Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"because it's really obviously a shit idea."

and now we get to the rip o' the week for the deservedly ignored "zombie" film of late 2009, carriers.

i thought about going to see this in the theatre. i am so glad i didn't.

i was chris pine'd out after living through the great publicity storm of 2009 about the new star trek movie. i had seen just about enough of his chin and eyes -- and certainly read enough colorful descriptions of the rest of his physique -- to leave me feeling perfectly contented that i hadn't seen star trek and had no plans to do so.

but...i really just couldn't resist carriers. it looked so perfectly my type of thing, right?


yeah -- it's an almost total loss. the trailer is the coolest thing about it. hell, the dude from csi or law and order or svu or whatever the hell one of those police procedurals that i don't watch who is in the trailer is more worth watching than any of the putative "leads," none of whom are intelligent or likeable. i can't even say that chris pine does his best because i have no idea what his best looks like; i only hope it isn't as wooden and half-dimensional as this. if it is, the star trek movie must either have been a total joke or totally depended on the secondary characters.

in theory, the story is quite simple: the movie opens with four young people -- two men; two women -- fleeing south, trying to escape a nameless "disease" which has apparently decimated the rest of the population of the united states.

straightforward, right? steal your vehicle of choice; load it with goodies; head south; lock yourself down 'til the bad stuff is over sounds like a plan to me. and it is -- it's a good and a great plan and it has worked well for movies as diverse as road warrior, waterworld, and resident evil 3. you'd think it was pretty much paint-by-numbers now -- and i think that's part of the problem here.

it is paint-by-numbers: there's the "studly older brother with a troubled past and a bad temper;" there's the "intellectual younger brother;" there's "studly older brother's girlfriend who is the only one who can keep him under control;" and then there's "selfish random chick we picked up 'cause younger brother thinks she's hot." i may be being a bit crude -- and cruel -- here, but, really, the characters don't lend themselves to any deeper interpretation. they're pretty much that. and it was more fun to watch the same group of characters fight off over-friendly german shepards in the breed.

one of the major problems with this movie is that at no point did the screenwriter (or writers; i understand they are brothers) sit down to figure out the details of this dread ailment that's meant to be killing everyone. or, if they did, they didn't let the rest of us in on it. is it airborne? air and blood? just blood? blood and other bodily fluids? does it die in the air? does it survive on surfaces? do you have to be touched? or does it take something like a scratch or a bite? if humans are infected at something like 100% infection and 99% mortality, what about animals?

it seems from the beginning of the movie that it would take direct contact with an infected person or with something they have touched in order to be exposed; but these rules get looser and looser as the movie goes on until they're finally just a joke. the characters wear gloves and masks most of the time (the kind of light air filter masks you wear when you're cleaning out a dusty attic), but they're more like fashion accessories than actual anti-viral aids. no-one seems to have thought of the problems of using regular household equipment to kill or protect from a hitherto unknown virus; you'd've thought that doing some research into the early days of aids, hanta, or ebola work would've fixed that problem. and that's the sort of thing that can't happen if the movie's going to be any good. while i agree absolutely that you can make this kind of movie 100% to formula (the first resident evil movie is a prime (and enjoyable) example), the formula has to be followed; there have to be rules and you can't decide you don't like them just because it isn't convenient right now.

the other problem is that the movie shies away from anything too serious. it sets itself up with some serious considerations right in the beginning -- with the man and the girl in the car asking for help; they turn out to be a "clean" man and his infected daughter, trying to get to an army base where they hear there may be a cure -- do our "heroes" help them? avoid them? kill them and take their stuff? but it dodges all of them, right down to becoming absolutely laughable when our four "heroes" stumble into an abandoned condominium complex and decide to stay the night. the complex turns out to be inhabited by a bunch of radiation-suited survivalist geeks who decide that the boys can leave -- but the girls have to stay.

part of the issue with this is that it's a really obvious rip of the same damn sequence -- except soldiers, not survivalists -- from danny boyle's 28 days later and it's always better not to remind your audience of your superior competition. in 28 days later, the situation is sober, meaningful -- and treated that way by writer, director, and performers. there is a real threat to selena and hannah when they arrive at the army-fortified house outside manchester; the commanding officer, major west, isn't quite out of control of his men, but he has promised them free access to any un-infected women they find. selena and hannah are the only two so far, so they're for it as far as he's concerned. the only other member of the party, jim, is given a choice: he can either accede to what's going to happen to the women he's been travelling with, or he can be put under restraint and, eventually, back outside with the infected.

in that movie, the sexual threat to the women is part of a larger picture of how the world has broken down under stress; we have to believe that none of these people would behave this way "in real life" but under these circumstances they feel excused or justified or allowed to indulge themselves any way they can. action at the fortified house run by major west takes up about the last quarter of the film and some major character development for selena and jim, particularly. there's serious physical threat to both the women -- but next to no nudity. what there is -- very little, as selena and hannah are forced to bathe -- is awkward, humiliating, coldly lit, not sexual or enjoyable. several of the soldiers even seem to be increasingly uncomfortable; none of them going so far as to argue with the arrangement, but instead edging out of the room, fading into the background, or finding urgent tasks to do elsewhere.

in the case of carriers, the absolute same scenario means nothing. it's rubbished. instead, it's used as an excuse for cheap titillation when the survivalists in the condo make the girls strip -- ostensibly to check for signs of disease; really obviously to show off piper perabo's six-pack. (and it is painfully obvious as the camera lingers on the breasts and hips of both girls -- inasmuch as they have any.) one of the girls proves to be infected and everyone leaves, despite guns, stress, and adrenalin-levels on all sides that should have turned the parking lot into a bloodbath.

there's more and it does get worse -- right down to a closing voice-over that should have been strangled at birth, but there's really only so much energy i can muster for razoring apart something that was such clear and obvious crap it really just mocks itself.

Monday, March 29, 2010

time clogging

so i dithered a bit about writing posts for this week, particularly after pondering in my post on repo men last week -- another rip of which can be found on if you're into that sort of thing -- about why genre fans insist on getting respect, yet refuse to play nice with their own genre.

and i dithered because, really, my temptation for this week was to write at least one juicy good rip of a movie, but that seemed a bit hypocritical, so we're starting instead with the book review which is at least slightly more positive.

a few weeks ago, i wrote about steve cash's the meq and made a subsequently totally unjustified comment about the second book being due out this year. it isn't. it's been out for several years. i'm a dork and should have checked my facts more thoroughly first! i swear that i did read something about a new book of his being out sometime this year -- perhaps it's the third in the series since the second volume ends with a cliff-hanger so blatant it barely justifies being called one. it's so obvious by about half-way through the book that nothing whatever is going to be resolved in this volume that the cliff-hanger is more anti-climactic than anything else.

as sequels go, time dancers isn't bad. but that's about as far as it goes. it isn't bad. i was really hoping for quite a lot more. since the first novel, the meq, was a pretty ambitious gambit with quite a lot of charm to it, i was willing, so to speak, to give cash quite a lot of rope to hang himself. after all, not everyone can write heart-shaped box, neverwhere, or garden of iden right out of the gate.

the story for time dancers is pretty basic: without giving away anything critical, i can say that it takes the characters from 1919 to 1945; they're still searching for answers about "the Remembering" (which also has some rather spiffy sound meq word that i can't recall); the villain is still out there being villainous; and there's an awful lot of running around. seriously. these people do more transatlantic/pacific travel in about two months than most of us do in a friggin' lifetime. and they do it fast, too. no storms, no customs hold-ups, no lost luggage, nothing. you want to go to paris from st. louis? boom. fastest trip you ever had in your life. and in 1923, too!

what i really wanted from time dancers was character development. some enlargement on the plot would have been nice; a sense of where the meq stand -- or have stood -- in terms of the regular human history of the world would have been good, too, but what i really wanted out of this book was to see zianno and his other meq companions do some growing up even if they can't grow up.

i wanted to see them deal with watching their human friends age and die; with their own inter-relationships; with sex, for heaven's sake! there was this big deal made in the meq about the "one for one" nature of relationships between the meq -- is that it? is that the only type of long-term "adult" relationship they ever have? never a passing fling with the odd regular human? and, if that's the case, then how does that work? how do two twelve-year-olds go through the world as lovers when the rest of the world sees them as children? are they actual lovers or just "good friends" until they decide to end "the Itxaron" and enter the real flow of time to have children? and just how lame is that: you have to choose to die in order to reproduce? don't we have enough stories about immortal characters who have to do that already? and there were just enough almost-answers to my questions to keep me reading, but they were thin enough to leave me disappointed.

instead of character development -- or even deeper plot development -- time dancers is really one long rush of action in which nothing really happens. some characters we've been familiar with since the meq die -- but since they haven't been fleshed out at all since the meq and since zianno's narrative voice hasn't changed at all in how he describes or relates to them, it's a little hard to get worked up about it. the characters seem to have retreated to be bad caricatures of themselves: carolina is always caring and welcoming; sailor is always mysterious and serious; owen is always helpful and competent. characters become more like strings of unchanging adjectives and physical characteristics than actual people. it's a shame, really, because cash had some great characters and he doesn't do much with them.

the rush of the action is almost enough to let you forget this for about half the book; then i, at least, started to find it really annoying. that, and the habit almost all the characters developed of never answering a straight question: "well, what happened with [fill in the blank]?" "now is not the time for you to know that." i wanted just one person to say, "well, obviously i think it is, you doorknob, so how 'bout we try it my way for once and see what the hell happens?!" and, as a trick to increase tension and delay revelation, it got to be obvious when it happened in every.

so, yes. i wasn't unreservedly thrilled with time dancers. cash's trick of dropping in historical figure to spice up the action got old more quickly this time. more than that, though, i was really disappointed that the characters were still essentially the same as they had been in the first volume. i was hoping for some deepening of the vision, some sense that perhaps not all of the meq zianno hangs out with are trustworthy (there's a couple i wouldn't trust as far as i can throw a dead rat), or even a feeling that perhaps not everyone tells the truth all the time.

i'll read the third volume, but i'll read it for the villain. so far, he's the one i'm still most interested in!

on the other hand, cash does just get a whole crap-ton of points for lugging in -- almost entirely without reason or need -- leon bismarcke "bix" beiderbecke, a 1920s jazz musician, a cornet player. and why is this, you ask? it is because i am a complete devotee of the alan plater beiderbecke series: affair, tapes, and connection. i tried to find a youtube clip of the opening or even a decent trailer but all i could find is what you see below which is a rather random collection of clips from the first series, the beiderbecke affair. if you like what you see -- and, really, what's not to like? -- i strongly suggest finding the series to watch; they're all about equally weird, random, and charming, but i personally like the first series best.

Friday, March 26, 2010

friday fun times

so here's 10 minutes of pure mental relaxation for your friday; consider that all the puppets in this were hand-knitted by the animator's wife and the animator did all the sounds himself...apparently his animation studio was a shed at the bottom of his garden. :)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

thumbnail review: "repo men"

the morning before i went to see repo men, the reviews from the first day release came out. i read two of them, one from the sf signal blog and one from scifi wire. had either of them said the same thing about the same thing at the same time, i might have taken them seriously; as it was, they both complained about diametrically opposing things. which actually brought up another question:

the f/sf/horror community bitches like mad whenever they feel they're not being "taken seriously" (witness last year's hooferaw over whether or not heath ledger would win an oscar for dark knight and this year's complaints over oscar nominees; see also any debate over book top 10 lists and genre inclusion or exclusion thereupon), but yet when something like "repo men" comes out which isn't brilliant or world-changing, but is a pretty solid piece of dystopic sf, that same group of bloggers, writers, reviewers, fans, etc., descend upon it like harpies to rip it into shreds? how, exactly, do you expect to get respect from someone else when you clearly don't respect what members of your own group produce? i realise there's a valuable conversation to be had about producing good stuff rather than just random crap, but surely knocking everything that comes down the pike because it isn't blade runner or a george romero movie (most of which are pretty darn low-quality, despite their endless amusement value) or whatever asimov/heinlein novel is top of the pile this week is just as foolish as exalting every f/sf/horror production just because that's what it is.

i don't know as i had any particular answer to this question but, in spite of the bad reviews from both the wire and sf signal, i enjoyed the movie. the previews were wretched; the only good one -- for predators -- i'd watched the day before; i'm actually anticipatory enough about it that i've linked the trailer down there. the others just made me feel as though i were losing brain cells by watching them. kick-ass, i admit, looks intriguing, but not enough to make me pay $6 to see it in the theatre, much as i like how matthew vaughan puts together a movie. the uber-clever woman/man-child trope is a bit...motion-sickness inducing to watch every now and then. it was pleasant to see mark strong showing up in so many things although i'm really sorry that he's in the new russell crowe robin hood, 'cause, man, that just looks fucking hilarious and not in a good way. ridley scott has clearly simply lost his marbles.

anyway, the actual movie was pretty good. it could have been a gorebath -- one of the reviews cited above actually complained that it wasn't bloody enough -- honestly, i'm somewhat relieved it wasn't worse. it could have been very, very nasty indeed given the nature of the story which, in case you don't know, follows two repo[session] men who work for the union, a company which has taken over the production and sale of artificial organs of all kinds. if you can't make the payments on your new liver, the repo men take it back. they don't give you another one in return. anyone with a vivid imagination can see really quickly how this could just turn into a saw-style bloodbath. it didn't -- on the other hand, i think the "surgery" scenes could have been done even more effectively and showed next to nothing. as it was, you were never quite sure if you were going to see blood 'n guts or not -- and when you did, the makeup effects weren't that good. a couple of times, they looked very fake indeed. so, really, the producers could have saved themselves a headache, done a little lateral thinking, and rescued the entire situation.

what i really wish they had done is hired one of matthew vaughan's editors (and soundtrack editors, too -- the music needed a serious poke in the ass). the entire film just begged to be edited like lock, stock, and 2 smoking barrels -- it desperately wanted to be a rock video and, instead, it was put together sort of like a star trek movie: plenty of slow pans, close-ups, unnecessary walking scenes, etc. really, a lot of stuff that just slowed the story down and gave you too much time to think about plot holes. of which there are, by the way, plenty. don't think about it too hard, and you'll enjoy the movie much more.

and, really, it's worth enjoying. jude law looks like he is having the time of his life (i retract my previous statement: he makes a pretty fair badass) and there is one beautiful fight sequence at the end of the film -- about 10 minutes from the end, i'd say -- that makes it worth the wait. i love a man who's willing to use a ballpeen hammer as a serious offensive weapon.

plus, i have to say, i approve of the female lead, beth, played by alice braga who is also in the new predators. she was intelligent, independent, clever, resourceful, resilient, and armed: much closer to the alice/jill valentine/selene model of the genre heroine. the script also didn't use her too much for t&a -- no more than they did jude law, anyway, which at least makes the unfairness somewhat fairly distributed.

i'm a fan of "fuck you" endings, so i enjoyed the ending of this. i won't spoiler what happens here; suffice it to say when you start to think, "really? this is really happening? wouldn't that, y'know, kill you?" pay attention to that little voice.

all that being said, with georgia rule as the all-time low of "movies i have paid for in the theatre," this was nowhere near that bad. :)

Monday, March 22, 2010

"i don't want to go."

okay, so no-one can cry foul later: this post is about the end of time, the last of the david tennant specials closing out his final season as the doctor. there are spoilers. don't read if you haven't seen -- no, really, i mean it. i will ruin it for you and i don't want to. on the one hand, i'm not going to do a blow-by-blow synopsis of the episode for a number of reasons including -- well, i just don't want to; i'd probably do it badly; and i don't want to watch the show again in order to be able to do it well. on the other hand, i'm never quite sure what details people consider show-killer spoilers and what are just details. so better safe than sorry, yes? just bookmark the post and come back later.

first off, i should say that i went through two tissues watching the second part of end of time. really, to understand the uniqueness of this, you have to know me -- but suffice it to say that i have people in multiple states and time zones who will vouch for the fact that i never cry at movies. movies, songs, tv shows -- i just don't tear up. i don't know why; it honestly doesn't reflect a lack of feeling or emotional involvement -- it has been suggested by a co-worker that i am an alien robot and the best i can do is to say that i don't think that's true. (but if i were an alien robot, isn't that what i'd be programmed to think?) russell t. davies should be able to put in his resume that he has brought me to tears four (count 'em: 4) times: torchwood, "reset" and "exit wounds;" doctor who, "journey's end" and "end of time."

in case you've been a doctor who fan under a rock, "end of time" is a two-parter -- probably because davies enjoys torturing us. there's a fair amount of overacting: tennant and john simm, playing the master, just about split the honors between them, but it's only really distracting overacting in the first half of the first part. after that, simm, at least, calms down a bit and gets down to some serious character development. the master, i have to say, comes off as seriously awesome in this. damaged -- oh, my god, yes. damaged beyond belief. but there is some long over-due character development work and his relationship to the doctor and (big picture time) to the other time lords who...cast him out? exiled him? sent him to prison? gave him a going-away party? waved goodbye with chocolates? we don't really know -- is finally explored. i'd've loved to have seen more, but there were some great moments between simm and tennant as they tried to find some kind of middle ground where they could both, quite literally, continue to exist.

if you remember the last time we saw the master -- the whole issue with the valiant and the doctor being turned into something about the size of your average parrot and lots and lots of jack-torture -- he was complaining about a rhythm in his head, drums in his head -- well, there is an explanation for this and i love it: after all this time, the time lords want to come back and they are just the tiniest bit pissed off. so their method of self-rescue is to plant a signal in the master's head, literally driving him insane over centuries of accumulated time, until he figures out a plan to get the signal out of his head and figure out what it does. which is to haul the time lords out of their chronological dead end and back into real time.

the idea that the time lords, after all this, are villains, controlling, manipulative survivalists who would do anything to get themselves out of the dead-end time vortex they were trapped in after the doctor "ended" the time war is fan-fucking-tastic in my book. if you're a long-time fan, you know that portrayals of the time lords have wavered wildly from being benign, uninvolved observers (although never as "uninvolved" as they liked to claim), to actively interfering busybodies. (and this is just the time lords as a group, too, without taking into particular account the individual time lords we meet like the rani or the meddling monk, as well as the master. or, for that matter, susan or jenny.)

i love this solution. the idea that they would plant a signal in the master's mind, using him, forcing him to do what they want in order to open up a route for them to return and exact revenge on the entire fucking universe so that they can ascend and become gods is just fucking fantastic. i love pretty much everything about it. the time lords and gallifrey are no longer a deus ex machina that can save the world at any time; instead, they are now the biggest fucking danger to traffic that was ever created. yes. i like it. i like the master's reaction to his discovery that he has been used. i like david tennant's reaction to it. i like pretty much every little damn thing about it.

in all of this, too, there's a tempting, tantalizing, teasing suggestion as to the origin of the "blink" angels. as rassilon (rassilon, for god's sake! rassilon is a bad guy! oh my lord, that is cool!) and the other time lords materialize out of the vortex, rassilon makes some comment about the two women behind him (you can see them up there in the still) who have chosen to disagree with the senate's decision (a senate apparently entirely made up of prydonians which just explains so freakin' much) as having chosen to become "weeping angels." and, really, who would have more hunger or desire for quantum energy than a pissed-off time lord cut off from the congress of other time lords? but, while this is a great suggestion, i don't really want to know what the solution is and i'm really afraid, from the look of season 5, that steven moffat has the explanatory itch.

so there is a lot of great stuff going on here -- there are cameos from all the people you'd expect to see cameo, including martha, mickey (mickey the idiot has come so far!), jackie, rose, sarah jane, luke, and jack. bernard cribbins does a(nother) great turn as donna's grandfather, really providing the companion for the show and doing a fantastic job at it, too, keen to see the doctor again, eager to help, but also desperate to understand why the doctor abandoned donna and why the doctor, seemingly so lonely and at loose ends, won't just take donna back travelling with him.

so here we come to one of my big problems with the two-parter; in fact, now i think about it, my biggest problem with the two-parter. and it's really a beautiful example of how over-invested i can get when i choose to become over-invested!

i had hope -- such faith! -- that davies would use donna to some good end. she had to have been saved at the conclusion of season 4 to do something awesome, right? there was all that hoohah about her having "mindmelded" with the doctor and whatnot and now she was back on earth and could she remember or could she not and what could she do and what might she be able to do-- yeah.


davies pissed all that up a fucking rope and i hope he's sorry for it.

instead of doing anything at all interesting with donna, she is left by the end of the story to precisely the life she begged the doctor not to return her to at the end of "journey's end." she has come full circle and is back being the person she was when she started. it is horrible to watch and i hope davies regrets it. he threw away one of the best characters he has created to date, plus a great performer in catherine tate, and it shows. it is a weakness throughout the story and it is painful to watch in the end. all i could think of was "journey's end" and the doctor's cruelty there is compounded by what i can only describe as davies's willful refusal here to rescue the character. instead, she is left stranded in the version of her life she fought so desperately to escape.

yeah, i feel warm and fuzzy: how 'bout you?

i was also disappointed that jack had nothing more to do with the show than a minute cameo at the end -- it was great to bring back the russell tovey character from "voyage of the damned" and it'd be great to see the two of them again but -- since the bbc seems to have unofficially axed torchwood and i have little faith in any american version -- i'm really dubious about this.

there are some other great things in this two-parter: the ood reappear -- they have to be some of my favorite aliens from the new series. it's sweet and very sad that they show up in the last few minutes of the show to sing the doctor to his death, essentially. it was great to see a doctor confronting the dissolution of his personality; none of the previous ones have done that. giving the tenth incarnation time to reflect on his "mortality" and "death" is unique, as far as i know, and definitely an interesting new twist.

but, really, i'm going to be stuck for a long time on donna.

Friday, March 19, 2010

friday fun times

for your friday fun and entertainment, some animated shorts which i cribbed (mostly unashamedly) from irene gallo's regular saturday morning cartoons feature over on

the first is...well, either the weirdest or the grimmest, depending on your point of view.

...and then it gets slightly cheerier, but still weird but i love rats and this is kind of like rats meet the matrix...sort of...

...and who can resist dave mckean, really? i mean, i bought the hardcover version of the graveyard book, okay, yes, because it was new neil gaiman, but also because it had marginal drawings and chapter sketches by dave mckean.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"...writing yer name in all those history books..." Part 2

all right, so here we are back again as promised to discuss a few issues with hunger.

i took just about 2 pages of notes on this; i'll try to summarize the best points without sinking to the point i was at on saturday of lecturing the computer screen. there are lots of questions here: what about prisoners who came off the strike to conform? what about prisoners who came onto the strike, abandoning the uniform? what about the other prisoners in the freakin' jail of whom there were hundreds? what about the other prisoners who were in the prison ira leadership with sands? what about the guards who weren't sectarian fuckheads? what about...what about...what about... but some of these are just me being picky because, well, this is my subject and sketchy treatments of it make me twitch. and some of it isn't relevant to the story mcqueen has chosen to tell but his ignoring of them does his story a disservice. given that the movie he has produced is obviously directed towards an informed audience, they are going to ask these kinds of questions -- i would hope! -- because they are informed.

the movie only really finds a driving force about 50 minutes in. given that it's about an hour and a half long, this might be considered a small pacing problem. from then on in, the prison might as well have been built around bobby sands. i'm sure this is probably how he might have liked to see things (or not -- other prisoners reported him as being somewhat self-effacing), but it isn't true. it isn't even fair to the other dozens -- more reasonably, hundreds of prisoners although not all of them were on either the dirty strike or the hunger strike -- at the same time as sands. making him the centerpiece of the entire thing simply plays straight into the republican tendency to create martyred hero figures.

congratulations, mr. mcqueen; you bought it. it's a great story; i find it hard to blame you. it's seductive; it's powerful; it's black-and-white; it's like a great mythological cycle -- with more shit on the walls. and y'know why? because they've had about 90 years to work it all out.

and i don't think this is self-conscious or knowing, either; mcqueen seems to have genuinely bought into sands's self-representation. in a long static sequence in the middle of the film, a lengthy debate between sands and a priest named moran about the morality and timing of the hunger strike, moran even makes the argument that all sands wants is to "....[write] yer name in all those history books..." after james connolly and terence macswiney -- both of whom earlier republicans who were of key importance to sands in his personal vision of irish republican nationalism. i'd've said this is probably at least part of the truth -- sands did want to be a martyr; he realised fully how powerful they were in terms of irish nationalism and thought that a new generation of martyrs was just what the movement needed. after the collapse of the first hunger strike in 1979, he was heartbroken over the loss of the chance; the new strike in 1981 was fuelled, in large part, by his impatience to create republican heroes for ireland. (this is all a bit slapdash in the way of historical reasoning, by the way; there were lots of other reasons, too. but this is a big chunk of it.)

the movie places great emphasis on the ability of the prisoners to endure brutal treatment -- the sequences of forced bathing and haircutting and the mirror searches are more or less accurate in their deep unpleasantness. there's a really lovely sequence after the mirror searches contrasting sands in his cell, bleeding heavily from blows to the head, and a young riot officer who has had to retreat from the line, unable to deal with the treatment meted out to the prisoners. the officer is lurking behind a half-wall, within earshot of the beatings, tears running down his cheeks, looking as if he would rather be just about anywhere than where he is; sands, on the other hand, looks peculiarly contented, relieved (presumably at having survived what could have been a fatal experience), but also pleased. i'm not sure about the guards -- i don't think many prison officers from the '70s or '80s in northern ireland sat down to write books about their experiences! -- but sands's reaction is certainly in line with the stories he told in writings from prison and which other prisoners recounted in their memoirs or narratives.

possibly the worst problem is that the end of the movie veers away from acknowledged historical medical fact about what happened to sands during his hunger strike (and i really want to know how the prisoners stayed in such excellent shape while being largely confined to cells that are about half the size of an average dorm room with no exercise privileges -- personally, i'd've thought it would be difficult to keep up a six-pack or biceps like a soccer player's, but, hey, what do i know?); privileges him to the total loss of the other dozen-plus men who went on hunger strike, to say nothing of the other nine who died; and descends into inexcusable maudlin sentimentality.

during the conversation with the priest, sands recounts a story about going down to a track meet in the south with some other boys when he was 12. (possibly based on a true event; sands was a track runner until his late teens, apparently a gifted one, and enjoyed playing football, running the track-and-field events, and was a member of several local clubs around his home district of belfast.)  the story slides downhill into fairly threadbare symbolism as sands adds on a story about the boys going down to a river near the meet site and finding a foal, starving and half-drowned in the water with a broken leg. sands takes it upon himself to drown the foal as the other boys debate what to do about it. i imagine the audience is meant to take this as evidence of sands's strength of character and determination -- as he himself says it is. i'm not sure about this, really, but that may also be because i'm fairly sure i can see the seam where actual biographical story is hooked into symbolically convenient story and it annoys.

at the end of the film, then, as he lies dying (medically incorrectly but much more attractively), there is a lengthy -- 2+ minutes -- flashback to the boy sands running the course by the river.

it's ridiculous. it's pointless. it's insulting, both to sands and to the audience. really, if you watch the movie, turn it off at about 1.27.00. the last shot of sands in the hospital bed, looking up at the ceiling, would have made a stronger, more telling, more compelling final shot, rather than the rubbishy, saccharine, "it'll all be okay, kids" shot of the boy on the bus, returning from the golden day in the republic.

even an older movie about the hunger strikes, some mother's son, which took more liberties with the prisoners and their stories and played the entire episode more for dramatic tension than for historical accuracy, didn't descend to that level of crayola-style storytelling.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"...writing yer name in all those history books..." Part 1

so, this week i'm going to put on my historian hat and do a bit of ranting.

i finally found time on saturday morning to watch artist steve mcqueen's film about bobby sands, hunger. the film could fairly be called "critically acclaimed" -- often a meaningless phrase -- because, well, it was. one of the guardian's film critics went so far as to say that he was never going to watch another film that wasn't made by an artist again because this had been a life-changing experience. subsequently, he's watched wolverineavatar, and (i think) alice in wonderland, so i'm thinking this grand claim didn't hold true for too long!

brief synopsis: the film follows (or tries to from about 52 minutes in) bobby sands, member of the irish republican army, who was imprisoned in 1976 (for the second time) and died on hunger strike in 1981, the first of ten ira members to die in the long kesh prison in northern ireland in '81. their aim was to pressure the english government into returning "special category" prisoner status which would allow imprisoned paramilitaries to be treated, in essence, as political prisoners. they would have the right to wear their own clothes, receive more mail and more visits, arrange their own living spaces (with prison rules), and a few other privileges that "ordinary decent criminals," so called by the prison system, did not receive.

so -- first, the good stuff. the film is beautiful. i don't know exactly what mcqueen's background is or what other work he has done but he has an eye some directors and cinematographers would probably kill for.

when i say that it's as carefully, precisely, and gorgeously shot as a good polanski film (see the ninth gate) or pretty much any danny boyle or sam mendes movie (see 28 days later or american beauty), this should get the idea across. there are no particularly fancy camera tricks -- except for some crane work when bobby is dying that gets truly dizzying which i imagine was the point -- and most of the work is simple close-up, static shot, or dollying. it's very basic, which makes it gorgeous.

the colors are beautiful -- for a film which as to take most of its action inside a prison system, mcqueen did a fantastic job of finding a way to make it not bleak or, rather, to make the bleakness meaningful without making it drip with symbolism. the prison is a prison; there's really no way around that. but the use of light -- see the scene in the beginning with a prisoner standing by a broken window grill, the cold light from the snowy day outside lighting his bare torso and making it appear to glow ivory -- is phenomenal. it's the opening of the trailer down there; the picture quality on this isn't as good as on the dvd copy i watched, but it should get the idea across.

there's a scene at about the midway point of the movie -- lasting for about 10-15 minutes -- done in two shots: one a static framing shot, and the other a tight close-up and the photography of the cigarette smoke as the two men in the shot smoke and argue is distractingly lovely. really -- it does get a bit distracting! but it's beautiful to watch. and it highlights the emptiness of the room around the two men nicely.

so, yes, look, i said some good things, right? now -- the problems.

i have never seen a better propaganda piece for the ira. or, more precisely, for the martyrisation and idealisation of bobby sands.


and that's including all the time i've spent reading/watching/looking at actual ira propaganda!

and i'm having to take periodic breaks from writing this post because it's making me too upset; by the end of the movie, i was actually lecturing the computer screen sternly on its iniquities as a piece of historical thinking.

and, of course, that's one of the problems. it isn't a piece of historical thinking. it's a movie. but it's a movie that purports to be closely based on historical events -- and not all that distant ones, either. less than 30 years old. it isn't like mcqueen could claim the clouds of intervening centuries blurred his vision; there are men who were in prison with sands who would, i'm sure, be delighted to talk to him. or, if not delighted, could probably be talked into it. if nothing else, there are histories -- believe me, there are histories -- and memoirs and narratives and state papers -- all of which could have helped this be better.

now, go forth and watch the preview for hunger and i'll be back on wednesday to discuss a few problems:

Friday, March 12, 2010

it's all about effort, really

for your friday consideration:

MC Yogi - Give Love (Giving4Living Mix) from MC Yogi on Vimeo.

this is not the sort of thing i normally link to -- and i did debate a little before putting it up, but i thought, "what the hell -- why not?" the more times i watch it, the more i like the animation and, while this guy certainly isn't mike shinoda, i like his voice a lot.

along the same lines, if you feel the need of a little extra assistance getting through the friday that separates you from your friday evening or your saturday (depending on when you personally feel the weekend begins), i suggest you try this recent article from dailyom.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"deadwood" with immortals. sort of.

on saturday, since i was trying to rest-and-heat painful cramps out of my right shoulder muscle, i had a lot of time to read. i finished roy porter's english society in the 18th century and steve cash's the meq. i've read articles by porter before and excerpts from his books but not a full text and it was great -- he's a little addicted to cheesy wordplay, but it was kind of cute, and it was a great survey of exactly what the title says: english society in the 18th century. tah-dah. no surprises here, folks. i don't know enough about the subject to know if what he was saying was revolutionary or so ordinary that it caused no surprise whatsoever, but it was amusing, quick to read, and could absolutely have yielded more to closer inspection which i think is always a good thing in an academic text.

the meq, on the other hand, isn't an academic text about anything. (mild spoilers follow; nothing that will ruin the ending, i promise). it's steve cash's first novel; his second, the inevitable sequel to the meq is coming out sometime this spring/summer. the basic conceit of the book is that there are people, called the meq, living on the earth who are functionally immortal. this sounds great -- until you realise that their immortality switches on, so to speak, at age 12 and they don't age past 12 unless they decide to re-enter time in order to have children which they only do after they have met their "ameq" -- roughly translated, "soulmate." (tangential question: how many fantasy/sci-fi novels are there out there that somehow have a concept akin to "one person for one person"? you meet your "perfect mate" or you never get a long-term relationship? why is this?) the period until the ameq is found is called the "itxaron" (i may be spelling that wrongly) or "wait."

i'm not sure where cash got the words he uses in this; most of the meq are meant to be from the basque area of northern spain/southern france, so i'm not sure if he adapted/adopted portuguese, basque, or possibly provencal french. some characters speak what is recognizably portuguese or french, interspersed with english, obviously, but the words that pertain specifically to the meq didn't ring any bells with me. they're evocative, though, and do a pretty good job at distancing the meq from the humans they live alongside.

the narrative character, zianno or "z" as he insists on being called, loses his parents just after his first 12th birthday and knows nothing about the meq or about his place in the hierarchy of this scattered society. obviously, he turns out to be important; there's a quest, people to be found, objects to be found, villains to be bested, questions to be answered, and so forth. it's a fairly straightforward hero's journey.

as a first novel, it's pretty good. there are at least two historical and one plot-related "howlers" as harriet vane calls them, but they're forgivable given the enthusiasm and verve which cash brings to his story. (i won't point them out in the interest of not ruining things for you. suffice it to say, if you notice them, you notice them; if you don't, you don't.) it wanders a little; in the middle chapters i couldn't help wishing that there had been a kindly editor on hand to suggest that maybe, just maybe, some of this could be condensed somehow. and cash did occasionally give in to the temptation of the "if only we had known then what we would shortly discover..." trick which i find hellaciously irritating. it's one of stephen king's little pet foibles and sometimes -- just sometimes, mind you -- it works out all right. lovecraft used it to good effect and there's the odd stephen king novel -- it, for example -- where it doesn't drive me up the wall but mostly it just seems like sloppy storytelling. it's like telling the reader something but not really.

since the story takes place over the last decade or so of the 19th century and ends just after the first world war, cash occasionally has real people enter the action -- mostly very briefly -- and real-world events continually impinge, aid, or retard the action of the story. the novel ends amid the upheaval of the armistice and the opening days of the influenza epidemic at the end of the teens. cash does a great job of evoking the 'flu epidemic, making it particularly horrific when it becomes clear that the 'flu may not necessarily be a respector of meq immortality.

there are some great characters -- solomon birnbaum and carolina covington spring straight to mind as two favorites, as do ray and sailor, two of the other meq z falls in with over the course of the novel. the villain, too, is a wonderful, cruel, vicious invention and i thoroughly look forward to seeing more of him in the second novel. there are a few characters that come across as stock figures, inserted to make a plot point move more smoothly or to ease a particular transitional moment, but for the most part, cash avoids this kind of cardboardy characterization.

there are some things that i wish he had addressed in more detail: for example, all of the meq -- some of whom were thousands of years old and still, apparently, 12 -- lived closely with humans...but none of them expressed any real jealousy, sorrow, or pain at watching human friends age, marry, divorce, get sick, die, or whatever. but perhaps these are problems that cash was deliberately saving for his second book when z would be less preoccupied with finding his feet, so to speak, as a meq and could turn his mind to more abstract ideas.

edit: i take it back because i am an idiot. the meq was published in 2005; time dancers, the second volume, was published in 2006. perhaps he has the third volume coming out this year...? i have no idea. anyway. yes, go forth and read those two lovely complete volumes and just totally ignore me, really.

Monday, March 8, 2010

"the doctor. doctor. fun." (spoilers a-plenty!)

honestly, i think you could probably get him for false advertising with that opening line. the first, say, 5-10 minutes of waters of mars are, indeed, faintly punch-drunk fun as we've come to expect from the last 3 seasons of david tennant's work as the doctor. i would have said that he's a little tired but whether it's just outright exhaustion -- consider his last two years, really! -- or he's ready to be done with dw, i can't say. if he is tired of the part, he's doing a better job hiding it than, say, tom baker, whose last few episodes were almost totally ruined by his absolutely self-evident bad attitude.

as i say, the first minutes of the episode are fairly typical of doctor who as it has been -- and then things start to go odd. the "aliens" -- in this case, an infection transmitted via water which takes over human hosts -- are great; i really liked their look, their sound, their otherness was nice in a series which tends very much to depend upon aliens that are basically humans with funny heads. okay, yes, these were still humans with funny mouths, but i liked them, all right?

i should note, too, that whoever directed and/or decided on the photography/cinematography for this episode loves danny boyle. i tried to find youtube clips to illustrate my point but youtube failed me. if i feel technically ept after getting some work done later, i may attempt to upload my own cut scenes. we'll see. anyway, the opening is pure sunshine and the infection of roman is 100% 28 days later. not that either of these are bad things; it was just funny. there's a lot of homage going on in this episode, to other genre films (the above-mentioned danny boyle, not to mention 30 days of night, and, though i hate to admit even having seen it, possible shades of john carpenter's absolutely egregious ghosts of mars?) and to old episodes in the series right up to the penultimate dedication to the episode to veteran doctor who producer and writer, barry letts, who died in 2009.

i don't think letts would ever have written an episode like mars, though; maybe he wanted to, i don't know. but mars quickly changes from being a fairly straightforward "locked room murder mystery" to being something rather darker. david tennant, as one of my friends commented, does some quality scenery-chewing in the last third, but caps it off with some terrifying moments as the doctor decides that, instead of being the final survivor of the time wars, he is the winner. as he says himself, the laws of time are now his to adminster and the final decision is his.

this is not a good thing.

in fact, this is deeply fucking disturbing. watching the doctor go off the deep end is -- awful. i've been a doctor who fan for almost as long as i can remember; my first episode was the robots of death -- a classic tom baker -- and, if i could have gotten behind the couch to watch it, i would have adopted that venerable position for the younger dw fan set. as it was, i was too terrified to move, but couldn't wait for the next episode. doctor who was my introduction to recreational adrenalin spikes.

lord only knows, the dw universe has been subject to more circular logic, chronic hystereses (full points if you recognize what episode that's from), internal contradictions, outright lies, and 'well, yeah, it worked that way last week but this week---'s than most shows. despite all this, there have been some constants: the companion will always ignore the doctor's instructions to "stay right here"; the tardis door can only be opened by the doctor or a companion (this wasn't always the case; early seasons were slightly different); the daleks always say "exterminate!"; cyberman are awkward to the point of foolishness; the sonic screwdriver solves all problems; and so forth.

one of these constants has, oddly for a character who changes so damn much and can (see colin baker's regeneration) be totally unpredictable bordering on the outright psychotic, been the doctor. there are rules; time travel and responsibilities as a time lord (last thereof or not) require certain responsibilities; he insists on them. watching him break them is, therefore, really worrying! watching him glory in breaking them is worse. this is what the master does; this is what he's there for; this is not what the doctor does because the doctor has to be, to some extent, reliable. one way or another, he is the rules. his insistence over the last 4 seasons that the proper chronology of events not be disturbed in even the smallest way is pushed aside in two or three scenes at the end of mars and, god bless david tennant, he makes it work. i can't say i didn't want to grab the doctor and shake him hard, but it worked. (and lindsay duncan did a fantastic job of standing up to his scenery-chewing. her last scenes are wonderful. she tells him off in a way donna would be proud of.)

and, i have to say, david tennant has done a marvellous job at putting the doctor through some of the cruellest things he has ever done (and i say this as someone who cried at the end of earthshock -- which is watchable on netflix insty for those of you who have that and haven't seen the episode) and not making it either cringe-makingly melodramatic or turning the doctor into an outright villain. donna's return to earth in "journey's end" and the death of captain brooke in mars are two of the nastiest things the doctor has done. i'll put them up against adric and sara kingdom any day of the week. the darkness is welcome, but we're verging into some truly nasty territory at the end of mars and i kind of hate to think what the wake-up call is going to be.

but i'll be able to comment on that later in the week -- or possibly early next week -- because the pbs stations around me are all pledge-breaking like little fundraising bunnies and, with no masterpiece theatre to watch or tape, i'm going to ignore the oscars tonight and watch hunger and the end of time. we'll see how that goes.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

friday fun times

so i had to call on a friend of mine in order to get the link for this one because i had fond memories of it -- from the first time she sent me the link -- but i had neglected to save it. an archivist! failing to save something! augh!

anyway, this one made my sometimes-tired, sometimes-achey star wars fan's heart very happy:

Friday, March 5, 2010

"you are *awesome*."

so for today's "lets do nothing serious for a few minutes" friday, we have this black and white short (16 minutes and change) called "validation." starring, for those of you who are interested in such things, t.j. thyne who is otherwise known as dr. jack hodgins on bones, a show of which i am inordinately fond.

and thanks to my friend rebecca for sending me out the links. as she said, enjoy the warm fuzzies!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

where is sam vimes when you need him?

i'm going to be doing some work this week to prepare a presentation for the new england historical association's spring conference. i sent in this really clever looking proposal in january to talk for 20-25 minutes about bobby sands as a key figure in the (re)construction of irish republican nationalism at the end of the 20th century. god, it sounded so clever when i wrote that proposal. and now, of course, i have to make good and actually make the presentation and some notes and something to actually talk about.

ah, well, these things happen, right?

but that's not my point. my point is that, over the last three or four days -- say from the last saturday in february to the first monday in march -- there have been several stories about violent attacks in northern ireland. at least one man died -- or was killed, depending on how you like to frame these things; no-one in the actual country seems quite sure yet as to what really happened -- and a police barracks was attacked.

i want to go on record right now by saying that i'm not arguing that any of these things are good or defensible in any way. i think they're probably explicable and understandable but that's not the same thing.

what i also think is not good or defensible is the automatic leap i have seen being made in the news sources i follow from the uk...which are, for the purposes of full disclosure, chiefly the times, the guardian, the independent, and various subsections thereof, as well as gerry adam's semi-official blog although adams has not commented on the events of recent days. in any case, there is an automatic jump being made here from "attack" to "sectarian attack," or, even worse, "dissident republican attack." there isn't even any attempt made to justify the reasoning that takes the journalist from "attack" to "dissident republicans."

now, i have to say that the odds are very high that, yes, in fact, dissident republicans -- probably the continuity or real ira or some combination of the two (which is an unpleasant, but possibly inevitable, concept) -- are behind the attacks. this is particularly likely in the case of the attack on the police barracks. historically speaking, the paramilitary republican (catholic) community has been much more strident about the entrance of catholics into the police service of northern ireland (psni) than the unionist or english communities. there are a whole raft of reasons for this, but you can basically boil it down to the fact that, for some republicans, catholics going into the psni are traitors to years of painful community experience. the psni (the modern name for the police service) has long been a bastion of unionist/english power, often deployed violently and cruelly against catholics in northern ireland. the conclusion "good" catholics should draw is, therefore, considered to be obvious by some.

regardless of the obviousness of the conclusion, however, i feel that the conclusions being drawn are evidence of a long tradition of blaming violence in northern ireland on republicans regardless of the actual perpetrator. this sort of thing gives the unionists a golden chance -- which they have already, in the reporting on monday, march 1st -- taken full advantage of, to cry innocence and load more blame on their republican counterparts while the "legitimate" republicans, on their part, have to scramble to claim innocence and/or shift the blame onto "dissident" republicans.

this isn't a productive cycle of events. it's familiar; it's easy; i imagine it might even be comfortable -- in an uncomfortable sort of way -- for all concerned at this point. but it sure as hell isn't going to get the political system in northern ireland any closer to true devolution of powers from westminster to stormont any time soon.

Monday, March 1, 2010

short thought: "the swan thieves"

so a short thought this morning, folks, on elizabeth kostova's new novel, the swan thieves.

the reason for this shortness? well, partially it's because i have to go to work shortly, but mostly it's because i didn't finish the book. i'm breaking my own self-imposed sort of rule here to talk about a book i didn't even bother to finish. most of the time, if i write something about a book, movie, or series, i haven't finished it's because i think it's completely awesome and as many other people should know about it as possible.

i wish this was the case with the swan thieves but it's not.

i really enjoyed kostova's debut novel, the historian. it had problems of pacing and characterization but, for a first novel produced out of a workshop, i thought it was pretty damn good. a few of the other little glitches i noticed -- such as the strange adolescent/adult/adolescent/pre-adolescent slalom of the main character -- can be explained by the fact that one of my friends who attended a talk on YA literature told me that the novel had originally been purchased as YA. the publishers then realised they would have a much wider market if they bumped it up to the adult fiction lists, but the main character, having originally been written to appeal to a pre-teen/teen audience, needed bumping up, too. thus her odd bouncing around between states of mind.

fine, i'll buy that. it mostly worked anyway, and didn't distract too badly from the rest of what was going on. it wasn't exactly a fast-moving book by anyone's standards, but it was worth the ride 90% of the time.

the swan thieves is equally slow-moving, equally detailed, equally determined to leave no stone unturned in terms of character or plot description. in this case, the story is much simpler than that of the historian: a painter, robert oliver (if i remember rightly) has been arrested and institutionalized after trying to attack a painting in the national gallery in washington. his psychotherapist, one of the narrators of the story, is trying to figure out why. tah-dah -- there you have it, folks. the entire driving force of a brick-thick novel.

and that's fine -- it might even work out -- if every character didn't feel like a cookie cutter of every. other. character. seriously. i think kostova developed one man and one woman and then just changed hair color, age, and eye color. and it got really really boring to have every woman described in terms of her immediate sexual attractiveness to the narrative character. since in his original self-introduction he mentions that he starts out the story single but not particularly heartbroken about this and that while now he has a wife and is quite happy about this, romantic heartbreak hasn't been a huge portion of his life, it felt particularly awkward to have him summing up every woman in the story in terms of waist firmness and breast size.

to then have the narrators switch -- which was fine; i expected that -- and the new voice of a younger woman was interesting to listen to right up until the point when she started evaluating all the men in the book in precisely the same way the original, male narrator had! i suppose this is a very mild example of equal opportunity sexism, but between that and the fact that the pace of the novel was tooth-achingly slow without delivering any of the informational payoff of the historian, i decided life was too short and, to quote maggie cutler in the man who came to dinner, "i put it down right there."