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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 fa├žade. 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.

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(Reposted from my other blog, which I might just start doing as a matter of course.)

The release of the film The Hunger Games highlighted some worrying examples of othering recently.

Certain responses – from a very limited segment of the fan-base of the books and the film, no doubt – to the casting of black actors in major roles were disheartening, and actually quite shocking. You really don’t expect to hear things like this being said so brazenly in this day and age, except from devotedly hateful extremists.

But the comments listed on that post, and this tumblr compilation, seem to be more lazily thoughtless and tribalistic than actively racist.

Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture

I’m still a bit lost for words at this. I can’t quite get my head around the necessary sequence of events. First, this person must have experienced a feeling of crushing disappointment at realising that a character she’d read about had dark skin (even though, I’m told, this character’s skin colour is explicitly described as such in the book). Further, it must have entirely failed to occur to them that the qualities she originally admired or appreciated in Rue might still be present – that the colour of her skin might be no hindrance whatever to this young girl being innocent, or likeable, or courageous, or charming, or quick-witted, or whatever she’s like.

And then they must have decided that publicly expressing all these unfiltered prejudices was a perfectly fine thing to do.

Some black girl.

Absent but strongly implied, of course, is the word “just”. Just some black girl.

Not, like, a girl girl. Just some black girl.

However you might have told the story to yourself while reading it, I don’t understand how you can have this reaction to encountering an entirely irrelevant racial disparity, and believe that it’s an acceptable reaction to have.

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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.)

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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.

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So I saw the new Christopher Nolan film Inception yesterday.

Here’s the spoiler-free part of the review first:

This is a seriously impressive film, and you should go see it. It’s thoughtful, it’s visually stunning, it’s challenging without being obtuse and inaccessible… You’re almost guaranteed to get something out of it, and even if there are parts that don’t work for you (which there almost certainly will be) it’s still worth seeing it for them too. This movie’s flaws still make for well above average cinema.

But I also has opinionz on some of the actual, y’know, content. So be aware of SPOILERZ OMG DON’T READ ANY FURTHER if you haven’t seen it yet. (I suppose it also wouldn’t matter if you have no intention of seeing it, but if you never plan to see this movie, then… it’s like I don’t even know you, man.)

(more…)

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In which I take the foolish and reprehensible step of holding a slightly different opinion from that of David Mitchell.

David Mitchell (the comedian, not the author, though he’s brilliant too (and there are apparently many others as well, many of whom I’m sure are also jolly good)) is brilliant. He’s been getting some play in the skeptical community lately because of some rather fun jabs that comedy duo Mitchell and Webb take at pseudoscience in their sketch shows, like the Homeopathic E.R. sequence. And he wrote an article this week, about this physics professor in the US who declared recently that Hollywood films should stick closer to science fact.

The first thing I’m prompted to wonder is why this is suddenly newsworthy now, when I’m sure there have been any number of scientists grumbling on very similar lines for years. And David’s main point has also been made a number of times before: the primary purpose of TV and film is to be entertaining, and it’s entirely correct that this should sometimes take priority over reflecting such petty details as the laws of physics with perfect accuracy.

Reality is unrealistic, after all. You don’t want everything in fiction to perfectly resemble the real world you already know and are bored with – that’s why you’re watching telly in the first place. I think I more or less agree with David’s assessment that:

Being realistic is a storytelling tool, like lighting, music and sexy actresses.

This doesn’t downplay its importance too much. If you’re telling a story, then storytelling tools are vital. If you don’t bother worrying about the lighting while filming, it’s likely to end up looking terrible; likewise, if realism is completely disregarded, your script will probably be a total mess. Realism is important, but to be used wisely as a tool of story-telling, wherever appropriate, not adhered to dogmatically.

Where I started to cringe a little was this paragraph:

How typical of a scientist to try to reduce film-making to a formula. He’s noticed that enjoyable science fiction sometimes needs to include the impossible, but streams of implausible events don’t make a compelling narrative. He’s right but he should have left it at that. The happy medium is found by using judgment not maths.

It’s the first sentence, really. I hang out with far too many science geeks, and read far too many scientists’ blogs and Twitter feeds, not to be acutely aware that reducing anything to a formula is not typically representative of what scientists always do. It’s usual poor tabloid reporting that produces that kind of nonsense. To some actual scientists, such formulae are anathema.

But despite that nagging quibble, he’s making basically a good point. The guy making these recommendations – Professor Sidney Perkowitz of the Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia – has reportedly suggested a limit of “one big scientific blunder in a given film”. Which is where it starts to get a bit silly.

David speculates that this is comparable to the “one coincidence to which good screenplays are supposed to be restricted”, but that doesn’t seem like a great analogy. Major coincidences happen sometimes in the real world, but rarely in big clumps, so multiple coincidences in your film will make it start to look unrealistic.

But scientifically impossible things don’t happen at all, so whether there’s one breach of the laws of nature in your movie or a dozen makes no difference as to its implausibility. Any such simple hard-and-fast rule is bound to be misleading and unhelpful.

One film I recently really enjoyed was called Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I’m about fifteen years older than its target audience, but it was warm and funny and energetic and had nifty pacing and great comic timing and for the most part it stopped short of being annoying in its zaniness. Two thumbs up. But it was full of completely impossible things going on that only make sense in a cartoon world – unsurprisingly, being an animated kids’ film – and if you were scientifically nit-picking your way through, you’d have no time left for anything else.

And I would dispute that there exists any precise definable line between stories where you can do stupid cartoon stuff, like drop anvils on your characters and have tweeting birds appear circling around their dazed heads, and sci-fi, where everything must make perfect sense. Just as much as I dispute that allowing “one big scientific blunder” per movie does anything useful to address scientific plausibility in cinema. What’s likely to be acceptable depends far more on the context and the internal logic of an individual film.

It’s also worth noting that sci-fi writer John Scalzi was way more put out by the bad science in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie than was astronomer Phil Plait. These are both guys who know a thing or two about a thing or two, but it’s clearly possible to forgive a lot that you know is technically unrealistic, in the right context.

And while it’s lamentable that it’s taken me this long to reach one of the most interesting points about all this, there’s one thing I’ve heard from scientists on this subject time and again: When big-budget sci-fi movies do get actual science advisors on board to try and make sure things stay somewhere within tentacle’s reach of reality, they almost never have to totally sacrifice huge swathes of cool stuff that they wanted to do. Very often, having someone who really knows their stuff just makes the science even more awesome.

The conversation will go something like:


“Okay, someone send the resident geek in here. And get me some more coffee. Ah, smarty-brain, there you are, how’s it going? Listen, what’s your nerdy take on this bit in scene twelve where James Bond goes solar-wind-surfing? That’s a thing, right, solar wind? So I figure we get him wind-surfing but, like, on the Sun. Pretty cool, right? Not really sure how we get him up there, though. Does the Space Shuttle go to the Sun? Could we get one of those sky elevator things I think I heard about that one time? China has those, right?”

“Yeah, look, I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you about this whole scene, none of it really makes any sense, and if you go ahead with it as it’s currently written then your audience are going to tear you a scientifically impossibly large new one for turning their favourite franchise into a joke.”

“Damn. Tina, cancel my breakfast with the Prime Minster of China, tell him he can keep his crazy moon escalators. Okay then, astro-boy, you’d better come up with some new idea that’ll give me an excuse to have Bond to take his shirt off and justify a special effects budget bigger than the GDP of several small countries.”

“Well actually, if you’d ever paid any attention in school, or indeed to any other human being in your entire life, you might be aware of this other thing you could do, which would still look awesome on screen and let you showcase the CGI expertise of your hordes of computer-literate underlings, with the added bonus that it’s not total bullshit.”

“You mean, giving a shit about scientific accuracy might not reduce the entertainment factor by crippling my ability to blindly throw in whatever cool stuff I can think of, and may even put me in a better position to make exciting and visually inspiring references to genuine scientific phenomena?”

“Yep. You want to do things that way then?”

“Make it so.”


Wow, that rather got away from me. Wasn’t expecting that to turn into quite such a flight of fancy. Probably a bit wordy and less funny than I think it is. Still, not in the mood to edit now.

A good example of the kind of thing you may have just skipped over is the occasional recognition in some sci-fi films that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, and so cool-looking explosions wouldn’t actually make any noise when observed from a distance. David likes hearing stuff explode, and is willing to forego some realism on that score, which is fine – there’s always got to be some suspension of disbelief for the sake of entertainment, and we all have our different limits – but as Phil Plait points out, a spaceship blowing up in perfect silence can, if done right, be eerie as hell. Knowing how the real world works can really add to a talented director’s repertoire.

Yikes. That was wordy. Have I covered everything? I feel I should sum up. Or at least redraft before I post this. Nah. Thoughts, anyone?

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Just a quick review before I go and do stuff. Spoilerific bits have been rot13‘d.

So it was a fun movie. It’s a fairly heavily fictionalised account of recent paranormal research conducted by the US military, as documented by Jon Ronson in his book of the same name. I enjoyed it, though I did wonder how much some bits of it would work if you’re not already familiar with the story, and following the bits you remember from the book.

Some of the bits they did keep faithful to may have suffered in the transition. For some reason, I didn’t find the whole routine about cebivqvat n “fgebat cflpuvp qvfvapragvir” gb nggnpx (ol fgnoovat fbzrbar va gur arpx) as funny when George Clooney’s character is being all intense and sincere about it, as when Jon’s talked about that himself, either in person or in print.

And the ending sort of seemed inexpertly tacked on for little more reason than that they needed a grand finale, a big happy Hollywood ending conclusion scene, which supposedly resolves things and brings everything to a head and such. (Chggvat gur YFQ va gur jngre ng gur pnzc, V zrna, abg gur npghny svany fubg jurer ur ehaf guebhtu gur jnyy. V jnf jvyyvat gb tvir gurz gung nf n engure avpr ivfhny zbzrag.) I can see why they needed to end the main narrative somehow, as I don’t remember the book having anything similar, but I didn’t particularly buy it.

And this really is going to be brief, because now I have to go do sport.

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