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HEARING STORIES: SOME THOUGHTS AND REVIEWS ON AUDIO-BOOKS

HEARING STORIES: SOME THOUGHTS AND REVIEWS ON AUDIO-BOOKS

Six months ago I was reading a physical book of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and I was just not feeling it. Not the actual book as it is a classic novel of our time but the actual activity of reading itself. I just did not want to read anymore. Of course, I can do it but my mind just didn’t have the desire or energy. What did this mean?

Had I been dumbed down and rendered attention deficient by virtue of the constant viewing of films, TV and the barrage of internet viewing. Perhaps my brain had been become punch-drunk and distorted my mind, like an over-the-hill boxer who’d just had one too many fights. It was confusing. I’ve always loved reading and did not want to stop.

So, I thought why not try out the Audio-book route?  What’s the worst that could happen?  I could LISTEN to someone reading the book to me and experience the literature from an aural perspective. I have to be honest – I’m glad I did! Because I have been listening to a number of audio-book productions and they have been very rewarding from all manner of dramatic, artistic, comical and emotional directions. Moreover, I listen to these books while walking and at the gym so my “reading” has become a very pleasing mobile pursuit.

Anyhow, here are some reviews of the books I have been listening to over the past months. If you also listen to audiobooks please feel free to suggest any good “reads” or narrations.

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BACK STORY – DAVID MITCHELL (narrated by David Mitchell)

Comedian, actor, panel-show humourist and writer David Mitchell takes us on a literal walk of London landmarks and streets, while also wandering down his own personal memory lanes and avenues. Pedantic, neurotic, angry and insightful in equal measures this is an entertaining and intelligent journey full of hilarious rants and stories relating to Mitchell’s life; one which is blighted, not by personal tragedy, but rather a very painful bad back. His narration too is very funny and listening to him speak is like having your very own personal version of the brilliant comedy show Peep Show in your head.  I especially, from a creative point-of-view, enjoyed his analysis of comedy past, present and the actualities of writing sketches, jokes and performing too.

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CATCH 22 – JOSEPH HELLER (narrated by Trevor White)

The novel which began my whole diversification into the audiobook territories is a startling anti-war character drama full of tragedy and black comedy, highlighting the folly of humanity during conflict. I was both laughing out loud and crying inside as Heller’s seminal work crashes us into the heart of madness during World War II. Featuring any number of crazed pilots either being killed or trying not to be killed while flying over Italy, this novel expertly takes you up and down and up and down. Heller does this with a meticulously acute writing style and via characters such as the wonderfully named: Yossarian, Milo Minderbinder, Doc Daneeka, Snowden, Nately, Nurse Cramer, Captain Aardvark, Colonel Cathcart and many more lunatics. This is a sprawling insane war-set epic which satirizes and laments the folly and destructive behaviour of mankind, and is all the more relevant today because we still can’t fucking learn to stop killing each other over ridiculous things like money, land, God and love.

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DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP – PHILIP K. DICK (narrated by Scott Brick)

Dick’s classic science-fiction novel is better known now as Blade Runner and the film versions are incredibly stylish and powerful genre works. Yet, Scott Brick’s narration of Dick’s source novel is absolutely perfect in its rendition, creating a haunting pathos beyond that featured in the film. The story covers one day in the life of Rick Deckard – an “Andy” or android bounty hunter who must track down a series of superior robots of the Nexus Six variety. The original Blade Runner (1982) film did well to distil and simplify the narrative but it only touched the sides where the complex themes are concerned. The novel is far more involved with subtext relating to: simulations; animal husbandry; Artificial Intelligence; Virtual-reality religious fervour; and the existential pain or humans and robots, being explored within the rotting dystopic, Earth setting.

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GAME OF THRONES – GEORGE R.R. MARTIN (narrated by Roy Dotrice)

George R. R. Martin’s North-versus-South-Westerosian fantasy epic has provided hours of entertainment via HBO’s massive hit TV adaptation. The original source novel is a literary monster of a book with an over 33 hours running time, so kudos to the talented, yet ageing actor, Roy Dotrice for staying alive during the recording and finding the energy to narrate it. If you don’t know the Game of Thrones TV show, it has become an iconic narrative of Starks versus Lannister’s versus Targaryen’s versus zombies versus dragons and all manner of: lords, ladies, monsters, whores, hordes, henchmen, sorcerers, warriors, Kings, Queens and peasant scum; all fighting and spitting hate at each other for a baying public’s bloodthirsty satisfaction.

The book, of which Game of Thrones is based, is an intricately plotted, brilliantly characterised and action-packed joy. Not for the faint-hearted it is explicit from a violence and erotic perspective and Martin’s writing is believable unbelievability of the highest order. While it may be fantastic in regard to many of the concepts it is grounded in a raw and human reality as the flawed characters conflict with each other in all manner of familial jousting, hearty battling and political chicanery. The book has all the greatest qualities of the television show and much more besides and well worth the many hours it took me to “read”.

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HOW NOT TO BE A BOY – ROBERT WEBB (narrated by Robert Webb)

The other half of the Mitchell and Webb double-act, Robert, narrates his own story with an adept sarcasm, intelligence and over-riding sense of grief throughout. As a big fan of Peepshow, his brilliance as an actor is playing unlikeable-selfish-man-boys with devilish charisma. He’s obviously very funny too and his anecdotes and memories of growing up in a Lincolnshire town and overcoming family heartache before joining the so-called Cambridge academic elite are very honest and personable. I would have liked a bit more detail about his creative process but reading between the lines I felt that it all came very naturally and unpretentiously to Webb. Overall, this is a terrific listen, full of funny and tragic moments; plus given I’m the same age as Webb, his references to televisual, pop, film and comedy culture were immediately recognisable to me, only adding to the book’s enjoyment.

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I, PARTRIDGE: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT ALAN – ALAN PARTRIDGE (read by Alan Partridge)

Steve Coogan’s genius comedy creation Alan Partridge has been part of my life since the 1990s when I first saw him on the brilliant satire show The Day Today. There he presented the sports and would subsequently go on to a kind of greatness as a chat show host on Knowing Me, Knowing You and starring in one of the best sitcoms of all time, I’m Alan Partridge. It is a testament to the acting ability, quality of writing and sheer stamina of Coogan that he continues to mine comedy gold from the hills of Partridge, as it were. Coogan narrates (in the glorious character of Partridge) a fictional autobiography from actual cradle to career grave. It also hilariously covers how he bounced back from the precipice of a chocolate-driven-frenzied-nervous-breakdown-suicide-attempt in Dundee. I have never laughed so much as six hours of comedic gold entered my brain and left me in stitches throughout. This is one of the funniest things I have had the pleasure to listen too; full of bitter rants, vengeful asides, over-elaborate similes and a litany of what I can only call Partridgeisms! Is that a word: well it is now!

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BLADERUNNER 2049 (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

BLADERUNNER 2049 (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

**CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS**

Philip K. Dick’s dense, dystopic and futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), is an ugly, beautiful, depressing, obtuse, hypnotic wade-through-treacle read full of incredible concepts relating to: Artificial Intelligence; robot technology; android simulacra; animal husbandry; apocalyptic disease; virtual reality/empathy mood tech; extinguished humanity; and ultimately, of course, mortality and death. The fact that Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples were able to fashion a workable screenplay for Ridley Scott to direct is a creative miracle in itself. Moreover, it is testament to the writing and Scott’s incredible production team that Bladerunner (1982) is held in such high esteem among cinema fans now.

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The original Bladerunner, despite bombing at the box office and subsequently going through a number of cuts, re-cuts, final cuts and re-re-re-releases, has become a bona fide science fiction cinema classic. I watched the original theatrical version recently and despite the deadpan Harrison Ford voiceover and spurious, tacked on “happy” ending, it actually has a lot going for it. Obviously the ‘Unicorn Dream’ re-edits released under the guidance of Ridley Scott are the purer versions but the film holds up notably because of Ford’s gruff, depressive and world-weary performance as Rick Deckard; the imperious psychopathy of Rutger Hauer as android assassin Roy Batty; Scott’s glorious tech noir rendition of our desecrated future; as well as the evocation of Philip K Dick’s thematic existential power.

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Thus, to offer up a near three-hour sequel to a box office bomb of an almost unfilmable novel was something I thought extremely brave from a creative and business perspective. However, as soon as I saw the director Denis Villeneuve was attached, I immediately knew that Bladerunner 2049 was a must-see! This filmmaker has elevated himself to the higher echelons of Hollywood directors with superlative work such as: Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), Sicario (2016) and Arrival (2016). In such films he was able to meld story, style, character and performance to create very accessible genre films which encapsulate the pain and drama of the human condition adroitly.

In Bladerunner 2049, the future’s orange but, like the original novel and film adaptation, it’s definitely not bright! We are in a sick, unforgiving and murderous world where a dying Earth, specifically California, is inhabited by killer replicants, pleasure models, and totalitarian law enforcement and overseen by the venal, profit driven capitalist oligarchic Wallace Corporation. In this vision of Earth, men, women, children, animals and robots are all slaves to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. I have seen some critique that the film is exploitative in its female representations but the films reflects much that is wrong with our world today and the original novel’s dystopic and misanthropic themes.

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Both male and females are objectified and deemed commodities and alas that is true too of the sick world we live in today, yet perhaps just not as blatant? Bladerunner 2049, I does not offer solutions but depressingly mirrors society’s desire to sexualise and exploit others. Our “hero” the replicant cop ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is a victim of such exploitation in his touching relationship with A: I hologram Joi (Ana De Armas). Ultimately, he learns that they’re all being faked by the horrific technological nightmare they call existence. I think it extremely interesting that K’s wry smile when he realises he has been exploited by the Wallace Corp. product Joi; and paradoxically this demonstrates his humanity.

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Villeneuve, aided with startling artistry by cinematographer Roger Deakins directs from a screenplay written by original writer Hampton Fancher, plus Michael Green. One could argue that the original Bladerunner is style over content, as the story was distilled to that of Deckard basically hunting down a bunch of outlaw robots. However, the style WAS the content along with the dense richness of the themes. Similarly, Bladerunner 2049 does not have a particularly complex plot, save for one fantastic thematic reversal, yet at its heart it explores the powerful question of what it means to be human? I think all intriguing narratives should ask this and explore important notions of existence. I mean, it’s not surprise Gosling’s character is called ‘K’ – because the story echoes Kafka’s The Trial in many ways. Indeed, is his seemingly futile search for meaning or humanity just a pointless pursuit or is it reward enough to delude oneself with the possibility of hope or love? Life and the decision whether to carry on regardless is therefore very much on trial.

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I think this is a film which will benefit from further viewings. I felt like I was watching a Tarkovsky or Bergman film on a massive budget.  It’s like Denis Villeneuve managed to combine, with the writers and designers, an indie-Hollywood-art film installation. I would say this is a character and theme led narrative rather than purely plot driven. Even Niander Wallace’s (Jared Leto) weirdness, while not essential for the plot, added to the depth of character and surface emotion. He felt like a Colonel Kurtz figure trapped in his own insane delusion and obsession. Could he have been a replicant too? Likewise, Harrison Ford’s reappearance as Deckard adds great flavour to a wonderful sci-fi broth. Yet, his aging persona is integral to the plot and not simply a meta-textual nod to the original film.

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Ultimately, we mere mortals are arguably not worthy to critique this fantastic work of genre art cinema. I understand it was slow but that almost increased the joy for me. It moved glacially but with high confidence and in Ryan Gosling it had a bona fide star to guide us through this sick yet beautiful world. Moreover, the sound design and music from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch was a powerful force which heightened the suspense and paranoia. While the visuals are absolutely breath-taking I was also drawn in by the existential intrigue of the themes.  Technically, within the story, the replicants are not living people but we empathise with their plight nonetheless because THEY are US. There lies the paradox and beauty of this film, in that I cared and was fascinated by what happened to actors playing robots on the cinema screen.

(Mark: 10 out of 11)

CALVARY (2014) – FILM REVIEW BY PAUL LAIGHT

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CALVARY (2014) – FILM REVIEW BY PAUL LAIGHT

**Contains clips and spoilers**
There are many, many different kinds of films and filmmakers who come from innumerable backgrounds, places and cultures. They have also had a variety of paths to making films such as: film school, television, scriptwriting, novels, plays, stand-up or sketch comedy, being rich or even working in a video-shop. Certain filmmakers have a distinctive visual and thematic style and if using the historical parlance one may call them auteurs. Such a list may include: Hitchcock, Scorcese, Godard, Coppola, DePalma, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Hawks, Lee, Campion, Cronenberg, Kubrik, Coen Brothers, Lean, Lynch, Almodovar, Allen, McQueen, Ramsay, Polanski, Ray, Chaplin, Wilder, and Michael Bay. That last one is a joke by the way.

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These greats would make some of the greatest films of our times – some formalistic and artistic masterpieces others emotional and heartrending character pieces and others comedic. They’ve also made great films which maybe I didn’t enjoy first time round or didn’t understand but later come to love or appreciate. Of course, you’re asking yourself: what has this got to do with John Michael McDonagh’s dramatic film CALVARY (2014) – I’m not sure to be honest. What I would say is that this film has received much critical acclaim according to the posters I saw and I’m sure reviews will be very good, but, on first watch I didn’t enjoy it that much. It’s billed as dark comedic drama but I didn’t find it funny enough or dramatic enough and while it was a great opening the plot wasn’t enough to sustain a feature film.

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Calvary – named after a site immediately outside Jerusalem’s walls where Jesus was crucified – opens brilliantly when Father James Lavelle (acting behemoth Brendan Gleeson’s) is taking confession. He is then threatened by an unknown parishioner and informed he is going to be murdered in just over a week’s time. This sets in motion a potentially interesting “whodunnit” plot with which to structure the story and introduce an ever-increasing set of quirky and troubled rural characters. Gleeson’s Priest is not externally bothered by the threat and even admits to his superior he may know who it is. Thus, any suspense is rendered redundant throughout really.


Over the next week with Judgment Day approaching Father Lavelle comes into contact with a brilliant ensemble cast including: Dylan Moran (Black Books), Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones), M. Emmet Walsh (Bladerunner, Blood Simple), Chris O’Dowd (IT Crowd, Crimson and the Petal, Bridesmaids), Domnhall Gleeson (Harry Potter, Judge Dredd), Isaach De Bankole (Casino Royale) and the always memorable Pat Shortt (Garage) etc. Each character could potentially be a suspect but there’s no real narrative urgency as, while very well performed, the ‘suspects’ don’t really do very much dramatically. Don’t get me wrong there are some wonderful one-liners in the script and Aiden Gillen’s cynical Doctor impressed me. But even his character was aware of his own redundancy in the piece during a verbally erudite and metatextual joust with Father Lavelle. Throw into the mix Kelly Reilly – as Lavelle’s suicidal daughter – and you get another character on the edge of a nervous breakdown that you don’t really care about.


I really enjoyed John Michael McDonagh’s first film THE GUARD (2011), also starring Gleeson with Don Cheadle and another motley crew of quirky characters. But that had more heart and humour than Calvary which almost collapses under the weight of its’ own pretensions. Perhaps, because I’m not Catholic or Irish I did not get many of the cultural and religious references. However, I certainly got the themes of guilt, death, revenge, existential detachment and I also understood the severity of the historical crimes perpetrated by Catholic Priests against children and Irish citizens. Indeed, the film quite rightly deals with this sensitively giving a voice to the victims of these heinous crimes.  Even the ending — which is superbly staged — left me slightly confused and desiring more of a surprise or narrative reversal.

Ultimately, this was a superbly written and acted piece rather than a fully-fledged satisfactory storytelling experience. The quality of the writer’s ideas, dialogue and themes outweighed the humour, drama and suspense. Good use is made of a terrific cast and beautiful Irish coastal landscapes but overall I felt detached from the characters due to the over-authorial nature of the film. I felt like I was watching a film rather than a proper story and could hear the writer speaking rather than the characters. But, I have been wrong about other great films and filmmakers in the past and have come to appreciate them more on second or third viewings. Calvary could just be one of those films.