Monday, June 19, 2017

Wholeness and wholesomeness: Waitress reviewed

More from the vaults...

Waitress (2007) starts off bitter and slowly graduates towards sweet, and by the end is more than a little cloying. Still, if you can forgive it that, there's a lot to like here.

Keri Russell (who 2017 me has just remembered was also the best thing in Austenland) plays Jenna - a typical waitress in a classic American diner, with a pie fixation, a lousy husband and an initially unwanted pregnancy. Via an affair with her doctor and with the support of an ensemble of small town comic stock types, she finds herself!

So full of archetypes is it, Waitress only really makes sense to me as the filming of an indie slice-of-life graphic novel, a four-colour tale of wacky waitresses, bad-tempered cooks and nerdy-but-loveable suitors. But that's not necessarily a bad thing if it's done with skill, as it is here thanks to presiding spirit writer/director/co-star Adrienne Shelley *.

Rather, it makes it a film with a vision - a way of looking at the world. Wholeness and wholesomeness.

Until the last act, Waitress does a good job of tempering this sweetness with the damaged marital relationship at its core. And it's not that I begrudge the film its happy ending, it's just that without that dilution the mawkishness goes right up to 11 and it loses its charm somewhat.

Up to that point though, a most likeable picture.

* who was tragically murdered shortly before the film was released.

From the vaults: Eagle Vs Shark reviewed

Another film review retrieved from journals past, this time Eagle Vs Shark (2007). If you want to know what Taika Waititi was up to prior to What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, well, this is it.

EvsS is (surprise!) a quirky New Zealand indieflick about a shy romantic (Lily, played by Loren Horsley) with the misfortune to fall in love with self-obsessed geek Jarrod (Jermaine Clement, pre-Conchord mania) at a 'come as your favourite animal' party. The film follows them as they return to his home town for a showdown with the school bully.

As well as being deadpan funny, 2007 me found EvsS unexpectedly moving. It illustrates not just the pitfalls in both self-centredness and passivity, but also how they can reinforce each other. Happily for the viewer, it also shows that these stances can shift, no matter how firmly embedded they seem. 

There's some fine comic ensemble playing, but what carries the film are the two main leads. Clement plays Jarrod with sufficient vulnerabilty that you can sense the damage underneath the bursts of staccato bravado. Meanwhile Horsley adroitly moves Lily from a woman with her heart in her mouth at all times to one who finally holds herself like she's answered her own question.

EvsS is no Wilderpeople, yet if you want to see early signs of the comic humanism that powered last year's breakout success, you'll find plenty of evidence here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

If Dylan were a Timelord: I'm Not There

I've been archiving seven or eight years of journalling from the London and Birmingham years recently and have found a few more film reviews to share.

I'm Not There is Todd Haynes' Dylan fantasia - a novelistic treatment of seven different stages of Bob Dylan's career. 

It's starting point is perhaps that the man himself is ultimately unknowable, a view Volume 1 of his autobiography does nothing to unpick, I fear. So instead, different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw) are employed at each stage to symbolise these sharp changes in presentation and artistic direction. 

As if Dylan were a Timelord, if you like (*).

From earnest folkie, through plugged in rocker chasing that wild mercury sound, to Woodstock exile and born-again Christian, I'm Not There veers between realism and magic realism depending on which 'Bob' is on stage. And all seven Dylans are compelling: above all Cate Blanchett as electric Highway '61 Bob and Christian Bale. The playfulness and passionate engagement with the source material runs right through the film, and the music's great too.

It's focus on Dylan as myth rather than as man means it's biggest weakness is inevitably it's lack of emotional heft. The closest it comes is Blanchett portraying an artist on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But for all that it avoids bathos and the over-dramatisation of the conventional biopic. So despite it's slight flaws, it's a brave, engaging film.

* And I suppose Bob and The Doctor occupy similar locations in our modern mythology - outsiders, tricksters, tellers of truth to power. Symbols of self-transformation, what the graphic novelist Grant Morrision would call hypersigils. But that's one for another post.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The hypercompetence of mavericks: thoughts on Die Hard

I've been wondering why Die Hard has lasted, as against so many other 80's action films, having seen it for the first time in ages last year in a festival movie tent.

On one level, it's an easy question to answer. Die Hard is a competent B-movie action picture elevated to something special by the interplay between the two character-actor leads: Bruce Willis and the late Alan Rickman. 

Both are especially good at the grey area between comedy and righteous anger (Willis) or menace (Rickman) respectively. And tonally speaking, that's the screwball sweet spot for 80's action films - the violence has to be undercut enough by the banter so as to be palatable for a mass audience. 

But there's more to Willis than comic timing - he's a powerful identification figure for the audience. Rugged but not ripped, Bruce can do 'concerned, heavily armed citizen' John McClane in way that anomalous Arnie or sonorous Stallone would struggle to match. 

His buddy-buddy relationship wth desk cop turned first responder (Reginald VelJohnson - also a great piece of casting) is convincing because of that. And the actions he takes against the terrorists/robbers are all the more credible for it too.

Which brings us too, I suppose, to the legendary quality that fuels Die Hard. While its merits as a film with a great cast have helped it last, it also doesn't hurt that it's perhaps one of the most persuasive cinematic restatements of the armed civilian myth: the idea that what you really need in a crisis is not the state but a frontiersman with a gun. 

And in Bruce's case, a "Ho, Ho, Ho" too.

Yes, the film stacks the deck massively in favour of this reading - the deputy chief of police is an idiot, the two FBI agents even more so - but that is to argue its credibility rather than its mythic power. 

This isn't a post about gun control, and it would be ridiculous to directly extrapolate from Die Hard to arguments for or against anything in the real world. On the other hand, the stories we tell and retell about the world can be inadvertently revealing. 

What does it mean that films like this valorise the hypercompetence of violent mavericks? What does it signify when they also strike such a chord in us too?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Some recipes I'm trying

In the spirit of reminding myself how relaxing I find baking and cooking, but not just cooking vegetarian paella on autopilot every week, here's a log of any new recipes I try over the next few months.

Moroccan harcha (semolina pan-fried flatbread)
Chipotle black bean chilli 
Jamie Oliver simple tomato pasta sauce (deployed with Ikea meatballs and the vegetarian equivalent)  
Sun-dried tomato risotto (recipe used pearl barley instead of rice but we didn't have time on this occasion, maybe the next one)
Stuffed pepper leftover experiment (exactly as tasty as it sounds)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Novel needs Director's Cut? Glasshouse by Charles Stross reviewed.

'Accelerando on downers' is probably not the synopsis Charles Stross would choose for Glasshouse (2006), although it does take the former's (relative) optimism about posthumanism and drastically flip it. 

So, let's try again.

In Stross' body of work, Glasshouse is perhaps the equivalent of the 'difficult' prog/metal experiment: all dystopian ideas, arcane technology, ultraviolence and unusual time signatures. And I mean the part about time signatures pretty much literally, since the novel opens with a glossary of time as measured in the far future setting, all kiloseconds, megaseconds and giga.... well you get the picture.

It follows that the convoluted plot, summarised and compressed here, will make limited sense. Key to following it all is comprehending the idea of posthumanism/transhumanism - the theory that in the future technology will allow humanity to transcend its physical and mental limitations and be whatever it or individual members of the species want to be. In twenty-first century space opera (like Glasshouse) this often goes hand in hand with interstellar or at least inter-planetary civilisation.

Done badly or indifferently, it just makes for a lot of hand-waving science-indistinguishable-from-magic special effects. Done well, it also raises questions about the provisional nature of our humanity under technological pressure and the ethical problems which arise whether we embrace or resist change. Glasshouse is one of the latter.

Our protagonist Robin, is an amnesiac posthuman in a new body, recovering from PTSD after a cosmic information war. He volunteers for the interstellar equivalent of Castaway or a gigantic LARP, a psychological experiment in recreating Dark Age (read: twentieth century Earth) society. Needless to say, things aren't quite what they seem.

Stross throws out ideas, leads and lures in such quantities that the book properly fizzes. This is both a strength and a weakness: it takes a while to work out what's going on and at least a couple of sub-plots are left hanging without proper resolution. The antagonists, too, are more sketched out than fully developed in a way which weakens the philosophical elements of the book.

As is traditional, he doesn't quite land the ending either, rushing through it in a few scanty pages. There's a lot going on in Glasshouse and for me it's one of those rare novels that would benefit from more than the 388 pages it has. A Director's Cut, maybe?

This review would also not be complete without mentioning that this is a righteously angry book in polemical dialogue with the present and recent past, particularly with gender roles and the answers provided by (for example) Christian fundamentalism. You can probably guess which aspects of twentieth century American society the experiment tries to replicate with imperfect information, and the resulting body horror places Glasshouse closest in mood (sombre, oppressive, skin-crawling) to The Apocalypse Codex in the Stross canon.

It falls very much into the category of gloriously messy, ideas-driven, heart-on-sleeve flawed-but-fascinating science-fiction novels that I love almost as much as the ones that do all of this and bring it all on home. A rewarding, if occasionally frustrating novel.

Most read posts so far this year

The blog has been gently bubbling away in 2017, sustained by a series of posts on the charts of 1976 and its use as a bit of link library / memory palace for work. 

I'm never sure what posts are going to get the most traction, but here are the most viewed so far this year: 

1. Paul, The Liverpool South Parkway Station Cat 
2. Health-geekery March 2017
3. Scaramouching Its Way To The Top - Bohemian Rhapsody
4. Was Pop In Crisis In 1976?
5. Introducing The 1976 Project 
6. 1976 Was Peak Abba
7. 2017 Hugo Nominations - A Much More Open Field
8. Michael Fabricant Is Right 
9. Finding Your Feet Again: Alcest's Kodama 
10. Thoughts From Oatcake Country

That breaks down to:
Music (1976) - 4
Politics - 3
Cats - 1  
Music (other) - 1
Science-fiction - 1