The stealth feminism of San Andreas

by Suw on July 11, 2015

Kevin and I went to see San Andreas last Sunday, a film that I nearly missed because I was in the UK whilst it was running at our local cinema, but which I was so eager to see that I made Kevin drive for an hour so we could catch the closest showing we could find.

As a lapsed geologist, I love anything even remotely geological, and particularly if it involves geophysical hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, or tsunamis. San Andreas thankfully only has two of those and, although I knew its pudding was over-egged, I was still really looking forward to seeing just how scientifically silly it was. I’d read the geological reviews, and was expecting it to be incredibly silly indeed.

I was not disappointed. The majority of the plot, from a scientific standpoint, is ridiculous, although there are a few points which are either plausible or spot on.


I’m not going to get in to a long description of what’s realistic and what’s not, as otherwise we’ll be here all day and others have done it better than I could. Suffice it to say that a Nevada quake could trigger a rupture on the San Andreas fault, but not at that magnitude. The constant aftershocks are a good representation of reality, but the collapsing skyscrapers are not. The advice to ‘drop, cover, and hold on’ is indeed what you should do in an earthquake: Get to the floor, get under something solid, maybe a desk or table, and hold on to it. And whilst drawback is a good way to spot that you’re in deep tsunami schtum, the San Andreas fault cannot produce a tsunami because the two sides are sliding past each other horizontally, not vertically as in a subduction zone. Oh, and in real life, if you’re dead for five minutes after drowning without receiving expert medical care, you’re probably just dead full stop.

The scientific accuracy of the movie was about what I was expecting. What really surprised me was the stealth feminism and the strong parallels with Mad Max: Fury Road.

Yes, you read that right. Feminism. In a movie featuring The Rock. I’m not kidding.

Now the first thing that I want to say is that I entirely disagree with the premise that only women can make feminist art, or that the only feminist art worth making is perfectly feminist art. A movie does not have to be perfect to be good, it does not have to score 100 percent on some feminist purism scale to be worthy of note. So before anyone argues that there’s something unfeminist in the movie which entirely negates my argument, let’s just lay it out: I’m not arguing that this is a perfect feminist movie, I’m saying that it has some laudable feminist aspects which I would like to see a lot more of in other movies (and books and TV and and and).

Right, I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way.

The first item of note in San Andreas is that it is in many ways a predictable action hero movie. It involves Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson staring as Ray, a big manly man with big manly muscles and a big manly career rescuing poor young ladies who’ve ended up stuck in their car after a landslide (and their own lack of attention — tsk, lady drivers) runs them off the road. The main plot of the movie concerns how Ray, a Los Angeles Fire Department Air Rescue pilot, flies his chopper through the disintegrating skyscrapers of LA to rescue his soon-to-be ex-wife, Emma, (who has left him for a one percenter architect, Daniel), and then continues on to San Francisco to rescue their daughter, Blake.

Ray is rather uncomplicated, one-dimensional character, played perfectly by Johnson whom the uncharitable might say specialises in uncomplicated, one-dimensional characters. Ray is a stereotype, and he cleaves to all the action hero tropes: He is big and brave. He has trouble expressing his emotions and loses his wife because of his inability to open up. He rescues people. He redeems the failure in his past, in this case the inability to save his daughter Mallory from drowning by, surprise surprise, saving his daughter Blake from drowning.

And, of course, he heals the rift between himself and his wife, winning back her love through the expediency of having a handy catastrophe of monumental proportions to help him work through his feelings. Never mind the several million people who die, the key thing is that Ray and Emma rekindle their love. So far so tropey.

But what about Emma? Well, we don’t get to see much of Emma. We know that she’s got a pretty shoddy taste in men as you suspect that Daniel, the rich architect dude, is a wanker from the off, and it doesn’t take long for him to confirm that not only is he a wanker, he’s a murderous wanker when his own life is at stake. Where Ray is one dimensional, Daniel is merely a MacGuffin, and the way is clear for him to get knocked off so that Emma can go back to Ray without any emotional complications.

How much more interesting and emotional would it have been for Daniel to have turned out to actually be a lovely, honourable chap, for Emma to have to choose not between dead wanker and live hero, but live hero and live hero? That’s probably a bridge too far for an action movie, but still.

We see that Emma’s good at following instructions, and she certainly manages to go up when everyone else is going down, but apart from that she doesn’t really do very much. However, she doesn’t scream unnecessarily, isn’t ditzy or stupid, appears to hold her own in terms of bravery, so she gets ten out of ten for defying usual action movie wife tropes, but she’s given very little to actually do. She just gets rescued, travels with Ray to San Francisco, and pilots a boat a bit at the end, but other than that, nada really.

So rather like Mad Max: Fury Road is just a very long car chase with a brief lull in the middle, San Andreas is a very long road trip, except it’s mostly by air. And rather like Max, Ray’s story is so simple it almost doesn’t exist. Max helps Furiosa save the Wives, but he is almost always the adjunct, having a grand total of one novel idea —‘Let’s turn round and go back again’ — throughout the entire movie. Ray manages to be a bit more useful, he saves five people throughout the entire movie, but he spends most of his time getting from A to B and dealing with all these sudden feelings he’s having. But his actions do not drive the story forward. He is a reactive character, who spends most of his time dealing with things that are happening to him, making few decisions and none that are surprising.

On the other hand Ray and Emma’s daughter, Blake, gets an awful lot to do. More than any other single character in the movie, it’s Blake who has to think on her feet, come up with ingenious solutions, defy (absent) authority, and put her extensive knowledge of emergency preparedness to the test. And she does this whilst assisting and protecting two male characters, newbie architect Ben and his little brother Ollie.

Blake is incredibly interesting. At the beginning of the movie, it rather seems as if she’s the usual sort of young women that we see in action flicks: She’s sitting by a pool, chatting to her dad on the phone, getting him to do something for her. She’s uncomfortable with her mum’s choice of new boyfriend, but feels some degree of loyalty to her mum and acquiesces to Daniel’s offer to take her up to San Francisco on his private jet.

When the earthquake hits, she and Daniel are in their chauffeur-driven car in the underground garage of his offices when a chunk of masonry kills said chauffeur and trips her legs, so she cannot get out of the car. At this point, I thought we were going to go full stereotype and we’d have screaming woman and slimy Daniel would save her and then we’d watch their flight through the disaster, but no, he’s more interested in saving himself, leaving her there to be Female Helpless Victim.

And sure enough Ben turns up to save her, with his younger brother Ollie in tow. Unable to shift the concrete by hand, Ben uses the car’s jack to lift it up a bit, then lets down the car’s tyres to give Blake just enough room to extricate herself. Nice bit of lateral thinking there, but so far, again, so tropey.

But Blake, it turns out, is not just a capable young women, she is intelligent, resourceful, determined, brave, and well-informed. She’s paid attention to Ray over the years, and knows what to do in an emergency and how to do it. It is Blake, not Ben, who leads the trio ultimately to safety (via her own death, but I’ll come to that later). It is Blake who makes the decisions, and Ben and Ollie who either provide information or support to her. Indeed, when Ben is vacillating over whether to follow her instructions, it is Ollie who says, (paraphrasing), “But Blake’s the one who knows what she’s doing, and she’s saved our arses already, so without her we’re toast.”

Indeed, Blake, Ben and Ollie work well together as a team, with Blake as the clear leader. Blake is the one who knows they need to find a landline to call her parents. Ollie’s the one with the map who directs them to the nearest electronics shop, but Blake’s the one who cobbles together a handset and makes it work.

Although Blake takes Ray’s instructions on where to meet, when Coit Tower turns out to be inaccessible, she’s the one who decides where to go next: to higher ground and Ollie, again, is the one with the map but Blake is the one who knows, when they see an abandoned fire truck that there might be useful supplies. She knows which channel to tune the radio set to.

When Ben is struck by flying glass, Blake shows no squeamishness at all in removing the glass from his leg. There’s no squealing, crying, shouting, screaming or fainting. She does what needs to be done. And when they hear the tsunami warning, she is the one who knows to get up as high as possible, and when they think they’re high enough, she’s the one who gives commands to find water and supplies. She is calm, collected, rational, knowledgeable and very much in command.

Yet there’s no arguments from Ben and Ollie about Blake’s leadership position, other than Ben’s one moment of doubt which is quickly and effectively countered by his younger brother. There’s no stroppiness about being told what to do by a woman, no snark, no sarcasm, no disobedience, no backstabbing, no self-interest. They just get on with it, each doing their best to help each other survive, working together as a team in which each brings their strengths and each can rely on the other.

That depiction of teamwork alone is unusual in a disaster movie. So often we’re given teams in conflict, where one person is working against the others because they are selfish, stupid, greedy or venal. But in San Andreas, everyone except Daniel is likeable, and Daniel is the cartoon sacrificial jerk who has to die. Everyone else gets on with doing what they think they need to do not just to survive, but to save each other.

Mad Max: Fury Road was really Furiosa’s story. She’s the interesting one; she drives the movie forwards; and she takes control of the situation, except when she realises that someone else might do it better.

San Andreas is really Blake’s story. She’s the interesting one; she drives the movie forwards; and she takes control of the situation, except when she’s either physically pinioned inside a car or dead. She makes the decisions; she shows the initiative; and she is the knowledgeable one, the leader.

And, interestingly, Blake takes on this role without surrendering her femininity or character. Furiosa, and similar characters like Aliens’ Ripley, are portrayed as having had to become harder, harsher, colder less empathic, in order to survive. They sacrificed their femininity on the altar of survival and that sacrifice was made off screen, before we even meet them.

Blake, on the other hand, starts the movie as a typical young woman and whilst by the end of the movie she’s been through a lot, what she hasn’t done is shed her femininity as if it were a skin to be sloughed to reveal the ‘real’, more masculine Blake underneath. She’s clearly still herself, clearly still has all the emotional capacities that she had when she started. She hasn’t had to harden, to close off her emotions or reject her humanity, even though she’s seen death and disaster up close.

One area where the script does fail us is in the insistence that Blake has to die in order for Ray to redeem himself. Simply saving her from certain death is not enough, she has to actually die in order for Ray to forgive himself for the death of Mallory, whom we’re told no one could have saved. This is not on. Using the suffering and death of woman as a mechanism to redeem a man reduces that woman to a convenient object. In doing that, San Andreas fails its audience, Blake and Ray himself, who is shown as incapable of dealing with his feelings and making peace with his past without the actual death of his daughter. That’s ugly, no matter which way you cut it.

Blake is, for my money, the most important character in San Andreas from both cultural and feminist points of view. Blake shows us that women can be smart, knowledgable leaders without being ball-breaking bitches. Indeed, they can be strong leaders and be kind, compassionate and caring at the same time. Blake shows us that women can give orders to men without those men breaking down in to faux-masculine outrage, and that women can work hand-in-hand with men to ensure everyone’s success and survival.

Ben, of course, has a part to play in this construction too. He is clearly also smart, resourceful and brave. He has to be, in order to be worthy of Blake’s love. But his reactions to to Blake’s leadership are intelligent and respectful, and they allow Blake to do what she does best.

Interestingly, Ben is British. I wonder if Hollywood thought that a woman telling an American man what to do was too outré for their audience to tolerate, but that British men are far too wimpy for anyone to complain? Well, I’m actually rather proud of the idea that British men are more capable of working closely and successfully with women leaders. I don’t know if that idea reflects reality, mind you, but I think it’s something good to aspire to.

But Blake is important not just because of what she represents, but because of who is most likely to go and see San Andreas. There’s no doubt that action hero movies are written to appeal to men, and sure enough, there were a lot of men in the cinema when we went to see it. And whilst it is incredibly important that girls women see on screen female characters that they can relate to and admire, it is also important that boys and men see smart, resourceful female leaders being treated with respect. And it’s even better if that role model is slipped under their nose almost without them noticing, without engendering a Fury Road-like backlash, so that it’s just normal, unremarkable, like Furiosa’s disability was.

San Andreas is only one film, and it’s far from being a perfect film, but it’s a good, solid step towards normalising the idea that women can be strong, compassionate and successful leaders. More please.

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Warning: Spoilers abound in this post, so if such things bother you, I seriously suggest you bookmark this and come back to it when you’ve seen Fury Road.

[click to continue…]

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Being a scientist by training and a geek by choice, there are a number of Hollywood tropes about scientists and geeks that do rather get on my wick. So here, without further ado, are some real world situations that would never* make it into a Hollywood script.

1. The loner genius
You know that loner genius guy? The one with the crazy theory? The chap who says he can predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions through secret methods that he’s not going to tell anyone? He thinks he’s spurned by the mainstream scientific community because they’re just not ready to accept his genius.

Hollywood: He’s right! And he saves the day with his cockamamy but accurate prediction/solution. 
Reality: He’s just some crazy dude who probably hasn’t understood some small but crucial detail.

2. The nerdie techie and the hot scientist
If you’re male and a geek, you must perforce also wear glasses, have dodgy teeth and no social skills. That’s the only way that the viewer can tell, you see, that they are observing a computer genius at work. If you’re female and a scientist, however, you must be stick-thin and look like a model, with long flowing hair – glasses optional but preferred – as your genius can be second only to your beauty.

Hollywood: We all know how smart people look, right?
Reality: Yes, they look just like everyone else.

3. The warrior-nerd love story
You’re in the middle of a disaster. Aliens have landed, or the earth’s climate has got a snit on, or a volcano has just erupted or zombies are on the loose. What better time to woo that hot nerd chick/fella than when you’re in charge of saving the world? I mean, it’s a certainty, given that you hated him/her on first sight, that by the time you’ve rescued mankind that you would have fallen head-over-heels in love. I mean, nothing says romance like an exploding mountain, right?

Hollywood: If they’re on opposite sides at the beginning, they must have fallen in love by the end.
Reality: If you’re busy saving humanity from $random_disaster, you’re more focused on getting enough sleep and food and generally not dying than flirting with the annoying know-it-all, no matter how big his weapon.

4. Human technology can talk to and defeat alien technology
Aah yes, because finding a zero-day exploit in an alien operating system is as easy as saying One, Two, Hab SoSlI’ Quch!. Understanding how to exploit said zero-day, er, exploit will of course come naturally to our human geek who, within a few keystrokes, will be able to write a virus that cripples all alien technology. Of course.

Hollywood: After a couple of false starts, human geekery and cunning will win over a completely superior technology. 
Really: We can barely get Windows, OSX and Linux playing nicely with one another, so unless Microsoft has a universe-wide monopoly they haven’t told us about, we’re fucked.

5. Human-lava interactions
That whole sinking into lava thing? Not gonna happen. The lavas you find in your basic geological disaster** movie are usually*** of a type that you simply can’t sink into: Humans are just less dense than lava. That doesn’t mean that you can walk over it, mind you, as you are likely to sublimate, catch fire or otherwise combust on, or prior to, contact. Lava is, after all, quite hot.

Hollywood: Arrrgh, I’m sinking!
Reality: I think Eric Klemetti has it nailed.


* For that definition of ‘never’ that also includes ‘rarely’. 
** No pun intended
*** There are some unusual lavas that have low viscosity which behave a bit more like the Hollywood lava, but you’re unlikely to stumble across them in your day-to-day disaster movie.

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The Muppets do Bohemian Rhapsody

by Suw on November 24, 2009

That is all.

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Coraline trailer

by Suw on January 24, 2009

I’m really looking forward to seeing Coraline, one of Neil’s books that’s been adapted for the silver screen by Henry Selick. (No, not Magnum PI. That was Tom Selleck.) It’s out in the US on 6th Feb, you lucky people, but doesn’t get to the UK until May. Meanies. This trailer is wonderful though.

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Regular readers will know that I'm what you might call a bit of a fan of Mr Neil, so it should come as no surprise to discover that I've been rather looking forward to Stardust, the film version of Mr Neil's book of the same name. It's been a while since I last read the book – it's currently packed away in a box in my parents' loft, along with about 75% of all my belongings – but like all Mr Neil's work, it's a book of which I have fond memories.
Unlike the awful mess that has been made of another of my favourite books, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, I never much worried about what the film makers would do to Stardust. Mr Neil was involved, and occasionally gave us snippets of news, so it always felt like the film was in good hands and that the only thing we need do was to sit back and await the day.
Well, the day turned out, in fact, to be a night: Last night. Tom, MrA*, Phil Gyford (whose name I've seen around for ages, but had never met before – seemed like a lovely chap), and I met up at the Odeon Leicester Square and went in for a not-quite-full 8.25pm showing.
OK, so herewith the short review: It's wonderful. Truly, truly wonderful. If you are hesitant about going, then don't be, just go. If you hadn't considered going, then take my word for it and go. And if for any bizarre reason you'd written it off as yet another crappy fantasy film that's not worth your hard earnt readies, then put that thought behind you and go. Because this is a film that will warm the cockles of your heart. It'll make you laugh, make you smile, make you giggle, and make you feel all warm and fuzzy, when it's over you'll wish that it was just beginning.
Now for the long review (and I'll try not to give you any spoilers, but if you're concerned, stop reading now and just go see the film).
Tristan Thorn (the fabulous Charlie Cox) is 18, works in a shop and is hopelessly in love with the beautiful, but shallow, Victoria (Sienna Miller). But Victoria, who never seems to get herself out of her nightie, has got her eye on the more dashing Humphrey, who's more well spoken, gives her roses in comparison to Tristan's rather tatty daffodils, and who is better than Tristan at everything. Especially fencing.
Tristan, in an effort to woo Victoria, takes her on a candlelit picnic, spending all the money he's saved on a bottle of champagne. She's duly impressed by the champers, but drops the bombshell that she's expecting Humphrey to to propose to her on her birthday, in seven days time, with the ring that he's going all the way to Ipswich to buy. Poor Tristan vows that he would go to London – London! – in order to buy a ring good enough for Victoria. He would go to Paris! He would go to the Arctic to kill a polar bear and give her the head! Together, they see a star, falling from the sky and, ever the romantic, vows to find the fallen star and give it to Victoria as a token of his love for her. She gives him a week – until her birthday – to retrieve the star.
Meantime, in Faerie, the land on the other side of the wall for which Tristan's town of Wall is named, the King of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole) is dying. Traditionally, the princes should have assassinated each other, with the last one standing being able to claim the crown. But the trouble is, there are four left – Septimus, Primus, Tertius and Secundus. Well, three, after Septimus pushes Secundus off the King's bedchamber balcony. So the King resorts to magic – he bleaches the red out of the royal ruby and casts it into the sky – the heir that finds the ruby and restores the colour will be king. As the King dies, and his sons set off to find it.
But in falling to earth, the ruby knocks a star from the heavens, and so Tristan's quest and that of the royal heirs is intertwined… But then there are also the witches after the fallen star, and the missing princess and Captain Shakespeare…
I just popped over to Rotten Tomatoes to see what their reviews are, and out of curiosity I read some of the bad ones, and frankly, did these people see the same film I did? (No links – I frankly don't want to give them any Google juice at all.) Apparently, it was poorly cast… let's just review that a second. Robert de Niro as Captain Shakepeare, Claire Danes as Yvaine, Michelle Pfeiffer as Lamia, Mark Heap as Tertius (aaaah, Spaced). Even Charlie Cox as Tristan was fabulous, and I'd never heard of him before.
Another charge was that Stardust had no plot. No plot? Er, hello? Were you asleep? It's got plenty of plot! And no, it doesn't have too much plot, either. It's got enough plot to keep you happy, with enough unexpected turns to keep you interested, but not so much twistiness that you get lots and confused.
My advice? Ignore the bad reviews. They were obviously watching a different movie.
Highlights, then. Michelle Pfeiffer plays evil witch Lamia, who has two sisters, Empusa and Mormo. They want the fallen star for themselves – it has the power to restore their youth and beauty. As it is, they have only the littlest bit left of the last one they caught, so Lamia uses it to recover her looks so that she can go out into the world to get the latest star to fall. Unfortunately, every time she uses her magical powers, it erodes her now good looks, exposing the ugly witch underneath. First to go are her hands, then her hair… and eventually, in one rather hysterically funny scene (probably more to me than most), she casts a spell and her boobs rather precipitously drop.
Robert de Niro plays Captain Shakespeare, the ruthless captain of a lightening-harvesting airship – a ship held aloft by a huge balloon. There's not much I can say about de Niro's performance that wouldn't totally give the game away, but he's fabulous.
Ricky Gervais does a guest turn too. To start with, I was really annoyed – it was Gervais doing Gervais, in a really annoying manner, but his come-uppance is one of the most satisfying moments of the film. Indeed, when Kev and I were walking round the park this morning, we saw a flock of seagulls (that is, a large group of white, sea-going birds, not the 80s band), and Kevin said “Oh look, a flock of Rickies!”
But Claire Danes and Charlie Cox really shine as Yvain and Tristan. They have a real chemistry together, and there are moments when Danes truly shines. As with all fantasy heroes, Tristan has to grow up, has to turn from the self-absorbed boy he was into the man he's destined to become, and Cox handles that transition very subtly. Mind you, he has some help, not least from a haircut that magically (as in, magic is done, not as in 'that was a continuity mistake') makes his hair longer, and the acquisition of a really rather lovely set of clothes.
Tristan Thorn
Indeed, when young Tristan got his new suit, Kev turned to me and whispered “I think I've just had an idea.” Hmm, I had the same idea, and it has to do with what he's going to wear one day in February next year.
Stardust is a really wonderful film. It's got a wry, but subtle sense of humour. It's got real warmth and heart. It's smart, and not scared of being intelligent. But more than that, it's fabulously romantic, the kind of romantic that we need more of – not soppy or schmaltzy, but proper fairytale romance, the sort that's a little bit dark in places, but has a true and faithful heart.
* I'm not sure I should call MrA “MrA” anymore, not after seeing the documentary on Steve Ditko, in which came to light that he did a cartoon called Mr. A, all about someone who saw things in rather too stark a black and white. Maybe it's back to T'Other.

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by Suw on August 5, 2007

I've had an interest in extreme weather events for as long as I can remember. Indeed, I very nearly did a meteorology degree at Southampton University, but had decided that it was just too close to home – only half an hour across the New Forest from where my parents lived. As it was, I opted for a joint geology/chemistry honours degree at Aberystwyth instead, only to find myself transferred to the geology department of the University of Wales, College of Cardiff when Aber's geology department was closed down. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had done meteorology instead.
I've been particularly interested in flooding since reading Richard Doyle's Flood, in which London drowns under 10m of water. It's one of those books where the actual writing style is a bit clich?©d and clunky, and where it would have benefited from being a third of the length, but despite its shortcomings it's a gripping read. Pulp disaster fiction, maybe, but enjoyable stuff.
I had two reactions to Flood when I read it. The first was that I never looked at the London Underground quite the same way again. The second was that I wished I could have adapted it for the big screen. It would be just such a joy to take a book like this, with such potential, and turn it into a first-rate disaster flick.
So it was pretty inevitable that when I saw the headline on the BBC, Review of London's flood defences, that I'd click. Colour me surprised, however, to see this photograph:
Stills from "Flood"
Last I looked, London's never been flooded like that!
Turns out to be a still from the forthcoming disaster filmFlood. Fab! It's got Robert Carlyle in the lead, who I love, and Poirot, er, I mean, David Suchet as the Deputy Prime Minister, but what's more, it's being directed by Tony Mitchell. Mitchell also directed Supervolcano, a two part TV 'docu-drama' looking at what would happen if Yellowstone National Park – which is actually what's called a supervolcano – erupted. I rather liked Supervolcano, it seemed to me to be a pretty well thought-through piece of speculative fiction which was grounded in reality and which had paid attention to detail. I can see why someone like Mitchell would be attracted to a story like Flood.
Watching TV last night, I saw a documentary on flooding in the UK, which happened to include interviews both with Richard Doyle and a guy from the Met Office who, surprisingly to me, seemed to be supporting Doyle's point of view that the Thames Barrier is becoming inadequate and that London really could be at risk of a flood event. But according to that wonderfully reliable source of journalistic purity, The Daily Mail, the 'Environment Agency dismissed it as nonsense, saying: “It may make for a good read but it is not good science.'”
The reaction from the Environment Agency, who are responsible for the Thames Barrier, is slightly strange. On their website they say:

Media reactions to the fictional tale are being compared to the hysteria that swept the United States in 1938, when a radio adaptation of HG Wells' War of the Worlds saw Americans gripped by panic at the thought of martian invaders devastating their country.

Really? Where? The press release is dated 1 August, just a few days ago, but I can't say that I've seen any media hysteria over this film. Indeed, I've had to look pretty hard to find any sort of reaction at all in the media, and have found only the stuff on the BBC and The Daily Mail. That's hardly a media frenzy, now, is it? Unless you count the East London Advertiser (nice photos there, by the way).
The Environment Agency then say:

As a result of the interest, Lionsgate and the Environment Agency have resolved to work together to highlight the actions that people can take in the face of real-life flood events and to reassure London of the Thames Barrier’s efficiency.
In reality, a team of Environment Agency engineers and operations staff at the Thames Barrier work continuously to ensure that this type of scenario remains firm fiction, with most recent modelling showing that the Barrier can withstand expected flood pressures for many years to come.
The possibility of London’s defence structures succumbing to a major flood is currently estimated at having a 1:2000 or 0.05 per cent chance of occurring. The last major flood was a 1:300 event in 1953 and it was this event that led to the construction of the Barrier.
Steve East, Thames Barrier technical support team leader said: “The recent flooding and heavy rains in Britain will have made people more aware of the dangers of extreme weather. In fact, our current modelling already takes into account the many different factors that contribute to tidal flooding including weather conditions, fluvial flows and known tidal cycles.
“Even with all of the possible worst case scenario statistics included, our calculations can not be combined to create a wave that could pass over the top of the Thames Barrier. The defences that we have in place can presently cope with the worst that can realistically be thrown at it, but of course it is right that we plan for the future, to ensure that this level of protection is at least maintained in the decades to come. The Thames Barrier protects 125 square km of central London ‚Äì encompassing 1.25 million people and an infrastructure valued at ¬£80bn.”
The Thames Barrier does not stand alone as a defence system – rather it is part of an integrated system of defences stretching from Teddington in west London, to Shoeburyness in the outer estuary. The estuary is also protected by over 300 km of floodwalls, embankments and numerous small gates and barriers. London’s flood defences compare with some of our European neighbours such as Italy where for example, flood protection in Venice is also being designed to 1:1000 year level. Defences in other major cities such as St Petersburg are also designed to the same level.
Producer Justin Bodle said: “The best way to create a programme about an unpredictable scenario like this one is to work with the real-life experts. The Thames Barrier is a structure admired the world over for its efficiency and resilience. Our production may be a work of fiction but it has served to highlight the challenges and investment needed to maintain effective flood management programmes in the UK.”

So the Met Office say on TV that the Barrier is getting on a bit and needs to be reassessed, and the EA are saying that all's well, and Lionsgate will say whatever they've agreed to say. I find it rather disturbing that the EA should react to the release of Flood by immediately going on the defensive, especially when there actually are causes for concern. London is sinking and sea level rising; the Barrier was designed after the 1953 floods and so isn't cutting edge anymore; and a report by the London Assembly's Environment Committee into flooding in the Thames Gateway found 1.25 million people living in areas at risk from flooding, 5% of East London defences in “poor or very poor condition”, and that flood planning is inadequate. I find it even stranger that the EA and Lionsgate should form an agreement to 'work together'. Perhaps it was a condition of their being able to film in the Thames Barrier itself. If so, that's more than a little distasteful to me.
But back to the BBC article that set all this off:

Westminster's head of contingency planning, Brian Blake, said: “Central London is very well protected thanks to the Thames Barrier to the east and Teddington Weir to the west.
“But given the uncertainty created by climate change and the intensity of some of the downpours we've had recently, it is only prudent to review our plans.”

In my opinion, it's only wise to ensure that London's flood defences are up to snuff, but that's something to be determined by the evidence, not through media posturing and press releases. Saying that the Barrier is fine doesn't make it so – I want to see the evidence. Equally, Richard Doyle has done a fair amount of research but he's published only his conclusions, and not his sources, so it's hard to see if he's on the money or grasping at the wrong end of the stick.
Anyway, back to the film. Here's another still I found:
Stills from "Flood"
The trailer is on the official Flood site, although I can't find it on YouTube so I can't embed it, sorry.
Unlike The Dreck, sorry, Dark is Rising, I fully expect Flood-the-film to be a good adaptation of Flood-the-book, not necessarily because the source material is as good as Susan Cooper's books, but because I don't see any evidence that Mitchell has messed about with essential elements of the story in the way that Cunningham did. I fully expect Flood-the-movie to be a fun romp, with some great special effect and possibly, even, a better plot than the book, although we'll have to see whether I'm right or not.
Either way, I'm looking forward to seeing it on the big screen!

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The Seeker: The Dreck is Still Rising

by Suw on August 2, 2007

Walden Media have changed the name of their abominable adaptation of The Dark Is Rising to “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising”, and have reposted a new version of the trailer to YouTube. Conveniently, this gets rid of all the comments from the old one, so I suggest that if you're as unhappy about this movie as I am, go rate it low and leave a comment expressing your feelings.

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I don't think I've ever got so wound up by the film adaptation of a book that I've found myself struggling to express myself. But from what I've read today about David L Cunningham's adaptation of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, the second book in the eponymous sequence, well, I'm horrified almost to the point of muteness.
I first read The Dark is Rising sequence when I was about 19 or 20, introduced to them by someone I met at university. They didn't form a major part of my childhood (I was more into Asimov than CS Lewis), but as an adult I loved them. They are a series of books that I take great care not to read too often, because I like to try and forget them in between readings so that I'll experience the thrill of discovery each time. Of course that doesn't entirely work, but I try. And I only ever read them in winter – in an ideal world, I time it so that I'm reading The Dark is Rising in the run up to Christmas so that I can wring as much atmosphere out of it as possible.
Last year, through December and January, Kevin and I read the five books together, reading aloud to each other before bed. He loved them as much as I do, and it was just lovely to watch him experience the key revelations along the way – I'll never forget the moment he realised who Professor Merriman Lyon really is, or who Bran is.
And I'm not the only one who holds these books in high esteem. Cooper won the Newbery Medal in 1976 for The Grey King, and was the only recipient of the Newbery Honor in 1974 for The Dark is Rising. Indeed, Cooper has a quiet but loyal following, and it looks like most of us are utterly dismayed at the reports we're getting of what Cunningham and screenwriter John Hodge have done to these wonderful books.
Now, I'm not going to get into the whole thing about Cunningham's religion or attitude towards the truth, nor am I going to discuss his past films – none of which I have seen. I am going to admit to dismay at the thought that part of the reason why he might have butchered this adaptation is so that it fits in with his own religious beliefs, but that's as far as I'll go. Bellatrys does a good job of examining this over on LiveJournal, and I think she's better placed than I to comment.
I am surprised, though, that John Hodge should be involved in the adaptation of what are definitely children's books – or maybe we could say 'young adult' if you really want to get picky. This is a man better known for his work on edgy, disturbing and gritty films like Shallow Grave or Trainspotting, or the black comedy of A Life Less Ordinary. Hardly classic children's stories, unless you like scaring the bejeesus out of your children. Although I'm sure some would accuse him of being familiar with how to butcher an otherwise good book, The Beach. I've neither read the book nor seen the film, so I couldn't possibly say. Still, an odd choice.
What I find disturbing, from all of the stuff that I've read and the trailers that I've seen, is the total disregard for the source material. I understand very well that you need to change things to translate a book into a film. Books are very good for telling you what someone is thinking and feeling, but films need to show you. So sometimes you need change scenes from 'tell' to 'show' in order to make it work. Or maybe you need to cut out some of the less important scenes and some of the back story in order to keep the film to a reasonable length. All this I understand.
What I do not understand is why you would take a really gripping story, with sympathetic and well-developed characters, and which has some wonderful mythology underpinning it, and strip out all the stuff that makes it good.
If you haven't read The Dark is Rising (book), it's about an 11 year old English boy, Will, who suddenly discovers that he is the last of the Old Ones of the Light, and that he must find the Six Signs to help the Light in their battles against the Dark. (The battles span five books, so this is just a step on the way, not the final confrontation.) Will is helped by the oldest of the Old Ones, Merriman Lyon, and must deal with the Dark Rider, who tries at every turn to stop Will completing his quest. You've got lots of Arthurian stuff in there (including Merriman/Merlin and the Lady – possibly of the Lake, although that's never explicitly stated), lots of local British folklore, such as Herne the Hunter, Wayland Smith, and the idea of 'old ways' – roads as old as time and with magical properties.
Most importantly of all, is Will's character and background. A quiet, reflective boy who seems a lot older than his 11 years, Will is the seventh son of a seventh son. His family is big, but loving. His parents are kind, intelligent, fair-minded and thoughtful, and the family is painted as stable, supporting, and principled, but fun and rumbustious too. Will struggles to grasp the importance of his role, but he loves his family and when they are threatened, he goes all out to save them (oh, and the world).
This is all pretty much removed from the film. Will is a brattish blond American 13 year old, with “emotionally unavailable” parents, siblings who bully him, and a brother, Max, who's been corrupted by the Dark. Indeed, the family has been fucked up beyond all recognition – with Mary, Will's sister, becoming his mother, his older sister Gwen becoming his younger sister, his dad becoming Roger instead of John, and the introduction of a twin (I'm not sure where the twin comes into this – is the twin Max? There are twins in the original, but Will wasn't one of them). And all the Arthurian stuff has gone, along with the folklore, and suddenly the climactic battle is no long one fight in a longer war, but the final banishment of the Dark.
So instead of all the cool mythology, we've now got Will accused of shoplifting, blowing up a car, a big fight with snakes, a karate fight on a cart in a Viking village, a love interest… Oh, and I nearly forgot. There's a giant snow globe. Right, that'll help.
Authorblog has a comprehensive list of changes that have been made, as ascertained from clips, interviews and articles, and links to all the sources. Frankly, by the time I got to the end of the list – which is very long indeed – I had lost the heart to click on all the links.
If I could see any reason why those would improve on the book, I think I'd be ok with it. But they just don't. One otherwise dreadful article about the film says:

A joke among the journalists covering The Dark Is Rising set visit in Bucharest over the last couple of days was that the movie has only changed three things from the Newberry-winning novel on which it’s based: they’ve changed the lead kid’s nationality from English to American, they’ve changed the lead kid’s age from 11 to 14, and they’ve changed everything that happens in the story.

This isn't the end of it though. It seems that hardly any of the cast have bothered to read the original books, nor are they fussed that the books are being trashed. Ian McShane, who plays Merriman Lyon says:

Ian McShane: I don't think they've been very faithful to the book. I don't know how many of you've read the book. I know they sold a few copies, but I couldn't read it very well. It's really dense. It's from the 70s, you know? […]
Where [sic] you familiar with the books before signing on to this?
Ian McShane: No, I never heard of them. I did try to read the book, but they were a little…I think…I don't know how…There's four of them apparently. Or five. Oh, god. That means I might have to do a sequel.

It's hard to tell how much of this is down to McShane being bad at doing interviews, or whether he genuinely couldn't give a rat's arse.
But let's just rewind a little. Ian McShane? No offence, but Merriman Lyon is supposed to be white-haired, hawk-nosed man, the eldest of the Old Ones, he has a timeless, ageless quality to him. He's Will's mentor, old and wise, but still fallible.
Ian McShane is short (5' 9″), black-haired, and about as timeless as a yesterday's Metro. Worse, to many Brits of the right age to be Dark is Rising fans, he's Lovejoy. A cheeky scamp of a dodgy wide-boy antiques dealer whose best mate was an alcoholic called Tinker. But let me be clear. It's not that I don't like McShane – he's great in what little Deadwood I've seen – but he's totally wrong for this part.
On the other hand, the choice of Christopher Eccleston as the Rider is a very good bit of casting. The rest of it, I'm not sure about.
I'm relieved to ay that it's not just me who's pissed off at this. Other fans are just as upset. Ragnell is unhappy:

So, the thoughtful, introverted youngest member of the Old Ones? Our gentle little hero who was loaded with ancient power despite all appearances to the contrary? The guy who was responsible and thoughtful and didn't waste his power in showy displays? Gone! Replaced by a Harry Potter clone!
Oh, but they changed all the surface stuff that would make people mistake him for Harry, but they went ahead and took Will's unique personality and exchanged it for the more popular boy's so they could clone Harry Potter but not be accused of cloning Harry Fucking Potter.
You know, I hate to be one of those fans who gets mad whenever they change any little thing about a book I loved, but seriously, this sounds like mass-produced shit that's trying to capitalized on the Potter popularity. They're killing this book, dammit. Killing it (And yes, you can quote that for your fan entitlement rants, thank you very much.)

Soyo is too:

With everything I'm reading about The Dark is Rising, not much but the barest shreds of the book are left alive. Will is American instead of English, 14 instead of 11 (and not the youngest in his family!), an outcast instead of an alarmingly normal kid, worried about girls instead of… not seeming to notice girls exist. Also, he apparently has an evil twin. There's less emphasis on British folklore, almost no Arthurian elements left, and the magic's flashy instead of subtle. The Stantons don't get along as much as they do in the book, and Robin and Paul sound like Fred and George 2: Electric Boogaloo. There's some glowy teenage girl with eyeliner on the poster. There are also mentions of a scene with evil mall cops. Let me repeat that: EVIL MALL COPS. I just… what? Oh, and it's all modern.
The thing is, I can see changing almost any one of these things, or adding in any of these things that are… additiony… but altogether it gets to be a little much. No, really, just watch!
[…] In conclusion? It's like they were working with a copy of the book that had been mostly eaten by termites. Some of the names are the same, and that's about it. And what bothers me more than that they're changing so many things? It's the way they're taking every Hollywood cliche available and packing it into the spaces left.

The comments on MTV's Movies Blog are universally unhappy, as are many of the threads and comments over on Walden Media's forums, where we are treated to what appears to be a wonderful display of astroturfing (that is, faking grassroots approval). Oh, and here's the official site, which appears to include a name change to “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising”, like that'll do any good.
I can't imagine how on earth Susan Cooper could possibly be happy with what's been done to her creation, but sadly it doesn't matter if she's happy or not. Authors generally don't get to be involved in the process of turning their book into a film, and there's little to nothing one could do if they objected to what was happening.
Ah, there's so much more I could say about this, but I'm going to stop now before I plunge myself into chronic depression. Here's the trailer. Watch it and weep.

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Day Watch

by Suw on July 22, 2007

In the autumn of 2005, I was out on a second date with a rather lovely American guy that I'd met a month or so before. That Sunday, we'd arranged to meet for lunch – which is always a fairly safe bet for a second date, given that one can make up an afternoon engagement if one needs to escape. But lunch went well, and we went for a wander around Covent Garden, had dinner, and finally found ourselves on Shaftesbury Avenue outside the Curzon Soho. Some Russian film called Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) was playing, about which I knew precisely nothing, other than that the poster looked quite cool. (Although, I suspect that, at that point, I would have agreed to see anything if I thought it meant I could spend more time with my American companion.) My companion knew only that it had vampires in it.
Now, truth be told, I was focusing a little more on the physical proximity of said American – the way that he held my hand, and the way I could hide my face in his clothes if a potentially scary bit came up – than I was the film. Yet, despite the distraction, we both really enjoyed Night Watch. I was struck by the cinematography, the fabulous subtitles, and the almost incomprehensible yet still entertaining plot.
Last week, my American and I were invited to a press screening of Day Watch (Dnevnoi Dozor), the sequel to Night Watch and second film of the trilogy that will be completed by Dusk Watch (Sumerechnyi Dozor) (listed on IMDb as 'Twilight Watch'). The films are adaptations of Sergei Lukyanenko and Vladimir Vasiliev's novels, are directed by Timur Bekmambetov.
Day Watch
Svetlana enters the 'gloom', the netherworld into which the Dark escape from the scenes of their crimes.
So… the Earth is a battleground for the forces of Light and Darkness, who are held in check since medieval times by a truce. The night is ruled by the powers of Darkness, but the Light's Night Watch is always there to ensure that the Dark doesn't overstep the mark. Similarly, the day is ruled by the forces of the Light, but their power is constrained by the Dark's Day Watch. The Others are people who live amongst us humans, but who have supernatural powers – psychics, vampires, witches and sorcerers. And thus Light Other and the Dark Others live in a fragile harmony.
SPOILER WARNING – There might be some… that's all I'm saying.
In Night Watch, we met Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), an Other who comes to the attention of the Light after hiring a witch to terminate his ex-girlfriend's pregnancy by another man and make her love him again. Just before the witch completes her spell, members of the Night Watch burst in and stop her. Twelve years later, Anton meets Svetlana (Maria Poroshina), a woman with a sort of magic vortex that brings disaster to everyone around her. And then there is the boy Yegor (aka Egor in the press materials, Dima Martynov aka Dmitri Martynov), who could become a Great Other for either side, depending on who gets to him first.
By the time we get to Day Watch, Yegor has chosen to side with the Darkness and Sveta has turned out to be the Light's Great Other. Anton has fallen in love with Sveta but is, in typical bloke-ish manner, pretending he hasn't. Moscow, meantime, remains blissfully unaware that anything's going on at all.
But things take a turn for the worse when Anton is framed by the Day Watch for murder, and has to go into hiding, swapping bodies with Olga (Galina Tyunina). Sveta and Yegor are both getting stronger as they learn how to use their powers, but we're told that they can never meet, or the ages old truce would be broken, and war resumed. The only thing that can save the world from the Armageddon that would ensue is the Chalk of Fate, which can be used to rewrite history.
Day Watch is just as beautifully shot as its predecessor and is rich with glorious cinematography and CGI. It has hints of The Matrix in it, and somehow manages to meld the best of the Hollywood action thriller with an international arthouse cult sensibility, never becomes as trite and vapid as Hollywood, nor as pretentious, worthy and miserable as arthouse cinema can be. Instead, Day Watch wraps you up in its reality, immersing you in this parallel Moscow and barrelling through the streets at dizzying speed.
I really loved both Night Watch and Day Watch – they really appeal to the vampire lover in me, although there's actually very little that's vampiric about the second film. Yegor has some fun with hollow needles, and Anton gets his drink spiked with blood, but that's about it. Nonetheless, the supernatural goings on are exciting anyway, particularly the one that sees Alisa (Zhanna Friske) drive a red Mazda up the side of a building, parking it neatly through a window on, I'd guess, the 16th floor.
The plot, though, does get a bit convoluted and confusing at times. I found this with Night Watch too, that I would have sudden moments where I'd suddenly think “Eh? What just happened?”, but I had assumed that Kevin, my adorable American, had simply distracted me at a crucial moment and that I'd missed something. I was concentrating much harder in Day Watch, though, and still had moments where I wondered what on earth was going on. But the film moves fast enough that you're soon swept away again, even after the strange and incongruous Timotei ad-like sequence in the middle.
But you forgive all that for the fabulous finale. There are many ways that Armageddon could be brought about – flood, fire, earthquakes, alien invasion, killer cockroaches, rage-infected monkeys, a plague of boy bands that cause everyone who hears their insipid whinings to immediately commit suicide. The list is infinite. But I've never seen Armageddon brought on by a ________. Very, very impressive, and well worth the price of admission. (And no, I'm not going to tell you what. That really would be a spoiler!)
Again, the subtitles were a work of art. I remember being astonished at how much thought went into the subtitles for Night Watch – the text itself moves and changes colour and shape to emphasis certain words. In Day Watch, I thought that the subtitles seemed a bit more subdued than in Night Watch, but my friends told me afterwards that they weren't. Regardless, the subtitles actually add something to the film, they don't just give meaning to the Russian dialogue, they also add to the feel of the film, the style, the atmosphere.
Thus it is with horror that I see on IMDb that, because Fox Searchlight is co-financing Dusk Watch, it's going to be filmed in English. Please, don't do this to us, Fox. –ù–æ—á–?–æ–? –¥–æ–?–æ—Ä and –î–?–µ–?–?–æ–? –¥–æ–?–æ—Ä are Russian films, that's why they have Russian names, and they are better for it – the characters have more complexity and nuance than some their equivalents in the West. I mean, I love The Matrix and all, but Neo has all the depth of a puddle. Don't ruin Dusk Watch by turning it into a formulaic Hollywood piece of shit summer blockbuster. Film it in Russian, give us the subtitles, and if you must, dub it for your multiplex audience, just don't ruin it for those of us who love to see films in their original language, just as their director intended.
Indeed, in the press pack, director Timur Bekmambetov says:

‚ÄúUnlike in America, there were no fantasy movies shot in Russia before this one. But in reading the book, I suddenly realized Sergei had managed to distill magic and miracles, the transcendent and the supernatural, into our way of life. I found that the story really was something special because in it, fantasy not only meets reality ‚Äì but Russian reality ‚Äî and it‚Äôs the first Russian movie that has this unique point of view. The story takes place in the real world, in real Russian life, but it‚Äôs also fantastical.”

Dusk Watch won't feel like real Russian life, it won't take place in the real world, if everyone's speaking English.
So… the trailer! (Note: subtitles are nothing like the ones in the film itself.)

Sadly, I haven't been able to find Day Watch listed at any cinemas in the UK, and it's unclear what the release date is – some sites say it came out on 1 June, but comments on YouTube indicate it's not out til 1 October here.
The release date is 5th October, and if you like your films dark, fantastical and with a wry sense of humour, then Day Watch is a fine way to spend a couple of hours. Do make sure that you've seen Night Watch first, though – Day Watch won't entirely make sense if you haven't. If you can't find a copy, then you could do worse than read the synopsis over on Moria, (although you have to scroll down past a bunch of annoying Google ads to get to it).
Fox Searchlight have put a ton of Day Watch-related stuff up on their official site, too, with a fair few number of photos, vidoes, reviews, etc. Not an awful site, I suppose, but no blog. Dear lord, why no blog? This is the sort of cult hit that really needs a blog! Plus there's quite a bit up on YouTube, so there's plenty to keep you occupied until Day Watch hits a cinema near you.

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A twisted love story

June 15, 2007

It's really hard to describe David Mackenzie's new film, Hallam Foe, without missing out something really vital. The story of a soon-to-be 18 year old boy who's still struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother, Hallam has retreated from the world and views it almost exclusively via binoculars, spying on his […]

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Flagpole Sitta

May 1, 2007

I don't know if posting videos is sort of cheating on my whole 'will blog daily' thing… but this one is so fab you really have to see it. (Thanks John!) Lip Dub – Flagpole Sitta by Harvey Danger on Vimeo Later… Whilst I was googling for Harvey Danger to see if it really is […]

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March 15, 2007

Last Friday I had the good fortune to be invited to see Sunshine, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's new movie, along with a bunch of other bloggers and film website reviewers. We have been asked not to officially review the film, because there are still press previews to be done and they didn't want piss […]

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Shorn of the Dead

March 5, 2007

The trailer for Black Sheep is disturbing on so very many levels… but yet I can't wait to see it. Should I worry what that says about me? (Thanks for the heads-up, Dan.)

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Caught by the Hot Fuzz

February 6, 2007

Last night, ten days ahead of general release, I was lucky enough to see Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost's latest masterpiece, Hot Fuzz. I haven't really managed to keep abreast of the Hot Fuzz pre-release news, despite being on their mailing list (god knows how far down in my inbox those emails got […]

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