52 Pops: Flowers for Algernon (#4)

Author:  Daniel Keyes
Year:  1966
Nationality:  American

Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.”

This week I’m going to have to cop out somewhat, as I’ve been so busy with two jobs that I haven’t had the time to read more than a chapter of anything a night.  I foolishly started A Tale of Two Cities a week and a half ago thinking (based on my reading trajectory so far this year) that I’d have the time to get in that and another book in before today, but I was sadly mistaken (I’m about a third of the way through).  And so that led me to my only option of reviewing a book I’ve already read.
Flowers for Algernon, a book I’ve read twice, was originally my first choice to re-read for this post anyway because I own it, I like it a lot and haven’t read it for a while, but I didn’t see any way of getting hold of my copy.  I first read it for school about ten years ago and I even enjoyed it then, which I’m sure many will agree is not always the case.  A few years later I found that I’d never returned my school copy by accident and saw fit to give it another go, to my great pleasure.  As such I haven’t read it since then but it’s pretty well stuck in my memory.

FlowersForAlgernonFlowers for Algernon is the chronicles of a young man named Charlie Gordon, seen from the perspective of his journal entries.  Charlie, beset in life by an IQ of 68, works as a janitor in a bakery and is constantly used and abused by his co-workers and others.  He is selected to undergo an experimental operation to permanently increase his mental capacity; the first successful patient, a mouse named Algernon, becomes Charlie’s beloved companion.  The operation is a success and raises his IQ to a whopping 185, but the sudden elevation to the adult world proves difficult for Charlie as he struggles to cope with his new-found independence (not unlike Tom Hanks in Big, although far less whimsical).  He encounters relationships, sex and alcohol before trying to reconnect with his family, who could not cope with him as a child.  Meanwhile, Algernon begins to exhibit behaviour that suggests the procedure might not have been as permanent as everyone had hoped, and Charlie finds himself in a race against time to make the most of his intelligence in the event that it may not be his forever.

Personally I think this book is a must-read.  The story is emotional and moving and even perhaps quite painful to read on this account as Charlie writes down his struggles in a style which evolves with his intelligence.  The novel, based on a short story written by Keyes seven years previously, is relatively short and will appeal to anyone interested in fiction from the perspective of the mentally-handicapped, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the more modern Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (or even Forrest Gump.  Tom Hanks galore!).  It challenges perceptions of mental health without needing to diagnose Charlie as one thing or another, but even if you’re not particularly interested in that sort of thing you should still give Flowers for Algernon a go as a very worthwhile read.

My Rating:  8/10


52 Pops: Help! (#3)

Year:  1965
Director:  Richard Lester
Stars:  The Beatles

It’s hardly a controversial view, but I’m a massive Beatles fan.  It’s a waste of time going on about their merits as a musical quartet here, because I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said before (and this is supposed to be a post about a film).  When I was presented with the challenge of deciding on a film to watch from 1965 I was a little stuck at first because I don’t have very much spare time these days and having ruled out the Sound of Music most of the rest of my options were a little too long and/or serious.  So I delved a little deeper and realised that I had the perfect opportunity to take a look at one of the movies starring one of my favourite musical groups, none of which I’d ever seen before.  Help!, a farcical comedy, is the second of five feature films associated with the Fab Four.

beathelpI won’t spend too much time on the plot as it’s not really all that important, but I’ll give you an idea of what goes on.  Ringo is destined to be put to death by a mysterious Eastern cult unless he can remove the sacrificial ring from his finger, which is easier said than done.  The Beatles try a succession of techniques to try and save their drummer, from jeweller’s saw  to mad scientist’s lab to mystical injection.  All the while the cult is trying desperately to retrieve the ring, with or without Ringo attached.  The band flee all over the world in a series of high-jinks, running away from not only the cult but also the aforementioned mad scientist and the Metropolitan Police. Every now and again they randomly chuck in one of their songs from the album of the same name, which can only be a good thing.

It’s a fun enough film, given what it is.  I appreciate that the Beatles didn’t try to make a serious film and are perfectly aware that none of them can act; it would have been pretty rough had they tried to make a real movie.  I was a little disappointed, although not at all surprised, at the minor role George plays in the film.  Of course his humility and modesty is one of the main reasons I like him so much and naturally he wasn’t going to want a major part of something like this.  Still, he plays along (and even looks like he’s having fun in the musical scenes) and I respect him for that.  It’s also somewhat made up for by the extra dose of Ringo in the central role.  He’s a funny guy, and it’s good to see him embracing that because he comes across a bit silly when he tries to play the straight guy.

Peace and Love, Ringo
Peace and Love, Ringo

Overall I’d recommend giving this one a watch.  It has little merit cinematically but that’s not the point of the film.  Help! is four incredibly famous guys singing some songs, having a laugh and trying to help the world laugh along with them – and what’s wrong with that?

My Rating:  7/10

52 Weeks, 52 Years, 52 Pops: A Girl Called Dusty (#2)

Artist:  Dusty Springfield
Year:  1964
Example Song:  Wishin’ and Hopin’

For the second in my new Tuesday series of 52 reviews from 52 consecutive years in 52 weeks, (from now on referred to as “52 Pops”), I was obliged to find an album to review from 1964.  I started the search relatively early, as I still don’t feel all that comfortable with album reviews and I wanted to get a few listens in before today;  I’d definitely listened to this album before, but that must be a couple of years ago now.  I had a few possibilities to pick from in my iTunes, but I chose this over the easy options like the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and the Kinks’ eponymous debut, since the point of this blog is after all to expand my horizons.

Dusty Springfield, who I didn’t know was from London, had been in a girl group called The Lana Sisters from 1958 to 1960 before performing as The Springfields with her brother from 1960-1963.  After three relatively successful albums, Dusty (real name Mary O’Brien) decided to use the opportunity to launch her solo career beginning with A Girl Called Dusty, allowing her to be much more diverse musically than she had felt able to be before.

A_Girl_Called_Dusty_(Dusty_Springfield_album_-_cover_art)The album opens with “Mama Said”, a cover of a song originally performed by the Shirelles in 1961.  It’s a decent soul-pop tune, signifying immediately Dusty’s new horizons as a singer.  It’s followed by “You Don’t Own Me”, a cover of Lesley Gore from a year previously, which is a good song more immediately recognisable to me as an Eminem sample (Recovery’s “Untitled”).  “Do Re Mi” is little more than generic pop, followed by “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes”, first released by the Supremes. “My Colouring Book” is a much sadder song (first recorded by Barbra Streisand) and “Mockingbird”, written as something of a novelty duet, works nicely as a solo.  “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa”, a Bacharach/David effort, is melancholy and poignant, and after “Nothing” comes “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, written by the same duo for Dionne Warwick.  “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is one of Dusty’s best-known early songs, and is definitely catchy (and also a Shirelles original).  “Wishin’ and Hopin’” is the highlight of the album, written by Bacharach and David for Springfield herself, an upbeat call to women to take some action to get a man.  The album is closed by “Don’t You Know”, a Ray Charles-written song that is in truth a bit of an anticlimax following the previous two hits.

Overall the album sends a strong message of female empowerment, urging women to take control of their own lives.  They can get any man they want and won’t be possessed by anyone.  However, there are certainly some more tender songs, dealing with heartbreak and pain, particularly “My Colouring Book”.  I enjoyed the album a lot, and there are undeniably some catchy songs, but it loses some merit with me by being full of covers.  It seems like there were only about 50 songs in the early ‘60s, each popping up on albums by more and more artists.  “Wishin’ and Hopin’”, one of the only original tracks, is unsurprisingly the standout song on the LP, although Dusty deals with the covers more than capably.  It’s a very good debut album, and it’s not surprising that Dusty’s admirably style had the staying power to last another three decades at least.

My Rating:  7.5/10

52 Weeks, 52 Years, 52 Pops: McLintock! (#1)

Year: 1963
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Stars: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Stefanie Powers

Since it’s my first new year since beginning my blog, I’ve decided to embrace the opportunity to start a review series. In an entirely unoriginal development, I’ve gone for the simple gimmick of a new year every week. This means that every Tuesday (hopefully) I’ll put up a new review from a consecutive year, beginning 51 years ago in 1963 and finishing up with 2014 in the last week of the year. I’m going to aim for the pattern of film, album, film, book, because I like patterns.

It was originally quite a shock to me to realise that going back 52 years only got me to the early ‘60s; I had got the idea in my head that this was going to give me the opportunity to look a little farther back than I usually do, but 1963 is entirely within my usual realm. In fact if anything it will have the opposite effect by making me read more modern books than I’ve been acquainting myself with recently.

Before having a look around to see if any of 1963’s cinematic offerings particularly caught my eye, I thought I ought to look in my mobile DVD collection just to check if there was anything suitable there, and I was surprised to be offered a solution: McLintock! (their exclamation, certainly not mine). I bought this on a whim some time last year, almost entirely because, as the sticker still on the front reminded me, it only cost 25p (making it one of the cheapest films in my collection). Surely anything could live up to that?

MV5BMTc4OTYwODIwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDU3MDk4__V1__SX640_SY720_It says a lot about my enjoyment of this film that I only watched it yesterday and I’ve forgotten most of it today. McLintock(!) is a “comedy western”; the tale of the titular rancher GW (Wayne), battling his recently-returned estranged wife Katherine (O’Hara) for the custody of his also-recently-returned daughter (Powers), while daughter Becky falls in love with Dev (Patrick Wayne), son of McLintock(!)’s recently-hired widow cook Louise (Yvonne de Carlo). GW, apparently of a belligerent personality, also gets himself involved in scuffles between the government and the local Comanche Indians, generally not afraid to get in the way of a fist (or swing his own). In the end for some reason McLintock(!) delivers his wife a public paddling, which not only did she apparently deserve for not liking him, but seems to have been successful in making her like him again.

It’s safe to say I wasn’t particularly impressed by this film, and I’m a little disappointed that it’s destined to be the beginning of my maiden series of reviews. Aside from the mostly boring plot, the picture quality was barely VHS standard while a nice manageable 90 minute film (according to the DVD case) for some reason kept running for over 2 hours (I’ve made it clear before I don’t like it when boxes lie to me). It marks my first ever John Wayne film, and maybe it’s not a good example but I won’t be rushing back in a hurry. To be fair I’ve never really gotten on all that well with (true) Westerns, and a film like this only goes to reaffirm that belief. I’ll keep trying, but I don’t have high hopes.

My rating: 5/10