Friday, 14 July 2017

The Levelling

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The stunning debut feature from writer-director Hope Dickson Leach reaches DVD and Blu-ray on 17th July from Peccadillo Pictures.

Against the backdrops of floods that have ravaged her family home, Clover (Ellie Kendrick - Game of Thrones) returns to the family home to confront her estranged father, Aubrey (David Troughton - The Archers).  Upon return, a tragic event sparks conflict and regrets among the family as father and daughter attempt to repair old wounds within their troubled relationship.

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Shot with a keen eye by director Leach whose camera does not appear to be intruding upon Clover in unusual surroundings confronting the harsh realities of life and the decisions that have led to this point.  At times the camera may have an almost documentary feel lending it a neo-realist feel but the combination of charismatic performances by the two leads and the delicately handled family drama rises it above the level of documentary subject matter.

The title of the film may be construed as prescient and a double meaning of both a term referring to a piece of land where the family home resides but also the death of her brother can perhaps lead to a plateauing of their relationship with an understanding and appreciation of each other.

A film at times feels part dream, part social realist document on the post-austerity Britain and a statement on the fragility of family dichotomies and relationships, Kendrick breaks out from the ensemble of Game of Thrones to mark herself out as a talent to watch, matched by the experience of Troughton.

The Levelling is out on DVD/Blu-ray from Peccadillo Pictures on 17th July

Monday, 10 July 2017

Interview with David Barnett, author of 'Calling Major Tom'

Author David Barnett of 'Calling Major Tom'

Calling Major Tom is one of the most highly rated and beloved books of 2017, following its paperback publication from Orion Publishing on Thursday 29th June, NextToTheAisle was granted an interview with the book's author, David Barnett.

- What was the genesis of the book?
Well, I’ve mentioned this several times before, but the main inspiration came from a true-life event when the British astronaut Tim Peake made a wrong-number call to a grandmother in the UK at Christmas 2015, which amused me and made me wonder what would have happened if that conversation had continued, which is the basis for Calling Major Tom. But I suppose the real-life story behind that is the fact I was made redundant from my job in summer 2015 and embarked on a freelance journalism career. When the idea for the book came to me and I started discussions with Orion, who were setting up their new imprint Trapeze, it meant I was in a good position to devote the time to writing the book.

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- Where did the idea for a fish out of water come about, by plot, by character?
I knew Thomas was going to be incredibly grumpy, and I knew that he needed to be away from everyone else, so that was the starting point. But I also knew that readers tend not to take to a character who’s curmudgeonly for no reason, so Thomas had to have had a life that had led him to being like that, and unfolding the reasons for his grumpiness formed a big part of writing the novel.

- I first heard of your book, a few months after David Bowie's passing, was this an unlikely accident or did you re-edit due to his passing?
No, it all came about at the same time, really. The Tim Peake incident happened just a couple of weeks before Bowie’s death, and when the latter happened - like Thomas in the book, I awoke on my 46th birthday to hear the news - it all seems to fit seamlessly together and helped to formulate Thomas’s character. He’s grumpy but he’s not a monster - he has excellent taste in music, and Bowie’s death, along with some more personal bad news, is one of the motivating factors that propels him into the position where he becomes the first human to make a solo mission to Mars.

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David Bowie, the original Major Tom

- How long did the whole process take?
It was very quick, really. Because the idea consolidated itself very quickly I was off and writing at the beginning of 2016 and I think I’d delivered the finished manuscript by the end of July, with obviously some copy edits after that. But the ebook was released in January 2017, just shy of a year that I’d first begun conversations with Sam Eades at Trapeze about the idea.
- You have a good sense of character and dialogue of differing ages of characters, how did you capture that?
I think as a writer you have to be interested in all kinds of people, and observe them, and take notice of them. We usually all have family, friends, work colleagues, neighbours etc of varying ages, social classes, ethnicities etc etc and it’s just a case of being interested in people. All the best fiction is about people, and a good writer really needs to be able to get under the skin of all kinds of people to know what makes them tick.

- David Bowie hangs over the book and provides a soundtrack as you read, what other influences did you have?
Music was important - in fact, I recently put together a playlist of most of the music referenced in the novel (including Chris De Burgh’s Lady In Red… that was from another character, Thomas would be appalled). You can find it here: But I think I wanted the novel to feel as contemporary as possible, so there are references to Brexit etc. But one of the biggest influences was my hometown of Wigan. That’s where the Ormerod family who Thomas makes contact with live, and I wanted to try to portray a working class family as ordinary, normal people… so much of contemporary fiction seems to focus on middle class characters, I wanted to show the lives of people like those I grew up around.

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Tim Peake's accidental phone-call supplied inspiration
- How pleased have you been by the response to the book?
Well, it’s early days yet, as the paperback only came out at the end of June, but the response to the ebook was phenomenal. I was amazed at how much of a chord the story and characters seemed to strike within a wide range of people, and there were some utterly fantastic reviews (such as yours!) from book bloggers, who I see as an absolutely vital part of the book culture for getting the word out about books to readers.
- You come from a journalism background, do you find the key to avoid block is to keep writing in any format?
Yes, the day job is still freelance journalism, so any given day will find me writing features for the national newspapers and magazines, working on fiction, doing a bit of lecturing at a local university, so I’m always writing, and while the writing isn’t always fiction, it’s like exercise. If you go to the gym you might do cardio or work different muscle groups, but it all contributes to overall physical fitness. It’s the same with writing. Journalism and fiction use different writing muscles, but ultimately it’s all writing, and that’s what’s important - to keep writing.

- What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel for Trapeze, which is called The Lonely Hearts Cinema Club, and which will be published by Trapeze in summer 2018. It’s set in a quirky rest home on the Lancashire coast, which takes in students to fill empty rooms and make a bit of money, and is a bit of a mystery, a bit of an inter-generational clash, a bit of a story about loneliness and growing up… or not.

Calling Major Tom is out now on Paperback from Orion Books
Follow David Barnett on his website or on Twitter @davidmbarnett

Last Stop Tokyo - Book review

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The debut novel by James Buckler, published by Doubleday Press, follows in the footsteps of other debut novels by bright new voices of British crime fiction, Joseph Knox and Daniel Cole; where you have an unlikeable protagonist who does not fit the mould of crime novels, they are on the peripheries with a dark history looking for a change and seemingly unfamiliar with an ever-changing world they find themselves struggling in.

Buckler's lead is Alex Malloy, an English language teacher in Tokyo, who is running away from a tragic accident in London. From the outset, much is made of Alex's otherness in the Oriental jungle of Japan's capital city, his white skin, fair hair and Peter O'Toole blue eyes set him out from the crowd. However, as much as he tries to avoid trouble, trouble keeps finding Alex from drunken late nights with his friend Hiro, to the illicit relationship with Hiro's sister, Naoko; an affair that could prove deadly.

Buckler paints Tokyo as a city of vice and sin for foreigners, part-time citizens in a twenty four cityscape where they can get away with murder if they so wish.  From geisha girls who are treated like prostitutes, to unseemly businessmen who treat women as objects of lust to drug lords and vengeful work colleagues.

The trouble for Alex leads him to jail where he encounters Jun who cuts him a deal to get out of the predicament but this has a trickle effect on all of his relationships and those people's lives.

Alex is no saint and Buckler paints him as such, the moral fibre of British people has been called into question in novels recently especially the aforementioned Knox's Sirens where the toeing of the line between right and wrong is complexly handled in a nourish fashion involving double crosses, femme fatales and dark urban settings.

If you are seeking one of those fish-out-of-water novels where an Englishman is lost abroad this is not for you, what you have here is an Englishman experiencing the effect of a gradual resentment of the English values from overseas territories, people do not like English but Alex still finds his saviour in an understanding detective Saito who wants to bring down a yakuza king pin and sees Alex as integral to the investigation.

Buckler writes with a real zip and thrust to the proceedings which is useful where the book comes in at under 280 pages, however, there is a real surprise in the ending which turns the point of view of the book to Naoko ending from a surviving female perspective, which is fitting as Naoko, a female character written by a man who is not merely an object of desire but a fully rounded character.

The ending will pack a punch and is quite a brave step for the modern day novel, Buckler has written a standalone novel that is both enticing and yet downbeat which is not surprising given the current uncertain political climate we find as a people find ourselves.

Last Stop Tokyo is released from Doubleday Books on 28th August in Hardback and all e-book formats.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Sheer Mag 'Need to Feel Your Love' - Album review

Released on July 14th from London's Static Shock Records, Need to Feel Your Love is the debut full-length release from Philadephia's Sheer Mag.

Already beloved in underground punk circles, this album is an attempt by the band to cross-over into a more rock and roll mainstream, and helped by the whirling dervish of their lead singer Tina.

Sheer Mag (L-R) - Matt, Hart, Tina, Kyle, Ian

The album is not an out and out punk record, it contains moments of pop delight and rock and roll heaven from a by-gone era; reminiscent of heady 70s licks on guitars from Thin Lizzy or the Allman Brothers to the pop delight of many American bands in the late 20th century. This can be seen in the video for 'Suffer' below.

When listening to the band this reviewer was reminded of a band called Young Heart Attack, a band whose only hit single, 'Starlite' which mixed The Who and The Darkness, with a high pitched lead singer. Sheer Mag have a female vocalist in Tina whose voice will recall Beth Ditto of The Gossip, and whilst their debut album had a very heavy punk tinge, Sheer Mag have a more inclined rock sound.

The video for rock ballad 'Just Can't Get Enough' is a great pathway into the album and if you give the album some time it will grow on you from the grit of album opener 'Meet Me in the Street' to the statement of intent that is 'Expect the Bayonet'; the rock vibe from halcyon days is perfect for these summer days in the city.

Sheer Mag 'Need to Feel Your Love' is out on July 14th.
You can pre-order the debut album from Sheer Mag from the Static Shock Records website.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Trailer Trash: Thank You For Your Service

The screenwriter of American Sniper, Jason Hall, returns to familiar territory with another adaptation of the war in the Middle East and the repercussions on the young men who fight for American freedom, based upon the book by David Finkel.

The trailer below shows us a lot of action and drama based upon the soldiers returning to civilian life with great difficulty, following the four men who sit in an armoured vehicle and the one incident that bond them together, for the majority we follow Miles Teller's character as he returns to a young wife and two young daughters in a new home, yet the nightmares and post-traumatic stress start to surface putting a burden on relationships and behaviour.

Teller has been a polarising actor of recent years, yet his work in Whiplash and Bleed For This has garnered substantial attention. His resemblance to a young Dustin Hoffman and the calibre of work marks him out as a talent; however, for this reviewer I worry about his ability to connect to audiences due to his blank expression in performance as if he does not want the mask to slip.  However, judging by the trailer alone, his style of acting is suitable to a troubled man struggling to engage with normality after performing so heroically for his country.

Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train) plays his wife in a role not dissimilar to Sienna Miller's role in American Sniper; and that is the worry perhaps that the film is too close and too soon to that film's release to garner the same attention, nor does it have the heavyweight punch of Clint Eastwood directing and Bradley Cooper leading.

The trailer though is a good trailer that shows significant moments without giving away everything because this film is based around performance and characterisation; whereas American Sniper as a film had to contend with the inevitability of Pine's death, here the trailer leaves the door open for any eventuality.

Enthused with emotion by Rag n Bone Man's 'Human' the trailer ticks several boxes to garner your attention. Thank you for your reading.

Thank You For Your Service is released later in the year by Entertainment One UK

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

La Strada

La Strada [Blu-ray] [1954]

Federico Fellini's "La Strada" (1954) tells a fable that is simple by his later standards, but contains many of the obsessive visual trademarks that he would return to again and again: the circus, and parades, and a figure suspended between earth and sky, and one woman who is a waif and another who is a carnal monster, and of course the seashore. Like a painter with a few favorite themes, Fellini would rework these images until the end of his life.

The movie is the bridge between the postwar Italian neorealism which shaped Fellini, and the fanciful  extravaganzas which followed. It is fashionable to call it his best work - to see the rest of his career as a long slide into over-elaboration.  However, the film won Best Foreign Language Academy Award in 1957.

In almost all of Fellini's films, you will find the figure of a man caught between earth and sky. You will find journeys, processions, parades, clowns, freaks, and the shabby melancholy of an empty field at dawn, after the circus has left. (Fellini's very last film seen in this country, 1987's "Intervista," ends with such an image.)

And you will hear it all tied together with the music of Nino Rota, who, starting with "I Vitelloni" in 1953, faithfully composed for Fellini some of the most distinctive film scores ever written, merging circus music and pop songs with the sadly lyrical sounds of accordions and saxophones and lonely trumpets.

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The cast is exemplary from Anthony Quinn's loveable brute to Giuletta Masina's innocent ingenue and shot with some beautiful cinematography which transfers beautifully on this 2K restoration and is a perfect stepping stone to see where Fellini was years before his masterpiece La Dolce Vita just three years later.

The DVD from StudioCanal is released for £17.99 and £22.99 on Blu-ray and would be a welcome addition to any World Cinema catalogue.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Follow The Money - Ben Unwin Interview

Following on from my review of Follow The Money last week and on the eve of the film's European Premiere at the East End Film Festival at the Hackney Picturehouse on Saturday 17th June, I was granted the opportunity to interview Ben Unwin - one of the three intrepid British travellers - who follow a single $10 dollar bill across America where they encounter all manner of people from the centre of America to a shining sea in California.

follow the money documentary film poster

Where did the idea for the film come about?

Steve and John met to watch football and Steve told him that he was writing a book about his experiences following a ten dollar bill around the states. John thought it would be a great idea for a documentary and told me about it. We then got Steve drunk and persuaded him to do it again! 

When was this filmed? Did you plan the trip and say a specific time or was it a now or never situation to commit to?

We filmed it a few years ago but due to work commitments and being self funded it took around three years to edit and do all the post production. I guess we filmed it at the time as that was when we had the money to do it. I had just earned some extra money that I had never expected cutting a commercial and I thought well it is now or never. 

From left to right: Steve Boggan, John Hardwick, Ben Unwin

Watching the film it is like a documentary on how to make a film when you guys look at each other in point of view or at the conclusion when you don't know what to do? Was it fun or stressful?

I won’t deny that there were stressful moments most probably due to lack of sleep. We had to spend one night sleeping in the car and I remember thinking I am too old for this shit. However in general I loved the experience. At the risk of sounding pretentious how often does one have a truly existential experience with the process of decision making being removed form everyday life? 

You say in the film you preferred to not know what was coming. Was that the same for everyone?

For me yes and I think in general for all of us. Perhaps late on in the process it may have worn a bit thin for Steve but then he had been through the whole process before. 

Had you travelled to America previously? How different was this trip?

John had studied in America for a year, Steve had been a reporter there and I had lived in LA for a bit trying to make films. I had not experienced this amount of variety before though and that was what has made it a lifelong memory. I mean when else am I going to hang on a ranch with genuine cowboys? 

What was the most surprising experience?

In reality the fact that no body said no to being in the film. Americans just love a big idea and their warmth and hospitality never ceases to amaze me. 

Did any interview have to be cut? (i.e. the Texas trip in the bar?)

I would not say cut exactly but very careful thought was put it as to what to include and what to leave out. One individual had some views about Obama not being born in America. In an hour long program about them you would delve into this but when you only have five minutes to show on them that is not fair. They were decent kind-hearted people but just misinformed by certain media. I figured of you include that in a five minute segment it is what the viewer will remember about them rather than a true reflection of their characters. Obviously if they had been screaming members of the KKK that would be different but this was not the case. 

What did you take away from the whole trip?

That you can’t use phrases like “Americans think this or that”. The USA is like a hundred different countries under one flag. A person from Nebraska is very different from and person from Chicago. Having said that I was constantly amazed at how warm people were. At the end of the day real people may have differences of opinion but we just have a beer together and get on with it. We don’t end up shouting at each other like politicians. 

Have you been pleased by the critical response at film festivals?

Very much so and it has made me confront some of my own prejudices. In Mississippi we won the Audience Award which was a great honour (and  relief as they have lot of guns there and I did not want to be run out of town!) and also the fact that we were able to have great discussions after the film. I found myself having a beer with a Christian Pastor who was a staunch advocate of gay rights. You have to delve below the surface and you find that there is always a better story below the headlines. Also a guy in Kentucky (where we won best documentary) told me how great it was to see a documentary where Native Americans were portrayed in a uplifting light. You can’t help but feel good when you get that kind of response.  

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What is the hope for this film in terms of release?

We just want as many people to see the film as possible. At the end of the day you don’t make documentaries to get rich but if in some small way it makes people feel a little bit better about how we can interact with one another and get on then I will be happy with that. I will also take an Oscar though if it’s on offer. 

What is next for the three of you or in a solo role?

We are all good friends so I am sure we will think of something. John has been mainly directing drama recently (Including the film Svengali, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret and Delicious for Sky).  Steve has another great book out called Gold Fever and is working on another. As for me I am researching two projects one about the USA and one about Sport. I dare say we will all combine on something in the future but I am definitely not sleeping in the same car with them again! 

Follow The Money won Best Documentary at the Louisville International Film Festival, Audience Award at FSFX, Mississippi and was Highly Commended by the LA Film Review of Los Angeles.

If you have a spare evening then please attend the European Premiere at the East End Film Festival on Saturday 17th June and support British documentary film-making, Follow The Money is the sort of film that will leave you with something everlasting.