Thursday, 29 November 2012

Abbas pleads for UN recognition

I agree with Abbas that it would be a step forward for the UN to enhance recognition of Palestine. Critics can claim all they like that a solution can only come through bilateral negotiation but such agreement is nigh impossible when extremist Palestinians are firing missiles at Israeli towns and the Israeli army treats Palestinian occupied territory like a shooting gallery.

The only way forward is for the international community to support Palestinians, like Abbas, who represent and support moderate solutions and compromise. Doing so undermines the extremists by showing that peaceful negotiation brings results. The current suggestion to support a two state solution inside the 1967 borders is tenable and is argued for in Shlomo Ben Ami's brilliant 'Scars of War, Wounds of Peace'.

Naturally there should be international support for Israel's right to its territory and to freedom from official or unofficial attacks by its neighbours. However, by constantly adopting the most hard line approaches and massacring civilians Israel risks marginalising itself and being seen as little more than an American puppet in the Middle East.

[Edit] - ... and it has happened! Great result but sad to see the UK abstaining.

[Edit, Edit] - .... and what predictable, childish behaviour in response from the Israelis. It is this sort of tit for tat, us versus them attitude that has kept this conflict boiling throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty first.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

IKB or Zima Blue

I had never heard of Yves Klein when I read Zima Blue, by Alastair Reynolds for the first time. Since the latter story had a fairly lasting effect on me I'm now experiencing one of those weird postmodern moments where you encounter the effect before its cultural cause.

Existential angst aside, I would strongly recommend reading Zima Blue. It can be found in Gardner Dozois' Best of the Best New SF or in Reynold's Zima Blue and is one of the sweetest and most thought provoking short stories to take on the theme of the relationships between identity, art and artificial intelligence.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Part 2 - The Kansas City Shuffle: Comparing Skyfall and Slevin

Some might say that pointing out absurdity in James Bond films is like installing fire extinguishers in Hell. Bond movies notoriously favour style over substance or consistency. They are world renowned for their grandstanding spectacle, evil villains and gadgets. Many accept these ludicrous features as part of the fun. Surely only the po-faced and pedants would point out the blatant misogyny of the title character or the impossibility of locating a sinister lair in an active volcano?

However, the latest reboot of the series, starring Daniel Craig as Bond, has attempted to bury some of this flamboyant heritage. We are presented with more moral grey areas and complexities of motivation. MI6 is not the shining white knight of the 1960s but a sinister organisation prepared to sacrifice its own men for the greater good and to confound any attempted political restraint.

Gone too are the gadgets of yester-films. Q (refreshingly played straight by Ben Whishaw) exemplifies this by handing Craig a simple pistol and radio before he ventures out into the field. These changes all points to a series that wants to be taken more seriously. In my opinion the writers did a good job of achieving this in Casino Royale but suffered a serious regression when they made Quantum of Solace.

Therefore I feel free to point out some of the plot holes that bugged me in Skyfall. It was certainly a memorable spectacle. At times it felt like it was going to develop into a great movie. The shoot out at the Scottish manor was especially engaging. The low-tech use of booby traps and sawn off shotguns reminded me of similar scenes in other movies that I have really enjoyed. The drama of M, Bond and Kincade fighting off the well-armed intruders mirrored the emotion of the cabin scene in XIII, the shoot out at the end of L.A. Confidential and Jedburgh's tragic last stand in Edge of Darkness.

Too often though the plot was hastened along by ridiculous but implausible devices. Especially jarring was MI6's tracking of Patrice through the shrapnel in Bond's shoulder. Patrice was established as a stealthy assassin with no nationality or records that could identify him. I could square this with his public bloodbath on the Istanbul streets in the opening scenes. Bond has always been about dramatic chases rather than stealthy and undramatic executions.

However, it is difficult to believe that an international killer would make the mistake of favouring a type of ammunition that was only used by three individuals in the world. As the shrapnel recovered from Bond's chest shows he might as well have dropped a calling card at the scene of the crime. As far as I can see the main purpose of depleted uranium bullets is for piercing armour anyway. Unless Patrice regularly assassinated tanks and armoured vehicles he would have been infinitely better off with a less trackable (and radiation-emitting) type of ammo.

This was absurdity done badly. The sole intent was to drive the plot along at all costs, even if this meant demolishing any pretence of logical consistency or immersion. It did nothing to develop characters or promote interest. Instead it was a simple 'deus ex machina' to propel Bond towards the next shoot out and romantic entanglement.

Along with the thinly veiled political agenda, weak characterisation of the homoerotic villain and other poor design decisions this was enough to put me off a film that was in other ways rather promising. With two more Daniel Craig movies to come we can only hope that the series will reattain the poise and precision of Casino Royale instead of making the same mistakes again.  

Part 1 - The Kansas City Shuffle: Comparing Skyfall and Slevin

So I've talked briefly before about when I think absurdity is acceptable in movies and when logic holes can ruin a serviceable plot:

In this and its companion piece I hope to make my feelings clearer through a comparison of Skyfall and, an old favourite of mine, Lucky Number Slevin.

I re-watched the latter last night and was again struck by the absurdity of the two ethnic gangs at the heart of the plot. The Rabbi's footsoldiers are skull cap wearing, Hasidic Jews who honour the Sabbath and tote shotguns. Meanwhile Morgan Freeman's gang are exclusively of African descent. These two gangs are based in rival skyscrapers and are vicious rivals in various spheres of criminal activity.

At first glance this might not seem too surprising. The stereotypes are rampant and sharply drawn but real life criminal gangs are often based around ethnicity and culture. This is especially true in the multicultural cities of the USA, where Lucky Number Slevin is set.

However, it is revealed during the film that the two gangs were once united before the Rabbi made a pre-emptive strike against the Boss. The image of a bi-ethnic gang that recruits only from Jews and black people before splitting exactly along those fault lines lines is too silly to be contemplated. If two races and cultures could coexist in the pre-split organisation why not throw the doors open to applicants of any background?

I struggled to find a reason for this. Lucky Number Slevin is actually a fairly coherent film with witty dialogue, a tight plot, comic moments and some dark but deep themes of motivation and revenge. Why would they resort to such a superficial and illogical way of distinguishing between the feuding gangs?

Then I figured it out. Lucky Number Slevin has a grand total of five distinct factions: the Boss, the Rabbi, the Police, Goodcat/Slevin and Lindsey/Slevin. In its 110 minutes running time it has to elaborate and develop the motives and characters of each faction to retain the viewer's interest. This is an extremely ambitious project. The vast majority of 10+ hour video games have a mere 2-3 developed factions.

In view of this ambition it is acceptable for the film to resort to stereotypes and superficial differences. The viewer's familiarity with the involved cultures and institutions allows the film to do without tedious back story. Instead the narrative can focus on the action and on developing the interesting interactions and twisting ambitions of the main players.

This (like Looper) is a good example of how to do absurdity right in film. Skyfall, on the other hand, is not ….. as I will attempt to show in Part 2.  

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Heads in the sand

You misogynistic, myopic idiots!

It is hardly a great advert for divine wisdom if, after 2012 years, the Church hierarchy is still struggling with gender equality.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Against Tory benefit cuts

Hear hear, Sarah Teather!

I think this may be the most cynical and popularist action yet taken by the Coalition government. The Malthusian logic and attempt to distinguish between the worthy and unworthy poor is nineteenth century in content and is tailored to warm the hearts of any Daily Mail reader.

The faltering Conservative Party is reaching a perilous tipping point. While I see no reason to like them or approve their insane attacks on services in this country, they may be at their most dangerous when desperate. UKIP did well in the recent elections and the anxious Conservative leadership might see more draconian attacks on benefits and on membership in the EU as the only way to retain their mad fringe voters.

Nonsense on stilts

"Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, who replaced Ken Clarke in a reshuffle in September, told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show last month that Parliament had a "clear" right not to accept the ECHR ruling."

I think you're a little confused, Mr Grayling. Prisoners have the right to vote and the government shouldn't try to twist rhetoric and anti-European feeling to refuse them that right. It is the height of hypocrisy for politicians to talk about their rights to defy human rights courts as they attempt to deport Abu Qatada to a country where he could be tortured or prosecuted using information obtained by torture.

As a country we really need to get our priorities straight. What example do we set to individuals and other countries if we can't respect the rights of others.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Cameron's failed elections

So, despite having been initially against the idea of a Bristol mayor, I've rather enjoyed the last few days. It was a shame that Labour's Marvin Rees didn't get in but George Ferguson seems self-assured and I'm a big fan of the Tobacco Factory theatre that he helped to rejuvenate.

I didn't bother voting for a Police Commissioner. Cameron may be right that the role will become more accepted over time but I see no need for it. We have political oversight of our police forces and it seems redundant to bring in more. Further it risks foregrounding the Conservative's favoured topic of Government being tough on crime. It's bad enough that Labour have recently jumped on the bandwagon of making mindless moral denunciations of those who commit certain crimes (expenses fraud doesn't count) without politicising the issue further.

On a less serious note, I've recently discovered that there is mention of a gift of tennis balls in Shakespeare's Henry V. I find this both mind boggling and brilliant!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

France moves towards legalising gay marriage

Congratulations Mr Hollande!

In other news, I was extremely glad to see Obama win his second term last night. I have heard people talk about disappointment after his early promise but I think any comparison with Bush shows that he is still the right man to govern the USA.

The last Republican President managed to start two major and unwinnable wars in the Middle East and Asia, which Blair for some reason went along with despite this necessitating lying to the entire British population. Obama, on the other hand, has started to clean up some of Bush's messes. He got most of the US troops out of Iraq and has announced an exit strategy for Afghanistan (which finally removes any remaining reasons for British presence in the country). To those who say that he is leaving the countries unstable I would say that there was little alternative once the (admittedly extremely unpleasant) precursor regimes had been eliminated for fairly inscrutable reasons. The blame should be on those who started the wars rather than those who have had to address their fundamental strategic flaws.

Obama may have been a little gung-ho about the killing of Osama while continuing to support the Saudi ruling classes that he stems from. However, I doubt that any Republican would have acted more consistently. Likewise, while Obama has sometimes seemed over eager to pander to the banks and corporation I have no allusions that the Republicans would have been less than ten times worse.

All in all a good result for America and its (long suffering) allies.