Friday, April 30, 2010

Transformers and Human Waste

This was originally written back in 2010, but I've updated it a little. The book I discuss in the second half I've now read at least twice, and was disconsolate for a while because I thought I'd lent it to someone and he hadn't given it back. 

If ever Transformers come knocking at your door, make sure you've got your life insurance paid up - along with every other kind of insurance. They certainly make a dent in anything they touch. And don't come back to clean up the mess. My grandson and I watched Transformers tonight; someone had recorded it onto the DVD hard drive a while back and though I'd seen some bits of it, I'd never caught up with the whole thing. Well, the beginning is definitely a lot better than the end. Shia LaBeouf has a lot of fun with his 'teenage' role, and there's plenty of comedy early on, notably from his parents. (He also has a rather kooky pal early in the piece, but he gets one or two scenes and then vanishes. Pity.)

But once all the action stuff starts, the film pretty much falls apart. It probably doesn't help watching it on a TV screen, (and not even in letter-box format), but the action scenes are so badly staged that you hardly have a clue who's doing what to whom. Early on even these aren't so bad, but the last long, long, long battle is rubbish. Megatron, the big baddie, is about as clueless a baddie as you're likely to come across. He likes smashing stuff up, but it never seems to achieve anything. Perhaps all those decades of being frozen have played havoc with his brain wiring. The CGI is of course fantastic. But, as I think I've said before in this blog, we've become so used to CGI that it no longer makes us gasp at what we're seeing. (Only Avatar, which arrived a couple of years later, was more eye-popping, and that was because it used imagination as well as CGI.) 

I keep meaning to mention a book I read a few weeks back. I was going to do a proper review, but it's now got a bit past that point. It's The Big Necessity, and it has the delightful subtitle: Adventures in the World of Human Waste. It's by journalist, Rose George. (The alternative subtitle is: The unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters.) Most people I've spoken to about it have switched off fairly quickly. As George points out, in spite of the fact that human waste is a fact of life for every single human being on the planet (and for many, other people's waste is also a fact of their daily lives), we just don't talk about it. We barely even joke about it. In Western society we're so prim and proper that our TV ads hardly point out the fact that it's poo that we're using all those chemicals to clean up: instead they focus on the bacteria. But we're also so attuned to having waste flushed away that we regard it as something quite unmentionable. 

This isn't the case with much of the world. There are still plenty of countries where poo is literally thrown around, or left lying in open areas next to villages, or indisposable in slums, or plastered all over the walls of public toilets until they become unusable. Civilisation and poo are still only just getting their act together. For most of the world they've hardly started. 

The book is full of wonderful stories, and wonderful people - and facts. For instance, 37,000 miles - yes, I said miles - of waste tunnels between London and Swindon, some of which are big enough to drive a mini around in. New York is a city that's just a couple of days away at any time from being caught up in its own waste. (In another book I discovered that the underground waters in New York have to be continually pumped out of the subway - if they were left alone for a few days, the subways would be swamped.) In Japan, for years they've been using toilets that actually clean the rear end while you're sitting there. A spray does the job, and apparently in the best of these models, does it very well. Then there's a drier to finish off the job. Many Japanese regard the idea of wiping your bottom with toilet paper as not being clean at all. 

There have been some great people working on dealing with human waste, some highly innovative and entrepreneurial people. But in India, the land where technology is rapidly outstripping anywhere else in the world, human waste is still in a Neanderthal state for great swathes of the country. There are still people, the Dalits, the lowest of the lowest castes, whose job it is to cart other people's waste away. It's almost always the women who do this work, (the men somehow escape the task by handing it over to their wives and daughters), and many of them carry the baskets of waste on their heads. However, there is one man - I can't note his name as we've recently shifted and my books aren't at present in any order - who has gradually rescued Dalits from their abysmal life, and is educating them in schools financed by the public toilets he's built (and which people pay a minimal sum to use). 

Public toilets are a rarity in many countries still, and nonexistent in others. In Rome, when my wife and I went on our honeymoon some 46 years ago, it was very hard to find a public toilet. I still have a photo of me pointing disconsolately at a disconnected toilet in the middle of a worksite. And even when we went abroad in 2007, it was still hard to find public toilets. At that time I was having some prostate problems, and at least twice we had to board a river cruise boat just so I could use the toilet on board. On another occasion I popped into a port-a-loo that was officially there for the men working on a site. 

As I said the book is eye-opening, and the stories abound. I can't say why the topic appealed to me, but I found it fascinating. Maybe I'm just a child at heart, still wanting to know what happens to the brown stuff...!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Playing for a Play

It's always a bit of a surprise to find I haven't mentioned something in here that's actually taking up a reasonable amount of my time, but it appears I haven't.
A few weeks ago Natalie Ellis, the woman who produced When We Are Married last year, asked me if I'd play the piano for a short play she would be putting on in May. Turns out that I'm not just playing the piano but have had the chance to write some original music for it as well: four interludes that go between the various scenes.
The play isn't particularly long - the cast keep debating how short it is - so the music gives it a bit more length, along with an introduction that one of the other cast members is doing. I'm also playing an 'overture' and 'play-out' both consisting of Aussie tunes that I've strung together. Of course Waltzing Matilda is there, and the national anthem - and the Neighbours theme.
It's been fun putting the music together - wrote the four interludes over a weekend...! - and I'm having to practice my scales, as it were. Not that I was particularly rusty, but when you're performing you need to bring the fingers up to a better level than just plain ordinary.
Anyway, the play is called Love - or Nearest Offer, and it's by an Aussie playwright, Hugh O'Brien. The humour isn't crude, though it skates a little close at times. Car lovers will enjoy it, as there are plenty of jokes about various cars and the people who drive them.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Age creepeth on

I had no idea what adipex diet pills were, so had to look them up. And I did, and found a 'review' site of them which was sort of positive about them - and sort of not. I think on the basis of this review I wouldn't be trying them, quite apart from the fact that I'm not overweight enough to worry about it.
Which isn't what I set out to write. But my wife went to England (via Auckland and Kuala Lumpur) this morning (no, not all in one morning - come on!) and I'm feeling distinctly unsettled. People go on about 'baching' (as in being a bachelor for a period of time). Can't say it's a state I'm particularly keen to go back to. When you've been married as long as I have (36 years) you're pretty closely tied up with the person you've spent so much time with; at the moment there's a great sense of absence in the house.
And it's been a bit of a week, all up. Some stressful times at work which I won't go into here, but some other stressful things on top of that.
I went to get my driver's licence renewed, for example. You might remember that I had a bit of eyelid surgery about ten days ago. The eyelid's looking good, but the eye itself took a bit of time to recover; in fact I was getting worried that it might have got damaged during the few brief minutes of the op. Don't think it did, but the antibiotic cream I was using for the eyelid certainly blurred things up tremendously, and even when I stopped using it the eye didn't seem to seeing things as clearly as I thought it should. The left eye seems to be doing most of the work, in fact.
To get back to the driver's licence. I went into the AA office here, paid my money, had my photo taken (took them umpteen attempts) and tried to do their eyetest. Crikey, I thought I'd gone blind.
The first lot of letters were an absolute blur, and I only started seeing things more clearly when they upped the size of the letters. And then I was told that there were three columns of letters when my eyes saw only two - and a big black blank where the third column should have been. The girl behind the counter insisted there were three columns; I insisted there were two. Didn't even get as far as checking my peripheral vision.
Felt quite gloomy and began to wonder if my eyesight was going completely. However, a quick trip to the optician's (an old acquaintance outside of his speciality) and it proved that there was nothing more wrong with my eyes than there has been for decades. I've had glasses since I was about nine, as far as I recall.
I could read his charts with ease, and tracked the peripheral light thingee with no problems. Pooh to the AA eye test machine, I say. In fact I later wrote to the AA Head Office, online, and told them that I thought it was a bit of a poor show that they had a machine that doesn't work for most of their customers - it's commonplace for people to wind up either at their doctor's or their optician's surgeries because they're 'failed' the eyesight test at AA, or haven't even bothered to give it a try because they know already how inefficient it is.
No doubt they'll respond by installing up-to-date, brand new, perfectly attuned machines in every one of their offices.
The other 'stress' was that I had to go to Work and Income to apply for my superannuation, which the Government is kindly giving to me after all these years. This shouldn't have been any big deal - people turn 65 every day - but the milestone of it affected me, and I felt quite nervous. And old.
Anyway, thanks to my daughter, who's adept at making sure every i has been dotted and t crossed, the application form was perfect when presented to the woman at W&I (bar one minimal easily-sorted thing) and I had all the right bits of paper to prove who I was, several times over. Notice that my daughter checked all this through before I went. Doesn't that say something about impending age...?

The photo is by Zarko Drincic - he also drew the original picture.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

One Two Three

A couple of posts ago I wrote about Billy Wilder's movie, Sunset Blvd. Last night I watched another in the Wilder 'canon,' the oddball comedy, One Two Three (from 1961). Perhaps now mostly remembered (if remembered at all) because it was James Cagney's last movie for around 17 years, it's a hectic, wild, loud, annoying farce, that seems to play at full bore for all of its running time.

For the cast it must have been better than a bottle of fat burning pills - all of them are required to take their scenes at a breathless pace, and Cagney does his part at full throttle, not only sending his own earlier screen roles up once or twice but being sent up by other characters as well. It would be interesting to see it again in a cinema with a full audience of people already a little merry. In a living room watching it on the telly, it just doesn't hit the mark any more in spite of everyone's best intentions. There are plenty of jokes, lots of comings and goings in the plot, lots of mild satire (perhaps milder now than it was at the time), stereotype Russians/Communists and militaristic/Germans - and yes, even a few laugh-out-loud moments. But compare it to the rich humour of Some Like it Hot and you have to wonder if this is the same author/director at work here.

Horst Buchholz, who first appeared in a movie at the age of 19 and was still working up till the year before he died (2003) has a lot of fun with his over-the-top Communist youth, and Pamela Tiffin plays the dizzy Southern belle who's madly in love with him. The rest of the cast are a mixed bag of American, German and multi-European actors.

The most intriguing thing about the movie is how they persuaded Coca-Cola to allow itself to be sent up as well as everything else. The company plays an integral part in the plot - although it's mana is completely undermined in the last shot.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Fraser's Gully

I've lived in Dunedin, New Zealand, for around 55 years of my life. I was in Melbourne for the first three years, moved to Dunedin, stayed here for my childhood and adolescence. Had some very brief stints in Wellington and Auckland while I worked for the NZ Opera Company, moved back to Dunedin, went overseas to the UK for six years, came back with my newly-married wife, lived here totally until 2007 when I spent another five and a half months in the UK, and have been here since.

In all that time I have never once walked up the track through Fraser's Gully - in spite of the fact that I've passed the entrance to it hundreds of times, and have even dropped children off there for football or softball or something in the past.

I said to my wife this afternoon we needed to go for a walk and she was agreeable (she has to keep her reputation up now that she's appeared as the poster girl for Green Prescription in the latest Sport Otago magazine). It was intended as a bit of a fat burner walk, and proved to be that and more.

We wound up walking up Fraser's Gully, right from Kaikorai Valley Rd at the bottom to Dalziel Rd at the top - and then to cap it we walked around down to Taieri Rd, visited my son and his family for a bit and walked back to the car in KV Rd. Quite a bit of a jaunt.

Fraser's Gully turns out to be a delight. I've included a couple of photos here - which I took on the cellphone so the quality may not be high - but I could have photographed a heap more. The track is accompanied by a stream running downhill (naturally) on the left as you climb, and there are small waterfalls and lots of rocks and all the stuff that goes with a normal stream. The track itself is steep in places, although it wasn't as much as I thought it might be - and certainly no worse than climbing Brockville Rd, which runs parallel to it some blocks further south. Fraser's Gully track comes out in Dalziel Rd, which runs along the top of Brockville.

The walk certainly cleared the brains, which had become pretty foggy over the weekend, and helped get our muscles moving. We might not have done it if we'd thought about how far we were going to go, but we did!

On the way back down Taieri Rd we passed the Fernhill Reserve. I haven't been in there since I was a teenager, when Brian Hellyer lived in a house there. He was a doctor who sang in several Dunedin Opera Company productions (and other shows) and I once visited this house which seemed to be hidden away in miles of bush - we went there at night!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sunset Blvd.

One of the great things about The Warehouse as a shopping chain (and I'm bound to have said this before in this blog) is that they have continuous sales of DVDs, mostly at good prices. And amongst the innumerable copies of movies no one decided to buy are usually single copies of some classic movie that's somehow just been put there for me to pick up. Today I picked up High Noon and Pygmalion, for example, and Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, a movie I don't remember seeing, but which will no doubt be worth seeing because of Wilder's input alone.

And talking of Billy Wilder, I found a copy of Sunset Boulevard (or Blvd., as it actually appears in the titles) recently, and watched it a couple of weeks ago. It's an unusual film, takes a lot of risks, and yet succeeds admirably. Hollywood loved it so much it was adorned with Oscars and nominations, in spite of the fact that it shows Hollywood for what it is: a factory that spews out old models as soon as they're use-by date is up.

In terms of the risks, it has William Holden narrating the movie, even though he's shown to be dead right at the beginning of the movie, and it has him, an established star, in a role that verges on sleasy. And then there's Gloria Swanson playing a parody of her own life, and even being seen in one of her own silent movies at one point. Not only does she parody her own stardom, but time and again she goes to the very edge of what the audience might accept, allowing herself almost to be ridiculous, and possibly absurd.

The third of the main characters is Erich von Stroheim, himself a former director, (and like Wilder, a Jew) whose movies in the silent area had been regarded as highly as anyone's, but who never made much progress with talkies. Here he plays a role in which the character's history is very similar to his own.

Roger Ebert sums up something of the movie's integration with the real Hollywood in one paragraph of a 1999 review:

Billy Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett knew the originals of the characters. What was unusual was how realistic Wilder dared to be. He used real names (Darryl Zanuck, Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd). He showed real people (Norma's bridge partners, cruelly called "the waxworks'' by Gillis [Holden's character], are the silent stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). He drew from life (when Norma visits Cecil B. De Mille at Paramount, the director is making a real film, "Samson and Delilah,'' and calls Norma "little fellow,'' which is what he always called Swanson). When Max the butler tells Joe, "There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,'' if you substituted von Stroheim for von Mayerling, it would be a fair reflection of von Stroheim's stature in the 1920s.

Sunset Blvd. isn't a pleasant picture; it's full of sadness, loss and thwarted ambitions. The only character who isn't prey to all this is played by Nancy Olson, in one of her earliest roles. (Still alive at 82, she's just appeared in an episode of a TV series.) Olson makes a bright contrast to all the other characters - though her character has been born into the movie business, she doesn't (yet) have that sense of pessimism that pervades everything else. Olsen almost invariably played sweet and innocent characters - the maid in Pollyanna for instance - and here she's a breath of fresh air in the midst of all the tainted atmosphere.

As Betty Schaefer (sic) she's the only person moving forward in the story: Swanson is stuck in her own glorious past, a past that will never come again; Holden gets stuck in the same past, and stuck in a relationship that stains everything else he tries to put his hand to; and von Stroheim's character, desperate not to let Swanson know the truth about her career (or lack of it) encourages her to live a lie to 'protect' her sanity, unable to believe that the truth might actually get them out of their state of near rigor mortis.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sweet As

To view it in its proper format, click on it to watch it on You Tube.

Just came across this short video written and directed by Aya Tanimure from the USA.
Sweet As
was a finalist in the Your Big Break competition a global search for the next great filmmaker. Their task was to capture the spirit of New Zealand in a 3 minute short film.
Judged by Peter Jackson and produced by multi Academy Award winner Barrie Osborne.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Imagine That

Yesterday was a bit painful, in that for the second time in my life I had a nasty chunk of gunk removed from under one of my eyelids. This stuff comes as the result of blepharitis, a chronic inflammation of the eyelids. Seemingly some tinsy-winsy little suckers get stuck in the eyelid instead of being washed out, and unless you attend to the problem, they gradually form into a pusse-filled mass that hardens into the sort of lump I had removed yesterday. The removal itself is a matter of moments; keeping the eyelid inverted for long enough to do the job is very painful, and I don't recommend it to anyone. Unless of course, you're in the situation I was in, in which case it may be necessary!
As a result of this I have a black eye, puffy and purple, and it's watery a good deal of the time. So I saw Eddie Murphy's latest movie, Imagine That, through a kind of haze, my good eye having to do most of the work. My wife had downloaded it from Itunes as a rental so she was keen to get her money's worth while it was still available; so we were watching within the smallish digital frame of our laptop, which isn't ideal for somemone with only one good eye.
The movie is fairly low-key for an Eddie Murphy comedy: it has few frantic antics (and they're toned down a good deal when they do occur), no foul language, and no dressing up as a member of the opposite sex. In other words, it's almost in the vein of an early Murphy movie.
Murphy plays a stockbroker whose seven-year old daughter has imaginary friends - possibly as the result of her parents' separation, and the seeming lack of love for her by her ambitious father. However, these imaginary friends are pretty good at playing the stock market - don't ask me how - and start giving the father good advice, which he takes up. Of course it's all so he'll become a better person, and as far as we can see at the end, he has. (Except that he's off to work for the even more ambitious Martin Sheen, which might not be so good.)
Murphy is pretty good looking for a nearly fifty-year old, and full of energy as always. He's almost classed off the screen by Yara Shahidi as his daughter, who isn't 'cute' in the usual Hollywood sense; she's just a little charmer, and seems to enjoying herself thoroughly in the role.
Thomas Haden Church has a peculiar role to play: that of a supposed Native American Indian (well some of him is) who is full of crap in terms of pseudo Native American guff that's supposed to fool all the big stockbrockering kind of people. We see through him in a moment; curiously enough his co-workers haven't managed to do so after 18 months. Church does his best with the role, which is a bit iffy in possible racist terms. It's the sort of thing that would have been thought very funny in the past; these days it probably isn't.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Superannuitant - nearly

This time next month I'll have been in paid employment (give or take a few short patches when I was out of work) for fifty years.

I've already got my form for applying for my superannuitant benefit - which my daughter tells me requires me to produce several original documents proving I am who I say I am. (There's not actually anyone else I'd really want to say I was, I don't think!).

I'm in the fortunate position of being able to continue working at least until the end of the year. And I guess, if there was work available, I might carry on longer.

I don't particularly feel like a 65-year-old. My grandfather died at this age - and looked like an old man - he'd probably worked much harder than I've ever had to. My father was dead by the time he was 63, and he'd not looked after himself in the last years, as far as I can make out. I guess there's still a month in which I could not make it to 65, and anyway it's no great achievement living longer than your forebears; I'm certain I haven't really had a hand in prolonging my life!

The general health of the population in New Zealand is such that 65 is almost getting to the point of not being seen as old, and those 'old' people around who are similar ages all look pretty good.

Well, God willing, I'll let you know when I celebrate my 65th birthday. Or, if there's a grand silence from this blog, you'll know I'll still be in God's hands, just celebrating in a different kind of way!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Please! a moratorium!

"She died doing the thing she loved."

Apart from the sheer cliche aspect of this phrase, it's becoming the 'thing' to say when someone falls off a cross country bike and kills themselves, or drowns crossing a river while tramping, or while kayaking on a lake, or falls off a mountain while climbing. Just to name a few examples.

I think it's time for a moratorium on this sick-making phrase, which not only appears in news reports - usually a friend is quoted as saying it - but also in obituaries and death notices. It's as if there's some kudos in dying while you're doing something sporty.

But what about people who die while looking after their family, or while baking a pie for a sick neighbour, or while playing the piano in a concert, or while painting a wonderful painting, or while trying to finish a remarkable book? Don't they die doing something they love? But you never hear about it.

As always, outdoor activity and sport are seen as the king things to do. Yup, they're worth doing, but not usually worth dying for.

Monday, April 05, 2010

More on the circus - more than the ODT has reported, in fact!

Just one other thought about the post I wrote on the Zirka Circus yesterday. It's a curious thing that there is no programme available for the circus, where you might find out who the artists are, nor is there any information on them on the website. Only the photos in the gallery section. Nothing more.

This seems fairly typical of circuses - at least the ones that travel throughout NZ. The artists are anonymous to the nth degree. And our local paper doesn't even seemed to have reported that the Zirka circus is in town. Very strange.

So I'm doing my little best here to promote it. Go to the Zirka Circus. It's worth your money!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Random thoughts on the Zirka Circus

Went to see the Zirka Circus with some members of my family today. Very noisy, music-wise, but the music itself was good and very suitable for what was going on. Quite a small troupe – I counted around twenty at the end, almost equally men and women. A youngish man and woman took the lead in practically everything; he was on for around twenty minutes solid at the beginning, and she turned up in every one of the women’s acts (except the cycle riding at the end, I think) and often appeared when the two of them came in as a romantic couple – there wasn’t any story as such, although it started off seeming as though there might be.

No ringmaster – they seem to have gone the way of the dodo – and very little vocal stuff from the cast, except to shout ‘Hoi’ or some such when they’d performed a trick. The two clowns (both white, as opposed to an otherwise Asian company) didn’t speak words, but used whistles to ‘speak’ (adding to the general piercing noise when they both got going). There was at least one child in the troupe: a boy who couldn’t have been much more than twelve, if that. He was very small, certainly. He did some remarkable balancing on his right hand – including ‘climbing’ down and up the stairs on it.

Most of the standard (Asian) acts were there: the swinging around on silken material; nine women on a single bike; balancing plates on sticks; swinging those things consisting of two ‘weights’ (for want of a better word) held together by a rope; the women doing the string held on two sticks (one in each hand) thing where they toss a round item with a ridge in it so that it stays on the string; the men on large metal double-sided wheels that they begin by wobbling around at speed and gradually building up until they’re balancing on one edge or such; the main woman doing the balancing on chairs thing where she gradually adds another chair; three women doing juggling with large balls while lying on the backs – and eventually doing it while up above each other; most of the men playing with Mexican style bowler hats and juggling with them (in that way that makes it look as though one of them is always suspended in mid-air), and then of course standing on each other and tossing them around; tumbling through hoops. You can see examples of all these in the gallery on the Zirka website.

Their TV ad is there too - it gives an idea of the energy levels, but is over very quickly (the double-wheel is momentarily visible).

The end of the first half consisted of a double wheel (similar to what I’ve just attempted to describe) held together in the centre by various metal struts, and slung in the air by solid cables. I’m not sure how it all worked, but it was a bit like two of those endless wheels that mice are sometimes given to race around in joined together. One of the white males got in one of them and got the whole thing swinging around so that he would go from floor level right up and around to the ceiling and back down again. The other wheel of course was like a counterbalance to this, and one of the Asian guys got into the other side and began doing daredevil stuff such as going upside down and finally walking on the outside of the wheel as it hit its highest point, slipping through the metal structure in the middle and going up over the other wheel as it reached the peak – then doing juggling while he was up there, and then putting on a blindfold and doing it. That was certainly the most breathtaking act in the circus.

There was a bit of a magic section in which a woman was put in a box and fiery brands passed through it – then she wasn’t there when they opened it, and then three women climbed out of the top. Even if they do do it with mirrors it was pretty impressive.

The whole thing had heaps of energy, one act sliding into the next with little hiatus. Lots of dry ice to give atmosphere. And several members of the cast selling stuff before the show and during the interval – including the little boy. No star-glamour here!

Photo of the Zirka Circus Tent by Cafe Cecil

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

My wife and I sat watching the first ten minutes or so of Nanny McPhee's second outing with a feeling of embarrassment. Everything is so over the top, you feel a major sense of cringe coming on. The farm children are forever fighting at the beginning for no particular reason (which is odd, since they don't have any problem cooperating later in the movie - even given Nanny's big sort-out early in the piece), and their mother screams and yells and acts like a child herself. Presumably she's at her wits' end. So, I suspect, were most of the audience at that point. What the heck is wrong with her, they must have been saying...

And then we're introduced to the snobby cousins from London, at which point director Susanna White spends far too long having everyone falling over in the mud (more than once, usually) or chasing each other around the poo-filled farm, or going indoors and beating each other up. If we hadn't paid $16 apiece we might have left this noisy brood to it. Even the stormy-night arrival of Nanny McPhee doesn't much help - at first. And then suddenly everything (well, almost everything) comes right, the film mostly settles down into a tone that works for it, there are some wonderful laugh-out-loud moments, plenty of absurdities, and room for the kids to show that they can actually act.

Susanna White has done plenty of television work, but here seems somehow overwhelmed by the amount of room she's got to play with. In spite of my positive comments in the last paragraph, she forces Rhys Ifans (usually a wonderfully subtle comic actor - compare this performance to the one we saw on TV last night in Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) and Maggie Gyllenhaal to go over the same material almost endlessly, until you want to scream, 'For goodness' sake, get on with it!' Some scenes are just padded out beyond their ability to survive.

Emma Thompson, however, saves the scenes she's in, which have both that wonderful calm and gentle humour she brings to this particular role, and Ralph Fiennes as the Uncle in the War Office, seethes with some terrifying passion beneath his steely exterior, as though he was actually Voldemort in disguise, and had somehow got into the wrong movie. Maggie Smith, however, is not only woefully underused, but also made to do something in one scene which is extraordinarily undignified. (It's also interesting how our view of a character with a degree of dementia has now changed. In earlier movies they were often seen - as also here - as comic characters to be played for all the possible laughs. Now, with the excessive numbers of people with dementia or Alzheimer's in the world, such humour is being increasingly seen as out of place. )

So, a bit of a mixed bag. Not a film that Ifans or Gyllenhaal might look back on with much endearment, and possibly a steep learning curve for White. Excellent CGI (when isn't it excellent these days?) and some good performances.