Star Wars: Rogue One (2016)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Adding to the most famous film series in history was always going to be a big ask.  And coming hot on the heels of the success of Episode VII, the pressure was really on for Rogue One to deliver.   Needing to stay faithful to the wider story while delivering something fresh and accessible, was it all just too much to ask for? Probably.  But improbable odds never stopped a rebel before…

Gareth Edward’s affection for the Star Wars saga quietly permeates the whole movie.  I’ve seen all of the Star War films (including Force Awakens, which I enjoyed), but I’m no die-hard fan.  Yet even I couldn’t help but smile at the little fan moments, those touches that only someone with real love for the story could come up with.  Particularly loved Vader boarding the rebel ship as it trys to flee with the plans, illuminated only by his lightsabre.  Though Leia’s late appearance came a close second.  Yet this sensation was brilliantly controlled, and only done when it served the story.  Things never got that fan-fiction feeling.  It was never self-indulgent or exclusive.  Quite the reverse, you could come to this film knowing nothing about Star Wars, and you’d still have a great time.  And it stands on its own merits.

It certainly looked convincing, with a lovely eye for details.  Although I struggled with the CG ‘resurrection’ of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin.  While I respect the skill involved, the whole thing didn’t quite convince for me.  I think it’s the eyes- there’s a flatness, a stillness that’s really distracting, constantly reminding you that you’re looking an image, not a person.  It worked in small doses, but the extended Tarkin sequences showed the limitations of the tech.  Not that it was really bad, or took away from the film as a whole, I just don’t think it was as good as a real actor would have been.

And there’s so much great acting here – a real ensemble piece.  Felicity Jones is brilliant, but she’s only a part of a much bigger group.  The story really captures what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself.  Jyn was a focal point, a way to pull us into the story, but there are small acts of heroism everywhere.  History isn’t changed by just one person, but one person can make a difference.  A very tricky thing to pull off, and it’s done here with real style.

Every one of the characters makes their mark, as different facets and complexities of the rebellion came to the fore.   Chirrut and Baze were particularly brilliant as the obsolete Jedi, clinging without bitterness to their dying way of life.  Saw Gerrera showed the cost of giving everything to a cause; Galen how bravery takes different forms.  They all felt organic – I particularly loved the way Bodhi grew into his place in the rebellion – and every death had impact.  I’m not sure if I have a weakness for sarcastic robots, but I was genuinely affected by K2’s demise.

It was very low key, as endings go.  Most of the rebel fleet destroyed, and everyone we’ve spent the last two hours getting to know left dead.  I liked the quietness of Jyn and Cassian’s final moments – their closeness acknowledged without any shoehorned romantic involvement.   The losses brilliantly balanced how each individual death could be seen as a waste – dead just to buy someone else a few minutes, to plug into a transmitter, to throw a switch.  Yet, combined, these small actions manage to achieve something miraculous, snatching a possibility of victory from almost certain destruction.  It’s all brilliantly balanced.  Hope is alive, but such a fragile little thing. If you were in the rebels’ place, would you think it was worth it?

Even though most of us know the Death Star is eventually destroyed and the Empire overthrown, it feels a heavy price to pay.  And with the rise of the First Order, we also know there’s no such thing as victory.  Everything comes back around, and everyone will have to make the same choices.  This idea is only touched on- nothing too clunking – but when Cassian and his crew talk about having given too much, having done too much, to give up – you can’t help but wonder if you’d be the same.  We like to think we’d be brave if the need arose, but I’m not sure most of us would.  I’d probably be in the Cantina…

Speaking of which, there’s some lovely world-building done here.  Glimpses of a vast and bustling galazy – crowded streets of Jedha, a dank prison transport, bleak but beautiful  Lah’mu.  I got a distinctly Dubai feel from Scarif, with is perfectly formed white beach islands and towering structures.  The film feels epic but on a human scale, which is incredibly tricky to do.  It’s fantastically well constructed.  There is an astonishing amount of storytelling going on here, yet it never feels lumpen or slow.  And it’s all managed while creating something recognisably Star Wars, without feeling too recycled.  When the final credits rolled, I honestly felt like clapping.  It’s amazing!

What did you think?  Was the ending too dark for you?  Did you think a familiarity with Star Wars was needed? Did you want to give K2 a hug? Let me know!

 

 

 

 

 

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A Song of Ice and Fire (George R.R. Martin)

ASOIAF*Spoilers for the books series A Song of Ice and FireGame of Thrones is a different kettle of fish, so won’t be referred to below (though it is marvellous).*

A tale twenty years in the making, the characters from A Song of Ice and Fire have become household names.  But has this sprawling series got away from its author?   I’m not so sure.

Many readers grumble that the series loses its way after Storm of Swords – and the first time I read the books, I thought so too.  After steamrolling through the early books, I hit Feast for Crows like a brick wall.  We’re bombarded by new characters from places we’ve barely heard of, and the older characters we’ve come to love have their progress slow to a crawl.  I’d sigh whenever a Brienne chapter came along. And whenever we saw Bran.  Or Tyrion.

Even Martin himself acknowledged the difficulties of maintaining forward momentum with so many characters and plot lines on the go.

He also took some peculiar editorial decisions.  These are long bloody books, and when Storm of Swords became too long for a single edition, he simply cut it roughly in two, and released them as two parts.  So far, so straightforward.  But when he encountered the same issue with Feast for Crows, he made the decision to split the book not chronologically, but geographically.   This had the unfortunate effect of pushing all of the most interesting characters – Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Davos (#TeamStannis) – into the later book, Dance of Dragons.  These characters re-merge with the rest in the latter half of Dragons, but it further exacerbates the sensation of slowness.

These later books aren’t without their memorable moments – Tywin’s death, Dany’s flight from Meereen, Stannis’s fight for The Wall – but I was just itching for some resolution.  The Starks have been butchered – I want red vengeance!  What’s going to happen to Jon?  Will Dany ever get to Westeros?  So I ploughed on regardless, hoping for answers.

Which of course, never came.  The series is unfinished.  Martin has plans for two more books: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.

And yet, despite these flaws (and while working full time), I knocked off the entire series in about six weeks.  I haven’t encountered books so readable, yet so rich and satisfying, since Harry Potter.  And there is no higher praise from me than that.  Actually, Martin’s writing style seems to encounter similar criticism to Rowling’s – excessive use of clichéd language and so on.  While there is some truth to that – everyone in Westeros wipes their mouth with the back of their hand after having a drink – the world building he has done is absolutely staggering.   There are at least 5 different religions established in the books.  Not to mention all the various houses and social groups, their histories and interactions.  And the geography of two continents.  The balance between real-worldly political intrigue and pure fantasy elements is also brilliantly managed.

Part of this success comes from Martin borrowing heavily from real history.  The Wall could be inspired by Hadrian’s or the Great Wall of China.  The Lannisters have parallels with the Borgias and The House of York.   Braavos could be mercantile Amsterdam, or perhaps Venice.   Yet this is done very cleverly – familiar enough to be believable, particular and fresh enough to be engaging.  It also subtlety suggests that Westeros is a bit of a backwater.   It feels very medieval, whereas the Free Cities have an air of the Renaissance about them.  Even the names are perfect, with variants on old fashioned names (Margaery, Alliser, Eddard) mixing with pure inventions that don’t at all sound like inventions (Hoster, Tyrion, Aegon).  It sounds like a simple thing, but how many fantasy stories have ridiculously contrived names, full of unnecessary X’s and K’s to make them sound exotic.  Martin actually mocks this particular trope with the ‘unpronounceable’ names he gives to the Meereenese.  And marking them as different and faintly indistinguishable from one another also suggests that Dany doesn’t really belong amongst them.

In fact, Martin subverts almost every fantasy trope in A Song of Ice and Fire.  Noble Robb tries to avenge his murdered father, and is promptly dispatched himself.  Virtuous maidens are abused and neglected.  Parents end up destroying their children and vice versa.  The most capable rulers aren’t always the most likeable.  Beautiful people can be evil and ugly people can be good.  Magic is a more of a burden than a quick fix.  The most successful in this world aren’t the ones that fulfil expectations, but the ones who respond best to changing situations.  And of course, even important people can be killed.  Again, it may seem simple to subvert expectations, but it’s no mean feat to pull off inversions like these.  We have tropes for a reason; they tend to make bloody good stories.  And it’s fair to say that some of the issues Martin has are a result of his determination to avoid the obvious.

The depth and quality of the world building is also borne out by the number of fan theories that have sprung up.  R+L=J is practically canon, and there are various convincing theories about Dany’s prophetic visions in The House of the Undying.  Can Bran go back in time and alter the course of events?  Can he stop the the Walkers?  Has he already tried to and sent poor Aerys mad, thus causing all of this?  Who is Coldhands?  Are Jaimie and Cersei actually secret Targaryen’s?  Is Tyrion?  (I think no on the last two, but they are a lot of fun).  On and on it goes, so many mad and brilliant ideas.

I recently re-read the series, much slower than last time.  And the response I had was quite different.  Partly because I could really savour the characters and world, but also because it changed my understanding of how the series is structured, and why the later books feel so different to the first three.

So.  It seems likely that The Winds of Winter will be split into two books, followed by A Dream of Spring.  If that’s the case, the order of the series looks like this:

A Game of Thrones

A Clash of Kings

A Storm of Swords (p1)

A Storm of Swords (p2)

A Feast for Crows

A Dance with Dragons (p1)

A Dance with Dragons (p2)

The Winds of Winter (p1)

The Winds of Winter (p2)

A Dream of Spring

 

But if you do this…

 

ACT 1 = A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords (p1), A Storm of Swords (p2)

ACT 2 = A Feast for Crows, A Dance With Dragons (p1), A Dance With Dragons (p2)

ACT 3 = The Winds of Winter (p1), The Winds of Winter (p2), A Dream of Spring

 

…you get your basic three act structure.  Looks pretty neat, doesn’t it?  Considering how much groundwork has to happen in the first book, all three Acts look fairly equal in length.

I really like this structure because it explains several tricky aspects of the series.  Primarily, why is Feast For Crow such hard work?  Because it’s the start of a new Act.

Act 1 establishes the world and the main players and sets our main plot in motion.  Act 2 pulls back to a wider viewpoint, showing how the events of Act 1 have far reaching consequences.  Hence we learn much more about the Dornish and the Iron born and The Citadel.  It also explains Brienne’s tedious jaunt around the Riverlands – we are being shown the horror of war, and how it disproportionally impacts the smallfolk.  This is also why we get the viewpoints of several minor characters, when until now we have only heard from high-borns: the actions of the ruling class are rippling outward.

This continues in Dance of Dragons.  Stannis is forced to The Wall as the North reels from the downfall of the Starks.  Tyrion’s chapters’ show how much he has personally lost by casting off his family, and how deeply the murder of his father has affected him.  But he’s also getting a crash course in the importance of rank in Westeros – Aegon is only a Targaryen if the people around him say so, and Penny shows how different life is as a dwarf when you have neither name nor fortune (hint – it’s rough).  Without Tywin keeping a lid on things, King’s Landing spirals more and more out of control as the Lannister-Tyrell alliance fractures, and The Sparrows step into the void.  Dany is shown the difference between conquest and rule.  Peace is not an absence of war – it’s hard, thankless work, both tedious and relentless.   Jon learns that politics doesn’t stop at The Wall, and that even a common enemy is not always enough to unite people.  These last two threads end on a particularly tantalising note: Dany and Drogon turn away from Meereen to chase a Dothraki hoard, and Jon … well, things are definitely going to change for Jon.

In fact there are several hints that we are now moving into Act 3, where all the threads come together for the final, dramatic conclusion.  Tyrion is back in a position to do a bit of honest manipulation and King’s Landing is a tinder box.  Victarion is racing East, while Young Aegon is racing West.  Brienne has met up with Jaimie, Myrcella is coming home.  And the final, decisive battles are coming to Meereen and Winterfell.  This latter prospect has me salivating, as Martin does a fantastic job of building the tension at both Winterfell and Stannis’s camp.  The sense of a reckoning being due is almost palpable.  The pieces are all in place.  Time for the finale.

Your move, Mr Martin.

So, what do you think?  Is the 3 Act structure working for you? Had you already spotted this, or am I talking nonsense?  Have you any idea when Winds of Winter is coming out?  Do let me know!

Crimson Peak (2015)

*Mild spoilers below!*

At the turn of the last century, in Buffalo, New York, heiress Edith Cushing aspires to be an author.  But instead she falls in love, and is whisked away to a crumbling pile in the chilly north of England.  She starts to realise that there is much about this strange place she doesn’t understand – and if she doesn’t make sense of it soon, she might not make it out at all.    Guillermo Del Toro gives us his own particular take on the gothic romance with this tale of ghosts and violence and passionate, monstrous love.

This definitely is a gothic romance, by the way, not a horror or a fairy story as others have described it.  Initially a literary genre of the late 18th century, gothic romances are basically coming of age stories, where an innocent and vulnerable young woman is thrust into a world of sex and death.  While appalling dangers beset her, her good heart and good sense ensure her survival, and she emerges battered but enlightened. Well, that’s the plan, anyway.

Naturally, Crimson Peak looks amazing, with an astonishing attention to detail and brilliant lighting.  Buffalo is bright and clean, a dynamic and modern place that looks to the future.   The waltz scene is sumptuous, bathed in soft golden light and a glorious, gliding score.  Many a heart set a flutter, I’m sure, as roguish Thomas wins Edith’s heart with a dance.  Yet not everything is rosy: when they share their first, passionate kiss, Edith is beautifully illuminated, but Thomas is all in shadow.

The costumes are also wonderfully evocative.  Lucille is all chilly composure and unruffled elegance in black lace gloves and an elaborate crimson gown.  But as she starts to lose her grip she becomes visibly disordered, rattling about the house in loose chiffon and billowing velvet.  Edith’s clothes start off with a delicately feminine, virginal silhouette, which becomes more structured as she grows in confidence.  With capes and hats and padded shoulders, she literally takes up more space.  Yet as her vulnerability emerges, she starts wandering the halls in her nightgown, loose blonde hair down to her waist.  She looks like a child.  Or a hospital patient.

Colour plays into this too.  We initially see Thomas in black and Lucille in red, while Edith wears shades of white.  So far, so obvious.  But as the story progresses, Edith wears increasingly vivid shades of yellow and gold, suggesting blossoming love and self-assurance.  Everyone’s outfit usually contains a subtle trace of black – we’re all sinners, after all.  And Lucille may start off a scarlet woman, but at home dons a dark blue outfit that makes her look rather like her mother…

‘The house breathes’, Thomas tells Edith, and Allerdale Hall really does feel like a character in its own right.  Crumbling and isolated, the weather comes in through a hole in the roof, and blood red clay seeps up through the floor boards, staining the ladies dresses.  It has an otherworldly quality, as though it wasn’t really built to be lived in at all.  It belongs more to the dead than the living, yet it dominates proceedings – very little action takes place outside.  The house dominates the siblings as well.  While Thomas looks to the future by restoring the house and mine, Lucille seems more concerned with the past, thumbing her nose at her long dead parents: ‘I image mother seeing everything we do here.’ *shudder*

With most ghost stories – especially haunted house-style ones – you’re not always sure if the ghosts are real, or just a product of a fevered imagination.  Not here.  Five minutes in, and we are shown in no uncertain terms that the supernatural is very real.  But while ghosts have a strong presence in the world, it’s the other humans you need to look out for.

The hint of threat is ever present and while we don’t see much violence, when we do it’s brutal.  You can almost feel the crunch of bone and parting of flesh.  At one shocking death, I actually heard the audience gasp.   In this heightened, opulent world, the violence feels very real – and the consequences of it are devastating.  Death and loss ripple out. Everyone in this story has buried a loved one.  History looms over them all, but will they try to ignore the past, brood on it, or learn from it?

The main performances are all excellent. Tom Hiddleston is great as Thomas – definitely a wrong ‘un, but surprisingly sympathetic as he starts to fall for Edith.  Jessica Chastain is on hair-raising form as the increasingly unstable Lucille, her every word brimming with pent up fury.  Yet this is Edith’s story and Mia Wasikowska does a fine job.  In lesser hands she could come across as insipid, but she combines innocence with a blazing intelligence and relatable curiosity.  And it’s always fun to see women play such an active role in their own salvation.

At heart, though, this is a love story.  Love drives all the characters, for better or worse.  Yet even at the end of the tale, none of them can really understand it.  Perhaps that’s the point.  Dark and rich and intriguing, Crimson Peak completely pulls you in.  Any fan of Del Toro or of romances with a bit of bite will have a great time here.  I know I did.

What did you think?  Were you swept along with the story, or left out in the cold?  Was the violence too much for you? Let me know!

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s a dark time for England.  Society is fragmented after the withdrawal of the Romans, and tensions between Britons and Saxons are on the rise.  In this dreamlike, timeless place, where ogres and dragons still roam the land, Axl and Beatrice set out on a journey to visit their son.  They come to realise that something has taken their memories, and determine to recover their past.

If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be ‘haunting’.  Ishiguro does a brilliant job of creating a world where all the usual markers of identity – time, geography, history – are lost.  The more I think about it, the more impressive this seems, on a technical level at least.  How can an author create characters that don’t really know themselves?  Far from explaining to us who they are and what they’re doing, the characters here engage in a sort of anti-exposition as they try to piece together, or even conceal, their own motivations.  They often scarce believe their own eyes, and are troubled by recollections and sensations that seem to emerge from a lurking, unknowable past.

It’s very disorientating, and I found it interesting that – while we know very little about Axl and Beatrice – I found myself rooting for them, simply because I had known them the longest.  In the absence of any marker of personality, morality or any of the other things that make us care about a character, the simple act of shared time became a basis for caring.  Which I suppose is the point.  It reminded me of the idea that every villain is the hero of their own story- there are no absolutes.  And if you can’t even recall past events and actions, how can you tell good people from bad? Or even right from wrong?

There’s a fantastic sense that, while it may be vital to remember the past, it is also painful; that the mist only works because, deep down, the people want to forget.  Wistan is (eventually) clear and eloquent in his defence of his actions – the only person who ever really is.  But he’s also harsh, brittle, unyielding.  The truth can be painful.  Forgetting is comfortable, easier.

Well, almost.  Because some things can’t quite be forgotten.  And those few snatches of half remembered events and relationships can destabilize perfectly functional, well ordered lives and worlds.

Perhaps forgiveness isn’t something that can be chosen, deliberately brought forth from yourself; it has to just come naturally.  It’s either in your heart or it isn’t.  Forgiveness, then, isn’t an absence of malice or anger or a by-product of forgetting.  It is an active presence, something that exists by itself and on its own terms.  You can’t compel forgiveness.

Like love, then.  No one chooses to love or be loved, it’s just there. Unspoken and inexplicable.  Which is marvellous, in a way, very unearthly and pure.  But in the real world, is it a good thing for such uncontrollable, even baseless, sensations to have so much control over us?

This is the tension at the heart of the story.  We need each other, need to connect, yet the roots of those connections are tenuous, even ridiculous.   Is a love dependent on forgetting worth less than one that endures perfect recollection?  Every quarrel, every perceived slight?  Is a perfect love even possible?  Even human? We’re all flawed, after all – we all make mistakes.  Is love divine, then?  Coming from God, not from within ourselves?

There’s a scene where Beatrice, perhaps sensing a parting is inevitable, begs her husband to remember the love that currently exists between them.  But, you can’t really remember a feeling, can you?  You can recall if something made you sad or happy etc, but not the actual way you felt, the sensation of it.  Perfect recollection is impossible.  So, is forgetting all that bad?

Maybe there’s a distinction between the personal good and the communal good.  Forgotten history is repeated history, after all.  With the elderly knight Sir Gawain in his rusting armour and the crumbling Roman villa, there is a sense that the world has stagnated, yet the rumbling tensions between different tribes suggests that a reckoning is also due.  Society is stuck, and the situation can’t sustain itself- something’s going to give.  Painful remembrance is the price for peace, the only way real forgiveness can happen and for society to cohere and progress.  But for Axl and Beatrice, those returned memories prove more destructive.

This all sounds like the book is incredibly intellectual, a philosophical exercise, but that’s not the case.  It is a strange and in some ways challenging novel.  The language itself is not difficult, but the characters recall so little, are so unsure of themselves, they speak in an almost childlike, generic manner.  I would find it difficult to describe their personalities. Yet after spending so long with Axl and Beatrice, the slow accumulation of detail about them made me deeply invested in their relationship.  The realisation that their son is dead, and that they are probably parted forever, was surprisingly affecting.

This is definitely not a book for everyone.  I’m not even sure I ‘enjoyed’ it.  But it has definitely gotten under my skin, and I found myself thinking about the story long after I finished reading.  The sense of loss, the simple sadness of the ending, really stuck with me.

One to avoid if you want fun, light read, then.  But if you’re looking for something a bit different, give The Buried Giant a go.

What did you think?  Are you a fan of the author?  How does this compare to his other work?  Did the twisted fantasy tropes work for you?  Let me know below!

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

After saving the world from an alien invasion, the Avengers crew are conducting the latest in a series of raids on Hydra, and finally reclaim Loki’s sceptre.  (How did Hydra get hold of that, btw?) But Tony has got a bright idea about saving the world, and they run into a couple of kids with ‘enhanced’ abilities.  The follow-up to Avengers Assemble is probably the most highly anticipated movie of the year (at least ‘til Star Wars come out), and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The action scenes are, of course, superb.  Iron Man smacking Hulk with an elevator was a particularly memorable moment, as was the obligatory single-swooping-shot-of-all-the-Avengers-fighting-together-and-looking-cool.  I also liked the genuine sense of danger around the fighting, and the way the team put concerted effort into reducing civilian casualties.  No collateral damage for the Avengers, thank you very much.

The competing elements of humour and drama are beautifully balanced – we’re constantly aware that the stakes are high without it all becoming too ponderous and sombre.  When Hulk goes nuts and starts destroying a city, Stark goes in to stop him; pummelling him in the face repeatedly, like something off Saturday morning cartoons.  But inside the mask he is desperately mumbling: go to sleep! Go to sleep!

Characterisation is also wonderful.  Whedon is always at his best here, showing peoples’ little rivalries and interactions.  A drunken round of ‘Try and Lift Mjolnir’ is particularly entertaining, with Thor’s face dropping when Cap almost gives it a wobble.  Natasha and Banner’s blossoming romance is warm and deftly handled: her tiny hand in Hulks; the heart-breaking confession that she has been sterilised.  It also plays nicely against Hawkeye’s newly revealed family.  He got fairly short shrift in the first film, so I was glad to find out a little bit more about him.

And we get to see Jarvis! Ok, not quite. It’s Jarvis’s programming in a metallic-organic body, combined with an infinity stone. Or something.  It’s Paul Bettany, anyway, which is all you need to know.  He’s called the Vision and he’s only in a few scenes, but he nails it every time – sad and full of unearthly wisdom, but also a bit of a softy.  The moment he casually hands Thor his hammer (thereby proving his good intentions) brought a smile to my face.  He also has an amazing cloak.

James Spader’s Ultron is, frankly, marvellous.  Trying to fill Loki’s boots as lead baddie is no easy thing, but he is truly frightening and just a teensy bit sympathetic.   In an odd, unnerving introduction, he destroys Jarvis and takes over Starks’ workshop, sending the creations to kill their creator.  It’s fresh and memorable, as well as a neat bit of foreshadowing.  Ultron is unpredictable and intimidating, but in a demented sort of way he is also compelling.  You never doubt that he needs to be stopped, but he is only a reflection of Stark’s (and by extension our own) desire for stability and control.  ‘You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.’  It’s a powerful idea, gesturing towards the need for humanity to evolve its thinking if it is to survive.  Even Vision thinks we’ve had it.  ‘But a thing isn’t beautiful only because it lasts’, he ponders.  ‘You’re breathtakingly naïve.’ snaps back Ultron. ‘Well, I was born yesterday.’

Weaknesses? Well, despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, there are just too many characters.  While they are all dynamic and well rounded, proceedings do get bogged down with the sheer number of people we’re trying to follow.  Together with the initial six Avengers is the addition of Ultron, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Doctor Cho; which on top of the supporting characters/cameos – Maria Hill, Nick Fury, Heimdall, Peggy Carter and Eric Selvig were just the ones I could put a name to – makes for a very over-stuffed cast list.  It’s very well handled, and in lesser hands could easily have collapsed under its own weight, but it does feel unwieldy.

Which could explain why Quicksilvers’ death didn’t really effect me.  For all the expectations of ‘blood on the floor’, it lacked the emotional heft the loss of one of the original six would have had (I honestly worried that Hawkeye would get it).  Nor did I really buy the twins motivation.  A Stark shell killed their parents and another lay next to them until they were dug out of the rubble.  ‘We waited for 2 days for Stark to kill us.’ Well, I’d be angry with the guy who made the shells too; but I think I would be rather more angry with the guy who fired them.  I realise they have been manipulated by Hydra, but it felt a bit contrived.  Did they really not hear about New York? Come on…

But for a supposedly low-brow movie, I was frequently reminded of that line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol: ‘For each man kills the thing he loves.’ Ultron points out that we are often the authors of our own demise.  Neither he nor Stark can tell the difference between saving the world and ending it.  Other writers have suggested that, as their heroes invariably work to prevent change, comic-book adaptations are inherently conservative. It’s noteworthy, then, that the moral of this particular story is that everything ends. Life is change, and fighting change will mean destroying the very thing you are trying to protect.  Chaos and calm aren’t opposites so much as counterpoints.  The Avengers themselves show a way forward; chaotic, disparate elements unified and galvanised by a common cause.  But only for a time.

It’s a pleasingly complex idea, complicating easy good/bad dichotomies. I like that it’s there if you want something to chew on.  If not, switch off your brain and enjoy the fights/quips.   Something for everyone, then – I loved it.  Only another 3 years until Avengers: Infinity War.  Can’t wait!

What did you think?  Was it worth the wait?  Did you struggle with the huge cast, or am I just lazy?  Does it adapt the source material well?  Let me know your thought below!

The Sandman Vol. 1 (Preludes and Nocturnes), Neil Gaiman

An occultist in Edwardian England attempts to call forth and imprison Death in order to become immortal.  Instead, he lands himself with Death’s little brother, Morpheus – Lord of Dreams- and neither of them are too happy about it.  Initially published as eight separate issues, this is the first collection in The Sandman series, arguably one of the most successful and influential graphic novels ever written.  With very little knowledge of the form, and no expectations whatsoever, I dived straight in- and was delighted.

What struck me first was the collections’ unusual structure.  Obviously, each issue has its own story arc, but each one also acts as a chapter in the larger narrative structure of the collection.  And while the collection itself ended with a resolution of sorts, I was intrigued to learn more about how this first collection fitted into the overall Sandman story, as well as how this structuring would dictate plot and characterisation.

Right from the off, The Sandman is very concerned with stories and the power of stories.  Dreams are the source of imagination, and inspiration, and aspiration.  Dreams are not bounded by space or time.  The ideas and stories that dreams gestate don’t just consider where we are and where we come from, but where we can go.  Morpheus states that he is the true power in Hell, because ‘what power would Hell have if those imprisoned [t]here were not able to dream of heaven?’  But dreams by themselves are not enough to sustain existence or effect change in the universe.  Dreams are just the start, they must be acted on, made use of, if they are to have any power.  People literally dream their lives away here, with a strong parallel drawn with drug abuse.  But dreams are a rejection of the established order of things.  Dreams are the start of change.  By the end of this collection, Morpheus himself learns that change is not only inevitable, but necessary.

There are diverse influences at work here, including references to Greek and Norse mythology, tropes from literature, quotes from Shakespeare, characters from the Bible and the DC universe.  There is a giddiness to this range of references which is both erudite and charming.  It’s cheeky and a bit mad, but it works.  The stories too show an impressive variety, from a fresh yet familiar vision of hell, to a modern horror set entirely in a US diner.  While they each stand alone, I found myself rattling through each story, eager to discover what Morpheus would encounter next.

While the shifts in tone and setting can be a little disorientating, there was a wonderful sense of possibility, a gleeful disregard for any pre-established order here that was really quite exhilarating.  Perhaps this is more common in graphic novels/comics, than in novels, so it could merely be my ignorance talking, but I thought it was bold and, invariably, well handled.  I particularly enjoyed Morpheus’ encounter with grumpy detective John Constantine.

Characterisation was also solid.  The Lord of Dreams is a gloomy soul – understandable perhaps, after 70 years in prison – whereas Death is sparky and warm.  There’s a lovely exchange between them where she wonders why people find her so terrifying- after all, dreaming is surely more dreadful than dying? While Morpheus is very much the focus, we do get pleasing little snippets from some of those he encounters.   Cain and Abel – brilliantly twisted, doomed to play out the oldest story again and again until the end of time. Constantine makes a wry little greeting to London before he sets off to work.  An old man asks for time to say the Shma before Death wings him away.  Not because he was particularly religious, but because his Dad told him to.  People find comfort in the familiar, I suppose.

The art work was excellent.  I particularly enjoyed the cover pages by Dave McKean, but there were plenty of striking images from Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg.  Satan looks like Tilda Swinton with bat wings, and Morpheus himself bears a striking resemblance to Gaiman.  It may seem obvious, but I enjoyed how the construction of the images gave a real sense of movement and personality to the characters, and added to the momentum of the story.  So the deranged Dr. John Dee is often half hidden in shadow, isolated or uncomfortably framed.  When Morpheus interrogates the Maiden, Mother and Crone, their answers roll down the page, not across, forcing you to slow down and consider the answers.  It’s both efficient and effective – saying so much without saying anything at all.

The story structure itself also works well, leaving you with the best of both worlds:  the pleasing resolution of Morpheus regaining his autonomy, and the desire to see what he gets up to next.  The Lord of Dreams has completed his quest and regained his former strength.  But he has been forever altered by the experience, and travelled through a vast and glorious, and partly ruined universe, which establishes an expectation of further adventures.  And as Morpheus eventually meets up with his sister Death, there is also the suggestion that we may in future encounter the rest of the Endless…

Smart, warm and irreverent, this first collection is a brilliant introduction to both The Sandman saga and the world of graphic novels.   I’ve already ordered the next collection in the series – surely there’s no higher praise than that.

What did you think- is The Sandman as good as they say?  Have I made any glaring omissions?  Are you a graphic novel fan- any suggested reading for me?  Do let me know.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

There and back again…

First, a confession: I am a massive LOTR fan.  The Fellowship of the Ring was one of the first films I ever saw at the cinema, and I cannot fully convey the impact it had on me.  I can still remember watching that opening scene: the swooping shots of massive armies clashing together and the raw, elemental power that seemed to radiate from the land itself.  It all felt so important, so epic. I had never seen anything like it.  Like the Potter films, these movies are part of my childhood, and I could never be entirely unbiased towards them.  As such, I was already well- disposed towards the Hobbit films before the first scene was shot.

Even so, after almost 6 hours of Bilbo’s adventures, did I still care enough to follow them through ‘til the end?

Of course I did.

After the cliff-hanger ending of Desolation of Smaug, how could anyone not? We rejoin the action with Smaug powering towards Laketown to bring down fiery ruin on the people who dared defy him.  His destruction of Laketown is brilliantly realised, if a little short.  Still, Bard gets to make up for his ancestors failure by killing the dragon with a Black Arrow, and inadvertently puts paid to the greedy Master while doing it.  As word of Smaug’s death spreads, the Five Armies of the title converge on Erebor, to claim the mountain and the treasures within.

Like Bard, most of the characters are influenced by the actions of their ancestors: the Dwarves want their ancestral home returned, and haughty Thranduil wants to reclaim jewels that belonged to his family.  Others too are concerned with the return of Sauron, and a past that won’t stay buried.  History weighs on us all it would seem, which is a nice bit of foreshadowing for the events of the Ring and Bilbo passing on his own, unexpected inheritance.

I did enjoy the skirmish with the Nine at Dol Guldur, even if poor Gandalf wasn’t looking his best.  Elrond’s entrance definitely raised a grin, and Galadriel’s slightly trippy banishing of Sauron was both impressive and pleasingly strange.  Also enjoyed the image of Thorin drowning in gold as his ‘dragon sickness’ almost gets the better of him.  The natural beauty of New Zealand, I mean, Middle Earth, is also on occasional display, and as stunning as ever.

There are flaws, of course.

Pacing is a bit of an issue.  At 144mins, this is the shortest Hobbit film, but it’s still a long movie, and it does occasionally feel like it.  Smaug’s demise is a pretty perfunctory affair, with him being dispatched mere minutes into the film.  Given the time taken to establish him as an impressive foe, and the fact he looked bloody marvellous whenever he was on screen, it seems a bit of a waste.  Understandable, perhaps, if there was plenty of plot to get on with, but the whole film is essentially one long fight scene.  Not necessarily a problem- most of the action is engaging enough- but did we really need Thorin fighting Azog for what felt like an hour?

The CGI is patchy as well.  When there are actors on screen, it seems to work best when it’s augmenting a physical set, rather than functioning as the whole setting.  The Erebor scenes, for example, work well.  But when Legolas starts doing his fancy fighting, it all goes a bit pear-shaped.  His fight with Bolg on a stone tower/bridge looks woefully bad.  Thorin’s battle with Azog looks like it was done entirely on green screen, and Dain looks distinctly odd as well.  Lovely voicework from Billy Connelly, but the character doesn’t look real at all.  It’s odd that some of the effects in these Hobbit films are so unconvincing, when the effects in the much earlier LOTR films were so successful.   It’s not a deal breaker, but I fear these films won’t age as well as their cousins have.

Final moan- the tone is a bit uneven. This is most obvious any time Alfrid is on screen.  I can only imagine he was meant to provide some comic relief, but the character simply isn’t funny, and his presence just slows everything down.  I don’t recall any resolution for him either.  Does he get his comeuppance?  Actually, I don’t care.

Grumbles aside, the film has plenty going for it, including more heart than the previous two.  The line of Durin sadly ends with the death of Thorin and his nephews.  Legolas, Tauriel and Thranduil also make peace.  But it’s Bilbo who, despite not having much to do, is the real emotional core of the film.  For all the grandeur, it’s his small exchanges with Thorin that are the most touching.  Bilbo bookends the films, his final scene melting into the start of Fellowship, bringing the films full circle.

And that’s it, really.  You can’t talk about these films as individuals.  They are each part of a wider tale, and while they do stand-up alone, they deserve to be considered as a whole.  If you’re not sold on Middle-Earth, this film won’t convince you.  But if you have any love for Tolkien’s world and the characters within, this is a decent final flourish to finish the tale.

What did you think?  Would you have preferred just two films, or does three movies feel right to you?  Am I being fussy about the CGI?  Let me know what you think.