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A Long Way Down – Review

This bittersweet story of four suicidal outcasts in London has been adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel for the screen.

It’s New Year’s Eve and, at the top of the most popular suicide spot in London, disgraced TV star Martin (Pierce Brosnan) is contemplating making the jump before being interrupted by three other would-be victims. They’re promptly put off the act upon learning that they’re not a lone and, perhaps out of desperation, agree to spend the next six weeks helping each other live.

The four misfits – media disgrace Martin, lonely single Mum Maureen (Toni Colette), failed musician JJ (Aaron Paul) and confused daddy’s girl Jess (Imogen Poots) – form a somewhat dysfunctional family, trying to turn the press attention into a life affirming story and, failing, escaping to Tenerife on holiday. Ultimately their mistakes, insecurity and past creep up on them, and the four unlikely friends’ loyalty is tested.

With a superbly mis-matched cast and great locations, A Long Way Down hits most of the right notes. One of the key challenges of book adaptations is pacing: as a result plot developments come thick and fast. Voiceover monologues are sometimes too sentimental for characters we’re not yet under the skin of, but it’s a sweet story that will leave you smiling.

Verdict: try the book if you want to be moved!

***

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Subject to Terms

How your caveats look to a consumer – and how to reduce them

This morning, I received an email from my mobile phone provider, promoting a new service that allows your data allowance to be shared across several devices.

The key message was simplicity: one plan, one bill. The email wasn’t very long, and had several calls to action – a button to find out more and a button to log in to your account. Overall, a great example of customer communications.

But then came the caveats.

Twice as long as the email itself, the terms and conditions laid out all terminology, criteria and limitations of the plan. In doing this, the key message of the promotion – simplicity - was contradicted. Of course, many services are subject to lengthy terms and conditions, but are made available when we’re further along in the customer journey, for example if we have clicked through to a dedicated webpage, or enquired through customer services.

But if you really must detail your terms outright, here’s a few ideas to minimise them:

> ‘Subject to terms and conditions of service: click here to find out more’ Or something to that effect.
> Use your measurement tools to find out who opened and/or clicked through the email. If they did, send a follow up email with more information about the product, and either detail or link to the Ts&Cs.

How do you handle your caveats?

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Great Expectations- Theatre Review

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Great Expectations- Theatre Review

***

Date: 27th September 2013

Venue: Bristol Old Vic

Director: Neil Bartlett

Starring: Tom Canton, Tim Potter, Adjoa Andoh, Laura Rees, Timothy Walker

Stylised, resourceful but at times hammy, this loyal adaptation of a Dickens classic just about meets expectations

Sometimes the most minimalist of settings can house drama of the most epic proportions, with a band of multi-tasking actors doubling as stage hands to ferry about the various props and furniture. This is the case with Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Great Expectations, in which everyone does their bit- with an almost amateur effect.

Tom Canton is Pip, a once- gentleman telling his story of rags to riches, and back again (almost). Orphaned and living with his abusive, abrasive sister (Lindsay Dukes) and her long-suffering husband Joe Gargery (Tim Potter). In this opening act we learn of Pip’s childhood, affected by his dysfunctional family and a chance encounter in the marshes with an escaped convict, Magwitch (played with convincing hunger by Timothy Walker). The production stays true to the original form, with Pip sneaking in for the brandy, the pork pie and of course, the metal file. Magwitch consumes the pie with a visceral hunger that effectively demonstrates his desperation.

It’s here that we begin to get a sense of the stylised, chop and change nature of the production: the cast pick up and move furniture for various uses, which simultaneously encourages us to suspend disbelief but harks back to Brechtian- style drama at school, where a black wooden box can represent just about anything. The table is used as dining room furniture, a blacksmith’s workbench, and to wheel Magwitch off into the mists of the upstage/offstage area.

Curiously, the cast make use of two microphones placed downstage at random intervals throughout the play- perhaps to emphasise dramatic dialogue. Occasionally this is used MC style, to narrate a passing of time or new scene. The mics aren’t necessary, and this becomes clear as actors with perfect projection are forced to step away from the action of the scene to say a few dramatic words into it.

When Pip receives his mysterious invitation to Satis House, an air of anticipation seems to sweep the auditorium: his fortune is about to change on meeting the famous Havisham character. Miss Havisham, played by Adjoa Andoh, is as vulnerable and powerful as always, portrayed with just enough venom to truly believe in her suffering.

Overall, for an opening night performance there are a few ‘off’ moments as well as the usual raw energy and adrenaline. It’s a whirlwind ride as the actors chop and change the scenery, drifting from scene to scene tirelessly. It’s engaging despite the amateurish effects, and nice to see this classic piece of literature revived for the stage.

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Monuments Men – Review

An all star ensemble lead us through their art-heist adventures during the last year of WW2- but it might leave you cold

Directed and co-written by George Clooney, this true-life wartime drama tells the story of the ‘Monuments Men’, a real team of artists, curators and educators assembled by the US army in 1944 to attempt to protect and return Europe’s cultural collateral as it is stolen by the Nazis for Hitler’s dream gallery. Frank Stokes (Clooney) recruits a team from the States, Britain and Europe and we are given the briefest glimpse of their training before they’re split up and sent on individual reconnaissance missions.

Perhaps it was the sheer pressure of fitting the story into 1h50 that resulted in a lack of real set up, as we aren’t given much time to get to know the characters and their dynamic as a team before they’re separated. As a result, there’s little scope for emotion as the British member Donald (Hugh Bonneville as ‘Lord Grantham Goes to War at Last’) dies during the first act, followed by the Frenchman (Jean Dujardin) in the second. In fact, they seem rather convenient, leaving the Americans to save the day.

The key to finding the art, but not saving the day, is Parisian Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who, whilst working for the Nazis undercover for the Resistance, recorded the name and location of every piece that passed through the office in Paris. Damon is tasked with convincing her to trust and help them, resulting in a near-romance that only serves to undermine Blanchett’s smart character.

Whilst not as confused as other critics have branded the film, it’s difficult to gauge the tone – is this Oceans WW2 or Saving Private Ryan? Marketed as a crime caper, you’d be forgiven for expecting a slick, funny heist film- with caricatured Nazis and Brad Pitt munching on a baguette. There are a number of scenes that raise a smile – Bill Murray and Bob Balaban share a cigarette with a stranded Nazi, and a running gag about Damon’s terrible French- but there was so much scope for wit. Equally, there are some moments of pathos- the men find a barrel of gold “from teeth”, and the death of the two men remind the team what they’re fighting for. Combined with the almost-humour, Monuments Men struggles to settle on a tone.

There are some great ensemble performances here, as the men use each other’s expertise to find and return several million pieces of art. The set pieces, particularly the French camp and German mines are superb and there are a few very effective moments of suspense. Whilst the real Monuments Men were a much bigger outfit, this close up study of the biggest art collection in history shows how much art means to our culture and history, and what people were willing to sacrifice for it.

***

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Do social networking sites have a moral obligation to ban dangerous craze NekNominate?

As the internet craze spreads, risking more young lives, should Facebook ban the videos, or is this a threat to freedom of expression?

It gathered fame as a (comparatively) tame game in Australia, in which the participant downed a pint of beer quickly and creatively, uploaded the footage and ‘nominated’ two friends to do the same. I imagine it looked a little like this:

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As the game spread, participants escalated the circumstances in which their drink was downed, and mixed potentially dangerous ingredients into it, resulting in a far different game with risk attached.

Of course, the level of risk participants place themselves at depends on their choice of concoction. Tragically, several deaths in the UK and Ireland have been linked to the game, proving that while the craze might not be around for long (remember the Harlem Shake?), it isn’t without consequences.

So, does Facebook – the website to which most NekNomimate videos are uploaded – have an obligation to ban, block and remove them? The split second answer is yes, of course, if it minimises the spread in some way. But there are other factors to consider.

  • Would making the game a ‘banned’ activity increase its longevity and exclusivity by sending it ‘underground’?
  • Does closely moderating private content compromise our privacy and rights?
  • Would blocking the videos  punish those who are playing safely, or is it best to nip it in the bud?

It’s been noted in the press that Facebook is reluctant to ban the drinking game videos, instead encouraging users to ‘report’ or personally block individual videos from their feed. This is a sensible option for those who don’t want to participate, but for those who are ‘nominated’, it’s a choice between giving  in to peer pressure or standing up to a friend – or even having to report them. Social networking sites have a responsibility to find a balance between respecting users’ privacy and reducing potentially harmless content. It’s similar to the paranoia that if you start Googling ‘how to get away with mass murder’,  the police will come a-knocking.

Whilst fewer and fewer videos of the game are appearing on my Facebook feed, the memories of those who have lost their lives will outlive the craze, and it’s about time social networking sites took some responsibility for taking measures before it’s too late. What do you think? Does Facebook have the power or the obligation?Have you ever participated or would you block a NekNomination?

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Saving Mr Banks – Review (2013)

There’s more than a spoonful of sugar  - and  a dollop of sobering medicine – in this part biopic, part behind-the-scenes look at Walt Disney’s battle to bring the eponymous Poppins to the silver screen…

Pamela Travers (“Mrs Travers, please”), played by Emma Thompson, is in trouble. Her books have stopped selling, she’s had to let go of her assistant, and a certain Mr Disney has tried, for the millionth time, to buy the rights to turn her beloved Mary Poppins into a frivolous animated movie. But, as her agent informs her, it’s  Disney or bust – so off Mrs Travers goes from her cherry tree lined street in London to Burbank, California, to meet Mr Disney (“Call me Walt”), played by Tom Hanks, and the writing team to negotiate a deal.

What could easily have descended into a fish-out-of-water comedy as Travers does battle in script meetings, becomes a unique insight into her early life in Australia as Helen Lyndon Goff. For those who weren’t aware of the background of Poppins’ creator, you may be surprised to find that Travers grew up in a small Australian town, the apple of her alcoholic banker father Travers Goff’s eye. Goff, a loving dreamer portrayed with care by Colin Farrell, wants the best for his daughters but is ultimately the victim of his own hard work and excesses, leaving Helen (who later adopts Travers as a nom de plume) under the watchful eye of Aunt Ellie Goff – who appears to be an inspiration for Poppins herself, among various other clues to the story’s inspiration.

Travers’ story is revealed gradually through flashbacks between  present-day Los Angeles scenes, providing poignant undertones and reminding us what the story is really about- the atonement of Mr Banks. Thompson plays her with just the right amount of sharpness, grief and, ultimately, warmth, as she is gradually won over by stubborn  negotiation and a hearty dose of the Sherman brothers’ magical songs. It’s both hilarious and nerve-wracking as she haughtily dismisses certain made-up words and animated animals that is would be difficult to imagine the film without. At times, it’s hard to believe the writer could have been so stubborn  - however, as a real recording of their meeting plays over the end credits, it’s clear just how accurate Thompson’s portrayal is.

Fantastic supporting performances add the right amount of schmaltz to the story, including Paul Giamatti as long-suffering chauffeur Ralph, Jason Schwartzman  and BJ Novak as the genius Sherman brothers, and Bradley Whitford as the man behind the screenplay, Don DeGradi. All find themselves at the end of Thompson’s sharp tongue, and give subtle performances that showcase the loyalty of team Disney.

Hanks gives us a firm, if a little rose-tinted portrayal of the movie mogul Walt, who is aware of his power and yet allows Travers to demand that Mary Poppins (“Never just Mary”) be done her way. Walt adds his own gravitas to the story by revealing his own laborious childhood, resulting in a tough resolve to bring Poppins to the big screen for his daughters, no matter what it takes. It’s here that the central theme becomes apparent, we learn that Mary Poppins wasn’t really there to help the children, and that family is everything. It’s a joyful, cathartic experience and I suspect I wasn’t the only moviegoer reaching for the tissues by the end.

 

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