Film Review: ‘Gravity’ (Contains Spoilers)

I’m not a great George Clooney fan and I don’t like Sandra Bullock, so the obvious choice for last night’s viewing was this (sort of) two-hander starring the pair of them. Although I’d say the real star of the film is gravity itself: what it does, how much we need it and how disastrously things can go wrong without it.

The action begins with three astronauts out in space tethered by umbilical cords to their spacecraft. They are in constant communication with each other and with Houston and the whole thing appears highly realistic – though I always think it doesn’t matter if something is realistic so long as it is plausible. Still, I’m quite prepared to believe that ‘Gravity’ is highly realistic. The rest of the crew are on board ship but an accident wipes them out: space debris from a Russian satellite (it would have to be Russian) smash into the ship, allowing the air to escape and so suffocating the crew: when the two outside discover them their faces have completely imploded. The ship is now unviable, leaving the two of them alone trying to figure out how to get home.

The acting is fine; there’s a sort of keep-calm-and-carry-on lack of urgency in their interactions; no shouting, no crying, no raised voices, just calm discussion. But what makes it so watchable are the special effects. I’m not usually a fan of having too much in the F/X department but in this case what they do is to show us what life would be like without gravity.

I wish I knew how to convey to you the effect of the cinematography; because if there’s one thing this film does it’s to show us how objects (including human bodies) behave when there’s nothing to slow them down. The slightest movement, whether voluntary or involuntary, can cause the object to travel in one direction at speed until the movement is corrected. All the astronauts have to help them are the jet-packs on their backs and when these fail, they’re at the mercy of quite literally astronomical forces. The slightest collision can cause the object (or person) to veer off at unpredictable angles and become entangled in yet more spinning, colliding debris and the effect when yet more space junk hits the ship is like being in the inside of a liquidiser. All this while the Earth wheels underneath giving us glimpses of outlines: Italy, South America, India. This trailer should give you some idea:

There’s probably a name for the type of film which starts out with a whole team and ends with one person, but I don’t know it. After the ship is destroyed Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tries to rescue teammate Kowalski (George Clooney) but in the end he sacrifices himself to save her. Dr Stone decides to jet off towards the Chinese station which from her perspective is a light in the sky about 100 miles away. When she gets there it’s unmanned but at least after a series of complicated manoeuvres avoiding debris and struggling with the airlock, she’s in a place of safety. Or so it seems: one characteristic of this film is that each time she finds safety some new danger appears; it’s quite nail-biting. In this case the danger is fire: a random spark has ignited and one section of the station is burning. She tries unsuccessfully to shut it down but now has no choice but to evacuate, managing to locate and enter the escape pod and blast off for home.

Is that it? Will she finally get back? It seems so; splashing down in a freshwater lake, she pulls off her spacesuit which having kept her alive is now drowning her, and climbs out. As she dries off she gives us several minutes of her impossibly slim body (reminding me of Julia Roberts’ character in Notting Hill who confesses to having been on a diet every day for the last ten years.)

We were disappointed that the film ended there and didn’t show her returning to civilisation, but that’s a small nit to pick. I have never seen a film that so brilliantly depicted what it must be like to travel in space and how terrible things can be when they go wrong.

‘Gravity’ is streaming now on i-player and probably lots of other places as well: see it while you can.

Gravely yours

Kirk out

A Woman Talking

It’s been a while since we met, so I hope you’re all doing OK. I had a good weekend visiting my daughter, granddaughter and grandson-to-be (he was a bit quiet though he did kick once or twice) and on Sunday going to the newly-exploded Phoenix cinema and arts centre. This, as its name suggests, has had many incarnations, and the latest is a transformation from a modest two-screen cinema to a four-screen place with a massive cafe. It must have cost a fortune and I hope they haven’t overextended themselves. We went to see ‘Women Talking,’

a stunning film about a Mennonite community of women holding a council of war to decide whether they should stay and forgive the serial rapist who has caused so much harm among them, whether they should fight, or whether they must leave. Fight, flight or submit – these are the choices we all face in a dangerous situation. Unable to take minutes, they enlist the services of August (Ben Wishaw) a sympathetic man who unlike the women has been taught to read and write. August left the community to attend university but came back, it’s not entirely clear why.

In this film the dialogue is the action. Women talk, that’s all; they clash and support each other, fracture and come together, shout and cry and laugh. Some, like ‘Scarface’ Janz (Frances McDormand) refuse to engage; others (Salome, played by Clare Foy) want revenge. Everyone, from teenage girls to elderly grandmothers, plays a part as they sit on hay bales in the barn, deciding the fate of the community. Through a series of brief flashbacks, mimicking the mental flashbacks associated with trauma, we get a picture of the horror that has been visited on them. Some of their stories move the empathic August to tears. I won’t give away the denouement, just to say that I was gripped through every one of its ninety-odd minutes, and all the while behind them sits the vast American landscape, full of possibilities. It’s unimaginable to us to have so much space – everywhere we go there are established communities, many of which are likely to be found in the Domesday book. America seems like a blank sheet, though we know that of course it isn’t.

I’ve seen a few films lately with strong female leads: Women Talking, Empire of Light and Tar, and while I loved them all there are cultural tendencies that worry me. There was controversy about Tar because it showed a powerful woman abusing that power. ‘Why couldn’t they make her better?’ cried some viewers. But I was entirely on board with what they’d done, because if we don’t have complex characters like Lydia Tar a picture emerges of men as abusers and rapists and women as victims, though we know that the vast majority of men are not like that. I worry about what this is doing to boys and young men: don’t they need better role models? But perhaps there are loads of good role models in films I don’t watch, like the Marvel series, for example. I wouldn’t know.

Another thing that really bothers me the increasing willingness to alter texts when they no longer conform to modern principles. The main example before us is that of Roald Dahl, whose works are currently being altered by Puffin books to remove such words as ‘mad’ or ‘fat.’

Yes, in many ways he was a repellent man with some dodgy attitudes, but is this the answer? A five-minute scroll of Tik-tok would likely cause more harm to children than the entirety of Dahl’s oeuvre. This is Bowdlerism by another name, and I agree with Phillip Pullman

rather than altering the stories we should just let them go out of print. Read other things. There are plenty of good children’s books out there – let’s explore them and let the dodgy stuff fade away. Mind you, as far as marketing goes Puffin have played a blinder – not only have they drawn attention to the new editions, they’ve put the uncensored ones on sale as ‘Classic Editions’, no doubt at an inflated price. Now that’s having it both ways.


Kirk out

Tár Very Much

(Warning – Contains Spoilers)

Last night at the Phoenix, a much-loved arts venue which has had as many reincarnations as its name suggests, we went to see Tár.

If you haven’t heard of this, it’s a portrait of fictional orchestra conductor Lydia Tár starring Cate Blanchett. She’s a complex, unlikeable yet utterly stunning character, abusive yet humane and utterly devoted to her music. Yet she’s no cold caricature of a power-woman like, say, Emma Thompson in Late Night, good as that was; she loves her daughter deeply and goes out of her way to support her, she’s (generally) respectful to players in the orchestra – and yet she has a series of relationships with younger women who fall deeply in love with her and who she eventually dumps. One of these ends tragically and leads to her downfall.

She’s a complex character, and this is a complex film. Those who like simple narratives and clear morals will say that because she’s a powerful and abusive woman, this is anti-feminist – why not show her in a better light? Those who are anti-woke have seen a vindication of their views in one scene where Tár tears to pieces a young student who doesn’t listen to Bach because ‘cis white males’ are ‘not his thing’. Though she eviscerates the student in front of everyone, I think she’s absolutely right; surely we have to separate the man from the genius. I’m not in favour of toppling statues, just of giving more information about the people commemorated in them – and yet this is not a simple answer either, and that’s the point. In life there are no simple answers; we have to wrestle with things. Anything else, as Tár says, is trial by social media.

It’s a long film, nearly 2 3/4 hours, but I was gripped all the way through. The pace was slow and almost dreamlike despite some moments of high drama, but what I liked about it was that it was entirely different from the usual kind of Hollywood narrative. There are some puzzling non-sequiturs in the action, but these didn’t bother me as much as they bothered my friend; I just rolled with it. The scenes where she conducts are the best; I learned loads about orchestras and the role of a conductor and Tár herself is so magnificent, I could almost fall in love with her myself. Cate Blanchett is stunning and if she gets an Oscar it will be well-deserved. I’d go and watch it again tomorrow, and there are very few films of which I can say that.

The other film we saw recently was Empire of Light.

Again this was a stunning film with a female lead – Olivia Coleman – and again the pace was slow and dreamlike despite some moments of high drama. It centres on a cinema in Margate – the eponymous Empire – and was also filmed there: OH was quite distracted by knowing not only said cinema but also the man who ran it. I don’t think the manager in the film was based on Colin Crosby, however.

Coleman plays assistant manager Hilary in a classic Odeon-style cinema in the 70’s or early 80’s. We later discover that she has been in a mental hospital and been given a job in the cinema to help her rehabilitate. The cinema has a large and supportive staff and we get to know them all as the action progresses. Turns out the manager Donald, a married man played by Colin Firth, has a nice little number calling Hilary into his office whenever he needs a release (if you get my meaning) but things change when a new member of staff comes. Stephen, of Afro-Caribbean origin (this is only relevant later on when he’s the target of a racist attack) and Hilary strike up a rapport and eventually, in the gentlest way, fall into a relationship which is gentle, respectful and in every way the opposite of the sleazy knee-tremblers she endures in Donald’s office.

Even though the relationship doesn’t last it’s so refreshing not to see the typical Hollywood attraction between two people leading to them tearing their clothes off in the next scene. Hilary and Stephen do have a physical relationship but it’s so gentle and tender as they make love in a forgotten cinema screen in the attic, surrounded by pieces of abandoned scenery.

Toby Jones is also well worth watching (when isn’t he?) as the projectionist; this part, as well as the dreamy pace, reminded me of Cinema Paradiso.

This is another film I’d watch again, though I’d probably leave it a while. I think Tár, though, might make it into my top five all-time favourites, which are now (in no particular order)

La La Land

Withnail and I

A Knight’s Tale

Four Weddings and a Funeral



Kirk out

Greed with Steve Coogan (warning contains spoilers)

I came across this the way you do, trawling through Netflix and alighting on a slice of Steve Coogan. I was never a fan of Alan Partridge – I think comedy should be a release, not make people more uptight – but recent incarnations of his in films such as Philomena have revised my opinion. So we gave this a go.

From the trailer I thought it was pretty clear that ‘Greedy’ McReadie was a portrait of Philip Green, though as the action progressed we decided it was more a composite of Green and Mike Ashley: anyway the action shifted from present to past to distant past in a way that seems de rigueur nowadays, showing us bits of his childhood as well as some deals he’d made and centring on the staging (the word is apt) of his 60th birthday party on a Greek island.

For the centrepiece builders are constructing a wooden amphitheatre where a real lion (actually a very convincing piece of CGI) waits caged up to fight a ‘gladiator.’ The parallel is apt; McReadie is never happier than when shouting at people, unless it’s when he makes a deal that will net him millions while crushing the poor garment workers who have to fulfil the order. He’d have made a good Roman emperor.

There are some frankly revolting scenes as a film crew making a ‘reality show’ on the same island are obstructed by a group of refugees camping on the beach. They can’t clear them away so they decide to film themselves giving the refugees some food. The poor sods are just about to tuck in when the director shouts ‘Cut!’ and they have to wrestle the food away from the refugees so they can film it all again. It reminded me of this Steely Dan song.

The climactic scene comes when Amanda, a member of staff who has tried to help the refugees, spies McReadie taunting the lion and presses the button to open the cage door. The result is predictable: McReadie shows his hubris by believing he can talk the lion out of eating him. He can’t. He dies, horribly. Afterwards Amanda says, ‘I didn’t feel it was me pressing the button. I just happened to press it and the cage door opened. Then the lion came out and killed him. That’s how McReadie is; he makes a deal, the company cuts its costs and the workers suffer. But he thinks it’s nothing to do with him.’

I’d have enjoyed this film more if it hadn’t spent so long skipping about time-wise. It also needed to make up its mind what type of film it wanted to be: sometimes it was a drama, sometimes a documentary and sometimes a comedy. Of course a film can have elements of all three, but it needs to decide which one predominates, otherwise it’ll feel like a muddle.

But I still recommend it.

Kirk out

I Gave It Ten Minutes

Make the most of me while I’m here, because I may not be for much longer. According to Beetleypete, a new WordPress format is shortly to be foisted upon us, one which will make the dreaded blocks look like a walk in the park. If this is indeed about to happen then that may well be the end of my blogging career. So make the most of me.

I’m writing this before I go to bed because I’ve just switched off the most God-awful film. Called I Give it a Year, it was about a mismatched couple who marry in haste and are in the process of repenting at leisure. After an opening scene with at least two Four Weddings references, some bad acting from people who really should know better and the lamest of lame scripts, I’d had enough. Give it a year? I gave it ten minutes.

And that’s me done. Has Johnson resigned yet?

Kurk out


I suspect I may have blogged about this before (what do I know?) but I don’t think there’s anything to compare with 1917 for conveying the reality of the First World War. It’s said to have been filmed in one shot (actually it’s four or five shots cut together and I was treated to OH and son playing ‘spot the cut’ throughout.) But that didn’t spoil my enjoyment.

Like most films it’s better seen at the cinema, which we did when it came out, but viewing at home on a massive 4G TV comes a close second (don’t blame me, it’s the son’s TV. ) It’s hard to describe the hypnotic quality of this film. Most war films are noisy, lots of booming guns and shouting, but much of this is eerily silent. Two soldiers are sent on a mission to stop a planned attack scheduled for dawn the next day as new intel shows they’ll be walking into an ambush. Cynically they send a man whose brother is in the planned attack and he chooses a friend to go with him without knowing what he’s letting his friend in for.

Much of the action takes place in no-man’s-land as they negotiate mud, landslides, tank traps and corpses. In one of the most dramatic scenes they watch a dog fight in the air, the German plane falls and they run towards it only to see it rise from behind a dip and hurtle towards them. They scramble to safety but the plane is burning so they run to free the pilot who rewards them by shooting the first soldier. How his friend gets through, being shot at as he runs through a surreal bombed village, takes shelter with a woman and baby and then half-swims, half-drowns in the river, how he reaches the front line, how many obstacles remain before he can find the Captain and deliver the message, how he finally manages to stop the attack (given no thanks for his pains except by one kind officer) forms the rest of this utterly hypnotic story. Some images will stay with me forever.

Kirk out

You Don’t Need Jesus When You’ve Got an Airer

If that line doesn’t resonate with you then you’ve never seen or read Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterton. This story of a young girl adopted by benign but fanatical Christians and coming out as gay was a seminal work when it came out. It’s also very funny. One of our favourite lines is the mother saying, when asked why they don’t have an airing cupboard, ‘You don’t need an airing cupboard when you’ve got Jesus.’

This is going to make me sound desperately sad but it’s been my dream ever since we moved here to have a proper clothes airer in the utility room. I mean one that raises and lowers, instead of having a gaggle of clothes horses standing about the place that would be better stabled elsewhere or, let’s be honest, just bunging everything in the tumble dryer. I found one online, a lot cheaper than I expected, and yesterday we put it up. Well, Daniel put it up and I held the ladder. Deep joy. It now holds a load of washing which is gently drying without using extra electricity.


Kirk out


I was lucky enough to be able to see this last night and I’ve been pondering how to convey to you the magic that is Nomadland. It’s unassuming, to start with. None of the characters are in any way heroes or villains; there’s little or no conflict, there are no axes to grind, no points to hammer home. No-one is remotely good-looking; most of the characters are ageing and there is nothing remotely aspirational in their lifestyles. And yet, if I could hack it, theirs would be a lifestyle I might aspire to.

The moral – lightly drawn – is the failure of corporate America. Fern lives with her husband in a company town centred around a gypsum plant. When the plant fails, the town dies – there literally is nothing else there – and everyone leaves. Fern gets a casual job at Amazon (my one beef with the film was that they made working at Amazon look much more pleasant than it almost certainly is) over Christmas, then gets in her camper van and leaves. The rest of the film is a story of the road; stopping to earn money, going to camps, meeting the same people over and over again, finding and then losing people and always, always the amazing, astounding, overwhelming American landscape. The film was made in Nevada, Nebraska, South Dakota and California and the scenery is stunning – and this is the point; that the characters are not deprived; they’re no set of sad hoboes living out of a shoe box, this is a positive choice for them even if it has been forced on them by circumstances. Some of the characters are played by real-life nomads whose journey is totally life-affirming; the empty spaces, the open road, the companionship of other nomads – I almost wanted to be one of them. I say almost because I know I couldn’t do it; I like to be rooted in a place and besides I couldn’t deal with the lack of space – but it’s a beguiling prospect.

There are times when Fern comes close to settling down – there’s a guy called Dave who wants her to stay with his family but listening to their talk about real estate values she knows she can never be a part of this world. The pace of this film, too, is hypnotic; the stopping, the moving on, the occasional jobs, the reunions and partings which as one guy says are never final because they always meet again (‘I’ll see you down the road’).

Though I know I could never be one of them I’ve always been curious about nomadic communities. It seems to me an entirely respectable way of life and I’m sad that it’s been all but squeezed out of existence in the UK. It would be impossible to live like Fern, unless perhaps you went to the Highlands of Scotland – even then you’d soon run out of space.

You can watch a trailer here. I urge you to go and see this if at all possible.

Kirk out


I expect we’re all familiar with synchronicity. You mention the name of a person you haven’t seen for years and the next day you bump into them. You start humming an old song and the next moment it’s on the radio – that sort of thing. Yesterday I mentioned Dostoevsky and today he was the answer to a crossword clue which, annoyingly, I didn’t get. These things happen too often to be dismissed as mere coincidences, and yet it is not clear whether something more profound is happening. It may be that we are more aware of something and notice it simply because it was mentioned in conversation the day before, yet it’s hard to escape the feeling of having summoned it (or them) up.

I do actually believe in some sort of thought transference – lots of times I’ve known what OH is thinking without having any actual contact (a bit like Harry Potter with Voldemort) – and everyone knows what it’s like to walk into a room and feel an ‘atmosphere’; what’s that if not some kind of thought transference? Speaking of which, last night we watched Yesterday, a film about a world in which by some freak accident everyone’s memory of the Beatles is wiped out. Only one man remembers them; Jack Malik, a failed musician whose career has just come to an abrupt end. Could it be revived by passing the Beatles’ songs off as his own? It could; he becomes the most successful musician in the world but his success makes him deeply unhappy because he knows himself to be a fraud. In the end he releases all the tracks online for free, causing his manager to have a meltdown, and goes back to Lowestoft to be a teacher.

It’s not a particularly good film – the acting is quite lame and most of the characters wet and unconvincing, but it set me thinking: surely a more interesting scenario would be one where he pretends to have written all the Beatles songs but nobody actually likes them? Where everyone listens and then says, ‘Yeah, but it’s not Ed Sheeran is it?’ I think I might put that in a story.

Incidentally, can anyone explain to me the appeal of Ed Sheeran?

Anyway, have you had any experiences of synchronicity? I’d like to hear about them.

Kirk out

Sutton Who?

I wasn’t sure; Mary Beard was reluctant; OH didn’t know anything about it. What was it? The Dig; a modern retelling of the Sutton Hoo excavation. It’s important to remember that The Dig is fiction, based on a novel which the author openly admits took some liberties with the facts, as did the film; nevertheless the essential truths are uncovered and laid bare for all to see. For me it was especially interesting because way back in the ’80s I took a job for a couple of months working on an Iron Age barrow; I thought I’d be spending my time scraping away at little bits of flint or bone but no such luck: the job was to uncover the original burial mound which was surrounded by no fewer than three circular trenches, each of which had to be excavated and then planks put across to reach the central mound. All day long we were mattocking and shovelling and wheeling barrows across these ditches (important to use three planks, not two as I discovered one day and nearly dumped myself in a ditch under a wheelbarrow of earth; when wet, the soil could be extraordinarily heavy.) We started work at 8 and finished at 4 (though we did have tea- and lunch-breaks) but it was exhausting, break-backing, mountainous work. Then at night I’d retire to a mosquito-ridden tent and set my alarm for 7 so I could shower and breakfast before starting the day. In the time I was there we didn’t find much but it was an interesting experience and the others were friendly and egalitarian, the qualified archaeologists more than happy to explain their work to the uninitiated.

Back to the film. Ralph Fiennes plays Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist who has been working with Ipswich Museum and is head-hunted by Mrs Pretty (Carey Mulligan) the owner of Sutton Hoo, to excavate some mounds on her land. Though treated as no more than a hired hand by the upper-class Museum staff, Mrs Pretty shows him more respect and it’s clear that Brown knows his work. He cycles the 35 miles from his home in Diss carrying all his equipment and once there, knows exactly where to dig. He shifts tons of earth manually and in the night gets up to heave tarpaulins over the site to protect it from a thunderstorm. His dedication is second to none and his instincts are sound; in fact he represents the triumph of instinct and experience over dogma and ‘knowledge’. Ken Stott plays Charles Phillips, the Man from the British Museum who swans in to take over once the ship has been uncovered and tries to oust Brown from the site, but Mrs Pretty steps in and insists on Brown staying, and together with other hired staff including a married couple and a photographer they complete the excavation.

I dread to think what Hollywood would have done to this story, but here it is pitched perfectly. The period is conveyed completely unselfconsciously without cliche or obviousness; the planes that keep passing overhead remind us that the Second World War is just about to begin, and Mrs Pretty is dying of heart disease which would nowadays be treatable. There is an understated naturalism in the way that characters interact and an understanding without intimacy between Mrs Pretty and Mr Brown: the closest they get is when she invites him to dinner but then his wife arrives and he has to cancel. Other stories are dealt with deftly; there’s a married man who clearly doesn’t want to sleep with his wife but his closet homosexuality is only hinted at and the difficulties resolved without fireworks (he goes off with the other guys; she forms a liaison with the photographer.) She is the first person to find gold in the burial and one of the final scenes shows her throwing her wedding ring into the mound before it is back-filled. The scenery is also very much present, though not obviously so; we see the marshland between the site and the coast and the river that runs at the bottom of Mrs Pretty’s land but like the house and grounds, they are just there. There’s an interesting use of camera angles too, and altogether it’s an unusual film; one which would have been disastrous in the hands of any Hollywood director.

Sutton Hoo was a find of incalculable importance which changed the view of early Anglo Saxons completely. Far from being the Dark Ages when people reverted to a primitive way of life, these were cultured and sophisticated people; artisans who knew how to work gold silver and iron, how to build ships and – no small feat – how to roll a ship several miles inland over logs and bury it deep in the ground. The Sutton Hoo hoard is on show at the British Museum and there are of course virtual tours available.

It makes you wonder what’s under your feet. In the case of Loughborough, probably not much; our house was almost certainly built on farmland which might previously have been forest. But who knows? Maybe an undocumented Roman villa or a Saxon homestead lies under us? Archaeology is a fascinating subject; it’s also a fragile science where the slightest mistake can result in valuable data being irretrievably lost; all the better that in Sutton Hoo someone was there who knew what he was doing. And I’d say exactly the same thing about The Dig. It’s on Netflix right now so go watch.

Additional: I’ve also discovered a link with Detectorists. I was already thinking they were similar but there is an actual link: Johnny Flynn, who plays one of the archaeologists, performed the theme tune of Detectorists. I’ll leave you with that:

Kirk out