Monday, April 21. 2014
It probably doesn't surprise anyone that reads my blog that I'm not a fan of The Daily Mail or the Mail on Sunday. I dislike their politics and their shoddy journalism.
As a prime example of both we have this piece:
(image from tompride.wordpress.com, original in Mail On Sunday, yesterday).
The MOS hates food banks and the fact they're being used more heavily and saying it's due to the government's crackdown on benefits. While I think there is a case to be made that not all of the increase is necessarily due to the changes to the benefit system, it's a pretty hard sell that as benefits have got harder to get and are more delayed in their startup time and that well-known radical organisation the Church of England is campaigning against the Government for their policies that are increasing poverty and the need for food banks, that a big chunk of the increase is not down to the government. But the Mail hates "benefit scroungers" and anyone that gets benefits so it's their fault regardless. However, when the headline says "No questions asked" and the piece details a series of questions the reporter had to answer to get the food - well that's just shoddy journalism. If it really was no questions asked, that's cause for concern, but a food bank handing out food to someone saying they have a family with two children and no income - that's not cause for concern, that's a charity doing exactly what it's set up to do to people who appear to be in dire need.
Fortunately, I came across this story in the best possible way. According to this Buzzfeed article the piece they ran have caused donations to the charity to rise by over 1000%!
Saturday, April 19. 2014
Beamer is an interesting app for those of you, like me, with an AppleTV. Let's be honest, if you have an AppleTV that probably means you have a Mac too and run the latest OS, so the requirement of running Mavericks isn't going to be an issue.
You can download a trial version of Beamer from their website and purchase the full version from the app for a whole $12 which won't break the bank.
What does Beamer do? Simply put it acts as a nice bridge to get video files on your Mac to your AppleTV without a lot messing around. You drag and drop video files in a wide range of formats (mkv files and more work like native, that's the most awkward I've personally tried it with) and they play to your AppleTV. You can set up playlists so you can easily skip through a long evening in front of the television watching whatever you want. You can also stop, quit Beamer, go away and come back and it remembers where you were and come back and pick it up from where you stopped. Very nicely, your AppleTV remote works to control the playback as you'd expect. An unexpectedly nice little touch - one of the options for Beamer is to automatically start playing files you drop on it. If you choose this option, it automatically turns your AppleTV on so it really does start playing with less fiddling with remotes.
The only time you'll have to get up is if you drop out into something like Netflix and then need to get the control back into Beamer - you'll have to hit play on the desktop to start it streaming again.
Of course you can (try) to do most of this anyway, although the play lists and remote control integration aren't as nicely integrated. There was the not nice option of converting my desktop of AppleTV dimensions and playing videos using QuickTime/VLC/whatever fullscreen and then reseting and reorganising my desktop. This was mostly OK but my streaming audio was patchy this way (YMMV). Alternatively I could just play the video full screen and have the image slightly distorted and still patchy audio but less of a mess of the desktop. I didn't like either of these as you might tell.
My more common solution, involved AirPlay and an iPad. This worked OK by and large but if I wanted to do anything heavy on the iPad as well something would usually struggle - often it was the video stream - and I'd have to come out of whatever I was doing and restart the video stream. It also played hell with the iPad's battery. The iPad solution does have the benefit, of course, that if you have to get up and move around you can easily swap between AppleTV and iPad viewing without missing a beat. Beamer doesn't offer that option, it's a tool purely to stream to your AppleTV.
Most weeks I watch a few hours worth of video files that are stored on my Mac and very little of it I actually watch on my Mac. It splits at the moment about 50-50 between my iPad and my AppleTV although as I'm reading more on the iPad that split is shifting more to the AppleTV. Beamer is a tool that makes that simpler for me to do, certainly for something I'm likely to watch through in one sitting without moving around too much. It is definitely an app that only suits a small niche of users but if that niche includes you, it's well worth a look.
Friday, April 18. 2014
When Noah was suggested as a movie to see, my reaction was "Yeah, sure" and, having seen it, I think it should have been more strongly positive.
Floating (sorry, couldn't resist) through the film, very identifiably, is the story I remember from RE classes at school. The dream, the flood, the arc, the animals two by two, the raven and the dove and so on. God wiping away mankind and the damage man has inflicted on the Earth. If you know your apocraphya and the like there's a lot of other elements in Noah that you will be familiar with as well - the angels that were cast down to Earth for standing by during Lucifer's rebellion and helped man and so on.
However, the actual story in the bible is short - it's only a short story in modern terms. This leaves, inevitably, a fair amount of space, for the director to write (personally in this case) a chunk of new stuff to make a film's worth of story. Some of this is to fill in the blanks. For example, Noah, in the bible, at the end of the story gets so drunk he dances around naked but there's no explanation of why. Fortunately we're spared Russell Crowe dancing naked although we do see him getting roaring drunk and then passed out apparently naked. But in the film we see why he does this. Getting that drunk isn't the only answer of course, but given the choices he made it's answer many of us will understand.
Noah also poses questions that we see and hear today, certainly coming out of the US and reaching us over here. Does being created last and being given dominion over the beasts mean we can do what we want to the Earth? Or does it imply stewardship and a need to tend and care for the planet? Can we just take what we want? It also puts many of the answers - but it puts some of the answers that the anti-environmentalist fundamentalist lobby most like in the mouths of the Sons of Cain rather than the Sons of Seth. You know, Cain as in Cain and Abel, which as you might imagine is not a good thing.
Noah also tells his children, while they're in the arc, his version of the creation myth. It is quite clear as this story within the story unfolds that the days are allegorical and evolution is going on. This is the liberal, non-literal version of Christianity I came across in RE lessons. Although it's not what I believe, it's a pretty comfortable version of Christianity for me to see. The Short Earth Creationists of course will not like it at all.
Noah doesn't really have conversations with God. He is sent a vision that he doesn't clearly interpret without help and then comes to conclusions thereafter, even though he doesn't like them. This produces a chunk of the drama that goes on. (There is another chunk of drama that constitutes major spoilers so I'll pass on telling you more about it.) It is hard for me to interpret this in any way other than a cautionary tale about how easy it is for us to misjudge God's will if we assume that is what we are hearing. How careful we should be if we are listening to someone who is telling us what God's will is. Of course I'm a Godless cynic so I would say that! But it's hard to see it any other way.
It's a good film, a surprisingly good film. Appreciably better than I expected it to be. This is helped by a number of scene-stealing moments from Emma Watson and a pretty good range of Russell Crowe. He does bombast, patriarch, disgusted at the fleshpots, but also tortured, broken and the like. I'm not sure if he has faith, but he does a very good man questioning God at a number of times when he is faced with horrible decisions that he thinks is him acting according to God's will. Jennifer Connelly has a number of scenes where I was wondering why she was there - frankly I could have done the job because they're so standard and undemanding - but some scenes where I was thinking "Ah, that's why she agreed to take the part" because there's some cracking scenes that I'm sure leapt off the page when she was reading them and made the very ordinary scenes worth putting up with.
Bechdel test: Yes. Ila (Shem's wife) and Naameh (Noah's wife) are named and have a few conversations that aren't about the menfolk. Not many, but a few. According to some interpretations of the Book of Enoch, some of the Watchers should be female but I think they're all voiced by male actors if credited in this film.
Saturday, April 12. 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film that defies simple categorisation, in fact it seems to almost wilfully defy it and revel in defying it. Given my occasional comments about Hollywood's overindulgence in quick elevator pitches and lazy comparisons I'm quite happy with this complexity although I imagine it caused some headaches actually IN Hollywood. You could try and claim it's an art-house tribute to Hollywood's forgotten movies - there are elements of Harold Lloyd, Keystone Cops, any number of spy and war movies set on trains, bedroom farce (although it's light on the running between bedrooms that normally accompanies that label), comedy of manners and more, with elements that are Pythonesque stirred into the pot. There's a touch of stories like Prisoner of Zenda with invented Eastern European republics and the like as well, and a strong twist of the narrative adventurer. And all that said, a movie directed by Wes Anderson and starring Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Kietel, Jude Law, Edward Norton and Saoirse Ronan with cameos from Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and more can hardly be described a typical art-house movie cast so even the art-house movie tag is hard to maintain.
So, having said how hard it is to categorise this movie in traditional terms, what is this movie? Well it's fun. Laugh out loud fun at several points but always a bounce along, smile on the face kind of movie.
Without getting into real spoilers, the movie starts as oddly as it means to go on. In what looks like a very oppressive, probably still Communist-regime country, a good party member goes into a graveyard and approaches a grave marker. If you think Karl Marx, or more accurately Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and the like you wouldn't be far off. Hanging from the marker are hotel keys. She adds a key, sits down and opens a book - the titular The Grand Budapest Hotel and starts to read. This unwraps the first layer of the metaphorical onion as it takes us to a talking head documentary of the author about 30 years ago telling us about the inspiration for this story, and then starting to tell the story. The next layer of the onion unwraps as the story is one that was related to the author as a younger man some twenty years earlier by the somewhat famous Zero Moustafa, owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel whilst the young author was staying there in a now sadly declining (but party approved, egalitarian) hotel. This unwraps the final layer of the onion as he, in turn, relates the story of some forty years earlier, the arrival of the lobby boy Zero, the best concierge the Grand Budapest (in it's full Art Deco glory) ever had M. Gustave, the rise of fascism, love, murder, the priceless Renaissance artwork
From this set up, the plot is allowed to develop in the best farce mode. At almost every step you think that's a reasonable decision (not always the best, but rarely a completely daft one). Then something happens and it skews to the crazy or at least the unexpected or exaggerated. The comedy arises from the sudden shifts, which is what gives it that Python flavour, but also from the way really quite ordinary actions and people suddenly find themselves trying to apply their old standards to these new situations.
Not all of the situations ought to be funny. Being stopped when travelling because you have a different skin colour is not funny but quickly works for comments about the rise of fascism. Thanks to the fact the film is character and situational humour rather than quick gags these situations are allowed to develop and be nasty and brutish and misunderstood but played for their comedic value by the characters. "Oh hello chaps, you're the first of the new death squads we've met, do come in…" and the like.
Overall The Grand Budapest Hotel makes for a very satisfying experience. Unlike comedies that play for the easy laugh and then leave you groping to remember the punchline to tell your friends the next day, this film has left me feeling like it was a good night out with friends. There isn't really a punchline to reach for (OK, there are one or two, like any good night out with friends) but there's a general sense of bonhomie. You can't really describe it because "Oh, you just had to be there" but this time you can be there in a sense, because you can go and see it.
Bechdel test: Questionable. The evil daughters are all named. I'm not sure they ever really have a conversation though, although they do appear to talk to each other. There are a number of other named female characters but they don't meet.
Thursday, April 10. 2014
Divergent is a movie I went into with high hopes: I'm a fan of the book, and the series overall, but particularly the first two books and so it could have failed to live up to my fangrrl hopes. Unlike The Hunger Games (at least the first one) I knew this book before I went in, so it had the burden of my anticipation. Add to that the potential for a bad adaptation - and we've all seen those too - so there was a definite mixture of high hopes and nerves.
How did it do? I'm happy to say very well. It was very reassuring when the author's name appeared as a co-producing in the establishing shots - if she was happy to have her name tied to it, that was likely to be a good thing.
Like any movie must, Divergent has to establish what's going on, in this case it has some world-building to do. It establishes the factions, which are central to its social world, clearly (but not quite as well as it should if you don't know it transpires, I had to explain the Factionless a bit), the war and how the society is meant to function. There are graudal revelations about the fence, the meaning of being Divergent and the potential impact of that and so on. It also makes it pretty clear not all is well in paradise and leaves you in a good sense of not quite knowing who is telling the truth because Tris, our heroine, is just too young to know everything that's going on.
Although some of the details are different to the book (in particular the Dauntless pit has had a serious visit from the Health and Safety people and has handrails, boo! And the chasm isn't over a river) plus, being a film, it's full of action and dialog rather than introspection and plotting it's a good solid adaptation with just about every big scene there and pretty faithfully translated to the new medium. I've thought of one scene that is missing, although the important information from it is moved to another place and works well there. It crams a lot of emotion together into a short part of the film but the pacing is different enough to the book that it works well for me this way in the film.
I need to say at this point, although rereading the books is on my todo list, I haven't done it yet. But there are various speeches in the film (I won't say by whom) that, bearing in mind what I know from later books I see in a completely different light. That was interesting to say the least. Although it doesn't change the impression of who the goodies and baddies are it does rather change my impressions of the motives on both sides in interesting ways.
Comparisons to The Hunger Games are inevitable, and to a large extent justifiable. (I've also seen comparisons to Twilight which make me think WTF?) Young Adult Dystopias with strong female protagonists and all that after all. Even if you leave off the female part there's a chunk of similarities that would make the comparisons fair enough but in movie world add in the women as well and it's practically inevitable. In the books, Katniss is always easier to relate to than Tris. In the movies I don't know that's the case - they make Tris less of an introvert and more sure of her choice to be Dauntless and she is more open and sympathetic, at least so far. To that extent it's not as clear a choice as you might think. Shailene Woodley is an emerging potential star while Jennifer Lawrence is a star already and we've known Katniss for three films so she's an old friend by now, but I like this Tris too.
However to my mind, The Hunger Games has a lot more spectacle throughout and perhaps a clearer message in book and film one than Divergent and so is perhaps a more generally accessible movie. Where The Hunger Games is about power politics and media on a grand scale, Divergent is much more about politics and power plays on a smaller, human scale. They don't discuss the population of Chicago directly but it's clearly on a smaller scale. There's 32 new Dauntless recruits so a quick Fermi estimate suggests there are only about 10,000 people in the factions in Chicago. That said, there are strong themes of human nature, the desire for power, the tensions between the demands of human nature and habit and what their culture expects and the like. While The Hunger Games might offer more spectacle, Divergent offers a more relatable insight into the power politics we might see at work or similar and a message of hope that new ways of thinking are a threat to them yes, but can defeat and co-opt them too.
It's probably fair to say if you weren't sure about The Hunger Games you probably won't like Divergent unless you liked the book. If you were more positive about The Hunger Games then it's well worth giving DIvergent a go.
Bechdel test: Yes, easily. There are multiple named female characters. They sometimes talk about men but often don't. For example, Tris and Tori (the wonderful Maggie Q) have 3 scenes together. In one of them they briefly talk about Tori's brother but talk about other things (what tattoo to have and so on), and in their other scenes there's nothing about men at all. Tris and her mum (Natalie) have several conversations, about her choosing, about her mum being a Dauntless by birth, about Tris being Divergent and so on. Although not part of the Bechdel test, many of the conversations about men could equally be about women (Tori's brother could be her sister, it just happens to be her brother for example) and in this movie there are a number of women in positions of power. It does feel very much that Veronica Roth pretty much flipped a coin for most of the characters as to their gender to get an even balance and the film was true to her balance. It gives a lot of named women - and then you suddenly get crowd scenes where AD's get a lot of men and although it's not odd for film it did look somewhat odd in this film to diverge from the gender balance that you see most of the time.
Sunday, March 23. 2014
This film, like it's prequel 300 is based on a Frank Miller graphic novel and adapted and directed by Frank Snyder to the big screen. It really doesn't take very long for that to become clear - so if you didn't like 300 I strongly suggest you avoid this film: it is very much more of the same.
In fact, a large part of this film is set in parallel, historically, and there are references across to the events of the other film. While Leonidas is fighting at Thermopylae, Themistocles and a bunch of Athenians are fighting a naval skirmish with the Persian fleet lead by Artemesia in the build up to the grand finale of this film, the battle of Salamis where the navies of the various Greek city-states unite to defeat the Persians and turn the tide. Historically this battle is thought by some historians to have preserved Greek civilisation and all its influence on Western civilisation and to be one of the most significant single battles in the history of the world.
As with 300, 300: Rise of an Empire uses the device of a lyrical narrator in the story rather than a history, so at various points there are clearly mythic elements thrown in. That didn't bother me after the first one and remembering the device from the first film but it is worth remembering. Also well worth remembering is that this is emphatically NOT a history text - Artemesia was actually not present at the Battle of Salamis for example, having advised the Persian fleet to avoid engaging the Greeks there because it was such an obvious trap.
I find it hard to rate action scenes. I don't go to see action films really just for action scenes - you don't see The Raid and you won't see The Raid 2 here I'm pretty sure for example - unless there's a good story or some other reason (like Dredd for example, which was similar to The Raid but had that 2000AD geek link to lure me in.) The action scenes here were stylish and spectacular and did the job just as well as in the first movie. I can't say if a connoisseur would love this film just for that, but they're good I'd say.
There are, to my mind, two major problems with this film:
First is the male lead, the guy playing Themistocles. Themistocles is a historical figure, a great general and an orator. This guy, in the week that Tony Benn - a truly great orator of our times died - has the oratorical presence of a church mouse. Even when he's plagiarising speeches from Shakespeare (Henry V "we few, we lucky few, we band of brothers" gets a serious amount 'flattery') he manages to rouse more of a snore than a feeling of "Yes, I will follow you to war!" and his speech about freedom (Braveheart perhaps?) practically had me comatose. Perhaps that's why no one left the camp, not that they were inspired to fight on, they were just to bored to move.
Second is battles in biremes and triremes. However hard you try to make it look cool, ships ramming into each other, which is the actual action bit of the ship battle, doesn't take long. There's a limit to how many shots of the generals standing on their desks gauging distances you can get away with, equally the number of shots of the fleets closing and men pulling on oars. Salamis might, in the grand scheme of things be more important than Thermopylae, but Thermopylae is the one that most people have heard of 2,500 years later. I had to look Salamis up. Watching the clever tactics of Themistocles unfold should have been fun - and Artemesia's reaction was impressive enough that even if I hadn't appreciated that they were clever tactics for myself I'd have gained that appreciation - but partly because it was slow and partly because Themistocles is too much of a blank on the screen I didn't find it as engaging as I think it could and should have been. It's one of those moments where because I was actually rooting for the "baddies" because Artemesia was so much more interesting than anyone else that the admiration of the cleverness that the film should have managed to evoke was actually more a feeling of "Oh, not more of him to watch, please no…"
There are a few things, besides the action scenes, that lift the film from being poor:
One is the backstory on Xerxes. A load of it is tosh - Darius and Xerxes weren't at Marathon where Themistocles is meant to have shot Darius and put in motion the train of events that led to Xerxes (Darius' son) trying to destroy Greece. But the story of Artemesia manipulating Xerxes to become a God King because 'only the Gods can destroy Greece' (while probably also rubbish) is fun and gives some nice backstory.
Another is the portrayal of Artemesia herself. Where the male lead is poor, Eva Green as Artemesia is wonderful. She oozes mad, bad, powerful and dangerous. She's believable in her many facets. She is also a multi-faceted female character with backstory, motivation and she is in a position of authority. It really is a big, juicy role - the kind of role we're used to for male leads but that are all too often lacking for female leads. (In many ways, in fact her story, while it's different in the details to Leonidas' in 300 is writen in the same amount depth and while she may not have quite the same amount of screen time, this is Eva Green's film in the same way 300 was Gerard Butler's despite the casting list.)
Unlike Butler, Green runs through costume like it's going out of fashion, managing just about every female outfit from every fantasy book cover except the chainmail bikini. Although she does have a couple of impractical chainmail shirts.
Finally, just as impressive, although on-screen for far less time, is Lena Headey, reprising her role as Queen Gorgo.
Bechdel test: Fail. Gorgo and Artemesia are named obviously, but they never meet let alone talk. I'm pretty sure they're the only two named female characters.
Overall, 300: Rise of an Empire struggles compared to 300 thanks, I think, to being about a fight between boats with oars running into each other and a leading man that I wouldn't follow onto a sports ground or into a debate, let alone into battle. But Eva Green lifts it more than a little. This won't be the worst film I'll see this year but it's definitely a "could do better" in too many parts.
Monday, February 24. 2014
Like many people I watched Ellen Page's coming out speech at the Time To Thrive conference a couple of week ago. Although I'm in the camp that thinks we shouldn't need a 'coming out speech' and thinks perhaps in 50 years time we won't have such things, at least not more than the direct straight equivalent of the first time your partner and your parents meet. But that's a topic for a different time if ever.
No, what struck me and finally worked its way into this post was the comment about a report about her in sweat pants on the way to gym (it's about 3:20 in). What right does anyone have to comment about her clothing and appearance in everyday life?
We can argue about whether or not I have a right to consider whether or not I have a right to consider her hot or not and to express that - with reasonable limits of politeness of course. Frankly I doubt you'll ever stop people thinking about whether others are attractive, so 'rights' aren't really the correct way to consider it. That doesn't mean it's not important to make sure we educate both boys and girls about good ways to express that attraction, and that the value of a person is far, far more than if you're attracted to them or not, but that's not the same as stopping them gauging whether they find another person attractive or not. But, again, not relevant to the main point.
Ellen Page is, obviously, an actress. To some extent we have an unusual right to judge her appearance over another persons. To pick a different actress for a moment, for reasons that will become clear, it would be fair to say we would not cast Jodie Foster today (2014, aged 51) in the roles in Taxi Driver or The Accused where she has to be young and innocent. There is no doubt she is a brilliant actress but at 51 she is not the young innocent that those roles require and she doesn't look it. Equally, the Jodi Foster of then, or the Ellen Page of now would not work in her latest film role, Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt in Elysium where she has to be a powerful political figure. We wouldn't believe a teenager (the young Ms. Foster) and we'd struggle with a 27 year old (the current Ms. Page) whereas a woman in her late 40's as she was then worked just fine. That's a judgement on appearance. Although a few decades ago things were different, we wouldn't cast either of them as Solomon Northrup's wife/daughter in 12 Years a Slave because we don't cast across racial lines. I whole-heartedly approve of that (and I accept there can be exceptional circumstances for breaking the rule, like Cloud Atlas but that was an exception) but at the same time it's a completely legitimate judgement on appearance. There has been some controversy recently over the actor chosen to portray Wonder Woman in an upcoming film. While the tone of the criticism is, in my opinion, unreasonable, if Ellen Page had been cast wondering how an actress 155cm tall had been cast as a "tall Amazon warrior princess" might have some legs. Mind you, it might not - there are many ways the story could be written where the adjective tall is removed, or even successfully joked about for those fans in the know. 'I thought you'd be taller' 'Myths can be so misleading' kind of thing. I suspect Ellen Page doesn't have the martial arts background, but I don't know Carrie-Anne Moss did before The Matrix but she learnt well enough. And, of course, the dreaded biopic has to be considered. I wouldn't cast Ellen Page as Marilyn Monroe in a biopic of Marilyn for example. Blonde hair is easy enough with wigs and dye these days, but the shape of her face is just wrong and while I'm sure she's a talented enough actor to play the role I don't think she looks close enough to be convincing in the part.
It shouldn't have to be mentioned, but I will just in case, that these comments about appearance apply equally to men. With the best will in the world we wouldn't cast Bruce Willis or Ron Perlman as Christian Grey in the forthcoming 50 Shades of Grey because he's meant to be in his mid-20's and they're too old. Thinking back to Ellen Page possibly being miscast as Wonder Woman in the forthcoming Batman and Superman film, at no point in their career would they have been instantly obvious for either of the male leads. They don't have the chiselled jaw and so on for Superman, and while they could doubtless pull off of the action scenes required of Batman, can you really see either of them in the "billionaire businessman philanthropist playboy heartthrob" role as Bruce Wayne? No offence to either, but Bruce Willis is the blue-collar type, Ron Perlman is the giant bruiser type: neither is the suave sophisticate. Yes, just like the "tall Amazon princess" could be rewritten to suit, so could these two characters - some would argue Batman has been for Ben Affleck - but judging actors by their appearance is fair to some extent regardless of their sex and can (should) be even handed. Of course, culturally it's not even handed - we tend to judge women more harshly still and more often but it doesn't mean that as an actor there is a limited, legitimate balanced level at which appearance is a valid concern above the norm.
Back to the main point.
There are legitimate occasions where, because of Ellen Page's job, we the public and certainly the director and casting director consider her appearance in a way that a person in everyday life would not be subject to. Your boss may say "your clothes aren't suitable, you need to dress up to the dress code" but you don't get the receptionist's job because you don't look enough like Marilyn Monroe or similar, not normally.
But away from that Ellen Page is just a person. She has a right - you could argue with a Hollywood career she has a duty - to go to the gym. She should be able to dress comfortably. Not just to go to the gym, almost whenever she wants. Oscar day, press junkets and on set are a bit different because she's dressing for work but around and about - she doesn't have a duty to anyone to dress in something particular. Why should we, any of us, expect her to? Clearly some of us do. It's not the biggest and most egregious form of abuse of women you'll see but it's an insidious and nasty one precisely because it's not egregious. Whatever my personal opinion on whether I fancy Ellen Page or not, it's not her duty to dress to impress me, or you or anyone except on those times she's doing work things. She dresses for herself, for her partner and that should really be it. And the sooner we all learn that, the better for us all.
Monday, February 24. 2014
Dallas Buyers Club seems quite a bit longer than the less than two hours it actually runs. Much like American Hustle it's a film where not a lot happens although unlike American Hustle it's not really about con artists (although that accusation is thrown around) so at least you can relax and trust what you're watching to be a pretty truthful presentation of what's going on.
It follows what the doctors tell him are likely to be the last 30 days of Ron Woodruff's life after he's diagnosed with HIV and a T-cell count of 9 (rather than the more typical 700-1,000). His diagnosis coincides with the start of AZT trials and Ron, being a Texan rodeo rider isn't someone to just lie down - he decides to fight the disease and 'die with his boots on.'
By various means, some illegal and some including a lot of time doing research in various libraries, he ends up on a regime of non-FDA approved drugs, vitamins and the like imported from all over the place and opens a 'Buyer's Club' where other people with AIDS join the club for a monthly fee and then are given the drugs free. The FDA aren't happy about this and he has various run-ins with them. Buyer's Clubs were a fairly common reaction to the slow process of FDA approval and the initial dosage levels of AZT which bordered on the toxic and caused side effects that were really pretty unpleasant.
Alongside this is the story of his burgeoning friendship with a junior doctor at the AIDS clinic and much more significantly with the transgendered person Rayon, who also has AIDS and is in the AZT trial.
Ron, as a Texan redneck cowboy is about as homophobic as you'd imagine, although he doesn't mind watching two hookers making out for his pleasure in a typical piece of hypocrisy. His attitude, and that of his friends, to seeing the news that Rock Hudson is dying of AIDS is crude and unpleasant. Karma is a bitch, and when he tells one of his friends he's been diagnosed with AIDS they treat him in exactly the same way. This doesn't stop Ron initially treating Rayon like a contagious leper but over time the two become allies and I think 'mates' is the right word. They're not precisely friends: they're too different and they have more than enough differences of opinion that prevent them respecting each other sufficiently to overcome those differences and become friends, but they develop a relationship where they work together and can tease each other with hilarious results at one point. Ron is devastated when he comes home from a business trip and finds Rayon has died.
I have to say, although the intention of the homophobia was obvious, being British "faggot" and the very occasional "sugar-puff" just don't have the emotional impact that I expect they would in the US. They're not, to my memory and awareness, part of our gay-bashing lexicon. It's obvious what's meant to be going on but it lacks a bit of punch over here.
That said, Ron's emotional journey is interesting in and of itself and enough to maintain interest in the film I'm told. But, at the time, I was plugged in to the medical research side of things as well. So seeing that presented, listening to the opening of the AZT trials and hearing about people selling their drugs (Rayon was sharing hers with someone else) and so on was interesting to me. And seeing the difference of the US medical system to ours is endlessly fascinating for me. These things might make you think "OMG more bloody science" and bore you instead.
I would say Dallas Buyers Club is well worth seeing but it might be a film to wait and see at home where you can pause it and fix yourself another cuppa or glass of wine or whatever. There's nothing about it that demands a big screen experience in my opinion.
Bechdel test? I'm going to say Rayon was transgendered she, despite being played by a male actor and so yes, although I understand a lot of people might argue with that. I sadly don't remember a conversation between Eve and the nurse (who is named), just instructions one way which would be a much safer yes and just about the only other chance.
Both McConaughey (Woodruff) and Leto (Rayon) have been nominated for Oscars. Whether they're among the best 5 or 6 performances of the year isn't really for me to judge but I would say they're both very strong. Both of them lost of load of weight and look emaciated for their role which seems to impress Oscar judges. Frankly it just scared me looking at them, they both looked like they were about to break at any moment.
But McConaughey took a character who you can sum up in three words: Texan redneck cowboy and gave a layered, interesting performance where you could see him change emotionally and physically as the film went along. I don't know that I'd have liked Ron Woodruff, but I understood what drove him thanks to this film and a chunk of that is due to McConaughey. That probably makes him deserve the nomination because it could have been so flat and different or do in your face and unbelievable.
Leto's performance wasn't the same. Where McConaughey was solid and perhaps understated, Leto was flamboyant and somewhat of a scene-stealer. In that sense his performance was most like Jennifer Lawrence's in American Hustle but, at the same time, he added lift and brightness, and pathos and tragedy, to what could have been an otherwise unrelentingly grim story. Some of that is how it was written of course but a large part of that ability to grab the limelight and thrive in it as he did is down to the actor as well. And it's just the sort of thing a supporting actor should be doing.
Friday, February 14. 2014
Lone Survivor is film where the title really spoils itself, so I feel less compunction about including spoilers than normal - be warned!
The film starts with some clips of Navy SEAL selection, reminding (or informing) the viewer that it's not about being the best marine in the terms you might expect - shooting, swimming etc. - that's tested, rather it's sheer, bloody-minded, gritty will to carry on, to overcome, to survive and keep going. As they make clear, quitting the selection is easy - you just ring the bell three times and put your helmet on the ground at any time - but you have to choose to keep going through the several kinds of hell they throw at you. (Interestingly, although the kinds of hell are different, most special forces use a similar endurance test - the sheer ability to keep going through pain and suffering and still function is the most important thing that they select for.)
The film then moves on to the members of the team and others in Afghanistan, setting them up as real people - one is about to get married and his fiancée wants an Arabian horse as a wedding present, another's wife is redecorating room by room and so he's asking his team mates about colour choices while they're teasing him that she's nesting and pregnant and so on.
There are little, I assume genuine, tributes to the Navy SEALS, like the new boy who goes through a hazing ritual before his first mission, leading up a recital of what it means to be a SEAL in terms that I'm sure the officers know about but would deny completely as it's rather politically incorrectly as it basically talks about fighting and shagging your way around the world because you're an indestructible rock-hard frogman.
Then it changes gear from bearded, topless Queer Eye for the Straight Guy meets Changing Rooms meets The Wedding Planner to a war movie as a recon team of four is sent in to scout for a top Taliban commander believed to be in a small village. If he's there a larger operation will be launched to 'get' him - presumably kill although that's not really made clear. The team hike into position, spot the target and start taking pictures.
Just then an unarmed old man and two boys and a herd of goats show up. The SEALS capture them easily and try to call in for advice but the mountains block communications so they're on their own. While the gamer in me thinks there are different choices, they take one of the morally correct choices, let the three non-combatants go and head out, hoping to call for a quick evacuation.
This moral dilemma forms one of the high points of the film as far as I'm concerned: it was the hook that made it that made it interesting enough to go and see.
After this there is a long (and I do mean long) running battle between the Taliban and the SEALS. It goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. And on and on and on. And on and on. And on some more. And then some more. And a bit more and some more.
Frankly I lost interest. I imagine it's probably a pretty good rendition of a protracted firefight given it was written and filmed in consultation with the guy that went through it. It should probably be shown to anyone that wants to sign up and anyone that thinks war is glorious and anyone that wants to start a war. If you want to see a firefight in mountainous terrain you'll probably love this bit. There's lots of it - I'd guess well over 75 minutes of the film.
There are two insane cliff jumps. One is filmed pretty much straight - about a 6m drop and they just go and you see the drop in one pan. According to an interview I heard the stuntmen just went for it and were battered and bruised and unhappy (no padding, no crash mats, no fancy falling techniques) but OK. The second cliff was more like 25m and the stuntmen said no way! I can understand their point of view - stuntmen want to do the stunt, get up and go on to do the next stunt, the SEALS doing it for real were prepared to risk death rather than get captured by the Taliban and beheaded on a propaganda video. Different scale of risk assessment. It made for a scene that was jarring at the time because it didn't feel quite right in the rest of the film that was presented as rather in moment, nitty gritty. I suspect it's fair showing of the survivor's memory of that fall, bouncing down the cliff and it was safe to film, but it seemed odd, out of place, at the time.
There are a few moments when the film pulls back and portrays a number of snafus at other points: there aren't enough Apaches so the quick reaction force has its Apaches pulled away so can't mount a proper rescue mission when communications are briefly reestablished for example. The commander of SEAL Team Ten gets half a message, knows things are going wrong, bounces it upstairs and basically gets shouted at. He decides to go it alone and makes a couple of bad choices that end up with him dead because he goes off half-cocked.
But mostly there's this unending firefight. You do, however, come to appreciate why the special forces selection might be for the ability to just keep going - between the jumping off cliffs, getting shot several times and so on all of the SEALs just keep going until they're actually killed whether that's shot in the head, shot multiple times in the chest or whatever. Shot in the foot? It slows them down, but they'll keep walking. Shot in the hand? They'll reload their rifle one handed and keep shooting. Compound fracture of the femur? Push the bone back in, and when you wake up, just march out of there Frogman! (OK, I'm exaggerating to say he marched, but the rest is right.)
In this part of the film there's no particularly special merit to the fact the SEAL is an American - he's just to damn stubborn to lie down and die. I don't want to say he's too stupid to know he's beaten but honestly it was my first thought. I appreciate that sounds incredibly insulting to an incredibly tough man. It's said with the utmost admiration - I would have given up and died ages before that but it really is unthinkable to me that he could just keep going like that. He's like an indestructible labrador puppy, whatever happened he just bounced up and kept on going.
Finally he found a river and fell in to get some relief and water. In what is possibly the most courageous act he decides to trust the local who offers him an open hand and so he is rescued by some local tribesmen who take him in. They agree to take a message to a nearby American base so they can come and get him out. Unfortunately the local Taliban come to the village while he is waiting, find him and try to execute him. Much to his surprise, and at no small risk to themselves, the villagers stand up to the Taliban for him.
Things are not looking good as the Taliban come back in force to punish the villagers and recapture him, but the messenger got through and the helicopter gunships come over the hill just in time. Hoo-rah!
Fortunately, as far as I'm concerned, the film didn't end there.
First there was a pictorial tribute the men of the US Armed services that died on the actual operation. Unlike the song Nineteen and the implications of that, one of the things that is always odd with special forces is that unlike the regular forces, the members of special forces are already experienced then go for selection and then additional (long) training. They're in their late 20's at a minimum, usually their 30's and maybe 40's. They have families and so on. Although there were pictures of them in uniform, there were pictures of them with their wives, children and the like as well to illustrate the wider impact. It also showed Marcus has gone back to say thank you to the villagers who rescued him.
And, most importantly of all for my money, was an explanation of the villagers actions. Marcus, the SEAL, was their guest. Their cultural code requires them to care for and even protect their guest, and they weren't going to break that for the Taliban. It's very easy from here to say "Ah, Afghanistan" and think of it as a country like we're a country. But this little piece changes this film so it's a piece of education that however much we want to think of it that way, it's really a load of tribal cultures that are very different to each other. It's an uneasy amalgam of tribes that we pretend is a country and solutions that pretend it's a modern unified country are likely to fail.
Bechdel test? Fat chance. There were women, in the Afghan village. But the only named woman you only see in a photo.
One thing that struck us both as odd - why did none of the SEALS speak any of the native languages? I'm no expert but I'm pretty sure UK special forces are expected to learn foreign languages and pick up the languages where they're being deployed on intensive courses. If you're a recon team, understanding some of what's being said, even if you can't hold a full conversation, is surely pretty useful?
Thursday, February 6. 2014
This may seem an odd place to start but apart from "It was very long" it was just about the first comment that crossed my mind about the film. So, here goes. One of the parody sites, college-humor.com I think, did "True Oscar Posters" for this year's nominations and renamed American Hustle as American Boobs. I think American Cleavage would have been more truthful (although less eye catching) - American fashion might have been that different to UK fashion, and I was only 14 or so at the time the film was set (although you'd think I'd have been noticing such things) - but the plunging necklines of Amy Adams' character throughout were extreme. Presumably she's meant to be distracting people so they're not thinking about the chance they're being conned but even so... Not that I'm complaining, I'm not hypocritical or prudish enough, but it seems unlikely for a con artist - the plunging necklines and cut-away sides went OTT I think. It wasn't so much distracting as flaunting and would a con artist risk that?
The film is also shot in quite a high colour saturation. It's not a look you see every day, but it gave the feeling of 1970's films which was interesting. Clearly appropriate but it was somewhat odd for the first 10 minutes or so until my brain adapted.
American Hustle has been nominated for an Oscar and I have to say I don't understand why. Now, in my opinion the film has some sterling performances: I completely understand why Jennifer Lawrence was tipped for Best Supporting Actress for example - more on that later. I'm not sure I'd have tipped Amy Adams for Best Actress - but for a lot of the film she does a lot of the heavy lifting, setting the tone of the film and for a chunk of the first 15 minutes or so trying to both establish her character as someone looking for her place in the world who finally finds it running cons and essentially as the narrator of the film. I can't help thinking it would have been helped if there'd been a narrator. It would certainly have helped as she flitted from stripper to Cosmo stringer to con artist in about five minutes as she 'found herself' as a youngster. Once her narrator role slipped away and she was into the con artist role she still carried role but she grew and flourished after a start where it seemed too confused and bitty to me - which suggests to me a poor script for that first little bit.
Christian Bale, by contrast, looks ugly with a pot belly and a ridiculous comb-over. You have to forgive him the medallions, gold chains and so in a movie set in 1979. Although I'm not his biggest fan by any stretch of the imagination he seems to have been nominated largely because he got ugly for the role. He was solid throughout the film (unlike some of his other films) and I believed his character but there was nothing outstanding there.
There's a relatively simple story - Bale and Adams are highly successful but fairly small scale con artists - taking small, but desperate, people refused loans, for $5000 a time to try and secure them a loan but just pocketing the money. They get stung by an FBI agent and turned with a deal - land 4 bigger fish and they'll go free. Adams wants to run, Bale thinks they can do it, they fight but eventually agree.
Up to this point, their work and sexual relationship and so on, all seems believable. Bale has a wife (Lawrence) and adopted son, but Adams knows all of this and seems to accept it. From the inner dialogues we're privileged to hear this warts and all (or wives and sons and all) acceptance is pretty well established as fact. In fact, with the inner dialogues, there's a rather different film that could have developed about the ways we con ourselves and each other and so forth. It would probably have been an art-house movie - possibly in French with subtitles - rather than an Oscar nominated Hollywood big-star vehicle, but it might well have been a rather more interesting movie.
Once they get turned by the FBI you see them plotting for various outcomes and if you have half a brain from this point on you can never be sure what is the truth and what isn't, at least as far as these two go. Exactly who are they conning? How much, if any, of what we are seeing is the truth, and how much is con? This is not helped by the sudden disappearance of the inner dialogue.
From then on, it remains a film about the con, the con artists, and although there are elements of how they can be conned themselves, it tries to sweep you along in the story of the FBI operation to land the bigger fish rather than being a reflective, introspective movie.
The FBI operation spirals more and more out of control as each step makes the agent reach for a bigger and bigger prize. It doesn't take a particularly astute of observation to spot what's going on. The numbness of your behind and stiffness of your muscles are likely to be the biggest clue for the imminent end of the film.
There are a number of what might, in a different movie, be nicely post-modern deconstructions about the movie and it's plot. In a post-post-modern way they're very nicely worked in so they're presented as character moments instead. Indeed some of them I'm still realising now are really post-modern desconstructions worked elegantly into the script. It's hard to describe them without spoilers, so I won't, but it is nicely done.
One other big reason that does surprise me that the film was nominated for an Oscar is that I would say, for me, if was to be asked to give the dreaded elevator pitch for this movie, I'd say it's about the grifters making good, and proving that The American Dream lends itself to be peculiarly exploited by conmen. Just about everyone that is stung is driven by ambition and that dream of reaching the top regardless of where they started out. That level of cynicism about America is a rather unlikely subject for an Oscar nominee I think.
There's a very neat conclusion with the suckers and some of the criminals going to jail and a "They (nearly) all lived happily ever after" for the rest. There's a bittersweet twist in one or two cases.
All that said, there are a number of scenes of this film that are just great. Jennifer Lawrence's version of Live and Let Die as she's cleaning is awesome. Christian Bale organising his combover is grotesque but compelling. The first scene between Bale and Lawrence - the "we fight and fuck, it's our thing" scene is compelling too, a very different Jennifer Lawrence to Katniss Everdine, but more evidence that a star is here. and actually most of her scenes are well worth watching. There are a number of key story scenes that I won't tell you about are good too. Once Amy Adams is allowed to just act her role, she gets on with it and many of her scenes are great too. The selling of the final con in particular is awesome. If you're of an age to enjoy late '70's music there's a great soundtrack (just try not to sing along too obnoxiously).
I enjoyed this film - despite it's long list of flaws, it has enough of a story and more than enough good scenes that it's more positive than negative. I don't think there's any scene there that makes it necessary to see this at the cinema. You could wait for it come out and be cut price on DVD or even on TV and record it to watch at your leisure without really risking much. But it is worth a watch sometime.
Bechdel test? Yes. There's a rambling drunken conversation about nail polish for one. Another about cats, Pimms and tea 'all the way from England'. Probably more, but those two at least, with two different pairs of named female characters. There's a blazing confrontation between the two female leads, but they only talk about 'their man' - inevitable in the story that's set up. Great scene though.
When the actors are allowed to let rip, the great acting in those sparkling scenes make up for the flaws that drag this film down into the ordinary and help you forget the backache and numbness of the posterior. I don't regret seeing it. I'd happily watch some of the scenes again but I probably won't make any effort to turn over to watch this in future. On the other hand, if it happened to come on and there was nothing else on, I'd probably not turn over either.
Friday, January 31. 2014
It is easy, and accurate, to summarise The Railway Man as a story about time and love curing all ills. While this is an accurate summary, to use that as grounds to dismiss this moving true story would be a mistake in my opinion.
Equally, I consider using the fact there is only one named female character and so dismally fails the Bechdel test as grounds to avoid it would be a mistake. Indeed it would avoid a truth, clearly expressed in the film, about how some, possibly many or most, of the survivors of the Burma Railway camps lived: partially or wholly cut off from anyone who didn't go through it with them, unable to articulate their experiences and living more like ghosts than anything else. This obviously gave them a very male circle of friends as the other prisoners were all male. Even with those that shared their experiences a big dose of stiff upper lip didn't really help them talk about it.
Into this repressed completely male world, as a literal bolt from the Gods responsible for train cancellations, comes Patty, who becomes Eric's wife and the only woman in the whole film.
The story essentially unfolds in the early 1980's and the mid-1940's, in England and Burma. Eric Lomax, a train enthusiast, the Railway Man of the title, runs across platforms and jumps on a different train thanks to a cancellation where he bumps into Patty. They chat and start to fall in love. In fairly short order they get married and on their wedding night bad plumbing in the hotel triggers what we would now glibly label a psychotic break thanks to severe, untreated PTSD.
The film then splits between Lonax's capture after the fall of Singapore, time on the Burma Railway, interrogation and torture and his time in the 1980's as his world falls apart. It is worth remembering that although we would call it a psychotic break and PTSD in the early 1980's the language just wasn't there. (Patty, it is revealed had been a nurse for 20 years and even she doesn't really know how to deal with it.) Although there is a danger in reaching for labels and not treating the individual, having the label today enables us to reach out, call for help. It is particularly hard to imagine a nurse in 2014 wouldn't recognise what was happening and be able to access help, even if he or she wasn't a specialist in the filed.
Both stories travel in chronological order which had its moments of frustration for me - I was seeing the PTSD from the end of the torture but didn't really know how things had got there until near the end of the film - however, it did mean the stories made more narrative sense as I got to see the events that lead up to him being tortured laid out sensibly rather than in another set of flashbacks or filtered through his torture and interrogation. It's a balance that, I think, would have been awkward either way and this way was almost certainly the better of the two because it means you trust the recollections of the Burma Railway and the torture - and that is absolutely critical on many different levels. I don't mind paying attention and following the threads of the story, I like it even, but part of me wanted to know right now what was so terrible in the room that triggered the worst of Lomax's terrors.
Then the two timelines collide. The torturer, Nagase, is alive in 1980-something and running tours of the prison camp where he plied his gruesome trade. Lomax is told this by one of the other survivors, with the agreement of Patty, and goes to confront him and wreak his revenge. However, Lomax's life has changed thanks to Patty. He is no longer merely a ghost, he has something - the love he feels for Patty - to live for. This leads to a rather different confrontation than you might expect and the rather different conclusion to the film than many would expect.
I thought long and hard about to phrase that penultimate sentence in the previous paragraph. That's how it came across to me - it's not the person of Patty, it's not her, it's not someone to live for, it's something, the love he feels for her. It is fair to say up front that Lomax was not in his right mind and we do see him being charming, romantic and fun to be with before his PTSD strikes. I could understand why Patty wants that man back. But during the worst of it, I could equally have understood if she'd walked out on him - yes, he was in a really crappy mental state, but he treated her abominably. Nevertheless, he is able to enunciate that he loves her, he wants to love her properly, and his desire to be a good husband for her gives him something to live for. That's something - it's all about him, albeit him in relationship to her. That might sound critical of him and it isn't meant to - it's the liferaft that pulled him out of a spiralling, dark, terrible place and that's a good thing. It's just an observation without judgement, and a explanation of what might seem like an odd phrasing of "something" in such close juxtaposition with "love of Patty" which you might normally expect to be expressed as "someone."
The true power of this conclusion comes from the fact that it's based on real events. You might, at least one person I've talked to about the film has been, left wondering how Lomax reaches the point, and indeed how Nagase does although that only comes after the film, that they become friends for the rest of their lives. If this was fiction you would say it was just too contrived. But tied with the photos of the real men at the bridge it was touching. I think you need to see the film and come to your own opinion here - I think I can understand it but I wouldn't be surprised if you can't and while I can understand Lomax not killing Nagase easily, it's a stretch for me to understand them becoming friends - although I accept that this is the truth of what happened.
This film makes no pretence that it's a recipe for how to treat PTSD: it's a story about one person's journey through it, supported by a loving and incredibly determined wife, bolstered by his own realisation that he loves her and wants to have a future with her and 35+ years of time not exactly healing the wounds but perhaps dulling the pain just a little. Even with that, I can't imagine having the victim of torture (and he still is at that point, rather than a 'survivor of torture' or any other label of someone moving beyond it) armed and in the place he was tortured with his torturer would exactly become a standard treatment regime! That scene wasn't, for me at least, the most distressing scene of the film, but it was intense. I imagine the actual meeting must have been even more intense though.
For those of us, like me, old enough to remember trains in Britain in the 80's there's an element of nostalgia. For those, like me (and I rather suspect nearly everyone else in the showing we went to, where we were the youngest people by 2-3 decades, an unusual experience for us) who know, or in my case have known, people who survived having worked on the Burma Railway, there's an added layer of impact. And thinking back on it, the scene when Patty says 'he never talks about anything that happens after the fall of Singapore' certainly resonates. I knew before going in of course, from history lessons and other places - not least Bridge on the River Kwai - but never first hand. I don't ever remember asking but my memory is that the stories when they were told, were moved away from that time, subtly or otherwise.
This film doesn't hit the same huge sweeping panorama that 12 Years a Slave did but, perhaps because of those personal memories and nostalgic moments, and it's very Britishness, hit harder for me. It's messages about treating PTSD we've hopefully got better with - although we still have a long way to go - but other parts like the impact of water-boarding make it relevant today even though it's apparently a biopic about 35 or 70 years ago. Even if you don't see this at the cinema I think it's well worth the couple of hours of your life to watch it.
Friday, January 17. 2014
Before going to see this film I was of the opinion I didn't reminding that slavery is evil. However you twist your words and morality to support it, it requires a twisted morality to believe you can own another human, trade them as property, do to them as you wish regardless of their will. I stop here. Interestingly this line, with the addendum that you can alternatively turn to drink or drugs to deaden the protests, was actually articulated pretty much by an alcoholic ex-overseer of slaves within the film.
This film did nothing to challenge my view that slavery is evil. Nothing either to reinforce it - but that's possibly because it's simply impossible to reinforce it. That doesn't mean it was a waste of time watching it though. Unlike some Oscar nominated movies, this is a film that was gripping, immensely watchable and moving. Just because it didn't do anything to make me believe more strongly that slavery is evil doesn't mean it's not a good film on its own merits.
Although they're both dealing with slavery, this is in many ways the opposite of Django Unchained. Where that never claimed to be true and so, perhaps, told a mythic, filmic, truth that no other approach can manage, Twelve Years A Slave takes the partial autobiography of one man - Solomon Northrup, or Platt as he is renamed by the slavers - of the part of his life between being kidnapped into slavery and being freed again and renders it as a biopic. It's clearly not true in the sense of being a fly-on-the-wall documentary but it's showing a very personal view of slavery with a couple of rather different owners.
There are some odd things about the film. It starts with a scene from near the middle and it's pretty clear it's from near the middle as a flash-forward. That's OK. But when you get there the scene is practically unimportant. It's important enough to the story to make the cut and be included over other scenes (I haven't read the book and I don't know what was left on the virtual cutting room floor) but in the course of the film it's far from the most significant scene. Why is it played twice? There are other scenes that I think deserve it more, even after sleeping on it. Solomon also manages to avoid ageing for most of the film, but almost overnight it seems, he goes from black-haired to grey and old on the day he is freed and returned to his family. Bah.
Although I understand it's based on a book, and I haven't read it, the book was written after his legal cases against those who had kidnapped him and enslaved him had failed because he was not allowed to testify against them because he was black. It doesn't play overtly in the film like it's a bitter man's vengeance but at the same time it's hard to explain some of the other features in any other way. In particular, and it seems odd to say, there are very few black voices in this film. Solomon of course. Patsey and Eliza have fairly chunky parts (although Eliza mostly cries). Clemens and Mistress Shaw have smaller but significant parts. After that I'm struggling to think of speaking parts for black actors that said more than a couple of lines. There was quite a bit of singing - in the cotton fields, around a grave and the like - but not really any talking. Why, apart from Solomon, are the only voices you really hear for any length of time those of white people? It's decidedly odd. My initial thought was this was meant to be a form of portraying Solomon's choice of survival technique. He withdrew and decided not to trust anyone - partially on the advice of a real runaway that was being returned to slavery on the same ship that was carrying him into slavery and partly because he sees and learns that showing initiative and skill earns him hatred, punishment and risks his life. This is quite disturbingly shown on a couple of occasions. However, after more time away from the film it has become more of an issue for me. There is a black voice, a central one, obviously. But there could easily have been a multitude of black voices quite easily. It just seems odd that they're not there. I'm guessing they're not there in the book and it's true to the book that way but it's somewhat jarring.
There is, as well as the strong line of racism that is inevitable in such a movie, a strong line of sexism as well. White men are clearly on top - even the hired, foreign help with dangerous abolitionist ideas are more important than anyone else who isn't a white man. Then white women. Then black men and then black women. But that can be played around with by being 'the master's favourite' and so on. This is nicely shown and thrown in his face when he is his owner's favour and another is not. The reality of just how much favour and whim governs their lives, and late spite and jealousy too, all wrapped up in the thinnest of scriptural justification is laid out. I'm not saying it's not accurate and compared to the rape, the hanging, the casual brutality and so on it's possibly quite minor but it's there and shouldn't be forgotten.
I initially found myself wondering about the portrayal of Epps. Not that I'm doubting Michael Fassbender's acting nor that he did what was asked of him. And I'm guessing he acted the part as it was written in the book. Perhaps America is still full of choleric, pseudo-God-fearing ginger white men. I was going to say with seriously bad attitudes to people of colour and women but I know these two are true. From my British perspective he came over as more insane or perhaps a caricature than a real character - although as scarily insane rather than comic relief at every turn. Saying that, I recently heard a two part story about Texas University (I think, certainly somewhere in Texas) appointing its first black head coach for the football program, and then a rich white guy who supports the football team protesting ostensibly because he hadn't been consulted but you very much get the impression because he didn't like the fact they'd appointed a black guy. I don't know if he's ginger, but choleric, pseudo-God-fearing, entitled white guy. Check. Donald Trump as well. Perhaps Northrup wrote a really accurate character sketch and we just rarely come across people like over here. So - it played oddly, although scarily, at first but perhaps that character will be one of the ones with the lasting impact. It's pretty clear from the outside that America has serious race issues still and while they're not all just rich white dudes to poor black folk the modern equivalents to Epps are still there and certainly not helping.
Despite an intense portrayal of man's venality, man's inhumanity to man, man's ability to twist words to justify anything they wish to do and thoroughly exploring the darker side of slavery this is a curiously hopeful film. Perhaps it's the title of the film and the fact that, going in, I knew it was based on a book written as an autobiography. However crap it got for Solomon (and it got very crap) you knew he was going to live and be sane and fit enough to write. That doesn't reduce the impact of the darker moments, in fact is possibly serves - Vogon poetry-like - to throw them into sharp relief, but it lets us take that journey in a way that perhaps a similar film in which he died in slavery (a much more common outcome, as the film sombrely points out at the end) would never have managed.
Perhaps surprisingly I think this film passes the Bechdel test. Patsey and Mistress Shaw chat about the nicer things in life, albeit very briefly, over tea.
Thursday, January 9. 2014
A few times I had to remind myself that Frozen is a kiddy's movie - which is meant as a compliment because it mostly came when I was carried away on the fun of it and they suddenly didn't develop a plot the way I expected them to and went for a simpler solution instead.
There were a couple of parts that were like that - a bit simplistic, aimed at the kids that I think could have been written more complicated (without being older) without a problem but overall the story was fun and satisfying.
As a film, Frozen deals, really pretty explicitly, with some of the choices about growing up as a girl. There's the straight-forward one - grow up with the "normal" choices and want to get married, settle down and although they don't go into details presumably have children. In this case there's the literal live like a princess, since Anna is one. Then there's the grow up with a secret (in the film it's the magical ability to work ice magic but it could be anything) and the choice between keeping it hidden and growing up "normal" or letting it out and being true to yourself.
Satisfyingly there are perils shown, albeit rather dramatised, on both paths. Most secrets, for example, aren't likely to kill your sister when you let them loose, but Elsa freezes Anna's heart. But the 'simpler' path is shown as not without its problems too.
And I'm not going to spoil it but just to say the resolution when an act of true love is the cure has a twist that I really didn't expect and is very satisfying on many levels.
You can apply your choice of "secret" to Anna and what it might be. She could easily be very smart or something. But if you peruse Tumblr and the like, certainly the parts I do, and combine it with the fact that Anna's song when she is suppressing her secret is "don't let them see, don't feel" there is a lot of speculation that Anna is gay. Certainly it's unusual for a DIsney cartoon that there's no sign of a man anywhere around for her at any point and it really hangs together quite well. It does also work for any other secret that girls aren't 'supposed' to have, like being good at maths or funny or whatever.
There is a lot of spectacular animation in this film - we kind of expect that from Disney of course - cute songs and the like. The potentially annoying sidekick (Olaf the snowman) in this case stays on the funny side of the line. At points on the endearing side of it in fact - his song about "doing whatever snowmen do in the summer, like lying in the burning sands" is surprisingly touching.
I probably won't make any effort to watch this film again, even if this is in my top few films of 2014 but it was a light, fun and enjoyable way to start the new year.
Bechdel test: There are a few named female characters besides Anna and Elsa (they're mainly trolls, I'm not sure that the girls' mother is named) but Anna and Elsa converse as children and as adults and although they do converse about boys a couple of times they have conversations about other things too. So a pass.
Friday, January 3. 2014
If you've been living under a rock, not reading my movie reviews and the like, you may not have heard of the Bechdel test. It's not foolproof but it looks quickly and simple at misrepresentation of women in film (and other scripted media). To pass the test it simply requires two named female characters to have a conversation with each other (even a short one) about something other than a man.
Sometimes the test has to be applied with caution - Gravity with one male and one female character clearly can't pass. But with only two characters it's probably fairer to exclude it from the test rather than fail it. There's a even gender balance after all, even an improbably high proportion of women in the circumstances in fact. A film like The Hobbit actually has a large number of female roles (albeit mostly in the crowd scenes in Laketown and not obviously named) and three named females in the same room for 5 minutes or so and manages to avoid a conversation between them at all - even big sister checking little sister is ok after the orc attack - and so deserves its fail.
Anyway, Vocativ took the top 50 grossing movies of 2013 (including Gravity) out for a spin by BechdelTest.com (then excluded Gravity) and ranked how they did at the box office.
To make the comparison easy, 17 passed well, 7 passed more or less - that's 24 of 50. 3 were excluded (Gravity as mentioned, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Best Man Holiday because they aren't on BechdelTest.com or other sites reporting Bechdel tests), so 23 failed - only 2 (except Gravity) for only 1 female character, mostly because the women don't talk to each other (12) than because they only talk about a man (9).
For those films that passed the Bechdel test - box office gross amounts to $4.22B. For those that failed it, the gross is only $2.66B. Even if you take out the best grossing of those that pass to even up the numbers (~$400M) that's $3.82B to $2.66B or a 3x the biggest single grossing movie smackdown.
And while you're at it, would you really have predicted Fast & Furious 6 or G.I. Joe: Retaliation would show up on the list as solid passes? I haven't seen either but they don't strike me as obvious candidates for writing in this style.
Writing three or four lines of dialogue to pass the Bechdel test doesn't make a great screenplay of course. I don't think anyone would ever claim it does. But for every scriptwriter that squeezes in a micro-scene like that to tick that, there's a film like Hunger Games: Catching Fire that practically passes in every scene to counterbalance it. Hopefully though there will also be more of a middle ground - both scriptwriters and directors and people with the money looking at this sort of outcome and saying "OK, we have to produce more shows with rounded female characters." Even if the motive for some of them is the bottom line, hopefully it means better movies for all of us.
Monday, December 30. 2013
First up, the 'cheating' in the rankings: I've ranked Les Miserables, Seven Psychopaths and Byzantium as equal second because I really can't separate them. Preparing this list and writing the blurb isn't something I do in just five minutes. I write the list of the films I've seen and prepare a rough order. Then I reread the blog entries I wrote and think about the films and what I remember about them now as well as what I wrote then. This rarely shifts a movie far - it probably doesn't shift it from being in the best, good, ok or bad category for example, but might shift it within that category. However, this year it did decide the line between OK and bad went between Cloud Atlas and Man of Steel rather than between Iron Man Three and Cloud Atlas so it can shift a film up or down a category like that. It also helped me sort which of Star Trek, Elysium and Oblivion were the worst in my opinion - I was pretty sure they would be my worst three, but which order wasn't clear before I started reading my blog posts once more. Anyway, back at the top, each time I visited this list I'd write those three in a different order depending on what other things I'd watched, read, what I'd been talking about. So depending on my mood and so on I rank them differently on different days. But they're nearly always just behind Catching Fire. Rather than write an order that reflects my mood on the day I publish the list, I decided that publishing a list with them as second equal is the fairest way to show it, in combination with this comment. I think it also reflects just how different they are. How do you compare a musical that is essentially a film about revolution and redemption, a quirky comedy about Hollywood and a rather small piece of feminist literature?
It's probably noteworthy, even though it reflects my taste, that adaptations of other people's books in various forms seems to push your work up this list. Having what is probably a good solid story, and remaking it well, is a good starting point it seems. Remaking their films, not so much, remaking their comics and the jury is still out. The films that get into the top two categories that aren't clear remakes of other books also tell good stories. In fact all the way down you could argue there's a good story to tell - but having it complicated enough to be satisfying long term (sorry RIddick, Iron Man), presenting it well (sorry Oz, How I live Now) and having it hang together well (Star Trek, Man of Steel) and not driving me into a frothing mass of feminist outrage (Oblvion) or leaving me just not caring about your central character (Elyzium and Star Trek) all help keep you in the top part of the list.
Of my top 3 (or 5 depending on how you count) I think only Seven Psychopaths is an original screenplay. The others are adapted from books, although Les Mis is adapted via the musical. Under that more adaptations from books before we get to Django Unchained which is an original, and then we're into a really grey area - Thor is, I believe an original screenplay, but it's inspired by a comic book with a storyline that's a spin on a saga... and as I commented at the time liked it for the saga elements really.
Towards the bottom, an original screenplays at the bottom, then a twisted remake of an original, then another original screenplay (and possibly the biggest disappointment after the wonderful District 9). then a film based on a book, then an original screenplay, albeit one set as a prequel, then another remake, before we get to the next worst adaptation. And, as I commented at the time, the adaptation of How I Live Now seems to bear little resemblance to the big, at least how Wikipedia reviews the book.
It's also worth noting that although quite a lot of these movies have quite a chunk of special effects and stunt work the films you might characterise as action blockbusters rather than adaptations start at the bottom of the Good category and are really scattered through OK and bad on my tastes. I suspect if I was a 20 year-old boy I'd have a rather different order and some films (Cloud Atlas, Mortal Instruments, How I Live Now, Oz) that just wouldn't be on this list. Now, I'm not representative of the main target audience of the film studios but my metaphorical dollar still spends - sometime someone will consider that when making films won't they and won't only pour money into films for teenaged boys?
Unlike some years, I'd probably watch most of these films again I've set the dividing line at Cloud Atlas. Although I felt it was flawed, it was interesting enough that I'd watch it again. And that's the second worst adaptation of a book. I will make the effort to watch certainly down to both Hobbit movies again and will happily turn over to watch Thor, possibly Riddick, the rest of that group would be more in the category of "Oh, that was ok and there's nothing else on" movies. I think Riddick is probably more in that group, it's not quite got enough to make it a turn over movie for me, hence it heading the ok group despite the enthusiasm I had for it at the time. It was great but it was satisfying and gone, no staying power.
Unusually for this post I'm also going to mention 3 TV shows, or 4 actually by the end. Comparing TV to films is unfair in many ways - in a film you have a couple of hours to establish characters, world, tell the story and wrap it all up. Even in films like Thor, Iron Man, Riddick, you have to cater for the new viewers and do that. In a TV show, even a stand-alone special, you don't really - you have an established fan base and awareness that you can build on. Equally you can afford to have a TV show that, as long as it's intriguing enough, leaves the view to some extent scratching their head and going "WTF is going on here?" for one or more episodes. Films have the budget to do the spectacle that TV shows can only dream of but as I've already commented I like story over spectacle and TV shows tend to knock films for six there. And well thought through cgi can add spectacle to a TV show to support the story (shows such as Supernatural and Arrow that don't make my list but I do enjoy show that, as well as all the shows that did) in ways that many films seem to have forgotten. But, these three shows had more impact on me than any, probably than all, of these films in a positive way. They're rather different and rather hard to separate for that reason so in alphabetical order they are:
Several of this last half season's Dr. Who and the specials have been beautifully crafted little bits of TV, but The Day of the Doctor was truly wonderful. It had a million tiny references for the obsessive fans to squee over (some of which I duly did, some of which I had pointed out to me), three fine actors who worked well together and had a great script to work with. Some people can't cope with the timey-wimey stuff and the differences between what happened (Gallifrey was saved) and what people know (only Eleven knows, and only after those events) and so it doesn't change the cannon of the previous seasons - The Doctor still believes he killed the Time Lords and the Daleks. (Ironically one of the critics who is most vocal about this that I read is also very vocal in other posts about their RPG background. How did they keep character knowledge and player knowledge separate I wonder?) But, ultimately, despite the snippets of heavy philosophy that sneak in, Dr. Who is light-weight fluff. It's fun, but it's fluff.
Orphan Black on the other hand is slightly AU sci-fi series. Outwardly it's an examination of the impact of human cloning as if there are adult human clones out there today. And it sort of is - imagine you're on the run from an abusive boyfriend with a dodgy past and you see a twin you never knew you had step off the platform and commit suicide, leaving her purse behind so you can step into her identity. Wouldn't you take the chance to step in and disappear for a day or two - it can't really be that bad can it? But things go from there to really weird when Sara (the main clone protagonist) discovers several more clone sisters. It has conspiracies and wild theories and more - all good trappings of a sci-fi show, child of X-files say - but it's also a really harsh mirror on the roles of women in today's society. There are various professional women - the cop, the scientist and briefly the corporate clone - the housewife and the mother, the one in trouble with the law, the religious nut (that's not to denigrate those of a religious inclination, she is quite mad) and there are more to come in the next season. Being played, as you might guess since it's about clones, by the same actress it gives a real weight to the choices that they have made and the personal and cultural costs that are associated with those choices. In that sense, we might finally have the real child of Buffy.
The Returned on the other hand is a slightly weird, strike that, very weird, French TV show about zombies and a reservoir. The reservoir starts the empty and some, but not all, of the town's dead come back, basically unchanged from the time they died - be that a couple of years ago, or five decades. But time has moved on around them. The twin sister of one zombie is now a grown woman, the just pregnant bride left at the altar has a daughter and is ready to marry again, and several more examples. It's simultaneously an examination of the different ways people deal with grief and how grief changes over time mixed in with series of small town secrets that are gradually peeled back and revealed to the viewer if not always to the town. And always the reservoir empties... The show avoids why, how and so on. It largely avoids all the classic zombie tropes to examine grief and secrets but contains more than enough horror to mix with the grief and secrets to be compelling in the extreme.
I'm looking forward to the next series of all of these shows, and Sherlock (which skipped being broadcast in 2013 thanks to hobbits and Star Trek), more than any single film that is due next year. Although Mockingjay part 1 and the final part of The Hobbit going to be give them a close run I think. And for that reason, they're getting a mention here.
Syndicate This Blog
Last entry: 2014-04-21 12:15
769 entries written
238 comments have been made