Ghost In The Machine

February 19, 2014

At the risk of gross generalisation, British sci fi is typically cast in a much gloomier hue than it’s American cousin. Think of American comic books, dominated by superheroes out to save the world, epitomised by Superman, known as both the Man of Steel and the Man of Tomorrow. It’s all very optimistic, the promise of a brighter future and bold, brave heroes fighting for truth and justice. The UK’s flagship comic is 2000AD, home to an array of dystopian visions of the future, from the fascist super-cop Judge Dredd, to the downbeat adventures of Strontium Dog or The ABC Warriors. In this vein of dysfunctional sci fi comes The Machine, a film produced in the unlikeliest of science fiction settings – Wales.

In my professional opinion, I can say with absolute certainty that you have a very nasty boo-boo indeed.

In my professional opinion, I can say with absolute certainty that you have a very nasty boo-boo indeed.

Written and directed by Caradog James (great Welsh name that, Caradog), The Machine is a typically bleak British piece of sci fi in which the promise of a technologically advanced future leads to despair. Set in the near future Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) works for the Ministry of Defence trying to create intelligent machines, capable of independent thought. His aims are altruistic, to use technology to help soldiers who have suffered brain damage in war and those afflicted by degenerative diseases. Of course, the MOD, personified in the form of McCarthy’s cold-blooded boss Thomson (Denis Lawson), thinks only of offensive applications. The culmination of Stephens’ research is The Machine (Caity Lotz), an android in the form of a young woman whose appearance is modelled on Stephens’ assistant Ava (Lotz again). Thomson sees The Machine as a weapon, but Stephens worries that her apparent self-awareness means that The Machine is alive and not just an incredibly advanced computer in human guise.

Sure, it looked cool, but this modern art stuff confused McCarthy. Couldn't they put a nice painting in the office?

Sure, it looked cool, but this modern art stuff confused McCarthy. Couldn’t they put a nice painting in the office?

The Machine touches on some classic sci fi and cyberpunk themes – at what point does a machine with AI become a living being? If you can capture a human’s memories, thoughts and personalities in a computer, what is the essence of humanity? These ideas have been explored before in everything from Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep to Ghost In The Shell but Caradog James digs deep into this central dilemma of the narrowing divide between humans and machines.

Caity Lotz is impressive as The Machine in a role that demands moments of vulnerability and innocence balanced against a very powerful physicality. With a background in dance, Lotz carries herself with self-assured grace and performs her fight scenes with speed and skill, although these are few as this is a drama more than an action movie. Stephens has a difficult task. McCarthy is emotionally brittle and a bundle of tension, which makes him difficult to sympathise with or to warm to. As Thomson, Denis Lawson is obviously the villain of the hour, so some points for style but none for subtlety. Pooneh Hajimohammadi is diverting as Suri, one of the staff in the MOD’s research facility, even if her dialogue is incomprehensible (which is deliberate), and greater development of the subplot around her character would have been welcome.

Now you're just showing off, young lady.

Now you’re just showing off, young lady.

The soundtrack is all synthesisers, which is both thematically appropriate – it’s all music made artificially without natural sound sources – and brings to mind the 1980s, particularly the films of John Carpenter whose self-composed film scores were always dominated by synthesisers. They also create a gloomy, downtrodden atmosphere. There are no soaring orchestras or bright guitars here, it’s all oppressive, cold electronics to match the mood.

TheMachine_01

Given that the film originated in Wales, land of song and valleys, it doesn’t boast a blockbuster’s budget but James and his team create a compelling world within the confines of McCarthy’s research facility. The visual effects on The Machine herself are impressive and moments when the limits of the budget are apparent – the avoidance of external locations being the most obvious – are easily forgiven as the gloomy interiors suit the story and add to a sense of claustrophobia. This is a film that replaces a big budget with big ideas which makes it a welcome contrast to standard sci fi summer blockbuster junk like the Transformers franchise or The Avengers (yes, The Avengers was fun and entertaining, but it was about as deep as a puddle in a drought). The pacing is measured – again anathema to Hollywood – but if the story engages your grey matter, it should have no trouble holding your attention. And, perhaps best and most British of all, The Machine offers a wickedly ambiguous, conflicted conclusion. The Machine will infect anyone who takes their sci fi smart, sharp and edged with darkness.

Only two things are infinite…

January 5, 2014

Einstein

The Secret Life Of Introverts (And Walter Mitty)

December 29, 2013

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a Negative Asset Manager at Life Magazine in New York. He lives a quiet existence of carefully cataloguing and processing photographs, a monotony that he escapes with vivid daydreams so consuming that he completely tunes out the world around him while lost in his fantasies. On the same day that Walter learns that Life Magazine’s new owners are wrapping up the print edition and going online, he receives a roll of film from famed photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) with a note saying that image #25 on the roll should be the cover of the final issue. Unfortunately, #25 is missing from the negative so Walter sets out to track down O’Connell in the hopes of finding the photograph.

Ben Stiller The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

Stiller’s film is adapted from a short story that was previously brought to the screen in the 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye. The fantasy elements dominate the first chunk but as Walter sets out on his mission to find the missing negative, he slowly stops daydreaming and becomes immersed in the world around him. At the start, Walter is very much an introvert. He is quiet, struggles with small talk and idle chitchat but has a vibrant inner life that is invisible to the people around him. He has a crush on a co-worker at Life Magazine, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) but struggles to reach out to her socially and becomes the butt of jokes from Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), the corporate shark sent in to oversee the buyout of Life and the laying off of staff.

Introverts are a rare breed in the movies, where extroverts are the norm. Quiet people are generally shown as being either creepy or as someone who needs to ‘come out of their shell’ (a phrase every introvert will have heard all too often). In a pleasant surprise, Stiller’s movie avoids the temptation to transform Walter from introvert to social butterfly. Certainly, he becomes more confident as his adventure unfolds, but he remains softly spoken and unassuming. His understated progression is expressed through the development of his online dating profile. At the outset, he has left most of his profile blank, believing he has not been anywhere or done anything interesting but his globe-trotting quest to track down O’Connell slowly but surely changes his mind as he realises his own worth. It’s refreshing to see a film in which the protagonist’s development, his coming into his own, is not linked with a change in their personality but instead with a greater sense of self-acceptance.

01

The plot twist concerning the location of the missing negative is easy to see coming well in advance, but that’s not the point of the movie. It’s not about ‘Where’s the missing photograph?’ It’s about Walter embracing the opportunities he encounters and reaching out to the people that he meets. It could be argued he is coming out of his shell, but perhaps he is simply taking his shell out to see the world.

The often elaborate fantasy sequences seem like Stiller has made a proof of concept reel to demonstrate he can handle special effects and spectacle, as if he’s auditioning to direct a superhero blockbuster for next summer. However while Walter’s daydreams are fun – the Benjamin Button parody is spot on – the story resonates most powerfully when Walter is doing not dreaming. The relationship with Cheryl is handled with a refreshing low-key approach for a Hollywood movie – there’s no heavy handed melodrama or overblown true romance in their scenes together. Stiller’s performance is naturalistic, with none of the outlandish caricatures of Zoolander or Dodgeball, and similarly Wiig is charming without needing to be zany.

03

The locations and photography are beautiful – well worth seeing on a big screen – and in contrast to Stiller’s earlier film The Cable Guy which offered a more cynical, twisted take on the world, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty exudes warmth, optimism and a wide-eyed wonder at the possibilities that Life can offer when least expected. And introverts rule. They just don’t like to talk about it.

5 Signs Your Boyfriend Might Be Dead

November 2, 2013

The path to true love can be a winding one, but what if right when you think you’ve found ‘the one’ he stops responding to your advances? Before you start worrying that maybe he bats for the home team, first of all check he’s still actually among the living. If you’re not sure about your special someone, use this handy checklist and, chances are, it might just resuscitate your love life!

1. He’s lost his appetite

Before you go into mourning, it could be he's just not a morning person

Before you go into mourning, it could be he’s just not a morning person

One of the things you love about this guy is his hearty appetite. Like your mama always said, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but lately he seems to be leaving an awful lot of leftovers. If he’s having trouble finishing – and starting – his meals, there’s a chance he might have expired like last week’s yoghurt.

2. He’s not making eye contact

The eyes are the window to the soul, but it may be time to draw the curtains.

The eyes are the window to the soul, but it may be time to draw the curtains.

The eyes are the windows of the soul and what girl doesn’t like to gaze into her sweetheart’s limpid pools during moments of shared intimacy or when trying to figure out if he’s lying to you about checking out that girl’s butt on the bus? But if he’s just staring blankly ahead into space, something might be wrong. Don’t panic, he might just be trying to remember all the words to the theme song from Animaniacs, but it could mean it’s time to close his eyes…forever.

3. His recent work performance is sub-par

He'll never get that promotion at this rate.

He’ll never get that promotion at this rate.

Every girl wants a man who’s a go-getter, someone with drive and the ambition to succeed, but what if the guy you’ve set your sights on seems to be slacking off at the office? When your dreamboat stops bringing home the bacon and starts smelling like a butcher’s dumpster, it could mean he’s de-motivated or he might be dead weight in the corporate and corporeal senses.

4. He hasn’t updated his Facebook in forever

Don't start wearing bacl just yet, perhaps he's just recovering from an overstimulating Powerpoint presentation?

Don’t start wearing black just yet, perhaps he’s just recovering from an overstimulating Powerpoint presentation?

One of the great things about our modern, interconnected world is that it super easy to get to know your favourite guy just by checking out his social media presence. You can Google his name, have a look around his Facebook and find out what he’s having for lunch on Twitter. But if he hasn’t updated his status since that one three days ago about ‘Uncomfortable chest pains, probably just indigestion from that chilli LOL’ then there’s a small but significant chance that he’s logged out of this life and into the next one.

5. He hasn’t replied to your texts/calls/voicemails

Maybe his battery is flat, not his heart rate.

Maybe his battery is flat, not his heart rate.

Sending someone special a text at well-timed intervals throughout the day is a great way to let them know they’re on your mind. It’s a subtle hint to tell the guy that’s he’s that extra little bit important. But if he doesn’t text or call you back right away, don’t send him the angriest emoticon in your arsenal right off the bat. He might be in an area with bad reception but if he’s in the same room as you and still not responding to his phone, there’s an outside chance that his number has been disconnected permanently.

Music Review – Kacey Musgraves, Shepherd’s Bush, London

October 13, 2013

This Sunday night I saw Kacey Musgraves perform at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London as she’s out on the road with her Same Trailer Different Park tour. It was the second time I’ve seen her live. The first time, last year, was at the smaller Bush Hall, just around the corner from the Empire. Then Kacey had a barebones group backing her up, many of whom were London musicians filling in for the night, with her British tour manager sitting in on drums on a few songs. In the intimate environment of Bush Hall and with unfamiliar faces around her on stage, Kacey rose to the occasion. Knowing that she was going to have to do most of the heavy lifting, musically speaking, for the evening, she was fully engaged with her material and with the audience. It was a performance filled with Kacey’s easygoing charm but she sang with some passion.

Tonight at the Empire, Kacey still had her laidback vibe but this time she had brought her full band of Nashville pros to back her up. The difference was considerable. These guys were seasoned professionals who know the music inside-out and, to be honest, while they never played a bum note all night, they mostly looked bored. The London players from last year, no doubt all too aware that the material was new to them, had an energy that the regulars didn’t match. Kacey-Musgraves

Kacey’s whole shtick on stage is built around that easygoing persona but since her last time here, she has been nominated for a slew of CMA awards back in the States and has been on TV and radio here in the UK (quite a feat for a country artist), and any sense of a young musician out to prove herself was noticeable by its absence. She coasted through the set and it felt like she was going through the motions. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled. A few months ago I saw Holly Williams in London and she gave one of the most heartfelt performances I’ve seen from a singer in any genre. When Holly sang her beautiful ode to her grandparents, Waiting On June, she scarcely managed to keep her composure. It was riveting. Kacey seems like an emotional and vocal lightweight by comparison, the latter point driven home by an ill-considered attempt to cover I Put A Spell On You, sung with no trace of the deranged menace of Screaming Jay Hawkins or the gutsy bravado of John Fogerty. In Kacey’s hands, it became dangerously inoffensive, which sums up the whole evening. It was slick and professional but disappointingly passionless.  Get your fire back, girl.

Byzantium

May 7, 2013

Vampires may be immortals whose lives span across centuries but ever since Twilight they have been recast as teenagers, the better to reflect the target audience for Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly suckfest. There have been films that kicked back against this toothless treatment including Jim Mickle’s excellent Stake Land which had feral vampires that were far more animal than human. Neil Jordan’s Byzantium takes a very different approach to Stake Land and despite being centred around a vampire dealing with the emotional turmoil of being a teenager, it is a far cry from Twilight.

Gemma Arterton

Gemma Arterton as Clara

The film concerns two women, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). They move from town to town, living on the edges of society. Clara works in the sex industry – sometimes a lap dancer, a prostitute or a madam – always working for cash and leaving no paper trail in her wake. Eleanor struggles with the isolation of their nomadic existence and longs to tell someone their secret – they are hundreds of years old and survive by drinking blood.

When they arrive in the decaying seaside town of Hastings, Clara meets Noel (Daniel Mays), a lonely punter who has inherited a rundown guest house called Byzantium from his late mother. Clara sees the chance to turn the former hotel into a brothel, while Eleanor befriends Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a local boy who is quickly smitten by her. But Clara’s rules forbid telling their secret or getting emotionally attached to anyone.

Saoirse Ronan

Little Red Riding Hood?

Moira Buffini wrote Byzantium based on her own stage play and her script puts a distinctive spin on the vampire myth. Buffini based her vampires on Irish legends, which gives the whole film a very distinctive feel from more mainstream genre outings plus some stunning locations of wild, raw natural beauty. These women do not possess super-powers. They can’t fly, they are no stronger than anyone else, they can’t transform into bats and they are not allergic to sunlight. The story casts Clara and Eleanor as powerless vampires in the widest social sense. Clara is a prostitute and Eleanor is a teenage schoolgirl. They may be un-aging, but they are simultaneously vulnerable to the predations of anyone stronger and more powerful than they are – which in this instance means men, both human and otherwise.

The male cast members include Jonny Lee Miller as Ruthven, the absolute cad responsible for Clara’s fall from grace, plus Sam Riley and Uri Gavriel as two men looking for Clara with unfriendly intentions. Miller makes a splendid scoundrel. As the lovestruck Frank, Caleb Landry Jones has the awkward gangly manner of a teenager still growing into their own body. None of the male characters are as fully developed or as compelling as Clara and Eleanor, but then this is their story not that of the men.

The Brotherhood

We are so totally judging you.

Byzantium uses the vampire genre to explore how women survive in the face of a hostile patriarchy. Clara’s involvement in the sex trade is one of the most obvious examples, while the organisation pursuing her is The Brotherhood, just to drive the point home.  Fortunately the script doesn’t labour over this theme so heavily as to become a lecture on feminist studies, but you don’t have to dig very hard to find the ideas at work.

Prior to Byzantium, I had only ever seen Gemma Arterton in Quantum Of Solace, in which she was essentially very glamorous window dressing, and in Tamara Drewe, which was far too fluffy for me. I thought she was exceptionally good here. The role demands a lot from her, but she delivers in every scene. Clara is passionate, stubborn and determined to survive using whatever limited means she has at her disposal. Every time they have to move, Clara tells Eleanor to let the past go and just leave it all behind, yet Clara is a woman defined by her past. It colours all her relationships and is constantly breathing down her neck, reminding her of how perilous her life is.

Jonny Lee Miller

You, sir, are a cad, a bounder and a ne’er do well. Pistols at ten paces!

“I am sixteen forever,” says Eleanor, who has been stuck living with her mother for centuries. No wonder she’s going through a rebellious phase. Saoirse Ronan (how on earth do you pronounce her name?) is occasionally lumbered with overly portentous dialogue but she is intensely sympathetic as the teenager desperate to find her own place in the world.

The film has a very measured pace and viewers raised on a diet of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart may struggle to engage with the sombre tone and unhurried direction. But Jordan’s film has substance, two excellent leads and a delightfully morally ambiguous ending.

Thoughts on Valentine’s Day

February 9, 2013

You know friends, as Valentine’s Day approaches it is all too easy to feel cynical about the very notion of love and romance in our modern, celebrity obsessed culture. With people getting married just to generate press coverage, not to mention the continued existence of Kim Kardashian, romance can seem to have no place in our busy lives. For a single person at this time of year, all the talk of love and the search for happiness can seem disheartening and overwhelming. But sometimes I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll see a young couple caught in the first exhilarating throes of their love affair. Arms wrapped around each other, that sparkle in their eyes, whispering sweet nothings as they giggle with delight. And I’ll quietly think to myself, “I hope you both get syphilis.”

 

What Sort Of Heavy Metal Am I Listening To? Part Three

February 4, 2013

Welcome back, my metallic friends, for another insightful exploration of the world’s loudest and least understood form of music. Today’s lesson will examine two of the most difficult to distinguish genres in the metal pantheon – Doom Metal and Stoner Rock. They have much in common with sludgy guitar riffs and grinding tempos but once again, the key to telling these two musical woolly mammoths apart lies in the lyrics. Let us begin.

 

Doom Metal lyric subjects:

There was a witch. She was beautiful but she had evil in her heart. I tried to leave her, but there was no escape.

 

There was a mountain. It was made of iron and mightiness. I tried to climb the mountain but it was evil. There was no escape.

 

There was a wizard. He knew many arcane magics. Unfortunately he was evil. I tried to escape his mystic machinations. There was no escape.

 

There was a gate. It led to Hell. I tried not to go through the gate, but I did because there was no escape.

 

Evil. Evil is everywhere. But not to worry, it’s easy to avoid evil.

 

Totally kidding. There is no escape.

 

Stoner Rock lyric subjects:

Dude, is there any more pot?

 

 

Inappropriate Facebook status #4

January 9, 2013

Take a stand against Kaiju-phobia.

You know, I hear a lot of talk about how dangerous Godzilla is. How he is thirty stories high and breathing fire with his head in the sky. But maybe instead of worrying about how dangerous Godzilla is, people should think before they act. If you don’t want a giant, radioactive dinosaur-type monster to destroy your city, maybe you should make the streets a little wider, so he can get through without smashing all those buildings. And who puts high tension electricity wires all over the place? Anyone could trip over those. It’s a Health And Safety nightmare. And don’t ever get me started on testing atomic weapons under the ocean floor. Poor monster was minding his own business and then – Ka-blooey! No more nap time. No wonder he’s grumpy, woken up suddenly like that. So next time, before you blame a giant monster for destroying Tokyo, think about how he feels. I bet people who don’t care about kaiju won’t share and re-post this message, but people who have a little room in their hearts to love a giant monster will.

Godzilla. It’s not his fault. He was born this way.

Godzilla

Geez, who put all this stuff here? I almost sprained my damn ankle.

US News – Women To Be Returned To Wild

November 7, 2012

Worrying developments in the US today as women across the country have been allowed out of their binders in an experiment to see if they can be safely returned to the wild. One opponent of the scheme, who identified himself as Mitt, said that while he believes in principal that women can exist outside the security of their binders, in practice it is better, tidier and more convenient for everyone if they just stay neatly filed away for future reference. The trial is expected to last for four years.


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