Is Destiny really all?

•November 30, 2022 • Leave a Comment

Who can say?

One thing is for sure, The Last Kingdom (based on The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell) will win your loyalty and draw you in, even if you’re not especially into the subject matter, by intriguing you with the suspenseful story of a very likeable hero and dipping nicely into actual events from the tapestry of ancient Albion’s territories.

The series went the way of most good shows, and many fans agree that a new viewer needs to get through the first two episodes before the beat drops. Once it does, you’re in for a scenic and gritty adventure, full of valour and emotion. The humour is almost never overplayed.

There was definitely too much packed into the pilot, and thus some formative elements of the story were rushed. We could have done with more screen-time with Uhtred Senior (Matthew McFadyen) and the boy Osbert-Uhtred (Tom Taylor) so that the story of Bebbanburg’s downfall would be all the more tragic.

Reaching its golden ratio at the end of Season 3, the shows’ creativity did unfortunately die away thereafter; battle scenes became less imaginative, and it required more energy to empathize with our heroes and their troops and farmers as they assembled on respective hilltops and cheered on cue to yet another rousing speech.

Also, the violence and gore was relied upon far too much and was rarely shocking by the end. Do yourself a favour and use Season 4 as a wind-down before avoiding Season 5 altogether.

Regrettably we never get to see Alexander Dreymon having a flashback with his on-screen father, Matthew McFadyen, which I always thought was due, as their resemblance is uncanny. Perhaps the re-taking of Bebbanburg could have been crowned with a shot of McFadyen blurred in the background as Dreymon looked out at the coast, where it all began.

Uhtred Ragnarsson will become your friend, your sword, your kin.

The show put in some worthy detail, such as the Old English that features on written pieces (letters, scrolls, etc.) and old place-names are used both in written and spoken word; Eoferwic/York, Wincanceaster/Winchester, Beamfleot/Benfleet, etc.).

I didn’t know about the story of Alfred the Great burning the cakes he was to look after, while devising an escape from the Somerset Marshes, but was pleasantly surprised to learn that this scene was not just incidental.

There is much more to say about this show, but for now my top five moments must suffice; interestingly four of them feature King Alfred, which speaks volumes to David Dawson’s very believable and passionate portrayal.

These are moments that stayed with me after my first viewing, and it was a pleasure to realise them again.

One | Odda’s soldiers arrival post Uhtred vs. Ubba duel S1E5

Uthred has devised a plan to fire Ubba’s ships and disable his army, but he didn’t bet on being confronted by Ubba himself!

This is effectively scary because the young Uthred was once warned:

‘If you get to live, you should beware of the big man. My advice for you is to never cross Ubba and never, never fight him.’

Ravn, Season 1 Episode 1

So after a fair fight, which doesn’t go on too long, Uthred kills Ubba and after sending his lord to Valhalla, suddenly realises that he is next! As he slowly backed away from the enraged Vikings, I wondered how he would survive? Then, silently out of the dark behind him came the soldiers of Odda the Elder and we hear the comfort of Leofric giving orders…. Uthred had probably forgotten that they were on their way, and didn’t hear them coming. The fact that they were silent was superbly effective! I have watched this scene many times.

Two | The Swords of Wessex at Egbert’s Stone S1E8

Aethelwold has been sent by Guthrum to murder his uncle Alfred. Will he carry out his task? He approaches Alfred, alone at Egbert’s Stone, but Alfred has detected something….

Alfred looked so innocent and placid when he turned around, it was difficult not to feel sorry for him, and to enjoy the relief when it arrives.

‘What do you see? What do you hear?’

‘I hear nothing Lord.’

‘No…. no…. there is a change in the shadows, in the air. They are out there.’

‘I see nothing but grass Lord. Beyond the grass, trees Lord.’

‘There! There! It’s men! And more men there! They have answered the call. The swords of England, they’re coming.’

Three | Alfred freeze-framed at Ethandum S1E8

Following the arrival of the men of England, the battle commences. Alfred shouts encouragement.

This is the only freeze-frame that I’ve noticed in the whole series, and less is definitely more, as it makes the moment stand alone. It is slightly disjointed though, and I wish they’d made more of it.

It captures a picture of the invalid king who, while surrounded by bodyguards, does have blood on his face and has wet his blade. Victory is finally within reach. He repeats the maxim of ‘no mercy’ in case his men have forgotten….

‘No mercy!’

Four | ‘Damn him!’ Alfred turns away in sorrow at Odda’s betrayal S2E8

Odda (played by the mighty Simon Kunz) was so loyal that he even killed his own son Odda the Younger when he put the pieces together and realised Odda Junior was committing treason and that Alfred has witnessed it. Odda Sr. will now go on to commit treason of his own, but only for Wessex.

He is a brave man who does hide what he’s up to, but only until the last moment when he sees his fyrd on the move, and knows that things cannot now be reversed.

When told of Odda’s disobedience, Alfred turns around away from his Witan, and whispers ‘damn him‘ harshly to himself. This is one of only a couple of times we see Alfred shed a tear. Odda was probably the closest thing he’d had to a friend since becoming king, and because of his commitment to his own laws, he must now try and execute his friend.

When he confronts Odda and his fyrd, he simply asks: ‘Why, Odda? Why?

For Wessex, Lord. Only for Wessex.

Shield wall Lord! Only you can give the order.

Five | ‘It is a chronicle.’ S3E9

Making reference of course to the famous chronicle began during the reign of Alfred the Great, Uthred sees for himself the layout of Alfred’s victories, in which he was heavily involved but will not get a mention. As we watched this scene, Uthred quietly reflecting on events, and slowly the red-pale figure in the shadows came into focus, my wife and I looked at each other as though to say, ‘that was sooooo cool!

For once, (well, perhaps not) Uthred is caught off guard.

The reconciliation of the two men that follows is tear-jerking for its purity and sincerity. Alfred remembers Iseult by name, and her healing of Edward. He acknowledges secretly that Uthred’s son was taken instead. He also has his moment of revenge, holding a blade to Uthred’s throat.

A very powerful moment that brought the arc of these two Ealdormen to a close.

It is a chronicle….

This was ‘our story’ as described by David Dawson in this interview, a passionate and deserving actor – sadly the show was not the same without him after the passing of Alfred.

An honorary mention goes to the recurring appearance in Uthred’s memory of his great friend Leofric (Adrian Bower), who showed up just in time to remind him that ‘the bastard thinks‘, a clever twist that allowed Uthred to spare his own life in front of the new Ædward Rex & Co.

The Lord of the Rings Films ~ Best Part / Worst Part

•October 31, 2022 • Leave a Comment

One episode of The Prancing Pony Podcast I keep returning to is the one entitled You Have Kept Your Honor. Obviously, the podcasters have spelled ‘honour’ incorrectly. Incidentally, they also pronounce ‘herb’ incorrectly, when discussing Middle-Earth flora.

Usually, the show (the best Tolkien podcast this side of Bree!) discusses the writings and interesting life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, but in this episode the podcasters turn to the Peter Jackson film trilogy (they like to point out that, interestingly, Tolkien never thought of his The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy).

I was inspired by the hosts’ refraining from simply listing ‘inaccuracies’ in the Jackson adaptation-interpretation, instead disciplining themselves to choosing just one moment that they loved and conversely didn’t love from each of the three films respectively.

The episode also discusses the usefulness of the ‘Shippey Test’, derived from this excellent lecture by Tom Shippey: Tolkien Book to Jackson Script: The Medium and the Message. This test essentially asks the two questions, that when adapting a text from one medium to another (n. b. a book to a film):

1) is a major change in the adaptation inevitable?

2) did the change improve the storytelling in the new medium?

‘The problem is, not perceiving where the core of the original lies.’ – JRRT

This helped me reconcile some personal disgruntlements I had had with changes the film producers made to the story. However, I am no purist, and like many other fans I owe Peter Jackson and his extensive team a huge debt; the films are so very watchable and the documentaries showing how these massive projects were produced reveal a great labour of love on their part. They make the book a lot easier to swallow the first time, before Tolkien’s gorgeous imagery and decadent language takes you back to Middle-Earth time and time again.

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of altering Tolkien book to Jackson script is the complete removal of Glorfindel as a character and inserting Arwen in his stead as the Elf that comes to the aid of Strider and the Hobbits after the Weathertop attack (‘What’s this – a Ranger, caught off his guard?’).

A miss perhaps, if you like Glorfindel, but why introduce both Arwen and Glorfindel if you can adapt both roles into one character? After all, a director needs to be careful how many characters they are introducing, and question whether the story is actually being carried through with minimal confusion, when every second counts!

We also need time to connect with each character, to a greater or lesser extent (especially over three very lengthy films!) and too many characters over too short a time does not allow this.

Therefore, this change was almost inevitable, and I believe it did improve the story telling for the viewer. Tolkien wrote in several characters that appear only once or twice, whose threads are never tied up, and this doesn’t really work in film medium.

Arwen Undómiel, the Evenstar of her People, is Aragorn’s love interest. If we are to care about this relationship, we need to be emotionally invested in both of them. To watch Arwen holding her own against The Nine Ringwraiths, the servants of the Lord of the Rings, slaloming through the trees (‘I’m the faster rider‘) and calling on the protection of the River is to witness an iconic action scene of our time.

‘Ride hard. Don’t look back.’

A tear runs down her cheek when she knows Frodo is on the threshold of the wraith world. She sacrifices to him whatever grace is shown to her. There was nothing heartless about this rescue, and she embodies the potency, fearlessness, and sincerity of Glorfindel.

Later we learn that she is daughter to Elrond and granddaughter to Galadriel. Deeper in the lore, it is revealed she can only wed Aragorn II Elessar, Isildur’s heir, if he oversees the destruction of the One Ring, the defeat of Sauron, and the reunion of the kingdoms, thus both Arwen’s and Aragorn’s stories are tied to the main quest.

Conversely, Glorfindel doesn’t appear much again after the Flight to the Ford (he is at the Council of Elrond), so it makes sense to remove him altogether. Although sadly that means we will never see this representation in film form:

‘I thought I saw a white figure that shone and did not grow dim like the others. Was that Glorfindel?’

‘Yes, you saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side: one of the mighty of the Firstborn. He is an Elf-lord of a house of princes. Indeed there is a power in Rivendell to withstand the might of Mordor, for a while. …. for Glorfindel knew that a flood would come down, if the Riders tried to cross, and then he would have to deal with any that were left on his side of the river. The moment the flood appeared, he rushed out, followed by Aragorn and the others with flaming brands. Caught between fire and water, and seeing an Elf-lord revealed in his wrath, they were dismayed, and their horses were stricken with madness. Three were carried away by the first assault of the flood; the others were now hurled into the water by their horses and overwhelmed.’

Many Meetings ~ The Fellowship of the Ring

Another, more subtle change, was the silencing of Legolas at the appearance of the Balrog. I don’t believe this change was inevitable, and it let down the character development of Legolas. I will explain why:

Legolas is a much older character than the films suggest; a little younger than three thousand years. His knowledge of Middle-Earth’s history and spirituality is deep and ever-present (like angels, the Elves can hear and see things the other races can’t). (This is why I now don’t mind him as a character in The Hobbit films – he is of course son to King Thranduil so may well have been around during Bilbo’s visit, if not for the sake of some contrived and tenuous love-traingle!)

In the book, it is Legolas who announces the arrival of the Balrog in Moria. The films don’t give Legolas much to say or do between the Council of Elrond and being the Fellowships’ ambassador to Celeborn and Galadriel much later at Lothlorien. Giving him this line would have demonstrated that he is on par with Gandalf in terms of other-worldliness. It would also complement his other spiritual observations, such as commenting on the red dawn rising, or his telling of the awakening of the trees in The Two Towers, or of the cursed army on the Dimholt Road in Return of the King.

‘Ai! ai!’ wailed Legolas. ‘A Balrog! A Balrog is come!’

Gimli stared with wide eyes. ‘Durin’s Bane!’ he cried, and letting his axe fall he covered his face.

‘A Balrog,’ muttered Gandalf. ‘Now I understand.’ He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. ‘What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.’

The Bridge of Khazad-dûm ~ The Fellowship of the Ring

I picture the scene in Fellowship of the Ring exactly as Jackson produced it but with one minor change: the group have just killed the cave troll and learned of Frodo’s mithril vest; they run back into and through the great hall of Dwarrowdelf, whereupon hundreds of orcs pour out of the stonework and surround them. The Fellowship stop, there is nowhere to go. The orcs go silent. There is a pause, then suddenly a massive ‘boom‘ – the orcs shriek and scurry away….

‘What is this new devilry?’ asks Sean Bean’s Boromir. Gandalf answers him, ‘A demon of the ancient world….’

In the silence, Legolas elveshly finishes; ‘A Balrog.’

He later announces [to the Lord and Lady of Lothlorien] that this was a ‘Balrog of Morgoth’, so why not give him the line when the Balrog actually appears? This would have shown his acquaintance with the nature and the ancient times of Middle-Earth. He’s not just a pretty boy.

Here are my best parts and worst parts from each of the three films. A tricky choice….

The Fellowship of the Ring ~ Best Part

A Black Rider appears against a panorama of The Shire

This image casts a dark shadow from the East over the dewy Shire and catches you right up to the threat of danger and evil that is to come. It sends a chill through the land, and alludes to the intense horror that is quickly to descend on our pleasant pastoral scene.

Cleverly, it comes at just the right point of the film; we have engaged in a lengthy prologue that fleshes out the historical context, and then a more up-to-date and light-hearted chapter concerning Hobbits; a harmless birthday party and some partaking of the Gaffer’s special brew, but suddenly Gandalf returns from his Sabbatical with, ‘Is it secret?! Is it safe?!

While there is comfort at the kitchen fireplace of Bag End, something evil this way comes, hooded and cloaked. Look on the peaceful, misty Shire; sleepy and serene. Your view is rudely and dreadfully interrupted by one of the Nazgûl, neither living nor dead, crossing into view to carry out a dark purpose. The beauty and innocence is about to be sullied by the threat of Mordor on an evil errand.

We have seen teasing glimpses of them leaving Minas Morgul, and now they have reached our borders.

They are coming….

The Fellowship of the Ring ~ Worst Part

Frodo talking in a strangely camp voice about feather beds

I understand that this was to show-me-don’t-tell-me about Hobbits and their love of comfort, but Frodo’s response to Sam’s discomfort at sleeping on the ground underneath the trees is strangely eerie and his voice goes all weird. It’s so cringy, and seems to take forever to be over….

The Two Towers ~ Best Part

The sigil of Rohan flying off against the backdrop of the Riddermark

I do feel sorry for The Two Towers, being the second part of The Lord of the Rings. In the saga, these two parts (Book Three and Book Four) are fairly long and winding, and divide the story into three main threads that take many pages to twine. While this works well in a Norse-style epic, it can be hard work and especially so if you like to read slowly or can’t commit much time to Tolkien’s books.

As such, the film is rather choppy and a little disjointed, although they do need to keep the viewer engaged, so film-wise it makes sense to switch around sub-stories often, rather than dealing with each story one after the other as Tolkien did in his book (Frodo, Sam, and Gollum + Faramir / The Three Hunters + Gandalf + Rohan vs. Saruman + Wormtongue / Merry, Pippin, and the Ents).

However, in the midst of somewhat bland and repetitive scenery, there is a stunning panorama of Edoras, as the Three Hunters and Gandalf arrive. It somehow feels homely amid the cold, and reminds me of this magical description of the scenery straight from the book and JRRT’s gift for word-painting:

From the porch upon the top of the high terrace they could see beyond the stream the green fields of Rohan fading into distant grey. Curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down. The sky above and to the west was still dark with thunder, and lightning far away flickered among the tops of hidden hills. But the wind had shifted to the north, and already the storm that had come out of the East was receding, rolling away southward to the sea. Suddenly through a rent in the clouds behind them a shaft of sun stabbed down. The falling showers gleamed like silver, and far away the river glittered like a shimmering glass.

The King of the Golden Hall ~ The Two Towers

There is an image of Eowyn, Lady of Edoras, Daughter of the Horse Lords, surveying the Riddermark and resplendent in white against the Golden Hall of Meduseld, pitted against the bleak happenings and gray landscape! As she looks out, the horse on the flag sadly and flatly falls to the ground outside the gates, catching the attention of Isildur’s heir. Later Eowyn (sublimely portrayed by Miranda Otto) sings a lament for her late cousin that was adapted for the production from Beowulf, aptly adding to the sombreness. Magnificent.

The Two Towers ~ Worst Part

Wormtongue spitting on Aragorn’s hand

Aragorn does not move his hand away when Wormtongue is clearly going to spit on him. Even worse, he offers a very strange leer-y sort of smile when he offers his hand to Grima. He’s already shown justice and mercy by stopping Théoden from executing him. This did nothing to add to Aragorn’s character and shows him to be a bit slow – after all, exactly what was Wormtongue about to do?

I prefer the book version;

Slowly Wormtongue rose. He looked at them with half-closed eyes. Last of all he scanned Théoden’s face and opened his mouth as if to speak. Then suddenly he drew himself up. His hands worked. His eyes glittered. Such malice was in them that men stepped back from him. He bared his teeth; and then with a hissing breath he spat before the king’s feet, and darting to one side, he fled down the stair.

‘After him!’ said Théoden. ‘See that he does no harm to any, but do not hurt him or hinder him. Give him a horse, if he wishes it.’

‘And if any will bear him,’ said Eomer.

One of the guards ran down the stair. Another went to the well at the foot of the terrace and in his helm drew water. With it he washed clean the stones that Wormtongue had defiled.

The King of the Golden Hall ~ The Two Towers

The Return of the King ~ Best Part

The Ride of the Rohirrim!!

‘Forth, and fear no darkness!’

Is there a finer climax in all of cinema history? The rousing speech and rallying call, ere the sun rises! Who amongst us has not stood to shout ‘Death!’ along with Eowyn, Merry, Théoden, and the Riders of Rohan!

This part of the film is perfectly grafted in and makes up for the controversial and foolish handling of the Witch King-Gandalf confrontation just prior to it (needlessly changed from the book). We have seen the beacons lit, and we have seen some of the long journey across the Riddermark. Then, just as the Witch King of Angmar is about to strike, he hears the distant war horns, slightly dissonant from the gentle Rohan theme played quietly on low brass, and we finally see the slow assembling of the Rohirrim against the rising sun.

In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.

All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Roth Dinen.

….

‘Old fool!’ he said. ‘Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!’ And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

The Siege of Gondor ~ The Return of the King

Slightly different from the book version, but still awesome! Most riveting is the speech by their King, (‘Arise now, riders of Théoden!‘), the slow start and gradual acceleration of the six thousand horses, and the brief silence when they hit the orcs….

You can feel the passion and anger, and even after several times, it is still spine-tingling.

Epic.

‘Ride for ruin and the World’s ending!’

The Return of the King ~ Worst Part

Gimli’s antics on The Paths of the Dead are just dreadful, and shame on them all for going along with this when so many other precious parts of the book were left out!

How did they justify wasting those painful seconds of screen time on this idiocy?!

Gimli is a dwarf, and that means tough. Hardened by years of toil, grafting under mountains, and slaying many dangers with his axe. He is well accustomed to death and to corpses, so why does Aragorn tell him not to look down when stepping on the skulls, and why does he act so weird when he hears the skulls crunching and crushing beneath his boots?

It betrays Gimli’s character, it’s not funny, it’s very long and doesn’t help to tell the story or add tension.

And it gets worse.

When the ghostly hands appear in front of his face, he blows them away like one would an insect or leaf that flew or floated in front of one’s face. Is it meant to be funny? This kind of slapstick was sadly missing from The Hobbit films, but The Return of the King was once meant to be titled The War of the Ring, and so is naturally a very serious part of LotR. And this scene is one of the darker moments (so dark in fact, that book Gimli will not speak of what happened on the Paths of the Dead).

Sadly, humour was not needed in this part. It destroys any sort of mystery or evil, and it’s just as well it was left out of the cinema cut.

When I first saw it on the extended version at a cinema marathon, I couldn’t believe what I was watching – it feels so out of place against the other goings-on in this film.

Arwen
by alrun-art

Honourable Mentions: Best Parts

The ‘roast chicken’ exasperation from Frodo in The Two Towers brings much needed comic relief to the bleakness.

The whistle theme played when Sam and Frodo see some blue sky above Mount Doom (RotK).

Aragorn drawing his sword on Amen Hen and urging Frodo to run, then slo-mo facing the oncoming Uruks in Fellowship.

Honourable Mentions: Worst Parts

Théoden’s and Aragorn’s confrontation at Edoras did little to push on the story or develop Théoden’s character (‘When last I looked, Théoden, not Aragron, was King of Rohan….’) and was a bit sassier than we should expect from the Lord of the Mark.

The continuity during the scene with Wormtongue and Eowyn at Theodred’s bedside, one moment right beside each other, then suddenly far apart. Uncharacteristically amateur.

Elrond’s reaction to Gandalf’s use of the Black Speech. He should have been more stressed than merely annoyed.

Now reader, it’s your turn; leave a comment with your own best part-worst part moments from FotR / TTT / RotK?

Songs of the Earth ~ A Runrig Tribute

•September 30, 2020 • 4 Comments

The old boys are leaving, leaving one by one
where young birds go flying, spread your wings and run
but over the fields by the drystone walls
an eagle will come no more

This 100th Empire of Ache and Rhyme post is rightly dedicated to the mighty Runrig, to whom I owe the name of the blog.

My Runrig 2020 Calendar (photographs by Andrew King) shows that we recently passed the 2nd anniversary of The Last Dance in Stirling – a good reminder to finally finish this piece, which I first began back in the Autumn of 2017, the morning after hearing their final tour and retirement announced on BBC Radio 2.

Like many others, I wanted to somehow express something of the great deal Runrig has meant to me and my family over many Precious years.  A thank you of sorts to the band, even if they never read it.

Though painfully sad, we all knew that one day Runrig would probably cease trading; at least in terms of new material, if not so much in merchandise such as the aforementioned calendar.  Probably no Riggie, hard-core or otherwise, ever wanted to admit this reality, and many secretly hoped that they would always be there, somehow and somewhere.

[While you’re here, try this quiz to name all fourteen studio albums, or this one (only for the brave) to name all the songs from said albums.]

But sweet is the breeze o’er Raasay; the morning awaits you there

The Highland connection

From a young age, I was aware of their music as Mum and Dad used to play tapes of Recovery (1981), Transmitting Live (1988), and The Big Wheel (1991) in the car.  I also have vague memories of watching Cuir Car in early Gaelic Medium primary school:

‘Many future Runrig fans must, as infants, have first glimpsed their heroes in bizarre dress, camping it up like mad for the cameras.’

Tom Morton, Going Home: The Runrig Story, p.53
Runrig - Air An Oir: on the Edge [DVD]

On its 1993 release, we were allowed to watch the film Air on Oir as a class.  It was so exciting to recognise on film scenes of Portree and of our classmate Willie Lockhart playing the part of one of the young MacDonald brothers, and our singing teacher Kirsteen Graham playing the part of the schoolteacher.

Thus, it was with immense pride that I came to learn of Runrig’s Skye origins, and of the many links we had with their past simply by living on the island, where it was impossible to escape some subliminal knowledge both of their music and of their international success.

I couldn’t believe it when our music teacher John Marshall, as he taught me my first guitar chords, told me that this was the same music classroom where Malcolm Jones had once come to inspect a guitar made by one of the technical teachers (guitar was sadly not included in SCE Music in those days).  Cycling around Portree, I once waved hello at his mum Mary Jones, because I mistook her for Margaret Fletcher (both seen of old around the crescents) but thereafter she would always nod at me when we passed.  Before she retired, Neta told Mum that Malcolm always popped in to Harry’s Shop to say hello when he’s in Portree.

Stormy Hill Stores

Then there was the time Donnie took his son and myself for a ride to the petrol station in his SAAB 9000 – I remember him moaning about Niall’s leaving muddy footprints on the front passenger seat and beating the dirt off them with his left hand whilst driving (Niall and I were in the back).  As he paid for his petrol and Niall was stocking up on sweets, Donnie very kindly told me to take anything I wanted from the shelves and he’d pay for it – I was so starstruck that I panicked and took only a Chupa Chups, and I never even liked Chupa Chups!

He also volunteered as a leader at the Saturday night Youth Café, and could convert a sedate and awkward room of teenagers into a rowdy pool tournament faster than you could say ‘Hearthammer’ backwards – a cool guy.

In high school, there was the plaque above the Robert MacDonald Memorial Library to commemorate the history teacher who had sadly passed away from cancer in 1986.  Remembered as a Staffin gentleman and a fine artist (he drew the well known picture of the old sandstone Portree High School), he’d been the accordionist to The Run-Rig Dance Band in between Blair Douglas’ two memberships, and had been part of some of the band’s early successes, featuring on early Runrig television appearances and on the band’s first album Play Gaelic (1978).

The Head of Gaelic’s stoic pride (the late D. R. MacDonald) in these former pupils and their affirmation of the mother tongue was attested by the Runrig posters resplendent in Room 10, along with the school motto EARBAM (‘Let me Trust’) stencilled on the board.

Sometime in the mid-1990s our uncle came from Aberdeen to spend New Year with us.  On the morning he left, as he packed his car in the bright clean freshness of that new January, he put on the EP Capture the Heart (1990) from Dad’s CD collection, and turned the volume up!  I’d never heard it before, and listened enraptured as those first four drum beats of Stepping Down the Glory Road soared through the house, followed by the plaintive refrain of the Gaelic-psalm grafted with a raw Celtic energy and endearingly tuneful riffs – it made me stop and listen!

We began to eagerly listen to any of their music that we could find in the house, and in the homes of other folk.  Certain songs take us back to certain holidays. On family car journeys, we listened to tape cassettes of Amazing Things (1993) and Searchlight (1989), and in the house, CDs of Heartland (1985) and The Cutter and the Clan (1987).  One of Dad’s favourite moments is the precentor/congregation resonating the outro of An Ubhal as Àirde.  He told me he used to rewind those last ten seconds and listen over and over.  Of that moment, Rory writes:

….we transferred a section of Gaelic psalm singing (which we took off a cassette tape) alongside all that we had recorded – it was simply a case of trying something out as an experiment, totally random.  We then played it all back, and I remember Chris turning round to us and saying that he felt something come over him – an uncanny shiver – as not only was it all blending together, but the solo precentor’s voice from the random section of tape had overhung the end of the song at exactly the right moment.  We all felt something.

Flower of the West: The Runrig Songbook , Ridge Books / Chrysalis Music Ltd / Storr Music, Great Britain 2000 p.51

It was intriguing and humbling to learn that there were other Runrig albums out there that were older than I was.  And that there were significant fan followings outside of Scotland; in Canada, Scandinavia, and of course Germany (there’s always a German at a Runrig gig, and on any Runrig concert DVD).

Different worlds in constant motion

But by then a big wheel had been set in motion that could not be reversed – Donnie was leaving the band, and soon flyers came through the letterbox to give him your vote for Scottish Labour in the upcoming election against (the now late) Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy.  Walking home after school, I would see Donnie working away in his campaign office on Wentworth Street (incidentally the same office that had previously been a small bookshop, with a Runrig CD selection on its window display – I used to window-shop them, working out how much pocket money to save, and which album to invest in first).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-14.png

From 1985 through 1995, the band had released six studio albums, each one building on their artistic and creative momentum; creativity which reached a magnificent pinnacle in 1993’s Amazing Things, an album claimed by Glenn McDonald in The War Against Silence to be ‘the single most life-affirming art work ever’.  Why would Donnie Munro, the charismatic face and voice of Runrig, leave now?  Who could ever replace him?  Would Runrig survive?  Rory said he’d been ‘devastated’ by Donnie’s decision to leave the band, as I think indeed were the band as a whole along with many of their fans.

Dad returned from a work day in Inverness with the brand new In Search of Angels (1999) album, and we eagerly put it on to listen.  I remember feeling underwhelmed by what some have described as a ‘lacklustre’ album.  Some of the heyday musical spark was undeniably gone.  And the album artwork was plain perhaps compared to the thematic inlay covers of the Amazing Things or Mara (1995) albums.  Even the band picture was disenchanting – instead of moodily surveying the swirling mists of Trotternish, they sat soberly in the studio, looking a lot older, and with short hair!  And who was the new guy in the picture?

Years later in Aberdeen, my uncle gave me a lift home after church one Sunday evening, and came in for a strùpag and we sat in the kitchen listening to Angels. We had Big Sky on repeat, and he reflected on the spiritual imagery and power in these words (of course he had some more insight, being both a more seasoned Riggie and also a long-term subscriber to The Wire):

In Search Of Angels - Runrig mp3 buy, full tracklist

It’s coming again
gathering the wind
returning to claim a harvest
I’m lifted where I stand
on the never ending land
I’m coming to a sense of home
the light of ancients shine
on your ordinary lives
we joyed went to the fires of harvest
so open up the land
open up the sand
returning again in Clachan

Perhaps I had not given Angels the time or study it deserved.  There was a new kind of depth to Runrig’s music now.  In Big Sky Calum trusts us with diary extracts from his ten-year old self, written at the time his Grandmother was dying.  It struck me then that this much underrated album may have been their most intimate.

I walk you down that road
it’s the only road we know
nights so blinding, the world denying
that love so loved the world
– Life Is

Growing up listening to Donnie’s voice, it was always going to be difficult to accept his replacement.  However, Donnie had made the decision to leave, and Bruce Guthro had already had a music career.  He was, in some ways, doing Runrig and their fans a huge favour by taking on the intimidating role of new frontman, ready to be analyzed by this strange cult.

Image result for bruce guthro

It is heart-rending to read of Rory’s feeling of ‘relief that we were going to be able to continue’ after Bruce joined, and to realise post hoc how risky a line-up change at this stage of the band’s career had been (more common in Runrig’s early days, for example the employment on keys of journalist Campbell Gunn, and ‘the self-confessed first English Jew of Russian extraction ever to play in a Gaelic rock band’ Richard Cherns).

Footage of Bruce’s first live appearance with Runrig shows a man nervously aware of the weight of his new role, and of the classic numbers he is about to attempt to do justice to.  Balance this with his joke years later about using the Beat the Drum gig to get the ‘ghost of Loch Lomond’ off his shoulders, and we have a frontman who clearly respects the legacy while not taking himself too seriously.

Finally free of the ‘ghost of Loch Lomond’?

A sense of home?

So where does the ardent international fervour for Runrig and their music come from? Attractive music with serious and relatable content?  An over-indulgence in some pseudo-Celtic-Nordic solidarity?  Take a cursory tour of their discography and I believe you will find there is something for everyone.  Let’s explore some of the themes that led to their ultimate success….

Abair ceòl a th’agaibh an seo

Filling a variety of gaps in the market, Runrig ‘offered …. a perspective of Scotland from the north delivered in its authentic voice’, as described by their former keyboard player Pete Wishart in his article ‘there will never be another band like Runrig‘.  Tom Morton also observes that:

Runrig are heroes, symbols of a collective success for the Gaels who once saw themselves as disenfranchised, disinherited, their culture bereft of connection with the 20th Century and dying stubbornly on its feet.  They want to see Runrig win because not only do the band articulate collective emotions, history and experience, but because Runrig’s victory is everyone’s.

Runrig Heartland Vinyl Records and CDs For Sale | MusicStack

He goes on:

But Runrig do not just stand for an ideology, or capitalise on the reverse side of the ‘tartan Highlander’ myth.  Their songs ensure a more complex response.  And for the non-Gael, the ‘otherness’ of Runrig, their language, their island roots…these things are of an experience they recognise, a land they’ve glimpsed from the distance or on holiday, a country which is still their own, a history they know they at least tenuously share.  And all this talk about home, about the land, about great historical battles and about national identity…all this pricks at the heart and evokes the demand, ‘I belong too – let me in.’

Going Home: The Runrig Story, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh 1991 p.17

However perhaps they were too nichè to ever make it really big, like as big as their Irish counterparts U2.  Indeed, when I lived in Aberdeen I occasionally found to my bewilderment that university peers may or may not have heard of Runrig, and then sometimes only vaguely (Eastern Scots with Doric habits….).

Saints of the soil

Flower of the West: The "Runrig" Songbook: Amazon.co.uk: Calum MacDonald,  Rory MacDonald: 9780953945207: Books

The Runrig members themselves have always been an endearing factor in the band’s appeal; fairly grounded, humble, burned by cynical reviews and an occasionally uncalled-for harshness in criticism, yet quietly confident in their art.  Occasionally some daft humour may be witnessed, and even more winning are the tongue-in-cheek biographical anecdotes about their successes and openness about their failures and near-failures, and a read-through the excellent Flower of the West songbook will show that.

They are not too ashamed to regale of their smallest ever audience of four, at a gig in Dornoch (incidentally also Rory’s birthplace), and perhaps relish a little too much in the honorary-title of ‘biggest band west of Kyle’.

RUNRIG - Collection - Amazon.com Music

Many fans have humorous and interesting stories about personal encounters with the band members.  Mine is waiting to catch an autograph or two after a Shepherd’s Bush Empire gig, where we were told to wait behind the barrier as we didn’t have ‘meet the band’ tickets.  Iain Bayne randomly popped outside the stage door and was standing nearby, so I indicated him and asked the bouncer if I could go chat ‘to the Runrig drummer’.  The bouncer said he’d go and ask for me, but then walked straight past Iain and began asking a group of others outside the stage door if they were the Runrig drummer?  Eventually Iain heard him and, unperturbed, introduced himself.  The bouncer pointed me out and Iain came to meet me, carefully autographing the inside of my copy of The Story (2016) so as not to deface the cover.

Thòisich sinn a’ seinn ‘s a Ghaidhlig

It’s amazing to think of people all over the world listening to the Gaelic language because of Runrig.  They made Gaelic cool because they didn’t overdo it (they also sang in English) and it didn’t feel forced, unlike some unfortunate renderings of certain media texts used in our own nineties-noughties Gaelic medium schooling.

The language is vernacular and incidental to the content of the song, sung or spoken in its natural nuance.  They meant, felt, and believed what they were singing about.  It was interesting to find a similar vein of thought in Going Home, pp.120-121:

Back at the root of the roots, the [West Highland] Free Press took a leisurely look back at The Cutter (March 1988).  Torcuil Crichton’s ‘personal reflection’ on the album was a fascinating assessment by one of the rising stars of bilingual Scottish journalism, and someone who understood not only rock music, but the demands of the Gaidhealtacht, thoroughly.

‘Commercial success is initially what I thought the album was all about,’ Torcuil wrote.  ‘The music struck home as a rather bland and shallow carbon of former Runrig albums.  I hated it before I’d listened to it properly.’  But on reflection, what was wrong with popular music? Torcuil pondered.  And ‘the fact that it contained only two Gaelic tracks’ might not be just ‘an indication of the album’s wider sales pitch’.  Why, as the band themselves asked, ‘write or sing in Gaelic for Gaelic’s sake if it’s not good?’

BBC Radio nan Gàidheal - Sàr Chlàr, Sàr Chlàr, Calum Màrtainn

The fact that, in the end, the records sheer emotional pull drew Torcuil into identification with it perhaps displayed the central fact about Runrig for Gales in particular and Scots in general: we live in a context which makes the music’s feel and the lyrics’ content irresistible.  We understand what we sometimes do not comprehend, and respond to what we may not think we ought to enjoy.

The same Torcuil Crichton, in his 2018 tribute to the band, writes:

When I recorded Seumus Heaney’s paean to Sorley MacLean he said the Raasay bard saved Gaelic poetry in the 20th century and so saved the language forever.  Quite a claim but, you know, poets.  That honour now belongs to Calum and Rory MacDonald, the band’s soul brothers, whose music ensured Gaelic’s recovery.  Their authentic Highland charm was ever the secret tune of Runrig’s success.  Where these boys led with song, others followed with words and deeds, pens and policies.  Without that 1970s “Runrig generation” we’d have been drinking a parting glass to Gaelic long ago.

See more

There is however a purity to the language that sometimes doesn’t fully translate – as is the way with ethnic folksong.  One example is the gentle Ribhinn Donn, written in the resonant key of D flat major:

O mo rùn
Tha mi mar as abhaist is mi ‘nam aon
Na mo shuidhe sgriobhadh dhàn
Se seo dòigh mo dhaoine
Is molaidh mi do chliù
le òran ceangailt anns an nòs
is ged sheasainn air gach uile reul
bhiodh tù os cionn

Oh my love
As usual I am in the solitary [or ‘by myself’]
[Sitting here] writing songs
This is the way of my people
I will sing your praises
In song secured to the tradition
And supposing I stood on every star
I would place you higher

Sniomh cèol is a sgriobhadh òrain

Have the band come to be known as poets, perhaps to the sacrifice of being regarded as gifted musicians? Rory’s baselines are so inventive, Iain Bayne had been a champion snare drummer pre-Runrig, and anyone who has seen them live cannot deny they haven’t been mesmerised by Malcolm’s mastery of the strings. They also struck gold twice, in the ’70s and again in the ’90s with their two respective lead singers.

The decades of songwriting have drawn richly from a slightly unusual mix of cultural facets, and initially evolved appropriately with each album.  Donnie attributes his early singing style to the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, and of course as children they were enchanted by ’50s-’60s rock n’ roll (‘Elvis is still the king‘), ‘….but The Beatles were the main thing that mattered to me in life. I was totally obsessed with the whole pop thing at that time….’ (Calum, Going Home p.21).  There is the occasional touch of country n’ Western, and the very prevalent staple of Scottish dance and traditional Gaelic folksong.

That summer of 1973 saw Donnie ripe for some musical diversion. From a very early age he had been encouraged to sing. ‘My mother used to sing, and rightly or wrongly the people round about me seemed to think I sang reasonably well. It was traditional Gaelic singing, but not heavy stuff – children’s songs, pub stuff’.

Going Home: The Runrig Story, p.29

Ingenious of course is their recurring and cleverly understated use of Gaelic psalm-singing, described by Calum as ‘a sound which is old and profound’, quoting William Laidlaw’s description of the traditional worship:

‘I can compare the singing to nothing earthly, except it be imagining what would be the effect of a gigantic Aeolian harp with millions of strings’.

The Highest Apple - An Ubhal As Airde: Amazon.co.uk: Music

Listening to Steve Gwyn Davies’ album The Highest Apple (an instrumental cycle of Runrig songs) reminded me of just how intrinsic their melodies are, tunes that seem to emerge from the land itself, and how casually and instinctively one wants to sing, hum, or whistle along, reinforcing Sorley’s own musings on Gaelic song:

‘one of the greatest of all artistic glories, with melodies that rise like exhalations from the rhythms and resonances of the words’.

A sequential tour of Runrig’s albums reveals that yes, the early albums (Play Gaelic (1978), The Highland Connection (1979), and Recovery (1981) are a little rough (‘….the records, some perennially wonderful, some best remembered rather than listened to frequently’. Morton, Going Home p.13), but they helped (or forced) Runrig to cut their teeth and catch the vital spark they so needed.  They contain a special charm, an unrefined potential, and deserve a fair hearing.

Runrig - Heartland | Releases, Reviews, Credits | Discogs

Heartland (1985) is a surprisingly mature album, musically and poetically, considering it was only their fourth (to me it always sounds like a later album).  A graceful grafting of rudimentary electronics, signature tunes, and harmony work which is sadly not so prominent in later albums.

The musical variety of the albums following Heartland into the ’90s show a nice maturation, enhanced by excellent and understated record production (special mention to producers Chris Harley and ‘Runrig’s 7th member’ Calum Malcolm).  Two of my favourite musical moments of all time are found in Searchlight (1989); the gorgeous string interludes in News From Heaven and That Final Mile.

The inventiveness of Runrig’s musical catalogue grew and grew, reaching its peak with the triple crown of Big Wheel~Amazing Things~Mara, and possibly dying away slightly thereafter.

The Big Wheel — Runrig | Last.fm
Na cuibhlichean a’ tionndadh, An rathad deas agus tuath

The Big Wheel (1991) saw massive percussive soundscapes painted wildly on vast atmospheric canvasses, such as Headlights or An Cuibhle Mor; songs that take you places.  This was coupled with a more exploratory content, confronting both life and death in the salute to the cancer victim (‘you had no choice, didn’t ask the dice to fall for you’) and the Beautiful Pain of birth.  The album ends with the unbridled spirituality of their tribute to Uist, Flower of the West:

Sunburst on the morning moor
the light of God, the heart of youth
I look; my eyes find their rest on this garden
the Flower of the West
the silent skies, an innocent heart
holding the moment away from time in the dark
all I see, all I know
is touching the sacred earth and warming the hallowed ground

Runrig - Amazing Things (1993, CD) | Discogs
‘As I draw my latest breath, amazing things are done on earth’

Amazing Things heard the additions of Jew’s harps and the voices of the Brennan sisters to the now-established signature Runrig sound. I always appreciated the line ‘no-one can pull this mountain to the ground’ in the song immediately preceding the well-named track Move a Mountain. One can’t help but admire a lyricist that can reference themselves so sequentially.

A rigorous album with little wastage and no weak songs, Amazing Things caught a wishful picture of the 1990s and the age of invisible dawn, and exhibits Runrig at their best, despite Rory’s fear that it was released too soon after The Big Wheel. From the expansive middle section of Song of the Earth to the easy refrain of Forever Eyes of Blue, the album is oozing with hope, musicality, and poesy.

The moody On the Edge (co-written by Malcolm and Peter) reminiscent of Finbar Furey’s The Lonesome Boatman betrays a deep and intense musicianship that only wants to go deeper.  The album’s earthy ethnic openness leaves you reeling from a sort of post-apocalyptic edginess.

Runrig - Mara (1995, CD) | Discogs

Album-concept writing also reached its zenith in 1995 on the sun-soaked seas of Mara, an album freighted with biblical imagery, married with the eternal theme of the spiritual lessons of the ocean.  The chorus of the opening track Day in a Boat is cleverly repeated in the penultimate track, like a psalm-sandwich church service:

O mollaidh sinn an gaol ‘s an gràs
a thug dhuinn bith,
cho umhail fo ghrein
‘s i dealradh sios air reultan cèin

We will praise the love and grace
that gave us our existence,
so lowly beneath a sun
as it poured out its light on alien stars

Then there are the frenetic techno-rave beats of Nothing But The Sun (the only known Runrig song at time of writing to have inspired its own Twitter page) with its bleak Ecclesiastical bemoaning:

Then I began to see the sun and the moon
as I wandered round in orbit on this land that I called home;
no Messiah up in the sky that I could ever see,
that I could ever know to find my soul
… And all that I had done below the sun would count for nothing
in the turning of the world;
when there is nowhere left to go you walk alone
and watch the void eclipse it all

Despite the slightly clumsy orchestral arrangement, I do love the epic sound-world of The Mighty Atlantic; the drum pattern and natural-sway of the verse makes me feel like I’m on the ferry, and the word-painting is superbly effective.

The choir emphasizing the crash of the waves on the shore reminds me of the opening of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, and there is a desperate sadness in the I-VI-IV progression and cry of the seagulls in Mara Theme.

For the roll of the wind as we sail across the water
the roll of the sea as we’re taken through the night
the dimming lamp of day leaves the crimson foam and spray
‘cross the face of the mighty Atlantic

In this cradle we found love, in our lifetimes we were broken
by the spirit we were turned, here we touched the hope divine
and in the rapture and the charm came the tranquil and the calm
on the rage of the mighty Atlantic

Deepest grave, supreme deceiver
brave new worlds and cursed emotion
let your people go, bring me a saviour
white doves rise above the ocean

The album continues on down road and river, taking us to midnight on the anchorage.  We are welcomed home by a lighthouse and an almost direct quote from Psalm 119:19, amongst even more powerful, nautical imagery:

This world’s not my home, I’m a stranger to the storm;
where the race is quickest the tide runs strong
.… All the world’s a ship, shipwrecked on the sea

With west winds blowing and a big sky above, there is the outro refrain and plea of ‘save me, save me…’

So resurrect the bard

Like the griots and bards of old, Runrig have used their songs to pass on knowledge, to educate, and to make us think about what’s going on in the world and how you treat your fellow man and woman.  They were struck by gritty and harrowing stories of suffering across the continent, and by controversial things in their own history-in-the-making.  On tour in 1986, they witnessed the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Burned onto their hearts is the image of the three women in a kitchen in Chechnya.

Gradually, I began to recognise the importance of Runrig, not just musically …. and not just lyrically, although their evocation of Gaeldom’s great historical struggles over land, culture, and identity were enormously powerful. No, Runrig’s unity with their audience, their position as a talisman providing a sign of hope …. made them unique. And, crucially, not just to native Gaelic speakers, but to West of Scotland Lowland chiels like myself. They revealed something about ourselves and our past which we wanted, needed to hear.

Tom Morton, Going Home: The Runrig Story, p.13

Taking the side of the underdog, Ravenscraig redundancies, or the crofting community, the songs often lament and salute those of lesser means, and display a longing to challenge social injustice as they saw it.  Of Worker for the Wind, Calum says:

A strong feature of island crofting townships and remote communities is the bachelor; often the butt of ridicule and humorous song.  The depression, the alcoholism, the loneliness ignored.

Flower of the West: The Runrig Songbook, p.291

And on the unpleasant issues suggested in Smalltown:

So much of the band’s early work and so much of our own adolescence was synonymous with the west coast village hall and the romanticised maelstrom of country dancing, heavy drinking and the musical diet of accordion dance bands and Country & Western showbands.  It is the environment of the cheap emotion and the easy heartbreak, where the drug of alcohol is not only condoned – it is ingrained in the culture to such an extent that all the inevitable social problems like alcohol dependence and domestic abuse often go unnoticed.

Flower of the West: The Runrig Songbook, p.212
Runrig timeline taken from Wikipedia

And amid the life-affirmingness of Amazing Things comes the bitter, yet hopeful Pog Aon Oidhche Earraich.

An Ruis a’ tuiteam sios mu’m chluasan
An Ear Mheadhain am brot cho dorch
Is thusa, uilc is a’ mhuirt is a’ shabaid
Na mo bheatha a h-uile oidhche

Mu coinneamh clann an t-saoghal ‘s a theaghlaich
Gun ghuth no gaire, Dia no biadh

“Cò às an d’thàinig ne reultan,” thuirt mi
“Co as an d’thàinig grian”
Tha sinn cho leòinte fo a’ ghealaich seo
Anam cràidhte seachad air ifrinn fhèin

Ach tha thusa brosnachadh nam bliadhnaichean
Le saidhbreas seachad air mo dhith
Cho geal ri sneachd gach uile gheamhradh
An t-òran gaoil m’fhaosaid chiontach fhèin

Russia is falling down about me
The Middle East is a broth of darkness
And you, evil, murder, and violence
In my life every evening

Confronted by children and the world family
without voice, laughter, God or food

“So where do the stars come from,” I said
“From where did the sun appear”
We have been so wounded beneath this moon
Souls tortured beyond hell itself

Still you keep bringing inspiration to my years
With blessings beyond my need
Whiter than the snows of each winter
The song of love, my confession of guilt

I love the sobriety of these lines – a reminder that in the comfort of home, there is always the real discomfort, pain, and misery of someone else on the news.  Perhaps a reminder to be grateful and to be gracious.  Yet, amongst the bleakness there are poetic pictures of hope and of Christ:

For the grass grows tall in dreamfields
but after all is said and done
the only thing that ever matters
is to love and to be loved
(Dreamfields)

He wore the beauty of his people
came to tell it to the world
human tears, human oceans
the greatest song I’ve ever heard
(Song of the Earth)

Runrig concert, Inverness, Aug 2012.jpg

O Cho Mealt sagely warns that there is much deception in the world, hard lessons learned by dealings with greedy music companies.  A warning to be wise and wary of everyday cons; perhaps of spam emails or of misplaced trust in someone you thought was a friend.  Like the psalms, their songs to express doubts, anger, sadness, and lack of (or questioning of) faith (e.g. The Apple Came Down).  There’s even a utopian plea for the sake of the planet:

How can we close our eyes, watch our world break down and die
how can we let it be a slave to world economy?
How can we be like wood, watch our world cry out for food?

World appeal, world appeal, this is our planet let it heal!
The earth, the rain, the air, the seas; this is our future, let it breathe

Liberate the word inspired

Film will follow Runrig brothers' labour of love

The pens of the MacDonald Brothers have captured so many views from so many angles.  Well-read wordsmiths and tunesmiths whose songs lyrics can be read like poetry or sung across the decades and generations.  Their music the essence of scenes and sounds across Scotland and beyond.

It’s a privilege to pay tribute to men who can sing to my young daughter about my late father. All of us need and deserve that kind of song.

Angus Peter Campbell, Foreword, Going Home: The Runrig Story, p.10

You may find yourself reciting or singing their poetry it in the strangest or most familiar of places; from summer holidays under the big skies of Uist, the Atlantic round your shoulders, to the city of lights and the crowded river.  On my first trip to the continent it was a comfort to recite:

Chur mi mo chùl ri Lunnain
an samhradh air m’aodann
‘s mi air sràidean mòr na Roinn-Eòrpa

I have put London behind me
the summer is on my face
and I am on the big streets of Europe

Sràidean mòr na Roinn-Eòrpa

So intelligent is their craft that you can listen anywhere and feel the drama or romance of a journey past mountain and moorland, to the euphoria of driving a cloudy grey [Scottish] motorway (it’s either them or Del Amitri, right?) to the beat and blast of Headlights or Road Trip:

Take heart!  Cheat the dark;
get driving with the lark
as cities sleep, steal a march before the sun
it’s all philosophy on an open motorway
chasing break of day somewhere on a border town

They also manage to rose-tint as much as you like the scenes and sounds of their youth, some unchanged by time.  Pride of the Summer is a nice reminisce of Portree; if you’ve ever taken a walk out to the Black Rock in summer then you might know the excitement of hearing the pipes in the square (which you could hear from miles away) and rushing down eagerly to watch those colours ablaze.  Overly nostalgic perhaps, but many will know of the camans swing without warning, and happily never witness it again.

Colours ablaze in the evening

There’s something for everyone.

A dh’innse na firinn

But Runrig were not perfect, and they (or was it their management?) did make mistakes. Until a couple of years ago, I was convinced that their biggest mistake was naming their 1995 album ‘Mara‘ instead of ‘Day in a Boat‘, which I felt was a more apt name for the journey that album takes us on:

Day in a Boat was going to be the album title, right up until the final week of recording when we changed our minds.  There was a shortlist of favourite contenders pinned up on the studio wall and we began to notice a lot of ticks appearing beside the Gaelic title – then, confession time revealed the culprits.  We were all in favour; so Mara it had to be.

Flower of the West: The Runrig Songbook, p.84

But on serious reflection, there were other mistakes that did lose them a few fans.

On what proved to be the wettest day in modern Scottish history (not their fault!), they should have just gotten on with the show, perhaps even started early, instead of letting their fans steam away in the rain for an extended time.  Perhaps it was a management / production decision and out of their hands, but they were under a roof and the fans were not.

Also, Runrig concerts became very same-y.  I was disappointed to see more or less the same show over several live concerts (interspersed of course with new songs from new albums).  When there was a big drum solo, increasing in tempo and intensity, we all knew that the Skye riff would start after the dramatic pause.  Some of the same fans agreed that they never again needed to hear Alba, or indeed Every River.  Or Rocket to the Moon.  Or Protect and Survive.  Fine songs, but I would so love to have heard stage versions of lesser-known Runrig songs.

Were Runrig becoming too big for their ceilidh boots? Were they now perhaps too aware that they were (or had been) the main attraction?

Sadly, some fans, who had been at Barrowlands and Loch Lomond et al stopped attending concerts and lost interest.  Perhaps a sign of the times, an age of indifference and of relative wealth and success?  After all, at the roots of many Runrig songs is the essence of young love, of poverty, and of struggle.  Could it be that they had said and sung all they needed to, and it was time to stop?

I admit that my parents offered to buy me a ticket to Party on the Moor, which I wasn’t really interested in at that point, so I didn’t take up their kind offer – did I make a mistake?  Did I miss out?  The trouble was, I myself had gone off them a little by then.

April comes to the new grass, on the hills of gold

The Stamping Ground (2001) was a weighty yet relaxed contribution to the canon; all the songs are mature and original, with some beautifully quotable lyrics and singable tunes. The Stamping Ground definitely helped reintroduce the band to a new generation of Riggies (my sister remembers her classmates singing Leaving Strathconnon on the coach as they returned home to Skye, incidentally, from a school trip to Strathconnon).

From the album cover to the symphonic-poem of The Engine Room, the collection is very colourful and saw Bruce really come into his own as frontman.

However, the next installment may have proven that ultimately their creativity and song writing were beginning to plateau, and the latter period (notably the last two albums) definitely lacks some ‘oomph’.

Runrig – Proterra Lyrics | Genius Lyrics
‘As I walk along these shores I am the history within’

Proterra (2003) is a cool concept (with the most sublime rendition of The Old Boys) but I’ve often felt that as an album it’s too clean and too electronic, and demonstrates an overbalance of loud, lengthy, drum-heavy songs that don’t achieve very much musically, or tell a story in the old Runrig way (if you thought those last sixteen bars were enthralling, just wait till you hear the next sixteen…).

While there are extremely tender numbers with the most ethereal imagery such as in Gabriel’s Sword (‘and the words that spell forgiveness wear a thorny crown’), and a most beautiful epilogue from Blair Douglas’ Angels from the Ashes, listening through the album is hard work.

Although Everything You See (2007) has a couple of good tunes, it is slightly overproduced and too clean to be recognisably Riggie.  I have no idea what And the Accordions Played is about…

And We'll Sing von Runrig bei Amazon Music - Amazon.de

There are only one or two songs on The Story (2016) that I listen to properly (in Every Beating Heart they achieved more of a classic feel), and I was sourly disappointed to hear yet another saxophone solo (Onar), one of several distinctly unmusical moments in the album.  And The Story itself sounds suspiciously like a few older Runrig songs smashed together on a mixing desk, much like the Atoms they also sing about.

I respect Rory very much as one of the greatest Gaelic poets of our time, but I can’t bear to listen to his ballad When the Beauty. It’s out of his range, and comes across as clumsily produced. Why not give this number to Bruce’s very fine voice?

There are one or two decisions [or oversights] like this that make the album feel less-ingeniously handled than previous releases.

The album as a whole feels like it was already a kind of a post-post-epilogue.  You could be forgiven for believing that more than one of their previous contributions were meant to be the final one, and the gap of several years with no studio album plus that certain lack of ingenuity following The Stamping Ground did seem like they may have been winding down already.  Surely these lines in 2001 were a build-up to a goodbye:

Book of golden stories, days of open roads
now the Autumn leaves are falling
we’ll meet on the edges, memories, no regrets
now the minstrel boy is calling

You took me through the pages; good happiness is shared
lost in the web of changes
this could be the last dance waltzing in the rain
’till the minstrel comes to save us

But as long as I can see the morning
in miracles much more than I can say
it’s enough to keep me still believing
your memory is everything

Alba no more. Skye no more. Loch Lomond no more. Runrig say farewell |  HeraldScotland

Yet The Story does grow on you, and has some redeeming depth and grace, exemplified in these terrific lines from Somewhere:

Can’t bear to leave this path of years
and the joys that it unfolds
can all this just be ground to dust?
without meaning, resolve, untold
this love is gold, can’t let it go
it’s for all of time

And somewhere in the dark, I’ll find you
somewhere in the light, I’ll meet you there
where immortal souls collide
somewhere out there

‘But as long as I can see the morning, in miracles much more than I can say’

My own feeling is that perhaps, in order to contain the magic, they should have used Party on the Moor (2013), the band’s 40th anniversary, to retire.  Forty-five years, it seems, was a bit too long.  Then again, how do you stop a wheel in motion?

Duisg mo ruin is tuiginn leam

There was the inevitable numbness in the theatre as we made our way into the Hammersmith Odeon for The Final Mile; strangers brought together in the realisation that this was the last ever Runrig London appearance, and the coming summer would host a night which for the band, would see day no more.

The concert opened with drone footage of Portree Bay, zooming in on the Gathering Hall and a performance by the original line-up with a special cameo from Blair Douglas.  Chi mi’n tir san robh mi nam ballach.

However, the concert that followed brought nothing much new.  Most memorable was the very exquisite version of In Search on Angels, sung beautifully and soulfully by Brain Hurren, and featuring one of the most gorgeous guitar licks I’ve ever heard in the middle of the song (Malcolm – you know what I’m talking about!).

Rory, fellow esquire of the Islands, reminisced of their early London gigs; mentioning a particular pub venue on Seven Sisters Road, near where I once lived. How strange and privileged that I am now an audience member at his last one.

See more

Then with the coming of August, there was the inevitable FOMO as I followed as much of The Last Dance as I could over the internet, wishing I could be there, but also wishing that it didn’t have to happen at all!

Tonight as the sun goes down

How to bring this tribute to a close?  If you think about it, it’s probably impossible to pick a favourite song, let alone a favourite line.  However allow me to finish with the inspiring imagery from Running to the Light.

I love to imagine this song as the soundtrack to one of my favourite passages from Leif Enger’s Peace Like A River, on the flight of Jeremiah Land to heaven. As the sunlight fills the Highland hills, the soul runs the straths and glens and valleys. The earth and the future bursting with promise:

Running round the sacred mountain
the rushing stream
feel the power in everything
by the water where the air is clear
surrender everything

Old hearts grow young again
they promise bring
the greenest plants are tender
they’re full of sap in spring
empty the places of the mind
running to the light

Those who stride too far too soon will not hold pace
only the calm will win the race
through the forest, sea of mountain pine
surrender everything

Only those who greatness see in little things
worthy are the simple, they’re happy in their ways
self will wither out of sight
running to the light

Arise soul!  Soar above the singing river
go lying down into the ground
quickened by the stream when all is said and done
the race moves on

Perfect how?

•May 5, 2020 • 2 Comments

From time to time, the sister hashtags #FivePerfectFilms and #FivePerfectMovies will inevitably trend on Twitter, as they did recently (yet another lockdown subculture byproduct).

Probably like most people interested enough to follow those, I blasted out my first five.  Then I asked my wife to guess which ones I’d chosen.  She suggested three belters that I’d not enough thought of.

So I returned to Twitter and snuck in another five, and then another.  In all, I listed twenty-five ‘perfect’ films.

Perfect how?

There was obvious outrage on Twitter that any film could be ‘perfect’ when viewer enjoyment and criticism can only be subjective. However there are films that somehow make their point without too much fuss, and you know that you never need to watch them again (or perhaps again in five years time, which is as often as C. S. Lewis liked to re-read his favourite books, including his childhood favourites.).

Here in random order are my first twenty-five (no spoilers).  Read on for why I chose them.

Casablanca (1942)

Dead Poets Society (1989)

The Godfather Part I (1972)

Local Hero (1983)

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)  

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Goodfellas (1990)

Midnight Run (1988)

Duel (1971)

American Hustle (2013)

Birdman (2014)

The Ides of March (2011)

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

The Drop (2014)

Arbitrage (2012)

Shimmer Lake (2017)

She’s the One (1996)

Capricorn One (1977)

Rebirth (2016)

The Raid (2011)

Heat (1995)

Groundhog Day (1993)

Life of Pi (2012)

World War Z (2013)

And now, for those of you who’ve stayed on, let me try to nail down some reasons that brought these films to mind.

Casablanca (1942)

Director Michael Curtiz Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henried, Dooley Wilson, Claude Raines, Peter Lorre

I remember choosing Casablanca as the subject of a high school class presentation of ‘my favourite media text’.  After tweeting it as the first of my favourite films, a quick re-watch (and my wife’s first viewing!) was of course in order.

This film makes you want to travel back in time, to Casablanca in black and white, and go with everybody to Rick’s.  It makes you want to drink and smoke the night away, and knock on wood with the band.  It makes you want to be immensely composed like Humphrey Bogart, and fantastically beautiful like Ingrid Bergman.

Kultfilm "Casablanca" mit Humphrey Bogart und Ingrid Bergman - DER ...

Because this film was released during WWII, there is a real poignancy to the Nazi resistance, and to the life-and-death of the underground movement, brought gracefully to life by Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo.  Every time I watch, there are tears in my eyes when he leads the singing of La Marseilles (one of many perfect touches of drama amidst the comedic flow of this film).

The sombre tone is balanced by an eloquent script that could be printed off and read at leisure to great delight.  Almost every line is quotable, and with very little wastage or circumlocution.

drunkard | Tumblr

Rick is strong and cold, but also meek and kind.  He shoots to kill, but only once.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Director Peter Weir Starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, Ethan Hawke, Norman Lloyd, Kurtwood Smith, James Waterston

A tragedy of course, but one that will push you bravely to seize the day and your passion for all things beautiful!

Captain John Keating is a teacher so in love with his subject, it permeates into his very speech (‘we didn’t just read poetry; we let it drip from our tongues like honey’) and off-screen and into your conscience.

Oh captain my captain gif 13 » GIF Images Download

It also shows that a non-elitist appreciation of and love for an academic subject can be achieved, attested by the shy smile (‘Thank you boys’) of the late great Robin Williams.

‘But only in their dreams can men truly be free; t’was always thus so, and always t’will be’.  Tennyson?  No, Keating.

Dead Poets Society Turns 30: Where Are They Now | PEOPLE.com

Neil’s final scene, standing at the open window, pale against the moonlight with Mr Perry’s gun in hand and Puck’s garland on head, is absolutely haunting.

This film also introduced me to Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass. And made me genuinely fearful of Red Forman in That ’70s Show.

The Godfather (1972)

Director Francis Ford Coppola Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, John Cazale, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire

I admit that I used to list this as my favourite film before I’d even seen it (you want to be cool right?), but it’s basically head and shoulders above every film ever. Of course it’s been analysed and reviewed to death so I will add very little here.

James Caan, Marlon Brando, Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, John Cazale

Part I invites you into the Corleone family home, a secure and beautiful Italian ex-pat haven.  Many have commented that this cleverly and subtly invites us into the very core (see what I did there?) of The Family and to sympathise with them, even though they are criminals with little respect for the lives of those who’ve made mistakes.

On the macro-theme of Michael Corleone’s story, some deleted scenes in Part I are brilliant and sadly left out of the director’s cut: after Connie’s wedding, Vito takes his sons to visit Genco in Hospital. As they get into the car, he challenges Michael for not coming to him as a son should to his father, showing a great tension and that not all is perfect in the life of the Don. Later, when Michael arrives home after Tom is kidnapped, he gently lifts Theresa Hagen’s chin, and gives her a brotherly smile, showing his growing responsibility and commitment to The Family.

The culmination of powerful moments is when the pacifistic Michael takes a seat in the Don’s office, and muses over how revenge might be exacted on Solozzo. Briefly he becomes the sinister brains behind the whole operation. Even the capo regimes sit listening in silence….

New trending GIF tagged sorry al pacino the… | Trending Gifs

Local Hero (1983)

Director Bill Forsyth Producer David Putman Starring Peter Reigart, Peter Capaldi, Burt Lancaster, Fulton Mackay, Denis Lawson, Jenny Seagrove, Rikki Fulton

(This is a good article that came up during my research – the author said what I wanted to say.)

For the soundtrack alone, and especially the diegetically broadcast The Way it Always Starts (sung by the late Gerry Rafferty) this film deserves your attention.

The film that makes me cry: Local Hero | Film | The Guardian

This excellent documentary captures the humble intrigue Local Hero’s production generates.  It’s so subtle, the first time I watched it I didn’t realise it was comedic and took it more seriously than its own dead-pan delivery.  Peter Capaldi said that in an early morning scene he yawned to convey lack of sleep, and was scolded by Bill Forsyth for being too obvious.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve understood more of what drives the story and characters in this film, and possibly the more sinister undertone: who doesn’t want to own a nice city apartment and drive a Porsche, or an hotel and accountancy firm, and why Ben’s life was possibly spared only by Happer’s timely arrival.

For me, the film’s true character properly gets underway when Mac visits Happer’s office; As Happer talks about his great-grandfather, Mac looks admiringly at a portrait on the wall.  ‘No, that’s not him,’ says Happer.

10 Things I Learned: Local Hero | The Current | The Criterion ...

Filming Local Hero was Peter Reigert’s first visit to Scotland, which he said helped him play the character of Mac, himself discovering his Celtic (or Slavic?) roots. Follow Mac’s journey and discover the beach and casserole de lapin, and Hebridean evenings with Northern Lights.

(P.S. Every time I buy shampoo I mutter to myself, ‘Normal. Extra normal.’)

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

Director Kevin Reynolds Starring Jim Calvaziel, Guy Pierce, Dagmara Domińczyk, James Frain, Richard Harris, Henry Cavill

‘What do you want to buy?’ ‘Revenge.’

My Guy: The Count of Monte Cristo | Midwest Film Journal

For those of us who haven’t read the D’Artagnan Romances (and apparently they take a lot of reading) this film is a very user-friendly introduction to the complexity of Dumas’ art.

Perhaps too perfect, it blends heart-wrenching acting with drama, comedy, quick-witted and great lines, swashbuckling et al, and just enough and not-too-much romance. The first time my wife watched this, she cried so much at the betrayal scene that we had to pause so I could convince her to keep watching.

Satisfying and clever, with top performances from all actors, including Henry Cavill, and proving that The Witcher doesn’t require him to act, which he can do quite well when the occasion calls for it.

‘I do not believe in God.’  ‘That doesn’t matter; he believes in you.’

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Director Steve Kloves Starring Beau Bridges, Jeff Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer

(While researching, I found this very good article.)

The gorgeous diegetic piano music in this film inspired me to actually do some practice and to learn to play by ear; I was desperate to play as smoothly as the Baker brothers’ jazz numbers.

Vagebond's Movie ScreenShots

A story of brotherhood, loyalty, friendship, and music. Not just a gentle comedy, there are some gritty moments, plenty of tension, and the fight scene breaks my heart every time.

The Bridges brothers did actually play the keys for filming, but were overdubbed by professionals. The beauty of the music (some sadly left off the soundtrack) is vastly understated, but a massive strength in this film aside from the story, gags, and convincing acting all round.

Michelle Pfeiffer’s real singing voice was not overdubbed.

The character building is nice and subtle, supplemented by their costumes, attitudes, and home-setting; the gum on Susie’s lip and her broken heel; Jack’s bare-floorboards apartment, complete with grand piano, TV set, coffee percolator, and stacks of LPs; or the shelves laden with memorabilia, shot glasses, etc. in Frank’s garage. A good place for a workshop.

I love the intro scene with Jack walking past Seattle music shops. The neon lights scream ’80s American nostalgia. And so do the diners.

Image

Jurassic Park (1993)

Director Steven Spielberg Starring Sam Neill, Richard Attenborough, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Samuel L Jackson, Wayne Knight, Bob Peck, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazello, Martin Ferrero

This was the film that everyone talked about in school. My parents thought I was too young to see it when it was released, so we first watched it as a family on Christmas Day 1996. I always associate it with the joint-excitement of Christmas Day and the excitement of finally being allowed to watch it.

Brachiosaurus | Jurassic Park wiki | Fandom
Groundbreaking CGI, even decades later

Apart from one or two flaws in the plot (where exactly was the cliff-edge in relation to the t-rex paddock?), the concept of this island zoo, based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel is brilliant and gripping. After-all, why shouldn’t this all be possible?

Every reveal (either character or dinosaur) is timely and perfect; the steadfast Robert Muldoon (the late Bob Peck) overseeing the raptor transition in the dark rain / the reflection of slippery Donald Gennaro being towed nervously on a raft / Dr Grant and Dr Sattler, passionate paleontologists hard at work on a dig and furious at the arrival of the helicopter for blowing dust all over their site / and obviously we hear much about the dangerous creatures before we ever dreadfully see them (‘Now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour, right?‘).

Jurassic Park': How water cup scene was made - Business Insider

Characters are strong but with room for well-paced development, n.b. Dr Alan Grant finds children annoying, but during the disastrous visit he endangers his own life to save Tim and Lex, and in the helicopter en route home, both children fall asleep in his arms as he gazes at the pelicans, flying in dinosaur-like formation into the sun; Ian Malcolm’s theories add a weighty logic to the fantastic, do make sense, and are ultimately proven correct, to the chagrin of the park’s presumptions; and John Hammond’s emotional last glance at Isla Nublar is deeply elegiac.

The cinematography is subtle and sublime and adds to the storytelling very effectively; most especially the unfolding of the T-Rex escape scene, the vibration of the water in the glass, the image of horror on Lex’s face as liquid mud pours into the upturned vehicle as the T-Rex crushes it down into the ground, or the camera following little Tim’s legs through the long grass to reveal the incapacitated triceratops. Best of all, the goat leg that slams down on the sunroof.

Released in 1993, this film has aged beautifully and its CGI and dinosaur models are as scary and convincing as they could possibly be today.

Goodfellas (1990)

Director Martin Scorsese Starring Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino

<p class="has-normal-font-size" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">

Martin Scorsese and the cast of Goodfellas (1990) | Making Histolines
<p class="has-normal-font-size" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">

The tension is so well handled that as a viewer, I am completely silent when Tommy threatens Henry in the bar, and I’m panicking with Karen as she empties thousands of dollars-worth of cocaine down the toilet, and I’m as paranoid as Henry when I see the helicopters.

The brilliant epilogue shows just the variety of stroytelling tools Scorsese has been using throughout; Liotta completely breaks the fourth wall, like he’s tired of narrating onscreen (a job he shared with Karen Bracco when the scene belonged to Karen Hill) and takes it off-screen for a more personalised, fast-forwarded ending.

Kudos to Joe Pesci for portraying the amazingly chilling, sinister, and heartless persona of Tommy DeVito – not even a single hint of daft Sticky Bandit Harry Lime.

Midnight Run (1988)

Director Martin Brest Starring Charles Grodin, Robert de Niro, Yaphet Kotto, Dennis Farina, John Ashton, Joe Pantoliano

Whenever my wife and I are flying somewhere, as the plane picks up speed to take off, one of us will inevitably look at the other and say, ‘these things go down!

A very tight script full of ad libs, in-jokes, and perfect timing, it’s very difficult to decide who is the bad guy in this film. Towards the end, there is however a chilling and brilliant touch of cold evil uttered by Jimmy Serrano (played by the late Denis Farina): ‘I stopped by here to tell you two things; number one is that you’re going to die today. Number two, I’m gonna go home, have a nice hot meal, I’m gonna find your wife, and I’m gonna kill her too.

The action scenes (car-chases and shoot-outs) spared no expense and will not disappoint. The pitting together (or against one-another?) of Robert de Niro and the gentleman Charles Grodin (they almost cast Robin Williams) was genius. I find all their conversations hilarious.

How to make Heston Blumenthal's Chorizo and Sous Vide Scrambled ...

The comedy, action, and thrill do slow down at times to dip deeply into themes of family and friendship (Walsh is briefly reunited with his ex-wife and daughter, and mutual pity, respect, and fondness grows between Walsh and Mardukas) adding some satisfying weight to the story.

Duel (1971)

Director Steven Spielberg Starring Dennis Weaver

Original DUEL Movie Poster - Steven Spielberg - Dennis Weaver ...

I caught the second half of this film on TV one Saturday evening as a teenager. Absolutely thrilling.  I asked my Dad about it, but he could only vaguely recall seeing it, and couldn’t give me any answers about the truck driver.

I read somewhere that Dennis Weaver’s character was deliberately named David Mann, to drive home that he is an everyman and that what happened to him could happen to me and to you, perhaps on our way to work. Weaver was perfectly cast; he is irritable and can be annoying, yet we are totally on his side. His small victories bring us small relief. Apart from a couple of instances of over-acting, he takes us with him right across the desert.

Duel (1971)

As Spielberg’s first colour picture and released originally as a ‘telefilm’, Duel is very much underrated. It’s a short thriller (based on the short story by Richard Matheson), very scary and very satisfying.

A tiny cast and tiny script means Spielberg had to rely on building suspense by almost Hitchcockian use of close-ups, long shots, panoramas, tricks of time, light, monologues, and sound & music (or lack thereof).

American Hustle (2013)

Director David O Russell Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper

Also blogged here, this is one film I saw in the cinema on its release, and ever since have not felt the need to re-watch; partly because I worry I will spoil it for myself if I see it again.

I remember the beginning; Christian Bale with his big beer-belly, perfecting his comb-over, and we laughed, and then we went quiet because he was still doing it. Is this supposed to be funny?

Jeremy Renner with Christian Bale backstage American Hustle ...

It was so over the top in some scenes (especially the singing of Delila by Jeremy Renner’s Mayor Polito and friends) that it is indeed funny, but also deep and touching; DiMasio falling in love with Sydney over his fiancee, and Rosenfeld developing a real friendship with Polito, until he tells him the truth and gets beaten up, whereupon he lies, weeping softly in the car, comforted by Sydney who helps him with his medication. That scene stayed with me.

Others may have seen the heist and double- or even triple-crossing coming, but I didn’t. I couldn’t have been more satisfied.

Also, a superb soundtrack that introduced me to Duke Ellington’s Jeep’s Blues.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone

Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) review – a ...

I don’t want to say too much about this film, because (ironically) I don’t want to expose my own ignorance, in all its unexpected virtue. I didn’t fully understand the film, and have never yet managed a full viewing. Indeed, Birdman can be confusing and last time it was shown on TV, twitter was alive with disparaging tweets.

Scenes as long and unbroken as some in Birdman are unusual, and the fact that the film is centred around a theatre, and some scenes involve actual productions mean sometimes the acting feels very ad-libbed and occasionally it doesn’t quite work.

love birdman!!! | Tumblr

Michael Keaton’s delivery was passionate and totally believable. I love how he mutters to himself and faces up (or not) to his own insecurities.

The actual appearance of Birdman is kind of creepy, but also very cool, and really makes me question what is real (in the film). When he is on the roof and the woman across in the other block shouts, ‘is this for real or are you making a movie?’ is it because she sees the film crew? He shouts back that he’s making a movie. So what is real?

This movie also gave me a totally fresh appreciation of the 2nd movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in e minor, Op. 27 which I regretably used to skip over.

The Ides of March (2011)

Director George Clooney Starring Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella

Also blogged here, this is a clean story about dirty politics. Perhaps too simple a story and also too simple a twist, but this is part of the charm. It’s not too heavy.

Ides of March' doesn't go far enough - Arkansas Times

The whole film feels seasonally cold. Cleverly shot with plenty of blues and reduced colours, and lots of leafless trees.

We get to see the campaign being run both behind and in front of the camera. As the choir sings to the backdrop of the star-spangled banner, we see a less photogenic scene unfurling backstage.

Based on the 2008 play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, this film chills to the bones. Everyone gets what they want for a while.

Ryan Gosling GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

Director Derek Cianfrance Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Craig van Hook, Ben Mendelssohn, Olga Merediz, Mahershala Ali, Ray Liotta

Another one I haven’t re-watched since I saw it in the cinema (I don’t want to spoil it) and also blogged on here, this magnificent film leaves the viewer with possibly one of the finest cinema quotes ever; ‘when you ride like lightning, you crash like thunder‘.

The Place Beyond the Pines - Wikipedia

The respective character stories are deep and engaging, and heart-rending and tragic.

The music was very well chosen, especially the intensely creepy and mysterious Fratres for Strings and Percussion by Arvo Part. The film unfolded like the chapters of a book; two generations succoured by injustice, love, corruption, and innocence.

The Drop (2014)

Director Michaël R. Roskam Starring Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts

Honestly, I didn’t enjoy this film very much but it did end very satisfyingly, and the story wrapped up nicely. Sometimes that’s what you need.

Tom Hardy doesn’t do much acting, but his character follows an interesting story.

Movie Review: The Drop | Geek Ireland

The film keeps us in a gentle suspense; what is going to happen to the dog, and the girl with the mentally disturbed boyfriend (a brilliant and unsettling performance from Matthias Schoenaerts)? What’s his problem, and what does he really want?

But the bad guy is dead before you know it. All strings cut and a fresh start for the business and for the protagonist.

Good (and sadly last) performance from James Gandolfini.

Arbitrage (2012)

Director Nicholas Jarecki Starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth

See Richard Gere force himself to play the part of a wealthy businessman for once.

Power is his alibi.

He has an affair, but tragically his lover is killed when he falls asleep at the wheel en-route to their out-of-town getaway. The car catches fire, and he decides to use this to his advantage to get away and claim the car as stolen. No-one knew he was there.

Rental Pick: Arbitrage (2012) – FlixChatter Film Blog

Has he covered his tracks? As the detective muses, there are probably twenty things he hasn’t thought of….

Shimmer Lake (2017)

Director Oren Uziel Starring Benjamin Walker, Rainn Wilson, Stephanie Sigman

Shimmer Lake (2017) - IMDb

A film that I initially found difficult to engage with, because it plays on smalltown boredom by itself crawling along with lots of inane conversation about smalltown events and chit-chat.

However, these smokescreens I believe are to deliberately cause a confusion to thicken the plot as it were. Some satisfying double-crossing is afoot, methinks.

Shimmer Lake Trailer Reveals Netflix Crime Story Told in Reverse ...

Good acting from a cast I’d never seen before, this film is worth a rewatch for its dry humour, deliberately slow build-up, and weirdly satisfying twist.

She’s the One (1996)

Director Edward Burns Starring Edwards Burns, John Mahoney, Cameron Diaz, Michael McGlone, Maxine Bahns, Jennifer Aniston

There isn’t a whole lot to say about this film. I can see why some wouldn’t like it, but it’s a very tightly produced picture with not one line or beat dropped throughout.

She's the One (1996 film) - Wikipedia

It makes you think and makes you laugh.

Also, it’s nice to see John Mahoney out of that darned armchair.

Capricorn One (1977)

Director Peter Hyams Starring Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Sam Waterston, O. J. Simpson, Hal Holbrook, Brenda Vacarro

I’m surprised NASA didn’t block the making of this film, in the same way that the mafia almost blocked the making of The Godfather.

Definitely the most satisfying movie ending, and probably the most suspenseful film I’ve ever seen.

A fast and sharp script, a little bit of over-acting, but a truly gripping plot.

And a good warning to us all about what could have happened, and what might currently be happening.  Do we know for sure it didn’t (1969)?

Rebirth (2016)

Director Karl Mueller Starring Fran Kranz, Adam Goldberg, Nicky Whelan, Kat Foster

Admittedly I didn’t actually enjoy this movie but boy, it got me thinking. My feeling is that I would have behaved just like the protagonist when he entered his first Rebirth session.  I would’ve observed from a distance, and been called out by the group leader.

A tour of ambition and sensual confrontation, Rebirth makes its protagonist question what is real, what he believes in, and where he is going. And if it does its job, so will you.

Watch it carefully.

The Raid (2011)

Director Gareth Evans Starring Iko Uwais, Ananda George, Ray Sahetapy

Some friends and I went to see Dredd (2012) in the cinema; afterwards, one of them felt that the film had borrowed too much from The Raid‘s theme of being locked in a massive residential block where the tenants are looking to kill you.

The Raid (2011 film) - Wikipedia

I’d never seen The Raid, so I checked it out and absolutely loved it. Films with martial arts aren’t my thing, but in this film the combat is used like a lightsabre duel in the origianl Star Wars Trilogy, gracefully and not too much, as a last resort but one that you’ve been waiting for.

The idea of these police men, simply doing their job, and suddenly being locked inside a massive tower block, maze-like and ominous, is a terrifying concept. You are not leaving this block alive.

The variety of techniques used by the boss to locate the police within the building is entertaining and not at all ridiculous.

Heat (1995)

Director Michael Mann Starring Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Natalie Portman, Val Kilmer, Danny Trejo, Jon Voight, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, William Fichtner, Kevin Gage

“Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Heat Q&A with Michael Mann, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro | Collider
Director Michael Mann with Al Pacino and Robert de Niro

With a broad palate of acting talent and a tapestry of interweaving stories, this terrific film blends action and depth. The ending may make you cry unashamedly, and I promise that I’m not only including Heat because of its cool factor.

Characters are properly developed (with a special nod to the Neil Macaulay story, finally caving in to both loneliness and revenge), everything works nicely as a film, and the intensity of certain scenes mean I sometimes need to take a break and press pause when I watch it.

Groundhog Day (1993)

Director Harold Ramis Starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell

Nothing to add.

What’s not perfect about this film?

Life of Pi (2012)

Director Ang Lee Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

I went to the cinema late on a Friday evening after work to catch this film, but sadly missed the first c’20 minutes.  So I went back a couple of Fridays later to watch the whole thing again, this time in 3D (which didn’t work that well as the screen was too small).

The introduction had me spellbound; gorgeous Indian animals, scenery, and the beautiful Pi’s Lullaby.

The Tsimtsum sinking scene was visually epic, and the intense detail of the CGI Richard Parker had me questioning its reality.

Plenty of wry humour to keep you laughing through the grim survival. My hopes were almost dashed when Pi’s diary was blown away in the storm.

Based on Yann Martel’s book, no film should be this random and clever and still work. The book is beautiful and rich and like all great stories, could also be a factual account, although fantastic. After all, do bananas float in seawater?

World War Z (2013)

Director Marc Forster Starring Brad Pitt, Mireile Enos, Daniella Kertesz, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino

Based on the 2006 novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks, this is a very clever and mature zombie movie.

I’ve never been sure if the trailers deliberately hid the fact that this was about zombies, but despite the ‘Z’, I didn’t know what was coming.

The intro scene (filmed in George Square in Glasgow) was unsettling and confusing because they are in traffic as normal, then suddenly there are explosions and chaos. Obviously the government has been trying to keep the outbreak secret but it’s gotten out of control.

World war z pushing movies GIF - Find on GIFER

What makes this different from random, gratuitious zombie movies is the deep silences when we are in a time of safety. Everyone whispers and watches their backs. No-one smiles or laughs in this film, adding to the intensity and anxiety.

World War Z (2013)

There are also moments of deep humanity, like when Gerry is almost bitten by a zombie, he stands on the edge of a high building and counts down the seconds so that he will lose his balance and fall to his death should he be changed. He is willing to sacrifice his life rather than convert to zombie-ism.

After the plane crash, there is complete silence. Gerry makes his way to the WHO hospital. Once inside, the doctors played by Peter Capaldi and Pierfrancesco Favino survey him with intense caution. Everyone is suspicious.

I have never heard (or felt) a cinema theatre so silent as in the last half-hour of this film.

Also blogged here.

Thank you for staying on. Okay, so they’re not perfect….

You know what’s wrong with Skyrim these days?

•August 19, 2019 • Leave a Comment

(As you read my post, listen to the beautiful Skyrim Exploration Suite by composer Jeremy Soule)

Skyrim Exploration Suite - YouTube
‘Skyrim, also known as the Old Kingdom or the Fatherland, was the first region of Tamriel settled by humans…’ — Unknown, Provinces of Tamriel

What’s wrong with Skyrim?  Well, more on that later.  My biggest Skyrim regret is that I only discovered it on Christmas Day 2017, just over six years after its 11/11/11 release.

My friend Jim wanted to show me a game he thought I’d like, and I am forever in his debt.  He logged into Steam, and passed me the controller.

Naïvely, I thought this was a brand new game (kudos to Bethesda).  Playing it for the first time caused me to both regret (I’ve been missing out) and endorse (I’ve got so much to discover….) my absence from the gaming world for so long.

The opening was (and still is) haunting.  I awoke to the sound of horses and carts, in a misty pine landscape.  There was the faint music of strings, and a strained horn.  I knew things weren’t right: we were prisoners.

It’s exciting; it’s mysterious.  Who am I, where am I, where am I going?  ‘Hey you! Finally awake’, Ralof says.

Where are they taking us?

I remember clumsily working my way through the Helgen Keep and eventually arriving at Riverwood; I sojourned at the home of Alvor, the salt-of-the-earth blacksmith who tasks me to reach the city with news of the Helgen dragon attack.

Ah, Dragonsreach….! With its grand fires and tables, and smoky sunbeams, where the Jarl sits enthroned among the clouds (though I don’t get there often).

Practicing the controls, I picked up an item in a tavern, and the entire company therein turned on me and began to hack me apart with shouts of ‘thief!’  Game over.

At this point, I decide it’s time to return the controls to Jim.  I watch enraptured as he sneaks around the rocky terrain avoiding the dragon disguised against Mount Anthor – will it see us?  It’s so exciting.  I knew then that I had to get my own copy.

Finally saw a dragon flying over Dragonsreach. : skyrim
Dragsonsreach

This was the most beautiful introduction to open world RPG I could have asked for.  Although Skyrim time/distance proportions are sometimes a bit warped, it is seemingly limitless (and do you have the time to check?).  Those mountains in the distance, you can actually reach the summit.  That lake?  You can swim across it.  No invisible walls to run stupidly into.

The scenery is spectacular, and often I stop to watch a sunset, or gaze from a lofty peak to see what I can see.  It takes me right back to Glen Shiel, to Rannoch Moor, to the Cairngorms, and even to Scandinavia.

The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim Reviews - TechSpot

It’s quasi-Song of Ice and Fire, quasi-Middle-Earth – it’s indulgent one-size-fits-all high-fantasy.

Almost a year later, time had allowed me to research the game and to invest in a second-hand Xbox 360, and from the same shop, a £1.50 edition of Skyrim.  Christmas Eve, almost exactly a year since my first encounter in Tamriel, and I was back!

Artwork Realm of the Dragonborn | Skyrim | Bethesda Softworks ...

TwevA year of cursory (elder) scrolling through forums, fan videos, and listening to the epic soundtracks hadn’t really prepared me for the variety of actual gameplay.  Tomb Raider-like puzzles and door locks, Hitman-like sub-quests with multiple-possible outcomes, as well as potion mixing, item-making, trading, combat, and the freedom to follow a quest line or go on a frolic of my own.

Elder Scrolls etiquette and game nuances took some hard learning.  Some items can be taken, others only stolen.  Some quests will make you question your upbringing by necessitating you to pick a lock, look through someone’s bedside table, or read someone’s private journal, yet some fairly innocuous things are punishable by guards drawing swords and slashing you into surrender.  The NPCs will forgive you after three days, or never at all.

Don't fall. For the love of the Devines, don't fall. | The Elder ...

Watching videos of Arena (1994) and Daggerfall (1996) gameplay reminds me of PC games like Witchhaven (1995) and Lost Eden (1995), but not in a good way.  I always found those games kind of claustrophobic and creepy.  Morrowind (2002) and Oblivion (2006) show a nice maturation, and I will definitely play these sometime.

Getting stuck in a puzzle or dungeon inevitably led me online to seek the answer.  What have I unearthed?!  There are miles of answers, thoughts, and discussions from late 2011 onwards, incorporating much more advanced versions of the game (Special Edition, DLCs, etc.).  Indeed, some of my frustrations or ideas for improvement have been solved many times over by mods.  Playing a little ESV, with a twist of vanilla, is actually just scratching the surface.

Video Games Dragon GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

~ Likes ~

Brynjolf’s Scottish accent.

The Khajiits’ soothing voices, and their collective general attitude. Also that they talk about themselves in the third person. Or cat.

Skyrim is so big, you can keep discovering (or rediscovering) new places. You may spend some emotional hours in a certain location during your first playthrough, and ever afterwards only be able to wonder where it was….

Each part of Skyrim has a distinctive feel; the flora and fauna, climate, etc.

The tavern music is warm and delicious; truly beautiful and skillful playing.  It invites you right around the fire for a Winter’s tale.

The dragon realizations. Really makes you admire how far computer game animation has come.

The dread I felt when I first saw the world-eater, Alduin across the plains of Eastmarch, raising another dragon from a burial mound.  How do I stop him?!

A glitch that doubled Louis Letrush, as in, there were two of him.  After a while, there were five of him, all hanging around Whiterun stables and speaking in unison.  That made the Thieves Guild quest to pickpocket him interesting.

A host of deities worshipped or despised respectively by various citizens of Tamriel.  Add to this a touch of racism (e.g. ‘Skyrim belongs to the Nords!’ or the fact that the Khajiit are not permitted within the cities’ walls) and it becomes a believable poly-ethnic society. NPCs seemed to like me better on my Nord playthrough (‘how can I help a brother Nord?‘).

The Jeremy Soule soundtrack, especially Streets of Whiterun (a fellow Dovahkiin listens to this as he goes to sleep at night) and the Exploration Suite, which I used to play quietly in the office.  It once alerted another Dovahkiin to my allegiance.  At times, it’s very Sibeliusian (compare it with The Swan of Tuonela or the Violin Concerto in d minor, Op. 47).

The bustle of daytime in the market places and taverns at night.

The slightly sarcastic, passive-aggressive tone of your prescript questions.  Following the rebellion, the Dragonborn has the option to ask Ulfric’s right-hand man, ‘So, what now for the Mighty Galmar Stone-Fist?’  I like to ask him this repeatedly in different accents.

The intensity of a dungeon filled with Draugr, or a cave ridden with Falmer.  I used to hate playing these quests if I was home alone.

Running behind Lydia just before she says, ‘I’m right behind you‘.

The slow clapping executed by an audience on a bard finishing a song.  Also, their drunken dancing is quite amusing.

Reaching the end of the Helgen keep cave and seeing the light of day and To Skyrim….  Breathe the free air again, my friend.

~ Dislikes ~

Chaurus reapers.

Quests that insult your intelligence and/or are set by NPCs too lazy to deserve their station (someone at Dead Man’s Drink asked me to deliver a bag of ashes to a priest sat across at another table for them).

Stupid enemies; sentinels who mutter ‘I guess I was just hearing things’ as their comrades die off one by one, impaled with arrows.

Sparse housing and populations. Time-space proportion aside, it’s dissatisfying that the cities aren’t more populous and that so much space is wasted; why are there so few actual residents and buildings within the ‘cities’ (what’s with Winterhold?)?  The buildings (especially inns) seem a bit too big proportionately for the residents, of whom there are so few. Couldn’t Skyrim towns have more and smaller buildings. And shouldn’t the farms be larger?

The need for immersive mods – with all the detail Bethesda included, why not include water drips when it’s raining, organised bandits, etc. I.e. what’s the point of food, beds, and potions, if you continually self-heal and can go on and on without eating or sleeping? (In ARK your player health deteriorates if you don’t eat and sleep.)

When the game and its systems work against your gameplay; like when your followers/NPCs think they should start fighting each other and won’t stop when you need them, or like the time that everyone in The Drunken Huntsman turned against me (probably some petty thievery on my part) and Lydia killed Elrindir, a sure source of coin in Whiterun, and by far the most polite trader in the game.

You can call a dragon (Od-A-Viing), so why not a horse? When I dismount my horse and it immediately runs to attack any enemy in the vicinity, until it’s wounded, whereupon it runs far, far away, leaving me to deal with an enemy I’d either not noticed or hoped to avoid.  Then I have to go find my horse. Particularly annoying when I’m over-encumbered.

Accidentally telling your follower to ‘wait here’, and then miles later wondering where they are, when you really need them.

Some NPC accents are really out of place in Skyrim, but particularly the horrible voices of both Barbas and his master Clavicus Vile.  Unbearable and laughable, sort of Carry On-esque, and in future I will avoid this quest.  It ruins what Skyrim achieves with otherwise graceful use of Norse and other accents.

Being scolded by all of my housecarls when I’m ‘not supposed to be in here’.

Skyrim children with the same obnoxious face, voice, and attitude; I’m guessing there was one boy actor and one girl actor, obviously not able to do a Nord accent.

Weird quests where an NPC tells you to hurry, but will wait indefinitely for you.  I much prefer quests that are time-sensitive and will fail if you don’t act in time.  The entire civil war between the Empire and the Stormcloaks hinges on your action or inaction (the guards in camp always bemoan ‘the insufferable waiting’).

Consequently, why does the game allow you to join a side and not really respond to your choice, e.g. you are not challenged when entering an Imperial city in Stormcloak guise?

Barbas the dog knocked me off the bridge at Valthiem Towers, just as I was about to save, having killed the bandit leader. Had to do it all again.

Finally being admitted to a guild or faction should be the reward – not being made new leader after a few token quests. And you should not be able to become the leader of more than one fraternity (e.g. The Companions are honourable and have no place for the Thieves Guild or Dark Brotherhood, etc.).

Lack of NPC proactivity:  Thieves Guild members are always in the cistern or Ragged Flaggon, Companions always in Jorvasskr (save from the first time you meet them when they are defending the farms from a giant), rarely doing any fighting or dealing with problems in Skyrim, even though some of them are werewolves.  Why don’t they head out and do some work themselves, instead of giving you jobs?  The Vigilants of Stendarr on the other hand, are quite cool; you will sometimes witness them out in the wilds of Skyrim, killing something evil, warning you to ‘walk always in the light, or we will drag you into it.’

NPC small-talk.  Couldn’t Bethesda have installed the NPCs with some more extended dialogue?  Lucan Valerius keeps thanking me for ‘taking care of those thieves’, which I think was my first side quest.

The book fonts.  Does everyone is Skyrim have the same handwriting?  Bethesda have put overwhelming detail into Skyrim (I’ve read the ESV Official Strategy Guide) so why not some more polygeneous designs in the books, which we do spend significant time reading?

The loading screens: they do give you a break, but there are just so many of them and it wastes so much of my playing-time.

The frequency of dragon attacks; as you progress, through the game, the dragons should be increasingly difficult to defeat.  Ultimately Skyrim is about dragons, yet the dragons themselves are not overly challenging to combat (not more so than, say, a Draugr deathlord).  A dragon fight should be as terrifying as the Helgen attack every time, and towns and villages attacked should be wrecked and gradually rebuilt.  (I also think it would be seriously cool if each dragon you face had an individual name and distinct story, character, combat approach, etc.).

Video Games GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

~ Favourite Quotes ~

Conversations in Skyrim are peppered with poetic and funny sayings.  Sometimes, a phrase will stay with you:

The prey is strong. Stronger than the hunters.

J’Kier, dying hunter

His heart beats with fury and courage that have united the Companions since the days of the distant green summers.  Let it beat with ours, that the mountains may echo and our enemies may tremble at the call.

Kodlak Whitemane, Harbinger of The Companions

There’s beauty here unmatched in all of Skyrim, to be sure.

Faendal

Walk always in the shadows, so that you will see your foes before they see you.

Death is my art, and like all artists, I seek a patron. For a mere handful of gold, I will follow you into any danger.

Blade and shadow, silence and death; these are my arts. For a modest fee, I’ll make great art for you. I know nothing of fear, and nothing of remorse. I am an artisan, painting in strokes of blood-red upon the canvas of life.

Jenassa

The air is so clear in Skyrim, one can see forever.

Ra’zhinda

I fight for the men I’ve held in my arms, dying on foreign soil! I fight for their wives and children, whose names I heard whispered in their last breath. I fight for we few who did come home, only to find our country full of strangers wearing familiar faces. I fight for my people too impoverished to pay the debts of an Empire too weak to rule them, yet brands them criminals for wanting to rule themselves! I fight so that all the fighting I’ve already done hasn’t been for nothing! I fight… because I must.

Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak

There are cities so ancient, the sands have swallowed them whole. But now I will say no more, for I miss my home greatly.

Ri’saad

Azura has given me the gift of foresight. I had a vision of you walking up the steps to this altar long before you were born.

Aranea Ienith

Suffer the Winter’s cold winds, for they bear aloft next Summer’s seeds.

Thorald Gray-Mane

~ Fond memories ~

Finding the Western pass over the mountains into the Whiterun Hold, and descending as a beautiful sunset blazed across the steppe.  Two passing giants scratched their beards as they considered me.

Needing to reach Riften (to find Esbern) and realising I had never explored the East, and I would have to run all the way there, following the roads and roadsigns.

I once ran away from a dragon attack.  A few days later (Tamriel time) two dragons (Ancient and Elder) together attacked and devastated Dawnstar, killing several NPCs.  Was this my fault?

Coming down from Bleak Falls Barrow after my first visit, traumatised by its creepy dungeons and draugr, and reaching Anise’s cabin. Initially I thought she was a sweet and helpless old woman, but began to realise there was something off about her. Her basement was intensely creepy and claustraphobic.

First playthrough, I spent lots of time at Riverwood trying to work out what to do. Eventually I stumbled through the dark into Whiterun, discovering locations in the dark. I’ve never been able to work out their respective directions since.

Awakening from my first werewolf transformation as the gorgeous Aela stood waiting for me in the gentle morn, silhouetted by an equally gorgeous sunrise.

Skyrim - Ancient Stones [Super Extended] - YouTube

Lastly, let me address the elephant in the room – that slight awkwardness when you meet a fellow Skyrim player in real life, and you remember you’re not the only ‘Dragonborn’.  I felt betrayed at first, but I’m getting used to it.

For now, good hunting.

Skull Island

•March 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment

What you can expect from Kong: Skull Island

Image result for kong skull island

  • A lame backstory, involving two WWII pilots.  (The American survives, the Jap doesn’t.)
  • An equally lame present-day story that gives our characters a reason to go to Skull Island.  The trailer featured the line, ‘they weren’t testing nuclear bombs, they were trying to kill something‘.  This gave it a genuine MUTO / Godzilla feel that I was looking forward to.  Alas, this part of the story wasn’t developed that much.  The arguments to be granted a military escort and journey to explore Skull Island weren’t really that convincing.
  • Idiotic military strategy.  Kong starts throwing trees at the helicopters.  Then he just goes ape and starts grabbing them and throwing them at each other, with people on board!  At this point, intelligent commanders would fly them higher, out of his reach, regroup, observe, plan, etc. but our guys kept flying towards him.  What did they think was going to happen?  So much needless death.  If you want to slim your cast down to only a few survivors, send in a small crew to begin with.  Sadly it seems that the Jurassic Park idea of blasting your human element way down to a few heroes is the way to do it.  This wouldn’t really have an effect on character development, as discussed in the next point.
  • Way too many characters, and thus no-one to become engaged with.  John Goodman’s character (initially, the protagonist) was killed off, with no gravity or significance attached.  He was gone in the blink of an eye.  I can’t even remember his character’s name.  For once, the black assistant wasn’t killed off, and survived to the end.  There was a (token) Asian woman, but I don’t know why she was there, probably to give weight to the MUTO theme.  By the end of the film, it is anyone’s guess as to who is the central character.
  • Lots of fast spinning and shaking in fight scenes with large animals.
  • A weird community of people who live on Skull Island, communicating only in tiny nods of the head.  Comes complete with a fully functioning 100ft wooden dam and 3d effect wall engravings.
  • The lukewarm love interest.  The anti-war photographer girl was very pretty, and her beautiful teeth were very straight.  But apart from physical attraction, there was nothing between them.  I think she was there to fulfill the role of beautiful blonde, love interest of men and of Kong.
  • The tracker demanded five times what they were paying him.  They paid him just like that.  No negotiation.
  • CGI effects to die for.  Especially the first time we see Kong in his full height, with a violent sunset behind him, shimmering in the gunfire.  Also, some of the other creatures were really effective, especially the giant spider.  Unfortunately we don’t get to see much of the spider from afar.  It seems they blew their budget on CGI and hoped this would carry along a miserable plot.
  • Sam L’s character had no real reason to become obsessed with revenge.  As a commander of soldiers on a dangerous mission, he knew it was risky, and had seen the skull-chasers; even he could reason that it was better for Kong to be left to live.
  • Some good acting and funny lines from John C.  His reuniting scene with his family at the end brought tears.
  • Excellent old-school footage of real events, like they show in Godzilla movies.  Makes if feel authentic.

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

•July 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I saw the trailer and thought this looked like an epic film.

I saw the film, and was so bored.  Bored, bored, bored.  This is meant to be a kids’ film right?!

There was death, violence, men being visibly beaten by apes, near-nudity, snogging, and of course, the white man’s supremacy celebrated.

There were lots of semi-Congolese men shouting for a long time, holding spears, etc.  A bit stereotyped I thought.

Fair enough, there was good CGI and stunning African scenery, but the story was terrible, and there are only so many times a man, born and raised in the jungle and illiterate until late-teens, and yet able to converse in Congolese, English, and Animal.

A very stigmatised villain played by Christoph Waltz; highly trained kung fu girl, Margot Robbir (where did she learn combat?), to fulfil the feminist agenda; random dead-pan comments and death-defying everything from Tarzan.

AAAaaarrrggghghghghgh!  Don’t waste your time or bring your children!!!!

Our Kind of Traitor

•June 16, 2016 • Leave a Comment

(Susanna White 2016, on the novel by John le Carre)

It was nice to see a good British film, with good British (and other) talent.

This film is not too long, with a very intense middle, and slightly tame twist at the end.

It features Damian Lewis talking like a ventriloquist (moving his mouth as little as possible), and Ewan MacGregor talking really, really, posh Scotch, and being very bland; an unlikely choice for a London university tutor.

download

The choice of names for the characters was terrible.  Lewis is called Hector, MacGregor plays ‘Perry Makepeace’, and Naomie Harris plays ‘Gail Perkins’.  Pretty lame.  I could go on, but I won’t.  I could have made up better names.

Perhaps the strongest theme was the strain on Gail and Perry’s marriage.  He had an affair, but she stayed with him, obviously very hurt, and they are trying to work through it.  She is bitter and he has said sorry, but it shows that a choice like that will have long lasting percussions.  I know it was just a film, but if I was married to Naomie Harris….

ourkindoft

The friendship (if it can be called that) between Hector and Perry (such unlikely names btw) didn’t seem like it would have actually grown at all.  I don’t think they would have ever wanted to see each other again, or that Hector (an MI6 officer) would have allowed Perry to learn where he lived.

2327

Of course, a chilling and somewhat unsettling performance from the mighty Stellan Skarsgard.

I felt that, ultimately, Perry and Gail got out of it a lot smoother than they should have.  If it were a more gritty film, one of them would have died.

‘Anticlimax’ (A.K.A. Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II)

•April 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Boom!

Flashback!

Vision….  Katniss looks really weird and dazed.

Then, an argument, where she doesn’t get what’s happening, and everyone else does.

Then an adventure into The Capital.

Then….Boom!  Explosion!

Katniss wakes up in hospital a few days later.

“What happened….”

“You need to rest, you’re the mockingjay….”

“Peeta blah blah Gale blah blah Primmy blah blah President Snow/Coin blah blah”

Then she recovers, and goes on another adventure where they almost get killed.  Then….

Boom!  Another explosion.  More visions and flashbacks!  More arguments!  More deaths!  Katniss unconscious….

Katniss wakes up in hospital wing.  “Where am I”.

“Take it easy, Mockingjay”.  It’s Hey, Mitch.  Or is it Hamitch.  Or Hamish in American?  More arguments, attitude, risk, further unravelling of a stupid plan which stupid Katniss still doesn’t get.

Next part; more adventuring, explosions, rebellions, arguments, unconsciousness, broken hearts, deaths, ‘what happened’s, etc. etc. etc.

The mess that was screwed up because greedy people wanted to milk the Hunger Games story and make four films out of three books.

A terrible disgrace of a movie, considering how well done and understated the first one was.

Honestly, I hadn’t even realised it had been released, unsure which part of the final film this was meant to be.

Thus, a shoddy anticlimax.  Not helped by Jennifer Lawrence’s inability to act.

Hot July Night ~ Neil Diamond at the O2

•April 11, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Let me get this out of the way first: I don’t need to hear Sweet Caroline ever again; and no, we are not all God’s children.  The gospel of John clearly states that to those who believed have the right to be called children of God.

That said, what a tremendous evening!  What a showman, what a show, oh what a night!

Neil Diamond; where the songwriter meets the poet.  Diamond-heads of the country, unite!  All hail, the King of Diamonds!

The man, in person, has suffered terrible back ache, family pressures, on his third marriage.  I don’t judge, because I don’t know how else he could have done it.  And he makes me, as a fan, feel very special for being there.

Call it good PR, but his on-stage humility is heart-light-warming.  Of course, we don’t know what he may be muttering to his band beyond the microphone, when they ruin the effect by moving around at the end of the song, so Diamond is silouhetted, standing perfectly still, and the band shuffling about behind him cast moving shadows, spoiling the effect.

What musicians though: a stunning sax solo in Love on the Rocks, an accorrdian and beautiful piano effects throughout, and a brilliant band play-off towards the end.

I got  so emotional, more so than before.

The poetry is awesome;

‘Songs she sang to me, songs she brang to me, words that rang in me, rhyme that sprang from me….’ what’s not to love?!

He made me sing like a guitar humming.

 
%d bloggers like this: