Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Quick Film Reviews #5

After discussing Wired's choice of the top 25 sci-fi films pre and post-star wars at work, James lent me three of his favourites. Well ok, two of his favourites and Buckaroo Banzai. I've watched two so far.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the Eighth Dimension
Buckaroo Banzai is a brilliant neurosurgeon/physicist/rock musician, who has been involved in developing an "overthruster" that allows travel to and through the eighth dimension (as long as you're driving a car really really fast). Unfortunately some bad aliens from the eighth dimension want this device so they can return home and be evil there. While they try to steal the overthruster another set of aliens is hovering in orbit threatening to start a nuclear war if Banzai doesn't stop the evil aliens. Also, there's a woman who appears to be the twin of Banzai's former wife. She's just there as a love interest; we find nothing more out about the two. This is just one of many things in the film that makes no sense. This film makes no sense at all. What makes it all the more puzzling is that on paper it sounds like a trashy low-budget flick, but in fact the direction is competent, the production values are high, and the cast is decent (Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Jeff Golblum (in fluffy cowboy pants)). It's not really so bad it's good, it just makes no sense. The design of the aliens' spacecraft is pretty cool though.

Silent Running
This is a classic 70s environmental fable, but I'd never seen it before. The earth's only remaining plant and animal life is drifting in freighters, manned by uninterested crew. When the order comes in to destroy them and return to commercial service, only one rejects it, ending up drifting with his forest, alone save for three diminutive robots. I'm not sure about some of the science in the film, but as an evocation of loneliness and a parable, it works very well. I also like the 70s NASA era technology in the film, all girders on the outside, blue screens and chunky keyboards on the inside.

The Edukators
Radical activists break into rich people's houses, rearrange the furniture and leave notes saying "your days of plenty are numbered". It's a little predictable, a little sentimental at times and the politics isn't very deep, but it's still a worthwhile watch. On a technical note, it's very much a post-dogmé film of cheap but high quality hand-held and mobile cameras, which lends the film a nice rough, personal feel.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Quick Film Reviews #4

Seems a long time since I watched Fargo; I guess it's about a month and a half. Most people have probably seen it, which is good because I don't have much to say about it, although it is a wonderfully formed film. The contrast between the bleak, violent and very blackly comic world of the kidnap plot and the warm and mundane life of the police and residents of Brainerd.

La Jetée
Known mainly as the inspiration for Twelve Monkeys, this 30-40 minute "photo-novel" is a remarkable film. It's told mostly with a narrator and black and white stills, though some are shaky or are cycled quickly to give an impression of movement. It's economical but very effective.

Sans Soleil
Sharing a disc with La Jetée, and by the same director, Sans Soleil is a kind of rambling film essay/letter collection. It's primarily focussed on Japan, with a little less on an African country (I don't remember which) and a little on Iceland. Some of the stuff in there is fascinating, but on the whole I didn't find the footage incredibly engaging or the text particularly illuminating. Perhaps it might become clearer with another viewing, but really, I couldn't be bothered.

I was rather excited about seeing Stalker, and a little disappointed. It's philosophical science fiction from Andrei Tarkovsky, with the emphasis on the philosophy. An impact from space has created a mysterious and dangerous "zone". At the centre of the zone is a room that is said to grant wishes. The zone is sealed off by police, but guides known as stalkers guide small number of people past the barbed wire and through the zone. On first viewing it was very opaque, on second, the religious analogies were a lot more obvious. Despite some interesting content and a few wonderfully shot and soundtracked scenes, I still think it's a bit too inaccessible and doesn't quite have the atmosphere I was looking forward to.
update: although I wasn't so impressed by it at the time, Stalker is a film that has stayed with me. It must have got under my skin more than I thought.

Do The Right Thing
A long way from Stalker, full of shouting, city and black people. Do The Right Thing is a well made ensemble piece from Spike Lee, looking at (kind of unsurprisingly) the tensions in a black neighbourhood. The most remarkable thing about it is that the main character, who I gauged at somewhere between 15 and 20 years old, was played by 30 year-old Spike Lee. After seeing the credits I had to check there wasn't by coincidence another Spike Lee who happened to star in a Spike Lee film.

Discrimination, pt3/3 - Philosophers

I posted the other week about legal protection from religious discrimination. Atheists may be asking "how is it that the law protects people for the faith in an invisible sky lord, or a magical elephant headed helper, but not the beliefs grounded on evidence or reason?" Well good news everyone. The law also covers "philosophical belief" or even "lack of belief" (handy for agnostics).

Of course, this begs the question, what counts as a "philosophical belief"? One test is that beliefs are of "sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and are worthy of respect in a democratic society." Another is that the beliefs have an impact on the actions and behaviour of the individual. (This is also a useful test of whether they are genuinely held - if someone doesn't act on their beliefs they're probably not serious about them.)

There are two notable cases here.

The first concerns Tim Nicholson, the former Head of Sustainability at Grainger, a major building & property company. He had frequent clashes with other managers and the firm's CEO, who it appears did not share his beliefs in sustainability. After he was made redundant, Nicholson took the company to Employment Tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of religious or belief.

In the course of proceedings,
John Bowers QC, representing Grainger, had argued that adherence to climate change theory was "a scientific view rather than a philosophical one", because "philosophy deals with matters that are not capable of scientific proof."
Fortunately the judge disagreed. As Nicholson's QC said, "the end result would be that the more evidence there is to support your views, the less likely it would be for you to enjoy protection against discrimination".

In another case, Joe Hashman was dismissed from his job as a gardener after his employers found out he had been an active hunt saboteur and animal rights activist. In court he was queried as to his beliefs. Why, for example, he found it acceptable to kill caterpillars or (by accident) worms - he drew a distinction between vertebrates and invertebrates. Interestingly, the other side's lawyers also suggested his beliefs endorsed violence and thus were not worthy of respect. However the judge found that Hashman's beliefs did qualify for protection. The case is now proceeding to an employment tribunal to determine whether those beliefs actually were the reason for the dismissal.

It's good to know that the law doesn't simply protect beliefs based on superstition and tradition. I wonder, though, how easy it will be to apply. Although people within religions believe loads of different things, they do tend to have some central authorities proscribing beliefs and behaviour. Secular philosophies tend to lack these - indeed they often encourage thinking for yourself and heterogeneity. Are people going to be categorised if they depart from mainstream veganism, or if they apply utilitarianism inconsistently? The law seems to penalise individualistic beliefs. But then again, the point of the law is to protect groups who have historically suffered persecution or disadvantage, so maybe that is not a problem.

Incidentally, another side-effect of this is the same principle as preventing gay clubs from excluding straight customers. It would be just as illegal for, say, a vegan restaurant to refuse to employ an omnivorous person as it would a regular restaurant to employ a vegan. (In fact, the vegan restaurant would be in a trickier position, as it'd generally be harder for a vegan to work in a regular restaurant.)