SS-GB (S1, BBC1)

A lone Spitfire soars over London, landing gracefully in front of Buckingham Palace.  But the Palace is a bombed-out shell, and the swastika hangs from its gates.  Its 1941. The Battle of Britain has been fought – and lost.

Though there may be Nazi jack boots marching down the Mall, life goes on.  And Detective Archer has a murderer to find.

Focussing on the ordinary characters caught up in a mad, complex situation is a nifty way of bringing us into what is a pretty surreal setting.  Archer is a believably capable detective, but no superhuman.   He has a vague grasp of how things are playing out, at least enough to stay alive, but the bigger game is always beyond him.   It keeps things personal, the losses and choices have a real weight to them.  Big ideas like patriotism and duty seem remote compared Archer and Harry’s friendship and loyalty.

This does have the effect of making Sylvia a rather unappealing figure.  Her black and white view of things comes across as rather juvenile, even petulant.   Her willingness to put herself repeatedly in danger felt to me more a lack of pragmatism than bravery.   Not that she seemed stupid, just rather unconcerned with realities.  When she and Harry were put into the holding camps, it was him who found food for her.   Barbara is more interesting, gallivanting about the world looking for a story.  But her distance makes her chilly and difficult to trust.  What’s she up to?

Perhaps this is more to do with person taste than I realise.  Fervour is the stuff of heroes, after all.  Sylvia was at least genuine, and consistent – deriding the collaborators for selling out their neighbours for ‘a more comfortable life’.   Did she think more of the Nazis than the collaborators? They at least fought for a cause.  Her hero’s death seemed fitting; she would become a beacon, a rallying point for British resistance.  Some viewers may have been affected by her sacrifice.  Though I couldn’t help but feel that her final gesture was just that – a gesture.  Like throwing a lit cigarette into the crate of yellow stars that Jewish locals would be forced to wear – it was defiant and heartfelt, but didn’t really accomplish much.

Eternity belongs to heroes, but the world belongs to swindlers.  Mayhew’s double-cross was brilliant in design (and ruthless in execution). I did wonder if the King knew he was never going to make that plane… Austere Huth came a cropper too.  His focus was his weakness, not his strength.  It was adaptable, genial Kellerman who came out ahead.  For now at least.

The pragmatic tone carries through to the ending- optimistic, but hardly celebratory, with no great patriotic fanfare.  It’s not as though Britain won by noble means, let’s be honest.  In fact, they’ve hardly won at all.  The future looks rosy (or at least less grim than it did), but Britain remains very much occupied.   Still, I liked the sense of moving forward, resolute and just a bit crafty.  Britain won’t win because they’re better, or more noble.  They’ll win because they’re wily and stubborn.

And because they adapt.  SS-GB was written in 1978, when Britain was well and truly on its arse, still struggling with the exhausting effort of WW2 and a rapidly diminished place in the world.   Survival comes from facing realities, and putting your efforts into building for the future.  Early in the series, the Nazis and Soviets made a big show of exhuming the remains of Karl Marx to be dispatched back to Russia with great pomp and ceremony.   Their ‘friendship’ is based on the past.  By bringing about the destruction of Nazi efforts to build the A bomb and offering key research in this to the US, Britain is forging a new friendship and a new future.

Still, this isn’t a story about big events, and the small scale is echoed visually, with few big set pieces.   The opening scene was nicely done and the final fight at the aerodrome was thrilling, but the important stuff goes on in the sitting room, at a game of cards,  down the pub.   Politics and warfare isn’t just armies and ministers, it’s out on the street, how you treat your neighbour.  Would you inform on someone for a bag of potatoes?  For the life of your son?

Early on, Archer talks about keeping his head down and maintaining law and order because the Germans won’t be around for ever.  But I didn’t really buy that – he (quite sensibly) just doesn’t want to get involved.    But the real cruelty of the Reich isn’t the wrong flag above Westminster; it’s a headmaster carted off to the camps for no reason, prostitutes rounded up and abused in the street, men shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Thoug, if evil is small scale, so is bravery.  Sylvia and her plucky companions are principled enough, but they won’t win the war.  America looms large, but it won’t get involved for no reason.  Somewhere between the two, sits the ordinary people.  Only when they care enough to make those small acts of defiance – when  Archer starts to make those little moves  – can the much bigger pieces fall into place.   Starting from such a striking premise, it’s an oddly predictable resolution.  But it makes for a great story.

What did you think?  I haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle, how does it compare?  Did you find yourself warming to Huth in his final scene?   Did you just want to give Harry a hug the whole way through? Let me know!

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

When 13-year-old Theo Decker loses his mother in tragic circumstances, he encounters a strange and lovely painting of a goldfinch.  Through life’s trials and tribulations, the painting offers Theo a glimpse of something wonderful, if only he could figure out what it means…

To be honest, I don’t even know where to start.   This is one of the most absorbing, ambitious, brilliantly realised novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.  Moving, unpredictable and insightful, it’s also incredibly easy to read – a hand that takes yours, and gently pulls you along.

Despite its length – more than 800 pages – this remarkable story never feels overstretched or repetitive.  Partly because of the high stakes involved.  There’s death and loss, addiction, madness, crime, enduring friendship and unrequited love.  The rich and complex characters are also captivating.  Theo himself is a flawed and engaging narrator, but everyone has a pleasing solidity to them; a sense that they all have lives we only get to see a bit of.  When even minor players like Goldie or Andy leave the story, there’s a genuine sense of absence.  For all the exciting, criminal activities of the last few chapters, I was constantly worrying about Hobie.  Would Reeve somehow get his claws into him?  Would he be okay running the shop by himself?  What did he make of Theo’s parting gifts to Pippa?  With even a small number of characters this would be impressive, but with such a big cast it’s quite astonishing.

Of course, what also compels is Theo’s growth.  His movement though depression and isolation towards something like redemption.  Or revelation.  By the end, for all his (understandable) cynicism, Theo grasps an important truth:  the only thing that makes life bearable is each other.   And beautiful things are a way to solidify and communicate the very best parts of ourselves.

It’s something Theo comes to gradually, making an unconscious distinction between preservers and users.  Hobie’s appreciation of objects is genuine, reflecting and magnifying the best aspects of his nature.  His restoration is almost a sort of time travel.  He wants to impress the person who will be restoring the piece a hundred years from now.  What Hobie does will outlast him.  His labour has an authenticity to it, a power and honourability all its own.  Users, on the other hand, only acquire beautiful things – furniture, jewellery, art.  They don’t make or preserve or even enjoy these lovely things.  They can’t think beyond their own self-aggrandisement or covetousness.   It’s all rather short sighted, juvenile.

While this understanding slowly dawns on Theo, in the face of his losses he is pulled between two possible responses.  Pippa is grounded in the present – living with her stable, pleasant boyfriend, in a stable, pleasant manner.  But she is unable to move forward in any meaningful way.  She’s always pulled back to New York, unable to make peace with the loss of her musical skill.  Boris on the other hand is not grounded at all.  Freewheeling all over the world, doing a bit of this and a bit of that.  He has no real roots, nothing solid, no plans.  If good things can go bad, and bad things can come good – why make plans at all?  Not that he lacks a moral code, it’s just relative.

As he grows, Theo seems to be thrashing out a middle way.  One of his most moving and important realisations is that he can make the people around him happy.  That his actions affect the people around him.  Against the backdrop of such loss and isolation, he grasps that every life, however small, has some significance.

Worth mentioning here how brilliantly Tartt handles the business of storytelling.  The sense of place is superb – bustling, melting-pot New York, in a constant state of decay and renewal; the strange netherworld of Las Vegas, city being reclaimed by the desert, almost desperately sprawling, fighting back against the nature that surrounds it; sleepy, ancient Amsterdam, a neat, crisp fairy-tale, quietly marred on the fringes by ugly modernity.

Characterisation is also excellent, convincing and frequently surprising: Theo’s father shows occasional flashes of paternal awareness; Mrs Barbour’s chilly composure gives way to a depth of feeling; brilliant, puckish Boris demonstrates real affection and attachment.  It’s not just that people are layered; they have each had a life up until now and they have been shaped by those experiences.  It makes you realise how fragile we all are, how buffered by the tides.

And this all feeds into Theo’s big realisation, the importance of touching that immortal part of ourselves and human experience.  In lesser hands, it could feel trite, but here it’s profound: both frightening and optimistic.  Life is just a fleeting quirk of biology, but art and beauty can be passed on through the generations.  Every piece that is loved and saved – the very act of enjoying and preserving – is a little rebuke to mortality, a wee nod to the future.   If writing the book is Theo’s contribution to this ongoing rejection of life’s impermanence, then reading the book has made us part of that process too.  It’s as if we’re being challenged to go out and do something better.  Or save something worth saving.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to book a trip to the Mauritshuis.  There’s an old painting I’d like to have a look at…

Did you enjoy The Goldfinch?  Did you find it easy to read?  Were you convinced by its conclusion?  Would you like to go and poke around an antiques shop with me?  Let me know!

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

The Enterprise gets pulled to bits! Bones and Spock do some actual bonding! And the Beastie Boys save the day!  It’s certainly not dull, but does Star Trek Beyond live up to the hype?

Well that was a blast!  And what a cracking plot twist! Nicely foreshadowed, but I didn’t see it coming.  I assumed that as Krall ‘consumed’ more human energy, he would end up imbibing our human perspective, and realise the error of his ways.  The way things actually played out was far more interesting.  Uhura figuring it out with the video log sent a shiver down my spine.  Most baddies become less engaging the more we learn about them, whereas Krall becomes more compelling as the story progresses.  Excellent writing, and a brilliant performance from Idris Elba.

I absolutely loved the design of Krall’s spaceships.  They looked menacing even when stood still, and had a really fresh approach to space warfare.  No elegant laser battles here – the whole ship is a weapon, literally fired into enemy vessels, tearing into the hull and disgorging soldiers into the belly of the ship.  It was pleasingly visceral and low tech, and very efficiently tells you a lot about the kind of people we’re dealing with.   The design also gave rise to some cracking visuals, with the ‘swarm’ attacks making an interesting inversion of the usual one massive-scary-ship idea.   It also, with a pleasing irony, suggests the idea of strength coming from unity.  Krall’s crew are destroyed, after all, when the link between them is interrupted.

The plot is very well managed, keeping things tight but not too manic.  There’s very little planet-hopping here, and the main thrust of the plot is very straightforward: get off the planet and protect Yorktown.  Splitting everyone up is a neat trick, preventing things becoming too focussed on one ‘hero’ who figures it all out and saves the day.  Instead, there is a nice momentum as each group learns something useful, working to regroup and then move forward – again, victory through teamwork.

That isn’t just a moral of the story, some practical lesson tacked onto the end.  It really shows throughout the film as the characters interact and relationships develop.  Spock and Kirk re-establish just how well they work together, but Spock and Uhura are also great team.  As are Kirk and Chekov.  And Scotty and Wee-man, obviously.   Even Jayla finds a place as part of the crew.  Family and belonging are themes the previous films have considered before, but Director Justin Lin really brings that to the fore, and with great success.

As some relationships develop over time, others are cut short.  The death of Leonard Nimoy is beautifully worked into the story, as our Spock struggled with the death of Ambassador Spock.  Does this mean his place is now on New Vulcan?  In a lovely tribute, we’re shown an image of Ambassador Spock back on the Enterprise with the rest of his crew, which inspires our Spock to stay where he is.  The death of Anton Yelchin, who was sadly killed after filming had completed, is also acknowledged with a toast ‘to absent friends’.  A simple, but very moving tribute, elegantly handled.

With all the weighty ideas, the tone of the film is never ponderous.  We get some brilliant laugh out loud moments, mostly from Bones, together with a pleasing sense of self-awareness:  Kirk says that the voyage is starting to feel ‘a little episodic’.  There’s also an infectious sense of optimism – Yorktown is no grim, industrial outpost, but a sophisticated, glistening, bustling metropolis.  There are rivers, and trees and skyscrapers!  Bones likens it to a snow globe, floating in space.  He means to suggest its isolation and vulnerability, but he inadvertently conveys how pretty it is.  A delicate space bauble, filled with light and life.  The future looks cool.

One of the best things about Beyond is that, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve enjoyed it.  Ideas play off against each other, and reinforce each other, all handled with real narrative and visual flair:  ‘We have to change, or we end up fighting the same wars.’  If our ancestors could see us now, how would they judge us?  Kirk’s renewed sense of purpose comes from realising just how important Starfleet is, how peace and progress require constant drive and work.  There was a lovely shot of Kirk in his escape pod, watching through the glass as the shattered Enterprise crash lands on the unknown world.  His home, his family, and his purpose – all taken from him in a single swoop.  Time to start fighting for what matters.

Any quibbles?  I couldn’t help but notice the absence of Carole Marcus from Into Darkness.  Did she not fancy the five year mission after all?  Most of the ‘bad’ aliens were ugly, and the ‘good’ aliens were pretty – bit of a cliché, though hardly a big deal.  And, while things mostly looked great, the CGI was a bit wobbly on occasion, most notably when we first see Kirk and Jayla on the motorbike.

But I was either moved, amused, or on the edge of my seat for the entire run-time.  2 hours flew by, and I was left hoping to see a lot more of Kirk and his crew.  Justin Lin is used to helming long-lasting franchises, so who knows?  I feel like we’re just getting started.

What did you think?  Is there anything I missed?  Did you enjoy ‘the beats and shouting’?  Which enemy would you like to see the Enterprise up against next?  Should the role of Chekov be recast, or should the character be written out?  Let me know!

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!

The Jungle Book (2016)

In the heart of jungle, a skinny boy is running with a pack of wolves.  Mowgli (Neel Sethi) scampers along happily, dashing into the tree tops to catch up to his four legged brothers.  But as he grabs a branch, it breaks, sending him tumbling to the ground. You need to watch yourself here.  You need your people to protect you.  Only, the man cub doesn’t really have a people.

When they hear ‘The Jungle Book’, most people think of the 1967 Disney version (myself included).  It brilliantly corrals Kipling’s loose collection of tales into a streamlined narrative, combining vivacious animation with a classic soundtrack.   Nearly fifty years on, Disney has reimagined the story once again.   Can you improve on perfection?  Not quite.  But you can give it a damned good go.

It certainly looks fantastic.  Yeah, I know I say that a lot, but it genuinely is stunning.  You could freeze frame any moment of this film and be left with something you could happily put up on your wall.  The lighting in particular is gorgeous, and wonderfully atmospheric.  This film is certainly scarier than the Disney version, and that had its moments.  The CGI is staggering – the very jungle itself has moods, by turns nurturing and destructive. The animals really seemed to occupy space, they had weight.  Impressive and a little ragged, they moved and interacted with their environment – and with Mowgli –  in a way that felt convincing.   I never once thought that anything I could see was not real, which is an incredible technical achievement.

The vocal work is also a big part of the story’s success.   Idris Elba is standout brilliant as Shere Khan – angry and sly and terribly dangerous.  Brilliant scene where he tells Akila and Raksha’s pups about the fickle nature of cuckoos…  Ben Kingsley was perfect as Bagheera, authoritative and benign, and a little bit stuffy.  I also enjoyed Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha.  Very little screen time, but her force of will really lingers in the memory: ‘He is mine to me.’  Was heart-breaking when Mowgli said he had to leave, and even more so when she realised he was right.  Bill Murray was wonderful as Baloo.  A bit of casting that seems really obvious when you hear it, but is actually very clever.  Everything about him is so removed from the regimented life of the wolf pack, and its law of the jungle (‘That’s just propaganda.’)  When he taught Mowgli how to sing by launching into ‘The Bear Necessities’, I felt 6 years old again.  Truly joyous stuff.   Christopher Walken was also great fun as King Louie, the wily old gangster.

The dialogue was animated very well.  It’s a unnatural thing, to show animals speaking, but it was carefully connected with body language and movement, and it felt organic.  It was less a case of ‘oh, the animals can speak’ than ‘we can understand the language of the animals’.  Only a subtle thing, but it combines with the voice work and the visuals to create a wonderfully cohesive, absorbing whole.

For the most part, the film stays true to the unsentimental view of Kipling and the Hindu folk stories he was working from.  Life is violent and confusing; order can be painful, but must be maintained because the alternative is complete destruction.  There’s no real good and evil, merely what works and what doesn’t.  It’s shown time and again that Mowgli does not belong in the jungle.  He can’t keep up with the wolves, because he isn’t as fast or as strong.  He uses his human ‘tricks’ to get by, but these only mark him as an outsider.  His pack can no longer protect him: even a mother’s love can’t undo the settled order of things.

Shere Khan does have a point: soon the boy will become a man.  As the story progresses, Mowgli becomes an increasingly disturbing force.  He cuts down a single vine to reach some fruit, later he cuts down dozens of honeycombs.  In escaping King Louis, he brings a whole temple down, and his confrontation with Shere Khan destroys vast swathes of the jungle.  Most worryingly, he does all this by accident, completely unaware of the consequences of his actions.  Again, it’s not that man evil – he just needs to stay in his proper place.

So, I was a little disappointed by the ending, with Mowgli living happily ever after in the jungle.  I always enjoyed the bittersweet, complex resolution of the original stories – Mowgli has to accept his nature and return to live with his own kind.  But unlike the people of the village who learn to control fire, Mowgli throws it away – turning his back on his nature in order to live with the animals.  The cynic in me thinks this was done to leave the door open for potential sequels, rather than for the purposes of storytelling.  Hardly the worst thing in the world, but it did clash with the harsher tone of the rest of the film.

Still, that’s only a quibble, and it didn’t remove the smile from my face.  I saw this in a cinema full of parents and kids, and barely heard a peep – surely that’s the highest praise possible.

What did you think?  Did you enjoy the backstory of Mowgli and Shere Khan?  Were you convinced by the animation?  Did you have ‘Wanna Be Like You’ in your head for hours afterwards?  Let me know!

The Night Manager (BBC1)

If a great injustice happened to someone you cared about, how far would you go to make it right?

When he tries to do the decent thing, hotel manager Jonathan Pine finds his quietly ordered life turned upside down in this cracking six part adaptation of the John le Carré novel.   An encounter with a beautiful woman encourages Pine to take a risk, and he tries to prevent a tyrant acquiring the means to brutally supress a burgeoning revolution.  But actions have consequences, and as he pursues the spider at the centre of the web – brilliant, ruthless Richard Roper – Pine is drawn into the ruthless world where international politics meets the illegal arms trade.

Things started well, and kept on going, as episode one gently introduces Pine and Sophie, their coming together and her brutal demise.  Then the crash-bang as Roper reappears in Pine’s life, setting them both on a collision course.  Those last 20 minutes were astonishing, as Pine and Roper actually meet for the first time, each trying to get a read on the other while hiding who they themselves really are.

The ebb and flow of the story was brilliantly handled, with Pine trying to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and smuggle out enough intel to bring him down.   Roper’s world slowly disintegrates as loyalties are tested and divided, and people are forced to see parts of themselves – and each other – that they had been happy to ignore. It was all fantastically tense, and enjoyably complex.  There were sharks and shadows on the outside too, as Burr and Steadman run up against powerful forces in government who are quite determined to ensure that Roper stays exactly as he is.

Bit random, but I really loved the title sequence.  Chilly and stylish, with images of weapons transforming into objects of luxury and vice versa: a china tea set became a Gatling gun, and a line of battleships morphs into the bubbles in a glass of champagne.  It hints at Ropers lifestyle and profession, but also at his skewed moral viewpoint.  The battleships and tea-set can only transform because we’re looking down at them from high above.  Nothing’s evil when you’re too far away to see the consequences.   Until it all comes crashing down of course…

I also liked how it wasn’t the law or any great act of state that brought Roper down, but a handful of people determined to do the right thing (helped along by Ropers own greed and callousness). Yet he is ultimately punished, not by the system, but by the very people he used to do business with.  It’s a pleasingly complex resolution.  We’re glad Roper will be punished, but it’s a bit worrying that the law is so powerless against such people.  I doubt his captors will be gentle – is that justice?  And what if he somehow buys his way out of it?  Or someone just as bad simply takes his place?   I suppose Pine gets what he set out for – that’ll have to do.

Nothing’s simple in this world.  People are conflicted, their motives hidden and confused.  Burr wants to make her loyal husband happy, but can’t just sit back with Roper still at large.  Roper wants to control his perfectly ordered world, yet he thrives on chaos.  Pine wants to avenge the woman he loved, but is he perhaps looking for a purpose in life?  ‘I was living half a life when you found me. I have nothing to lose.’

The story constantly draws convincing parallels between the personal and the political.  There is truth and simplicity only in moments, time makes liars of us all.  Perspective matters, and no one is entirely sure of anything.  Why has Burr so much faith in Pine?  Would Jed go back to blissful ignorance if she could?  On a grander scale, people like Roper can only operate because governments would rather not ask too many questions.  And perhaps it’s always been this way.  Roper compares himself and Pine to Churchill and Lawrence, drawing out boarders on the back of a napkin.

All the characters were brilliantly realised.  Sharp, angry Corky; brilliant, stubborn Burr; bold, crusading Steadman.  I found myself really warming to Jed.   She swoops in on private helicopter, slender and tall, swaddled in expensive fur.  Initially presented as the empty-headed mistress (‘How are you getting on with those magazines, dear?’ sneers Roper), we soon realise she has her secrets too.  A terse phone call from home reveals she has left a son behind.  She sends money, but it’s been so long since she seen him that he’s stopped asking for her.  ‘You’re a dirty whore’, sobs her mother.  She obviously enjoys the lifestyle, and even seems to genuinely like Roper, but even in Switzerland she seems listless.  The longer we spend with Jed, the more interesting she gets.  Her relationship with Pine might have seemed inevitable, but it avoided cliché.  And that sad parting after a final night together was just perfect – things had run their course, but they had been through so much together it was a wrench to see it end.    Again, no simple solutions here, just surviving another day, a little older and wiser.

But really, this was always about Roper and Pine.   Great characters, great performers.  I haven’t seen Hugh Laurie since House, and I was delighted to see him do so well here.  The way he cracked in the end, screaming in the back of the van, was the closest thing to catharsis in the entire story.  And Pine.  His victory was fittingly muted, a moment of simple, perfect calm.  All terribly English.  Fantastic stuff!

What did you think?  Were you a bit sad to see Corky go?  Were you a bit confused as to where Burghati’s second £300,000,000 went?  Have I missed anything out?  Let me know!