Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Best Way to Watch a Film

This is something I've been thinking about recently as I 'return' to film watching. I've spent the best part of a year in a hermit-like state writing my PhD thesis. I had little social life, and found it difficult to concentrate on new story lines (TV or film), so anything I watched was a repeat. I realised it was even longer since I had been to the cinema - almost 2 years in fact. Thankfully, this is now behind me, and I have returned to the joy of film and TV.

My favourite cinema is the Picturehouse cinema where I live - it's in an old theatre, with red velvet curtains in the main screen, and 'Vintage Sundays' where we have watched Rear Window, Some Like It Hot and The Godfather. I love this cinema - I've been a member for years, not because I go to the cinema a lot, but because I want to support it and make sure it survives. It has sofas and tea, serves mulled wine at Christmas and I am gleefully working my way through their 'gourmet popcorn' selection. It's not the best cinema for big epic films, a main argument for visiting the cinema now we no longer have to wait a year for a film to come out in a home format. The screens are relatively small, and they don't always show the blockbuster films that benefit the most from a cinema experience.

Related image
Pay full attention to the magic behind the curtain

But I think the cinema experience is more than just surround sound and a big screen. There's something about the shared experience of watching a story unfold. The darkness that draws all our attention to the screen, and the presence of other people prevent any (or at least too much) chatter. It leads to a deeper immersion in the story, and a greater investment in the characters and their emotions. My husband and I decided to try and re-create this at home one time - lights dimmed, phones off, and a rule not to talk (we do like to try and guess the plot sometimes). It wasn't quite the same, and I'm not sure why. Maybe lounging in pjs is too relaxing, leading to less concentration on the film. Maybe it was something to do with the two cats who jumped on us repeatedly....

Our home set-up is lovely. We're lucky enough to have a decent sized TV and surround sound speakers. Watching films here is a joy. But I do still love the cinema experience.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Song of the Sea

My husband discovered Song of the Sea when he was browsing Amazon Prime for something new to delight our three-year-old.  She loves films and we have both had our fill of Frozen so we try to diversify wherever we can.

Disclaimer: Frozen is good.  I know that Frozen is good.  But I can act the whole thing out for my kid now.  The. Whole. Thing.

And - whats more - I have.

Yep.  #parenting.

So - Song of the Sea...

This is a beautiful animation by Cartoon Saloon, directed by Tomm Moore.

It draws from myths of the Selkie - people that can change their form from seal to human by shedding their sealskin (much like a coat).  The myths tend to revolve around human men forcing female selkies into relationships by stealing their sealskin.

This film does not do that.  But it does play with ideas of love and loss, and the desperation that often ensues.

We meet Ben as a very young child.  He and his mother are painting the walls in his room with characters from the stories that she has told him.  

She is also very pregnant.  She clearly loves Ben, and her husband.  It appears to be an idyllic family.  But then she becomes ill and runs into the sea where she disappears, leaving behind her baby, Saoirse (pronounced ser-sha), the last Selkie child.

Six years later, Ben's dad is emotionally disengaged, Saorsie has not yet spoken a single word, Ben resents her for the loss of his mother and he is terrified of drowning.  So scared, that he always wears a life-vest.  His only friend is his dog, Cu, who also loves and looks after Saorsie much to Ben's frustration.

In short - there is a lot that is broken in this family and in order to fix it, the characters must learn to move past their sorrow.  To begin with, this means accepting it.

What a film for both children and adults alike.

I love the myths running through it and how the human and the faerie world collide, and how everyone effectively learns the same thing.  That sorrow cannot be avoided, and that denying it turns us, bit by bit, to stone.  That we must continue to love and hope and dream and to care for one another despite our fears.

Ultimately, the characters are all restored and even though Ben's mother can never return, he has his family back.

It is exceptionally well written and voiced, and beautifully animated.  If you want to try something a little bit different, I cannot recommend this enough.  My three-year-old loves it so much that when it dropped from Amazon Prime's listing, we went ahead and bought it.  Sometimes, she even opts to watch it over Frozen.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Lady Bird

(Warning: contains spoilers for Lady Bird)

One of the last Oscar-films of 2018 that I saw at the cinema.  I'd been keen to see it for a while - the trailer looked interesting and the reviews sounded positive.  I like Saoirse Ronan and having watched both Hanna and Brooklyn I know that she's well able to carry a film as a lead actress.  Lady Bird garnered a lot of Oscars buzz, nominated in four of the "Big 5" categories (namely Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress - Laurie Metcalf, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture and Best Director - Greta Gerwig).  Having seen the film, I came away with one big question.

Lady Bird: patron saint of angsty teenagers
The eponymous Lady Bird is Christine McPherson (Ronan), who is keen to leave her home town of Sacramento and go to university anywhere that isn't there.  Her eye-rolling teenage self continuously butts heads with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), while being desperate to fit in with the cool kids at the expense of her long suffering friend (Beanie Feldstein).  Angst ensues.

I've checked out a few reviews in a vague attempt to try to understand the hype.  On Rotten Tomatoes, it's rated at 99% positive from 311 reviews.  The general consensus seems to be that it is an excellent film for teenage girls to see with their mothers (I guess in an attempt to reflect what they're seeing on the big screen with what's going on in their own relationship).  So to that end, it's possible that I am not the ideal target audience - I am not a teenage girl, I am not a parent, and I have a perfectly good relationship with my mum (hi mum).  Of the three people I saw the film with, it was most enjoyed by my 19 year old friend, who was most able to identify with Lady Bird.  I have no criticism of some of the films accolades - Ronan and Metcalf are both interesting actors.  Gerwig's direction is very much a love letter to her home town - a place that is by equal measures massive and tiny depending on who is looking at it, and when.  The story had lots of interesting bits to it, though, rather than one good overarching narrative.  I found myself wanting to reverse most of the way through the film, and go back to specific comments from specific characters about specific stories.  I wanted to know why Shelley had come to live with the McPherson's and why Shelley found Marion to be such a good pseudo-mother.  I wanted to know more about Danny and why he was struggling to come out.  I wanted to know more about Father Leviatch and what his story was.  I wanted to spend more time with all the different facets of Marion I saw.  I wanted to know more about the relationship between Lady Bird's parents.  The person I wasn't bothered about spending more time with was Lady Bird, which was unfortunate for me, really, because it was mainly about her.  I was frustrated by her, she who wanted her unemployed father to remortgage their house so she could go to university.  Not to do anything specific, because she had no real loves, passions, or academic skills.  Just to go.  She who was constantly rude to her best friend because she wasn't cool enough.  She who kept rolling her eyes so hard I was concerned that she might crack her skull.  I get that some of this is "teenager stuff", but I found it so difficult to take an interest in her.  Is it that I can't empathise with teenagers?  No - interesting teenagers can be found in both Mean Girls and Juno to quickly name two.
All annoying teenagers, but still perfectly good film.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy it.  I liked all the other characters, and I didn't actively hate the film.  I just don't get why it was raved about so much, and I don't understand why it was nominated for Best Picture (in a world in which Blade Runner 2049 was not).  The cynical part of me thinks that in a post #Metoo #Timesup world, the Academy suddenly realised that all their leading films were written and directed by men and they'd forgotten about the women (again) and scrambled to find one.  And Lady Bird ticks a lot of boxes in that regard - female director, female writer, mainly female cast dealing with mainly female relationships.

Having watched the film less than a month ago, I'm already struggling to recall any particular scene from it.  That can't be good.  Fly away home, Lady Bird.

Additional thoughts, questions, comments:

  • After also being Sheldon's mum in the Big Bang Theory, is Laurie Metcalf now typecast as "mum with difficult children". 
  • Is it just me?  Am I now old and grumpy?

Friday, 13 April 2018

God's Own Country

So, God's Own Country is on Netflix and it's lovely. Someone on the Internet called it '"the British Brokeback Mountain" and although I've never seen Brokeback Mountain, people seem to agree with it. Same with Call Me By Your Name, and Moonlight. I saw a lamb on one of the posters for this film and was worried it'd be another John Wick situation but the lamb's fine. The calf isn't though. Anyway, similar to CMBYN and Moonlight, not much happens. It's just a really delicately told story about a young Yorkshireman called Johnny (Josh O'Connor) with a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and he doesn't really know where to, if he can, put it all down. Johnny lives on a farm with his nan (Gemma Jones) and dad (Ian Hart). His dad's not doing too good, and nan constantly worries and it all falls on Johnny, but he deals with it via the good ole tried and tested method of drinking and casual sex. The first thing we see him do in the film is puke, then chug down some whole milk as an old school hangover cure, so Johnny's not really doing too good either.

I think it's set in present day; there are no mobile phones (except one but it's a cheap Nokia), but most of Yorkshire now is exactly how it's shown in this film. The framing of the shots is beautiful and the colours are stunning, and although a lot of people will probably say that the weather in Yorkshire is gloomy and miserable, the grey and blue hues work in this film's favour.

It becomes evident quite quickly that Johnny's not really sure what to do about his being gay. He seems ashamed of himself sometimes and then other times he doesn't. And then he meets Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), who moves into the caravan outside Johnny's house. He's from Romania and worked on a farm there, and has presumably been hired by dad to help pick up the slack. Johnny doesn't like him at first, but they slowly become friends and then lovers. Gheorghe's lovely; he takes care of Johnny even when Johnny's being incredibly rude, and he's good with sheep. One of the lambs Gheorghe keeps upon his person to keep warm, until another one dies and he skins it (gross, yet still pretty) and makes a little lambskin coat for the little lamb. What a great guy. He does steal a packet of bourbons on his first night on the farm but that's completely understandable because bourbons are delicious and that's not his fault. But I digress. Gheorghe and Johnny get close enough that we actually see Johnny smile and be happy for five minutes. There are a bunch of really lovely scenes where they're both nursing a lamb, playing in a river, and eating a pot noodle. Everything looks enchanting, even though I'm sure farming is quite the opposite.

Sadly though as Johnny's life starts to make more sense to him, his dad gets worse. Dad has a stroke and afterwards is too ill to bath himself, but now Johnny's calmer and deals with it reasonably well. He keeps the farm going and Gheorghe cooks and cleans, but Nan reminds him Gheorghe's "only here to work". She knows. And now he knows she knows. Later when Johnny and Gheorghe go out for a pint and in the pub, Johnny notices a former lover sat across the room. Johnny asks Gheorghe if he can stay for longer but Gheorghe says no and Johnny gets annoyed. He goes to the toilet with the other guy and Gheorghe walks in on them after he's told to leave - after an altercation with a racist bloke in the pub. Gheorghe leaves for good this time, and nan is pissed off. Shit hath hitteth the fan. Still, Johnny carries on, trying to look after the farm completely by himself now since dad's incapacitated, but he misses Gheorghe. He finds one of his sweaters and wears it, a nice wee nod to the lambskin coat earlier in the film. There's a lot of tender moments in this film that the camera almost hangs on to. It's sweet.

Johnny decides to go win Gheorghe back, and nan reveals Gheorghe wrote down where he was going before he left: a potato farm in Scotland. Johnny tells his dad where he's going, and he seems to kind of get it. He says something about happiness but I can't remember the line and it's not on IMDb so whatever. Maybe dad and nan don't really get it because of all that deeply entrenched homophobia that loads of people still harbour, but they seem to know Gheorghe makes him happy, so off he goes to Scotland.

When he gets there and finds Gheorghe, Gheorghe's still pissed off. Johnny says something awkward about the lambs doing well, but he eventually gets to the point and it's another sweet moment. They seem to understand each other without saying much. There are no soppy quotes lifted right out of a rom-com, nor is there any kissing in the rain. He's just a lad asking for the man he loves to come home and it's BEAUTIFUL OKAY?

Later, we see them on the coach home. Just Johnny first, but as he moves his head to rest on Gheorghe's shoulder the camera includes him in the shot, too. The end sees the caravan being wheeled off the farm, and both Johhny and Gheorghe walking into the house, content.

Johnny and Gheorghe on the coach

The end scene of Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

I was impressed by a lot in this film, but mainly the inclusion of the phrases "mardy arse", "muggins", and "yer getting on me wick". Hats off to the writer and director, Francis Lee, especially given that this is his first film. Ultimately it's a softly hopeful film with some solid knitwear choices and beautiful locations (Yorkshire for life, like). And it's delightfully uncynical but not in a corny way. Xavier Dolan gives it a 10 out of 10 so that probably means it's good.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Ready Player One

(Warning : contains mild spoilers for Ready Player One)

Geek culture is something that has been relevant to the film industry for a long time and, in recent years, has undergone many different changes. No longer focused on one or two aspects of entertainment, it has become something fashionable, something to aim for and even, for some, a now acceptable part of life instead of something to hide.

So when a film is made based on a book that implied it was ‘celebrating’ the geek, you can imagine that this would either be seen as the best thing ever or the worst thing to walk this earth.
Ready Player One was published in 2011 and quickly received a great deal of praise for its world-building and 80s pop culture references that made up the plot. However, in more recent years, especially after the highly public events of Gamergate, the book has undergone a lot of criticism, with some calling the language and depictions in the book as evidence of gatekeeping and misogyny, particularly in the gaming world.

I personally was recommended this book before hearing any of these criticisms and when I read it, I enjoyed it. I didn’t get all the references but I liked the story. And it seemed obvious that it would eventually be made into a film. I certainly understand and recognise the criticisms surrounding it. There are many issues with the plot and characters but I’ll leave other, more competent, individuals to discuss those areas and focus on the film alone.

Today's poster is brought to you by the colour blue.

The story centres on Wade Watts, a teenager who lives in an area known as ‘The Stacks’. Life isn’t great for him or the world in general and he, like many others, finds solace in ‘The OASIS’, a massively multiplayer online role-playing virtual reality. Think World of Warcraft, but requiring more physical activity. This virtual reality was created by James Halliday who, upon his death, announced that he had hidden an Easter Egg within the OASIS that would allow one person to inherit his entire fortune. Winning requires three keys which can be found using an in-depth knowledge of his life and interests. Playing as his avatar ‘Parzival’, Wade becomes the first Egg Hunter (or Gunter) to locate the first key after five years of searching. But a corporation known as IOI, run by the ruthless Nolan Sorrento, also seek the Egg in order to take over the OASIS and change it from the escapist haven it’s been, to a profit-driven device that only a few would be able to afford. It’s up to Wade and his friends in the OASIS to get there first.

I’ll start off with the good points for this film. It has a competent cast. Every single character is well played by their actors, both in terms of their avatars and their ‘real-life’ selves. Mark Rylance as Halliday in particular deserves a mention here, slipping between the socially awkward Halliday and his more confident avatar Anorak. Tye Sheridan as Wade and Olivia Cooke as Art3mis also do good jobs at making you understand the worlds they inhabit without making the exposition dumps too frustrating. My only regret is that there are some very talented individuals involved who do not get as much focus as I think they should have.

There are a number of exposition dumps in the film, particularly surrounding Halliday himself, but the large ones are shared via a clip show stored in the OASIS that Parzival and co. can view and replay to find clues about the Egg, a unique and refreshing change for the shift in medium. However, that shift does come at the expense of character. In order for the clips to make sense to us as the viewer, they need to be contextualised and this is usually handled by having characters explain pieces of Halliday’s life to each other which, considering how much the clues rely on that knowledge in order to be solved, seems a little confusing.

The OASIS itself is great to look at and the textures on the avatars provide them with a unique look that fits in with the fantastical aspects of the OASIS. The exception to this would be the Sixers whose ulitarian look and synched actions, both in-world and outside it, is definitely intimidating against the brighter colours of the other avatars. Sadly, we don’t get to interact a great deal with this online world or the people playing beyond our main characters. The majority of the avatars are in the background or are jumped past so quickly that we don’t really get to see them or the world they inhabit. Beyond the introductory scene we don’t even get to see that many new avatars, which is a real pity.

Regarding the OASIS as whole, I liked the idea of it but not so much the execution. We are given a bit of information about how it is an escape and how many people use it daily at the expense of Real Life, but we are never really given a reason for why this game is so immersing. The film constantly reminds us that the OASIS is a game, moving from a shot of Parzival doing something to showing us Wade in his gear which can often reduce big moments to ridiculous actions. There’s several quiet or serious moments in the OASIS, which are interrupted by cutaways like this and take away from the impact of the scene. Even the characters don’t seem to be immersed in this world, constantly flipping up their visors up and generally breaking the illusion.

Ready Player One very much tries to push the message that, in a world full of distractions and methods of entertainment, we need to engage with Reality. There’s a particular scene where Art3mis tells Wade that his interactions with her have been calculated so that he only sees and hears what she chooses to tell him. An important point as both Wade and the audience live in a world where relationships can be made without people ever being in the same room and where we can struggle to balance meaningful interactions with healthy caution. But the film then cheapens this by hurrying to place the characters together in Reality, while never allowing time to process the consequences of this meeting or who we’ve now met.

Choose your protagonist...

All in all, the film itself is nice to look at and generally fun though underutilised in parts and the overall message is muddled. Fans of the book should also be aware that this is a very different product to the original story, although it is debatable how much of that was a deliberate choice and how much was down to rights issues.

Overall, you might enjoy it but I doubt you’d remember it for long.

Some additional points, comments and questions:
  • For a film based around the concept of a computer game, I question some of the mechanics involved. Someone explain the bike repair scene to me!
  • Why are there people on the street wearing visors? That can’t be safe.
  • I know we needed some additional scenes to counterbalance the loss of first person perspective but why does I-R0k exist in this film?
  •  How does Sorrento’s gaming rig work? Or Aech’s?
  • Does no one on the marketing staff of this film understand the concept of Plot Twists?

Red Sparrow

(Warning: contains spoilers for Red Sparrow)

This is a film that I seem to have seen a trailer for Every.  Single.  Time I've been to the cinema this year.  Following my enjoyment of Atomic Blonde last year, I was keen to see how the fledgling female-action-hero-slash-spy genre was developing.  On the face of it, this looks like it should be the Black Widow movie that we don't seem to be getting.  Ballet dancers, Russia, spy school, kick ass spy woman, young-adult favourite (Jennifer Lawrence) - it sounds like you should be able to slot Scarlett Johansson into the role and it fit within the MCU.  This is not the case.
If that's how codebreaking works, you could spell anything
Red Sparrow is based on the 2013 Jason Matthews novel about Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) - an acclaimed Russian ballerina whose career is cut short following injury.  She is approached by her (frankly creepy and gross) uncle (Matthian Schoenaerts) who works in Russian intelligence (and is surprisingly forward about mentioning this) and sends her to train with the Sparrows (Russian operatives).  In exchange, she can continue to afford treatment and care for her ill mother.  Lots and lots of Russian double crossing ensues.

I really didn't like this and there are lots of reasons why.  Firstly, I don't think it was marketed correctly.  A casual observer looking at the trailer, the cast, crew (directed by Francis Lawrence of The Hunger Games) and rating (15) may assume that this was for a younger audience, who may be there because of Jennifer Lawrence and the type of films she has previously made (generally pro-women, characters usually defiant under pressure).  The poster doesn't suggest otherwise.  These entirely reasonable assumptions are incorrect.  Lawrence and her colleagues mutter in monotone Russian accents throughout, and all the things that make Lawrence a watchable actress are the things that are stripped out in this film.  I can't imagine watching this as a 15 year old and enjoying it.

Secondly, it is incredibly sexist to both men and women.  Charlotte Rampling's Matron character advises that Sparrows must learn about their targets, and become their missing pieces so that information can be obtained.  But it seems that the only missing piece that a woman can offer is sex.  Which is sexist for everyone.  It's sexist for all the men in this film to whom Dominika essentially says "Vee haff seggs now?" in a flat Russian accent - that not only a) is that the only thing that men want, but b) that's all that has to happen for them to spill all their State secrets.  As for the Sparrow school, the only thing that is taught is sex.  Not languages, self-defence, weaponry, espionage or anything else that may be useful.  Just sex.  Not seduction.  Just sex.  There is an argument that the point of Sparrow School is to weaponise sexuality and for Dominika to reclaim her body and personality after rapes and attempted rapes.  That premise holds for one moment until you remember that if Dominika doesn't go to Sparrow School, she will be murdered because she saw a man be killed (while raping her).  More to the point, it seems to be something that is only taught to the women.  There are men in the classes, but they aren't the ones asked to perform sex acts in front of their peers.

The direction is also muddled.  Francis Lawrence doesn't appear to be showing nudity as titillation (which is good, given the subject matter).  Nudity is perfunctory at best.  The film is incredibly violent to every character, and it is painful, brutal violence rather than the "walk-it-off" violence of most action films.  But...all the men who die horribly, do so fully clothed.  All the women who die are in various states of undress when they are killed.  All the men who are tortured, get tortured bloodlessly and off screen.  When it's the women, the camera points straight at it and doesn't move away.  It's so noticeable that it's strange that the director/writers don't seem to be making any point about this.  Or failing that, it's strange that no one seems to have watched the film and thought "it appears that I am involved in an incredibly misogynistic film here".
J-Law's face usually...
Really odd choices for everyone involved.  The only assumption I can make here is that the studio have some serious dirt that they used as leverage against every person involved in this film.  That's the only way I can explain how this script was allowed to fly the nest.
I prefer this one...
Additional thoughts, questions, comments:
  • As with Breaking Bad, this would have been much shorter if the NHS was in place.
  • Is Jennifer Lawrence trying to shake her YA persona?  Between this and Mother!, these are two very distinctly different films from her usual "type", and both have been very divisive.
  • The ending was pretty decent, but after nearly 2 1/2 hours of dislike, it was too little too late for me.