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Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Don't even get me started...

No, no, no. I'm not going to spend the last afternoon of the year Fisking professional worry-wart George Monbiot's latest pronouncements of doom in the Guardian. Let's just say if I come across a more obstinately unimaginative take on the state of the world during 2003 I'll be surprised.

If the quality of life peaked in 1974 I guess I should be having a right miserable old time since that was the year I was born. But you know what? To hell with that. We have SUVs, flat-rate internet access, DVDs and a whole lot more. Call me a shallow consumerist if you will, but at least I'm not quoting Monbiot's First Law of Imaginary Thermodynamics.

If this article tells us anything it's that there is one infinite resource - silliness.

Have a great New Year.


Monday, December 30, 2002

Films I've enjoyed this year

2002 wasn't as bad as the great drought of 2001 but Hollywood still served up it's usual summer main course of effects-saturated blockbusters and the British Film Industry still failed to make an impression. At least we didn't get any more of the godawful mockney gangster flicks that followed Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Training Day
The closest you'll come to an urban Apocalypse Now. Denzel Washington's turn as corrupt cop Alonzo Harris is his best yet. The story peels away layer upon layer of his character until you come face to face with a desperately unpleasant man. Ethan Hawke is fine as the moral innocent getting taught hard lessons and he seems to be developing as an actor but the film is really carried by Washington.

Ali
Will Smith drops the smartass posturing and delivers a completely assured turn in Michael Mann's biopic. The relationship between Ali and Malcolm X is as compelling as any of the naturalistic fight sequences.

24 Hour Party People
The rise and fall of Factory Records and the Hacienda club. So deliriously off-the-wall it can only be true.

Minority Report
Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise deliver a surprisingly sophisticated flick on the perils of prediction, which grips completely until its sluggish third act.

Donnie Darko
Jam-packed full of ideas and directed with aplomb, Richard Kelly's debut is astounding. Mix two parts Lynchian suburban weirdness to one part John Hughes teen movie, add an imaginary giant rabbit and you'll have an idea what it's about. Does that make sense?

The Bourne Identity
What's this? An action thriller that's not stupid? Doug Liman uses his indie sensibilities to propel along a conventional story and the result is a nifty adventure that's refreshingly free of the usual over-the-top nonsense. Matt Damon may not be as cute an amnesiac assassin as Geena Davis but he's believable enough to make it work. And the car chase is a corker.

Signs
Here's one that divided people into those who thought the denoument was a contrived rubbish and people like me who honestly thought it was consistent with the narrative. The film was as nerve-shreddingly tense as I expected but I was pleasantly surprised at how quirky it was too. We could do with more winsome blockbusters like this. Highlights were tableau shots inspired by oil paintings and the first sighting of an alien, which is brilliantly handled. It was enough to make me leap out of my seat - twice.

Road To Perdition
If Conrad Hall doesn't win the Oscar for best cinematography this year I'll eat my boxers, because this is one of the most stunningly beautiful fims I have ever seen. The story is compelling if maybe a little too chilly to sweep you up in it completely. If it does err on the side of being a bit too considered then I think it can be forgiven because the mood is maintained with absolute precision. I couldn't help thinking that if Tom Hanks had been a bit less chubby and a bit more gaunt and haunted the film would have worked better, though.

The Two Towers
All in all I think this is the best of the year, and it's safe to say that Peter Jackson's trilogy will be up there with the Star Wars and Godfather series once it's finished. Like Fellowship, I was taken aback by how unabashed it was at championing the big ideas of courage, loyalty, love and friendship and how vibrant it rendered the conflict between good and evil. I'm convinced that in twenty or thirty years time people will regard this trilogy as a classic. It's becoming clear that comparisons between Peter Jackson and George Lucas might be inapt after all - Lord of the Rings is closer in spirit to the epic sweep of David Lean. Simply awesome.

Honourable mentions go to Panic Room, Roadkill, Monsters Inc. and Ocean's 11 (although a little less conversation and a little more action would have been nice).

No Attack of the Clones? Hell no. George Lucas's charmless digital-paintbox extravaganza was the most spectacular film of the year and the emptiest. It's a great big overdone soufflé of a movie: every single flashy effect and digitally drawn beastie clammers for your attention, swamping the narrative flow. The much hyped use of digital film makes everything look sharp but dim, lacking the life and grain of conventional 35mm film. It's a video game masquerading as a piece of cinema. In the chase over Coruscant or Obi-Wan Kenobi's battle in the asteroid belt I felt no dramatic tension at all, no sense that the characters' lives were in any sort of peril.

But the most frustrating thing is that none of this would matter if the story was strong enough. And the story doesn't fail because it's too complicated (although it doesn't help). The sort of complex geopolitical conspiracy in the film might be more suited to an extended story arc of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or something, but that's not a fatal flaw. Okay, the villains aren't as sinister or as threatening as they were in the original trilogy but there are ways round this. Structure it as a mystery with real tension and it could work.

It doesn't even fail because of the wooden performances. Ewan McGregor tries his best and we know from films like Leon that Natalie Portman is a fine actor. It's only the script that's holding them back. But plenty of films have wooden performances and manage to come out okay in the end. The original Star Wars had enough ropey dialogue for half a dozen movies and it's still a classic.

No, the film fails, and fails utterly because it's meant to be a love story and there is no reason - absolutely none - why Amidala should fall in love with Anakin Skywalker. What the story needs more than anything else is a young Anakin Skywalker the audience can love. It needs this for later too, because that's what will make him a tragic character when he eventually falls from grace. He needs to be courageous, charismatic and a bit dashing, maybe with a touch of recklessness tending towards arrogance. That's all, and it wouldn't have taken too much scriptwork to make this happen. Brave but a bit cocksure - no problem for any screenwriter worth his salt.

Instead we got Anakin the narcissistic twat: a spoiled, whiny adolescent who wants his own way and obsesses about his mother. I'm telling you, the very idea that Amidala should in the space of a few scenes go from being indifferent to dropping her knickers was almost enough to have me running for the exit. It's because of this that Attack of the Clones is a dreadful failure, and I think the worst film of the year. Sum of All Fears was misconceived on almost every level but it didn't cop out dramatically. We Were Soldiers was just clumsy with too much unconvincing shrubbery. But Clones felt wrong, and George Lucas's need to set the scene for a story that has already been told doesn't excuse his crimes against drama.

UPDATE: I know I'm being hard on poor George Lucas but he only has himself to blame. I can't fault his commercial acumen, though. Unlike the makers of British romantic comedy Offending Angels, which according to Empire Magazine grossed the grand total of £89 in 2002.

Just chew on that for a moment. Eighty-nine quid. That means eighteen people went to see it at, say £4.95 a go. Even if it only showed once in one miserable little fleapit it would still have been a disappointment.


Yesterday...

"Yesterday,
all these stories were already played,
now they seem so old and oh so lame,
oh I read this crap yesterday."


Ken Layne dedicates his version of the classic to the petrified oaks of dead-tree media.

A year ago I hadn't even heard of blogging and I used the web maybe once a week but since then it's been all change. I stumbled upon weblogs when I read Andrew Sullivan's article in the (dead tree) Times in March and I was delighted to find so many people expressing their thoughts so articulately. Blogging hasn't revolutionised publishing but it is still in its infancy. As Ken Layne points out, advertising revenue is the one thing most likely to transform online publishing, but this may be a slow process.

So most bloggers remain enthusiastic amateurs like me. Why do so many people do it? Why do they jot down their musings about their life, the state of the world and everything and put them up for the world to see? Why should anyone even care?

I think it comes down to this: talking about stuff is fun, whether you're chatting with your friends in the pub or scribbling in a blog's comments section. If you feel passionately about something or even if something just piques your interest, talking about it is better than not talking about it. Articulating your thoughts reaps its own rewards, even if hardly anyone reads the results.

I hesitated before starting my own blog mainly because I was out of practice writing in any context other than my work. However, after a while I felt confident enough to have a crack at it - and I'm glad I did.

If there's anyone reading this who is considering starting a blog, have a go. Just write what you want when you want and to hell with peer pressure or whatever obligation you think you have to write in a certain style or about particular subjects. Honesty is always best.

If you are unused to regularly writing about what interests you, keep at it. Your early attempts may be a bit rough and ready but don't worry - you'll find your voice.

There's no right way or wrong way of doing it. You can write tart commentaries or long, thoughtful essays. You can be as considered or as sarcastic as you want, as long as you are happy to be quoted elsewhere. Or you can just keep a private blog.

It's not going to change the world. Policy-makers don't consult the oracles of Greater Blogland before making decisions. But when you're right, you'll know it.

Maybe the best thing about writing - any writing - is that it is expansive, that there's a good chance that in expressing yourself new ideas may occur to you. The cut and thrust of opinion stimulates debate and gets you in contact with like-minded (and not so like-minded) people. So there's nothing to lose other than your time - and that won't be wasted.


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