.  It really is brilliant – – you can just imagine this happening.

He doesn’t get any of it.  He was just trying to sell pickles.

He then manages also to alienate the Christian right.  When asked about whether public schools should promote Christianity, he expresses opinions about Christianity which would make perfect sense to someone from an early 20th century Jewish shtetl under attack from Cossacks, but obviously don’t to American Christian right-wingers.  So now nearly everyone’s got it in for him, and – in bit of a nod to Mr Trump’s views on immigrants? – he’s deported as a hate figure.

And all he was trying to do was sell pickles.

His great-grandson, feeling horribly guilty because, jealous of his success, he was the one who reported him to the food standards people and then encouraged him to go on Twitter, follows him to Eastern Europe (we’re never told exactly where it is).   They both end up back in New York, planning to set up some sort of business together.  Ben’s learnt some lessons about the importance of family ties and being a bit less obsessed with his computer and ethical investors, but Herschel’s a bit sad because he feels that, in America, no-one will ever forgive you if you’ve said something that didn’t meet with their approval.   It’s America, but it could happen in a lot of other places too, not least here.

As I said, it’ll make you think.  He wasn’t trying to upset anyone, and he wasn’t trying to make a point about anything.  He was just trying to sell pickles.  Very, very clever film.

 

 

Radioactive

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This is the Marie Curie biopic which was meant to be released in cinemas last June, but ended up going straight to various “platforms” instead.  This meant that I saved the £4.99 cinema entry fee, the cost of getting to the cinema and back, and the amount I’d have spent on a cup of tea and possibly an ice cream, but I’d gladly pay if we could get to a point where cinemas could reopen.  Possibly not for this film, though: it was a bit boring.

It really shouldn’t have been, because it’s the most incredible story – how, at a time when it was incredibly difficult for women to work in science, one woman made scientific discoveries which changed the world, winning the Nobel Prize twice, once for physics (in 1903, jointly with her husband and another scientist) and once for chemistry (in 1911).  The film also showed her important work, alongside one of her daughters, in treated wounded soldiers during the First World War.  Plus we saw her marriage (although I doubt that a biopic of a male scientist would have involved people frolicking naked in a pond), the births of her two daughters, the tragic death of her husband after he was run over by a cart, and how France turned on her when it became known that she was having an affair with a younger, married man … which rather bizarrely got a bit mixed up with the fallout from the Dreyfus Affair.

But, somehow, the film just didn’t really hold my attention.  Maybe it’s because I’m not a scientist: there was quite a lot of sciency talk in it.  There was nothing particularly wrong with it, but it just wasn’t all that interesting.  Oh well!

Six Minutes To Midnight

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This film sounded very interesting, being based around the very strange but true story of the Augusta Victoria College, a German finishing school for young female relatives/associates of high-ranking Nazi officials, based not in Germany but, from 1932 to 1939 in Bexhill-on-Sea on the Sussex coast.  Unfortunately, the storyline was just stupid.  It was supposed to be a thrilling espionage drama, but it was unconvincing and verged on the farcical.

Our hero, played by Eddie Izzard, was a British spy masquerading as a teacher, although he seemed to do little teaching other than to train the girls, who were remarkably ill-disciplined by anyone’s standards, never mind Nazi standards, to sing “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”.  At one point, he tried to hide from the police by stealing a uniform which a brass band player had left lying on the beach whilst he went for a swim (as you do), then marching with the brass band, without an instrument, whilst the flugle player whose uniform he’d nicked marched alongside him in his underwear.  It would have been quite funny in ‘Allo ‘Allo or Dad’s Army, but this was supposed to be a serious spy film.

Meanwhile, Judi Dench did her best as the sweet little old British headmistress (the headmistress of the actual school was German, and presumably carefully chosen by the authorities) who didn’t realise that the Nazis weren’t actually very nice people, and joined in when the girls all made Nazi salutes and chanted Nazi slogans because she thought it was just a confidence boosting things; but the idea of the character made no sense.  This was the summer of 1939.  My school was offering free places to girls who’d come to the UK as refugees from Nazi persecution.  People knew jolly well what was going on.  And that would have gone for sweet little old ladies in idyllic seaside resorts as much as for anyone else.

Maybe part of the problem was that no-one seems very sure exactly what the point of the school was.  Possibly so that the girls could try to spread Nazi ideals in British society, but, seeing as they hardly ever left the school, and didn’t come into contact with anyone outside it, I don’t quite see how that was meant to work.  Were they all meant to hang around after leaving, and impress people with their ability to walk elegantly because of all the time they’d spent balancing books on their heads?

A decent scriptwriter would have come up with a plausible explanation.  Instead, all we got was that the other teacher, a young German woman, was a Nazi.  However, other than chatting to other Nazis at a music evening, there didn’t seem to be much point to her either.  Well, not until our hero went out to meet his superior officer, and she followed him and shot the said officer dead.  Presumably she was also responsible for the death of a previous teacher, whose body turned up on the beach, but that was never really explained, even though our hero was meant to be finding out about it.  A lot of things in this film were never really explained.  Anyway, the police turned up and thought our hero had shot his boss, so he went on the run … but was captured after the incident with the brass band and the underwear.

He was then visited in the local nick by two government officials, a senior one with a posh voice and a junior one with a not-posh voice.  But then, in a “thrilling” twist in the tale (it actually wasn’t that thrilling), it turned out that the posh bloke was a Nazi spy.  Our man escaped again, and was helped out by the local bus driver, who was obsessed with people not getting mud on his kitchen floor but was happy to give our man a change of clothes – thankfully, not a uniform this time.  Then our man teamed up with the junior official.

Oh, and everyone kept saying “English” where “British” would have been more appropriate, which was interesting given that the film was made by the Welsh Film Board.

Meanwhile, the Nazi teacher was arranging for the girls to be evacuated by plane, necessitating their climbing up a hill with their suitcases (in broad daylight – presumably this was OK, as no-one happening to walk past would have found this at all suspicious), hanging around until it got dark, and then waving flares to show the plane where to land. Despite the fact that it was broad daylight and the plane couldn’t land until it got dark, they didn’t have time to stop when one of the girls dropped her case and it fell down the hill, even though it was only a small hill and it would only have taken two minutes to retrieve the case, but never mind.

Mysterious planes often land in strange places in Enid Blyton books, and indeed in James Bond films, but I didn’t really get why, the UK not requiring exit visas, the girls – there were only about a dozen of them – and the teacher couldn’t have just hopped on a train to the nearest port (Google informs me that it’s only about 55 miles from Bexhill to Dover), got on a ferry, then got on a train to Germany.  There might even have been direct sailings from Harwich to Hamburg at that time.

However, our hero had managed to get through to Whitehall, the plane was intercepted, and he and the sweet little old headmistress turned up, deterred the Nazi teacher from shooting all the girls rather than risk their being interned (???), and a lot of hugging went on.  The girls were then taken back to the school, where they lined up and sang “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”.  I think we were actually supposed to feel sorry for them, which opens up all sorts of thorny questions – OK, they wouldn’t have had much choice about being sent to the school, but they were in the late teens, so old enough to understand what was going on.  But the film never got into anything as deep as that.

I’m not even sure why it was such a big deal that the girls were leaving, and why they were so desperate to stop them.   It’s not like they were spies.  All they did was mess around in the dormitory, go swimming, and try to learn English.  Why not just let them go home?  If the idea was for them to try to spread Nazi ideals, then wouldn’t it actually’ve been better to have them out of the UK, goodbye and good riddance, rather than trying to keep them here?!

The whole thing was just silly, quite frankly – and it was a shame, because someone could have made a very good story about this school.  Maybe, one day, someone will, but this certainly wasn’t it!

 

 

 

Lad: A Yorkshire Story

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What an absolutely lovely film this is – and that’s from a Lancastrian 🙂 .  It was made in 2013 and didn’t do much at the time, but it’s become a “lockdown hit” on Amazon Prime.   Our “lad” is Tom, a 13-year-old boy living in the Settle area – so that’s about an hour’s drive across the Pennines from here, and it’s a beautiful drive, especially on a sunny day -, whose life falls apart when his dad dies suddenly, his brother leaves to join the Army, and his mum struggles to pay the mortgage on one wage.  After getting into a bit of trouble with the police, he’s ordered to do community service, which consists of helping a Yorkshire Dales park ranger called Al, who becomes like an uncle to him and, although there’s a sad ending, helps him to learn to cope with what’s happened and to see the way ahead.

It’s a gentle, slow-moving film, with some glorious shots of Malham Cove and the countryside around Settle and Austwick, and it really is worth watching.  The only problem is that it makes you feel all the more frustrated about being told you can’t go out into the countryside!

There’s a curious lack of grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins or even family friends to help support Tom and his mum Sarah.  However, in the general community, everyone’s nice to everyone else – other than a baddie bank boss who isn’t very sympathetic to the family’s financial problems after the dad’s death – and there’s no aggressive agenda, so anyone (the Guardian etc) who prefers hatred and aggression to goodness and kindness won’t appreciate it, but I think most people will.

Tom and Al are the main characters, but there are sub-plots about Tom’s growing friendship with Al’s granddaughter, and about Sarah, who trains as an HGV driver when she can’t manage on her wage from working in a shop after losing her husband.  Not that much actually happens – if you’re waiting for someone to fall in Malham Tarn or off a cliff, you’ll still be waiting at the end of the film – but it’s just a really nice film, sweet but not sentimental.  Not historical, but still highly recommended!

The Bird Catcher

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Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  This isn’t a particularly good Holocaust film, or a particularly good film at all, but it deserves credit for telling one of the many lesser-known Holocaust stories.  It seems as if every month there’s another new book called The X of Auschwitz or The Y of Auschwitz.  I’m not for a moment criticising those books, but there’s a lot of focus on the death camps, and on what happened in certain countries; and there are other stories to be told as well.

The beautiful, historical Norwegian city of Trondheim is probably one of the last places in mainland Europe which you’d associate with the Holocaust, but it was occupied by the Nazis for five years.  In the October of 1942, it was placed under martial law.  Dozens of people were arrested and executed, and the entire Jewish population of the town rounded up.  In this film, our heroine Esther rather improbably escapes, and ends up disguised as a boy and working on a farm run by Nazi sympathisers … before blurting out her true identity in a sauna full of naked Norwegian Nazis (honestly), and escaping by sledge across a frozen lake to Sweden.  As I said, it’s not the greatest film ever, and the story’s more than a bit unconvincing, but it does draw attention to the little-told story of the Holocaust in Norway.

The relationship between Esther, or, as she calls herself, Ola, and the family on the farm is complex.  She’s originally taken there by the son of the family, Axsel, who’s got cerebral palsy.  Axsel and Esther form a close bond.  Axsel’s father, Johann, sees Ola/Esther as the strong son he always wanted … apparently not noticing that she’s actually a girl, even though they’re in close physical proximity for a lot of the time.  Johann’s wife Anna is having an affair with a Nazi officer, but, when she finds out who Esther really is, is quite sympathetic towards her – and, at the end of the film, when Esther returns to Trondheim and Anna is there, being spat at by locals as a Nazi sympathiser, Esther shows her sympathy in return.

The Nazis are around all the time – the German Nazis, and also the members of the Norwegian far right party led by Vidkun Quisling.  There’s no mention of the Resistance.  There’s no mention of anyone helping Jews to escape: Norway didn’t see the mass rescue that Denmark did, but about two-thirds of Norwegian Jews were still able to leave.  Nobody’s wearing paper clips attached to their clothes.  There’s no mention of Telavag, the town destroyed by the Nazis in a horrific atrocity which saw all the men either executed or sent to a concentration camp and all the women and children imprisoned.  There’s certainly no reference to the brave Norwegians who sailed from Bergen to Scotland in little boats, to be trained by British forces and return as saboteurs.

That’s very unusual for a story set in wartime Norway: the extent to which there was collaboration is still controversial, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the film to show so many characters as being pro-Nazi, with barely a mention of any who weren’t.  It’d be interesting to know how this film was received in Norway, if it’s been shown there.

To get back to the story, after the bit with the naked Nazis in the sauna, Esther and Axsel flee together but, sadly, the ice cracks and Axsel drowns.  Esther makes it to Sweden, survives, and returns to Norway after the war.  You do wonder why, if neutral Sweden was so close, she didn’t try to escape across the border sooner.  But a lot of things about this film don’t bear up to too much scrutiny.  The best thing about it is all the glorious shots of snowy Norwegian scenery.  But, as I said, it does show one of the many little-known stories of the Holocaust.  There are a lot of them.

 

Military Wives

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This is all rather predictable, but it’s a lovely feelgood film. And there’s a lot of ’80s music in it, which is always a plus point.  It’s inspired by the story of real Military Wives choir, who performed at the Festival of Remembrance in 2011 and then got the Christmas number one spot, but it’s been turned into a comedy-drama-with-sad-bits-too, like Calendar Girls.

We’ve got posh colonel’s wife Kate, who comes across like a prefect in a boarding school book, wanting all the women to join in group social activities whilst their partners are serving Afghanistan, and a lot of not posh women who are rather bemused by the idea.  But they do all get quite caught up in it, and it does help them to bond.  It also distracts them from their worries – and we warm to Kate as we understand that her son’s recently been killed in action, and that she’s looking for a way to try to cope.  Then, inevitably, the husband of one of the women is killed, and the others come together to try to comfort her.

They aren’t keen on traditional choir music, and go for ’80s pop instead, which is great stuff! Then they’re asked to perform at the Festival of Remembrance.  There’s a disastrous performance at a local market, which knocks everyone’s confidence.  Then they aren’t sure that it’d be appropriate to go ahead after the aforementioned death.  Then there’s a big falling out.  But, of course, it all comes right in the end.  Hurrah!

I don’t know how realistic a depiction it is of life at a military barracks, but it … well, the lifestyle wouldn’t appeal to most people.  OK, it has to come across as a closed community or else the idea wouldn’t work, but no-one’s got a job, or any friends in the surrounding area.  The teenage daughter of one of the women moans about being bored.  I’m not surprised.  It’s a bit 1950s, with all these women hanging around waiting for their husbands, and not doing much else.  And no husbands waiting for wives, or indeed husbands waiting for husbands or wives waiting for wives.  As I understand it, the real choir is also open to servicewomen – although I suppose that wouldn’t have worked for the film, because the idea was that the regiment was away in Afghanistan.

But, hey, it’s a nice film about female friendship and women supporting each other, and I liked it.  And it’s a reminder of just how difficult it must be to be the partner of someone in the Armed Forces, or any other dangerous job.

I’d have gone to see this at the pictures, but it was only just coming out when we went into lockdown, so I didn’t get the chance.  I’d have paid for either car parking or a return ticket on the Metrolink.  I’d have paid for admission at Vue.  I’d also have bought a drink, and maybe something to eat.  Then I’d have gone for a wander round town afterwards, and bought another drink, and maybe something to eat, and maybe done a bit of shopping.  As it was, with cinemas closed, I watched it on Amazon Prime, for which I pay anyway, and made my own drinks.  So I’ve saved money, and calories, but it’s not exactly done the local economy much good.  Such is 2020.

We need more feelgood films!

The Secret Garden

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  Oh dear.  I think someone got The Secret Garden mixed up with Jane Eyre, The Enchanted Wood, and I don’t know what else, unless I’ve somehow always missed the bits where Misselthwaite Manor burns down, the leaves in the garden magically die and come back to life depending on people’s moods, and the garden itself is about 100 acres of meadows, woodlands and tropical flowers with visions appearing all over it.  It was lovely to see the Bodnant Garden laburnum arch in flower, which I didn’t get to see this year due to lockdown, and I think the sunken temple bits were filmed at Fountains Abbey, but none of it bore any resemblance whatsoever to Lilias Craven’s small walled garden.  And how exactly could you keep something that size a secret?

Also, why on earth were we told that it was set in the year of Indian independence and Partition?  The book was published in 1911   Oh, I just need to point out that Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Cheetham Hill, and that her family had to sell their business because of the Cotton Famine, because everyone needs to know this.  She’d been dead for 23 years by 1947!   And cholera epidemics and delicate children being kept in their bedrooms all the time aren’t exactly very 1940s, are they?  On top of that, Ben the gardener was missed out completely, and we were told that Mary’s dad was lovely and that her mum was only narky because she was grieving for her sister.

I suppose it was quite an entertaining film.  And it looked gorgeous – the garden was absolutely stunning.  But it didn’t really have a lot to do with the book.  OK, the basic story was there – Mary was orphaned in India, went to live with her grumpy uncle in Yorkshire, made friends with Dickon and Martha, and persuaded Colin to get out and about.   But, if you’re looking for something that’s faithful to the book, this isn’t it.  I know that people have different ideas about whether or not films should follow the books on which they’re based, and maybe it doesn’t matter that much if people enjoy the film, but I would have preferred something rather more faithful to the book.

The garden was lovely, though …

Harriet

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I missed this film, about Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and helped many others to do the same, at the pictures.  It’s really not like me to miss a film about 19th century American history; but it wasn’t on for long, and not all cinemas showed it.  So thank you to Sky for showing it, as part of Black History Month.  All the local cinemas would, however, definitely have shown the new James Bond film next month, had its release gone ahead; and I would definitely have gone to see it, as would many other people.  I’d also have gone to see The Secret Garden, but that’s now gone straight to Sky without even being shown at cinemas.   And now it looks as if Cineworld are going to mothball all their cinemas, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vue and Odeon follow suit.  It’s very sad.  The film distributors aren’t giving them a chance.

Anyway, back to the point.  This unfortunately isn’t very historically accurate, but it does get across the message of how brutal slave owners could be, the tragedy of families torn apart, and the bravery of those involved in the Underground Railroad – and just how much work and organisation went into it, at a time when communication systems were obviously nothing like they are now, and many of those involved hadn’t even had the chance to learn to read and write.

It’s quite an old-fashioned film, with an ’80s/’90s feel to it – glorious music, sweeping panoramas, elegant costumes for the slave owners and the free black characters, and a dramatic chase through the forest.  I know there was a bit of moaning that the lead role went to a British actress rather than an American actress, but Cynthia Erivo really does a superb job.  It must have been particularly difficult to portray Harriet’s belief that she was having religious visions – thought to have been linked to a severe head injury inflicted on her when she was young – but she does it very convincingly.

I’m surprised that this didn’t do better at the box office, but – very sadly for me! – American historical dramas just don’t seem to sell well these days.  I was sorry to see Mercy Street pulled after two series.   Oh well, I enjoyed it!  And it tells an important story.

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross, into slavery in Maryland, and married John Tubman, a freedman.  Dramas about slavery do tend to focus on the Deep South, where marriages between slaves and free people were very unusual, but they did happen in the Upper South.  And, with Maryland bordering the free state of Pennsylvania, it was easier (in relative terms) there for slaves to escape; and we see Minty escaping, being assisted by members of the Underground Railroad, and adopting her mother’s name, Harriet – the change of name, to reflect her new status, is a powerful moment.

We then see her returning to try to bring her husband and sister to slavery, only to find that her husband, thinking she was dead, had remarried, and her sister wouldn’t leave her children, but then leading many others to freedom, returning time and again to come so and becoming known as “Moses”.  She did indeed lead many people to freedom, thought to be around 70 people in 13 trips  – and she was actually even braver than the film suggests, because this was mostly after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act meant that escaped slaves, if recaptured, would be returned to slavery, whereas the film suggests that many of her missions were earlier.

The film over-dramatises it, giving Harriet a glamorous friend who runs a boarding house where she stays, and giving Harriet’s former owners, the Brodesses, a handsome son who seems to be rather obsessed with her.  It also shows the Brodesses’ neighbours all turning up at their plantation to confront them when they realise who “Moses” is, and Harriet tying up three of the Brodesses inside their plantation house as she helps some of their slaves to escape, and culminates in a dramatic chase through a forest and a showdown in which Harriet gets the better of the handsome son and prophesies the coming of the war and his death in it.   It’s a shame that it’s not historically accurate, because the showdown really is a great scene and Cynthia Erivo plays it so well, as she does another scene in which she reminds members of the Underground Railroad who were born free just how evil slavery is, and how they can’t possibly understand it in the way that she can.

It then shows Harriet fleeing to Canada, and briefly reminds that she led the Combahee River Raid during the war, in which she actually led a military expedition which rescued over 750 former slaves, but that’s all done briefly so as not to detract from the big showdown scene preceding it.

Not too many marks for historical accuracy, but the general storyline’s there – the horrors of slavery, and this brave and rather mystical woman who escapes from it and helps many others to do the same.  It’s not at all preachy or aggressive: it gets the message across through the excellent performance of Cynthia Erivo and the big dramatic, if not accurate, key scenes.  Certainly well worth watching.

 

On the Basis of Sex

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I’ve finally got round to watching this, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  It only covered a small part of her life and work – I’m waiting for the “RBG” biopic to become available on Amazon Prime for no extra charge – but what an inspiring story.  I hadn’t realised that, whilst she was at law school, her husband was being treated for cancer, she was attending his classes as well as her own, and they had a young child.   A lot of people would have struggled even to make it through, but she finished joint top of her class.  And, despite that, struggled to find a job at a law firm because people didn’t want to employ a woman, especially one with a child – but went on to argue successfully a number of gender discrimination cases, including the “Moritz v Commissioner” tax law case on which much of this film focuses.

She became only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, the first Supreme Court justice to officiate at a same sex marriage ceremony, and the first woman to lie in state at the Capitol … and I’m struggling to think of any other lawyer who became such an icon, even a cult figure.  It’s an incredible story.

It’s also a wonderful American Dream story.  The film didn’t go into her background, but this woman who achieved so much was the daughter of a garment factory worker whose parents couldn’t afford to send her to college and an immigrant who came to America to escape discrimination against Jews in Odessa.  It would be nice if people would remember that America offers those opportunities, and also that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was someone who tried to build consensus and work with, not against, those with different views, and certainly wasn’t aggressive or abusive towards people with whom she disagreed.

The film showed some of her time at law school, and then her work on the “Moritz v Commissioner” case, and bits about her family life, so it didn’t really do her justice because it wasn’t intended to: it wasn’t a full biopic.  But it was very entertaining and very interesting, with strong performances from all the main cast members.  Oh, and it was also quite romantic, with Felicity Jones as Ruth and Armie Hammer as her husband Marty working really well together.   It wasn’t the greatest film ever, but I’m certainly glad that I watched it.

 

Tolkien

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This film’s had poor reviews, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Dead Poets Society (well, sort of) in an English provincial city grammar/high school, with everyone drinking lots of tea. Sounds like heaven!   There are very few books or films set in the sort of school I went to.  Schools in industrial towns and cities tend to lack romantic mountain backgrounds, or seawater-fed swimming pools.  And pupils are expected to do quite a lot of, you know, work, and passing exams, that kind of thing, which authors tend not to go for – The History Boys being the notable exception.  But here’s a film set in a school with which I can actually identify – although, obviously, mine was a girls’ school, and I wasn’t there in Edwardian times!  Don’t get me wrong, I love boarding school books, but the idea of secret tea parties in the library (people in books very rarely even set foot in school libraries, and get made fun of if they do) at a school like mine, or discussion groups meeting up in nearby tea rooms … ah, bliss!

The school in this case was King Edward’s, Birmingham.  Shame it wasn’t a school in Manchester 🙂 , but, having been to university in Birmingham, I do know King Edward’s.  I don’t know JRR Tolkien’s books, though.  They’re just not my thing.  A teacher at primary school tried to get us all into The Hobbit, but it really didn’t hold any appeal for me.  So I think I probably missed a lot of the references in this film – I could see that they related to his books, but I didn’t quite get how.  And I think some people have got annoyed because they thought it was overplayed, that every incident in the film was shown as foreshadowing something in the books.  But, because I didn’t get them, I didn’t get annoyed by them!

Tolkien’s early life, the subject of this film, was fascinating.  He sadly lost his father at an early age, and he, his mother and brother moved to a small house, supported financially by relatives until they fell out over religion.  His mother then also died, and a priest arranged for him (his brother didn’t feature much) to attend King Edward’s, and for the two boys to live at a boarding house – where they met Edith Bratt, JRR Tolkien’s future wife.

Edith, also an orphan, was a few years older than Tolkien, but, as scriptwriters don’t like girlfriends to be older than boyfriends, in this they seemed the same age.  Edith, brilliantly played by Mimi Keene from EastEnders, spoke about how scholarships at schools and universities were arranged for middle-class boys who’d fallen on hard times, but, as a girl, she was stuck acting as a companion to a boring old woman.  It was a very interesting point.

At school, Tolkien palled up with three other boys, and they formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, meeting up in the school library and in the nearby Barrow’s Stores tearoom, talking about arty stuff – as opposed to the down to earth, job-related subjects on which they were meant to be concentrating.  There was a definite feeling of Dead Poets Society there – and this was a true story, 80 years before Dead Poets Society!

The film did actually start with the Great War, though, and jumped backwards and forwards, showing Tolkien at the front during the Battle of the Somme, then going back to his schooldays and, to a lesser extent, his university days at Oxford.  He was in the Lancashire Fusiliers, interestingly.  The university days and his experiences during the war weren’t done as well as his schooldays, unfortunately.  We just saw that he broke things off with Edith because he was pressurised into concentrating on his work and because the priest didn’t approve of her.  It was also suggested that he got into trouble and nearly had to leave due to losing his scholarship: I’m not sure how true that’s is, but I don’t see why they’d have made it up.  And we didn’t see much of his Army life apart from him sitting in a trench and, later, lying in a hospital bed.  The school stuff was definitely the attraction of this film.

Tolkien and Edith got back together, got married, had four children and lived happily ever after, but, sadly, two of his three schoolfriends were killed in the war.  The effect that that must have had on him didn’t come across brilliantly – the film didn’t quite seem to know what to do with itself after he left school.  It didn’t do particularly well at the box office, and the Tolkien Estate’s made it clear that it doesn’t endorse it.

But, for all that, I really liked it.  I don’t know that much about Tolkien, and, as I’ve said, I’m not into his books.  And, if there are historical inaccuracies about his life in this, then that’s not good.  But, as a film about a group of boys at a grammar school in an English provincial city, and as a romance between two people who’d both had difficult starts in life, which was what much of it was about, it worked very well, and I enjoyed it.