Paddington (Film)

Paddington CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Paul King (director, writer, story); Hamish McColl (story); David Heyman (producer)
Main Cast: Ben Whishaw; Sally Hawkins; Hugh Bonneville; Madeleine Harris; Samuel Joslin; Julie Walters; Jim Broadbent; Nicole Kidman; Peter Capaldi; Tim Downie; Michael Gambon; Imelda Staunton
First Shown: 28th November, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The original Paddington Bear books, by Michael Bond (who has a cameo in the film), began publication in the late 1950s. The film isn’t a retelling of any specific book, but follows the same basic idea. Paddington’s (Ben Whishaw) home in Peru is destroyed, so he stows away on a ship heading for London. Once there, he ends up at Paddington Station, where he meets the Brown family. But things take a sinister turn when a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) finds out he’s arrived.

I wasn’t sure how funny I’d find the film, as some of the humour stems from Paddington not understanding what’s going on and making mistakes. However, the funny side tended to be that things turned out unexpectedly, rather than Paddington feeling embarrassed or upset. I find the former funny, but the latter makes me uncomfortable. So I was glad it focused on unexpected resolutions.

The interactions between the Browns were great. At the start, there are obviously tensions in the family. Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is very serious and obsessed with trying to shield everyone from risks. Judy (Madeleine Harris) sides with him over Paddington, because she wants the family to appear normal and not be embarrassing. On the other side, there’s Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins), who is an artist, and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), who dreams of being an astronaut. The dreamer side of the family want to help Paddington. I liked seeing how the family came together and sorted out their differences.

However, my favourite member of the family was Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), an elderly relative. Her asides, and her practical approach to dealing with Paddington, were very funny. She knows what’s really going on, even if it takes the Browns a little longer to figure it out.

There’s a magical realism feel to the film. Paddington causes some comment, but most people either ignore that he’s a bear or accept it after an initial comment. Things shift around the characters, such as the mural changing in the Brown’s house, the band playing the background music appearing in the scene, and the dolls house in the attic becoming a tiny version of the Brown’s house. This works particularly well due to the film being live action, as it grounds the surreal elements in the real.

One possible issue is whether people will make the connection between a bear in a children’s story and real refugees. I felt this was handled reasonably well, as there are references that reinforce this connection. Paddington has a label around his neck, reminiscent of child evacuees in World War II. This is stated directly in the film by his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), who hopes it will remind people of their past kindness. Putting this into the story was a nice touch, as it’s something the author of the books said was a direct inspiration for Paddington’s label.

Some of the hostility Paddington faces is based on fears about immigrants. The Brown’s neighbour, Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi), is worried that bears will end up taking over the neighbourhood and keep him awake with their jungle music. The narrative makes it very clear that Mr Curry isn’t a nice person. In contrast, Paddington also meets Mr Gruber (Jim Broadbent), who was a Jewish child refugee. Mr Gruber is warm, kind, and everything Mr Curry isn’t.

Colonialism is tackled in the tradition of snark and sarcasm. The film opens with an old colonial explorer (Tim Downie) on an expedition to Peru. He’s taken only the essentials, which means a trail of baggage including a large clock and a piano. Later, as the bears are learning English from a recording, it announces to them that British people have numerous words for rain, in a parody of the statements made about Inuit people and snow. Peru is referred to as Darkest Peru, as it is in the book, though the repetition of this is taken to an extreme that highlights its ridiculousness. Many of these moments are subtle, but clear in their critique of colonial attitudes.

The choice of villain also reinforces an anti-colonial narrative: she’s a taxidermist working at the Natural History Museum, who wants to return to a time when the best way to deal with a new species was to kill it and mount it as a trophy. She represents the old values, with all the problems that come with them. Her scenes are particularly chilling, because she is so callous about the value of life.

Though I generally liked the film, there were moments I didn’t like. There’s a scene where Mr Brown dresses as a woman as a disguise and a security guard flirts with him. These kinds of scenes rely on the idea that a man dressing as a woman is inherently funny, and that a man flirting with another man is funny. I did like some aspects of how it was handled though. Mr Brown later comments on the clothing being liberating. The disguise represents the first risk he takes to help Paddington, stepping outside of the constrictive life he’s constructed. It’s more unusual to follow up such scenes with a positive framing (it tends to be “never again, because I’m a manly man” rather than “actually, that was fine”).

I recognise that Paddington being called Paddington is unavoidable given the source, but it does still make me wince that he gets named because his name is deemed unpronounceable. That’s always been the part of the story that doesn’t sit well with me.

Paddington is a light-hearted family film with genuinely funny moments. I enjoyed seeing the Brown family come together and loved the visual style. The topic of refugees and immigration is as relevant now as ever, and the film presents this in a positive way. I would note some of the taxidermy scenes could be frightening for younger viewers. No animals are harmed, but the intentions are clear, and there are previously stuffed animals on show.

Crowdfunding Arrivals: Mewshrooms and Vampires

I have been known to support crowdfunding campaigns, which means I sometimes get shiny things. Or very fungusy things. Here are my crowdfunding rewards crops for the season.

First is the mewshroom by Stitchmind (Andrew E. Yang). The mewshroom is a mushroom cat toy, who quickly settled in helping with the decorations.

Mushroom cat toy with tinsel

Image Caption: A cuddly toy mushroom cat. The cat has a large red head with embroidered white spots, a white body, frill just under the cap, and a fluffy ball on the end of its tail. The mewshroom is playing with tinsel on a festive plaid backdrop (red and green with gold strands).

Mushroom cat toy with snowflake ornament

Image Caption: Mewshroom faces forwards, showing two dark eyes and an embroidered nose. It stands on a sparkly snowflake ornament.

I backed the campaign at the level for just the toy, though also got a sticker and badge thrown in. The fur is soft and it does stand up despite the huge cap. They come in other colours, but I went with traditional red. Stitchmind has a website where the toys are on sale, and a Zazzle store with related merchandise.

Second is an ebook of Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This is a vampire novel set in Mexico City. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ll review it when I do. Tinsel probably doesn’t say horror and vampires, but it has some black in it so I’m sure that counts. I own a lot of tinsel.

Silvia has a website with more about her writing, and the book is for sale on Amazon.

Book cover on an iPad with tinsel around it

Image Caption: An iPad on a background of silver/black tinsel and cloth. The screen shows the cover of Certain Dark Things: a face in black and white, with fire and red patterns overlaid. The iPad camera is covered by a sparkly mushroom sticker.

The Day I Became a Bird – Ingrid Chabbert (author), Guridi (illustrator)

The Day I Became a Bird CoverFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A boy falls in love with Sylvia, a girl who loves birds. He decides the obvious solution is to dress up as a bird.

The premise of this intrigued me, though I also wondered how well it would handle it. Early childhood love is often handled very badly. Boys are encouraged to treat girls poorly to get their attention, and when girls report it, it’s dismissed with, “He’s only doing that because he likes you.” That’s a pretty terrible message to put across, that it doesn’t matter if someone hits you, or destroys your stuff, as long as they like you.

Refreshingly, this book doesn’t go there. The boy is instead a quiet and sensitive child, who wants to appeal to Sylvia’s interests. At no point is it suggested that Sylvia should stop being so interested in birds. The boy wants to be part of that, rather than trying to change her. He also doesn’t feel he’s entitled to attention for dressing up as a bird. He’s hoping she’ll like it, but he waits to see if she reacts rather than pressing the issue.

I also liked that he doesn’t need to be a bird in the end. There was the potential for suggesting that the only way to find love is changing yourself, but it doesn’t really go there. It’s clear to all involved that he’s wearing a costume for a short time, rather than this being a permanent attempt to be someone else.

Pencil sketches make up the majority of the artwork. These act as a simple and expressive way of telling the story. The bird costume itself is huge, and looks both carefully made and uncomfortable to wear. I liked how it slowly begins to fall apart, as being worn for normal school activities takes its toll. Some additional bird art, such as a scientific diagram of a bird, and bird identification pictures, are included as part of showing Sylvia’s interests.

This is a gentle story, that encourages taking an interest in someone else’s passions. The bird focus is likely to appeal to young bird lovers, and it could be tied in with dressing up activities.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Pokémon Go: My First Adventure

Developer: Niantic
First Release: 6th July, 2016
Version Played: iPhone 5S (iOS)
Length: Endless
Available: Android and Apple iOS

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality (AR) game that runs on mobile devices. It’s based on the popular Pokémon series of games, with the general theme of catching, evolving and fighting cartoon animals. Game locations are in the real world, encouraging players to travel around. The basic game is free, though players can buy items to help them.

This is a journal of my first Pokémon Go adventure, as well as my overall thoughts on the game. I’ve played a few of the Nintendo DS Pokémon titles. This includes the one that came with a pedometer that let players earn things by walking. It turned out this was an issue, as I played those games in the USA, and I had a trainer account set to that region. I couldn’t change my region or my display name for the old account, which seems like really obvious things people might want to change. I had to start a new account. So the account side of it was not exactly at the cutting edge of account management systems, but at least I could get that set up in advance.

Something that’s an improvement on previous titles is it asks the player to choose a style, rather than asking if they’re a boy or a girl. I prefer it being framed as how I want my character to look, rather than my own gender (unless the game is going to actually let me enter my gender). In general though, there are very few options for the characters, which is an odd choice in a social game.

I caught my starter, a Bulbasaur, at home. The mechanism is to flick the ball on the screen with a finger. It’s a little tricky, but I got there in the end. Over the next few days, it became apparent there was a colony of bug Pokémon in the garden, as there were little flurries of leaves on the map and a few wandered inside. There were also quite a lot of bats over the road, in the house where someone was murdered, which was creepily accurate.

The game instructions are very sparse. I can understand why people think they have to walk towards Pokémon that appear on the map, because it seems logical. However, it isn’t required. As soon as they appear, they can be tapped and the catching process will begin. I could get those bats in the murder house without leaving my house.

starter

Image Caption: My hand holding a phone in my sitting room. On the screen, the image seen through the phone camera is shown. Bulbasaur (a green dinosaur with a plant bulb on the back) is sitting on a computer tower. A Poké Ball is on screen, with an arrow and hand icon showing how to throw it.

Finally, it was time, and the main adventure began. My fellow traveller was Spiritunicorn, because safe trainers go together, to deal with those really big Pokémon. We hadn’t gone far before a child shouted, “Excuse me. Are you playing Pokémon Go!?” I nodded, and they gave us a thumbs up. I’m apparently accidentally fashionable again. It happens sometimes.

There turned out to be quite a few PokéStops and Gyms nearby. The PokéStops let the player spin a coin for some rewards, such as more Poké Balls to catch Pokémon. The Gyms are where people can battle, but we were too low level for that at the start. All went well as we collected items and caught a few Pokémon on the way. We tried not to think too much about why we trusted this strange guy on the basis that he said he was a scientist. Why does he need all those Pokémon? What’s he doing with them? What’s actually in these pieces of candy we’re getting as rewards? I’m not saying this stranger was illegally harvesting animals, hiring children he could bribe with sweets without too many questions being asked, and liquidising the animals for his experiments. But it doesn’t exactly look like a proper catch and release programme to me.

Anyway, the choice of PokéStops was interesting. Quite a few are signs for things, rather than the things. An example is one sign that’s placed right next to the tower blocks. Unlike many towns, mine only has these few towers, so they’re a distinctive landmark. Other PokéStops were things like temporary artwork that was no longer there, so they’re lagged behind in history.

pokestop

Image Caption: On the right, a pale tower block with a sky blue stripe running down it. In front of the building is a sign with a map saying “Welcome to Greater Hollington”. The sign is the PokéStop. On the left, the image from the phone screen, showing a Spearow (bird Pokémon) sitting by the building, waiting to be caught.

We continued on towards the coast and the sea mist rolled in. I finally hit the level to join a team, which I did at the next Gym. It was a brick church with a tower. As the Gyms look like little towers on the map, this seemed rather apt. I went with Team Mystic because blue is a nice colour.

mapgym

Image Caption: On the right, a red brick church tower. On the left, the phone screen showing a character standing on a 3D map. Two gym towers are shown. The yellow one on the left is the church tower.

The available Pokémon should change based on the environment, which was clear on our outward route. Home had lots of bugs and a few birds. Asda had a bunch of rats around the back. And the coast had weird tentacle monsters and little lobsters with mushroom ears. The PokéStops also got a lot more historical as we moved into the older parts of town. One marked the house of Elsie Bowerman, a suffragette. Another marked the stone on the divide between the two towns, which is about the only sign it is two towns.

elsie

Image Caption: A blue history plaque on a wall, which is a PokéStop. The writing reads: Elsie Bowerman / 1889 – 1973 / Suffragette, Barrister and Survivor of the ‘Titanic’ disaster lived here / Hastings Borough Council.

Heading further into town, we stopped for lunch and to look around the shops. Pokémon Go players were everywhere. The town centre has a number of PokéStops, including the cricketer statue just outside the shopping centre. But other than Game promoting preorders of the next Pokémon DS title, the shops really weren’t getting in on it. If they’d had cuddly toys and other similar things, I’m sure people would have bought them.

Once we left town, we went through the park. The mist thinned, meaning it was a good time to recharge phones. Spiritunicorn has all the gadgets, so we plugged the phones into a solar panel. The game needs to be running in order to count the distance travelled, so it is hard on batteries.

solar

Image Caption: A portable solar panel on a wooden bench. Two phones are plugged in.

Across from our recharge point was another Gym, which I decided to try. It’s a war memorial with a figure on the top, because I have a thing about Gyms that look a bit like the Gym icons on the map.

It wasn’t an epic battle. I did manage to damage the Gym guardian a bit though. I bet that stung for a few seconds. It’s trickier than usual Pokémon games, as it isn’t turn based. Dodging and attacking are done in real time. It’s hard to say how good I was at that, as my Pokémon were so underpowered.

gym

Image Caption: On the right, a white pillar with a statue on top, viewed across the water. A flock of pigeons are between the pillar and the water. On the left, the phone screen showing a Paras (orange lobster with mushroom ears) fighting a Hypno (yellow biped).

Another unexpected thing about battles is the healing system. Potions are the only way of healing them up. I would have liked to see an alternative to this, like having Pokémon heal over time or by travelling a certain distance.

By the time we got to the end of the park, our phones were getting very low on batteries. We turned them off and headed home. All in all, we walked about 15km (9 miles). It only used 20MB of my phone’s data allowance, though this may be on the low side as the maps would have loaded through my home Wi-Fi. I caught many Pokémon and got a few nice shots through the game’s camera system.

pokemon

Image Caption: Three images taken with the game’s own camera system. Left is a Paras (orange lobster with mushroom ears) on a shingle beach, with the water and mist in the distance. Centre is a Pidgey (bird) on grey pavement stones, with people and scaffolding in the background. Right is a Zubat (blue bat) flying in a garden, next to a standing stone with a hole in it. All pictures have the username (PolenthBlake) placed in the lower right corner.

Our last adventure was close to home, where local players have taken to gathering in a church lych gate. It has a roof and is in range of two PokéStops. The police had evidently been called, though not for one of the players. The person of interest to the police was someone who just couldn’t stop talking. “I didn’t do that. Well, maybe that one time, but not today. Okay, maybe more than once, but not in the last ten minutes.” I do wonder if crime will go down in that area (it has a particular problem with people dumping rubbish) due to the number of people with mobile phones there at all hours.

Heading home meant collecting my thoughts about the game. An obvious one was accessibility. For someone who can leave the house, it isn’t required to actually walk. It uses distance rather than detecting walking gait, so wheelchairs and mobility scooters can also travel the distance. Players don’t have to visit certain PokéStops and Gyms, so can stick to those in accessible areas. This isn’t a game that would work very well for someone who can’t leave the house. It is possible to catch a few Pokémon at home, but it’d mean not getting new supplies at the PokéStops, not being able to hatch eggs, and all the rest.

Catching Pokémon could be tricky for some people, as it requires swiping the ball in the right direction. Some sort of automatic throw on tap would have been a good idea. It’s not like it’d harm the game if some people used the feature who didn’t need it, as catching the Pokémon is more about enjoying the AR.

My main criticism of accessibility in a nutshell: there aren’t alternative ways for doing things or options to customise the game controls.

I also think the instructions need work, as so little is explained. This is particularly true of how to catch Pokémon, as it’s not clear that the player doesn’t have to move towards them, and can keep going until they’re safe before they tap them. For example, one popped up while I was crossing a road. I had time to cross the road and step to the side of the path (out of anyone else’s way), before tapping the Pokémon and starting the catching sequence. Someone who doesn’t know that might think they have to stop in the road or cross back to get closer to the Pokémon.

Criticisms aside, it’s a very fun game. It’s not required to buy things to take part, outside of paying phone costs. Moving between free Wi-Fi areas would be an alternative, as town centres often have PokéStops and Gyms and places with free Wi-Fi. It was fun to see so many others playing the game, including adults, families with young children, and groups of teenagers. People who weren’t playing were still discussing Pokémon, such as reminiscing about the previous games. Everyone who spoke to us was friendly. This was a welcome change, particularly given the current political climate, where the “Go back where you came from!” brigade is out in force.

All I need now is some more Bulbasaurs, so I can feed candy made from their ground-up bones to my own Bulbasaur, and take over the world for Team Mystic. It’s a simple goal.

Steamborn – Eric R. Asher

Steamborn CoverSeries: The Steamborn Series, #1
First Published: 29th November, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Steampunk / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jacob is a boy living in a walled city, under constant attack from giant invertebrates. When an attack devastates part of the city, he and his friends investigate the cause.

I read this because of my love of invertebrates. It’s a steampunk world where invertebrates can grow to giant sizes. There are knights who ride giant spiders, insects pulling carriages, and the threat from wild invertebrates coming over the walls. I liked that though the wild ones were dangerous, it wasn’t that invertebrates were evil. Predators will kill people because they hunt, but there were invertebrates who were tame, who were farmed for food, and so on.

It’s one of the few books that treat spiders as just another animal. As well as the giant ones people ride, there are large (several inches across) jumping spiders that live around the city. Not everyone likes them, but they’re mostly treated as harmless.

Class themes are important. Jacob is from a poor family, who live in the Lowlands. As well as generally struggling with money for food and medicine, the walls protecting the Lowlands aren’t as good. That means they’re at risk from attacks. The rich area of the city is at the highest point, with the best walls.

It touches on some disability issues, as amputees are common due to the attacks. Jacob gets to work making prosthetics for people. This also links to the past, when the city was at war with people who had very advanced steampunk cybernetics. Some as prosthetics for people who’d lost limbs, but also some who’d been turned into cyborg soldiers. This would have had more impact if someone in the main cast had been injured, rather than being something that happened to minor characters. Though dehumanizing people with these prosthetics was treated as a serious issue, it was all rather distant.

The characters weren’t particularly diverse. They were mainly men/boys. Though it’s claimed the people in the present of the story are a mixture of all the races of the old world, everyone looks rather white until a few characters at the end. They fit a lot of stock character types. The eccentric old inventor. The reckless young boy who’ll save the world. Alice, the only girl who really had a major role, was there as the sensible one who told Jacob off for being too reckless.

The result is I was a lot more interested in the world than the characters living in it. The history and the society built around giant invertebrates was fun to explore. The characters who did the exploring were not the major draw for me.

The book is a little heavy on capitalised new names for things, which often made it harder to understand rather than clarifying what things were. It’s also the first in an ongoing story. There’s some resolution at the end, but it’s more of a pause before continuing the larger narrative.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]