What Do Women Want and Why Won’t They Tell Us?

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Ever since Eve pointed at a divine red delicious and Adam snaffled the apple for himself, relations have been frosty between men and women. Innumerable sleepless nights have been given over to wondering, “Women: what do they want and how can we give it to them?” Of all the things to have been spawned from a single rib, women are surely the hardest to please.

Turns out, different women want different things. This may seem obvious now, but just like the discovery of gravity by Isaac Newton and electricity by Benjamin Franklin, acquiring groundbreaking knowledge about the fairer sex was a process as painful as childbirth (probably).

The 2000 release of Mel Gibson rom-com What Women Want marked the dawn of a new era in inter-gender relations. Forget Simone De Beauvoir, throw out your Mary Wollstonecraft. The entertainingly frothy What Women Want is the foundation of female liberation in the 21st century, and, naturally, it’s all thanks to a man who’s granted the gift of hearing women’s thoughts.

The film opens with an ex-wife gushing over her former spouse as the zenith of masculinity. According to the misty-eyed divorcee, he’s “a man’s man”, which sounds like a euphemism akin to “batting for the other team,” but it’s not. Whoever this guy is, he’s the opposite of gay. He’s straight and he likes his women like he likes his coffee: by the bag-full, instant, etcetera, etcetera.

Nick Marshall is the man, myth and legend. His secretary (Sarah Paulson) warns an incoming colleague that Marshall is the “least politically correct guy.” Enter Mel Gibson as Marshall, an Ad Man in Chicago whose recurring creative motif is to depict a bikinied lady holding whichever product his company is trying to sell. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

As Marshall winks at hotties and shuns the notties, his ex-wife fills in the blank of his past. Marshall’s mother was a showgirl in Vegas, and as a result he grew up in the dressing rooms abundant with glamorous beauties, all of whom became Marshall’s bosom buddies. This charmingly presented back-story is supposed to account for Marshall’s behavior, though not all chauvinists were raised in showgirls’ dressing rooms: some merely walk through them without permission in later life.

Unlike 50s pop songs about young girls developing into women and aging well, What Women Wants has aged well, and is rather perky for a rom-com that’s 17-years-old. This is because Marshall’s dinosaur character is sadly not extinct, and he makes for a compelling anti-hero at the start of the film. He’s a rich bad-dad bachelor, whose frequent wiggling of sunglasses, deep voice, and over-the-top facial expressions count as charisma. Marshall is a man who believes his own myth, and alas, his utter self- conviction means that others buy into it too, men and women alike. Annoying it may be, but it’s also believable.

After the pride comes the fall. Dressed in all black like a strutting sexist raven,  Marshall crows to everyone at the office about his upcoming promotion. But when he meets with Dan Wanamaker (Alan Alda), the company CEO, Marshall learns that the Creative Director role he covets has been given to somebody else, and to add insult to injury, she’s only a woman: Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt).

Things take a humorous turn when Marshall goes home to lick his wounds and gets absolutely blotto. Glugging merlot, he declares “There’s too much oestrogen on TV these days. The cure is Frank.” Frank isn’t the street name for testosterone, it’s what Marshall calls kindred spirit Frank Sinatra. Ol’ Blue Eyes fills the apartment, and Marshall proceeds to give a genuinely impressive drunken dance routine for the benefit of nobody but his shadow.

The big band music of Sinatra and his peers soundtracks the entirety of What Women Want. Not only are the songs catchy and light, but they also reveal the kind of intoxicating nostalgia that Marshall holds as a credo; a longing for the days gone-by when women were broads, and everything was in black-and-white (a mindset to which Mel Gibson might possibly relate). Having been tasked by McGuire to develop an advertising campaign for women, Marshall grapples with both modernity and various products made for women, including stockings, nail varnish, bath beads, and a wonderbra. He samples them all at once in a drunken rite of passage.

In what is essentially an inverse of the glass ceiling phenomenon, Marshall slips on the female-friendly bath beads scattered on the floor, dragging the hairdryer into the bath, having just uttered, moments before, the magic words: “What Do Women Want?” Perhaps his sudden demise, one might venture.

When he wakes up frazzled the next day, somehow still alive, Marshall has acquired an incredible ability/curse: he can hear the inner-most thoughts of women, and also, French poodles (gentle xenophobia or sexism—you decide!)

The viewer hears what only Marshall can hear, and delights in his maddening isolation. Director Nancy Meyers, whose credits include Something’s Got To Give and, most recently, The Intern, does a good job of making sure the various streams of consciousness don’t overwhelm each scene. The script is funny for the most part, and the majority of the film’s best lines come from the inner-thoughts of random women wandering past Marshall, biting their tongue but articulating their scorn. It’s effective and entertaining, owing something of its flavour to the subtitled scenes of Annie Hall.

Marshall is taken aback by how many women think he’s a low-life chauvinist, bringing to mind a line from The Office: “How can I hate women, my Mum was one?” For the first time in his life he is forced to pay attention to his female colleagues’ situations. Among the plethora of problems is his secretary’s feeling undervalued (she long-distance calls her Israeli boyfriend from the office as revenge) and a mousey administrative assistant who internally toys with the idea of suicide.

Hearing about the woes of women is too much for Marshall and he seeks to re-electrocute himself back to normality. When this doesn’t work he pays a visit to his old marriage counsellor, played by Bette Midler. Initially sceptical, she enthuses over his new ability: “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars and you speak Venusian,”basically making him a high-level Scientologist without paying full fees. The counsellor continues: “Freud went to his grave asking himself ‘What do women want?'” This is something of poetic licence on the part of Josh Goldsmith’s script; Freud’s last question was more likely, “Where can I score some coke?” Still, it’s an amusing shrink scene.

Enlightened to the scope of his powers, Marshall becomes a dirty thought perve, spying on all the ladies’ thoughts to his own advantage. He manipulates his estranged daughter into liking him, women into sleeping with him, and his boss into admiring his ideas; in fact, he swipes McGuire’s ideas from the cusp of her synapses, abusing her understandable hesitancy in the male-dominated advertising industry.

What Women Wants certainly has its blind spots. There is one person of colour with a speaking line, and she’s hyper-sexualised, so the film’s more about what white women supposedly want, and middle class ones at that. Incredibly, in this regard, What Women Want makes Mad Men look like an example of positive discrimination in action.

Then again, there are a few PC delights buried within; not least Mel Gibson saying “I’m gay,” like a real man’s man, and another quick moment where he thanks his secretary’s Jewish boyfriend for the gift of a Yarmulke. Gibson treats aside, the film peddles a blatant untruth about women that shouldn’t be tolerated in the 21st century; whenever a woman kisses Marshall, the woman kicks up one leg like a horse that’s just been fed a sugar cube. When will the world be free of this cinematic cliché?

The overall message of What Women Want is in some ways a little depressing. After all, it takes an extraordinary, fictional power in order for one idiot man to overcome his sexism and gain some empathy. In this way, there’s a Christmas Carol element to What Women Want, though instead of cooking a big turkey for the women of the world, Marshall settles on dolling out some respect instead. The film heads towards an ending that is both progressive yet dissatisfying, perhaps an appropriate parallel with the achievements of the feminist movement. Is this as good as it gets? Let’s hope not.

Slaters: Crossing The River Styx

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Photo: Sarah McKiernan

If you’re not drunk, you’re not ready for Slaters. Come with mates. The bigger the group, the better. Ideally, you’ll all be between the ages of sixteen and twenty, freshly tipsy from a few hours of pre-drinking. The night doesn’t begin at Slaters, but it can be made there.

Slaters is a small bar in Liverpool. Of Slater Street, without the apostrophe. It’s got a vague claim of Irish heritage but no pride in the claim. It’s situated in the thick of it, a stone’s throw away from the Seel Street nightclubs: Heebie Jeebies, Peacocks and La’Gos. This measurement of distance is not an approximation, it’s been empirically verified by the punters who frequent Slaters.

To enter Slaters sober is to see things you should never see. You see these things when you’re drunk too, but inebriation does wonders for lowering the standards of your own humanity. As Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys once sang, “you couldn’t have done that on a Sunday.”

The correct mode of entrance is the stumble. Up three or four steps, depending on how good your counting is. Flash the I.D. to the heavies on the door, a nervy moment if you’re borrowing a faded out passport with someone else’s face on it. Everyone has their own method, but I personally liked to memorise not only the name and birth date on the passport but the corresponding star sign. Sometimes I even made up a little titbit about the middle name.

“Can you believe my Mum was thinking of calling me Gerald? Thank fuck it’s just me middle name.”

The bouncer doesn’t care. He’s too busy perving on girls from the vantage of the top step. Girls in tiny dresses wearing skyscraper stilettos, lathered in makeup and St. Tropez fake tan. Most have got the thick Scouse brow, and their fake eyelashes are so extensive that they could qualify as prosthetic limbs. Cleopatra can’t touch a Scouse girl on a night out.

You step through the door. You’re in. When you’re not yet 18, getting into a bar using someone else’s I.D. is the sweetest victory life can offer. When you’re over 18, you’d do anything to recapture the feeling, the swell of energy, immediately pushed down lest you give yourself away. Play. It. Cool.

After the adrenaline of getting in, your senses adjust. Heat. Too much of it. Bodies packed around you. Strange smells that can’t be identified. TV screens with the horse racing on. Why? You’re in no state to find out. Apparently some people don’t treat Slaters as their River Styx – the jumping point to a night on the tiles – but as their final destination. Such people lost their way long ago.

You head towards the bar in the next room. Go left and you have to push past a wall of people. Go right and you have to take an interior bridge adjacent to the toilets. You go right and catch sight of the door-deprived bathroom. The so-called urinal is a trough filled with assorted vomit.

Instead of taking this as a warning, a metaphorical sign-post labelled “Go No Further”, for some reason you’ve now got an urgency to go deep into the dark woods of depravity, to stay the night at the rickety mansion in the middle of nowhere of your soul. Onwards Christian soldier: here we fucking go.

The bar is in sight and the jukebox rings out. Thin Lizzy or The Strokes. As you mill past bodies towards your destination, your shoulders get wet. We’re in the splash zone, and drinks are flying. You spot your mates eking their way forward to the bar and urge them on with a nod. You spot the dickhead from school. Depending on your drunken disposition, he’s either the worst person in the world or he’s actually, not a bad lad, really, if you think about it.

You get the nod to order. Finally, the reason we’re all here: the quadvod. That’s four shots of vodka for four English pounds, plus a mixer of your choosing. Four shots. Four pounds. Mixer. You get it, right? They don’t have a “College of Knowledge” sign on the wall for nothing. The source of all knowledge sloshes before you.

Slaters was not built for these times, or indeed, any times. Previously served in one receptacle, the quadvod is now split between two smaller glasses and accompanied by a larger glass, which is empty. It is illegal for the barstaff to serve the quadvod as was originally intended. If you want to spend the night at the rickety, haunted mansion that’s up to you, they’re merely handing you the keys to your own downfall.

And there will be a downfall, be sure of that. Come tomorrow morning, the hangover will be awe-inspiring. A quadvod is essentially a haemorrhage in a glass. “Smooth, fresh, delicious.” All vodka adverts on TV should end with the narrator being forced to down three shots before repeating the promises of taste quality to the nation. “Smooth, fresh, delicious.” But tomorrow morning is an abstract concept, and you sip away at the concoction disguised slightly by a Red Bull mixer.

You trot down the winding metal staircase to the basement. The floor is sticky and the ceiling is low and all your friends are there. You huddle together and swap stories and make jokes and drink drinks. Smiles abound as the headiness kicks in. Someone starts to sway to a tune, another is already slumped on a chair with sleepy eye-lids flittering. You know it won’t be long until you all head out to Heebie Jeebies to dance to some Motown classics.

Before you leave you spot a photo being taken in the corner of the basement. Three girls your age lined up in identical pose for a photo. They face the camera from the side, their elbow on their hip, as if caught half way through the ‘I’m a little tea-pot’ song. They’ve got the handle but they don’t have a spout; it’s essentially a mug shot. And as you look at them, and you drink some more, and you turn to your friends, and you catch the end of a meandering story, you wonder if there will ever come a time when you won’t be able to tolerate the charms of Slaters. But the thought passes and you drink again because tomorrow morning is an abstract concept.

Carousel of Resentment: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

When Eugene O’Neill wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he wrote what he knew. The 1957 Pulitzer Prize winning play is the dramatization of his life, with characters, plotting and detail so analogous with what actually happened that O’Neill stipulated that it was only to be performed after his death. 60 years later, it’s a play that still packs an emotional punch, even if the production at The Geffen Playhouse gradually veers into languid repetition.

Eugene O’Neill

For those who appreciate art as a Freudian detective mystery, or, as a higher form of gossip where fictional characters and events correspond directly to real people and real events, the play is a revelatory exposition of Eugene O’Neill. For those who care not one jot about the play’s source material, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a comprehensive study of a family in turmoil, beholden to the past, damned to resurrect old tragedies anew, over and over and over, as a single day progresses into night.

 

A parlour room occupies the stage at the Geffen Playhouse.  It is furnished with the markers of the well-to-do: a chaise-lounge, a bookcase of immaculately kept Shakespeare. Stage left is a porch that opens out onto the ample New England lands belonging to the Tyrone family. At the back is a walkway to the staffed kitchens and a staircase to the Tyrone’s living quarters.

 

Despite the finery, there are foreboding portents. Fog besets the stage, wind rushes around the curtains. There are plenty of lamps in the parlour but they are rarely turned on, as is the want of miserly James Tyrone, master of the house. Played with  authority by Alfred Molina, Tyrone is a grand old actor who made a financial killing investing in a play in which he starred a thousand times over. In this financial security, Tyrone happened upon creative death. However, his stagnant career is the least of his family’s worries.

 

From the first we are introduced to the shaky facade of familial normality, a see-through theatre played out by the Tyrones for each others’ benefit, and matched by the way the parlour room’s beams seep out of the stage ceiling and into the theatre as a vanishing fiction. James’ wife, Mary, played by Jane Kaczmarek, clings to the illusion of a normal family life with frenzied desperation. Ultimately, she is but the most extreme of the four Tyrones. The two sons, Jamie (Stephen Louis Grush) and Edmund (Colin Woodell), join their parents on the carousel of resentment, recycling regrets and pointing the finger at whichever family member strays into the crosshair of argumentation.

 

O’Neill portrays the past as inescapable, “Forget everything and face nothing.” The play imparts the irrefutable impression that the past lives of the characters have taken place—decades of accumulate hurt—and that the arguments surrounding the emotional damage have also taken place many times before. Their lives are reduced to the insults they cast on each other: Jamie is a good-for-nothing drunk, Edmund a reckless chancer.  This is not the first whirl of the bitter carousel, though the grave atmosphere suggests it may well be the last.

 

The script has aged well with a few exceptions. O’Neill’s observations on character and relationships are evergreen and pointed, meditating on the Sisyphean and arguably contradictory tasks of changing oneself while accepting the reoccurring faults of others.

 

Nevertheless, over half-a-century after its first production the script now appears excessively conservative in one way, and overly explicit in another. An aversion to stating certain words such as suicide while constantly talking about the topic pervades the play—a propriety that applies to all four main characters without applying to their personalities, even  considering the play’s setting in the first decades of the 20th century. This prurience goes against the men’s conduct, the sons’ ideologies, and the tendency of all four to talk and talk and talk.

 

Each character has an overwrought articulacy over their state of mind and an easy willingness to share their inner-demons. These two theatrical tics form an explicitness that dates the play. However skilfully O’Neill plants the exposition, by the end of the final act, one feels that there is not one skeleton left unexhumed. The piling on of story after story eventually wears down empathy and interest, like being passed endless photo albums by a stranger who’s manhandled you into his home. Sympathies extend only so far, and in this production sympathies don’t stretch the full four acts.

 

Life, luck and God are interchangeably cited by interchangeable Tyrones as the invisible source of their collective and individual woe. Whichever, the most threatening woe is the illness of Edmund, whose sickly pallor and obligatory coughing indicate something more serious than the “summer cold”— Mary’s oft-repeated and plainly delusional explanation. Edmund’s illness sparks the bonfire of Mary’s loose grip on reality.

 

As Mary descends into madness, so does the play. The quick wit and revelatory sniping of conversation is submerged by Kaczmarek’s raving portrayal of mental illness. It’s a caricature of what was ill-understood in the era of O’Neill, an over-pitched and one-tone state of mania hardly necessitated by O’Neill’s lines. In truth, Molina’s brash but subtle turn as James Tyrone stands apart from the rest of the cast, and not in a good way. His occasional bouts of despondent silence communicate so much so efficiently, while the rest of the Tyrones say a lot with little impact and to ever-decreasing returns.

 

An actor stronger than his cast is mirrored by a production weaker than its play. Directed by Jeanie Hackett, the performance simply fizzles out as the arguments run into each other indistinguishably. The pacing is off, and certain production values leave a lot to be desired, for example, the needless use of projected video, and an inaudible recording of O’Neill reciting a poem.

 

Still, the charms of the play are buried within, and there is a bitter irony to watching A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, enjoying it moderately, but contemplating how it was performed in yesteryear, and wondering how much better it all could have been this time around if only things turned out differently.

50 Shades Darker

I walk into the cinema with finesse, style and gumption. Nothing’s going to stop me from watching a film I say to myself. Nothing. Unless something happens to me that means I can’t watch the film? Who knows…I guess I’ll find out. Oh, I almost forgot to mention I’m reviewing the film too.

Nearly two years have passed since the last 50 Shades came out but it feels like yesterday. Strange. Then again, I was in a coma for two years. How could I forget? Sustained brain damage.

I sink into my seat like the Titanic sank into the ocean. I’m dressed for the occasion wearing my brand new trench coat with easy-wash inner-lining bought especially for 50 Shades Darker. In one pocket of my coat I have an Austen and in the other I’ve got a Brontë. It doesn’t matter which novels in particular, or even which specific Brontë. If I reference their names then I must really love literature and anything I write will be literary, intelligent and clever.

The movie begins just like that. ‘Wow’ my subconscious tells me. I concur and agree. Cinema’s amazing. My stomach fills with liquid desire better known as Fanta Orange. I begin to jot down my most thoughtful thoughts in my Versace notebook, which is also sponsored by Apple:

Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) is just your ordinary twenty-something woman trying to make her way in the world. She’s got a job at a publishing house, a cosy apartment in Seattle, but most of all, she’s got her independence. But here’s the twist: Ana Steele has got a terrible haircut. And despite that hair, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a business tycoon who dabbles in S&M sex stuff, wants to get back with her. 

But Ana’s totally moved on from Grey. Or has she? At this early stage in the film it’s hard to say because when Grey sends her flowers Ana considers throwing them away but ultimately doesn’t. So suspenseful.

Ana’s a pretty shy person. Every fibre of her being whispers “I’m a mouse in human form,” though this isn’t a line in the film because fibres of beings keep pretty stumjust ask Nietzsche, who may have something to say on the subject.

Ana’s shyness is put to the test when she turns up at her friend’s gallery launch and sees photos of herself that she posed for when her friend who’s a photographer asked her to. You can see why she feels so aggrieved; there are six massive black and white photos of her and she’s smelling her clothes in at least four of them. This is speculative but it looks very much like a case of wishful smelling. We’ve all been there.

All the photos of Anna are purchased by a mystery buyer. I initially suspect the photographer’s Mum, but it turns out it was Christian Grey, flirting in a way that only a rich business man can: by aggressively purchasing your image and person against your will.

I never imagined that my review would be going so well but it is. Wait. Maybe I should mention the things that Dornan and Johnson have been in previously? Like the fact that Jamie Dornan was in hit TV show The Fall, and is actually a capable actor? Or the fact that Dakota Johnson was in A Bigger Splash, and is actually a capable actor? Let’s see:

Ana and Christian sit down in a restaurant to “renegotiate the terms” of their dormant relationship, a bureaucratic transaction that reminds me of the intergalactic trade deals in the sequel Star Wars movies, only without the frisson and pizzaz. Christian wants Ana to be subservient but Ana’s got her own ideas, as demonstrated by the fact she orders her own food  all by herself even though Christian’s meal suggestion sounded much better. Independence comes at a price.

Scared of losing Ana forever, Christian reveals his deep, dark secret: he was abused as a child and his mother was a crack addict. Still, the viewer is left with many questions, like, what’s the back-story to Ana’s hair? Was she attacked by scissors?

Christian and Ana get back together but they take things  slow and only have normal people sex without the help of spring-based contraptions. Unfortunately it’s very dull. When Ana tells Christian that she “needs a roadmap” you assume it’s because reading a map is more interesting than speaking to Christian.

This movie is really boring and my cock agrees and so does my subconscious and also my brain and one of my metatarsals, too. So far, 50 Shades Darker is totally lacking in spice, flavour and synonym.

Complications threaten their rekindled relationship. For instance, one of Christian’s old subservient flames, a girl who looks like she’s from the set of a Japanese horror movie, keeps rearing her pale and scary head. There’s also Ana’s boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) who’s good looking in an evil way and is abusive towards women but without filling out the requisite paperwork beforehand like Christian does.

Still, they ignore these issues and try and build a relationship like any other normal couple: by sending each other passive-aggressive texts by day and attending masque balls by night. In one scene, Christian suggests Ana put a Newton’s Cradle inside herself like an overly ambitious pinball machine and Ana agrees. As the film goes on, we learn that relationships are all about give and take.

Oh God. What if it wasn’t a Newton’s Cradle? What if everyone’s doing this now and I’m the weird one for not knowing about it? I feel a Google search coming on.

Although 50 Shades Darker is a simultaneously messy and tedious film, it has its stronger moments. For instance, when Hyde attempts to sexually assault Ana, the scene has the all the tension of an episode of Mad Men. Unlike Mad Men, the drama resolves thanks to some   previously undisclosed fighting skills. No more Mrs. Mousey!

Other highlights include the one funny zinger in the filmwhen Christian says “I know I’m complicated,”— the best line of Niall Leonard’s script. Bravo. And who knew popstar Rita Ora, couldn’t act? Now, lots of people.

Towards the never-arriving end, Ana and Christian check out The Red Room where he keeps his sex utensils. Christian sure puts the man in manacles; he’s not gay, he’s just very organised. All his whips and chains and buckles are meticulously catalogued. Good for him.

I breathe a breathy breath of air and walk out the cinema. To conclude my lengthy review on such an insignificant non-sensical point could be seen by many as kind of bad terrible and incompetent. Then again maybe it perfectly reflects the never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction the film makes you feel? Who knows? Me knows.

Entertaining Impossible: Hidden Figures

Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures

In 1961, putting a man on the moon was more conceivable than voting a black man into the White House.  To defy gravity, a matter of science, to defy segregation, a crime.

Hidden Figures is a dramatic re-enactment that skilfully explores two historical movements side-by-side: the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement. The first, the embodiment of an all-American enthusiasm for progress, the second, the struggle of African Americans to be treated as equal citizens. Directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures splices these phenomena together by dramatizing the real life achievements of three extraordinary NASA employees, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson, who, at the age of 98, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

“I don’t entertain the impossible,” says Jackson, played with verve by Janelle Monáe. Yet this movie is all about proving the impossible possible. Jackson fights to become the first black woman to be an aeronautical engineer while Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) chases indispensability as a permanent supervisor. The primary story follows Johnson, as she is assigned to The Space Task Group, a cohort of boffins responsible for safely sending an American into space before the Russians beat them to it.

Initially, Johnson is utilized as a human calculator, a safety net to prevent mathematical error.  However, her savant skills ensure an upward trajectory despite the barriers associated with her gender and race. Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Johnson is one of restrained power, assured in the face of disparagement, ferocious when pushed by injustice.

Racism colours nearly every scene of Hidden Figures,  yet its discomforting hue comes not from the white cloak of the Ku Klux Klan, but the starch white collar of the threatened co-worker. Dispiriting, anonymous gestures remind Johnson that she strays above her station. A ‘colored people’ coffee pot is installed on her arrival, lest she consider herself an equal member of the team. Johnson’s primary antagonist, head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Norton), is a jealous, humourless man who obstructs Johnson at every turn. And yet the character is somehow more likeable than Norton’s recurring geek character, Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. Possibly because, for all Stafford’s faults, he’s not so much of a know-it-all that he can afford to overlook Johnson’s talents.

Throughout this slice of the Sixties, discrimination is presented as natural fallacy; it is therefore it should be: that water fountain is assigned for white people, therefore black people should use their own. “I just follow the rules,” is a response Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan all hear in one guise or another, a putdown smuggled in a shrug and an empty smile. Such civil civil oppression is pervasive and hard to resist. Manners maketh a man blameless.

All three characters are distinguished by their consummate talents and irrepressible drive, without which, their fight against the status quo would have surely been scuttled. Seemingly benevolent Task Group boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) only asks Johnson’s name when he suspects she could be a spy, weeks after distinguishing herself as an excellent mathematician. The “good guys” care about Johnson so long as she’s a) a genius b) of use to the project.

Taraji P. Henson summing it on screen as Katherine G. Johnson

Thanks to the NASA setting, there’s a fair bit of math-science-space babble delivered by the cast with absolute conviction. Plus, there’s the dialogue aimed at any algebra averse laymen in the audience, which is apparently more understandable: “Look beyond the numbers, look around the numbers,” as if gravity-busting formulae is merely well camouflaged. Ever since A Beautiful Mind, the one way to spot an on-screen genius is by the flagrant misuse of surfaces in the name of mathematics. No window or tree is safe from the  invasive etchings of a Hollywood prodigy. Fortunately, Johnson isn’t genius by numbers. She’s a protagonist near impossible not to root for.

When watching Hidden Figures, one rarely doubts the future successes of Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan; their triumphant arcs barely waver. Perhaps that’s the nature of a Hollywood biopic in this vein. The movie has been made with the intention of inspiring and informing, and on those counts it surely excels. But what of the black women living in this era without the talents of Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan? Or, the black women so downtrodden by racism and sexism that their autonomy was shattered? These women are not hidden figures, because evidence of their achievements is not there to find. They were robbed of opportunity. This previously more common and depressing fate does not feature in Hidden Figures, and the film is weaker for it. As a celebratory film, it lacks the drama that the threat of failure brings, a threat which surely existed for all three women during the ’60s despite their talents.

History is set. By virtue of it happening one way and not another, it gives the impression of inevitability. Former President Obama has repeated a quote belonging to Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” This illusion—that history takes the side of the righteous— engenders complacency: the future is up for grabs and must be fought for. As a model to aspire to, Hidden Figures is ideal. As a sign of the fight to come in the Trump era and its uncertain outcome, Hidden Figures obscures the dangers of possible defeat.

A Monster Calls

Illustrator Andreu Zaragoza’s Monster

 

Waking up from a nightmare doesn’t always bring relief. For 12-year-old Conor O’Malley, the protagonist of A Monster Calls, it leads only to disheartening reality: his mother is bedridden with cancer, his grandmother doesn’t understand him, and his once-in-a-bluemoon father is flakier than dandruff. School is no solace either. Bullies lurk in the yard to taunt and torment him, the withered cherry atop this cake of British-based doldrum.

Conor’s helplessness reverberates in his dreams. Night after night, he is subjected to snatched images of a graveyard collapsing into a sinkhole. As the tombstone-tipped earth recedes into the black expanse, Connor holds onto somebody’s hand – you don’t have to be Freud to guess whose – but is unable to pull the person to safety. And then he wakes up.

How long Conor has been stuck in this cycle of dreary days and disturbing nights is unclear. Too long. But in this adaption of Patrick Ness’ YA novel of the same name, the screenplay also written by Ness, the appearance of the titular monster brings the promise of change.

Monsters aren’t renowned for their punctuality, yet this one only appears when the clock strikes seven minutes past twelve. Borne from the burgeoning Yew tree that lies in the graveyard, (the one from Conor’s dreams, the one visible from Conor’s bedroom) this branch laden creature emerges. Leaving devastation in its wake, the monster tears off the bedroom wall in order to confront Conor.

What of the monster’s motivations? Does it wish to whittle the boy’s bones into an ossified loaf? Not quite. Voiced by Liam Neeson, the monster demands that Conor listen very carefully to three stories. Again, not the usual remit of monsters, though that entirely depends on the kind of parties you frequent.

With bark worse than its bite, (to say nothing of Neeson’s wooden acting…), the talking tree never really frightens. As a result, director J. A. Bayona squanders a potential source of tension. Even Conor doesn’t seem particularly scared of the monster’s skyscraper presence. Yes, the film has been made for a young audience (12+), but for all its bluster, the monster is tame when compared to, say, the ‘Faun’ of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Although Pan’s Labrynith is more graphic than A Monster Calls, and is aimed at an older audience (15+), the Faun’s fear inducing aura does not stem from the film’s violence. Instead, the faun’s subtle mystery derives from Del Toro’s meticulously constructed fairytale landscape – something that’s not quite there when watching A Monster Calls.

Is this arboreal life or is it just fantasy? It’s not made clear if the Yew tree creature comes forth when bidden by Conor, if it is an uninvited figment of imagination, or if the creature actually exists but is invisible to all but one. The artistically inclined Conor has problems distinguishing between real life and his imagination, but so does the audience. Though this makes for a cinematic sleight of hand on a number of occasions, the inconsistent grounding of the monster prevents the viewer from investing in the monster’s relationship with Conor. The ambiguity feels like a trick that makes the monster seems functional.

That said, the monster’s three tales provide a solid backbone to the film. As the monster narrates, Conor listens, and the screen turns canvas for wonderful illustration. Fairytale archetypes of handsome princes and wicked stepmothers are laid out in lush, swirling colors, only to reconfigure according to the back and forth of Conor’s questions and the monster’s revisions. A Monster Calls displays genuine reverence for storytelling, and holds up art as an exercise in both avoiding the hardships of life and facing them through displacement.

For, away from the fairytales, Conor must confront his mother’s deterioration and imagine his future without her. His journey through the expected emotional states – denial, fear, anger – is impressively portrayed by MacDougall, and his changes are reflected in his attitude toward the monster; at first he hides from it whereas later he seeks it. Though the monster’s origins are confusing, Conor’s reactions evolve authentically.

In the monster’s three tales, people are complex: the handsome princes commit unpunished crimes and the wicked stepmothers aren’t so wicked after all. It’s a shame then that the characters populating Conor’s real life are rather reductive. His bullies are just horrible people. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) remains a fusty, stiff upperlipped adult. Fortunately, Conor’s relationship with his mother (Felicity Jones) is rich and intricate. For all the commentary on storytelling, their fate is what makes you care.

As the monster declares at the beginning of the film, this story concerns a boy, “too old to be a kid but too young to be a man.” The appropriate audience for this film is found within similarly specific parameters. Too grave for those yet to reach their teenage years but too childish for those above the age of fifteen. But, unbeknownst to some Hollywood producers, stories come in many shapes and sizes, and audience members, too. Some people will try this film out for size and find it just right.

Coming up swinging: The rise of Mersey Swing and why you should be a part of it

Look at you. We’re not even half way through January and you’ve already abandoned your New Year’s resolutions. Well, here’s one and I bet you won’t want to break it: Go to Mersey Swing and take some classes. Here’s why you should:

Light and music spill out onto Great George Street. Punters on their way to Concert Square take a detour to look inside. Up the winding stone stairs of the Black-E, through the open double doors, the 3rd annual Mersey Swing Winter Ball unfurls. Once in the hall, the energy of the live band and a dance floor in motion rushes around you. It lifts your feet an inch from the ground and sets your spine a little bit straighter. Now you know why the doors are open. It’s hard to contain this kind of energy.

But it’s Saturday 9th January 2016. Isn’t swing dancing the musical equivalent of medieval warfare reconstruction? Worthy of preservation but tedious and, frankly, a bit irrelevant? Looking out on the dance floor, I can safely say I’ve never seen something so alive. It’s controlled chaos. Couples manoeuvre about the hall, triple stepping and tuck turning into any gap that presents itself. In a room this packed, leads chart ever-changing courses for their follows, aware that one overambitious swing-out can lead to a clattering. Follows listen to the signals transmitted by their leads, a slight raise of the hand or the omission of a step. That’s the skill of dancing in a place like this: applying energetic moves within the parameters of a bustling dance floor, listening to the music and listening to your partner.

Take a closer look and it’s clear that this panorama is made up of many different stories. There’s a range of skill on display; professionals share the floor with newcomers and there’s no segregation between the two. In fact, experienced dancers usually jump at the chance to guide a newbie through recently acquired moves. You can divide the crowd in other ways too. Some people are dressed in meticulous vintage outfits while others don’t bother. A fair number here tonight were born in an era when said vintage outfits were simply considered ‘clothes.’ Age, gender, race, sexual orientation, where you live, who ya dad was.  Honestly, nobody cares. They just want to dance with you.

Depending on your disposition, this kind of event might sound like an anxiety inducing nightmare. Asking strangers to dance? Risking the embarrassment of messing up in front of everybody? No thanks, article imploring me to change my life.  And I hear you. The first time I went to a night like this, I was shaking more than Little Richard if he downed five cups of coffee and then sat on an EpiPen. But the atmosphere at the Mersey Swing Winter Ball is incredibly inclusive. Before you have time to run away, somebody’s already asked you to give it a whirl and you’ve just said, ‘Yeah!’ And of course, scary as it is, you’re just putting into practice what you’ve been learning in class.

Every Wednesday, starting from seven, Mersey Swing puts on classes for an hour and a half. There’s a class solely for beginners where you learn the basic steps of Lindy Hop and the Charleston, the main tipples of Mersey Swing, until you’re confident enough to join up with the main class. From there, thanks to clear teaching and a welcoming atmosphere, improvement comes quickly. After class, there’s an hour of social dancing. It’s here you get the chance to put into practice what you’ve learnt in class and often with the scene’s more experienced dancers- the surest way to get better quick.

After a series of fits and flailing starts, Mersey Swing was formed in earnest February 2012. Liverpool’s own Cat Foley, who competes regularly at international Lindy competitions, says that her main motivation in founding Mersey Swing was, ‘wanting more mates to dance with.’ The importance placed on friendship and fun is what keeps Mersey Swing from becoming a dance academy. It’s apt too as in the early days Mersey Swing depended on the community support offered by venues such as Heebie Jeebies, the Jacoranda, Maguire’s and the recently closed, Kazimier. Now based primarily in the Merseyside Dance and Drama Centre on Camden Road, this sense of community still runs strong. That’s why you don’t need to come with a partner; everybody rotates around the room, everybody dances with everybody.

Lindy Hop is one of the most progressive dance forms ever. Bursting out of the stiff mores of ballroom, Lindy Hop encapsulated the pioneering spirit of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, where white and black New Yorkers would head to the Savoy to swing it with whoever, regardless of creed, colour and background. Different times have different barriers. Speaking to those at the Winter Ball, it’s clear that as well as loving dance, a lot of people are here for the social interaction that comes with the swing scene, something decidedly lacking in the internet era.

There’s no better reason for going to a swing class than having the desire to connect with people. Connection is the heart of swing dancing- connection with the music and connection between partners. Without it, any dance will fall apart, regardless of individual ability. The altruistic nature of Mersey Swing isn’t just nice, it’s necessary. Each time you step out onto the floor those connections must be made anew and with so many variables at play: you, your partner, the song, the band. You quickly realise that no dance can ever be repeated, it’s ephemeral. That’s the joy of it actually, searching for the best experience that you and your partner can craft together in that moment. For the space of a song, a dance can flare and then it’s over and gone.

Where is the good news going to come from? 2016 has, so far, offered little in the way of hopeful tidings. We’re now living in a Bowie-less universe. With dark mornings and early nights, January can be a cold and lonely place. So, be proactive in finding your own joy. Go to gigs. Make music.  Do whatever it takes to bring back good times. And if you’re stuck for ideas on how to do it, let’s dance and we’ll talk about it later.