Saturday, 29 December 2012

F Words: Film and Feminism 2012

So I've made a New Year's Resolution to get back into the swing of regular blogging again but, in the Dickensian spirit of never leaving till tomorrow what you can do today (this is the first quote in the literary diary I got bought for Christmas), here begins my return. What better way to start than with two of my favourite subjects?

Despite seeing the release of a Bond film (this one unusually lacking in a significant “Bond Girl”), a Twilight film, and multiple superhero films, 2012 has actually, I think, been an exceptionally good year for women in film. We've seen the rise of one of the best actors currently alive in Jennifer Lawrence, who starred in four films this year; we've gratefully devoured two major kids'/young people's films starring female protagonists (The Hunger Games and Brave), both of which have actually managed to attract boys as well as girls to see them; and we've been treated to two different versions of the Snow White fairy tale, each in their own way working to reshape the Grimms' and Walt Disney's canonical vision of passive, deathly beauty. Of course, it's a long time since Disney films have been quite so repressive, and this year's feature Brave is a perfect example of how far the company has come over the last 75 years. Perhaps less overtly "feminist", but nevertheless significant, were this year's Spider-Man reboot, which takes Peter Parker back to his pre-Mary Jane days, and Ridley Scott's Prometheus, a prequel of sorts to the Alien franchise, well known for dealing with the issues of sex, sexuality and motherhood in fascinatingly weird and nightmarish ways. Interestingly, this is arguably true of another contemporary film franchise, the final part of which was also released this year, though the Twilight series' attempts at female representation are rather less progressive or exciting than in any of the films I'm going to explore here.

So first off is, of course, The Hunger Games, the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins' gripping novel which follows the story of one young woman's struggle to survive in a blood-thirsty dystopian future, where a sinister, dictatorial government uses reality TV to control ordinary people's lives - and deaths. The film plays an interesting game by standing apart from the book, working more as a companion piece to, than a visualised version of, the material in the novel. There is a change in perspective - we're no longer seeing solely through the eyes of the main character, Katniss, but instead are granted a kind of omniscience, at times being placed amongst the people of Panem who form the audience for the Hunger Games itself (provoking an interesting and often disturbing kind of self-reflection in the cinema audience - how far are we as viewers drawn into and manipulated by the games themselves?), and at times being allowed a more exclusive behind-the-scenes insight into the game-makers' work. I'll explore this more later in another article. For the purposes of this review, however, what's most exciting about The Hunger Games is that it manages to maintain its focus on a central female character without forfeiting half of its potential audience. Both The Hunger Games books and films have been an incredible cultural phenomenon because they've proven that boys as well as girls can enjoy books by and about women and girls. Furthermore, the franchise's success amongst girls and young women has also proven that girls don't necessarily want to read about girls being stereotypically girly. Katniss is bold and powerful, a fighter to the death. Whilst it may be the influence of her semi-maternal, protective instincts that initially land her in the Hunger Games arena (and later lead her into a partnership with the youngest Hunger Games participant, Rue), she proves herself as capable of being cold and calculating, when necessary, as any of her rivals, shooting another participant and manipulating the hapless Peeta's emotional attachment to her in order to win viewers' sympathies. She's a first class hunter, having been used to acting a sort of dual mother/father role at home, and stands up to authority by refusing to collude in the "game" that she is forced to play, forming a last minute suicide pact with Peeta and thus denying the games-makers their all-important winner. Katniss has mixed motivations, defies expectations, and is just about as complex a character as could be hoped for. Furthermore, the film features a whole range of other distinct, individual female characters, from Effie Trinket to Katniss's sister Prim, all of whom interact extensively with other female characters, meaning that the film easily passes the Bechdel Test.

Another of the highest grossing films this year was Pixar's Brave which, even before its release, managed to generate a lot of attention from feminist bloggers and critics. In terms of positive representation, the film definitely lived up to expectations. Based on a story idea by Brenda Chapman (who also co-directed and co-wrote the screenplay), Brave features three significant female characters, including its protagonist, the headstrong teenage princess Merida, and is principally concerned with Merida's refusal to marry or be "ladylike" and the conflict this creates between her and her mother. On the whole, I really enjoyed this film. With its sublime highland scenery and Merida's breathtakingly gorgeous hair, Brave is certainly a visual feast. I also loved the soundtrack so much that I had to go straight out and buy the CD. "Learn Me Right" even managed to slightly soften my general aversion to Mumford & Sons, who, I think, profited by a little much-needed edge acquired from singer Birdy. Nevertheless, there did seem to be something missing from this film. Perhaps on some level this is an unfair judgement. By any normal standards it was still fantastic, but unfortunately all other Pixar films have been so utterly extraordinary that this seemed to be a slip in both comic and emotive standards for the studios. For me, Brave achieves neither the heart-stopping emotional rollercoaster ride, nor the side-splitting hilarity that we've come to expect of the geniuses at Pixar. The script seemed weaker, the characters less engaging and entertaining, the resolution a little too easy and predictable. And perhaps most problematic of all was that, to any die-hard Disney fan, it all felt a little too familiar: the plot of Brave bears a striking similarity to that of 2003's Brother Bear, which happens to be one of my favourite Disney films.

It seems appropriate at this point to express some disagreement with claims that have been thrown around that this is a bold new step for Disney as a whole. It's may be the first Pixar film to concern itself primarily with a girl (although arguably Boo is at the centre of Monsters Inc., even if she doesn't talk, and there's no denying who is everyone's favourite Finding Nemo character), and it's certainly the first to be so centrally interested in a female-female relationship, but as to Disney films in general, it's been a rare thing for quite some time now to find one that doesn't feature a dynamic, active heroine, usually with at least one significant female friend. Looking back over the years, Disney's very first full-length animated feature was, after all, a retelling of an age old story about a fraught relationship between a (step)mother and (step)daughter in which conflict is resolved with the help of a little magic and transformation. While it may be difficult to argue the case for Disney's Snow White as an aspirational figure, the studios' choice to bring to life this classic fairy tale paved the way for numerous later retellings of other tales, often primarily concerned with young women, and growing gradually more irreverent over the years. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel and The Frog Prince have all been given animated make-overs by Disney, and all feature female protagonists and additional female characters. Each of the Disney heroines I grew up with in the nineties - Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Esmeralda, Meg, Mulan - openly stand up to authority and defy the sexist social expectations that threaten to constrain them. Whilst it's true that few Disney films foreground female-female relationships, it's not true at all that these are absent or even obscure in the Disneyverse. Aurora lives with three female fairies, Cinderella has her helpers in lady mice and her fairy godmother, Ariel has sisters and comes up against a female villain, Belle talks to female teapots and wardrobes, Pocahontas has her best pal Nakoma as well as the wise old Grandmother Willow to refer to, and Mulan has her mother and bolshy granny to contend with. So, does Brave actually break any new ground? Is it really brave or bold? Well, yes. There is something that's crucially different about Brave to all but two other Disney films that I can think of: Brave is about women, but it isn't a love story. Though there have been a number of Disney films that focus more on male-male friendship or male-male familial love than on romantic love (Brother Bear, Toy Story, Cars, Monsters Inc., The Fox and the Hound, The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, The Emperor's New Groove, Treasure Planet, etc.), the only other female protagonists in Disney films who don't become romantically involved with other characters are Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Lilo from Lilo & Stitch, and in both cases, these are children who are far too young for that sort of nonsense. In this regard, Brave is still covering relatively untouched ground.

Two more fairy tale films were released this year concerning mothers and daughters, both retellings of the Snow White story. The first of these, Mirror Mirror, is a comic romp, which sees the (not so very charming) prince fail to match up to "Snow" either in intelligence or in fighting skills. At the time of release, the irreverence of this version, with its campy comedy and gaudy spectacle, elicited mixed reviews. For my part, I loved it. It definitely places Snow White and the Wicked Queen right at the heart of the tale where they belong, directing the action of the story between them. Both characters were better developed and far more engaging than in most versions of this story. Comic and sinister in equal measures, Julia Roberts really brings the royal stepmother to life. Lily Collins, too, definitely makes Snow White her own. Mixing knowing confidence with youthful naivety, she is both old-fashioned fairytale princess and 21st century teen. I liked the choice to make the magic mirror speak as a reflection of the queen herself, which both emphasised the character's cruelty and vanity, and served to make her more responsible for her own decisions, rather than putting her at least partly under the magical influence of another. One of the most notable changes to the story is that the Queen's transformation into an old woman is left till right at the end of the film. Turning up at her stepdaughter's wedding, the Queen is immediately identified by Snow White, who refuses her gift of an apple. This is a huge and positive change from the Grimm brothers' tale, in which Snow White is fooled a total of three times by the disguised Queen before her eventual "death". The first two times, she is rescued by the dwarfs, who paternally chastise her for her foolishness. Once dead, her cold and coffin-bound body is claimed by a creepy necrophiliac prince, who accidentally reanimates her by dislodging a piece of poison apple stuck in her throat as he carries her off. Here are no magic kisses.

This leads me on to the main problem I had with this film, which is the scene in which the dwarfs insist that she "prepare" for her first kiss by dressing up and having her face and hair done. Quite aside from the fact that it's difficult to see what this elegant, intelligent heroine sees in the stupid, irritating and easily led prince at all, this was probably the least credible and most annoying part of the whole film. Not only was the dolling up a pointless exercise as far as the hypnotised prince's appreciation was concerned (Who exactly was she trying to impress? Her stepmother's pet dog?), but also the implication that all of that stuff is important, that it is in these shallow things that the magic of a kiss lies, was extremely frustrating - both sexist and materialist. That, and of course the fact that, as most of us know, first kisses are typically awkward and spontaneous - I'd argue that it's the unexpected rush of the moment that makes a first kiss special, something that is all too easily ruined by meticulous planning.

Overall though, Mirror Mirror was a lot of fun. I enjoyed the Bollywood-esque elements that director Tarsem Singh brought to the film - lively dancing, vivid colours and highly stylised visuals - and I also felt that it largely succeeded in its effort to break down the misogyny of earlier versions of the story. This is something that probably can't be said for the second Snow White film this year, Snow White and the Huntsman, which, as the title suggests has been turned into a bizarre kind of romance. Beautiful as this film looks, it unfortunately stars the vacuous Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame. Nuff said.

Stewart's other starring role this year was in the final part of the Twilight series, a franchise which attempts to tackle sex, motherhood and teenage anxieties about these. It does so, however, in a much less progressive, less successful, and more obvious way than either Alien or Prometheus, films I'm much more interested in here. Like Alien, Prometheus features alien impregnations and births, a psychotic robot, and presents women as the tough survivors of an alien holocaust, still left fighting after all the men have been picked off. This film is, however, very different in tone from its predecessor, expanding the reproductive horror of Alien into a more general meditation on the nature of creation and destruction, be it biological, mechanical or artistic, human or divine.

As its title might suggest, Ridley Scott uses Prometheus as a space in which to explore much more philosophical and theological musings than we're used to expect from this franchise. Essentially, Scott creates an alternative religious history in which our gods through the ages are actually alien beings, responsible for the creation both of humanity, and the alien monster which now threatens to wipe it out completely. Something happened to make these alien gods regret their decision to father a new species. By subtle implication, we can hazard a guess at this being the crucifixion of Christ, interpreted here as an alien ambassador who promised a return to the home planet for us all, provided we behaved ourselves. The subsequent torture, ridicule and murder of Jesus alerted our alien fathers to our violent and dangerous natures, and the threat that we posed not only to each other, but even directly to them. The day of judgement was nigh, coming in the form of a hideous and indestructible alien monster which would destroy and devour us all, until it all went horribly wrong, and most of the creator aliens were themselves wiped out. Meanwhile, we see a similar story mirrored in our own creation of intelligent androids, which turn on their human masters in both Alien and Prometheus. Peter Weyland, founder of CEO and Weyland Corp, responsible for funding the exploratory mission which provides the story for this film, is portrayed as the ultimate in irresponsible creativity, favouring his robot "son" David (perhaps named after the robot child David in A.I., with his Pinocchio-like insistence that he is a real human boy) over his barely acknowledged human daughter, and insisting on the forward march of technology, science and discovery, with little regard for the potential risks or human cost incurred. As this brilliantly conceived teaser trailer shows, Weyland has begun to regard himself as a god, making him a classically ambitious over-reacher figure - a modern Prometheus, if you will (which, incidentally, is also the subtitle of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), ultimately destined for doom and downfall.

It's not all gods and robots though - in fact, we might understand this male creative impulse as a direct response to the mystery of the female body's innate creative power which, with aliens that look like this and this, comes across as a powerful and terrifying threat to male authority. Men seem to both be repelled by, and long for, the ability to do what almost any woman can do without even trying particularly hard, but as in Frankenstein, this usurpation of biological creation lands everyone in serious danger. Where in Alien we witness a literal male pregnancy, Prometheus is more concerned with other, less invasive methods of bypassing women in the creation of new life. That said, this film does still feature a horrific alien pregnancy, but this time it's a barren woman who is the victim, and this time, she survives, using a surgical machine to cut the hostile foetus out of her body before it can burst through itself. Here's where a comparison with Breaking Dawn becomes interesting. While Bella Swan/Cullen insists on suffering the monster child to tear its way out of her womb, loving the freaky blood-sucking monster that emerges and being "saved" from apparently inevitable death by being herself transformed into a blood-sucking monster by her blood-sucking monster husband, Dr Elizabeth Shaw (interesting sf trivia: this is also the name of a UNIT member in Doctor Who) does the sensible thing and gets the hell out. Like Ripley in Alien and Aliens, Shaw is resourceful, and she survives. Ripley, Shaw, and Meredith Vickers (Weyland's daughter, in charge of the mission in Prometheus) share a distrust of aliens, androids, and the greedy determination of the men around them, relying on their own wits and instincts to get by. In contrast to to the male-headed organisations that gladly put people at risk for financial or scientific gain, Vickers is willing to die for the sake of saving humanity, just as Ripley puts her own life on the line to rescue Newt in Aliens.

In general, Prometheus is not quite as tight or tense as either Alien or Aliens. Partly it suffers from a second-rate script, which never seems quite clever enough for the big ideas it seeks to convey, and scripting stands out as more of a problem in this film than in the earlier ones because the story requires that little bit more exposition. Apart from some fairly clunky and pedestrian dialogue, however, this is definitely a film worth seeing.

Finally, a couple of other significant characters deserve a mention here.

The first is Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man. Despite the ridiculous way she dresses for lab work, Gwen is probably the most interesting female character in any of the numerous superhero films I've seen since the release of Spider-Man back in 2002. What's great about Gwen is that she is actually shown to have her own life and ambitions which are independent of her involvement with Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Gwen is not just Peter's equal - she's easily smarter than he is. Gwen is top of the class at school, and has managed to land herself a proper job at the most exciting and innovative scientific organisation in the city. Peter, meanwhile, sneaks onto a guided tour that she leads around the Oscorp building, and makes friends with Dr Curt Connors by passing off his father's formula as his own. Unlike Mary Jane, Gwen has Peter pretty well sussed from the start, and immediately guesses the reason that he starts pushing her away at the end of the film, but she doesn't insist that he comes back to her - if he doesn't want to see her, then she doesn't want anything to do with him either. Not only this, but The Amazing Spider-Man also presents us with a much more knowing, kind and intelligent version of Aunt May than do Spider-Man or either of its sequels. While we're still a far cry from equal rights and recognition for women in the super-hero world (take a look at Black Widow in this year's Avengers Assemble for a classic example of a token sexy super-heroine), The Amazing Spider-Man at least makes a damn good effort.

The second is Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook. What this film lacks in a good title, it more than makes up for in content. It's a genuinely touching and entertaining little gem, sad and funny and beautiful, and nothing like as cynical and Oscar-grabbing as you might expect a film about living with mental illness to be. Bradley Cooper is brilliantly compelling as Pat Solitano, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a violent incident involving his wife and her lover. Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are also completely convincing as Pat's dysfunctional father and long-suffering mother. But, as ever, Jennifer Lawrence utterly steals the show as the woman who turns Pat's life around, teaching him to love himself and aiding him in his search for a silver lining. Lawrence's spellbinding performance makes us laugh and cry by turns. This is an actress fast proving the depth and range of her abilities, and I for one can't wait to see where she goes next.

So a good year for film, a good year for women. Stay tuned for another 2012 review, where I'll discuss the the complex political aspects of some of this year's best movies.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Cropredy Cut-Down

This time last week I was getting ready to head over to the Cropredy Festival. I'd never been to a folk festival before, so I wasn't really sure what to expect. In the event, however, what surprised me most was less how much I enjoyed it and more the eclectic mix of music I discovered there - it was only about half actual folk stuff, if that. I won't go over everything and everyone I saw, but here's a quick summary of the highlights.

Day One we missed most of the first act (Fairport Acoustic), but things really picked up as the afternoon wore on into evening with Bellowhead followed by Squeeze. Interestingly, Bellowhead were actually one of the few bands that played proper folk tunes, but their style of doing so was so exciting and innovative, that they were one of my favourite acts. Almost more an orchestra than a band, there are currently eleven members of the group, who play everything from fiddles to saxophones, bagpipes to mandolins, cellos to frying pans. The result is this fantastic, loud, feel-good sound.
Even hearing recordings, it's almost impossible not to want to sing and dance along. Seen on stage, the whole thing's even more exciting, with every performer absolutely bursting with energy and enthusiasm, and just generally seeming to enjoy themselves at least as much as the audience always do. Bellowhead have quite deservedly become five times winners of Best Live Act at the Radio 2 Folk Awards. For me, they were definitely the best discovery of the weekend.

Bellowhead were swiftly followed by the act I'd most been looking forward to, Squeeze, who didn't disappoint. Largely dispensing with the banter more typical of this kind of festival, Glenn Tilbrook, Chris Difford et al belted out one hit after another. I was a little disappointed that they didn't play what would probably have been the most appropriate song, given the gorgeous weather we had the whole time, but I'm going to put it here anyway for the hell of it.
That said, it was hard to be bothered about anything at all in the middle of such a fantastic set. Tilbrook's brilliant voice hasn't faltered a whit in 30 odd years. What's more, he did a great job up on stage in spite of some kind of foot injury - Chris Difford mentioned it on stage, but I also spotted him walking around on crutches at the festival the next day.
Also, I just had to post this because I loved his guitar so much - it's like Auntie Mabel's plane from Come Outside:
Oh, and I got myself one of these, too:

On the Friday, these guys were my favourite of the new bands:

Very, very pretty and melodic. I enjoyed Tarras so much that I went to see them do an extra couple of songs at a tent in the corner of the field to go out on BBC Radio Oxford. If you were listening to that, and you heard some jingly bells in amongst the clapping, that will have been my bracelet.

Naturally though, the best part of that day was watching Richard Thompson be amazing on his own. What that man can do with a guitar, and make it look so effortless.......I seriously think it might be magic. I'd never seen anything quite like it.
After he'd been on for a while, things changed a bit when he pulled out the electric guitar and was joined by some familiar Fairport faces.

And despite some obvious irony, Richard and his daughter Kami singing A Heart Needs a Home was lovely. I can't find a video of the performance, but here's the song (as performed by Kami's mother in 1975) anyway.

The evening ended with Joan Armatrading, a nice mellow way to finish off before heading home to bed.

I can't actually find footage or even a picture of it anywhere, but she did a really interesting thing sometimes with her guitar, where she had it sort of fixed to a stand so she could play it for a bit and then leave it and walk around and then go back to it again.

Another good part of Day Two was buffalo burgers from the Native American food stand. For some reason it wasn't one of the more popular ones. Shame for them, but fortunately for me it meant that we got delicious food without having to queue like everyone else. 

Day Three I'm sorry to say I was probably paying slightly less attention to bands on earlier, particularly Brother and Bones, although what I did hear as I was nosing around the stalls and things sounded pretty good. I also remember thinking these guys sounded lovely...

I'm not really all about the Morris dancing, but I expect other people had fun with Morris On. Big Country apparently had some hits in the 80s, but none of our party had ever heard of them before, and I wasn't particularly impressed. The lead guy looked a bit like he'd really really like to be Paul Weller, but didn't really sound anything like him. Dennis Locorriere I thought talked a bit too much, and wasn't really as funny as he seemed to think he was. Again, I wasn't too bothered either way by any of his stuff. By far the best part of this day was Fairport Covention at the end. Being probably more of a granny than the many many people there who were old enough to be my grandparents, I got too tired to stay till the very end, which unfortunately meant that I missed this:

That said, I saw plenty of wonderful stuff before I went, so I can't complain at all. Most of the original line up of Fairport came out to join the current members, along with some of the younger musicians that played and sang earlier in the festival. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Women in Black

A few posts back I wrote about a film screening I went to in Leicester as part of a Hammer revival festival. During the pre-show talk, Mark Gatiss mentioned Hammer's "come-back" feature, The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe. His verdict was generally a positive one, though he added that he still preferred the 1989 version adapted by Nigel Kneale. At the time, I hadn't seen this older film, but I have recently been working my way through all of Kneale's Quatermass series (I wrote an essay mainly on Hammer's film versions of these for my degree, and it was one of the most enjoyable pieces of work I've ever done), and have been looking forward to discovering some of his other work. I expected good things from his Woman in Black, and I wasn't disappointed.

Kneale's version, directed by Herbert Wise, is certainly creepier than the more recent film, which I went to see for my birthday this year. The ghost is deliberately rendered more ambiguous: no one else gets quite so hysterical about it as Arthur Kidd (or Kipps in the novel and the later film), in fact, we're not sure that anyone else has actually seen it, other than the late Mrs Drablow. Whereas in the more recent film, Arthur's presence in Crythin Gifford (the seaside town near to Mrs Drablow's property, Eel Marsh House) seems to increase its child mortality rate, in the earlier version, Arthur successfully saves a young girl's life, and no one in the town dies during the course of the film.

Notably different are the parallel characters of Mr and Mrs Toovey in the 1989 film, and Mr and Mrs Daily in the 2012 film. Although both couples have lost their sons, Elisabeth Daily has a much stronger presence than Mrs Toovey, who has little to do or say. Elisabeth believes steadfastly in the ghost, and has been driven half-mad by the death of her child which she is sure was caused by the ghost, whilst her husband is fervently opposed to such nonsense - despite more evidence for its existence in the later film, Sam Daily will not believe in the ghost, to the point that he comes across as a man in denial, and we are more willing to believe his wife. Sam Toovey, on the other hand, seems to have no more strong opinions either way than his retiring spouse, leaving us with only Arthur's experiences to judge from.

Arthur himself exhibits signs of madness in Kneale's version. The only time he sees the ghost close up, he's in a state of feverish delirium. Later on, rather than being killed by a train as he prepares to go home, he lives to return to London, only to proceed to burn down his office, attack his boss and finally to accidentally drown himself and his family when "haunted" by the ghost on a lake. This family, too, including Arthur's wife and baby, is notably larger: in Hammer's version, Arthur's wife is already dead, and four-year-old Joseph is his only child. This difference in the later film facilitates a disappointingly trite ending, whereby Arthur and Joseph both "pass over" and are reunited with Joseph's mother, rather than simply dying.

Taken together, this differences render the earlier film much more unsettling. While the pace may be slightly slower if you're only used to more modern movies, I don't think this is any bad thing. It builds suspense and fear piece-by-piece, rather than immediately telling its audience what they're meant to be thinking. Partly this is a result of its being a TV film, broadcast over the Christmas period, rather than a big cinema release in February intended to re-launch a studio - this I suppose meant that it didn't have to fight quite so hard for its audience. Nevertheless, I think its fair to say that this style of gradual build-up is dying out, even on television - try, for example, comparing recent episodes of Doctor Who to those from the 60s, 70s and even 80s.

Interestingly, I was told that Nigel Kneale's film played a part in the development of a new theory of ghosts. Apparently his emphasis on the wax cylinder recordings made by Mrs Drablow helped generate ideas about ghosts themselves as recordings of sorts - visual and/or audio "memories" that are somehow encoded or embedded in physical objects, rather than conscious, independent spirits. Without wanting to be too presumptuous, however (to speak for the dead, as it were), I bet that that's an irony that Nigel Kneale - with all his fierce intellect and scepticism - would have appreciated.

In its defence, though, Hammer's Woman in Black is still a fabulous film. It looks beautiful, and is actually remarkably tense and eerie, given the studio's track record for producing a lot of pretty cheesy, melodramatic horror. There are a few traditionally hammed Hammerish aspects: when the ghost rushes at Arthur it's a bit over the top, and the lack of ambiguity is more traditional horror film fare. Still, on the whole, this film is much more akin in style to modern ghost films, and to Hammer's better moments (including the Quatermass films and The Curse of Frankenstein). I'm only curious now to see which film, if either, stays more true to the book.

There were, of course, some similarities between the two films, and one of the most noticeable was that between the performances of both Daniel Radcliffe - who, incidentally, does a surprisingly good job, even of convincing us that he's old enough to be a widower with a four-year-old child - and of his predecessor in the role, Adrian Rawlins. Despite looking very different, the two actors seem very close in manner, tone and expression - both seem to work very well as the "everyman" figure of Arthur Kidd/Kipps. The connection goes deeper than this, however: looking up Adrian Rawlins online, I discovered that he also played James Potter (i.e. Daniel Radcliffe's dad) in the Harry Potter films - now there's a good bit of trivia if ever I saw one.

Jane Eyre

The other day I watched a film I'm sorry to have missed during it's cinema run. Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre is a stunning piece of work, amongst the best literary film adaptations I've seen, and certainly the best screen adaptation of a Bronte novel.

Fukunaga makes some interesting decisions with the time-frame of the film, choosing to present the first half of the film chronologically as a series of flashbacks experienced by Jane after she finds herself at the home of St. John Rivers and his sisters Diana and Mary. Rather than seriously altering the mood of the story, however, this actually helps to bring out the spirit of the novel, which Bronte wrote in the style of an autobiography for her heroine. By beginning the film in the middle of the novel, as it were, Fukunaga manages to capture the air of reminiscence we find in the novel without giving away the ending of the story too early, or giving any sense that the conclusion of the tale is fixed, so that no suspense is lost from the turbulent romance plot.

Watching the DVD special features, I noticed some comments about the film focusing particularly on the gothic elements of Bronte's novel. While I did notice a strong gothic strain, however, I didn't feel that it was over-emphasised at the expense of some of the other, more realistic aspects, as sometimes happens with semi-gothic novels like this. It would be easy enough to ham up the horror to shocking Hammer levels, but instead, this film was wonderfully nuanced, showing up the grim and grimy side of life as a poor woman in the early 19th century north. Alongside all the bizarre and ghostly happenings at Thornfield Hall are placed the very real and urgent dangers of sickness, malnutrition, child abuse and neglect, and even (in the remarkably astute warnings of Mrs Fairfax, Rochester's housekeeper) the potential for rich men to manipulate and ruin their female servants. We feel deeply the desperation of the eternally dependent Jane, trapped and isolated by her sex, her poverty and the death of her parents in a dull and oppressive world, too small for her great mind.

The whole film was beautifully shot and intricately detailed. There was a brilliantly shabby and desolate quality to everything: the sets, the scenery, the costumes. Even within the grandeur of the Thornfield estate, things often felt cold, dark, empty and unwelcoming. Viewers are here plunged into the dingy reality of the period, instead of an idealised dream of the past where England is always sunny and stately homes are always bright, buzzing and full of people, as is so often the case with period dramas.

As the title character, Mia Wasikowska draws and compels our attention throughout. I enjoyed her performance in Alice in Wonderland, but this film much more fully showcases her talent and range, which are enough to rank her with the likes of Jennifer Lawrence as one of our brightest new female stars. I didn't actually realise until I saw this film that she's Australian - she's certainly developed a commendable knack for accents very early on. I'm thoroughly excited to see what she does next. Michael Fassbender was the perfect choice for Rochester - suitably commanding and frightening and yet strangely and disarmingly charming. Judi Dench was of course as expert and inspiring as ever - the way she can easily adopt any register from queens to servants never ceases to amaze. The moment where she hugs and chastises the despairing Jane for running away when they are reunited at the burnt out remains of Thornfield Hall was incredibly moving. Despite Rochester's dismissive and obnoxious attitude towards her, Dench's performance shows us a Mrs Fairfax who is thoughtful and intelligent as well as kind, one who, we get the impression, has been a similar victim of circumstances to Jane. Unlike Jane, of course, she is too old now to expect any great change in her fortunes. I was also very impressed by the cast of child actors: Amelia Clarkson and Freya Parks dealt maturely and convincingly with some really dark subject matter as young Jane and her dying best friend Helen, and Romy Settbon Moore captured the easy good nature of Jane's pupil, Adele. It was also a pleasure to spot Craig Roberts again, who did a great job in Submarine and and Becoming Human, however briefly he appeared in this film.

As a measure of the emotional impact of this film, I haven't cried so much at any production of anything since I saw Helen Edmundson's The Heresy of Love in Stratford. If you haven't seen either of these things, you're seriously missing out.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Nothing and Everything All at Once

When I first spotted the adverts for the RSC's current production of Much Ado About Nothing featuring Meera Syal, it was one of those rare moments when you feel as if you couldn't think of anyone more perfect for a role. As far as live performance is concerned, I think the only comparable occasion for me was seeing David Tennant as Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost. In both cases, the combination of actor and part was every bit as hilarious as you could hope. As Beatrice, Syal's wit sparkled. Paul Bhattacharjee matched her comic timing and cleverness as Benedick, and the interplay and chemistry between them was endlessly entertaining.

Elsewhere, some of the more commonly sidelined characters were really given a chance to shine. Hero, perhaps one of the least desirable roles in Shakespeare, was given much more of a personality - she seemed a bit of a party girl. Although she was ultimately willing to submit to a man about whom she knew very little, she did spend the final few days before her marriage having fun on her own terms, partying hard with her cousin Beatrice, her maid Margaret (here transformed into an uber-chav with a bright pink frilly Jordan-esque dress for the wedding) and even the Prince. Amara Khan did a great job of transforming this passive character into a much more active presence. I recognised the actress from an episode of Doctor Who ("The God Complex") that I'd recently rewatched, and it occurred to me then what a great companion she would have made: something like Martha Jones, except with a much more interesting backstory. Like Martha, Khan's character was a doctor, but unlike Martha, she was revealed to have had a troubled past with many childhood demons to work through. As an actress, I also felt that her performance was a lot more compelling than Freema Agyeman's. Perhaps it could still happen - actors are known for returning to Doctor Who. In any case, Amara Khan is definitely one to watch.

My absolute favourite character in this production, however, was Dogberry. Simon Nagra proved to be hilarious even before the play actually began. As the audience entered, Dogberry was already busy greeting the members of his watch by pulling them along by their ears and telling the audience off about mobile phones and ipads. He also announced the end of the interval to all the "gentlemans and ladies". We've been quoting his "kuh-naves" here ever since we left the theatre.

I thought that the setting worked wonderfully. Not only the stage, but the whole of the Courtyard theatre was beautifully decorated, transformed into a sunny and, in the foyer at least, noisy, Indian city. It has occurred to me before that certain of Shakespeare's plays - Romeo and Juliet, for example - might work very well in a contemporary fundamentalist Islamic setting. This play, however, explored the possibilities of an Asian setting for some of Shakespeare's work without getting into the kind of religio-politics that most westerners would probably expect from such a modernisation. Instead of a culture clinging to a dogmatic religious conservatism, we catch a glimpse instead of a nation in transition, a culture in which, as Jyotsna G. Singh explains in the programme, the roles of women and of marriage are changing and transforming where the very new and modern clashes with the very old. As in Romeo and Juliet, we see in Much Ado a conflict between generations, between the old and the young - but if the youth in Much Ado are not so rebellious as in Romeo and Juliet, neither are the older folks quite so strict or stuffy.

It's really fascinating to see the issues of women's rights and women's roles addressed from such a perspective. Here we have a middle ground between the relative freedom enjoyed by women in contemporary secular Britain, and the oppression suffered by those in strict religious communities. The result is something strange, where no one quite seems to know their proper roles - what they should be doing, what they ought to be worrying about - and those who come out best - that is, Beatrice and Benedick - are those apparently least concerned with their reputation, with issues of should and should not except on clear moral grounds, when a particular course of action causes hurt to another.

At a time when violence against Asians in the US is growing in response to terrorist activities, it's also exciting and important to be given insights like this into cultures that are often misreprestented and portrayed and understood in such a limited way in the west. So undiscerning are America's angry mob today that numerous Sikhs, Hindus and others (yes, even Christians) have suffered violence and abuse at their hands as well as Muslims, the intended targets of the attacks - though, as Nitsuh Abebe points out here, it essentially matters little - all discriminatory violence of this sort stems from ignorance and stupidity, and is unacceptable regardless of whom it affects. Most incredible of all, perhaps, is the comment at the end of the article above in which someone says that they were once told to "Go back to Africa you Indian". Given the ridiculousness of the statement in the first place, it's perhaps unsurprising that the target of this was neither African nor Indian. When so many white westerners can conceive of the world in such simplistic terms - where everything and everyone non-white and non-western might as well be the same - it's refreshing to see the complexities and intricacies of other cultures explored in any sort of high-profile way.

All serious notes aside, however, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and very very clever production that I'd recommend to anyone - Shakespeare buff or not. It was great to read that some of the actors involved - all of whom were brilliant - had reckoned that they couldn't "do Shakespeare", but that doing this play had changed their minds. Lets hope it changes the minds of a few new theatre-goers too!

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Crowning Glory

I've neglected this for so long that I'm going to attempt to get through all parts two to four of The Hollow Crown in one (hopefully not too long) post.

Perhaps the main reason it's taken me this long to get round to writing on the Henry IV films is that both were so almost-perfect that it was difficult to think of much to say on them other than "great job!" Both films looked fabulous, and managed to weigh up the ideal balance of comedy and tragedy, especially through the character of Falstaff.

Simon Russell Beale absolutely shone in this role. Despite being primarily a stage actor, Beale more than proved his screen acting abilities, conveying Falstaff's every mood from mirth to misery with a convincing and compelling subtlety. Beale's Falstaff was one with a complex inner life beneath his foolish facade, and one that instantly captured its audience's heart. One criticism that I have heard levelled at this Falstaff is that he perhaps seemed over-aware of his inevitable end at a very early stage in the story. It's true there was a certain melancholy present in the tavern scene where Hal and Falstaff take turns playing the King. Personally, however, I felt this was nicely done: a concession to those of us who knew where things were headed, garnering greater sympathy, but not too heavy-handed, and certainly not enough to give away the ending to those who didn't already know it (and pleasingly, I'm sure there were a fair few of these, mainly for the reason I'll explain below).

More of a surprise for me was the strength of Tom Hiddleston's performance. Along, I suspect, with many other viewers, my only previous encounters with Hiddleston have been in the recent Marvel films, Thor and The Avengers. These weren't exactly positive or promising experiences: in the first, Hiddleston's Loki was the worst of many unengaging characters in a terrible, terrible film; in the second, he was amongst the least interesting characters in a reasonably entertaining romp. Now, having seen him do a bit of serious acting, I can safely say I've been a bit unfair to poor old Tom - it's not really his fault it was a bad role. Actually, Loki really ought to have been the only interesting character in Thor - or at least would have been if they'd actually thought to take a look at a bit of Norse mythology. Loki is an ambiguous, amoral trickster, not a brooding, self-pitying emo, but that's another story.... In any case, I'd begun to have an inkling that I'd misjudged him after reading some very intelligent things he'd written elsewhere (see esp.), and The Hollow Crown definitely confirmed this. As the young Prince Harry, he gave a beautifully nuanced performance - good enough to make me wonder why I've never seen him do Shakespeare on stage before. I also suspect that his presence in the film will be responsible for turning a significant number of young girls to Shakespeare, which, however scary the Hiddlestonettes may be, is probably no bad thing.

Also a surprise was Poins. Usually a fairly minimal character who seems little more than an accessory to Hal's and Falstaff's escapades, David Dawson's Poins actually stood out independently with a personality of his own. Within that little circle, too, I was impressed by the lads they had playing Falstaff's page across the series (though I didn't really buy the ending with them turning into John Hurt - I'm sure the character is actually meant to die in Henry V).

I really enjoyed Alun and Joe Armstrong as the dangerous Northumbrian rebels. The Percy family were a powerful one who continued to cause problems for the monarchy many, many years after this play is set (Funnily enough, I'm currently proofreading a novel for someone which details their involvement in plots against the Queen during Shakespeare's own time). Joe Armstrong in particular, who I hadn't come across before, was just fantastic as the hot-headed and hyperactive Hotspur. His scenes with Glyndwr and his daughter were hilarious. I did find the first scene between Hotspur and his wife a little uncomfortable. It was overly aggressive: I think really that their "argument" in this scene is meant more as flirtatious banter than domestic abuse. Still, this was made up for well enough in their later interaction, where their actual feelings for each other are made clear. I think this is important: one of the few things we can probably safely assume about Shakespeare is that he was keen on companionate couples, as opposed to marrying for money or titles or even looks, and all the unconvincingly schlocky and slightly creepy romantic wooing that tended to go with all of these (see especially Much Ado About Nothing).

If I had one major quibble with Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 in this series, it might be the over-sympathetic interpretation of Harry. I'm aware there are different ways of understanding a story, and just because I've always understood him as cold and calculating doesn't necessarily mean that everyone has to. The trouble is that if you ignore his "nastier" side, certain actions of his later on seem to make very little sense, especially once you get on to Henry V. The giveaway that something sinister is cooking in his head is in one of his all-important soliloquies, which in this production was done (rather well, on the whole) in voiceover. Unfortunately, the production ignored the clues in this speech that Harry is simply using Falstaff and his lower ranking "friends" so that he can learn how to win over the commoners to his cause once he is king. Mostly, the potential problems caused by this are evaded, at least in Henry IV, Part 2. When Hal finally severs ties with Falstaff, it's portrayed as a painful moment for him: his kingly role has forced him to relinquish his adolescent habits and companions. Some of his more Machiavellian actions in Henry V, however, were either given rather forced explanations (as when his order to kill all the French prisoners is interpreted through the prism of his boring brother's death), or just left at odds with the character in general (as in the final wooing scene).

While I'm on the subject of continuity, however, there was a bit of an issue with Henry IV himself. This was not so much the fault of those involved in the Henry plays, as it was a problem carried over from the interpretation of this character in Richard II. While in Henry IV the old king openly confesses his intentional usurpation of the crown, the younger Henry (as I previously mentioned) in Richard II seemed strangely confused and bewildered by Richard's voluntary hand-over of power. While some time has clearly elapsed between the end of Richard II and the beginning of Henry IV, Part 1, it's not enough for us to actually accept that these completely different actors and characters are supposed to represent the same historical figure. It seems odd that Richard II should stand out so much from the other three films, which at least all more or less seem to follow on from each other. Richard II doesn't feel like part of the same series.

On to Henry V then.....which, though not bad, was, I felt, considerably less impressive than its two immediate predecessors - perhaps less so, in fact, even than Richard II. The reasons for this were firstly its lack of ambition, and secondly the director's apparently scant knowledge of the film medium. While Richard II had its flaws, it at least attempted to do something exciting, interesting and innovative. It was, furthermore, very much a film. In comparison with the "Henrys", Richard II is rather a stiff sort of play, with lots of standing around talking and not doing much else. This makes it all the more impressive that Rupert Goold found all sorts of ways to make it into a visually engaging film. Thea Sharrock, on the other hand, somehow managed to do the opposite. In general, the battle scenes in Henry V worked well, but it wasn't really enough to bring the whole thing up to scratch. In many ways, Henry V is Richard II's polar opposite: so much stuff happens in this play that it's really quite a poor show if the story comes across as even slightly dull. Sharrock seemed not to know when and where to cut unnecessary dialogue, as well as not knowing how to make best use of the cameras. There was relatively little camera movement and few exciting shots, even at important moments in the story. One of the most obvious examples of both of these problems is when, towards the end of the play, the Duke of Burgundy mediates between Hal and the King of France. The shot is boring, stiff and the speech and scene in general just go on far too long.

When I said earlier that continuity was kept across the three "Henry" plays, I wasn't being entirely accurate. There was one glaringly obvious leap, which was when the oldest of Hal's brothers morphed from Henry Faber into Paterson Joseph. It was an ill-advised decision. In this case, the younger, less experienced actor was better. I can understand the child actors changing through the three films, but Faber was old enough to be stuck with, and besides, there's so little for the Duke of York to do in Henry V that it seemed completely pointless to employ a second, more expensive actor. I understand that they were trying to make more of his character in this film in order to justify a rather cruel action on the king's part. It didn't really work, however. Firstly, there just isn't enough material in the script to make enough out of the character to make us care about him - or even, for that matter, to make us believe that Harry does. Secondly, it is a cold-hearted command, and a practical one: there weren't enough English soldiers to guard the French prisoners and to fight at the same time. Thirdly, if they'd wanted a more emotional and sympathetic take on the situation, they could've more legitimately got it from another source: Harry is angry when the French army kill the boys guarding the camp, and nothing was really done with this.

Overall, I guess this Henry V would have made a passing decent stage shoe, if not a particularly extraordinary one. As a film though, it was second-rate, and made a disappointingly anti-climactic close to a generally excellent series.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

A Modern Comedy of Errors

Much as I've enjoyed the last few plays I've seen at the RST, after the serious and slightly unsettling tone I've become accustomed to, it was nice to see something a bit more light-hearted and easy-going in The Comedy of Errors on Wednesday. Despite the fact that neither pair of twins looked anything like each other, the entire audience was quite willing to suspend its disbelief, partly because (as I discussed in my Julius Caesar review earlier), that's the nature of the theatre, but also partly because of the strength of the actors and their comic timing. There's an entertaining little interview in the programme with Bruce Mackinnon and Felix Hayes, who played the two Dromios, where the actors explain how they were partly selected because of the similarities in their acting styles, and additionally how they watched each other and tried to shape their own expressions and postures to each others'.

Although there's something quintessentially Renaissance about the early capitalism of this play, I really loved the decision to update it. Amir Nizar Zuabi's take on Shakespeare's work saw Antipholus of Ephesus as a kind of geezer/wide-boy type, permitting an interpretation of the “credit”, which Daniel Vitkus discusses extensively in his article in the programme, as something like “street-cred”. It fitted perfectly: the central image of the chain was easily translated into a wonderfully tacky bit of “bling” that Antipholus had bought either (it's never made quite clear) for his wife or for his favourite whore.

There's something to be said for the timing of this commentary on the merchant-capitalist world at the moment, whether or not the production team and ensemble were fully aware of it. The financial “credit” system, just beginning to take off when Shakespeare wrote this play, has now reached epidemic proportions, leading to the “global financial crisis” or “world recession” that has somehow been allowed to happen. The illogic of a situation where everyone owes money to someone and nobody actually has any never ceases to astound me. Although, as Vitkus notes, the play never thoroughly resolves its credit issues or pays off all its debts, it's made quite clear that, as long as the two Antipholuses pay what they're supposed to, everyone else will be okay: i.e. someone always has the money and the power to solve financial problems. In the case of global economic politics today, however, things have become so complicated that its not even really clear who owes whom any more, and there don't seem to be any simple ways of resolving the issue. I don't know how this can be the case but, hey, I'm told it is, and I gave up on Maths after I finished my GCSEs, so I probably wouldn't understand it even if someone gave me a legitimate explanation. This is about as much as I can get my head around. The way I see it, all the real stuff that's happening now is far more farcical and ridiculous than anything the mind of Shakespeare could invent.

Vitkus explains that the seventeenth century was the exact period when the word “credit” began to be associated more with money than with morals. Prior to this, it had principally referred to a person's personal or moral worth. Such a reading of the word still lingers in certain linguistic contexts today – something can be “to a person's credit”, or we can “credit someone with something”. Even film “credits” retain something of this, though that's at least in part bound up with the now more common monetary interpretation. I found this particularly interesting because already in Shakespeare's time we can see hints of where our society was headed – and where its found itself now. Today, one's economic situation is seen by many as the be all and end all. Fame and fortune are what we are encouraged to aspire to, what we are taught to channel our hopes and ambitions towards, leaving other such potential goals as strong moral character, compassion, good citizenship, responsible parenting, or even creative innovation relatively unregarded. This is why we see people willing to air all their personal problems in public, just to get themselves on national television, and people willing to be watched 24/7 by strangers or to make fools of themselves on reality shows. It's why people sell their stories to the tabloids, and it's even behind much of what happened in the London riots. One's status is now based almost solely on what one has, rather than what one does and, for all his own status as a self-made man - entirely the product of the new capitalist economy - The Comedy of Errors nevertheless suggests that this economy was something Shakespeare was more than capable of criticising.

Perhaps we can all learn a little something from the perfect brotherhood and selflessness of the two Dromios in their encounter at the end of the play. Although this pair of underling twins never (unlike at least one of their masters, and their masters' father) actively wished to seek each other out, it's nonetheless easy to believe that their new-found friendship and fraternity will be the play's most long-lasting. Neither father nor mother to the children made any decent attempt to seek out their lost children. Moreover, as Vitkus suggests, both Antipholuses seem liable to end up at odds with each other: Shakespeare spends far more of the play setting them up as rivals than as friends. Antipholus of Syracuse has too well enjoyed the high-life lived by his climbing capitalist brother to readily give it up, yet neither does Antipholus of Ephesus seem likely to relinquish his role as top dog, or even to readily share it with another. Only the Dromios, then, seem finally to recognise the greater value of love, friendship and equality, leaving the stage “like brother and brother....hand in hand, not one before another.” Despite, or perhaps because of, their lack of ambition in the way of money and status, then, we might see these two as the play's most truly “creditable” characters. At several points during the play, Dromio of Syracuse is given large amounts of money by his superiors but, in spite of the accusations levelled against him and his brother, neither of them, we feel sure, would ever dream of theft or dishonesty. Instead, these characters live to please, remain unassuming and self-deprecating, and are, finally, ready to open their hearts to new friendships.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

"Tweenage Kicks": Angry Young Women vs. Andrew Collins

So I've just left off getting angry over this article enough to write something half-decent about it. Interestingly, I spotted it just after I'd spent a good chunk of my morning watching more Anita Sarkeesian videos. Both happened to be focusing on how things are marketed and represented to particular audiences, particularly to young girls. However, while Anita's comments are always intelligent, insightful, and well argued, even when I don't agree with her, Andrew Collins has managed to churn out a load of patronising, badly judged drivel on behalf of the Radio Times. So let's start with the first "tween" culture reference in the title of the article: the Twilight franchise. Here's what Anita has to say about Twilight:

Fair dues. Now here's Andrew's version of what Twilight is all about:
Tweens are fed a carefully mixed cocktail of harmless My Guy romance and an explicitly chaste kind of sexual promise, so that the intoxicating effect is aspirational and at the same time safe or as safe as any saga about vampires and werewolves can be.
Wow. Aspirational. Hm. Even if you're into your slushy romantic rubbish, could you really call a "My Guy romance and an explicitly chaste kind of sexual promise" an aspiration? A quick search on Google gives you these definitions for "aspiration":


  1. A hope or ambition of achieving something: "he had nothing tangible to back up his literary aspirations".
  2. The object of such an ambition; a goal.
So, specifically, an "ambition" is an intention to "achieve" something. Whatever your feelings about Edward, I fail to see how his making a "chaste promise" can in any way be classed as aspirational for girls. He (not Bella), is promising not to do something. Quite aside from its instantly vomit-inducing effect, the quotation above doesn't even make sense. So much for that.

Next, The Hunger Games. I don't entirely agree with Anita on this one because, personally, I found a lot to enjoy about the second and third books, even if they weren't as strong as the first. I also take issue with some of her more negative comments. For example, she doesn't believe that parents would give up their kids to fight to the death, while I'd argue that this already does happen in real life: many parents are perfectly happy for their kids to join the military, proud of them for going out to war with the intention of murdering other people's kids, and then seem strangely surprised when their soldier sons end up killed in combat. She also doesn't think that the kids from the Districts have been dehumanised enough by the Capitol to make it convincing that viewers would accept it, despite the fact that she recognises slavery as dehumanising people enough for it to work. I'd argue that Suzanne Collins makes it clear that the Districts pretty much are slaves to the Capitol - at least in all but name. I'm also not fundamentally opposed to a romance plot, if it's done well enough. Still, most of what she says about the first novel here is well put:

Let's compare this assessment to Andrew Collins's view:
The Hunger Games is another “young adult” franchise now in the process of bounding from page to screen… yes, a dystopian sci-fi saga, but this time with feminist “girl power” in the shape of the book’s teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who must compete in a multi-player battle to the death.
Just to clarify for anybody who doesn't remember the 90s or wasn't in Britain during that period, "girl power" is a term most commonly associated with the pop band the Spice Girls and the rest of the hideous "music" industry they belonged to. Essentially, it's the preferred mantra of an absolutely insidious kind of sexism which masquerades as a form of feminism, sexualising, stereotyping and infantilising women (quite aside from the creepiness of Emma Bunton being "Baby Spice", note the fact that it's "girl" and not "woman" power), setting the equal rights clock back several decades and effectively erasing all the work done by feminists in the 70s and 80s. So, all in all, a great choice of term to associate with Katniss Everdeen, who is widely understood as one of the strongest and most interesting YA female characters aimed at a teenage audience ever created.

The third thing the title refers to is Julian Fellowes's upcoming film of Romeo and Juliet. Judging from Collins's article, I'd wouldn't have thought it sounded very promising. That said, it's not really much to go on, given the woefully misguided assessments of the Hunger Games and Twilight franchises that we've already seen.

My initial reaction to this article, believe it or not, was actually excitement when I read that the fantastic Hailee Steinfeld was going to be starring in a production of this wonderful, if much misunderstood play. Potentially, it could be great for kids reading Shakespeare in school to have an accessible alternative to Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version to watch. Though enjoyable, Luhrmann's interpretation leaves much to be desired, for precisely the reason that Andrew Collins inadvertently gives in his article. "Romeo and Juliet errs towards the soppy". This is true enough of Luhrmann's version, but not of the play in general. I can only hope that Collins's assessment is meant to refer only to the upcoming film, rather than to the original play, because if that's what you honestly think of any of Shakespeare's work then you should shut up and educate yourself. Bear in mind we're talking about a writer who actively ridiculed the "soppy" Petrarchan conventions of his time, and was responsible for creating this little gem of a poem, which in its way pretty much overturned all expectations about sonnets at the time. Despite common misconceptions, Romeo and Juliet actually makes almost exactly the same point. Romeo is a fickle and childish lover, who only thinks that Juliet is the love of his life. We know this because, at the start of the play, Romeo is in an agony of love over another woman, Rosaline. Shakespeare didn't just write in this other unseen character for no reason - as Friar Laurence rather scathingly comments later on:
Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here! 
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear, 
So soon forsaken? Young men's love then lies 
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes. 
This is a major theme throughout the play. Shakespeare is obviously well aware of his characters' immaturity and wants us to notice it. For some reason, people nowadays, in a supposedly more sexually liberated society, seem perfectly willing to accept that Romeo and Juliet meet at a party, get married and kill themselves for each other all in the space of a few days. Wake up everyone! This isn't rational or reasonable behaviour by anyone's standards! It's not romantic, it's just plain ridiculous. Shakespeare definitely never conceived of the play as the great love story it's come to be seen as. In fact, the romance plot is principally a device designed to serve the play's most important theme: conflict. This isn't a play about love, it's a play about hatred and violence and feuding and the futility thereof, and about full-grown men who should know better carrying their childish enmity with them into old age, and abusing their power by inflicting their prejudices on the those who look up to them.

So what if Collins just means the film? Well, having seen Hailee Steinfeld star in True Grit as the intelligent, resourceful, and also very cold and hardened Mattie Ross, I'd be deeply disappointed if she has actually pandered to pressure to go silly and girly and romantic. Incidentally, that's not what Juliet is, and from what I've seen of Steinfeld, I'd say she should be fairly well-suited to the role. If you don't believe me, check this out. That's pretty damn raunchy. Romeo might mince and sugarcoat his words, but Juliet, by contrast, gets rather shockingly to the point. She seems a lot more canny and streetwise than her husband, despite being shut away all the time, and being only fourteen. See, young teens can exceed expectations.

Moving on to the other films Collins mentions nearer the end of the article. The first is Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. For me, this film was a major disappointment. Although they do revolve around a fairly stereotypical girl and a fairly stereotypical love triangle, I actually really, really love The Confessions of Georgia Nicolson. The reasons? 1) Georgia is a well-rounded and endearing character, who spends time with her family and other female friends and, although at her tender age she is excessively preoccupied with the opposite sex, it's not the only thing she ever talks about, and she can have fun in other ways. 2) These are amongst the funniest books I have ever read. Yes, there's romance, but it's done in such a knowing and ironic way that we're encouraged to laugh at Georgia's foolishness even as we sympathise with and grow to love her. We can concern ourselves over her bad decisions while similarly being secure in the knowledge that she will ultimately grow up, see sense and realise that she ought to be with her hilarious best friend, rather than any of her pretty, air-headed boyfriends (note the reversal of the usual stereotype here). Unfortunately, the film seemed to drain away all of Georgia's and Dave's charm, chemistry and charisma. Instead, it tried to present love interest Robbie as a much more sympathetic, if no less boring, character. So in the film, we're meant to want Georgia to end up with the stupid, dull one. Even the changing of the title from Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging didn't bode well: the disparity in tone between the words "Perfect" and "Full-Frontal" pretty much set the disparity in tone between the whole of the film and the whole of the book. Collins, on the other hand, says that:
Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging...with its indie soundtrack and accent on kissing and being dumped, was anything but saccharine.
I beg to differ. An indie soundtrack and discussion of kissing does not a challenging, innovative or in any way interesting film make.

Finally, the article rounds off by talking about The Amazing Spider-Man. At last, you might be thinking, at least one paragraph that can't be quite so infuriating. If girls are into superheroes, that proves they don't only care about boys and kissing, right? They might like to see action scenes, they might enjoy the creative and imaginative possibilities of the fantasy genre, or they might even take an interest in the geeky science side of the film. After all, Gwen Stacy is a great heroine and potential role model. She's funny, intelligent and tough. She not only starts off the film having proved that her intellect is equal, if not superior, to that of her boyfriend-to-be, having already landed herself a job at science research company Oscorp, purely on the strength of her own achievements and confidence. Peter, meanwhile, merely sneaks into the building and becomes friends with Curt Connors through his family connections. Gwen then twice risks her own life saving Peter's neck, so eat that, Mary-Jane! Here is a heroine that, unlike any of the others discussed so far, actually offers girls something to aspire to. Remember that word? Aspiration. You know like, girls, you can get a good job! You can save people's lives! You can do well in school and learn things! But, naturally, according to Andrew Collins, none of this could possibly be of any importance to the girls who like the film. Obviously, all they're really interested in is this:
the current superhero reboot The Amazing Spider-Man....has Andrew Garfield pushed up against the lockers in high school and actually kissing a girl when he’s not in his mask. A superhero movie that’s not exclusively aimed at teenage boys? Who’d have thought it?
Yep, that's right. Kissing and boys. Of course. And, here's the cherry on the cake: after repeatedly and extensively patronising young girls, he actually has the nerve to say that, "The Tween market can’t be patronised". No, no, because telling girls they should be making chaste promises, obsessing over boys, and occasionally having babies isn't the slightest bit patronising.