Film, religion, TV

Shocking similarities between geek culture and religious fundamentalism

What do Superman and God have in common?

Well, I’m sure many have written a dissertation on such a question, but one obvious answer is they both have obsessive fans – geeks and fundamentalists.

As someone who grew up in a pretty fundamentalist Christian background and then went on to become a massive geek, I’ve noticed some pretty startling similarities between the two groups.

Here are a just a few…

 

Bizarre obsession with continuity

Christian fundamentalists often speak of ‘The Bible’ as if it’s one homogeneous text – something can be ‘biblical’ or ‘un-biblical’ depending on ‘what The Bible says.’

Of course, one is likely to think such a thing when you believe all scripture was inspired by God himself, but as we learn more about the context of the many texts of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we understand an obvious truth – each one was written in a specific time and place, with specific intentions.

It’s believed a lot of the Old Testament was written during the Jewish Exile to Babylon, and so the narrative focus on the Israelites being God’s chosen people is understood to be a wonderful story providing a strong image for the Jewish people struggling with a national identity.

Equally, each of the gospels were written at different times for different audiences which explains the varying portrayals of Jesus in each. It is really quite startling to contrast the differences between the human Jesus of Mark who dies on the cross asking ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’, to the God-man striding across the Earth in the Gospel of John.

Indeed, a better way to understand the Bible is not as one book written by one author with one intention, but instead put together (over a much greater period) a bit like Doctor Who. The classic sci-fi TV show began in 1963 in black and white, with a grumpy old Doctor who tried to cave the head of a caveman in during the second episode. But it changed radically across the course of its history, The Doctor becoming a recorder-playing clown, then a suave aikido-practicing gentleman who was trapped on Earth. And all this was before he became the iconic Tom Baker!

Importantly, the mythology kept on evolving. Initially The Doctor was just a wandering alien, perhaps the last of his kind, but then it was revealed he had a species. His first regeneration was explicitly linked to the powers of the TARDIS, but the second regeneration was down to the Time Lords. The Daleks were initially creepy lone survivors on a near-dead planet, before they became all powerful conquerors.

Trying to suggest there’s one consistent mythology to Doctor Who is a fool’s errand – it was written by different writers, for a changing audience over more than 50 years. But this doesn’t stop fans trying, pointing out ‘X contradicts an episode from over 30 years ago.’ In much the same way, it would do the fundamentalist good to acknowledge that contradictions within their Holy Scripture (which can be found not just across books, but also a mere few passages apart, such as how many animals God instructed to be taken on the ark) shouldn’t be explained away, but accepted as the inevitable outcome of an ever-evolving mythology across a library of fascinating texts.

 

Missing the spirit of the text

It is quite amazing how many racist and/or sexist Twitter users have the face of a superhero as their bio pic.  Aren’t superheroes about human decency? It’s extraordinary that any Star Trek fan could complain about a black lead. Isn’t the whole point of Star Trek an absolute egalitarian society? And recently, isn’t it crazy how Doctor Who fans have complained that from Christmas the next Doctor will be played by a woman? Doctor Who, as well as being about compassion and doing the right thing, so often preaches the necessity of change and the dangers of not letting go of the past.

It often seems fans completely miss the point of the characters and shows they idolise.

In much the same way, it is absolutely bizarre than any Christian could support Trump, who aims to make it harder for the poorest in the United States to have access to basic rights like healthcare and education. Wasn’t Jesus’ whole point that we should be reaching out to the poor and outcast in our society, and that the Kingdom of God will be the inversion of today’s reality? Yet Trump had a huge amount of support from Evangelical Christians.

It appears both fundamentalists and geeks could do well to look at the spirit of the texts, shows and characters they dedicate so much time to.

 

Problematic views on women

It’s sad but true that geek culture has some real issues with women. Of course this was shown clearly with the man-babies crying about the casting of a female Doctor (which I have talked about at some length here), but it’s equally manifested in the way fans reacted to the last two Star Wars movies having a female lead.

I remember reading lots of commentators responding to the Rogue One trailer saying ‘ANOTHER female lead.’ I know right, two out of eight movies – CRAZY!

Gaming culture is also particularly bad, with ‘bros’ talking about ‘girl gamers’ not being ‘real gamers’.

Again, this parallels fundamentalists across all the Abrahamic religions, who are often uncomfortable with female leadership. It is absolutely ridiculous that the Church of England is still arguing over female bishops. Why on Earth would a God (who, if he/she exists at all, would almost certainly be genderless) care about what genitals you have? That seems a far more human concern.

The lesson from this one is simple, geeks and fundamentalists both need to grow the fuck up and stop being so sexist.

 

The Golden Age

One of the defining traits of fundamentalism is ‘The Golden Age’ of the religion. This tends to extend both backwards and forwards in time. Once there was a golden age where the religion was practiced perfectly and, soon, there will be a future where the religion is once again practiced perfectly. Only now, at this specific moment, are the hard times.

This thinking is rife across all kinds of geek fandom. Star Wars might seem a slightly unfair example because the originals really were ground-breaking and hugely influential cinema, but the response to the prequels (and, in some circles, the newer movies) was always a bit blinkered, as if the originals were flawless with Shakespearean dialogue and unrivaled acting (they weren’t!)

Clearer still is Doctor Who fans who constantly hate on current showrunner Steven Moffat. They’ll complain endlessly that the Russell T. Davies era was the golden age of the show and it’s never been as good since, often forgetting the times when the Davies era wasn’t all that great (I mean no-one really liked that Daleks in Manhattan two-parter did they?) And, in perfect parallel to the fundamentalists, they project all their hopes on the upcoming showrunner, Chris Chibnall, for a new golden age of Doctor Who. It is inevitable that, within the first two or three weeks of the next series, they’ll be pining for the golden days of Moffat.

 

Silly differences

It’s amazing how religious followers can have so many beliefs in common but still see each other as ‘opposed’. You see it in Catholics and Protestants most obviously, but I’ve been in Evangelical churches who are quick to question whether some other set of Christians are ‘real Christians’ and ask if they are ‘really saved’.

This again is reflected in geek culture.

‘If you like the Star Wars prequels, you’re not a REAL Star Wars fan.’

‘They only liked Doctor Who because they fancied David Tennant.’

Guys, can’t we see what unites us rather than pick up on the smallest of differences?

 

Both geeks and fundamentalists spend too much time thinking about imaginary characters

As both a geek and someone slightly theistic leaning, this one is just me being facetious.

 

Most are nice people

For all the negative similarities, I think it’s worth pointing out the most obvious similarity – both are given a bad reputation by the vocal minority of dumb followers/fans.

Most religious people, even fundamentalists, want to practice their religion in peace without imposing it on the lives of others.

Similarly, most geeks watch these shows and films because they enjoy them, and don’t log-in to internet forums to complain that it’s the ‘worst one ever’ or to vent their anger at the latest bit of casting.

Both groups could benefit from some of their most vocal members just….shutting up…

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Film

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – the best MCU movie so far? (spoiler free)

I’m not ashamed to say I, along with many others, wept at the end of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Yep, I cried during a Marvel movie…the one about talking raccoons and baby trees no less. The general tone of a Marvel movie isn’t hard to predict, largely a lot of laughs and a little bit of ‘that’s awesome’ thrown in, but tear-jerking…I wasn’t expecting that!

Truthfully I’m not really sure what I was expecting. The first Guardians movie is my favourite of the MCU movies largely because it strays a delicate line of irreverent humour and absolute emotional sincerity perfectly, with a tonal dexterity that other Marvels tend not to have. Equipped with a killer retro soundtrack on top of that (which informs the emotion of the film as well as simply being great fun), the original flew its way straight into my heart.

The trouble is, a sequel to a movie that was essentially lightening in a bottle was always going to be difficult. On the one hand, if the sequel simply doubles down on the elements that work well in the original it’ll almost always be met with the accusation of diminishing returns. On the other, doing something completely different might risk losing the charm of the original and alienating the existing fanbase.

James Gunn, however, finds a steady compromise between the two approaches. Vol. 2 certainly does bring back everything people loved from the original (namely the humour, tone and retro soundtrack) bigger and better than ever before. As Baby Groot dances around to ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ during the opening as the Guardians fight a big tentacled monster, it’s pretty clear we’re in familiar territory (and, quite possibly, operates as a simple metaphor for the film’s focus throughout.)

Yet Vol. 2 does offer new experiences as well. This time around the team are broken up into smaller groups to pursue their own individual stories, which gives everything a slightly different flavour. It’s also a deeper and more personal movie than the first, with clearer and more thoroughly explored themes. It’s not quite The Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather Part II of sequels, but it’s certainly not a simple re-tread either.

It’s helped by different characters taking centre stage. Certainly Peter Quill is still the main character and it’s ultimately his story, but it does feel even more of an ensemble piece this time. Yondu, in particular, is given a lot more to do than in the first movie and I imagine he may well end up being many people’s favourite Guardian after this. New character Mantis is also an adorable addition to the team, forming a genuinely moving relationship with Drax – despite being the complete opposite in many ways.

Speaking of adorable, Baby Groot is insanely fucking cute. He really does steal the movie and just a tiny change in his expression can (and will) break your heart. As Guardians Of The Galaxy does best, Baby Groot isn’t just an opportunity for laughs (and merchandise), but actually works really well with the film’s focus on family and parenting.

The plot could be accused of being a little on the slight side. In fact it’s very much like an early series Star Trek story played out over two hours, but to say much more would be to enter into spoiler territory. I do think this gives us one of Marvel’s better villains, which is admittedly faint praise. It’s not quite Loki standard, but it’s a bit better than a lot of the other disposable villains Marvel has gotten through (Malekith, Ronan, Whiplash etc. )

There’s also mercifully little connection to the MCU at large, in fact I think this might be the most standalone Marvel movie yet. Whereas even the first Guardians movie was burdened with The Collector and explaining the infinity stones, Vol. 2 is given free-reign to tell the story it desires free of interference. Even the five (yes, five!) post-credit sequences don’t really inform on the MCU at large. Ironically, however, the little we do learn of Thanos (the MCU’s ‘big bad’) in a brief but powerful conversation between Gamora and Nebula actually does more to build him up as a horrific villain than all the hints and appearances of Thanos in the entire MCU to date. But this mention isn’t forced, it’s entirely organic to the story and very much important to the theme of family that Vol. 2 orbits.

The film also looks gorgeous. It’s an explosion of vibrant colours, psychedelic and vivid. For those who sometimes think Marvel movies look a bit bland (I mean I enjoyed Civil War, but did it have to be SO grey?!), then Vol. 2’s delightfully garish colour palette will be welcome (and it looks like we’ll be getting more of this beauty in the third Thor outing!)

Vol. 2 certainly isn’t perfect. By breaking up the team and focusing on the individual storylines it loses some of that leanness and simplicity which gave the first outing such a wonderful source of momentum. Equally, a cynical viewer might say some of the scenes exist to serve the soundtrack, rather than the other way around (parts come close to feeling like a music video). I also think a little more could be done with the sci-fi action aesthetic. I know the movie always has its tongue firmly in cheek (there’s an alien race who fly spaceships as if they’re arcade machines) and that’s all part of the fun, but I did sometimes wish for a little more weight to the space battles just so the action set-pieces don’t feel so disposable.

But the reason this isn’t a deal-breaker is no-matter how weightless the action may seem, James Gunn realises this and always keeps the characters front and centre – their journeys are what give weight throughout. And I really have to applaud this movie for ending in such an emotional and kind of downbeat way (yes, back to the weeping). When you think about it, nearly every MCU movie (with very few exceptions) ends in a way which could be summed up as ‘the hero’s ready to kick ass in the next movie’. That isn’t the case in Vol. 2, which instead ends on a moment of entirely earned emotional poignancy.

It’ll be interesting to see what the status of Marvel movies will be once the MCU reaches its inevitable end. Whilst most of the movies are good (some, indeed, are excellent), they are a bizarre blend of film and product, the likes of which cinema hadn’t really seen before. Marvel movies can virtually act as advertisements for future installments (Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron being notable culprits for this.) When there is no future, so to speak, will these films stand up as something that can be watched at any time (something I’d feel comfortable replying positively for in the case of The Dark Knight and the first two Raimi Spider-Man movies) or are they so of the moment that they will eventually fade into obscurity, like filler episodes of a TV show?

It’s hard to say, but I do believe that if any of the series are going to standout then it’s going to be the Guardians movies (based on the first two, at least.) They transcend the MCU in many ways, and operate on a total different level of quality. Largely free from the shackles of being an advertisement or having to reference events of earlier movies, they are able to be their own thing and do genuinely feel like the work of a visionary director as opposed to a studio committee. The ending of Vol. 2 really reaffirms my faith that this series has the maturity and freedom to tell its story with absolute integrity to the plot and characters, rather than service a franchise.

The next time we see the Guardians it will be in the eagerly anticipated Infinity Wars, teaming up with the Avengers. Whilst it’ll certainly be a treat to see them there, it doesn’t feel necessary – if the Guardians never crossed-over it wouldn’t matter a bit and that’s why these movies work so well, the continuity connection is an added bonus, not a pivotal part of their appeal.

With James Gunn having just confirmed he’s signed up for Vol. 3, we know these wacky bunch of space misfits are in good hands. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they get up to next.

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Film

Why the prospect of Star Wars putting an end to the Jedi is so damn exciting

“I only know one truth, it’s time for the Jedi to end” says a much older looking Luke at the end of yesterday’s exciting teaser for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. For all the beautiful shots of Rey’s training, and the compulsory whizz-bang final shots of the trailer, it’s Luke’s line about the Jedi which is actually the most exciting.

Why? Well, the idea of the Jedi having to end or at least significantly reform would be a really organic, thematic culmination to the entire saga. One of the criticisms people have of the prequels is that the Jedi aren’t very likable, they’re not exactly the peaceful monks hinted at by Obi Wan in the original movie. But I’ve always thought, ‘yeah, that’s the whole point.’

From the moment we meet the Jedi Council in Episode One, their arrogance is on display. Mace Windu, one of the highest ranking Jedi, immediately doubts Qui-Gon’s assertion that he had battled a Sith Lord on the basis that if the Sith had returned, the Jedi would definitely have known (in this case, he was completely wrong!) Obi Wan is met with similar resistance in Episode 2 when he asks the librarian in the Jedi Temple about a planet he can’t find in their records. ‘If it does not exist in our records’ she says, ‘then it does not exist.’  Again, if people want to doubt this was Lucas’ intention, he writes a scene in Episode II where Yoda himself explicitly calls out the Jedi for being too sure of themselves, even the ‘older, more experienced ones.’

It seems like quite a statement Lucas is making that Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi most sceptical and rebellious of the Jedi Council’s authoritarian stance, is the first to learn the path to immortality.

Another troubling element of the Jedi in the prequel trilogy is their entanglement with the political structure of the time. From the moment we find them they seem a lot less like ‘the guardians of peace and justice’ which exist independently from the state for the good of the state, and instead much more like galactic police enforcing the laws of the Republic. I mean why on Earth are the Jedi sent as negotiators to the Trade Federation in Episode I, if not for the purpose of intimidating their opponents? It’s this entanglement with the political structure that makes them so ripe for Palpatine’s manipulation – by manufacturing a war between the Republic and Separatists, of course the Jedi are going to get dragged into the war itself, becoming generals and soldiers.

Further still, Palpatine suggests to Anakin in Episode III that the Jedi actually don’t trust democracy and are ultimately planning to take over the Republic. It’s not something we, as viewers, really see much of but there is one troubling scene in Episode III which gives this point a slight legitimacy. Some top ranking members of the Jedi Council are discussing what happens if they need to remove Chancellor Palpatine from power by force. It’s then Mace Windu suggests that the Jedi would have to take over for a short time to ensure a smooth transition…a line of thought Yoda immediately calls out as being dangerous. What’s so rich about all of this, and why I think the prequels are extremely underrated, is that this is really grey stuff. Of course the Jedi aren’t planning on a state takeover, but it’s certainly possible that a well-intentioned seizure of power could be hugely corrupting for the Jedi.

And when Mace Windu does finally go to arrest Palpatine after finding out he’s a Sith Lord, he makes the call at the end of the fight that the Chancellor is too dangerous to be left alive. Windu is prepared to kill Palpatine in cold blood because he simply doesn’t believe the Senate is sufficient to deal with him itself – this is really chilling stuff. This also goes someway in explaining why Anakin ultimately comes to view the Jedi as evil – after hearing concerns from his father figure, Palpatine, that the Jedi are plotting a takeover, he sees a respected Jedi master about to abandon the Jedi code and the rules of the Senate to kill the leader.

All these issues paint the Jedi as flawed and, perhaps, terminally so. But their single biggest weakness, and the flaw that runs across both trilogies, is their absolute belief in asceticism – no romantic involvement and no acceptance of grief. In the prequel trilogy Anakin’s biggest flaw is he’s highly emotional (and highly reactive). He feels love, anger and grief in the way most humans do. But, having been largely raised by the Jedi, he is given no healthy way of dealing with those emotions – he’s simply told not to have them.

His romantic involvement with Padme is entirely innocent, by all accounts it’s entirely right for these two to be together. But, knowing the Jedi council will never allow it, it becomes a cancerous barrier between him and the Jedi, even between him and his best friend Obi Wan. There’s then that haunting scene after Anakin’s mum dies at the hand of Tusken Raiders and he, in a burst of rage, slaughters them all. Padme says to him ‘To be angry is to be human’ to which he replies ‘I’m a Jedi, I know I’m better than this.’ I mean, geez, how emotionally repressed must you be to believe that grief is wrong!

This ultimately paves the way for his fall to the dark side because of his premonitions of Padme’s death. Not only is he unable to confide in anyone because the strict rules of the Jedi prohibit his attachment in the first place, when he asks Yoda about the premonitions he’s simply told he must ‘let go of everything he fears to lose.’ And so, in some perverse way, Anakin’s turn to the dark side is partly him just embracing and accepting his humanity and emotions. Of course it’s the wrong answer, but the Jedi offer absolutely no healthy alternative.

These themes continue (start? Stupid Star Wars timeline!) in the Original Trilogy. Luke finding out Darth Vader is his dad is an absolute game-changer – everything becomes more personal for him. Yet Yoda and Obi Wan are disappointed that he found out, precisely because they believe Luke having any form of emotional attachment will be his weakness (yes, they’re still spouting that bullshit 20 years after it cost them everything!) Obi Wan even says that if Luke can’t kill his father then the Empire has already won.

Yet Luke refuses to kill his father or to give up hope that there is any good left in him. And we see, bit-by-bit, the harder Luke outreaches to Vader, tiny moments of Vader’s humanity are revealed. When Vader is lying helpless at Luke’s mercy, the Emperor is urging Luke to kill him and take his place. What’s interesting is that had Luke kept an emotional detachment as the Jedi wanted him too, this could actually have made his turn to the dark side easier. Instead, Luke throws away his lightsaber (in contract to Windu’s actions in Episode III) and sticks by the Jedi code. As Vader sees his son being tortured, still crying out for help, still believing in his father’s capacity for good, he finally gives in and saves his son, destroying the Emperor in the process. It’s through Luke’s humanity, not his dedication to Jedi traditions, that Vader is redeemed and Luke survives.

That’s why I always find it funny when people say there’s ‘no grey areas’ in Star Wars. I completely disagree. Star Wars certainly believes in right and wrong as absolutes, but it is far less clear (particularly in the prequels) who actually is operating under those labels.

And, back to the original title, why is the idea of getting rid of the Jedi so exciting? Well, up until now, I’ve enjoyed Episode VII just enough, and I really liked Rogue One, but they ultimately felt like unnecessary add-ons. Episode VII in particular just looked to be putting all the same pieces into play as the original Star Wars but to diminishing returns. But, if they do look to reform the Jedi (and that teaser line isn’t just a really early ‘refusal to the call’) then it would make this next trilogy an organic extension and, indeed, the necessary modern thematic climax to the proceeding two trilogies. Character’s following their humanity and allowing for that ‘grey path’ that isn’t polarised by ‘light’ and ‘dark’ could be really exciting.

For example, as interesting as Kylo Ren is, I always thought it was a bit much that ANOTHER member of the Skywalker dynasty (the second in three generations) has turned into a dangerous psychopath. Yet if that turns out to be the whole point, (namely that repressive Jedi training leads to a disproportionately high number of dangerous, emotional, angry young men – Siths – in the same way the Catholic Priesthood has lead to a disproportionately high number of sex offenders), that would make Ren’s story an organic and important addition to the Star Wars universe.

Needless to say, this has all got me hyped for the next instalment of that story that took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…only have to wait until Christmas now!

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Film, Musicals

La La Land Review: Is it possible to be in love with a movie?

La La Land isn’t just a great movie, it’s joy encapsulated. A beautiful piece of art which is romantic and uplifting, finally chiming with a melancholic poignancy that doesn’t betray its spirit of optimistic escapism, but is happy to have a modern understanding of what this means. In essence, it’s a ‘feel good’ movie that doesn’t suffer from the ailments that label usually entails.

La La Land is the kind of movie if you told me you liked it, I would struggle to forgive your apathy. For me, it isn’t just the best movie I’ve seen for a long time, it might even be my favourite movie I’ve ever seen. This is a fairly bold claim for a film I’ve only watched twice, but the mixture of charm and technical proficiency makes it an irresistible delight, medicine for the soul in an otherwise depressing world climate.

Nominated for a staggering fourteen Oscars, La La Land is the story of two struggling artists, one an actor, one a musician, both looking to achieve their dreams in a world where the odds seem stacked against them. The story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) taps into universal themes which we can all relate to – who hasn’t struggled with balancing real life whilst yearning for the childhood dreams we grew up with? Although harkening back to the golden days of Hollywood, it’s a message that may well resonate with millennials acutely.

The magic of La La Land is that this story takes place in a musical. Not, however, the self-aware sort that is fun but trashy (Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages etc.) but instead an unapologetically old fashioned singing and dancing marathon. From the very first opening number it’s not demanding a ‘knowing smile’ but expects you to accept it and come along for the ride. In that sense it’s not going to convert non-musical lovers but why should it? The fact La La Land doesn’t think it needs to justify the magic of musicals is one of its most endearing traits. It’s in love with cinema, every frame attests to that, but its particularly enthusiastic in its love of musicals of the past and that passion oozes off the screen.

And what a musical it is! Each number is memorable, perhaps not in a show tunes way, but in how it propels the story forward and in how exquisitely the cinematography and choreography come together to make the most magical cinematic sequences. The film is packed with stunning set pieces – a Broadway like opening during a traffic jam, a whimsical dance among the stars and a seven minute montage to name but a few – and if just one had appeared in a lesser film they would elevate it considerably. But, put together, it’s an embarrassment of riches, sequence after sequence of pure silver screen delight.

Yet, to the film’s credit, it’s the emotional journey of its lead characters you are left thinking about by the time the credits roll and that’s down, in huge part, to the film’s two actors. Ryan Gosling is charming and reserved as Sebastian, completely selling his character’s obsession with jazz. And Emma Stone…she is out of this world. I’ve always thought of Stone as a good actress, heck she’s even good in those otherwise shitty Amazing Spiderman movies, but in La La Land she gives a career defining performance. During several moments her acting broke my heart, perhaps best demonstrated during her solo number towards the end of the film which, in both screenings I saw, had the cinema in complete silence, hanging on every line. The fact that director Damian Chazelle is clearly passionate about the story of these two characters’ lives is part of what elevates the film from pure homage to something with its own soul and purpose.

And then of course, there’s the ending. I’m going to get into spoiler territory now so if you haven’t seen it and you want to remain unspoiled, go and see it (seriously, you won’t regret it!) and then come back and read the rest.

Still here? OK.

So La La Land is essentially a movie of two halves. The first is pure romantic fantasy, the kind of ‘boy meets girl’ love story that we expect from an old fashioned musical. The second half is something a bit more real as we see the pressures of everyday life test and strain the relationship. It all ends five years later with both having achieved their dreams. Mia is now an actress but is married to another man with a child, and she accidently stumbles into Sebastian’s club which the two had discussed during their relationship (he even calls it Seb’s, as she had suggested.)

There’s then a seven minute musical montage where we see the fantasy ending had they stayed together and grown old. Once the fantasy is over we see Mia leave the club, but not before exchanging one final glance at Sebastian. Geez, I get emotional just thinking about it – it’s kind of soul wounding. But it’s what this sequence means that is so powerful, and puts a whole new light on what proceeded it.

At first it feels like a ‘life’s a bitch’ ending, they achieve their dreams but miss out on the ‘love of their life’, but actually I think it’s a lot more nuanced than that. The ending doesn’t undermine the beauty and romance which proceeded it, it just doesn’t pretend those things can always continue. Those moments the characters shared were important and wonderful at the time, and nothing can change that, not even now it’s over. In fact, during that time, both had encouraged each other to achieve their dreams – their relationship provided the matrix for both of them to go on and succeed, and perhaps it ended exactly when it needed to. Even during the fantasy of the musical montage, Sebastian doesn’t own his club when he stays with Mia.

Are their dreams and relationship mutually exclusive? Maybe. It’s kind of beside the point. Sometimes relationships break down and it’s not easy to see why. The point is what they had was magical but it didn’t work out. However, that doesn’t take away from what it was, and from those times something wonderful flourished. It perhaps solves the problem I have with a lot of romance movies. I would consider myself a romantic person, sure my love life isn’t anything to boast about, but I always enjoy the portrayal of love onscreen. The problem, however, is often love is portrayed as the only goal – romantic love is the only truly happy ending. You can see this in something like Beauty and the Beast (a film I love almost as much) in the journey of Belle. At first she begins with these huge ambitions that the people around her can’t understand, she wants adventures in the great world out there, but because she falls in love with the Beast that’s all put aside as if it was merely wrong-headed – she’s in love now, that’s all that matters.

La La Land manages to provide the perfect answer to this problem. It’s romantic but not delusional, capable of exploring the single power of love without demeaning every other goal. As the two characters look at each other for, perhaps, the last time there’s no signs of bitterness. Sadness and regret, maybe, but both of them know what they shared hasn’t been and cannot be undone. For a brief moment their love was the axis of the world, the most important thing in all creation, and the fact it is now over doesn’t make it untrue.

It’s the perfect melancholic ending, one far easier to relate to and, perhaps, more important than ‘happy ever after’.

 

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Film

‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’ – Review

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a charming slice of whimsical magic, beautiful and engrossing from start to finish, and probably my favourite ‘blockbuster’ this year.

Deadpool movie reviewThis surprises me, more than anyone, because I’m not really much of a Potter fan…never have been. I appreciate the movies, don’t get me wrong, and I totally understand why a whole generation fell for them, but I didn’t start watching the Potter series (for various reasons) until film six, which rather left me feeling that I was a bit too late to the party. Plus I always found the stories a little derivative of other fantasy fiction with a few too many MacGuffins for my liking.

Fantastic Beasts is, on the other hand, a different…well…’beast’ altogether. Whilst it certainly expands the Potter universe, it is also very much its own film. There are really obvious similarities to be made with The Hobbit trilogy in that both have a unique story to tell but are also products created for clear commercial gains. Yet whereas The Hobbit trilogy often felt like ‘Lord of the Rings but not as good’, the twenties setting, new characters and general tone of Fantastic Beasts means it doesn’t feel like an imitation of the Potter movies before it, but a movie very much with its own groove.

The similarities between Fantastic Beasts and The Hobbit trilogy also extend to their structure – both have an original story to tell but also surround that story with world building to tie their mythology more deeply into the movies that proceeded them. For Fantastic Beasts, the unique story is that of Newt Scamander and his suitcase full of fantastic creatures.

I’ve heard a fair amount of complaint about Newt, claims that he isn’t really a character and there’s not much too him, but I disagree profoundly. Newt Scamander isn’t provided a tragic origin story, nor is he the ‘chosen one’, he’s just a kind-hearted, slightly eccentric, often awkward character trying to do the right thing because that’s what he believes in. I’m not really that much of a Eddie Redmayne fan, but he completely won me over as Newt and I found myself totally endeared to his character. He’s certainly not devoid of motivation or depth, there are various references to his past that help form his character, but they are refreshingly simple and not overblown. To my mind at least, he’s every bit as fleshed out as Harry Potter himself was in his own movies, if not more so!

This particular story thread also risks feeling kind of slight – ‘his magical creatures have escaped and need to be found’ doesn’t scream high stakes – but Rowling’s screenplay squeezes out every bit of wonder from this concept. The high point is a trip into the magic suitcase itself which reveals the whole world which these imaginative creatures inhabit. The scene is played for full awe and there’s a sense of innocent, imaginative, child-like magic which transcends anything even the early Potter movies could capture. It’s in these scenes that you also get a sense of exactly who Newt is, and just how much he cares for these creatures.

This storyline is also helped by three great supporting characters; Tina Goldstein, her sister Queenie and Jacob Kowalski. The sisters complement each other because one, the good-natured Queenie, is very much defined by her femininity whilst the other, Tina, is more conservative and geeky (that’s probably too strong a word, but she’s certainly a ‘focused’ character.) Jacob is another great addition because he’s a muggle (or nomaj) and is able to offer a completely human pair of eyes to the strange workings of the wizarding world. What’s particularly refreshing about this group of characters is there is nearly no ‘wisecracking’ at all. In today’s superhero dominated landscape, heroes seem to fall into two categories; ‘constant wisecracks’ or ‘brooding’. These heroes, on the other hand, are neither, they are chipper but behave like people, not gag machines. They all, particularly Jacob, essentially feature as Newt’s companions throughout the film.

And I use the term ‘companion’ quite particularly because there’s no denying Newt Scamander’s story shares a considerable chunk of its DNA with Doctor Who (which, if you don’t know, I absolutely adore.) Redmayne’s eccentric British Scamander smacks of Matt Smith’s magnificent Eleventh Doctor (my personal favourite incarnation of the beloved Time Lord) and his suitcase that is bigger on the inside can’t help but bring the TARDIS to mind. I’ve always thought Potter and Doctor Who have a similar lineage, both are full of British eccentricity and world build in a way that avoids taking themselves too seriously…apart from when they need to. But Fantastic Beasts has more similarities still, heck even the eventual fate of Jacob feels distinctly Doctor Who in its execution. There were rumours that director David Yates was interested in making a potential Doctor Who movie and, whilst little more has been said on that, this is the closest we’ve got so far to a big budget Doctor Who movie.

The second plot thread is the one that must do the world building and is considerably darker in tone. It involves the Magical Congress of the United States, The Second-Salemers and Grindelwald. Whilst the Newt story is breezy and light, this plot thread explores child abuse and the terrible effects of suppression and denial of one’s own identity. This thread is probably the one that’s going to provide the momentum for the four (yes, four!) sequels to the movie and will almost certainly bring in a younger Albus Dumbledore not too far down the line. Thankfully this ‘B plot’ doesn’t jar with Newt’s, but instead provides the film a tonal dexterity that enriches every aspect of it.

It’s certainly this part of the movie, however, that brings the flaws that Fantastic Beasts does have to the table. There is a twist at the end involving Grindewald (and an actor who is fast becoming infamous) which both fails in execution and cheapens the development of one of the film’s main characters. It’s also the threads of this storyline which take over for the film’s third act and provides a largely consequence free, CGI laden final showdown which rivals some of Marvel’s laziest efforts and mostly sidelines Newt.

Yet, much like Doctor Who, Fantastic Beasts get so much right and is so endearing that it largely bypasses my critical faculties. On several occasions this movie made me feel, not just sadness (the ending has just the right kind of sentimental ‘farewells’ for my liking) but also awe at some of the amazing creatures and the imaginative ideas behind them. Sure, you feel the studio pressure now and then, but it’s still tangible that Rowling is passionate about these stories and still loves telling them, a passion which is infectious.

Fantastic Beasts ultimately benefits from not being based on a book, paced more like a film without a long middle which has largely nothing to do with the first or final act, a problem for most of the Potter movies.  Rowling’s first screenplay is a real triumph and proof, if proof is needed, that the Potter universe still has plenty of magic left up its sleeve. It also achieves the impossible and makes the prospect of a further four films not just seem bearable, but something to look forward to. If the future films in this saga are as fun, charming and magical as this one, then consider me a full convert to the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

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Film, Gaming, Philosophy

Pokémon grow…up?

(Apologies for the tortured title!)

Pokémon feels like the craze that just won’t give up. When I was at school and the trading cards were huge, Pokémon felt like it was everywhere and yet, even then, I wouldn’t have dreamed that fifteen years later it would still be a ‘thing’.

And make no mistake, whilst I’m sure many kids are playing the game, a whole load of people from my generation are also playing it – clever ‘twenty-somethings’ whose opinions I respect have taken to the streets to collect fictional monsters.

I don’t want to retread tired arguments over whether this is a good or bad thing. For every person thinking it’s something an adult should be ashamed of, there are others who will point out that it encourages exercise, meeting up and is a celebration of the human imagination.

I’m more interested in the deeper question that is really brought up by those who denounce it as a legitimate form of adult entertainment. Because, make no mistake, that issue gets deep fast.

How can you talk about the legitimacy of Pokémon Go without having a view on the role of pleasure and happiness (in general) in a healthy adult life?

And how can you have an understanding of the role of pleasure and happiness in a human life without some kind of personal view on what you think the meaning of life is?

Pokémon Go may also just be a symptom of what some people are calling ‘infantilisation’, essentially the idea that adulthood is becoming increasingly infantile and stuck in a state of arrested development. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while so Pokémon Go offers a fantastic springboard into a quite fascinating topic.

 

Is ‘infantilisation’ a real thing?

Pokémon Go might be the finest piece of evidence yet that our generation is having a little trouble growing up, but it’s something that people have been recognising for a while.

What was the last film you watched? Was it a sophisticated adult drama or a recent blockbuster predominately aimed at kids?

What was the last book you read? Was it an acknowledged classic or the latest YA phenomenon?

What was the last TV show you watched? Was it an educational documentary or the latest piece of reality garbage to be commissioned? Perhaps you don’t even watch TV anymore but can make do with three minute YouTube clips.

When you start to answer these questions honestly it, admittedly, builds up a picture of a generation who, at the very least, doesn’t have the most sophisticated palette.

A huge part of this, it’s suggested, has been the rise of ‘geek culture’. So many of the blockbuster properties were once something a niche group (identified as ‘geeks’) were into, but now these properties (mainly superhero movies) are mainstream. Everybody knows who Iron Man and Captain America are now, and chances are you’ve seen at least one of their movies.

As someone who would identify as a geek, who loves superhero movies and Doctor Who, I often have to reflect on what that says about me. Yet even Simon Pegg, who is something of a poster boy for geek culture, has recently said comic book movies are dumbing us down.

Movies are not the only things accused of having been infantilised, however. Some have suggested the food we now eat is aimed at kids, with so many restaurants offering burgers and chips/pizza as the staple dish. And what about adult colouring books? Is the term itself something of an oxymoron?

And now we have Pokémon Go to add to the list, which has fully grown adults talking about the number of fictional animals they have captured on an app.

What, you may ask, might be responsible for this seeming arrested development?

Well one theory is that we begin living an ‘adult life’ much later now. A huge proportion of us go to university whereas a few decades ago we might have taken up a trade. Equally, with buying your first property being an ever increasingly difficult looking proposition, more of us are living with our parents for longer. This may be keeping us mollycoddled so we live a pseudo-adult life, plus it likely brings new financial benefits.

If you’re not paying off a mortgage or spending a high amount on rent, what do you spend your money on? Probably the latest phones, movies and game consoles. Perhaps consumerism itself is juvenile in nature (always wanting the next best thing), yet our lifestyles are becoming ever more comfortable with it.

So infantilisation is real then?

Well, probably, but not necessarily.

For infantilisation to be real, we would surely need to have a way to neatly delegate what is for children and what is for adults, which might be a harder job than initially thought.

So what make something childish?

A gut answer might be a thing is childish if it’s something you do as a child, but that seems too broad. There are loads of things we do as children that we continue to do as an adult. We eat, sleep and get dressed as children but it would be a strange view indeed that suggested those things are childish.

Perhaps then something is childish if it’s designed specifically for children? But again, this doesn’t seem satisfactory. It seems possible to me that a writer could write a book aimed at children and accidentally capture something that draws adults too. Equally, if the creator of Postman Pat decided the show was for adults, it wouldn’t stop it being weird to assume that’s really the case. Ultimately art becomes separate from the creator, so this doesn’t seem sufficient.

Actually, when you think about it, there’s not a clear, easy way to determine between ‘childish’ and ‘adult’. This is not to suggest that such a distinction doesn’t exist, but it does remind us the distinction isn’t always easy to make.

What does it mean for food to be ‘childish’? Who’s to say that colouring in isn’t something adults should do?

Perhaps these distinctions have more to do with snobbery than reason.

And it’s important to remember the narrative that we’re getting increasingly infantile is one that’s hard to empirically show, but all too easy to argue with anecdotes.

One might argue, for example, that infantilisation is what causes people to read Rowling instead of Dickens, but that forgets that Harry Potter was celebrated because it encouraged people to read who otherwise might not be reading at all. It was actually the reverse of infantilisation – this is why we must be cautious when making assumptions about such things.

 

Is infantilisation necessarily bad?

However, let’s assume that infantilisation is happening. Is it necessarily a bad thing?

If we think there really is a way to distinguish between ‘adult’ and ‘childish’, is there a reason to think a childish life is a worse one?

Would making such a claim imply a telos (purpose) to life?

Because, if we’re being honest, (you might want to whisper this), isn’t life a bit, well, meaningless? Doesn’t all the evidence point to the fact that our very existence is a freak accident, we live this bizarre life and then we die (and probably, unfortunately, don’t ever come back)? What kind of purpose could you extend to a life when you see it in these terms?

Two goals I would think still worth pursuing are:

  • Help others. Alleviate their suffering and contribute towards their pleasure.
  • Live as happy a life as you can.

In a world where purpose is not clear to see, living as happily as you can seems as good a creed as any.

And so, if Pokémon Go is what makes people happy, why should we object to it?

I myself can attest to the joy I experience watching a new episode of Doctor Who, it’s a genuine high for me. Should I feel that excited by it? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really mater to me. What does matter is it makes me feel happy, and in that sense genuinely makes my day-to-day life easier.

I guess the question is does the source of happiness really matter, as long as you are in fact happy? (Assuming, of course, that the source of happiness is not harming others.)

Does a ‘childish’ source of pleasure count less than an ‘adult’ one, even if the chemical response in the brain that causes the feeling of happiness is exactly the same?

If not, then is infantilisation just a change and not really a problem?

This comes close to my own view but then the thought experiment of Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine comes to mind. The Experience Machine isn’t a million miles away from the idea of ‘The Matrix’, and is essentially a simulated reality which could be programmed to make you happy.

Would you prefer to be hooked up to the happiness machine or live a real life? If you choose the latter, then you are essentially saying that happiness is not the only intrinsically valuable thing – there’s a value to experiences which goes beyond how happy they make you.

This thought experiment is particularly potent in the wake of the first mainstream augmented reality game. Is Pokémon Go, and the way it blurs the distinction between real life and fantasy, just the first step towards the Experience Machine? Might augmented and virtual reality essentially offer us Nozick’s Experience Machine – might a virtual house, virtual world, heck, even virtual sex life one day be more pleasurable than the real thing?!

I don’t know, but it would feel somewhat counter-intuitive to say that those virtual experiences would be of the same value as real ones.

This is all a long way of coming round to the idea that perhaps what we need is not an ‘either/or’ approach but an approach of balance.

Should adults feel bad for playing Pokémon Go if it brings them happiness? Probably not, because happiness is something to be valued.

Should adults feel bad for playing Pokémon Go if it brings them happiness, at the expense of a well rounded adulthood? The answer to that is a bit more tricky (what is a ‘well rounded adulthood’?), but the answer might, in this case, be ‘perhaps’.

If a person spends more time on Pokémon Go, or watching Doctor Who, than, say, learning about the political system of their country, then that might be a problem (and let’s be honest, we all know a lot of people have probably plundered many more hours into a video game than they spent learning about the consequences of the recent EU referendum.)

But, here’s the thing, I rarely see evidence that those who play/watch ‘infantile’ things are in any way less engaged with the real world. It doesn’t follow that because I watch Marvel movies that I can’t also read political essays, or travel the world. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and as far as I’m aware there’s no evidence to suggest they’re often practiced exclusively.

Further still, there may well be a value to holding onto ‘childish’ things in a balanced adult life. For example, I find in Doctor Who an optimism and lack of cynicism which isn’t found in a lot of depressing and often nihilistic ‘adult’ TV programs. Plus a lot of things aimed at children ask really big questions because, after all, aren’t we most philosophical when we’re at our youngest, always asking how and why?

Adult dramas might be able to beautifully capture the minutia of a failing relationship breaking down, but kids stories are almost always about the fundamental forces of good and evil themselves.

Might it be that becoming an adult is not about rejecting what we enjoyed as kids, it’s just about widening what we consume? Playing Pokémon Go is fine, just make some time for looking over the news. Watching superhero movies is cool, but why not read a classic novel when you get back?

We don’t need to legitimatise children’s things and pretend they’re ‘adult’ (geek culture has often become ugly trying to do just that.)

Accept it, Pokémon Go (like superhero movies, like children’s books), is aimed at kids. And that’s fine. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, just accept it for what it is. Have a balanced diet. Use your imagination. Perhaps those who snub all forms of childhood joy are those with the most limited creative palettes.

And if there is a problem about infantilisation, remember, it’s a problem for our entire generation, not just Pokémon Go players. So before you share a condemning meme ask yourself, what childish activities do you partake in? Have you ever face swapped using an app? Do you watch kid’s movies? Read YA fiction? Then you’re guilty too, and let he without sin throw the first stone as a wise man may have once said.

Otherwise we’re just like children in a childish exchange ‘I’m more mature than you’, ‘No, I’m more mature than YOU’ *blows a raspberry.*

And if you NEVER embrace your inner child then…why not? Maybe it’s you who has the problem.

 

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Deadpool movie review
Film

Deadpool review – I think I preferred it when his mouth was sewn shut

As much as I love superhero movies, there’s no denying that one of their biggest flaws is they’re usually very studio driven. They are movies that often feel very safe because they have to make big money and shift merchandise, so narrative risks aren’t a staple of the genre.

Deadpool does not have this problem. It feels very much like a labour of love by all those involved and there’s a real sense that the studio is taking a punt on a far riskier project than your standard hero flick.

This makes it all the more frustrating that I really didn’t care for the movie – I didn’t hate it, but I found its infantile and smug disposition very hard to warm to.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re a ten year old boy who manages to sneak into a showing, you’re going to love it! There’s violence, swearing, dick jokes…even boobies!

And I feel largely alone in my apathy because it has seemingly gone down very well with critics and cinema goers alike. Sure, claims that it’s the ‘funniest’ superhero movie could be put down to release hype, but there’s a real sense that the movie has resonated with a large audience and the box office takings are set to be huge.

It’s partly understandable, not least because Ryan Reynolds feels like he was born to play Deadpool/Wade Wilson. Whatever problems I had with the movie, Reynolds’ energetic and charismatic performance is undeniably great. Despite spending a fair chunk of the movie in the tight red suit, his enthusiasm and charisma still manage to ooze through.

Equally the movie isn’t without its moments. In particular I appreciated the opening credits, set to Juice Newton’s ‘Angel Of The Morning’, which replaces actors’ names with the clichéd roles they’re playing (British Villain, Comedy Relief etc.)

But I can’t get past the fact that, at its core, Deadpool is really just an average superhero origins movie wrapped in crude dick jokes and totally in love with its own ‘edginess’.

Structurally it’s an odd one. It comes out the park all guns blazing (quite literally) with an impressive action sequence that has Deadpool cracking wise all over the place and then uses that action sequence as a framing device for flashbacks to explain the backstory.

This might have been a nice change of pace if the flashbacks weren’t so tonally jarring with what precedes them and didn’t bring everything to a screeching halt. Firstly we get to find out more about Deadpool’s love interest which I didn’t mind – despite its best intentions the film actually comes close to making their story quite touching.

But once you get to the process which turns Wade Wilson into Deadpool the film takes a turn into, frankly, almost horror and there’s seldom a laugh to be had as for ten or fifteen minutes we see Wilson sadistically tortured. It’s a moment of misplaced darkness which doesn’t fit with the film’s largely breezy tone.

That being said, even the most ‘funny’ parts of this movie were mildly amusing at best. Once you’ve heard the fifth or sixth masturbation joke it’s no-longer shocking or funny, it just feels lazy. In comparison, I recently watched Zoolander 2 and whilst I didn’t think that much of it, at least it made me genuinely laugh once or twice, Deadpool barely earned an internal chuckle.

In fact so much of the humour is predictable that you can see the punchline from miles away. Of course there was going to be an after credit sequence and of course it was going to be a meta dig at other after credit sequences. Of course when Deadpool has captured a villain and X-Man Colossus is giving a speech on the heroic virtues of mercy, Deadpool is going to shoot the villain halfway through the talk.

Everything feels a bit old-hat and outdated. Heck Guardians of the Galaxy already beat this to the punch with its ‘got ya’ after credit sequence, only it didn’t have to explicitly lay out it was punking you in the way Deadpool does.

Even the pop culture references were pretty lazy and toothless – more like average Family Guy jokes than the deconstruction of the superhero genre Deadpool had the potential to be. Deadpool really has nothing much to say about superhero movies which is in any way damning.

And the one criticism it does make is ‘aren’t superhero movies a bit earnest?’ As if Deadpool’s smug attitude, over-the-top violence, wank gags and gratuitous nudity are somehow better. I don’t know about everyone else, but give me an earnest superhero movie over this nasty, infantile nonsense any day!

It’s frustrating because we really are in the days of superhero saturation. Actors are locked into multi-deal contracts, studios are scrambling to set-up cinematic universes and movies have, in many ways, never looked more like products (and I really do say this as a fan of the genre!) There’s so much for Deadpool to satirise or get its teeth into but no, a joke about wanking off with a tiny hand is probably funnier…

And what’s all this about it being the ‘funniest’ superhero movie? As far as I’m concerned 2010’s ‘Kickass’, which was doing a very similar thing, was far funnier – in fact it was superior in just about every respect. To be honest I got more genuine laughs watching The Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy than watching this, and they had actual stories to tell as well.

Even The Lego Movie’s depiction of Batman was a far better playful dig at the silliness of the character than anything Deadpool can muster about superheroes – I can barely take Batman seriously with the ‘darkness, no parents’ song running through my head!

All in all Deadpool feels like an immature child’s idea of what a really great adult superhero movie would be. I can’t say it’s a bad movie because it clearly is resonating with a lot of people, it just really isn’t my cup of tea. And, frankly, I preferred it when Deadpool’s mouth was sewn shut!

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