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This was another audiobook (I’ve REALLY been getting into audiobooks this year), and it was narrated by Vanessa Coffey, who I thought did an excellent job. Admittedly, as this is non-fiction, she didn’t have to tackle different characters etc., but she kept it interesting especially during the parts where she was discussing statistics etc.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This book is a memoir of sorts, written by Jill Stark, a health reporter originally from Scotland but who has lived in Australia for many years. After one too many hangovers, on New Years Day 2011, Jill decided to give up alcohol for three months – this eventually turned into a whole year – and this is the story of how it was for her.

As well as the physical effects of not drinking, Jill concentrates a lot on the social effects – how for example her friends found it awkward to be around her, and stopped inviting her out on certain nights when they themselves planned on getting drunk. She was told that it wasn’t the Australian way not to drink, and people couldn’t understand why she would want to do it. Occasions when alcohol is not only normal but actually expected – birthdays, weddings, football season and first dates etc. are all navigated in due course.

A large part of the book discusses statistics surrounding binge drinking; how it is encouraged by the alcohol industry, however subtly, and the effects that it is having on families and society in general. Some of the statistics are frankly quite scary, and paint a picture almost of a timebomb waiting to explode.

To clarify – Jill Stark is not an evangelistic teetotaller – she understands the attraction of alcohol and has no desire to stop others drinking; indeed she hopes that after her sober year, she will be able to indulge in alcohol in moderation herself. However, she does have genuine concerns about the rise in binge drinking and the long term effects of this behaviour.

Overall, I found this a fascinating listen – my only niggle is that it is occasionally very statistic heavy. Nonetheless, it gave me a lot to think about, and there is no doubt that Jill Stark is an engaging and entertaining writer.

If you have any interest in the subject, I would definitely recommend this book.

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Sherilyn Fenn has the unenviable task of playing Elizabeth Taylor in this made-for-TV biopic, made while Taylor herself was still alive (she apparently tried to stop it). It gives a somewhat rushed run-through of the actress’s life, starting with a brief opening demonstrating her mother’s determination to make Elizabeth into a movie star – Elizabeth, it should be noted, wanted to be an actress, according to this biopic at least; her mother wants her to be a movie star because they are rich.

Moving quickly through her first four marriages to Nicky Hilton (Eric Gustavson), the abusive, jealous husband; Michael Wilding (Nigel Havers), who is charming but cuckolded; Mike Todd (Ray Wise) with whom she seems to share real passion, but who tragically died in a plane crash; and most controversially Eddie Fisher (Corey Parker) was married to Elizabeth’s best friend Debbie Reynolds whom he left for Elizabeth, but he clearly has no idea how to handle her or keep her interest.

Naturally enough, large focus is then given to her relationship with Richard Burton (Angus McFadyen) although their subsequent divorce, re-marriage and second divorce are flipped through in a matter of seconds, via images of newspaper headlines.

There then follows a marriage to Senator John Warner (Charles Frank), who seems to love her at least partly because of the fame marriage to Elizabeth Taylor brings with it – she gets depressed and puts on weight. Their marriage ends and she goes to rehab where she meets her seventh and final husband (to whom she has her eighth marriage) , Larry Fortensky (Michael McGrady). They were still married when this picture was made.

This film does not cover a great deal of Elizabeth Taylor’s professional career, sticking instead with the love, marriages and scandal. There are a couple of scenes which show her work for raising awareness of AIDS, which I would have liked to have seen more of.

Fenn was actually great as Taylor, nailing the accent in particular. Most of the supporting cast did a good job, although I felt that Ray Wise put in a slightly overblown performance. McFadyen looked very much like Richard Burton – uncannily so at times – but I that he also over-acted somewhat and never really captured the character convincingly.

Occasionally the dialogue was a bit clunky, a bit daytime soap opera-ish, but despite that and despite the fact that certain events were skimmed over with only the briefest detail, I have to admit that I did enjoy this film. In the same way that I don’t buy gossip magazines but I’ll have a read of one when I’m at the hairdressers – it’s entertaining even when you know that it’s entertainment first and information second. Sometimes some of the actual vintage footage which was used jarred with the more modern footage, due to the obvious difference in quality, but that did not detract from my enjoyment.

I would recommend this biopic to fans of Elizabeth Taylor, more for curiosity’s sake than for any real factual content.

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Year of release: 1995

Director: Kevin Connor

Writers: C. David Heymann book ‘Liz: An Intimate Biography’), Burr Douglas

Main cast: Sherilyn Fenn, Angus McFadyen, William McNamara, Corey Parker, Nigel Havers, Ray Wise, Michael McGrady

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I first discovered Duran Duran when I  was a young teenager, and quickly become obsessed.  As I grew older, I drifted away from them, but always came back again.  They may not be my favourites any more, but I still like listening to them, and as John Taylor was by far my favourite when I was growing up (I was convinced I’d marry him one day, and boy, did I hate Amanda de Cadenet when she beat me to it!), I was looking forward to reading his biography.  I should point out that I actually listened to the audio version of this book, which is narrated by John himself.

Anyway…I have mixed feelings about it.  I enjoyed the first part when he talks about growing up as an only child, and how he developed a love of music.  He talks about forming bands with friends including Nick Bates (now known as Nick Rhodes), and eventually forming Duran Duran with the line-up for which they are most famous.  They were very democratic, being one of the few bands who credited each and every member with writing each and every song.  However, the story of living his dream soon becomes a nightmare, as Taylor details how he fell into the drug scene, and become dependent both on cocaine and alcohol.

Some of the inside info about the music business was interesting – the machinations of the publicity machines, the secrets behind recording a slot for Top of the Pops, for instance – but the whole book kind of feels more like an overview of Taylor’s life, rather than a detailed autobiography.  I liked that he pretty much avoids dishing the dirt on anybody except himself – although after initially speaking pretty affectionately of fellow band member Andy Taylor, he seems rather dismissive of him at the end of the book.  Some of the language though feels quite contrived – maybe it sounds more so when it’s being read aloud, and the book generally feels like it was rushed.  (It was ghostwritten however, so I’m not sure exactly how much blame can be attributed to Taylor for that.)

Overall, Taylor comes across as a genuinely nice guy, and it was good to hear how he eventually conquered his demons, and has managed to stay clean and sober for two decades.  I’d probably recommend the book as decent but not essential reading, strictly for fellow Duran Duran fans.

 

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After ruining her sister’s wedding and crashing a limousine, Gwen Cummings (Sandra Bullock) is sentenced to 28 days in a rehab centre, to work through her alcohol and drug dependency.  Initially resistant to the idea, Gwen eventually realises that she does have a problem, and starts to re-examine her life.

I admit that much as I like Sandra Bullock, I expected this film to be riddled with cliches, and only watched it because Dominic West is in it, and that in itself makes a film worth watching!  However, the film itself was a pleasant surprise.  Sandra Bullock, who is usually so likeable and sweet, played the part of Gwen really well, and the process of coming to accept and learn how to beat her demons did not unfold at the breakneck speed which I anticipated.  Having never been in a rehab centre, I cannot truthfully say how realistic it was, but it felt believable.

West plays Gwen’s boyfriend Jasper, who is almost certainly as dependant on drugs and alcohol as she is, but not being the one who is sentenced to rehab, does not take any time to look at his own life.  If there is a villain of the piece, he is probably it, but in truth, Jasper is not so much a bad person, as irresponsible and unrealistic about what a sober life means for Gwen.  I thought West did a very good job in a not especially likeable role.  Viggo Mortensen also provided great support as Eddie, a professional baseball player who is also in rehab, and Steve Buscemi was excellent (if slightly under-used) in an uncharacteristically sombre role as a counsellor at the centre.

The story bounced along nicely, and there were a few genuinely moving moments (I definitely had tears in my eyes a couple of times).  The only character who I felt was over-the-top, and who seemed to be there only to provide comic relief was Gerhardt (Alan Tudyk) as an apparently sex-obsessed fellow patient.  Although his monologue about forks in the road and forks in general was quite funny – more so when you realise that Tudyk actually improvised that scene.

Overall, well worth watching – it’s an entertaining, sometimes moving film, with a great cast.

Year of release: 2000

Director: Betty Thomas

Producers: Jenno Topping, Celia Costas

Writer: Susannah Grant

Main cast: Sandra Bullock, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic West, Azura Skye, Steve Buscemi, Alan Tudyk, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Margo Martindale

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This film tells the story of the life of Johnny Cash, covering the years from 1944, when he was a young boy working on his father’s farm, until his groundbreaking concert at Folsom State Prison in 1968.  The film concentrates on Cash’s rise to fame, and addiction to drugs, and his relationships with his first wife Viv, and his second wife, country singer June Carter (later June Carter Cash).

Johnny Cash personally approved Joaquin Phoenix to portray him (having apparently enjoyed Phoenix’s role in Gladiator) and June Carter Cash approved Reese Witherspoon to portray her.  (Sadly both Johnny and June died before the film was released.)  I thought that both Phoenix and Witherspoon were terrific.  Both were nominated for an Oscar for their performances in this film, and Witherspoon actually won.  (Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Best Actor award, beating both Phoenix, and Heath Ledger for his role in Brokeback Mountain.  Personally, I would have loved either Phoenix or Ledger to have won.)

What is quite amazing is that both the leads learned how to play the instruments which Johnny and June Cash played, and they also performed all the singing themselves.  And frankly, I thought they nailed it.  Phoenix may be a reluctant star, but he certainly has bags of talent and charisma.  He gives a note-perfect turn, and I really believed in his performance.

Ginnifer Goodwin was also great as Vivian Cash, Johnny’s long-suffering first wife.  It has been strongly suggested that the character portrayed in this film was unfair to Vivian, and that she was actually far nicer than shown in the film (Johnny and June’s son John Carter Cash, was an executive producer on this film, and he has acknowledged the criticism and said that he wanted to show the love story of his parents.  Roseanne Cash, Johnny and Vivian’s daughter, has been critical of the film also.)

The story was fascinating, showing how Cash always blamed himself for a family tragedy which occurred when he was a young boy, and which contributed to the very strained relationship with his father (Robert Patrick).  It chronicles his early struggles to make it in the music business, and his subsequent success.  Naturally, there is some excellent music throughout!  It is a gripping and sometimes very sad tale, but it is ultimately uplifting.  The chemistry between Phoenix and Witherspoon is almost palpable, and the play off one another very well.

I would have liked to have seen the story continue past 1968, and perhaps show more of Cash’s social and political views; it perhaps concentrated too heavily on the love between Johnny and June, but maybe this film is better viewed as a love story, rather than a complete biography.  Either way, the superb music and atmosphere, and the two incredible performances at the heart of the film make this well worth watching, even for those not familiar with Johnny Cash’s music.

(For more information about Johnny Cash, please click here.)

Year of release: 2005

Director: James Mangold

Producers: John Carter Cash, Alan C. Blomquist, James Keach, Cathy Konrad, Lou Robin

Writers: Johnny Cash (book ‘Man in Black’ – based on) (book ‘Cash: The Autobiography’ – based on), Patrick Carr (book ‘Cash: The Autobiography’ based on), Gill Dennis, James Mangold

Main cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Waylon Payne

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This mini-series (four episodes) was based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s experiences as a doctor, which he wrote about in his book ‘A Country Doctor’s Notebook’, and was part of the Sky Arts Playhouse Presents series.

Daniel Radcliffe plays a young, newly graduated doctor from Moscow in 1917, who is sent to a remote village where there is very little to do (even the nearest shop is half a day’s travel away).  It snows constantly, and the only companions he has are his two nurses, his assistant doctor, and his patients, who invariably don’t want the help that he offers.  John Hamm plays the same doctor 17 years later, and the two interact with each other (although the young doctor is the only one who can see the older version of himself).

The first  two episodes were filled with dark humour (and some gory moments), but things took an altogether more sinister turn in the third and fourth episodes, when it becomes apparent that the older doctor is addicted to morphine, and faces legal trouble for falsifying prescriptions.  The older doctor wants to stop his younger self from repeating the same mistakes.

I won’t give away the ending, but it was oddly unexpected and inevitable, both at the same time.  I understand that there aren’t any more episodes planned, but the ending means that there could be more, so I live in hope!

As for the cast – Hamm was excellent as the older, world-weary doctor, and the excellent supporting cast included Rosie Cavaliero as Pelageya, a nurse and sometime sexual partner of the young doctor; Adam Godley as his assistant, and who provided some of the more humorous lines; and Vicky Pepperdine as another nurse.  Daniel Radcliffe was fine as the younger doctor, and was not as unbelievable as you might think, playing a younger version of  John Hamm!

Overall, well worth a watch – plenty of laughs and a few ‘cover your eyes’ moments.  I’d like to see a second series please!

Year of release: 2012

Director: Alex Hardcastle

Producers: Kenton Allen, Dan Cheesebrough, John Hamm, Matthew Justice, Lucy Lumsdem, Saskia Schuster, Yvonne Sellins, Clelia Mountford

Writers: Mikhail Bulgakov (book ‘A Country Doctor’s Notebook’), Mark Chappell, Alan Connor, Shaun Pye

Main cast: Daniel Radcliffe, John Hamm, Rosie Cavaliero, Adam Godley, Vicki Pepperdine

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Basically a book of mini-biographies laced with anecdotes about some of the most famous – or infamous drunks.  With entries from as far back as Alexander the Great, most entries are about people from the 19th and 20th centuries – a few of whom are still with us.

The usual suspects are all here – Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, Ozzy Osbourne, Francis Bacon, Tallulah Bankhead, Calamity Jane – the list goes on.

There are tales of harmless drunks, downright nasty drunks (there seemed very little to like about George C Scott, who became frighteningly violent to both men and women when drunk), fighting drunks – Sinatra and Mitchum, and drunks who threw away their career for the bottle – the tale of John Barrymore was ultimately pathetic and sad – and tragic drunks – Edgar Allen Poe, who died young and in mysterious circumstances, and Frances Farmer, a promising actress whose addiction led to horrific treatment in an asylum, are two examples.

And then there are the reformed drunks – Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne to name just a couple.

I enjoyed the book – it’s certainly not taxing, and as each entry is between 3 – 7 pages long, it’s easy to skip through it quite quickly.  I would doubt the veracity of some of the tales contained within the pages – and I never realised just how many slang terms there were for the word ‘drunk’, but I’m sure they’re all in the this book!  Overall, a quick and enjoyable read.

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