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2012/07/29

Tyrannosaur

By Dave Best

Paddy Considine is arguably one of the best British actors of his generation. As comfortable working on the British indie scene as in Hollywood, he has delivered consistently impressive performances in varied roles. Tyrannosaur (2011) however, saw Considine step out of his comfort zone and behind the camera for his self-penned, full-length, directorial debut; a tough, gritty film which hits hard and proves that acting isn’t his only talent.


Set in a grim, run down council estate in Northern England, Tyrannosaur follows the events of a pivotal few weeks in the lives of lead characters, Joseph (Peter Mullan), a rage-fuelled, self-destructive burn-out and Hannah (Olivia Colman), a middle-class, charity shop worker who tries to help reform Joseph whilst dealing with a dark secret of her own. The film unflinchingly deals with some difficult and distressing themes and is by no means an easy watch but it is an astounding piece of modern British cinema with real heart.

Peter Mullan as Joseph
Tyrannosaur is an example of solid, character-based drama and storytelling. The strength of the film comes from its focus on allowing Joseph and Hannah to be the driving force of the narrative.  Each of them is initially presented in a fairly one dimensional manner but through their interactions with one another and the people close to them they are gradually and organically revealed to be complex, compelling and deeply sympathetic characters. 

Mullan and Colman both give mesmerising, powerhouse performances which are amplified further when they are on screen together. They are realistic and engaging on a legitimately human level, which is one of the reasons this is such an engrossing film. This is also testament to the script, which is crafted with finesse and steeped in a bleak authenticity.

Paddy Considine on set with Olivia Colman
  Although this is not a biographical piece, it is clear that Considine’s real life experience of growing up on a similar council estate is reflected on the screen. He paints a vivid picture of a community on the bottom rung of society in a concise and striking way.  Tyrannosaur openly deals with some difficult, hard-hitting themes but it also has some more covert notions running through it. For instance, the differing portrayal of alcohol throughout the film raises interesting questions about the British obsession with booze and the role it plays in society, regardless of class and status. Threads like this give extra layers of depth to the proceedings and add to the end result which is a challenging and distinctively British drama that drags you through an emotional wringer and leaves you with plenty to think about.


For further information visit Tyrannosaur's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt1204340

Suggested further viewing: Dead Man's Shoes (2004), Neds (2010) 


2012/07/22

Mo Willems

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


Most adults don’t read children’s books on a regular basis, but with people like Mo Willems writing them, we really should.

With a long line of credits and accomplishments behind him (and more that will stretch ahead, I’m sure), the genius of Willems’ children’s book is in their ability to translate the thoughts and feelings of young children amazingly well, and to do so with a sense of humor that leaves both kids and parents laughing out loud.  I can vouch for this; not only have I read hundreds of children’s books during my past decade and a half of teaching, but yes, kids: I’ve ignored the warnings, and tried it at home too.

A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Willems spent nearly ten years steeped in the world of toddlers, preschoolers and other young children when he wrote and animated for Sesame Street from the early 1990s to 2002.  Still managing to keep a foot in the adult world, he performed stand-up comedy during this time too, and recorded essays for BBC radio.  It was his foray into children’s literature that brought him to my attention though, and may be the same for many other parents of the “under preteen” set.


I had heard of his 2005 book, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, and his series of books featuring a conniving (but still charming) little pigeon, but had never picked them up.  Then, I was at home one day, doing something on the computer, when I heard peals of laughter coming from my son’s bedroom.  Not just a chuckle, not just a giggle or two, but deep, rolling, gut-busting laughter, the kind that makes me laugh too, by default, when I hear it.  Of course curiosity got the best of me, and I had to see what was going on.  It turns out that it was another of Willems’ series of books that was responsible for the uproar.  My son had checked out some “Elephant & Piggie” books from the library, and it was their hijinks that had him in hysterics.  Of course curiosity got the best of me for a second time, and I had to see for myself just what all of the fuss was about.  With simple but expressive illustrations, the Elephant & Piggie books deal with everyday issues in children’s lives (sharing, fears, limitations, friendship, etc.) in insightful and silly ways.


You see, Piggie and Elephant are best friends.  Elephant’s name is Gerald.  Piggie’s name is…Piggie.  On his website, Willems explains that “…she was named that because when she was born she looked just like a little Piggie.  Elephant Gerald is named after my favorite singer (say it fast).”  It’s that sort of little detail that makes the difference; after all, how many named-by-a-child goldfish have you heard of who are “Goldie”, and so on? Gerald is more serious and cautious than Piggie, but they balance each other out like any great “opposites attract” friendship does.  Again though, it‘s Willems‘ insight into children‘s outlooks and personalities that bring so much of the fun to his books.  A perfect example of this is in We Are In a Book!; Gerald and Piggie’s moods teeter totter, from excitement, to nervousness about what will happen when the book ends, to mischievous delight as they discover that they have the power to make the reader say funny sounding words out loud.  Even though our household is partial to the Elephant & Piggie series, the Pigeon’s books are just as funny, with the same amount of charm.


But don’t let me give you the impression that Willems is a one trick pony when it comes to children‘s literature, or that it's just kids and parents that are fans of his work: several of his books have won Caldecott Honors and Theodor Seuss Geisel Medals.  Willems has also used his talents to create two animated TV series: The Off-Beats, which ran on Nickelodeon’s Kablam network, and Sheep In the Big City, a Cartoon Network show.  Oh, and did I mention that he’s had visual art displayed in museums and galleries too? Or that he’s appeared on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” as the show’s “radio cartoonist“?


So, next time you're at the library, head to the children's section and take a look at some of Willems' books.(Oh, go ahead.  Take a lesson from Mo: risk doing some things even if they might seem a little silly at first.) If television is more your thing, check out either (or both) of the TV series I mentioned above.  Whichever avenue you take to do it though, I definitely recommend adding a bit of Mo Willems' humor to your life.  I should probably leave you with only one small warning.  As any fan of his knows, just don't, by any means, let the Pigeon drive the bus!

To find out more about Mo Willems, Gerald and Piggie, the Pigeon, and Willlems' other work, check out his website at www.mowillems.com.

2012/07/15

StreetDance

By Jenny Bootle

Sometimes a film is utterly formulaic and predictable and yet it still it manages to surprise you. 


I watched the StreetDance trailer a few hours ago and got so over-excited that I ended up watching the film all over again. Such is the power of two different worlds of dance coming together…

When Carly’s boyfriend, Jay, the leader of her street dance crew, announces he's taking some time out, she decides to get them ready for the national Street Dance Championships herself. But with no money for rehearsal space, they’re left at a loose end. Chance encounter sees Carly deliver a sandwich to Helena (Charlotte Rampling), the director of a top-class ballet school who feels her students have lost their passion. Helena is impressed by Carly and offers her crew unlimited use of the studio, but on the condition that they include her ballet dancers in their routine.

Carly and Helena, before they exchange the all-important sandwich
Conflict ensues between the two disparate groups but perhaps they have more in common than they think. Will Jay come back? Will Carly and classical dancer, Tomas, ever see eye to eye? And who can predict what will happen at the Street Dance Championships? (Obviously, all of us, but don’t let that put you off.)

StreetDance (2010) was the first British film to be shot in 3-D. I’ve only ever seen the small-screen 2-D version but it didn’t need any extra dimensions or razzmatazz to make me fall in love with its high-energy dance sequences and charming underdog story. 

Moves!
It’s a testament to the filmmakers that they didn't get carried away with their brave new technology and that other elements of the film remain as strong as they do. Admittedly, you can see that a couple of the scenes - in particular, a food fight in the cafeteria - have been deliberately included for their 3-D impact, but who doesn't love a food fight? Screenwriter, Jane English, sets the perfect tone (British audiences may know her work on excellent TV teen-dramas Sugar Rush and As If) and UK viewers will also recognise winning acts from Britain’s Got Talent, including George Sampson, Flawless and Diversity.

The lovely Nichola Burley plays Carly. I seem to be at a stage in my life where, rather boringly, I scrutinise lead female characters and question whether I would be happy for my young nieces to take them on as role models. Carly is a definite tick in this box - she doubts herself and makes mistakes but she’s got determination and works hard to try to lead her team to achieve their dream. And pleasingly, although Carly's story involves romantic entanglements, her love interests aren’t the drive behind her journey.

Not everything in the film is perfect. It’s never quite clear why Helena is ordering lunch from Carly’s shop (do ballerinas eat baguettes?) and I had to stifle a chuckle at the huge bare-brick loft apartments that struggling sandwich-maker Carly and some of the other characters live in (“college fees don’t leave much left over for fancy apartments…” Oh f**k off. It’s amazing.) But really this is all part of a grand tradition of cheesy dance films and just adds to the charm.

Carly and the lovely Tomas exchange words. But will she go back to Jay? 
Although I have no coordination and can barely manage to clap in time, StreetDance took me off to an exciting world of dancing; it was pure enjoyment. And that's why so many films are formulaic – because when the formula actually works, it’s fantastic. Sometimes a film’s parts all slot against each other, like the tiny cogs in a wristwatch, and perfectly align; so that when they do, you get something that is like StreetDance: joyful, fun and thoroughly life-affirming.

For more information, visit StreetDance's official IMDB page: www.imdb.com/title/tt1447972 

2012/07/01

Bill Withers | Genuinely Brilliant

By Jav Rivera

Bill Withers was still building toilets for 747 airplanes when his first album, "Just as I Am," was released in 1971.  Seemingly overnight, Withers became a household name.  Prior to his debut album, he had been warned by music executives that he was too old to start a career and was being persuaded to change his image.  He had no official musical background and wrote songs about his poor but loving upbringing.  He was a stutterer and had no famous connections.  Everything about Bill Withers seemed normal and down-to-earth, not exactly something most recording artists would appreciate.  But Withers is anything but normal and nothing but genuine.

Bill Withers
It's hard to meet someone who hasn't heard the song "Lean on Me".  And a good amount of the population are familiar with the songs "Just the Two of Us", "Ain't No Sunshine", and "Use Me".  But those same people probably have never heard the name Bill Withers, despite him having won two Grammys and an NAACP Image Award for Male Singer of the Year; having been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (in 2005), and having had his music featured in countless film and television soundtracks (IMDb).  He is widely respected by the music community and has influenced countless artists.  So how is it that one of the best songwriters of the 70s has such a vast unfamiliarity?

For those familiar with Bill Withers, he is known for writing heartfelt songs honoring his roots, "Grandma's Hands" being an excellent example.  During his time, he was famously vocal about remaining true to his upbringing.  And after his 1985 release "Watching You, Watching Me", he decided to leave the music industry for the very same cause.


Withers never posed as anything but "Bill Withers".  He is who he is, and whether confronted for his stuttering, for releasing his first album at 32, or for not having been professionally trained as a musician, he viewed all those components as a gift rather than a handicap.  To him, not knowing the rules of music allowed him freedom to write what was true to his heart in the manner he felt best represented the song.  This is what kept him from falling into the standard R&B male singer format (and image) and thus creating a style all his own, a style as genuine as the man himself.


Some great insight into his charming personality come from the stories he tells throughout his album, "Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall", released in 1973.  Beyond the amazing performances from Withers and his incredible band, his stories make this one of the best live albums.  Some of them share information on a specific song, some just show his humorous side.



"I Can't Write Left-Handed", one of his best songs, can only be found on this album.  But with his heartfelt introduction to the song, maybe it's best served as a live track.  ("I Can't Write Left-Handed" on YouTube: http://youtu.be/O4RyYtkifTM).  It's another example of Withers taking his own route to writing a song.  The track is essentially an anti-war anthem about Vietnam, but instead of writing a straight protest song, Withers takes the point of view of a soldier whose missing right arm prevents his ability to write a letter to his mother.  The letter is a plea to keep his younger brother from being shipped off to war.  The words, just like the singer's performance, are potent and real.  Other artists have covered this song, but no one comes close to Withers' version.  Many "Best Of" albums are a good starting point when discovering music, but this live album is truly the best way to discover Bill Withers.


In 2009, Directors Damani Baker and Alex Vlack released their touching and incredibly informative documentary entitled "Still Bill"(www.stillbillthemovie.com).  For the usually quiet and private Withers, the film calmly opens the door into the musician's current life.  Withers delightfully examines his past and the decision he made to walk away from the limelight.  The film is insightful and respectful to a man who, besides the color of his hair, seems almost exactly the same from thirty years ago.  "Still Bill" also showcases Withers' family and band mates in several connecting stories.  Never overly sentimental, the film reflects the humor and heart that Withers is known for.


With a seemingly short career in the music industry, Withers did what he did the way he wanted to do it.  And it's that kind of will that makes such a lasting impression.  When you take a look at his catalog of music, you'll be astounded by how many are staggeringly brilliant.  And sadly, you'll also be astounded by how many were ignored and unheard by popular culture.


As curious as it seems for Withers to have walked away from the music industry, the decision couldn't have been more in tune with a man whose genuineness was his true shining light.  His name and face may not be familiar, but his music will live on for generations.

For more information on Bill Withers, visit his official website: www.billwithers.com

TRIVIA: Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 9, 2005 in New York City alongside Robert B. Sherman, Richard M. Sherman, Steve Cropper, John Fogerty, Isaac Hayes and David Porter.