Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Today, I changed the water in my fish tank. The other day, the rubbish bag in the kitchen split as I was trying to empty the bag. Last week, I had to unclog a toilet.

Any one of these three things was more exciting than watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

I can’t bring myself to review this film in any great depth. Suffice to say, it was mind-numbingly boring. Lots of useless, trying-to-be-funny-and-failing-miserably dialogue interspersed with action scenes in which the bad guys proved yet again that no one in the history of using a machine gun on film has ever hit anyone. The Winter Soldier seemed like a wannabe-Loki character with greasy hair and the monopoly on decent gadgetry. And Captain America himself… I’ve come to the conclusion that as a character and a concept, he’s dull and pointless. No wonder the nurse-posing-as-a-secret-agent didn’t want to use his washing machine.

There was one good bit in the film that raised my Glasgow Coma Scale from a 1 to a 15 – and that was when the Winter Soldier ripped out the steering wheel from the car. Neat trick! Other than that brief flicker of interest, it was all just…dull.

Verdict: Rubbish. It felt like the visual equivalent of eating Wheatabix.

The Words (2012)

A film about plagiarism, a life lived in the shadow of sin, worlds within worlds (or should that be, words within words?)… how could I not be looking forward to watching this film? (Anticipation is nearly always a prelude to disappointment…) Anyway, I finally saw it last week, and my verdict is:

Not bad at all. Not brilliant, but not a bad effort.

The Good

It just goes to show that every fairytale needs a good-old-fashioned villain… Wait, I mean * shakes head to remove Sherlock influence and tries again * It just goes to show that at the heart of every good film is a good story. This may be stating the obvious, but there is something to be said for the simple yet powerful act of story-telling. Not trying to be clever or flashy, but just a bloke standing up and saying, in effect, “Let me tell you a story.” This is pretty much what Dennis Quaid’s character does, and it’s really effective.

And the story he tells is a good one, in that it draws you in. The theme of his novel, ‘The Words’, is about how the main character, Rory, plagiarizes another man’s book. Plagiarism is very bad, and as a fledgling wannabee author, I can’t imagine nicking someone’s stuff and passing it off as my own – the very idea gives me the heebygeebies – how can you accept people’s praise for something you didn’t do?

But the film deals with this – firstly, Rory is a pretty good writer to begin with. His first novel is a thing of beauty and a joy forever (to plagiarizes Keats). So we know he’s got talent, it’s just a real shame that his book won’t get published cause of the politics and financial risk/gain involved in the world of publishing. If you’re not a ‘brand’ then I guess people don’t want to take a risk on an unknown writer.

But instead of persevering (didn’t JK Rowling’s Harry Potter get rejected like 40-odd times before someone accepted it?), Rory comes across a manuscript, ‘The Window Tears’, hidden in an old satchel and decides to pass the words off as his. His wife gives him the green light by saying she always knew he had these words inside of him… so Rory thinks – if he has the ability to write these words, then why not claim them as his own? The jumps he makes to justifying the act are subtle, but the film takes the audience with Rory as he makes these little decisions that lead to him publishing the book under his own name.

Enter an old man, played by Jeremy Irons, who, as it turns out, is the actual author of ‘The Window Tears’. He proceeds to tell Rory how he came to write these words – and then we get our third ‘story’ of the film – the old man’s life story, how he married his sweetheart, lived an idyllic life in Paris with their child, attempting to write (he has Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises on his bookshelf – foreshadowing…) , and then the loss of this child that prompts him to write the manuscript that his wife later left in a satchel on a train (and a nod to Hemmingway – apparently his wife did the same thing).

The old man is a good character. He explains that it was only by living through the love and the loss that the words came about. Sometimes when I am interviewing myself (does anyone else ever do this?), one of the questions I ask is – “Which book do you wish you had written?” And yet this is a tricky question to answer, because in writing the book, you also have to experience what that author went through. So if I wish I’d written The Shining, then that would mean I’d have to live through alcoholism and drug abuse. If it’s one of the Bronte novels then I would have to live their lives too – and man those girls had hard lives! So I totally get where this old guy is coming from. He doesn’t want money or fame, he just wants to enlighten Rory and show him the life that he is claiming for his own.

And even though the old man remains anonymous, there is still justice and Rory is punished – because, as the old guy explains to him, this act of plagiarism means that now Rory has robbed himself of the chance to see if he too was capable of writing such a novel – or perhaps even one better. Which, for a writer, is a HUGE deal. Rory has basically terminated his writing career by choosing to publish this novel, and so, in effect, he has terminated his life, with all his hopes and dreams and joys of creating something spectacular.

The film ending is very interesting – so Dennis Quaid’s novel ‘The Words’ is about a character called Rory who plaguerises another man’s manuscript and calls it ‘The Window Tears’.

But actually, as it turns out, ‘The Words’ is autobiographical. Dennis Quaid is Rory. He’s the one that nicked the old guy’s novel, became an overnight success and in doing so, lost his wife and his soul. Dennis Quaid ends the novel with Rory and his wife lying next to each other, his wife reassuring him that she still loves him and that everything will be fine…But this is wishful thinking on Dennis Quaid’s part, because his marriage has failed and even when he starts to kiss the girl, he flashes to his/Rory’s wife. The girl comments, “You never let her go.”

Which leads me to think that in writing ‘The Words’, this is Dennis Quaid’s act of atonement, and yet in altering the ending of his author-avatar Rory, he is choosing to live the lie of fiction and create himself a happy ending. Yet it seems he’s punishing himself too by refusing to hook up with the girl. Redemption is offered him, yet he turns it down.

Whoa. Brain freeze!

The Bad

The girl who tries to seduce Dennis Quaid and read his novel seemed a bit strange. I was half-expecting her to be a secret agent, out to win his confidence and then nick off with his book for her own nefarious purposes… Her motives seemed ambiguous, and her character seemed like more of a crutch for Dennis Quaid to unleash a lot of exposition. I think a better-realised, fully-formed, more believable character would have done nicely here.

The Ugly

The girl playing the French character wasn’t great. She did a good job of sobbing after the couple lose the baby, but except for that scene, my goldfish show more emotion than she did. Ben Barnes, the guy playing her husband, wasn’t much better. They were both nice to look at, but they let the side down with regards to the acting abilities.

But apart from these little nitpicks, I think ‘The Words’ was a good film. Bradley Cooper did a good job as Rory – I despised him yet I pitied him at the same time. Dennis Quaid seemed to be a man truly weighed down by his life.

Actually, this quote sums him up nicely:

“In my culture, we believe that when you die your spirit has to climb a mountain, carrying the souls of everyone you wronged in your lifetime. Imagine the weight I will have to lift.”

(The above quote was from ‘A Town called Mercy’, a very good Doctor Who episode. Gotta give credit where credit’s due).

Verdict: Guilt and the possibility of redemption is always interesting when done properly. A pretty decent film, and therefore, not rubbish.

#74: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

I’ve put Neuromancer on hold for now, and decided to read another book from the TIME novels list, The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. To be honest, I’d never heard of the book or the author before, but the premise of the book intrigued me – a whisky priest on the run from the government in Mexico, haunted by his sin and guilt and yet trying to remain true to his calling as a priest.

The priest is a brilliantly-written, complex character, with desires and motivations that are simultaneously pure and base. He reminded me of Conrad’s Lord Jim, or the protagonist in Victor Hugo’s “The Last Day of a Condemned Man” in that the reader is not quite sure what to make of him; is the priest someone to be admired, despised or pitied? It is testament to Greene’s construction of the character that he was able to evoke all three emotions.

If the priest’s actions were written down merely as factual events, there would be no question that this guy is heading for sainthood. For example, he is the last one to stay in the area as a priest, and will not renounce his faith, even when all the other priests have fled. Although on the run from the authorities, who will execute him if they find him, he continually gives up chances to escape in order to help people who are ill or dying.

And yet it is the inner dialogue of the priest that reveals to us what he’s really thinking – for example, his fear of pain and death, his disillusionment with God and himself, his hatred towards fellow human beings, his desire to live out his days in comfort and affluence. In short, he’s human – so human in fact that the novel is almost painful to read, and it’s a sharp contrast to the story of the saintly, one-dimensional priest Juan (a bedtime story a mother reads to her children) that runs parallel to the story of the priest.

Stepping out of the role as a somewhat-objective reviewer, I would like to add a comment on the religious content of the book: whilst the story is shot through with themes of power and glory, there is nothing mentioned about grace. And it is grace that this priest so desperately needs. The priest constantly berates himself for not having purer motives, for not being able to confess the sin of having a daughter, for drinking. And yet he has forgotten the nature of the God whom he serves; the God of unfailing kindness and love, who “meets us where we are and yet does not leave us as he found us”, whose grace outruns our sin.

So, in short: not rubbish, and a novel that I intend to revisit.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan (or – Important Books Every Human Should Read)

Just to make it clear, this isn’t a review that subscribes to my blog premise, since you cannot read a book about a true experience and deem it rubbish.

So I was slogging my way through Neuromancer (mind-numbingly dull) as part of my challenge to read the TIME 100 Novels (see earlier posts), when a daily Kindle Daily Deal informed me that The Aquariums of Pyongyang was 99p. I had always wanted to read this book but never got round to it.

I finished the book this morning, and of course, it makes for horrendous reading, especially with the knowledge that the situation in North Korea is even more desperate now. (I looked around the internet for advocacy opportunities, and it seems like Christian Solidarity Worldwide is the best site around for that – for example, it enabled me to ‘sponsor’ a visit from a North Korean refugee to the Houses of Parliament in London in order to tell their story).

But it got me wondering – why does the TIME magazine list not include these sort of books – books that it is our responsibility to read as fellow human beings?

Just off the top of my head, these are books I’ve read that should be included:

The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan, about life in a North Korean prisoner camp

If This is a Man by Primo Levi – his account of his experiences in Auschwitz

The Killing Fields by Christopher Hudson – about the civil war in Cambodia and the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge

Wild Swans by Jung Chang – her story of three generations of her family in China living through the Cultural Revolution

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – his semi-autobiographical account of life in a Russian gulag

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs – the author’s life a slave in America

All Quiet on the Western Front by Enrich Maria Remarque – a semi-autobiographical story of his experiences as a German soldier in the trenches during WW1

Of course, there are loads more I could name. And it’s not like I particularly want to wake up and think “Oh yes, today I want to read a book about total human depravity and the depths we are capable of descending to”. But at the same time, don’t we have a moral obligation to read people’s accounts of their sufferings, and furthermore, to try and do something about it? Especially when we may, in some indirect way, be responsible?

 

 

Lockout (2012)

Guy Pearce is one of my favourite actors of all time (think Priscilla, Queen of the Desert… Memento… LA Confidential… heck, he even did a good job as Mike from Neighbours). And when I found out he was starring in my favourite genre – sci-fi, I was very excited! (Which, as my husband continually points out, never bodes well, and usually ends up with me being disappointed).

However, the trouble with a lot of sci-fi around at the moment is that it’s lazy, cliched and formulaic, with one-dimensional characters and a boring script and a preachy message, and either a homogenous shiny-white utopian world or a Blade-Runner-esque dystopian world with nothing in between. (Think Prometheus, Avatar, I Am Number 4, Equilibrium, Inception, Adjustment Bureau, Jumper, Total Recall etc.).

Good sci-fi doesn’t stick to a prescribed formula. It doesn’t do what you expect it to. It’s full of new concepts, and it takes risks. It’s unpredictable and intelligent. (Think Watchmen, Sunshine, Stargate (the movie), Blade Runner, Serenity, Terminators 1 and 2, Children of Men, Donnie Darko. Whilst we’re at it, let’s look at the greats – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, George Orwell, H. G Wells, Margaret Atwood, Carl Sagan). THAT, my friends, is great sci-fi. Not dumbed-down sci-fi for the masses.

So, that being said, I was a little anxious about Lockout. Either this could be really good sci-fi, or really boring “sci-fi 101 for people who don’t really like sci-fi but just watch it because of the eye candy and the hype”. I saw this with Andy the other night, and, as always, I was thinking, “please don’t be rubbish!”.

The verdict – WOW! Pleasantly surprised. One of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen for ages. Very cool. Why?

For starters, the bad guys were psychopathic Scottish guys with accents so thick that I could have done with subtitles. Plus, they actually followed through on their threats – the body count was pretty impressive. The prisoners reminded me of zombies – but way more interesting, cause you can’t really reason with zombies (except perhaps for that film with the kid from About A Boy), but these are actual humans, so they are way more complex, yet crazy and demented. 

Guy Pearce’s character was very funny. Apart from the Han Solo / Princess Leia vibe he had going with the president’s daughter (which is always more fun than goody-two-shoes-damsel-in-distress), he also had a Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly) vibe going on, only with less morals – at least superficially. He has no problem burning a guy’s eye out with a lighter, or punching the said damsel in the face.

It was just a clever film. It didn’t give way to sentiment or cliche – it was like it was based on the template of a traditional modern American sci-fi movie, but then every time it should have followed the prescribed formula, it deviated away and did its own thing. E.g the cool scene with the gravity well. Or the scene with the President doing the whole “That’s my daughter!” speech. And the whole hostages crises. And the scene at the end where the guy gets the girl….

Yeah, so there were maybe a few plot holes with space stuff, but I choose to forgive them, to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow and keep on trekking…’Cause this film does what some of the great Star Trek episodes did – it presents a scenario. e.g. we’re going to invade a Borg ship – and then it takes the scenario and runs with it. It doesn’t bother setting up the world. It’s more like – okay, here’s the situation, let’s deal with it.

So yeah. I liked it very much. Good characters, an entertaining story. I think a lot of the sci-fi films at the moment seem to be going overboard on moral agendas in their films – “What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What about the environment?” and they just end up being preachy and superficial. Especially when it’s about one man trying to bring down the system or “The Man”. It’s refreshing to have a sci-fi film that just has fun in its own little world without subscribing to all the tropes.

The only bad thing about this film is the title – I seriously for the life of me cannot remember it without googling it. Is it Launchpad? Launchpoint? Lockdown?

Conclusion: A very cool, very satisfying sci-fi film. And the director was French, with a couple of Irish writers thrown in, I believe. This could explain some things.

Where Do Comedians Go When They Die? Journey of a Stand-Up by Milton Jones (2012)

I hate stand-up comedy. I find comedians to be moronic and tedious. It’s like when people tell you their dreams in long-winded and boring detail, or when old people start relating a highly-convoluted and waffly anecdote. To me, that’s what stand-up comedy is like. I don’t understand why people go and see them. I don’t understand why people buy their DVDs and watch them over and over. I don’t understand why some of my highly intelligent family and friends who I respect actually like watching stand-up comedy. Also I’ve never heard of Milton Jones.

Well, given this introduction, you may be wondering why I chose to read such a book in the first place. The reason was that it was 99p on the Kindle daily deals.

So, the verdict: Wow! Pleasantly surprised. An incredibly funny, insightful, interesting book, dealing with the psychology of performance, fame, marriage, parenthood and the human condition in general. It’s written more like a stream-of-consciousness than an autobiography, which makes it the ideal book to read if you can only read bite-sized chunks at a time e.g. on a packed bus.

The whole book is full of really apt, spot-on observations, for example:

– In describing a PR girl at one of the clubs: “I think I’ve met (this sort of person) before – vulnerable but tactile, devaluing the currency of touch by flooding the market with hugs”. What a great way of putting it. And so true. One of my pet peeves (apart from stand-up comedians) is people who enter the room and go round hugging everyone, and worse, hugging them and looking over their shoulder for the next person to hug.

– In describing being homesick: “Now I’m tired and cold and I want to go home… to leafy streets that, in the summer, shimmer with the smoky essence of barbecues.” Yeah. That’s what it’s like.

– In describing doing a show in China: “Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen several Asian versions of people I know back home. Is that racist? And I wonder if it works the other way around?” – So true! Since we moved to China, I’ve totally had that “Whoa, that guy looks like a Chinese version of that bloke off Eastenders.”

The book is roughly chronological; he describes how he first starts out, doing gigs to nearly-empty rooms, and then the Fringe festival, and then later, the BBC and TV/radio. But he’s properly scared to begin with. I think that’s what I found so interesting and refreshing – he’s really genuinely nervous and has this habit of praying that the venues will burn down before he gets there, but he also really wants to do the gig as well. There’s a really funny bit where a massively fat guy tries to engage him in small talk on the bus, and Milton Jones is trying to deflect comments.
Fat guy: “Who are your comedy heroes then?”
He’s very determined, and I hate that question. Plumbers don’t have plumbing heroes do they? Pretending to be asleep – that’s the only answer.

He’s like JD (Scrubs) on speed, in terms of his imagination going overdrive all the time. Like when he does his first gig, he then imagines filming a documentary about himself:
A retrospective of a comedy great, wandering round my vineyard in Tuscany with Melvyn Bragg.
“Tell us about the moment you knew that you were going to be a great comedian…”
I’ll smile wryly, and then, bending down, pluck a leaf off a vine. “You know, Melvyn, making comedy is like making a good wine…”
“Really?”
“It takes a while… and then people like it.”
Melvyn just stares at me. The noise of crickets in the background. Not sure what to do now. So I push him over.

Also he talked about being introverted. “Yes, I’m a bit shy… Yes, I’ve always been scared of people, caught in the glare of their eyes, their questions having the power to jumble my brain. What am I doing then? Imagine my chat show. It’ll be awful. Hesitation, awkward silences, guests looking at their watches… At least if you’re famous though, everyone gets to know you all at once, and that will surely save a thousand stilted conversations.” I found that to be a really intriguing concept – how can he be that nervous around people, and still want to do stand-up comedy? And be good at it? I think that’s the paradox of being an introvert, and one that I appreciated him talking about.

His stories about his wife and his children were really down-to-earth, and honest. For example, there’s parts of the book when he’s talking about how knackered he is from having three small children:

“It’s six o’clock in the morning and apparently I’ve just lost another game of Star Wars pod racer on the Nintendo. It wouldn’t be so bad, but this time, Reg has beaten me using only his feet. At least now I can go to bed. Dawn is…dawning again, I’m beginning to dream while standing up, and my skin against my clothes feels like the inside of a greased cake tin.”
The way he describes his tiredness gave me loads more respect for parents with young children.

He also talks about how he comes up with his material, what it’s like to write funny stuff, how he fears that he may end up becoming like a ‘vulture’ – only relating to people in real life so he can leech off their experiences and make a joke about it.
He talks about other comedians nicking his stuff, what happens when comedians start to love the fame thing too much, how to deal with hecklers and Northerners, what happens if you forget stuff on stage, doing a charity gig straight after 9/11, what to do if the crowd’s mood goes sour and they start turning on you. Also about his sister getting cancer.

At one point when he’s in a Chinese prison cell and thinks he’s never gonna see his family again, he drafts a letter to them, and he says “I think I made one main mistake, and that was trying a bit too hard to become rich and famous. Obviously this didn’t really work. But I know now, that I was already rich, and famous with the only audience that really mattered.” This is one of the themes of the book, and one he explores more towards the end.
I think that’s a really important take-home message, especially for people (me included) who daydream about being famous. In the final episode of Extras, Maggie tells Ricky Gervais’s character: “How famous do you want to be? Cause you’ll never be famous enough.”
It’s good to read a book that talks about the things that matter – not fame, or beauty, or success but rather, as Philip Larkin puts it, “A sense of life lived according to love.”

So yeah. A really funny book that had me giggling out loud on the bus, but that also speaks into our rather narcissistic culture and has something to say. It’s written under the persona of Jerome Stevens, so it’s sort of truth-based fiction…I don’t know enough about Milton Jones in particular or comedy in general to know which parts were made-up and which bits were really his life… But to paraphrase the wiliest of all storytellers, Garak from DS9, “I’ll choose to believe it was all true. Especially the parts that were lies.”

In conclusion: Completely not rubbish in any way. If you enjoy Top Gear humour you will find this book very funny. If you find Top Gear offensive…maybe don’t read this book.

Inside Lleywn Davis (2013)

I persuaded my husband to watch ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ the other day. I had been super excited to watch it for a long time, because it was about my favourite genre of music, folk. The Punch Brothers were involved. The level of anticipation was high.

I was especially excited because the Coen brothers had directed The Matrix, one of the most genius, paradigm-shift-inducing films of all time….

However, it was a quarter of the way through the film when I remembered that it was the WACHOWSKI brothers who had directed The Matrix, not the Coen brothers…

And then I remembered that the Coen brothers had directed Fargo…. and my heart sank a little.

Then I perked up as I remembered that the Coen brothers had directed ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, a pretty decent film with a good soundtrack and a story based on the Odyssey, which is always cool.

But then my spirits fell again as I remembered they had directed The Ladykillers… one of two films in which I have actually fallen asleep. (The other was ‘You Got Mail’. I was young, and it was a peer pressure thing).

The fact that all this internal dialogue was running in my head probably doesn’t speak highly about the film. But actually it was very good. It almost felt as if I was watching a really old film that had matured over time like a fine wine, getting better and better as the years went on. It had that sort of nostalgic quality to it.

The colours were beautiful to look at – the clothes, the décor, the interior of the Gaslight Cafe. Like paper dipped in coffee to create a vintage effect. The music was great too – well, if you like folk music, that is. My husband isn’t a massive fan of folk music, and wasn’t converted by the soundtrack, but for folk-lovers it was a real treat. I couldn’t wait for the next song.

So this leads me to this question – was the film carried by the soundtrack, or does it actually stand on its own two feet if you strip all the music away?

I think the latter. I’d even go so far as to say they could have done away with the cat storyline too, and it still would have been a really good film. (I’m not going to discuss the relevance of the cat in this review because, aside from the name, I don’t really think it has any. As Joel Coen said: “the film doesn’t really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.”).

Really, it’s about the title character. He’s likeable and endearing, for the following reasons:
– He hasn’t got a proper winter coat.
– The cat liked him.
– He plays folk, therefore he “is”. Anything else is just “existing.” I admired his integrity in trying to stay true to what he thinks folk music is.
– He’s skint, and clearly has no idea about how to ‘play the game’, turning down the royalties for ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’for money upfront (didn’t Harrison Ford do the same with Star Wars?)
– He’s got troubles. His singing partner committed suicide and it’s clearly affecting him and yet he’s trying to carry on… it makes him a really interesting character. A classic underdog. I felt sorry for him, and I was rooting for him, even though sometimes he was a bit of an idiot.

And because I was rooting for him, I really wanted the other characters in the film to be rooting for him too – the record producer at the club in Chicago, and of course, his dad. But when he plays the Queen Jane song to the record producer, the response is just blank…. “no money in it”.
And the sea-faring song he sings to his dad – he’s waiting (and the audience is waiting) for the response – perhaps music will reach him in a way that nothing else does…but then his dad wets himself.

It was just sad. And the final kicker was Bob Dylan in the Gaslight at the end… we know it’s pretty much over for Davis, as the last words of the film are ‘au revoir’.

The character really inspired my sympathy, and I actually cared what was going to happen to him. So yeah, strip away the music and the cat, and I think the film would still be really good.

Speaking of the ‘Ulysses’ the cat… Here’s some other references to Odysseus in the film:

“Mr. Leopald Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” (A line I have never been able to get out of my head since reading the book). Ok, so it’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, but ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ had the same kind of vibe – a day in the life of Leopald Bloom and a week in the life of Llewyn Davis. And there was a cat in both.

The Gate of Horn, the club that Llewyn Davis is headed to in Chicago. This is name-checked by Penelope in the Odyssey: ‘For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn…Those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them.” So Llewyn goes through the Gate in search of ultimate truth, and the truth he receives is an impossibility – he’s advised to reunite with his (dead) partner because he won’t make it as a solo artist.

I’m pretty sure the character of John Goodman is supposed to be Cyclops. When Odysseus is trying to get home with his men, they stop off on an island and the Cyclops captures the men and eats some of them. Odysseus gets him really drunk and causes him to fall asleep, and they escape.
So there’s some parallels – John Goodman definitely seems to be the villain, making heartless comments about Mike and the way he commits suicide (“He jumped off the George Washington bridge? Who does that?”). There’s name/identity questions. Then he overdoses and Llewyn ‘escapes’… I just hope John Goodman didn’t eat the cat that Llewyn left in the car.

So in summary:
– A leading character that seemed like a real person, not some Hollywood construct.
– A supporting cast who were really convincing in their respective roles. (I especially liked the Forest-Gump-like soldier who can deliver a moving musical performance but who seems to have no higher brain functions off-stage).
-A film that was comfortable enough in itself to just let the character of Llewyn Davis be the story.
– And the soundtrack was perfect.

Verdict: this is a Good Film.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I love The Lord of the Rings. The books sustained me during finals – one hour’s revision netted me 10 minutes of reading time. I took part in a marathon where we watched the extended editions of the films back-to-back. At our wedding we named each table after places in Middle-Earth.

The first hobbit film was all right. Not great, but I chose to view it as an introduction, a warm-up to the great feast that The Desolation of Smaug would be. Of course, I had reservations – the introduction of a new character seemed a bit unwise, especially as her sole purpose seemed to be to foster a love triangle that wasn’t present in the books… the return of Legolas also seemed to be an attempt to cury favour with existing LoTR fans….Stephen Fry as the Mayor – in Blackadder he was genius, but in the second Sherlock Holmes film he was an embarassment….

However, I trusted that Peter Jackson knew what he was doing. Plus this film had a sprinkling of Guillermoro del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth remains a supreme example of a fantasy film done intelligently and well). Also this film would feauture SMAUG! The best, most convincing villain since Sauron. The showdown between Bilbo and Smaug was billed as epic (how could it not be brilliant? Especially with the two actors behind these interesting and complex roles). Even just the name of the film alone – The DESOLATION of SMAUG – made me excited. Against my better judgement, I believed the hype…

And the verdict?

Depressingly, painfully rubbish. Just thinking about it makes me want to hang my head and weep.

Part of the problem was that the Lord of the Rings films were so blindingly good, and so this made the Hobbit 2 seem so bad in comparison. The LoTR had so much to say – and the Hobbit 2 had nothing to say. It featured a whole load of dialogue, ideas and action scenes that were just watered down recycled bits borrowed from LoTR.

For example – Legolas. Yes he did some cool stunts in the other films, but on average it was one cool thing per film –
Fellowship – he swings himself onto a galloping horse.
Two Towers – he uses a shield to skateboard down a flight of stairs whilst shooting stuff.
Return of the King – he takes down a whole elephant by himself.
But that wasn’t his primary character raison d’etre – rather, it was his role as Aragorn’s right hand man and also his relationship with Gimli that made him an interesting character (more interesting than the books at any rate). The fact that he also did a cool stunt from time to time was a bonus.

But in Hobbit 2, it’s like Peter Jackson thought – “oh the fans loved all the Elfy action stuff, so let’s bring back Legolas and have him do bad-ass elvish tricks in every scene”. He forgot the golden rule that LESS IS MORE.
So as a result, Legolas was reduced to alternating between performing action stunts which lost their wow factor because there was so many of them, and moping after Tauriel like a doe-eyed lovesick mooncalf (to borrow a phrase from Patrick O’Brian).

And that brings me on to the character of Tauriel.
What was the point of this character? She seemed to fufill the same role that Arwen did in the LoTR films – to add romance to a story in order to draw a wider audience and make more money. Never mind that there was love already displayed in Tolkien’s works – the love for one’s home and culture, the love for one’s friends and family, the love of “all the things held dear on this good earth.”

The Hobbit did not need an addition of a half-baked love story beween a hormonal elf and a dwarf who was the only one out of his fellow dwarfs who conveniently looked like an elf.

I won’t even get started on the whole Kili-gets-stabbed-with-a-morgul-blade story... WHO EVEN CARES???!!!! That storyline has been done already, and far better, in Fellowship of the Ring with Frodo – with his visions of the Ring Waiths and the healing by Arwen. This Kili-Tauriel thread was completely superfluous, it drew attention away from the central plot, and made the pacing of the film stutter. Poorly done Peter Jackson!!!

Whilst I’m on the subject of not caring… The problem with the Hobbit is that the fate of Middle-Earth is not at stake. Of course Tolkein wrote The Hobbit first, setting up all the elements for the epic battle in Return of the King. But in choosing to film the LoTR first and then the Hobbit second, the things at stake in the Hobbit just don’t seem to matter as much. Lake Town, for example – a cruddy hole filled with inhabitants who seem to resemble the swamp-dwelling peasants from Monty Python’s Holy Grail film. I got the feeling that if Smaug reduced the town to ashes it wouldn’t be a great loss. Is the new addition of the Bard’s children (a weak attempt to humanise the town) meant to make me care? Cause it didn’t.

(Incidentally, I think the Bard’s character is interesting – the shame of his ancestor failing to kill the dragon had echoes of Aragorn’s shame of Isildur failing to stop Sauron once and for all. This would have been a worthy storyline for Peter Jackson to flesh out more in this film).

Another problem with filming the Hobbit is that we know who lives. Bilbo, Gandalf, Legolas – I can’t take the mortal peril stuff seriously because we know these guys already made it. So showing Gandalf being pursued by the Necromancer did not have me gripped to the edge of my seat.
(You could argue that one already knows who lives because they’ve read the book, but I’m just making the point that if Peter Jackson filmed this first and the LoTR second, rather than doing the Hobbit as an afterthought, it would have made the suspense a tad more credible).

Ditto with the Arkenstone thing- again, it just doesn’t matter. In the light of subsequent events in the LoTR, this little dwarf storyline pales into insignificance. Who cares about the Arkenstone when it’s all about the Ring?

Another thing that ticks me off about Gandalf in this film is that he knows the Necromancer is Sauron. He knows that Sauron has returned. So why does he act like it’s such a big shock in Fellowship of the Ring? More to the point, why hasn’t he done anything? He says to Saruman:
“We still have time…time enough to counter Sauron… if we act quickly.”
You’ve had all the time for Martin Freeman to turn into Ian Holm – how much more time do you need??!!
This isn’t the case in the book because there is no evidence that Gandalf realises the Necromancer’s true identity. In fact the Necromancer storyline is dealt with in a throwaway line towards the end of the story – “they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the South of Mirkwood.”
So this film version and the padding-out of this story thread seems like rather a big plot hole. Perhaps Gandalf gets a knock on the head in the next film and suffers amnesia about Sauron’s return and this explains his reaction.

And now, finally, I turn my attention to Smaug, the biggest anti-climax of the whole film. So in the book, we get this line – “Nothing can escape Smaug once he sees it.” Did you hear that, Peter Jackson? NOTHING. The book version of Smaug is verbose yet menacing and genuinely scary. But the film version makes a mockery of him – he starts off well with his dialogue with Bilbo, but then it decends into farce as Smaug tries to kill all the dwarfs, flying this way and that, getting distracted by gold statues and confounded by that old cliche of “cooey, over here!” and seemingly forgetting on a number of occasions that he can BREATHE FIRE, and resorting instead to snapping at Thorin and co. instead. So painful to watch….

And in the book Smaug ate the ponies. He ATE the ponies! What’s the body count in the film, where Smaug is faced with not just Bilbo (as in the book) but rather the whole cohort of dwarfs (not in the book)? Zero. Nada. I have owned guinea pigs who were more dangerous. Peter Jackson, if you’re going to alter the plot of the book, at least have one of the dwarfs burnt to a crisp. Kili, for example??

A lot of the problems I’ve mentioned are because The Hobbit has been stretched into a trilogyof films, whereas I think the book could have neatly and tightly fitted into one film. Why did Peter Jackson choose to make 3 films?
Answer: For money.
And that, my friends, is the most depressing, rubbish thing of all.

The Place Beyond The Pines (2012)

Verdict: unbearably rubbish. 

I watched this film recently against my better judgement, on a recommendation. The words “redemption” and “character-driven”, and “pleasantly surprised” were used, I believe.

So why was this film rubbish? For starters, the storyline went on way too long, and made no sense. So Ryan Gosling’s a stunt rider who suddenly becomes really obsessed with his son and starts robbing banks and ends up nearly beating a guy to death. This guy is mentally unhinged, a really nasty piece of work. If he was fat and ugly then he would have no sympathy from the audience at all  – but oh, it’s okay to treat other people like that, because he’s good-looking and can ride a motorbike.

And the whole robbing banks storyline – that was so needless and pointless. The excuse for this terrible storyline seems to be that Ryan Gosling needs to provide for his son’s future, yet the son seems to be doing just fine without him – he has a mum and a dad and a house. It’s not like he’s living in abject poverty. There’s no reason for Ryan to quit his job and start robbing banks in the first place. And even if he did genuinely think that he needed to give his son some money, why didn’t he go and join an oil rig or something, and send money home to his family that way? Why did he instantly think about robbing banks? So stupid. How am I meant to respect a character who makes such a poor, lazy decision?

And then Eva Mendes jumping into bed with him – why did she do that? She’s with the other guy. What the heck is her character doing? I had zero respect for her too. She served no purpose other than eye candy. And she can’t act either. Neither can Ryan Gosling, who has all the emotional range of a broom. The scene where he cried in the church – he did that without moving a muscle. No emotion at all. Impressive. Like watching Spock cry.

Things did get interesting when Bradley Cooper (who can actually act) showed up and shot Ryan Gosling – it would have been good to explore just the storyline of the psychological consequences and the strain it put on his marriage and why he and his wife split up… but no, the writers chose to ditch this storyline and focus on a couple of bratty kids. 

Okay, Bradley Cooper’s son is an idiot, but oh, the coincidence of transferring schools and ending up at the exact same high school as Ryan Gosling’s son (who looks quite dark and Hispanic as a baby, but completely white as a teenager), and sitting down at exactly the same table as him. Surely if Bradley Cooper was really upset about shooting Ryan Gosling, he would have followed the progress of the son, and known what high school he went to?

Anyway. So Ryan Gosling’s son finds out about his dad’s identity, but then the jump to making him into some kind of saint seems a little quick. Rash. And forced. Why is the son so quick to turn on his mum, and declare vengeance on Bradley Cooper? Didn’t he read the bit about his dad taking people hostage? Is this kid so thick that he can’t make a proper evaluation of the information? And his mum – why doesn’t Eva Mendes sit down and have a proper chat with him, instead of just looking upset all the time?

And so then he takes Bradley Cooper out into the woods and Bradley Cooper starts crying. His tears seem completely out of the blue, unrealistic, even a little embarrassing. The film directors can’t just jump forward 15 years in time and expect the audience to stay with them – there was no real evidence that Bradley Cooper was still repentant and harbouring guilt after all this time. It would have been better for the directors to take us through those 15 years, for us to walk alongside Bradey Cooper, seeing how the shooting affected him, his marriage, his relationship with his own kid, maybe have him keeping tabs on Ryan Gosling’s son… but no, the film makers went for the lazy option and just hit the fast forward button – and then expect the audience to be moved by Bradley Cooper crying.

And so then Bradley Cooper apologies, and then what, Ryan Gosling’s son just accepts his apology? He doesn’t want to ask anything else? He just runs off? What a wasted opportunity.

And then what, the snotty brat decides to head west on a motorbike? SERIOUSLY?? Is this meant to be coming a full circle or something?, cause this wasn’t, it’s just stupid. Suddenly we’re meant to believe that a kid who has never touched a motorbike or shown any inclination towards them suddenly wants to ride off into the sunset? Completely disregarding his parents who have brought him up and love him? That is really bratty behaviour, it’s not cool, it’s not clever, it’s just stupid.

Maybe all the characters had really low IQs, and that’s why they all behaved in such cliched ways. It was like they were a herd of cattle, coralled into a storyline without the ability to show any sort of intelligent decision making along the way.

The whole problem with this film was that nothing was followed up or fleshed out or explored. It just seemed really sketchy, as if deep sorrowful gazes and people crying are meant to be a substitute for good dialogue and exposition. I know I’ve gone on about the audience not being spoon fed, but there is room for an actual story to be told in the old-fashioned way, and not just relying on your cast to try and sell the story for you. It was like the film makers thought, “Oh cool we’ve got some A list actors, they’ll carry the film along, and hopefully no one will realise that the actual storyline behind this is pretty rubbish and full of plot holes. We’ll distract them with pretty faces and a pretentious soundtrack.”

Anyway. So bad. A film pretending to be deep (note: just because deep emotions are being shown on screen, this doesn’t necessarily make it a deep film) and meaningful and “hip” (because the actors mumble their lines and speak over each other), but actually it was pretty rubbish. The only intelligent thing about it was the song by Bon Iver at the end.

And even more depressingly, the majority of reviews seem to think this film is good. It isn’t. It’s like when you eat 30p Tesco value chocolate your whole life. You may think this is quality chocolate, but that’s because you haven’t eaten Cadbury’s or Lindor chocolate. In the same vein, anyone who thinks this film is good has obviously been living off a diet of equally poor films such as ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Avatar’.

Here is my suggestion – if you think this film is “an epic example of a morality tale” as one reviewer put it, then read ‘Lord Jim’ by Joseph Conrad or watch ‘Munich’ or ‘The Kite Runner’. All examples of intelligent morality tales that will make this film pale into comparison and expose it for the Value Version that it is.

#88 The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Um…well, it wasn’t not rubbish…

I read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ a while ago, and enjoyed that a lot more, because it was an actual story where stuff happened that meant something. In ‘The Sun Also Rises’, the characters just seemed to faff around a lot. They all needed a good slap, especially Brett.

I know there’s meant to be a load of symbolism, and apparently this book captured the so-called ‘lost’ generation, so perhaps if I had been living in the 1920s or if I was a bloke (and thus able to sympathise with Jake’s war wound) or perhaps if I was high, then maybe I would ‘get’ this book. As it was, I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about.

I liked the style, though – the conversations seemed very realistic, there was lots of stuff that was inferred rather than spoon-fed, and I loved the descriptions of fishing and the bull fights. Hemingway isolates key details in his descriptions that stand for the whole – for example, in the fishing bit, he writes:

“I walked up the road and got out the two bottles of wine. They were cold. Moisture beaded on the bottles as I walked back to the trees.”

He captures the essence of things, and in doing so, allows the reader to share in the experience too.

So the verdict is – not rubbish, but not a particularly gripping read either. It was like a pleasant dream that soon fades once you get up.

Next stop, number 63 – Neuromancer! (After a slight detour into ‘Where do comedians go when they die?’ by Milton Jones).