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  • South Park Series 14

    May 22, 2011 by Nick

    South Park series 14 started badly. The first 3 episodes struck me as suitable to air after the mid season break, when the show inevitably returns with lesser offerings. I had started to lose my impatience when it came to watching the program and could imagine myself missing it. And then there was episode 4.

    The episode opens with Butters offering a view on the messy dissolution of Maria Shriver’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s marriage. Unlike recent topical jokes on the program it is neither lazy nor obvious: it manages to poke fun at the situation, make fun of Schwarzenegger’s career and future career choices, take in pop culture references and make fun of Shriver’s appearance. In about 20 seconds. While staying true to the characters involved in the joke and being genuinely funny. My faith in the series was restored within the first minute.

    If the joke had existed by itself, without any other good jokes within the episode, it would have been a reasonable episode. It had the audacity to get better: Cartman is a reactionary idiot, Randy Marsh is a bigger reactionary idiot, the mass public is stupid, government is out of touch, Cartman gets a moment of purity and his comeuppance, and there are lots and lots of jokes. Some of the episode is very clever, some of it is strikingly puerile. These two extremes are frequently evident in the same joke. I finished the show and immediately went back and watched it again.

    I wouldn’t say that the episode is up to the heights of things like the Losing Edge or Scott Tenorman Must Die, but it is certainly worth watching and shows that South Park can be relevant, incisive and very, very funny. Which is all I really want from South Park and something that sets it apart from most television available for consumption.

    Pirates 4

    May 21, 2011 by Nick

    I saw Pirates 4 on Wednesday, and have very conflicting views on it: on the one hand I think it is a good film with a great set piece and some genuinely entertaining moments. On the other, I am disappointed as it doesn’t maintain the quality it sometimes attains. It’s an odd case of something being good and better than I could reasonably expect it to be yet still letting me down. I think this is a sign of the regard I hold the first 3 films in as much as any comment on the fourth film.

    Once again the film stars Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush, and this time they are accompanied by Ian MacShane and Penelope Cruz. On paper this is considerably better than Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, but I am left with a nagging feeling that something of the first three films is missing. And I am not wholly sure what.

    The film starts on dry land, with a sequence that counts among the best in the series and in adventure and action films in general. The pace is frenetic, the action well choreographed and imaginative and the overall set piece exciting and enjoyable. This turns out to be the high point of the film and, in retrospect, shows an underlying weakness in the structure of the film.

    The remainder of the film looks lush, but there are points of odd anti-climax and of events occurring in a manner and sequence which diminishes their overall impact. When we are first introduced to mermaids we have our expectations toyed with and subverted, but the dramatic strength of the scene would have been better served by seeing the relative strengths and abilities of the mermaids which are demonstrated so ably in the next sequence shown prior to the scene in which they are actually introduced. It is an example of the problems inherent in the order of the set pieces within the film.

    Much of the plot of the film revolves around Jack Sparrow meeting up with a woman from his past and their feelings for each other and the relationship she is now in. This gives Jack more motivation and shades his character a little, but seems to rob the character of a little lightness and unpredictably. The more interesting character arc is actually Barbosa’s: his actions initially seem out of character compared to his previous experiences, but as his motivations become clear they make sense and give the film its emotional and dramatic heart. The real climax, for me, of the film is the end of his character arc and logical culmination of his motivation. But it isn’t an exciting visual set piece: it’s emotional and dramatic resonance is not immediate or visceral.

    I feel I sound unnecessarily critical and possibly overly analytical of the film: it’s enjoyable, well acted, largely well written and quite exciting. It’s just not as good as I hoped it would be and somehow different in tone to the films that preceded it.

    Alternative Vote

    May 2, 2011 by Nick

    There is a referendum on Thursday as well as the local elections. The referendum is to decide whether MPs elected to Westminster should be chosen via Alternative Vote (AV). Succinctly AV allows you to rank the options available to you in order of preference so that your second and third choices may factor into the election of a candidate should they not be enough people’s first choice. Personally I am very much in favour of it for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, and I am sure I can’t be alone in this, I often view voting as a case of choosing the most palatable of the realistic options or in keeping the least palatable out of office. I may want to vote for a fringe party that is more in step with my beliefs but I opt for a mainstream candidate in order to keep another mainstream candidate out. With AV I can vote as my conscience dictates without worrying this is going to enable another candidate I don’t like to sneak in with me having wasted a vote.

    Our political system will change. If a candidate is loathed by 60% (or more) of their electorate then they won’t somehow sneak in on the back of their not being an opposition candidate around whom support coalesces. It will be impossible to win despite being unpopular with everyone who didn’t expressly want to vote for you.

    Our political system will stay the same in some very important ways. We will still have local representatives whom we can connect with and are locally accountable. More than we currently have, even. MPs will still have to have surgeries and will no longer be able to ignore people who didn’t actively vote for them as their first choice. This will make politics more local as well as more representative of the national mood.

    We won’t face coalitions like the one we have currently; where one party that is unpopular with the majority of the electorate yet somehow finds itself the largest party. Where one party with a large share of the popular vote nevertheless has very few MPs and has to go along with policies it strongly disagrees with. This coalition is not indicative of things to come; it is a symptom of what is wrong with our current system.

    It will be harder to commit electoral fraud.

    We will see degrees of commonality amongst centrist parties leading to a continuity of government, rather than sudden lurches to political extremes every few years that destabilises our country.

    I think most of the reasons for voting against AV come down to fear of the unknown, conservatism (and I always find traditionalism inherently odd, why shouldn’t we embrace something new if it is an improvement?) and irrational personal attacks (this is not a referendum on Nick Clegg and, if you believe it to be, isn’t a “no” vote an implicit endorsement of David Cameron?). I don’t think AV is a pressing issue that will improve the economy or create new jobs or fix education, policing or health in the short term. But a “yes” vote on AV will mean we get the governments we can at least with, rather than one other people choose to give us.

    Thor

    by Nick

    Thor is a Kenneth Brannagh film released through Paramount by Marvel Studios. It stars Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Chris Hemsworth as the eponymous character. It’s shot in upscaled 3D and currently on general release. To my mind it harkens back to Richard Donner’s Superman but those less kind may suggest it is more akin to Flash Gordon.

    Honestly, I enjoyed it greatly. I think the fact I had very low expectations helped, but the whole film felt near pitch perfect to me. From the relatively b-movie opening of Portman and her colleagues chasing storms that nonetheless effectively set their status quo to the introduction of Thor himself and sense of mystery his appearance engenders, this was efficient and well thought out storytelling. The film then loops back to explain the events leading to Thor’s introduction as well as setting up the Asgardian milieu and central conflict that is at the heart of the film.

    We see Thor as a child, explore sibling rivalry and family duties, come to understand the very real flaws of his character and the strengths of those around him. For all the grandeur and massive sense of scale the film evokes, this is a flawed hero that is inherently human. The antagonists, too, are humanised and shaded with their own complexity and understandable motivation. It is only in the supporting god characters that we see a lack of character. More than this, even as the lead characters have character traits and complex motivations, they also all have character arcs. That this is achieved with conflict, drama, excitement and romance is testament to the film’s writers and director. This is a surprisingly good film and one of the stronger comics to film conversions.

    Branagh, as director, has obviously put thought into the fact that there will be 3D conversion. There is a lot of symmetry employed and he has distinct foregrounds and backgrounds, with a very clear idea which characters should be the focal point of each shot. very few shots have anything appearing to the edge that could confuse or flatten the image on screen and Asgard is seemingly designed from the ground up to be a 3D playground. It’s also very well realised, not looking cheap or ridiculous and comes across much better than the Olympus portrayed in Clash of the Titans.

    The gods themselves are well costumed, with their outfits looking incongruous rather than ridiculous when they are transported to Earth. They look otherworldly and strange, but not laughable. This is partially down to the sheer physicality of the actors portraying them (particularly Hemsworth) but also in sensible costuming making them look more armour like and less theatrical.

    Hemsworth surprises with the role, his accent never jarringly slipping and coming across as likable, brattish, impulsive, angry and heroic. He is actually believable in the role and a definite screen presence. Portman is fantastic as ever, and looks gorgeous.

    Thor was a very pleasant surprise and something I would actually like to see a sequel to. A rarity in itself.