Thursday, October 26, 2017

Is that sufficient to excuse?

A bit of a serious post tonight after my recent entertainment related ones.

If you want entertainment recommendations, can I suggest Thor: Ragnarok or all twelve seasons of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia? I saw the former today and have recently finished on the latter (in my defence the episodes are less than half an hour, it is very addictive, and I started weeks ago), and the former is super crazy fun times and the latter is literally one of the funniest shows I've seen in years (if very on the dark side which is how I like them). So if that is what you came for you can now look away.

This post is instead mainly about the spiralling circus of Hollywood sexual assault allegations, and the #metoo campaign.

Unless you have been living in a cave, you will have seen in recent weeks that numerous women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein, who for those not aware is one of the most powerful film producers working in Hollywood fordecades now. The volume of women who have come forward is shocking and what is more shocking is that, as is always the case with sexual assault, these women may be a tip of the iceberg. It has caused ripples that have impacted into US politics as Weinstein was a prominent contributor to the Democrats- the Republicans shamed them for this but considering the fact that the current Republican president has a significant backlog of sexual assault allegations which were often settled out of court for large settlements, and that they took funding from several prominent contributors who have recently also been the subject to cases like Weinstein's, I feel it is a case of people in glass houses... 

The question I want to start with here is the appropriate reaction to case like this when it comes to paying money at the box office. There have been several prominent cases of men in Hollywood being accused as Weinstein has been, there have also been cases of domestic abuse, and tacit approval or turning a blind eye on these matters. The first reaction is to boycott but then people ask the question once again of separating the art from the artist- even easier in the case of the producer as they are the money man not the artist per se. 

This is where I have to be honest about my own inconsistency in this area. As you may or may not be aware, one of the best known cases of abuse or assault of a woman, or female child, by a Hollywood player is that of Roman Polanski. Polanski has lived in European countries without extradition to the States for decades now to avoid trail for the rape and drugging of a 13 year girl in the late 1970s, and it was not only about six years ago that he offered what was quite a feeble apology to the girl who is now 53. Polanski is also a much awarded and quite talented film director. His career significantly slowed after he fled the States- his first film was released in 1955 and about half of his output is between then and 1977 when the rape occurred, with the other half coming in the forty years since the rape- but his last Oscar, for The Pianist, was in 2002 only 15 years ago and he is still actively making films in France. Now here is my honesty on this director, the rape was committed before I was born so any exposure I had to him as a director was with that knowledge. My first Polanski film was, like most people's, his 1971 version of Macbeth at high school and as far as I know it remains one of the most used cinematic treatments of Shakespeare in schools. Now I had no choice in that one but I saw it several times both in class and then at home whilst I studied Macbeth. I remember people telling me the fate of the lead actress (I'll come back to that) but no-one told me about the rape case maybe because at the time I was only a year or so older than his victim. Even after I knew the whole story, I paid money to see The Pianist at the cinema and I purchased and still own the DVD of Rosemary's Baby (his very terrifying 1968 horror film). Polanski's skill as a director has lead him to be one of the most frequently mentioned cases of people attempting to seperate art from artist and crimes of artist. In addition to this Polanski's personal history has lead him to be seen as someone scarred by his past in an incurable way. Polanski grew up in the Jewish ghetto in Krakow in Poland at the beginning of the Second World War- if you read or watch, Schindler's Ark/List, the young girl in the red dress that Oskar Schindler sees is Polanski's cousin (her memoir The Girl in the Red Dress (if memory serves, I read it over a decade ago) is well worth the read). He managed to flee the ghetto and lived in hiding for the last part of the war but his mother died in the Holocaust. He then lived for a time in Soviet occupied Poland then moved to France, England, and ultimately Hollywood. In England he met Sharon Tate, an up and coming American actress, and they married- she was in a few of his films including playing Lady Macbeth. Then in 1969, Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson along with friends at the house she and Polanski were renting in Hollywood. At the time of her death, Tate was pregnant and almost full term with what would have been the couple’s first child- the unborn child died in the attack on its mother.  Now that personal history is overwhelmingly horrifying but does it excuse the rape and drugging of a 13 year old girl? Obviously it does not. For years, I have felt problematic about the few times I have given money for Polanski films in the knowledge of this, and I feel the guilt of the fact that crimes like this become easier to ignore (though they shouldn't never be ignored) when the person is skilled, the crime in the past, and the output of the criminal art of a genre that appeals to you.

The second guilt confession is an actor/director who I have actually boycotted, Mel Gibson. When I mention to people that I don't watch films that he has anything to do with, most people assume that it is because of the domestic abuse allegations from his last wife or one of the times he has shown himself to be profoundly sexist. The fact of the matter is though I boycotted Gibson because of his anti-Semitism, and his treatment of women was a secondary factor. It is as if I assumed that men in Hollywood were likely to have abuse allegations levelled against them, and then tacitly ignored this factor. When I realised that it was racism not sexism that had lead to my boycott of Gibson's work, I was troubled as to why not both.

The idea of the selecting the art in spite of the artist has come up for again in recent months and years with allegations levelled at creatives whose work I really enjoy or in the case of Weinstein, a man who funds the work of artists whose work I enjoy. First there were the allegations levelled by the ex wife of Johnny Depp which came out just over a year ago. I'm not a fan of Depp's recent work (the impact of his Captain Jack Sparrow character on every other character has become more than a bit much) but his earlier works especially with Tim Burton are some of my favourite films. When I saw Depp in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (sorry that might be a spoiler but the film is a year old), I cringed simultaneously because I don't find his acting very undifferentiated nowadays and also because suddenly I was paying money for a film with a man who was currently under investigation for domestic abuse in it, and I knew that I would have to make the call on the sequels in part based on his presence. Second there was the shock of the piece published by the ex wife of Joss Whedon- she stated that Whedon had cheated her repeated and then gaslighted her about his infidelity. This one showed me why you should never have heroes because as those who know me at all know, I am a massive fan of Whedon's work. This left me and many others reeling because we are now in the position where one of the most feminist works of the late 20th/earliest 21st century, Buffy, was created by a man whose treatment of his ex-wife is under serious question. The impact of Whedon's work meant that in the week after this article was published, people did start having the separating the artist from the work conversation. Personally I don't know if I can watch Whedon's work in the same way now and I'm deeply saddened by that. 

Then finally we get to Weinstein. As I said Weinstein is a producer so is not the artist, however as one of the men behind Miramax and later The Weinstein Company, he is the producer who has nearly exclusively funded the works of some of my favourite directors. Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, two of my all time favourite directors, have both had their works produced by Weinstein associated companies for decades. In the actor turned director space, you also have George Clooney and Ben Affleck working with Weinstein money on occasion. I single out these four because the represent (though not in order), the worrying responses, the good response, and the best response. The worrying responses were Tarantino and Affleck. Tarantino was one of the last of Weinstein's prominent collaborators to comment on the allegations and the delay wasn't the only issue. Tarantino clearly indicated that he had been aware of rumours about Weinstein for a while and in fact implied even that he knew that there was substance to them. Now he could have sought to help the women who were victims of this without bring things to light but it did sound like he had to a degree ignored the rumours. Affleck was in a similar boat to Tarantino- not that he was late but that has response was worrying. Affleck responded fairly early condemning Weinstein BUT Affleck's brother, Casey, was accused of sexual harassment a few years ago and Ben Affleck has never gone on the record about that. Now I won't be boycotting the works of Ben Affleck (though I have considered boycotting his brother's work for a while) or Quentin Tarantino for their replies being worryingly lacking but just to highlight I would have preferred if they had either condemned Weinstein early and directly with no room for question as Clooney did, or gone the extra step and declared that future profits from their Weinstein produced works would be in part donated to charities that assist victims of rape and assault as Kevin Smith did (his response was exactly what you would want and makes me want to pay additional copies of his films as I already own the ones I would want to own so my money did go to Weinstein). It is harder to boycott a studio but there needs to be a question whether in Weinstein's case we should.

That is a little all over the place but it was essentially just to raise the question of whether we can or should ever look to the art and not also see the artist (or in Weinstein's case the money) behind it.

Now I've written quite a lot and I haven't spoken about in length or even named the women who were victims of these attacks or this treatment. I want to be VERY clear that this is not to highlight the men who did these things over the women who were victim to them. It is to say that as we need to know these women are more than the victims we make them. Their names are important but because of the things that they did in their lives that make their lives meaningful not the incident/s in their life that made their life horrible. These men may have made them feel less than human so I feel it is not my place to repeatedly associate them with that dehumanising act/s.

This brings me to the victim side of things and the newest internet awareness campaign. Alyssa Milano who is one of the women who has accused Weinstein called last week for women to share on social media their own stories of sexual assault or harassment with the hashtag MeToo. 

What I found interesting about the response to the hashtag was not the volume of it, most women I knew (myself included) were of the opinion that sadly we live in a world where rare (if non existent) was the woman who could not use the hashtag, but more the shock that some men felt when they saw the volume and the slight push back (mainly around assault of men by women- no-one said it doesn't happen and it is horrible too but even in cases of male sexual violence or harassment, the perpetrators are usually male, cases of female on male sexual assault make up less than 10% of assault cases). I have said in the past that internet based awareness campaigns can be ineffective but this one might be the most effective thus far. I applauded the men who responded well on social media- owning times when their own actions might have been less than ideal and supporting the women there knew- but this isn't the big impact and I wanted to talk about that and about the women who didn't share the hashtag.

Being honest about assault or harassment isn't easy, and the way Western culture works means that women can feel shamed even when the harassment is not directed at them. For example, a woman sees another woman get cat called and then the same group of men do not cat call her when she walks past them and society encodes in the second woman the desire to question her attractiveness and to compare herself to the first woman instead of standing in solidarity with the first woman and declaring the actions of the men as demeaning and awful. Society says that women should not stand together but should be put at loggerheads over who is the more desirable. For thousands of women to come out on social media and declare in solidarity, that they all experienced similar acts is powerful. It helps break the stigma of victimhood. Sexual assault and harrassment can lead to massive psychological and emotional scars and women around the world were able to communally have a moment to work through those scars in a medium where rape threats are more common than female solidarity. I therefore want to say to those who like me shared the hashtag that I support you in coming to terms in whatever happened to you. To those who ask why not all women did say the hashtag I will offer some possible reasons:

1. They were not psychologically ready to do so. This does not make these women less brave (the word used for women who did share) or less strong. Some women may spend most of their lives fighting to process what happened to them and reaching a point where they can do so in private much less in public. It is one of the most horrible parts of sexual assault and harassment, that it can forever scar its victims.
2. Society tells them that it won't listen. Many women fear that they will not be believed and this is not uncommon, and not being believed can also be psychological scarring. Others think that they will be slut shamed or that the assault or harassment was in some way their fault. Finally if the assault was an incident where consent had been given at another time but not that time or where the woman felt that she was not able to say "no" as clear as she would want to, there is the potential for guilt on the part of the victim. 
3. They don't think what happened to them is significant enough to share. This one I heard from people online who were cautious about not sharing a hashtag of their own. It is one where maybe more people in this boat should have shared. We are told by society that assault and harassment need to be "serious" to be worth mentioning.

Trust me on this internet land, many of women you know who didn't share likely fell into these categories or fell into the "I shared on another occasion" boat- women has shared similar hashtags though not as broadly in the past, for example when the Trump Access Hollywood tape was reported on. 

I do want to say that the significance argument is so common that I feel the need to say that harassment and assault can take many forms that don't get reported to the people from the person who grabbed you arse in a crowded space but you never see who it was, to men who have conversations with your chest instead of your face, to cat calling, to internet based attacks based on gender, to any act or conversation that crosses a line and makes you uncomfortable or scared for your safety. I would suggest that we could or should take it further than strict harassment or assault to cases where women are made to feel their only worth is their looks and who are questioned when they do not function to the norms that society sets for women as pretty faces. That said if we took it that far the avalanche of comments on that hashtag might break the internet.

I was going to share one of my MeToo stories, but I've written enough on this so I will say that I've been able to say MeToo since I was very young and not by my broader definition. I would suggest that beyond every woman being able to say it, it is significant number that can say it of their high school years and even earlier (I'm thankfully not in that second basket so far as my memory serves).

These hashtags may not have smashed the patriarchy in the past but the volume of response to this one has received a response for men in support that makes me a little more hopeful if not much. 

I wanted to say beyond comments on assault and harassment. It might be worth always checking your privilege when you comment on anything that isn't your personal experience online. This means that for all my experience as a straight white cis gendered middle class woman I need to be always be mindful of the fact that only in my being female am I not privileged and I know that the internet I speak into also largely speaks with that privilege unless they also have the added privilege of being male. I have found that when you share something that could be controversial or presents a view that undermines or questions privilege, the bulk of those who engage in debate are white men whilst women are more likely to use the Facebook reacts but stir clear of comment. Maybe it is just the folks I know and not to say anything bad about white dude engaging in discussion (go right ahead as long as you are meaningful engaging and not just stopping after a few terse words- this is the internet so don't forget your lack of tone), but I have to say I was deeply impressed when a young guy I know the other day started a comment on such a post (an opinion piece- by a white dude in fact- about linkages between violence by men broadly and mass shootings that I had shared as a think piece) by acknowledging his discomfort with the fact that only white dudes were commenting and he was therefore not sure how he felt about adding to that (his comment was really good as a whole and ultimately prompted the only female comment on the post that wasn't me). Checking privilege welcomes engagement and in the world where people are trying to tell personal stories as the MeToo hashtag has encouraged, we need to support and encourage others in our online engagements and not shutting people down with privilege.

Just to end my post on a lighter note. Did you know that snow peas are also called mangetout? I discovered this earlier this evening and knowing I was sitting down to write male violence and harassment towards women, it made me laugh. My new joke, "what is the most feminist vegetable?" "Mangetout". Supposedly it is pronounced mange-tout but still could easily be man-get-out. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Let's talk about crime

In my last post, I mentioned that I had just started on Mindhunter, the new Netflix series on the formation of the FBI's behavioural science unit, and that I might give supply a brief spiel on my opinions on that when I was done. I actually finished it the next day (yes ten episodes in two days, I am on holidays folks) and I figured I'd type up something on it combined with a movie I just saw, The Snowman. Mainly because one is amazing and one is, how to put this mildly, not.

As a caveat for those not fans of crime based entertainment, both of these fall into that basket but that is pretty much where the similarities end except with a small issue I have with one that is a massive issue in the other.

So first to Mindhunter (though I did see The Snowman a few days earlier) for which unfortunately the trailer doesn't seem to be on youtube, you may have to search on your Netflix to watch it. Here is the poster for the show:

Image result for mindhunter poster

 Plot summary as the trailer isn't forthcoming. Based on the true crime work, Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E Douglas (a former member of that unit) and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter opens in the late 1970s introducing Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) a young (he is revealed to be 29) but skilled FBI hostage negotiator. After a failed negotiation results in the death of the hostage taker, Ford is moved to working at Quantico training new recruits in negotiation skills. Ford finds the new job dull and inspired in part by a sociological grad student he meets in a bar (Debbie played by Hannah Gross), with his boss' approval, Ford starts taking some psychology and sociology courses to build his skill identifying criminals and starts to question the FBI's classifications of why crimes occur. As Ford teaches at Quantico, he walks past other lectures being given on Charles Mason and the Son of Sam, and he starts to think that the FBI's previous methods will not work on individuals like these. Ford's restlessness ultimately results in his being moved from teaching at Quantico to work with Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) on a road school that is designed to teach FBI skills to local law enforcement and as they travel they often help local police with difficult cases. In this road school capacity, Ford sees the opportunity to start to meet with and study the new form of killers that were everywhere in the late 1960 and 70s in America. He initially plans to try and meet Charles Mason but on the advice of local cops that Mason is difficult to visit in prison, Ford meets instead with Edmund Kemper aka the Co-Ed Killer. As the episodes unfold, Ford and soon also Tench meet with Kemper and other killers who they initially term sequence killers. In analysing the psychology of these killers, they ask for the assistance of psychologist, Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) who is intrigued by the research potential of why these killers committed their crimes.

Now quite a few people have commented that this show is a little slow initially but I think that in part is being driven by people who are familiar with the cases it discusses. Though I also fall in the familiar with these cases basket, I didn't find it too slow and I think those not familiar with the cases need the build. The show does take a few episodes to build up to full steam but the wait is worth it. As I mentioned in my last post, the show was in part directed by David Fincher who is no stranger to the crime genre even in cases where the build is slow- I love Fincher's work and if I want a solid crime film, he would be one of the first directors I looked to- and he does very well with setting the mood in the opening episodes and then returning to close out the series. The directors I'm less familiar with do a great job of expanding the mood Fincher has set, especially Asif Kapadia who picks up from Fincher in episode three which is also when the pace of the show builds. The script is for the most part solid and when it does lag, the actors pull it across the line. Again as mentioned in my last post I've long been a fan of Jonathan Groff and I was really unsure of how he would travel here as he is usually in much lighter material (I mean the man has been nominated for two Tonys for performances in musicals after all, and he was in Frozen and Glee, and he has a puppy like adorable quality to him that often does not work in crime drama) and the weight of show does fall predominantly on his shoulders as though Tench and Carr get expanded as the series goes on, Ford is really the main character. My fears of Groff's ability to play into this darker side were quickly quashed as he shines as the social awkward yet highly passionate Ford, and nails the line between fascination with the minds of killers and going a little too far in his enthusiasm for this. McCallany and Torv I am less familiar with- I know I've seen him in things in the past but I cannot recall exactly what and I think the last time I saw Torv in something was a Bell Shakespeare production over a decade ago (no I've not seen Fringe). Both of them also acquit themselves really well- McCallany hitting the right beat on the cynical older detective without making him a cliche and Torv in mastering the juggle of portraying the kind of strong woman who TV audiences don't tend to warm to (though this needs to change) with making Carr someone you sympathise with. The character development of the three main characters instead just focusing on crime is outstandingly done. I also would single out Cameron Britton for his work. All of the actors playing the killers that Ford and Tench interview do really well especially as these are real people after all and some of them are now dead, but Britton is the only one in multiple episodes and his portrayal of Edmund Kemper is chillingly brilliant.  As an aside, being set in 1977 also means that the music throughout the series is amazing.

Something I found interesting about the show was that the characters of Ford, Tench, and Carr are fictionalised versions of the real people who worked in the early stages of the Behavioural Science unit at the FBI. Ford is based on John E Douglas who wrote the book on which the show is based and also has been the basis of many fictional detectives in the past, Tench is based on Robert K Ressler another FBI agent in the unit who worked with Douglas, and Carr is based on Dr Ann Wolbert Burgess who worked with Douglas on works he published on serial killers. The reason it is interesting is that none of the killers are altered nor are their crimes, and the show is largely careful to avoid anachronisms- you may notice I limited my use of the term "serial killer" though that is what Edmund Kemper and some others featured in the series were, and that is because the series doesn't use it until quite late as the term was not coined until the late 1970s rumour has it by Robert K Ressler (in the show it is coined late in the series by Tench to replace the clunkier sequence murderer or killer and as a means to differentiate killers like Edmund Kemper from killers like Richard Speck who was a spree killer). I'm not sure why they opted to go down this route with the main characters, likely to enable them to take liberties with the characters, but I felt it was worth commenting on. I was also entertained that they named the main character after not one but two cars.

Anyhow that was Mindhunter, it is really good but I do have to call it out on the one thing that stops it being up with Handmaid's Tale, Big Little Lies, and Dear White People as one of my top shows of 2017, and that is the character of Debbie. Hannah Gross does work hard with the material she is given but she is the only character who appears in all episodes who seems half thought out and were it not for Wendy Carr showing up about three episodes in, I would have questioned the treatment of women based on this character. Where Carr is a total boss who is clearly more intelligent and to a degree more respected than her male colleagues, Debbie whose sociological study could make her an interesting partner for Ford is pretty much a cipher. In the later episodes the show does try a little to address this by having her call Ford out on his constantly work talk but it is too late after over half a season of her acting as an exposition tool for the audience. Normally I would go harsher on use of women as ciphers but as I said, there is a another strong female character front and centre, the character in question is in most episodes a side line character at most, and though late in the day, the show does seem to notice the issue.

I think this might be a show to watch for years to come- based on an Easter egg for true crime nuts which the internet is all about spoiling at the minute (the spoiler is even on Wikipedia for goodness sake), I will put it as a footnote so you can stop before you get there if you don't want to know- so you should get on the band wagon soon*. I will include a warning that there are descriptions of very violent crimes (for example, it doesn't shy away from description of Kemper's crimes which were revolting to say the least) and photographs of some of these and some fictional crimes are re/created, so this isn't one for those who aren't otherwise fans of the crime/true crime genres. Personally I'm suddenly keen to read the book on which it is based.

So that is Mindhunter and as I said up top that one thing I was speaking about was good and one was not so, you can already guess where I might be headed with The Snowman.

Firstly the trailer as Youtube has this one...

Based on the best selling novel by Norwegian author, Jo Nesbø, The Snowman focuses on a series of disappearances of women in Oslo during the winter. The film opens not on the disappearances but on a single woman living alone with her son in a remote house. A man, apparently from his dress a police officer, appears at house and gives the boy a lesson in Norwegian history which is punctuated by him slapping the boy's mother whenever an incorrect answer is given. The boy flees from the house and builds a snowman. When he returns, he finds the police officer in bed with his mother and overhears her mentioning that the police officer is his father. Noticing the boy listening the police officer flees in his car and the boy and his mother follow him ending with the mother committing suicide by driving into a icy lake. Based on the clothing this is a flashback and the film then moves to Olso and the present day (or one assumes if the opening sequence was a flashback). Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is an alcoholic who often passes out from drink in parks, though he does still hold his role with the police department and based on comments by other characters, he appears to have once been a highly respected and competent investigator. Outside of work, Hole seeks to help ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with her teenage son despite the fact that she has a new partner and he is not the boy's father. One day at work, he encounters keen young detective Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) who has recently transferred from Bergen and she tries to get him interested in the mysterious disappearances of women on snowy nights. Hole also receives mysterious letters in child like hand that are signed with a drawing a snowman. The film also flashes back to nine year earlier in Bergen (this flashback does merit text on the screen to explain it) when a similarly alcoholic detective, Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer), was investigating the disappearance of a wealthy woman and the suspicion was falling on industry magnate Arve Støp (J. K. Simmons) (who nine years later is comfortably holding a prominent position in Olso and helping with the campaign for a major sporting event in the city).

Now you are going to have to excuse me on this one because I'm almost certainly going to stick spoilers in here but as my recommendation is that you not see it, maybe you can pardon me just this once. If you have read my posts in the past, you know that my approach to crime fiction is be unpredictable or be well written or I'll have none of you. Rare is the work of crime fiction where I don't pick the killer (For example, I picked the first season of Broadchurch a few episodes in which many take as the yardstick for unpredictable) so the writing needs to be amazing to keep me interested. This one I picked early on and the writing did not help at all nor did anything else especially as I have not read the book. I know The Snowman isn't the first book in the series that feature Harry Hole which seems an odd choice as it seems to rely on past exploits that aren't portrayed to make me want to side with the character at all.

First to get the silliness out of the way, does Harry Hole sound different  with a Norwegian accent because with an English/American/Australian one it sounds like a poor conceived far too crass drag name. I can just imagine her fellow drag queens talking Harry Hole aside and explaining that puns made funny names but this was a little on the nose.

Anyhow inappropriate jokes aside, back to the film. If the summary above sounds choppy that is because the film is. I know that the film had a switch of directors and didn't film all of its scenes but even so I would have thought that the editing could have been cleaner. The film jumps without transition between the present day to the random nine year earlier scenes in Bergen, the link to which takes a LONG time to pay off (I suspected correctly what the link was aside from the disappearance of women but due to the editing I did struggle initially). They could have clearly indicated that the initial scenes were in the past. As I said the clothes suggested that but you couldn't be certain and so might have really struggled to determine this and to see it as the too obvious signposting that it was if you knew it was the past.

The cast is full of actors I normally love. I would normally watch Michael Fassbender in anything, and I have plenty of time for Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones (who plays the senior detective in the Bergen flashbacks), Chloe Sevigny (she plays a victim and the victim's twin sister), and James D'Arcy (he plays another victim's husband), and that is before you get to J. K. Simmons who I think is amazing in most anything even if he does still carry terrifying associations from his character in Oz (over a decade has passed but he still scares me a little even when he is in comedies). This said there are so many issues with the acting that it makes me deeply worried for this cast. Firstly one of my pet peeves is mixed accents. If you don't know what I mean by this, I mean when a film is set in specific place and every character is from that place but every one has a different accent. Simmons seems to attempt a Norwegian accent and a few of the supporting actors, in particular Jonas Karlson who plays Mathias (the new partner of Hole's ex-girlfriend), are Swedish (not that this is Norwegian but it is closer than the others) but everyone else is all over the shop- posher English accents from Fassbender (who at least doesn't use his actual Irish accent and add another one to the mix), Ferguson, and D'Arcy, slightly less posh English from Jones, slightly French from Gainsbourg, American from Sevigny, and mumbled American with a side of what the hell from Kilmer. The bulk of the performance seem lacking direction and almost bored- this is particularly the case with Fassbender, Ferguson, and Gainsbourg. The chemistry between Fassbender and Gainsbourg is non existent and their one love scene very mechanical. Jones, Sevigny, and D'Arcy are highly unused only appearing a small number of scenes, particular Sevigny considering she is not European or English, and is a big enough name to normally warrant more screen time. Simmons seems to try the hardest of the cast but even he appears bored in some of his scenes. Kilmer is alone in not ringing in it, that said I have no idea what he was doing as his performance is one of the strangest I've seen in many years as if he figured that as he was playing drunk the whole time, he could do whatever he wanted.

The script appears dumbed down to make sure a small child could understand it (the film is at times a bit bloody, please don't take your five year old). Fassbender and Ferguson as the leads have to deliver some terrible clunkers, and the every scene where Fassbender or Kilmer is drunk seems underwritten as if "act drunk" was just scribbled on the page and nothing else. The main dumbing down occurs around medical terminology with D'Arcy's character needing to spell out what he meant by sterile for some reason and Karlson's character being described as a plastic surgeon initially (sure that is fine) but then later been shown to be doing work with hormones (which is a plot hole and a half on its own because that career transition between specialities would take years and a lot of training not be a sudden whim as it appears here) which is kept super vague. Everyone has watched medical shows nowadays, you can be specific, and if they don't get it there is always google after they get home from the film. There are things set up as prominent set pieces, for example the new police recording system, that never pay off. There was also issues with the plot as a whole. Drunken slightly older male detective (granted Fassbender is not that old) with many past glories and a failed relationship who still loves his ex paired with young bright eyed, often female, keen bean new recruit...I think I've seen that before, only about a thousand or so times. Killer targeting women who have had affairs as vengeance on a single mother who he feels abandoned him...also a very familiar trope. Everyone has missing parents on the backdrop of the killer's motive is also something that has become familiar in recent years. Some originality of plot would have been nice even if it was just to strengthen the script.

Finally the place where I said this was similar to Mindhunter but worse. The worst treatment in this film is reserved for its female main characters. Gainsbourg comes off the easiest of the two as it appears that they have just written her as generic love interest with a few complications and she basically has to go between that and sudden screaming at the end of the film when she is targeted by the killer (yes I did warned there would be spoilers).  She is one of the film's most underwritten characters but better that than the fate reserved for, only slightly less underwritten, character played by Rebecca Ferguson. Much like the character of Debbie in Mindhunter, we have another cipher on our hands and this time no-one seems to notice or care! Ferguson's character is described in synopses of the film online as a "brilliant new recruit" but all she does in the bulk of her scenes is parrot Fassbender's character or wait for him to do the bulk of the investigating. On the few occasions where Ferguson's character takes initiative, what would have been seen as foolish but brilliant from a male character is seen as deeply stupid. Ultimately (spoilers) her taking initiative results in her death or serious injury- near the end of the film, she loses a hand and is left in a freezing car in the snow BUT as we obviously don't care what happens to the women, the film opts for a massive plot hole around whether she is alive or dead. For a film about violence towards women, it does a great job of making sure to also undermine them with the plot, script, and character development.

Anyhow not sure The Snowman will be the worst film I see in 2017 but it will be up there. I did check the plot of the book online and it seems that clearly a lot of the plot was cut but that said unfortunately I don't know that the remaining plot would have added much.

Also stop now to avoid Mindhunter spoiler...

*Mindhunter spoiler... The mysterious character who appears at the beginning of nearly every episode and was identified by the show as AT&T employee is almost certainly Dennis Rader or the BTK Killer. In addition the case the police discuss with Ford and Tench in the first episode which isn't solved closely resembles a BTK victim. John E Douglas worked on the BTK case and wrote about it. The reason this indicates that the show might be around for a while is that the BTK Killer was active for a LONG time and was only caught in 2005 so nearly 30 years after 1977 when the show is set. I doubt that means close to 30 seasons but I would anticipate that whenever the final season occurs, it will feature that investigation and likely a time jump and aging makeup for Groff.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Life after death in sitcom land and new true crime in podcast land

Hi again folks, still from Scotland. Whilst I've been away I've been able to catch up on old pop culture things or start on new popular culture things, and I have two big recommendations (granted I started writing this a week ago and I think everyone got the memo on the second recommendation in the interim). Following this I have a few words on something else that just started a new season which I have been a semi-reluctant fan of for a while to tie in with the fact that last week was World Mental Health Week.

TV show wise, thank goodness for Netflix and its automatic transfer to the country you are in (please take note spotify (I'm very disconnected from music right now) and Amazon Prime (to get the third season of Outlander on UK Amazon I had to try everything I had and much mucking around to sort it out as I was previously a Prime subscriber back home, and this was despite having a UK Amazon account for many years- before I had US and Australian ones in fact)). I'm not sure what UK prime time looks like nowadays (I have a TV at my AirBnB but I've not turned it on as yet) but my previous experience has been wall to wall soap operas and reality TV. I'm sure that isn't all that exists as I watch a lot of good British made TV and also this was coloured by my staying in hostels previously and therefore not having control of the TV. Maybe it is because this that I will be recommending a US made show which is on Netflix.

The show I have been watching recently dropped on UK and Australian Netflix. The show was on other channels earlier as the first season was aired in 2016 originally and Netflix just got the rights and dropped the first season in one hit along with debuting the first episode of the second season in September. The show is the newest sitcom from Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-nine creator Michael Schur, The Good Place. Check out the first season trailer...

That gives you the plot to a degree but just in case you didn't watch or the link messes up, the summary is as follows. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in a office setting where she is greeted by Michael (Ted Danson) who advises her that she has died and is now in the afterlife. Michael tells Eleanor that due to the good works she did whilst alive, she has been placed in "the good place" for her afterlife. As she is welcomed, Michael walks her through the neighbourhood of the good place in which she is to live, and to her very small and insanely quirky (for want of a better word) cottage in the neighbourhood. He puts on a video of the work she did in Africa for human rights and talks about her work as a death row lawyer, and introduces her to Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) a Senegalese professor of ethics and moral philosophy who is supposed to Eleanor's soul mate (in the good place everyone has a soul mate). After Michael leaves them, Eleanor reveals to Chidi that the video of her life is not her life and that she was not a lawyer or that good a person at all. Eleanor is sure she is not supposed to be in the good place and asks Chidi to help her with this. In the course of the first episode, you are also introduced to Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil)- a wealthy British philanthropist of Pakstini descent, Tahani's soulmate Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto)- Taiwanese Buddhist monk who has taken a vow of silence, and Janet (D'Arcy Carden)- the information system and assistant for those in the good place that takes human form.

I would strongly recommend not investigating the show at all online due to spoilers. Just start on it. I'm a big fan of Michael Schur's shows (the ones he created- he also wrote for the US version of The Office which I'm not a fan of due to my love of the original UK version but I know many folks are fans), and I love to see here like Brooklyn Nine-nine a diverse cast, and like both Brooklyn Nine-nine and Parks and Rec very cynical humour of the kind you don't often get in US sitcoms and some solid roles for women. I am also a long term fan of Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, and the presence of either on their own without Schur in the creator's chair would likely have resulted in my watching the show. Bell takes the sass she honed many moons ago as Veronica Mars and adds to that an adult cynicism and still manages to make the potentially unlikable and selfish Eleanor into a very likeable character. Danson in the element he has perfected over decades is amazing, and the continual cheerfulness and odd naivete he gives to the character of Michael is delightful- yes naivete despite Michael being a hundreds of years old being. The actors I was not familiar with (Harper, Jamil, Jacinto, and Carden) are also really amazing- Harper in making the straight man to the chaos not boring, Jamil in nailing the pretentiousness of Tahani, Jacinto for spoiler reasons I won't go into, and Carden for making Janet definitely more than the robot that she keeps being called, I feel like Janet is the public servant of the afterlife. The guest cast is also good especially Adam Scott who should be in everything and is very different here from Ben in Parks and Rec. In addition for guest cast, there was much confusion of me trying to place Amy Okuda who plays a background character late in the season (only super nerds will potentially twig to this and they will likely just recognise her but it took me a while to realise she was Tinkerballa from The Guild). The premise is also quite novel which adds to the quality of the show. The whole idea of someone who is in the good version of the afterlife trying to qualify for her position there is something I've definitely not seen before. The writing is hilarious and along with Schur one of the main writers is Drew Goddard who worked on Buffy among other things. The mechanics of the afterlife in the show will likely lead to many comments by folks of various religions who watch the show especially in terms of a merit based afterlife and what that suggests for the moral philosophy that Hollywood proposes. This show is definitely a new favourite for me, and makes me think of the words "fork", "shirt", and "bench" very differently.

Onto podcast land... I am a late comer to the whole podcast vibe only joining in just over a year ago, and cliche dictates there is no-one more zealous than a convert, I feel I'm always talking people's ears off about some podcast or another. From initially cautiously investigating one podcast about a beloved TV show (The West Wing Weekly if you are curious), I now listen to over twenty different ones. I listen to a bunch on US politics (all by the same media company), a few fiction based story ones, a bunch of comedy ones on various themes, a few on cults (though all of them do have a habit of hitting my bugbear of adding an 's' to the biblical book of Revelation which drives me a tad nuts), and a bunch on true crime. There are ones that I never get behind on (the previously mentioned West Wing Weekly, My Favorite Murder, and Pod Save America in particular) and some that I'm still trying to binge to catch up on (I think I listened to about twenty old episodes of The Guilty Feminist, a new favourite, on a recent speed trip to London) and some I binge every few weeks to catch up on. Now there are some podcasts that seem to oddly have a universality of appeal which a few years ago would have been unheard of, except for everyone's old back up This American Life. Then came Serial and I remember being at my job at the time and half the people I worked with were listening to it constantly, and then I'd catch up with friends and many of them were listening to it, suddenly podcasts were the norm and everyone seemed to be in on it (just to confirm, I have listened to the first season of Serial now- people told me not to bother with the second). Also fascinating was that Serial was true crime which many people don't warm to but here were people I knew would not normally be interesting in true crime listening along and talking about it with fascination. Suddenly podcasts were a thing everyone was into (except me for some reason) and then as everyone picked their particular poison and the Serial excitement died down, it seemed there weren't podcasts for everyone, there were just podcasts for certain groups. But then the suddenly another one emerged in S Town- I was on the podcast train when it came out and binged it in two days and ended up emotionally drained for about a week afterwards. I think S Town was helped by its connections to Serial and This American Life but it was very different from either of these so if it was just their drawing power I would have expected numbers to dip and people not to finish it, but I remember the weeks after when people I knew would walk up to me with a knowing look in their eyes and a look of emotional exhaustion and I knew S Town had claimed another victim. So that is the lead in to say my new recommendation appears in the last week (literally since I started typing this post last Tuesday and now (Monday night of the next week)) to have become the next one of these universal buzz podcasts.

That recommendation is Dirty John.

Image result for dirty john podcast

It starts with the description of a coroner's examination of a body and then shifts to the story of a woman called Debra who meets a man, John, through a dating site, and he seems to be exactly what she is looking for. Debra has been married four times previously and has three adult daughters from those marriages (Terra, Jacqueline and the middle daughter whose name is only mentioned a few times and therefore I cannot recall). Debra is a successful and wealthy interior designer living in Orange County California who the podcast mentions uses her business to help single mothers by seeking to hire them and train them. John tells her he is also divorced and has kids from that previous marriage and that he is a doctor who has recently been working for Doctors Without Borders in Iraq. John seems odd but after a failed first date, they give it a second try and the relationship speeds ahead at an insane rate and soon enough John meets Debra's daughters. Jacqueline, who is the eldest and lives and works with Debra, meets him first and takes an instant dislike to him and tells her mother that sometime is off about this man. Terra, the youngest, is more trusting of new people than her big sister gives him a chance but then she starts to be wary when a few odd events occur and John is very unpleasant to her boyfriend, and she ends up terrified of him. With all of her daughters (the one whose name I can't remember as well- I'm really sorry to this woman but unlike both her sisters she was not a large part of the podcast nor was she interviewed for it) warning her against a man with whom she has had a very fast moving relationship, Debra has to pick between her family and John.

Now obviously that is just the beginning and I did leave a few spoilers even from the first episode out intentionally. I know everyone is binging this podcast now or has in the last week. I actually listened to it as the episodes were still dropping a few weeks ago- they were released one every few days over a week and a half- so to those who binged the whole thing, imagine having to wait even just a few days on episodes (so stressful). I found it via another podcast, Sword and Scale (BIG warning that one isn't for the faint hearted as it includes audio recordings from crimes including emergency calls and other things). That said the intensity of the podcast I got the recommendation from should not deter you listening to Dirty John- it is true crime but not the same kind of true crime as most of the others in that vein, and it definitely isn't one to give you nightmares. You get sucked in by the mystery of it all- whose body is the coroner describing at the beginning of the first episode? who stabbed the body (not a spoiler- that is in the first couple of seconds of the first episode)? who will Debra listen to, her daughters or her boyfriend? what is the deal with John as clearly something is not above board with him?  It is very fascinating and in my case it made me want to go back and watch a TV show I gave up on after a dud season several years ago (no mention as to which one as that would be a spoiler).

A few minor cautions before you start on it though. Firstly the narrator is clearly a great reporter but he does not have the best "voice for radio" so I found that annoying to begin with- bear with it and you should get past it. Secondly, not the podcast but the events may tend you to accidentally victim blame as you listen, be very careful with this and maybe try and empathise with the women as you listen even if what they are saying sounds off.

Anyhow Dirty John is on all the podcast places now and all the six episodes of it are up.

 Moving on to a few words on a show that has recently returned for a new season, its third. Now I love musicals and I love cynical, offbeat, and at times inappropriate humour and I love unlikable characters, so this show would seem to tick all the boxes for me, and I do really like it but it also makes me at times deeply uncomfortable and as it returned in the week the world turned a small corner of its eye to mental health, it is worth a comment.  That show is Crazy Ex Girlfriend. I know what you are thinking well it does have "crazy" in the title what did you expect but having "crazy" (which many with mental health issues consider a highly offensive term) in the title isn't a blank slate to say anything you want on mental health. The show is camp and hilarious and the cast is amazingly talented though I'm not sure I forgive it for writing out one of my two favourite characters in the second season. It is also full of strong female characters, is racially diverse, and its only strong and stable couple are two men. It gets so many things right, and if you want a sample of this, have some songs as it is a musical after all- I cannot find my favourite from season one which is about having large boobs on Youtube but here are some of my season 2 favourites. Firstly spoilers if you haven't seen the show and want to on this one- this one is about the relationship between my erstwhile favourite character and the lead character as he leaves the show...

Secondly this one is what the main character, who is Jewish, envisions every Jewish gathering is about. It shouldn't spoil anything for you:

Thirdly, probably my favourite from the second season and definitely zero spoilers here, this is the personification of a particular wind that is supposed to blow through town and make everyone act strange.

So you are seeing, it is good, right?- assuming you like musicals. All the songs are in different musical styles but all of them work, and the humour is dark and irreverent. It seems brilliant.

OK so let's go to the problematic context. The premise of the show is that a successful property lawyer from New York has a breakdown due to the stress of her workplace which triggers her existing tableau of mental health issues, and in the midst of this she runs into a man who was her boyfriend at a holiday school camp when they were teenagers, he is in the process of moving back his small Californian home town and she follows him. In song form, her moving is covered below (mainly because I haven't really featured the main character yet):

Now gradually the main character, Rebecca, finds friends, settles into her new job, and on a few occasions seems to be working things out. The problem is that she doesn't listen to the help she is given, she doesn't work things out, and the bulk of the surrounding characters only briefly call her out on these issues before essentially enabling her and that is if they notice at all that there is an issue- e.g the man she follows to California, Josh Chan, is literally one of the dumbest humans ever and it takes him almost all of the first season to notice that she has problems. Even though another character clearly identifies a mental health issue in themselves early in the second season and seeks help and moves in the right direction, no-one stops to think of this woman who is spiraling out of control as essentially the breakdown she has in the first episode continues without break over two seasons. This may all seem a bit too serious as it is a comedy show and it does clearly portray to the viewer that there is something wrong both in the way she interacts with the world and also in the therapy that she attends and ignores (depression has been suggested on the show as has borderline personality disorder and anxiety- I would lean to bipolar 1 or something similar with a side of other things were I to try and diagnose her but that hasn't been suggested yet). Also I understand the urge to deal with mental health with comedy in a positive non mocking tone (the show rarely directly mocks Rebeca's issues) but it just irks me a little that there is a show with a main character with a clear mental health issue who is so strongly in denial about this as the world seeks to fight mental health stigma. As I said I really like the show, but at times I just can't shake how deeply uncomfortable it makes me. Supposedly the diagnosis of Rebecca's condition is coming in season 3 and hopefully that moves the show out of the space that rattles me. Until then, my favourite season 2 moment from the one of my favourite characters who remains, speaks to where I sit with the show at times:
Image result for heather crazy ex girlfriend wine

Beyond that during the week after Mental Health week, I encourage people out there to be honest about their mental health and not to be afraid to see a doctor (and listen to one) when it is less than stellar. Also friends of folks with mental health concerns, love them well, listen to them well, and don't be afraid to be the person who at times has to say the hard words about seeking medical advice.

That is it from me for now. I'm off to watch this week's Outlander and then to continue on Mindhunter (new on Netflix, partly directed by David Fincher, featuring Jonathan Groff (such a big fan of his and no not from Frozen), so far good 70s tunes, and a fictionalised account of the formation of the FBI psychological profiling department that works on serial killers (the real people in this department coined the term "serial killer")...two episodes in and I'm loving it so a post on it might be forthcoming). Laters folks!

Monday, September 18, 2017

2017 Emmy's...the great divide

So hello again from Scotland...yes still in Scotland.

I want to chuck in a word about about the Emmy's. Basically it goes yay!

I haven't posted this year on this blog about TV picks and pretty much they can be summed up by the big winners at this year's Emmy's i.e. The Handmaid's Tale and Big Little Lies. If you run down the Emmy ballot for the awards presented on Emmy night, I picked the best overall in all categories (also being a big Veep and John Oliver fan) except the reality TV (sadly my pick didn't win) and TV movie ones (I must get around to Black Mirror at some stage), picked all the acting categories except Male acting in dramas (I was on the money for miniseries (lead and supporting) and comedy (again lead and supporting), but I've not seen This is Us (my pick for the lead in a drama wasn't even nominated- the season as a whole was patchy but Sam Heughan's portrayal of a man coping with the aftermath of rape in the early section of season 2 of Outlander would have been my pick, actually he was solid the whole season, the plot was at fault not the acting)) nor The Crown), and could have made a solid guess at the writing and directing awards. Pretty much, if I had put money on it, I'd have raked in it- I even picked the female guest acting awards presented a week ago (if they had skipped over Melissa McCarthy and, especially, Alexis Bledel, I would not have been happy- it was amazing work by both these Gilmore Girls alums).

My brief yay aside. This year's Emmy's do raise questions... Let's start with the two shows I was delighted to see rake in the awards.

The Handmaid's Tale and Big Little Lies are adaptations of quite good (in some different and some similar ways) novels by female authors who aren't American- for those unaware, Margaret Atwood is Canadian and Liane Moriarty is Australian.  Both were strong female led productions, and not surprisingly in the female acting categories in which they competed with the exceptions of lead in a drama, there were two nominations from each show as compared to only one nomination for a man in either, Alexander Skarsgard was a deserved winner for Big Little Lies in my opinion too. Both shows also had women working behind the camera- writing, directing, and producing. This is before you get to the plot which I will split and try to keep spoiler free.

The Handmaid's Tale is about a bleak totalitarian future America. Fertility has plummeted and therefore some women in the society who are known to still be fertile has been forced to become handmaids by the government which practices a twisted version of fundamentalist Christianity (their belief system is based on a very small number of bible verses). The role of the handmaid is to bear the children for influential couples who are infertile, and once a month they participate in a ceremony where the husband of the couple essentially rapes the handmaid (though in both the book and the miniseries, the handmaids appear to be losing the concept of their body as their own and therefore have been deadened to the fact that the ceremony is thinly veiled rape). The lead character, Offred (handmaids are striped of their identity and known as "of" followed by the name of the man whose household they are assigned to) is a handmaid who has started to question the structure of the society. That is pretty much all in the first episode, though the ceremony takes longer to be revealed in the book so apologies for that spoiler if you read the book first. I would recommend reading the book first as the show does deviate from it- I found the changes fine (they expanded the training of the handmaids and the structure of their interrelation with each other in society, expanded a few characters, and moved the order of events a little) but a friend likened them to fan fiction based on the novel.

Big Little Lies is set in suburban beach-side California. The show opens with an event at an elementary school, at which someone dies. Before you find out who died or how or if it was murder (though it is implied that it is), events rewind by about six months to orientation for the children starting kindergarten. The viewer is then introduced to Madelaine who splits her time between helping at the local theatre and being a stay at home mother to Chloe and her teenaged daughter from her first marriage, Abi. On her way to the school, she meets Jane, a younger single mother who is new to the area and whose son, Ziggy, will be in Chloe's class- there is a hint of trauma in flashbacks about Jane from the first episode and this is gradually unpacked. The two mothers then meet with Celeste who is a friend of Madelaine's whose twin boys are also starting in the same class. At the orientation, Ziggy is accused of having tried to strangle Amabelle, the daughter of working mother, Renata. The events of the six months between this orientation day and the death at the school event then play out, with occasion interruptions by a chorus of gossiping parents giving testimonies to the police after the event. Again very surface level there and Nicole Kidman spoiled more than I did in her acceptance speech but suffice to say, violence against women committed by men is a big theme of the series and the book as is the idea of how a boy develops into a man who is violent and what acts of violence by children mean. I would recommend again reading the book first but not for the changes on the way to the screen (of course there are some but less than The Handmaid's Tale, beyond a major a location change), instead for the tone. The book is set on the Northern Beaches of Sydney and especially with the Greek chorus of minor characters popping up regularly, it is not just a drama but also at times quite a funny satire of primary school culture and playground politics in Australia (especially if you have any familiarity with that part of Sydney).

As you can see from these plot summaries, the things men do to women is a common theme as is the place of women in society. And based on these themes, you can maybe see why I say this raise questions. America currently has a president who voiced views on consent that are not just questionable but flat out nausea inducing, and whose ways of talking to or about women are terrifying at times (more often than not in fact- whether it is talking creepily about attractiveness of her eldest daughter or his continued attacks on Hilary Clinton). Whilst domestic violence statistics around the developed world are spiraling disgustingly upward at the minute, the US government hasn't announced any clear initiatives to address this- granted neither have many of the other developed nations so that is a black mark in all of their books at the minute. The US Department of Education is currently moving to make changes to Title IX which will make this avenue that currently allows some recourse to those who are victims of sexual assault on college campuses no longer able to be used to this end- again other developed nations also need to work on structures to eliminate sexual assault on college/universities campuses but the US is actively stepping backwards which is very worrying. Finally since coming into office, the Trump government has repeatedly attacked reproductive health services and moved to cut funding to these- doing this by saying Planned Parenthood and others simply exist to supply access to abortions, when this is simply not the case, they supply a range of sex education, and reproductive and sexual health services, and for poorer women, there is often no other option in terms of reproductive health care because of cost of health insurance in America (even post Obama care). These are just some of the examples I could cite but on the place of women in society, the divide between Hollywood and Washington DC in attitudes becomes overwhelming clear and you need to ask is it reconcilable and how does America as a world leader meaningfully move forward on this.

To add I hope these shows, which were both popular in Australia, also serve as a wake up clear on women's issues (oh for a better term) and in particular issues of violence and sexual assault back home, and also everywhere else.

That is my question with regards the two shows that owned the night. Just to add in conclusion on them to the performance by Elisabeth Moss (always a favourite of mine) as Offred, Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia, and Alexis Bledel as Ofglen (especially Bledel though she was in limited episodes) in The Handmaid's Tale  were incredible and that is before you also turn to the amazing Samira Wiley as Moira who was beaten by Dowd in the supporting actor category- it was a powerhouse of amazing performances by amazing actors. The same goes for Nicole Kidman as Celeste and the outstanding Laura Dern as Renata in Big Little Lies, as well as Reese Whitherspoon as Madelaine and Shailene Woodley as Jane who Kidman and Dern respectively beat in their categories. Let's hope that this is the year that begins year after year of beautifully written, substantial roles for female actors out there to really develop and thrive in.

I do have questions raised by the shows that took out the male miniseries and comedy lead acting categories but unfortunately they are limited by my not seeing any or not seeing all of the shows in question so being unable to summarise them in a meaningful way so bear with me with for patchy descriptions.

To start with anyone else amused by the actors who took out both of these also being rappers who are about to/or just did appear in Star Wars film, or is that just me?

The Night Of for which Riz Ahmed won best actor in a miniseries or movie made for TV (the more I see him in the more I love his work (for example he was outstanding in Rogue One) and when he is not acting but rapping, he performed on my favourite song of 2016, "Immigrants We Get the Job Done" from the Hamilton mix-tape- also randomly discovered fact just now, he is almost exactly the same age as me how about that). I have seen the first episode, and own the DVD but unfortunately for me, I moved house not long after starting it and the DVD went into a box that went into my storage unit back in Sydney so I didn't get to see the rest of it. What I did see was really, really good, and I do very much want to see the rest of it. So plot summary so far as I can do one for The Night Of. A student of Pakstani descent borrows his father's cab one night to go to a party (he doesn't have other transport) and a young woman hops in thinking he is working (he is having issues turning the light off on the cab). He and the young woman get to talking. Soon enough the party is forgotten and he ends up back at her place where they drop some drugs and have sex. The next morning he wakes up in the girl's bed with limited memory of the night before, and then discovers that she has been stabbed repeatedly and is dead. He is quickly identified as having been at her flat and is arrested for her murder. He ends up with the lowest rent cheapest possible lawyer as his family cannot afford more for him.

Atlanta  for which Donald Glover won best actor in a comedy (loved him in Community and looking forward to him as a young Lando in the Han Solo film). Atlanta has been on my to watch list for AGES but I'm yet to see it. As a show, it follows a young black man who wants to be a rapper, and his daily life in Atlanta- sorry brief but even that I had to double check on Wikipedia having not seen the show.

What questions do these shows raise? Well common theme in both is race and the treatment of people of colour in America. The Night Of adds to this, the life of immigrants in America and the treatment of people of colour in the US prison system. In addition, though it didn't win in the acting categories, neck and neck with Atlanta (in my opinion) was the amazing (yes this one I've seen) Master of None which took out the writing in a comedy gong (I thought Donald Glover would win bast actor based on the buzz about Atlanta but I love Aziz Ansari so part of me wanted them to share the acting award), and it also speaks about the idea of race in the US and the place of the children of immigrants. As you can see all the more questions. The events at Charlottesville are still fresh in a lot of people's minds as is the Trump government essentially giving carte blanche (pun unintended) to the white supremacists and Neo Nazis. The US Justice system is currently looking at changing Obama era regulations about arrests on minor offenses that will certainly lead to increases in arrests and gaol time for people of colour. Trump's personal barely coded campaign rhetoric about areas with high populations of people of colour and his not at all coded, recent speech to police in New York that essentially endorsed violence against suspects were both horrifying. The recent proposed roll back of DACA (an act that protects those whose parents illegally immigrated when they were children in order to give these children paths to citizenship once they reach adulthood) and the continued discussion about border walls and what the Trump government sees as the negative impacts of immigration, only heighten the fear of current undocumented immigrants in the US, their families, and any future immigrants to that country. Once again these are just some of the examples I could cite but on race and immigration, again the divide between Hollywood and Washington DC in attitudes becomes overwhelming clear and you need to ask is it reconcilable and how does America as a world leader meaningfully move forward on this.

Unlike The Handmaid's Tale or Big Little Lies, I don't think either The Night Of or Atlanta had a huge audience in Australia (odd as Atlanta and The Handmaid's Tale are both on SBS, and Big Little Lies and The Night Of were both on Foxtel so they are on the same services). Master of None has a slightly larger audience. Needless to say, as on woman's issues, the question of race is just as big a question in Australia so I hope more people see these and I also hope the government starts to take action soon- especially as racism in Australia is so worryingly second nature to so many people that it could be argued that it is more ingrained than it is in the States. The same again is true and many other developed countries.

Finally the other comedy winners and the talk show winners at the Emmy's bring the questions to a head and slap you with them. Veep is about the most biting political satire out there- for those not familiar with it, it is about the first US female vice president and the characters are all deeply flawed and horrible, rife with egotism, amorality, and incompetence in varying mixes, but in the most hilariously delightful way. Listening to podcasts with input from those who have worked or work in government in the US (I need to start listening to Australian version of this as clearly I'm too deep in US politics at the minute but that is another issue), they say that Veep with its cutting satire is the closest of all political shows to the real Washington DC which is terrifying. Saturday Night Live's political views have in the past year become such a hot button with the US administration that Trump has openly attacked it especially in terms of its portrayal of him (Alec Baldwin was such a deserving winner) and it has been suggested that its portrayal of Sean Spicer (great work, Melissa McCarthy) played a tiny role in him losing the role of White House press secretary which is insane- you remember when Hilary Clinton was so polite about Kate McKinnon's brilliant portrayal of her that she appeared opposite her on the show, oh for the good ol' times of less than a year ago. In terms of variety and talk show awards with the exception of the winners in the variety special categories, notice the fact that John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, and Stephen Colbert were nominated in most every category with Jimmy Fallon nowhere to be seen, and John Oliver winning most all of the categories. Those nominated represented the harshest late night critics of the Trump administration in my option it is a tight race between Oliver, Bee, and Meyers for who is the most critical- I watch all four of them but Oliver most regularly so maybe he wins in my books too. Hollywood appears to boldly declare its disagreement with the US administration in the winner of the comedy category, the winners of the best female actors in comedy (lead and supporting) and male actor (supporting) in comedy, and all the nominations and winners in the talk show and variety categories. In fact it goes further than disagreement, it laughs and mocks.

Now I have no issue with questioning those in power (it is at the root of democracy) and I do stand with Hollywood on these matters, but as someone looking in from the outside, it is a little worrying to see just how deep the political divide in the US has become (as indeed it also deepens around the developed world but currently the US is a big flashing warning light). As an outsider, I struggle to see a way forward so all I can do is hope and pray that the activists in the States won't give up the fight and that someone in power in the right offices finally listens, and that people can actually still seek to approach those they know from across the divide with some modicum of civility and seek to build bridges personally.

Anyhow enough on another country's politics from me...I really need to move back to focusing on Australian politics when I speak politics, not that I'm getting much of it in UK.

Just to say, make sure and watch the shows mentioned above as they are really worth it, or in the case of Atlanta, I hear they are.

As a better way to end this, have my best dressed from the Emmy's. The mad style of the male kids from Stranger Things won that hands down...

Image result for stranger things kids emmys 2017

Monday, September 11, 2017

We need to speak about Bev...

Hello people of internet land...not from sunny Sydney (or I assume it is still sunny) but from just outside a very rain soaked Inverness! Or not so rain soaked at the minute though the mist on the Loch that I can see from my window is very ominously hinting that the rain might return soon. What am I doing in the Scottish highlands you may ask? Did I push an Outlander obsession a wee bit too way? I may grant you an answer in due course but suffice to say it isn't the latter as I was considering running away for a time to an even more remote patch of Scotland long before I saw Outlander.

Today's post is not remotely about the Scottish highlands but is instead about a small fictional (I think) town in Maine in the US and the power of the books we make movie adaptations of. If you cannot think of what movie I might be referencing, I am speaking about the recent remake of It based on the Stephen King novel of the same name but heavily drawing on the 1990 miniseries adaptation of it at times in place of the original source material.

I don't want to spoil the film for anyone so I will offer a brief synopsis and review from my point of view, because I get to the more spoiler-y bits and I will warn before I get there. Here we go...

In the late 1980s in the small town of Derry in Maine, it is raining and a small boy and his slightly elder brother are trying to build a paper boat to float in the rain waters. The elder boy, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), has a cold so cannot go out with his little brother, Georgie, to test the boat. Georgie falls behind the boat and it goes down the sewer. Reaching in to grab the boat, Georgie sees two bright eyes and a clown appears behind the sewer grate and introduces himself as Pennywise the dancing clown (Bill Skarsgard). The clown seems harmless, as far as a sewer dwelling clown can be, until he broadly grins showing many rows of teeth (like a shark) bites Georgie arm off and then drags him through the grate. Skip to six months later and many more kids have disappeared. Bill who suffers from a stutter is determined to discover what happened to Georgie as the body was never found. Bill ropes in his friends to help with the task- Richie (Finn Wolfhard) a fast talking smart alec; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) a severe hypochondriac thanks to his over protective extreme hypochondriac mother; and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) the cautious son of the local rabbi. After they save him from the town's sadistic gang of teen bullies, their group is joined by Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the overweight new kid in town, and Ben brings with him, his only friend, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a girl who is being abused by her father and about whom sexually charged rumours have circulated. The kids embarks on some normal 13 year old summer time bonding like swimming at the local quarry and riding their bikes around, with occasional run in with the two years older group of bullies, from whom they also rescue Mike (Chosen Jacobs) an orphaned black boy who is homeschooled by his grandfather. However at the same time as all this summer time bonding is going on, something dark is lurking in Derry, and Ben shares with the other kids the research he has been doing on mysteries murders and disappearances in the town dating back to its founding and currently manifesting in the child disappearances. The kids all start to see manifestations of Pennywise who they surmise is just one manifestations of mysterious being that they christen "It". Mainly spurred on by Bill's quest for closure with regards Georgie's disappearance, the group of kids (themselves now known as the Losers' Club thanks to Richie) start to think of how to stop It.

I have a bit of an odd history with It. When I was 11, I went to a friend's party which was to be a slumber party but my parents were of the overly protective (no judgement on them for this) type and I was just allowed to go for the afternoon and evening and was to be picked up before the whole slumber part (or lack of slumber part) of the party. Like many slumber parties of kids aged from upper primary up, the aim of the party was it seems to be scare the hell out of us and then not sleep at all- that said a future slumber party at the same friend's house where I did stay resulted in my seeing the original version of Total Recall (in parts very scary for a sheltered 11/12 year old but generally I was OK with that one likely because it was and is an awesome (if in parts awesomely bad) film) and two Police Academy films and part of a third (that is a horror of another kind and I'd like those hours back please). Anyhow so at the party where I didn't stay, we had just put the 1990 miniseries of It into the VCR when my folks showed up to collect me. I think we got as far as Georgie's death when I left and that was enough for me especially as clowns...never been a fan, and find them mighty creepy. Also this brief glimpse of the miniseries confused me with the new production as I thought adults featured more heavily- no spoilers really, but the novel of It is set in two time periods, the 50s and the 80s with the Losers' Club being young teens in the 50s and adults in the 80s, the miniseries started briefly in the later timeline and then flashed back to Georgie's death, whereas the new film shifted the earlier timeline to the 80s and only covered that part of the novel, the second half of the novel shifted to occur in around 2016/7 will be covered in a sequel that is currently being made. That history and confusion aside, in a spoiler free way, what did I think of the new version of It?

As a horror film, I wasn't hugely scared but that maybe because of how I like my horror films, namely I like them B-grade (or worse) and cheesy whereas I look to suspense based thrillers if I want to be scared. My dislike of clowns did mean that I was quite creeped out by the film as a whole but never would I have said scared. Others in the cinema who I overheard speaking after the film indicated that my not feeling scared was maybe a me thing and that they themselves were quite scared by the film. If you rate on creep factor instead of sheer fear and dread, Pennywise/It is a very off putting figure as primarily a clown but also in other manifestations as the image of the person seeing Its phobia or fear- the closest I got to scared was when It manifested as version of Georgie to target Bill because creepy kids are high on the terror bar for me (probably just above clowns). I have never seen Bill Skarsgard in anything before as far as I can recall- I'm a big fan of his father and especially his elder brother- and as quite a young guy, he had big shoes to fill what with the incomparable Tim Curry having played the Pennywise manifestation of It in the 1990 miniseries. Much like Heath Ledger playing the Joker after Jack Nicholson, he succeeds in making the character his own by making Pennywise as different to the Tim Curry performance as he could within the range of the plot. From my hazy memories and the clips I've seen subsequently (I've still not seen the miniseries the whole way through), Tim Curry's Pennywise was a creepy in understated way with joy to his creepiness, whereas Skarsgard's Pennywise angles straight at malevolence. By aiming for a more obvious evil in the portrayal, Skarsgard achieves the impossible and delivers a performance nearing Curry (from what I've seen of Curry's performance).

However Pennywise is at times somewhat of an unwanted intrusion for the viewer because the heart and soul of the film is the Losers' Club, and this may be why I was less scared by the film than the makers maybe wanted me to be. These kids also had big shoes to full- the miniseries Losers' Club included Seth Green and Jonathan Brandis (if you don't know who he was, sadly he is no longer with us, but he was a 90s heartthrob whose career stalled in the late 90s when it should have exploded, and he was year 7 me's favourite teen actor- if you can, go and find the early/mid 90s TV series Seaquest and watch it). Oddly the Losers' Club member with the arguably biggest shoes to fill (those of Seth Green) is also the most well known of the new crop of losers. Whilst Stranger Things did not have a wise arse kid in the mix, Finn Wolfhard seems quite at home moving from Mike Wheeler to Richie- a new type of character in the genre he is now at home with (that of 80s coming of age film/TV series featuring creepiness and bicycles). The smart mouthed Richie was possibly my favourite of the kids but there is no less praise for the rest of them. I assume Jaeden Lieberher does not naturally have a stutter and he very convincing puts on one as Bill, which is no small achievement. Sophia Lillis's Molly Ringwald-isque looks (which Richie comments on at one point so you know the makers of the film welcomed the association) highlight the 80s time period of the film but that it is not to detract from the fact she is outstanding in her vulnerability in the scenes where Beverly is at home with her abusive father. I could praise each of the seven Losers' Club members but suffice to say that they are all amazing and the chemistry between them really works. My favourite line of the film I will not spoil but is delivered by Eddie about his medication when he discovers they are placebos, so watch out for that one. The film when it focuses on the relationship between the kids and their emergent adulthood is at its best- such the scene where Beverly sunbaths in front of the boys in her underwear after swimming in the quarry, and she seems innocently naive of the fact they are staring at her, and they all seem uncomfortably aware of her and that they are staring and even it seems maybe unsure why they are staring, but they do not look away.

So all in all, to paraphrase a review I saw elsewhere and in part agree with, It is a delightful coming of age film interrupted at times by a clown.

Maybe not for the faint hearted or the those who dislike horror and blood (there is lot of it in some scenes) but definitely worth seeing. Also though, who are these kids who in any day and age follow clowns down sewers?!?!? Sewers dangerous and gross, clowns creepy, where is the appeal?

OK and now to the spoilers...if you have not seen the film and don't want to hear anymore detail about the film or the miniseries or the book before seeing it, look away. If you seen the film or are familiar with the plot already or have no desire to see the film but are reading this for some reason, continue.

Just to scare off those in the first group have a picture of Pennywise...

Image result for pennywise

Are they gone?

Just in case have the older version...
Image result for pennywise

 So clowns terrifying and hopefully they scared away the people who hate spoilers...

Now to the point of this post which wasn't to review It but was more to ask whether we should be concerned about the original source material for adaptations and whilst It has a few glaring cliches, the cautious Jewish kid and the segregated misunderstood black kid for example, there is big issue with the original story that needs to be discussed and that is the treatment of the character of Beverly.

As a habit, I tend to either commit to reading the source material for adapted texts or at least investigating the quality of the adaptation if the source is something I'm unlike to read. For example, I just finished the first Outlander book after watching seasons 1 and 2 of the show- short review, good holiday reading but prefer the show- and only read Harry Potter after friends said they would make me watch the films- prefer the books but some of the films are good too. Now I've tried to bring myself to read Stephen King novels, I even own a few, but I'm yet to crack the cover on one. I don't even watch King adaptations as a rule- I saw some of the miniseries of The Shining (not the film, the late 1990s miniseries), saw the X-Files episode he wrote, and I've seen (and love) Running Man (but to all opinions, it is solid cheesy film which is nothing like the book)- yes I've not seen the Kubrick version of The Shining nor have I seen The Shawshank Redemption. For some unknown reason, he isn't my cup of tea as rule and that is odd because I'm not adverse of a good horror film (prison films though not a fan which explains the not seeing Shawshank). This meant that for all my good intentions I'm unlike to ever read It and so I just read a synopsis online and one thing that is deeply troubling jumped out at me.

Beverly is the only significant female character in It and even in the film, there are questions about her characterisation. She is cruelly victimised by bullies for her rumoured sexual activity (by her own declaration all falsified gossip) but at the same time, is clearly victim to abuse possibly sexual in nature (that is strongly hinted) at the hands of her father. She is seen purchasing tampons and It's initial manifestation to her is to spray her entire bathroom with blood, as if a girl's only thing to grapple with in her early teens is getting her period and this being known to others is therefore also her greatest fear. She is clearly set up as primarily victim only and for a minute I was worried there was a Barb from Stranger Things vibe going on and she might just disappear, especially after she is kidnapped by Pennywise late in the film. Ultimately it turns out that the horror of her life enable her to be the one who It cannot kill because unlike the boys she does not fear him as she has experienced worse at the hands of her school mates and particularly her father. Beverly is also the one who has the vision that makes them realise that they may need to return and fight It again in 27 years. Therefore though they are issues, she does not end the film as victim only.

In the miniseries, Beverly had a similar arc to the film from the synopsis I read online of that. The miniseries did venture more into the weird who is It vibe than the film which didn't really touch on this at all but Beverly still was key to initial defeat of It.

Now to the novel, which as I said I have not read and reading the synopsis now definitely don't plan on reading. It was the 22nd Stephen King novel to be published, and he weirdly seemed to need a character to strongly identify with as Bill who is the main character, if there were one, grows up to be a horror author. Also Stephen King has a weird over arching mythology to his horror stories which I will not go into because as not a reader of his work, I don't fully get it but needless to say, it plays into who It is in the book.

The characters in It from what I read in the synopsis and in reviews of the film are, as they were in the miniseries, fairly neatly and accurately adapted. This means that in the original text, Beverly is an abused young teen girl who is bullied by her class mates. In the book, the Losers' Club discovers who It is and how he plays into the over arching mythology of the world, and their battle with him he disorients their reality so much that after defeating It in the sewers they cannot find their own way out. Now in the film, Beverly is the one who figures out that in order to defeat It, the Losers need to work together and that unity is their strongest weapon, and this manifests as the seven of them attacking Pennywise together simultaneously which results in his defeat (for the time being) and it seems they have no issue getting out of the sewers. In the original book, they figure out that they need unity as a group to clear their minds and find their ways out of the sewer not to initial defeat Pennywise and how do they resolve it??? If you guessed, all six of the boys has sex with Beverly in'd be right. Now if you are the kind of person to whom that doesn't appear remotely logically and suddenly you are very horrified, welcome to my world. Both the miniseries and the film got rid of this event which is possibly the most salacious part of the novel (a novel about a clown that kills children, let's not forget that), and that is wise for many reasons not least of which nothing kills box office like a thirteen year old girl with a history of being abused having, hazy line here, semi (at best) consensual sex with six thirteen year old boys as a way to solve a problem. To me, this female character whose anatomy exists to solve a problem tips this pretty squarely into a zone of gang rape and that is flat out sickening and this book won awards how?!?! This to me solidifies my possibly reading some of his books, into a wish to not read Stephen King's work ever because this is terrifying treatment of women, but it also makes me worry about the kind of books that score adaptations.

As I said, both adaptations removed this section but what happens when a film adaptation is released and gets good box office (as the new version of It has)? That's right sales of the original text soar. Now I know in the past I know I've spoken about artistic license in the other direction, e.g. when adaptations add to the original (see my comments on the negative aspects of season 5 of Game of Thrones), but does tidying things up a good novel with bad bits make it something we should be adapting? Or more accurately with not just bad but atrocious bits? I would argue that maybe Hollywood needs to be more careful in that space.

I would say to parents with kids in their teens who see the film of It (which as I said is quite good on its own) and want to read the book, or anyone who sees it and hasn't read the book, give the book a hard pass based on the above scene alone. Stephen King doesn't need the money (he is getting some from the film in any case) and as small message in total book sales as it might make (likely not a noticeable one), it is worth sending the message that having an already abused teen girl have group sex as a plot point is not something anyone wants to read.

Justice for Bev!