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.