Sunday, 19 December 2010

Ocean’s 11 retrospective

Ocean’s Eleven was originally made in 1960, but I’ve not seen that version and until a couple of days ago I’d not seen the remake from 2001. I’ve often heard good things about the film from people whose opinions I respect, but sadly I was disappointed. You might wonder why I’m reviewing a film of 9 years ago rather than one that came out recently – like say, Tron – but that would requite dragging myself to the cinema rather than watching from the comfort of my own bed.

So Ocean’s Eleven is about 11 people robbing three large Casinos in Las Vagas. The leader of this motley crew of miscreants and criminals is Danny Ocean, who was recently released on bail from jail – proof, I suppose, that the criminal justice system is worse than useless. Ocean has a personal vendetta against the owner of these casinos because, well I’m not actually sure why, the film never really made this terribly obvious. There was something about Ocean’s wife, but then if your husband was a convicted criminal you could be forgiven to jumping ship and screwing some rich guy instead.

Anyway the crew meticulously plan and execute the robbery perfectly, without any blemish or difficulty. Everyone gets on just fine (apart from one staged fight) and everything goes to plan. The bad guy gets his money stolen and the good guys drive off into the sunset, loot and woman in hand. Or do they?

The film only unconvincingly shows us that the casino owner is the ‘bad guy’ – apparently he’s pretty harsh on people he doesn’t like, which seems more like a tragic flaw than decent set up for an antagonist. Even more criminal however is the film’s failure to actually characterise the protagonists as ‘good guys’ at all. We are given no reason to like any of the eleven thieves; most of them are set up as hardened criminals, gamblers or petty thieves, none of which are likable character traits. These might be forgiven as something of a gritty dark side to their personalities if they weren’t the only things we are actually shown about the characters. Ocean does at least seem to rather like his ex-wife, but he mostly just comes across as clingy and unable to move on, especially given that the relationship is not really given any context.

This might seem to be taking the wrong approach to a film which is supposed to be admired for its fun action, stylish presentation and hunky actors, but I’m afraid all of that does not a good film make. I have nothing against well shot films and with good action sequences and attractive actors, but these should be extras that embellish the core of a film – the plot and the characters. If you remember my review of the Expendables I’m probably sounding like a stuck record at the moment, but bear with me.

Compelling characters are one thing, but I’ve spoken about why we need them before. The other thing Ocean’s Eleven lacked was conflict; the most important thing in any plot. At no point during the heist did it seem as though the team were going to fail. Ok there was one point, but by then they’d already mostly succeeded and it was pretty obvious that some ingenious solution had been devised and already enacted before the ‘SWAT Team’ arrived. The eleven members of the team never seemed to come into conflict major with one another; everything went smoothly, there was only one fight, but there didn’t seem to be much of a fall out from that.

The reason why a story needs conflict is that conflict creates tension. Once we have gained an emotional attachment to the character, causing us to want them to succeed, we then need to have those emotions tested. We need to feel the fear that the hero might die, we need to feel the excitement as we wonder how they’re going to get out of this mess. Ocean’s Eleven had no such fear or excitement because there was no reason to fear that they might not succeed. The difficulty of their task was made abundantly obvious early on, but that difficulty was never actually exploited once the heist actually began.

The other important part of conflict is conflict between characters. People fight, that’s a fact of life. When you assemble a team for a heist, especially a big team, egos are going to be at odds. You are going to have arguments and disagreements; some people are bound to dislike each other. I don’t want to keep referring back to Inception, but look at the disagreements there between the members of the team. The only time there was genuine and interesting conflict was when the sub plot between Ocean, the casino owner and Ocean’s ex-wife took centre stage. This made for some interesting conversations that actually made me want to keep watching, something that the rest of the film failed to do.

I think Ocean’s Eleven was trying, on some level, to be noir. There was some attempt to throw in a big twist and deception, but it was all very half hearted. Good noir films, like Luck Number Slevin or Fight Club have the big twist built and foreshadowed from the very start, but it still seems to come out of nowhere and shock you. There was no real built up to the twist at the end of the film and it didn’t change the nature of the story enough to be effective.

Ocean’s Eleven is a bad film with priorities in all the wrong places. But I’m guessing. Given that it’s nine years old already, my opinion is unlikely to change yours. I suppose this might also be a good time to tell you that I don’t like Snatch by Guy Richie either. Sorry if I’ve ruined your Christmas by saying that. On that subject, next week’s blog will be either late or early because there’s no way I’m blogging on Christmas Day!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Touching the Stars

This piece of flash fiction is a reworked segment from the start of a short story I've been working on. It's my first attempt at sci-fi and is a little bit odd, but I hope you like it anyway.
“Good evening London.” His voice boomed as the bass slowly faded and the clapping subsided. All that remained was the melody, rising now and complemented by a more natural, drum-like beat. The melody waved and rose as the crowd screamed.
The tall man stood on the small stage at the front of the club, with his hands stretched out either side of him. Smothered in fog that swirled and shifted around him in time with the music and changed colour with every second beat, he stood statuesquely still and watched the crowd through mirror-like sunglasses. The shades were a single rectangular strip of mirror-coated glass in a thick metallic frame.
No instruments stood on the stage. It was just the man and the fog. He needed no instrument, or mixing deck, to make his music. The notes that pounded out of the speakers were created not by the vibrations of strings or drums or by the whims of electrical pulses, but rather by the conscious will of the man in stage. He thought it and it happened. The limits of genre and instrument had been stripped from him. All he needed was his mind and a few computer chips to make sound; beautiful, enchanting, thunderous sound.
“I hope you’re listening carefully.” He paused and scanned the audience, waiting for the cheers to subside. Silence, but for the sound of his consciousness, fell on the crowd, awaiting his every word and every note. “Because I’m going to tell you a story.”
The bass boomed back and the crowd was jumping in unison, screaming in delight. The man encouraged them; fingers outstretched, he pumped his arms above his head to the beat. Eventually the pulse began to break down, slowing, sometimes missing a beat altogether. It seemed to crackle out and die. The man on stage only smiled as the beat was replaced by pulsating balls of high pitched beeps and squeals. Strange, indescribable, almost unintelligible noises came from the speakers. The crowd fell into awed silence.
“This story is about a man. His name is not important to you, nor his is age or his situation.” he began, now completely still and looking off towards the back of the club with an almost dreamlike expression painted on his fog invaded face. The music continued to whimsically, intangible drift in absurdity.  
“What is important is that he is a man just like all of you; average, ordinary, normal. Like many of you he had experimented in experience enhancing substances. Experts call them hallucinogens, but you more likely refer to them as psychedelic drugs. Today he gathers with a group of close friends to take LSD and enjoy the collective psychedelia. They put on The Dark Side of the Moon and take a tablet each.” As he mentioned the still classic album of over 100 years ago, the recognisable notes of Money rose above the sounds along with the simultaneous ringing of alarm clocks.
“Slowly, as the album begins to progress, he regresses into a state of delight and ecstasy.” The Music rose and flourished and arched as he spoke, becoming ever more random and incoherent. “He sees strange, indescribable things, experiences wonders beyond what we can imagine. He and his friends sit and stare at the world through new eyes. They wander the alien room and marvel things we all take for granted. They are like children, experiencing the world for the first time.
“Our hero, if we can call him that” The music took a tragic tone of an almost unnoticeable instant before returning to the playful meaninglessness of joy. “Plays with the light switch and watches as the bulb flickers on and off in an instant. It makes him dizzy and he sits on the sofa, staring at the stars out of the window. They’re brighter than ever before and there seem to be so many more of them. He marvels and ponders them. ‘So many tiny little suns, each one flying unmoved through space. Circled by so many more swarming planets, burning or freezing at the whims of those tiny specs of light so bright. How lucky we are that we’re here to observe them from the future.’ He thinks, but doesn’t say out loud. His friends are too busy in their own little trips to care about his existentialism.
“Two of them share their trips, mixing their tongues together in love that they did not even realise existed. Another laughs at them, but it is not the laugh of scorn, but that of joy and happiness. Our hero is happy for them also, but finds their mixing of saliva vulgar. ‘You don’t need sex on LSD’ he thinks, but does not say. He doesn’t want to ruin their fun.
“His friends are making him uncomfortable. He just wants to sit and stare at the stars. Walking dreamily towards the door, his friends cast puzzled looks at him, but he just smiles and they smile back. He’s tired of his friends. He wishes to be up in the stars so bright, not down on earth with saliva exchanging friends.” The music took on a strange, exasperated tone, a fleeting boredom that smacked of arrogance.
“He takes the stairs to his bedroom and stands by the window, throwing it open and gazing up at the night sky. He smiles at the moon and it smiles back, but the smile is on its side. He tilts his head so that his smile is on its side too. The stars stare at him. So many stars. There are so many stars. ‘There used to be more’, he thinks, but does not say; there was no-one there to listen anyway. ‘but we blotted them out. One by one.’ He reaches out to touch them but finds only cold air.
“Wishing he could touch them and feel their warmth in the cold air, he instead stares back at them, unblinking, just as they refuse to blink.” The music soared and shimmered and sounded like the kind of music that filled the empty spaced between stars. A roaring, elegantly powerful symphony.
“Our hero thinks of all the things on earth that used to excite him; the exchange of saliva, the joys of money and of power, the previously irresistible pull of friendship and of love. He ponders the lying politicians of Westminster and the slimy bureaucrats of Whitehall, the dead-behind-the-eyes celebrities and all the suffering of the world.” The music returned to earth and took on a sinister tone. Pain and anguish filtered through the gravelly, guttural noise.
“‘How trivial it all is compared to you,’ he talks to the stars, ‘how little your care about our silly little problems. Long after we have killed ourselves, you will still be shining bright and untouchable; oblivious to the petty, insignificant squabbles of man. How lucky we are to be able to see you and see how meaningless it all is. If you did not give us such perspective, how would we live with ourselves?’
“Our hero stands and marvels at the stars, letting the cold air wash over him and cleanse him of his sins. He pours his troubles and his worries into the uncaring starlight. He forgets all about his friends. He forgets all about the politicians and bureaucrats and celebrities and suffering. ‘I want to join with you.’ He calls out to the stars. ‘I want to look down upon this world with the aloof distain of your immortality.’” The music rose and swelled into an incredible, indescribable climax of beautiful noise. Just as the climax began to fade, a tragic string emerged from the mass of sounds and rose to dominance as the rest of the music fell away.
“He jumps, touches the stars and falls back to reality with a broken neck.”
The music faded away and the crowd exploded in cheers and screams and applause.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Leaky Pipes

As I’m sure you’re all aware, international politics has recently suffered a crisis of honesty with the leak of numerous documents, most of which detail American diplomats bitching about world leaders to their superiors. The more interesting and sinister ones detail the private dealings of America with various other world powers to manipulate international politics. Obviously the leaks have caused America and her allies to go rushing around smothering any dissent and trying to put the man who leaked the documents into the deepest jail cell they can find, while trying desperately to retain some kind of moral high-ground – and looking like petulant children in the process.

Now I could spend all day detailing all the amusing personal comments about various world leaders; calling Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, ‘paranoid and weak’, or accusing Prince Andrew of being ‘cocky’, or calling Silvio Berlusconi ‘feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader’ for example – most of which are probably true and not really news to anyone – but that’s not really the issue at hand here. Indeed these comments are largely irrelevant and unhelpful – they are private comments made in confidentiality. They should not have been published in the first place because they do little beside provide dirt for journalists and thus muddy the water, making it harder to actually focus on the important things being leaked.

Like documents detailing how America has been launching anti-terrorist attacks in countries like Yemen without even telling the international community, while the Yemeni president covers it up by lying to his government. Or orders for US diplomats to steal sensitive information like passwords, credit card details and DNA samples from supposed allies in the UN. Or the UK continuing to store US cluster bombs, despite their illegality. Or the US offering monetary and political incentives for countries to take prisoners in Guantanamo Bay off their hands.

All of the above revelations are either illegal, immoral or both. They are indicative of America’s arrogance and disregard for international law. It is also telling that America’s obsession with their own international dominance at the expense peace, justice and morality has not begun to fade since the Cold War days. More than anything I think this whole episode has highlighted the problem with politics, both internationally and domestically.

Politics is all about gaining power. The job of an American diplomat is to try to further America’s power and influence over the rest of the world, so that the USA might continue to be a political and economic superpower. It is not to try to find the solution which promotes the most peace, justice or democracy. They are not there to find the right solution that is best for both parties and will promote international peace and good will for years to come. They are simply there to look after America’s short term interests.

Now I’m not saying that America is the only culprit here; every country enters any international diplomatic situation with its own interests firmly in the driving seat. These interests; political and economic, are to be ruthlessly pursued at all costs, even if the end result actually lands the rest of the world in a lot of trouble that will eventually cause a lot more suffering and hardship further down the line.

For examples of this we only need to look at almost any international law created since World War 2. We could look at the laws on international trade for example, that allow Europe and the USA to monopolise world agriculture, despite having much higher wages than the third world, because they can afford to play subsidies and don’t let third world countries protect their own industries with import tariffs. This means that cheap produce can flood third world countries from the developed world, undercutting local products and meaning that farmers cannot make a living out of the land, causing untold poverty and drastically slowing the development of the countries in question. No change in this situation seems likely in the future, given that the international bodies which regulate these laws, such as the World Trade Organisation are dominated by developed countries which benefit most from these unjust laws.

Politics, then, has become, or always was, nothing to do with creating a better world, trying to arrive at solutions which benefit the entire world in a non-violent, well thought-out and virtuous way. Politics is all about looking after number one. It is entirely selfish and self serving. Now those of you who know me and my political views will no doubt be wondering why I, usually so adamant that self-interest can be a force for good, am criticising selfishness. I must explain by saying that there are two kinds of selfishness; rational self-interest, which promotes one’s own interests without threatening the interests of others – indeed, it usually promotes the interests of others as well as one’s own – then there’s the kind of irrational, unthinking selfishness which is the kind that everyone criticises and it, unfortunately, predominant in politics. It’s the kind of short-sighted, ill-considered selfishness that leads to greater problems down the line, which are in turn only solved by temporary fixes which bring short term gains at the expense of long term interests.

This leads to international politics becoming based not on reason and the long term interests of the world, but based on who has the most power and from whom smaller nations can whore themselves out to; usually the USA. These leaks are mostly indicative of the countries either sucking up to the USA in order to gain political favour – like the Cluster bombs, Guantanamo Bay and Yemen cases – or attempts by the USA to manipulate world politics in their favour, like the spying case. Either way they’re all a rather chilling and deeply disturbing insight into the world of politics – a world that quite desperately needs to be cleaned up if the world is ever to become a place of widespread peace and prosperity.

Inevitably the USA and her allies have tried to cover up these leaks, shut down the website, fix the pipes and generally try to make themselves out to be the victim. In a completely flagrant disregard for anything they might have done wrong, US politicians are accusing the man who leaked the documents – Julian Assange – of causing irreparable damage to international relations and causing untold setbacks in the cause of world peace. While of course this is true, all Assage is doing is being the messenger; he is simply telling the world about all the dishonest, self-serving and largely illegal behaviour of the US and her allies. It is rather rich for the US to be accusing him of causing all this damage when it is simply the truth about their behaviour that has caused the damage.

Immediate self evaluation would be far too much to expect of a political system which has shown itself again and again to be incapable of changing without enormous pressure from voters – and even then there’s never any real change. One would hope that these leaks will at least enlighten the voters about just how shockingly corrupt and self-serving their politicians are. Whether this will cause any change, given that the only way to change the system if from within and the only way to get into the system is to be a part of the corruption and culture of selfishness in the first place, is highly doubtful. Nevertheless these revelations are incredibly important, even if they only serve to prove, once and for all, that a politician will never change his stripes and politics will always be an exercise in self-aggrandisement at the expense of virtue.