Books That I Have Loved: Good Omens

20141214_224559-1With the radio adaptation so soon to air, I found myself digging out my copy of Good Omens.

In an article on his fellow author, Terry Pratchett said that Gaiman “really, really likes it if you ask him to sign your battered, treasured copy of Good Omens that has been dropped in the tub once and  is now held together with very old, yellowing transparent tape.”

This is that copy.

It’s older than I am. The pages have yellowed, and they’re more than a little crinkly from the time the book was carried to school in a bag I thought was waterproof. (It wasn’t, unfortunately for both me and the book.) There isn’t any sellotape involved, but the binding’s only holding together by some sort of miracle, or maybe satanic magic. It’s been brandished with a cry of, “This is my favourite book!” far too many times for other people’s sanity. It got me through one interminable detention years ago when a teacher assumed that I “must be doing homework, since [I was] reading” and left me be. It’s so well-thumbed that I’m surprised it hasn’t developed thumbs.

It’s still my favourite book. No, really. Don’t expect an unbiased or impartial view; I doubt I could offer one even if I tried, and since this is entitled “Books That I Have Loved” rather than “Books I Will Review Professionally and Fairly,” I’m not going to try.

I owe this book a lot. It sealed my love of Terry Pratchett’s work, introduced me to Neil Gaiman (and so later The Sandman) and taught me what happens when you don’t look after books (they get water-logged and you get yelled at).

Picture the scene: awkward, incredibly bookish six-year-old “with a reading age of about nineteen” (quoth the father) gets her hands on a book. It’s by that bloke who wrote the Discworld books she’s been reading, and it has a really awesome cover. Hmm. Interesting. From there begins a journey that has been more dramatic than some love affairs.

Well, I say the book’s mine. That’s a lie couched in only a little truth. It used to be my father’s – his second copy, actually. He’d lost the first copy after “some bastard ran off with it and never came back.” It had been given to him by a friend. Maybe it’s just that sort of book: it gets passed on, like some weird tradition or ancient curse. It was secondhand from the beginning.

Good Omens takes place in a world that’s probably our own – or at least, a lot like it. An angel and a demon have been adversaries for so long that they’re, well, sort of friends. The shine of the Eternal War wears off a bit when it really has been going on forever. However, it’s now time to bring about the Apocalypse. The thing is, they rather like Earth, really. They’re not entirely sure they want to destroy it…

Essentially, this is how two lackeys of Heaven and Hell end up saving the planet in a way that’s sort-of accidental. Well, them and “a cast of thousands,” as the Dramatis Personae would have it.

The plot sounds simple. It’s anything but. The book ping-pongs between different groups of characters and even across centuries. It’s idiosyncratic and it takes a couple of hundred pages to make complete sense. There are a huge variety of continuing gags, like one character’s theory that any cassette, if left in a car stereo long enough, will inexplicably morph into a Best of Queen tape. (Yes, cassette. The book came out in 1990, and it can be forgiven for showing its age now and again.)

It’s also very good, though, and that seems like the most important thing. It’s dark in places, but never cruel – though Crowley, the demon in question, admires humanity’s propensity for hurting one another and committing new sins, he also marvels at the acts of good he’s seen. Aziraphale, though technically an angel, isn’t all good, and Crowley, considering he’s a demon, is actually a frighteningly decent bloke. That’s the point of the book, I suppose: it seems to posit that humanity isn’t perfectly good or perfectly evil. It shows the importance of free will – it tells us that we should all be able to stick a finger up at destiny and pick our own path. Most of all, it says that humanity, in all its cruelty, complexity and utter weirdness, is something worth saving. I think that’s dearly worth remembering.

That, and it’s bloody funny.

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“History is just one fucking thing after another.”

Just watched The History Boys. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a long, long time, and it made me remember why I chose to study English Literature and, most importantly, History.

(Beware. Minor spoilers await all who enter here.)

The dialogue is electric, theatrical and clever but never quite losing the feel of conversation. It’s all tricks and dancing metaphors, veiled meanings. Aside from being bloody hilarious, it’s also frighteningly perceptive. It’s one of the main things that make the characters seem so very, wrenchingly real.

Speaking of that: characters are painted with light, easy strokes; even the boys who get the smallest time on the screen are defined and relateable, built up perfectly by the things they say and do. In just a few key moments, we get a sense of their distinctive voice – of who they are – and we root for them.

This film also illustrates so perfectly the problems of the educational system: how bureaucracy and superficial checkbox-ticking can replace passion and honesty; how things are allowed to slide because they’re good enough, rather than actually good; how the system forgets that the students within it are people, with needs, personalities and agency; how it’s so often seen as more important to be rich than happy. (Interesting how the student who takes to heart Hector’s impractical, idealistic teaching is ultimately the one who ends up unhappiest, even as the play suggests Hector himself is a kind of anti-hero.) It also talks about the way we so often forget that our teachers, too, are people.

Things are never simple here. Teachers who are otherwise earnest and brilliant educators are sexual deviants (but then again, the film seems to ask, are they?). Students who spout witty quotations are naive fools and yet somehow smarter than the teachers. Something which seems like a comedy has at its core an elegiac yearning – a strange, intrinsic melancholy that sometimes makes you want to cry even as you’re laughing.

The performances here are sterling: every actor here is pitch-perfect. Griffiths, a veteran at this sort of thing (and a sad loss to movies), doesn’t so much play Hector as is him. He – deservedly – gets some of the best scenes in the film: the debate about how to teach the Holocaust; the painful, intensely lonely reading of Hardy’s Drummer Hodge that’s rife with unspoken words and parallels. (Barnett, too, as the young, gay student Posner, shines; the two of them and the way they play off each other is brilliant. The ending for that character and what he becomes is astonishingly fitting, if sad. That and his only partially insincere little performance to Dakin of “Bewitched…” are stand-out moments). Meanwhile, Campbell Moore is all understated brilliance, communicating far too many things with just the slightest change in expression, and de la Tour is utterly convincingly world-weary.

And the boys? Cooper is brilliant, all flashy, easy charm as Dakin; you wonder whether to egg him on or rail against him constantly. His performance here makes me wonder why he hasn’t become a bigger star now he’s started doing “proper” Hollywood movies. The banter is easy and perfectly-timed. Tovey and Parker, while their roles aren’t at the forefront, play them earnestly and well, as does Corden. Everyone has their moments; no unnecessary effort is expended – the way all the younger actors play their roles is natural and comfortable but still immensely touching.

The History Boys is a very British Dead Poets Society with all the petty, ugly, sometimes gorgeous shit that your teachers neglected to mention left in. It does what all great literature does: it make us look in the mirror and think a little more about what we find. It’s smart and cynical without ever losing its heart, and it’s also terrifyingly honest.

Overview Review: The Dark Knight

Because I said I would do this, I am doing it. This follows on from my Batman Begins review.

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

In a nutshell: Batman is still waging a one-man war on crime in Gotham, but is starting to see the possibility that he may not be needed anymore – mainly due to Gotham’s “White Knight”, District Attorney Harvey Dent. Unfortunately, a new, sadistic psychopath calling himself The Joker has arrived in town…

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Absolutely cracking performances from everyone involved. Rachel Dawes was unanimously called the weak point of Begins; here, she’s been re-cast, and Gyllenhaal seems far more comfortable in the role than Katie Holmes. Her performance also shows a still idealistic, but far less naive-feeling Rachel, which is good to see.

Bale’s interpretation of Bruce has seemed more and more human and flawed as the series has  gone  on, and here it really shows.  Bruce is sympathetic without being whiny – and believe me, some of the lines could have been read that way – which really adds to the overall believability of the film.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is famous for a reason. Hyperactive, unpredictable, always dancing on a knife’s edge and loving it, he’s both psychopathic and, again, believable, if not relatable as such.

Aaron Eckhart is an excellent, angry but incredibly sympathetic Harvey Dent, as the character should be. I also admire the writing for this – when Dent  goes over the edge and becomes Two-Face, you will be sad about it.

Oldman is, as always, world-weary but hopeful, the perfect Gordon.

The writing is even less action-focused than Begins’, revolving more around the psychology of the characters, which is an interesting and often pleasant change. Though there are plenty of set-pieces and big moments, they’re offset by the overall… thoughtfulness of the whole picture. Like Begins, it also uses the slow build, giving the audience a sense of stacking dread as the film goes on which is only occasionally lightened – but the fact it’s rare makes this lightening even more effective.

I don’t mind dark as long as it’s well-written and balanced – and this mostly is. However, the intensity of the film and its constant showing of the darker side of the human psyche – it’s very much a mood film – don’t make this your average popcorn flick – I personally have to be in the right mood to re-watch it, and do so less often than Begins (which, as a film, though it isn’t as well-written, I actually prefer).

There’s less score. In my previous review of Begins, spent quite a large paragraph enthusing about the soundtrack. Here, they re-use a lot of the motifs and themes of Begins, and there’s far less music overall; as someone who finds score incredibly important in films, I have to say it’s a bit of a let-down.

4/5

Great as the film is – and it is of astonishing quality – I actually prefer Begins. This does have a lot going for it, however, and stands on its own as a brilliant film.

Point-by-point review: Batman Begins

• In a nutshell:

After becoming dissatisfied with the everyday injustice of his home city after the murder of his parents, Bruce Wayne assumes a dramatic costumed alter-ego – Batman – and launches a one-man war on crime.

Cast: Christian Bale, Katie Holmes, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, et al.

• The atmosphere

I’m almost certain I’ll end up overusing the word “atmospheric”. The visuals, the writing and the score combine to capture perfectly what I’ve always loved about the Batman comics I read – most of the film’s atmosphere is dark and thoughtful, the tension always building, just there in the background, making you wait; there are very few relaxed or domestic sequences in the film. It’s all, very like Batman himself, dark and dramatic but still managing to be somehow cool, not straying into costumed campery or angst.

In fact, the outlandishness of the whole idea of Batman – a man, dressed as a nocturnal creature, determined to single-handedly defeat every criminal in a huge city – is made to feel remarkably realistic and natural, very much helped by the present-day setting and the very matter-of-fact presentation of events; this is actually what makes this series my favourite screen representation of the dark knight.

• The writing

The research put into the screenplay shows: this film adheres very well to the often confused and confusing Batman canon, and really does show, as the title says, Batman’s beginning, explaining everything neatly and compactly – right down to the famous spiked bracers – without ruining the mystery and the fun of it all. I love origin stories, and this film is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of one; this film focuses more on Bruce Wayne than Batman – the man behind the mask; that’s actually the second reason this may be my favourite Batman film.

Meanwhile, the overall writing and dialogue quality is excellent; lines flow well and feel natural rather than like needless exposition. There are maybe a couple of lines which stray into cliché or pseudo-profundity, but they’re brief and vastly eclipsed by the other 99.9% of the script’s quality.

• The visuals

Christopher Nolan’s “action” filming is often erratic, as if he’s not quite used to it and is trying to show everything, now, at once, but the man sure knows how to set up a scene. The whole Batcave sequence (rock formations, tension, bat colonies, waterfalls, and a very good use of an actor with a strong profile), in particular, is just beautiful, and some of the scenes where the camera sweeps over the Gotham cityscape have taken a few notes from Blade Runner, ending up introspective and atmospheric.

Actually, the styling generally – all dark and steely, very much in the mood of “gritty” Batman comics like Year One and The Black Mirror – is lovely; muted colours are never boring, and actually make you notice more detail rather than less.

• That lovely, brooding score

And this is where I put on my amateur soundtrack nerd hat.

My God, the things Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard can do with strings, particularly in this film of the series – the resolute, marching strings of tension or springing into action; the sweeping, building two notes, like an inhaled and eventually exhaled breath, that are the closest thing to a theme Batman has. Almost everything is low frequency, low pitched – it’s all deep, quiet strings, focused on building expectations, and most percussion is bass drums, adding to that marching, tense, building feeling. This is only broken up by the occasional, slightly unsettling chime, the slightly higher, sublime slow build of viola notes across the relentless march, or the sweeter, more soulful notes in the more hopeful, tender moments of the film.

The music is almost constant, rather than just something for the “big” scenes, sometimes slipping past almost unnoticed; most of it is about building atmosphere rather than being showy, and manages it beautifully. When the “epic” is called for, the scorers bring out the cymbals and the horns, and create a bombastic, dramatic sound almost without ever straying into musical cliché.

It sets the mood perfectly, and is, all in all, a very… Batman score.

• The cast

Bale is generally excellent as Bruce Wayne – though, better, I think, in The Dark Knight – and pulls off the intensity and contrasting identities very well; he has a certain presence that suits the character he plays.

Caine, as Bruce’s faithful butler Alfred, and Freeman, as tech provider Lucius Fox, add some gravitas to proceedings, and get some great lines; Oldman, as long-suffering “good cop” Gordon, shows wonderfully the world-weariness and frown lines of a man who has seen too much, too soon; Liam Neeson, as Bruce’s mentor, Ducard, backs up the gravitas, but also adds a certain quiet, intelligent menace to the mix; and Cillian Murphy is wonderfully creepy in his turn as Scarecrow.

Katie Holmes is… alright, I suppose, as the love interest, Rachel Dawes, but I somehow doesn’t feel quite right in the role, and I can’t help thinking that the recast was a good idea.

• The verdict:

It’s not perfect, but it is quite an experience – wonderfully intense, beautifully scored, and excellently acted. There are really very few things not to like here, and this stands on its own as a good film, even if you’re not a Batman fan. I may be the only one out there who actually prefers this first film to The Dark Knight.

4.5/5

Avengers Assemble: Hammer humour, astrophysics and Things That Blow Up

A step-by-step review. No spoilers, but rambling abounds.

• Firstly, a few details.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg

Director/Co-writer: Joss Whedon

12A

• Long ago, in the halcyon days of being a little girl,

I was meant to want to be a princess. Instead, I was determined to be a superhero. This may have had something to do with my habit of reading the occasional comic and rather enjoying it, before deciding at the tender age of six that “I will write great comics!”

Let’s just say that I’m still trying.

I admit, the comic reading is now rare and almost non-existent, but I’ve read enough in my life to have at least a vague idea of who The Avengers are and what they should sound like. This left me more than a little apprehensive about the film, even with Joss Whedon at the helm.

I was pleasantly surprised.

• The overall plot can fit comfortably on a postage stamp.

Well, it’s so obviously just an excuse to get all the Avengers in the same room that it doesn’t really matter; the film’s all about the bickering, the friendships and the explosions. However, if you really want to know: Big scary device – the Tesseract, a source of power for all mankind – is stolen by villain who wants to take over the world (the wonderfully malevolent Loki – I’ll get to Tom Hiddleston later). Team of heroes (the titular Avengers) go after him to save the world.

• There’s strong scripting, and some even stronger performances.

Downey Jr. simply exudes effortless cool as Tony Stark – unsurprising, somehow – and the way he plays the character is pretty much perfect, irreverent wit and what could almost be arrogance softened by shades of humility. This is exactly, in fact, what made me like the first Iron Man film – and this cinema incarnation of Stark – so much. Credit to the writers, but it’s the excellent performance that brings an already pretty glowing script to life.

However, this isn’t the only example of “cool” within the film.

Mark Ruffalo, like an American Martin Freeman, plays the unfortunate everyman very well, and it’s used to great effect here. Far too many incarnations of Bruce Banner – the human side of the Hulk – have been shown as whiny, one-dimensional characters, with no lives outside of their alter-ego: the Hulk happens to occasionally be a normal – incredibly boring – guy.

Here, Banner is an interesting character in his own right. He’s a calm stabiliser for the volatile team, a down-to-earth man of sharp wit and quiet anger. He’s a pretty-much-normal guy who happens to occasionally be the Hulk.

Also, the interplay between Tony, who kept his fortune through his engineering and technological genius, and Bruce, a ridiculously intelligent astrophysicist, is marvellous: Get two men who are sarcastic and far too smart for their own good. Stick them in a room together. See what happens.

All due credit here to the writers: the job they’ve done on Bruce’s character is great, and Ruffalo’s understated, quietly confident performance only serves to emphasise that.

Chris Evans is fine as Steve Rogers (Captain America). I couldn’t call him wooden; his performance is expressive and likeable enough. I just wish there had been more written for the character.

There’s the same problem with Hawkeye and Black Widow – though they don’t compare to Downey Jr. and Ruffalo in terms of sheer cool, Renner and Johansson’s performances are convincing and very natural. I actually like both characters here very much. However, they simply aren’t given enough screen time, shoved out of the film to show all the cool banter and explosions. A shame, since there’s a very interesting backstory sketched out between them as the film progresses. I would’ve liked to have known more.

• Who says the heroes get to have all the fun?

Then there’s Loki, one more case of performance and scripting working wonderfully in sync.

I found Tom Hiddleston the highlight of Thor, and here he’s even better (perhaps it’s due to an improved script to play with – I found Thor‘s a little lacklustre).

He gives Loki an extra dose of madness, a manic, bi-polar energy that’s electric to behold; yet he also plays him with a disturbingly human streak that makes the character relateable. There’s also Loki’s theatrical side – despite the fact that he may be pure evil, he certainly knows how to make an entrance.

I’m actually far more familiar with the original Norse mythology than the Thor comic books, and this certainly seems like the mythological being of chaos the gods feared.

Here’s where Chris Hemsworth has his chance to shine. He plays Thor, who is by far the simplest and least likeable character of the film – one of the few areas where the writing’s a little duller. However, watching the brothers bounce off each other, with their spectacular, godlike demonstrations of sibling jealousy that are almost Shakespearean is great fun, giving us some of the tensest parts of the film.

•Things go boom. A lot.

That isn’t to say the film is perfect. Though the action scenes looked amazing and showed the Avengers’ characters very well, I’d rather there had been a bit less “action” and a bit more “talkiness”. An hour was devoted to a battle scene that could’ve been over in twenty minutes. I’d have loved to see a little more of the technology, the sharing of ideas and common interests in the team, the effects of the losses sustained in the fight.

Samuel L. Jackson is… well, Samuel L. Jackson, thinly disguised as Nick Fury. He even calls a government decision “stupid-ass.” The role was so obviously written for him that it’s… not jarring, exactly, but certainly not Nick Fury. It is, as said, Samuel L. Jackson being played by himself.

• In a nutshell?

A wonderfully witty, sparkling script, powerhouse performances from pretty much everyone involved and brilliantly choreographed fight sequences. A couple of small niggles detract from the experience, but you just won’t care once you get caught up in it, and they really are insignificant in the whole. Don’t go in expecting to see the meaning of life – it’s most definitely a fun film, not a deep one – but it is certainly one of the best superhero movies around.

•••• 4/5

• Edited to add:

After posting a generally glowing review of Ruffalo’s performance above, I found this, which explains it a helluva lot better than me, even if it is in all-caps: The Hulk On Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk.

Film Crit Hulk may now have become one of my favourite blogs, ever. It’s hilarious, and often spot-on.