Film #101: The World’s End (2013)

the-worlds-end-review-3director: Edgar Wright
language: English
length: 109 minutes
watched on: 19 November 2013

This film is the last in the “Cornetto” series by Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, their series of loosely-connected films set in small-town England (the other two are Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). I kept seeing gifs and pictures from it, and eventually decided I just had to watch it.

The World’s End is named after a pub in a town in England where the main characters grew up – having failed to complete a pub crawl of twelve pubs when they were at high school, the main character, Simon Pegg’s Gary, decides to gather up his old mates (pretty much a who’s who of British actors, as is most of the rest of the film) and drag them back for another try – the only problem is they’re all fairly successful and in their late 30s, and don’t know how he managed to persuade them.

Unlike the previous films, where Pegg played the everyman or the clear protagonist, his character in this film is intensely unlikable. Everything about him and the way he acts is stuck in the early 90s, as though he hasn’t grown up even when the others have, and he still thinks himself king of the world. A lot of the film reflects this nostalgia factor, with memorabilia and music from the early 90s (I was surprised and happy that this included a Saint Etienne song in a club scene), and seems to be a muse on what it’s like to grow older and lose touch with one’s childhood.

The film starts out modestly, setting up the characters and situations before really getting underway. The Big Twist comes into play a bit before halfway through, when the film takes a surreal and sci-fi turn: (spoiler alert) the characters find that all the other residents of the town are robots, which spray blue gunk when you destroy them and are regenerated very easily – and are very insistent about not being called robots, so that the characters end up assigning them the name “blanks”. Apparently they’re controlled by aliens and they’re quite scary just for their apparent invincibility, much more so than even the zombies from Shaun of the Dead, which featured a similar theme of running away from pub to pub. Thus ensue some very enjoyable action sequences as the characters run away from the robots.

Perhaps the robots serve to satirize the way in which people in small towns live out their life in a mechanical fashion, but I guess that part was lost on me a little bit, because I don’t live in a small town. I think this is a rather lazy metaphor, in any case.

At the climax of the film, the characters encounter the alien controller of the robots in the form of a big glowy thing that speaks to them. And then all it takes for the aliens to give up is an impassioned speech about what makes us human and what it means to be independent and make one’s own mistakes – if anything, and if the aliens were real, I’d expect for humans not to be so unique, frankly, and I found this ending almost a cop-out. The epilogue was intriguing, especially what apparently finally happens to Simon Pegg’s character – I think it would be more interesting to find out what he does in his new life and why he does it in more detail, because the five second glimpse of it wasn’t really enough.

The film is alright, and there are some funny scenes, but this film lacks the spark of Wright/Pegg/Frost’s previous films. The characterization was alright overall, but the character arcs were not as clear and identifiable as they have been in the other films. The plot felt like a rehash of Shaun of the Dead in its basic form. The exploration of nostalgia and lost childhoods was one that resonated a bit more with me (even though I’m not as old as those characters or actors), and one that they haven’t so much explored before – but then in that sense I’d quite like to see more of that rather than getting distracted by the sci-fi themes. It was fine overall, though. I enjoyed it, but the day after, I rewatched Hot Fuzz just to make sure I was right.

Book #45: Something Like Autumn (2013)

Something-Like-Autumn-coverauthor: Jay Bell
language: English
length: 418 pages
finished reading on: 16 November 2013

I’m still in my little gay media bubble… this was the third in the series of Jay Bell’s books named after seasons (which are totally in the wrong order). This book focuses on Jace, the third gay character from Something Like Summer and Something Like Winter, focusing on his backstory, and then rejoining the main story from the previous books in the third act when Jace meets Ben and develops a relationship.

It’s immediately a darker book, as it begins with his suicide attempt. He believes the world won’t accept him for being gay but is proved wrong as when he actually comes out he has no trouble. The morbidity doesn’t really let up, though, especially considering that I already knew how the book ended. Jace’s story is immediately more heartbreaking than the others, and just as heartbreaking was the author’s note at the end telling that the suicide-related events were semi-autobiographical.

Like the second book, it does manage to pull together some of the loose ends, plotholes and annoyances from the first book. Jace now appears as a much more rounded and insecure character – in the first book he was self-assured and with a few extra years on the other characters, more mature and forgiving – and here it’s nice to see him being an idiot teenager like the others. His motivations are much clearer. Another specific example was the inclusion of a scene about September 11, easily the creepiest in the series because it’s about a real-life disaster, but not including it would have been wrong in a story about a flight attendant.

The first two acts of the book, however, focus on a different love affair, with a man called Victor, which is generally depicted as quite one-sided, as the two characters have very different ideas of what they want out of a relationship, and they don’t match very well at all. In many ways he is Jace’s equivalent of Tim from the first story, although in many ways he isn’t at all. Victor seems to be a very intoxicating character, and wants to live outside mainstream society, without labels or limitations, as a free spirit. I didn’t trust him right from the beginning, partly because I already knew roughly how the story was going to turn out.

Sometimes the book suffers from one of the same problems as Something Like Winter, namely that it has to include many relevant scenes from the first book, plus including some of the scenes that were mentioned by Jace in the first book but not expounded upon fully, and this sometimes has the effect of the scenes becoming disjointed and thrown together. Similarly, it also cuts out a lot of the irrelevant material from the first book, which has the effect of jumping between different times in very quick succession. The love story with Ben being only in the third act was both good and bad: good because it allowed Bell to write a lot more original material in the time leading up to then, and bad because it made this time-jumping feel like it was happening even quicker.

I very much enjoyed the book, mainly because it had that engrossing quality that I’ve become used to with Bell’s writing now, and I really enjoyed getting to spend more time with the same characters. But with the almost complete downer of an ending, and I guess the finality of having read about these characters continuously for the past four weeks or so, and getting to the effective end of their stories, left me feeling emotionally at a loss. That must be the author’s skill shining through there.

I’m now wondering what to read next (I have a Neil Gaiman audiobook on the go, but maybe I’d like something to read as well as listen to). I could read another of Bell’s novels, or I could try reading other gay literature, but in my experience, it’s quite hard to find something that’s actually decent, and I’d always feel like I’m taking a risk when deciding to read anything. In terms of Bell’s other novels, they seem to be about gay characters, which is good. He’s also mentioned the last in this series, imaginatively titled Something Like Spring, which will apparently be a different story only occasionally crossing over with the same characters. The other thing I could read is the new Discworld novel, come to think of it. Whatever I read, I’ll end up posting about it here. I’m up to date on the blog now, finally, so I may not post for a week or two.

Book #44: Something Like Winter (2012)

20131116-111222.jpgauthor: Jay Bell
language: English and some Spanish
length: 374 pages
finished reading on: 9 November 2013

Having finished Jay Bell’s previous book Something Like Summer, I proceeded pretty much immediately to download the next book in the series. Summer was only out in audio format because it was only so popular, so I had to say goodbye to the vocals and acting and return to ebook format for Something Like Winter (the physical copy was about four times more expensive and would have taken a week to arrive).

Bell was reluctant to write a sequel because, in his words, “happy couples are boring” (to which I reply, not necessarily, you just need to find other sources of conflict, or tell a story that includes them but isn’t about them, perhaps), but because Summer was popular, he eventually came up with a compromise solution: Winter is actually a companion novel to Summer and not a sequel. It tells the same events, but from the perspective of Tim rather than Ben. Thus, the story is roughly familiar, but the events and thoughts of each character are not.

In many ways, Tim’s story is more interesting than Ben’s. His character has a more apparent central conflict (although in the end it comes back to coming out, which I noted previously is often trite and frequently not done well), and many of the people he meets over the course of his story – some hinted at or shown in Ben’s story, but here fleshed out more completely – and many of the events too, are ultimately more original and intriguing.

Bell seems to take the opportunity to right some of the stylistic mistakes and plotholes he made when writing Summer, and presumably because it was written over a year later, and I think with a couple more novels under his belt, it’s a better novel than the first overall for that reason. Sometimes he even seems to reach into the future and read my review that I made last week of Summer and correct his sequel/whatever accordingly, although this may just mean that any criticisms I had of the book are not original. For instance, sometimes they mention issues such as the legality of gay marriage and a veiled reference to the AIDS epidemic.

Tim in this book obviously comes across as a lot more sympathetic. In the previous book, he was mostly an object of desire who was difficult to read, and the story mostly displayed his bad side, perhaps because as Bell later said, happy couples aren’t interesting, and the story needs to keep some kind of conflict going. Here we see Tim’s better side, and see his motivations, as if to atone for how unsympathetic he came across before.

Many of the scenes in the book display traits of the unreliable narrator, both of Tim and Ben. Sometimes, important scenes from Summer are glossed over or deleted entirely; sometimes, new scenes are introduced which were important to Tim but apparently not to Ben. These kinds of scenes were probably the most interesting for me – I feel like it might be even more interesting if I could compare one directly to the other, as there were many times when I read something that looked familiar-but-not-quite, and I wanted to go back and compare to the scene from Summer to see what was new about that particular scene. But scrolling through an audiobook to find a specific place is not so easy.

However, just as interesting were the sections of the book where Ben’s and Tim’s stories diverge – here we get to see what happened to Tim in the meantime, events that were only hinted at before. He shares a platonic bond with an elderly gay man called Eric, whose estate Tim inherits after he dies, and who helps him come out of the closet. This relationship was mentioned but not explored properly. We also get to meet Eric’s friends, including a rather callous and unscrupulous man called Marcello who is easily the best character, who later becomes Tim’s confidante.

The book is also more emotionally gripping and galling than its predecessor, I thought, especially because it starts dealing with death and loss quite early on in comparison. Ultimately this was a good thing, although it did make it harder to read at times.

I liked it overall, then, but as I expected, the book had its share of problems. One was the way Marcello was constantly described as being disgusting for being fat – I get that it’s from Tim’s perspective and he’s very shallow, but I could have done without that, thanks.

Another was that despite efforts for Tim to stress how death is never convenient, having been through the experience himself, the death of Ben’s husband Jace near the end of the book is still difficult to justify narratively. The ending isn’t as rushed as the previous book, though, and I suppose this can act as a kind of redemption.

The other main problem I found is that for a lot of the book, Tim is a spoiled rich boy, especially when he unexpectedly comes into money in the second half of the book. Spoiled is perhaps the wrong word, as he has had to deal with loss a lot more than other characters like Ben, and he doesn’t know what to do with his life, but the sheer amount of money that he had for much of the book made it difficult for me to empathize with him. It was nice to make a change from the penny-pinching story of Ben and Jace’s life, and perhaps it just falls into the category of wish fulfillment, as I suspected Ben and Tim’s relationship was in the first place in Summer, but I guess if Bell finds stories about happy couples boring, then I find stories about rich people boring. Oh well.

Something Like Winter is good, and I liked it and would recommend it whole-heartedly, but it should be read after Something Like Summer. I suppose it would be possible to read them backwards, as they’re ultimately telling the same story, and the various twists and turns for one will necessarily be spoiled by the other, but this way round works better, I think, as the story did sometimes gloss over important narrative details that one could be assumed to already know. So if you’re into gay novels, definitely go for it.

Film #100: Judas Kiss (2011)

judas_kiss_movie_review_3director: J.T. Tepnapa
language: English
length: 94 minutes
watched on: 5 November 2013

There are two possible reactions to me getting to my 100th film on this blog: I can either celebrate the fact, or I can indignantly announce that it’s surprising that I’ve only watched 100 films in the past almost-three years, when I watched over three times that many in one year when I was a student (a “mind-expanding” experiment that involved me watching one film per day, for the uninitiated/those who can’t remember), but that pretty much comes down to me having had less free time in the past couple of years what with work and stuff, and this year in particular just not watching so many films, and reading more. Or, on a more self-perpetuating note, maybe the fact that I’ve been making myself write a review of them all and constantly being behind schedule on that task has discouraged me from watching more and putting more in the review queue. I’m getting back on track with that, though.

That aside, Judas Kiss was a film that I discovered via the previous book I reviewed, Something Like Summer, which is due to be turned into a film next year, as I mentioned. It will be made by the same crew as this film, and this film was apparently the reason why the other book’s author, Jay Bell, chose them to be the makers. So that piqued my curiosity.

The story is best summed up with the elusive term “magical realism” – weird things happen in the movie without really being explained, reminiscent of something like Groundhog Day (although I think that might be too high a compliment). The main character, a mid-30s failed filmmaker having an identity crisis, is sent last minute to fill in on a job in his alma mater judging a film competition. When he gets there, he wastes no time in heading down to the local gay bar and sleeping with one of the students there – who shows up the next day to his film competition, and apparently has the same name (Danny Reyes, but the older guy changed his name to Zachary Wells, for some reason) and has made a film with the same title, Judas Kiss. It turns out he’s either an alternate-reality version of the same guy, or they’ve travelled in time one way or the other. Now we have to decide whether they committed incest or sci-fi masturbation.

In theory, the story after that is them influencing each other’s lives and hopefully changing the future for one or the other, but they actually to split ways fairly quickly, and it’s the young Danny who the film focuses on for most of its runtime, mainly involving a love triangle with a cute tall Belgian guy, who is a bit of a dickhead, and Brent Corrigan, apparently trying to break out of porn (and doing so quite well, I might add). Needless to say, it’s one of those films where literally everyone is attractive, although the young Danny didn’t really enamour me as much as the others. The older “Zach” only appears occasionally to make disgruntled expressions at the camera and get “sage” advice from a creepy janitor.

Some people have praised this film as the “future of gay cinema” – I’m inclined to sort of agree. I didn’t think the film was that great taken as a whole, but it does things like skipping the coming-out phase entirely, and just having all the characters be gay with no further comment, the main focus is not on the relationships (although they are important), and it tries to do things more cinematically than many of the other gay movies I’ve seen in the past. I don’t personally think it succeeded in this endeavour. One thing is that I find making a film about making films to be an inherently narcissistic and self-indulgent exercise, and I’ve found in the past that some filmmakers seem to do this as a kind of shorthand to avoid having to make their films actually say anything, and that’s what I see with this film.

The plot was all over the place, and the message was totally unclear – I got that it was about the man’s identity, but I don’t know what they were trying to say about it. Did he change the destiny of his younger doppelganger? Did he somehow change his own destiny? Did he help himself through a mid-life crisis? Was there some kind of redemption or turning point for him at the end (I saw this in the younger Danny when he confronted the father about (spoiler alert) his previous abuse, but his older version doesn’t seem to get such an experience)? I literally didn’t know. It didn’t help that the film lost its focus halfway through and went on to develop two plot strands and largely concentrate on the love triangle (although at the same time, there were so few characters that it didn’t do this as much as it could have). Plus the sci-fi elements were not used effectively.

Despite the problems, which are there and which are major, there was still something about it. I liked the cinematography – something about the locations made everything seem very bright, for instance. I liked the characters and the actors, even though they were cast against a completely nonsensical plot. I liked what the makers were trying to do: even if I think they haven’t pulled it off with this film, I think they will be able to do it in the future. Even though I didn’t particularly like this film overall, I have high hopes for the Something Like Summer film next year based on this. But I’d recommend it only if you’re into gay cinema, to be honest.

Book #43: Something Like Summer (2011)

sms-coverauthor: Jay Bell
reader: Kevin R. Free
language: English and a tiny bit of Spanish
length: 576 minutes
finished listening on: 31 October 2013

I forgot to use my Audible subscription until mid-October when I had built up a couple of book credits, and I picked this book out of the Gay & Lesbian section. I wasn’t completely convinced by the synopsis – it begins with a romance between a gay guy and a closeted jock at high school, a plot that has been played out many times in gay movies and that I think is unrealistic and wish fulfilment at best – but it seemed to get good reviews, so I went for it.

In the end, I wasn’t disappointed. I set out on my bike to the park to get exercise, and couldn’t stop listening to the audiobook, even when I was browsing Don Quixote for a Hallowe’en costume. The first part of the story is indeed exactly what I’d expected plotwise, but in the second half, the story takes a very different turn, as the two guys lose touch and go to college, before meeting again when the time isn’t right, causing drama. But the first half still hooked me – if the overarching plot left something to be desired, the characters, occasional humour, the plot twists I wasn’t quite expecting, and the minutiae made it worth it. It is a coming-of-age story, but as the first lines of the book note, it’s not a coming-out story (at least not for the main character), the two so often confused in gay media and the latter so hopelessly overdone that I’d just be bored if I had to listen to that. The author also knows how to tug at the heartstrings, making it an emotional journey at times.

The main character is Ben, who is brave and outspoken but also reckless. He makes many mistakes over the course of the book, but because the story stays with him throughout the book, I could see his character evolving – I feel in much greater detail than I’ve seen in other novels in the past. I also cared a lot about what happened to him during the story after only a short amount of time.

The other guy is Tim, who is a closeted jock in the first half of the book, but shy and concerned about his image. In the second half of the book, he comes out of the closet and starts chasing Ben quite aggressively even though Ben is now dating someone else. Basically a lot of his actions come across as dickish, especially when he breaks off their relationship (yup, predicted that coming a mile off…), and at times it’s unclear why Ben is so head-over-heels for him, although at the same time it’s clear enough underneath the thick exterior that he loves Ben quite strongly.

The other characters are Allison, Ben’s best friend, who has her own subplots and acts as a kind of grounding force a lot of the time, and Jace, Ben’s partner in adult life, who doesn’t seem to have any negative qualities about him at all, so I found him the obvious choice between the two potential lovers but almost unrealistic in the way he seems to take things in his stride most of the time. The fact that there were only about four main characters meant that the story was much more focused on those characters rather than introducing too many others, and helped build up those characters to a far more believable level.

I was also very happy with this book because although they seem to have more exciting lives than me (for instance, as I mentioned with indignance in a recent review, I never had any extravagant love affairs at high school) I can see some of my life in the life of the characters. Perhaps this is the effect of such a paucity of decent gay literature out there, but I liked it when the characters entered their twenties and went to college, because I feel more affinity with those years of my own life.

The story spans over a decade, and one thing I’d have liked to see a bit more would be more acknowledgement of real-life changes during the period discussed, which would have helped ground it more in reality. Jace is a flight attendant, so some mention of September 11 would have been relevant and interesting. The story is mainly set in Texas, so some mention of the supreme court repeal of Texas’s sodomy laws would have been nice to hear about. Instead, apart from almost being caught by the police sucking each other off, the characters never find their sexuality challenged by the outside world, more like what one is beginning to find in the modern age. They even get married, and there’s no mention that it’s not actually legally binding. Who am I kidding though… that’s pretty good. Not having the story be about gay issues or coming out or other anxieties about being gay is a breath of fresh air compared to all the movies I’ve seen over the years where those issues are front and centre, although they are present, especially in Tim’s character.

I liked it overall, very much, but I had quite a big issue with the ending. The author seems to write himself into a corner, with Ben potentially having to choose between the perfect guy and the high school sweetheart, both of which choices would be heart-breaking for him and the readers, and the eventual option he chooses is to kill one of them off (with an aneurysm), which is even more heart-breaking and rather sudden and unprecedented (unless I missed some kind of very subtle foreshadowing early on). I actually felt cheated and angry at that ending, because its purpose narratively is very clear to me.

It’s not a perfect story, but it fulfills a lot of what I’ve been looking for in a gay romance themed novel. There are plenty of other things I’d like to say about it, but this will do for now. Jay Bell is a skilled author, and I’m now looking forward to reading his other books – he’s already written two more stories in the series, which instead of sequels are the same overall story told from the opposite perspectives of Tim and Jace. They are also planning a movie (out next year I believe/hope), apparently because the book was so successful with fans – also the reason this audiobook was even released. That gives me something more to look forward to.

My final thought is, it’s kinda weird walking down the street listening to this and hearing a sex scene starting. They’re quite explicit, and although I know no-one else can hear it, I still felt embarrassed! I guess those are the risks you have to take!

Film #99: Now You See Me (2013)

Now-you-see-medirector: Louis Leterrier
language: English and a bit of French
length: 115 minutes
watched on: 30 October 2013

For some reason this film is known as “Grand Illusion” in Japan, which feels like a less evocative title to me, but perhaps they felt that the English title is too culturally specific, and relies on the audience filling in the second half of the idiom.

The film is basically similar to Ocean’s Eleven in tone and subject matter, at least at the start when it depicts a bank heist in Las Vegas. It’s about four big-stage magicians, who pull of a series of big stunts in order to make their way into some kind of super magician club. They’re chased by an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and a guy who makes a living from debunking famous magicians (Morgan Freeman).

The mantra “the closer you look, the less you see” is repeated throughout the movie ad nauseam, and the Big Plot Twist at the end is so foreshadowed that I’m almost ashamed that I didn’t predict it… but I didn’t care. The film had no substance to it, because it was too flashy and only had about one magic trick that wasn’t pulled off with computer graphics. It was enjoyable enough that it was a fine way to spend two hours, but the plot just ran itself into the ground near the end, with motivations and characters flying all over the place.

The biggest thing that pissed me off about Now You See Me was the camera work – I literally don’t think the camera stopped moving once throughout the whole movie. If it wasn’t big sweeping shots of crowds that gave me motion sickness (and just made the thing blurry), it was shakycam close-ups when the characters were having conversations. I guess the motion thing is supposed to lend a sense of energy to the film, but I think they did it in such a way that it became distracting.

The characters were also all annoying assholes, too, particularly Jesse Eisenberg, who plays such an arrogant character (as he is quickly being typecast after The Social Network) that it’s impossible not to want to punch him in the face, but the others have their share of unreconcilable flaws. I didn’t really enjoy the magician characters in particular, but the FBI agent was a bit of a dick too. There’s precious little character development, and I couldn’t see any reason to care about any of them.

Morgan Freeman’s role in the movie is also annoying, because he just explains the tricks away in a rather droll manner. It becomes a kind of narration, but for me the potential joy in something like that is not just being shown how the magicians pulled off their bank heist, but seeing the other characters finding out piece by piece how they did it. Here, because they start with a big bank heist, they seem to work their way down from that, as the second show is them robbing their manager’s bank account, and the third is just them thanking their fans and disappearing. The bits in the middle are exciting, sure, but they gloss over solving the mystery of the heist very quickly and move on.

It’s easy to compare this to something like The Prestige, another movie about magic, and noting that the entire movie can be seen as something like a magic trick. This clearly attempts to go for that, but it doesn’t manage it. Watch The Prestige again, and you see an entirely different take on what happens, but if I watched this again, I’d just be as confused as to why any of it was happening.

That’s not to say the film is completely without merit. I enjoyed the occasional piece of humour (especially the recurring jokes relating to the hypnotist and his victims), and a lot of the random magic tricks that we see during the magic shows, but I think it would have been much better if I didn’t think they were all “performed” using CGI. But I can’t in good faith give it a recommendation.

Film #98: Chronicle (2012)

ChronicleEx624Prodirector: Josh Trank
language: English
length: 84 minutes
watched on: 29 October 2013

Chronicle is next in line of the high school movies that I’ve been ending up watching recently. It’s one of those rather shocking cases where I literally cannot fathom how it’s taken so long to get a release in Japan (it is only at a handful of cinemas around the country and only one in Tokyo, though). It was released in the UK last February, more than a year and a half ago, only just after I arrived in Japan, and yet it was only released in Japan this September… long after it’s been and gone for the rest of the world.

The movie is about teenagers who gain superpowers, specifically telekinesis, by climbing down a hole in the ground and encountering a kind of alien crystal thing. Being teenagers, they just start goofing off and playing practical jokes on people. Then they start testing the limits of their powers, and finally lose control. Maybe that’s a spoiler, but basically all the publicity spoils it for you anyway.

It’s a very fresh take on the superhero genre, and stands in contrast to films like Spiderman which are ostensibly the same premise – teenager gains superpowers – but I can’t help but think this is a more realistic portrayal of what’s likely to happen. It goes into a lot of detail when they explore what is possible with their new powers, and find that like a “muscle” to exercise, they will only get more powerful the more they practise. It turns out that some level of shielding/invincibility and the ability to fly are apparently logical conclusions of being able to manipulate objects around you.

As there are three very different characters – Andrew, Matt and Steve – who gain these superpowers, we also get three different takes on what they do with the powers, again in contrast to superhero movies where only one character gains the powers.

Andrew is the main character, and it’s established in the opening shot that his home life is pretty terrible: he has an abusive, alcoholic father and dying mother, both pretty much to the point of caricature. The foreshadowing of his poor emotional skills is none too subtle. He’s the quickest to gain control of his powers, though. No points for guessing how that turns out. Matt is his cousin, much more level-headed and cautious, and Steve is very outgoing and reckless compared to the others. The three form a bond over their shared, secret experience, and the two more confident boys try to bring Andrew out of his shell.

The movie is shot in a “found footage” style: everything is ostensibly shot by one of the characters on a camera. This style, frankly, gets old quickly, and is good only for a gimmick. Personally I think the story would have worked just as well without the gimmick. The filmmakers do put it to good use, however. At first, Andrew wants to document everything with his camera, much to the annoyance of a lot of people around him, but presumably to try and get evidence against his father. Then it becomes this pathological need to create a barrier between him and the other characters. He’s not the only person walking around with a camera, of course, and the modern setting makes good use of this fact, and occasionally the film cuts to another person’s camera, particularly one girl who used to date Matt.

Later in the film the filmmakers find an excuse to sort of abandon the gimmick a little bit, as when Andrew becomes suitably competent with his powers, he lets the camera float near him, and we get some more conventionally cinematic angles and shots. Later still, this becomes an unconscious habit. But then, especially near the end of the film, they start running out of excuses to have cameras in the scene, and it becomes awkward again – one time they even call attention to the camera specifically, and another, the girl who also had a camera is carried around with only her voice to show that it was actually her and not someone else holding the camera. The most ridiculous was when Andrew telekinetically grabs dozens of cellphones from an onlooking crowd, allowing the filmmakers to shoot the ensuing scene however they want but again not really making sense apart from that. The whole device just served to put an extra barrier between me and the film, in the end, and it was a shame.

But frankly, even though it was annoying, that was a fairly minor thing. Just like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the other problems I found were that I find high school settings boring and often unrelatable, and that everyone’s far too attractive. I mean, that’s also perfect, because we get three cute male leads… but not realistic! Even Andrew, who I think is not meant to be attractive in the context of the movie, is cute – and apparently his actor will play a gay character alongside Daniel Radcliffe in the movie about Allen Ginsberg next year, so I suppose I should look out for that!

The other mildly annoying thing about the story is that the first camera breaks after the encounter with the crystal thing at the start of the movie. Then there is what is implied to be a 2 week gap with no footage, and I think this is exactly the time when the guys discover their powers for the first time, because when they switch on the new camera for the first time, they’re already testing out the powers to see if they can stop a ball in mid-air. In some ways, this worked, because it leaves the beginnings even more mysterious (we don’t get to find out how they got out of the hole, either), but I would have thought that showing them actually finding out about their new powers for the first time would have been much more exciting.

I’ve heard rumours of a sequel, and I’m not sure what to think about that – as long as it’s handled well, it could work, but I don’t want to just see a rehash of the same film. There are unsolved mysteries in the story’s universe, such as the origin of the alien crystal thing, which had government officials swarming round it when the boys come back to reinvestigate. I can see that the temptation with a sequel to Chronicle would be to have another set of teenagers goofing off, but I think it would be much better to start where it finished off and build on what we know already. That might turn out to be difficult, though. We’ll have to see what happens, I guess.

That all aside, I really liked this movie, and I wasn’t really expecting to, if I’m honest, because at first it just looked like another run-of-the-mill superhero movie. I actually mainly went because the ticket price was significantly lower than other movies (it’s on at Cinema Qualité in Shinjuku if anyone’s interested, in Tokyo, and reading this in the next week or two, by the way), and it matched with my schedule. The whole premise, aside from the found footage, is really appealing to me, perhaps because the characters are again that kind of outcast character that I somewhat identify with, or even just because it’s taking a common theme and deconstructing it effectively. So it comes with a high recommendation.

Film #97: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

perks-of-being-wallflower-featureddirector: Stephen Chbosky
language: English
length: 103 minutes
watched on: 23 October 2013

It’s perhaps a testament to the good reputation of the book this film was based on that I didn’t realize until recently that it wasn’t actually a piece of “classic” literature, but rather was only published in 1999. I’m not sure why that was – perhaps the title just sounds like it? Anyway, the film is also rare in that it’s directed by the book’s author. That sounds to me at first glance like a bad idea, because the skills of direction and authorship aren’t really transferable, but it turns out that Chbosky does quite a good job of it.

The story is about a kid called Charlie who starts high school as a loner, and manages to make friends with a group of seniors. There’s hints of past trauma in his life right from the beginning, although we only gradually get to hear about the whole thing and what actually happened in his past becomes part of the climax. I think in the book it’s more obvious that he’s older than the usual freshman, perhaps having skipped a year because his friend had committed suicide, which makes more sense than just him making friends with seniors right off the bat, since high school tends to be more segregated by age than that, in my experience.

The central conceit is that the story is being relayed to a confidante via typewritten documents. The book actually just consists of these letters themselves, but the movie needs to actually show Charlie writing them out, and by extension narrating the story. I didn’t really feel this was necessary to show the story, as it seems to be a literary trope that doesn’t transfer well to the screen. A good movie shouldn’t need to have narration, in my experience, although it could go either way in the hands of the right director. It’s a minor point, and one that I quickly forgot about because the rest of the movie was interesting and poignant enough.

The story is quite theme-heavy, tackling several often serious issues all at once. The title refers to something similar to fly-on-the-wall, being invisible, and perhaps to finding one’s place in the world, something that the teenage characters are all fumbling about to try and do. The main character, played by the inexplicably cute Logan Lerman, really hates high school right from the first day, but seems to actually be keen to study. The other two leads, played by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson, in a role that cements her ability to break away from Harry Potter successfully, but not quite to manage a perfect American accent, are self-assured, confident seniors by the time we meet them at the beginning of the movie, and have an enviable lust for life – which, predictably, turns out to be an easily breakable outer shell.

I think those types of characters will always appeal to nerds, geeks and other “outcasts”, like so many of my friends, and myself, tend to be or seem in real life. Similarly, Ezra Miller’s character is gay, and although he’s not the main character, I do enjoy very much seeing that portrayed in any media, especially as mainstream as this.

The setting is at high school, which reminded me a lot of something that’s been bugging me for a long time: I don’t know what Hollywood and American cinema’s obsession with high school is. High school wasn’t terrible for me (like a lot of people I know), but it wasn’t particularly remarkable either. I spent it all in the closet/denial, and didn’t have the first sexual experiences many others report and as is portrayed in this film, for instance. Perhaps I would prefer movies set at university, but the American ones tend to get caught up in the Greek fraternity system, which I firstly don’t understand, and secondly is somewhat the antithesis of the kind of outcast characters that I find appealing, like in this movie.

But aside from it not matching up with my experience of reality, I enjoyed the film. I enjoyed the characters; although they were all too attractive to be real in that sense, they all had enough flaws that made them real as characters, and there was sufficient development over the course of the film. I enjoyed the plot, and I … well maybe enjoyed turns out to be the wrong word, but I found the overlying mystery of what happened to Charlie before the beginning of the movie compelling. It’s not perfect by any means, but I’d recommend it.

Book #42: The Long War (2013)

20130320-102615authors: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
language: English
length: 437 pages
finished reading on: 22 October 2013

When I finished The Long Earth, I immediately figured out (partly because it was advertised on the last page of my copy of the book, to be honest) that the sequel was already out, so I could download it nigh-instantly and read it electronically. Unlike its predecessor, which I finished in just three days, this took me almost two weeks. I’m not sure why, I have to admit. I think a lot of my commutes are already taken up by podcasts, and along with three being cycling days, I actually only have one day left in which I read books on the way to or from work (audiobooks are thus a bit faster to “read”, as I can listen to them while cycling). The day when I started reading The Long Earth, I was also going on a relatively long train journey to visit Yokosuka, which got me through pretty much half the book straight away, and I just carried on with that momentum.

This book starts off about a decade after the last one finished, but is kind of a continuation of the story and themes that the first book started. Some characters are a little unexpected – a minor character has become the wife of Joshua, the main character, for example. Political problems mentioned in the first book get exacerbated for various reasons in this book, and the state of the “Datum” (original) Earth is explored in a bit more detail, with some very unsubtle foreshadowing as to what will happen at the end.

The problem of transportation that existed in the first book, with big stepping zeppelins called twains that transport things and people quickly from one world to the next. It’s noted early on that all these twains have to have consciousness, and are thus embedded with a bit of the consciousness of the character Lobsang, and by extension the Black Corporation, allowing the authors to make thinly-veiled criticisms of modern consumer culture and brands like Apple and Google.

There are also new races introduced – kobolds, which are sneaky creatures fascinated by humans, and beagles, which are dog-people. They seem to get names assigned to them by humans, so one of them is called Snowy, which induced a chuckle from me. They actually seem to be intelligent by human standards, although they come back to the old Pratchett trope of alien species being sometimes completely incomprehensible to humans. The trolls and elves of the previous book are also explored in much greater detail and the trolls especially play a big part in the plot, as they start disappearing in the second act.

I really loved the extra chance to explore this world (or these worlds, I suppose is more accurate), and I can’t wait until the next book comes out, apparently next year. I did get a bit confused by the plot towards the end, not sure where it was heading, and I was left wondering what had just happened at one point, right near the end where all the climaxes happened. Part of this may have been confusion at the three or four story strands happening simultaneously (there are two whole new sets of characters introduced who travel across the worlds in different directions for different reasons). Part of it may have been that I was expecting more of an actual “war” to happen during the book, whereas it didn’t seem to turn out that way in the end, the word being more metaphorical. A little bit more streamlining of the plot would have been nice.

I definitely think people should get into this series, in any case – it’s well-written and researched and it shows an enormity of depth and scale that I find difficult to parallel.

TV: Stephen Fry: Out There (2013)

38117language: English, Portuguese, Russian, Hindi
length: 2 episodes of 59 minutes each
finished watching on: 21 Oct 2013

This was heavily advertised by friends on Facebook – a mini-series about Stephen Fry going round to all the worst countries and confronting homophobes face to face. I guess there’s no hope if that synopsis isn’t even a little bit appealing. It’s not just that, to be fair: it’s also a look at gay/LGBT culture around the world. It seems like a very personal project that Fry had been sitting on for some time. He visits Uganda, America, Russia, Brazil and India during his travels.

I couldn’t work out what Fry was hoping to achieve by making the series, though. Every time he confronts a homophobe he fails to convince them that they’re wrong – more than anything, he’s seen as a Western cultural intruder whose views don’t and shouldn’t matter in the often ex-colonial countries he visits. We and he get a glimpse of what is going through the homophobes’ minds, perhaps, but as Fry admits with dismay, it’s always the same rhetoric about gays threatening family life … or something? What they say never makes sense.

It becomes a bit indulgent of Fry – in a masochistic way, naturally, but I had to scoff a bit when he started comparing his (non-anal) method of sex to the way the Greeks did it, first as if that’s going to convince the homophobe obsessed with anal prolapse of anything, but since the remarks were given in a heated discussion when Fry probably wasn’t watching his words as carefully as he would normally, it gives a fascinating insight into his own pretensions and self-image. Like I think I mentioned when I reviewed QI, I’ve gotten addicted to that program in such a way that I’m compelled to watch it without getting that much enjoyment out of it (because I started using it as a sleeping aid and now can’t stop), and I feel saturated with Fry’s TV presence sometimes, so that I’m definitely seeing straight through the outer veneer.

That said, his TV presence is still somewhat infatuating, and I very much enjoyed the aspects of the show that dealt more with world culture, and I certainly share in the questionable joy of shaking my head at idiots that presumably led to the program being conceived in the first place. It’s also incredibly brave of him to do some of the things he does, and even more incredibly brave of some of the young people in LGBT centres in Kampala and St Petersburg to appear on camera. I definitely applaud him for making the series. Word has it that he attempted suicide during the course of filming, and perhaps we should just be thankful that he is still alive as a result.

Also, he should lose the goatee. I at least say that unequivocably.