Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spoilers)

I’ve finally seen it, the new Star Wars, and boy did it deliver – loadsa aliens, giant space ships, cute robots, a female protagonist that isn’t forced to wear a bikini and pastries, a character of colour in a lead role, amazing explosions, lightsabers, an awesome baddy and an average plot. It did what it said on the tin and gave a whole new generation of kids an endless supply line of plastic toys to get at Christmas. So here’s a quick review in which I highlight some of the hits and misses, big spoilers ahead (also for Scream 4).

HIT – Better Than Scream 4: Ok, what does a slasher series from the 90s have to do with a space opera? Well, over a decade after Scream 3 was released we were given another outing of a guy in a ghost mask killing teens. It did what franchise rebooting films should do and had the surviving members of the original films return as well as introduce a whole new cast of preppy, spunky high schoolers all waiting to get killed off one by one. But despite the tagline “new decade, new rules” it actually proved to be pretty old-fashioned, sure there was the odd smartphone and facebook reference but the monochrome and hetero cast just didn’t ring true for the 21st century and it spent far too long paying tribute to the old films that it didn’t do anything new (save for the killer twist at the end, that was ace). The nail in the coffin was killing off the entire new cast and leaving behind the original trio…again. It also wasn’t very scary. Fortunately, Star Wars didn’t make this mistake – whilst it brought back the old cast it also gave us a new, awesome one and even went as far as offing one of the old members. This is a good way to keep old fans but get plenty of new ones. Although Episode 8 could backtrack on all this if it becomes all about Luke Skywalker again (yawn).

MISS – Conflict Needs Tension: I’m often told that all good stories need conflict – a character wants something but then something else blocks their desire, namely an obstacle, and this creates conflict. We then watch as the character tries to overcome the obstacle. Will they find BB-8? Will Finn survive her kidnapping? Will they find BB-8 again? But it’s quite easy to create conflict, as simple as DESIRE + OBSTACLE. However, if we want the audience to be hooked by a conflict we need to feel genuine tension, we need to feel the stakes are high, and that the character really might not get what they want. This is where the final part of Episode 7 got a little dull – the whole Starkiller Base (basically a very big Deathstar) wasn’t very believable in the first place, it’s silly solar powered laser was just silly and the way it could just blow up planets was boring. So, despite the Starkiller Base being a very big obstacle I was never convinced it was an actual threat. Sure there was conflict: DESIRE (Rebels want to survive) + OBSTACLE (Starkiller is going to blow up Rebels), but I’d seen this before in Episode 4 and the ease with which a few Rebel spaceships and well-placed bombs destroyed the whole Starkiller anyway was just a let down. Yeah, it was one giant conflict but it lacked tension, I mean, did we ever think they could fail? And seriously J. J Abrams, why not invent a new plot device rather than rehash all the old ones…desert planet, cute droid carrying secret message, baddy in mask, big spherical laser firing spaceship thing etc.

HIT – Into The Grey Zone: Star Wars is known for it’s really simple plots – Good v. Evil, Light v. Dark, Jedi v. Sith, etc (“kindergarten mythmaking” as a review in the FT put it). It presents two opposing poles and has characters take sides, you’re either a goody-goody or a baddy-baddy. But this time things were a little more nuanced as the film took a look at that place between the poles, namely the ‘grey zone’ – where moral ambiguities abound. Take Finn for starters – he starts out life as your average Stormtrooper – just hopping from planet to planet taking other people’s orders and killing innocent villagers. But when the lasers start firing and the people start dying (including his Stormtrooper mates) it all gets a little much for him. He takes off his mask to reveal a human underneath and then decides to join with the goodies. In Finn’s character the normally faceless Stormtroopers are humanised and we come to realise they’re flawed and fallible, and it isn’t just as simple as Good v. Bad. Next comes Kilo Ren (the best character!) – Leia and Hans’ son who has turned to the Dark Side and got himself a cool, new lightsaber (and a hilarious twitter account). In his character we see a genuine internal struggle between good and bad, we see someone hovering in the middle, with an emotional and unstable core that could tip either way. Unfortunately it tips towards the Dark Side. But this brings me on to my biggest complaint…

MISS: Why Bother Being Bad? I just don’t get why anyone would choose to join the First Order (basically the Empire Mark 2) – firstly, the life of a Stormtrooper looks exceptionally dull especially if they have to wear their helmets all the time. As for Force users, those on the Dark Side end up working for complete psychopaths but unlike bankers they don’t even get fancy apartments in London as compensation. So what’s the point, what’s the appeal, save power, but what’s the point of power if you don’t get to indulge in it? What possible motive could so many people have for just going around destroying everything? Don’t they even want to inhabit the planets they defeat and build elaborate temples, casinos and amusement parks? What do they even eat? We all know that villains are way more interesting than heroes but villains need back stories too and whilst Kilo Ren got one all the others were just cardboard cut-outs. Who the heck are Hux and Snope for starters? Maybe Episode 8 will answer these questions but as for Episode 7, I just didn’t think the baddies had credible motives for all that destruction. Baddies are human/alien after all and it’s always fun to know why they are the way they are.

So, all in all, I’d say it was a Hiss or a Mit…not quite as great as it could have been but still very fun.  The new Star Wars team really must learn the important lesson of Scream 4 – pay homage to the original movies but give us something new as well. In Episode 7 this came in the guise of Rey and Finn, two new and exciting characters, but the plot also needed a reboot, an even bigger Death Star simply will not do. And now for lots of thumb twiddling until 2017…

Love (Is) Actually (For Rich White Men)

I sat down to watch Love Actually last night, one of my favourite Christmas movies – y’know, the one where Hugh Grant plays the bumbly prime minister, Colin Firth plays some bumbly writer, Keira Knightley smiles a lot and a whole host of other famous British actors don’t deviate from their usual type-castings. All wholesome, British fun. At least that’s what I used to think but since then I’ve read Judith Butler and generally become more aware of the gross inequality in this country and the many problems of patriarchy. So, this year, I saw Love Actually a little differently and came to realise that it’s basically about rich, white men getting what they want. Spoilers ensue.

For starters, three of the central relationships are about middle-aged men with power (i.e. with important jobs – Alan Rickman (aka Snape) plays the CEO of a charity, Hugh Grant the PM and Colin Firth a wealthy writer) who attract much younger, women of ‘lower status’ – Snape’s secretary, the PM’s Cockney, ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type maid (played by Martine McCutcheon) and Firth’s Portuguese cleaner. The women go out of their way to attract the men whilst the guys just bumble around getting what they want without even trying. As for woman of power in the film…well, there aren’t m/any. Sure, there are plenty of female secretaries, there’s a put-upon wife (played magnificently by Emma Thompson), there’s a dead wife, there’s a nasty, younger wife who cheats on her husband (boo, we’re not supposed to like her), and a blushing bride (Knightley) but there aren’t many inspiring roles for women in this film. Add to that the often abysmal script that many brilliant female actors are forced to speak – Snape’s secretary tempts him to cheat on his wife with her saying cringe-worthy things about “dark corners” as she spreads her legs. She’s also forced to wear devil horns to the office party as women are literally demonised in this film. At least Emma Thompson gets to speak up for herself at the end after a bit of Oscar-worthy acting to the tunes of Joni Mitchell (see below) but I still feel Snape’s apology isn’t sincere enough.

Then there are the people of colour in the film, or lack of them. We’ve got a black DJ (who’s a joke), a not particularly nice black secretary (who is also forced to serve Grant’s PM), a black best friend (who gets the odd token line and manages to defy the laws of physics by being in two places at once) and a black husband (who plays second fiddle to Keira Knightley and that random, white guy from Teachers who is secretly in love with her, cue that awful scene in which it takes Knightley’s character far too long to figure out the Teachers guy is some weirdo who fantasises about her a little too much). But is any substantial role given to a person of colour…no. As for trans and queer characters – well, Emma Thompson makes a joke about a Barbie doll that looks like a transvestite and a few people are asked if they’re gay but then quickly and vehemently deny it. So zero points on the queer front.

And then there’s Colin Frissell – a young, bumbly white guy who never has much luck with the ladies. Perhaps because he calls women he doesn’t know beautiful and is generally inappropriate in the way he talks with women. We’re supposed to like him and his goofy antics but really his attitudes and behaviour are dire. But then he flies off to America and ends up with not one but three (maybe even four) busty American women who, thanks to the stellar script, are complete idiots. So, if at first you don’t succeed lads, just keep going until women relent. Oh, and there’s that plot line about Bilbo Baggins doing nude scenes with Tracey of Gavin & Tracey fame and naturally we get to see her breasts a lot but do we get to see his penis as a bit of nudity parity…nope. I’ve always wondered what a hobbit penis would look like.

As for the other plot lines, there’s one about a father (Liam Neeson) and son which would have been better if Neeson got to shoot some people; a nice enough bromance between an aging, male rock star and his male manager; and quite a sad office romance between an American woman and some French male model. And after all that what’s the moral of this heartwarming Yuletide story – if you want to live in London and fall in love you basically have to be rich, white and male. Happy Christmas.

My favourite scene…Emma Thompson capturing the MAMMOTH emotional repression and inability to communicate of the upper middle classes perfectly. She thought he was going to get her a necklace but he gave that to the nasty, devil secretary instead. Just watch as she tries to hold back those tears and maintain a stiff upper lip in front of the kids!

The Slightly Sexist Song Of The Sea

The Song of the Sea is a new animated film for children and adults. It tells the tale of Ben and his younger sister Saoirse. It’s beautifully animated and based on folkloric Irish tales of Selkies – mythological creatures that are seals in water and shed their skins to become humans on land. Unbeknownst to Ben his mother was a Selkie and so is his little sister. It is a stunning story about grief, growing up and family. However, the more I watched it the more I realised that I had seen this story many, many times before and it’s one that has been told over and over again – it’s the one all about men.

Song of the Sea

I’ll start with a brief plot synopsis (spoilers): Ben lives in a lighthouse with his pregnant mum and dad. The mum gives Ben a magic shell and then goes missing into the sea leaving behind Saoirse, his little sister. Six years later and the dad’s still pretty unhappy and Saoirse still hasn’t said a word. Meanwhile, Saoirse discovers a magic coat left behind by her mum which lets her transform into a seal. She goes swimming for a bit and that’s when we learn she’s a Selkie. Unfortunately, nasty granny arrives to take Ben and Saoirse back to the city. Ben doesn’t really like Saoirse and is annoyed when she follows him as he escapes from his granny’s house. Some magical fairies inform the siblings that Saoirse’s a Selkie and must sing the Song of the Sea to free all the trapped spirits – it’s a shame she doesn’t speak. Unfortunately she gets kidnapped by a witch, Macha, who bottles up people’s feelings (literally) thereby turning them to stone. Her reason is that she couldn’t handle her son (a giant) being so sad when his wife died so she bottled up his grief and turned him into a giant cliff (the dad is basically the giant and the gran is Macha). Ben rescues his sister who starts playing the magic shell which causes all the bottles to break. Macha, part stone, is overwhelmed by her feelings but relents and helps transport Ben and Saoirse back home. There, Saoirse finally speaks and she sings a magic Selkie song that frees all the ancient spirits so they can finally return to their magical land far away. The mum reappears to take Saoirse away with her but instead Saoirse relinquishes her Selkie abilities so she can stay with her dad and brother. Everyone lives happily ever after, even the nasty gran who shacks up with the old ferry driver.

It’s a nice story full of metaphors, folklore and fantasy but there are some all too familiar and all too sexist tropes. To start with there aren’t many female characters – there’s the mum who vanishes within minutes; the gran who is the typical crone character – old, haggard and someone no one would ever want to grow up to become and Macha – the evil villain who is basically an even worse version of the gran. The main female character is Saoirse.

Firstly, she is voiceless, she literally has no voice for most of the film, which means Ben gets to do all the talking. Whilst she is often portrayed as more intelligent than her wilful, older brother, who drags her around on a dog’s lead for quite a bit of the film, she is still forced to follow him, even when she knows he’s going in the wrong direction. He becomes less ambivalent towards her once he’s learnt she’s a Selkie. As the film progresses she becomes weaker and weaker and ends up getting kidnapped. This inspires Ben to take even more action and battle the film’s antagonist. It seems a little bit as if Saoirse only has worth as a character once her brother has realised she’s useful – i.e. has magic singing abilities.  He’s the one that puts the magic shell to her lips so she can play it and break all of Macha’s magic bottles. It’s almost as if little girls are being told to tolerate the whims and bullying behaviours of their elder brothers until their brothers realise they have voice and worth, and only then can they become somewhat empowered.

After her rescue Saoirse is even weaker meaning it is Ben  that must overcome his fear of swimming and dive deep to uncover Saoirse’s thrown away Selkie suit. So despite the fact that the sea is Saorise’s element and true home it still ends up being all about Ben and his newfound abilities. Meanwhile, Saoirse’s singing and shell playing skills appear somewhat arbitrary given that she just inherited them and they’re basically magical.  Saoirse’s voicelessness also means that apart from one brief chat with her mum right at the end the film categorically fails the Bechdel test. FInally, when Saoirse does eventually speak her first word isn’t hello or help or patriarchy, no, it’s Ben.

There are some nice messages in the film – namely that stories are very important, be they ones that run in the family or older more mythical stories that came long before the stories of the Bible. The film reminds us that our culture suffers when we lose our stories but it’s just a shame that the film’s own story tells us that men are the active ones whilst women sit around either trying to muck everything up (the gran and Macha) or are basically just there to sing at men’s command. The film also has something to say about men’s inability to emote, namely because the father remains confused and grief-stricken long after the disappearance of his wife but even this is implicitly traced back to his overprotective mother (the nasty gran) who constantly tells him she knows what’s best and lives a repressed, devout Christian life. This story is reflected in the mythical one with Macha literally turning her giant son to stone so he would no longer have to suffer the grief of the loss of his wife – if only women would stop meddling seems to be the point here. Other male characters include the comic ferry driver, the faeries (we see a few female faeries in the background at the end but none are given a voice) and the Great Seanachai – a mythical storyteller who remembers all the old stories and is thus a font of cultural knowledge and wisdom, oh, and he’s a man.

So, fifteen years into the 21st century and what do we get – another mythic adventure about boys and men saving the day. It’s nice that Saoirse sings her special song at the end and frees all the spirits but this is basically the same as Pepper Potts donning Iron Man’s suit at the end of Iron Man 3 in order to blast the main baddy to smithereens – it’s great a woman saves the day but it’s all a bit last-minute and tokenistic. Why not a whole film about an interesting and three-dimensional female character doing awesome and exciting things?

But that’s just it, it’s not that this film is a sexist travesty and should be banned, no, it’s just that this film follows in a long, long line of films and stories just like it – ones that portray men as the active and characterful heroes whilst women are painted as passive and regularly in need of rescue. The Song of the Sea slots so easily into this pervasive cultural narrative when it had so much scope to start rewriting it – why couldn’t it be Benjamina running off in search of her fey little Selkie brother? Why couldn’t the father have vanished right at the start? And why are there no characters of colour, or trans and queer characters partaking in the action, surely ancient Irish folklore isn’t just for white, heterosexual cisgendered people? The film has been described as a “timeless delight for all ages”- it’s only timeless because this masculinist and sexist narrative is so seemingly unkillable. It’s great to be inspired by old stories but it’s time we started telling some new ones, fit for the 21st century.