Review: Blade Runner 2049 (cinema)

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I wasn’t going to go. I haven’t forgiven Ridley Scott for Prometheus. I’ve been baffled by the idea of this sequel ever since I first heard about it, especially when Harrison Ford was brought on board. And although I went through a phase at around 14 or so of living, breathing, drawing fanart for Blade Runner and reading all the K.W. Jeter books, I’m damned if I can remember a thing about them. The trailer didn’t help, I have to say. But then the reviews started coming out: one major fear was allayed by the news that Jared Leto’s role was pretty small. There were impressed murmurings about Harrison Ford, too, and surprise at Hans Zimmer’s range. Also the healthy reminder that this is Denis Villeneuve’s movie now, not Ridley’s. And I like to think that Denis Villeneuve is less interested in either big questions or big answers than Ridley Scott is these days; he’s instead happy to dwell on the complicated human response to the questions.

Mild spoilers below.

So yeah, I kinda loved this. It’s not perfect, I do have a few complaints, but for the most part I barely noticed the three hours fly by. I suspect that, a little like Arrival, which I also really enjoyed, if you focus too closely on any aspect it might start to come apart, but enough was cohesive and coherent enough that I don’t feel the need to dwell on things that weren’t. My main gripe was with Luv’s arc, and it could have been solved by having even less — i.e. no — Jared Leto. Luv is Wallace’s number two at his replicant-making corporation, and she is stronger and more ruthless than any other replicant we’ve seen. She also seems initially to be far more complex than an obedient second-in-command, though sadly this never goes anywhere. Wallace is the kind of boring misogynist god-complex psychopath that it was completely unnecessary to show or give any dialogue to (we all know the type…), whereas for the first two-thirds of the movie I thought Luv had an agenda that was separate from his: she was very aware of how humans saw replicants and she was capable of exploiting it. She also seemed to have a fairly complicated emotional response to some of those aspects of humanity that humans also struggle to come to terms with: love, reproduction and death. Unfortunately, this was swept away and she became all brawn with very little below the surface by the end of it, and it’s my biggest disappointment in the movie.

By giving Luv’s agency and motivation a bit more prominence, and perhaps by showing a little more of the institutional hierarchy that Madam (a steely Robin Wright) fitted into, the movie would have given its depiction of women more depth. In this dystopian hellscape of a future, women are everywhere as sexualised images; in one scene we even have the perfect blending of the Virgin and the Whore, though it feels pretty hollow for the fulfillment of such a popular fantasy. Other grim realities seem to persist: women are seen as disposable vessels by some, whilst for others they’re elusive objects of reverence and mourning. However, I don’t think the film glamourised any of this. It showed a lonely world, full of lonely people, isolated from one another for their own protection. And when you do let someone in in this world, are you always just hearing what you want to hear? Deckard and K seem to have different responses to this, and the fact that the movie doesn’t attempt to resolve differences like this is something I appreciate about it. It could have done better by offering a female perspective in more detail, and Luv would have been the perfect opportunity for that.

Still, the sound and visuals were impeccable (and if I could enjoy Sicario for those things even when the last half-hour infuriated me, then this was ten times better). Blade Runner 2049 is deliberately disorienting throughout: the soundtrack is an incredible, thrumming thing, where the sound of a police drone’s engine merges with the bubbling of water on a stove; battering synths sound in time with over-worked windscreen wipers; is a piano played off-screen being played by someone we can’t see, or is it part of the soundtrack? And in moments of high emotion, where revelations are had, memories are dredged up and heartstrings are plucked, the camera frequently denies you the opportunity to read the actors’ faces. Instead we see K’s hands, or the tense silhouettes of characters in conversation. We think we know what we’re filling in, but how do we know we’re reading the situation correctly when we don’t have all the usual cues?

And yes, those reviews praising Harrison Ford were right: Villeneuve wrings an astonishing array of emotions from him, but it’s understated and unassuming, whilst still conveying Deckard’s grim, hopeless trudge of survival. Plus, having never really quite grasped Ryan Gosling mania, I did think he was an excellent lead in this. His performance reminded me on a number of occasions of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, not because it was of a similar standard, but because it seemed to convey so much of the confusion and longing at the heart of that film so much more effectively. He was a scared child, a tightly wound ball of confusion and hurt and betrayal, and a man used to observing and responding to orders who suddenly found himself reconsidering these things. Yes, it’s a bit rich having him play a representative of a marginalised group as a handsome white guy, and yes, while we’re at it, the universe still needs to sort out its response to Asian representation. But I can’t fault Gosling’s performance.

The ‘twist’ for K was one that I felt confident was coming for much of the film: words are chosen carefully, the sense of disorientation mounts, but in the end, I let myself believe for a few scenes along with K. The effect of the revelation on him was all the more profound for having finally caught me up in it, and the unfairness of his ending was, to my mind, another of those contradictory presentations of human nature that Villeneuve seems to enjoy so much. It made it clear that K is less the inheritor of Deckard’s story than of Batty’s story. I’m not normally that engaged by Asimov’s troubles, or the line between human and machine, but damnit, Blade Runner 2049 actually made me care about this. Very glad I did go in the end.

(you’re still not forgiven for Prometheus though, Ridley)

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Review: Flatliners (cinema)

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Well, if you’ve read the first post here, or the ‘about’ section…finally, this is what I claimed this blog would be all about! Me watching terrible movies/movies I’d otherwise never watch because there’s an actor in them whose imdb page I feel compelled to go through in detail. The thing is, I’ve realised that there are a lot of people more dedicated to doing that than I am these days. And also, whilst I have copies of Milk and Elysium, I’ve not felt like I’ve really had the surplus of time required to make myself watch them. But I’m still paying Cineworld, and I missed my chance to see The Limehouse Golem, so off I went to see this shirtless Diego Luna scene I’ve been hearing so much about.

I’m not a fan of horror movies as a rule; my exceptions could probably be counted on one hand and might still stretch the definition of horror. Examples: An American Werewolf in LondonShadow of the Vampire, Get Out and Let the Right One In. Luckily, this is not quite what I’d call a horror film: there’s an underlying point to the shocks in a way you don’t always seem to get. Possibly its lack of commitment to being a simple horror is what hampers it, but I’m going to go with the problem being its lack of commitment to not being a horror film. I mean, look at that naff advertising above, with the exaggerated CGI ghost-figures. Diego Luna’s character doesn’t even flatline! And though on a meta level you might argue that what they unleash by flatlining is just a darker version of their own selves, it’s certainly not in the demonic way the ad people went with. So yeah, I’m not saying there was a particularly subtle or effective point to the horror, but it was there. Expect spoilers below — and a total ignorance of the original Flatliners. I meant to watch it beforehand, but ran out of time for that too.

On the whole, this movie was a bit better than I was expecting, and considerably more entertaining, even if in hindsight there are a LOT of holes. Ellen Page gave a good performance with very slim material to work on. She plays Dr Courtney Holmes, a medical student obsessed with finding out what happens to our brains after the moment of death. There’s a bit of an abrupt start to the film that makes it hard to engage with any of the characters much, but it’s obvious enough that Courtney is racked with guilt and grief about causing the death of her young sister in a driving accident. To be honest, I expected them to go with the idea that she’d already had a near-death experience in the crash, and hence wanted to learn more, but that might have involved a bit more plotting that the film seemed willing to do… Instead we have to figure out how heavily this still weighs on her by Ellen Page’s hunched shoulders and glassy stare.

As Courtney assembles her two assistants for the procedure she wants to perform — stopping her heart and then restarting it a minute later, whilst scanning for ongoing brain activity — we get only the mildest hints of the group dynamic. This isn’t Grey’s Anatomy where, despite the competition, anxiety and depression, the student doctors all ultimately (well, sort of) support each other and look out for one another. At the beginning of the movie competitiveness wins out over all else. So we meet the struggling Sophia, worried about her grades and the money her Mom spent on getting her into Med School, and the cocky, jockish Jamie, who’s on the lookout for the kind of research that will send him up the ladder to success as swiftly as possible. The two of them panic and bungle Courtney’s revival, so they call in Ray, the competent one (who is presumably meant to be a little older and wiser after his six years in the Fire Service, and who seems to have just as much of an issue with the entitled rich kids as Sophia initially does). Ray’s rush through the hospital turns the head of Marlo, who’s been trading barbs with him over patients in some unsubtly tropey behaviour (gosh, do you think they like each other secretly?), and Marlo joins the group too.

The opening third is the weakest because the film doesn’t really allow the characters any breathing space before the experiment. Although Courtney’s motives can be guessed at, there’s a lot of scenes where the others talk about her, within earshot, while she looks a bit dazed. We’re told that she and Sophia used to be close, but seemingly not close enough that Sophia knew about her sister’s death. Courtney as a character does not exist beyond her grief for her sister and her drive to find out about the afterlife. We’re only allowed into her mind at the very last minute.

At least Jamie makes enough sense as the one to follow her into the afterlife: he’s reckless and willing to try any narcotic he can get his hands on. Ray’s refusal to take part never waivers, and I’m glad of that, but Sophia’s involvement never quite rings true. Her relationship with her mother could have been better explored — her guilt about sharing nudes of her classmate is completely justified, but what’s happened to the guilt she feels in the first scene we see her in, pressured into a role that she struggles with because of her mother’s expectations? She wants to fit in, and Marlo is seemingly the most competitive of the characters, but when so much of this has to be inferred from only one or two lines of dialogue, and the relationships are not really established beforehand, none of it really sticks.

Even Ray, who I’m delighted to say survives the movie,(1) isn’t given any depth; he’s the voice of reason, and his background is intriguing, but so much is left unsaid/unused. At one point, when I feared they might still have him flatline with the others, it occurred to me how awful his guilt-ghosts might be after his time in the Fire Service, but as they never had him do so, we don’t know whether he had any comparable guilt, or how he managed it. Not even a reference to it when he tried to talk Marlo into admitting what she’d done. Other backstories, like Jamie’s failure to help a girl he’d knocked up see her abortion through, were somewhat unimaginative and lazily handled.

Science (I mean, “science”) is also largely abandoned as soon as the effects of the flatlining begin to take hold. There’s initial excitement about the activity they see in different parts of the brain after Courtney has died, but no one thinks to return to this when they’re suffering the bad trip that comes later. Why should the last viable brain activity they can detect leave the person in a state of guilt and rage? Is this a roundabout Dylan Thomas reference? We’re all just raging against the dying of the light, right up to the last minute? Or is it a religious point? This is when our worst sins come back to haunt us, and it may as well be Hell as a product of our own subconscious? But (asks the arts student), is this actually something absorbed into the subconscious by living in a society founded on a religion that allocates punishment in the afterlife because of our failings in life? Who knows! The film doesn’t give a crap. Look at the creepy abandoned city, folks. Look at the pretty lights — now see them go out. Oh look! Here’s a sad-eyed blonde woman. She was probably wronged in some way. And now the surroundings are exploding into a dust cloud?

So essentially, the film isn’t interested in explanations beyond those you’d get in a horror movie, but the payoff doesn’t quite come with horror movie catharsis. Once all the flatliners have encountered a vision of their own guilt that haunts them most, we’re in straight-up horror territory, with fairly standard things like lights going out and radios re-tuning themselves (is this because of the electrical activity in the brain? Is it just because this is what happens in horror movies?). But there’s no fearsome Last Girl to vanquish the demon, not least because the demon is still, probably, in their own minds (Jamie’s stabbed hand muddies the waters here, unhelpfully). Instead, there’s a rather trite lesson about admitting your sins, owning up to your mistakes and then learning to forgive yourself. Um, great? Lucky the girl whose photos Sophia spread around was so forgiving. Lucky we could just cut away from Jamie’s reconciliation with the woman he knocked up — ‘hey Bobby, your Daddy loves you, but only because he fucked up his brain in a stupid medical experiment and he’s worried that if he doesn’t love you enough then a guilt-demon version of your Mom will come and kill him.’ Great basis for a constructive relationship.

Marlo’s a bit more resistant: like Courtney, she can’t ask for forgiveness from the man she accidentally killed on the job. Plus, owning up to what she did would mean disciplinary action. She seems to think that admitting what she did to Ray (who offers forgiveness through hot sex — but still holds her to account for altering autopsy records) ought to be enough, but she’s got that wild-eyed look that Izzie Stevens gets when she knows she’s going to do something rash, like cut Denny’s LVAD wire. So Marlo nearly buys it — she seems to think that by dying again, she can ‘speak’ to the man she killed and ask his forgiveness. The imagery of the scary dead black man whose death she caused repeatedly trying to strangler her is … not the most edifying part of the movie.

Incidentally, at this point I very much felt that Ray was right. Marlo should not be a doctor. But also Ray ~needs~ her to come back, and like every other flatline, Ray revives her. It’s honestly a bit of an ask to invest much in their relationship, but Diego Luna tries very hard to sell it, and he has an impressive array of concerned-disappointed frowns.

Damn, I was meant to be relatively enthusiastic about this movie. When I came out of the cinema I felt it had been far more enjoyable than I expected. And I suppose it was, despite all the problems and loose threads and plot holes picked at above. But it was quite short, and a cursory Google seems to indicate that quite a bit was changed and/or cut during the later stages of production. There were a lot of missed opportunities, and it was a movie that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. I’m more curious than I was about the original now. Watch this space, I may get round to watching it eventually. Ooh, but The Bad Batch is on Netflix…


(1) Look, Contraband was my last effort at watching a Diego Luna movie I’d otherwise not have watched. He doesn’t come off so well there. Maybe someday I’ll write up my thoughts on the first forty minutes of that film. I have a lot of them. Few are good.

Review: Han Solo’s Revenge (Brian Daley)

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All I remember about Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the only Star Wars EU book to precede the Han Solo trilogy by Brian Daley, is that it taught me the word ‘querulous’ and there was a very misty forest with some crystals and Darth Vader in it. But I think I enjoyed it well enough, even if it was clear that the characters were still somewhat underdone. I didn’t get that feeling from Brian Daley’s Han and Chewie though: for the most part, the odd dated aside um, aside, these felt like the characters I recognised from the movies and the so-called Legends books. I say that as someone who has always enjoyed Han’s adventures, but who has avowedly been one of those Luke Skywalker nerds since my very first viewing of A New Hope. Sorry Han, you were just never my favourite, though I like you well enough.

No need to have read the first in Daley’s trilogy before plunging into this (which He Judges unearthed in a second-hand bookshop in Haworth … Brontë quality it ain’t, no matter how much better it is than Chuck Wendig’s work). It’s a slight tale, in which very little takes place, set pieces feel rather forced, and description takes priority over plot. In a year in which I wrote my first long-form fanfic I find all this to be incredibly reassuring, at least. The level of description, whilst not making for stellar writing, is fun and a lot more imaginative than the more recent EU novels seem to have been able to be. There’s a lot more variety in the alien species and a lot more inventiveness when it comes to the technology; sure it may not work well within a larger, coherent franchise, but on the other hand I didn’t feel like there was a box somewhere that needed to be ticked, reading ‘must include at least one Togruta’.

The story begins when Han proves himself to be somewhat lacking as both linguist and anthropologist, having accidentally started a cult on a backwater planet. He’s broke, the Falcon is running on outdated fluidic controls, and he has to take a mystery job in the Corporate Sector in order to make ends meet. This turns out to involve a shipment of slaves, and naturally our hero is appalled and soon manages to contrive a way to turn on the slavers and free the captives; only to remain out of pocket by ten thousand credits. The rest of the book is Han’s ongoing search for the credits, which sees him fall in with Fiolla, an ambitious Authority employee looking to expose her own peoples’ involvement in the slave-trade. The Empire doesn’t feature at all in this setting.

Fiolla’s an interesting one. She’s black, and in Brian Daley’s EU, her people lived under slavery on her home planet for years, learning incredible skills of mimicry and people-reading as they survived however they could. It’s all a bit essentialist, and is meant to show why Fiolla cares so much about catching the slavers, although for the most part that reason fades into the background and it’s her ambition that’s emphasised. Similarly her competence wavers in that familiar way you get from a certain tropey take on ‘Strong [minority] Character’: at times Fiolla seems to have a handle on things, but at several crucial moments she goes all naïve and indecisive, allowing Han to grab her hand, leap in and save the day. It is his story, after all…

Daley just doesn’t seem comfortable writing Fiolla’s voice, and though Han and Chewie are the main POV characters, he manages well enough with their droid friends. This is one aspect that I miss about Wendig’s writing: when it’s going well, and when he’s writing his original characters, he has no problem writing man, woman, alien or unaffiliated. Other supporting characters in Han Solo’s Revenge are handled with confidence and are given voices of varying distinctiveness — the alien bureaucrat Spray is excellent fun, even if Zollux and Blue Max are essentially 3PO are Artoo without the camp. The technology is never overly handwavy or all-powerful either: in fact, dog-fights are almost too tense, the shields almost too weak after one or two shots. This is not a world where Han Solo would ever contemplate coming out of hyperspace within a planet’s atmosphere… But it’s still a world where Han’s real skill is in piloting, where his love for his ship and his affection for his co-pilot are strong, and his ability to make money is somewhat wanting. Many before me have pointed out that OT-Han lacks a lot of chill: he’s not some suave lady killer, but a dork who’s just winging it. That Han already existed when Brian Daley released this in 1980, he’s no figment of fangirls’ imaginations.

Thinking again about the book’s title it becomes clear how thin the plot is. Han’s revenge? I’m not sure what he wants revenge for. He did agree to transport an unidentified cargo, and though the unfortunately named ‘Zlarb’ (but can you imagine that said in Harrison Ford’s drawl, with dripping disdain for the material he’s forced to read? Excuse me a moment) intends to turn on him, the book doesn’t really get the message across that Han wants the credits as ‘revenge’ for an attempt on his life. Perhaps it’s one of the pitfalls of writing a character we know survives perfectly well: it’s hard to get worked up about any apparent danger to his life. There are also a lot of reveals right at the end, which don’t have all that much impact, as they’d not really been telegraphed much in advance. It’s all tied up relatively neatly, but key moments happen off-scene and are narrated by characters to one another, which rarely makes for the most satisfying dénouement. Also, whilst some scene-setting felt distinctive and original, the honour-based society of Ammuud seemed a bit of a cop-out to this medievalist. Nevertheless, there was some fun stuff in this and it wasn’t as cringe-inducing as it might have been; obviously I’d rather have Fiolla with her somewhat thin characterisation than not have her, and it’s another reminder that Star Wars has indeed featured POC since way before TFA.

Review: The Dears (Oslo, Hackney)

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Of the three gigs in the one week (I am so behind on writing things up!) this was the one I was looking forward to most. Yep, the somewhat niche Canadian indie band, not the folk legends or the superstar singer-songwriter. It didn’t disappoint, thought I find it hard to articulate why I love their music quite so much; as with Maxïmo Park I just can’t figure out why more people don’t love them. Well, Hackney certainly loved them at least, in that somewhat too intense middle-aged hipster way, but it was still quite nice to be part of, at least until the shoving and the guys lining up in the front row for the encore, blocking the view of all behind them… but this is a review of the music, not the crowd.

The Dears were a kind of recent re-discovery for me. I think I was vaguely familiar with No Cities Left and Gang of Losers at the time of release (back when I bought the NME), but never owned copies. I remembered Murray Lightfield talking about Blur’s influence on him, though from Wikipedia it seems he eventually got a bit fed up with the Damon Albarn and Morrissey comparisons. Quite right too: he’s got a stunning voice of his own, with a broader skill set than Albarn or Morrissey’s vocals. Happily, He Judges has good taste in these matters, and owned both of those Dears albums, which I’ve had on my regular playlists for a few years now. A few months back we came across Degeneration Street, which is also an excellent album, and discovered that they would be in the UK this autumn, having released two albums since Degeneration Street.

Oslo consists of a club space above a bar/kitchen, and the whole thing is really very Hackney. Happily, it’s not quite as expensive as the city it’s named after, and it was a great little venue to see a band we knew this well in; I imagine that it’s like seeing British indie bands who I became familiar with at the same time on tour in North America, where they still play smaller rooms with low stages and no barriers. And here we got two very different support acts too, each with a decent length set.

The first was Lou Canon, another Canadian, who played Björk-esque dubsteb beats from her keyboard, projected creepy blinking eyes behind her, and sang in powerful, lilting cascades. Phildel is the closest comparison I can think of. Considering how small the audience was at that stage of the night she inhabited the space well, keeping up a consistent barrage of fairly catchy tracks that I’m looking forward to finding online and recommending to all my synth-lady-loving friends. Following her was Fabrizio Cammarata, a rather intense Italian with an acoustic guitar. I liked the Spanish-language track he ended on, and his percussive guitar-playing, but most of it was rather too po-faced and over-wrought for me, all too highly-strung and trying terribly hard. I might get suckered in by an album of it, but it wouldn’t be something I’d normally seek out to see live.

After the two support acts’ sets, The Dears themselves had well over an hour in what was by then a very warm, very crowded room. The only members from The Dears of those albums I’d first heard over a decade ago are the now married duo Murray Lightfield and Natalia Yanchack, whose vocals and interweaving keyboards and guitar define the sound of the band. Although their music wanders through a number of genres it’s the sound of Natalia’s light, sweet vocals (well yes, quite like Amy Millan of Stars, though The Dears did form first) and Murray’s rich, versatile range that keeps it all consistent. Whether more synth-heavy, more soul-inspired, or driven by the rhythm section, the material in their set — spanning their twenty years together — flowed together seamlessly. There were a lot more tracks from No Cities Left and Gang of Losers than I expected, and these tracks still definitely went down best with the audience, despite the high quality of the more recent albums. Well, if I get to see them again I’ll cheer just as loudly for tracks from Times Infinity, which we bought on the way out…

Still, it was fantastic to hear so many tracks from Gang of Losers (though no ‘Ballad of Human Kindness’!). And the irony of hearing ‘Whites Only Party’ in a largely white crowd of Hackney hipsters was heavy, but we all danced anyway — it’s irresistible when you hear the rhythmic opening. Throughout the set Murray said very little, hidden behind a pair of sunglasses and presumably sweltering in a black jacket and turtle-neck as he dashed from guitar to guitar to keyboards. He was more playful when he came out for the encore though, a smug grin on his face as he hefted his acoustic guitar and told an audience shouting out various requests: “I’m gonna play what I wanna play!” before giving us a lovely acoustic version of ‘Ticket to Immortality’.

I’ve found it quite hard to have much to say about this gig, just because it was all something of a blur of enjoyment — a really substantial set, excellent sound and performances, tight and professional and full of familiar favourites as well as great new tracks. I’d love to see them again, I’m really enjoying listening to Times Infinity parts one and two, and it was a great way to round off a very busy week. I’ll not let them slip off my radar again.

From El Greco to Goya (The Wallace Collection)

IMG_20171007_155905.jpgPortrait of Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés by Francisco Goya (my wonky photo).

Oopsie — should have read that review in a bit more detail, rather than just going “El Greco?! Goya?! COUNT ME IN!” Then I might have realised beforehand that the exhibition at The Wallace Collection contains only one work by the former, and two by the latter; the other room is made up of a mixed bag of contemporary Spanish art also collected by the Bowes family. Still, it’s very much worth a visit just for the headliners, not least as entry to the Wallace is free (and while you’re there you can see one of the most impressive collections of medieval armour in the country…and a load of stuff looted from Lahore that probably shouldn’t be in this country…).

I love El Greco’s strange, lanky people and the deep, dramatic black shadows he uses. The example in this exhibition, a version of a scene he painted a number of times, is not my favourite, and looks somewhat like Terry Jones in a way I just can’t shake, but it was still a treat to see it close up. St Peter’s big, wet eyes are proto-Manga, exaggerated orbs that deny the viewer’s gaze with determination; I imagine that when hung higher up, the perspective works very effectively, but at eye-level it’s a bit disorienting. It’s still interesting to see, a detail that changes depending on where you stand in relation to the painting.

The background, also seen closer than the artist maybe intended, is a gorgeous expressionistic swirl over Peter’s right shoulder. Cloud-shapes nudge up against the landscape in matching greys and blues, and a hunched figure floats in front, face obscured. The green of grass in the background and ivy in the foreground brackets St Peter along the same diagonal as the dark outcrop of rock under which he prays, emphasising the pale line of his arms, which cut across on the horizontal. His arms are where the detail lies, as well as all the tension in St Peter’s body: veins bulge and forearm muscles swell as Peter’s clasped hands press against one another. A lot of it’s a bit odd if you focus too closely only on one area, but as a coherent whole it’s a masterful composition, bringing together colour, shape and line to draw the viewer’s eyes precisely how the artist intends.

The Goyas opposite are less imposing: one is a small, sepia study of prisoners, the other a portrait of the artist’s friend, a man who sought the reform of Spanish prisons: Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés. This is my favourite in the small exhibition. The sitter looks distracted, ready to sit up and leave the painting at any time, but momentarily arrested by some question from the artist. There’s a phrase on his lips and a frown of concentration lingers; his upper lip could do with a closer shave; his eyes seem to be caught on their journey from middle-distance to meet ours. To borrow from Garrow’s Law, he appears to have the rouged fury of righteousness in his cheeks. Around all that humanity in the face, his hair wisps away into grey smudges, his collar is a perfunctory, structural scrawl, and the red of his jacket simply offsets the colour in his cheeks. Portraiture at its finest.

Next to him are the prisoners whose conditions he campaigned to improve. This unassuming little piece is meant to look like a causal study, but it works in opposition to Meléndez Valdéz or St Peter: where the detail of those catches your eye first, and the sketchiness of some areas is only noticed later, the painting of the prisoners soon reveals itself to be very un-sketch-like indeed. The composition is meticulous, with the gathering of shackled men framed in the prison tunnels by a blazing white arch of light. Up close you can see that much of this white was painted on last, thick and dry, ensuring it dominates your first impressions. From it, your eye drops to the men: casually placed in the haze of the background, but more carefully posed at the front, down to one man who lies with his feet up on a set of stocks, a shackle at his neck and ankles, and a scrap of cloth artfully draped over his crotch. It’s as awkward a posture as the others hold: if he positioned himself like that for comfort, it can’t have been comfortable for very long. Another leans against a wall; one bends forward slightly, both caught in positions you wouldn’t want to hold; but the central figure twists in the most uncomfortable way, depicted mid-hobble, his balance in doubt as he tries to move his tightly bound feet.

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Interior of a Prison, 1793–4 by Francisco Goya (also my wonky photo).

I’d never normally describe myself as a fan of brown paintings, but Goya’s browns are rich and warm, earthy and alive. You can see the layers of his working and the very conscious way he chooses to portray his subjects. Like Meléndez Valdéz’s gaze, caught mid-rove, or the prisoners in their stress positions, Goya’s paintings made me feel stuck between accepting the accuracy of what he showed, and double-guessing the expert manipulation of scene and light that he uses. Reality and realism hand in hand.

After those three, the rest didn’t do as much for me. It was like going into Dublin’s Caravaggio room in reverse; there you can build up to the masterpiece, nodding at various bold pretenders until you get to the genius itself (The Taking of the Christ is one of my favourite paintings, and all Caravaggios I’ve seen have been unearthly in person — though I’ve not been to the National Gallery in Dublin for a few years now) [honest, really I’m usually much more of a fan of fin de siècle stuff with colours and personal angst, but I do make exceptions]. In this case, after the show-stoppers, there were a couple of, to my eye, fairly perfunctory fruit bowls. There was a documentary on the history of still-life that convinced me of the merit of the genre, and reminded me of the few examples I do like, but generally, while I admire the skill involved, I don’t want to spend much time looking at them. The same was true here, plus there was something about the perspective of the bowls and baskets that made me feel queasy, as though the artist was trying to have his cake fruit and eat it.

In the next room there were a couple of good fits with the El Greco and Goyas: I liked the surreally levitating St Anthony and the mysterious monk with convent in hand (though something about his shoulder seemed awry under his heavy hood). I didn’t much care for the vast dollop of pink, cheruby gauze that was someone’s idea of the Immaculate Conception, and the best thing about the show’s other large painting was learning that archangels sometimes go on road-trips and advise people to cure blindness with fish. Apparently it’s from the Apocrypha; no wonder it sounds so much fun. The death of St Andrew fitted artistically with the idea of El Greco, with its sinewy, stretched body and dramatic lights and darks, but there’s little secular pleasure to be had in the image of Andrew’s crucifixion, unlike St Peter’s tearful repentance. A nice surprise in this room was, however, a portrait of St Eustochium: a woman who helped Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin, and whose portrait used to hang in a monastery (not a convent). I don’t remember much about the painting itself, but I was impressed by its size and original place of hanging, almost enough to forget my bitterness at never having heard of this woman who played a key role in the Church’s history. To be fair though, even through ten+ years of medieval studies, I have always fiercely resisted learning anything about the Church, so it may not be the misogynistic sweeping-under-a-rug of female history I’d automatically assume…

Review: Tori Amos (Royal Albert Hall)

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My photo, between acts.

This was a mad dash to get to and from, a bit ambitious for a weekday night, though totally worth it for Tori herself. Of the support acts, whilst I very much enjoyed the venue (imposing enough to count as a support act), I could have done well without Bell X1. It might just take all my willpower not to refer to them as Bellend1 more than this once, but I’ll try to keep the complaining brief before I get on to the enthusing.

They seemed a curious choice for a support act to Tori Amos, whose music is generally experimental or kooky in some way or another, whose lyrics are personal and challenging, and whose skill in making the piano a grunge instrument remains unrivaled. Perhaps whoever booked them had only heard some of Tori’s more staid recent album tracks, as Bell X1 are the worst kind of Irish stadium rock, grimly ploughing a path behind 2000s-era U2. If I say that Damien Rice was a bit too edgy for them you’ll get the idea (full disclaimer: I actually really love his album O). I’m also not really a fan of the kind of high-pitched, breathy singing favoured by the likes of Bon Iver and Sigur Ros, and this was more of the same (Sigur Ros via Snow Patrol perhaps?), so it was never going to win me over. Still, my despair came pretty swiftly in their first song as the bland singer cooed ‘oh god, I’m such a drama queen!’ over inoffensive warm guitar music. Their Wikipedia page compares them to Talking Heads! Talking Heads for chrissake! I don’t understand stadium rock. I don’t understand one bit. Sure, there was a Star Wars reference in once song (‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’) and when a different band member sang one song it picked up a little. But not my kind of thing at all, really. I’d much rather Tori had started earlier and we’d had an extra encore.

I’d also much rather have had a better view of the stage, but you can’t have everything, and at least the RAH apparently sounds glorious no matter where you are, which is the main thing. The lighting was pretty cool too, swirling over the audience as though we were alternately trapped in a kaleidoscope or a snow globe.

As I left I overheard a somewhat bemused concert-goer comment “she really likes her pedals, doesn’t she?” Yes, anonymous concert-goer, Tori does like her pedals. And, with her liberal use of them, what a job she did of filling that vast building with sound. On stage it was just Tori on her stool between keyboard and piano, her mid-song transitions between the two rows of keys seamless and long-practiced. On a few songs she had a backing track, noticeable particularly on tunes from Scarlet’s Walk (2002), where the drum-beat helped shift ‘Pancake’ and ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ into something like trip-hop remixes of themselves. And her voice has endured wonderfully; when Tori does breathy vocals you can hear the full power of her body behind her careful use of air. It doesn’t sound effortless because it isn’t: it’s a whisper designed to cut through the boom of the piano. She can still hit most of the high-notes, and though she might not have the endurance for some notes that she used to have, she’s accomplished at tweaking her songs here and there to bring them into line with what her voice is capable of now. Songs from her first album are still absolute highlights.

The set-list was a satisfying mixture of fan favourites and new material, with a couple of classic Tori covers (now performed under the sub-heading ‘the Fake Muse Network’ with a Fox-like graphic). I’ve been meaning to write up a review of her recent album, Native Invader (2017), but don’t yet feel I’ve really had a chance to fully immerse myself in it enough to do it justice. It’s grown on me very quickly though, and songs that rather passed me by on the first listen now stand out — one such example is Reindeer King, which got a play after the Fake Muse Network. A cheeky cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ (songs of joy and peace become ‘songs of reindeer’) led into Reindeer King with a typically understated wryness, the warm orange of the lighting giving way to cool blues and whites in the second half of the set. ‘Russia’ and ‘Breakaway’ were her other selections from the new album, and though I’ve have picked ‘Up the Creek’ and ‘Bang’ (or just the latter if I could only have one), both stood up well against material from To Venus and Back (1999) (which I confess to not knowing well at all) and earlier songs.

Now over twenty years old, ‘Beauty Queen/Horses’ was a particular highlight, as was ‘Cloud on my Tongue’, and the crowd rejoiced to hear both ‘Silent All These Years’ and ‘Precious Things’ — oh the cheer that went up at the line ‘so you can make me come/it doesn’t make you Jesus’. It may have been my first Tori gig, but my excellent companion assured me that was a common response, and we agreed that a small mosh pit would be ideal for future Tori gigs. Sitting primly through ‘Precious Things’ as she wrings the piano for all it’s worth isn’t nearly as much fun as leaping and punching the air would be. But even up where we were, with only an awkward view of the stage side-on, we were utterly absorbed in the music.

She joked that the first time she’d played in London, for ’40 quid’, it had been at someone’s birthday party and she’d attended with Neil Gaiman. She self-deprecatingly described the misery of the birthday guests as she played through the track-listing of Little Earthquakes (1992), even as the present audience was still in raptures over hearing the title track. The resilience and defiance in her lyrics is a large part of the appeal, and her fans are ferociously loyal to the music that brought them to her. It seems to me that on her new album she’s got more to say than she’s had for a while, and it shows in the quality of the songs. Just like the old favourites that still get the biggest cheers, music in the face of adversity — personal, political or historical — is what she does best. The people at that birthday party might not have needed to hear that sort of music, but there are plenty of people out there who do. It was fun to share such a vast space with them for a night, though in future I will try to seek her out at smaller venues, and I’ll probably give the support acts a miss…

Review: Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy (Cambridge Junction)

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Image source (x)

It’s always a treat to see either of these two, although this is the first time I’ve seen the pair of them perform together (aside from with The Imagined Village). Martin and Norma Waterson, yes; Martin and Dave Swarbrick, yes; Eliza and her band, yes; just dad and daughter, not previously. And the dynamic was a lot of fun, two dry wits together expressing their love for the slightly absurd nature of the music they play, whilst also conveying the genuine emotion that they find in the folk songs — and more recent compositions — that they perform. Not to mention the fact that they are incredibly accomplished musicians, one of whom played the version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ that provided the inspiration for Dylan’s ‘Girl from the North Country’ and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’. And he’s still one of the humblest and most genuine people you’ll ever encounter.

The set-list was largely made up of tracks recorded on their joint album, The Moral of the Elephant (2014), though Martin also played a recent acquisition — the name escapes me, and it doesn’t seem to have made it onto the setlist.fm page — that had apparently dogged him for some time before he’d managed to pin down the melody that he was so full of praise for.  The fact that, at 76, he’s still collecting and adapting material made this song the perfect example of his mantra that folk music is not about heritage but about life, a mantra reinforced by Eliza’s solo take on ‘Nelly Was a Lady’. The latter is a song written by Stephen Foster and taught to her by a colourful Canadian family friend, described as a great source of ‘hideographs’ (if I remember correctly). The tale of young Foster and his tragic, accidental death is as poignant and vaguely absurd as any you’d find in a broadside ballad (he tripped in his tiny New York apartment and hit his head on the sink as he fell, as there was no space to fall anywhere else); though like many ballads it needs to be read within its historical context. Eliza is a great defender of pop music and the songwriters who are able to write reams of hit songs, whether for broadside ballads, Motown or any other genre. She places the music that she and Martin perform within an ongoing tradition, the two of them noting common reference points and the underlying universality of emotions in these songs: people still love a good lock-in at the pub (Blackwell Merry Night), mothers still suffer the agony of losing their sons to war (Monkey Hair) and six individuals will still struggle to reach a common solution if they don’t work together (The Elephant).

Most of these songs aren’t the anonymous, centuries old pieces of tradition that I suppose many people associate folk music with. The three just mentioned also have named composers, and even the tracks they played with a more mysterious transmission history have been moulded and edited by different singers, performers and composers. An individual who has left their mark on a song is as worthy of discussing as the song itself at this kind of gig. When there’s not a composer or someone to credit the ‘trad. arr’ to, Eliza memorably described the great old ballads as icebergs or glaciers: something that starts off vast, but shears off pieces here and there as it travels the world. It’s perhaps a theory that skims bit close to Russian formalism for my taste, but I can’t deny that folk music does tend to gravitate towards particular types of story… Two grand narratives they put together in their own way were the ‘girl has to be quiet with her lover because her mum’s upstairs and has a vast collection of weaponry for dealing with just such lads’ (I paraphrase, but Eliza described it along these lines!) and ‘died of love’. Examples of the former that may be familiar are Silver Dagger and Kate Rusby’s ‘The Cobbler’s Daughter’, whilst the latter tends to crop up all over the place, often tacked onto the end of a narrative that’s about one sort of ill-fated relationship or another (many of Jim Moray’s preferred traditional songs seem to end like this…). The idea of the mother wanting to save her daughter from an unhappy future relationship, and the intensity of heartache (whether it’s after a break-up or a death) are at the core of these songs, and it’s not hard to see why they endure.

Another thing I’ve always admired about Martin and Eliza’s views on the music they play is their willingness to use it against modern narratives of purity and nationalism. Supporters of Folk Against Fascism, they were involved in setting up The Imagined Village as a multiracial, multicultural folk band that could create a sound that did justice to modern Britain — and historical Britain’s — reliance on immigration and the labour of its colonies. Just go and have a listen to Benjamin Zephaniah helping them re-work Tam Lyn. At this gig it was hard not to hear an anti-Brexit, anti-isolationist streak in the mischievous glee with which Eliza pointed out that, once upon a time, the popular English view was that Napoleon was their saviour, not Wellington… ‘The Grand Conversation on Napoleon’ comes across as a sibling to ‘Bonaparte’s Lament’, which Eliza recorded with her mother, Norma Waterson, on Gift (2010), providing a nice link between the two albums.

Musically, the two of them have a very particular dynamic; they’ve been playing together since Eliza was born, so there’s no attempt to make her into a substitute Swarb. And though she’s got her mother’s lungs, she’s a different generation of musician, and her voice and violin loop elegantly over and around Martin’s solid, syncopated guitar. Occasionally, as on the encore rendition of John Barleycorn, her enthusiasm doesn’t leave much space for Martin’s voice, but on the whole it’s a good balance, and even when they mess-up their intro they seem to be on the same wave-length.

An evening with a Carthy or a Waterson will always come with good stories as well as fantastic music. This was no different, with Eliza tending to provide the longer, meandering shaggy-dog stories behind the songs, and Martin occasionally expressing his enthusiasm for one melody or another, or muttering fond complaints at his guitar, which was prone to misbehave in the heat of the venue. It was a delight: consummate showmanship, peerless musicians and great storytelling. And, if you’ve any memories of seeing any Watersons or Carthys perform over the last decades, Eliza would really really love to know about it, so she can reconstruct her own family’s iceberg.

Review: Belle (2013)

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Bear with me — I was very hungover when I watched this. Some detail may be fuzzy. And when I started watching I’d forgotten this was an Amma Asante film, so was pleasantly surprised every time I didn’t find myself having to cringe from patronising benevolent white people being presented as the pinnacle of goodness and kindness. The film is told very much through Belle’s own eyes, and half-hearted gestures from those around her are most definitely presented as such. Belle covers a lot in its running time, and handles issues of race, gender and class with far more sensitivity and dexterity than most British period dramas, though I’d like to have seen it all given a bit more space to breathe. A short series, rather than a film, might have allowed for a bit more depth and a more satisfying narrative arc.

Belle is based on the true story of the eighteenth-century woman Dido Elizabeth Belle, born into slavery, daughter of a slave woman and an officer in the British Navy. Her father whisks her from the life her mother endured to have her raised by his brother, who just happens to be the Lord Chief Justice, Earl of Mansfield, William Murray. Dido is raised in the household as one of the gentry, taught all the things a young woman should be taught, and eventually inherits enough to be free from an obligation to marry, making her an heiress. A few details of her life have been tweaked to make the story neater, and I tend to think it’s a pity when people making historical dramas feel the need to do this, but here I do at least see the point of some of the changes made.

The movie starts choppily, in a rush to get from Belle’s initial, disorienting arrival at Mansfield, through the key points of her situation as a young woman, speeding on like it’s set to fast-forward until it can introduce a wider cast of characters. It’s a shame to rush through all this, and though all the key information in there — Belle’s grave attitude towards the subservient role of other black people in her new home’s art collection; her cousin Elizabeth’s lack of a fortune and their closeness; the liminal status of their governess, Mary, who has wealth but never married — it feels perfunctory. Given the larger details of Belle’s life and the historical context that the movie alters, it’s a pity that it didn’t take the time to slow down and speculate on her character a little more. She comes across as a smart, principled woman who realises she is trapped by her unique status, but I’d just love to have had more depth to her and the other characters.

Things pick up as the movie zeroes in on two aspects of Belle’s life at home: the portrait that her uncle commissions of her and Elizabeth, and the case of the slave-ship Zong, in which Marshall is due to give a ruling. The story of the Zong massacre is a key part of the abolition movement in Britain — I think I first saw it dealt with in Garrow’s Law, which, like Belle, involves its own lawyer in proceedings rather than portraying the anti-slavery activist Granville Sharp, who was the most forceful voice against the slave-ship’s owners. Garrow’s Law did, however, concentrate on the significant testimony of Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave, and though there is no evidence that I know of that Belle ever met Equiano, her presence at Marshall’s ruling is equally unattested, so it might have been interesting to see the film speculate on her response to Equiano’s words too. Along with the touching scene where the black maid, Mabel, teaches Belle about the different way she needs to comb her hair, I’d like to have seen a bit more about Belle’s response to other black people in Britain at the time. She’s not quite as isolated as Stephen Black becomes in the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but it felt like something that could have been explored in more detail.

These are really minor gripes of course, Belle highlights important aspects of its heroine’s situation that I expect that a movie entirely crewed by white people would not have thought to include. The way in which Belle comes to appreciate the difference between her skin colour being tolerated by those who claim it doesn’t matter to them, and finding a genuine connection with someone who cares about changing the society that can only put up with her as an exception to the rule, is handled beautifully. The fragile allyship of her cousin Elizabeth, who does not want to hear that the man she’s courting is a racist who has been actively violent towards Belle, is another important scene, reinforcing Belle’s isolation as soon as she starts to become conscious of the difference of her position.

It is, at heart, a period romance, though. John Davinier — the name of Dido Elizabeth Belle’s actual husband, though he was a Frenchman and a gentleman’s steward, not an ambitious rural law-student — is an appealing, emotional foil for Belle. His low position allows the film to highlight issues of class and income alongside Belle’s own experiences of racism, and alongside the sexism that limits Mary’s options in later life and looks likely to limit Belle’s in the same way. Elizabeth’s story combines these issues too, showing the pressure on her to secure a wealthy husband because she has no income of her own. A lot of people find themselves trapped in the society depicted, and the film doesn’t allow any of them a truly easy way out. But in its ambitions to address all of these social problems, and to let Belle’s relationship with Davinier have the space to gain real emotional heft, I still think it perhaps tried to do too much.

I might have preferred a story without Davinier that focussed on the two rulings made by Marshall that were combined into one by the film, weaving in the story of the portrait as an elegant piece of symbolism for Belle’s fears and awareness of her unique status. Or, as I said above, a mini-series that did all that the movie does in a bit more depth, with a bit more slow characterisation and a bit more detail in the historical context. Despite this, it’s a significant development in British period drama, and I’d like to see a lot more historical dramas with this kind of clued-up attitude towards the intersectional nature of inequality. It also, inevitably, looks gorgeous, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance is quietly powerful, offering audiences as much insight into Belle’s inner unease as she can within the film’s clipped narrative frame. More like this please. Much more, in every sense.

Review: Lilus Kikus and other stories (Elena Poniatowska)

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Illustration by Leonora Carrington.

I’m grateful to the same person who introduced me to the work of Tómas Eloy Martínez for also pointing me towards Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico’s most celebrated and talented writers. Poniatowska, now 85, has been writing since the 1950s, pushing boundaries in both journalism and fiction. It’s a pity more of her work hasn’t yet been translated into English (and I deeply regret not knowing Spanish), and she remains little known outside Latin America; certainly it is an apposite time to return to her polemical writing on the 1968 student massacre and on the government’s failings surrounding the 1986 earthquake.

This little collection, translated with a substantial introduction by Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez, focuses on Poniatowska’s fiction writing, bringing together short stories and novellas she wrote and published during the 1950s–70s. These are arranged together to give an overview of Poniatowska’s feminist thinking and to highlight the lack of equality between men and women in Mexican society at the time of writing. Though of course, it would be ridiculous to say they have no resonance today. They are: Lilus KikusThe Philosopher’s Daughter, Fifth CallHappiness and You Arrive by Nightfall.

It’s a surprise to hear Lilus Kikus described as a children’s story, as although she makes heavy use of fairy tales and rich description, Poniatowksa’s writing evokes Kafka and D. H. Lawrence for me more than Dahl or Carroll. Lilus Kikus is a series of vignettes from the life of a young girl, Lilus, who is going through the process of understanding the world around her, and who gradually must become aware of how the world sees her. She watches passers-by and discovers the minutiae of her world through rich sensory encounters, from the warm birds she has held to the visceral pride she feels in displaying her cuts and scrapes to curious boys (but she’ll be paid in cash rather than kisses thank you). She sits on a wall, fascinated by an old philosopher, who looks for meaning only in his books rather than outside his window. When he notices her, the philosopher is charmed, but Lilus is soon drawn away by her mother, who will send her to convent school, where she’ll be taught the proper way to see the world. Lilus relishes a lot of the knowledge she’s taught, and she has rebellious friends and good friends; the rebellious one is banished, and the good one is strangled by her husband.

Lilus is moulded by her surroundings, and in the end we are told that she is able to recognise the signs around her and act accordingly. Interpreting the close of the story is tough; it’s long been seen as an ending in which she straightens up and conforms, leaving her tomboyish, inquisitive youth behind her in order to become an obedient, proper young woman. Martínez thinks it’s more hopeful than that, though I struggled to see it in the ending’s abruptness. Reflecting on the story as a whole, perhaps there’s hope in the fact that if Lilus can observe the ways in which society seeks to control her, she can control her own responses, but it’s a tenuous hope at the end of a dreamy, meandering little tale.

Things don’t improve for The Philosopher’s Daughter, which seemed to me like a nightmarish, feminist reading of one of Kafka’s nasty little stories like A Country Doctor. The references to fairy tales are explicit, and the descriptions of the philosophy master’s room are consistently otherworldly: the place seems almost submerged in Poniatowska’s watery metaphors, the challenger to the master’s dominance a barely-there shadow of malice as his mere presence brings destruction into the house.

She stops smiling at her fairy godmother, at the enchanted carriage, at the crystal slipper and the well, and instead looks intently at her pricked fingers.

The philosopher’s daughter is not accomplished; she’s pricked her fingers with her poor efforts at binding her father’s books, confined to a dark corner of his debating chamber where he and his pupils share and consume knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and she keeps them well supplied with port and biscuits, but is not permitted to join in. Her pricked fingers are very real, but like Sleeping Beauty, her parent is neglectful of the danger facing her, and she is about to be enchanted into an affair that is nothing but artifice. Her father’s challenger, stung by the lack of recognition he receives from the group, seduces her as a way to get back at his master, and his victory is a tragedy for the daughter.

Each furnishing the poet touched fell to the floor in pieces. The girl had to reconstruct them piece by piece quickly, before his imagination could destroy the final details. His cup of coffee evaporated in his hand and she had to take great care to bring him back to reality and prevent the others from becoming aware of his many destructions.

The boundaries between reality and Poniatowska’s fanciful, elaborate metaphors are thin, adding to the fairy tale-like tone of the story. The ending is again a mixture of the abrupt and the obfuscated; details, like the detail of Lilus’ friend’s transgression that got her sent from convent school, are omitted. Poniatowska prefers to be allusive than to be vulgarly direct. This is somewhat carried over into Fifth Call and Happiness, both of which are about the joy of physical intimacy and the feeling of overwhelming love, but both remain underpinned by the isolation of the individual. The prose in these reminds me strongly of D. H. Lawrence’s rich, indirect descriptions in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love: it’s an ambitious shot at pinning down aspects of intimacy that are personal and mutable, and I think Poniatowska on the whole is more successful than Lawrence, not least because of the empathetic female gaze she uses.

Fifth Call is about an unmarried couple who meet up in hotel rooms for sex; they idly browse local apartments, but they never commit to them, nor to the relationship. The woman, Julia, is clearly more invested in the relationship than Rodrigo is, and the story opens with an effective, telling juxtaposition of introduction and dialogue:

And words of love—that awkward, stuttering language—surged.
“…”
“…”
“Are you cold?”
“No.”

During sex they have no problems expressing themselves, but afterwards they grow apart almost instantly. The story is structured around Julia’s observations, particularly of Rodrigo, whose face and demeanour seem so different to her as they dress, and when they’re outside the hotel room. It’s a tale about inertia, and though there is no judgement of the young couple it’s clear that Rodrigo has the autonomy to be able to come and go as he likes, whilst Julia must be content with accepting her lot. She’s a willing participant in the relationship, but she’s never able to have any control over it.

In Happiness things seem a little more equal, at least because the relationship appears to be more established, with a slightly personalised room rather than a thin-walled, multicoloured hotel room. Yet it is again very clear that the woman is the more vulnerable person here: she knows how necessary she finds her partner, her thoughts circling this fearful realisation even as he dozes off. I’m not a fan of the ‘needy girlfriend worrying about what her boyfriend’s thinking’ trope, because it’s usually used as another stick to beat women with: ‘ugh chill out, he’s just thinking about sport! Don’t be so clingy!’ In this setting though — precisely the kind of cultural and social setting that helped to form the stereotype — how can you blame the one with no power in the relationship for worrying that she isn’t needed as much as she needs her partner? The narrator of Happiness is, for the most part, happy, but she fears the gulf that must always exist between two discrete entities, eventually leaving the room when her partner falls asleep; as he leaves her for unconsciousness, she must physically leave him too, in order to remind herself of her separate nature. It’s perhaps the most honest, explicit narrative in this collection of short stories.

Finally, You Arrive by Nightfall is the funniest of the group, again returning to the Kafka-esque, but confounding bureaucracy with a guileless femininity that one suspects Kafka would have found as threatening as the judge in this novella does. Apparently the movie it was adapted into was just an OTT piece of erotica, which makes it sound like those who adapted it never read the story at all. The story is of a woman called Esmeralda who is married to five men: one of the men finds out and his pride is hurt, so he brings charges of bigamy. In the court, the judge sweats over the imagined depravity of this woman’s life, whilst she smiles sweetly and fails to understand any of his stuttering references to her sex life. She maintains that, as a nurse, her five marriages are just an extension of her desire to help others: she met each man when he needed help with some injury or ailment, and now she organises their lives, and she knows that in this story, she is the necessary one. Their lives fall apart without Esmeralda spending a day of each week with them and devoting her weekends to their ironing.

Eventually her situation wins the whole court-house over, the story culminating in a conviction that no one seems to want, with all those who have been touched by Esmeralda’s presence congregating at the prison for cakes and a catch-up. Even the husband who brought the charges regrets his actions and continues to visit her in prison. The women in the court-house are smitten, proud of Esmeralda’s unapologetic responses, and the isolated existence each seemed to have is swept away as they are united in their responses to her trial. A few references here and there make it clear that, had this been about a man with multiple wives or mistresses, no one would have batted an eyelid.

The collection ends on a relatively triumphant note then, moving past the isolated fears of the women in Fifth Call and Happiness to Esmeralda’s strange kind of saintliness. Poniatowska’s writing is synaesthetic and rich, evoking vivid internal monologues and a clearly-defined sense of place. I’d love to read more of her writing, particularly if it’s translated in the sensitive, idiosyncratic manner that Martínez seems to have achieved so well.

Double bill! Pride & Prejudice and Zombies (2016) and Magic Mike (2012)

I’m putting these two together because I wasn’t paying terribly close attention to either, but I’m nevertheless going to try and make myself write up some thoughts. Spoilers ahoy for both.

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I really, really, really don’t care about zombies. Luckily, neither does this film; background and explanation are rushed through (a plague, probably the French? Ho ho ho), the mythology is never investigated in any detail, and I wasn’t required to contemplate whether zombies might actually be a stand-in for our fear of death, or the fear of mass migration, or whatever. (Actually, if a film seriously did the latter I might be interested. Might.) It’s a pity in some ways I suppose; how would a Mansfield Park and Zombies work if it had to tie the wealth of the Bertrams, gained from the repulsive slave trade, to the fact that the word zombie entered the English language through West Africans who had been forcibly taken to colonies in the Caribbean? Could a story be told of zombies as the righteous justice returning to Imperial heartlands, seeking anything from revenge to the means to reclaim their independence? And then, when you have a character who champions their cause, keeping them fed with pig brains and keeping them social by maintaining their forms of worship, that character wouldn’t need to be the villain of the piece… hum. Well, now I’ve described the Austen/zombie cross-over I’d rather have, back to the one I actually watched.

I don’t have much to say about it, really. I was underwhelmed by the whole cast, barring Matt Smith as a gloriously goofy Parson Collins. Even Lena Headey was disappointingly staid: as soon as I saw the portraits Lady Catherine had of herself vanquishing all kinds of beasts on the battlefield I was hoping for some real scenery-chewing and scene-stealing, but the character was sadly muted and underused. And whilst my first instinct was to be glad I didn’t have to put up with much world-building, it was a pity that the idea of everyone going for martial training in Asia wasn’t better integrated into the story. Imperial Britain, admitting that the Chinese have something to teach them? And why not bring some of your mentors back with you; I very much like the idea of the moneyed young things getting competitive about their standard of spoken Mandarin or Japanese, but I’d rather it wasn’t completely divorced from the places and the people who taught them. Still, the story is ostensibly trying to stick as closely as it can to the original, just with a zombie apocalypse going on, so it doesn’t leave much time for exploring the nuances of throwing zombies and closer contacts with Asia into the setting.

To be honest, I took a sort of glee in London falling to zombies. And there is a shallow pleasure in the sight of primly Empire-waisted sisters kicking ass with barely a ringlet out of place. But I was actually on Wickham’s side when it comes to containing the problem by trying to integrate the zombies back into society (of a sort); why not try the humane fix? Oh, because Wickham’s still a nasty piece of work when it comes to everyone’s younger sisters… that detail had to be retained because otherwise he’d look too reasonable I suppose, and then gravel-voiced Darcy wouldn’t be able to save the day by stealing dead soldiers’ brains to feed to those placid, church-going zombies. Grim.

Yes, Jane and Elizabeth save their men. Yes, the women all rule at fighting. But it’s all about as deep as a puddle, a vapid take on ‘you know what would be really cool???’ And I didn’t really expect any more from the movie, so it’s all well and good I suppose.


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Why yes, I watched these two movies during a girly afternoon with a friend and lots of Baileys in coffee, how did you guess? As everyone knows, Magic Mike isn’t the story of gratuitous sexy dancing and lots of abs, it’s really about a man who just wants to be able to sell his fugly homemade furniture to gullible saps in the area of Tampa. It also features far more of Matthew McConaughey than any person should be made to see. I’m going to be having nightmares about that sparkly butt-crack tassel for the rest of my life.

So, ignoring the dancing for the moment, this movie is a neat little character piece. Mike is 30, he’s the biggest draw at the strip club, and he’s also really good at his other part-time jobs. He’s got $15,000 of cash stashed away to get his own business going, it’s just that the pesky bank won’t give him a good rate on a loan because of his credit issues. Seems pretty unfair, but the movie never tells us how he ended up with credit problems, nor do we get to see what measures the bank want him to take to improve his rating. Instead we get Mike apparently hoping to charm the clerk (who’s flustered because she’s seen him on stage), whilst lying about what the manager has said to him previously. He’s also shagging sociology master’s student Joanna, and what’s clearly just a bit of fun for her is rapidly becoming something like much-needed emotional crutch for Mike. Oh dear. Then Mike meets Adam, gets him a job at the club, promises to take care of him for his big sister Brooke…this is standard Western cinema, so Conflict Must Ensue, have no fear!

Mike starts off seeming very much like a guy who’s got it all together: he’s like a big brother figure at the club, diligent and organised behind the scenes, surely the perfect person to take young, aimless Adam under his wing? But of course no: Mike wants a different life, but he’s got too much inertia to change his way of getting there. He seems to think if he just earns enough cash the problems at the bank will disappear; if he just keeps saying he wants to go to Miami, he’ll want to go; if he just keeps on meeting up with Joanna it might become something more. It’s not until grindingly late in the movie that Brooke tells him in no uncertain terms that he can’t expect to stay on that track forever and Mike develops a flutter of self-awareness.

Meanwhile, Adam takes to his new job with the predictable enthusiasm of a nineteen-year-old, ends up involved in drugs, is a smug little prick about everything, blah blah, Brooke finds him in a pile of his own vomit, the mob want their money back, oops, there goes $10,000 of Mike’s savings. When all this predictably unfurled, I found myself continually thinking of Les Intouchables. There’s that whole sub-plot about the Fabergé egg, and I remember worrying when it would come back to ruin Phillippe and Driss’ relationship, if Driss would have to try and track it down, all that stuff. But it doesn’t. It goes, and that’s it. That is a movie where people drift apart, not a movie about conflict with the standard arc of narrative. It was so refreshing in that respect (I mean, yes it is a blatant example of the Magical Negro trope still), and I just wonder whether Magic Mike really needed Adam’s predictably berkish behaviour in order to tell its story. Arguably, that’s just Adam’s character, but the narrative decision to have him leave $10,000 worth of ecstasy behind wasn’t really anything rooted in character. I suppose this seems like a really weird, specific gripe, but having found a few films that I adore that just quietly do character studies, without the usual crescendo of tension found in so many narratives based in conflict, I’ve been kind of spoiled. If Magic Mike really wanted to do something different it could have done. But it doesn’t.

So having found the character arcs somewhat predictable, and finding that I didn’t much like Adam or even Mike all that much, I’m left with the dancing. Everyone’s got their own thing, desire is individual, and I’m not here to kink-shame anyone. But personally, the idea of lying on a gurney on a stage whilst someone thrusts their crotch in my face is really, really not my idea of a turn-on. The dancing is super impressive, the muscles the guys have to be able to dance like that are also impressive, but none of them do it for me. So basically, this whole movie was an exercise in ‘well I guess other people like this because…’ Unsurprisingly, I did quite enjoy Brooke. If the whole thing had been centred on her rather than Mike I might have had more fun. Still, it was a light, generally sweet movie, even if it was predictable and rather unsatisfying at the end.