Sunday, October 4. 2015
Much like Everest, The Martian is a disaster movie. However, unlike Everest it is probably closer to Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff in tone.
The premise is simple. Ares III, a manned mission to Mars, has to abort when an unexpectedly strong storm blows up and threatens to blow over their MAV (the vehicle that will get them off Mars, back to Hermes the ship that will take them home). While evacuating from the HAB (their base on Mars, the habitat facility they’ve been living in) to the MAV, one of the astronauts, Watney, is struck by flying debris, his electronics are damaged and are a search they take off before the MAV tips over believing he’s dead.
He has food for about 300 days (the mission was for a lot less long than that, but it was for a crew of 6 and NASA oversupplies on principle) but it will take at least 800 days for a rescue mission to arrive. All this is in the trailer.
There are other problems that crop up, which I won’t detail here, because, spoilers. One of the issues that is relevant and in the trailer, is that for a chunk of the movie Watney is out of touch and has to solve problems on his own, once he establishes contact, he has lots of brainy people trying to come up with solutions to help him. This is the bit that reminded me of Apollo 13. But even then, there’s a huge element of him being alone and a long way away. Twelve light minutes means when something goes wrong he has to cope with the emergency and then tell people about it. These part reminds me of The Right Stuff.
And although a lot of the attention focuses on the action on Mars, there is enough of the Earth-side science and the Earth-side politics to keep all sides of it moving along in an interesting fashion and create some unexpected tensions that develop things that work to give you a different set of things to worry about.
Stringing together the series of disasters to be plausible and juggling to make them really bad but just survivable for long enough every time must have meant I don’t know how many rewrites of the original book. But it works and makes a tense movie that all of us who went thoroughly enjoyed. Although it had a terrible disco sound check.
Also, just for giggles and not a spoiler, Sean Bean has now been to a Council of Elrond in two movies!
At 2:21 this is quite a long movie, our backs and backsides knew about it but it didn’t feel like it dragged at any point. There are a lot of pretty shots of Mars but I’m not convinced it really needs a big screen, it’s quite a small movie, being a one-hander in effect for a lot of the time. But this is one film where the hype is really believable - it is well worth seeing.
Bechdel test: Yes, absolutely. Most obviously Melissa Lewis (Commander) and Beth Johanssen (Astrogator) have a number of conversations about exciting things like orbital velocity, interception points and the like. But they’re named and the conversations about about men, even though they are about rescuing a man. They’re professionals doing their job having the conversations they need to do them.
Russo test: No. The astronauts are all straight that we see. We don’t really see anyone else’s personal life.
Saturday, October 3. 2015
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party it’s fair to say it wasn’t a shock - the pollsters had been paying out on it for about a week - but in the political landscape it had the impact, and shock value, of an earthquake.
Corbyn is a pretty hard-left socialist, even by our “European Socialist” standards. As a leader of a political party, where since Michael Foot really, it’s all been about “occupying the centre ground” this is a really dramatic shift to the left. Corbyn certainly seems to the left of Kinnock by several steps, and Neil Kinnock is one of those rare people who fought and lost two general elections as the leader of the opposition in succession. It is certainly argued, rightly or wrongly, that he lost because he was too left wing to appeal to the electorate successfully. It’s no wonder there are a lot of really nervous Labour MPs out there.
However, if we look at parties which cover the whole of Great Britain (I use the term very advisedly: Northern Ireland is, as always, different when it comes to politics, equally since IndyRef the SNP has shown a massive increase in membership, but that’s only in Scotland) all of the parties have been showing a decline over the last several decades. This election, the Labour leadership election that is, has boosted Labour Party membership by over 200,000. Many of those were the £3 affiliate members and doubtless some of those were mischievous voters. However, it’s clear that a significant number were not and also an appreciable number were the more expensive full members. At least 50,000 of those 200,000 people joined the Labour Party in the week or so after Corbyn was elected leader. They’re not malicious or mischievous voters, they’re probably a mix of returning Labour voters and potential new voters but many of them are young and engaged and are probably new voters. More on this later.
The bulk of the press hate Corbyn. They hated Milliband, who was far more moderate, which is no surprise since they’re fairly or completely pro-Tory. Even the exceptions to the pro-Tory press such as the Guardian seem pretty anti-Corbyn for some reason - he’s not the liberal, centrist Labour they’ve been supporting for the last 25 years after all. Having a genuine socialist to pillory is an easy target for all of them. The natural readership of the right-wing press will lap it all up of course, although the Guardian is shifting stance it seems.
The real question is, will the wider public be so critical? Even if you assume no overlap of readers, the print media only reaches about 10–12 million readers these days. It’s potentially influential but not the dominant force it used to be. Equally, there was an interesting piece published that looked at some of the economic “heresies” that Corbyn has proposed, renationalising the railways, People’s QE and the like. They’re incredibly unpopular with the Conservatives, and with the pro-Tory media, but they have widespread (>50% at least) support in the general public. People look at the amount we spend on the supposedly private rail companies in subsidies and wonder if we’re getting a good deal. Renationalisation is not seen as a bad move by many, although it certainly is by some. People hear the warning that the kind of things in People’s QE can cause inflation, then hear the news that inflation is staggering around 0% rather than the 2.5% target and wonder why this is a bad thing. The list goes on like this.
There is, barring something dramatic happening, basically 4 years and 8 months until we have a general election, although there are various elections between now and then. The economic situation will probably change and what Labour are saying now might not be the right answers in 2020. They need to be light enough on their feet to cope with that. But at their conference and after it they have been saying the right things.
Despite this, Corbyn undoubtedly has problems. I’m inclined to a pacifist point of view, with a non-interventionist foreign policy. Unilateral disarmament doesn’t scare me. But I’m in a small minority here. He needs to say something that will work with the electorate and say it soon and elaborate a coherent policy.
Regardless of this, ultimately, winning elections is a numbers game. Lets say half of the 150,000 pre-vote members stay and 4/5 of the post-vote members stay until 2020. And whatever number are returning party members but existing voters rather than young new voters are made up for by a slower influx of new, young voters if Corbyn continues to appeal to them over that time as he did during the leadership hustings. That’s ~115,000 new Labour voters come the next election. If he continues to do well with the population rather than the media he could continue to bring more than this in, and the numbers I’m using could need to be raised appreciably. Equally, of course, if he does terribly, they’ll need to be adjusted down. This is the harsh reality of politics but the evidence to date says he attracts people when he speaks and he attracts young people to vote for the first time, just as Blair did.
If you think it only took 900 in the right places to change their votes for it to be a hung parliament what could an extra 115,000 votes do? We don’t know where they’re based of course: it’s likely many of them are in places where Labour elected MPs safely anyway and they are, relatively speaking wasted, and some are wasted because they’re in places where Labour doesn’t really stand a chance. But they can’t all be, can they? Even if only 10% are in marginals, 11,500 extra Labour voters in the right places is a lot of a swing where it matters. Some time that reality will hit home. It will hit home to Labour MPs, to Tory strategists and to the press. And what will happen then will be really interesting. Remember it only took 900 people to vote different for a hung parliament… an estimated 11,500 votes is a big number compared to that even when you accept there’s a fair margin of error (or guesswork) there.
It’s interesting, as someone who hasn’t actually voted Labour (I’ve voted Green) for many years to wonder what has brought about the resurgence in Labour Party membership. My best guess, and it is only a guess, was neatly summed up in a quote from one of the commentators early in the campaign. I don’t remember it exactly, and I can’t find it by searching which suggests I’ve mangled it somewhat, but it went something like:
It’s easy from this perspective to forget what Tony Blair offered in the mid–90’s was hope. A hope for a better Britain, a brighter future. His story and current history is saying what he did was occupy the middle ground and win because he won Middle England but what if how he won them was by offering them hope? None of the current crop of politicians in any party seem to offer much in the way of hope. Corbyn may not deliver on hope but when he speaks he seems to make you believe, even cynical old journalists like me believe, that there is a hope for a brighter, better future again. And that could just be a far more powerful message than any of us really understand at the moment.
I’ve heard Corbyn speak several times now. He doesn’t sound like the polished PR clone that we’ve had for a long time. If I’m honest, I like that. I find it refreshing to find someone articulate who speaks his mind rather than the party message soundbite. I suspect that might be part of his appeal to the wider public as well, an aspect beyond the hope he seems to engender I discussed briefly above. He isn’t always on the party message and sometimes that sounds like a gaffe, sometimes that is presented as “this is my view and I hope to bring the party with me” but I’m prepared to give him and the Labour Party some time to settle down and sort things out. They don’t have to roll out policies for a general election instantly. It does make him sound like a principled individual when he says thinks he believes in - he must know some of them are going to be unpopular and that is novel in this day and age.
It will be interesting to see what happens as the party machinery tries to get to grips with Corbyn. He is spouting off these statements at odds with core (current) party policy. At the moment he can still, the Tory press won’t forgive him whatever he says, the Labour MPs won’t either, but with the wider Labour Party he’s probably still got a honeymoon period, and with the electorate there’s a sizing up period. He is unknown, relatively, he’s been elected leader, he’s done his first conference - we’re past our first date but we’re still getting to know each him. The ones that matter, the voters that change their mind and their votes will be making up their minds over the weeks and months to come. Although the evidence is, they often don’t decide until they walk into that booth, more or less, a Thursday in May, 2020. But, back to the point, with Blair, Brown (however uncomfortable he looked) and Milliband (however unnatural it looked on him) we had people who had been more or less polished, taught to deal with the public, the media and so on. Corbyn has changed his appearance: he no longer looks like a working geography teacher, he looks more like a retired geography teacher - his jackets are a bit nattier as if he no longer has to consider how well they’ll stand up to the rigours of the classroom and the assaults of ink, chalk and the like. But he has this distressing habit of answering questions. He may not answer yes or no - like many a teacher his answers are longer and more detailed than that - but they are clear enough, do directly answer the question and when probed more he answers waspishly that he has made his position quite clear. (Watch or listen to the question on pressing the button to launch nukes if you’re not sure what I’m talking about. He had explained why he wouldn’t use them, and was probed about whether he would actually do it. His response was polite but pretty pointed, he didn’t quite call the interviewer stupid but he pretty much accused her of not actually listening to what he’d said!) I like this form of answering questions with reasons and thought out positions. (It might help I agree with a lot of the reasoning on this case, it will be interesting to see what I think when I hear him questioned on a topic where I disagree with him more.) But, I think those that listen might find it interesting. We’ve had 25+ years of politicians spinning answers like crazy, and avoiding answering questions they think have awkward answers. Corbyn gave an answer he must have known would be unpopular supported by his reasoning. Whether or not I agree with his position, I think I’ll find that a better approach than the soundbite and non-answer we’ve had for so long.
There was much talk that there would be plots and moves to depose him. While it’s technically easy to do, the face he won over 50% of the vote in a field of 4 in the first round in all three “colleges” of the Labour Party’s voting system makes that an act of suicide. If he’d won solely on the basis of the affiliates you could have attempted to change the voting system, throw out affiliate voters, and trigger a new election and hope someone else comes forward. Now the potential rebels need really solid grounds to do so. They may turn up. Conventional psephological wisdom says occupy the centre ground and he’s not going to do that. Conventional psephological wisdom said we’d have a hung parliament with Labour the biggest party too. Those reasons really may not turn up.
Friday, September 25. 2015
I never had an urge to climb Everest. It should also be said I have neither the aptitude nor the ability as well as lacking the desire. Having watched Everest I no longer have the need to climb it either!
The first half of this film acts very nicely as a tourist video of the climb and the spectacle of the mountain itself, thus circumventing any need for me to ever try and actually do all that training and dangerous exertion and so on. I’m not sure how much was shot on the mountain and how much mocked up but I imagine quite a lot is shot there. The [wiki page for the film](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everest_(2015_film) doesn’t say how much but does say they shot in Nepal.
This first half of the film also establishes the various personalities of our “team” of climbers and those around them, including the other teams, all aiming for the summit in May, 1996.
1996 was if, like me, you didn’t know the real start of “Everest tourism.” You still had to be a good climber (the climbers in the team discuss their other conquests, including Mount McKinley, for one of them Everest is the last of the Seven Summits and so on) but there were multiple tour groups all paying (the figure of US$65,000 is mentioned) experienced Everest climbers to get them to the summit and back. It had obviously happened before - Rob Hall, the central character of this film had done it, this seems to be the first year with multiple competing tour groups. Hence the other teams and their characters. Because this is based on a real historical disaster from 1996 (and because it’s hard to have spoilers from real events 19 years ago so brace yourself for that!) you get a bigger cast than you might in a fictional piece. There are certainly characters present who obviously were there in fact but who you would role into one character or remove altogether if you were writing this as fiction.
Finally, as part of the team training, it establishes the less obvious physiological hazards the climbers will face. These include the symptoms of hypoxia, cerebral oedema and hypothermia. As you might guess, this being film with limited time, many of these become relevant later on.
Anyway, by and large, things go well as our intrepid team make the summit. We learn enough about most of them to understand why they’re there - although it’s somewhat superficial in places. We get the views and we get enough moments of danger, safely overcome, to understand something of both the risks and the competence of the guides that are leading the groups striving for the summit.
And then they get to the top and things start to change. The weather changes, as its wont to do. Rob Hall, the team leader, makes a compassionate, human but ultimately stupid decision that puts various people’s lives at risk.
And from then on we’re into disaster movie territory. Who will survive in low oxygen, freezing temperatures, night falling and all the rest?
Several of them die on the mountain, some are left for dead but survive albeit with massive frostbite despite the odds and some survive. I would hazard a guess that even those physically ok didn’t survive without trauma.
This film won’t be for everyone and to be honest it’s not the sort of movie I’d normally pick out but the spectacle of the first half is really beautiful and worth seeing, and worth seeing on a big screen. The unfolding disaster of the second half is moving without being maudlin and although you may disagree it didn’t feel overlong to me. Unlike a lot of 70’s disasters movies this sort of people fighting to survive the extremes of nature doesn’t annoy me in the same way that say The Towering Inferno style often can, where it’s fighting more against incompetence and stupidity. This won’t be one of my favourites at the end of the year, but I suspect it will tuck in just behind that group.
If you like random actor trivia, two different actors who played terminators were in the movie (playing Guy and Rob). This doesn't normally do it for me, but it distracted me a couple of times. Both were West Island New Zealanders pulling out their best Kiwi accents and managing pretty well.
Bechdel Test: I think, oddly, no. There are a lot of named female characters: Helen (base camp manager), Peach (wife of one of the climbers), Yasuko Namba (a climber), Jan Hall (now Arnold) and Caroline (the camp doctor) among others. Quite a few of them talk to each other. But I can’t remember any of them not talking about one of the men. The ones that could have talked about other things are largely limited by the language barrier.
Russo test: No. No one identifies as anywhere on the LGBT spectrum.
Saturday, September 19. 2015
So iOS9 is here.
Unlike some people I haven’t had developer versions and so on to play with, this is just my first thoughts after using it for a few hours.
The change of font from Helvetica Neue to San Francisco seems small to me when I look at the fonts on comparison sheets and elsewhere but actually using the iPad it seems much more significant and actually quite pleasant it has to be said. It is, perhaps, really dramatic when you come to use the keyboard and you’re suddenly faced with a keyboard that changes from lower case to upper case and back when you press shift. I was used to the old style but this seems more obvious and not off-putting except for an instant of “WTF?” or, perhaps “wtf?” But it’s more than that - the appearance of the app names and more is appreciably, if fairly subtly, different. I think it’s an improvement although I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. It feels somewhat crisper and easier to read though. A more dramatic change - if you use folders you get 16 items per page instead of 9, at least on an iPad.
Sidebar apps, or app sharing - you can pull in a sort of minified version of some apps from the right to take up 1/4 of the screen but only apps that are set up for this - seems to work nicely. It’s a little odd in iBooks if, like me, you flick to turn pages when you get a little arrow asking if you want a sidebar to show or not. Also, if you want to use it in iBooks while you’re reading, you’ll turn the page every time! But in other apps it’s nice. In less than 24h I’ve shifted to tapping on the right to turn the pages 95%+ of the time so it doesn’t evoke that slider arrow. The sidebar probably won’t work for all types of apps - you get a sort of ultra-minified version of the app which works nicely for reminders for example but is less satisfying for some other things - it’s too narrow to make a satisfying reading experience in my opinion, although iBooks is available there as is Instapaper. It will be interesting to see what developers add to this over the coming weeks and months.
Speaking of Reminders, I might be one of the few, but I have always used this app and it’s had an overhaul. Some of it is purely visual - check buttons for completed actions are grey not blue for example. Some is more suitable for me although if you have a load of items in a day it might be less good - there’s a little + for adding new reminders on every day that displays. Because a lot of my reminders are repeats (things like take my pills twice a day - you only get the current reminders for those) I used to get about 5 days on a screen in landscape, now I get about 4–5, plus a load of extraneous + buttons to let me add new reminders for those days. That said, when I want a reminder to ring someone for work (which happens moderately often) I can see it being really useful compared to the old interface. (You had to add a reminder, then set it to a specific day to achieve this which was a fiddle.)
Calendars has also had an overhaul and imports things from various places - it tells you so when you first load it but I didn’t notice anything in with a quick glance. I don’t use it that much on the iPad to be honest, and only found this because I was checking what day of the week a particular date fell on for some reason. I don’t use Mail on the iPad routinely either - I use too many folders for email on my iMac and it messes things up - so I won’t attempt to review that.
One of the most touted things is content blocking for Safari. You can’t actually search for content blockers but I was directed to one called Purify and I thought I’d give it a go (there’s a longer story there but this post is long enough. You get the app, then enable it via Settings > Safari, and that’s it. (I looked at screen shots of some other apps, they may have more twiddles and options.) And, at first that’s it. But when you surf around weird things happen. Sites, even sites you might expect to be relatively slow, load really quickly because loads of junk doesn’t get loaded. Most adverts vanish. Most social buttons vanish. The speed increase, even on sites like the Second Life marketplace or eShopping sites makes mobile browsing over wifi essentially as fast as browsing over an ethernet plugged-in computer.
Even without that Safari has changed. Some content renders differently when absolute positioning is used, there is a clipboard option that I have to explore properly, and if you paste into the address bar you get “paste and go” as an option. I understand the reader view has been overhauled. I don’t use this much but it is meant to be well worth it now.
Apple’s News app isn’t yet available in the UK. I’m looking forward to it. Flipchart bought out Zite a while ago and have started heavy-handedly hinting that Zite’s days are numbered. Flipchart is a poor replacement for Zite (although at first glance it looks pretty it lacks a lot of features and draws from a very restricted pool of sources, certainly for UK news). I don’t mind reading the Torygraph for some articles but it seems to be 90% of the news… and the only sensible option seems to be to mute it as a source which is not really that good either So, I’m hoping News, when it arrives, does better. It’s not a really high bar to aim for.
But iOS9 is looking good so far. And content-blocked Safari browsing is amazing.
Sunday, September 13. 2015
I finally caught up with The Maze Runner (which I missed at the cinema due to a migraine) in the expectation, and now hope, of seeing the sequel soon.
I’m sure, when it was released, as a YA dystopia it was compared, and probably not all that favourably, to The Hunger Games franchise. The problem is, the world of Panem is fully fleshed and complex from the start while in The Maze Runner we have a crowd of boys (and part way through one girl) living in moderately idyllic circumstances except they’re surrounded by a maze full of nasty creatures that shifts and changes and anyone out there overnight is never seen alive again. There is no fully fledged world and apart from the box delivering a new boy (except the one girl) and supplies every month there is no contact with the outside world. This all boys living together and the camp dynamics made me think much more of Lord of the Flies than The Hunger Games.
I felt the film did a decent job of balancing the various group dynamics within the camp with the initial dread of the unknown of the maze and then the horror/action sequences as they explore the maze and get attacked by the creatures inhabiting it and so on. The clashes between the “We’re safe here, we should stay and not disrupt the status quo” and “we should explore, we should get out” dynamics are clearly done and have other parallels that are obvious. It’s interesting to ask whether the fact that Gally, the embodiment of the conservatives, is also a bully and seems to believe sacrificing people to the maze in an almost religious ritual will bring back the good times which are present in the film are deliberate and how much more clearly they are present in the book.
The action sequences are good enough I wish I’d seen it at the cinema. And, surprisingly, one of the main characters you meet early is one of the first ones to die. There are plenty of token characters who die too as well as a few more significant and more keenly felt character deaths. Sadly in 2014 (when it was released) there’s a case of “the token black guy dies” still, although the token Asian survives.
One thing that isn’t clear to me is why the token girl appears. I understand there’s a series of books this franchise is based on and perhaps it’s clearer there. I’m certainly not opposed to women in movies but this really felt like tokenism - although she did get to have some really good moments, keeping the whole camp full of boys at bay when she first woke up for example.
I have been using the word token a lot. I don’t know if that’s present in the book but the film’s casting made it feel that way, most definitely.
One place I felt this movie genuinely fails when compared The Hunger Games and many other films was in its lead. Dylan O’Brien, who plays Thomas, had played the central character’s best friend in a teen TV show for 5 seasons… so he’d been somewhat important but not the star in an ensemble cast. I think he fails to make the transition to the big screen well. Ami Ameen as Alby I did believe as a leader and I felt I’d like to see more of him but of course I have, in Sense8. Jennifer Lawrence already had a film career and while it’s hard to argue against the idea that the original The Hunger Games proved she was a star, films like X-Men: First Class which was out the year before proved she could carry her own against such lightweights as James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender so the potential was certainly already there for all to see.
As a film, The Maze Runner packs all its “the world is more complex, lets have a sequel” reveals into the last few minutes. That’s not a disaster, it stands alone nicely enough for what it is and the reveals for the sequel work smoothly and organically enough that I didn’t feel like they were bolted on (unlike, for example Inception where the film’s ending is so different to the book’s and felt wrong and not only to me but to someone that didn’t know the books too.
Overall, despite its flaws, I enjoyed this film. I’d like to have seen it at the cinema. I’m going to try to see the sequel at the cinema. I’m also going to read the books and see just how different they are.
Bechdel test: No. There are actually two named female characters but there is nothing approaching a conversation between them.
Russo test: No. Actually there is nothing approaching any form of sexuality. In a camp full of teenage boys a teenage girl turns up and none of them behave at all inappropriately towards her. They obviously put bromide in their supplies.
Sunday, September 13. 2015
Legend is, for me, an interesting but disappointing film. As a fan of Orphan Black seeing Tom Hardy playing twins is unremarkable: I’m used to Tatiana Maslany playing Sarah, Beth, Cosima, Rachel, Helena, Alison, Krystal, Tony and briefly Katja (plus, of course) Sarah as Beth, Sarah as Cosima, Sarah as Katja, Sarah as Alison (and Sarah as Alison rping Donnie), Helena as Sarah, Cosima as Alison and so on. There were moments with her playing Jennifer too of course, in the build up to Season 2. And various moments like the clone dance party, Helena’s dream sequence and the dinner party and more with 3 or 4 clones closely interacting in ways the Kray twins rarely did but 2 clones together for long and often intensely physical shots (fights and the like) is pretty commonplace. So while that might be interesting for some that isn’t what made it so for me.
Tom Hardy himself is a compelling actor and it was interesting to see him play these characters - characters that are such a part of British modern history - and that makes it different to Tat’s sublime work doing the same multi-character work with fictional characters in Orphan Black. Telling the story from the perspective of Frances Kray (née Shea) as she meets, is courted by and marries Reggie also helps make it an interesting story for me - you see them from a different perspective to the normal gangster story, this is really a love story but the film is essentially about the baggage that one of the lovers has: his criminally insane brother whom he loves dearly, his love of being a gangster and his ambition to rule London’s underworld. That makes it interesting too.
Why was it disappointing? Well, although I don’t really know anything formal about the Krays, I do have a sense of what their grip on London was like; a cultural mythic sense of how brutal they were if you like. There are reasons in the film why Frances is protected from this: partly wilful ignorance, partly because Reggie wanted her to believe he was going straight and so hid it from her. But it plays up Reggie as the charming rogue (he has to be charming in the film, he sweeps Frances off her feet and marries her despite her misgivings and her mother’s disapproval after all). But it all comes across as rather too glamorous and not nasty enough given what I do know of what went on. I’d have been happier if this was an American crime story (where I wouldn’t know those details) or a fictional piece. As it was, it constantly jarred for me this glamorous veneer without the violence and terror really showing through. That was enhanced by the film using at least some of its more violent episodes as instant counter-points to moments of comic relief. Perhaps that’s meant to set up a sense of contrast to make you realise you’re seeing it through a filter but for me it set up an extra layer of uneasiness in the director’s choices.
It’s worth noting, in addition to the gloss and glamour that the chosen storytelling method put on it, about 2 minutes scanning Wikipedia will point out a number of clear factual errors in the film - things like dates and times of crimes that I’m prepared to bet Wikipedia has probably got right. These didn’t disappoint me at the time and don’t after the event either: I’m prepared to grant them artistic license because it made the story work nicely. But if you’ve looked into the true story of the Krays you might well be disappointed by the errors you notice.
This is the first film we’ve seen in a while that got an 18 certificate. There are a couple of fight scenes that probably make for that. Although one is quite Hollywood sanitised (if you beat people with hammers it should be bloodier than that I’m sure, I’ve seen enough CSI to know about “the first blow is free, then there are arcs of blood splatter” and so on), the other is bloody and brutal. Additionally there’s a mostly on-screen pill-popping suicide which probably pushes it up there too. And a LOT of swearing, although some of it will escape the delicate ears of the US audience who won’t understand why Reggie pulls a gun when he’s called a nonce pansy I’m sure.
There is also, as you’d expect from a movie set in the 60’s a lot of smoking. Everyone smokes all the time. It’s become so unusual in this day and age it took me a few minutes to adjust to the sight of it though. There are a couple of scenes set in clubs where it’s almost a case of peering through the haze on the long shots which I vaguely remember from the 80’s but it was a shock to see in a modern movie.
I would suggest this film is worth watching for some of the performances, certainly Tom Hardy’s. As a biologist I had to write a lot of essays that started “Compare and contrast…” and this film would give you a great founding to do that for building and portraying characters. (Orphan BlacK could do it too, and better mind you.) Watching it you were never in doubt about who you were seeing despite them being played by the same person, although there were times when a stunt double’s face was too clearly visible which jarred. As with a lot of British movies there a strong element of “Oh, that’s x from y isn’t it!” as loads of British actors get their big screen moments too. If that sort of exercise and the other things I’ve mentioned above don’t intrigue you then don’t go. The negatives are, I suspect, British (and possibly age) related only. I suspect it might do much better in the US than here because there’s not that same awareness of the Krays and who they were and what they did. Even after that I’m not sure it’s important to see at the cinema. There wasn’t much here that felt particularly cinematic to me.
Bechdel Test: Just, but yes. There are a lot of scenes between Frankie and her mother that ought to make it pass easily but Tara Fitzgerald who plays her mother is credited without a character name (not even “Frances’ mother”) on IMDB. However, there is a tiny scene of a chat about how badly Frankie makes tea with Violet (and Ronnie) so it just scrapes in. Given the amount of testosterone that’s quite a surprise. It’s not a good movie for role models for women.
Russo Test: Perhaps surprisingly given the era and the genre yes, clearly. Ronnie clearly identifies as homosexual (according to wikipedia he was almost certainly bisexual, having happy relationships with men but hoping to marry someone called Monica). He has a couple of pretty men around him throughout the film and associates with a number of gay men at various points. None of them are “the token gay” and Ronnie is certainly defined by a lot more than his sexuality, his hangers-on less so.
Sunday, August 30. 2015
I suppose the place I need to start this review is by saying I’m not a rap fan but, overall, I enjoyed the movie. Unlike the racist cop “Rap ain’t art” I’m merely saying I don’t generally like it (although there are some tracks I do like) in the same way I don’t like speed metal or bubblegum pop, or I do like goth music.
The next thing to say is that this is a biopic about a band. This is the model of music biopic where the band split up AND someone dies rather than one or the other, which probably explains why it runs to almost 2.5 hours. While there were scenes I could have lived without to make it shorter it didn’t hugely feel like it dragged at any point.
The film, like all music biopics, is probably pretty accurate - there’s a lot of rabid fans out there, it’s hard to make stuff up - and given Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy-E’s widow are among the producers it’s likely to be a pretty fair representation of the internal workings of N.W.A. Not being a fan of the genre or the band (I’ve heard of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube but I didn’t know they were in the band) it’s hard for me to comment on what’s been missed out. Rumours of misogyny, violent abuse of women and the like are rife and see no part in this film for example. In fact, apart from Dr. Dre’s mother there are almost no females in the movie except party girls until the band get older and start to settle down and acquire serious girlfriends who later become their wives. They don’t cover up a level of casual violence and threats with guns and the like that is frankly frightening.
I think the fact I didn’t know anything about the band helped make the movie more engaging for me: I was watching a story where I didn’t know what was going on, except in the broadest of terms. I recently watched Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (The Ian Dury and the Blockheads biopic) on TV where I knew the music and the story much better. I enjoyed the music much more but the film much less because I knew the story already.
The other thing that worked well for me was seeing their origins and the racist abuse they suffered individually and as a group. It’s easy for me to say “racism is terrible!” I’m white, and I live in a place where even if I was black I would be incredibly unlikely to be threatened with being shot for being black (it’s not true that none of our police are armed but it rare to see them and rare for those that are armed to shoot, even in our big cities) although harassment is certainly more common for black people here. This film slams the reality of it in your face in an impossible to ignore and really hard to condone way. Being harassed and technically legally beaten up for trying to walk across the street from your friends to your parent’s house because you’re black - that’s meant to be right? And the events of 2015 are doing a lot to show that America as a culture really hasn’t done a lot to advance matters between its police and its African American populace in the last 25 years or so.
There’s a line in the film, when Ice Cube is being interviewed, where he says he’s a journalist, telling the truth about what he sees around him in bloody, brutal reality rather than fancy words. I don’t know first hand that this is, or was, that reality - but I really don’t doubt it. The film captures and shows that to us in a way nothing I’ve seen before has ever really managed.
I went in expecting to be interested by this film and it ticked that box, but I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I expected too. It’s absolutely not a film to which you can take your children - the amount of profanity, drug use, random nudity and sex going on as N.W.A. live out the rock’n’roll excess lifestyle (even if they’d object to that styling of it) makes sure of that. I was a bit surprised when I saw it had a 15 certificate and that string of warnings but none of it counts as extreme or prolonged or bloody violence I guess.
Bechdel test: There are plenty of named women but they don’t talk to each other. There’s a shed-load of young, male, sex-starved attitude towards women too. Definitely not.
Russo test: Not by a long way. But then the film was infamous for its homophobia (even I remember that) so no surprises there.
Wednesday, August 26. 2015
Orange is the New Black season 3 nearly caused me to exercise a rule that a blog post elsewhere has caused me to formalise.
I won’t link to it because it’s not edifying - in the light of the news that Sense8 has been renewed a site I read had a flame war about how long you should give a show before you give up on it, if you’re doing to.
So my rule is now formalised as a one-four rule. That is, if I really can’t stand a show during the first episode, I’m prepared to just give up on it straight away. I can’t think of an immediate example of mine but someone I know, who reads this blog, simply can’t stand shows where the characters talk to camera - so no House of Cards, iZombie and I suspect no Mr. Robot either. It doesn’t make them bad shows it’s just a quirk and she hates that particular style of show and will not give it any time of day - even if the critics and others love it and there’s a good show in there. Assuming the show passes that hurdle, it has a rolling four episode QA hurdle. If there are four episodes in a row that I don’t like, or I can’t get around to watching in the normal run of my life, then it’s destined for the discard pile - even if I used to really enjoy it.
It doesn’t really matter what shows have hit this, but since I’ve previously outed myself as a former Castle fan who no longer watches, that would be one example.
And that brings us to the third season of OITNB. Gosh, that was a grind. It’s only 13 episodes, but it regularly got close to me giving up on it, hitting three episodes before pulling back. It’s almost like they were teasing me personally! But perhaps the four episode limit isn’t that uncommon: it’s long enough that it will let you get through a US-TV mini-arc you don’t like and then pick up the story again.
I tried to think about what was going on to cause this. I mean, the core elements were the same. Piper drifted through Litchfield. Alex was back. Most of the episodes centred around a backstory and as always they were interesting and usually affecting. Some of the most affecting for me were stories like Pennsatucky’s. I still don’t like her but jeez, I feel sorry for her. Although I like her revenge method, even though it puts someone else in danger and stops her driving the bus.
But various inmates left for various reasons - and while all were plausible within terms of a prison drama none of them were good ones in terms of strengthening the show. And to add to all that level of drama, the guards and management drama just dragged everything down for me. OITNB has usually had a strong political message, particularly about the stupidity of drug laws and their disproportionate impact on women just for being there and the like, and I get the message it’s trying to make about running jails for profit too. I agree with it as well. But in previous years it’s managed to make its point by mixing its dramatic moments, it’s powerful, frightening, tear-jerking, anger-inspiring and other moments with comedic moments. This season felt, for me, more often like a long, despairing, grind. The comedic moments that made the messages easier to bear and often, in my opinion at least, more striking and more powerful, were largely absent.
The season ends with flashes of hope: Norma and Red reconciling, the inmates in the lake, Black Cindy’s conversion and her genuine joy at her mikvah, but that is cross cut with the new bunks, loss of the minimal privacy of the low walls and the arrival of coach loads of new inmates. I’ll be waiting to see how Season 4 plays out but I’m more nervous than I was for Season 3.
Saturday, August 22. 2015
I guess the first thing to say is that The Man From UNCLE is not quite but pretty much the closing line of the movie: the film itself serves as a introduction to the set-up of UNCLE. It was obvious from the trailer that at least some of the film would take that turn but it turns out to be the whole film. I think that is actually a good thing: it means they don’t rush the team-building. They let the suspicion between the KGB agent and the CIA agent fester and flare up at odd times and that works well. Equally they let the 1960’s cold war background and the lingering plot token fantasies run riot and provide a sufficiently plausible joint threat for the two forces to join up. (I’ll avoid saying it’s a truly plausible threat but it’s not as crazy as some Bond movies for example. I also avoid saying what the plot actually is, because I haven’t seen it in the trailers, so it’s a spoiler!)
I’m old so, although my memories of it are somewhat hazy, I remember The Man From UNCLE, the TV show. At least the reruns. Broadly speaking I’d say this film captures that feeling. There were certainly stylistic elements that were lifted from the show, sometimes they worked well, sometimes they felt a little redundant. In particular, in a style that more recently we’ve seen in shows like Leverage and IIRC Hustle, the use of flashbacks to explain odd-seeming scenes. There were a few where they flashed back 20 minutes or more: no problem there, but within the same montage they flashed back 30 seconds at one point. While it felt like the team coming together and UNCLE really being formed and so it didn’t rankle too much it was perhaps a little overused.
I’m sure if you’re a true devotee of the show you’d point and say “That’s wrong, that’s wrong, that’s wrong” and there are a number of places where even my hazy memories of that are pointing out differences. Armie Hammer at 6’ 5 towers over Henry Cavill in a way David McCallum never did over Robert Vaughn for example. But overall I came away feeling it’s certainly close enough that it captures the feeling while adding the complexity we need for a 2015 movie compared to a 60’s TV show.
Equally, although they don’t give (or if they did I missed it) a precise year for the film they certainly captured that 60’s look and feel. I’m sure the history purists will be able to point of errors but it looked right.
One thing I feel I must say: in the UK this film gets a 12A. I would feel uncomfortable taking a child to see it. There are depictions of torture including someone being burnt to death. It’s not graphic, in fact that particular moment happens through a door and you have to put two and two together but still… In addition there are pictures of tortured people. It’s not extreme and I guess it’s worse if you’re older and can relate to what it means. But it’s still not something I’d feel comfortable showing a child. It’s not too disturbing to an adult but not something you really want to dwell on either.
Ultimately though, and much more importantly that all of that, I thought the story was well paced, entertaining and fun. This was a good movie for me, and the people I went with, to watch. We were excited at times, laughed at times, and all enjoyed it. We all hope there are more films to come in the potential franchise.
Bechdel Test: There are two named women Gabby and Victoria and they do exchange a few words on a few occasions. It’s borderline if they count as conversations but I’m going to say just. I think this is a technical pass for the sake of it. That said, both Gabby and Victoria are pretty strong female characters. I’m not sure you’d say Victoria is exactly a good role model mind but she’s certainly the brains of the operation for the bad guys.
Russo Test: There’s a scene that’s played for laughs that looks a lot like cottaging but no. If you do take your kiddies, you have to adult enough and dirty minded enough to understand what cottaging is (or whatever they call it in the US) to work out why its funny, it’s not something kids will laugh at but we did.
Monday, August 17. 2015
Inoreader is an online site that lets you set up your RSS feeds. In that sense it’s not dissimilar to the old Google Reader. As a site per se it’s frankly a bit of a disaster (in that sense it’s still not that dissimilar to the old gReader site) but it does offer one thing its rivals don’t: a free, as big as you want, RSS list. If you plan to ONLY use their website you might well be put off (although it’s better than some others I looked at) but they offer a free iPad, iPhone and Android apps and on the Mac Reeder also integrates with it. That changes the experience more than a little and markedly for the better. (There’s a pay-for iOS app too but I haven’t looked at that, I read my RSS feeds on my iMac most of the time and the free app is nice enough for the times I don’t.) So I essentially only used the website to set up my account and for importing my feeds and it works well enough for that.
The Inoreader app on the iPad, the only one I’ve tried, for the purposes I use it, gives you a two column layout: all unread or the folders you define and the unread items in them. You click on those and get a large display of the unread items to scroll through. It’s not dramatic, it doesn’t sing and dance but it does the job perfectly well. I use this purely as a back-up since i’m used to, and still mostly do, read on the iMac and I don’t have any problems with it. Because it’s an Inoreader app it’s tied very directly to your account and doesn’t offer options that your account doesn’t. If you want extra options (save to Instapaper for example) you probably need to consider subscribing at Inopaper but you may not.
So, on to Reeder. Probably the first thing to say is that reading this way, Inoreader adds a not too annoying add suggesting you upgrade to a paid account to about 1 in 10 of your articles. It’s not enough to bother me but it may bother you more.
Reeder offers what starts as a 5 column display! But actually you can collapse that to 3 columns with a bit of resizing if, like me, you don’t subscribe to lots of different feed sources. Since they’re all for RSS feeds I’m not sure why you wouldn’t consolidate them but you don’t have to… and if you don’t, the tools are there to let you run wild!
The (useful to me) columns are a bit complex. In my normal reading mode, I have Reeder display unread articles, so the first column shows my account, then the unread count and folders with unread articles. However, there are options to display starred articles and all articles (there are buttons for this over the middle column in the title bar or toolbar) and they affect what you see in this column. The middle column is an abbreviated article précis. You get the site’s badge or a thumbnail of the image, the title of the site and the post and a few words from the post. The third column displays the post, typically above the fold if relevant. You can click on the title to display the whole post.
At this point, the flexibility and power of being a full-blooded app comes into being. You can opt (the default) to have posts open in Reeder’s own browser. I generally use this and it works just fine for me. You can opt to have it open in your default browser instead. Reeder also offers an enormous number of optional services - I use copy link, open in browser, save to Instapaper and mail link, but there are choices like save to Pocket, tweet, send to Facebook etc. You have the option with these to leave them in a very familiar looking Share icon “services” menu (probably a good idea if you use them all), turn them off as you choose or do what I’ve done and put them all as separate icons on the toolbar. All my choices are only 1 click away and it’s not like I don’t have the space. Up there you also have buttons to star and mark as unread.
You can also, through the preferences panes, set colours (although only from their set choices), fonts and sizes, short cuts for all the buttons and actions and so on. I like most of their defaults (arrow keys for navigating through articles work just fine) but I set new shortcuts for the open in browser and copy link (Shift-B and Shift-L) because I had to use Shift-I for save to Instapaper and Shift-M for Mail Link and it’s easier to remember if they’re consistent, I then went and made it Shift-S for starred and Shift-U for unread (it’s actually toggle-read but I really only use it to set read articles unread so the shortcut works for me).
Reeder costs a little bit but so far it’s working really smoothly for me and letting me lay the load of maintaining my RSS feeds on someone other than my local hard drive (which recently blew up under the strain). My previous solution was ok but this will work tolerably well when I’m away from home too which is always good. The in-app browser option is also comfortable to use. They’re not always and the choice between reading directly, reading in the app-browser, opening in Safari or sending to Instapaper is now a genuine choice that I stop and consider seriously. I’m finding I read my web-comics and written articles I’m going to skim immediately in the in-app browser, stuff I’m going to read in the next 5 minutes and then but which is too long to read right now in Safari and other things go to Instapaper. If I send things to Safari and events conspire to make me want to keep them, I can still send them to Instapaper from Safari easily enough after all.
As you might tell, it’s still new enough I’m getting used to the nuts and bolts of it, but actually, I use my RSS reader a LOT. When my computer was away for 2 weeks it came back and I had over 2,000 articles to go through! Although I’m tweaking the fine details of it, I’ve used this a lot since Friday afternoon and I’m already sure it’s a keeper for me. I might, in future look at upgrading to a paid subscription to Inoreader but currently this setup is doing everything I need it to do. And if you want to home-bake your RSS feeds with Reeder, you can do that - one of the subscription services is to a Fever server.
Sunday, August 9. 2015
Inside Out is supposedly a film aimed at families, in typical Pixar fashion. The hook character, Riley, is an 11-year old girl, so there's you family audience starting point and you can rely on Pixar to write some smart stuff for mum and dad.
But, as the trailer makes clear, the main characters are actually Riley's core emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. They control her behaviour, moment to moment, taking turns to find appropriate responses to the situation. This lays down memories and some of these become what the film calls core memories, fuelling "personality islands" (you might think of them more like facets or behaviour clusters like family life, in Riley's life love of hockey, as well as friendship, she ends up with one for Twilight-style stories too). The vast majority of memories are cleared away at the end of the day and sent to long term storage (at the start of the film, age 11 Riley has five core memories). If you've studied some psychology this might seem familiar: it's a pretty current model of consciousness and personality. There is even a default emotional response and a sense of maturation as by the end of the film memories have more than one emotion attached. There is also an upgraded control room console for the emotions.
Although it's subtle, in the film we occasionally see inside others - Riley's parents in particular but several others too. They have recognisably the same emotions, although gender-swapped to the gender of the person (although Riley's anger and fear are male, her mother's weren't I think) and with different predominant emotions, certainly for Riley's dad, where anger rather than joy rules the roost. It's not at all in your face but there's enough of it to make it clear that although we're deeply exploring Riley's psyche, everyone else is like this.
Later in the film we have jokes about ear worms, the abstraction process, 2D shapes in a 3D world and more. They are all funny, well I laughed anyway, but they're grown up humour and they don't, to my mind, come packaged around child-friendly bits particularly.
There is a plot, outside and inside. Riley and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco and this causes emotional turmoil and Joy and Sadness exploring bits of her mind they don't normally see. You could argue (legitimately) that Riley has a nervous breakdown in fact. At one level this is a psychodrama about an eleven year old moving house and moving from the country to the big city. But on reflection I'd say this film is more a rather literal although charming and engaging exploration of the psyche.
Being a Pixar movie there is a happy ending but there are more dark moments than you might expect.
There's a hint at the end for Inside Out 2 with an upgraded control console and a puberty warning light. This film was great fun but if they do the sequel properly it could go from U to 18 rated!
Bechdel Test: yes. Several emotions are portrayed as female in Riley and they talk extensively and not about men. In addition Riley and her mum talk several times about this, that and the other. I'm normally not sure about characters like "Riley's Mum" as a named character, but in this movie I don't see you could sensibly name her other than that so I'll count her.
Russo test: no. Unsurprisingly sexuality isn't overtly mentioned. Mum and Dad are straight, the only other adult where there's a hint of it is Riley's female teacher and she's shown as straight and its played for laugh for the adults.
Sunday, July 26. 2015
Ant-Man is, in my opinion, quite a silly movie. Fortunately, to my mind, it uses that silliness to take liberties that the other Marvel titles usually don’t and be silly and lots of fun. My impression is that it doesn’t pack in the jokes to the point it’s attempting to be a comedy but it doesn’t ration them carefully, to lighten the tension at appropriate moments, and that makes it feel shorter than it’s just under two hour running time and fresher than some of the bloated Marvel fare we’ve had recently.
Like a lot of the genuinely super-hero movies (Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America etc.) Ant-Man relies on you ignoring a big chunk of what we know about science to make it work although, in fairness, once it sets its techno-babble handwavium up it mostly sticks to it. Hank Pym (more on him later) invents both a way to shrink the spaces between atoms while maintaining mass and a Pym Particle that protects living flesh from the shrinking process. Thus Ant-Man. There’s one exception for a cool special effect and one exception for an existential threat to Ant Man, but it’s not too bad.
The villain of the piece, actually both the villain we see throughout and the money men behind him, are tied into the bigger Marvel Universe but he was, I felt, dull. It wasn’t that he was poorly acted, it was very much a case of “Let’s have mad scientist with daddy issues and make him avaricious” which is a mad, bad scientist trope so old we’ve seen it a million times. it needed something to distinguish it from the villain in, for example Iron Man, the first one, and… no, he even got into the suit to fight the hero. Lazy writing. It might be true to the original (I don’t know but I’ve read a couple of reviews that suggest it is) but it’s still lazy, even if it was lazy back then rather than now.
Where this film was different, character-wise from the general run of Marvel movies is the two male leads. Hank Pym is the genius scientist. So far he could be a lot of other characters but they give him a backstory that is different enough and written and played well enough in his brilliant moments, his manipulative moments and his downright abominable relationship with his daughter that he becomes interesting and while I didn’t find him particularly sympathetic I found him believable and rounded and not just another cookie-cutter character. Scott Lang is drawn from fewer lines and shades - criminal with a heart of gold, divorced father estranged from his young daughter - but he gets most of the lines that build team rapport and the lines that get the laughs so he’s a departure from the Marvel norm too.
Where I think they fail, and fail dismally, is the character of Hope, Hank’s daughter. She’s in enough of the film that she could have had an interesting role. Every time I thought they might let her break out of the straight-jacket of being the overly-protected daughter or evil boss’ symbol of victory over his mentor they almost brutally shove her back into the box. She has a couple of moments where it looks like they had plans for her to do other things and she’s suddenly allowed to be unexpectedly dangerous (although it’s not out of the blue in terms of backstory of the film) but then they’ve had a script rewrite and boom, sudden change of direction to snarling, angry daughter or similar. I’m not sure what the script approval process is at Marvel, but it’s starting to seem like it’s even more atrocious with its ability to write women’s roles than the Hollywood norm.
While talking about the Marvel scripting process, there was a 10 minute or so scene where Ant-Man breaks into Avengers HQ and fights Falcon. They’d already had plenty of continuity comments about the Starks, the Avengers etc. and these little cross-over elements are almost de rigueur so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but for me it didn’t really add to the movie. There were other things (like making Hope’s part bigger) that could have done a lot more to make the film flow better I felt.
Despite those negative comments Ant-Man was fun. It certainly worked better than Avengers: Age of Ultron for me and it’s on such a different scale to Thor: The Dark World it’s hard for me to sensibly compare them. It’s way more cheerful and intimate than any of the X-Men movies too, so again comparisons are tricky.
Bechdel Test: There are certainly two (six in fact: Hope and her mother Janet, a blink and you’ll miss her Peggy Carter, a name-checked but voiced-over “Emilia” and the two below) named female characters. Cassie and Maggie (Scott’s daughter and ex-wife respectively) have a conversation, but it’s about him. So close, but no.
Russo Test: No. Surprisingly, despite being set in and around San Francisco they manage to avoid anyone identifying as LGBT.
Sunday, July 19. 2015
Terminator Genisys is one of those films where it’s going to be hard to review well without spoilers. Fortunately the trailers have provided enough to make it more or less workable.
It starts off with a roughly 15 minute long remake of The Terminator but from Reese’s point of view, set in 2026, fighting the machines, until the first terminator is sent back and then he is. I enjoyed this. If it had been Sarah it would have been boring - I won’t say ruined the surprise because they revealed that in the trailer - but I felt they worked those original scenes back in very nicely while grounding the movie and it’s setting. If it had carried on much longer I might have got worried it was all going to be scenes nicked from earlier movies (and there were a few more after this point too) but it came across, for me, just on the homage side of the line rather than the lazy remake “can’t be bothered to write a scene, I know, we’ll put that one in there” side of it.
Anyway, just as Reese is sent back he sees some one - a Terminator of some kind presumably - attack John Connor but then he’s whisked back to 1984. On the way he suddenly remembers some weird memories that make no sense and he didn’t live through before and he arrives in 1984 to a world that really makes no sense: Sarah is expecting him and is protected by an old T–800 terminator of the Arnie model, there are T–1000 terminators (the liquid metal ones) that he’s never seen before waiting for him and more.
The next chunk of the movie is, as far as the action scenes go, a compressed version of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Arnie is protecting Reese and Sarah rather than teenaged John, but the T–1000 has all the same tricks and powers and they have to fight it. Quite a few of Sarah’s individual beats are more or less teen John’s rebellious beats from that movie as well. However, there is some character building between Sarah, Reese and “Pops” (as Sarah calls her terminator-protector) too as they start to find a dynamic and work out how to come together as a team - if the mission is “Save the World” that’s pretty important.
Then the movie jumps to 2017, and the next birth of Skynet in effect. Before it does so, there is a nice scene of the Sarah being empowered. Reese is sure she is about to make a terrible mistake and he acts to stop her making it (he nicks the widget to make it all go and apparently removes all agency. However, rather than saying “I’m right, you’re wrong, we’re doing it my way,” he asks her to trust him and gives her widget back, restoring her agency once again, enhancing it even by saying, once she’s heard him out, that he’ll go with her decision even if he thinks it wrong once she’s thought it through. Why do I mention that? In this post-Mad Max Fury Road world anything should be possible. But in Jurassic World we had a return to the norm. In way, way too many movies, Reese would have taken the widget and said you’re wrong, we’re doing it my way. By asking her to stop and think and trust him and then put the decision firmly, and literally, back in her hands he avoided acting like a typical movie man. This film might fail the Bechdel test (and it does) but it does quite a bit better than some films that pass it in terms of showing a woman with agency.
In 2017, as already shown in the trailers, we have John Connor as the baddie. He’s not quite as super-liquid metal as the T–1000 but can still do some pretty fantastic things and they obviously had some fun thinking of special effects and excuses to do fancy things with him. The heroes fight him back and forth, with the police and homeland security being entertaining roadblocks - little more than sleeping policemen on so many levels! There is a satisfying interplay of action scenes and some emotional bombshells as well.
It is no surprise that, despite John Connor’s villainous best efforts, the good guys win, Skynet (or Genisys as it is renamed) is destroyed and they drive off into the sunset to live happily ever after and no doubt, as Pops would put it, to mate.
Matt Smith had a role in the movie, big enough to get him on the opening credits. I won’t spoil it by saying what it is. But there was a moment when I saw him looking at Reese stepping naked into the time-travel machine and flipped out of the movie’s head space and thought “No, send him! The madman in the blue box!” But they sent Reese instead of course. I suppose it meant he actually landed in the right time and city.
While commenting on the actors, Arnie continues to be believable as a terminator, even at 67. I totally bought Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor. I thought she walked a good line between being prepared to be the mother of the saviour of the world and a fighter in her own right and yet wishing she didn’t have this inescapable destiny. She looked comfortable and confident with a gun and a rocket launcher too. She also played the beats of being confused about meeting the man she knows she is meant to fall in love with and have a baby with, who will then die saving her life nicely. I’m not a fan of Game of Thrones so this is really the first time I’ve seen her act, but I look forward to seeing more of her in future. For fans of The Sarah Connor Chronicles like me, it’s nice to see Game of Thrones stars bookend the role of Sarah. Jai Courtney I have seen before, but very much in supporting roles, and he’s looked quite one dimensional - but you can never tell with the roles he’s had if that’s been the script or him. The role of Reese is obviously much bigger and while I’m not going to go berserk and say he deserves an Oscar nod or anything I felt he hit all the emotional notes as well as the action notes that were required. Since that included hero-worship, betrayal, emotional hurt on a number of levels and more he may never be a great actor but he’s certainly OK. Clearly he’s been let down by his roles in the past.
I complained after Termination Salvation that I hoped they wouldn’t be back. My abiding memory is that, by the end of the movie, my sympathy for John Connor was so destroyed I wished the machine had lived and not Connor. Terminator Genisys is not an all-time classic but for its genre it’s certainly lots of fun. And by selling out John Connor, by making him Skynet’s main arms and legs, and, ironically by making him pack an emotional punch beyond the sheer implacable terror of the normal terminators at just how unstoppable they are - which was part of their original success - it did a lot to redeem the franchise to me. There’s a teaser at the end for another film to come. I don’t know what the box-office was like (not great I seem to remember) but if they get the money for another film, then I’d go to see it. I haven't really thought about my movie rankings for the year but I wouldn't be surprised if this fairly close to the top come December.
Bechdel Test: No. There are two named women - Sarah obviously and Detective Cheung. They’re even in the same room and interact. But you couldn’t describe their interaction as a conversation. They talk and technically they don’t talk about men, they talk about her not being in the system, but it’s not a conversation. It’s an interrogation.
Russo Test: Hell no. In fairness for most of the film there are only two humans, Reese and Sarah, and we already know he’s in love with her, and she’s got the potential to fall for him. But there’s not a sign of anyone being anything other straight.
Thursday, July 2. 2015
Mr Holmes is one of those movies that is hard to review without explaining the structure a little and explaining the structure requires revealing a little of the plot. As usual I will try to limit myself to details that can be seen in the film’s trailer.
The story is told across two, technically three, different times but one is just before the film’s start so although it’s told in flashback it’s only just happened. The “present” is 1947 and the bulk of the past is set a not-quite identified roughly 3 decades earlier just after the end of the war - it’s not clear if that’s 1919 or the early 20’s.
In 1947 Holmes is aged 92 and suffering from senility, specifically a massively failing memory as well as increasing physical frailty. Aged about 65 he is still relatively sprightly and fit, he is more of a modern 65 year old than perhaps was typical of the time. There is some make-up involved, but not that much thankfully (McKellen himself is 76, roughly half-way between these two ages which probably helps limit the amount of make up needed), the difference is sold by the acting of Ian McKellen who changes posture, the way he walks, the way he talks, the quality of voice and more from sounding and looking spry and on top of his game to sounding and looking frail and querulous and forgetful and back impeccably.
What ties these elements together is Holmes’ drive to remember the truth of his last case, the case that caused him to retire from London and his work as a detective to the countryside and the house where he now lives, more or less waiting to die while tending his bees. Alongside that he befriends his housekeeper’s son and switches from using royal jelly to using Japanese Prickly Ash as an attempted alternate remedy to stave off the ravages of old age. The film opens as he arrives home after his trip to Japan to collect the Prickly Ash, and follows his slow attempts to piece together that last case from the fragments of his memory and tell the true sequence of events.
There are a number of shout-outs to the Sherlock Holmes canon. We see plenty of references to Watson and the books, plus the films made of the books - Holmes goes to see one of them in fact. All the old staples like Mycroft and the Diogenes Club are mentioned too.
There are shout-outs to more modern takes on the character as well. This Holmes isn’t necessarily a sociopath as is Benedict Cumberbatch’s in Sherlock but he is closer to that unable to understand human emotions than any other portrayal I’ve seen on screen, large or small. His drive to find a cure for his memory loss could be likened to the Jonny Lee Miller portrayal of Holmes as an addict in Elementary without stretching the point as well.
There are, in addition, some nice twists of its own. This Sherlock is not above a little stagecraft to enhance his mystique although he eschews the pipe and deerstalker that Watson bestows upon him.
But, although this film has a central mystery with the inevitable death or deaths at the centre of it and we came away feeling it was engaging but quite a sweet film overall, I certainly felt this film was unflinching in its depiction of some of the effects of senility. There will be people saying “Oh, but my mother was much worse” or “My dad was way worse than that” and of course they’re right. The character of Holmes has to be functional enough to carry the film as the central character after all and many people in the end stages of their lives are able to function without full-time support. Mr Holmes is not there, although at times it is touch and go. But we see Holmes forgetting what he’s doing, forgetting names, doing daft things, and we see him using tricks to cover up his lapses of memory too. It seems odd to describe a film where senility plays such a big part as sweet but for me this film manages to pull it off.
Well worth your time although in fairness there’s nothing you have to see on the big screen here.
Bechdel test: No. There aren’t all that many characters full stop, male or female. There are two named female characters that we’re told met but we never see them actually meet, not in flashback, not even in the film Holmes goes to see, let alone have a conversation.
Russo test: No. If the Russo test extended its criteria from LGBT to the whole rainbow QUILTBAG then yes, Holmes pretty much identifies as Asexual, but no one identifies and LGB in the film and T wasn’t on the cards in 1947.
Saturday, June 27. 2015
Of course I’m happy America put on it’s big boy pants and joined most of the rest of the modern world in recognising gay marriage over the squeals of the homophobes.
But there’s another infographic that’s just as pertinent to the news:
The Center for American Progress reports, in light of today’s happy news, how far there still is to go. Only 21 states have passed laws banning discrimination against LGB people in employment, housing and public accommodation. Only 18 states have extended those bans to transgender people. You can read more here.
It is a great victory but America still lags horribly in so many ways.
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