Monday, 25 January 2021

Do You Want To Build A Snowman? The Importance Of Small, Spontaneous Joys

It snowed in London yesterday, so I took the opportunity to walk to my local park. I stopped at one of my favourite spots, a small bridge overlooking a pond with a tree growing out of an islet in the middle and a small waterfall rippling in the background. The pond was partially frozen over and trails had been cut through the thin ice by ducks swimming to and fro from the shore. The bare branches of the tree were dusted with snow which was lightly shaken away whenever a bird landed or departed from them. At one point, geese flew overhead, migrating from the pond on the other side of the bridge for a change of scenery and to take advantage of an elderly woman throwing crumbs from a bag to the ducks in the water.

I've walked across that bridge countless time before, sometimes stopping to enjoy the moment before moving on, but rarely has the simple sense of life in and around it been so noticeable. I've written before about my walks around the park and my enjoyment of the small details which are so easily overlooked. This time, the half an hour I spent looking out across the little pond made me aware of how much the lockdowns of the past year have deprived so many of us of the experience of watching life innocuously unfold around us, whether in trails through an icy surface or snow displaced from a tree branch. It has also deprived us of the human contribution to that tapestry, the traces of our existence we leave behind not only as part of our own stories, but as additions to the stories of others. Specifically, in this case, a tiny snowman.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

2020 Movie Catch-Up Review: Soul


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Dir: Pete Docter
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade
Running Time: 101mins

Pete Docter's last outing as director, Inside Out, had a lot of big ideas but none of the focus needed to develop them into a coherent whole. It managed to be completely underdeveloped in its thinking while simultaneously too overtly structured around an increasingly predictable Pixar formula. Soul feels like the kind of movie Docter intended to make last time out: its big ideas are grounded in enough internal logic that its abstract and metaphysical questions are communicated with an easy clarity. allowing any little gaps to be glossed over without becoming distracting. Its adherence to the Pixar formula is stronger than ever - similarities in plot and theme to the company's own Coco from 2017 are legion - but the rigour of the writing and world-building allow that underlying structure to strengthen the storytelling rather than highlight its flaws.

Soul tells the story of a struggling, middle-aged jazz musician who dies immediately after receiving his big break. Finding himself as a soul adrift in the afterlife, his attempts to return to his body on Earth lead him to mentor an unborn soul sceptical about the value of physical existence. Despite the premise's potential for saccharine sentimentality, Docter skillfully edges the film in the predictable direction before swerving into a bolder, more intriguing treatise, a hallmark of all the best Pixar movies to date.

Friday, 15 January 2021

Marvel's Wandavision Season 1 Episodes 1 + 2 TV Review

Wandavision marks Marvel's latest foray into the world of television. Prior attempts to connect their big screen output to the small screen have not gone so well: Agents Of SHIELD began as a companion piece to the movies, but such close alignment resulted in a show playing perpetual catch-up and which only developed into a satisfying endeavour in its own right once the cord was severed. Subsequent efforts, including Agent Carter and Netflix shows such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, tied into the cinematic universe in only the loosest sense.

Wandavision's approach is closest to that of Agent Carter, which featured characters from the movies in a self-contained story arc. Marvel's return to television is this time quite literal: the series draws heavily from the aesthetics of sitcoms from the 1950s and '60s, telling the story of the relationship between an android, Vision, and a telekinetic witch, Wanda, as they attempt to settle into (hyper)traditional married life in suburbia. It is here that a press release would affix the addendum 'except nothing is as it seems', which is ironically the problem: as far as premises go, 'dark mysteries lurking in flawless suburbia' is as generic as they come. On the basis of these early episodes, Wandavision looks to be exactly what it seems and nothing more.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Donald Trump's Twitter Ban Is A Justified Action Which Sets A Terrible Precedent

Donald Trump's incitement of an attack on the Capitol in Washington DC represented the tipping point for social media companies to do what it felt as though they had been equivocating over for a long time and banned the outgoing President of the United States from communicating on their platforms. That it has taken them so long to do so demonstrates the seriousness of the action taken: his missives have been marked and limited, but never fully banned until now.

Many will say that it was a long time coming and few outside the President's most ardent cadre would deny that he has used the platforms as a means of spreading misinformation in the most cynical, self-serving way. There are many reasons to deny Trump access to such platforms, especially after his (and Rudy Giuliani's) direct role in inciting a mob to storm the heart of American democracy. In the here and now, it is an understandable decision to take. In the bigger picture, it sets a potentially catastrophic precedent in allowing private companies free reign to decide which voices to permit or shut down based on nothing more than their subjective criteria.

Friday, 1 January 2021

Doctor Who 'Revolution Of The Daleks' TV Review

Chris Chibnall's tenure as Doctor Who showrunner has been a mixed bag at best, reaching its nadir when last season's finale saw fit to saddle the series' history and main character with entirely detrimental 'Chosen One' clichés. Mercifully, Chibnall's last new year's special was one of his better efforts and this year's, 'Revolution Of The Daleks', looked set to be a standalone free from the canon-defiling nonsense which tanked last season. The return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, absent for all but a short cameo since Russell T. Davies was at the helm, heightened expectations further.

On the plus side, 'Revolution Of The Daleks' was indeed largely standalone, despite featuring a large number of oddly specific callbacks: did anyone remember the second TARDIS stuck on Earth in the shape of a house? On the downside, while the canon revisionism from 'The Timeless Children' was for the most part eschewed, all Chibnall's worst writing habits were present in their most frustrating form.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

On Her Majesty's Secret Service Is The Great Unrecognised Christmas Movie

While online forum clever-than-thous are busy, yet again, trying to convince everyone that Die Hard is a Christmas movie rather than just a movie which happens to take place during Christmas, Bond fans have long rested merrily on the knowledge that the finest and most under-appreciated seasonal actioner of all rests within their favoured canon: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).

It's worth acknowledging, however, that while OHMSS is a great Christmas movie, the best Bond movie to watch at Christmas is undoubtedly Octopussy, a perfect post-lunch confection big on stunts, scenery and silliness, where any ten minutes are sufficiently entertaining in their own right that you can drift off for half-an-hour of turkey-induced slumber only to reawaken and slot right back into the fun, barely encumbered by a plot which, let's be honest, nobody has ever paid the slightest bit of attention to anyway. That many wrongly think it's one of the worst Bonds due to the title alone makes it even more of a pleasant surprise. Nevertheless, while Octopussy fits the circumstances, it's On Her Majesty's which captures the spirit and themes of the yuletide season.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Emily In Paris' Gender Confusion Makes Brigitte Macron Look Un Peu Ridicule

I've been watching Emily In Paris! Only two months late, but it takes time to run out of literally anything else to watch on the internet. It's amusing enough in its cliché-drenched way and every bit as feather-light and disposable as Lilly Collins' entire filmography to date. The series can't seem to decide whether the eponymous Emily is a well-intentioned imbécile or a secret marketing genius à la Don Draper. Emily's ignorance-as-secret-genius makes its first major appearance in the second episode, 'Masculin/Féminin', in which our heroine realises that the French word for vagina, le vagin, is gendered masculin. This sets off her American outrage alarm and naturally, she solves this perceived injustice by posting about it on Instagram.

This brainless posturing from Emily is realistic enough as a sequence of events until the episode's final scene, where none other than Brigitte Macron posts her approval, sending Emily's post into the viral stratosphere. While the show's writers probably intended to depict Macron as trendy and au fait with American declarative activism, their ignorance about the origins and meaning of grammatical gender paint her, a former teacher, in a less than complimentary light.

Monday, 30 November 2020

William Blake & The Mythology Of Imagination

William Blake is best known to many through 'Songs of Innocence And Of Experience', his collection of poems taught in schools. In these poems, Blake contrasts two states of human existence: innocence, or the state of childhood, in which one sees the world with open eyes and an open mind, and experience, in which one's perception has been shaped and restricted by social forces and one's own inhibitions. The two states do not exist independently of each other and most of the poems in one book have a counterpart in the other, reflecting how innocence must grow to survive in the world of experience, and how only through experience do the best parts of innocence become valued.

These themes reflect concerns which echo throughout Blake's wider body of work in various forms. Blake was enraptured by interdependent dualisms, particularly the Biblical mythology which captured the imagination with stories of man's fall and rise, and organised religion's manipulation of those stories to maintain power and subjugate the masses both spiritually and sexually. Though sadly little known these days, Blake authored a prophetic mythology of his own, one of the great unrecognised works of the English literary canon, imagining how man could rise out of the subjugation of religion, education and rationalism and enter a state of pure imagination

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Following The Science Is Scientifically Illiterate

'Science' has become the latest in a long line of words to have its fundamental meaning stripped away in aid of the dogmatic obsession with proving oneself 'right', or 'on the right side'. This latest act of liguistic repurposing was started by Extinction Rebellion, who have repeatedly claimed to be following the science while making demonstrably ludicrous statements such as suggesting that climate change will imminently cause billions of deaths, that deaths from weather-related disasters are on the increase, or that rising sea levels pose a threat to the existence of nations: all claims eviscerated by Andrew Neil last year in an interview with an Extinction Rebellion spokeswoman - who, to her credit, has since changed her mind and resigned.

The hypocrisy of making ludicrous, politically-motivated claims under the guise of science is, of course, nothing new for either political aisle. The left makes self-evidently ludicrous claims about imminent climate-caused human extinction, among others, just as readily as conspiracy theorists on the right try to pass off anti-vaccine myths (such as the MMR jab causing widespread autism in children) as 'scientifically' justified. What's telling is that the very idea of 'following the science' is itself profoundly unscientific.

Monday, 16 November 2020

Positive/Negative - Two Interpretations Of Freedom Which Divide The Political Left And Right

In 1958, philosopher Isaiah Berlin delivered to the University of Oxford a lecture entitled 'Two Concepts Of Liberty'. In this lecture, he laid out two competing interpretations of the concept of liberty. Negative liberty, most easily remembered as 'freedom from', is defined by the absence of obstacles to achieve your desires, short of those desires conflicting with the freedom of others. Positive liberty, most easily remembered as 'freedom to', is defined by the ability to act in such a way as to become the best version of yourself.

Though the distance between these definitions appears small, borderline intangible, in general terms, the nuances differentiating them is as clear an example as there has ever been of the difference in outlook between those on the right of politics and those on the left.