Saturday, 31 December 2016

Great things about 2016 - Part Two

Evening. I've had a lovely 2016, when I haven't been looking at the news. In part one of this review, I talked about a couple of lovely bands whose music has made the year better. Now, films.

Movies used to be a much bigger part of my life. It was my job to know about them, so I watched a lot more, read about them more, and generally cared more. For a number of years television has been slowly taking over as my medium of choice, and now my job has changed to teaching about video games, the time I put into film has diminished greatly.

So, this year I have not watched too much, and so I may have missed some wondrous examples of cinema. I certainly saw some real rubbish (Suicide Squad may be one of the worst two hours of my life). But we're not here to complain, we're here to be happy. So here are some of the films that made me glad in 2016.

The Girl With All The Gifts

It's hard to overstate how much I enjoyed this film. I watched it with a constant internal voice chirruping away, saying "This is great. This is great. This, Rob, is great."

What made me so happy? Lots of things. Plot and genre wise, we are in my comfort zone. This is kind of a zombie film, set in a dystopian near future. I like those kinds of films. TGWATG (as surely it must be called) is close in tone and subject matter to 28 Days Later and Children of Men - two films I hold in very high regard. I like to see stories of civilisation collapsing; I think they have a lot to say about the scarily thin threads that bind us all together, and how easily they can snap.

But it's not just a zombie film and it's not just miserable. In fact, my experience of the film can best be described as joyful. I loved the colours. The movement of the camera, hiding and revealing the world of the film with knowing elegance. The music - another atypical, asymmetrical score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, who seems to be scoring a lot these days.

I loved the characters, especially the Girl herself - Melanie. Wide eyed, wonderful, unnerving and real. I loved the script, both for its convincing dialogue and its ruthless yet inventive plot logic.

I loved it because it is great cinema. Confident, startling film making that forged a truthful, beautiful, terrible world. At the end, I felt we had been given a message of hope. My viewing partner thought it was a message of despair. We were both right. Now that's a film.


Or Zootropolis, depending on where you live. A clever and funny animated film that works two jobs. On one level its an efficient, funny tale of cartoon animals making their way in a colourful and inventive world. On another level, it's a timely tale of how our world - our less colourful society of humans, where animals never get to wear hats - is becoming less human and less friendly by the day.

A remarkable achievement. Really funny, too.


I didn't really want to see Arrival. It looked grey, and slow, and serious. And for the first third of the film I wasn't really having a great time. It was well made, and I had no objective issues with the way it was constructed as a piece of cinema. But I just wasn't feeling it, and it seemed cold and without emotion. And I was hungry. Why wasn't the film giving me a pizza?

Over the course of its running time, however, Arrival... changed. Its themes rose up, subtly and without me really noticing, fading quietly up in the mix and taking their place in the narrative. I realised that I wasn't just looking at Amy Adams' face any more, or wondering what kind of pizza I was going to have. I was being drawn into something quite amazing.

It's the kind of story you don't want spoiling, so I won't. Which isn't to say it hangs on some huge twist. It's to say that the experience of the film needs to grow as you watch it. Appropriately enough, for a film about language, the experience is one of slowly understanding what it is you are seeing and hearing. As the film progresses, you start to make sense of its vocabulary, and the things it's been saying all along become more clear.

It's a beautiful experience. And, like Zootopia, it feels made for our times. We are in a world where we talk to each other more easily than ever before, but rarely do we listen. Rarely do we even try to understand.

So there you go. Three excellent films. And that's me done for blogging this year. But don't worry - I'll be back, to tell you what video games I liked best, in the New Year. That's something to look forward to, isn't it?

Friday, 30 December 2016

Great things about 2016 - part one

2016 approaches its end. And I think we can all agree that it's been an excellent year. Unless you like music, film, people, comedy, laughter, joy, peace, equality or basic human decency. If you like any of those things you probably don't think it was excellent, and in fact hate 2016 and all it stands for. But that's because you're a precious, whiny snowflake. Or something. Get over it! You lost! Everything!

But look, there have been plenty of lovely things this year. I know, I saw them. And lucky you, I'm going to share them with you, in the hope that they bring you happiness.


Let's start with music. I buy a lot of music. Too much, really, and certainly more than I can properly listen to. I like how easily available music is now, and I like that I can afford a lot of it, but I also sort of miss the days when I had to save up for an album, and really gave it my time and attention when I finally had the thing.

Zooropa by U2 is not the greatest album ever made, but I know those songs back to front because I listened to it all Summer in 1993, because it was all I had. And I valued it because I worked all day putting doughnuts in boxes, counting each tedious hour as a percentage of being able to afford that CD at the end of the day.

Now music just kind of flows past. I buy it, I download it, I sort of listen to it, I move on. It joins the sea of songs in my iTunes library, rarely getting that thing that all music really needs: a patient, attentive ear. And so I get older and music seems to mean less.

This year, though, a few things have managed to catch hold of my selfish, distracted ear. One of those things is called Schwa.

Schwaeveryone. Schwa!

I'm not sure what Schwa is. A band, maybe. A project? A one off album? I've certainly got a CD with 'Schwa' written on it. That sounds band-name-like, doesn't it? But there's something going on with this music that suggests people who aren't limited by the form of things. Have a listen to it. I recommend 'Happiness'.

I saw this music played at an arts centre in Leeds, early this year. As always, I was massively resistant to going out in the first place. I love my sofa, and listening to other musicians is fraught with problems. If they're rubbish, I'm bored. If they're good, I resent and hate them. Either way, it's rarely as good as staying in and playing Metal Gear Solid.

This was lovely, though. Playful but not frivolous. Intricately constructed songs that managed to constantly surprise, while sounding like I'd always known them. It was genuinely exciting to witness the music being played and was a standout moment of the year. I bought the album and have played it endlessly since. It's good to know that music can still bring new joy, even when I don't deserve it.

Peculiar Blue

Some people are nice to me to a degree that is quite out of proportion to the effort I put into being nice back. This is good news for me, obviously, but I've no idea why they bother. Maybe someone else is paying them to be nice to me, because they know it will reduce how insufferable I am?

Anyway. Peculiar Blue have always been really nice to me. They're essentially a duo of singer/songwriters who play around Yorkshire, performing lovely folk-ish songs of their own and a seemingly endless repertoire of clever and enjoyable covers. I say they're a duo - they seem to be pretty much a full band these days, but I think Paul and Lynne are at the heart of it.

Like I say, they've always been ridiculously kind to me. When I first started doing open mic nights back in the late 90s they were really encouraging, despite me sounding a bit like Elvis Costello might if you strangled him and hit his guitar with a spoon. When I released my optimistic first album in 2004, they provided an excellent support act, not seeming to mind that they were clearly far better.

This Summer, I came across some of their music in my never-ending iTunes library. It was beautiful stuff and made a peaceful Summer evening even more magical. By chance I ran into them a few weeks later and was delighted to find that there had been loads of new music since then. I bought their latest CD and then, generous fools that they are, they threw in a load of extra EPs.

It's great stuff and you should give it a listen. There's plenty to listen to here:

and I'd recommend 'Don't Speak of Love' from here:

So. Two wonderful things that have made my 2016 really good. Neither of them have stopped the forces of fascism or brought Victoria Wood back from the dead, but both have helped me to enjoy my time here on earth and recognise that people can, when all is said and done, be amazing and beautiful creatures.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Top Ten Reasons to be Racist

I've had a think about it, and looked around, and I've concluded that the only sensible way forward is to become racist.

I haven't decided who I'm going to be racist to, yet. Is 'non-whites' enough to really qualify? Many of the racists I've seen tend to be really dedicated to hating specific groups, and I don't want to be seen as lazy. 'Blacks' seem to be a popular target. Is it OK to say 'blacks'? Oh, wait. I don't need to care anymore. This is going to be awesome.

Right. Top ten reasons why I've decided to be racist.

1.   Everyone's doing it

It's nice to be part of the 'in' crowd, and I almost never am. I only started watching Game of Thrones when everyone else was on season 4. I was all like "Hey guys! How evil is that Joffrey?" and they were all like "Ramsay Bolton's where it's at now, you loser!"

So I'd like to be part of this, while it's big, please. I'm assuming there are clubs and T-shirts and the like?

Joffrey. A racist. Probably.

2.    Language is hard

It's hard working out what to call people, isn't it? If there's a guy with different coloured skin in the office, and you want to bitch about him when he's not there, what do you say? Before I'd spend ages going,

"Oh, you know, the guy with glasses?"

And someone would say, "Steve?"

And I'd say, "No, you're Steve. The other guy. With the frizzy hair."


"She's not a guy. Why are you so dim? Um..."

Because I'm trying not to be 'politically incorrect', you see. Trying not to say "The only Hindu guy in the whole room." It's like with the disabled. What the hell do you call them? One day handicapped is wrong, then it's fine, then Shirley from Recruitment says that 'disabled' is fine now and we mustn't say anything else. It's a minefield.

But now, right, I don't have to care. I can say what I like. Hurray!

3.    General angry feelings

I'm cross a surprising amount of the time. I'm not sure why. The other day I dropped a spoon, while I was trying to make a cup of tea. Well, it made me furious!

I picked the spoon up and spent the next ten minutes bending it backwards and forwards, trying to break it in half. It was surprisingly resilient. This, of course, made me madder. I called it a variety of names. Whore. Liar. Leftist. It would not break! I ended up in a terrible state and had to go kick the fridge which, of course, hurt my foot.

Now I'm racist, I can vent this kind of anger on the Asians (for example - I haven't quite made my mind up yet.) That'll be much more satisfying than attacking a spoon. I think. They'll cry, probably. So I won't have to.

Screw you, kid. It won't break.

4.   That Asian woman who lives across the road, but a few doors down.

I hate that woman! She's loud and she's nosey and she never smiles at me. Normally I'd just have to put up with it. I mean, I keep thinking I might have a go, but then I see her, and I can never think how to frame my attack. Do I start with "Hi, I'm your neighbour," and then move into shouting? It seems like a weird gear change. So I just walk past.

But now, brilliantly, I can be racist to her. There's loads of ways to start a conversation with an Asian woman when you're racist. Social convention doesn't really come into it. And it'll be sort of justified, because I didn't like her anyway. So it's like a win win.

It's political correctness gone mad.

5. Economic anxiety

No, just kidding. I'm fine. I'm comfortably off. Which is good, because I can't really work out the connection anyway.

6.   The Daily Mail

I've been trying to read the Guardian for years, but I sort of... can't. My mind just kind of slides off it. Simply put, they write too much. You might think "Oh, this is quite a good article," but after a bit you realise that it just goes on and on. "Let's look at this point of view."  "Let's consider these facts."  "Here's a massive load of stuff about historical context." After a bit you sort of forget what you're even meant to think about the situation.

No-one has time for this. The Daily Mail, on the other hand, gets straight to the point and tells you exactly what to think. And it's very satisfying. You get to be annoyed, a lot, but at groups of people. Not at spoons and that. This is much better. They have very clearly defined targets, and many of them seem ugly too, so that's helps my self image no end.

7.   It has to be someone's fault, right?

The world is terrible, you have to admit that. Education, health, the transport network. All that. Terrible. It takes me ages to get to work, and apparently all the kids now are thick.  But who to blame? Everything is someone's fault. If no-one was to blame, it wouldn't be happening. That's just maths.

Now that I'm a racist, I can locate the problem much more easily. Eastern Europeans. Probably. By drawing a direct line between them coming here and things getting worse, I can start to make sense of why it's worse, and do something about it.

And I mean an actual line. I've drawn an actual line. Right across the wall in my bedroom, from a collage of headline clippings from the Mail over to the bedroom window. Because they're outside, aren't they? The Easter Europeans? Outside, in our streets.

God, it feels nice to say "Our streets."

8.   I have a weird, instinctive mistrust of difference.

I used to feel bad about not being able to tell people of colour apart on the telly. Like, there'd be a black actor in something, and then, later, maybe a different one. But it might have been the same one. And I wasn't sure if it was different, or if I was just accidentally racist.

I used to console myself that I can't tell Albert Finney and Brian Cox apart either. But now it doesn't matter. Now I can just relax and say "They are all the same!" and laugh. And then get cross because there are too many of them on television in the first place. If there was only one at a time, there'd be no confusion. So who's causing the problem, really?

Samuel L. Jackson? The Fresh Prince of Bel Air?

9.   I'm oppressed, probably.

If people like me stop being racist, then what's to stop the continued oppression of white men? The signs are everywhere. Black History Month. Black Lives Matter. Black Friday. It's getting so that my culture is basically about to disappear.

10. I can stop saying "I'm not racist, but..."

Who else is tired of this? Having to prefix every little racist thing with this tiresome phrase. It's tedious, and I'm sick of it. Why are we even saying it? No-one really seems to believe it, so it's not like it has the desired effect. How liberating would it be to just stand up and go "You know what, I am racist. And that's why I'm saying these exciting things!"

So stand up with me, brothers. Stop living your false lives. Shake off the shackles of society. Stop living by these politically correct terms. We're not nationalists, or patriots, or Alt-Right, or any of those names we're forced to hide behind. We shouldn't cower behind made up arguments about economics or genetics or religion. We should be racists, out and proud. We just don't like them. There's no reason for it. It's just who we are.

Why would we do any different? Who on earth would we be fooling?