Tuesday, August 26. 2014
Although the spaceships, fight scenes, explosions, the inclusion of a WWE star in the cast and the like might make you think otherwise, structurally Guardians of the Galaxy is really a comedy. There's at least one running gag. There are a multitude of other gags, some clever, some not so clever. They run from quite painful puns to high-octane slapstick (albeit slapstick with cgi and explosions) to some quite extended and sophisticated wordplay that wouldn't be out of place in a radio comedy. Being a comedy there were a few occasions where I thought the plot seemed stretched certainly close to breaking point in pursuit of the gag. Whether or not you will find it fun is up to you but I think there's enough different beats there that you're likely to find parts of it funny.
Having said it's a comedy and the plot is subsidiary to the gag doesn't mean there's not something that I consider a decent sci-fi action flick here too. The start didn't seem too promising to me. There was a confused scattering of too many people with different colour skin chasing our very pale-skinned hero. OK, when I say different colour skin I mean green, blue, red and all kinds, but still. Gradually, however, the various factions settle down, some truces are made and instead of trashing around the plot starts to move. This period of thrashing around did serve to introduce the titular Guardians to each other, even if they didn't appear to be the force for good you might expect. It's not a common method for introducing characters to each other in a film, although I can see how it would work in comic book series and I've certainly read books where it's been used successfully. As someone that didn't know the comics it didn't work that well for me, although it wasn't that bad either.
In some ways the fact that the film is a comedy lets them include darker, sadder beats. I won't mention what they are in detail because they constitute spoilers but there are significant moments of grief, some heavy assessment of life goals and the like - things you don't normally see in a movie unless it's a biopic. Here I think they fit nicely into the overall plot and with the overall light-hearted mood they make a good emotional counterpoint heightening their impact in some ways without dragging your mood at the end of the film.
One thing that was fun, Gamora in another film would clear have been set up as the sex interest. In this film, when Quill makes his inevitable move, she whips out her knives and declares that she will not be bewitched by his pelvic sorcerery. This doesn't stop them working together and their relationship developing into trust even as the film continues. That's pretty unusual in any film.
We actually saw an Irish-licensed cut of the film rather than a BBFC one. I don't know if that made a difference but there were points in several action scenes where there were fairly obvious cuts to get the rating which was a shame.
Overall though, it was a fun film.
Bechdel test. Yes. There are at least four named female characters (Gamora, Nebula, Nova Prime and The Collector's slave whose name I can't remember). Gamora and Nebula converse and snipe and I think it's not all about men, although there are some serious Daddy issues in there. Gamora and Nova Prime also have a short conversation.
Friday, August 22. 2014
Every now and again I bitch about a film, or more rarely a TV show being a poor adaptation of its source material. This time I'm going to do the opposite, despite, on a rational analysis, the two being actually a long, long way apart.
Orange is the New Black is the book and the show. Technically I suppose it's a streaming show not a TV show. And I'm going to remain as close to spoiler free as possible.
Both are based on the experiences of Piper Kerman, who voluntarily surrendered to federal custody after being indicted as part of the war on drugs for carrying a suitcase of cash for her girlfriend some 10 years previously. They have since split up, Piper is engaged to Larry and living in New York in a comfortable, liberal lifestyle.
After that, the two part directions quite radically.
The book remains a memoir, basically showing how Piper remains more or less sane through her time in prison while showing to some extent what life was like - how it was safe to ask surname and how long someone was in for, how the guards behaved and the like. There's a fair amount of polemic about what the war on drugs is doing to the prison population and how it is unfairly targeting women. If a dealer brings drugs into his girlfriend's or wife's house she gets sent to jail too.
The TV series is more like a cross between a soap opera and a series of character vignettes. While it remains true to the way the shows the characters not asking more than name and how long they've got, and it does show the various indignities the guards inflict on the inmates and it shows some of the other things too the soap opera elements basically come from the way the events bob along. It could be Albert Square or Coronation Street and watching lives there, it just happens to be lives in a prison instead. The really big change though is the character vignettes. Not every episode, but most, turn into an in-depth examination of one inmate. Who she was before she got here, what she did to get here and the like. It doesn't break the rules about how the inmates interact, it uses the TV flashback to show you rather than the inmates telling each other things because they're answering questions they'd never actually ask.
So it's structurally very different. Which helps, because honestly much though I liked the book, it wouldn't have made the 28 hours or so of quality TV we've had so far (although it might have made a brilliant art house movie).
It is also notable that events and names are very different. Even Piper's surname has changed. Some of the stories that have been worked in are issues about events in prisons that I think have been added as political issues that need to be brought to the public's attention. They aren't presented as crusades just stories, things that happen, but they're shown and in our consciousness. Some story lines have remained, without the anger and commentary, again they're just stories.
If you read and watch you'd be in no doubt they're related. But if you sit down and try to analyse how they're related you'd end up that Piper's crime and sentencing is the same. So is her first name and her finance's first name. There are a few other bits. There are characters that are identifiable between the two as well - although they have different names. Stretched like crazy. Stretched about as far as you can. But both brilliant.
Wednesday, August 20. 2014
While I think the people who use the bible to promote their homophobic views are guilty of very selective reading to support their own prejudices sometimes you come across a piece of double-think so amazing you wonder just what they're on.
It is worth a read. Just to see if you can wrap your head around it. There's a very glib statisticians answer to the elision he's performed: correlation does not imply causation. But... how pray (and I use the term very advisedly) do you think the sight of women breastfeeding in public makes people more gay? It so revolts the men that they suddenly find other men attractive? It suddenly makes women realise that sex with men might mean they have babies and so they decide to turn into lesbians?
I certainly wouldn't join his stance against abortion, I'm too firmly pro-choice. But that's by the by. I'd find his rhetoric offensive I'm sure but I think he's perfectly within his rights to campaign against strip clubs. Heck, I've listened to debates against strip clubs and while he might have all the wrong motives I'm not sure he might not be doing the right thing on that cause.
But criminalising breastfeeding in public? That's body-shaming of the worst kind. Linking it to destruction of marriage and promoting homosexuality... I'm left wondering if the good doctor doth protest too much.
Thursday, August 14. 2014
Hercules is a surprisingly hard film to review without some level of spoliers because its very handling of the myth in a hugely spoiler way is what makes it better than you might expect.
So, the limited spoiler-free review is: fun fantasy romp. A strong, capable, female character who is not there in any way, shape or form as a love interest. Another female character who is there as a love interest, but is also a strongly drawn character in her own right and doesn't end up with the man and they're both OK about it. There is, as I've already said, a take on the Hercules myth that I found interesting and a good story to be told. There are enough clues I didn't find it challenging to work out most of what's going on but, like some other fantasy films I still found it satisfying fare - it has that level of comfort of an familiar story where the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad and you know they're going to fight each other, although there are moments of ambiguity. Robin Hood and Prince John have managed for a few centuries on the same basis in the UK.
There are fight scenes on all kinds of scales from the very small to pitched battles and I thought there were all nicely done. Dwayne Johnson, as Hercules, was certainly very believable. I don't know who else you could have cast and got away with it - but he is this really big, muscular guy and he is just believable in the role.
There's a decent level of banter and humour between Hercules and his companions. It feels pretty natural - these people risk life and limb together, live together and although I've never been in that situation I have been in teams where we've worked long hours together. The banter felt right to me.
I also thought there was decent dialogue between the other characters. Sometimes it was somewhat hammed up but within the tone of the film it works and the worse of the hams either undercut it with cynicism in other moments and their hammier moments get played well for laughs or they were foreshadowing their pantomime villain hubris.
It needs to be said that the history purists will be up in arms - my Thracian arms and armour isn't great, but I'm pretty sure it didn't include heavy cavalry and Atalanta's bow was definitely out of place - but it made for a good fantasy film. And as the Amazon archer she went and found high ground from which to shoot people. Amazing!
Bechdel test: I think it's just a fail. Atalanta and Ergenia talk as part of a bigger group but the conversation is about Hercules.
The story overall makes Hercules a pretty sympathetic character for reasons I can't go into fully here. I think some of that is probably Dwayne Johnson's warmth but some of it is the way the story is structured. Hercules is all too often another unkillable, self-righteous, pompous arse. In this film he's certainly combat-hardened and a heroic leader but he just wants to get away and settle down. He's haunted by bad dreams and more. It makes him a much nicer character.
Want to know more? Read the spoilery bit of the review below.
Continue reading "Hercules"
Wednesday, August 13. 2014
I was watching the latest (for me) episode of Orange is the New Black while chatting to a friend in gChat. It's always a slow thing but doubly slow yesterday as she's decorating and it's bursts of chat between painting and the like.
Anyway, when it got to the point she had to go out, I switched from chatting to her and watching on the iPad to sitting in a different chair. I could, of course, have carried on watching on the iPad. I could have used AirPlay to watch via my AppleTV and the TV screen. But, not entirely by chance, when I started up my AppleTV and flicked the TV over to the HDMI input, there was OITNB on Netflix. And, more impressively, the episode I'd just paused on the iPad was showing as partially watched on AppleTV. So I hit play.
Now, obviously I hadn't paused it mid-word, or even mid-sentence. But it picked up as far as I could tell exactly where I'd left off and I smoothly went from Pennsatucky talking to Healy to Red putting the family back together. (If you're not a fan, that's meaningless. If you are a fan, that's almost certainly not a spoiler, it's either meaningless or way in your watching past.) I know they stream from their servers to my devices but I have to say that's impressive. And it really is how it should be done. So Kudos, Netflix - I don't subscribe to other streaming video services but if they're not this good they're really not doing it right.
Tuesday, August 5. 2014
Although I didn't know about it, Colorado has been undertaking a very interesting social experiment in public health for the last five years.
A rich person donated a huge sum of cash so that teenagers could get free birth control (mainly IUDs) in some parts of the state (via 68 family planning clinics). Although the data suggest there would have been a small fall in teenaged pregnancies anyway, there has actually been a dramatic fall (about 40%) over the period of this support, and three-quarters of this is due to the free birth control.
Although not all the data is in, for the last financial year it is fully available (2010) it saved the state $42.5M. Rolling that forward over 5 years... you're looking at around $250M saved by the state in caring for mothers with unexpected pregnancies. It's not clear from the data - although there are a number of individual stories of women who are the first in their family who didn't drop out from school, went to college and graduated and entered skilled professions. They are presumably contributing quite a bit more to the state's economy too.
You can read the Governor's Press Release or, if you're a subscriber, the full scientific paper.
There are two obvious conclusions to draw from this. Far too obvious for politicians to actually draw them I expect.
Monday, August 4. 2014
Or The Great War, the War to End all Wars or whatever you want to call it.
Unless you're an American of course, and think it started in 1917...
Our glorious leaders wanted to have a celebration of the history of World War I. Fortunately someone nobbled them and kicked them where it did some good. The Great War devastated a generation in this country in a way that had never been seen before - one measure of the impact is the Thankful Villages (a term coined in the 1930's) for the villages that lost no soldiers during the war. Throughout the UK (which at that time included the whole of Ireland as well as England, Wales and Scotland) there were only 53 such villages.
Another way to think of it is to say that 888,246 soldiers died during the war or in the immediate aftermath of their injuries. But that's an incredibly high number and kind of hard to wrap your head around. So these two images are of an art installation with 888,246 poppies apparently pouring from a window in the Tower of London and sweeping around the moat to commemorate the dead. Suddenly it brings it home. And, of course, the poppy is a potent symbol of the British dead in World War I, and has been used to commemorate those who die in service ever since.
UPDATE: It turns out this is not the finished piece of art. There's actually only about 100,000 poppies here - they're still planting them! That's about 1 poppy for every 9 dead British soldier. (Yes, I know there were deaths from a lot of other countries, but this is showing only those deaths.)
Thursday, July 24. 2014
Gosh, talk about disappointing. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a clever movie that, although it was building towards the inevitable conclusion, went out and told its own story. To my mind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes decided to ignore that model and head off down the well-worn route of action block-buster with relatively little story.
That might have been OK if it had really committed to it. It wouldn't have been what I'd gone in expecting but I can enjoy a decently done action block-buster. I still rewatch and enjoy The Mummy for example. But before they got to the set piece battle (I suspect because it was so expensive with all the apes being CGI obviously) they had various bits where I felt they messed around trying to say apes can be good, and bad, and humans can be good, and bad, too.
The trouble is, we known humans can be noble, venal, self-sacrificing and selfish, and that's often all in one person. There were a few of those: one of the human leaders was somewhat nuanced, a couple of the followers had good and bad moments too. But most of them were painted in strong extremes with no shades of grey. The person who came across to me as constantly the bad apple is a redneck who blames the apes for everything that's wrong with the world. Although it's not quite a quote, he more or less says 'It's simian flu after all, so it must be the apes' fault.' There were moments before this where I was uncomfortable that this movie was straying into lazy racism - more on that later - but when the redneck comes out with that and later practically ruins the rapprochement between the 'good' humans and the 'good' apes it's hard not to think that if you just changed ape to the N-word, or Arab or Muslim or whatever your favourite hate target of the moment is you've really got a recipe for a hate movie here.
So, on to the bits where I was already uncomfortable. We see quite a bit more of ape culture than human-survivor culture. That would have been OK by me except we're in show not tell and there's no explanation and no sense made of anything, no coherence to the culture that we do see. For example, it's notable that in the early part of the film the apes converse in sign language while later they largely converse in spoken English. While I'm not sure why that happens except it helps the action scenes keep going it also helps make the film feel longer (which it really doesn't need). But there are odd glimpses where female chimps, possibly only high-status ones since it's only about 5 of them out of hundreds of apes we see, wear veils. Why? It's totally impractical, unnecessary and so far as I know bears no resemblance to any great ape behaviour. It does bear resemblance to some primate behaviour though - certain human cultures like women that wear veils. And it's a group of cultures that, broadly speaking, the American culture (actually the Western Christian culture) is not friendly towards. The fact that by the end of the movie the apes have won (yes, there's a hook for a third movie so it's not total victory yet) could be considered as a hook into Islamophobia - "Look guys, these former savages who make their women wear veils are going to beat us!" - and the nascent but present (I'm led to believe) American fear of the decline of the US on the world stage. With a slightly more subtle awareness - one I'm pretty sure the director and scriptwriter don't really deserve - the closing speech by Gary Oldman's character basically saying "they've overrun a group of civilians, but the military are coming to kick their butts" could be seen as an anti-terrorist statement. Of course it's wrong in this movie's future, we know the apes will win. But the statement is possibly still giving hope to the US audience if they see it that way. Even if they don't consciously catch it.
On top of that I'm sure there's a subtle, nuanced, father-son element in there somewhere. It's hard to be sure because there were so many screaming huge ones that dropped in there with the subtlety of a SWAT team gate-crashing a wedding breakfast and destroying any momentum that the script was trying to build up. I get it was meant to build sympathy between Caesar and Malcolm, the ape and the human most interested in seeking accommodation and a peaceful coexistence. But I really found it massively intrusive and disruptive rather than sympathy building and useful.
Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes just comes across as a mess in my eyes. I'll go further than that: it's a bad film. It's a botched action movie. It's a botched culture clash movie. It's a botched chance to continue what was a brave, interesting story. It's even so heavy handed it's a botched exploration of the universal nature of the father-son bond. One to avoid. Such a shame after the first one.
Wednesday, July 16. 2014
PopClip is an app that is hard to sum up. Is it a one-trick pony or a one-million-trick pony, a bit of a Swiss Army Knife? The truth is perhaps it's both at the same time.
Essentially it's a menu-bar sitting app that actually works when you select some text. It always works when you highlight with your mouse and it mostly works if you highlight with simple keyboard operations (Cmd+A, or Cmd+L then Cmd+A, less so if you use things like Shift+Alt+Right Arrow say.) With your highlighted text it pops up a context dependent hover bar like the one in the picture below. You then click on one of the buttons it offers you. See, a one-trick pony.
The benefit of using the mouse for your selection is that your mouse is then very close to the bar to click on the option you want to use. And yes, if you own an iOS device you might well recognise the styling of the bar - there aren't choices to style it available but it works nicely.
Out of the box you get a choice to copy and paste and a few other things. You can open a URL in your default browser, search for the highlighted text, look a word up in the dictionary app, use an address (insert it into the To: field in your default email app) and so on.
However, although you're limited to, I think 12 extensions at once, there are over 100 extensions available. I've added options to add a URL to my Instapaper account (there are others for Pocket etc. if you have other preferences for where you save your URLs to read later), an option to drop text straight to Google Translate, an option to drop text straight to DuckDuckGo, an option to add text straight to a new note in nvAlt are the one's I've got installed. There's the often used Paste and Enter as well - if you're sending links to someone then you can copy them from somewhere and hit paste and enter. Whether that's to put them onto a new line or to send them one IM at a time depends on the context, it's still really useful. See, it's a Swiss-Army Knife!
I suspect this is a bit of a marmite app. If you like what it can do for you, you will love it and use it a lot (although I suspect not all the time, I still use Cmd+C, Cmd+V etc a lot too). If you hate it, you will wonder what all the fuss it about it. Although PopClip is a pay-for app ($4.99 or £2.49 (I think)) there's a free trial available from Pilot Moon - the developer's website. You get a pretty generous 165 free uses to make up your mind before you have to commit to buying the app or not.
In fact, while writing about it, I've come across a few extra extensions. There's one to run code in terminal/iTerm2. I often have to do this and either copy and paste or copy type it across. Gone are those days I guess!
Tuesday, July 15. 2014
Although I'm not part of the Westminster Village, rumours of a dossier of names of child abusers that had been handed to some home secretary or another (Leon Brittain as it turns out, and as he has confirmed) have come to my attention on and off over the years - they crop up on the news and so on.
It's always been something I haven't been sure about. I've certainly thought it was possible that such a dossier existed, more likely after the revelations about Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall and so on. But, equally, with the greatest of respect to the MPs and others who have carried the story on, there's been so little support, so little other news I've equally wondered if it's been a case of a rightly concerned crusader who is closer to Don Quixote than Roland in this case.
But on Friday I was left flabbergasted by the Home Office. Keith Vaz, who is not my favourite MP but is chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and thus very much the right person to do this, asked the civil servant in charge of the Home Office for a list of the names of the files in the dossier that had been handed to Leon Brittain when he had been Home Secretary. Those files that Leon Brittain had publicly confirmed he had received and had (rightly I think) handed over to the Home Office for further action.
[In case British political titles confuse you, the Home Secretary is the Minister in charge of the Home Office. It is one of the most powerful political offices in the UK, one of the 'Great Offices of State' along with the Foreign Office and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Although it has now been reorganised and there is a separate Ministry of Justice, at the time, the Home Office was responsible for all aspects of law and order and the smooth functioning of the country within the borders and control of those borders. The Home Office still controls immigration, passports, drugs policy, crime policy, counter-terrorism, policing and the like. (The new MOJ covers courts and the prisons but that used to be the remit of the Home Office.) The Home Office also covers important, but odd seeming things like Equal Rights legislation and so forth. The idea of the Home Secretary handling a dossier like that would like you emailing the President with an idea and him (or her if Hilary gets elected) actually handling it personally. Even for a top party donor they might accept it personally but they'd hand it off to someone else to deal with.]
Now, a list of file names for 114 files shouldn't take long to compile. I understand when the head civil servant comes back and says some of the file names have to be redacted because they contain names and might prejudice ongoing police enquiries. But surely it doesn't take 6-8 weeks to do that? Something that goes: Here's a list of all the files that don't contain names. There are another n files that contain names where we are checking with the police that it will not prejudice their enquiry.
But to hear it's likely to take 6-8 weeks to get any file names? That's just crazy.
And then, although I don't read the papers, on Sunday my news aggregator was covered with articles about top politicians from that era and people saying who knew, who didn't know, who was there. One paper went further and got someone on record saying he fully expects to be a key witness at the enquiry because he was, as a young adult, used by older, powerful politicians, to go out and solicit underage boys for their parties. These accusations go right to the top too.
Then it turns out that the person appointed to head the new enquiry is the sister of one of the politicians likely to be investigated - indeed one of the politicians explicitly named over the weekend. When I first heard her qualifications for the job I thought she sounded ideal for the post. I'm sure the politicians that announced her thought so too. Retired judge, lead a well-respected public enquiry into child abuse in Cleveland, was one of the leading lights in setting up a cross-disciplinary service for families and children which is also well respected. This is the service that set up the guidelines and systems that tried (inevitably not always successfully but it is generally accepted more successfully than before) to make sure that the police, schools, social services, the health services and so on talk to each other about children that might be at risk of being abused.
It is common to say, when asked conspiracy or cock-up to say cock-up. Conspiracies are hard work and hard to maintain and someone, somewhere, somewhen will leak. To paraphrase a quote from elsewhere, secrets are only safe when only two people know them and one of those people is dead. Let me be clear, I'm not accusing any of the public faces here - I think they're the patsies in this case. (The politicians are often the evil-doers in their own spheres but I doubt it this time, it seems too long a run. The continuity is in the civil service, not the politicians, even politicians like Ken Clarke* haven't had the power and influence required for all of the time since the 80's.) But it is starting to look like something is going on, there seems to be some sort of deliberate go-slow and an ongoing series of actions where people aren't complying, aren't following the rules, aren't acting to the standards they are expected to maintain. Once or twice... well humans are somewhat sloppy and these things happen. But for it always to happen around these files and this issue - it starts to smack of a conspiracy. Who are these people protecting? It could all be coincidence, and of such coincidences conspiracy theories are born, but it is starting to reach the point where coincidence is starting to stretch credulity.
* I don't think Ken Clarke had anything to do with it, he's just all over the news because he's retired from the cabinet after 30+ years on the front benches, either in government or in opposition. He's just about the only politician who has been that close to the reins of power for that long. All his contemporaries from his early years have moved to the House of Lords or died.
Friday, June 27. 2014
About a month ago (although the original story is a bit older than that) a story crossed my news feeds that David Bowie had withdrawn his rights for Chris Hadfield's version of Space Oddity. If you didn't see it - too late! But Chris Hadfield was an astronaut on the International Space Station who recorded a version while in orbit. I don't know David Bowie personally (although a childhood friend of mine actually does) but from what I know of him it seemed a bit out of character although perfectly within his rights. I wasn't particularly disappointed, shocked or anything else.
However, it turns out the facts behind this story were wrong. As is quite common, David Bowie doesn't own the rights to the songs he wrote, rather the publishing company associated with his record label do. Despite him urging them to continue to allow this video to be hosted on YouTube they decided (as is also their right of course) not to.
But that isn't what I really want to say. The apology from the Ottawa Citizen really shows exactly how the media should go about doing the job properly.
In case you don't want to read the whole piece you can see the top of the article here. No beating around the bush. It's clear, obvious and states why, where and the facts that they screwed up. Well done.
Of course, in the week of the phone hacking trial convictions it's even clearer than usual that sometimes an apology just isn't enough. I'm not pretending it is. But for a mistake like this an apology seems about right and it has been offered fulsomely and while it might have been shamefacedly it doesn't read as if it's through gritted teeth. There are a lot of people in public life who should be reading this and thinking about when they have to apologise how they can adapt it as their model.
Sunday, June 1. 2014
There are going to be more spoilers here than normal because this is more or less the Sleeping Beauty story, told from a different perspective. If you really don't know the Sleeping Beauty story already... sorry!
Maleficent is, in essence the Wickedifcation of Sleeping Beauty. It's not quite the same as Wicked in that the story isn't told by the wicked witch, but it's certainly told with her as the central and most sympathetic character.
We learn how a young faerie called Maleficent meets a young boy called Stefan and falls in love. On her 16th birthday, they kiss, what Stefan tells her is true love's kiss. However, Stefan leaves her when his ambition drives him in other ways. Later, driven by ambition, he returns telling her that the king is sending men to kill her (true) and then betrays her trust by giving her sleeping potion and cutting off her wings. The king, who is childless, appoints Stefan his heir. His ambition is gloriously fulfilled.
Later still, Maleficent, in a scene we all remember from the original film, lays a terrible curse (she really should have thought more about the wording of the curse first) on Stefan's daughter at the christening. Reinforcing the other wishes, Aurora will be beautiful and beloved by all. However, on her 16th birthday she will fall into a magical sleep and can only be woken by true love's kiss. Oh the parallels to her and Stefan's history, and the twisting of the knife for poor Stefan who knows exactly what it all means.
The bulk of the film follows Aurora growing up, supposedly hidden away by Stefan, but actually watched over by Maleficent who she deduces is her fairy godmother. In what can't be really called a twist (Maleficent's curse detailed that all who knew Aurora would love her remember, it didn't specify she would be immune to it) Maleficent comes to love Aurora and tries to lift the curse (oops, she can't do that, she specified that too, only true love's kiss can) so she tries to sort that out too.
In one of the more sensible moments, a passing young prince who Aurora met briefly admits he was attracted to Aurora but isn't sure he loves her because "he only met her once" and in a somewhat disturbing scene the pixies force him to kiss the unconscious Aurora. She doesn't wake up. (It's a PG film but to adult eyes it looks horribly like he's being encouraged to indulge in date rape.)
In what is meant to be a twist but is so obvious that a 6 year in the row behind us spotted it coming, it is Maleficent's farewell kiss, after she declares her sorrow and that she will guard Aurora until she dies and how Aurora has stolen what remains of her heart, that awakens Sleeping Beauty.
It's not quite over - the original Disney cartoon has a fight between the transformed Maleficent as a dragon and the handsome prince. That scene is essentially there, but it's the big fight between Stefan and Maleficent. There are some twists and turns that make it distinct of course, but the unrelenting bad guy of this film - driven to do bad things through ambition and greed throughout - is Stefan and he finally gets his comeuppance.
Maleficent and Aurora run away and live happily every after. I kid you not. The people that wondered if Frozen might have a lesbian subtext - Maleficent and Aurora really do run away together and live happily every after. We already know what they have between them is true love. Subtext, not so much. In this film, although there are beards around, it's out and out canon. Prepare for the fundamentalist backlash.
There are other elements of interest to the adult eye too. Social comments about 'a place like where we live, where people have a king and are jealous of their neighbours' contrasted to 'a wonderful place where everyone lives in harmony' and so on. They slip by almost unnoticed but the abuses of power by Stefan are noticeable throughout. Although Maleficent comes to claim the throne of the Moorlands it's not every suggested she actually does anything with her rule - although that could be glossed over. Although she takes the throne by force and threatens the faeries, sixteen years later they're all still there and looking remarkably uninjured. It is also noticeable that all the recognisably gendered characters in the magical, harmonious place are female. (One of the border guards is described as 'classically handsome' so you would assume that's a male character but handsome is applied to women as well, albeit more rarely.) Apart from Aurora and a very brief appearance from her mother, almost everyone you see from what is Stefan's Kingdom for most of the film is male.
Finally it has to be said on top of this, the moors and the moorland faeries are just beautiful. The border guardians in particular are wonderful but many of the faerie creatures, once you get beyond the pixies are great. The pixies are limited because they have to look enough like the cartoon version to blend back and they work. Their main role is comic relief and they work nicely enough in that role too.
Bechdel test. Yes. There are more male characters than I've mentioned, particularly Diaval, Maleficent's minion, but there are any number of conversations between Maleficent and Aurora, and between Knotgrass, Thistletwit and Flittle (the three faeries who raise Aurora - 'no one will think it's odd, three women living together raising our orphan niece') where they never mention a man.
Monday, May 26. 2014
So UKIP have polled the most votes in the European elections, reportedly sending a shockwave around British politics - it's the first time in over 100 years that Labour or the Conservatives haven't won a national election for example.
But just how worried should the big parties be?
There I think it's much harder to tell.
Local elections and European elections have long had a tradition of protest votes and come the general election the voters return to their more normal voting patterns. The question is, will UKIP be able to maintain its share of the vote? And there I honestly don't know (and nor does anyone else of course). Some parties have, but others have not.
Even if UKIP do manage to hold up their level of voters, will their votes translate to seats? The European voting system lets them do well. But Westminster elections, as the Lib Dems know so well, will happily let a party with 27% of the votes return no or next to no MPs. In Labour strongholds they will place second to Labour, in Tory strongholds they will place second to the Tories. What they might do is change the voting enough in the marginal seats so that the outcome becomes too close to call and then it will become a case of working out which party's votes they will affect most. The evidence to date suggests they're taking the Conservative vote away most I think, although they're obviously taking votes from all the parties.
The other thing to bear in mind with these votes is that it is a European and local election. Turnout is always lower than for a general election. The people that vote tend to be the activists and those who will always vote. General elections get a bigger proportion of voters out because they're considered more important. My impression - and it might be unfair - is that UKIP is disproportionately popular amongst the older voters (I'm thinking those over retirement age and older) and (this time definitely not unfair, in fact well known although overlooked in all the reporting this time) older voters are much more likely to vote than just about any other group except party activists. This is, for example, at least part of the reason that benefit reforms haven't touched pensions at all. If my impression is right, come the general election the extra voters that come out to vote won't be UKIP supporters, or will be disproportionately lower in support of UKIP anyway than in this vote. Even if this is not just a protest and the bulk of those that voted UKIP this time vote UKIP next time the infamous back of the envelope suggests support could easily fall from about 27% to about 20% just by dilution of the core supporters if we assume (almost certainly unfairly) none of the extra voters will vote UKIP. But between a loss of protest votes and a dilution of the core support that I expect when the younger voters turn out, unless UKIP has a serious, workable manifesto, I'd be surprised if UKIP polls as high as 20% at the Westminster election next year.
Also worth bearing in mind, there is a sizeable group of people who often don't vote but just might be inspired to vote in the next Westminster elections in case UKIP get in. Unlike France, for example, in Britain, the cynical, liberal intelligentsia in the UK often don't bother to vote because "it won't change anything." But those cynical, liberal intellectuals will be, unanimously, opposed to UKIP and quite possibly motivated to vote (probably not unanimously but in larger numbers than in many years) purely to stop UKIP getting elected. How that intention to vote will transfer to ballots cast will be interesting to see - I'd expect to see relatively minority parties like the Greens doing well in some places, but Labour and possibly the Lib-Dems doing well too.
What I think we will see is not a four-party system, at least not for the bulk of the UK. We might see UKIP replace the Liberal Democrats as the third party for this election, South of Hadrian's Wall and on the mainland UK at least in terms of the popular vote. That's assuming that Scotland doesn't go its own way in October, which I don't know about - the Unite campaign seems to be falling apart and the Independence campaign is always gaining ground. Assuming Scotland is still part of the Union, I'd guess we'll see Labour and the SNP and... I don't know maybe just two significant parties although how the SNP will fare after a no vote will be interesting to see. Wales will stay basically Labour with a scatter of other MPs (Plaid Cymru, Conservative, maybe UKIP, Green Lib-Dem etc. but basically about 80% or more Labour). Northern Ireland will stay with its own parties as always.
It might well be true that the Lib-Dems have saved us from the worst of the excesses of Tory policies. There are policies that have doubtless benefited the typical person in the street that can be laid at the Lib-Dem's door such as the higher income tax threshold. But they are still going to be punished for being in government (as the Tories are) and they don't have the support and size to cope with it. They'll return some MPs I'm sure - some implying more than 1. I'm not sure I'd go as high as 10 though unless the liberal intellectual vote is more heavily for them than I expect. However, with the crazy system that we have for Westminster, this could still be more than UKIP. They have a number of fairly safe seats. Support for their local MPs would have to really collapse in all of those seats for none of those MPs to be returned. While some will suffer from this - Clegg himself seems like a likely victim - it just seems unlikely they'll all go.
If I was in the unfortunate position of advising any of the big parties what would I say? Well, I think the honest advice would be "Keep Calm and Carry On."
Changing leaders won't help the Lib Dems and might hurt them, even with the low expectations I have for them. They're in a position where only a miracle can help them but panicking can still hurt them and changing leaders now smacks of panic. Although Menzies-Campbell thinks a long period of introspection would hurt the Lib-Dems, I have to think it would hurt them less than panicking and swapping leaders. Their miracle might be the need, for a general election, for UKIP to have more face, spokespeople on defence, health, the economy, law and order, foreign affairs and the like. Nigel Farage has managed to ride above everything somehow, but when there are a cluster of faces, will UKIP remain quite as teflon-coated? And if they don't, will that benefit the Lib-Dems? It can't hurt them and will probably help them to some extent. Not enough to stop it being really bad but maybe enough to stop it being a disaster.
Both Labour and the Tories would be daft to change leaders. They will doubtless pore over the results and the voting patterns and demographics and tweak strategies but there's enough hope for the Tories that they might win so they won't change too much. Labour, despite the gains by UKIP, have gained votes and seats at the local elections. Yes, there are a few places where they didn't make gains that they hoped to, but there are many places that they did make gains, so while they shouldn't be complacent, they're doing OK. Again, they'll tweak but not change too much.
And while they haven't been saying it in public - it appears too churlish for one thing - I'm sure their analysts are saying the same things about the potential fragility of the UKIP vote or basically UKIP and the Lib-Dems swapping places but little effect on the overall pattern of MPs elected - as I have been. That's a disaster for the Lib-Dems of course, but Labour and the Conservatives can live with that.
Earthquake? No. In my lifetime we've had transitions and restructuring of the 'third party' of British politics. It used to be the Liberal Party. Then the SDP emerged spalling off from Labour. There was a kind of uneasy truce and then the Liberals and the SDP formally merged to form the Lib-Dems. UKIP is currently a 1-issue party that has won a protest vote that has splintered from the Conservative right. When it has to present a manifesto for a general election, we will see if that is maintained. Europe, and our relationship to Europe, is obviously a huge issue in the European elections. For some people it will be the biggest issue at the Westminster elections too but for the rest of the populace just how well will UKIP's policies on health, defence, the economy and all those other important issues stack up against the other parties'?
Saturday, May 24. 2014
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a movie that, from the trailers rather filled me with trepidation. I'm always cautious about superhero movies - as a genre I'm generally not keen, although this current reboot of the franchise avoids most of the pitfalls that I turn me off - AND I'm cautious about movies that involve time-travel because there's lots of ways they can that which just make me scream. Lets just say I didn't go in with high expectations although I did have some hopes.
Fortunately this film continues the trend from X-Men: First Class of avoiding the superheroes winding me up by and large and although one has to wonder how Kitty Pryde discovers her mutant ability to send someone's psyche back to an earlier part of their history and the side effects of it that mean Wolverine is the one that has to be sent back to the 70's it avoids a lot of the pitfalls of time travel pretty neatly. There's no real chance for paradoxes, no in depth discussion of theories and so on except a little 'maybe we just can't change history this much' moment that isn't out of place and serves more to ratchet up the tension than annoy - it's speculation from a character that ought to think of such things but it's dealt with as such.
There's a lot of eye candy, both in terms of scantily clad male and female flesh and in terms of very watchable actors sharing screen time. In no particular order Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Peter Dinklange, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and James McAvoy all capture the eye and yet share their screen time with the other luminaries graciously and effortlessly. I'm not always impressed by Hugh Jackman - I get the impression I might quite like him as a person but I don't always enjoy watching him act on screen - but he always looked comfortable, natural and at home in this movie as well. It would be churlish to suggest that the quality of those around him made him raise him game - and I think you could argue he was served by a better script than many Wolverine scripts gone by as well - but while I wouldn't say he was the best of those on show he certainly wasn't out of his league. Kudos must also go to big name actors in smaller roles, Halle Berry, Ellen Page and others didn't have big parts in the film but certainly didn't detract from the movie.
Speaking of the flesh on show, I'm not a fan of the male body nor the body builder physique, but even I was impressed by Wolverine and his pecs and his nude shot from behind. And considering Hugh Jackman's gaunt body in Les Miserables probably 18 months to two years ago when he was filming it the dedication to go from one to the other is pretty amazing.
There's also a decent enough plot. It's not overly complex in grand terms but it has a satisfying number of moving parts enough of whom have agency and agendas of their own (sorry, can't discuss details, it's too spoilerish). However, all of these characters having their own agendas means that the resolution is pretty complex and you're left unsure exactly how it's going to play out until the last minute. It's satisfying that although Wolverine does get to beat a few people up, his main role is trying to persuade people (and he's not incredibly good at it). It's particularly satisfying that we see Mystique given a big meaty chunk of story and ultimately although the stage is set for it to be yet another Professor X vs Magneto face-off, it is Mystique whose actions ultimately and fully consciously resolve the situation. Girl Power to the max, even if the girl in question is blue! It's great that the script is well enough written that until she acts you really aren't sure what she will do either, it feels that finely balanced.
There are, of course, a big chunk of special effects scattered through this movie. Happily they basically serve the story rather than having the story act as an excuse for another special effect. OK, it's a mutant movie, to some extent the whole movie is an excuse for another special effect, but basically the scenes are there to advance the story almost every time. There are a couple that are there just because they're cool but fundamentally they are actually cool and so I'll let them off a couple of scenes like that.
I'm sure the die-hard fans would have understood Blink's mutant power quickly enough but at some point the team sat down and carefully thought about how to make it clear enough for the casual viewer like me. I didn't know who she was, in fact although I was pretty sure her character was called Blink I checked on IMDb, in case she was called Link. Both names would have made sense given her power as well. But you get to see her use her power to create portals quickly enough where you can see both ends in shot and people go into one end and out of the other (in a fight in fact) that it's quite clear exactly what she's doing.
As you expect in these movies there are moments of humour and easter eggs for the deep fan, and moments of humour for the more casual fan - 70's Logan hasn't got his adamantium claws and endoskeleton yet and is surprised when his old bone claws slide out and later on when he can walk through a metal detector without setting it off for example. Although there are a lot of high-stakes dramatic moments the mix of these (I didn't get the easter eggs but I know some of them from the excited reactions of some of the people around me) were pretty well judged. They didn't spoil the tension but unlike the effects scenes that were there for being cool, the humour and easter eggs were in scenes that you felt were necessary for the story and were 5 second extra elements to shout out to the fans who were paying attention.
I enjoyed this movie. It's an unsullied joy in the sense that analysing the film afterwards for writing this I still enjoy it and it holds up, unlike Godzilla last week. The star power certainly helps there, but so does a better plot. It will be interesting to see where things stand come December but at this point, they're looking to be about equal in my personal rankings, top half of the list but not top quarter I'd guess.
Bechdel test: I think the answer is no. Kitty, Blink and Storm have opportunities to chat in the future but not exactly a lot of time to do so. They may but if they do I blinked and missed it. There are some potentially awkward challenges for the test in the past - does it count when Mystique in disguise as Dr. Trask (and so played by Peter Dinklage) talks to the (female) receptionist for example? How about when she's in her own body but only using his voice? Fortunately for my aching head the receptionist is not a named character so she doesn't meet that criterion. Similarly in the other scenes where Professor X possesses women to chat to Mystique, none of them are named characters. So I think no two named female characters have a conversation. Fail. Shame really.
There's a bit after the credits to set up the next film. Despite the fact the people I was with are more expert on the comics than me by far they didn't have clue. Fortunately for us, two guys had come down to the front. One of them teased his mate as he was explaining to us (we asked) about who this character and the henchmen on the skyline were, who (with a fairly minor role) from this film is going to be important in fighting against this new baddie and so on. So, I think it's going to be interesting.
Sunday, May 18. 2014
Godzilla is, it turns out, a hard film for me to review because, although I don't think anyone can review a film objectively, in this case my history makes it even harder than ever.
When I was in my 20's and struggling with bad knees and often literally housebound I spent far too long watching TV and films on this new-fangled VCR technoloogy courtesy of the boyfriend of a flatmate who worked in a video store. At one point this included just about every imported Japanese monster movie you could get. A lot of them were pretty bad I seem to recall, but when I couldn't get out of the house anything was better than nothing. And Japanese monster movies were a communal, fun (possibly semi-drunk) activity - never something I watched while bored and alone.
Godzilla, this version of Godzilla, ticks loads and loads of the boxes that, having watched far too many of those movies I expect to see:
In addition Godzilla looks pretty poor by modern standards, but is a pretty directly lift from one of the old movies too, when I think he was a sumo wrestler in a costume - he certainly looks a bit like that only less graceful.
So I came out with that sort of warm glow of all those boxes ticked and those happy memories.
But, actually, if I try to set those things aside, it's a pretty poor film. For example:
I admit it, I only liked this film because of the warm fuzzies it gave me. I really shouldn't have liked it. Even beyond the necessary levels of stupid for a mega-monster movie, there's a lot of stupid here.
Bechdel test: Maybe. There are 4 (at least) named female characters. Elle (the wife) and I think it was Joyce (this is Elle's friend...) although she's not credited as such, only as Head Nurse. While none of the others meet, I think these two have a scrap of conversation as background colour without it being about a man so it's a technical pass. Their only main conversations (two of them) are about men though.
The thing this movie did well - there was one thing apart from giving me the warm fuzzies - was the opening credits. It was shown as film from earlier attempts to kill Godzilla with lots of information on it. That information was then redacted and you were left with the information about the film showing. It's not quite right but an example might be a picture of Godzilla breathing cold bolts and there would be stuff like temperature -350F fire produced by Brian Rogers effective range 100' and then it would get censored down to just produced by Brian Rogers. It was nicely done and tied in to the rest of the film neatly. Whoever came up with that idea, congratulations.
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