Sunday, January 22, 2017

My 2016 book reviews list

This is my last review for 2016. Last year I split the books I'd read in 2015 across three posts. I've decided not to do that this time around, even though this will end up as a long post! I have split it into fiction (with comic books and children's fiction separate) and non-fiction. Just scroll down for non-fiction if you have no interest in fiction. I've also listed them in the order I finished them.

Fiction books 

Burmese Days - George Orwell ~ based on his real-life experiences growing up in Burma during British imperial occupation, this is ahead of its time in showing the brutal racism that underpinned British attitudes to the subject races of the Empire. It also included this funny extract about the Bible.

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy ~ exceedingly long Russian classic that took me a couple of years to finish. My reading of it was not helped by how deeply unsympathetic Anna Karenina is as a character. You can read a full review of just how much I disliked this book here.

Player One - Douglas Coupland ~ four strangers are trapped in an airport bar as the world comes to an abrupt, apocalyptic end. I noticed several ideas were recycled from other Coupland books, sometimes verbatim. Then I discovered this novel was actually his contribution to a famous lecture series so I can't really blame him for cutting a few corners. Still, not his best work. The most interesting character in this is a girl with autism who breeds laboratory mice for a living and her interaction with the world and self-awareness about how she interacts differently is well captured.

Generation A - Douglas Coupland ~ after bees go 'extinct', five random strangers across the world are stung and become the centre of government attempts to solve the riddle of the bees. The five are detained under the watchful eye of a crazy scientist who believes the link is in the power of story-telling. It's a bit of a weird one, even by Coupland's standards but reasonably enjoyable.

The Gates - John Connolly ~ this is a young adult novel about Samuel, a young teenage boy who discovers his neighbours are messing around with the occult and have accidentally opened "the gates" that allow demons through from hell into the real world. Of course no adults believe Samuel so it is up to him and his mates to save the world. Some of the demonic carnage is surprisingly gruesome.

Dragonflight - Anne McCaffrey ~ fantasy story about a world where dragons are used to combat interplanetary spores that will destroy all life. It had a plot device that I worked out long before the characters did. There's an awful lot of conversations about events rather than describing the action, which makes it feel dated. It's also clear that other authors (like Naomi Novik) owe a huge debt to the ideas in this book.

The Player of Games - Iain M. Banks ~ the second Culture novel, centering on a representative of the Culture being commissioned to visit the Empire of Azad and play the famous Game of Azad that determines who will become Emperor. I had read this before 13 years ago and was surprised how many key scenes in the story I remembered, I felt I got more out of it on the second reading and it was interesting to see how advanced Banks' ideas about the Culture were so early on in the series.

Fangland - John Marks ~ creepy horror that borrows heavily from Dracula and other vampire lore. Evangeline Harker works for a TV news channel and travels to Transylvania to interview a crime lord who turns out to be a darker monster that feeds off the memories of murder victims. The monster wants to travel to New York because it's attracted to the energy unleashed from the ruins of the World Trade Centre (this was published in 2007 not long after 9/11). I don't usually read horror and was misled slightly by the quirky cover that promised more humour in the story.

Complicity - Iain Banks ~ a newspaper columnist is framed for a series of grisly murders, and it looks bad for him because all the victims are people he had named in one of his columns as people who deserved to have some street justice meted out to them. He has to find the real killer before the police decide the circumstantial evidence is too great to ignore. There's a lot of sex and bloody violence in the story, both of which stray into being uncomfortably graphic.

The Girl with all the Gifts ~ M.R. Carey - science fiction post-apocalyptic zombie story that I think was probably my book of the year. Melanie is a child held in a secure education institution who begins to realise she is not a normal girl like the ones she reads about in books. The world outside is not as the books say as well, with the human population under threat from zombie cannibals, known as 'hungries'. When hungries overwhelm the institution, Melanie and some human protectors try to reach Beacon, the last outpost of humanity. But first they have to cross a hungry-infested London. The cause of the 'hungry' outbreak is based on a process found in nature. The book itself is gripping, I kept finding myself wanting to pick it up at breakfast to find out what happened next, and it was difficult to put it down. The characters are all very believable, despite the questionable premise.

When They Come from Space - Mark Clifton ~ 1960s science fiction that is more of a pastiche of political bureaucracy. Ralph Kennedy, a psychologist, is drafted by mistake into the space navy just before aliens make contact with humans. There was some humour and the lampooning of media barons was entertaining, but the story wasn't particularly thrilling.

Children's fiction

The Wombles to the Rescue - Elisabeth Beresford ~ the Wombles need to meet their fellow Wombles from around the world to deal with the great oil crisis (this was written in the 70s). While Great Uncle Bulgaria heads to the International Womble Conference in the USA, Tobermory solves the problem with a synthetic replacement, showing the Wombles were light years ahead of human green tech solutions. The story is oddly paced and there are no scenes at the conference or in America, which seems like a missed opportunity to widen the world of the Wombles a bit and show us what American ones are like.

Noggin the King - Oliver Postgate & Peter Firmin ~ short story book about Noggin the Nog (70s kids TV character). As king, Noggin feels a responsibility to care for his people, but he doesn't know if he is also king of the birds and whether he should be caring for them, so he goes with Queen Nooka into the forest to find out. The story really comes second to the lovely illustrations.

Comic books (or graphic novels)

Halo & Sprockett: Welcome to Humainty - Kerry Callan ~ entertaining collection of comic strips about an angel (Halo) and a robot (Sprockett) who are living with a young woman called Katie, and are trying to understand human beings. There's a lot of heart to the book and I found it very amusing.

Serenity: Better Days ~ the Serenity crew (from the TV series Firefly) come into money in a heist but then lose it again, possibly because Mal is afraid his crew are going to split up now they are rich. We also learn that first mate Zoe was a 'dust devil' terrorist who kept on fighting after the war ended.

Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale ~ it turns out Shepherd Book is not a holy man at all. As his story is told in reverse his links to the Alliance forces are revealed, but as the story goes back further more secrets about his origins tell a very different story. I wasn't sure I liked the deconstruction of the character this way or finding out who he really was, but the story was well told.

Non-fiction books

Shopping in Jail - Douglas Coupland ~ a collection of essays, including a reflection on Generation X, twenty years later. Some of his thoughts about how humans and technology could merge in the future and the development of alternate copies of human minds (stored doppelgangers or 'cloud-gangers') were thought-provoking. He had a good line about how in the past there were movements (like surrealism) that lasted decades, but now we have memes that only last a few days.

66: The World Cup in Real Time - Ian Passingham ~ I was sent this reportage style review of England's 1966 World Cup victory to review for When Saturday Comes. I thought it was an interesting way to tell a story that has been told many times before. (Published review here)

The Boy Who Wanted to Fly - Don Mullan ~ weird hagiography written by a peace campaigner in Northern Ireland whose hero was England goalkeeper Gordon Banks. I like books about goalkeepers so picked it up to add to my collection. Don's own experiences - he was a witness to the events of Bloody Sunday - are glossed over in favour of repeating the mantra that if more people were like Gordon Banks the world would be a better place.

Godless Morality - Richard Holloway ~ a thoughtful book about constructing a moral framework without the problematic issue of saying 'this is what God wants'.  Read my longer review here

Nothing - various authors ~ a collection of essays published by New Scientist on the concept of 'nothing'. From studies of what elements do when reduced to absolute zero, through to patterns in the unconscious brain, through to the development of the concept of zero as a number, this is a bit of a mixed bag and some of the essays were too similar. But there were lots of things to think about.

Marshall McLuhan - Douglas Coupland ~ unorthodox biography, notable for being Douglas Coupland's first attempt at writing a book like this. It tells McLuhan's story well, as a misunderstood predictor of the Internet age who hated technology. McLuhan is eminently quotable but only if the quotes are taken out of context. Coupland weaves in his own connections with McLuhan into the narrative, for example, taking a photo of McLuhan's grave for a fax advertising campaign in the 80s, and while this is odd in a biography it kind of works in a fitting tribute to a man whose view of the world defied convention and divided opinion in his lifetime.

God is Watching You - Dominic Johnson ~ an interesting blend of psychology and evolutionary theory that suggests supernatural beliefs about divine punishment offered an evolutionary advantage to social groups as humanity emerged. The theory suggests this has produced human beings who are hardwired to believe in supernatural agents. Controversially, this may mean society may only function optimally if people are afraid of incurring the wrath of supernatural agents. The main points of the theory are backed up by experimental research findings, but it got a bit repetitive, as if the author was trying to stretch a few papers out into a book.

How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World - Francis Wheen ~ a collection of angry essays targeting 'nonsense'. Post-modernism comes in for a hammering, as do trickle-down economics, the Left's support for radical Islam, the cult of Princess Diana, conspiracy theorists, and rapid globalisation that destroys economies in developing countries. This book was published in 2004 and could do with being updated in the light of ISIS and the post-truth politics and lies of the Brexiteers and Donald Trump.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A dozen Christmas cards that featured in the 2016 Christmas card audit

We got 90 cards for Christmas 2016, which was a bit of a drop on the previous year. I've picked out 12 that I liked or that illustrate some of the new categories added to the audit.

Firstly, I separate out the religious and non-religious Christmas themes. To illustrate what counts as 'religious' here are three designs that all appealed to me.

Despite there being a large proportion of religious cards, very few cards mentioned Jesus by name. This one was one of only 3.

Technically that card should be classed as an Epiphany card rather than a Nativity card, as it features the Kings not the Shepherds. The Nativity comes in all shapes and sizes, but is best when small children play dress up.

There are, however a plethora of other themes that 'look' Christmassy enough to go on a Christmas card. Penguins are often popular. This year, though, the sub-theme for penguins was 'penguin couples cards', like this one:

Charity cards are another aspect of the audit and we always have a high percentage of cards sold in aid of good causes. This year one of my favourite cards was raising funds for Ty Hafan. In terms of a design theme, this comes under 'Christmas food'. It particularly like that it is bespoke and has their logo on the design because a lot of charity cards are very generic.

Every year we find new charities in the list. I think this year was the first year we had a card raising funds for The Donkey Sanctuary. It pleased me that it featured donkeys.

Other animals got a look in too. We didn't have any dogs in Santa hats this year, more's the pity. However we did have sheep in woolly hats instead.

Bears are also always popular. They don't have to be polar bears, although I just couldn't resist this chappie in his Christmas jumper.

I mentioned in my post about the audit that one friend tried to find an unclassifiable card and failed. Special mention for him though, his name's Chris and the card he sent had a pun on it about a moose named Chris. Which I think could be a contender for most obscure category - puns involving the card sender's name. This got put into the deer / reindeer theme, which covers all antlered animals.

A new category this year was unusually shaped cards. The scan cut off the bottom of this mug of hot chocolate, but I liked it for the handle you could hold to make it look like you were holding a mug.

And finally, we had a new category this year of licensed characters on cards. First up we have Snoopy, playing the part of Santa with Woodstock getting in his way as he goes about his stocking-filler duties.

And, then there's this. I have no idea where my wife got it from but it's the best 'Husband' Christmas card ever.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

2016 film review

I watched 31 films for the first time in 2016. I've decided to lump them in to one blog post with a one paragraph review. Key: C = cinema; D = DVD; I = in-flight movie; N = Netflix

Edge of Tomorrow (D) - Tom Cruise gets to "Live, Die, Repeat" in a Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers sci-fi adventure. I quite liked this and the idea of exploring different options each time was well done, even if I didn't see any point to the physical training every time he woke up after dying. It's not like he would keep his newly honed muscles.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (C) - the next installment in the adventures of Po the Dragon Warrior and the Furious Five kung fu masters. It was alright as sequels go, as Po and his friends teamed up against a supernatural villain seeking revenge. It has lots of Pandas in it.

Zootropolis (C) - my contender for animated film of the year. Disney do subversive quite well, and the subtext of this - politicians using fear to divide society to gain power - is very relevant. One of the characters even has a Donald Trump hair do.

(Longer reviews of Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootropolis)

Captain America: Civil War (C) - third in the increasingly bleak Captain America series, all of which seem to end on downers. The Marvel films are a series and this one felt like one of those episodes you get to move the overall plot line on, rather than being enjoyable in their own right like any X-Files episode that focused on the Cigarette Smoking Man. Also you would really have had to have seen the previous Captain America and Avengers movies to understand what was going on, which annoys me, even though I have seen those films. There are a load of new characters now in the Marvel movies and I don't care about any of them. The best scenes were the ones with Tony Stark and yet another kid playing Spider-Man, who is now back in the mainstream Disney-owned Marvel Comics Universe instead of the pseudo one being run by Sony.

Deadpool (I) - I wasn't sure about this but I enjoyed it more than I probably should have. Ryan Reynolds obviously loved being Deadpool, although when he wasn't in the mask his 'scarred head make up' did make him look like a decrepit Ted Danson. Much was made of how Deadpool breaks the fourth wall to engage with his audience. This whole film mocks comic book movies and as such the whole thing is a fourth wall breaker.

Our Brand is Crisis (I) - Sandra Bullock plays a washed up political spin doctor who takes a job in South America running an election campaign for a deeply disliked candidate. The film was mediocre, although the comms stuff was quite interesting.

Straight Outta Compton (I) - the story of NWA, as told by the survivors (and it's noticeable how slanted it is towards them). The scene in Detroit where the band ignore police instructions not to play 'F--- the Police', and then get run off the stage by the police, was particularly memorable, as was Ice Cube's visit to his corrupt agent's office with a baseball bat.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (C) - second in the new series of films. The Turtles' good deeds get noticed by the general public. The guy from the TV series 'Arrow' plays Casey Jones. Megan Fox does her usual thing. It is very reminiscent of the cartoon series. (Which I'm not saying is a bad thing!)

The Secret Life of Pets (C) - animated film that follows some well-worn movie cliches, although it did take a diversion about halfway through with a revolutionary chihuahua advocating animal revolution against humans.

Ghostbusters (C) - the reboot more famous for daring to cast women as ghostbusters than anything else. I thought this was OK. There were some clever scenes and I enjoyed the cameos from the surviving original ghostbusters, especially Bill Murray as a sceptic unconvinced by the 'busters ghost-catching exploits. The opening scene in a supposedly haunted house that suddenly gets supernaturally invaded is genuinely creepy and very well done.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (D) - a nice, warm feature film from Aardman, with no dialogue but a lot of charm. Sean and friends go to the city in search of their farmer who has amnesia and is now lauded as a hair styling genius for his shearing skills.

Star Trek Beyond (C) - another sequel and outing for the Enterprise crew. I wasn't convinced by the motives of the main villain and there were too many convenient coincidences. There is a spectacular space habitat, though, if you are into that sort of thing. Karl Urban's version of Bones McCoy is yet again the best thing about the film. Zoe Saldana is, again, woefully under-used in a Star Trek film, which should be a crime.

Finding Dory (C) - sequel to Finding Nemo. Dory sets off to find her parents. Some fun new characters, including Hank the septipus (he only has 7 legs left) and a beluga whale who thinks his echo-location is a superpower. I was sucked in to the emotional scene at the end and got a bit moist-eyed.

Ender's Game (D) - I was sceptical if they could really make a film of the book 'Ender's Game'. My scepticism was well-founded. This film struggles to bring the source material to life and invest it with any energy because its mainly ponderous CGI. The Battle Room sequences are the best bits. Harrison Ford isn't a particularly animated actor at the best of times and was grumpily robotic. Ben Kingsley was hilariously miscast.

Suicide Squad (C) - an utter nonsense of a film, which only made money because of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in the trailer. There were so many things wrong with this film I probably need to do a whole separate post for it. Will Smith was woefully miscast.  Frankly, I'd have been happy to see all the members of the Suicide Squad die instead of the only interesting one.

Jason Bourne (C) - it's a 'direct by numbers' action film that rhymes with 'yawn'. I don't think there was anything in it particularly noteworthy. I did go and see it with my friend, Anthony, who is a top bloke and we had a coffee and a long chat afterwards, which was better than the film really.

The Little Prince (N) - I was very excited by this animated version of the Antoine de Saint-Exupery classic book when I saw the trailer for it, with its mix of computer and stop motion animation. I was gutted it didn't get a UK cinema release and then excited again to see it was on Netflix. But, harshly, I can see why it didn't get a release. This is one of those adaptations where they try to do something new based on the source material and missed the mark by a considerable margin. The fox character is very cute in the computer animation and beautiful in the stop-motion and that's probably the best bit.

The Lobster (N) - a weird premise. Colin Farrell stars as a man without a partner in a dystopia where you have to have one. He goes to a matchmaking hotel where he must find a new mate or be turned into an animal. The first half is darkly comic, but then he goes to live in the woods with other determined singles and it goes bleakly tragic. The turning point is a distressing scene of animal cruelty. Don't watch this film if you like dogs.

The Magnificent Seven (C) - I don't object to remakes, but if you're going to remake one of the absolute best westerns of all time you need to bring your a-game. Even Chris Pratt (I love him!), Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington couldn't raise this above the mediocre. Denzel mumbled his way through most of his lines, which got very annoying.

Pride (D) - gay activists in London start raising money for striking miners during the mid-80s union-led unrest. Cue a clash of cultures between the traditional Welsh villages and the flamboyant metropolitan homosexuals. The threat of bigotry and gay-bashing, and the emergence of the AIDS epidemic gives this true life story real depth and show how far we have moved as a society.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (C) - Samuel L Jackson is making some odd film choices these days. This is one of them. It centres on a time travel plot twist, which, as ever with time travel plot twists, just doesn't work. The monsters are scary and eat eyeballs plucked from their victims' heads, which I wasn't expecting in a film pitched as a kids' film.

The Penguins of Madagascar (D) - this is silly, but miles better than Madagascar 3, which is the worst animated film released by a big studio I've ever seen. The Penguins are funny and the film's alright. It had enough scenes that made me laugh.

Storks (C) - I'd seen a lot of trailers and that drew the sting from this very well made animated film. Storks no longer deliver babies, just packages for an Amazon-esque company. But then a baby comes along and one stork has to cover up its mistake and deliver the baby to his waiting parents. You have to watch this just for the wolf pack. Seriously! The wolf pack!

Mascots (N) - mockumentary as various sports mascots (the guys in the big animal costumes) compete to be mascot of the year, including a chap from London who is the third member of his family to be 'Sid the hedgehog'. It's a gentle film and worth watching on Netflix, if you have it.

Trolls (C) - stupid (in a good way), bouncy, funny, singfest with some quite nasty villains who want to eat the trolls because that's the only way they can taste true happiness. I'm sure there is some kind of message in that.

I, Daniel Blake (C) - at the end of this film, as the credits started rolling, nobody moved. It was probably thirty seconds or more before people started shuffling in their seats getting ready to stand up and leave the auditorium. This is a visceral look at how years of Tory policy have weaponised the benefits system to deliberately make it hard for vulnerable people to get the help they need. There is a scene in a food bank that is beyond upsetting and lived with me for days. Heavily researched, this film wears its authenticity on its sleeve, and it is relentlessly damning of the people who engineered the situation desperate people find themselves in.

RED (N) - Bruce Willis and some other older actors play 'Retired and Extremely Dangerous' former CIA operatives, who are being targetted for some unknown reason. Except, even though they are retired, they are extremely dangerous, as the bad guys find out to their cost. A silly film, made very watchable by performances from Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren. And Bruce.

Moana (C) - Disney animation set in Polynesia. Moana must find the exiled god Maui to challenge the encroaching darkness that threatens to devour her island. Some great music and a very funny meta joke about Disney princesses add to the interesting concept. It's the first cartoon I can remember with such an emphasis on tattoos. I have doubts how accessible it would be to very young children but I really enjoyed it.

Elysium (D) - it's the future and the rich live on Elysium, an idyllic space colony, while the poor live on dust-bowl Earth. Matt Damon plays an engineer who needs to get to Elysium for life-saving medical treatment and makes a deal with a criminal gang leader to perform a heist and get a space on a shuttle trip. Jodie Foster co-stars as the Elysium security chief in what can charitably be described as not her best ever role or performance.

Star Wars Rogue One (C) - I wrote about this here. It's cured me of Star Wars.

Argo (D) - Ben Affleck won an Oscar for this. I can see why. It's a taut drama set after the American Embassy in Tehran was swamped by a mob and all its staff, bar six, are taken hostage. The CIA set up a fake movie production as cover to get the six fugitive Americans, now hiding out at the Canadian ambassador's house, out of Iran. It's the end of the 1970s. Everyone smokes, even on planes (remember that?). I knew the outcome but it was still tense right up until the final scenes. A really, really well-made film.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The big 2016 Christmas card audit

This has become an annual tradition for me. I'm a couple of weeks later this year as I had a big university project to sort in the first fortnight of January. But that's done, I have my life back and I'm back to counting Christmas cards and looking at trends. For the record, here are the figures for 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012.

I will post some of my favourite cards later, but for now, this is one of the ones I liked the most!

I haven't gone into as much depth as I did last year on the demographics of who sent what kind of card, or had a look at which Bible verse is considered the "most Christmassy" this year. That sort of thing is probably best done biannually, so keep an eye out in January 2018. Also, this audit has attracted some attention and at least one person deliberately tried to find the most uncategorisable card possible. And failed.

Here's the figures. New or altered categories are asterisked. I've listed categories that didn't feature this year at the end. UPDATED 29 JANUARY (as someone gave us a late card)

Total number of cards: 91 (lowest ever)
Hand-made / home-produced cards: 7 (same as 2014 & 2015)
*Cards with embellishments (bits stuck on): 4
* Unusually shaped cards: 2

Cards sold in aid of charity (or fundraising): 55 (down from 60 in 2015)
Total number of charities represented: 48 (Up from 39 in 2015 and the second highest ever)
Main charity represented: Five charities had 5 cards - Macmillan, Traidcraft / SCIAF / CAFOD / Christian Aid, Sue Ryder
Notable newcomer: Donkey Sanctuary, with pictures of donkeys on the front of course!

Religious themes
Religious-themed cards: 34 (bit of a drop from 2015)
Cards featuring the Nativity: 17
Christmas story 'characters':
Three kings: 5 (not as popular as last year but still much more popular than the shepherds)
The shepherds: 1 (scored 0 in 2015, so this was a big improvement)
The star of Bethlehem: 2
Angels: 1
"Joy to the World": 1
*'Cartoony' religious (various themes): 6

Other themes 
'Peace': 1
Santa: 6 (down from 14 in 2015)
Penguins: 5 (including 3 "couples" cards saying, e.g. 'to both of you' with penguin couples on)
Various cartoon bears: 3 (still well down from the all time high of 12 in 2012)
Deer/reindeer: 4 (increase)
Christmas decorations: 5 (increase)
Christmas trees: 8 (increase)
Christmas food: 1 (decrease) - that's the puddings card, above
Robins: 2 (no change)
*Donkeys: 3
*Sheep: 1
Winter scene/scenery: 8 (increase)
Snowmen: 7 (increase)
*Licensed characters: 3

No real clear favourite themes here, but Christmas trees were surprisingly popular. After the epic collection of Dogs in Santa Hats in 2015 (see pics!), there were none this year.

Messages (front of card only)
Cards that mention 'Christmas' on the front: 29. Only 2 of them were religious themed.
*"Seasons Greetings": 1
*"Winter Wishes": 3
*"Let it Snow": 1
*"Ho Ho Ho": 2
*Mentions "Jesus": 3

Non-scoring themes (from previous audits): 'Political' fund-raising cards; Dogs in Santa Hats; Mistletoe; Owls

Back in January 2015 (when I wrote the 2014 audit results) I said I would start producing graphs and stuff in January 2016, when I had 4 years worth of results. Although I did some demographic data-crunching, I didn't do any graphs. If I have time I will try and get to it in the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

It wasn't all bad... 11 new experiences of 2016

2016 was a bit of a rubbish year in lots of ways, but rather than mull over the increasingly terrible collective decisions the world seems to be making, or the long list of famous people who passed away last year, I have decided to focus on the good stuff. And for me there was a lot of good stuff. This post is about all the things I did for the very first time last year. A lot of this happened on our big holiday in pre-Trump North America, so I'm going to start there...

1) Went to Canada
There are loads of things I did for the first time in on our road trip to the USA and Canada, in terms of visiting places I'd not been to before (like Niagara Falls, or the Baseball Hall of Fame), but I'm going to lump all of those things in under this heading.

2) Ate fried pickles
Just one of the new culinary experiences of our road trip. We also ate at a Vegan Diner and on another occasion had poutine. But fried pickles were the new food of the year.

3) Went to a Baseball match on a giveaway night
'Star Wars night' made seeing the Boston Red Sox even more special. We also saw a baseball game in Toronto, with the Rodgers Stadium dome closed - the first time I'd ever seen baseball "indoors".

4) Saw a moose
OK, it was in a zoo, but it counts.

5) Checked into a hotel then checked straight back out again
The lowlight of our road trip was a disastrous hotel booking in Albany, New York. But it was a totally new experience for me.

So, enough about our road trip, here are some other things.

6) Saw Shrewsbury Town finally beat Cardiff City in Cardiff. 
It had been a long time coming, but I was finally present (in one of Cardiff's record lowest crowds at their new stadium) to see Shrewsbury beat them.

7) Got on a plane unaccompanied
I went to a conference in Glasgow and flew there from Bristol. It was the first time I had ever travelled by plane on my own, having always had Cathy, or family, or colleagues with me on previous flights.

8) Saw Celtic play
A childhood ambition ticked off

9) Went to Spain
Again, this was for a work conference. I took plenty of photos of Valencia by night. I loved it.

10) Rode through a bus wash
Seriously, this was one of the best things I did last year.

11) Going to a cartoon festival
I love cartoons and one of our favourite cartoonists was at the Shrewsbury Cartoon Festival, we decided we had to go. We met her again a few weeks later, in her studio in Massachusetts.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Rogue One: I now get what it feels like to not like Star Wars

So this is my review of Rogue One, the most hyped movie of the Christmas season, eagerly anticipated, and, it seems, raved about by fanboys far and wide across the internet and twitterverse.

But it left me cold. In fact, talking about it this morning for a radio interview, I realised that the way I felt about it is probably how a lot of people feel about Star Wars when they watch it having been always told they should watch it, and then are left wondering what all the fuss was about.

[[[SPOILERS follow below the poster]]]

The basic premise of the film is that Jyn Erso, a rebellious young woman who is not actually part of the Rebellion at the start of the film, may be the key person in getting hold of the Death Star plans. Her father is the guy who designed the battle station. But he's had a twinge of conscience. He has sabotaged the design with a 'flaw' that can be exploited. That flaw is the exhaust port in the Death Star trench that for years has been mocked as a ludicrous design fail. Now it turns out that it was meant to be there all along, hidden in plain sight.

So this entire film seems to exist to gainsay people who take the mickey out of the simplicity with which the Death Star can be destroyed. Haha! Mockers! It was all part of the plan! (Although, it has been pointed out by others that this means the destruction of the Death Star was an inside job. Conspiracy wingnuts rejoice!)

There is probably mileage in making a film to explain every plot hole and scripting fail in Star Wars. Expect a feature film about the mysterious cave on Dagobah, or why Leia had memories of her mother who died minutes after giving birth to her, or why Lando appears to be wearing Han Solo's clothes at the end of Empire Strikes Back. And people will go to see it in droves, because, Star Wars.

Some smart people have dissected the trailer and noted there are at least 12 key scenes that don't appear anywhere in the finished film.

Jyn v TIE Fighter: not in the film

We know it was a troubled production with numerous reshoots and script rewrites. That really shows. Taken objectively, if this wasn't a Star Wars film people would be asking serious questions of it. Saw Gerrera is a key character that just doesn't need to be in it at all during the first half of the film. Seriously, if you cut him out and just had Jyn and Cassian Andor going to Jedha to find a pilot who has defected it would make no difference to the story.

I found myself watching this and hearing the voice of the guy who does the voice-over for Cinema Sins on YouTube. There is so much wrong with this. The pilot is exposed to a questioning technique that will send him mad, but is brought back to lucidity by Cassian telling him that he's the pilot who defected. The Death Star's weapon is tested on a city with a large Imperial Garrison, killing more of its own soldiers than the local terrorists could ever have hoped for. Jyn Erso, newly recruited and of questionable loyalty, is allowed to hold court in the main Rebel Alliance briefing chamber in front of all the representatives of the systems who are trying to work together against the Empire. Cassian is given top secret instructions and later the briefing officer repeats them out loud to the entire room full of technicians and communications people, for nobody's benefit but the absent-minded audience. The film ends with the Empire using the Death Star on its own central archive. Not even the Empire would do something that self-destructive. They could have just turned the Death Star on the Rebel frigates, like they did over Endor, and finished the engagement very quickly.

It's bollocks like this that just had me shaking my head and internally narrating Cinema Sins style.

There has been a lot of talk about the ending. The film ends on a bit of a downer. It's a doomed mission and the characters you have just got to know head into overwhelming odds. But there is also a slight twist in that the action shifts to frantic scenes aboard a Rebel spaceship as they try to get the Death Star plans away. This is the bit that people are going on about, not the deaths of the characters whose stories have actually been told in the film. Which kind of indicates the lack of depth to the storytelling - we don't care about these people or their sacrifice. And we should.

So, all in all, this film was a mess. A different sort of mess to the other prequels, but a mess nonetheless. It has some high points. Seeing Darth Vader's summer retreat was kind of fun. And it looks like it runs on geothermal energy so some environmentally sound kudos to the Dark Lord of the Sith for that. I wasn't that fussed on the CGI version of Peter Cushing as it looked a bit video game to me but it was a brave decision to go that route. And Tarkin is a key character in the Rebels cartoon series so it made sense to have him in this film. The unexpected ending when it switches away from the doomed heroes we all couldn't care less about was a genuine surprise and I quite liked the idea behind it. But still, there was something lacking.

I think I know what it was. The Force was conspicuously absent from this movie. Literally. It is barely mentioned. There are no Jedi. And although we see Vader using the Force in his Dark Side ways, he doesn't talk about it or even use the term. There is a pseudo Jedi, Chirrut Imwe, who repeats a mantra of being one with the Force, and who says he meditates on it, but he is not a Force user.

The absence of the Force removes the sense of cosmic battle between good and evil. This is a film about grey areas. The rebel soldiers have done terrible things as well. The Alliance is fragmentary with groups of hardliners willing to commit atrocities in the name of Rebellion. In that sense, this reflects the geopolitics of the 21st century rather than the late 1970s, or certainly the popular understanding of geopolitics. We've all grown up a bit and it's no longer good guys v bad guys.

It perhaps also reflects a change in the way we do 'spiritual'. Chirrut Imwe is not an official, trained Jedi. He has his own understanding of the Force, reflecting perhaps, pick and mix self-trained spirituality. He is helped in his mysticism by being backed up by a guy with a very, very big gun. Maybe there is a deeper level of meaning in that.

On a personal level, my feelings towards this film have been overshadowed slightly by the sad news of the death of Carrie Fisher. While she was ill in hospital many people tweeted or posted pleas for the Force to be with her and to protect her. I imagine most of those will have been out of sad respect rather than genuine belief. I've said before that Return of the Jedi was the first film I saw when my family returned to this country from Africa and I think that is why it had such a profound effect on me. With Rogue One the effect has worn off and that makes me feel a bit sad.