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  • Going Old

    February 27, 2013 by Nick

    I always told myself that, when I went bald, I would shave my head. Unfortunately I missed this by some time, as no one actually bothered to tell me I had gone bald and I only noticed when confronted with a photo with a large white patch on my head and tried unsuccessfully to work out where the light source for what had to be a reflection was coming from . . .

    Now I trim my head using the clippers with no guard. I used to use the guard but it was harder to get right and my hair seems to be getting progressively more bald (as balding, I assume, works). Last time I trimmed my head my hair looked noticeably patchy and thin when it was long enough to tell I had rested on it. This time it was obvious much sooner. It’s going to get to the point where I don’t dare have much more than stubble for fear of the places where stubble no longer grows.

    Being bald, of course, has meant some adjusting. Luckily I have had a tendency to keep my hair short since my teen years (I had an ill advised attempt at growing my hair long when I was about 13 and then very little since). Short hair has a habit of acting like velcro when you put a shirt or top over it. The friction can mean a lot of effort in getting cloth to slide over your skin. Also, and this one really should be obvious, being bald is colder. I wear a lot of hoodies now, some of which stay on due to the aforementioned friction. But I feel the cold and know that a millimetre of hair can make a huge difference to how warm I feel.

    There are other weird aspects to being bald. Trying to judge if you have shaved hair to a sufficient length by touch and the point where stubble buttresses up against a bald patch and you have no idea if the change in texture is due to baldness or having left a patch of hair too long. The way skin feels less elastic where it is bald. Trying to remember where your hairline actually was the last time you trimmed it. Knowing your head its as likely to be flesh, red or purple as your hair colour. Worrying that your hair may be grey or white if you actually let it grow. It’s a constant stream of surprise and reality versus memory and hoping you can look like Jason Statham or Bruce Willis when Mr Burns seems to loom large.

    Live Free Or Die Hard

    February 25, 2013 by Nick

    Die Hard isn’t just a film franchise, it’s a description of the state of the franchise. The original film is brilliant, save for one annoyance. The second film is largely good, but too open and over the top. The third, with some hindsight, is quite effective but deviates from formula and has a stupid ending. The fourth is utterly terrible and features someone outrunning a jet in a very slow lorry. So, what then, of the fifth film?

    It’s not the worst Die Hard film. That is possibly the nicest thing that I can really say about it. My idea of what a Die Hard film is cemented by the first film. The second largely follows the same formula and the third and fourth cheerfully ignore it. So does the fifth. That means that Die Hard films are actually more unlike the first film then they are like it, character names aside. But they bear the name. And it doesn’t feel like Die Hard.

    John McClaine sets off to Russia to find out what trouble his estranged son has managed to get himself in. His son is embroiled in a Russian conspiracy and works as a spy. This, actually, is not the biggest stretch of belief that the film will ask you to make. From the very first chase (which makes little to no sense) we have baddies who are ruthless and decisive when tension is needed or to show how bad they are and then utterly ineffective when the heroes need to accomplish anything. And physics and momentum are gleefully ignored.

    The thematic link to the parallel stories/arcs in the film is what people will do for the children and the sacrifices they will and won’t make. The twist is that the two fathers aren’t as far apart from their offspring as it appears, even if this makes them less similar as people. It’s not a bad underlying idea, but it is paid lip service by the film as a whole and the rest of the film is really quite stupid.

    Bruce Willis, as usual, is eminently watchable. Unfortunately he is starting to look a little slight and old for the pure gung-ho heroics. To make things worse, the gunfights degenerate into John Wayne style shooting at each other with no cover. People being shot seems to only have a bearing as per plot demands and there is little of the tension and sense of danger that you see in the first 3 films.

    Worse still, the villains are easily dispatched and the entire thing feels largely anti climatic. Even the bits that aren’t predictable come across as no surprise. Still, at least no one outruns a fighter jet in a truck or saves the world from the internet by shooting things.

    Triple A Failure

    February 23, 2013 by Nick

    Moody’s has just announced that it is decreasing the UK’s credit rating from AAA to AA1. It doesn’t sound like much but it is the central plank of the Conservative’s policy for the country disintegrating.

    David Cameron served as an adviser to Norman Lamont during Black Wednesday. Black Wednesday was when the previous Conservative government’s exchange rate policy disintegrated in a single day and cost the country billions. It rendered them unelectable for a generation. The credit down-rating is arguably worse.

    We have been repeatedly informed, and elected the government based on, the idea that austerity and aggressively dealing with the country’s debt was the surest way to a financial recovery and a rejuvenated economy. This has just patently failed: our debt is now harder to pay back and will cost more to service as a result of this move. A move that is the logical conclusion of the extended failure of the government’s policy.

    As a country we have had the AAA rating since 1978. This was at the time of the Labour government that we were informed “wasn’t working” and the Winter of Discontent. We had it even through the debacle of the ERM exit of Black Wednesday. Gordon Brown’s stewardship of the economy and the global economic collapse of 2007 didn’t hurt it. For it to be stripped away now is huge.

    The Conservatives are lucky it happened after the end of the city trading on Friday. At the start of Friday (a day when the markets tend to be twitchy anyway) would have caused a huge amount of panic and negative press. There is still going to be blood on Monday. The problem is that the Conservatives can’t be seen to ditch their policy or panic. Cameron can’t suddenly get rid of Osborne (who, bluntly, has appeared massively out of his depth forever) but he can’t change the policy with Osborne at the helm.

    The line that is being pushed that this is a sign of the problems that the government and country face would be in tatters if we had a reasonable opposition. Unfortunately, Ed Balls aside, we don’t. It’s also happened at the weekend which means, while it will dominate a full media cycle, there aren’t people available to really get their teeth into it. Monday is going to be crucial, as is the reaction of the tabloids and the public. Assuming it trickles down into things like the pound falling on foreign exchanges (almost certain), borrowing becoming harder and more costly (again, near certain) and the ensuing inflation this could very well be the death knell of the government. Even without a proper opposition

    Reign Of Fire

    February 21, 2013 by Nick

    Reign Of Fire is a film starring Christian Bale, an under credited Gerard Butler and Matthew McConaughey as the token American star to make it more saleable overseas. It dates from before Butler or Bale were particularly bankable in their own rights and seems to be a relatively large budget British film.

    The story is of a dystopian future where dragons have reasserted themselves as the dominant species on Earth following a largely ineffectual and not particularly evidenced nuclear holocaust to wipe them out. The settings and props don’t quite mesh with the scenario as relayed by dialogue and montages of newspaper cuttings. The great special effects on the dragons aside, the film looks and feels like it is struggling manfully with a restricted budget.

    The story opens with the introduction of dragons and setting up them up as a distinct threat. It also ties nicely to the end, which is sensibly thematic but a little too convenient. It provides a concise introduction to the dragons, a demonstration of their awesome potential but also limitations and is a tense scene that gives the protagonist a back story. It’s very lean scripting.

    The rest of the film is largely perfunctory. It’s a blockbuster, but doesn’t quite have a blockbuster’s budget. This limits the number of locations which means that the plot is rather sedate. it also means that there aren’t many action scenes to break up the necessary character moments, which doesn’t help to raise the stakes or create a sense of scale or imminent danger. Perhaps more imaginative directing or a different structure would have created a sense of foreboding and tension, but that arguably would have required a smaller cast and less broad characterisation. It’s a film whose ambitions often overreach its very logistics. Nothing is particularly badly done, but the film is limited in what it can actually achieve.

    Bale has little to sink his teeth into but is good. Butler is a likeable presence but doesn’t really extend himself. McConaughey is wide eyed and staring and actually rather good. The characters don’t particularly interact in an interesting way but there is a nice scene early on about the demise of entertainment and the reassertion of the spoken word and small scale drama in its stead. There is very little that shows similar insight and most of the story is predictable and the ending oddly anti climatic (but then again, it had to be in order for a small group to achieve so much and within the constraints of the budget).

    As a blockbuster, it’s a British film. As a British film, it’s missing a lot of intensity and character development but doesn’t grate or deal with a load of luvvies. What it really reminds me of is Event Horizon, although Event Horizon was obviously cheaper and worked within its remit much better.

    Fast 5

    February 19, 2013 by Nick

    The Fast and the Furious film franchise is a series of films centring around people driving fast cars in various illegal ways. It’s not high art and the better ones have Vin Diesel in them. Fast 5 sees the action taking place in Rio, Brazil and centres on Dwayne Johnson trying to apprehend a group of criminals who have been framed for killing some American agents while planning a robbery.

    The reason I wanted to see the film was to see Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson punching each other. The testosterone is palpable but the action scenes aren’t particularly inventive or exciting. The climatic scene has a nice central conceit but arguably drags on too long and suffers from pedestrian direction. As much as Michael Bay is derided, some low tracking shots would have made things considerably more exciting.

    But, on its own level, it isn’t a bad film. It does what it sets out to and has a twist. The supporting cast is largely marginalised, but this is actually addressed in the plot rather than incidental. The leads glower and perform explosively and the action ticks over. It doesn’t feel as long as it actually is, so that is a sign that things succeed.

    Neither Vin Diesel nor Dwayne Johnson are particularly nuanced actors. It doesn’t matter. They’re both convincing as very big, muscular men who engage in high testosterone pursuits and jump and punch things. That is all the film really calls for and something they manage to do with aplomb. The supporting cast has precious little to do, but the villains are suitably nasty and glare at things and people make doe eyes at each other when appropriate.

    Fast 5 is entertaining and enjoyable, but as long as you go in with sensible expectations you won’t be disappointed. It’s a Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson vehicle and serves perfectly well at showcasing their particular talents.

    Gun Machine

    February 17, 2013 by Nick

    Gun Machine by Warren Ellis is his second novel. It revolves around a detective who uncovers a room full of hundreds of guns linked to unsolved crimes and an overreaching conspiracy hinging on their use. It’s already been optioned as a TV Series, which it is a brilliant premise for. What it is not, sadly, is a great story in its own right.

    There is a great premise here (enough for a series of novels, really), and some engaging characters (although there always feels to be a degree of repetition to Ellis’ characters), but there isn’t enough plot.

    The problem with a lot of thrillers is that they believe their plot should be terse and lean. This means a lack of red herrings, dead ends or superfluous characters. This leads to the entire plot hinging on a ridiculous coincidence that utterly undermines the story. There is precious little detection on the part of the detective and the guilty party is introduced early on and easily recognised just by the fact they serve no other purpose in the overall story.

    There is another problem as well: the tenant of the room with all the guns in isn’t really fleshed out and Ellis cheats to leave him as essentially a cypher and relatively mysterious. It’s akin to a clumsier version of Hitchcock’s Rebecca where someone yells “redacted” or there is a bleep every time someone mentions the new wife’s name.

    I wanted to love Gun Machine. It opens so well, the characters are funny and the events relatively horrific. I’m sure that the level of unsolved crimes has been researched and the basic premise is great. I can even believe the initial coincidences that set the plot in motion. But it doesn’t work as a thriller or a detective story. As anything other than a dark comedy (without enough jokes) or a character piece (without enough character interaction or development) it fails. The lack of characters means that the culprit is obvious. And the climax is incredibly lazy, something you’d expect from a tv show long since devolved into lazy formula.

    Why You’re Eating Horsemeat

    February 15, 2013 by Nick

    There is a wilful ignorance of how processed food is made. We don’t want to think about the reality or logistics of it, and our voluntary disconnect from our food is being challenged by the current reverberations of the presence of horse meat in the food chain.

    How many times have you looked at a baked product or chocolate sweet and it has informed you that it may contain traces of nuts?

    Although there are no nuts in the particular thing that you are seeking to eat, it has been made in an environment where nuts are used and there could be cross contamination. This is a simplistic example but illuminates how you can have pork or horse meat in a beef product.

    Although we like to think that a meal is made in an analogous manner to how we would prepare one in a kitchen nothing could be further from the truth: everything is made on an industrial scale in ways to maximise profit. “Beef” will be bought in in huge quantities, ready minced. It will come from factories that also handle lamb, pork and (apparently) horse. A single beef burger (even if it is all beef) will contain DNA from upwards of a thousand animals, all processed and packaged in a meat plant before going to either a beef burger preparation area or plant.

    Moreover, when you buy a product with a company’s or shop’s livery all over it it hasn’t been manufactured by that company. They source it from a factory that makes food for many different clients. What you are buying is a brand and a set of specifications that they try to make the manufacturer adhere to. There are going to be fewer makers than there are brands, and a bran is no guarantee of provenance. Just because you like a company’s pies doesn’t mean that their buns will come from the same manufacturer. In fact, they are highly likely not to.

    This is how horse meat can enter the human food chain. It is symptomatic of ridiculous levels of naivety to actually be surprised when it does. The only way to know what is in the food you eat is to make it yourself an know exactly where all the ingredients come from. To make each meal separately and not do anything in bulk. And, as the majority of people are going to abdicate responsibility on this, we’re going to see mock indignation and hand wringing, some sop to the current outrage and the industrial preparation of food to carry on as normal.

    Parker

    February 13, 2013 by Nick

    Parker, starring Jason Statham, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Lopez and Michael Chilkis is probably going to go down in the annals of history as “that Jason Statham movie with Jennifer Lopez pretending to be frumpy.”

    Parker is, apparently, a gentleman thief in the pulp tradition from a series of successful novels. It could be the attempt to create a franchise and the film definitely has some star quality in and some reasonable set pieces. But it’s also a Jason Statham film. A good Jason Statham film, but you arguably know exactly what you are going to get before you settle down to watch it.

    Statham struggles gamely with a couple of different accents, none of which seem entirely consistent or plausible. He also does his flexing, brooding presence and a surprising number of not quite action scenes. Nolte appears as a grizzled mentor. It’s a role that he’s good at, and he works well against Statham, but he is largely there to propel the plot and provide exposition.

    Chilkis is a competing thief, but doesn’t really do menacing particularly. The absence of a great villain hurts the film overall, and although the heists are entertaining, they are hardly spectacular and the film isn’t really carried by them. There is never really excitement or drama created from a sense that things are coming apart for Parker or that anything is beyond his control. And he doesn’t seem to be enough of a control freak or calculating enough to make it entertaining in that sense. I’m left with a sense that the film represents a real missed opportunity.

    And casting Jennifer Lopez as a frustrated real estate saleswoman/divorcee is just plain odd. We’re meant to believe that she is trapped in her life and has no potential courters other than a patrol-man  She doesn’t look down at heel or like she would be short of offers. Maybe I am deluded, or maybe my interpretation of her character is wrong, but it really doesn’t work for me.

    So, really, Parker is a Jason Statham movie. It isn’t a bad Jason Statham movie, but it isn’t a great one. The things that take it away from being a normal Statham film aren’t strong enough or well enough done and the Statham elements seem to hinder the underlying premise. And Lopez is woefully miscast. And I can’t really tell you what happens in any of the action scenes having seen them, which suggests they lack enough invention or vitality to overcome any of the other problems.

    Paperman

    February 11, 2013 by Nick

    Paperman is the animated short before Wreck It Ralph. It is also available (legally) online in its entirety. Apparently it features ground-breaking techniques and the melding of computer and traditional animation as well as 2D and 3D. Ignoring all that, it is beautiful, expressive and charming.

    Although there are definite cues from the Disney of old, the film reminds me more of Japanese animation and feels like something that may have been bundled with the Animatrix. This could be because a tram/street-car is featured quite heavily or the exclusively urban settings. It doesn’t feel like typical Disney (even the sequence that borrows quite heavily from Fantasia’s The Magician’s Apprentice) and has a dated yet timeless look that seems more grounded than the purely fantastic.

    Paperman isn’t bright or colourful. It is exclusively monotone apart from one piece of spot colour. The vitality of the colour against the monotone palette may be one reason, but it also evokes a classic sensibility and creates a sense of a real and depressing city. The skill in layering shades of grey, white and black to keep everything readily understandable and a sense of visual depth is not to be underestimated: this is as skilful a piece of animation as I have ever seen.

    The characters, again, sit somewhere between the traditional Disney style and a more Japanese influence. They’re wordless and expressive, but they seem to have mannerisms rather than personalities. It’s too short an animation to properly explore them, and the cityscape and events alluded to by the title form as much of the story as the characters themselves. It’s a beautiful piece of animation, stylish but also engaging. But it is as long as it will support.

    Wreck It Ralph

    February 9, 2013 by Nick

    Wreck It Ralph is Disney’s latest movie, and also their latest foray into the digital animation arena. Arguably it skews towards a younger audience than Pixar’s work, but I greatly prefer it to Brave. It’s the story of the perennial villain of a Mario/Donkey Kong analogue who feels dissatisfied with his lot in life and seeks to change it.

    It’s the heart warming story of one man’s journey of self realisation, realising what he actually has but also ensuring people around him appreciate him. Littered with lots and lots of very good jokes about video games. For as simplistic as the story is, it is how it is told and all the little details that makes it shine.

    The animation isn’t of the same quality as Pixar’s offerings, but is definitely more than adequate and captures the era and styles of each of the video games it portrays adequately. Everything feels of a piece and works together well, which is not something that all animations can boast.

    The main characters are fairly broadly crafted, but no less identifiable for that. How much you enjoy the film is arguably going to hinge on how annoying you find the female lead and how many of the jokes you actually get and enjoy. For me the main female character stays just the right side of really annoying, but I can easily appreciate that other people may have a far more adverse reaction to her.

    The story centres on Ralph, who is the villain in a game called “Fix It Felix Jr,” becoming tired of doing the same thing every day and also being hated by the other characters in the game. He seeks out a support group comprising of the villains of other video games. All the characters in his support group are characters from well known games, which gives his own story and game an air of authenticity it may otherwise lack as well as playing significant fan service to video game players.

    Against the advice of everyone, and at risk to himself and his peers, Ralph abandons his game and enters others in an attempt to gain recognition and acceptance. The story is really about the people he encounters and also the reaction to his absence of the characters from his own game. It’s really well done and Ralph is a likeable and believable character, even in a film that anthromorphises video games in the same manner Toy Story did with childhood toys.  There is an internal logic at work that mainly holds and gives the film high stakes and a surprising amount of tension in places.

    For me, Wreck It Ralph is the best animation of the last couple of years. Certainly the most I have enjoyed a Disney cartoon in years. It’s also released with a quite exquisite short called Paperman.