Thoughts on Coco

bc19074249108112759e67a814c9bda2Weird to see some reviews of Pixar’s Coco today, with its official release date tomorrow, because it has of course been in UK cinemas for a week already. I saw it last weekend with my 17 yo kid (who paid, much to my delight).

I can’t really review films without reviewing the audience. In this case, we were (having foolishly booked a 4:15 pm screening) largely surrounded by families with very young children, and it was, to be honest, a bit of a shitshow. The knee-high kiddies were bad enough: bored, restless, running around, whining and crying — and that’s before we get to a film which is, at best, “made for everyone” rather than a kids’ film. But I reserve special ire for their parents who were making more noise, getting up for food more often, and bringing in those hideous, smelly trays of nachos etc. (many of which were left, half-eaten, with orange cheese dripping everywhere, on the seats at the end). Which is not to mention the actual food throwing that a couple of the fathers indulged in.

Honestly, I’ve seen so much bad parenting of late that I am sorry to be the one to tell you that we are all fucking doomed. Forget Brexit: the upbringing of the next generation is in the hands of imbeciles.

I personally don’t think Coco is suitable for children so young. Sure, there’s a zany dog and some skeletons falling apart and coming back together, but the truth is that none of these kids are going to remember seeing this film. It’s a bit like the Baby’s First Christmas thing. Parents are wasting their money if they think a two-hour movie about Día de Muertos is going to entertain a child before the age of reason. I mean, I was a precocious kid, but I think I was four before I got my first cinema trip — which I do remember.

Coco has a story similar to any number of Pixar films: a quest for a lost something. With Inside Out it was a memory; with Coco, the kid tries to steal something and ends up in the Land of the Dead, needing to find his long-lost great grandfather in order to get back home before he dies for real. The central metaphor is that being forced to live without pursuing his true calling (music) is a kind of death. But his family hate music and musicians (for reasons) and want him to make shoes. So he goes on his quest, and discovers many things along the way.

The film is beautiful to look at. Maybe overly saturated (I suspect this is a side effect of the 3D version and its inevitable dimming of colour), but full of delightful detail and flights of fancy. It also has a sweet soundtrack that pulls so hard at the heartstrings that your eyes start watering by the end. One laugh-out-loud sequence features Frida Kahlo choreographing a musical revue. When I say laugh-out-loud: I think it was only me (and 17 yo) laughing.

The key concept here, upon which the whole story hinges, is the idea of the “final death”, the one that sees you vanish even from the Land of the Dead if there is nobody left alive who remembers you. It’s a great way of explaining the significance of the festival and a hook for the B plot.

Anyway, notwithstanding the disgusting behaviour of the food-throwing dads in the Odeon audience, Coco is pretty great.

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Travelers and Manhunt: Unabomber – reviews

Travelers Season 2 (Netflix)

travelers-netflix-eric-mccormack-castI really enjoyed this “mid-price Canadian science fiction” series when I watched its first season on Netflix. You start out with low expectations, thinking it’s going to be just another one of those high concept shows that starts out okay, goes downhill, and/or gets cancelled quite quickly. But it turned out to be much stronger than I thought.

The basic (low budget) premise is that the future is fucked, so that ‘travelers’ from there are being sent back (in teams of five) to try to fix things. They transfer their consciousnesses* into the bodies of people who are about to die, take over their lives, connect with the rest of their team, and carry out missions. So far so ordinary. Where this show shines is with its cast (including Eric McCormack and MacKenzie Porter), and its emotionally intelligent writing, which is not afraid to spend time on the consequences that ensue when a different personality takes over a body. An old man in the body of an athletic teenager, for example. Or a highly intelligent medic in the body of a mentally disabled woman.

Where a lesser show might simply want to focus on the mission-of-the-week and forget the messy personal stuff, this show knows that in the end, that’s where the best stories are going to be. Like breaking Protocol Four, for example, which is don’t change the future by making a baby using your new host body.

So to Season 2, which picks up the conflict with things going wrong, the future changing, and the team’s Historian becoming less and less able to predict the present. This season takes time to build up relationships between some of the travelers and their host families, leading to some powerful episodes that have a real emotional impact — and a huge payoff at the season’s end.

I binged it over a few days: so good.

Manhunt: Unabomber (Netflix)

1998_unabomber_01Not to be confused with Netflix’s Mindhunter, this show is a dramatisation of another true FBI story involving profiling: the hunt for Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski carried out a decades long bombing campaign, targeting academics and others involved in modern technology, which he considered to be the root cause of all of society’s problems.

Kaczynski was caught thanks to what came to be known as forensic linguistics, which is to say, he had a very distinctive and somewhat archaic writing style, which his own brother recognised when the Unabomber’s manifesto was published in The Washington Post.

This is a fascinating TV dramatisation, which uses a multi-threaded narrative to take us through events before and after Kaczynski’s capture, and a number of flashbacks to the bomber’s childhood and the years leading up to his retreat from modern life. The show manages to find sympathy for the man, who was one of those child prodigies who never quite fulfilled his potential. In fact, I’d say he’s the poster child for the dangers of pushing kids out of their peer group. He skipped a grade in school (jumping from 6th to 8th), thus leaving behind his age mates and becoming a freak who ended up isolated and angry. There’s a fanciful scene in which he delivers a boobytrapped classroom note to someone who had hurt his feelings. Then he went to Harvard at 16, where he got pulled into a brutal programme of psychological experiments that led to him being personally abused and belittled on a weekly basis.

The upshot was a man who failed to fulfil his early promise, still got his PhD, but then gave up teaching after two years and went to live in the wilds of Montana in a mathematically perfect log cabin. His bombing campaign ensued.

Meanwhile, modern technology has brought us the 45th President of the United States.

Great series, well worth a watch.

*That’s a lot of esses

Melting Down is Good for Business

Rupert-Murdoch
Toxic masculinity, as embodied by Rupert Murdoch’s melting face

It’s been a week of meltdowns in the news, sure enough. Meltdown was the name of one of the CPU bugs that were revealed in the New Year. While people were still shitting their pants over the Great Apple Battery Scam (not a scam), Intel revealed something they’d been sitting on for a while, which was that the way their CPU chips works (by speculatively anticipating what they’re going to be asked to do next) leaves them vulnerable to exploits. This was trumpeted widely as a precursor to the End of All Things, Millennium Bug style, since just about anything with an Intel or ARM processor was affected, but (as of Saturday) we’re still alive. Still, you can smell the lawsuits from here, can’t you?

It was last May that all British Airways flights from two airports were cancelled because of an IT problem, and this is the kind of meltdown that pundits fear might ensue when a system vulnerability like this is revealed. More seriously, that same month saw “cyber chaos” in the NHS, as computer systems that hadn’t been updated from Windows XP were attacked over a weekend.

This is what I think of whenever people express concerns about Trump and his obsession with weapons and nuclear buttons. This past week of Whitehouse Meltdowns following the “revelations” in Michael Wolff’s book have been entertaining, and you can’t help but hope it takes us one step closer to the Hollywood Ending of this Presidency, which is when the American people collectively point their fingers in Trump’s direction and pause dramatically before saying, “You’re fired.”

While it’s clear that millions of people are going to suffer as a result of Trump’s “welfare for the rich” tax legislation and his “welfare for the rich” healthcare changes, I have less fear that he’s ever going to launch a nuclear strike. This seems like a cartoon fear of a cartoon president, a childlike clown who has no real power, and is simply going to end up being managed when the grownups take over. Trump is not Putin: he has no real power. Like the rest of the Republican Party, he’ll do the bidding of his corporate and media masters, the Ronald McDonald birthday clown of politics.

As well as being good for lawyers in class action or cease and desist lawsuits, these various meltdowns are good for the news business, as people addictively click on stories to read about how Apple or Intel are ruining their lives or how Trump’s hair is combed and lacquered. And I’ve noticed as an adjunct to all this that the papers are full of chin-stroking columns about the perils of social networking and screens. It’s all New Year New Me and Think Of The Children and, very helpfully, Black Mirror season 4. Same as it ever was, if you ask me. Ten years ago, I would chortle with my students about all the Facebook negging that the Daily Mail went in for, but like lawyers smelling Class Action, the newspapers are all smelling New Year’s Resolutions, as people try to detox from Trump and Bannon and Trolls and whatever that episode of Black Mirror was about.

Should we be worried about tech meltdowns? Probably. As rail commuters weep about paying nearly £8000 a year just to get to work, and our cars hit pot holes and have their own personal meltdowns, and the NHS suffers through yet another Winter Crisis, it’s clear that our infrastructure is fucked. And when it comes to IT, which is increasingly getting involved in every part of our lives, the infrastructure is all in the hands of corporations. So whether it’s your light bulbs, your front door, your fridge, or your TV, these CPU vulnerabilities are likely to strike anywhere. And the only way to hold these corporations to account is via the blunt instrument of the class action lawsuit. Because the politicians do not have their minds on infrastructure, do they?

In the UK, we’re distracted, permanently, by Brexit meltdown. In the US, they’re distracted by Trump meltdown. And even if they weren’t, absolutely no politician ever is interested in building infrastructure projects that won’t come to fruition until long after they’ve left office in disgrace after putting their hand up someone’s skirt. So, in a sense, we can blame toxic masculinity for all of these meltdowns. Men are really too emotional for high office.

Sinatra Sings the Blues

2435472Sinatra was very open about his influences as a singer. It’s well-known that as a young man he idolised Bing Crosby, but he also spoke of the inspiration he drew from the singing style of Billie Holiday.

It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.

Holiday and Sinatra were of an age, born in the same year, though she’d have been in the year above him at school, not that she spent much time in school. The year of their birth was before the release of the first “Jass” record and the first vocal blues record, but by the time the two of them started singing professionally, in the 1930s, jazz had become the first pop craze, and radio had spread the blues far and wide. As they were growing up, recording technology had progressed from singing into a horn as part of a mechanical recording system to an electrified system with microphones and loudspeakers. As you step forwards with technology, however, you sometimes lose something. The loud, raucous music of the 1920s had to be tamed and smoothed somewhat so that the new apparatus could cope with it.

Bing Crosby learned to sing into a ribbon microphone, one that would break if you sang to loudly into it. So his singing style was adapted accordingly, and became known as crooning.

Sinatra first saw Billie Holiday in the late 1930s, and at some point she offered him advice on how to sing the blues:

‘I told him certain notes at the end he could bend. … Bending those notes — that’s all I helped Frankie with.’

Holiday didn’t have much of a range, but her phrasing was a major influence on Sinatra whose voice was a more powerful and versatile instrument. I’m not a fan of how Sinatra sang in the 40s (still constrained, I think, by early microphones and still considered a mere adjunct to the real business of swing jazz, the orchestra and its leader); and I didn’t like what he started to do as his voice started to fade in his 60s, which was to (obviously) limit his dynamic range and lean into the gravel in his voice and to flatten his notes just a little too far.

But in his Capitol years, as previously discussed, and into his 50s with Reprise, his singing was spectacular. Of course, Holiday didn’t live into her 50s, a tragedy that hit Sinatra hard, but he was able to take full advantage of advances in recording technology: specifically, the Neumann U47 condenser microphone:

A major contributor to Frank Sinatra’s signature vocal sound when he moved from Columbia to Capitol was the U47 valve capacitor microphone that Neumann had begun manufacturing in 1949.

This mic was less fragile than the RCA 44 ribbon microphones that had been used up till then, which allowed for more attack from both brass sections and vocalists, and offered a brighter high end.

Anyway, this is all by way of an introduction to a short playlist of Sinatra singing the blues in the blues style. Of course, much of the Great American Songbook he drew from was based in the blues, and even a lot of the Broadway songs he chose had been influenced by the blues, but Sinatra’s torch songs and dance/swing numbers didn’t always sound terribly bluesy. I’ve selected a few, however, where you can hear the flattened blue notes that are characteristic of the blues. Sinatra did this often enough that it didn’t seem contrived but was a natural part of his style.

That’s Life (1966)

For me, this is the last great Sinatra track, before all the “My Way” and “New York, New York” nonsense that came after. While those latter two songs became show stoppers, they don’t appeal to me as they are both too on the nose to ring true. His kind of town, as any fule kno, is Chicago. Written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon in the early 60s, “That’s Life” is perhaps the Sinatra record that most sounds like it might come from 1966. That’s mainly because the band includes members of The Wrecking Crew, including Michel Rubini on Hammond, Glen Campbell on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, and … it’s only fucking Darlene Love and the Blossoms on backing vocals.

I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ (1957)

This Gershwin number from Sinatra’s best Capitol Album A Swingin’ Affair comes from the controversial 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, which was first performed with an all African American cast, but having been written by white people was seen as a horrible kind of cultural ventriloquism. The song comes from Act 2, and is sung by the title character of Porgy. Taken out of its context, and in Sinatra’s hands, it loses its power to offend, and is simply a pop song based on the blues. Perhaps the most offensive thing about it is the spelling of ‘Nuttin’’ I absolutely love the instrumental interlude in this, as the band plays through the entire melody and really parps on that brass.

Stars Fell on Alabama (1957)

This 1934 song was composed by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish. The title phrase comes from a book and refers to the Leonid meteor shower’s appearance in 1833. The song has been covered by both Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby as well as the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. It is certainly one of the songs that people mean when they refer to the Great American Songbook. Sinatra’s version (again, from A Swingin’ Affair) has bluesy overtones, with extended and slurred words, alternative readings of the line, “My heart beat (just) like a hammer” and (most mysteriously) substituted “fractured ‘Bama” for “fell on Alabama.” So the Leonid meteor shower is breaking Alabama, shattering and cracking it. These Sinatra improvisations were his gift to the song, and you should by now be starting to believe that A Swingin Affair is the album to buy.

One for My Baby (And One for the Road) (1958)

This is another one from a musical – The Sky’s the Limit, the film version of which starred Fred Astaire and Joan Leslie. The youthful Sinatra dreamed away in many an Astaire musical, and this song was written for Fred Astaire, whose performance of the song is inevitably accompanied by a dance number. The bartender character, Joe, appears in the sequence too. To watch this, complete with uptempo tap-dancing bit, and then listen to what Sinatra does with the song (as performed in another movie, Young at Heart, made in 1955 with Doris Day as the love interest) is to experience popular music whiplash. This song plays straight into Sinatra’s self-image as a depressed torch singer (on every other album, at least). The original studio recording is on Only The Lonely (with Sinatra made up as a Pierrot clown on the Commedia dell’arte themed cover!)

https://youtu.be/NpZp7awjSJ4

I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good (1957)

This is a Duke Ellington number (lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) from 1941. You’ll find versions of it by Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and so on. It’s a proper vocal blues, and Sinatra tackles it with a fabulous vocal, which you’ll find on what I’m going to call his bluest album, A Swingin’ Affair. But of course.

Nice Work if You Can Get It (1962)

This Gershwin tune is from 1937, and was again performed by Fred Astaire (with tap) in a movie: A Damsel in Distress, which also featured Joan Fontaine, who couldn’t dance. The film lost money. Sinatra recorded it at least twice, once on A Swingin’ Affair, and then again on Sinatra/Basie, an Historic Musical First, an album on which he radically reimagined several of his classic numbers, in new arrangements that explode the songs and make them new again. The Basie version is almost punky with its staccato rhythms and unusual phrasing which all but obliterates the original melody.

I Wanna Be Around (1964)

Another recording with the Basie orchestra, from the album It Might as Well be Swing.

This was written by Johnny Mercer in 1959, after receiving a message and a sample lyric from an Ohio woman who had been inspired by Sinatra’s two failed marriages to come up with the line, “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.” The song is from the perspective of a spurned first wife who watches her partner leave her for another, just as Frank had divorced Nancy to marry Ava Gardner, only to be dumped in his own turn.

I Can’t Stop Loving You (1964)

This is a country song, by Don Gibson, written in 1957 and recorded by Sinatra with the Basie Orchestra in 1964. Ray Charles was the first to blues it up, in 1962, and Sinatra followed his lead in ’64. By the end of the 60s, Elvis also started performing it live, and artists as diverse as Dolly Parton and Van Morrison have covered it. Sinatra’s version is performed with many blue notes, and he sings with such relish that you can’t help but feel it a shame that he only recorded three albums with Basie.

Learnin’ the Blues (1962)

Sinatra first recorded this as a successful single in 1955, but then again with Basie on their first collaboration. It was written by former beauty queen Vicki Silvers, and dropped into Sinatra’s lap when a singer hoping to get signed took his recording of the song to Sinatra’s publishing company. The Hefti arrangement on the Basie album has more polish than the original recording, which many critics prefer. But you can’t knock Basie and Sinatra together, and I like the call-and-response brass arrangement and the more laid-back tempo. Sinatra puts a little less into the vocal, stepping back to make it seem casual, but he also makes it bluesier, so it works better here.

Sentimental Journey (1961)

This song was Doris Day’s first hit record, in 1945. Its release coincided with the end of the second world war, and became the “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” hit of that summer. It has since been recorded in over 150 versions (including one by Ringo), and translated into French, German, and Japanese. Sinatra’s version is on his second-last release for Capitol, Come Swing with Me, with orchestra conducted by Billy May, though May only arranged three of the songs. This was Sinatra’s last swing record for the label that relaunched his career, and he was already recording for Reprise. Because of this, I’ve always felt this record had Contractural Obligation written all over it, with some of the arrangements feeling rushed, as if speeded up simply to get it done quicker. Sinatra was recording four songs a day for Capitol, and then four more for his upcoming Reprise release. Then again, it’s an experimental record, with a doubled brass section playing in stereo, and Sinatra is still pretty damn good, even when he’s phoning it in.

Blues in the Night (1958)

Another Arlen/Mercer track, this was written for a film of the same name, a film noir (!) musical that starred almost nobody I’ve heard of. One scene required a blues song to be sung in jail, and this is it. I always find it interesting when an immortal song features in a forgettable movie. I’m even given to understand that the version in the movie “murders” the song, which turned out to be strong enough to survive such treatment. Sinatra’s cover, on Only the Lonely, isn’t even considered one of the important ones, but, well, he sings the blues.

The Lonesome Road (1957)

Finally, it comes to this, another track from A Swingin’ Affair, which is the most venerable song in this playlist. Written in 1927 by Nathaniel Shilkret and Gene Austin, it first appeared in the mostly lost mostly silent film Show Boat in 1929, which Wikipedia insists was not based on the musical Show Boat but instead on the book upon which the musical was also based. Huh. Apparently, it was originally a silent film based on the book, but then panic set in when the musical was a hit, so they added 30 minutes of songs with some cast members. Which explains, maybe, the inclusion of this song instead of “Ol’ Man River”, which is certainly the most famous song from the musical. “The Lonesome Road” isn’t even from the musical, but I guess is a gospel-style song in a similar vein. Sinatra’s version is beautifully arranged, properly bluesy, and opens the second side of the album. Another classic from a forgotten film.

Lens me your ears

comaprison imageInternational lens crafters Hoya now offer a special type of glass for night driving called EnRoute. Gimmick, I hear you cry, and yet you will have noticed, as have I, how much harder driving at night is in the era of LED and halogen headlights. Talk about your law of unintended consequences. The big selling point of LEDs and halogens has always been that brighter, stronger pool of light in front of your car at night, which is bound to make night driving easier, right?

I find it hard to believe that anybody now finds it easier to drive at night. You could accuse me of getting older, sure, but my difficulties with night vision probably stabilised about 20 years ago. What causes me to utter the words Jesus Christ  or Jesus Fucking Christ multiple times when driving at night are the eye-searingly bright headlamps coming the other way. Doesn’t matter if you have the fanciest £1000 option Christmas tree lights on your car, you too are being blinded regularly – especially on dark, undulating, winding country roads.

I’ve often complained about the absence of cats’ eyes from French roads. Driving at night over there in wet conditions often involves moments where the white lines disappear completely, and you have no idea where the road is. I had a couple of truly hairy motorway moments this summer in thunderstorms, one of which was in broad daylight, and my problem with disappearing roads dates back at least 20 years.

But the journey we completed yesterday, 21 hours after we set out (on what is normally a 9–10 hour drive), may have been the worst yet.

I’m kicking myself for a series of poor decisions to start with. Poor decision number one was that I booked a 9 a.m. crossing — because getting through passport control (my greatest stressor) is dead easy at that time, but it meant leaving home around midnight. ‘Around midnight’, when my wife is involved, always ends up being ‘Around 11 p.m.’, which is when we set out. As usual, I checked Google Maps for the best route, and what I think of as ‘the Northern route’ was marked as one minute faster.

In other words, nothing in it, but on the basis of that single minute I chose to take the Northern route. A key advantage of this route is that more of the first two hours of the journey are on dual carriageways, whereas both of the two Southern routes involve two hour stretches on N or D roads, passing through multiple villages. Another advantage of the Northern Route is that it is mainly on N roads, so there are fewer motorway tolls to pay, which in these financially straitened times, might be important to me.

The N57 follows the Moselle valley, and winds and undulates considerably more than a motorway, and is not as well marked or lit, and the road surface is more variable than a motorway. I only ever seem to drive on it in the worst weather, so I don’t have good memories. What I was thankful for, given that we were setting out at the arse end of a bank holiday (it was still New Year’s Day when we set out), there were no lorries, and therefore much less spray than there would otherwise have been.

So the journey North was okay. By the time we turned westwards on the N4, lorries were starting to appear again. Still, I felt like we were going to reach Reims within about 4 hours, which is making pretty decent time. And we were within an hour of Reims, approaching Saint Dizier, when disaster struck.

A decision not made was to continue a little further than Nancy to Metz, where I could have joined the A4 autoroute, and travelled across to Reims that way instead. How much time would have been in that? Google wasn’t saying. Anyway, compared to the A4, the N4 is a piece of shit: a patchy, badly lit dual carriageway with invisible white lines, and — it turns out — massive (and notorious) pot holes.

The pot hole we hit at 70 mph — and it was that, around 110 kph, the speed limit, on cruise control — was so deep and so wide that it felt like driving into a brick wall. I had literally just been thinking, as I so often do, about how bad it would be to get a flat tyre in our shitty VW Touran diesel with its shitty — and expensive — “tyre repair kit”, which is what you get instead of a proper spare wheel. I had been thinking about the inconvenience and inevitable difficulties of a flat tyre at two o’clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere, France, when we hit the pot hole. There was a brief moment of almost hope that no damage had been done before the rear tyres — both of them — completely deflated.

So even if we’d had a spare, we were fucked.

Luckily, I pay over £200 a year for international driving cover through the AA, so we were covered.

But it was dark, and windy, and cold, and we were on an N road, not a motorway. There was no hard shoulder, so we were pulled into the side on a dual carriageway, and the lorries kept thundering past, some of them so close they weren’t even all the way into the outside lane. I made everyone, including the cat, step over the barrier and away from the car, and we stood there wrapped in blankets for an hour while we waited for the tow truck and a taxi.

What great service. I mean, after the one-hour wait, it was terrific. We were taken to an Ibis hotel (basic, but modern and clean) and the car was towed to a garage, where two new tyres were fitted by noon the following day. We weren’t covered for the tyres (which aren’t included under “parts”, apparently), but the tow, the labour, and the taxi journey(s) and the hotel rooms were covered. As much as I’ve resented shelling out for this cover that we’ve never before needed, I was so glad to have it. And if it hadn’t been for the cat freaking out all night long, I’d have had a good night’s sleep on a comfortable bed in the Ibis.

The pothole was locally famous. The tow truck guy had picked up someone with exactly the same problem at the same spot two days before. And both taxi drivers were aware of it, too. I expect it’s that pothole that keeps the Saint Dizier local economy afloat.

Anyway, here’s my message to car manufacturers. Your LED headlights are a fucking blight on society, and your absent spare wheels are an absurd swindle to match your lies about ‘clean diesel’.

 

A tale of three books

34701258The problem with holidays, for me, is always the packing of enough books. I always seem to underestimate my requirements, even with strong memories of the last time I did so. I bought a few library books with me this time, and Provenance by Ann Leckie, which I’d been saving up for this special occasion, but I left behind the SF anthology I’ve been working slowly through since the summer, thinking I wouldn’t need it. The reading I do when I’m at work (between 20 minutes and an hour before I go to sleep at night) is both qualitatively and quantitively different than that I do on holiday, when I can fill long hours with sustained and concentrated reading.

Anyway, with a week of the holiday to go, I’ve run out, and will now turn to the books my daughter bought with her.

It has been a mixed bag. I read, for example, the sixth novel in The Expanse series of books, Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey. I find that my enjoyment of this series has been affected by my disappointment in the TV adaptation, which features wooden acting and clunky dialogue. It also suffers from being a collaboration: I really feel as if the narrative style is adapted to the convenience of the two authors. The chapters have a variety of viewpoints, and some of them, quite frankly, are unnecessary. I spent the last third of the book skipping huge, uninteresting chunks. It’s a shame: having ploughed through six novels, I now feel I’ve been wasting my time, because I probably won’t bother with the seventh.

My second disappointment of the holiday was The Silent Death, by Volker Kutscher which is the second of the Babylon Berlin books. Having watched the first season of the German TV series, I thought I was ready to plunge in, but it was a crushing disappointment. Two major problems: turns out, that notwithstanding the fascinating setting (Berlin, 1930), this is just a standard maverick cop procedural, complete with “You’re off the case!” clichés and a protagonist so infuriating that you sympathise with the colleagues who find him impossible to work with. I mean, Michael Connelly wrote the book(s) on this kind of thing with Bosch, but here’s the thing. Harry Bosch may be a stubborn maverick, but still has respect for some of his colleagues and gets along with enough of them to sustain his career. Gereon Rath, on the other hand, is just a pain in the arse. The second problem I found with this book is that the most engaging character in the TV series, Charly, the main female role, is more or less entirely absent from the book for most of its length. Furthermore, while the focus case in this is supposed to be a serial killer, the second body doesn’t turn up until over 250 pages in, which made the pacing seem off. As with Babylon’s Ashes, too, there were chapters with a different narrative point of view, which added nothing to the novel. I quickly worked out who the perp was, and the chapters from his p.o.v provided no new information, just pages you could skip.

Most unforgivable of all, the novel keeps repeating the phrase “serial killer”, which is used both by the cops and the media in the novel, and – as any connoisseur of thrillers knows – the term wasn’t coined until the 1970s. I’m hoping this is simply a translation error.

I saved the best for last. Ann Leckie’s Provenance is set in the same universe as her Ancillary series, but features a new protagonist in a different cultural milieu. As before, Leckie has fun with pronouns and gender, and manages to balance a human-scale story against a vast backdrop of interstellar empire politics which includes both different human cultures and truly alien aliens.

Ingray Aughskold is a young woman, fostered into a political family, who is trying to prove her worth by recovering some stolen antiquities. The unintended consequences of her naïve actions lead to a political crisis and unexpected legal and diplomatic outcomes.

I’m loving this new and recent trend in science fiction, led by Ms Leckie and Becky Chambers, which manages this wonderful balance between human interest, fluid gender identities, and old fashioned space opera. It feels both modern in outlook and comfortingly familiar. If you’ve been staying away from science fiction because you think it’s all faster than light travel and time dilation effects, you could do worse than read these authors. There are now four to read in the Leckie universe, and a third Chambers novel forthcoming in 2018, which will definitely be in my (much larger) summer pile of reading.

 

Television triumphs of 2017

the-leftovers

With Disney’s acquisition of (bits of) Fox, we may be entering a period of consolidation in the TV industry and may indeed have reached Peak TV. Tim Goodman of THR reckons there maybe over 500 scripted series this year. This would seem to be an unsustainable level of production. Here’s a list of my favourite shows of the year. In no particular order, except where they are:

14. Marvellous Mrs Maisel (Amazon). Reviewed here. An eye-popping period piece, Mad Men for standup, so watchable I binged it in a couple of days.

13. Casual (Amazon). Reviewed here. The 30-minute format has different pacing and energy than the 50-60 minute format, and there’s something warm and comforting about this show, which might not be what you think it is.

12. Stranger Things Season 2 (Netflix). A better show than the first season, this second season built on the first really well. There were a couple of missteps, but I choose to believe that they were seeds planted for future years. We truly do live in an age of incredible television.

11. Star Trek Discovery (Netflix). Reviewed here. A show that got better and better as it got closer to its mid-season hiatus, Disco was a triumphant return for Star Trek. I’ve been rewatching DS9 of late, which many rate as the Best Ever Trek, but Disco has 2017 production values and Classic Era titles and storylines. It sits alongside superb shows and really shows up The Expanse as the Load Of Old Wank it is. Best ever Trek?

10. Game of Thrones (HBO/Sky Atlantic). Growing pacier as it reaches its climax, this show’s ability to tie up years-long storylines is superb. Some heart-in-mouth moments, and the only criticism I have is that the (partial) season was too short by far. Meanwhile, remember when everyone thought The Winds of Winter would be published in 2016?

9. The Americans (ITV/Amazon). Reviewed here. As it heads towards its final season, this show is allowing storylines from Season 1 to play out. It’s got the storytelling chops of Game of Thrones, the period detail of Marvellous Mrs Maisel, and the ensemble cast of Westworld. You probably haven’t watched it, but you should.

8. Bosch Season 3 (Amazon). Reviewed here. Overlooked by most critics, I still love Bosch for its attention to detail, it’s pacing, and its cinematography – and for Titus Welliver in the title role. If you’re a fan of the books, you ought to be watching this.

7. Mindhunter (Netflix). This slow burn non-action series about the development of psychological profiling in the FBI is a superb watch.

6. Manhunt: Unabomber (Netflix). In a similar vein, this a companion piece to Mindhunter, demonstrating how the FBI finally caught the Unabomber, thanks to profiling. Narratively interesting, too, with two timelines adding to the mystery

5. The Vietnam War (PBS/BBC). An incredible documentary which manages to tackle a grim subject in an engaging way, and also told me loads that I didn’t already know about this most-documented war. There were some jaw-dropping moments and also some incredibly moving testimony. Tissues handy for the last episode.

4. Master of None Season 2 (Netflix). An antidote to everything grim in the world, this is a programme that comes from a loving place and attempts to find the best in people. Not only that, but it’s interesting

3. The Good Place (Netflix). Reviewed here. We had to wait for it, but when it arrived it was as brilliant as we hoped. Each 22-minute episode tackles a different philosophical conundrum. Ted Danson steals Season 2.

2. The Keepers (Netflix). A documentary that started off as an investigation into an unsolved murder, but took a dark turn into clerical sexual abuse, corruption, and cover up. Gripping, moving, and brilliant.

1. The Leftovers (Sky Atlantic). Probably (with The Americans) the best series that almost nobody was watching. But it’s all there, all three seasons, in all its strangeness and whiplash narrative turns, for future generations to treasure. While Twin Peaks tried too hard to weird The Leftovers remained watchable and yet still managed to send your jaw to the floor on a regular basis.

The Exorcist / Casual

Av1.dDsyNjY4MTA7ajsxNzU1MzsxMjAwOzE2MDA7MjQwMA.jpeg series I missed first time around was The Exorcist, the Fox TV series based upon the 1973 classic film by William Friedkin. Turns out, I’ve just also missed the first half of Season 2, which is currently playing on SyFy in the UK, a channel I hadn’t realised now appears in the channel list for NowTV. Season 1 is on Amazon Prime, however.

Now, I’m an atheist and I don’t buy into the Judeo-Christian theology at the heart of The Exorcist. I never have found it particularly frightening, but it is a superb film, especially in its editing and its use of sound. The use of Tubular Bells on the soundtrack is one of the things that sticks in the memory, and there’s a moment in Episode 1 of the TV series where they drop that music in as a kind of reference, and you realise that the show itself is in safe hands. You get a similar feeling in the new Star Trek Discovery: the people making the show have respect both for the source and the audience.

The Exorcist on TV does a good job of opening up the story in a new place and time, covering familiar beats but without contriving a situation that is exactly the same as the original. It might have sagged in a couple of places, with its producers’ insistence on getting to 10 episodes, but there were enough twists and turns (and a larger and ongoing story arc concerning the corrupting influence of evil) that it didn’t descend into longueurs. Mind you, my other half described it as nasty, so it’s not for everyone.

The first episode is a solid start, and was well-reviewed, but the show really rewards you if you stick with it, and by episode 5 or so, you’ll be hanging on every moment, and you’ve no idea how it’s all going to end. The series sets itself up for a Series 2, but rather than leaving you unsatisfied, you just want to see where it goes to next.

***

MV5BNGEwYTAwYzMtM2YyZi00MTJhLWE2ZDAtNTQ0OTVkNjFlNzRhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzU3NDIwNDA@._V1_UY268_CR0,0,182,268_AL_When I allowed my Amazon Prime membership to lapse earlier this year, one of the unfortunate side effects was that I was halfway through Season 3 of Casual, which is a show you might not have heard of. It’s in that horrible hybrid genre, the dramedy, which might be enough to put you off, but shouldn’t. The initial premise of the show was that a guy who has been very financially successful with a dating app is himself fairly hopeless at dating, as are his divorced sister and her teenage daughter.

But the show soon moves on from the suspect algorithms of dating apps and just lives with the people and their slightly broken selves and failing relationships. The characters are introduced organically, and the friendships (casual, natch) are portrayed in a fairly natural way. It’s not gloomy, however: just gently cynical and slightly melancholy about how modern life and our devices create distance between us. If you’re not in tears at the end of episode 10 of season 3, there’s something wrong with you. By the time you do get to Season 3, switching it on is oddly comforting, and I realised last night when I picked up the series at Episode 8 after a long gap that I had missed it.

It’s funny: it’s one of those shows, I don’t think about it much, or discuss it, or even rush to watch it, and yet when I sit down in front of it, I’ll happily watch several in a row. It’s a Hulu series in the States, so doesn’t suffer from the Amazon Problem.

Instant Pharma

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Yep, it can be done

The schools were closed, so I had a look online last night at the Kafkaesque appointment booking system and changed my doctor’s appointment from the 18th to this morning at 8:30. Latest symptom of my gradual falling apart: constantly watering eyes.

Which was ironic because walking down to the doctors in the snow this morning was even more treacherous than it might have been because, with my eyes filled with tears, I couldn’t see where I was placing my feet. You might be asking yourself, why was your original appointment (made two weeks ago) so far ahead in time? And the answer is, because the Kafkaesque system seems to release random tranches of appointments, so there’s a kind of lottery system: depending on when you log in, you might get lucky.

Which, I’m sure we all agree, is exactly how a local care health system should work.

I also tried this morning to phone and make a nurse’s appointment, as required, for my hypertension review. You can’t make those online, so you have to go through the hellish telephone tree instead. Now, I dialled on the E of Eight o’clock, when the system opens, and after pushing the virtual buttons on the telephone tree, found myself at position number THIRTY FOUR in the queue.

By the time I was walking carefully down the hill into town at around 8:15, I was at number 21, so I hung up – chancing that they would let me make an actual appointment at the actual reception.

I managed to do this – for January, wahey – and then sat waiting for my name to appear on the Screen of Shame in the waiting room. I’d arrived ten minutes early, and the delay (20 minutes after the surgery had opened) was given at 20 minutes. In the event, it was more like half an hour, which is pretty good work, if you think about it, to be half an hour behind after 20 minutes.

The waiting room was like a scene from the toddler version of Mad Max, with snot-covered, ear-infected kids squirming around and spreading their germs while their mothers conversed with unnaturally loud voices. Prescription obtained, the next step was to slide and slip to the pharmacy, which was closed because the pharmacist hadn’t arrived at work. Which meant slip-sliding away to the next pharmacy (Boots, as ever, being a last resort). I say slip-sliding because, of course, the pavements were treacherous with compacted, slushy snow and ice.

Should this be the case? Is this normal? The main road through town was actually relatively clear of snow. The gritter lorry only just came up our road a minute ago (and didn’t come as far as our house), but they appear to have cleared the main road yesterday. So cars were fine. Most of the cars I saw were huge 4x4s, naturally, so it’s nice for them that the road was cleared, isn’t it?

AllTractors-web
Yep, pavements snowploughs (and blowers) are a thing – just not where I live

Meanwhile, pedestrians, of which there were many, were left to fend for themselves. And you might shrug your shoulders and accept this as just the way of things, but it is most emphatically not. There are many reasons why the UK (England in particular) has never really felt like a European country. As a stark expression of our national values, the fact that pavements aren’t cleared while roads are is a clear indication that we don’t belong in Europe.

There are such things as pavement snowploughs and gritters. There are probably even some in this country – somewhere. But in a Tory-run area that has cut public services to the bone? In 4×4 country? I’ve even seen salt being applied by hand at pedestrian crossings in France.

Meanwhile, I’ll be off to the physiotherapist this afternoon, hoping I don’t slip and fall on my bruised tailbone – again.

 

 

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel – Amazon Prime

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I’m on record as saying that there’s something lacking in Amazon’s original television offerings. Production quality is high, and the shows are often very, very good (American Gods, Bosch), but I generally don’t feel the warmth and affection for them that I experience with my favourite shows, so they don’t have the unmissable quality that you get with, say, Game of Thrones, or Westworld, or The Good Place. Netflix’s Originals suffer from some of the same malaise.

It’s intangible and possible all in my mind, but it’s something that fascinates me. Take, for example, The Man in the High Castle. It’s a brilliant adaptation of the Philip K Dick source material, and the production design, costume, casting, and so on, were all state of the art. And it was a high concept show, which I love, and told (in the first season at least) a compelling story. It looked fabulous. And yet, I didn’t care about it. I watched it, but I didn’t feel like binging it, and (by season 2) it ended up feeling like going through the motions. A kind of, oh, all right, I’ll watch your stupid show, but don’t expect me to enjoy it.

To be fair to Amazon, I’ve felt this same indifference with offerings on other platforms and networks. I watched and admired Mad Men, but didn’t love it. I was talking with my daughter about it the other day, and I said, in the end, I’m more interested in the history-of-advertising stuff than anything else, and I don’t like or care about any of the characters. I felt the same way about The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. These are all shows with fanatical followings, and any number of people who’ll argue that they’re the Best Show Ever Made.

I’ve got a sentimental streak a mile wide, and I generally have to be rooting for someone. It’s a character flaw, I’m sure.

All of which brings me to The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which I binged over two nights after signing up again for Amazon Prime following the release, finally, of their pretty shoddy AppleTV app. As an app, it’s the most grudgingly produced fuck-you to AppleTV users you can imagine. It follows none of the Apple interface guidelines and doesn’t even use the sound effects that help you know you’re navigating around. It’s a web view, by some accounts, not even a proper app at all.

But that didn’t stop me watching Mrs Maisel, which is a kind of Mad Men of standup comedy from the team behind the Gilmore Girls. It’s a delight of a show, with a host of clever and funny writing, and characters that are a kind of through-the-looking-glass version of those in The Gilmore Girls. The period setting is pristine, and the costume and production design puts you into a kind of hyper-real version of 1950s New York City that pops off the screen like a technicolor Gene Kelly musical.

One of the things I don’t like about Amazon is their tendency to place gratuitous nudity in the pilot episode. This kind of apes the Game of Thrones approach, and signals to the (US) audience that they’re not in Kansas anymore (which is to say, not watching a Network show). So there’s nudity in episode one, which is incongruous and unnecessary. I’m not being a prude. The nudity in Westworld was used to show the dehumanised quality of the robots; in Game of Thrones it stands as a signifier of the gritty realism of the fantasy world in comparison to, say, Lord of the Rings. Here, though? It’s just to make the pilot memorable so it gets upvoted by Prime subscribers… I guess? 

It does also have what I think of as the Amazon Look, by which I mean that it’s hard and bright and sharp, with everything looking freshly minted. It might be an effect of the latest 4K production techniques, and I wonder what it would look like on a 4K TV. Such a thing is not on my horizon, however. I don’t particularly like the Amazon Look, it’s part of the general Amazon Problem, but Mrs Maisel is a terrific show, and well worth a look.