FILM REVIEW: The Martian

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Prometheus. On one hand, it showcased Ridley Scott’s remarkable ability to generate a visually stunning self-contained world, all clean lines and expansive landscapes. On the other, it suffered from near-terminal narrative flaws. Highly trained astronauts and scientists making inexplicably dumb choices? Sure. Plot holes the size of one of Mars’ craters? Let’s do it. It was a film that reeked of “could have been” to me, yet I returned to it several times convinced I had misinterpreted or missed something. After 4 viewings, I’ve settled on “not bad” and nothing more. A beautiful, if incoherent puzzle. When I considered Prometheus alongside Scott’s most recent work, which you could charitably describe as “inconsistent”, my hopes for The Martian were not high. Happily, The Martian exceeds Prometheus and more.

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Five Albums from 2015 That You Need To Hear

We’re halfway through 2015 already, so it’s an appropriate time to slow down, take stock and re-visit some of the best music of the year so far. 2015 has been a sneaky one, starting off slow with some of the best releases taking a while to fully reveal their charms, but it’s been as good a year as any for great new music. There are a few glaring omissions here, purely because I haven’t been able to get through as many of this year’s albums as I’d have liked. Bjork’s ‘Vulnicura’, for example. I’ll save those one’s for the end of year list. So, without further ado,  here are some of my favourites. Spotify links included, as always.

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The Struggle To Stay Hopeful

 

I grew up believing that it was important to engage in the world around you. I can thank my parents for that. We have almost diametrically opposed views on many subjects but the most important lesson stuck, namely that one should read, engage and challenge. I’ve tried to apply this ethos throughout my adult life and not just with regards to politics but in other areas too. Never blindly accept, always think for yourself. It’s one of the reasons I feel as strongly as I do on a range of issues such as equal rights, climate policy and the NHS. All of this hinges on a crucial element, however: Hope. We have to believe that we can shape a better world for our children than the one we grew up in. It’s the dream of every generation: that we can draw on our shared knowledge and experience and correct the mistakes of the past. Behind every diatribe, criticism and woe-is-me apocalyptic rant was a foundation of Hope. If I didn’t believe we had the ability to do better, I’d have been considerably less angry. My stress levels would have cried out in relief, but no. More news leads to more fury because I still hope. Now should be one of the most hopeful times for someone of my political persuasion. My home country came this close to realising a centuries-old dream of independence. All over the world, from Occupy to Syriza, people are standing up to the established world order. So why is it that I feel so curiously empty? Why am I having such a crisis of Hope?

The weeks since Britain’s recent General Election have been challenging. The Conservative Party swept to a majority against all perceived wisdom and David Cameron became the first Prime Minister to increase his share of the vote since 1955. Their victory was based not least on a combination of lack of confidence in the Labour alternative and an intoxicating narrative of SNP insurgency. Popular support for shrinking the welfare state and curbing immigration remain high. Fear has a lot of political currency in 2015. The seven years since the financial crisis have exemplified the central role of narrative in the political process beyond all doubt, and perhaps this is also central to my crisis of faith. People will always believe what they wish to believe. To some extent, those of us on the Left are like the naive child in the popular internet meme: “If I can only bring these facts to people’s attention, surely they will change their minds!” No. The political and media discourse of the last seven years have begun hammering the nails into that particular coffin. Take the welfare state for example. There are numerous websites and articles freely available that provide easy to understand figures on welfare spending (like this example). We know that the majority of spending goes on pensions. We know that benefit fraud accounts for 0.7% of the bill and is 70 times smaller than money lost through tax evasion. We know these things, but the myths persist because a good narrative will trump facts every time. This Conservative government succeeds because it understands this truth. If you repeat often enough that our precarious situation is a result of over-indulging the poor then people will believe it.  After all, many of us enjoy recounting stories of the unemployed family with Sky TV (at the massive cost of £5 per week for the basic package) or the lay-abouts with more children than we deem appropriate. Perhaps they should have foreseen their future unemployment before starting a family, the selfish bastards. Central to our benefit mythology is the implication that unemployment is a choice, and that disability is a conveniently vague form of justification. This shapes the narrative that our government propagates to turn voters against each other. Scroungers vs Strivers. This week’s budget suggests that life will only get harder for the poor in Britain.  I don’t hate the Tories. They just know who they are and what their purpose is. They exit to advance the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the poorest and they dress it up in the borrowed robes of aspiration. Like any government, they desire power and utilise fear to maintain it. We must fear the poor. We must fear Muslims. Our way is the only way. It’s no different to Coca Cola selling processed sugar-water as happiness.

We live in an age where human beings are reduced to economically viable units of production, and many of us are no longer considered economically viable. Care workers, single parents, the young, the unemployed. In the neo-liberal narrative, these players serve no purpose, because there is only one purpose: to generate profit. It’s why the idea of the NHS is so galling to neo-liberal thinkers, they can’t fundamentally accept an institution that is not built to generate profit. George Osbourne famously called on businesses to fight back against charities because he believes they are anti-business. The belief that even basic human charity should be monetized goes to the highest levels of government.  According to our governments and media, austerity is the only realistic solution to the crisis generated by the financial sector despite plenty of dissenting economic opinion. Neo-liberal economics were (and are) considered the only viable way to generate wealth for all, but the reality is that it generates massive wealth for the few on the backs of the majority. The true legacy of neo-liberalism is the devaluation of the Human Being and the Earth in service to the Almighty Dollar. To challenge this, we have to change our entire way of looking at the world and each other. Right now, it doesn’t seem like we have the collective will to do this. Some of us don’t believe this is something worth doing, even if we could. In times of uncertainty, sacrifices have to be made and those in power are brandishing the knife, believing the Gods will make it rain.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe one day we’ll all wake up and realise that we’re worth something beyond a pay slip and the stuff we own. Maybe we’ll realise that our planet is worth saving, and not just in an “isn’t the view nice” kind of way. In a real, genuine way. Maybe we’re better than we seem. Maybe there’s a little hope left.

 

FILM REVIEW: Avengers: Age Of Ultron

As we come to the end of April, we start to see the first of the summer’s big-hitting blockbusters stalk out of the shadows and into the public realm. Now starts the slow build to June and July’s crescendo, when marquee films jostle for position and audience’s hard-earned cash. Avengers: The Age of Ultron is the first of 2015’s big franchises to play its hand.  Now for the standard comic-book movie disclaimer. While I’m a fan of comic books (and sometimes their movie counterparts), I’ve never been a big fan of “superheroes” and I’m not as familiar with canon and story threads as some will be. I’ve tried to review Age of Ultron as a movie rather than a comic-book adaptation, and so wont’ be comparing the movie to its source material etc. Bear this in mind as we move forward…

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While I’ve definitely been suffering “Superhero Fatigue” over the last few summers, I’ve generally considered the Avengers movies to be quite well executed and admirable in their attempts to tackle wider themes amongst the contractually mandated explosions and gadgets. I appreciated Avengers Assemble, and very much enjoyed the Captain America spin-offs in their attempt to reconcile notions of patriotism and honour with a modern world. That being said, watching The Age of Ultron highlighted what, for me, is the franchise’s major flaw: too many characters. Ultron contains ten characters that could be considered major players in the narrative. TEN. Old favourites like the Hulk, Iron Man and Thor team up with several new ones for a veritable cacophony of super-stuff, which unfortunately leads to a sense that some characters are left disappointingly  thin. I say disappointingly, because some of the wrinkles that writer/director Joss Whedon adds to the mix are interesting and merit much deeper exploration that he is able to indulge here. Ultron clocks in at an extensive two-and-a-half hours, but it still feels as though we have only superficially engaged with some characters. From what I can tell, the spin-offs are where we are meant to dive deeper into the motivations, flaws and aspirations of each character, but that unfortunately leaves Ultron looking like a very thin “greatest hits” compilation. All the boxes are ticked, but the whole still seems unsatisfying.

In one particular new shade, we find out a little more about Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and his life outside of the Avengers. This thread is interesting in how contrasts the Technicolor  gleam of his professional world with the autumnal hue of his home life. Indeed, “professional world” is an apt term because  HawkEye very much views his avenging as job he must do, despite its inherent risks. I was keen for Ultron to explore this further, but because there is so much story and so many characters to cram in, this thread felt curiously unfinished. There is also fleeting exploration of the struggles experienced by Bruce Banner, as he finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the jarring brutality he is capable of. Every fibre of him wants to run away and hide from those around him. The psychological toll of containing himself would make for a solid film in itself, but again this ends up being lost along the way. While Ultron gamely tackles themes of safety vs freedom and the consequences of developing artificial intelligence, there’s not much space to go into them in any real depth. I’m not sure how future Avengers films could solve this issue, without either paring down the characters or spreading the story out of more installments, even a mini-series.

Despite these issues, much of what makes the Marvel films so succesful is present and correct in Ultron. Many of the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, particularly those involving Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and his out-sized machismo. He’s like a slimmer Robert Baratheon, cursing his foes and enthusiastically requesting booze. The action scenes zip along at a good pace, and rarely feel like they’re dragging on too long. Mark Ruffalo should also be noted for his engaging portrayal of Bruce Banner, the first one I’ve enjoyed on the big screen. The Avengers franchise that knows what it can do well, and what it can’t.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Age of Ultron, and even some things to admire. The action is well choreographed, there’s plenty of humour and the film is ambitious in the themes it attempts to mine. But, ultimately, it doesn’t satisfy on that deeper level that it feels eminently capable of achieving.