Friday, 22 July 2011

There's something about Lily

Is it just me, or does virtually every bloke in the Harry Potter films have a slightly creepy - and slightly morbid - obsession with the mother of the Boy Who Lived? Far more universally adored than Harry himself, she is continually dragged back from the dead into discussions by most, if not all, of the male characters who knew her at school. In fact, by the time we reach The Deathly Hallows, "You have your mother's eyes" has, become something of a refrain throughout the series, to the point where Remus Lupin is able to recognise Harry from his "mother's eyes" alone, and Harry himself wearily finishes off the adoring sentiments of his mother's many fans, including both her teachers and her fellow students:

"You're eyes, they're..."

"My mother's. Yeah, I know."

I'm not sure if this eyes thing featured so prominently in the books. Perhaps it's just more noticeable in the films because of the compressed time frame. In any case, the ironic thing is that after they've all banged on about it for seven years, it turns out that Harry's eyes aren't actually his mother's at all - not even metaphorically. In the eighth film, we finally get a glimpse, via the pensieve, of the young Lily who, at least according to Snape's memories, has big, brown eyes. In fact, it would have been pretty difficult to find an actress with a pair of eyes more different to Daniel Radcliffe's. At the very least they could have coloured them digitally.

Other than that, however, David Yates has once again done a fantastic job. The last two films have, I think, far outshone their predecessors (much as I enjoyed them all), and I think that more than anything this is down to good direction. Neither of The Deathly Hallows films have demonstrated any reluctance to pick up on, and even develop further, the much darker and slightly political resonances of the later novels. The Ministry of Magic in Part 1 was even slightly Orwellian. And yet they've still managed to maintain the sense of magic and wonder and the optimistic spirit that first captured my ten-year-old heart.

I'm not one to geek out about minor changes or to be scary and fangirly. I'll admit to loving the Harry Potter books, but not uncritically, and not without an awareness that Rowling couldn't possibly have had any idea where she was going the series when she started writing the Philosopher's Stone, other than, of course, that the series would have to end in a big showdown between Harry and Lord Voldemort (to quote Harry in the most recent film, "Let's finish this how we started it, Tom - together"). Nevertheless, her style does pick up and accrue more depth as she goes along, which worked quite nicely for people of my generation, who grew up along with Harry and his friends. The slightly two-dimensional, archetypal figures from the first couple of books gradually develop into more complex characters, with touching - and sometimes disturbing - backstories. As I suspect is the case with most grown-up "fans", if that's not too much of a contradiction in terms, my favourite characters are now easily Snape and Dumbledore, both of whom undergo quite a dramatic process of revelation and reassessment in the later stories. Far from having always been the twinkly old Merlin we've grown to love, we learn, along with Harry, and much to his dismay, that Dumbledore's past is as shady as midnight in Knockturn Alley, and his offences seem to far outweigh the mistakes made by the hard-done-by, lovesick and embittered potions master. We begin to get the sense - though things are never made wholly explicit - that Dumbledore's identification with the young Tom Riddle probably went further than he'd like to admit. Though in Harry he recognises similar power, and similarly headstrong characteristics, we feel that he really means it when he speaks to his protégé as if he were the better wizard - by virtue of being the better man. Conversely, Snape reveals his hidden depths in the form of love and compassion, having suffered for love of Lily, and then put his life on the line for the sake of his rival's hated offspring. In Yates' film, these complexities emerge, variously obscured and clarified.

Snape's story is heart wrenching: it is the dying man's last tears (he is killed, not instantly with a curse, but slowly and painfully by means of repeated spells and snake attacks), that Harry must take to the pensieve in order to learn the truth. And his dying words? "You have your mother's eyes." Naturally.

Less explicitly, the darkness in Dumbledore is alluded to both at the wedding in the previous film, where an elderly guest forces Harry to question whether or not he knew Dumbledore at all, and again in the latest film, by Aberforth, Albus's brother, whom Hermione, Ron and Harry encounter in Hogsmeade. Aberforth tells them that his brother "sacrificed a great many things" in his pursuit of power, including his own sister - though no further information is either offered or asked for. In the books, of course, this backstory is expanded to explain Dumbledore's fraught love/hate relationship with his friend and rival, the "dark wizard" Grindelwald. And given Rowling's own comments regarding the headmaster's hypothetical sexuality, it's easy to see this relationship as being as suffocatingly intimate as that between Lord Voldemort and Harry, who houses a piece of the former's soul. Despite this, however, we are provided with only a brief overview of this past, almost none of which is supplied by Dumbledore himself, and thus entirely excludes his own opinions and feelings. In cutting down these references to a younger Dumbledore, Yates conveys the same sense of frustration at Dumbledore's deliberate secrecy and concealment.

The use of CGI, too was impressive. Of course, it is undeniable that this film will have had one of the highest budgets in the industry at present. Nevertheless, costly doesn't necessarily mean good, as anyone who's seen a Transformers trailer recently could tell you. What is important is that special effects are used responsibly, rather than excessively. The Gringott's dragon was stunning, and the big finalé felt properly apocalyptic. It's always the small things that count in the end, and one of my favourite things visually was the after-battle debris. Papery flakes of ash floated through the air in one of the most delicate and appropriate uses of 3D I've seen: most of the time, 3D just proves annoying and unnecessary. There, it was glorious. It was such a good ending, that I wished they'd left it there. Of course, they were never going to...

The "19 Years Later" section was, unfortunately, as cheesy, laughable, and gratuitous as anyone who has read the books would have expected. Not one of the all early-twenties actors looked even nearly old enough to have children starting secondary school, despite some hopeless efforts at stubble, paunches, old-farty clothes and, in Ginny's case, an attempt to give her a post-baby chest (bear in mind the actress still looks about thirteen). The worst of the lot was poor Tom Felton, whose "grown-up" Draco seemed to be sporting little more than a ridiculous fake beard as a marker of age. Still...

While I'm on the subject of age, here's a little bit of interesting trivia. Alan Rickman is actually more than ten years older than all of the actors he's supposed to be the same age as, more than fifteen years older than David Thewlis (Lupin) and Geraldine Somerville (Lily). In fact, he's a mere five years younger than the ancient, grandfatherly headmaster, played by Michael Gambon, and considerably older than his brother Aberforth, played by Ciaran Hinds. It just goes to show you that it's not long before those things stop mattering, however silly everyone looked in "19 Years Later".

Thursday, 21 July 2011

I see a little silhouetto of a Sin

Pride and Lust, Pride and Lust
But I cannot repent now

One of the things that really bothers me about the theatre is that, despite all efforts to open it up to wider audiences and to make plays more accessible, it still carries the baggage of privilege and pretension that were attached to it pretty much as soon as theatre moved indoors. Ironic really, when you think about the mix of people that would have attended theatres back in the Renaissance.

"Serious" theatre-goers, critics and reviewers continue to look rather snobbishly down their noses at the world of television, and as a result, actors who have achieved fame and prominence in that medium will tend to be regarded with suspicion. "We'll have none of that muck here, thank you. We want proper actors." Those who have suffered the most, as far as I can tell, from the taint of what is referred to as "stunt casting", are, for some reason, those actors who have played major roles in Doctor Who. And it's important that they're major ones, mind - I've seen plenty of more minor Who characters perform in all sorts of RSC productions without comment.

Back in 2008, when David Tennant took on the roles of both Berowne in  Love's Labours Lost and, more famously, Hamlet, in plays shown at The Courtyard in Stratford, old-school theatre buffs complained loudly to anyone who was interested, and many more who weren't, about how ridiculous it was that "Doctor Who" had been allowed to play one of the Bard's greatest characters, how it was all about the theatres making money. More fool them, however, because in pretending to know/care more about "real" theatre than the rest of us plebs, they only exposed their own deep ignorance. Tennant, as people who genuinely do care about theatre will know, actually made his name on Shakespearean acting. Long before "Ten" was even a twinkle in Russell T. Davies's eye, David Tennant was very much what exclusive, élitist idiots would deem a "proper" actor.

Of course, I wouldn't wish to dispute the assertion that the reputation and fanbase Tennant garnered from Who brought a lot of people out to the theatre who wouldn't otherwise have had the slightest interest in Shakespeare - a fact manifest by the fact that that awful, awful chip shop on the corner nearest the theatres kept a big Dalek stuck up in the window for most of the season. Unlike some, however, I don't actually see this as a bad thing (attracting bigger audiences, I mean - poor quality chippies cashing in on tourists is always a bad thing). In fact, bloody well done, I'd say, and I hope the RSC gained a few more regular punters from the "stunt". Had either production actually been a bad one, some of the sceptics' whining might almost have been justified. As it was, while Hamlet had a few flaws, they were a truly fine couple of shows, and L.L.L. was near-perfect. In my opinion, Tennant more than proved he could hack it - which is not to say that he hadn't already done so several years previously.

Having taken on the role of Mephistopheles in Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus at the Globe, Arthur Darvill has suffered a similar critical bashing. Now I must confess here, that before I'd seen the play myself, I did find it quite difficult to imagine lovely Rory as a demonic prince of darkness, rushing to steal away scholarly souls (though he might well have won a few students' hearts already). Nevertheless, I had no reservations whatsoever, no prejudices, and determined to go and see the production before I came to any conclusions about it. In fact, more than anything, I was excited. If he's brilliant as Rory, why not as someone else? That is kind of what acting's all about, after all, and I think it's high-time audiences and reviewers put a bit more faith in established actors to do their jobs properly. If they've been successful, the assumption should surely be that there's probably a good reason for it. Unfortunately, while genuinely good actors get slammed for crossing media boundaries, often far less interesting performers will be lauded because they suit certain people's ideas of what theatre should be. Surprise, surprise, Darvill, in my opinion, was probably the best thing about the Globe's Faustus, yet the reviews I've read so far have been almost unanimously scathing, describing him as "woefully miscast", etc...

Overall, I'd have to say that Dr Faustus wasn't nearly as impressive a production as any of the aforementioned (including the version of Romeo & Juliet with Gale, which was carried very well by an excellent Sam Troughton as Romeo - spot the Who connection there). Having said that, the friends that I saw the show with all seemed to love it, so perhaps part of the problem is just that I've been spoilt with high-quality RSC productions (by far the best of the best) since childhood. There were, to be fair, plenty of things about it that I liked. Wagner was generally entertaining (though perhaps not quite as clever and witty as I remembered from reading the play), and Faustus looked convincingly scholarly, even if he didn't quite come across as a genius. Spectacle was a strong point, with most of the demons being impressive to look at, though unfortunately this didn't extend to the Prince of Hell himself, whose get up, complete with silly beard, wasn't remotely scary, but rather ridiculous, as was also noted by this Guardian reviewer. The pageant of Sins looked terrific, though the fart jokes went on a little too long, and the dragons on which Faustus and Mephistopheles fly to Rome were simply stunning. And, though it was fairly irrelevant to the story, I did thoroughly enjoy the post-epilogue devils' sing-and-dance along. It was good fun, at least.

I couldn't, however, in all honesty, say that the production was well-directed - which is where the RSC almost always wins out. At times, it was struggling to stay interesting, and I do think that the main reason for this was the initial decision taken to work from the far-inferior B version of the text. It is possible that I'm slightly biased, having studied the A-text at A-level, but then, I did read both at the time, and re-read them more recently as part of my degree course, and I'm absolutely convinced that however you do it, there's no way that poor censored B can live up to the religious, philosophical and ethical challenges, the subtleties and ambiguities, or even the poetry of A. Choosing B first of all means missing out on some of the best lines and imagery, outside of Shakespeare, in the history of British theatre:
See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ -
Ah, rend not my heart for the naming of my Christ;
Yet will I call on him - O spare me, Lucifer! (Sc13: 72-5)
And later:
O God, if thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,
Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransomed me,
Impose some end to my incessant pain (Sc13: 91-3)
It's difficult to imagine anyone in more turmoil, begging for mercy alternately from his supposed Saviour, who fails to be there for him, and from his persecutor, who also fails to answer him. Whether you choose to read it as the demented railings of a madman, or a genuine metaphysical crisis, this is pretty powerful stuff. The only reason, as far as I can see, for cutting it, is the word "Christ" not making it past the Renaissance censors. Similarly disappointing alterations and additions occur throughout. The important thing to take away from A is that Faustus is not a bad man. He never hurts anyone - his only real sin is the initial act of "conjuring" and "abjur[ing] the scriptures" - and he is condemned, following Christian logic, to eternal torture merely for the sake of a few silly games and party tricks. We are, as an audience, meant to like him, meant to root for him, right down to his topical digs at Catholics and Spaniards, and not least because of his heavily autobiographical  elements, at least in the Prologue:
Now is he born, his parents base of stock,
Of riper years to Wittenberg he went
So soon he profits in divinity,
The fruitfull plot of scholarism graced,
That shortly he was graced with doctor's name (Prologue: 11-7)
My emphasis is on the ironic use of "graced" here, grace being a gift from God, and the subtle implication thus that God's "gifts" can lead us to damnation. Like Faustus, Marlowe was born to poor, working class parents, but raised himself to a higher station through his studies, attending one of the most famous universities of his time (and ours). It takes guts to cast yourself as a damned man - or at least, it did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - but Marlowe was, pretty much, the archetypal "rebel":
Not marching now in fields of Thrasimene,
Where Mars did mate the Carthaginians,
Nor sporting in the dalliance of love,
In courts of kings where state is overturned,
Nor in the pomp of proud audacious deeds,
Intends our muse to vaunt his heavenly verse (Prologue: 1-6)
In other words, "You know all those things you think plays are meant to be? Well, this isn't any of them." Dr Faustus is, at its best, essentially Marlowe's long-winded way of sticking up two fingers at both strict religious dogma and established theatrical conventions - which were, interestingly, interrelated. Faustus himself was arguably the first complex character to appear on stage in Britain. Prior to that, there were clowns, and there were the sorts of two-dimensional allegorical figures found in Medieval morality plays. It is then, absolutely essential to Marlowe's purpose that we sympathise with Faustus.

In the B-text, however, Faustus is shown to torture, and finally kill, Benvolio (who incidentally remains unnamed in A), the man to whom he had earlier given horns for mocking him, along with two of his friends from the Emperor's court. Towards the end of the play, too, hoardes of angry people seek out Faustus at the court of the Duke and Duchess, in order to get revenge for his wrongs to them, whilst in A, he seems to be almost universally liked and favoured. Finally, B adds an extra scene at the end, in which the scholars find Faustus' limbs all torn asunder, just to make it quite clear that Faustus has definitely died in extreme pain and been carried off to a horrible, endless afterlife. It also adds extended moralising speeches from both the Devil and the Angel, occurring before Faustus' own monologue. A, on the other hand, is open-ended enough for readers and audiences to interpret things their own way. Faustus may or may not be dead, he may or may not be in Hell, and all the devils and spirits he speaks to may or may not be figments of his imagination. This is most apparent when Faustus cries out to his fellow scholars,
Look, comes he not, comes he not?
To which they reply:
What means Faustus?
Belike he is grown into some sickness, by being over-solitary. (Sc13: 4-8)
One of Matthew Dunster's worse decisions in the Globe production was to ruin this ambiguity by having Lucifer and his devils enter at this point, so that the audience can see them as clearly as can Faustus. Further, and which is not in either version of the text, Mephistopheles is privy to Faustus' whole monologue, interrupting him sometimes and moving around on stage, distracting us and ruining the sense of urgency, desperation and, above all, isolation. That pissed me off.

Other than making a few unnecessary, unwanted appearances, however, as I said above, Arthur Darvill was great. I loved his short-temperedness, his sarcastic attitude, and even the sense of anger and real distress he conveyed whenever Faustus questioned him on God. Best of all, he seemed to really get the point of how hopelessly and sadly ridiculous the whole thing was.

My least favourite parts of the production were the more puerile of the comedy scenes, some of which do exist in both texts, though there are a lot more in B. In fact you might reasonably argue that B is the dumbed-down version, edited in much the same patronising way as British stories and shows are for American TV and in Hollywood. Some of the "clown" scenes aren't bad, usually when they're working as parodies of the main narrative, but some of them are. Faustus is kind of funny, in an intelligent, deeply ironic way that demands a lot of thinking from its audience, so I'd argue that it shouldn't need lots of rubbish jokes to hold people's attention. What it definitely didn't need was for Dunster to stick in his own rubbish jokes as well, like the orgy that Faustus apparently participates in with the Duke and pregnant Duchess, and his lifting the lady's skirts to retrieve the grapes she craves, brought from a "distant count-ry". I bet he thought he was clever. Trouble is, the only people who'd have got it would have known that it was stolen from elsewhere...

There was a bit too much of all that for my liking, and not enough attention paid to the significance, to the power of the actual story, or to the brilliance of the lines themselves. I know that the Globe is a touristy place, and as such attracts non-artsy, non-literary, and even non-intelligent people, but I still couldn't help but find the whole thing just a tad patronising, and, at times, just boring. I enjoyed the more spectacular elements, but it felt to me as though they were the only elements that the production team thought their audience capable of enjoying. All the cleverest bits were either cut or so obscured and unemphatic that you could barely notice them. I don't think that they were trying to scare, shock or challenge us, despite the fact that, even now, the story of Dr Faustus is a pretty troubling one. What they were trying too hard to do was to amuse us, and quite often, it ended up feeling a bit like listening to a twelve-year-old boy who thinks he's funny. Perhaps, much like the reviewers ought to have more faith in actors, the directors need to give their audiences a bit more due credit.

Quotations taken from the New Mermaids edition of Christopher Marlowe's 'Dr Faustus', edited by Roma Gill (London: A&C Black, 2002).

Friday, 3 June 2011

A Good Man Goes to Have a Good Lie Down

Oh America. Why must you turn even fringes into something rude? It's been a few days now since I saw them, but listening to girls talking about 'the bang area' and 'doing the bangs' on Youtube hair tutorials is still funny. I discovered this whilst looking for ideas for what to do for the Gilbert and Sullivan ball which, as it happens, was a lovely evening. It was even worth missing Doctor Who for!

As for that, now that I have watched it - well, it wasn't too bad an episode, and I did enjoy all the little bits of Star Wars homage but, as ever, I did a few issues:

1) Unlike almost everyone else, I don't take exception to River being Amy's daughter. That's fine, consistent, it makes sense to me. My problem is actually that it makes too much sense to me. Rather than seeming, as one person I know has suggested, like it was decided at the last minute, I felt like it had all been a bit too obvious for a long time. I realised what was going on with River, Amy, and the little girl, right from the first Silence episode. Quite the opposite to "making it up as he goes along", Moffat plans his stories meticulously. Which is all fine and dandy - until plot arc starts to take over from the individual adventures, which suffer and become weaker by comparison. It also means that every series (or even half-series as it is now) ends up building to a massively overblown apocalyptic climax. Most of all though, if I'd worked it all out already, I just didn't buy that the Doctor, supposedly the most intelligent man in the cosmos, needed to be told outright by River herself.

2) What was the point of the Cybermen? They served no useful plot function. If they're going to come back into it in the next episode, fine, but why not wait and surprise us with them then instead of bringing them in now to do nothing. Furthermore, while I applaud the decision to go a whole (half-)series without Daleks, I feel a little disappointed that he had to fill the gap with the next most obvious monsters. Also, weirdly, they seemed to be working for people - they mentioned a "cyber fleet". Which I suppose could work if the Cybermen have got a secret plan in mind that they haven't let on about yet, except for one thing....

3) The Headless Monks. If they've already got emotionless robot people working for them, why do they need emotionless headless people to fight for them as well? I did hope that we might be offered a better reason for them being there. When I first saw them in the preview, I expected it to be the Silence, getting revenge on Amy, Rory and the Doctor, and covered with hoods so that people wouldn't "kill them all on sight". What they turned out to be, however, was little more than an excuse for the gimmick of the Doctor dressing up as one of them and jumping out on the baddies. The other thing they could have been used to explain, of course, was the cleric soldiers from the earlier Weeping Angels episode (in which Amy encounters River for the first time).

Other than the above, good show, Mr Moffat! Bravo! Clever and witty as usual :) The grumpy, lactating Sontaran nurse was excellent, especially his interaction with Rory - that is, a soldier taking on the role of a nurse talking to a nurse dressed up as a soldier - and I liked how this linked in with the Doctor (a healer) as warrior and hero (picked up on by Lorna Bucket - in the language of the people of the Gamma forest, 'Doctor' has come to mean a great warrior).

What is definitely neither clever nor witty, however, is a new fad called "planking" that I heard about from my uncle today, which basically involves lying down in strange places. So in essence, I said, teenagers are so bored now that they're even bored with lying around doing nothing, and have to find novel ways of doing that. He seems to thinks it's great because adults have been telling them to stop it, but they're carrying on anyway, and he likes to support anything he sees as rebellious. Personally I'm not too sure. It is just lying down, after all. Mind you, they'd better watch out doing it in Westminster at the moment, since it's recently become illegal to lie down in public places there. What on earth else the House of Lords will find to do now is beyond me. Funnily enough, I was recently lying down in public myself in protest against this very silly rule, which is basically a way of getting rid of all the homeless people from central London in time for the Olympics. It's also become illegal to distribute free food or drink in an attempt to stop soup kitchens reaching out there: anyone else have visions of mothers being arrested for giving their children sweets?

Oh well. I suppose it's better than happy slapping.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Le casa de Tomás

One thing you have to give Spanish/Hispanic film-makers is that they aren't half bad at horror.

El Orfanato, as well as El Laberinto del Fauno, Los Otros or El Espinazo del Diablo fits nicely into the national/horror cinema thesis that is pretty much compulsory learning for film students today. I forget names and stuff, but the general idea is that whilst Hollywood horror tends to address 'adult' concerns and sexual phobias (think vampires, wolves in the woods, and even man-made monsters, the single-parent creations that circumvent sex and maternity), Spanish and Hispanic horror lean more towards children's perspectives. Not that these are films you would dream of showing to a child, but the consciousness of that is precisely what makes them so utterly disturbing. The children in these films see far, far too much, and whilst we're offered spiritual and fantastic explanations for what's going on, we're made very aware of the childshness of these escapisms, especially when they're usually placed alongside an a plausible, rational explanation of what's going on. In The Orphanage, when Laura eventually discovers the corpse of her missing son Símon, we are shown a series of flashbacks explaining how he died after becoming trapped in 'le casa de Tomás'. No ghosts necessary.

The 'national cinema' element comes in, then, when we enquire into the origins of these phobias, and the subconscious levels on which they operate. Western society is, of course, founded quite unashamedly on sexual inequality. For centuries, we've lived in a world where women have plenty of good reasons to be afraid - hence the vampires and big bad wolves, cautionary tales for young virgins to guard against the threat of strange men. Of course, recognition of this oppression brings about a fear of rebellion and subversion, a terror of female sexuality on men's part, which leads to your mermaids, sirens and temptresses, as well as attempts to ignore the female altogether, and build new races of Frankensteinian 'men' where 'she' isn't necessary. Film in the States draws from our oldest myths and fairy tales, recreating the pre-Grimm 'children of the night' - 'children' we don't tend to think of as such any more.

Film hit Spain, however, in very different times. From the very beginnings of narrative cinema, the USA's past and its British heritage were available to delve into for source material, both countries being, at least in theory, open and democratic. The years that saw Hollywood's golden age in America, however, were lived rather differently across the water. Franco's dictatorship, and all the censorship that it entailed, lasted from the 30s right up until 1975. Film-makers then and there would have been either brave or stupid to attempt to produce anything more than propaganda for the regime. After its downfall, the gates were opened, and the buried past uncovered, just like the bodies that Laura discovers in the sacks in her shed, or the photographs that Grace Stewart finds in her attic. Where Hollywood horror had looked to Germanic fairy tales and 19th-century British writing for its inspiration, Latin American directors like del Toro made films about the myths perpetuated by Francoism, and the real-life suffering they concealed. The government's failure to fulfill its paternal responsibilities surfaces in neglectful or abusive parent-figures, and the deaths and suffering of children recalls the slaughter of hundreds of innocents during and after the Civil War. Or so the theory goes.

What is interesting is that wicked parents and step-parents are far from being an unfamiliar trope in almost any mythology. Snow White, Cinderella, and countless other stories that Disney didn't get their hands on bear a striking resemblance to noughties Hispanic horror. I've recently been reading up on my Grimm Bros, and have made some of my own discoveries about a pretty horrible past. Snow White, according to my copy of the collected tales, is just seven when her mother orders her execution. It's not long after this that she's taking care of a household on her own, and subsequently being whisked away to be married to a stranger. Read into properly, fairy tales begin to sound increasingly less far removed from things like this, which makes you wonder if, rather than the past, it's the present we really ought to be ashamed of. If we keep telling ourselves essentially the same stories, is it because we're trying to learn from them, to stop history repeating itself? Or is it simply because we never do learn, and because they're always still a too-often-ignored reflection of the world around us? Are we supposed to take hope from the fact that the past is being brought to light, and to believe that this knowledge can help us build something positive? Or should we despair that, even though so much has been revealed, the story still isn't over?

To put it another way, are the endings of films like The Orphanage and Pan's Labyrinth happy ever afters, or are they desperately tragic? The directors certainly don't seem to know where they stand on this, and I'm really not sure that any of the rest of us do, either.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Popcorn and Peril

There's a little bit of a problem with Who at the moment, namely that people keep dying and not staying dead. The "just kidding" element has manifested in a variety of ways, often imaginatively, but nevertheless making things not scary any more. Throughout the series, of course, everybody's been killing Rory all the time - once Amy resuscitated him, once it was just an illusion created by 'House', etc, etc. But it's not just him. Last night's episode ought to have had a fairly high body count. Four independent gangers, two humans, and a load of discarded ganger bodies died, but in the end, it was kind of 'ok', because humans and gangers just replaced each other. Nice and neat, no confusion, no need to worry about anyone suffering the loss of loved ones. Even versions of the Doctor and Amy got killed, but it was fine. And, after spending the whole episode telling the miners that they couldn't go on destroying the gangers because they were actually real people, he went on immediately to destroy Amy-ganger. And of course, now we know that the future death of the Doctor, as witnessed by Amy, Rory, and River, is probably not really the future death of the Doctor. Even if it's not his ganger who gets it, we've seen enough to know that there are plenty of ways to survive dying.

It's not a recent thing, however. Moffat's always preferred to have it so that "everybody lives" from way back in the days of eccles cakes and empty children - a near-flawless couple of episodes, of course, and I'm not fundamentally opposed to the idea of everyone being saved, and nobody dying. The problem comes when people start dying and coming back to life, or being locked in parallel universes and then coming back through. We stop believing that anybody can die, that there is any kind of finality to anything, and perhaps worst of all, it smacks a little of (dare I say it?) magic.

According to my mum, River Song's been getting it in the neck a bit in DWM for sending out the wrong message to kids about death. I can see the point. In the second Silence episode, the Doctor was pretty cool with her sexifying murder (even if it was the murder of an evil controlling super-race who wipe people's minds) which is wrong in a family show. Not only is death not death, it's also being made cool. Fix this, Moffat.

Magic's not only been bothering me in supposedly non-magical shows, however. Even within the wizarding world, I think there ought to be a degree of internal sense and logic. Last night, I rewatched about half of HP and the Deathly Hallows, part 1, and was rebothered by Ron's reunion with Harry and Hermione, which is achieved by him following Hermione's voice, which comes out of a machine for switching lights on and off....It's most annoying because I think, other than that, that HPatDHp1 is probably my favourite of all the Harry Potter films - fast-paced, dark, intelligent, even a bit political. But in that particular scene, I found myself doing my typical moan that I do whenever anything inexplicable happens in Who - "It's just magic", or as they've said before in The Simpsons, "Whenever you see anything like that, a wizard did it". Then I realised that in this particular case, it really was magic, and a wizard did do it. Nevertheless, these things shouldn't ever be turned into convenient excuses to allow you to do anything you like. Rule-bending should only occur within reason, otherwise, there's never anything to worry about, and you might as well skip straight to the happy ever after. That's the part I'm least looking forward to in the last film next month. I'd be happier if they left it where everybody dies, with no 19 years later.

Sorry for being a goth.

Monday, 23 May 2011

I'm a Royalist.

Well, no. But I did quite enjoy The King's Speech, actually. There were a lot of good films that year, and I don't think it deserved as many Oscars as it got, but Colin Firth's was probably the best performance in any of them, and there's no way anyone could begrudge him the award. Geoffrey Rush, too, was brilliant as ever. Funnily, they'd gone to the trouble of employing an excellent (and presumably expensive - I suppose that's why it needed the hype) supporting cast, to do - well, very little, actually. Comparable to the equally Oscar-sweeping Amadeus, The King's Speech is very much a two-man show - and one just as claustrophobically compelling.

I've always been a bit of a sucker for a period drama generally, but the quality of this one was particularly impressive. Visually, it was convincing and beautiful. Aesthetics is, I think, one very important area of film where we can fail to give credit when it's due, except of course when there's something weird and wacky going on with it, or when it becomes a deliberate statement (which is easily tiresome and pretentious - I'm thinking of some of the sort of artsy stuff I had to sit through when I did Film Studies). The designers of The King's Speech deserve some recognition for this.

The script and direction too were spot on, and did what they needed to. It maintained a sense of humour and a lightness of tone, despite its closeness and the sadness it dealt with. Perhaps most impressively, it wasn't really royalist at all. It made me pity a King, a sensation I'm far from used to outside of Shakespeare (incidentally, fitting references to Richard III, Othello, The Tempest and Macbeth cropped up). George didn't want to be a king, and should never have been one. Neither should his brother. Rather than blaming individuals, however, we saw the faults of the system that forces people in positions they can't cope with or simply don't want to be in.

Above all though, it was the acting that made this film. On all other counts, I think the mania about The King's Speech kept a lot of other fantastic films from achieving much-deserved recognition (for example, Christopher Nolan scandalously was not so much as nominated for Best Director with Inception), and it was partly my indignance on their account that prevented me from seeing this film earlier. Toy Story 3, True Grit, Inception, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Burke and Hare, Four Lions, Tangled - all of these I loved. If I had decided the winners on my own, the Oscars 2010 would have looked something like this:

Best Director: Christopher Nolan - Inception
Best Actor: Colin Firth - The King's Speech
Best Actress: Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit
Best Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech
Best Supporting Actress: Helena Bonham Carter - Alice in Wonderland (not for The King's Speech, which didn't make enough demands of her to merit an award)
Best Animated Film: Toy Story 3
Best Original Screenplay: Chris Morris - Four Lions
Best Adapted Screenplay: Coen Brothers - True Grit
Best Music: Randy Newman - Toy Story 3
Best Cinematography: Inception
Best Costume Design: Alice in Wonderland
Best Make-Up: The Black Swan
Best Visual Effects: Inception

As for the other categories, I don't feel as qualified to comment on documentaries and short films which I didn't really see, and "Best Film" is just such a stupid category that it's not worth bothering to try answering.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

We're All Still Alive! (even Rory)

So, as it transpires, the world didn't end yesterday, as predicted. Unless it did, and I just didn't notice, which I suppose is always a possibility.

Speaking of which, I spent yesterday at my aunt's half-century party. Birthdays have always struck me as funny old things, with an odd name, especially. What we're celebrating/commemorating isn't so much our actual births - which, lets face it, were on the whole pretty traumatic occasions - as the fact that we're still alive. We ought to replace the "Happy Birthday To You" song with something along the lines of "Congratulations On Not Being Dead Yet". At least then Paul McCartney wouldn't be able to claim royalties. Until he bought that too, of course.

Personally, I don't really like big parties much. Family parties, though, are always a weird one, because everyone feels silly for not recognising or knowing how to talk to people they haven't seen in years and don't actually know anything about, and so everyone tends to group off in small cliques of people that they do know, which somewhat defeats the point of having a big party.

The lack of death today extended into tellyland: unusually, the makers of this week's Doctor Who didn't even try to kill Rory off in this episode! In fact, rather than people dying, we saw new people/creatures coming to life - "Gangers" or replicas of existing people, coming out of a milky mush that looked like a mixture of plaster and the stuff they gunge people with on game shows, and which was a little bit like the Nestene Consciousness. One of the people copied was the Doctor himself. My theory is that that probably leads to the only build up to a death this episode, which is that we already know that some version of Matt Smith's Doctor has to die some time in the future. There has been lots of speculation about this already, of course, but if they actually killed the Doctor in this form, it would mean no more regeneration, and no more Who. But, suppose it was someone who looked like, and had all the same thoughts and memories as, but wasn't exactly, the real Doctor....only wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey will tell.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

At Wit's End

I'm more than a little disappointed with On Stranger Tides. Others will disagree, I know, but I think it's by far the worst of all the Pirates films so far. People's main complaint about the previous two seems to be that the narrative wasn't coherent enough. I understood what was going on, but whatever. I can understand that the general weirdness of At World's End isn't to everyone's taste. Still, if we are to acknowledge that, I think it would be fair to say that the scripts, at least, were still punctuated with witty dialogue - they hadn't quite forgotten that the films are meant to be funny, even if they did spend too much time faffing around making big, epic action scenes with, at times, laughably shoddy CGI. For me, it didn't matter too much. I love the characters, the various little double acts (Mullroy and Murtogg, Pintel and Ragetti, Jack and Barbossa), and the 'story', which let's not forget was that of Bloomin Orlando and Ikea Knightley, was always secondary. On Stranger Tides is the first film in the franchise to have genuinely bored me. I think I have a fairly high concentration span, but even I couldn't be bothered with this.

Whilst watching it, I could only assume that they'd got a new script writer in, but apparently not: it's just that the old ones aren't funny any more. There were one or two odd jokes ('Mr. Beard') that made me laugh, but on the whole, what little humour that there was was almost all physical, created through the action (A slightly clichéd 'food on the ceiling' gag at the start, Barbossa's rum-flask leg, and my own favourite, a well-timed falling stalactite). In other words, it was as much down to direction as writing.

Characterisation in this film was seriously lame, which is unfortunate, since that was one of the best parts of all of the others. Depp and Rush did their best with the crappy lines they were given, and were still pretty good, but you'd have to have seen the other films to really give a damn about them. Predictably, Penelope Cruz couldn't really keep up with Depp, who genuinely sparkles when he's got something decent to work with, and still outstrips most of the people around him even when he hasn't. Quite aside from that though, her character just wasn't very interesting or convincing. What she should have been was a kind of Irene Adler to Sparrow's 'Sherlock', if you like - that is to say, not someone he ever has been or ever could be tied down to, but a kind of recurring nemesis/love interest who wouldn't really want to stick with him any more than he would with her, somebody his equal in both intelligence and independence. Instead, Angelica was mostly just annoying, especially in her last scene, when for no apparent reason Jack tries to leave her on a desert island. Then, obviously, the comic duos Mullroy and Murtogg and Pintel and Ragetti were completely absent, with no attempt made to replace them, already removing the potential for a bucketload of the earlier films' comedy. Worst of all were the incredibly weak "Pheeleep" and "Syrena", who seemed to have been tacked on as a kind of afterthought, when some bright spark decided that they'd better stick in some Will/Elizabeth replacements. Pretty awful replacements they were, too, which is saying something, given that Will and Elizabeth were so uninteresting to begin with, but at least they had enough screen-time to count as actual characters, rather than asides. By contrast, one gets the distinct impression that neither of these two really ought to be there at all. Philip, we discover, is travelling on the Queen Anne's Revenge because Blackbeard (who, despite attempts to convince us of his murderous psycho tendencies, isn't actually remotely scary) has been soft enough to allow his ex-nun daughter to bring a missionary priest along with her (we never really find out why he's even agreed to bring her with him, let alone her confessor). Unsurprisingly, the priest soon begins to get on Blackbeard's nerves and so ends up tied him to the mast. For some unexplained reason, Blackbeard chooses not to dispose of him in his usual slaughterous fashion, despite doing this with almost everyone else. All of this might just about make sense if Blackbeard had enough hidden tenderness in his black heart to care about his daughter, even a little, but given the number of times throughout the film that he tries to kill her, it's all rather implausible. As for Syrena - who Philip eventually falls for and runs away with - despite being a priest, and a supposedly good priest too - she is, as her rather unimaginative name implies, a siren, or mermaid. As we're shown earlier in the film, mermaids are evil, murderous, carnivorous bitches, about the scariest thing in the film. Only not to priests, apparently. So they'll happily kill a load of guys who aren't actually that bad, and are only in the mermaids' way at all because they've all been captured and forced to work for Blackbeard, but when it comes to 'Pheeleep', his goodness and religiosity 'shine through' and magically protect him. Not only is this complete drivel, it's also rather patronising and annoying to us non-religious folks who don't believe that Christianity = goodness and love. In fact, it's probably even patronising and annoying to those people who do, because it seems like yet another case of non-Christian people who don't understand Christianity trying and failing to use it as a handy plot device. This completely irrelevant Goddy strain crops up even before Syrena comes along, when one of the pirates tells the tied up Philip that he's either with them or against them. He replies that he's neither. Said pirate asks Jack, "Can he do that?" to which Jack answers, "He's religious. I think it's required." Now I'd have to say, I can't really see how being a member of a church prevents you taking sides. In fact "with us or against us", or rather, "with us or damned to eternal torture in Hell forever and ever amen" is a pretty neat summary of what religion's all about. Given that the film's set not long after the Reformation and Restoration and all that business, and that they actually incorporate a bit of British anti-Spanishness, it's probably amongst the most ridiculous things they could possibly have said. Religion was the main excuse (if not the main cause) for virtually all the wars that took place in and around this period.

All that said, it's still a Hell of a lot better than the last thing I saw at the cinema. My partner promised to come and see this with me because I went to see Thor with him, which was dreadful. Still, I suppose it could be worse. I expect most people's boyfriends make them go and see things like Transformers. In case you've had the good fortune not to see it yet, here's the trailer for the new Transformers film. It pretty much shows you the whole movie: big robot things, destroying things, people shouting and shooting and talking in clichés, except for the only female in the film, who just gazes around with a pouty open mouth, crying occasionally, apparently having not quite evolved to the level of speech capability yet. It's almost a surprise that there isn't drool running down those collagened lips and mixing with the crocodile tears on her chin. Welcome to the age of sexual equality.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The F Word

This evening, I took myself down to Foyles for an evening organised by Granta magazine, featuring Rachel Cusk and Taiye Selasi. Rachel is a bit of an angry lady (at least I thought so), Taiye much less so. Rachel's piece is a kind of (nonetheless creative and imaginative) memoir, rather than a fiction, called Aftermath, discussing motherhood, divorce, and the compartmentalisation of womanhood. Taiye's piece (or the excerpt she read out from it), called The Sex Lives of African Girls, I had already heard last night, and I do think she's one to look out for.

The Foyles event (called 'The Legacy: Feminism in Literature Today'), is part of a series linked to the current issue of the magazine (The F Word), and I went to another of these last night (which, I'd have to be honest, I enjoyed a lot more). Last night's 'show' was in The Duke pub, in a lovely little room downstairs that feels like it shouldn't exist. There are no signs - you just go down the stairs where it says 'Gents' and look a bit weird (maybe there's a feminist point to be made there?), and as if by magic, a cosy little Room of Requirement appears out of nowhere, all lit up with candles and fairy lights.

The evening was actually a 'Liar's League' night. This, basically, is a group of actors who meet regularly, the second Tuesday of each month, to read out new writing to an audience. Very exciting. We were treated to readings of Lydia Davies' The Dreadful Mucamas, (an uptight posh employer's opinions of her unruly maids), Helen Simpson's Night Thoughts (a fantastically funny and ingenious inversion of sexual and family politics: 'Don't be such a MasculiNazi', says the careless wife to her long suffering and insecure husband), and Eudora Welty's Gentlemen (an application letter to The New Yorker from an enthusiastic would-be journalist from Mississippi, 'the nation's most backward state', who is '23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y.'). It's a wonderful idea, and the actors really brought to life the texts in that way that actors do, if they're any good. The notable exception was Taiye, who, at the end of the evening, read out her own work. With the best will in the world, I do think that was a mistake. Writers are notoriously bad at reading out their own writing, and I'd have to be fair and say Taiye wasn't an exception. Not that I enjoyed it any the less. The piece was beautiful, visual, delicate - warm, if that's not a silly word to use. I was really there, and I honestly don't think there's any higher praise for a writer. You can go into technicalities, but at the end of the day, if you feel it, it's working. My main issue was that it was quite difficult to get into her very fast reading pace (one can only assume that was nerves, since that wasn't how she talked when answering questions afterwards), and even more difficult to actually hear her (very lovely, of course) soft voice. Nevertheless, she'll go on to do great things, I imagine. She already has the backing of Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie. Even more impressive (and perhaps helped along a little by the former), she already has a publishing deal on a novel, due to come out next year, that she hasn't even finished writing yet (let alone editing), despite being a young, almost completely unknown writer. That's pretty damn impressive. Watch that space.