Star Wars season, Part I: A fandom of one

This is a spoiler review. There will be spoilers.

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

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

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It’s Star Wars season…

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

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

Image result for i'm a star wars

Read at your peril:

Review: Loving Vincent (cinema)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Murder on the Orient Express (cinema)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Paddington 2 (cinema)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Dredd (2012)


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

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

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

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

Review: The Running Foxes (Joyce Stranger)

Illustration by David Rook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Death of Stalin (cinema)


Three nights out in a row on work nights, and my ability to describe and process any sort of story is starting to fade…(cue undergrad me sneering over her grammar books in the pub) so though I enjoyed this movie a lot, I’m not sure I’ve got too much to say about it.

The main thing that I keep coming back to is that I don’t feel this is a story I should have been taking sides in. There’s no one I should have been rooting for involved in these events. And yet. In this week of completely unsurprising headlines about various political figures and Hollywood names who struggle to keep their wandering hands in check (and far worse), Simon Russel Beale’s smug Beria made such a potent villain that I would have cheered on any other scumbag willing to set him on fire. And so I did. Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev was a man constantly on the back-foot, seemingly unable to keep pace with the scheming around him, but who doesn’t love an underdog? And then there was Michael Palin’s cuddly Molotov, who missed his wife, narrowly missed his own execution, and remained cringingly loyal to the cause throughout. By the time Jason Isaacs strode up as Zhukov, Yorkshire accent booming, I just wanted someone competent to catch up to Beria and stop him. Since seeing the movie, He Judges has been refreshing his already prodigious historical knowledge by reading up on the various plotters’ Wikipedia pages. I can’t quite bring myself to, but he assures me that what I suspect is true: no one involved was squeaky clean, and none of them were worth rooting for. Still, as he puts it, only Beria would have made a second Stalin. It’s the least worst outcome that you can get behind in this film.

Whilst I’m very much of the opinion that mocking the self-important is a great way to undermine them, The Death of Stalin manages to do this whilst retaining an air of menace. The main characters are all utterly absurd in their own ways, but the cumulative effect of the council is still there, and the incompetent jockeying for power results in a fair amount tragedy, though perhaps not as much as anything more calculated might have done. Besides, their incompetence is nicely set off and contextualised by the alcohol-soaked conspiracy theories of Vasily Stalin, who really is ineffectual when viewed alongside the councillors.

I kept thinking of Santa Evita, too, and the worship of dead tyrants by those who gained little enough under their rule. The Death of Stalin isn’t much interested in the wider implications of the scheming and posturing of its main characters, but the working folk supposedly represented by them get a brief look-in when Khrushchev forces the reopening of the trains and lets the mourners flood into Moscow. Thousands are shot by twitchy members of the NKVD, but it’s even more depersonalised than the accident of timing that saves some from the purges, whilst others are shot even as the order to cease arrives. A few scenes remain to bring the consequences home, such as the father who was given away by his son returning for an awkward family reunion, but this isn’t a movie where you’re encouraged to get too close to anyone at all; they’re either dreadful or likely to be short-lived, or both.

However, expanded from her historical role in events, Olga Kurylenko’s serene, disdainful Maria Yudina was a highlight (the one person whose Wikipedia page I was minded to look up). Projecting fearlessness when all around her seemed unable to contain their own panic, provoking anyone who she came into contact with, she felt like a truly wild card in amongst the others. Presumably that was why the graphic novel on which the film is based gave her a more prominent role in the scheming, as a catalyst to allow events to be told in a far shorter time frame than reality allowed.

Alright, this no doubt seems a terribly po-faced response to what was a genuinely funny film, but I’ve not got the energy to figure out how the council is meant to stand in for Theresa May’s cabinet of creeps and Brexiteers, and I’m often uneasy describing this kind of story that takes the essence of historical events and prods them into caricature. Perhaps it was all a bit above my head. Perhaps I can’t plot and run at the same time. Still, I’m more than happy to take the simple satisfaction of seeing Beria’s carefully-laid plans crumble into nothing (nothing that will benefit him, at least); his reliance on fear and threats to keep everyone in line ultimately undermined when people realise they’ve no need to be grateful for his small mercies if they just unite against him. Even if said unity is something of an illusion.

Review: The Furrow Collective (The Junction, Cambridge)

Yup, my own shoddy photo…

Next, we have a murder ballad for you, says the band. Hooray, the audience responds. The band is delighted. This is folk music, and even a  polite, below capacity Cambridge crowd knows to cheer for a murder ballad. Even outside the folk club we can muster a bit of a sing along when there’s local ale and Lucy Farrell’s firm cajoling.

The Furrow Collective are sort of a folk supergroup, with a pair of Scots (Alasdair Roberts and Rachel Newton) and a pair of English musicians (Emily Portman and Lucy Farrell): four strong, distinctive voices and hands accomplished enough to cover electric guitar, saw, banjo, harp, squeeze-box, viola and a trusty shaken-egg. They’re the perfect band for this time of year too, taking traditional songs about death and secrets and ghosts and Skye waulking (not, they stress, Skywalking, though that would of course be some sort of dream crossover for me) from all over the place and giving them a distinctive re-tuning to suit their four harmonised voices.

It’s also something of an open secret that most of the audience has probably heard only one of their songs in advance , and probably associates it heavily with Chris Cornwell’s lanky, bug-eyed beasties and their eerie world. Like the video above for Wild Hog in the Woods, the band on the surface seems quite mellow and sweet, but they’re soon revealed to be a coiled spring of the precision unheimlich. Am I overstating this because of the Cambridge crowd? Maybe. (It’s quite likely, isn’t it?) But what first attracted me to folk music was not, as I then assumed, Seth Lakeman’s power chord fiddle playing, stadium folk with the emotions turned up to twelve, but the sheer existential horror of stories of forgotten, violently silenced women like Kitty Jay and Josie. The Furrow Collective know how to sell that dread in a subtler way, and it’s so much more effective for it.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that they could have made an awful lot more noise than they did, but they chose not to, and it gave their songs an eerie tension. This is true of songs I was less familiar with, and with their fearless takes on classics made popular by Martin Carthy, whether solo or with Steeleye Span. The rocking banjo version of King Henry and the hypnotic Polly Vaughan showed their confidence in taking these well known songs on and giving them yet another twist, freshening them and pushing their narratives to the foreground. The repeated lines and circling choruses of their songs were polished storytelling devices, making sure the audience kept the thread of the song, and only rarely sliding into a background of plinky-plonk toe tapping (and indeed, still the best sort of plinky-plonk toe tapping!).

There’s a natural sort of irony to a lot of the songs sung from the perspective of a sentenced criminal, or any other public figure whose point of view was adopted by a troubadour at some point . Whether you’re making your local outlaw into some sort of Robin Hood, Hobsbawmian bandit by claiming he’d have gotten away with it if not for that pesky Eve-archetype of a woman, or simply imagining your Royal OT3 in an awkward situation, your story is a lot more palatable, at least to a modern audience, if there’s a bit of a knowing wink to it. The Furrow Collective seem to have that down pat, and to know just how seriously some of these stories should be taken: tell them with a straight face, but let it be known there’s a twinkle in your eye. It doesn’t mean sacrificing the genuine emotion that’s helped preserve a lot of this stuff, whether it comes from men’s grievances against disloyal wives or from women’s regrets about the men they’ve married.

The four very different voices of the group members, and the variety of instruments they can play between them, keep the set lively and interesting, and keep the stories absorbing; even simple ditties about tending sheep and old nags. The way in which they offer each other the foreground in songs is effective but never forced or over-mannered, so that while a female voice may ‘tell’ the story, and Alasdair Roberts may sing lines spoken by a man, or vice-versa, the consideration is above all that it sounds good, rather than that it’s turned into a script to be adhered to. Folk music survives because it can adapt: universality must combine with contemporaneity, and The Furrow Collective understand that well, and implement it better than many. I’m somewhat ashamed that Wild Hog in the Woods was the first track of theirs I’d heard given that it was from their second album, and I’ll gladly seek them out again, both live and on recordings.

Review: Thor: Ragnarok (cinema)


Geyr nú Garmr mjök
fyr Gnípahelli;
festr man slitna,
en freki renna.

This passage from the Old Norse mythological poem Völuspá roughly translates to: ‘aieeeeeeeaaaaaaahhh we come from the land of the ice and snow…’* it perfectly encapsulates the anticipation of the epic drama of the gods’ last stand… and yeah, it’s about bloody time a Thor movie made use of Led Zeppelin. With just the right amount of slo-mo, with just enough of a neon-tinged, synth-backed hat-tipping to the ’80s, woven around the orchestral grandeur of the earlier Thor soundtracks and the Old Norse world as seen through the eyes of nineteenth-century nationalist romantic painters, this sequel managed to convincingly bridge the universes of Guardians of the Galaxy and the early, pre-‘magic’ MCU outings like Iron Man.

The first Thor movie was my unrivalled favourite in the MCU until The Winter Soldier, and it’s still up there, though I don’t remember much about The Dark World and always seem to confuse scenes from it with the far better Hellboy II (both have dark elves, right?). Conversely, Norse mythology is not my favourite part of Norse literature, and perhaps this is why I can’t bring myself to care one bit about whether Loki’s actually Sleipnir’s father in the movies or not, why Sif isn’t blonde, and whether Thor happens to be a woman or a frog in the comics. But nevertheless I’ve always felt that Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki have been more accurate representations of their mythological counterparts than the heroes of most Beowulf movies have been (Grendel Grendel Grendel aside). No change there in Ragnarok, it’s just that now Taika Waititi gets to put his own deadpan New Zealand twist on the jokes whilst gleefully undermining all the glory of the Asgard we’ve seen previously in the MCU.

I’d like to see it again before proclaiming it my new favourite in the MCU, but even though all the killer lines were in the trailer they remained funny in the film. The best shots were there too, though cunningly devoid of some crucial bits of CGI (lightning, fireworks, injuries…) which is a trick I’m very happy for blockbusters to play in their marketing campaigns if it derails some of the endless ott plot speculation that even the most minimal 30 second teaser can now inspire. OK, it’s also true that if you have even the vaguest idea of Norse mythology you’ll know precisely how the ending on Asgard is going to go from one of the trailer shots. But it’s no problem when watching the movie: it’s much more about the journey. And the one-liners.

I love Taika Waititi’s humour. It’s dry and often awkward and embarrassing and surreal, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople has the perfect tone for me in its balance of these things with an absurd yet somewhat  grim, bureaucratic reality. Being honest though, I did occasionally find it a bit jarring in Thor: Ragnarok, not least because Waititi’s voice work as Korg and Rachel House, the actress who plays Topaz, are just so heavily associated with Hunt for the Wilderpeople for me. But you can get used to these things, and it’s only a tiny note of reservation in an otherwise excellent script that has room for all the quips we’ve come to expect from the MCU as well as a decent chunk of character development. And while the lion’s share of that development obviously goes to the Lord of Thunder himself, there’s enough shared round — Loki, Skurge, Valkyrie, Banner and Hulk — that it doesn’t feel like anyone’s been left out. Sure, though I’m sure the essays on every twitch if Hiddleston’s lips are being prepared as I type, I did particularly appreciate the fact that this time the brothers really seemed like brothers, but also that Thor seemed finally to have learnt a trick or two himself when it comes to dealing with the God of Mischief…

I don’t want to make this too spoilery a review, but in general it has to be said that Waititi makes a superhero move that isn’t just great fun but it also smart and self-aware. It doesn’t take much:  non-white faces in all the crowds, women wielding swords in the front lines of the refugees taking their last stand, prominent, meaty roles for Valkyrie and Heimdall (‘hey I Enthuse, isn’t he meant to be the “whitest of God’s”?’ I literally couldn’t give a shit. He’s not even in enough Norse mythology to have anything resembling a personality. Once, he’s a seal. Tbh I’m disappointed when I see fanart of Norse gods and he’s not Idris Elba. Why? Because if he could be Idris Elba why wouldn’t he be?). Mainly though, it’s about a society built on violent conquest and imperial colonialism recognising its past. Hela wants to take it back to what she views as its heyday: she’s unapologetic about celebrating the fact that its wealth came from empire-building and slavery. Thor and Loki are more shocked to learn about their father’s youthful warmongering, despite Odin’s Marcus Aurelius-esque renunciation of this past, and there’s a joyous irony in the way the movie leaves Asgard at the end, a society built on conquest that has been completely turned on its head.

Also effortless in Waititi’s hands, and something I feel a bit bad even having to draw attention to, is the handling of Valkyrie. This is how you do a supporting female character. This is how you do a female badass. She’s not a love-interest or a victim, she’s got her own backstory and her own motivation. She was the main surprise for me, having enjoyed her in the trailer but not realised what a hot mess the character was: when she appeared, swigging from a bottle, and stumbled sideways off her landing ramp, I knew I was in love. She’s a brittle, semi-functioning alcoholic with a tragic past, she’s capable of subduing Loki and is bffs with Hulk. Thor wanted to be a Valkyrie when he was a child, not realising that it was an élite female fighting force. He’s not mocked for this, and he’s proud enough of the fact to tell her about it. He and Valkyrie deal with the spaceships pursuing them by leaping from one to the next, ripping out essential components with their bare hands in a scene that reminded me of the long-shot in Avengers which follows the team as they fight the flying alien troop-carrier beasties. At the end of their efforts, they each leap back into the hold of their own craft and look each other up and down with an impressed smirk. Then they get on with the business of saving Asgard. This stuff shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but too often it still does. I just hope so much that Valkyrie will be returning to the MCU and that she will continue to be written by capable, thoughtful hands.

Hela was great fun as a villain too, with Cate Blanchett on full ham, and Karl Urban brought a by-now familiar level of nuance to Skurge’s array of scowls and pouts. The film did a lovely job of showing how Thor and Banner initially had less of a relationship than Thor and Hulk, but, using the same enthusiasm that initially brought Thor and Jane together, they were able to bond over shared interests, whether gained through 7 PhDs or the fact of being educated as a prince in a technologically advanced society… And there were plenty of moments where I had pause to wonder whether someone involved in the script had in fact brushed up on their Norse mythology: the way in which Dr Strange magically refills Thor’s glass, like the Utgarða-Loki episode; Thor, alone, fighting Surtur’s demons, in Sutur’s hall, the way he so often ends up fighting giants in the Eddic material, and I had to do a double-take as Hela emerged from the sea at one point, thinking for a minute she was riding the Miðgarðsormr. But perhaps he’s being saved for future films.

Finally getting to see Thor: Ragnarok was like unwrapping the Christmas present I’d asked for, longed for, waited patiently for. I knew how awesome it was: I’d asked for it. Maybe I’d accidentally opened a drawer and caught a glimpse of it, shutting it quickly to preserve the suspense. But in essence, I knew what I was getting and I couldn’t wait to get it. My point is: many of the best lines in Thor: Ragnarok are in the trailer, and if you’ve a passing knowledge of Norse mythology and how superhero movies work you can guess from very early on in the movie exactly how things are going to go down. But it’s still awesome.

*It doesn’t. It means something more like ‘Now Garmr howls loudly before Gnípahellir; the wolf will break his bonds and run loose’. And Led Zeppelin wrote the song about themselves going to Iceland for a tour as much as about the Norse discovery of the island. But let’s gloss over that: the riff makes a great hero’s theme.