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June 9th 2013
It has been another glorious day in Bristol, and I spent most of it racing dragon boats (kinda like Viking long-boats, but much smaller. Or like rowing boats but with a dragon at the front. Yeah, that second one is more accurate) with some folk from work. It's the third time I've done it, and last time was one of the coldest and wettest days I've ever spent outside - I was literally warming my hands up in the river - so it was nice to have such a sunny day this time round. What was even nicer was that, somehow or other, we actually had a decent team this time round: it's not like we held auditions or practised or anything; in fact, we had several late drop-outs, so the criterion for joining the team was more or less 'turning up'. The format was that every team raced three times, then the worst time was discounted and the six teams with the best total from their two best races would make it through to the semi-finals. After the first round of races we were in fifth, falling to sixth after the second round, but we knocked 2.5 seconds off our time in the third race to make it through in third place. We then won our semi (despite the entire boat thinking we'd come last), which meant that we'd won every race we'd been in... until the final, where we finished third out of three, albeit only 0.5 seconds off second and about 1.5 seconds off first place. Our prize for coming third was a bottle of wine each. Oh goody. But all in all we were down by the river for about seven and a half hours, and there are plenty of worse places to spend a Sunday in the sunshine, so I ain't complaining.
In other news, you may have come across the fact last week that there was a 'Downing Street affair'... depending on which newspaper you read. On 2nd June the Mail on Sunday led with the front page splash 'No 10 Rocked by Secret Love Affair', coyly saying that: "For legal reasons, The Mail on Sunday cannot disclose the identities of the people involved or any details of the relationship even its duration other than that they are middle-aged figures. The affair has now concluded." That, and the fact that David Cameron was 'stunned', was more or less all that the Mail was saying, and you got the same story from the good people of the Telegraph, but if you wanted to find out more from others news sources - the Times, the BBC, Sky - you would search in vain. None of them gave it so much as a peep, and as far as I can work out, that remains the case. I don't know about you, but I find that quite worrying. I am fully behind attempts to reduce press intrusion into the private lives of public figures - take, for example, Luis Suarez, who recently said that he's thinking about moving to a different country because in the UK he can't even take his daughter for a walk or go to his front garden without being surrounded by paparazzi - but I don't think should include hiding the goings-on of the corridors of power. This is not merely a prurient nosiness; once you're in Downing Street, being held up to public scrutiny is a vital part of the job. If several news sources feel that they can't even report an affair in the vague way in which the Mail covered it, it smacks of censorship.
Of course if, like me and anyone else who knows how to search on Twitter, you have a pretty good idea of who the couple in question are, you might reason that this is more than just a post-Leveson - or post-Bercow - thing. Maybe. If not, then the powers that be may have succeeded in creating regulation that fails to stop the hounding of Suarez, but manages to conceal from the hoi polloi the identities of [censored. I'm not saying who they are. I'm a coward].
In other news - and this can be reported by anyone who chooses - my friend Anna is in the process of moving to Seattle for two years, and is writing a blog that's mainly about that: check it out here.

June 23rd 2013
*** SPOILERS: don't read this if you haven't yet seen Man of Steel! ***
In the constant and seemingly endless cinematic war between DC and Marvel (the two big players in the world of comic book publishing), DC don't really have any aces up their sleeve. Whereas Marvel's creations of Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Avengers have between them accounted for 17 films since the year 2000 - and that's before you factor in other characters like the Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, etc., who between them add another 10 films - DC characters in the same period have accounted for little more than the Dark Knight trilogy and the relatively unsuccessful (in my view, undeservedly) Superman Returns. With little else to call upon - no one's crying out for another installment of Green Lantern - it came as little surprise in 2010 when the announcement was made that Superman would be rebooted once more. Under the watchful eye of Christopher Nolan in the producer's chair, Zack Snyder was asked to direct 'Man of Steel'; a new origins story for the most iconic figure of the 20th century. It hit our screens a little over a week ago, and on Wednesday I watched it from the very front row of my local cinema. Pro tip: turn up with plenty of time to spare if you're watching the biggest film of the year on the first Orange Wednesday of its release.Is it a Brit? Is it a plane?
Whereas Superman Returns picked up where Superman II left off, Man of Steel abandoned all that had gone before and kicked off on Krypton with Russell Crowe's Jor-El pontificating on the inevitable destruction of the planet, all the while surrounded by impressive palisades and, somewhat unexpectedly, dinosaurs. It is no surprise to anyone familiar with Superman's back-story that Jor-El is ignored, and just has time to send his son Kal-El shooting off towards Earth before Krypton explodes, killing all Kryptonians except our hero and a group of insurgents, led by Zod, who are trapped in the 'Phantom Zone'. In a twist on the usual format, though, Jor-El somehow manages to hide within Kal-El's DNA a codex - which looks like a black skull - containing the code for all Kryptonian life. Seeing Crowe running / swimming around while clutching the skull serves only as a subtle reminder that Hamlet this ain't, and the whole storyline feels like an idea that should have been abandoned in an early draft of the script: not only does it not make a great deal of sense, but it unnecessarily prolongs the opening scenes during which the audience is eager for the action to get down to Earth, as it were. Crowe is a fine actor, but it comes as something of a relief when Krypton actually explodes.
The next section of the film, and by far the part most heavily featured in trailers, is devoted to Clark Kent's pre-Superman years in Smallville and beyond, in which he becomes accustomed to his powers - there is a good scene where the young Clark is terrified by his ability to hear every sound in the vicinity and see through his classmates' skin - and uses them for good through pushing the school bus out of the river and, later, rescuing workers on a burning oil rig. Told through a series of flashbacks, we see Clark being bullied and feeling alienated (unsurprising, really), all the while being told by his adoptive father Jonathan to keep his superpowers under wraps because the world would not accept him as he really is. This reaches its natural conclusion as Jonathan is swept away in a tornado from which he expressly tells Clark not to save him. This is a telling moment: while the standard Superman mythology has Jonathan Kent dying fairly early on, as far as I'm aware this is the first time that it's been, effectively, Clark's fault. The part this plays in Superman's drive to protect others in the future appears to be an echo of the back-stories of Batman and Spider-Man, both of whom failed to stop their father / father figure from being shot and killed, and while it's a trifle obvious I think it's a good addition to the story.Jor-El, cobber.
At this point in the film - less than an hour into the 143 minute running time - we were getting the film promised in the trailers: the story of an insecure outcast who struggles to come to terms with his abilities and his place in a world that is not his own, and that might not accept him despite his powers for good. What the trailers didn't mention is that this is about as far as Clark goes, character-wise: he suddenly becomes little more than a smiling cipher once he dons the blue suit (notably bereft of red underpants), which is inexplicably left for him in a crashed Kryptonian spaceship. Said spaceship is patrolled by a seemingly corporeal and conscious hologram of his father, which not only brings to mind Red Dwarf but also calls into question why anyone on Krypton would be worried about dying, since life after death not only allows you to do pretty much everything you did before death, but adds teleportation and removes the need to eat or wash. Anyways, Clark puts on the suit, does some practice flying... and then General Zod comes over the airwaves demanding that Kal-El be handed over to him. This must be the first telling of the Superman story where the world at large becomes aware of the man of steel not because of his good deeds in Metropolis, but because they're told about him by a raving Kryptonian general who's (in the way that bad guys often find so easy) taken over every TV screen in the world. It's another deviation from the generally accepted Superman storyline - inasmuch as any comic book character's storyline can be 'generally accepted', given the number of different versions and the prevalence of ret-conning in the medium - and, to me, a key one. Superman's key calling card is 'good guy' - Truth, Justice & The American Way, and all that - and while that has its detractors, his desire to do good is almost entirely missing from Man of Steel: the school bus and oil rig rescues, mentioned above, are both pre-suit, and once he's donned the cape he barely uses his powers for anything other than self-preservation, and as far as the watching world is concerned he could just as easily be a menace as a saviour. Fair enough, he does make the decision not to destroy the entire human race, but that doesn't strike me as a particularly tough call.
Although we don't really get to see what makes Superman tick, we do get to see what makes him super. One of the reasons that the Dark Knight trilogy was so successful was that it examined what the Batman story would look like if it were actually true, and we get the same dedication to science in Man of Steel: when he soars off we see the ground shake to Newton's third law of motion, followed by a big old sonic boom as he picks up the pace. Science can only take us so far here - I'm not sure X-ray vision is ever explained properly - but it means that the film-makers are reined in from such nonsense as time-travel (Superman: The Movie), memory-erasing kisses (Superman II) and eye-powered wall-creation (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). That's definitely a good thing, but I think it is taken too far with the insistence of Zod and his cronies hiding behind helmets for long durations, and the frankly odd positioning just above Earth of a spaceship infused with Kryptonian atmosphere (rendering Superman super-powerless). However much comfort it gives to the scientists in the audience to have some kind of 'real-life' basis for the film, it is a distraction that I feel should have been excised in order to make way for stronger character development. I'm just glad that no one felt the need to use Kryptonian speech with subtitles, instead of English.But... where's the kiss curl?
Whatever in the way of sonic booms, space-helmets and Jonathan-swallowing tornadoes that got added into the film, there are some parts of the Superman mythology that simply cannot be changed, and one of them is the presence of investigative reporter Lois Lane at the Daily Planet. Played ably in Man of Steel by Amy Adams, Lois's remit stretches way beyond Metropolis, taking her to the Artic to uncover the spaceship where, at the same time, Clark is busy discovering his blue suit. He quickly cauterises her wounds (caused by a strange alien contraption whose animosity is never really explained) before dashing off, leaving her to chase down rumour and myth until she finally (well, quite quickly, actually) finds him standing by Jonathan's grave in Smallville. This is another key deviation from the standard story, since here Lois knows that Clark is Superman right from the word go, long before he appears in the Clark Kent 'mild-mannered journalist' guise, and even before the word 'Superman' is used by anyone. This robs us of the archetypal genre scene where the love interest discovers that the superhero she adores and the friend she's become close to are one and the same (cf. Superman II, Spider-Man 2, arguably Batman Begins and even The Amazing Spider-Man, although that last is an earlier revelation than most), and in some ways that's a shame, but this is an interesting approach and completely reworks the basis of the Lois/Clark relationship. Speaking of which, it is clear that Lois is taken with Clark (who wouldn't be? He's flipping Superman) but he appears fairly uninterested in her, so it comes as something of a surprise when they start kissing. Perhaps it's because Henry Cavill, as Superman, isn't a fantastic actor - certainly not in the same league as fellow Brits Andrew Garfield or Christian Bale - or because Christopher Nolan isn't much good at romance, but either way the dynamic needs a little bit more thought. It will be interesting to see how it develops in the expected sequel(s).
One thing the sequels really must do is cut down on the number of times people throw things at other people, or throw other people at things. I had been warned in advance that the third act featured plenty of carnage, but it was disappointing to see that, in a post-Avengers Assemble world, there was so little lucidity or imagination in the interminable fighting scenes: at one point Zod hit Superman (or possibly vice versa... I forget) with a satellite, which was neat, but otherwise it was just a lot of crashing into buildings and cars, with plenty of dust and thunderous bass but not a lot else. I would happily have sacrificed two thirds of the fighting - hell, 90% of it - for a scene or two of dialogue. From Star Wars to the Lord of the Rings to the Dark Knight to the aforementioned Avengers Assemble, every epic sci-fi/fantasy film has to be grounded in character in order to be successful, no matter how big the budget is. For most of Man of Steel, Zack Snyder seems to have forgotten that, if he ever knew it.
You'll have noticed from this review that I'm not the biggest fan of Man of Steel, and while I didn't hate the film - and I even think it succeeded in some of what it was trying to do - I was certainly disappointed by it. I have higher hopes for the sequel, though, mainly because some of the best moments of this film came in the last scene, which sets us up for the next installment: we see Clark Kent donning the famous glasses, starting work at the Daily Planet, and being introduced to Lois Lane. And she says my favourite line of the film:
"Welcome to the Planet".

what was I listening to?
Neck and Neck - Mark Knopfler & Chet Atkins
what was I reading?
The Firm - John Grisham
what was I watching?
The Pelican Brief
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