Film #187: Shelter (2007)

shelterdirector: Jonah Markowitz
language: English
length: 97 minutes
watched on: 30 May 2016

I read a book last year with the unwieldy title of Bear, Otter and the Kid, and I read a haughty review of that book that claimed it was completely unoriginal and based on this movie, Shelter. Indeed, it’s very similar. The movie was out in 2007, back when I was 19 and had only been out for a year, and right when I was really devouring gay movies (a lot of which were shit, frankly), and it should have been a prime target for me back then. I passed it over for some reason.

So a lot of the plot elements really are the same as the aforementioned book – I think the biggest difference is the exact chronology of the story, and the kid in the story is the main character’s nephew here, not his younger brother. But the key elements are the same – a boy who wants to leave and get into art school is forced to take care of this kid, and gets unexpected help from his best friend’s gay older brother, who he falls in love with after breaking up with his on-again-off-again girlfriend. Drama comes from the sister, who is initially homophobic for… some reason. The similarities are difficult to ignore, and I’m pretty sure that book was just meant to be an adaptation of this.

The film is superbly judged and the timing of the eventual first kiss is subtly hinted at before it really happens, and I liked this a lot. It reminds me of how many straight romances I’ve seen with much less anticipation behind them. Then the idea of modern families and what that ultimately means is explored. And the film remains light despite the angst of the main character undergoing a whirlwind of emotions, suddenly being forced to come out. But it manages to avoid being, as it were, a Coming Out movie. The love between the main couple seems so natural it’s gone way beyond mere coming out. Oh, and they’re Californian surfers, so they have nice bodies.

It’s not like it’s perfect – the kid character isn’t explored enough in the movie, and the sister’s homophobia was unprecedented and obviously only there to create conflict, for example. Also, they have that slightly creepy “I’m only gay for you in particular” vibe. But I really think this is the movie that all those shit movies I watched in 2007 should aspire to be. I was quite sad to discover on IMDB that almost none of the principal cast or crew have gone on to make new movies, as I thought the direction and cinematography were done very well and I was hoping to catch another movie by the same director. Oh well.

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Book #104: Rivers of London (2011)

riversauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English
length: 593 minutes (9 hours 53 minutes)
finished listening on: 25 May 2016

For some reason I kept seeing this in fantasy sections of bookstores and so on for ages, before I actually took the plunge and downloaded it on Audible recently. I’m glad I did.

It’s said to be the story of if Harry Potter joined the Metropolitan police in London, although obviously that’s a gross oversimplification. Some of the same basic elements are there – magic is in fact present in something close to the real world, hidden for hundreds of years by secretive wizards, and the main character undergoes magical training.

The rest is pretty different – the book makes significant use of the London setting and there’s an undercurrent of social issues like race that Rowling never quite managed to properly work into Harry Potter. Rowling seems to like retroactively declaring, for example, that Hermione might be black or that Dumbledore is gay without ever mentioning it in the series, while Aaronovitch comes straight in with a mixed-race main character, called Peter Grant, and lets it roll from there.

The title of the book comes from the various characters who are personifications of the various rivers of London, including a feud between Father Thames, a druid from pre-Roman times representing the upper stretches of the river, and Mother Thames, an African matriarch representing the modernity of metropolitan London, that the main character is tasked with sorting out. It gets weird from there. Needless to say, London as a place is essential to the book, and it’s described very vividly.

Another big difference with Harry Potter is that the mechanisms for producing magic are described in detail, and it’s obviously not just some innate ability whose complications and implications are not really expounded upon much. In fact, the main character tries hard to study magic scientifically, and doesn’t get very far into working out what it actually is – presumably later books in the series will go into further depth with that.

I enjoyed a lot of the characters in the book, and I found that the narrator of the audiobook (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is very skilled with using accents, especially those native to London – which is good when they’re also central to the narrative. It’s important to be able to hear the difference between Peter and his “master”, for example, who has a clipped old-fashioned RP accent. I’m still not sure that people in the real world say “guv’nor”, though – I’ve only ever heard this when there’s some kind of Victorian plot. But I can sort of forgive it here because of all the ghosts and olde worlde plot.

The plot gets a bit weird towards the end, with the introduction of the main mystery plot, which actually isn’t directly related to the Rivers of the title – having concurrent plots like this is a gamble by the author, but he manages to make it work. The ending is good, and develops some of the characters in very unexpected ways. A love triangle running through the book is almost completely smashed at the end for the strangest of reasons, and it works.

It’s funny, it has good characters and a fast paced plot, and it was so steeped in UK culture it made me feel a connection with home again, and I appreciated that a lot. I’d recommend it.

Film #186: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

hailcaesardirectors: Joel & Ethan Coen
language: English
length: 106 minutes
watched on: 24 May 2016

I seem to be on a bit of a Coen brothers kick at the moment, as about a week before this movie I also rewatched The Big Lebowski – now, I should note that it’s been four years since my last review of that, but I doubt my opinion has changed an awful lot. I have noticed that I now tend to watch it soon after bowling, which is also about once every two years. My thought processes are apparently predictable.

Anyway, this movie happened to be out the same week (and not as late as usual compared to the west), so I went along to see it when I had a long break one day at work. It’s definitely a comedy and it’s definitely funny, but beyond that I’m not sure what to make of it.

It has a large, starstudded cast, but a lot of them, such as Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, and Channing Tatum, are actually cameos, only in the movie for one or two scenes. Of course, most of them are very good at what they do, and I thought the characters were one of the highlights of the movie. This and the nature of many scenes, such as Channing Tatum’s impromptu dance routine, reminded me of Holy Motors, in that I reckon the Coens came up with the images or scenes before finding a premise to hold it together – in this case, the setting is a movie studio in the 1960s.

The plot, insofar as there is one, is that George Clooney’s character is kidnapped, while wearing a Roman army costume, by communists, who sit around smoking cigars and arguing over how to best overthrow capitalism – meanwhile, Josh Brolin’s character, the studio head and embodiment of capitalism, tries to rescue him with the help of Alden Ehrenreich’s hapless actor. The rest is, to be sure, an enjoyable mess.

The comedy, in typical Coen style, is understated, and I still think unpenetrable. I have had good results from the Coens’ comedy, including The Big Lebowski, but even in that case I only “got” it the second time. At the same time, I don’t think this film is eminently quotable, and I think their comedy has evolved into something very different – perhaps it’s just too shiny and unreal for me now. The style of this movie, certainly, feels like a cartoon at some points, especially with the film studio setting and bold colours.

The movie is intelligent, however, and it is funny. I wouldn’t recommend it unreservedly – I think it appeals to a certain sense of humour, and if you don’t enjoy the Coens’ other recent comedy, you’re probably better off not seeing it. That said, I didn’t follow my own advice, and I enjoyed it more than not, so…

Book #103: The Long Utopia (2015)

longutopiaauthors: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
language: English
length: 373 pages (if I’d read it in a book, but I actually read it on my iPhone screen)
finished reading on: 4 May 2016

Evidently this series was completed before Terry Pratchett’s death, and I have also just purchased the final book in the series after this one – I’m invested enough now to want to finish it.

Compared to the last one in the series, this has much better cohesion, with a mere two or three plot strands that come together convincingly, although it took me longer to get around to, so it’s been a long time since the last one. That might be the last one’s fault. I just remember it now as lacking direction.

The book continues the previous discussion of post-humans, and whether they should be considered human at all, and there is a kind of literal messiah character with an ordinary name, reminiscent of the kid in Good Omens who’s actually the devil. Pratchett seems to have liked doing that.

It also shows humanity having to band together to defeat an external threat, and keeps on talking about the economical impact of the “Long Earth” – hence the title “Utopia”. It still shies away from talking about the metaphysical structure of said Long Earth in all but the vaguest terms, though – you do still have to make that leap of faith and just believe in it, since it’s not always clear how the universes are linked, and the authors seem to pull new rules from the ether sometimes.

I don’t think it could ever live up to the first book in the series, to be honest – but this is a welcome return to form for Baxter and Pratchett, and yes, I’ll be reading the next one. Eventually.