Friday, 26 February 2010

On Expenses

Half an hour into “On Expenses”, Heather Brooke, the American journalist living in Britain who exposed the scandal, asks herself “Why do I live here?!”. I’d been wondering that myself for the previous twenty nine minutes.
So infuriated is she with the British culture of privacy, so disillusioned with the blinkered, Orwellian manner in which we poor Brits have to live, it was a marvel she didn’t just jump on the first plane back to the Land Of The Free. But no, she wanted a Pulitzer.
As the Freedom of Information Act is made law, Brooke publishes a book on the kind of information that is now publicly available. To prove her point, she tries to gain access to the more detailed accounts of MP’s expenses. Time and again, she is refused her request on the grounds of privacy.
Her main obstacle is the then Speaker Michael Martin. Here he is shown as trying to do what he feels is his job, protecting the House’s integrity, although the fact they enjoy their cushty lifestyles maybe had an impact on his decisions. “On Expenses” takes us through from his election as Speaker by his fellow MPs, to his resignation against a wall of disgust from the same people who chose him, as their dirty laundry is hung out to dry.
Anna Maxwell Martin portrayed Brooke as a pushy, determined, no nonsense type. She did it so well I found myself rooting for the MPs. Frankly, from the opening moments in which she is seen dancing to “Fame” in front of a mirrored wall, I could tell we weren’t going to get along.
It was only when Neil Pearson as her barrister Hugh Tomlinson held the Commons Administration to account that her argument held any sway, but even that scene only lasted two minutes.
The whole programme plays like a comedy, almost an extended episode of “Yes, Minister”. Everything from the absurd claims, to the pathetic attempts by the Administration to justify their stance, to every prophetic word uttered by Martin proving to be completely wrong made me laugh. I had a smile on my face all the time watching it, although it turned into a grimace whenever Brooke opened her mouth.
Brian Cox made for a marvellous Michael Martin. Perhaps they went a bit over the top when he is first shown playing the bagpipes with a Celtic scarf laid neatly on the chair behind him. He’s Scottish, then? The thick Glaswegian accent was also a clue.
Director Simon Cellan Jones manages to get some beautiful and different shots of the Palace of Westminster. The best being a close-up of Martin’s office window as he plays his bagpipes at night, the lights on the outside of the building throwing the detail of the architecture into stunning contrast.
Shame this programme was relegated to BBC4. It could have had an airing at least on BBC2, for those without digital television. Certainly it made for a diverting, if not baffling hour’s entertainment.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Lovely Bones

Great. Now I have to read “The Lovely Bones”. Not to compare it to the movie, but to get some answers as to what happened in the movie and why.
On her way home from an after-school film club, Susie Salmon is lured into an underground hideout by George Harvey, and somewhere between there and Harvey’s house, she is murdered by him. Susie is trapped in a middle place between earth and heaven, where she meets other young girls who were victims of Harvey.
One of the girls, who calls herself Holly Golightly, tries to persuade Susie to move forward, but Susie stays where she is, where she watches her family deal with their loss. To be honest, they don’t do it very well, or as a family.
Her father opens his own investigation, suspecting everyone in the neighbourhood except the guilty party. His obsession drives his wife to move to Brazil, leaving her now unstable husband to look after Susie’s younger sister and even younger brother.
Susie see-saws between a delayed reaction of vengeance against Harvey, and having a blast in the inbetween with Holly where only their imaginations limit what they can do.
The movie starts well enough, gets confused in the middle, and the ending left me completely unsatisfied, posing more questions than answers. Coming from the same directing and writing team as the glorious “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, this just seems empty and bland in comparison.
As so often happened with “The Lord of the Rings movies”, when a scene stayed on a group of characters in one place, then moved to another group in another place entirely, you almost had to remind yourself that yes, those characters are still in. Oh yes, I forgot about Susie. Yet here it was not because the previous scene had been so emotionally stirring and the characters so involving.
A general problem with the characters is that no one talks to each other. I’ve seen people give up information quicker in “24”.
Saoirse Ronan as Susie is the best thing about the movie, but she is left to run around in what is nothing more than an overly-prettified CGI purgatory. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as Susie’s parents do what they can with the lacklustre script that barely seems to scratch the surface of the trauma of losing a child. Susan Sarandon as the grandmother hardly acknowledged Susie’s absence. Stanley Tucci’s Harvey was genuinely creepy, but that is all.
The one thing I am sure of after watching “The Lovely Bones”, is that “The Hobbit” can’t come quick enough.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

"A View from the Foothills" by Chris Mullin

Of all the recently published political diaries, it may seem odd that the first yours truly chose to read were those of Chris Mullin. That is, until you discover that he is my local MP in Sunderland South, and has had various roles within government relating to rather memorable government policy.
“A View from the Foothills” covers the period between 1999 and 2005. From Mullin’s personally perceived demotion to the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, all the way through to Blair announcing the handover of power.
Mullin’s career during this time saw him move from the DETR to the Department for International Development, back to the Home Affairs Select Committee along with David Cameron, and finally to the Foreign Office.
As well as covering issues within national and international government, Mullin also talks about happenings in Sunderland. It felt strange to be reminded that Debenhams has been open nearly eleven years, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the only notable difference in the issue of dumping sewage into the River Thames and the River Wear: that in London they treated the sewage first.
He speaks of the city of Sunderland and its people with a warm, at times resigned affection, and is full of hope and optimism for the future of its development. There are many colourful and varied characters that inhabit his world, in Sunderland as well as Westminster, including one constituent who thought he had solved the problem of global warming with the help of a pigeon. A dead pigeon. That he thoughtfully brought along to the surgery with him.
What really struck me was the sense of powerlessness to help those who come to his surgeries. He notes that his best successes have been helping people get out of Sunderland; good people are forced to leave while the hooligans continue to terrorise and their landlords do nothing.
One particularly heart-rending case was that of a couple and their young facing deportation back to Ukraine via Spain. The small family had integrated themselves into the local church community, the little boy was flourishing at school; yet they were taken early in the morning and sent packing to London. When they finally got to Spain, despite the paperwork, letters and money forwarded to the Spanish authorities by Mullin, no one was expecting them.
After their disappearance was discovered by an Immigration officer, a family friend later found a letter written by the little boy, bequeathing his possessions to the pastor’s children. It read like a will.
All this just makes one wonder why it is impossible to help the steadfast citizens. Were I to run for Parliament tomorrow, I would base my policies on the experiences of people in this book. Why is this happening? How can it be stopped?
Yet amid all this, there are plenty amusing scenes that would be dismissed as too far-fetched even for "Yes, Minister", like hiding from the Queen Mother, Tony Benn nearly setting fire to the Mullin house, a mix-up of foreign ambassadors, a bumbled photo opportunity with Nelson Mandela, and the MP for Sunderland North leaving his bag in the toilet of a train the day after the Madrid train bombings. At one stage I was asked if I was reading a comedy book. I replied that I was reading my local MP’s political diaries, and 9/11 had just happened.
In the aftermath, although Blair tried to restrain Bush as Parliament focused on what could lie ahead for Afghanistan, it seemed inevitable that Britain would get drawn in with the Americans. Reports and opinions of Bush’s character were as contradictory, derisive and divisive as they come. These discussions and mentions of Bush almost put me in mind of Maris in "Frasier" in which all the foibles, fads and whims of the character are talked about, but the person is never actually seen…that is, until the 20th November 2003.
Even though I knew that the war would be declared on the 19th March 2003 (my birthday), the days leading up to the vote were incredibly tense. One cannot imagine what it must have been like within the corridors of Westminster, being harangued by government whips to vote with the Party policy.
Mullin’s decision to vote against the war was clearly one that caused him great anguish. Unwilling to vote for it unless there was a second UN resolution, which never came, unwilling to show disloyalty to Blair, yet unwilling to go against his principles and promises.
It is evident that Mullin has huge respect for Blair, and he shows us why. Blair is ever the professional, always ready to partake in meetings and give his attention to matters even after whistle stop trips to Washington or other long-haul destinations. I didn’t know whether to admire him or loathe him when he convinced Jean Corston to toe the Party line on the Iraq war in the final hours before the vote. She too had been privately agonising over what to do, but was more inclined to vote against.
Brown on the other hand, is another matter entirely. Mullin notes that all of Labour’s unwelcome or failed policies can be traced back to the then Chancellor. He comes across as a rather sinister, scheming, paranoid character; and relations between him and Blair grew so bad that there was even talk that it might have been better had Brown ran in 1994 and lost.
Even the blustering John Prescott is given a better reputation by Mullin. True, he could put his foot in his mouth and the department ran more smoothly in his absence, but he is portrayed as human with an “e” on the end.
As for Mullin, he is as I think of him: principled, honest, modest, much more focused on making a difference than power or luxuries. He even refuses the basic staple of a Ministerial car, preferring to take the bus. His integrity will be sorely missed when he stands down at the coming election.
He has hinted at publishing the diaries he kept either side of 1999 and 2005. I await them eagerly.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ponyo

“Ponyo” is the latest Japanese animation from the reliable combination of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.
Loosely based on The Little Mermaid, a five year old boy named Sosuke rescues a small fish when it becomes trapped inside a glass jar in the waters beside his home. Only this fish has the face of a girl. When Sosuke cuts himself on the jar, the fish licks his blood and heals his wound.
Sosuke takes the fish home and names her Ponyo, but she is quickly recaptured by her father, the wizard Fujimoto, who lives under the sea and tries to keep the balance of nature. All rather difficult when your daughter is as powerful as Ponyo.
Despite his warnings that there will be a great tsunami should she return to land, Ponyo grows herself arms and legs, and all her tiny siblings help her escape. Ponyo’s arrival brings about a spectacular storm, and she goes in search of Sosuke, running on tempestuous waves made out of her fishy family. She sees Sosuke riding in his mother’s car on their way home from the senior citizen’s centre where his mother works, and follows them, making their journey along the winding coastal road even more treacherous.
Ponyo finally catches them up as they arrive home, and although it takes a moment for Sosuke to recognise her, she is readily welcomed by his mother, Lisa. As the storm still rages outside, Lisa worries for her elderly patients. However when the storm calms after Ponyo falls asleep, she decides to go back to them, leaving her incredibly mature and responsible son in charge.
Meanwhile, out at sea, the boat on which Sosuke’s father Koichi is based, comes across a terrifying sight in the aftermath of the storm. An unexplained horizon of pretty lights against an unrecognisable mountain range turn out to be all the ships that were on the water, and are now without power; and behind them, a wall of water, pulled up into the air by the gravity of an unnaturally close moon. The boats are rescued by the goddess of the water, who also happens to be Ponyo’s mother.
The next morning, when Lisa still has not arrived home, Sosuke and Ponyo set out to look for her. Ponyo uses her magic to make a toy boat big enough for them to ride in, although it soon becomes clear that her magic is wearying her.
Ponyo’s mother and father meet and discuss what to do with their daughter. They agree to set Susoke a test to decide her fate.
Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of Miyazaki’s work is that no characters are black or white. No one is a one-dimensional baddie. Fujimoto is no pantomime villain.
Although after providing the voice of Ponyo’s mother, I have to wonder how many more roles as an ethereal, mythical being Cate Blanchett will accumulate in her career. I feel that she and Matt Damon as Koichi were rather underused.
Tina Fey made a lovely mother as Lisa, one who would be furious at her husband for not coming home from work one second, rolling around with her son the next, and cooking for a strange, yet pretty little girl who had just emerged from the sea the next.
Sosuke and Ponyo made for an adorable couple. Their friendship and love as pure and innocent as they come.
Once again, the Holy Trinity of Ghibli, Miyazaki, and composer Joe Hisaishi have produced a warm, charming story where mythology and fantasy is mixed with reality. It will keep the kids quiet for more than five minutes during the half term.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Whisper of the Heart

If ever there was a movie character that I could identify with, I have only just met her. In “Whisper of the Heart”, Shizuku Tsukishima is a teenage girl with no grand ambitions. Rather than studying for her exams, she is always reading books or writing lyrics, just “goofing around”.
She lives in a tiny, cramped apartment with her parents and older sister in Tokyo, where she is tired of her mundane existence and all the concrete that surrounds her.
On one of her many trips to the library where her father works, she discovers that all the books she is reading have previously been loaned to the same boy: Seiji Amasawa. Shizuku imagines him to be a sensitive, thoughtful person, so she is horrified to discover that he is in fact a boy she had met before and thought him to be a “jerk”.
One day, on her way to take her father his lunch at the library, she follows a mysterious cat who sits beside her on the train. He leads her to a posh neighbourhood, where she follows him into an antique shop. Inside, she is fixated by a beautiful statue of a cat, standing upright and dressed in top hat and tails. The elderly owner of the shop tells her that the statue is known as The Baron, and that there is a story in The Baron’s past.
She realises she is late, and has to leave with a promise to return. En route to the library, she runs into Seiji, and still thinks he is a jerk. However, she meets him again at the antique shop, where his grandfather is the owner. There she realizes that he is a sensitive, thoughtful person. Seiji’s ambition is to become a master violin maker, but he will have to go to Italy to learn his trade.
Shizuku gradually comes to accept that she loves him, but she feels inadequate because she does not know what to do with her life. Her once good school grades have begun to slide, she no longer takes the same pleasure from reading that she once did. She misses her old self and wants to prove to herself that she is good enough for Seiji, who is going to Italy for a two month trial at a relative’s violin shop.
Always encouraged by her friends about her writing, she decided to write a story, and asks Seiji’s grandfather if she can write about The Baron. He agrees, as long as she lets him read the story first. Shizuku works hard on her story, so hard that her schoolwork suffers even more. She wants to leave school after junior high and concentrate on achieving her new ambition of becoming a writer.
Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, and with a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, “Whisper of the Heart” is a charming, touching love story that shows that inspiration does not have to be close to be effective, that it can come from unexpected places. Seiji even shows Shizuku that the concrete skyscrapers of Tokyo can be beautiful.
As we have come to expect from Studio Ghibli, the animation, backgrounds, and attention to detail are stunning. Yuji Nomi’s soundtrack is the final exquisite layer to this inspiring movie.
I myself have someone who inspires me, who I admire for being so brave and determined to go to a foreign country to learn his trade at a young age. As someone who has never had ambitious plans for life, I can only respect and look up to someone who has. He doesn’t even know I exist, but he doesn’t have to.
Lately I have made half-hearted attempts to do what I want in life, but “Whisper of the Heart” has made me physically ache for my own small ambitions to come true. I am genuinely shocked at how much this gentle story has shaken me. Yet it did so because it held up a mirror.
Like Shizuku, I can write, and like her, I have to try hard to find the little gems inside me, and polish them until they shine.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Seeker in Forever by Alan Fox

What do you get when you combine the political oppression of Orwell with the escapist fantasy of Tolkien? You get Alan Fox’s “The Seeker in Forever”. Set in a dreamscape America, it tells the story of Miles Roark, a sidewinder, an outsider, trying to halt the rise of Cinjun Khan Smythe, who is on the brink of becoming the most powerful man in America.
Yet it is also a story about love, and the relationship between Miles and fellow outsider Daphne Fox is subtle yet strong. Due to this added dynamic, at times the characters play like love songs, and when they do, Fox’s writing takes the reader to a place that is otherworldly, ethereal.
Rather than being an ‘us versus them’ theme, “The Seeker in Forever” is ‘insider versus outsider’, and so will still be relevant and identifiable no matter what decade, century or country we are living in. Many of the acts in the story can in some way, however subliminally and tenuously, be linked to political events throughout history.
There is a fascinating scene in which Miles stands outside Cinjun’s office building, calmly talking to the passers-by about love, truth and freedom, something they will be denied by Cinjun. It is a ‘Sermon on the Mount’ without being preachy. Instead of having Miles arrested, or even acknowledging him, Cinjun simply ignores him.
This scene is a wonderful example of the two men’s characters. Cinjun the overconfident, untouchable politician; and Miles the charismatic, determined and persistent leader. It shows how secure Cinjun feels in his position that he does not have Miles arrested, that he does not see him as a threat; yet at the same time it seems contrary to the ethos of Cinjun’s policies.
Their final confrontation takes place inside a huge public arena, the Pleasuredome. Although far from being your average political debate, in some way it seemed to echo reality when Tony Blair took to the chair during the Iraq war enquiry, only without the epic majesty of the Pleasuredome battle.
“The Seeker in Forever” is a turbulent whirlwind of passion that takes the reader on a rollercoaster without a safety harness. Fox’s unique, beautiful and unforgettable manner of storytelling means that the reader will need to be prepared for their mind to bend quite erratically if they are to fully comprehend and take pleasure in the experience.