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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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