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    Review: The Great Wall

    Its pretty obvious from the millions of pictures of it online that China’s ‘Great Wall’ remains standing. The answer of how much remains, or even how long it once was depends very much on who you ask, but what we do know is that neglect, and a lack of effective conservation means that its slowly disintegrating. However, it remains that there is still thousands of miles of wall for modern visitors to choose from.

    Given that there are clearly some issues around the lack of funds being spent on the wall, and absolutely miles of wall to choose from, its interesting that 2016 monster film ‘The Great Wall’ seems to have been made with an entirely CGI wall. Surely, even with some embellishment in the CG studio, filming just a couple of scenes on an actual, pre-built, historically accurate wall might have been a smart starting point for this movie. An added bonus could have been a little contribution to the upkeep of the wall, and given that you can, apparently, go on a day trip to the wall from Quigdao (where most of the film was made) it doesn’t even seem like a big ask.

    This would have made sense, but like everything else in the movie, things that make sense are apparently not a part of the process. Matt Damons insane accent opens the film, because someone decided for no discernible reason that he should be Irish, or perhaps American…or maybe Spanish/English. Then there is the guy who does all the cooking in full armour. Then there is the really effective weapon that is only deployed momentarily in the second battle (after lots of people died in the first one). Then there is all the female warriors (great!) who are ostensibly only there because they are lighter than male warriors (not so great!). In fact, there is really nothing in this movie that makes any sense at all, every scene is plagued with strange and incomprehensible decisions.

    Forgive it perhaps, as an epic spectacle, then retract this as you realise that no matter how many giant monsters come at the protagonists, you don’t really care whether they live or die at all, because at a (thankfully) short 101 minutes long there isn’t time to explain why anyone does what they do anyway, let alone spend some time fostering a connection with the audience.

    Anyway, as we watch Matt Damon (a white guy) come and save some Chinese people from some monsters they have apparently been fighting off successfully for over 600 years, its worth remembering that whoever made this film didn’t even take five minutes to consider whether it might be a good idea to shoot some film at the wall they were making a film about, so all of the other egregious decisions really are just part of whatever special process was used to make this mess.

    What does X-Pro II even mean?

    So you have found yourself here, reading a blog post about an Instagram filter – probably not because you are remotely interested in reading about Instagram filters, but because you want to know how anyone could possibly write a 725 word blog post about them. Well let me tell you how we got this point. I once had a lot of fun at a party by asking people I had never met before what their favourite Instagram filter was. I had recruited a friend to fortuitously join the conversation after the question and volunteer their favourite, thus kick starting a ridiculous conversation about the (entirely made up) pros and cons of various filters. Our first victim didn’t see through the joke, but did think we were ridiculous, and told us so. This, as far as I was concerned was a victory, but it was not quite as amazing as when our second victim joined in, volunteering – ‘my favourite has to be x-pro two’. At this point I felt a little guilty at our ruse, and unable to detach myself from the situation of my own making I was compelled to actually take this favourite filters conversation seriously. 

    The conclusion? The Instagram filters have ridiculous names. Much like paint colours and perfume, filters need names that allow us to refer to them as something other than things like ‘the one that makes everything a bit more red’ or ‘the one that makes it look like sunset all the time’. These names are too long, too descriptive, too much effort. So the Instagram team plucks names out of the air, apparently, if the internet is to be believed, based on artistic styles, their coffee intake, or the name of their dog. There is however one Instagram filter that is named after something slightly more meaningful. X-Pro II, though I didn’t know it the six or so years ago at that party, before I had even picked up a 35mm camera, is named after the results you get from processing a 35mm film in some way other than how it was supposed to be processed. This gives you the nice vignette, higher contrast and popping colours that we see when we use the filter. Hence the name. 

    Except, it is not all as simple as that. X-pro is a short way of saying cross processing. If you are unfamiliar with the way in which films are developed, it is basically a chemical process – you leave the film in various chemicals for certain amounts of time and the film comes out of the end of the process developed. Films are supposed to be developed by using specific chemicals for specific amounts of time – like a recipe. However, because we’re grown ups and no one can tell us what to do, we can develop films with other chemicals, make up random amounts of time to develop for, or even use things we have found in the kitchen in place of our chemistry. Its a bit like getting ready made cookie dough, throwing away the cooking instructions and doing your own thing. Now much like the cookie dough analogy, sometimes this can be delicious, and sometimes you can end up with an inedible mess – the instructions are there for consistency, but not always creativity.

    So what does this mean for x-pro II? Well basically that you very much could cross process a film and get something that looks just like you have applied the x-pro II filter, or you could get something that looks equally cool but completely different. The image below was taken on colour, rather than black and white film. Colour film involves a complicated chemical process to develop (colour film also has to be printed in complete darkness, and nobody has time for that, just one of the reasons all my pictures are black and white), but I chose to develop it with chemistry that is designed to be used with black and white film. Of course, because the manufacturer doesn’t suggest that this is a good idea, they have not told me the amounts of time I had to leave the film in the chemicals for. So I made it up. 

    This next image was processed in exactly the same chemicals. Again, it was colour film, and because I quite liked the blue tint on the first image I decided to process it for the same amount of time (writing down these ‘recipes’ is a good idea). The one difference is that this particular roll of film was from a different manufacturer.

    Two images that are stylistically completely different (they are actually of the same bridge, which is somewhere in Ipswich I think) from two colour films, with black and white chemistry.  This, really, is why cross processing film is more exciting than putting filters on Instagram – you never quite know what you’ll be getting, and if you don’t like it, unfortunately there is no swiping on to the next filter, you are stuck with it forever. Consider this next time you use x-pro II: out there, somewhere, is someone putting random film through random chemicals, and giving their images a look that no one has ever seen before.  

    Fake News, and how to escape it

    A game: Choose a word at random, the more innocuous the better, things like ‘salad’ and ‘robots’ work well. Then take the sentence ‘Can … kill you’, and insert your word. Head over to the website of popular right wing newspaper that shall not be named and put your Frankenstein sentence into their search engine. The results are good fun, the two sentences above yield results that inform me that “it is ALREADY too late to ban killer robots’” and that “the SALAD DRAWER is putting your family at risk”. Those are their capitals not mine by the way.

    I sometimes work with a-level media students, and we play this game at the end of our sessions. After the first couple of weeks they start coming along with words they want to try – I am suspicious that they have often taken a look before the session to find something particularly amusing, but we all pretend we are discovering them for the first time. The incredulity of these 16 and 17 year olds quickly turns to cynicism, it only takes a few weeks before they can successfully predict the types of stories they are going to see. Being a responsible educator I do try to steer clear of profanity, but we have a caveat when we are playing the game, we call it what it is, bullshit.

    Something interesting happens though, and it has happened every time I have played this game with a student for more than a few weeks, eventually, after they have worked out the pattern, they ask one of the most important questions of their media education “if these stories are bullshit, does that mean they are all bullshit?”. It is a long-winded way of teaching that not everything you read is true, relevant or worthwhile. From there we start the long process of deconstructing media texts, asking questions like ‘why was this written’, ‘who benefits from this’ and ‘how do they convey their ideas’. It is a lot less fun than the game, but by the end of the year, as well as learning everything else they need for their A-level (they can usually write a killer case study, and have a pretty good understanding of the word ‘postmodernism) their bullshit detectors are finely tuned instruments, at least when it comes to the media. They are so finely tuned in fact that they don’t just identify the obvious (“British supermarket jihadi reveals Jaffa Cakes and fish fingers are the only things he misses since leaving the UK…” is the headline you’ll get if you try “can fish fingers kill you?”) but they can also identify media bias, discrimination, sexism, racism and any of the other isms which our popular media is shot through with.

    Whatever your stance on the outcomes, the outsized role of the media in the recent brexit vote, or the election of Donald Trump is undeniable. Within this the role of new media, that ethereal catch term all we use to talk about social media and everything else that isn’t a TV network, film or newspaper, is especially noticeable. What is immediately obvious to the students I work with is that this new media serves as a sort of bullshit echo chamber, amplifying the most ridiculous tales to levels previously only dreamed of by even the most persistent media oligarchs.

    The game becomes especially interesting when it goes from identifying bullshit to asking why it is happening. Usually the answer is money, it’s as simple as bullshit sells, however when we move into the new media realm the reasons are less obvious. Unless you are very fortunate there is no financial ramification to your social media ramblings, and even some of the more ardent YouTube conspiracy theorists are likely not taking home enough at the end of each month to keep them stocked up on survival rations. But actually, why the media, and the rest of us humans engage with the bullshit echo chamber is because we like stories.

    Narratives help us to make sense of the world, give us goals and common ground. The narratives which appeal most widely are the ones that seem to matter the most to the most people. Though it also helps if they are interesting (killer robots), out there (murderous salad drawers), or just plain scary (all people who are not British are evil). The exciting thing about the new media is that we have the ability now to at least feel like we are part of that narrative – it doesn’t necessarily follow though that we are shaping it, we’re often just along for the ride, motorcyclists riding the walls of the infinite bullshit echo chamber.

    Stepping off is simple though, it doesn’t even take an a-level media degree to do it, although it will definitely help. There could be a sinister narrative here about the current government’s increasing persistence in removing just the types of subjects which switch on students bullshit detectors from the curriculum, but we try to keep away from such conspiracy theories. Playing the game is the first step towards stepping outside of the chamber and looking in. Laugh at what you see there then tell your friends about it, because the more people who are outside of the chamber looking in, the more ridiculous the clowns on the motorcycles look when they make claims that work only because there is an appealing narrative bubbling beneath them.

    Is La La Land becoming a victim of its…

    I have not seen LA LA Land, but I want to tell a story about it, and the point of this story is to raise a couple of interesting points about the power of film reviews. The film was first screened in august of 2016, making its way around a heap of high profile film festivals for the rest of the year, before general release over the holidays. It was well received, seriously well received.  Of the 80 or so reviews posted to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes during this period a grand total of four give the film a negative score. Here we are using, and acknowledge the issues with, the blunt force metric of Rotten Tomatoes own ‘fresh/rotten’ measure.

    The positive reactions to the film continued when it hit the cinemas for general release. The number of reviews increases significantly at this point (to over 300). Alongside this increase, perhaps inevitably, we also see an increase in less than positive reviews.

    I have put all the reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes into a graph. It simply marks a positive review as a +1, and a negative review as a -1. You can see that the graph is clearly top heavy, those negative reviews on the bottom are barely making a dent. What is interesting though is the box I have marked in red. Aside from that one outlier later in February, the negative reviews seem to dry up.

    1

    So what is going on? It’s clear that people are still reviewing the film, the general level of reviews is certainly reduced in comparison to the amount published right after the film is released, but it has not dried up to nothing. To illustrate what I think might be going on I have replicated the same graph, but on this copy I have stood a little Oscar right on the date when the Oscars nominations were announced.

    2

    Look at him there, guarding that square of nothing but positive reviews. So did the Oscars make the film untouchable? As bastions of taste, even at their most candid I cannot imagine a reviewer admitting to being influenced by something as ephemeral as an Oscar nomination. But 14? Maybe that is different. There perhaps something about the Oscars, as awards that a nominated within the industry, that marks them as especially noteworthy.

    So what about that brave soul who managed to swim against the tidal wave of positivity and publish a negative review all the way out in late February? Well Cole Smitheys review is actually not alone. His review is part of a wider discourse about the film that begins to develop in February that did not make it on to Rotten Tomatoes because none of it was ostensibly reviewing the film. Smithley just does not think the film is that good, but he is joined by other dissenting voices that question the film in some potentially far more important ways, asking if it demonstrates questionable attitudes to race and gender, and wondering about the disingenuous lack of gay characters.

    Alongside a long discussion about whether the film does Jazz any favours, a guardian article titled ‘The La La Land Backlash’ sums up these other issues, then notes:

    “… it’s hard to imagine any of these complaints getting much traction if La La Land were not such an enormous hit. Had it been met with indifference by critics and audiences, my hunch is that nobody would care so much about its racial or gender politics.” – Noah Gittell

    Akin to asking, does anyone care, if no one notices, which, given the amount of films with questionable attitudes to almost anything you can think of that are released every year (The Bechdel test isn’t going away anytime soon, for example) seems like it might well be a truism here. However, we need to look at what we mean by ‘enormous hit’ – because with La La land we are probably not talking about outright box office success. The film had an epic opening weekend, probably a result of all that film festival hype and those endless positive reviews. But depending which absolute measure you look at, there are still 18 or so films sitting above La La Land in terms of box office takings over the past year. Beyond this, even with all of those amazing reviews, with an undoubtedly high 93% (critics) rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is not some sort of mega success outlier in the top twenty. This means that La La Lands ‘enormous hit’ status is discursive, people talk about it being an enormous hit, whilst it is in real terms, or as real terms as something like this can ever be measured, probably just a high performing big budget movie.

    So what does this mean for film goers, or, perhaps more importantly, reviewers. There is evidence to suggest a discursive echo chamber has formed around the film here. A film perceived as a successful, enormous hit will be discussed as such, a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves to push the film deep into the public eye. In the case of La La Land, perhaps a little too deep – because up that close its far easier to see the inconsistencies between what is being said about the film and what one’s own reality of experiencing it is. So did positive reviews kill La La land? I guess we’ll find out on Oscars day.

    Review: Bridge to Terabithia

    Last night I decided to watch Bridge to Terabithia. It was a confusing experience. I will be first to accept that I am probably not ‘who this was made for’, an adaptation of a literary work for and about younger people than me wrapped up in Disney fuzziness. The film follows Peeta Mellark and his far too chirpy next door neighbour as they deal with their respective emotional/familial issues by imagining a childlike world of wonder. Here the more ethereal dangers that plague the young protagonists lives, such as bullying and a perceived lack of parental attention, manifest as trolls, flying gopher type things, and a mysterious shadow guy. By becoming solid they can be tackled head on, and as they do so Mellark and his not-girlfriend become happier.

    However what I imagine in the book resolves as a beautiful commentary on escapism and the role of imagination in how we deal with the less manageable aspects of our lives, translates into the realness of film as a sort of shared schizophrenic episode. I have not read the book, but Wikipedia says it is one of the most frequently challenged books around. The film makes it obvious why, the lives of the people in the film are messy and their relationships are complicated in ways we are unused to in fiction for this audience. In this respect it should be great, it doesn’t wrap everything up in comfortable little packages because it believes its audience isn’t sophisticated enough to deal with what it is showing.

    The problem is that in many ways the characters issues are caricatured and more problematic than they reasonably need to be. Mellarks father loves his sisters more than he loves him; we know this because whilst his sisters get sweet goodnights, Mellark is left with a gruff ‘lights out’. We never learn why this is. Some might argue that it is in fact not the case, there is a scene later in the film where the father does tenderly tuck the boy into bed, the problem is, the boy isn’t awake, in the world of the film his father still doesn’t love him as much as his siblings. This is just one of a plethora of similar problems, the film argues that bullying as revenge is a legitimate activity, it has a barely present mother whose attitude to her child is also not explained, and if you read the literal painting of a wall with gold as saying something about wealth, it says that money makes families happier.

    These things might all be true, they might even be interesting in the hands of another film for a different audience, perhaps one that is prepared to think about how these things might have come about, but here the broad stroke caricatures of characters make them into a series of problematic events portrayed by characters with little or no motivation. Am I supposed to hate the father because of his nepotism? I do not know because I do not know why it exists. The film’s final moments ‘probably’ see the dark mysterious shadow person of the forest resolve into Mellarks father, who, rather than harming him catches him in an embrace – in doing so the film teaches us that the path to resolution can lay in the imaginary worlds it depicts, implicitly rejecting the ‘get your head out of the clouds’ attitude the film’s most divisive character (the father) adopts in response to his son. The problem is, the issues the film depicts, including a death, could be resolved by doing just that.

    Review: Super 8


    I was going to say that I spent the first half hour of Super 8 wondering if I had watched it before, but the reality is, I spent the whole film thinking this. I hadn’t, but a combination of wilful appropriation of about a million genre clichés and blatantly obvious plot lines made it rather seem like I had. It is not a terrible thing, because it’s a very well made film, and clichés are clichés for a reason (they work) but it rather takes you out of the movie when you can’t help but notice that Speilbergs standard mode of transport for young people is the BMX. Speilbergo is some sort of executive producer on the film, but I think what I think the credit should have said is ‘young person transport organisation’. This probably wouldn’t have had the same sort of pulling power on the cover of the DVD, but a well known name is well known name in the marketing game.

    What the film is though, is a film about film making, which I think speaks to the fact that the people making it are so completely detached from the real world that they no longer have any frame of reference that is not celluloid based. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the future it becomes apparent that the dialogue for Super 8 was mashed up from a couple of hundred classic movies, just a line or two from each so it’s not incredibly noticeable, but I would not have been at all surprised if someone had come out with a ‘they drew first blood’ or ‘you lookin at me?’ at any point. Again, not a bad film, the master film makers involved can’t help but call on years of experience to get you emotionally invested, its just pretending you don’t notice the undercurrent of every other film you have watched that is the difficult part.

    Review: Tokyo Raiders

    Tokyo Raiders is brilliantly good fun. The plot is a little convoluted, there are some bad guys and some good guys and some bad guys who become good guys and good guys who might be bad because they told a lie, but then are good because the lie was actually for a good reason. It is the kind of reluctant buddy movie everyone likes, but with the additional fun element of those buddies having to protect a pretty lady, and having loads of other pretty ladies to help them whenever they need it.

    You know from the first fight though, when unidentified man number one glues his opponents shoes to the ground in order to beat him senseless, that this film isn’t taking itself too seriously. All of the pretty ladies, just by virtue of them being pretty, has a hint of sexism about it, but it’s all played rather knowingly, whenever anyone gets in trouble, it’s a pretty lady who gets them out of it again. There is also some weird stuff going on with nationalities. Everyone sort of ends up having to announce where they are from, where they were born and if they speak the language of the country they happen to be in at the precise moment – the film is set in China, Japan and the USA. There may be some cultural subtleties going that I am not picking up on, but I am pretty sure the film would have worked just as well if it had just been set in one place. Anyway, in spite of these idiosyncrasies, it’s a good fun film, speeds along nicely, and will make you smile most of the way though. Did I mention it has a bmx/skateboard chase, which is possibly the most brilliant action movie chase I have ever seen.

    Review: Bodyguards and Assassins

    Bodyguards and Assassins is a sort of historical epic/ ridiculous fightin movie. Set in the long time ago times (1900 or thereabouts), the revolution in China to overthrow the Qing Dynasty is in its fledgling stages. A group of unlikely allies come together to defend Sun Yat-sen on his short but dangerous trip to Hong Kong to meet the leaders of groups that will go on to become some of the revolutions key players.

    Everyone has different motivations, which means that as much as the film is about the sacrifice of the revolutionaries it is equally about love, honour and friendship. In all its silly depictions of outrageous combat, it’s absolutely unflinching in its portrayal of these themes, if someone has to die to get the notion of sacrifice across, then you can be damn sure they are going to die. This makes it all intensely sad, but rather beautiful at the same time, and the nice thing is that all of this still works perfectly alongside lighter moments.

    I would say it’s a pot boiler, simmering tension releasing in a masterful cavalcade of brilliance at the end, but the reality is that it reaches its peak about fifty minutes before curtains down, and maintains a frenetic pace for that whole time – I am not saying you’ll be exhausted at the end, but you’ll have felt something, and this makes Bodyguards and Assassins one of the best films I have seen in a while.

    Review: Gyo : Tokyo Fish Attack

    Gyo : Tokyo Fish Attack is certainly one of those films that you get to the end of and think ‘well…that happened’. There is an awful lot of weird stuff going on here. I mean, aside from the fish growing metal legs and invading all the major cities of Earth. I mean, it might be a treatise on the global issue of overfishing, but then again, it might be about the dangers of genetic modification, it might all be Americas fault, but then, maybe it is saying war is terrible. One thing is for certain though, as with most good horror movies, having sex is a cardinal sin and no one can blame your friends for abandoning you to your fishy grave when you engage in carnal pleasures. Or can they? 

    The basic premise here is fish, and…octopuses (octopi?) have somehow spouted legs and are invading the land. They obviously want to eat all the humans, or this film would just be about how awesome post invasion sushi became, but more than this, they infect anyone they touch with a terrible virus that condemns them to a big ‘ugly mess’ death. The dominant themes are friendship, love and our moral obligations to each other in the face of a giant fish invasion. But to be honest everything is so unresolved and weird that it could mean anything really. Watch it for the badass sharks eating stuff on dry land then spend a good hour trying to work out what it all meant.