Another Champion Falls

UFC 201

IT IS REMARKABLE, GIVEN his all-or-nothing fighting style, that the reign of Robbie Lawler lasted as long as it did. That isn’t to say that Lawler lacks ability, of course, but probability dictates that it is only a matter of time until a reckless fighter such as Lawler comes off second best. And Lawler, it bears noting, has come within a hair of that on multiple occasions—against Rory McDonald and Jake Ellenberger among others—which is a testament to his heart, if not to his strategy.

The consequence of all this is that I cannot say I was surprised to see him lose in spectacular fashion at UFC 201 to Tyron Woodley. It was over, as they say, almost as soon as it began. Woodley delivered a right hand to Lawler’s chin that was almost as perfect as you can deliver one and followed it up with a barrage of punches to the fallen champion two minutes and twelve seconds into the first round. It was the fastest finish in UFC welterweight title history.UFC 201

Lawler’s loss exposes the inherent weakness of the throwback, stand-up-and-bang style, or at least reminds us that any champion serious about retaining their belt must become a thinking fighter. After Georges St-Pierre lost to Matt Serra in the first round at UFC 69, he reconsidered his fighting strategy and style, and later returned as a more cerebral fighter––one that promptly went on a twelve-run winning streak.

But it is also means another champion has fallen. In 2016, Luke Rockhold has been replaced by Michael Bisping; Fabricio Werdum has been supplanted by Stipe Miocic; Rafael dos Anjos has been dethroned by Eddie Alvarez; T.J. Dillashaw has been ousted by Dominick Cruz; and Holly Holm has been unseated by Miesha Tate, who was then herself usurped by Amanda Nunes. Only Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Daniel Cormier have held onto their titles this year, and in the latter case that is only due to the out-of-cage indiscretions of Jon Jones.

There is the argument that this revolving door of champions is an exciting element of the sport: if anyone—even a champion—can lose, the argument runs, then no fight is a foregone conclusion, and thus every fight is exciting. It is a valid claim, but only to a point. When championship fighting descends into a game of pass the parcel, there is a problem, because though the fan wants action, he or she also wants to see personalities, and to have heroes to rally behind. See how the darling of the UFC Ronda Rousey’s popularity fell through the floor when she was knocked out cold by Holly Holm. Sport is competition, but it is theatre too, and it is the UFC’s understanding of this fact that has led it to have the near-monopoly it holds on mixed martial arts today.

It takes time to characterise a champion enough to appeal to the casual fan and to permit the UFC to gain the exposure it needs in the mainstream sporting world. Let us hope, then, that some of the current crop of belt-holders hang onto their gold for a little while.

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‘Star Trek: Beyond’

Review: 'Star Trek: Beyond'

IT IS TO THE credit of writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman and director J.J. Abrams that I enjoyed the first instalment of the new Star Trek franchise despite finding the original television series about as thrilling to watch as a loading screen. It is to their further credit that I found the second instalment, Into Darkness––rated by Trekkies as the their least favourite Star Trek film ever, incidentally––to be a solid follow-up (thanks in large part to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan) if not exactly thrilling. The third, however, Star Trek: Beyond, fails to go––well––beyond anything. Rather, new director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung seek out safety in the familiar, and the result is big-budget blandness.

Star Trek: Beyond, fails to go––well––beyond anything. Rather, new director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung seek out safety in the familiar, and the result is big-budget blandness.

The best action of the film comes in the first half-hour, when the U.S.S. Enterprise, which has been sent on a “straightforward” (uh-oh) rescue mission to a stony faraway planet, is torn apart by a swarm of spiked ships at the direction of the reptilian Krall (Idris Elba), a villain who, in typical Star Trek fashion, just happens to look exactly like a human but for a few added appendages and to have a good grasp of conversational English. The destruction of the Enterprise is a visually dazzling event, let down, perhaps, only by the failure of the franchise to establish the Enterprise as anything more than a very large prop, and so to give the scene any emotional weight. And it’s all downhill from there, as they say. Like their predecessors, Pegg and Jung have vanishingly little to say about the Enterprise’s cowboy captain James Kirk (Chris Pine), who, at the film’s inception, is considering handing over the reigns and taking a high-level desk job, or, for that matter, anyone else in his motley crew. (You do wonder, incidentally, how Kirk, who the franchise has established as being not quite the brightest star in the universe, would handle a desk job.) The effects, which include a gyrospherical space station in the style of the eponymous Elysium, are certainly impressive, but its all par for the course.

It seems slightly unbelievable that an actor, having been promoted to writer, might promptly give himself a greater role and all the best lines, but it appears that is exactly what Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, has gone and done. The stranding of the U.S.S. Enterprise crew on the planet Altamid permits Scotty and his peculiar little alien colleague to leave the basement of the ship for once and roam the planet with Beyond’s plucky new alien heroine, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), occupying screen time that might have been issued better, relatively speaking, to Spock (Zachary Quinto), or Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), which would also save the audience from its subjection to a string of gags which, unless you believe there to be something inherently amusing about a Scottish accent, aren’t funny enough even to force a smile. And the less said about the banter between Spock and Bones, the better. (A (serious) question: Is anyone remotely entertained by Spock’s logical deadpan?) It’s a crying shame that Pegg could not think up a better script, not least because he is most of the time a comic writer of the very first rate: Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are comfortably among the funniest British films of the last ten years, and I dare anyone to disagree.

It’s a crying shame that Pegg could not think up a better script, not least because he is most of the time a comic writer of the very first rate.

If the objective of the Star Trek film reboot was to make the series appealing to agnostics such as myself, then Beyond must be seen as an abject failure, because it’s hard to imagine anyone other than die-hard Trekkies finding much to rave about with this tedious film. Star Trek: Beyond is, to put it plainly, poor stuff, and instantly forgettable. “Things have started to feel episodic,” muses Kirk in the captain’s log. You bet.

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’10 Cloverfield Lane’

10 Cloverfield Lane

WHY IS IT, I wonder, that the female action survivor lead is such a popular cinematic trope? Is it the suggestion of physical vulnerability, which renders the—likely male—villain more intimidating, and her inevitable escape more heroic? I don’t know, but it’s no substitute for meaningful psychological development, which is the area in which Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane fails miserably.

The film signals a departure both in style and narrative from its predecessor, which means no shaky handheld footage and no hysterical running away from whatever the hell it is that is taking chunks out of the Big Apple. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a concrete room with her leg chained to the wall after crashing her car leaving New Orleans following a row with her fiancé, Ben. Soon after, we meet her captor, Howard (John Goodman) who tells her, cryptically, that he is “going to keep you alive”. Michelle’s early attempts at escape fail, but she nonetheless shows herself to be highly intelligent and resourceful. She sharpens a wooden crutch into a stake and then creates a fire in the room’s air duct to get Howard’s attention. Howard tells Michelle not long after that there was a “chemical or nuclear attack” by “Russians” or, he says without humour or self-awareness, “Martians”, and the fallout could last up to two years.

Howard’s account has the advantage of corresponding to the events of the first film, of course, in which the arrival of the monster was assumed by the public to be some sort of attack, but we still can’t be certain, and if we are skeptical about Howard’s account of how Michelle came to be in the bunker, we must treat everything said by him and about him with skepticism. It isn’t long after before we see the signs of Howard’s other side. During a tour of the house he insists drinks are placed “on coasters” on the table, and VHS cassettes put “back in their sleeves” after use, and something tells us that this does not suggest a desire to maintain normality, but an authoritarian streak that may develop into something much more sinister as the film goes on.

Howard’s neuroticism doesn’t necessarily denote he isn’t telling the truth, of course, but even if Michelle concedes—however hesitantly—that he did rescue her from a grisly demise, she still faces the rather unappealing prospect of spending a year or more trapped in a bunker with him. What’s more, simply because he is telling the truth and it isn’t safe to be outside does not mean that it is safe to be locked in a bunker with him either.

The story, then, is more about Howard than it is about the nominal protagonist, which turns out to be fortunate because I never much cared either for Michelle or for her co-captive, Emmett, and during the scenes in which they are alone together Goodman’s sinister presence is notably absent. Michelle’s character arc is interesting enough, but scant attention is paid by the filmmakers to the psychology of the character and we learn so little of her inner life that she is never elevated to more than just a plucky survivor in the much-used mould of Alien‘s Ellen Ripley. The useless Emmett, meanwhile, barely graduates from being “the third person in the bunker”.

But where the film succeeds is in Goodman’s portrayal of Howard, who walks perpetually along a line between trustworthy and untrustworthy, sane and insane, good and evil, and with enough skill that early on you stop caring whether or not there is a 300-foot monster and his friends causing civilisation-ending mischief outside. It’s a performance which engenders a deep and lasting feeling of unease, intensified by a soundtrack that alternates between Bear McCreary’s dark score and upbeat pop from the bunker’s jukebox. The production and set design (by Ramsey Avery, and Michelle Marchand II and Kellie Jo Tinney respectively) is also very good: the bunker has a blandly artificial homeliness which makes it all the more claustrophobic.

10 Cloverfield Lane will hold your attention if only for finding out what, if anything, Howard is up to. It’s an improvement on Cloverfield, even if it is a spiritual successor rather than a direct one, but it never really becomes much more than a simple suspense story with weak elements of psychological horror.

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A Sorry Send-Off for Zuffa but a Good Night for Nunes

UFC 200

IT WAS TO BE the biggest event in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and I, like all UFC fans, was salivating at the prospect. Conor McGregor would hope to avenge his loss to Nate Diaz in a Welterweight match at the top of a card stacked with big names and bigger match-ups.

But then that fight was cancelled, and the UFC announced the new headline bout would be a Light Heavyweight Championship rematch between Daniel Cormier, the incumbent, and Jon Jones, who was stripped of the title after a hit-and-run incident after UFC 182. And so we said, Well, that’s a shame, but that will be a good scrap.

And then that fight was cancelled too, and so the Women’s Bantamweight Championship fight between Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes that was already scheduled was bumped up the card.

It is no surprise, all the above considered, that the event was not the spectacle it was hoped to be, nor the send-off that outgoing Zuffa, which has owned the UFC since January 2001, deserved. And if we thought that the stacked undercard would compensate for a less-than-thrilling headline bout, we were to be disappointed. Just two of the nine bouts on the preliminary and main cards ended with a stoppage, and in the aftermath of the event we all woke to the news that an out-of-competition sample provided by Brock Lesnar, who made a triumphant return to mixed martial arts with a victory over the former K-1 World Grand Prix winner, Mark Hunt, possibly violated Anti-Doping Policy.

If Cain Velasquez had hoped to show the world he still had what it takes to be a champion following his upset third-round loss to Fabricio Werdum at UFC 188, he undoubtedly did so. In the first fight of the main card, Velasquez swiftly dispatched Travis Browne with punches at the death of the first round. There was not enough action for us to tell if Cardio Cain’s trademark endurance was back to pre-injury levels. We have no reason to suspect that it wouldn’t be, of course, but though Velasquez blamed his lethargy during the Werdum fight on the altitude of Mexico City, it cannot be ruled out that he his conditioning was simply inadequate after a twenty-month layoff.

A resurgent Jose Aldo Jr., whose ten-year reign as Featherweight Champion was ended in just thirteen seconds by Conor McGregor last December, gave a lesson in counter-punching to out-point a relentlessly aggressive Frankie Edgar––on a five-fight win streak that began following a loss to Aldo in 2013––and claim the interim belt.

The Brazilian wasted little time in making it crystal clear that his “one goal” was to avenge his loss to McGregor, who he is expected to face should McGregor beat Nate Diaz on 20th August.

Anderson Silva stepped in for the banned Jon Jones to face Daniel Cormier in the next fight on the card. In spite of the best efforts of the UFC to claim otherwise, Silva is nowhere near the level he was at in his Rich Franklin-beating prime, or even before his broken leg, and it showed when he fought Cormier. That’s not to say that Daniel Cormier is not one of the world’s best fighters, but I would fancy a prime Silva to beat him comfortably. As it was, Cormier secured the win, but with a notably lacklustre performance that he puts down to “awe” at finding himself in the octagon with arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. It’s a shame for Cormier, who, having finally won over fans with the way in which he reacted to Jones’s withdrawal and his insistence that he would fight his replacement, turned them against him once more with a thoroughly tactical, wrestling-heavy performance.

Cormier rightly pointed out that in his last three performances he has won fight of the night twice and performance of the night once. What’s more, the hysterical reaction to Brock Lesnar’s equally tactical showing again Mark Hunt suggests that the fans just don’t like Cormier, or, I suspect, won’t warm to him until he legitimises his title with a victory against Jon Jones, the man fans see as the rightful champ. (Which is to say that the fans may never like Cormier, since Jones cannot seem to get his behaviour out of the octagon under control.)

The former Heavyweight Champion and WWE Superstar Brock Lesnar made his return to the octagon after a four-year absence in the penultimate fight of the main card. Lesnar got the win, but it was a poor fight. There was no typical Lesnar ground-and-pound, no massive one-punch KO from Hunt. Lesnar ground out his victory over three rounds. After four years away from the sport, perhaps we can absolve him of too much blame. Personally, I’d like to see a rematch between Lesnar and Alistair Overeem, who defeated in the former within a round on his UFC debut in 2011.

Amanda Nunes proved, once again, the mixed martial arts adage that A-beats-B, B-beats-C, C-beats-A when she dominated champion Miesha Tate in the headline bout. Nunes, a strike specialist, wobbled Tate early on with hard punches before the champion took matters to the mat. It did no good for Tate, who was quickly submitted by Nunes with a rear-naked choke––the same submission with which Tate defeated Holly Holm. The Women’s Bantamweight title has now changed hands three times in nine months and will likely change again should Ronda Rousey decide that regaining the title is more important than avenging her loss to Holly Holm. UFC president Dana White said after UFC 200 that “Ronda’s going to make the decision” on who to fight next. Holm, too, will want a crack at Nunes. Both Nunes and Holm are specialist strikers, which makes for an interesting fight.

It wasn’t an ideal night for the fans or for Zuffa and consequently UFC 200 risks being remembered more for the absence of Jon Jones than for the fights. But though it was a sorry send-off for Zuffa, it was a good night for Velasquez, who looked back to his best, and Jose Aldo Jr., who put it one of his best performances to date. Amanda Nunes in particular will be satisfied with the ease with which she put away Miesha Tate, and can start preparing for a rematch with Ronda Rousey.

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‘The Neon Demon’

The Neon Demon

DO NOT BE FOOLED––Nicholas Winding Refn’s gruesome and glamorous new flick, The Neon Demon, is not your typical horror film. It is a bold, visionary and stylish work rich with allegory, and sometimes arresting in its blend of beauty and brutality.

The film opens in a strange and dreamlike non-space, where the blood-drenched, doll-like model Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, poses on a sofa for a photographer, Dean (Karl Glusman).

In an adjoining room, makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who evidently has amorous designs on Jesse, introduces herself, and offers to help to wipe off the synthetic blood before inviting her to a party.

At the party, high fashion models Gigi and Sarah, played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, accost Jessie and bombard her with superficial flattery. Jesse reacts with surprise to Gigi’s boasts of how her plastic surgeon calls her “The Bionic Woman” on account of her countless nips and tucks, the tone changes and the women start to interrogate her: they ask, for example, who she is fucking––“you do fuck men, don’t you?”––because who she is fucking, they say, is the surest way to find out how far she will go and the surest way, therefore, that they know how big a threat she poses to them.

This is the Los Angeles fashion industry of Winding Refn’s vision, and the world which Jesse must now navigate. It is a hierarchical, territorial and savage world where the old and the new, the natural and the artificial, and the glamorous and violent clash. Mirrors, cameras and eyes are everywhere. They are a constant reminder to their subjects of their beauty and of the transience of that beauty.

The world into which Jesse enters is unyieldingly hostile, and the threats to which she is exposed are not limited solely to the models she is beginning to replace. Hank, the owner of the hotel in which she is staying, played by a gruff and bearded Keanu Reeves, looms in the background with his talk of “hard candy” and “real Lolita shit” and the suffocating kindness of Ruby, whose romantic overtures Jesse is too immature to detect, carries the menace of unwanted escalation.

And yet it is Jesse’s immaturity, her innocence––both in look and in being––which is her power. Her virginal, ethereal beauty isolates her from the others models to such an extent that she appears otherworldly. She tells Dean, who is kind and dull, and the only sympathetic character in the story, that as a child she imagined the moon to be “a big round eye”. It’s a repeating motif : another model asks Jesse what it is like to be “the sun” during the winter months and, later, the self-important fashion designer Mikey, played by Charles Baker, calls her “a diamond in a sea of glass”. In one scene, Jesse, who wears a long, flowing white night-dress, appears to hover like an apparition on the edge of the diving board of an empty pool.

The analogy of the fashion industry with the jungle, where the “alpha” model may at any time be supplanted by a younger, more beautiful version is, at times, overplayed. A cougar (or a mountain lion to Americans) enters Jesse’s dingy hotel room in an early scene, and later she walks past a large stuffed leopard displayed in a house. It is a clumsy reference. The cats, like the models, at once embody graceful beauty, independence and savagery. There is allusion to the vampiric, too. The celebrity photographer, Jack (Desmond Harrington) drags his fingers along the side of Jesse’s neck when he “anoints” her with gold paint. Ruby, in a later scene, touches Jesse’s neck when she kisses her cheek. Following the catwalk audition, the wild and furious Sarah literally tries to drink the blood seeping out of the cut on Jesse’s hand.

The teenage Fanning, who was sixteen at the time she began filming, is aptly cast as Jesse. For long stretches of The Neon Demon her performance is purely physical––this is typical of Winding Refn’s characters––and she conveys excellently the fragile, deer-in-the-headlights innocence (one character in fact says this, literally) that is of such importance to the plot. Her dreamlike, transformative scene on the catwalk is particularly memorable.

The Neon Demon threatens to fall into the same trap into which other Winding Refn films have fallen. Winding Refn tends towards overindulgence of his signature and supreme style. He may linger over a particular shot for just a fraction too long;, and his fondness for minimal dialogue can go too far. When the balance is right, it works brilliantly––in Drive, for instance––but when it is off, it can become, well, dull––see Only God Forgives. In The Neon Demon, the balance is there, more or less, but indisputably there are times when the film requires a marginally quicker pace, a shot held for just a little less time. What’s more, the narrative is certainly too long. A twenty-five-minute addendum of sorts adds little to the film.

The Neon Demon is, however, breathtakingly beautiful. Hyper-colour is Winding Refn’s signature, but in none of his films is it more apt than in The Neon Demon. Neon, though bright and colourful, is equally cheerless and empty. It is a byword for lifeless commercialism. The fashion world of Winding Refn’s vision is bright and glamorous––but it has no soul. What’s more, the contrast that distinguishes Winding Refn’s unique aesthetic (Winding Refn is colourblind and cannot see mid-colours) corresponds to Jesse’s “other”-ness: her jarring beauty.

The Neon Demon is a horror film with the hand print of Nicholas Winding Refn all over it, which is to say that it is much more than a horror film. It is a gory and glamorous allegorical take on the world of high fashion, sustained by a triumphant Elle Fanning as its porcelain-doll protagonist, and hypnotic in its alluring visuals and the scattered electronic tones of long-time Winding Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez.

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‘Zero Days’

Zero Days

IT IS QUITE CONCERNING to realise upon finishing Alex Gibney’s cyberwarfare documentary Zero Days that the overwhelming majority of people have no idea that cyberwarfare on an international scale may be taking place, or that computer code has reached such a level of sophistication as to influence the physical world.

The film concerns the emergence of the mysterious self-replicating Stuxnet computer worm, a highly complex, highly malicious piece of code now “on the loose”, and Gibney’s mission to discover why it is so dangerous and why nobody seems to want to talk about it.

The “zero days” which give the film its title are unknown vulnerabilities within software that leave that software able to be exploited by hackers but with no opportunity for detection by the developer. It is called a “zero day” because once the software’s author realises that his software carries such a vulnerability, he or she has zero days to fix the code and distribute a patch or software update. In other words, to discover the existence of a zero-day vulnerability is to find you have already been hacked; it can take months or years before a developer learns of the vulnerability.

Stuxnet was developed jointly by the American and Israeli intelligence services–neither country has admitted to this, and it is a major plot point–to infiltrate the network at Iran’s nuclear development facility in Naranz and sabotage the centrifuges which enrich the uranium oxide isotope needed to make a weapon. It uses four different zero-day exploits, which had never before been seen and has not been seen since.

But though the meat of the film may belong to Stuxnet, it is equally about the future of warfare. In a memorable scene, an Israeli intelligence operative describes how for thousands of years, combat was conducted by the army and the navy. In the early part of the 20th century, it was expanded to include the air force. Gibney makes the compelling–and concerning–case that in the future, war will be conducted from behind computer terminals with complex, attack-minded malware intended not to gather information, but to cause physical harm, and if we suspected this to be the case already, Gibney illustrates just how far along the road we are. A team of determined hackers in one part of the world may be able to disable the power grid in another and, as one talking head notes, a power grid is not something you can simply boot back up.

Zero Days is also a detective story of sorts. Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu, who are security responders at Symantec in California, describe how after a month’s examination of the Stuxnet code they were only beginning to understand its purpose (it usually takes them “minutes” to analyse a piece of malware) and so they undertook “deep analysis”–a slow and painstaking process of unpicking the code bit by bit. Around the world, other computer security experts were doing the same. In effect, what these specialists proceeded to do was see what leads they had and pursue them from place to place. The only difference between these men and women and a private investigator or police detective was that they never had to leave their computer. The future of warfare may be cyber, but perhaps the future of detective stories is too.

The film’s assorted talking heads–among them security response teams, consultants, Mossad agents, and a composite, digitally generated character giving testimony on behalf of NSA whistleblowers–and the manner in which Gibney uses visualisations of the code, do an effective job of expounding an area of computing that tends to leave many scratching their heads, if not completely overwhelmed.

Gibney has proved himself to be one of the world’s very best investigative documentary makers and the very best at dealing with controversial or secretive subjects. The maker of the scientology documentary Going Clear and the WikiLeaks documentary We Steal Secrets interweaves footage of interviews with visualisations and archival video in Zero Days smoothly and with forceful pacing so as to create a narrative that is utterly compelling. It is an intriguing watch which leads you to arrive at the conclusion that if a cyber nonproliferation treaty is not being discussed, it certainly ought to be.

In November of 2009, nine researchers from the media lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were among eleven authors of a paper in which it was argued that to be unable to code was to be illiterate. “For those who cannot program in the 21st century,” the authors wrote, “it’s as if they can ‘read’ but not ‘write.’” Perhaps–but you do wonder, given these new and hidden dangers, if those who don’t understand programming may be leaving themselves highly vulnerable, too.

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‘The Secret Life of Pets’

The Secret Life of Pets

IT IS THE SORT of question that has at some point crossed the minds of all pet owners: What do our animals do when we’re not at home? If Chris Renaud’s The Secret Life of Pets is anything to by, they throw parties, face off with feral cat gangs and try their best to avoid death at the hands of a human-murdering, sewer-dwelling animal movement.

Pets revolves around a terrier, Max (Louis C.K.), whose cheerful, orderly life in an apartment in New York is threatened when his beloved owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home the enormous, dopey Duke, voiced by Eric Stonestreet, from the pound. Soon, the pair and a host of animal friends including a love-sick Pomeranian (Jenny Slate), a lazy house cat (Lake Bell) and a stupid pug (Bobby Moynahan), are on an adventure that takes them down into the Brooklyn sewers and face to face with a human-hating animal cult.The Secret Life of Pets

Pets is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, but it feels like a collection of scenes or sketches hastily thrown together. The story seems to have been written for the sole purpose of pulling together a collection of sketches, and relies on extended chase sequences in lieu of real drama for much of the second act. The visual comedy makes up in part for the lack of originality, though not entirely. It’s the same trap into which the Despicable Me spin-off, Minions–also, incidentally, produced by Illumination Entertainment–fell.

The main character isn’t a particularly interesting hero in the way that, say, Woody from Toy Story–to which Pets owes a great debt–is. In fact, it is the characters we see the least of–a self-loathing hawk, a headbanging poodle–who steal the film. The more we see of Max and his co., and his pychotic rabbit antagonist (Kevin Hart), the more tired their idiosyncrasies become and the more two-dimensional they are shown to be.

There is, nonetheless, a great deal to like about Pets. It is animated beautifully, and an upbeat, jazz-influenced score, courtesy of the veteran composer Alexandre Desplat, keeps the tone of the film cheerful and undemanding. It may not entertain adults and children equally in the same way that audiences have come to expect, but it nonetheless achieves what it sets out to achieve, and has just enough wit and style to hold the interest of parents while their children enjoy the toilet humour and Looney Tunes-style slapstick.

The Secret Life of Pets has the great misfortune of having been released in the same year as Zootopia, which is more funny, more intelligent, more imaginative and has a far more engaging plot. But that isn’t to say Pets is a bad film, and it is a testament to the high quality of the animated feature films released in recent years that it feels a little disappointing.

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YOU DO WONDER WHAT sort of man endures with so little concern two major public scandals, one of which ends his political career for good, and, equally, what sort of man, his face already a regular vision in the newspapers, invites a documentary film crew to follow his campaign for the mayorship of New York City. This is the wholly unintentional theme of Weiner, the new documentary by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg.

Anthony Weiner was a seven-time congressman and rising star in the Democratic Party with a penchant for delivering slightly hysterical public denunciations of his political counterparts when he felt the situation merited. The first and most famous time Weiner did this was when he chastised the GOP for voting against a plan to remunerate the firefighters involved in the 9/11 rescue efforts.

Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 after photographs of his bulging underwear appeared on Twitter, but returned to politics only two years later to run in the Democratic Party primary for Mayor of New York City. This is where the film begins. Weiner is hardly the first public figure to be the subject of a sex scandal, and New Yorkers are willing to give him a second chance. And then, while at or near the top of a long list of candidates in the polls, the news of the second scandal breaks.

The real victim in this ungodly mess is Anthony Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton and a respected political figure in her own right: some of Weiner’s supporters go as far as to say that they voted for him because he was a sort of proxy for her.

Huma stands by Weiner throughout, and though you sense that the marriage has more to do with the mutual benefit it has to their political careers than to their loving devotion to each other, her husband’s indiscretions clearly take their toll. There is a revealing public moment when Huma speaks to the press after Weiner’s second almighty fuck-up and fails despite her words of support to conceal her abject misery. There are also a string of scenes, filmed in the wake of the second scandal, during which Huma looks more confused that anything that her husband doesn’t seem all that bothered. And that brings us back to the original question.Weiner

I am hesitant to use so readily that psychological diagnosis of the day, psychopath, to describe Weiner, though you do suspect he must be on the spectrum somewhere. And I am not the first person to raise the possibility. The signs, as they say, are all there. He is verbose and charismatic, exhibitionistic, and a liar, and he seems not to learn at all from his past mistakes. (Incidentally, the New York Post reports that Weiner has been involved in a third sexting scandal, after which Huma finally decided, very understandably, that enough was enough.)

In any case, Weiner is nothing if not highly watchable. In one scene he might be getting into shouting matches in bakeries; in the next he might be running down New York streets brandishing the Pride flag or giving the press the finger. Consequently Kriegman and Steinberg have very little to do except hold the camera, sit back, and wait for the next dramatic outburst. Weiner is a hilarious, outrageous and fascinating look at a political campaign in full meltdown and at the centre of it all, a man who just does not know when to stop.

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Illegal Highs

AS MUCH OF THE West looks to find ways to legalise the use of drugs for recreational or medicinal purposes, the British Government in its boundless wisdom has decided to do precisely the opposite.

The Government rolled out a blanket ban on so-called legal highs (now an inadequate term, of course). The ban covers anything that is psychoactive, that is, anything which “produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”. (This includes, by the way, not only Spice, Benzo Fury and other synthetic drugs but marker pens and nail polish remover.)

Ignore for now the myriad legal and scientific problems that will arise from this clumsily-proscribed law. The ban will not have the desired effect. It will instead only push users towards the Dark Net and towards ever-more-dangerous substances synthesised by scientists in China or India playing cat-and-mouse with international drug law. Now the class-A dealers pushing cocaine or heroin can now add MDAT, Magic and Sence to their inventories–heavily diluted, of course, with often-toxic cutting agents such as dog wormer or atropine, the aim of which is to maximise product and therefore profit. There have been reports of the head shops themselves selling these dealers their now-illegal stock in bulk to cut their losses.

Ireland has a similar policy towards synthetic substances, and, put simply, it hasn’t worked. A BBC investigation in 2010 found not only can the drugs be found on the streets, but they can be found on the regular Internet, ready for direct shipping in plain packaging. A report by the European Union concluded that with such a large number of synthetic drugs in existence, such a law was almost impossible to implement effectively.

And since basic economic literacy seems to be neither here nor there in these matters, fifty-plus years of prohibition has surely proved empirically and emphatically that in this world, where there is demand, there is always supply. There has been no real decline in drug use or availability. We find ourselves, in other words, with no fewer “legal highs” in circulation, except now they are infinitely more unsafe, and in the hands of more dangerous people.

Prohibition is truly the root cause of the legal high “problem”. If the Government did not insist on treating the electorate like children, unable to make their own choices on what substances–healthy or not–they may put in their bodies, drug-users would not be nudged in the direction of highly-unsafe synthetic substances which replicate more “traditional” ones. Synthetic drugs are never the first choice: they are bought by those who cannot get access to their first choice–sometimes because they are too young–or those who cannot afford them–again, sometimes because they are too young. (And rest assured these synthetic substances are less safe: the Global Drugs Survey found that users of synthetic cannabis are thirty times more likely to end up in hospital than users of natural cannabis.) There would have been much less demand among impoverished inner-city New Yorkers for crack if the price of cocaine was not driven to astronomical heights by drug prohibition.

Common sense dictates that making available recreational drugs, on the condition that they are subject to the most stringent safety tests available, is a far better approach to keeping those desiring to take those substances free from harm, with the added benefit of shrinking the black market and expanding the Treasury coffers.

And that is not to mention the excellent and pioneering work on the benefits of banned substances by Professor David Nutt, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris and the team at MAPS among others, nor the resounding success of liberal drug policy in Portugal, the Netherlands, Colorado and Washington.

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ALMOST ALL OF my admittedly little knowledge of World of Warcraft comes from the South Park episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft”, in which Cartman and his two-dimensional retinue get fat and disgusting in their attempts to kill an online griefer. I appreciate this unflattering portrayal of a dizzyingly successful gaming franchise is hardly fair, but as much as I tried to shake the image of Cartman shitting in a paper bag from my mind, I approached Duncan Jones’s film adaptation with it swirling around my skull. I suppose it is quite memorable.

The film opens with two loved-up orcs: the braided chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin), the both of them lying on the bed in an orc hut that aimed for shabby chic and ended up merely shabby. Outside, hundreds of their fellow orcs cheer like the Tory backbench as the bearded, hooded, hunch-backed warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) reveals his plan to travel through a magic portal to Earth-expy Azeroth and kill everything in sight. They are, after all, orcs. Durotan, who in orc terms is something like a Greenpeace volunteer, has reservations about all this mindless species annihilation.

On idyllic Azeroth, where the birds sing, the children play and all races live in harmony, a runaway wizard named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) warns the utterly uncharismatic King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and his brother-in-law, the army commander Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), that he’s detected some bad juju in the Azerothian air. He’s right of course, and soon enough the orc ‘war band’ arrive.

Meanwhile, on idyllic Azeroth, where the birds sing, the children play and all races live in harmony, a runaway wizard named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) warns the utterly uncharismatic King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and his brother-in-law, the army commander Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), that he’s detected some bad juju in the Azerothian air. He’s right of course, and soon enough the orc ‘war band’ arrive, all of them looking like powerlifters with severe underbites who have just missed their targets in the bench. Durotan’s wife, who was inexplicably allowed to travel through the depths of magical space despite being in the third trimester, promptly gives birth to a little orclet that looks like a French Bulldog. Fortunately for the humans about to get savaged by these oversized, viridescent lunatics, a ‘mechanical miracle’––the ‘boom-stick’, which is sort of like a medieval Magnum .44––has just been invented. At the same time, nature-lover Durotan, keen for his newborn to grow up somewhere he can kick a ball around outside, is flirting with the idea of helping the humans dispatch Gul’dan, whose dark magic has turned his home-world, Draenor, into a thoroughly depressing place.

Fortunately for the humans about to get savaged by these oversized, viridescent lunatics, a ‘mechanical miracle’––the ‘boom-stick’, which is sort of like a medieval Magnum .44––has just been invented. At the same time, nature-lover Durotan, keen for his newborn to grow up somewhere he can kick a ball around outside, is flirting with the idea of helping the humans dispatch Gul’dan, whose dark magic has turned his home-world, Draenor, into a thoroughly depressing place.

The plot moves along at a clip. Within fifteen minutes director Duncan Jones has introduced all the main characters and their various confused accents and racial backgrounds and outfits which look as if they were bought in the fancy dress shop down the road. There’s a good deal of rushing around on horseback from sprawling city to sprawling city––the cityscapes, by the way, are genuinely gorgeous––and fantasy jargon-filled conversations delivered in grave tones. Sometimes Ramin Djawadi’s grand orchestral score tries to evoke a sense of the epic that is hilariously at odds with the emotion actually conveyed by the actors on screen. The film isn’t remotely interesting until the first orc raid on Azerothian turf, which culminates in a well executed battle sequence in a magical forest and the eventual capture of a plucky half-orc, half-human slave called Garona (Paula Patton), who says things like, ‘You think you’re fearsome? Orc children have pets more fearsome than you’ and who reminds you, every time she appears on screen, of the Mexican lager you could be drinking instead of watching the film. The battle scenes are easily the best thing about Warcraft but then, there isn’t much competition, and as the film goes on even the action scenes get tedious.

What’s most confusing about Warcraft is that a talented minimalist sci-fi director like Duncan Jones accepted a $160 million wannabe epic and game adaptation. The team behind the visual effects, the costumes, the makeup and the production design deserve some credit, but none of them could alleviate the crushing boredom I felt all the way through the film. The best thing I can say about Warcraft is that it could be worse.

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