Thor Ragnarok: A joyous romp with a message?

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First impressions often are the most lasting whether it be with people, books, films or places. My first impressions of this film were how much fun it was, how witty, sharp and action packed. It had escaped the dreary seriousness of Captain America Civil War, it was not trying to be something it wasn’t. This was totally enjoyable from start to finish and certainly wasn’t taking itself too seriously. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has always been a well-loved character in the Marvel Universe, not just because he so handsome but because he delivers some of the best lines. However, there was a growing sense that after his last solo movie he was becoming dull and boring, an otherworldly Captain America. Hemsworth apparently wanted to bring back more fun, more laughter and more banter between his character and co-stars. This film delivers all that and more. It has the sense of the ridiculous throughout from his meeting with Dr Strange to the scene during the credits (yes, do wait around to the very end!). This film, like Spiderman Homecoming before it, brings back what Marvel was always about, action, adventure, fun and humour. All is well in the Marvel Universe again, until the next calamity needs to be averted of course!

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But…there’s more! Marvel have always tried to give a message too, sometimes it works as in Avengers Assemble when we see that it is teamwork and togetherness that will defeat the powers of darkness, a “better together” message. Sometimes is rather clunky as in Civil War where it poses the question: should power be regulated? Here its about destiny: can we avert destiny, and indeed should we. It also asks another important question is a nation, a world, about the place or the people? Both are answered but I won’t tell you how – go see the movie! This is important because Thor, Loki, Odin, Hela and The Valkyrie are not Marvel inventions, they come from Norse Mythology. Whilst they have been twisted and interpreted for the Marvel Universe they are actually from ancient legends and Marvel know they must, at least, allude to those myths or they will be accused of merely stealing names. Ragnarok itself is the final part of the Norse Mythology, talking of the end of Valhalla, the end of the Gods and the end of the age. It is seen as inevitable, dreadful and something to be feared. It also points to a new age, of new Gods and new beginnings. Marvel are clearly aware of all this and know that they will have to address some, if not all of these issues. So the film has to deal with this, and does in its own way. The fact that it does so and still makes you smile and laugh whilst doing so is an absolute triumph. And to do so in just over 2 hours is, in itself incredible.

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So, go on, treat yourself, this is one of the most fun action romps you’ll see in a long time, full of laughs, witticism and non-stop entertainment. The cast seem to have had fun making it and there is real chemistry between them. It has a heart too, and it has a message. See it!

Blade Runner 2049: An Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?

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I was too young to see the original Blade Runner film on its cinematic release but remember seeing it on TV some years later and being slightly underwhelmed. The story then came out that test audiences had been so confused by the original cut of the film that the “gum-shoe” voice-over was added. Ridley Scott, the director, was disheartened by this but in the early 1990’s released a “Director’s Cut” of the film which I did see at the cinema. Visually I was blown away and became a complete fan of the film. Since then I have read the original source material: Philip k Dick’s “Do android’s dream of electric sheep” and seen Ridley Scott’s “Final Cut” and am still enthralled by the movie, its vision and its central message. I was therefore very concerned when the above film was mooted on several grounds: a) That there is no source material for a sequel which made me wonder if this was Hollywood flogging a dead horse again; b) that Harrison Ford was to be in it, after he had slammed the original, despite being its “star” and c) Do we need a sequel. Early reviews concerned be further because the talked of the visuals and effects as being stunning, no mention was made of the plot.

So with trepidation I went to see the film. I can say immediately that the visuals are indeed stunning. As the original film painted a future vision of the future that few Sci-Fi films had ever managed before, so this film stakes its lead from there and builds on it. Every vision is wonderfully crafted and imagined, it feels real but above all it feels right. The special effects are equally stunning and appropriate. The other obvious positive quality is the quality of the acting. Ryan Gosling’s central character is just “right” and brilliantly realised. All other actors play there parts consummately.

So: “What about the plot?” I hear you say? We the original film was about longevity, about in-built obsolescence and about if you give a machine a heart, a mind and emotions does it become human, and can it, indeed, should it control its own destiny? This film picks up on the themes of machines and the morality of designers beings but takes it into new directions. It asks “Is slavery every right?”, “Can we design artificial life that we can control? And if so should we?” and “Are there some secrets that should remain secret?” It also poses the question does the family bond ever get broken, even if separate from family for their own safety can we ever, deep down, not desire a reunion?

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Like the original film this film asks big questions, it does so boldly and courageously and in a wonderfully imagined future which scares and enthralls in equal measure. The performances are stunning, if Harrison Ford had doubts about his return then he shouldn’t he adds to the movie. And Jared Leto’s menacing presence frightens and beguiles in equal measure. Trust me, this is a film worth seeing, they’ve taken a risk to make it, take a risk and see it!

Dunkirk: Good film but no “easy” watch.

Dunkirk has been a movie that has divided opinion. Critics have lauded it, in the main, but some veterans and others have criticised it for various reasons. Some saying it portrays veterans as cowards and others that the film is very anti-French. That is not the movie I saw yesterday, I tend to agree with the Critics, it is a good film with moments that are outstanding, I would recommend it but with one proviso: it really isn’t an easy watch, it not a film you “enjoy” but it is a film that stays with you and makes you think.

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Most of us are aware of the basic storyline, the Allied forces, basically the British and the French have been pushed to the coast near Dunkirk by the advancing Nazi army. There are over 400,00 troops stuck on a beach desperate to escape. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, is also keen to get as many troops home as possible to enable them to help in what is expected to be the “Battle for Britain” once France has fallen. In the film this is seen through he eyes of several protagonists: a British Soldier, The Admiral trying to organise the rescue of the troops, an RAF pilot and a civilian crew of one of the “little boats”. We see the action from these different perspectives which gives an edge to the drama and the storyline that makes it almost documentary-like in its telling.

The controversy about it being anti-French is that the British Soldier meets a Frenchman so desperate to escape that he steals a dead British soldier’s uniform. Yes, he’s seen in a bad light, but so is the British Soldier who meets him and along with him strives in any way possible to get off the beach and home. Actually the French army is seen as really brave, being the forces that are manning the barricades protecting the British from the oncoming German army. As for portraying people as cowards, again not a bit of it, there is genuine sympathy for the human condition, the will to survive and that it is when people pull together that things can really be achieved.

The film is shocking in the way it portrays the horrors of war. It has moments of pure drama, that made my heart race and feel the desperation of characters caught on sinking ships, striving to escape from aircraft cockpits and being pulled from an oil-slicked sea that is about to go up in flames. All very carefully done and brilliantly directed. The end of the film is also very clever: the familiar speech of Churchill about “we will fight them from the beeches” is read by a soldier on a train as they head “home”, it gives that famous speech more pathos, more gravity and seem less jingoistic. It is a clever end to a very good film. Should you see it? Yes, if you are prepared for the fact it is not an easy watch, and it will stay with you, haunt you and make you think. Which is a good thing.

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Santiago De Compostela: A place for Pilgrims, Tourists or God?

One of the first things you notice in Santiago De Compostela is that the Cathedral Quarter is full of people who appear to be Pilgrims. Going into the Praza Do Obradoiro, the main Cathedral Square you see hundred of people with staffs in their hands with Scallop shells (the symbol of St James) and many of these with the cross of St James on them. You also see many people amongst them with serious amounts of camping and walking gear with them looking tanned, dirty and weary! You soon realise that they is a difference between the many who arrive by plane or public transport and then “pretend” to be Pilgrims, and those who have walked much, if not all the Camino. You see school parties who turn up by coach and walk a few hundred metres just to say that they are Pilgrims. There are shops and stalls around the Cathedral Quarter that pander to this group, offering t-shirts, shells and Staffs so people can say “I’ve been there”.

The Cathedral itself is geared up for Pilgrims in two main ways. It offers confession, in native tongues, for all pilgrims, it offers services in Native tongues for all pilgrims (as well as the main Pilgrim Masses). What it lacks is people to greet pilgrims, to offer them the chance to pray and experience properly the Cathedral and the shrine. The most bizarre thing for me was the reaction of those who call themselves pilgrims to a) the shrine and b) the statue of St James behind the altar. They all want to hug the statue but far fewer actually want to see the shrine. For me the shrine was most important, but on going down to it the first time there was a family kneeling in front of it apparently in prayer. I recognised it as the Lord’s Prayer, though spoken in Spanish, but whilst they were praying they were taking photos on their phones! I couldn’t quite grasp this in a way that made sense to me! How can you pray and take photo’s? I went back later when there was just Candace and myself and was able to pray in private but was disappointed that there was no prayer suggestion there before the shrine itself. The other strange thing was surrounding the Pilgrim Mass, a central piece of worship in the Cathedral’s day, to which very few Pilgrims attend. The beauty of the liturgy and the music seeming lost of the desire to say “I’ve done it!” or “I’ve been there”. It seemed to be a number of missed opportunities, and I wondered if they were cashing in on their good fortune on having visitors and not a) reaching our in a meaningful way to all visitors b) not truly offering what these people wanted and c) almost arrogantly assuming that the worship would be the draw for folk instead of drawing people into the worship. Those are my opinions and you may totally disagree with me, I hope I am partly wrong.

Santiago De Compostela is a wonderful city, truly a place to visit, truly a place of Pilgrimage. It is a cultural phenomenon which is worth seeing and visiting.

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The City also offers some wonderful secular Museums which are well worth a visit. The restaurants, cafés and bars are excellent and cater for many tastes and price ranges. I even found a craft beer bar when I was there! I loved the place.

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I loved the Cathedral, the Shrine and its Museums, and I would have loved to stay longer. But, does it work as a centre of Christian Pilgrimage? Has it over cooked the desire to be a tourist destination and a money making factory rather than a true Spiritual Centre? I worry that it has in many ways. It Bizarre Foundations have led to Bizarre practices and has endangered it to the potential of losing its soul. Having said that I was so glad to go, to be there that I can say with hand on heart: go! If you don’t fancy the Camino, or haven’t the time to do it all, you can still visit the Cathedral, Shrine and surrounds, you will be amazed. The people of the City also enable it to be a place to love, as it is obviously a place they love. So: GO!

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Santiago De Compostela: Santa Maria do Sar and the Church of San Francisco.

We decided that a trip to the Church of Santa Maria do Sar was in order (as it was included in the entrance to the Cathedral Museum and you can visit it the next day as we were doing for no extra charge). It is about 15 minutes from the Cathedral Quarter down some beautiful and yet more modern streets (pictured).

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The Church itself is almost as old as the Cathedral but on a much smaller scale. It has some massive flying buttresses holding the walls up.

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When you go inside the Church you can see why, the central pillars are leaning away at the top, and apparently after an earthquake in Northern Portugal in the 18th Century it was deemed sensible to shore up the church as best possible. The Church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and was a place Pilgrims would often go to either on route to the Cathedral or prior to their return home. Of all the Churches we visited it was the least ornate, and had the least number of altars and memorials and had a minimal use of marble and precious metal inside. It felt, thus, more English in style. There is a beautiful Cloister which was being renovated but I still got some lovely photos (pictured).

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Attached to the Church is a Museum which tells of the History of the Church and also displays some beautiful vestments,

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altar frontals and church requisites (I loved this Thurible especially).

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It also included this relic of St Peter.

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Bearing in mind this is supposed to be of the Apostle Peter to find it in a museum and not behind an altar was quite astounding and also it was virtually unheralded. When you compare this with the shrine to St James at the Cathedral it is strange to note that this is almost sidelined!

The other church of note to visit especially (there are many lovely churches around and in Santiago) is the Church of St Francis.

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It is said that St Francis decided to walk the Camino and was so moved by the experience that he built a Church a few hundred yards from the Cathedral to say thanks to God for his visit. There is a beautiful way cross outside the Church

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and the Church, which is attached to a Franciscan Convent, is externally beautiful without being “over the top”. The inside is quite different, it is garish, overly ornate and stifling due to massive monuments, altars and the over use (in my opinion!) of Gold and Marble. It seems out of character with St Francis who dedicated his life to the poor to have a building that must have cost so much to decorate in this fashion. It is still, however, worth the visit especially being so close to the Cathedral.

My next blog will be about my observations concerning Modern day Pilgrims to Santiago, about the way the church is responding to that and also some final thoughts on the City and the experience itself.

Santiago De Compostela: The Cathedral; Shrine and Museum.

When visiting Santiago De Compostela, whether as a Pilgrim, a tourist or other reason, the first place to visit is the Cathedral. Although it is currently undergoing serious and necessary renovation it still dominates the skyline and is the centre of all things in the City. This is appropriate because it is within the cathedral that you have the “Shrine” of St James and also the wonderful altar piece which has a statue of Santiago as its centre.

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In the middle ages Pilgrims would have entered the Cathedral on their knees shuffled through to the shrine of Santiago and then, after prayers of thanksgiving, penitence or whatever they would have gone behind the altar piece to “hug” the statue of Santiago. I did go to the shrine and said my personal prayers but I didn’t then hug the statue (apparently he’s been hugged so often, and there are massive queues to do so, that he has hand marks warn into him!). The other infamous thing in the Cathedral is the Thurible (pictured).

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It is huge and is swung by a rope which takes 12 monks to swing! The reason its so big is because in the middle ages (and even today!) Pilgrims hadn’t washed during the Camino and thus the smell often was over powering. The incense would have masked that stench!

The Cathedral itself is, otherwise, fairly standard in its appearance and style, although it has a few hidden gems that can be missed if you don; t go to the Museum. Entrance to the Museum allows you not just to view ancient artefacts and Architecture but also to go through and up the West Front of the Cathedral. This takes you to the Cloisters

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and ultimately to a balcony overlooking the Praza Do Obradoiro, the square before the Cathedral where Pilgrims gather prior to entering the Cathedral.

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Also in the Museum are many tapestries some telling the story of Santiago (as I told it in my previous blog) and others showing scenes from the Camino (amusingly each of these tapestries has a Pilgrim urinating in the corner!). It is quite a remarkable Museum and your entrance also allows you entry into the “restoration wing” of the Cathedral which explains the works that have been undertaken and what is currently being done. You also get entrance to another Church/Museum 15 minutes away from the Cathedral at the Church of Santa Maria Do Sr which I shall write about in my next blog.

Two things to note about visiting the Cathedral are: 1) its is full of Pilgrims and Tourists so if you wish to visit go early in the morning or later evening 2) it holds Pilgrim Masses throughout the day, the main one being at 12 noon in the main body of the Church, the others, often in a specific language (on the day we visited at 10am there was an English Mass) throughout the day. If you are a Roman Catholic you can, of course receive the sacrament at these, if not you can go but not receive. It give you insight to the life and work of the Cathedral and how central the Pilgrims are to its life and worship. I will write more about my feelings/reflections on the Pilgrims and the worship in a later blog.

Santiago De Compostela: A Bizarre centre of Pilgrimage.

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Pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela was the third most important Medieval route after Jerusalem and Rome. It is believed to hold the shrine or tomb of St James the Apostle and thus a very holy site. That importance has grown, again, since Pilgrimage has become back in vogue and is one of the most visited Pilgrim sites of the 21 Century. There are several reasons for me saying this is bizarre all to do with the fact that as to why and how St James (Santiago) is believed to be buried in Galicia, Northern Spain, after dying in Judea in c. 33A.D. after being beheaded by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12.2) and then the cult that grew up surrounding him 800 years after his death.

The Legend has it that upon being executed two of James’ followers collected his body and put it on a rudderless boat at the port of Jaffa on the coast of Palestine. They then put out to sea and the boat was taken the length of the Mediterranean Sea, through the Strait of Gibraltar up to the area now known as Galicia in Northern Spain, just North of Portugal. On landing the followers were first not allowed to bury his body by the Queen of the region called Lupa (She-wolf) but eventually she relented and allowed him to be buried in the centre of her Palace which she turned into a church having become a Christian herself.

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If that isn’t strange enough what happened next is even more Bizarre. His tomb and shrine seem to have become forgotten but 800 years later King Alfonso II was in a fix. Much of Spain had fallen to Muslim rule and was in danger of being over run. A Christian Hermit was “guided by celestial light” to a field where he found a tomb, the local Bishop came and identified the remains as those of St James and told Alfonso who then visited the site. The King immediately adopted St James as the Patron Saint of Spain and had a Church built on the Site. This became Compostela, which derives from the Latin for Site and Star. The Christian reconquering of Spain was struggling but what put St James centrally into the hearts of the Spanish people was that at their darkest hour, when their army was facing annihilation by a large Muslim army at the battle of Clavijo in 844 A.D. Alfonso had a vision of St James who appeared as a Knight on a white charger and promised to lead the Spanish to victory. The vision was told to the troops who were so inspired they routed the enemy. This story led to St James being known as Santiago Matamoros, that is “The Moor Killer” and statues of him on a Horse became established. The fact that St James was a fisherman and not a soldier seemed to be of little concern, and perhaps because in the Gospels he and his brother John are called “Boanerges” or “Sons of Thunder” gave strength to the belief that James was “fiery” and volatile and war-like.

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These two legends combined to make Santiago De Compostela a centre of Pilgrimage and the Pilgrim route became known as “the Camino” and the main route is 500 miles from southern France to Santiago (there are 2 other routes). The Pilgrims ultimately entered the city at the at the Porto Do Campo De Sant Domingos De Bonaval

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and then, in the middle ages at least, go on their knees up the Rua De Casa Reus, to the Cathedral.

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This route has become famous again by virtue of the film “The Way” directed by Emilio Estevez and by the book by Paul Coelho called “The Pilgrimage”. Both allude to how walking the Camino might enable you to find solace, relief or enlightenment. As a result many who travel on the way don’t do so for Christian reasons, or as “true Pilgrims” in the traditional sense but as a journey of discovery about themselves. Over the next couple of blogs I will speak of my own experiences and feelings about Santiago, about those who travel there and about how the Church has responded to them and strived to keep some idea of the sacred (or not!).