Monday, 18 May 2009

Angels and Demons

I gave in to the hype today, as I knew I would.

Everyone whose opinion I respect and has seen Angels and Demons has one of three reactions: they don't want to talk about how bad they thought it was, they break down into fits of hysterical laughter, or they go off on a rant.

I've already displayed the first two reactions today, so here's my chance for the third, having seen it this afternoon. This little rant (I can't really call it a review) will be spoiler-free but of course if anyone wishes to engage with anything I have to say, it would help if you've seen it...

On my way home from the cinema, I starting developing a mental list of pros and cons about this movie. Regrettably the only pro I could come up with is that Tom Hanks has had a haircut since the Da Vinci Code (bearing in mind that his odd barnet was one of the LEAST ridiculous things about that particular movie).

In the meantime, the con column just got longer and longer.

Let's start with one of the first characters we encounter, Ewan McGregor. Don't get me wrong, Ewan's a decent actor and he's been called upon to play characters of all kinds of backgrounds from all sorts of places in his career, and has normally acquitted himself quite admirably.

Where this particular character comes from is fairly important, so it's a major disappointment that he was capable of five or six different accents within the same sentence at times, ranging from his native Scottish, through "proper" English, mid-Atlantic, generic North American and even a bit of several Mediterranean countries. By my count, through the whole movie he pronounced maybe half a dozen words the way he should have.

Also, I may be wrong here, but his character's name is only ever mentioned once in the two hours-plus running time although he appears in every second scene. He is generally referred to by his job description/title as if the dimmer members of the audience need to be reminded just who he is and what he does rather than gleam any symbolic importance from his rather bland name.

There's a principle in dramatic writing known as Chekov's Gun, which has two basic facets. These are generally summarised as: if a gun appears in Act One, make sure it's fired by Act Three; also, if you plan to fire a gun in Act Three, make sure we know it's been introduced beforehand.

In painting-by-numbers movies like this, the writers always remember that lesson from creative-writing class whenever they need to introduce a deus-ex-machina means of resolving a plot point. The problem is that it all becomes a bit simplistic and the introductions often come out of any rational context, perhaps even moreso than their use might.

For instance, it's only a question of time before we discover why we're shown during his otherwise pointless first scene that Tom Hanks's character is an EXCELLENT swimmer... Or when another character informs us that he used to be a helicopter pilot, you can bet your bottom dollar that at some point, he's going to be called upon to fly one!

There's an adjunct to the principle of Chekov's Gun, which is fairly basic to dramatic narratives: remember who's got the gun, and who knows how to use it! This is a big element of many thrillers or murder mysteries, along the lines of "ah, but how did you know she was throttled with a silk scarf, if you didn't do it?"

Regrettably, the writers of this piece of garbage seem to have forgotten those principles, such as for instance remembering which skills which character possesses.

Why, for instance, would Tom Hanks's eminent symbologist Robert Langdon, who is working on multi-tome analysis of Galileo, require assistance in translating Latin? I'm a multi-lingual kind of guy with a bit of academic textual analysis behind me, and if there's one thing I know, it's that at this level of scholarly discipline, you don't work from translations!

Langdon isn't the only one who seems to forget what he knows, as at least two other characters need to have Latin translated to them, when they'd previously shown more-than-adequate skills in that themselves.

This parallels one of the other shortcomings of this poor excuse for cinematic entertainment: no fact or argument is valid unless it's been explained to us in dialogue, at least a couple of times. It's not enough to show, for example, a montage of statues featuring very prominent arrows, Hanks has to shout "The Arrows!", before we're shown them all again. And then someone else has to shout "Oh, the Arrows!" before they all set off at speed to discover the next clue.

I don't like being patronised and even more than that, I don't like being patronised with a tautological and self-referencing script that thinks it's oh-so-clever when in fact it's dumber than it thinks its audience might be. I have no idea whether this is Dan Brown's fault (I never read the book, and I now have even less desire to do so than ever before) or the writers of the film. I really expected more of David Koepp, who has a fairly distinguished track record to date.

It became a running (ha ha) joke in the most recent season of Doctor Who that the Doctor and his assistant had to do a lot of running. Well, the running the Doctor & Co have to do isn't a patch on Robert Langdon and his friends. Angels and Demons should really be called The Running, Jumping, Standing Still and Pointing Film (as a vague tribute to this). He reads a map to find out where to run to, they run (or drive, which anyone who's ever been in a car in Rome will know is impossible) there, find something gruesome and then run again.

And frankly, the way it's all put together makes one not care one iota where they are running, whether they'll get there in time to stop the gruesomeness or, indeed, whether it means anything. At least the Da Vinci Code sparked a debate about whether the basic ideas behind the plot had any merit; this waste of celluloid doesn't even have the benefit of that.

About half an hour into the film, I suspected I'd worked out where it was all going, and cringed. An age later, about 15 minutes before the end, I was pleased because they threw a curveball and I thought I'd got it wrong. That didn't last long though, because the train got onto the tracks it had been on all along, towards the inevitable crash. Except that even then, I didn't care.

There are SO many more things I don't like about this film, but I've come to realisation that I don't care enough to continue. I needed to get off my chest a few ways of saying that is a pile of manure from which anyone with more than two grey cells should stay as far away as possible, and I've done that. I welcome anyone who disagrees with me about any of the facts, or who found this film to have kind of merit, to comment - I really don't bite.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Too many t-shirts?

I've just folded up a load of t-shirts which I've washed over the last couple of days. Is it normal for a 40-something bloke to own this many? This isn't my complete collection by a long shot - this is just over a week's wear and wash.

Something one doesn't realise when embarking on a course of daily gym-going is just how many t-shirts one uses. In my case, it's three, sometimes four a day: one when I get up and do stuff around the house, one at the gym, a fresh one for the journey home and occasionally a fourth if I'm going out.

(BTW is it really sad of me that I rarely wear proper shirts any more?)

A small amount of kudos to anyone who can tell me exactly how many badly-stacked shirts there are in the photo (not as easy as it seems)...

Confusing your space opera franchises

Confused about your space opera franchises? You will be!

(I don't actually think that the comparisons are so close, but it's a comment I've seen in lots of places)

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


This has been around for a while and I've seen it before but I just happened across it again, and I hope the 2.5 people who see it here may find it as interesting as I did:

Monday, 11 May 2009


I have always maintained since before "e-commerce" was a reality, that the internet is a magnificent tool for anyone supplying a niche market (or indeed those within that market).

I don't think you can get more niche than something I just saw on the Facebook page of a friend of a friend.

Second-hand coffin, anyone?

What's Twitter Good For?

I have finally found Twitter's Killer Use (TM).

Have spent the last half hour swapping ideas for Unlikely Film Sequel Titles with complete strangers and having a blast!

follow #unlikelysequels

Friday, 8 May 2009

Star Trek: the reboot

(This still needs some work but if I don't put this up now, I don't think I ever will...)

I saw Star Trek yesterday at a preview yesterday. Twice.

Let's get my credentials out of the way. I'm not really a hard-core Trekkie, and although I don't know episode titles of stardates, I used to be prominent in the online fandom and ran a couple of websites. I'm not really all that enamoured of the original crew, although they were a presence in the background as I was growing up.

I've had a problem with the spinoff series and some of the movies, especially those presided over by Rick Berman - like a lot of modern science fiction, they got bogged down in the mechanics of the imagined universe with the actors having ever-increasing volumes of techno-babble to spout, and the stories were often about the technology rather than the people. If nothing else, I expected JJ Abrams' involvment to eschew that aspect, and he didn't disappoint.

When I first heard that a Trek "origins" movie was planned for this franchise reboot, I feared Star Fleet Academy hormonal teenagers invading the screen. I was ultimately delighted when the story skipped from Kirk enrolling in the Academy to to his (re)taking the Kobayashi Maru scenario we know from The Wrath of Khan, "Three Years Later".

The pre-publicity for this movie has stressed more than most that it isn't just for Trekkies but for a mass audience. In that, the makers have succeeded. The plot is really fairly banal and unoriginal - we follow Kirk and Spock growing up with Oedipal issues and like any buddy movie, they dislike each other on first meeting. What a lot of people seem to forget is that the original TV series wasn't just built around them, but included Bones too, as the slightly more world-weary figure who could knock theiur heads together when needed. And so Dr McCoy gets a fair amount of screentime too. Although only a bit-part in the series, Uhura's role gets expanded as it's always been painfully obvious that she's the only female member of the crew and in this day and age, that just won't do.

The need for a wider appeal is the backbone for the dialogue, offering a structure to hang those character-defining bits you don't need to be a hardcore fan to know about: Spock saying "Fascinating", Scotty saying "I'm giving it all she's got" (although "I cannae change the laws of physics" is only implied); McCoy gets gets an "I'm a doctor not a ... " joke, Chekov gets to mispronounce his Vs, Uhura shows her legs, and so on. We even get to have a red-shirt, a character with literally two lines of dialogue who has to get himself killed just to underline that space is a Dangerous Place where Bad Things Happen. And of course there's "Live Long and Prosper".

All the actors have the chance to offer their own take on the characters they play rather than being obliged to impersonate their predecessors - this is particularly tricky in Zachary Quinto's case as unlike the others, he has to share the stage with Leonard Nimoy for one scene and their slightly divergent aptitudes are revealed (as well as the fact that, frankly, Quinto is the better actor). Thankfully, Chris Pine doesn't make the slightest move towards Shatner's trademark faltering dialogue delivery but nails the swagger and bravado (and self-congratulatory smirk) every time. Sign of the times, though, Pine gets to do something Shatner never did, and that's to appear in nothing but a pair of baggy y-fronts at one point...

I must mention Karl Urban's Dr McCoy which stops just the right side short of an impersonation (physically, he and DeForrest Kelley have little in common) but keeps all the energy and permanenent indignation of possibly my favourite character from the series.

My enthusiasm shouldn't hide a few reservations I have. This new Star Trek has more in keeping with the current spate of superhero movies rather than space opera (a genre the original TV series created) in the way it's scripted, shot and also scored. But if James Bond can do it, why can't Trek? And that grated on me just a bit.

On to my main reservation, though. Like most buddy/superhero movies, the main characters start by hating each other and then grow to respect and perhaps even care for each other. But the final act is just a little too rushed for my liking and the Kirk-Spock relationship we know ultimately comes from nowhere, largely by order of future-Spock rather than any real natural character development. And that's a huge pity because it's the core of what the film thinks it's about.