Five Things #16

The Hidden Girl by Ken Liu is a tale of magic and morality set in eighth century China, a time when rivalry among military governors —- the jiedushi —- was often violent and bloody.

“By studying rats in a smarter way, scientists are finally learning something useful about why some drinkers become addicted and others don’t.” Ed Yong on a landmark study on the origins of alcoholism.

George Nash looks back at Gremlins, and the timely return of Joe Dante’s controversial creatures.

Nick Tyrone rediscovers football after a ten year absence and wonders if the gentrification of the sport has gone too far.

Simon Brew salutes 2019’s most underrated –- and finest -– blockbuster movie villain

Made Things

What does it mean to be a person? Do you need to be human? What about artificial humans? These are the questions at the heart of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novella, Made Things.

The novella centres on Coppelia, a puppeteer and street thief living alone in the magical city of Loretz. Well, not entirely alone because living in Coppelia’s attic is a small tribe of homunculi — living puppets, or small artificial people. The homunculi don’t entirely trust their host but do recognise that working with her is so much more profitable than not and that she is a risk worth taking. As the story starts, an slightly uneasy alliance has been formed between Coppelia and her guests.

Things are shaken up somewhat when a local crime boss decides that he needs Coppelia, among others, to break into a mages’ palace. Inevitably enough, things do not go as planned.

Made Things is a short and very readable tale about trust, loyalty and friendship. It has a great cast of characters, all of whom come to life (literally, in some cases) in a manner that is both engaging and believable.

Ratings

One thing that surprised me when we first moved to Belgium was the apparent lack of any film ratings. It turned out that there is a very crude classification of films — suitable for under 16s and not suitable for under 16s — which doesn’t help much if you are a parent trying to navigate a trip to the cinema.

This is set to change in January with the adoption of the Dutch Kijkwijzer categories which has five age ratings plus a handy set of icons to indicate why the film has the rating it has.

The article linked to suggests there will be seven age ratings. It’s not clear to me whether this means that Belgium will have it’s own version of the system, of if the journalist just got her facts slightly wrong.

If it’s the latter, then this will not be that much of a change. DVDs already carry Kijkwijzer ratings — in Flanders, at least — and I can’t see it being too much of a challenge for cinemas to add a couple of icons to their (digitally displayed) listings. It also appears to be an entirely voluntary system which, as I understand it, is the case with the current classifications.

I have, over the years, become quite familiar with Kijkwijzer and it does provide a clear summary of both the what and why of a film’s rating (Rated 9 for horror, for example). If you go to the website, you can also drill down a little and see what age classification was given to each of the categories, which helps if there is something you particularly want to avoid.

My only criticism is that it is very much a checklist driven approach and this can make for a bit of a blunt instrument that us unable to take full account of tone and context. Sometimes context matters and, in these cases, the (admittedly much more labour intensive) approach of the BBFC can be a lot more useful (Barbarella, for example is rated 6 on Kijkwijzer and 15 by the BBFC).

That said, the two classification systems line up a lot more often than not, and more information is always better. I shall look forward to seeing how this works in practice in the new year.

Small Soldiers

Rather than trying to cram a trip to the cinema into our already packed Saturday, we decided to stay in with a DVD. Small Soldiers, a film originally released in 1998, was next up on our rental queue and that’s what we watched.

I have to admit to a slightly nervous moment during the opening credits when I realised that this was a film directed by Joe Dante. Much as I like Dante’s films, I do tend to think of him as being primarily a director of horror films, and this is not a genre that often goes down well in our house.

I needn’t have worried though, the film is superb and was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

To set things up, the film introduces us to multinational conglomerate GloboTech Industries, which has recently decided to expand from building high-tech military hardware into manufacturing intelligent toys. It’s not hard to predict what is going to go wrong with that and, three months later, we have two toy lines about to be launched — the peaceful, but monstrous-looking Gorgonites and the much more militaristic Commando Elite, the enemies of the Gorgonites.

We then join young Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), a teenager who’s desire to be trusted is undermined by his past behaviour. While left in charge of his father’s (not very successful) toy shop, Alan manages to get his hands on a set each of Gorgonite and Commando Elite toys with which he hopes to finally turn a profit for his dad.

Of course, it all goes a bit wrong and we end up with the Commando Elite bringing their war to the suburbs.

In many ways Small Soldiers reminded me a lot of Gremlins. At its core it’s a home invasion movie, with toy robots rather than small monsters, and the film shares the same, slightly twisted, sense of humour that makes makes Gremlins so much fun. There are the same digs at the destructive effects of excessive consumerism and even several scenes that would be quite at home in Gremlins.

The big difference, though, is the tone of the film. Whereas Gremlins is a horror-comedy, Small Soldiers is very much a family-friendly comedy-action film and one with which the kids could enjoy the ride without anything getting too tense.

This is not to suggest that Small Soldiers is some sort of pale imitation of the earlier film. It certainly stands up as a violently funny film in its own right and is a great deal of fun to watch. So much so that I am genuinely surprised that I managed to miss this when it was released.

But we’ve seen it now and, given the boys’ reaction to the film, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see it again.

Five Things #15

Alex Irvine’s Black Friday is set in a dark future America where consumerism and gun culture are unchecked, and follows a young family as they team up up to celebrate the first shopping day of the Christmas season in the most patriotic way possible.

The Guardian investigates the network of radical right wing think tanks that have hijacked Brexit and reshaped the Conservative party.

Jörg Schindler travels Northern England to explore Ground Zero of the Brexit Class War.

Mark Harrison considers the past and probable future of Aardman Animations feature length output.

In light of a recent study which suggested that establishing a trillion new trees around the world could turn back the climate clock to the 1970s, Mitch Anderson decided to take a look at some examples of resilient reforestation efforts and why they worked.

Failing at public transport

Today started well. I was running a little late this morning and arrived at the station just in time to see the train arrive. So I made a rare dash and leapt aboard.

You know that feeling when, just as the doors close, you realise you’re on the wrong train?

I do.

I should have been heading south-west towards Brussels. Instead, I was on the train going nort-west to Antwerp. This was not good and, in a state of mild panic, I pulled out my phone and fired up the train timetables app in order to figure out where I was and how to get back on the right track.

And then the conductor appeared.

I admitted my mistake as I handed over my ticket and he kindly informed me that to jump off at the next station and change trains twice was insane (my words, not his) and would likely leave me stranded by a missed connection on some tiny train stop in the middle of nowhere.

Far better, he said, would be to accept my fate and go all the way to Antwerpen Berchem, from which I could take the intercity directly to Brussels.

I did, of course, follow his advice and comfortably made the connection, finally arring at work an hour later than usual. And me being me, I was on edge for the entire journey which isn’t helped by the fact that it’s so dark in the morning that I can’t look out of the window to see where I am.

But the worst part of this was: No breakfast!

I hope everyone else is having a better Wednesday than me.

Le Mans ’66

Also known as Ford vs. Ferrari, Le Mens ’66 is the story of Ford’s attempt to build a race car and the men who made it happen. As you would expect, this is a story of high performance engineering, corporate insanity and the clash of cultures that ensues when a huge corporation tries to move into a field in which it has no experience.

It is also a very funny film indeed.

The film centres on American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who is brilliant, passionate and very much not the sort of team player that fits with the Ford way of doing things.

Shelby’s attempts to hold his team together in the face of the conflicting, and often obstructionist, motives around him provides the core of the film and this makes for a solid narrative base from which to deliver some of the wittiest and sharpest dialogue I have heard this year.

As a double act, Damon largely plays the likeable straight man to Bale’s irascible eccentric, although comedy gold is well and truly struck when Ken Miles’ wife, Molly (Caitriona Balfe) produces a deck chair.

Then there are the races themselves, culminating in the Le Mans endurance race of the title. These are genuinely thrilling, even to someone like me who has no interest in motor racing and to whom a car is nothing more than a machine for moving people around. Even the gear changes managed to be exciting.

Both Matt Damon and Christian Bale display a real charisma and their characters, for all their quirks, are genuinely likeable people about whom it is impossible not to care. So when the tension starts to rise, they can drag you to the edge of your seat and keep you there.