31.5.09

28 Days Later

'Could you tilt the frame a little over here? Yes, and over here as well. And over here. I tell you what, just have the camera permanently skewed. That's perfect.' - Danny Boyle (apocryphal)

19.5.09

Dollhouse Pilot

Some notes:

Opening party sequence, a standard mislead, was also a ploy to grab attention by throwing sex and motors at the screen. It backfired. Pretty dull and pointless. Whedon should know better.

We should remember that another pilot was shot, which got rejected for being too 'dark' and 'confusing'. Remember Firefly? A brilliant pilot was shelved for the DVD, and a sunnier episode was moved to first place. Hate to blow the 'Whedon got screwed by the studio' fanboy horn. But in judging the pilot, we should be aware that the creator's original instincts led in a different direction. Perhaps one without motorbikes.

Introduction to Ballard character was amazing. Beefcake doesn't hurt, of course. This is why Joss Whedon is brilliant. Some might say the effect used was too heavy-handed. Personally, I dislike the equivocal style in shows like Mad Men, so for me it wasn't a problem.

Some interesting exchanges between Topher and Boyd, even if it is a little bit 'I'm gonna explain stuff to you that you should already know by now'. But hey, Shakespeare did it...

Dialogue didn't lack wit, but jokes are pretty low-key. Oh well...

I believe the hostage negotiator plot-line was carefully chosen, asking us to compare the activities and intentions of the kidnappers with that of the Dollhouse. Both Davina and Echo are taken against their will. Both are traded for cash. One of the kidnappers has 'unprofessional' motives, and perhaps that's true for the Dollhouse as well (Topher creeps me out). Both girls have men working on the outside to free them (Gabriel and Agent Ballard), who are somewhat useless. In the end, Echo frees Davina, her 'other half', suggesting that to gain her own freedom, she will have to rely on herself. All of this is clever stuff. I'm surprised Whedon didn't underline it more.

The plot itself was quite ridiculous. But so what? I can be pretty forgiving when it comes to the mechanics of telling a story, as long as that story is saying something. Buffy, wonderfully, could take the piss when it came to plotting, because of its story-as-metaphor setup. Dollhouse needs to be more disciplined, and I think it is. I mean, come on, look at 24, Lost, Prison Break...

On Eliza Dushku. I think she has the charisma to carry the show. And no, I'm not just being polite and using 'charisma' instead of something else...

On the caring about people with no personality front. I cared. I was with Echo every step of the way. We're watching her brain and body get hideously fucked with. The personality she was imprinted with also had its own pathos, which Dushku conveyed very well. So my sympathy neurons were firing at full blast.

In all, pretty solid. And from what I've heard, it only gets better.

Dark Avengers

I've started reading Bendis comics month-by-month. It's the first time I've done so. Now I understand all the yelping about ridiculous decompression in comics. Reading Dark Avengers with month-long gaps between issues has been pretty uninspiring. You need to read it all in one go, so you notice the use of repeated frames and scenes over different issues, how effectively they reveal new information and build satisfying patterns over a story arc. Not only that, the long dialogue exchanges (the distinguishing feature of Bendis's work) swamp the pacing of an individual issue. Reading the whole story at once ups the tension, so momentum isn't lost when the talking starts. In all, my feeling is Bendis comics are really better read in trades.

Does this herald the end of floppies? Certainly not. Buffy Season 8 and Phonogram have been doing stories specifically designed to be read in single issues, and they've worked very well.

One other thing. A notable aspect of Dark Avengers is it's chaotic framing - tilts, overlaps, weird shapes. Compare this to the ongoing New Avengers, also by Bendis, where frames are straight and regular. Pretty nifty way of conveying the nature of the two teams, don't you think?

18.5.09

Natural Law

Let's get ethical!

I did a course this year on the history of political ideas. As always, within this giant topic, we follow the particular expertise of the tutor we get assigned. In this case, this meant focusing around the enlightenment period. I was a smarmy bastard and only wrote essays on the thinkers I liked - Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau and Marx. What frustrated me about a lot of the theories we went through was their recourse to natural law justifications.

This is the thing. Natural law in the 18th century became a kind of secular, scientific way of approaching ethics (which is what most political theory boils down to). The philosophe starts out by divining the basic laws by which human beings function, and from there working towards constructing a set of concrete principles that fit these universal, natural laws. Usually, the first principle is that human beings always seek to preserve themselves. Others include the urge to procreate, live in a community and worship God. The end result is a rational, objective ethical code.

But how weird! We don't just have one natural law theory. We have several, which claim that they are the ones that are truly objective. The natural law method arrives at different conclusions because it reads humanity in different ways. This is the essential problem. Human nature isn't fixed. Applying laws to it is impossible, because humanity will always surprise you. Even things like the urge towards self-preservation don't apply all the time. A person can choose to commit suicide for very rational and pragmatic reasons (see the beginning of the Star Trek movie).

What I like about natural law is the emphasis on a person's purpose. It seeks to uncover what humanity is meant to be like, and provides rules that help unlock a person's full potential. The problem is that it then takes a humanity-wide view, arguing that all people work in the same way, have essentially the same purpose, and should stick to the same ethical code. This is probably influenced by a theistic metaphysical outlook, where God created the world and human reason according to his universal, objective laws.

If we take God and objectivity out of natural law, wadda we got left? I think we arrive at existentialism, or at least my simplistic idea of what existentialism is. This is only based on my reading of Satre's Nausea and Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so forgive me if I'm getting the theory all wrong. As far as I understand, existentialism attempts to detail the consequences of atheism. It tries to build a way out of the meaninglessness and despair of a life without God. We do this by meditating on our nature and situation in the world, and constructing our own purpose for our short lives. This is an individual process. We should attempt to divorce ourselves from the structures that impose foreign values on our lives - family, religion, country. We look at ourselves with clear eyes, and from there set our own goals and values.

In this way, we preserve our own freedom of thought, and everyone else's. Traditional natural law is oppressive. It dictates one human nature which everyone needs to strive towards. With existentialism, we take the rational natural law process and apply it only to ourselves. In a liberal secular society, this, for me, is the only ethical approach that make sense.

15.5.09

The Horned God

'Slaine. You have taken the first steps in seeking my advice. In questioning the world you live in and its values. Not accepting them with blind faith. In your adventures you have often stood on the edge of the sea of awareness, but were too afraid to enter. Now it is time. Come, receive the hidden knowledge that has many names, but you call the cauldron of wisdom, or grail. The knowledge men seek far and wide, but is inside them all the time, submerged deep within their subconscious. Race memories of a bygone era when, for two hundred thousand years, men worshiped a goddess and there were no gods. An era when women looked after the earth. An era men have conveniently chosen to forget or deny, yet secretly yearn to return to, even though they dread it. Yearn, because it is a return to the mother. To the pleasures and comfort of the womb. Dread, because it is also a return to the black, bottomless pit of the unknown from which they sprang, when they were powerless, alone and afraid. But first they must defeat the sea demons who dwell there. Materialisations of their fears of returning to the lost era of women. To defeat them, you have to accept this knowledge and be prepared to reject the male path of power and domination over women. Only when you have overcome your mental demons will you be ready for what lies beyond.' - Danu, the Earth Goddess

14.5.09

How I Love Garth Ennis...

'You cold?'
'No.'
'You lonely?'
'No.'
'You want to jump my bones anyway?'
'Sure.'

War and the State

Something interesting over here. Simon Jenkins is taking the piss (I hope), but he did flag up something I have been thinking about for a while. I had a lecture on the role of the state in modern Europe this year. It described the way its role had shifted from warfare in the 18th century to welfare in the 20th. Nowadays, the state has to be worth your while. Taxes are extracted on the condition that the money is used to improve citizens prosperity and way of life. Essentially, a government's legitimacy rests on delivering economic growth. This is how liberal democracies work.

However, it wasn't always like this. By way of conclusion, the lecturer stressed that war was the most significant factor in the development of the state - Napoleon, Crimea, the First and Second World Wars. War is the state's defining feature. Indeed, war created the state.

This is the theory of the state as protection racket. I encountered it in my very first term at university, when I was doing the Anglo-Saxons. With the agricultural revolution, humanity became tied to the land. But this new mode of production left communities exposed to theft and pillage. Local gangs emerge, that extort resources from a select network of farms through violence and intimidation. In turn, they protect their source of revenue from other gangs in other areas. They collect tribute in exchange for protection. Or, they collect taxes to defend against invasion. The gang is the state, and the farmers the citizens. And war gives the state legitimacy.

We're a long way away from this. But our lecturer intimated that defence spending still keeps the modern state in business, citing the Iraq War as evidence. I am somewhat skeptical of this. Democracy means that the state is no longer so brazenly oppressive. It serves citizens, not itself. If it fails (or appears to fail) to do so, it is booted out and replaced. Look at today's Labour government, which won't survive next year's general election.

Then again, if this was the case, why would governments continue to fight wars? They are hardly value for money for the taxpayer. Wasn't the War on Terror sold as a kind of protection deal? Terrorists/Saddam threaten our lives, so we need to preempt their attacks. Perhaps war still does provide governments with legitimacy to rule.

But wait. It only does so when the war is successful, e.g. Thatcher and the Falklands. Iraq was a disaster, and the justification for it turned out to be a lie. And yet Blair and Bush, and their respective parties, held onto power until very recently. Evidence, surely, that the economy always trumps foreign policy at elections. Blair and Bush didn't need to go to war in order to stay in power. They did so because they thought, for reasons I am still not clear about, it was the right thing to do.

13.5.09

Star Trek

'Could we get some more lens flare over here. Yep, just go all out. I want LIGHT, people!' - J.J. Abrams (apocryphal)

10.5.09

Dollhouse

No, I haven't watched it. For that would be ILLEGAL. Those of you outside the US who have watched it should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. It will be coming over to the Sci-Fi Channel in the UK soon. Until then: patience!

The show has been getting a lot of flak. The premise is difficult. The mythology is weak. You can't sustain interest in characters that have no personality. It's not funny. And so on.

Whatever. I've found this on the interweb. Tiger Beatdown knows what's what. The show is awesome. Those who disagree are JUST NOT GETTING IT.

I doubt there being anything more my infinite wisdom can reveal about Dollhouse. Instead, read Tiger Beatdown, and put your fears to rest. And let's just hope they don't cancel the thing.

There's not enough beauty in the world. Therefore...


Jemina Pearl (Musician)


Tracyanne Campbell (Musician)


Mary-Louise Parker (Actress)


Olga Kurylenko (Model)


Kristen Bell (Actress)


Anette Dawn (Adult film star)


Juanita Stein (Musician)


Lily Allen (Musician)


Kate Bush (Musician)


Christina Hendricks (Actress)


Lauren Laverne (Musician, radio DJ and TV presenter)


Grace Park (Actress)

I don't usually haunt this part of town, but...


Wayne Carter (DA CARTA!)


Jarvis Cocker (Musician)

9.5.09

Wolverine

Wolverine is so many things: berserker, cowboy, samurai, soldier, secret agent, father figure, beer-swilling, cigar-chomping, barroom-brawling son of a gun... oh, and Jean Grey's favourite bit of rough (ruff!). Not all of that will fit in one movie. The makers of the new X-Men Origins film have stuck to the basics - Wolverine caught between humanity and the beast. In this, they follow the perfectly competent but pretty uninspiring Wolverine: Origin miniseries.

The film skewers the theme in a rather brilliant set-up towards the end. Wolverine battles his nemesis Sabertooth to the ground. Sabertooth dares him to give into his nature and kill him. But above Wolverine the voice of reason and love urges him to show restraint, or become what he hates. Our hero is literally caught between his angel and his demon - his (male) competitive violent nature and his (female) loving moral soul. How clever! Now queue the explosions.

Peter David pretty much nails it over here. The film is perfectly fine, but the character could have been used for so much more. He might still be. Seeing how well the film has done at the box office, I'm sure we'll be seeing more of Wolverine...

Also, Gambit was awesome. But we all knew that already.

4.5.09

In The Loop

It's a weird feeling when you find yourself agreeing with Alastair Campbell. This is what he thought of the film. He's right, it really can't sustain the frantic momentum of its parent TV show. There are baggy bits, where you start wondering where the film is going. However, the final half hour totally makes up for it, screwing the tension up to a kinetic showdown between Capaldi and Gandolfini - one of the most sublime moments of cinema I have ever experienced. Looking back from this towering height, the meandering this-is-going-nowhere developments in the middle of the film are strangely fitting, seeing as the audience are in exactly the same position as the characters.

Boring it definitely isn't. Jokes are not always roll-on-the-ground funny (although they often are), but they never let up. There was a constant smile on my face all the way through. Campbell is obviously made of sterner stuff. Or, you know... he's lying.

Here we get to the knotty problem at the heart of In The Loop. Campbell, and Michael Portillo on Newsnight Review, came out against the film because its portrayal of politics was so far removed from their own experience. As Campbell says, the film suggests that 'all politics was basically crass, all politicians venal, all advisers base'. He concedes that 'politicians and advisers have their own ambitions. But they have more than that'. He's right (ahh, how that hurts!). Real MPs and their advisers are not this incompetent and unscrupulous. Mark Kermode uses recent Labour sleaze as evidence that, really, they are. But this generalizes from a specific case. The reality is that politicians have a variety of motives for going into politics, both noble and base, as Campbell says. But in stressing this particular failing, I believe Campbell and Portillo miss the film's point.

In The Loop doesn't pretend to be an accurate representation of the way politics and politicians work. It's not a political drama like The West Wing. It's satire. Satire (apologies for being condescending) exaggerates certain deplorable aspects of life for comic effect. The dirty tricks behind In The Loop's sexed-up dossier are ridiculous, the characters that cook it up are caricatures. That's the point. That's how the film makes its point. And contra Campbell, it does add something new to the TV show, just not in the grey direction Campbell would prefer. Instead, the film goes further into the black.

For Capaldi's monstrous creation gets an airing, and we finally get to see through his venomous exterior and into the dark recesses of his soul. Malcolm gets insulted by the American head honcho, and those barbs bite deep. For the first time, we see him not in control, and not running the show. His monumental ego is wounded, so much so that the vicious threats he so liberally spews are blocked up. In this moment, Armando Iannucci shows us the evil demon behind politics - the consuming need to control, bully and dominate others, simply because your ego demands it. Malcolm is a caricature, but he reveals a very real and frightening aspect of the will-to-power.

Is there no ray of light in this nihilistic horror show? I think there is. Just take a look at the women. In a telling scene, Liza storms off leaving Toby and Chad to continue their dick-measuring contest. Iannucci shows the egotistical, selfish will-to-power to be an overwhelmingly male trait. All the men in the film, including the peace-loving General Miller, compromise themselves, leaving the women to pick up the pieces. They are usually the ones on top of the situation (Judy), or who demonstrate real intelligence (Liza), or care about someone other than themselves (Suzy). They cut through the testosterone of the film, and demonstrate, from the sidelines, another way of doing politics.