Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Tamburlaine goes to the movies

I went to see X-Men: Final Stand on Sunday, along with a large number of other people (I haven’t had to queue to get into a cinema for ages). I have seen the two previous X-Men films, and this third instalment carried on the story arc of Jean Grey’s transformation into the Dark Phoenix hinted at in the end of X2. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but there may be some lurking below.

The main basis of the story was that a commercial laboratory had created a “cure” for the mutant X-gene, and the plot was driven by the mutant and non-mutant communities’ reactions to the news. Some mutants wanted the cure, others did not, and non-mutants were beginning to think about using the “cure” as a weapon to prevent mutants from using their powers. Magneto (Ian McKellen in full pantomime villain mode) predictably felt that mutants should have nothing to feel ashamed of, and to be out and proud (as it were). Others, like the more pacific Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) recognised that many mutants would seize this opportunity. Added to this was the resurrection of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), her powers now far greater than any other mutant, and quite beyond her ability to control.

Several new characters were introduced, though some had so little screen-time I felt as though a larger story had been edited out. This was the case with several of the characters’ stories, both new and old. Cyclops (James Marsden) disappeared early on in proceedings, without much loss, and unfortunately Storm (Halle Berry) was given more of a leading role in the story: I couldn’t believe in her as a teacher, frankly.

The film could have benefited from a tighter story, and there were several plot holes which weren’t sufficiently explained (mainly those due to Jean’s powers). There were some touching or poignant moments, though the one which really stuck with me was Magneto’s rejection of Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) after she had been inadvertently “cured” of her mutant powers whilst saving his. Also, there were plenty of action sequences (the bit where Jean destroys her house is fantastic) to enjoy, and just enough Wolverine to keep us Hugh Jackman fans pleased, whilst the ending dropped more hints that could be picked up by a fourth film (stay until the end credits have finished, by the way, for full revelations).

The film did throw up a number of points afterwards, like:

  • Why are most mutants (with a few honourable exceptions) not very bright?
  • Why do mutants who experience skin colour changes go blue, rather than red or green?
  • What prompted Jean to emerge from Alkali Lake seemingly months after her “death”?
  • Why is Storm useless at fighting?
  • Given that it’s a mutation in the X-gene that causes the phenomenon, why do mutants’ powers vary so much from person to person?
  • Has it ever been stated what percentage of the population suffer random mutations which are completely incompatible with life? And if so, how lucky are the mutants in the film that they survived?
  • Why do most mutants’ powers completely contravene all existing physical laws?
  • And do we ever find out about mutants with more likely but somewhat dorky powers like being able to see infra-red wavelength light?

I'm sure there are many more, though.


Sunday, May 28, 2006

"Honours" List

The Honours system has been a bit of a joke for a while. Today there's news that Michael Winner (of all people) had declined an OBE because he claimed that the system had been devalued by honours presented to people who had merely contributed money to political parties. 'Twas ever thus, though, as reading a couple of Saki's short stories will show - and these were written prior to 1914. Or the I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again team's satirical comments about the Wilson Honours in their shows. However, it also seems that part of Mr Winner's argument for declining the OBE was his annoyance at not being offered a greater honour.

There does seem to be a difference in why honours are awarded: for genuinely good works for the local or national community; for sporting or similar achievement (such as were handed out to the Beatles, or last year to the England cricket team); or for those donating money to the current government. I agree that that any honours which make reference to the defunt British Empire should be discontinued, as were many honours which related to India when that country was part of the Empire. Something similar along the lines of reflecting the current Commonwealth would be a better idea. Perhaps those celebrating sporting or entertainment could be given separate orders, thus allowing the general public who are usually terrifically honoured by an MBE or OBE, to go on feeling honoured by the decoration, and not feel it devalued.

And as for the people who contribute cash or favours to the Government, well, the Order of the Brown Nose should be perfectly suitable...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Nice music, shame about the cause

I went to a concert on Saturday evening at Highclere Castle, near Newbury. It was a rock concert, so a bit of a departure for me (I haven't been to a rock gig since university, and St Andrews wasn't really a noted gig venue, so you can imagine the quality of bands who usually played at the Students' Union). The big "but" is that it was a charity concert in aid of the Countryside Alliance.

I feel rather ambivalent about the Countryside Alliance, who seem to be set on preserving the traditions of hunting, shooting and fishing that to me, as an urban lass, seem unnecessarily cruel and reactionary. I agree that foxes and other vermin who prey on farm animals should be killed, but humanely. Of course, the vast majority of the audience which turned up on Saturday afternoon with their picnic hampers and collapsible chairs did not refute the stereotype: the place was a sea of Barbour coats in navy blue or dark green, hats and wellies. Admittedly, this was sensible attire, for it had been raining on Friday and for part of Saturday morning. G and I rather stood out in our Sprayway waterproof jackets in sea-green and lilac, and walking boots. We walked to Highclere from our B&B about four miles away, and it was rather funny to see all the 4x4s in the car park (walking actually turned out to be a wise decision, as it took us far less time to get out than the car drivers).

As for the concert itself, which did not receive much publicity, perhaps because the Hyde Park concert for the Prince's Trust also happened on the same evening, well, I enjoyed it. The support acts were pretty bland, which wasn't helped by the low amplification (and the poor diction of most of the performers). Bryan Ferry did a short set of about four songs, including Jealous Guy and Stick Together, before being replaced by the "Band du Lac". This was a kind of supergroup of ageing rockers led by Gary Brooker of Procul Harum, and included Paul Carrack and Mike Rutherford. Even Jeremy Clarkson turned up in the inevitable sheepskin jacket to show his support and crack a few jokes.

A couple of the backing singers strutted their stuff in two songs, one of which was a very slinky I Just Wanna Make Love To You. Guests who appeared and then went off again after their couple of numbers were Georgie Fame (who was excellent, with a lively Say Yeah Yeah amongst others), Andy Fairweather-Low (who?), Roger Waters and Nick Mason (who joined in with a lovely version of Wish You Were Here and a not so great one of Comfortably Numb), and the man almost everyone had come to see, Eric Clapton. There were a couple of blues numbers, including Cocaine, by J. J. Cale (as well as Clapton's own sickly Wonderful Tonight), and a Bob Marley song, Get Up, Stand Up, which seemed almost indecent in that setting: the struggles of the Countryside Alliance in keeping their way of life compared to the black civil rights struggle? Still, a cracking song. They finished up with Bob Dylan's Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, which was much better than Dylan's version (but then I think most versions are).

It didn't rain, though it was pretty chilly for most of the evening. Still, we got well warmed up walking back in the dark (which was very dark indeed, no moon to light the way).

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Can we survive?

Collapse, by Jared Diamond, is a very thought-provoking book, which I've recently finished reading. Diamond examines the various factors which he believes led to the downfall of various societies in the past: the Easter Islanders, Anasazi, Mayans and Greenland Norse, each of whom suffered from one or more of these contributing factors. Then he discusses various societies who recognised their problems and instituted changes to solve them. Diamond then shows how those same factors are causing current societies, such as Rwanda, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, China and Australia to face similar problems because of devastating their own environment. Most declines seem to have started from one simple problem: people clear the forests for agriculture: the soil loses nutrients: soil erosion begins or increases, and causes further problems in areas far from where the forests used to be. Once trees are gone from an area, it seems to be very difficult to re-introduce them again.

It's telling to realise that our own views and opinions, and the way we see ourselves and our society could contribute to these collapses. When reading the chapter about the contrasting countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, for example, it's hard not to be struck by such a comparison. Nor indeed when he writes about Australia, and how for years the Government pursued such policies as to actually weaken the country's environment, which was already in an fragile state.

The most heartening thing about the book is Diamond's conviction that we can learn from past mistakes; that our voices, the voices of consumers and voters, can make changes. Even by the simple choice of buying wood or wood products that are Forest Stewardship Council certified, we can ensure that trees are being cleared sustainably and replanted, so as to ensure that trees are a continuing resource for the future.

Diamond writes well and passionately, the examples he uses are convincing and interesting, and I see it as a wake-up call to all of us who think that the environment doesn't matter that much. However urbanised we are, all our lives depend on the biosphere functioning sufficiently well to provide us with the things we need to live.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Comic Gothic horror melodrama

I saw a performance of The Mystery of Irma Vep by Charles Ludlam on Saturday at the Emery Theatre. This was a fast-paced tale of mystery and the supernatural with a cast of werewolves, vampires and aristocrats. There were eight characters, all played by only two actors (though it took me some time to realise this!). The play obviously spoofed several genres, and was very entertaining, although I felt that the ending was a bit flat, in comparison to the antics that had gone on before.

The staging was ingenious, and much of the laughter came from the incongrousness and complete artificiality of the two dimensional props as well as the words themselves. The costume changes were extremely fast, particularly in the last act, where the characters were flying on- and off-stage in quick succession.

The Emery Theatre is a small venue, in east London (Poplar). I've been there twice now - the first time to see Educating Rita, a few months ago. Both plays have been small scale, with two actors and minimal sets, with the company carefully playing to the strengths of the small space and minimising the drawbacks. Anyway, it was a nice way to spend Saturday evening.


Friday, May 05, 2006

How Opal Mehta Got Caught...

Further to my earlier post about possible plagiarism spotted in the book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, And Got A Life, further developments have occurred. Following the discovery of similarities in her novel to both Megan McCafferty's novels as previously mentioned, eagle-eyed readers have now found similarities with Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries, a novel by Sophie Kinsella and Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. Little, Brown, Kaavya Viswanathan's publishers, have now asked booksellers to withdraw the book, and have no plans for a revised edition.

The fact that New Jersey's The Record, where Ms Viswanathan wrote a dozen features while working as an intern for the paper, is now using a service to vet her articles - surely a case of bolting the stable door after the horse has long gone - is merely adding gilt to the gingerbread. I'm now feeling a little sorry for the girl. Thought not much.

I wonder how her fellow students - the university newspaper was the one who exposed her, after all - will react to this news.

The wonder, the wonder...

Continuing my theme of posting about things I did at the weekend, today's will be a short paean of praise to the wonderful Foyles on Charing Cross Road. Any Londoners who read this blog might think, So what? Well, it's because before Monday I had never visited this temple to the bookseller's art. And it is a temple! Long gone are the days when the books were sorted by ISBN; today the books are grouped into sections and then filed alphabetically by author. I've been in large bookshops before - Hatchards and Waterstones on Piccadilly, for example - but never felt such a sense of excitement before. The design is functional, rather than comfortable, but I would far rather browse there than, say Borders.

In the section on engineering, for example, there were two bays of books on geotechnical engineering. Two whole bays! I spent over an hour browsing those shelves, and inwardly jumping up and down* to see the variety of texts. These ranged from the standard soil mechanics and foundation engineering texts to much more abstruse works from specialist publishers. I would have liked to have bought more than I actually did, but these books aren't cheap: I couldn't afford to browse there too often!

* I'm aware that this is making me sound a bit sad...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sun and moon and Bach's Tomb

I haven't posted lately because I've been too busy at work - which is where I have access to the Internet. So I apologise that I'm only now posting a review of a concert I attended on Saturday evening.

This was a concert given by a choir called Helios, directed by Mark Sproson, at St Giles Cripplegate. The starting point for the music sung was Sproson's fortieth birthday, and included music from each of the five decades in which he's lived. An elegant conceit, and one which yielded some interesting pieces: these included Howells' sublime Take him, earth, for cherishing, written in the 1960s; Beckmann's lovely setting of Larkin's poem, The North Ship, for choir and saxophone; Cage's Ear for EAR, with five singers scattered around the church; and the best-received piece (which, ironically, was the only one not sung), Reich's Clapping Music. Judith Bingham, who attended the concert and gave a talk before the music began (which I missed, because of arriving too late) was represented by two pieces, Bach's Tomb and Lacrymosa. Unfortunately, the latter was spoiled by having to be abandoned partway through due to the saxophonist having a problem with his lip (don't ask me!).

All the pieces were very well sung by a small, flexible choir - possibly the weakest number was Sproson's own Sinatra Suite (an arrangement of Come Fly With Me, They Can't Take That Away From Me and Mack the Knife). This is a perennial problem for good classical chamber choirs - they always seem to struggle with the "lighter" numbers.

Although I hadn't heard the pieces before (Take him, earth, for cherishing being the only exception), I liked most of them enough to want to seek out recordings (if there are any), particularly of the Beckmann and Bingham numbers. What I found most fascinating, however, was Reich's Clapping Music. It's a very simple concept, like most minimalistic music, though its effects are not. Two performers clap out a twelve-quaver rhythm. Then, while one keeps clapping the same rhythm continuously, the other keeps on starting the rhythm one quaver earlier on each repetition. The effect, as each performer goes out of phase, and the rhythms beat against each other like zapateado, is very exciting, both to watch the intense concentration on each performer's face, and to hear the effects in an acoustic like St Giles.