Sunday, 30 April 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy volume 2

I went to see this film at the Electric Cinema yesterday, and it was good.

Let me tell you how good.

A lot Marvel's films are quite disappointing because they manage to either feel very repetitive or as if something has been lost in the transition to the screen, or because they dally in meaningless debates about the world's reaction to the sudden introduction of super powered beings (while never really amping up the threat level that we see in the comics universe). Guardians manages to dodge that bullet, however. In part that may be because the sandbox James Gunn has to play in is so much bigger than the conventional MCU, there are so many threats and characters he can play with because space is so big in the Marvel universe. With literally thousands of stories and characters to play with Gunn's most daunting task, I think, is finding what will work on screen and what has actual resonance. The wonderful thing is that you can feel his love for the property, and all the weirdness, flowing out of the screen. Believe me, there's a lot of love in this movie and it's there from the very start. I can honestly say the team won me from the very start and the amazing opening sequence that manages to be both a call back to the first film and to set the new status quo.

The film's plot straddles the line we had established at the end of the first film, with the Guardians doing a little bit of good and a bit of bad. Unsurprisingly that last bites them on the butt and sets the stage for the rest of the movie, leading to other characters becoming involved as a new group of aliens, The Sovereign, seek revenge for something the Guardians did. This allows Gunn to do some world building, expanding the Ravagers' role in the universe and introducing new captains to go alongside Yondu. As a fan of the Guardians' comics from the 1990s I adored the introduction of these characters, because they are the characters I grew up with (and one of the scenes in the credits really made me happy).

Characters are greatly expanded upon as well, we learn a lot about Yondu and the Guardians' themselves are fleshed out more and their relationships are particularly focused upon. Drax, for example, is allowed to show a different side to the brooding, vengeance obsessed straight man from the first film, though he is still socially awkward to the extreme. At the same time Gamorra and Nebula's relationship gets some serious expansion as we learn more about their past as Thanos' children. And of course there's a lot of focus on Peter's relationships, not just with Ego (who, obviously, is revealed to be his father - that's not a spoiler right?) but with his crew mates and Yondu as well.

Visually, the film is everything you expect from something owned by the House of Mouse. It's beautiful and often has the look and feel of something from SF classics (Ego's planet reminded me of Roger Dean's paintings for some reason, which feels pretty apt really). The Sovereign world is a study in order and serenity, Ego's world a paradise that looks too good to be true, while the forest world they crash the Milano on is dark, teeming chaos. The universe often has a pleasingly grubby demeanor. Outside of the gleaming pockets of order and future tech the clothes are dull tones (with 'Ravager red' being reminiscent of the hues Farscape was so fond of) and the technology being big and bulky. The sort of spaceships that would be graceless in an atmosphere dominate battle with tiny, zippy fighters (reminiscent in their own way with the Nova Corps ships in the last film).

The easter eggs go far beyond the references to the comics, though. Eve observed that part of the end was similar to Return of the Jedi's funeral scene. I'm sure there are far too many references for me to catch, though I imagine that fans are already working hard to compile a definitive list.

Family, and the importance of emotion, are at the heart of this film, just as they were at the heart of the first one. Gunn plays with extremes here, from one group that 'manufacture' their new citizens through genetic engineering to Ego's more sinister purpose for seeking out Peter. In the middle, of course, is the dysfunctional family that is the Guardians, with their constant squabbling and attempts at one up man ship.  Even here there's a lot of love though, and the feeling that Rocket and Groot may just be the secret protagonists, both of them putting the humanoid characters in the shade and given specific chances to shine. Baby Groot is an angry little thing, constantly fighting and rampaging through the movie, beating up anything he can, while Rocket's own aggression has a scalpel taken to it in one of the most touching scenes in the film which reveals the heart of two characters.

All this is delivered with humour and grace, and the film has what is probably my favourite Stan Lee cameo, probably his last as he's said that he won't do anymore and which directly addresses a fan theory that he's actually been the Watcher all along. It's funny, fast paced and... gods I can't believe I'm saying, kickass underlying the idea that the team are BAMFs. The fight scenes are wonderfully choreographed and the twists and turns are reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean at its finest.  The soundtrack works perfectly, too, seemlessly complimenting the action.

I urge you to go and see the film. You won't regret it.

It's the best Marvel film so far, bar none.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Snap Snap Snap (election)

Image result for general election 2017It's election time in the UK, even though we only had an election two years ago, and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is meant to make sure that politicians can't manipulate things to their advantage (so you can't call an election in the middle of an economic boom, for example). I think that the decision, this week, to hold a general election shows exactly how much that particular Act is worth... about as much as a piece of soiled tissue paper.

I suppose it is an indication of the continuing crisis that engulfs our politics, highlighting the need not for an election but for someone to be brave enough to state the obvious. The political architecture of our country is no longer relevant, it just doesn't work. It's been outdated for decades and nobody has done anything about it apart from try to move more and more power to the Government and try to find more ways to bypass Parliament. The election results in 2010 were a warning sign of this, one that was ignored by Westminster and which they doubtless feel confident that they can continue to dismiss after the swing to the Conservatives in 2015. In part that was caused by the electorate's desire to punish the Liberal Democrats over their perceived betrayal, but the promise of a referendum over our EU membership and a fear of 'Red Ed' becoming Prime Minister (though I would contend that was more to do with his inability to eat a bacon sandwich than his policies). This year, we seem to be back to the level of disillusionment that blighted the 2010 election, both parties are led by weak leaders who have failed to capture the country's imagination and who are more concerned with the potential for revolt in their own parties than what is good for the country. Both are pandering to it, Corbyn by inclination, May out of necessity. As a result both are hampered and neither looks good. Corbyn seems to be a petty tyrant, sending letters of disapproval to MPs that defy him and buck the whip, while May simply looks scared that the Right of her own party will turn on her.

To be fair, the Conservatives have been a tail wagging a dog for a long time, hence the repeated lurches to the right and the internal war over Europe that they've been fighting for at least 30 years. Labour, in comparison has seemed united over the issue, but their current ideological zeal (which is pretty similar to the lurch to the left in the 1980s) has left them blinded. I suspect that they believe, as many people do, that leaving the EU will cut back on immigration, but more importantly they associate it with neoliberalism, ignoring the fact that British governments have enthusiastically supported. They believe that by leaving the EU the manufacturing jobs will come back, ignoring the power of the Corporate world (which we might call the Fifth Estate at this point) and that it is cheaper to make things in places like China, increasingly with robot workers. Their opponents, of course, welcome this move and are already talking about removing constraints on the way business operates, which seems wrongheaded to me. I find it bizarre that in both Britain and America we assume letting big business do whatever it likes is good when the evidence shows that strong regulation makes businesses innovate).

Europe will lie at the heart of this election, don't be fooled, May has set it at the very centre of her agenda, even though she has no need to and this is just another example of her tendency to throw a tantrum (see the New Statesman's analysis here). This is as much a second referendum as it is a chance to change the government. In some respects I suspect May is trying to wash her hands of Brexit without announcing it. In many respects she has more to lose by winning than she does by losing, in what feels like a perverse twist of logic. Brexit is a poisoned chalice, and it will likely destroy the career of any politician who carries it through. I would have more respect for Corbyn if he hadn't so enthusiastically fallen into line with the current hegemony that says we must march out of the EU, post haste. A line of demanding to know what the plan was, early on, would have actually made a difference, I think.

Of course, this is dangerous game to play, since the credit crunch (from which the country still hasn't recovered, and it looks like we probably won't for a long time if ever), there has been a slow, downwards spiral as austerity sucks the vitality out of the country in the name of maximising profit for the few. As a result, even if the economy looks like its doing well, that's only on paper, or rather, a screen, and hasn't affected most of the country. In places like Nottingham, Liverpool and even Birmingham, if you strip away the facade of prosperity in the city centres, you'll find a lot of poverty and worse, people who feel useless. As a species we can handle poverty, but we need purpose and its going to take a hell of a lot more than leaving the EU to give people that. This election runs the risk of seeing a massive lurch to the right, simply because thins aren't moving fast enough for the hardcore Leavers, I can only hope that a more united opposition to Brexit can muster enough people to the ballot box to oppose this tendency. The evidence so far is that lots of Millenials are registering to vote which can only be a good thing.

It isn't enough though, we have to start facing up to the fact that the old game is over and there's no going back. Nostalgia is a trap, one we see in every walk of life as culture, economics and politics relies overused ideas to promote a way of life that is obsolete. In the UK our political architecture (by which I mean how the state is run) desperately needs an overhaul and we need to look at how we live, the expectations that living longer places on us and the technology that we have access to, to shape the world in a more realistic fashion. With the rise of automation those manufacturing jobs won't just not come back, more jobs will be lost because machines will do them better. We're at the stage where the old joke about the factory that only employs a man and a dog (the man to feed the dog, the dog to stop the man touching anything) looks incredibly true. How do we square that with the human need to have a purpose, to feel that our lives have a point? Our current politicians don't really have an answer, though Corbyn's pledge to build a green economy is more promising than May's more of the same and downplaying of environmental concerns.

In short, this election is a bad idea and a sign of how damaged our politics is. The cathedral must be ruined and started again. There must be actual, cogent, reform of the institutions we rely upon for laws and economic policy.

But there won't be, because that's not  sexy and it doesn't involve people.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Review: Children of Time

Adrian Tchaikovsky's award winning Science Fiction novel is another brick, and another of his arthropod based tales. Set in the far future it is a story book ended by savagery and civilisation and by the essential question of what intelligent life is, and how helpful technology is.

Tchaikovsky starts the story out with a chillingly prescient moment in which a situation very similar to the one we're seeing in the real world occurs, with the rejection of knowledge in favour of 'purity' which destroys everything humans have established away from Earth, plunging the species into a new dark age. This results in an act of sabotage that destroys a science experiment in uplifting and sets the story on its course. The interesting thing here is that he avoids the urge to overly exalt technology, instead preferring to show that time takes its toll on everything.

The rest of the book is divided into alternating chapters that split the narrative's perspective between the uplifted creatures of the planet (all arthropods, with spiders forming the reader's perspective characters) and the survivors of Earth, now destroyed after both its flirtation with purity and the eventual destruction of a livable habitat. Now, after 2000 years of space travel, their ship the Gilgamesh is heading towards a fateful day, their arrival at the world seeded in the prologue.

So, as the spiders' chapters detail the growth of their civilisation and the travails they face on the way to being the dominant species, the human narrative goes in the opposite direction, detailing a descent into hostility and barbarism. To be fair, the latter only occurs from desperation and from many failed attempts to put strategies into action. Throughout the book the spiders grow and thrive, co-opting opposition and bringing it into line with their hegemony, while the humans become increasingly divided, even creating new divisions in their pursuit of authenticity and purity. Eventually, when the two groups clash it is a clash of these two ideologies and Tchaikovsky makes a strong case of the divergent neurological qualities of each species being driving factors in their actions.

The characters are interesting, not least because the human protagonist is not really heroic, or even much of a protagonist. He performs the role of being our primary point of view character but he doesn't really have a story of his own. He is a bystander rather than a central part of the action, and while he does things that are integral to the story, he is very much a hostage of fortune.

In contrast, Portia, the common name for the spider protagonist, is an integral part of the development of her culture, even if there are actually many spiders who all have the same name and the book details a lineage rather than the actions of one individual. Again this is interesting, because it suggests a stronger chain of personality and identity being passed down the centuries than would be found among humans. Her actions shape the society she lives in, and she can justifiably referred to as a heroine in many respects. The spiders are, initially, very dependent upon inherited knowledge, 'Understandings', as they are called which helps to strengthen the feeling that the characters are actually different iterations of the same spider.

Tchaikovsky's world building is excellent, he ably envisages a world that's true alien, but at the same time not so alien that we can't grasp it. He creates a powerful vision of cities made up of trees, of silken walls and of technology that is metal light. At the same time the elements of the human world are also well realised, including the failed terraforming project that has rendered a world no more than a host to a grey fungus.

All in all this is a fascinating book, a little dense in places, perhaps, but still a good read. I wouldn't recommend it if you're an arachnophobe though, and have had to warn Eve off reading it. However, the world building is excellent and I would suggest it should be read on those grounds alone, as well as for the philosophical ideas within the text.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Five Gifts of Death

Today I want to return to the subject of death, that great spectre that so casts its shadow over society.  We seem to be so focused on it as a tragic event that we miss the positive side. I know that seems like a funny thing to say, how could death be positive? But it can and we're going to explore how.

1) A Release from Pain

While we all dream of a quick, painless death the reality is that most deaths are long, lingering affairs. Few of us will die at home and the causes of death mean we are more likely to die in pain. Things like dementia cancer and heart attacks are far more likely to be causes of death than simply passing away in our sleep. Most of the time, we will feel pain and death, therefore, is the end of that, a release.

2) Closure

One thing I've found is that a death can be a weight off one's shoulders. My Grandmother, as I've said before, suffered from Alzheimer's at the end of her life and the effect on the family was devastating. There is nothing like watching your loved one vanish before your eyes, stolen by memories and time. By the end, there was nothing left of her and the person who died was effectively a stranger. The stress and strain this placed on my Mother was lifted from her shoulders and meant she could mourn and move on; she had closure.

This is a blessing, being able to step forward into a new day without the dread that today is the day your loved one will go wandering the streets, that you won't be phoned at four in the morning because they don't know where they are. In the case of things like cancer, the end of the never-ending dread that the cancer will have spread to a new part of the body, and so on. It lets the living, live.

3) Appreciation

One thing I noticed last year was that many people got upset over the deaths of movie stars and singers, writers and personalities. I was intrigued by this because artists are lucky, they probably are the closest things to immortals that we have, in the sense that the art they leave behind still touches our lives. Consider Imagine by John Lennon which even though he's been dead for the best part of four decades still touches our lives and still stands as a powerful anthem for peace. Or think of Orson Wells and the powerful effect his work still has. With singers and authors, in particular, we step into their thoughts every time we listen to one of their songs or read a book by them. They're never really gone.

So it was odd to me, getting upset over the deaths of these people but I hope that what will happen when someone who has touched our lives in this way passes over, is that we see their work in a different light and learn to appreciate it more. I hope we notice things we missed before because we watch, or read, or listen, or look, more closely, seeking to squeeze the essence of the person from what we're consuming.

And of course, it doesn't stop there, reminding ourselves that one day, we will pass over allows us to appreciate the living world more, to see the things that become so much wallpaper under normal circumstances because we're so used to them. We see the trees, the birds, the animals in our neighbourhoods, notice the little things and this can connect us to the living world in a powerful, satisfying manner.

4) Societal Growth

A more macro societal benefit of death is that it allows our culture to change, to grow. As the champions of old ideas and concepts die, new work is published and old orthodoxies are challenged. As a result, human understanding grows and we develop new theories to explain things. There's always an element of 'dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants' it's true but without the deadlock that an ageing population might impose on a society, it is easier for the newer work to be seen and to pose legitimate challenges to the mainstream of whatever disciplines are seeing the new work.

5) A Deadline

This feels a little flippant but bear with me. In the Middle Ages up to the Victorian period, it was common for people to have a skull on their desks (if they had desks), to remind them that time was pressing on and as a motivator to get things done before death claimed you. The practice seems to have died out after World War One, possibly as a result of the huge numbers of death during that conflict, and as a result of the Spanish Flu.

Nowadays, we have enough time that the days seem to stretch out ahead of us without end, but that's not really true and we run the danger of hitting middle age having done the things that we have to do, but never having actually lived in the sense of achieving our personal goals. A skull, death, may be what we need to give us a metaphorical boot to the seat of our pants and get us moving.

This is what we call a memento mori.

This is mine, though it doesn't live on my desk

There may be more gifts death gives us

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Review: Ghost in the Shell

I should say that I approached this film with caution. I love Ghost in the Shell, it's probably my favourite anime both film and series (including Stand Alone complex) and while I was initially excited by the idea of a live action film, I was also very wary. It's not just that Hollywood speaks a different language to the Japanese, it speaks a different language to everyone, but that I was unsure that the soul... ghost, if you will... of the franchise would transfer to a Western interpretation. The concept of the 'ghost whispering to you' seems to be something that's so intrinsic to the Japanese view of the world that I don't think it carries across into a dualistic culture, such as the Christian one that still dominates the West, where flesh and spirit and technology and nature are held to be opposed to each other. Part of my trepidation was also driven by the fact that although the trailer was stunning to watch, it seemed to repeat pieces of the action and to focus on the fight scenes. I realise that the best way to get most SF nerds attention is to offer them something exploding or something but I actually found it off putting because it resembled the other action film trailers so much.

So, yeah, I was a little worried that it was going to be awful and had already decided to console myself with the anime if I didn't enjoy it. I should probably start, then, by saying that it was a much better film than I feared, so lay your worries to one side. The film is nowhere near as bad as the controversy on the internet suggests, and I think that the writer and director did get what lay at the franchise's heart. Visually, the film is stunning, though the city's panoramic shots felt more Bladerunner than Ghost in the Shell, to my eye at least. That being said there were shots that had been taken from directly from the anime and served the film very well indeed. In fact, where images or sequences had been adapted directly from the source material they were executed with skill and precision. I shan't spoil what's been taken but if you know the anime you'll recognise them easily. The film runs the gamut between clean, futuristic shots and a grim, grimy world where people jostle and 'all of life is here'.

The film presents both the cyber and the punk elements of the genre it inhabits in equal measure and does so in a relatively uncompromising fashion, not fearing to show either the effects of cyberisation or the squalor of the world outside the corporate one. Upgrading your body is a matter of course, to the extent that Ichikawa tells the rest of the team that he's had a cybernetic liver put in so he can drink more, which I thought was a nice touch because so often Cyberpunk throws in lots of enhancements that would only be suitable for specialist roles, most of them involving fighting. So I always like it if a leisure or purely educational device is introduced. This being said, I was slightly disappointed the film didn't feature anyone with a cybernetic arm that flipped about to become a giant metal claw, as that's iconic to the franchise. Cybernetics come in a large variety of guises, presenting the idea of a market that offers many different options.

There's a clever use of mirroring throughout the film. The first and third acts start with pretty much the same shots, and the relationship between the two protagonists, Major and Batou, is cemented through mirrored pieces of banter. This fits well with the idea of the ghost and with the idea of pieces of the past catching up with the Major, and serves to ground the film.

The actors, who ironically, given the complaints of whitewashing, are actually a more diverse cast than the original anime's, play their roles well. The focus is firmly on Major, Batou and Arimaki. The others are there, but aside from Togusa they are barely introduced and don't fulfil much of a role outside of being back up. They aren't well developed, which is a shame but understandable. You only have so long and can't afford to focus on Saito or Boma so much. As it is, it's interesting to watch Scarlet Johannsen's movement and stance as the Major, and the way it changes through the story. In a similar fashion, it was interesting to see how her inability to relate to animals changes as she grows. In a similar fashion, though to a lesser extent, we see how Batou adapts to his new eyes (spoiler).

This being said there's a lot of stiffness in how the characters are portrayed, and the film feels like a study in alienation at times, with Johannsen wearing a look of confusion for a lot of the film. There are moments where she has a real camaraderie with Batou but then that vanishes again, and given the revelations of the film, it may be that the moments where her ghost is whispering to her are the ones where she seems more connected to the world.

The film isn't perfect, there were moments in the plot where I felt the characters had taken an idiot ball, and sometimes the action scenes are confusing. There are moments, too, where the transition from Japanese to Western property feels a bit strained, including the Major's origin story which left me scratching my head a little, though not as much as the central homily of the piece which seemed at odds with the story in the film.

This being said, I feel that the live action movie is a worthy addition to the franchise. It isn't the anime, but it was never going to be. Worth seeing, in my opinion.