Monday, December 29, 2014

Review of 'Where the Heart is'

This is what Natalie Portman was doing 14 years ago, though her career survived.

It's the cinematic equivalent of eating toffee popcorn sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. It's unbearably sweet, and dull. All the poor white people are beautiful and thin. All the alcoholics (of which there are several in the film) have good complexions and teeth. There are occasional funny lines, and lots of product placement. I can't guess how much Wal-Mart must have paid to be featured so centrally and sympathetically. Also Kodak, for all the good it did the company; and I would say that the lingering shots of La Portman's bum are to show off the red tag on her jeans.

Also too long - two hours.

Review of "Safety Not Guaranteed"

Cute, quirky, independent film - almost self-consciously independent, since it's set in and around Seattle and the central character girl is a sort of scrubbed-up skater type.

The self-made geek who is the other central character is supposed to be making his own time machine, but this is (thankfully) not a time-travel film. It's about eccentricity, self-delusion, and small towns.

Some material about internships, magazine journalism, a hint towards conspiracy films, some coming-of-age and 'revisiting your ex' stuff, but a fun film. And short too, which was a pleasure. So many bad films are also too long; presumably editing them down would cost too much.

This won't change the world but it's a bearable way to spend 83 minutes.

Review of 'Gone Girl'

Funny how there is so much less to write about with a good film than a bad one. This is a closely plotted psychological thriller with a possible murder and a missing person. There are two major plot twists, neither of which I saw coming, so good value there. It’s plot driven, but the characters are good and there are lots of nice details, like the media satire and the celebrity murder lawyer. I’ve always liked Rosamund Pike, so that’s another plus. I can’t see how I can say much else without this being a spoiler; this is good and worth watching.

OK, that said, now a SPOILER ALERT; don’t read further if you want to see this and enjoy it properly.

There is one plot/character hole that bothers me. It seems that Amy plans to complete her frame-up of her husband by killing herself. We ‘see’ her minds-eye view of the body drifting in the Mississippi, and she has a note on her meticulous planning calendar that says ‘Kill Self’. But this does seem rather out of character for her. She is a self-centred psychopathic bitch, and she has everything else worked out. So does she have a scenario where she lives on after her husband is executed for her murder? If so, I didn’t catch it. When she goes into hiding she takes a wodge of cash, but it’s not that much. But when she is forced to change her plan because she is robbed, she doesn’t bring forward the self-topping but instead looks up old flame/victim Collings. Also, the note on the calendar to kill herself doesn't appear to be the last item.

Maybe this is much clearer in the book. Can anyone who has read it, or watched the film more carefully, please explain?

Review of 'The Hobbit': Zionism in Middle Earth

“I understand how. I do not understand why.” That’s what Winston Smith says in 1984, and that’s pretty much how I feel about this film. Why expend so much effort and technical expertise to turn a little kids’ book into a mega-epic that bores as much as it is impresses?

There are some good things about it – the scenery, the sets, and sometimes the music. The actors try to do their best with it – the occasional glance that suggest they know this is codswallop but they and we are in it together. The scenes with Gollum in it are well done – the combination of pathos and malice in the character really is remarkable.

But the dialogue is mainly awful. The narrative is padded so as to allow nine hours of epic out of a quite small book, and things have been crowbarred in so as to suggest that Bilbo’s journey is, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, part of some titanic struggle against evil – lots of portentous dialogue between Gandalf and various elves, and some scenes with a very Osama-like Saruman obviously being deceitful.

The action scenes, which make up so much of the film, are terrible and stupid. Repeatedly the band of dwarves get stuck in an unwinnable battle, in which they fight bravely but from which they are rescued by an outside agency – Gandalf turns up, or elves on horseback, or rescue eagles. Despite being involved in lots of fighting against overwhelming odds no dwarf is every killed or even injured; and the set-pieces in which they fall thousands of feet  down caverns on collapsing wooden structures, and then pick themselves up and rush into another fight, are not even laughable.

Perhaps there is scope for a “film-goers’ cut”, with all the scenery, sets and arch glances, but none of the dialogue or plot. It could be about 20 minutes long. I’d be up for that.

One more thought, on the representation of race and class. In Lord of the Rings the orcs spoke with cockney accents; here they speak orcish, with sub-titles. I know Tolkien actually made up languages for everyone, but are the orcs speaking his orcish? It does sound rather Slavic. Here it’s only the trolls who speak with working-class British accents, with extra comedy provided by the fact that they are talking about the finer points of cooking – it’s obviously funny when working-class people do that, as is proved by ‘Come Dine with Me’.

But are the Dwarves Jews? Of course they are – don’t take my word for it, Tolkien said so.

Leaving aside the reputation for being fearsome fighters for a moment, they live underground, they are good with making things, they love and hoard gold, and – as Bilbo explains – they are a people without a home, living in permanent exile since they were driven out of their ancestral land. In fact, it is his recognition of this, and his wish to help the dwarves recover their homeland, which persuades Bilbo to go on with his quest, making him a sort of Middle Earth Christian Zionist. It’s a good thing that the dwarves’ Zion is only occupied by a dragon rather than say Goblins, isn’t it? Otherwise just think how many bloody sequels there would have to be.

So the answer to the 'why' question might be that this film was made to serve Zionist interests. Or to expose them. Whatever, really.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Review of 'The Interview'

Well, we had to watch this, even though we didn’t think it would be much good. Our expectations were not disappointed; it really isn’t much good. I laughed at this ‘comedy’ maybe two or three times. Although it has an ostensibly political theme, the laughs are supposed to come from the usual gross-out subjects – farts, vomiting, things being shoved up arses…

For once, it’s possible to say that this film wasn’t released, it escaped. Those of a conspiratorial bent might be tempted to consider whether Sony manufactured the controversy to avoid releasing such an awful film, or even to ensure that some people would watch ‘in defence of free speech’. If it had been released in the normal way it would certainly have bombed.

It doesn’t really deserve a detailed review. The talk show host and his producer go to North Korea intending to follow through on the CIA’s request to assassinate Kim Jong-Un; then the host finds that Kim isn’t so bad after all and doesn’t want to kill him, then he finds out that he is, after all, really bad and does want to kill him. Then they decide not to kill him but to ask him difficult questions on air, rather than the prepared ones, so as to humiliate him before his people. But he ends up getting killed anyway, and we see his body burning as the plucky duo shoot his helicopter down from a stolen tank.

Once again, this film has lots of gay themes. Early on we see Eminem come out as gay on air. Kim Jong-Un is worried that his liking for margheritas and Katy Perry might be taken as proof that he is gay. The producer and talk show host are not in a gay relationship, but they are very affectionate buddies.  The producer has to insert what is in effect a very large butt plug into his anus to hide a second delivery of ricin poison from the North Koreans. I suspect that sympathetic depictions of gayness are now an important signifier of ‘civilised values’ – by including some nice stuff about gay people this film proves that it is not merely patriotic warmongering trash like ‘Red Dawn’. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

It’s been a not-entirely-great year

Maybe the Facebook robots are even cleverer than we know. Most of my friends seem to have had those “It’s been a great year” posts created for them, but the robots seem to have left me out. I’m grateful. It’s not been a great year.

This time last year I posted a picture of a hospital corridor with a pathetic bit of tinsel hanging from a fluorescent light fitting, or something similar. It caught my eye while I was visiting my dad in the Acute Unit at Whipps Cross Hospital, and it seemed to sum up perfectly the contradictory feelings that I had about me, and him, and all the other people including the staff, being there. And part of this not-great year is that he died, in June, after more than a year of dementia and degeneration, so that by the end he was more in hospital than out of it, even though there was not usually anything that could reasonably be called a treatable illness afflicting him.

I dream about him often, not as he was at the end, but more like the way he was about fifteen years ago, when he was an active and engaged grandparent to my two boys, as well as to my brother’s two daughters.

This time last year I also compiled a list of all the things I’d done during the year – trips, work reports, blog posts and book reviews. It seemed worth doing, to confirm that something had actually happened. It rather felt that I’d been in stasis for years, and the log proved that I’d actually done something.

There doesn’t seem much point in doing the same this year, which has been eventful enough. I was made redundant from Ovum, after 14 years there, in April. I’d been imagining that happening for years, from the first time the company was acquired, so it didn’t come as a surprise but it was still a shock. The process was followed to the letter, and I can’t complain that I was treated unfairly. I was offered a much bigger redundancy sum than the statutory entitlement. I was given the chance to interview for a role a bit like my own. And there were some comedy moments in the whole thing, because both I and the other interviewee didn’t want to stay anymore, so we both had to compete to be allowed to leave with the redundancy money.

I didn’t do any more work for Ovum after the beginning of April. In principle I was on a 30-day consultation period, but the outcome was pretty obvious. Then I had three months ‘notice period’, during which I was strictly prohibited from doing any other money-earning work, but not debarred from making contacts for future freelance work. In the end that proved a bit pointless, because I was offered a position by M2M/IoT specialist analyst firm Machina Research, which has proved to be rather exciting and even a bit fun.

All that free time allowed me to spend some time with my dad as his condition deteriorated. I didn’t really know that he was on the final stretch of his life, though, because the slide was so gradual it was hard to notice the progress. Ruth and I went on holiday to France in mid-June. Dad had seemed a little better of late, and was out of hospital when we went. He died while we were still away in the Pyrenees, and we travelled back within the day.

Part of the run-up to the holiday had been the death of our cat, Beauty, who had been with us for nine years or so. It feels odd comparing the death of a pet to the death of my dad, but it all seemed to part of the same thing, a series of blows that life had become. This was how it was going to be from now on.

Of course, it wasn’t. The not-great year has had some great moments too. I’m very proud of my sons’ achievements this year – Louis got a Distinction in his degree, Lexei won a scholarship to help support his studies.

I am closer than ever to Ruth, who has been a partner and best friend through all of this, and who has helped me dealing with some stuff that has hung about in my life for – well, all of it, really. Together we’ve had a year without the twists and turns of the cohousing group that we left at the end of 2013, and we’ve had the pleasure of living in the Springhill cohousing community for the month of November, and discovering that we liked cohousing in practice as well as in theory.

I published a novel, One Shoe Tale, which has had some nice reviews. We got some new cats, who have turned out to be fine animals, funny and affectionate and full of life.

So screw you, Facebook robots. It’s been some good and some bad, because that’s what life is. I might have done without some of it, but that’s not what life is.

Review of 'Dangerous Beauty'

A historical costume romp, with some feminist overtones about the lack of choices available to women in sixteenth-century Venice, and the hypocrisy of men in blaming them for the choices they were forced in to. Veronica Franco (a real historical figure and published poet) becomes a courtesan because she doesn't have a big enough dowry to marry the nobleman she loves. She is inducted into the profession by her mother, a retired courtesan, which is a cue for some scenes of a sexual nature, though nothing particularly shocking. There's lots of beautiful footage of Venice and Renaissance parties. There's a plague, some religious persecution, some scenes in an Inquisition court - what's not to like?

Nothing very heavy or intellectually demanding, but good fun.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Review of ‘Kill Your Darlings’

A film about the origins of the Beat Generation, with adolescent Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg getting up to all sorts of naughty pranks in 1940s New York. Lots of drugs and booze, some vandalism and sneaking into the library at night to substitute rude books like Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer for the university’s recognised canon in glass cabinets. Oh what fun they had!

It all goes a bit wrong when a gay love triangle ends in a brutal stabbing murder, but it works out OK 
for our three hipster heroes, who are bailed out by their parents (or in Kerouac’s case, his fiancĂ©e), and even for the murderer himself who gets off on the hilarious defence that his victim was a homosexual predator, and so the stabbing was in “self-defence”.

I’m being a bit unfair, but this wasn't all that good. Daniel Radcliffe is sort of all right as a moody Ginsberg, and there are lots of smouldering looks between him and his not-quite-gay lover, but it’s hard to take a rebellion against metre and rhyme, and based on cutting up books, very seriously.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Review of 'Along Came Polly'

This film never stood a chance. It has Jennifer Aniston in it, and it has Ben Stiller. Either of these are efficient indicators that a film is going to be rubbish; taken together they are a lot more reliable than a triple A rating on a bond that this will be terrible.

And yet, somewhere in here was a good film struggling, and failing, to escape. It has Philip Seymour Hoffman, the opposite of a crap indicator; if he’s in it, it’s usually good. Sure, his character is mainly played for the kind of cheap laughs you’d expect from a romcom/frat-buddy film, but underneath there is a kind of tragic story about someone who never recovered from early success, and who has zero insight into himself. When Hoffman and Stiller’s characters play basketball there is a running gag whereby Hoffman makes all the right noises and calls to indicate that he is about to make a winning shot, but always misses. This underlines the lack of insight thing; Hoffman continues to not notice that he is doing this and is very bad at basketball.

Stiller’s character has too much insight into himself – he understands himself as a man scared of life, with a too well developed sense of statistical risk. Of course this is played for laughs, but there is some sense of the underlying tragedy. Bad things really do happen to him (his new wife shags a scuba instructor on his honeymoon, for example) but those aren’t the things for which he has calculated a probability.

And much of the film is about relationships between men – between Stiller and his buddy Hoffman, Stiller and his new girlfriend’s gay best friend, Stiller and his obnoxious boss, Stiller and the Australian CEO who’s risky life he is supposed to be assessing for insurance purposes, Stiller and his silent father…without the cheap laughs this could actually have been a thoughtful and sensitive film. The Australian CEO makes for a bit of a sub-plot that could have been funny and interesting; the way that Stiller’s new wife humiliates him with the scuba instructor and later tries to resume the relationship as if nothing has happened has genuine tragic potential.

Interestingly, for a romcom, it’s the men’s bodies that are really examined; it’s almost a gay film dressed up as a man-woman romcom. There is very little chemistry between Stiller and Aniston, or between Stiller and his soon-to-be-ex-wife. There’s a bit more between Stiller and his mother, naturally. She manages to unfailingly give him the wrong advice, including the suggestion that he should get back together with the cheating wife.

Despite all this, the film is not worth watching, except perhaps on a plane when the alternative is back-to-back Stallone movies. But it’s interesting to muse on how this could have been made differently, so that it actually was worth watching.