Friday, 29 June 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Badass

Ahead of the Expendables 2, due this August, I had a little rewatch of what is surely the most important scene in the Expendables. Here it is:

I say this is the most important scene of the film, because the Expendables is essentially a vehicle for the a-z of badasses, and this scene has the three most influential badasses in movie history all in one. Schwarzenegger only appears in this scene, and Willis in little more, but clearly Stallone slyly wanted to get them all in one together.

What's great about the Expendables (this will be short) is the comprehensive involvement of about 80% of the prominent action movie badasses from the past 30 years. Those that were missed out of 1 are in 2, Van Damme and Norris, for example, which only leaves out Dwayne Johnson, Wesley Snipes, Vin Diesel and a possible cameo from Samuel L Jackson, not really an action movie badass from the same mould, but that would be cool, wouldn't it?

I digress. While this is the most important scene of the film, and it certainly succeeds in the sense that fanboys such as myself are literally shaking with excitement at the presence of the three stars in one scene, aside from this, every single other aspect of the scene is horrendous and it's should be the second worst segment of film ever made (if it wasn't for the badasses), second only to "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!" in X Men The Last Stand (note I haven't expressed any desire to see quasi-badass Vinnie Jones in an Expendables film).

Pretty much everything it's possible to get wrong in a short segment of dialogue is wrong, to such an extent that it almost overwhelms (I say almost) the power of the holy trinity of badasses.

Let's start with the dialogue itself. Part of the reason this scene seems to be such a mess is because we were expecting it to be written in English. Instead it's written in action movie badass, a dialect consisting of growls, functional plot points and, most importantly, wisecracks. The plot points are efficiently explained to allow for maximum killing time, although Arnie's reason for his early exit, "I'm busy", could have used a little development. The problem here is that whoever wrote the scene obviously wasn't a native speaker of action movie badass leaving it sounding forced and just plain weird.  Arnie's presence really shows up people who think all these badasses are equally bad actors. Stallone, while he was never going to win an Oscar, can say words in a way that sounds something like how a person says words when they're not saying the words they've been told to say. Willis is amazing, as everyone knows. Arnie, on the other hand, sounds like an automated Stephen Hawking talking into a pillow. He sounds like he's trying to belch out his guts while reading words he doesn't really understand. He's like a child reading Spot the Dog for the first time, if that child's voice was lowered 5 octaves and played backwards. Here he shows the sheer adequacy of Stallone's performance.

Again, I digress. When Stallone makes a wisecrack about Arnie's weight, I can't help but think that 80s badass Arnie, or even 90s family comedy Arnie, would have had a wisecrack putdown. Instead, there's an awakward silence, not helped by Willis saying "You guys aren't gonna start sucking each other's dicks are ya?". Go to 0.11. Then again. And again. There's a full three seconds of awkwardness where the actors and audience are left with that image in their brain. Willis then awkwardly laughs for another three seconds like when you tell a joke and no-one laughs so you have to compensate by laughing a lot yourself. Except it isn't like when that happens, it's actually happening. In a film they usually get rid of misfiring jokes before the final cut. It't not often you get to see a genuine awkward moment in cinema, but here it is, Arnie, Sly and Willis awkwardly glancing around the room and chuckling to themselves to break the tension. It's like they bumped into each other in a lift. Which sounds like the start to a very good joke.

The next few seconds, when the badasses "get down to business" are just horribly edited. The whole point of this scene is seeing the three badasses on screen together, so why they choose quick cutting close ups between the badasses is beyond me. Now go to 0.24. What does Arnie say? "Itsalilaninagawf" Come again? Was he only able to do one take? Has he just swallowed an entire Kellogs Fruit Winder? (you remember them, right?) Perhaps it's just difficult adapting to the impenetrable dialects of Stallone and Schwarzenegger at the same time, like trying to speak French then German in close succession, but even as a seasoned Arnie interpretor I found that challenging. It's almost like the film makers didn't know they could shoot it again. Now go to 0.34. Same problem. The combination of close ups, fast cutting, incomprehensible dialogue and awkward silences make this feel less like a planned and executed scene in a movie than a Cassetteboy composite of clips that were too crummy to make it into any of the badasses other films. The wink and sigh at about 0.50 is particularly reminiscent of Ruth Badger's wink to Nick Hewer in Cassetteboy vs The Apprentic (forgive me if this reference is a little obscure). It gets even more Cassetteboy-like when the camera angle on Schwarzenegger changes after "he loves playing in the jungle //CUT// right?" It just looks odd and unprofessional. Ok, then it gets really good: "Hey, why don't we have dinner?" "When?" "In a tauuusand years". This really doesn't need much criticism, except I feel bad for Sly. He thinks he's getting asked for dinner, asks "when?" only to be mocked by the Governator. Harsh.

The final few seconds pretty much sum up the scene. "He wants to be president" and Arnie's knowing wink are basically saying "you want Arnie in this film. Here he is. Yay" It's all a massive in-joke.

But the scene's problems don't end here.

The music is terrible too. The setting is completely irrelevant, and it's oddly lit to make it look really aritificial. Mise-en-scene wise the worst thing is probably costume. Willis is cleverly disguised as Harry Hill and Arnie's suit appears to have been tailored to his 70s measurements. He's wearing trousers designed to protect trees from forest fires. You're not fooling anyone with your ill fitting suit. Get back to your old folks home or running the world's 8th largest economy or whatever it is you do with your retirement.

It's not just the actors. This scene is incompetently made. The sound, set, lighting, music (what exactly happens when Willis says "I want him dead!" at 0.44?), costume. It's disjointedly cut, unprofessional and is jarring from start to finish, and awkward, overwhelmingly awkward. I watched it by myself and felt slightly embarrassed. Never have I seen such a resoundingly awful bit of film making from start to finish as this scene. It is the worst made scene I have ever seen. And I still love it.

Bring on Expendables 2.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Magic of Cinema


I'm not against magic in films. A fan of science fiction and fantasy, the suspension of disbelief is a perfectly acceptable necessity for certain films, but it's also possible to get it wrong.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Red Lights, a film where Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy set out to expose phoney mediums and psychics. [SPOILER] So far so good. But in the film's final five minutes, where its central antagonist and foremost charlatan has been dealt with and successfully explained, they decided it would be good if Cillian Murphy is magic. Not proper magic. Just the ability to bend spoons when he doesn't really want to, and to blow fuses. Literally.

Like I said, I'm not against magic in films, but when the point of a film appears to have been to look for rational explanations, and even taking the whole of Red Lights into account this is still the take away message, throwing in magic takes it from a film that says something about the real world to a film about magic. In an instant, it stops being relevant. Spectacle and unpredictability have taken precedence over substance. In a second, the long-built-up investment in the film and what it's trying to say is squandered.

I write this because I just watched The Green Mile. The Green Mile looks from the outset to be a prison drama perhaps in the mould of The Shawshank Redemption, possibly with an anti death penalty message. [SPOILER] However, as with Red Lights, its decision to involve magic manages to sever its connection to the real world and smother any message it may have had. Don't get me wrong, The Green Mile is still a fantastic film. It has some of the most intense scenes I've ever seen, phenomenal performances and is engaging in spite of its length. Of course it has problems. Like so many films, including Red Lights, it doesn't know when to end, but the main problem is the magic. It would have been possible to tell a story of a remarkable, and ultimately [ANOTHER MASSIVE SPOILER] innocent inmate of death row without giving him the ability to perform miracles. I should reiterate, even with this The Green Mile is an exceptional and outstanding film, but this additional suspension of disbelief is simply unnecessary.

There are examples of a "real world" film which use the supernatural well. The Sixth Sense, for example, works well (although I think if I saw it now the ending would annoy me), as the supernatural element is the entire point of the film. But M Night Shamalamalan (do doooo do do do)  follow up Unbreakable lands on the wrong side of the portal. Just. Unbreakable has a number of problems with it as a film. It takes itself way too seriously, for one, and is much too slow and over dramatic. But the main problem is the unneccessarily far suspension of disbelief required to buy into it. In Unbreakable, Samuel L Jackson's character suffers from a disease that makes him get injured very easily. A comic book fan, this has led him to search for someone at the "opposite end of the spectrum" who hardly gets injured at all. So far, so good. He finds Bruce Willis, who is the sole survivor of a brutal train crash. As a film viewer, I can accept that there are people who get injured more or less easily. I can also accept that there may be freak values such as Willis's character that are almost invulnerable. But where the film crosses the line is by giving Willis the power to tell if people are involved in crimes, or to sense things before they happen. This is put down to heightened "instinct". Even this could be better explained. There are countless real life examples of people getting a "bad feeling" which has caused them to take action on an apparently irrational basis that has ended up saving lives. This has been put down to subconscious noticing of tiny signs that something is about to happen. It's simply anticipating what would happen based on facts about the present, as we do all the time, but at a subconscious level. Alas, Shamalamalan feels the need to demonstrate Willis's power by having him "know" the colour of a gun he hasn't seen, for example, or know things about people he couldn't have known any way other than magic. At this point the film stops being about an extraordinary human being, an anomaly, a real life superhero, and at the same time stops being relevant to the real world. This isn't quite so much of a problem as Unbreakable is a film about comic books, and while interesting, doesn't have such a clear cut take home message as Red Lights. However, its serious tone relies on a believability that is sacrificed by the involvement of apparently supernatural abilities, which means the film needs to be a whole lot more entertaining to make up for it.

There are plenty of films that involve the supernatural and continue to take themselves seriously. The Shining, for example, loses none of its potency by the involvement of possibly supernatural forces, but where I think the line should be drawn is where the film is about something non supernatural, and is set in the real world, yet chooses to use it any way.

However, it's not just the supernatural, but a suspension of belief in general that can be a problem. One of my big problems with The Shawshank Redemption (again, a brilliant film) is the ending (again, it goes on too long)[SPOILER] where the two friend meet up in, I think, Mexico. Andy's escape and Red's release in close succession are just too implausible to be believable, and throw away a lot of the investment in the gritty real life prison drama that has been built up.

I guess my problem is this: when you watch a film, you establish the tone of it fairly quickly. In a film like The Green Mile you don't expect the supernatural, so your expectations are unprepared when something inexplicable occurs making it jar with you. On the other hand a film like The Lord of the Rings, for example, is fantasy through and through, so when fantastical things keep happening this is perfectly acceptable. What filmmakers need to learn to do is establish a tone then stick to it. Often these films are much better on second or third viewings as expectations are accurately attuned, but if you need to have seen a film already to appreciate it, this is a problem with the filmmakers not with you. Just don't use the supernatural if it's not necessary, and if you have a plot hole that can only be plugged with magic, perhaps you need to have a look at the rest of the script and see where you're going wrong.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

As easy as ABC...

For those of you lucky enough to follow me on Twitter or in real life, you will know my views on the postmodern druid that is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. Now more than ever the people of Britain need spiritual guidance. We've got gays trying to get married, women talking back and people playing stringed instruments.

Today Dr Williams has made "one of his strongest interventions yet" on the issue of gay marriage. When I read that I was eager with anticipation. "What controversy will Dr Williams be stirring now? How will Iatollah Williams be fanning the flames this time? Will Rowan the Radical whip his church into line and lead the fight against homophobia, or will he come down like a ton of bricks on this sinful behaviour? We will finally know his true opinions!" Here's what he he said:

"Dr Rowan Williams said that the church was still "scratching its head" about its position on same-sex marriage... "Same with same sex marriage, where once more we're used to being alongside people who are gay; many of our friends may be – indeed we may be – wrestling with that issue ourselves, and the church is scratching its head and trying to work out where it is on all that, and what to think about it.
"What's frustrating is that we still have Christian people whose feelings about it are so strong, and sometimes so embarrassed and ashamed and disgusted, that that just sends out a message of unwelcome, of lack of understanding, of lack of patience.""So whatever we think about it, we need, as a church, to be tackling what we feel about it." "
Let's recap. One of Rowan's STRONGEST INTERVENTIONS amounts to saying "we don't know what we think, but whatever we think, we need to....look! A pigeon!" Williams resembles the final months of Gordon Brown, when in interviews he would look like he was thinking "oh just go away! stop asking me difficult questions!" Except both these people are in positions of considerable power and influence and should answer to the people they are supposed to serve.

Again, this is one of his STRONGEST INTERVENTIONS. It couldn't be more vague if he'd let out a protracted hiss before raising his eyebrows and humming pop goes the weasel. This is particularly odd considering the response to the government's gay marriage consultation by the Church of England.

The church, "led" by Williams, believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, should include the possibility of procreation and that the traditional institution of marriage should not be altered in any way. I don't really need to dismantle these arguments. If you're reading this you've probably heard and refuted them before, although I will reassert the point made that the Church of England was founded on redefining marriage. These arguments are essentially the same as those used by the Christian hard right in America, repackaged slightly for the audience of Songs of Praise.

This is pretty much the role of the Church of England in the gay marriage debate. It's the acceptable face of British homophobia. Less offensive and Catholic than the shrill ramblings of largely shunned and ignored morally corrupt paedophile protector Cormac Murphy O'Connor and his successor, career homophobe Vincent Nichols, the C of E, under Williams, makes it acceptable to oppose equal rights. Of course, the fact that gay marriage is not yet a reality means that they're not seen as reactionary outsiders, but what it's important to realise is that this very mild homophobia enables, legitimises and encourages people like Lisa Nolland of Anglican Mainstream saying things like...well, if you don't know already, you'd best click on the link.

Rowan Williams' stance may or may not be out of sync with his church (as we have no idea what he believes) but either way he should surely be providing some leadership on the matter.

I wanted to find a clip of Rowan Williams saying something interesting or controversial, but for those of you who know anything about the man, you will know this is about as likely as the miracles he claims to believe in. After trawling YouTube for longer than I ever thought possible on the subject of a man who I can listen to for approximately 11 seconds before thinking about something else (usually Obi Wan Kenobi or Gandalf) I found a video in which the Doctor is asked how he prays on homosexuality. Before you watch, let's put this in some context. Dr Williams believes that he is the number 2 guy in the correct and true religion. Well, he's never said anything so bold but it's implied by his position. He also believes that there is one true god, who is capable of literally anything, and has a rather important moral code we should be following. Homosexuality is a very contentious issue at the moment, so when Dr Williams prays to the omnipotent and omniscient god, bearing in mind that prayer works and Williams is the second most senior human on earth where God is concerned, you would have thought that if William doesn't know God's views on gays, he would do well to ask him and, if he does, he would pray for God to help the people who've got it wrong to reach the truth. That would make sense, and would really clear a lot of things up. So what does Rowan Williams pray for?

He prays for people on both sides of the debate to give each other a little space. He prays those on the radical (presumably modern, more pro gay) side prioritise the church over gay rights. He prays for a discussion. Oh, and he then admits Christians are actually not that generous.

Let's look at this more closely. Hoping only for debate suggests that God doesn't feel that strongly. If god doesn't have a problem with gays, as is surely implied by the fact that Dr Williams is happy for a debate with no obvious preference on either side, then the default position should be to treat people equally. There is no consistency or sense in Williams' view. It's almost like prayer doesn't work, and he's saying what he thinks will upset the fewest people. His vagueries are accepted as he clearly has a difficult job appeasing the bigots in his congregation, and underlying this is a tacit acknowledgement that he can't communicate with god, and that god has no relevance to the real world, which is why the church has to make secular arguments against gay marriage. But Williams is not the leader of a political party, he's the leader of a religion, and if God can't give us certainty, who can? It's also strange that someone who apparently wants debate would avoid debate at all costs by not expressing his view on any subject that appears to fall within his remit.

Williams manages to avoid saying anything specific at all in a way that most politicians would be envious of, but he doesn't even have to face the electorate. He's in a completely risk free position, particularly since he's announced his retirement, but still chooses to avoid the issue entirely. I'm not suggestign Rowan is an imbecile. Unless they do PhDs for beards, I'm assuming he has at least some intelligence (although Nick Griffin graduated from Cambridge. Qualifications aren't everything.), but surely that just makes him even worse, as he fails so spectacularly to deal with one of the most important issues of the day.

I'm not against vague religious beliefs per se. If you decide there probably is an entity we call God, it makes sense that it should be completely unfathomable to a human mind. However, if you're in, or even better head of, a religion like the Church of England, you claim to know enough about God to know specific the moral rules he ascribes as well as specific events he has been involved in and so on. To accept this, as you surely have to to call yourself a Christian, yet be the head of the church and unable to make a single specific statement about the god in question or the moral rules he prescribes, is nothing short of cluelessness or naked careerism.

Here's another example of a heap of impenetrable Williams waffle. About half way through, think to yourself "What is he actually saying?"

Absolutely nothing at all.

Let me be clear. If Rowan Williams thinks civil rights  for gay people are expendable to keep his church together that makes him a homophobe. If, during apartheid in the USA, a non racist preacher maintained that black people should have to sit at the back of the bus in order to keep their congregation together they would rightly be condemned. Yes, it is the same.

Rowan Williams is not a leader. He provides no guidance. He appears to have few beliefs at all about the nature of God or what he demands, yet he can sit idly by as his church attacks equal rights, before issuing vague statements (in the form of a strong intervention) calling for "debate" which he routinely dodges. I don't often look the the Bible for answers, but maybe it can help explain why Rowan Williams was created without a spine.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Don't menshn it.

Have you ever seen an idea so clever and simple that you wish you'd thought of it? Louise Mensch has. Louise Mensch saw Twitter and though "that's brilliant! It's so clever and simple. I wish I could come up with an idea like that". Louise Mensch then thought for hours and hours. After two hours, Louise Mensch still hadn't come up with anything as good as Twitter. "That's it!" Louise Mensch thought, "I will make a version of Twitter, and get rid of everything Louise Mensch doesn't like about it". So Louise Mensch thought about it and decided that to improve Twitter all you need is 40 extra characters, more censorship, make users follow 100 people they have no interest in whatsoever and the name of Louise Mensch emblazoned on every page.

Essentially she has constructed the Twitter of a Menschian dictatorship. After the glorious revolution, when the Mighty Mensch is swept to power on the surge of a popular uprising, the dissenting Tweeters will be sent to camps, know henceforth as Mensch Reeducation Centres, or ReMenschucation Centres, and everyone will, instead use

"Fuck!" Louise Mensch thought, as she woke up from her dream, "I've made a social netwrking site that sounds and looks like a gay hookup site. How do I distinguish it from all the other gay hookup sites....I mean... social networks? I know!" Louise Mesch had an epiphany, "I will include a slogan that shows how it differs from Twitter: Talk on Topic. This gets rid of all that idle chitchat about "stuff", or whatever people talk about these days, and keeps it political. Discipline. That's the one thing missing from Twitter."

Louise Mensch then called her nephew who's currently doing a BTEC in applied ICT, and by the end of the day, Menshn was born.

Louise Mensch was thrilled as 20 million Twitter users migrated to Meschn in the first day. Then she woke up again, and logged in to Menschn to check no-one was saying anything naughty. Since she last logged in an Armenian gentleman had created an account, becoming the first user Louise Mensch did not know personally, and posted a Mensh. Louise Mensch was thrilled. What would it say? "Tall, slim bicurious man seeking similar for good times in N/E England". Louise Mensch was thrilled! "That's not on topic!" she thought, "I can delete it!". She then scanned back through the older posts, checking she hadn't missed anything off topic on her previous visit. "Idle chitchat has no place on Menshn!" Louise Mensch mused. Louise Mensch removed one of her own Menshs from earlier which had seemed political at the time (it was about the Olympics) but with hindsight Louise Mensch realised was probably more sport related. A tingle ran down Louise Mensch's spine to her loins as she deleted the comment.

"There's a lot of off-topic posting going on here" Louise Mensch mused, "With those two, 50% of today's posts have been off topic. I should probably outline some rules". [] She began to type:

"The first rule of menshn is you do talk about menshn. Please feel free to invite your friends, spread the word, and post about us on Facebook and Twitter."

"No" thought Louise Mensch, "that's too fucking stupid even for me. A Fight Club reference is surely too clich├ęd and will just make me look like a Tory MP trying to be down with the kids. And asking people to spread the word on Facebook and Twitter is surely an admission of defeat." But then she accidentally published it any way. Louise Mensch continued:

"menshn is for talking on topic. We're passionate about politics and we love debate. But if you harass, spam, clog feeds and so forth, we can delete your account without notice. So be like Fonzy and be cool."

"Hmm" Louise Mensch pondered, "This is terribly written and contains an extremely outdated cultural reference. This just makes me look like a fucking moron. Also, "we can delete your account without notice" makes me sound terrifyingly authoritarian" but then Louise Mensch accidentally published it any way. Louise Mensch contintued:

"you may see content that offends you; people may be horrible to you, defame you, twist your words, post nasty links or pictures, post malware, damage your computer, pretend you wrote a menshn you didn't, imitate you, and any other nasty thing we haven't thought of."

"Wait a second" though Louise Mensch, "warning people about the risks they face in the free forum that is Menshn seems oddly out of sync with my previous obsession with censorship. If people read this, they might assume I only want to delete things that I don't agree with. That doesn't look good at all". Then Louise Mensch accidentally published it any way. Louise Mensch continued:

"See those "rate" buttons by the menshns? If you like a comment, or think it's relevant or cool, please rate it. The points go up in real time, at the top of your screen. The top 5% of best-rated menshners are always seen in a community's stream (although you can block them like anyone else). menshn is designed to reward intelligent chat. You know - we talk on topic."

"Fuck" though Louise Mensch "if I use the word "rate" in the modern sense to mean "approve of", and "cool", won't I just look like a Tory MP trying to be down with the kids? Is there any point rewarding relevance since irrelevant posts will be deleted? If I reiterate my patronising slogan, won't that just annoy people? Is this rule even more poorly written than the others?" but then she accidentally published it any way. Louise Mensch continued:

"menshn can use advertising. We can promote links, and assign you followers or subscribe you to accounts, or promote given menshns. You agree to this by signing up. Hey, right now in version 1.0 we have placed the ability to donate straight to the Obama or Romney campaigns in the relevant chat rooms! Get to it, politicos! (If you want to)."

"Fuck" thought Louise Mensch, "the passage I've just written has so many annoying things I don't know where to begin. Why have I randomly written "hey"? Why have I written "Get to it, politicos!"? The imperative here might freak people out a bit. I know..." thought Louise Mensch, " sound less authoritarian I'll add "(If you want to)" on the end..... There, that's better." So Louise Mensch published it. Louise Mensch continued:

"On menshn, your menshns age off after one week and are not stored on our servers, except at our sole discretion."

"Shitting hell" thought Louise Mensch "It will be really annoying if you can't see posts older than one week, and your information being kept based on the arbitrary whims of I, Louise Mensch, sounds scary and authoritarian." Then an incoming Tweet distracted Louise Mensch so she forgot to delete the rule. Louise Mensch continued:

"the standard here is that your menshns will disappear into the ether, and not stick around like..."

"Tortoise's scrotum!", thought Louise Mensch "What sticks around for ages? A metaphor will really make these rules less terrifying and authoritarian. Stick around like...a bad smell? A stick? Siphilis? I know!"

"...Mount Rushmore. You agree to this, and all of the above, by signing up to use menshn. Have fun - talk on topic!"

"Jesus fucking donkey bollocks" thought Louise Mensch, "by saying "Talk on topic" I sound like a mother telling her naughty child to behave at school, which will surely patronise and annoy my intelligent target market. Ah! If I add "have fun" the problem will be solved."

Louise Mensch looked back through her list of rules.

"Fuck" thought Louise Mensch, "I've built a website based on the notion of intelligent debate, yet I've just constructed the most patronising and condescending collection of rules, and written them for eight year olds. You've really screwed this one up, Louise Mensch. Anyone would think you're just an attention-seeking imbecile looking to make a quick buck of the social networking boom when actually you don't have a single fucking clue about how to go about making one. It looks like a school project and will probably be used by no-one other than people you personally know, and will become the butt of jokes for years to come. Google, you know, that massive corporation full of technology experts, has failed to create a social networking site, so I, Louise Mensch, with my rudimentary understanding of technology, will surely fail even more miserably, particularly as I'm a Tory MP who everyone "intelligent" absolutely fucking hates" Then she thought "fuck it, I don't want a whole afternoon's work to go to waste" and published it any way.