My last three movies – so utterly different

November 16th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

Readers of this blog will know my love for films and my wide-ranging tastes, but the last week was something special. I went to the cinema three times and saw three films that could hardly have been more different from one another:

The Japanese black and white classic “Throne Of Blood” – my review here

The latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe “Eternals” – my review here

The children’s animation movie “The Boss Baby 2: Family Business” – my review here

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A review of the new movie “Eternals” – the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe

November 14th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

This is a Marvel movie like no other and it has a director (and co-writer) like no other: Chinese-American Chloé Zhao. This is a work that could hardly be more different than “Nomadland” for which Zhao won the Academy Award for Best Director which shows the scope of her talent and the bravery of her ambition. For this is a hugely ambitious film, covering 7,000 years of humankind, depicting many civilisations and nations, and featuring no less than 10 superheroes of unprecedented diversity. 

Really, it is not just hugely ambitious but over ambitious for, while there is much to admire in the movie with some colourful and exciting sequences, ultimately there is simply too much going on and so much that is unclear. I’m from the school that believes that a film, while it might have depth and complexity that require further thought and perhaps even repeated viewing, should be broadly intelligible to the average viewer on a first viewing. 

So, what’s the movie about? Well, the Celestials created the Eternals to protect humankind from the Deviants but, over (lots of) time, the Eternals have rather fallen out between themselves and now there is a problem with something called the Emergence. Are you following this? 

The point of view of the story is that of the Eternals who are not only very old but very diverse. Traditionally superhero movies centred on a white male American character (think “Superman”, “Batman”, Ironman”, “Captain America” …), although recently we have seen more gender and ethnic diversity (think “Black Widow” and “Black Panther” respectively), but none of the 10 Eternals is a white male American – the nearest is a Scotsman and an Irishman- so we have lots of women and people of colour and even gay and deaf heroes. This is admirable from a cultural point of view, but it means that we don’t really get to know any of the team in depth and we are constantly bouncing around different storylines.

No wonder the film runs for over two and a half hours and we still leave the cinema bewildered about much of the narrative.

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I bet you’ve never visited a materials testing house

November 7th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

It’s a (very) little known fact that, when I left school in Manchester, I thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Indeed I obtained a place on a university degree course to study mechanical engineering, but deferred my entry by a year to go into industry for some practical training.

I learned very quickly that I was far more interested in people that machines and I managed to change my degree course to Management Sciences. The rest is history …

But, over half a century later, this weekend I visited a homage to mechanical engineering in the form of the Kirkaldy Testing Museum because it is located very close to where I now live on London’s South Bank.

On 1 January 1874, Scottish engineer David Kirkaldy opened the world’s first purpose-built, independent commercial materials testing house at 99 Southwark Street London. Inside, his patented 116-ton hydraulic-powered Universal Testing Machine could exert a force of up to 1,000,000 lb, bringing rigorous new understanding to the strength of construction materials.

Outside, he declared his independence over the door, ‘Facts Not Opinions’. The machine, and his challenge, are still here today.

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How many covid deaths have there been worldwide?

November 7th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

According to figures complied by John Hopkins University in the United States, which are based on the official data published by individual governments, we recently passed the grim threshold of 5 million covid deaths worldwide. However, as this article explains, this figure is certainly a serious underestimate.

According to a model developed by The Economist, the true figure is at least double that (10 million) and possibly almost four times that (19 million).

If we think about the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918, estimates of deaths range from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million. Therefore the current highest estimate for the covid death toll is higher than the lowest estimate for the so-called Spanish Flu. in short, they are comparable.

Of course, the world population in 1918 was much smaller than that in 2021, so proportionately the current pandemic is not as devastating, but this way of looking at statistics will not console the families and friends of the dead. And the current pandemic is not over …

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How did Bletchley Park break Nazi Germany’s Enigma code?

November 6th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

I’ve read the novel “Enigma” written by Robert Harris [my review here]; I’ve seen the film directed by Michael Apsted [my review here]; and this weekend, I visited Bletchley Park where a British team built on the work of Poles to break the Enigma code used by the German army, navy and air force during the Second World War.

But I still don’t understand how they did it. I mean 159 million million million ways of changing one letter for another. And the Germans changed the settings every day. The analysts were heroes as much as those on the frontline.

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What are the most popular baby names in Britain?

November 4th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

Of course, names change in popularity. According to the data compiled annually by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and published each September, the most popular names for children born in England & Wales during 2020 were as follows:

PositionBoysGirls
1OliverOlivia
2GeorgeAmelia
3ArthurIsla
4NoahAva
5MuhammadMia
6LeoIvy
7OscarLily
8HarryIsabella
9ArchieRosie
10JackSophia

There are some patterns here. 

First of all, astonishingly the most popular boys’ name and the most popular girls’ name are essentially the same (Oliver and Olivia) – what is technically known as cognates – and these names have been in top for their gender for the last five years. Is this the case in any other nation? Second, it is striking how traditional most of the names are for both boys and girls, although for the boys it is interesting that the familiar form of names rather than the original version is often preferred – Harry instead of Harold, Jack instead of John, Archie instead of Archibold. Third, in the case of girls, seven of the top 10 names end with the letter ‘a’ and five contain the letter ‘l’. 

On the other hand, the name John (my father’s name), which was the most popular boys’ name until the end of the Second World War and is still the most common male name in Britain for the population as a whole, is nowhere in the top 100 names in the 2020 listings, while David – which is the second most common name in Britain – slipped out of the top 50 of names chosen for baby boys born in 2004 and is still only 60th. Similarly Margaret – the most common female name in the population as a whole – does not even appear in the top 100 names chosen for girls these days, while Susan – the second most common name in Britain – is not even in the top 100 either. 

These observations underline how much fashion shapes the popularity of different names. Fashion is a stronger influence with girls’ names than those of boys. So, for example, in the last decade or so Ivy has soared to number 6, while Elsie has jumped to 19. Arthur has surged into the top 10 boys’ names for the first time since the 1920s (it is now 3rd), and Ada has jumped into the girls’ top 100 for the first time in a century too (it is now 38th), both perhaps inspired by characters in the BBC television drama “Peaky Blinders”. 

It should be noted that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) produces its ranking of the popularity of names using the exact spelling of the name given at birth registration.

If one combines the numbers for names with very similar spellings, a very different picture is revealed. For boys, combining the occurrence of Mohammed, Muhammad, Mohammad & Muhammed plus eight other spellings of the names would put it in first place – a reflection of the changing ethnicity of the British population and the powerful trend for Muslim families to name their son after the Prophet. Similarly, if one combines the occurrence of Isabella, Isabelle, Isabel and Isobel, one would find the name top of the girls’ list and, if one took Lily and Lilly together, the name would come fourth, while Darcie, Darcey and Darcy would boost that name’s ranking. 

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What does Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3 mean to you?

November 3rd, 2021 by Roger Darlington

I recently listened to the piece on Classic FM and the music always reminds me of the Australian pianist David Helfgott whose struggle with this piece – and indeed with life – is depicted in the film “Shine” starring Geoffrey Rush as Helfgott (see my review here).

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A review of the new blockbuster sci-fi movie “Dune”

November 2nd, 2021 by Roger Darlington

Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel of 1965 was first filmed by David Lynch in 1984. I found that adaptation visually impressive but hard to follow plot-wise. So I was looking forward to seeing this second attempt to translate the novel and determined to see it soon and in IMAX; indeed it proved so popular that I had to go to the cinema in the morning to see it on the date and in the format that I wanted. 

But ultimately French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve – who thrilled me with “Blade Runner 2049” but left me rather flat with “Arrival” – has disappointed me again. In terms of cinematography, the movie is outstanding with splendid locations and dramatic settings but, as entertainment, the pacing is poor and the narrative is ponderous with too little genuine excitement. After two and a half hours, the film ends with a character declaring: “This is only the beginning”. In fact, this “Dune” is only about half the novel and “Dune: Part Two” is still to come. I will certainly view the second part, but I can’t say that I’m overly excited about the prospect.

The cast is splendid, led by Timothée Chalamet as messiah figure Paul Atreides and Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson as his parents Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, with some familiar supporting actors including Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgård. It’s rather a male-dominated world but it’s good to see veteran actress Charlotte Rampling and young Zenaya. However, the cast is let down by the leaden script. Lines like “Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake” do not exactly stir the blood.

Even for a science fiction movie, spectacle and special effects are not enough; one needs a decent script and livelier direction.

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A review of the 1954 classic Japanese film “Seven Samurai”

November 1st, 2021 by Roger Darlington

This Japanese film is for many one of the very best movies not made in the English language and certainly one of the most outstanding works by the great director Akira Kurosawa. Set in 16th century Japan, it tells the tale of farmers who are brought close to starvation by the repeated raids of bandits who take all their produce and decide to engage the services of a disparate group of samurai warriors with Takashi Shijmura in the leading tole.

This black & white work is a masterclass in cinematography and linear storytelling: the plight of the farmers, the recruitment of the samurai, the preparation for resistance, and a battle of attrition. It is a classic action/adventure movie but with elements of social comment, some humour, and even a romance.

Kurosawa takes his time to tell the story and, in the uncut version, the film runs to just three minutes short of three and a half hours (when shown in the cinema, there is an intermission). Apparently the Japanese director was inspired by the westerns of John Ford and, in turn, “Seven Samurai” was remade by Hollywood as “The Magnificent Seven” in 1960 and again in 2016.

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It’s exactly 50 years since I moved from Manchester to London

October 31st, 2021 by Roger Darlington

On Sunday 31 October 1971, I moved from Manchester – where I was brought up and went to school and university – to London – where I had a job as Accommodation Officer at what was then the Polytechnic of North London.

I only held that post for around six months and then followed a three-part career as a Political Adviser in Westminster and Whitehall (6 years), a national trade union official with what is now the Communication Workers Union (24 years), and then a consumer advocate with a variety of organisations in regulated sectors (17 years).

In the 50 years that I’ve now been in London, I’ve had seven homes, two wives and one son and – so far – survived a global pandemic. For the last two and a half years, I’ve lived on the South Bank and really come to know the city very well. I hope that I have a few more years to enjoy it.

Click on the links for my short notes on Manchester and London.

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