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‘Poor Things’

‘A bit of madness is key,’ sang Emma Stone in La La Land, ‘to give us new colours to see.’

In Poor Things, she proves it: the film is absurd, unhinged, and glorious. It’s my favourite film of the year so far, and one I wouldn’t have seen in a million years were it not for this project.

Our setting is a steampunkish, retrofuturistic version of the Victorian era. The plot centres on Stone’s character, Bella Baxter. The film’s Victor Frankenstein-esque character, Godwin Baxter, played by William Defoe, pulls a pregnant suicide victim from the Thames. The victim’s brain is removed and replaced with that of the foetus, and Bella Baxter is created. We follow her growth and development, her betrothal, and her decision to run away with another man.

The set-up makes this sound like a horror film: it’s not. Horrific things happen, but they are treated lightly and comedically. This was a film that had me grinning almost from beginning to end, even as Bella repeatedly stabbed a face with a scalpel.

Poor Things is a completely realised comedic fever dream. Everything about it is pitch-perfect: acting, set design, score, costumes, cinematography, it all adds up to a mesmerising whole. This is a film that embraces its form: sections are in black and white, sections are shot in a circular format, sections use a disorienting fish-eye lens. I am lucky to have seen in on the big screen, and would recommend that others do the same. It looks and sounds gorgeous.

Using its absurd world, the film has interesting observations to make on so many things, from feminism, to parent-child relationships, to the ethics of sex work, to the harmful straightjacket of polite society, to paedophilia. It is wonderfully, delightfully, inspirationally and insightfully odd. It’s richly and outrageously crazy.

Stone’s performance is nothing short of astonishing perfection. I cannot begin to imagine how someone can even attempt to inhabit such a gloriously weird character, with such a wide developmental arc. Stone brings Bella to life, making sense of a totally mad sketch of a character. It is unbelievable.

The other performances are also universally excellent. Of particular note, Vicki Pepperdine made a giant impression from a tiny part, not least with the surely immortal line, ‘She grabbed my hairy business!’

I enjoyed this from the first frame to the last. I’d happily watch it again.

This post was filed under: Film, , , .

Dispelling misspellings

There’s a poster I pass at work regularly about identifying phishing emails. It advises that the content of these emails is frequently ‘mispelled’. I’ve spent more time than I ought pondering whether that misspelling was intentional or not, likely a slightly-less-obvious version of telling us that emails might be full of ‘seplling mystakes’.

Then, I doubted myself and wondered if ‘mispell’ was an acceptable alternative to ‘misspell’. I checked the Oxford English Dictionary: it’s not. There’s no historical context in which it is correct—the etymology is plainly ‘mis’ + ‘spell’. The inclusion of a lonely ‘s’ is simply wrong, whether or not it’s intentionally wrong.

The Dictionary does list a single quotation in which the word appears as ‘mispelling’: England’s 1695 Treason Act. Section XI of the Act provides, among other things, that misspellings in legal documents cannot be used as the sole grounds for dismissing a case unless highlighted before any evidence has been presented (in which case, they could be corrected and the trial could proceed). Amusingly, ‘misspelling’ is misspelt:

noe Indictment for any of the aforesaid … shall bee quashed on the Motion of the Prisoner or his Counsel for miswriting mispelling false or improper Latine

This section of the Act was repealed with the passage of the Treason Act 1945, so you needn’t worry about the misspelling of misspelling still being in force. Unlike the poster, we can, at least, assume the 1695 mistake wasn’t a deliberate pun.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, .

‘One Day’

A little over a decade ago, I read David Nicholls’s novel One Day.

I just found myself getting a little fed up with it. The progress of the plot is so utterly, teeth-gnashingly predictable that the ending couldn’t come soon enough, and the interminable circuitous storylines and ruminations holding it back became just a little bit dull.

It doesn’t sound as though I enjoyed it, but then I gave it a four-star rating, so who knows what I was thinking? I certainly can’t remember.

Fast-forward to 2024, and Wendy and I have just finished watching the Netflix adaptation. I couldn’t recall even the major beats of the plot of the novel, though I did remember that it was a love story, and I had a clear idea in mind of the central characters, Emma and Dexter.

Wendy and I both enjoyed the series: I certainly didn’t get fed up with it, nor find it predictable or dull. I found it moving, which my review suggests wasn’t the case for the novel.

The series follows the same structure as the novel, catching up with our central characters on 15 July for each of twenty years, beginning at university in 1988. The episodes vary in length from about 20 to about 40 minutes. The period details, including the soundtrack, are spot-on.

Ambika Mod is perfectly cast as Emma Morley, and will surely be catapulted into stardom by the success of this series. Leo Woodall is excellent as Dexter Mayhew, though I think Dex is the less interesting character.

I was struck by the sense of place in the series, particularly how central Edinburgh is to the plot. I didn’t remember that from the novel.

But mostly, it packs an emotional punch. It’s funny, it’s moving, it’s reflective, it’s thoughtful.

It’s great.

This post was filed under: TV, , , , .

Crocus focus

Crocuses are a lovely reminder that spring is on the way. Both globally and across the UK, purple crocuses are planted to remind us of humanity’s pledge to eradicate polio.

In the years when my parents were born, there were as many as 8,000 cases of polio each year acquired in the UK, leaving many families bereaved and tens of thousands of children with lifelong disabilities. An effective vaccine was developed in the late 1950s, and as a result of the success of its rollout in the UK, there has been not a single UK-acquired case of polio in my lifetime. It’s easy to forget the astonishing and unprecedented progress we made in public health in the twentieth century.

We haven’t eradicated polio worldwide quite yet, though we’re getting close, with only tens of cases reported each year. Two of the three strains of polio have been consigned to the history books. The purple crocuses should remind us that we still need to finish the job.

This post was filed under: Health, .

‘Wicked Little Letters’

Wicked Little Letters is a frothy comedy film that has been heavily trailed for months. As in the trailer, the comedy relies on the assumption that prim and proper 1920s characters using unexpectedly foul language is inherently funny. I think that it is, to a point, though perhaps not funny enough to support a whole film.

To my mind, the stand-out feature was Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score, which lifted the whole production, imbuing it with a sense of drama and emotion even when the script was a bit lacking. Waller-Bridge’s compositions also underpinned some fantastic musical/visual puns that were among the funniest bits of the film.

Unfortunately, the plot is a bit of a letdown. It concerns some expletive-laden poison-pen letters received by Olivia Colman’s character, and whether the police have correctly identified the sender, Jessie Buckley’s character—if not, who might it be? The answer is practically telegraphed from that start, so tension doesn’t really build, and the case is solved on-screen peculiarly early in the film in any case.

Now, I’m hardly the morality police, but allow me a paragraph on the wonky social ethics of the piece. I was irked. The film is written in such a way that we’re clearly supposed to judge the central characters with modern eyes, and sympathise with Buckley’s less buttoned-up, more ‘modern’ character who is harshly judged by the standards of the time. But despite the film being vaguely about the ridiculousness of the patriarchal society of the 1920s, we don’t see the main patriarch (Timothy Spall’s character) suffer any comeuppance for behaviour that—by modern standards—is domestic abuse. The script comes perilously close to making a joke of bullying and controlling familial relationships. It’s as though we’re invited to judge the women by 2020s standards but the men by 1920s standards. It’s uncomfortable.

But look, this is light comedy tosh: I don’t think we’re expected to think that hard. Let’s just laugh at Olivia Colman swearing a bit more. Most of the characters are two-dimensional clichés, as I suppose we ought to expect, and there are a few laughs along the way. Come for the chuckles, stay for the music. It’s fine.

This post was filed under: Film, , , , .

Finding freedom

I read Jacob Stern’s article in The Atlantic about the political controversy in the USA related to specific car manufacturers selling certain models without AM radios.

It made me wonder whether my car has an AM radio. I know it did when I bought it, a little over 14 years ago. I remember occasionally listening to Richard Bacon’s afternoon show on BBC Radio 5 Live in the car. But I’ve replaced the radio twice since then.

For the last three years, I’ve been using a ‘radio’ which uses Apple’s CarPlay system to stream content from my phone. Since then, I’ve never listened to broadcasts via FM or AM. I knew the system had a ‘tuner’ function, but I wasn’t sure whether it included AM frequencies.

Surprisingly, the ‘radio’ unit I bought is still ‘current’. I found it on sale on a national retailer’s website. Despite the technology now being several years old, the retail price has inflated by more than 11% since I bought it.

The retailer’s website didn’t list whether the ‘radio’ had an AM tuner. I can only assume this must be irrelevant to many people’s purchasing decisions these days.

I consulted the manufacturer’s website, but it wasn’t listed on the main product page there, either. I dug into a separate ‘full specifications and features’ page—lo and behold, there it was!

My car radio does, indeed, have a hitherto unused AM tuner.

Some US commentators appear to believe this to be essential to my freedom. I still don’t think I’m going to use it. Given that my car model isn’t sold in the US, perhaps no one will mind.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, , .

‘The Legacy’ by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

I received this book, the first in Icelandic author Sigurðardóttir’s ‘Children’s House’ series, as a very kind gift. The English translation is by Victoria Cribb. It’s a thriller-ish crime fiction, a Nordic murder mystery. It was a particularly thoughtful present as it’s been a while since I last read a book like this.

Predictably, early in the book, there’s a gruesome murder: truly gruesome, Stephen King-ishly horrific—but written more with a twinkling eye than with a desire to frighten the reader. The only witness is the victim’s young child, Margaret, who is traumatised and didn’t see much in any case. Freyja, who is the psychologist in charge of the ‘Children’s House’—a state refuge for traumatised children—becomes a central character in the novel as she supports the police investigation by coaxing information from the seven-year-old. Newly promoted Detective Huldar leads the investigation, feeling out of his depth and as though he must prove himself.

It’s hard to say much more about this sort of book without spoiling it. Suffice it to say that there are more horrific murders and lots of twists and turns. There are a few introverted teenagers who are into shortwave radio, some coded messages, and some questionable sexual relationships. It’s also redolent of Iceland: some aspects of the plot can only work in that singular country.

The plot was well-constructed with genuinely confounding twists. I didn’t guess ‘whodunnit’. There was interesting character development and a dash of insightful social commentary. The writing was atmospheric and engaging.

The Legacy may be the first of Sigurðardóttir’s novels I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

Fiddling while Barcelona burns

I was surprised earlier this week to read of the drought in Barcelona, which has been ongoing for the last three years. I don’t think I’ve heard about it previously. Sandrine Morel’s article in Le Monde sets out several drastic actions which have been taken, including painting patches of grass green, restricting the use of showers in gyms and sports clubs, and planning to fill swimming pools with seawater. There’s a concerted effort to hide the problem from tourists, given the degree to which the local economy is reliant on them.

On February 12, Barcelona mayor Jaume Collboni visited the Pedralbes monastery and asked the nuns to pray for rain.

Two new desalination plants will come online in 2028, but I’m sure that feels a long time away for residents who can’t shower after playing friendly football games on the municipal pitches. As the summer looms, there are interim contingency plans to import (relatively small) quantities of water by ship, as became necessary during a less severe drought in 2008. The drought also affects trees: as more of them die off, less carbon dioxide is absorbed, fuelling climate change further.

It continues to be confounding how little impact these sorts of events have on UK politics. We still drown in endless debates about what’s ‘affordable’ in mitigating climate catastrophe, seemingly disregarding the costs associated with the inevitable consequences of inaction. It’s unconscionable that climate change is nowhere to be found on Rishi Sunak’s list of five priorities—though given his singular inability to make progress on his priority areas, perhaps it makes little difference.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , .

The Venerable Bede

From this visit to Saint Bede, I learned that he popularised the use of the Anno Domini year-numbering system, without which it would have been much harder for me to work out that he died 1,288 years ago.

The idea of people still talking about me or visiting my shine a millennium from now is both depressing and terrifying, but the odds suggest it’s really not something worth worrying about.

This post was filed under: Travel, , .

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