Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Old Stuff in Museums

When we - the general public - go to museums, we tend to think of them in terms of the stuff that we see on display. Which is fair enough, but - to a degree doubtless varying with the museum - also wrong. There's a whole load of curating and preservation and additional material and scholarship going on behind the scenes, which we glimpse in dribs and drabs if we pay attention.

The Fitzwilliam's current big exhibition of Italian Drawings, which we went to see on Saturday, reminded me of this, with something of a kick. It draws largely from the museum's own back rooms - items which aren't normally on display. But one motive for going to see it is, frankly, something akin to name-dropping. It's not often that one gets a chance to see art by (among others) Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Vasari, and Modigliani, all in the same room, within a dozen miles of one's front door, after all. Okay, so what one sees is actually a bunch of, well, drawings, ranging from quite stylish but dashed-off pen-and-ink pieces to tiny preparatory sketches and doodles. But the raw density of art history in that one room is quite impressive.

That's one fairly dimly-lit room, mind. One reason that some of these highly significant pieces can't regularly appear on display is clearly that, even more than a lot of art, they're fragile. I won't quite say that they're disintegrating before one's eyes, but some of them certainly look lucky to have lasted this long, and despite all the technical brilliance of modern museums, I'd guess that they have a finite lifespan, even if it can still be measured in centuries. There's a definite sense of the memento mori when one looks at a tiny, fading sketch that was in fact dashed off by Leonardo when he was thinking about how to depict horses and riders, five hundred years ago.

Then, on Monday, we went to a completely different museum which has an equally important backroom function - the Shuttleworth Collection in Old Warden. For those who don't know it - this is a fairly substantial aircraft collection, but most impressively, it's got some old aircraft. That is to say, they have a couple of planes, in actual flying condition, which are over a hundred years old. This puts them in the business of restoration and preservation as much as any museum, which is something they happily talk about; for example, they have a Spitfire (pretty much inevitably, I guess), and one can see it in one hangar - in bits. It needs sprucing up, it seems.

Mind you, aircraft restoration evidently involves a lot of refitting and replacement work. The displays talk about the art of fitting new fabric surfaces (so with some of these aircraft, most of what meets one's gaze is actually new) and the necessity of replacing, say, thousands of magnesium rivets with something newer and less lethally corrosive. But aircraft are machines, built to do something; a restoration process that kept more of the original but left it incapable of flight, would perhaps be too much like taxidermy.

(I grabbed a fair few pictures on Monday, incidentally, of aircraft and also of the adjacent Swiss Garden and Bird of Prey Centre. I'll try and get them up on my Flickr photostream reasonably soon.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Conspiracy Theories

Blogger suffers its second problem in a fortnight, leaving me unable to sign in to my account. Then, after a couple of days, I have a bright idea and try using Chrome instead of Firefox - and lo and behold, I get in.

Thus are conspiracy theories born. Google must surely be trying to force people away from the competition and onto their software. Fortunately, (a) I hear that Internet Explorer works too, and (b) I've even been able to get in using Firefox from another computer.

Still, two service collapses in consecutive weeks? Aren't Google supposed to be better than that?

Friday, May 20, 2011


The superhero movie fashion continues...

Cranking through the list of their major characters as a preparation for the Avengers movie (with lesser Avengers popping up to fan service effect - here, "Agent Barton" spends a couple of minutes on-screen with a bow, just to confuse the non-geeks) and just because, the Marvel films people run head-first into the difficult one. Most superhero movies can be presented as slightly over-exuberant technothrillers, but, well, what the heck can you do with Thor?

Throw a posh British Shakespearean director at it, maybe? Just for Odin's sake don't try to make the original '60s costume work on screen. Which is presumably how Walt and Louise Simonson earn themselves credit mentions alongside the '60s Marvel names, having given the (Marvel) God of Thunder his vaguely plausible suit of armour and his beard. Still, it's all about dropping a clunky modern-fantasy reading of Norse myth into the modern world, and there's only so much anyone can do with that - the script tries a bit of waffle about magic being sufficiently advanced science, but that really doesn't survive a moment's scrutiny - this is sufficiently advanced science that can generate immovable objects, execute conditional operations based on moral judgements made from beyond line of sight, and operate at the mutter of a patriarchal guy in an eye-patch several light-years away. Oh well, at least they didn't try any mumbles about nanotech.

And let's be fair, from a geeky point of view - the visual realisation of a lot of stuff from the comics is really pretty good. The movie also moves fast enough to stop anyone worrying about the obvious glaring logical holes so long as it lasts. (What language do the Asgardians speak? Does Bifrost have a Tardis translation circuit? How old are Thor and Loki? How did they get into human myth if they were born after regular contact between the Nine Worlds ended?) The Casket of Ancient Winters is reduced to a canister of pure distilled Maguffin, though, doing nothing except sit there glowing blue and being important for as long as it's needed; one wonders if early script drafts did more with it, but I wouldn't even bet on that. The visual design for much of Asgard is certainly fun, especially in 3-D - a garish high-fantasy cityscape, rendered with a bit of budget. Bifrost, though, looks like a bad '80s home computer visual effect given unwarranted solidity

The cast is over-qualified, of course, even given that it has some relative newcomers - Chris Hemsworth has fully adequate charm and charisma as well as the body for the lead role, and Tom Hiddleston brings ice-blue eyes and icy elegance to Loki, aided by good direction and costume design which recalls his horned helmet from the comics without getting goofy. (The film has a relatively complex treatment of that character, actually, even if the psychology is a bit Hollywood-routine.) Anthony Hopkins does dignified, Natalie Portman does her best with the career-upgraded Jane Foster, and Idris Elba gives Heimdall plenty of deific dignity. They're fun to watch, but they can never quite suppress the impression that this film exists because the comic exists, and not because it has any great claims to interest in its own right. Still, we get that fight scene between Thor and Loki...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

(Another old post finally being finished...)

To begin with a confession, I suppose - I haven't seen The Mummy, or some of the Indiana Jones movies, or any of the Tomb Raider films, and nor have I read the French bandes dessinées on which this film is based - so I'm probably even less entitled to comment on it than usual. But this blog is only supposed to be about personal reactions anyway, so here we are.

Actually, I think it's the last omission which probably ought to count against me most. I can see why reviewers have been invoking those English-language reference points, but really, this isn't much of a Hollywood-style action movie. Luc Besson may have had some influence in Hollywood over the years, but he's always been a bit too Frenchly odd, and with its lack of a proper villain and focus on a style-soaked female lead, this is very much a Besson movie. More to the point, with its peculiar sense of partial detachment from any sort of reality, its weird dialogue and disregard for much in the way of psychological reality, it's extremely reminiscent of any number of BDs that I have seen, so I suspect it's pretty faithful to its source.

In case you were wondering, Adèle Blanc-Sec, played by the inevitably winsome Louise Bourgoin, is an Edwardian-period adventuress who is, as it turns out, looking for the mummy of an ancient Egyptian doctor so that she can get it resurrected by a loopy academic psychic, because she knows that the ancient Egyptians had the medical knowledge she needs to cure her sister, who is in a coma with a hat-pin through her skull. Unfortunately, though, the psychic has already resurrected an ancient pterodactyl egg, and the pterodactyl is terrorising Paris. Not that Adèle cares about Paris or anyone else much, it seems - family comes first, and Adèle sets out to deal with her own concerns before anything else, leaving a trail of chaos and one or two accidental deaths in her wake...

It's all rather self-consciously French, too, what with the politicians having affairs with cancan dancers and the gendarmes who insist that they are wine connoisseurs and the Eiffel Tower. Yeah, I guess it could even be called charming. Or at least, charmant. Not without its interest, even. More a curiosity than a masterpiece, though.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Source Code

((Many thanks to the people who sent me copies of this article, after I failed to keep one and Google lost it.))

(More catching up on posts I should have made a month ago. I can just about remember what I meant to say...)

Obvious note; the problem with commenting on this movie is that it's hard to do so without spoilers. And it's honestly good enough not to deserve that.

But, okay, the reviews and trailers have (unavoidably) given away a bit. Not everything, though; a certain amount of layered revelation is part of this film's charm. It's widely described as a time travel story, but what emerges fairly early is that this isn't quite true - or perhaps it is, as it turns out. Choose your own definitions. More annoyingly, a lot of comments seem to describe it as complicated or hard to follow, which suggests to me that too many people's brains just shut down when they're confronted with skiffy ideas about time or any kind of game with causality, because I really didn't see much complexity at all. The explanation of how things seemed to work, and eventually of the film's conclusive twist, struck me as very straightforward, even linear, even if the protagonist did replay the same few minutes of apparent time repeatedly as he went along. Nor was the film quite as rigorous as comments suggested; several of the eight-minute replays that were necessary to the plot would have been too repetitive for any audience, and so were skimmed over.

(Anyone who finds this film unpleasantly hard to follow really, really needs to avoid Primer, by the way.)

In fact, the relatively rigorous approach to plot logic made this a true science fiction story (as opposed to "heroic fantasy in space" or "action thriller with extreme special effects", which is what Hollywood tends to mean by "science fiction" these days), and with Source Code following on Moon, it seems that director Duncan Jones has a genuine and fairly unusual interest in the genre. This isn't hard SF, mind; the core idea of the plot is handwaved fairly frantically, involving as it does multiple scientific and technological jumps far beyond anything that could be made to look hard-SF plausible in the modern-day setting.. In the end, it's using the word "quantum" a lot to justify a fairly arbitrary story with a large dose of wish-fulfilment, even if one could argue that what it does is opt for the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics without being so crass as to say so (or to even mention Schrodinger's cat).

Nor is the plotting entirely immaculate; looking back over the film, one can identify significant unanswered questions of both logic and morality. (What could one say about the fate of the original occupant of the body which the hero borrows, for a start?) Still, it is a film about an idea, even if that idea is a bit shaky.

The cast, by the way, are good, and the leads are given enough to get their teeth into. Jake Gyllenhaal makes an effective hero, confused and stressed, far from infallible but ultimately capable enough; Michelle Monaghan is an attractive overt object of desire; Vera Farmiga really carries the film, balancing professionalism with sympathy. Only Jeffrey Wright really has a problem - not that the actor isn't fine, but his character seems unfairly treated. He's vain and unsympathetic, to be sure, but I couldn't help feeling that a man who invented such mind-bending technology would have the right to a very large dose of vanity indeed, and even if that is his main motive for employing it and exploiting the hero, he is actually trying to save thousands or millions of lives in the process. Making the scientist into something of a villain, with silly physical preening to match his intellectual hubris, was the one place where this turned into cheap, bad Hollywood SF.

But if that's the one place, well, we can't complain too much, can we? This isn't the film of the year - probably not even the SF film of the year - but it's a film that I could wish a lot more films were like.

The Cloud Ate My Homework

Just in case anyone noticed a post about Source Code (the movie) here a few days ago, and is wondering what happened to it - evidently Google/Blogger had a little problem late last week, which meant that they had to roll everything on Blogger back a couple of days, then restore stuff one thing at a time.

Oh well, stuff happens.

Then they announced that they'd got just about everything restored by the end of Saturday or thereabouts. Evidently, my last post didn't fit under "just about everything". (Nor, to judge by the support boards, did a fair number of others.) Google are being deeply silent about when the remaining stuff will be restored, if ever. I'm not bothering to reconstruct that post from memory yet, because you never know, they might yet actually deliver on their initial promises.

One criticism of the whole trendy concept of "cloud computing" is that you're trusting your data security to some other party. (Conversely, one thing to be said for it is that it provides inherent off-site backups.) Well, all I've lost, at worst, is an hour or so's opinionated noodling. No big deal. But that loss has reminded me that I need to keep my on-site backups up to date.

(It's also shown me that Google's support people are as prone as any to go into vacuous cut-and-paste arse-covering BS mode when trouble strikes. Big surprise there.)

Monday, May 09, 2011

Concert: Neil Innes

(More catching up on a bunch of posts that have been sitting around half-finished for far too long.)

The Junction, Cambridge, 29th March 2011.

At 8 o'clock in the evening of March 29th - the scheduled start time, good heavens - an amiable old buffer in a waistcoat and beret ambled on stage and launched into a show which lasted a couple of hours, with an interval...

The last time I saw Neil Innes on stage was thirty-something years ago, when he was basically playing the good stuff from his TV series of the time. This older, plumper, greyer Innes was playing something a bit less formal and structured and a bit more relaxed. I think that there was stuff from a radio series, but I confess I'm not familiar enough with his repertoire; there was certainly little sense of product to sell, except perhaps for retrospective collections. There was a bit of chat between songs, some of it going back to the foundation of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (basically, a bunch of London art students bonded over a taste for not-very-good pre-war British trad jazz) and including recollections of that band's somewhat edgier leading light, Viv Stanshall, as well as some mention of Monty Python and the Rutles. It was all very pleasant. Innes, it must be said, clearly isn't very edgy at heart. Gentle comic melancholy is more his style. There were some comments that might have been taken to relate to contemporary politics, but they were at the level of general benevolence than satirical ferocity.

And yet - it wasn't hard to remember that this man has provided musical underpinnings for the defining Anglophone comedy of the last half-century. This is Sir Robin's minstrel and Ron Nasty. This is someone to catch up with from time to time.

Trailer Trash (in 3-D)

Went to see Thor on Saturday, about which I may blog more properly in due course. However, because I went to see the 3-D version, I also got to see a bunch of 3-D trailers.

Oh, dear.

As I may have demonstrated here in the past, I do have a certain horribly naive fondness for this technology, although I'd some time since begun to notice that it worked best in computer-animated movies which were designed that way from the beginning, and which could make amiable jokes about the subject. Thor, incidentally, uses 3-D fairly well, or at least harmlessly - there's a vague sense at times that one has a lava lamp exploding in one's face, and it probably makes the big early fight scene even less comprehensible than it would be in 2-D, but on the other side, there's a pleasing sense of grandiose fantasy art coming to LIFE, kerrpow!

Anyway, from the trailers, well, the 3-D in Kung-Fu Panda 2 is probably likely going to be mostly tolerable, because it's another computer animation - I may well go see it (and yes, I have just expressed moderately keen anticipation for a film called Kung-Fu Panda 2.) But the trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made me utterly determined that, if I go see it in a cinema, it'll only ever be in 2-D.

The problem is clearly the post-processing of a live-action film, shot in 2-D, into the third dimension. This doesn't have to be done too badly, to go by other films, but the visual effect in this case was quite horrible and a bit surreal. It was like watching full-colour cut-out pictures of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz being slid around a toy theatre lined with similarly flat background pictures.

Priest, by the way, appears from its trailer to be a bad joke.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Theatre (sort of): Frankenstein

(I'm catching up - partially, slowly - on an embarrassingly long string of blog posts that are sitting on the system in incomplete draft mode. Hence the age of this one)

National Theatre, London, transmitted to the Arts Cinema, Cambridge, 24/03/2011

Another live broadcast from the National Theatre to the Arts Cinema in Cambridge, and this time it's the hot ticket of the London theatre season - Nick Dear and Danny Boyle's stage treatment of one of the key modern myths. Which turned out to be pretty good and quite well suited to high-definition broadcast to cinema, with a certain amount of playing with camera angles and viewpoints, and enough chances to observe the stage design, especially the giant chandelier laden with as many different types of light bulb as someone could find.

It was all a pretty consciously stagey sort of production, with a consciously brave wordless extended opening  scene as the creature was born, a brief outburst of steampunk as it encountered some horrified urban proles, and lots of colourblind casting. One problem, perhaps, was that Jonny Lee Miller looked merely rugged and a bit scarred as the creature, while everyone who met him was obliged to react as though he was some kind of nigh-Lovecraftian abomination; even given the level of abstraction in the visuals, I found it hard to suspend disbelief quite enough there.

But we all know that the monster is hideous, don't we? Like I said, modern myth. It's been a while since I read the novel, and once or twice I found myself trying to remember whether some elements came from there, or whether they'd sneaked in from the films - the elderly exiled intellectual in the woodland cottage is in the book, of course, but was he originally blind? Actually, yes - Dear follows Shelley quite faithfully in that scene, but in so doing, can't help but remind audiences of the movies (including Young Frankenstein). No great matter, to be sure, but it's all a  reminder of the potential complexities involved in adapting a text as time-crusted as this one.

But yes, Dear's script did cleave to the core myth fairly well throughout- although it always seems a shame that Robert Walton, the Arctic explorer, so rarely makes it into adaptations, even when, like this one, they end in the Arctic. (The absence of that observer made the ending a bit anticlimactic, I'm afraid.) The one rather jarring and consciously "modern" - though actually rather dated-seeming - inclusion was some pointedly feminist stuff about Frankenstein being a heartless male scientist who needed to pay more attention to nice intuitive feminine ethics, or at least to listen when his fiancée asked if she could learn about his work. Okay, okay, so Mary Shelley has a significant part in feminist history, and certainly, if you look at Frankenstein's behaviour at all seriously, he treats Elizabeth abominably - but if you're going to treat that relationship at all logically, then there's no good reason for her to put up with him at all (apart from the dominant influence of the rest of the family). The only effect of this added stuff, for me, was a sense of 1970s right-onnery lurching into the middle of this Georgian gothic-romantic lunacy.

Probably, in fact, the production should have gone all-out for gothic effect, and forget any attempts to inject a modern moral consciousness or to explore the relationship between creator and creature. (Benedict Cumberbatch was more than fine as Victor, by the way, leaving me curious as to how the alternate-nights presentations, with him as the monster and Miller as Victor, played out. The idea felt wrong, but that may just say something about Cumberbatch's skill as an actor.) Mary Shelley was being entirely morally serious, yes, but on a topic which has been thrashed out every which way and tackled by two hundred years' worth of political thinkers and science fiction writers. At the risk of sounding all post-modernist, it really isn't the same story now that it was then, even if you tell it in the same words.

But it's a story that's survived for a good reason, and it's always interesting to watch experts having another go at this sort of thing. And nice to see technology being expertly and benevolently applied to bring it to a wider audience.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Expand, Contract (29)

Just a note in passing - the first draft of my latest (big) project finally went in on Monday. So now I'm catching up on a whole stack of non-writing, non-games stuff that had been pushed aside.

Hopefully, another (small) Transhuman Space editing project will be along fairly soon.

Sorry I can't really say much more about this stuff just now.