Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Philosophy; the chocolate teapot of the academy.

I've just wiped the grease from a double cheese burger from my chin and lit up my fifteenth cigarette of the day. Later on I'm going to open a bottle of red wine. I'll probably drink the whole thing.

You might think that this isn't a very healthy way to live. If so, you'd be surprised to know that I don't have a care in the world. You see, according to Wittgenstein we are all living in eternity because death is not an event in life that we can experience for ourselves. Apparently this means that our lives have no end. Good news, everybody! You can stop worrying about cholesterol and have another slice of pie.

Clearly this argument fails on a couple of levels. Firstly, Wittgenstein's observations on our final moments are even more trite than this mirror stuck on a wall at the Tate Modern. Secondly, even if you don't get to experience your death subjectively you're still fucking dead. Quotes from Wittgenstein also include the observation that the sun may not rise tomorrow and that it's unlikely that the purpose of life is to enjoy ourselves. Wittgenstein can piss off.

Philosophy is a crock. Of all of the different ways in which it's possible to exert your mind, philosophy has got to be the biggest waste of time.  Philosophers have been working for literally thousands of years, but what do they have to show for it?  Nothing.  These jokers have failed to produce a single damn thing.  Oh sure, you might get a philosopher who'll explain why his particular pet theory shows a clear, consistent and incontrovertible line of progression in thought.  But just as he finishes his learned exposition a second chap will pop up and explain in tremendous detail why the first bloke has got it all backwards and muddled up. Part of the problem is that they can't even agree amongst themselves how best to do philosophy. In general terms, professional philosophers are split between the analytic approach on the one hand and the existentialist / phenomenological point of view on the other.  The fact that the different schools of thought are strongly associated with certain nation states only adds to the impression that the entire enterprise is based on tradition, personal belief and a large dose of the ever popular making it up as you go along.   

I'm going to make a bold claim. Two and a half millennia of conscious brooding in philosophy have produced nothing that isn't either obvious to anyone who thinks about a question for a few minutes, abstracted beyond any link to the real world or just plain wrong. Do you know who agrees with me?  Richard Feynman.     

"My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these attributes, and Substances, and all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now how could we do that? Here's this great Dutch philosopher, and we're laughing at him. It's because there's no excuse for it! In the same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of the blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza's propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world and you can't tell which is right."            The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, R. P. Feynman, (1999)

Let me say one thing before some bitches start whining about arguments from authority. I don't care. Feynman is right and anyone who disagrees can suck it.  

Since I have nothing but spare time and I am deeply enamoured with the sound of my own typing I'm going to have a go a providing some additional examples to make my point, interspersed with the usual movie reviews. I shouldn't think it'll make much difference.  Will this affect the traffic to this blog?  I'll just have to wait and see if this little project drives away the twelve visitors I've had to this site in the last fourteen days.


   

Sunday, 25 August 2013

YouTube - A parade of morons, sock puppets and self promotion

I've always thought of myself as a reasonable sort of chap. Sure, I keep a low internet profile on account of being a no account physics teacher that nobody wants to listen to.  But now and again I take to a public forum and sometimes I use my own name.  I'd like to think that on balance my contributions to the internet have been positive.  I spend a bit of time over at Physics Forums helping people with their homework and a fair few of my slashdot contributions over the years have been modded + 5.  I don't think that anyone who's read my posts would take me for a troll. I also have this blog that nobody reads where I practise writing. Up until now I've published under an assumed name because frankly it's not cool to have to read your child's high school teacher's profanity strewn ramblings on the limitations of the Star Trek reboot.  It's also not nice to have a comment thread on YouTube edited to make it look like I'm some sort of 'filthy' old man. Whatever will people think?

You see, Emma Caulfield has a video blog.  It's not exactly a huge ratings puller, but to be fair she gets more hits in a day than I've had all year. I've not been following her for long, but occasionally I check out her posts as part of my ongoing quest to discover if the youthful, free wheeling face of social media is just the lipstick on the pig of cynical corporate marketing. As yet I've drawn no firm conclusions because it's difficult to work out what's going on over the grunts of general stupidity and casual racism.  Not that I've seen anything like that on Emma's channel, of course.  

Any how.  The other day I made a casual comment on some post by a rather anonymous character who goes by the name of 'Joey Pranks'. Joey wants to go and live in the woods and get closer to nature. He had done his best, bless him, to express the idea in a comment to one of Emma's videos. 'Hey-ho,' I thought to myself, 'I'll chime in with an alternative point of view.' You could read my comment and judge for yourself if it was reasonable, except Emma has taken it down. Believe me or don't, but in any mature forum a light hearted discussion may have followed. What now remains of the comment thread is the rather enthusiastic response I got from a range of suspicious sock puppet like accounts that pointed out that I was 1) too fat, 2) too old and that 3) I should go and fuck my grandmother. My my, how the kids get themselves all worked up these days! My friend Joey also made a visit to my YouTube page to bestow upon me further gifts of his wit that I've since deleted.  Although he did expand upon the previous suggestion so that it included my mother and he was thoughtful enough to add "if she's still alive."

This morning I see that Emma has blocked me from both Twitter and her YouTube channel. What's more, in a blaze of spectacular irony she's apologised to her merry band of morons for having to take the time to flame me. It seems that 'there's no room for crazy' on her channel. No, sir!  Except when your contribution to the debate is to shout about incest.  Then it's fine, apparently. Interesting set of standards you got there, Miss Caulfield. Meh, I could care less. Except the only comment that remains in that thread is from some mysterious and in all likelyhood fictional character accusing me of being disgusting and peddling 'filth'. I think this is a little unfair.  I know what you're thinking - Oh noes!! Call the waaaambulance! The internet is being unjust!  

So it seems that YouTube is a strange place populated by the shrill ghosts of proxy trolls and teenagers who think you can learn about the semi-colon in a sex manual. But who gives a fuck about what people on the internet think, right? I'm not so delicate that being called a 'tight ass cunt' is going to land me in therapy. Hell, I get worse abuse from my friends.

The point that I'd like to make is that with this sort of the anonymous shit slinging and capricious censorship going on it's difficult for real people to get engaged.  Why bother attempting to start a discussion if a bunch of phantom trolls are just going to crap all over you and low level internet celebs are going to announce to the world that you're nuts?




Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Now You See Me

Initially engaging, the strong characterisation and decent pace can only carry this film so far. What sets up like an interesting Ocean's Eleven clone gradually vanishes into a cloud of ludicrous plotting and unsatisfying reveals that will leave you with the uncomfortable suspicion that you likely could have written a better screenplay yourself.

Now You See Me follows a collection of magicians as they carry out plans laid down by a mysterious mastermind who is plotting to right wrongs and settle some old scores.  Woody Harrelson does a good job with his mentalist / conman character.  Likewise, Jesse Eisenberg trots out what many people will think of as his signature character as an arrogant wunderkind.  The other two illusionists in the group are somewhat forgettable and you'll struggle to recall their character traits once the final credits have rolled.

The initial set-up is spoiled by some week reveals that require us to suspend our disbelief a little too far.  For example, while the first big illusion / robbery plays out more or less as you think it will, the fine detail calls for the audience to allow for a sizeable volume of bank notes inside a vault to combust completely leaving neither smoke nor ashes.  Just a little thought brings down this house of cards.  First off, don't they have smoke and heat detectors in bank vaults?  Secondly, if there's no ash and no smoke, what happens to the paper?  Although the writers have tried to explain how a stack of money can vanish from a safe via a non-magical mechanism, the reduction of hundreds of kilos of paper into nothingness is in itself a impossibly magical explanation.

There a a few laughs to be had along the way, which earns marks for entertainment value.  But at every turn we find that this project is firmly style over substance.

The expectation in this sort of film is for a twist ending.  However, what gets served up here is so over the top that it'll have you groaning in disbelief.  Sure, in retrospect it's possible to identify some hints about what's up. Nevertheless, the screenwriter's proposed solution strains suspension of disbelief beyond breaking point.  But hell, given the gaps in exposition and implausible narrative that makes up the bulk of this film it might be unreasonable to expect more.

Unlike some of the better heist movies, this isn't a film that warrants multiple viewings.  Not least because once you've experienced the disappointment the first time around all future viewings will be soured by the foreknowledge that this movie lacks any serious behind the scenes cleverness.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Snitch

Much to my surprise, Snitch turns out to be an authentic thriller and a credible antidote to the stream of CGI based tedium that has infested the cinema lately. My honest expectation was that somewhere in the first act Snitch would turn into a festival of shooting, explosions and guys getting punched in the face.  Sure, it was billed as a crime drama.  But it also stars an actor who's major contribution to cinema is a supporting role in Fast and Furious V. I held out little hope that any drama would extend far beyond a few tired one liners punctuated by shotgun blasts to the face.


The screenplay has a point to make about the morally dubious legislation that's been enacted to support the war on drugs. Quite often this sort of political preaching can be wearisome, but I thought the film made it's case well. Of course, I'm just pinko eurotrash so you'd expect my moral compass to line up pretty well with a film that works hard to highlight in essential unfairness of some aspects of the US criminal justice system. Whatever. It all makes a good set up for some tense drama.

My most common criticism of films is that they go on too long. Running times over two hours are becoming the norm and I'm getting pretty fed up of sitting on my numb ass and drumming my fingers on the arm rest waiting for something to happen that actually advances the plot. It's refreshing that in Snitch we have a film that uses nearly all of it's running time to good effect. The moments where I felt that I was having my time wasted were few and far between.

Dwayne Johnson does some proper, dramatic acting and this film marks a significant shift in tone for his work. In fact, the consistent tone of this film it something that I was impressed with. Although the plot is somewhat far fetched, the action sequences are just about low key enough to make sure that the project remains primarily a dialogue driven drama and not a blow-em-up action piece. There are solid performances across the board, not least from Jon Bernthal as an ex-con trying to get his life back on track and Barry Pepper as a no nonsense DEA agent. 

Probably the best film I've seen so far this summer.    



Sunday, 23 June 2013

World War Z

World War Z is yet another CGI driven action adventure, but also includes some well executed horror elements as well.  The film is based on a book that I haven't read, so I'm not in any position to slate it for failing to uphold the tone or follow the same plot points as the book. Taken on it's own terms, World War Z is a fairly entertaining and inoffensive zombie apocalypse film that provides a few hours of easy escapism.

The key to enjoying this film is not to think to hard.  When we have a character who is presented as the world's foremost authority on virology saying things like 'Just as with any other virus, the way to develop a vaccine is to find the source' it's important to stifle the urge to shout 'No it isn't!' at the screen. Zombie films aren't meant to be worried about at the same technical level as hard Sci-Fi and therefore it is probably a good idea to avoid this sort of pseudo-science techno babble and just make up some other bullshit that would serve just as well to advance the plot while not rankling with the scientifically literate members of the audience.

We get to enjoy a tour around such exotic locations as South Korea, Israel and err, Cardiff. Seeing Brad Pitt limping around the streets of the South Wales Valleys kills my suspension of disbelief.  Watching Hollywood stars doing their thing in NYC or on the deck of an aircraft carrier is easy, these sorts of places only exist for me in movie land anyway.  But when you put a big American movie star in South Wales the fiction becomes too obvious.  The make up, the lighting and the costumes all contrast harshly with the drab and familiar background and everything looks a bit daft. Perhaps someone from the USA can tell me if there's a similar effect when you watch big budget films that are shot on location at places you are familiar with?

The end of the film contains an entertaining little montage that deals with the unfortunate consequences of having to deal with a several billion strong zombie army. World War Z must set some kind of record for the biggest pile of human corpses ever displayed in film, even if they are all CGI (In the same vein, the opening of the film must set a record for the length of time spent showing vanity plates and producer credits). The ending of World War Z falls slightly flat, but I'm informed that there more films to be made that will continue the story.

If you've got some spare time and are in the mood for a film that won't strain your critical faculties then World War Z is likely to be worth the price of the ticket.
   

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Man of Steel 3D - Superman murders thousands of innocent people!


The trailers were pregnant with the promise of a better film. Slowly paced editing and soulful music suggested that here we would see Superman with some depth, brooding on his lonely destiny and coming to terms with the responsibilities of a god living amongst mortals. Instead, Man of Steel serves up an interminable series of scenes in which the big blue boyscout demolishes buildings filled with regular, unsuspecting people who are just going about their day. What starts with promise ends up with a load of CGI spaceships and people getting punched in the face. Quelle Surprise! I'd rather spend 300 cycles in the phantom zone than sit though this tepid, overcomplicated stinker for a second time.


Everyone knows what Superman is about.  But in Man of Steel, we can choose to pay attention while a great deal of backstory is presented through expository dialogue.  It's not a problem if you choose not to because it doesn't bring much to the party.

I think that in an earlier draft the screenplay managed to deliver the tone set in the trailers.  If you pay attention you can spot the makings of a pretty good piece of myth building going on in the background. General Zod works well as the bad guy and all of his motivations kind of make sense; sadly his frustration towards Superman and his Kryptonian parents remains something of an untapped resource.  Behind all of the punching and explosions, Zod's clash with Superman is the struggle between two opposing ideologies concerning the preservation of the Kryptonian race.  The problem is that we never get a chance to explore this. Dialogue between the two characters is pretty much limited to bland exposition, 'I'm going to kill you!' and 'Arrghh!'   

Likewise, for all of the moral lessons that Supes learns growing up on Earth he still has to revert to face punching and building smashing in order to save the day. Superman gets knocked unconscious quite a lot in this film so that we can segue into flashbacks to his childhood where we see old Pa Kent dishing out the folksy wisdom (at least until Clark lets him pointlessly sacrifice his life saving a dog).  So you might think that when we get to the end of the film and things are at their darkest, Superman will prevail by way of the superior moral code that he's learnt on Earth.  Nope.  Superman wins because he can knock down more buildings than the other guy. For all the good it does him, he might as well have spent the first half of the movie hanging out in bars and banging prostitutes.

I lost count of just how many skyscrapers were felled in this film, but the scale of the destruction wrought upon Metropolis by Superman and his fellow Kryptonians must certainly have accounted for several thousand lives.  When Superman last battled Zod on the silver screen he went out of his way to protect the innocent.  This time around it seems that the buildings and people of Earth exist only to provide a background to the titanic battles of god-like aliens.  If I was living in Metropolis I doubt that I'd be cheering very loudly for any of these bastards as I lay bleeding to death, crushed beneath the rubble of my home. Maybe it's an allegorical take on the actions of imperialist superpowers in the Middle East.  

The problem with these sorts of action films is that if you walk in to the theatre half way through the move it's nearly impossible to tell them apart. The pace and scale of the action peaks too early and what would have been a fine climax runs on for so long that it's just plain old boring. By the seventh or eighth time we watch a guy getting thrown though a building or punched into outer space our minds have wandered off onto other things.

Then again, it might be that all of these problems are symptomatic of a single flaw - Superman isn't that interesting a Superhero. When spectacular effects have become common place, we need a hero who's got more to give than just action.



Friday, 17 May 2013

The Great Gatsby

You might have read that Gatsby is a shabby sort of affair when compared to most of the other movies that have been released lately. That's not true. In fact, Gatsby is better than the whole bunch of them put together.


Gatsby is clearly the product of the same creative vision that thought up Moulin Rouge! If you've watched Baz Luhrmann's musical masterpiece a few times then you can't fail to miss the visual similarity between the two films. The sweeping, aerial transitions and the sumptuously decadent party scenes are just as well composed here as they were in the Red Curtain productions. In fact, there's a fireworks scene that is a direct homage to the play within a play opening to Moulin Rouge! Luhrmann also reuses the writer as narrator device and again plays with the idea of the innocent entering a more corrupted world (although it must be said that this last theme is in the original novel). Baz has a thing for young, broken writers.  But whereas Moulin Rouge! was all frantic editing and machine gun stutter pace, Gatsby takes a more measured approach to translating one of the greatest novels ever written onto the silver screen. In fact, the pace is so measured that there are moments when you feel that it could do with ticking along more quickly.

After suffering though the latest Star Trek I was just about ready to join that crowd of frustrated and disaffected movie goers who dismiss the whole 3D project as a pointless gimmick. Having watched Gatsby I'm going to hold off on making that judgement for a while. The entire movie is gorgeous. If you give your heart over to Gatsby and throw yourself into the dreamscape that Luhrmann is serving up then the detail of the 3D effect adds significantly to the overall experience. There are quite a few moments where watching the film becomes like looking into one of those stereoscope slide viewers I had as a child. I remember having a whole load of Thomas the Tank Engine slides that amazed me with their ability to gift the obviously fake with the appearance of solid reality. That's what Luhrmann's use of 3D does here. The artifice is obvious but at the same time lends delicious depth to the illusion. Watching Daisy and Gatsby sharing an embrace against a tree is like looking into somebody else's dream - the unreality makes the scene all the more perfect. 

Whereas there are plenty of films that seem to have several endings, Gatsby has quite a few beginnings.  The exposition jumps back and forth a little too much in the first quarter of an hour or so and will have more than a few members in the audience wondering when the main narrative is going to commence. As the story unfolds there are a few places where the voice over narration is overly relied upon to take the place of more traditional story telling. Perhaps a few too many scenes rely on the audience internalising things that they have been told in voice over and working hard to generate their own emotional responses. Just as with the visuals and choreography, Gatsby only possesses a deep emotional tone if you are committed enough to will one into existence. Luhrmann gives you the raw materials and it's up to us to do some of the heavy lifting. I don't mind this at all because the pay off is huge but I can understand how a casual viewing might leave some audiences wondering what all the fuss is about. 

The famous, final confrontation in that overheated Manhattan hotel room sparks with tension and menacing energy but for some reason Luhrmann backs off the pace towards the end of the third act to remind us of things we already know. It might have been a good idea to either save the reveal of Gatsby's back story to the end of the film or better yet to have left it alone in the middle of the film and accelerated the pace of the ending to a frenetic climax.

This film, for all it's flaws, is worth the ticket price. The beauty of the cinematography alone will makes this film a worthwhile investment of your time - even if Luhrmann's attempt and painting literary fiction on the big screen is not the triumph that it might have been. The trailer is better than the movie, but the movie is still pretty good.