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'I said it's called Lars And The Real Girl. It's about an introvert who finds love with a sex doll. What do you think?'
...is something like the conversation me and my partner had some weeks ago as we were contemplating our next film choice, with me as the monosyllabic Doubting Thomas. I calmly and condescendingly explained how it would undoubtedly be rubbish, entirely lacking as it was in pyrotechnics or revenge-related death scenes. We chose Taken instead (which ticked my particular boxes), and promptly forgot this Lars film existed.
Fast forward two weeks and I see that one of our trusty Dooyoo members has recently written an excellent review of a kooky, independent film about an introvert who finds love with a sex doll. 'Wow,' I think. 'Sounds good. I'll see what the other half makes of it.'
It took a while for her to calm down, but when she eventually stopped haranguing me with ridiculous notions about me never listening to her (at least I think that's what she was harping on about...), we sat down to watch Lars And The Real Girl, which, as you might have gathered, is a film about an introvert who finds love with a sex doll.
Lars lives a solitary life tucked away in the garage of his now-deceased parents' home, in which Lars's brother and sister-in-law, Gus and Karin, live. They wish he would come to live with them but Lars refuses their offers, and tries to avoid contact with them altogether. This is not a reflection of them - Karin in particular is a warm, generous soul - but of Lars himself, who is socially crippled and looks to avoid interaction at every turn.
Things change, however, when Lars meets his internet friend Bianca, a half-Brazilian half-Dutch missionary. Gus's and Karin's happiness for Lars is immediate, endearing and infectious, but soon fades when they realise that Bianca is nothing more than a prosthetic doll.
Gus and Karin are understandably dismayed, and as soon as is possible Lars is sent to the family doctor/psychologist to, in Gus's words, get fixed. But Lars is adamant; his belief in Bianca doesn't wane, and the story unfolds as he begins to introduce his newfound love to the community at large.
I must echo the general Dooyoo consensus and say that Gosling really is excellent in this film. As the role demands, his performance is understated but emotive, full of gentle pathos. As a person once prone to a hermitic lifestyle I found myself engrossed by his depiction of the displaced Lars, finding solace only in his own company, nervous to the touch of others.
Gosling's performance, as good as it is, isn't a standout; everyone does their bit: Emily Mortimer as Karin is a delight, her keenness to see Lars happy is utterly efficacious to the viewer; Gus is easily believable as the concerned, and eventually contrite, brother; Patricia Clarkson is also wonderfully low-key as the sympathetic psychologist.
Backed by each of their small but charming performances, it is in the community's response where the real beauty of this film lies. Instead of displaying prejudicial revulsion or taking cheap shots, they understand Lars's need for the doll and, as some kind of love-by-proxy, they embrace Bianca, treating her like any other member of the local society. So she is given a new hairstyle, a part-time job (as - what else? - a model) and is even elected to the school board of members - not because they love this lifeless sex toy, as Karin points out in one of the film's best scenes, but because they love Lars.
Despite the premise there is nothing at all sleazy or gratuitous about this film, and this is to the film's credit. This is because it is never really about the doll, which is merely a manifestation of Ryan's deep-seated insecurities and overwhelming loneliness. Ryan's affection for Bianca is not born from a base need to satisfy carnal desires, but is the result of him being unable to build emotional connections with real people, and, because of the film's desire to be free of cynicism, the relationship between Lars and Bianca is always platonic rather than passionate.
Whilst the film is never cruel or cold-hearted, it also never strays into cute territory either. This is chiefly down to the lead performances and the director's obvious wish to merit Lars's social angst with real gravitas. In turn this helps mitigate the surely false impression that the film gives by suggesting that no one would castigate or mock Lars. This is not a criticism either. In fact, with the charming idealism this amounts to, it is quite the opposite, although the conspicuous lack of abuse Lars receives might not ring true with more pragmatic viewers.
The pacing is perfect. Through well-handled exposition we begin to understand the reasoning for Lars's inability to mix socially, a plot line that also adds a welcome depth to Lars's brother Gus. This explanation gives us a deeper affection for Lars, and so as the film reaches its conclusion the emotional impact is really rather surprising, and a fantastic testament to everyone involved in the film.
Lars And The Real Girl epitomises the term 'hidden gem'. Superbly acted and with a genuinely uplifting feel to it, I'm amazed it's not more widely spoken of, but with time this relatively unknown film will surely develop a keen following. It most certainly deserves to.
Written in 1942 by Albert Camus, The Outsider is a relatively short story that focuses on the life of Meursault, a young man living in French Algiers. Through his protagonist (a word used in its loosest sense here), Camus explores the absurdity of social norms in the face of an indvidual who is unblinkingly honest and perfunctory in his actions.
From the reader's perspective, initial reactions to Meursault are unfavourable. He appears as an uncaring and, at best, amoral individual, traits most prominently shown in his reaction to the news of his mother's death, one of annoyance at having to miss work rather than of sadness at her passing. Typical of Meursault, he explains away his lack of emotion with colder notions of the inevitability of death. We are all going to die, he says, so there is no need to grieve.
The resulting funeral is a fidgety annoyance for Meursault. It is hot and he is uncomfortable in his suit, and his thoughts are taken up by his menial office work.
It is an important measure of Meursaut that he is more preoccupied by the overwhelming effects of the sun than of the trauma normally associated with the death of relatives.
Further evidence of Meursault's indifference to social situations and his lack of responsiveness to social norms are seen through the actions of two of his neighbours: Salamano, a mean-spirited old man who beats his unresponsive dog, and Raymond, a violent, paranoid man who beats his girlfriend. But Meursault is not disturbed or outraged by their actions; he doesn't exhibit any hatred towards either of them.
In the first half of the book Meursault is merely an observer and the importance is to be found in how he reacts to situations that aren't of his making. Meursault's lack of a normal moral framework that helps regulate most people means that he is a hard person to like, but at the same time it is this indifference that means he is never less than interesting.
The second half of the book is driven by what Meursault does rather than by his reactions to external situations. A critical event on a hot, sunny beach leads to Meursault being arrested and sent to trial. In a brilliantly written scene, where the art of literary crescendo is perfectly constructed, we understand that, again, it is the blaring sun that is the primary reasoning for Meursault's confused actions, and once more we are shown that the overriding factor is his agitated reaction to something mundane - hot weather - and not one born from emotional excitation.
The subsequent trial and conviction of Meursault is the book's cornerstone, an attempt by Camus to highlight the frailty and falseness of the social conscience. This is where interest in Meursault grows to something greater, as his actions, as an Outsider, make us question our own moral values and the virtuosity behind them.
The story's conclusion is not as bleak as the situation might suggest. In summarising all that has happened to him, Meursault is able to reach an epiphanous conclusion as to what life means: that Mankind is a random event and that the Universe is completely indifferent to it. Meursault feels 'clean' and, as if it was like a weight around his neck, he feels the pleasure in being 'rid of hope'.
Whilst only a couple of hundred pages long The Outsider is a multi-faceted story that is likely to be interpreted in different ways by different people. First and foremost it is a simply but effectively written story. The language is prosaic, universal and onomatopoeic - told in the first-person, this basic syntax is reflective of Meursault himself.
Meursault is a fascinating character, reflected most in his ability to divide opinion. Some cannot stand his apparently selfish attitude and his lack of adherence to social morals. Others admire him for his honesty, for refusing to let social stigmas colour his actions. He doesn't feel guilt at his mother's passing, so he doesn't show it. He doesn't care for the plight of the beaten dog so ignores it. At his trial he is asked to convert to Christianity as a means to leniency in his sentencing, but he doesn't believe in God and will not state otherwise, even to help himself.
Looking deeper, The Outsider is also a philosophical tale that combines existentialism with absurdism. Camus himself was not an existentialist but The Outsider does appear to display its tenets, in particular the notion that the answer to life's most important questions are not accessible to science or reason, and that each individual must accept absolute responsibility for their own actions.
As someone who thought the human condition was inherently irrational, Camus was certainly an absurdist, and The Outsider is obviously indicative of the author's belief system. With Meursault, Camus gives us a character who, with his inability to be anything but completely honest, is pilloried by a social framework that supposedly upholds moralistic virtues - which surely includes the virtue of telling the truth. Camus's book, then, could easily be seen as an indictment on societal norms by suggesting that they collapse in on themselves when tested by an absolute version of one of its own tenets.
The Outsider is a rare thing indeed: easy to read, accessible to nearly everyone, but also deeply resonant and susceptible to various individual interpretation. It is this beautiful duality that makes The Outsider one of the greatest books of the 20th century.
The Dark Knight swept down upon us last year amidst a maelstrom of tragedy-imbued hype. Early screenings lead to rave reviews; the untimely death of the film's shining star added an intriguing sense of the macabre to its momentum, and when it finally hit the box offices it struck like a juggernaut, grossing over $67,000,000 on its opening day, beating the previous incumbent's record (Spider-Man 3) by over $7,000,000. By the time its opening weekend had finished, TDK had taken close to $160,000,000, again a new record.
The relationship between box office takings and the style of the movie is normally correlated. The more bangs the more bucks, and The Dark Knight is no exception. The relationship, however, between a film's takings and its eventual quality is not so clear - or, if it is, it is an inverse one. After all, the usurped Spider-Man 3 was a distended, overblown affair that deserved to gross at least three zeroes less than it did.
The Dark Knight, we were told, was different. Yes it was big and bold and slick - all that you would expect from such an expensive offering - but it was something much more. This new Batman was nothing less than a transcendent piece of cinematic art: visually compelling, action-packed as well as character-driven, adroitly acted and resonant in theme. It was all things to all men.
Meh.... it was okay.
Gotham is fighting back against the crime magnates that have held it in quagmire for so long. With the silhouetted force of Batman sweeping scum off the streets and the fearless energy of district attorney Harvey Dent keeping them locked away, the city's gangland bosses are running scared. So scared, in fact, that they agree to having all of their assets liquidised and the resulting mountain of cash sent off to Hong Kong via the private jet of a crooked Chinese accountant. Even with their money purportedly safe, the question of what to do with the big, black bat and Gotham's new White Knight remains key.
Enter stage right, The Joker, who promptly decides that the accountant is a lily-livered liability whose safety in Hong Kong is transient at best. Instead, the criminal heads should look to him in order to bring down Batman and Dent and restore Gotham to the filthy, lawless mire from whence it came. The price? Half. Of everything.
The offer is unsurprisingly refused, but when Batman successfully captures the corrupt accountant and forces him to testify against the mobsters, they have no option but to cede to The Joker's demands. A cat and mouse game ensues: The Joker, an agent of chaos, unmotivated by usual norms, is a superb adversary to the idealistic Batman. And whilst the pretext is ridding Gotham of Batman to help restore the criminal fraternity, it soon becomes clear that The Joker is playing his own game, tossing cats amongst pigeons and forcing Batman to clear up the bloody mess.
Joker revels in offering choices, and in the fallout that occurs as a result of which option is chosen. It is through this game of scruples that the film's strong thematic tenet takes shape: self-sacrifice for the goodness of mankind.
In this respect the fight between Batman and Joker is very much a fight between hope and nihilism. The rigging of explosives to two passenger boats, one filled with murderous convicts, the other with ordinary citizens, provides the exciting centrepiece for this ideological showdown. Each boatload of people has the opportunity to destroy their counterpart, and a time limit in which to do so, or else... kaboom! They all go up in smoke. The result of this social experiment is no less than the result of victory or defeat between Batman and The Joker.
There can be no question that the highlight of the film is Ledger's performance. Suggestions that his death has amplified its meaning are unfair: tragedy or not, this is a supreme piece of characterisation. His introductory scene is the film's best ("I will now make this pencil... disappear!"), and encapsulates everything that The Joker is about: manic and crazed, but strangely - frighteningly - lucid.
Ledger's mannerisms are perfect: the snake-like lick of the lips, the dandy hand gestures, the staccato way in which he walks, the hyena's laugh. It's just perfect. If an actor is determined by his ability to fit the remit of the character he plays (which is, of course, what acting is) then Ledger most definitely deserves his Oscar.
But it is in The Joker's brilliance that a major flaw of the film appears, and this is director Christopher Nolan's desire to shoehorn Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, alongside him. Decidedly less villainous than The Joker, Two-Face is a victim of catastrophic events, and, as a result, a more complex character. But the screen time offered to Dent's darker alter-ego is not nearly sufficient to fully realise him.
Eckhart does a fine job as Dent - he gives the second star performance of the show - but his transformation into Two-Face is both rushed and unrealistic. The crucial problem is the scope of the change, which is too stark and too contrived. Harvey Dent is a moralistic crusader, a righteous man who believes in free will and of the inherent goodness of mankind. Two-Face, though, is a destructive, chaotic killer, willing to murder children at the random toss of a coin.
The events that lead to his change are extreme, and there is an attempt at foreshadowing Two-Face - the odd shot of Dent tossing his lucky coin as a tool of determination - but neither is nearly enough to explain, and thus forgive, his sudden dichotomy.
Two-Face is not introduced into the film until well over two-thirds of the way through, and the time left to explore his character and his motivations is far too brief. It's a real shame, too, because, done correctly and with enough sympathy, Two-Face could have been a fantastic fallen-angel-style villain, one worthy of his own film. Instead he is forced to share screen time with - and, worse, steal screen time from - the peerless Joker, and with the tools he has been given, it's no competition.
There are other problems, too, in the form of plotholes (the opening sequence in particular - why would the bank robbers not suspect that they themselves were to be killed if they had been given orders to kill their colleagues?), the frankly ludicrous sonar tracking system (a blatant deus ex machina) and, last but not least, Batman's silly machismo voice. This last one sounds trite, but I found it genuinely off-putting. With all the inventions that Batman is able to come up with, surely he can conjure up a voice-altering chip to stuff down his larynx?
That said, and Joker and Dent aside, there is a lot to admire The Dark Knight for. The cinematography is wonderful, especially during Batman's tryst to Hong Kong and the Batbike chase scene. The action sequences are expertly shot, and the plot keeps you guessing throughout.
The scope and the sheer ambition of Nolan is also to be applauded. This is a film about a billionaire who dresses up as a bat doing battle with a lunatic daubed in cheap face paint, but Nolan brings it away from its camp predilections and makes it seem relevant and important. The injection of theme is crucial here, and lifts it beyond many of its lazier Superhero peers.
But in trying to be so, well, serious, The Dark Knight may not appeal to everyone. This is not a fun movie in ways that Spider-Man and Iron Man could be; there is no humour or self-deprecation to be found here. And with its real-world backdrops The Dark Knight also lacks a comic-book aesthetic, which may disappoint fans of both the previous films and the Dark Knight graphic novels.
The Dark Knight is, essentially, 150 minutes well spent, especially those minutes graced by Ledger's wonderful Joker. But because of Nolan's ambition to fit so much into the film, largely at the expense of Two-Face, it overreaches itself. Once The Joker meets his end the film flounders, keen to tie up the loose ends created by the underdeveloped Two-Face and descending into a standard race-against-time ending, meaning the sense of anti-climax is hard to shake. This is exacerbated by Commissioner Gordon's closing lines, by far the film's worst bits of dialogue. Cheesy doesn't begin to cover it.
The Dark Knight, then, is glitzy and impressive, but also overweight and cumbersome - and so maybe not that different to Spider-Man 3 after all.
(Warning - this post is ridiculously long so I won't be in the least bit offended if you stop right now. For those who are too apathetic to press 'back' on their browser, don't say I didn't warn you.)
I love my Dad. I don't tell him as often as I should - it's strange how I find it easier expressing my sentiments to a group of internet avatars than I do to him - but it's true, he's great. Kind, generous, far too patient, and with a love of Manchester United that thankfully borders on the genetic. He has his faults, though, not least of which his inability to leave me with a multi-million pound inheritance fund. I've tried and I've tried but I just can't quite forgive him for this.
A few years ago, clearly knowledgeable of his resonant failure to make my life financially comfortable, my Dad arranged for me to meet one of his then-work colleagues.
'Son,' he said, gripping me on my shoulder. 'Meet So-and-So, the answer to your problems, the end to your financial malaise. For he is a Day Trader, and with him lies the key to unlimited wealth and prosperity.'
'Day Trader?' I thought. Is that like a cross between Blade and Del Boy?
'Cheers, Dad,' I said. 'About time you sorted my life out.'
If only I'd known...
I sat down with Mr So-and-So who, like a modern day Solomon, made me wise to the intricate art of trading stock indices via the medium of a complex set of technical analysis tools, price patterns and risk versus reward strategy.
Three entire minutes later I was out the door and heading for home, painfully eager to open up a trading account and hit the big league. I stopped just shy of putting a down payment on the latest Range Rover, consoling myself with the knowledge that the following week I'd be able to buy it outright. In cash. With a generous tip.
Once home, I booted up my PC, downloaded the suggested spread betting trading software, deposited my money and, after verifying my account, was ready to go. Like a plucky sporting protégé, confident of his world-conquering talents, I showed no nerves and spat in the face of fear as I laid that first trade: short on the FTSE100 (the overall price of the top 100 companies that make up the Financial Times Stock Exchange) at £5 per pip.
Short-selling is, in simple terms, betting that a particular market or stock price will go down. You sell an imaginary share of the stock or index and buy it back at - hopefully - a lower price, the difference between where you sold and where you bought back being your profit.
Studying the graph and using the technical analysis that Mr So-and-So had taught me, I had decided to go short on the FTSE100. I can't remember the price at the time, but let's say it was 4,000. By going short I wanted it to go lower than this, and for every pip (each individual movement of the index or stock) it fell below my entry level (minus the spread of 2 pips) I would make £5.
Which means that when the FTSE100 rose a hundred pips in the subsequent ten minutes I was feeling sick to the pit of my very being. I looked on in absolute horror as the market rose quicker than Lazarus on nandrolone, as if the market was taking some kind of personal offence to my trade. I couldn't believe what was I was seeing; the market was supposed to be making me rich, not giving me a coronary. Worse still, I had no exit strategy and could only sit there, helpless, as the market set about decimating my account.
Eventually, after ten fear-filled minutes, I had to cut the cord, and I exited the trade with a 105 pip loss, better known as £525.
Bang went the Range Rover.
I felt dreadful, mentally and physically. My heart was palpitating and I was shaking from a cocktail of panic and anger. I rang my Dad and raged at him for introducing me to this heinous activity. I blamed him, Mr So-and-So, the markets - everyone and everything but me.
This was over five years ago, and I still remember the horrible emotions as if it had happened yesterday.
Which probably sounds preposterous. After all, in the scheme of things all that had happened was that I had lost some money. Nobody had died, no one was hurt; some money had managed to slip down the drain was all. But trading has a horrible habit - at least to the uninitiated, which I most certainly was - of making things personal and of making you irrational. The sense of loss is exacerbated many times over because YOU failed. YOU lost money, and YOU were unprepared so YOU lost big, and no matter how hard you try to blame others (and, if you're like me, you'll do this an awful lot to begin with), deep down you feel the despair of a failure that was caused by no one other than you.
Still, it could have been worse for me. A common trait of novice traders is to chase a loss, to enter back into the market as quickly as possible in order to retract your losses. Invariably such a trade is done in haste, under the wrong psychological conditions, and, more often than not, compounds your initial loss, and leaves you feeling borderline suicidal.
Welcome, my friends, to the world of the day trader.
So what actually is day trading? It's something that anyone with a computer and a broadband internet connection, as well as a disposable sum of money, can do. That's right, from the comfort of your very own home you too can be like those City Boys we've been hearing so much about in recent, turbulent times, buying and selling financial instruments with but a click of your mouse.
Broadly speaking there are two types of trader: a fundamentalist trader and a technical trader. Fundamentalists trade instruments according to news releases or pervading economic situations. So, if you thought that the war in Iraq was going to be a good thing for certain companies (mentioning no names, cough-Halliburton-cough) then you would buy their stock (going long) and look for it to rise so you can sell it at a higher price. If you felt the September 11th attacks of 2001 were going to adversely affect certain travel companies, then you would sell their stock (going short), hope for the price to fall and then buy back at a lower price.
Technical traders, however, have no need for the news. They believe that everything you need to know in order to place a successful trade is on their charts. This can be achieved through technical analysis - using various mathematical tools to help create signals that then determine whether your strategy goes long or short. It can also be achieved by price patterns, whereby the pattern that the price creates on your chart is such that it triggers a trading signal.
It's called day trading because most positions are opened and closed within the confines of a 24-hour trading session.
I have since moved away from trading indices such as the FTSE and now trade foreign currencies, commonly known as forex. It is the world's biggest and most liquid market, with a daily turnover estimated of around $4.5 trillion, and where traders from the biggest banks to the smallest of home-based individuals invest their money with a predefined notion in mind that the market will either rise or fall.
To this extent, trading is a zero-sum game. This means that if you win then you are winning at someone else's proportional cost. If I lose then my money is funding someone else's win.
I am a technical trader and trade via a spread betting company called CMC (www.cmcmarkets.co.uk). This means that whenever I lay a trade I have to immediately pay a spread (between 2 and 3 pips depending on what I am trading), which is how they make their money.
Using my parable as a template, then, what do you need to be a successful day trader (NB - these are tips mostly aimed at technical trading)?
1 - A system
A system is a predetermined set of criteria that, when they are fulfilled by the movement of the market, triggers an entry long or short. This can be as simple (toss of a coin) or as complex (Elliot Wave theory!) as you like, but you NEED a system.
It's crucial to note that a good system doesn't just gauge entry levels, they gauge exit levels too. So, you enter a trade and it goes badly. When do you exit? Why, at a predetermined point of course! This can be a level of the market that is a percentage of your overall account (a figure of 2 or 3% is normal).
For example, I have £1,000 in my account and am trading at £1 per pip, and so risking 3% per trade means that my exit level is 30 pips. This is called your risk. Once you have your risk you then work out your reward - the number of pips you would be happy to win. The ratio between the two - the risk:reward ratio - is normally around 1.5/2 to 1.
2 - A calm attitude.
A bad trader is one that is motivated by emotions. This really cannot be emphasised enough. Burned by my initial experience, when I first started trading I was hamstrung by emotion. I wouldn't enter trades because I was scared to lose. When the market invariably went in the direction I thought it would, I would become angry at having missed an opportunity, which I viewed as a loss, and then seek less obvious entries to make up for this perceived 'loss'. This is called chasing the market, and it is always inspired by responding to emotion.
Not just that, when I was in a trade and I was winning, I would become scared that my trade would, at some point, go against me, so I would exit early. Whilst in the short-term this feels good, because you have won, trading in this slap-dash way means that you are not adhering to your system and to your risk:reward ratio. Eventually this will catch up with you, and your account will suffer accordingly.
It seems strange, but when you are used to trading you should treat your wins the same as you treat your losses: without reaction at all.
Get a system and, by keeping your emotions in check, trade it to the letter.
3 - Preparation
You wouldn't go to war without being trained, right? Well, I did, and it cost me 500 smackers in the time it takes to boil a particularly obstreperous kettle. So, do the groundwork first!
Someone once told me that you need to read, read and read some more to be successful at trading. Whilst this is indeed sound advice, I think there are downsides, namely in that you can be blinded by the science of trading and from the multitude of opinions on offer on how to trade. If you think this review is long-winded (and, to be honest, if anyone has made it this far I'll be amazed), then you ain't seen nothin' yet!
So yes, read by all means - especially the trading forums (I use www.forexfactory.com and www.trade2win.co.uk) - but the best preparation you can do is to study charts. 1 minute charts, 5 minute charts, 30, 60, 240 minute charts. Daily, weekly and monthly charts too. Study them all and see what you can see. Study the price patterns, the movements, and see what price levels are acting as support and resistance. See what happens when the price hits these levels - do they bounce off them or go right through? Then play around with some technical instruments to see if they can enhance your overall belief of where you think the market might go.
Once you have an idea of how price works, and have started to formulate rough systems in your mind, open up a fake trading account. This will let you trade the markets as anyone else does, but without risking real money, allowing you to see how potentially strong your system is and tweak any areas to help improve it over time. All without costing you a penny.
And the timeframe on all this? It's different for different people. Some pick it up very quickly, others not so, but I would say at least six months. That sounds like a long time, but you won't regret it. I once read that if you haven't been trading solidly for five years then you're still a baby to the industry.
As has been highlighted by my tale of woe, trading is a real assault on the senses. It really does put you through the wringer and you must be prepared to accept this. The stresses trading imposes do of course vary from person to person, but when your emotions are ruled by the movements of markets beyond your control, you are likely to be tested to the very limit of your being. Depression, fear, elation, panic - the full range of your emotions will be played upon as you begin your trading quest. It sounds like hyperbole, but, believe me, it isn't.
Why do it then? Because the rewards are glaringly obvious: to those few who develop the necessary skills (and it is just a few - perhaps as little at 5-10% of traders are successful) the markets represent an unlimited supply of potential cash, depending on your starting account and how you are leveraged. So, if I had a strong system that could make 100 pips a week and play at £10 a pip, that's £1,000 a week tax free (day trading via spread betting is rightly deemed by the government as gambling and so there are no taxes on winnings). That's good money. So what if I could play at £20 a pip? Or fifty? Or a hundred? Or more?
For fear of turning into Leo Tolstoy, I'll wrap it up now by finishing with a hypothetical.
If, given my time over, knowing the stresses and trials ahead, would I do it all again? The answer is categorically no. But now, a few years down the track, I'm starting to turn over regular profits. Nothing mind-blowing - I'm not going to be challenging George Soros any time soon - but I'm getting there, and I know that any success coming my way will have been very hard-earned indeed.
After all, nothing comes easy, right?
And if I ever make it big, the first thing I'll do is buy Dad the Jag he always wanted because, truth be told, he's earned it more than I have.
Based on the book by Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah is an attempt to penetrate, and in doing so, to expose, the façade of Neapolitan life by highlighting the insidious, cancerous activities of the Camorra, a mafia-like criminal fraternity that operates within the city of Naples.
Like City of God (a film this is often and unfairly compared to), Gomorrah is a story of the lower end of the crime hierarchy. Moving away from the glamorous sleaze and violence of top-down gangster films such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, Gomorrah gives us the grit and the grime of the city's sprawling underclass, describing how the criminal network pervades all areas of their lives.
To this end Gommorah is a powerful piece of filmmaking, unflinching in its depiction of systematic crime and the cesspool it creates when it flourishes unbidden.
The film is split into five narrative threads, like fingers dipped into a pool of mud and extracted for analysis. Two of them concern the activities of teenagers, and are perhaps the most affecting for it: Toto, a 13-year-old keen to be indoctrinated into a local gang, and Marco and Ciro, two arrogant, self-styled Tony Montanas. Toto's is perhaps the saddest tale, of innocence corrupted and, you can't help but suspect, forever lost, whilst Marco and Ciro are the traditionally most entertaining characters, a template of gangland nihilism.
Another thread concerns Roberto, a graduate student working in the field of toxic waste management. Roberto's boss, Franco, is as corrupted as the waste he illegally dumps on local farmland, the effects of which are starkly revealed on the deathbed of one of Franco's indirect victims. Roberto's subsequent reaction to Franco's disregard for human life in favour of quick profit is the film's only vestige of hope, but even then, in Roberto giving up his pseudo-legitimate career, you wonder about the tragic inevitability his life will succumb to.
I watched Gomorrah without any foreknowledge on what the film was trying to achieve, and as such, after an hour or so, I was becoming impatient for its narrative to actually start telling a story; for the disparate strands to merge together to paint one cohesive picture. It took the end credits to roll for me to fully understand that this is not Gomorrah's aim, that its goal instead is one of understated but horrific depiction, an educational tool as to how the Camorra is an intrinsic aspect of Neapolitan culture.
The question this raises with me is, then, why not a documentary? Nothing hits home like the unpalatable truth, after all, and in throwing in fictional stories against a factual backdrop I think the film becomes confused and negated. Perhaps by fictionalising the events the director (Matteo Garrone) hopes to reach a wider audience and thus spread the message further, and there is validity in this reasoning. The downside, however, is that anyone expecting a traditional fictional story (albeit one that reflects real life) runs the risk of being sorely disappointed by Gomorrah and its lack of narrative cohesion.
Fans of Gomorrah have claimed that this need for an interrelated story, with at least some sense of beginning and end - of resolution - is naïve. I think this is unfair. For me, Gomorrah essentially fails because it doesn't entertain as a piece of fiction, and doesn't educate enough as a cautionary and depictive showcase. If the aim is to expose the Camorra then use real life as your arsenal against them. If it is meant as a work of fiction then, at some point, the five fingers need to knit together into a fist to deliver its message. Instead, Gomorrah falls between the muddled cracks of reality and fiction that the film itself creates.
There's no denying the power of the subject matter. Naples's underbelly is malignant, scarring everyone who comes into contact with it like some kind of social napalm, and Gomorrah powerfully highlights this. Savian, the author of the original book, did such a good job of lifting the lid on the Camorra that his life is now in danger and he has been afforded a permanent police escort.
But in trying to build some kind of causeway between fact and fiction, to highlight real life issues via a set of disparate, fictional narratives, Gomorrah, for me, falls short.
I said earlier that Gomorrah is unfairly touted as the Italian City of God, and this is why: CoG was a fascinating, brutal and honest story of life in the slums of Rio, the pillar of which was a strong central narrative around which allegory and social commentary could be built upon. Gomorrah is brutal and it is honest, but it lacks CoG's centrality. Its separate story arcs offer little in the way of conclusion or of interrelatedness, and so it becomes an underwhelming affair that inspires little empathy or sense of indignation from the viewer.
In short, Gomorrah is unlikely to entertain, and whilst it does educate its audience to the bleak Neapolitan way of life, it doesn't do so as powerfully as it would had it been a documentary.
In the end what we are left with is an ersatz example of fact and fiction, that fails to satisfy as a piece of allegory or of entertainment.
After his two previous films sank faster than a Nick Leeson hedge fund (Revolver was a convoluted mess, whilst Swept Away was an Icarus-like lesson in hubris), it could be argued that 2008's Rocknrolla is Guy Ritchie's most important film to date, a case of either three strikes and you're out or third time's a charm.
With that in evidently in mind, Rocknrolla marks a return to safe ground for Ritchie, ground laid down with his earlier successes of Lock Stock and Snatch. So, whilst not so overtly reliant on comedic cockney gangsters as before, Rocknrolla is typical Ritchie fare: a film centring on the half-arsed exploits of a myriad of criminal characters, with plenty of sticks thrown in for them to get the wrong end of.
Lenny is a self-proclaimed boss of London, a property magnate whose fortune is underpinned by his council-based contacts and a penchant for torturing those who get in his way. His reputation as a man who gets things done attracts wealthy Russian oligarch Uri (a spit of Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich), who is keen to push through a major property deal on the quick, and is willing to pay top dollar for the privilege. As a sign of good faith, Uri gives Lenny his lucky painting - an undescribed but presumably priceless masterpiece.
Of course, nothing is ever simple in Ritchie's brand of crime caper, and when Uri's ennui-inspired accountant, Stella, hears of the deal she tips off two of her acquaintances, One Two and Mumbles (members of the prosaically named Wild Bunch), who proceed to steal the money from Uri's couriers. The deal is thus postponed before another payment can be made ready by Uri - a payment that Stella plans to steal again.
With matters on hold, and the window of opportunity opened by Lenny closing with every passing hour, matters are exacerbated when Uri's lucky painting is stolen. The finger of blame quickly falls on Lenny's stepson Johnny, a crack-addled rock star who shuns the limelight in favour of his squalid den of drug-fuelled iniquity.
Thrown into the ever-increasing mix are Johnny's record producers, a pair of Russian militants and the other members of the Wild Bunch, as well as another subplot concerning the identity of a long-time police informant.
So, all in all another typical Ritchie franchise then. Well, mostly. Understanding that his directorial seat is firmly planted in the last chance saloon, it's no surprise that Rocknrolla exhibits the hallmarks that made him a success. The zany and labyrinthine antics of a set of law-dodging caricatures is nothing new. Neither is the flowery, seemingly paradoxical prose that litters the dialogue of some of the lowlife characters (Johnny in particular, whose scene at a pub piano is the script's highlight).
Whilst it's obvious that Rocknrolla is a product of the Ritchie production line, the film does display tentative fingerprints of deviation from the standard template.
At least aesthetically, Ritchie has moved with the times, hence a villain who has made his money via the property boom and the inclusion of a Russian billionaire. He has also diversified his protagonist portfolio. They're not all cheeky cockney types, prone to visual and vocal exaggerations. Archy (Lenny's second in command), One Two and Mumbles are relatively sedate focal points through which the story is told. Further shocks come in the form of a woman (Stella) and a homosexual (Handsome Bob) gaining considerable screen time. Characterisation is still not high on the priority list, however, and so you wonder whether Ritchie's decision to include a gay character, whose sexual orientation is otherwise irrelevant to the film, is a contrived effort merely designed to show that he can indeed be different.
Ritchie's editing has matured, and whilst Rocknrolla isn't completely free from the gimmicky, staccato scenes that define Lock Stock and Snatch, there is a more muted and generally intelligent feel to the scenes.
A few less cockernee types and the inclusion of a female protagonist: it's not exactly David Lynch, but these are the small signs that suggest Ritchie has the potential to develop along broader lines.
The acting and actors are largely perfunctory, as the film demands. Gerard Butler and Thandie Newton have found their level here, as have pretty much the entire cast. The only one failing to fulfill his obvious potential is Mark Strong as Archy, whose previous work suggests he should be doing more challenging things than this. The standout is Toby Kebbell, delightfully dandy as the Docherty-inspired Johnny, clearly relishing the whimsical menace of his role.
The film's pacing is ideal for its type, and the 100 or so minutes go by at a good rate. The plot unravels entertainingly and then comes together without too much contrivance, leading to a satisfying pay off, whilst also hinting at future joys to be had with the Wild Bunch.
The problem Ritchie has is clear: he is a victim of his early success. In reinventing the black comedy crime caper he has pigeon-holed himself, and his attempts to break free have been, to put it kindly, abject. Rocknrolla doesn't go a long way to breaking the restrictive mould he has set for himself, but at the same time the green shoots of recovery are there to see. And, on its own merits, Rocknrolla is a strong example of its genre that is enjoyable and easy to watch.
Unremarkable yes, but an understandably safe bet in the scheme of Ritchie's career.
From the Stable Apatow (Anchorman, Superbad, Pineapple Express) comes Step Brothers, a film about two almost-men whose lives are irrevocably changed thanks to the romances of their respective single parents.
Brennan (Will Ferrell) and Dale (John Reilly) are the brothers in question, forty years old and going on fourteen, more regressive than a séance. When Brennan's mother, Nancy, falls in love with Dale's father, Robert, the two families are united under one roof, much to the chagrin of the two 'boys'.
Predominantly isolatry beings, used to being kings of their own yard, Brennan and Dale struggle with the concept of sharing floor space and take an immediate dislike to one another. This manifests itself as animal-like posturing and vocal snipes to start with, before steadily escalating to full-blown ABH.
Those familiar with Apatow, Ferrell and Reilly will surely know what to expect: childish, slapstick and sometimes crude humour. Step Brothers is a shameless continuation of this ethos, happy to limit itself to the boundaries previously created by Ferrell et al., and thus draws us to a helpful conclusion: anyone who finds nothing remotely funny about Anchorman, Blades of Glory or Talladega Nights had best steer clear.
Those happy to continue, however, will be treated to a highly amusing first 30 minutes, as Dale and Brennan vent their selfish frustrations and make war upon each other. Cue illicit face-painting, wardrobe tampering, and - the disgusting highlight - drum-kit defaming.
Like many Apatow productions, Step Brothers' plot revels in cliché and ticks every box of the enemy-to-buddy checklist, which means that their enmity doesn't last. After the 'growing pains' stage of their relationship, they soon find they actually share much in common and, with the sudden exuberance of children, become firm friends.
The catalyst for their collusion is Brennan's brother. Filthy rich, with a picture-book family and a cracking set of abdominals, Derek is a model of success, and boy is he happy to let everyone know it. His boastful and crass attitude acts as a focal point for Brennan and Dale, both happy to hate Derek instead of each other. And when Dale punches Derek square in the face their friendship is sealed.
It is as allies that some of the best comedy moments happen. Sick of their inability to make something of their lives, Robert organises them both a series of job interviews, telling each to help themselves to a suit from his wardrobe. Cut to the next scene, an office waiting area, and they're both wearing tuxedoes. As they get up to follow the receptionist to their interview, Dale exclaims loudly, 'We're here to f*** sh*t up!', whilst Brennan slaps a pile of papers from a random worker's hands, reminiscent of a schoolyard jock bullying a hapless geek.
Naturally, most of the humour springs from Brennan's and Dale's utter refusal to grow up. They are children in adults' bodies and armed with a disaffected teenager's lexicon. So when they are punished for fighting on their front lawn the pair have their television rights revoked, a notion that is funny in its own right, and made funnier by their puerile reactions:
Brennan: This house is like a f***ing prison!
Dale: On Planet Bullsh*t!
Brennan: In the galaxy of This Sucks Camel D*ck!
True to the buddy-film template, the two invariably fall out once more. The pressure of their childish antics, in particular their rollicking destruction of Robert's prized boat, is finally too much for Nancy and Robert, and they agree to divorce. Dale and Brennan are quick to blame one another and reconvene their hatred. As a result they both go their own way, Brennan finding work with his egomaniacal brother, Dale as a kitchen hand, before events conspire to bring them back together for a victorious finale.
Aside from one glorious moment that sees Brennan forced to wipe his backside with a furry floor mat because he has run out of toilet paper (the nonchalant, accepting way in which he does this had me in stitches), the final twenty minutes are the film's weakest. The need to wrap up the story at the expense of its humour becomes disappointingly apparent, and whilst a few smiles are raised, the consistency of the jokes lessens considerably.
Despite this, Step Brothers remains a cut above most comedies, blessed with a funny script that is enhanced by two perfect leads. And whilst the film won't be converting any cynics, fans of Ferrell and Reilly's previous efforts will certainly not be disappointed.
Paul W S Anderson has a lot to answer for. As the man responsible for such luminary cinematic efforts (in all the wrong ways) as Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon and, surely his nadir, the dreadful Resident Evil, Anderson is not exactly a director who inspires faith. My expectations, then, were far from astronomical as I sat down to watch this remake of the 1975 cult-classic Death Race 2000.
Set against the backdrop of a broken US economy, high unemployment and runaway crime rates, Death Race tells the story of Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a man framed for his wife's murder and sentenced to life imprisonment on Terminal Island, headed by the sociopathic Hennessey (Joan Allen). As you might expect, Terminal Island is not your standard penitentiary: in lieu of the US's fiscal collapse prisons are now corporate entities run for profit, and Hennessey's mode of choice for raising the funds is Death Race, a pay-per-view fusion of Mariokart and Mad Max. The conflict of interest created by commercialising prisons - the more prisoners, the more money, and, in this case, the more drivers - leads to Ames's incarceration.
Ames, we learn, was once a champion driver, and with the sudden demise of fans' favourite Frankenstein, Hennessey is in need of a replacement. Conveniently, Frankenstein's favoured fashion item was a mask and so his true identity was never disclosed, meaning that Hennessey can install Ames as the 'new' Frankenstein, enabling her to continue milking the Death Race's cash cow without anyone being the wiser.
Ames is coerced into the plot by means of the stick and the carrot. The stick is life imprisonment in solitary confinement if he refuses, the carrot is the promise of freedom, and reunification with his baby daughter. Terminal Island has a first-to-five policy, whereby winning five races, each consisting of three stages, assures an inmate's freedom. Frankenstein had won four before his death, so Ames needs to win just one. But with a multitude of murderous drivers against him, and a rigged system that ensures no one ever reaches five wins, it will be anything but a Sunday drive.
Death Race is a typical Statham vehicle (pun intended): brash, ridiculous, uncouth and really rather enjoyable. I admit to holding more than a little respect for Statham as he continues to play within his limits and exploit his talents for all they're worth, in the process making very watchable action films. Like his previous efforts Crank and The Transporter series, Death Race is a fine example of the guilty pleasure: a basic but involving narrative told amidst a torrent of bloody death and pyrotechnics.
The actors play their part - all two-dimensional caricatures of villainy that the film demands - but it's the premise and the action that rightly steals the show.
At longer than a hundred minutes it's important for the action to be fresh and visceral enough to keep the viewer entertained, and this is where Death Race excels. The racing scenes are lengthy but never boring, the action interspersed with enough brutal blood-letting to satisfy the most jaded of splatter fans (the demise of Hector Grimm is particularly enjoyable!).
But the racing, as thrilling as it is, is not enough, and weaved into the plot are Ames's conflicts with fellow drivers Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) and Pachenko (Max Ryan), the latter of which holding a particularly personal edge for Ames that helps expand the plot beyond just his drive for freedom, and makes the film a lot more satisfying in the process. The need for vengeance shares the limelight with the desire for freedom, and this gives the movie a much fuller feel.
The thrills and spills are inventive and gory in equal measure, as drivers become forcibly acquainted with high-speed vehicles, mechanical compressors and volatile chemical compounds. The director clearly relishes the death scene, and pulls them off with verve that both shocks and, at times, amuses.
There are one or two hiccups. The idea that upwards of 70 million people would pay to watch the Death Race - up to $250 for the complete package - at a time when the US economy (and thereby the world economy) has gone belly up is inconsistent. Perhaps it's the director's cynical way of saying that there will always be a market for voracious bloodsport, no matter the pervading economic scene, but it still seems contradictory.
The film's major plothole comes in the form of the - admittedly terrific-looking - Dreadnought, an 18-wheeled behemoth sporting enough armaments to invade a small country. Cobbled together with a million pieces of armour plating and bristling with flamethrowers, rocket launchers and machine guns, it is an A-Team member's wet dream. But its introduction in the second stage of the race is highly questionable considering the altogether indiscriminate carnage it impacts upon the field. This conflicts greatly with Hennessey's wish to keep Ames/Frankenstein alive as a means to enticing further subscribers. Why kill off your most lucrative asset in the second stage of a three stage race?
We learn, actually, that this is the last thing she wants to do, but in releasing the Dreadnought early she runs the very real risk of scuppering her own event. In mitigation, the Dreadnought provides one of the most extraordinary cinematic wreckages I've ever seen.
The character of Machine Gun Joe is also difficult to come to terms with. He is, to put it mildly, a murderous b**tard lacking any redeeming features, and so as the race reaches its conclusion and the plot twist asks for us to cheer him on, it isn't an easy task.
Essentially, though, these are small matters against what is otherwise an excellent example of roadkill-inspired, gratuitous mayhem.
Having not seen the 1975 version I approached this film without any preconceived bias in favour of the original, something that remakes so often encourage (occasionally unfair but usually merited), and maybe this has helped me formulate a high opinion of this latter incarnation. Maybe the original is, as some have said, a far superior movie altogether, but I have yet to see it and so cannot say.
What I can say is that fans of dystopian action flicks (a niche genre, it has to be said!) could do a heck of a lot worse than Death Race.
The case of the underdog is a common Hollywood theme. Take an exceptional man and put him in unexceptional circumstances, and then supply a string of catalysing events that forces him to realise that, actually, he is indeed exceptional and can achieve exceptional things. It sounds pat, and it is, but done in the right way the notion of the underdog realising a previously untapped potential adds an endearing quality to a movie that plays well with our empathies. From Rocky to Peter Parker, Neo to Babe the pig, I've enjoyed numerous against-the-odds tales of triumph over adversity. And in Wanted's premise of a young office-worker trapped in a job he hates and surrounded by people doesn't care for, only to be plucked from obscurity by a bullet-bending Angelina Jolie, I hoped to be adding another film to that illustrious list.
And it goes a little something like this: Wesley (McAvoy) is the aforementioned office boy, stumbling through life in an apathetic haze. He is the typical socially disaffected loser: he lives in a tiny apartment that runs parallel to an earth-shuddering trainline; he has no zest for his work and is constantly harangued by his boss; he pops pills to cope with his anxiety attacks. He is, quite clearly, going nowhere, and to top it off his girlfriend is cheating on him... with his best (or rather only) friend.
The synopsis of our zero-before-hero protagonist is spliced with an introduction to the world we know he is soon to join. This is the world of physics-bending assassination shown to us in a brutal and bloody manner, which, in this instance, leaves five men and a woman dead with single bullet wounds to the head. One of these is Mr X (yes, really), and it is his untimely, slow-motioned fatality that prompts Wesley's incumbency into The Fraternity.
During a routine trip to his local pharmacy Wesley suddenly comes face-to-face with Fox (a seriously undernourished Jolie), and before pleasantries can even be exchanged they are in a gun-toting battle for their lives against their arch nemesis - and killer of Mr X - agent Cross. They escape with the help of Fox's preternatural abilities, and thus begins Wesley's ingratiation.
And it is at this point the film begins to go very very wrong. I could accept the film to this point because I was sure its more extraordinary stunts (Mr X, in a direct Matrix rip off, jumps a hundred feet between buildings; Fox's driving skills make Lewis Hamilton look like Maureen from Driving School) were sure to be explained by some abnormal physical parameters that these Super Assassins work in, one that is inaccessible to us mere mortals.
Well, not quite. Safe behind the castle walls that make up The Fraternity's lair, Wesley is introduced to various members of the team, lead by Sloan (Morgan Freeman), who explains that it's all about adrenaline. You see, these clandestine killers are able to do what they do because their hearts are capable of beating at up to 400 times a minute, coursing huge amounts of adrenaline into their bloodstreams and enabling them to defy the most secure of Einstein's theorems.
And that's it.
I have no problem with suspending belief for the sake of good action film, but when it lazily refuses to supply any kind of physical framework that mitigates or explains why such supernatural events occur, then I lose all faith in what the movie has to offer. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider, hence his arachnid attributes. Simarily, The Fantastic Four were caught in a radioactive bomb blast that altered their DNA. Neo was an avatar in a computer programme, learning the rules before being able to break them. The reasoning behind their collective abilities range from generic (Fantastic Four) to ingenious (The Matrix), but, to whatever degree, it is this reasoning that makes these films, as individual entities operating in their own parameters, believable. In Wanted there is no such expositional attempt. An excess of adrenaline doesn't even begin to allow for the things we see in this film - cars jumping at impossible angles, the slowing down of time to aid intricate actions (the opposite of what adrenaline should allow for you to do, surely), and, most derisory of all, the ability to bend bullets.
Yes, in Wanted's world, a fast heartbeat ensures your ability to bend bullets like Beckham, taking out targets without them even being in your line of sight.
Rivalling this Uri Geller bullet-time is perhaps the most ludicrous plot device ever: the Loom of Fate. Say it slowly and with a straight face: The. Loom. Of. Fate.
For one thousand years (why is it always a thousand years?) this loom has been knitting peoples' destinies, their lives snuffed out at the behest of a dropped stitch. The notion is so contemptible I, like the filmmakers, can't even be bothered to explain it. All that needs to be said is that a LOOM decides who is targeted by The Fraternity. A ****ing loom.
This abandonment of reason could almost be forgiven if the rest of the film's attributes compensated. But, without exception, they don't. The acting is dire: Freeman and Jolie redefine laconic, offering no gravitas to their roles whatsoever (Jolie actually looks palid and ill throughout). You wonder how many times these two will get away with such tired performances before their reputations are forever tarnished. McAvoy is at least energetic, and is certainly better than this film, but is hampered by an unnecessary American accent and a playschool script.
The plot holes could accommodate a Boeing 747, most of which are inspired by the plot 'twist' that David Blunkett's dead dog could see coming. I'm tempted to disclose it here in order to save yourself the agony I went through, but you'll see for yourself if you're masochistically inclined.
Perhaps worse than any of the above is Wanted's curiously smug lack of morality. Wesley's loom-inspired (a loom!) assassinations are jarringly gleeful; he relishes his death-dealing with the aplomb of an excited child at Christmas. Remember, he is killing people he doesn't know for reasons he doesn't understand, but because Fox had a bad time as a child (exposition of the most cringeworthy stature), it's all okay. Wesley's actions also cause a train to derail, falling into a precipice and undoubtedly killing dozens of innocent people (who remain conveniently off screen). But does he care? Does he heck! He doesn't have time to care because he's busy luring hundreds of rats into a dumper truck with peanut butter, and strapping incendiary devices to each of them as a means to....
...enough. That's quite enough.
This is just a terrible film. Blandly gratuitous and over-produced, Wanted demands a zealous disregard of belief from its viewer before insulting them with ridiculous plotting, lethargic acting and boring action scenes.
And if you don't feel irate enough at having wasted your time and money with this dross, the closing line of the film - a self-satisfied accusation from Wesley - is sure to tip you over the edge. As some kind of bizzare suggestion that you should use Wesley's murderous lifestyle as a template to break the ennui of your own life (because, of course, your life IS rubbish), he glares at the screen and rasps: 'This is me taking control of my life. What the f*** have you done lately?'
Which sums up the film nicely: confused, pointless and offensive to the senses.
In more serious moments we've all asked ourselves the following question: If you could be a superhero what power would you choose? Imagine: to fly, to become invisible, to control peoples' minds, to fill in tax requests in the blink of an eye. Oh, the possibilities! And then, once we have morphed a particular talent into our DNA, the next question: do we use our powers for good or for ill?
Well, with the X-Men series and its host of genetically modified freaks - more affectionately known as mutants (I'm assured there's a difference) - we have a vicarious outlet, a medium through which to marvel at some of the physics-bending, time-saving attributes we wish were ours. This pleasure-by-proxy was always one of the lures of X-Men, from its comic-book days through to its first cinematic outing, where we were introduced to the core exponents: Storm, who makes weather forecasters really work for their money; Cyclops, who just hates to leave home without his sunglasses; the eponymous Professior Xavier, a telekinetic ironside; and Wolverine, whose adamantium skeleton (like steel, but stronger) makes him pretty much impervious, and gives him a pretty cool set of retractable claws to boot.
These are the good guys. The bad and the ugly are spearheaded by Magneto the Metal Manipulator (just Magneto to his comrades) and an ever-changing cadre of more militantly minded mutants.
The two sets of X-Men are linked by a desire for Mutant Rights but are split by ideals of how to attain them. Magneto and his band of not-so-merry men are cynical and untrusting of their human inferiors. Spurred on by the idea that mankind will, at some point, seek to destroy them, it is Magneto's mission in life to dominate before being dominated. On the contrary, Xavier favours the centrist, and altogether more boring ideology of achieving equality through the political process. Gandhi but in a wheelchair.
Having been thwarted twice before, Magneto is determined to make the third time a charm. When he learns that a pharmaceutical company has found a 'cure' for all mutants, to be taken voluntarily via an inoculation, Magneto sees the opportunity and sets about raising an army. Under the rhetoric that humans will eventually enforce this cure upon them all as a tool of genocide, he quickly realises his task, and descends upon the company's headquarters based on the island of Alcatraz (naturally).
The film's subplot centres on the character of Jean Grey, who seemingly died at the end of the second film thanks to getting hit in the face by a tidal wave. But in unleashing powers previously restrained by Xavier, for fear of her becoming too powerful for her own good, she managed to survive. Now she has returned, her powers magnified ad infinitum and her mind in schism - sometimes she is Jean Grey and sometimes she is Phoenix, the most Xed up of X-Men, able to reduce people to sub-atomic particles without a hadron collider in sight. Parallel to the battle for Alcatraz, Xavier and Magneto also duel for Jean's heart and mind, Magneto wanting to use her as a human WMD and Xavier intent on preventing a cataclysm of her making.
And so on and so on and so on. And so forth.
Plot, sometimes it's a good thing. Sometimes it's so fiendishly clever or so well orchestrated that it sweeps you up and carries you merrily along until the end credits start to roll. But sometimes it just gets in the way, bogging a film down and robbing it entirely of its fun factor. In being completely focused on the ideological and thematic premise of Mutants versus Humans, at the expense of its characters and all the weird and wonderful things they can do, X-Men 3 is one of those times.
Let's make things clear: I don't care about the socio-political agenda of Magneto and Xavier. I don't care about the thinly veiled and downright obvious message that discrimination is wrong, and that it can lead to horrific social cataclysms as those desperate for power use it as a false manifesto. I don't care about the clashing ideologies of pacifism versus militant extremism (let's be honest, they both have their merits). And I definitely don't care about some teenage love triangle between Iceman, Pyro and the girl who played Juno.
What I DO care about is Wolverine versus Juggernaut, or Storm versus Mystique, or about who would win between someone with the power to bend spoons against someone with the power to make them straight again. I care about the powers these mutants have and how they use them to kick the s*** out of fellow mutants. Or humans. I'm not fussy.
It seems to be the way with supehero films to try and cram as much into two hours as humanly possible (Spiderman 3, The Dark Knight) and X-Men 3 maintains that tradition. It moves too sweepingly and too fast, apparently with too much to say, that it forgets what makes it fun in the first place: the X-Men themselves.
Yes the film has some entertaining scenes: the duel between Iceman and Pyro was a highlight (though far too brief and not nearly nasty enough), and the scene with the Golden Gate Bridge was impressive. But with such a cast of wonders at your disposal why make plot primary and characters secondary? It could be argued that the previous two X-Men films were all about the characters, their powers and their in-fighting, but this isn't really the case. All three have favoured grandious themes (recurring ones at that, making X-3's insistence on plot all the more culpable) littered with often sub-par comic-book combat, instead of really delving into what the mutants are immediately capable of. X-Men 3 is by far the biggest culprit, though, and proves that it has not learnt the lessons of the previous two incarnations.
Far from me to say that notions of belonging, love, betrayal and racism shouldn't belong in a superhero film (in many ways these are staple aspects), but they shouldn't be at the expense of the superheroes or supervillains, especially when their potential is as great as they are with the X-Men.
So, when it comes down to it, what's better? Being able to fly or being invisible? Well, we don't know. And that, surely, is the problem.
Ridley Scott's 2001 movie tells the story of the Battle of Mogadishu, an attempt by American special forces units to abduct two senior members of the Somalian militia, lead by General Mohamed Aidid. For the soldiers involved the initial omens are far from positive: Mogadishu is a geometric, planned city, seemingly designed for the purpose of staging ambushes. It is also filled with an angry, dissident, and heavily armed populous. On the contrary, the US mission is hamstrung by a Washington politik that refuses the mission's overt need for widespread aerial and ground support.
The mission, originally due to last no longer than an hour, begins successfully. The two targets are apprehended quickly, ghosted away by the superior Delta Force. Things, however, go tragically awry when one of the eponymous Black Hawk helicopters is shot down. Like a gambling addict chasing his losses, the downed helicopter is the catalyst for an escalation of events that sees more men and munitions committed in order to recover the helicopter crew. Before long another helicopter succumbs to rocket fire, drawing the US forces deeper into the city and resulting in the mass-militarisation of the Somali people. The city is soon alive with rocket- and gunfire, and the American soldiers find themselves in a desperate, 15-hour-long fight for survival.
Black Hawk Down is a war film in the most fundamental sense. Stripped bare of inessential qualities such as characterisation, backstory or politcial polemic, this film's focus is almost entirely on the immediacy of the fight and the fireworks. I don't level this as a criticism, in fact quite the opposite: in specifically highlighting the brutality and random nature of warfare in a modern theatre the film's remit is limited but emphatic. There are numerous war films imbued with questions of moral accountability and politicisation, but this is not one of them. Shorn of this moral responsibility Black Hawk Down excels as a simple but effective interpretation of modern combat.
The lack of character development means that those tuning in to see the varied acting talents of its considerable cast (Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore, Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Orlando Bloom, William Fichtner) shouldn't expect any emotional range beyond that which a battleground inspires. Not that Hartnett et al don't strongly convey the horrors of a situation spiralling beyond their control, because they do - it could easily be argued that this is Hartnett's finest performance. It's just that, despite the panoply of stars on show, this film is more concerned with how the actors convey the physicalities and traumas of being a soldier rather than with promoting their respective acting repertoires. Again, this is not a criticism of the film, because all involved do this very well. They understand that the action is the star of the show, and respond in an understated but convincing manner.
Crucially, the cinematography and editing is exceptional (the film won an Academy award for Best Film Editing in 2001). The mayhem of war in an urban environment depicted here is utterly immersive. With bullets and grenades flying haphazardly in all directions, ricochets, bomb craters and debris filling your ears and eyes, you get an all-too-real notion of the indiscriminate lottery of combat. The resulting injuries inflicted on the US soldiers are horrific, their sense of realism stark but not gratuitous. The pace and severity of the action draws the viewer in, and even with a running time of 135 minutes the pace never drags.
That said, Black Hawk Down is not without issues. As previously mentioned, the film's refusal to open up a moral debate on the actions of either side involved might be deemed by some as abandonment. I would argue against this point - suggesting that Scott wanted to make a simple but harrowing film about soldiers engaging in warfare rather than about the reasoning behind the war itself - but I still understand its validity.
Another criticism that may be levelled is its simplistic depiction of the Somali people, and perhaps here the film is more culpable. The lack of backstory means we never get a genuine idea as to why the Somalians are so vehemently against the US presence (I was later to learn that they saw them as supporters and benefactors of the previous, corrupt Somalian regime). Instead they are merely presented as a voracious, animalistic tide, seemingly without motive. But again, in Scott's desire to maintain the focus on the actualities of battle rather than extend its scope to explore its reasoning, this flaw (and it is undoubtedly a flaw) is mitigated.
Ridley Scott's fingerprints are clear to see: sweeping, choral music at the film's denouement, slow-motion scenes of panic and pain, panoramic vistas of the various battlegrounds. At times this becomes a little cloying, a little too produced (it's no surprise that this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production) and opposed to the brutal events otherwise depicted.
Black Hawk Down's determination to focus solely on the events of warfare at the expense of ignoring its grander context is both its main strength and main weakness. If you approach the film with this in mind and allow yourself to be immersed by the immediacy of what it portrays - which due to the skill of the director is no hard task at all - then Black Hawk Down is, in equal parts, an exciting and harrowing movie experience.
Written by Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere, Sandman, Stardust) and first published in 2001, American Gods tells the story of Shadow, a quiet, taciturn man who, on his release from prison, finds the world - or at least his perception of it - irrevocably altered. Shadow's stay in prison is shortened by a few days when he learns that his wife has been killed in a car accident, one that has also claimed the life of his best friend.
Numbed by the news - throughout the book, no matter what the revelation, Shadow is not a man prone to hysteria - his return flight home is interrupted by the mysterious Mr Wednesday (those with some knowledge of the etymology of our weekdays will soon click), a career conman in need of an escort and bodyguard. Suddenly without wife or prospects (his deceased friend had work lined up for him), Shadow cedes to Wednesday's persistence, and the two begin a trans-American journey, the purpose of which isn't fully disclosed to Shadow until the book's closing stages.
What does become clear to Shadow is that his world is populated by discarded Gods, members of dispelled, ancient pantheons down on their luck and facing extinction from a new theology: one centred around wealth, economics and material goods. War is coming, and it has fallen upon Wednesday to rally the troops, whip the Old Gods in battle fervour, and destroy their increasingly dominant rivals.
The juxtaposition between Gaiman's outlandish plot and the earthy, matter-of-fact way in which he sets his scenes works well. There is irony in that the reader doesn't necessarily baulk at the idea of Gods roaming across America in cheap suits, but instead is more surprised at Shadow's ability not to be overwhelmed by such revelations. When long-dead television stars begin to communicate with him through his television, or when his deceased wife appears to him in increasingly putrefying form, or when Shadow plays a game of chequers for his life - no matter what the esoteric circumstance, Shadow remains relatively unperturbed.
The only exception to this is when Shadow learns his wife and friend were having an affair; that they died, in fact, halfway through an act of copulation. For all the miraculous events and disclosures that surround him, Shadow is most affected by his wife's betrayal, and this is utterly endearing - this victory of human emotion, of things that we can really feel, over the exaggerated and transient notion of belief in gods.
Perhaps this deadpan approach by Shadow is Gaiman's attempt to allow the reader to focus on other things: the characters of the Gods themselves, rather than on the fact they actually do exist; the geographical vistas of middle America; the thematic issue of theology and its inherent relationship to the human condition. A plot-twist later on in the story also explains Shadow's outlook.
The premise of this book is its strength: Gods mingling with humans, plotting like humans, rutting, drinking and fighting like humans. The actions of Wednesday and his supernatural colleagues, and the central notion behind American Gods, is that theology is a man-made object, something that we manifest, and that these manifestations rely on us as believers as much as, if not more than, them as deities. It's not a new idea, of course: the ancient Greek and Norse pantheons abound with human ideals and passtimes: war, adultery, betrayal. They were theological soap operas, and this book, in how its not-so-heavenly characters behave and the underlying reason for Wednesday's actions, is a strong reflection of that.
Furthermore, Gaiman's gods are erstaz, desperate beings, and all the more colourful for it. They are affected by alcoholism, apathy and depression, beaten down by a world that created them and then subsequently found it had no need for them. Again, Gaiman is emphasising the human condition of theology. Gods, he says, do exist, but only in the mind and mould of Man.
In its attempt to be everything - a character study, a meandering slice of Americana, and a twisting, plot-driven narrative - American Gods is an ambitious work, and, to my mind, overly so. Its only fault is, sadly, a serious one: it tries too hard, becoming a Jack of all trades and master of none. Thus the prose isn't breathtaking, the plot shimmers in and out of importance and the themes - as strong as they potentially are - become diluted.
I can't escape from the idea that American Gods needed a more stringent editor. At 630 pages the book is perhaps 200 too long, delving too deeply into a curious subplot whereby Shadow finds himself temporarily holed up in a sleepy town called Lakeside. This section does have relevance - we learn that Lakeside is an anachronism, a town of innocent charm maintained by horrifying sacrifice - but Gaiman labours the point too hard, its payoff disproportionate to the effort involved.
The fascinating premise and the themes raised by Gaiman do carry it through, but only just, and after racing out of the blocks it crosses the finish line tired and out of puff.
Breaking Open The Head is a documentation of writer Daniel Pinchbeck's quest to, as he puts it, solve the mystery as to why numerous indiginous tribes, lead by their Shamans, across the globe use and revere mind-altering substances, known to us as psychedelics. Against this, Pinchbeck describes the history of psychedelic use in the West, from the initial scientific fervour over what these perception-altering substances had to offer, to their radical and evangelical criminilisation by successive Western governments.
Prior to undertaking this task, Pinchbeck describes that he was an atheist and a 'disbeliever in metaphysical possibilities', fully engrossed in the material world and, he says, affected by the resulting disillusionment that comes from putting one's faith in the God of Economics. This cynical outlook appears to have been born as a result of his parents' liberal sensibilities (his mother and father were part of the Beat and Abstract movements of the 1950s and 60s) being systematically dismantled by successive econo-centric governments.
Pinchbeck describes how he 'watched the wrecking ball of economic determinism destroy the remnants of their liberal, idiosyncratic culture - the quaint, slow-motioned world of antiquated cafes, old revival houses, independent bookstores.' The result of which appears to have been Pinchbeck's descent into a frivolous, empty malaise.
And then he went to Gabon.
Inspired by the desire to find a humanistic and 'an original relation to the universe', BOTH begins with Pinchbeck's account of his trip to the small east African country, where he had heard of a tribe and a plant that might be able to help him.
The title of the book comes from the result of Pinchbeck's Gabonese shamanic experience, where, thanks to his ingesting of the iboga plant, he has his head 'broken open', that is, Pinchbeck's mind is made condusive to this Shamanic otherworld that they describe. Iboga, we learn, is the plant of choice for the Bwiti tribe, who say that it allows them access to an alternate world inhabited by real, transdimensional entities, from whom learned 'users' - Shamans - gain information to disseminate throughout their people. Pinchbeck's use of iboga was to prove a seminal event, spurring him on to travel across the globe in search of the ultimate consciousness, to gain contact with these 'otherworldly' entities, and to understand their purpose.
This book is an attempt to add weight to the notion that the psychedelic experience is not illusory; that extra-dimensional entities do indeed exist, and that various, naturally occurring plantlife, allows us - each and every one of us - access to them. Furthermore, we are told, Shamans from the Amazonian rainforest to the Siberian tundra have known this and have been communicating with these 'spirits' for tens of thousands of years. A notion reinforced by the distinct similarities in the accounts of those using such entheogens, despite being separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.
Far from being physically harmful or socially dissociative, Pinchbeck maintains that psychedelics - or entheogens (herbal drugs) as he calls them - are, at worst, ambiguous tools that fail to regard our humanistic ethnocentricities, and at best, a positive antidote allowing individuals the chance to escape from Westernised, materialistic ideals of spiritual detachment. He harshly criticises governmental policy that demonises both psychedelics and those who use them, and as an utterly lucid exponent of their use Pinchbeck's case is compelling.
Pinchbeck's narrative throughout is engrossing. This is partly because of the eccentric subject matter and partly because of Pinchbeck himself: his endearing, inquisitive nature and his poetic writing ability. The descriptions of his trip to Gabon and to the Amazonian rainforest, and of both his terrestial and transdimensional experiences, are evocative and gripping, occasionally even frightening. The change we experience in Pinchbeck as a person are emphatic and inspiring, as he finds a greater solace in the notion of humanity and humility and spirituality, as opposed to his previous reliance on empty secularism.
Clearly Pinchbeck's peripatetic account will not appeal to everyone. The ideas are outlandish for the newcomer, and are anti-dogmatic to the notion that psychedelics are inherently harmful to us as humans. The book, and Pinchbeck himself, clearly carries the weight of controversy.
But for those who are intrigued by 'new age' thinking, or those who question the validity of our current way of life and feel there is something greater, something beyond what we can currently see and touch, or even for those who simply enjoy intrepid travelogues, Breaking Open The Head is an excellent, informative, and challenging read.
Bryan Mills (Neeson) is a retired CIA paramilitary officer who, because of a patriotic devotion to his work, has become estranged from his wife, Lenore, and daughter, Kim. In Bryan's stead, they have found solace in the palacial grounds of Stuart, Lenore's new husband.
In an attempt to bridge the emotional gap with his daughter, Bryan has given up his time-consuming job and moved close by, and such efforts appear to be rewarded when Kim asks that they have lunch together. However, Kim's reasoning is slightly less altruistic than Bryan had hoped, as he is pressganged into permitting Kim's pre-planned trip to Paris. Fearing for her daughter travelling to Europe alone, Bryan's initial misgivings are waived by Kim's tantrums and Lenore's anger.
In laying down one of the oldest tricks in the book - that of painting the protagonist as the emotionally forlorn underdog - the director (Pierre Morel) gives us an instant attachment to Bryan that helps carry us throughout the film. We understand his misgivings about his daughter's trip to Paris, and feel for his lack of financial clout in comparison to Stuart. We even forgive Bryan's previous transgressions against his wife and daughter because they were done in service to his country. In short, we are pretty much forced to empathise with Bryan from the beginning, and that is no bad thing at all.
We also get to learn about Bryan's mettle whilst on a security job for Sheerah (Holly Valance), one of the country's biggest popstars. We never learn the motives for the subsequent assault on her, but it doesn't matter. What we do learn is that Bryan is harder than a diamond-encrusted Mike Tyson at his peak, and, in the way he comforts the young singer (no cynical minds here, please!) he's also a fatherly chap to boot.
These qualities are about to be highlighted ad infinitum when his daughter, on arrival in Paris with only her loose-tongued friend for company, is kidnapped, and thus the film truly begins.
In essence, what follows is a simplistic, linear plot whereby Bryan jumps from point A to point B to point C etc., in the relentless pursuit of his daughter. In his wake he leaves a slew of dead and dying bodies as he enacts a terrible vengeance on all those directly and indirectly involved. It sounds like typical Schwarzenegger-inspired fare, and in many respects this is true, but it is, for the most part, altogether superior. Reasons for this? Firstly, Neeson himself, who gives a terrific performance as the immovable object. He is believable in his vulnerability at having lost something so precious, in his tenacity to reclaim it, and in the menace with which he does so. His physical size and strength belies his 54 years, and, as action heroes go, he is as genuine as they come.
Secondly, the subject matter. The sex-trafficking business is beyond abhorrent and it is shown in all its lack of glory here: kidnapped tourists snatched from their loved ones, forcibly addicted to heroin, and then used as sexual objects until they can no longer serve that purpose. The human being as a commodity in its rawest form. This nightmarish trade, and the disgusting subhumans who propagate it, is what Bryan is up against. Set against such villainy you can't help but cheer every snapped bone and bullet wound that this wronged father imposes in his pursuit of Kim. In the most fundamental, most basic manner, this time-old battle of good over evil is utterly compelling.
Thirdly, the action scenes themselves, which were excellently shot and fitting to the grim underworld that Bryan descends into. Thus there is no beauty to the fight scenes, no sweeping camera angles or balletic movements. Conversely, the editing doesn't succumb to the growing trend of filmmakers to cut to a new scene every second or so in a contrived effort to inject a sense of 'realism' (re: Quantum of Solace, Bourne trilogy). The balance struck is perfect.
Finally, the pacing is perfect. The film spends enough time building the scenario and acquainting you with Bryan so that you actually care what happens, and then it takes you on an hour-long rollercoaster, stopping well before any sense of ennui creeps in.
All action films, to some extent, test the limits of reality, and Taken is no exception. Neeson is a virtually indestructible force and manages to kill or maim dozens of people in his rescue bid. That said, only rarely does Taken flirt with contrivance (one particular scene sees Bryan handcuffed and at the mercy of his antagonists, only to escape due to some faulty maintenance work) and as unbelievable as Bryan's situation is, any lack of realism this film betrays never negates the viewing experience.
My one and only gripe with the film, which sadly sees it demoted one star, is the relatively breezy and unaffecting way in how the film ends. Even this is forgivable to a degree, because to end the film more honestly Taken would have needed an extra twenty anticlimactic minutes added to its running time. Even so, a more poignant and relevant ending would have been preferable.
Simple in concept and executed almost perfectly, Taken is a very well-realised, disturbing and intense action movie that will stand up to numerous repeat viewings.
An adventure story, a love story, a character study, a moral framework and a thing of rare, precise beauty. Tigana is, in short, a fantasy masterwork.
First published in 1990, Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana centres on a group of dispirate rebels attempting to win back their land stolen from them by Brandin the Tyrant, himself one of two warring sorcerers battling each other for overall ownership of the Palm Peninsula.
The story's prologue describes the eve of the battle for Tigana, in which Brandin's son, Stevan, is subsequently killed. Struck with rage and grief, the nevertheless victorious Brandin imposes a huge toll upon the province that stole his son's life: he steals their identity. He burns their books and decimates their architecture, he denounces its history and ruins its future. Worst of all, he makes it so that no one within the Palm can even hear the name 'Tigana'. No one, that is, except those born in Tigana itself.
Stripped of their identity, their dignity and soul, the rebels step out upon a long and weaving pathway to restore the titular glory of their homeland by ridding the Palm of not just one, but both Tyrants.
Tigana is described as a fantasy but if you entertain any prejudices as to what this entails then disregard them now, for this is truly a transcendent piece of work. First and foremost Tigana is a stunning literary achievement in characterisation, pacing and exposition, that deals with wide-ranging, relevant topics, from the dual nature of love and hate to the social importance of culture and identity upon that of the individual.
Kay takes his time. He is patient and precise and you must be prepared for this. There are no shortcuts: the plot is a many-faceted thing that he constructs with absolute care, and this takes time. He doesn't shy away from backstory nor from describing in detail the thought processes of his characters. Fortunately his skill with exposition - something so many writers struggle with - is exemplorary and always engaging, and the dexterity and subtlety of his characterisation is a joy.
Tigana excels further by displaying an ambiguous moral framework - a refusal to descend into a simplistic Us versus Them narrative. We are given multiple perspectives, and sympathetically so, allowing us to understand the reasoning of both the rebellious and the tyrannical and to learn empathy for each. Whilst the righteousness of the rebel's task cannot be denied, neither can the often endearing nature of Brandin, to the extent that you find your loyalties, if not fully challenged, at least questioned.
As if in tune with the dilemma this may create for the reader, Kay proffers the character of Dionara, the estranged sister of one of the central rebels, who, in her bid to enact final revenge, has found herself a member of Brandin's harem. Despite not being introduced to her until nearly halfway through the book, Dionara is undoubtedly the story's lynchpin, eternally split by her affections of home and her growing love of the sorcerer who destroyed it. Her strength and complexity is a perfect microcosm of the book as a whole, and the skill in which she and others are drawn by Kay offers the reader a deep and affecting level of attachment as the story unfolds.
Tigana is a spider's web of a novel: delicate, complex, and beguilingly powerful. Nearly twenty years afters its release it remains, like Kay himself, one of the genre's most poignant and poetic exponents.