2017 in Film

2017 marked a torturous year in cinema for me. I have to select the releases I see carefully because firstly the town I live in caters largely for older film goers so there isn’t much on offer for me and secondly because much of my time at weekends in taken with child care and associated errands. By “cinema” I just mean the handful of big box office releases I manage to get out to see, which is what made this year all the worse.

I like to think I’m not yet at the age whereby everything is suddenly rubbish and not what it used to be etc. and I think I could have taken one or two cinematic disappointments this year but when the three films I was looking forward to most (in one case just hoping wouldn’t be a let-down) all fall short I find I grudgingly have to admit Guardians of the Galaxy 2 probably was the best thing I saw on the big screen in 2017.

Baby Driver

Really wanted to catch Edgar Wright’s most recent original release after he seemed forced off Marvel’s Ant Man after the time and effort of developing much of it. I missed seeing this on a big screen but did get a chance to rent it from iTunes.

I might have enjoyed this in my early 20s and if I hadn’t seen Shaun or Hot Fuzz or (most crucially) Scott Pilgrim. The super-cool cars, crew and heists concept came over really well in the trailers but didn’t have the legs for the feature and the traditionally reliable brand of Wright humour was almost entirely absent.

The first third was a bit tiresome (there seemed to be two opening sequences…), the second was a let-down when I realise how small-scale the story was going to be, and the third was derivative (and frankly a bit of a downer).

Blade Runner 2047

I was keen to see this because I’m a big fan of the original. I liked the story of BR: 2049 and the script and direction and cinematography were great but the things I loved most about the original; production design and score were lacking (in the case of the score it was abrasive and intrusive in places) and it resulted in something I appreciated but couldn’t immerse myself in, not enough sugar to make the medicine go down… At least Ryan Gosling has finally found the perfect role, something that doesn’t require him to emote!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Which brings us to possibly the biggest disappointment of the year in Star Wars Episode 8. It’s a sad day when the best thing you can find to say about a Star Wars film is that it was nice to see Ade Edmondson get a part as a First Order Star Destroyer Commander. I had come to realise in the months after my initial joy of seeing the Force Awakens that it wasn’t at all what I’d hoped for and that rather than improving on that film episode 8 took a lot of what was wrong with the Force Awakens and just… made it worse.

Where to start?

Firstly, and most depressingly, I was continually jolted out of the Star Wars experience by the storytelling not feeling a part of the universe built up and realised in previous films.

Secondly, this film was massively overlong. The main part of the story with Luke and Ray could have been dealt with much more efficiently and satisfyingly and with fewer unnecessary beats. All of Mark Hamill’s concerns with how his character was handled were borne out by having Luke come across as unnecessarily unlikeable and unwilling to act. Rey at one point is content to have trashed part of Luke’s World Heritage Site Island whilst nearly killing several peaceable indigenous folk in the process. Yoda’s cameo was painful to witness.

The B-stories were completely botched. When the director’s job with a Star Wars film is to balance interlocking plots so that everything is lined up for the finale you can’t afford to get it wrong. And yet this is what happened. Really, really slowly.

The scenes set on the Casino planet (“Canto Bight”) deployed the kind of CGI that could have come straight out of episodes 1-3. The humour was often poorly judged and inappropriate; (tiresome cutesy creature aside) the slave urchins seemed on the point of breaking into “It’s A Hard Knock Life” and Rey’s test in a hall of mirrors gave the impression that her finger-clicking could tip us into a (Taylor) Swiftian music video at any second. Also, Benicio Del Toro’s character was so abominable it’s untrue; poorly written, weirdly directed, badly portrayed.

The other strand concerned the escape by the remainder of the rebels where the tension seamed to leak away and the plot was so limp that it felt like a flat episode of Babylon 5. There was very little action here. Even at the film’s outset the action and pace of intercutting dogfights and laser blasting was ruptured by the laboured setting up of a narrative where we were forced to spend what felt like 15 minutes witnessing the protracted death of a Very Heroic bomber pilot. Hammering the rebels to the point where there can’t be more than 25 left meant effectively removing the War in Star Wars for the final battle where they just hid behind a “…big ass door…” (a phrase no one would use in Star Wars) whilst the First Order huffed and puffed and tried to blow the house down. It might be time for Star Wars… to end.

Reflecting on a Specific Teaching Experience…

In addition to training I’m occasionally asked to deliver a CPD session that is designed to inspire colleagues. In the past I have produced such workshops for teaching staff that introduce the concept of the flipped classroom while seeking to simulate some of the principles. I ask participants to watch a video prior to the session, with a view to using the session for activities and discussion. Using such an “experiential” approach allows teachers to see how this practice can benefit students. The content of the video, the questions, the activities and the discussions are all designed to generate discussion. It is expected that not all staff will view my flipped classroom model in a good way but if this is the case the discussions should provoke comments that allow the group to explore these issues.

The best way to facilitate a session such as this I’ve found is to use the VLE so that I can communicate with the participants before, during and after the session; to host the video and any slides for the session and as a place to hang resources such as links for any additional resources (I use online polls also).

Since this is one of the best sessions I deliver I submitted it for a formative classroom observation that was part of my PG Cert at my last institution (it being one of the only vaguely documented teaching experiences I have!), I’ll make it clear if any of the reflection isn’t my own.

For a start my observer noted that I clearly set out lesson aims to the learners and gained their attention, which I was really pleased with because I had put a lot of effort into designing slides and refined these over a number of sessions. The first time I ran this session was for the benefit of, amongst others, one or two senior members of staff so originally there was pressure to make everything clear and to manage expectations. As well as displaying hoped-for outcomes was a slide of timings, intended to be a lesson schedule. Being my first officially observed teaching experience I felt it was important to try to stick to timings so that the lesson didn’t get out of control and my observer noted that the timing of each stage was appropriate and overall well-structured.

I also enjoy aspects of graphics and design and feel that engagement with students can be aided by good use of design so my opening slide (tied in to the look and feel of the little course I’d created in the VLE) was a large friendly and welcoming image of an upside down classroom (that I’d pinched from the web). The use of this image was also to suggest that I might be “inverting” things to a degree. Certainly I saw my role in this session as a “facilitator” and not a “teacher”. The idea was for the group to create knowledge rather than me deliver it.

My observer noted that I was able to exploit learners’ output to further the development of the lesson. The products of the discussions sections of the workshop were the creation of large pages of flipchart paper where one person from the group would write down the group’s responses and these would be summarised or read out to the other groups in the feedback slot. If there were issues raised in one group but not in the other groups then this is the time for others to respond and contribute to this discussion. I use online polls to achieve a similar space whereby the publishing of the results in real time on a big screen allows people to respond to the points raised immediately (I feel that for this to be successful the students need to be able to respond anonymously). Something I began doing in sessions was to photograph or screenshot these pages/polls and make them available to the students in the VLE after the sessions so that they would have a record of what was said. It was encouraging to see that this had been picked up on by the observer, and that they felt the materials added value to the lesson – this affirmed the work that had gone into the preparation.

Reflecting on my approach to these sessions and in particular this observed session (although technically I’m always being observed in these sessions by colleagues who teach) I realised that much of my energies go into creating the good scaffolding (the VLE) and producing engaging materials and activities in order that I do not have to be centre stage and cope with anything in the way of spontaneity (although of course the discussions are given free reign).

My observer felt that it might be worth me trying to “…relax the schedule / timings a bit in order to allow a bit more flexibility, in addition to reducing the stress of managing a schedule timed to the minute.”

I’ve always felt that the stress lies in having to think on my feet and if the group gets carried away with one activity then we might not find time for the next, or for a crucial part of the lesson. Possibly my dependence on timings and packing in so much in the way of visual resources and stimuli is to ensure there is not enough space for me to have to develop a “natural” teaching style in front of others (teachers and students), preferring to rely on facilitation, partly because I really believe in it, partly because it’s scary to be in front of an audience! I’m interested to see if, going forward, I can still pursue the development and refinement of a blended approach with scaffolding and materials and activities but see if there is any way I can “relax” enough to start to experiment with a teaching style and to be able to observe the results myself.

Björk Digital at Somerset House

It’s hard to describe exactly how exciting this exhibition was but I’m going to try. For a start I’d never been inside Somerset House and it’s an awesome building. Each video in the exhibition was in a different room and the set up seemed to vary with each video. Director Andrew Thomas Huang’s “Black Lake” was the first film and at 10 mins plus was the longest.

The director had produced two visual channels designed to be played simultaneously opposite one another over the song, which was beautifully engineered to come out of the 32 speakers in the room (installed lovingly by Bowers & Wilkins, premium suppliers of loudpseakers).

After this we moved on to each of the four VR pieces in turn. The first of these was possibly the most striking, “Stonemilker” (Huang again).

This piece used the combination of the stark Icelandic landscape and the arrangement of several Björks in luminous yellow dresses to captivate the viewer. This video used Samsung Gear VR headsets and (and B&W headphones) and the effect was like standing there on the beach with Björk signing especially for you, the raw expressions of grief in the song made me want to give her a hug! For this video and the next two we were seated on swivelling bar stools which made looking around us really easy.

From there we moved on to “Mouth Mantra” (for the Samsung Gear VR, directed by Jesse Kanda).

This was gloriously chaotic and disorientating, being inside a churning and swirling vortex of mouth and snarling teeth. The only time the effect didn’t work was when we moved outside of the singer’s mouth and there was only one focus on Björk’s face, in the whole 360 degree view. This focus did come across as being the largest “cinema” screen I had ever seen though, with a minimal auditorium surrounding it. After seeing film on that scale there really is no way back from VR, it’s so all-encompassing and immersive that viewing video and media on traditional screens is just not going to be able to compete for long.

The final seated video was “Quicksand” (Samsung Gear VR) which was an augmented recording of a live performance and although there were times where the focus was in one area of the 360 canvas, the feeling of being sucked up into the cosmos was really exhilarating, not to mention the graphics being stunningly beautiful.

The last video of all was “Notget” (directed by Warren du Prees and Nick Thornton Jones) and we were to stand to experience the full HTC Vive set up. The video began with us dancing with a petit silhouetted figure of Björk in a striking head dress who then evolved into a multi-coloured, shimmering figure, complete with sparks, that continued to grow until it was the viewer who was dwarfed by the singer.

The final room was cycling through Björk’s much acclaimed earlier videos directed by people such as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Stéphane Sednaoui a selection of my favourites you can view here.