Saturday, February 25. 2017
La La Land is one of those movies which is surprisingly hard to review because the bits that I think make it truly brilliant, and make me think it really is likely to grab an bucket load of Oscars on Sunday, aren’t in the trailer.
But, I will stick to my rules. So, from what we can tell from the trailer, there are the obvious two parts that make up this film.
First this is a huge song and dance musical in the old Hollywood tradition, in fact in multiple Hollywood director traditions. I had fun playing spot the influence but if you aren’t keen on old school Hollywood song and dance shows, you probably want to avoid La La Land because while it’s not the subject matter of this film it is the skeleton of the film, even though there is a distinctly new shine and modern sensibility layered on top of it. This isn’t the post-modern deconstruction of the genre that the Scream movies were for teen horror, it is more an update, a reboot, Hollywood song and dance 2.0. However, if you’re not familiar with the Hollywood song and dance 1.0 I’m not sure how much sense the update will make.
Second, there is the core love story we see. Two crazy, young people with a dream that fall in love and, as we do see in the trailer, encourage each other to follow their dreams. The trailer doesn’t specify exactly what Mia’s arc is, so I won’t go into detail but it is clear enough she dreams of becoming a Hollywood star which, in some ways, of course, this is the ultimate Hollywood story. Sebastian’s dream (Ryan Gosling) isn’t a Hollywood dream per se - he’s the jazz pianist and his dreams centre around music but he is just as supported and supportive.
Any song and dance musical relies on the ability of the leads to actually sing and dance. Emma Stone was good enough to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway for several months, and in my opinion it shows here. She may not have the range of a full-time singer, but she can carry a tune and has a clear, sweet voice and can dance. Ryan Gosling is a surprisingly great dancer. I think his voice will divide people, It actually carries the tune, but it’s quite husky and I think it’s better suited to belting out the lyrics than singing quietly which he does here. But for this role, I think it works well - I’m not seriously comparing him to Louis Armstrong as a musician, but if you think of Satchmo’s voice there was that gravelly quality to it, and Gosling’s voice reminded me of that several times. For the role of “the jazz pianist” that’s not a bad comparison to spring to mind. So, I was comfortable with both of them but you may not be, particularly if you don’t like Gosling’s singing voice.
Likewise, any film that is based around a romance requires you believe in the leads as a couple. I found that relatively easy. I didn’t realise just how many movies Stone and Gosling have been in together before La La Land but it turns out to be several. It doesn’t follow that they’re friends, but they looked relaxed, comfortable and happy around each other and certainly worked as couple for me.
There are, as I’ve said above, scenes that constitute spoilers that raise this from one I regard as “merely” a very good film to an exceptional film. I sometimes wonder why a particular film gets the nod for an Oscar nomination (or, more often, I wonder not at the racial discrimination but the genre discrimination that remains in the Oscars where great horror, SciFi, Fantasy and Action films are all too rarely nominated in the big categories) but in this case I’m in no doubt that La La Land is truly deserving. Although I haven’t seen all the competition, I think Emma Stone will win too best actress too, this role as Mia just seems to leap from the screen into slightly larger than life yellow dress-clad brilliance. Part of that is the script and the cinematography of course, but part of that is her acting. I saw a comment in an Oscar’s preview column that said, more or less, with her role as Mia in La La Land, Emma Stone has proven herself as the ingénue for the current generation of Hollywood actresses. I’m not sure she’ll be happy with that label as it generally relies on appearing young and pretty, as well as innocent, so it’s time-limited and needs an out in a career plan to another set of roles, but there is a gap in the market for an ingénue at the moment, so perhaps she’ll enjoy it for a few years before thinking about that, then move sideways into something else, who knows. She certainly does fill that role wonderfully in this film, although she’s played other such stock roles (notably soubrettes) in other films so certainly has the range, and it’s generally easier to move from soubrette to character actor for a woman.
I’ve laid out my provisos above. Personally I think this is a wonderful film. If you’re not keen on musicals you won’t. If you don’t like Hollywood song and dance films you might not. Ryan Gosling doesn’t sing that much, but if you can’t cope with his voice, you won’t. And if you don’t like his voice you won’t come away with a song on your lips… but I can’t get it out of my head, so it’s embedded below so you can decide for yourself.
Bechdel test: Yes. There are quite a few short conversations between Mia and other named female characters, most of which are not about men. Several are about a refund for non-gluten free buns for example. Reading the cast list on IMDB is quite interesting - there are a lot of minor characters (male and female) who would normally be a role-name, such as gluten-free woman, who have a character name which makes for the easy pass, although there would be other conservations than the one I’ve highlighted above that would make for a pass.
Russo test: No, 0/3. I can’t decide if I’m disappointed by this or not. On one hand, with such a rebooted Hollywood story I feel there ought to be an LGBT presence, On the other hand we don’t really see characters have relationships other than Mia’s, and Sebastian’s with her, nor indeed significant characters other than those two, so I think it’s inevitable - if there were LGBT characters present, you still wouldn’t get them passing the Russo test, unless Mia or Sebastian was bi.
Saturday, February 18. 2017
Lets start with the most obvious thing: if you’re looking at the title and thinking “I missed the theatrical release of this, where can I see it?” you didn’t. This is, however, the first film I’ve seen which really wouldn’t look out of place in a cinema with a general release despite being a film that could be described as a fan film or perhaps the ultimate indy movie: it was written by a couple of people who run a YouTube channel and funded through a Kickstarter campaign. You can rent or buy it through iTunes , Google Play, Vimeo On Demand, Amazon and other places via their site.
With that out of the way, lets talk about the things I normally talk about in a review so you might judge for yourself if you want to see it. OK, I don’t really write these reviews for that, I write them for my pleasure, but if you read them, you can judge for yourself based on this still.
The film is, as you might guess from the title, and can quickly tell from the trailer, a coming of age movie. It looks at two young women, in the final year at university (or college, since they’re in America) who have been best friends since they were seven but are growing apart as they are thinking about entering the world of work. While there are quite a lot of bits that contribute (most of those are not in the trailer, so constitute spoilers) to this the really big one that forms the centre of the film is that one of the characters realises she’s gay but really struggles to come out to the other, coming out to quite a few other people first because it’s easier.
There’s obviously grounds for angst and conflict there, and it’s mined thoroughly but there’s a surprising amount of humour as well. The writers and quite a lot of the cast have been through this themselves but have enough distance from it to write some of it with humour about what were doubtless very embarrassing moments at the time - and it’s usually easy to laugh at someone else’s embarrassment if it’s well presented as comedically as this is. The fact it watches with that sense of truth that having lived through it gives the stories also makes the film run smoothly - this is a clear example where “write what you know” works.
For those of you expecting to perv over nubile young lesbians, you’ll have to watch something else. There are various, short, shots of young women in mostly unflattering sports bras. The only nipples you get to see are on the GBF. Actually, this film would get a PG rating in the UK for the sex, although for the language and drinking it would probably get pulled up to a 12A or maybe just a 15. It’s not OTT but they’re 20-somethings and they drink and swear at times. I suspect US censors would be far stricter - we see two women in bed even if they stay covered up, for example, which seems to get them hot under the collar.
Although this film skews young for me, I was thoroughly entertained by it. I’m not going to say what bits I identified with, what bits I laughed at, what bits I laughed with and what bits I struggled with because I was just never a millennial dating for the first time but there were definitely some of each. Overall, however, I still have no regrets at forking out the money to watch it and I will probably watch it again (a benefit over seeing it at the cinema and there’s nothing that needs that big screen experience here). While it is a coming out and coming of age drama, it blends in the humour and the romance in too (without hitting the rom com structure) that there’s enough there to make me feel I’d enjoy watching it again.
EDIT: Although Almost Adults isn't really a heavy enough hitter to make me think about it too much, as I was having lunch today I realised, despite my previous comments, it is actually a rom com, just not a traditionally structured one. The central romance the comedy is built around is the non-sexual pairing of Mack and Cassie and in typical rom com fashion it follows the (somewhat silly) challenges to their relationship following a sudden change (in this case Mack realising and coming out as gay). It's non-traditional because, of course, both Mack and Cassie have other, romantic and sexual, relationships but the central relationship is certainly one of agape love and it gives you the rom com structure.
A quick technical note: I didn’t really register it at the time but, presumably to save costs, a lot of this was shot as a single camera and single takes - two, three or four actors sitting on a sofa and talking to each other and being shot across the room or similar. It’s well staged and well framed and didn’t look odd to me while I was watching it - it’s quite theatrical and I felt comfortable with that - but having watched more “normal” TV since, which multiple cuts of scenes and switching POV shots over the shoulder of the person being spoken to and the like I suddenly realised it was a little odd compared to the normal film/TV presentation. It wasn’t all like this, and like I said it didn’t register at the time, but quite a lot was and might seem odd to you.
Bechdel test: In a film with two young woman best friends as the leads, one of them coming out as a lesbian, there are lots of conversations between named female characters and lots of them don’t involve talking about men. An easy pass. Actually, given that, there are a surprising number of scenes that don’t pass the Bechdel test individually but, at a rough guess, at least half the scenes do.
Russo test: Well lets see… there’s the lesbian co-star of the film and her girlfriend. So they’re definitely clearly lesbian and core to the story. There is, beyond these two, a GBF to the two best friends who is shown in the trailer. Arguing if two of these three are well characterised beyond “being gay/lesbian” is certainly possible, but Mack is as well developed as you’d expect for a co-star, she’s far from just ‘the lesbian one” so it’s definitely a pass. For what it’s worth, I think her girlfriend passes (she’s better characterised than Cassie’s ex) but I’m on the fence about the GBF. But the film overall clearly passes.
Friday, February 17. 2017
“Hollywood” is on odd beast. In many ways it’s diverse and individual: directors, producers, actors and so on come together, make their film or their show, then go their separate ways. There are great pairings of directors with actors, actors with actors and so on, but this is relatively rare. Yet, ultimately, making a Hollywood movie is an expensive prospect and there are a relatively small number of, predominantly, white men that hold the purse strings and decide which projects get green-lit and so what we see.
While the projects are starting to get more diverse, there’s not really a lot of doubt that films led by men, and probably in particular white men, have an easier time of it.
One of the things we hear, from the Hollywood machine at a level that makes me think it’s the money men, is a practically rotating series of doubts about the future of the film industry.
We have “OMG, X will stop people going to the movies” - in my memory that’s been VCRs, DVDs and now Netflix (as the embodiment of streaming movies). While cinema attendance hasn’t been inexorably upwards, year on year, the overall trend has been ever upwards despite this complaint.
The one I want to think about in a bit more detail though is the common alternate complaint, the “lack of the sure fire movie star.” That’s not an actor whose name is in a starring role, but an actor who makes audiences show up and puts bums on seats and thus dollars through the box office, and in this modern world dollars back through the DVD and possibly the action figure and other merchandising too. If you listen to, or think of, the names you hear trotted out: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and so on, they’re all male and white. Hollywood would have us believe there are no stars like this any more and although they have more data than me I wonder if their preconceptions, their sexist and racist assumptions, are blinding them to the truth, or at least a partial truth.
The thing is, I don’t know there are any stars for whom I will go and see anything and everything they do. To that extent I do fall into the “no true guaranteed bums on seats” moan of the money men. However, there is a small list of stars where their involvement will certainly pique my interest and tip it from a maybe into a likely, a likely into a yes. A small number of those are white men. Tom Hiddleston, the late Alan Rickman. Some are men of colour. Denzel Washington, Vin Diesel, Morgan Freeman. Several are women: Eva Green, Emily Blunt, Jennifer Lawrence and Gemma Arterton. One is a woman of colour: Michelle Rodriguez. I might add Ruth Negga to that list in years to come, she’s certainly coming to my attention recently.
So, yes, there might not be a small number of stars who will ensure I see your film, but if you’re only looking for the white men who get me to the movies you’re actually looking at less than 1/4 of the people who are likely to get me to see your film. If you only look at the men, you’re looking at under half of them.
Despite Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez both appearing on my list, I still haven’t watched any of The Fast and The Furious movies and probably won’t. It really isn’t a guarantee of me going to see your film. Story and things like that really matter too.
My taste, in movies and stars, is obviously personal and idiosyncratic. The money men are interested in the big picture - how much of a film’s taking is due to the stars rather than the plot, the special effects and so on? The Bankabilty Index attempts to determine this, but does so really badly - for example franchise movies aren’t counted so Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t show on their base list despite being (by a long way) apparently the highest grossing star at worldwide and (US) domestic box office. However, if you poke the numbers in their highest grossing star list, she is #1, but her movies apparently took no money internationally - so I didn’t see the last 2 Hunger Games, X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse which are all in the list of films that count for her earnings. In addition, this list is based on scoring the movies on box office ranking too, Tom Hanks actually starred in more movies (39 to 15), in movies that took more money (~$9bn to ~$5b), but in movies that, on average did less well at the box office, so he comes in at #20 on the list, way below Chris Pratt who was only in 9 movies that grossed less than $1bn between them, but who had a lot of highly placed hits in those 9 (including Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy) and so is rewarded for that. There may be good reasons for how the list is structured but see what I mean about assumptions biasing your results?
Until the money-men become money-people, men and women, and a mix of openly gay and straight, people of colour as well as white, just how well will Hollywood do with representing the world in which we live? I’m not denying it’s got better. Part of me feels under Trump and Pence it might push Hollywood to move faster, in reaction to their bigotry.
In the meantime, the movie industry overall is democratising. Hollywood is not the only fruit, so to speak. Tangerine, which I must admit I still have to watch, is somewhere between an Indy and a Hollywood movie but is a high quality movie. Its subject matter is trans prostitutes, so not really Hollywood material, but it is perhaps unique for being shot entirely on iPhones and yet still getting cinematic release. The quality is high enough the camera shouldn’t be regarded as a gimmick, just a tool like any other camera. I recently watched Almost Adults, which I will review properly soon, which has a storyline that Hollywood might touch but the script writers run a Youtube channel and funded it through a Kickstarter campaign. The stars were not paid Hollywood kind of money, but are both successful enough they’re full-time actors. The film is available to buy through various streaming outlets and, whether or not you like the story, in terms of the production it wouldn’t look out of place as a Hollywood movie. Just because of the money required for the big blockbusters and their special effects it might take longer, but if Hollywood doesn’t change it might really have something to scream about.
The music industry has already done this, as streaming music has replaced vinyl and the CD for most consumers, and the traditional scout, agent and producer is becoming less and less important in the music that reaches our ears, as the artist can literally record in their garage, or their basement, and distribute for themselves. The same is kind of true for the publishing industry - there is heated debate about whether you’re better off self-publishing or working with a publisher, and many of those tied in to the publisher side of the debate admit if they were starting now they’d look seriously at self-publishing instead.
More and more films about subjects Hollywood is bad at handling seem to be appearing by non-traditional routes and it won’t be long before that really bites into mainstream “Hollywood” too. Big “indy” festivals like Sundance already attract A-list stars away for ‘good’ projects that don’t pay so well. Kevin Linklater is an auteur on the fringes of Hollywood perhaps but Boyhood broke the rules, was a damn fine movie, and attracted maybe not an A-list star but still an Oscar winner and a string of familiar faces to it. How long, I wonder, before a Patricia Arquette or Ethan Hawke star in a Kickstarter funded movie that appeals because it’s just a really good project and the walls of Hollywood really do tumble down?
Monday, February 13. 2017
So the week 2 results are in and it’s review time.
Italy v Ireland was even more one-sided than I expected. Ireland were angry and ruthless while Italy seemed to have taken a step backwards after last week. Ireland easily made history by earning the first bonus point for scoring four tries, in the first half in fact, which really says all it needs to - yes, New Zealand can do that to other test nations but in the 6N it’s rare to see such a thumping, even of Italy. There is a body of opinion doing the rounds that we shouldn’t have promotion and relegation from the 6N because every nation has languished at the bottom. Whether it’s a play-off with the top of the shadow six nations or a straight promotion/relegation, so what? Lets have six competitive sides and let the bad sides, when they’re having a bad year or two, drop down and build confidence and come back up more confidence. Italy (at the moment) will learn more by winning some games and gaining confidence than anything else. As with last week and Wales, lots of Irish impressed this week. Stander and Zebo in particular shone for me. Connor Murray was, again, not as standout as you might expect given the circumstances. Last week I put that down to Scotland’s backrow being all over him, now I wonder if he’s carrying an injury or, cruellest fate of all in a year like this, his time as one of the truly greatest in the world was shorter than most.
Wales v England, by every stat bar the one that really matters, had the wrong result. Wales were less penalised, applied more pressure, had more turnovers and so on. However, although the English players had confidence in their attacking patterns according to an interview I saw, really their defence coach and their defensive work must take more credit. Wales kept attacking and the English held them out, often during the first half (although England attacked often then and were repulsed too) and throughout the second half, when England barely mounted an attack but almost every time they did they came away with points, albeit mostly penalties. It’s worth noting that a lot of the features of the previous week were absent for both sides. Wales played at a high level throughout the match. England’s subs didn’t have the dramatic impact of last week. In addition those who doubted Biggar were silenced as he had an enormous impact on the match in attack and defence, likewise those who doubted Warburton have had their criticisms silenced. He was immense, and while last year and the year before his partnership with Tipuric wasn’t good, in the two matches so far this year they have worked well together a Lions backrow of Tipuric, Moriarty and Warbuton is not impossible against the All Blacks on yesterday’s performance - I know Faletau is recovering from an injury but it says something when the opponents are pleased to see him come onto the pitch because the tackling and ball carry is less intense! Alan Wyn Jones and Joe Launchbury would probably be the locking pair in front of them, although the Gray brothers might have something to say about that, and Ball had a fine game too. Hartley still has time to get back to full match fitness but based on this week’s performance still has a way to go. I think Webb continues his impressive form. Of the four hookers in this game, only Jamie George really looked at all likely to be wearing a red jersey in New Zealand this summer, although Owens made few mistakes and forced Hartley off appreciably earlier than the Irish managed which can’t really be overlooked and might be more of a positive than I’m giving it - if he’s seen as able to keep Coles in check that would be a huge plus for him.
Scotland v France was a bruising encounter but France were unlucky not to win by a bigger margin (the TMO blew that call IMO). Scotland were incisive but bent and buckled under the big French ball carriers time and again. That will be worrying considering playing against the All Blacks where you’ll be facing size combined with pace and skill beyond that shown by France. Eventually the size told over the course of the match. I did say the Scots needed to be good enough to withstand the big ball carriers and sadly they weren’t. Hogg is still playing well but he stands out because he’s Scotland’s main attacking weapon from the backs. Russell looked good too, but only in patches really.
It’s too early to really pick a Lions squad yet, and if Ireland and Scotland stand up against the Welsh and English it could change, but at the moment it’s looking to me like there are likely to be a lot of Welsh and English players and a sprinkling of Irish and Scottish players.
It’s also worth pointing out that, unlike last weekend where really only the Scotland v Ireland match was a decent match, this weekend Wales v England was a bruising, high intensity match that was balanced on a knife’s edge, and France v Scotland was also a gripping match with two different styles of play clashing and trying to come to grips with each other. The outcome was clear further for longer, despite a reasonably narrow margin of victory, but it was still a good game.
Wednesday, February 8. 2017
The world of rugby, players and fans alike, is saying goodbye to Joost van der Westhuizen, who died two days ago aged 45 of ALS or motor neurone disease.
ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) is in many ways the opposite of Alzheimer’s - instead of your brain giving up and stealing your memories and personality the nerves that trigger your muscles die which leads to an inability to move properly, then an inability to swallow, speak and finally to breath, which is what ultimately results in death. While this is tragic for every sufferer, old fogeys like me remember van der Westhuizen as a template for the big (he was 1m88 tall), fast scrum halves we see in the modern game (although there are exceptions who play right at the highest level, Aaron Smith is only 1m71 for example) and was the scrum half for the 1995 ‘Rainbow Nation’ side that won South Africa’s first RWC in front of Nelson Mandela after the repeal of apartheid. He used his name to raise awareness of ALS through the J9 foundation, a throwback to his old shirt number.
The sight and sound of him struggling to walk and talk as his ALS progressed was shocking because my memories of him are of him at his peak, as probably the best scrum half in the world for 4 years or more. It’s with memories of those times I’d like to leave you.
Tuesday, February 7. 2017
So the 6N got off to a start that upset quite a few of the pundits, as Ireland lost to Scotland and the final weekend’s potential grand slam decider is already out of the window.
In all fairness, Scotland were good value for their win and we really shouldn’t be surprised - yes, Ireland beat the All Blacks albeit an understrength All Blacks in November, but Scotland had a very impressive set of November results too and the 6N is not always about recent form because national rivalries and so on come to the fore every year.
Under Vern Cotter Scotland have rediscovered their ability to score tries, which their main problem in recent years, while under Joe Schmidt Ireland seem inconsistent and that showed again here. Ireland are not traditionally slow starters, but perhaps it was that instead as they certainly improved in the second half but, by then, it was really too late. Both Hogg and Maitland certainly raised their hands for Gatland’s Lions squad. Conor Murray, who many felt would have been written in (barring injury) must now be pencilled in a lighter shade as he was outplayed by Laidlaw and Scotland were all over him all day.
In Twickenham, England were supposed to sweep France aside. In the end some brave play from their substitutes saved English blushes and pulled a frankly undeserved victory out in the last few minutes. Brian Moore is fond of saying you however well you play you don’t deserve to win in sport, but I think he might agree England did not play well enough to win that game and got lucky. They lacked cohesion, direction and basic skills far too often and played a lot of the game on the back foot. Throughout the game the French dominated the collisions and dominated a lot of the skill situations too. England were shorn of the big ball carriers and others through injury and it really, really showed. Eddie Jones has not been here long but does not have the strength in depth and the flexibility to cope with three or four missing players yet. In all honesty, although there will be English players on the Lions tour, none really held their hands up this weekend. Haskell, Teo and Nowell, who all came off the substitutes’ bench were their most impressive players on Saturday.
In Rome the final match was, to some extent, spoiled by a massive downpour before kick-off and rain during the first half. We all know the typical commentary that Italy are competitive for 50 minutes and then fall off the pace. We can add to that the years’ old commentary that Wales are slow starters. Both of those seemed to be on show here, but in all honesty, the first half was pretty turgid and that could have been thanks to the weather. In the second half, Wales let rip and were unlucky not to score four or five tries and get the first four try bonus point of the 6N. Parese, for so long the only star in azure is starting to look old rather than stellar. He is still Italy’s star player but he is no longer the dominant force on the rugby pitch that he used to be. As a commentator there is the proviso that “they were playing against Italy” but all the Welsh players in the second half looked a step or two or three sharper than their opponents and based on this performance alone could be donning a red shirt with a different badge come the summer. There will be sterner tests to come but Wales often do really well in Lions’ years and this year might be no exception. Webb, North, Williams, Wyn Jones, Davies (both of them), Warburton, Tipuric, Moriarty and Halfpenny are all ones to watch based on this week’s performance. The Welsh public’s desire to see Sam Davies start at 10 seems likely to be met following what seemed to be rib injuries to Dan Biggar.
The week to come
Wales v England is clearly the big one (and not just because I’m biased). Wales started to play well in the second half, and generally play better after their first match, play better at home and play better against England. England seriously need to play better to stand a chance and generally play worse in Wales than in any other match. I would expect some shuffling of the starting XV of the men in white, but I think Wales will win.
France v Scotland is the next big one. France played a lot better and have the beating of Scotland, particularly in Paris, but Scotland are confident and playing well - if they can cope with all those huge players. I think this will be brutal but Scotland have the precision and self belief to win this as long as there aren’t too many injuries against the huge French players. This sets up a potential Slam decider in week 3 against Wales!
Italy v Ireland. Ireland will be stung, and although in 12 months time Connor O’Shea’s plan might be taking shape, at the moment it’s a plan his players are working towards rather than executing. For all his comments that the referee had it in mind that Italy were offending more than Wales, that’s because they were. (His mantra of ‘don’t follow a mistake with another mistake’ requires comments like that, so he can say to his players they’re improving.) The conditions will dictate whether Italy comes away with a bonus point or not, but I expect a match quite like last week’s, with Italy staying close for 50+ minutes and then Ireland pulling away.
Friday, February 3. 2017
The Girl With All The Gifts sets itself up early on as a modern retelling of the Pandora story, opening the box and letting the evils of the world out while hope remains in the box.
That might seem an odd thing for a movie that, simultaneously, looks like a fairly standard zombie flick, with fast (but not super-fast) zombies, albeit zombies that are created by a fungal infection and there are scientists working desperately for a vaccine against the infection. Later on in the story they discover the next stage, a sort of giant stalk growing up the BT Tower that requires a forest fire to crack the spore pods and spread the infection. For those of you that completely dismiss this, read about the so-called zombie ants Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and there are numerous species that require a forest fire to spread their seeds and reproduce. While it’s firmly science fiction it’s not totally bizarro-world made up nonsense.
The film works comfortably with its zombie movie tropes but adding the extra mix of the Pandora story, even though sometimes it’s quite deeply hidden under the zombie flick, gives it some unexpected twists and turns.
The same can be said of the characters. Most of the characters, when you meet them, you (well certainly I) categorise into zombie-movie archetypes quickly and easily. The film doesn’t subvert all of them, but it does enough to humanise them all which effectively subverts some of them, and nicely subverts some of the others in other ways.
If you don’t like zombie movies you really won’t like this: although it’s a twist on the genre, its roots are firmly there. If you do, I would suggest it’s a fun hour and 45 minutes and the twists raise it above the run of the mill.
Bechdel test: Yes, easily. There are lots of named female characters and any of them that survive for any length of time have conversations. None of them are about boys. One of them is about Schrodinger’s Cat for example.
Russo test: No. Really only a few characters talk about sex and sexuality - a couple of squadies perv over Miss Justineau (Gemma Arteton) - despite this being the least obviously sexy outfit I’ve ever seen her in - and Sgt. Parks reveals he was married and his wife was pregnant when the zombie fungus hit. But, since there are three obviously straight characters I’m going to say that’s a No. (Even if one of the squadies was a woman, it would only be a partial pass as both the squadies were definitely in that zombie movie archetype of red-shirt.)
Wednesday, February 1. 2017
It’s clear that The Wizard of Oz is out of copyright. As well as Wicked (which I rather enjoyed, at least the book), Oz, the great and powerful and now we’ve got a TV adaptation called Emerald City.
Part of me wants Emerald City to succeed. They took the original, and it’s clearly still there, and updated it for for the twenty-teens. Dorothy is not a kick-ass action heroine, but she’s a lot more modern, independent woman than the original. She’s a nurse, living alone and a successful, independent woman. Toto isn’t an annoying, little, yapping dog, but a police dog that she acquires in her journey to Oz.
However, a bigger part of me thinks, in years to come, it will be held up as a classic of “how not to do an adaptation” simply because they’ve changed everything to the point it's almost impenetrable.
The Scarecrow is a soldier with amnesia who was crucified and left to die. He fits the definition of a man with no brain, in some ways too pointedly given the other tweaks, but it feels like a brutal reimagining.
The munchkins are a barbarian, fur-wearing tribe, who waterboard Dorothy. Why do they waterboard her? Well she still kills the witch when she arrives, but the Cardinal Witches (that’s their title) are beloved by the populace even as they’re hated by the Wizard. The barbarian not-Munchkins are really unhappy that Dorothy killed the great and beneficent witch!
We’ve met a candidate for the lion but, confusingly, he’s also a candidate for the tin man too. He’s the head of the wizard’s guard who is tramping around, chasing Dorothy with orders to kill her. He’s in shiny, rather impractical, armour - so he’s visually a candidate for the tin man. However, he’s in charge of a small group of men who were going to kill him and accuse him cowardice, but he killed their assassin and said “a lion did it” so there’s a spoken clue to suggest he’s meant to be the lion.
There’s a poorly developed other character who is surprisingly strong. Keeping us in the dark about who this character is must be a deliberate choice but if we assume that the on-the-nose look of the king’s guard makes him the tin man, her look with long wavy hair and her unexpected strength which was one episode’s cliff-hanger would make her the lion.
We have, since then, met another candidate for a tin man, and a tin Princess, who lacks understanding of human emotional behaviour, so it another candidate for “the (wo)man without a heart.”
Oz reimagined as a grown-up, modern, darker fantasy is something I’d like to work. I think if Emerald City had the Oz trappings stripped out it probably wouldn’t have the budget but it would make a comfortable fantasy series to watch on SyFy or Netflix. The number of changes to Oz that Emerald City has given us has resulted in something really quite twisted, sadly to the point I suspect the show will be shedding viewers faster than it really should. It’s not subverting expectations to say something new, which is what Wicked did so well, it’s, well I’m trying to decide between perverting them and throwing them back in the viewers face. There are so many changes, and so many that just seem random changes for the hell of it, that anyone watching solely for a modern version of The Wizard of Oz will have gone. But anyone watching for something like The Game of Thrones will be disappointed with the lack of blood and sex. It needs an identity, but with a name like Emerald City I can’t help feeling it had one and it’s chosen to try its best to drive off its obvious core audience at the same time.
Wednesday, February 1. 2017
This is quite a hard film to review. As a film, while it has it charms, it doesn’t really stack up. For me at least, as a film, the plot felt too slow too often and the twists seemed too telegraphed. That said, if I’d read this as a modern dark fantasy book, or better yet played this as a modern dark fantasy table-top game, I can’t help feeling I’d have loved it.
The central character was layered and interesting. He might not be FitzWilliam Darcy in terms of layers, but if you read “immortal witch hunter played by Vin Diesel” you have expectations and they’re cleverly, playfully and skilfully subverted in ways that make sense - but perhaps don’t shine through well enough in the film while you’re actually watching it - some did for me but more came through as I was thinking back over it and writing this review which is not great for a throw-away fantasy movie. The mix of foes and the development of the enemies towards their endgame felt incoherent if viewed as a film but felt like plot development and clues and so forth if viewed as a table-top game in particular and a bit less so, but still to some extent, if viewed as a dark fantasy book.
I don’t know if this was the film of a story that was developed during an RPG campaign or session but I can’t help feel it was. Once I relaxed into that and watched it that way, I enjoyed it. I am a gamer, and while listening to other people’s stories of their greatest campaigns can be boring, a well-told story about a good campaign is still a good story and that’s fun. If you have a $90 million budget to give you special effects and Vin Diesel, Michael Caine and Elijah Wood that’s a damn sight better than most players talking about their favourite games.
I would suggest, if you’re a gamer and you go expecting a yarn about someone’s game with Hollywood special effects you won’t be disappointed. If you’re a dark fantasy novel fan you probably won’t be disappointed - it’s not an adaptation but it easily could be of far too many of them. But if you go expecting a (fairly low budget) fantasy movie, for some reason it doesn’t quite work.
Bechdel test. It certainly passes steps 1 and 2 - there are multiple named female characters who talk to each other on occasion. There is a short, roughly two lines each, back and forth between Chloe and Danique about the enchanted jewel and thrift stores. It’s really, really borderline but it is just a technical pass. I’m inclined that way because quite a lot of the women are independent and give Kaulder (well deserved) shit at various points, even if they’re terrified of him (for good reason).
Russo test. No. There’s plenty of opportunity, and it’s implied that Danique might be lesbian but it’s not clear.
Wednesday, February 1. 2017
This death came as less of a blow than many of the celebrity deaths last year. Somewhere in the back of head, I knew he had cancer I think and so hearing he died of cancer at 77 wasn’t a shock.
The fact the news wasn’t a shock doesn’t stop it being deeply saddening. John Hurt was an actor who seemed to always make it look deceptively easily but that ease came from being an actor at the top of his game for several decades. From carrying 1984 and Elephant Man to dramatic but small parts in Alien and Perfume, to really quite minor roles in several of the Harry Potter movies, to effortlessly scene-stealing from both the modern (to date then) Doctor’s in the 50th anniversary special as The War Doctor, he could do it all.
Rather than the most obvious scene of John Hurt’s I’m going with one of his more chilling but more powerful. I can’t think V for Vendetta with it’s story line about revolution and massive civil, passive resistance against the government is in my mind at the moment, but I give you the introduction of Chancellor Sutler:
Sunday, January 29. 2017
This is an awkward film to review because the trailer, which I usually use as my limit on spoilers, is really quite misleading. So, I will warn you now, since this film contains potential triggers, and it’s based quite closely on a book that was published six years ago, I’m going to have more spoilers than usual to discuss some of the themes and potential triggers.
That said, I’m going to start with the parts of the film that, as a British film goer, I found hard to cope with. They will lead naturally on to the spoilers and what made this film so gripping.
First up, the accents. There were a real mish-mash of British accents on display here (Felicity Jones sounds much more like she’s Oxford educated rather than a Brummy), and while mum and dad could have such different accents, the disparity between mum and son, and son (who is clearly Scottish) and everyone that spoke at school was “Argh, no!!!!” territory - with every one of those exclamation marks. This might not bother the Americans but it certainly bothered me.
Then there was the initial tone of the film - which might be down to the trailer in part. The trailer makes it look like a fantasy film and there are elements of the opening half an hour that look like a modern-day-based fantasy/fairy tale. But there are elements that look like a classic horror movie too. It took me a little while to adjust - and here come the spoilers - because this is not a horror movie, nor a fairy tale, it’s a pretty pure psychodrama. Connor, the son, is coming to terms (actually pretty well) with his TRIGGER WARNINGS and Spoilers: mother’s terminal cancer AND being bullied at school.
The titular monster, the rest of the film, really, mixes stories that lead Connor to understand his situation and face up to his recurring nightmare with which the film opens and the developing situation in the outside world as his mother’s condition deteriorates and his bullying changes in tone and nature as well. The stories do not necessarily suggest the best (from a responsible adult) perspective course of behaviour but they do suggest a very plausible course of behaviour for a twelve year old in that situation.
The story moves to its inexorable conclusion which is far from happy but is very satisfying to me, as an adult, perhaps the more so because it isn’t a happy ending.
If you don’t have a problem with deaths due to cancer, bullying and psychodrama, this is a wonderful film. If any of those are likely to be triggers for you, take a lot of tissues, because I’ll admit to the odd tear watching it and certainly thinking it was a really good start to this year’s movie going and they’re not triggers for me.
Bechdel test: As usual we have an issue when female characters are called by a role “mum” and “grandma” but since it’s essentially a first-person narrative from a twelve-year old and that’s what you’d expect Connor to call them I’m going to say yes. There are a few conversations between mum (Lizzie) and grandma and they’re mostly about mum’s cancer, so yes.
Russo test: no. Connor is young enough that there’s nothing about sex at all really, and there’s more than enough other drama, so as I did with Moana I’m going to score this null rather than no.
Sunday, January 1. 2017
However you look at it, 2016 has been a crappy year. Every year has its deaths and with all sympathies to his family, the death of Richard Adams at 96 is hardly shocking news. But when it comes on the same day as the death of Carrie Fisher at 60 and after a year where so many celebrities that shaped my childhood and my adult life have died it feels like one kick too many.
You can take your pick from the musicians, the TV personalities and actors, the film actors and the sports stars who have died and for every one like Adams where you feel “well 96 is a decent age” there’s one who died and you’re thinking “that’s way too young” or, in my case “shit, that’s only a year older than me.” Although it’s a crude measure, it’s not just our imagination, more famous people died in 2016 than in previous years according to the BBC.
Politically it hasn’t been much better. We knew racism, sexism and various forms of homophobia and transphobia were major issues in the US, but ￼#BlackLivesMatter￼ and the shooting in Orlando and the numbers of trans people shot in the US this year beggars belief. With the election of Trump it seems like it's going to get worse, not better. Having a racist, misogynist as POTUS and a Bible-belt GOP-hard-liner as VPOTUS doesn't really bode well. Hopefully the muppets we're led by here won't look to the US for leadership on this as they do for so much else.
Here, of course, we led the way in shock, populist election results. Voting to leave the EU was a shock to pretty much everyone and while I think we need to knuckle down and get on with it, it’s pretty clear that no one has a fucking clue what Brexit actually means. It’s likely that even the Three Brexiteers, the three ministers trying to thrash out our negotiating position, can’t agree. Whether that’s because their positions are antithetical to each other (there’s hard brexit, soft brexit, red-white-and-blue brexit after all) or (some or all of) their ideas are just so half-arsed the civil servants are telling them they’re just crazy and can’t be made to work or a combination of both isn’t being made public - our glorious new leader is keeping everything very close to her chest probably because it’s such a mess. And, of course, most of the journalists that are meant to be holding our politicians to scrutiny and finding this stuff out work for so-called newspapers that are too busy crowing about the joys of brexit to ever run the story.
While today’s news from Bagdad and Istanbul might make you doubt it, we’ve also seen a worrying change in terrorist tactics, at least in Europe. In some ways, although the news sources and the politicians won’t ever say it, the change of Da’esh and the like to driving trucks into crowds instead of using bombs and guns is a good thing. Of course it’s not good if you or your family are affected and the death tolls can still be horribly high, but the processes to stop them getting access to explosives are clearly working. The downside? Stealing a truck and finding someone that can drive is a lot easier and a lot harder to prevent.
I hope 2017 is better than 2016. To be honest I’m not holding my breath. It’s really not unthinkable that Marine Le Pen could win in France and the AfD could hold the balance of power in Germany by the end of 2017. Happy New Year!
Saturday, December 31. 2016
This year was a bad year for the movies I saw and passing the Russo test. In fact only one of them did and that was ambiguous (Love and Friendship). Rogue One can also be read as passing but it was ambiguous whether the potentially gay characters felt erotic love or agape or filial love for each other and my impression through 99% of the movie was that it was not erotic and for the other 1% that I wasn’t sure so I scored it as a fail. The Killing Joke was the only other film to get any steps along the way towards passing the test. It was also a fairly bad year for going to the movies though, in terms of numbers, which may not have helped. I don’t really go to the cinema to see specifically LGBT movies (if I did, I could easily have more movies and a higher count that pass the Russo test) and perhaps by chance the “extra” films I didn’t see this year were the ones with the LGBT characters that I did see last year and the year before.
43% of the films I saw failed the Bechdel test, that’s an increase on previous years where it was more typically in the 30%’s. Although the count of films is down, it’s not down enough to account for that. As usual, passing the Bechdel test tends to suggest I’ll like the film more. That could simply be a case that I like films with better rounded female characters but it’s not always true - some sink low in the list - I think it reflects that, in general, if you write all your characters well you tend to write a good story on all the levels too. Dead Pool and Doctor Strange both failed to pass the Bechdel test but both wrote their female characters well (even if it didn’t draw them strongly in Dead Pool), just failed to let them have conversations for various reasons.
It’s hard to draw many conclusions from the counts of characters by gender. Most films, even Ghostbusters somehow, have more named male roles than female. Sometimes spectacularly so. Rogue One is more than 5:1, The Magnificent Seven was nearly 13:1! But a couple of films (including The Huntsman: Winter’s Warwhich could easily have been a testosterone party) were even and one (P&P&Z) had more female roles than male. No films had 0 named female characters but 1 had no strongly drawn female characters in my opinion, and one I wasn’t sure about (The Hateful Eight where I felt none of the women were strongly drawn but Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character wasn’t worse drawn than the men’s character either - they were all ciphers). Given it’s not clear what I’m able to learn from it, I’m going to discontinue this measure. You will notice for two late entries on this list I’ve already stopped doing this because I’d already done the analysis.
If you go back and read the review of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children you might be surprised to see it this high. I think my memories of the film have acquired a sort of rosy glow because since watching it, I’ve read the book it was based on and in fact, the whole trilogy of them. The first book is somewhat different and the series has some issues but they’re rather more charming and address some of the real issues I had with the film, so I think they’ve retrospectively made me forgiving of the flaws and willing to accept the good parts of the film because I know more about some of the unspoken parts.
Wednesday, December 28. 2016
I am posting this a little early because while the year hasn't ended, I'm building up to a migraine and I'm not going to see enough TV in the rest of the year for any of it to break into the list.
As usual, unlike my films, I don’t particularly routinely blog about my TV watching. That is, to some extent, because I don’t actively watch a lot of TV outside rugby. I’ll have it on (although it’s as likely to be playing the radio as an actual TV station) but watching it is less likely.
In addition, although the US is talking a lot about phrases like “peak TV” and so on, for me 2016 has been a year of stepping away from shows whose time has, at least for me, finally come. Add to that only one Sherlock episode, one Doctor Who special and the like and it feels like it hasn’t been a particularly great year. That said, when I came to write my list (as you’ll see below) it turns out to be longer than last year’s list so perhaps there is more to it than it really feels whilst going through the year.
This year was also the year that Bury Your Gays broke out into the mainstream and became a rallying cry, a shout that perhaps the screenwriters will listen to. It did become so bad that I wrote a piece calling for a moratorium on killing dead lesbian and bisexual women characters Bury Your Gays - Eloise’s thoughts and fancies. I stand by that call - I’m generally opposed to restricting writers and their creative juices but in this case it’s become so lazy and easy they need a little while to think of other ways to handle their gay characters properly that a bit of a restriction so they do better in future would be a good thing™.
Before I start to write a list, one thing that has changed is that Netflix has started to seriously become the source of quite a chunk of the TV I actually watch, rather than have on in the background. It doesn’t make appointment TV in the way a show like Orphan Black still does for me but it still makes for an important time commitment. Netflix is making some of it’s own original content (Stranger Things, Sense8 which didn’t make the list with only a Christmas special, but I certainly watched that avidly enough, and Orange is the New Black which fell off my watch list this year) but is also bringing great TV from around the world. 3% and Travellers are both on this list and shows I almost certainly wouldn’t have seen (Travellers, being Canadian I might have seen, 3% being Brazilian no chance) but they’re both in my best of TV list thanks to Netflix.
So, without further ado, what was the TV that made appointment or binge viewing must-see for me in 2016?
I’m going to decline to pick a favourite from this list, although I will say The Magicians is the one that nearly didn’t make it. But I did watch it regularly, despite my doubts, and I’ve got the date for the start of season 2 in my reminders so it qualifies to be on this list. The reason I’m not going to pick a favourite is I’ve got some 4, 6 and 8 episode seasons, quite a few in the 10-13 US cable season and one 22 episode US network TV format season. I’ve got shows that have finished this week and shows I haven’t seen since about March. I’ve got two shows about AI, one of which is small, intimate and about the heart of it, one of which is huge, quite cold and about the intellectual nature of it. I’ve got three shows that are quite light weight and fun, several that are more dark in tone, one that followed the decline and death of the anti-hero. One that relied on nostalgia and brilliant child actors, several that rely on heavy adult themes, one that is an updated cold war thriller for the new millennium.
I am going to give some notional awards though:
There were more shows that I watched from here and there, these were the shows I would go out of my way to watch, not read while I was watching them and so on. Some had huge budgets, some had tiny budgets. Some had huge LGBT presence some really didn’t have any. Some were deeply serious, at least one is just frothy fun.
One of my cinema-going friends complains (in fact of Orphan Black amongst other things) that “making a character have a tough background doesn’t automatically make them sympathetic” and I whole-heartedly agree. But I don’t necessarily need a sympathetic character in a TV show (I’m really not going to recommend she watches Good Behaviour you have the choice of the junkie, ex-con grifter or the assassin. Actually she might think the assassin is hot and watch for that. But he’s also controlling tending to more than borderline abusive.) . I want characters in a TV show that I’m interested in finding out more about. Making them sympathetic is certainly one way to do that but, in both Orphan Black and Good Behaviour despite the fact I don’t really like Sarah, Letty or Javier (I like Letty’s motivational app more than Letty) but I want to know more about all three of them from the get go. And I don’t hate them, I’m intrigued by them, and I find other characters whom I like as well. Helena, poor abused Felix and Donnie (very much not the trio I’d have said in S1 but where i am now for Orphan Black) and, rather surprisingly, Christian for Good Behaviour. That’s not to say I want all my TV shows to go down this route - I like variety in characters as well as shows and, for example, 12 Monkeys, iZombie, Killjoys and Wynonna Earp all do a wonderful job of making their good guys interesting and sympathetic while avoiding that terribly anodyne “nice.”(￼#RaviIsTheBest￼)
Next year will have both Sherlock and Doctor Who and I expect they’ll both be on the list again. I’ve also put the start of Series 2 of Sense8 in my reminders list. Quite a few of the shows above will be back, at least two of them for their last seasons.
Wednesday, December 28. 2016
I am one of those rare lovers of English literature who came to Jane Austen through choice rather than being forced in school or by well-intentioned relatives. Perhaps because of that, I find I still really enjoy most of her works. Unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is a deliberate mashup, Love and Friendship is based on one of her very early (and unpublished) works Lady Susan.
If you’re at all familiar with Jane Austen there will be a lot here that you’re familiar with and if you’re a fan there is a lot to be delighted with. There are not, as you would expect, a lot of laugh out loud moments although I will admit a few of the lines had me howling and practically crying with laughter as various pompous fools were skewered with sharp, cruel but insightful words. But the humour as well as the sharp observation that so characterises Austen at her best shines through.
This is a film or book that you could easily imagine being written today, as Lady Susan schemes and manipulates her way through society, never admitting fault. For a book probably written in 1794 this is a radical character as is the fact she seems to get away with being so immoral - although the moral characters get their reward too. She's also the active character in her own seduction and romance scenes, which is still somewhat unusual but has a much more 21st Century than 18th Century feel.
Watching her scheme and manipulate and play the rules of society to her benefit will not be to everyone’s delight but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Bechdel test: There are a swathe of named female characters and they do have long conversations with each other. A LOT of these conversations are about men. However there are scenes where they talk about other things, so a definite pass.
Russo test: This is trickier. In the novel and the film Lady Susan has a close friend and confidante Alicia Johnson. But we never see a sex scene, it’s all implied (the book is an epistolary novel) and the way Lady Susan acts with Alicia is pretty much identical to the way she acts with the men we know she’s having sex with. Given how immoral Lady Susan and Alicia are, although they’re both involved with men for status and money, I kept circling back to the impression that they were lovers as well as confidantes so I’m going to say yes on all three counts.
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