Friday, 28 April 2017

Film Reviews 2017 - #6 Frozen

Frozen (2013)

Some years ago my sons James and Alex introduced a new Christmas tradition.  Why – they reasoned – should only children receive some presents in a sack from Santa?  Might not adults, too, enjoy unwrapping a selection of cheap and/or funny and/or useless gift items on Christmas morning? They further reasoned that one of the best places to find such items would be a charity shop.  (Gifts from a charity shop would have the additional advantage of Not Being New and could therefore reasonably claim not to be depleting the earth’s finite resources through empty consumerism, something the boys suspected might also please their eco-warrior parents.)

In very large supply in charity shops these days are DVDs.  No one wants them anymore, apparently.  My sons are therefore able to buy a large number of DVDs for next to nothing – perfect for dad’s Christmas sack.  The selection criteria are clearly heterogeneous.  Some of the DVDs are references or throwbacks to movies we watched when they were younger; some are provocatively or humorously bad; some are gems they’ve heard me mention from my own youth.  Some are simply mysterious.

This year, I received eighteen of the things.  In a rash and drunken Christmas moment, I pledged to watch all eighteen of them during the course of 2017.  This works out at one every three weeks.  I’m watching them in alphabetical order: and this, dear reader, is why you’ve been subjected to a series of film reviews this year rather than essays about the economics of enough. (I’m also writing a book, which absorbs a lot of the words I have available, but that’s not relevant here.)

Something unexpected happened with 'Frozen', however.  (‘Frozen’, as you know, is an Oscar-winning Disney film, famous for its lead characters being female and for being the highest grossing animated film of all time.)  My ‘Frozen’ DVD was STILL IN ITS WRAPPING.  Unlike the seventeen other DVDs, this film was NEW.  Rather than being acquired in the traditional manner from a local charity shop, this has been deliberately and specifically purchased.

A message is being sent:

  • “Dad, we know you’re basically still a child, so here’s a film for children” ?
  • “Dad, you need to get in touch with your feminine side, so here’s a film with female characters in the lead” ?
  • “Dad, we know you have a well-developed feminine side, so here’s a film with female characters in the lead” ?
  • “Dad, we know you love animated movies, here’s one you’d probably never choose to watch” ?

Only one way to find out…

…and for the first few minutes, I’m a little anxious.  The opening scenes make no sense to me, there’s a song I really don’t enjoy, the vibe of the thing is a long way from the kinds of animated movies – The Incredibles, Toy Story, Over the Hedge, Despicable Me – that I’ve enjoyed so much.

But then something happens, I’m still not sure what, and I’m invested, involved, transported.  The animation is astonishing (the ice and snow are incredible).  The two female characters – sister princesses Elsa and Anna – are wonderful: complex, funny, clever, sassy.  The support characters – a snowman, a reindeer, a prince, an ice-cutter – are rounded and well-deployed.  The baddie (no spoiler warning required) is rendered in a manner far, far away from the classical baddies of yore.  (The evolution of character so evident in US box-set culture, in which the goodies have bad bits and the baddies have good bits, obliging us to engage with the ambiguities of life, is evident even here in Disney...)  The male characters do not ‘save’ the female characters.  The funny bits are very, very funny.

And the music! Bloody hell.  I hate musicals.  I’ve always struggled with them, those painfully contrived moments when someone suddenly decides that singing is the best thing to do next.  But the scene in which the older sister, finally freed from her obligation to keep her (magical) powers under control (and what a fabulous metaphor it is) begins to construct a stupendous ice palace and sings 'Let it go' is sublime.  It unzipped me completely and I wept absolute buckets.

In fact, I cried on several occasions during this remarkable film.  Me crying during animated films (as James and Alex will attest) is not uncommon.  (Seared into their memories, I suspect, is the moment in the cinema when we were watching ‘Ratatouille’.  There’s a scene in this outstanding film (96% on Rotten Tomatoes!) where the arch restaurant critic Anton Ego, voiced brilliantly by Peter O’Toole, is first tasting the hero’s food – “Tell your chef Linguini that I want whatever he dares to serve me. Tell him to hit me with his best SHOT!” – and he is transported, in an instant and as Marcel Proust, to the kitchen of his childhood.  The animated zoom and the reference to A La Recherche hauled a near howl of grief from my throat and my sons were forced to sit in the dark, surrounded by strangers, while their father blubbed like a baby…).

Anyway.  I cried several times during Frozen because it is funny, emotional, clever, wise and a superb piece of story-telling.  I laughed a lot too.

It’s not a Pixar movie (see my review of Belleville Rendezvous for an explanation of the difference between Pixar and Disney movies) so it has little interest in political or social themes.  It’s a little simplistic in places – but it is, after all, a film mainly for children.  And I found some features of the presentation, particularly the disturbingly large eyes of the two lead female characters, somewhat regressive.

But these are minor complaints.  At the end of the movie I returned to the real world with a damp face, a big smile and a warm glow.  An intellectual bit of me even thought that I had just watched a movie that might well be playing a significant global role in the cause of female emancipation.   I can’t wait to watch it again.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Imagining Brexit in 2010? Absolutely Zeke...

Drafted in 2010, and presented unamended

I may march fearlessly into the future if I am confident it will be better than the past.  Whither such confidence? Perhaps I have simply been lucky thus far and the story that I tell myself of life is imbued with positive expectation.  Perhaps I am a member of a class that has control over the means of production, or a profession that has erected barriers to entry, and I envisage my control continuing.  Perhaps I live in a society in which material and cultural changes have within living or recent memory lifted my forebears from penury and ignorance, so I find it straightforward to believe that this will persist into the future.  Perhaps I have been inculcated with the Enlightenment orthodoxy of ‘progress’; or I am persuaded that neo-Darwinian processes of change, whether smooth or punctuated, are inevitable and if met with positive intent will culminate in positive outcomes; or perhaps the tenets of my faith – Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist - supply a psychological shield of hope or serenity.

In the absence of such confidence, if I do not have these various protections, I am fearful of change and I shall resist it if I can.  I foresee the loss of income or status: I shall fight for my job.  I dread the collapse of my community: I shall march with my brothers and sisters to defend our tradition.  I have lost faith in my leaders – their gods and their policies – and I shall blame immigrants, I shall seek vengeance, I shall use violence.

Afraid of the future, unable or unwilling to countenance changes to my life that are beyond my control, I shall hunker down, I shall look the other way, I shall take refuge in trinkets and mysticism.  I shall, like a child, hope that it will all go away.  My resistance shall, if all else fails, be passive and stubborn.

Entreaties may be made to me.  I do not trust them.  These people – these politicians, these scientists, these journalists – the people have lied to me before.  Me, my family, my neighbourhood, my class – we have suffered before.  You – the confident, the prosperous, with the control and the power – you will be fine.  Again you seek to assuage us.  Your philosophies and your theories and your models mean nothing to me: I believe only the practical, the manifest, the real.

Don’t tell me, show me.

* * * * * *

Professor Richard Sennett gave the closing address at the Compass annual conference in 2006.  Sennett’s theme was trust.  In those dog days of the Blair administration, Sennett was concerned, in particular, to explain the processes that shape the degree of trust between citizens and their elected representatives.  Blair had, post-Iraq, achieved an acutely refined condition of being distrusted, not least by those comprising Sennett’s audience, which had indeed spent its day in various apoplectic states of dismay at the way in which Blair had traduced, misled and generally betrayed them.  Sensing the mood, Sennett (a gifted lecturer) abandoned his prepared speech and sketched the bare bones of an alternative talk whilst sitting in an anteroom only minutes before he took the lectern (a truth to which I can testify because I had the privilege of sitting next to him on a bench as he did it).  His principal assertion was this: that trust is grounded not in conviction, but in consistency (the unfinished sixth of Calvino’s memos).

Sennett invited his audience to reflect on the superabundance of policies and initiatives that had characterised the Blair years (a character that has hardly subsided since).  Barely was the ink dry on last year’s initiative when this year’s arrived.  What is the citizen to make of this?  It would seem to indicate that last year’s initiative could not have been much good, else why would they need a new one this year?  And this new one – well, we should probably expect another one next year, should we not?  Not much point in changing everything to cope with these latest initiatives if we’ll have to do it all again next year; and no point at all in investing any trust in the people responsible, since they clearly have no idea what they are really doing.

The most trusted politician in Europe – Sennett intoned – is someone most of you will never have heard of.  He is Matti Vanhanen.  He is the Prime Minister of Finland.  He is well known in Finland for not doing very much.  He is not especially liked (he doesn’t smile much in public and is considered boring).  But he is very highly trusted because when he does say he’s going to do something, he does it.  He doesn’t do much, but what he does do, he does.

Trust comes from consistency.

* * * * * *

One can see the dilemma.  Governments are elected to ‘do’ things and so that’s what they do: create new crimes, reform education on a continuous basis, overhaul the organisation of the health system at regular intervals, and so forth.  It is hard to imagine a form of politics in which one might hear a statement such as: “It is important that recent changes have the opportunity to bed down and for everyone to adjust to the new rules.  I am therefore announcing a moratorium on new initiatives of at least twelve months.”

All change brings uncertainty, and the majority of us who do not have the resources to defend ourselves against the anxieties that may be prompted by such uncertainty look to particular people or particular organisations to reassure us, to help us.  For that reassurance to be useful, for it to have the necessary resilience and strength to do its work, we have to have trust in the individual or organisation to which we look.

This, for example, is how – and why – a brand like Marks & Spencer is able to initiate a programme such as Plan A, a programme that is, in the words of its [then] Chairman Sir Stuart Rose, ‘half a step ahead’ of its customers.  M&S customers ‘know’ that their food and clothing needs to be produced in a more sustainable way: they know, too, that, as individuals, they cannot possibly attend to the full gamut of environmental and ethical and supply chain and pricing and other issues implied by sustainability; but they trust M&S sufficiently to be guided by them towards sustainable choices.  M&S is just ahead, leading, but not so far ahead that we get lost.

We need the same of our politicians.  Only when they have regained our trust – by slowing down, by speaking clearly and directly and, most of all, by being consistent – only then will they be able to lead us towards the sustainable lifestyles we know we need.

And if they can’t do it, then we’ll get new leaders.

Film Reviews 2017 - #5 Flight of the Phoenix

5. Flight of the Phoenix (2005)

On the cover of the ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ DVD the guidance to viewers is very clear:


(It really is in upper case; and there really is an exclamation mark.)

It’s a Disaster Movie! Woo hoo!

What a strange genre – the Disaster Movie.  Wikipedia is helpful: “A disaster film is a film genre that has an impending or ongoing disaster as its subject and primary plot device… The films usually feature some degree of build-up, the disaster itself and sometimes the aftermath, usually from the point of view of specific individual characters or their families.”

Looking over Wikipedia’s list of such movies, however, I found myself disagreeing somewhat with the definition.  Many of the films listed seem, to me at least, simply to be horror films, or war films, or sci-fi adventures with a monster.   The distinctive feature of a Disaster Movie is, surely, that the protagonists are trapped, either in or by the disaster.

The 1970s were the heyday of the Disaster Movie, indeed peak Disaster Movie year seems to have been 1974 – Earthquake, Trapped Beneath the Sea, Where have All the People Gone, Heatwave, The Day the Earth Moved, The Towering Inferno… (The Towering Inferno!  Steve McQueen! Paul Newman! William Holden! Faye Dunaway! Fred Astaire!) (Fred Astaire?) (Yup, Fred Astaire – he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor…)

Anyway, the End of the Disaster Movie (disaster!) occurred in 1980 with the release of Airplane, the pitch-perfect parody of all Disaster Movies to date and after which no Disaster Movie could really function.  Before Airplane, Disaster Movies had to take themselves seriously: the peril was real, and all the characters/actors had to perform as if the peril was real, no matter how ridiculous or contrived.  Since Airplane, no Disaster Movie could take itself seriously, because the premise was so obviously contrived for the purposes of the movie, and everyone in the audience knew this, and everyone making the film knew the audience knew this, so the only way around the problem was to adopt a knowing and/or ironic tone.  (Just think Bruce Willis.)

So – Flight of the Phoenix!  It says on the cover it was made in 2005.  It doesn’t say on the cover that it is a remake.  The original ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’ starred – wait for it – James Stewart!  And Richard Attenborough!  And Peter Finch and Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy!  Phew!  It was made in 1965, so ought probably to be seen as an Early Disaster Movie, and should therefore be Taking Itself Seriously.   Indeed, I remember watching it when I was young and being taken in by its verisimilitude (despite the massive suspension of disbelief required to accept that a bunch of people can crash land in the middle of nowhere and then try to build an entirely new plane from the wreckage of the one they crashed in.)  So, a post-Airplane remake of an early, possibly even classic Disaster Movie.  This is going to be great!

It’s not.  It’s awful.

As far as I can tell, no-one involved in this film – not the director, not the script-writer, none of the actors (with the possible exception of Hugh Laurie) (Hugh Laurie?) (Yes, Hugh Laurie!  Pre-House Hugh Laurie, buttering up the American market…) – appear to have any idea of irony, nor possibly any understanding of the post-War history of Disaster Movies.  They try to play this straight, and consequently deliver a sustained onslaught of misplaced pyrotechnics, over-wrought emotional haemorrhage, needlessly extended mini-catastrophes and, worst of all, hackneyed and embarrassing dialogue that induces squirming discomfort in the viewer.

I tried hard through the first few scenes to believe that those responsible for this Disastrous Movie really were self-aware and that the film was deliberately bad as a comic device.

But no.  It simply is just terrible.

Some terrible films, as we know, can be so terrible that they are entertaining.  And what else can we want from a movie than it be entertaining?

Sadly I cannot recommend this film to you on that basis.  It is really, really bad; but not so awful that you might enjoy it.

If I had my way, all copies of this Disastrous Disaster Movie would be loaded onto a small turbo-prop aeroplane, flown into the middle of the Gobi Desert and then forced to crash.  Unlike the protagonists in ‘Flight of the Phoenix’, there would be (spoiler alert) no escape.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Catastrophes are Inclusive

I recently travelled to north west France with my mother.  We visited a number of war graves.

We visited the cemetery at Neuville-St Vaast, near Arras.  It is the largest German war cemetery in France.  There are 44,833 men buried and commemorated there.

Like all war cemeteries, it is an immensely moving place.

Unlike many of the dozens and dozens of war cemeteries in north west France, the cemetery at Neuville-St Vaast is not well sign-posted.  Neither does it make an appearance in the literature to commemorate the centenary of the war.  The Germans, after all, were the baddies, and the losers.

But they were just boys, like so many others that died in that catastrophe.

And among them were Jews.  It comes as something of a shock, to see Jewish markers alongside Christian markers in a German war cemetery.  We see the past through the prism of subsequent events.  The fact is, a century ago, Christian boys and Jewish boys were sent to their death by the same insanity.

Later, and nearby, we visited the French National War Cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.  The scale is daunting.  Acres and acres of grounded are covered with graves; there are seven ossuaries, where the skeletons of innumerable unknown soldiers remain; an immense basilica sits atop the hill.

As in the German cemetery, there are Jewish graves here.  What really took me back, however, was the presence of Muslim graves.  Hundreds and hundreds of them.

Here they are.  Oriented to face Mecca.

Suddenly, at this time of so much anxiety and conflict grounded in disputes about faith, a powerful reminder: true catastrophes are inclusive.  They affect everyone.  Dead boys are dead boys, whether they are Muslim boys or Christian boys or Jewish boys.

It is wonderful, I think, that these cemeteries show such balanced respect to all those that died.  It would be better still if we stopped squabbling, remembered how much we have in common, and eliminated any risk whatsoever of sending more boys to their deaths.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

New poem - Hate Rotation Nation

Refugees! Niggers! Women that work!
People that scrounge off the State!
Muslims and Pakis and pikies and Jews!
You gotta rotate who you hate.

Belgians! The Irish! People from France!
People that look overweight!
Anyone gay or abnormal or young!
You gotta rotate who you hate.

Anyone famous with wrinkles or scars!
All those denying we're 'Great'!
Liberal wankers that voted Remain!
You gotta rotate who you hate.

(Inspired most especially by the mind-gurgling front page of the D***y M**l, Monday 3rd April 2017: