Wednesday, November 30. 2016
In this 21st Century we all too often want a simple description for everything. We describe Divergent as like The Hunger Games because they're both Young Adult and set in dystopian futures, despite rather a lot of differences between the two.
The death of Fidel Castro is proving another such divisive issue. People want to describe him as a hero or a villain. The reality is, of course, he was both and neither.
He fought against an oppressive regime and brought massive educational and healthcare improvements to Cuba, whilst fending off the attentions, invasion attempts and assassination attempts of the USA and others. Parts of what he did became the model for the developing world in how to institute healthcare and education systems in a post-colonial country. He should be lauded for that.
At the same time, once he came to power, he instituted a repressive one-party state with all the tools of a dictatorship, including a strong secret police, disappearances his opponents and more. There's a famous quote from Churchill "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." While I'm very critical of our democracy, I can be critical without fearing the police will come knocking on the door and drag me away and shoot me. If that had happened to a member of my family, I think I'd ignore anyone who was trying to suggest there was a single good thing Castro had ever done.
The truth is, of course, that anyone who has lived has good and bad things they've done. Anyone who held the levers of power for their country for 77 years will have those things painted large, particularly when your country of about 11 million is facing off against the third most populous country in the world from a distance of 90 miles or so. History will be the final arbiter but it seems most likely that, unlike a lot of dictators, there really will be a struggle to decide whether the positives outweigh the negatives for Castro.
I lean towards yes, the positives will outweigh the negatives. I am not ignoring the personal tragedies, the deaths and the terror he caused. However, trying to balance those against establishing a successful model for developing countries around the world to establish education and healthcare for their populations after colonialism and overthrowing their own dictators - that's a legacy that has improved the lives of millions, possibly billions, of people around the world in dozens of countries.
Certainly not just a hero, definitely not just a villain. But a man who somewhat surprisingly had a disproportionate influence on world politics for longer than the Queen. Perhaps fortunately the world he's withdrawn, largely if not wholly, from public life over the last few years and this isn't the seismic shock it would have been if he'd gone out while still in office. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, how many former leaders of countries in the 70's in the most populous in the world (Cuba is 78th according to Wikipedia) would feature in the news cycle in the UK for five days? That, if nothing else, is truly a mark of just how important a figure in world history Fidel Castro was.
Wednesday, November 9. 2016
Under Obama, despite evidence to the contrary, there was some hope that America might be staggering into the early twentieth century and finally having some concept of equality for people of colour, for women, for people of different sexualities and more. Despite terrible issues and opposition there was a start towards a fairer social and health care system where you stood a chance to get decent health care even if you were poor.
Yesterday the white men, particularly the old white men that didn't go to college because older white men now dead told them they didn't need to and now they feel betrayed, said "Fuck you" to the women, the people of colour, the LGBT people and everyone else and kicked America back into the 19th Century.
In an online community I know, I heard several people say "I voted Trump because I couldn't bring myself to vote for a woman." It's the 21st Century FFS and you can't vote for a woman to lead your country? Really?! But it appears this was not a minority view. As an American commentator remarked "America is far more sexist than it is racist, and it's pretty fucking racist."
I was very sad with my fellow Brits when I recovered after my migraine and the Brexit vote. I never wanted to move to America but I'm really pleased I don't live there. I'd be really scared if I did today and I'd be seriously looking to move before January if I possibly good.
Someone needs to stop the world so we can get off - the angry white men that want to tear it down and rebuild it in their image are scaring me. I think the world is need of a major reform but they're going to reform it into a worse state, not a better one.
Saturday, October 29. 2016
I have one complaint about Doctor Strange and that is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch. It's not that he doesn't carry the role wonderfully - he does, all the elements from the visual to the emotional arc to the character and the accent - but for his big roles we've now had Sherlock, Khan, Smaug and Dr. Strange. They're all emotionally unavailable, arrogant, highly intelligent, driven and focussed individuals. He's played Hamlet as well who cuts himself off from everyone and is obsessive, although is perhaps not so famously smart so I'm assuming he can play other types of role and play them well but I want to see him in something different.
OK, that aside this is one of the best Marvel movies I've seen for a while. Part of that is that we have a moderately simple plot line but it's delivered and unwrapped in a suitably satisfying way that we're also led through the Hero's Journey - which tends to lend a nice pattern and rhythm to a story after all, that's why it's used successfully in so many saga's, fantasy classics and successful modern stories such as The Hunger Games.
Alongside that, although this is basically an introductory movie for a new character into the MCU, Doctor Strange the movie and Dr. Strange the character is divorced enough from Iron Man, Captain America et al. that although they're named (and Thor appears in a mid-credits teaser) we focus on a small number of new characters. There are, depending on how you count them, between three and six important characters in this movie and that's including Dr. Strange. I would say it's three really Strange, Mordo and The Ancient One (all played by Brits) but you could easily add Kaecilius (the baddie, a Dane) and with different degrees of generosity add Wong (another Brit) and Christine (and finally, a North American albeit one from London - the Ontario version) to that list. (I'm not saying the high concentration of British actors improved the film, but I was a bit surprised at just how strongly Eurocentric, British-centric even, the casting was.) Even at six strong, we get to see enough of each of the main characters to learn something about each of them, to understand something about them, to see them all as distinct characters and understand their motivations, whether or not we agree with them. Unlike The Magnificent Seven we even understand something about the villain's motives. We certainly know enough to laugh when Wong is listening to Beyonce and so on. Strange is easily the most unlikable of the six of them, at least at first before his hero's journey teaches him some humility and understanding of the meaning and value of love. Even the villain is actually nicer than him... and that's pretty rare! But this smaller cast means that, like Ant-Man, I think Dr. Strange works better than the massive ensemble movies because both the story and the character work doesn't take a back seat to making sure every character gets their 5 minutes of time in the spotlight.
Dr. Strange, in terms of the magic, takes rather cod 60's and 70's mysticism, adds a healthy dose of psychedelia and then layers that with a healthy dose of 21st Century visual effects. The effects may not age well, they often don't, but they support the story rather than leading it and look really spectacular throughout the film. I suspect that, unlike movies where the effects look tacky and it matters the fact that this film uses them to support its story will mean the film lasts rather better than other visual effects blockbusters. As we've come to expect of these films, Stan Lee makes a cameo too, reading The Doors of Perception which is a nice in joke as the book is about Huxley's experiences on mescaline and (as we've seen in a trailer and so not a spoiler) Dr. Strange accuses The Ancient One of spiking his tea and she talks about opening his mind so he can perceive more of the universe.
This film was rather less silly than Ant-Man, but like Ant-Man was lots of fun. The effects are spectacular enough I would suggest you see it on a big screen.
Bechdel test: I missed a few of named female characters (there are quite a few named doctors but even though I know the actors I don't even remember seeing or hearing them, let alone hearing their names) but there isn't a conversation of any type between them. So no. I think it would be hard for anyone to say The Ancient One is not strongly drawn. Christine is a harder case - she's rather reactive to Strange, who sees her as weak and emotional, a bleeding heart, but who values her and comes to realise the strengths she has too. I'm going to say she's a pass because I think she's a yin to Strange's yang and he's so strongly drawn she had to be too to match that. There are six named female characters according to IMDB although I suspect if you don't read the credits you'd be hard pressed to think of more than two. There are 12 credited and named male characters and two named and uncredited male characters (one of those is Chris Hemsworth doing his cameo in the credits).
Russo test: Unless I blinked and missed it (which would certainly mean it failed some of the later stages) there's no one LGBT here.
Friday, October 21. 2016
Tomorrow the All Blacks will be going for a Tier 1 Nation's record 18 consecutive wins. This will break the record held by two previous All Blacks squads and the Springboks.
The last side who were as clear a favourite to break the record were the Springboks who went to face Scotland and, with the greatest of respect to Scotland, were firm favourites but lost. This crop of All Blacks are such firm favourites that even in Australia you can get about 9:1 on an Aussie victory!
Just to put it in to context the reasons why, the Southern Hemisphere have just finished The Rugby Championship, which replaced the Tri-Nations when Argentina joined five years ago. In the history of both competitions no team has won with a perfect record - not only winning all their matches but winning all them with a try bonus point - until this year. Only one match was close at half time, many of them were over as a contest by the twenty minute mark. Bear in mind this was the four teams that made up the semi-final quartet at last year's Rugby World Cup we're talking about. Yes, they're all rebuilding - the All Blacks waved goodbye to over 800 caps worth of experience when McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Smith, Mealamu et al retired - so they're not quite at that peak necessarily but New Zealand still swept aside three of the greatest sides in the world with ease. If you didn't see the matches, the one that was still close at half time was against Argentina, according World Rugby's rankings the weakest of the foursome.
Assuming the All Blacks win tomorrow, and while there are no guarantees I'll be shocked if they don't as Australia as in more than a little disarray this year, the interesting thing will be when their unbroken run comes to an end. They're playing Ireland twice, Italy and France in November.
Ireland had a mixed but improving summer against South Africa. Ireland can cause problems, but in Chicago it will be rugby fans wanting to see the spectacle. Italy beating the All Blacks will be a bigger upset than Japan beating South Africa was. Ireland in Dublin could be close (it has been before) and then France in Paris... except France in Paris outside of RWC matches is usually not that close. Next summer is the Lions but unless they take a larger than normal touring party that is a brutal schedule. All the Super Rugby franchises as midweek clashes? These are the same Super Rugby franchises where this year if finals places were awarded on total points rather than divisional placings, would have finished with 5 teams in the quarter finals, including the top 4 seeded teams. That's despite playing each other twice! So a normal size of Lions squad will potentially be less warmed up than tenderised lambs to the slaughter.
Then it's a question of whether any of South Africa, Australia or Argentina can step up to the plate and beat them in next year's RWC. I wouldn't rule that out but the record could be 30 or so by then. Ouch.
Thursday, October 20. 2016
Netflix is running a series of connected Marvel not-so-super superheroes in New York, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, the soon to be released Iron Fist and then an ensemble piece Defenders when the four of them get together. Luke Cage as the third of these moves away from Hell's Kitchen to Harlem and follows the titular hero as he takes on crime in that part of New York.
For me, Daredevil was good, Jessica Jones was amazing while Luke Cage falls rather flat. Not every episode is dull but most of the ones that focus on Luke are. This is possibly because Luke's power is rather passive (he is basically indestructible, he can be shot, stabbed, blown up and so on and just walk out of it) and he largely reflects with his attitude and actions while the other two superheroes are much more proactive. His power also means putting Luke in danger is rather contrived (and boring to me, although they contrive to do it and wring three, or is it four, endless episodes out of it) so the show tends to come alive when the people around him are in danger but there's a limit to how often you can do that and have a show called Luke Cage.
However, there is another problem for me as a white British person. Daredevil occasionally touches on disability issues but is really about how the rich and (criminally) corrupt exploit the poor. Jessica Jones is clearly about the relationship between an abusive man and the woman he abused and how she tries to cope with that, with some side pieces about the role of women in society. These are all essentially universal issues. I'm not saying every place has rich people exploiting the poor, nor that every rich person does. I'm certainly not saying every man abuses every woman. However, these themes are global and most of us probably know of local situations or people where those things apply. Luke Cage however, is very distinctly set in Harlem. While racism is, more or less, a problem through the first world how it manifests in the US and Harlem in particular is different to how it manifests in the UK. While I know some of the names they mention, some are so local or specific, to the US that I'm left having to look them up. There's nothing wrong with this - there's certainly nothing wrong with educational TV - but it does mean that, for me, the show loses emotional impact compared to the others.
It seems I'm not alone in finding Luke Cage less compelling than Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Which is a shame. The message behind the story is just as important here as in the other series (it will be interesting to see if there is a similar wider theme in Iron Fist) but it doesn't come across as clearly or as powerfully, at least for me. I didn't binge Daredevil but watched it fairly quickly. I certainly binged Jessica Jones. However, I'm struggling to finish Luke Cage because I don't feel engaged with it.
Saturday, October 15. 2016
Part of me wonders just how stupid Donald Trump thinks we are. A week ago tape was released of him talking about going up to women and "just grabbing them by the pussy, because when you're a powerful man you can do that." He acknowledge he said that, said it was wrong and apologised. Unsurprisingly the release of the tape started a really bad week for him in the polls (possibly it actually continued or accelerated a slide that started after his first TV debate and the problems there).
It may surprise some people but I do have some respect for a considered opinion of "which is more important, each candidate's policy on X or the fact that Trump has no respect for women?" Not being an American, I have no say and relatively little in-depth background, and what I do know gives me no respect for Trump's policy positions either so for me saying his words are completely deplorable and another indication of why I think no one should vote for him is easy. But he has some otherwise apparently smart supporters too. So if you think that, perhaps, his ideas on Syria or Mexico or improving the US economy (because, to misquote, it's always the economy, stupid) are more important than his attitude to women then choosing to vote for him despite his attitude to women is an active choice. It doesn't matter I think it's the wrong one, my understanding of the choices on Syria, Mexico and the US economy would all make me vote for Clinton too.
But, in the week since his repulsive tape was released, several women have come forward with allegations that he not only said those things, he did them too. Should we be surprised? I rather think not. Everything he said in his tape was in the active voice, "you can do this" or "I did that." Banter, at least the banter I've heard, can certainly be crude but it's usually speculative "Oh X is so hot I'd totally do him/her if I had the chance" kind of thing and usually followed by rude responses like "In your dreams" or "Tell yourself that while you're humping your vibrator alone again tonight." These days I imagine there might be a lot of 'your momma' jokes. The different tone of what he said made me suspect when I heard it he wasn't indulging in banter so much as boasting of past actions, these allegations simply bolster those suspicions.
Trump has, of course, completely denied the allegations. He points out, correctly as I understand it, that all the media outlets leading on these stories are pro-Democrat. A pro-Republican outlet isn't going to lead on a story that is that damaging to the Republican Presidential candidate after all. That doesn't mean pro-Democratic newspapers are going to publish libellous pieces about a rather wealthy, litigious individual. They will have had their lawyers look at the allegations, the evidence and the information and while there might not be enough to prove him guilty of sexual assault in a court of law there is almost certainly enough evidence that he cannot successfully sue them for libel. Although I am not a lawyer, the balance of proof for the two is in very different places: for the first it requires sufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt he acted in a criminal fashion, for the second it requires sufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they acted maliciously against him, didn't examine the facts and evidence and acted to damage him without cause.
Of course Trump can't put his hands up and say "Yes, I sexually assaulted several women in a criminal fashion, sorry" like he did about what he said. His candidacy would evaporate. (Can you be elected if you're under arrest for multiple counts of sexual assault I wonder? Not in terms of can people vote for you even then, do the rules allow you to even stand? In the UK you can't be an MP under some circumstances like if you're in jail for more than 2 years.) However, at the same time, surely he is stretching credibility and gullibility to the breaking point when he says one week "yes, I said those things" and then within a week he's accused by several women of doing those things and blusters and says No, no, I never did them, not me!
The latest polls seem to agree with that from what I read. Support for Clinton is not necessarily growing but her margin of victory is as more and more groups abandon Trump. Republican voters on the presidential vote seem to be down to a hard core of young, white, poorly educated men. All the normal other groups - the evangelicals, the elderly white voters and so on, will still vote Republican for their Senators and Congressmen, but not for Trump. What will be interesting is what they will do with their vote for President. In the US, because it's directly elected, you can write in a candidate if you don't like the official ones. I wonder if Mike Pence will get more votes than Donald Trump?
Friday, October 14. 2016
If ever a movie title lied to us, this remake of The Magnificent Seven was it. I should say I'm old enough to fondly remember the original, from all those years ago, at least from its apparently endless repeats on the TV since it was actually released five years before I was born. I'm enough of a film geek I've watched, and thoroughly enjoyed, Seven Samurai as well, and I thought the original The Magnificent Seven was a decent adaptation of that.
This version. Meh. Well it was more multicultural. It was prettier in some respects. It certainly touched on the theme of sacrificing yourself against overwhelming odds to stand up against tyranny. I described it when we came out as the millennial's Cliff Notes version but that's not quite right. Cliff Notes get the right tone and sense of the book but, for me (for all three of us) this film felt off.
There was plenty of spectacle, not just in the pretty landscapes, but in the big fight scenes too. But it seemed to me that in the drive for spectacle they lost touch with making most of the deaths of the seven meaningful. One death I watched and thought "Save the little ones!" because it was almost a remake of Boromir's death sans Hobbits and pathos. One was so ridiculously over the top (including magically disappearing blood) that it was between risible and so annoying one of us almost walked out in disgust. Having said they touched on the ideas of sacrificing yourself for others and fighting against overwhelming odds in the fight against tyranny, they equally rapidly blew it with those choices and going for style over substance. That choice, and my opinion of the film's overall off-tone, wasn't helped by a villain who was so OTT bad he was actually boring. There was nothing wrong with how it was acted (although he needed a moustache to twirl for completeness) but at every point if he could make a choice to be an evil bastard he did. There's a lazy truism of writing that every villain is the hero of his own story. (Narcos on Netflix is the logical extreme of that premise, making Pablo Escobar the surprisingly effective tragic hero of their first two seasons while exploring his undoubted villainy too.) It's very hard to imagine that Bart Bogue, the villain here, saw himself as the hero of his own story. While I accept like all truisms it's not a rule to die for, I think The
That said, the acting was generally fine - it's a good cast and they looked like they had fun making a Western together. The scenery was spectacular when they showed the big vistas. There's just so much that didn't work it's really disappointing. If all you want from a film is scenery and effects you might like this. Me, I'm reminded of that video of President Putin in Egypt when the band murder their rendition of the Russian National Anthem for no obvious reason. I really would suggest you avoid this one.
When I reviewed Ghostbusters I said I needed to address whether the film was a good remake as well as a good film in its own right. Since it's obvious I don't think this is a good film, I won't go on to insult your intelligence with answering the second part. I'll just be sobbing in the corner asking "Why? Why?"
Bechdel test. Apparently there are three named women, according to IMDB. I could only remember one and I don't remember her having an actual conversation with another woman (although there was a very short interchange but not a conversation) so no. As mentioned above there are three named female characters apparently, although you'd have to squint to catch them all. There are 36 credited and 2 uncredited male characters. You expect an imbalance given the genre and the title but almost 13:1 wow. There's only one notable female role and she's not really actually that strongly drawn. She's almost always reactive to the men, and just a little bit feisty added to the mix. Disappointing really with what they did for the various non-white men. A little bit more effort and they could have done something for women too.
Russo test. You must be joking. Although they missed the lazy (but realistic for the time) characterisation of making Bogue immoral by making him gay and having him denounced by the preacher.
Saturday, October 8. 2016
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is one of those films where as I was watching it I felt engaged and mostly felt a great sense of fun although there were one or two moments that, as a gamer and a cynical old so-and-so, left me scratching my head and thinking "but...". Now I've had a bit more time to think on it, I have even more of those head-scratching moments.
I'm not going to list all the things that gave me but-face, that's just not fair, would constitute a massive list of spoilers and your list may be different because it will be things where I say "but this spell does this and it shouldn't" and you can respond by "but it's magic and the magic just works that way" and if I respond with "but that makes it crazy OP" you say "but it makes the story work" and we go round in circles.
So, instead, let me just say that the film is visually wonderful, 99% of the time-twisting shenanigans make sense (and the rest is crazy OP spells), the plot is rather simple and linear but works well enough and the adults, teens and children all act wonderfully. The bad guys are suitable bad and scary, the reluctant hero is suitably reluctant and heroic and all the rest. One of the peculiar children is a sweet little girl with the strength of ten men, and rather than all the other, showier special effects, having her pick people up, shove furniture around like it's effortless and so on was really good fun. That said, the Ray Harryhausen throwback scene was awesome.
But for all that, it felt like there was perhaps a great movie trying to break free. I know this is based on a book and I haven't read the book, but it felt like there were a few too many scenes, too many pretty bits that instead of adding value acted more like barnacles to drag the film back from the greatness it could have achieved without them. Perhaps they were all scenes that, had I read the book, I'd have felt needed to be there but judging on just the film they made it a bit longer and a bit too overblown and baroque to quite work.
It remains to be seen come the end of the year what I remember most. This film is a load of fun. The things that dragged it down for me were petty annoyances, trying too hard and too much of a good thing rather than firmer editing. This is hardly the worst issue a film can ever have.
If you have kids, or like fantasy movies, I'd suggesting going to see this film. It's more like a dream sequence than a classic fantasy movie, and although it's different in not having the trappings of the SciFi movie that Inception does, it has something of that dream-like quality and structure.
Bechdel test. For a film with a male lead and a male antagonist, there are a surprising number of conversations between named female characters not about men, so yes, easily. There are 13 named female roles (1 uncredited) and 19 named male roles. Really for my well drawn test it's a question of where to stop - although there is a pretty big cast, lots of the characters are given a name, a history and peculiarity and a couple of chances to make use of it. Five of the female characters are well drawn by the standards of any film, and the male characters are not better drawn for once, even though we follow one for more of the film. A similar number of the male characters are pretty well drawn too. Part of the reason for this is that they need to establish the peculiarities of the various children before they become plot-essential and so we spend time finding out about them in ways we possibly wouldn't otherwise. The obvious pairing where there is a big gender disparity are Jake's parents - his mother is a complete non-entity, his father is actively bad - but we see enough of dad, who is there on and through 2/3 of the film, to work that out while his mother is only in 2-3 scenes and says about 20 words.
Russo test. Not a chance. Perhaps odd for a story written in 2011 but not that odd given most of it takes place in the 1940's and with pre-pubescent children.
Thursday, September 29. 2016
Disenchanted is the feminist, somewhat dirty and very funny deconstruction of Disney's "happily ever after" in a way that the original Into The Woods from 1986 touched on but probably couldn't manage 30 years ago. Comparisons to Into the Woods are perhaps inevitable, I certainly went there before, during and after the show, since they're both musicals about fairy tales and happily ever after. But where Into the Woods weaves the characters and the stories together and then runs time forwards to "later" still weaving those stories together into new, fun and unexpected directions, Disenchanted examines the princesses as Disney took them out of their stories and presented them to us and asks "What should we make of them with our 20-teens eyes?"
The scene is set, at least it was for us, when there was a bar in the auditorium and we were encouraged to keep drinking throughout the show. That was followed by Snow White who at first glance might have looked quite normal but on a closer look that impression only lasts if your normal Snow White wears a leather skirt and a leather top that I'm torn between describing as a zip-fronted scoop top blouse or an unboned corset. Her first paragraph of dialogue includes a masturbation joke, just to reinforce the idea we're not quite in normal territory.
This is, as you might guess, a show with a thesis. That thesis is that Disney's princesses get a really rough deal, from a feminist perspective, or even from the perspective of a modern woman in fact. We see a selection of well known Disney princesses, each of whom get a good solo song and there are a number of ensemble pieces as well. They talk, or sing rather, about a variety of less than charming changes Disney wrought on its princesses for a better story, making a bigger buck, attracting the male gaze and, in particular, enhancing a particular dated view of the woman's place in the world. There's a nice mix of solo pieces for each of them and ensemble pieces, nearly all of which serve one or more of these threads.
That's not to say this is a dry, slow show. The songs are fast and in a variety of styles and in the performance I saw all well sung. The humour is definitely not for kids but it is not so much sprinkled throughout as the weft to the thesis' warp, the binding that cuts across and makes the pattern that you see. It's not all laughs: The Little Mermaid's blues number is affecting but far from a laugh a minute, as you would hope given the style. The song about princesses looking at food but not eating is definitely played for laughs, and I did laugh, but even though I've never had an eating disorder I could feel it cutting close to the knuckle at the same time. At the same time there are gags about oral sex with Pinocchio's nose (there's a line you don't get to write that often. Also, how bad is it that my spell-checker knows Pinocchio, but not Rapunzel?) In fact, apart from the content the songs are well enough crafted they could easily be in a modern Disney or Pixar movie, which simply adds to delicious subversion of the show. There are some unsubtle messages lurking but since they're messages with which I happen to agree: that we should be basically happy with the person we see when look in the mirror and not aspire to emulate the airbrushed models and cartoon characters we're shown (genuine health reasons for losing or gaining weight are a different matter but don't stop you being happy about your hair colour or style or the shape of your nose or whatever) and when it's a big song and dance routine it's hard to be churlish about it even if I wanted to be.
At just over 90 minutes this was thoroughly entertaining. I haven't been to the cinema a whole lot this year for one reason or another but in many ways this is a good follow-up to the Ghostbusters remake. I know Disenchanted is not a movie and I won't rank it in my end of year list but if I did, it would be right up in the top group of perfect gems I think.
If I were to do the movie things, it would sail through the Bechdel test and pass the Russo test as well.
Saturday, September 24. 2016
Oklahoma, a state I wouldn't imagine to be at the forefront of racial harmony, might be taking one of the first steps towards rebuilding the trust required between the Black Americans and the police after Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby was charged with first-degree manslaughter for shooting a black man last week.
Of course it's one tiny step, and North Carolina is currently doing it's best to stamp on any progress. Part of me is also worried it's a female police officer that's been thrown to the wolves and the good old boys will keep on shooting black folks (and thinking of them by a different name) and drawing together to protect each other. However, that might be cynical of me and only time will tell.
While America has gun laws that, from Britain, I think are insane the police are going to shoot people on a far too regular basis. In Britain whenever the police shoot someone it's headline news and it automatically triggers a full investigation by the IPCC. It can, and does, often exonerate the officers involved - the decision to shoot is usually not instant because deploying armed police is not routine in the UK - but quite often results in the case going to trial as well. The families of those shot are rarely happy - and that's perfectly understandable - but all parts of our society other than the bereaved families essentially trust the process. But that process is predicated on the idea that the police shooting the public is uncommon enough that wherever in the country it happens it becomes headline news. But, in America, if it becomes routine that when the police shoot someone and under America's laws it is a "good shooting" then that is accepted, and when it is a "bad shooting" the police officer is suitably punished - including being charged with manslaughter as in the case of Better Shelby - then we might just see a ratcheting back of the racial tension that is not so much simmering as boiling over throughout large parts of America.
Lets hope so.
Thursday, July 28. 2016
I suppose any review of the remake of Ghostbusters has three things it needs to cover.
I'm going to start with the most distasteful first. If you're the sort of Neanderthal that is convinced women can't carry big budget movies and you hate this movie just because it's got four women rather than four men then just close this review now the comments are closed anyway. Thankfully the box office is proving you're a moron too. If you're not a bigoted moron, then feel free to keep on reading, please.
Second, because it's shorter really, it should be third logically. Is this a good remake? I would have to say yes. There are a number of scenes that are pretty much straight lifts from the original when that works without disrupting this film's flow, there are a number of well placed homages and cameos so old fogeys that remember the original fondly can go "Oh, look..." and it's clearly remaking the original without it being a scene-for-scene reshoot so it's not stuck with 32 year old material where they don't think that doesn't work so well. The only place I wish they'd stuck closer to the original was the soundtrack - I loathe the new theme song, I'm sorry, but I do. You may or may not already know this but all but one of the living core cast have cameo appearances. The late Harold Ramis' son is in the film instead, although I certainly didn't recognise him.
However, doing all those things doesn't necessarily mean the film is any good so, finally, and most importantly, does the film work on its own merits? This is harder because as a comedy it's ultimately a question of does it make you laugh. Mark Kermode says a good comedy film should make you laugh out loud at least six times. I didn't stop to count them but this film certainly did that for me, I'm pretty sure for all three of us that saw it together.
There is a plot but isn't actually important: it's more of a device to move from scene to scene where there's a chance to make you laugh, but it works nevertheless. By and large, between all the scenes, the script doesn't miss out on a form of humour from slapstick to fart jokes to reverse sexism to bad puns to visual humour and more. I suspect, because of this scattergun approach, you'll find elements where you feel it's not so funny and so it feels slow and elements which tickle your funny bone more and so feels faster. I know I did. However, the changes occur fast enough and the script mixes the styles well enough that there were, from memory, never three slow scenes in a row and rarely two, so I was never bored and the scenes where I wasn't laughing weren't bad because I could find some plot, some nice special effects and some satisfying character interaction to watch when I wasn't too busy laughing, at least once we'd got our first few ghostbusters together. There is also a satisfying big fight and a conclusion and the Ghostbusters save the day. Yay!
Perhaps alongside that is the new Hollywood Feminism's greatest exposure. There has been a bit of trend in recents months for a subset of female led US TV shows and now a major film to not actually rant and rave about its women doing things, they just portray them getting on with their jobs. Ghostbusters doesn't make anything of the fact that it's women, not men, doing this, except one little joke about the 'Ghostbros' MRA commentary on the internet. Given just how sexist Hollywood is, this is a bit rich some might say: women aren't in a lot of those jobs to "just get on with them" after all, but showing women doctors, assassins, cops, scientists and so on as it's starting to do more and more without making a fuss about it. Society, even in America actually has had women in all those roles, except possibly assassins, for a long time now after all, and the wheels haven't fallen off yet, despite what Fox News would have you believe. Sometimes, eventually, art imitates life.
It's worth saying, I did think this film could fail because one of the things that really made the original work, along with the script, was the apparent bond between the leads. Happily that is here with these four women and, as I've already hinted, it really helps here too.
I can't say whether you'll like this more than the original. I don't know how much you liked the original and judging how much you'll like a comedy is a really hard call because comedies are a much more personal thing than, say, an action movie where you tend to either be a fan of the genre or not. I was 19 when the original came out, maybe 20 when it was released in the UK, and I have fond memories of it. This, I think polished those and sits comfortably alongside it.
To return, somewhat, to my first point from a slightly different perspective. I haven't done really well for summer tentpole movies this year: Ghostbusters, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse are the only three really. Deadpool was a Valentine's Day release, although it's essentially got the structure of a blockbuster and I missed Batman v Superman (not that that's a bad thing apparently). Ghostbusters is, for me, clearly better than the other two big summer releases I've seen. It's quite hard for me to compare Ghostbusters - a movie that frankly must have been close to a PG and gets moved up because of references to a stripper pole and 'ordering a strip-gram' and loud screams - and Deadpool - a movie that must have been close to an 18 rating with 'strong, bloody violence throughout, frequent use of strong language, frequent visual and verbal strong sex references' - because although they're both action comedies they just appeal to completely different parts of my sense of humour. Deadpool will work 100% or 0% for you. Ghostbusters will work in parts for just about everyone who isn't irrationally prejudiced.
Bechdel test: It would take less time to count the scenes (there are a few) where it fails than those where it passes. There are 7 named female roles and 13 named male roles. Shocking really where the four main characters are women. Three of the four main characters are feel strongly drawn in. They're vibrant presences throughout the film. One of them is less vibrant in the film. She's there to be the butt of a lot of jokes and slimed a lot and perv on Kevin a lot. However, she is also the only character who gets a backstory so I suppose that makes her perhaps more the straight-woman for the jokes but in terms of actual character development better done than the rest.
Russo test: While Jillian Holtzmann has been coopted by the lesbian community as one of their own, and it's incredibly easy to see why especially the eye!sex scene with Erin Gilbert and the start of the handguns scene no, no one in New York is actually openly gay at all. Who knew!
[An unusual side note. We saw a trailer for a remake of The Magnificent Seven before the film. I'm not sure if we'll see the film, but I really wish they'd made that with an all female cast to see the MRA folks scream!]
Tuesday, July 26. 2016
If you read any other reviews of Stranger Things you will almost certainly see comparisons to ET and a chunk of Stephen King books/films.
While I have to say I understand the ET comparisons - there is a group of children and the magical child/alien they are hiding from the adults and a lot of time spent riding around on bikes too - so much of the rest of the tone is small, tiny even, town rural America with a horror element that I think the Stephen King comparisons stand the test of watching except in the most superficial of visual ways more fairly. If you try to imagine a mashup of It, Carrie/Firestarter and perhaps Stand By Me rather than ET for the children, with, at various times I kept feeling elements of Salem's Lot in the setting you would perhaps be closer. There are some other influences I can't remember or that are too close to the mark and would give away big plot points that I've left out too. I have, undoubtedly, missed some other influences but they should give you a sense of the series without giving any spoilers.
This series plays, perhaps unsurprisingly given it's a Netflix original, feels to me more like a six hour movie than a traditional TV series: it's designed to binge watch, or at least watch fairly quickly so you get more of a flow from episode to episode than is normal, even for a mini-series like this with only eight parts.
It would be tempting, early on, to give up on this show - and it certainly is flawed. All of the characters start as lazy tropes and most of the story telling, as you might guess from the amount of influences I cited above seems to as well. However, even within the first episode some of the characters start to break out of that initial appearance and become much more fully rounded and by the end just about all of them have. The story telling does not always break free, sometimes it feels like copying rather than homage, but sometimes it feels like the best sort of homage where it clearly acknowledges its roots but soars on its own merits as well.
Like a lot of period pieces, there are some beautifully observed bits and some less good bits. "You're a stalker!" (No, a term that wasn't used for at least a decade.) All the music is the surviving classics of the era and earlier, even if it wasn't actually a big hit then (Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now I'm looking at you, it was a hit thanks to a jeans commercial in the 90's, but it the character that liked it could have been a fan of The Clash) you don't hear any of the dross that was around at the time (BBC4 is currently reshowing Top Of The Pops from about the same period and there is some real crap there too).
For all these flaws, the acting is top notch from pretty much everyone, which makes the duff scenes watchable and the good scenes brilliant. And while there are duff scenes, they are in a small minority. The show contains very few surprises overall. That is probably not a surprise given the influences. I won't tell you the one thing that did surprise me because it constitutes a spoiler. But, despite the lack of surprises and despite my general disinclination to read Stephen King since - well since roughly when the series is set actually, Stranger Things evoked all the best feelings of coming home on a cold November day (the time of year it's set) put your feet up in front of the fire and sipping a nice cup of cocoa. It's not challenging or complicated. While I can thoroughly enjoy those too (hello Jessica Jones and Orphan Black) Stranger Things is nice and relaxing and enjoyable, and if they do another series I hope they capture something that makes it just as watchable.
Tuesday, July 26. 2016
Batman: The Killing Joke is a fairly short (90 minutes) animated Batman movie with, as you might guess from the title, The Joker as the main antagonist. If you move in any sort of nerdy circles and you're over about 25, or you're a big Batman fan, you'll also know there's a graphic novel of the same name, and this is the adaptation of that.
Despite the well-known source material I'm going to try to stay spoiler-free, or at least very spoiler-light. But avoiding some spoilers altogether would make this a very short review because there's not really much twisting and turning to the plot, it's all about the emotions here. We basically have a two-act play, in act one Batman and Batgirl hunt down an ambitious, and very sleazy, youth from a crime family who takes a shine to Batgirl. Batman can see what's going on, Batgirl can't and Batman lays down the law. Now Batman does this with all the sensitivity of an Empire Stormtrooper clearing a suspected Rebel stronghold in Star Wars and is a complete jerk, but he is right in what he says. Batgirl's initial declaration that 'he has emotional problems which is rich given he has no emotions at all' is important as that, as much as Batman the brutal vigilante, lays the groundwork for the character we see throughout this film.
The second act introduces The Joker. We have an origin story for The Joker, and almost incidentally for Oracle, and a quite in depth exploration of The Joker's madness as he tries to take revenge on Batman and Commissioner Gordon. This origin story and The Joker's revenge serve to let us explore his character and his insanity more deeply than I think has been done before. This act also peeked at the taiji duality between Batman and The Joker, although it rather ignored the fact that yin cannot exist with yang.
The original material is regularly decried as being dark, offensive, misogynistic and violent. This film gets a 15 rating in the UK for strong violence. Given it's 100% animated that's pretty strong - and deserved in my opinion. I suspect if it was live action it would have got an 18. Dark, yes. It's dealing with a character being shot and ending up in a wheelchair thanks to spinal injuries, another character's descent into madness, torture with the intent to drive someone mad and the like. All happy, lightweight, fluffy storylines in someone's universe I'm sure but not mine. Misogynistic is a harder call. There are absolutely misogynistic characters - in some very lazy characterisation - and Batman is, as already mentioned, an absolute arsehole in how he talks to Batgirl. But the way he's portrayed through this film it's not clear that's misogyny so much as a total lack of empathy: he is doing the right thing in the worst possible way not because he's sexist but because he doesn't understand anyone's emotions. He's just as out of touch with the black humour of the male cop at one point as he is with how to communicate with Batgirl on an emotional level. This is part of the taiji he has with The Joker, who understands and manipulates emotions all to well but doesn't necessarily understand people's logical thoughts and plans.
However, this film, and the original source material, continue a sexist trope (Women in Refrigerators) where significant female characters are more likely to permanently die or be significantly injured while male characters somehow avoid or come back from the same things. My chronology is messed up and I had thought this was merely following established storylines, however this is the story where Barbara Gordon is "fridged" which makes it overall more misogynistic than my initial impression: retelling an existing story in a new light is rather different to crippling a major female character. While bad stuff happens this disparity in survival and recovery between the sexes is silly. I don't know Alan Moore personally but I doubt he really wanted to add to this trope (and he is not responsible for the fact that DC decided not to let Barbara Gordon be healed for a long, long time). He took the pieces that were offered to him within the DC Universe and told the story he could. While each author that adds to it contributes to the trope and its perpetuation no one person is responsible for any trope. Tropes, by their very nature, are commonly occurring themes or motifs after all. This is one of those cases where playing in a shared universe makes for awkward choices but the way it's presented in the film it does make creative sense and it didn't seem gratuitous to me even though it perpetuates the trope. I understand the graphic novel may be rather different in and around this scene for other elements but I've not read it so I don't know.
The film as we saw it came with a couple of short extras: Mark Hamill talking about his experience getting cast as The Joker and playing him through various incarnations in TV shows, video games and this film and a short with the composers. While I understand they were enthused about the project, and perhaps the cross-over between Batman fans and musical fans is small, they kept going on about how rare it is to be able to write music for such dark themes. Have they seen Les Miserables for example, where the comic relief is into corpse robbing and child abuse? Or Assassins or Sweeney Todd or... well the list goes on and on.
This isn't a film for the those who don't like dark and violent themes but if you're OK with that, even if you're not a hardcore fan of Batman (I'd count myself as not) there's a lot here that's interesting. Nothing that really demands the big screen though, which is probably just as well because yesterday was the ONLY day it was on. Overall, however, although the plot was pretty linear, there's a lot of character work and emotional nuance here and a satisfying shortish film despite the troubling overtones.
Bechdel test: No. There are a couple of named female roles, one with too many names because she has a secret identity or two. But they don't talk to each other. There was also 1 unnamed female speaking role. (There are a group of three prostitutes we see twice, but only one of them ever speaks.) There are 11 named male roles, and 1 unnamed but titular role. Of the two female roles, one we see only in flashbacks and very few of those. The other is Batgirl. She's strongly drawn (sorry, but it's the language I normally use) by the criteria I normally apply. She's clearly defined and capable in her own right rather than being defined solely in relation to a man or men. She isn't as good as Batman, however much she strives to be, at the crime-fighting thing but she isn't useless either. The clearly defining moment, in terms of her being her own character though, when things get too dark for her, she decides to hang up her uniform rather than stare into the abyss again, because she doesn't like the abyss staring back. People who know the Barbara Gordon story arc will know how well that works out.
Russo test: Partial. Barbara Gordon has a gay librarian friend at work. So that's step one. However, that's all we know about him. He's a librarian and he's gay. He's not given any other features or characteristics and basically his gayness comes across as urban colour. He's Barbara's girlfriend to whom she confides her bf problems but he's a gay man instead because it's 1988 (when the graphic novel was published, or 2016) and we'll be transgressive. So it doesn't get a full pass.
Friday, July 15. 2016
So Theresa May has basically made her new cabinet and the major analysts all agree it's the most brutal reshuffle ever. Given Harold Macmillan had a reshuffle in 1962 dubbed the Night of the Long Knives and this is worse, that gives you some idea.
Some of the changes are not a surprise. Gove and May clashed repeatedly and he's gone. Cameron and Osborne were a team in harness, Osborne shot a lot of credibility with the Eurosceptics with how he handled Project Fear and the announcement of the need for an emergency budget if we voted for Brexit - something we may need but May and Hammond seem keen to avoid - so he's gone.
Some are a bit more of a surprise. Hunt was announced as being out, but stayed (another minister resigned after being offered an unspecified other post she didn't think she could take in the interim, the two might be related). I suspect the whole of the NHS cheered and then wished they hadn't and are now sucking it up, or digging out their poppet-making kits and sticking pins in the little dolls.
It's not a surprise that BoJo is back since Gove had to go but just how senior a role he's got, and the Foreign Office with his talent for opening his mouth and putting both feet in it... ouch. However, Johnson (Foreign Secretary), Davis (Brexit) and Fox (International Trade), a triumvirate of Brexiteers are clearly the unit responsible between them for leading on Brexit. It's hard for anyone to say May hasn't given serious weight to pushing Brexit forward with people devoted to the cause. Equally, if it goes wrong it's not clear that she has any particular loyalty to them personally and she can happily throw them under the bus.
You may have your own opinion on how much she's hoping it will go wrong, personally, I'd say she's more than half hoping they really fuck it up before the Article 50 button is pushed in such a way she can gracefully side-step the referendum result leaving BoJo holding the baby as she chucks it all out with the bathwater. However, she needs a plan that's clearly workable enough that if the button does get pushed, she's happy to see it through. Talk about a tightrope. Don't be surprised if "The Canada Model" or "Canada+" becomes something we hear a lot about in the coming weeks. If you want to know more read about CETA. A Canada+ model would include some provision for passporting in the financial sector and some quid pro quo for that. (The EU would probably be keen on keeping that too because setting up Berlin or Paris to rival London as a financial sector will take years so it's not improbable.) Other bits might well be added too but this is a basis for a workable and with the exception of passporting already agreed model - and although it includes visa-free movement it does not include passport-free movement so an element of border control is present which might satisfy that side of the Brexit camp.
There is, unsurprisingly to me, a nice juicy promotion for Andrea Leadsom. There are also, again not surprisingly, some nice promotions for other women. While being Home Secretary for 6 years is unlikely it will be interesting to see how the next incumbent handles it.
Although not outwardly shocking, there are three things that are going to be very interesting to see how they play out:
Everything is new and shiny and there's rhetoric without any actual structure or exercise of power at the moment. Our glorious leader has said this is what she wants to do but it was a two minute speech. A speech that, as many have said, would not have been out of place if Ed Milliband had made it just over a year ago, rather than a new Tory MP two days ago. We need to see some policies, and not just on Brexit, to see what this means. How is this government going to act on housing? What is it going to do about education, wages and taxes? Is there actually going to be action against the corporate fat-cats and an end to the appearance of cronyism between the Tories, the bankers and the FTSE 100 directors? Some of her appointments, like the first Tory Education Minister seem to support the rhetoric. Some like her fiscal hawk of a chancellor seem directly at odds with it. Some like the absence of a specific minister for housing seem somewhat odd. But after such a massive upheaval of both personnel and rhetoric we can only play the waiting game. The next Queen's Speech, and the various policy announcements between now and then, will certainly be interesting.
Tuesday, July 12. 2016
In the UK, if we're interested in political news, we're watching with some kind of emotion, the potential disintegration of the Labour Party while we're listening the rumours that the Conservative Party might soon follow suit, although they've disappeared for a while under the more recent news of our new glorious leader (more on her when we know the shape of the new cabinet). While this would be a massive restructuring of Britain's political landscape - terms like earthquake really wouldn't do it justice - all the blood being spilt is metaphorical, or measured only in terms of people's political careers and ambitions at the moment. (Yes, Jo Cox was murdered during the referendum campaign and her death was intimately linked to that campaign. That was tragic but, however brutal it may seem, this is the next phase of political life, even though it is directly linked to it.)
While that is obviously of interest to us here, the US is facing a much more serious fracturing of its society into a tribe of Black, a tribe in Blue, and probably some others as these two fight it out too. We have had two more African Americans shot by police officers, one of them while reaching into his pocket apparently to get his license (please see below for an update on this) as instructed by the officer who shot him. Then, in Dallas, five white police officers were shot in what appears to be direct retaliation for the cumulative impact of avoidable or innocent African-American deaths at the hands of the police.
The police in Dallas killed one of the snipers. At first glance that seems not unreasonable. Certainly if there was a sniper in the UK taking potshots at the police there's a pretty high chance he or she wouldn't get out of it alive. While the vast majority of our police aren't armed, every force has armed police available and they're trained like army snipers to shoot at the body which is effectively to shoot to kill if they have to shoot. However, it emerged on the news in the UK today (it may well have been on the news in the US for longer) that the Dallas police used a robot to deliver an explosive device to the sniper and blow him up. Things like that disturb me on the battlefield. That a police department can deploy it as a matter of routine seems really wrong at all kinds of levels to me.
While I respect the right of those in Blue to mourn those who were shot - and from what I know of it shot simply for doing their duty without any discrimination or abuse of their authority - overall the police have lost the trust of a really significant proportion of the US population. This isn't a case of not trusting the police not to harass you and abuse their powers - a situation a fair proportion of people in the UK find themselves in even if they in general support the police - this is a case of not trusting the police not to shoot you simply because you're Black. People are being seriously advised if you're stopped by the police start filming yourself with your phone and share the film live so there's a record of what happens. That reveals an incredible level of distrust but, sadly, not an unreasonable one. Mourning your dead while refusing to acknowledge your failings, the all too regular actions of your tribe in wrongfully killing members of another, refusing to acknowledge their right to mourn and express their anger and then using, quite likely abusing, your authority to arrest and imprison them is just inflaming the situation. Refusing to acknowledge there really is a problem is making it explosive.
It is clear not all members of the police do this. There was an African-American identified as a likely shooter carrying, perfectly legally under Dallas' laws, an assault rifle in the streets on the day of the shooting. He survived the experience because whichever police officers saw him didn't just gun him down. On a day when tensions were running as high as they doubtless were that day part of me feels they probably deserve some credit - except they really shouldn't. Everyone in the world should expect the police NOT to shoot innocent people who aren't breaking the law, even in high stress situations and even if laws I think are stupid makes the police officers' jobs more complicated. We shouldn't have to give credit to the police for doing their job properly. It's a sign of how far it feels that the situation has deteriorated, even from here, that I feel inclined to do so.
I'm not going to pretend the police in America will ever root out every racist: between all the different police forces they employ far too many people and any process, even if universally applied, will be flawed. Human processes are. However, equally clearly, it is too permissive of racism at the moment, it can be and should improved and a root and branch reform is necessary. Of course, from where I sit, in a country with very low rates of gun crime and very high levels of gun control - inspired by the one incident of someone taking a gun into a school and shooting children we've ever had at which point the public and the politicians united to say "Never again!" and while it happened in living memory (Andy Murray, the tennis player, was in the school when it happened) it has never happened again here - it's equally simple for me to say "The US needs to change it's gun control laws," and that doesn't seem likely. Reforming the police seems like it should be easier to be honest, there's no second amendment in the way for one thing. But in America, who can tell?
I've already commented I think that the police having technologies I consider dubious on the battlefield as part of their regular capability is also questionable. It seems to me that there needs to not only be a root and branch reform of the recruitment policies but the training and deployment and the roles of the police. It seems as if there is an attitude that criminals are the enemy and to be killed and the public are a nuisance that get in the way, possibly even potential criminals. A healthier, for society, attitude might be that criminals are to be arrested, brought to justice and, except in the most extreme circumstances, rehabilitated back into society and the public are there, not quite as shown on every TV show, to be served and protected (note the different word order, it matters). That us vs them and kill them all mindset, if mixed with any racism at all, would certainly explain why a subset of the police seem happy to keep killing people that they don't like and the rest of the police don't do anything about it.
But it is clear that the system in America desperately needs to change and if it doesn't the streets are going to continue to run red with blood and it won't be just the blood of the African Americans shot by the police any longer. While there may or may not be an earthquake coming in British politics, if there isn't a massive reform in the American institutions of power there just may be another revolution.
While I relayed what I'd heard in the news, that one of the shootings was a young African-American reaching into his pocket for his license as instructed, in America it's being reported that he had actually informed the police officer he was armed and had a concealed carry permit. He was reaching for his permit as instructed. To my mind that makes it worse because it clearly suggests the situation was calm and the officer should not have been alarmed when he saw a gun. So why on Earth did he go from that to shooting the victim?
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