Movie review: A Royal Affair

Open secret: I’ll watch any period drama involving a noblewoman having a hot, tortured affair with a man of lower standing.

A Royal AffairFortunately, A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære, 2012) manages to take this old chestnut of a trope and wrap it up in some interesting historical drama centring around Denmark at the time of the Enlightenment.

Clichés… but enjoyable ones

At its outset, Affair seems content to wade through the most shallow waters of cliché. There’s the fragile English beauty, Caroline, who has been married off to Christian, the crazy and callous King of Denmark. Sinister clerics and pompous noblemen rule the country for the good of themselves, while the King’s evil stepmother bides her time, waiting for the right moment to make a coup.

Yet, while some of these story aspects never rise above the level of cliché, Director Nikolaj Arcel does manage to breathe life into the central love triangle. Johann, a secret radical, is hired to babysit the mad king. Johann and Christian forge a surprisingly touching friendship, but Johann also falls in love with Caroline, leading to the aforementioned illicit affair.

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Music review: Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

Josh Ritter draws on his considerable experience as a songwriter to turn highly-personal heartbreak into an album that’s relatable and gorgeously raw.

On first listen, Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks feels undeniably understated. Fans of his genre-spanning, rock- and pop-tinged Historical Conquests, or his elaborate, literary-themed So Runs the World Away, may be disappointed at how straightforward and simple an album this is (on the face of it, anyway).

Beast is pure folk music, and it has more in common with his early releases (Golden Age of Radio and Hello Starling) than it does with the musical experimentation of his later albums.

Master of folk music

Fortunately, Ritter is a master of folk music, so releasing an album that’s “just” a folk album isn’t much of a complaint. (Relevant side note: this is still my favourite factlet about Ritter: he went to college to study neuroscience, like his parents, who are both neuroscientists, but then switched his major to ‘American History Through Narrative Folk Music’. I bet that was a fun conversation with Mom and Dad!)

Songs like the immediately-likeable, silver-lining-themed ‘Joy to You Baby’ show the ease at which Josh Ritter can turn out folk-pop gems. Yet – however melodic, however seemingly-simplistic – Beast quickly reveals itself as a complicated creature.

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A writer’s way of looking at the world

I was wandering through the city during my lunch break today and I passed a girl wearing a red jumper with a Christmas pudding on it (…in June).

And, *whoosh*, just like that, I decided a character from my novel would also have a penchant for wearing Christmas-themed clothing in June. As I continued my lunch-hour walk, I lost myself in thought. I started seeing my character more clearly; I started coming up with more quirks, more characteristics for her.

To be a writer is to be a magpie. I continually steal little details from all around me and filter them into my stories.

When faced with new information (while listening to a friend’s anecdote, watching a documentary, or even just passing something in the street that makes me go ‘huh’), I immediately start looking for the story idea.

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Reality TV = bad TV?

A New York public television station has created an ad campaign which instinctively rubs me the wrong way. I actually agree with what it’s advocating – more thoughtful, challenging, well-written TV programming – but I think pitting this kind of TV in opposition to reality TV is completely reductive.

We’ve all heard people say it: “Well, I don’t watch… Reality TV.” In some circles, it’s the marker of erudition. You may have your flaws, you may not have got around to reading Wolf Hall yet, but… at least you don’t watch (sniff, sniff) Reality TV.

Personally, I’m a huge and unashamed fan of Reality TV, and here are some reasons why it deserves more credit:

The line between documentary and Reality TV is increasingly blurred.

A documentary is a carefully constructed examination of a person or subject. Reality TV is also carefully constructed (see below). It also examines a person or a subject in depth.

The fact that there might be a game show element involved, or the subject might not traditionally be considered ‘worthy’ of being in a documentary, doesn’t diminish the fact that the two forms are telling broadly the same kind of stories. Human stories. Stories that reveal to us places and ways of living that we wouldn’t have encountered on our own. And yet no one would ever say, “well, I don’t watch… documentaries, sniff sniff.”

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Book review: Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies – Hadley Freeman (essays, ***)

Into the new (and not exactly wonderful) genre of “essays that feel like blog posts” comes Be Awesome, Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman’s free-wheeling compilation of personal musings about life, sex, work and feminism. The resulting book is frequently funny, occasionally insightful, and only sometimes does it betray the need for a better structure and more editorial input.

I loved Freeman’s unbridled take-down of faux-feminism and ‘self-deprecating tourette’s’. Her analysis of society’s bonkers slant on women and sexuality is well-taken. And I came away with a whole bunch of book recs (plus, Hadley loves Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep as much as I do! Let’s be BFF, Hadley!).

Things do get a little weird when Freeman blames Winona Ryder for the misery of her young life, and the final few pages (consisting mainly of ‘SOME THINGS I LIKE AND SOME THINGS I DON’T LIKE’) felt thrown together to meet a deadline.

On balance, however, Be Awesome is more awesome than not. It’s still a book of blog posts more than a book of essays, but you know what? Good blog posts are undervalued.

Book review: The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal – Ben Mezrich (non-fiction, ***)

Even though The Accidental Billionaires purports occasionally to be about seminal shifts in how we interact (yeah, Facebook is up there with the invention of the telephone, *eyeroll*), it’s really a feather-light tale of college-age hubris and insecurity.

I read this on holiday, while not in the mood for anything dark or challenging, and indeed Accidental proved to be perfect fare for a few hours’ brain-free reading.

The ethics of ‘reimagining’ key moments in real people’s lives are undeniably murky, but this novel-esque structure does succeed in making the story much more compelling and readable than it would be otherwise.

I sort of wish more non-fiction books were written in the style of RPF, actually.

Music review: Eisley – Currents

Eisley swim through a dreamy, underwater landscape in Currents, with an album of lovely indie-pop that’s marred ever so slightly by pretension and over-production.

Eisley are not a band that can be accused of taking the easy route to success. Throughout their long career, from teenagers to adults (parents, even), there has been a sense that they’ve wanted to do things their own way. For the close-knit family members from Texas, being on a major label never seemed to sit well with them. And attempts to re-shape their early songs (such as the harsh, creepy ‘Telescope Eyes’) into radio-ready fare sapped them of their life.

Eisley have also repeatedly eschewed aligning themselves with the new wave of hipster indie-pop bands (such as similar-sounding She and Him, The Like, etc.), persistently touring with rock bands instead – and putting on a surprisingly rock-influenced show themselves. They’ve also avoided playing the ‘Christian family band’ card, even though Christian pop music could have been a lucrative niche for them.

Creative control

The band’s fourth full-length album, Currents, is also the one that they’re had the most creative control over. Self-produced and recorded in their home studio, Currents is almost entirely a family affair. When the family refer to it as their fifth baby (Stacy, Chauntelle, Weston and Sherri all had flesh-and-blood babies of their own this year), they’re not kidding.

The question is: has doing things their own way – and sometimes, doing things the hard way – worked out well for Eisley?

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Pronouncing GIF and the folly of looking for sense in an opaque language

The discussion of whether to pronounce picture file format GIF with a soft or a hard ‘g’ is one that, I’m surprised to find, just runs and runs.

For a lot of internet folk, this is an ISSUE and they are RILED about it.

But, the thing is, I’m looking at that sentence and wondering why no one’s arguing about how we pronounce ‘issue’ and ‘riled’. Where’s the internet campaign to pronounce issue as ‘iss-ooh’ and riled as ‘rih-lud’? After all, those pronunciations make as much sense as our pronunciation of GIF (whether you fall in the hard-g or soft-g camp).

The key word there, by the way, is sense. That’s the trouble: there’s no sense in the English language. And trying to impose sense on something fundamentally nonsensical is just a recipe for anger and frustration.

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‘Hannibal’ and its Freddie Lounds problem

I’m really happy that Hannibal was renewed. I think it has exciting stories left to tell and, what’s more, it is rapidly becoming the show I anticipate watching most each week. That said, something about ‘Hannibal’ has been bugging me. It took a while to figure out the source of this irritation, but I finally figured it out: her name is Freddie Lounds.

When NBC’s Hannibal recreated Red Dragon’s sleazy reporter character of Freddy Lounds, it reimagined her as a female blogger. Her presence should work to rebalance an often dude-centric show, and add a more audience-friendly perspective on murder than ‘Hannibal’s default mode of psychoanalysis. Instead, Freddie has emerged as an entirely hollow character who seems more at home in the 1980s (or in a hazy male fantasy of the 80s).

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