Xmas diary: books and films



We were hosting this holiday, so I’ve not had much time for writing things up. This is some of what I’ve been up to though…

Review: Daniel Deronda (George Eliot)

I’ll try and give this a full review some time, but for now, just some notes. It’s probably not better than Middlemarch, with its grand, masterful vision over a whole community’s lives, but I think I far prefer Daniel Deronda with all its flaws. The Zionist passages drag, and Mordecai could be an interesting character only he’s never really interrogated or challenged by Eliot; like his sister, whose only real hint of personality comes out in her jealousy of Gwendoline. I was disappointed by Mirah, having loved Jodhi May’s performance in the old BBC adaptation, but there’s really very little to her, with Eliot choosing to show little from her point of view up until the time when she realises her feelings for Deronda. Nevertheless, to have such positive depictions of devout Jews and of a suicidal woman in a book of this time was presumably fairly revolutionary, so I can admire it in that sense, even if it never once considers the lives of the people who will have to be evicted from their own lands in order to restore another peoples’ land. In amongst the straining Victorian effort to describe the indescribable processes of thought and emotion, which Eliot for the most part does supremely well, and amongst the rich, localised detail of landscape and architecture and weather and fashion, it’s Eliot’s characterisation that I love. Gwendoline and Deronda are fantastic (except in the moments where Eliot considers the possibility of a romance between them). Supporting characters are also generally handled with love and sympathy, with the author frequently apologising for their behaviour, or pleading with her audience not to judge them harshly. I adore the spoiled, superstitious Gwendoline, trapped by her fear of facing any real challenge, but dreaming of adventure all the same. The lead-up to her marriage with Grandcourt is as compelling as a thriller, all options closing down around a girl who is nowhere near as worldy as others suspect. Like Middlemarch, its beginning is stronger than its ending, and I’ve got reservations about the recurring theme of duty, but the rounded, complex humanity of Gwendoline and Deronda is so beautifully done.

Review: In Bruges (2008)

How have I never got ‘round to watching this for so many years? I think I might have been afraid it wouldn’t be as good as I hoped. Needn’t have worried though – it was funny, appalling, sweet and perfectly cast. I am so glad Colin Farrell stopped trying to be a Hollywood lead, he plays a little shit in this, but one who’s somehow still charming despite all the crassness. And it’s Brendan Gleeson in a movie by one of the McDonagh brothers, so expect tragedy. Unlike Ray, I think Bruges looks lovely in this, and there’s a cracking atmospheric soundtrack through the slow, quiet build of the plot. And Ralph Fiennes is having the time of his life in it, even if the ending was a bit *too* silly for my tastes – it was still the outcome I was rooting for…

Rewatch: Song of the Sea (2014)

This is always going to be in or around my top 10 movies. Cartoon Saloon aim to create a visual style for Irish myth that Studio Ghibli creates for Japanese myth and legend. They’re closer to one another in this than in the studio’s first major film, The Secret of Kells, but despite visual and personal similarities between Macha the owl witch and Yubaba from Spirited Away, there’s no sense of heavy borrowing from Ghibli. I think more comes down to the kind of themes explored by a good children’s movie: big, emotional themes that even adults find hard to articulate, but that affect all of us in different ways. Not that Song of the Sea is just for kids: the grief and inertia of the father who’s lost his wife and now can’t engage with his son is just as painful each time I watch this. Clever internal references and a gorgeous soundtrack add layers to the sumptuous hand-drawn animation.

Rewatch: Rogue One (2016)

Never over it. Nope. After seeing TLJ a couple of times and getting ready to go for a third time with my parents, it was time to make sure Mum finally saw Rogue One. On this viewing I mainly learnt that I probably need new glasses, and I found Bor Gullet more extraneous than ever, but it’s still up there as one of my favourite Star Wars movies. I’ve never felt the need to rail against the ending, but I’ll probably always be disappointed that we’ll never get much more in the way of official stories about these characters. The excuse that ‘they can’t live because we never hear of them in the OT’ is a poor one: when I’m not imagining alternate pasts and futures for them, I’m busy imagining what their actions meant to the survivors in the Rebellion. The mixture of ages and backgrounds, different motivations and experiences, but overall a shared horror of the Empire and refusal to continue standing by makes for such a perfect team.

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2012)

Another movie I’ve been putting off watching for a while, not least as recent Coen Brothers offerings have felt a bit lukewarm. But that soundtrack. Oh, I’ve loved that soundtrack for ages. I enjoyed this movie most at the end, with the repeated scenes: leaving the Gorfeins’ flat, and the encounter in the alley. The scenes are slightly different this time around, but not in a meaningful way. Llewyn hasn’t broken any Groundhog Day-style cycle, he’s in just the same place he was at the start, but occasionally the details differ. The details at the end include a nasally-voiced silhouette on stage: the dawn of Bob Dylan’s career. And all I could think was that I’d rather listen to Oscar Isaac’s voice any day. There are motifs in this film, but they’re just as hard to interpret as the repetition at the end: ginger cats that may be two or more animals, a failure to hold down responsibility that dogs Llewyn. Other people drift in and out of his story, their own lives a mystery to both him and the audience. It’s a lonely, melancholy little film about little more than a sense of loss, but it’s beautifully done. Not one to watch often, but one to put in my list of favourite Coen movies all the same.

Rewatch: The Last Jedi (cinema)

Oops, third time. This time I was mainly thinking of Rey, and her journey. I never wanted Rey to be a Skywalker, I don’t want everything in Star Wars to always revolve only about them — I love Luke and Leia but not because they’re Skywalkers. Okay, I’m still curious as to how Rey understands Wookie, but other than that I want what we heard of her family to be essentially true. But TLJ did give me a new perspective on her, and when people say she’s ooc for much of it, I think it’s rather because she’s trying to be something she isn’t. She’s on her best behaviour as Leia’s emissary, and the young girl who was so eager to please in TFA is a bit more cautious around Luke, when gaining his approval isn’t as simple as fixing an electrical problem with the Falcon. Plus we start to see a bit more of her internal conflict and fear of the Force: whilst it was just a fantasy on Jakku, kept within the confines of her old X-wing helmet and life of scavenging, the reality of the power she wields clearly frightens her. She’s constructed a past for herself, where she ‘has a place in all this’, but — assuming her parents really were nobodies, as she herself volunteers — she doesn’t quite believe in her right to a place in the legends she’s heard growing up. Imposter syndrome: not even the Jedi can escape it. So she tries to be like Luke, if she can’t bring Luke back, and aim for Kylo’s redemption (less for Kylo than for herself and Luke and everyone else, to be seen to be doing something at least), but once she realises it’s not happening, and once she’s admitted to her past, she’s able to be herself again.

Review: Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads (Nick Hayes)

Nick Hayes’ art is very stylised, using only four or five different shades of dust bowl brown. His lines reminded me frequently of Craig Thompson’s work, but though he captures the dead-eyed, haunted expressions of crowds of the dispossessed well, he’s not great at the gnarly details. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if his script didn’t mention Charley Guthrie’s arthritic hands so often, but it does, and the drawings never quite match up to the grimy detail in the story. Nonetheless, where the subject turns to music and the long, living legacy of folk song, the book shines: the scenes that are really successful are where the men in a boxcar all compare versions of Gypsy Davey/the Raggle Taggle Gypsies, or Woody sings out in the wilderness, his words chiming with the sounds of nature. It’s also interesting to get a perspective on the internal barriers the USA has always erected against the poor, and on Guthrie’s gradual growth through political awareness as a musician and songwriter. He doesn’t always seem like the nicest of guys — I’ve very little sympathy for rambling men who resent the wife and child that ‘tie them down’ — but his focus and passion for the music and the land come through and keep the story moving. Keeping the tale to this particular period of his life works well too, with a natural arc that culminates in the composition of his most iconic song.


Star Wars season, Part III: Review: The Last Jedi (cinema)

This is a spoiler review. There will be spoilers.

This may also be called a ‘fan review’, as I am a Star Wars fan, and will make sweeping, self-indulgent statements about the wider Star Wars universe, the direction of the franchise, and my place in fandom. It will be in three parts, and if you just want the review of the damn movie, you can skip Parts I and II. I’ve just been thinking about how personal our experiences with such a vast body of stories can nonetheless be, and can think of no other way to approach it than by going through my own personal experience with the franchise/mythos/epic tradition/whatever you wish to call it. That’s Part I; Part II is my criticism of the narrative decisions that underlie the ST. They are things that genuinely annoy me about the ST and where the story is now, but they’re so vast and so essential to the underpinning of the ST that I can’t do anything but acknowledge them and then concentrate on what we have instead of what I’d have liked.

Also probably worth mentioning: I liked the movie. Probably no more than I liked TFA, with full recognition of what I’d have changed. But these posts are sort of a way of showing how compartmentalised my enjoyment of Star Wars is these days.

You can find Part I here and Part II here.

Continue reading

Star Wars season, Part II: A gap in the space-time continuum

This is a spoiler review. There will be spoilers.

This may also be called a ‘fan review’, as I am a Star Wars fan, and will make sweeping, self-indulgent statements about the wider Star Wars universe, the direction of the franchise, and my place in fandom. It will be in three parts, and if you just want the review of the damn movie, you can skip Parts I and II. I’ve just been thinking about how personal our experiences with such a vast body of stories can nonetheless be, and can think of no other way to approach it than by going through my own personal experience with the franchise/mythos/epic tradition/whatever you wish to call it. That’s Part I; Part II is my criticism of the narrative decisions that underlie the ST. They are things that genuinely annoy me about the ST and where the story is now, but they’re so vast and so essential to the underpinning of the ST that I can’t do anything but acknowledge them and then concentrate on what we have instead of what I’d have liked.

Also probably worth mentioning: I liked the movie. Probably no more than I liked TFA, with full recognition of what I’d have changed. But these posts are sort of a way of showing how compartmentalised my enjoyment of Star Wars is these days.

Part I can be found here.

Continue reading

Star Wars season, Part I: A fandom of one

This is a spoiler review. There will be spoilers.

This may also be called a ‘fan review’, as I am a Star Wars fan, and will make sweeping, self-indulgent statements about the wider Star Wars universe, the direction of the franchise, and my place in fandom. It will be in three parts, and if you just want the review of the damn movie, you can skip Parts I and II. I’ve just been thinking about how personal our experiences with such a vast body of stories can nonetheless be, and can think of no other way to approach it than by going through my own personal experience with the franchise/mythos/epic tradition/whatever you wish to call it. That’s Part I; Part II is my criticism of the narrative decisions that underlie the ST. They are things that genuinely annoy me about the ST and where the story is now, but they’re so vast and so essential to the underpinning of the ST that I can’t do anything but acknowledge them and then concentrate on what we have instead of what I’d have liked.

Also probably worth mentioning: I liked the movie. Probably no more than I liked TFA, with full recognition of what I’d have changed. But these posts are sort of a way of showing how compartmentalised my enjoyment of Star Wars is these days.

Continue reading

It’s Star Wars season…

Alert, alert, there’s a new Star Wars movie out and it’s been out for several days and I’ve not posted a review despite having seen it twice!

That’s because I’ve been busy writing 7,000 words of self-indulgent dross about my interaction with the Star Wars universe as a fan, about what I think are the most fundamental problems with the Sequel Trilogy, and about why I rather enjoyed The Last Jedi despite that.

Image result for i'm a star wars

Read at your peril:

Review: Loving Vincent (cinema)

wrote-meImage from http://www.lovingvincent.com

In the first few frames of the movie it becomes clear that the title ‘Loving Vincent’ isn’t simply about what those left behind after his death do, but it’s a description of the man himself: he signs his letters ‘your loving Vincent.’ The story painted by 100 dedicated artists in this Polish-led project is steered by people who encountered van Gogh in life, who are all protective of their memories of him to different extents, but it’s Vincent’s quiet, enigmatic presence that lends the film its weightiest emotions.

We follow the perspective of the young postman’s son, Armand, as he tries to deliver a dead man’s letter to his dead brother. With no van Goghs to deliver to, the reluctant errand-boy finds enough to perplex him about Vincent’s death that he decides to seek out the Doctor who claimed to have helped Vincent to overcome his melancholia before he killed himself. The pretext is that this Dr Gachet might have a forwarding address for Theo van Gogh’s widow, but Armand soon finds himself seeking a more sinister explanation for what happened to his father’s friend.

As Armand, Douglas Booth is identifiable through his painterly counterpart (as are all the cast members; Chris O’Dowd is the only one who’s something of a distraction, with his distinctive twinkly eyes peering out over a somewhat ludicrous beard). Booth is actually a fairly good centrepoint for the narrative: his Armand is petulant and impatient with his errand at first, but soon turns his impatience on the incompatible stories of the villagers who witnessed van Gogh’s final days. He flirts languidly with the innkeeper’s daughter, somehow raises a little charm from the judgemental house-maid at Gachet’s, defends the defenceless and listens eagerly to the gossip of all concerned. He’s a brawler and an affable drunk too, bridging a wide-eyed outsider’s perspective with the absinthe-induced haze of nineteenth century France that we dimly grasp through the art of van Gogh’s contemporaries. (As a big fan of Toulouse Lautrec I’ll admit to being stung by his background role, banging a table in some Parisian dive).

Sure, it often feels a bit glib; life goes on in the village, and plenty of people thought plenty of uncharitable things about van Gogh, and Armand’s ‘investigation’ is blundering and insensitive. I rather liked the contrast of his unsophisticated character with the beauty of the film, however. Armand, despite giving the impression that he agrees with the villagers about the dead artist’s oddities, clearly feels his own protectiveness over the legacy of this man whom his father cared so much for. And just as Adeline wants to protect her memory of Vincent against the memories cultivated by the ‘stuck-up’ Doctor’s family, so the Doctor’s family wish to preserve their own view of Vincent; so too with the ferryman and the peasant and the paint dealer. Throughout all these encounters we must wait for Gachet himself though: he’s invoked here and there, given the sinister air of a jealous father by some, the identity of a bitter, failed artist by others. He turns out to be a mixture of these things and more — and less, when he finally invites Armand down to tea and reveals in a gentle tone how close he was to Vincent by how well he knows of Vincent’s fondness for Armand and his family.

As a professional relationship, that between Gachet and van Gogh was clearly wanting, but the genuine affection between them brings the film to its emotional crescendo as Gachet recalls their argument, and sits by the dying Vincent’s bedside receiving his absolution. ‘A letter for a letter’ lets Vincent finally speak his piece, first through a piece Theo’s widow copied out for Gachet, and then through the letter that Armand carries throughout the film, again copied and shared by the widow. In his own words, van Gogh pours out his love for the world and the people he is close to, and I suppose the ambition of the film-makers was to help us to see things as he did for the duration of the movie.

The hand-painted frames were so worth seeing on a cinema screen: swirling, pulsing waves of colour that never made me feel nauseous or disoriented as I’d worried they initially would. Armand in his bright yellow jacket is as effective a visual anchor as he is a narrative anchor, wandering through van Gogh’s yellow fields and rooms and loitering under his acid-yellow stars and street-lights. The effect of weather on a van Gogh style landscape is also a thing of beauty, whether it’s the wind in the trees, the heavy streaks of falling rain, or the changes in light, shade and colour that go with both. There are pauses in this richness too, with all flashbacks taking on a less expressionistic style in greyscale paints. The past feels claustrophobic and dim when those who are left dwell on Vincent’s final moments, or on arguments they wish they could take back. But even so, some of the greyscale memories are happier ones, and the team of artists behind the movie are as adept at showing a bright sunny day or a torrential downpour in the more realistic style of the flashbacks.

Loving Vincent is also peppered with more specific references to his paintings: a bunch of sunflowers in Gaugin’s hand, the familiar-looking denizens of a bar, the angle at which we first see Gachet’s daughter at the piano. I’ve only the passing familiarity with his full and prolific output that I also have with the various theories that inevitably attach themselves to the premature death of a unique talent. Maybe because of this passing familiarity, I ended up really liking the film’s blend of each villager’s perspective: everything from recurrent melancholia to loneliness to spurned love was given as an excuse for van Gogh’s death. But where the story had to settle for one theory it seemed to rest on the opposite: the love and connections he felt with others he was close to made him see himself as less significant. Rene denied his involvement right up until his death, so why not leave it and say that only van Gogh knew precisely how he got there. The film doesn’t end with a maudlin or bleak message, but one that came from his own words, speaking of his love of life and experience. It’s also what comes out in so many of his paintings, after all.

Review: Murder on the Orient Express (cinema)


Bonjour! Devant çe soir, I was a Poirot virgin, but–! No longerrr. I must have been one of the last people in the world to not have read or seen any Poirot, let alone this one, and almost went in totally unspoiled. Unfortunately, The Now Show did in fact spoil me, but I was in denial about this fact for enough of the movie anyway. This does mean, however, that you might find my speculating on the differences between a book I’ve never read and a single adaptation fairly vexing if you’re a Poirot aficionado. Apologies.

Also, it should go without saying, that this review will contain spoilers.

For a first encounter with Poirot this was a decent, glossy film with what I rather assume are the requisites for an adaptation of this story: a stellar cast and sumptuous, gorgeous scenery. Of the cast, no one wanted to be left behind, and even Johnny Depp pulled his weight as the rather pathetic figure of art dealer, gangster, murderer and murderee, ‘Ratchett’. It’s a less glamorised version of a role he’s played often enough before, and the bloated tiredness of his portrayal was a far cry from whatever hammy part I last saw him in (uh, those two seconds in Fantastic Beasts, where I just longed to have Colin Farrell back?). And Daisy Ridley was sweet but tough, still more comfortable in front of a camera than Keira Knightley, who she’s been compared to rather unfairly I think (not meaning to Keira-bash, but she’s still far from my favourite actress, and while Daisy reminds me of her, it’s never in a way that grates). Of course all the rest were excellent too, but Michelle Pfeiffer was particularly subtle, and it was fun to see Willem Defoe play something of a simpleton in the love-struck policeman he was revealed to be. Kenneth Branagh was a fine Poirot, with his moustaches upon moustaches; the facial hair wasn’t as distracting as I’d feared, and even the accent wasn’t as outrageous as it might have been. I don’t know any Belgians personally, however, and I suspect a more practiced ear might find cringing at it inevitable — but then again I sense that may also be par for the course with Poirot adaptations.

Being fairly influential on the genre of the murder mystery, it’s hard to know what’s cliché and what was once innovation in the story and its portrayal. There were lots of unsubtly dropped hints about the conspiratorial nature of the crime: the repetition of the description of the ‘short, high-voiced man’, and the Countess’s memories of learning geography with her governess, for instance. In fact, these seemed so deliberate, not least as Mary speaks of the importance of geography with Poirot directly, that it made me wonder whether Poirot’s presence on the train was itself not meant to be part of the conspiracy. Like all the others, he has the same personal connection to the death of the Armstrongs, and his own regrets about not having done more to prevent the tragedy. It might just have been me looking for more of a twist in the story, but I liked to think that when the conspirators realised that Hercule Poirot would be on their train (whose face is better known than half the people involved in a globally famous trial), they leaned into the possibility that even if he discovered the truth, then he of all people would be the most likely to let them off. Which he duly did.

Though that was still something of a surprise to me, along with the streak of humour in it. I had never really thought of Poirot as a person before, just as a silly moustache and as the detective who declaims at the end of the story, so it was somewhat disorienting to learn that he’s another Holmsian type, nauseated by a world he sees as ‘off-balance’ and full of flaws and hairline cracks that only he can detect. And despite this, that he giggles when reading Dickens (I won’t hold it again him) and takes a more flexible view of crime, punishment and the law than most TV detectives do these days. He even seems to have a tragic lost love, like all good detectives! Kenneth Branagh let all these foibles be displayed quietly, never taking over a scene that’s shared with his suspects; and the few moments of interaction Poirot has with those he treats as friends and not suspects in Istanbul are as surprising as hearing his funny, high laughter. It may be that this is a problem — I could have done with being better acquainted with him, in order to care a little more about the effect of the ending on him, but even if I didn’t find his story emotional, I did find it interesting.

The dénouement itself is a bit on the nose, with its Last Supper imagery and some revelations that come totally out of the blue. Maybe these details about Defoe’s character and the maid, and some other bits of backstory, got lost in the transfer to film, or maybe they’re meant to illustrate the genius of Poirot at work, but I tend just to find this kind of thing takes me out of the story by leaving me with questions the story hasn’t bothered to answer. It was soon smoothed over by Michelle Pfeiffer’s emotional admission though, and the satisfaction brought by thinking of the Princess’ allusion to Linda’s plans to direct. She must also have been a first-rate acting coach to get the rest of the conspirators to maintain their parts so well.

I’ve heard there are already plans afoot to make the sequel, and if they get Branagh back I’d certainly be temped. As it is, I’m not necessarily going to hunt out the books immediately, but I may pay a bit more attention the next time David Suchet’s on telly. It’s not a film that excited any strong emotion in me — the ambivalence of the outcome, the ‘learning to live with the imbalance’, didn’t get under the skin really, which is a pity, because if I’d got to know any of the characters a bit more it might have been quite effective (a tough ask in a story that relies on no-one being quite who they seem). But I’m a sucker for multiple versions of a story, and I’d like to get a better handle on how conservative this one actually was. Plus it did look stunning.

Review: Paddington 2 (cinema)


It’s hard to believe the first Paddington movie came out three years ago, before the Brexit vote had even happened. I didn’t get the chance to rewatch it before the sequel, and wish I had, because I remember its message being strident and unapologetic: people don’t undertake to travel the world with only the possessions on their back lightly, people are not illegal, immigration is not the problem. And the sequel did continue very much in the same vein, albeit with the bitter acknowledgement that even in its best of all possible worlds, where most people choose to do the kindest thing, the recent immigrant has precious few resources available to defend their word against another’s. In any case, even with that message, Paddington 2 has as much heart as the first movie, and I left the cinema with my cheeks aching from grinning so much.

Paddington is shown to be the glue that binds his community together, whether he’s commuting with them in the morning or cleaning their windows for spare change. On one hand, I almost felt that if people in posh bits of London really were that charming to a fault then it might justify the high cost of living in London; on the other, couldn’t people in houses like that afford to pay the bear a bit more for cleaning their windows? But the beauty of the world created by Martin Bond is that you dwell very much more on the former rather than the latter when you’re immersed. These rich Londoners are charming, campy, Bohemian types, and even the high-powered insurance broker has a soft side. Here, all your problems can be solved by a marmalade sandwich: a marmalade sandwich standing in for a childhood of joy and love, trust in your family and in the kindness of others, and a satisfaction with simple pleasures. Here, hardened criminals will drop all grudges for a chance to share their pudding recipes, the prison guard will read out bedtime stories, and a prison-break can be overlooked in exchange for some selfless heroics. It’s a universe where, when faced with any choice whatsoever, the majority of people pick kindness and helpfulness.

Cue bucket loads of British character actors having a whale of a time. I don’t remember exactly who was in the first film too, but with everyone from Richard Ayoade to Joanna Lumley popping up here, your bingo card will be full in no time. As well as familiar faces from the first movie, lots of others get to have fun as Paddington’s fellow inmates in prison. And oh yes, take note Daily Mail readers, these prisoners are there to be rehabilitated, not just locked up with the key thrown away (ok, so maybe it takes Paddington to get the rehabilitation going…). Brendan Gleeson steals every scene he’s in as an expert in the Hard Stare, Knuckles McGinty, who’s massive and surly, and — like all the prisoners — his crimes are left entirely unspecified. Given the drastic change wrought by a stray red sock and a good supply of ‘mama-lade’ sandwiches, it’s safe to assume these guys just needed a bit more colour and care in their lives.

And plenty’s already been said about Hugh Grant. A bit like Johnny Depp in Murder on the Orient Express (the film I saw two days after this), he’s sort of playing a version of the kind of character he’s been typecast as for years. But it’s a self-aware, past-its-best version. That fluttering, crinkly-eyed charm that drew people to him in all those ’90s rom-coms is even more deliberately mannered here, the perfect grin is even more inane and self-satisfied. But it’s still so damned charming, even when performing mischief. Leaning into the campier side of the character, letting the smarminess rise to the surface, he’s as sexless as those romantic leads and as fun to despise as his character in Bridget Jones’ Diary (the last role that was hailed as a renaissance for Grant, as I recall).

The movie’s also a deft mix of humour on a slapstick level that will appeal to all ages (Paddington does ‘Paddy’s Sick Note‘ with a softer bucket, for example), with subtle storytelling and asides that mean it’s not a film you have to go to with a child in tow. Look out for Sir Geoffrey (not Jeffrey, of course not, dear me, no!) amongst Paddington’s prison friends… Plus the fact that not every detail needs to be spelled out: although the plot is as simple as could be, it doesn’t feel like you’re having your hand held throughout, and there’s plenty of details in the background to keep things interesting.

I don’t know if I’m just getting too accustomed to better CGI, but I remember being in complete awe of the bear’s expressions in the first movie, whilst this time I dwelt on it less. Although Wolfie the wolfhound occasionally had a whiff of artificiality to him (though I think this is largely to do with how wolfhounds move…I remember having the same sense in Brave), I suppose it’s nothing to complain about that Paddington feels as much a part of his whimsical universe as the spotless Georgian terraces and the prevalence of steam trains on the UK rail network.  Binding the whole thing together, the thing that really needs to work in order to sell everything else, is Ben Whishaw’s voice, which remains perfect for the part. He keeps it light, but not too breathy, always conveying wide-eyed innocence without becoming twee, with just enough of a steely core of conviction to make Paddington’s capacity for Hard Stares plausible.

The ending also wrapped things up nicely, so that if a third movie doesn’t materialise there’s a nice arc across the two. Though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t love to see Aunt Prudence get to know London herself; she and Mrs Bird should have some fantastic adventures together.

Review: Dredd (2012)


I asked He Judges to watch something I’d seen already so I wouldn’t feel obliged to write *another* post this week, but he remembered Dredd very fondly himself and was determined to rewatch it. I was only half paying attention, was tired and full of cold virus and beer, so honestly, no this time, really, this is going to be a short post.

What he remembered most fondly was Karl Urban’s grumpy-faced eloquence and the dry humour of the script, and I can now vouch for both of these things being points in Dredd‘s favour. Sometimes I felt like Urban’s expressively downturned mouth was a parody of James Purefoy playing evil (I love James Purefoy but…you’ll know what I mean if you know. He can be something of a ham…), but it had a surprising number of quirks so that the character’s responses were clear enough even between his blunt words. I’m not sure if I think Urban’s voice was as good a fit for the role as his chin, as he’s actually got quite a soft voice, but that’s not much of a complaint. Alongside him, Olivia Thirlby was a good foil, watchful and nowhere near as fragile as her small frame implied. As Anderson, she reminded me of a young Claudia Black, and despite some inconsistencies in the portrayal of her telepathic abilities, Anderson generally held her own in amongst the destruction.

Dredd really has the look of a comic book movie, in that way that things based specifically on a particular trade paperback do. The way certain shots are framed — Anderson standing above the man she’s just dismantled by telepathy, the splatter of a head on a hard surface, the imagined (unimaginative) scenes of what one villain would do to Anderson if he got his hands on her — all look like they’ve been lifted directly from the pages of the comics this is based on. I’m not really invested enough to check whether they were or not, and the feeling wasn’t quite consistent enough for me to be certain either way, but I’m not much of a fan of the technique. The film was stylised enough and had its own visual identity without needing to aim for that kind of framework, but I guess ymmv. I did enjoy the blissed-out, burned-out colours and slo-mo that represented the experience of taking the drug ravaging Mega City 1, and the design of the rest of it, but still found the overly-composed ‘comic’ shots annoying.

As the pusher of said drug, and the boss villain sought by Dredd and Anderson at the top of the Peach Trees tower, Lena Headey had a lot of fun. It was what I’d hoped for from her in Pride & Prejudice and Zombies: all wry lip-twists and laconic glares, confident in her untouchable authority. The plot was fairly thin though, and this isn’t really a movie where it’s worth longing for any kind of characterisation, as that’s not what we’re here for. The action didn’t hold my attention particularly, unfortunately, and the spatter-gore of the comic-book violence left me as unimpressed as it does in comics themselves. That I couldn’t raise much interest may be a feature of having known the ending in advance, so it wouldn’t stop me from watching a sequel. For the very small amount of character work to be done, Urban and Thirlby were great, and when it was confident enough to stick to its own style, the film had a distinctive, sleek look about it. I’ll probably be intrigued enough to watch any other outings in the ‘verse, but it’s not got enough in the way of contextualising and characterisation to become my favourite superhero movie any time soon.

Review: The Running Foxes (Joyce Stranger)

Illustration by David Rook

This was part of last year’s Christmas acquisitions, I think. Picked up by my Mum in a sale in some Donegal library, probably because it reminded her of my childhood obsession with Colin Daan and Tom McCaughren. Unlike them, Joyce Stranger is as interested by the human society within and around which her animals must find their place, and chooses a neutral, pastoral tone rather than the uncompromisingly pro-animal narratives of the others. It was quite lucky that I happened to be doing some reference checking for someone way outside my field when reading this actually, so that I encountered William Empson’s theorisation of the pastoral, with its kinship to proletarian literature. The Running Foxes would probably fit quite nicely into his framework for these things, where harmonies can be found among controversies by the use of a double plot.

The book tells the story of one year in a Cumberland valley in the 1960s. The two strands are: the rural life of a small community, centred on the men who hunt foxes on foot with their fell hounds, and the wild lives of two fox cubs born to a wily vixen, whose territory overlaps with that of the hunt. I compare it to Empson’s pastoral because of the nobility of the poor hunt that is portrayed: in Cumbria their dogs are rougher and tougher than the usual foxhounds, and they’re contrasted with the rich hunts that go about on horseback in their pinks. The huntsman is a retiree, leading the pack for the love of it, whilst each man raises and cares for his own dog, often sacrificing his own dinner for the sake of the dog’s comfort. If you’re going to write a ‘neutral’ take on fox hunting and rural life in twentieth century Britain, you want your human characters to have that shine of the simple life, people who are proud and stoic in the face of the changes around them, the ‘deserving poor’ in essence, who work hard and never ask for a handout, but represent the salt-of-the-earth, half-imagined pastoral pre-history of our own society.

I grew up in the countryside, and my first best friend, the only primary school friend I still have any meaningful contact with, is from a great hunting family. My Mum’s family were once the same; a great aunt’s hunt-wedding was covered by Pathé news. But whist I loved horse-riding, I was a sanctimonious little child who had no time for those who gained pleasure from killing wild animals. I’m still inclined that way, but eventually my uncompromising views softened for all the usual reasons, and although I’m glad we have the ban now, I’m also — with reservations — pleased the communities built around hunting can survive as drag-hunting groups (providing that is indeed all they are). They’re not large communities anymore, and the landscape fondly remembered by older generations doesn’t exist anymore, nor do the networks of local alliances between landholders work in the same way. But there is something to be said for the way the meet functions in rural society, and for the great affection the people involved have for their dogs and their horses, and for the joy of riding in a group, over land that you know well. There’s a combination of hardness and pragmatism with a soft-hearted irrationality in it that rings true to me from Stranger’s book.

Joyce Stranger, despite choosing an easily sympathetic community to portray, does also love her animals. She has a keen eye for the details of changing seasons and for the ecosystems she describes, writing scenery with breadth and depth, linking the movement of the foxes across the land to all other watchers with twitching whiskers or watering eyes. She also strikes just the right tone when depicting the actions of animals, both domesticated and wild, never sliding too far into mawkish or sentimental anthropomorphism. The vixen’s bewilderment at her injury, the thoughtless gamboling of the escaped dogs, and the instincts of the aged terrier all hit home emotionally without her ever ascribing human emotion to an animal: it’s the lack of conditions attached to them that make us respond so willingly to an animal’s apparent affection or its needs, and Stranger understands that intimately.

There’s a similar unconditional nature to her people that can be effective in bursts, but is part of the picture of idealised poverty presented. The old man, Jasper, on whom the perspective so often settles, is a human reminder of the progress that marches on around the valley. He’s a leftover from the nineteenth century who makes the young men as uneasy as thoughts of future council estates, or the prices Americans are willing to pay for old farmhouse tat. Yet despite the changes and tensions in their world, and one inevitable incident aside, Stranger is kind to her characters: there’s peril here and there, but surprisingly little of it has lasting consequences. Life goes on inexorably and good luck comes to people through accident and coincidence, so that they come to associate the two wild foxes with a surprisingly prosperous outcome to an otherwise dire winter.

Bad people aren’t really to be found in Stranger’s community either. The ones who abuse their dogs are away a few villages over; the chap sent to jail, leaving behind a homeless hound, is never encountered; the trappers are never shown setting their traps. Indeed, even the foxes in this valley are better than others — over the way, those foxes were lazy and stupid and stole from the farmers coops. Now if only foxes could be smart like the two in Stranger’s book, and if people could be decent and respectful of them, like the people in the book, then we’d never have any controversy about the subject at all! Hm. Unlikely. But despite the idealised view of things, the book’s still full of gorgeous nature writing, and the relationships — both cultivated and natural — between people, animals, land and seasons, are lovingly described. It’s a bit of a never-was world, but it sees the best in what was real, and maybe offers a level of nuance that’s more surprising to those previously unaware of the motivations of one side or the other.