Why does the sun go on shining?

The Earth seen from Apollo 17.
The Earth seen from Apollo 17. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve just been to see a movie about the extinction of all life on this fragile ball of rock and it was the most uplifting two hours I’ve spent in a cinema this year. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, begins with the announcement that a seventy mile wide asteroid (with the sinister name of Matilda) is going to collide with the Earth in three weeks and follows Steve Carell and Keira Knightley’s road trip as they try to get back to their respective long-lost love and family.

Lorene Scafaria’s second movie feels like the pretty sister to von Trier’s Melancholia, with the end of the world acting as a backdrop to what really matters, Carell, Knightley and a mutt called Sorry‘s search for what they need to get through the rest of their – foreshortened – lives.

SaFftEotW is a much more heartfelt and touching piece of work than Scarfaria’s previous movie, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, mainly because Steve Carell can bring a sense of pathos and charm to any role; I suspect he could reprise the role of Hitler in a remake of the now infamous Downfall and we’ll all lie down like Sorry and have our tummies scratched.

On top of that, a great collection of the funniest women (Oh, Connie Britton you’ll always be my Mrs. Coach) and men in Hollywood turn up to add colour to a perfectly realised end of days, not least of which is President Bartlett himself, who in less than ten minutes screen time almost manages to steel the entire film. I think Ang is starting to worry that my admiration for Martin Sheen (and Carell) is turning into something about which we need to have a conversation.

Go see Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll question your sexuality, but you won’t be bored.

Excuse me while I call my Mam.

The Geek shall Inherit

In the UK only one of the six-hundred and fifty Members of Parliament has a scientific background. Homeopathy and chiropractic are available on the NHS, while effective and proven medicines are shunned. Our newspapers and television constantly report non-effective and dangerous practices as if they were fact. Even when they report on scientific work, scientists are misrepresented and used to score political points which leaves the public believing that there is no use in funding research any more. The UK is turning from a centre of excellence, a candle in the darkness, to a Thunderdome where ever-decreasing funds are fought for by our scientific community.

Enough, says Mark Henderson – the head of communications at the Wellcome Trust, and sets forward a manifesto to reclaim our culture of scientific inquiry and build a government where decisions are made based on evidence rather than fear, uncertainty and doubt.

In order to try to force our MPs to listen, Dave Watts pledged to send a copy of The Geek Manifesto to all MPs if enough volunteers stepped up to share the load and, oh boy, did they?  Not only that, Transworld Publishers donated 150 copies to make sure the pledge could be met.

My own copy is now on its way to Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge), who certainly doesn’t need it but our own MP, Andrew Lansley, was the first to be snapped up. No surprise there. Let’s hope they read and act on it so the country doesn’t fall back into the dark ages.

God does not build in straight lines

In 1974, Dan O’Bannon produced a science fiction comedy about a transport ship which ran into trouble with a sentient bomb. Dark Star was a critical and financial flop so O’Bannon’s revenge was to invade the nightmares of a generation with the Ridley Scott helmed Alien. Thirty-three years, five movies, four forests worth of comic books, umpteen video games and toys later and Scott has returned to play in the Alien universe once again.

Owing more to Nigel Kneale and Erich Von Däniken than Agatha Christie, Prometheus is as sprawling and ambitious as Alien was claustrophobic and intimate, and feels like those old 1950’s hard scifi epics of yesteryear. Unfortunately, while it’s entertaining and visually stunning, the increased sense of scale belies a lack of depth in the story.

There are several plotlines, each of which could be a movie in its own right: the Dänikenesque Engineers, the search for God and subsequent meditations on the nature of faith, the political machinations of a multi-planetary corporation, the creepy alien that just wants to be a real boy. But because we only get to play in the universe for just over two hours nothing can be followed up in a truly satisfying manner.  Just like The Chronicles of Riddick – opening up a universe does not always mean the stories can justify it.

And while the performances were perfect (especially Fassbender’s David), the sets beautiful, the sense of creeping terror in keeping with the tone of the original Alien, Prometheus still feels like a synthesis of old ideas none of which really gel.

Unlike the movie’s namesake, Scott has failed to steal fire from the Gods, ultimately giving us a very stylish adventure which lacks substance.

Trouble Down t’Mill

Updates to Readmill for iPad

 

 

I just did a guest post for ReadMill on how all the choice we’re given around ebooks boils down to no choice at all.

 

If you haven’t heard of ReadMill, their software tries to turn ebook reading into a kind of virtual reading group with shared highlighting, commenting, and conversations centred around your reading.  Although the reader is only available for iPad, there are ways to use the site with Android and iPhone applications and your Kindle highlights.

I’ve found it invaluable for cataloguing noted during my psychology MSc and it’s fun to see what other people highlight as important. At the very least, it’ll estimate for how many hours you’ll have to endure that statistics textbook.

The Story of the Boy Who Lived

The older you get, the harder it is to buy presents for someone; birthdays and Christmas become less of a celebration and more of a tightrope walk between disappointment and frustration.  Philippe Petit has nothing on someone trying to get a gift that’s surprising and thoughtful, yet wanted.

Thank Dawkins Warner Bros. decided to turn Leavesden Studios into a dedicated museum to the Harry Potter movies.  At least this year, Ang’s birthday didn’t involve the words Frack, What and The.

Housed in two gigantic buildings, the Harry Potter Experience contains almost every piece of Harry Potter arcana that any fan might want to see, including a fully dressed Great Hall, Diagon Alley, and the scale model of Hogwarts used during filming.  The latter really has to be seen to be believed: fifty feet wide, the size of a very large room, and with two and a half thousand optic fibres inside, it took eighty-six artists a total of seventy-four man years to create.

Even more breathtaking, once you go outside you can stand in Privet Drive itself while looking at the Knight Bus and the cottage where the story began.  In a moment of marketing genius, Warner Bros. have allowed the taking of photographs, which means that most of the people will have their experience looking through an iPhone screen whilst screaming.

The Harry Potter Experience certainly is worth a visit even if you aren’t as foaming-at-the-mouth of a fan as Ang, though it’s likely to turn you into a confirmed agoraphobic as the sheer numbers of people passing through makes it feel like rush hour on the Central Line.  If you do go, steer clear of the butterbeer.

‘Course, I’m screwed for next year.

 

Just Trust Joss

Cabin and Woods
Cabin and Woods (Photo credit: DCZwick)

Remember the last time you saw a movie without knowing anything about it?  No, me neither – it’s impossible to see anything these days without having been subjected to a six-month long campaign of press junkets, teasers, trailers, and even teasers for the trailers.  The Internet has turned the wait for a new movie, book, or television series to come out into a gauntlet of neck-bearded, socially maladroit, anonymous sources rushing to gain whatever kudos they think exist for leaking story details on to the internet so that by the time you finally smack your £10 down on the counter you know everything that will happen. And that’s just Ain’t it Cool News.

Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt (2011) ran an experiment which measured the enjoyment of undergrads who read short stories that were either spoiled or unspoiled.  They found that, if the student was spoiled before the story, there was no impact on their enjoyment at all.  So the scientists tell you there’s no reason to spend all your life on internet lock-down until you’ve read the latest Harry Potter, finished Lost, or seen Prometheus.  However, where Joss Whedon‘s long awaited postmodern horror, Cabin in the Woods, is concerned SCIENCE IS WRONG!

You owe it to yourself, your children, and their children’s children to go see this movie without knowing anything more than this: it’s about five college students (including Thor himself) who go off to the woods for a weekend to blow off steam, then BAD STUFF HAPPENS.  Then very good stuff happens.  Trust Joss, he’s given us Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and soon Avengers Assemble (a silly name in the UK to avoid audiences expecting Honor Blackman and Patrick Macnee; as if they could fight crime at their age) so just go and be blown away by the best horror since…

…since…

…well, since ever.

Ein kleiner Schritt für einen Menschen, ein riesiger Sprung für die Menschheit

Since Rare Exports, Troll Hunter, and Let the Right One In, Scandinavia has become the place to go for original genre pieces.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uX2cS8wvQHI&feature=youtube_gdata_player]

Based on these opening four minutes, Iron Sky could be ready to join this Scandtheon. We’re in for a treat on the 20th of April.

Time to Return to the Common Good

Kirby Ferguson concludes his Curtisian meditation on creativity with a call to tear down the power of companies who have grown fat strip mining the public domain while lobbying to extend their own copyrights.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/36881035]

[Previously]

In Dublin’s Fair City, where the girls kick you silly

Dublin is a city that works well in movies.  I can buy it as a place where buskers fulfill their dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom.  It’s fine as the backdrop for a musical comedy about a bunch of unemployed soul singers being black and proud.  In Steven Sodabread’s new movie Haywire, however, it’s painfully obvious that you need a New York or a London to make a spy thriller.

It wasn’t familiarity with my birthplace that make it hard to suspend disbelief, even though Gina Carano‘s teaky depiction of rogue agent Mallory appeared to run around Dublin with nothing but contempt for natural laws of geography.  In one chase sequence she appeared to have crossed the Liffey three times without using a bridge, which can only mean that Aperture Science has joined Amazon, Facebook and Twitter in basing their European offices there.

It wasn’t even the fact that a room at the Shelbourne Hotel was trashed and no-one bothered to complain until the following morning.  “Calm down,” I muttered, “it’s still more realistic than Leap Year.”

No, what made me realise that this was pure fantasy was the fact that Grafton Street still had shops open and people spending money.  There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s the pure naivety of believing Ireland still has an economy.

What about the rest of the movie?  Remember the sort of show that would be on Saturday evenings on ITV in the eighties?  That’s exactly it – Haywire felt like a pilot for one of those bloodless, gung-ho, let’s-shoot-a-lot-of-weapons-and-have-a-bit-of-fighting-before-bathtime and nothing more nuanced than a two-part episode of the A-Team.

I’m not saying the parts of the story wedged between the She-ra-esque set pieces were dull but, at one point, an actual tumbleweed rolled past in the mid-distance as Michael Douglas tried to exposit his way out of a paper-thin plot.  Still, at ninety minutes, it’s not going to be too much of your life wasted.

General Zod’s Chicken

Once a year, usually around my birthday, my parents come over to visit and make sure Ang hasn’t killed me yet.  Now, there’s one trait all Irish people of a certain generation have when it comes to food: they’re not adventurous. A bit of meat, a few potatoes, and the odd carrot or growth of cabbage and they’re happy and there’s no-one more set in his ways than my father. To keep the peace, occasionally he’ll let us go for a meal in a Chinese restaurant (only because he was in one once in 2001 and it didn’t kill him).  This has become one of the highlights of my poor mother’s year, so when a new restaurant opened in Cambridge she couldn’t wait to drag him there.

Picture the scene as we waited for the menu. Me, Ang and mam drooling in anticipation after starving ourselves all day, putting on the elasticated pants and getting ready to take in a year’s worth of Weightwatchers points in one sitting. And my father, pulling at the leash like a dog who doesn’t want his walkies to end.

Then it arrived. The menu.

Oh dear God the menu.

Nothing was made from a part of the animal we’d use as by-product, let alone eat.  Not the husband and wife starter (ox and cow tongue intertwined – one for Valentine’s Day).  Not the roast maw. Not the medley of duck tongue, cow intestines, pigs trotters or any other item on a menu that started off exotic and gradually turned in to the effects department props from the Saw franchise. I’m pretty sure they’d just started making up internal organs by page six.

That’s the funny thing about Chinese food, none of it’s really authentic.  Take General Tso’s Chicken.  Apart from the name, there’s nothing Chinese about it, but it’s good and since I haven’t had it in a decade it had taken on godlike properties in my mind.  After hearing me talk about it non-stop every time we got a take away, Ang made me find a recipe and get it out of my system.  Mission accomplished – we need the elasticated pants.

Oh, and Dad’s excuse for leaving Seven Days before the seat cushions had warmed under us and fleeing to the steakhouse next door?  No beer on draught.