Film Review: The Sky in Bloom

The tropes of the British gangster flick are all here. The wise-cracking duo who stop their gags long enough to terrorise and kill. A dealer in people who also has a quirk (in this case, carpets). A beautiful woman who is ignorant of the truth. And all manner of brooding eastern European bad guys. With so much stereotypery, it’s just as well that The Sky in Bloom is rather good.

Not a masterpiece by any means. But it has the courage to stick to its amorality and not give any easy outs. Violence is inevitable but not glorified. A needless road rage is not an opportunity for quips and strength but, as it happens mostly off-screen, a chance for others to be bored and regretful. The plot ticks by nicely and the direction by Toor Mian is good with some neat angles and washed out cinematography.

Sean Knopp as Sean and Ross Mullan as Ducek, the two bantering and sometimes bickering ,enforcers carry most of the film; Bill Thomas as the dying trafficker Branick does all that is asked of him, fluctuating between whimsy and tenacity, the with cold fury always just about to erupt. Kelly Eastwood does good work as his daughter, the pretty, tempting and naive, Amy.

The Sky in Bloom came out a few years ago and doesn’t exactly seem to have set the world alight. It can be found now on Amazon Prime. It’s worth doing so.

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On the radio: Graeae’s Midwich Cuckoos

Graeae are a deaf and disabled led theatre company and, over two weeks on Radio 4 and working to a script from playwright Roy Williams, they presented their take on John Wyndham’s tale of children who are not what they seem.

Radio is a particularly good medium for telling stories of mind control. And so it proved here. The ways in which the cuckoos gently, softly, but firmly, took charge of their adult persecutors were well told, and the fear that generated in those around them was clear. There were some neat exchanges about communication, access and understanding as well. Whilst the cuckoos were never made out to be simply misunderstood their own fears were explored even whilst their actions made them less and less sympathetic.

The issues with the plot are similar to those faced by any Wyndham adaptation. The ideas are sound and compelling but often you’re left wondering quite how the world manages to carry on the way it does. A lot of the more damning behaviour (the Inuit killing ‘their’ babies for example) is covered in a sentence of conversation.

It was good to hear different voices on the radio. Radio drama gets a bad rep that it sometimes deserves for only telling the stories that the polite Home Counties want to hear and only then with the accents that keep them comfortable. Not so much this time round. The fact that we were hearing this particular story with these particular voices was a key part of the reason this was radio that mattered.

Film Review: The Incredible Jessica James

Blasting into and out of your life in the time it takes the first episode of your new box set to get to the end of its tortuous initial exposition, The Incredible Jessica James is a Netflix exclusive that, whilst not likely to make you sign up by itself, is a good addition to your watchlist.

Jessica Williams is Jessica James. A far too cool aspiring playwright who teaches kids in a Hell’s Kitchen project whilst also attempting to get over her break-up. Set up by a friend on a blind date she winds up having a sort of good time with Boone (Chris O’Dowd) and its their sort of relationship that is the central narrative of the film.

There’s quite a bit else as well. For 83 minutes you get a nice load of vibrator gags and some deft observations on breaking up and staying together in the social media age, as well some touching interplay, some between the romantic leads and some involving the children at the project. The script and direction via James C Strouse fall just the right side of both hipster and cheesy.

It’s all bright, it’s mostly breezy and if it doesn’t warm your cockles at all then I’ll assume you’re dead inside.

At Towner: A Green and Pleasant Land

Keith Arnatt – from “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” (1982)

We parked on the windswept, out of season, seafront. The only car doing so as the rain started up again. A grey sky and the only visible people walking as if concealing weapons as they held their coats firmly. England. The kind of England, and Wales and Scotland, that is A Green and Pleasant Land.

Photographs, most from within the last thirty-five years, in this show reveal people who can have an uneasy, sometimes contradictory, relationship with their landscape. Often this landscape is urban. Some of the most eye-opening images come from Newport and other places in south Wales. Sometimes it’s just streets, sometimes the mud around the transporter bridge, sometimes the way the only thing standing out is a cigarette advert.

There is a lot here that falls within the British documentary tradition. From John Davies and his towering views to the more enigmatic work of Raymond Moore. Two striking colour works by Melanie Friend – both from an Eastbourne beach, one with Red Arrows in the distance, the other a Lancaster bomber – combine this with some of the more arch observation you might expect from Martin Parr (here represented by earlier monochrome works). Simon Roberts is here too. One drives past Eastbourne pier to see it looking better in the gallery than it looks outside in the flesh.

Whilst there is nothing earth shattering about this exhibition it is very well done and the examples chosen are revealing and informative. The temptation to try and include every school and age of photography has thankfully been resisted. What is here is compelling and high quality.

Film Review: Pitch Perfect 3

The Bellas are back. They’re not singing any more and are instead pursuing suitably terrible and uninspiring jobs. But, heh, there’s one last chance for them to get the band back together and reach that star. Or something. Pitch Perfect 3 has a plot so flimsy it disappears on any kind of inspection. It also has John Lithgow putting on an Australian so appalling the nation should sue. It shouldn’t work. To a lot of people it probably doesn’t. I smiled most of the way through.

It’s usual by the second sequel to have jettisoned anything superfluous to the core selling appeal of the original. Thus, there is a competition but it’s so vague – an opening spot with DJ Khaled – as to be meaningless. There are rivals but they barely do more than grimace at the start and resignedly smile at the end. There are a few romantic digressions but they exist primarily to shove in a few jokes. Your emotions are unlikely to be too sorely tested. And how much you laugh at the jokes may very well depend on how much patience you have Rebel Wilson.

So why was I smiling? I’m a sucker for a fun and joyous a capella riff off and assorted music mash ups. And Pitch Perfect 3 delivers. There’s nothing as screen poppingly fun as the finale from the original but then no one should expect there to be. Go in with expectations that you’ve seen all this before, drop the cynicism and enjoy the show. Pitch Perfect 3 is basically a jukebox musical or an old-style Hollywood song and dance flick. And it’s a good one. Sure, there are flaws and desperately unsubtle product placement but it’s also knowing, smart, good to look at, fun, tolerant and tuneful. There really are worse things to be.

 

At the match: Rugby Town v Highgate United

Another melee in the box – Copyright (C) Jon Smalldon 2017, All rights reserved.

“Have you seen what they’re wearing?” So asked Les, longtime Valley sufferer and regular conversor with my dad when their paths cross at Butlin Road. He was talking about the visitors. Highgate United were all in pink. And not just the kind of soft red one might be able to call scarlet, or salmon, or any other masculine escape clause. This was pink and people were talking. It says everything you need to know about this game that by the end of it the colour of anyone’s kit was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Rugby were two nil up inside the opening ten minutes. Two strikers’ pounces from David Kolodynski causing delight amongst the majority of the 220 looking on but fury amongst the Highgate players who, throughout, remained each others’ biggest critics. Highgate are a big, strong team and they play as a unit. For most of the match, they looked the side most likely to score. They even got a first half penalty which Gary Roberts sent high and wide.

Most of the madness came in the second half. The game was repeatedly stopped to allow for the referee to baffle all around him. I don’t normally agree with criticising officials as, after all, a high proportion of football fans don’t even properly know the rules of their very straightforward game. And yet. The one today (I think it was Adam Clenaghan) was baffling. A tussle that could have been settled by telling the players to stop messing about resulted in a long discussion with the assistant followed by a red and a yellow. Rugby down to ten men. Later we had the Highgate bench receiving cards for abusing the other official. Again, following a detailed analysis. Further digressions followed to stop play to lecture players about time-wasting, dissent and, quite possibly, how time appears to grind to a halt on December afternoons when a football match gets interrupted by an official who has effectively lost control.

Thankfully, from a neutral perspective, the final real drama came from the game itself. Two late-ish goals from Highgate – Scott Turner’s shot on 74 minutes rapidly followed up by Marco Adaggio’s close in header – levelled things. We then had a dozen or so minutes of relentless pressure as Highgate pushed for a winner. They came close but so did Rugby. Honours even was, possibly, fair but a boxing panel would have put the visitors ahead on points.

This was my first visit to the Midland Football League. Butlin Road was a venue for higher levels of the game ‘back in the day’ when I was an occasional visitor. I doubt there can have been many games here from any league which were quite this much fun. Even if fans from both sides were likely tearing their hair out in frustrated angst by the end. This is what it’s all about. Even if one of the teams is dressed all in pink.

I brought my camera. Some photos are here.

2017 was a year that had some sport in it …

2017 was a year, wasn’t it? Every one of its three hundred and sixty five days definitely added up to a year. And on some of those days there was sport. And some of that sport was significantly more interesting than some of the other sport. Let me tell you about some of the bits I found more interesting.

I’d never seen England in a World Cup final and my younger son had never been to Lord’s. Killing a maximum number of birds with a minimum of stones we went to the ICC Women’s World Cup final. England had got there as the script demanded but they did not look anything like invincible; India were there when everyone had expected the opponents to be Australia. A full house witnessed a full on contest. In the end, the debate was whether India had thrown it away or England belatedly proved worthy champions. Anya Shrubsole’s wickets were the difference and by the end I didn’t have much of a voice left. I do want it noted that long after the sensible adults were preparing themselves for defeat my boy still believed his girls could do it. He had faith and he was right.

But even that wasn’t the best moment in women’s sport in 2017. UConn basketball hadn’t lost since the Declaration of Independence. Mississippi State weren’t going to beat them. But then … this happened and everything went crazy. I haven’t enjoyed an audience explosion like that since Aguero won the title for Manchester City.

The Women’s Handball World Championship never really fired this year with too many of the less-fancied nations living down their billing and the decline of Brazil, champions in 2013, continuing. But we did get a great final – one which twisted and turned before France emerged victorious, beating out Norway (whose title tally remains alarmingly small with 3) 23-21. Apparently if you cut out the fastbreaks and muscle up in defence then Norway can be beaten. France are also men’s world champions too. They beat Norway in their final. Sometimes mirrors don’t invert things.

Because, let’s not forget, men also play sport. Houston and Los Angeles played out a brutal World Series that deserved a game 7 but then didn’t quite get the game 7 it deserved. I’m very biased but the Cubs taking their glory in Cleveland in extras remains the most compelling title decider even if, overall, this series was clearly a better watch for the neutrals. Still, we did get to see an imploding Yu Darvish and lots of other fun things. The Cubs had a decent season that felt like a letdown after the dreamland of 2016. There are worse things.

Yorkshire didn’t win any titles which means I need to go back and look over the cricket scores. England achieved moderate levels of success in the summer before the sadly foreseeable Ashes debacle but I spent far too much time getting worked up about how the ECB seems to regard domestic cricket as an irritant rather than an asset. My 2018 resolution is thus to watch Sussex more.

I’m always fearful when international rugby league rolls around. I want it to succeed and am aware of how fragile the foundations on which it stands are. It’s like a precious piece of art that you know could be destroyed if its exposed to the light too often. Anyway, Australia won the World Cup in both genders because, well, that was always going to happen. But Tonga and Fiji beat New Zealand, and then Tonga gave England the fright of their lives, before England put in a performance to be proud of in the final. Couple that with the fire that burns for the game in PNG and you have a moderate level of success. It might have been a perfect year if Castleford had won the title having been so inspiring in the regular season but, sadly, they almost blew it in their home semi final before definitively running out of steam in the Grand Final. Leeds always find a way.

Ticking things off: I finally saw football at the new Wembley having only been there for rugby league before. Harry Kane scored a goal, so far so normal, but West Brom took a point off Spurs, which didn’t feel like it was part of the plan. I also made it to the World Athletics Championships. A good time was had by all. A man called Usain Bolt bowed in my vicinity in acknowledgement of the ending of an era and Britain won some medals. Who knows, with the way bans are handed out now they may even have won a few we don’t yet know about.

And I think that’s about it for me. I took my camera to some games, and went to a few without it. I now know the car park in Kidlington isn’t as big as they claim and that the officials in British American Football announce their decisions like they do in the NFL (you just can’t hear them). Also that the tea bar at Bexhill will put pepper in your Bovril meaning there is hope for civilisation yet. And there remains the greatest pleasure to be had in idly firing up the TV and finding there’s a game between a team in blue and a team in red and suddenly finding that you give a  monkey’s about which one of them will emerge triumphant.

That, then, was my year in sport. 2017. There you go.

 

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