Tuesday, May 21. 2013
Star Trek: Into Darkness seems to me to be a deeply flawed romp. I'm going to try and remain spoiler free but if you'd like a spoiler-heavy, very critical, (and occasionally four-letter containing) but funny review can I suggest the io9 FAQ.
I should make it clear I haven't seen the first of the JJ Abrams' Star Trek movies and that lack left me seriously scratching my head about one scene. It also left me somewhat enjoying watching new actors taking old characters and breathing new life into them. Of them all, Karl Urban - yes, he of Dredd fame - impressed me most as Bones. That's not to say the others don't act well but certain characters are more or less subtly different in their actions or roles while the scripting for Bones served him well. He also, even more than Zach Quinto as Spock, looked right in his role.
Unfortunately it left me wondering where on earth some of the other concepts came from. Despite it's military sounding ranks and systems, Starfleet is purely peaceful, recruitment is purely by patronage and students can be plucked from the academy and instantly promoted to Captain. Even in the days of buying commissions in the British forces there was a structure. You didn't let an 18-year old buy his commission as Captain in the Navy (or a 14-year old who would be likely to be training as a midshipman), rather there is a process, a progression through the ranks. Experience required. Yes, junior officers would be given independent command of small ships and prize vessels, when their superiors felt they'd earned it, but as a temporary thing and part of their training in command. Kirk, though, is given a shiny new battleship. And when he messes up, he's not summarily dishonourably discharged, he's given a second chance.
That is just one of the numerous choices throughout the script that just don't make sense. Or, rather, they add up to make a certain kind of sense to me: If we've got a cool idea, we'll go for it, work it into the story even if it doesn't fit and there are a number of other, much more sensible but less cool looking, ways to achieve the necessary outcome. The Mummy, to pick another romp movie I watched again recently, has a clearly ridiculous storyline and plot events (more ridiculous than this one really) but given they live in a world where those events are happening, the characters mostly make reasonable choices to counter them. It makes the film more fun for me - I can just sit back and enjoy the romp instead of going "WTF are you doing THAT for you muppet?"
Some research into the first film explained the context of the confusing scene I mentioned above - although it could have been mentioned in this film surely? It also left me undecided in other ways. This is going to skate close to spoilers but about the first film not this one and that's old enough I think it doesn't count - you'll have seen it if you want to. They took the choice, quite reasonably, to establish this is an alternative timeline to the original Star Trek universe. Old cannon no longer applies so we can have Enterprise-crew meeting pasty-forehead Klingons for example, something that came up after The Original Series rather than before it. That's fine, smart even. So why did you pick a plot that's essentially a straight lift from earlier cannon? To the extent that there are actually a number of scenes that are identical in almost every respect, except they've swapped who says those iconic lines? You may consider that a nice homage to the original (and part of me certainly does) or sheer laziness in just nicking the script (which part of me also does).
Add in the lazy characterisation of some of the supporting cast (poor Chekov and Admiral Marcus are both very poorly served in that respect, Chekov is even more two-dimensional than the original) and all in all I found Star Trek: Into Darkness to be a decidedly "meh" experience. It's not as bad as Terminator: Salvation for example, another reboot movie that left me rooting for the cyborgs instead of John Connor, but what could have been a good movie with a bit more thought and a bit less chasing the cool just meh. I'd rather than stayed in and watched TV to be honest.
Star Trek: Into Darkness fails the Bechdel test to my memory - although there are two named female characters with speaking parts (pass part one), I'm pretty sure they just never speak to each other (fail part two). Uhura seems to feel the lack of classic film gf chat, and vents to Kirk about her relationship issues. All that's OK. Also, since I posted this, the internet seems to have exploded about the objectification of one of the female characters (played by Alice Eve and shot in her underwear). I have to say I was a little surprised by the shot - it seemed to arrive from nowhere and although there was a context about why it was there it was a bit odd. My take on it was rather different though. I don't think Jim Kirk ever gave me the warm fuzzies with how he treated women (even though, at the time I think it was a lot more common). That particular little scene played much more to me as Jim Kirk, unprofessional and overly libidinous to the core - he can't even grant a subordinate who is changing and has asked for what privacy he can give that much respect. Not such much about the objectification of the women for audience, much more about how immature and unsuited to command he is as he objectifies them. Now that's quite a subtle line, I agree. I completely respect your right to be on the other side of it. But, hey, this is my review, that's my take.
Sunday, May 5. 2013
I'm in the odd position of reviewing an app I won't be using. However, the reasons I won't be using it are more to do with what it does than how it works.
The app is called Scapple, and it comes from Literature and Latte, the people that offer the excellent writing tool, Scrivener. I've not completely reviewed Scrivener before but if you think of that as the (almost) complete tool for writing a book, series or other major writing project you won't won't be far wrong. I will review it properly in the next few days.
Scapple is less focused on being a pure writing tool, although most writers I know would not complain about what it does and how it does it, rather it is focused on letting you scribble notes easily and organise them then or later - for many writers, but many others too, an important part of their lives.
At its simplest Scapple is the most "piece of paper" like piece of virtual paper I've seen. You open it (get your sheet of paper ready), double-click with the mouse and start writing. You get a nice note with a border around it when you're done. Click somewhere else and repeat for the next note. Want to join two notes by a line? Just click and drag one on top of the other, and boom, line between them - but nicely they drop back into their original positions, with a line between them rather than moving or anything.
If you poke a little deeper and you can do more:
(Because it comes from Literature and Latte, I'm going to give examples of how you might use in an authorial situation, but all the features can be used how you want them of course.)
I still won't use Scapple though, certainly not enough to pay for it. It's not because there's anything wrong with it at all, in fact I'd say it's an excellent implementation of the concept - it's just I so rarely plan things that way, although I do teach people to plan that way if they need to - that buying an app to do it for me seems silly. But this is a nice app that if you do like planning things this way you should check it out. There's a month's free trial although currently Scapple is only available on OS 10.6.8 or better - no Windows or Linux version yet.
Sunday, May 5. 2013
Iron Man is a funny romp of a film. You could probably actually call it a rom com, although a lot of people would argue that it's an action movie and that's certainly a justifiable tag too, because there's definitely a troubled relationship that gives rise to (some of) the comedic moments and resolves itself to give a happy ending. Surely the mark of a rom com?
There are a lot of good moments in this film, once you get over an insanely unreasonable plot device or two - comic book science certainly in the league of "at its worst" if not necessarily the worst you can find. Contrary to popular opinion, I can handle comic book science usually - I'm prepared to give up and say "in their world it works that way" - just as easily as I can give up and accept magic in fantasy films and so on. It's bad science in otherwise straight movies that really gets to me, although egregiously bad science in any setting can sometimes set me off. Anyway, on to the good bits.
Gwyneth Paltrow again makes me believe Pepper Potts loves the infuriating, capricious, occasionally tender often way too distracted Tony Stark. It's a hard sell to me, because I don't find him loveable and although there are moments when he's charming and funny there, but she pulls it off. Equally kudos must go to Robert Downey Jr. for pulling all those disparate parts of Tony Stark together into one sometimes charming, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes romantic, sometimes rude, sometimes abrupt whole.
The film itself benefits from a plot that is pretty simple: crazy super-villain wants to make himself the eminence gris of the US economy and happens to have an excellent way to do it. It's somewhat serendipitous because it also involves using experimental failures that could otherwise be really embarrassing as a valuable resource. It's tempting to add a recycling joke here and the film probably would have done if they'd phrased it quite like that. It's actually a pretty good idea if you want to get very rich, have no morals and have access to the mad science he does. Having that pretty clear central idea, it layers a variety of distractions and twists and turns in the plot on top in a nicely plotted way. Some of the distractions are super-villain ideas, safeguards, cut-outs, parts of bigger plots that become clear at the climax. Others are Tony's reaction to the events of Avengers Assemble which have left him prone to panic attacks. Still more are some of the interactions between Tony and Pepper, particularly once a (long time) former one-night stand is thrown into the mix.
Standing head and shoulders over all these good moments are, for me, the various aspects of the performance of Ben Kingsley. It's hard to say more than that without significant spoilers, so I won't except to say I think he acted the rest of them off the set and added a range of interesting things to the story. I don't know the character from the comics. I think it's pretty safe to say this is a rather different take. The fanbois and grrls will be up in arms I'm sure, but for this film it works really pretty well.
Parts, some quite large parts, of this film annoy me - mostly Tony Stark it has to be said, which is part of his role and character so in some ways that's a compliment to the film too. But it has some genuine laugh-out loud moments too. And some heart-warming moments. And some fun, although cgi heavy, set piece fight scenes. Overall a solidly entertaining piece of fluff. Particularly if you wait through the credits (and wait and wait, there are a lot of credits) and see their final little cameo.
Wednesday, May 1. 2013
There are a number of somewhat famous British voices calling for more evidence-based teaching practice in the UK. This sounds like an excellent idea at first glance. We should, clearly, try to find the best ways to teach people and implement them. It's not rocket science after all.
The problem as I see it
The trouble is that, unlike rocket science which is actually pretty easy - just very high stakes if you make a mistake - it's much easier to say than do. A lot of clever people and smart scientists have gone into education so it's hardly a radical idea to apply some scientific rigour to the process. So why hasn't it been successfully done before? To my mind, there are a lot of reasons that contribute to this and here's my quick list:
So, smart ideas for avoiding both of these traps of yore please?
All of this makes for a complex mess, particularly when it comes to scientific/statistical measurements.
The strength of science, the essence of the scientific method, is to test under controlled situations. Some of these are on populations of course - testing drugs compares giving chalk tablets to giving real medicine to people with a particular condition and seeing how well they do in comparison to each other. While the interaction with the doctor may be significant overall, there is a standard pill being given to people with a known medical condition. Yes, there's a wide variation in those being tested in large trials but it is still a mass-produced pill or injection that we give them looking for effects. Although "a module" of a course is written as a standard item, it certainly has standardised learning outcomes, hopefully you appreciate why I think it's rather harder to claim it's a standard item like a pill than that - there are many, many variations not only in the population being taught but in the delivery mechanism and how they interact with each other that we can't currently measure or control.
Of course, you also can't compare medicine to placebo - that would be teaching to not teaching - because that's a chunk of students not getting taught. You're getting into A/B testing for 'which is better' more than 'does this work compared to nothing.' That, actually, makes the testing harder. Unless there is a big difference, testing between two somewhat successful treatments struggles to give good data that is scientifically reliable.
And, to add some extra layers of complexity to the results, some proportion of otherwise excellent teachers will not suit the style to which they are assigned. Others will. That can be controlled given time and a large enough dataset but it is an extra variable that will complicate design and analysis. Especially since I'm sure it's not a single A/B proposition. You're not either brilliant or terrible at a particular approach, some will be brilliant, some excellent, some very good, some good and so on. It is going to be a spectrum of skill and suitability for a particular approach. Further, this will be a spectrum in which it is quite possible not everyone will clearly know the parameters nor even be able to measure them in a sensible way. Even if you can determine the individual teacher's performance criteria for a given style of teaching in some soft of controlled environment - you have to question how reliable this measurement will be because, as discussed above the way the teaching goes will not only vary with content, style and the teacher, it will vary with the interactions between a particular class and a particular teacher. How do you measure that?
What will all of this mean?
If you have a teaching process that is clearly better than any other, it might show up through this process. But, lets be honest here - humans have been teaching each other for a long time. While there are probably improvements that can be made both in general teaching practice and in teaching specific elements I'm pretty sure that we won't find any dramatic improvements. This isn't a situation where we're faced with an emerging disease - HIV say - and we're looking for good treatments from scratch. This is more, to use another topical example, a case of "we have a good MMR vaccine, you have to prove yours is better than what we've already got." Or, perhaps more aptly, it's more "When we visit a doctor, they are skilled in elucidating what's wrong with us and finding appropriate treatments. Can you get the right diagnosis and treatment more rapidly and more reliably by some other means?" And remember, the doctor usually only has one person to deal with at a time.
Taking all this into account, I'm pretty confident we're looking for small improvements in a field with lots and lots of confounding variables, variables for which we can't control and can't really measure, and variables on all sides. It's not like A/B testing for adverts where you're testing for different responses to something fixed - a different poster, a different 30s commercial - both sides of the experiment AND the way they interact change.
Now, we live in an age of big data. The trouble is we don't know yet, what we're looking for - even at pretty fundamental levels like "what constitutes successful education?" let alone all the other factors outlined above. Medicine has a relatively easier time of it - have you got better or not? It's not absolutely clear cut (does becoming asymptomatic mean you're better for example) but it is pretty clear for many diseases and treatments.
If we use other techniques, techniques from epidemiology to look at risk factors for example, then I'm pretty sure we'll end up with a list that is already well known - because this has been done to some extent. Small groups do better than large groups. Children from supportive family environments do better too. Unsurprisingly, children who don't have dyslexia and the like do better too - there's a reason why they're called (over here at least) learning difficulties and disabilities after all.
I hope I'm wrong. I'd love to find some good evidence for a lot of the things that go on in the classroom reasonably quickly. But, I rather suspect we'll find the tools and techniques we currently have don't give sensible answers. That doesn't mean it's an issue with the techniques, it's an issue with the questions we have have to ask. I've already suggested above, some high quality research into methods of assessing educational success rather than simply considering exam results would be an excellent tool to come once this research starts seriously.
And, although it may appear to be a waste of resources in these times of austerity, working out what constitutes a good education for all and how to deliver it is a worthwhile goal.
With those questions answered we can start to consider how to account for the variables and finally, hopefully, mine the data to start seeing if there are measurable differences in techniques. And, you know what? I bet the results in order are:
But, even then, it won't be my best guess. It will be something with evidence to support it.
Thursday, April 18. 2013
Oblivion is an annoying film. It's pretty enough, although a bit stark in it's palette - everyone is in black or white. It has a couple of solid SF themes, alien invasion and questions about identity and memory. A lot of so-called SF movies are really action movies with trinkets, this has some real SF ideas in there.
The alien invasion asks nothing new, and trots out themes I first remember coming across in Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard (coincidence? Seems unlikely given Tom's religion) and that Independence Day and others played with. There's nothing specifically wrong with not doing anything new with it of course, but it doesn't help make the story gripping and exciting.
The questions about identity and memory are established. And then answered in one of the rare monologues in which the film indulges. It doesn't look like a monologue, it looks like a romantic moment of remembered love and commitment, but it's a monologue in disguise. That's a crying shame because, essentially, they ask and then instantly answer it rather than letting it drift along and be considered for a minute or two, to explore the alternative answers and discuss them.
Ironically enough the one exposition that we do get, twice, has one organic moment, one blatant monologue to set the scene. Once would have been more than enough.
There's a twist that, at the time, I was thinking I should have seen coming. However, in retrospect, they could have chopped it from the film entirely and not spoiled the film to my mind - it mostly served to let them tack on a happy ending. The clues for this particular twist are there and I should have got them. I think I was too switched off to notice and worry about it to be honest. Not the mark of a good movie if I'm not paying attention to the clues they've laid down.
However, even more annoying to me was the rampant sexism on display. I know there's a level of it in all movies but this feels like Mad Men levels of sexism or beyond. Now, in the case of Mad Men, there's a reason for it; how much it annoys you will depend on you, but just like Django Unchained used very racist language, so Mad Men is (somewhat) accurately portraying the attitudes of the 1950's and they were hardly an emancipated paradise. Oblivion is set from about 5 years ahead to about 50 years ahead. The woman before the aliens arrive are shown being significant members of society in the glimpses you get. But after the invasion - the women stay at home and look pretty and the men go out and do the real work. Really? That's what your aliens come up with? And even when there's a decision purely between the humans, the woman's choice doesn't matter. Just when I thought I'd stopped venting about that… although I think technically this movie passes the Bechdel test, it really shouldn't. The only interactions between the two women you see are all centred around jealousy. It's just so dated it's unbelievable. And when you've got a tiny cast - although there are times when you see more people, it's essentially a four-handed movie - having two of them only interact through jealousy really doesn't help the show. The tacked on happy ending also makes me angry because yet again the woman is completely passive in this. Why? Grrrr. As you will know, if you read this regularly, I rarely rant like this about sexism in the movies. There is a level, and I usually notice it, and while I wouldn't say it fills me with joy, it doesn't fill me with anger like this film does. The problem is, this film has so many instances in short order I found the way I kept my attention on them was just to watch for the next one. I could have forgiven, for example, the final one alone. It would have niggled, at some point, but it wasn't massively egregious. But after the rest of the film, the camel's back was well and truly broken before then I'm afraid.
Monday, March 25. 2013
iA Writer is actually a pair of apps for me, one on the iPad and one on the Mac, both available cheaply from their respective app stores. There is a iPhone version too that I haven't looked at.
Features and good points
The USP for iA Writer is focusing on your writing. To that end the apps provide a clean writing interface. Although I have other windows open in the background and my desktop partially shows on the mac (although there is a fullscreen option to remove even this) I am writing in a completely plain window save what I've written. No buttons, not even a title bar, just a soft grey space and my words. If I click outside the window or click where the title bar should be, all the normal window material (title bar and a bar at the bottom with some other stuff on it too) come back. The same basic principle is true of the iPad app too, although obviously if you're using the on-screen keypad to write, that's visible too.
One nice thing that appears on the bar at the bottom of the window, along with the word count, is an estimated reading time. I'm not sure I agree with their estimates ever, but it's a nice little extra, particularly if you're writing for a blog post or similar.
If the plain background with just your writing showing is too much for you, there is also a focus mode. I tend not to use it, as I personally find it more distracting than the normal mode, but focus mode gives you the same background plain paper and renders all the text save your current sentence in a roughly 50% grey. Your current sentence is black. It is really meant to let you focus just on what you're writing right now and if your writing process is to hammer the words down as fast as possible then go back and beat them into shape you may well like this more than I do. Part of my writing process seems to be, as I ruminate over what to write next, I'll often skim back over what I've just written and pick out the worst of the egregious errors there and then. It won't be perfect of course, but big typos, major grammatical flaws and the like often get the first correction while I'm thinking of what to write next. Focus mode seems like a complication with doing that.
As a Mac user, switching back and forth to the iPad is pretty easy. iA Writer for both defaults to using iCloud. I save the document here, on my desktop, switch to the iPad, open it up and carry on where I left off. Later I can move just as smoothly in the opposite direction - assuming I've remembered to close the document here so I reopen from iCloud. That's hardly the worst imaginable workflow and is nicely integrated and simple at both ends.
Formatting, something that in traditional word processors requires either buttons or remembering keyboard shortcuts or both, is relatively limited - mind you, iA Writer doesn't pretend, as Word does, to be a DTP-lite programme and it's not really designed for writing business letters either. This is a tool that is focussed on letting you get your words and ideas down on virtual paper quickly.
There is some formatting however; iA Writer uses a subset of markdown which gives you access to the sort of formatting you find in HTML - where the M stands for markup of course. The similarity between markup and markdown is not a coincidence - markdown was designed to let you write content for webpages quickly and easily, concentrating on the words rather than the tags while marking the formatting you do want.
No need to close that paragraph and open the next one, just hit return a couple of times and start writing the content. Want a numbered list? Just put 1. item 1, 2. item 2 etc. on a new line each time and forget all those ol and li tags.
iA Writer gives 6 levels of headers, emphasis and strong text, ordered and unordered lists with sublists, hyperlinks, block quotes and horizontal lines to divide sections. All of these can be done directly as you go without taking your hands away from the keyboard.
Lists and headers are the most natural to my mind - you just write them as lists pretty much, but with a dash or asterisk at the start of the line for an unordered list, or the number and a dot for an ordered list. Headers start the line with 1-6 # signs, with 1 for the biggest headers, 6 for the smallest.
The other choices require something a bit extra - an underscore or asterisk around the emphasised word or words, double underscore or asterisks for strong formatting for example - but for many people this is the kind of thing they may well be used to from writing emphasis in IMs, emails and the like already. Block quotes require a > sign and the space at the start of the line - although you're probably not used to writing that, many email clients show quote levels that way. None of this is hard to do or remember.
Hyperlinks are probably the hardest bits, wrapping the link text in square brackets, then the URL (and title if you wish to add that, in quotes beside the URL) in curved brackets (parentheses if you're American). It's not completely intuitive but it's not hard either.
Emphasis and strong formatting can also be applied the 'normal' way in editing - select the text and use command-I and command-B as usual.
On the Mac there's a fast review mode that lets you see your writing formatted as you'd expect - in iA Writer itself you see the formatting marks you've applied, although headers, strong and emphasis parts receive some additional marking - underlining or bold mostly.
Apart from the inline stuff (emphasis, strong, links) the formatting marks lie in the (otherwise invisible) gutter. This is quite nice as it gives the body of your text a nice clean look as you read back over it but lets you easily see and adapt the content. You can also scroll easily to find the next section or similar, since header marks protrude into the gutter and the header text is rendered in bold.
So what's not so good?
At the moment I think iA Writer needs a few preferences. In particular if, like me, you don't like writing on a soft grey background that much, you're pretty much stuffed. I'd like to be able to set background and text colours for the writing space please - and I'm sure most dyslexic writers and many others would agree. While thinking of people with dyslexia, a choice of fonts would be nice too. This could all work nicely as a preference - you're not giving someone the distraction of playing with everything all the time, but letting them set up their workspace to their idea of comfortable and then write in it. Right in the middle of the ethos of this app.
Also, although you can export as HTML and RTF, and copy as HTML, as well as print to PDF with formatting, there's no direct print-with-formatting option. Now, admittedly, with the exports and the copy as HTML, you've got most bases covered for the material you're likely to be writing using iA Writer and I honestly don't remember the last time I printed anything but it would be nice to be able to do it directly still.
There's currently no option for writing tables within iA Writer. For a lot of what I write - certainly blog posts and so on, and a fair amount of my static web-content - that's fine. But I still write enough reports where tables are rather important it would be nice to have them available directly.
I'm not sure if this is good or bad. Currently my feeling is it's just odd. iA Writer gives you a fixed, 64 character wide, writing space. There's no direct tool to affect font size, but if you make the window wider, the font grows to suit the width. (There is a minimum window size and font size.) I could quite easily have three iA Writer windows open side by side which seems to contradict the focussed writing idea but gives you an idea of just how narrow the writing space can be. This gives a chunk of wasted screen space or really big writing… I think I'd like an option in those preferences I mentioned to have different numbers of characters per line. I can manage 96 characters easily, probably 128 as well - although I appreciate that won't be for everyone. But that's why we have preferences. Or perhaps a preference to set a font and a size and cause the text to flow to fill it, like you get with a web-page. I can see enough ways I'd like to see it altered for my convenience that I have to include this in the bad at the moment but I can see the attraction of this and the beauty of setting it up without taking you away from the simple window look.
If you don't mind writing in markdown, and I have to say I'm on my third piece of writing in iA Writer and already find it comfortable, and you want to write moderately long pieces, particularly with the ability to change between your computer and your iPad then iA Writer is well worth a look. If most of your writing is letters it's probably not the right tool but for writing reports without tables and illustrations it would be good; it seems excellent for blog posts and the like. You could easily ignore the formatting and just copy and paste for that complicated email that you want to draft out properly, or use copy as HTML if you want more formatting options in your email.
Enough of my writing requires tables that I miss them. But it's not critical for me right now. (Further investigation suggests standard markdown doesn't support tables either, although markdown plus does so this might not be something that will appear quickly.)
iA Writer seems to me to be a very good tool for medium-length writing (blog posts, web pages and the like) and, to some extent, I've been misusing nvAlt and SimpleText for that. I think a fair amount of my more creative writing will move away from nvAlt, which remains supreme as a disorganised (or loosely self-organising perhaps) note-writing and idea jotting app in my opinion, and will move to iA Writer. Working the two in together to my workflows will be interesting I'm sure but I'm already seeing differences between the two and the types of writing they're good for supporting. Scribbling notes and ideas in one, then reading them back and writing them properly in the other doesn't seem like a hard work-flow to me.
For long writing projects - I'm thinking books, PhD theses and the like - iA Writer offers the ability to write without a lot of clutter. That might well be the most important thing for you. There are alternative tools, Scrivener being a popular one, which offer different features. For example, Scrivener supports non-linear writing (you can easily write sections or chapters out of order, then reorder them later if you wish - sentences and paragraphs still have to be written the normal way), has it's own database for characters, plot devices, locations and the like and more. All of those things can be duplicated elsewhere of course, and used in parallel with iA Writer, but then you're moving further and further away from the 'focus on your writing' appeal of this app. However, if you are the sort to do the research, prepare fully, then get distracted when it comes to writing, you might find that iA Writer is just what you need. If, instead, you want all your tools together in one place, something else will be the right tool for the job. Note that I don't think Scrivener has an iPad app yet (although there keep being rumours of one) and the rumoured syncing mechanism is dropbox. I've tried that and don't like it personally but you may be OK with it. However, if smooth interchanging between platforms is important to you, and in fact between multiple machines if you wish, iA Writer with it's iCloud saving could be an excellent answer.
If you're on a Windows-machine I'm not sure how well iA Writer for just the iPad would suit you. I do like the iPad app too, particularly in association with a bluetooth keyboard, and you can email the content around, use dropbox and so on to move your content back and forth. There must be Windows markdown editors around that you could use in the complementary way with dropbox I'm sure. For me, the simplicity of using iCloud directly and essentially invisibly integrated into the pair of apps and pairing them together is a significant factor in my appreciation of iA Writer and my willingness to keep using it that I assume is absent on other platforms.
iA Writer isn't the ultimate answer to all your writing needs - although I'm not sure such a beast really exists. But for blog post length writing, rattling off a report, that sort of thing the 'no distractions' style is lovely. Depending on how you work, a longer writing project may well benefit too. Well worth a look for just about all Mac people who write I think.
Saturday, March 23. 2013
It looks pretty clear to us all, except possibly the worst offenders, that there will be a Royal Charter to establish an independent press regulator with a system of checks in place that prevent the normally relatively simple alteration of the terms of the charter by ministers. Technically the Privy Council not ministers, but ministers always dominate the Privy Council (not unreasonably) so effectively a small number of politicians would have control of the regulator. Those powers to alter charters are fairly rarely used - although the BBC's charter has been altered in my memory and I'm sure others have too - but by insisting this charter can't be it prevents the press using their (undoubted by most) influence with senior politicians to have the charter watered down so it is completely without influence. In common with the vast majority of the country I say "Good!"
I understand the press serves a role to investigate the words and actions of those in positions of power and expose their wrong-doings to the world. As I have pointed out before the broadcast media manage to do this while being required to maintain balance - something the print media abandoned some years, some decades even, ago. Levenson has little to say about that. It is true some stories may have to be differently - and legally and carefully - researched before publication under the new rules. Is that such a disaster? Yes, Watergate required some law-breaking. But the biggest political scandal of the last decade in the UK - the expenses scandal (and in some cases criminal fraud) - was well researched and presented completely within the law. Possible other significant scandals - such as the close relationship between the current PM and a former editor of The Sun who is facing a court date on serious criminal charges relating to her job - have also been diligently reported. You would hope, even after Levenson, if a story like Watergate came up that editors and journalists would risk prison to expose it. Although I have to say I have my doubts.
Mostly, though, the new regulator offers protection to ordinary members of the public who are now also victims of the press that claims whatever it wants to print is in the public interest whereas a quick examination of headlines would suggest frequently it's in the interest of struggling to keep circulation figures from falling even faster.
As a case in point, Richard Littlejohn wrote a poisonous 'Little Britain' piece in the Daily Mail about a teacher who started the process of gender reassignment. This was done with the knowledge and support of the staff and governors of the school. Along with the usual scare tactics of quoting a response from the head-teacher to a query then implying the reply was economical with the inconvenient truth, the article ranted 'did no one think of the children?' in a piece that plays to the fears and prejudices of a public too old to have children attending a primary school.
Thankfully the country is moving, inexorably, more and more towards acceptance of our differences and equality. Gay marriage is on its way - about time to equalise those rights too - introduced by a Conservative PM. We increasingly accept people's sexuality and sexual identities in a mature, tolerant fashion. We no longer accept the "I'm not a racist but…" attitude of older generations and it is dying out. And, I believe, we are generally accepting of things such as gender reassignment too. Yes, there are still poisonous, small-minded individuals who say, sometimes loudly and publicly, that they don't like it. But it's increasingly the protests of the out-of-touch, the barmy and the bigots. The all-too-noisy minority proving the old adage about empty bottles.
Littlejohn seems to play to that barmy, bigoted audience by exposing the private life of a private individual who has broken no laws, committed no heinous acts, not even any unreasonable acts, save to send of a frisson of excitement and bigoted, misplaced outrage through an audience through a publication that plays to their worst features and fears to generate just such a reaction and keep extracting their money from their pocket.
I don't know that Levenson offers a plausible, better way out than the truly tragic outcome of this particular story. I think, and I most certainly hope, that it does. Lucy Meadows, one of the more vulnerable members of society and in the midst of a turbulent period of her personal life as she was moving through the process of transitioning from male to female, seems to have come to the conclusion that suicide was the only acceptable response to the hatred and scorn publicly heaped on her. Littlejohn couched his hatred in terms of "how will we explain this to the little children?" Perhaps he'd like to answer the similar and equally pertinent question his writing seems to have left as its legacy - "how do we explain suicide to the little children?"
There will be a demonstration and memorial for Ms. Meadows outside the offices of the Daily Mail that posted the poisonous piece and there are various online petitions, Facebook pages and the like that you can sign if you wish show your dislike of this sort of hate-speech more remotely. Happily the Daily Mail has had the minimal decency to remove the piece even though it lacked the decency to not publish it. In true “nothing you write online is ever forgotten” mode, it is archived if you want to read it for yourself. I did and still feel unclean the next day.
Thursday, March 14. 2013
Or, perhaps more honestly, Oz - the rather predictable, annoying but with some very nice touches.
It starts in black and white and turns colour when he goes to Oz. Mary, his possible love in Kansas, wears a gingham dress, the cut of which you've seen before. Both excellent touches.
The betrayal of love that forms one of the turning points of the film is very believably set up and played through. The way that foreshadows parts of the Judy Garland movie is not surprising I guess but still nicely handled. Actually it's one of the few really nicely handled bits of significant plot and character development.
And some little things like the creation of the tin men and scarecrows, at least their implicit creation, were well done.
There are moments that play towards the "head trauma and it's all a dream" of Wizard of Oz too, particularly the way that Oz plays nicely to his deepest wants and fantasies although only a few of the characters seem to cross over and there are chances for others to cross over too. Although, of course, we know he stays in Oz to be there when Dorothy comes along in a few decades which makes it harder to take Oz (for both) as anything other than a parallel world.
Then the bad.
I personally wasn't annoyed by this because they have to cast Glinda as a blonde given the other movie, but there did seem to be a reinforcement of the "brunettes are evil, blondes must be good" stereotype. As soon as they saw Glinda, they realised they'd made a terrible mistake and she must be good because... well nothing beyond the fact she was blonde basically. OK, she's also a cross over character so she reminded the wizard of someone else which might have given him pause but his allies at that time were instantly persuaded she was the good one too - despite the accusations of patricide and throwing Oz into chaos. I'm sure it would stand up in court - "I can't be guilty of killing anyone your honour, I'm a blonde" that'll work won't it? Actually, back in Kansas they had the same - he would seduce brunettes for fun, but the woman he loved was a blonde. Adding that realisation makes me more annoyed about the "blondes are good" as portrayed in the film.
I also object to the casting of Glinda. We know what she looks like in the other movie. I'm sure it's hard to cast someone who is her double, but there must be a lot of women who look a lot closer to the original Glinda than this one. Wrong hair colour, wrong shape of face, wrong shape of mouth - bad, bad, bad. Hair colour is surely just a case of dye or a wig too, so that's lazy as well as bad. I thought she acted the role she was given well enough so there's certainly no objection on those grounds, just I couldn't believe the one would grow into the other. The younger wizard I more or less believe could grow up to the older, certainly I did during the film. I also found the appearance of The Wicked Witch of the West worked at the time, although checking later she's not incredibly close in shape of face either.
Then the plot holes. Let us start with the holes around the "real wicked witch" who, it is established early and clearly and several times over, is a schemer, a planner. She's more than content to wait for things to fall into place before executing her plan. Her plan is also working well so she clearly plans well and effectively too. So why, as soon as her plan starts falling into place does she fly off the handle and forget things that make her look stupid and incompetent? I'm not going to list them here, in case you do go see it, but there are several and while one might have been OK, putting so many in there was bad.
They also lay down that blind faith and public opinion will overcome anything. Including a well laid plan and the weight of arms. Tiananmen Square anyone? How well did it work out there? Popular revolutions can work but they tend to rely heavily on more than smoke and mirrors and faith. Why is the land of Oz so different?
And finally on plot holes, prequelitis kicks in. It's always hard with a prequel because you know where you're ending up. Trying to establish tension can be tricky - "OMG are they going to kill Glinda?" Well no, duh - she's in the Judy Garland movie after all. "OMG, is the wiz going to flee like a coward?" Duh... what's the other film called? What do you think?
Then we have the characterisation of the wizard himself. He's a B-grade illusionist and serial seducer with the corniest lines you've ever heard and without the skills to get away cleanly - the circus moving on saves him each time. He desires wealth and greatness above all. This is all well established and played believably by Franco. Unfortunately it makes his transformation into the wizard implausible. He suddenly becomes brave, committed and a good leader. He even has a cunning plan or two up his sleeve. Yes, people can change. But this radically, this quickly, without an obvious trigger? Stretching credulity beyond my personal breaking point.
This film is a nice idea. Some of the problems can't be avoided although better scripting might not attempt to create such big tension around points where you know the answer already. Better scripting would hopefully have toned down the early characterisation of the wizard so his transformation isn't so bad later on and they'd have implanted a good trigger for his change. They wouldn't completely throw out the characterisation of the 'real wicked witch' they'd built up either - the wiz would have to come up with a more cunning plan, yes, but he is portrayed as cunning so that would be OK. They took a battered, rackety old car, slapped some new paint and tyres on and tried to sell it as new. Unfortunately the dents, rust and the like weren't covered nor was the fact that it was missing an engine. Disappointing but pretty.
Thursday, March 7. 2013
Cloud Atlas, the movie at least, is probably most like a piece of music. I want to say a piece in 6 movements but anyone who has seen the film should understand why I call it a symphonic sextet. Like so many pieces of music, classical or popular, Cloud Atlas is an examination of the nature of love. Unlike most of them, it doesn't actually tell the viewer that. At least not that I noticed. If you prefer metaphors like 'it's an essay on the many and various aspects of love' (which would also be decent description) I suspect you, like me, will end up wishing they'd taken that advice given to every student (possibly ad nauseam) to rephrase the question to serve as the first line of the introduction.
To press on with my chosen analogy, the six instruments of the movie sextet are the parts of the story told in six different times. There's a 19th Century story, an early 20th Century story, a 1970s story, a current world story, a mid-22nd Century story and an unspecified far future story. Between them we're shown various aspects of love as the story explores them. Romantic, familial, erotic, brotherly, religious, unrequited, lost, forbidden and more they're all there. Gay and straight too when we look at the romantic and erotic. Even some of the classical sinful forms - love of money for example, and certainly love of power - have their moments, their contributions to the overall symphony. Between them there's not an obvious form of love that's missed - there may be some little wrinkles but I can't think of any at the moment. Most of the illegal expressions of love are absent, although you'd have to say thematically they're covered in other ways.
I think the film also addresses the concept of true love, soul mates if you prefer. Two people fated to get together and live happily together. At least once for most of the couples. But most of them also miss this, one way or another, in various other times. And this works, to my mind, both well and frustratingly in the film. I need to read the book and see how that handles it because I suspect it will be harder to present in a book - you want have the actor's face to make it clear which character is which (at least mostly, even through the makeup). For example, characters played by Halle Berry and Tom Hanks nearly get it together in one time zone but are stopped. They do get it together in another, and although their characters do appear elsewhere, they're not the focus (and may be completely unrecognisable - did you spot Halle Berry in Neo Seoul for example?) or they're not together (Tom Hanks portrays one of the other aspects in one section for example). This watching of the pairs of them (it's not just Halle and Tom that get it sorted) gave me a sense of exploring all the aspects of love and true love winning out in the end quite strongly.
At the same time, the film looks at reincarnation and karma. In my opinion it does this in an awkward and stilted way. I don't think the film requires belief in reincarnation to work but the casting choices make it hard to come away without some sense of the characters being intertwined. Why else do we see different characters mostly recognisably played by a small number of actors in most or all of the elements of this film? What draws them back together in the different times? It's possible to try and dismiss this as coincidence - humans looking for patterns and attaching extra significance to a recognised face in a new setting - but the way we shuttle back and forth between the scenes, the way carrying the melody shifts around between the instruments if you like, reinforces the idea of links between the characters played by the same actors across time as well as the different ways they interact within a time period. There are also at least a couple of instances of something that, musically speaking, you could describe as a leitmotif. Some are spoken phrases but the early 20th Century story includes two composers one of whom believes he dreams the music he composes in a setting that is, almost exactly and you have to assume deliberately, the introductory scene for the mid-22nd Century story. Another two characters hear that composition almost certainly for the first time in that lifetime but are both irresistibly drawn to it and have a sense of deja entendu. There are indications that things echo back and forth through time, between and to the different characters played by the same actor in their different time periods. Another pair of characters agitate for the abolition of slavery together as part of the way they express their love for each other.
Science fiction and fantasy stories, even in film, often have a chunk of exposition to set their environment clearly to the reader. Mainstream literature tends to skip the exposition (often because we more or less know the environment: it's here and now, or more or less accurate here and then when you read Austen, Dickens and the like, there and then when you read Victor Hugo or Solzhenitsyn and if we don't know it personally we can look it up), and although I'd argue a film isn't literature, this film followed the literature approach without letting us look it up. I feel the lack of that exposition. I could be that this is an attempt to stimulate thought, but it gave me a sense that there's a strong element of smoke and mirrors around the characters all being played by the same actors in multiple roles. There is, in one of the sections, a possible attempt at the exposition scene. It comes towards the tail end of a long, long (just under 3 hours) film and was, for me, long past bedtime when I saw it. For that reason at least, and because my impression was it was more serious hand-waving to try and stir the smoke up rather than exposition that aimed to clarify things, it didn't satisfy me. I have the feeling it's a question that will niggle more and more as time goes by. I imagine, whether or not I agree with it, I will read the book to attempt to find the answer more clearly and hopefully that will assuage that niggle but it would be nice to have come out of the film without feeling like that.
Setting that aside, you have to applaud most of the skill in makeup that helped this work. Halle Berry as a white woman and more were spectacular. Several of the men played women, often unrecognisably. At least one of the young men made a rather attractive older woman. At least one woman had a very clear, although very small, piece as a male character which I totally missed. In fact I thought that role was a cameo by a male actor I recognised from somewhere. Many of them changed age at various points as well. Old (not specified, but I'd guess he's meant to be in his 70's) Hugh Grant is completely believable for example. Fit, younger, cannibal Hugh Grant was completely unrecognisable in my opinion, and plausibly young and fit looking. YouTube has a clip of the closing credits if you missed it. I'd strongly suggest not watching it before watching the movie, which is why I'm not linking to it directly. How on earth did they miss a best make-up award or ten?
This film is, in my opinion, flawed. It left me with questions some of which might be deliberate and literary but some of which I find technical and about the process and choices rather than the story. However, I also found it quirky if not downright weird in a good way. I also found it engaging and compelling. Despite running at 164m it doesn't feel that long which is always a good thing. I don't know how this film will do in my end of year list - and its position may well be affected by me reading the book and having a different slant on it and the questions it's left me with by then. But on first impressions this is going to be near the top of my good but not great films, that second section. And on that basis I'd suggest it's well worth a watch or two.
It occurred to me, eventually, several hours after posting this, that the soul mates and reincarnation concepts are more strongly required than I'd thought. If you trace the birthmark (Ewing and Tilda, Frobisher and Sixsmith, Rey and Sachs, not sure - but presumably Cavendish and Ursula, Sonmi~451 and Hae-Joo, and Zachry and Meronym) they always find romantic and erotic love. That soul is reincarnated and finds true love somehow. It doesn't necessarily have a happy ending but they always manage to find their true love.
The rest of the cast become supporting actors for the story of the person with the birthmark in that era. An interesting trick in terms of structure and process for a film but one I imagine will work well in the book.
Friday, March 1. 2013
The Oscars have thrown up a couple of horrible examples of the misogyny present in the system. I find myself feeling compelled to blog about which I find the more offensive and why. These, as always, are my opinions. Your opinions about which is the more offensive may not be the same - that's OK. However, I'm going to go out on a limb: if you don't think either of these is offensive, please stop reading my blog.
The Onion, if you somehow missed it, used the C-word to refer to a 9 year old girl. Yes, she's a public figure as an actress, and an Oscar nominated actress at that. But still. That's so far beyond anything reasonable, so far beyond even bad taste, so far into grossly offensive that I was initially stunned and then reduced to swearing as my response to the news. Reading about it afterwards, it appears there's a racist overtone too - I knew the girl was black, and the black feminist movement has particular issues about the sexualisation of girls in the US which I didn't know about before. So in that sense, I've learnt something, something I'd rather I didn't have to know about, but still something important. Even without the racist element I'm appalled the word was used at all. I would have found it deeply offensive to refer to a woman (that is an adult rather than a girl) under almost all circumstances, but it's grossly offensive to use it to refer to a child regardless of her skin-colour.
But, as time has gone by, my outrage has cooled somewhat - not thanks to forgetfulness, but rather based on some thinking.
First, the Onion is always borderline offensive. Usually I find it on the humorous side of offensive. Sometimes on the bad taste side. That is their area of operation. I'm sure they call it something else, like biting satire, but I would say The Onion is borderline offensive lampooning of public figures and news stories. Usually funny but too heavy-handed to be satire. This time they went way beyond that bad taste side of offensive but occasional missteps, even missteps as big as this one, will happen. That doesn't stop it being grossly offensive but it helps temper my initial reaction.
Additionally, this specific act seems like an individual who acted, completely beyond any reasonable level of taste and restraint, but more or less as a one-off. Even if it's his personal belief, it seems like it's a failure of thought and process rather than something deliberate and supported.
Finally, and importantly to me, The Onion officially apologised. People make mistakes. Apologies aren't likely to be enough if it's "Sorry, I just murdered your child" but for using a word like this - even though I still think it's grossly offensive - an apology, as long as the offence isn't repeated for a fair old chunk of time (in this case while the internet survives seems a reasonable span) seems about right. It also supports the previous thought it was a mistake. A bad one, yes - terrible even - but a mistake. One they will hopefully learn from and not repeat.
Then I heard about Seth Macfarlane and "We Saw Your Boobs" - a song that was put together as part of the opening of the Oscars.
I'm left wondering how this was ever put together. The Oscar presentation is one of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the winners' speeches it's choreographed and rehearsed within an inch of its life. It's checked and approved for suitability. So it's not one puerile man who enjoys looking at breasts singing about them. It's an officially sanctioned song, at the annual celebration of the film industry, apparently celebrating women's contribution - which you would deduce is their willingness to undress on screen. Are we at The Oscars or some porno film award ceremony here?
To add insult to injury several (I think 4 but I might have missed some) of the scenes to which he referred are rape scenes. Congratulations you've successfully reduced a number of portrayals of the harrowing ordeal of rape to a comedic number about getting excited by seeing breasts. Or perhaps you're moving into rape porn next year. Definitely a smart move for one of the major cultural influences in the world.
The whole concept was in very bad taste and I'm wondering how it ever got approved. With the addition of the rape scene references it shifts, for me at least, into actively offensive. And, on top of that, I keep remembering some incredible number of people all said "yes, go ahead, this is OK." What does it say about Hollywood treats its women?
And rubbing salt into the wound, the Academy has defended the piece. Citing "artistic freedom" rather than anything else, and saying they thought the piece was high quality entertainment rather than grinding misogyny. Of course they probably don't think they've done anything wrong - after all they approved it and endorsed it and even if they privately disapprove, public disapproval would be saying they'd made a mistake. But, even if you support artistic freedom, which I do, I wonder just how much you support when you hire someone to represent your organisation? It's not an artist performing under their own name, not really, this is the host of your biggest public activity of the year. He may not be the official spokesman, but he's your selected representative. What he says is not in his name, it's in yours. And what he's said for you is that you don't value women. You don't value their contributions to your industry's products and you don't value their cold, hard cash when they watch you. Thanks guys.
So despite the initial outrage at what The Onion wrote - seemingly as a horrible mistake, I find, less than a week later, I'm far more offended by The Oscars. It won't stop me going to the movies of course - they're not made by the academy, and the US film and TV industry always seems fairly blatantly sexist to me, although not usually this blatantly and tastelessly. But congratulations. I'd like to be thinking about, blogging about, Daniel Day Lewis and his third best actor Oscar, about Jennifer Lawrence and her first. Instead my lasting impression is that the US film industry's official body - no matter how right on many of the individuals it represents may be - has absolutely no respect for women, its own or those that continue to support it by seeing the films it creates. And all without a glimmer of an apology or any seeming idea that its done anything wrong.
Thursday, January 31. 2013
Django Unchained is a rather surprising movie from Quentin Tarantino. Why surprising? There were several reasons that struck me:
The story is pure spaghetti western. A bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz, needs the help of Django, a slave, to track down three criminals wanted dead or alive. The story unfolds, and Schultz works with Django after freeing him as him agreed in return for tracking down the criminals, eventually helping him track down his wife in a clearly drawn - if loose - parallel to the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde. As with most spaghetti western it romps along pretty smoothly - although there are a number of places where they could have cut the film appreciably shorter and saved numb backsides and sore backs. There are a number of parallels drawn between being a bounty hunter and the slave trade too. I'm not sure how they play in the US, but in the UK the fact that Dr. Schultz can see the parallels in the various types of dealing in human flesh, but regards one as honourable and the other as despicable helps direct the moral flow of the story, if you need any such pointers.
The thing that makes this film stand out is the tightly integrated presentation of Southern slavery and slave owners. From the straight racism -
"What's wrong with these people?"To some of the dichotomies of slavery - Big Daddy being nice to the slaves he likes while two of his overseers are about to brutally whip a woman for breaking eggs for example - you get to see slavery somewhat like I suspect it was lived, at least for those working in and around the big house. I'm sure any historian of the era would be screaming at the inaccuracies but, at the same time, it presents a story-truth, a mythological truth if you like. Probably none of the events happened exactly as shown but each of the elements - slaves who consider themselves married being punished and sold separately to split them up, the whipping for breaking eggs, the massive manpower to lay the table, even the evil slave butler/confidante is probably true. It appears that Mandingo, a word I had to look up, is consistently misused - but it's possible the usage in the film has now become suppressed and a quick search suggests it's one of those tips of the hat to the genre and the film Mandingo. I suspect the breeding and choosing of slaves for bare-knuckle fights to the death happened, if again, not exactly as shown.
And that brings me to the two deaths that are not at all OTT and comedic. In fact they're rather brutal, although not in any lingering or gratuitous way. One of them is a bare-knuckle brawl between two slaves, the other is dogs ripping apart a runaway slave. The scenes are unpleasant, very unpleasant, even though they're carefully shot to avoid being overly graphic and the truly nasty bits that are suggested are carefully off camera. I'm sure these two non-comedic bits of violence could be interpreted in other ways - particularly if you're of the mind that Tarantino is a racist for daring to touch this topic - but to my mind they highlight the inhumanity and brutality of life as a slave. They help give the film its moral centre so that when the final shootout takes place, for all the OTT comedy deaths, there's no doubt that they deserve to die.
If you take out all the "message" this is a fairly standard Tarantino movie. It's a homage to the old-style western movie, doubtless packed with a million references we just didn't get because we're not fans of the genre. He's done the same thing with Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and so on. I don't know if it would have been a good film or not. But with this extra layer, although violent and sometimes unpleasantly violent, it becomes a very good, possibly a great film.
Thursday, January 17. 2013
So, finally, the cinematic version of The Glums is here and I have to say, despite what I'd read about various disappointing aspects of it, overall very good.
Perhaps most vitally Russell Crowe can clearly sing. He's not the greatest singer in the world but he can carry a tune, hit his notes, his diction is just fine. I would say he's usually somewhat lifeless in his performance on this showing but, in fairness, playing the very repressed and straight-laced Javert that might be a deliberate choice that has been made and can be made to work in the film. Hugh Jackman, on the other hand, can really sing which I suspect makes Crowe seem worse by comparison. And he's a believable threat to Jackman's Valjean when they grapple - I'm sure they could have found a big singer to do that, but Crowe v Jackman just looked right every time they were on screen and that has to count for a lot too in this film.
Second, I've read a lot of criticism about the changing from the tight shots when singing to the panoramic shots. I'm not convinced that's a problem in the film although there are times where, if you're not paying attention, the tight close-ups deny you any real context which (I was told) can be confusing. I have to say "I was told" because I'm enough of a Les Mis fan that I can hear any of the songs and tell you what's going on - possibly not completely cold but certainly when I'm watching it.
It is to the stage-show, not the book directly, that this film must really be compared. It's a pretty direct adaptation. Pretty much the same songs, same order and so on. There are parts where having a film set, a film budget, the ability to hire extras and sound stages or locations for a couple of minutes worth of film is made to work - the revolution starting at General Lamarque's funeral for example is clearly shown, complete with funeral procession and people lining the streets as befits a state funeral which you could just never do on stage. The tight close-up shots on the singers, used throughout, also work really well for the more solitary, reflective and emotive songs - I Dreamed a Dream, Valjean's Soliloquy, Javert's Soliloquy for example - and even some of the quieter ensemble pieces - A Heart Full of Love, A Little Fall of Rain. Some rearrangements to suit that - Empty Chairs At Empty Tables springs to mind - also work really nicely. Sadly a lot of the big rabble-rousing songs - Red and Black, Do You Hear The People Sing? and the like really struggle because the camera is tight on one or two people not everyone. One Day More is the only one of the powerful songs like that that really works well because the layering is worked by clever visual editing while the singers are belting it out full volume. As you add more and more to the mix it grows to full power very nicely.
If I were the director, I'd have done it differently. Of course it might not have been as good but I'd have kept the close-ups on the quiet, emotive songs and worked out a way (as they did for the finale of Do You Hear The People Sing?) of working in bigger shots, more power for the big songs. In my opinion it would have tipped this film over into being truly excellent throughout.
And yet that, ultimately, makes this a film well worth seeing. Although it's superficially very similar to the stage-show to mind my the ability of the cast to act through their songs in the quieter numbers improves them and, again to my mind, the loss of power in most of the bigger numbers weakens them. I mean, by acting through their songs, the number of sobs, half-choked phrases and tears and the like. You can't do that on stage because the person in the worst seat still has to hear you clearly. With the microphone in the right place (and the ability to do several takes) you can put more emotion into your voice because projected clarity at volume is no longer critical. I guess technically, this makes the singing worse, but just like that tear in Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2U emotionally powerful. It gives it a different impact to the show (I ended up wiping away tears several times and while I like the stage version it doesn't make me cry) and overall I find I have to say it's much more intimate.
Whether that makes it better or worse is a personal judgement. Overall my initial impression is somewhat worse but if you're working for a powerful tear-jerker in a big story, you'll probably think it's better. If I see it again, which I probably will I might revise my opinion and see the two versions as more complimentary - film for a more intimate examination, stage show (which I will see again unless they suddenly stop it for some reason) for a more sweeping powerful story of revolution. In its intimacy the film seems closer to the spirit of the book - the life story of one man (and his redemption) against a backdrop of great events in French history. If you just don't like the story... well why are you reading a review of the film? It is, when all said and done, an adaptation of that story and that carries on through too.
The Thénadiers work nicely. No surprises there, Sasha Baron Cohen as a comedic lead, who'd have thought it! Helena Bonham Carter can sing and act and entertain... well hold the front page! One of the things the film makes clearer is that Eponine is their real daughter. There's no description of the relationship they have as children (which is laid out in the book) and perhaps wouldn't be noticed if you didn't already know it, but I can't help but feel that (even for me) it made the Eponine-Marius-Cosette yearning that bit more poignant as it plays through.
I thought it was lovely to see Colm Wilkinson in the film. The very first Valjean for those who don't recognise the name. I wonder how he felt playing the bishop to Jackman's Valjean after all these years? And when I said at the top Hugh Jackman can really sing, there's a few phrases where they sing opposite each other and he holds his own. Colm Wilkinson might be past his prime but is still a completely professional trained singer with a lifetime of experience so kudos to Hugh Jackman. Part of me thinks it would be horribly unfair to see Hugh Jackman and Alfie Boe sing together - Boe is just effortlessly attention grabbing when he sings and in a duet with another great singer (Michael Ball) that I heard recently stole the attention even from him - but however much he would come a poor second, it is meant as a compliment to Jackman when I say I would like to see it.
Oh, and yet again Eponine is far hotter than Cosette. Although why either of them fall for this Marius who knows. Although he sings even his hard parts very well. I'm assured Enjolras is much more plausible as a Lothario for his looks.
And as a warning to those who might get invited to any wedding in the future - while I was searching for something else, this popped up on YouTube. Better get practising guys, I suspect only one of you could carry any of this off and while it's not really a flashmob it's a hell of a wedding breakfast video.
Saturday, December 29. 2012
Seven Psychopaths is a film that in many ways is the offspring of In Bruges and not just because it is directed by the same person.
It is a humorously subversive look at the action movie. It is, perhaps, more subversive than In Bruges although that does a similar thing with the gangland killer movie. Seven Psychopaths relies on a central authorial (or perhaps directorial) trick. It is clear from reading some reviews that critics didn't work this out before writing their reviews yet, to me, it became so obvious so early in the movie (and it is explicitly explained several times) that I am going to discuss it up front and not consider it a spoiler. Without that understanding the review wouldn't make sense and the film would be terrible. However, because others may disagree, I'm going to post the rest of the review below the cut.
Just before I go there, as an aside, the number of terrible reviews made me wonder how many of the critics bothered to actually watch the movie. And if they didn't watch this one that was somewhat layered but not complicated in its structure (although the layering adds interest and texture to what could be an otherwise bland movie) closely enough to notice it, do they ever?
Anyway... If you don't want to read the details, see the film. It is worth it if you watch it. Continue reading "Seven Psychopaths"
Friday, December 14. 2012
Come the end of the movie the first thing we said to each other was "He's done it again" with, it has to be said a huge feeling of relief as well as happiness.
New Zealand remains its beautiful self and as integral to the appearance of Middle Earth as always. WETA, Richard Taylor and a lot of the senior production crew remain too so both a lot of the visual tone and the adaptation processes, or the creative minds behind the adaption process are the same. Plus, of course, Peter Jackson's direction and the return of Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood and Christopher Lee (in approximate order of their screen time) help set those of us that watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy firmly back in that world. Obviously they could have adapted The Hobbit without making LOTR first, but they couldn't have made this adaptation with some of the scenes the way they chose to shoot them.
In case you don't know, The Hobbit is a children's book. It is paced really to be read a chapter at a time as bedtime stories which leads to rather frantic action because each chapter more or less has to stand alone without so much linking parts in the background. And that, a bit like Watchmen was with the pacing for 12 comics, could make it feel very oddly paced as a film. The parts that are introduced - giving us a chunk of history to understand the context, to fit bits in to the later film and foreshadow those events - work to change the pacing so it becomes much more comfortably paced as a film. There is definitely a sense of the characters and the plot developing, moments of exposition as well as frenetic action and moments of humour and it all meshes together very nicely to make a film that, although long, doesn't feel it and certainly kept my attention throughout. A number of these historical elements are completely well-structured, apt, scenes. If you don't have an encyclopaedic memory of the original I'm pretty sure you won't be sure which ones Tolkein wrote and which ones he didn't. Some of the parts that we've already seen are based on throw-away sentences if I remember correctly - but piece by piece they perfectly establish the history of the major characters and events or of dramatic scenes that work beautifully in film.
It's hard to say all the casting is spot on simply because with the Company of Thorin Oakenshield being 14 strong you don't get to see them all equally. It is absolutely fair to say that none of them struck me as less than excellently cast though. Thorin (understandably moody and brooding) and young Bilbo (portraying home sick, terrified and yet enjoying his adventure in a wonderful melange) in particular worked really well. Balin, Bofur, Kili and Fili all came through really well for me too. The rest - a bit like when reading the book for me - kind of blur together into "the Dwarves" although the film makes a definite effort to make them look different. In fact you've almost certainly never seen as many ways of arranging and decorating facial hair in your life as you do in this film - but it does help keep them separate even if they don't really get a lot of time to fully establish themselves. That said, I can remember quirks and twists about them all the next day. There is a glimmer of character for all them there. They haven't quite come alive completely for me but they are a company of individuals rather than a many-headed, many-armed blob.
Andy Serkis is his brilliant Gollum self. It's amazing that a decade on he still has the agility and physicality to do it again. Not so amazing, perhaps, as what I assume is a really good make-up job on Cate Blanchett who appears not to have aged a day in the last 12 years. Appropriate for Galadriel, harder for those of us that live on Planet Earth.
As someone well versed in Gloranthan lore, I think Smaug is small (he sleeps inside a single mountain instead of his body being a mountain range) and a bit of a wimp really - he devastates a human town and attacks and overwhelms a dwarven kingdom but leaves survivors and ignores the elven army outside rather than obliterating them too. Definitely a light-weight. However it is nice for a film to have a dragon where my thoughts incline to those sorts of comparisons rather than thinking that the dragon is an overgrown lizard with bad breath. I am looking forward to more of Smaug. We see and hear just enough to tease the bigger role he has to play.
Mixing through all of that - elements that are perfectly judged, morsels of fine-film-storytelling but largely finely polished but not unexpected elements - is the singing of the dwarves. When I first read The Hobbit, I tended to glaze my eyes and skip over the singing, saga telling and the like but watching and listening to it arranged and sung by a chorus makes it work for me in a way that simply reading it never managed. And like great food, it's the final element, the little twist, that makes this film not only great but unique and wonderful.
I'm sure not everyone will like it. There are a few folks out there that didn't like the adaptation of Lord of the Rings that these people did. I imagine they mostly won't like this either. But for everyone else in the world, invest those 3 and a bit hours of your time. You will almost certainly feel all the better for it. I should probably, since it's dominated a chunk of the reviews, say I saw the film in 3D at 24fps - the standard. I'm not sure that 3D particularly added anything but it didn't detract either. I would quite like to see the higher frame rate version, just to see what all the fuss is about, but in the 'old' standard for 3D it is thoroughly watchable and highly recommended.
Wednesday, December 5. 2012
It's that time of year again, my 2012 film list, in order.
As usual some clusters and on another day the order might be different within them but probably not between them. The top four were all great films that I thoroughly enjoyed. There's quite a difference in style between these films - a young adult dystopian science fiction story, a period biopic, a Shakespearean adaptation and an exploration of sex and relationships in the modern world through the eyes of an addict. It makes ranking them tricky to my mind and very dependent on my mood at the time. These films all seemed good, solid movies at the time in their various ways and have remained so in my memory.
Dredd was almost in that top category too, but it always ranked fifth so I put it into a group on its own. Although I thoroughly enjoyed it, there were tiny niggles on reflection that made it always fifth when compared to the others.
The next group seem more of a sort until you get to Rock of Ages. They are all very good films but for various reasons not quite as good at the top 5. None had real problems (some might disagree with Looper and its take on time travel) but it's the difference between a very satisfying meal and a truly great one. You might struggle to analyse exactly why a is better than b, but you're in no doubt that it is. Man on a Ledge wins a new award for the most totally gratuitous use of the female body. I do remember other things about the film (honest) but those lingering cleavage and the strip down to underwear and redressing in the skin-tight suit is still a clear memory several months later. Not the detail of it but the fact it was so blatantly present through a big chunk of the film. I'm trying to think the last time I saw filming like that... I think Charlie's Angels (the TV series) possibly (I didn't ever watch Baywatch, that might be a more recent contender).
If you asked me to come and visit for the evening and suggested putting any of the films in these top three groups on, I'd probably settle down to watch quite happily.
The fourth group are all good films too. No problems with any of the five of them - although I was a bit surprised to see all three animated movies in this group - I wonder if that reflects something about me or something about them this year. They're all films I enjoyed but don't really feel a need to see again. To extend the food metaphor, this is me cooking my own tea. I cook pretty well, but it's always nicer when someone else cooks for me! Snow White almost broke out of this group into a group of its own. It's in the right place by mean score on my internal scale but has a wider variance than most of the films. I wouldn't mind seeing it again for at least some parts, which out to put up a group but it's also flawed which ought to put it down a couple of groups. So it's ended up here.
Then there's an odd group. I looked at both of them and thought "Um, what?" I have very little memory of either them. I suppose in that sense my comment is that seeing these films was literally a waste of my time. And money. I know I did see them but I just don't remember them. Big budget Hollywood formula movies and Sherlock Holmes also suffers thanks to Sherlock on the BBC I suspect. I should probably wish I had this time back, which might shift them under the next group, but I don't remember spending the time so I don't feel any need to have it back.
The next group were worse and, I think unlikely to change their order. They weren't truly awful - but to my mind they were all poor films and memorably severely flawed in various ways. Dark Shadows relied too much on knowing the TV series and didn't work for me on that basis. Chronicle was another "found documentary" but unlike Troll Hunter the year before didn't pull it off successfully to my mind. It was also rather too predictable throughout. Prometheus had a number of issues at a number of times and probably wasn't helped by the hype either. It's possible that the hype dragged Prometheus unfairly to the bottom of this group but there were so many flaws that I still remember that I'm inclined to think not.
And then the time I really wish I'd had back. The Raven. Bad film, or, as I still remember, two films mashed together oddly. But definitely the worst of the year for my money.
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