Monday, 22 January 2018

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who

Science fiction is often made especially remarkable when it is rooted in real science. It is inspiring to listen to Alan Moore, for example, explain how he has read a paragraph or so about String Theory and came up with an idea for a character that can bend the universe by playing a violin a certain way. The scientific theories as well as the inventions of Star Trek have famously inspired a generation if not generations of doctors, engineers and physicist, and with the help of popular science communicators from Carl Sagan to Neil Degrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, recent films like Interstellar, which was followed by the book The Science of Interstellar by Kip Thorne, theoretical physicist and scientific adviser of the film, and The Martian, script adapted from the book by Andy Weir a computer programmer and mathematician, and TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, have brought real science back into science fiction and popular culture and made it sexy.

From its inception Doctor Who was intended as an educational show and have even put educators, science teacher Ian Chesterton and history teacher Barbara Wright at its centre. However, while there was some science thrown in here and there, it often felt as if history was the main interest of Doctor Who creators and science was mostly neglected. With time it seems that the show moved more and more towards magic rather than science, with problems from recent years’ stories solved by storytelling, singing, love and worst of all the power of motherhood[1]. There are even fan schools that would say “never apply logic to Doctor Who”. Writers Simon Guerrier and Dr Marek Kukula say no to that and in their collaboration, The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who they not only show that you can apply scientific logic to Doctor Who, but also show why it is “fantastic!”

Inspired by the four volumes of The Science of Discworld, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, the book is structured as a collection of short Doctor Who stories, featuring all twelve Doctors, slightly favouring the twelfth Doctor, by noted writers including Jenny T Coogan, Una McCormack, Justin Richards, James Goss and many others, intertwined with articles exploring scientific ideas in Doctor Who. During the 50th anniversary celebration of Doctor Who in 2013, professor Brian Cox has attempted to do something similar with a series of short lectures exploring themes of Doctor Who like time and space travel, alien life and dimensions (ie the TARDIS being bigger on the inside) from a scientific point of view. This was interesting and fun, but quite generic and superficial. Guerrier and Kukula take it to the next level. While Cox discussed wider themes and theories, Kukula and Guerrier take a more in depth look and demonstrate scientific theories and thoughts with Doctor Who TV stories from all eras.   

The book is divided into three parts: Space, Time and Humanity. The Space part covers subjects like the possibility of alien life, space travel, multiverse, the power of the TARDIS, explaining pulsars and black holes, and what we have learned about the Earth and its future from space exploration. The Time part of the book discusses the laws of time and the practicalities of time travel, time and memory, an in depth look into the Time War and finally after we look into Earth’s future in the space section, the time section offers a look into the history of Earth. The humanity section of the book looks into evolution, man and machine, artificial intelligence, entropy and death, and the subject of real regeneration.  

Not all the stories in the book are great, some are baffling and not always in a good way, others are very meh or boring, but quite a few of them are really good, exceptional even, The Room with all the Doors by James Goss is a second Doctor story that particularly stood out as a very clever story that feels very Doctor Who-y and would make a brilliant visual story as well as an audio, but perhaps it works best as a book.  The Hungry Night by Jonathan Morris, a sad and rather lonely ninth Doctor story. In Search for Lost Time by Una McCormack, a story that reminded me of the Star Trek The Next Generation episode Inner and the Girl Who Stole the Stars, a seventh Doctor story though more an Ace and Raine story that managed to make a rather suspenseful virtual reality story. The stories as a whole give excellent picture and a nice transit from one science-y essay to another. Good or bad all the stories seem to paint a surprisingly accurate picture of their chosen Doctors or companions.

If there is a slight problem with the book it is that the fifth Doctor, who is in my opinion the most scientific of Doctors, gets only one story, The Constant Doctor by Andrew Smith, in which he is not but an observer, which is a shame because it is a good story and I think would have been made better with the help of the fifth Doctor's flare for science.

While the book is constructed in such a way that you can skip the science if you are not interested in it, or skip the fiction if the science is your only interest, I think it would make the book redundant. There are enough good popular science books out there and enough Doctor Who fiction to choose from, but The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who works incredibly well combining the two in an engaging and fun way that is broadly accessible as well as educational and fascinating.

[1] However, it is worth pointing out that after reading a little bit about quantum physics I found Moffat’s Weeping Angels a concept that could have been influenced by the discovery that quantum particles behave differently when observed and when not observed. An incredible incomprehensible revelation that inspired a great Doctor Who monster.  

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A Moo Point!

In the New Year Netflix has made Friends available in the UK, I grabbed my head in my hand and wondered if we really need yet another platform to watch Friends on and whether there is ever going to be anything else on TV. As it turns out there is a generation, the millennials, that has never seen Friends before. After the initial shock, I read their Twitter comments about the show. After I rolled my eyes and exhaled in patronising derision and despair, I thought I might write a few words about Friends.

Firstly, the irony of a generation that worships Game of Thrones, one of the most misogynistic TV shows on mainstream television, a show that basically caters to the sexual fantasies of thirteen years old, heterosexual boys (I guess that would hetero boys of all ages), a show that in its first season was merely a tiny step away from being well-produced soft porn, a show that glorifies rape and prefers female nudity over story or dialogue, that they then would then preach about sexism in Friends would have been hilarious if it wasn’t quite so sad.

This is not to say that Friends isn’t guilty of all kinds of political correctness crimes nor that it is free of problems. I’ll be the first to point them out and wave my fist in the air at them. One of the worst flaws of the show is the character of Ross Geller, which is a real shame because David Schwimmer who plays him is a fantastic comic actor with impeccable timing and his “PIVOT!” scene as well as his and Monica’s “Routine” are comedy gold and instant classics that never fail to make me laugh. Unfortunately, his character is a real dick! The worst of it is of course his relationship with Rachel, who he wishes to control at every step of the way. Even before that stupid “WE WERE ON A BREAK!” mantra, Ross couldn’t handle Rachel’s success, he became jealous not just of her handsome colleague, but also of her dedication to her career instead of him. As far as he was concerned Rachel should have stayed a waitress for the rest of her life. It remains a sore point that at the end of Friends Rachel gives up a dream job in France for him. I was also disappointed that there wasn’t more of a development to the romance between Rachel and Joey, who was not only more supportive, understanding and kind, but also had a lot more in common with her, had better chemistry with her and was generally a nicer guy than Ross. Alternatively, Chandler and Monica’s relationship, which was much lighter and a lot more cheerful than the exhausting emotional roller coaster that were Rachel and Ross, had a much better and more supportive relationship. They were both in pretty much equal position, slightly in favour of Monica who was at the top of her career, which, unlike Chandler and his work, she loved when they started their relationship, that is why she could afford to support Chandler when he decides to quit his job and pursue a career he could feel passionate about. Chandler and Monica were funnier, more practical and less romantic, and yet better matched and more interesting than Ross and Rachel. It doesn’t help Ross’s character that he is incapable of accepting his ex-wife being gay and can’t be nice and civil to her girlfriend and later wife, even when he has moved on and is in a happy relationship of his own. Sadly for Ross, The Big Bang Theory didn’t exist at the time and being a geek wasn’t cool. His profession, a scientist and academic, and his geekiness are constantly ridiculed, ignored, perceived as boring and constantly being put down and silenced. That could be the reason he is such a douche with some tendencies towards hysteria and madness.

Friends is a very white, hetero and almost incestual show. It encouraged most of its characters to copulate within the group and any potential spouse from outside the group is either a threat to the group’s wholeness, like the infamously hated Emily, a joke like Janis, or if there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them and they are just perfect like Richard or Tag, both of whom are substantially younger or older than the Friends they are dating, a problem like not wanting children or being too young to be husband material must be invented so these potential threat could be removed from the group and leave them free to pursue each other. It was quite a surprise to see Phoebe paired of with an outsider, a non-threatening, white guy, an enabler with very little personality that would shadow any of the Friends. Nevertheless, an outsider.

What did, if anything, Friends do well? Why was it such an incredible success and is even watched and discussed today? Friends came about in a time when Bill Clinton, the then president of the US. “did not inhale weed” and has stained Monica Lewinsky’s suit with his love juice in what could only be described as an attempt to recreate a cliched porn scene at the oval office. The president of the US of A was not the father figure he was expected to be and he betrayed family values. It was a time where the faith in the sanctity of the family was fading and friends and colleagues became the alternative to actual family. Comedies have moved from family based sitcoms like All in the Family, Rosanne and… well… before we knew better, The Cosby show, to workplace and friends’ sitcoms like Cheers, Murphy Brown, Seinfeld, Will and Grace and of course Friends, in which a bunch of people whose families are usually dysfunctional or disappointing in one way or another, prefer the company of their friends and co-workers and build a family like group. 

In many ways Friends provided that alternative family structure, with Ross and Monica, the brother and sister, being the responsible adults with real jobs, in role or the parents. Ross, being an actual parent, is the provider, he even helps Monica with money at some point, and Monica, the chef who is obsessed with cleaning, falls naturally to the role of the nurturing mother. But you only have to look at Ross’s penchant for divorce and his descent into insanity as the show progressed, to realise that this family structure isn’t quite as clear cut as it is in the old sitcom, there’s no real father or mother figures and at one point or another everyone behaves like little children and they take care of each other.

The men of Friends, even Joey the womaniser, were a different kind of men to what was common on television in those times. These were men who took great care of their looks, from outfits, which just like the girls they never wore the same one twice, to face creams, tanning, hairstyles, accessorising and weight. These are men who hugged each other and talked about their feelings with men as well as with women. They were capable of having a non-romantic relationship with the women in their lives and have fancy coffee in a stylish coffee shop. It is important to note that while today they might seem almost banal, men like Ross, Chandler and even Joey were something different and almost rare in that era of television and are probably completely foreign to the current president of the US. It is the Friends’ men who paved the way to the metrosexuals and hipster men that are an obligatory accessory to any respectable TV show.  

And while Ross was being a jerk about his ex-wife Carol and her lover Suzan getting married, let’s not forget that no one thought that his behaviour was acceptable, and he was scolded and reproached for it. A gay wedding in a predominantly hetero show, which didn't become an afternoon special, was not something you’d often see on mainstream television. Though, to be fair to Ross, I never understood the need of some people, mostly American TV characters, to invite their exes to their new wedding, but it seems to be a popular thing and I guess it can make for some entertaining television. While Ross had a son with Carol. which means he must maintain a certain relationship with her and Suzan, it makes sense that he would attend their wedding. Why Rachael would go to Barry’s wedding is beyond me.

Rich girl Rachael leaving her life and family behind and becomes a waitress so she can build herself right from the start is almost unheard of on television, let alone a sitcom before Friends, and that she and Ross would go on to have and raise a baby without getting married or even being together at the time, was also unique for the time.

However, one of my favourite moments was in season four, when Chandler is going out with Cathy in a rare and fantastic comedy scene, Monica explains to him how to pleasure a woman, a scene that ends with her, Rachel and Chandler all going to their own rooms without saying a word, because no words are needed. While Seinfeld had some great episodes about masturbation, cleverly using the phrase "master of your domain", as well as episodes about sexual techniques and women’s preferred contraception, I have never seen a network show that has shown a woman explain to a man, who she is not sleeping with, using a diagram, what to do in bed. That scene alone was a stroke of genius. In the first season of Game of Thrones, on the other hand, a beautiful woman is being raped by a very handsome husband on a gorgeous cliff with a sunset backdrop and rising music, and after that she asks one of her girls to teach her how to be better at sex and please her husband, clearly an excuse no doubt to have some lesbian sex scenes, or the male fantasy of a lesbian sex scenes, between two beautiful women. 
However, Friends biggest and most ground-breaking achievement happened behind the scenes. It was the first, and quite possibly last, time that an ensemble cast stood together, men and women, and negotiated their wages as a group. Led by Courtney Cox, who was then the most experienced actress of the gang, they stood by each other and negotiated their contracts as a group not individuals and without any one ego taking over. They knew their worth and that the show needed all of them for it to work and that made them stronger and got them those unheard-of-before kind of salaries. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that the women names always came first in the credits. I have never heard of such unity and support between actors and actresses before or since and I think that especially today when equal pay is such a hot topic in Hollywood, it is worth taking a leaf out of the Friends page.

Whatever you have to say about Friends, urgh there’s nothing I hate more than the fat Monica jokes, and yes they stole so much material from Seinfeld, Friends have changed the face of television for good as well as maybe for bad, on and off screen. It created a winning formula that is still difficult to recreate and bred a lot of intelligent talents. One of the creators of Friends, David Crain, has gone to create Episodes with Matt LeBlanc playing himself, a sarcastic, cynical show that is very adult, almost the complete contrast of Friends, because in Episodes hardly anyone likes anyone, and it is one of the best and cleverest comedies on TV these days it is possible that Episodes was always on Crain’s mind, but I doubt that he would have gotten to make it or that Matt LeBlanc would have been as brilliant on it without Friends. Friends helped television become different and better, because in its time that is exactly what it was.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Wonder Woman

At the very end of Wonder Woman, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), she is never referred to as Wonder Woman in the film, she doesn't need this title that was given to her by man, she simply is one, who is working at the Louvre in Paris, an interesting change from her previous incarnations who were mostly confined to English speaking parts of the world, goes up to the roof in her Wonder Woman outfit and leaps towards the camera flying off to save the world on her own. There is no romantic kiss goodbye from anyone, or a lover waiting in the wings, there is only Diana against the world. Superhero or not, it is rare to find a film that centres a strong woman who isn’t paired off at the end of it. There have been a few, but even Mad Max Fury Road had Tom Hardy's Max puppy eyeing Furiousa at the end of the film leaving it open for possibilities, and I'm pretty sure that in Star Wars: The Force Awaken, Finn will be waiting for Ray when she finishes being mentored by yet another father figure (Both film written and directed by men, even if talented ones). For the most parts, strong as they may be, the women of popular entertainment are hardly ever complete without a “husband” or a "father". 

Of course, the film does give Diana a love interest, Steve Trevor the original love interest of Wonder Woman of the comic books, but this love story is very small and quite minor in the great scheme of things. One tender kiss and some funny sexual remarks is all we get to see of this love affair. It isn’t grand, the earth doesn’t move when they, presumably, sleep together and while Diana's relationship with Steve helps her realise the "power of love", though not that alone, life and heroic duties go on after he dies.

Created in 1941 by psychologist, lawyer, inventor and an irregular man William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was famously modelled on a combination of his whip-smart tomboy wife Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway and the couple’s lover who lived with them, Olive Bryne, the niece of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, who is also cited as an inspiration to several of the Wonder Woman storylines. However, Elizabeth, who was an activist in the feminist movement as was her husband William and Olive, contributed more than just her looks to the character of Wonder Woman, including her famous phrase “Suffering Sappho” a reference to Sappho an ancient Greek poet known for poems where women professed their affections for other women. Her contribution to the character rarely gets mentioned if ever. It is interesting to note that nowadays, while the film was unfortunately still written by a bunch of men, it is director Patty Jenkins that is mentioned the most in reviews and receives the main creative credit and recognition from critics and audiences alike.

The unique lifestyle of the Marston family, which included bondage fetish and an interest in S&M, has earned William Moulton Marston the title of a weirdo and a creep. Even today this life choices are hard for many to accept. When reading about Marston's life he is often portrayed a hypocrite, a feminist on the outside and an offensive dominant male at home. It is difficult to find articles or accounts that describe the women's part in this family and therefore it is problematic to assume they were victims. The uncommon family had to hide their unpopular lifestyle from the world that continues to judge them to this day, and so for example, they pretended that Olive was a housekeeper. 

Marston was also the creator of systolic blood pressure test, which became a component in the modern polygraph, invented by Josh Augustus Larson. It was his wife Elizabeth that suggested to him the connection between emotion and blood pressure, though just as with her contribution to Wonder Woman, she did not, or could not, receive credit for her contribution to academic research. The lie detector was proved as non scientific and Marston was investigated by the FBI for lying about his lie detector in a Gillette commercial. However, it was a significant psychological research. Wonder Woman's lasso of truth is said to have been inspired by this interest of Marston. 

Wonder Woman was conceived to “combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls for self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolised by men.” A progressive view at a time, especially for a man. In the comic Wonder Woman was often depicted in bondage, which indeed hints to the above mentioned bondage fetish, but it it is important to note that she was never a damsel in distress and always had to free herself from her shackles without help. In her final battle against Ares in the film, Diana finds herself on the floor restrained with some metal boards, an image that very much reminds those early Wonder Woman covers, she manages to free herself in fury when she realises Steve is dead. Perhaps a bit simplistic and yet symbolically freeing her from the control of any man, good or bad, love interest or enemy. 

Diana Prince is a woman from a foreign land, dressed in the colours of the American flag, protecting the values of a men her people decided to turn their back on. Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman's outfit is less obvious American colours and while it is still a skimpy skirt, she spend most of the film covered up and only changes for battle. Her outfit feels more like that of a Greek warrior. The casting of Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress,  who speaks with a thick accent for the role of Diana Prince, is an interesting choice. Because Gadot has served in the Israeli army, the film has been banned in Lebanon. Gadot's political inclinations have often been a topic of interest and I would not be surprised if she received specific instructions to avoid the subject in order to promote the film. Wherever she may stand on the political map, her casting was a risky gamble and an unexpected brave move for a mainstream blockbuster film. Patty Jenkins has admitted that it wouldn’t have crossed her mind to cast a non-American for the role, despite the character being non-American. Luckily Gadot was cast before Jenkins signed back on to the film and so we get a Wonder Woman that looks and sounds different, who speaks hundreds of languages, who sees good and bad in everyone and offers a truly different point of view. 

The world of male superheroes offers a variety of heroes, from the squeaky-clean symbols of courage that are Superman, Captain America and Thor, who take pride in their heroic duties through the in between, sarcastic, but righteous inside, Iron Man, to the darker broody heroes like Batman, the Hulk and Wolverine. The female superheroes are usually more reluctant, dark and must sacrifice themselves. Black Widow, the only female Avenger in the Marvell Cinematic Universe, was trained, tortured and most importantly sterilised, which makes her a monster in her own eyes, joins the Avengers to clear her conscious. Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy wants revenge against her father and to clear her own name and even Buffy (all hail the amazing Buffy) is a reluctant hero who only wants a normal life, often walks the dark side and has sacrificed herself to save the world more than once. While darker superheroes tend to be more interesting and attractive, the world has embraced male heroes compelled by their sense of duty, honour and morality like Captain America and Superman. Wonder Woman is the first female superhero that corresponds with those qualities by being motivated by love. Furthermore, her most iconic moment, the first time she is revealed in her Wonder Woman outfit and the first time the theme comes on, when she is crossing No Man's Land, is an action sequence made primarily of deflecting fire and defence. Unlike Captain America, who very quickly turns his shield into a weapon, Diana hardly uses her shield as anything but protection. Her greatest power is defence and deflection and it is with that power that she eventually defeats Ares. 

Whatever the problem the Wonder Woman film suffers from, which in my view are very few if any, its achievements and firsts not only make up for it, but make it a great superhero film that for the first time in the long history of superhero films, was not frustrating to women. 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Beautiful on the Inside?

It is extremely frustrating and worrying to find so few, non mainstream reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 that refer to the unsettling portrayal of new character Mantis and her relationship with Guardians’ muscle man Drax 

It is true, I am a DC kinda gal and have recently tired of Marvell’s Cinematic Universe (MCU), whose superheroes are so sleek, witty and sharp it is exhausting me trying to come up with the kind of metaphor that would measure up. They are as quick with their tongues as they are with their, shield, iron suit, arrows or kicks and even when they are broken and tormented like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 and Captain America… well… pretty much all of the time they never lose that clever touch which makes them so annoyingly perfect and untouchable. The MCU battles are as clean as their superheroes hair, clothes and face and as aesthetically pleasing. But in the end, they become repetitive, tiresome and as boring as the villain from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, so forgettable his name and evil plans escape me. Indeed, I like my heroes like I like my battles, bleak, violent occasionally angry and always gritty and dirty. The DC superheroes are less likeable, not always witty, occasionally heavy, and if there is anything DC could improve on is sense of humour, which most of their superheroes lack, they are usually too busy suffering to be able to come up with one liners. None of the DC superheroes have got it easy, they hurt, they suffer and their heroism is often a burden and always have consequences, which are usually dire.

There are of course exceptions, DC has created Suicide Squad, which was their pathetic attempt to compete with Marvell’s ensamble films and I choose to pretend it never happened. Marvell have produced Logan which was exceptional and a lot more DC in nature than MCU. 

But while this can be put down to taste and preferences, there are a few sins that MCU cannot and should not get away with, no matter how much flashy witticism and “cool” they throw at us, and one of them is their frankly embarrassing representation of women, superheroes or others. Starting with the fact that no Marvell female superhero has yet to get her own film, even though they spit out as many films as Tony Stark’s Iron Man suits, which is more than twice the amount of films DC has brought out, while DC is making history with a second female superhero film (the first is Supergirl in the 1980s) or perhaps even a third one if you count Catwoman from 2004, but perhaps it is better, like with Suicide Squad, to ignore that one. The women that do grace the Marvell films, usually as part of a group like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, or as superheroes’ girlfriends, function mainly as either a plot device, or to allow men to develop their characters. Black Widow’s greatest achievements include support for Captain America in Winter Soldier and Carer/love interest to Bruce Banner/Hulk. In Ant-Man the much more qualified and capable Hope must step aside and train the barely adequate Scott Lang and also provide him a love interest. Pepper Pot is mostly there to tut and point a reproaching finger at Tony Stark and Thor girlfriend played by Natalie Portman… well… I can’t even remember her name, what does that tell you? At least Captain America’s love interest, Agent Carter, who barely exists in the films, found life in the world of television, as did Jessica Jones, agent l Agent Carter was created by a bunch of men mind, but that’s something.

Not that DC is clear of those or all other charges, though both Smallville's Lois Lane and Amy Adams' Lois Lane from the recent Superman film are a vast improvement on the 1980s Lois Lane and any of the Marvell "girlfriends", but in Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 a line has been crossed and left a bitter taste and a foul feeling that continued to bother me long after the film. The almost complete silence in the media, which generally praised the film, over this issue has made it more disturbing.

In the film, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is an alien slave to Ego, the main villain of the film, who raised her since she was a larva. Kurt Russell is very good as Ego and without a doubt an improvement on whoever it was who was the villain in the first film. Mantis never questions Ego and his evil plans or motives, she does what he tells her to do, until our heroes, the Guardians, come to save her and show her the way. We know very little about Mantis and her life with Ego other than she has some empathic powers, which, in order not to be completely useless in a fight, she is able to use against Ego. Then there is Drax (Dave Bautista, who I usually like and was the best thing in the first film), Guardians’ muscle man, big and cuddly and a little bit silly. He thinks Mantis is ugly and a pet and he never misses an opportunity to tell her so. He even gags in disgust at the thought of being physical with her, which was that extra touch to make this interaction disturbing. This is supposedly hilarious because of course we know that Mantis, who finds Drax’s repulsion of her hysterically funny, is actually really beautiful. For Drax women should be big to be beautiful. And so, the first main interaction of a woman who was raised as a slave, with those who are suppose to save her, is that of insults, which she doesn’t understand and are to do with her value as attractive or beautiful in the eyes of a man who is a potential romantic interest. But because Drax is just a big child, it has been established in the first film that his thinking is literal and he doesn’t understand metaphors and says what’s on his mind with no filter, it is OK for him to insult Mantis with not but a pathetic reproach from Gamora (Zoe Saldana), quite possibly the most boring Guardian whose main function, once again, is to provide Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a love interest and in the first film a punching bag for Drax, who blames her for the death of his family and keeps calling her a whore. 

Furthermore, Mantis is supposed to be an alien, yet her character is largely and suspiciously drawn from the stereotype of a submissive Asian woman/wife, a servant who laugh at insults because she doesn’t understand them and speaks funny. The film suggests a possible love story between her and Drax, a dominant man who treats her badly, why would she betray Ego then is beyond me.

Despite not liking the first film very much, I did not go to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 looking for flaws and I definitely did not want to get as angry as I did with the film. All I wanted was good music, some decent action and the joy that is Baby Groot! And there was a lot to enjoy about in Guardians 2, Yandu proved to be pretty damn awesome, Kurt Russell, as mentioned, was excellent as Ego, a tiny yet great David Hasselhoff cameo and indeed Baby Groot! The real star of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. Then Mantis appears and the abuse from Drax commences and the film regresses into an unwatchable terrible joke.

The character of Mantis becomes even more jarring and grating when digging in to her origin in the comic. A former Avenger, Mantis is a half Vietnamese human woman who was raised to be a celestial Madonna whose destiny is to give birth to the celestial Messiah, the most important being in the universe. Judging on her Wikipedia page alone, which granted is not much, her story seems to rely heavily on her role as a companion/love interest to some male hero and/or a mother to another. It is disappointing that MCU did not consider improving this potentially incredible character, who at least in the comic has not only empathic powers, but also some precognition and superb martial arts fighting skills, she even defeated Thor at some point. Instead the film reduces her to an idiotic trophy wife. It is hardly surprising that creator of the character, Steve Englehart was unhappy with her cinematic portrayal.

The excuse for Drax's behaviour is that he is not but a child who speaks his mind and doesn’t know better, does not make it better. Throughout history men have always been allowed to make comments, rude, flattering or otherwise, about women’s appearances and women’s value was measured by how attractive or useful they are to men. To declare that Drax “doesn’t know better”, “Is not human” “He is childish” "is stupid" is simply another way to preserve this appalling status quo.  

When discussing this point, which truly bothered me and pretty much ruined a film I was enjoying until then, I was told that people will tell me that the problem is with me, that I am seeing things that aren’t there because I don’t like the film or Marvell or whatnot. While this might be partly true, I was genuinely taken aback and surprised by this display of misogyny and racism, I didn’t think this would pass in these days’ Hollywood who is desperately trying to prove with diverse gender swap remakes (Ghostbusters) and an array of films, still made by men mind, that put a strong badass and awesome female leads (Star Wars: The Force Awaken, Mad Max Fury Road and others) to the world that it is progressing. What happened with Guardians 2 and how come no one is outraged? The sad truth is that I don’t think this was in any way intentional or malicious, it is so inherent that it almost seems natural and therefore OK.

Following the extremely uncomfortable controversy of the Doctor Strange casting, of which I admit I was completely ignorant to when I watched the film despite a much wider media coverage, a certain ugly pattern emerges in recent Marvell films, or is it Disney? And underneath MCU's shiny, cool façade an ugly picture is revealed. 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

La La Land Afterthoughts.

There are quite a few things that started bothering me after watching La La Land. To begin with it is somewhat disappointing that musicals are so rare these days that there are no singers-dancers-actors of the levels of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or Cyd Charisse, who perhaps wasn't a great singer, but have you seen her dance? And she was a fabulous actor too. So in order to get funding the one musical of the year stars who, while adequate in dancing and singing, actually pale in comparison to some of their background dancers. have to recruited, There is a charm to the fact that they are not professional dancers no doubt, and if one is going to make a musical these days it is definitely the thing to do, I mean both Emma Stone and even Ryan Gosling are quite an improvement to the travesty that was Russell Crowe being allowed to destroy one of the best characters in musicals or Pierce Brosnan butchering Abba, but I can’t help imagining how amazing this particular musical would have looked with better dancers and singers  

However, most of the flaws in La La Land are to do with Ryan Gosling, a weak actor at best, who plays a pretty awful character. To be fair to Gosling, his singing and dancing are adequate and his piano playing looks like lots of fun, maybe he should do that instead of acting. To begin with he never convinces me as either the broody type, he always looks too content, or the struggling artist, it is even worse when he struggles with his conscience. Perhaps the worst bit of acting from Gosling was the scene in which he makes Mia, Emma Stone’s character, dinner. It is the beginning of the end of their relationship and it is agonising to watch, but for all the wrong reasons, he’s just not in it! Luckily Emma Stone is an incredible actress and it almost doesn’t matter how bad Gosling is.

Not all that is wrong is Gosling’s fault. His character, Sebastian, is not the best white dude out there. Let’s say I’m OK with his mansplaning of Jazz, while doing exactly what Mia says people do with Jazz music, talking over it, but fair enough Jazz is his passion it is not hers and he explains it passionately. Let’s say I’m even OK with a white dude claiming to be the “real deal” of Jazz over the one black dude in the film, the one true Jazz artist who would "save" Jazz and bring back its roots. I’m actually not that OK with that, but over the years there were many great white Jazz players and for a long time Jazz music kinda belongs to everyone. But the thing that is somewhat grating is Sebastian, the musician, mansplaining Mia the actress how to be a better actress and how to fulfill her dream.
Judging by the two films I have seen by the rather talented, I must say, Damien Chazelle, Whiplash and La La Land, artistic success and love do not go hand in hand for him. It seems that in order to achieve artistic perfection one has to give up love in order to dedicated themselves completely to their art.

And yet, despite all the issues with La La Land, I find myself going back to my instinctive gut reaction to this film and like all great musicals this film aims to the gut and hit it well. My gut reaction was and still remains a kind of joy and great love for this film. Simply because there is so much love for musicals in this film and that is something I crave in this musical-less world. I could never understand people who, usually without actually watching any, say they don’t like musicals, but even less so could I understand people who say they don’t usually like musicals, but they enjoyed La La Land, a film which could not exist without a rich history of brilliant musicals. It is elating to see a film that so unashamedly celebrates musicals without trying to be cynical or edgy about it, And it’s not just the wonderful and mandatory homages to great past musicals, but the whole feel and brilliant energy of the films gives it its sparks. It is a film that wants to be beautiful and it does it. But even as a great lover of the genre I managed to be emotionally surprised by La La Land and I absolutely loved it! So I forgive its problem and embrace that joyous gut feeling.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Lesser-Known Sonic Gems of Christmastide

By Dr Leslie McMurtry

Last year, 33,000 people voted for their favorite Christmas songs on British radio station Classic FM’s annual poll.  The winner was “Silent Night” with “O Holy Night” taking second place.  On American site Ranker, “White Christmas” takes the prize with “Silent Night” in second place.  While these songs are undoubtedly beautiful and perennial favorites, it occurred to me as I looked over my Christmas song collection that out of nearly 250 songs, I had 192 different titles, and many of them relatively obscure.

I have been interested in the origins of Christmas songs and carols for almost as long as I can remember, looking with interest at the date and composer of songs published in children’s books with lyrics for singing.  With several centuries of tradition, it seems miserly to focus on tunes of the last two hundred years.  I would like to highlight here some of the lesser-known Yuletide songs and their stories.
I applaud the website Hymns and Carols of Christmas which provides not only a wealth of information but keeps the spirit of Christmas all year round.

Corelli’s Christmas Concerto (Concerto Grosso Opus 6, No. 8)

Arcangelo Corelli is remembered as “Founder of Modern Violin Technique,” the “World's First Great Violinist,” and the “Father of the Concerto Grosso.”  However, he is probably not known very well outside of reasonably au fait classical musical listeners. claims that Corelli would have been as well-known for his violin in the 17th century as Paganini was in the 19th, but that he was not a virtuoso in the modern sense.  We are more concerned here, naturally, with his composing technique.  He popularized the Concerto Grosso and made it as integral to music as the symphony became in the classical period.  He wrote comparatively few compositions but all were popular, and he labored hardest on Opus 6, which was not finished in his lifetime.  As a teacher, he influenced a whole generation including Vivaldi.  There actually is not a great deal of biographical information available on Corelli; however, his composition definitely speaks for itself.  What is the Christmas connection, you might ask?  In the notes, the composer wrote “Fatto per la note di Natale,” i.e. written for Christmas Eve.

What is beautiful about Corelli’s composition are the varying moods.  The Adagio is contemplative and soulful—indeed, you could almost describe it as melancholy or wistful.  The first time I ever heard this piece of music, it was not associated with Christmas and was part of the soundtrack of the Peter Weir film Master and Commander.  The film is important to me as it introduced me to Patrick O’Brian’s book series which is the best historical fiction ever written, and to several beautiful pieces of baroque music such as Corelli’s Adagio from the Concerto Grosso.  The scene for which this piece is the accompaniment was the incredibly sad moment when Dr Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), having been accidentally wounded, is brought on a stretcher to the Galapagos Islands by his concerned friend Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe).  Although (spoilers) he survives the surgery, I thought in the context of the film that he had been brought to the islands to die.  Thus, that movement will always be tinged with unwonted sadness and poignancy for me.  I can imagine, though, that Corelli wanted to compose something reflective, as, with much in Christian tradition of centuries past, the joyousness of the Nativity is colored by the knowledge of Calvary to come.  Listening to the Adagio reminds me to be still and reflect on the mystery of Christmas with meditation and focus.

Very different, indeed, is the Pastorale Movement.  Oddly enough, once again I had to rely on another medium to introduce me to this joyful and exquisite piece.  It has featured in years’ worth of Jacquie Lawson computer Advent calendars and though I had often heard it and enjoyed it, it wasn’t until I heard the full Concerto Grosso on YouTube that I recognized its provenance.  Although its tempo is slow, the Pastorale is delightful and full of good feeling.   

This is my favorite rendition of the Christmas Concerto on YouTube, it’s beautifully played and beautifully filmed.  It is interesting to see the faces of the performers as they interpret the soulfulness of this composition. 

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The beautiful poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, written during the American Civil War in 1863, has been set to various pieces of music, something I did not realize until I came to research the Advent Calendar in 2011.  The poem reminds us that while many Christmas songs have been composed with the abstract (or even the flippant[1]) in mind, some have concrete and sometimes poignant backgrounds.  Longfellow, one of the most iconic American poets of the 19th century, wrote this poem after his son Charley was wounded in Virginia in December 1863.  You can read more about his story here.
In 1872, John Baptiste Calkin arranged a shorter version of the poem “Christmas Bells” with the verses about the Civil War removed, and provided music, which he published in 1912.  There are at least three other tunes which have been assigned to this poem.  This is the version I heard first. 
Here is another version about which I can find little information.  But I like the tune.
A more recent arrangement was made by Christian rock/pop group Casting Crowns’ frontman Mark Hall and Dale Oliver.
More than ever, we need to heed its message and try to take some comfort from it:
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

The Seven Joys of Mary

Like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” there is a real sense of satisfaction at having got to the end of this carol; it really feels like climbing up toward something important!  The words and music of this carol are traditional English and it is probably medieval; one version was collected by Mrs Milligan Fox and recorded by Richard Runciman Terry in Two Hundred Folk Carols (1933).  
Here is a version of that traditional tune, though personally I think it was best interpreted by the Pro Arte Singers with music arranged by Joshua V. Himes.  (Buy their album.  Buy it now!)
There is another version, called “The Seven Blessings of Mary,” collected by John Jacob Niles in Appalachia, coincidentally also in 1933.  This is quite different from the traditional English version. 
As noted by Erik Routley in The English Carol (1961), the so-called “primitive” versions in the medieval manuscripts have five joys:
The Nativity
The Crucifixion
The Resurrection
The Ascension
The Assumption

The sevenfold pattern of joys or miracles in the familiar version:

The Nativity
Making the lame to walk
Making the blind to see
Raising the dead to life

The version with twelve may date to the mid-17th century.   

Loreena McKennitt sings the lyrics of “The Seven Rejoices of Mary” to a different tune which much resembles that from the Irish folk song “The Star of the County Down.”  This tune, according to Routley, is heard “everywhere,” was recorded at multiple places in England such as Weobley, Lew Trenchard, Kingsfold, Scotland, and appears three times under different titles in English County Songs. 

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

One of the best Christmas album purchases I ever made was Christmas Center Stage by the San Francisco cast of Phantom of the Opera.  Although some might argue the instrumentation is basic—a piano—it’s a wonderfully interpreted album with plenty of variety, from “Merry Christmas, Darling” and “White Christmas” (with the original opening from Holiday Inn intact) to this musical setting of Clement Moore’s famous poem.  (In fact, I blogged about it here previously.)  I didn’t think much about where the music came from; it just seemed a nice piece for multiple voices.

Flash forward several years: This was solved for me when I was carrying out my listening for a previous guest blog.  Writing the blog got me started on my odyssey to listen and catalogue Christmas-themed audio drama, and I heard the piece once again in “Fibber Paints the Christmas Tree White,” an episode of Johnson Wax/Fibber McGee and Molly (NBC, 18 December 1945). 
Like Burns and Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly (written by Don Quinn, sponsored sometimes quite outrageously by Johnson Wax, and played by Jim and Marian Jordan) were a fixture of Depression-era humor.  The real-life married couple started in radio in the late 1920s.  They were Irish-American Catholics, but as you can hear, this is an entirely secular program.  It took me awhile to get into the show, but Fibber’s hapless but well-meaning character won me over at last. This story is one of several from 1945 that address the short-lived craze for white flocked trees.  Evidently, though, the song featured in several episodes of the radio comedy program and was composed by Ken Darby c. 1941.  It was performed by the King's Men and arranged by Harry Simeone and performed by the Billy Mills Orchestra featuring the King's Men.

You can hear it here:

Here is another version on early television by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians from 1951 (it’s a bit strange):

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (1967)

This must surely rank as one of the most exquisite Christmas carols ever written.  Its unaccompanied sound lends an ancient feel to it while the harmonies suggest a modern composition style.  The text hails from Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs, compiled by Joshua Smith in New Hampshire in 1784 (though it was apparently first printed in London in 1761 and signed by one "R. H.").  The music is a different story altogether, having been composed by Elizabeth Poston in the twentieth century.  Poston was a talented composer who wrote a variety of music, including scores for television and radio. 
The conceit of the lyrics compares Jesus Christ to an apple tree, with some Biblical precedent, though others have speculated it is an attempt to Christianize the pagan ritual of Wassailing the apple orchards, popular in the West Country.  In any case, it’s beautiful imagery.
Here is a lovely version:

Twas in the Moon of Wintertime

Written probably by Jean de Brébeuf in the early 1640s (I have seen three dates proposed), a Jesuit missionary, at the Sainte-Marie Huron community, with the original words in the Huron language, the best-known English translation was made in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton.  The tune is a French melody, “La Jeune Pucelle,” but as the song went unrecorded for 100 years, it’s impossible to know if this was the original tune.  The carol was collected from the Hurons by Father de Villeneuve, a Jesuit stationed 1747-94 at Lorette, Quebec.  Brébeuf was certainly the author of the first Huron catechism and a French/Huron dictionary. He was killed by Iroquois and the mission destroyed in 1649, and Brébeuf has since taken on legendary status.  The song endured, was translated into French by Paul Picard (Paul Tsaenhohi, son of the famous Huron leader Point of Day).  Father Paul Lejeune wrote in 1634, “The Indians are great singers, they sing like the great majority of nations on Earth for pleasure and for worship; that is to say with them during their pagan beliefs . . . they use few words when singing, using tonal variation and not varying the words. . . They say that we imitate the cries of birds in our tunes” (somewhat freely translated by myself, I must say).

While it is an official Canadian carol and remains a common Christmas hymn in Canadian churches of many Christian denominations, I think outside of Canada it is not particularly well-known (except perhaps in music education where the modest range makes it easy for students to play and sing); in any case, it is not particularly frequently recorded or broadcast on conventional pop radio.

The opening lines in English go,

“ 'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled . . .,”

making obvious that the carol uses a number of concepts familiar to Algonquin peoples.   Among the Iroquois, specifically the Seneca, the Midwinter Festival took place five days after the new moon following the zenith of the Pleiades.  On the first day there was the “Boiling of the Babies,” the public naming of babies who had been born since the Green Corn Ceremony.  The corn soup was boiled to be eaten the following day.  New Year officially began at dawn on the next day.   Late December was known to the Lakota as “The Moon of Popping Trees,” when it was so cold twigs would snap in the cold.  
Here is a version of “ ‘Twas in the Moon in Wintertime” in English:

Here performed in several languages:

Still, Still, Still

“Still, Still, Still” is a traditional Austrian melody which, as you can imagine from the title, is a lullaby.  The words were first printed in 1865 in a folk song collection. The Salzburg melody dates from 1819.  I’m afraid there isn’t much more I was able to dig up on it.

Here is a version in the original German:

Star in the East

Not to be confused with this version, collected by J. M. Lowrie, in The Silver Song, by William A. Ogden and music from William Augustine Ogden (Toledo, Ohio: W. W. Whitney, 1870). 

I first heard this haunting carol on Anonymous 4’s album The Cherry Tree Carol.  It has also been recorded by the Rose Ensemble who cite The Southern Harmony (1854) as its source.  Not surprisingly, Anonymous 4’s version is more Early Music in approach and the Rose Ensemble is more “southern harmony hymn.”  Both versions are beautiful. 

Here is yet another interpretation with guitar with clear links to the southern harmony hymn. 

Stan Freberg
As this is “lesser-known sonic gems,” you can’t have Christmas (I’ve learned in the last year) without a liberal sprinkling of Stan Freberg.  Freberg (b. 1926) was a maverick, who reportedly entered the world of making commercials on radio and TV because he found most adverts moronic.  He injected everything he did with satire.  Evidently he was even an influence on the Beatles, according to Paul McCartney.  He didn’t impress everyone—while elected to the Radio Hall of Fame, he was never elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame.  He is a bit of a hero to us radio folks as he loved the medium and served it well.  By the way, it’s his voice you hear as the beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955). 

This is great—though better if you know Dragnet. 

Wow, they even animated it!
Greed is never welcome at Christmas:

Noel Nouvelet

A traditional French carol from the 15th century, numerous versions exist of this New Year’s Carol.  Keyte and Parrott took their version from the 1721 Grande Bible des noels, tant vieux que nouveaus.  Translations were made into English as early as the 17th and 18th centuries.  The tune, as Hymns and Carols of Christmas notes, echoes in its first five notes the Maris Stella Lucens Miseris. 
Here is Loreena McKennitt performing her excellent interpretation.
Here is a more traditional version.
Please be adventurous in your Christmas song listening and discover a tune you may not have heard before.  There are hundreds of them! 

Wishing you peace this holiday season. 

[1] I love the story of how “The Christmas Song” was composed, which you can read about here.

Thursday, 3 November 2016


Ron Howard’s film The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, doesn’t reveal anything particularly new about the greatest band that ever was, especially not if you’re a fan, yet there is something about the film that feels fresh, new and different. It captures a spirit, an atmosphere, a sense of The Beatles and the era they were in, and it captures the heart.

Some of Ron Howard’s best films in recent years have pitted two great men against one another to create an exciting and highly engaging drama. Frost/Nixon was hypnotising and gripping and Rush was thrilling. It would have been easy and right up Howard’s alley to create a battle-of-the-giants kind of film and he would have made it excellent, but the rivalry between Paul and John has been quite open and public at the time it was happening and it was analysed to death later on. Howard has something else in mind and this film is not about who is the best Beatle (Paul!), it is not a film about individuals, a bit like his Apollo 13, this film is about The Beatles as a group.

On the face of it the film does very much what it says on the tin and focuses on the touring years. Being made by an all American filmmaker it comes as no surprise that most of the touring in the film refers to US tours. Unfortunately The Beatles' beginning in Liverpool and their defining trip to Hamburg are only mentioned briefly in the film and not really explored in depth. It seems that the Americans did take Beatlemania to the next level. 

However, The Beatles as a live phenomenon isn’t just about their concerts and Beatlemania, though that is a great deal of it, it is also about their public appearances, their popularity and their image as a naturally funny and fun band. Their photo shoots, films, their live presence and facial expressions and their interviews are all part of what made The Beatles a unique live band like no other. A great deal of what makes this film different is that Ron Howard doesn’t try to analyse The Beatles or explain much. Painstakingly collecting a treasure trove of archive and fan footages, he simply lets The Beatles be. With exceptional editing that weaves together current Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr interviews with archive George Harrison and John Lennon interviews, Howard manages to make the conversation flows over the years. It is as if they are all still in the room chatting and you still want to join the conversation. Like Whoopi Goldberg says in the film, you want to be their friend. Eight Days a Week transports you there and then and you find yourself with The Beatles and with their fans, the social and political events of the era in the background melting away the moment those four went on stage and became amazing.

While the images of screaming, crying and fainting ladies of the 1960s are familiar ones, especially when it comes to The Beatles, Eight Days a Week manages to put the viewer right in the middle of Beatlemania. The film goes into the crazed crowd and by playing the thin, barely recognisable and very real sound from the Shea Stadium, you get to experience Beatlemania as first hand as it can get and again Howard manages to make the familiar new and overwhelming.

At the beginning of the film Paul McCartney says that at the end things got complicated, but at the beginning it was simple. Eight Days a Week chooses to end when things got complicated, with Lennon’s famous remark about Jesus[1], which lead to burning of The Beatles records and the cringing and pointless apology interview that followed. There is something quite sad and at the same time wonderful in their last international performance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and even more compelling is their rooftop performance on Savile Row at the end credits. Famously this was the end of the Beatles, yet there is still something quite magnificent in them somehow, all the behind-the-scene-drama doesn’t matter and for a brief moment they remind us that despite everything they were incredible.

The cinematic release of the film is accompanied by thirty minutes of incredible remastered footage of The Beatles live concert at the Shea Stadium, which takes you back to the magic. More than anything it is brilliant to see their faces and their dumbfounded expressions of disbelief at the masses and the hysteria when they were at the top. The post credit concert footage were probably the best live Beatles footage I have ever seen. It got close and personal and it was unbelievably amazing.  

[1] In one review that I read about this film the reviewer mentions that a more accurate blasphemy would have been to say they are bigger than Shakespeare was. I can't help wondering what would have been the result of that kind of a remark.