Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The kindness of strangers Part 1

“I can’t believe I’m leaving you in Paris,” I told my daughter as we hugged goodbye on the Boulevard St Germain.

“I’m more worried about leaving you on the metro," she replied, deftly handing me a train ticket and a bright pink Post-it note with scribbled instructions to Charles de Gaulle Aéroport.

We’d just spent two action-packed days together and it was time for me to head home while she embarked on her new student life in France.

Determined to allay her fears, I strode confidently through the metro gate (getting my suitcase wedged in the barrier in the process) and hopped on the train to Châtelet-Les Halles.

But after that, everything came unstuck. As I waited in vain for the RER (the express train that connects the city centre to the suburbs), I started to panic. My flight was due to leave in 90 minutes time and I was still miles away.

Then suddenly a couple walked past and murmured something incomprehensible. “Je suis Anglaise,” I replied – my default response when I haven’t got a clue. The man replied in faultless English and told me the train to the airport wasn’t running.  We apparently needed to get a train to Mitry-Claye, a place I’d never heard of, then catch a bus.

It sounds ridiculous but I instinctively knew I could trust the pair. I hurried on to the packed Mitry-Claye train behind them and we hurtled through the grey suburbs of north-east Paris together, past places I’d be afraid to walk alone. The man told me he was originally from Cameroon and was on his way home to South Africa from a business conference in the US. He and his wife had stopped off in Paris en route to see friends.

When we finally reached Mitry-Claye I lost sight of them in the melée. As hordes of passengers tore down the platform in search of the airport bus, a few RER staff in red T-shirts apologetically handed us a tiny biscuit each. Not exactly what you’re after when you’re about to miss your plane, but still.

I pushed my way on to the packed bendy-bus, wondering where my new friends had got to. As it pulled away I spotted them standing patiently at the barrier. My bus was full and they’d clearly been told to wait for the next one. I waved like a maniac and mouthed “merci.” I don’t think they saw me…

PS. The kindness of strangers Part 2 is here.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Hope Springs - fine acting but a tedious script

No matter what part she’s playing, Meryl Streep is one of the most watchable actresses around. From monstrous magazine editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada to Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she’s always charismatic and convincing.

And it’s the same in Hope Springs, her latest movie. Here she stars as suburban wife and mother Kay, who is devoted to her grumpy husband Arnold but realises that after years of marriage their relationship needs spicing up.

So when she hears about a couples’ counsellor based in the pretty seaside town of Great Hope Springs she persuades Arnold to sign up for a week of marriage therapy with her. The pair book into a cheap motel and turn up for daily sessions with Dr Bernie Feld (played absolutely deadpan by Steve Carell).

Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Arnold, act their socks off in this movie but I can’t for the life of me work out who on earth the audience will be. Young movie-goers will squirm with embarrassment as the couple discuss their sex life (or lack of it) while older viewers will find Kay and Arnold’s attempts to re-ignite the spark in their relationship too uncomfortable by half.

Directed by David Frankel of The Devil Wears Prada fame, the film has a few laugh-out-loud moments. Streep is genuinely touching as the unhappy Kay and Lee Jones is gloriously taciturn as Arnold, but the script is lumbering and the counselling scenes seem endless. And the soppy last scene definitely should have been cut.

When I attended the UK Cinema Showcase last week, Heat film editor Charles Gant declared that you can sum a movie up in two words. A film, he said, is either ‘”really bad” or “really good.” Ignoring his advice, I’m going to sum up Hope Springs in 14 words. If you like Meryl Streep, go. If you don’t like Meryl Streep, don’t bother.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Empty nest syndrome

There’s an autumn chill in the air, the garden is covered in leaves and the traffic in Oxford has resumed its usual snail-like crawl.

But this September feels very different for me. Why? Because for the first time in 16 years I haven’t got a child going back to school. I haven’t had to rush round frantically buying new shoes, files and geometry sets or doing the annual (always unsuccessful) hunt for my son’s rugby gum shield.

At the moment my children are both still at home but by the end of the week they won’t be. My daughter’s off to university in Paris while my son’s heading west to Wales (with his beloved road bike, of course).

I’m so excited for them but every now and again I find myself asking plaintively “where on earth did the last 20 years go?” It seems no time at all since my daughter, clad in a yellow flower-sprigged pinafore and matching hairband, clung to me as I took her into nursery school for the first time. And since my son was a toddler with white-blond curls and a penchant for Thomas the Tank Engine.

Now my daughter’s moving to another country for a year and my son’s excitedly looking forward to Freshers’ Week. The house is full of packing boxes, my son’s busy practising his cooking skills and my daughter’s rushing round seeing all her friends before she starts her new Parisian life.

It’s going to be very quiet around here in a week’s time…

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The new Marks & Spencer ad - and dressing for middle-age

Thank goodness Marks & Spencer has seen sense and ditched those annoying ads starring Dannii Minogue, Myleene Klass and Twiggy in favour of a campaign featuring professional models.

The new line-up ranges from 20 to 56 in age and from the curvy to the slender.

Actually, the oldest model is the most stunning of the lot. With her long grey hair, high cheekbones and glowing skin, Yasmina Rossi is like a breath of fresh air. She shows women of, ahem, indeterminate age that it’s perfectly possible to age in style.

The clothes look pretty good too. When I popped into M&S at London’s Westfield this week I spotted loads of covetable outfits – elegant tailored coats, pencil skirts and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) a rather fetching pair of floral Jacquard trousers. There wasn’t a flouncy skirt or asymmetric cardigan in sight.

I hope that all the other high street stores follow suit. It’s about time they realised that when women hit middle age they don’t suddenly yearn to dress in beige twinsets and trousers with elasticated waists.

Mind you, it doesn’t mean that we want to copy Carol Vorderman’s tightly-cinched dresses or Kate Garraway’s alarming new hair extensions either. We don’t!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

How to be a film critic

Sunday mornings tend to follow the same pattern. A trip to buy croissants and The Sunday Times, then strong coffee and the omnibus edition of The Archers.

But last weekend I broke out of my rut and did something completely different. By 9.15am on Sunday I was sitting in a darkened cinema in London’s Haymarket – full of excitement at the prospect of seeing some of this autumn’s hottest new movies. I’ll be reviewing films like the eagerly anticipated Anna Karenina when they open in the UK but first up was a Q&A session with a host of well-known film critics and publicists.

The workshop, organised as part of the UK Cinema Showcase, was packed with bloggers covering all film genres – from sci-fi and horror to rom coms and thrillers.

We were all keen to hear the critics talk about how they tackle their reviews. Charles Gant, film editor of Heat magazine, stressed the importance of staying true to yourself. “What you can’t do is write against your gut,” he said. “If you do, it’s a road to disaster. The important thing is that you retain the trust of your readers and that you write what you truly believe. Once you try to second guess the readers you are lost as a critic.”

He added that sticking to your word count is crucial. “One of the great skills of being a critic is the art of concision. I see myself as a reviewer rather than a critic. People read my reviews to know whether to see the film or not. And after all, most people who aren’t film critics give their verdict in two words – ‘really bad’ or ‘really good.’”

Meanwhile Press Association film critic Damon Smith, whose reviews are read by eight to ten million people across the country, explained that two-thirds of the content of his reviews is commentary, while a third focuses on the plot. He concentrates on the screenplay, direction and acting and reckons that mediocre films are the hardest to review, while writing about bad movies can be fun – “because the bile pours from you.”

The conversation also covered the thorny question of awarding stars to films. In Damon Smith’s view the general advice to filmgoers is “three stars out of five – go and see it. Two stars – stay away.” David Hughes, film critic of Empire magazine, nodded. “And five stars means it’s unmissable,” he said firmly.

The critics agreed that it’s vital to stick to your guns and not be influenced by anyone else. They don’t talk to other critics after screenings and don’t read other reviews before they’ve filed their own. “Just sit and write in the dark,” instructed Charles Gant. So that's what we did.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Lake District - a guide for Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and co

The British papers are reporting that Hollywood superstars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have booked a holiday in the Lake District with their seven children.

Apparently they plan to take Maddox, 11, Pax, eight, Zahara, seven, Shiloh, six, and four-year-old twins Vivienne and Knox to a converted boathouse on the shores of Lake Windermere while Angelina shoots her new movie.

For a family used to jet-setting between glamorous homes in LA, Malibu, New Orleans and the south of France, the rugged, windswept Lakes might seem like an odd choice. But I reckon it’s inspired.

Why? Because there’s so much for children to do. Over the years my two have built rope swings across a stream in the Newlands Valley, cooked supper on camp fires, climbed Causey Pike and mountain biked in Whinlatter Forest. My son managed Catbells when he was five, a feat he was so proud of that he pleaded to climb Maiden Moor the very next day.

It admittedly rains a lot in the Lake District, but there are still loads of places to visit. There’s the Pencil Museum at Keswick, the Windermere Steamboat Museum (where you can see Beatrix Potter’s rowing boat and Captain Flint’s houseboat from the TV adaptation of Swallows and Amazons) and The World of Peter Rabbit, a museum at Ambleside that brings Beatrix Potter’s 23 tales stunningly to life – complete with sights, sounds and even smells.

Best of all, young (and old) fans of Beatrix Potter’s books can visit the real-life places that inspired her. If you gaze out across Derwentwater from the top of Catbells it’s hard not to be reminded of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, which is set there. And if you walk round the Newlands Valley there’s always the thought that Mrs Tiggy-Winkle might magically appear with her washing basket. Beatrix Potter was walking there when she met Lucie Carr, the local vicar’s daughter, and she later wrote The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle for the little girl.

So I hope the young Jolie-Pitts enjoy their Lake District adventure. Even if it rains (and it does rain a lot), they’ll have the time of their lives.
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