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What Steve said...
...being a potpourri of musings, ideas, opinions and conjecture.

On Straight Outta Compton, and a whitewashing

August 31st, 2015

NWA were, if Straight Outta Compton is any indication, a three-piece outfit. The film, then, is clearly not the most reliable of witnesses.

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton tells the story of NWA’s dramatic rise to fame with the release of their first album, from which the film takes its title, in 1988. It focuses — not entirely surprisingly; Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are credited as producers — on Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E, largely glossing over MC Ren’s, DJ Yella’s, Arabian Prince’s and The D.O.C.’s contributions to the band. And, given the inevitably hagiographic tone, the story itself is disappointingly lifeless — Eazy E is befriended by record distributor Jerry Heller, Straight Outta Compton is recorded and becomes astonishingly successful, fame ensues and then it all goes pear-shaped.

The story is, of course, well known, so this isn’t so much an exercise in narrating the dramatic ascent of an important band. Instead, it serves, it would seem, to rehabilitate the reputations of its three leads. Ice Cube, played here by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr, is an innocent schoolboy who’s swept along into something much bigger than him; Dr. Dre is a musical genius behind the production of NWA’s output. Eazy E’s drug dealing is addressed head-on, an easier task given that Eric Lynn Wright died of AIDS in 1995, but Dr. Dre’s well-documented violence against women is entirely avoided.

While failing as a piece of history, revealing as it does little about the genesis of NWA and serving largely to remind us what heroes its members were and what utter shits the likes of Heller and Suge Knight, Dr. Dre’s colloborator in the establishment of Death Row Records, were, Straight Outta Compton isn’t an entirely bad watch. Paul Giamatti is, as ever, superb, portraying the slime and sleaze of a man who clearly had his own interests closest to his heart. Corey Hawkins, of the three leads the most experienced actor, plays Dr. Dre with depth, depicting a conflicted individual who is trying to make sense of his sudden rise. Less successful is F. Gary Gray’s filmmaking — the film is well over two hours long, much longer than it needs to be, and drags more than a film like this really should. Gray shoots his set-piece concert footage excellently, capturing deftly the energy and anger of an NWA performance. But the film’s treatment of the women in NWA’s world is disappointing, at best — for the first half of the film, more lines are delivered by naked women than by clothed ones, and the only women who make any meaningful contribution to the film are a mother and two wives. Perhaps Gray is trying to reflect the misogyny inherent in the musical genre he’s depicting; at any rate, women, with rare exceptions, have two roles in this world — if they’re not hos, then they’re bitches. This is underlined by a screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, which would seem to reflect less how black men really speak, and more how middle-class white folk imagine they probably speak.

I had very low expectations of this film when I went in. I’m not a fan of rap music; little of what I saw made me want to try listening to rap further. If you’re a fan of the band and their music, you might find Straight Outta Compton to be worth a look. It’s not a film I’ll want to see again.

On Last Cab To Darwin, and the joy of simple, beautiful films

August 24th, 2015

The two hours of Last Cab To Darwin contain about an hour and a half of an excellent, moving, sweet and lovely film, and a good half-hour of unnecessary, heavy-handedly political posturing.

Michael Caton as Rex in Last Cab To Darwin

Michael Caton as Rex in Last Cab To Darwin

Based on a stage play written by Reg Cribb, who also has a writing credit here, the film follows Rex, a taxi driver from Broken Hill in New South Wales. Rex has terminal cancer, and, with his doctors telling him he has only three months left, he hears of a doctor in Darwin who is leading the campaign for doctor-assisted suicide. The Northern Territory government has passed legislation legalising the practice, and so Rex embarks on a three-thousand-and-some-kilometer drive to Darwin to enlist the doc’s services in ending his life.

And it’s a lovely, sweet film. Reg, played with quiet dignity by Michael Caton, is old, and tired — “These days, I can’t even remember being young.” He quite clearly adores his neighbour, Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf), but won’t let anyone see him holding her hand as they sit on his front porch drinking their morning cup of tea together — racial politics in Broken Hill clearly aren’t quite ready for a white man being that close to a blackfella woman. Along the way to Darwin, Rex finds himself, through moderately contrived plot developments, accompanied from Oodnadatta by Tilly, a young Aboriginal man who, almost to the point of cliché, is a rough diamond, a flawed character with a heart of gold and from Daly Waters by Julie, a nurse from England. He reaches Darwin and meets Dr. Farmer, played by a rather one-dimensional Jacki Weaver.

Along the way, the film, beautifully directed by Jeremy Sims with a , navigates its way through the red centre of Australia, and, with less success, through the country’s racial complexities. While it portrays Rex as a complex, deep, rich character, Tilly (Mark Coles Smith) is something of a cypher, an unreliable, untrustworthy, but charming and loveable, rogue, an Aborigine in need of redemption by a white man, which is, of course, precisely what Rex takes it upon himself to do. Last Cab To Darwin is a truly touching, wonderful film of a man facing a painful decision in seeming isolation and with dark but genuine humour, and on that level it works magnificently. Caton is superb as an old man who believes he has nothing left worth fighting through his cancer’s pain for; Lawford-Wolf is as angry at being hidden as she is devoted to Rex.

Had Last Cab To Darwin simply dealt with Rex, it would have been a thoroughly wonderful film, one that handles a messy, complicated topic with intelligence, and would have lasted about half an hour less. But it picks up an extra half-hour as Rex meets, and then tries to save, Tilly, in a storyline that is quite unnecessary and whose omission would have made for a much stronger film. Rex’s relationship with Polly, as interracially transgressive as it is, would be enough to make the film’s point — Rex, from his record player to his reliance on payphone, is resolutely a product of the 1970s, but his fondness for Polly is strong enough to overcome outdated 1970s racial prejudices, without needing to bludgeon the audience with its politics. Tilly, on the other hand, is a black man who needs a white man to redeem him, who can only succeed if a whitefella speaks up for him.

For all its flaws — and it has, let’s be fair, one rather large one, Last Cab To Darwin is a lovely, sweet, human story, filled, for the most part, with genuine, believable, honest characters. So far it has limited release outside Australia, but it’s worth looking for, a truly enjoyable film.

On Ted 2, and funny, filthy films.

June 30th, 2015

You might find a more squalid, unpleasant and foul film than Ted 2 to watch this weekend, but it’s unlikely. It’s also highly unlikely that you’ll find a funnier one.

Ted 2

Ted 2

Building on the flimsy but effective premise of the original film — a teddy bear come to life — Ted 2 sees Ted having to prove that he is a person, so that he can be married to Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). His old friend John (Mark Wahlberg) helps him recruit a young, inexperienced, bong-smoking lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) to fight his case in court.

So that’s the setup. It’s not just a story, of course — as was the case with the first film, it’s a frame to hang the most appalling selection of utterly filthy gags. Before even the opening, Busby Berkeley-inspired opening credits, you’ll be treated to gay sex jokes, bear sex jokes, drug jokes. It is a very, very funny film.

It’s funny in a very strange and sharp way. Trying to cast speciesism as the new racism, it mentions Dred Scott for comedy value, not something one does lightly and not something many other films would risk. It works — or, at the very least, the film builds up so much comedy goodwill that you’ll be willing to allow it. It also risks a reference to John Candy’s “Do The Mess Around” in Planes, Trains And Automobiles, a film you invoke at your own peril. But, again, it’s a funny enough film that it can get away with this kind of hubris. It really is that funny.

It manages to risk being sweet and sentimental, too, in moments, but not too many, and does immediately redeem itself by returning to the semen gags and erections gags and everything else you’d expect from a film of this calibre. It also features a handful of rather odd cameos from assorted celebrities, not least from Liam Neeson being rather peculiar.

And, this being a Seth MacFarlane film, there are the inevitable jokes about Amanda Seyfried’s eyes. The editing suggests that she didn’t necessarily know they were in the script, but she should, given that MacFarlane almost certainly hired her for this film after getting a bug-eyed monster crack into A Million Ways To Die In The West.

Ted 2 is not a sophisticated film, not a classy picture, not a movie with any meaningfully redeeming features apart from the fact that it is endlessly, relentlessly funny. Paramount laid on pizza, beer and wine at the press screening, perhaps thinking that they’d need to win us over before letting us in, or maybe hoping that we’d only laugh if we were pissed enough. They really needn’t have worried. They opened up three screens at the Events Cinema in Newmarket; I don’t know about screens five and seven, but in six, the audience laughed the whole film through. It really is that funny.

On Minions, and music.

June 21st, 2015

Spinoffs are not always the best idea. It’s tempting to imagine that if a little bit is good, then a lot is even better, but this isn’t always true. A pinch of salt makes a dish’s flavour pop; a cup of salt makes it inedible. The risk, then, with Minions is that what made Despicable Me sweet and charming when they were in the background would be unwatchable when asked to carry a film by themselves.

Minions

Minions

But it works. Minions works surprisingly well; it’s a very funny, very silly, film, and a very entertaining one at that. It’s nonsense, of course — as Geoffrey Rush’s narration explains in the first ten minutes, minions crave a villain they can follow, and they’ve been in a rut for years, finally sending three of their number, Bob, Kevin and Stuart to find a new baddie to lead them. For reasons that writer Brian Lynch and directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin don’t even bother to attempt to explain, the three minions find themselves in New York in the late 60s, where, stumbling across a secret television channel, they see an advert for Villain-Con, a convention of evil in Orlando. They hitchhike their way their, and work their way into the employ of Scarlett Overkill, the first woman super-villain, who then takes them to England so they can steal for her the crown of the Queen of England. As I said, nonsense, of the highest order. 

But it’s bloody good fun along the way. The film is a love-letter to London in the late 60s, with outdoor scenes looking like they could almost have photographic backdrops instead of computer graphics. Television news reporters drink tea during broadcasts, pausing to pour from teapots. London landmarks, from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace, are realistically represented. Even the signs, from the Underground to the chemist’s, are accurate. And the music — well, the music is the real star of the film. The score is as funky as it needs to be in a film set in the 1960s, its visuals angular and stylised and unmistakably of a period. And the soundtrack is a thing of beauty, clearly compiled by someone who has nothing but love for the period. It includes — now this is, ostensibly, a children’s film, remember — The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Box Tops, even The bloody Doors. There are sight gags that nod to The Beatles, The Blues Brothers, possibly even The Goodies.

Attention to the most exquisite detail is to be expected in films like this, animations aimed at children but aware that parents will be taking the little ones to see them. Production values are high, from the music to the visual gags, and the voice acting — Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, John Hamm — is outstanding. The minions themselves are voiced by director Coffin, and the fact that the main characters talk utter gibberish throughout the film without making it unwatchable is an indication of how utterly unjoyable Minions is. Sandra Bullock, as Scarlett Overkill, is the weak point in the cast; clearly nobody remembered to tell her that the film was set in the 1960s, and she forgets to be as groovy as, say, Hamm, who gives every indication of having a lot of fun voicing Herb Overkill.

Minions had absolutely no business being any good at all. On paper, it should have been utter rubbish. Instead, it managed to be a surprisingly, and wonderfully, silly and enjoyable film, and one I would definitely recommend.

On Jurassic World, and why dinosaurs aren’t enough

June 12th, 2015

Jurassic World is a film about dinosaurs. Sadly, that’s all it’s a film about.

I saw the first Jurassic Park film twenty years ago; I remember well the anticipation, the excitement, that surrounded the original film. And it was good. I watched it again, last week; it was still reasonably good, but it didn’t, it has to be said, hold up terribly well. But it had characters, and a story, and enough to keep the audience engaged that the film has been remembered fondly, perhaps more fondly than it entirely deserved.

Jurassic World: good, but not at all good enough

Jurassic World: good, but not at all good enough

But Jurassic World simply lacks what gave the original film its warmth. It has the rudiments of a story — two young brothers visit the incredibly popular and successful Jurassic World park, built on the site of Jurassic Park, on Isla Nubar in Costa Rica, some dinosaurs escape, dinosaurs fight humans and each other. The story, though, is simplistic at best, and it lacks characters of any great interest to propel it along. Chris Pratt plays Owen, the manly man’s man who trains velociraptors for a living, and tinkers with motorbikes for fun. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, the brothers’ aunt who is supposed to show them around but who is too busy with her very important job to look after them. These characters, though, are hard to engage with or care about. They’re one-dimensional characters played with an almost absolute lack of warmth or depth, partly because they were written with entirely no warmth or depth. In the 1995 original, John Hammond, Dickie Attenborough’s kindly old uncle with the hopelessly adrift accent, at least had a little bit of warmth and roundedness to his character; Pratt’s Owen scowls and swaggers his way through the film in little more than a monotone. Howard looks, at times, like she wants nothing more than to be Taylor Swift, but instead has to plough through a script that presents her character as an object lesson in anti-feminism — a woman really, really shouldn’t devote herself too much to her job, lest she forget how to nurture children — in a strange turnaround from the learning-to-love-children arc of Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant in the original film

It’s the bit characters that manage to go some very small way toward redeeming the film. Jake Johnson, as Lowery, the nerd at the control desk, has a handful of decent lines, and a pleasing way of interacting with Lauren Lapkus, who really needs to put distance between herself and this and get herself back to Orange Is The New Black. BD Wong, the only member of the 1995 cast to make an appearance here, is interesting but underused as a moderately evil scientist. Omar Sy treads dangerously close to Magical Black Friend territory. And Vincent d’Onofrio is the nearest the film has to a villain that we can hope gets eaten, but even he isn’t able to get truly nasty.

And since we’re mentioning characters who could have redeemed the film, where was Jeff Goldblum? There has been speculation that he might, at the very least, have shown up in a cameo, but if he did, it was a very, very short appearance, and certainly not one that I noticed. Ian Malcolm would have helped enormously. But despite Goldblum’s absence, the original park does make a cameo appearance; Johson’s Lowery also makes a few references to Jurassic Park, even wearing  t-shirt with the T-rex logo, telling Claire “That park was legit.”

The new park is, it must be said, a little less legit. Product placement abounds; in the very Disneyland-esque plaza leading to the Samsung Visitor Centre (honest), Brookstone and Starbucks and Margaritaville signs are clear and prominent above shopfronts. And, since Samsung clearly sponsor Jurassic World — the film and its fictional setting — nobody has an iPhone.

In the end, then, this is a film about dinosaurs. It’s not about people, their interactions, their problems, their challenges. It’s about huge, impressive, spectacular CGI dinosaurs roaring and thundering and eating their way across a small Costa Rican island. Nobody stops to ask why they’re there, after Hammond, at the end of Jurassic Park, essentially announces that there will be no dinosaur park. And there are no baddies, not even a slightly sappy lawyer — there’s nobody, really (well, maybe one, but even that’s highly debatable) that you simply have to see getting eaten by a tyrannosaur. Jurassic World, the park, is, simply, a huge success; the issue of how it was resurrected is simply ignored, so that instead we get, essentially, more of the same spectacular dinosaur roaring that made the first film the hit it was. But there’s little new in this film, little to break new ground. Indeed, if anything, absent the characters, the meaningful story arc, and, most importantly, Dr. Ian Malcolm, the dinosaurs are left to carry the film themselves. They’re very impressive, but they’re not enough to carry over two hours of otherwise really rather hollow and empty film.

On Seventh Son, and films you don’t want to waste your time on

March 5th, 2015

“Fire will only make me stronger,” says a witch to a witchfinder early on in Seventh Son. So the witchfinder sets fire to the witch.

Had he killed her, we would have been spared the tedious, pointless, meandering hour and a half that was Seventh Son. Instead, the witch, whose name, we eventually learn maybe half-way through the film, long after we care, is Mother Malkin, played by Julianne Moore, in what could very nearly have been her very own Norbert Moment, survives to gurn and groan through this hound of a film. Moore is, usually, an exceptional actress. Even she isn’t up to the task of making a decent film of this nonsense. There was, I’m sure, a story somewhere in the minds of director Sergei Bodrov and Matt Greenberg, who has a “screen story” credit but whose adaptation of Joseph Delaney’s novel The Spook’s Apprentice warrants less credit and more shame. I’m sure there was, but it didn’t translate onto the screen.

Half an our into Seventh Son, my daughter, usually an aficionado of the sword-and-sorcery genre, leaned over to me and whispered “This is rubbish, isn’t it?” She was, I felt, rather generous. There’s no sense in dressing it up — Seventh Son is unmitigated shite. The witchfinder — the “spook,” he’s called — is played by Jeff Bridges, chewing scenery like no scenery has ever been chewed before as some sort of ill-defined ninja-magician, who has to train up an apprentice to fight witches. Cue, then, all the predictable tropes — unlikely candidate plucked from obscurity, hopeless at first, is trained up through humiliation and impossible tasks to become a deserving successor to mentor in a surprisingly short period of time. You’ve seen this nonsense before; you don’t need to waste your time seeing it again.

Bridges has been, in the past, a talented actor, but here he pulls the hood of his cape down and hides behind his beard, declaiming absurd lines in a voice — not simply an accent, but an entire way of speaking — that sounds like a constipated James Earl Jones after the helium’s starting to wear off. He does his best, I suppose, to put a little life into an otherwise utterly pointless and dull film. There may be a story, but it’s hard to tell — this happens, then that happens, then something else happens, with no apparent connection between events, no sense of narrative flow or coherence. A little exposition — even exposition as honking as Basil in the Austin Powers films — wouldn’t have gone amiss, a little explanation to the audience to help us to understand what’s going on. By the time it comes, we don’t care — even with the gorgeous scenery of British Columbia to distract us, the film is just crap.

Plot holes — at least I think they’re plot holes; the plot is so sketchy that I possibly dozed off briefly — abound; a minor, but named, character is killed off, only to reappear in the next scene, not even an “Oh, he’s immortal” or some other such device to explain why he’s not dead any more. Perhaps the writers got too bored even to bother trying to explain what the hell was going on.

Bridges and Moore, Oscar-winning talent both, should be embarrassed by this film, deeply and thoroughly ashamed to have had anything to do with it. Kit Harrington clearly isn’t making as much from his turn as Jon Snow in Game Of Thrones, as one might imagine; he must be in this disaster for the money, because there can’t possibly be any other reason why he agreed to show up in the obligatory tavern sequence early in the film. But he’s only in the film for a few minutes; presumably he realised how awful it was and decided that, no matter how badly he needs the money, he can’t possibly need it this badly. For all the beautiful scenery and richly-detailed and lovingly-filmed sets, the dialogue is clangingly absurd, lots of “You can’t fight your destiny” drivel that’s meant to sound meaningful and profound but simply red-lines the cliché-ometer.

Please don’t go and see this film. It cost, apparently, ninety-five million dollars to make. It doesn’t deserve to make ninety-five cents. Don’t go and see it — you’ll only encourage them.