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What Steve said...
...being a potpourri of musings, ideas, opinions and conjecture.

On Hercules, and being neither good nor bad

July 24th, 2014

Possibly the worst sin a film can commit is to be boring. A good film, and especially a very good film, is a thing of joy. A film that draws you in, engages you, makes you think — that film is something to treasure and watch again and again and again. The opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs is as fine an example of tight, sharp scripting as I have seen, and bears endless re-watching; decades after its release, the jokes in Life of Brian have yet to pale. A bad film, even, can be a memorable experience — twenty-mumble years after I saw it, I still feel the rage I felt the night I saw the inexplicably popular Wings of Desire (no, I won’t link to it; it doesn’t deserve it), the bitter resentment I had for Wim Wenders, the man responsible for stealing the hours and hours and hours (no, it wasn’t really that long; it just felt like it) I spent watching this pretentious, self-indulgent mound of Teutonic bollocks.

Hercules

Hercules

Films should inspire some kind of response in their viewers. But Hercules doesn’t. It’s not a bad film — certainly not bad enough to be interesting, and that’s the root of the problem with it. The story, such as it is, seems to involve Hercules (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; God knows who told the man he could act, but whoever it was, they were woefully mistaken) being hired by the unscrupulous Cotys, King of Thrace (John Hurt, who I didn’t realise needed a paycheque quite this badly), to fight Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann). Because Hercules, you see, in this re-imagining of the legend, isn’t the divine hero of Greek legend, but a man, albeit a quite creatively-muscled man; the film is based not on the fabled figure of legend, but on a graphic novel, Hercules: The Thracian Wars. It starts with a moderately entertaining bit of exposition, with a backstory explained by Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), the storyteller who accompanies Hercules and the mercenaries he leads. But it doesn’t really explain why Hercules is no longer the demigod of myth, and suddenly a slightly grubby mercenary, and that’s the direction the film now heads.

Accompanying Hercules are an inexplicably odd bunch. Amphiaraus (Ian McShane, who really should know better) is a seer of some sort; quite why he is travelling the Grecian countryside with a bunch of fighters remains unclear. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell, who appears to be having a decent amount of fun), Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, whose primary role, it would appear, is to look good in a leather bikini) and Tydeus (a quite forgettable Aksel Hennie) do the typically predictable job of taking a seemingly useless bunch of Thracian soldiers and turning them into an unstoppable fighting machine.

Fighting, inevitably, starts. There are a couple of set-piece fight sequences that are well-filmed, but, as is the problem with the entire film, they’re just a little dull. We know little of the Thracians, who they are or why they need the services of Hercules and his crew. We know even less of Rheseus and why he has it in for Thrace. As a result, it’s extremely difficult to engage with the story, and even harder to care about the battles. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Hercules et al survive their skirmishes; the battle scenes, then, are simply set pieces for director Brett Ratner to have a bit of fun. It is, I accept, entirely possible that there was some fantastically lucid and articulate exposition to clarify these points; if there were, it would have been while I was wondering what I was having for tea when I got home, and allowing viewers’ thoughts to drift that badly is simply unacceptable in a film.

And so the film continues. It focuses, reasonably enough, on the central character of Hercules, but Dwayne Johnson simply isn’t enough of an actor to carry the role. Everyone else in the cast, it appeared, knew that this was a comedy — at the very least that’s how McShane and Sewell play it — but Johnson is stiff and ernest and almost entirely devoid of anything even resembling charisma, or charm, or warmth, throughout the entire film. He isn’t up to the task, and, presumably, was cast on the strength of his unfeasibly monstrous muscles, which get an airing in every scene. He’s not a pleasant man to look at, isn’t The Rock — muscly is all well and good, but please, keep your biceps in proportion to the rest of your body, and there’s nothing attractive about veins bulging out of limbs like subcutaneous lengths of randomly-knotted rope. Johnson would appear to be on his way to becoming the Arnold Schwarzenegger of his generation, but he lacks even Arnie’s screen presence.

As a result, you’re left staring at a very uninteresting film, and the mind will, when there’s nothing in the story, or the script, or the acting, to occupy it, start asking questions that maybe Ratner should have asked himself when he took on the project. Why isn’t the eponymous hero called Heracles? That was, after all, the mythological figure’s original Greek name, the film is set in Greece, not Rome, and much is made of the jealousy felt by Hera, wife of Heracles’ father Zeus. Is Hercules in fact divine, and do Centaurs actually exist? For that matter, is Cerberus real? Ratner seems unable to decide for himself, and so the film swings rather wildly from one viewpoint to another. Why, in a 3D film, are the backdrops to many of the city scenes so painted-backdrop flat?

The end of the film, which comes after a mercifully short 98 minutes, seems to be setting up a sequel; indeed, for much of its running time, Hercules felt like the pilot episode for a TV series — hesitant, uncertain, laying the groundwork for a longer story but not quite sufficiently sure of itself to hit its stride. As a result, this is an unsatisfying disappointment of a film. Characters are inadequately developed, actors are either utterly out of their depth (Johnson is so wooden that “The Oak” would make a better nickname) or either so camp (that would be McShane, who clearly has lost all self-respect and forgotten that he’s better than this) or so scenery-chewing (John Hurt is, well, John Hurt, and hence not entirely capable of making a bad film, but here he’s basically John Hurt as John Hurt as Cotys, snarling and sneering his way through every line) that they seem not to be taking the film they’re in particularly seriously. The story is half-arsed, weak and under-told.

So not a good film, then, not by any stretch. But also not even a bad film. Hercules is simply a film, an utterly unremarkable re-telling of a very remarkable story. And that’s very, very disappointing.

On class sizes, school funding, and why none of it matters

July 8th, 2014

Although Schadenfreude isn’t the most attractive of emotions, it is very, very good to see John Key catching some flak of late, remarks of his from 2005 coming to light and reminding us that Mr. Key is, or at least was nine years ago, a fan of small classes in schools. That, apparently, was among the reasons why he has chosen to send his children to private schools.

Now who would be responsible, do we think, for class sizes? That would be, one would imagine, the government — and, for better or worse, the government of New Zealand has been, for the last six of the nine years since Mr. Key shared with the world his views on class sizes, a National government, led by the very same Mr. Key himself. So we’ve got John Key the champion of small classes on the one hand, John Key the prime minister and head of government on the other. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that, given the absolute mandate Mr. Key clearly believes he has (Don’t believe me? Count the state-owned asset sales and then we’ll talk), he’d take the opportunity to do something about the size of classes in New Zealand’s schools. Like, for example, reducing it.

You’d think. But he’s not. Of course he hasn’t. Class sizes almost, in fact, increased under Mr. Key’s tenure as prime minister. This would be a good thing for anyone involved in education. Students — the very reason we have an education system in the first place, let us not forget — will not benefit from being in large classes. I’ve taught large and small groups, and I know the difference. When I’m teaching a smaller class, I can get to know every single child in the room personally, learn about them and their interests, explore their strengths and weaknesses, build a learning relationship with them and find creative ways to help them. But the larger the class grows, the more impossible this becomes. When I have thirty or more children sitting in front of me, then — no matter how hard I try — they’ll be little more than a list of names, ethnicities and test scores in my markbook; the larger the class, the harder it is for me to recognise individuals and their individual needs. Oh, I’ll do it, but it’ll take me a lot longer, and even once it’s happened, the amount of time I can spend on each individual student is inevitably diminished.

Perhaps Mr. Key saw the light. Perhaps he realised that even his party could manage to share the wealth around — a little National socialism, if you will — or perhaps he realised that this was not a vote-winner. Whatever the reason, he had Hekia Parata, less and less a minister of the crown and increasingly a human shield to protect the prime minister when an unpalatable policy needs pulling, announce that the proposed class-size increase was being taken off the table.

We still have, sadly, the highly misguided Investing in Educational Success programme, which is simply performance pay and favouritism dressed up as career opportunities. It will see hundreds of millions of dollars thrown at a very small number of teachers and principals to pay them either to do nothing new or to spend less time at their current job. Watching the ministers, prime and of education, chasing their tails has been somewhere between hilarious and agonising — we can’t find a penny more for teachers, but wait, yes we can, but we’ll pay a handful, picked essentially through favouritism, a large extra sum per year to teach less.

It’s pretty bloody obvious, then, that a National government is not fit to run education in this country, and, in particular, the current minister has little or no (personally I’ll go with “no,” but I’ll let you make your own mind up) idea of how to develop educational policy. Labour have something more of an idea, and it’s encouraging to see an understanding that increasing funding to low-decile schools to account for the fact that the “contributions” that are a de facto school fee in many of the higher-decile schools simply widen the achievement gap even further.

But in the end, none of it matters. Schools like Auckland Grammar — a school considered so desirable that parents will spend tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of dollars extra on their mortgages just to get their boys in — can afford all the equipment they want, but that’s not why their results are as good as they are. What matters is parents. It’s as simple as that. I see a child for an hour a day at most, and even when you add up the total time my colleagues and I, together, actually spend with any one student, you’ll see that it’s almost trivial compared to the time a child spends with his parents. And not simply on a day-to-day basis — parents are the continuous, ongoing, lasting strand that threads its way through a child’s life. And if a child’s parents value that child’s education, that child is so very much more likely to enjoy positive educational outcomes. Parents who don’t promote education, who don’t value school and learning, who don’t encourage their children to study and learn — these are the parents whose children will disengage at school, who will truant, who will drop out, and, worse, will, when they do attend, distract and disrupt and destroy and hold back their classmates’ learning. It’s the fact that parents are willing to invest huge sums in their children’s education that is behind high achievement at the highly-achieving schools, not simply funding (although the money never hurts…).

At a recent parents’ evening, I saw, in three hours, the parents of seven students. Seven, out of nearly fifty. Seven, about one in seven. Which means that among the nearly fifty students in the Year 11 classes I teach, only one in seven had parents who thought that coming to a parents’ evening and meeting their child’s teachers, discussing their child’s progress in school, finding out what they could do to support their child’s learning, was worth making the effort to come to school for half an hour. Or look at it from an altogether sadder and more worrying perspective — six out of seven parents didn’t think their child’s learning was important enough.

And while the message I get from this is very clear, the message my students — their children — hear is equally clear: school’s not that big a deal, kid. If a child’s parents aren’t sending a consistent and unequivocal message to the child that school is something important, something to be valued, something that can make a serious and profound change in a child’s life, then it really doesn’t matter what I say in class — that child is almost certainly going to fail.

I don’t blame some parents for not fronting up to parents’ evening. If I knew, or even if I were reasonably confident, that I’d hear mostly positive, encouraging things about my child, then I’d be willing to get myself down to school. But if I knew — and, let’s face it, there’s plenty of parents who do know — that teacher after teacher after teacher would be offering variations on a theme of “Oh, Mr Smith, you’re little Johnny’s dad? He’s a right little shit, isn’t he?” then I’d be a little less thrilled about the thought of showing up. And so the cycle continues.

We teachers can spend as long as we like planning the most engaging lessons, we can prepare the most exciting learning opportunities, we can keep up with the most up-to-date research, we can follow the very best of best practices. Ministers can double, halve or do whatever else they want with class sizes, they can invent all the new teacher titles they like, they can fling bucketful after bucketful of money at every school in the land. But it doesn’t matter. Until what children do in school is promoted at home, it’s all futile.

On Hobby Lobby, and being Christian

July 1st, 2014

By all means complain about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the United States that a corporation providing subsidised health insurance for some of its employees is entitled to restrict which drugs that insurance covers based on religious convictions. It is, of course, utterly absurd that a corporation can claim to have religious convictions such that it would be offended by the provision of birth control — especially since, as we’re now discovering, the same corporation invests in companies that produce precisely the drugs it doesn’t want to provide to the women who help generate its profits — but to focus on the absurdity of attributing human beliefs, convictions, opinions to a corporation is to utterly miss the point.

The point is not whether Hobby Lobby should or should not include certain pills in its health plans on religious grounds. Of course it should — it can do anything it damned well wants, because it’s paying. But that’s not the point. (more…)

On guns, gun control, death and what to do

June 15th, 2014

Another week sees another shooting in America, and another flurry of gun control argument that will go nowhere. There’s not a whole lot of sense in attaching a link to a specific shooting, because there’s so bloody many of them. In fact, random gun violence is such an established part of the American way of life that there is even a Wikipedia page listing school shootings in the US — and it’s sobering reading. So far this decade — so that’s in the last five years or less — there have been over 90 episodes of gun violence, just in America’s schools, leaving over 90 people dead. And that tally only counts the number of deaths directly due to gun violence in schools. It doesn’t take include such atrocities as the night in July 2012 when a dozen people were murdered in a cinema in Colorado, or the recent killing sprees in Las Vegas, or Santa Barbara, or…there are simply too many to list.

Americans have, let’s be utterly honest here, a bizarre fascination with guns. It’s unhealthy, and it leads to the most ridiculous doublethink. Guns don’t kill people, goes the standard refrain, people kill people. But when you’re reduced to this level of sophistry to justify maintaining a gun-law status-quo that sees death after death after death, then you have to start to realise that there’s a weakness in your position. No, guns don’t kill people — of course they don’t; they’re inanimate objects incapable of such an autonomous act. Yes, people kill people — but people do find it considerably easier to kill people when they have access to guns to do it with. There’s a reason why guns — automatic weapons, if possible, thank you very much — are the weapon of choice for your typical mass shorter: they’re efficient, they’re effective, they kill lots of people very, very dead, at a distance, in a short time. Bows and arrows, or even crossbows, can be deadly, but they’re less reliable, less efficient — clearly there’s a reason why they’re not popular among mainstream mass-shooting aficionados. You can’t — really, seriously, you can’t — shoot someone without a gun. Go on, try it — go and stage your own mass shooting without any guns. You’ll find it awfully, terribly difficult. So no, guns don’t kill people, but they do make it so very much easier. (more…)

On A Million Ways to Die in the West, and shitting in hats

May 29th, 2014

The plot of A Million Ways to Die in the West is flimsy to the point of transparency. Albert (Seth MacFarlane, who also directed and co-wrote) is dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) for fop-about-town Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Anna (Charlize Theron), the mysterious beauty who arrives in town shortly after, tells him that it’s her loss. Oh, and she’s also the wife of Clinch (Liam Neeson), the most savage killer in the West.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million Ways to Die in the West

If you don’t see how this set-up plays out, then, frankly, you’re not trying at all hard enough. But it’s not the plot that matters — the story, such as it is, is noting more than a structure on which to hang a series of quite wonderfully funny set-piece gags. Albert is a truly crap sheep farmer, but his sheep are an opportunity to set up a very kiwi-friendly set of highly inappropriate sheep gags. By the end of the film, you will — really, you will — be also laughing at sheep-piss gags, genitourinary diarrhoea gags, incest gags, sex gags (oral and anal), prostitution gags, a drug-trip scene that might have been imagined by Salvador Dali if he’d done a few magic mushrooms too many and then sat down for a Miyazaki Hayao marathon, and perhaps the finest shitting-in-a-hat sequence you’ll ever see. It’s a very, very funny film. (more…)

On Bad Neighbours, and having a fun night out at the pictures

May 8th, 2014

In Bad Neighbours, Seth Rogan has created a film that will actively repel awards. The polar opposite of a piece Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep Oscar-bait, Bad Neighbours is crass, nasty — and very, very funny.

Bad Neighbours

Bad Neighbours

Bad Neighbours — the film is simply called “Neighbors” in the US; in Britain and Australia, as well as here in New Zealand, it’s Bad Neighbours, both because that’s the correct spelling and, presumably, to make it clear that there’ll be nothing inappropriate involving Harold, Bouncer and Mrs. Mangle — tells the story of Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) Radner, new parents who, shortly after moving into a pleasant, leafy suburb, find that, moving in next door to them is a fraternity from the local university. The story is simple — after Mac and Kelly fail dismally at trying to keep things neighbourly with the frat house next door, each tries to make life more uncomfortable for the other.

(more…)

On Pukekohe, trains, and being forgotten.

April 29th, 2014

Since I’ll do almost anything to avoid having to go shopping with Wife and Daughter, I sat in the car outside Briscoe’s on Sunday as they went looking for, well, whatever it is that they shop for in shops like Briscoe’s. I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket, my tolerance for boredom having slipped to teenager levels, but, instead of flicking through Twitter or trawling through updates from people I hardly know on Facebook, I was distracted by the “4G” badge at the top of the screen.

4G data networking? In Pukekohe? This was new. And, it must be said, quite unexpected. Vodafone’s 4G coverage map shows where their priorities are: the big cities — Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua — get full coverage, as do the tourist towns like Warkworth and Whitianga, but south Auckland’s coverage is patchy, and south of Auckland, but still, crucially, part of Auckland City, we don’t warrant 4G networking. But suddenly my phone was on a 4G network. Web pages loaded very, very quickly — more quickly than they do at home, connecting by WiFi to my landline broadband connection. But when The Girls were finally finished with their shopping, when we’d picked up the supplies we needed from Mitre 10 for this weekend’s DIY project, when we finally got home, 4G was gone, only a mile or so away. Only the area around Briscoe’s — more importantly, the area adjacent to Briscoe’s, at the Pukekohe Racetrack, this weekend playing host to V8 motor-racing, had 4G networking. And today, with the cars all packed up and gone home, there is only 3G.

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On Chef, joy and food porn

April 24th, 2014

It’s not often I find a film that I agree with both my wife and teenaged daughter on, but Chef was that rarest of things, a film that thoroughly delighted the three of us.

Chef is two, possibly three, different films. It begins as a very talky, very, very sweary comedy-drama about Carl Casper, a chef played by Jon Favreau, working for Dustin Hoffman‘s Riva, a restaurateur who cares less for food than for the money it brings in. Carl’s kitchen is staffed by sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Martin (John Leguizamo); the three prepare for a visit from Oliver Platt‘s restaurant critic by putting together a menu careful planning, but are told to play safe by Riva, with inevitably disastrous results. The film then shifts gears, thanks to an intervention from Robert Downey Jr, playing Carl’s ex-wife’s other ex-husband, Marvin, who helps him buy a food truck. The truck is in Miami; Carl’s based in Los Angeles. The second act, then, is a road-trip buddy movie, with Carl, Tony and Carl’s son Percy bringing the truck back to California. (None of the foregoing, by the way, can be considered a spoiler; all this, and much more, is given away in the trailer.) (more…)

On vaccines, science, and open minds

April 10th, 2014

I spend much of my time as a high-school science teacher trying to explain to my students how science works. The scientific method, as we rather pompously call the way science is done, is really quite a simple concept — observe, without preconceptions, and then draw conclusions based on those observations.

Of course, it’s not always that easy. There is an additional layer through which observations must be filtered — established science. If I start observing, let’s say, neutrinos travelling faster than c, the speed of light in a vacuum, a speed which for some time now has been understood to be God’s speed limit for the universe, then I’ve got some serious explaining to do, and my conclusions will need to take into account both the established understanding of why c has, until now, been understood as the fastest possible speed, and why it could be that particles have been observed exceeding that speed.

(more…)

On Sabotage, and why some films just shouldn’t be made

April 1st, 2014

Sabotage, it just has to be said, is a film that simply didn’t need to be made.

Sabotage

Sabotage

The story is quite straightforward — a special-ops team within the American Drug Enforcement Administration carry out a raid, at the end of which a few million dollars appear to be missing. The members of the team are suspended, and their leader Breacher, played with precious little acting ability by Arnold Schwarzenegger, puts the band back together when the investigation into the missing money leads nowhere. The various members of the team then start meeting increasingly messy deaths. There is, quite possibly, the making of a decent film in there. Sadly, however, director David Ayer managed not to make that film, and instead put together a rather ugly mess of cliché, grunts and violence porn.

(more…)