Category Archives: Films

Mockingjay: a film that just fails to engage.

Last night I saw the film Mockingjay and left the cinema disappointed. I haven’t seen the two earlier films in this series, but a film, even if part of a series, should be able to stand on its own feet. MockingjayIn this film the bad guy, President Snow, fails to behave in a way that evokes any emotional reaction from an audience. Katniss fails to do a great deal to establish herself as a sympathetic character, except for an early scene where she decides not to shoot a wild stag. Her supposed feelings for Peeta are not convincing. So unless you are already emotionally invested in disliking Snow and being on-side with Katniss, there’s not much to make you feel like taking sides. On the good side, some of the outdoor photography is quite well framed, and this is, I believe, the last film of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Sadly, unless you are already a fan of the Hunger games series, I can’t recommend this film. It’s not that it’s a terribly made film, it just fails to engage.

Why would you ever trust a human? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

It seems ironic that I saw the new Planet of the Apes movie in the week that the news has been dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the shooting down of a civilian airliner over the Ukraine. An no I’m not comparing any side in this conflict to apes. What I am comparing is conflict to conflict, mistrust to mistrust, and the sad tendencies of groups to fall into factionalism, and coups.

In a post-epidemic world, humans try to reopen an electricity plant, which happens to be located in a territory controlled by apes. Leaders on both sides, the humans and the apes in this film, have underlings who conspire to overthrow them and wreck any chances of peace between the two ‘tribes.’ Each side has characters that have lost family. Caesar, the leader of the apes, wants to avoid war. Koba, his second-in-charge, betrays him and accuses him
of loving humans more than his own kind. Does any of that sound familiar? Americans who are old enough to remember the civil rights era might recall an insult flung by whites at whites who supported the black struggle for equality.

The film makes us primarily see the conflict through the eyes of the apes. After all, why should apes trust humans who kept them in cages and experimented on them? And how should apes respond when a group that has oppressed them in the past wants to restart the generation of electricity – a thing that gave humans so much power in the past?

As a film, the ‘motion capture’ technology that takes the movement of humans and translates it into animated apes is clever.  I generally dislike films that rely too much on special effects to compensate for not having a decent script. This film doesn’t have that problem, although there are more ‘action’ scenes – smash, bash, crash, boom – than I usually like in a movie.  Unfortunately, the females get relegated to the roles of grieving parents and caregivers. No female character makes a decisive change to the direction of the plot. All the ‘serious’ roles go to men, far more than in the average Hollywood movie. All that being said it’s a good movie, perhaps very good, but not brilliant.

Note: this is my blog site. For my site about thesis editing services, go to the  RichardSnowEditing site.

Jersey Boys: Okay for the music, but not a strong plot.

Jersey BoysJersey Boys will appeal to those who have a fondness for the music of the late 50s and early 60s, but if you’re looking for a story with a strong conflict  and character development, this isn’t your film. A lot of the plot is a device to let the singers do a song, but – hey- aren’t all musicals? The plot is mostly a mish-mash of personal conflicts and squabbles between the band members over who gets credit for what, and over the financial troubles that Tommy DeVito caused for the group.  The film covers the group from the late fifties to around 1970, with no attempt to ‘age’ the actors’ physical appearance during that era. The passing years are suggested by changes to clothing styles and haircuts. The acting is competent, but the director uses four characters all speaking directly to the camera at different times during the film. This is a hard technique to pull off in a film even for one character, and I found it constantly took me out of being absorbed in the story. In my view, the use of four characters speaking straight to the audience is one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. Personally, I don’t like the falsetto voice registry that almost all Frankie Valli’s songs were done in, but that’s just me. If you’re after a light-hearted bit of musical entrainment to kill a couple of hours, this might be a reasonable choice. I’d give it 3 out of 5.

Note: this is my blog site. For my site about thesis editing services, go to the  RichardSnowEditing site.

How do we deal with loss? Review of ‘The Fault In Our Stars’

The Fault in Our Stars is a well-written, superbly-acted film that deals with some of the big questions in life: how does loving someone with a terminal illness affect our own life and theirs, how do we want to be remembered after our deaths, will we be remembered at all, and does it matter one way or the other?

The Fault in our Stars film poster
The Fault in our Stars film poster

Teenagers Hazel, Gus , and Isaac all have different forms of cancer. Hazel has thyroid cancer that  has migrated to her lungs, making her cart an oxygen bottle everywhere. Gus had cancer resulting in the amputation of a lower leg. Isaac has had one eye removed due to a tumour, and will soon lose the other eye. They all meet at a teen cancer support group. Gus declares that he wants to live an extraordinary life and be remembered after he is dead. Hazel thinks this is grandiose nonsense:

“There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”

A relationship starts to bloom  between Hazel and Gus, but Hazel tries to warn Gus off investing too much emotion in her. She anticipates that her death will be like a hand grenade, damaging everyone around her. They swap favourite books, and Gus finds that Hazel’s is about a kid who dies of cancer, and the bookends in mid-sentence. They contact the author, an American living in Amsterdam, and arrange a trip to Holland to meet him. Instead of answering Hazel’s questions about the end of the book, they discover the author is a nasty drunk who kicks them out of his apartment. (They don’t know it just yet, but the author’s book is based on the death of his own daughter from cancer.)

They return to America, where Hazel’s condition worsens, Gus’s cancer returns, Isaac has lost his other eye, and the three write eulogies in preparations for each other’s funerals. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the film, I won’t reveal who dies first, or in what circumstances.

The notion that loving someone exposes us to hurt is not new. There is an old saying that, “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” The film puts it a little differently. One character says, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world…but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.” After watching the film, I thought about how loss is inevitable. I have two kids in their twenties. Both practice sports that carry a  risk of death. Perhaps I’d be happier if they did basketball or karate or surfing, or some other fairly harmless activity,  but as a parent, I can’t control what my adult kids do. And I can’t spend my life worrying that they might get killed. The possibility of loss is just something we all have to live with. The characters in this film fight over how exactly you face loss. The dialogue is superbly written, and the acting is excellent. If you go to see it, watch the facial expressions of the main characters, and listen carefully to the dialogue. You might want to go see it twice. I did. So, has anybody else seen it, or read the book? What did you think?

Note: this is my blog site. For my site about thesis editing services, go to the  RichardSnowEditing site.

The Butler: preachy propaganda or historical truth?

I saw this film just after taking a course at my local college about the history of the civil rights movement in the US. You can read the demeaning treatment of blacks in segregated facilities, or about lynchings (which often involved much grotesque tortures than just hanging someone), but movies have the power to make intellectual issues hit home emotionally in a way history books can’t.

The Butler posterCecil Gaines was born in the 1920s,and became a butler who served eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Regan. One of his sons dies in Vietnam, while the other joins the Black Panthers. The conflicts between the family members about how Gaines serves the white man, and has to pretend to have no opinions, while one of the sons decides to fight the whites with violence by joining the Black Panthers, must have torn many black families apart.

The film repeatedly comes back to the issue of equal pay. The black staff in the White House were paid 40 percent less than the white staff, and various “progressive” presidents, (including Kennedy) did nothing to change this.

The film is well acted, and the photography is good. Some critics have said it tries to cover so much history that it comes across as a series of postcards. I guess that’s inevitable when you try to capture one person’s reaction to all the major events  of a thirty-year period. There is no time to explore any one event in depth.  A lot of people under the age of 30 would have no (or little) knowledge of some of the events shown (the Freedom Rides, the Vietnam War, the Resignation of Nixon.)

I found the film’s subject matter often depressing, even tho the film attempts to end on an up-beat note, showing the elderly Gaines witnessing the election of the first black president. It’s a well-made film, and may give some non-Americans a bit of a glimpse into race relations and how they have or haven’t changed over recent decades.

The reviews are mixed. some call it “preachy.” Some say it is designed as “Oscar bait.” On Rotten Tomatoes one reviewer writes:

  • Think of it as a Trojan horse. Apparently harmless, it takes key myths about the land of the free and inflicts an impressive amount of damage.

That reviewer obviously thought the myths of the “Land of the Free” were just myths and needed debunking.  Another writes:

  • Manipulative and preachy, The Butler is redeemed by a sensitive performance from Forest Whitaker and the undeniable power of the events it depicts.

It would be hard for a film to deal with the situation of black people in America from the 1920s to the 1980s and not show that some were not as free as others. It’s good film,  but I don’t think I’d see it twice. Did it seem to you like propaganda?  Was it “Oscar bait?” I’d be interested to hear what others thought. Feel free to leave a comment!

‘Gravity’ with Sandra Bullock: In space no one can hear your ship getting smashed up.

Gravity Film Poster
Gravity Film Poster

The film ‘Gravity’, with Sandra Bullock, and George Clooney is a visual masterpiece. Set initially aboard the  space shuttle Explorer, Bullock, Clooney and another astronaut are outside the Hubble telescope  attempting to fix some technical problem, when earth control tells them that a Russian attempt to destroy a defunct satellite has gone wrong, and space debris has been scattered in all directions. The debris soon hits Bullock and Clooney, and the Explorer, killing everyone but them. They have lost communication with earth. Using the booster packs they have on their backs, they get from destroyed craft to the International Space Station, only to find it abandoned. I’m guessing the ISS crew have left due to the space debris problem, but that point didn’t seem one hundred per cent clear from the film.  They then try to get from the ISS to the Russian craft Soyuz, but Clooney becomes entangled in chords, and he has to cut himself loose, sacrificing himself to save Bullock, and leaving Bullock to make it to the Soyuz alone. She has 90 minutes before the space junk completes a full orbit of the earth, and comes back to hit her a second time.

The basic theme of the film is survival during disaster, so the plot resembles the plots of other films and books where people find themselves in earthquakes, forest fires, floods and other natural catastrophes. Bullock is on her first space mission, so she’s a newbie who has to learn and figure out things as she goes along, and because of losing communication with earth, she is thrown onto her own resources.

The photography of the space shuttle and the explorer with earth below it is completely convincing, although I found myself unable to recognise a lot of the bits of earth as views from space. Perhaps my geography isn’t as good as I believed. Large parts of the film take place in silence, since we, as the audience, only hear what the astronauts themselves hear, and collisions of junk in space are, obviously soundless. This adds realism to the film.  A lot of the camera shots are held for a long time, so the film doesn’t suffer from Hollywood’s tendency to give us a new camera angle every two seconds.

I won’t discuss the ending, but I can promise the film is worth the money to see. I intend seeing it a second time before it finishes its run at the local cinema.

So has anybody else seen this film? What did you think? would you pay to see it again?

best wishes – Richard Snow

My novel Fire Damage, an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, here. The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here. A paperback version is available here. It’s also available as a Kindle on Amazon UK .  Blog: http://richardsnowwriter.com  twitter: @Richard_A_Snow

The Internship: good fun, worth seeing

The Internship: funny movie, well worth seeing

Rose Byrne
Rose Byrne

Last night I went to see The Internship, staring Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn and Rose Byrne. It’s a classic “fish out of water” story, where the fish makes good against the odds. Two middle-aged guys who know less about technology than the average seventy-year-old get an internship at Google because they’ve run out of other job prospects. (The process of getting in seems a little like the way Reece Witherspoon got into Harvard in Legally Blond.) They find themselves with a bunch of twenty year old who can program in C++ and half a dozen languages I didn’t recognize. When asked to design an app, they suggest with something that already exists, and which is already known to all the twenty-somethings. Along the way, they have conflicts with another group of interns who are out to spoil their chances. A love interest arrives half way through the film (like all good Hollywood scripts). In this case she’s supposed to be Australian and she actually is. (Too many ‘Australians’ in American movies are British actors who can only do a half-plausible accent.) The film had a lot of good comedy lines, and they play the tech-newbie aspects of the Owen Wilson for all it’s worth. It’s a good film. You’ll probably like it. Take a night off and go.

Zero Dark Thirty: a hard film to review

Zero Dark Thirty is a hard film to review. It deals with an important issue in recent US history. It’s well photographed, the settings are realistic, and some of the details are technically interesting. But most of the characters are not very likable  and there has been a lot of controversy over its depiction of torture.

Zero Dark Thirty movie poster from Wikipedia
Zero Dark Thirty movie poster from Wikipedia

One of the films major flaws is the lack of likable characters. The female lead, Maya (Jessica Chastain), is single-minded and dogmatic. Being obstinate and dogmatic can be a good thing when you’re right, but a bad thing when you’re wrong. Fortunately for her, luck – and some clever guess work – were on her side. But the viewer doesn’t feel a great deal of empathy for her. She appears to have no friends, no contact with any family (if she has one)  and no activities outside of her work.

The most likable character in the film was Maya’s fellow officer Jessica, who was killed as she waited to meet a terrorist who had supposedly agree to work with the US. As the terrorist and his driver arrive, they blow up their car. (This based a on a real incident in  2009 at Camp Chapman.)

The photography is excellent. The film does convey  the sense of isolation the Americans must have felt working in these remote, fortified dust bowls. The settings looks realistic: parts of the film were made in India, with certain buildings altered to make them look as though they were filmed in Pakistan.

The tension builds throughout the film as we are shown the bombings in London  and  Madrid, which give a sense of the pressure the main characters must have felt as they tried to find clues to the next likely terrorist attack against the world.

The film implies that torture helped capture bin Laden. The clam that usable information was actually obtained by torture is disputed by many politicians and intelligence officers. Here’s a section from Wikipedia quoting several senior US officials disagreeing about the usefulness of torture:

“In 2012, after three years investigating the CIA’s interrogation program, several officials, including U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, the chairmen of the Senate Intelligence and the Senate Armed Services Committees, respectively, have said that claims that critical information has been obtained through waterboarding are untrue.  But, Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense, said in February 2013 that critical information was obtained through waterboarding. U.S. Senator John McCain, who was tortured during his time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, said upon watching the film that it left him sick — “because it’s wrong.” In a speech in the Senate, he said that, “Not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information.”

It’s hard to say if the film should have included torture scenes or not. If they had been not shown, the producers would have been accused of “whitewashing history.” As it is, they have been accused of producing a film that justifies torture. The problem with torture is that once you say ‘yes’ to using torture on a known terrorist to get details of a the next possible attack, where do you stop? What about the guy who is a strong suspect? A weak ‘possible’ suspect? A guy who you don’t think is a terrorists but who knows something about people who may be? And if ‘yes’ to terrorists, would you torture a serial killer suspect like Ted Bundy, while he was still only a suspect? And after that, who?

Overall, the film well made, well acted, and has been nominated for several Oscars. If it wins, the controversy about its depiction of torture will flair again. Is it a “must see” film? No. For all the interesting detail about how bin Laden was tracked down, the film remains a technically well-made film about a group of people it’s just hard to like.

So, has anyone seen the film? What did you think?

Hitchcock: impossible to live with, but worth the effort

How do you live with a man who is extremely talented, perhaps a genius, but who is insecure, resentful, often dismisses you, puts you down, is a peeping tom and seems determined to prove that everyone else in his industry  is wrong?

Helen Mirren, from Wikimedia Commons
Helen Mirren, from Wikimedia Commons

In Hitchcock, staring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville, Hitchcock believes the Hollywood film industry want him to make the same kind of film over and over again, so he chooses as his next project Psycho, based on a book about a serial killer (Ed Gein) who kept his dead mother mummified, and killed attractive young women who came to his motel. It was 1959, and Hitchcock proposed showing a woman being stabbed to death in the shower, and evidence being flushed down a toilet. Back then, cinema just didn’t show those things. Everyone is against the project.

These are the twin themes in this film: Hitchcock’s determination to prove the industry wrong, and the effects on Reville of a living with a man who most of us would think was  impossible to live with.

The first theme begins when Hitchcock is asked at the premier of his latest movie, North by North West, whether he is too old to continue making movies and should just retire.  As she hears the question, Reville freezes. We can see how deeply she knows the question will hurt Hitchcock.  Hitchcock sets out to prove everyone wrong, but chooses a project which nobody will fund. When the studios won’t finance the film, Hitchcock mortgages their house and tells Reville that if it doesn’t work out they’ll be eating crow for a long time. In fact, they’ll probably lose their house and may become bankrupt.

The filming is soon behind schedule, and Hitchcock doubts whether the still ‘has it.’  Reville also has doubts, which are implied, but not directly voiced. As the film progresses, Hitchcock’s doubts grow, until he refers to the film as being ‘stillborn.’

The second theme revolves around Hitchcock’s  constant overeating and drinking, his obsessing over actresses that he could probably never attract, his lechery (in front of his wife) and his suspicions of Reville’s relationship with a fellow writer, Whitfield Cook. As Cook and Reville work together on one of Cook’s scripts,  Cook tells Reville that a lot of great men are “impossible to live with, but worth the effort.” Eventually Hitchcock accuses her of having an affair with Cook, at which point Reville gives Hitchcock a blast over the time she spends supporting him, and the little recognition or gratitude she gets for any of it. After they have a reconciliation of sorts, Reville turns her energies into helping Hitchcock “whip Psycho into shape.”  When  Paramount Pictures decides to release the picture in only two cinemas, Hitchcock comes up with an ingenious plan to get the film the publicity it needs. It went on to be regarded as one of his best films.

The acting in this movie is superb – especially that of Helen Mirren as Reville. In many scenes the main emotional impact is conveyed merely by the  expressions on Reville’s face, without the need her to say anything. If Mirren doesn’t get an Oscar for this, I’ll be very very surprised.

This film is well worth the money. If you haven’t seen it, I hope you’ll consider it.

So what did you think of Hitchcock and his films? Do you have a favorite   Could you have lived with a man like that? And did you ever watch the original of psycho? I’d love to hear what you think.

Note: this is my blog site. For information about my novel, click here. For information about editing an academic thesis, click here.

Your TV is spying on you: Big Brother is coming

1984

Here are a few strange things I came across this week.

US company Verizon has applied for a patent  for a device that would allow a TV to monitor people in their living rooms, picking up sounds,  telling whether the occupants  are children or  adults, and whether they are having an argument. If it detected an argument, it might then should an advert for marriage counselling. If it detected the sound of gym equipment being used, it might show ads for fitness equipment or personal trainers.

The device would also be able to recognize the skin tone and guess the race of the person watching the TV. In the novel 1984, the government watched everybody through their telescreens in the name of Big Brother. If we thought Facebook and other computer applications were playing ‘big brother’ when they keep track of which websites we visit, so they can target ads to us, we haven’t seen anything yet.

Ellen DeGeneres told us Bic had a new line of “pens for women.” Seriously? The pens are supposedly designed to fit a ‘female hand,’ whatever that means.  They come in pink and mauve. I wonder who in the company thought this was a good idea. De Generes sends it up with a mock ad which is amusing.

A sixteen-year-old Norwegian kid downloaded an app onto his smart phone that mimicked the sounds made by dying rabbits. (The app was intended for people hunting foxes.) He and a friend thought it would be funny to put the phone in the middle of the road to see what happened. They did. A fox came, sniffed and nipped the phone, then picked it up in its mouth and made off with it. There’s a video here. The kid didn’t get his phone back.

If you stay on the page after the fox video, you can also see a video of an Albino Echidna, ( more or less an Australian hedgehog.) The commentary is in Swedish, but there’s an English explanation here .

Finally, a man  in Australia, was charged with cruelty to an animal (among other things) after he bit a police dog, which bit him back. The man had been arrested for breaching a restraining order, and began kicking the cage in the back of the police van. When police attempted to move him to another vehicle, he kicked and bit a police dog. The dog bit back, and the guy required stiches in his arm.

Does anybody have any strange news items they’ve come across? And how do you feel about  your TV set detecting your race, age gender, based on being able to recognize skin tones and voice types.  Is this going too far?