Wonderful Woman

There’s something about watching demi-goddesses beat the living crap out of each other and not even get a scratch that is really quite exciting (btw, spoilers!). Yup, the first twenty odd minutes of the new Wonder Woman film are dedicated to the all-female clan of Amazon warrioresses created by the gods of Mount Olympus to protect humankind. Needless to say humankind swiftly became mankind, which quick got to relentlessly killing itself and so the Amazonians retreated to the hidden island of Themyscria where the eponymous heroine of the film is born. Unfortunately for Wonder Woman, aka Diana (played by Gal Gadot), WW1 blasts its violent way into her peaceful life. She chooses not to take things lying down and teams up with US spy Captain Steve Trevor to go and put an end to the war. Cue trenches, machine guns, mustard gas and a host of nefarious villains.

There are so many things to praise about this film. It passes the Bechdel test without being a film that tries to pass the Bechdel test because it is inherently a film about women (well, one woman to be precise). It also features a Native American smuggler, a marksman with PTSD and a Moroccan spy who are all given enough wiggle room to express characterhood without being reduced to stereotypes. A few hurdles it falls down at are lazily equating facial scars with villainy as Isabel Maru, a chief villain who loves gassing people to death, wears a mask over part of her face and doesn’t get to do much other than be a ‘deformed’ psychopath. It also completely buys into conventional representations of ‘beauty’ with a ‘golden couple’ at the heart of the film. Also, given that lady-on-lady romances would abound on Themyscria why not just come out and say it? And, even if Hollywood is desperate to have a man-on-woman romance, why not make Diana proudly bisexual?

One area in which I think the film excels is in the portrayal of Diana’s relentless optimism. Her chief goal in the film is to find Ares, god of war, and slay him, believing that in killing him the war will end as will mankind’s belligerence. At first she’s a bit naive about this, assuming that human’s are inherently good, but as the plot progresses she comes to realise that humans are neither inherently good nor bad but that they have the ability to choose how to behave and can be encouraged to choose good. I like the nuance and I like the shots of troops from the Allies and Central Powers shaking hands once Ares has been slain (fyi, Ares turns out to be a British politician and not the nasty German general proving that all countries were complicit in the atrocities of WW1). And this links to a fascinating bit of history that during 1918/9 there were an abundance of strikes and revolutions in Europe (including Britain!) as soldiers and civilians alike got so fed up of fighting the establishment’s war. These strikes often failed or ended with another bunch of bastards taking political control but they prove the moral shades of grey at the heart of the ‘war to end all wars’ and that the capitalist elite’s exploitation of workers transcends national borders. Imagine a sequel that goes from here rather than just introduces a new super baddy and rehashes the same plot, maybe in WW2. In summary, there’s so much to like when it comes to Wonder Woman not least its breaking of boundaries and box offices. Of course, what is not to like are Gal Gadot’s seemingly naive views on the Israeli Defence League and the huge number of civilian deaths in Gaza (giving more than enough reason for many people to boycott this film). Diana constantly reminds her fellow characters that war is wrong and not inherent to human nature, now let’s apply that logic to the real world.

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The Replacement: Worst Maternity Cover EVER (spoilers)

Women regularly have it tough in the workplace. Sexual harassment, lower pay, the glass ceiling, general misogyny and the tricky fact that many women can get pregnant. Yup, even the miracle of childbirth can be used against women to deny them jobs, get them replaced and ensure they don’t return to work. Naturally, the BBC thought it was high time to sensitively delve into this issue and what we got was The Replacement. Ellie is a successful architect (cue the odd reference to ‘sight lines’ and sky lights) working on a fancy, new library when she becomes pregnant with her first child. Her employees are more or less thrilled and help Ellie find her replacement. Enter Paula. She’s nice. So nice. Like, really nice. All pearly, white smiles and over zealous efficiency. She does work ahead of schedule, makes friends with everyone in the office super quickly and is just so darn friendly. Naturally, everyone thinks Ellie’s a little mad when she suggests that maybe Paula is out to replace her for good. That is until Paula kidnaps Ellie and tries to get her to kill herself so she can take her baby to replace the daughter she tragically lost in a car accident even though she was pretending her daughter was still alive. Who knew maternity leave could be so dangerous!?

Now, don’t get me wrong this was really well acted and it had me compulsively clicking ‘watch next episode’ until it ended (ok, I was recovering from a virus, that’s my excuse) but I couldn’t help but feel we’ve been here before. Two women go head to head in mortal combat to prove who is a better mother and colleague. Sure, they’re being defined by their motherhood and ability to function as a decent capitalist worker but I feel the show knows that. It must be aware of the constant hum of sexism throughout the episodes given that the men in this show are just awful: Ellie’s husband turns on her, tries to take the baby away and nearly ends up with Paula. Ellie’s boss, also wooed by Paula, reveals that on the night his wife, Kay, supposedly committed suicide she’d accused him of having an affair with Ellie which he didn’t deny (even though it wasn’t true) but he did tell Kay that if he’d been with Ellie at least he might have had a child. Good news is that this didn’t actually lead to Kay taking her own life because it turns out Paula killed her because Kay wouldn’t stop going on about the fact that Paula’s daughter wasn’t actually alive anymore.

If this all sounds quite farfetched and just a little silly that’s because it was (and don’t get me started on what the library ended up looking like..there weren’t even that many books in it and it was super kid unfriendly, or the bit with the baby basket being left on a window ledge, or the bit when Paula clearly hasn’t researched her effective poisons etc). Yet this steady patter of sexism was never really commented upon because what we ultimately saw was two women coerced and conditioned by patriarchal capitalism forced to fight each other to the death. It proved entertaining(ish) but I did feel the team behind it may have just thought “Girl On A Train in an office” just like those behind Apple Tree Yard probably thought “middle-aged Gone Girl“. So whilst the programme does showcase some epic acting from Vicky McClure and Morven Christie and passes the Bechdel with flying colours this doesn’t classify it as novel or even offering something verging on feminist critique. It doesn’t need to (I hear the defenders of the status quo cry) but just because Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff and the 9-5 crew got their happy endings doesn’t mean more women can’t take on the patriarchy in style. There was scope here to see something interesting done with the genre and have Ellie actually try to team up with Paula (ok, minus the whole Paula-murdering-Kay bit, which really didn’t make sense given Paula ends up telling loads of people her secret anyway) and have them transcend the patriarchal binds of the work place. But instead they were forced to endure the limited plot devices that their hackneyed characters had to offer. So whilst The Replacement could, at a push, be critiquing our culture’s obsession with defining women by the children they may or may not have I feel it’s just cashing in on this trope and maybe even making matters worse especially as just after Ellie’s shut the door in her dire husband’s face her boss appears in the background implying that maybe, just maybe, they’ll get together because heaven forfend Ellie be a single Mum.

Meaningless Millenials: Clique & Search Party

Life can seem quite meaningless for millennials these days as we’re forced to jump through the increasingly outdated hoops of school all for the sake of one day getting an adult job. However, much debt later and those dream jobs tend to be unpaid internships or going the way of automisation. Meanwhile, Trump, Brexit, climate change etc etc…what do we do!? It’s no surprise then that this nihilistic turn ends up influencing popular culture. Two examples include recent mystery based dramas with Gen Y protagonists, Search Party (TBS) and Clique (BBC). For the former think Nancy Drew meets mid-twenties millennial malaise with a side of Gone Girl and the latter is a less funny Mean Girls meets The Secret History with Scottish accents. Both have meaninglessness at their hearts but for two very different reasons. Oh, and head’s up, there will be spoilers.

Search Party tells the story of Dory, not the forgetful fish, but a 20s something woman living in New York who lacks direction and purpose in life. Naturally, she goes looking for this by going looking for Chantal – an old college acquaintance who is now a missing person. Cue hunting for clues, curious suspects, intriguing red herrings and a whole cast of amazing characters – from her endlessly self-absorbed rich friends to a cult-load of ‘wellness-seeking’ weirdos. Dory’s 21st century world is exceptionally bleak but also very, very funny. Clique takes itself a little more seriously as young students and lifelong friends, Holly and Georgie, fall out over getting in with the in-crowd: four conventionally beautiful young women who have looks and banking internships to die for (literally in the case of one of them who kills herself in episode one). The characters here are familiar clichés: the charismatic lecturer who lures the impressionable young women in with her force of character (and questionable brand of feminism) and the attractive people who do glamorous things (e.g. take drugs, jump into swimming pools with their clothes on, have chauffeurs etc) but aren’t actually that interesting. However, what’s great about Clique is that it’s going all out to fail the Mechdel test – the male equivalent of the Bechdel test – as the guys are left to be annoying, peripheral characters and the occasional bare butt shot.

So both shows are full of selfish and sometimes vacuous characters, however, I’d say Search Party is knowingly presenting them as such in order to skewer them in parody. It takes a mirror to Gen Y’s obsession with selfies, celebrity and self-promotion, and reminds us that it’s all paper-thin (whilst also mistressfully weaving this trope into the denouement). Meanwhile, I feel Clique is being a little more earnest in its vacuity and trying to convince us that, like Holly and Georgie, we really should want to join the clique of coke-snorting, unpaid yet highly attractive interns who don’t say much of interest and are forced to work for/with complete chauvinists. But that’s the thing with cliques – cool from a distance but kinda disappointing once you’re inside. Although I’m not convinced Holly is all that convinced of the clique either so, with three episodes to go, there’s still plenty of time for biting, poignant cultural critique a la Search Party.

Interestingly, one thing lacking in both these tales of millennial woe are significant adult figures. Search Party has the odd wellness guru and disinterested, rich parent, whilst Clique has got the over-zealous lecturer and her weird brother but I feel both series are missing a trick because without adults who can the Gen Yers blame for all our problems? Let’s face it without the baby boomers we millennials wouldn’t be here. Without their inventions, businesses, advertising agencies and super-charged model of consumer capitalism where on earth would we go to struggle to find meaning and purpose? I mean if they’d invested in sustainable energy, steady-state economic models and put community before profit then Dory and Holly probably would have already found themselves and wouldn’t need to go on dangerous mystery adventures. Likewise, their friends would probably spend more time looking out for one another and not wasting so much time setting up faux-charitable initiatives to boost their fragile self-esteems or chasing the next high-functioning sociopath with a six-pack. And nor would everyone be stone broke and forced to pay too much rent because we’d have caps on renting or, who knows, maybe all housing would be social housing. And freaky wellness cults run by overly charismatic yet dubious people who wear too much expensive jewellery wouldn’t need to be invented because we’d all probably be quite happy sharing stuff and looking out for one another. Who’d need an exclusive clique when we’d all have community. Anyways, just a thought. Now quick, back to Instagram!

It’s Called X-Men For A Reason

Can’t wait for X-Men Apocalypse? I can. And the reason’s in the name. Sure, X-People or X-Humans might not have the same ring to it but we’d get used to it after a while. So, in anticipation of the next Latif and Bechdel test failing reboot of this endless franchise I thought I’d re-cap why the previous two films were such let downs.

X-Men: First Class pretty much starts as it means to go on with Rose Byrne’s character, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, stripping off to some black lingerie to join a throng of female strippers as they ululate for various men in suits. Was this film made by teenage boy stereotypes? January Jones plays Emma Frost who can turn into diamond, a fairly typical result of minor DNA mutation and also a great excuse to have her in underwear and virtually naked most of the time. And if that wasn’t enough female semi-nudity Jennifer Lawrence plays Mystique, who spends most of her time being naked and blue. So, yup, this is one of those superhero movies for the “lads” – the sort of lads who choke if they eat their popcorn too quickly and fantasise about being Magneto. Talking of whom, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy seem to enjoy getting all the best lines but also playing two right twerps – seriously, young Xavier is such a sleezeball who seems to fail to understand when ‘no means no’ even though he can read minds (a skill he uses to hit on women with, which is just wrong).

The younger mutants don’t fare too well either. There’s a whole bunch of them but they’re mainly white and hetero. The one black mutant, Darwin, played by Edi Gathegi, has a life span of around five minutes before Kevin Bacon’s villian fills him with strange, red energy causing him to implode and shatter into many pieces as his mate Havoc watches through white crocodile tears. Of course, this happens after the only other mutant of colour, Angel, decides to defect and join the baddies’ team (she survives this film but dies off-screen before the next one). So what’s the moral here? That the goodies are white and heteronormative and if you deviate from this trope you’ll end up dead one way or the other.

It’s a similar story for Days of Future Past – McAvoy and Fassender hog all the screen time as they fight over Mystique whose DNA, it turns out, was used to build giant, mutant-killing robots called Sentinels. Yup, a woman is to blame for why all the mutants face extinction. Ellen Page appears but spends most of her time holding onto Wolverine’s head as he gets to do all the fighting. Although you do see his bum for a few seconds in a half-hearted attempt to get some objectification of the male body in the film. It doesn’t last long because all those “lads” are probably too busy snorting on their fizzy drinks and trying desperately to affirm their heterosexuality. The only good thing this film does is to eradicate X-Men: The Last Stand – yup, history literally gets rewritten and one of the worst X-Men movies vanishes. And this means the brilliant Jean Grey is back and no doubt she’ll leave Xavier’s ridiculous school for mutant brats to join a team of awesome queer, female and diversely coloured mutants. So maybe things are looking up for Apocalypse especially with Mystique asking us to “forget everything you think you know.” Does this include the white, cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy?

The Night Manager: A Slower James Bond

The Night Manager, it’s the new John Le Carré adaptation on BBC1, a typical story of intrigue, spying and nefarious businessmen screwing the rest of the world over. If you’ve ever seen a James Bond film then it’s like that (sorry, spoiler alert) – big baddy selling weapons, objectified women who get killed by baddies and some dull, semi-sociopath spy caught in the middle of it. Except this time M is played by Olivia Coleman and she’s got a northern accent and a baby on the way. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever read one of my blog posts you’ll be able to predict my complaints: it fails the Latif and Bechdel tests so far (I’m on episode 3 and still asking myself why I didn’t stop at 1), there’s plenty of sexualised, female nudity and zilch sexualised male nudity (not even some side penis to compensate for all the side boob we get) and the protagonist has no charisma, genuinely zero, he doesn’t even register on the personality scale. To summarise, this is a boring yet glamorous waste of time. If you really want your fill of slightly-more-intelligent-than-James-Bond spy thriller (but still disappointingly chauvinistic) watch The Constant Gardener.

So, need this blog go on? Well, one thing I do find quite interesting about this series is it’s depiction of rich people. And we’re not just talking millionaires we’re talking the billionaire businessmen who sell arms and pull strings in national governments to get away with it. Yup, it’s the elite of the elite, those at the top of the capitalist military industrial complex. And the one in The Night Manager is called Richard Roper and is played by Hugh Laurie. And, curiously, he’s not very scary. He tells crass jokes, he flops around his villa eating brioche, he quaffs champagne, he does the odd deal, he dances with his much younger girlfriend (who is often to be seen naked unlike Hugh Laurie of course). Meanwhile, his rich friends have drinking problems, are insecure about how they look, cheat on their wives with their French au pairs, have complexes about their masculinity (and penis size no doubt), and genuinely do what insecure, entitled men do. Meanwhile, the wives look on as they try to ignore their husbands dodgy dealings whilst packing off bratty Tamara and Tim to boarding school.

And these so-called elites, the 1%, are the ones we’re encouraged to aspire to be like!? The only difference between these people and any other group of malfunctioning humans (which is most groups) is that when they negotiate over a contract that contract tends to be about weapons that may well be used in a war. When I fall out with my friends it’s usually over a round and the repercussions might be a split pint or two. For the 1% it’s whether British arms will be used to trash the next Middle Eastern country. So The Night Manger, whilst being a well-worn cliché of exotic locales and exoticised women has done me the favour of putting me off my dream to become a billionaire. The rich come across as pretty boring and Hugh Laurie’s attempt at justifying his lifestyle is also quite boring. After having said how great it is to be able to eat brioche whenever he likes and go skiing a lot he then says: “Children grow up thinking the adult world is ordered, rational, fit for purpose. It’s crap. Becoming a man is realising that it’s all rotten. Realising how to celebrate that rottenness, that’s freedom.” I mean, seriously, what a half-hearted attempt at justifying egoistic nihilism. The whole point of nihilism is that you don’t need to justify it, it’s just an excuse to be a complete wanker and not care about anyone else. Sure, Roper fits the bill but is a villa in Mallorca really the best he can do? Personally, I’d prefer some nice friends and not facilitating World War 3.

How To Get Away With Murder (Spoilers)

I’ve just binge watched the first season of How To Get Away With Murder – a 2015 US TV series about a bunch of over-achieving law students who over-achieve a little too much when they murder their professor’s husband. Cue legal hijinks and shenanigans as their professor colludes with them to cover it up because she believes her husband was guilty of the murder of a sorority girl he was having an affair with (but can we be sure it was him!?). In many ways the series is very good: it passes the Bechdel and Latif tests with flying colours, it doesn’t pretend we live in a post-race and post-gender society where these things don’t need to be talked about, the core cast are conventionally attractive (if conventions are your bag) and Viola Davis as the kick ass Professor Annalise Keating is just scorching – she makes the series. However, I’m not so convinced it rates as a whodunnit – there was the odd twist or two but come the finale the surprise payoff just wasn’t big enough. So, following on from Professor Keating here are my three top tips on how to get away with murder, inspired by the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie.

1: Characters Not Caricatures: If you’re going to make your core characters a bunch of spoilt, bratty law students then we need to like at least one of them. Unfortunately, the leads, whilst brilliantly acted aren’t particularly easy to sympathise with. We’re given occasional glimpses into their back stories – cue compassionless and snobby family dinners, overbearing fathers and threatening mothers-in-law – but we needed more. Without context and background the characters just become ciphers for each episode’s mini-plot (usually court scenes involving helping random guilty people get away with murder) and the series’ overarching plot – who really killed the sorority girl? However, despite their lack of depth what did make for compelling viewing was watching the leads unravel after they all colluded in and covered up the murder of the husband. Turns out being heirs to fortunes and at a top university count for very little when it comes to coping with the consequences of murdering someone. Of course, whether or not they get away with it doesn’t really seem to matter given they’re all such prats.

2: Red Herrings: The jilted lover, the heir, the jealous sibling, the conveniently placed lunatic, the rival in love and even the identical twin all make for great distractions from the actual murderer. A Christie novel basically involves tying the reader up in a tangled mess of string made predominantly from red herrings until the final reveal when the detective untangles the mess and the audience cannot believe it was that obvious all along. Again, HTGAWM let the side down by not having enough red herrings. It didn’t take too many guesses to figure out who really might have killed the sorority girl meaning the finale was a bit of a damp squib. Ideally, if the actual murderer is implicated at any point they must then be made to appear above suspicion, for example, “watertight” evidence needs to appear that puts them somewhere else at the time of the crime. Also, given point 1, it helps if we’re vaguely interested in the character who ultimately turns out to be the murderer, i.e. they’re more than a convenient plot device.

3: Hiding Things In Plain Sight: “Where’s the best place to hide a pebble?” asked the legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to his stupid sidekick Arthur Hastings. The answer: “On a beach.” Likewise, the best place to hide a killer motive is amongst a whole load of other killer motives. It’s like a magician’s sleight of hand – we’re all looking at one hand whilst the rabbit or dove is hidden up the other sleeve, or something like that. Unfortunately, HTGAWM pretty much gave us all its possible motives on a platter without trying to hide the actual one. As with point 2 given that the who of the whodunnit wasn’t a huge surprise then the why of whydunnit, or indeed the how of howdunnit, needed to be more surprising.

Having said all the above HTGAWM made for compelling viewing – it was fast-paced, sufficiently twisty and full of great performances. And by the looks of the trailer for season 2 things are about to get even more twisted. Here’s to more back story, more red fish and even more killer surprises (but please don’t do what the promising series Revenge did after season 1 which was to become increasingly baffling and pointless). If the starter was medium let’s hope the second course is cooked rare.