Nocturnal Animals

Last night I watched Nocturnal Animals, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams. If you haven’t seen it and wish to, you might want to skip this post because SPOILERS FOLLOW.

The film concerns the owner of an art gallery (Adams) who’s made a right hash of her life. Severe Mummy and Daddy issues drove her as a young graduate to marry her childhood friend (Gyllenhaal) who’s a budding author but seems to be hopelessly naive about what that entails. For example, he complains his wife criticises his work, into which he’s poured his heart and soul. Well, wait until it hits the shelves pal, then you’ll know what criticism is. After two years of marriage she bins the author for some hot-shot Adonis she works with. The film takes place 19 years later when the Adonis is cheating on her with a younger, prettier woman and her gallery is failing. Cue lots of shots of her sitting in the dark, alone and weeping. The only thing missing was her securing an order for half a dozen cats down at the local pet shop.

I think the lesson we’re supposed to take away is that you should always follow your heart and stand by your first true love no matter what. The lesson I actually took away was that spoiled brat women in their twenties acting like stroppy teenagers in dealing with their parents are likely to make catastrophic decisions which will leave them alone and miserable later in life. That’s not really the point of this post, though.

Instead I’m going to talk about lazy plot devices. Early on in the film Adam’s character receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, who she’s not seen in decades, and reads it. The film then becomes a story within a story, and we see the tale in the manuscript being played out. The idea is that the author’s new novel is so brilliant that his ex-wife will see she made a mistake in dumping him all those years ago.

The problem is the novel doesn’t seem very good or original. It concerns a man who is run off the road by rednecks (of course) in Texas after which his wife and teenage daughter are raped and murdered. The man survives and seeks revenge. This story has been done a million times already, so I wasn’t persuaded it could induce a change of heart in his ex-wife. What they needed was a really clever story, not a by-the-numbers rape-revenge yarn, but I guess if they came up with one they’d probably just make a film of that rather than use it as a sub-plot in a film about a lonely, ageing woman.

But my main issue is with what this tweet complains about:

I’m not alone in finding rape increasingly being used as a plot device, and not liking it. I’ve complained before about bad guys in movies and TV series being made into cartoons, and the audience battered over the head with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to ensure we’re left in no doubt who is good and who is bad. Making the bad guy a rapist appears to have become the default way of going about it, and I find it lazy. Rape may induce feelings of disgust and hatred, and make for intense scenes the audience won’t forget, but it’s akin to the shots of emaciated African kids with flies around their face you see in TV adverts begging for money – it’s cheap, emotional blackmail. Some years ago my sister noticed the frequency with which rape is used as a plot device when writing for the F-Word:

James Patterson’s 1996 bestseller Kiss the Girls features two male serial killers who keep beautiful, intelligent young women in a basement and sexually abuse, torture and kill them.

Before Patterson there was Dean Koontz, another immensely popular US thriller writer, whose 1986 book Night Chills features a string of graphic rape scenes alongside a female lead character who outsmarts a male military officer at every turn.

In short, male novelists have for decades been selling graphic capture-rape-torture-kill novels by chucking in ‘strong’ female characters for balance, and have even gained plaudits for highlighting violence against women in the process.

The Spectator’s Gary Dexter is in no doubt about the reason for Patterson’s appeal: “Patterson likes rape, torture, mutilation and death. So do his readers. Who doesn’t? It has been estimated that Patterson’s lifetime sales of thrillers have now topped 150 million, and that one in every 15 hardbacks bought in the world in 2007 was a Patterson novel, which means that we must all like rape, torture, mutilation and death, perhaps with extra rape on the side, and then some child rape, child torture, child mutilation and child death, then some more rape, more death and more rape, and finally some rape, death, rape and death.”

Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth was another bestseller which had the bad guy raping women with such frequency I’d roll my eyes wondering why the editor didn’t point out he’d used this scene already.

It may be necessary to include a rape scene in a film or novel – The Accused would hardly work without it, nor would I Spit on Your Grave – but in most cases it is necessary only because the writer lacks the skill or imagination to come up with anything else. You might forgive the writers of Game of Thrones frequently throwing in rape scenes because that particular series relies heavily on torture-porn, but others don’t have that excuse.

Prompted by a friend, I recently watched the pilot of the TV series The Americans. Sure enough, the female lead gets raped by her superior in a flashback, just to make sure the audience knows that this guy is evil and deserves everything that’s coming to him. The fact that his raping her is absolutely ludicrous both in terms of historical accuracy and the plot doesn’t seem to matter: the important thing is we get to see a woman being raped, thus ensuring we all talk about how serious, edgy, and thought-provoking the series is. For me, it simply showed the writers are so lacking imagination the script might as well have been created by a piece of software.

Nocturnal Animals wasn’t a bad film, and I liked the ending, but lazy writing using rape-revenge as a plot device let it down badly. I look forward to the day when authors and scriptwriters quit doing it. It’s probably one of the few subjects on which I agree with the feminists.

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Gone with the Wind

It was only a matter of time:

‘Gone With The Wind’ has been pulled from a Memphis theater after patrons complained the 1939 Civil War classic is racially insensitive.

Okay, this is only one theatre and it is in Memphis, so perhaps the film won’t be subject to a nationwide ban just yet. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see the book being noisily removed from syllabuses and libraries across the US before too long. It is not just that the main characters are pro-slavery, it’s that they are not anti-slavery. Were the book written today it would never have been published, and nor would any story about the Civil War that wasn’t a lengthy harangue about the evils of slavery. I fear it’s going to be a subject that will soon be impossible to discuss sensibly, at least in public.

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Stories, History, and Takeshi Kovacs

This piece on the original Star Wars contains an interesting snippet:

When it was released, it wasn’t labelled Episode IV – that tag was added for the 1981 reissue – but it did give the impression that its story was already well underway. Nodding to the Saturday morning science-fiction serials that inspired him, Lucas included a so-called “opening crawl” of introductory text which explained what went on in the previous notional episodes: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.” And from then on the film maintains the mischievous illusion that, if we’d come to the cinema a week earlier, we might have seen those Rebel spaceships striking from that hidden base. We hear that Obi-Wan Kenobi served Princess Leia’s father in something called the Clone Wars, that Darth Vader was Obi-Wan’s pupil, and that Han Solo has fallen out with a gangster named Jabba the Hutt. There are references to an “ancient religion” and an “Imperial Senate”. And, of course, there is the declaration that all of this happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. These allusions heighten the wondrous sense that the adventure we’re watching, as amazing as it is, is just one of the many which have taken place in this particular far, far away galaxy.

Providing a deep sense of history to a story can make all the difference, and this is something JRR Tolkien obviously knew. There are scenes in The Lord of the Rings where characters come across colossal statues of long-dead kings who ruled over empires which vanished eons before. Throughout the book there remains an enormous weight of history, much of it only hinted at or – like real history – incomplete, with the connection between the past and present not fully understood or explained.

Star Wars doesn’t quite do that, but it achieves the same effect of making the audience believe that the action on the screen is part of a much larger storyline that has been running for centuries. This makes the audience invest more in the outcome than if it were taking place in isolation, as so many films are.

However, referring to previous events carries a certain risk:

…tantalising cases which are mentioned but not described in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books (“The politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant”; “Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife”). We know that the texts being cited aren’t real, but it’s intoxicating to imagine that they were.

I haven’t read the stories in question, but I am reminded of the smart-arses who produce the Cinema Sins series when they covered Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (3:07 and 16:13):

Indy makes a casual reference to an adventure that would easily have made a better movie than this one.

This was precisely my thought when I read Broken Angels Richard Morgan’s second Takeshi Kovacs novel. Readers may recall that I thought the first novel, Altered Carbon, was superb and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Alas, the follow-up doesn’t even come close.

It started well, with Kovacs recovering on a hospital ship orbiting over a planet ravaged by a war between government-hired mercenaries (of which he is one) and a brutal revolutionary. After reading Altered Carbon I was hoping the sequels would focus on military campaigns, similar to what Heinlein did so well with Starship Troopers, and when Broken Angels opened in the middle of a war I thought that’s what we’d get. But instead we end up going on an archaeological dig which takes far too long and when they find what they’re looking for Morgan’s storytelling – and even his descriptions – go rapidly downhill. In the middle of it all the hero decides to tell us about adventures past:

Envoy conditioning gives you a handle on most kinds of fear, but you’re still aware of what scares you because you feel the weight of the conditioning coming online. I’ve felt that weight every single time. In high orbit over Loyko during the Pilots’ Revolt, deploying with Randall’s vacuum commandos around Adoracion’s outer moon, and once, in the depths of interstellar space, playing a murderous game of tag with members of the Real Estate Crew around the hull of the hijacked colony barge Mivtsemdi, falling endlessly along her trajectory, light years from the nearest sun. The Mivtsemdi firefight was the worst. It still gives me the occasional nightmare.

At which point I dearly wished I could read about these rather than the convoluted tale I was wading through at the time.

There were some good moments: Takeshi Kovacs is still an awesome character, even if he engages in far too much white-knighting over a woman he doesn’t know and who hasn’t done anything to earn his obsessions. The technological aspects are good too, and most of these are retained from Altered Carbon. And there are a few scenes which stand out, not least their first encounter with one of the feared Corporations which are bankrolling the war.

It would be unfair to say that the Corporations are depicted in cartoonish fashion in Broken Angels, but the overall message is clear: corporations and governments are bad, m’kay. By the end I had gotten a little fed up of the moralistic posturing of Kovacs who has carried the worst elements of his character over from the first novel along with the best. When he fights the main villain at the end, I’m not even sure what his beef is: he sounds like a confused teenager.

But all is explained at the end when we get this note from the author:

This is a work of science fiction, but many of the books that influenced it are not. In particular, I’d like to express my deepest respect … to John Pilger for Heroes, Distant Voices and Hidden Agendas, which together provide an untiring and brutally honest indictment of the inhumanities perpetrated around the globe by those who claim to be our leaders. These writers did not invent their subject matter as I did, because they did not need to. They have seen and experienced it for themselves at first hand, and we should be listening to them.

If you’re using John Pilger’s writings as the basis for a story, it’s not going to be very good.

Nevertheless I stuck it out for the third Takeshi Kovacs novel, Woken Furies. Like the second one it started well, and then got very good as Kovacs found himself attached to a bad-ass group of mercenaries who make their living decommissioning rogue war machines out in a wasteland somewhere. I was just looking forward to another few hundred pages of these adventures when the lead female tech takes a funny turn along with the plot and Kovacs goes white-knighting for the rest of the book. Once again there are some good scenes but the story is all over the place and by the time the ending came I didn’t really care about any of it.

Richard Morgan has created a very good central character built around intriguing technology, but in attempt to make him more complex he’s added shallow traits which seem bolted on. I think he’d have been better off making Kovacs extremely one-dimensional and making everyone else more complex. This can work with bad-ass characters: look at Judge Dredd, for example. I think Morgan is a good sci-fi writer and can write some very good scenes, but his storytelling is poor. Altered Carbon was a sound enough story, but its real pull was the atmospheric descriptions and the central character. He didn’t come close to recreating the atmosphere in the follow-up novels and Kovacs alone was not enough to carry very weak and badly-paced storylines. I still enjoyed them, but I can’t help thinking that Kovacs, once established in Altered Carbon, would have been better off in the hands of a different author.

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Dialogue

In my opinion there are two things which make a good film: a good story and good dialogue.  Preferably there will be both, but one will suffice.  Good acting helps too, but even the best actor can’t save an awful script.  I like films a lot and I’ve watched plenty, and sometimes I’ve watched the same film a dozen times.  One thing I have noticed about modern films is how awful the dialogue is compared to previous eras.  I don’t know if technology can now capture the attention of audiences such that compelling dialogue is no longer required, but it is rare I watch a film these days and think the dialogue is any good.

This isn’t true of films from a different era.  The other night I switched on the TV and found myself twenty minutes into The Maltese Falcon (1941) which I have seen many times.  I kept watching because no matter how often I hear the dialogue between Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade and the other characters I never get tired of it.  My favourite scene is this one:

Note the abrupt change in tone and manner when he addresses the stenographer.  This is what makes the scene for me: Spade’s beef is with the district attorney, whereas the stenographer is merely a guy doing his job, and he acknowledges that.  Of course he’s also being a complete smartarse, and his aside to the stenographer is done at the expense of the district attorney.  Note also the speed at which Bogart delivers his lines.  I doubt there is a A-list actor today who could handle that scene, which may be why they don’t even bother trying any more.

I should add that we have Dashiell Hammett to thank for both the story and the dialogue in The Maltese Falcon, both of which were virtually unchanged in the transfer from book to film.  I am trying to write a book (and making steady progress) and one of the things I am putting the most effort into is the dialogue.  Without good dialogue, I’m not even sure it would be worth writing.

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Luvvie Lovers Upset

The blogroll in my sidebar links to two blogs which specialise in films, and I have found both of them useful sources when looking for obscure films which pass under the radar but I nevertheless might like.  But being arsty-types, the proprietors aren’t half precious snowflakes.

Firstly, Mostly Film:

IF, in this Year Of Our Lord 2016 you think…segment after segment after segment on the living, breathing bowl-of-dicks now a month away from owning the nuclear codes aren’t topics for a late-night comedy show, then fuck you; you weren’t going to like it anyway.

Besides, when I called out this show for praise last year, there wasn’t a bona-fide narcopathic lunatic in the White House. When Last Week Tonight returns in February, god knows there’s going to be.

Satire pretty much never changes anything, sadly, and satire certainly didn’t stop Donald Trump being elected President. But if America’s shatteringly thin-skinned President-Elect is on (lying) record as being shatteringly thin-skinned about one particular piece of satire, then as far as I’m concerned, that particular piece of satire needs to keep doing what it’s been doing, only massively more so. Staying angry is the only response. That was this year’s finale’s message – don’t put up with this. You don’t have to put up with this.

Because if there’s one person in the world who doesn’t remotely care about deeply unsexy and boring institutional injustices that invisibly ruin the lives of the disadvantaged every single day, it’s that motherfucker.

Bless.  But wait, there’s more:

It’s a thoroughly satisfying film, although in a post-Trump world, it plays far more as an anger-inducing polemic than might otherwise have been the case. The tiny gains these women fought so hard for in terms of opportunity, respect and dignity, overthrown in a two-year campaign by a tiny-handed megalomaniac and his shit-for-brains supporters.

And more:

Hello to you all from Europe’s Best Website. Usually we take this slight breather to indulge in a bit of frivolity – a joke here, a quip there, a look at what we’ve come up with, and a glance at the upcoming treats the world has in store for our eyes and our brains.

This week, however – who gives the tiniest fuck about all that? When the world youactually live in takes a gigantic step towards a global fascist dystopia by handing the reins of power to the human equivalent of a massive bag of flaming dogshit, well, being snarky about upcoming movie trailers seems slightly beside the point. The caveat to that being if there was a film out there featuring a racist, woman-hating President-Elect being relentlessly bludgeoned to death by a crack team of angry gorillas – we’d definitely link to that. But there isn’t, so we can’t.

Next is Film Babble Blog:

In the age of Trump (man, I hated typing that), a story about fighting racism is as timely as can be, but this film teaches a lesson that would be just as important for people to learn and appreciate even if our country had elected the more qualified candidate.

As the saying goes, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Right now, when it sure looks like we are doomed, it’s more crucial than ever that we look back at the times that we as the people of this great, but greatly flawed country actually got something right.

And again:

A blast of a spectacular yet intimate feeling big-screen musical is exactly what we need right now as there’s a strong sense that there’s bleakness on the horizon.

And again:

This film also stirs up emotions about dealing with the difficult transition involving power changing hands next month. The Obama administration was as close to Kennedy’s Camelot as I fear we’re going get again in my lifetime. Such a movie as this is a must see in these scary times as it reminds us that America has gotten through dark times before and will again. This movie makes me want to believe that, despite the scariness of what’s on the rapidly approaching horizon, Camelot lives!

There are few things more off-putting on a blog which adequately deals with a particular specialist subject when the authors start to shoehorn in their political views. It’s fair enough if it is a political blog, but when you go to a site which advertises itself as being about films in order to read about films and you find crap like this…well, at least write something that doesn’t read like a transcript taken from a high-school debating class made up of particularly wet pupils.

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Brad’s Pit

Speaking of Brad Pitt, there is an actor who cut his own career off at the knees by choosing to play himself halfway through.  Granted, in one sense is career has been doing just fine and he’s an A-lister landing the best roles, but nobody is going to look back in twenty or thirty years and say he was one of Hollywood’s greats.

Which is a shame because back around the time I was in university (1996-2000) I thought he was shaping up to be a decent actor.  I first noted him when he played a murderous redneck alongside David Duchovny and Juliette Lewis in Kalifornia (1993).  Lewis stole the show as a seriously retarded and sexually active teenager whom Pitt’s character exploits, but nevertheless I thought he put in a convincing performance which showed he wasn’t just going to play the pretty-boy roles people wanted him to (e.g. Thelma and Louise, A River Runs Through It).  He showed up in a minor but memorable role in True Romance (1993), a film with more memorable roles than you can remember, as pot-head Floyd who my schoolmates at the time thought was a character to aspire to.  For some reason I missed out on seeing Interview with the Vampire (1994) but found him convincing as the young detective in Se7en (1995), one of the most highly-rated films of that era.  Next came Twelve Monkeys (1995) in which he played an ideologically-driven nutcase, which showed he was interested in complex roles that weren’t written just to make him look pretty.  Sleepers (1996) was a good film but not because of Pitt’s performance, although he was made to look like Orson Welles by the film’s lead (whose name I forgot).

Then came Fight Club (1999) which all the pot-heads in university loved and everyone still raves about it.  Me, I thought it was overrated at the time and not that clever, and recent viewings have done nothing to convince me I was wrong the first time around.  Whereas I thought Ed Norton did a great job, it took a friend of mine to point out what I found wrong with Brad Pitt in that film: he was playing himself.  Whereas everyone says how great the character of Tyler Durden is (and you have to credit the scriptwriters for coming up with it), Pitt’s portrayal consisted mainly of standing around in a buff body looking cool and relaxed while shooting off pithy one-liners (or two-liners in the case of the film’s most famous quote).  It was hardly a difficult role to pull off, at least compared to Norton’s.  But I overlooked this when I saw him in Snatch (2000) which I absolutely loved, and particularly for Pitt’s portrayal of gypsy boxing champion Mickey.  I grew up in West Wales where there is no shortage of “pikeys”, and some exaggerations aside, the characters could have been pulled from a documentary and Pitt’s accent was right on the money.

However, it appeared to all go downhill from there, and I think Ocean’s Eleven (2001) was where it started.  For whatever reason, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and (to a lesser extent) Matt Damon decided they were going to make a film in which they play themselves: suave gents standing around in nice suits shooting off witty remarks at each other.  Pitt’s character is eating in most shots, something he apparently suggested because it would be funny.  Although not a bad movie, it is mostly a vehicle for the leading actors to mince about on a screen looking and sounding cool, and that’s rarely a good reason to make a film.  It’s fine for an actor to look and sound cool in a film, but that should not be the primary purpose of the picture.

Unfortunately, his next feature film was Troy (2004), which was probably his worst.  If in Ocean’s Eleven he looked as though he wasn’t acting, in Troy he looked as though he couldn’t even if he wanted to.  He followed this up with Ocean’s Twelve (2004) to which my comments from Ocean’s Eleven apply, then Mr & Mrs Smith (2005) which wasn’t a bad film but it was hardly a defining role.  So since Snatch in 2000 it’s largely been crap.  I wasn’t convinced by his performance in Inglourious Basterds (2009) despite being handed a half-decent character and script to work with, and everything else I’ve seen him in has failed to impress.  With him now being 53, it’s hard to see him doing anything which will make him a Hollywood legend in what remains of his career.  I expect he’ll end up a bit like his pal George Clooney, starring in films such as The American (2010) which get made seemingly only to demonstrate that the lead is still a Casanova who can bang hot, young chicks.

One could contrast Brad Pitt’s career with that of Leonardo DiCaprio, who around the time of Pitt’s peak was filling pretty-boy roles in Titanic (1997) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1998).  I’d written DiCaprio off as a serious actor until he surprised me in The Aviator (2004), followed up by mature performances in good films such as The Departed (2006), Blood Diamond (2006), Body of Lies (2008), Shutter Island (2010), and Inception (2010) to make him what is probably Hollywood’s top-billing male star.  DiCaprio is only 42 and already has a solid stable of decent films and varied performances under his belt, and has avoided the temptation thus far to play himself in fun-to-make films.  I wouldn’t say I thought The Revenant (2015) was a great film (although the cinematography was wonderful) and I didn’t think DiCaprio’s performance was brilliant.  But he tried something challenging and gave it a damned good go, and you could see the effort he put in.  If he keeps this up for another 30 years he will most likely become known as the best actor of his generation.

Brad Pitt, on the other hand, will probably be known as the fool who dumped Jennifer Aniston for that whats-‘er-name nutcase.

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Brad Splitt and Angelina Lonely

So Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are going to split up.  Frankly, I’m amazed they’ve lasted this long together.  I always thought she was a complete weirdo, wearing vials of blood around her neck and getting weird tattoos, collecting a flock of multi-coloured foreign children, and having been through two husbands already.  Sure, she was cute enough when she was in her late teens but she quickly became, in my opinion, one of those actresses who they shove onto the screen in the knowledge that everyone will marvel at how beautiful she is rather than notice she can’t act for shit.  Which is great, only if you think – as I do – that she looks more weird than pretty then you’re left wondering how she ever got through an audition.

She’s recently turned her hand to directing, something which I am sure causes Hollywood’s established directors to snigger at behind closed doors.  I couldn’t manage to get through more than the first half hour of Unbroken, saccharine-laced guff that it was, and By the Sea sounds like just the sort of self-indulgent shite you’d expect from her: it currently enjoys an IMDB rating of 5.3.

My opinion at the time was that Brad Pitt fucked up royally when he left Jennifer Aniston, who I’ve always thought was adorable.  I’m not sure if Aniston would have made a great wife, but she is one hell of a lot less weird than Jolie and appears to be ageing a lot better too.  She must be having a chuckle to herself now.

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Female Role Models and Women in Films

The good folk over at Mostly Film have asked the questionPositive Role Models: Where are the Women in Film?

This question interests me on two levels.  The first is that I don’t think there are many positive role models for young women anywhere, let alone in films.  I have a habit of asking women who they would consider to be role models for young women and teenagers just to see if they have any more clue than me.  The last person I asked was my ex-pal Angela who was, as I’ve said before, a fully paid-up feminist.  Her first response was along the lines of historical figures, all worthy women: Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and one or two others long dead who I didn’t know.  But when I asked her to name some that are still alive she faltered.  Michelle Obama: successful only in the sense of whom she married.  Elizabeth Warren: best known for having invented a Native American ancestry in order to get into Harvard Law School under an assisted places program.  And that was about it.  Being mischievous, I asked why Condoleeza Rice wasn’t considered.  She said she didn’t know, but I did: she was a Republican, and that would never do.  The same goes for Margaret Thatcher.

In fairness to Angela, she wasn’t the only one to struggle with this question.  A lot of women (including her) don’t follow sports closely enough to know the female sports stars, such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, who could easily qualify.  Most women when pressed propose Beyoncé, at which point I show them this:

Uh-huh.  Just what you’d want your teenage daughter aspiring to.

It’s a difficult question, one that’s a lot easier to answer for boys mainly because most of them are into sports of some sort (as to why boys generally like watching sport whereas girls generally don’t is a question I’d like to have put to Angela; no doubt the answer would have included the term “social conditioning”).  When I was growing up most boys were into football or rugby, so they had the likes of Ryan Giggs and Jeremy Guscott to hang on their walls.  Failing that, there was cricket or motorsports.  Of course we looked up to rock stars too, but the good thing about having sportsmen as role models is they are (usually) in good physical shape and are famous for mastering a discipline rather than doing something outrageous.  I believe girls and young women have a much tougher time finding a decent role model, for the simple reason there are a lot fewer about.

So it’s not surprising that it is difficult to find decent female role models in films, as this is merely part of a wider issue.  But it is also part of a second wider issue: there are not many decent female role models in films because there are so few decent female roles of any kind in modern films.  The reason for this, in my opinion, is mainly due to the dumbing down of all film roles, be they male or female.

In an age where studio executives refuse to take a risk and audiences apparently need to be spoon-fed every scene, film characters have become increasingly one-dimensional to the point that they might as well walk around with labels on saying “Goody” and “Baddy”.  Every “good” character has to have at least one scene early on showing us how noble and righteous he is (usually by kissing his wife and kids, or reading them a bedtime story) followed by one showing him wearing a pained expression during a moral dilemma (Tom Hanks’ recent output has taken this to nauseating levels); every “bad” character must be shown murdering somebody in a gruesome fashion or at least kicking a dog; and each character’s appearance must distinguish which side they’re on as effectively as a football strip (the turncoat in The Matrix was the one character with a huge scar down his face: he was never going to be anything else).  Ambiguity in a character is seriously frowned upon these days, presumably because there is a danger the audience might get confused.

It wasn’t always thus.  I recently watched Hud (1963) in which Paul Newman was cast as an arrogant, violent, irresponsible ranch-hand but somehow the audience ended up viewing him as the hero, much to the surprise of the actor himself.  This was in no small part due to a slick script and some very good acting on the part of Newman and the supporting actors, but it shows that once upon a time a character could be cast with the director unsure of how the audience would receive them.  I noted early on in the film that no modern production would feature a character like Hud, let alone in the leading role.  I also doubt that any modern actor could pull off a role like that.

Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939) is another example of a man cast with dubious morals, played superbly by Clark Gable.  It’s highly unlikely such a film would even get made today without turning into an anti-slavery harangue, and a character like Rhett Butler – who not only fights for the Confederacy but is a shameless womaniser and a blockade-runner to boot – would be sanitised into fighting for the other side as a minimum.

A third example is Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), where he is as close as the story gets to having a hero yet thinks nothing of shagging his partner’s wife and doesn’t care one jot when said partner gets murdered, not to mention his misogynistic behaviour and slapping women around occasionally.  Could you see a modern detective being cast like this?  Not a chance, he’s too morally ambiguous.  In fact, all the characters in The Maltese Falcon are morally ambiguous, there’s not a single one I can recall that is particularly nice.

Now I mention these three films not just to illustrate complex and questionable characters played by men, but also because of their female leads.  In Hud, the part of Alma Brown is superbly played by Patricia Neal (Roald Dahl’s wife, as I later found out).  Her character is neither one of heroine or villain, she is simply what passes for an ordinary woman caught up in the mess that Hud makes around her.  But that doesn’t mean the character is uninteresting, by contrast she is as intriguing as the male lead with her own set of virtues and flaws, particularly her failed marriage which forces her to work as a housekeeper living in a small annex of the main ranch house.  Even though she is unquestionably a “good” person in the narrative, she ends up worse off than at the beginning through no fault of her own.  Very few, if any, of these elements would make it into a modern female film character, and they would be all the more dull because of it.  Neal’s character is so interesting because she has flaws and is ambiguous (e.g. complimenting Hud on his looks even after he tried to drunkenly rape her) – just like people are in real life.  Funny, that.

Rarely has a female character been better scripted than that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, for which we can thank Margaret Mitchell.  I read the book when I lived in Nigeria, and was rather surprised to find the character an absolute bitch: she married her first husband in a fit of pique, the second one for money and security and spite, and the third (Rhett) while still pining after bloody Ashley to the point she ends up on her own and doesn’t seem to give a shit.  There is a line in the book where somebody (it might be Rhett) points out that O’Hara didn’t even bother to ask after her second husband upon hearing news that the group he was in had been attacked and some of them killed (including him, as it turns out).  But she’s a fascinating character because despite all of this she is incredibly strong and resourceful and you are always under the impression she is being forced by circumstances into taking certain actions and her heart generally lies in the right place.   What modern film would have a heroine like this?  Or modern book, for that matter?

I am sure modern actresses would kill to have had the opportunity of Vivien Leigh to play a character of such complexity as Scarlett O’Hara.  But as with the men, these characters simply don’t exist as the leads in a modern film, and the best one can hope for is a small supporting role usually as some sort of eccentric.  A female lead these days needs to be one of the following:

1. An innocent victim of some more powerful force (such as a violent husband, or asshole boss) who she eventually overcomes through perseverance and/or being much cleverer than her adversary. (A Goody)

2. A ripped, kick-ass chick straight out of comic-book fantasy who beats up Samoan extras and can throw knives through chipboard.  (Can be a Goody or a Baddy)

3. A sassy, independent, fuck-you-in-your-face, policewoman, soldier, politician, or CEO.  (A Goody)

4. A woman who saves her husband/boyfriend from his own stupidity. (A Goody)

What’s a girl to do if she wants to play Scarlett O’Hara or Alma Brown these days?  Little wonder there are few inspiring female role models in films if each character has been sanitised or exaggerated beyond all recognition of what it is to be human.

While male actors have also seen their available characters stripped down to almost cartoon levels, at least they still have one avenue of opportunity open to those who want a more interesting role: the chief villain.  It’s common to hear actors say they prefer playing villains because the characters are more interesting, and this makes sense: you can take more risks with a character that meets a sticky end (see Leonardo DiCaprio’s repulsive slaver in Django Unchained).

But what villainous roles are open to women these days?  Other than the tank-girl sidekick I mentioned at No. 2 in my list above, they don’t really have much option on that score, either.  Which is a shame, because women have starred splendidly as the villain in the past.  The character of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon is a great example, being fiendishly manipulative and greedy throughout and winding up being carted off to the gallows for her treachery, and played flawlessly by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  More recently is Nicole Kidman’s superb performance as the evil weather girl in To Die For (1995), which I showed to Angela partly to demonstrate my belief that feminist-driven political correctness has over the past decade or two killed off the best roles for women in films.

The one exception I can think of is Rosamund Pike’s character of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (2014).  That was one of the most intriguing (and disturbing) female characters I’ve seen portrayed in a long time – which is presumably why the film did so well and Pike’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination.  Women deserve better roles in films and scriptwriters should stop pandering to the grievance industry and start creating complex, morally ambiguous, flawed, and sometimes nasty female characters which are also human and therefore believable.  Maybe then we’ll see a role model or two emerge.

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Thoughts on Spectre

On Sunday I went to see Spectre, the most recent James Bond and the fourth starring Daniel Craig.  I didn’t expect much, not after having been rather disappointed with Skyfall, and sure enough I thought it was pretty ordinary.

My main gripe is that the story was too damned complicated (spoilers follow).  The actors lurch from place to place on the flimsiest of pretexts, with each new location serving to raise more questions rather than advancing the plot.  We start off in Mexico, then go to London, then to Rome.  We do all this because after her death M (the Judy Dench version) had left a message for Bond telling him to kill an Italian in Mexico and then attend his funeral in Rome.  Now M died at the end of Skyfall in Bond’s childhood home in Scotland, to which they’d driven together from London.  She didn’t go there to die, so she must have recorded the message before their journey.  Rather than just mentioning it in over breakfast at the Little Chef on the A1 outside Darlington.  In fact, the whole premise of Bond going to Mexico on a rogue mission is completely unnecessary: Bond “going rogue” has been done multiple times already, and twice by Daniel Craig himself, so they’re not doing anything original.  It only serves to ask why M didn’t tell Bond about this startling new threat when she was still alive, and why she didn’t handle it in her official capacity as M.  We’re never told the answer.

But never mind that, we’re already in Rome and Bond is banging the widow of the bloke he offed in Mexico before the funeral music has died away.  Through her he finds out about a secret meeting taking place that very night in Rome between the members of a shadowy cabal which wants to hold the world in its iron grasp, or something.  We’re never quite sure what motivates these people (other than their leader) but it is implied they want to control the world’s information, and presumably make money.  But judging by the fleet of Ferraris parked up outside this meeting, they have plenty of that already.  Once again, Bond villains are motivated to spend tens of millions in order to…make money?  I’ve never been convinced that world domination offers itself up as a better alternative to fatten the wallets of those who are already multi-millionaires than investing in pork belly futures.  Jeez, even the cabal’s hired muscle drives a super-Jag.  What’s he still in it for, the final salary pension?

Anyway, this meeting is taking place because the person dispatched by Bond in Mexico was the cabal’s assassin, and they need to select a new one.  Apparently this requires the entire membership to assemble on the evening of his funeral, leaving standing room only.  Why this must be we don’t find out, because the new assassin selects himself by striding out of a back room and murdering one of his pals.  A democratic selection process there was not.  Oh, and this took place in Rome because the previous assassin just so happened to be Italian.  Either that or it’s purely a coincidence and…oh, look over there, a car chase!

Back in London, Bond finds out that a cryptic name he heard at the meeting refers to a bloke in Austria so grab your passports, we’re off again!  In some lodge in the middle of nowhere Bond catches up with a man who we saw in Casino Royale and then (so I thought) was shot and killed in the early stages of Quantum of Solace.  But I was wrong, and we learn he is alive and well dying of radiation poisoning, dealt out by the leader of this shadowy cabal we saw meeting in Rome, which we learn is SPECTRE.  SPECTRE had this chap – Mr White – poisoned because he went against their leader.  Mr White explains he was fine with the guns and drugs but not with what they were doing with “children”.  We’re never told what this refers to because the rest of the film presents SPECTRE’s main mission as controlling information, and their leader later confirms as much.  But potential plot devices upon which we must concentrate are being thrown out by the shovelful,  leaving us with no time to wonder whether the mysterious leader of SPECTRE is in fact Jimmy Saville.  Mr White has a daughter, who happens to be young, fit, and French.  I tried to figure out why she was French but couldn’t come up with anything more plausible than the actress chosen to play her was French.  Mr White fears for her life and is reluctant to divulge her whereabouts to Bond, but in return for 007 promising to keep her safe he reveals that she is working in a clinic sitting atop a mountain in Austria, and that he should ask her about L’Americain.  At this point the audience is led to believe this refers to a person, but in fact we later find L’Americain is a hotel in Tangiers with a hidden room behind the honeymoon suite set up by Mr White.  So why did Bond need to see the daughter to find this out?  Mr White could have simply told him not only the existence of this hidden room, but also the information therein – the location of SPECTRE’s hideout in the North African desert.  Yet instead, he puts his daughter’s life in considerable danger by using her as a conduit through which to transmit information which he could have passed to Bond directly.  And then he blew his own head off.

In writing this it occurs to me that the only reason Mr White tells Bond to go and see his daughter is because the scriptwriters somehow needed to shoehorn a fit, young French girl into the plot.  Looking at it this way, her actual contribution to the story as it panned out was minimal.  But the script does give us the opportunity to witness a thrilling car chase through the Austrian Alps, and then to visit Tangiers, whereupon Bond and his new bird board a pretty bog-standard African train which nevertheless features a dining car in which people eat their meals wearing tuxedos and ball gowns.  Look, I know Daniel Craig looks good in a suit, and suits look good on him, and the French chick looks good in anything (or, I suspect, nothing) but having the two of them turn up in the dining car dressed like this was preposterous.  Obviously the script called for the two to be dressed up in evening attire somewhere, and somebody thought if the plot doesn’t really allow it then let’s just shove it in anywhere.

During the dinner, SPECTRE’s assassin shows up and wrecks half the train, before inevitably dying at the hands of Bond with a little help from mademoiselle.  Now, bear in mind that when his predecessor died the entire membership of SPECTRE had to assemble in Rome in order that a replacement be picked (or rather observed murdering one of their number).  But this time?  Well, we meet half of SPECTRE the next morning and they don’t even mention it, let alone jet off to whichever city the great brute’s funeral is being held in.

Then we find that SPECTRE exists partly to control all the world’s information and partly to piss off Bond because when he was a kid he was orphaned and another family took care of him and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…sorry, where was I?  I nodded off there.  Is the Bond film still on?  Or is this a remake of Party of Five?  I think the latter, because Bond is still pining over Vesper Lynd who died 3 (three!) films ago.  Jesus, either make her death a major plot point driving Bond’s murderous desire for revenge, or have him actually move on after he’s shagged his way through a platoon of seriously fit replacements in the intervening films.  One or t’other, please!

Apparently Spectre employed no less than four scriptwriters, all working at the same time.  And it shows.  What’s that proverb about too many cooks?  That’s a major criticism I have with a lot of modern films: the plots are overly complicated, as if they are trying way too hard.  A good story does not need to be complicated, and some of the best are brutally simple.  A good film doesn’t need half a dozen false leads, red herrings, twists, and potential plot devices blasted at the audience in every other scene.  If you’re going to take up the challenge of a complicated plot, it needs to be as tightly structured as The Usual Suspects or L.A. Confidential to work, otherwise the result looks like a high-school kid trying his hand at writing his first novel.  The plot of Spectre looks as amateurish as hell, with so many plot holes and inconsistencies that I’m wondering whether its complexity was a deliberate attempt to distract the audience from its shortcomings.  But I think I’ll go with my less conspiratorial opinion that the modern plot serves merely as an excuse to flit from one set-piece to another in rapid succession in order to serve up nice cinematography.

By far the best film I’ve seen recently was Mad Max: Fury Road.  It wasn’t just the stuntwork, action, and visuals that pleased me but the conspicuous lack of storyline.  Perhaps knowing his audience well, the director chose a plot with just about enough backstory and exposition to provide an excuse for the convoy to go from one point to another, turn around, and come back the way they came.  If you’re going to rely on the action to carry the film, then it is best to keep the plot as simple as possible.  If you’re going to rely on the plot to carry the film, then you’ll need to start with a decent story, and that probably means taking one that has already been written.  The films adaptations of books sometimes don’t work, but when they do it is often because the screenwriters are working with solid source material.  Spectre didn’t do either of these, and we had entertaining albeit sometimes cartoonish action mashed together in almost three hours of torturous, nonsensical plot.

There was still plenty of life in James Bond when they rebooted the franchise with Casino Royale.  Nine years later, Spectre must surely have killed it off completely.

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