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Natalie Portman’s bird flew

I hadn’t read much about Black Swan before I saw it. I knew I wanted to see it because Natalie Portman was in it (it’s her acting ability I like, honest!). I think I was expecting a pretty average thriller type thing based around the world of ballet but there’s definitely nothing average about Black Swan.

It all revolves around an incredibly uptight and fragile young ballerina who gains the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake. In the ballet the swan ends up killing herself so you wouldn’t think the role would be many laughs but it is one of the most coveted in ballet. Portman’s character knows she can dance the socks off the White Swan role but she must also play the dark side; the eponymous Black Swan. Being a perfectionist, she can get all the technical moves right but she can’t let herself go emotionally enough to convincingly portray the dark side of the character.

Natalie Portman is amazing in this film, playing what might have been quite an irritating part (the character is necessarily feeble at the start and for the bulk of the film) in a very sympathetic way. She appears to do dance moves which would strain the sinews of real dancers! Also she does that thing which really good actresses do; she doesn’t have to always look good. She weeps buckets, appears without make-up, throws up in a toilet, masturbates, has oral sex with a woman, and most gruelling of all she dances, dances, dances, dances those impossible, painful, back-breaking steps (sounds like any average Friday night round here).

A word about those lesbian, oral sex, masturbation scenes… The movie feels sort of larger than life because of the grandness of the dancing and the dramatic nature of Tchaikovsky‘s music. Maybe due to this, you feel like you are seeing everything there is to see writ large on the big screen. At times it felt a bit like a Hammer horror movie and you certainly feel glad that you didn’t bring Auntie Mabel! Actually you don’t see very much at all; there is no nudity, very little violence and certainly no graphic sex. It has the atmosphere of a melodrama because of the link with Swan Lake but is actually quite subtle.

If I had to criticise I’d say the supporting characters were a bit clichéd; the tyrant of a dance teacher, the overbearing mother, the sexy co-dancer… But even here you could argue that all of these characters are being viewed through the increasingly unstable (not to mention bloodshot) eyes of the Portman character so no wonder they seem overblown.

The main reason I enjoyed it is because is wasn’t run of the mill. It was something different and, for once, I didn’t feel like I knew what was coming next. It had a satisfying ending which was far from sugary sweet but felt right. I won’t give it away but just keep thinking about Swan Lake and what happens to that bird. Anyone thinking of buying a new duvet?


Breaking News: everything’s still the same.

Its still misty here in North West UK. I took this photo earlier and its thickened up since then. Looks nicer but it’s horrible to drive in. Hard to take photos of fog too because you end up with a square piece of white. It’s gone colder too. Also, I’ve become more obsessed with the weather. Right, I’ll get a grip now.

Great news; the snow’s gone. Now here’s the fog.

January has to be the grimmest month of the year. Here in England we have late sunrises; early sunsets; snow up to your knees which turns to slush and seeps down your wellies; ice which makes you lose your footing, do 3 pirouettes, land heavily on your a*se and bite off half your tongue in the process… And now fog. Its foggy now here in Cheshire.

Actually, in England we don’t get tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes, avalanches, famines or volcanic eruptions… so I suppose I should probably just shut up.

Stuck in jam

I spent a lot of time stuck here today. Beautiful spot. No doubt I’ll spend quite a lot of time there tomorrow as well. Did you ever see that film called Falling Down? I want to do what the Michael Douglas character did at the start of that.

I’ve just finished reading Dark Matter by Michelle Paver (below). I’d never read anything by her before but apparently she has written some children’s fiction. It was mainly the tag line ‘A ghost story‘ that made me buy the book. There’s not too many of those about these days; I mean a straight forward supernatural ghost story in the old fashioned M.R. James sense (even my own book Ghost Road isn’t quite that orthodox). The story takes the form of a journal written by the central character Jack Miller who joins an expedition to the Arctic and finds himself marooned in a haunted place alone except for a malevolent presence.

It takes a while to adjust to the slow pace of Dark Matter but once you remember that this kind of book is all about atmosphere rather than action you can really start to enjoy it. And I did enjoy it. Towards the end I really, really enjoyed it. And I actually found it scary. Not many books actually scare me (shock me, yes, but not scare me). This one did. A minute after I finished reading it I thought I heard a strange noise from upstairs. Turns out it was my daughter snoring but for a moment I was actually bricking it! I never do that!

This book contains good, uncliched characters which develop over the course of the narrative, perfect pacing building nicely towards the finale, and description which is atmospheric but doesn’t ramble on needlessly. It doesn’t pander to current fads, doesn’t throw in cheap thrills, doesn’t do the easy thing. My favourite parts were the mysterious ‘bear post’, the relationship between Jack and Gus, the amazing descriptions of the Arctic, and the unfashionably slow pace. If you do read this book I’d advise you to stick with it until the end before you make your mind up. For me, it was only after I’d finished it that I realised how much I’d enjoyed it. And how completely brilliant it is.


Little Fockers: dark tinge to light comedy

Saw Little Fockers this week and I must admit I wasn’t expecting it to be much good. I quite liked Meet the Parents, the original film in the series but then I thought Meet the Fockers went too much down the slapstick route; ‘too daft to laugh at’ as Brian Glover said in Kes. In this one, though, they seem to have pulled back from that and gone for black comedy again which I really enjoyed. So there was less stupid scenes chasing cats across roofs for cheap laughs (Mr Jinx the cat doesn’t even appear until the final sequence thankfully).

The film is more of a duel between the Robert De Niro character and the Ben Stiller character which works really well, leading up to a good finale where the two of them slug it out in a kids’ ball pool. It’s not just silly though; you actually care about what happens. I think maybe it’s because I’ve finally accepted that De Niro isn’t going to get back to the sort of achievements of his Taxi Driver days that I can just sit back and enjoy him in a relatively light hearted role. (compared to Travis Bickle any role is light hearted!). And there was even a few sly references to The Godfather films in which De Niro also starred when, arguably, he was at his peak. This is a long, long way from anyone’s peak but it’s fun at least.

Another bruiser Harvey Keitel also does a cameo and its quite good seeing two old buggers slugging it out on screen along with Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand. The sentimentality is kept to a minimum and Ben Stiller seems to have taken a few tips from the better stuff of Ricky Gervaise in that he maintains a slight dark edge to the light hearted laughs. I think this would have been a good one to round off the series but unfortunately there was a bit of setting up for another sequel in the last couple of minutes so they’ll probably be examining the bottom of the barrel for the last few dregs in a couple of years time. They’ll probably do it in 3D.

Halfway out of the darkness

Mornings are bad at the moment. For a start they lack the thing that I would say is essential in order to be called mornings; light. It was pretty much still pitch black when I set off to drive to work today. It didn’t really get properly light all day. I know we’re past the longest day here in England, halfway out of the darkness, nights getting lighter and all that… But it doesn’t feel that way. Maybe I’ll watch Eastenders tomorrow night and cheer myself up.

British stars are little people in new Gulliver film

Went to see Gulliver’s Travels in 3D at Cineworld, St. Helens the other day. It’s not a bad film but I couldn’t figure out what seeing it in 3D added to the experience. I don’t know whether it was one of those films that was made in 2D and then adapted as an afterthough but most of the time you couldn’t even tell it was 3D at all. And those glasses make the image so gloomy it was really hard work watching.

Jack Black is good and most of the scenes he’s in are funny. The scenes about the pedantic Lilliputian society were dull and annoying but they were kept to a minimum.

I didn’t expect to see British stars Billy Connolly, Catherine Tate and James Corden in it. I felt a bit embarrassed on their behalf as they only had about 20 words to say between them and they spent the whole film huddling together in shame. Catherine Tate in particular was woefully underused; I mean she’s such a superb actress and the only thing she did in this film was gasp and stand next to Billy Connolly. I suppose Tate and Corden are trying to break into the Hollywood movie business and so are willing to take any rubbish role just to get their faces known. Connolly on the other hand has already been savaged by the Hollywood machine and so is willing to take any rubbish role just to cling on to the role of film star by the tips of his fingers (you’re already a legend; you don’t need to do this). Or maybe they all did it just so that their kids can see a film and say “there’s Dad/Mum!” In a way I suppose it was quite gratifying to see ‘big’ names reduced to being extras again. I’m a terrible, terrible person.

The story is, of course, nothing like the book but it had a couple of messages to deliver which it did with sledgehammer subtlety (‘War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!). But I don’t think the film set out to be subtle; it set out to be funny (which it is – a bit), charming (which it is – fairly) and fun (which it is – quite a lot). My 3-year-old was a bit scared of the noisy fights whereas I was more scared of the £27 admission charge (£27!!!!!!) Overall, it was a reasonably fun couple of hours. One other thing… I almost fell asleep at some point in the middle but I think this was more a result of me getting old than a fault of the film. They were really comfy seats.


Between a Rock and a Hard Place



Did you ever play that game where someone asks whether you would forfeit a part of your body in exchange for loads of money; remove a finger, for example, for a million quid? The man in the photo above is Aron Ralston and he was faced with a question like that… except that the stakes were much, much higher. The choice that Ralston had to make was between cutting off his own arm or death.

I bought Aron Ralston’s book today Between a Rock and a Hard Place. He is a rock climber who went hiking in the remote Utah canyonlands and found himself in a deep, narrow slot canyon trapped by an 800 pound boulder. The above photo, taken by him during the ordeal, actually shows his arm pinned down by the boulder. After six days of hell with virtually no water, food or warm clothing he was forced to make that desperate and agonising choice. Aron Ralston did cut off his own arm and, following his rescue, has since gone on to climb the 59 Colorado peaks of more than 14,000 feet, alone, in Winter.

I’m fascinated by the way human beings seem to be able to draw on incredible inner resources to get through unimaginable agony so I’m looking forward to reading the book. However, I also have a phobia about blood. Reading the account of what this man was forced to do to survive is going to be uncomfortable but hopefully inspiring. With luck I’ll never have to face anything as horrific as that faced by Ralston but reading about how people can overcome incredible adversity might just help put my own comparatively trivial problems into perspective. People can cope with anything. Absolutely anything. Whatever we’re facing in our lives that’s getting us down or maybe even making us feel desperate, we can cope with it. It will be all right. Just as well because with Danny Boyle‘s film adaptation, 127 Hours, out in cinemas this week I’m going to need all the coping strategies I can get to sit through the scene with the arm!