Saturday, 28 February 2015

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy

You and I have learned the song of love, and we sing it well.
The song is ageless, passed on heart to heart
By those who have seen what we see 
And known what we know 
And lovers who have sung before.
Our love is ours to have and to share.
The miracle is this: the more we share, the more we have.

Yesterday a great man passed from this Earth, a man who will be remembered for generations to come. I'm sure that if he could hear me praising him he would casually dismiss it and say he was just a normal man. Such modesty only makes him even greater in my eyes. Leonard Nimoy, in his portrayal of Spock in the original "Star Trek" series, was both fascinating and inspiring. He was a half-breed, with a Vulcan father and a human mother, a man struggling to find his identity. He chose to follow the path of his father, but he still carried his mother's traits in him, the emotions that he considered to be weakness. This was, of course, an allegory for modern man. Are we to follow our head or our heart?

Today I watched three "Star Trek" episodes in remembrance of Leonard Nimoy.

  1. The Galileo Seven (first season)
  2. Where no man has gone before (the second pilot)
  3. Mirror, Mirror (the second season)

"The Galileo Seven" is probably my favourite episode from the whole series. It's also an episode that shines a spotlight on Spock's struggle between logic and emotion more than any other. He's stranded without Captain Kirk on a hostile planet and has to take command of the six men with him to escape from the planet. All his decisions are correct and logical, but he has to admit that the situation is steadily worsening. In the end he saves the others by making an irrational act of desperation, which he later tries to deny.

"Where no man has gone before" is a pilot episode, the second pilot that was made after the original pilot, "The Cage", was rejected. It shows a slightly different Spock. His skin is more yellowy than in the later episodes, and he shouts a lot. He says that "one of his ancestors" married an Earth woman, although it was established in later episodes that his mother was human. Apologists try to argue that he said "one of his ancestors" to play down his human heritage, but the fact is that it was a mistake. The series was in its formative phase, and it hadn't yet been decided that he would be half human. We see something similar in "The Sopranos", where the cafe Satriale's is called Centrali's in the first episode.

"Mirror, Mirror" is one of my favourite episodes, despite the logical problems it creates. I like it because it's the only episode in which Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) wears thigh high boots. But it's also the only episode in which Spock has a beard.

William Shatner may have been the series' leading actor as Captain James Kirk, but for me it was Leonard Nimoy who made "Star Trek" truly great. He could express the deepest emotions with his facial expressions, the very expressions that his character was trying to hide. The following six screenshots from the end of "The Galileo Seven" show what I mean.

Apart from being an actor, Leonard Nimoy was a taxi driver and a poet. Driving a taxi was his regular day job while he was a small-time actor struggling to make ends meet. Ironically, when "Star Trek" was cancelled after only three seasons he went back to driving a taxi. "Star Trek" was ahead of its time in 1969. The series wasn't fully appreciated until years later. Still, I wish I'd been around to hail a cab in New York and be picked up by this amazing man. That would have been an experience.

I first heard about Leonard Nimoy's poetry in the late 1970's. I was talking with some fellow "Star Trek" friends, and one of them said, "Did you know that Leonard Nimoy writes poetry? Don't bother with it, it's crap". But I was curious, so I bought a book, and it was very good. Maybe my friend thought it was crap because it wasn't at all like Spock. Spock speaks of logic, but Leonard Nimoy writes about love. The poem at the head of this post is a typical example.

Leonard Nimoy
March 26, 1931 – February 27, 2015

General: Google Censorship

A few days ago I made a very harsh post against the company Google, comparing its new policies on adult material in blogs to the censorship in Nazi Germany. Now, less than a week later, Google has listened to the feedback from its customers and decided not to implement the new changes. This is proof that Google is an open-minded, tolerant company that accepts the rights of sexual minority groups. It is also proof that my criticism of Google was wrong.

I publicly apologise to Google for what I wrote in my recent post.

I have already removed the post, so if anyone hasn't read it they never will. Suffice it to say, my criticisms were ill-founded.

This is a screenshot of the email sent to bloggers on February 23rd, 2015.

This is a screenshot of Google's new policy update on February 27th, 2015.

Thank you, Google, for continuing to offer your services to bloggers like myself free of charge.

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Green Mile (5 Stars)

Sometimes the Green Mile seems so long.

This is a slow, meandering film. The action scenes are few and far between. And yet it's perfect as it is. If things moved faster the film would lose its effect.

I've seen the film a few times, and its three hours never seem like wasted time. The first time I saw it was when I was in hospital in 2000. One of the nurses had it on video and brought it into the hospital. I think she showed it twice within a week. I loved the film from the first time I saw it. I would have bought it when I got home, but I was lucky enough to be able to record it on videotape when it was shown on television. I taped a lot of films from 2001 till 2003. After I got my first DVD player in 2003 I began to lose interest in videotapes. After all, DVD quality was far better. I watched DVD's and videotapes in parallel until 2007, but I was slowly buying all my favourite films on DVD, and after moving house in 2008 I didn't bother connecting my VCR. Until last week I had six boxes of videotapes in my bedroom, but now I've finally thrown them away. Gone forever.

I bought my first Blu-ray player in 2010. I now only buy Blu-ray discs, if I have the choice, but there are still films that are only available on DVD. I've re-bought a few of my favourite films that I already had on DVD, but in general it's not worth it. The quality increase from DVD to Blu-ray isn't as drastic as from videotape to DVD.

I've hardly written anything about the film itself in this post. So what? Isn't my five star rating enough to tell you what I think about it?

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Bridesmaids over the Edge (3½ Stars)

It's the day before Nicole's wedding, so she has invited her bridesmaids Jassi and Christine to her home for a private hen party. Except they call it a bachelorette party in America. Why do Americans always have to change the English language? It's not enough that they can't spell right, they have to invent new words.

An agency stripper, Brooke, has also been invited to the party, but she soon settles in as if she's known the girls forever. The girls have fun playing Truth or Dare together, which ends up with a lot of stroking and kissing.

Spoiler Alert: Nicole enjoys playing with the girls so much that she decides to postpone her wedding. Can you blame her?

P. S. This short film is included on a two-film DVD with "Candy Stripers over the Edge".

Project Almanac (4 Stars)

Who's Doctor Who?

This is a film about a group of teenagers in their last year at school. David Raskin discovers notes left by his father who died when he was seven, along with a prototype for a time machine. An old videotape shows 17-year-old David present at his seventh birthday party, which proves that he will successfully complete the time machine. Or already has completed the time machine. Temporal paradoxes are hard to get my head around.

Encouraged by the videotape David works to perfect the prototype, together with his sister and three friends. They travel into the past repeatedly, changing things for their own gain. For instance, one of them wins the lottery while the others make changes to get revenge on school bullies or make themselves more popular at school. Unfortunately, they haven't reckoned with time ripples, the so-called Butterfly Effect. When a plane crashes as an indirect result of a small change that he's made, David travels into the past to put things right, but ends up making things even worse.

The film is in the pseudo-documentary shaky camera style of "The Blair Witch Project". For most of the film David's sister Christina is holding the camera, so we don't see her. On some occasions the camera is put down, so we see her as well.

I love the story, and I might even have given the film five stars if it hadn't been for the shaky camera effect being so annoying. Especially in the first half of the film it was shaking too much. Later on there were explosions, and the camera image was broken up and pixellated to fake the electro-magnetic effects. This got on my nerves.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Mummy (1933 version) (4 Stars)

The film is listed in IMDB as being made in 1932, but the splash screen says "Copyright MCMXXXIII". So who's right? I'm not sure. Maybe the plan was to release it in 1933, but Universal Studios was impatient and brought it into the cinemas at the end of 1932.

As was the case with all the early American horror films, the director and producer were German Jews. The German influence on the pre-WW2 American film industry is immeasurable. While some notable people, such as Carl Laemmle, one of the founders of Universal Studios, emigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the biggest influx of German Jews into the American film industry was in the 1930's, when Jews were no longer allowed to work in German films. Even today the top places in the American film industry are held by Jews.

In the film the mummy Imhotep (Boris Karloff) is unwittingly brought back to life when a scholar working at an excavation site reads an old scroll aloud. Why oh why do people in films always feel the urge to read ancient scrolls out loud? Can't they keep their mouths shut while they read? No good ever comes of reciting incantations. Imhotep then plans to bring his long lost lover, Ankh-es-en-amon, back from the dead. But then he unexpectedly meets Helen Grosvenor, the daughter of the Governor of Sudan, who looks identical to Ankh-es-en-amon.

At this time Universal Studios was promoting the actor William Pratt as an almost mystical figure. As a stage actor he had changed his name to Boris Karloff, but Universal Studios shortened his name to Karloff. The film poster above even refers to him as "Karloff the Uncanny".

When a new film called "The Mummy" was made in 1999 it was described as a remake, and people began giving their opinions on which version was better. I wonder if the film critics even took the trouble to watch both films. It's silly to call the new version a remake, because the story in the new film has almost nothing to do with the old film. It's the same mummy, Imhotep, and he's also brought back to life, but that's where the similarity ends. There is no need to compare the two films as if they were on an equal footing.

I like both films. My main problem with the 1933 film is that it seems too short. That was a product of the age. In pre-war days 73 minutes was a typical length for a film. After all, it was still common for cinemas to show two films together, so neither film could be too long.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Pusher (2 Stars)

Sometimes a film just doesn't live up to its reputation. I'd heard about this film for years, but I never got around to watching it until today. "The Best Danish gangster film ever", or so I heard.

Technically, it's not a gangster film. It's a film about a drug dealer in Copenhagen. He gets into debt with his supplier when he's forced to dispose of a large amount of heroin while being chased by the police. He's given two days to pay back the whole sum, about $40,000. The film is 20 years old, so it's probably worth about $100,000 in today's money.

The film was moderately entertaining, and I might have given it a better rating, but the film's ending annoyed me so much. Or rather the non-ending. It ended on a cliff-hanger, leading up to a final showdown that we never see. I hate films like that.

The film was remade in England in 2012, set in London instead of Copenhagen. That's unusual. Foreign films are usually remade in America. Maybe the English version is better.

There are better Danish gangster films. I recommend "In China they eat dogs" and "Old men in new cars", both of which star Kim Bodnia, the lead actor in "Pusher".

Candy Stripers over the Edge (2½ Stars)

Do you know what a candy striper is? Probably not, unless you live in America. It's a volunteer nurse who works in a hospital without being paid. Since she's usually untrained she only does basic jobs like making beds and bringing the patients their food. They're called candy stripers because when the volunteer system was first introduced the volunteer nurses wore red and white striped uniforms to distinguish them from regular nurses. Today they wear the same uniforms as regular nurses, but the name has stuck. Sometimes medical students work part time as candy stripers to get a taste of hospitals, so it isn't purely a matter of exploiting people as unpaid labour.

Now to the film, a short film made by Fred Olen Ray in 2007. Monique is sitting at home bored because her boyfriend is away. She remembers that her best friend Hannah, a candy striper, has her day off, so she invites her round. Together they read erotic literature, which turns them on, so they begin to play with one another in bed. In my opinion it's rather tasteless literature, relying on vulgar words rather than erotic imagery, so I was glad when they stopped reading it and got on to the other stuff. Hannah phones her colleagues Courtney and Ava, also candy stripers, to come and join them. Together they all roll around in bed talking about men while playing with one another.

This isn't one of Fred's better films. The girls aren't as attractive as his usual actresses. They have too much metal on their bodies. Maybe other men like things like that, but it's not for me. As I often say, "A girl should never have any metal in places that I like to kiss, lick or suck".

There are two short films on the DVD. I hope the other film is better. Wait for my review in the next few days.

Monday, 23 February 2015

General: Academy Awards 2015 Fashion

Here are a few photos taken at last night's Academy Awards. Most, though not all of the men dressed conservatively. The women dressed up to get themselves noticed. While some women, in particular Lady Gaga, deliberately made themselves look ugly, others tried to look good but failed.

J. K. Simmons was the best dressed man of the evening. He has class with a capital K.

Lady Gaga tried her hardest to look ugly and almost succeeded. She showed up wrapped in a dish cloth and wearing her washing up gloves.

Jennifer Lopez was one of the few top actresses who actually managed to look good.

There was only one thing wrong with Emma Stone's outfit. She would have looked better without underwear.

Chloe Grace Moretz looked beautiful and elegant, as always. Some fashion sites have criticised her for wearing a dress with pockets, but it's a good idea. It gives a woman somewhere to hide her hands when she's feeling nervous. It also means she doesn't need to carry a handbag.

Neil Patrick Harris is an actor with nothing to hide. Almost nothing, that is.

After the show Neil Patrick Harris was seen asking J. K. Simmons for fashion tips. He was told he needed a hat.

Unbelievable! 61 years old, and Oprah Winfrey was one of the best looking women in the room.

At the other end of the scale, "supermodel" Karolina Kurkova wins my vote for the worst dressed woman, outdoing even Lady Gaga. The tragic thing is that Lady Gaga wanted to look ugly, whereas Karolina probably thought she looked good. Someone should send her back to fashion school.

The awesome twins, Tegan and Sara, were nominated for an Oscar for the Best Original Song. They should have won. "Glory" isn't too bad as a song, but it just isn't awesome!

It was kind of the Film Academy to invite Kelly Osbourne, to show that they're not biased against people with zero talent. She should have asked the Tegan twins for fashion advice though. At least they know how to make black look good.

Look who they allowed on stage. It's Mr. Terrence They-Don't-Pay-Me-Enough Howard. It looks like he was telling people how much he wants for his next film.

Someone told Jared Leto the roof was leaking, so he came prepared.

Shia LaBeouf was turned away at the door because the security guards didn't recognise him. Or maybe it really was an imposter? We'll never know.

Unfortunately, Kim Jong-Un wasn't invited to the Academy Awards this year. He requested a ticket, but he was told that they wouldn't invite him unless he got a better haircut. He attempted a new style last month, but it still wasn't good enough.

50 Shades of Grey (3 Stars)

I'm fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia.

I can't remember when a film has sparked so much controversy. Everyone was talking about it from when the filming first started. That's not because the book on which it's based was so successful, selling more than 60 million copies worldwide. It's not the first time a successful book has been filmed. The controversy stems from the subject matter. It's a book about sex, moreover it's a book about kinky sex, leading to expectations that it would be a pornographic film. That's the sort of film respectable people don't watch in public. They watch it secretly at home on the Internet and never talk about what they've seen.

I'll get it out of the way first that the end result, the film I saw in the cinema today, isn't pornography. It has erotic scenes in it which probably go further than what most cinema-goers would sit and watch with their friends, but it's far from pornographic. It will probably disappoint many people who are used to harder stuff in their private hours at home.

It's difficult for me to steer completely away from spoilers in this review. I apologise for this in advance. Luckily the plot is so empty that I don't have to describe much. Anastasia Steele is a college student majoring in English Literature. She visits Christian Grey, the billionaire head of a telecommunications company in Seattle, to interview him for her student newspaper. After the meeting a disjointed relationship begins between the two. They're both fascinated with one another, but they have different expectations from the relationship. She falls in love with him and wants a romance, whereas he wants to control her, both sexually and emotionally.

Let's make it clear that it doesn't matter what I write, or what any film critic will write. This film is a smash hit. The following table, taken from the web site Box Office Mojo on February 22nd, shows that it's the best earning film of 2015 so far, outperforming the second place film by 43%. By the time you read this post it might be further ahead. Click on the table for an update.

This is a difficult review for me to write. Am I going to judge the production quality of the film or the content of what is shown? It's difficult for me to keep the two apart. I'll try to get the first category out of the way first, because I have more to say about the second. Many critics have said that the dialogue is poorly written and the acting is poor. I disagree. Both the dialogue and its delivery are appropriate to the characters being portrayed. Christian Grey is a billionaire, so he has a stilted way of carrying himself, very different to the way normal people talk. We see the same thing when Anthony Hopkins plays the billionaire Charles Morse in "The Edge". If this had been Hopkins' only film we might have questioned his acting ability, but as it is his performance is exactly what is needed for the role. On the other hand, Anastasia is a star-struck young girl, swept off her feet by a man who is out of her league in every possible way, and Dakota Johnson adequately portrays this. As for the plot, not much happens, but I'm assuming that in this respect the film follows the book.

Now to the film's content. It's a fairy tale that borrows a lot from the story of Cinderella. A poor young girl meets a handsome young prince. She leaves the palace, but he searches for her. I've read reviews where people claim that Christian Grey was acting like a stalker when he walked into Anastasia's place of work. This is ridiculous. Was the prince a stalker when he searched the kingdom to find the girl who had lost her slipper? Not at all. If he had had the Internet he could have found her a lot faster. What makes a man a stalker isn't pursuing a woman, it's continuing to pursue her when she says she isn't interested. Anastasia was still sending Christian positive signals in this part of the film.

In fact, for the first half of the film Christian was a sympathetic character to me. He protected Anastasia from a drunken assault by her friend Jose. He didn't take advantage of her when she was drunk. He emphasised that she was free to leave at any time. If only he had stayed like this for the rest of the film.

I don't see the non-disclosure agreement that he asks Anastasia to sign at the beginning of the relationship as a sign of control. On the contrary, it's good sense for a rich man in our kiss-and-tell age. So many women have a relationship or a one-night stand with a celebrity, then sell their story to the newspapers afterwards. It's what people like to hear, "how the other half lives". There has to be some level of privacy in a relationship, and there's a strong temptation for a person to break that privacy if the press offers thousands of dollars.

The other contract, the BDSM contract that's never actually signed, is a different matter. Judging by the brief quotes it sounds like a version of the same contract that I signed with a Mistress 20 years ago. The book's author, E. L. James, can't be accused of not doing her homework on the BDSM community. The problem in the film isn't the contract itself, it's Christian's attitude to it. Due to Anastasia's hesitation and the differences in her expectations she doesn't sign it, but Christian doesn't care. In the absence of a mutual agreement he single-handedly enforces the terms that he considers favourable to himself. "Fuck the contract!", he says when she appeals to its terms. This contract is intended as a document to protect a submissive from things he/she might not want from a dominant, so acting against it crosses the line from domination to abuse.

This is in character with other developments that we see in Christian in the second half of the film. He started as a likeable character, but once we see his darker side I felt like punching him in the face. He breaks into Anastasia's private apartment to wait for her and give her a present. This is totally unacceptable behaviour. There is no excuse for it. This is nothing to do with BDSM. It's the arrogance of a rich man who thinks he can do whatever he wants with the poor people below him, and he expects them to be thankful for it. In the same way he steals her car and sells it, giving her a brand new car in return. That should have been the final straw for Anastasia, but the star-struck little Cinderella welcomes him taking away her rags to give her riches. She doesn't realise her mistake until the end of the film when she asks for her rags back, and she's told it's too late.

Early on in the film Christian tells Anastasia that the terms of their relationship are negotiable. That's admirable. But when she comes with her wishes, for instance that she wants to be allowed to touch Christian without being asked to, his answer is a clear No. For Christian negotiation means that she tells him what she wants and he refuses. He is unmoveable. Any offers to compromise are just lies intended to draw Anastasia in.

Christian Grey is obviously an emotional cripple. He's the son of a crack addict and was adopted into a rich family when he was four. I'm not saying this to excuse him. Other men with a background like this would be hungry for romantic attachment in later life to make up for their early lack of love, but Christian rejects romance and only wants control. "I don't make love, I fuck hard". He's an ugly person. Anastasia is much too good for him. Christian mentions that he spent six years as the submissive of an older woman, from the ages of 15 to 21, but he seems to have learnt nothing from this time.

As much as I dislike Christian Grey, I find the film's portrayal of him as a person realistic. It's what I would expect a rich dominant man to be like. For most of my life I have skirted the edges of the BDSM community, but despite being in relationships with a few women I have refused to let myself be drawn in. I've never met any billionaires, or even millionaires, but I've known a lot of dominant men, and what I've seen has shocked me. The line between domination and abuse is very thin, and men are ill-equipped to stay on the right side. A man might begin a relationship promising to respect all of his submissive's boundaries, but when he becomes jealous or sexually aroused he can snap and reveal his true nature. I have had women crying in my arms who finally saw what their dominant was capable of. For instance, a friend of mine who married her dominant was ordered by him to kneel in the living room while he was having sex with another submissive girl that he had met online. She obeyed him, despite the unpleasantness of hearing the two together, but when she heard her husband snoring, having forgotten all about her, she finally stood up and left him. This might sound like an extreme example, but it's typical of what dominant men do if they get the chance.

Women, on the other hand, are better equipped to dominate, both genetically and emotionally. They can respect boundaries. They know when to stop, even without hearing a safe word. Apart from this, women are able to separate sex and domination. For a man, domination is foreplay to sex. A man cannot see the point in dominating a woman if sexual intercourse doesn't follow. Women are better able to compartmentalise. A dominant woman might have sex with her submissive, if it's her partner, or she might have a completely non-sexual relationship based on domination alone.

Many people disagree with my opinions on domination, as I know from endless discussions in the past. A big problem with the BDSM scene is that most people have only learnt about it from books. They read about what's right and what's wrong, safe words, consensuality, etc. and then they meet other people who've read the same books, and they're all happy together. When they encounter someone who says something different they say, "You're wrong", or "You don't know enough". It's a very intolerant community. Luckily it's possible to meet people, sometimes in unexpected places, who have the courage to think for themselves.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Gremlins (3 Stars)

I'd seen this film a few times before today, but for some reason I could hardly remember it. The only thing that stuck in my mind was the gremlins saying "Bright light! Bright light!" I'd also forgotten that they're not actually called gremlins in the film, they're mogwais.

A father buys his son a pet while on a business trip. It's a cute little creature that shows great intelligence and can even sing. The father is warned that there are three rules he must observe:

  1. The mogwai must be kept away from bright light, including normal daylight.
  2. The mogwai cannot get wet.
  3. The mogwai must not be allowed to eat after midnight.

Strange rules, especially the third. The reasons for the rules aren't stated, but when they're all broken we see what happens.

Mogwais are scared of bright light, and extended exposure to daylight can even kill them.

If a mogwai gets wet it has babies which are fully grown within minutes. What a boring way to get pregnant!

If a mogwai eats after midnight it morphs into a hairless evil creature with sharp teeth that looks more like a small dragon than a cuddly toy.

I thought it was a film directed by Steven Spielberg, but I realised today that he is only the executive producer. As you probably know, the executive producer of a film does almost nothing, as far as creative input is concerned. In most cases it's only someone who sits in the background, such as a book author who owns the rights to characters, someone with veto rights if he doesn't like things in the film. In the case of "Gremlins" I don't know why Steven Spielberg was given the job. Maybe the studio just wanted his name on the box because he was at the peak of popularity in the early 1980's.

The end result is a horror comedy that's pleasant enough, but has no outstanding qualities.

TV Soap: Eastenders (30th Anniversary Part 4)

I didn't intend to write any more about the Eastenders anniversary after yesterday's post, but after seeing the Friday episode I thought it would be fair to add a few comments. It was broadcast the day after the actual anniversary, but all the episodes this week (with the exception of the flashback episode) take place on the same virtual day. After Thursday's bloated episode and the disappointing flashback cop-out, I have to say that Friday's episode was the best of the week. It presented a satisfying resolution to the whole Who-Killed-Lucy-Beale storyline.

The Friday episode continued directly from the cliffhanger on Thursday. We, the viewers, already knew who the killer was. But there were twists to come. First of all, Jane confesses to having killed Lucy. At first Ian believes her, but then he asks for details about how she did it, and Jane's story is so unconvincing that he realises she's covering up for somebody. So Jane tells the truth about the events of the evening. Bobby didn't realise that Lucy was dead, he just thought she was unconscious. Jane recognised she was dead straight away, but didn't want to tell Bobby what he had done. So she said she was taking Lucy to hospital, but she actually loaded her body in the back of the car, then dumped her in the park, where she wasn't found until the next morning.

At the end of the conversation, Ian and Jane swear that they will never tell Bobby what he's done, because it would ruin his life. But there's one thing that is 100% certain in soap operas: secrets never stay hidden. One day it will come out. One day a scriptwriter will need an interesting story, whether it's five, ten or twenty years from now.

But for now, it's back to business as usual in Walford. There might be brief mentions of Lucy's death next week, but the subject will soon be forgotten. There are more important murders to talk about. Dot Branning has finally confessed to murdering her son, while Mick Carter has accidentally killed Dean Wicks in self-defence, but has decided to hide the body because he doesn't expect the police to believe him.

I have a few final thoughts about what a "soap" or "soap opera" is. I realise my definition may exclude some popular programs that people consider to be soaps, but I'll stick to my definition.

A soap opera is a radio or television drama that runs non-stop, i.e. for 52 weeks a year. In most cases there is more than one episode a week. Several plot-lines run in parallel, and there is never a "season finale" in which all the loose ends are tied up. One plot-line might come to an end, but others are still running.

The above paragraph is what is quintessential to soaps, but there are other typical characteristics. A television soap opera usually takes place within a small environment, with the same set used every week. Relationships are in a constant state of flux, i.e. people who dislike each other this year might be best friends next year. The regular cast of a soap opera is large in comparison with conventional dramas, but it's unusual to see them all in one episode. Someone who's a minor character this month might have a big story next month, then fade into the background again.

Usually soap operas are very down to Earth, they're stories that the viewers can relate to. Exceptions are supernatural soaps (like "Dark Shadows") and sci-fi soaps (like "The Tribe"). But even soaps like these focus on familiar things like family strife and extra-marital affairs. In fact, people in soaps are rarely happy. Whenever something good happens we know that a disaster is waiting round the corner.

Friday, 20 February 2015

TV Soap: Eastenders (30th Anniversary Part 3)

So now the mystery has finally been solved. Little Bobby Beale did it. He bludgeoned his sister to death with a music box.

I've been getting into the "Who killed Lucy Beale" excitement all this week, so I was anxious to see the anniversary episode last night. I didn't see it as it was broadcast, because I went out to see the excellent punk band Staatspunkrott performing. As soon as I got home (shortly after midnight) I made a cup of coffee and watched the episodes on Iplayer. My opinion on the story's resolution?

It sucks!

I have two reasons for my criticism. I know that many Eastenders fans will disagree with me, so I hope that they'll leave comments here to start a lively discussion.

First, there were many murder suspects, but Bobby Beale was so unlikely that finding out it was him seemed like a deus ex machina. I mean, he's only 11, and his sister was 21. He didn't surprise her, as we saw in the flashback yesterday. Lucy saw him enter the room. She could easily have fought him off. But even if she didn't, how much effort is needed to kill someone with a music box? A lucky strike from behind might knock a person unconscious, but not kill him. And as I just said, she was facing him. Repeated blows would have been necessary to kill her, even if Bobby had had enough strength. That would have left her badly bruised and in a pool of blood. But her body looked clean and tidy when she was found, no scars on her face, no blood anywhere. The whole murder scenario seems unrealistic.

My second criticism is the way the murder was revealed. There were two episodes yesterday. The first episode, which lasted an hour, was in the usual Eastenders format. Ian Beale was beginning to piece together clues about his daughter's death, while Kim Fox had a baby in the pub toilet, Stacey Branning found a corpse in an empty house, and Dean Wicks attempted to set the pub on fire. A typical day in a typical London street. At the end of the episode Ian accused his wife Jane (who he had married in the previous episode) of killing his daughter.

But then came the second episode, broadcast an hour later. An episode in a very strange format. It was advertised as a flashback episode. Rather than continue the conversation from the previous episode's cliffhanger, we were shown the events that happened on the last day of Lucy's life. Some of what we saw was a repeat of things broadcast last year, but there were also additional scenes to fill in the gaps. We weren't shown the murder itself, but we saw Lucy talking to an off-screen person entering the room, and then we saw Jane finding Lucy's body and Bobby confessing to her. Logically, the flashback episode can't be the contents of Jane's conversation with Ian, because she wasn't present for most of what happened in the flashbacks. Dramatically, the flashback device is a cheap way out without any artistic merit. That's my opinion, anyway, but I welcome comments from anyone who thinks differently.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

TV Soap: Eastenders (30th Anniversary Part 2)

In my post yesterday I predicted that mistakes would be made in the live episodes being shown for the 30th anniversary week of "Eastenders". I was right, but I didn't expect such a whopper. Actress Jo Joyner, who plays Tanya Branning, got Ian Beale's name wrong when she asked his fiancée Jane (Laurie Brett) about him. She referred to him as Adam, which is the actor's real name, Adam Woodyat. Funny. This led to a strained pause as both actresses realised there had been a blunder.

Today I also watched the very first episode of "Eastenders" that was shown again to commemorate the anniversary. It was preceded by the above warning screen. That's so weird. Are today's television audiences really so much more sensitive than they were 30 years ago? I'm not 100% sure what the warning refers to. There were a few racist comments, but they were in no way condoned by the show. There were racists in 1985, and there are racists today. The show just wanted to give an accurate display of life in the East End of London. Maybe the difference is that today the ones who feel that they are the targets of racism react more violently.

It was interesting to see which actors were in the original episode who have remained with the series for 30 years. There are four of them. Sharon Watts (Letitia Dean), Nick Cotton (John Altman), Silent Tracey (Jane Slaughter) and of course Ian Beale (Adam Woodyat).

The Mist (4 Stars)

This is a 2007 film directed by Frank Darabont, based on a short story by Stephen King. It's his third adaptation of a Stephen King story, after "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile". While the first two films weren't horror films, it can be argued that "The Mist" is a typical Stephen King story. Roger Ebert calls it a Horrible Things Pouncing On People movie. I like that description. If it's not an official sub-genre of horror films it ought to be. Let's abbreviate it to HOTPOP (by also capitalising the first O in "Horrible"). I can't think of any other films that fit this genre at the moment, but there must be dozens of hotpop films.

This may be a hotpop film, but there's more to it. It's a film about a microcosm of society, placed under duress, which we can observe in their development. "Fear changes everything", as the film poster says. Fear brings out the best in some and the worst in others. I wonder how it would affect me. I hope I never have to find out.

The story's plot is so simple that it can be explained in a few words, but the two hours spent telling the tale fly by. After a storm and power cut the artist David Drayton drives to a supermarket to buy supplies. While in the store a thick mist falls, and the store is surrounded by giant creatures. The approximately 50 people lock themselves in the store to survive the next few days.

After the initial shock, the people in the store rally around two leaders. David Drayton is a logical thinker who uses reason to find a way to escape. Mrs. Carmody is a religious fanatic who sees the creatures as the fulfilment of the Book of Revelation, God's judgement on the evildoers, and she believes that the creatures can only be appeased by sacrificing the evildoers -- i.e. the members of David's group -- as human sacrifices. Following a perceived miracle, in which Mrs. Carmody is spared by a creature sitting on her chest, the people defect to her group one by one.

I've owned this film on DVD for a few years. My version advertises that it also includes the "stunning black and white version". Black and white? What's that about? I never bothered watching it, but today I thought I would give it a chance. There's an introduction to the film by Frank Darabont which explains it. He says that it was his intention to make the film in black and white to replicate the atmosphere of the early American horror movies that he grew up with. The film studios didn't allow him to do this, because they said that young audiences consider b/w films old-fashioned and wouldn't watch it. So he filmed in colour, but throughout the filming he used stark contrasts which would stand out in a b/w transfer. The colour version was released in the cinemas, but the b/w version is what he calls his Director's Cut, the way the film was intended to be seen.

It's been more than four years since I last watched "The Mist", so it's difficult to make a 1-to-1 comparison of the two versions. All I can say is that I can see what he means. The scenes with the mist look eerie in b/w, and the monsters look even scarier. The only places where I miss colour is in the close-ups of people's faces. The skin and eye colour seem painfully absent. But I agree that the overall impression of the film is improved by showing it in b/w.

According to Frank Darabont's introduction, the film is set in the 1980's. However, it has a retro look about it that makes it hard to pin down. Cell phones are mentioned, but not shown. The store customers are wearing clothes that look more like the 1960's, while the soldiers are wearing uniforms in 1940's style. The goods in the store are in very simple packets that look like they come from the early post-war years. This old look is intensified by the lack of colour.

I'll probably re-watch the colour version of the film soon. If I have time. So many films, so little time.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

TV Soap: Eastenders

This week is the 30th anniversary of this British soap opera, which has been broadcast since February 19th 1985. To commemorate the occasion there will be three live episodes shown from the 17th till the 19th, and the anniversary episode will finally answer the question, "Who killed Lucy Beale?" Does that sound familiar to long time soap watchers? In this case it's been dragged on for a long time, because her body was found in April last year. The only clues are the fake clues that the soap has been throwing at us for the last 10 months to keep us guessing.

The 50th anniversary episode of "Coronation Street" was also a live episode. I don't understand the reason for live episodes. Considering the fact that the production quality of the episodes is usually flawless, the danger is great that there will be a slip up on the night. After all, very few of the cast have experience as stage actors, so there's a great danger that they will fluff their lines. Or the cameraman might cough off screen. By this time next week there will probably be websites publishing lists of bloopers, or what people consider to be bloopers. Apart from this, there's a more practical problem. Eastenders episodes are filmed three to four weeks in advance, so these three episodes are being made out of sequence. What I mean is, last week they were filming March episodes, this week they're performing February episodes, and next week they'll be filming March episodes again. For the last few weeks they've been filming episodes that take place after the big revelations of this week, even though the answer is so secret that very few of the cast have been informed. That must be a big logistics problem for the soap's producers. Maybe this is explained in one of the documentaries that's running all week. I haven't watched them, and I don't intend to watch them, so if you're an Eastenders fan and know the answer, please leave me a comment.

The pub where the locals drink.

For those who don't know much about "Eastenders", mostly people who don't live in Britain, it's Britain's most popular soap opera. It began in 1985 as BBC's answer to "Coronation Street", shown on the rival television channel ITV. It takes place in the fictional London borough of Walford. Originally it was shown twice a week, but this crept up to three times (1994) and finally four times (2001). There is frequently a fifth episode on special occasions. Unlike "Coronation Street", which portrays a drab northern culture, "Eastenders" gained attention from the beginning by including plot lines with organised crime. After all, the East End of London is known for its gangsters.

Although I first heard about "Eastenders" much earlier, I don't believe that I watched any episodes until the late 1990's. Just a few sporadic episodes out of nostalgia for England, because I lived in America at the time. In 2000 I returned to England, and I spent 17 months in hospital. During this time I had little to do but watch television, and I probably watched every episode of "Eastenders". I watched the other soaps as well ("Coronation Street", "Emmerdale", "Brookside", "Home and Away" and "Hollyoaks"), but I enjoyed "Eastenders" most, because of the better acting and production qualities than in the other soaps. It amused me that although the soaps were shown on different channels the broadcast times were synchronised so as not to clash with one another, and it was possible to watch two hours of soaps non-stop every weekday evening. That was too much for me. After checking them all out I stuck with "Eastenders" on a regular basis and only watched the others sporadically.

After returning home I continued to watch "Eastenders". I probably saw almost all the episodes until 2005. After that it finally grew boring, so I only watched the wedding episodes. It's a well-known fact that all Eastenders weddings go badly, so I watched them just to see what the next tragedy would be. Sometimes a fight broke out in church. Sometimes it was revealed five minutes before the wedding that the priest had slept with the bride the night before. On one occasion there was an argument and the bride fell to her death 15 minutes after the wedding. Something bad always happens. I'm surprised that the residents of Walford haven't yet learnt that it's better to remain single.

For me it's difficult to find the energy to watch a soap like "Eastenders" on a long time basis. There are too many dramas and real life tragedies going on. What happens is realistic, in my opinion. The problem is the frequency of the dramas. What I mean is, if you were to chronicle your life you'd see that most of the year is boring, and maybe once a year there's a big occurrence like a car accident or a new love affair. Or much less often. Sometimes five years pass without anything noteworthy happening. But in "Eastenders" (and all the other soaps) there are big life crises happening every week. It has to be like that to keep the viewers interested, but if all those things were happening in my own life I'd be stressed out.

Melissa Suffield as Lucy Beale.

So who killed Lucy Beale? My money is on Max Branning, one of her ex-lovers. I say that for no other reason than he's a creepy character who deserves to be kicked off the show. But anything is possible. You'll have to watch the show to find out.

It's a shame that Lucy is gone now. She was a pretty girl. She was played by four different actresses after her birth in 1993. From 1993 to 1996 (as a baby) by Eva Brittin-Snell, from 1996 to 2004 (as a young child) by Casey Rothery, from 2004 to 2010 (as a teenager) by Melissa Suffield, from 2012 to 2015 (as a young woman) by Hetti Bywater.

Hetti Bywater as Lucy Beale.

Who knows, maybe I'll be so fascinated by watching the episodes this week that I'll become a regular viewer again. Maybe. Let's see.