‘Miyazaki in Wonderland’

Spirited Away, the Japanese animated fantasy directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is one of my favourite films, if not my actual favourite. Certainly top 5. So… I assumed it would be fairly easy to sit down at my computer and pinpoint quite what I love about it. It has proved surprisingly hard to unravel.

A few people have recently mentioned to me in passing that they’ve given Miyazaki films a try, and got frustrated and given up. I think can see why. I consider myself Miyazaki fan, but then I have to remember: I love his style, his attention to detail, I love My Neighbour Totoro, I love Kiki’s Delivery Service, and I’m… interested his other work, but I didn’t go crazy for Howl’s Moving Castle, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or even Princess Mononoko. There is a huge amount of inventiveness, originality and beauty in all of them, but I don’t necessarily warm to all of them as stories.

But it feels to me like somehow everything came together for Spirited Away. (And this isn’t a particularly controversial view: last year film critics at the New York Times voted it the second best film of the 21st century so far). It is the story of a young girl in a sulk in the back of a car, moving house to a different part of the country and leaving all her friends behind on the way to their new home…

Actually, here’s a trailer, which sums it up much better:

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“In Screaming Color”

Taylor Swift was already a big star in 2014 when she released her fifth studio album: 1989. But this became one of those giant pop albums, like Adele’s 21 and Whitney Houston’s eponymous first album. Suddenly people who claim to not even like pop music know these singers’ names and, when drunk, reveal that they know a surprising amount of the lyrics. And the fans that love the album… really love the album. People get personal about it. People get defensive about it. It’s more than just the soundtrack to a certain part of their lives: it can become a part of their identity.

So it was with 1989. It was everywhere, but yet fans didn’t feel the need to apologise for liking it, even though it was everywhere. And its fanbase was surprisingly broad. The number of men my age (early 40s) who have professed to loving this album is… statistically significant, shall we say. Every other week it seems, someone new declares “Look, 1989 by Taylor Swift is a great album and I don’t care who knows it…” So popular has it proved amongst older men with indie leanings that the alt-country artist Ryan Adams actually released a cover version… not of one of the 1989 songs, but of the entire album. (Was that, and its critical response, Olympic-level mansplaining? I’m hardly the best person to judge that, to be fair.) Continue reading

British television in the 1990s was deluged with countdowns. The 100 greatest cartoons, the 20 best cheesy 80s hits, and so on. It was a very popular format that was clearly cheap to make (just interview ten talking heads about public nostalgia and splice it with archive footage). And I vividly remember critic A.A. Gill, somewhere in this very British nostalgia-fest (I forget exactly where), being asked when television’s ‘golden age’ was, and replying: “Television hasn’t been around long enough to have a ‘golden age’.” I thought it was a particularly good reply, although I was to find out later that Gill had a personal reason for being exasperated by the notion: his father, Michael Gill, producer of the BBC’s first landmark documentary series Civilisation is often credited with creating it. Continue reading

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: I have never used Tinder, or any online dating service, and have no desire to do so, having been married now for a couple of years. But a conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago reminded me how hard the process is. And every once in a while H and I will go and see a film or talk to friends or do something that will be all about the complexities of making relationships work, and we’ll both be reminded how lucky we are in just not needing to spend a huge part of our lives devoted to that. (H, on reading this, of course said “Well, now you’ve cursed us…”) That line from When Harry Met Sally: “Tell me I’ll never have to be out there again”.

When I was single I was constantly asking myself: is it always this difficult? And now I’m not, I feel like the answer is: for most of us, most of the time, yes. But yet… I really feel it shouldn’t be. Continue reading

‘Stayin’ Alive’ – The Martian by Andy Weir

We all have stories that we can come back to again and again and never be tired of. I have watched the film Jaws at least 100 times, but could happily sit down to watch it right now. I could read M.R. James’s short stories. I could read John Le Carré’s Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy. And the latest addition to this canon of so-good-I-never-get-sick-of-it is a 2011 book that became a huge Hollywood movie hit with critics and the box office alike: The Martian by Andy Weir.

All of these stories have one thing in common: aside from great characters or great writing or great insight, they are also good old-fashioned ‘cracking yarns’. They have a simple story that pulls you in and sweeps you along. The premise of The Martian can be summed up in a couple of sentences: astronauts on a Mars mission, fleeing a storm, have to abort and leave the planet, but they leave one behind. Botanist and mechanical engineer Mark Watney, finding that (as the movie tagline puts it) “help is only 140 million miles away”, has to survive long enough for NASA to rescue him, if they even can. Continue reading