Archive for the ‘movie review’ Category

The thing about Transcendence is that it’s not in any way a film about artificial intelligence. It’s about being human, and being God, and the implications of our impossible quest for one given the unavoidable limitations of the other, or some such wank. It uses the trappings of AI as a framework for the storytelling but has about as much bearing on the actual path of interactive electronic simulation technology as Lawnmower Man. I might have enjoyed it more if I’d figured out that distinction earlier; there’s nothing wrong with telling that kind of story, or of telling stories that way. But I’d like to see a story about AI that’s actually about AI sometime. Outside of fanfic from some of the funner corners of the rationalist community.

What? Half-arsing something on your phone and then copying and pasting it from a Facebook update totalling counts as blogging. Well, self-plagiarism’s the best you’re getting for now, anyway. Moving house is still keeping me too discombobulated to get much writing done. My online handle’s a bigger lie than my old MySpace username, Extrovert McSmallpenis.


Read Full Post »

Cracked posted an article recently (and you know how much I love to use that phrase as a basis for a blog post, over and above any efforts at research or serious journalism), about movies in need of an epilogue. Top of the list is The Breakfast Club, the whole point of whose story is undermined without knowing what happens the next day.

To needlessly recap, The Breakfast Club is an ’80s film about a bunch of angsty teens who get stuck in detention together. They each very obviously fit into a different high school demographic – there’s a nerd, a jock, and so on – and would never be friends or find anything in common while living their usual cliquey lives. But being trapped in a room together all day with nothing to do prompts them to, like, talk about their feelings and stuff (with conversation being helped along by smoking some pot), and they actually find things around which to empathise with each other. They start growing close, and forming some meaningful relationships.

The point is, without knowing what happens to them once they’re back to their regular school routine, there’s no way to know what moral we’re supposed to draw from any of this. One clear possibility is the idea that they’ve formed some lifelong friendships, and those cheesy stereotypes will be broken down the moment the bell rings for class the next day. The popular athlete will carry on being friends with the skinny dork, even if this means the other popular athletes call him a loser, because friendship means something, man, and is totally more important than just being cool.

I’m with Dan O’Brien that this completely fucks over all the honesty that’s been central to the film up to that point:

The right ending would have the kids all going back to their own cliques, because that’s how you survive high school.

I think that unlikely bonding experiences such as occur in The Breakfast Club are possible in the real world, and I also think that a much more likely outcome is that the status quo will be more or less restored once everyone resumes their usual place in the mangled teenage hierarchy. Where I disagree with Dan is in his labelling this outcome as the “tragically ever after” ending. Even avoiding schmaltzy bullshit, there’s still a lot of hope in a film which ends that way.

What really would be tragic is if the tribal, in-group/out-group, them-and-us thinking which prevents us from appreciating or understanding each other could never be conquered. It would be tragic if the human tendency to stay within our safe, familiar spaces full of like-minded, similar folk, and to be suspicious of outsiders and mock those who fall into our mental category of “other”, was destined unfailingly to overwhelm our efforts toward empathy and universal compassion.

And it might seem like an ending where the Breakfast Club kids go back to their cliques is about exactly that tragedy, but that’s not what’s going on at all.

Like Dan says, that’s just how you survive high school. In that competitive, emotional, hormonally charged context, the incentives are really strong for adolescents still finding their way in the world to avoid risking the castigation of their peers with whom they’ve found some tenuous acceptance. An American high school (perhaps even more so in the ’80s than today) is one of the hardest places imaginable to start trying to break down these barriers between groups. You’d barely have more luck persuading people to reach out and make a connection beyond the socially imposed limits on what’s acceptable in South Africa under apartheid.

And yet the whole movie is about those barriers giving way entirely to a few hours’ conversation.

Even when a divisive, unfair, destructive caste structure is held in place by the power of high school cliques – one of the most indomitable social forces known to mankind – it’s still just a façade. It crumbles to the touch. Shift the conditions a little, and love and compassion can be unearthed almost instantly.

The obstacles preventing people from connecting with each other are entirely artificial, and have nothing to do with the humanity underneath. The restrictive social structures are all that hold us back, and once those are done away with, our capacity to get along and support each other shines through.

Of course, in this case, it doesn’t last. High school is still what it is, and its very nature discourages certain types of human connection. But social structures are a malleable part of our world, and can always be replaced if enough of us decide that we deserve better. Our ability to make unlikely friends is what’s left in us, when all the surrounding bullshit is stripped away.

The Breakfast Club with a realistic ending isn’t a tragic story; it’s one of hope. It just reminds us how much work is still to be done.

Read Full Post »

So I’ve finally seen this movie that you probably lost interest in months ago, and I has some thoughts. (And some spoilers, though not much more than is given away by the title.)

I’m not a proper film critic type, so I don’t really know how to integrate the various levels on which the film acts, or how much weight to give them. On a scientific level, for instance, it was seriously problematic. The “gene therapy” that gives the apes super-intelligence is well beyond even plausible science fiction, and acts as a mixture of miracle and MacGuffin in its ability to do what the story needs it to. A single treatment, and every chimpanzee it’s exposed to suddenly acquires human-level thinking. In humans, the same stuff cures Alzheimer’s overnight. (And it’s aerosolised, for no good reasons that aren’t contrived by the plot.)

The notion of just what intelligence is bothered me as well. The apes don’t just get smarter, they essentially become different-looking humans. Every facial expression, every tic, every gesture, is clearly recognisable and understood when you watch them. You can follow the thought processes behind every decision they make, and even their manual dexterity suddenly seems to mirror that of humans in a way I don’t think is natural to chimps. I get that this kind of relatability is generally something you want in your protagonists, but it jarred here. Andy Serkis does a brilliant job in the whole motion capture thing, but that may be part of the problem. It felt like there should be a less lazy way to humanise these characters – or, perhaps, to make us care about them even when humanising them isn’t appropriate.

(At the same time, the extent of the apes’ physical superiority to humans was off-puttingly exaggerated. They regularly leapt through plate glass as if it literally wasn’t there, and fell forty feet onto concrete ground as if hopping off a bus. I know they could all kick my ass without breaking a sweat, but this was a bit much.)

The counterpoint to all this, on the other hand, is that I’m not sure how much it matters.

Well, no, I’m sure that a lot of it does matter, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly for the sake of internal consistency. But on another level (if I can talk about there being, philosophically, “another level” to a film without sounding like either a pretentious twat or someone trying to retro-actively buzz-market Dane Bowers’s music career) it’s not really about any of these things. It’s about an uprising; it’s about oppression; it’s about a race realising what their rights are, and that they’re being trampled on, and that they can fight for them.

On some level, it is about different-looking humans.

It’s not that the apes are simply a metaphorical stand-in for black people, or Native Americans, or the proles, or anything that straight-forward. They’re apes. But maybe some of the technical details need not be as important as the story that the film’s trying to tell, and what it says about the world. The apes treated with the gene therapy unquestionably have intelligence, personalities, “personhood”, and just about everything you’d expect to see in an agent deserving of human respect and dignity. But they’re seen as less than human, as pets, as experimental subjects. They’re hated and feared, in a way that shows up our prejudices, rather than reflecting their own nature. We act like we can treat them essentially however we like, and when they rebel they display unexpected levels of intelligence, self-control, and humanity.

Never mind for a moment that it’s not technically realistic in apes. Do we see something like this anywhere else in the world?

As a simple tale of rising up against bondage, it’s entertainingly told, but even this could have been handled better. The antagonists are too… antagonisty. (Thought I should remind you I’m really not a proper film reviewer.) We’re not given anything at all to like about David Hewlett’s character; he first appears only to exemplify the prejudice with which the apes are seen, when he violently threatens a chimp who leaps playfully onto his property without meaning any harm. (In fact, given what we know about chimpanzee behaviour in the real world, he would have had every reason to be seriously frightened for the safety of his children – a significant problem with the set-up of the apes as unfairly maligned underdogs.) Draco doesn’t get any more of a rounded character when he turns up; he’s just a total bastard all the time, and when your bad guys are all just total bastards all the time, I think it weakens the power of your allegory.

I haven’t seen the film The Help, but I read one criticism of it which seemed insightful (though might not be fair, for all I know). The attitudes toward race and racial roles in the film (as I read) are basically divided between two types of characters. Some are as magnificently progressive as you’d hope anyone could be (even by today’s standards), believe that any discrimination between whites and blacks is an injustice, and sympathise deeply with the plight of all the African-Americans in question. The others are entirely callous to the notion that black people might have any feelings worth worrying about, openly scorn and despise them, and ridicule the very idea that anything needs to change.

All of which ignores a substantial and vital aspect of the history of race relations: decent people who genuinely meant well, and weren’t evil or heartless by any means, but were so unable to see past their standard view of the world that they contributed little to any progressive movement either.

I think Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a similar problem. The baddies are very obviously baddies, because of how they’re mean to animals and stuff. But I think it could have been a more profound allegory if it had done more to take into account the role of complacency and rationalisation in tyranny and subjugation.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. It’s not always about inhumanity and malice. Sometimes people are just wrong.

Three stars.

(Abrupt ending due to losing my train of thought a bit and deciding I’ve probably made my point quite well enough, whatever it is.)

Read Full Post »

Charlie Brooker’s newspaper columns and often bleakly satirical TV spots are among the most valuable and entertaining cultural commentaries to be found in the UK.

But recently he’s had another stab at writing proper drama. After watching two episodes of his dystopian-allegory-warning-thing Black Mirror, I’m guiltily hoping he goes back to what he’s really very good at.

His prose and sarcastic voiceover narratives demonstrate an enviably wry and nimble turn of phrase (“Come, friendly asteroids, and fall on Earth” was one I particularly enjoyed). But as much as he’s mastered the extraction of witty and withering one-liners from the darkness and depravity of the world, when he tries to stretch a point over an hour and a half it starts to seem rather thin.

In the second episode of Black Mirror, our protagonist is one of countless drably-clothed victims of some sort of authoritarian regime, and spends most of his time on a bicycle machine, providing the electricity that powers the world. The only other regular locations of his daily life seem to be a crowded elevator taking him to and from the cycle room, and an only slightly less cramped personal room, containing nothing more than a bed a few square feet of floor, and with television monitors making up every inch of wall and ceiling space.

Cycling earns him merits, which he spends on things like food, toothpaste, and brief reprieves from the string of loud and flashy advertisements that blare almost constantly from every screen. The only products we ever see him being encouraged to consume are a reality show clearly serving as a stand-in for The X-Factor, and pornography.

The message, such as it is, is not unfamiliar. What will happen if we get too enrapt by all this lowest-common-denominator passive consumption, and forget to think? The society of this episode (titled Fifteen Million Merits) has been entirely restructured around keeping the masses dumb and compliant, and providing them with ample mindless distractions to quell any thoughts of questioning the status quo. It’s so on-the-nose it’ll punch you in the sinuses, and Kirsty rattled off half a dozen books and films of which it was very clearly derivative without pausing to draw breath. But at least it does conjure the sense of abject turpitude it seeks to inspire, and if its ideas have been repeated often, it’s because they’re not unworthy of continued examination.

The problem lies in the shallowness of the show’s analysis of our inevitable moral and intellectual decline. The connection between society’s sexual obsessions and misogyny, our fixation with carefully manipulated and manipulative reality TV, and a decline in our capacity for (and interest in) complex thought, is made abundantly clear. But countless other important and intriguing social factors are glossed over or ignored. Surely there must be more going on, for us to have reached such a nightmarish scenario beyond the fever dreams of Huxley, than that we became too emotionally invested in some wannabe singers with tear-jerking personal histories. It starts to feel like the level of critique is dumbed down almost as far as the society we’re supposed to be thinking about.

One aspect of the world that was given less blatant emphasis was the avatars, or “doppels”, which people use to represent themselves when appearing on-screen or in a virtual world – a fairly minor extrapolation of an idea popular with a number of computer game systems today. The doppels are also customisable, and the drones are encouraged by their invisible overlords to spend merits upgrading their virtual characters with virtual accessories. Here, too, the parallel with current trends is not exactly opaque.

But the show’s examination of this phenomenon goes no further than to hurl contempt at the very notion of these unreal goods being a worthwhile form of consumption – and, dangerously, it does nothing to abnegate the spreading of that contempt to the consumers themselves. It doesn’t go any further than pointing at these forms of behaviour and labelling them as stupid, deplorable, reprehensible, and dehumanising. The people who act this way are either equally reprehensible and inhuman themselves, or (the more charitable alternative that we’re offered) they’re unthinking sheep who’ve been manipulated into ignorance of their own pointlessness. Which isn’t just an appropriately grim view of humanity’s possible future; it’s a dehumanisingly ungenerous assessment of humanity itself.

We’ve learned some fascinating things about ourselves and our brains, which relate to what we find entertaining, and the types of rewards we find enticing. What some games or advertising companies choose to do with these facts about human psychology may seem sinister, but they can also be used to improve ourselves. Will we, in the end, opt for self-improvement over low-brow gimmicks that push our pleasure buttons with all the casual ease of an addiction?

I don’t know. It’s a question worth asking, and an answer worth worrying about. But in the world of Black Mirror, there’s not much to suggest that the general mass of humanity are complex bundles of conflicting motivations and interests. It looks more like we’re a homogeneous crowd, doomed to irrelevance by our own flaws and our lack of interest in counteracting them. And it feels cynical in exactly the way Charlie Brooker is usually so good at destroying.

Read Full Post »

Well, this weekend and I are getting on just fine so far. Just a quick post tonight, because I’ve been at the movies and am far too lazy to get anything useful typed up with the rest of my day now.

First, go see the new X-Men film. It’s great. I know they kinda went downhill in the past, but they actually got talented people to make this one, rather than just cashing in quickly while the interest was hot, which is what I understand was much of the motivation behind the previous film in the series (full disclosure: I didn’t see that Wolverine spin-off movie and I enjoy judging things unfairly).

Secondly – and I honestly didn’t realise that these were somewhat a propos until I started typing this paragraph – Hayley Stevens posted an open letter recently about not fitting in, which is worth reading. I should try and write about the thoughts it induces in me at greater length sometime. You may understand if you read it, and some of the comments, why it’s the sort of subject that might inspire strong feelings.

Anyway. If you’re reading this as it goes up, you’re missing Doctor Who, and it’s one of Moffat’s episodes this week so it might actually be worth catching. Off you go.

Read Full Post »

Stop whatever you’re doing.

If you had an urgent appointment to get to, you now have an urgenter one.

If you’re operating heavy machinery, it’ll probably be able to look after itself unsupervised for ten minutes.

If your children find a drawer of sharp things and start playing, remind yourself that the world they would have grown up in is a cruel place which they would do well to escape.

The animated movie version of Tim Minchin’s skeptical anthem Storm has been released onto YouTube.

I first encountered Storm, if I’m not getting my chronology muddled, in December 2008, at the first of Robin Ince’s now regular godless Christmas shows at the Bloomsbury theatre. It had overrun substantially, we were all getting a bit restless, I was starting to worry about missing the last train home – and Tim, given all this, said that he thought he’d read us a nine-minute beat poem.

At the time, I thought that was a joke.

As it happens, I’m fairly sure that DC Turner and Tracy King must have been at the same event, also seeing it for the first time, and being stirred into action even more vigorously than I was. It took a while to make it all happen, but this fantastic labour of love was previewed at last year’s TAM London (in almost finished form), and now release day is finally here.

That should be ample to keep you going for now.

Read Full Post »

I was this close to having a day off writing completely, but I need to quickly get this thing out of my brain.

I’ve been looking forward to the Scott Pilgrim movie for months. The trailer looks awesome, Edgar Wright is brilliant, the reviews are all sounding great, and everything I’ve heard so far suggests it’s going to kick some serious ass.

Except a friend of mine today said that she was “blown away with how sexist, homophobic, and racist it actually was”.

Now, I haven’t seen this movie yet, so I’m staying clear of the spoilerific bulk of her full review for the time being. What follows is nothing more than uninformed speculation on my part, based on not having seen the movie and not having read any detailed reviews – but I think there’s a point worth considering even if I’m totally wrong.

I strongly suspect – though remember, uninformed speculation only here – that the Scott Pilgrim movie is not actually sexist, racist, or homophobic, in the sense of actively advancing or basing itself upon the notion that white heterosexual males are innately superior to other humans and possess rights exclusive to their demographic.

What it might do – for all I know – is fail to actively undercut certain clichés based on lazy assumptions that white hetero males might tend to make about non-males, non-whites, or non-heteros, and thus fall into some unimaginative stereotyping in its characterisation and character interactions.

It’s late, and I’m tired, and I may not be expressing the distinction clearly, but it’s not a new idea. It’s the well understood distinction between conscious bias and unconscious privilege. And what I’m wondering is: do we need new words for this?

It’s just… there are some really prejudiced fucks in the world. People who want to suppress women’s rights, who think gays are moral abominations, and who think that anyone a bit darker than them is probably a criminal who should leave our country alone. People are still getting murdered over all of these things, and none of these prejudices are trivial issues.

Which isn’t to say it’s not a problem if Hollywood doesn’t seem to have met many gay people, or fails to acknowledge women in anything other than specifically feminine roles, or thinks that black people are all either hip urban gangstas or wise old Morgan Freeman.

But is it the same problem as the one evident in a society where women are sentenced to be raped as a punishment? It just seems like “sexism” isn’t really a useful term any more, if it stretches so far as to cover both options equally.

Do we just need to be careful when distinguishing between “prejudice” and “privilege”? Or are there other words better suited to this that I can’t think of right now?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: