And now that the glitter has settled … Eurovision 2015 wrap-up

Måns Zelmerlöw stans triumphant after he wins this year's Eurovision Song Contest after an early neck-and-neck tussle in the voting with Russia (image Elena Volotova (EBU) via Eurovision.tv)
Måns Zelmerlöw stans triumphant after he wins this year’s Eurovision Song Contest after an early neck-and-neck tussle in the voting with Russia (image Elena Volotova (EBU) via Eurovision.tv)

 

And the winner is … SWEDEN!

After what can only be described as one of the most tense voting sessions of any Eurovision Song Contest I’ve ever witnessed – at one point, first place was an effective three way tie between Russia, Italy and Sweden, with Russia edging ever more steadily ahead – Måns Zelmerlöw of Sweden, a country which has won the contest five times before, made it clear we are all “Heroes” when he crossed the finish line with 365 points to his credit.

An understandably emotional Zelmerlöw, who wholeheartedly embraced last year’s winner Conchita Wurst as he accepted the crystal microphone trophy, declared that “… we are all Heroes, no matter who we love, who we are or what we believe in – we are all heroes.”

It was one of those transcendent moments that we all love at Eurovision – a gifted singer with a brilliant song and spot-on performance (including impressive split-second timing as he interacted with the clever animated graphics used throughout) awarded the prize that is absolutely his after years of trying to make it to Eurovision at all.

You can view the full voting results here.

Zelmerlöw returned home to Lund, Sweden to a victor’s welcome, one he described as “the second best day of my life” – no prizes for guessing what the first might be – with an unquestionably bright future ahead of him, not something that cannot be said of every Eurovision winner (apart from you know ABBA, who did rather nicely out of their 1974 win, and the 2012 winner Loreen, also from Sweden).

 

 

And if watching Zelmerlöw alone is not enough for you, here are the highlights from the grand final which featured standout performances by Italy, Spain, Russia, Georgia and a host of other strong contenders …

 

 

But the victor aside, whose song is now nestled high atop charts all across Europe, proof that it was a song people actually liked, there were a few other things that defined this year’s contest.

Take for instance the obsession with using trees as background visuals in more acts than you could count, clear evidence that Austria must have received a bulk deal when it came to the graphics used in the performances on its dramatically large “eye” stage with its unmissable, malleable raft of synchronously-moving, brightly-lit balls …

Country after country had an arboreal theme – check out France (war-ravaged trees), Armenia (large and spreading, quite apropos given their genealogy theme), Poland (pink cherry blossoms of love), Hungary (pretty black and white trees) and Azerbaijan (creepy Wizard of Oz-type forest) to name but a few.

 

 

And dressing in black.

Gone are the wacky costumes often worn back in the day with only Aminata from Latvia truly sporting a dress, not so much wacky as gloriously red and beautiful, that drew the sort of attention that on stage outfits should do (although Georgia’s Nina Sublatti impressed with her goth-influenced “Warrior” get-up).

In their place are seriously chic black outfits that scream earnest and important … and well, yes, cheap sale at the local fabric shop …

 

 

 

And this year more than most, deeply earnest lyrics – a mainstay of the competition from the start given it was founded in 1956 in the destructive, divisive aftermath of World War Two – on all sorts of themes ranging from parents being forced by economic necessity to leave their kids behind while they work overseas (Romania), never forgetting the pain and sacrifice of war (France), a person’s unsuitability for love, even though they want it more than anything else (Norway and Estonia), and the rights of the marginalised in society (Poland).

 

 

 

And of course the one-off very important presence of Australia as a contestant in honour of the Eurovision Song Contest’s 60th anniversary.

Guy Sebastian, who performed perfectly not putting a foot or vocal chord wrong throughout his mesmerising performance, did Australia proud, coming fifth in the overall tally with 196 points.

He, and the opportunity to vote in Eurovision for possibly the one and only time (for the record I gave points to Sweden and Latvia mainly with some for Norway too), made getting up at 4.50am to see the grand final live on SBS, the public broadcaster which has telecast the contest since the 1980s in Australia, more than worth it.

 

 

And finally every year everyone plays a drinking game where you have to down your alcoholic beverage of choice when an act pulls off an amazing costume reveal, or makes copious use of a wind machine, pyrotechnics or backup dancers in weird and amazing ways.

This year’s winner by virtue of the fact that they used almost, though not quite, every trick in the Eurovision book at their disposal was … SERBIA!

 

 

And now on to Sweden my friends for the Eurovision Song Contest 2016!

Remember whatever happens between now and then, we can be “Heroes!” whoever we are …

“This is the time for overkill”: Falling Skies goes all out in its new season 5 trailer

(image via Screenrant (c) TNT)
(image via Screenrant (c) TNT)

 

If Earth wasn’t already overcrowded, what with humanity, the “fishhead” Espheni and the Volm all duking it out for control of our pretty blue planet (or what’s left of it anyway), then it’s about to resemble a crowded commuter train at peak hour when a brand new “beautiful” race, the one Tom Mason (Noah Wylie) encountered in the season 4 finale “Shoot the Moon”, come down to join the galactic party.

Quite where their loyalties lie is anybody’s guess, as is their relationship to the Espheni and the Volm, who enjoy what can only be termed a complicated adversarial relationship that doesn’t involved Christmas cards and the exchange of pleasantries at social events.

The one thing humanity, fresh from their victorious destruction of the Espheni’s moon-based power source, the one that powered ALL of their invasive, cruel activities on Earth – thank you Lexie (Scarlett Byrne) for your self-sacrificial act of the highest order! – and poised to wipe the floor with the genocidally-obsessed enemy, doesn’t need is another alien coming along and added another degree of difficulty to an already uphill fight (unless, as rumoured, they bring some metaphysical gung-ho qualities onto Earth’s side).

And what a fight it will be!

Skitter heads are cut off, executions loom, major characters are in peril, there are fires and bombs galore, and the fight for Earth comes to what many hope will be a gripping, satisfying conclusion.

Bring on the overkill – it’s time to take our planet back!

Falling Skies season 5 premieres June 28, 2015 on TNT.

 

 

 

And for your informational pleasure, courtesy of Screenrant, “in an interview at the London MCM Expo (aka MCM London Comic Con), stars Moon Bloodgood (Anne Glass), Drew Roy (Hal Mason), and Will Patton (Captain Weaver) all but confirm the final season’s upped ante, teasing major character deaths and a satisfying, “powerful” close to the series as a whole.”

 

It’s beginning to look a lot like a Murray Christmas … yes already!

Bill Murray in as Ho! Ho! Ho! a mood as you'd expect him to be (image via YouTube (c) Netflix)
Bill Murray in as Ho! Ho! Ho! a frame of mind as you’re ever likely to get him (image via YouTube (c) Netflix)

 

SNAPSHOT
Murray plays himself as the host of a holiday variety show, but a snowstorm may prevent anyone from showing up, leaving him to mope around … [that is until] a star-filled cast including Murray, George Clooney, Amy Poehler, Michael Cera, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones and Miley Cyrus. (synopsis via C|Net)

I love Christmas more than words can express at the best of times.

So imagine, just IMAGINE, my Rudolph-infused delight when I discovered that Bill Murray will be fronting his very own Christmas special this December in Netflix, one directed by Sofia Coppola (who directed the extraordinarily gifted actor in Lost in Translation)!

Christmas 2015 just got a whole lot more merrier.

Or should that be Murray-ier?

Given that the much-loved and celebrated actor is already a staple of many Christmases past (and likely future too) thanks to Scrooged, a film in which he manages to invest new life and ennui simultaneously into Dicken’s timeless A Christmas Tale, it’s a eggnog-drenched no brainer to immediately begin making room for more tinsel-draped Murray-ness this coming festive season (and trust me, it’s coming faster you think!).

Add in the fact that Murray is wearing antlers – in the trailer at least – and the Netflix special sounds like all those fabulously hokey specials of old that made Christmas feel like, well, Christmas.

In short, brief though the trailer is, this looks like a brilliant way to spend some time before Santa slips down your chimney.

Murray Christmas to all I say and to all, Murray all night.

 

 

Movie review: San Andreas

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

As the Hoover Dam splinters in a thousand concrete shards, the Hollywood sign tumbles slowly down its resting place, and San Francisco is pummelled, set on fire and comprehensively levelled by a tsunami, we should be, by all rights, aghast at such wanton destruction of all the great (Californian) things humanity has wrought.

After all, we’re talking about a massive earthquake, the likes of which none of us have ever seen before, striking America’s most populous state, and taking many of its most recognisable urban landscapes with it, without fear or favour.

And yet for all of the adherence by San Andreas, directed by Brad Peyton to a script by Lost‘s Carlton Cuse,  to the familiar tropes of the disaster movie genre – fractured family, strangers becoming friends, long odds on survival nevertheless met, massive destruction on a Biblical scale, deeply introspective insights – and its striking, jaw-dropping special effects, of which there are many, it’s hard not to feel like this is disaster with a lower case “d”.

It’s spectacular yes, its characters writ shallow but large, their desperate quest for survival set against a tableau of ever-escalating death and mayhem, but somehow it all manages to come across as decidedly ho-hum.

As Nepal has recently shown us in ways almost too shocking to absorb, disasters of this magnitude are anything but ho-hum and routine, and yet somehow San Andreas, despite valiantly playing the “People Who You Might Possibly Care About If We Tug Your Heartstrings With Sufficient Vigour” card, comes bearing a been-there-done-that-got-the-debris-dust-covered-Tshirt feel to it.

To a certain extent that’s expected, this is a disaster movie after all following a well-shaken premise – in that respect at least, the film’s gloriously over the top damn near cartoon-ish approach makes perfect sense – it also feels however, as if we have most likely reached Peak Disaster Movie where all the impressive CGI in the world is not enough to truly, deeply move us.

But you still expect to feel something, anything, at least beyond a cosy sense that you’re safe and sound while the world, or at least California, goes to hell, and the Pacific Ocean, in a ripped-to-sunder basket.

Alas you do not.

 

 

In fact, thanks to Cuse’s penchant for cheesy dialogue of the lowest order in which real situations of peril and the frantic, emotion-laden language that goes with them, are reduced to the stuff of poorly-written movie of the week fodder, you are more apt to laugh at critically-important moments than grip the edge of your chair with cushion-shredding tension, fearing for the lives of those you have come to know, at least in passing.

The odd thing for a movie so enamoured of tropes we have seen used a thousand times before (and usually in far better fashion), is it does a reasonably good job of crafting characters that you have an outside case of possibly caring for, at least enough to make the action meaningful.

Chief Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is your archetypal strong, silent type, a man who has survived war, and countless rescues as a member of the LAFD and who fears nothing and no one it seems; his soon-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino), who still loves him though she’s now with an insanely-rich property developer of questionable backbone, and he have raised a daughter of resourcefulness, ingenuity and great charm, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) who has maintained close relationships with both parents throughout their marital estrangement.

They make a believable, tight family unit, albeit one temporarily fractured, who draw others into their orbit like moths to a flame; most notably English brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) who meet Blake barely minutes before San Francisco endures the first of its city-levelling earthquakes.

Granted they aren’t drawn with the sort of attention to melodramatic detail that movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, classics of the genre managed, but they are likeable, their relationships authentic enough to be acceptable in the context of a movie like this, and their resulting actions, largely but not entirely, in keeping with what we know of their characters.

They are even allow to be almost egregiously selfish at times, such as when Ray and Emma determinedly motor past another boat owner who is selflessly rescuing total strangers, in their own stolen water-borne vehicle through a tsunami-logged San Francisco downtown, their focus solely on finding Blake, a blindly-driven imperative fuelled by the death of their other child some years earlier in a drowning incident.

They’re not perfect people, flawed like the rest of us who go through hell and back to keep their family unit alive and kicking.

It’s hard not to want to relate to them and wish them well, their cheesy conversations be damned.

 

 

They’re joined in the likeability stakes by a CalTech scientist named Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), a man who with his colleagues, one of whom predictably perishes very early on in proceedings, has developed a novel way of predicting earthquakes by charting the magnetic waves that often precede them.

Naturally he is a lone wolf in the wilderness initially although as events unfold, more and more people listen to him, and lives, countless lives, are saved.

And yet for all these quite likeable characters, and special effects that leave you gasping at times with their audacity (and thus rather perversely entertained in the process as is the way with these films), San Andreas is a curiously lifeless affair, a disaster movie into which so much crude symbolism, and hilariously- misshapen dialogue, has been stuffed into its teetering narratively threadbare form it’s a wonder it doesn’t crash over with the weight well before the Big One hits.

It’s clearly aiming for meaningful and emotionally-intense but instead comes across as a B-grade movie filled to the brim with pretty good actors who are given very little in the way of anything worthwhile to work with, at least anything that will ultimately matter.

Yes, it is a creature of its genre, and yes it plays out much as you expect it to, for which it cannot be faulted; but by the end, when everyone who you wish would survive do survive, and the long, expensive, clean up process has begun, San Andreas is laid bare as an unimaginative ticking of the same old same old boxes exercise, an opportunity wasted to re-invent a genre that is close to becoming as much of a disaster as the increasingly empty films that populate its storm-soaked, earthquake-ravaged expanse.

 

First impressions: Wayward Pines

(image (c) Fox network)
(image (c) Fox network)

 

*SOME SPOOKY SPOILERS AHEAD*

 

Tree changers of the world beware.

Any romanticised ideas you might have about leaving the big bad city behind for a simpler, idyllic life amongst the trees and towering snowcapped mountains will soon be put to rest by Fox’s new series Wayward Pines.

Based on the gripping trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch, the show centres on Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) who is sent to find two missing agents, one of whom is an ex-lover, Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino), on what looks like a routine mission to country Idaho.

It soon becomes anything but with a near-fatal car accident, which kills his partner, leaving Burke dazed and confused and without ID of any kind.

Wandering into the nearest town, the picture postcard-perfect Wayward Pines, his feelings of relief at having found some sort of help soon turning to a distinctly unsettling feeling that something is off, really off, and that far from being the sort of town tree changers might embrace with gusto, it’s the sort of Stepford Wives / Invasion of the Body Snatchers sinister locale that most sane people would drive a mile to avoid.

The thing is, thanks to an electrified fence that rings the town and roads that seems to go nowhere but back into the town on a continuous, disorienting loop, it is nigh but impossible to leave Wayward Pines.

Unless it’s in a coffin.

 

(image (c) Fox Network)
(image (c) Fox Network)

 

And there’s no way Ethan Burke is going to favour that option.

Wilfully obstinate where everyone else is Xanax-like compliant – save for Beverly (Juliette Lewis), a bartender who seems to be the only other person in town who’s willing to admit things are even remotely normal – Burke sets about trying to find out what happened to his fellow agents, why it’s so hard to escape Wayward Wines, why the town is there in the first place (is it a bizarre experiment? Purgatory? An alternate dimension?) and why everyone seems to be living out their most twisted Hallmark movie fantasies, on the surface at least.

And thus begins a mystery of epic proportions, rendered with just the right amount of suggestion and reveal – there’s a secret of some kind or another unveiled each episode suggesting the producers have learnt, and learnt well, from the lesson of Lost, which piled so much secrecy and conspiracy upon itself that it eventually collapsed under the weight of its own oblique narrative – and some downright, goosebump-inducing creepiness.

This is not the sort of TV show you turn on if you’re looking for a late night relax before going to bed; there’s something decidedly rotten in the pretty town of Wayward Pines and it’s not just the body Burke finds one day strapped to a bed in a tumbledown house.

Making things even more unnerving is the fact that there’s not likely to be a cavalry riding into town to save Burke or Beverly, or anyone else for that matter should they ever decide to leave (unlikely given the dead hand of pervasive fear that rules the town).

Burke’s boss back in Seattle, Adam Hassler (Tim Griffin) seems disinclined to so much as raise a finger to look for Burke in any meaningful way, leading the missing agent’s wife Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon) and 15 year old son Ben (Charlie Tahan) to set out on their town to find out what’s really happened.

There’s no way of telling at this stage – this review centres on episodes 1 & 2, “Where Paradise is Home” and “Don’t Discuss Your Life Before” – whether what is happening inside Wayward Pines is connected to a wider conspiracy outside of the town, one that Hassler is covering up, but what is certain is that there are a lot of people with a lot of things to hide.

And a lot of people who have no real way of hiding a thing, namely the citizens of Wayward Pines, which though it resembles a 1950s town with rotary telephones, old-fashioned diners and a distinct lack of any 21st century amenities, is bugged and CCTV’d to within an inch of it quaking-in-its-boots-in-fear life.

 

(image (c) Fox Network)
(image (c) Fox Network)

 

Thus far the balance between what we know, and what we don’t know, is pleasingly vague, giving you the sense that while you are in on some of the secret, there’s an awful lot of the ominous iceberg still bobbing below the surface waiting to be discovered.

Pleasingly for the 10 episode limited-run series – a rarity on broadcast TV which largely seems to cling to the 22-24 episode orders of old – things are moving along at a fair clip, with not a lot of narrative flab to be found.

Each of the characters is introduced with minimum fuss and maximum effectiveness, with each one most particularly Sheriff Arnold Pope (Terence Howard) and the creepiest nurse to ever walk a ward Pam (Melissa Leo) spring to life fully-formed and every bit as freaky as you’d expect characters in series like this to be.

There is some brutality and violence – anyone who tries to leave town is treated to a bloody execution in the town square with the good citizens of Wayward Pines cheering on enthusiastically (remember: there’s always someone watching you so act your assigned part) – but largely the show exists in a deliciously creepy narrative place where more is suggested and intimated than actually shown.

And providing they get the balance right there’s no reason why Wayward Pines can’t be one of the highlights of the TV year.

Of course M. Night Shyamalan has shown a penchant of late for taking gripping premises and rendering them dull and inert but he is not in his customary lone storytelling wolf role on this show, with executive-producing duties also falling to creator Chad Hodge, Donald De Line and Ashwin Rajan, ameliorating any chance of the Shyamalan Effect leaching the life of the show before it reaches its end.

Given the series is drawing on a trilogy of books with a copious number of twists and turns, there’s every reason to expect, ratings permitting, that Wayward Pines will return again for a second season where no doubt we’ll find out that things are even murkier below its gorgeous, “everything is awesome” exterior.

 

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt meet Mad Max Fury Road … You’re welcome

(image via YouTube)
(image via YouTube)

 

Hollywood, and the entertainment industry in general, has a generally lamentable record when it comes to representing “women’s complex and interesting lives” as GrrlScientist described in a 2010 The Guardian article, in their films and TV shows.

More often than not they fail The Bechdel Test, which originated with Alison Bechdel’s comic strip in 1985, and measures how much, if at all, two female characters interact solely with each other around subjects that don’t have anything to do with a man.

It won’t surprise you that most films, which are the primary focus of the test, and TV shows, fail to meet these parameters, an all the more egregious failing given that women, like men, love to go to the movies, more so when there are films that reflect their lives in all their complexity.

One recent film that has passed the Bechdel Test with flying colours is Mad Max Fury Road, which has at its core, along with of course the titular hero, a powerful strong female character Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who manages to spirit away the five enslaved breeding wives (it is every bit as degrading as it sounds) to freedom from the warlord Immortan Joe.

Though the film is packed to the brim with exotically-styled apocalyptic cars and intense car chases, usually seen as appealing more to a male than female audience – itself a case of gender stereotyping that doesn’t always hold true – the heart and soul of the narrative is Furiosa and her battle to enforce the ideal that people are not objects to be traded and owned.

 

 

It is riveting and compelling storytelling and now YouTube user Albert Lopez, has given its stirring message of female empowerment even more resonance by combining images from the film with the theme song to Tina Fey’s new Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which also features a strong, eminently capable woman doing amazing things with her second chance at life (the premise centres around her and others being liberated from an underground doomsday cult).

Together it sends a powerful message, one that Lopez enthusiastically endorses on his YouTube page:

“All the haters who are pissed off that there’s a strong female lead in the new Mad Max film need to realize something… FEMALES ARE STRONG AS HELL!!!!!! Behold… the UNBREAKABLE FURIOSA!!!!”

To be fair, it hardly signals the divine fulfilment of the Bechdel Test but it is a small step towards belatedly recognising that all out entertainment options should, and must, encompass the totality of all the many and varied gender expressions in our increasingly rich and pluralistic society.

And plus, the mash-up is also just a huge lot of fun!

The short and the short of it: The Mountain King learns a giant-sized lesson

(image via Vimeo (c) Brandon Wu)
(image via Vimeo (c) Brandon Wu)

 

Humanity takes a while to learn its lessons and learn them well.

If history has taught us anything, and it’s quite true that those who ignore it are doomed to repeat it to their detriment, it’s that we often misunderstand the fundamental of things like power, wealth and leadership.

More often than not, we allow our understanding of these things to skew to a wholly personal, self-aggrandising perspective, instead of realising that for humanity as a whole to benefit we need to think of the greater good, of the needs of our fellow men and women rather than just our own.

It may sound too much like socialism to some but it’s simply realising that, say, good leaders, the ones who are effective and truly make a difference aren’t the ones strutting about, adjusting their “Emperors’ New Clothes” but instead the ones looking for the welfare of those around them and the environment in which they live.

This kind of humility doesn’t come easily as California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) student Brandon Wu‘s delightfully poignant and insightful film, The Mountain King, demonstrates so beautifully.

Set in a land where peaceful, gentle giants selflessly help those around them as well as nurturing the environment in general, this short film by a fourth year student, it is a deftly-wrought lesson in the perils of assuming power and leadership is all about lording it over others rather than serving them.

Using a minimum of narration and dialogue, this richly-rendered modern fairytale conveys its message without being preachy or polemic, opting instead for showing over telling, emerging all the more powerful for it.

Beautiful art and a subtlely-delivered message? This is exactly why we watch cinema in any form.

I predict Brandon Wu has a rich and much-admired future ahead of him.

 

22 is the new age 80: Netflix redefines “old” in the trailer for Between

(image via Sound on Sight (c) Netflix)
(image via Sound on Sight (c) Netflix)

 

SNAPSHOT
Between is the story of a town under siege from a mysterious disease that has wiped out everybody except those 22 years old and under. The series explores the power vacuum that results when a government has quarantined a 10-mile diameter area and left the inhabitants to fend for themselves. (official synopsis)

Ever get those days when your body feels like it’s wholly made of creaky, painful bones?

Or you strain to remember who played whats-his-name in that really great HBO show um-you-know and come up wanting … repeatedly?

Well worry no more, especially if you’re over 22, and a resident of Pretty Lake, where everyone over the age of 22 – many of the synopses and articles refer to 21 but the trailer quite clearly refers to 22 – has succumbed to a horrible disease that kills quickly and without impunity, leaving children and young adult in an Under the Dome-situation, sealed off from a fearful world.

It all sounds quite intriguing, a mix observes Huffington Post of The Walking Dead meets Children of Men meets Lord of the Flies, with the potential to explore a whole range of pertinent social issues if it’s given the chance.

But there’s the rub.

According to Brian Lowry at Variety, who viewed the first “messy” first episode, it could be a case of Clever Premise, Not So Clever Execution.

“Nevertheless, the general look and tone don’t incubate much of a desire to slip back behind the show’s well-guarded walls. In fact, after one visit to Pretty Lake, there’s a pretty strong inclination to let the fresh-faced inhabitants, as the press release puts it, “fend for themselves.”

And let’s not forget Between‘s Under the Dome implications, not all that reassuring given how underbaked and half-done that show has been since almost its first episode.

Still, a clever premise remains a clever premise until it is not, and with Netflix using this show to depart from its usual bingeing model in favour of releasing an episode each Thursday at a set time, we could be in for an interesting viewing experience over the show’s short-but-potentially-sweet six episode run.

Between premiered 21 May 2015 on Netflix.

 

“In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle”: Listen to A. A. Milne read from When We Were Very Young in this rare recording

When We Were Very Young MAIN
The cover of the copy of When We Were Very Young that I inherited from my mother (and which less than helpfully I drew on with red crayon at some point)

 

Winnie the Pooh, and by obvious extension the man who brought his remarkable adventures to life in The Hundred Acre Wood, Alan Alexander Milne or A. A. Milne, were an integral part of my childhood.

For those of us who delight in reading still about the “Bear of Very Little Brain”, and his dear friends Piglet, Tigger, Owl, Eeyore, Rabbit and others, it seems like he has been around forever, a constant figure in the glowing firmament of British children’s literature, and of course, in our hearts.

But in fact he only appeared just over 90 years ago, as Maria Popova, from the exquisitely interesting site Brain Pickings points out:

“On February 13, 1924, Punch magazine published a short poem titled “Teddy Bear” by Alan Alexander Milne, one of the magazine’s editors and a frequent contributor. The poem, inspired by the stuffed teddy bear so dearly beloved by Milne’s four-year-old son Christopher Robin, was included in Milne’s collection of children’s verses, When We Were Very Young, illustrated by Punch staff cartoonist E. H. Shepard and published later that year. But the bear’s very first appearance in Punch was the birth of Winnie-the-Pooh, which Milne released two years later and which went on to become one of the most timeless children’s books ever written.”

Set against the vast span of time, and all the many “smackerels of honey” that would have been consumed through those many years, it’s not that long at all really, a reminder of just great an impact Milne’s few books have had on the world.

Rarer still though is A. A. Milne, or any early twentieth century author reading from their books, but thanks to recordings made by Dominion Grammophone Company in 1929 we have the pleasure of listening to this most clever and sweetly sentimental of men reading aloud from the third chapter of When We Were Very Young, “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,” an experience Brain Pickings notes “made all the more delightful by his enchantingly melodic voice”.

And who knows, as you’re carried away hearing A. A. Milne read about his marvellous creations you may find, like Piglet himself, that even though you have “a Very Small Heart, it [can] hold a rather large amount of Gratitude” for the genius of this wonderful of authors …

 

 

After Avengers: Age of Ultron, we really don’t need another hero [curated opinion piece]

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the biggest movie in the world right now and like it or not – I quite liked it though I felt I had seen it all before – Alastair Blanshard from The University of Queensland raises some interesting points in this article from The Conversation about why we love superheroes and whether they do us more harm than good …

There was a time when we used to worry about how the world began. Few debates were as furious as the argument over whether it was God or the Big Bang that we should thank for creation. These days we only seem to care about how the world will end.

The potential causes for our demise are numerous. Global warming, viral pandemic, zombie apocalypse. Or, as the latest episode in the Marvel Avengers franchise would have it, our greatest threat comes from psychotic robots with faulty programming. The Millennium Bug is back, only this time it’s armed with pulsar cannons.

Under the direction of Joss Whedon, Avengers: Age of Ultron – which opens today – reunites Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow to fight against a rogue Artificial Intelligence called Ultron. The action is fast-paced, but the title feels like a misnomer.

Although it is difficult to work out the actual length of events, partly because the film is in love with slow-motion cinematography, the “age” of Ultron can’t have lasted longer than a couple of weeks in real time. Still with a running time of two hours and 22 minutes, audiences will be grateful that the rule of Ultron wasn’t longer.

Avengers: Age of Ultron.
© Marvel

The length of the film is a response to the needs of juggling so many characters. In addition to all of the Avengers, the film introduces a pair of twins, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. The boy, Quicksilver, has the power of superhuman speed and the girl, Scarlet Witch, gets practically ever other superpower that’s left. It is a good thing that Quicksilver never stops running, because if he paused to think, he might develop a severe case of sibling envy.

Just when you think the Scarlet Witch has shown all that she can do, she pulls out another trick. As if this cast size wasn’t large enough, three-quarters of the way through the film another major character emerges. In this case, quite literally Deus ex Machina, God from a Machine.

Too many heroes

Ensemble casts are difficult. It is hard to balance so many competing points of focus. From the earliest Greek myths, we have traditionally preferred our heroes as solitary figures. One of the epithets for Hercules was “monoikos”, “the one who lives alone”. The modern town of Monaco takes its name from a local cult to this aspect of Hercules.

We love stories with a central hero. Achilles gets star billing in the Iliad. Similarly Odysseus in the Odyssey. In the ancient world, only the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece involved a team of heroes, and it is perhaps no accident that the retelling of their exploits, the Argonautica, has proven to be history’s least favourite epic.

Complicating the problem of ensuring that every hero gets a fair share of screentime is the requirement that every hero now needs a fatal flaw and a tragic backstory. These golden boys and girls all have feet of clay.

The trend for the tormented hero has been growing ever since 19th-century Romanticism taught us that there was something heroic about suffering. The Greeks would not have understood it. All they demanded from their heroes was the ability to be spectacular.

Now, we require our heroes to be haunted by their past or terrified by their future. We love to watch a set of rippling muscles, but we demand that the heart they encase is fragile. If you’re going to be a super-solider, you also need to be a wallflower at the Victory Day dance.

All action in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
© Marvel

Ultron wants to destroy the Avengers because he regards them as a danger to stability and growth. It is hard not to have sympathy with his logic. Golf has been described as a game in which people try to get a ball in a hole using implements ill-adapted for the purpose. Watching the Avengers achieve world peace feels a lot like watching a round of golf.

Equipped with razor-sharp throwing-shields, exploding arrows, and the ability to command lightening bolts, the Avengers make odd advocates for tranquillity. The movie transports our heroes around the world leaving mayhem in their wake. Just when you thought downtown traffic in Johannesburg couldn’t get any worse, along comes the Hulk.

The superheroes we need

Ultron sees the Avengers as emblematic of the worst excesses of humanities desires and, in a sense, he’s right. If we really do lust after world peace, why aren’t we inventing heroes with the superpower to erase the gap between rich and poor or, at the very least, get Google to pay tax?

Iron Man can scatter the earth with incendiary devices, but he can’t compulsorily vaccinate children. In the movie, the Scarlet Witch has been genetically enhanced so that she can mess with people’s minds. Why don’t geneticists ever work on enhancing the ability to make people feel comfortable about their lifestyle choices?

Perhaps this is the real appeal of heroes. They provide us with an enjoyable sound-and-light show that distracts us from facing up to just how hard it is to make a real difference.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation.

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