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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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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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Spoilers, but it’ll save you having to see the movie, so you’ll thank me.

I can’t decide whether there are two (or arguably more) distinct reasons why this film sucked, or whether really there was just one major issue that fucked up the whole thing.

One thing I’m sure of is that Night’s philosophy sucks. There is such a stream of vaguely mystical anti-science bullshit that pervades this whole thing, I’m honestly not sure I can tell whether the actual tension and drama were all just as terribly handled, or whether it might have been reasonably gripping had I not been so annoyed at the idiotic preachiness. I’m fairly sure he’s just lame on multiple counts, but when there’s such a correlation in his movies between credibility of philosophical themes, and effectiveness with which the individual scenes draw me in, I can’t be sure that my irritation at one isn’t skewing my feelings on the other. Maybe next time he’ll stop trying to teach us something important, and actually just make an exciting movie. Or maybe he’s totally lost it.

I tend to find Mark Wahlberg pretty watchable, and in theory he could’ve been quite a screen presence throughout this movie too. The trouble is, his character, a science teacher, is used a soap-box for such asinine nonsense that I was provoked to shout my initial review of the film at him minutes into his first scene. (I wasn’t really shouting anything, obviously. I was in a movie theatre, after all. I don’t want to go to the special hell.)

He’s talking to a bored class of kids about how hundreds of thousands of bees are apparently going missing all over the country, leaving no trace, very mysteriously. (This may or may not really be going on, to some extent or other – my policy on doing research is the same as ever.) He asks for some suggestions as to what might have caused this. A few of his students pipe up with ideas about global warming, pollution, or whatever – sensible enough hypotheses to begin thinking about, and he comments briefly on their possible explanatory power, and likely limitations. So far, so good, so passably rigorous science.

Then some dickhead pipes up that the answer might be that it’s “an act of nature, which we’ll never truly understand”. (All my quotes from the movie I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist.) This, Marky Mark declares, is the best answer we’ve heard yet, and it launches him into a spiel about how much we don’t know, and how we will no doubt “find an answer to put in the science books, but it’ll only be a theory”.

Even if the word “theory” did fit the typical creationist definition of “any crazy drunken idea ever postulated”, rather than referring to a solid and reliable model that’s been developed in line with all available evidence and has already withstood a great deal of testing and shown significant predictive power, this would still be bullshit. Obviously it’s true that there are many things we don’t know, possibly orders of magnitude more than what we do know, in every field. This is not something that anyone with a brain is likely to dispute. But there’s a spectrum of ways you can choose to progress from that assumption.

At one end, you have a skeptical outlook on the world, and a scientific method. We observe what we can, try to come up with ideas about what’s happening, see how well those ideas continue to fit what we observe, and so forth. The vast ocean of our ignorance is an exciting prospect, because it means there’s so much to explore, so much we might learn, so much that might surprise us, so much left for us to study and try to understand. This is science, and it rocks.

At the other end, you have M Night Shyamalan. In this case, in any area of study in which we don’t have a complete understanding of all the processes involved (like botany, or evolutionary biology, or, y’know, all of them), the gaps can be filled by any random shit he wants to make up. This is an utter cop-out, and the people who do fill in these gaps with their own pet ideas of what could be possible (because “science doesn’t know everything”) never seem to come up with anything nearly so interesting as reality itself. The supposed awe felt for the universe at this end of the spectrum is so much less sincere, because it’s never really about what could be out there, or what we might learn. It’s about making a point by pushing forward this one particular idea, and defending it by vehemently asserting everyone else’s ignorance.

This is what’s so infuriating about this approach. He takes the utterly fascinating fact that the mysteries of our universe are practically infinite, and right there for us to explore if we put a little creativity and dedication toward it, and instead of actually learning something enchanting and wonderful, he uses it as an excuse to fantasise about whatever “possible” version of reality suits him, and then acts as if he’s being profound and saying something about the real world.

It’s this last bit that’s the real issue, I think. Simple fantasy I don’t have any problem with. Want to make up a story about plants attacking people and the human race getting the shit kicked out of it? Rock on. But when you’re explaining these plants’ ability to detect the presence of humans as a potential threat, release chemicals that cause, with devastating efficacy, absolutely every human in the area to commit suicide, and coordinate a series of attacks across the globe with military precision, don’t tell me that these abilities came from “evolving really fast”, or that nature has powers we can’t possibly hope to understand. I’ll think you’re an idiot with no idea what evolution is and no respect for my intellectual curiosity. Tell me it’s fucking magic, or something. Magic I can get behind, if it’s done right. Far preferable to trying to dress it up as pseudo-science.

There was a lot more to bitch about too, but I think I’m done reliving it now. To end on a lighter note, after I came home from enduring The Happening, I put on a DVD of Unbreakable, to cleanse myself. Now that is how you make a fucking movie. I’m even starting to notice various visual themes and symbolic elements, that had passed me by the first five or six times I saw it. I can’t be mad at the guy for too long when I remember how great that was.

I’m not paying money to see whatever he does next, though.

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Shoot ‘Em Up

Big fat novel wordcount: 28,423
Random story I started a fortnight ago wordcount: 7,862

Those nearly eight thousand words up there are one reason I haven’t posted that much here lately. I’m working on some other things, but topical ramblings might be a little slow in coming while so many other words are happening so easily. But this is worth talking about. I have just seen the most amazing movie ever. It’s called Shoot ‘Em Up.

It’s hilarious. It’s an uproarious knockabout comedy of the most gloriously farcical nature. If you were paying very little attention, or have no sense of irony, I can see how you might mistakenly get the idea that it’s an action movie, but you’d be completely missing the point. It has Clive Owen as an action hero, which is funny right off the bat.

But oh, it just gets better and better from there. This review will be cobbled together from the scattered notes I made while watching it, and will entirely fail to do justice to just how wonderfully ludicrous it is. It’s a film with a death-by-root-vegetable count of two, for god’s sake. Most films’ death-by-root-vegetable counts don’t even get off the ground, which I can only attribute to lazy writing.

It had a plot, I’m fairly certain, but mostly it’s about ass being kicked and shit being blowed up good, in a way that is absolute comedy genius. And Clive Owen fighting for HIGHWAY JUSTICE and the APPROPRIATE USE OF TURN SIGNALS.

Other menaces that shall not be tolerated include people who SLURP THEIR COFFEE TOO LOUDLY.

And once he has dispatched such scourges of decent society, the quips and snarled one-liners make James Bond look like Oscar Wilde.

“Eat your vegetables.”
“Nothing like a good hand-job.”
“Talk about shooting your load.”
“So much for wearing your seat-belt.”

Never before has a movie made me think to myself, “If Paul Giamatti doesn’t get his thumbs ripped off at some point before the credits roll, I will be hugely disappointed”. I’m thinking it of Clive Owen most of the time, of course, but that’s for different reasons, not plot-related at all.

At one point, he carefully arranges a number of automatic weapons around an entire building, along with a complicated pulley system, and then sets up a control room, where he can fire any of these weapons at will by tugging on bits of string. The bad guys trying to get him continue to stand conveniently right in front of all these mounted machine-guns, and die by the dozen. This film is basically Home Alone 12, where Kevin has grown up to be a complete maniac.

A film like this would normally be on very dangerous ground having any of its characters uttering a sentence that begins “I hate those lame action movies where…”, but somehow, having worked so hard to disassociate itself from logic and moderation entirely, this one kinda gets away with it.

And then, at the very end, there’s a callback to the hero’s horrific past which was mentioned earlier, and for a moment it looks like there might be some tragic denouement as the nightmares from his history return to haunt him again and put him through the same pain of loss as before, but then the film basically goes “Fuck that” and is just about how awesome it can be to shoot a bunch of people.

One billion stars.

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Cloverfield

My two-word Cloverfield review:

Holy. Shit.

Another one with slightly more words in:

That is one impressively resilient video camera. I am now going to drink all the tea in the world to try to calm my nerves.

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Well, I figured it’s about time I had a go at this whole social commentary malarkey, and tried throwing my own quirky and hilarious take on some much-discussed current affairs. Or something. Anyway, to that end, I finally watched a trailer for Expelled, Ben Stein’s new Intelligent Design propaganda film. It was seven and a half painful minutes, and now I get to share them with you.

My first thought was to wonder whether I’ve misunderstood the hype, and if this is actually a horror film. There’s some spooky music playing. We see a dim hallway, with a badly lit janitor sullenly cleaning the floor. Then a classroom, with rows of empty seats, and the sinister mantra “Do not question authority” being chalked onto the blackboard, over and over, by some short stubby bald guy. Then the voiceover starts and totally undermines the whole eerie atmosphere they’d been building up. Even Ben Stein’s voice is lame these days.

Ben Stein, we soon learn, has Big Questions. One of these Big Questions is, “Are we, the Universe, and everything in it, merely the result of pure, dumb fate and chance?” Which is a pretty badly phrased question, but just wait. There’ll be plenty of time for the science to get misrepresented and misrepresenteder soon enough.

Steiny is of the opinion that “everything was created by a loving God. Rocks, trees, animals, people…” I can’t tell whether he’s being deliberately patronising, or he’s explaining things this way because he doesn’t expect his audience to understand the concept of “everything” unless he really spells it out, or whether that’s just how he talks. Absent from his list are malaria, HIV, parasitic worms that eat through people’s eyeballs, and city-levelling earthquakes and tidal waves, which presumably also fall under the umbrella of “everything”. Just sayin’.

Obviously there is some disagreement on this matter, however. Fortunately, The Steininator is here to boil all thought on the subject down into two simple categories, helpfully biased so that you’ll know which one is right. Isn’t it nice when other people do all your thinking for you?

The two sides of the debate, then, are the “loving God” side, who believe that people all contain the “spark of the divine”, and the others, the “Darwinists”, who apparently claim that humans are “nothing more than mud animated by lightning”. Here you get a two-for-one bargain on logical fallacies, since this is a false dichotomy containing a straw man. It’s simply not true that there are two exclusive and all-encompassing positions on this subject, of which you must choose one; and the secular and naturalistic position that Steinamo thinks he’s arguing against is entirely fictitious.

“Mud animated by lightning” is nowhere a part of evolutionary theory, and isn’t even a useful or coherent way of simplifying or summarising the position. (The phrase “cosmic mistake” is used later, and is similarly inappropriate.) There follows a brief “overview” of the theory of evolution by natural selection, which takes an uninformed layperson’s ideas on what the theory is, and then dumbs it down even further.

Steinz Varieties generously has “no problem if people want to believe that sort of thing”. It seems that the misrepresented scientific idea, the one supported by a body of work with over a century of scientific experimentation and research clarifying and expanding on it, is the position being characterised as the kooky idea someone cooked up out of nowhere someday, which has gained ground among ideologues with a self-promoting agenda. “But… but… you’re the religious nut, dammit!” I splutter, apoplectically. “You don’t get to grandiosely tolerate us!”

This dangerously liberal approach of his, that scientists should be permitted to hold all the wacky, evidence-based beliefs they want, is justifed by the reminder that this is a free society, and more specifically that “this isn’t Nazi Germany”. Now, I have no experience with documentary film-making, and perhaps if Louis Theroux read this he’d bitch-slap me for my ignorance, but do we really need a clip of Hitler there to remind us what Nazi Germany was, and why it was bad? Maybe he is just highlighting the important differences between that horrific regime and the world of free love and peace on Earth in which we live today, but there’d be no need for the imagery if he wasn’t expecting us to associate it with something.

We are then introduced to some guy, who FrankenStein describes as a “mild-mannered research scientist”. Are we expected to take a liking to him because he sounds inoffensive, harmless, and an all-round jolly good chap? Or to wonder whether he has a crime-fighting alter-ego with super powers? Anyway, this guy’s story is that he edited a scientific journal, published a paper by some other guy (watch the trailer yourself if you want detail and nuance), and suddenly found himself “under attack”. The mood he felt from the rest of the scientific community, he says, went from being “chilly to… outright hostile.” So… it was chilly beforehand? Did they already not like you? Maybe because you’ve been a crappy scientist for years? Objection, speculative ad hominem. Okay, maybe I’m being harsh.

The article that caused all the trouble is said to have asserted that “there are signs of design in nature.” Now, I think that sounds vague and tentative enough to stop it from being all that controversial. “Signs” are not necessarily conclusive, and this could nearly be just another way of interpreting the claim that the theory of evolution is not complete, that there are some elements of observed biology which cannot wholly be explained to everyone’s satisfaction by our current understanding. This is certainly true, and does not mean that anyone’s suggesting that the entire field, and one of the absolutely fundamental necessities of modern biology, should be completely uprooted and discarded. There are just some things which, if they did come about through natural processes, we don’t yet know precisely how they did it.

However, a breath later, as if that last point was merely being rephrased or clarified, we hear, “The digital code in our DNA could not have come about by accident” (emphasis mine). Now, that is one Juggernaut of a claim, and a far cry from the “signs of design” suggested a moment ago. You’d have to know a whole lot about what can come about “by accident”, and how it does so, before you can say with such confidence that anything could not have done so. You know who probably does know a whole lot about the levels of life and complexity that can arise by accident? I’m guessing evolutionary biologists. People who’ve done experiments, and research, and spent years trying to find about more about it. Ben Stein-O-Mite… maybe not so much.

All our beleaguered Clark Kent wannabe (the research scientist guy, not Ben “Lisa Edel” Stein) is asking for is the freedom to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Yeah, because the evidence is really what’s on your side, in this stand you’re taking against one of the most solidly established and empirically supported areas of study in contemporary science.

His only crime – this poor fellow, who could never hurt a fly, and who wanted so badly to be a published scientific journalist – was daring to question the supposed “mud animated by lightning” theory. What I’m guessing this means, in more specific terms, is that this paper was deeply scientifically uninformed, disregarded mountains upon mountains of evidence gathered over decades of investigation, deserved to be ripped to shreds by the peer review process, and should never have even made it into print for all its factual and theoretical holes and misconceptions. I say I’m guessing, and I could certainly be wrong, but we’re really not given a lot of detail as to what it actually said, which might give us some idea how suitable or otherwise its publication in this particular journal might have been. (You may notice that I’m too lazy to put any time or effort into actually finding out, from any other sources, what the article in question was about. I offer no apology for this.)

To emphasise the unfairness, we are told how publishing this paper “would not have been an issue, if we were living in the time of Galileo, or Einstein”. First of all, again with the unnecessary imagery, this time disembodied heads coming right at me. Secondly… Dude. If someone is publishing articles in a scientific journal, based on a scientific understanding over a century out of date, they should be laughed out of the gene pool, let alone out of academic journalism.

But “this is the era of Darwin”. Accompanied by an image of a cheetah chasing down and mauling a gazelle. Because, you know, animals never did that in Galileo’s or Einstein’s time. (Yes, I realise the metaphor he’s trying to invoke here, but come on.)

There are other poor souls suffering similar horrors, and being “denied publication in scientific journals”. I truly don’t know how they cope. My minimal experience from the sidelines of the scientific world leads me to understand that, even if you do know what you’re talking about, and you actually have some evidence on your side which can’t easily be (and hasn’t already been) demonstrated to be useless in support of your ideology, getting yourself published in a scientific journal of any repute is still pretty damn tough.

And this stigma is inflicted upon these cursed, hopeless individuals, “all for questioning Darwin”. Again, this is bollocks. Scientists have questioned Darwin plenty. The guy died in 1882, do you think biologists have had nothing to do since then but twiddle their thumbs, glue some human jaw-bones to chimpanzee skulls and burn the occasional Lamarckian? They’ve moved on since his day. More than most creationists seem to have done.

Benny to the S bemoans the vastness and the overwhelming power of the Establishment which he is up against. “The media’s in on it, courts, the educational system…” Well, the more people who are against you, the more indignant you can be about your underdog status. Quite why all these far-reaching organisations would be so universally keen to exclude certain ideas is never explained, but there’s clearly a national secular conspiracy at work here, with unknown but definitely sinister motives. Yep, it’s way more likely to be the non-religious groups who are campaigning avidly and crying repression in an attempt to promote their personal ideas and ideological agenda. (I hope you’re not getting too dizzy from the rate at which I’m spinning back and forth between sincerity and sarcasm. I think it’s at least usually clear which I’m shooting for.)

Then there’s the suggestion that Darwinism (a term only those with an anti-evolution stance ever seem to use) might be “not only improbable… it might actually be dangerous.” This is followed, after a brief shot of what might just be some sort of Gulag or concentration camp (the subtle associative imagery continues), with a brief selection of half-second quotes from Dawkins, Dennett, and presumably some other similarly outspoken atheists or scientists with whom I’m less familiar. These, at first, fail to make any point at all. There’s so little context that I can’t even tell whether what they’re saying is supposed to come across as damning.

And then Richard Dawkins, in a shocking moment of candour and openness about his role in the Evil Atheist Conspiracy, tells us: “As a scientist, I am pretty hostile to a rival doctrine.” Something of a money shot, catching someone as prominent as Dawkins engaging in such blatant dogmatism.

But it’s a money shot of not more than eleven words. Dawkins has written many, many more words than that before, very clearly and elaborately expressing the precise opposite opinion, arguing strongly for the vital importance of science’s ability to adapt to new information, and that unconventional doctrines be heard and examined as dispassionately and fairly as possible. Has he suddenly changed his position? Has he been cleverly caught out, and had his true feelings revealed, by those cunning and tricksy documentary-makers? Or was he perhaps not really claiming that his present belief system is unshakable and must be defended at all costs? Were there maybe more than eleven words in the paragraph he was speaking, of which we saw only a snippet, that would alter our interpretation of his intent, if we could hear the rest of it? The very definition of a straw man argument involves deciding what you want your opponents to say and then attacking them for it, whether or not it represents what they actually believe.

Sweet Child O’ Stein’s next point is that scientific research is apparently the one area of society where we don’t tolerate free speech. This is hardly less wacked-out than anything that’s gone before. Nobody wants to deny people the legal right to express whatever unorthodox ideas about biology they want (except possibly some equally barmy zealots who in no way represent the scientific community). But if you want to be a science teacher, it’s not an unreasonable demand that you teach some science, which creationism fails to be. If you want to be published in a scientific journal, it’s probably necessary to submit a scientific article. Are you seeing the pattern here? It’s not censorship or intolerance of free speech if some magazine or university refuses to expend their resources in pandering to an uninformed and irrelevant demographic. I can send in as many as I like of my fascinating and brilliantly written articles on the latest hot crochet designs to hit the streets, but What Car? magazine are entirely within their rights to repeatedly ignore me in favour of whatever they consider more suitable to their readership.

Back to Saint Valenstein. “People who are confident in their ideas are not afraid of criticism.” Oh, wow, do you ever not understand how science works.

And in the closing moments it just gets ridiculous how much they overplay the importance of what they’re doing. He’s “trying to warn others before it’s too late”. Ben Stein’s on a mission from God. Ben Stein aims to misbehave. The fate of the planet is in Ben Stein’s hands. Only Ben Stein can save us now. Help me, Ben Stein; you’re my only hope. Ben Stein, Texas Ranger. Fear can hold you prisoner; Ben Stein can set you free. Ben Stein: fuck, yeah.

Even watching this movie could get you in trouble. You might lose your friends and your job, just from watching this film. Apparently the only way they can sell this film to anyone is by stirring up paranoia, and playing into the part of people’s minds that knows that rebelling against authority is cool and wants to be Neo in The Matrix. And that’s got to be some heavy duty paranoia right there. If you buy a cinema ticket to see this movie, the government will track your credit card, hunt you down, and see that you never get published in a scientific journal again. So make sure you pay in cash. And watch out for those black helicopters.

“If you’re a scientist with a future, I suggest you leave right now.”

Dude. YOU ARE BEN STEIN. YOU ARE NOT THAT POWERFUL. YOU DO NOT HAVE AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE THAT THE MEN IN BLACK ARE TRYING TO STOP YOU SHARING WITH THE WORLD.

And now it’s nearly over. We’re back in the school hallway from the opening scene, and then the empty classroom. The janitor we saw what feels like months ago cleaning the floor comes along, sees the writing on the blackboard, and shakes his head sadly. But wait… what’s this? He’s taking something out, and… it’s a blackboard eraser! He’s cleaning the board! He’s wiping away all that damnable Darwinian propaganda! Oh, happy day! Thankyou, mister janitor man, for saving us from this menace! (Yeah, I’m kinda bored by now.)

The final shot is of the rows of empty chairs in the lecture hall, with Austein Powers’s not-very-ominous voiceover: “Will anyone be left to fight this battle? Anyone? Anyone?” … I honestly can’t tell if it’s meant to be a self-parody, or if he’s taking himself seriously. Anyone else want to hazard a guess?

Anyone?

Bueller?

Bueller?

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Two new themes being introduced today.

Every post I make in here, memory permitting, I’ll be giving a word count on the document file that currently holds my attempt at a novel. The idea is that adding this layer of accountability will encourage me towards making that number bigger over time, rather than letting it languish as it tends to do. So, let’s get started on that one now.

Total word count: 25,246.

Next: I recently watched the film Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. And I’m now going to talk about it in a way which is likely to involve revealing certain aspects of the plot, which may diminish your future enjoyment of the film if you are yet to learn of these particular details. Spoiler alert, I guess is what I’m saying.

I liked it more than most of the reviewers I’ve heard talking about it. You probably can figure out 90% of the storyline from the fact that it’s the tale of an enigmatic but playful old man who runs a magical toyshop – if not a cliché, it’s certainly a fairly well-established trope – but I thought it was quite nicely done and an enjoyable ride for all that. But the philosophy behind it was often jarringly simplistic, and they seemed to expect to be able to get away with too much on the grounds of being charming and whimsical.

I still can’t decide whether I don’t like Jason Bateman, or I’m just yet to see him playing a particularly likeable character, but he plays the straight-forward, suit-wearing, rigidly formal accountant, who’s too entrenched in his work and needs to learn to lighten up and have fun and experience the magic of blah blah blah. I hope this doesn’t become too regular a theme for writer/director Zach Helm, because Will Ferrell’s character was written along very similar lines in Stranger Than Fiction (a far superior film with fewer philosophical problems for me), and I’m starting to take umbrage.

It feels almost like I’m being attacked, or at least my own position is, but by way of a totally unrealistic straw-man. The accountant, who’s attempting to organise the emporium’s non-existent filing system in an attempt to evaluate the worth of the place, mentions some forms or other with complicated alphanumeric names, and tries to explain the importance of their being filled in and filed correctly, and everyone looks at him like he’s a freak (“everyone” in this case referring to Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, and a selection of stuffed animals also sitting around the table).

Now, I’m sorry, but giving a crap about the legal ramifications of not filing a single tax return in over a century does not make you irreconcilably stodgy and boring. Thinking to consider medical insurance, when somebody is in hospital and serious concerns about their mortality have recently been raised, is not necessarily a sign of emotional repression and buttoned-up-ness and a need to learn about how magical the world can be. Being arrested for breaking financial and business laws or slapped with a prohibitively expensive hospital bill are not problems that get resolved by maintaining a sense of childhood innocence. And, when the accountant does start rediscovering his childhood innocence, by putting on a silly hat and roleplaying with a nine-year-old boy in the latter’s bedroom, it’s just a little too close to being insanely creepy, and when the kid’s mother eventually throws him out, there are unconvincingly few threats of legal action and restraining orders involved. But I’m straying from the point.

I guess my main problem is that the movie wants to have its cake with lashings of added saccharine sweetener and eat it too. It makes some points that are potentially very worth making, about allowing stories to come to an end, and turning a page so that another one can start, and this is partially followed through when Mr. Magorium dies. But Natalie Portman, his assistant, to whom the emporium has now been bequeathed, doesn’t feel up to the task of running the place herself, and plans to sell it off. The denouement comes when the accountant and his nine year old buddy talk her out of it, and restore her faith in the magic of things, so that the wonder can continue. But this leaves a couple of points unsatisfactorily dangling. Not least, it seems to contradict what had been a central tenet of the story up to this point – why is it impermissible that the story of the emporium might also be coming to an end? Other magical stories are surely being embarked upon every day, all over the world. It’s been a joyous and wonderful journey for the place, which should be celebrated, but maybe now it’s just time to turn the page.

But they seem to cop out of this idea for the sake of a nice, feel-good, picture-book ending. The final line, spoken by the nine-year-old boy as narrator, is about how the end of this story is also the start of Natalie’s own story, but that doesn’t really mean anything if her story is simply a continuation of the one that’s just been told. Her character is also a hugely talented concert pianist, and is struggling to complete her first symphony; and that’s something which surely is its own, unrelated story, and shouldn’t be linked inextricably to the running of this toyshop, as the film seems to want it to be. That whole thread seems to just trail off, but if this is really the start of her story, I’d have wanted her to actually go and do her own thing, write her own symphony, leave this story behind her, remembering it fondly while turning the page.

I’m not sure whether this next gripe is technically a different quibble or comes under the umbrella of what I’ve been talking about so far, in the film’s attitudes towards magic and wonder, and the practicalities of life. At one point, some other random kid finds a toy where a little gyroscope thing runs back and forth along a magnetic wire, doing some cute and interesting acrobatic tricks. He asks Natalie how it works, and whether it’s magic, and she tells him that it probably is. My beef with this is that electromagnetic interaction and gyroscopic dynamics are way cooler than magic, in part because they actually happen. Do you know what’s really going on when subatomic particles undergo electroweak interaction? I don’t. But it’s awesome. Give the kid a science book, or a chemistry set, or even just ask him how he thinks magnets might work and how someone could find out and get him thinking about it, but don’t hand-wave particle physics away with “magic”.

Anyone who’s seen me review films before will know not to be put off when I spend seven paragraphs going on about things that bugged me. I did like this film, and would recommend it with moderate enthusiasm to anyone who hasn’t already been put off by the above rantings.

Also, at one point Natalie Portman has identical hair to Jason Bateman. Same side parting and everything. And she’s still totally hot. Is there anything that can happen to her head that she can’t make work?

Good to know I can still be prolific when it’s called for. That’s it for today.

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