The Death of Stalin (2018) & In the Loop (2009), films by Armando Iannucci.

Death of Stalin

This movie confused me a lot. Not the story – the story is straightforward – but what the director was trying to go for. It is obviously a political satire, but at the same time it is so serious and dramatic that I didn’t know how to respond to it.

So, the story is about the death of Stalin and how the communist party committee tries to deal with that shattering event and whatever comes next. All the senior party members are bickering idiots who only try to save their own skin and it is played to hilarity. A sort of Der Untergang (Downfall) from 2004, but comedic. Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Beria (Simon Russell Beale) are the worst. Khrushchev never stops talking and Beria is a creepy little monster. All of them swim in hypocrisy in trying to uphold the party line, but they are mostly posing towards each other. It is funny most of the time.

But then there are moments of violence and inhumanity that characterized the Soviet regime and these moments are occasionally played for laughs when they are depicted as “typical” and exaggerated, but at other moments they are quite serious. And the contrast between these revolting moments and the hilarious bickering of the party members just doesn’t fit together. Beria for example is a little creepy troll and there is a certain humor in seeing him intimidating his colleagues, and the whole film is so obviously a satire, but then the next scene shows an implied rape, and now I’m confused whether to laugh about any of this.

To understand what this director is all about, I turned to his previous film: In the Loop (2009).

In the loop

If there’s one thing to say about In the Loop (2009) is that it is frantic. Shot like a faux-documentary, we follow around government officials from one committee to another, basically making a big mess of everything they are doing in a complete orgy of awkwardness, backstabbing and misunderstandings. Much like The Death of Stalin. Meanwhile, there is the foulmouthed Malcolm Tucker who tries to keep his minister following the official line in his public communications. Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi, is absolutely hilarious and his cussing is of an intensity and inventiveness to measure itself with Full Metal Jacket’s sergeant Hartman.

A brilliant satire on politics, basically policy comes about through people playing word games and getting the better of each other, and then everyone interpreting things in their own way, until finally you got to stop and wonder how we ended up where we are. At the end of Burn After Reading, JK Simmons’ CIA superior says something that easily summarizes the twists and turns of In the Loop as well: “What did we learn, Palmer? I guess we learned not to do it again. I’m fucked if I know what we did.” And in the middle of it all there are two coarsest men from Scotland swearing everyone into the ground.

See, the satire was much clearer in this film and it is because of Malcolm Tucker as the obvious source of hilarity. I could have used with some more of that in The Death of Stalin. I spent two hours watching a well-made film with great acting, great dialogue, well put together scenes, good production design and music, and I just didn’t really see the point. I guess the confusion of policy from In the Loop is also an important theme in The Death of Stalin, so from that higher perspective that is something interesting that both films try to accomplish.

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M. John Harrison – Light (2002) Review

Light

Although M. John Harrison writes SF and Fantasy fiction, he often places himself outside of the current trends and subgenres. He often writes against the genres, instead of being part of them.

When Fantasy authors were busy writing Tolkien inspired epics, he wrote Viriconium, a series in which the worldbuilding is not consistent and names and histories change from one book to the next. When SF authors wrote optimistic space operas, he wrote The Centauri Device, a gritty, depressing future filled with lowlifes, and incidentally laying the building blocks for the new genre cyberpunk. I suppose his goal is to shake people away from conventions in writing when things are in danger of getting stale and constricting. And in the last decade, while SF authors have been writing such cyberpunk and hard-sf, Harrison offered a new work: Light.

The pillar that Light kicks against is that of science. The 24th century is a post-science world. Science is no longer a support for understanding the universe, nor the real motor of progress. The thing is, in this novel all alien civilisations have scientific theories that underpin their faster than light space drives, but all of these theories prove the other ones false, yet all of them work. And then there is the Kefahuchi Tract, a region of space that cannot be explained. For millions of years it has attracted civilizations to study it, of which humanity is just the latest one. Now humanity is sifting through the remains of alien cultures, dead millions of years, finding tech and getting rich on things they don’t understand. In daily life, these things just are, and humans muddle through, even though it isn’t clear any more what still is a human.

A lot happens, at a breakneck pace. Three points of view, two in the 24th century and one in the 1990s. It takes a couple of chapters to get a grip on the context of all the weird stuff happening. There’s a girl turned into a starship who visits planets in the disguise of a cat, there’s a homicidal physicist who is stalked by a monster living in fractals, there’s a guy living in a simulation while his body floats in a tank of organic goo. Most of the futuristic concepts never really get an explanation. For example, there are human-like species like the New Men and the Shadow Boys who might be alien or artificially designed or something, but the point is that this is all part of the confusion of the 24th century. It’s about being adrift in a post-science world.

This confusion and aimlessness of the human future also exists within the characters themselves. They are all searching for things, whether it is relief, or memories of forgotten pasts. They are hollow, chasing compulsions – most of all sexual – to fill up the emotional holes inside them. The Beach, an area in space full of alien artefacts, is also a place that washes up humans. It is all an exaggeration of fears that exist today, of the universe being complex and beyond understanding, of swimming in a sea of technology while not knowing what to do with your life.

I am in awe of Harrison’s imagination. He exercises his powers of invention constantly, with a nervous energy behind it. Like Jack Vance conjured up whole societies on the fly, Harrison inserts ideas as throwaway articles just to paint certain impressions. His worldbuilding is great but it is clearly not his goal, and instead of slowing down and exploring his own creation he constantly creates and inserts new stuff, sometimes to achieve emotional and thematic effects, sometimes just for the fun of it. He explores themes, not worlds.

A downside of this style of writing is that you never really know what’s important. Details just come and go. Characters show up, turn out to be side stories, disappear again, only later to turn out to be important after all. Impressions of cities, planets, travels. There is a story in here somewhere but it only starts to take on shape halfway into it. Harrison has strict ideas about what he finds worthwhile in the art of storytelling.

Reading Harrison is like eating a bag of chips (crisps for the British). It crackles so nicely with sharp witticisms and quick turns of phrase, is salted and spiced with noir pathos, with late life cynicism about humans never changing and with those counterculture ideas about sex and drugs that Harrison apparently always carried with him. I want more, and more, and I actually feel nourished aesthetically afterwards. Compared to The Centauri Device, 30 years previously, his style is more controlled and measured, closer to the human condition and less prone to exaggeration.

I loved this novel. It’s a constant stream of hilarity and brain tingling inventiveness. Each chapter has its outrageous moments, too many to count all in all. But don’t ask me what the book is about for I will have to give you a glassy stare.

9/10

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) Review

jurassic world fallen kingdom

The park got destroyed. Now dinosaurs roam the island. Professional hunters are paid to put the dinosaurs in cages and transport them to the mainland. Sounds familiar? Yeah, for the first hour, Jurassic World 2: Fallen Kingdom follows Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World. But it is not that bad. This is actually the best part of the movie. And I went into it with expectations so low that they were, in the words of youtube reviewer Mr. Plinkett, right next to f*n dinosaur bones.

So, the first hour pleasantly surprised me. We get a slow buildup and some introspection. Jeff Goldblum is dragged into this to give a vague speech that doesn’t really say anything but that’s alright. He makes us remember that this is still in the same world as Jurassic Park; our link to nostalgia for the old movies. There is a volcano eruption, which, along with everything that follows, looks quite impressive and makes for some nice moments.

But even this early into the film, there are moments between all the action that are signs of the dumbness to come. There are moments that you could call “dinosaur shenanigans” where Bryce Dallas Howard is sitting on a T-rex like a bull, or where they are in those glass rolling balls, and there are two extra characters who keep getting in the way of the story for the whole movie. There’s the scared IT guy and the veterinarian girl and I think the director also had no idea what to do with these characters, so they pop up now and then at random moments and are generally annoying and uninteresting.

The more the film progressed, the dumber the story became. As soon as the dinosaurs are on the mainland, the writers drag in the two dumbest ideas from the previous movie: weaponizing dinosaurs and creating some genetic crossbreed. I don’t like the first idea because weaponized dinosaurs is just a ridiculous notion in the age of drones and rockets. I don’t like the second idea because these fantasy dinosaurs never existed and that drags the whole idea of Jurassic park into the realm of dragons and Godzilla. What blew my mind as a boy was that dinosaurs actually existed and that is still blowing my mind as an adult, and that makes them so much more interesting than some fantasy beast.

The film went on and the dinosaur shenanigans increased and the fantasy dinosaurs too and the nonsensical talk about weapons. It all got so far removed from that original Spielbergian magic, that still felt grounded in the real world and generated awe.

And then it ended with another ridiculous notion that made the biologist in me groan and squirm in my theatre seat. So, the whole enterprise in this movie is to save the last dinosaurs before they go extinct as endangered animals, but far from building a Noah’s Ark, hunters capture some specimens. They only have about a dozen individuals, all from different species. Then in the end they are released into the wild and we are presented with this doomsday scenario of “we have entered a new age in which dinosaurs roam wild and free”. Nonsense. They don’t even have mates. I’ll stop after just mentioning the terms inbreeding and minimum viable population.

Anyway, while the film has a handful of OK moments, nothing about this film makes me see it as more than just a corporate product, filled with “remember this?”-moments and lazy writing. We will always have Jurassic Park.

6/10

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James S.A. Corey – Abaddon’s Gate (2013) Review

Abaddons Gate

Also in this series:

Things have calmed down since the events of previous books. James Holden and his crew are doing well and the solar system is still split up between Earth, Mars and the Belt. But the alien object that came out of Venus has established itself beyond Uranus and created a giant circle, like a doorway. All political powers now congregate around this object in a big swarm of space ships, and political tension is sure to rise again.

Remember when in book two we got to know three new characters? Avasarala, Bobby the marine and Prax the botanist. They are all absent now, but there are again three new characters to get to know:

  • Captain Carlos c de Baca, third in command under Fred Johnson, is sent to the alien Gate to protect Belter interests. Most interesting new character.
  • Clarissa Mao, sister to Julie Mao and daughter to Jules-Pierre Mao. She seeks out James Holden to take revenge for the downfall of her family. Sociopathic and cliché.
  • Pastor Anna, a female Russian Orthodox pastor. She travels to the Gate to search for religious implications of the alien presence in our midst. None of that is explored, really. She… just preaches a bit.

And then we’re off. All roads lead to the Gate.

Since Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War basically told the same story (looking for a girl abducted for experiments with alien goo), the writers-as-James-SA-Corey wanted to jumpstart this entry differently. Holden and crew are hired by documentary makers to travel to the Gate, but as they arrive, Clarissa Mao sets up Holden so that everyone gets mad at him.

Unfortunately, the new characters aren’t very interesting. Whenever the story leaves Holden and his crew, I found myself getting bored. Of the SIX main characters that the writers introduced since book one, besides Holden’s crew, only ONE was actually fun to read about (Avasarala). And then I remember that in book one I couldn’t keep Amos and Alex apart. So, it is time to face the facts: these writers aren’t very good at characters.

This problem with the characters is compounded when they start making decisions that don’t make any sense. Multiple characters say “I have to do this, even though I know it is irrational”, and we don’t get an explanation either. The writers are forcing a story into shape, and forcing the characters to behave in out-of-character ways to drive the plot forwards. As an example, at one point Clarissa Mao has a reversal of emotions that wasn’t built towards at all, so that just came across as confusing to me.

Story-wise, I wouldn’t be surprised if this series was written as a homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A space Odyssey and more accurately is sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact. The setting is suspiciously familiar. 2010 was about a gateway opening for human exploration of space, while the approaching Americans and Russians were still gripped by a cold war. Meanwhile, the guy who disappeared into the alien monolith the first time shows up as a ghost to talk in riddles. Same thing happens here beat for beat. The Expanse as a series is more cynical about human nature, though, and lacks the sense of wonder that Clarke could convey.

Abaddon’s Gate comes across as authors grasping for new ideas in old novels, and setting up some cardboard characters that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dan Brown novel, and having the greatest trouble forcing them through a predefined flowchart of plotlines. Things do come together nicely in this novel though, tying up plotlines from the first two novels and so giving the series a natural breakpoint before the next books.

Overall, the authors are competent enough to keep the grander story arc engaging, but the writing quality fluctuates a lot between chapters and between characters. Some moments resonate emotionally, while the next page the story may stumble again on a bad joke or nonsensical decision. One has to wonder whether the writers writing the novel together are the cause of this uneven quality, but I can’t see any other clear signs of it. In any case, if you liked the first two novels, this one serves nicely to wrap up where we’re at and return to this series at a later date.

7/10

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Kazuo Ishiguro – The Buried Giant (2015) Review

the buried giant

It is strange seeing a fantasy novel being so promoted in those standard bookstores of train stations and airports. Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a handful of affecting novels, and ten years later suddenly received the Nobel Prize in literature. So, after such a high recommendation and an absence of a decade, it is no wonder that any new novel of his will make a splash. That he chose to dabble in the fantasy genre as a mainstream author for this new novel is incidental to this whole story. It will give many people a new introduction to the fantasy genre, albeit a rather lopsided introduction, as suddenly the “literary” crowd will dare touch a novel with fantasy elements.

I’ll just quickly explain the setting and then dive right into all the weird things going on. I have a feeling that this is far from a straightforward story. So, this takes place in Britain in that dark period between the end of the Roman Empire and the later Anglo-Saxon England. It is the time of myths and legends: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round table. Beowulf. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

When we think back on those Dark ages, it is hard to form a picture of it, and myths of Arthur meld with fragments of historical accounts of what exactly happened back then. Ishiguro takes that haziness of knowledge, and transports it right back to the very people who lived then. The whole country seems to suffer from amnesia, like a mist hanging over the island. We meet an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice, living in a little community in the wild, empty countryside. Axl remembers things, fragments of memories of events that happened maybe only a month or a day ago, that others have forgotten already. He hardly knows whether he has or had children.

Quite unseen in fantasy literature, the novel features an elderly couple, and the main themes of the novel have to do with old, enduring love. Beatrice starts panicking when they lose their memories because she fears that their love will die as a consequence. Can they really know whether they love each other if they have no memories of it? Can such a love hold? And if the memories return, can they be sure that their love will still hold? Here it is up to us, the readers, to decide for ourselves what we think of their relationship.

And here Ishiguro makes it quite hard for us to see the truth of their relationship. Axl and Beatrice sure are kind and supportive to each other, but they address each other in a weirdly formal way. Axl steadfastly addresses Beatrice as “princess” and Beatrice him as “husband”, which drove me nuts, and they are so overly supportive and apologetic as to drift into a formal manner. It doesn’t really feel natural. Axl and Beatrice set off in search of a son whom they haven’t seen in years, and while drifting through this otherworldly land of legends, they drift through half-remembered episodes of their own past, and it is those retrieved memories that they find dark corners of their relationship.

Their predicament and doubts are mimicked for the entire land. Britain is divided between the Britons and the Saxons, and the mists of forgetfulness may have covered up their old wars. But should those mists lift, then who knows what feelings of vengeance may return?

I found this novel really hard going. The themes I just lined out can surely be interesting and touching, why not? But the story meanders very slowly and aimlessly from one episode to another, and all the while Axl and Beatrice are conversing in their oddly stilted manner, and I felt as if I was pushing through a thick soup to get to the next page. Their conversation got on my nerves and the story moved at a snail’s pace.

Still, I kept at it and got into the groove after about 200 pages (better late than never). More and more characters and turns of story I started to enjoy: the proud and tiresome Gawain, the warrior Wistan. But whenever the old couple reappeared, the story halted and we entered another merry-go-round of endless elaborate conversation about nothing, leaving me bored and annoyed. On the positive side, Ishiguro adopted the fantasy elements well, and the style reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun and Short Sun. It has the same casual confrontations with the supernatural, elaborate human conversations and the investigations of memory and reality.

Where in his earlier novel Never Let Me Go (2005) I found Ishiguro’s style immensely affecting and masterfully used, in The Buried Giant I found it tiresome and existing at a distance from the reader. To put it more strongly, I found the novel working despite his odd stylistic choices. But it only worked at select moments, and overall while I can still recognize Ishiguro’s talents in the writing, I found it a bore.

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Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) Review

Florence foster jenkins

I got the impression that this film wasn’t “meant” for my “demographic”, but this was a very enjoyable film that I can recommend to everyone.

The story is apparently based on reality, but loosely. Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was a rich New York socialite who wanted to be an opera singer, but was notoriously bad at singing. Her husband St Clair Bayfield fully supported her in all her efforts and performances, even though he bloody well knew that she, as the press named her, was the worst opera singer of all time. Played by a charming and slimy Hugh Grant, a role that fits him perfectly. Even though his ears might be bleeding from his partner’s voice, he maintains a big grin towards all the performers and teachers who are dismayed by Mrs Jenkins.

Finally, there are Simon Helberg as the soft, weakly pianist Cosme McMoon and Rebecca Ferguson as Bayfield’s secret lover. They complete this intriguing collection of characters and this strange, touching story. Especailly Helberg plays a caricature of a nervously giggling man, but he’s on the edge of overplaying it.

It is a cliché by now to say that Meryl Streep delivers a wonderful performance. She’s always solid as an actress, but this time she’s also helped by a great script that allows her to show frantic emotions by the second. She and Hugh Grant must have had a blast of a time with this movie, and it is worth seeing it for them alone. Everything else is an added treat, such as the comedy, the weird side characters and good production value.

It’s a bittersweet comedy. Florence is a sad woman, deep inside. Lonely and terribly ill. She may indeed be the worst singer of all time, but we grant her all her musical efforts and success. She’s a bit like Tommy Wiseau with his film The Room, if that means anything to you. When he was standing on the stage with the Oscar ceremony, it was great to see him there, even though his movie is arguably the worst ever made. Everybody loves Florence because everybody is laughing at her, but she’s doing it so unironically that it somehow doesn’t matter anymore how bad her voice is.

Florence Jenkins is an odd creature, but she is there as a sort-of self-propelled rocket and it is the reactions of the rest of the world to her that make up the actual story.

Hugh Grant’s character is the most intriguing and conflicting one. He jumps back and forth between genuine love and concern, cheating, unwavering support and hiding the truth. A terribly complicated life and we keep on guessing at his baseline. Does he really love her? The same goes for Florence Jenkins herself. Does she really not know how bad she is? However, I have the feeling that these questions weren’t really the point of the movie, but they kept distracting me.

Florence Foster Jenkins the movie does a little bit of everything, and it does everything well so it is a wonderful movie to watch. But it is an oddity, a little slice of history with a handful of odd characters, but has no clear goal, so I find it quite hard to make up my mind about it. It’s very entertaining though.

7.5/10

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Kate Fox – Watching the English (2004). English versus Dutch culture.

watching the english

I’m not English; I’m Dutch. But I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with many English people throughout the years. These were always enjoyable experiences, but there were always things that I couldn’t quite place. I often ended up confused. This funny book clarified a lot for me; especially the huge differences between English and Dutch culture.

I do wonder now how often I might have embarrassed myself in front of the English, or how often I unknowingly insulted someone. Being Dutch, these things come easy to me. I also wonder how noticeable it is by my writing that I am not from Britain. Besides the grammatical errors and the usage of British and American spelling at will, there must surely be some indicators that I am simply used to other styles of communication.

I think Dutch culture is in many ways a polar opposite of English culture. What I am getting from the book is that the English recognize an inherent uneasiness about social situations and their solution is sensitivity and tentative interaction to reach an understanding in indirect ways. We do the exact opposite. We recognize the uneasiness in social situations and our reaction is to have no patience for it. We’d rather be blunt. Not because we do not care about the feelings or others, but because we want the uneasiness out of the way, and we think that others might be grateful for that (which many Dutch people indeed are). If there are elephants in the room, we immediately point them out, laying everything out in the open.

I’ve heard it said that the English consider Dutch to think in weird ways, or that the way they speak is unstructured, jumping from one topic to another in a jumbled way. I think what happens is that we simply do not introduce our topics or opinions in any thoughtful or stepwise way; we do not work up a conversation towards a main topic. We just blurt out what we want to say and work backwards from that. The English do it the other way around.

And the Dutch take a certain pride in this, because we feel that when we do this, everyone can move on and the uneasiness is stamped out. We even feel that other Dutch people appreciate directness, because we abhor those moments when things are not mutually acknowledged in a very clear way. Other cultures have a lot of uneasiness with our approach, and we often insult people unknowingly. We lack any sense of tact, sensitivity, style and class. We have no love for words as a culture, have no tradition of intelligentsia, and are notoriously bad at art with narratives, such as writing and film. Sometimes I greatly lament this boorish Dutch culture, but we also have almost no awareness of class differences, nor would we take these as seriously as the English.

I have a pet theory that the English behave this way to protect each other from themselves, and that in the Dark Ages the English were terrified of strangers, who could be knights or brigands or Vikings. The Dutch republic has a very different history, which influenced our social customs. We were a land with a high population density, consisting mostly of merchants and stoic farmers who had to cooperate to drain the land of water and keep the dykes strong. I could be wrong, I’m no historian.

There are some similarities though. Dutch people too a very private, and it is hard for outsiders to enter Dutch friend groups. We are also nestbuilders, doing a lot of DIY on our houses and gardens.

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