Film review: Minions

If animated films can have breakout characters than the minions are the obvious breakout stars of the Despicable Me films.  But, given their lack of distinctive characters or ability to expound at length and be understood, how to create a coherent film around them?   Minions avoids the issue entirely by being basically incoherent and with a plot that might politely be called ‘vague’ which means that it comes across as a series of sketches and set-pieces occasionally punctuated by some sight gags.  I enjoyed it.

Thankfully it doesn’t outstay its welcome – it’s the ideal kids film length of 90 quick-pace minutes – and nor does it shoehorn in any kind of sentimentality.  There is very little here to get the adults laughing when the kids aren’t so we’re not dealing with Lego Movie sophistication but you’d have to be dead inside not to be smiling throughout.  It’s nowhere near as good as either Despicable Me but then not much is going to be.

I won’t bother describing the plot but I will say I very much enjoyed the setting of much of the action in an England where the newsreader breaks off for a cup of tea and the Queen is a champion arm wrestler.  There’s a decent vocal turn from Sandra Bullock as Scarlet Overkill, the villain to whom the minions would like to attach themselves.  And if you don’t like one gag, don’t worry another one will be along inside ten seconds.

All in all, Minions passes the time nicely.  But it’s a bit disappointing that that’s the best you can say about it.

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At the Jerwood Gallery: A Scottish Selection

The Ettrick Shepherd by John Bellany – shown on BBC website

Almost within sight of this exhibition the election posters showing the apparent southern English fear of the Scot are still on display so it’s possibly just as well that this Jerwood show of paintings from the Fleming collection is one of their more low-key offerings.  Whilst an exhibition this small could never claim to be an authoritative survey what we do have here is a good little indicator of some of the key features of recent Scottish painting and we do have some fine works to highlight those features.

The use of colour is the one that most people are aware of.  Dazzling reds and blues. What also features strongly here are images of people, often suffering or struggling but in ways that are often unclear or enigmatic – most notably in the form of Peter Howson’s multiple offerings of the crucifixion.  The Ettrick Shepherd by John Bellany manages the neat trick of having strong-featured man having his views mirrored by three sheep he is herding.

Again, with the caveat that the Jerwood isn’t cheap (but does have a splendid and friendly cafe to soothe you post-show) A Scottish Selection is an engaging collection that pricks your interest and makes you want to learn more.  However fearful we’re meant to be of the folk north of the border these days.


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At Bedgebury: Guardians of the Areng Valley

(C) Jon Smalldon 2015 - All rights reserved

If there is a more middle class thing to do on a Saturday afternoon than walking your children round an outdoor photo exhibition that features Cambodian monks protecting the environment in something called a pinetum  then I’ve yet to come across it, which is possibly just as well.  But, class warfare aside, this is a smart exhibition and its location really does work to its advantage.

Guardians of the Areng Valley is an exhibition of work by photographer Lee Duggleby that focuses on the Buddhist-monk-led resistance to the destruction of the Cardamom Forest in southwest Cambodia.  Images are presented in the setting of the National Pinetum which itself is involved with conserving rare and important species of trees.  To show solidarity beyond the images some of those trees have been given a bright orange ribbon.

The photos themselves are striking.  Strong images of the forest and human interaction within it – as well as some well detailed portraits.  The image shown above shows two men on the wrong side of the law in the moments after their arrest.  It’s the first one you see as you come across the exhibition from the ‘trail’ side. Needless to say the boys’ favourite was the impressive shot of a baby crocodile in a human hand.

The majority of the photos are strong enough – and clear enough – not to require the informative leaflet to tell you what’s going on. That there is an informative leaflet though is another positive about this exhibition which is well worth catching and will be lurking in the Bedgebury forest until September.



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Signs of an election

(C) Jon Smalldon 2015 - All rights reserved There is virtually nothing left to say about this election in which nothing has really been said about any of the actually important issues that the country faces.  Chief amongst those issues is how we should vote to run a country when the leading party can now just about squeak to 34% of the 65% who vote.  Gone are the days when between them Labour and the Conservatives would hoover up around 90% of the vote and nobody really objected that that gave them nearly 100% of the seats in the House.  Now we have Liberal Democrats, Greens, Ukip and nationalists and our constituency-based first-past-the-post system looks more and more antiquated.  But let’s have no talk about that – let’s instead shout about legitimacy and other playground insults. (C) Jon Smalldon 2015 - All rights reserved We are still a country in debt.  Still a country entirely dependent on the fiction of financial transactions for wealth.  We still don’t really have a manufacturing base and our energy, food and other import needs would make many other countries wince.  Housing policy is a madness.  Transport policy a farce.  We have great researchers, scientists, academics, businessmen and genuine hard-working, decent folk.  We even tolerate moronic libertarians who would wreck the NHS to prove some bizarre point about how medicine is best left to profit-driven corporations.  We are reluctant Europeans but Europeans we most definitely are.  We’re also British but needing to work out how to balance that with the demands of also being English, Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish. And yet when any issue threatened to be discussed the politicians ducked it and the media went back to tweeting about whether Ed had the right character.  The high points of the campaign were Russell Brand bouncing like a fool and a schoolgirl unable to cope with reading next to the Prime Minister.  God help us. (C) Jon Smalldon 2015 - All rights reserved I live in a marginal.  Currently, it’s a Tory seat but in 1997 Labour swept past the Liberal Democrats who had previously lain second and they held it until 2010.  Amber Rudd is, by most accounts, a decent constituency MP but Hastings is now an overwhelmingly Labour town and the feeling is that there just isn’t enough Tory support in ‘and Rye’ to keep the seat blue.  Who knows though?  Unlike in most seats, a vote here will make a difference and any kind of swing on polling day could hand victory to either Rudd or her rival, Sarah Owen who has, in defiance of the national drive for dullness, led a decent local-based campaign.  Hastings & Rye is lucky not just to have a vote that matters but to also have two candidates worthy of a vote. (C) Jon Smalldon 2015 - All rights reserved I went for a walk today round fy milltir sgwar and took a few snaps of those election placards that from the early hours on Friday will either look happy in victory or forlorn in defeat.  Whether whoever wins the seat will be on the side that forms the next Government is highly likely take a lot longer than Friday morning to determine.  And sorting all those other issues out? A lot longer still.(C) Jon Smalldon 2015 - All rights reserved Good luck to our next MP.(C) Jon Smalldon 2015 - All rights reserved   You’re going to need it.

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Sponsor Me! – (OR: I’m cycling a very long way for a good cause and need your cash …)

Me and a bikeLook, I’m not doing this for my health you know.

Well, I am, a bit. But mainly I’m taking part in GastroCycle, a 90 mile recreation of the Tour de France stage between Cambridge and London, to raise money for Core. Core is a charity so in need of help that right now I’m its Interim Chief Executive (don’t worry, that won’t last).

Core is also the only national charity that fights all digestive diseases. These are conditions that affect the gut, the liver or the pancreas and they are a killer. One in eight UK deaths is linked to them and every year 3 million people are diagnosed with a digestive disease of some kind – ranging from conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome which sound kinda okay but aren’t really to acute pancreatitis, which is very unpleasant and,if it doesn’t kill you, will leave you severely damaged.

Core supports research to help us cure these conditions and provides information to patients that have them (we help over 200,000 people every year this way), and we also work with professionals and the public to raise awareness so that symptoms and dangers can be recognised more quickly. Early diagnosis can often be key to survival.  This is all very important but we don’t get any government money and we can only continue doing all this with the support of lovely people like you when you sponsor sweaty people like me.

GastroCycle is on 21 June and I am training like a fool for it right now. I need to ride in a single day twice as far as I’ve ever managed to go in a week. I also need to be able to follow signs and not got lost. This could all be disastrous. But it would make it a lot easier – and make those headwinds I somehow keep riding into more bearable – if I knew that you’d clicked on this link and given me and Core your support… so thank you so much for anything you can give!   You’ll make a fat man very happy and, more importantly, help Core save lives.

I love you all, (possibly!),


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At the match: Bugbrooke St Michaels v Buckingham Town


“Excuse me, do you know which team is which?”  
“Sorry, I was hoping you could tell me …”

This is what happens when a bunch of ground hoppers (half the c.50 crowd seemed to be neutrals or yer-actual-hardcore-hopper) who have a vague notion that Bugbrooke play in yellow and blue have got used to the idea that they play in white and black then see two teams run out, one in yellow and blue, one in white and black.  Anyway, turns out the Badgers did used to don non-badger attire until realising that it’s a little too much to be called the Badgers but not take to the field in monochrome.  And very smart they looked in adidas stripes.  Shame they lost, really.

My first ever United Counties League match ended 4-12.  This one never threatened that but it did feature plenty of chances and a lot of questionable defence.  The visitors from Milton Keynes (like many non league teams Buckingham Town no longer have a home in their home town) had a simple plan based around their quick and direct forwards.  Bugbrooke were more obviously technical but repeatedly fluffed their lines – despite turning round a 3-1 half time deficit to level at 3-3.  Momentum should have given them the spoils but as it was a Buckingham counter attack made it 4-3 and despite a virtual siege in the final minutes the visiting keeper who liked to punch (not always to good effect) rather than catch was not often threatened.  The referee blew for time as the Badgers were hastening to a corner – thankfully, this last home game of the year didn’t count for anything really so nobody protested too hard.

All in all, this was a good game played as if it were a cup tie.  It reminded me all over again of the pleasure you can get just turning up somewhere on the off chance of seeing a decent game.


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On the radio: Soul Music, “Hallelujah”

The first version you hear of Hallelujah is the one you love.  For me, that is the one that is on Cohen Live. Leonard’s live album was released in 1994 but the recording of the song came from a performance in 1988.  Cohen doesn’t rush these things.  Hallelujah took over two years to write and, even now, there is no definitive version of which of the 15 verses should be sung, nor which exact phrases should form them.  And, if you think Don McLean’s American Pie is hard to understand (it isn’t), the enigmas that run throughout Hallelujah will leave you baffled.  But being baffled, like the king composing perhaps, is where the beauty and power lies.

Radio 4’s Soul Music spent 30 minutes pondering the song and recounted a lot that would be familiar to many of the people who have lived it with it for a long time.  How the version you hear on the 1984 album Various Positions is jarring compared to the softer alternatives, how John Cale asked Cohen for the lyrics when putting together what would be his defining cover version and received instead a confusing ream of fax paper, how Jeff Buckley had not heard Cohen’s version, only Cale’s, and so on.  We did hear from Alexandra Burke whose oft-derided X Factor version also got an airing, “I’m going to Whitney-fy it” was her response to her immediate reaction that she couldn’t actually do anything with the song.

Intermingled with the story of some of the recordings we heard from people who had been affected by the song, as well as some very detailed analysis of the biblical inspiration for the lines.  The impact of those lines, and the multiple interpretations that exist for them, was heard through the testimony of people who have found emotional solace in it.  That it can be both positive and negative, that it can it leave you feeling you understand everything but that at the same time, nothing can be understood,  that sometimes all you have left is a cold and a broken hallelujah.  And that could be an orgasmic moment, or a moment following a death.  Or any point in between.  “It embraces the whole mess of what love is … and that’s not a bad thing,” as one of the speakers said. Some song, huh?

This wasn’t a programme for those who wanted chapter and verse on the song, its history and cultural impact but it was a useful and engaging reminder that for all Hallelujah‘s recent ubiquity it remains a rare example of a well-known and much-loved song  that welcomes, indeed demands, a personal response.  It stays intimate despite being universal.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need go and stand before the Lord of Song.  There may only be one things on my lips.

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