Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

*spoilers below!*

Where to begin?  Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of nineteen films and ten years work on the MCU.  It’s had the biggest opening weekend in history and made $1billion in 11 days.

Curious then that in many ways, this film shouldn’t work.  The plot is mad, there are too many characters to keep track of, and the story is still only half finished.

And yet…

You cannot judge this as a standalone film, because it simply isn’t one.  At this point, if you haven’t seen most of the Marvel movies, you’re going to miss out on so much of what this film has to offer.  And if you haven’t seen any of them, you may as well not bother with this at all.  But anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the story so far is in for a real treat.

The looming menace of Thanos the Destroyer finally comes to the fore, as our antagonist tears across the universe looking for the Infinity Stones.  These little gems possess astonishing power, and anyone who gathers all six will be able to remake creation itself.  Which is a problem, because Thanos has a mad scheme to restore ‘balance’ by destroying half of all life in the universe.  Our scattered heroes gather forces to stop him, but will they be able to? And at what cost?

The first thing you notice is the sheer number of characters – look how mad that poster is! The film is packed to the gills, yet it’s incredibly efficient.  The dialogue sparkles, and a lot of work is done by simply putting these disparate people in a room together.   Thor meeting the Guardians is pure gold. Hilarious, but also tells you a lot about who they are. Quill’s insecurity and immaturity both reveal themselves and hint at his later, massive screw up.  Thor is shattered but determined.  Drax is adorable.  The meeting of Tony and Dr Strange is also a high point, as the two biggest egos on earth collide. Okoye reigns supreme, though.  She only has about six lines, yet every one is a zinger, and her loyal, focussed, practical personality shines through.

It’s rare for a film to handle the broad strokes and yet still keep an eye for the details.  There’s a lot of big space stuff here, and it all looks marvellous: a forge powered by a neutron star, the ruined splendour of Titan, a haunting and desolate Vormir.  The earth-bound locations are brilliant too, and the battle of Wakanda was particularly stirring.  Yet it’s the little moments that linger:  Tony telling Peter he’s an Avenger now,  Cap introducing himself to Groot,  Thor’s triumphant return to Earth.  By turns funny, sweet, sad, or just awesome it’s these tiny sparks that hold up the story, and keep it real.

With so much on its plate, the film still maintains a lovely sense of pace and rhythm, with shifts in tone handled beautifully.  It shows an awareness of just how silly it all is, ‘He’s from space.  He came to steal a rock from a wizard.’ and has plenty of laugh out loud moments (Okoye’s look when the Banner-bot trips was a particular highlight).  There’s also a real sense of urgency, as our rag tag heroes scramble to get it together against the increasingly powerful Thanos .  Yet, the film avoids feeling overstuffed, despite all the frantic running around, because it gives itself time to breathe.  Those quieter emotional exchanges keep us involved, and quietly build up to that gut punch of an ending.

Character development is both a strength and a weakness.  Across the film itself, growth is hard to find, as there just isn’t time.  This is where looking at the big picture is rewarded, because when you consider how much people have changed since we first encountered them, you really do feel that you’re seeing the culmination of something special.  Decisions have real weight because we know what these guys have been though to get here.   Thor, once so unthinkingly destructive and arrogant is now humbled and humanised by loss, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend the universe.  Cocksure Tony is now an unwilling father figure and all too aware of how badly outgunned he is.  He flits around desperately trying to fathom out new allies and past feuds in order to offer some tangible resistance to Thanos.  His kit is as nifty as ever, but he looks so tired! Even Banner is struggling, trying to convey the seriousness of the incoming threat as Hulk refuses (quite sensibly) to even put in an appearance.

I could go on.  Not a scene nor a word is wasted in this more than two and half hour movie.  It’s clear that over the past 10 years, everyone involved in the Marvel movies has really honed their craft.  This is a film that knows what it’s doing, and how it fits into an over-arching scheme.  I did worry that with so much riding on it, things might all feel a bit mechanical; hitting all the right notes, but without the charm of the earlier films.  So I was really pleased to see that the story was not afraid to take risks.  It avoids making Thanos a one-note villain, instead allowing his motivation and relationship with his daughters to come through.  It also shows itself willing to make real changes as previously impervious characters are placed in real peril.  Not to mention that ending!  How many blockbusters end with a universe-encompassing genocide?  It’s bold, to say the least.  And every heart in the cinema cracked at Peter’s last words.

Or are they last words?  We’ve only seen the first half of the story, after all, and time travel is possible…

What did you think?  Did you predict where the Soul Stone would be?  Do you think the deaths are permanent?  How are you killing time ‘til Infinity Gauntlet is released?  As always, let me know!

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And Then There Were None (BBC1)

As WWII is brewing in Europe, ten strangers are invited to a lonely island off the Cornish coast.  Everything seems above board, but their hosts are nowhere to be found.  And when one of their number is poisoned at dinner, they come to the chilling realisation that they were never meant to leave.  Adapted from the Christie novel of the same name, this dark and stylish story had me hooked ‘til the end.

Early on, the decaying grandeur of the house and the harsh beauty of the island create a sense of timeless isolation.   Most period dramas revel in their setting, working hard to build up a strong sense of time and place.  But here, that sense is deliberately muted; details are impactful (that red swimming costume!) but sparse.  The house seems to be from the 30s, but already carries an air of neglect.  There’s nothing clean or new on the island, it’s all tainted and used, weighed down by memory and regret.   The locale is brilliantly atmospheric, but also serves to keep everyone in close quarters.   Once we arrive, we never leave; there is nowhere else to go, and nowhere to hide.

Similarly, the dialogue does the job, but avoids unnecessary embellishment.  There are no jarring anachronisms or overly fruity ‘period’ phrasings.   Usually in period drama, language is used to make the audience comfortably distanced from proceedings.  You’re glimpsing another world, comfortable, beautiful and refined.  There’s none of that here.  Right from the start, with Lombard leering at Vera, there’s a sense of things coming apart at the seams, of social conventions shunted to one side.  The formalities of the dinner party give way to recriminations and back-biting, as everyone becomes increasingly frayed around the edges.  It gives events a sense of urgency, reeling you in.  How will each person respond to the next death?  Who’ll crack first?  What would you do in their place?  Who is the killer?  Do they deserve this?

Characterisation was deftly handled, with the flashback structure giving depth and motivation without breaking the tension or confusing the timeline.  We’re shown just enough to convince of everyone’s guilt while seeing only as much as that character chooses to remember.  We get only moments of Brent’s creepiness, glimpses of the repressed desires and cruelty concealed beneath layers of self-serving piety.  Lombard only gives us pieces too, but for a different reason – he doesn’t regret what happened, or think it noteworthy.  As it doesn’t warrant his attention, it doesn’t need ours.

I particularly liked how the memories sometimes bled into the current day – like the General finding himself back in the trenches without ever leaving his room; or Blore partially ret-conning the memory of his crime, ‘That’s what I should have said.’ The slow build to Vera’s appalling crime was especially brutal – with simple, almost abstract images gradually adding up to the awful deed itself.  As little Cyril runs to his death in the distance, Vera sits with the tranquillity of a portrait sitter in the foreground.  In a story full of disturbing actions, it’s this passivity that hits the hardest.

Performances were all superb, as you’d expect from a cast of this quality.  Burn Gorman stood out for me as Blore.  Conflicted and regretful, with a chip on his shoulder and wholly out of his depth, I somehow felt sorry for him.  And for all his weakness, he’s the only one who seems to clock Vera: ‘You’ve got some right brass neck!’  After seeing Aidan Turner as Lombard I’m now convinced he should be the next Bond – he’s got the physicality, charisma and polish, but also that lurking brutish streak.  I found myself rooting for him, despite myself.  Was it just his charm? Or does his honesty make him the best of a bad bunch?  Or is it that no one else seems to think that badly of him?  Only the hypocritical Brent responds with any real hostility.  As the increasingly desperate group tries to band together, his natural authority quickly establishes itself.  When things are at their worst, Lombard is actually at his best, and it’s a very appealing quality.  I honestly thought he might make it…

But this isn’t that kind of story.  As Vera prepares for her lonely suicide, I thought it would be a fitting, if downbeat, ending: she has accepted her crimes and is at peace with her punishment.  But when Wargrave walks through the door, even this glimmer is snuffed out.  The signs were there, of course.  Right from the start, as charges were read out, we should have spotted the rather judicial air to proceedings.  But as he explained his reasons, all sense of humanity and justice evaporate.  While dealing with a serial killer, he became aware that his own life and his death would be meaningless.  Terrible crimes are remembered in a way that law-abiding citizens never are.  So he decided to write himself into the history books as part of a gruesome and unsolvable crime.   Even as Vera tries to talk him down, he counters that the only difference between himself and a serial killer is that all his victims were guilty.

‘Quite my favourite.’  Wargrave regards Vera almost like a teacher does a favoured pupil, and even as he puts the finishing touches to his plan, after all we’ve seen you can’t help but wonder if he’s right. The worst people are often the most engaging, the most memorable.  Leaving us with the final image of that awful rictus grin, he was certainly in no doubt.  It’s the darkest parts of humanity that linger longest.

What did you think?  Did you work out who the killer was before the big reveal?   Was Vera your favourite too?  The most recent Christie adaptation, Ordeal By Innocence caused some controversy when it made changes to the story – did this version stick to the original? As always, let me know!

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

‘Boy, that’s scary stuff!  Should we be worried about the kids in the audience?’

‘Nah, it’s alright.  This is culture!’

With over 20 versions in film alone, A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most heavily adapted story in western civilisation.  So, what makes this particular version better than all the others?  Well, it’s got the Muppets in it, for a start…

A deft combination of our favourite Muppets and human actors gives us Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy as Bob and Martha Cratchett, Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge and The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens.

Just writing that last sentence, I’m aware of how awful this film could have been.  There is so much room for error here, yet it all somehow works together.  Having Rizzo the Rat and ‘Mr Dickens’ as our guide really helps bring us into their world and control the tone of the story.  Michael Caine delivers a perfectly pitched performance, by turns vicious and sympathetic (no easy feat when you’re acting with puppets).   It was also a very canny move to create completely new characters for the ghosts of Christmas, rather than ‘casting’ Muppets.  This maintains their sense of other-worldliness and unpredictability.

Production values are really top notch, with brilliant costumes and sets creating a strong sense of place and atmosphere.  There are some lovely shots of the snowy streets of London, and the famous grave yard at the end is surprisingly spooky.  With its oddly convincing mix of humans and Muppets, the world of the movie is rich and vibrant and utterly engaging.   I think the attention to detail is part of what sells it – Miss Piggy look brilliant in a bonnet – but also the fact that the humour is left to the Muppets.  All the humans play it straight, so everything stays nicely grounded, even in the presence of singing cabbages.

Which brings me onto another real strength of the movie – its fantastic soundtrack.  We know the Muppets can crank out a tune, but every time I watch this film, I’m in awe of just how good the music is.  Each song is memorable and perfectly suited to the scene it’s in.  All the joy and energy of Christmas Day is condensed in It Feels Like Christmas; Scrooge is a brilliant introduction to both our lead character and Victorian London; One More Sleep ‘til Christmas evokes all the excitement and anticipation of Christmas Eve (and includes a montage of ice-skating penguins).  Yet the film isn’t afraid to slow things down, allowing the more emotional scenes to play out gently, such as when Tiny Tim takes the lead in the quietly touching Bless Us All.

Strangely, my only gripe with the movie is also tune related.  At the end of the film, when Scrooge has learned to reconnect with his fellow man, everybody sings together:

The love we found, the love we found,

The sweetest dream that we have ever known!

The love we found, the love we found

We carry with us, so we’re never quite alone.

It’s honestly lovely, and a poignant reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.  Watching the movie as a kid (on VHS!) I remember Belle singing an incredibly sad song called When Love is Gone as she breaks her engagement with Scrooge.  With this song as a counterpoint, the finale has that extra layer of feeling.  But whenever I’ve caught the film on TV, When Love is Gone has been cut. (You can watch it here from 1.50: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfI_N0vyxaI)  Of course, the film is still brilliant without it.  But I do feel this omission takes away from the emotional impact of Belle’s leaving, and Scrooge’s eventual redemption.

Still, it’s the only misstep in a film that is constantly balancing so many different elements.  It has a wonderfully self-aware sense of humour, while also sticking faithfully to the source material.  It’s touching without being mawkish, and clever without being cynical.   It also cleaves to the central idea that this is a story of redemption.  This is all about how Scrooge came to be the way he is, and how he learns to change.  That might sound really obvious, but a lot of adaptations end up with Scrooge as a side-player in his own story. But The Muppet Christmas Carol has a very clear idea about what story it wants to tell, and has a lot of surprisingly sophisticated ways to tell it.  It’s inventive, dexterous, warm and clear-headed.  I think this is ultimately why it’s aged so well, and is already well on it’s way to becoming an all-time Christmas classic.

And there’s only 51 weeks left ‘til I can watch it again!

What did you think?  Did the Muppets win you over, or does another version of Christmas Carol hold a special place in your heart? Do you miss Belle’s sad solo, or is the film better without it?  Would you eat singing food?  Let me know!

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!

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!