Saturday, 23 February 2013

Got that glitch a villain. Glitches love villains.

Even before I'd seen Wreck-It Ralph, I knew that this film was going to appeal to me on several levels. Not only is this a total nerdfest for retro gamers (I love Sonic, Pacman, and old arcade-style games, even though I'm pretty awful at the vast majority of them), but it also manages to satisfy the fantasies of the weird kids like me by following the one story that has so far been missing from the Disney oeuvre: the story of the villain. I've always loved the bad guys - partly because no one else does, and I like to be perverse, partly because I'm a freaky loner goth who will always sympathise with the social misfits, and partly because they're generally just much more interesting characters (just watch Sleeping Beauty again and you'll see it's really no wonder they've now decided to give the only good character her own film, or watch a few old episodes of Pokémon and tell me Team Rocket aren't the best thing in it). In short, Wreck-It Ralph sounded like it was going to be exactly the sort of brilliant mixture I wish I had been clever enough to concoct myself. And it was. In fact, it managed to be even cooler than expected. The whole thing was just one big explosion of amazingness!

First off, the film has two super kick-ass ladies in it, both of whom are player characters in their own games (see here, for more information about why this matters). One is the main protagonist of her game, Hero's Duty, the hardened, no-nonsense military commander, Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun. The other is a gutsy little kid (voiced, incidentally, by Sarah Silverman!) who, like Ralph himself, is something of an outsider, determined to earn back a place in the races from which she has been ostracised. What endeared this second character (and the film as a whole) to me still more, was the fact that little Vanellope was also a glitch.

Similar to bad guys, glitches appeal to me a lot. I'm not going to go into all the arguments I've had with people about why Missingno. is the best Pokémon ever, but at the risk of sounding too much like the internet (sorry), a film about a friendship between a baddie and a glitch would have struggled to be more relevant to my interests.

There's been some interesting discussion online about whether or not Wreck-It Ralph is actually a Pixar film in disguise. Though it's not Disney's first non-Pixar-helmed foray into 3D CGI animation, it is without a doubt their best. The story and characters were wonderful, the visuals beautiful and, like all great Pixar films, it achieved that classic blend of the hilarious and the heartwarming that no one else manages so well. While I disagree with Nathaniel Darnell that there's a big difference between the style of humour, emotion and storytelling between these two production companies, I do think he's got a very good point about the choice of subject matter, as well as about the people involved. Still, it's not the first time John Lasseter's switched camps - or "gone Turbo" as Darnell more appropriately puts it: most recently, for example, he was involved in The Princess and the Frog, which is definitely classic Disney fare by all of his (and my own) criteria. So I think I'd argue that it isn't that simple: the two companies are, after all, inextricably tied together, and there has always been plenty of crossover between the two.

That said, the trailers certainly had me fooled. Even though I hadn't actually read it anywhere, upon seeing all the publicity material for Wreck-It Ralph, I simply assumed that this was Pixar's latest. One thing I will say, however, is that this film's prominent placing of female characters is something that, outside of Brave, has been largely and culpably absent from Pixar films (ok there's Dory, there's Jessie and there's Boo, but they're all essentially supporting cast in films which are ultimately about male friendship or father/son relationships). So however little appreciation Darnell seems to have for "princess movies", both Brave and the array of moody Disney princesses do still serve an important function in the world of children's films: girls remain under-represented in most films, most of the time.

A final note about Paperman, the animated short that preceded Wreck-It Ralph: utterly beautiful, and an instant classic. I wish I could post a link - it did briefly make it onto Youtube, but Disney took it down pretty sharpish. Not that you can blame them. I think I'd be protective, too. Any company that can still make a black and white silent film exciting, fresh, innovative, and appealing to children is certainly well worth its weight in cinema popcorn, at multiplex prices. Just think about that for a while: it's A LOT. I should know - I used to sell the stuff.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Let's Dance: First Impressions

After watching A Royal Affair in Saturday night, I apparently still hadn't had my fill of period drama, since I then turned over to watch the first episode of Stephen Poliakoff's Dancing on the Edge. I hadn't heard particularly positive reviews from other people about it: the general consensus seemed to be that it was a bit dull, but despite it taking it's time, I have to say I personally really enjoyed it.

I'll be honest - it's mostly quite a happy, pleasant sort of story, which I guess could be considered a little dishonest, given its subject matter. Still, maybe it was the fact that I'd just watched something extremely dark and depressing, but I felt like it was nice to see something a bit cheerful on the telly for once. These days, even most of the comedy I watch is basically about how awful everything is.

The series follows the story of a band of jazz musicians in the 30s, and the journalist who helps bring about their rise to fame. Whilst I wouldn't exactly agree with the BBC's own description of the drama as "explosive", there was enough peril for this not to be uninteresting, and to be completely fair, I have only seen one episode so far. Essentially, Dancing on the Edge seems optimistic in tone, promising a bright future for these rising stars and ultimately an end to the acceptability of racial discrimination, the first episode closing with the young English princes dancing with the band's black singers.

There is turmoil: as well as comments about the general racism faced by members of the band in everyday life, the band's manager, Wesley, is under constant threat of deportation back to the US, despite his supposedly being a British citizen, because his birth certificate has gone missing. Worse, if he is returned to the States, he faces trial and possible execution, having got himself into trouble by sleeping with a white woman, leading to accusations of rape. There's also the cloud of suspicion that looms over Sarah and her family, who as émigrés from Russia, are regarded as potential Soviet spies.

Dancing on the Edge doesn't just concern itself with race, however. It's also interested in class and, to a lesser extent, gender politics. The first episode features appearances from members of the royal family and demonstrates how they can do as they please, and everything must always be tailored to suit them: this is an era before royalty were subject to the same kind of press criticism as any other "celebrity" might face. Journalist Stanley is apparently taken in by the airs and graces of the upper class. A working man who's made his own way in the world, Stanley clearly has ambitions to make a place for himself and his protégé, Louis, in the magical world of status and riches of which he is currently "dancing on the edge". Then there's Sarah, who's mistaken for an aristocrat by members of the band, but turns out to be merely Pamela's assistant, choosing her clothes and getting her shopping done for her. Though it's not so clear to the less well-off in this world, Sarah herself seems to insist that its obvious that she doesn't fit in with her wealthy and powerful friends - at least to those in the know. In this way, the series explores the complexities of the British class system, as well as heralding its end through infiltration by American capitalism, coming in the form of businessmen like Mr Masterson. Though things remain hazy and unclear, we're left suspecting a very dark side to the powerful Masterson, when Julian asks Louis for help in tidying up Masterson's hotel room, a task which includes getting rid of a drunk and very battered and bruised looking young girl, about 10 times smaller than Masterson himself. And then there's the fact that Stanley begins ignoring Rosie, who also works on the magazine, as soon as he wins the attention of the rather more seductive and glamorous Pamela.

There's definitely a lot going on in this apparently sleepy world, and it is wonderfully well-acted, which is more than can be said for a great many pretty period dramas. Matthew Goode's talent in particular is phenomenal - I knew I recognised him immediately, but my brain just could not place him. And it's no wonder: this is Watchmen's Ozymandias. Wow! Currently Chiwetel Ejiofor is proving a great front man for the series. It'll be great to see if the show makes some more demands of him as it progresses. It was also quite exciting to spot Sam Troughton as the Prince of Wales, since up until now, I've only ever seen him perform on stage. Finally, John Goodman makes an appearance as the shady Masterson, though as of yet his presence has been limited, whilst at the other end of the "fame spectrum", there are a handful of rising stars to watch out for: Joanna Vanderham, Janet Montgomery, Tom Hughes and Ariyon Bakare all seem promising so far.

All in all then, a lot better than anticipated. More to follow.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013


Unexpected as many of the award-winners at Sunday night's Bafta ceremony were, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed that Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair was not so much as nominated for the Best Foreign Language Bafta. It's one I watched recently on LoveFilm, not having managed to see it at the cinema while it was out. Such is the way with foreign language films...

A Royal Affair tells the true story of how a German doctor, Johann Struensee, became the effective ruler of Denmark between 1769 and 1772 after being appointed personal physician to the mentally ill King Christian VII. Watching the film, it seemed to be telling such an incredible and important story, that I was amazed I'd never heard about it before - was amazed that so few people internationally seem to know about it. I only hope this period of history is taught to Danish kids at school. During his time as de facto ruler, Struensee introduced all kinds of new laws and reforms, including the abolition of torture, slavery, censorship, etiquette rules at Court and several noble privileges, as well as the criminalization of bribery, the assignment of farmland to peasants, the introduction of taxes on gambling and reforms in universities and medical institutions. I learned loads from this film - not only about Danish political history, but even about medical advances - apparently, Struensee introduced smallpox innoculations to Denmark. I'd had no idea that successful vaccinations were carried out so early.

It wasn't just educational though: this is a brilliantly exciting and suspenseful film. It begins slowly, with Queen Caroline leaving England for Denmark and coming to terms with her new life and her unstable husband. Straight away, we're given an interesting perspective: the story is told in hindsight by Caroline herself, in the form of a letter to her children, which attempts to explain and justify the actions that have led to her banishment. Caroline is shown to be artistic and intelligent, frustrated and stifled by life at the Danish Court. Almost as soon as she arrives, she asks for her books, only to discover that half of them are being returned to England since they have been banned in Denmark. In focusing on Caroline, the film is able to explore how social structures confine and constrain people in different ways - not only do we get to see how the King is rendered impotent by his greedy and powerful council of nobles, and how the middle and lower classes are put down and despised by the aristocracy, but also how women are treated at Court, forced into unhappy marriages and publicly vilified for seeking any kind of love or affection.

Tension rises once Doctor Struensee arrives at Court. Initially disliked by the queen for apparently encouraging her sick husband's foolishness, the two soon discover kindred feelings. Both are great readers and thinkers, have a thirst for change and reform, and share a desire to help the country's unfortunate poor. Eventually, they become lovers. Meanwhile, Struensee encourages the passive and childish King Christian to excersise more power over his Court and Council. Under his instruction, Christian proposes many reforms at Council meetings, some of them his own ideas, others fed to him by Struensee and his wife. As his proposals are repeatedly turned down, however, Christian becomes increasingly frustrated. The council's decision to banish his overreaching friend Struensee is the final straw: in a shock moment, the King decides to dissolve the entire Council and make Struensee his sole advisor, subsequently handing over power by allowing Struensee to sign political bills for him.

From this point onwards, the sense of peril and feeling of what is at stake only builds, both on personal and political fronts. Naturally, the Danish aristocracy hate Struensee, and band together to plot his death. To make matters worse, Struensee turns the armed forces against him by cutting the military budget in order to carry out his reforms elsewhere. Things really begin to look bad when Queen Caroline becomes pregnant, and the likelihood of this baby's being fathered by the King seems to the rest of the country to be slim at best. The press ever loving a scandal, Struensee's anti-censorship law becomes a rod for his own back, with all kinds of pamphlets and caricatures printed detailing his affair with the Queen. One of the things that struck me most about the design of this film was these documents. They looked fantastically convincing, and I'd be really curious to know whether they were original or copied from source papers.

Amazingly, although things don't end well for Struensee himself, the film still manages to provide us with a happy ending of sorts - or at least to end on a note of hope: Caroline's letter to her children apparently works, since we are told that the young Frederick went on to reinstate most of Struensee's laws, even after they were revoked by the Council. I can't find out anything about whether such a letter actually existed or not. From what I've read, it seems as though Caroline's communication with anyone in Denmark was limited after her banishment, and that this was probably just a device invented by the film-makers. If this is the case, however, one is left wondering how on earth the children managed to avoid being poisoned by the rest of the aristocracy. Whatever the case in historical fact, it's certainly true that one of the most wonderful things about this story is that Struensee did not act in vain, but actually left a legacy and altered the course of Danish history. Had he been alive to see what happened next, I'm sure he'd have been proud.

A Royal Affair is a very beautiful film, wonderfully designed and artistically shot. It's also intensely moving, with fantastic performances given all round. It manages to foster sympathy even with initially dislikable characters such as the King, showing us his childlike helplessness and reinforcing this through his insistence upon calling his wife "Mother". The moment when we feel most for him is shortly after Caroline has persuaded the King to come back to her bed and tricked him into believing that her unborn child is his. As soon as she has done what she needs to, however, she tells him that she thinks he ought to start sleeping in his own room again. In response, the Christian tenderly protests that he enjoys being with his wife and child, even if they cannot "be intimate" together: even after we've seen his brutality towards her, and all his going about with whores, it's still absolutely heart-wrenching. In many ways, the film rather reminded me of The King's Speech. The essence of the story is strikingly similar: the system of monarchy has thrown up an ineffective ruler who has no desire for power and would happily hand over authority to someone more capable if only he could. He appoints a doctor to help him with his problems, whose influence over him is then inevitably resented by those with a greater sense of entitlement. One might describe A Royal Affair as basically The King's Speech with consequences: what happened to Johann and Christian, as opposed to what happened to Lionel and George, actually mattered. This is no feel-good film.

What's interesting about that particular comparison, though, is that it brings me right back to where I started. While The King's Speech won masses of Oscars and Baftas, and achieved more nominations for both than any other films, A Royal Affair failed to be nominated even for a single one. And, quite simply, it's a better film, if primarily by virtue of having a more interesting tale to tell. But isn't that, after all, what making a great film comes down to? Unfortunately, the latter happened to be a film "in foreign" (as Mark Kermode would have it), and this will always sorely affect international success. Even those handful of films that do manage to achieve some international recognition (Let the Right One In, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), are typically remade in English for stupid, English-speaking audiences (and sometimes get ruined in the process). Mads Mikkelsen, too, is a classic example of how few avenues for success there still are for non-English or American actors: he's made it big now, but only because he played a Bond villain. Yep, that's right: even now, foreigners still, by and large, have to play high profile baddies if they want to get noticed. Unless of course you're a woman, in which case it's generally sufficient to be a sex symbol.

Still, perhaps we shouldn't despair just yet. There was, after all, a lot of fuss about the pointlessness of the aforementioned remakes at the time, and Scandinavian crime drama does seem to be becoming increasingly popular over here, both in books and on the telly. So perhaps there is hope for the rest of the (and I can't stress this enough) utterly fabulous cast of A Royal Affair. The winds of change are always blowing....

Friday, 8 February 2013

It is a heretic that makes the fire, / Not she who burns in't.

Seeing The Winter's Tale is always quite an experience: it's a play every bit as mad and magical as you could reasonably expect from lines like, "A sad tale's best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins", and the infamous "Exit pursued by a bear." Perhaps unfortunately, the current RSC Tale team have opted to dispense with said bear (unless you count a passing mention supposed to occur after the event), rather than trying to get around the gnarly problem of how to represent it. Still, there's certainly magic enough in't - this is a really beautiful production, with wonderful costumes, sets and acting. As ever, the reawakening of Hermione was the plays most magical moment: there are, after all, few scenes in Shakespeare more spectacular than this. It's a wonderfully weird scene, and the fact that actresses manage to pull it off at all will, I'm sure, never cease to amaze.

As the programme tells us in some detail, The Winter's Tale is (especially by Renaissance standards) a fascinatingly gynocentric play: the three characters with whom we have the greatest sympathy are all women. That's not to say that all the men are as petty and over-indulged as Leontes or Polixenes: both of Paulina's husbands (Antigonus and Camillo) must naturally prove themselves worthy of her affections, which we can see are far from easy to win. But in the end, it's Paulina herself who steals the show, saving the day with some incredibly bold stunts. It's not difficult to see why a play like this would appeal to a female director, and Lucy Bailey in general does a great job.

Personally I felt there was a slight problem with pacing: for me, the first half felt a lot longer than the second. One of the things I found most annoying about some of the scenes in Sicilia was their tendency towards melodrama. I'll accept that this is probably a problem inherent in the text itself, and not an easy one to get around. Yet, funnily enough, it wasn't really an issue in what are probably the play's most naturally melodramatic moments, such as Leontes' railing and threats to kill everyone who disagrees with him, and Hermione's desperate speech at her sham of a trial. In fact, it was only noticeable when there was less going on onstage - it was most striking when the rest of the cast were called on to respond to pieces of news. Most of all, I didn't like all the silly shrieking and screaming of the other ladies at court whenever a kind of "mass horror" reaction was required. Not only did it feel too much like this was just a way of filling a space and giving those other cast members something to do, but it also crossed the line into ridiculousness, damaging our suspension of disbelief. The only other thing that bothered me slightly about the play was that there didn't really seem to be any consensus on the particular nothern accent that was being aimed at: Perdita sounded quite different and distinct from her adopted family. This may well be because some of the accents were natural and others weren't - I don't know how hard some of them had to work at it - but it's not the first time I've been left wondering whether, in the end, a dialect coach can really teach people very much. The only real way to pick up an accent, I think, is to go to a place and listen to the locals - you do it then almost without trying. But that's a minor quibble, really. It's also worth mentioning that I saw the show very early in it's run, so there's a big possibility that things will still change and improve a lot yet.

On the other hand, there was plenty to like - even love - about this production. I loved the joyousness of the dancing and revelry, and the recasting of the Young Shepherd and his squabbling admirers as holidaymaking chavs. Their singalong with Autolycus was laugh-out-loud funny, his bawdy humour translated into end-of-the-pier style comedy. I'll admit I had been hoping for a slightly stronger musical presence, since I knew about Jon Boden's involvement beforehand, and I'm a massive fan of his, but I suppose it wouldn't have done for the music to take over from the action. The use of costume throughout the second half was brilliant: even as things began to get more serious, once Perdita and Florizel had run away, we were permitted the light relief of the two of them appearing at the Sicilian Court, him with a coat over his morris dancing gear and her with a dress tucked into men's pantaloons and a scarf over her face in an attempt to seem more "Eastern". In comparison to the first half, the second seemed to fly by - I could happily have watched more! As usual, too, the design was fantastic, and I was especially impressed by Leontes' ivory tower-cum-desolate lighthouse.

In terms of acting, Rakie Ayola, Emma Noakes and Tara Fitzgerald positively sparkled as, respectively, Paulina, Perdita and Hermione, and Jo-Stone Fewings made a great job of a far from desirable part. He managed to bring real pathos and powerful emotional shifts to the role, moving convincingly from fury to despair to utter joy at his wife's return. As a character, Leontes shows himself up as such a shallow and callous character early on in the play, that for any actor playing him to then go on and win our sympathies in this way is really no mean feat. Others that I felt stood out were Duncan Wisbey as Antigonus, Nick Holder as the Young Shepherd, and Pearce Quigley as everyone's favourite, Autolycus. I'd actually seen Quigley not too long ago in a Shakespeare's Globe production of Doctor Faustus, so was thrilled as soon as I saw him come on stage: his comic timing is immaculate.

Overall then, a lovely play, just perfect for chasing away those wintry post-Christmas blues.