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Subnautica Revisited

Subnautica Floating Island
Subnautica is a truly extraordinary exploration and survival computer game. The artistry that went into it, both technical and other, is quite wonderful, and the sheer amount of work involved in creating its vast world (mostly underwater) staggers my mind.

I first played this game on my PC in 2019, and have just finished playing a newer version of it for the second time.

I have updated my original review of Subnautica, which includes many images of what you wil find in the game - if you are interested, click the picture or go here.

If you have seen Dune, then you will have realised that the VFX used by Denis Villeneuve are somehow different from those you have seen before. This video gives a great overview of what made that difference.

You can find further information on sand screens and the like here, and I particularly recommend this link.

Dune - awesome rendering of part one of the original classic SF novel

Movie poster - click the image for movie links

High res desktop wallpaper from the movie - click the image for the original

The Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, one of many good reasons for watching

Previous attempts at filming Dune have not gone well, partly because the technology hasn't been up to it, partly because the book tells you a lot of what is going on in people's minds, and partly because it is way too long for one film.

Now the technology certainly is up to it, and awesome, but Denis Villeneuve's magnificent movie gives the intricate human story full prominence. The special effects are there to support the powerful story, and not (as so often happens) the other way round.

Dune is more serious than Star Wars, but has all the grittiness of the excellent Rogue One (and more), while keeping everything that happens totally realistic.

If you haven't read Frank Herbert's original classic novel and haven't seen the movie yet, may I strongly suggest that you read the book first. I reviewed it here in the books section of my web site, along with many other classic SF novels.

Dune, the novel, had several sequels, which I understand may also be filmed. To be clear, this movie covers the first half of the first novel, which has obvioiusly confused some reviewers!

Sadly, I never got to see the new Dune on the big screen, which would have been mind-blowing, but a giant UHD TV (which I don't have) should do it proud.

When Marnie Was There (Movie and Novel)

I had never heard of this excellent Studio Ghibli animation (available on Netflix) until quite recently. (You can watch the movie trailer if you click any of these screenshots from it.)

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who worked on many of Miyazaki's films, and based on the 1967 novel by Joan G. Robinson, it is unusual in several ways.

As a movie, the closest to it might be Whisper of the Heart, written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondō, which is set in the very real world of Tokyo. Shizuku, its heroine, supported by a good family, wrestles with herself as she (often painfully) develops.

As a novel, the closest to it might be The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett's timeless classic of a lonely, introverted English girl from India brought slowly to life by the garden, its wildlife and by plain Yorkshire people unlike any she has met before.

Anna, the heroine of When Marnie Was There, is emotionally locked within herself, for reasons that only gradually become apparent. Sent to 'Little Overton', a small wetland village in Norfolk (transcribed to Japan in the movie, with startling resemblances) to stay with a plain, down-to-earth couple, she is rescued from herself by a very unusual set of circumstances.

The relationship between herself and the mysterious Marnie is both delightful and bitter-sweet, and turns out to be most unexpected.

The daughter of Robinson, Deborah Sheppard (also an author of children's books), said that the creation of When Marnie Was There began during a family summer holiday in the coastal village of Burnham Overy Staithe. Major natural features of the location include a creek and tidal marsh, with an isolated beach surrounded by sandhills.

When Marnie Was There was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 1968. Joan's fiction was always about girls who felt unloved - and she used to say of When Marnie Was There, "You can write books, but there's only every one book that's really you."

Kushiro Wetlands, in Hokkaido, Japan (image from Wikipedia)

These are extracts from the postscript to the book written by Joan's daughter in April 2002:

“Thirty years after the book was published, I heard how a Japanese man had recently arrived in the village looking for 'Little Overton'. Many years before, as a young teenager, he had read When Marnie Was There in Japanese. The book had made a great impression on him and he very much wanted to see the place where the story was set...

“He spoke very little English and he had no idea where 'Little Overton' was. All he had was a copy of the book as his guide. So he took the train to King's Lynn, as Anna had done; and finally caught the bus that goes along the coast....

“At each stop the passengers got off until he was the only person left. He began to get rather anxious. Then as the bus turned the corner he saw the windmill [which features in the book, transcribed to a large derelict silo in the movie].

“Stop, stop!” he said, “This must be it!” And he leapt off the bus. But the village wasn't 'Little Overton', it was Burnham Overy...

“He was thrilled to be here at last. To see the tide rising, the boats swinging at anchor, the wild marsh and birds and the house that been the start of it all.”

The old silo that appears in the film is based on Burnham Overy Staithe Windmill, Norfolk (image from Wikipedia).

BTW, we hope to visit this place soon, as it is not too far from where we now live (see my previous post if you are interested, follow the >> link below).

If you like this...

[Deep Inside My Heart, a music video by Priscilla Ahn, which contains many more scenes from When Marnie Was There than you will find in the official trailer. Interestingly, it opens with a short clip from Whisper of the Heart.]

[The Art of Animation: Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, my article which includes Whisper of the Heart]

[Or try clicking any of this article's tags - just a suggestion!]

“Last Christmas”

We have a collection of golden Christmas movies, which we get out at this time of year to watch yet again.

This one has pretty much gone to the top of our list. We liked it SO much better than either the reviews or this trailer suggested.

Apart from being very funny (painfully so at times) it has the true spirit of Christmas running through it, which we could all really use at the moment...

Norwegian “Slow TV” at its best...

Click any of my screenshots below to play.

A few days into the voyage we leave Molde, the “Town of Roses” with a jazz festival, on the way to Kristiansund

Arriving in Kristiansund, which turns out to be a fascinating place. Many of its inhabitants are descendents of Scotsmen. It was settled as early as 8000 BC, and is the home of an important opera festival.

If you would love to take some or all of this long trip, which starts in Bergen, takes in the Gerainger fjord and Ålesund among other places, and goes right around the top of Norway inside the Arctic circle, but (like us) may never be able to do it, then this one-hour video is the next best thing to being there.

The commentary is truly excellent, the scenery is awesome, and you can enjoy some great music along the way.

If you like this...

[The Hurtigruten Shipping line]
[Slow going: why 'slow TV' is catching on fast - Channel 4 News]
[More Slow TV]

The Lord of the Rings (The 2020/21 Amazon Prime “Prequel” Series)

Here is everything you wanted to know about Amazon's forthcoming quarter-billion-dollar epic...

Just kidding, of course - not many hard facts are known yet. But as a lover of Tolkien's books, I am really interested in how his huge slice of dark history will be brought to the screen, thankfully in a format long enough to contain a good amount of it, and hopefully making good use of the stunning technology now available.

So here are some of the clues we have and links to help keep track of developments.

The Amazon production, so far as we can tell, will focus on the Second Age of Middle-Earth, but may eventually extend to those events in the Third Age that occur prior to Frodo's adventures.

The map provided by Amazon (click the image above for more details and click here to explore the map) contains several interesting clues for fans of the books. In particular it shows the island of Númenor (the human inhabitants of which had Aragorn as a descendent), and the Amazon series will certainly feature Númenor's cataclysmic destruction.

Tolkien was fascinated with languages and how they evolved, and his supreme creations were the Elvish languages (among others) that underpin The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings (click the image to the right for an in-depth article).

For Tolkien, the languages came first. He said that they drove the development of characters to use the languages and then the stories around the characters.

(He also wrote that “it's always good to start with a map”.)

I look forward to seeing what use of the invented languages Amazon makes, a tough but essential thing to bring to film (although Peter Jackson's team did a commendable job in their movies).

A couple of postscripts for book lovers:

I loved The Lord of the Rings, but IMO a comparable work that surpasses it in world-building, realism and story-telling (but not invented languages) is Elizabeth Moon's Paksworld Novels (an epic story in many volumes). Elizabeth Moon is, among other things, a historian and an ex-1st Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps, an interesting combination. If you liked LOTR, don't miss Moon's epic if you have never read it (the link is to a major article about it on my web site).

In The Lord of the Rings (the book, not the movie) Saruman, his powers removed but still full of malice, returns to The Shire ahead of the Hobbits and does his best to wreck both its environment and the peaceful relations between its citizens. Written long ago, does anyone else not see a spooky resemblance to what Trump is doing to the USA? Saruman didn't ultimately succeed in The Shire. It will be a long time before we know the outcome in the USA.

On that cheerful note...

If you're interested...

[Amazon's LOTR Twitter Feed]
[Latest Amazon LOTR news (w.r.t. when you are actually reading this)]
[Constructed languages (including Minionese and Klingon)]

If Michelangelo had created a hand-drawn computer art puzzle game...

Explanation further down... or click either of these screenshots

I don't need to add anything, except to say that this excellent video will help you get started and rescue you from places where your brain simply gives up!

This unique, multi-award-winning game is a real treat.

The Gardens Between: a unique puzzle game of childhood memories and friendship

This Australian production is a chill-out gem, almost worth having for its relaxing, meditative soundtrack alone.

A superior review to this one will be found here, or click any image for many links about the game.

Two best friends llive next door to each other. Sadly, they will be parted tomorrow, when one of them has to move away. They spend their last night together, wishing that they could somehow turn back time...

...and they discover that they can, at least in their imaginations. And that's what the game is about: controlling time.

The friends embark on a magical journey, visiting clusters of (usually three) islands, each island representing a level of the cluster's puzzle.

You can help them, but only by using three buttons: one advances time, one rewinds time, and the third causes something to happen. What you CAN'T do directly is control where the friends walk, which takes some getting used to!

The aim of each puzzle is simple: to reach the top of the island with a lit lantern. The lantern is lit by passing near a flower with a glowing white ball, and is extinguished by passing near a flower with a glowing black ball.

(Later in the game, you will encounter slabs of apparently solid mist. A lit lantern will dispel the mist, which is good if the mist is a barrier, but is bad if the mist forms a bridge that must be walked over!)

As time moves forwards or backwards, some other objects in the game move also, independently of the children. Flowers can open and close and the colour of their glowing ball can change.

Some of these objects are purple “buddy-boxes” in which a lantern can be placed or retrieved (lit or unlit) which follow their own trajectories around the island. If the trajectory of a buddy-box carrying a lantern passes near one of those glowing balls, then the lantern will be lit or extinguished accordingly.

What makes the game interesting is that the boy has special opportunities to stop time for the two friends, but allow time to go forwards or backwards for the other moving objects. Later in the game, when the islands and puzzles become more complicated, this can require some serious lateral thinking in order to make progress.

The path up the hill is inaccessible here - an example of where lateral thinking will be required!

As the game progresses, the islands become larger and more complicated. Some of the puzzles are very tricky indeed, especially when advancing or rewinding time very slowly at critical points allows things to happen that otherwise wouldn't.

My only disappointment with this wonderful little game is that it takes only a few hours to play, which makes it a somewhat expensive for what it is. But any bright children you know will have great fun playing it, too (not to mention other adults).

If you like this...

[FAR Lone Sails - an atmospheric vehicle adventure game]
[Dear Esther - a unique exploration of a Hebridean island]
[Other Places - videos by Andy Kelly exploring the tranquil beauty of game landscapes without violence or stress]
[Non-violent problem-solving adventure games (from my web site)]

This is Lakeview Manor in Skyrim, a residence that I built myself (as have many others) while in the game - a pleasantly satisfying interlude amongst all the mayhem. It's one of many tucked-away places that Rob Dwiar is fond of.

(Skyrim provides a truly vast and varied world to explore, including much beautiful wild scenery.)

This is another of Rob's selections, the Drake Family Residence that you encounter in Libertalia (a place in Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, which I haven't played).

Over to Rob for his own words (click any image here to read his article and see many other places):

If you like this...

[“Other Places”: videos of beautiful game landscapes set to music]

An Introductory Guide to Subnautica (Updated May 2022)

This guide tries to ease the new player gently into Subnautica, without spoilers, and provides an easy way in one place to access the most needed information.

A feature of this guide is that it is extensively hyperlinked to external info, including from images. So if you click on an image showing some aspect of the game, you'll be taken straight to info about that aspect.

(If you are looking for a really comprehensive guide to the game, I highly recommend Subnautica: The Grand, Regularly-Updated Tutorial V2.)

What is Subnautica?

Subnautica is a fascinating exploration and survival game that has provided me with well over 180 hours of exploration and discovery, as well as the pleasure of constructing and improving habitats and vehicles. In a way, it's a modern and very different version of the original Minecraft. It also provides, as the magnificent Skyrim does, a truly vast and detailed world to explore, in this case of course mostly underwater. Unlike in Skyrim and many other games, however, you have no lethal weapons (apart from a survival knife), a conscious decision by the developers following Sandy Hook. You will, however, be able to acquire several ways of defending yourself, some of them more ingenious than they first appear. As someone put it very well, you are not the top of the food chain here!

(BTW: If you have already played this game, have you seen the “Making of...” video How Subnautica Succeeded Without Weapons?)

(This is a long post. If you want to skip to my previous post, click the chevrons >> below.)


Habitats ~ Vehicles ~ Exploring & Navigation ~ Islands ~ Wrecks ~ Going Deeper ~ A Word of Appreciation ~ Bugs ~ Game Console ~ Key Controls

Update (*)

I first played and reviewed this game with the Sep-2018 61056 build for PC. I have recently played it again in February-April 2022 with the Feb-2021 68598 build, and have updated this review to correct some errors and omissions and to reflect some changes that I found in the game. My updates are marked (*).



(*) My shallow-water habitat, close to the lifepod in which I landed, built in stages as needed and when I found the resources. Many configurations are possible. Habitats (and their internal power-using modules) can be powered by solar panels where there is sufficient light, or by bioreactors, thermal plants and even nuclear reactors (which aren't necessary as many people including me have found).

(*) Solar panels generate power in proportion to the illumination (and more than one can be used). The connected habitat can store any surplus power for use during dark periods. Bioreactors within a habitat generate energy from organic matter, e.g. fish, and are one reason why you might want to build an alien containment aquarium nearby to breed fish and grow various flora. Thermal plants need to be placed near natural heat sources (there's one near here to experiment with), if necessary using power transmitters to reach the habitat.

The bigger the habitat, the weaker its overall structure (as you may find out the hard way - the realism of a flooding habitat is truly awesome), so learning how to reinforce the structure is a must.

(*) Tip: When you launch a saved game, or when you add a habitat component, pay attention to the small text appearing briefly at the top of the screen, which are the only ways of seeing the current structural integrity (needs to be a positive number or you're in trouble).

Closest in the picture is my first scanner room, which helps find resources and also allows you to explore safely using remote trackable cameras - something very useful indeed towards the end of the game.


Subnautica seaglide
The Seaglide, a nifty hand-held device for improving your swimming speed (I dropped this one on the seabed just in order to photograph it). It doesn't take up much room in your inventory so you can keep it with you at all times. In dangerous swimming situations that you will encounter later, this little guy can save you from predators and/or get you back somewhere safe quickly before your oxygen runs out.

(Like a real diver, you have to carry an oxygen supply with you, which initially doesn't last long, and one of your early objectives is to upgrade your air tanks.)

Before you can build (craft) things you need the blueprints to be in your Personal Data Assistant (PDA), if they aren't there already. Many useful blueprints are already loaded there, in which case you just need to find the resources (early on, often by breaking limestone outcrops and sandstone outcrops). Pre-loaded blueprints will allow you to craft (among other things) another fabricator (which you have in your initial lifepod) and a habitat builder, two items which can each craft other things.

Many blueprints that you need have unfortunately been corrupted in your PDA, so you will need to craft a hand-held scanner and use this to scan fragments of what you want to build (e.g. fragments of a Seaglide) that you find on the sea bed or in wrecks. Depending on the item, you may need to find and scan several fragments of the item before the blueprint is restored to your PDA. You can also find blueprints in data boxes, so you need to hunt for those too.

Tip: Make sure that the scanning action is complete before moving on. Scanning can take about 10 seconds.

(*) If you want to improve something that you already have (e.g. you want to make go-faster swim fins or a better survival knife), then you need to find the blueprints for and construct a modification station, using the habitat builder. You can, however, build a high capacity O2 tank with the normal fabricator (once you have the blueprint).

(*) Tip: Later in the game, I found the swim charge fins to be extremely useful when used with the Seaglide, allowing unlimited swimming explorations without having to keep charging its battery.
Subnautica Seamoth
One of the most useful vehicles in the game is the Seamoth, an agile personal submarine. Even when you have the blueprints and resources, you will have to craft a mobile vehicle bay which is then used to construct the Seamoth.

(*) Tip: In order to deploy the mobile vehicle bay, it isn't enough to simply drop it in the water. You must also have placed it first in one of your quick slots.

Initially the Seamoth will take you as deep as 200m, which allows a great deal of exploration. You can upgrade it in various ways, including extending its maximum depth in stages to 900m. Finding the resources and blueprints to upgrade the Seamoth will require exploration in progressively deeper (and more dangerous) places. Actually fabricating the upgrades requires a moonpool (see below) equipped with a vehicle upgrade console.

Tip: One of the earliest tools you need to craft is the repair tool, which fixes damage to your vehicles and other things. It's worth reading its description carefully, including the bit about radiation.
Subnautica moon pool
This is the moonpool that I eventually added to my shallow-water seabase (as with all the images in this article, click the image for more info).

Either the Seamoth or the P.R.A.W.N. suit (see below) can be docked, automatically recharged and upgraded here, and you can also use it as a swimming entrance to the habitat via its two ladders.

(*) Tip: Later in the game, you may also find a moonpool useful as a stand-alone habitat, since it doesn't need a hatch and has plenty of internal room for storage and other modules (in particular, the vehicle upgrade console which can only be placed in one of these, and a power cell charger).
Subnautica P.R.A.W.N. suit
This is my P.R.A.W.N. suit (aka Prawn suit) fitted with the Drill Arm accessory. Acquiring the blueprints and resources to fabricate one of these and its upgrades took me a long time and visits to some dangerous places.

(*) Initially the P.R.A.W.N. suit will take you as deep as 900m. In order to go deeper, two separate depth upgrades will be required, each adding 400m to the crush depth, in order to reach 1,700m (sufficient for the deepest part of the game).

You can do a vast amount in the game before you need one of these, but it will become absolutely essential below 900m, and very useful before reaching that depth. Among other upgrades, the Jump Jet Upgrade (fabricated from materials found only at considerable depth) will extend both horizontal and vertical mobility considerably. The Drill Arm accessory is essential for mining large resources, e.g. big chunks of magnetite or nickel, and is a useful defence against predators. The Grappling Arm accessory can be fired some distance to get you to some places you couldn't reach otherwise.
Subnautica Cyclops
This is the Cyclops submersible that I eventually managed to build. It's a huge thing that needs to be built in deep-enough water using a mobile vehicle bay. It is powered by six power cells, which will normally need to be recharged by equipment in a habitat.

(*) Initially the Cyclops will take you as deep as 500m. In order to go deeper, three separate depth upgrades will be required, each adding 400m to the crush depth, in order to reach 1,700m (sufficient for the deepest part of the game).

Compared to the Seamoth, it feels quite ponderous and unwieldy to drive. Unlike the Seamoth it has no side thrusters and can't be tilted up or down. For manoeuvring you can only swing it left and right and make it rise and sink, while it remains perfectly horizontal. it has three speeds (top speed not recommended) and comes with an energy-consuming but occasionally life saving "silent running" mode.

Tip: It's much harder to guide the Cyclops through confined spaces than the Seamoth, even using the Cyclops's external cameras. However don't be too worried by the collision proximity warnings - you can bump gently against obstructions and keep moving without damage. Keeping moving will sometimes be important.

Tip: Crafting and installing the Energy Efficiency Upgrade Module should be one of the first things you do with the Cyclops. It triples the engine efficiency but doesn't reduce the overhead of "silent running".

(*) Tip: Beware of using the Sonar Upgrade Module for any length of time. It consumes a huge amount of power when running - if you need to use it, do so as a "quick peek". (I never used this upgrade, preferring where necessary to leave the vehicle and investigate the surroundings by swimming.)

(*) Tip: The method of installing the MK3 depth upgrade in the Cyclops requires you to remove the previous depth upgrade, use it to fabricate the new one using resources found only at considerable depth, and then put it back. Unlike doing this in the Seamoth and P.R.A.W.N. suit, which can be done at depth when they are safely docked in the Cyclops (via the nearby console), removing the existing depth upgrade from the Cyclops below its crush depth for any length of time is kind of fatal. However you do have time to craft the upgrade and install it before any actual damage results, if you don't hang about!

You will eventually need the Cyclops to at least deliver the P.R.A.W.N. suit to deep places (especially to the Lost River and below - be careful of spoilers when following this link).
Subnautica Cyclops
The swimmer entrance opens automatically as you approach.

Further back are large clamshell doors that open automatically when approaching from underneath with the Seamoth or the P.R.A.W.N. suit. You can dock these in the Cyclops in the same way as you do in the moonpool. Unlike the moonpool, a useful Cyclops upgrade will allow docked vehicles to be automatically repaired, as well as automatically recharged (but any electricity usage in the Cyclops naturally drains the Cyclops's own power cells).
Subnautica Cyclops
Looking forward in my Cyclops, which I used as a mobile habitat. Two of my many storage lockers have been placed here, as well as an ordinary aquarium (not the much larger alien containment) for mainly decorative purposes.
Subnautica Cyclops
Looking aft. The hologram here indicates any damage that you need to go outside and repair, and any power-draining pests (found in very deep areas) that you need to go outside and get rid of.

Further aft is the Seamoth/P.R.A.W.N. suit docking area, in a large room that will hold much storage and many other things that you could place inside a seabase habitat, except e.g. a water filtration machine (which would need access through the hull) or an alien containment (too large).

(*) Above the Seamoth/P.R.A.W.N. suit docking area is what appears to be only a status readout panel for the docked vehicle. It does, however, permit you to manage upgrade modules and access any storage on a docked vehicle - but not to exchange the vehicle's power cells.

Exploring & Navigation

OK, time for a little exploring...

Navigation: While being very careful of spoilers, check out the multi-layered Subnautica Interactive Map. Run your cursor around and watch the (x,y) coordinates, which are in metres, in the bottom right hand corner.

When you need to know depth (z coordinate) as well, you will see coordinates as (x,z,y), i.e. with depth as the middle coordinate (contrary to some online information, which may be out of date).

How to find your own coordinates is described here.

It's really useful to know in which direction you're currently pointing while swimming, so an early objective is to craft a compass which will be automatically added to your Head-Up Display (HUD).

(*) Tip: Craft and always take with you several beacons. You can drop them in the water to mark places that you find and want to come back to. After you drop them you can give them an identifying name. Beacons will appear as icons in your HUD. You can use the Beacon Manager in your PDA to select beacons that you want to see and deselect those you don't, and to change their colour in the HUD to make them easier to see or to identify. You can pick up and reuse beacons no longer needed, but they are cheap to craft and I generally left all of mine in place.

Vehicles (like the Seamoth), moonpools and remote cameras deployed from scanner rooms have in-built beacons, as do most other lifepods that you will hear about via your radio. You can also select and deselect the icons from these via your PDA.
Subnautica Kelp Forest
You won't have vehicles to begin with, so your first explorations will naturally be by diving from the surface in relatively shallow areas. You will soon be motivated to build a Seaglide and to upgrade your air tanks!

(*) Tip: One of the most useful tools you can get for diving is the Air Bladder, an easily constructed device that may save your life. It is reusable, has no batteries and will take you up to the surface quickly without using a Seaglide.

Above is one of the Kelp Forest biomes (it's worth following the link and reading fully, if you are not already familiar).

You will occasionally be attacked here by Stalkers, large fish that aren't really that dangerous. They seem to mistake you for bits of (useful) metal salvage that they like playing with, and on which they occasionally break their (useful) teeth. They are similarly attracted to remote camera drones deployed from your scanner room, which may go on unexpected journeys!
Subnautica Grassy Plateau
...and this is one of the Grassy Plateaus biomes. There are many other kinds of biome to explore, and you can find info about them by clicking their area on the Subnautica Interactive Map, again being as careful as you can to avoid spoilers.
Subnautica entering Jellyshroom Cave
Below the biomes seen above lies the large Jellyshroom Cave, best explored with a Seamoth (upgraded so as to be able to reach a depth of 300m). This photo is taken heading straight down into one of the entrances.

Tip: Placing two beacons here, one above and one below this cave entrance, makes re-visiting, navigating and leaving the cave a lot easier!
Subnautica Jellyshroom Cave with scanner room
(*) I found it really useful to place a scanner room here, as the cave is full of useful resources, including plenty of magnetite. Unexpectedly, there's enough bioluminescent light to (barely) power the scanner room with a solar panel - but I found out later that this is a bug in the game, and you can't fabricate a scanner room upgrade with that power. On my second playthrough of the game, I brought solar power down into the cave from solar panels nearer the surface, using power transmitters. There is also plenty of thermal energy in the cave, which can be used if you have the blueprint for the thermal plant.

There is something else interesting to be found down here. It won't be long until you discover clues about what it is.

Reality check: You may find it odd (if very useful) that you can swim freely in water at depths that would crush even a depth-upgraded Seamoth. I think of it as an unadvertised feature of the various hi-tech dive suits that the Alterra Corporation kindly provides for you to wear (one of which I never found out about).


Subnautica Floating Island
This is the Floating Island, one of the two island biomes. It's a very pleasant and useful place to explore fully. You can locate it on the interactive map, but take a long swim on the surface from your lifepod in a south-westerly direction and you can see a clue as to where it is.

On this island you will find three abandoned seabases built by survivors of the Degasi, mysteriously shot down by something on this planet, which your own ship (the Aurora) was sent to look for when it was similarly shot down.

As usual, scan everything you find, including wild and cultivated plants. You will end up with many useful blueprints and clues to further exploring. Take useful edible plant cuttings, as you can grow them later to survive on - especially one particular plant that satisfies thirst as well as hunger.

If you haven't found one very surprising and obviously different thing, then you aren't finished here yet...

The other island

Early on in the game another rescue ship, the Sunbeam (no link because of spoilers), will radio that it's on its way, and will plan to land at a particular location that you are given. Unfortunately it is shot down before it can land, but one way to find the other island is to get to that location (before the arrival countdown finishes if possible - recommended, but not necessary).

In any case, exploring the other island will provide vital information about what is shooting down approaching ships, and at least some clues as to why it is doing it. The island also has very useful resources, both above and below water.


Subnautica Wreck 1
In early explorations you will soon be finding and scanning wreckage from the Aurora lying on the sea floor. However larger chunks of the Aurora need you to explore their insides, swimming, for which you need something nearby (e.g. a Seamoth) to replenish your air.

A very useful guide to the wrecks will be found here. Because of spoilers, I strongly suggest trying to explore wrecks that you find on your own, before consulting the guide.
Subnautica Wreck 1
Before exploring a wreck (this one is small and relatively easy) it is useful to have aquired at least a flashlight, a laser cutter and a repair tool (and of course the essential scanner).

The laser cutter will cut through doors which have a slightly blackened centre. Some doors are unlocked and will open normally. Some doors have damaged wiring which can be repaired with the repair tool, after which they will open normally.

Eventually you will be able to craft and bring along the multi-purpose and deceptively-named propulsion cannon, which among other things can be used to shift blockages such as crates that aren't too heavy. It's a gravity tool that can fetch remote things to you, which you can either take (e.g. a fish!) or fire in some direction. You can also fire things from it that you have in your inventory. You'll find many ways to use it and reasons to love it.
Subnautica Aurora
By far the largest, most dangerous and most valuable wreck to explore is the crashed Aurora (a picture taken by me when standing on top of my Cyclops!). From here it doesn't look too bad...
Subnautica Aurora
...but up close, at its wrecked front end, it is a very daunting prospect indeed. It's huge, noisy, on fire, and everything is shaking. It's the most awesome and intricate game environment that I have encountered.

(*) I suggest you don't even think of coming here until you have explored at least most of the other bigger wrecks. You'll obviously need a radiation suit, as something in here is leaking radiation (you're going to try to do something about that, right?). A propulsion cannon is apparently not strictly necessary but I wouldn't come here without one - among other things, it's useful for shifting obstructions.

Apart from your other wreck-exploring stuff, bring a few fire extinguishers and rations. You're going to be here a long time, but the good news is that you'll be able to pick up more fire extinguishers, rations and other useful stuff when you finally manage to penetrate inside, so don't take any unnecessary items in your inventory before that.

(*) You will have to swim through many submerged corridors and bewildering spaces filled with various kinds of clutter. The good news is that these areas often have air pockets above them. The bad news is that retracing your steps can sometimes be hard if you don't have a good memory (and a beacon or two might be a handy thing to bring with you).

Naturally you will explore all the rooms and living quarters, but don't miss places that store vehicles or vehicle parts for which you haven't yet been able to scan a blueprint.

(*) There is one cabin that has a door code you won't know yet. You will need to return much later, when you finally receive a radio message giving you that code. The cabin contains something that is part of what you need to finally escape the planet. Tip: Don't waste time looking for the other parts, as there aren't any. What you have found is enough to get you started (once you have all the resources and have fixed the minor problem of being shot down as you try to leave). Note: This is different from an earlier version of the game.

Good luck...

Going Deeper

As you descend to greater depths, you find essential resources and more danger, as well as more of the vital information you need to progress.

You may already have met warpers, a major pest in this ocean (whose purpose is only revealed later). They appear via what looks like a large bubble of air, and if you get near them they can warp you right out of a Seamoth or P.R.A.W.N. suit (but not a Cyclops). You suddenly find yourself swimming, you're not always sure where your vehicle is, and an alarming creature is after you.

People have different ways of dealing with them, but you can actually fend them off just with an upgraded survival knife. My own approach, FWIW, is to exit the vehicle before I get warped out of it (if I can't avoid it and if I see it coming), and use a repulsion cannon to knock the pest into the distance. You might want to make one of those before heading downwards (I created a second propulsion cannon and then upgraded it, since having both types of cannon is useful).

OK... We're about to head off on a first explore of the Lost River (be careful of spoilers in following this link), using a Seamoth in order to get a quick lie of the land, so to speak. It's also easier to get in and out of the four different entrances than it will be later when using a Cyclops.

Before doing this I had to upgrade the Seamoth to its maximum depth capability of 900m. I also took time to find all the entrances to the Lost River and drop beacons to mark them. This turned out to be very helpful for navigation when down in the depths!
Subnautica Lost River
I am entering via the western entrance, which is in an easily-found deep trench in a grassy plateau, to the west of the home lifepod.
Subnautica Lost River
Here is a stretch of the underwater river itself, formed of greenish brine that is deadly to swim in, but contains many useful resources. I came back later with a Cyclops and deployed a P.R.A.W.N suit to collect resources from the brine.
Subnautica Lost River
Descending still lower, passing over one of many "brine falls"...
Subnautica Lost River Bone Field
...and passing through the Bone Fields. The creature whose skeleton this is is thankfully not still around.
Subnautica Lost River Tree Grove
This is the entrance to the Tree Cove. I am watching the depth gauge carefully as I am perilously close to crush depth. The brine is blue here, not green, and is safe to swim in. The area around and behind this tree is a kind of safe haven down here, with no agressive fauna, and is an ideal spot to park a Cyclops. It also has a thermal vent which makes it a good spot to place a scanner room, powered by a thermal plant near the vent.

In the distance beyond here is one entrance to the next level below (but this is as far as I am taking you, as too many spoilers would otherwise result).

Coming in to the Lost River the way I did in the Seamoth is much harder in the Cyclops. Eventually I found that the southern entrance is practically impassable, and personally I would recommend bringing the Cyclops in via the eastern entrance, which I found easiest. Coming in from the east you will pass a huge, derelict alien structure. Entering the top of it will get you set for the next stage of your journey.

All I can say here is that a great experience is waiting for you...

And finally...

A Word of Appreciation

The artistry in this game, both technical and other, is quite wonderful, and the sheer amount of work that has gone into it staggers my mind.

You may remember that when Finding Nemo came out, it was considered a landmark in creating realistic underwater effects. In the audience we probably took it all for granted, not appreciating that every frame of the movie was the result of hours of processing time on powerful computers, not to mention the work by many people in creating the computer models in the first place.

Now this game delivers a wonderfully realistic experience (to which still images can't do justice) in real time on a desktop computer.

You need a good-enough CPU and graphics card to play it properly, of course, and a 64-bit OS. I have an Intel i5 CPU with 8GB of main memory, and a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics card, on which the game runs fine.

Thanks also to the legion of fans who have created a vast amount of online information, most of it very useful.

Bugs (*)

There are a few, of course, but far less than (say) in Skyrim. This isn't a definitive list, it only records those that I have encountered.

Some bugs that I encountered in the Sep-2018 61056 PC build (invisible walls within the Aurora, the laser cutter not opening some wreck doors that it should have been able to open, suddenly falling out of the Cyclops apparently in air) were not encountered in the later Feb-2021 68598 build.

Some, however, I also encountered again in the newer build. Fish are still occasionally swimming inside a habitat and the Cyclops (I killed a power-draining lava larva inside the Cyclops and it floated to the ceiling). I was also unimpressed to encounter a bone shark (who ignored me) swimming in the air between a teleport exit and a water-air barrier shield.

In the Feb-2021 68598 build that I just played I encountered two bugs I hadn't met before:

1. The P.R.A.W.N. suit sometimes becomes immovable if walking within an alien structure. I could cure this by saving, quitting and reloading, and on one occasion by jumping. This happened repeatedly in one alien structure and was seriously annoying.

2. The habitat fabricator malfunctioned once. You should be able to repeatedly fabricate drinking water from a supply of bladderfish, but I had to close and reenter the fabricator for each bladderfish individually - a trivial problem, fixed by saving, quitting and reloading.

Game Console

Getting past the normal limits of the game is what the console is for. You can find information on it here.

Cheating, for me, spoils the game, but there were times when I used the "day" and "night" commands.

The game has different modes of play, from Creative to Hardcore, the normal one being Survival. There were times when I found eating and replanting tedious, and switched from Survival to Freedom, which allows you to stop eating and drinking in the current game session. The console commands are simply the name of the mode (in lower case). I only selected Freedom mode when inside the Cyclops and had the means of eating and drinking readily to hand; it just drove me crazy having to stop the sub in some critical situation and go to the back room to cut, harvest seeds and replant yet again! In other situations I didn't select Freedom, since it would remove a main feature of the game.

Key Controls

The key controls for the game will be found here. The basic movement controls are the normal W,A,S,D, with spacebar for "up" and "jump" and C for "sink". I used F11 to take the photos you see in this post and then screen-captured and cropped them from the PDA's photo manager.

If you are still reading this, many thanks for your interest! If you want to give me any feedback (most welcome), you can rate my guide and/or leave comments here on Steam.

If you like this, you might also like...

[An Introductory Guide to Transport Fever 2]

Some digital matte paintings by Yanick Dusseault - I have obviously seen much of his work at the cinema without realising it!

There are currently some 80 images on his site, mostly used to create scenes that you will recognize from Star Wars, but others including mattes for Black Panther and Avatar. Click either image above to see the vast range of his work and how it has been applied.

If you're interested in movie technology (e.g. CGI, massive crowd simulation) you may be interested in the links that I provide here (in the right-hand column of my movies web page).

I have just finished watching Netflix's reworking of the 1965 version of "Lost in Space" (which was itself based on "The Swiss Family Robinson" written in 1822!).

I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did. It's kind of like "The Martian" with Matt Damon except that here it's a collection of families stranded and the planet is much more interesting than Mars. Production values are extraordinary - a lot of money very well spent.

It's also interesting that like so many sci-fi/adventure films nowadays, women (and girls) have the strongest roles, although Toby Stephens as an American ex-SEAL is a great bonus.

(Click the image for many links.)

Margot Kidder
17th October 1948 – 13th May 2018

Like many people, I remember Margot Kidder as a wonderful Lois Lane in the movie Superman with Christopher Reeve - likely to remain the best Superman movie ever.

Also like many people (I suspect), I didn't know anything about the rest of the Canadian-American actress's interesting life, which is worth reading about.

And as I get older (Margot was born not long after I was) I reflect that good movies are an enduring memorial to actors and actresses no longer with us, especially poignant when an actor's life is tragically cut short, as Reeve's was.

This joyous and very successful movie (French, with English subtitles) tells the story of Philippe, a wealthy quadraplegic aristocrat (François Cluzet) crippled in a paragliding accident, whose life is transformed by the arrival of Driss (Omar Sy), a hip Senegalese ex-con from the projects.

Intouchables is based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his French-Algerian caregiver Abdel Sellou, a story captured in Abdel's book “You Changed My Life”, which tells us much more about the caregiver's own life and how it was transformed by the relationship.

It is the happiest of the movies in the Relationships and Personal Journeys section of my movies web page, which features some great stories about lives that have been damaged in one way or another and then become fixed, or at least improved.

If you haven't already seen it, Intouchables might be one of the best movies that you never heard of.

Click the image if you would like to read more about the movie and the true story that inspired it.

Elizabeth Moon

If you don't recognize this person, then you might guess that she is someone's favourite granny or aunt (I can find no information on this, although anyone would be very lucky to have her as either).

You might also guess that she is a historian, and you'd be right. You'd probably be surprised to learn that she became a 1st Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps while on active duty and is an experienced paramedic.

She is actually Elizabeth Moon, an author of Fantasy and SF fiction who has given me more reading pleasure, in quantity and quality combined, than almost any other.

Her masterworks, for me, are the main “Paksworld” novels, set in a fictional medieval world, which begin with The Deed of Paksennarion (or Sheepfarmer's Daughter) and end with Crown of Renewal. They form a single very long adventure-filled story in two parts, spread over many volumes.

For these novels Elizabeth Moon has created an extraordinarily realistic world, showing a deep appreciation of diverse cultures, politics, economics, historical development, real military campaigning and trading and legal systems.

The novels also demonstrate, as no others that I have read, what honourable and competent leadership really means, something particularly relevant in today's political culture.

If you are interested, you can read my full review of them here, which includes a list of all the volumes in order.

Most of her other works are set in the far future. My favourites are Vatta's War followed by the (misleadingly titled!) Vatta's Peace, and The Serrano Legacy, both of which (like the Paksworld novels) are very long adventure-filled stories in multiple volumes. These have been described as “military action SF” (and by me as “great holiday reading”, especially if you are e.g. a Tom Clancy fan) but they are far richer and more complex than those phrases would suggest.

Leadership and personal development again feature in these books, as do many of the Paksworld novels' other strengths, including some great world-building. In addition, the author has created extraordinarily real spacecraft, whether commercial vessels or fighting ships, in which much (but by no means all) of the action is set. This sense of reality extends not only to the environmental, engineering, weapons and command sections of each ship, but to the detailed functions of the crews who man them. I am oddly reminded of C.S. Forester's WWII book The Ship, which tells the story of a single critical engagement in the war in the Mediterranean, from the viewpoints of individual men of all stations serving on a destroyer.

The Serrano Legacy has a particularly rich background, and storylines that go well outside the military. One of its central concerns is a fascinating exploration of what might happen to societies and hierarchical organizations when the human lifespan can be significantly extended.

Vatta's War revolves around another complex issue, namely what happens when an essential monopoly-controlled galaxy-wide communication system (based on the “ansibles” that Ursula LeGuin invented for other SF writers) comes under attack.

If you enjoy Elizabeth Moon's books, don't miss her “stand-alone” novel The Speed of Dark, set in the near future, which draws on experiences with her autistic son. It was highly acclaimed by the critics, and you can find many links about it here.

If you like this...

[The Fantasy section of my Books page, including my full review of the Paksworld novels]
[The SF section of my Books page]
[A useful publication list for Elizabeth Moon's books, with Amazon purchase links]

[...and try clicking the entertainment tag at the top of this post... just a suggestion!]

Of all the works by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbour Totoro is undoubtedly the most loved. Children who grew up with it remember it as one of their favourite movies, and many love it even more as adults.

I never saw it as a child (I was a grown-up in 1988), but it is certainly now one of my all-time favourite movies. It's a gentle story of childhood joys and fears that celebrates kindness, a close relationship with Nature and (as one expects from Miyazaki) the Japanese tradition of respect for one's elders.

I recently had the pleasure of introducing it to my 7-year old granddaughter (not that I need an excuse to watch it), and was struck by what a wonderful antidote it is to the poisonous spirit emanating from the current US President.

I also recently discovered a marvellous retrospective of this great movie. I recommend clicking either image above to read it (the second image is actually my own screenshot). If you do, don't miss its link to an all-but-forgotten classic Disney animation called The Old Mill.

If you like this...

[The Art of Animation: Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli]


My screenshot from Season 6, Episode 4 of Vera, a very fine police drama starring Brenda Blethyn, set in and around Newcastle in north-east England (a region further north than some parts of Scotland)

If you have never seen this ITV drama, currently in its 7th season, then I highly recommend it. Based on novels by Ann Cleeves, it is very unlike most other police detective dramas, focusing as it does on human lives affected by a murder, as well as on the complex causes that can lead to the crime.

DCI Vera Stanhope (played by the wonderful Brenda Blethyn, still acting at 71) is not a stereotypical TV police detective. Among other things, she has no irritating boss with whom she is in conflict - she is the boss, and leads her very realistic team with considerable expertise, energy and acerbic humour.

Another feature of the series is the area of north-east England (map link) in which it is set, which is sometimes bleak, sometimes beautiful and often both, as the excellent cinematography shows - and see the link below.

If you like this...

[Stunning North East scenery where Vera is filmed]
[A 1280x1024 wallpaper version of the image]

One of the last remaining trees...
(My screenshots - click either image above for the Wikipedia article on this movie)

(Screenshots above from Rotten Tomatoes - click either image to see more)

If you like French animation (see here on my web site), you may remember the time when Sylvain Chomet's Les Triplettes de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville, a.k.a. Belleville Rendezvous) gave the world a wake-up call that there was more to great animation than Disney and Miyazaki.

This movie is very different and equally original (and equally Gallic, and equally unsuitable for small children). It's an adventurous eco-fable, set in an alt-reality steampunk world where almost all of the trees in Europe have been burnt for charcoal and the air is severely polluted. It has been summarized accurately as “a sophisticated, riveting adventure about the power of scientific innovation in society”.

Currently free to watch in the UK if you subscribe to Amazon Prime Video, this is a multi-award-winning treat not to be missed.

If life is getting you down...

[Try clicking the entertainment tag. Just a suggestion!]

The Two Ronnies - In Memoriam

Ronnie Corbett CBE (who died last year) and Ronnie Barker OBE (who died in 2005), two of Britain's national treasures, in their classic “Four Candles” sketch. If by some chance you haven't seen it, click the image to play!

(If the image link breaks, as sometimes happens, try here.)

Gene Wilder
11th June 1933 – 29th August 2016

Last month saw the sad death of Gene Wilder, a gentle comedian whose best-loved films included Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles and (one of several with on-screen buddy Richard Pryor) Silver Streak.

My personal favourite was the classic Young Frankenstein, one of several collaborations with writer/director Mel Brooks.

Many memories of that wonderful collaboration will be found here.

Dear Esther

Last month I also spent some time here, on a wild Hebridean island.

Dear Esther is called a computer game, or sometimes a “walking simulator”, only because there isn't another way to categorize it. Your only objective is to explore the island, while the mystery of a past tragedy unfolds - an unlikely source of enjoyment, you might think.

The island itself is a true work of art, a vast environment that has to be experienced through the “game” (including its atmospheric soundtrack) to be appreciated. Among many extraordinary details, the sparse foliage is stirred by the wind that blows constantly (and blows harder as you climb upwards).

You can - and should - explore everywhere that isn't too steep. You can leave the paths (such as they are) and walk across open terrain, or the rocks of a stream bed, or enter water (salt or fresh) and try swimming. A flashing beacon on the highest point of the island, visible from many places, provides some orientation and a kind of goal.

Your exploration will fall into 4 sequential segments, or chapters. You can (and will probably want to) re-enter the exploration at the start of any segment you have been in before, or at the last point that you saved.

My screenshot above is taken close to the end of the second segment. If you are brave enough (you think I'm kidding?) to follow the path that eventually reaches the bottom of the chasm in front of you, you have a chance of entering the third segment - for which I am deliberately not providing screenshots.

The following are some of my screenshots from the last segment:

If you click any of these screenshots then you will find out a lot more about the game. The principal genius behind it is Robert Briscoe (a link worth following if you're interested in the technology).

If you play the game then you may be surprised by the apparent lack of controls or guidance information. If so, you might find this helpful.

And finally, if you haven't met Steam before, it's a good way to buy and share computer games without physical media, much as streamed and downloaded video is gradually replacing DVDs. Having bought this game through Steam, I can download and play games for free from the Steam libraries of my American family, providing that the purchaser isn't playing any of their own games at the same time - but the sharing mechanism (intended originally for families with separate computers) is somewhat tricky and counter-intuitive to set up.

If you like this...

[PC's most relaxing games - PC Gamer]

Sir Terry Wogan KBE DL
3rd August 1938 – 31st January 2016

And yet another sad goodbye... to Terry Wogan, who died this morning at the age of 77, after a short struggle with cancer.

Terry was a broadcasting legend in the UK. I woke up to him every morning on Radio 2, while at university and long afterwards. His relaxed charm and whimsical humour were the best start to any day one could wish for. I listened to him on a Heathkit valve FM tuner and amp that I had assembled myself - that was some time ago!

He is being fondly remembered in the UK for so many things in his long career. I shall remember two things in particular. The first is the long pause (several seconds) that would often follow the first part of a typical bit of Terry whimsy. It wasn't a dead pause - you could almost hear the chuckles all over the country, and see the smile on Terry's face. Among many other things, he was a master of comic timing and ad-lib speaking (he never used notes in the studio, apparently).

The second is the time when he introduced our nation to that wonderful ground-breaking TV show Hill Street Blues, with its gentle theme tune by Mike Post that took over from the noise of sirens in every wintry opening.

Terry seemed immortal in life - he has passed into another kind of immortality now, and will be sorely missed.

I greatly enjoyed Minions... and hearing words apparently from a number of languages, including Japanese and Spanish, that form the strangely comprehensible gibberish of “Minionese”.

I didn't realise, though, quite how many languages that French director Pierre Coffin actually plundered (and voiced) for his “Minionese”. Click the image above if you would like to know more!

Constructing realistic languages for books and films, on the other hand, seems to me to be an awesome task. The supreme example of this must surely be J.R.R. Tolkien's Elvish languages (among others) that underpin The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings - a massive work of scholarship, love and time.

(Click the image to the right for an in-depth article.)

Tolkien, it is said, wanted to write The Lord of the Rings entirely in Elvish, but (fortunately for us) was persuaded that the result would not be saleable...

I was very grateful to Peter Jackson's team for letting us hear these beautiful languages (both Quenya and Sindarin) in the screen version of The Lord of the Rings.

The next most impressive example of such a language (corrections gratefully received!) must be Klingon, originally created as a basic sound and a few words by James “Scotty” Doohan for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but developed considerably thereafter - much further than I had imagined.

Like Star Trek itself, Klingon has found its way into all kinds of other popular culture (e.g. it appears several times in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). However, I had no idea how far it had spread - if you're interested, take a look here.

Along with many people, I enjoyed the remark from High Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, who said, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

Also like many other people (I suspect), I hadn't realised that you can read him in the original Klingon - it's a real book called The Klingon Hamlet. It is written with tongue firmly in cheek, of course, but it represents a considerable tribute to the development of the language. There's also Much Ado About Nothing: The Restored Klingon Version. Check them out!

Constructed languages, it seems, can take on a life of their own...

At a much earlier stage of development than Klingon, but obviously gaining momentum, is Na'vi, the constructed language of the sapient inhabitants of the planet Pandora in the film Avatar.

Unlike Klingon, Na'vi is intended to be only a spoken language, passed down orally from one generation to the next. Nevertheless there is a growing community interested in learning it - a strange phenomenon, but perhaps a tribute to the work that went into its construction (and is still ongoing), and to the film itself.

In following these links I came across an amazing resource:

for both real and constructed languages. You can delve there into the various varieties of Chinese, for example, and also into Klingon.

Which shows that you never know where a trip to the cinema is going to lead you...

Poldark (the BBC TV productions and the books by Winston Graham)

Two reasons why the 2015 BBC remake of its 1975 original was so popular are not hard to find...

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark. Aidan was previously best known for playing Kili, an improbably handsome dwarf, in Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit.

Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza. Eleanor's best role (prior to Poldark) was probably Georgiana Darcy in the excellent BBC adaptation of P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley.

The name “Demelza” is apparently Old Cornish for “Fort of Maeldaf” or “Fort on the Hill”, but Winston Graham is said to have derived it to mean “Thy Sweetness”, with “Melza” being originally derived from an old French word for honey.

Whatever, Demelza will always be associated for me with a feisty red-haired Cornish waif, who develops through hardships and class barriers in a way that still resonates today.

It was Angharad Rees's memorable portrayal of her in the 1975 TV series (right) that made her perhaps Britain's best-loved redhead (Demelza is a dark-haired lass in Winston Graham's novels). When I started watching the new series I felt that Angharad as Demelza would be a tough act to follow... but Eleanor has done the series proud.

I didn't start reading the 12 Poldark novels until I had watched the recent TV series, which brings me to another reason why the latest BBC remake has been so successful: the stories on which it is based (the first two novels, and a bit of the third novel).

Winston Graham's writing combines an almost cinematic quality of description with powerful character relationships that drive the suspenseful story, a fascinating historical background, and (in Ross Poldark) a humane view of the injustices and hardships of the times and a positive struggle to do something about them.

The latest TV adaptation has taken full advantage, doing a great job of conveying the first few novels to the screen. This isn't Downton Abbey, BTW - it's a much grittier and deeper story altogether.

(BTW, if you have watched the 2015 remake on PBS in the USA, you may know that PBS cut several small, important scenes from your version to suit its schedule - an act of artistic vandalism IMO. Buy the uncut DVDs!)

The above image was taken from a truly excellent blog post by Michael J. Bayly - a link well worth following.

I also strongly recommend Winston Graham’s Demelza: developing an 18th century Cornish world, a very thoughtful and deep analysis of the second novel, which will also tell you a great deal about the others.

The title of the third novel, BTW, is a little misleading (at least to me). It gave me the impression that the novels were a saga spanning generations, whereas in fact Jeremy Poldark is an unborn infant for most of that novel. I am currently reading The Black Moon (written after a gap of 20 years, although there is no sign of this in the writing), but so far as I can tell, the principal characters remain throughout the whole series.

So far, I am experiencing that rare thing: a set of novels and a screen adaptation that are equally satisfying. I look forward to Season 2!

The Art of Animation: Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli

I am a long time fan of Studio Ghibli, and I still consider Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away to be the finest animation ever made (a close runner-up being The Illusionist by Sylvain Chomet).

One reason that I am a fan is the beautiful environments (often urban) created in many of their films. These are works of art in their own right, and I have done my best to capture (with my own screenshots) some of the ones that I particularly like.

In order to keep this post a reasonable length, and because the art in many of the films can only be appreciated in animated form, I have chosen only three films (omitting, for example, the beautiful natural environment of My Neighbour Totoro along with many others). Click any image if you would like to see links about that film.

Kiki's Delivery Service

This charming story about the early difficulties of a trainee witch, based on a children's fantasy novel, would be worth watching just for the artwork of the beautiful Scandinavian-style landscape and city. When the weather is lousy or everything seems miserable, I watch this film again, thinking how much I would like to live here - and how much designers of modern architecture could learn from the film.

Kiki standing outside the bakery, overlooking the sea. Behind her is a glimpse of the lower part of the fictional city. The (apparently hand-painted) details of mortar, stones, plaster, tiles and so much else is incredible - the more you look, the more you see. As with so many of Miyazaki's urban environments, it is set on a hill, giving it added interest as a place and a wonderful three-dimensional feel as art.

The fictional city is “Koriko” or “Coriko”, although the characters don't mention it. Miyazaki's inspiration for it was the town of Visby on the island of Gotland, Sweden (worth looking at), although the fictional Koriko is a much larger place.

This is animation at its finest (no still images can convey how good it is), and one of my all-time favourite movies. (The version I have is in Japanese, with English subtitles, which I generally prefer.)

The bakery, with another glimpse of Koriko rising above it, lit (as often in Miyazaki's films) by a low sun. The room at the top of the stairs is a kind of storage loft, which Kiki can use free as her room (and have free use of the telephone for her delivery business) in exchange for helping out at the bakery.

The view from Kiki's room, as evening falls.

The bakery at night.

The Wind Rises

This is to be the last of Miyazaki's films (see here), and in many ways is very different from the others. A very good description of it can be found here.

It is a fictionalized version of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi fighters that flew in WWII. It features many things: the love and mystique of aviation (and a repugnance for its use in war) that is Miyazaki's own, a stunning sequence covering the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, 7.9 on the Richter scale, that devastated Tokyo and the surrounding area, and a bittersweet story concerning his love for Nahoko, a girl whom he rescues during the earthquake and then doesn't see again for some time.

The story is fascinating from a historical point of view, but it also features some fine art work that somehow makes even factories and aircraft hangars things of beauty. I have selected just a few here.

A train journey during a period of tranquillity. Jiro is on his way to a hotel where he will again encounter Nahoko. Trains, and other means of transport, feature in many of Miyazaki's films with an extraordinary attention to realistic detail. (In Kiki's Delivery Service, when looking through the front window of an old-fashioned bus about to depart, we can see its nose rise as it is lifted by the torque of the engine, before setting off - a detail most people wouldn't even care about, or notice.)

The outfall from a beautiful spring pool, near the hotel where he encounters Nahoko.

Walking back to the hotel, caught in a sudden rain squall. Wind, rain and clouds are often major features of Miyazaki's films.

The hotel where Nahoko and Jiro meet.

Nahoko sadly dies of tuberculosis. They marry so that they can live together for the short time left, but Nahoko disappears one day, returning to the sanatorium so that he will remember her as she was. Together with other patients, she lies (well bundled up) on the verandah of the sanatorium, and in this beautiful short sequence she looks up at the sky as snow falls.

Whisper of the Heart

This is another great favourite of mine. It's a coming-of-age story set in modern Tokyo. Its heroine Shizuku is led on a journey that becomes more and more magical at it progresses - not, in this case, the magic of myths or legends, but a way of seeing the real world through the eyes of a young teenager that becomes a true voyage of enchantment.

The film was written by Miyazaki but directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, whom Miyazaki hoped would take over from him. Kondo's premature death shortly afterwards, apparently caused by overwork, seems to have led Miyazaki to announce his retirement, although (fortunately for us) he continued to work for a further 15 years but at a more relaxed pace.

The apartment block where Shizuku lives is far from luxurious...

The door is metal and the interior is very small and cluttered. Nevertheless Shizuku's family lives happily there, and apart from the expected occasional friction with Shizuku's older sister, is very supportive of her.

Shizuku's life is one of an ordinary young teenager. She attends a local school, remarkable only for the respect that Miyazaki always shows being given by children to their elders and teachers. Shizuku writes two translated versions of John Denver's “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (hilarious when translated back to English in subtitles) - she doesn't really understand the concept of a “home town”, and her second version is entitled “Take Me Home, Concrete Roads”.

Shizuku is a voracious reader, borrowing books from the library, and keeps encountering the name of a previous borrower, Seiji Amasawa. She encounters Seiji several times without realizing who he is, and is extremely cross when he teases her. But things will change...

One day when Shizuku travels on the local train, she is joined by an unusually independent cat. When they get off together she follows him...

...losing him...

...but discovering him again higher up the hill.

The cat leads her up a steep, narrow rubbish-strewn alley.

(Monitor test: you should be able to see considerable detail even on plain concrete walls.)

Shizuku emerges into what, to her, is a different world...

...and discovers an open, and apparently deserted, antique shop... which she will discover Seiji's grandfather, and learn that Seiji himself lives downstairs, learning to be a violin maker.

Here she also meets The Baron, an amazing statuette with crystal eyes, whose story links to an unfulfilled love in the grandfather's past life.

Seiji's grandfather shows her a marvellous clock that he is repairing, whose mechanisms include another depiction of unfulfilled love.

Shizuku later meets Seiji here, and learns that he hopes to leave schooling early for a career making violins - but first he will have to prove himself by becoming an apprentice to a strict violin-making master in Cremona, Italy.

Shizuku realises how much she will miss him, and decides to challenge herself while he is away by writing a long story, which she calls Whisper of the Heart, inspired by the story of The Baron.

Seiji's grandfather wants to be the first to read her story, and Shizuku waits for hours on his lower verandah while he does so, in an agony of suspense. He finally appears and tells her that her story is a little rough, like any craftsman's first work, but she has dug out some real gems from her heart - and makes the hugely relieved Shizuku a supper of Ramen noodles.

Early one cold morning Seiji returns, and calls to Shizuku to come down.

He takes her high up to one of his favourite places... watch a magical sunrise above Tokyo

If you like this...

[Wingsee, a delightful site dedicated to the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki]
[The painting "Ship Flying Over The Rainbow" from "Kiki's Delivery Service"]
[Joe Hisaishi plays his piano music from "Spirited Away"]
[The Art of Animation: Disney's “Tangled”]

The Art of Animation: Disney's “Tangled”

Alan Jones, writing in the UK's historically-named Radio Times (now our leading TV and Radio magazine):

“This deft vrsion of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale find Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) trapped in a tower by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), who uses the princes's long magical hair to stay forever young. Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) is the handsome, cocksure thief who provides the kidnapped royal with a possible escape route. It's a smart, snappy and sparkling tale, which uses Rapuzel's multitasking flowing tresses to great effect.”

Frozen is (to date) the most successful animation feature ever made, and I really enjoyed it. However Tangled is still my favourite production from Walt Disney Animation Studios, thanks in no small part to Glen Keane, Disney's master character animator, who subsequently left Disney (more on that here if you're interested).

Pascal and Rapunzel (click the image for many more)

Click this image for the full-size HD wallpaper, which also shows several of the new animation features used in the production

Flynn, beginning a long process of personality improvement...

Maximus, a horse with serious attitude, and a real masterpiece of character animation... definitely worth clicking on this one...

A particularly beautiful animation sequence (click the image for many more)

It seems that Tangled was produced at a critical time for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Recent productions had not been a success, and they were losing out to studios like Pixar Animation Studios and Dreamworks Animation. The turning point for Disney animation was Glen Keane's seminar to his colleagues, many of them wedded to old-style animation, reported here in The New York Times.

From Wikipedia's article on Tangled (worth reading):

Technical and artistic brilliance wouldn't have been enough in themselves to make Tangled as successful as it was. As Alan Jones wrote, it's a “smart, snappy and sparkling tale”, with a strong story line and many really hilarious moments. Many people were involved with that, but without Glen Keane it would have been a different tale altogether.

If you like this...

[Watch “Duet”, a wonderful animation short by Glen Keane]
[Superb animation that was NOT done by motion capture: the Tiger in “Life of Pi”]

Battlestar Galactica (2003 TV miniseries followed by 2004-2009 TV series)

“Galactica and Pegasus” by Balsavor, typical of much fine fan art spun off by the series (and worth seeing full size)

High resolution (2400x1600) Viper wallpaper, showing some of the series creators' loving attention to detail

OK, so I messed up on this one. This post was going to explain why the re-imagined BSG (based on Glen A. Larson's 1978 original) is the finest [insert category] television drama ever made, and why you shouldn't miss it if you haven't already seen it, even if you're not an SF fan. In the UK it's currently available free from Netflix, Amazon Prime, blinkbox and iTunes (and no doubt similarly in other countries).

The problem is that BSG is in a quite unique drama category, and so is bound to be the best of its type. Yes, it has awesome space hardware and effects, superior IMO to those in most blockbuster movies, but those exist just to give a very realistic background to a story about politics, ethics, religions, war, love, prejudices formed and overcome, loyalty and betrayal, what it means to be a person, and much else besides. Short version: my wife liked it as much as I did.

If you've seen it, hopefully this will bring back some memories. If you haven't, it helps to know that the Cylons are a cybernetic race originally created by humans, but now evolving themselves. Many Cylons are human in appearance (and in many other ways). These exist as many copies (or instances) of a small number of Cylon “models” - the exact number is one of several unfolding mysteries in the story. Some instances don't know that they are Cylons, believing that they are human until triggered.

Models are referred to by Cylons by number, e.g. Six, but not all models, nor instances of a particular model, think or behave the same way. The development of individuality and dissension amongst the Cylons is one of the rich elements of the story.

If a Cylon instance is killed then its personality is downloaded (if important circumstances are met) to a resurrection mechanism whose details emerge only gradually in the story, and is reborn in another identical body with memories intact. An instance that survives in this way is effectively immortal.

The Cylons have their own religion (the humans have several), and at least one non-corporeal “Angel”.

And, of course, the (supposedly) human characters in the story, both military and civilian, include an unknown number of Cylons. What happens as they gradually become aware of this is one of the many fascinations of the series.

Enough confusion... I'll hand over to some of the main characters.

Edward James Olmos as Commander (later Admiral) William Adama

Like his ship, Adama is ready for retirement when the story opens. The obsolete nature of his ship's equipment, and his justifiably paranoid refusal to network its computer systems, allow his ship to survive the Cylons' first sophisticated and devastating attack on the humans' Twelve Colonies, when more modern elements of the fleet are apparently all destroyed.

The attack - whose cause is not as obvious as first appears, as with so much of BSG - leaves only about 50,000 civilians alive in the human race, who eventually embark on an epic search for a new home, the fabled Earth, pursued at every turn by the Cylons.

Mary McDonnel as Laura Roslin, the surviving Secretary of State for Education who has to take over the role of President of the Colonies

Laura turns out to be a tough cookie, deceptive appearances to the contrary, and an able leader of the diverse remnants of the human population now inhabiting a motley assortment of civilian spacecraft. She and Adama will have many run-ins and conflicts of interest, eventually developing mutual respect and a very touching relationship.

A rare peaceful interlude. In a pivotal section of the story, the Colonists are persuaded to reject Laura as president by the despicable Gaius Baltar (below), abandoning their search for Earth to settle on a planet they call “New Caprica”, supposedly hidden from the Cylons by a nearby source of stellar radiation.

Many of the military elect to join the ground colony and start families, under the indolent presidency of Baltar. Galactica and Pegasus (the other surviving Battlestar encountered later) are essentially reduced to watchkeeping (and Adama grows that moustache). Then all hell breaks loose, as the Cylons find the colony, thanks indirectly to one of Baltar's many betrayals. There follows a period of occupation and guerilla-style insurgency, suicide bombing and reprisals. Some humans join the Cylon's secret police force, Baltar is coerced into signing death warrants for civilians, and a conflict escalates which echoes many around the world in recent times, as well as the Nazi occupations of WWII.

The four episodes that open Season 3, leading to the final liberation of the human colony, would make a blockbusting movie epic in their own right.

The beautiful Canadian model and actress Tricia Helfer, who plays many different instances of the Cylon “Number Six”

“Number Six” is undoubtedly the most complex of the Cylon models. As the instance known by the Cylons as “Caprica-Six”, she is responsible for seducing the brilliant scientist Gaius Baltar, giving the Cylons access to the Caprica defence mainframe and enabling the devastating nuclear attack on the planet.

Gaius Baltar (the English actor James Callis) with “Head/Inner/Messenger Six”, a non-corporeal instance of the Cylon model who constantly guides and motivates Gaius

One of the quirks of BSG are the frequent views of Gaius and “Head Six” when other people are present. Her interactions with him are quite physical, and when we see them from other people's point of view (when she is invisible) he is doing all kinds of strange things, including apparently talking to himself, which he has to desperately cover up. Surely someone would notice? And it gets even stranger before the end...

Gina Inviere, a very different instance of “Six”, with Gaius Baltar

Gina infiltrates Pegasus and is responsible for its invasion by Cylon soldiers. She is subsequently unmasked and traumatized by severe sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Pegasus' crew, instigated by and participated in by the brutal Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes). Baltar assists her to escape, whereupon she kills the Admiral (something that most viewers will feel is long overdue). Baltar hides her in the fleet, forming a long-unrequited relationship with her that complicates his relationship with “Head Six”. This relationship will ultimately lead to the discovery of New Caprica by the Cylons.

A full description of the “Six” model instances will be found here (with spoilers).

Katee Sackhoff as Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, considered to be Galactica's best Viper pilot

Kara is one of BSG's most deeply-developed central characters. Tough but vulnerable, she has complex relationships with other main characters. Saul Tigh (see later below), Galactica's Exec, throws her in the brig for insubordination. Commander Adama sees her as a daughter figure, and his son Lee Adama sees her as lead pilot, sparring partner and sometime lover. Kara doesn't appear to value her own life, but saves the fleet many times by extraordinary feats of flying and courage.

She has a final destiny that I have no intention of describing here...

Kara with Lee “Apollo” Adama (the English actor Jamie Bamber), who for some time is the CAG (Commander, Air Group) for Galactica

Due to tragic family history (caused inadvertently by Kara, though this isn't discovered until later), Lee and his father have a difficult relationship, one of many such interesting story-lines that thread BSG.

Kara in deep trouble, later in the story, and an illustration of how Kara's character was developed through Katee's acting ability

The American-born Canadian actress Grace Park as Sharon “Boomer” Valerii, one of the instances of the “Number Eight” Cylon model

The first Sharon that we meet is “Boomer”, a pilot who doesn't realise that she is a Cylon. Boomer has an against-regs relationship with Chief Tyrol (see later below), who initially protects her when Sharon realises that she is unwittingly performing acts of sabotage. She asks Gaius Baltar to test her for being a Cylon; Gaius does so but falsifies the result out of cowardice.

Eventually she is triggered into shooting Commander Adama, nearly fatally, and is subjected to severe interrogations by Saul Tigh and Gaius Baltar. She is subsequently shot and killed by Cally, a female colleague of Chief Tyrol. A new instance of Boomer will return later...

We meet the second Sharon (given the callsign “Athena” much later) when Karl “Helo” Agathon (the Canadian actor Tahmoh Penikett) is stranded on Caprica. Helo thinks that this is the return of Boomer who was evacuating civilians; this Sharon is a knowing part of a Cylon plot to form a relationship with him and infiltrate the human fleet. But then Helo sees another “Eight” copy and realises what is going on, by which time this Sharon has genuinely fallen in love with him, and is pregnant with his child - a child who will be of immense importance in the future.

Returning to Galactica, a really interesting sequence of events develops, as various attempts to have her executed are postponed by Sharon's decisions to support the humans against the Cylons, saving the humans on several occasions. Winning trust (including Helo's) is a long and painful process, culminating in Adama's extraordinary appointment of her to lead the rescue mission on New Caprica, as only she can defeat their systems on the ground.

“How do you really know that you can trust me?” she asks Adama before the mission. “I don't,” replies Adama. “That's what trust is.”

On her return from the successful mission, it is the pilots themselves who give her the callsign “Athena”.

Helo later becomes the conscience of Galactica, first arguing against and then thwarting an opportunity to completely wipe out the Cylons in an act of genocide. Adama, secretly relieved, declines to punish him for what is in fact a serious act of treason, and the notion that Cylons are “just machines” begins to die.

Chief Galen Tyrol, “The Chief” (the Canadian actor Aaron Douglas)

Responsible for keeping Galactica's fighters operational, and even building one as a personal project during a desperate period, The Chief was originally intended to be a minor character in BSG. However he becomes a complex and important part of the story, representing the interests of the working man, becoming part of the resistance movement on New Caprica, and at one point making a key discovery in the search for Earth.

Samual T. Anders, callsign “Longshot” (the American actor Michael Trucco)

Sam Anders' role in the BSG story is much more complex than first appears. We meet him on Caprica after the Cylons' nuclear attack, leading a resistance group that escaped the initial devastation. In planting explosives he encounters Caprica-Six, the reincarnated Boomer and (for the first time) “Three” (see later below). Inexplicably at the time, the first two turn on “Three” and allow him to escape, one of the first indications of dissention developing among the Cylons.

Anders later meets Starbuck who is on a personal mission from President Roslin (an unapproved mission which leads Adama to imprison the President and declare Martial Law). Anders and Kara form a relationship, and Kara promises to return to rescue him and the rest of the team, although it will be a long time until she can fulfil that promise.

Sam marries Kara on New Caprica, and later rescues her from a particularly unpleasant captivity after the Cylon invasion. Kara's problems and her relationship with Lee Adama make the marriage very difficult, and eventually it breaks down. But Sam's part in the BSG story is far from over...

Saul Tigh, Galactica's Exec (played by the Canadian actor Michael Hogan), after losing an eye during mistreatment by the Cylons on New Caprica

Adama welcomes Saul back to Galactica after the rescue mission on New Caprica. Saul's experiences there have made him very bitter, and for a long time he is useless, and even destructive, as a functioning officer. He was responsible for hard-line insurgency on New Caprica, and was put in the position of killing his toxic wife Ellen after she (not quite fatally) betrayed the rescue operation.

Prior to the New Caprica incident, Saul had a disastrous experience deputizing for Adama after the Commander was shot by Boomer. His relationship with Adama goes back a long way, and we discover over a period of time why Adama tolerates less than ideal behaviour in his hard-drinking Exec.

Saul Tigh with an instance of the Cylon “Three” (the New Zealand actress Lucy Lawless), towards the end of the story

This encounter follows some extraordinary developments in the lives of both of these characters (and in many other lives as well). Explaining why would be a serious spoiler...

BSG does have some flaws or weaknesses, unsurprising in an epic of 77 episodes including the opening miniseries. Some people view the end itself as one such; I found myself coughing gently when I recognized the Citroen DS, and several other European cars, parked on Caprica (the makers must have hoped that US audiences wouldn't notice). However from my point of view these are totally minor, and I am enjoying BSG just as much, if not more, on my second time through.

If you like this...


[List of BSG episodes]
[Quotations from BSG]

“Life is an overwhelming whirlwind of stress, responsibility, existential crises, and utility bills. So it’s a good thing we have video games, which are the equivalent of burying your head in the sand and forgetting about what a gruelling, thankless chore simply existing can be.

“When I’m feeling the burden of sentience, these are the games I turn to. They’re all relaxing in their own special way, and the perfect way to unwind after a hard day of doing whatever it is you do to pay the rent.

“So light some scented candles, put on a Brian Eno CD, and slip into a warm bubble bath of pure tranquility. But not too far, ‘cause you might fall asleep and drown, and you’ve got work tomorrow.”

Andy Kelly (aka Ultrabrilliant) in PC Gamer

Andy is probably the finest journalist writing on video games. I have gratefully borrowed his words in my selections below from his article, and added some links. Click any image to see the full article with all 10 of Andy's suggestions.

Space Engine

“This one’s tricky. Flying around Space Engine’s beautiful 1:1 scale recreation of the universe can be remarkably humbling and soothing, but you run the risk of suddenly realising just how small and insignificant you are and having a mild existential breakdown. For the best experience, disable the in-game music and listen to the sci-fi-tinged ambience of ‘Tomorrow's Harvest’ by Boards of Canada.”

Take On Mars

“This slow-paced simulator sees you exploring the surface of the red planet with a variety of rovers and landers. The missions don’t get any more exciting than ‘probe some soil’, but the feeling of being alone on a distant, lonely world is palpable. The howl of the Martian wind as you trundle through the dust creates an evocative atmosphere, and the sedate pace of the rovers makes for a strangely hypnotic experience.”

The perfect companion to reading The Martian by Andy Weir (see my previous post below).

Dear Esther

“The bleak Hebridean island that this short, story-led game takes place on is one of my favourite virtual places to hike through. It evokes the same lonely feeling as Take On Mars, but with a more earthly setting. The world and sound design are hauntingly atmospheric, and the understated music and narration give it a serene, dreamlike feel. Can we have more games set on remote Scottish islands, please?”

... and a couple of the rest (click any image above to see the full set):


“This surrealist exploration game marries sound and visuals in a really captivating way. As you wander around a procedurally-generated island, constructed from simple, abstract shapes, the dreamy music reacts to your actions. Then the seasons begin to change, transforming the landscape around you, and your worries slip away. It only takes an hour to finish Proteus, but the world layout is different every time.”

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments

“This detective adventure is like watching an episode of Poirot or Morse or something. It has that sedate British crime drama vibe about it, and even though most of the cases are about grisly murders, the gorgeous, authentic environments are a pleasure to explore. It’s like being transported to Victorian England. The pace is slow and measured, and none of the puzzles are too taxing. The perfect game for a lazy Sunday.”

If you like this...

[Other Places - videos by Andy Kelly exploring the tranquil beauty of game landscapes without violence or stress]
[Slow TV from Norway]

The Mexican singer Malukah (real name Judith de los Santos) has a beautiful voice, and she has made some very popular cover versions of songs from computer games like Skyrim (among others), as well as music from other kinds of popular entertainment.

I particularly liked this version of the Game of Thrones Theme and “The Children” from the same popular TV series, as well as her recording of “Misty Mountains” from the film The Hobbit.

You can currently download several of her songs for free at her web site, or watch and listen to her here on Youtube.

I saw this superb film yesterday... so intelligent, so well acted, so relevant to today's world, and such a gripping story.

The visual effects are so good that you don't notice them as special effects - the whole film simply looks real.

Unlike the entertaining CGI tosh served up nowadays to show off bigger machines, stupidly unrealistic stunts and ear-bashing sound, the visual magic in this film is there to support the story, not the other way around.

On top of which, the 3D is just right, which is more than I can say for most 3D films.

Oh... and I just loved Maurice (no, he isn't the baby). If you've seen the film, you'll know what I mean!

(Click the image for links.)

for this one!

If you like this...

[My Movies/TV page]

Mathias (Richard Harrington) and Mared (Mali Harries) in the “Welsh Noir” mini-series Hinterland

From the page:

You may remember Richard Harrington from Bleak House, IMO one of the finest TV dramas of all time, and certainly one of the finest TV versions of a Charles Dickens novel. (Richard is also one of the actors featured in my previous post below.)

I have featured some of my favourite “Nordic Noir” here. On a scale of the Swedish Wallander (my yardstick) = 10, Hinterland scores for me about 7 - but that's a high score, and it's well worth watching for its highly atmospheric stories (4, so far).

The other joy of Hinterland for me was listening to the beautiful Welsh language, with subtitles. One of the reasons that I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings (the book) so much was the depth given to it by Tolkien's creation of the various languages, and Elvish in particular (he was persuaded not to write the whole book in Elvish as it would have been unpublishable).

Having also greatly enjoyed Peter Jackson's film version, and the care taken to do justice to Tolkien's Elvish language (among many other things), I found myself listening to Welsh in Hinterland and often almost hearing the Elvish that Peter Jackson's team worked so hard to reproduce. I knew that Tolkien had drawn on Celtic roots for his story, but this was still a very interesting and pleasurable surprise.

This wonderful happy song (click the lyrics to listen) reminded me...

Life sometimes seem just too frenetic, with no time to stop and watch the world go by.

The Norwegians, recognizing this, have pioneered a new kind of entertainment with Slow TV. You can spend hours on a train just looking at the scenery, or enjoy a slow cruise up the Norwegian fjords, or stare dreamily into a log fire (if you're not lucky enough to have one of your own), or watch salmon swimming upstream...

It sounds unlikely as a crowd-pleaser? Well, an early experiment drew 1.25 million viewers in Norway, about a fifth of the population, and the idea is certainly taking off as you can see here (literally, in the case of British Airways, who are introducing an example of Slow TV on their long haul flights).

I peek into the future and sadly see people still living in urban sprawls, but with low-cost giant HD screens showing a better world outside...

If you like this...

[A complete virtual trip (can be sampled!) on the Trans Siberian Railway]
[Caretake this moment...]
[Go placidly amid the noise and haste...]
[Creating a field of flowers]
[Things to enjoy in life (including this one)]

— from this excellent article.

It's worth reading the whole thing (Seb Emina and Daniel Jones are really interesting people, too). Click the excerpt above to read more.

I dropped in on this Internet radio station throughout a waking day recently, and took some screenshots which appear below. The sunrise pictures change as the world turns. Sometimes the pictures are local to the current radio station (one of more than 250 being played in sequence), sometimes they are from somewhere else in the country, or aerial photos where no other picture is available. I'm sure these will change over time, and you can probably send in your own photos!

Click any screenshot to listen to this rather wonderful invention. It's a very human window on our world - even in troubled areas of the Middle East, you realise that when you get down to it, folks everywhere are just folks.

There is also plenty more interesting stuff written about Global Breakfast Radio.

BTW: I discovered this (as I do so much other good stuff about news, gadgets and apps for computers and smartphones) on the BBC's excellent Click Programme.

Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia on BBC Breakfast, talking about “The Bridge”

A couple of days ago we saw Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia, stars of the mega-popular Scandi-hit The Bridge (finishing its second season here in the UK, with another season in production), appearing on BBC Breakfast. They are over here for London's Nordicana Festival, devoted to Nordic fiction and film.

It was particularly nice to meet the real Sofia, who has a charming and bubbly personality very different from that of Saga, the character she plays on television. Saga has an unspecified condition that might be Asperger's, a condition that makes her a brilliantly intuitive (and sometimes scary) detective who is almost totally deficient in inter-personal skills.

Kim is obviously a big fan of Sofia. “People ask me how I can work with someone without feelings - but when Sofia is acting, you see all of Saga's feelings in her eyes - so many feelings.”

Asked about any problems that came up between the Swedish and Danish languages, Sofia explained that the initial difficulties actually helped. “Being Saga is like being behind a glass wall. At the beginning it was very difficult... It demands a good one [Kim] to play against, otherwise I wouldn't have dared to do it.”

The Nordicana Festival, running in London at the beginning of February, is a remarkable illustration of how popular Nordic entertainment and literature has become over here (see my previous post, for instance).

If you're interested...

[More about The Bridge, and the “Scandinavian Invasion” generally, here on my web site]

Borgen III

The wonderful Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays Birgitte Nyborg
(image from this Danish article on her new English-language role in the forthcoming movie The Duke of Burgundy)

A sizeable part of England has pretty much fallen in love with this lady, whom we have just said goodbye to in the third and final season of Borgen. It has been IMO one of the best (and most enjoyable) political and human dramas that we are likely to see for quite some time.

It wasn't long ago that the idea of a subtitled foreign-language TV series grabbing a whole country's attention would have seemed crazy - particularly a series about coalition politics in a country of only some 4 millions voters. But that was before Wallander (with Krister Henniksson), The Killing (original Danish version), and The Bridge (now running its second season over here), made BBC4 a prime time channel.

On top of which, unlike the other Scandi-hits, Borgen is not a crime drama, but is every bit as gripping - thanks in no small part to its creator and main writer Adam Price (an interesting character in his own right). Adam made unlikely issues (such as unethical pig farming and hypocrisy over prostitution) so compelling in Borgen that they apparently affected real-life politics in Denmark.

In the final season Birgitte returns to politics from her spell in the international private sector - and eventually realises that she must take the apparently mad step of trying to form a new centre party. As before, her combination of womanly sex-appeal, gritty determination, political savvy (not infallible) and essential humanity make her a very different kind of “Iron Lady” from the famous one.

Also as in previous seasons, Borgen is far from a one-woman show. Katrine Fønsmark (played by the beautiful Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, nominated as “Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series” at Monte Carlo in 2013), moves from journalism to a major role as Birgitte's media adviser and campaign manager. Torben Friis, TV1's editor-in-chief (played by Søren Malling, Sarah Lund's sidekick in The Killing), finds himself sinking beneath personal and work problems, the latter due to the attempted dumbing-down of TV1 news in search of ratings (a cliff-hanging development that also threatens Birgitte's political success). Will he recover? Will the worm turn? And the formation of the new party brings in a collection of characters of different political shades, some of whom are old friends to Borgen viewers, some new, and all excellently portrayed.

While on the international circuit, Birgitte acquires a new (and thoroughly nice) English architect boyfriend, Jeremy Welsh (played by Alastair Mackenzie, also thoroughly nice in real life and best known for the well-loved TV Series Monarch of the Glen). Asked on BBC Breakfast to explain the appeal of Borgen to non-Danish viewers, he said that apart from Birgitte Nyborg herself, it was simply because the series was so good.

Adam Price's decision to draw a hard line under Borgen III allowed the story to reach a very satisfying (and unexpected) conclusion. It also liberated the small pool of Danish top-class dramatic talent to work on new projects, including one of his own (a new television drama in collaboration with House of Cards creator Michael Dobbs).

Fans of the Danish (and Swedish) TV hits have had some fun spotting how this small pool of Danish dramatic talent gets recycled between different productions. But now we are also getting used to seeing them appearing in British TV - e.g. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen appearing in Agatha Christie's Marple with Julia McKenzie (the recently aired episode Endless Night), and Lars Mikkelsen as the wonderfully repellent master villain Charles Augustus Magnussen in the cracking third and final episode of Sherlock (season 3), His Last Vow - and see the caption on the above image!

If you haven't seen Borgen but think you might like to, may I suggest this as your next stop!

If you like this...

[My posts on Nordic Noir]
[Borgen II]
[Borgen I]
[Birgitte Hjort Sørensen]

...and from the Movies / TV page of my web site

[The Scandinavian Invasion]

From the page:

If you're a Miyazaki fan, click the image below to see all the artist's work full size (and see how many details you recognize)... and please visit batchbatcharak, from whose fine pages this comes!

If you like this...

[Japanese animation at its finest: the master-works of Hayao Miyazaki]
[The painting "Ship Flying Over The Rainbow" from "Kiki's Delivery Service"]
[Joe Hisaishi plays his piano music from "Spirited Away"]

and maybe also...

[Beautiful stained glass by Rober Oddy]

“Other Places” (1 of 2)

My screenshots below are from one of my favourites of these videos - Skyrim (The Elder Scrolls V). Click any image below to enjoy the landscapes, set to nice music.

You can find all of ultrabrilliant's Other Worlds videos here, and another set of screenshots (urbanscape, for a change) in my previous post below.

If you like this...

[Another post on Skyrim]

“Other Places” (2 of 2)
[continued from Part 1]

My screenshots below are from another of my favourites of these videos - Empire Bay (Mafia II). Click any image below to enjoy the cityscape, set to nice music.

You can find all of ultrabrilliant's Other Worlds videos here, and another set of screenshots (landscape, for a change) in my next post above.

If you like this...

[... and try clicking the urbanscape tag above...]

A complete virtual trip on the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok by train. You can listen to balalaika music or the rumble of wheels or somebody reading War and Peace in Russian as you trundle across the continent.

Since you probably don't have several days to watch and listen, you can use the route map or the list of scenic locations to jump into the trip anywhere you want. When you get to the page, pop the video out onto Youtube and watch full screen!

Strangely calming…

Thanks to my elder daughter for this one!

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

My American family is into computer games and music (among other things). They always have something good to show me when I visit, like this...

A scene from the standard Skyrim game (click the image to read a major Wikipedia article, and there's a good review here)

As I understand it, Skyrim has an open architecture, and a whole community (the Skyrim Nexus) is involved in extending and enhancing it - this is an example from Skyrim Visuals and Graphics enhancements, an image that I found here (click the image above for a full-size version)

And then there is the music from Skyrim...

The Mexican singer Malukah (real name Judith de los Santos) has a beautiful voice, and she has made some very popular cover versions of songs from Skyrim (among others) - this one is The Dragonborn Comes (and a video of a Skyrim trailer with the same track wil be found here)

...and here is Malukah singing another Skyrim song, one of my favourites, Tale of the Tongues

You can download many of Malukah's songs as MP3s, including these, free from her web site.

My American family is really into Anime (as well as music and computer games, see my next post). They recently introduced me to Anime Music Videos (AMVs) which are really an art form within an art form. They showed me this hilarious example. It's a lot of fun - do play it.

Kindle Fire HD... I like it!

One of many screensavers on the Kindle Fire HD (with the ad-free option), each screensaver representing a different kind of content - the display is much sharper than I can make it appear here (click the image for my full review)

This was my first touch-screen device (my mobile phone is appreciating in value as an antique!). I bought it because I wanted an affordable entertainment and Skype device that would also connect to a TV and let me try services like LOVEFiLM, as well as being a big-enough tablet to browse the web and get me familiar with Android and touch screen stuff.

The other selling point, for me, was the advertised dual-antenna Wi-Fi connection, as our existing non-touch Kindles sometimes struggle with our router signal. I already have a whole library of Kindle books, and other free documents that we read our existing Kindles, and I was interested in seeing the difference on the Kindle Fire HD with colour, different navigation and a white background.

For anyone interested, I have posted a full review on Amazon, which you will find here, including some hopefully useful information on problems and solutions encountered.

If anyone out there has one of these devices, I would be very interested in knowing about your experiences!

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, one of many good reasons for watching the superb Danish political thriller Borgen
(see my previous post below)

Borgen II

A less likely scenario for a major television hit would be hard to imagine: a story about coalition politics, with a non-obvious title*, in a language even less familiar to most of us than Swedish, with subtitles...

However ever since the Swedish Wallander and the magnificent first Danish series of The Killing, Scandinavian police and political drama has attracted a large audience in the UK. BBC4 has established a prime time Saturday night slot, with multiple repeats through the week, for high quality original-language drama of this type (we are currently getting Spiral, a French import).

The second season of Borgen has sadly just come to an end, and it has been every bit as good as the first season. Thanks to great acting, direction and scripts, the main characters have somehow become part of our lives...

(If you click on one of my screenshots, in most cases you will get many more images of the actor.)

The wonderful Sidse Babett Knudsen as Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg, here coming to terms with the effect of her life pressures on her young teenage daughter

Mikael Birkkjær (a hearthrob for female viewers, I'm told) as Phillip Christensen, whose marriage to Birgitte fell apart in Series 1, but who is still part of Birgitte's life. We saw him as Detective Ulrik Strange in The Killing.

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Katrine Fønsmark, a headstrong TV1 news anchor (whose attitude gets her an enforced leave of absence from TV1 to do other things), with Kasper Juul, the Prime Minister's media adviser. Katrine and Kasper each have relationships with other people, but keep gravitating irresistably together...

Johan Philip ("Pilou") Asbæk as Kasper Juul (also a hearthrob for female viewers, apparently). We saw Pilou in a wheelchair as the 3rd victim in The Killing II. Here he is meeting up with his demented mother, near to resolving his relationship-threatening history of child abuse.

Søren Malling as Torben Friis, TV1's editor-in-chief, here about to pronounce on whether Katrina can have her job back. Søren was superb as Sarah Lund's colleague and foil Jan Meyer in the first series of The Killing, and we also saw him as Major Kàrlis Liepa in the English version of Wallander, in an episode called "The Dogs of Riga".

Lars Knutzon as Bent Sejrø, some time Finance Minister, and always a good friend and mentor to Birgitte - one of many excellently-drawn minor characters without which Borgen wouldn't be as good as it is

Bjarne Henriksen as Hans Christian Thorsen, the Defence Minister, here listening to Birgitte in the Danish Parliament. His role in Borgen is a minor one, but in the first (and greatest) The Killing he was superb as Theis Birk Larsen, father of the murdered girl around whose death that story revolves... in 20 one-hour episodes.

Birgitte, delivering the "extraordinary statement" to the small Danish Parliament that closes Season 2 of Borgen

We're told that the third (and probably last) season will be transmitted in the UK in 2014 - I'm really looking forward to it!

*(Borgen, I discovered from Wikipedia, translates as "The castle", "The fortress" or "The burg", which is the nickname among Danish politicians for Christiansborg Palace, which houses all three of Denmark's branches of government: the Parliament, the Prime Minister's Office and the Supreme Court.)

If you like this, you might like my other posts on...

[Nordic Noir]

Once in a while, we are lucky enough to get a movie that provides an experience like no other. Last year, for me, that was Hugo. This year it was Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee.

Apart from being a great story of spirituality and adventure, the movie contains what must be among the most beautiful images ever seen in the cinema, and some of the most awe-inspiring visions of the ocean in all its moods and variety. Like Hugo, it can't be fully appreciated except on the big screen, and like Hugo it really needs 3D.

Not to be missed!


If you're interested in the technology of film making, Scot Byrd of Rhythm & Hues Studios corrected an article in Time Magazine as follows:

Just to be clear, motion capture was not used in "Life of Pi." Key frame animation was the technique employed by the digital artists at Rhythm & Hues, the visual effects company responsible for production of the computer-generated animals in "Life of Pi." (R&H also created the photorealistic skies and oceans during the open ocean scenes. London's Moving Picture Company - MPC - was responsible for the shipwreck sequence.)

Motion capture technique uses sensors to capture a single performance, usually performed by a human being. (Imagine putting motion sensors on a living tiger!) Key frame animation works like puppetry inside the computer. The animator sets a pose, which the computer remembers as a key frame. The performance is created as the artist sets a multitude of key frames/poses and the computer moves the character rig from pose to pose to pose.

The origins of key frame animation go back to traditional 2D cell animation, as seen in any Disney animated feature going all the way back to Steamboat Willie, followed by most Saturday morning cartoon shows and the modern animated incarnations up to and including those produced by Pixar, Dreamworks Animation, BlueSky, et al.

For Rhythm & Hues, the actual line of ascension runs from the Coca Cola Polar Bears to "Babe", "Cats & Dogs", "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe", "The Golden Compass", "Alvin and the Chipmunks" to "Life of Pi."

While it may seem an academic distinction, in the world of animation, the key frame technique has a long tradition, and the artists who have spent a lifetime developing their craft deserve their recognition. The added challenge and critically acclaimed success of melding photorealistic, computer-generated characters with photorealistic computer-generated environments demonstrates just how groundbreaking the technology and artistry of "Life of Pi" is.

If you like this...

[My movies page]

This is a wonderful site where you can listen to free music with videos - typically 40-50 tracks (selection may vary from visit to visit) from almost any artist you want.

Start here, type in the name of the artist you want to hear, select from the drop-down list (even if it doesn't seem necessary), and away you go!

You can skip tracks, or go straight to a track that you like from the playlist. From a playlist page you can type in the name of another artist that you want to listen to, or select your next artist from a list of suggestions. That last feature has the nice effect of introducing you to other artists that you might like, based on what you are playing now ( also does this, but in a different way).

Here, mostly for my own benefit, is a somewhat eclectic (and growing) list of artists that I really like listening to from this site (you may have to wait a few seconds after clicking one of these before the corresponding playlist opens):

ABBA ~ Abbey Lincoln ~ Alicia Keys ~ Amy Winehouse ~ Andrea Bocelli ~ Bert Kaempfert ~ Blackmore's Night ~ Blondie ~ Carpenters ~ Chris Botti ~ Chris Spheeris ~ Diana Krall ~ Dire Straits ~ Eddi Reader ~ Emmylou Harris ~ Enya ~ Eric Clapton ~ Eva Cassidy ~ Fleetwood Mac ~ Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass ~ Govi ~ Imogen Heap ~ James Galway ~ Jesse Cook ~ Katie Melua ~ Mark Knopfler ~ Melody Gardot ~ Nanci Griffith ~ Natalie Imbruglia ~ Neil Diamond ~ Nick Drake ~ Nigel Kennedy ~ Paul Simon ~ Queen ~ Roberta Flack ~ Roy Orbison ~ Sara Bareilles ~ Sarah Blasko ~ Secret Garden ~ Simon & Garfunkel ~ Sophie Milman

Descriptions of this site that I have found suggest that selecting your next artist queues up that artist for when the current playlist is finished - hence "neverending". However with my PC setup, selecting the next artist jumps there immediately. That's no problem for me!

Thanks to saboma and s-reg for this one!

Should you want to return here...

[Permalink to this post]

I have just finished reading The Night Circus, a very ambitious first novel of love and magic by Erin Morgenstern.

For me it is almost a really great book - there was so much that I liked about it, but sometimes (especially early on) what I call the "narrative drive" kept faltering, while various wonders continued to unfold. Eventually, however, I was gripped, and it would be worth reading if only to enjoy the author's wonderful imagination and descriptive powers. I shall certainly read it again.

An excellent review of it (which I fully agree with) can be found here.

The book is obviously a very attractive proposition for movie makers, and it seems that Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment are approaching some kind of deal on its production. Eager fans aren't waiting - the movie poster to the left, and the trailer below, are totally unofficial (click either image for more).

There is also a feeling by fans of the book, which I share, that the scope for making a real mess of bringing the story to the big screen is considerable. On the other hand, if done well, the movie could be a cracker. I await the outcome with eager nervousness...

I have to say that Marion Cotillard is fast becoming one of my favourite film actresses.

It helps, of course, that (IMO) she is one of the most beautiful women on the planet...

(Desktop wallpaper - click image for source)

However, she is also a very fine actress, as demonstrated in this recently-released movie (which I strongly recomment if you haven't seen it):

The movie co-stars the muscular Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as Ali, an ex-fighter living a bleak life low on the income scale, accompanied by his young son from a failed relationship. The name of the movie, appropriately enough, refers to the taste in your mouth if you are on the receiving end of a hard punch.

The basic story sounds unlikely, and tells you little: Stéphanie, a trainer of Killer Whales at a marineland park, loses both legs above the knee in a horrific accident. Initially suicidal, she recovers her life through a developing relationship with the unsentimental, flawed Ali.

This is not a love story, in the conventional sense. What Ali offers Stéphanie comes through an unpitying friendship and (eventually) sex, and is one of the most moving human relationships that I have ever seen in the cinema.

This is not a special effects movie, either - it is about as far from one as you can get. However, it contains the most jaw-dropping special effects that transform Marion Cotillard into a paraplegic, with or without the prosthetics that she eventually receives. This is really "art concealing art" - the technique is so good that it vanishes from view, and you simply accept what you are looking at. (If you're interested, an outline description of the technique used by Mikros Image can be found some way down on this page).

For more on the movie, see this review from The Guardian or click one of the following images for more links.

Stéphanie with Ali, in a sequence where he persuades her to come into the sea with him

Stéphanie re-enacting her lost relationship with the Killer Whale, which apparently moved the audience to tears at the Cannes Film Festival

The reunion scene. Stéphanie, walking on prosthetics, appears in front of an empty tank, and taps on the glass. Time passes, and then the Orca appears and rises up in front of her. "its vast shadow falling like a benediction" (as Rachel Cook writes here in The Observer. This is the best screenshot that I could find (I'll add a better one later when I get the DVD!).

After watching Rust and Bone I seriously wanted to check that Marion Cotillard still has those lovely legs - and she does

If you like this, you might like Marion Cotillard in...

[La Vie en Rose (her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf)]
[Nine (a sizzlingly hot musical based on Federico Fellini's semi-autobiographical movie )]
[Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen's feather-light time-travel romantic comedy, one of his most delightful films)]

The beautiful Christina Hendricks - one of several good reasons for watching Mad Men

(This popular wallpaper was apparently published by Eggshellgb on deviantART as a retouch of a bad production photo, but has now disappeared from there. If you want to find a full-size original, first click the image above, then select Larger than... 800x600, then go to Options, Advanced Search and select an aspect ratio of Wide - good luck!)

Angels Take Manhattan was the last episode of Doctor Who to feature Amy Pond (I shall really miss Karen Gillan). It was probably the best Doctor Who episode of all time, thanks to a superb script by creator Steven Moffat and great work by the whole team.

The long time-knotted story of Amy Pond, Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) and River Song (the superb Alex Kingston) reaches an emotionally charged, bitter-sweet conclusion in this episode. The series that have featured Matt Smith as the Doctor have occasionally been barmy (for example Churchill and the Spitfires flying in space), but at their best they have been really good - and this episode, which features the genuinely scary Weeping Angels, was in a class of its own.

As well as a few of my screenshots, I have reproduced the closing words from the story below. As spoken by Amy, they really cracked me up...

Afterword by Amelia Williams

Hello old friend - and here we are. You and me, on the last page. By the time you read these words, Rory and I will be long gone. So know that we lived well, and were very happy. And above all else, know that we will love you always.

Sometimes I do worry about you though. I think, once we're gone, you won't be coming back here for a while, and you might be alone, which you should never be. Don't be alone, Doctor.

And do one more thing for me. There's a little girl waiting in a garden. She's going to wait a long while, so she's going to need a lot of hope. Go to her. Tell her a story. Tell her that if she's patient, the days are coming that she'll never forget. Tell her that she'll go to sea and fight pirates. She'll fall in love with a man who'll wait 2,000 years to keep her safe. Tell her that she'll give hope to the greatest painter who ever lived, and save a whale in outer space! Tell her: this is the story of Amelia Pond - and this is how it ends.

It's looking great...

[Click the image to visit the official Hobbit Movie blog]

Having seen the trailers for Brave, I wasn't sure how much I would like this latest movie from Pixar - but I did, enormously. The extraordinarily detailed CGI world in which it is set (much more impressive than appears here), the Celtic atmosphere and the slightly unusual story made this a winner for me.

Highly recommended (and definitely worth seeing on the big screen, in 3D if possible).

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo at Cannes...

...and Bérénice Bejo in London (image from here)...

...two amazingly good-looking people who have shot to international fame in that wonderful movie The Artist

If you haven't seen the film yet, may I highly recommend it. It is good old-fashioned entertainment, telling the story of George Valentin, a silent movie star being edged out by the talkies, and Peppy Miller, a beautiful, sparky newcomer who becomes a talkies star, and whom he is too proud to follow.

Although it is a silent movie (with music!), the movie has the same appeal as those great classics starring Gene Kelly or Fred and Ginger. Among many reasons for seeing it is Peppy's smile, which will light up your entire day.

(Bérénice, BTW, was born in Buenos Aires, a place known for its beautiful women. She moved to France when she was quite young.)

If you like this, try...

[The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec]

BBC4 seems to have created (or discovered) an audience for excellent foreign crime fiction (strangely undeterred by subtitles) in its Saturday night slot. In 2009 it dabbled with the superb Swedish Wallander starring Krister Henriksson, before showing the entire first series, followed later by the equally superb second series. Then came two series of The Killing, an equally impressive offering from Denmark, and just recently Borgen, a cracking political thriller from the same company.

Some time ago BBC4 also dabbled with Inspector Montalbano, a very different kind of crime series from Italy. True to form it first showed two random episodes (Excursion to Tindari, from which my screenshots above come, and Montalbano's Croquettes) some months apart. Now, thankfully, it has decided (after much dithering) to show us all 10 of the RAI TV episodes, starting with The Snack Thief.

I am already a huge fan of the TV series, which is about as far from Nordic gloom as a crime series can get (OK - except for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency), and all of Camilleri's novels are now on my reading list!

An excellent description of everything you might want to know about Inspector Montalbano will be found here.

From Wikipedia (my links):

Inspector Montalbano lives and works in the fictional town of "Vigàta", in the equally fictional district of "Montelusa". Camilleri based Vigata on his home town of Porto Empedocle, on Sicily's south-west coast, while Montelusa, the district headquarters, is based on Agrigento. However the dramatizations of the Montalbano stories were mainly filmed at Ragusa, while the seaside and harbour locations were at Punta Secca and Licata.

If you would like to see a lot more good stuff that has been on the BBC...

[ the BBC tag at the top of this post!]

The wonderful Licia Maglietta as Rosalba

Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips) is one of those movies that makes you think: "This is how life should be". It is basically an Italian variant on Shirley Valentine, where Rosalba, an under-appreciated housewife, gets left behind at a motorway rest-stop (for a reason that will make you wince in sympathy) by the rest of her family who don't even notice that she isn't on the bus.

Rosalba starts hitch-hiking, deciding on the way to take a detour via Venice and live a little for herself. Without much money, she finds lodging with Fernando Girasole, a kind but gloomy (even suicidal) Icelander who runs a not-too-great restaurant, and whose Italian is peppered with archaic literary expressions (conveyed nicely via subtitles). In the same building she befriends Grazia, a "holistic beautician and masseuse", and in the city she eventually finds work in a florist's shop, run by a crusty old man with the general charm of a Basil Fawlty, whom she gradually wins over, entertaining him in the absence of customers with an accordion lent to her by Fernando.

(About that accordion... Fernando got it in payment for a gambling debt. Rosalba's grandfather taught her to play one when she was 12, shortly before he died cycling over a bridge which he believed, erroneously, to have been completed...)

Meanwhile, Rosalba's cheapskate husband, finding himself deserted by his chief cook, maid and bottle-washer, hires Constantino, a bumbling, over-weight plumber, as a private detective to locate his wife, whom he knows is somewhere in Venice. Constantino isn't as lucky as Rosalba in finding accommodation in that super-expensive city, ending up in a seedy converted barge on a canal. In his search he encounters and falls in love with Grazia, the masseuse. Fernando, discovering who Constantino really is, confronts him with an ancient rifle while he is with Grazia, in a scene made hilarious by Fernando's style of speech.

The movie delivers everything that a romantic comedy should, but with a delightful, quirky Italian flavour that makes it unique. It took me a long time to track down a Region 2 copy of the DVD (exasperatingly, Region 1 was readily available), but you can get hold of it at the moment (I see that Amazon UK currently has 3 copies). If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it...

Jean Shrimpton excellently portrayed by Karen Gillan (with an equally good performance from the Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard as the cocky, in-your-face David Bailey)

Extract from Wikipedia (the links are mine):

Shrimpton was once engaged to photographer David Bailey. They met in 1960 at a photo shoot that Shrimpton, who was then an unknown model, was working on with photographer Brian Duffy for a Kellogg's corn flakes advertisement.

Duffy told Bailey she was too posh for him, but Bailey was undeterred, and he and Shrimpton subsequently had a relationship for four years, ending in 1964...

Shrimpton has stated she owed Bailey her career, and he is often credited for discovering her and being influential in her career.

In turn, she was Bailey's muse, and his photographs of her helped him rise to prominence in his early career. Shrimpton's other celebrated romance was with actor Terence Stamp.

She married photographer Michael Cox in 1979 at Penzance register office when she was four months pregnant with their son Thaddeus (born in 1979). They own the Abbey Hotel in Penzance, Cornwall, now managed by Thaddeus and his family...

More about the Abbey Hotel in my previous post below.

[All of my posts on Karen Gillan]

Two of my screenshots from the computer game Syberia

I am no expert on computer games - I don't get much time to play them.

I do, however, enjoy really good adventure games that involve problem solving rather than shooting. The best of these games seem to me to be amazing works of art and technology. Developing these games must be not unlike working on a movie blockbuster such as The Lord of the Rings.

Syberia, created by the Belgian comic artist and video game developer Benoît Sokal, is (as of January 2012) the highest-ranked game in the GamingExcellence adventure game ratings, and having played it over the last month or two I am not at all surprised.

If you are interested, I have reviewed this and some other excellent adventure games here on my web site.

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg in the new Danish TV masterpiece, the political thriller Borgen
(high def image from here)

If you like "Nordic Noir", and The Killing in particular, don't miss this new production from DR - it's a cracking political thriller of the highest quality. The first season of 10 1-hour episodes (no commercial breaks) has just started on BBC4, with at least one more season to come.

Update 13th Feb: This series, just completed on BBC4, has certainly not disappointed. Strictly speaking it is Nordic but not "Noir", although it shares with the Danish version of The Killing the same concentration on personal lives under stress (and several actors as well, Denmark being a small country!).

(Borgen, I discovered from Wikipedia, translates as "The castle", "The fortress" or "The burg", which is the nickname among Danish politicians for Christiansborg Palace, which houses all three of Denmark's branches of government: the Parliament, the Prime Minister's Office and the Supreme Court.)

If you like this...

[Nordic Noir (links)]    [Nordic Noir (in this blog)]

This is a truly wonderful and enchanting movie. Based on the medal-winning semi-graphic book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, it tells the story of an orphan boy living in the hidden crevices and passageways of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris, winding the railway station's clocks and stealing food to survive.

Part of the enjoyment of this movie is wondering where the plot is taking you as various surprises unfold, so describing it too much would be a spoiler. It is an enthralling adventure, a mystery, a celebration of the early development of the cinema, and much more besides.

For the movie's creator, Martin Scorsese, this was obviously a work of love. The creation of the old railway station and its Parisian surroundings is a work of art, with some of the best CGI work you are likely to see, and (unusually) really justifies and brilliantly exploits the use of 3D. If you can still catch it in the 3D format then please don't miss it!

Asa Butterfield is brilliant in the role of Hugo - you may remember him from The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas. I see that he has been chosen to play Ender in the forthcoming movie of Ender's Game, which is the first part of (IMO) one of the finest science fiction epics ever written (reasons given here). I can't imagine a better choice, although I am always nervous about how well great writing will transcribe to the screen.

The wonderfully complex automaton that appears in the movie is NOT a CGI creation - it is quite real, the work of an English creative design and manufacturing team. If you have seen the movie then the automaton is a story that is worth following in its own right (click the bottom right of the above image if you are interested, or go here).


The pioneering cinematic work of Georges Méliès that features as part of the story in Hugo also features in The Story of Film: An Odyssey by Mark Cousins, a superb TV series in 15 one-hour parts based on his book. It was one of the best things on TV this year.

If you like this...

[My movies page]

I watched Ratatouille again recently, and was reminded of what a great (and hugely enjoyable) work of art this is - it's my personal favourite of all Pixar's productions so far.

Click the picture if you would like further ramblings on this subject!

This wonderfully entertaining 2010 movie, the first by French director Luc Besson after a gap of 6 years, is a nice blend of Amélie and Raiders of the Lost Ark, with many original and witty touches of its own.

The French actress and television presenter Louise Bourgoin, whom I had not seen before, makes a cracking heroine, and the other characters (human and otherwise) include some priceless gems of absurdity (you will never again be able to watch a film like The Mummy without cracking up!)

Luc Besson is probably best known for Léon and The Fifth Element. This movie, which could not be more different, shows what an astonishing range this director has.

A good full review, based on an interview with Luc Besson, will be found here.

Thanks to my younger daughter (who bought me the DVD as an early Christmas present) for this great find!

Full Oscar-nominated 6-minute short film of 'Granny O'Grimm', directed by Nicky Phelan, produced by Brown Bag Films, and written/voiced by Kathleen O'Rourke (more on the film and its makers here)

A great share by my friend MadMadamMim (Dunja), a visit to whose pages is highly recommended.

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, starring Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson, is a simply delightful movie. It's a feather-light time-travel romantic comedy (with many clever touches), but there is real craft in creating one as enjoyable as this, and this is one of the best. Don't miss it!

Click the picture for a good review.

[More of my favourite movies...]

Doctor Who stepped up to a whole new level when Christopher Eccleston took over as the Doctor (followed by David Tennant) and Billie Piper played Rose, and for the first time Doctor Who gave us a genuinely poignant love story.

The latest series has different kinds of relationships between the main players. We have come to expect great things from the Doctor's "assistant", and Karen Gillan as Amy Pond was (for my money) the best reason for watching the latest incarnation.

(Original post: May 18th, 2011)

These are some scenes from the wonderful animation The Illusionist by Sylvain Chomet, featured on my Movies page, which has just had a second major update. Since the previous update on April 11th it has approximately doubled in size, with many more sections and updates to existing sections.

If you like movies (and the flavour of my pages here), and/or you are interested in the technology of movie-making, then I hope that you will find it an interesting and useful resource.

(Original post: April 11th, 2011)

The lovely Anouk Aimée in Un Homme et une Femme

I have just completely revamped and updated my Movies Page. If you like movies (and the flavour of my pages here), and/or you are interested in the technology of movie-making, then I hope that you will find it an interesting and useful resource.

(Original post: March 26th, 2011)

A time of great sorrow is upon us here in the UK - the imminent end of a truly superb crime series, probably the best of the wave of excellent "Nordic Noir" that we have been enjoying in the last few years, which in 20 one-hour episodes has been following 20 days in a complex and fascinating investigation.

I could explain why I think it's so good, but I can't improve on the reasons given here.

[For more excellent "Nordic Noir" in previous reviews, click the nordic-noir tag at the top of this post...]

(Original post: March 2nd, 2011)

This sparkling romantic comedy ("Priceless" in English) was shown recently on UK TV, thankfully in French with subtitles. Audrey Tautou's gold-digger, determined not to fall in love, reminds many people of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's, and Gad Elmaleh's performance as her equally determined and long-suffering lover is also a delight.

If you have never seen it, I recommend that you catch this one (the DVD is only £5 from!).

If you like French "joie de vivre", you might like these previous posts...

[Samba Saravah (from the movie Un Homme et Une Femme)]
[October in Aix-en-Provence]
[Corsican Cats]


[My movies page]

The sixties were a fun time for me.

While I was a student I assembled a modest stereo system from a Garrard SP25 record deck, a build-it-yourself Heathkit valve amplifier, and home-made speaker cabinets housing Wharfedale Super 8's. I had it for many years and "Swingin' Safari" was one of my favourite vinyl records, partly because of its catchy rhythms and joyful penny-whistle melodies, and partly because the quality of the sound was so good.

Since losing my vinyl collection many years ago I have been waiting for this to be released on CD, and finally it has been (click the image if you're interested). As a nice touch, Polydor have printed the CD's top side so that it looks exactly like a miniature version of the vinyl record.

In today's digital age, a whole generation are turning their backs on CDs, and have probably never even seen a vinyl record. It's nice to have this one again.


"In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight...", otherwise known as "Wimoweh", appears on the Bert Kaempfert CD in a semi-instrumental version. The song has a fascinating history going back to 1939 and extending through Disney's "The Lion King". It's worth checking out.

(Original post: December 18th, 2010)

One of the most unexpectedly enjoyable movies for us in 2010 was the comedy action thriller RED (standing for Retired, Extremely Dangerous), based on a comic book mini-series by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner.

RED has an extraordinary, top-drawer cast including Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, Karl Urban and Richard Dreyfuss. It also has a witty script by Jon and Erich Hoeber and well-judged direction from Robert Schwentke, who makes sure that the plot drives the special effects and not (as so often) the other way around.

The cast's considerable talents are used to the full, and they obviously had as much of a blast making the movie as the audience has watching it.

The DVD comes out (in the UK at least) on Valentine's Day, 2011. I have booked my copy!

If you like this...

[My movies page]

(Original post: November 11th, 2010)

I had never heard of this great movie until I visited the Grace Kelly exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum earlier this year, and saw a clip of it.

We bought the DVD recently, and it is right up there with the best classic Hollywood movies. It won an Oscar for Best Actress (Grace Kelly) and Best Writing and Screenplay (George Seton, who also directed), and was nominated for 5 others, including Best Actor for Bing Crosby (who lost to Marlon Brando for "On The Waterfront").

Although the subject matter (an alcoholic has-been actor struggling to make a come-back) might sound grim, it is an engrossing and very enjoyable drama with excellent performances from each of the main characters. The big surprise for me was Bing Crosby, from whom the director drew a remarkable performance (unique in his career, so far as I know) that was well worthy of an Oscar.

As an extra bonus, the DVD has a crisply restored print of the movie. I can highly recommend it.

If you like this...

[My movies page]

(Original post: September 17th, 2010)

Zoe Saldana playing Neytiri (through the movie magic described here) in the 2009 blockbuster Avatar

Seeing this awesome movie on a large screen in 3D (several times) was one of my personal highlights of this year (and I don't plan to miss the recently-released extended version). Possibly one of the most visually beautiful movies ever made, the combination of technical and artistic achievement still boggles my mind.

Reading this article reminded me that it is so easy to watch (and comment on) a production like this, without appreciating a fraction of what went into its making.

If you like this...

[My movies page]

Where The Wild Things Are (Movie)
(Original post: September 14th, 2010)

I recently watched the DVD of this movie, adapted by Spike Jonze from the great book by Maurice Sendak.

Where The Wild Things Are is not a Muppet Movie, even though Jim Henson's Creature Shop contributed to it (and Maurice Sendak had a considerable influence on Jim Henson). The movie is a unique work celebrating the fears, delights and imagination of childhood, with an atmosphere all of its own. The seamlessly-combined types of special effects used to create it are truly wonderful, but are quite secondary to the artistic skills that make the movie what it is.

From Wikipedia on the book:

According to Sendak, at first the book was banned in libraries and received negative reviews. It took about two years for librarians and teachers to realize that children were flocking to the book, checking it out over and over again, and for critics to relax their views...

and on the movie:

There were fears, expressed by production company Warner Bros., that the film was not family friendly and may frighten children; however these fears were not shared by either Jonze or Sendak, and Jonze refused to compromise. Maurice Sendak said after having seen a completed cut of the film, "I've never seen a movie that looked or felt like this. And it's [Spike Jonze's] personal 'this.'"

If you have read the book and/or seen the movie, then you may wonder what kind of tea some child "experts", critics and movie moguls smoke in their spare time.

Thanks again to my younger daughter for recommending this one...

If you like this...

[My movies page]
[My books page]

"Juno" with Ellen Page
(Original post: September 10th, 2010)

I missed this Indie movie hit when it was in the cinema, but luckily my younger daughter persuaded me to buy the DVD.

I don't think I have ever had so much enjoyment from an outlay of about $4 from (I'd tell you what it cost in pounds, but SU is too feeble to cope with strange foreign symbols).

Teenage pregnancy and the search for foster parents make an unlikely topic for a comedy, but this is a sparky, delightful comedy not to be missed. The central performance by Ellen Page, a lass who hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia, is just wonderful.

It was only when reading about her afterwards that I realised that she also played "The Architect" in Inception.

Juno is far from a one-woman success story, though. The movie is full of other delights, not least the presence of J.K. Simmons, one of my favourite actors, playing a Dad to die for.

It's great stuff. If you haven't seen it, treat yourself!

If you like this...

[My movies page]

Sir Terry Pratchett, OBE
(Original post: September 4th, 2010)

O frabjous day! Another book by Terry Pratchett!

This is the fourth in possibly my favourite of all Terry Pratchett's sequences of stories, the sequence following Tiffany Aching, trainee witch (now full witch in this book) and the Wee Free Men (a.k.a. the Nac Mac Feegles), a hilarious bunch of tiny Caledonian hooligans.

(The previous 3 in this series were The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith.)

The stories are very funny, very serious and very wise, and best of all they have the witches. I suspect that (as with Samuel Vimes of the Night Watch in some of his other Discworld novels) his principal witches carry much of his own personal philosophy.

Some time in the next few years, a form of Alzheimer's will rob the world of one of its greatest living authors (Sir Terry was knighted for services to literature), but he will leave behind a truly wonderful legacy. In the meantime, as this book shows, the creative part of his brain is still in absolutely top form.

And that's not all...

This new DVD is possibly the best so far. If you liked the Sky productions of Hogfather and The Colour of Magic, then you will love this one.

Terry Pratchett specialises in sardonic, unsentimental heroines. Claire Foy does a great job of playing Adora Belle Dearheart in this one, just as Michelle Dockery did as Susan (Death's granddaughter) in Hogfather.

The rest of the cast is also top-of-the-range, and the movie is prefaced by a short introduction from Sir Terry himself. This is a joy not to be missed.

If you like Terry Pratchett...

[My review of 'The Bromeliad']

From my web site...

[My books page]
[My movies page]

BBC TV 'Mistresses' with Orla Brady and Sarah Parish
(Original post: August 25th, 2010)

I didn't see the previous two series of Mistresses, but I am greatly enjoying the third one.

The glam image to the left conveys a typical sex-and-shopping romp for the chicks, but (like the name "Mistresses") it doesn't convey anything of the current series, which is an excellently produced, fascinating working-out of tangled relationships with very little glamour.

I like all of the actresses who play the "Mistresses", but IMO the two who make it as good as it is are Orla Brady and Sarah Parish, shown below.

Hollywood moguls, apparently, consider that any woman over 40 is no longer attractive (an attitude that the typical Frenchman, for example, would consider barking). Orla Brady (who gave Wallander a brief interlude of happiness in the English-version episode called "Firewall"), is currently 49, and Sarah Parish is currently 42.

And then there is Sarah's screen mother, the still absolutely fabulous Joanna Lumley, now 64 and wearing her age with beauty, dignity and grace.

Those Hollywood moguls need to wake up.

BTW: another multi-season BBC series featuring a fabulous collection of oldies (in this case mostly male, but including the wonderful Amanda Redman) is New Tricks. This still startles the BBC with record audiences whenever it slips a single episode of a past series into an inconvenient gap in its schedules.

Orla Brady and Sarah Parish

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

(Original post: August 17th, 2010)

I have rarely enjoyed a thriller so much as the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, of which The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the first part. Although it's a trilogy in books, in many ways it is a story in two parts, the second part being told in The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.

I like the books because they are complex, multi-layered and multi-threaded, weaving together an initial murder mystery, a conspiracy thriller, a biting commentary on aspects of Swedish society (and other societies), a range of fascinating personal relationships and a nail-biting suspense thriller around the emerging story of Lisbeth Salander - the girl with the dragon tattoo. I have read them several times - knowing the end doesn't spoil the books for me. The books contain strong sex and violence (sparsely distributed), but never gratuitously nor in any kind of titillating way.

I was hesitant about watching the Swedish movie of the first book, given the considerable challenges of bringing such a story to the screen, but I bought the DVD recently and was surprised at how very good it was. It offers both a Swedish soundtrack with English subtitles and an English soundtrack, and in only two and a half hours really conveys the essence of the book.

If you enjoyed the Swedish version of Wallander then you will really enjoy this DVD. The photography and atmosphere are very similar (and it's the same film studio doing both), but the plot of Stieg Larsson's books is much richer.

[Update April 2011] Unfortunately, the second and third Swedish movies were a disappointment to me. People who have not read the books may see nothing wrong with them, but the rich and satisfying nature of the original books has been almost entirely lost, especially in the final movie. Having seen the superb 20-hour Danish TV production of The Killing, I would really like the same treatment (whether Swedish or Danish - but not Hollywood) to be given to the Larsson novels. Michael Nyqvist I can take or leave alone, but improving on Noomi Rapace as the actress for Lisbeth will take some doing.

Noomi Rapace doing a fantastic job playing Lisbeth Salander

Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist who plays the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist

If you like this...

[My movies page]
[My books page]

(Original post: August 2nd, 2010)

I was watching an edition of BBC's Countryfile programme recently, which featured the Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, shooting location for the classic BBC series Last of the Summer Wine, and was reminded what a gem of entertainment that series was, at least in its early seasons.

The disreputable antics of Foggy, Compo and Clegg, retired but determined to enjoy it, and their battles with various disapproving womenfolk, delighted millions of people around the world for many years (it's the longest-running comedy show in the world). The cast has changed over time, but this trio (together with Nora Batty) remain in my memory as the essence and heart of the show.

The London-born Bill Owen (Yorkshire's favourite adopted son) as Compo, and Kathy Staff as her real self, both now sadly passed away

Kathy Staff as the battleaxe Nora Batty

Clegg (Peter Sallis), Compo and Foggy (Brian Wilde) being seen off by Nora Batty in typical style

The Countryfile programme played a clip of one of many encounters between the doggedly (and leg-pullingly) amorous Compo and Nora Batty. He chaffs her for driving him wild with the clothes-peg in her mouth, and she replies (please imagine a trenchant Yorkshire accent): "How come you're still interested in women at your age?", to which Compo counters: "I think it's because you're the only opposite sex we've got... and they don't come any more opposite than thee!"

In later seasons the humour still remained, but as the cast changed and expanded it became somewhat formulaic with a number of endlessly repeated running gags and situations (e.g. the ladies simultaneously raising their tea-cups after disparaging the men, Howard and Marina hiding from Howard's wife). I still love the originals. It's time to get hold of those DVDs...

If the rules of Desert Island Discs were changed to allow a DVD player and just one DVD to take to the island, then in my case that one DVD might be "Kiki's Delivery Service", by the Japanese master of animation Hayao Miyazaki.

If you have seen it then you may remember the beautiful painting that Kiki's friend Ursula is working on in her cabin in the woods. The painting, called "Ship Flying Over the Rainbow", was actually the work of students of Hachinohe City Minato Junior High School Handicapped Children's Class, and what you see in the animation is a still photo of the painting by Junichi Ochiai.

I haven't been able to find a copy of this painting online, so I took these screenshots from my copy of the DVD:

One reason that I like "Kiki" so much is the beautiful landscape and town that Miyazaki (a person with great respect for the environment) conjures up. I would love to live in that bakery by the sea.

I have always wondered what blend of real places contributed to Miyazaki's vision, and recently discovered the answer here (along with many other interesting facts about the movie).

If you like this...

[Joe Hisaishi plays his piano music from "Spirited Away"]
[Japanese animation at its finest: the master-works of Hayao Miyazaki]

One of my favourite tags...


Below are some of my screenshots of Kate Madison's prequel to The Lord of the Rings, "Born of Hope" (the extended version).

It tells the story of how Aragorn came to be born, and how he eventually reached the safety of Rivendell as an infant.

Made on a shoe-string budget (£25,000) and released free on the Internet, this extraordinary achievement reminds me that we often use the word "amateur" in a derogatory sense. This movie shows everyone what real "amateurs" can do.

Arathorn, who will become the father of Aragorn

Elgarain, played by the multi-talented Kate Madison, hides her love for Arathorn, who sees her only as a true friend

The sons of Elrond helping to defend the Dunedain's settlement

Gilraen, wife of Arathorn and mother of Aragorn, narrating the story to her sleeping son

The young Aragorn, finally safe in Rivendell

(One of the main filming locations for the movie was Epping Forest - see my previous post below).

[More about the movie]
[My movies page]

If you live in the UK, the USA or Germany then you are lucky: you can listen to Radio for free.

Have you every wished you could listen to a radio station that played non-stop music, all of which you really liked?

That's Its basic concept is simple and effective: tell the system the name of an artist that you like, and it will play complete tracks from that artist and from other similar artists.

In my case I started off with two of my favourite artists, Diana Krall and Nanci Griffith, each of whom set up as a "radio station". My "Nanci Griffith Radio Station", for example, plays country music, but not every kind - it seems to pick tracks that would appeal to people who like this particular artist (it works in my case, anyway).

Over the next few hours I had heard some great music, much of it from artists who were quite new to me, and almost all of the selections very much in the style and spirit of my original choices.

You can also set up a "combo station" on the Radio tab, which bases its choices on up to three different artists that you specify, and there's lots more that you can do.

The organization of the site is first rate.

One thing to watch out for: make an early visit to the privacy settings in your profile. can behave like Facebook with music, but its default setting (after you have played music for a while) is "share with everyone".

Also, sooner or later you will have marked a bunch of favourites, and will wonder how you can get to play them automatically. The answer, it appears, is that you need to subscribe for that particular feature - but as of November 2010, this particular subscription feature has been withdrawn, to many protests from subscribers. Watch this space!

[My music favourites]

(Original post: September 11th, 2009 - updated again July 28th 2014)

One of the best things I have seen on TV for a long time is the original Swedish version of Henning Mankell's Inspector Wallander, starring Krister Henriksson and Johanna Sallstrom (Johanna later died tragically), which has been running on BBC4. The BBC (for reasons best known to themselves) have suspended the series after 10 episodes, deciding to show the remaining 3 episodes of this series over the Christmas period (actually as of October 2009 they are starting again with the entire 13 episodes).

The cinematography, atmosphere, acting and stories have all been really first class. A good English language version of 3 episodes starring Kenneth Branagh introduced Wallander to many English viewers who (like me) had never heard of him, but the original Swedish version is even better.

Wallander has some of the melancholy of Inspector Morse (Kenneth Branagh was dubbed "Inspector Norse"), but he is not the "prima donna" of John Thaw's classic interpretation of Morse. Krister Henriksson plays Wallander as a serious cop, well able to work with colleagues (including his screen daughter Linda) who are real people with real problems. The sometimes tedious conventions of English and American TV detective shows are refreshingly missing in Wallander. The events in the stories are often quite brutal, but are counterbalanced by the natural beauty of the area, the realistic and absorbing personal relationships, and the quietness of the professional police operations.

The Inspector Wallander web site, intended for English-speaking fans, is an excellent source of information on the series. Among other things you can find out about the second Swedish series, and get advice on a logical reading order for the translated books.

I am actually not a great fan of the books, especially the early ones. Kenneth Branagh's version of Wallander is drawn from these books, whereas the Krister Hendriksson version is based on specially-written stories for the series, when Wallander is much older and more experienced.

The second series of Wallander starring Krister Henriksson is, unusually for a sequel, every bit as good as the first. Wallander's daughter is no longer with him (for reasons not dwelt on), but a new recruit, played excellently by Nina Zanjani, provides a new non-sexual relationship with Wallander which is part of the enormous appeal of this series.

The third (and definitely final) series is not quite as enjoyable as the second, due to Wallander's character succumbing slowly to Alzheimer's as his career draws to its inevitable end, but is of unmissable quality. His daughter Linda returns, this time married and played most capably by Charlotta Jonsson. Krister Hendriksson's acting, however, is in a class of its own.

In 2014, Britain is totally hooked on the superb standard of Nordic Noir and Borgen. Krister Hendriksson's Wallander was where it all began.

If you like this...

[My Movies/TV page]

(Original post: August 10th, 2009)

For me, one of life's little gems is a BBC Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs. Still running today, it was first broadcast on 29 January 1942 and is surely the longest-running music programme in the history of radio.

Its simple format, in the hands of an expert and 'sympathique' presenter, delivers 43 minutes of fascinating conversation with a really interesting guest, together with eight musical selections, a choice of book and a single luxury to be taken to the hypothetical island. The last guest I listened to (Nicky Haslam) had, among other things, been a real cowboy on his own ranch, the man in charge of layout on Vogue magazine, a good friend of Bryan Ferry, and an acquaintance of Cole Porter. I learnt from him that Maria Callas (one of his favourite singers) got her inspiration to become an opera singer from listening to Deanna Durbin singing "Springtime Will Be A Little Late This Year" by Frank Loesser.

This list of past episodes is a treasure trove of interesting stuff on people and their choices, and makes me wish that I could have listened to every one of them. Until recently, some pesky "rights issues" meant that although you could hear the episodes on-line they could only be listened to live - you couldn't listen to them after transmission on iPlayer. Now it seems that you can. Also, if you can receive digital TV broadcasts in or from the UK, these digital stations include radio as well as TV and you can set up a timed recording as for any other programme.

If you are awake on a Sunday morning at 11:15 (local British time), go here if you would like to listen to a true radio gem. For other times of transmission, to listen on iPlayer or to check on upcoming programmes, go here.

["By A Sleepy Lagoon" (Eric Coates) - the Desert Island Discs theme music]
[Radio 4 home page]
[Listen to Radio 4 Live]

A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim

Until recently I had never seen Stephen Sondheim's musical "A Little Night Music", and was unaware of what a treat I had been missing.

I was lucky enough to see this production at the Garrick Theatre, London. "Sublime" is an over-worked word, but it certainly applies in this case. Directed by Tevor Nunn, its wonderful cast included Maureen Lipman on deliciously top form as Madame Armfeldt, Hannah Waddingham as Desirée Armfeldt, Alexander Hanson as Fredrik Egerman and Kaisa Hammarlund as the saucy, free-spirited Petra.

"A Little Night Music" is probably best known for the song "Send In The Clowns". Sung by Desirée to (and with) Fredrik, it is even more stunning in the context of the play, and Hannah Waddingham's performance of it is one that I shall always remember. The other songs don't make sense unless seen in the play's context, but include some that are equally brilliant.

"A Little Night Music" is based on Ingmar Bergman's movie "Smiles Of A Summer Night", which was itself inspired in part by Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream".

From this review of the movie:

"The summer night has three smiles," one character says to his lover. The first comes "between midnight and dawn, when young lovers open their hearts and loins." The second smile is for "the jesters, the fools and the incorrigible." And the third smile is for "the sad and dejected, for the sleepless and lost souls, for the frightened and the lonely."

Ingmar Bergman's movie is available on DVD, but there is currently no decent movie version of Stephen Sondheim's musical (I am told that the one starring Elizabeth Taylor is not recommended). If you haven't seen the musical on stage and get a chance to, don't miss it... and if you are in reach of London, there is a very rare treat waiting for you!

If you like this...

[My movies page]

From the page:

Immortalised as toothy, gauche games mistress, Gossage ("Call me Sausage") in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), former journalist [Joyce] Grenfell invaded over 20 often-unexceptional British films, creating moments of treasurable idiocy.

She is wonderfully exasperated with Alastair Sim's further postponement of their wedding ("I've been home three weeks and I've had a bath") in Laughter in Paradise (1951), is all fringe and jangling beads as the hotel proprietress in Genevieve (1953), was several times hilariously love-lorn Policewoman (later Sergeant) Ruby Gates in the St Trinian's series.

As a celebrated monologuist, gently caricaturing the middle classes, she showed wider emotional range than films ever explored. Appeared in many revues, as well as her own inimitable one-woman shows, which she wrote and with which she toured extensively. She was living proof that you could be a sharp satirist without - miraculously - descending to malice; she is as English as glee-singing and much more fun. She was awarded an OBE in 1946.

I recently bought the Joyce Grenfell BBC Collection DVD set, and was reminded of what a lovely person and talented lady she was. The 2-disc DVD set (click the image for links) has her wonderful broadcasts from 1964 and 1972. They include all her comic favourites (e.g. "George... don't do that!") but also some very poignant portraits of self-sacrifice and emotional suffering.

[More on Joyce Grenfell]

With WALL-E, Pixar Animation Studios excelled themselves in several ways.

The creation of the desolate earth environment, and the space-going cruise ship, are incredible artistic achievements (as well as superb technical achievements) in their own right. I can imagine some people being put off going to see the movie because its first part is set in a planet-sized garbage tip, and who would want to see that? In fact, the earth environment is a work of strange, desolate beauty, lit by a coppery light and given wonderful aerial perspective by the haze in the polluted air. This picture (one of several concept background paintings for WALL-E at the Pixar - 20 Years of Animation exhibit in Finland) gives some idea, but the environment realised in the movie is so imaginative, so detailed and so highly textured that you really have to see it on the big screen. I shall certainly buy the DVD but it won't be the same!

The visual environment is only part of it, of course. The inventiveness of the story is quite exceptional, and it has some of the magic and pathos of the silent movies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. When WALL-E plays his treasured tapes of old musicals, the contrast of Earth's past with the current desolation is highlighted, but the musicals also provide an uplifting background to the unlikely romance between the two main characters, which is conducted entirely without normal speech.

The movie also has a serious side, very unusual in popular animated films. The space-going vessel (awesomely realised) is a combination of mega Caribbean cruise ship and aseptic Disney theme park. It is a pristine, gleaming vision of hell in which nothing has changed for 700 years, except that the passengers have become helpless and obese, doing nothing and creating nothing for themselves, seeing the world only through computer screens and having their every need attended to by an army of robots. Don't worry though, WALL-E is about to change all that... and the movie becomes (in addition to everything else) a really exciting adventure story.

In spite of the sombreness of the underlying themes, this is a joyous movie that sparkles throughout (and which has numerous Easter-egg references to other great movies). My favourite scene is probably the one where WALL-E and EVE are outside the space-ship, performing a kind of aerial (or vacuum) ballet as WALL-E uses a fire extinguisher to try to get back on board, which turns into a weightless dance worthy of "Singing in the rain".

It's magical stuff.

[Other WALL-E links]
[Pixar's previous masterpiece: "Ratatouille"]
[Japanese animation at its finest: the master-works of Hayao Miyazaki]
[My movies page]

For me, Ratatouille was the most enjoyable movie of 2007. Apart from the appealing story and the staggeringly good animation, there was the wry experience of being educated in the enjoyment of good food by a rat!

Like many people, I suspect, I now take great animation like this for granted. I have to keep reminding myself that thinking about the artistry in this movie (or in any good animated or special-effects movie) as "computer generated" is like crediting the artistry of Rembrandt to the hog bristles in his brushes and to the pigments in his paint!

This article gives some idea of what was actually involved in making Ratatouille. It really is a case of art concealing art (I knew the expression but never looked up its origin, hence the link!). Pixar Animation Studios can be justifiably proud of this one.

(I am glad to see that the DVD also has a copy of the hilarious Pixar short Lifted, which was shown with Ratatouille in our local cinema.)

[Japanese animation at its finest: the master-works of Hayao Miyazaki]
[My movies page]

(Originally posted: April 13th 2008)

I like good children's movies, but I was not expecting to like this one as much as I did. The production values, art direction and acting were all first rate. The only slight problem with it is that the build-up before the "fantastical creatures" appear is so good that their actual appearance (good as it is) can't quite live up to the imagination - which is probably just as well, or it would be too scary for young children.

I first saw Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland, where he played one of the sons of the family that J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) befriends. Freddie plays two brothers in "Spiderwick" and his performance is very impressive. The rest of the excellent cast includes Mary-Louise Parker (from Fried Green Tomatoes, The Client and many other good movies) and a very welcome appearance by Dame Joan Plowright, who was married to Laurence Olivier. She starred in one of our family's all-time favourite movies, Enchanted April.

If you liked any of the movies mentioned above and are still young at heart then you'll probably really like this one.

If you like this...

[My movies page]
[My books page]

Anika Noni Rose as Mma Makutsi, Jill Scott as Precious Ramotswe and Lucian Msamati as Mr J.L.B. Matekoni
in the wonderful BBC dramatization of the book.

It isn't often that a perfect film is made of a perfect book, but Anthony Minghella's last film is as close as you can get. The casting, the script writing, the Botswana locations, the luminous cinematography - everything, in fact - are a perfect joy from start to finish.

I love the delightful books (eight of them, as of April 2007), which tell the story of Precious Ramotswe, a "traditionally built" Botswana woman, and her mission to solve the problems of her local community.

The author clearly loves the country and the people that he writes about. Running throughout these sunny stories is a (very lightly delivered) message about what is really important (and not important) in life.

So often we hear about Africa's problems, and what we need to do about them. From these books, and from this film, we get a view of Africa that is almost exactly the other way around. And a beautiful, uplifting view it is, too.

Click the image above for links about the movie; click the image to the left for links about the books (both will open in a separate window).


If you like this...

[My movies page]
[My books page]

Here's a suggestion for a really enjoyable and inexpensive evening:

Buy this outstanding DVD (it's a keeper). Evict kids or other non-sympatico noise-makers. Choose your favourite companion (human or otherwise). Turn off unnecessary lights and replace with candles, lay out a snack supper, pour some nice wine, and settle down for over 2 hours of romantic ballads and bossa novas from the beautiful and very talented Canadian jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall.

This concert, recorded at the Paris Olympia, features tracks from her album The Look Of Love and the full set from her 2001 world tour. She is accompanied by the Orchestre Symphonique Européen & Paris Jazz Big Band, as well as her own recording jazz band members flown in especially from LA. You have the best seats in the house, and if you have the equipment, you also have the benefit of excellent 5.1 surround sound. And don't miss the bonus videos on the DVD, either, especially the first one!

Diana Krall, when performing live, makes the endless parade of celebrity bimbos seem positively sexless. She sits at her piano, very calm and poised, not making a big deal about how great she is, and the only adequate word to describe her is "smokin'".You don't often get a chance to listen to and watch the very best. This one is definitely up there.

(Original post: January 4th, 2008)

If political correctness sets your teeth on edge...

If you couldn't believe the (true) story about the school in Gloucester, England that banned the use of swimming goggles in the pool because the teacher might be distracted by helping a kid to adjust them when another kid was drowning...

If you find the relentless concentration on achievement and performance in the school education system more than a tad overdone...

If you aren't planning to send your daughter to the Cheltenham Ladies College (a real place)...

... then get some therapy for your repressed anarchic feelings and go see St Trinian's, an excellent, wonderfully non-PC remake by Ealing Studios of their original classic 1954 film "The Belles of St Trinians", inspired by the cartoons of Ronald Searle. The new version is a blast!

Read the BBC's review of the new movie here.

You will also find a good Ronald Searle Tribute page, looking forward to the new movie, here.

If you like this...

[My movies page]