X-Men: Days of Future Past

Days of Future Past is a very highly regarded X-Men comic from the John Byrne and Chris Claremont run on the title that many people consider to be the best era on the series. It’s also consistently cited as one of the very best X-Men stories. This would arguably carry a heavy weight of expectation if it were not for the fact that X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand are also (loosely-) based on well regarded tales: God Loves, Man Kills and The Dark Phoenix Saga, respectively.

Days of Future Past is arguably closer to its inspiration, although it does depart in many significant ways and also ties into the films that have preceded it. It feels like an exercise in excising the mess that was X3, completely ignoring Wolverine Origins (and I assume it also can be seen as writing the last Wolverine film out of the movie continuity) as well as jettisoning large parts of X-Men Origins. It is the latter aim that seems most miserable, there were great ideas given short shrift and lots of characters discarded for a throwaway moment.

The film series now encompasses 7 films and 5 different directors. Several of the roles have been recast, even between successive films (I think Ellen Page is the third Kitty Pryde and the first to actually return). There’s a lot of inconsistencies in tone and timelines to iron out to make the story into a cohesive whole. And the film manages to draw threads from the series and knit them together or cut them off in a way that makes sense.

It’s a nearly film. It’s nearly great. It nearly does big action well. You nearly care about the characters. The ending nearly gets away with it. There is a brilliant action sequence part way through the film, but it sadly makes the ending feel more muted and less climatic. The best moments are featuring a character who then doesn’t appear again. The sense of inevitability that time cannot be rewritten aren’t allowed to pervade enough to create a sense of dread. There is a depressing feeling that matches the period but stops the film being entirely one thing or another.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have a chemistry together and McAvoy has a role he clearly enjoyed sinking his teeth into. Jackman has Wolverine practised now and the rest of the cast perform admirably (although a lot of the future X-Men are massively under utilised and it’s amazing Anna Paquin is even credited, let alone so highly). The script isn’t bad, but there is too much crammed in and you feel characters are under utilised to the point where you assume it could easily have been an extra 30 minutes long.

Jennifer Lawrence very nearly steals the film though. Her wig looks awful but she is brilliant. She’s the American Keira Knightley: she makes either period films (X-Men First Class, American Hustle) or films set in the future (Hunger Games) or more outre contemporary work (the Silver Linings Playbook).  Seriously, though, she does the action scenes well and shows real range as she oscillates between being conflicted and determined.

The special effects are largely good, although the entire future sequence is obviously studio bound and could have used a little more grit and detail. It compares unfavourably to the 20 and 30 year old vistas of the Terminator series, which is saddening considering the relative budgets and the technological progress in the meantime.

As much as I want to love the film I merely like it. I feel it exceeded my expectations but hinted at the potential it only manages to fleetingly achieve, if it ever comes close.

Write. Publish. Repeat. By Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant

I have read altogether too many guides and handbooks in the past six months or so. Not necessarily finished them, as many have shortcomings. There have been books that have been almost convincing, where they have provided a singular point of view and a coherent argument. And then an utterly stupid typo or misused phrase or the wrong incidence of a homonym appears.

It’s horribly jarring and amateurish. It takes me out of the reading experience and makes me question everything the author has written and is trying to achieve. Worse still have been the books that seem short on what I would consider vital information: books that skirt around or straight across fundamental steps as if they are sufficiently explained or obvious. What you tend to find is that all books of their ilk will do the same thing, leading you to believe that the people writing them are bluffing and rewriting everything they have found in another tome.

Cheap volumes by multi title authors are incomplete and filled with entreaties to buy their other works to get the missing information. Their other works, of course, merely repeat what you have already read in a reworded or re emphasised manner. You never feel like you are getting to the heart of the matter.

Among the most disappointing book was a manual on Drupal from Sams, a company I previously associated with inherent quality and accuracy. I genuinely believe it had been written for whom English was a distant second language and had not had an editor at any stage. It was terrible.

Write. Publish. Repeat. Kind of explains how those terrible books came into existence. It’s also the anti thesis of them. I’d argue there is a word used incorrectly once. It’s consistently very well written and pretty much free from errors. I know it sounds like that this should be the most basic achievement that a book aims for but I have first hand proof that it is a bar that a lot fail to meet. Even books I would consider reputable.

It’s a large book but engagingly written. At no point does it skirt a subject or cause you to suspect that the authors don’t actually know what they are talking about. It’s deflating and inspiring, it will make you realise that some other books are perpetuating myths and making blanket assertions with precious little to back them up.

The authors apparently have a veritable cottage industry of novels on Amazon (and other online book sellers) and explain how they go about presenting and selling the content in order to make money from it. They also go into quite a lot of depth on how they create the content in the first place, but that is arguably a secondary consideration (if, as a writer, being told to actually write comes as a surprise then you are in for a rude awakening generally) over the mechanical nuts and bolts of business. They’re candid and the work is full of citations and the evidence of their own experience.

The book is full to overflowing with examples from their own catalogue and their conclusions drawn from their experiences and how to apply this practically. It never really feels like an effort to sell you on this work though, and there is no sense that the book is incomplete in any way. Nor do you actually think that there is lip service paid to any of the topics covered. They’ve done the work and the research, some of which are tomes I have read and would heartily agree with.

The book is rounded out with some interviews with other authors. It’s great and comprehensive and actually feels well worth the money. I won’t be tracking down any of the writers’ fiction work, but I will be looking at some of the sources that they cite and be keeping an eye out for anything factual that they write in future. And I will give even less shrift to badly created or presented work from now on. This book proves that it is possible to know your stuff, communicate it and do so in a professional and engaging manner.

The Apprentice 7th May 2013

The British version of The Apprentice is back and Alan Sugar seems more bad tempered with fewer rehearsed lines. The would be businessmen and women performing to impress him have either been coached to be bad parodies of stereotypes or are unremittingly awful. Or both. So, naturally, it made for entertaining TV.

I’m convinced the structure of each episode is determined by what happens at the end of the episode. Who goes is decided by Sugar from 3 people: the leader of the losing team and 2 people they have identified as responsible for the failure of the task. Therefore enough has to be shown that at least one of these appears a reasonable (but not runaway) choice.

Moreover, in order to create any suspense, which team lost the task should be debatable and possibly even a shock. Thus the editors of the program have to pick about 40 minutes of footage from at least 32 hours of footage (2 sub teams each from 2 main teams for at least 8 hours of activity.) They also have to make it entertaining. What they don’t have to do is make it balanced, fair or representative.

Last night was a good example: one team was made to look rife with internal conflict which would make them unlikely to win in order for their result to be more of a surprise. On the losing side one moment was massively emphasised just to justify someone’s presence in the bottom 3. There were probably dozens of similar or more significant moments throughout the day that escaped being aired just because they had no thematic link to the eventual decision.

The task itself also seemed slightly dishonest. Nothing teams were supposedly given a full container of mixed products from China to sell over the course of 16 hours. Leaving aside I’m surprised some of the items could be shipped that distance cost effectively considering their bulk, ease of production and low value, there clearly was nothing like a container’s worth of product to be disposed of.

The teams supposedly tried selling against their theoretical RRP. Some of which were clearly massively inflated in order to convince the end customer they were saving money rather than buying anything of intrinsic value.

The task really should have focused on profit. Ridiculous and time consuming decisions were made that had me rolling my eyes. Trying to sell products to the wrong customers exacerbated this. And repeatedly over valuing one particular line made me wonder if anyone knew their true costs.

But it was compelling. I don’t know who I like yet but I have a fair idea who I can’t stand. Everything moves at a fair lick and there’s the certain knowledge there are things you can do better than people who consider themselves exceptional. It’s not how business really works and that is what helps to make it so entertaining. Just don’t believe it and don’t take it seriously. That’s what straight fiction is for.

If Comics Were Like TV

Comics are an utterly unique medium but a lot of people try to make them more like TV shows. It’s a mistake, but it got me wondering: what if comics were more like TV shows?

– Everything Marvel does would be reprints for a month if DC has a tentpole Summer event.

– Reality comics that manage to be more unrealistic than mutants in space aided by time travelling alternate reality versions of themselves who came back from the dead multiple times.

– A greater variety of genres, but at least a third of comics would just be about making comics or other comics. Probably half of these would feature a murder.

– Who performed at the half time of the Summer crossover would be more talked about than the crossover itself.

– The nagging feeling you recognise background characters from other comics but can’t think where from.

– Creators would have to step in to draw certain supporting characters to keep their appearance consistent resulting in a jarring mish mash of art.

– Wolverine drawn mid torso upwards to hide the fact he got fat but has a long contract.

– Ridiculous plot twists to stave off cancellation (oh, wait a second . . .)

– Villains of the week (hang on again . . .)

Going Old

I always told myself that, when I went bald, I would shave my head. Unfortunately I missed this by some time, as no one actually bothered to tell me I had gone bald and I only noticed when confronted with a photo with a large white patch on my head and tried unsuccessfully to work out where the light source for what had to be a reflection was coming from . . .

Now I trim my head using the clippers with no guard. I used to use the guard but it was harder to get right and my hair seems to be getting progressively more bald (as balding, I assume, works). Last time I trimmed my head my hair looked noticeably patchy and thin when it was long enough to tell I had rested on it. This time it was obvious much sooner. It’s going to get to the point where I don’t dare have much more than stubble for fear of the places where stubble no longer grows.

Being bald, of course, has meant some adjusting. Luckily I have had a tendency to keep my hair short since my teen years (I had an ill advised attempt at growing my hair long when I was about 13 and then very little since). Short hair has a habit of acting like velcro when you put a shirt or top over it. The friction can mean a lot of effort in getting cloth to slide over your skin. Also, and this one really should be obvious, being bald is colder. I wear a lot of hoodies now, some of which stay on due to the aforementioned friction. But I feel the cold and know that a millimetre of hair can make a huge difference to how warm I feel.

There are other weird aspects to being bald. Trying to judge if you have shaved hair to a sufficient length by touch and the point where stubble buttresses up against a bald patch and you have no idea if the change in texture is due to baldness or having left a patch of hair too long. The way skin feels less elastic where it is bald. Trying to remember where your hairline actually was the last time you trimmed it. Knowing your head its as likely to be flesh, red or purple as your hair colour. Worrying that your hair may be grey or white if you actually let it grow. It’s a constant stream of surprise and reality versus memory and hoping you can look like Jason Statham or Bruce Willis when Mr Burns seems to loom large.

Live Free Or Die Hard

Die Hard isn’t just a film franchise, it’s a description of the state of the franchise. The original film is brilliant, save for one annoyance. The second film is largely good, but too open and over the top. The third, with some hindsight, is quite effective but deviates from formula and has a stupid ending. The fourth is utterly terrible and features someone outrunning a jet in a very slow lorry. So, what then, of the fifth film?

It’s not the worst Die Hard film. That is possibly the nicest thing that I can really say about it. My idea of what a Die Hard film is cemented by the first film. The second largely follows the same formula and the third and fourth cheerfully ignore it. So does the fifth. That means that Die Hard films are actually more unlike the first film then they are like it, character names aside. But they bear the name. And it doesn’t feel like Die Hard.

John McClaine sets off to Russia to find out what trouble his estranged son has managed to get himself in. His son is embroiled in a Russian conspiracy and works as a spy. This, actually, is not the biggest stretch of belief that the film will ask you to make. From the very first chase (which makes little to no sense) we have baddies who are ruthless and decisive when tension is needed or to show how bad they are and then utterly ineffective when the heroes need to accomplish anything. And physics and momentum are gleefully ignored.

The thematic link to the parallel stories/arcs in the film is what people will do for the children and the sacrifices they will and won’t make. The twist is that the two fathers aren’t as far apart from their offspring as it appears, even if this makes them less similar as people. It’s not a bad underlying idea, but it is paid lip service by the film as a whole and the rest of the film is really quite stupid.

Bruce Willis, as usual, is eminently watchable. Unfortunately he is starting to look a little slight and old for the pure gung-ho heroics. To make things worse, the gunfights degenerate into John Wayne style shooting at each other with no cover. People being shot seems to only have a bearing as per plot demands and there is little of the tension and sense of danger that you see in the first 3 films.

Worse still, the villains are easily dispatched and the entire thing feels largely anti climatic. Even the bits that aren’t predictable come across as no surprise. Still, at least no one outruns a fighter jet in a truck or saves the world from the internet by shooting things.

Triple A Failure

Moody’s has just announced that it is decreasing the UK’s credit rating from AAA to AA1. It doesn’t sound like much but it is the central plank of the Conservative’s policy for the country disintegrating.

David Cameron served as an adviser to Norman Lamont during Black Wednesday. Black Wednesday was when the previous Conservative government’s exchange rate policy disintegrated in a single day and cost the country billions. It rendered them unelectable for a generation. The credit down-rating is arguably worse.

We have been repeatedly informed, and elected the government based on, the idea that austerity and aggressively dealing with the country’s debt was the surest way to a financial recovery and a rejuvenated economy. This has just patently failed: our debt is now harder to pay back and will cost more to service as a result of this move. A move that is the logical conclusion of the extended failure of the government’s policy.

As a country we have had the AAA rating since 1978. This was at the time of the Labour government that we were informed “wasn’t working” and the Winter of Discontent. We had it even through the debacle of the ERM exit of Black Wednesday. Gordon Brown’s stewardship of the economy and the global economic collapse of 2007 didn’t hurt it. For it to be stripped away now is huge.

The Conservatives are lucky it happened after the end of the city trading on Friday. At the start of Friday (a day when the markets tend to be twitchy anyway) would have caused a huge amount of panic and negative press. There is still going to be blood on Monday. The problem is that the Conservatives can’t be seen to ditch their policy or panic. Cameron can’t suddenly get rid of Osborne (who, bluntly, has appeared massively out of his depth forever) but he can’t change the policy with Osborne at the helm.

The line that is being pushed that this is a sign of the problems that the government and country face would be in tatters if we had a reasonable opposition. Unfortunately, Ed Balls aside, we don’t. It’s also happened at the weekend which means, while it will dominate a full media cycle, there aren’t people available to really get their teeth into it. Monday is going to be crucial, as is the reaction of the tabloids and the public. Assuming it trickles down into things like the pound falling on foreign exchanges (almost certain), borrowing becoming harder and more costly (again, near certain) and the ensuing inflation this could very well be the death knell of the government. Even without a proper opposition

Reign Of Fire

Reign Of Fire is a film starring Christian Bale, an under credited Gerard Butler and Matthew McConaughey as the token American star to make it more saleable overseas. It dates from before Butler or Bale were particularly bankable in their own rights and seems to be a relatively large budget British film.

The story is of a dystopian future where dragons have reasserted themselves as the dominant species on Earth following a largely ineffectual and not particularly evidenced nuclear holocaust to wipe them out. The settings and props don’t quite mesh with the scenario as relayed by dialogue and montages of newspaper cuttings. The great special effects on the dragons aside, the film looks and feels like it is struggling manfully with a restricted budget.

The story opens with the introduction of dragons and setting up them up as a distinct threat. It also ties nicely to the end, which is sensibly thematic but a little too convenient. It provides a concise introduction to the dragons, a demonstration of their awesome potential but also limitations and is a tense scene that gives the protagonist a back story. It’s very lean scripting.

The rest of the film is largely perfunctory. It’s a blockbuster, but doesn’t quite have a blockbuster’s budget. This limits the number of locations which means that the plot is rather sedate. it also means that there aren’t many action scenes to break up the necessary character moments, which doesn’t help to raise the stakes or create a sense of scale or imminent danger. Perhaps more imaginative directing or a different structure would have created a sense of foreboding and tension, but that arguably would have required a smaller cast and less broad characterisation. It’s a film whose ambitions often overreach its very logistics. Nothing is particularly badly done, but the film is limited in what it can actually achieve.

Bale has little to sink his teeth into but is good. Butler is a likeable presence but doesn’t really extend himself. McConaughey is wide eyed and staring and actually rather good. The characters don’t particularly interact in an interesting way but there is a nice scene early on about the demise of entertainment and the reassertion of the spoken word and small scale drama in its stead. There is very little that shows similar insight and most of the story is predictable and the ending oddly anti climatic (but then again, it had to be in order for a small group to achieve so much and within the constraints of the budget).

As a blockbuster, it’s a British film. As a British film, it’s missing a lot of intensity and character development but doesn’t grate or deal with a load of luvvies. What it really reminds me of is Event Horizon, although Event Horizon was obviously cheaper and worked within its remit much better.

Fast 5

The Fast and the Furious film franchise is a series of films centring around people driving fast cars in various illegal ways. It’s not high art and the better ones have Vin Diesel in them. Fast 5 sees the action taking place in Rio, Brazil and centres on Dwayne Johnson trying to apprehend a group of criminals who have been framed for killing some American agents while planning a robbery.

The reason I wanted to see the film was to see Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson punching each other. The testosterone is palpable but the action scenes aren’t particularly inventive or exciting. The climatic scene has a nice central conceit but arguably drags on too long and suffers from pedestrian direction. As much as Michael Bay is derided, some low tracking shots would have made things considerably more exciting.

But, on its own level, it isn’t a bad film. It does what it sets out to and has a twist. The supporting cast is largely marginalised, but this is actually addressed in the plot rather than incidental. The leads glower and perform explosively and the action ticks over. It doesn’t feel as long as it actually is, so that is a sign that things succeed.

Neither Vin Diesel nor Dwayne Johnson are particularly nuanced actors. It doesn’t matter. They’re both convincing as very big, muscular men who engage in high testosterone pursuits and jump and punch things. That is all the film really calls for and something they manage to do with aplomb. The supporting cast has precious little to do, but the villains are suitably nasty and glare at things and people make doe eyes at each other when appropriate.

Fast 5 is entertaining and enjoyable, but as long as you go in with sensible expectations you won’t be disappointed. It’s a Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson vehicle and serves perfectly well at showcasing their particular talents.

Gun Machine

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis is his second novel. It revolves around a detective who uncovers a room full of hundreds of guns linked to unsolved crimes and an overreaching conspiracy hinging on their use. It’s already been optioned as a TV Series, which it is a brilliant premise for. What it is not, sadly, is a great story in its own right.

There is a great premise here (enough for a series of novels, really), and some engaging characters (although there always feels to be a degree of repetition to Ellis’ characters), but there isn’t enough plot.

The problem with a lot of thrillers is that they believe their plot should be terse and lean. This means a lack of red herrings, dead ends or superfluous characters. This leads to the entire plot hinging on a ridiculous coincidence that utterly undermines the story. There is precious little detection on the part of the detective and the guilty party is introduced early on and easily recognised just by the fact they serve no other purpose in the overall story.

There is another problem as well: the tenant of the room with all the guns in isn’t really fleshed out and Ellis cheats to leave him as essentially a cypher and relatively mysterious. It’s akin to a clumsier version of Hitchcock’s Rebecca where someone yells “redacted” or there is a bleep every time someone mentions the new wife’s name.

I wanted to love Gun Machine. It opens so well, the characters are funny and the events relatively horrific. I’m sure that the level of unsolved crimes has been researched and the basic premise is great. I can even believe the initial coincidences that set the plot in motion. But it doesn’t work as a thriller or a detective story. As anything other than a dark comedy (without enough jokes) or a character piece (without enough character interaction or development) it fails. The lack of characters means that the culprit is obvious. And the climax is incredibly lazy, something you’d expect from a tv show long since devolved into lazy formula.