Nicholas Goodchild

Historic and Pared Down

Why You’re Eating Horsemeat

15 February 2013 by Nicholas in Current Events

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

13 February 2013 by Nicholas in Films

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

11 February 2013 by Nicholas in Films

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

9 February 2013 by Nicholas in Films

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.

Jack Reacher

1 January 2013 by Nicholas in Films

Jack Reacher, with Tom Cruise as the eponymous character, is the story of an ex military investigator who sets out to discover the truth of a seemingly open and shut case of a lunatic sniper. My mother will tell you that Tom Cruise is completely wrong for the role. Her may be. My problem is that the film isn’t particularly good.

Tom Cruise isn’t at his most photogenic here and does manage to do “concentrating.” The problem is the plot is slim: we know the sniper can’t have done it from the fact that the film fails if he has, the attack in the bar is essentially a power demonstration sequence and has no real tension, the kidnapping of the lawyer is perfunctory and demanded by the plot, her assertion that she has shown “compelling evidence” is completely undermined by her completely contradictory sentence immediately preceding it. But that isn’t the worst of it: the big reveal the film hinges on is both obvious and has no dramatic weight at all.

So, what we are left with is a perfunctory thriller devoid of tension. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, but it isn’t really excessively incompetent either. Cruise is suitably unlike-able  but doesn’t have the presence or strangeness that perhaps he might. As I understand Reacher, Chris Helmsworth might have been a much better fit, but he can’t handle not being eminently affable.

The film is also designed to serve as the start of a franchise. I can’t really see it succeeding. Reacher is a cypher and not particularly interesting. The strength of the film therefore is dependent on the other characters around him and their actions and situations. And the film itself is bloody boring. Reacher isn’t mysterious so much as boring, he has no wit and doesn’t really seem to have much in the way of an interesting past. The monologue explaining him is the single best thing about him in the film and his appearance at the end of it completely undermines it.

I think we’re meant to be witnessing the emergence of a determined, single minded anti hero in the mould of The Man With No Name. Unfortunately we’re left with something that seems to already be descending into the parody that Dirty Harry became and cut from far more similar cloth than anything more iconic or entertaining. It’s not the film is bad, but it is never good. And it certainly never actually achieves entertaining.

Doctor Who – The Snowmen

26 December 2012 by Nicholas in TV

It’s really hard to fairly review Doctor Who – The Snowmen without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. The good bits tend to hinge on the plot, which can’t really be revealed because part of the joy is the way it unfolds. It’s the annual Christmas special episode of Doctor Who, and it feels a lot more substantial than any I can remember.

Usually Christmas specials sit in their own little pockets of continuity. They’re not part of larger story arcs, neither ending nor starting them and very rarely even referencing them. They take place on Earth or an Earth analogue, have characters and plots that are of no import to the series as a whole and tend to being overly sentimental.

This is probably not the case in Snowmen. Here we see a Doctor badly hurt (arguably too affected) by the preceding series and surrounded by characters we have seen before. Moreover, the characters are fleshed out to the extent where we can hazard a guess that we will very likely see them again.

The characters are the episode’s greatest strengths: the dialogue crackles, the Silurian and her wife are made 3 dimensional and interesting, the Sontaran even manages to rise above the level of comedy relief and gets some great lines. And then there’s Clara.

If you haven’t seen the previous series you won’t know why Clara is important (although I am in the minority in thinking the ending of that particular episode telegraphed its ending). If you don’t watch this episode then you won’t know how she is important and how much the following series is going to hinge on her. Moffat pulls out all the stops to make her likeable, and it is his fine character work throughout the episode that is perhaps to the detriment of the overall story.

That’s not to say the story is wholly bad: even viewed in isolation it is above most of the Christmas specials. But it’s relatively straightforward and glosses over a rather large plot hole for the sake of convenience. There are ideas that recur from previous episodes (but they’re good ones) and the villains never come across as quite as threatening or scary as perhaps they could. It isn’t that the story isn’t dark, but not in the way you may entirely expect.

There are great moments of humour too. And, for once, not limited to the Doctor and his dialogue. For once he is the straight man to the great character work being done around him. He’s too human, but also too distant. He’s hurting and his feelings are actually responsible for the plot unfolding as it does.

And the new Tardis debuts. It looks brilliant. The only real reservation I have had about the past few series done away in a single shot. Unfortunately the new reworking of the theme is trying too hard.

The Best Of Norman Rockwell

24 December 2012 by Nicholas in Books

For my birthday my sister got me “The Best of Norman Rockwell”, which is a lavishly illustrated book with no real biography or notes. The plates and prints are incredibly well produced and run the course of Rockwell’s career. It’s a beautiful book and one of my favourite art books.

Rockwell was primarily an advertising and magazine illustrator who started work on some nicely presented but rather flat advertising paintings. They’re nice illustrations and show great technical skill, but they don’t really show the products off and tend not to look striking at a distance. His magazine covers started later and tended towards a formula, often effective as images but showing a high degree of repetition.

And then something happened. Because the work in the book is presented mainly chronologically you can see the moment where Rockwell goes from capable but limited to being something else entirely. In the late 30s he married his technical skill with great composition and even better draughtsmanship. There is a piece called “Simply a Sharpshooter” (that, unfortunately, I can’t find a good copy of on Google to link) that marries composition, a great use of light and dark, sheer technical bravura and a dynamic and exciting set of figures. It has foreground, middle ground, background and far background. It is, put simply, absolutely incredible. And the 40s onwards are full of works near that quality.

It’s a beautiful, inspiring and intimidating book. Made all the better for having surprises in and because of the wonderful level of reproduction.

Overreaching Conspiracies

23 December 2012 by Nicholas in Current Events

Billy Wilder used to say that if you thought you had a problem with the third act of a story then the problem was invariably in the first (act). Basically a story has to be constructed in such a way as there is a pay off at the end that relates back to elements at the beginning in order for it to be satisfying. This suggests that stories are finite and that their length and form is determined by their openings, which makes a certain degree of sense to me. But what happens when your story has to run an indefinite length and still have to be satisfying?

It’s a limitation that I see in comics and television. TV is generally commissioned on a season by season basis, so may have to wrap up in a given year or keep plate spinning indefinitely. It tends to make things disintegrate either into a wholly static experience in which the overall story is never advanced or a ludicrous series of digressions that undermine the underpinning story and leave you no longer caring if they reach resolution. In the only two shows I watch that have any pretence of having a definite story but are open ended as to length they both approach this as an overreaching conspiracy.

Overreaching has two meanings, and both are wholly appropriate here. I watch the Mentalist, which is a not very good program in which a fictional crime fighting agency ignores rules as the plot dictates and engage in a seventies style chase of suspects every episode but has a titular character he elevates it from near spoof to compelling television. Unfortunately the story trying to hold it all together has a serial killer (usually a particularly solitary occupation) having enough reach and allies to be able to organise a putsch rather than just torment the protagonist.

Castle, which I suspect knows its time is limited, has a cop investigating her mother’s death that implicates large swathes of the establishment and frequently causes for jarring tone shifts. One of the reason I suspect the show runners know that their time is nigh is that they have taken steps to wrap up the conspiracy and shift the dynamic of the show. It could be they’re casting around for a new direction, but it could be that they are moving towards wrapping everything up.

Other shows, which I have never watched, I understand to have the same problem. The Fugitive was based on the search for a man guilty of murder, Lost was all based on a mystery/conspiracy and many shows disintegrate into a mass of teeming contradictions in order to satisfy the suggestion of having an overall story (The X-Files, I am sure, falls into this category). It’s a sign of the limitation of the form and the uncertainty of where the first act ends and where the third act begins. An arc is a parabola, and the way Western stories tend to be structured. Unfortunately episodic storytelling is often thoroughly linear until it heads a dead-stop or is derailed. The conspiracy is an attempt to marry these disparate disciplines. Unfortunately it often breaks both.

The Life Of Pi

22 December 2012 by Nicholas in Films

The Life of Pi is directed by Ang Lee, and is the story of a boy who sets sail from India to Canada in a cargo ship with his family and the contents of their private zoo. It’s told in flashback, with him recounting the story as an adult to a novelist. Sometimes this takes you out of the story and breaks the flow a little, but it is necessary to frame the story and for the ending to make sense.

Visually it’s lush and beautiful. Lee has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the composition of his shots and how they will work in 3D. Nowhere is it clearer than in the opening titles, where depth of field (including focusing and defocusing elements), the framing and composition of the shots have all been selected to make the visuals as inviting and encompassing as possible. There is precious little cutting of foreground elements with the edges of the screen and none of the disorientating motion that seems to plague 3D films where the director doesn’t understand that focusing in 3D is necessarily different and more difficult than in the traditional flat plane.

The weather effects and use of small animals throughout make great use of 3D, and it is the sheer depth achieved that make the film as lush and engrossing as it is. The story is actually relatively slight, but told so well that it is virtually impossible not to be emotionally invested in it. You find yourself passionately caring about the animals, and they take on personalities of their own. This is actually vital to the ending of the film, and the message conveyed by the film itself.

I had to admit I approached the film with some trepidation. It’s relatively long, I knew next to nothing about it (and, even now, I can only tell you who two of the actors involved are, neither of whom were the star) and I feared that it may be a mistake to see it along the lines of King Kong (a sumptuous film with great reviews that I felt was an utter mess). Even worse, my initial impression was that it was similar to Slumdog Millionaire. I was wrong. It’s not a truly great film, but it is a good film that is full of visual splendour and wonder that really does need to be seen on the big screen and is as good a use of 3D as any I have seen. And it achieves both a parable like quality and comes close to being life affirming in a way that precious few films can.

Doctor Who – The Angels Take Manhattan

3 October 2012 by Nicholas in TV

The current run of Doctor Who took a break with the episode “The Angels Take Manhattan” which had been widely trailed as featuring the final farewell for the Doctor and his current travelling companions, Amy and Rory Williams/Pond.

It featured the return of the Weeping Angels, who are arguably the finest Doctor Who villains, but have been less effective with each appearance. I was struck, on reflection, about how similar they are to the Alien trilogy in implementation: Blink (their introduction) was effective horror against a small number of villains of unknown capabilities and motivation. Their second appearance had them as a known quantity in much greater numbers facing against a trained squad dedicated to killing them. This time they’re facing against the unarmed but desperate, a smaller and less epic tale heavy with personal sacrifice and fittingly final. Until someone brings them back and botches it utterly.

The main story, arguably, is incidental compared to what is happening to the characters. The Angels have been chosen because of their capabilities and the way that this leads to dramatic moments. Or the dramatic moments are catered around the Angels. Or Moffat knows that it is time to bring all his best creations together. It doesn’t matter, it is a real high spot for the show as a whole in a way that the largely mediocre episodes of the recent demi season could never manage.

The story ties back to both the Ponds’ own, with references to how Rory perpetually waits for Amy and also the fact he has died for her in the past, as well as the introduction of the Angels themselves in Blink. In Blink the best moments (besides the sheer terror elicited by stone statues, a menace that Doctor Who has never managed as effectively before or since) deal with how the Angels actions are predicted and how best to deal with them. In Manhattan, the Doctor is once again dealing with tips from the past (which is also the future), although this time he is receiving rather than giving them. It’s a clever inversion and helps to tie everything together.

The Ponds story also finishes, but not in a way that ties up every lose end or is as neat as I was expecting. There are possibilities left open, although the coda at the end gives everything a rosier glow than a more ambiguous ending would. Part of me feels it is a cheat, but then again I have to remember that it is a kids’ show and that it did make me feel emotions I never thought it could. And the very end also ties back to the introduction of both this iteration of the Doctor and Amy Pond herself. It’s an emotionally satisfying end for Amy, the end of a chapter for the Doctor, has some great ideas and makes the Angels special and scary again.