The Bens 2014

My movie-watching for 2013 was way down on previous years. 26 in total, and of those, 8 were watched on the way to, at or back from Worldcon in San Antonio. Dear me. I can only put this down to an increase in Scandi crime viewing on Saturday evenings, our usual viewing slot, including working our way through two series of The Killing.

So anyway. Remembering the criterion and adage that “It’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it”, here goes. The Ben Awards for 2014.

Best movie

So, how do I define “best”? I go for what I perceive as the most satisfactory meeting of ambition and ability; my enjoyment levels in watching; and the crunch question, would I mind seeing it again or would I rather just read a book? All of the above meet these criteria; and indeed, I have seen two of the three more than once. (Cloud Atlas on two successive evenings, TGtB&tU more times than I can possibly count over a period of 49 years.)

Ultimately I felt TGtB&tU is so much in a class of its own that comparisons are unfair, bringing it down to a choice of two. Ender’s Game is a flawless recreation of the book which still allows the director’s own vision to show through (unlike, say, the early Harry Potter movies, which were equally flawless book recreations). The story is simplified for the screen without losing anything, though bizarrely gaining a Kiwi accent for Ben Kingsley which contributes nothing. Ultimately however the movie misses out on the Best tag because, being as good as it is, it also highlights the absurdities of the novel – an interstellar fleet run by children? Most attendees at any games expo would wipe the floor with world-saving genius Ender.

Cloud Atlas wins not only because Ender loses but also for being, quite a simply, a 90% successful attempt to film an absolutely unfilmable book. The book tells six stories broken down into 11 consecutive chunks: five half stories in a chronological sequence, then a whole story set at the farthest point in the future, then the remaining five half stories in reverse chronology. The film takes them and chops them up much more finely, with the same core cast playing characters who are not only very different in type but sometimes age, ethnicity and even gender. In some cases it’s not until you see the end credits that you realise just how many times you have seen the same actor. And every one of them acts, even Hugh Grant, who appears in a brief role so utterly against type that I wanted to rewatch the movie straight away, just to catch another glimpse. (I didn’t, I waited 24 hours.) And, even more so than TGtG&tU, you can tell the cast are having a ball, which adds to the enjoyment; Ender’s Game, it must be said, is just a tad po-faced.

Best actor

Ender’s Game sinks or swims on the strength of Ender’s performance, and it’s hard to imagine any other boy actor in the last 20 years doing as well. Asa Butterfield is spot on: he’s grown since The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but is still small enough to appear vulnerable, and his character is completely different to pyjama-boy and to his lead role in Hugo. But for all that, maybe because the character of Ender himself is such a contrivance, it’s hard to shake the feeling he’s jumping through hoops on demand, as is every other character in the movie.

Ditto Suraj Sharma, who is very good indeed in his debut performance as Pi, spending much of his time acting at a CGI tiger. Both these young men have the true triumphs of their careers yet to come.

And then we come to Karl Urban, who is Dredd, and conveys it despite having half his face obscured for the entire movie. What was I saying about contrived characters? Well, he takes the not-entirely-uncontrived lawman of Mega City 1 and makes him human. With half a face. And he is also pretty good as McCoy in Star Trek Into Darkness, playing a totally different role. So, Urban it is.

Most unexpectedly good

Dredd comes very close indeed to winning here; its one drawback is that, apart from the Judges themselves, it just looks too contemporary. One thing I will give Stallone’s Judge Dredd is that what we saw on screen really was Mega City 1, which sadly was the setting for a lousy story. But this Mega City is just like downtown Detroit, with (okay, okay) brutalist kilometre-high concrete skyscrapers, but brutalist kilometre-high concrete skyscrapers alone do not a Mega City make.

Whereas Man of Steel is, believe it or not, not a Superman movie. It’s a movie about Kryptonians. Kal-el is not the only exiled member of his race trying to make a new life on Earth. Meanwhile, before succumbing to damsel-in-distress mode, Pultizer-prize winning journo Lois Lane actually behaves in a Pulitzer-prize winning manner and tracks down Clark Kent by following the inevitable clues a man like him would leave behind, without him realising.

Not necessarily bad but biggest waste of a good cast

All three have good casts, two of which include Helen Mirren. However, in two cases the story is predictable because it’s already based on historical fact, and in one it’s predictable because the denouement of the entire fiction-based plot is the only thing that could happen in a pastoral comedy starring Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly. But the winner, i.e. the biggest waste, has to be Phil Spector, for not deviating one jot from reality and giving neither Mirren nor Al Pacino anything to do other than recite their lines (Pacino mumbling his around the bits of the scenery he was chewing at the time).

… Gainst all disaster …

As well as being all holy’n’that, there was a deeper purpose to being in Israel.

McCabe, via the McCabe Educational Trust, supports a number of charities around the world. Three are in (or should that be on?) the West Bank, so we took time to visit each one in turn to see where the money goes. All three are open to members of all communities without bias. (Which in practice of course means that most of the kids are Muslim.)

The playground: sponsorship money in action

The playground: sponsorship money in action

So. Jeel al Amal is a home and school for orphan and homeless boys. Now, it’s possible that if I could only understand Arabic then I would have realised the place is a Dickensian horror house of Gradgrindian awfulness, but as I could only note body language and the sounds that reached my ears then I have to assume that it really is a place of hope and substitute family for all the kids. A year ago the playground was a mass of rubble and a leaky sewer: McCabe paid for surfacing, clean-up and rerouting of the pipes. There is something about a playground full of kids running around that just sounds happy.

Mustafa: Palestine's Rick Wakeman

Mustafa: Palestine’s Rick Wakeman

The boys get a chance they never would have otherwise, and seem to put their break to good use. One kid was recently accepted to study medicine at Bucharest University. Their IT guru (they also have a fully modern computer suite) is a student at Lancaster. The Chief of Police of Jericho is a Jeel boy – which proved very handy when one day a car with Jericho plates drove off with a football belonging to the school. And so on.

IMAG1010The Al-Shurooq school for blind children takes in children from the age of 3 and teaches them the basic life skills they won’t get at home – how to dress, wash, cook – as well as teaching Braille and integrating them into local schools with the support that both pupils and schools need. They too have an IT suite, with speech synthesis software, and apparently a lot of the kids are on Facebook.

Half the time Al-Shurooq has to rely on local gossip and hearsay to learn of a blind child’s existence – the kids are kept hidden for the shame of it all. That’s if they’re not just rejected outright. We met a little boy who had had just that happen to him. His condition is genetic – his parents are cousins, and probably theirs were too, and theirs … Didn’t stop his father throwing him out.

The Al-Shurooq Braille library, printed on the premises

The Al-Shurooq Braille library, printed on the premises

Tragically, at the other end of the scale are the parents who can’t do enough for their little darlings. One mother routinely takes her kid out of school for unnecessary and painful eye surgery in Jordan, promising him he’s going to get better. He isn’t.

Either way the parents mostly don’t have a clue what to do: one little boy brought in aged 6 had only ever eaten processed baby food to minimise the mess. So, the school is also raising funds for a summer camp for parents, to teach them the realities of having a blind child.

Services offered by BARS: from my placemat at lunch, hence fork and edge of my pitta break.

Services offered by BARS: from my placemat at lunch, hence fork and edge of my pitta bread.

Finally, the Bethlehem Arab Rehabilitation Society provides a range of surgical, orthotic and prosthetic services to all ages. This is by far the biggest operation, with a budget in the tens of millions. It is also a tall building, which means that from the roof you can get excellent views, not least of which is THAT WALL, that horrible concrete excrescence creeping across the landscape, inexorably slicing the communities apart the same way that it slices through their liberties.


The wall, from the roof of BARS.

I was never less than embarrassed going through a checkpoint into the West Bank, knowing that I was privileged to be able to enter and leave pretty well as I pleased, but going through a checkpoint in the wall beat it all. Being on a tour bus there was never a problem: once a soldier came on board, but he immediately recognised our driver as the man who used to run him to school, so they had a laugh and a chat and we were waved through. But some of our party had used public transport to get through on previous visits and had seen Palestinians have their permits torn up in front of their eyes for dissing a guard. Babies have been born in checkpoint queues because mothers couldn’t get to hospitals fast enough. It is vile and inhuman, and yes I’ve seen Yad Vashem and I DON’T CARE because that has nothing to do with this and it shouldn’t happen.

Turn around 180 degrees from the last picture - and oh look, it's the wall again. Another couple of months and they will be encircled, and there's not a blessed thing they can do about it.

Turn around 180 degrees from the last picture – and oh look, it’s the wall again. Another couple of months and they will be encircled, and there’s not a blessed thing they can do about it.

But, having seen Yad Vashem, I have an inkling of why the Israelis will never budge.

Anyway. The charities. The centrepiece of our whole week in Israel was therefore a sponsored walk around Jerusalem. Everyone signing up was asked to commit to at least £300 of sponsorship; thanks in no small part to the generosity of our friends and congregation, we were able to raise close on £1000 between us, and the walk overall raised £40,000.

Proof we were there.

Proof we were there.

We began at Bethphage, where Jesus acquired his donkey, then over the Mount of Olives (now Oliveless, due to the Ottomans cutting them all down for their steam trains in WW1), down past Gethsemane, along the Kidron Valley and up to the south wall of the old city.

Jesus's prison cell? Quite possibly.

Jesus’s prison cell? Quite possibly.

We took a coffee and toilet break at the church of St Peter in Gallicantu (roughly, “Peter at cockcrow”: the site of Jesus’s imprisonment and hence Peter’s denial. This very probably is the site, because it is close to the location of the High Priest’s house and there are prison cells carved into the bedrock below it).

When Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967, all this was built up ... Sometimes you meet an Israeli who will admit it.

When Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967, all this was built up … Sometimes you meet an Israeli who will admit it.

Then it was up through the Zion Gate and into the old city, through winding streets and passageways, through the Western Wall plaza, wiggle approximately along the Via Dolorosa, up over the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (seeing it at its best) and finally a slap-up lunch in the Armenian Quarter. Distance travelled as the crow flies, about a mile; distance pounded by weary feet on cobbled stones, 7 or 8 miles up and down slopes. Jerusalem is built on hills and valleys and almost nothing is level; when the Bible says “he went up” or “he went down”, he very probably did.

Being slow on the uptake, we had several times passed one of the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa before it struck me that, bloody hell, this is the original Station. Well, almost, 30 feet above it but hey.

Another long post so this is where I lay down my pen. Coming soon: the rest of the pilgrimage, including frank opinions of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

John Dickinson

It is a crime against English fantasy, and a major indictment of the Random House marketing department, that John Dickinson isn’t more famous. He has written several books but in particular I’m talking about a fantasy trilogyThe Cup of the World, The Widow & the King, and The Fatal Child.

At first glance we have yer usual medieval fantasy – a world of kings and queens and lords and draughty castles. It’s the philosophy, the religion, the ethics of the series that make it such fun. The set-up is original and unusual, and it provides a backdrop for all kinds of thought and speculation on morality and duty and good and bad.

The official religion is vaguely Christian but with the four archangels taking the place of the Trinity, the saints and the BVM. Co-existing with this in the background is the local lore, which – this being a fantasy series – is also absolutely true. There is no necessary clash between the two, though the church says there is. The church provides political power and the lore provides the real power. That’s where the narrative tension arises and is what makes the series great.

The ancestors of the present inhabitants arrived from across the sea a few centuries ago, led by a group of brothers. The leader and eldest brother committed a grievous sin – the murder of a child whose mother happened to be the local goddess – when they arrived and this crime has become part of the lore. Now anyone who practices the magic that the lore makes available tends to be contaminated with the guilt of that sin. And the practitioners tend to be the aristocracy of the land – the descendants of those brothers.

Unfortunately it’s a very politically useful magic – the ability to see what’s happening elsewhere and even the ability to travel in hours through a kind of magical hyperspace between points in the realm that would take weeks or months to do on foot. (Said hyperspace is a barren, rocky bowl where, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the goddess weeping, still mourning her child.) The weaker rulers use it for fun but even the stronger, best-intentioned ones find it too hard to resist sometimes. If you want to put down a rebellion many leagues away and get there now then you do the putting down first and worry about the consequences for you, your loved ones and your royal house second. Thus you have a land where even the most well-intentioned efforts of the noblest rulers are contaminated by a kind of original sin and effectively doomed to failure in interesting and unpredictable ways. There is still free will and there are few out-and-out villains beyond any kind of redemption. Individuals can be saved – but can the land?

The three novels are sequential but can be read on their own too. So do yourself a favour and then tell me if I’m wrong.