The curtain twitches

“Five minutes, Mr Bamboo.”

We had the start-of-term conference last weekend; or perhaps because last year’s conference was so popular, we held it all over again. There were some minor dif­fer­ences. This year’s big ideas were to extend the philosophy of the IB programme into other programmes (a box which I started ticking last year), and homework.

I don’t think we’ve ever given homework obsessively. I know I don’t, and I don’t need to. Do I run out of class time? Occasionally. Am I going to have the time to deal with the homework which would be a consequence of such a situation? Almost certainly not. I have an idea how I’m going to satisfy this requirement without irking my little darlings or myself.

We’ve been back at school this week, but things are still settling – at least in English. My IB class is a mixture of students from Fred’s and Michelle’s classes, which has created a problem, viz. Fred’s students haven’t been through An Inspector Calls (which I’ve been reading over the past couple of days). We have a solution of a sort.

The AS classes are also a little in the air as I try to get the right students into the right class. At the moment we have two HL classes, which means that there’s quite a number of self-deluding students who should be doing SL. I’m hoping we’ll be able to shift them into the latter class where they belong and where they might do well enough not to embarrass themselves.

We also have no spare copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is unavailable on Kindle, and not something which I’m likely to find in my local Xinhua Bookshop. I’ve read a couple of guides about it, but I can’t exactly go into class and talk about them. Perhaps I could get students to spend the first few lit. classes drawing pictures of Scout, Jem, Atticus, Boo Radley, etc. Or I could ask them what they think happens in the book, which they probably won’t have read yet – just like me.

Now arriving from 2006

Arrested Development.

I had thought I would’ve posted an entry about Arrested Development here seven years ago when I first watched the original three seasons, but since I can’t find an entry, I can only assume that I either wrote nothing (which would be unusual at the time) or the entry was on an old Live Journal blog of mine.

The story is about the wealthy, dysfunctional Bluth family. George Sr. is arrested for embezzlement and then, apparently, treachery for building houses in Iraq.  His wife, Lucille, is an alcoholic socialite with a contemptuous regard for her children. G.O.B. (pronounced like the biblical Job), the utterly tactless eldest son, is a hopelessly bad magician who’s always looking for his father’s approval. The middle son, Michael, is the only responsible member of the family, although not above being as undermining with his own son, George Michael, as his father has been with him. His allegedly twin sister, Lindsey, is lazy and married to the obliviously gay Tobias. Between them they have a daughter called Maeby, who cons her way into a movie studio as an exec. The youngest brother, the immature and clingy Buster, is actually the son of George Sr.’s twin brother, Oscar.

In spite of the entertaining cleverness of Arrested Development, the writing seemed to be on the wall by the third series because the story lines were rather rapidly cleared up. It was shown that George Sr. had been unwittingly working for the American government in Iraq; the story about Rita Leeds, the MRF (Mentally Retarded Female), was disposed of in a rather cursory fashion; and there was a flurry of other stories such as the revelation that Lindsey had been adopted or the visit from the Japanese investors which set up a Godzilla parody.

Arrested Development was a clever and entertaining series, though why it got killed off, I can’t say. However, there is YouTube footage (see here on gawker) of David Cross, who plays Tobias, wondering how the programme, which was so highly acclaimed, could be so badly marketed.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever see the fourth season. One review I’ve seen declares it to be a hit-and-miss affair which doesn’t quite live up to the original.

The Lady Penelope

By Sally Varlow.

The Lady Penelope is the story of Penelope Devereux, who was a celebrated beauty at the court of Elizabeth I. She was the subject of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet cycle, Astrophel and Stella. She was not just a beauty, but also highly intelligent and accomplished. Her personal life was not exactly conventional because although she married Lord Rich, her relationship with Lord Mountjoy was an open secret, which her husband tolerated. She was involved in the rebellion of her brother, Robert, the Earl of Essex, but escaped punishment or censure. She was pro-Catholic and may have converted on her deathbed. Rich formally separated from her, and she entered into a marriage of dubious legality with Mountjoy, who died of lung cancer not long afterwards. She herself did not outlive him long, and died at the age of 44.

Varlow is trying to resurrect Devereux as a person of historical note and not just as some noblewoman who happened to be around at the time while others were making history. In truth, though, much of the book is really about the others making history while Devereux puts in appearances.

The book is not good history, though. There is the requisite interpretation of the facts, but there’s also too much opinion, and the picture painted of Devereux feels biased, leaving me wondering what she was really like when the circumstances didn’t require her to be charming and charismatic. I am a little sceptical about all of Varlow’s assertions, which seem to be presented as commonly agreed facts when they are nothing of the sort. I’m not sure to what extent Shakespeare was Essex’s spin doctor and how far his plays can be interpreted as coded messages which were relevant to events at court.

At times the text seemed to be awash with a sea of Devereux’s relatives, which could be confusing for less assiduous readers trying to keep track of everyone. I preferred to plough on and not worry about the intricate connections among the various players in the English court.

However, The Lady Penelope is not without interest to the general reader for making them aware of Penelope Devereux, but I wouldn’t use this as a secondary source in an undergraduate essay on, say, late Elizabethan attitudes to marriage.

The last three turkeys in the shop

Dead Man Down.

“We thought you were dead.”

“I’m not, and now I’m going to have my revenge.”

Drinks coaster.


Hummingbird.

Jason Statham is an ex-special forces man who’s down and out and psychologically damaged in London. One night after an altercation with some street thugs who prey on homeless people, he breaks into an empty flat and starts to haul himself out of the gutter, although he ends up in a world which is just as violent as the one he left behind him in the Middle East.

When a homeless girl who he knew is found dead in the Thames, he wants his revenge. At the same time, he is also working for Chinese gangsters in London in some rather unsavoury business.

In parallel with these activities is his relationship with the nun who runs the soup kitchen, which he starts to fund with the money he has been making. She has her own demons to deal with. She had wanted to be a ballerina, but ended up being a gymnast whose coach abused her until she stabbed him. She also has doubts about God and eventually spends the night with Statham before he goes and does what he has to do.

He kills the man who murdered his friend and tries to vanish back into the streets of London, but the net is closing in.

Hummingbird wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It was still a typical Jason Statham film with gangsters and lashings of ultra-violence, but it had a bit more to it than that alone.


Oblivion.

Jack Harker and his girlfriend are vacuuming up Earth’s last remaining resources before they jet off to sunny Titan to rejoin the rest of humanity. Harker is often haunted by visions of a woman, who seems to be a fragment of his memory which was wiped before he started the job.

One day a spaceship crashes and among the survivors is the woman from Harker’s memory – it’s his wife. When she insists on going back for her ship’s flight recorder, he agrees to take her and gets captured by scabs who are, in fact, human. They want him to program one of the drones to carry a nuclear warhead to the mother ship, but release him anyway because he has a cabin in the wilderness where he keeps old books which he finds in the ruins of cities.

On the way home, Harker finds that he’s not alone when he has an encounter with another Harker – No. 52. Suddenly he realises that the mission to Titan (whose commander he was) never made it. He returns to the scabs to program the drone, but the base comes under attack, forcing him to deliver the warhead in person along with his wife.

Or so we all think. In truth, he took the leader of the resistance with him and they detonate the bomb, which destroys the mother ship.

Back on Earth, Harker 52 eventually finds his wife, who is doing the gardening with Harker 49’s daughter.

I’m not sure whether this is another nutty Scientology flick or the message is that there’s only one Earth and we won’t be blasting off to some refuge in the stars any time soon.

I don’t know whether it was just me on this occasion, but the music seemed deliberately intrusive as it obviously played on the emotions of the audience, which I found quite irritating. It may just have been me on this occasion and the use of mood music was no more extensive than it can be in any other film.

I assume this was a big budget sci-fi piece. Well, Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman were the big budget, and the rest of the cast were the sci-fi piece. Sally the Annoying Controller may survive for her catchphrase, “Are we an effective team?” The rest will vanish into history.

The Tuesday film medley

Hitchcock.

Hitchcock is a film about the making of Psycho which, in spite of it’s status in the cinematic classic, struggled to see the light of day in the face of objections from the censor and Paramount.

The film is also about the fraught relationship between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma. He has a roving eye and likes to perv at his actresses through a peep hole. She comes close to having an affair with the author of the book on which Psycho was based, but Hitchcock convinces himself that she is. Eventually, they agree to work together to create the film, which becomes a huge success.

Anthony Hopkins played the part of the corpulent Hitchcock, who had to finance the film himself, and who co-opted the head censor to advise on one scene in order to get the film past him.

Helen Mirren is the director’s wife Alma. She is remarkably patient with him, but craves a little excitement of her own even if it wouldn’t go as far as an affair with someone else.

James D’Arcy, who played Anthony Perkins, may not have been on screen all that much, but he captured the twitchy, neurotic Perkins brilliantly.

A note of fantasy gets injected into the film with the serial killer on whom Norman Bates is based popping up and chatting to Hitchcock now and then, or some piece of Hitchcock’s overactive psyche intrudes into the making of Psycho itself such as the murder scene where the director is supposedly acting out his rage against his wife. Such elements don’t feel out of place, but they seem to be trying to inject some note of psychological drama that is not really necessary.

Overall, though, Hitchcock is worth a look.


Liability.

This is a fairly understated gangster flick in which a 19-year-old moron has the job of driving around his mother’s boyfriend’s hit man (Tim Roth) because he smashed up the boyfriend’s Mercedes-Benz.

I suspected that Roth might end up whacking the idiot, but things went wrong with the appearance of a Latvian woman hunting her sister who had been sold as a sex slave.

It is only later that the half-witted adolescent discovers that he’s the real target because he’d seen a video of the boyfriend raping and murdering some girl, probably the sister of the Latvian.

As I said, this is an understated film. Drinks coaster? Not quite. Worth a second viewing? No. Recommendation: wait for it to be screened on terrestrial TV and then don’t worry if you miss it.


The Amazing Spiderman.

Like Man of Steel, this is another remake of a film which was remade fairly recently. The only real difference between this and those is that Spiderman fights a lizard man, and the love interest is a rather plain girl.

And that’s about all there is to be said about this.


Zero Dark Thirty.

I thought some of the films I’d seen recently were long, but this one, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was even longer. I think if I’d been watching this in a theatre, I would’ve started muttering, “He’s in Abbottabad.”

The film is a bit like a lengthy drama-doc. The CIA clutches at straws in their search for bin Laden so that by the time Maya is fairly certain she knows where he is, the response is mostly, “Osama bin who?”

Unlike the right-wing version of this story, there’s no flag waving and comparatively little woohooing. The hunt was a long, tiring, dehumanising, and often dispiriting process.


Assault on Wall Street.

If anything can go wrong, it will at the worst possible moment. Financial investments lost? Yes. Inability to pay for wife’s expensive medical treatment? Yes. Wife’s suicide? Yes. Loss of job? Yes. Loss of house? Yes. Ability to buy guns, grenades and ammo in spite of having no money? Yes.

Like Tower Heist, this is another wish fulfilment movie about the bankers on Wall Street getting what they deserve for ruining the lives of ordinary people; and in an ironic twist, the hero gets away with it just as the bankers have been getting away with it.

A drinks coaster for those occasions when bankers are your dinner guests.

But if I don’t get angry, how will the audience know it’s me?

Tower Heist.

Ben Stiller is the manager of an exclusive block of flats in New York. Alan Alda is the crooked owner who has not just embezzled his staff’s pensions, but stolen the doorman’s savings, too.

Stiller still treats Alda with a certain amount of deference after his arrest, but when he learns about the pensions, he gets angry (it wouldn’t be a Ben Stiller film without Stiller getting angry) and smashes up Alda’s prize possession, a vintage Ferrari. This gets him sacked and he wants revenge.

He realises that there is a safe hidden in Alda’s flat, but when he gets it open, he finds it’s empty, and after an altercation with Eddie Murphy, he discovers that the Ferrari is a fake made out of gold. All they have to do is get it out of the building – somehow.

Oddly enough, no matter what the gang do, the weight of the car does not impede them at all, and even the lifts in the building can cope with having the car dumped on top of them.

Although they think they’ve got away with it, the FBI round the gang up. Stiller offers them Alda’s ledger book, which will send him to jail for a very long time, if they’ll at least release the others. Meanwhile, the rest of the staff from the building start receiving bits of gold Ferrari, which all seem surprisingly light.

Tower Heist is, well, yet another slightly comical heist caper. It’s not hilariously funny, but it’s better for not trying to be. Eddie Murphy, for example, shows a degree of restraint for once, and when he is pretending to be serious, he doesn’t ruin the whole thing with some ham acting, dreadful dialogue, and that irritating laugh of his.

The film seems to be a piece of wish fulfilment with the little people striking back against the rich people who have ripped them off. (It’s ironic, though, to think that the cast consists of rich people pretending to be poor people.

There’s nothing new here, but it’s a decent enough piece of work because it doesn’t degenerate into an utterly ludicrous farce. I won’t ever watch it again, but I’m not turning the disc into a drinks coaster, either.

An affair here and a marriage there

Bel Ami.

Georges Duroy is a former soldier living in a garret and probably dying of consumption. By chance he bumps into an old comrade-in-arms who helps get him on his feet again.

“Hey, you’re Philip Glenister! You were great in Life on Mars, but that thing about demons? What were you thinking?”

Glenister introduces him to the editor of the newspaper where he works.

“It’s Chief O’Brien from Deep Space Nine. Did you really like Dr Bashir more than your wife?”

Duroy gets some help from Uma Thurman to write his column for the paper while the grown-ups play politics in the background.

Duroy starts having an affair with Clotilde played by Christina Ricci, who is probably old enough to be his older sister.

“Still trying to escape from the Addams Family?”

He then marries Uma Thurman, who’s old enough to be his aunt.

“What the hell is that accent you’re trying to pull off? It’s worse than that of the English agent who was pretending to be a French policeman in ’Allo ’Allo.”

But for Duroy, one older woman isn’t enough. He has to have the clingy Kristin Scott Thomas, who’s old enough to be his mother, and is the boss’s wife.

“You were great in The Mummy.”

“That was The English Patient, you deformed sperm.”

“Yeah, what was the deal with the aberrant stress pattern?”

But having divorced Uma Thurman, he hits on the boss’s daughter, and although he thinks Duroy is an oik, he agrees to the marriage. He has succeeded in climbing the greasy pole.


Django Unchained.

A bounty hunter, Dr King Schawartz, is looking for a black slave who can identify three brothers for him. After an altercation with some slave traders, Schwartz takes on Django as a partner and offers to help him track down and free his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft.

This means getting cosy with M. Candie, who happens to be the current owner of Django’s wife. Her novelty value is that she can speak German. (The film is very long and I either missed or forgot why Schwartz and Django couldn’t just make an offer for her.) They offer an outrageous sum of money for a fighting slave, but as the sale goes through, Candie’s man, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), warns him that the purchase is a ruse. Schwartz kills Candie, but is killed by Candie’s bodyguard. In spite of his heroic defence, Django is captured and hauled off to the mines.

He manages to trick the thick mine employees (including Tarantino playing an Australian for some weird reason) into releasing him and letting him have a gun. Django rides back to the big house where he kills the rest of Candie’s minions before blowing the house up with the traitorous Stephen inside.

In spite of this being a very, very long film (165 minutes) and probably in need of some editing, it didn’t drag. It ranged from the comical such as the lynch mob complaining about the bags they’re wearing to disguise themselves to the gruesome such as the scene in which a runaway slave was torn to pieces by dogs, or the fight-to-the-death for Candie’s amusement.

Tarantino’s films have been a hit-and-miss affair since Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but this, I think, is a hit, although viewers will need to get in supplies for a marathon.


Doctor Who.

As the bookies predicted, Peter Capaldi is the new Dr Who. If only he could step out of the TARDIS and fire off a few choice bon mots au Malcolm Tucker.

Actually, has Armando Ianucci ever written an episode of Dr Who? That might be interesting.

Never mind the comedy. Feel the length.

This is 40.

Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are hitting 40. They have two girls (played by the director’s daughters, it seems) and run their own businesses. He has a failing indie record label and she runs a clothing shop, but has lost US$12,000 because one of her employees has been stealing from her. His father is a scrounger with three young triplets of his own; her father is a surgeon who rarely ever sees her. Rudd and Mann fight a lot. He does not reveal that his business is in dire straits, and she says nothing about her unexpected pregnancy.

The film is meant to be a comedy, but it felt like it might’ve been better as a vicious divorce drama. Rudd and Mann had no chemistry, their characters squabble constantly, and yet at the end of the film they’re busy expressing their undying love for each other. This is at the point when one of their plots to murder the other should’ve ended up with both of them being devoured slowly by flesh-eating beetles.

If I’d not been amusing myself while I was watching this, I probably would’ve wandered off and ignored it as it dragged on and on and on. If the film had been cut by, say, 143 minutes, it would’ve been so much better.

Rigid, flexible, loveable

Gambit.

Colin Firth’s boss, Alan Rickman, is a bastard. With some help from his art-forging friend, the Major, and rough American diamond, Cameron Diaz, he tries to swindle him. Cue predictable farce, and apparent failure. But, no, not on this occasion. Firth’s plan succeeds.

Another drinks coaster.


Larry Crowne.

Larry Crowne finds himself unemployed for want of a post-secondary qualification. But does he start crying, arm himself with an assault rifle, and go postal on his former employers? No, of course not. Tom Hanks has never done that, except in that movie when he was a hit man. But apart from that, he’s the Jimmy Stewart of the 21st century.

Crowne heads off to his local poly where Julia Roberts works as one of the teachers. “Since there are only eight of you here, the class is cancelled. Alcohol here I come!” Or so she says until Crowne joins the class. “Thanks to you, Larry, I have the will to teach again.”

Saccharine. Diabetics should avoid this film at all costs.

Such a scream

The Call.

Halle Berry works in an emergency response centre. We know that it’s a low-status job because she has frizzy hair.

“Hello, I’m being kidnapped.”
“Let me call you back, thus alerting the kidnapper to your location.”
The next day the kidnap victim is found dead, leaving Halle traumatised.

Sometime later.

“Scream, scream, scream…”
“Oh sodding hell, I’ve got Lassie on the phone. What’s that girl? You’re in the boot of a red car? And Michael Imperoli has got whacked by the kidnapper after a brief and wholly ineffective appearance in the film? But he was in The Sopranos.”
Later, Halle is looking at a map of the last known location of the kidnap victim. Suddenly she realises where the girl has been taken.
I suppose I ought to tell someone where I’m going, someone such as my boyfriend who’s a policeman. Halle thinks about this for no time at all. Sod it; I’m just going to go by myself.
Halle arrives at the old abandoned farm where she discovers the kidnapper’s subterranean lair where he scalps his victims to try and recreate his sister who appears to have died of cancer. She bashes him and releases the girl. He chases them until they overcome him and kick him back down the hole.
“What are we going to do about him?”
“I’ve got an idea.”
Sometime afterwards when the kidnapper comes to, he finds himself tied to a chair.
“What are you doing?”
“I gave you the chance to surrender, but you failed to grasp Fortune by the forelock.”
“You’re going to leave me down here to starve to death? But what about the rule of law? What about trial by jury? What about legal representation? Habeas corpus? Truth, justice, and the American way?”
“The American way – holding everyone else to a higher standard while violating those standards ourselves.”
“You can’t do this!”
“Shut it, you whiny Commie.” And with that, Halle closed the door and locked it.

Into the White.

Two aircrews, one German and one British, are downed over Norway in 1940. They end up sheltering together in a hunting cabin. At first the British are prisoners of the Germans before the tables are turned; but the conditions outside force the men to work together to survive before the Norwegians rescue them.

The Germans are led by Horst Schopis who admits that he’s not the best pilot in the Luftwaffe. He has little to go back to in Germany because his wife left him the week before.

The taciturn Strunk is an older man who ran a small business, but volunteered because he thought it was his duty. It is obvious that he would prefer to be an artist.

The youngest member of the crew, Schwartz, is rather idealistic. His treasured possession is an autographed copy of Mein Kampf. In the battle he was wounded in the arm.

The Brits are led by Captain Davenport, who appears to be some sort of toff.

His subordinate is Gunner Smith (Rupert Grint), a foul-mouthed1 Scouser who is also a champion darts player.

This is a ship-in-a-bottle film and although it has its moments (sad and tragic), it isn’t especially interesting. The way in which the two sides are portrayed is also a weakness. Schopis and Strunk are fairly sympathetic characters2 who implicitly have concerns other than fighting Hitler’s war. Schwartz suffers from the folly of youth, and can’t quite see that the sun doesn’t shine out of the Führer’s arse. On the British side, Davenport is an arrogant cipher and then just becomes a cipher. Smith is provocative and annoying. Neither character holds any attractions.

The Norwegians, who shot Strunk even although he was no threat to them at the time, cannot quite understand why the British did not shoot the Germans, but Davenport observes that they were trying to survive.

Schopis and Schwartz were transported to a POW camp in Canada. Ironically, not long after returning to England, Davenport and Smith were sent out in a raid over Trondheim where they were shot down. Smith was killed, but Davenport survived and was a POW for the rest of the war.

He and Schopis were reunited in 1977 when the former invited the latter to London.

Notes.

  1. My theory about Grint doing the most swearing in the film is that he said “bloody” a few times in the Harry Potter films. The alternative theory is that he’s trying to shake off the image of Ron Weasley by being a thoroughly unlikeable, vulgar oik. If Emma Watson had been cast as Smith, she would’ve taken her clothes off instead.
  2. I suspect that there may be two reasons for this. One is that this is Schopis’ account of the story because there was an acknowledgement in Norwegian at the end of the film which appeared to refer to his wife. The other reason may be because (if I remember my history correctly) Britain invaded Norway in 1940, which may still annoy the Norwegians.