Friday, 16 April 2010

Ride the Dragon



There was a period in Disney animation, just after The Lion King was released, where you thought that somebody had finally cracked it. Some talented boffin had finally discovered the formula to regularly produce glorious mainstream entertainment that wasn’t predicated on a single individual’s talent. That a large, soulless corporation had figured out how to orientate its massive resources to make something of value that people wanted to see in their millions. The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin. The Lion King. Fantastic family entertainment one and all.

And then it all started to go wrong. Pocahontas was the first indication that the formula was being corrupted. Despite the animation growing in skill and beauty, the script, stories and characters became horribly dull. Disney lost its ability to create truly iconic characters. Sometimes, in films like Mulan, you saw glimpses of that magic touch. But with the ascendancy of Pixar (who really do seem to have found and perfected that formula), Disney continued to diminish.

The one unadulterated bright spot of that period was Lilo and Stitch, an oddball film that imbued the careworn Disney aesthetic with a funky, modern sensibility. It combined the brilliantly funny Warners-esque humour of Emperor’s New Grove with an emotional clarity and appreciation for the weird and tangential which you see regularly in shows like Spongebob Squarepants and Fairly Odd Parents. Its sort of an overlooked classic, one that seems to revel in its inability to be classified.

I mention all this because the director of Lilo have given Dreamworks Animation its first really Pixar-level CGI film. How to Train Your Dragon is something of a minor triumph – a film that manages to balance action, humour, heart and even a deft political undertow while still being hugely entertaining. For Dreamworks in particular, this borders on a revelation.

Dreamworks has always been the bridesmaid to Pixar. Its first CGI film, Antz, pretty much set the template for all further animation. A big celebrity voice cast. Colourful, if slightly plastic CGI. Endless pop cultural riffs strung together masquerading as a plot. In almost every way, their films have strived and failed to provide the same level of technical and artistic success, and the particular emotional resonance that the greatest of Pixar films seem to have as a stock in trade.

This finally seemed like it might be beginning to change with Kung Fu Panda. That film worked on a completely different level to other Dreamworks films. The animation was certainly a major step forward, with some of those most lyrical and breathtaking sequences that the company has ever put together. The script had its share of pop culture jokes but also created proper characters and cast them with performance in mind, not celebrity. While I think Pixar would ultimately have done more with the film (the Furious Five are particularly under-developed) it felt like a genuine effort to up their game.

So it’s a real pleasure to say that Dragon is proof that Dreamworks is finally finding its feet. For the first time, they have put pressure on Pixar. Toy Story 3 better be damn good.

Technically, the film is just as good as Panda, with the flying sequences offering some of the most awe-inspiring and emotional moments of 3D rapture in any film. The feeling of joy and release is palpable and they are incredibly important to the emotional core of the film. Imagine them akin to dance sequences in a musical film. They are the visual shorthand for a developing emotional bond and the film executes them with effortless grace.

So much of the film’s value is not necessarily in its plot (which is fast-paced and well worked through) nor in its characters (who are memorable, nicely written and brilliantly performed) but in the film’s spirit and moral. Like the very best of Pixar, Dragon is really about something and manages to weave its message with nuance and power. Like Avatar, it’s actually incredibly bold in its liberal, inclusive outlook. It is a spirited defence of empathy, of understanding and healing cultural differences. And it is a forthright defense of the value of questioning the wisdom of your elders.

That’s even before we get in to Dragon’s portrayal of disability. One of the value’s of Lilo and Stitch was that it wasn’t a film where the central emotional dynamic rev0olved around searching for a romantic relationship. Lilo was an awkward girl who longed for a family. Any kind of family. And the way that film complicated her desire with both fantastical and mundanely real-world concerns (ie intergalactic aliens and social service employees) felt like a breath of fresh air. Lilo eventually finds her family but it is about as far from the nuclear ‘ideal’ as you could imagine. Dragon has a similar somewhat radical spirit, There is a narrative turn in the final moments which required real delicacy to pull off. Not only do the filmmakers, performers and animators pitch it perfectly but the film leaves you soaring and giddy. I think Dragon will have real value to children who find themselves in a challenging emotional and physical situation. I think it will help to give them hope and strength and will do so while still being hugely entertaining.

Part of the reason that I am so excited by this film is because it was such a surprise. I had read some admiring reviews but nothing had quite prepared me for how beautiful, exciting and emotional the film actually turned out to be. This is about as perfect a piece of family entertainment as you could ask for.

Pixar… you’re on notice!

It Does



Its rare that a film is graced with a titile that is also a perfect encapsulation of an emotional reaction. I guess you could argue Crash would come pretty close, if they put Car before it. But even that doesn’t adequately describe the shit and horror of that piece of Hollywood blah-gasm. No, unlike Crash, Kick Ass does exactly that – gleefully, efficiently and with kinky abandon.

I was a big fan of Matthew Vaughan’s last film Stardust. I thought it did a first rate job of selling its world and concept. He had an excellent eye for actors (with one glaring exception) and proved surprisingly adept at hitting the story’s emotional and romantic beats. These skills prove essential to making Kick Ass work as well as it does.

I’m going to start with the script. Vaughan and Jane Goldman had a similar challenge with Kick Ass as they did with Stardust. Both films have very specific worlds and attitudes that need to be established to allow the viewers to suspend disbelief. They are outlandish but also oddly rooted in reality, especially when it comes to emotions and character motivations. Both also straddle some quite diverse and potentially conflicting tonal elements. With Stardust, these changes sometimes tripped up the film. But its obvious that Vaughan and Goldman have progressed and largely learned their lessons. Kick Ass is a supremely assured piece of mainstream writing, one what leaps genres with ease and constantly tickles and teases the audience.

While the film is episodic, and seems to sag slightly about 2/3 of the way through, it delivers a final run of sequences which are astonishing both viscerally and oddly emotionally. When you read the changes that went in to the film from the comic book, you also appreciate the talent that Goldman and Vaughan brought to re-shaping the material, teasing out the elements which worked and allowing the story to find its own shape onscreen.

Vaughan as director has also upped his game in every way. The action scenes in Kick-Ass reminded me a great deal of Kill Bill – hyper-real fighting within a vaguely real-world construct. The character of Hit Girl, an 11 year old assassin should imbalance the entire film as she is the one utterly fantastical element but it somehow remains consistent. I believed that both Hit Girl and Kick Ass could inhabit the same world and that is down to the skill of Vaughan, Goldman and the actors. The actions scenes are visceral, varied and kinetic but punctuates them with moments and scenes of romance, comedy and tragey which add texture to the film. This may also be one of the funniest films I have seen in a long time, and much of that laughter is seeing how ballsy and committed the film is from scene to scene. Kick Ass is the type of film where plot points which should annoy the shit out of me (the ‘pretending to be gay’ romance plot for example) actually turn out to be oddly sweet and endearing.

Then there’s the cast. With Stardust, Vaughan assembled a real hodge-podge of Hollywood-stars, up and comers and complete unknowns. Except for Robert DeNiro (who was completely, if understandably miscast) it worked perfectly. In Kick Ass, I don’t need to make any concessions. Even Nic Cage, who I have grown to loathe, is perfect as Big Daddy, a character that allows him to channel his more eccentric inclinations to serve character first. Crucially, he has excellent chemistry with Chloe Moretz who plays Hit Girl. Their bond is weird, very unhealthy and yet has a significant emotional pay-off late in the film. Moretz is astonishing in this role. Again, I make the comparison to Kill Bill because she feels just as iconic as Uma Thurman’s Bride. And like Thurman, Moretz finds the grace notes to make her seem both childishly naïve and frighteningly determined.

Holding the whole thing together as the titular Kick Ass is Aaron Johnson. I didn’t see Nowhere Boy so I was unprepared for the confidence with which he acts in this film. It’s a performance at least on the level of Tobey Maguire’s work in Spiderman - he gets the same balance of goofy teen humour and romance while still hitting the right dramatic notes. It’s a real testament to his skill that in a film stuffed with scene stealers (and Chrisopher Mintz-Plasse and Mark Strong are both good enough to stroll away with the film) he consistently manages to focus the attention back on him. This is also a mark of Vaughan and Goldman who understand the emotional spine of the film and how to make their protagonist as engaging and interesting as everything else. This is not a skill which should be underrated. The Batman films have never quite been able to achieve this.

I guess I should probably say something about Chris Tookey’s now infamous Daily Mail review. I can understand him not liking the film, but his charges of paedophilia can stand to have another person point and laugh. One of the tricky tonal points that the film handles is how remarkably unsexualised Hit Girl is. Its quite impressive, especially in this day and age that neither character nor actress feel exploited. This is achieved not only through deft costuming (in fact the costumes throughout are absolutely superb) but also through deploying humour to deflect any moments that might tip the film into more problematic territory. That Tookey not only read such malign intentions on the part of the filmmakers but then compounded it by the crass sensationalism of dragging James Bulger and Damiola Taylor into it says a lot more about his own pathetic and reactionary morals than anything else.

I don’t think Kick Ass is the greatest movie ever made. I still think that honour should go to Spiderman 2 but Kick Ass works much better than almost anything else. If nothing else, its an indication that Vaughan and Goldman are a formidable duo, the equal of anything that Hollywood is producing right now.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Instant Twitter-esque take on Kick Ass




FFFFFFUUUUUUCCCCCCKKKKKK Me! Awesome, iconic, everything the flaccid Watchmen wanted to be and more. Hit Girl will be as much of a legend as The Bride

More to come later

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Fame! Adulation! A mention in another blog!

... very random but very cool. My piece on that god-awful Shirley Jones show got
quoted on The Stage website

Stepping out of the Glass Closet

I always feel a little conflicted when a major celebrity finally comes out after years of speculation, especially when their career is on the slide or they have a memoir to advertise. I mean, on the one hand, more visibility is always great. Their story will help to inspire others and they usually become excellent ambassadors (at least in the short term).

Yet there is also the sense that it might have meant a hell of a lot more when the celebrity was at their height of their success. That's what makes Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris so important. Both celebrities came out when they were already well known performers but have parlayed that into even greater subsequent success. They are important symbols against the idea that being gay inherently limits your career options.

I am genuinely happy for Ricky Martin, who has finally announced that he is “proud to say that I am a fortunate homosexual man. I am very blessed to be who I am”. His letter is sweet, if at times reads like a 90s era Diane Warren ballad (example; “Today is my day, this is my time, and this is my moment.” – just imagine the swelling strings as Celine belts that one out). But he makes clear in the letter that this was as the result of him writing his autobiography. The 'revelation' will generate headlines and publicity in a way which will no doubt guarantee a large amount of media interest when the book is released as well as a raft of media appearances. I can also imagine the long line of gay rights groups who will only be too eager to bask in this reflected light by giving Martin some kind of award (Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD and Stonewall leap immediately to mind).

One of the things I hear in switchboard all the time is then pain, fear and horror that closeted people have about coming out. Their view of it is as a traumatic, public declaration which leaves them exposed and vulnerable to attacks from all corners. In some respects, high profile coming out announcements merely reinforce this by underlying a similar ‘all or nothing’ approach. It's one of the reasons I continue to admire the ‘coming out’ scene in one of the early episodes of Glee. Its simply understatement was exactly the type of message which should be sent out to people who are struggling with similar issues.

Is it hypocritical of me to admire the coming out of Donal Og and Gareth Thomas but to feel conflicted about Martin simply because of the respective industries that they work for? Because Martin was a performer, I should expect him to be more open? Looking back on some of his videos, it’s hard not to get the impression that the lady doth protest too much, and yet this is what is expected in pop music.

Gah... I don’t have an answer to this. I’m sure Martin will do well commercially out of this, and I truly hope it does give him personal peace and happiness. I just wish it would lead to some truly high profile and relevant stars also taking the plunge.

So as a thank you to Mr Martin for finally putting to bed all those rumours, here is the Grammy performance which re-launched him as a pop star in the English speaking world. Though I prefer La Vida Loca, this is one of those moments where you can see a pop star being born.


Ricky Martin - The Cup Of Life (Live Grammy Music Awards)
Uploaded by zocomoro. - Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more.

And as an added gay extra, here is Martin and Queen Kylie singing La Vida Loca

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

I kinda Love You Phillip Morris


Its taken me a while to get my head around I Love You Phillip Morris (ILYPM). The film tries to be so many different things during its fairly brief running time that I imagine reactions are going to be all over the place. This is obviously intentional on the part of the filmmakers and I think its a mark of their skill that they largely keep control of the tone and pace throughout.

ILYPM is a love story. And a prison movie. And a con movie, And an outrageous John Waters-esque comedy, And defiantly, sleazily, gloriously gay. It's also, quite implausibly, based on true events. Getting any one of those elements drastically wrong would have destroyed the picture. And yet the directors maintain a level of sustained anarchy which never becomes wearying. And though some elements work better than others, it feels stylistically coherent which is something of a minor miracle.

In a lot of respects, tonally, it reminds me of Precious. One of the issues that some people had with Precious was its lurches from genre to genre. I admit this is a problem, I also had with the film. I think ILYPM navigates its tonal changes with more confidence but never hits the formidable dramatic heights of Precious. This isn't necessarily a criticism. Mo'Nique's final monologue is a masterclass and one of the finest scenes in the last decade. In ILYPM, I wonder how viewers will react to the change in tone which happens in the third act. I loved the first hour. It was hilarious, casually disreputable and filled with clever moments. It also has moments of surprising tenderness woven through. There is a fantastic moment not long after Carry and McGregor first meet when they dance together in their cell while their neighbour is violently restrained by guards. It balances romanticism and slapstick with real skill. The third act takes a hard, brutal turn and I wonder how many viewers will be able to take that final stretch. I respect the hell out of the filmmakers for pushing it as far as they did.

This is a film in which the level the actors pitch their work is as important as the more technical elements. I have slightly mixed feelings about Ewan McGregor. He uses the same southern accent as he had in Big Fish and it just sounds phony. I don't buy it for a moment. He's very good in the last half hour but for me, his accent is a barrier to those early crucial scenes where he develops his relationship with Jim Carrey. Carrey, on the other hand, gives another one of those performances which periodically remind us what a fearless, gifted actor he can be, He invests everything into this role and carries off the different emotional states of his character with real skill. He risks a lot more with this role then he did with Eternal Sunshine or Truman Show,. ILYPM demands that he use his wackier, mainstream persona and then twist and complicate it in unexpected and quite brilliant ways. There is nothing genteel or tortured about Carrey's homosexuality in this film. It is out, loud, proud and I can't think of another actor at his level who would risk doing it.

The supporting cast is great including the peerless Leslie Mann. Mann should have been Oscar nominated for Knocked Up (along with Paul Rudd). Here, she is effortlessly funny and sympathetic as Carrey's fundamentalist ex-wife.

I am shocked in some respects that this film got made. Shocked yet delighted. O could imagine that some of my gay friends will have a problem with it. But there is something refreshingly mental about the whole project which gives a genuine sense of originality and artistic anarchy into the mainstream. ILYPM isn't perfect but it throws a medium sized cherry bomb into what is acceptable in a cineplex and more importantly, what a major Hollywood star will be prepared to do.

Kudos

Theater Hell

Its instructive every so often to see a show that is an epic fail. I’m not talking about one which is just boring or ill-conceived. I’m talking about one which fails so monumentally that it achieves a sort of perfection which can leave you awestruck. I had the privilege last night of witnessing a true musical theatre holocaust in Shirley Jones’ show at the Arts Theatre.

Jones is a bona fide pop cultural artifact. Broadway star, Oscar winner and the onscreen and real life mother of David Cassidy in the Partridge family. Patrick is her son who has parlayed a helmet of hair, name recognition and a passable voice into some kind of musicals career. Now 76, I presume Jones can plausibly claim to have passed into ‘living legend’ status but its really more of a horror show than a legend.

Firstly, there is no doubt that Jones, at some point had a gorgeous bell of a voice. The clip package which proceeded her entrance hit all the highlights of her formidable career (including the lowlights of singing at Regan’s inauguration). But from her opening mauling of Tonight it became clear that her voice is, charitably, not what it once was. She could just about belt out the big notes but there was not a jot of nuance or grace in any of her numbers. I was sort of reminded of a story from Meryl Seacrests biography on Sondheim. During the rehearsals on Gypsy, he learned that Jerome Robbins controlled the intensity of Ethel Merman’s singing by simply telling her to say “louder” or “quieter”. I get the impression that this is about the level of Jones’ own interpretation.

All of this is even before we get to the banter. Oh my... the banter. Painfully scripted and delivered with about as much conviction as a take-away food order, Jones never for once gave the impression that she had actually lived through any of her anecdotes. There was a sort of plastic fantastic veneer through which she communicated to the audience that had everything sounding canned or condescending. As my friend wisely said, Americans have difficulty with humble. Jones couldn’;t help coming off as deeply self-satisfied. When you add the lapses into nasty Republicanism and silly nostalgia, you have a uniquely awful performance.

Yet that wasn’t even the worst part of the might. Because there was Patrick Cassidy. Imagine a televangelist, or an Amway salesman, a man who is a terrifying shade of orange and possesses the type of perfectly coiffed hair that looks like it could be snapped off like a Lego man. That is Patrick Cassidy. Patrick wishes you to take two very important lessons from his part of the show;
1) That he is in no way jealous of the success of his more famous family members. Not in the slightest. He repeats this so often and with such a strained smile that I can only explain it as some kind of mantra that was beaten into him as a child.
2) He is a full blooded heterosexual. He is as straight as they come. He is straight squared. No, make that straight cubed. He loves women so much that he is practically a lesbian. And all his brothers are too! They are just a gaggle of women-fuckers. Why do I get the impression there is a whole history of National Enquirer innuendo here that I am not getting.

Anyway, for somebody who is supposed to be a long running Broadway performer, Patrick has a deeply unlikeable stage presence, the comic timing of my dead nan and a voice which at times searches desperately for the right pitch. His version of Being Alive will haunt me forever. On the other hand, his duet with a paper cut-out of David Cassidy’s head will provide me with joyful memories for years to come.

Yet despite all this, I am super-glad that I saw the show. I now have a benchmark to measure how shit a night at the theatre can actually be. But I was never bored. In fact the whole thing was vastly entertaining, and I have to award their persistence in mining ever lower levels of the barrel throughout the night. Shirley and Patrick, thank you. I will never forget it.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

QAFUK versus QAFUS



I’ve been oddly compelled to watch the entire first season of the American Queer as Folk. I say oddly compelled because the show demonstrates just how badly the original Queer as Folk could have gone.

The US version starts off as an almost perfect carbon copy of the UK version. The same characters, relationships, even the same plotlines. But that's really where the similarities end. Russell T Davies’ show is a great drama which uses the trappings of soap opera to examine some very real relationships and emotions. It has a specific narrative and dramatic focus and an in-depth appreciation and knowledge of all its characters which gives the series its power.

The US Queer as Folk, meanwhile is all soap opera. A gay soap opera that feels like it was written by straight people. In just a few episodes it managed to take everything that was subtle and complex about the original characters and flatten them into silly stereotypes. During the commentary for the second season of Queer as Folk UK (hereafter referred to as QAFUK), Russel; T Davies talks about being commissioned to write 10 extra episodes of QAFUK . He sat down to write them and realised that he couldn’t come up with anything that didn't feel like a soap opera. The story he wanted to tell was about the triangle between Stuart, Vince and Nathan. In two episodes he wrapped it up. Queer as Folk US (hereafter QAFUS) gives a terrifying glimpse into what the show could have become.

Lets take the character of Justin, which is the US version of Nathan. First of all, his age has been increased from 15 to 17. This has several knock on effects. For one, it allows the writers to edge into making him more mature, thus making his relationship with Stuart/Brian much more palatable. It also allows the writers to turn them into a semi-believable couple (after all, there is only about 10 years between them in this new version) and the purposeful maturing of Justin actually turns him into the stronger one of the two. Not only is Justin pretty, but he is SUPER intelligent, and SUPER political and just plain SUPER! He saves Brian from sexual harassment. He sets of a Gay-Straight Alliance in School. He gets into an Ivy League school. Contrast that with Nathan in QAFUK. 15, a walking hormone, not too bright, but not too stupid, just figuring out how to use his body to manipulate and completely in lust with Stuart. The character is so much richer and more interesting, his blunt inarticulateness a major part of his charm. This is even reflected in the differing styles of actors – Randy Harrison is poised, polished and far too knowing. Charlie Hunnam is rougher, less skilled but his teenage directness is perfect for the character and he actually handles some of the subtler stuff with a m,uch more natural grace.

Or lets look at the character of Debbie/Hazel, the fag-hag mother of Michael/Vince. In QAFUK, Hazel is a vibrant, three-dimensional character, brilliantly played by Denise Black. She is broad, stereotypical, and hovers dangerously close to parody at times. But she is also the bright, beating soul of the show. She’s too far down to earth to offer platitudes, and her performance during the after-party scene with Aiden Gillen is a beauty. Contrast that with Debbie, as played by Cagney and Lacey legend Sharon Gless. Not only is she rotten in the role, over-playing it in every way that Black knew to underplay, but the character has been re-concieved as the Font of Wisdom and its a role that routinely kills both the drama and comedy.

QUAFUS obviously wants to be a gay Sex and the City. It has a very similar glossy aesthetic, which feels plastic and fake after the much grittier gloss of the original. But we already had a gay Sex and the City – it was called Sex and the City and despite the four females in the lead, it was about as brilliant a gay sitcom (with far more developed dramatic beats) as you could have asked for. QUAFUK worked because it told a pretty universal emotional story through the prism of its gay characters. QUAFUS is much more interested in the trappings of modern gay life and less interested in how these trappings are seen by gay people. Thats why I thought it felt like a gay drama written by straight people. Its obsessed with what makes gay people different but examines them in the least subtle way.

The perfect example of this is how the issue of HIV and sexual health is handled. In QUAFUK it's in the background, just a general part of the character’s lives without it having to be made a big deal. QUAFUS has to make a big deal of it from the first episode, and repeatedly afterwards. It has a pretty shitty view of HIV issues, which is dealt with in an episode which borders on the offensive.

So does anything work? Well, the men are much hotter, in that very plastic American way. It doesn’t shy away from being explicit which I am glad to see (you definitely see more and more varied flesh in this show). The attempt to develop Lyndsey and Melanie as a couple are welcome (if as ham fisted as everything in the show). Despite the show having a much more arch and sitcommy dialogue, it can be very funny. And Peter Paige is a delight throughout as the ‘camper’ of the friends.

But despite this, the show just isn’t very good. Brian and Michael are pale, flat imitations of Stuart and Vince. The writers lack all of the individuality, warmth and skill that Davies brought to QAFUK. And yet here I am, 17 episodes in and still watching.

Update OK, I forgive QAFUS a little because it just had a scene with Emmet that was a beautiful piss-take on the first meeting in the school dance between Tony and Maria in West Side Story. Hilarious. In fact, the more surreal moments with Emmet work really well (such as the episode where he was stalked by his online profile) and the show might be stronger if it followed those instincts more oftenm

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Alice in Blunderland

I am a defender of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. With the exception of the Oompah Loompahs, I think the film is superior in almost every way to the Gene Wilder version. The design work is marvellous, the script is darkler, funnier and more inventive, yet still emboduies the spirit of Dahl’s story better then the original film. And the acting, from the entire cast is just note perfect, including a fantastic, very specific performance from Depp that I think is one of his strongest.

This is a slight preamble to say that I was pre-disposed to liking Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. It seemed like a good fit for all involved and my interest went up several fold when I heard that this wasn’t a straight re-tread of the book but was something of a sequel/reimagining of the original material. I have had Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars sitting on my shelf unread for about three years and this seemed like an equally interesting take on Carroll’s brilliant story. Although I wasn’t all that enthused by some of the design which had been released, I still held out hope.

Well, I was spectacularly wrong.

This is an example of a film in which almost every single artistic decision was a mistake. This script is an appalling piece of wanky fantasy hog-wash. It completely misses the charm and intelligence of the original Alice material, and instead turns it into another ‘Prophesised Hero’ storyline that is almost completely at odds with the spirit of the original books. I could, perhaps, have forgiven this blundering plunder of such a wonderful source material if Linda Wioolverton had managed to craft something witty or exciting. But her writing is spectacularly incompetent, layering ridiculous plot contrivances on top of pathetic dialogue and completely inept attempts at characterisation. The film is nothing but a re-hash of Hook, and as despised as that film is, it at least shows a glimmer of understanding about what makes the original Pan stories work. Compare Alice to PJ Hogan's magnificent Peter Pan from 2003 for an example of just how to get this type of complex material to work.

I’m not going to rabbit on about this too much. Of the actors, only Helena Bonham Carter really registers (and Johnny Depp in particular is terrible – a career nadir for him in which he doesn’t seem to have a single interesting moment in the entire film). The design is ugly and squalid and the finale pathetically undercooked. It’s the worst film I have seen in a long time and I would politely suggest thast Burton take a break from directing for a while because it seems clear that he needs to refresh his obsessions.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Princess and the Frog



Because I am still trying to get my head around A Single Man, I thought I would post a few thoughts on The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s attempt to re-energise their hand-drawn animation division.

I have always adored Disney’s animated films. Memories of them go down deep – Peter Pan is the first film I remember seeing in the cinema. Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, Bambi… I can remember each of these films intimately. I think their late 80s to mid 90s renaissance was an astonishingly successful creative run. Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin are two of my favourite films – both of them are wonderful musicals, with great characters, and a great balance between drama, romance and comedy. Even in its twilight years, Disney could still pull off a wonderful piece of entertainment like Lilo and Stitch and criminally under-rated The Emperor’s New Groove.

I went in to The Princess and the Frog (hereafter referred to as TPATF) with high hopes, especially after the generally excellent reviews from the States. So it is with the tiniest bit of regret that I say that I wasn’t quite as blown away by the film as I hoped to be. It was surprisingly well written, featured some fantastic voice work and is one of the most beautifully animated films I have seen in years, but it feels like its missing some element that would elevate it to more than the sum of its parts.

A few quick notes;

- The central couple of Tiana and Prince Naveen is one of the most appealing in any of Disney’s films. Both characters are well written, have a believable and interesting dramatic arc and more importantly, fall in love for reasons other than “the script says so”. This has often been a problem with traditional Disney princess films which tended to bland out the male lead in particular. Tiana and Naveen reminded me of Beauty and Beast and Aladdin and Jasmine in the equitable way that their characters are treated by the film.

- While not exactly emphasising Tiana’s poverty, the film does an effective job of highlighting the very real economic and class distinctions which prevent Tiana from realising her ambition and potential. What the film doesn’t really address is race – it tends to use class as a signifier instead, which is understandable if also cowardly and unrealistic.

- The voice work is, as in most Disney films, first rate. The supporting roles are hugely entertaining. I particularly loved Jennifer Cody as Charlotte, who gave a breathlessly entertaining whirlwind of dizzy blond ambition. However, it's Anika None Rose, who was unfairly over-shadowed in Dreamgirls, who deserves the most praise and gives one of the strongest female vocal performances in any Disney film.

- Disney gets scary again – its about time. Dr Facilier and his Voodoo shadows are actually really creepy and recall such memorable Disney villains as Maleficent and Ursula.

- The two areas that the film stumbles on are the music and the comedy. Randy Newman’s score has some nice tunes, but I couldn’t hum a single melody coming out of the film and the lyrics are particularly weak. The animators make a huge effort to spice up the big production numbers with some gorgeous visuals, but they can’t do much with the actual score. Likewise, the comedy is surprisingly weak, despite the strength of the voice cast. I think it’s these two elements which prevent TPATF from soaring to the same heights as the greatest of the 90s output.

Despite these caveats, if you love Disney and love the art of animation, I think its definitely worth seeing the film. The Little Mermaid had a lot of problems too, but it still worked, and more importantly, paved the way for a significant advance with Beauty and the Beast. I think the elements that work for TPATF are those which are the hardest to get right, and I really hope that John Lasseter (aka The Pixar Genius) continued to develop the work of the hand drawn division at Disney

Friday, 19 February 2010

Assisted suicide in the time of AIDS

I’ve been trying to process the whole Ray Gosling thing for the last couple of days – it troubles me in all sorts of ways.

Ray Gosling is a former TV presenter who, while appearing on a regional BBC show called Inside Out, revealed that he had smothered a male lover of his who was suffering from advanced stage AIDS in the late eighties. He refused to divulge any other details about the man, apart from claiming that it was done in a hospital, with the apparent tacit consent of a doctor and that it was because of a pact he made with the man that each would do the same if the other were in extreme pain and suffering. Gosling was arrested by police earlier in the week who held him on suspicion of murder and released him on bail last night.

This case obviously throws up an enormous amount of questions and issues, none of which Ray Gosling seems particularly interested in answering. He claims that he would never reveal the identity of the man (even “under torture”) but did characterise his relationship with him as just a “bit on the side”. The social pariah status accorded to those who suffered in this time should not be forgotten – not only were these men and women generally members of a marginalised and oppressed minority, but the disease itself was the subject of a constant stream of sickening and lurid stories from a frothing tabloid press. I am willing to bet that there were many men who faced the decision during the horror of the early years of the AIDS epidemic to end the life of a friend or partner who was in agony. It would not have been surprising if there were many ‘mercy killings’ during this time, and in circumstances where the immediate family would either be unwilling or unable to be included in the decision.

So, broadly, I would respect Mr Gosling’s decision. I believe that some form of euthanasia should be legalised – that it should be fully consensual and strictly controlled. This matters more to me than you might realise and the particular case of Gosling obviously hits very close to home.

Yet, there is something about this particular case which just smells funny. Firstly, Gosling seems to have revealed this on the spur of the moment without any thought to the consequences. He apparently did not think that there would be much of a fuss, which seems silly as he was admitting to a fairly serious crime that had received a huge amount of press attention recently due to several high profile cases and convictions. I don’t really fault the police here – Gosling admitted to helping to kill a man (whatever the circumstances) which is something they are duty bound to investigate. I doubt it will go much further, but they were put in a pretty awful position.

Secondly, Gosling’s characterisation of his relationship with the dead man as his “bit on the side”. There is something a little creepy and wrong about using such dismissive terms about a man you were supposed to be so close to that he would ask you to help him end his life. I would imagine that one of the reasons that those who support the concept of assisted suicide are reticent about coming to the defence of Gosling is that we have nothing but his word about the consent that was given for this action. The fact that he was smothered also inevitably brings up questions. Smothering would likely leave a pretty good indication that death was not caused by the disease. Would the tacit acceptance of one doctor be enough to prevent an investigation?

I don’t want to impugn the motives of Gosling for this revelation. It’s not like the man has a book to sell or a new programme to launch. But I can’t help thinking why he decided that now was the time to reveal it, and then to be so selective about the details that he does reveal. It does nothing to help the cause of those fighting for the right to end their lives with dignity, and creates a world of trouble both for him and the police.

In The Independent, Matthew Norman speculated that Gosling was really talking about the death of Gosling’s long-term partner Bryn Allsop of pancreatic cancer in 1999, and that this may have been a roundabout way of confession to helping to end Allsop’s life. He also charges forward in defending Gosling;

What, asked Miss Montague, gave him the right? "Human... rights," he answered. "I'm sorry.... If it happens to a lover or a friend of yours, a husband or a wife, I hope it doesn't... but when it does, sometimes you have to do brave things, and say, to use Nottingham language, bugger the law." What a glorious expression of personal liberty that is. What magnificent boldness publicly to make releasing another from unimaginable pain a noble act of civil disobedience as well as of mercy.


I’m not sure I buy this and it certainly isn’t as clear cut as Norman seems to believe. He ignores what could be the very relevant particulars in this case; of how consent is obtained and who should be trusted in each situation. If Gosling’s story is true as he describes it, then the most important voice in all of this, the man who tragically dies, the “bit on the side”, is silent. We can never find out the true situation.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Press Complaints Commission FAIL

Fucking Hell

I’m sorry, I know I have been using less than delicate headlines lately on my blog, and I had promised myself that I wouldn’t do this again. But that is the only reaction that could properly sum up my feelings to the news that the Press Complaints Commission haven’t seen fit to issue the mildest of rebukes to Jan Moir for her poisonous, homophobic and nasty column on the death of Stephen Gately.

It’s worth going back a little and reading exactly what Jan Moir wrote about Gately. Moir. Aside from completely dismissing the evidence of the coroner’s report that Gately died of natural causes, Moir talked about the "ooze" of "dangerous lifestyles" which “seeped out for all to see”. She followed this up with the following quote;


"Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael. Of course, in many cases this may be true."


…followed by


"Another real sadness about Gately's death is that it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships."


(h/t Malcolm Coles)

Now seriously, we’re all adults here. The PCC is made up of media professionals. They know precisely about using dog whistles to attack a subject while appearing to be in full concern troll mode. Moir is clearly trying to use Gately’s death (and the previous suicide of Matt Lucas’ partner) to slander all gay relationships as inherently sleazy and tragic. No amount of mealy-mouthed qualifiers can change the toxic homophobia of that column.

What followed was an enormous storm of protest, which extended right across to Europe and America. Moir’s article was passed around blogs, websites and Twitter. Hundreds of thousands of people read that article who would not normally have read the glorified fish and chips wrapping that is the 21st century Daily Mail. Tens of thousands of people, including Gately’s husband complained. This wasn’t a mob out for Moir’s blood – this was a group of engaged citizens who were disgusted at her vile attack on Gately, his family and millions of gay people in loving relationships. There was hardly a single serious media commentator who didn’t think that Moir had crossed a line. That this is par for the course for the Mail and its ilk is no longer an excuse. Moir can bleat on all she likes about freedom of expression, but it cuts both ways. She doesn’t get the right to slime a dead man and skip away free from criticism.

So, 25,000 people complained to the PCC. Their verdict is yet another example showing what a spineless piece of shit the self-regulator has become. Despite the quotes from the article above, the PCC claimed that;


While many complainants considered that there was an underlying tone of negativity towards Mr Gately and the complainant on account of the fact that they were gay, it was not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language in the article


Seriously, are they fucking kidding me? They read that article and couldn’t discern that Moir’s attacks on civil partnerships were an attack on gay couples? Civil partnerships are this country’s compromise for not offering gay people full marriage equality. Everybody knows they are only open to gay people. This is about the least subtle dog whistle you can imagine. Not to mention her constant stream of thinly veiled swipes about Gately’s homosexuality (“he could barely carry a tune in a Louis Vuitton trunk").

It’s worth noting here that the PCC, as I mentioned above, is a self-regulator. It is made up of the very media figures and owners that people will be complaining about. Paul Dacre, the loathsome editor of the Daily Mail and Moir’s boss is actually head of the PCC’s Editor’s Code of Practice (which just makes me want to cry). Baroness Buscombe defended the ruling by saying that columnists had to be free to print material which may appear to be distasteful or challenging to readers.

That is clearly not what Moir did. Moir decided to ignore the facts of the case as established by the coroner’s report in order to imply that it was Gateley’s lifestyle (ie his gayness) which caused his death. I would argue that it was linking the death of Matt Lucas’ partner which should have been the final nail in her coffin. There was no reason to include him unless she were looking to make a point about gay civil partnerships in general.

I think there is something deeper going on here and it is well articulated by Anton Vowl. I happen to suspect that this complaint may actually have been upheld if it had not been generated by outrage on social networking sites. I think this was the PCC circling the wagons against the type of user-generated storm that can easily erupt now when an article touches a deep nerve within people. Moir’s spitefulness and homophobia, wedded to the death of a much-loved pop star, released at a time when the ability for people to share articles and encourage action is at its highest created a perfect set of circumstances and a real challenge to the PCC. I think they failed spectacularly and have done more to undermine their own organization and the concept of press self-regulation than any other issue in the last couple of years.

Update
Its worth noting just quickly the context of Moir's remarks. At the time, there was a spate of hate crimes directed at gay people around the UK, with one older man being kicked to death by a gang of teenagers in Trafalgar Square. There was a pretty clear continuum between the type of gentle but still pernicious homophoboa that Moir demonstrates and the violent attacks on gay people. But the PCC likes to think that freedom of expression exists in some kind of apolitical bubble. Idiots.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

"My Hammer is My Penis"



This, my friends, is the new Greatest Quote of All Time.

As said with exquisite comic timing by Captain Hammer to his lovelorn arch nemesis Dr Horrible, it may be the crowning achievement in Nathan Fillion’s under-valued but wonderful career so far.

I don’t know why it took so long for me to see Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. I mean this is a Joss Whedon musical. The last Joss Whedon musical was so good, I cried a little while watching it (and am secure enough in my masculinity to admit that). It stars Nathan Fillion who really can do no wrong at this stage. And while I have never seen How I Met Your Mother, I have always admired Neil Patrick Harris as a thoroughly modern gay celebrity. Like Ellen and Portia de Rossa, there is something refreshingly ordinary about his success and his gayness which probably does more to help kids come to terms with their sexuality than any number of earnest platitudes.

Yet I only for to see it for the first time last night. Dr Horrible isn’t perfect. I found the time constraints to be particularly irritating – each act is less than a quarter of an hour long which means that brevity is one of the show’s main characteristics. This plays very well for the comedy and musical sequences, but it’s a problem for the more dramatic and romantic elements of the story. The turn into darker territory in the end could have used some more time to develop, as could the earlier scenes between Horrible and Penny which sets up Horrible’s desire for her. Just making her sweet and nice to the homeless isn’t quite enough to sell the tragedy of the last act.

This is sort of important, but they ensure Dr Horrible is only a minor piece of brilliance in the Whedon pantheon. But minor key Whedon is still better then most of the shite out there and as a piece of short-form storytelling, Dr Horrible is certainly a weirdly perfect incapsulation of much of what makes Whedon worthwhile. It is consistently funny, likes to mess with genres to create something organic and sweet and it is a constant whirling-dervish of invention. Whedon writes great dialogue, he always has, but there is something surreally wacky about the elements of the Dr Horrible plot which display a new side to his writing. He takes the idea of a deconstructed comic hero-world and twists and enriches that vision with additions from Python, musical romance and soap opera.

And the cast… oh lordy the cast is wonderful. Felicia Day is luminous as Penny – it’s a shame that she isn’t given much to work with (this is one of the very rare instances of a Whedon show where the female role feels distinctly undercooked). Nathan Fillion looks like he is having insane amounts of fun as Captain Hammer. He gets most of the really funny lines and it helps that with his square jaw and (ahem…) rippling muscles, he looks like he stepped out of an old-fashioned comic book.

And as Dr Horrible, Neil Patrick Harris took the slightly under-written elements of the plot and characters and sells them completely. He is funny, sad, romantic – he sings, he dances, and he takes a beating with aplomb. He proves himself a natural at Whedon’s particular brand of stylised dialogue and he is spectacularly good at the pissy, dead-pan humour of Dr Horrible’s blog entries.

Harris is a rarity – one of the very few publicly out actors who has continued to have a thriving career playing very straight roles. Perhaps it is the public’s memory of him Dougie Howser and the affection they feel towards his sitcom stardom which makes this possible. But his class, and talent are hugely important in their own ways to helping breaking barriers and misconceptions about the ability of gay actors to become genuine stars.

I am still slightly unsure if this is the marker for a new way of artists working cooperatively. One of the aspects of Whedon’s creative career which I have always liked is how he seems to gather about him a large group of collaborators that follow him from project to project. With Dr Horrible, you have a some of his ex-writing staff making cameos all over the place. Both Fillion and Day have worked with Whedon before. It’s produced by James Contner. His brothers worked on the music and script. You see the same thing in Dollhouse. I don’t know why, but the idea that Whedon honours those who have helped him, and that he remains in this kind of contact with them is the sort of thing which makes me feel all the more thankful towards the end product. That he financed it himself and then shared the profits with cast and crew, just gives me warm and fuzzies..

I would be fearful for Whedon that if he started to go down this path it would further ghettoise him as a niche artist. I he has never quite been a JJ Abrams type, and his experiences with Network television haven’t been smooth, but Buffy and Angel became pop cultural phenomenons that expanded far beyond their initial viewings. I am not quite sure if the web would provide the same opportunities, particularly with the ADD way we all tend to consume media online. Dr Horrible already felt slightly constrained by the brevity of form – I want to see an expanded Dr Horrible world, not another few episodes chopped to fit into short bursts.

But that’s just me. I am greedy when it comes to Whedon’s work.

PS - SpellCheck weirdness – whenever I type Whedon in MSWord, it wants to change it to Théoden. Considering I have just finished the Helms Deep section of Two Towers, this tickled me.

PPS – If anybody wants to buy me a Captain Hammer t-shirt, I will love you long time

Monday, 15 February 2010

Pausing at the edge of Fangorn Forest


I am slightly ahead of schedule with the Lord of the Rings. I had given myself until the end of this weekend to reach the breaking of the fellowship at the end of book two but I was too engrossed in the whole thing and flew right into The Two Towers at some point yesterday afternoon. I am now with Merry and Pippin and the Ents, staring down at the murk of Isengard.

I think most people would agree that Fellowship is clearly the best of the books. Tolkien is obviously in complete romantic abandon with the world of The Shire, the Old Forest, The Barrow Downs, Bree and Rivendell. The pace quickens once the Fellowship is formed, but it feels organic as the story turns into a propulsive set of confrontations; The Fellowship v Caradhras, Gandalf v The Balrog, Frodo v Galadriel and finally, and most tragically, Frodo and Boromir. And while the second half of the book was as fresh and vivid as I remembered, I found the early part of the journey, up to the Weathertop to be much more immersive and entertaining this time round.

I think this is a function of being so familiar with the films. In Fellowship, the events after The Council of Elrond follow the course of the novel pretty closely. The deepest cuts are in the earlier part of the journey, and its not just Tom Bombadil. For example, I had forgotten how eerie and tense the whole Barrow-Wight section was (and am sorry to never get the chance to see Jackson visualise that section). And the development of the bond amongst the hobbits is also something which is sort of ‘assumed’ in the film, but is a delight to follow. This isn’t a case of the novel necessarily being better – due to length, the film had to often work in shorthand. Luckily the actors were excellent and had enough chemistry as a group to sell you their bond without it needing to be spelt out.

One of the areas that feels strange in the book is the lengthy time-frames. Once Gandalf confirms that Bilbo’s ring is the One Ring, the film barrels forward with breathtaking momentum, pausing briefly for breath at Rivendell and Lothlorien, but otherwise driving relentlessly forward to its epically emotional climax with the death of Boromir. The book… not so much. For a start, about 17 years or so passes between Bilbo and Frodo’s departure. And even when Frodo learns about the One Ring, he still takes months to leave The Shire. I think this is a story point which Tolkien never finds a particularly good excuse for – the idea that Frodo has to be careful about just disappearing is pretty weak tea when it’s the Root of All Evil that is in his possession. The delay doesn’t serve any kind of story function and really makes Gandalf and Frodo look more than a little idiotic. Though this doesn’t take away form how enjoyable the story is when Frodo finally decides to leave The Shire, it does make the opening a little clunky.

I was also sort of surprised at how the novel, and in particular the dialogue stood up. I don’t think anybody would argue with the idea that he isn’t the world’s most elegant writer of dialogue. It’s often stiff and bland, particularly with some of the more noble characters of high-born Elves (who I find tiresome and dull). Tolkien is at his best when writing Bilbo, Gandalf or Sam – they seem to have the more character and life to them then anybody else. But despite the fact that his style has been imitated and hilariously parodied for almost half a century now, The Lord of the Rings manages to flat above the fray – there is an aura of complete self-possession about the book which make it very easy to get swept by. Tolkien’s own deadly-serious belief actually works in the books favour – it gives it the feeling of revealed history rather than silly fantasy and allows the reader to glide past the awkward plotting and dodgy episodes (Tom Bombadil is just as irritating as I remembered).

Finally, its also clear what an amazing adaptation the movie was. It keeps the emotional and spiritual core of each character, deftly weaves in monumental amounts of exposition and still makes for a hugely exciting and ultimately heart-breaking journey. Jackson, Walsh and Boyens knew perfectly which of Tolkien’s dialogue needed to be kept and the subtle manoeuvrings of plot and character elements is beautifully done.

Onward to Rohan, Helms Deep and Emyn Muil

Friday, 12 February 2010

Homo-Manogamy?

Every group, no matter how it defines itself, has a couple of elements that they don't consider it polite to talk to an 'outsider' about. Generally these are quirks, foibles or inclinations which set them apart from what is perceived as the 'norm' in society, and which has often been used as a way for that group to be attacked.

For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the very best bloggers out there, has often written movingly about the conflicts within the larger American black community and the difficulty of airing those conflicts, which encapsulate class, race and gender, in the glare of the disapproval or bigotry of the white population.

For the gay community, one of those 'unmentionables' is monogamy, specifically (and I am probably laying myself open to all sorts of biases here) gay male monogamy. It's no secret that one of the claims that gets thrown round about gay men all the time is that they are incapable of forming deep, emotional bonds with one another – that their relationships are based on nothing but sweaty sinful fucking and therefore they don't deserve the respect that 'normal' straight couples are accorded. Marriage is too 'sacred', even in its civil state, to be sullied with the association of a little groom on groom action.

The thing is, there is a much wider and more accepting attitude towards open relationships in the gay community. I think this is a healthy thing – the open relationships that I know of tend to be stronger, more trusting and more likely to last then the closed ones. I realise that this is not a hard and fast rule, but I think that many straight relationships would benefit from being more honest about their desires. I think a good open relationships forces all parties to be more honest about their emotions and desires.

Remember, I said that a 'good' open relationship works that way. By good, I mean one that is based on trust, respect, decent communication and love. It can help to remove the pressure that sex can often create between two people and allow something deeper to develop.

Clearly though, this isn't for everybody, or even for most people. The idea of a one true love that you can share your physical and emotional life with is too ingrained in our culture. The disapproval and even disgust that these couples will inevitably encounter if they 'come out' as being in an open relationship will also be painful.

The prevalence of couples who sleep with people outside the relationship or marriage within the gay community is not something that we like to talk about in polite society. That's because so many of the fights that we are currently engaged in come down to trying to pass as 'normal', And normal in this case isn't exactly normal within the gay community (which would mean acknowledging a more diverse ran ge of relationship options) but normal as prescribed by the more conservative straight elements in society. There are a lot of people within the gay community who believe that the fight for marriage equality is a sad attempt to ape a tradition which is based to some degree on oppression.

I think this is blinkered view but it gets at the complexities that the marriage debate throws up within the gay community, complexities which many straight people either wouldn't understand or would use against all gay people in an attempt to deny them equal civil rights. So we like to keep these debates on the down low and pretend that we really are the same. When I honestly don't think that we are, at least not at this stage. The legacy of the closet overshadows everything.

This was prompted by a post at Box Turtle Bulletin about a piece of research which was reported as proving the existence of widespread open relationships amongst gay people (not a total shock) snd which was picked up by the religious right and used to demonise all gay couples and argue against gay marriage (also not a shock). So this will once again mean that the debates will go underground, 'just between friends', and it poisons the well for promoting more honest dialogue which could also help straight couples.

This post had a point – good luck finding it

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Comfort Reading


This is a bit of a difficult and stressful week for me. I have two interviews (one of which was today and the other on Friday), both for jobs I really want. One of them even includes an exam, something I thought I was done with a long time ago. I am using parts of my brain this week that I mothballed sometime in 2003.

With that in mind, I knew I wouldn't be much good in trying to take on a new book this week. Even though I currently have Wolf Hall, A Little Stranger, Nixonland and The Gun and the Olive Branch all sitting by my bedside table begging to be read, I have chosen instead to immerse myself into re-reading The Lord of the Rings. This is the ultimate in comfort reading.

I first read LotR when I was 12. I needed a book to do my first book report in English when I started secondary school. Goaded on by my brother and dad, I decided to read LotR in two weeks. Predictably, I didn't actually sleep for that entire fortnight. It was worth it however when I presented my English teacher with a 40 page fully illustrated and bound book report, earning her eternal devotion as a teacher, and my classmates eternal derision. Pretty much from that moment on, I was tagged the class swot.

Luckily, the horror of secondary school fades after a bit, and I am still left with a life-long love of LotR. I can still remember the feverish intensity with which I read it the first time and the unadulterated pleasure of re-reading it many times since. It's been a while since I read the entire thing in one go - I have often just picked up one of the books, or read certain sections. The last time I read the whole book was abut seven or eight years ago when I was ill over Christmas (and yes that does include the Introduction and Appendices!).

For me, its like a warm blanky, the same way that I feel about the films. That's not to say I consume it passively. I am already at Weathertop with Frodo, Strider and the other hobbits and I have barely been able to put it down. Its fun also to read it with the films so firmly ingrained in my mind, to wonder once more at the incredible job that Jackson and Co did in adapting the books. I picture the actors in my head now as I read, but this hasn't narrowed my enjoyment of the books, but made them more vivid and enjoyable.

I will probably wrap up the Fellowship sometime at the weekend when I may get the chance to write a longer piece before delving into The Two Towers. Its one of the few things that has successfully distracted me from the job hunt.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

I want to see this film NOW

This sounds absolutely fantastic.

Steven Sodebergh is directing a film called Contagion which is sort of like Traffic mixed with Crisis in the Hot Zone (one of my favourite ever non-fiction books). It stars Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, and My Straight Wife, Kate Winslet.

Luckily, knowing the speed that Soderbergh works at, this should be out in about 4 weeks time

Monday, 8 February 2010

Precious

I think I am still trying to process Precious. It’s not a film that I had an instinctive reaction to once it finished. I was curiously inarticulate with my friends afterwards about how I felt about it, and I am not sure, 2 days later, if I have really figured it out.

This is a film whose raw elements work brilliantly. Mo’Nique is as good as I have been hearing for close to a year now. She is terrifying in the film – her scenes were some of the tensest, most unpleasant things I have sat through in a long time, mostly because she was utterly convincing and real. I was expecting her to be much louder, more extreme presence but her quieter, more contained venom was much more chilling.

Her big break-down scene is an excellent example. I figured this would be the moment where the film would try to ‘humanise’ her, make her a bit more sympathetic. To some extent it did, but not in the way I was expecting. Mary starts out trying to sound contrite about how she has treated Precious, but under the relentless prodding from Mariah Carey’s special worker Ms Weiss, she breaks down and explains exactly why she allowed Precious to be abused by her father and why she herself then continued the abuse. It’s a terrifying, sad, pathetic scene and Mo’Nique is fearless, laying bare this woman’s twisted, ugly soul, making her both more believable and more shocking. She deserves every single award she has received for her work.

The rest of the cast aren’t too shabby either. Gabby Sidibe gives one of those performances which doesn’t feel like acting so much as simply being. The fact that she is nothing like Precious in real life is just a marker of the brilliance of her work. Paula Patton is lovely, grounded and sincere as Ms Rain but she has one of the more problematic roles (more on that later). Mariah Carey has received a lot of enthusiastic reviews, and while I think she is does good work, the role itself doesn’t really go anywhere.

I do want to give a special mention to the actresses who play Precious’ classmates. Whoever put that group together should get a special award – what a superb bunch of performers. Effortlessly natural and funny, they made the film a much warmer and funnier experience than I expected. And Lenny Kravatz looks very pretty…

Director Lee Daniels ramps the melodrama up pretty high (a friend of mine called it bathos and I think that’s a perfect description). He gets a lot of mileage out of rubbing our noses into the grime of Precious’ life but I actually think this is quite honest in its own way. Melodrama wants to evoke strong emotions in people and I respect his stylistic decision. I think he mostly manages to stay on the right side of sentimentality throughout, and he generates some pretty unbearable tension in the scenes with Mo’Nique. More than that, Daniels seems to love all his characters – he likes to hang out with them, especially the girls in the class scenes and this lends the film a vibrancy and humanity that helps it overcome some of the trickier tonal inconsistencies.

Because those inconsistencies are right there in the script. I haven’t read Sapphire’s novel and I have no idea how close to reality the film is. But we should be clear about one thing – this is a film, a piece of fiction and as such, it should be judged about how well it shapes its material. I think it is all a bit of a mess, veering quite wildly between horror, goofy comedy, inspirational drama and intense tragedy. Some of these parts work much better than others. Anything with Mo’Nique is superb and the scenes between the girls in the classroom have an easy, unforced warmth. But the character of Blu Rain, as played by Paula Patton, seems to have been dropped in from another film. I don’t deny that great teachers like her exist, but her dialogue was often trite and ridiculous and the film suddenly seemed a bit like typical Hollywood schlock. This inconsistency didn’t really bother me as I was watching the film but I think it did contribute to my ambivalence about the ending.

There has been a lively debate about the film, the most recent being David Cox’s screed published in The Guardian. I think Cox is wildly over the top in denouncing the film, and is guilty himself of the same crime he accuses other viewers of, of universalising Precious’ experiences to all poor black people. I don’t doubt that there are people out there who will sit in smug satisfaction in the cinema while their worst prejudices about tenement life are realised. I don’t think this is fair – the film never tries to portray Precious as emblematic of an entire gender, race or social class. Her life is too specific for that and I don’t think the filmmakers should be criticised for the reaction of lazy, selfish viewers.

For me, there was nothing particularly ‘ennobling’ about watching the film. I didn’t get a vicarious thrill out of the grime, sweat, blood and tears. In fact, I got a sense of ultimately how precarious Precious’ hope was at the end of the film. I left the cinema still not quite sure if Daniels intended the final moments as some kind of bitter irony or not. Yes, Precious had faced down her mother, but she was still a poor, ill-educated, HIV positive teenage mum. Her decision to look after her kids seems to have been treated as a brave, necessary decision, but I can’t help agreeing with Ms Rain (in the one bit of complexity her saintly character is allowed) that Precious’ best option was to give the children up for adoption. The HIV situation just seemed thrown out there as well. Considering this was set in 1988, when a HIV diagnosis was still considered a short-term death sentence, the lack of any impact her status, age and education levels would have on her being allowed to keep her kids is a little mystifying.

In Cox’s article, he criticises the film thusly;

The picture painted presents 16-year-old, 25-stone Precious as the victim, not of social and economic conditions, even partially, but solely of the behaviour of her kind. Nonetheless, she must somehow show she can blossom and inspire us. The film-makers don't give her much of a helping hand… Their betters can pity them, but they're required to do little else. Routes out of disadvantage have been made available. Unfortunately, most of those who need them won't be taking them. Still, that's really the fault of their own incorrigibility. What a shame.

I call bullshit on this. I can’t believe that Cox sat through the film and came out thinking that it had not shown exactly how social and economic issues conspired along with the abuse and horror of her own family life, to severely limit Precious’ options. I actually thought that the film was quite subtle about showing the cycle of poverty which conspires to keep women like Precious in ghetto life, without ever feeling like it was a polemic. Either Cox wasn’t paying attention or he went in with his mind already made up.

So yes, I had some quite serious problems with the film. Those problems do become more serious the more I think about them so I can’t really jump on the rave bandwagon. However, I do think it will well worth watching for the strength of the acting and for Daniels go-for-broke direction.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

‘Ex-Gay’ is just a funny way of spelling ‘Still Gay’

I don’t want to keep banging on about gay issues, but there seems to be something of a deluge of stuff at the moment which I think is illustrative of just how important it is for gay people to stop themselves from becoming too complacent about their place in society.

First, we had the British Special Attitudes Survey which said that almost half of those surveyed thought that homosexuality was wrong at least some of the time (see previous posts for more info). Then, The Independent published a report from a gay journalist who went undercover in the burgeoning industry of ex-gay therapies in the UK. Though some of these sessions are apparently are being paid with NHS funding, they are based on either an entirely religious foundation, or use offensive, out-dated and damaging theories which could cause serious mental anguish to those who turn in desperation and unhappiness to their services.

Last year a British Medical Council survey found that 1 in 6 psychiatrists had attempted to change a person’s orientation. This is frightening enough, and becomes more so when coupled with a growing number of charlatans or religious whackos who are out to fleece troubled, vulnerable people or proselytise for their particular brand of sky fairy. These things don’t work, because they are predicated on a view of human sexuality which is completely unrealistic and based on nothing more than prejudice, ignorance and faith.

Finally, we have Pope Razi and Nazi giving his fellow bishops a pep-talk, telling them to stay the course in campaigning against the new Equalities Bill which would seek to extend employment rights to gay people working within the Church. Essentially, if a religious organisation was taking public funding for its work, it would be unable to discriminate on the bounds of orientation except within a very prescribed group (ie priests and bishops). The current Bill is simply trying to further define what these limits are in an effort to avoid costly litigation and give everybody a clearer sense of boundaries.

But that’s not how the Church saw it. In a hysterical, pearl-clutching hissy fit, they made a series of false claims in an effort to whip up public opinion against the Bill, for example, claiming that it would force churches to hire women priests. As a result an amendment was just barely passed in the House of Lords, significantly weakening the Bill with the support of Bishops and despite assurances from legal experts that this was a simple case of clarification to make the situation clearer for all parties.

It seems clear that the various denominations feel that they are increasingly being marginalised in British society. As they shrink down to an ever more conservative and fundamentalist rump, they also appear to become far more politically active, using their power in the House of Lords to vigorously push back against equality legislation, much of it aimed at helping gay people.

If religious denominations want to access public money then they should be made to comply with the laws of the land. If they are so concerned about their freedom of conscience (which often feels like a simple desire to discriminate against those they disapprove of) then they should rely on the donations of their flock to keep them afloat. Religious institutions constantly use the same rhetorical gambit – whining about giving ‘special rights’ to minorities at the expense of their own bigotry, while at the same time insisting on their own ‘special’ place within society.

A good case can be found here. A Christian woman was suspended form her job of teaching maths to seriously sick children because she caused significant distress to a young girl suffering from leukemia. Jones on several occasions tried to push her religion on the girl, even after her parents made it clear that they were a non-religious family. They complained and, instead of speaking to the Council, Jones ran off to the generally loathsome Mail on Sunday to whine and moan. The Mail didn’t bother to check out her story or speak to the family, but merely printed her drama-queen sob story. And the Christian Legal Centre, a group modelled on fundie legal outfits from the States, were only too happy to help Jones peddle her bullshit. Right-wing press, only too happy to play the PC-Gone-Mad card one more time, hyped her lies and distortions.

This is something of a microcosm of what Britain can expect as religious denominations who have more evangelical and fundamentalist collide with an increasingly and openly secular society. Its what happened thought the late fifties and early sixties in the States which led to the flowering of the current Christian Right. I don’t believe that Britain is in that much danger, but we should all certainly get used to treating tales of religious ‘persecution’ with a great deal more circumspection.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Fuck Vanity Fair


Seriously. Take a look at what Vanity Fair deems as the Fresh Faces of 2010. All young, pretty WHITE women.

And this in a year where two of the most acclaimed performances were given by young black actresses. Zoe Saldana's work arguably matches the historic achievement of Andy Serkis in marrying a new type of technical work with a full blooded emotional heart in the biggest grossing movie of all time. Not only that, but she took on the iconic role of Uhura and made it her own.

Meanwhile Sidibe came out of nowhere and took on a monstrously difficult role with intelligence and empathy. Sidibe, and possibly Saldana could get Oscar nominations tomorrow. But that, apparently, isn't enough to get you on the cover of an edition of Vanity Fair devoted to rising young actresses.

Fuck them and lazy, racist bullshit. I won't be buying the magazine again.

via filmexperience.blogspot.com

Update: Eeewwww... there's even something creepier about this shot then the Aryan 'purity' of the starlets. Vanity Fair refers to them as "dolls"... That is wrong and creepy on so very many levels (not least because of the association in my head with Joss Whedon's Dollhouse). You'd think after the disaster of the Tom Ford cover from a few years ago they might have learned a lesson, but obviously not.

LGBT History Month - A Failure of Imagination

It's LGBT History Month. I'm sure you're all excited about this.

I always feel slightly conflicted about the Month. I have written repeatedly that the lack of avenues for younger gay people to learn about their history is a major problem. Because of political, social or religious constraints, teachers simply aren't comfortable talking about gay rights as one of the major civil rights movements of the last forty years.

This is changing – schools are being encouraged to be more open and accepting of gay students. Just acknowledging the complexity of human sexuality in schools is a major start to opening up the curriculum to examining how things have changed for gay people over the years and why it is important to continue to be vigilant. After all 36% of people still believe that homosexuality is almost always wrong. That number will only change if people of all ages are exposed to sexual diversity and encouraged to be comfortable with their own desires.

LGBT History Month should be an opportunity to fill in the blanks for gay people of all ages. To learn that their story is not just about oppression and discrimination but also about bravery, generosity and conviction. That there are other heroes apart from Harvey Milk and Oscar Wilde. And more importantly, to educate both gay and straight people that human sexuality is something far more malleable than we like to admit, and that this is something which be encouraging people to explore their sexuality, rather than repressing it.

However, looking over the programme of events in London for this year,. I can't help thinking how parochial, unfocused and small-scale the entire endeavor feels. In past years, I have tended to forgive this. Everything has to start somewhere and I have enjoyed a couple of the events in the past. But I guess I keep on waiting for the Month to step-up and develop into something more ambitious.

This year there are a couple of really interesting looking events – I am particularly looking forward to the programme being offered by THT and the British Library. But the rest of it is seems rather haphazard. Without a strong centralising force, the month just feels like a collection of small scale, quite esoteric little events without any attempt to tell any kind of larger narrative. While I think its a good thing that individual boroughs have the freedom to create their events, you do end up with a much more atomised and diffuse programme. It also leaves very little space for telling less mainstream stories.

If LGBT History Month is ever going to grow, I think there needs to be a stronger, more centralised approach to planning a programme which can run on a larger national or regional basis and which the smaller, more local events can link in to. Pick an overall theme and ask organisations, community groups and individuals to try and link their efforts into this. It would provide a more cohesive programme, which would also provide a clearer focus for larger scale media activities.

A quick example. Gareth Thomas, the Welsh rugby star who recently came out, is the new patron for LGBT History Month. There is also a major event during the month about homophobia in sport. It seems like there is an opportunity here to get a conversation going about areas of modern life which still retain an suffocating accommodation of the closet. Indeed, once you dig around their site, you realize that sport is going to be their major theme in the next few years. But you wouldn't know that from the website, which is the main promotional tool for the Month. It's flat, cheap-looking and exceedingly difficult to navigate around. I realise this is a funding issue, but I find it hard to believe that this is the best that they could come up with (I have worked on a variety of web projects and there are lots of cheap ways of getting decent design and programming).


I don't doubt the hard work that many have done to make the programme as diverse and interesting as possible. But the whole thing stills feels a little half arsed - and that is a real shame

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Dancing Queen

I am terrible at music criticism. I just don't seem to have the genetic code to really look at music and explain why I like and dislike something. Its an incredibly frustrating mental block - sometimes I read a piece that seems to nail so precisely what I love about a song and wish I could write something as precise.

Tom Ewing runs the Popular blog on the site FreakyTrigger, which is dedicated to writing about every UK number 1 in history. He is currently up to The Housemartin's Caravan of Love from 1986, but I wanted to highlight the piece he wrote about Dancing Queen from a while back. This is one of the very few disco pop war-horses which seems to unite everybody in admiration, no matter how grudging. Tom's take, on why the song is so special, really gets to the heart of it;

It’s not envious, or regretful, or bittersweet – it’s a more generous ache, the recognition that “having the time of your life” is literal, that this moment might be as good as it gets, but still being warmed by the moment’s incandescence. “Dancing Queen”, like “Teenage Kicks”, is one of those songs that captures the feeling that being young, dancing, loving is also to be living more intensely and wonderfully than anything else

His blog is defintely worth spending a while flicking through.

Hurray(?!) - only half of Brits think homosexuality is wrong

So, according to the just released British Social Attitudes Survey, 36% of adults think that homosexuality is always or mostly wrong. When you add in the 10% of those who think that it is rarely wrong, that is almost half of all those surveyed who think that being gay is wrong at least some of the time.

I have read a couple of reports spinning this as good news. After all, 39% said that homosexuality was never wrong. And the number has fallen from 62% since 1983. So, I guess there is room here for a qualified Whoop-de-doo.

Yet I still think that is a very troubling figure, purely because I am not quite sure what more gay people can do to convince that hardline 36% that we are not out to convert children, ruin marriage or destroy society. I realise that this all a matter of time, that eventually those numbers will drop further. But I think there is something pathetic and weak about those who still cling on to those views - a group of self-satisfied, arrogant toss pots who think they have the right to sit in moral judgment on me because of who I love.

I have become addicted to the daily round-ups of the Perry v Schwarzenegger case that is playing out in California at the moment. Briefly, this is the federal challenge to the gay marriage ban that passed in Caliufornia in November 2008. But the case has much larger aspirations, as the plaintiffs, who allege that the ban should be removed because it was based it is discriminatory and irrational, seek to put the entire rationale for homophobia on trial.

Seriously, if you have some spare time, you should peruse the various goings on. Not only does it highlight the vacuity and prejudice of those who funded the campaign to ban gay marriage, it shows precisely how they played on the irrational fears of the general public to enshrine their bigotry. It puts out on display how morally and intellectually bankrupt their opinions are, and it does so in the harsh light of a federal courtroom. If there are people who can read these transcripts, and still believe that there is something inimically wrong with homosexuality and gay marriage, then frankly these are people who simply do not deserve the vote.