Short review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

Ok, yet again I am very behind on these posts, this time by about two months…partly because I don’t have too much to say about some of the things I watched and read. This being one of them. So I’m trying to catch up, and to make myself write a little less in doing so.

The animation was the high point of this for me: the individuality of the dogs and their expressive faces, and the carefully managed palette. There’s the usual dead pan delivery, the immaculate, symmetrical composition and understated humour of a Wes Anderson film, but I didn’t feel there was as much humour or as much heart as in some of his others. It’s a hit and miss affair with something so stylised and affected, and in this case of ymmv, my patience was stretched, like many others’, by the white girl saviour. While all were passive around her, she saw through the oppressive regime and fought on when everyone else had given up: it was patronising, not inspiring. What seemed to be a strong commitment to not subtitling the Japanese worked well when it was just the dogs and Atari, but the rules got bent in increasingly distracting ways, and Tracy was a big part of that. I didn’t much enjoy Anderson’s last exploration of growing pains, Moonrise Kingdom, but I was surprised by how little this made me feel given the rapturous reviews. For animation, I’ll stick to Fantastic Mr Fox; for emotional hits, Royal Tenenbaums. For Japanese, I’ll stick to Ghibli. The adventures with the dogs were fun, and I kept frantically trying to find a deeper meaning behind it — themes of environmentalism and immigration/integration seemed to simmer up now and then — but it was all just a bit inconsistent and thin.

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Review: The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro)

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Image source. I struggled to find out any more about the sculpture, I’d love to know more if you have any info.

Oh. Oh my heart. This was gorgeous, a confection of fantasy and historical fiction with a sly undercurrent of postmodern self-awareness. The mock-historical setting is perfect for a tale of trauma, forgetting, love, loss and anger. This is the only Ishiguro I’ve read, and I’d been meaning to get to it since it came out, primarily because of the appeal of the setting: a dreamy, fantastic, folkloric version of post-Roman Britain, where fictions, anachronisms and ogres roam the land. The way people have thought of this period for so long makes it perfectly apt for a story about why we choose to remember and to forget: in post-Roman Britain, didn’t everyone fall into the ‘dark ages’ overnight? Choosing to live in mud huts rather than lovely villas, forgetting civilisation and culture and Christianity in favour of ignorant savagery? Well no, but it’s what some still think, so Ishiguro playfully sprinkles elements of the exaggerated and fantastic into this stereotype, where the Britons live in burrows in the earth’s rock, an aged Sir Gawain roams the land in full armour, tall and gaunt like Sir Nicketty Nox, bringing to mind the persistent medieval idea that the ancestors were greater and far taller. Most appropriately of all, a mist of forgetfulness lies on the land: people do not remember what life was like before, or what led them to the lives they live now, or how to live in the splendour the Romans lived in. So families have been divided by this forgetting, and communities risk forgetting members who go missing. Still, it’s a time of peace for the people of this land, where their only fear comes from the ogres, pixies and superstitions the country is steeped in.

The plot centres on an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who realise gradually that they once had a son, and they decide to travel to where they suppose him to be. This devoted pair allows the theme of collective forgetfulness to mingle with moments that evoke the frustrations of dementia: although Axl and Beatrice seem to be able to break through the mist more than younger generations of adults, their flashes of insight do not always coincide, and sometimes contradict each others’ memories, or, worse, the idea the other wants to have of their past. Acrimony and hurt can come from the way we remember differently, or do not remember at all. But what keeps Axl and Beatrice going is the conviction that it will be worth remembering all the bad, in order to recall all that was good. They are willing to have their painful memories returned if it means they can once again trace the trajectories of their love through the years. Gradually, this determination to recover their memories takes over from the primary mission of finding their son, and the revelations about the mist come thick and fast as they encounter others who struggle against its hold.

The sense of foreboding throughout the novel is strong: a wariness instilled by the knowledge that people forget things when they have suffered a great and rending trauma. In many ways, therefore, this is not a subtle story. We meet a boatman early on, a tall figure in black who is followed by death: the old woman who torments him with dead rabbits seems to twist our ideas of the animals sacrificed in ancient burials. Her rabbits are not offerings to appease death or its representative, and they do not help her husband in the afterlife. Rather she sacrifices as an act of vengeance, reminding the boatman that when he brought her a rabbit to eat instead of passage to the island where her husband went, his offering to her fell short. She is one of many ragged cronies who pepper Ishiguro’s landscape, sad and always somehow threatening, a reminder of something that others would rather forget. Anyway, we’ve all come across enough tales of ferryman to see what’s going on here: this woman’s husband has died and passed over to a place where his wife cannot go. She was told that sometimes, when a bond between a couple is strong enough, both may travel together, but their relationship failed that test. We know then, that Axl and Beatrice, who is ailing from the outset, will face a similar test eventually. But they are polite to the boatman, and he is kind to them, and we see how devoted they are to each other, again and again, don’t we?

Mixed into this is a Saxon warrior with a chip on his shoulder and a young boy in search of his place in the world. Admittedly, in his eagerness to deepen the setting beyond how it affects Axl and Beatrice, Ishiguro adds perhaps a few too many elements. The boy’s perspective does not add much — an inevitable sense of responsibility for his missing mother and appropriate admiration for the heroic Saxon warrior — and elements of Gawain’s history with Axl were maybe over-convenient. There are meanderings that might have dragged more if I hadn’t had a long train journey on which to plough through them. But the ending is exquisite, and the tension of what is unknown builds gradually and steadily until all is resolved in an inevitable, bittersweet sigh of catharsis — for some, at least. The ending shows the way in which we tell tales and lies to ourselves to make the idea of hardship easier. They can be helpful up until that point, but if you believe in then too strongly you will only make the moment of pain more difficult, because life and death do not conform to the story we have told ourselves. By remembering the bad as well as the good we are more honest with ourselves.

Review: Out Stealing Horses (Per Petterson)

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Image source.

A Christmas book, that feels like it could be one of the truncated novels encountered by the Reader of If on a winter’s night a traveller… It’s written in the first person, introspective and dreamy, set around a cluster of upheavals in the life of the protagonist and his country. This is a translation by Anne Born from the Norwegian, maintaining the clipped sentences and emotional restraint of the original language as it recounts Trond’s quiet retirement in the Norwegian countryside, a retreat that both evokes and is brought on by memories from his childhood and more recent traumas.

Trond is something of a city boy, born in Oslo, stuck there through the war with his mother and older sister while his father spends long periods in the countryside by the Swedish border, smuggling information — and more — back and forth. Later in life, Trond makes a good living in the city, wearing a suit, but he feels the allure of country living still: simple, physical, outdoor work, with an easily achievable sense of satisfaction to it. This is bound up to a summer after the war, when at 15 he joined his father on the border to do good, manly, outdoorsy things like mowing hay, chopping timber, and riding horses. When he loses his wife in a car accident, the elderly Trond retires to a remote country house, tasking himself with the physical labours of doing it up, teaching himself the skills to maintain the house and its land and relishing the loneliness of the life he has chosen, frustrated only by the idea of what others think they see in him or know of him when he visits the nearby town for supplies.

This retreat brings Trond memories from the summer of his youth, not least when his only neighbour up by the lake turns out to be the brother of his friend Jon, who disappeared that summer. It’s a convenient coincidence, and one that Trond compares to a twist in a Dickens novel. Lars, Jon’s brother, was once a twin, but shot his sibling in an accident that was partially Jon’s fault and led to his disappearance. It’s a strand of the story that feels superfluous compared to the enormous feeling generated by Trond’s memories of his father and their relationship, though perhaps we’re meant to see a contrast in the ways the two boys deal with loss: Jon flees, taking a hyper-masculine career on a merchant ship, and returning only to mercilessly turf his younger brother out of the family farm. Trond, despite his resentment, stays by his mother and sister, later remembering his wife and other women he has known, and finding that his lonely retreat from the world is not possible when his daughters will not let him abandon them in the way his father left him. Still, though the contrast between the elderly Lars and Trond’s handing of dogs, chainsaws and housekeeping is a nice echo of Trond and his father’s relationship, it felt unnecessary to the story, and not being a fan of Dickens myself, I wasn’t much interested in Trond’s brief, and to me, untethered, allusions to his stories — though the scene with his daughter, where they bonded over his storytelling was a touching one.

Rather, Trond’s father, and the striking, sun-beaten figure of Jon and Lars’ mother loom large in the book, as they do in their community on the border. The way in which Trond learns of how these two, through bravery and idealism, were brought together during the war, is doubly affecting, drawn through the lenses of a lonely old age and a bitter teenage yearning, tinged with jealousy. The evocation of the father/son relationship is done beautifully, along with Trond’s belated realisation that he never really got his father back from the war: but not, this time, because of loss and trauma, but because of love and an unexpected bond that arose in unique circumstances. It doesn’t much excuse the situation Trond’s mother is left in, of course, and there is little interest in psychologising her beyond maternal concern and passivity, but this is something that the book remains true to throughout: despite the sympathy accorded to the women in it, there is not much of an attempt to relate too closely to them, and they always remain separate, distinct from the male perspective through which we encounter them. It’s similar, to be fair, with the competent men of the outdoors: Trond’s father, with his likeable, calmly authoritative way, Lars, with his experienced approach to everyday physical tasks, and Franz, a follower, but a competent, wise one at that. Trond does not see how well he fits in with them, though he is proud of the achievements that show he does: freeing the timber trapped in the river, meticulously training Lyra and keeping his house in order.

It’s really a very Scandinavian little melodrama: there’s death, betrayal, tragedy and disappointment, but it’s all very muted, taken within an acute awareness of the sensations within one’s own body, and the colour of the sky and the fields. It’s as sensitive a portrayal as you could ask for of teenage paternal adoration and the period of a dawning awareness of the complexities and haphazard nature of human life. Combine this with the equally empathetic view of old age, chosen loneliness, and the constant hypocrisies between self-awareness and obliviousness, and you get a rich, rewarding character study, set in a beautiful, vivid countryside.

Review: Manic Street Preachers (Manchester Arena)

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My photo.

A much more boisterous Manics than I saw in Bingley last summer, with a brand new album to promote. I’ve been enjoying Resistance is Futile quite a lot: it’s not as inventive as Futurology or as heartfelt as Rewind the Film, but it’s got that triumphant, tragic punchiness that Send Away the Tigers had, and is far more consistent than some of their other albums. They’re enjoying themselves at the moment, apparently on the brink of having nothing else to say, and then finding out that actually, they do. But this wasn’t just a set of new album tracks — Generation Terrorists was featured nearly as much as the new stuff, and it was heartening to see audience members of all ages respond to Manics tracks of all ages.

This was a long, continuous set, like an extended festival but inside the cavernous Manchester Arena. The band were supported by a few extra musicians — the obligatory rhythm guitarist, a keyboard and trombone — who helped when the dry-ice-heavy air, the one-legged jumping about, and the traditionally enthusiastic singing led to interruptions to James Dean Bradfield’s vocals. But then the crowd was happy to fill in: acoustic singalong time was a particular delight, being in the midst of such a huge crowd all joining in on ‘Everything Must Go’ and ‘Faster’. James’ voice also got a bit of a rest with the mostly-instrumental, unusual treat ‘Horses Under Starlight’, and the shared tracks ‘Dylan & Caitlin’ and ‘Little Baby Nothing’ (though odd that with The Anchoress there to join in, James sang ‘Your Love Alone is Not Enough’ solo).

We got Nicky Wire’s opinions on men’s fashion (‘why do men have to dress like they’re going mountaineering?)’, his nostalgia for kicking Steps off the #1 spot with a song about ‘centrism and the Spanish Civil War’, and self-deprecating chat about his bass-playing after James messed up the intro to one of the songs (‘if we restarted every time I made a mistake…’). It was a rich, varied set, complete with seamlessly carried out guitar changes, big-screen lyric-slogans. They’ve been doing this kind of thing for long enough that they ought to know how to put on a good show, and indeed they do. I love the fact that the Manics continue to celebrate their early music, always give a shout-out to the absent Richey, continue to embrace the pretentious, ridiculous, earnest aspects of what they’ve done and still do. It means they’re still so much fun to see live, because it’s all genuine. It looks like a good way to get middle aged.

Review: Avengers: Infinity War (cinema)

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This review contains spoilers.

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I had no expectations. None. No idea what I was going into, just sort of resentful that people were going to get killed off in this movie, and that reviewers seemed therefore to think it was great. But. Shit. It was great. And I can’t deny that part of the difference is the unpredictability that comes from the fact that superpowers won’t necessarily save you in this Marvel outing. Some of the deaths are shockingly early and likely permanent; others come later, and many of these I suspect will be reversed by whatever happens in Part II next year. It leaves the survivors in a strange and scary place though, particularly Tony Stark. And the deaths that do look permanent (as well as some of the others) are not simply there for shock value. They hurt. They hurt for the audience and they hurt for the other characters, and they are not simply brushed away once the action begins.

I know there’s some grumbling out there about stories that rely on pain and loss, but I don’t expect the MCU to buck the trend on that, and these things are not inherently lazy storytelling, which Infinity War proves. Through it all, various characters and teams we’ve come to love from other films are affected by different upheavals, but they’re brought together in ways that are both surprising and quite canny — to my mind, rather like in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, where Rocket and Yondu’s characterisation benefitted from their time together, and Nebula and Gamora finally got some time together.

The balance of storytelling is very carefully controlled, too, with no one group dominating, and no one feeling sidelined — though there are some notable absences who are not mentioned, so we are perhaps meant to assume that they’re ok and will return in future, that their actors just simply couldn’t get time off. I did not think there would be much fun to be had in corralling together the heroes’ biggest egos (Stark, Quill and Strange), but this works pretty well, and Peter Parker keeps up with them admirably, his quips providing a clever bridge between Stark and Strange’s sniping and Quill’s dated pop culture knowledge. Similarly, Rocket and Thor make a great team, gung-ho, reckless and underpinned by Thor’s particularly cruel plot-line, but there’s genuine warmth in his story, despite the losses. When Steve and T’Challa sprint side by side into the fray it’s glorious, the two good men leading the fight to protect what they hold dear.

Repeatedly, the choice comes up in the film between killing someone you love and saving the world/getting what you want. For some, it’s simple: Steve says we don’t do that, it’s not an either/or. Gamora, unsurprisingly, is more clear-eyed about sacrifice and tells Quill he must kill her to protect the knowledge she has. But then again, Gamora herself finds the situation reversed more difficult: let her sister suffer or give up what she knows. Loki can’t watch it happen to his brother, Wanda doesn’t want to do it to Vision. Thanos…doesn’t hesitate long, when the choice is put to him. As usual, I’m inclined to agree with Steve: we want it both ways. Save the day and the people we care about. But, although a couple of sacrifices are made, they make no difference, and the day looks decidedly un-saved at the end.

I suspect that it all hinges on something that Strange saw that isn’t yet obvious: he looks into the future, and decides to give up the Time stone. ‘It’s the only way’, he says, and the loss of the other stones follows along: it’s, by this point, not a surprise that Gamora wants to save her sister. Now that Thanos has the Reality stone, even Quill and Gamora’s plan to protect the Soul stone can’t work, and it’s predictable that Quill would respond as he did when he learned why Thanos was grieving, and then with the Time stone, Wanda and Vision’s plan is also doomed. So I’m assuming Strange saw that it was only by letting Thanos get what he wants — initially — that they could stop him and un-do what he’s done. Through a series of predictable responses from our various flawed heroes, Thanos comes to own all the stones, and cleanly wipes away half the population of the universe. But I’m sure this will be undone. After all, T’Challa and Peter Parker have movies to come back for. And Cap is still unharmed.

Expecting to see my favourite character killed off in this movie, I came out instead with the annoying realisation that the MCU finally made me care about Loki. And with very mixed feelings about what happened to Gamora. She was amazing, her story was as central as it should be to a film about her ‘father’s’ evil plan. Oh my heart, when she triumphed because she thought Thanos had nothing to sacrifice for the Soul stone! That scene, with Red Skull trapped in his folkloric punishment, guardian of something he could never possess because he truly had nothing he loved — it reminded me of what happens to Lascelles in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell — was great, but I am not ready to be without Gamora yet. Perhaps that, too, can be undone, as we have a third Guardians of the Galaxy movie due. Though I’m also conflicted about undoing too much, or else we go right back to where we were, and this movie becomes totally pointless.

Ok, so theories aside, Infinity War looks gorgeous. It somehow balances all its characters well, combining them in ways that complement each other and making a more interesting emotional arc for many than they got in Civil War or elsewhere. I don’t think it’s perfect, and I reserve judgement on some things until Part II comes out, but I’m impressed it was as coherent and satisfying movie as it was. I’m looking forward to seeing it again soon, when I might have some more collected thoughts. But bring on Captain Marvel.

Review: The City & the City (China Miéville)

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An interruption to my planned schedule of reading, because I totally forgot the BBC were adapting it and have been meaning to read it for years so now had to hastily get through it before watching the adaptation. It’s immediately clear that this is a far more adaptable China Miéville story than any I’ve read previously (the New Crobuzon trilogy and Un Lun Dun), but it’s still an inventive, thrilling bit of world-building. I’m tempted to see Calvino wherever I look now, and in the early parts of the novel felt that Besel and Ul Qoma and their fractured languages and histories were surely inspired by Calvino’s invented histories of Cimbran and Cimmerian, though Miéville’s countries really came into their own after the first third or so of the novel. Still, there’s the same dislocation that comes from saying that a language ceased to exist as a result of some relatively recent conflict, and the same sense that there might be areas on the fringes of Europe and Russia where differences that look small to outsiders are essential dividing lines to locals.

Plot-wise, it’s a fairly standard crime thriller, with twists that can be guessed at and characters who remain relatively distant even by the end. I’m well-disposed towards our protagonist, Inspector Tyador Borlú from the Besel Extreme Crime Squad, and this is largely because he seems like a well-functioning, competent person rather than a bundle of standard tropes: there’s no great sadness or unresolved guilt from his past, he’s just a guy who’s been doing his job well for a long time, who observes things closely and makes the leap to the right conclusions easily. Miéville writes dialogue and interactions in such a naturalistic way, leaving surrounding details sparse so that the reader has to follow conversations in a manner much more like that of cinematic storytelling, that when Borlú later reveals his own takeaways from the same conversations it can either come as a surprise — oh I didn’t notice that! — or a confirmation — yes, I thought that was odd, too. It’s really very much like watching an episode of a crime drama or mystery, and it should adapt really well because of this. But the way that Borlú keeps his observations close to his chest does mean that he’s not a terribly striking character. I rather like that about him, but it leaves little to say about him, or the other characters. Corwi is also good at her job and snarks well, but we know nothing of her home life or motivations, or her responses to the crimes. The same with Dhatt and others we encounter through Borlú: they are people we might get to know, there is clearly potential there, but we meet them through the professional setting that Borlú meets them in, and what we know of them is largely only what is relevant to the crime being investigated.

One of the only unusual details we get about Borlú is that he sees two women, neither of whom knows about the other. This has no bearing on anything that happens, but is brought up a few times. I spent a good part of the novel hoping this was some sort of metaphor for the divided cities, but actually it was just a homely little detail about our otherwise unremarkable protagonist. Combined with the inevitable strokes of a crime story (you know, like opening with the unclothed, brutalised body of a murdered young woman) it feels depressingly rote for the author who also gave us the interspecies romance of Perdido Street Station. You get the impression Miéville is aware of this, and he’s careful not to sexualise Mahalia’s corpse, and to include lots of other well-respected and individualistic women in the story — and really, the picture eventually painted, of an intelligent, idealistic person going on a steep and deadly learning curve was rather nicely done. It doesn’t make up for another young woman dying scared though, and while it is not because of her gender, it still just made me think things like ‘this is why I don’t read crime fiction’. So outside New Crobuzon, Miéville’s characters remain somewhat flat, with the added drag of ‘real world’ gender politics to negotiate.

Happily, I got a lot more from the concepts of the novel and its setting, both of which will stay with me longer than the people or plot, I suspect. The invention of parallel cities is a wonderful stroke, and I’m sure it has multiple real world influences, though the most familiar one to me was Northern Ireland, which I thought of particularly when the banned colours of each city were described, or the alternating decoration of Besel streets and Ul Qoman streets came up. Are the kerb stones here red, white and blue or green, white and gold? What school uniform are you wearing? Make sure you’re not in the wrong city… Miéville uses this setting to show the fragile ways in which human society can find ways to function, as well as the sheer absurdity of borders and national divisions. The first time Borlú is dragged out into the in-between world, the no-man’s land of Breach, which is in actual fact just…anywhere he wants to go or look, his panicked dislocation is palpable. He is so conditioned to only ‘see’ one place at a time that adjusting to seeing both takes some time. This is part of the way in which the societies of Besel and Ul Quoma function side by side, and why chaos is the only result of things breaking down towards the novel’s end.

This isn’t a novel about the politics or the rights and wrongs of the secret police who maintain order between Besel and Ul Quoma: it’s a detective story, with a really interesting setting, and a quiet, confident protagonist. Since starting to write this review I had a go at watching the first episode of the adaptation and was left severely disappointed. All that I like about Borlú’s unaffected competence is swept away in favour of detective with dead wife tropes. The vision of an idiosyncratic, absurd, but functioning society is replaced by scaremongering secret state stuff. I won’t be watching the other episodes. But I do wish Miéville had written more about Borlú and Breach and the unique problems of simply getting on with life in a jaggedly divided place.

Review: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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I’ve been putting off watching this for an absolute age, and I think by now I’ve already seen everyone’s arguments both for and against every single scene in this movie. I can safely say that my preconceptions weren’t really challenged, and that some scenes I tried to be open-minded about I either just didn’t get (plums?) or noped right the hell out of there (I’m fine with Sharon/Steve in principle but not when most of the build-up is literally over Peggy’s corpse and the kiss makes a direct call-back to the one in CA:TFA). But there’s a lot of pointless action sequences, a lot of half-arsed attempts at characterisation for people who aren’t the main characters, and faaaaar too much reliance on Age of Ultron as a source of viable plot devices. And oh my god, what a waste of Daniel Brühl.

Still, where Steve is on screen I’m pretty happy, and it’s a great introduction to T’Challa. Peter Parker is fun enough, but I guess the boat for wild excitement about that sailed some time ago: I enjoyed Homecoming, but everyone seemed to come out of Civil War raving about him and… I? Ok? I guess? I was happier to see Scott again, particularly his dynamic with Sam. Many of the others were sort of lost in the ensemble mire though. The characters of Vision and Wanda are two I only really got behind in the animated Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and it’s so clear that no one knows what to do with these two massively overpowered characters in an ensemble fight. Where is Vision for most of the runway fight? Has Wanda just shoved him 50ft below ground? Poor Wanda, what a crap bone she gets thrown. One of the only bits I’d have kept from Ultron is Tony’s terror at the way she can get into his head, and yet that’s never even mentioned when his need to keep her cooped up is discussed. There’s no room to explore that here, because another mandatory action scene is scheduled and people don’t watch superhero movies for depth of characterisation!

Where depth was attempted it was not great. I thought the thing with Tony’s parents was dumb as a box of rocks. Saving the revelation that Steve knows about the assassination until it can have the maximum possible impact on Tony is tedious, as is the video-as-catalyst-to-rage-battle (the bit of this scene I enjoyed most was when I was mid-whinge about super-Nazi punch fights and Weapon X plot lines and wouldn’t it be more interesting if Daniel Brühl just killed them all off… Oh. You did that, movie! Ok!). I just didn’t buy it as that great an excuse for a fight: the ‘I thought I was your friend’ line was just petty at that stage of things, and I’m saying this as someone who was relatively pleasantly surprised at the film’s efforts to show why Tony and Steve disagree so fundamentally, and that they’re circumstantial and personal as much as rational. Tony’s issues with his parents and Steve’s dislocation from his own time each have a profound impact on them, and I have no issue with making Bucky the uniting factor in both… It’s just not something that this movie has any time to really explore in any subtlety. And saving the obvious revelation — which you suspect had already occurred to Tony, surely — for then, blocking the audience out from whenever Steve realised it, glossing over why Steve reacted in that way, was a way to force audience focus onto Tony’s suddenly awakened emotions. It felt, to me, like a rather clunky attempt to make me see Tony’s side of things, at a point where his behaviour had grown distant from its original good intentions.

Yikes. Still. Guess I need to finally watch Dr Strange before I put myself through Infinity War, which is a movie I will go to for the sake of the likely handful of enjoyable quips, and for Chris Evans’ big old grief beard. But Civil War made me want nothing more than to just curl up and watch The First Avenger and pretend it ended differently. It can be pieced together emotionally with the rest of the movies, I guess, though I’d rather not have been reminded of Ultron so much, and it fails to have much emotional impact as a stand alone. Ymmv of course: if I’ve decided to be grumpy about something beforehand, I’m unlikely to change my mind, same if I’ve resolved to enjoy something. I saw too much grumpiness about Civil War on its release, and still wish we’d got an actual Captain America movie rather than rushing into this Avengers Multiball nonsense, but here we are.


An addition, in the wake of Infinity War, which I was very pleasantly surprised by and enjoyed a lot: I guess I worked through all my frustration at the storylines the MCU is following in Civil War. The Russos made the best of the material they’d been given in the form of Ultron, and I was never going to be enamoured of the plot that gets everyone fighting each other. I wanted a Captain America film, but it got taken over by a plot that insisted I give Tony’s Sad about his parents as much weight as a set of international agreements with global and very personal implications. It’s not going to be a favourite, but it won’t stop me enjoying(! yes really) Infinity War.

Review: Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker (Portland Arms, Cambridge)

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Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Aw man, behind on my updates again. Truth be told, I don’t have much to say about this gig: I went along only knowing their 2013 album Fire and Fortune, yes, because the sinister ‘Anyone But Me’ won a Folk Award and so was on the compilation album. No tracks from that album featured on this setlist, which was drawn largely from the new release Seedlings All and a couple of other albums. It was all good stuff, performed with precision and palpable skill by Josienne and Ben and their backing musicians, but perhaps a little ‘easier’ sounding than I’d usually go for, on the surface at least. It’s music worth working at though, made with passion, and with more to it than first appears.

The show was also delightful for revealing Josienne’s impish awkwardness: between songs that lull you with her clear, beautiful vocals she’s a chatty presence, explaining the influences (usually revolving around her own anxieties) behind the songs. The honesty in describing the background to ‘Chicago’, when she behaved like a ‘diva’ because no one came to their gig in that city was endearing and full of self-deprecation, on which the song itself followed up particularly effectively: a light and gentle reminder of why it’s worth persevering through experiences like that. Many of the other songs showcased the unease below the easy sounding music too: their biggest hit on Spotify, a staple of coffee shop playlists apparently (this is what I mean by ‘easy’ sounding), is ‘a slow-waltz inspired by a Proustian moment.’ As Josienne puts it: ‘you never know what your hits are gonna be.’ These kinds of influences, the concept behind the album Overnight of one long sleepless night in the city, the fears surrounding performance and putting yourself out there for an audience do all combine to make the songs more interesting and well thought out than the kind of background stuff coffee shops play for you to not listen to.

There’s also a charming self-awareness to them, whether joking about folk awards and drum machines and Jim Moray, or having a dig at Ed Sheeran by wielding their technical musical knowledge (with a hat-tip to the make-up of a Cambridge audience who might get the technical jokes). I’m always going to be more of a fan of guitar-based folk/singer-songwritery stuff, rather than the piano-heavy tracks of the albums this set was largely drawn from, but I’m pleased with my purchase of Seedlings All and look forward to delving into other parts of their back catalogue. I’d also very much recommend – particularly if you live in Chicago – going and seeing them live. You’ll get good music, excellent stagecraft and funny anecdotes, though Josienne will have to go back to Proust for her inspiration, rather than empty venues, but who doesn’t love a bit of melancholic, Proustian pop?

Review: Boy, Snow, Bird (Helen Oyeyemi)

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The second from my Marina Warner reading list: a magical realist novel drawing on fairy tale imagery to tell a story about identity in mid-twentieth century America. I loved this. It’s a slight, easy-to-read little thing on first appearance, but the layers are constructed with great care and detail, so the closer you look, and the more you reassess, the more you see how cleverly Oyeyemi has tricked you into thinking this is a fairy tale, when it is in fact nothing of the sort. I’d have liked, perhaps, a more straightforward take on fewer sources, as the various references and possibilities seem to get out of hand from time to time, but there a lot to enjoy here nonetheless.

Boy, Snow, Bird is written in three not-quite-even parts as the story of Boy Novak, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, and that of her daughter, Bird. The women speak in the first person, Bird largely through a diary and a series of letters exchanged with her half-sister, Snow, and Boy in the more traditional, direct manner. Boy is probably best described as the book’s protagonist, because her sections are longer, and it is her perspective on things that we get, even if she’s also a difficult, aloof type of protagonist. She reminded me in some ways of Lucy Snowe in Villette: she makes herself small and does herself down, but she’s clearly a striking presence, and it’s not the strange things that happen around her — visions of herself with bloodied hands, for instance — that seem jarring, rather the everyday and mundane becomes uncanny when she interacts with it. She’s quite an average young woman of the time, with no specific skill set or interests. She thinks of herself as frigid, and seems to have an odd relationship with mirrors, but these things don’t have to have magical causes… Boy is also, in fact, a model of the wicked stepmother, though she performs no act of great evil in the story. By making her the voice through which we enter Oyeyemi’s world, we are grounded from the very beginning in the knowledge that dysfunctional fairy tale families represent grimly realistic miseries: Boy is the only child of a man, the rat-catcher, who abuses her verbally and physically, treating her as something evil so that she comes to suspect that perhaps she is. Hence she is shy of her reflection, but also seems to share a private joke with it; she is frigid and unable to deal with an apparently perfect love because she has been punished relentlessly for pretending too much and not enough.

The warning portents weigh heavy through much of the early part of the book. Escaping her father, Boy seems to wander through a magical portal, following two women to the safe haven of a hostel in Flax Hill. We are not sure whether there is something unreal about Boy or about the place, as she struggles to find work, friends and love in her new home. The man she’s fascinated by, Arturo, is a gruff, bear-like figure; woodsmen roam the boundaries of Flax Hill; an old woman with no first name runs a mysterious bookshop. But the real world casts its light against all the strange details, most vividly in the form of Mia Cabrini: a self-possessed woman in pursuit of a career in journalism. Mia grounds Boy in a way that her more traditional friend, Fletcher, cannot quite manage to do, being too different, coming from a world of diets and society pages and perfect weddings.

Despite her inability to say the words ‘I love you’ to Arturo, Boy marries him — partly as she lies under the spell of Arturo’s angelic daughter, Snow. Snow’s mother died shortly after childbirth, but the child is perfect in behaviour and looks, and everyone in Flax Hill dotes on her, including Boy. This changes when Boy and Arturo’s child is born: Bird reveals the family secret, that Arturo’s family are black. Boy is shocked but delighted with her child, however she grows fiercely protective of Bird when Arturo’s parents reject her, initially trying to blame Boy and suggesting she had an affair. The ‘worship’ of whiteness that this Southern family — and the family of Arturo’s dead wife — cling to repulses Boy, and casts Snow in a new light for her. The uncomprehending, blameless child is sent away to stay with her Aunt — Clara, who is also never seen or spoken of in Flax Hill, because she, too, ‘betrays’ the family by her appearance. This moment of cruelty towards Snow, and Boy’s hardness towards her, has enough of the fairy tale’s original impact for us to recoil from Boy, just at the point at which the narrative switches over to give Bird a voice.

Bird, too, has a strange relationship with mirrors: sometimes they don’t show her. Hardly surprising, when half of her family seems not to want to acknowledge her existence. She’s a precocious child — for all Oyeyemi’s beautiful imagery and clever phrasing, things suffer a little for having too much of one very distinctive voice (Boy’s or Oyeyemi’s, or a mixture of the two), rather than their own individuality. People speak in delicately crafted phrases and metaphors that convey wonderfully rich meaning and imagery, but that don’t always sound like the way people actually talk to each other. Still, it’s important to have the idea of Bird’s perspective: she’s able to bring about something of a reconciliation between Snow and Boy, circumventing her mother’s defenses and forging her own relationship with a sister she barely knows.

By the end, the ominous, magical atmosphere has shifted. The old rat-catcher brings some of it to Flax Hill, with a syringe that may or may not have existed, and Bird experiences it hidden in the thick folds of the flag Boy was given by a young love, but in Boy’s final section of narrative the real world comes back into focus. Another hidden identity is revealed, not by spells or enchantments, but by Mia Cabrini’s dogged research. I have mixed feelings about the ending, as I think I see what Oyeyemi was aiming for — ‘she wanted to come back’ — but it’s a topic that deserved more space in the story if it was going to be handled with the nuance it deserves. Mrs Fletcher has become Alecto, Snow’s day job is mundane PI work, Bird’s reflection has reconciled itself to her, and magic is just something that family hopes to perform on those who are its own, to let them know that they don’t have to be alone.

There are so many more details I’d love to recount — in a paranoid, enchanted atmosphere ‘we all look the same to you, don’t we?’ — but then the book is full of them. At first when I finished I was a little torn at the determined realism of everything, but having thought about it some more, I think it was actually very beautifully and effectively balanced against the fantastical elements. Boy and Arturo’s relationship ends up in a particularly warmly evoked place. The book does sprawl a little through its references though, and maybe loses some of its raw power to the maintenance of mystery, and the eagerness to bring in such varied elements of fairy tale imagery. Sticking to one or two reference points, like the main Snow White story, might have made things more effective, holding the plot together whilst still leaving room for all of Oyeyemi’s eloquent considerations of race, gender and identity. That’s no great criticism of the whole though, and I’m certainly going to look up more of Oyeyemi’s writing.

Review: Pacific Rim Uprising (cinema)

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Not quite trying to do the same thing as A Wrinkle in Time, but for diverse casting, a message of unity against the darkness, and a kickass teen girl in STEM, Pacific Rim Uprising does a far better job. Oh, it’s as absurd as the first one (He Judges thinks more so, I think about the same), but what fun. I meant to rewatch Pacific Rim before going to see this, then didn’t get the chance, but no worries; I don’t feel like I missed much nuance.

Ok, I don’t think the first one is the best thing since sliced bread or whatever either: it’s a fun action movie, whose cast is far more interesting than big robots punching big lizards is. It looks very pretty, it takes a supremely inefficient way of defeating giant interdimensional lizards, and it makes you feel good about nations and peoples working together to protect the world. Uprising also does all of these things with gusto, led by a wonderfully likeable John Boyega, who — despite my fears, given that Stacker was my favourite bit of the original — easily makes up for the absence of Idris Elba.

I suppose it makes sense to think of it and this sequel in the same way I think of Alien and Aliens: there’s a few uniting features and characters, but it’s mainly giving a new group a chance to take the stage, and it’s very much an ensemble piece compared to the first movie. The cadets are fleshed out more than the other Jaeger pilots are in the original, though still not much beyond a general sense of attitude. It’s a difference in characterisation that was pretty marked after watching A Wrinkle in Time though: the difference between encountering characters who I don’t know much about, but who felt like individuals who I’d just met and was getting to know over the course of two hours, as opposed to carefully balanced collections of characteristics, whose building blocks showed as they interacted in the ways predetermined by the plot.

Uprising does have a plot, and things that are necessary to its furtherance happen, but in a handwavy sort of way. You know how there’s that idea that if you look at an audience’s expressions at the high point of a film you should see how absorbed they are?

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Well if Amélie Poulain herself had been sitting in front of me during the epic battle at the end of Pacific Rim Uprising she’d have seen my expression of outraged disbelief and exasperation. Really? I just watched thousands of duck-sized kaiju* knit together three kaiju to make one GIANT kaiju? FINE. OK THEN. It’s so stupid it makes my brain melt a bit (kind of like how they only remember to use the giant sword at the end of the first film). But it’s still incredibly enjoyable. Seeing Gottlieb come into his own! Seeing Jake Pentecost come out from his father’s shadow to save the day! Seeing Amara and her tiny Jaeger prove themselves indispensable!

My heart belongs unreservedly to Liwen Shao though. At first, I worried we were going down the international business antagonist route, which would have sucked in a setting that has reveled in having nations work together. It wasn’t long before the real antagonist was revealed though, leaving Liwen to get involved in all aspects of the fight: from hacking to remoting a Jaeger, to simply striding through scenes of chaos in epically impractical shoes.

I’m still not terribly invested in the setting. So much of the action was as situationally convenient as it was possible to be (I still can’t work out of Jaegers are actually powerful or not??) and much of the plot was clearly made up on the hoof, but the cast carries it all with just the right measure of sincerity. Boyega is a perfect lead, funny and charming and just awkward enough with Jake’s heritage, but still undeniably proud of it. Burn Gorman reprises his role as Gottlieb with enthusiasm, adding a touch of heartbreak to proceedings in his brief scenes with an addled Charlie Day. I might even have enjoyed it more than the original, as with Aliens and Alien. I might just have to watch both again to be sure, though, and I’ll try and leave my brain at the door for the action sequences.


*This is a reference to an interview in which Idris Elba was asked whether he’d rather fight one kaiju-sized duck, or thousands of duck-sized kaiju, and he picks the latter, saying he’d just ‘punt ’em’. Someone on tumblr illustrated this. I can’t currently find it though.