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  • Iron Sky

    June 9, 2012 by Nick

    Iron Sky is a mad fever dream made celluloid, given a budget and actually allowed to run to its logical conclusion. As a concept “Moon Nazis” is wonderfully deranged, but the film decides that it isn’t going to rest on a single high concept and gives us forced Albinoism, Sarah Palin as US president, Space arms treaties, people breaking arms treaties, an allegory for the race for oil in the middle east, inter racial romance, fetishistic imagery and the power of propaganda. It’s really efficient, has a lot of mad ideas, is well made and really enjoyable.

    I have to admit, I expected far less. I thought the production values would be suspect, the acting campy, and the film would run out of steam very quickly. It starts strongly, with an American moon landing that is largely an attempt by the incumbent president to get re elected. It’s also an energy grab, which is where they discover that the Nazis have been on the moon since the second world war.

    There are some great extrapolations of 40s technology, with jokes about the sizes of computers and lots of mechanical technology. There is also a serious plot point disguised as a good joke about Chaplin’s the Great Dictator. The Nazis have been building for conflict but not at conflict, growing up, multiplying and growing old with Nazi propaganda and no outside contact to challenge or correct it. There are the delusional and the warlike, and there is a definite distinction between the two. It’s a neat idea, and well realised.

    Then the outside world comes crashing in, and the Nazis decide to visit Earth. One of the party is a zealot and the other a pragmatic warmonger. They are insinuated into the President’s re election campaign where their imagery and rhetoric strikes a chord with the President’s largely religious base and helps to sway the populist vote. The remaining Nazis then decide to invade, with the President delighted as they make the perfect fall guys in a war that will guarantee her popularity.

    The special effects throughout the film are very good. They mostly being to mind those in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but are better handled here. Actually, the film compares very well overall, with acting that shows nuance when needed and a script that is both funny in places and able to make clever and subtle points. And still manages to shoe horn in some huge explosions and great imagery.

    The film doesn’t lag and makes full use of its running time to tell the overall story, be very funny, and give all the characters their own distinct motivations and arcs. And it makes some very salient points along the way.

    Obesity

    June 7, 2012 by Nick

    As it is now Summer, and we are in the midst of the silly season, the news cycle is now picking up on odder stories to run with and tie together to create a tapestry out of. One of these, apparently, is the mega obese in this country and the fact that people have resorted to partially demolishing their homes in order to get them medical help.

    Now obesity is something that is on the increase across the civilised world, and especially so in the UK and US. Beyond the problems it causes those who are obese, it will also cost the health system dearly. Obesity is linked to diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart attacks. It is also statistically linked to strokes and there are correlations with some cancers.

    But the news cycle is full of mixed messages about obesity: apparently we’re cutting down on unhealthy breakfasts of bacon and eggs. This at the same time we’re getting fatter. There is a debate afoot on what language to use with the very fat to encourage them to lose weight, with a suggestion that it is moderated and made less judgemental. Taken together these are all confusing and show that we don’t really have a handle on obesity or how best to approach it.

    Between 17 and 23 I was always at the upper edge of my “healthy” bmi, but at 23 I went over it into the range classified as overweight. I started dieting and read up on various ways to lose weight, finding that the Atkins and South Beach diets both appealed to me. I overdid it, as I tend to, and lost more weight than I needed to inside my first fortnight and actually ended up considerably below my target weight. I also lost muscle tone and ended up slightly ill.

    But I ended up with a belief in two things: bmi is a really lousy indicator of health and carbs and trans fats are far more dangerous than fat, with white bread being worse for me than steak. I have read and believe that carbs tend to be easier for the body to convert into fuel, which means that it needs fewer calories to digest them and is therefore more likely to store calories in carbohydrate as fat. They also have a tendency to make people feel more bloated (that is anecdotal).

    The last time I went to the doctor’s they had to add me back onto their register as I hadn’t needed to go for about a decade. This was obviously my fault and it was apparently quite reasonable for them to strike me from their database because I hadn’t bothered them. In the process of signing up I had to have my weight and height measured. Near the top of an overweight bmi, bordering on obese. I got a lecture about eating healthily I corrected in places. I got told to do an hour’s walking a week. Informed them I did more than that each day. I had to have my lung capacity checked twice because I obviously couldn’t have as large a result as they first recoded. I didn’t fit the overreaching narrative on obesity.

    We need to work out how we treat the obese, how we tell them they are, how we measure it, how much we listen to their claims about what they eat and how active they are, what evidence we actually trust and what is causing it. It could come out of the current news cycle, but it seems the message and reasoning is massively confused and it is something we all need to face.

    Ridley Scott

    June 5, 2012 by Nick

    Ridley Scott’s new film, Prometheus, has been released to mainly lukewarm reviews. Apparently it is not a bad film. but it isn’t seen as living up to the heritage of Alien and is being castigated for it. That seems remarkably unfair: part of what makes Alien so good are the unexpected moments of when we first see the Alien and revelations about some of the crew. The nature of film publicity these days, as well as the fact that Alien is now so well known and its twists so familiar and largely expected, means that Prometheus could never really succeed as a thriller type horror and carry the same surprises. Moreover, for it to inhabit the same cinematic reality as Alien it has to be familiar and retread a lot of the same ground.

    I think there is a larger problem of being seen to revisit or retread old ground. Alien was innovative and brought us a grimy space ship and a largely blue collar cast of astronauts. It had great shocks and surprises. And it was something, prior to Prometheus, Scott had never gone back to. In fact, his work has been very eclectic: Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Black Rain, Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies and American Gangster amongst others. However, Blade Runner aside, how many of them have been truly great?

    I know this is a minority view, but I really don’t rate Gladiator. The scenes with the grass seem largely pointless. A lot of it is obviously studio shot and the ending is obviously tacked on and seems to undermine the film as it is a jarring tonal shift and undermines a lot of the film’s earlier drama.

    Robin Hood, featuring Crowe and again set in a historical mileu, is also underwhelming (although many more people seem to agree with me on that one) and Kingdom of Haven is nearly instantly forgettable.

    Of more contemporary films, there is no sense of them being about much of anything. There is no great sense of myth, no greater story, no sense of scale. They’re all competently done and well told, but they don’t speak to me or say anything about humanity. I just feel a director held in such high regard should have something to say and touch me.

    And that leaves Blade Runner. When I saw Inception, which I genuinely think is one of the best films ever made, I said it was the best film since Blade Runner. Blade Runner transcends both science fiction and pulp detective fiction and is both primal and mythic: desperation causes androids to escape, to live their limited lives to the full and the film is both about their immediate fears and needs and a rumination on what makes us human. And it provides no easy answers, but one of the best scenes of all time: Rutger Hauer’s speech about what he has seen and experienced.

    Worryingly, Ridley Scott also plans to revisit Blade Runner.

    The Monarchy

    June 3, 2012 by Nick

    I grew up in a largely republican household and, as far as I know, most of my family are republican. I would say that most of my friends are of that bent too. Personally I tend to favour a monarchy, but not wholeheartedly or without reservation.

    The main problem, as I see it, is what we would replace the monarchy with. We have a democracy built on a parliament with limited oversight. The head of state (The Queen) is largely ceremonial and seemingly has no power. Who would actually want such a role? If we were to make it a station with power to go alongside it then we would change the nature of our democracy and this would cause problems in and of itself.

    My second strong reservation is the fact I don’t trust the idea of directly electing a president. I think we would end up with a personality contest with the usual massively undesirable candidates that this invariably throws up. This could be born of the fact that I think that, in every election I have been able to vote in through the course of my adult life, only once have I actually voted for the winning candidate. Recent events in Bradford but also the deification of banal and nigh reprehensible celebrities causes me to believe the electorate is largely comprised of idiots.

    I also think that having a monarchy marks us out as distinctive and is a living embodiment of our history and tradition. Over a thousand years of history in the continuation of a bloodline, the pomp, ceremony and regalia that is associated with it and institutions and history that probably vastly benefit the image of the country and bring in great amounts of tourism and money to the economy.

    What I am opposed to, however, is the incredible numbers of hangers on and extended family that makes up the civil list. In this age of austerity and necessary redundancies, why not shed some of the fat? I have nothing against William and Harry, but people like Princess Michael of Kent do test the patience rather.

    I also find the sheer disproportionate coverage given to the royals on the news rather tedious (and one of the many reasons I read rather than watch my news). Again, I can see what the head of state does can be seen as important, but when her aged relative chokes on a piece of fish, need it be given top billing and is it necessary to have dour faced men in suits reassure us that it wasn’t a bone? That and Edward really does bring my suppressed republican tendencies to the fore, I really don’t want to know what a mess he is making of running a business with money from the taxpayer’s coffers.

    It could be worse, though. What if these people had actual power? A rabid corgi could leave us with the Spirow Agnew of Prince Charles or a salmonella ridden pheasant at Balmoral with the very real spectre of Edward as king and the sinking feeling it’s his job for life . . .

    Here’s to the jubilee and the fervent hope the Queen doesn’t abdicate anytime soon.

    Yahoo

    May 25, 2012 by Nick

    Yahoo recently divested itself of its CEO following a shareholder revolt. The problem, apparently, was that the CEO had lied on his CV about whether or not he was a Computer Science graduate. Although honesty, integrity and suitable experience and knowledge are arguably all important when choosing a leader, it seems to me to miss the point; what Yahoo needs now is vision and direction, regardless of the qualifications of the person guiding it.

    Time was that Yahoo was where you went to search the internet and learn what was great and good on it. This was in the nineties, when D:Ream could have a number one, games with polygons were the exception rather than the rule and you watched and listened to tapes rather than files on flash storage. Yahoo also was responsible for content, with things like yahoo groups and mailing lists. The internet was a different place back then, and Yahoo was top of the tree. And then came Google.

    I remember when I first used Google, I was advised to by a friend who was much better with computers than I was. It was 1999 and Fatboy Slim and Armand Van Helden were the best things ever. George Lucas had only slightly tainted his legacy and I didn’t even know George Bush had a son. It was the start of the slide for Yahoo: they clung to what they knew as their competitors innovated and invented a new internet. On the one hand Google came and made search their own, with more relevant results, faster loading times and none of the clutter that held Yahoo back. On the other hand Microsoft decided to seriously pursue the internet and did the content and groups thing better.

    These days, when someone has a yahoo mail account it surprises me. Time was it was my main email provider. People who still use yahoo messenger are in the minority. Do yahoo groups even exist anymore?

    it’s not just the loss of their core markets to the new pretenders, it is also the failure to diversify into new arenas: there is no yahoo social networking arena. There is precious little in the way of useful content, although yahoo answers remains a valuable resource (particularly to those of a SEO bent). The tales of companies that yahoo has let slip through its fingers reads like a who’s who of emergent behemoths: notably it includes both Facebook and Google. And search, for so long yahoo’s core product, they now farm out to other companies to do for them.

    So the new head of yahoo, more than actually knowing what their own accomplishments and achievements are, must understand what yahoo is and what it can be: having lost its core market, what can it do to recapture some of it, not haemorrhage any more of what it has and to expand and diversify?

    I wish them good luck. Because right now it looks like a dinosaur caught in its death throes.

    Chronicle

    May 23, 2012 by Nick

    Chronicle is a found footage film, with all the problems that are inherent in the genre (it seems wrong, somehow, to refer to it as a genre: it’s a way of telling a story using the medium of film that encompasses many genres) and other limitations imposed on it by its plot and familiarity. As a found footage film it has the problem of trying to show the entire film’s events from the point of view of one of the characters, which it firstly tries to overcome by using other camera sources (notably security cameras) and then discarding the concept altogether.

    Story wise, it owes more than a slight debt to Akira. I am unsure how much this is a homage that the audience is meant to acknowledge and how much it is presenting it as new, shamelessly appropriating the imagery for itself. It lacks the kinetic invention, the sense of the impossible and the sheer scope of its parent work, but it isn’t without merits of its own.

    The story centres on 3 boys who decide to investigate a strange hole in the ground which has been caused by something crashing into it. They are an odd group: the most popular kid in school, a hypocrite trading on his outsider status and his cousin, who is the most immediately sympathetic of the group as he is the least socially adept and has an ill mother and abusive father. After climbing out of the ground they find that they have gained what appears to be telekinesis.

    The boys bond together, united by their powers and also the possibilities that these open up to them. They find that their powers develop and strengthen through practice, much as they were muscles. However, they also decide that using their powers brings risk of attention and causing harm to others. They decide to impose rules on themselves (some more begrudgingly than others) and the real tension at the heart of the film is the strain this puts on their relationships and how much they break their self imposed discipline.

    Using their powers, the boys find themselves more popular but also their relative statuses changing and this causes problems as they become jealous and also fear that their powers have changed one another and come to resent each other. Sometimes this manifests in violence and sometimes in passive aggressive behaviour. Although the film is largely predictable (especially if you’re familiar with Akira) it also has an emotional heart and is reasonably well acted. There is an air of inevitability to the ending that isn’t so much borne of predictability but of the character arcs and their logical conclusion. It’s not an epic film and doesn’t necessarily say anything new, but it does manage spectacle well and the ending is genuinely strong.

    Cocina

    May 21, 2012 by Nick

    When I was young there was a Mexican restaurant on Oak Lane called the Cocina. It was a Mexican place with Aztec and South American stylings. I went once with my parents and I can’t remember a single thing about it, but I assume it wasn’t particularly good or to our tastes as we never went again.

    At some point it relocated to Manningham Lane, next to where Woods used to be. I am not completely sure when this happened, due to a lack of interest and probably not being in the city at the time. It seemingly kept the old décor. At some point it changed its name to “El Mexicana Cocina” and started on a path of being an abject lesson in how not to run a restaurant.

    The new branding appeared something of a horrific mishmash: a cheap new sign featuring (I think) a kidney bean in a sombrero and some cack handed script. And it was clumsily thrown over the existing logo and colour scheme, leaving everything else unchanged but in glaring contrast.

    From what I understand the token iconic character was the only attempt to make the place more welcoming to children and families. On the one hand you have something that will scare away serious eaters and looks tacky and cheap, on the other you have something that could only appeal to small children and their families yet isn’t actually implemented in any other place or indicative of the establishment as a whole. It makes those “under new management” signs you see on soon to go out of business pubs look like the pinnacle of advertising.

    The restaurant site had some problems to begin with, some of which were of the management’s own making and some which weren’t: that side of Bradford is failing more than most (which is saying something) with pubs shutting and the large nightclub venue closing. There was no real parking, which limited the clientèle it could attract. Arguably the local demographic wasn’t suited to that kind of restaurant. The restaurant always looked dingy and uninviting to me. This was made worse by the aforementioned sign, which made it look dingy, ridiculous and cheap (not in a value way).

    Recently it closed. It was hard to tell from the appearance, it had looked run down for a while. A sign has gone up advertising the premises for rent and there is a notice stating that the landlord has evicted the tenants. Just another large, empty premises in Bradford partially a result of the economy, largely the city at large but in no small part because of mismanagement and poor decisions. Somewhere else I wouldn’t have eaten anyway where I will never get chance to buy from.

    Event Horizon

    May 19, 2012 by Nick

    Event Horizon is a film by Paul W S Anderson before he adopted the W S. It stars Sam Neill (remember him?) and Laurence Fishburne (remember when he was thin?) as crew mates on a search and rescue mission in outer space. There are some very definite echoes of Alien here, from the basic premise and setting to the aesthetic and decaying and industrial look of the space ships involved. It’s also one of those films that goes out of its way to show science fiction tends to work best in films when it is actually co opting another genre. In this case we’re firmly in horror territory.

    The film starts with the creator of a new form of engine joining the crew of a salvage ship, looking to find out what exactly happened to a ship called the Event Horizon. The ship was powered by the experimental engine and had disappeared during its test flight. As the crew come aboard to find out exactly what happened they discover worrying in flight recordings and evidence that the absent crew met with a sinister fate.

    The tension ramps up effectively throughout the film, combining the claustrophobia and darkness of the immediate settings with the isolation of space and a growing sense that something decidedly supernatural happened. The ship itself almost seems to have a character of its own, with malevolence permeating the scenes as inexplicable things start to happen and the stress affects different crew members in different ways.

    Pretty soon we’re in survival horror territory, with the ship seeming to be the sole enemy of those aboard it, but the dawning realisation that various crew members are becoming unpredictable and liabilities with all that is happening around them. And the design of the engine itself is inspired: it looks evil and is deeply unsettling. Although the film was probably cheap to make it is very well crafted and everything feels of a piece. There is a definite unsettling atmosphere and the film is not just scary but also discomforting. The horror isn’t so much restricted to cheap shocks and gore (although there are both to be had) as the sense there are powers that humanity doesn’t understand and shouldn’t meddle with and a great sense of menace and evil. It’s one of the more effective horror films that I have seen and one that stands up to rewatching.

    When I first saw Event Horizon it genuinely scared me and I found it hard to make it all the way through. Revisiting it I am surprised by how well it holds up and the level of skill and craft in the film. It’s very effective for what it is and succeeds in everything it sets out to do

    Castle

    May 17, 2012 by Nick

    Castle is an ABC show that stars Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic. It’s as hackneyed a concept as you can imagine: a mystery writer is drafted in by the NYC police to help with a case that seems to be based on one of his books. While working on the case he develops a crush on the detective that is handling the case and insinuates himself into the department through his contacts.

    Ostensibly a romantic comedy with some police procedural thrown in, Castle sometimes suffers from tonal clash and seeming uneven. It also tends towards formula, with it being entirely possible to work out whether a suspect is guilty or not purely based on how far through the episode the police investigate him.

    Every crime is neatly solved and I find it hard to believe the reasoning and “evidence” would actually stand up in a court of law. This is, of course, purely incidental: Castle is a showcase for Nathan Fillion and a romantic comedy, everything else is more or less window dressing.

    Fillion plays a man child with problem exes who nonetheless surrounds himself with women: his failed actress mother and precocious daughter. He chases after a smart and independent woman while occasionally being distracted by women who serve as little more than blocking characters and plotting devices. It isn’t really trying to be high art or even a particularly good example of its genre. That’s ok, sometimes I feel like slumming it.

    The show has enough of interest in the window dressing elements (even if I do find some characters, especially the mother, annoying) and some neat conceits for some of the cases to make it watchable. And it has Nathan Fillion. It’s a guilty pleasure.

    Stana Katic is just about believable. She has a long running sub plot about the death of her mother which isn’t particularly plausible and the series normally has one of its tonal problems whenever it revisits it. As the seasons have progressed it has played a larger and larger part and got more and more convoluted and unlikely. Which is a shame. The show works best when it is being light-hearted and focused on its gimmicky crime of the week. When it tries to do anything more it finds itself struggling under a dramatic weight it can’t sustain and that it is particularly unsuited to.

    The other characters are pretty much either there to serve the plot or provide comic relief. Or both. Although there is a large cast, there is precious little for most of them to do and even less in the way of rounded characters on display. So, really, it all comes down to your tolerance of the stars and your stomach for gimmickry.

    The Almighty Johnsons Series 2

    May 15, 2012 by Nick

    The Almighty Johnsons, the show from New Zealand about Norse gods trapped in the bodies of human beings, is back for a second series. And it shows no signs of settling into a status quo and merely treading water. As soon as a dynamic is established it is thrown out, characters form alliances and betray each other, characters come and go and events have real and often unexpected ramifications. It’s got some strong soap opera elements, but they’re done well and with consequence.

    I watched and found myself surprisingly engaged with the first series. The premise could have been hackneyed and the story familiar, but it seemed edgy, enjoyable and full of real characters that I actively cared about and a lot of stories that seemed to flow organically as well as encompassing unpredictability. I actually looked forward to the second series and had high expectations for it.

    Featuring a smaller cast than the original series, and focusing more on the shifting dynamics within the Johnson family, but it is not scared to relegate some of them to the background, turn their worlds upside down or dispatch them completely. The only real certainty with the series is that everything can change quickly and that no one is going to remain the same. It makes for great watching and keeps the show interesting. It also means that you have to pay attention and can’t really miss and episode without getting completely lost.

    As with many series, the show has an overreaching arc that it incrementally drives forward in every program, but the logical conclusion of the underlying story means that the show would end. In a lot of programs this means lots of digressions from the main story and padding it out as much as possible. Not with The Almighty Johnsons: it seemingly accelerates through what you would think is the status quo and gets to what you think would be the climax of the show before cancellation about two thirds of the way through the second series. It then proceeds to take it in an unexpected and satisfying direction.

    It’s the strength of the writing, particularly of the characters and their interaction with one another, that makes the brave decision to burn through the main plot and arrive somewhere new and unpredictable so enjoyable. In lesser hands, or handled differently, it could lose the audience and feel like a cop out. Here it feels brilliant and fresh. I’m still watching because I am enjoying the series and because the writers don’t so much write themselves out of corners by throwing ridiculous developments on screen as find new and worse corners to write themselves into, upping the ante with each turn and seeing where it leaves the characters and the underpinning dynamic of the show.

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