Thursday, 29 November 2012

"Giant black hole in tiny galaxy confounds astronomers"

Somewhere amongst these lights is a very big black hole.

"This galaxy seems to be very old," Dr Van den Bosch said. "So somehow this black hole grew very quickly a long time ago, but since then that galaxy has been sitting there not forming any new stars or anything else.

"We're trying to figure out how this happens, and we don't have an answer for that yet. But that's why it's cool."

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Buttons and McGuffins

John Holbo at Crooked Timber is discussing "The Curious Case of Bejamin Button", and fun things such as Metaphysical McGuffins and allegory get a good ol' grilling. I make a comment too (I've not seen the film, but read the Firtzgerald short story).

Monday, 19 November 2012

On using "The Master" to draw dividing lines in audiences.

Rachel Cook's review of Paul Thomas Anserson's "The Master" has this as its header:
Riiiight. Because there are two species on the planet, right? So called "critics" and the rest of the audience. Because audiences aren't critical, I guess, and critics aren't the audience... Oh, wait: perhaps that is meant to be that critics aren't "real/genuine" audiences. And Rachel isn't a critic, having her work printed on a national platform, presumably being paid for it; no, she's with "most of us". Geez, I mean, haven't we got entire new generations coming out with Humanities qualifications who have been trained in the delights of criticism and analysis? Hell, I'm a pretender just like anyone else - and I have this blog to prove it - but critics siding with the great unwashed popular audience to sniff at unpopular critical opinion... condescends to everyone and benefits and respects no audience at all. Oh, I'm not really bashing Rachel Cook, not particularly even if her post has instigated this blogpost, but why buy into that rubbish Grand Canyon dichotomy between popular and critical audiences, as if the two never share a overprized box of pick-and-mix at the local multiplex, or a coffee at the repertory cinema somewhere in the city?
I liked "The Master". Do I get my "Elitist" pass now?
Do critics sit in the front rows and the rest of "us" at the back?
Cook asks, "Will the public want to see The Master twice? I doubt it."
Well, I'm the public and I do want to see "The Master" twice, because I believe repeat viewings will offer repeat rewards, perhaps further insights from the details. I see no benefit in such a generalisation and, again, it feels like condescention and class-baiting of some kind. And from the critic of 'The Guardian'. Some films, you know, need watching more than once ('The Shining' seems to improve with every watch, for example). Isn't that one of the first insights of critical thinking?
She says that neither of the  lead characters in "The Master" change. That is not my perception at all. "But no film, surely, should end exactly where it began," she adds. Really? No? Why not? Because of the all-powerful if tired and trite concepts of character "journeys" and "arcs"? And what if lack of movement - narratively; geographically; for characters  - is the very point of the film? Stagnation is a theme in itself, for example. And that is not what happens in "The Master". Perhaps character obliqueness is the very point. Perhaps the changes are slight or barely percievable... not everything has to be underlined. And the two main characters of the film do change, and they don't change: that's part of the thematic content too and their mystery. 
But, yeah, my reading of the film and my opinion of it and the performances differ from Rachel Cook's, and that's okay. That's why I feel compelled to blog, sporadically, because opinions are what we have. But sniffiness isn't enlightening. "The Master" is heavy-going because, well, that's part of its aesthetic. You can't chide a cat for being cute: that's what the thing is, and you start by giving in to what the thing is and go from there by paying attention to the cuteness, to accepting the cuteness, to blogging about it and, in later stages, amusingly captioning photos of it.  
And hell, not all films are for everyone, right? I saw "Skyfall" - great mainstream entertainment - and "The Master" - great arthouse entertainment - on the same weekend, and they served different pleasure centres because they have different agendas. Both are grand flawed gestures worthy of debate - why not!? -  but I see no great reward in setting up mainstream and arthouse as completely antithetical to one another. Indeed, I see the latest Bond revival with Daniel Craig as a highly successfuly mainstream/arthouse hybrid/crossover. Oh, I can be as pigheadedly opinionated as any other film fan (recent examples: email discussions with a friend over the stupidity of Argento's "The Bird With The Crystal Plumage" [me:it is]) and that probably makes me/us as tedious as many film fanatics - but damn it, we're all in it together. I may raise an eyebrow when Mark Kermode is a vocal fan of the "Twilight" and "High School Musical" franchises, but he's a great popularist critic and even if I don't agree, he knows how to verbalise why and how and comes from the starting point that the audience is a united thing, not a fragmented, class-ridden thing. Well yes, film is a joy, but it also reveals so much about us and how we think, feel and conceive the world around us as undividuals and collectively. But, first of all, it is a joy. When you start drawing lines in the sand, if you are a critic, it strikes me as disingenuous; strikes me as buying into the vision of critics as know-alls-and-know-nothings in order to circumnavigate the fact that you don't know how to explicate why you feel the film did not work. And that is why for me Rachel Cook's utilisation of ye olde "Us and Them" seems more, shall we say, "Well THEY didn't like it either, so there!"
If you are looking for a more rounded and respectful appraisal of "The Master", where critical reservations are backed up with acute observations, then try Calum Marsh's review at Slant Magazine. I think he reads it right although I believe the film is great despite its apparent flaws. And then there's Slant's Tom Stempel notes, but I also read some of 'The Master' differently to him.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Raid

The Raid - Serbuan maut

Garath Evans, 2011, Indonesia/USA

The credits are barely done and the raid of the title is underway. Within ten minutes, the SWAT team’s stealth is blown. In twenty, the big bad guy is calling upon everyone in the high-rise hideaway for the murderous to take down the SWAT team. By thirty, there’s an all-out gun war that should please any fire-power fan used to the American means of action cinema - plus some nice use of light to please the eye - with disposable bad guys swarming like zombie hordes and the rapidly dwindling good guys hacking through floors to get away. And then, at thirty minutes when all the ammunition has run out, then things get going.

 Here is a film as one big action sequence.

And as an action film, it is one big wow.

If a film could bruise you, watching “The Raid” would leave you waking up in intensive care.  Welsh director Gareth Evens goes to Indonesia and makes exemplary martial arts film – in this case, silat, Indonesia’s native martial art. “The Raid” is in effect one long action sequence, untroubled by too much plot or narrative, even though these elements are present enough to bolster repeat viewings: quickly it goes through the shoot-out phase before getting down to its martial arts priorities. There is a dash of the sentimental in order to invest the bare minimum of character details and audience sympathy: we meet our SWAT team protagonist, Rama (Iko Uwais), when he is getting ready to leave for work, kissing his pregnant wife goodbye before embarking upon the raid in question; and later there are some sibling issues and corruption, but that’s about it. No, the true narrative and sub-plots of “The Raid” are the action sequences and the jaw-dropping hand-to-hand combat which is some of the very best ever captured on screen. There is none of the snap-snap-snap editing, the kind of every-second jump-cutting that many contemporary action editors believe heighten speed and adrenalin: no, the best action sequences allow enough space so you can actually see what is happening and how exemplary the fighting and the stunt-work is. The editing here is so fluid and complementary to the fighters that you will most likely barely note the cuts.

And “The Raid” offers wave upon wave of fight set-pieces. When the first corridor melee kicks in, after all the scary-thrilling shoot-outs and hacking through floors is done, “The Raid” truly distinguishes itself as a candidate for one of the best fight-films you shall ever see. Iko Uwais, who plays our protagonist Rama, is not the only cast member who seems to be faster than the eye and a remarkable martial artist. Indeed, most of the cast seem to be so that when the fists, feet, knees, elbows and machetes and knives fly, it’s hard to catch the breath. The punching, spinning, kicking, slashing, ducking, whacking, gutting, throwing and all out violence – and the film is very, very brutal – left the cinema audience I saw “The Raid” laughing with the outrageous riot of action and killing and as a “wow!” and shocked reaction to some of the brutality and artistry on display. Some may feel that the likes of Terence Malick and sub-genres of experimental films are “pure” cinema, but the action set-pieces of “The Raid” equally understand how purely visual film is, and probably in a more primal and visceral sense. And even if the martial arts genre clichés and weaknesses start to poke out here and there, it matters not. If you are going to use a "next level/boss fight" game-consul structure to make a feature, then this is how you do it.

For my money, although each one of the fight scenes is great, the middle half hour that features two hallway fights is exceptional. I am not a martial arts specialist but these fights alone seem to me to be two of the greatest ever filmed in cinema in their speed, dexterity, intimacy, ferocity and editing. They are also broken up by a consummate suspense scene where our hero and his injured colleague try to brave it out in a hiding place in a sympathetic resident’s apartment which only helps to meet the view that Evans knows exactly what he is doing. He does not even make the widely made mistake of allowing the sub-plot about siblings on different sides of the tracks to drag the tale into sentimentality, or that of police corruption to overburden the final moments.

For a sheer rush of adrenalin, choreography, violence and bone-crunching fun, “The Raid” is one of the best. This, people, is how it is done.