Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – HOLY FUCK

A promo for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which shows the main cast lounging by the side of a pool in a rich, clearly wealthy setting.
Promo image from Glass Onion

This movie is absolutely extraordinary.

I was not prepared.

Despite the considerable anticipation for fans, this film was released with comparatively little fanfare. It was only in cinemas for a single week, and arrived on Netflix without a splash. I saw that Knives Out was on Netflix UK before I saw that Glass Onion was.

Traditional media seem mystified by the decision, but as a disabled person I am extremely thankful. I can’t count the number of films I would have seen at the cinema if I could over the last few years: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Dune, Elvis, The Green Knight, Black Widow… But it wouldn’t have been safe, even if I did have the energy to leave the house. And by the time those movies arrived to streaming, I’d either had them spoiled or lost interest.

Some may see this as Netflix leaving in-person money on the table, but they have my money instead. And thanks to my excited tweets, toots, and Tumblr posts yesterday, a whole bunch of other folks are excited to watch it too.

Because what I saw made me extremely excited.

This film is so rich and the detail so exquisite that it won’t be possible to talk about it adequately without giving at least some spoilers, so I’m going to give a brief, spoiler-free reaction, and then delve into the details.

Low spoiler reaction: OH MY GOD, THIS IS FUN

The set up has an ecclectic group of people receive elaborate puzzle boxes that invite them to a murder mystery on a private island, hosted by tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton). He invites them to solve his murder.

One recipient, Cassandra Bland (Janelle Monae), seems rather less enamoured of the invitation.

Meanwhile, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the famous detective from the first movie, sits depressed in his bath, dealing poorly with the isolation of the pandemic.


This was probably the first thing that made me sit up and really think.

Understandably, when the first lockdowns happened, most media took the position of pretending the pandemic didn’t exist, in order to avoid retraumatising everyone. However, this year, governments around the world lifted restrictions, despite the fact that the pandemic has not gone away. People continue to get infected, and while vaccines have mitigated deaths, people are still dying in large numbers, becoming disabled in even larger numbers, and already-chornically-ill people, like me, have had freedoms we’d had tentatively adopted in 2021 stripped away, because no one else is masking or social distancing.

We have been left trapped in our homes while the rest of the world spreads infections that would kill us or destroy our lives, even with vaccination.

Now the trauma is people pretending that the pandemic does not exist. So to see a piece of media include it: include masking, include selfish people not masking, include people depressed because they are trapped in their houses while others break rules without a care…

It was a blessed relief.

I felt seen.

For about 10 minutes, anyway, before they hand-waved it away so their stars could walk about unmasked. [Addendum: Ancient-string on Tumblr made a post that explained to me that they did not, in fact, hand-wave away the corona virus, and it is, in fact, present throughout the entire movie in a really glorious way. However, to explain that would be a (minor) spoiler, so only follow the link if you don’t want to see if you get it on your own.]

But this was the first inkling of what turned out to be a tour de force critique of all the problems of our times, with a fake-ass billionaire sitting squarely in the middle of them.

I said on Twitter that it’s the Citizen Kane (1941) of our time and I’m sure many people thought I was exaggerating, but I wasn’t. And not just because it’s a targeted critique of the super-rich.

This is an exquisitely well-made popular movie that people will be writing essays about for decades to come. And it’s written specifically for the problems of right now, so although I’m sure 50 years from now people will still watch and enjoy it, they won’t feel it on a visceral level the way we do now. Just as I felt a disconnect watching Citizen Kane as a 90s child.

No one ever feels searingly important movies as powerfully as the audience for which they were intended.

But a guarantee you: however much times change, this is a movie that will always be extremely fun.

I would even say that the wit and pace have been refined since the first movie. I adored Knives Out, but it took a little while to really gel for me. It was stylish and well-acted from the get go, but just not quite the polished gem of engrossing entertainment that I found Glass Onion to be, right from the start.

And, I cannot stress this enough: Daniel Craig and Janelle Monae are having a blast and it is a very great pleasure to watch them at it.

They practically vibrate off the screen with how much they clearly enjoy bouncing off each other as actors, embracing the fabulous characters they’ve been gifted.

And against this background of sheer delight, there’s a cutting analysis of the woes of our fucked up world, woven together to create a climax that digs its knives into not just billionaires, but tech bro culture; the death of truth; white supremacy; modern slavery; political corruption; the devaluation of education and art; the monopolisation and overvaluation of historic art by the rich; and cynical virtue signalling by corporations that have no connection to, or understanding of, the real issues.

Eight years ago I said it was time to watch movies from the 1930s because I could see which way the wind was blowing and it fucking depressed me that our popular culture wasn’t calling it out. BUT HERE IT IS. This is it.

And it’s not that no one has mentioned these issues before. Chernobyl is still a hugely important masterpiece that grimly asks us: “What is the cost of lies?” But for all that serious dramas like that are important, they’ll never have the power to seize the public imagination the way something that is utterly delightful can.

But to say more, I need to take a look under the hood. So if you haven’t seen it yet, go off and do that – as soon as you can! Make it your holiday watch! Get from it all the endorphoines you need in these dark times, and then come back buzzing to see if you got the same things from it that I did.

From now on here be SPOILERS

OK, let’s start with the fact that they made Bond gay.

And The gays are normal

Like, I know Daniel Craig =/= James Bond, but he’s a big hecking symbol. And Blanc is such a dramatic departure from Bond. Obviously all the same character traits are there from the first movie, where he could have been read as queer-coded, but if there was anything definitive, I missed it. By constrast, one of the first things you hear when he’s introduced is a male voice talking through the bathroom door and friends talking about a ‘Philip’ (who is clearly Blanc’s partner) as having told them things.

Then later, when we see the partner, it’s famous heart-throb Hugh-fucking-Grant.

Hugh Grant and Daniel Craig are adorable ageing gays and it’s beautiful.

And domesticity is written over every inch of what little we see of their apartment. From the depression-mess in Blanc’s bathroom, to Blanc playing Among Us, to the fact that when we meet Philip he comes to the door in an apron and holding a sourdough starter. The fact that we see so little of their apartment is also one of the ways they code Blanc as normal in constrast to most of the wealthy characters who have benefited from Bron’s patronage. Blanc is dissatisfied because he cannot solve mysteries (do his job) in lockdown, and we feel how cramped he is. Constrast to Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), the former-model-turned-fashion-designer, who has ‘bent’ lockdown rules to turn her mansion into a vast party, claiming that all the people there are in her ‘pod’.

Blanc and Philip may be played by men who’ve been sex symbols when they were younger, but they are not presented in that way. While both obviously still have charm, they’re presented as comfortable, having aged gracefully, doing the things that we did (or at least were aware of lots of people doing) in Lockdown.

Ageing gracefully

One thing that struck me early in this film was the commentary on beauty standards and ageing, or the perception of ageing. We see this also in Knives Out where close-ups of famously beautiful women seem to be framed to show, rather than hide their wrinkles, and I’m sure there were conscious decisions made by the make-up artists too. In the first movie I detected this as a general theme, but not an especially deep one. It was just a general sense of deception, fakeness, holding onto an image of beauty when what’s inside has become ugly.

The theme is more developed in Glass Onion, and, to my mind, is itself more graceful. While we get similar close-ups of Birdie that show her make-up as not hiding the signs of ageing, normal, comfortable ageing is much more present as a contrast. Most films go to a lot of effort to preserve the ideal of youth while using ageing stars. The stars bring in more money because they have an established carreer, but it’s often a career built while they were young and unwrinkled. Anxiety makes filmmakers try to hide the changes time has written, and even apply anti-aging CGI to make them still appear young.

But this is a cast full of older actors famous for their beauty: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Hugh Grant, and even Ethan Hawke (briefly), and the camera never avoids the signs of age. And it presents those who seem most comfortable with it as normal, friendly, approachable. Those who try to hide it seem, by contrast, distant and uncomfortable.

This includes, by the way, the Mona Lisa. Though Bron proudly tells us that DaVinci developed a technique for painting that left no brushstrokes – a complately smooth finish – the scenes in the presence of the painting repeatedly cut to close-ups that reveal the cracks of age in her painted skin.

Fakes and originality

Having the (ostensibly) real Mona Lisa as the centrepiece in the room where much of the action takes place is not what I would call a subtle way of placing the question of forgery, fakes, and originality front and centre. A question I asked myself all through the movie was whether it would turn out to be the real Mona Lisa or a fake – after all, Bron could have been lying.

The fact that he was not reflects Bron’s own deep insecurity. He wants to be talked of in the same sentence as the Mona Lisa. That tells us that even though he’s a fake whose empire has been built on lies and theft, he still values originality and genuine talent. Even though the world believes he created the social media network Alpha, he always feels in Cassandra Bland’s shadow – because she was the real deal, and he was just hanging onto her coattails. For all that Duke Cody describes himself as sucking on Bron’s golden teat, they are all reliant for their trappings of success on the actual talent of Cassandra Bland.

None of it exists without actual creators with actual originality. Just as AI art that steals from living artists for its training database is fundamentally derivative.

Bron’s initial presentation as a faker tech bro seemed a little shallow to me – enjoyable, but shallow. Down to the use of the non-words that niggle Blanc so: inbreathiate.

But Blanc’s final speech ties it all together so perfectly. The point is that it’s stupid. It’s not even clever fakery. Clever fakery is something Blanc enjoys. Like when he solves the murder mystery written by an expensive professional writer before the game even begins. But this isn’t clever fakery.

It’s stupid.

Like Elon Musk buying Twitter because he got butthurt and making just the worst, most transparently ridiculous decisions.

Like four years of Donald Trump’s bold-faced lies.

It’s all so stupid. It infuriates clever people, and we don’t know how to respond to it.

The Glass Onion

I admit, when I first read the title I thought it was silly. Not nearly so eye-catching and pithy as Knives Out. I thought they should have just called it Knives Out 2.

I was wrong.

The point, as Blanc concludes in the end, is precisely that it’s fucking stupid. It’s transparently stupid. ‘Layers like an onion’ is too obvious a metaphor to be interesting. An onion is too ordinary an object to elevate without irony. Making an onion out of glass so you can see through it obviates the point of having layers.

But that’s the point. Of course the tech bro billionaire is a big fake. He’s never needed to be anything else.

Of course the obviously evil guy is the killer, but we were all successfully distracted from our instinctive dislike of him.

Even the clumsy moments are the point.

Like Bron using the rainbow dress as a distraction. The way corporations who funnel money to anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups will buy a float at pride to keep their image. Bron urging Birdie to spin in her meaningless rainbow dress feels too much as you watch it, and that’s just because it is. Because Bron is clumsy.

Bron has never had to be anything other than clumsy. He’s a middle-class white man who failed upwards into money off the back of a black woman’s work.

As someone who works in tech, I’m familiar with the term ‘disrupter’. A disrupter is what you want to be. Disrupters are start-ups who can drive a wedge between the established behemoths of the tech world and their customers because they’re not tied down by the weight of established practice and beaucracy. Disrupters move fast because they’re small and they can invert paradigms because they have no legacy. Sometimes disrupters live up to the hype. Sometimes they’re just causing a disruption and no good comes of it.

One thing a disrupter can’t be is a billionaire. That happens when a disrupter transitions into establishment. What most tech people want to do is find some kind of in-between ground between disrupter and slow-moving behemoth. And that’s very hard.

What we’re seeing with Musk now is just the kind of nonsense half-understanding of disrupter theory Bron waffles his way through in Glass Onion. Making changes without thinking first on the assumption that all change is disruptive and will therefore lead to profit. But real ‘disrupters’ (in as much as there are any) use inherited wealth to sit in a garage (usually not the modest affair that sounds like) and carefully develop their disruptive idea for years before bringing it to the market. Musk is just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks. Because he’s never invented anything. He’s always inherited someone else’s labour.

It’s what Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr) wants to do with the ‘Klean’ energy project, and is horrified to learn Bron has jumped the gun on. He knows that kind of ‘disruption’ actually takes years of careful planning and testing. But that wouldn’t have been disruptive either. It would have been bankrolled by a billionaire, and controlled by him.

It’s all a facade, and a fragile one – just like an onion made of glass. It’s no misake that so much glass is broken in this movie – a glass table breaks when Cody’s killed, a glass pane is shattered when Bron attempts to kill Helen/Cassandra, and of course Helen breaks so many glass objects at the end. Glass is fragile, and you can see right through it. It’s also a reflective surface with the capacity to make us look into our selves or create illusions, so themes of introspection and questions of identity are played with throughout.

The Glass Onion is a fragile illusion that you can see right through. Like a 90s magic eye trick, all you have to do is stop looking at the outline of the illusion itself in order to see right through it to what’s really going on. (Side note: I have never, ever been able to do those, but that’s definitely why one appeared as part of the puzzle box.)

The whole idea of ‘disruption’ is really an illusion invented by privileged people, who were always a part of the establishment, using their wealth to do what few of us are in a position to: really develop their creative ideas into something useful. And then using their existing connections to get those ideas out into the world where they can make money.

That’s not really disruption.

Burn it all down

Real disruption is a riot. Real disruption comes from pain and causes pain. Real disruption aims at the whole system, not merely the current incombent.

The politician is posing as an AOC-style disruptive politician, but AOC’s a working latina funded with small donations from real constituents shaking up the establishment, Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is a middle-class white woman funded by a billionaire. She is no different than those she claims to oppose – as she confesses when she admits she already approved Bron’s plant.

Real disruption is Helen, the black high-school teacher who wants justice for her sister.

Note the centring of education for ordinary people, which has become so devalued in the US that school teachers are known to bring in their own supplies because there’s no funding for them. (Not that we are so very far behind that in the UK; we live in fear because we know that what American corrupt politicians have, our corrupt politicians want.)

And this is why it’s so important that at the end Benoit Blanc, middle-class white man, steps back, and not only lets the young blank woman, Helen Brand, take centre stage… he also admits that there’s nothing he can do.

Blanc admits that all he can do is present evidence to lawyers and cops, and he knows what he has to present will not move them in the face of money and lies.

The law has failed black people, and women, and young folk, and young black women in particular. When people cannot get justice from the law, it does not mean they are without recourse. What Helen does – breaking the glass statues, and then setting fire to it all – is real disruption, and an obvious call out to the Black Lives Matter protests. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “riot is the language of the unheard”.

I would emphasise that violence in riots is usually instigated by the police, and much of what was called ‘riot’ in the BLM protests were peaceful gatherings that police hounded in an attempt to provoke riot. Nevertheless. The dismissal of any protest as not peaceful is a tool of authoritarianism. To the extent that it’s now illegal in the UK to have a protest that causes ‘disruption‘.

Protest is meant to be disruptive, in the true meaning of the word. It’s meant to be inconvenient and shake you out of your rut so you realise that something big needs to change. It’s meant to be inconvenient.

Yet Extinction Rebellion have been panned in the press for their disruptive protests. Protests that are often presented as more harmful than they really are. Many people I know were appalled by the protest of smearing cake on the Mona Lisa and throwing paint at a Van Gogh. But the paintings were entirely unharmed. These are the most expensive paintings in the world, valued far in excess of the work of any living artist. They were never in any danger.

What the papers didn’t like was the attack on wealth and ‘normality’ and big oil.

So they all wrote headlines than made it sound like the paintings themselves had been damaged. But they hadn’t been.

And even if they had been, for all I value art (and I really truly do). No single piece is worth more than the planet on which it exists.

And this is why it’s important that Helen burns the Mona Lisa in the end.

Because we should be willing to burn the symbols.

Because human lives and our planet are worth more than them.

But for some reason, a person’s death is not as powerful as a threat to a painting.

It’s burning the painting that gets the ‘shitheads’ to see that Bron is just a man. That his lies are only powerful because they stand by him. And that they could just as easily stand by Cassandra instead.

Sandra Bland

And while we’re talking about the value of a life, something was niggling away at me as I wrote this post. Something about the name Helen Brand.

I realised a few paragraphs back that it isn’t the name Helen Brand that was itching away in the back of my consciousness.

It was Sandra Bland.

I had noticed the obvious name play with ‘Cassandra’ the seer who prophesised the fall of Troy, but was cursed to never be believed. It was cute, but obvious, like so much on the surface of the Glass Onion.

The real symbolism hit me like a punch to the gut. The fact that Cassandra went by ‘Andi’ hints at another name and another meaning, but I couldn’t see anything special about ‘Andi’. Then I got it: another shortening of Cassandra is Sandra. Sandra Brand. A name so close to Sandra Bland that I actually misheard it as that on my first watch.

The real Sandra Bland was arrested in what appears to be a bogus traffic stop. Three days later she was found dead in her cell. Her death was ruled a suicide, but she had no signs of clinical depression and the cause of death is widely disputed. Video of her arrest makes her treatment seem overly violent and the arrest itself questionable.

What is clear is that she did not have to die.

Protests erupted in response, calling for an inquiry. The legal results fell well short of the mark.

To have Helen Brand, put on the guise of Cassandra Brand, whose murder was framed to look like suicide – a symbolic representation of Sandra Bland – to exact justice on someone who thought themselves to be beyond the law is… Fitting? Apt? Words struggle to express it.


That’s the best I can do. And it is that.

Perhaps some will be shocked by the violent destruction at the end of the film, but no one is harmed. Only things.

I am ever in awe of the restraint black people have shown, when they are constantly asked for civility in the face of such blatent and horrible abuses.

Sandra Bland is dead and she didn’t have to be.

Say her name.

Say it before you mention the Mona Lisa.

I’m glad Glass Onion found a way to honour it forever.

Review: The Lizzie Borden Chronicles

Promo image for the Lizzie Borden ChroniclesLizzie Borden took an axe

gave her mother forty whacks;

when she saw what she had done

she gave her father forty-one.

So goes the old folk rhyme, which is slightly mangled in the opening credits of Lifetime’s TV series loosely based on the true story of one Lizzie Borden, who was acquitted of the brutal murder of her father and step-mother, but likely did it. The show misquotes the rhyme as ‘when he saw what she had done/she gave her father forty-one’, which puts Lizzie’s murder of her father more squarely as a reaction to him catching her in the act, as opposed to the more ambiguous motives of the original rhyme.

As is my wont when these historical adaptations arise, I was immediately drawn to investigate the truth. In this case… the truth is uncertain, and has been the subject of many wild speculations, but Lizzie is still the number one suspect. The Wikipedia article contains a good summary of the theories and evidence.

Lizzie Borden had motive – she and her sister had been on very poor terms with her father and step-mother, had recently quarrelled, were in the middle of a property dispute, and stood to inherit a very large sum of money. There’s also speculation that Lizzie was sexually abused by her father, and that she was caught in a tryst with the maid, Bridget Sullivan, although there is little evidence for either. There were rumours that Lizzie was a lesbian, and she seems to have been very close to actor the, Nance O’Neill, who came to live with her in later life, but there is no such connection to Bridget.

Lizzie gave inconsistent testimony, although this may have been influenced by the morphine she was taking to calm her nerves. She was also found destroying a stained dress, and a plausible candidate for the murder weapon was found on her property.

So, in as much as it is very likely that Lizzie Borden killed her parents; was very close to her sister, Emma; plausibly had a relationship with Nance O’Neill; and inherited a lot of money, the series has some basis in fact. But from there the Lizzie Borden Chronicles and the truth part ways. For the most part, I don’t mind.

It is perhaps obvious to say that if you ever wanted a show about Wednesday Addams growing up and brutally murdering people, you’ll enjoy this show. Obvious, but nonetheless true. This thought is undoubtedly behind the apt casting of Christina Ricci, best known for her childhood role as Wednesday, in the role of Lizzie.

In fact, casting for the show is perfection all round. Clea DuVall is exquisite as the tight-lipped, dour, but good-hearted sister, Emma Borden. Cole Hauser pulls off a difficult balance of both charming and deeply dubious in his role as Charlie Siringo, the private investigator and ‘Pinkerton man’ whose investigation of the Borden murders pulls him dangerously under Lizzie’s radar. Genre fans will also enjoy performances from Chris Bauer (True Blood, The Wire), Jonathan Banks (Community), and especially Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) as the mobster matriarch, Aideen Trotwood.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles present a joyfully bloodthirsty and original vision. Whilst it doesn’t attempt to be true to the facts, its basis in them gives the heroine stature. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character like her. Women simply aren’t allowed to play such unequivocally dangerous and brutal, yet still feminine, roles. When I try to think of others… Dexter‘s Hannah McKay reflects the stereotype of the female poisoner. Sure, she’s feminine, but this only serves to underscore the idea that women can only overpower men by ‘underhand’ or ‘deceptive’ means. At the other end of the scale, Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones is a skilled and powerful killer, but she is a knight, killing in the name of justice, and anything but feminine. Strength, brutality, physical threat, these are reserved as masculine characteristics, and they back up the idea of women as fundamentally defenceless; although the truth is that social mores and morality are the chief reasons most of us are not a threat to each other.

We are fleshy, vulnerable animals in our day-to-day lives. Knives, axes, pitch-forks, and the like, can all be wielded with deadly force regardless of whether you are male or female or neither. Historical evidence suggests that the real Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her step-mother 19 whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 11. She was not particularly strong or tall. Just really, really angry.

The fictional Lizzie Borden goes on a killing spree that the real one did not. But it’s no more implausible than Dexter‘s Bay Harbor Butcher, and that’s important. Impressions of strength and physical threat, whether we want them to or not, affect how vulnerable we appear. It matters that we see a normal, feminine woman can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than many men.

I’m not on board with all the deviations from likely historical truth. It’s heavily implied that she killed a bunch of cats – something the real Lizzie Borden, an animal lover, would have been unlikely to do. And, sad to say [spoiler], I wouldn’t get your hopes up for Lizzie growing old with Nance, or Adele, Lizzie’s other  love interest. The trend of lesbians dying on film continues in grim fashion. Not that the fictional Lizzie is a partner I would wish on anyone, but if Dexter can find love and Hannah McKay can end up alive and well in Argentina, there was room for a different choice.

If you’re not aware of what’s wrong with yet more lesbian deaths on television, a Google search can show you dozens of articles on the subject in seconds. The issue came to prominence last year, when fictional lesbian and bisexual women were dropping like aging popstars. The short answer is that lesbian and bisexual women lie at the intersection of mainstream misogyny and homophobia, with a hefty dose of queers die for the straight eye. You’re allowed to admit women who love women exist these days, but only if they die. Bonus points if their deaths make straight men sad and motivate them towards action (aka fridging). It’s no more inevitable that Lizzie Borden should kill her love interests than it was for Dexter, but it was just such an easy choice.

I’m not the first person to say it, but this needs to stop being the go-to for writers. There was a great moment when I thought Nance was going to join Lizzie in a murder-road-tip – this was an option, and one that would have skewed just a little closer to reality. But the writers chose to move away from the real history, where Lizzie’s relationship with Nance drove a wedge between the sisters, in favour of strengthening the sister-bond story. An opportunity lost in favour of heteronormitivity and the tired trope that platonic female relationships are the only kind that provide strength and solace.

That aside, I still think this show is very well made and as much of a romp as a drama about a serial killer can be. Bonus points for some really delightful period costumes. And full love for Mama Stark (Michelle Fairely) reprising her role as a formidable matriarch herding sons who are not her equal.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles was refreshing and enjoyable – one of the best things I have seen in a long time.

Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

The Ghostbusters team in from of the Ghostbuster's car

I ain’t afraid of no ghost!

Ghostbusters is officially the most fun I have had in the cinema for a very long time. It may not be the cinematic masterpiece that was Fury Road last summer, but it is hilarious from start to finish whilst also delivering on an appropriate amount of genuinely scary ghosts.

I was a real fan of the original Ghostbusters films and I am not generally in favour of remaking great films just to rake in more cash, but ever since the success of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot I have been wholeheartedly in favour of films and TV that take something I loved from my childhood and update it in genuinely interesting ways – specifically, to make it relevant to a new generation and to improve on things that now stand out as problematic in the originals. So when I heard that this was to be an all female Ghostbusters, I was interested. As much as I have great affection for the original films, they were uncomfortably misogynistic. The fact that we are expected to root for Venkman’s (Bill Murray) stalking of and aggressive sexual advances towards Dana Barrett (Sigourny Weaver) – his client – and find Louis Tully’s (Rick Moranis) stalking amusing… this is deeply disturbing to the 2016 eye, and extremely uncomfortable for a female viewer.

Rebooting this classic film franchise in a way women can enjoy without these unpleasant undertones was a stroke of genius.

Against the Backlash

Naturally, the film has attracted a lot of sexist backlash. I won’t dwell on the attention-seeking misogynists who have tried to tank the film before it even came out, they’ve had quite enough attention as it is. But I will say that I’m inclined to agree with @Lumetian on Twitter, that ‘MRA Horror is my new favourite genre‘. Whilst not actually a genre in itself – films like the dramatic cinematic masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the science-fiction comedy, Ghostbusters, really have very little to do with one another in terms of genre – the sheer levels of horror exhibited by so-called ‘Men’s Right’s Activists’ at the very existence of these films is turning out to be a very good indication that the film will be a quality piece of entertainment.

As a fan, I was excited for more Ghostbusters; as a woman, I was excited that the wrongs of the past were to be corrected and that I would get to watch a science-fiction/fantasy film where the heroes were all women.

Race and Representation

Which is not to say that I had no reservations – as others have pointed out, it’s a very white cast and whilst the three white women on the team are all scientists, the black woman, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) is a working class woman who, from the trailer, was presented as having no professional skills beyond wise-cracking street sense. Note, however, that Leslie Jones herself defended this on Twitter, noting that an MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) worker had contacted her to thank her for representing people who perform this kind of role. Privilege and oppression remain multi-sided, and representing working class people as heroes is also important. The issue comes from the fact that white people are more likely to be represented as professionals and scientists, whereas black people are far more likely to have roles as working class people. Why couldn’t one of the white women have been an MTA worker, after all?

I was pleased to see that the role did have a lot more to it than appeared from the trailer. Patty shows herself to be very knowledgeable about the city, and not simply in a ‘streetwise’ manner, but in actually knowing a lot of historical information that becomes crucial to fighting ghosts and solving the film’s central enigma. This doesn’t completely erase the problematic aspects, and as a white person myself I’m not best placed to comment on whether Patty’s character constitutes ‘good’ representation or not, but overall my feeling is that she’s better than no representation at all and I appreciated that the film promoted a wonderful comedian like Leslie Jones.

It’s worth noting that Leslie was slighted by the fashion world, where designers refused to provide her with gowns for the red carpet simply because she isn’t a ‘sample’ size. After she called this out on Twitter, designer Christian Siriano stepped up to the plate and provided her with a stunning red gown. Without doubt, it is Leslie and Christian who have come out of this looking best, but as a rising star she should never have had to be in this situation. Basically, I mostly just want to raise pom-poms for Leslie right now.

Representation of Men

In the run up to the release there was a lot of noise made about the prospect of supposed ‘reverse sexism’. It’s feminism 101 to point out that sexism is institutional, widespread, and historic – it simply isn’t possible for men to experience ‘reverse’ sexism against their background of massive privilege. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that individual men cannot be objectified, misrepresented, or stereotyped in ways that hurt both men and women. Prejudice is never good.

I’ve addressed elsewhere the question of whether Chris Hemsworth‘s character, Kevin, is shown as objectified in the trailer. The answer, by the way, is no. Objectification is the reduction of a person or character to an object: lack of characterisation, focus on body-parts rather than the face or actions of a character, absence of agency or self-directedness, existence purely for the visual pleasure of the viewer and other characters within the media presented. This wasn’t exhibited in the trailer, but there remained the question about how he would be treated in the movie as a whole.

It is worth noting that Kevin is a caricature, but he is not a stereotype. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character like him in film before. Kevin is extremely handsome and not very bright. He is nonetheless very likeable and characterful. He is clearly meant as a counterpoint to stereotypical representations of female receptionists in film and TV – beautiful but unintelligent, an object of attraction – the ‘sexy lamp‘ as characterised by Kelly Sue DeConnick – a character that could be replaced by a sexy lamp with no detriment to the plot. As a send up of this, Kevin is hilarious, and yet Kevin himself is neither a stereotype, nor a sexy lamp.

Kevin cannot be a stereotype because men have never been presented ubiquitously in this manner. Nor is there any evidence that he is intended to present men in general or to be a realistic representation of a man. His characteristics are exaggerated to a pants-wettingly funny extent, and it’s quite clear that the famously handsome Chris Hemsworth (best known for playing the superhero, Thor) is having the time of his life in this role.

Nor could Kevin be replaced by a sexy lamp. Despite his incompetence as a receptionist, Kevin displays an interesting character with a life independent of the women in the film and undertakes agentful action that affects the plot. Kevin is an actor for whom being a receptionist is his day job, he plays competitive hide and seek, he dabbles in graphic design. He is exaggerated, but rounded.

I’ll admit to being a little uncomfortable with how often other characters comment on Kevin’s handsomeness – this is not, it has to be said, something that men say about other men very often. However, I think that’s kind of the point. As a caricature of how women are frequently shown in film, we see how strange and uncomfortable behaviours are that are completely accepted when directed at women.

I was also uncomfortable with Erin Gilbert’s (Kirsten Wiig) attempts at flirting with Kevin in the workplace. However, in stark contrast to Venkman’s sexual advances towards Dana Barrett in the original, Gilbert’s colleagues call her out on her behaviour and no romantic relationship results from her advances. Sexual harassment is not endorsed or normalised by the film, and that is the key.

Beyond the representation of Kevin, there are a whole host of male characters, each with different personalities. Far from the MRA-nightmare of a film that presents all men as Evil, men have individual personalities, mostly neither good nor evil, just different. Yes, the bad guy is a man, but his representation is no different from the representation of bad guys as alienated loners to be found in umpteen million other films in this genre.

Entertainment Value

Overall, this had everything I wanted from a Ghostbusters film. It was extremely funny. Melissa McCarthy as Abby Yates, Kirsten Wiig as Erin Gilbert, Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan, and Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzman were all hilarious in very different ways. I’ll admit that early in the film I found there wasn’t enough to differentiate Yates and Holtzman, who seemed to be competing for enthusiastic maverick, but this swiftly changes as Jillian Holtzman becomes one of the most delightful and unique characters I have had the pleasure of seeing in film. She expresses a wild side quite unlike Abby’s and her dual-wielding proton-pistol fight sequence is a real crowning action moment for the film.

But as well as laughs, action, and the social awkwardness we expect of the loveable outsiders the Ghostbusters should be, the film also delivers genuine scares. The ghosts achieve the otherworldliness of the originals surprisingly well, delivering a higher level of imagination and quality than I expect from modern CGI. I’m rarely actually scared by horror, but I jumped several times in response to spooky goings on I didn’t see coming. Right from the opening sequence the ghosts are frightening and visually captivating.

I had the pleasure of seeing this in 3D at the IMAX, and I would say that if you’re able to watch it in 3D (the medium is not suitable for everyone) it’s worth doing so. This is a film that does 3D well.


If you still have any concerns that this film is in some way a snub to the originals, lay them to rest. All of the original team who are still with us make an appearance as a part of a series of delightful cameos – look out for Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson, as well as Sigourney Weaver who appears as part of the credits sequence (which you should definitely stay for). Moreover, Dan Aykroyd was an executive producer of the film. This movie is 100% endorsed by the old crew and for me it felt to be very much in the spirit of the originals.

I thoroughly recommend this film for an evening of fun and guaranteed laughs. Treat yourself!

Review: Forever, Pilot Episode

Title card for Forever.Forever is ABC’s new urban fantasy crime procedural drama, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Alana de la Garza, and Judd Hirsch.


The premise is at once right up my alley and groan-worthily tiresome.  It’s no inconsiderable credit that the show’s charm manages to overcome its less attractive elements. Dr Henry Morgan (Gruffudd) is a medical examiner who can’t die. Or rather. He has died, repeatedly, but his body always vanishes shortly afterwards, and he finds himself resurrected, always in water. As a medical examiner, this affords him a unique perspective on the myriad of ways a person can die, making his post-mortem examinations unusually accurate and effective.

This unique talent puts him in the path of Det. Jo Martinez (de la Garza) when he concludes that a train crash was not caused by the train driver’s unfortunate heart attack, but was, in fact, murder. A conclusion further complicated by the fact that Martinez discovers that Morgan himself had been on that train. At the same time, a mysterious caller lets Morgan know that he knows Morgan’s secret, and begins sending him cryptic notes. Was Morgan’s cryptic caller involved in the train crash, or is something else going on as well?

The good, the bad, the I-actually-rather-enjoyed this

Let’s start with the bad. This show is right out of the handbook for what I have previous dubbed White Male Mavericks. I wrote a whole article (‘On Being Scully‘) on what exactly is wrong with this whole sub-genre of crime shows for Hub, back in 2010. The genre is not without entertainment value, and individual shows can be quite fun, but as a deeply pervasive pattern, it’s pretty sexist, and often racist. The marks of the White Male Maverick are these: he performs some sort of investigative role, although usually he’s not a policeman himself, he:

  • is a consultant, a psychic, a doctor, a medical examiner, a forensics analyst
  • is gifted quite beyond the norm in some capacity that just makes him better at solving whatever it is he solves that anyone else
  • which is fortunate, because his methods are unconventional, and anyone who didn’t get the results he did would have been fired, disowned by his friends, and quite possibly would be in jail
  • speaking of his ‘friends’, he doesn’t have many, but those he does have are unquestioningly loyal, despite the fact that he’s socially awkward, and/or arrogant to the point of insulting everyone around him constantly – he’s a loner, but lots of people seem to hang around with him anyway
  • he has a female superior or partner, whom he is always undermining, and for some reason she lets him get away with this
  • women are attracted to him, they just are
  • oh, yeah, and he’s white, he’s male, he’s straight, he’s cis-gendered, he’s middle-class and/or independently wealthy

It’s basically a distillation of the Euro-American white male fantasy of intellectual supremacy, financial independence, and complete freedom from the strictures and responsibilities of society. Of being different and special but still loved and admired. Dr Henry Morgan fits all of these. What’s more, we find that the very first time he ‘died’ is was protecting a black man on a slaver ship. And you may be thinking ‘Surely that’s a good thing? That’s a nice thing to do, right?’ But this misses the point. The White Male Maverick is frequently cast as liberal – it’s part of his intellectual superiority – and if he does say something racist or sexist it’s presented as him speaking ‘hard truths’ because he’s so ‘rational’. But having your character’s origin story be that of him taking the role of ‘white saviour‘ is just another way of setting him up in a position of power, from which we should be grateful he is so benevolent. Just opening with your hero saving a woman from sexual assault is not so much about showing him as being against sexual assault as it is about establishing that he has the power to save people from those things from which they cannot protect themselves – he is powerful where people of colour and/or women are weak.

So, why didn’t I just turn off and vow never to watch this again? Well, some of it’s personal. The ‘can’t die/secret identity angst’ thing is right up my alley. It just pushes my buttons. But a lot of credit is due to the supporting cast and the more subtle aspects of the plotting.

Judd Hirsh is (as he always is) wonderful as Abe, Morgan’s adopted son (who now appears much older than him). And the way that relationship is explored has a relaxed charm and subtle poignance that we see all too rarely on TV. So often father-son relationships are full of conflict and resentment. It’s lovely to see one affectionate and touching, despite its unconventionality.

Alana de la Garza is also excellent as the detective who semi-relies on, semi-mistrusts Morgan. She feels somewhat more in control than women in this role (e.g. Teresa Lisbon, Lisa Cuddy) are usually allowed to be, although time will tell on that one. It’s also nice to see a woman of colour in this role, and to see that her superior officer, Lt Joanna Reese (Lorraine Toussaint), is a woman of colour also.

I also have tonnes of time for Joel David Moore as Morgan’s assistant, Lucas Wan.

In fact, it’s rather a shame that, with such a stellar supporting cast, the lead actor, Ioan Gruffudd, comes across so wooden and unconvincing. Part of it is the writing – where other characters actually speak from a sense of natural personhood, Morgan incessantly and awkwardly info-dumps about his improbable past – but I also feel that Grufford struggles a bit with the role. Nevertheless, I have hopes that this will improve. Grufford’s scenes with Hirsch stand out as more relaxed, and the odd tender moments of the unlikely father-son relationship they portray give me hope.

I can’t say that this is greatly challenging the tropes of its genre – I would much rather have a supernaturally interesting Woman of Colour Maverick procedural show! – but if you like this sort of thing, Forever is entertaining and charming and largely inoffensive.

Manfeels Park

Comic panel from Manfeels Park.I haven’t reviewed a comic in a while, and given that I’m entertaining myself with this one whilst I wait for the painkillers to kick in, a review only seemed fair.

Manfeels Park is the creation of Mo and Erin. It can be viewed either on the website,, or on the Tumblr, . It consists in taking found comments – ridiculous male responses to feminism – and presenting them as though spoken by Jane Austen characters, using tracings from stills of adaptations from film and TV (chiefly, but not solely, the iconic 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice).

The name, Manfeels Park, is a pun on the Jane Austen novel, Mansfield Park, and the term ‘manfeels’, used to lampoon male complaints against feminism that are distinguished by expressing exaggerated pain for minor ills and the demand that the focus of feminist campaigns be diverted to deal with male issues – sometimes also referred to as ‘male tears‘.

I’ve sometimes been on the edge about terms like ‘male tears’ or ‘manfeels’. As someone whose anti-prejudice politics stems from merciless bullying at school, I instinctively withdraw from anything that involves poking fun at the pain of others. However, I have come to understand more and more quite how much male privilege is founded upon belittling the pain and discrimination women experience, persuading us to be silent about the abuses conducted upon us, and insisting that we put the pain of others before our own. This is a theme of interaction that interferes in every aspect of life: that daughters are interrupted by their parents more than sons; that women speaking only 30% of the time are perceived as dominating the conversation; that the YA genre is dominated by cis gender male characters, but perceived as dominated by women and girls because 33% of main characters are cis girls; that Anita Sarkeesian can be driven from her house by threats against herself and her family for offering an academic critique of gaming culture; that when women are raped, the media focuses on the loss of opportunities for the rapist and blames the woman as the cause of this.

Whilst I cannot condone actively hounding an individual for behaving in a childishly selfish and sexist manner, I have come to appreciate that mocking of the ridiculousness of men who insist they are worse off than women has become a vital outlet. Just as Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, from the 60s, should not be taken as a literal call to ‘cut up men’, feminist mocking of ‘male tears’ is not directed at minimising male pain; rather, it is a call to recognise the ridiculousness of the discrepancy between slights actually experienced by men and the assertions made by so-called ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ that they receive discrimination far in excess of women.

If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry. And we are done crying.

As far as pokes at ‘male tears’ go, Manfeels Park is light-hearted, gentle mockery, and mockery that has no need to exaggerate. The text of the comics is drawn from the words of men themselves, and occasionally from the wittily underwhelmed responses of their women conversational partners. The Jane-Austen-style regency framing for these remarks provides the perfect context to both highlight how outdated the thoughts behind them are, and for setting the viewer in the mindset of social commentary and satire.

Panel from the comic 'Legitimate snak'.It’s also empowering for the woman reader to see their own feeling of askance echoed by a raised eyebrow from no less a figure than Lizzie Bennet; to hear a witty comeback to modern misogyny in her voice, backed by the authority of the world-renowned Jane Austen; to have a comic panel dealing with street harassment express the incredulity of female observers to the ridiculous defences men give of such behaviour by presenting five women’s sceptical looks to those of three men, and to do so via the mechanism of an iconic scene.

I also enjoy that the comments section is titled ‘Next Week on Manfeels Park…’, correctly predicting that the comic will be regularly commented upon by men who exemplify exactly what is being critiqued.

If you enjoy light-hearted mocking of the patriarchy, I really can’t recommend Manfeels Park enough.

(Countdown to fulfillment of Lewis’s Law in 3, 2, 1…)

Review: Hemlock Grove, Season 2

Hemlock Grove Promotional ImageWell. The ratio of anticipation to disappointment on this season was striking.

The first season of Hemlock Grove was original, unexpected, challenging, exciting, unpredictable, and provided a wide range of interesting female characters. This season  drew extensively on racial stereotypes, reduced the number of interesting female characters, and dramatically increased their representation as instrumental objects to serve others’ needs (especially reproductive needs). Lots of gratuitous female nudity – the plot even working to specifically enable as much of this as possible – and yet where there was male nudity it was downright chaste in comparison.

Colour me ‘Eh’ with shadings of ‘rather pissed off, actually’.

Plot (mild spoilers)

Following the events of last season, Peter (Landon Liboiron), Destiny (Tiio Horn), and Lynda (Lili Taylor) have rejoined their Roma family. We catch up with them at a wake, which is going down with a lot of drink, music, and (for Destiny) sex. The wake is disturbed by the FBI, who have finally caught up with Lynda’s years of racketeering. For legal reasons I did not exactly follow, this means that Peter and Destiny must return to Hemlock Grove to put together his mother’s defence.

Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård), meanwhile, has been dealing with becoming an upir, trying to find ways of feeding without killing people, and running the family company. Oh, and raising his Demon Spawn – I mean ‘Lovely little girl with unnaturally blue eyes that no one – no one at all – ever comments upon’.

Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janssen) is not dead. She’s been in a coma and then recovering, with the sinister aid of Dr Johann Pryce (Joel de la Fuente) and his new dodgy scientist side-kick, Dr Zheleznova-Burdukovskaya*, from dodgy Russia, with dodgy-but-nebulous war crimes hanging over her.

A young blonde woman, Miranda (Madeline Brewer – visually very similar to Lethe, Roman’s cousin, Peter’s girlfriend, whom Roman raped and impregnated with the Demon Spawn) is forced off the road near Roman’s house. She knocks on his door for help and he lets her phone for a tow-truck and stay with him until she’s ready to move on. Quelle suprise, the tow-truck company is the same one Peter has just got a job with.

Miranda begins a relationship with both Roman and Peter. As you do. What’s weirder is that Miranda starts spontaneously lactating, conveniently supplying nourishment for the Demon Spawn, and also affording the viewer many opportunities for close-ups on her breasts. Many. We did not need that many. We really got the picture from the milk-stains on her top. This whole thing was not subtle.

Meanwhile, Peter cons some drug dealers into thinking they are buying some magical drug, developed by the Roma people, by turning into a werewolf in front of them ‘on a bad moon’. This starts Peter off on a journey to become a vargulf (really uncool kind of werewolf that can change whenever he pleases but loses his humanity) which Destiny warns him about and he, you know, ignores her. Destiny is playing Cassandra this season.

He does this so that they can hire a lawyer for his mum, Lynda. For some reason, everyone refers to the lawyer as the ‘lady lawyer’, like this is 1950.

Meanwhile, Shelley Godfrey (Nicole Boivin and Madeleine Martin)is off in hiding, being kind of a badass and kind of really in trouble. Eventually, she returns to the fold, whereupon Dr Pryce explains about the naked blonde lady (again, very similar looking to Lethe) floating in a tank we’ve been seeing off and on throughout the season. He’d been ‘growing’ her to create the perfect human, but because he actually really does care for Shelley, he proposes copying Shelley’s brain patterns and putting them in the blonde girl, then killing Shelley’s old body, so that Shelley can live on in the ‘perfect’ body she’s always dreamed of. Which is just the bestest idea EVER.

Oh, and there are some dudes in masks who are killing families and Peter and Roman keep sharing dreams about them and that’s what brings them back into being best buddies again after the events of last season. That and a threesome with Miranda.

And Norman is still floating around, trying to work out his relationship to Olivia, and the fact that it’s really not healthy, and I wish I could care about this, because I like Norman, but it’s for that exact reason that I never bought the relationship in the first place.

Why I was displeased

OK, so let’s talk about the racism, first. Season 1 started off a little bit racist, what with Peter and family introduced as basically on the left side of the law, but that kind of dropped away as Peter went on to be awesome and basically the hero in the way that Roman really turned out not to be. I had mixed feelings about it, but in a way that was kind of ‘hopefully they will improve in the second season’. Why do I keep thinking things like this? Nobody knows.

We see a lot more Roma people, and they are framed as lazy, jobless, carefree people who party a lot and don’t work for a living. The issue of systematic racism is lampshaded when the ‘lady lawyer’ mentions that the FBI will be really going after Lynda by angling to paint the Roma people as a criminal organisation. Which could have been explored interestingly, except for the fact that, despite Peter’s protests, that’s basically how they are presented within the world of Hemlock Grove.

And then there’s the whole ‘evil scientist’ thing. Dr Pryce was already showing up for the sinister Asian and the scientist Asian stereotypes, but now we have Dr Incomprehesibly-long-double-barrelled-name which is not her only incomprehensibly long alias. And she’s an Evil Russian. Like she just walked out of a Cold War Bond movie. She even has what a friend once described (referring to a Movie Nazi) as ‘Evil Hair’ – coiffed and then held severely solid by God only knows what heinous kind of product.

As for women? We’ve lost Lethe and Clementine from the first season, and Lynda is spirited away quicker than you can say ‘The script writer didn’t have any use for this character anymore’. Norman’s wife, Maria, finds her way out of the story pretty quick** The ‘lady lawyer’ is in about two scenes, maybe three. Destiny gets more screen time, but I’m not sure she does a single thing that actually affects the plot. Her biggest scenes involve swallowing psychotropic magic poisons for Peter’s sake. The first one has a needlessly suggestive snake slithering up her nethers. The second involves three people holding her head under water until she drowns. Yup, the themes of sexual objectification and violence against women are strong this season.

Then there’s Miranda I-exist-to-spontaneously-lactate-and-sleep-with-the-leads Cates. Yes, lactation is creepy. Spontaneous lactation is creepier. It’s a horror show. I GET it. But you actually literally do get to choose what tropes you employ, and Miranda could be replaced by a sexy bag of baby formula, and that’s not in-world disturbing, that’s plain disturbing. On the plus side, it is Miranda who takes the lead in initiating the threesome, but if you had told me there was going to be a threesome involving Bill Skarsgård and Landon Liboiron in this season, I would have shown up with my popcorn and expected, well, more. We only see them sleeping afterwards. Given the amount of naked ladies in this season, and all those close-ups of Miranda’s boobs (lactating or otherwise), I was nonplussed***.

And if Miranda isn’t used instrumentally enough, there’s Prycilla, the girl Pryce has grown and whose brain he literally writes over for the sake of Shelley, and whom Dr Zheleznova-Burdukovskaya suggests to Olivia she might consume to overcome some of the difficulties she is facing. The girl exists to be used by others.

And speaking of Olivia, she is significantly powered down following Roman’s attack on her at the end of last season, and her plot is strongly focused about how, having been dominated by her son, her maternal instincts resurface and she wants to mend fences with her children and be a better girlfriend to Norman.  So, uh, not at all Freudian misogyny themed, then. It should be stressed that it’s a believable performance by Famke Janssen and the progression does work for the character, but in the context of the diminution of other female characters, the choice to take this path with her is striking.

Certainly, no women are here to fill the vacuum Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure) left behind. Indeed, Clementine’s memory is reduced to fridging motivational fodder for her brother, Michael Chasseur (Demore Barnes).

Oh, and, in case you hadn’t gathered by now, absolutely no mention of Roman’s rapes is made whatsoever. There are no repurcussions for Roman for this. Roman’s redemptive arc is conducted solely against his present worry that he might hurt other people now that he’s an upir. It’s not just that he gets away with it – men get away with rape all the time, and I appreciated the ‘pretty guys you are rooting for can do this shit too’ aspect of how it was handled in the first season, but this season it is literally as though it never happened. Roman and Peter are reeling from Lethe’s death, Roman generally doesn’t like who he became under his mother’s power, but in as much as one might speculate as to his inner thoughts on the matter, any responsibility he might have taken for his own actions he seems to have shirked off, attributing it to Olivia and his upir nature. I kept expecting something to happen to reveal to Peter exactly what Roman had done. But nope. ‘Oh, Roman, why are you raising the baby when I was going out with her mother and had taken the decision to step up as the father? Why are you so focused on her being your daughter? How come that whole “impregnanted by an angel” thing is still unresolved from last season?’ Nuh-uh. Nadda. Nothing.

You can’t see it, but I am not wearing anything resembling my happy face right now.

The artistry and originality of the first season is gone. I felt none of the genre-bending ‘what am I watching’ mystery, most of the characters became less interesting, racism and sexism upped substantially, the fact that Roman is a rapist completely forgotten… It’s still well-acted and mostly well-scripted – I could and did consume this easily and quickly – but one is left, overall, with a bad taste in one’s mouth. This is not the show I was raving about last year.

*She’s not listed on either IMDB or Wikipedia, yet – I had to check the name in subtitles for the spelling – so I can’t say who the actor is.

**SPOILER: She gets fridged.

***There were instances of naked gents – Peter gets naked every time he changes, and two other guys are forced naked for torture reasons, but as I say, these are pretty chaste in presentation compared to the treatment Prycilla and Miranda get.

Review: Hyperbole and a Half (book)

Book cover of Hyperbole and a HalfYou may have seen me talk about Allie Brosh before, especially if you also follow me on Tumblr or Twitter. Her work also inspired the post ‘[S]hitty drawings are funny‘ – title drawn from her FAQ page, explaining her choice of a childish style of art for her comics. She’s basically become a major hero for me, and for everyone else I know who suffers from depression. Her posts, ‘Adventures in Depression‘, ‘Depression Part Two‘, and ‘This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult‘ should be mandatory reading for anyone who has never had a mental illness trying to understand someone who has, and prescribed reading for those of us who suffer from depression.

She doesn’t solely write about her depression. Many of her stories are delightful tales of a mischievous childhood. Such as ‘Menace‘, the story of what happened when her parents gave her a dinosaur costume, or ‘The God of Cake‘, the story of the amazing cake her mother made, which Allie felt compelled to gain access to and consume. She also writes touching tales of the ‘Simple Dog‘ and the ‘Helper Dog‘ (Simple Dog pictured with her on the cover above), and her and her boyfriend’s kind, but often despairing efforts to look after them.

I care about this alot

Allie speculates that the common spelling error ‘alot’ refers to a large, confused-looking beast.

In addition to her person life stories, she also makes comics that are just plain funny. You may recognise her work from such memes as the ‘Alot‘, ‘x ALL the ys’ (based on one of the drawings in ‘This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult’), and ‘Internet Forever’ (ditto). She also collaborated on a video for ‘Sueeve Shower Products for Men‘, based on her original post ‘How to make Showering Awesome Again‘. Which you should all watch, because it is hilarious.

Clean ALL the things!

An excerpt from one of Allies comics which is frequently adapted to substitute other things for ‘clean’ and ‘things’.

All of which is to say that I’m a fan, and, actually, half the Internet is a fan, they probably just don’t realise that they’re a fan of memes that were based on her artwork. I’ve been a fan for years, and had been eagerly anticipating the release of her book. Whilst she was writing her book, Allie’s blog went silent for quite a long time. I was aware that she struggled with depression, but I nevertheless assumed that at least part of it was that the book was requiring a lot of her attention. In 2010 she made 78 posts, in 2011 she made only 5. The last of which was ‘Adventures in Depression’, followed by ‘Depression Part Two’ in 2013. Allie had been depressed for a long time, and severely so – she had contemplated suicide.

What it's like talking to non-depressed people about depression.

What it’s like talking to non-depressed people about depression.

Nevertheless, Allie had completed her book, and she could see the light at the end of the depression tunnel again. You might have thought that a two year gap in posting might obliterate your fanbase, but not so, for Allie. The Internet exploded with outpourings of shared emotion in response to ‘Depression Part Two’. She talked about aspects of depression that nobody ever talked about – and there are a LOT of people talking about depression on the Internet, these days. I’m one of them. She talked about the things I was afraid to talk about. The things my friends who are also depressed had not mentioned as a part of the experience. And she expressed it just so. And with the wit, humour, and poignancy that has made her the type of blogger who can post nothing for two years and still command the attention of the Internet.

Allie Broshon suicideI have never wanted to buy a book based solely off what I’ve seen on the Internet so badly. I wanted to have the book, and I wanted to support Allie. I wanted her to be a success because she deserves it, but I also wanted her to know how important her words are to so many people. A friend of mine asked on Twitter a while back for recommendations of things to give to mentally healthy people to explain depression to them. I said immediately ‘Allie Brosh’s Depression, parts one and two’, and he said ‘Of course! I can’t believe I didn’t think of that, that’s perfect’. Because it is. There are so many different ways to experience depression, and often that can make it difficult to explain, because one person can give their symptoms, and they won’t match those of another whose feelings are just as valid. But that’s not the case with Allie. I mean, sure, she has some symptoms I don’t and vice versa, but I don’t know anyone who has depression who has read her posts who didn’t identify strongly with the core of what she was saying, or find that she was saying something they themselves had struggled to put into words. In particular, the struggle of talking to non-depressed people about how you feel seems to have hit home. How you end up having to try to protect their emotions, because they will become distressed at hearing how you are, even though how you are is just normal for you, and their distress just becomes something extra you have to manage. And how the way everyone seems to think they can solve your problems with simple and utterly irrelevant answers.

I’ve had a hard time, lately. A financially insecure time. I wanted to buy her book, but wasn’t sure I could excuse the expense, so I asked for it for Christmas. And I got it. And I’m so glad. It has been such a comfort.

Of course, it contains many stories I have read before. It’s wonderful to own them in such a colourful, physical edition that I can just flip through whenever I need them. But it also has many that I haven’t read before: delightful, funny, witty, insightful. Sometimes, when I’ve been very low, it was all I could do to just lie there in bed, and there was Allie’s book. Within arms reach. Full of such comfort and delight. The childlike, primitive, style of her drawings is so easy to identify with. For we are all children inside – confronted constantly with the confusion and wonder of the world, at sea in a world that expects us to have found some sort of secret ‘adult’ perspective. We are brought back to the powerful and clean emotions of childhood: enthusiasm for life and despair at its challenges, and it allows us to see that those emotions are still with us, under the layers of adult behaviour and requirements. Whether you have depression and need the connection that tells you that other people feel this way, too; or you don’t, and you need to connect to loved ones who do, Allie’s unique style somehow captures a perspective that is easy for anyone to relate to.

I’d give a copy to everyone I know if I could (and if I didn’t know some of them would be put off by the swearing). This book is just… a gift to the world.

I know I’ve mostly talked about parts of it you can already go read online, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises of the bits you can’t. And they’re just as good. Just as delightful. Just as spirit-lifting. I don’t know how else to convey how wonderful and important this book is. Go buy it. Buy it for yourself. Buy it for those you love. Everyone should read and share the experiences of this book.

Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Poster for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire(Editorial note: I wrote most of this, in, like, December, but I was in the process of leaving my job and busy doesn’t even begin to describe how I was. You probably can’t see this in the cinema anymore, but you should defo buy the DVD when that comes out.*)

It has been a while since I made it out to a cinema and successfully saw a film. My Geek Film Buddy, Lee Harris, and I utterly failed at seeing Thor 2 the other week, because we suck. We did much better this time, cunningly making sure to book our tickets online.

So, in addition to the considerable hype and unanimously good reception from everyone I know, I was also just really excited to get out of the house and engage in some well-deserved escapism. I’ve also been reading the first book (and finding that the first movie was a very accurate adaptation) and had recently rewatched the first film. And then, you know, Jennifer Lawrence.

I, like everyone else, have been utterly charmed by Jennifer Lawrence. I had been somewhat concerned about the fact that they picked a pale-skinned blonde woman to play an olive-skinned dark-haired girl (and tinted her skin) for the previous movie. However, whilst I still feel that is a legitimate concern, I find I cannot blame Jennifer Lawrence for this. She is an excellent actor and, it turns out, legit one of the most down-to-Earth, fun, and engaging stars to suddenly find herself in the public eye.

Whether it’s meeting other celebrities and looking like she’s ‘just found a unicorn‘:


Being dangerously playful with knives, or photobombing on her own red carpet, it’s hard not to love her. And the fact that she point blank refused to lose weight because she didn’t want girls dieting in order to look like Katniss basically elivated her to the status of goddess.

Needless to say, I was excited. The sort of level of excitement that is very easily disappointed. And I wasn’t.


Catching Fire picks up nearly a year on from the end of the first movie. Her new found wealth has not stopped Katniss  (Lawrence) from hunting – she just hunts for other people now. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is still interested in Katniss, and jealous of her public relationship with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). As Katniss is leaving for the pre-75th Hunger Games tour, the romantic tension comes to a head, and Gale kisses her.

Unbeknownst to either of them, the kiss is caught on camera, and President Snow shows up at Katiss’s house in the winner’s village (a somewhat bleak and grey, if well-appointed, part of District Twelve). He threaten’s Gale and Katniss’s families, if Katniss fails to make the love affair with Peeta convincing. Katniss has made a mockery of the Hunger Games in forcing them to allow both herself and Peeta to live, and she needs to make it clear that her actions in the 74th Hunger Games were acts of love, and not rebellion.

As the tour progresses, tension mounts, as it becomes clear just how much rebellion threatens in the other districts. Peeta and Katniss continue to be a focal point of rebelion, despite their efforts, and Snow decides to take action. A special Hunger Games is planned to mark the quarter-century anniversary. In this games, all the tributes will be drawn from winners of previous years.

The winners are not best pleased. But how can they fight back from within the games themselves?


As with the first movie, this is a film of two halves – one focusing on developing the political situation and world, one embedded in the survival-oriented, adrenaline-fuled Hunger Games. I loved the first film, but I can see why many people are saying they liked this one better. Now that we understand the world, the filmmakers are free to go deeper, developing the tensions and exploring the subtelties of fermenting rebellion. The second half – the one within the Games themselves – is also more tense. In the first movie we kinda knew that Katniss was going to win somehow, and whilst we also kinda know we’ll be seeing Jennifer Lawrence for a third movie, the precise resolution of this film remains open. More is at stake than Katniss’s own life, and although we know that the events within the games will be linked to the rebellion outside, we don’t know how that link is going to be progressed. In this sense, the character motivations in the two sections of the movie are more intertwined as well.

Added to this is the uncomfortable fact that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is more interesting because the Hunger Games within the movie are. All the tributes are dangerous individuals, and all of them are people who had been promised a life of luxury and safety that has unexpetedly been ripped out from underneath them. It changes the dynamic of the games. Additionally, the arena itself is more challenging and surprising. I call this ‘uncomfortable’ because we are confronted with the fact that what is designed to work on the brutal desires of the people watching in-world also works on us.

But to attribute the tension solely to a commentary on visceral joy in brutality is not to do justice to the film, or to ourselves. In particular, we are introduced to a new and deeply interesting cast of characters, all of whom have had to deal with the brutality of winning the games, and have done so in different ways. Johanna Mason  (Jena Malone) draws attention for every second of screen time she gets, spitting with bitterness and anger at being thrust into the games again. Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) is a striking, charming, enigma, who leaves us guessing about whether his compassion is real or an act. Wiress (Amanda Michael Plummer) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) present an interesting counter point to the youthful violence as tributes who won their games quite some time ago, and who did so with their wits and intelligence, rather than physical strength. Mags (Lynn Cohen) the eldest tribute, at 80, presents a different age group again, and her presence as a friend and mentor to Finnick introduces a new and interesting dynamic. Whilst it would have been nice to see an older woman presented as less weak-and-to-be-protected than is the stereotype, Mags is not simply bracketed as valueless. Katniss sees her value right away, and the character does demonstrate that there is more than one form of courage – more than one way to protect others – through her actions in the games.

Effie TrinketOther existing pre-characters are offered a chance to develop, too. I was particularly taken by the character progression of Effie Trinket. Whilst her flawlessly extravagent style is more fabulous than ever, the brief hints at compassion and team spirit that peaked into her presentation in the first movie flower here. Although the way she expresses her solidarity is received as bizarre and a little shallow at first, Effie proves that her heart is true and makes a genuine contribution to the cause. Elizabeth Banks delivers a flawless and nuanced performance that is beyond captivating.

My one critique of the film concerns the ending. I’m not going to say anything about the content of the ending, its more of a stylistic point, so I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler. The criticism is this: it just stops. I don’t think I’d realised it had actually finished until a good ten seconds after the credits had started to roll. Lee turned and said to me: ‘Maybe if we stay until after the credits, there’ll be another thirty minutes of film?’, and that’s kinda how it felt. I was well in the zone, expecting to be coming up on some kind of middle-resolution in the next half hour or so, but completely not expecting it to stop. Sure, there’s a tradition of putting a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of the second film in a trilogy, but there wasn’t even so much as Luke and Leia starring off out at the stars. I mean, split the party, if you like, but give the audience a moment of peace to collect themselves before the credits roll, you know?

So that was… jarring. I’m told that the second book does basically just stop like that, but I can’t help but feel that a film director should be able to add a little finesse to that blunt edge. And it’s surprising, because the rest of the film is so masterful. I feel like we’re gonna have to wait until we can have both films on DVD and watch 2 and 3 in one sitting in order to get a cohesive experience.

Nevertheless, ending and all, this is a great piece of cinema and well worth your time. Katniss is a great character and role model for young girls, and I adore the fact that with Peeta and Gale both mooning over her and presuring her to take them out of the so-called ‘friend-zone‘ Katniss still has her eye on the things that matter and the sense that neither relationship really fits for her forms a unique refusal to engage with an angst ridden love-triangle.

This is a nuanced, engaging, political, and exciting movie. At a time when I have to go back to the 1930s for powerful economic commentary in most popular media, it’s hard to ignore the relevance of Catching Fire‘s vision of extreme wealth discrepancy and political suppression of the media when the 85 richest people have as much money as the poorest 3.5 billion, and when protests in the Ukraine have been subject to a blanket media ban whilst our papers fill with Justin Beiber. This film is a must for teenagers and kids alike. This latest iteration cements my belief that The Hunger Games is science fiction like we rarely have the privilege to be exposed to in the twenty-first century.

(Read my review of The Hunger Games.)

It’s time to watch films from the 1930s

A still from The Shop Around the Corner

Klara Novak persuades Mr Matuschek to give her a job. (The Shop Around the Corner.)

This might seem like an odd statement, but it’s never been more true. I’ve been thinking it a lot for the last few years (as those who have read my review of Mr Smith Goes to Washington will know) but a post I read recently on Tumblr galvanised me to write-up the interlinked thoughts on this matter that have been batting around my head.

The post was by Robert Reich, and is called ‘Why there’s no Outcry‘. It’s concerned with a matter that’s been close to my heart, lately: the fact that we know the gap between the rich and the poor is widening at an alarming rate, but we are not responding as we have done in the past, with such things as ‘the Progressive Era or the New Deal or the Great Society‘. The answer, Reich posits, is that groups who have previously engaged in the activism that prompted such reforms are too inhibited by their financial and political restraints to demand the change that is necessary. Reich focuses in particular on the working poor, who are too afraid of losing their jobs, and for most of whom unions no longer have the political clout to seem like a viable ally; and on students, who in the past have had the political freedom, intellectual stimulation, and lack of immediate financial pressure, to allow them to participate in activism in a way working people rarely have the luxury and resources to. The working poor are not unionised, students are hemmed in by debt and fear of being unable to obtain a job with which to pay it off. And all people have had their liberty to protest restricted as our civil liberties are eroded.

Technology also plays into this. Whilst the Internet gives us new avenues to communicate, spread knowledge, voice anger, governments and big business also use it, and increasing surveillance, to monitor us. Speaking up becomes a significant risk. Chillingly, protesters in the Ukraine were recently texted by their government: ‘Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance’. And right now the Ukrainian government is preparing to shut down all access to internet, TV, and telephone to cut off communications with the rest of the world to prevent news of the protests spreading. Meanwhile, Net Neutrality is under threat in the US, and the US government plans another war whilst the victims of Hurricane Katrina still languish in poverty, 8 years on. And, as is noted in that link (attributed to Bryan Pfeifer, but I couldn’t locate the original) most of the ignored victims are people of colour – our social divisions deepen along financial lines as rich white people fail to be interested in plights that largely affect people of colour. It’s hard to ignore the comparison to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, immortalised in the song ‘When the Levee Breaks’, in which ‘somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million people were displaced’, mostly black people, many of whom were held in concentration camps when they tried to seek refuge elsewhere.

But whilst the similarities to events of the 1920s and 30s abound, our popular media is full of eccentric billionaires and superheroes who right our wrongs in fantastic style, wowing us with showy fights and special effects which offer us nothing that we can turn to in ourselves to fight our struggles with. I love Person of Interest and its evident concern with  surveillance culture, but the answer is not a white billionaire genius computer nerd teaming up with a white super-spy. I’m the first to enjoy a good fantasy, and I love superhero films, but we’re drowning in sedative culture that ignores the pressing concerns of our day to day lives and seeks to make us forget to take our own stands.

As a Jimmy Stewart fan, I sought out a number of his old films simply to watch the great and beautiful man do his thing. What I got was a punch to the gut of people living the experiences we’re feeling right now nearly a century ago. When you mention It’s a Wonderful Life, people think of a feel-good Christmas movie. When you talk about Mr Smith Goes to Washington, you think of a political drama about an Everyman figure fighting the good fight. If you’ve heard of it, then you might think of The Shop Around the Corner as a sappy romance, in a similar vein to its later incarnation You’ve Got Mail. But there are important differences between You’ve Got Mail and The Shop Around the Corner, and these differences chiefly arise because You’ve Got Mail was made in the boom years, where the social pressures of The Shop Around the Corner simply do not apply. Meg Ryan plays a shop owner who is put out of business by the owner of a big chain, but she’s never really in dire financial straights, and neither is he. The stakes are pretty low on both sides. For a film whose premise is to take an old film and try to show that despite changes in technology, things are still pretty much the same, it kind of strikingly misses the point of the original film.

Check it: The Shop Around the Corner starts as Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), having been forced to leave a job where she was being sexually harassed, is desperately seeking work at another department store. She approaches Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart), the senior clerk at Matuschek and Company. He’s clearly at the top of his game and a good deal brighter than the store owner, and he tries to let Klara down gently, pointing out that Matuschek & Co. aren’t doing such great business themselves. But Klara gets a lucky break when Mr Matuschek overhears their conversation and is impressed when Klara manages to sell a box that he had disagreed with Kralik over earlier. Klara is hired, but she and Kralik have got off on the wrong foot.

It turns out that Kralik has been engaged in romantic correspondence with a woman he has never met. They arrange to meet, but on the day of their date, Kralik is fired, due to a misunderstanding, and the fact that he’s the only person in the place prepared to stand up to Mr Matuschek. Kralik can’t face keeping his date, but his friend persuades him to go see what the girl looks like anyway. I hope it’s no spoiler to say that it turns out to be Klara. The rest of the plot unfolds as you might expect, with some interesting side plots.

You can already see how economic uncertainty (including how this can be affected by issues like gender) is at the heart of the plot. These are people who are in employment, but still living very much on the edge. Klara is truly brave to leave her former employment after she’s sexually harassed, but doing so leaves her in desperate straights. Both Klara and Kralik are intelligent and self-educated – their meeting of minds is over literature, and Kralik had found Klara’s ad in the classifieds when looking for second hand encyclopedias –  both clearly capable of performing roles much more challenging than those they are employed to perform, and both extremely grateful to be employed at all. Kralik’s bravery in speaking out is noted as rash on several occasions. Kralik’s friend, Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) advises him, gently:

Pirovitch: Kralik, don’t be impulsive, not at a time like this. Not when millions of people are out of work.
Kralik: I can get a job anywhere.
Pirovitch: Can you? Let’s be honest.
Kralik: I’ll take a chance. I’m no coward, you know. I’m not afraid.
Pirovitch: I am. I have a family.
Kralik: Well, I haven’t.
Pirovitch: Think it over. Those were nice letters, weren’t they?

Pirovitch is pointing out that even love has a cost. To speak out is to endanger not only your own health and happiness, but that of those around you. If you lose your job, you can’t support a family, you can’t plan a family, and you become a prospective burden to anyone who might become involved with you. In times of economic hardship, the wise person avoids risks. Maybe money can’t buy you love, but love can certainly leave where the lack of money makes loving too hard.

And it’s no empty warning: we see that Kralik’s intelligence and outspokenness puts him in the firing line when the boss is looking for someone to blame, even though Kralik has been nothing but loyal. He does lose his job, and his boss loses a good worker. But he can afford to do so – there are other good workers who will step up to the plate to fill his place. Of course, this is a romantic comedy, it’s required to have a happy ending, so things work out OK, but every conversation is underwritten with a tension that says that everyone except for Mr Matuschek is living on the edge. And even though Mr Matuschek is basically an OK sort of guy, the extent by which his wealth exceeds those of his workers is striking.

Sure, this is a film about love, but it’s also a film about economics, unfairness, the poverty line, and how this interacts with one’s ability to protest and live a free and independent life.

By the same measure, Mr Smith Goes to Washington isn’t just an underdog film, it’s a film about political corruption, the power of the state and big business to destroy anyone who dares to protest; it’s about media control and the control of education and the right of children of all races to have freedom to learn in a positive environment, and how rich white men will not only take that away without thinking, they will fight viciously, and they will win if we do not have laws in place to prevent it and a populace knowledgeable, willing, and brave enough to make use of those laws.

Similarly, It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t just a tale about how an angel gets his wings by helping a good man see how the world is a better place with him in it. It shows how reckless and selfish bankers can ruin hundreds of lives and leave unfortunate ordinary people to take the consequences in their place. It’s a film about hardship and desperation before the happy ending, and how good people can be driven to take their own lives by economic hardship. And it’s a film about how we need to stand together in difficult times against the rich and privileged who would throw us under a bus.

I don’t know how we get out of this state we have allowed this world to get into, but what I do know is that we have faced these issues before and found a way out the other side. So maybe it would do us some good to watch the films we made the last time around.

Review: Sleepy Hollow, Pilot Episode

Sleepy Hollow promo image

Look at these sexy bastards

Finally, something new in the visual medium to sink my teeth into. I think I’m going to enjoy this.

Sleepy Hollow is a new TV series from Fox, based (loosely, I assume) on the short story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow‘, by Washington Irvin, and not to be confused with the film of the same name.

In this latest iteration, Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a British man who was serving as a spy for George Washington during the American Revolutionary War when he beheads a man on the battlefield. Having been wounded himself, he loses consciousness… and wakes up alone in a cave in the present day. At the same time, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) and her partner, the Kurgan, August Corbin (Clancy Brown), are investigating a minor disturbance when Abbie discovers a decapitated body, and Corbin, alas, loses his head. Abbie witnesses the headless horseman – the same man Ichabod beheaded – fleeing the scene.

When Ichabod is found wandering the streets, obviously confused by being transplanted to the 21st century, he becomes a suspect. Something he doesn’t help himself with when he is able to provide further information about the murderer. Whilst his tale is obviously wild and taken as evidence of insanity, Abbie is intrigued by the fact that it matches the more unbelievable elements of her own story, such as the murderer’s lack of a head, which she failed to reveal to her colleagues. Despite being told to steer clear of the case, Abbie continues to investigate, with Ichabod’s help, and things continue to get stranger.

How was it?

I enjoyed this very much. A great cast doing an excellent job in what could easily have been a somewhat painful fish-out-of-water story. Tim Mison being easy on the eyes doesn’t hurt, but he also flawlessly portrays an earnestness and confidence in Ichabod that carefully skirts the potential chasm of cringe/embarrassment humour. Nicole Beharie is also great, as Abbie Mills – the intelligent and insightful cop who isn’t afraid to break rules on her hunch – and if you’ve been reading me for a while you’ll know how refreshing I find it to have a female actor in a role like this. I’m also loving the plentiful people of colour in prominent roles. Nicole, as co-protag, but also John Cho, as another cop, and Orlando Jones, as Captain Irving.

There are some silly elements. Pilot episodes tend to be prone to info-dumping, and Abbie’s opening up to Ichabod about a plot-relevant moment in her childhood seemed particularly unlikely. We get time-travel/ressurection, a headless horseman, apocalyptic portents, and witchcraft all in the first episode, an whilst I am pro those kinds of things, it’s a lot to put on the other plate of the suspension of disbelief scales. Overall, given the fantastic hurdles of its premise, I think it bears up rather well.

This is fun, reasonably well-written, well-acted, and provides plentiful eye-candy (including dishevelled-18th century-military-uniform eye-candy) – what’s not to like! Certainly a welcome new input to those of us waiting for Game of Thrones our old familiars to start up again.