Saturday, August 22, 2009

Try hard and fail anyway?

It’s that time of year again, that is: the publication of A-Level results, and the subsequent accusations that the exams are getting easier. I must admit I feel a lot of sympathy with the students having to weather this stressful time, which is of course made even more stressful by the the media; politicians and armchair-experts everywhere denigrating – what is for some – a well earned achievement.

I remember three years ago when I got my A-Levels and I was met with a situation a bit like many students are facing this year - in that I didn’t initially get the necessary results - and because of the competition for my degree choice I had to get a remark to be admitted; which of course is history now, as I got a remark, got onto, and have now graduated from said degree. Still this problem seems to be affecting more and more students, as A-Level passes have risen for the 27th year in a row, and this year: one in four A-levels taken this year was scored an A grade means that the problem I faced is set to become more common.

Not only that, but it has led to the inevitable moaning – from people who I believe would have happily gone to Uni, if not denied the chance for whatever reason – that A-Levels are meaningless; are being dumbed down and are a waste of time - with one back-seat commentator claiming that there is a: “serious dumbing down of standards: "All you lot who see no problem with the exam system today are condemning a generation to mediocrity”. Exams are not dumbing down as much as people seem to think. In fact, I think what we are seeing is testimony of more attuned and effective teaching methods. After all, things have moved on somewhat from the dull bombardment of facts from my Dad’s generation. Sure things aren’t perfect now, but considering that everyone nowadays is herded towards higher education is it any surprise that more people are passing?

The mere fact that A-Level entries have risen – because without A-Levels it is a huge disadvantage to people’s career aspirations as companies may not cast a look at a CV without academic qualifications – is probably more the cause of the rise of passing grades. The worst thing about this scenario is that the companies who insist on degrees are also the ones who moan that degree’s aren’t effective (a personal pet peeve of mine as a graduate), and to that all I can say is it’s the companies own fault for placing themselves – and by proxy students – into this position. Are we saying that for society to benefit more people have to fail? That is a backward thought, and one that the younger working class population is sure to bear the brunt of.

One thing is certain about today’s education system, and that is that the youth are placed at a great disadvantage as any achievement is summarily denigrated by higher-ups; jealous has-beens and know-it-all talking-heads. Once you have waded precariously through the system, you then find yourself cast into a world where no-one wants to know about you, because all the jobs seem to be reserved for people who’ve been in a career for 10 years anyway. The older generation, the ones who told us to get A-Levels and go to Uni, are the ones who hold all the jobs and consistently move the goal posts of employment and achievement. Finally to cap it all we (the 18 – 25 age-group of today) are going to have to pay their pensions with what money we do earn – and probably on top of our student debt payments. And people wonder why we have no motivation today, when everything we work hard for is often for so-little praise or reward.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Moon - A review

I was lucky enough last week, to be invited to London to see a new independent film called Moon, directed by Duncan Jones – the man formally known as Zowie Bowie – and starring Sam Rockwell.

The film centres on the life of Sam Bell, who is on a three year contract as the solitary operator/caretaker of the Sarang Moon mining base, and to compound his loneliness a malfunctioning satellite has limited his contact with earth to infrequent pre-recorded messages. His only companion is Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) an advanced computer, who assists Sam in his day to day activates; as well as keeping him from going mad with loneliness. However, one day Sam has an accident, and this begins the unravelling of the sinister truth behind the life of the isolated moon base operator.

I have to say I found the plot for this film absolutely fascinating, and it challenges it’s audience to really question what the hell is going on. Sometimes this is a bit jarring, and the film guards it’s secrets adequately well, however the payoff for this engagement is worthwhile if a quite sad. However, when the film does unveil its secrets, it relies on the less-is-more approach; which may alienate some people more used to the Hollywood format of heavily underlining dramatic plot devices, but for those viewers who fancy a bit of challenge it will certainly please. The future portrayed is also adequately believable, and the film doesn’t try to show off how advanced it can make the future look; instead it just portrays something we’ve seen before in sci-fi although a slightly differently.

This film also features some great performances from the handful of actors who do appear. Praise must obviously be reserved for Rockwell, who does a stellar job portraying what is almost a one-man cast. Rockwell manages to convey a complex range of juxtaposed emotions, as the film shifts between light-hearted comedy, serious sci-fi and emotional crescendos. Spacey too deserves kudos for his part as Gerty the robot; for portraying possibly the cuddliest robotic voice ever – like a mix between Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Father Christmas. There is also an interesting cameo from Matt Berry, who British viewers may recognise as Douglas from the IT Crowd and as the voice of Absolute FM.

I feel also that most viewers will be surprised at what the makers have managed on the modest $5 Million budget. Jones and his production team have done a fantastic job of realising the moon’s surface and the base through simple model effects - with a bit of touching up from computers obviously. It is certainly no Transformers 2 when this film comes to effects, but the old-school feel doesn’t fall flat for it. However, I feel the highest praise should be credited to the musical score for this film, which stands up well against other sci-fi soundtracks. The beauty of the music in this film is that it encompasses the emotional turmoil experienced by Sam, and also fits the lonely outer-space setting well too.

Overall I would recommend seeing Moon. It’s a clever and intelligent film, which has managed to achieve far more with the little resources that the makers had, than some of the mindless big-budget extravaganzas, which is a welcome change.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Hamdemic

The lurking prospect of a Swine Flu pandemic has been keeping newspapers and analysts busy for much of this year. Since the virus first touched down in the UK - in all its coughing; spluttering; cataclysmic glory - the press have been reporting it in varying tones; ranging from the doom bringing claim that “Swine flu posed a greater threat than terrorism” according to Home Secretary Alan Johnson, to the faintly ridiculous Sun Headline “Swine Flu could be good for you.” Indeed, it has meant that the usual summer lull for the news media has been less quiet than usual, and to be fair they have had their pick of the big stories what with Michael Jackson dying, the ongoing recession and such, to keep people reading the news.

Still, all this talk about the government implementing far-reaching strategies to contain the virus, such as face-masks and sending out advice leaflets to every home in the country, only makes us lose touch with the reality of the situation – namely that we’re just talking about flu here. Yes, it’s true that with historical context in mind, the previous flu pandemics were disastrous, resulting in the deaths of millions worldwide. However, looking at the context a second time one can see that as medical science; understandings of hygiene and living conditions improved fewer deaths occurred each time a pandemic flared up. At this point in time there is no reason to fear the dreaded bug, unless of course you are old, have chronic health problems and are living in the third world. For most of us it’s going to require a couple of days in bed with, some tissues and a lot of hot tea, but we shall probably still live to tell the tale, which is surprising when some of the more ‘sensible’ newspapers have drawn comparisons between this pandemic, and the gritty 1970s post apocalyptic series Survivors. What next? Are they going to start claiming that Swine flu is going to be similar to 28 Days later, zombified infected and all?

In fact to add a further layer of context to this, I think I may have this week succumbed to swine flu, although I have no real proof for this as it was never diagnosed by a doctor. All I can say is that if it was swine flu, then all we have to worry about is feeling slightly rotten for two days, sleeping a lot and generally badgering family members to fetch me hot drinks. I haven’t emerged from the experience, with a snout - or more crucially dead – I wasn’t speaking in tongues during the illness, I didn’t go gangrenous or any of that stuff. It was nothing like being a patient in an episode of House; having all sorts of weird and wacky symptoms, which the swine flu hype had prepared me for.

Inevitably it’s the press’s job to report on important matters such as this, although sometimes people can suggest the stupidest things sometimes when they let their minds run away with them, and also the public’s ability to get caught up in scare stories. Then again it sells news, as much as I hate the inevitability of sensationalism selling like this. Also what happened to Bird Flu? I thought that was going to kills us all anyway, and then the bloody pigs beat the feathered ones to it?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Not A-Muse-d

I feared this day would come. I have become the very thing that I have criticised before, when it comes to fans complaining when a band changes their direction. However, I wonder if the time has come for me to join the herd of disgruntled followers, after I heard Muse’s new single: Uprising (which you can listen to here).

I have been a fan of Muse for a good 7 years now, since their third album Absolution came out; I have seen them four times (the first of which was accounted on this very blog), and I have been fairly loyal to them in the face of criticism, such as: they are pretentious, or they’ve gone down a poor musical direction. However, even I am scratching my head after the first play of Uprising on BBC Radio 1. Predictably, a lot of the loyal Muse fans will fawn over the latest ‘success’ of Bellemy and Co – although many of these people, I’m sure some of my friend included, would praise Muse just as religiously if the band released an album, which just consisting of Chris Moyles; profusely swearing, whilst kicking a dog repeatedly for two hours – but I just don’t know about this.

The tune itself has already been lampooned by some just-as-questioning fans like me, and the single could be compared to a Goldfrapp rip off; as well as the Dr Who theme. It’s not a bad tune, but I find the electronic direction of the band troubling. I suppose one of the main reasons it bothers me too, is that for three years of waiting I feel I’ve got a bum deal. I know Muse have had four amazing albums so far, and a disappointing one was due – not that I’m completely writing off the album yet, although I am concerned that it’s all going to be like this – but it doesn’t make it any the more pleasant to realise. Also the other preview single, United States of Eurasia, was unconventional to say the least – and grew on me after a bit - and was acceptable as long as one understood that a better track would follow. At least Eurasia had Muse’s ‘epic’ quality sound about it, rather than Uprising’s middle-of-the-road synth sound.

The sound of Uprising, to me, also might signal that the band has sold out a little, whilst trying to cover this up with a bit of political rhetoric in the lyrics. Fair enough they make some thought provoking comments – for instance that: “fat cats should have a heart attack.” But then remember, we buy newspapers to read about politics; we don’t listen to trancey pop tracks to be told what to think, which is something I have often criticised other bands and musicians for doing – Green Day especially. At the end of the day this track appeals more to the sound of 2009, which has already been established as 80s electronica. I thought given Muse’s track-record that they would try something a little different from the crowd. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

Who knows? I may change my tune come September, when the album is released proper. Perhaps I will even come to regret this very blog post, when the track grows on me. All I know is right now is I just hope Muse’s further releases get better than they are now. I have to say as I listen to Uprising again as I write, I'm warming to it slightly. I guess I still am one of THOSE fans. Can't wait till they get Moyles on board!