Saturday, 26 March 2011


An unexpected (and free) cinema trip on Wednesday brings you all an unexpected (and still free) film review. Limitless is a speculative thriller starring Robert De Nero and Bradley Cooper, about a failed writer who has his life utterly turned around by a drug that allows him to access the eighty percent of his brain that is usually inactive, turning him from a useless slob pretending to write a sci-fi novel into an absolute genius in about thirty seconds.

Limitless wins two massive gold stars from me straight away because I am both a (failing) writer and fascinated by the idea of anything that allows us to tap into our latent creativity/brainpower. I suppose the two go hand in hand; artists are always struggling against themselves, writers block, the hassle of living and various other excuses, so an ability to magically do-away with those excuses and actually do all the things we want to do with our creativity is bound to appeal to us. I for one have about a dozen stories of varying lengths that I’d love to write and more being generated all the time, but only about half of them have even been started yet, let along are anywhere near completion. What I would give to be able to just sit down and write without getting distracted and without floundering over what exactly to write.

And that’s exactly the point. What would I give? The Fantasy podcast I plugged a month or so back,
PodCastle recently ran a story called State Change, which also touched on this in passing. The premise of the story was that each person’s soul was represented by an object individual to that person. One of the characters mentioned in passing had a candle for a soul, which she lit whenever she needed inspiration. Of course, burning the candle uses up some of it. We never actually see what happens when the candle burns down. Limitless imposes a similar catch – once you start taking the pill, you can’t stop. If you do, your body shuts down and you die. You can’t take too many of the pills, or go too long without food or drink excessively, or your mind goes into overdrive and you wake up having lost several hours/days of your life with no memory of what you did.

It would be nice if this dilemma was at the heart of the film. If the question of just how far you would go to continue being a genius was the conflict that drove the plot, but it wasn’t. As I said, it’s a thriller. You see, our hero, Eddie, doesn’t buy the pills, he steals them. And the people he stole them from want them back. Several other people also want them, because let’s face it, who wouldn’t? Of course, as a genius, he can usually handle them, until he starts running out and needs to find some more.

The film doesn’t even focus on what the pills mean for an artist and what they can do to inspiration. Eddie writes a novel in four days at the start of the film, but soon turns to the stock market and ends up working for Carl Van Loon (Robert De Nero), a powerful businessman. I suppose Eddie finds writing so easy after taking the pills, that there’s really no point in exploring it too much – there isn’t much left to explore. Even so, the turn to the world of finance does seem like a strange move for a failing writer to make. It completely and dramatically shifts the tone of the film in a way that is somewhat jarring. His entrance into finance is initially explained by the fact that he has a plan for something big that he needs money for, but that just gets left by the wayside.

Actually a fair bit gets left by the wayside through the course of the film. Eddie finds his ex brother-in-law dead, but there seems to be no hint of a police investigation into what, exactly, he was doing there. He’s also accused (possibly rightly) of murder, but nothing comes of that. After possibly killing someone and almost dying, he promises to come off the drugs, which he never shows any interests in doing. There were actually quite a few little plot-holes and loose-ends that were never really tied off, which seems very sloppy indeed.

In fact I would go as far as to say that, in parts, this story was pretty badly written. For a start, the first two thirds had one of the most pointless narrations I have ever heard. Almost everything that was told to us in the narration was shown to us onscreen at the same time. The little bit that was not immediately shown to us could have been, with a little effort.

I’ve mentioned a number of times that I really dislike narration in films, so it’s past time I explained why. Films are, at heart, a visual medium. We watch films; we don’t listen to or read them. When applied to film, the mantra ‘show; don’t tell’ means that, as much as possible, a film should use visual cues to show the viewer what we are supposed to gather from a certain scene, rather than telling them with written word or narration. The viewer is not stupid, (s)he can work out what is happening if those visual cues are done well enough. There are some instances were it is necessary, such as if there is some kind of story within a story being told, where one of the main characters is narrating the story over the top of the visuals. However, it should be used sparingly, as something that goes against the norm, rather than being the norm.

So, between pointless, patronising narration and unresolved plot-threads left unsatisfactorily hanging every now and then, Limitless is not a triumph of screenwriting. It is a triumph of cinematography, however. Once Eddie has taken the pill, the entire film literally lights up; the aesthetic goes from being a dreary, dull, colourless misery to being vibrant, energetic and colourful. This aesthetic shift is, in some ways, rather jarring, but it’s still very effective. Even more effective is the way in which the camera shifts to take in a much wider view and the editing becomes much sharper and faster. This builds up to the extremely impressive breakdown about half way through the film, which involves some fantastic and very confusing sequences.

This complete mental breakdown from abuse of the drugs and the after-effects of it are really a turning point. Up until that point I’d been really enjoying the film. It seems as though Eddie had experienced the all-time low that shows him that something has to change. I would have expected some kind of realisation of his faults and a subsequent change in character. It’s one of the principle character arcs upon which a story can rest. However the arc almost got to the end then broke down. Rather than Eddie moving on and learning something concrete about himself from his experiences, he simply changed the way he was acting slightly, became somewhat more moderate and continued in the exact same vein. The plot stopped being driven by him and started being driven by other characters. This is where I really started to loose the story. I could forgive the pointless narration and the odd unresolved issue, if the story had given me a satisfying character study with a resolution that worked. The character development stopped, however and the film became a run-of-the-mill thriller with two dimensional characters and an uninspiring plot.

The ending of the film was particularly disappointing. Eddie seemed not to have really learned from his experience. The conflict that had underlain the rest of the story had disappeared without any decent resolution. Eddie had all the benefits, but none of the drawbacks, and he’d not had to really do anything to achieve it. The thing that had made the story interesting and the thing that had made Eddie an interesting character were both gone, but this all happened after the main story arc was over and done with. It was all done through a massive Deus Ex Machina that left a very sour taste in the mouth.

Limitless is worth seeing, especially given that there’s bugger all out at the moment, but it doesn’t get close to the list I posted last week. Excellent cinematography and a fantastic concept was let down by some poor writing and a really shoddy ending. The thing that bugs me about this film is that it could have been really excellent. With a very small amount of effort it could have at least been very good. As it is, it’s merely decent, not bad, ok, mediocre. It had a hell of a lot of potential, but really didn’t live up to much of it. So many missed opportunities and unexplored possibilities.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

My Top Ten… Films

I’ve been deliberating over what, exactly, to write about this week. There are several things I could write about, including the situation in Libya, but I don’t have enough to say about those things at this stage to make a fully fledged blog post out of them. With any luck further developments in the next week or so will give me something more to say. In the meantime, it’s been a while since I did a top ten, so here’s a list of my favourite films, again, in no particular order.

  • Inception: This is only the first of several Christopher Nolan films on this list. See my review for reasons why it’s awesome. A brilliantly written, brilliantly filmed, mind-bogglingly complex, character-driven sci-fi. Really incredible, deserving of the Oscar it didn’t win

  • Shawshank Redemption: A classic. Really good study of the life of a prisoner and the problems facing them after they get out of jail, combined with a fantastic story of the dedication of one man to break out of prison. Wonderfully understated and subtle. Shame about the narration, but I guess we can forgive a few faults.

  • The Dark Knight: Another Christopher Nolan film, possibly the best superhero film to come out in recent years. Incredible performance by the late Heath Ledger. See my review of this one for details (jeez, that’s going back a long way, I was a horrible person back then). I cannot wait for the next Batman film to come out. With Nolan directing, I expect it to be excellent.

  • Lucky Number Slevin: One of the very few films in which Brice Willis in not trying to kill everything. He actually does a really good job in this one. Slevin is a fantastic Noir film that has a brilliant twist in the tale. Well written, beautifully stylish and really well acted by all involved.

  • Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: One of the best book-to-film adaptations I can remember. The whole trilogy is a really good interpretation of the original work, stripping out a lot of the superfluous bits (Bombadil is awesome, but not needed), but keeping the essence of the work intact. The Return of the King in particular is a suitably epic finale. Outstanding film making on Peter Jackson’s part.

  • The King’s Speech: I reviewed this one a matter of weeks ago. Absolute triumph of film making. Wonderful feel-good story that dealt with some fascinating characters and issues. Deserving of the Oscar in any ordinary year (but Inception still should have won it this year)

  • The Prestige: Another Christopher Nolan film. A much older work, but still fantastic. Alternative History about magicians in the 19th century. More brilliant twists and interesting characters. Typically dark and very stylish. I need to see Memento; another Nolan film. I’ve heard it’s also awesome.

  • The Matrix: A truly incredible idea. One of those stupid ‘what ifs’ that kept on being explored until an idea for a film emerged. A superb existential idea, questioning the very existence of existence as we know it. From that, a piece of Sci-fi that is as bleak as it is far-reaching. Add in some interesting and deeply flawed characters and some inspired cinematography, and you have a really fantastic film. Shame they never made any sequels.

  • V for Vendetta: If only for two of the most awesome speeches ever committed to film. Another brilliant superhero film, driven by the enigmatic V and his fascinating back-story. I have to say it, I’m a massive fan of dystopia and the one created in the graphic novel and faithfully reproduced in this film is wonderful. Another brilliantly shot film – parliament exploding to the 1812 overture? Incredible. Excellent philosophical points, as well.

  • Fight Club: More Noir. One of those strange little mind-fuck films that leaves you reeling. One of Brad Pitt’s best performances to date. Really well written and really stylish. The twist isn’t quite as neat or as subtle as in Slevin, but it certainly changes the very essence of the film a lot more. It turns from a study of violence and violent protest into a character study of a deeply troubled man and his inner battles. Awesome.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Art and us

Back in the early months of doing this blog, I wrote a piece about art. Having reread it, cringed at the multiple grammatical errors, its startling brevity and ill-formed ideas, I decided it was time for an update. This is not, however, a rant about Modern Art, although I’m still not exactly comfortable with much of the art produced by Post-modernism. In fact this is not even about art in the narrow sense of visual art. This is about all art, about how we interact with it and about how in effects us.

The definition of art has been much disputed. It is a debate about which there will never be a consensus, because art is different for everyone. To the artist, art is all about expressing oneself, to the consumers of art, art is all about how the work effects us. As a consumer I believe that art relies on an emotional connection being forged between the art and me. I want art to induce an emotional response in me. Art is successful if it makes me happy, of makes me sad, or makes my pity the subject, of makes me hate the antagonist. As a creator, I want to show someone, something about the world. I want to make a statement about the way we live, the way we interact with each other and the world around us, about life, death, war, love. Art is an expression of life. Creating art involves giving away a little bit of yourself. We pour heart and soul into the things we create; we reveal a little bit more about who we are by the art we create.

That is not to say, however, that art is simply an expression of an opinion. Art is not an answer to a question. Art should not tell, or even show, its consumers what the artist believes, or what the artist wants the consumer to believe, in a way that presents it as irrefutable fact,. That is the role of propaganda. And while propaganda can be art, art is not propaganda. Art provides questions. It is, quite literally, food for thought. A consumer should take from a piece of art, not answers, but questions. It should provide him with a new way of looking at the world, a different perspective, a dilemma. The best pieces of art present a conflict, a spectrum of ideas, none of which are wrong or right, but all of which are engaging and fascinating.

Because art is riddled with conflict, and because good art wraps those conflicts up in itself, art requires analysis and critique. Not only is critique unendingly helpful for a budding writer, it is also an integral part of how art should be consumed. Of course we do not have to go digging; good art should be accessible and interesting on the surface, as well as having a lot more depth. We can choose to interact with art passively, allowing our unconscious brains make the connections which create emotional responses, or we can actively study the art and try to look deeper at the themes and motifs, appreciate what the artist is trying to say and, to go a little deeper, how he is saying it. This is the fascinating thing about art. The thing that means we keep coming back to it. Why works of art continue to be incredibly popular, long after their time.

When we analyse and critique art, we study what the art is saying to us, how we interpret what is being said and how that interacts with is. We interact with it. Not the artist, but the art, itself. We bring a little of ourselves to the table when we study a work of art, usually a little more that we anticipated. There’s no right or wrong in literary criticism, because art interacts with each person differently, and each person interacts with art differently, so one work of art is different depending on who is studying it.

For an artist, this is scary stuff. When we create, we specifically intend a certain reaction from what we create. We want people to think certain things upon consuming that work of art. So when people begin to find things in our work that we didn’t even realise we’d put in there, that we’d never intended to be in there, we realise that art is not inextricably linked to the artist. Once we have created a piece of work and released it into the world, we cannot dictate what it means to people anymore. Art evolves and changed, it is out of the control of the artist.

This is why works of art outlive their artist, by thousands of years, in some case. Each new generation looks at art through new eyes, with different prejudices, different ideas and different assumptions. The artist and what he intended no longer matter, especially when the artist is long dead. His work survives him, and it is by his work that is he is remembered. The art keeps changing, keeps evolving. It is renewed and given new meanings with every different person who studied it. And yet the art remains the same. The words, the shapes, the colour, the sounds, don’t change. The things that make up the art remain constant, but what they mean changes.

This is even more poignant when we consider art that is performed. Concertos, plays and song exist on paper, but to truly appreciate them, they have to be performed. This requires the input of directors, conductors, actors, musicians and audience. Each of these bring something new to the table, they bring their own interpretation of the piece into their own delivery. They change it to reflect themselves. Art evolves and changes with the context in which it is put.

Art is incredibly useful for historians. By studying the art of a different culture, we can gain an insight into what that culture valued and believed. Greek Tragedy tells us what Greeks expected from their art. Roman attempts to copy from Greek art, tells us the awe in which they held Greece, the changes they make show us what they did not appreciate of Greek culture. We can also look at what subsequent cultures made of art from their past. We can look at what survives and what doesn’t. More plays of Euripides survive than of Sophocles and Aeschylus combined, yet Euripides was far less successful that either in his own day. That tells us far more about the people who went about preserving these works than about the original recipients. We can learn what subsequent cultures thought of art by studying what they preserved and what they did not. We can also learn a lot about our own culture by looking not just at what’s popular, but what isn’t.

We do not just affect art. Our interpretations and analysis of art does not leave us unblemished. Art affects us. Art makes us think, it makes us feel. It changes us. Art makes us think about something new, something different. Art makes us consider the world in new light; it makes us consider ourselves in a new light. The scary thing about art is that, whenever we expose ourselves to it, we allow it in, we drop our guard and we let it change us. We let it alter our perception of the world, and we let it cast a light into ourselves.

But that’s not always a bad thing. Art inspires. Art moves us to produce it, ourselves. Art makes us think about the world in a way we never have done before. It forces us to explore different paths, both into the world and into us. Art gets our creative energies sizzling with new possibilities and new angles into a part of life, a part of us, that we’ve not explored before. Art inspires us to create more art, to pour a little more of ourselves out onto the canvas.

Every single person sees art differently. Art is individual. Each person brings something different to the table, and takes away something different. Whether as a creator or a consumer or both, we all gain something and give something away through art. Our experience grows, art grows. We change and art changes with us, or does art change, and we change with it? Probably a little bit of both, because art is a barometer and a counterpoint to culture. What is popular is what we interact with most, so that is what changes us the most. Art is democratic. But then what is popular changes because someone creates something new that people prefer to what is old, and there’s always a few who refuse to be drawn by what is popular. Art is individual.

The definition of art depends on who you are and how you perceive it, so trying for a definition is pointless. Art is as diverse and as varied as people. Despite this there are some things that remain constant; we are all affected by art and well all affect art. We are all drawn by art, and we are all drawn to create art. Art is an integral part of everyone’s lives. We cannot ignore it and we cannot stop it. We can only enjoy it and hope that it doesn’t change us in ways we don’t want it to.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Time to do something in Libya

Over the last few weeks, Libya has descended into a state of civil war. Supporters of Colonel Gaddafi are clashing with rebels in a number of different cities around the country. Roughly, the rebels hold the east of the country, whereas Gaddafi and his followers control the west. The revolt was sparked by similar revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia (between which Libya is sandwiched). Similar uprising have also occurred elsewhere in the Arab world following the coup in Tunisia in January. However, while the Egyptian and Tunisian situations resolved themselves relatively peacefully, the situation in Libya as escalated into a very serious and real conflict.

This escalation was due, largely, to the abject refusal of Colonel Gaddafi to step down, despite huge pressure from protestors. Indeed, a few weeks ago, Gaddafi called on his own supporters to fight back against the rebels, essentially sparking the current civil war. The rebellion began in the country’s second city, Benghazi, and has spread across much of the east of the country. Gaddafi’s forces still hold Tripoli, the capital. At the moment, the main conflict is over the oil-centres of Begra and Jazour.

While in Egypt and Tunisia, the army stepped in to protect protesters and help complete the revolution without too much bloodshed, the Libyan army is too weak and disjointed to provide coherent support to either side. Some army officers have defected to the rebels and are helping to train and arm them. It seems likely that much of the army will refuse to carry out Gaddafi’s orders if they involve turning on Libyan citizens, indeed some of the already have, however Gaddafi will be able to rely on a powerful paramilitary force, personally loyal to him and his family. Generally Gaddafi’s forces are better armed, but the rebellion is growing in strength.

The current situation, then, is frightening. We have the prospect of thousands dying in a lengthy and drawn out civil war. Gaddafi has already shown that he has no qualms over killing his own people and no intention of stepping down either. Even when the fighting does stop and the dust clears over Tripoli, the country, whoever is in charge, will be faced with a massive economic and political fallout that will cripple it for a generation.

And yet, The West has done nothing. There has been a lot of talk, condemning Gaddafi’s actions and voicing concern for those stuck in the middle of the conflict, but no real action. The situation in Libya is really very simple. Gaddafi is a despot, a tyrant, he has a history of human rights abuses (Lockerby bombings anyone?) and has led his country without election since the 1960s. His regime consistently abuses freedom of speech and keeps political control firmly in the hands of those in Tripoli. With its secret police and ‘people’s committees’, Libya resembles something like an ex-soviet state. Libyans have looked at the rebellions of the Egyptians and Tunisians, and decided that they deserve better than tyranny and oppression. They have risen up in the name of freedom and democracy.

And yet, The West has done nothing. While the USA and Western Europe claim to be champions of democracy, supporters of freedom of speech, they do little but talk, while Libyans fight and die for those very ideals. We sit by and tut disapprovingly of the actions of Gaddafi, yet do nothing to stop the atrocities committed in his name. The West has tremendous economic, political and military clout, but it repeatedly refuses to use it to support the ideals for which it stands and upon which it is built.

I’m not saying we should send in the troops. Iraq and Afghanistan proves that rarely ends well. However there is a lot more that could be done. Economic sanctions; denying Gaddafi access to the resources he needs to conduct his war, support to the rebels; providing resources to help them overthrow Gaddafi, arrests warrant on Gaddafi and his sons for human rights violations. There is plenty of real substance that can actually be done to help the cause of democracy.

The international community is still recoiling from the public backlash to the last major international intervention: Iraq. The problem is that, the reason for the backlash was not that Iraq was handled badly (although it was), or that the wrong action was taken (although that was also the case), but that intervening in Iraq was quite clearly unwarranted, unnecessary, self-serving and immoral. The backlash came, not from the actions, but the intentions behind the actions. There was no good reason why the invasion of Iraq went ahead. Had there been a good reason – as there was in Afghanistan – the reaction would have been disappointment that the situation was not handled better – again, as was the case with Afghanistan – rather than outrage at the needless loss of life on both sides.

The Iraqi backlash has led to crippling indecision and conservatism on the part of the international community. As is so often the case, the pendulum has gone too far – from charging in, guns blazing, to awkward feet shuffling and embarrassed looks to someone else to do something. The appropriate response is somewhere in-between these extremes. Currently the international community is floundering and wallowing in self-doubt, while Libyans fight for their freedom, wondering what Gaddafi has to do to cause the international community to take notice. This inaction is as bad as the wrong type of action.

There is also a slightly more sinister factor a play here. Libya is a rather important international exporter of oil. The invasion of Iraq disrupted oil production from The Gulf for years, similar action in Libya could very well cause a similar disruption. With the world economy teetering uncertainly, and with oil prices relatively high, any disruption to the world oil economy could be disastrous. But try telling that to the Libyans.

The situation in Libya is a golden opportunity for world leaders to demonstrate to their people that they are not unprincipled, self-serving cowards who will not lift a finger unless it directly benefits them. It is a chance to demonstrate that principles such as liberty, self-determination and freedom of speech are not simply buzz-words; they are ideals that deserve protecting, that require nurturing, and that should be placed in a pedestal for all to aspire to.

Institutions such as the UN and the International Court of Human Rights were established in the aftermath of the Second World War to prevent such a calamitous world catastrophe from happening again, and to begin building towards a world where nations are not divided, but united, where ideals do not clash, but coexist, where people everywhere can expect the same rights and the same opportunities.

Over 60 years on from the establishment of these institutions, the world still faces an incredibly tough challenge in realising these ideals. The effects of communism are still being felt in the Far East and in eastern Europe and extreme Islamism seem to be the next threat looming rather close on the horizon. There is still a long way to go, but if we are ever to start moving towards a solution in any meaningful way, a statement needs to be made.

The current rebellions signal the beginning of the end of the string of dictators that arose out of the dismantlement of The Empires, most notably the British Empire. Africa, in particular, was ravaged by this fallout. The dust is still clearing over large parts of Central Africa, but it would seem that the dictators who emerged from that dust are starting to lose their power. Democracy is beginning to take root and the people of these nations are beginning to demand the freedom they have lacked for so long.

It is time the international community began to recognise these demands and stand by the people. It’s been desirable, but not needed up until now, but with the flames of Civil War eating away at Libya, it is most certainly needed. Libya is a test of international nerve, and so far, we’re failing. It’s time that actions took over from words and something concrete was done to stop Gaddafi and support the Libyan people in their fight for freedom.