Monday, February 24. 2014
Like many people I watched Ellen Page's coming out speech at the Time To Thrive conference a couple of week ago. Although I'm in the camp that thinks we shouldn't need a 'coming out speech' and thinks perhaps in 50 years time we won't have such things, at least not more than the direct straight equivalent of the first time your partner and your parents meet. But that's a topic for a different time if ever.
No, what struck me and finally worked its way into this post was the comment about a report about her in sweat pants on the way to gym (it's about 3:20 in). What right does anyone have to comment about her clothing and appearance in everyday life?
We can argue about whether or not I have a right to consider whether or not I have a right to consider her hot or not and to express that - with reasonable limits of politeness of course. Frankly I doubt you'll ever stop people thinking about whether others are attractive, so 'rights' aren't really the correct way to consider it. That doesn't mean it's not important to make sure we educate both boys and girls about good ways to express that attraction, and that the value of a person is far, far more than if you're attracted to them or not, but that's not the same as stopping them gauging whether they find another person attractive or not. But, again, not relevant to the main point.
Ellen Page is, obviously, an actress. To some extent we have an unusual right to judge her appearance over another persons. To pick a different actress for a moment, for reasons that will become clear, it would be fair to say we would not cast Jodie Foster today (2014, aged 51) in the roles in Taxi Driver or The Accused where she has to be young and innocent. There is no doubt she is a brilliant actress but at 51 she is not the young innocent that those roles require and she doesn't look it. Equally, the Jodi Foster of then, or the Ellen Page of now would not work in her latest film role, Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt in Elysium where she has to be a powerful political figure. We wouldn't believe a teenager (the young Ms. Foster) and we'd struggle with a 27 year old (the current Ms. Page) whereas a woman in her late 40's as she was then worked just fine. That's a judgement on appearance. Although a few decades ago things were different, we wouldn't cast either of them as Solomon Northrup's wife/daughter in 12 Years a Slave because we don't cast across racial lines. I whole-heartedly approve of that (and I accept there can be exceptional circumstances for breaking the rule, like Cloud Atlas but that was an exception) but at the same time it's a completely legitimate judgement on appearance. There has been some controversy recently over the actor chosen to portray Wonder Woman in an upcoming film. While the tone of the criticism is, in my opinion, unreasonable, if Ellen Page had been cast wondering how an actress 155cm tall had been cast as a "tall Amazon warrior princess" might have some legs. Mind you, it might not - there are many ways the story could be written where the adjective tall is removed, or even successfully joked about for those fans in the know. 'I thought you'd be taller' 'Myths can be so misleading' kind of thing. I suspect Ellen Page doesn't have the martial arts background, but I don't know Carrie-Anne Moss did before The Matrix but she learnt well enough. And, of course, the dreaded biopic has to be considered. I wouldn't cast Ellen Page as Marilyn Monroe in a biopic of Marilyn for example. Blonde hair is easy enough with wigs and dye these days, but the shape of her face is just wrong and while I'm sure she's a talented enough actor to play the role I don't think she looks close enough to be convincing in the part.
It shouldn't have to be mentioned, but I will just in case, that these comments about appearance apply equally to men. With the best will in the world we wouldn't cast Bruce Willis or Ron Perlman as Christian Grey in the forthcoming 50 Shades of Grey because he's meant to be in his mid-20's and they're too old. Thinking back to Ellen Page possibly being miscast as Wonder Woman in the forthcoming Batman and Superman film, at no point in their career would they have been instantly obvious for either of the male leads. They don't have the chiselled jaw and so on for Superman, and while they could doubtless pull off of the action scenes required of Batman, can you really see either of them in the "billionaire businessman philanthropist playboy heartthrob" role as Bruce Wayne? No offence to either, but Bruce Willis is the blue-collar type, Ron Perlman is the giant bruiser type: neither is the suave sophisticate. Yes, just like the "tall Amazon princess" could be rewritten to suit, so could these two characters - some would argue Batman has been for Ben Affleck - but judging actors by their appearance is fair to some extent regardless of their sex and can (should) be even handed. Of course, culturally it's not even handed - we tend to judge women more harshly still and more often but it doesn't mean that as an actor there is a limited, legitimate balanced level at which appearance is a valid concern above the norm.
Back to the main point.
There are legitimate occasions where, because of Ellen Page's job, we the public and certainly the director and casting director consider her appearance in a way that a person in everyday life would not be subject to. Your boss may say "your clothes aren't suitable, you need to dress up to the dress code" but you don't get the receptionist's job because you don't look enough like Marilyn Monroe or similar, not normally.
But away from that Ellen Page is just a person. She has a right - you could argue with a Hollywood career she has a duty - to go to the gym. She should be able to dress comfortably. Not just to go to the gym, almost whenever she wants. Oscar day, press junkets and on set are a bit different because she's dressing for work but around and about - she doesn't have a duty to anyone to dress in something particular. Why should we, any of us, expect her to? Clearly some of us do. It's not the biggest and most egregious form of abuse of women you'll see but it's an insidious and nasty one precisely because it's not egregious. Whatever my personal opinion on whether I fancy Ellen Page or not, it's not her duty to dress to impress me, or you or anyone except on those times she's doing work things. She dresses for herself, for her partner and that should really be it. And the sooner we all learn that, the better for us all.
Monday, February 24. 2014
Dallas Buyers Club seems quite a bit longer than the less than two hours it actually runs. Much like American Hustle it's a film where not a lot happens although unlike American Hustle it's not really about con artists (although that accusation is thrown around) so at least you can relax and trust what you're watching to be a pretty truthful presentation of what's going on.
It follows what the doctors tell him are likely to be the last 30 days of Ron Woodruff's life after he's diagnosed with HIV and a T-cell count of 9 (rather than the more typical 700-1,000). His diagnosis coincides with the start of AZT trials and Ron, being a Texan rodeo rider isn't someone to just lie down - he decides to fight the disease and 'die with his boots on.'
By various means, some illegal and some including a lot of time doing research in various libraries, he ends up on a regime of non-FDA approved drugs, vitamins and the like imported from all over the place and opens a 'Buyer's Club' where other people with AIDS join the club for a monthly fee and then are given the drugs free. The FDA aren't happy about this and he has various run-ins with them. Buyer's Clubs were a fairly common reaction to the slow process of FDA approval and the initial dosage levels of AZT which bordered on the toxic and caused side effects that were really pretty unpleasant.
Alongside this is the story of his burgeoning friendship with a junior doctor at the AIDS clinic and much more significantly with the transgendered person Rayon, who also has AIDS and is in the AZT trial.
Ron, as a Texan redneck cowboy is about as homophobic as you'd imagine, although he doesn't mind watching two hookers making out for his pleasure in a typical piece of hypocrisy. His attitude, and that of his friends, to seeing the news that Rock Hudson is dying of AIDS is crude and unpleasant. Karma is a bitch, and when he tells one of his friends he's been diagnosed with AIDS they treat him in exactly the same way. This doesn't stop Ron initially treating Rayon like a contagious leper but over time the two become allies and I think 'mates' is the right word. They're not precisely friends: they're too different and they have more than enough differences of opinion that prevent them respecting each other sufficiently to overcome those differences and become friends, but they develop a relationship where they work together and can tease each other with hilarious results at one point. Ron is devastated when he comes home from a business trip and finds Rayon has died.
I have to say, although the intention of the homophobia was obvious, being British "faggot" and the very occasional "sugar-puff" just don't have the emotional impact that I expect they would in the US. They're not, to my memory and awareness, part of our gay-bashing lexicon. It's obvious what's meant to be going on but it lacks a bit of punch over here.
That said, Ron's emotional journey is interesting in and of itself and enough to maintain interest in the film I'm told. But, at the time, I was plugged in to the medical research side of things as well. So seeing that presented, listening to the opening of the AZT trials and hearing about people selling their drugs (Rayon was sharing hers with someone else) and so on was interesting to me. And seeing the difference of the US medical system to ours is endlessly fascinating for me. These things might make you think "OMG more bloody science" and bore you instead.
I would say Dallas Buyers Club is well worth seeing but it might be a film to wait and see at home where you can pause it and fix yourself another cuppa or glass of wine or whatever. There's nothing about it that demands a big screen experience in my opinion.
Bechdel test? I'm going to say Rayon was transgendered she, despite being played by a male actor and so yes, although I understand a lot of people might argue with that. I sadly don't remember a conversation between Eve and the nurse (who is named), just instructions one way which would be a much safer yes and just about the only other chance.
Both McConaughey (Woodruff) and Leto (Rayon) have been nominated for Oscars. Whether they're among the best 5 or 6 performances of the year isn't really for me to judge but I would say they're both very strong. Both of them lost of load of weight and look emaciated for their role which seems to impress Oscar judges. Frankly it just scared me looking at them, they both looked like they were about to break at any moment.
But McConaughey took a character who you can sum up in three words: Texan redneck cowboy and gave a layered, interesting performance where you could see him change emotionally and physically as the film went along. I don't know that I'd have liked Ron Woodruff, but I understood what drove him thanks to this film and a chunk of that is due to McConaughey. That probably makes him deserve the nomination because it could have been so flat and different or do in your face and unbelievable.
Leto's performance wasn't the same. Where McConaughey was solid and perhaps understated, Leto was flamboyant and somewhat of a scene-stealer. In that sense his performance was most like Jennifer Lawrence's in American Hustle but, at the same time, he added lift and brightness, and pathos and tragedy, to what could have been an otherwise unrelentingly grim story. Some of that is how it was written of course but a large part of that ability to grab the limelight and thrive in it as he did is down to the actor as well. And it's just the sort of thing a supporting actor should be doing.
Friday, February 14. 2014
Lone Survivor is film where the title really spoils itself, so I feel less compunction about including spoilers than normal - be warned!
The film starts with some clips of Navy SEAL selection, reminding (or informing) the viewer that it's not about being the best marine in the terms you might expect - shooting, swimming etc. - that's tested, rather it's sheer, bloody-minded, gritty will to carry on, to overcome, to survive and keep going. As they make clear, quitting the selection is easy - you just ring the bell three times and put your helmet on the ground at any time - but you have to choose to keep going through the several kinds of hell they throw at you. (Interestingly, although the kinds of hell are different, most special forces use a similar endurance test - the sheer ability to keep going through pain and suffering and still function is the most important thing that they select for.)
The film then moves on to the members of the team and others in Afghanistan, setting them up as real people - one is about to get married and his fiancée wants an Arabian horse as a wedding present, another's wife is redecorating room by room and so he's asking his team mates about colour choices while they're teasing him that she's nesting and pregnant and so on.
There are little, I assume genuine, tributes to the Navy SEALS, like the new boy who goes through a hazing ritual before his first mission, leading up a recital of what it means to be a SEAL in terms that I'm sure the officers know about but would deny completely as it's rather politically incorrectly as it basically talks about fighting and shagging your way around the world because you're an indestructible rock-hard frogman.
Then it changes gear from bearded, topless Queer Eye for the Straight Guy meets Changing Rooms meets The Wedding Planner to a war movie as a recon team of four is sent in to scout for a top Taliban commander believed to be in a small village. If he's there a larger operation will be launched to 'get' him - presumably kill although that's not really made clear. The team hike into position, spot the target and start taking pictures.
Just then an unarmed old man and two boys and a herd of goats show up. The SEALS capture them easily and try to call in for advice but the mountains block communications so they're on their own. While the gamer in me thinks there are different choices, they take one of the morally correct choices, let the three non-combatants go and head out, hoping to call for a quick evacuation.
This moral dilemma forms one of the high points of the film as far as I'm concerned: it was the hook that made it that made it interesting enough to go and see.
After this there is a long (and I do mean long) running battle between the Taliban and the SEALS. It goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. And on and on and on. And on and on. And on some more. And then some more. And a bit more and some more.
Frankly I lost interest. I imagine it's probably a pretty good rendition of a protracted firefight given it was written and filmed in consultation with the guy that went through it. It should probably be shown to anyone that wants to sign up and anyone that thinks war is glorious and anyone that wants to start a war. If you want to see a firefight in mountainous terrain you'll probably love this bit. There's lots of it - I'd guess well over 75 minutes of the film.
There are two insane cliff jumps. One is filmed pretty much straight - about a 6m drop and they just go and you see the drop in one pan. According to an interview I heard the stuntmen just went for it and were battered and bruised and unhappy (no padding, no crash mats, no fancy falling techniques) but OK. The second cliff was more like 25m and the stuntmen said no way! I can understand their point of view - stuntmen want to do the stunt, get up and go on to do the next stunt, the SEALS doing it for real were prepared to risk death rather than get captured by the Taliban and beheaded on a propaganda video. Different scale of risk assessment. It made for a scene that was jarring at the time because it didn't feel quite right in the rest of the film that was presented as rather in moment, nitty gritty. I suspect it's fair showing of the survivor's memory of that fall, bouncing down the cliff and it was safe to film, but it seemed odd, out of place, at the time.
There are a few moments when the film pulls back and portrays a number of snafus at other points: there aren't enough Apaches so the quick reaction force has its Apaches pulled away so can't mount a proper rescue mission when communications are briefly reestablished for example. The commander of SEAL Team Ten gets half a message, knows things are going wrong, bounces it upstairs and basically gets shouted at. He decides to go it alone and makes a couple of bad choices that end up with him dead because he goes off half-cocked.
But mostly there's this unending firefight. You do, however, come to appreciate why the special forces selection might be for the ability to just keep going - between the jumping off cliffs, getting shot several times and so on all of the SEALs just keep going until they're actually killed whether that's shot in the head, shot multiple times in the chest or whatever. Shot in the foot? It slows them down, but they'll keep walking. Shot in the hand? They'll reload their rifle one handed and keep shooting. Compound fracture of the femur? Push the bone back in, and when you wake up, just march out of there Frogman! (OK, I'm exaggerating to say he marched, but the rest is right.)
In this part of the film there's no particularly special merit to the fact the SEAL is an American - he's just to damn stubborn to lie down and die. I don't want to say he's too stupid to know he's beaten but honestly it was my first thought. I appreciate that sounds incredibly insulting to an incredibly tough man. It's said with the utmost admiration - I would have given up and died ages before that but it really is unthinkable to me that he could just keep going like that. He's like an indestructible labrador puppy, whatever happened he just bounced up and kept on going.
Finally he found a river and fell in to get some relief and water. In what is possibly the most courageous act he decides to trust the local who offers him an open hand and so he is rescued by some local tribesmen who take him in. They agree to take a message to a nearby American base so they can come and get him out. Unfortunately the local Taliban come to the village while he is waiting, find him and try to execute him. Much to his surprise, and at no small risk to themselves, the villagers stand up to the Taliban for him.
Things are not looking good as the Taliban come back in force to punish the villagers and recapture him, but the messenger got through and the helicopter gunships come over the hill just in time. Hoo-rah!
Fortunately, as far as I'm concerned, the film didn't end there.
First there was a pictorial tribute the men of the US Armed services that died on the actual operation. Unlike the song Nineteen and the implications of that, one of the things that is always odd with special forces is that unlike the regular forces, the members of special forces are already experienced then go for selection and then additional (long) training. They're in their late 20's at a minimum, usually their 30's and maybe 40's. They have families and so on. Although there were pictures of them in uniform, there were pictures of them with their wives, children and the like as well to illustrate the wider impact. It also showed Marcus has gone back to say thank you to the villagers who rescued him.
And, most importantly of all for my money, was an explanation of the villagers actions. Marcus, the SEAL, was their guest. Their cultural code requires them to care for and even protect their guest, and they weren't going to break that for the Taliban. It's very easy from here to say "Ah, Afghanistan" and think of it as a country like we're a country. But this little piece changes this film so it's a piece of education that however much we want to think of it that way, it's really a load of tribal cultures that are very different to each other. It's an uneasy amalgam of tribes that we pretend is a country and solutions that pretend it's a modern unified country are likely to fail.
Bechdel test? Fat chance. There were women, in the Afghan village. But the only named woman you only see in a photo.
One thing that struck us both as odd - why did none of the SEALS speak any of the native languages? I'm no expert but I'm pretty sure UK special forces are expected to learn foreign languages and pick up the languages where they're being deployed on intensive courses. If you're a recon team, understanding some of what's being said, even if you can't hold a full conversation, is surely pretty useful?
Thursday, February 6. 2014
This may seem an odd place to start but apart from "It was very long" it was just about the first comment that crossed my mind about the film. So, here goes. One of the parody sites, college-humor.com I think, did "True Oscar Posters" for this year's nominations and renamed American Hustle as American Boobs. I think American Cleavage would have been more truthful (although less eye catching) - American fashion might have been that different to UK fashion, and I was only 14 or so at the time the film was set (although you'd think I'd have been noticing such things) - but the plunging necklines of Amy Adams' character throughout were extreme. Presumably she's meant to be distracting people so they're not thinking about the chance they're being conned but even so... Not that I'm complaining, I'm not hypocritical or prudish enough, but it seems unlikely for a con artist - the plunging necklines and cut-away sides went OTT I think. It wasn't so much distracting as flaunting and would a con artist risk that?
The film is also shot in quite a high colour saturation. It's not a look you see every day, but it gave the feeling of 1970's films which was interesting. Clearly appropriate but it was somewhat odd for the first 10 minutes or so until my brain adapted.
American Hustle has been nominated for an Oscar and I have to say I don't understand why. Now, in my opinion the film has some sterling performances: I completely understand why Jennifer Lawrence was tipped for Best Supporting Actress for example - more on that later. I'm not sure I'd have tipped Amy Adams for Best Actress - but for a lot of the film she does a lot of the heavy lifting, setting the tone of the film and for a chunk of the first 15 minutes or so trying to both establish her character as someone looking for her place in the world who finally finds it running cons and essentially as the narrator of the film. I can't help thinking it would have been helped if there'd been a narrator. It would certainly have helped as she flitted from stripper to Cosmo stringer to con artist in about five minutes as she 'found herself' as a youngster. Once her narrator role slipped away and she was into the con artist role she still carried role but she grew and flourished after a start where it seemed too confused and bitty to me - which suggests to me a poor script for that first little bit.
Christian Bale, by contrast, looks ugly with a pot belly and a ridiculous comb-over. You have to forgive him the medallions, gold chains and so in a movie set in 1979. Although I'm not his biggest fan by any stretch of the imagination he seems to have been nominated largely because he got ugly for the role. He was solid throughout the film (unlike some of his other films) and I believed his character but there was nothing outstanding there.
There's a relatively simple story - Bale and Adams are highly successful but fairly small scale con artists - taking small, but desperate, people refused loans, for $5000 a time to try and secure them a loan but just pocketing the money. They get stung by an FBI agent and turned with a deal - land 4 bigger fish and they'll go free. Adams wants to run, Bale thinks they can do it, they fight but eventually agree.
Up to this point, their work and sexual relationship and so on, all seems believable. Bale has a wife (Lawrence) and adopted son, but Adams knows all of this and seems to accept it. From the inner dialogues we're privileged to hear this warts and all (or wives and sons and all) acceptance is pretty well established as fact. In fact, with the inner dialogues, there's a rather different film that could have developed about the ways we con ourselves and each other and so forth. It would probably have been an art-house movie - possibly in French with subtitles - rather than an Oscar nominated Hollywood big-star vehicle, but it might well have been a rather more interesting movie.
Once they get turned by the FBI you see them plotting for various outcomes and if you have half a brain from this point on you can never be sure what is the truth and what isn't, at least as far as these two go. Exactly who are they conning? How much, if any, of what we are seeing is the truth, and how much is con? This is not helped by the sudden disappearance of the inner dialogue.
From then on, it remains a film about the con, the con artists, and although there are elements of how they can be conned themselves, it tries to sweep you along in the story of the FBI operation to land the bigger fish rather than being a reflective, introspective movie.
The FBI operation spirals more and more out of control as each step makes the agent reach for a bigger and bigger prize. It doesn't take a particularly astute of observation to spot what's going on. The numbness of your behind and stiffness of your muscles are likely to be the biggest clue for the imminent end of the film.
There are a number of what might, in a different movie, be nicely post-modern deconstructions about the movie and it's plot. In a post-post-modern way they're very nicely worked in so they're presented as character moments instead. Indeed some of them I'm still realising now are really post-modern desconstructions worked elegantly into the script. It's hard to describe them without spoilers, so I won't, but it is nicely done.
One other big reason that does surprise me that the film was nominated for an Oscar is that I would say, for me, if was to be asked to give the dreaded elevator pitch for this movie, I'd say it's about the grifters making good, and proving that The American Dream lends itself to be peculiarly exploited by conmen. Just about everyone that is stung is driven by ambition and that dream of reaching the top regardless of where they started out. That level of cynicism about America is a rather unlikely subject for an Oscar nominee I think.
There's a very neat conclusion with the suckers and some of the criminals going to jail and a "They (nearly) all lived happily ever after" for the rest. There's a bittersweet twist in one or two cases.
All that said, there are a number of scenes of this film that are just great. Jennifer Lawrence's version of Live and Let Die as she's cleaning is awesome. Christian Bale organising his combover is grotesque but compelling. The first scene between Bale and Lawrence - the "we fight and fuck, it's our thing" scene is compelling too, a very different Jennifer Lawrence to Katniss Everdine, but more evidence that a star is here. and actually most of her scenes are well worth watching. There are a number of key story scenes that I won't tell you about are good too. Once Amy Adams is allowed to just act her role, she gets on with it and many of her scenes are great too. The selling of the final con in particular is awesome. If you're of an age to enjoy late '70's music there's a great soundtrack (just try not to sing along too obnoxiously).
I enjoyed this film - despite it's long list of flaws, it has enough of a story and more than enough good scenes that it's more positive than negative. I don't think there's any scene there that makes it necessary to see this at the cinema. You could wait for it come out and be cut price on DVD or even on TV and record it to watch at your leisure without really risking much. But it is worth a watch sometime.
Bechdel test? Yes. There's a rambling drunken conversation about nail polish for one. Another about cats, Pimms and tea 'all the way from England'. Probably more, but those two at least, with two different pairs of named female characters. There's a blazing confrontation between the two female leads, but they only talk about 'their man' - inevitable in the story that's set up. Great scene though.
When the actors are allowed to let rip, the great acting in those sparkling scenes make up for the flaws that drag this film down into the ordinary and help you forget the backache and numbness of the posterior. I don't regret seeing it. I'd happily watch some of the scenes again but I probably won't make any effort to turn over to watch this in future. On the other hand, if it happened to come on and there was nothing else on, I'd probably not turn over either.
Friday, January 31. 2014
It is easy, and accurate, to summarise The Railway Man as a story about time and love curing all ills. While this is an accurate summary, to use that as grounds to dismiss this moving true story would be a mistake in my opinion.
Equally, I consider using the fact there is only one named female character and so dismally fails the Bechdel test as grounds to avoid it would be a mistake. Indeed it would avoid a truth, clearly expressed in the film, about how some, possibly many or most, of the survivors of the Burma Railway camps lived: partially or wholly cut off from anyone who didn't go through it with them, unable to articulate their experiences and living more like ghosts than anything else. This obviously gave them a very male circle of friends as the other prisoners were all male. Even with those that shared their experiences a big dose of stiff upper lip didn't really help them talk about it.
Into this repressed completely male world, as a literal bolt from the Gods responsible for train cancellations, comes Patty, who becomes Eric's wife and the only woman in the whole film.
The story essentially unfolds in the early 1980's and the mid-1940's, in England and Burma. Eric Lomax, a train enthusiast, the Railway Man of the title, runs across platforms and jumps on a different train thanks to a cancellation where he bumps into Patty. They chat and start to fall in love. In fairly short order they get married and on their wedding night bad plumbing in the hotel triggers what we would now glibly label a psychotic break thanks to severe, untreated PTSD.
The film then splits between Lonax's capture after the fall of Singapore, time on the Burma Railway, interrogation and torture and his time in the 1980's as his world falls apart. It is worth remembering that although we would call it a psychotic break and PTSD in the early 1980's the language just wasn't there. (Patty, it is revealed had been a nurse for 20 years and even she doesn't really know how to deal with it.) Although there is a danger in reaching for labels and not treating the individual, having the label today enables us to reach out, call for help. It is particularly hard to imagine a nurse in 2014 wouldn't recognise what was happening and be able to access help, even if he or she wasn't a specialist in the filed.
Both stories travel in chronological order which had its moments of frustration for me - I was seeing the PTSD from the end of the torture but didn't really know how things had got there until near the end of the film - however, it did mean the stories made more narrative sense as I got to see the events that lead up to him being tortured laid out sensibly rather than in another set of flashbacks or filtered through his torture and interrogation. It's a balance that, I think, would have been awkward either way and this way was almost certainly the better of the two because it means you trust the recollections of the Burma Railway and the torture - and that is absolutely critical on many different levels. I don't mind paying attention and following the threads of the story, I like it even, but part of me wanted to know right now what was so terrible in the room that triggered the worst of Lomax's terrors.
Then the two timelines collide. The torturer, Nagase, is alive in 1980-something and running tours of the prison camp where he plied his gruesome trade. Lomax is told this by one of the other survivors, with the agreement of Patty, and goes to confront him and wreak his revenge. However, Lomax's life has changed thanks to Patty. He is no longer merely a ghost, he has something - the love he feels for Patty - to live for. This leads to a rather different confrontation than you might expect and the rather different conclusion to the film than many would expect.
I thought long and hard about to phrase that penultimate sentence in the previous paragraph. That's how it came across to me - it's not the person of Patty, it's not her, it's not someone to live for, it's something, the love he feels for her. It is fair to say up front that Lomax was not in his right mind and we do see him being charming, romantic and fun to be with before his PTSD strikes. I could understand why Patty wants that man back. But during the worst of it, I could equally have understood if she'd walked out on him - yes, he was in a really crappy mental state, but he treated her abominably. Nevertheless, he is able to enunciate that he loves her, he wants to love her properly, and his desire to be a good husband for her gives him something to live for. That's something - it's all about him, albeit him in relationship to her. That might sound critical of him and it isn't meant to - it's the liferaft that pulled him out of a spiralling, dark, terrible place and that's a good thing. It's just an observation without judgement, and a explanation of what might seem like an odd phrasing of "something" in such close juxtaposition with "love of Patty" which you might normally expect to be expressed as "someone."
The true power of this conclusion comes from the fact that it's based on real events. You might, at least one person I've talked to about the film has been, left wondering how Lomax reaches the point, and indeed how Nagase does although that only comes after the film, that they become friends for the rest of their lives. If this was fiction you would say it was just too contrived. But tied with the photos of the real men at the bridge it was touching. I think you need to see the film and come to your own opinion here - I think I can understand it but I wouldn't be surprised if you can't and while I can understand Lomax not killing Nagase easily, it's a stretch for me to understand them becoming friends - although I accept that this is the truth of what happened.
This film makes no pretence that it's a recipe for how to treat PTSD: it's a story about one person's journey through it, supported by a loving and incredibly determined wife, bolstered by his own realisation that he loves her and wants to have a future with her and 35+ years of time not exactly healing the wounds but perhaps dulling the pain just a little. Even with that, I can't imagine having the victim of torture (and he still is at that point, rather than a 'survivor of torture' or any other label of someone moving beyond it) armed and in the place he was tortured with his torturer would exactly become a standard treatment regime! That scene wasn't, for me at least, the most distressing scene of the film, but it was intense. I imagine the actual meeting must have been even more intense though.
For those of us, like me, old enough to remember trains in Britain in the 80's there's an element of nostalgia. For those, like me (and I rather suspect nearly everyone else in the showing we went to, where we were the youngest people by 2-3 decades, an unusual experience for us) who know, or in my case have known, people who survived having worked on the Burma Railway, there's an added layer of impact. And thinking back on it, the scene when Patty says 'he never talks about anything that happens after the fall of Singapore' certainly resonates. I knew before going in of course, from history lessons and other places - not least Bridge on the River Kwai - but never first hand. I don't ever remember asking but my memory is that the stories when they were told, were moved away from that time, subtly or otherwise.
This film doesn't hit the same huge sweeping panorama that 12 Years a Slave did but, perhaps because of those personal memories and nostalgic moments, and it's very Britishness, hit harder for me. It's messages about treating PTSD we've hopefully got better with - although we still have a long way to go - but other parts like the impact of water-boarding make it relevant today even though it's apparently a biopic about 35 or 70 years ago. Even if you don't see this at the cinema I think it's well worth the couple of hours of your life to watch it.
Friday, January 17. 2014
Before going to see this film I was of the opinion I didn't reminding that slavery is evil. However you twist your words and morality to support it, it requires a twisted morality to believe you can own another human, trade them as property, do to them as you wish regardless of their will. I stop here. Interestingly this line, with the addendum that you can alternatively turn to drink or drugs to deaden the protests, was actually articulated pretty much by an alcoholic ex-overseer of slaves within the film.
This film did nothing to challenge my view that slavery is evil. Nothing either to reinforce it - but that's possibly because it's simply impossible to reinforce it. That doesn't mean it was a waste of time watching it though. Unlike some Oscar nominated movies, this is a film that was gripping, immensely watchable and moving. Just because it didn't do anything to make me believe more strongly that slavery is evil doesn't mean it's not a good film on its own merits.
Although they're both dealing with slavery, this is in many ways the opposite of Django Unchained. Where that never claimed to be true and so, perhaps, told a mythic, filmic, truth that no other approach can manage, Twelve Years A Slave takes the partial autobiography of one man - Solomon Northrup, or Platt as he is renamed by the slavers - of the part of his life between being kidnapped into slavery and being freed again and renders it as a biopic. It's clearly not true in the sense of being a fly-on-the-wall documentary but it's showing a very personal view of slavery with a couple of rather different owners.
There are some odd things about the film. It starts with a scene from near the middle and it's pretty clear it's from near the middle as a flash-forward. That's OK. But when you get there the scene is practically unimportant. It's important enough to the story to make the cut and be included over other scenes (I haven't read the book and I don't know what was left on the virtual cutting room floor) but in the course of the film it's far from the most significant scene. Why is it played twice? There are other scenes that I think deserve it more, even after sleeping on it. Solomon also manages to avoid ageing for most of the film, but almost overnight it seems, he goes from black-haired to grey and old on the day he is freed and returned to his family. Bah.
Although I understand it's based on a book, and I haven't read it, the book was written after his legal cases against those who had kidnapped him and enslaved him had failed because he was not allowed to testify against them because he was black. It doesn't play overtly in the film like it's a bitter man's vengeance but at the same time it's hard to explain some of the other features in any other way. In particular, and it seems odd to say, there are very few black voices in this film. Solomon of course. Patsey and Eliza have fairly chunky parts (although Eliza mostly cries). Clemens and Mistress Shaw have smaller but significant parts. After that I'm struggling to think of speaking parts for black actors that said more than a couple of lines. There was quite a bit of singing - in the cotton fields, around a grave and the like - but not really any talking. Why, apart from Solomon, are the only voices you really hear for any length of time those of white people? It's decidedly odd. My initial thought was this was meant to be a form of portraying Solomon's choice of survival technique. He withdrew and decided not to trust anyone - partially on the advice of a real runaway that was being returned to slavery on the same ship that was carrying him into slavery and partly because he sees and learns that showing initiative and skill earns him hatred, punishment and risks his life. This is quite disturbingly shown on a couple of occasions. However, after more time away from the film it has become more of an issue for me. There is a black voice, a central one, obviously. But there could easily have been a multitude of black voices quite easily. It just seems odd that they're not there. I'm guessing they're not there in the book and it's true to the book that way but it's somewhat jarring.
There is, as well as the strong line of racism that is inevitable in such a movie, a strong line of sexism as well. White men are clearly on top - even the hired, foreign help with dangerous abolitionist ideas are more important than anyone else who isn't a white man. Then white women. Then black men and then black women. But that can be played around with by being 'the master's favourite' and so on. This is nicely shown and thrown in his face when he is his owner's favour and another is not. The reality of just how much favour and whim governs their lives, and late spite and jealousy too, all wrapped up in the thinnest of scriptural justification is laid out. I'm not saying it's not accurate and compared to the rape, the hanging, the casual brutality and so on it's possibly quite minor but it's there and shouldn't be forgotten.
I initially found myself wondering about the portrayal of Epps. Not that I'm doubting Michael Fassbender's acting nor that he did what was asked of him. And I'm guessing he acted the part as it was written in the book. Perhaps America is still full of choleric, pseudo-God-fearing ginger white men. I was going to say with seriously bad attitudes to people of colour and women but I know these two are true. From my British perspective he came over as more insane or perhaps a caricature than a real character - although as scarily insane rather than comic relief at every turn. Saying that, I recently heard a two part story about Texas University (I think, certainly somewhere in Texas) appointing its first black head coach for the football program, and then a rich white guy who supports the football team protesting ostensibly because he hadn't been consulted but you very much get the impression because he didn't like the fact they'd appointed a black guy. I don't know if he's ginger, but choleric, pseudo-God-fearing, entitled white guy. Check. Donald Trump as well. Perhaps Northrup wrote a really accurate character sketch and we just rarely come across people like over here. So - it played oddly, although scarily, at first but perhaps that character will be one of the ones with the lasting impact. It's pretty clear from the outside that America has serious race issues still and while they're not all just rich white dudes to poor black folk the modern equivalents to Epps are still there and certainly not helping.
Despite an intense portrayal of man's venality, man's inhumanity to man, man's ability to twist words to justify anything they wish to do and thoroughly exploring the darker side of slavery this is a curiously hopeful film. Perhaps it's the title of the film and the fact that, going in, I knew it was based on a book written as an autobiography. However crap it got for Solomon (and it got very crap) you knew he was going to live and be sane and fit enough to write. That doesn't reduce the impact of the darker moments, in fact is possibly serves - Vogon poetry-like - to throw them into sharp relief, but it lets us take that journey in a way that perhaps a similar film in which he died in slavery (a much more common outcome, as the film sombrely points out at the end) would never have managed.
Perhaps surprisingly I think this film passes the Bechdel test. Patsey and Mistress Shaw chat about the nicer things in life, albeit very briefly, over tea.
Thursday, January 9. 2014
A few times I had to remind myself that Frozen is a kiddy's movie - which is meant as a compliment because it mostly came when I was carried away on the fun of it and they suddenly didn't develop a plot the way I expected them to and went for a simpler solution instead.
There were a couple of parts that were like that - a bit simplistic, aimed at the kids that I think could have been written more complicated (without being older) without a problem but overall the story was fun and satisfying.
As a film, Frozen deals, really pretty explicitly, with some of the choices about growing up as a girl. There's the straight-forward one - grow up with the "normal" choices and want to get married, settle down and although they don't go into details presumably have children. In this case there's the literal live like a princess, since Anna is one. Then there's the grow up with a secret (in the film it's the magical ability to work ice magic but it could be anything) and the choice between keeping it hidden and growing up "normal" or letting it out and being true to yourself.
Satisfyingly there are perils shown, albeit rather dramatised, on both paths. Most secrets, for example, aren't likely to kill your sister when you let them loose, but Elsa freezes Anna's heart. But the 'simpler' path is shown as not without its problems too.
And I'm not going to spoil it but just to say the resolution when an act of true love is the cure has a twist that I really didn't expect and is very satisfying on many levels.
You can apply your choice of "secret" to Anna and what it might be. She could easily be very smart or something. But if you peruse Tumblr and the like, certainly the parts I do, and combine it with the fact that Anna's song when she is suppressing her secret is "don't let them see, don't feel" there is a lot of speculation that Anna is gay. Certainly it's unusual for a DIsney cartoon that there's no sign of a man anywhere around for her at any point and it really hangs together quite well. It does also work for any other secret that girls aren't 'supposed' to have, like being good at maths or funny or whatever.
There is a lot of spectacular animation in this film - we kind of expect that from Disney of course - cute songs and the like. The potentially annoying sidekick (Olaf the snowman) in this case stays on the funny side of the line. At points on the endearing side of it in fact - his song about "doing whatever snowmen do in the summer, like lying in the burning sands" is surprisingly touching.
I probably won't make any effort to watch this film again, even if this is in my top few films of 2014 but it was a light, fun and enjoyable way to start the new year.
Bechdel test: There are a few named female characters besides Anna and Elsa (they're mainly trolls, I'm not sure that the girls' mother is named) but Anna and Elsa converse as children and as adults and although they do converse about boys a couple of times they have conversations about other things too. So a pass.
Friday, January 3. 2014
If you've been living under a rock, not reading my movie reviews and the like, you may not have heard of the Bechdel test. It's not foolproof but it looks quickly and simple at misrepresentation of women in film (and other scripted media). To pass the test it simply requires two named female characters to have a conversation with each other (even a short one) about something other than a man.
Sometimes the test has to be applied with caution - Gravity with one male and one female character clearly can't pass. But with only two characters it's probably fairer to exclude it from the test rather than fail it. There's a even gender balance after all, even an improbably high proportion of women in the circumstances in fact. A film like The Hobbit actually has a large number of female roles (albeit mostly in the crowd scenes in Laketown and not obviously named) and three named females in the same room for 5 minutes or so and manages to avoid a conversation between them at all - even big sister checking little sister is ok after the orc attack - and so deserves its fail.
Anyway, Vocativ took the top 50 grossing movies of 2013 (including Gravity) out for a spin by BechdelTest.com (then excluded Gravity) and ranked how they did at the box office.
To make the comparison easy, 17 passed well, 7 passed more or less - that's 24 of 50. 3 were excluded (Gravity as mentioned, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Best Man Holiday because they aren't on BechdelTest.com or other sites reporting Bechdel tests), so 23 failed - only 2 (except Gravity) for only 1 female character, mostly because the women don't talk to each other (12) than because they only talk about a man (9).
For those films that passed the Bechdel test - box office gross amounts to $4.22B. For those that failed it, the gross is only $2.66B. Even if you take out the best grossing of those that pass to even up the numbers (~$400M) that's $3.82B to $2.66B or a 3x the biggest single grossing movie smackdown.
And while you're at it, would you really have predicted Fast & Furious 6 or G.I. Joe: Retaliation would show up on the list as solid passes? I haven't seen either but they don't strike me as obvious candidates for writing in this style.
Writing three or four lines of dialogue to pass the Bechdel test doesn't make a great screenplay of course. I don't think anyone would ever claim it does. But for every scriptwriter that squeezes in a micro-scene like that to tick that, there's a film like Hunger Games: Catching Fire that practically passes in every scene to counterbalance it. Hopefully though there will also be more of a middle ground - both scriptwriters and directors and people with the money looking at this sort of outcome and saying "OK, we have to produce more shows with rounded female characters." Even if the motive for some of them is the bottom line, hopefully it means better movies for all of us.
Monday, December 30. 2013
First up, the 'cheating' in the rankings: I've ranked Les Miserables, Seven Psychopaths and Byzantium as equal second because I really can't separate them. Preparing this list and writing the blurb isn't something I do in just five minutes. I write the list of the films I've seen and prepare a rough order. Then I reread the blog entries I wrote and think about the films and what I remember about them now as well as what I wrote then. This rarely shifts a movie far - it probably doesn't shift it from being in the best, good, ok or bad category for example, but might shift it within that category. However, this year it did decide the line between OK and bad went between Cloud Atlas and Man of Steel rather than between Iron Man Three and Cloud Atlas so it can shift a film up or down a category like that. It also helped me sort which of Star Trek, Elysium and Oblivion were the worst in my opinion - I was pretty sure they would be my worst three, but which order wasn't clear before I started reading my blog posts once more. Anyway, back at the top, each time I visited this list I'd write those three in a different order depending on what other things I'd watched, read, what I'd been talking about. So depending on my mood and so on I rank them differently on different days. But they're nearly always just behind Catching Fire. Rather than write an order that reflects my mood on the day I publish the list, I decided that publishing a list with them as second equal is the fairest way to show it, in combination with this comment. I think it also reflects just how different they are. How do you compare a musical that is essentially a film about revolution and redemption, a quirky comedy about Hollywood and a rather small piece of feminist literature?
It's probably noteworthy, even though it reflects my taste, that adaptations of other people's books in various forms seems to push your work up this list. Having what is probably a good solid story, and remaking it well, is a good starting point it seems. Remaking their films, not so much, remaking their comics and the jury is still out. The films that get into the top two categories that aren't clear remakes of other books also tell good stories. In fact all the way down you could argue there's a good story to tell - but having it complicated enough to be satisfying long term (sorry RIddick, Iron Man), presenting it well (sorry Oz, How I live Now) and having it hang together well (Star Trek, Man of Steel) and not driving me into a frothing mass of feminist outrage (Oblvion) or leaving me just not caring about your central character (Elyzium and Star Trek) all help keep you in the top part of the list.
Of my top 3 (or 5 depending on how you count) I think only Seven Psychopaths is an original screenplay. The others are adapted from books, although Les Mis is adapted via the musical. Under that more adaptations from books before we get to Django Unchained which is an original, and then we're into a really grey area - Thor is, I believe an original screenplay, but it's inspired by a comic book with a storyline that's a spin on a saga... and as I commented at the time liked it for the saga elements really.
Towards the bottom, an original screenplays at the bottom, then a twisted remake of an original, then another original screenplay (and possibly the biggest disappointment after the wonderful District 9). then a film based on a book, then an original screenplay, albeit one set as a prequel, then another remake, before we get to the next worst adaptation. And, as I commented at the time, the adaptation of How I Live Now seems to bear little resemblance to the big, at least how Wikipedia reviews the book.
It's also worth noting that although quite a lot of these movies have quite a chunk of special effects and stunt work the films you might characterise as action blockbusters rather than adaptations start at the bottom of the Good category and are really scattered through OK and bad on my tastes. I suspect if I was a 20 year-old boy I'd have a rather different order and some films (Cloud Atlas, Mortal Instruments, How I Live Now, Oz) that just wouldn't be on this list. Now, I'm not representative of the main target audience of the film studios but my metaphorical dollar still spends - sometime someone will consider that when making films won't they and won't only pour money into films for teenaged boys?
Unlike some years, I'd probably watch most of these films again I've set the dividing line at Cloud Atlas. Although I felt it was flawed, it was interesting enough that I'd watch it again. And that's the second worst adaptation of a book. I will make the effort to watch certainly down to both Hobbit movies again and will happily turn over to watch Thor, possibly Riddick, the rest of that group would be more in the category of "Oh, that was ok and there's nothing else on" movies. I think Riddick is probably more in that group, it's not quite got enough to make it a turn over movie for me, hence it heading the ok group despite the enthusiasm I had for it at the time. It was great but it was satisfying and gone, no staying power.
Unusually for this post I'm also going to mention 3 TV shows, or 4 actually by the end. Comparing TV to films is unfair in many ways - in a film you have a couple of hours to establish characters, world, tell the story and wrap it all up. Even in films like Thor, Iron Man, Riddick, you have to cater for the new viewers and do that. In a TV show, even a stand-alone special, you don't really - you have an established fan base and awareness that you can build on. Equally you can afford to have a TV show that, as long as it's intriguing enough, leaves the view to some extent scratching their head and going "WTF is going on here?" for one or more episodes. Films have the budget to do the spectacle that TV shows can only dream of but as I've already commented I like story over spectacle and TV shows tend to knock films for six there. And well thought through cgi can add spectacle to a TV show to support the story (shows such as Supernatural and Arrow that don't make my list but I do enjoy show that, as well as all the shows that did) in ways that many films seem to have forgotten. But, these three shows had more impact on me than any, probably than all, of these films in a positive way. They're rather different and rather hard to separate for that reason so in alphabetical order they are:
Several of this last half season's Dr. Who and the specials have been beautifully crafted little bits of TV, but The Day of the Doctor was truly wonderful. It had a million tiny references for the obsessive fans to squee over (some of which I duly did, some of which I had pointed out to me), three fine actors who worked well together and had a great script to work with. Some people can't cope with the timey-wimey stuff and the differences between what happened (Gallifrey was saved) and what people know (only Eleven knows, and only after those events) and so it doesn't change the cannon of the previous seasons - The Doctor still believes he killed the Time Lords and the Daleks. (Ironically one of the critics who is most vocal about this that I read is also very vocal in other posts about their RPG background. How did they keep character knowledge and player knowledge separate I wonder?) But, ultimately, despite the snippets of heavy philosophy that sneak in, Dr. Who is light-weight fluff. It's fun, but it's fluff.
Orphan Black on the other hand is slightly AU sci-fi series. Outwardly it's an examination of the impact of human cloning as if there are adult human clones out there today. And it sort of is - imagine you're on the run from an abusive boyfriend with a dodgy past and you see a twin you never knew you had step off the platform and commit suicide, leaving her purse behind so you can step into her identity. Wouldn't you take the chance to step in and disappear for a day or two - it can't really be that bad can it? But things go from there to really weird when Sara (the main clone protagonist) discovers several more clone sisters. It has conspiracies and wild theories and more - all good trappings of a sci-fi show, child of X-files say - but it's also a really harsh mirror on the roles of women in today's society. There are various professional women - the cop, the scientist and briefly the corporate clone - the housewife and the mother, the one in trouble with the law, the religious nut (that's not to denigrate those of a religious inclination, she is quite mad) and there are more to come in the next season. Being played, as you might guess since it's about clones, by the same actress it gives a real weight to the choices that they have made and the personal and cultural costs that are associated with those choices. In that sense, we might finally have the real child of Buffy.
The Returned on the other hand is a slightly weird, strike that, very weird, French TV show about zombies and a reservoir. The reservoir starts the empty and some, but not all, of the town's dead come back, basically unchanged from the time they died - be that a couple of years ago, or five decades. But time has moved on around them. The twin sister of one zombie is now a grown woman, the just pregnant bride left at the altar has a daughter and is ready to marry again, and several more examples. It's simultaneously an examination of the different ways people deal with grief and how grief changes over time mixed in with series of small town secrets that are gradually peeled back and revealed to the viewer if not always to the town. And always the reservoir empties... The show avoids why, how and so on. It largely avoids all the classic zombie tropes to examine grief and secrets but contains more than enough horror to mix with the grief and secrets to be compelling in the extreme.
I'm looking forward to the next series of all of these shows, and Sherlock (which skipped being broadcast in 2013 thanks to hobbits and Star Trek), more than any single film that is due next year. Although Mockingjay part 1 and the final part of The Hobbit going to be give them a close run I think. And for that reason, they're getting a mention here.
Saturday, December 14. 2013
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the first of the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings movies that, rather than having bits of Wingnut fairy-dust sprinkled over it to re-emphasise elements of the story and perhaps add a scene here or there to keep things moving along added huge chunks to the story.
By huge chunks I mean a new main character, a love story or two (Arwen and Aragorn's story is at least mentioned in the appendices to Lord of the Rings although you have to scour the books to find her name), an appearance from a Lord of the Rings character who isn't in The Hobbit, a whole new side-story for Gandalf and quite a bit more.
Several of the scenes that are taken from the book also have extensive Wingnut fairy-dust sprinkled on them. The whole of the time in Mirkwood from getting lost to the encounter with the spiders, the imprisonment with the Sylvan elves and the escape from Mirkwood in particular although not just there you can see their touches.
You could also fairly say that the stunt co-ordinator has gone berserk with elf-fights and they are very, very spectacular. At least one is funny too, judging by the reaction of the whole audience I saw it with who at various points just laughed and went with it, by reason of being just so over the top, but very spectacular. (I laughed, I have to say - but sometimes I laugh or mutter in movies at odd times. This time though, the whole audience laughed at one of the fight scenes it was so over the top. But once I relaxed and just went with it, it was lots of fun.) In some ways I'm reminded of the long road chase in The Matrix Reloaded although this is a load of dwarves in barrels in the river and on-going battles with orcs and elves and dwarves. This scene does continue to tell part of the story but in some ways it is a technical exercise in live-action film making and special effects that deserves watching just for that. And it stands up as both I have to say, as well as being cool and fun and pretty.
I have to say that I thought the extra elements helped, again, convert the story from the pacing of a child's bedtime story pushed into a book into a film that works for adults and - I suspect - children.
In particular Tauriel contributes a strong female character which is always good and her presence adds some interesting dynamics to the story. Although one of the bits of interaction between her and Legolas "You can't hunt 30 of them alone, Tauriel" - I think you're wrong Legolas: she is that hard (or Peter Jackson is that much of an elf fanboi).
Gandalf's side-story makes sense of his absence for big chunks of the book The Hobbit and also ties in nicely to Lord of the Rings and helps tie the films together clearly and cleanly. It's impossible for me to judge how it would work if you don't know they're meant to go together but I think it would probably be OK - it seems cleaner than the first with just Radogast and Gandalf off exploring.
Beorn's appearance works although it is rather different to the book. Thranduil is very swishy and posy and completely off his rocker, although I think we're meant to have some sympathy for his actions I rather sided with Tauriel's condemnation of his actions. I didn't like him in the book either mind.
Both Laketown and Erebor are good. Laketown in particular is amazing. It looks and feels like a big town on a lake gone into decline - helped in no small part by Stephen Fry's performance as The Master - but his performance couldn't have worked without the amazing set and props. We know from Helm's Deep and Theoden's Hall and the like that the attention to detail can be amazing, but Laketown seems to make it all come together and work even better than those sets ever managed.
Perhaps most importantly, Smaug works. In fact he works wonderfully on all levels: sleeping under his horde and waking up, stalking and playing with Bilbo, fighting the dwarves, and bursting out into the air to go and attack Laketown. The film could have worked without Smaug (although it would have been a very different film) but with his name in the title, it was important he was good and he was in all aspects. (Smaug wasn't the most impressive, I think that award goes to Laketown for me, but Smaug working in all his bits was the most important element I think.)
Although a number of the really iconic scenes are still there - the last light of Durin's day, the barrel ride and so on, they're probably not quite what you expect if you know the book. They're close enough to tick off and feel "Ah, yes, they're doing that right" but at the same time to feel fresh and interesting and keep even the oldest and most die-hard fans interested and engaged. It makes the almost three hours zip by.
There are a load of other magnificent scenes - as long as your not a Tolkien purist and feeling "OMG, how dare they play with the words of the master?!" I think you should enjoy this.
I should say, since I started writing this, I've read a polemic from a die-hard "Words of the master" fan who went to see this film. I'm not quite sure why he bothered to go because reading his review he clearly hated the adaptation of Lord of the Rings and the first of The Hobbit movies. It was clearly stated there would be a lot of extra stuff in this one, so why subject yourself to it when you knew you'd hate it? And he duly did. He hates the elf fights, he hates the extra elements, he hates that Peter Jackson doesn't see the lyrical poetry and the building saga of the story in it's original form.
So, if you don't like how Peter Jackson adapts the books to film, don't go. This film will be bad for your blood pressure. If you do like it, go, because the fairy-dust he spreads is spread even more liberally. Whether you love it or hate it will depend on your taste but you won't be able to avoid it.
Bechdel test - No. Despite my original thought that Bard's daughters (who are named) have a conversation but they don't. In fact for about 5 minutes all three obviously named female characters are in the same room. Tauriel barks an order, big sister shouts little sister's name as an order. But no conversation. So a fail. Although not a surprise given all the testosterone.
Friday, December 6. 2013
For me, and more than half the world's population he is probably the politician more than John Kennedy that touched us. By any sensible measure I'm middle-aged, I'm older than half the world's population and when people on the TV and radio say (as they did again recently) "Where were you when you heard the news Kennedy died?" the answer is - not even conceived. My parents were married, possibly even trying to have a baby, but I wasn't even on the way.
He touched us because he was, whatever your politics and your age, a beacon of hope for something better. I'm of the age where I grew up and he was in prison. Without debating the rights and wrongs of his being imprisoned (I have mixed feelings - he was fighting against a brutal, oppressive, unjust regime but he was sanctioning acts of violence and terror) as his prison sentence came to end, and as Apartheid started to fall apart, I was one of millions around the world who watched that 'long walk to freedom' and wondered what it might mean.
We could not really have blamed him had he followed Mugabe's example in Zimbabwe and opted to retaliate against those who had oppressed him personally and his people for so long. Instead he chose a different path, a path that looks softer but must be so much harder at every step - he chose reconciliation, to make peace, to work together, to say "we are stronger together than apart." He deliberately chose not to repeat the mistakes of the past in the opposite direction and to travel forwards into a brave new world.
And that gave those of us watching hope. Yes, South Africa has problems - every country in the world has problems, such is life. But while politicians here, there and everywhere talk about 'a new way' and then play tit-for-tat blame games, Mandela was a man who said "it's not about blame, we're not forgetting the past, but we're forgiving and moving forwards." And that model, while it was fresh in people's minds almost certainly helped shift the Northern Ireland peace process along too. Northern Ireland still has its issues too but it's probably fair to say the process wouldn't have happened without the model in South Africa that Mandela showed the world.
On top of that he seemed to be a man that was gracious and charming with whoever he met. Yes, great statesmen should have that quality - all too few of our politicians do, perhaps they're simply too young. However, I suspect part of that ability to connect is related to humility - some of that comes with age, as you tend to learn humility with failure, lost of youthful vigour and the like - but it is also hard to imagine someone who lived as a prisoner for 27 years not learning some humility as well.
I'm sure he was as human as the rest of us, and had his failings and his bad days and a temper and all the rest of it. At 95 his passing cannot really be considered a shock but today the world feels like a lesser place and an embodiment of hope has gone from it.
Thursday, December 5. 2013
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in book terms is that awkward middle book of the trilogy. The film of the book has some of those recognisable characteristics, despite splitting Mockingjay into two films.
In a fantasy setting it's easy - everyone goes on a journey to explore themselves and find out more about the world. In this particular dystopian world in which you've sort of seen the world, or bits of the world come together in The Capitol, we still have a tour - this time Katniss and Peeta's tour as the victorious tributes of the last games to the other districts.
But really that is just the backdrop to a much nastier, more grown-up story. Where The Hunger Games was engaging, good and did touch on this, Catching Fire dives into the media and politics of what it means to be a celebrity, to be a winner - whether you regard it as a commentary on victory in sports or reality TV - and the uneasy interaction between brutal power politics, panum et circenses and the necessity of both symbols of hope and a spark to convert civil disobedience and rioting into a rebellion and uprising.
Woven through this, as you might expect in a story of power politics at the pointy end, you have stories of betrayal, trust, alleigance, attempted and actual manipulation, threat, love and guilt. You have choices on the human scale about protecting yourself and protecting your loved ones and choices on the grand scale - just what is it worth doing to cling to power? This is more PG and cleaner than Game of Thrones, but the intrigue and manoeuvring are certainly in the same league.
Much though I enjoyed watching this much more adult story, in some ways it is almost a relief when the action moves back into the arena. This being the 75th games (and in an open ploy to get rid of as many of the surviving tributes as possible) all the tributes this year are victorious former tributes - which leads to some odd groupings. For example, there is one elderly woman who enters the arena to protect a much younger (but insane) former victor from her district despite having to be carried around most of the time until she dies. It also lends a different dynamic with teams within the arena from the outset - anyone who remembers the first film will remember these people all know each well and there are some life-long friends in the group already - rather than the everyone for themselves dynamic of the first game. But despite playing with trust issues somewhat, the conflict is largely straight-forward here. Hit them, shoot them, no need to wonder if you're performing convincingly enough to stop them threatening your sister for another day.
As with the first movie this one contains a lot of comments about the world of media and consumption, plus a stronger element of politics, a lot about celebrity and the like. There is that twisted mirror of good science fiction about the distorting effect of power and the inability of those in power to understand those that don't care about it and what motivates them and without any real spoilers we're going to see the build-up to, and the impact of revolution since we've now had the spark to ignite it as Katniss transforms into The Mockingjay.
This is a strong second movie. Unlike Alien -> Aliens it doesn't change genres, so perhaps this is finally that rare beast, a sequel that is as good as the first film, in the same league as The Godfather movies. It's impossible for me to fairly judge how well it would do as a stand-alone movie, because of course I've seen the first one too but I think it would do well. There are things that throw back to it that might not make a lot of sense - particularly some of the references to Rue and indications of PTSD in Katniss and Peeta - but I think there's enough there that would let you understand the film overall. It helps having strong source material of course, and while that's no guarantee, this film does have that and uses it well. It's close enough that as someone who has read the book, I recognised the story I'd read and enjoyed while enjoying watching it being told in a film. It's different, of course - different medium and so on - but it's a good adaptation and well worth your time if strong female leads and/or dystopian near-futures are your thing.
Bechdel test? Multiple named female characters. Many of them talk to each other. Most of them don't talk about boys. Some of them talk about good ways to kill boys mind... but yes it passes.
As an aside, in some ways Catching Fire gender-bends, at least for movies. Katniss is grouchy, relatively self-sufficient and not in touch with her emotions. Peeta is relatively dependent (Katniss protects him and rescues him two or three times), patient, emotionally connected and willing to reach out to Katniss. There are, of course RL couples where regardless of gender that's the way they work, and couples where they take it in turns. But in movie terms, Katniss is the bloke, and Peeta is her girlfriend. Anyone looking at their bodies is no doubt they're in the wrong body for those roles. In the book they're kind of that way too but it's not really startling (male characters in books can be emotionally open, female characters emotionally closed - it's probably not the norm but it's far from unknown) but in a major box-office movie? Kinda subversive.
And as postscript, there's one of the few real hats off surprises (as opposed to a cheap jump shot) in a movie hiding in this film. I'd half forgotten it from the book, and so it surprised me again. In the speeches before the games begin the tributes are doing their damnedest to stop the games happening. (Unsuccessfully obviously.) Some of their tactics are obvious, some should be. But one is brilliant. I won't spoilt it - but I applauded when I read it, and I'll acknowledge it here since they pulled it off again brilliantly in the movie.
UPDATE: A couple of people that have seen the film got in touch about my aside about Peeta being Katniss' girlfriend in movie terms. They added fuel to the fire. Katniss is always on top when they kiss, Peeta goes to her to offer comfort, not the other way, and she always... starts ... their intimate moments. I've gone for starts very advisedly. We need a word that I don't think English quite has. Initiates and starts are slightly too passive sounding. But I couldn't find a better choice of words that didn't make her sound like she was the dominant partner or a sexually aggressive or predatory partner and there's nothing to indicate that either. But she always kisses him. It's easy to write, to read to imagine. It's rare to see.
Thursday, November 14. 2013
Thor: The Dark World is a big improvement over the original to my mind. The reasons for that aren't hard for me to pick out.
The core story is pretty simple - the Svartaelfs want to bring the worlds back to the darkness that they lived in before the pesky upstart Gods came along. Their super-weapon to do this ends up in Jane Foster, Thor's love interest, conveniently just as Heimdall is checking up on her and he realises something is wrong when he can't see her. Thor takes her home to work out what's up. Malekith, the leader of the Svartaelfs and the few remaining of his kind try to get the weapon back and mayhem ensues. While parts of this are pure invention, a big chunk of it could basically be a lift from various sagas. If you're going to rip off a story, might as well go for one that's lasted over 15 centuries!
There is a lot of big, bold action mayhem. A lot of it is very pretty - but hey, it's deity-level beings going all out against each other without any need to worry about the scenery a lot of the time. You don't have the silliness they had in Man of Steel for example, with Superman giving Zod a pointless facial in a skyscraper for example. That could descend to silliness on the other side, although I can't think of an example right now, but they reined that impulse in too, by and large.
I would also say the fight scenes, except the climactic one of course that you know is coming, generally advance the story as well. It's not a case of showcasing a fight scene, or not just showcasing a fight scene, each of them actually does one or two things to move the story along nicely as well. That's important and to my mind has often been lacking in other films recently. And while it's a matter of personal taste I didn't think the fight scenes went on for too long. Even in the climactic scene it's nicely cut together so there's stuff for Thor and Malekith to do to each other, there's stuff for Jane and Erik to do, there's minion level baddies to chase Jane, Erik, Darcy and 'the intern' around and be a reasonable threat to them without just obliterating as them Malekith would.
Before you start thinking the film is just fight after fight, there are a number of other wonderful, small moments and nicely handled story-telling scenes as well. Odin and Thor lock horn(ed helmets) about Thor's fascination with Jane. Sif (still not golden-haired, bad Marvel, but rarely referred to by name so less grating on my nerves) and Jane exchange incredibly pointed looks that speak volumes. Encyclopedia Britannica sized volumes. I don't remember if they ever actually have even a rudimentary spoken conversation (Sif gives Jane an order) but they exchange a lot of loaded looks. Frigga on the other hand seems to like Jane.
There's various nice bits of Loki in prison at various points and reacting to various events. It could have been overdone and changed the tone badly but actually it was nicely handled, worked in organically and kept you abreast of what seemed to be happening to Loki without forcing it at any point - letting you see, and understand, his resentment festering.
There's a lot of interaction between Thor and Loki as well. I'm a bit torn about this. I really enjoyed the portrayal of both characters and large parts of the way they interacted. But everytime Thor said "I wish I could trust you Loki" I groaned inside. By and large Thor and Loki got into trouble together in the myths precisely because Thor does trust Loki - when Thor finds out he's been duped he flies into a rage, tries to kill him, then gets calmed down and soon enough they're off again. All that aside, more time with those two together on screen surely wouldn't hurt. They both seem really well cast and to have that sprinkling of old-fashioned Hollywood stardust in these roles, and together on screen it seems synergistic.
There are a number of named female characters: Frigga, Sif, Jane and Darcy are the obvious ones. It's more bloke heavy on the named characters - Odin, Thor, Loki, Erik Selvig, Heimdall, Malekith, Malegrim and I'm sure the other 3 of Thor's warrior buddies are named too. However, there are a few bits of techno-babble conversation between Jane and Darcy when they're not explaning Darcy's intern (also named), wishing Erik would answer his phone and the like. There's a really, really short (2 lines) conversation between Frigga and Jane. There's a pretty long conversation between Jane and a character I didn't catch as named at the time, but did when checking the spelling of Malekith - Eir, the Asgardian physician - that's pure technobabble and nary a mention of boys despite Thor standing right there. So lots of bits where it does well on the Bechdel test. And although there are places where it seems quite old-school sexist in tone, all the women in this movie, except perhaps Darcy, are proven to be frighteningly competent and trusted to be so. Even Frigga, whose strength's don't run to front line battle, is no slouch with a blade.
As a final note, and I'm not going to say who dies, but there is a major character death part way through the movie, along with the deaths of many unnamed soldiers. There is also an Asgardian funeral. Whoever put that together did a really good job. It was utterly different to anything I've seen but clearly inspired to some extent by a Norse boat-burning funeral. But it really worked as a believable funeral rite for a significant character and the honouring of the fallen soldiers.
Thursday, November 7. 2013
I've been both using and supporting supporting someone to use and learn the latest versions of Numbers and Pages. And I have to say I find them both delightful.
I have read reviews bleating "Oh, feature X is missing" and I'm sure they're accurate. But having looked at these apps on both an iMac and an iPad over a few weeks now through the eyes of someone who wrote a PhD thesis I have to say there's nothing missing to let me do that job. I'm not saying I'd particularly want to do the analysis and writing for a PhD on an iPad, nor a lot of analysis on an iPad (Numbers is good at the presentation and manipulating charts, less at the data entry and manipulation on the iPad although better than it used to be) but you could, and you could smoothly work between the two.
You would certainly, if you needed such things, want to add in a heavy-weight data analysis tool - R seems to be the flavour of the year, it was SPSS in my day - although Numbers certainly lets you do basic data analysis which is fit for quite a lot of purposes.
In terms of usability both Pages and Numbers (I assume Keynote although I haven't had occasion to use it yet) offer either a trimmed down view - just what you're working on and a minimal toolbar plus menus/shortcuts - or a more GUI-friendly sidebar called the inspector. If you've used Word recently this replaces the ribbon/toolbars in effect but with some important differences:
So what's missing?
My personal niggle though - you can't customise the inspector or the tool bar. I can understand that on the iPad of course, but on the iMac? I obviously write science stuff sometimes still. Superscripts and subscripts are part of my core writing. I appreciate they're not part of everyone's so, by default, they're hidden away behind a "more" button. But I'd really like to be able to drag them out into the open so they're easier to use.
However, both Numbers and Pages integrate very nicely with their better known Microsoft products, importing and exporting smoothly so far as I can tell. I still reach for Mou for routine writing, for writing this for example, but when I'm working with a student say, Pages is my tool of choice to read their essay - it works more nicely than the various OpenOffice, LibreOffice etc. options I find.
Thursday, October 31. 2013
You would have thought, particularly today with the cross-party recommendation having gone to the Privy Council and the Press having failed to stop it in the High Court, all the parties involved would appreciate that the UK has a strongly interwoven series of checks and balances on power.
Add to that the recent news from the Appeal Court, the ultimate back-stop on abuse of authority in the UK, that Jeremy Hunt can't just shut departments in Lewisham raises a certain level of schadenfreude - he is part of the party that devolved power to the local GPs and when they do things he doesn't like, he can't step in and overturn them. Well, tough!
But, equally, Sharon Shoesmith's claim for compensation for unfair dismissal, settled for an undisclosed amount, was upheld. The court agreed she was unfair dismissed after a politician stepped in, at least partly in response to her vilification in the press - and, in fairness, a report that indicated her department was at least in part responsible. However, she was sacked outside the existing disciplinary processes and however much the press and the politicians howl that constitutes unfair dismissal - and however much I think she might have done financially rather better than I'd wish from it, I think it's absolutely right that she, along with everyone else, should be protected from politicians and the press conducting a witch hunt and just throwing her out of her job. Yes, even after her department messed up.
We're seeing those in power reacting really badly, really, really badly in fact to the public demanding better checks and balances, better accountability.
I'm not particularly surprised - most people don't like controls placed on, certainly not visible ones and people who are driven to seek and exercise power really don't like controls and limits on their power, especially ones forced on them. This is both.
We're also seeing what happens when those checks and balances work to protect us, even those of us in much more senior positions than most of us will ever reach, from the abuses of those above us. And, surprise, surprise, those that vilify, those that abused power or want to be able to exert that power are 'outraged' at the protection the law offers the rest of us.
The screams and protests are becoming more incoherent and more desperate. Yesterday the fact that Private Eye was considered for contempt of court, and the police tried to seize copies on sale outside the High Court - the cover was an image of Rebeckah Brooks whose trial for phone hacking started this week (It was ruled 'bad taste but not contempt' by the way) - but the representative of the press while being interviewed tried to say this was an example of political interference that would become more common after the new regulator was set up. How? This was a judicial and legal system, no politicians anywhere near it.
And, as someone else pointed out if, in future, politicians really want to hobble the press, they ignore the regulator and simply pass new laws. You don't want press intrusion? You pass stricter privacy laws, saying it's to protect the public. It happens to protect politicians too. The press can go swing. You pass laws restricting the right of a journalist to protect their sources. The journalists will scream but its the law.
The system - any system - needs checks and balances. They have to work and equally importantly they have to be seen to work. It has been running out of control and hitting the backstop - the courts - more and more often and harder and harder. Fortunately, however unpopular some of the decisions may be, the courts to date have proven robust enough to handle the job. But we, society at large at least, are starting to realise we need more, to insist we need protection before the courts, we need checks and balances in place before that backstop. Those in power will scream and kick, or will kick and die. At the moment for the press it's looking more like the death throes.
The press in its current form is dying, outcompeted by the internet and 24-hour TV news - although both have their problems. However, both TV news and the internet lack nuances and a drive that print journalism also brings. it will be interesting to see, in the post newspaper era, an era that I suspect we will reach sooner now, thanks to this latest craziness, rises as the new checks and balances on the politicians, on big business and the like. Because although the press have abused their power too much too often, they have needed their power too, and without someone wielding it with significantly less abuse and with significantly better checks and balances on them, the checks and balances they provide to other parts of our society will be gone.
It's kind of odd to look at Rupert Murdoch and see that old man and think that he might be the most potent revolutionary the UK has seen in centuries. He revolutionised the press when he took over The Times, The Sun, News of the World and so on. He, or his annointed ones, drove NOTW into extinction, and how more of his annointed ones are on trial for serious criminal charges while running The Sun. In efforts to keep up, much of the rest of the print media have followed his path and led us to the sitation of public outrage at their antics. And given his age, without wishing particular ill to him, it will be interesting to see which dies first - Murdoch or the printed press.
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