Saturday, 31 December 2016

Robinson Crusoe meets Titanic, as Passengers intrigues

Part Robinson Crusoe meets Titanic in space (and yes, I know that Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a thing), director Mortden Tyldum’s Passengers is an intriguing film, even if it never hits any heights of supersonic excitement.

Written by Jon Spaihts, the luxurious starship Avalon is carrying 5,000 people to a new colony planet where they will begin a new life. They and the crew are in hibernation pods, as the trip takes 120 years.

But when one of these pods malfunctions, 90 years from journey’s end, mechanical engineer Jim (Chris Pratt) finds himself awake, with just a droid bartender for company.

And that doesn’t seem to be the only technical glitch. A year on, with the ship’s systems experience more and more problems, Jim is joined by Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), with neither of them able to return to hibernation.

Here we get a touch of Titanic, with Aurora travelling first class and Jim in a subsidised – his skills are in demand – starship version of steerage.

But when a third person wakes as the malfunctions increase, that’s when the trouble really begins.

Lawrence and Pratt make a good and enjoyably watchable team here and the film carefully eschews any clunky stereotypes, allowing plenty of time to develop character and situation.

That’s almost as much a downfall as it is a benefit: this is a picture that can, on occasion, seem to drag, yet at the end, the viewer is left with themes that have been worked hard enough to intrigue, from the nature and affect of loneliness to the limits of AI-human interaction (and therefore the nature of humanity) and a sort of Dorothy-in-Oz question of what you really want from life.

Sumptuous to look at, the glossy, hi-tech, sleekly-designed appearance of the ship itself, together with its sheer size, adds to the sense of human isolation, along with a beautifully-realised idea of the vastness of space.

Michael Sheen as Arthur the android bartender and Laurence Fishburne as Gus, the third to wake, add nice cameos that help develop plot and the relationship between our central protagonists.

Some critics have complained about the ethics of a key element of the plot (I’m not giving that plot device away here), but the complaints seem a tad forced, since the question concerned is hardly played for over-simplicity and certainly far from ignored.

One hopes we’re not going to see sociological analyses of all forthcoming releases, from Assassin’s Creed (spoiler alert: likely to include some killings that are Not Very Nice) to Despicable Me 3 (is Gru really an appropriate parent for three small girls, once of whom is clearly from a different ethnic background to him?).

Tedious it may seem, but it seems boringly necessary to remember that Passengers is, after all, a piece of entertainment and certainly no more morally dubious than most other entertainments around if one starts playing such a game.

So, while its certainly no masterpiece, it is a pleasant and interesting enough way to spend a couple of hours.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Reinventing Christmas folklore

Christmas Present
A few days ago, chatting over morning coffee and social media, The Other Half and I happened upon a mention of Père Fouettard, a Christmas character.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and search engines, it didn’t take long to discover that Père Fouettard is a sort of counterpoint to Father Christmas in northern and eastern France, and in Flanders, and that he carries a whip with him to punish the naughty children.

This is not too far removed from Krampus, the half goat, half demon figure who can be found from Bavaria to northern Italy to Hungary and more, and who, through comics and more recently a film, has found his way into American and British minds.

It struck me how sanitised our own gift-bringing mythology is: at one time, a bad child in the UK might have been led to expect a lump of coal as a present, but we don’t seem to have the same child-snatching villain as Krampus or, indeed, Père Fouettard, who is sometimes equipped with a sack to take away naughty children, never mind whip them.

But then again, Victorian society was a weirdly mixed bag when it came to frightening children with morality tales, yet sanitising the likes of fairy tales.

The late 19th century was also the time when British personifications of Father Christmas morphed from the sort of Green Man version that owed a great deal to ancient myth and folklore – and is famously presented as the Ghost of Christmas Present in John Leechs illustration for Charles Dickenss Christmas Carol – to the red-cloaked old man we are so familiar with today.

Our discussion ranged across various other elements of Christmas folklore, including the vexed question of when Santa first needed elves.

Godey's Lady's Book
Elves were an established part of Germanic and Scandinavian folkloric traditions, but it was only in the US, where they’d made their way via migration, that they were incorporated into Christmas, with a first festive appearance in literature coming in 1850 in an unpublished book by Louisa May Alcott, called Christmas Elves.

Harper’s Weekly published a poem mentioning elves in 1857, but for the idea of the elves in the workshop, we can thank a 1873 edition of women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, with its cover illustration showing Santa surrounded by toys and elves and with the caption: "Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time”.

I’ve always rather thought of folklore as a process that has stopped, and that we preserve, as in amber, but it continues to grow, even if modern communication and entertainment methods have largely overtaken the oral tradition.

Star Wars has a sense of the mythological about it. And Christmas myth and folklore have not stood still in recent years either. Some reworkings and new versions are more successful than others.

In 1996, Terry Pratchett’s 20th Discworld novel introduced us to the Hogfather – with a two-part TV version following a decade later.

Josh Kirby's original cover artwork for Hogfather
Pratchett, of course, famously said that he’d occasionally been accused of penning ‘literature’ – and Hogfather is a good example of how his novels are so much more than simple ‘entertainments’.

Here, beyond the satire – and I’d suggest that Pratchett is one of the finest satirists the UK has ever produced – are questions and reflexions on the relationship between storytelling, myth and folklore and the human condition; on the fine balance between somehow believing (à la the willing suspension of disbelief we engage in at the cinema or theatre) and yet not allowing such beliefs to usurp science and reality.

The God Delusion didn’t hit bookshelves until three years after Hogfather, but re-reading it again this December, it was difficult not to see The Auditors as being akin to Richard Dawkins and others.

However, Hogfather is far from the only evocation of Christmas to add to the mythos and, indeed, to offer a sense of Christmas not being ‘just about the children’.

A Dan Mora cover for one issue of Klaus 
Klaus, written by top comic creator Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dan Mora (who has won an award already for his work on this), first appeared in seven parts, beginning at the end of 2015.

Now available as a trade – although when it’s a large-format, limited-edition hardback with gilded page edging, it’s hard to think of it as a ‘trade’ – this presents us with a far darker Santa origin story that draws on Norse myth and Siberian shamanism.

There are no elves here and nothing sanitised, but a brutal and beautiful tale that draws us back to Christmas as a festival marking the depths of winter.

It’s a really top work (the architectural aesthetic attracted me first, since it owes more than a little to the kind of Germany that we’ve experienced in the last couple of years), and left me with a meditative sense of something that was not new, but as old as the hills.

If youre unfamiliar with Morrisons work, just this work should illustrate why hes so highly regarded.

Klaus is available now from BOOM! Studios, both in the limited edition mentioned above (it seems that Forbidden Planet still has copies) and in a non-limited edition. A one-off, single story comic has also just been released to follow up the first series/book.

I’ve also read Krampus! from writer Brian Joines and artist Dean Kotz (published by Image) and, while it’s an entertaining romp, it also serves to reiterate how good Klaus is.

So, folklore/mythology does not stand still, even in technological, cynical times such as ours. And thank goodness for that.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Star Wars and Carrie Fisher – such a part of our lives

Star Wars was a global phenomenon. It’s such an obvious thing to say, now, 40 years on, that it’s hard to remember just what a shock to the system it was; a bolt out of the blue.

It was the first film that I ever saw without an adult relative. My sister (three years younger) and I saw it one afternoon in Ashton-under-Lyne, delivered there by my father and picked up by him later. How grown up we felt.

The cinema was packed. I remember so much – and yet so little. It’s fair to say, though, that it had a huge impact on my life, possibly to the point of changing it.

My teachers had decided I was set for a career in graphic arts, but I had already rejected that.

I thought ‘graphic arts’ meant designing adverts, and there was no way that I was doing that. I also thought, with the pretentiousness of youth, that I had ‘the soul’ of a fine artist, but, rather less characteristic of that age, considered that I had none of the talent.

I gave up art.

Yet for a while, I seriously hankered after going to work in the States, building models of spaceships for the likes of Star Wars.

However, there was nobody around to tell me that this might have been possible or to point me in the relevant direction – any more than they could point out that ‘graphic art’ could include animation or comics or so much more.

It has taken me until my fifties to work all this out. I’m a slow learner. Although in my defence, I’ll point out that, with no private income and no trust fund or similar, when I was thrown out of polytechnic after a year for having had the temerity to be injured as a direct consequence of the course, the only thing that I could hope to focus on was getting a job – any job. And this was the beginning of the ‘you’re overqualified’ era .

Yet for a few years I nurtured a dream of putting together a book about the blossoming of fantasy film. Before my polytechnic career turned very sour, I had been to the cinema on my own to see Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal, and remain in love with it to this day.

And yet …

Yet reality can batter you. As can the edict learned so well from both my father’s pulpit sermons and his dinner table ones. I have been so suckered by that stuff from 1 Corinthians 13:11.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

I have wasted so many years believing that I should be so bloody bleeding boringly ‘grown up’!

True, I have reviewed and appreciated work by others that has included sci-fi and fantasy and that area where the two intersect. But probably until the last 12 months or so, any thoughts that I might produce any sort of work along such lines had lain dormant so long I had forgotten about it.

I have even attended events where I’ve met members of the cast of the first three films.

Yet this year it has all awoken again. And while I wouldn’t remotely suggest that that’s ONLY because of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that this is the year in which art – graphic art – has become a part of my working life, I have few doubts that it hasn't been part of a wider process. It was a reawakening of a certain kind of dream – of a certain kind of modern mythology.

For me, all those years ago, George Lucas’s vision opened a door to me – a teen still struggling in a home environment that was more of the 1930s than the 1960s and ’70s; an environment that considered any form of adults having pleasure with suspicion, that saw me carted to evangelical meetings in the hope that I would succumb to the emotion (I did).

Never mind air guitar –  my counterpoint to religion saw me wield an air light sabre and dream that The Force was real.

Since September, I have been using art – graphic art – in my work. Not something I expected. But it's been a massive leap forward.

On 1 January this year, when The Other Half and I got to see The Force Awakens, within a few moments of leaving the cinema I had declared, in a state of giddiness, that JJ Abrams had given us Star Wars back.

It was a quiet cinema when we saw it, but I wanted to cheer when Leia arrived on screen.

It’s been a shit year for the deaths of people whose talents and works have shone light on the light of others.

For me, not all of those people have meant a great deal, but even those who have not made the greatest impacts on me personally have added something to the creative mix.

Personally, I feel as though I have been most hit by the deaths of Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood.

And now, by the loss of Carrie Fisher.

Carrie … you were a crucial, feisty, fabulous part of all this: one of the few real and meaningful awakenings my teenage spirit felt – and that has been renewed in the last 12 months.

Wherever you are – go well: may the force be with you.

And thank you.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The German Gymnasium provides a perfect culinary Christmas work out

Kholrabi and beets
Back in the dim and distant past (late 1999 to early 2000, to be precise), I worked in Camden and travelled there daily via two buses. The second was a 214 and I was often joined by a colleague at the time.

He was German – complete with huge, soup-straining moustache. And, as the bus turned down Pancras Road, he introduced me to the German Gymnasium – the first purpose-built gymnasium in England, and key in the development of athletics in this country.

Designed by Edward Gruning, it was built in 1864-65 for the German Gymnastics Society, at a time when there was a large German population in the city – and it was funded solely by that community and was used by both men and women (women’s classes were first held there in 1866).

It ceased to be used for its original purpose at some point before WWII and subsequently played a variety of roles, from office space to storage space to exhibition space.

But, with the regeneration of the whole King’s Cross area over recent years, the building has, in the past 18 months, been reborn as a cafe, bar and restaurant, with a menu that more than nods at German and central European cooking.

The Other Half and I, having some schooling in German food, had always intended to visit, but you know how it is, and it was only on a work-related Christmas lunch today that we finally made it.

It’s a wonderful space: cafe and bar on her ground floor and the restaurant at mezzanine level. Amazingly, it manages to feel spacious but without any overt echo.

The OH started with a smoked pork sausage salad, which I am assured was very good, while I opted for marinated kohlrabi, sweet and sour beets, horseradish and rocket.

There was too much rocket. However, the beets were beautiful – so earthily sweet – and the kohlrabi, while thick, was very, very tasty. It’s probably the first time I’ve really appreciated horseradish, and it complimented those sweet beets so well. All in all, it was remarkably light, yet perfect for the season.

Venison Baden Baden
For a main, we both opted for Venison “Baden Baden”, which was centred around two lovely pieces of meat (cooked rare, as asked), and with sprouts, a halved pear stuffed with sharp lingonberries, Germany’s noodle, Spätzle, and a juniper jus.

This was simply wonderful, seasonal food. The flavours sing – the pear and lingonberries are such a good compliment to the meat, cutting through its sweetness at slightly different levels, while the Spätzle was not overdone and added a fine extra component, and the jus was simply divine.

Accompanied by a glass of Gewürztraminer from Italy, this was a truly excellent dish.

For dessert, I opted for a sea buckthorn mousse, with a pumpernickel ice cream, Glühwein gel, spiced sponge and pistachio shards – and it was also a delight.

Now, I’m a raving Germanophile – as regular readers here will know – but this is a fascinating restaurant, taking German food and showing its haute cuisine side for sceptical Brits.

Its worth noting that we were some such diners – who had little familiarity with the reality of German food and only a British stereotype, and they were equally impressed if certainly more surprised.

Service was excellent and, to be frank, it was the best Christmas work-related lunch I’ve ever had.

I doubt it’ll be the last time that the OH and I dine there – and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone.

My late German friend, though he might have found the food itself a little fussy, would have bristled with delight at the thought that such a building, with such a German heritage, is now showing Brits just how good German food can be.

Monday, 19 December 2016

When monsters help face life's brutality

There is little that is as infuriating as feeling that one is being manipulated into crying by a piece of entertainment.

Now of course, almost all entertainment seeks to manipulate the emotions, but some instances are rather more subtle than others.

And where the unsubtle can annoy, the subtle can have a cathartic effect.

With A Monster Calls, it’s very much a case of the latter.

Written by Patrick Ness and based on his own novel of the same name (which itself originated from an idea by Siobhan Dowd, who died from cancer before she could develop it), the film follows schoolboy Conor O’Malley as he faces the terminal illness of his mother.

His father is in the US with a new family, his grandmother is a cold, uptight figure and he’s being bullied at school.

But one night, an ancient Yew from a nearby churchyard roars into life as a monstrous tree, and challenges Connor to listen to three stories – told through beautiful animations – asserting that then Connor himself must tell a fourth but that it must be the truth.

An extraordinary screen representation of complex emotions, it bucks most current cinematic trends – not least in leaving some viewers wondering what age group it’s really ‘meant’ for, as though such stories can be filed away conveniently in boxes divided neatly along the lines of age.

To work, not only does this require an assured but delicate touch from director JA Bayona, but a top-notch cast too.

Signourney Weaver is excellent as the grandmother, while Tony Kebbell as the departed father adds to the sense of adults not knowing how to reach out to the boy.

If there’s a problem – and this risks being churlish – it’s that Felicity Jones as the dying mother can seem altogether too saintly in her suffering, although it’s to the film’s credit that the brutal progress of the cancer is portrayed utterly unflinchingly.

But boy and monster are at the heart of this.

Lewis MacDougall as Connor turns in a super performance of remarkable nuance and depth, while Liam Neeson lends a deep, primal power to the monster of the title.

A tale about truth and emotion, the power of stories and so much more, it could, all too easily, have lapsed into mawkish sentimentality, but it steers a clear path throughout to place before us a profoundly moving experience.

It opens across the UK on 1 January and should be widely seen. Just don’t forget the hankies.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Rogue One arrives in the Star Wars orbit

Given the classic Hammer films that he appeared in, there is something quite apt about seeing Peter Cushing reanimated for another cinematic fling, 22 years after his death.

The distinctive British actor appearance as Grand Moff Tarkin is one of the major talking points of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first in a series of stand-alone films now being made as Disney successfully reboots the franchise that its own creator had seemingly done so much to damage.

Having declared that only the initial trilogy is cannonic, Disney has set about delighting those fans who felt desperately let down by George Lucas’s subsequent trilogy (supposedly a prequel) and his insistence on remastering the first three films to take account, amongst other things, of the actors playing the same roles in the prequels.

Indeed, if Disney had taken this approach on board, they’d have had to remaster Star Wars: A New Hope all over again – with whoever else they had cast as Tarkin for Rogue One then the relevant bits to be inserted into A New Hope.

Given that rather mind-bending thought – and the simple observation that being able to bring dead actors back to life digitally has been discussed for a good decade plus, the squeamishness that has surfaced seems a tad odd.

Still, this hasn’t stopped the film getting good reviews and already proving a hit with fans.

And it’s little wonder.

Finally, we’ve got the prequel we wanted – the one that shows how, as the iconic opening crawl of the 1977 original pointed out, the rebels have got hold of the plans to the Death Star.

That crawl said: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

“During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

“Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy ...”

So the story that Rogue One gives us is just how they got the plans.

The central protagonist is Jyn Erso, a young women whose father is an Imperial scientist. Her own past is murky, and she’s rescued from an Imperial prison by the Rebel Alliance, which wants her to test the veracity of claims by a defecting pilot that the Empire is building a massive new weapon.

With the offer of freedom if she undertakes the mission, Erso sets off with Rebel officer Cassian Andor and his de-programmed Imperial droid, K-2SO.

And as their quest picks up steam, so they pick up more allies.

Far grittier and darker than the previous films, Gareth Edwards’s direction and Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay still ensures that it has the feel of a proper Star Wars film.

The battle scenes on land and in the sky are stunning, while there’s just enough character development to have you caring about our central group.

In Felicity Jones, Erso is a feisty young woman; beset with her own demons and doubts, and not unafraid, but with the guts to take a lead when others fail.

Diego Luna gives good support as Andor, as do Donnie Yen as a blind martial arts warrior who believes in the Force, Jiang Wen as his close associate, Forest Whitaker as a fanatical veteran rebel and Ben Mendelsohn as director of weapons research for the Empire.

James Earl Jones brings his resonant tones back for Darth Vader – whose initial appearance is fabulously shot and whose final scene in this film is simply spine tingling.

And there has to be a special mention for K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), who is the best Star Wars droid bar none.

This, George, is how you add a bit of humour to one of the films – sadly, Jar Jar Bloody Binks cannot be unremembered.

And as for Peter Cushing? Well, Tarkin is actually played here by Guy Henry, with Cushing’s likeness then applied digitally.

It’s not gratuitous, but helps cement the film exactly where it should be in the canon. And if it has an air of creepiness – then it’s a perfect fit for the sinister nature of the character.

I like to think that Cushing himself would have been wryly amused.

So, some serious Star Wars cinematic enjoyment, which will keep us going before next December’s scheduled release for Episode VIII.