08 December, 2008

In other, completely irrelevant, news, I seem to be having trouble sleeping lately ... I wish I could work out why

So here's the thing.

The experiment has been completed. And the answer to the great question of "how many empty V Sugar-Free Energy Drink bottles can I accumulate at my desk in the office before it is suggested to me that I might want to consider visiting the recycling bin" is...

21 bottles. And one can.

Which is rather a lot. In fact, it's a lot more than I would have thought I would be able to get away with. I was running out of room on my desk, I even had to start stacking my piles of paper on top of my piles of bottles, and that would be a serious health and safety issue.

(And incidentally, it takes a really long time to rinse out 21 bottles and one can. And the clinking of bottles as you drop the 17th bottle on top of 16 other bottles is really rather deafening.)

20 November, 2008

Adenoid Hynkel

So here's the thing.

There's a particularly illuminating moment early in The Wave (see the trailer here). A high school teacher taking a class on autocracy asks the class for examples of autocratic rule. One student suggests the Third Reich. And the entire class groans.

You see, The Wave (Die Welle) is a German film, and the class is in a German school. And that one moment perfectly illustrated how the German youth of today must feel about the war. You can easily imagine that they have had the horrors of Nazism drummed into them at every point, told and told again how the Third Reich took hold and that it must never occur again, to the point where they're almost immune to the lesson. It's just another person telling them that Hitler was bad, and they've heard it all before a dozen times every year.

So the teacher decided to set an example about how an autocratic movement takes hold, starting by setting up a few rules. If you want to speak, stand up - after all, standing improves the circulation. Address the teacher formally. They form themselves into a movement, which they decide to call "the wave". And over time new ideas are introduced - a simple uniform (white short, black trousers), a salute, a symbol. And at the centre of this movement is the teacher as dictator. The movement creates new bonds for the students, with some former outcasts surprised to find themselves accepted. More people look to join the movement, while a small number of students are attacked for thir criticism of the wave. But then the teacher realises just how much his demonstration has gotten out of control.

The Wave was one of the few films in the film festival that was sold out, which was a bit surprising to me. I wasn't aware of any significant reputation around the film or any obvious elements with an inbuilt audience, and I just saw it because the description in the festival book sounded interesting - and, from talking to a few people I know who also saw the film, I suspect that's probably true for most of the audience. And we all saw a film that was well-made, involving, and enjoyable, but with some real flaws.

The first problem relates to believability. Everything in the film takes place over the course of one week, starting on Monday and ending on Saturday. Now, the film is apparently inspired by real events, so for all I know the actual story might have run over that timeframe, but it doesn't feel long enough. A week is a long time in politics, but it's a short time for a political system, especially in a high school where there is already a strong established social structure that the movement has to overcome. In the space of one week, it grows from a single class to fill the entire school hall, breaking down existing structures and offering acceptance for the hated outcasts, and while I can see that speed as demonstrating the ease for this kind of movement in taking hold, it seemed unbelievable. Maybe if it was set over a year, or even just a single term, I could easily believe it, but to me a week strained credibility.

The other problem was that the characters were a little underdeveloped. To a degree that's understandable - in a 100 minute film, you're not going to have fully developed characters for every person in the school class, but the teacher is the only person where you feel they've actually tried to give any depth to. If we're going to buy the seductiveness of the autocracy, we need to see how different people with differing views get drawn into the movement, but we never get that. This is particularly true for one particular character, a social outcast who finds particular meaning and acceptance in the Wave. The kid is already so obviously troubled and getting into it too much, even after just the first lesson, that I would have put an end to the movement right then. And as the week proceeds, the kid moves to the point where he sleeps outside the teacher's house to guard against some vague threat, and yet the teacher does nothing in response to these clear danger signs. It becomes obvious very quickly that this kid will ultimately be the undoing of the Wave, eliminating a lot of the suspense of the film.

But, for the film's flaws, it is entertaining. J├╝rgen Vogel gives an excellent performance as the teacher who finds his experiement slipping away from him, while the film addresses some interesting issues about human nature in a thrilling and energetic way. It's certainly not boring. I probably will never revisit the film, but I certainly am glad to have seen it.

31 October, 2008

The old man is definitely not snoring

So here's the thing.

Sometimes I just don't understand people.

I was reading an article on the New Zealand Herald website, titled "Storm brewing over TV forecasts". The article discussed a number of people who were frustrated that the TV weather forecasts predicted stormy weather up north during Labour Weekend - stormy weather that never eventuated. The poor forecasts caused many people to not go up north during the long weekend, thus causing losses for the local economy. So the local mayor is demanding an apology from MetService for getting the weather wrong. An apology that MetService isn't giving, as well they shouldn't. We all know that weather forecasting is completely imprecise and sometimes they do get it wrong. It's just part of the trade-off that we all know we are making - most of the time we know what the weather will be like (and that's better than never knowing), but sometimes they will get it wrong. They do their best to get it right, but sometimes they allow for a butterfly in China flapping its wings, and the butterfly decides to sleep in. Not their fault.

But the article ends with this brilliant little passage:

Fiona Foote, of Doubtless Bay Information Centre in Mangonui, confirmed a large number of people cancelled Labour weekend accommodation because of the weather reports.

"By Saturday, people were just plain not turning up," she said.

"We're only a small village; tourism is basically all we have to offer. If tourists don't come it's a big blow."

Ms Foote said Mangonui often suffered from inaccurate forecasts as a result of not being mentioned on nightly TV weather reports. She's been pressing TV3 for inclusion.


Now this poses some key questions. Firstly, how is it possible for somewhere to suffer from "inaccurate forecasts as a result of not being mentioned"? Surely if you're not being mentioned in the forecasts, then there are no forecasts to be inaccurate.

But more than that, in an article where people are complaining about the inaccuracy of the TV weather forecasts, why would this woman be actively trying to get included in these forecasts, especially if just one erroneous prediction is enough to decimate the local economy and plunge the village into twenty years of poverty and starvation?

But more than that, do you know where Mangonui is? Have a look at the map. It's, like, nowhere. When Ms Foote said that it's a "small village", it looks like that was a pretty accurate description. Yet she apparently thinks it's reasonable for her to expect the national televised news to dedicate precious time every day to giving the five residents and two tourists in Mangonui an inaccurate forecast of the weather. And then when TV3 put Mangonui on the weather, then Cooper's Beach will want to know why they haven't included, and before long the entire news hour will be dedicated to just telling every single tiny little insignificant village in the country what their weather will be like, and pretty soon the TV3 news will be irrelevant because we watch the news to find out what's happening in the world, not to find out what the weather is like in Cable Bay.

I mean, I get that this is where this woman lives, it's important to her, she wants to know what her weather will be like, and she wants to ensure that people continue to visit the area, which I'm sure is very nice. But I don't understand how anyone could possibly think it is reasonable to expect the national news to dedicate time every night to the weather in Mangonui. How is it possible for people to have such a completely skewed vision that they can't even comprehend that a national news programme may have different priorities than a tiny 10-street town? How do you get to a point where you can't see how unrealistic that expectation is? Sometimes I just don't understand people.

28 October, 2008

"I'm so sorry, it was the wrong version"

So here's the thing.

Earlier this year, I saw the film Atonement. It wasn't a film I was at all interested in seeing - I figured it was just another love story set against the backdrop of WWII. But I was trying to see all the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars, and Atonement was one nominee, so I went to see it.

And I loved the film, which proved less a typical love story and more of a tragedy of misunderstanding and miscomprehension, and the lasting effects that one moment's decision can have on many people. It explored some fascinating areas, particularly the gap that exists between visible action and internal motivation, and I look forward to reading the book, which I believe gives greater voice to the different characters and their purposes in behaving the way they do. I thought it was a excellent film, and while I don't think it quite warranted the Best Picture nomination (I would have given that spot to Once), it was an wonderful time in the cinema.

So, when hunting for a birthday present to give to a friend in the past weekend, I decided that a DVD of Atonement would be a perfect present. I always feel that giving a DVD acts in effect as an endorsement of that film, a statement that I feel the recipient should watch that film. As a result, if I'm giving someone a DVD, I always try to look initially for films that I liked, and then find a film in that selection that I think would appeal to the recipient. In this case I thought that Atonement, with its tragic love story and the wonderful 1930s-40s setting, would appeal to my friend.

Now, Saturday wasn't just my friend's birthday, her son had turned one-year-old a few days earlier. So, there was a first birthday party about 11am, and then we had dinner in the evening for my friend's birthday.

As I'm sitting at her son's birthday, I hear my friend talking to someone else about a film she saw the previous night. That film apparently had a sad ending, "but it was a good sad ending, a satisfying ending, you know. Not like that film Atonement, do you remember seeing that, that was an awful ending, I really did not like that film."

...

...

Okay. ...

...

...

Fortunately, I was able to go into the shops in the afternoon, and find another film to give her (in the end, I decided on A Fish Called Wanda, which is a hilarious film and which, on opening the present, she said she had never seen). Meanwhile, I had fortunately not yet got around to buying a copy of Atonement for myself, so I don't need to worry about doing anything with the DVD.

But there are two things about this whole event that I find myself thinking about. Firstly, there's just the general unlikeliness of this whole story. After all, I would have given the film to my friend and been none-the-wiser were it not for the fact that (a) she happened to be having her son's party on the same day, (b) she waited for an hour before having a conversation with a good friend about what she did the previous night (I was an hour late to the son's party, so had they talked earlier, I would have missed it), and (c) she decided to throw in an entirely irrelevant comment about a film she saw months ago, on the sole basis that both films had sad endings. I mean, what exactly are the odds of all this happening? Was this divine intervention, God trying to prevent the embarrassment of an unwanted gift for some reason? If so, it's appreciated, but why?

But the other thing that I found interesting about the experience was the disparity of views about the film that I encountered. I can quite understand that Atonement would be a very divisive film, mostly because of the ending (to be honest, I think it's a miracle the ending works at all, let alone that it works as well as it does), and often when a film's ending doesn't work for you, then the entire film experience gets tainted. But when I sat in the lounge that evening, and told people what had happened, I was interested to learn that, of the five or six people in the room that had seen the film, I was the only person that actually liked the film. Yet when I came to work today and told the story to people, what I found was that, without exception, where people had seen the film they loved the film. And the very clear demarcation seems odd to me - what is it about people at my work that makes the film have such appeal to them, when it has such clear lack of appeal to my friend and her circle of friends? I don't know, but I wish I did.

26 October, 2008

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

So here's the thing.

I would really like my blog to fulfill a wider educational purpose, something that will allow me to feel that my time and effort in preparing the text of my posts has been spent in a worthwhile manner. In order to achieve this, I will today start a new occasional series of informative posts, in which I will draw from the real-life experiences of an absolutely real person who is someone else and who I wish to emphasise is not me and why are you looking at me in a disbelieving manner it's not me honestly it's someone else really. Anyway, I will take the experiences of this other person and use these to illustrate my point and hopefully give you, the reader, the ability to cope in this hectic modern world.

Today, I will discuss "Signs That You Are Feeling Tired".

Now obviously tiredness is a very large complex matter, so while I'll present a few indicators that you are likely to be tired, this is not an exhaustive list. Therefore, it is very possible that you may in fact be tired without presenting any of the following signs. In that case, you will have to use your judgement to assess your own tiredness level. While these indicators have all been drawn from real events, I have made the text less specific to the actual events that inspired them, in order to allow this advice to be applied in a more general manner.

So, Signs That You Are Feeling Tired

1. If you only have two hours of sleep on a certain night, whether due to difficulty in getting sleep, waking up several hours earlier than normal, or a combination of the two, there is a good chance that you will have failed to get sufficient sleep overnight, and will therefore be tired the following day.

2. If you hate coffee, but nevertheless are forced to drink two cups of coffee (plus a 350ml bottle of V) just to stay awake during the opening two hours of a training session that you're actually interested in, it is very possible that you are feeling tired.

3. If you find yourself slipping out during the lunch break, searching instead for an empty meeting room where you can have a quick sleep, then you probably need a bit more sleep.

4. If you're lying on the extremely hard floor with only your own arms for pillows, and you still manage to somehow get to sleep, then you are really tired, because sleeping on a hard floor is very uncomfortable, believe me ... or so I'm told by the person who actually had this happen to them.

5. If you set the alarm on your cell phone to ensure you wake up in time for the afternoon session, but your sleep-deprived mind fails to realise that you've set the alarm for 1.00am, not 1.00pm, causing you to wake up at 1.40pm, disoriented and wondering why on earth you're lying on the floor between the wall and a meeting table, forcing you to wander bleary-eyed into the training session, attracting the attention of everyone in the room (and prompting a literal finger-wagging from the manager that you were sitting next to in the morning session), then it is likely that you were tired, and indeed may still be tired.

So there we are. Some useful points that may indicate that you are tired. I hope you found them helpful.

Next time in this educational series, "Signs That You Spend All Your Time Watching Your New Television Set".

19 October, 2008

The past belongs to us, and we can change it

So here's the thing.

When I first heard of the film Be Kind Rewind (see the trailer here), it was as a description - a couple of guys have to remake a lot of famous films - and a cast list, including Jack Black. I thought it sounded like an interesting idea, but little more than an different twist on the parody film.

Then I heard that Michel Gondry had written and directed the film, and it immediately became a lot more interesting to me. Gondry had directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favourite films from 2004, and written/directed The Science of Sleep, which I had really enjoyed at the 2006 festival. So I was certain the film would have a lot more to it than I first imagined. And I was right - it did try to explore some wider themes - but I'm not sure it really worked.

Jack Black stars as Jerry, an eccentric who plans to destroy a local power plant out of a paranoid belief that the plant is destroying his mind. Instead, his plan causes him to be magnetised(!), and when he goes to visit his friend at the local dollar-rental video library (all VHS tapes, no DVDs), the store's entire tape stock is erased. So, figuring the store's only regular customer won't notice the difference, the two decide to remake the films, starting with Ghostbusters. And very quickly, the remade films start to build a huge popularity in the local community. But then problems start to occur, the survival of the video shop is threatened, so everyone in the neighbourhood comes together for one final big project.

And here's the problem - the hook around which the story revolves (the remade films) doesn't really feel like there's any real connection with the major ideas of the film (which address issues like the renewal of community spirit). In fact, it feels like Gondry had the initial idea of the videos, and then tried to force some wider ideas into the script to justify the film's existence, and there's no natural integration of the ideas.

So while there is a nice homemade inventiveness to the video remakes (the B&W remake of King Kong being particularly clever, with Jerry creating an ape face from the cab of a toy truck(!) strapped to his face, and using forced perspective to fake Kong's size) that Gondry clearly enjoyed filming, the wider film isn't terribly convincing. To justify the plot, Gondry is forced to execute some extremely dumb ideas (magnetising Jerry? Really?) but such a goofy idea doesn't quite fit with much of the film. The story structure is appalling, with plot-threads introduced and then abandoned - Jack Black's fear of the power station never gets mentioned after he is magnetised, Gondry clearly struggled to find a way to de-magnetise Jerry before just having him urinate the magnetism out, while the MPAA taking action against copyright infringement get a couple of scenes but proves never to be the major conflict it initially seems. And while I can understand nostalgia for "the way things were", a theme that is extremely strong in the film, sometimes change is a good thing, and a video store with only VHS tapes (while necessary for the film plot) seems like a place resisting change for the sake of it, holding onto patently inferior product just because it's the way things used to be. And that just annoys me, because while the CD-vs-vinyl argument may be ongoing, no-one is ever going to prefer VHS over DVD or Blu-Ray, no matter how strong the nostalgia.

Still, while the film doesn't actually work as a whole, it is entertaining, with many laugh-out-loud moments. So while I am definitely critical of many aspects of the film, it's still worth seeing. It's not a great film, it is seriously flawed, but if you're wanting an fun film that you can just watch and enjoy, this is definitely worth your time.

10 October, 2008

"I mean, we get it, it was grim"

So here's the thing.

Next year is the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. And over the past seven decades, we've seen film after film, documentary after documentary, story after story about that war. We've had the serious dramatisations of real events, portraits of great WWWII figures, or films that use WWII as the backdrop for a good action-packed thrill-ride. Then there's the related issue of the Holocaust, the horrible toll that that took, and again, we've had that story told from every viewpoint, from the tragedy underlying Schindler's List or Anne Frank, to the comedy Holocaust of Life Is Beautiful. Most than any other conflict, World War II has to be the war most presented in cinematic form. After 70 years of WWII films, you would think there are no more stories to tell, no more incidents to leave the audience saying "I didn't know that happened."

And then a film like The Counterfeiters comes along, and surprises the audience by revealing a little-known corner of the war, a surprising front on which the war was being fought. And it's a story that is so fascinating, it leaves the viewer wondering why they've never heard about this before. The Counterfeiters (see the trailer here) is a fictionalised account of Operation Bernhard, a Nazi attempt to win the war by undermining the Allied economies. The film revolves around a guy known as Sally, who is arrested for counterfeiting and sent to a concentration camp, but then finds his skills in demand by a Nazi regime planning to flood the US and UK with counterfeit dollars and pounds. The prisoners cooperating in the scheme are given special benefits, are comparatively well-treated, but must cope with the guilt of benefiting while others are dying, the knowledge that their actions may actually be sustaining the Nazi war effort, and the growing awareness of that, if they succeed in making the US dollar, they may not survive much longer.

And here's the frustrating thing. I liked the film, I enjoyed it, I though it was interesting, but on reflection I realised I liked the idea of the film more than I liked the film itself. What I liked was that it was a film that told me something I did not know about the Second World War. And it was an interesting story - learning that the Nazis were undertaking the single largest counterfeiting operation in history is interesting to learn. But when you get past that, the film itself, while well-made, left me a bit empty. In a lot of ways, it's not surprising that the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film - it feels almost like it was made to win an Oscar, not because it's a great film, but because it's good and it ticks the right boxes (WWII, anti-hero turned good, the Nazi who is marginally less-completely-evil, the bookends that show the enduring effects of the film's events on the main character). But ultimately, when I think about The Counterfeiters, I'm not going to be remembering what a good film it was - in fact, only a couple of months later, I'm already having difficulty remembering much about the film at all. The only thing I'll remember about the film will be the true events that the film informed me of. And being about a cool story isn't enough to make a great film.

But The Counterfeiters was not the only festival film I saw that took me inside a wartime prison. Two documentaries, Taxi To The Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure, both examined events in the Abu Ghraib prison, but adopted entirely different approaches. Taxi To The Dark Side (see the trailer here) took a broad approach in examining the wider context of events. Indeed, the events that give the film its title took place not in Iraq, but Afghanistan. An apparently innocent Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar was arrested as an alleged terrorist by US troops, held in Bagram Air Base, and was beaten to death five days later. The people involved in running Bagram were later tasked with running Abu Ghraib, and we all know what happened there. A fascinating film, it sought to explore the circumstances that caused those events to occur. What the film ultimately presented were a collection of frankly confused soldiers who didn't really quite understand what had gone on, who had found themselves thrust into a prison in Iraq, without the necessary knowledge or training to prepared for this unimaginable situation, and being unofficially urged by those up the chain of authority to use any means, including extremes of torture, to get information that they believe will save the lives of their fellow soldiers. And then when bad things occurred, they were thrown out as the guilty parties, acting without authorisation, while those who ordered or encouraged these behaviours are able to deny any knowledge and move on. And the film goes even wider, discussing also the treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo. By the end of the film, it successfully links the treatment of prisoners in three separate prisons in three different countries to demonstrate a policy of prisoner mistreatment and torture, unofficially approved but officially denied by those at the highest level.

But personally, I preferred the other Abu Ghraib film. Ive never seen an Errol Morris film before, although I'm familiar with his reputation as a top documentarian, so I was interested to see his new film, Standard Operating Procedure (see the trailer here). And it didn't disappoint. Where Taxi To The Dark Side looked at Abu Ghraib in the wider context of the entirety of US actions in the war on terror, Standard Operating Procedure had a very narrow focus, looking pretty much solely at the photos that came out of the prison, and exploring the story of these photos. The idea underpinning the film was simple, but compelling. We see the photos, we're horrified by them, and we think we understand everything we need to understand about the situation that's presented. But the film argues that there's a lot we don't see in the photographs. A photograph captures a limited image of a single instant in time. We don't see what happened before or after the photograph, we don't see the people to the left or right of the frame, we don't see the person taking the photo, we don't see what's in anyone's mind at that time.

For example, consider the famed photograph of the woman giving a thumbs up by the body of a dead Iraqi. Seems horrible, callous, and offensive, and the woman, Sabrina Harman, deserved to be punished, which she was. But in the film, we hear that Sabrina was horrified by the events at the prison, and actually wrote to her partner saying that she was taking photographs to document what was happening, for her to use once she left Iraq. We hear that everyone was posing with the body, for her to refuse to do so would have attracted comment. And as for the "thumbs up" - it was just a habit, what she did in every photograph, for her as natural and instinctive a response to the camera as smiling would be for anyone. So how do we now view this woman? As a callous inhumane woman, a person treated unfairly by the system, or somewhere in between? And why was she prosecuted for posing with a body and giving the thumbs up, when the people that killed the person weren't prosecuted?

But more than that, the film asks the question I've not seen asked anywhere else - who was taking the photos? The film points in particular to a guy called Sgt Graner, who was in a relationship at the time with Lynndie England, and who seems to have been responsible for taking most of the more shocking "posed" hotographs. The film asks the very reasonable question, why has all the attention gone to the people visible in the photographs, and not on the person behind the camera telling them what to do? After all, would the "naked pyramid" or the "man on the leash" have even happened if Graner hadn't told the participants what to do? Would there have even been an offense if it weren't for Graner? If so, why is he still serving in the military?

It also explores, to a lesser degree, the borderline between enhanced interrogation and criminal torture. And that leads to the most fascinating moment in the film, where one interviewee goes through a collection of shocking photos, at a glance identifying wich ones are actual crimes, and which ones simply represented "standard operating procedure" for interrogation. All the photos may be shocking, offensive, horrible to look at, but does that mean that they are all morally or legally wrong?

Neither of these documentaries make enjoyable viewing. They're deeply unpleasant and horrific to watch, especially when you watch both of them so close together. But they're both interesting and challenging, well-made and intelligent, and if you can stand them, both are worth your time.

08 October, 2008

Financial weapons of mass destruction

So here's the thing.

This is just a quick post, just to make a recommendation.

As you'll all be aware, the financial world is all collapsing rather quickly. But the issues are rather complex and technical and who really understands what exactly is going on. So I think many people may just be going around knowing things are bad, but not quite knowing why. If you have wanted to understand exactly what was going on, I can think of no better place to go than a couple of episodes of This American Life.

Now, I've written previously about my enjoyment of the This American Life radio show - a really brilliant show that I do encourage you to listen to. A few months ago, they ran an episode called "The Giant Pool of Money" (which you can still listen to through streaming audio). That episode explained how the sub-prime mortgage crisis occurred - not just how the crisis itself occurred (if you lend money to people that can't afford to repay the loan, of course you're going to have trouble), but how the sub-prime mortgage market started in the first place, and why no-one said anything about how dumb it was to lend $500,000 without requiring proof of income or assets. It's an excellent episode, that explains everything really well - you don't need an economics degree to understand it - and it describes how it all happened by telling the stories of individuals involved, from the mortgage-broker buying $1000 bottles of champagne with Tara Reid, to the guy about to lose his house. So it's interesting to listen to - it's not some overly technical dry academic economic discussion, it presents real people discussing what they did.

Anyway, they've just dedicated another episode to examining the financial crisis, this time looking at what actually happened in the last couple of weeks, and just why it is that the bailout is needed. That episode, called "Another Frightening Show About the Economy", is available to download for the rest of this week, and afterwards will be available for streaming audio. As with the earlier episode, it's very accessible, very interesting and enjoyable (if a little scary) to listen to.

SO I just wanted to alert people to the episodes. If you're befuddled by what you see on the news, take a couple of hours, listen to these shows, and you'll feel better equipped to grasp the situation.

And then you'll really worry.

04 October, 2008

Punk is not ded

So here's the thing.

If there was one festival film that I was looking forward to above all others, it was Persepolis (see the not-very-good trailer here). I'd first heard about the film in the lead-up to the Oscars, where everyone I read seemed to agree that, while Ratatouelle would win the Best Animated Feature award, there was another animated film, Persepolis, that was even better.

And having seen the film, everyone was right. And this is not a slight on Ratatouelle, which was a brilliant film, another extraordinary Pixar film, and one I look forward to rewatching many many times. But Persepolis was the better film.

Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran in 1969 during the reign of the Shah. Ten years later, the Shah was displaced, and the country becomes an Islamic Republic under the Ayatollah. The young Satrapi found herself in an increasingly restrictive society, where she became increasingly aware and outspoken about the injustices she sees. (She was also keenly aware of how difficult it is for her to acquire the Western music she adores.) Eventually, as she reached her teenage years, her parents sent her off to school to Austria, where everything happens that you would expect when someone used to somewhere like Iran suddenly finds themselves in a more free and liberal Europe. She eventually fell into depression, she returned to Iran, but her efforts to protest against the atrocities she sees around her eventually caused her to leave the country again. She is banned from ever returning home.

A few years ago, Satrapi decided to write her autobiography. But rather than writing it as a normal book, she wrote it as a graphic novel (a type of comic book). The original book of Persepolis was illustrated in a very simple style, black and white, highly stylised images. When they came to make the film version of Persepolis, they wisely chose to retain that look. It gives the film a unique charm - it doesn't look like some slick project produced by a hundred animators to produce some homogenous product, it feels like one person's self expression come to to life.

As for the film itself, it's everything I had hoped for. Most times, when you see your typical biographical film, they always feel like there's a degree of fictionalisation of the story, just to make it fit into a story template. Persepolis is different. In a lot of ways, it's actually very messy, just because that's the way life is. Satrapi does a great job in honestly capturing her emotional growth, managing to present the astonishing changes in Iran from the naive point of view of a 10-year-old. The middle section of the film, covering her teenage years, is a particularly delightful part of the film, capturing the disorienting, confusion collision of a girl whose values and beliefs don't quite fit with the free and more liberal European world, where her attempts to fit in and adopt this new world ultmately don't work out. Ultmately, there's nothing especially great or momentous about Satrapi's story, she just grows up to be an ordinary person eading a normal life. The film is simply a coming-of-age story, about a girl discovering who she is, and how she relates to a country undergoing massive upheaval and change, a country that increasingly fails to reflect her own values. But the film is complex, involving, and honest. It's an extraordinary film, and one look forward to revisiting.

20 September, 2008

Gawrsh!

So here's the thing.

If you are wondering why I've not been writing many posts lately, particularly in my comments on the films I saw during the festival, there are a few reasons - the Olympics, or work being so busy that I can't be bothered sitting on the computer once I get home. But for the past week, there's been another reason. You see, I've bought a new television. I actually bought it a month ago (I was initially hoping to watch some of the Olympics on it), but there was no stock in the country, and I had to wait for the ship to arrive.

Finally, last Thursday, I got the phone call, and arranged for it to be delivered first thing Friday morning. I've had it for a week now, and it is a thing of beauty. The first film I watched on it was the Blu-Ray high-definition release of Blade Runner, and any doubts I had about the purchase faded away as soon as I saw the first image of Los Angeles in 2019. You wonder how you were ever satisfied with standard-definition. And suddenly, for some reason, I'm not all that interested in spending hours in front of a computer screen writing about a film I saw a month or two ago.

Anyway, if you were wondering how I feel about the whole experience, I think this video pretty sums everything up.

19 September, 2008

Sailing on the wide accountant-sea

So here be t' thing.

Today, ye should all be awarr, be the internartionally recognised Talk Like A Pirate Day. It's all very simple. Ye just stop tarking like a landlubber, and starrt tarking like a grog-swilling terror of the high seas. You say things like "Shiver me timbers", or "Aye Aye", or "Ye bilge rat".

For more infarrrmation, see this 'ere interrnet site, or this arrrticle by one David Barry, by which first I heard of this 'ere event.

Avast!

11 September, 2008

Apocalypse Now

So here's the thing.

It seems Paris Hilton has successfully turned on the Large Hadron Collider, and so right now, right at this very instant, there are large hadrons running around very fast and bumping into each other. And as they do so, they generate black holes that will grow to consume the Earth, then the solar system, the galaxy, and finally the universe. At which point the scientists responsible will feel very embarrassed.

In the meantime, if you are wondering what the progress has been on the annihilation of of all existance, there is a website dedicated to answering the question:
"Has the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the Earth yet?"
It's a very useful resource, and I plan to check the site regularly to determine whether I still exist. So should you.

31 August, 2008

The side-effects of being American

So here's the thing.

I started writing the post after the Olympic Opening Ceremony, but I never finished it, because I got caught up watching the Olympics. And, in the week since the Olympics finished, it's just been a long and busy week at work, and the last thing I want to do after that is come home and sit in front of the computer for any length of time working on my blog. But now I'm finishing the post. And here it is.
-----------------------------------------------------------------

So here's the thing.

I was watching the Olympic opening ceremony, and during the interminable entry of the athletes, the commentators made an interesting comment about the flagbearer for one of the countries. I forget who the guy was, or which country he represented, but the commentators said that this guy had won a medal at the Athens Games, he had since been barred for drug use, but was now back at the Beijing Olympics, and he was a great athlete. Now, assuming the drugs he was caught taking were actually performance-enhancing drugs, rather than say illegal but non-performance-enhancing drugs, then I found the comment rather fascinating.

Because during the film festival, I saw a film called Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (see the trailer here), an entertaining documentary that sought to examine the issue of steroid use in sport, and ended up taking a rather interesting position on the subject. The filmmaker, a guy called Chris Bell, has actually used steroids in the past, and his two brothers still are. And so the film is a very personal exploration of the issue, with a filmmaker trying to reconcile his own feelings about the issue.

Now I want to state, right from the very start, that I did like the film, a lot. It was very thought-provoking, asked some good questions, and managed to have the entertainment value of a Michael Moore documentary without the general awfulness associated with Michael Moore. He makes particularly good use of pop culture clips to explore the way people like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Hulk Hogan, all bulging muscles, were idolised in the past. It's an entirely enjoyable and thought-provoking film and I wholeheartedly recommend it. And I feel like I need to state this clearly, because I fear that what I'm about to say may be seen as a negative reaction to the film.

You see, the film has one fairly major flaw with it. It's too big, which causes the film to lose focus. It never quite feels like it's actually going anywhere - instead, the film almost feels like the director typed "anabolic steroids" into Google and decided to interview everyone that appeared in the resulting search, without any clear idea of why he's talking to these people.

Which is why I think a lot of people view this film as being "pro-steroids", which it's not. The film is very clearly not "anti-steroids", and it puts forward just enough arguments in favour of steroids to seem that it is almost adopting a position that steroid use in the sports world isn't actually a problem. In fact, going into the film, that's what I had heard it was doing, and one of the reasons why I wanted to see the film - the idea of the film arguing that position made me curious. And the film puts forward some convincing arguments. He certainly argues well that there's been a media-hype-created sigmatisation of steroids as some dangerous substance that is entirely unsubstantiated. He suggests that steroids are safe, the health problems have been completely overstated (apparently multivitamins kill more people), the side-effects are known, minor, and temporary, and the supposed "roid rage" doesn't exist. In one of the more interesting moments in the film, he points out one drug that is banned because it allows the body to process oxygen more efficiently, giving the athlete an advantage. On the other hand, you can get the exact same advantage by training at altitudes (and America has one of its top sports academies at altitude for this very reason), or by sleeping in a pressure chamber (and we meet one competitor who does the exact same thing). So why is it that this drug is banned when it just helps you keep up with the advantages other people are getting in other ways? In another moment, he explores one of the more surprising drug hypocrisies, revealing that US fighter pilots are required to take amphetamines, a much more dangerous drug, as part of their job. And in some areas like bodybuilding, where the focus is less on competition with others and more on competiting with your own body, is taking steroids even cheating, or just another way to build the body even further?

But in the end, all of this is a bit of a sidetrack to his real point. Bell makes good use of the incredible opening speech in the film "Patton", in which Patton (who was himself a former Olympic competitor) states "When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time." And that is Chris Bell's ultimate point. We may tut-tut over drug cheats, act disapproving when people are caught taking performance-enhancing drugs, but ultimately what we care about is that we win. And the sporting world is so rife with drugs these days that there is a degree to which competitors in many arenas need to consider taking drugs just to keep up. And that is the question the film asks. Do we actually want to see sports remain drug free, or are we really just interested in seeing world records being broken and contests won? And if we're truly honest, we're probably more interested in winning, provided we don't get burdened with the knowledge about what it took to win.

And that's an interesting and challenging question that Chris Bell poses, and one I never would have expected. It's just a shame the film is a little too unfocused to clearly explore the question. Still, it's a stimulating and enjoyable film, and well worth seeking out.

25 August, 2008

Lobster Thermidor a Crevette with a mornay sauce served in a Provencale manner garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top and...

So here's the thing.

I will admit to finding spam emails rather fascinating. I don't know whether to be impressed at the ingenuity of spammers in finding new and intriguing subject titles to entice me to open them, or confused by the thought that there might actually be people out there that would actually be fooled with these titles.

Now, for instance, today in my work spam folder, I found three emails. One had your normal incomprehensible title, "ma-mrts", but the other two subject titles were works of brilliance. Both revolved around Paris Hilton, as much spam seems to, but the spammers have finally worked out that the thought of seeing Paris Hilton naked actually creeps me out a little bit, and will certainly not motivate me to open the email. So, they've stopped promising me hot Hilton action, and have gone for something a little more interesting.

The first: "Judge Sets Execution Date For Paris Hilton"

Now, as nice as the thought of a world without Paris Hilton is, I'm pretty certain this story isn't true. After all, first of all, you actually need to commit an actual serious crime to be sentenced to death, and I'm pretty sure being vapid and shallow and putting on an outfit that she does not look cute in to see whether her friends will be honest or lie and say she does look cute in it, as awful as they are, are not actually crimes that are punishable by death.

The second email was even better: "Paris Hilton Starts Large Hadron Collider Today"

Now, it is generally accepted these days by most theologians that the rise of Paris Hilton is one of the signs of the coming apocalypse, but the thing I love about this email is that is actually elevates Paris Hilton to actually being the person that brings about the end of the world. (The Large Hadron Collider, if you didn't know, is the particle accelerator in Switzerland due to be switched on in the next month or two that some people believe will create a black hole that will consume the Earth).

But the other thing I find fascinating about this is the concept that the scientists working on the Collider might think there was not enough interest in a potentially world-destroying experiment, so they felt they needed to make it more sexy, and the best they could come up with was Paris Hilton. Or perhaps it's just an attempt by the scientists to pass the blame for the destruction of the world onto someone that deserves it.

17 August, 2008

Dustbustering at the Olympics

So here's the thing.

It turns out that it's really hard to write a blog during the Olympics, because you generally end up spending all of your time watching the Olympics, hour upom hour upon hour.

The Olympics gets so completely ingrained into your life at this time, you even find yourself dreaming about the Olympics. For example, last night, I had a dream where there was this really weird nonsensical cycling event. There were maybe 25 or 30 people in this race, cycling around the track where they stage the pursuit events. It was a long race, about 160 laps, and people didn't win by having the fastest time, or being the first to complete all the laps. They won by accumulating points, somehow. They could collect something like 20 points for lapping the field, or they could get points by coming 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th in the sprint events. The sprint events seemed to happen every 10 or so laps, although who really knew, and I think a sprint may have involved only one lap of the track, but I'm not really sure. Most times it wasn't even clear that there was a sprint until it had finished and they were telling us who had won, nor was it clear what it was that triggered the sprint. It certainly wasn't the person who was in the lead, since there were people winning the sprints who hadn't yet lapped the field although there were others who had, so the person who won certainly wasn't "in the lead" to the degree that having the lead in this race meant anything (which it didn't seem to). It was also possible somehow to lose points - I remember that one guy in my dream was on -20 points, although what he did to lose points was unclear (did he lose points for having been lapped? for going too slowly? for making obscene gestures? what?). Also, it was an individual game but people were in a strange way working at teams, even though they were from different countries, although quite why they were doing this or how these teams were forming and disbanding was not immediately evident. The whole event just seemed like one great big game of Calvinball on bicycles.

Still, that's the good thing about dreams. They don't have to make sense. And it's not like they'll ever include anything that insane and incomprehensible in the real Olympics.

On the other hand, I would never have dreamed that anything as cool as the white water canoe/kayak slalom event could even exist, let alone be in the Olympics. How is it possible that this event has been at every Olympics since 1992 and I've never heard of it? Am I the only person that didn't know about it? Absolutely gripping event, with people going down man-made rapids, fighting against the current to the next gate, rowing around the next post sometimes millimetres away from the post, all the time fighting a torrent of water. Or they'll suddely surge forward, using the phenomenal flow of water to power their incredible speed. Or there will be points in the track where competing currents mean the contestant is literally held in place and must fight for a good few seconds just to break free and move ahead. It's an incredible event, and it was sad to see on the television coverage last night that all the whitewater events have finished and the track has now been drained. Which means I'll have to wait another four years until I can watch it again. I can't wait.

09 August, 2008

zzzzzzzzzzz

So here's the thing.

Every Olympics, I watch the opening ceremony live. And every Olympics, I forget just how extraordinarily long the entry of the athletes is. It's phenomenal. I'm watching, having had nearly 1 1/2 hours pass since the athlete entry started, thinking that we must be getting close to the end - and then the commentators reveal that we've just hit the halfway mark. At 2.30 in the morning, it's enough to cause you to lose your will to live.

The problem is that there is nothing inherently interesting about watching people walk around a stadium. The first hour is so spectacular, and then the show stops dead. After 30 minutes of the entry, you've had enough. After 3 hours, even non-Chinese viewers like myself were cheering like madmen at the arrival of the Chinese athletes - less out of excitement to see these people, more out of joy that this bloody ordeal is finally over and there's a promise of going to sleep in the near future.

Still, it was a phenomenal ceremony, some incredible images on display, and an impressive achievement. I always enjoy the spectacle, the general show-off-ness of the opening ceremony, and that was all on display last night. You'll have already seen the pictures or the videos, and will have formed your own opinion, so there's not really much point in saying anything.

But, there was one particular comment by the New Zealand commentators that I found interesting. And it will probably prompt me, in my next film festival post, to again skip ahead a few films, and talk about a film that's particularly relevant. So that's coming up, just as soon as I get some more sleep.

Good night.

05 August, 2008

He gave us eyes to see them


So here's the thing.

I always meant to watch that BBC "Planet Earth" documentary series that aired a couple of years ago, but I just never remembered that it was on. (I'll probably watch it once I get an HDTV, because watching the show on Blu-Ray should be astonishing.)

In the meantime, I had a bit of a taste of the show with the documentary film Earth (see the trailer here), which was made up of footage from the series edited into a film. The film charts a year in the life of the planet, starting up at the Arctic Circle and travelling down to the South Pole, observing the different animals that inhabit it. It's rather fascinating to watch, if only because it really binds different areas of the planet together - often nature films and documentaries may present locations so different from each other that they seem like completely unrelated worlds. But by presenting the gradual changes in environment, it does a good job in actually presenting the planet as a unified whole, not just a variety of alien environments. And, while the film very deliberately focused its attention on three specific animal species - the (non-tropical-island species of) polar bear, the African elephant, and the humpback whale, they do a really good job in offering glimpses at the wide variety of wildlife on the planet.

I don't really know that I have much to say about the film. It's a fascinating film, and beautiful to watch on the big screen, but the need to cover the entire planet in only 90-odd minutes means it does feel like they've only just started talking about one location when they're suddenly off somewhere else. Still, it's worth seeing, and there are definitely some things I've never seen before (even if only because I never saw the TV series).

04 August, 2008

It's Alive! IT'S ALIVE!

So here's the thing.

I've never seen The Red Balloon (see the trailer here) before. Obviously I'd heard of the film, it's generally acknowledged as a classic, but I'd managed to somehow never see it. It seems like an inprobable concept to structure a film around - a boy finds a balloon - and yet it works.

What I was surprised to discover was that, in some ill-defined way, the balloon was alive. This isn't immediately obvious - we only learn this after the boy's mother throws the balloon outside (cue audible gasp from the audience, including myself), the balloon starts to float away, then returns to hover outside the window until the boy retrieves it. And it's at that moment that the film becomes extraordinary. Balloons always seem alive, dancing around seemingly of their own accord in the wind, and this film merely takes that idea one step further. The balloon comes at the boy's call, follows the boy, ducks and dodges out of the grasp of other people. The boy and balloon become friends, and the film manages to make this seem, if not believable, at least plausible. There's an innocence and playfulness to the film that is quite charming. At the same time, the film manages to capture the joys of childhood without either being overly (and cloyingly) sentimental, or holding an adult's cynicism. It's quite extraordinary.

(Brief sidenote: There's a film on at the festival, that I never saw, called Flight of the Red Balloon (see the trailer here), that seems to revolve in part around a (fictional) remake of The Red Balloon, and I think that in itself speaks to the influence and impact that The Red Balloon has had. And it's easy to see why the film has had that effect.)

The Red Balloon is a short film - under 40 minutes - so the film was paired with an earlier film from the same director. White Mane tells the story of a wild white horse that roams the plains, escaping from the clutches of all who try to catch and tame it, whether the evil ranchers or a young boy. But, eventually, the horse grows to trust and respect the boy, and a friendship grows between the two.

To be honest, the main problem that White Mane has is that it's not The Red Balloon. Viewed by itself, it's probably reasonably watchable, and it's certainly not a bad film. But when paired with The Red Balloon, comparisons between the two films are always going to be made, and the film does not come out at all well in the comparison. White Mane just seems more pedestrian, something we've all seen before in films like The Black Stallion or National Velvet. And for all its fantastic and unbelievable elements, The Red Balloon is just easier to relate to, tied in its roots to a common childhood experience. We've all had balloons that seemed almost alive, not all of us have ever dreamed of riding a wild horse around the open plains. And this may be part of the reason why White Mane simply didn't engage me - I didn't dislike the film, I just wasn't caught up in its world or its story. In the end, both films seem very similar, but where White Mane is tied down by literalism (they even have to rely on constant narration to tell us what's going on in White Mane's mind), The Red Balloon comes across as imaginative and a more genuine representation of the childhood experience. The endings of the two are surprisingly similar in a lot of ways, but when the narrator in White Mane comments how the two swim to an island "where horses and children can be friends forever", it just feels like a clunky effort to force some kind of deeper meaning into a story that doesn't support it, whereas the ending of The Red Balloon is much more poetic and beautiful.

Fortunately, The Red Balloon is so wonderful that, even at its short running time, the cost of the film ticket is more than justified by that film alone. Any enjoyment you can get from White Mane (and there is enjoyment there) is just an extra, a bonus.

03 August, 2008

Juju-flop, Swut, and Turlingdrome


So here's the thing.

For me, with one day and two films left to go in the film festival, In Bruges (see the trailer here) has possibly been the most enjoyable film of the festival. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson star as a couple of hitmen who, having just completed a job, are instructed to get the hell out of the UK, go to Bruges, do a bit of sightseeing, and wait for further instructions. This obviously raises one important question:

"Where the f*ck is Bruges?"

So they go, and they sightsee. Gleeson is completely entraced by this gorgeous city, but Farrell is less impressed. He grew up in Dublin, he's not going to be impressed by Bruges. So basically, it's a nice sightseeing film with an odd couple at the centre. And then, once the call with further instructions comes in, it gets violent, lots of running around in the street shooting people and the like. In other words, as a film about sightseeing hitmen, plotwise there's not much about the film that will surprise you. No developments to cause you to say "I didn't see that coming". The film is exactly what you expect.

Except funny. I can see this becoming one of those films, like The Big Lebowski, that acquires a huge and dedicated cult following. And that is largely because of the script, sharply written with a keen ear for hilarious and quotable dialogue, and a wry awareness of the absurdity of your typical action film (one character, trying to get a gun, is offered an Uzi, and has to point out that he's not from Los Angeles and doesn't really need a machine gun). But, in addition to being achingly funny, the script is incredibly tight. It's rare to find a film that is this well scripted. There are no convenient outs, seemingly unimportant throwaway lines ultimately prove essential in unexpected ways, and almost every character in the film plays an essential role in moving the film to its conclusion.

But a tight, well-written script like this doesn't work if you don't have the cast to make it work. Colin Farrell is a revelation here - we knew he was a talented actor, but I don't think we've ever seen him be this funny before. With the wrong actor, the role wouldn't work at all well - he's supposed to be the sympathetic core of the film, yet he's a professional killer who alternates between being deliberately offensive and behaving like a petulant child on a family holiday. But with an actor of Colin Farrell's natural charisma, the audience genuinely loves him despite his many flaws and minimal merits. Farrell works well with Brendan Gleeson, an actor who doesn't get enough respect. Gleeson is the straight-man in this comedy duo, constantly enraptured by this incredible city and frustrated by Farrell's inability to appreciate anything around him. He's also tasked with providing the moral centre of the film, making a number of extremely difficult choices throughout the film, and Gleeson nicely underplays those situations.

The third character in the film is the city. And you've got to respect any film that would decide to set itself in Bruges. It's hardly a well-known city - I expect a huge proportion of the audience would be asking along with Colin Farrell just where the city is (indeed, one of the posters for the film actually included a note in parentheses explaining where Bruges was). But the decision to set it in a relatively unknown city pays off, as we're confronted with images I've never seen on screen before. And Bruges is a beautiful city - they describe it in the film as being like something out of a fairy tale, which it is, but there's a nicely dark gothic feel that seems to run through the place as well. You'll find yourself wanting to jump on a plane and fly straight there, just to see it for yourself. Certainly I would have been quite happy if the entire film had just involved travelling around seeing the sights with these two characters.

So when the ending came, and it was the typical ending to a hitman movie - people running around shooting at each other, albeit in Bruges this time - it was almost disappointing, almost like it had come out of a different film. It wasn't a bad ending, in fact, in a lot of ways it was actually a perfect ending. It's just that tonally it felt a little over-the-top compared to the rest of the film. But that's really just quibbling, since the whole hitman element was pretty integral to the film right from the start.

The truth is, it's a really well-made, funny, intelligent film, exploring a beautiful city with a couple of characters you can't help liking. I look forward to revisiting the film, again and again and again.

29 July, 2008

The importance of entertainment


So here's the thing.

I was planning to write about the festival films I see in viewing order, but I've decided to skip ahead for this one film. That way, I'm done with it and I never need think about it ever again.

I've previously written about seeing the original German-language version of Funny Games, and a couple of nights ago, I saw the English language remake (see the trailer here). And now that it's done, I'm just glad it's over, I can move on, and need never see that film again.

I was already not looking forward to the film. Before I even bought the tickets, I was debating with myself whether I should go. Having seen the original, I knew I would hate the experience, and yet in an act of extreme masochism I bought the ticket. My curiosity about the whole shot-by-shot-remake idea won out over my preference to actually find pleasure in watching movies.

When it came to the day, I was not able to cope with it at all. Just the thought of sitting through that experience again honestly made me feel ill. I don't know how many times I decided not to go. Even sitting in the cinema waiting for the film to start was a great internal struggle. But that was nothing compared to the fight once the film started. What made sitting through the film even harder was the fact that I could have left at any time and not inconvenienced anyone. For some reason, there was not one single person sitting in any of the right-side seats in my row - I could have left without pushing past anyone. I don't know how that happened - perhaps there was supposed to be a group in those seats and they wisely decided not to go, or perhaps it was God trying to give me an easy way to walk out of the film and I didn't take it. All I know is that I spent the entire film desperate for the film to end. And when it did, I didn't stay to the end of the credits (as I normally try to do). Instead I was out of the cinema, literally running, the second the credits started to roll. I just wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.

I guess the moral of the story is: watching Funny Games the second time is even worse than watching it the first time. Knowing what is coming does not make it any easier. It doesn't prepare you for the experience. If anything, it makes it worse. You know what's coming up, and every moment, you can see exactly where it's heading to, and it just makes you sick.

It was interesting watching the film on the big screen, because I watched the original at home on my not-as-big-as-I-would-like-it TV. And as harsh and as confrontational as that experience was, watching it on the big screen was a lot worse, because the big screen is ... well, big. There's no way to escape from the image, so it's that much harder to watch. And the sound, oh, the sound.

I went to the film curious about how small differences might affect a shot-by-shot remake. And in the case of Funny Games, not much at all. The experience would be much the same whichever version you watch. But what I found interesting was the way I started looking for differences between the films almost as a coping mechanism. If I can focus on looking for how the films vary, I don't have to think about what's actuall happening on screen. And there weren't many differences between the two. There were the odd shots (literally single shots) that seemed unfamiliar to me - and while I certainly don't expect to every shot after one viewing of the original, so much of the remake did feel so familiar that those occasions where I found myself thinking "was that shot in the original?" I don't know - they probably were in the original, but it was strange that they would seem so completely unfamiliar when I remembered pretty much every other shot. So perhaps they may have been a change, or perhaps not.

Some of these other changes I am more certain about. In the Hot/Cold scene, I'm pretty sure the car was originally head-on to the camera, because the passenger door had to be opened to find what was inside. This time, the car is actually side-on, allowing them to find the thing inside the car boot (a change that makes it easier - and more unpleasant - to see what falls out. That was a logical change). I'm also pretty certain that in the original the husband can't get the police on the phone but manages to call a friend, although he can't make himself heard. In the remake, he actually manages to get hold of the police, but he still can't be heard. If I'm correct about that change, one wonders why Haneke decided to make that change.

The most interesting change came after the "cat in the bag" scene. As with the original, there is no Naomi Watts nudity in the scene (or anywhere in the film, for that matter), but rather interestingly, where in the original the wife gets fully dressed again afterwards, in the remake Naomi Watts is only in her underwear when events progress. She then remains in her underwear for a long time - until the point where she gets dressed to go running down the road. And while I fully appreciate the enjoyment that one can ordinarily get from seeing Naomi Watts in her underwear, in this case it felt unnecessarily exploitative, even for this film - and frankly, if Michael Haneke is going to try to take the moral high ground with this film, I don't know that a change like that is actually going to help his case much.

(And incidentally, when she goes running down the road, she does wear that same weird poncho-jersey thing that was in the original film. Couldn't they have changed that at least? It looks just as awful on Naomi Watts.)

Anyway, I want to get this over and done with. Funny Games - a horrible horrible film by an extremely talented director. I honestly can't believe that I voluntarily sat through the film once, let alone (in effect) twice. I wish I could go back and stop myself, tell myself that it's not worth it. All I can hope is that, if anyone reads this, you will take what I have to say into account. Don't watch this film, in either version. If you do, you'll regret it. Much as I do.

Next post, we'll go back to the film festival screening order. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson go sightseeing In Bruges. There's a dwarf. And people die. It's very funny, and very violent. Michael Haneke would hate it.

25 July, 2008

In spring, one plants alone

So here's the thing.

I had this foolish idea of trying to keep up with writing posts about each of the festival films I see. But really, when you see 8 films in the opening weekend, and then see another film most following days, I was always going to be behind. And on those odd nights when I'm not at a film, I'm trying to catch up on other stuff I haven't had time for - I spend enough time in front of a computer at work, I don't want to sit in front of my computer at home as well. So what I'm saying is, I'll try to carry on with these posts, but I'll basically just be really behind my actual screenings (for the record - festival films seen so far, 12; films written about, 3 including this post). And when I do manage to write something, my posts may not be quite as detailed as I would normally write.

Anyway, to the subject at hand.

In 1978, 21-year-old New Zealand director Vincent Ward travelled up to Tuhoe country looking to make a short documentary about Maori still living in a traditional manner. He found the subject of his film in an 80-year-old woman named Puhi, a woman who still took care of her now adult son, who suffered from mental illness. Puhi died a couple of years later, and her son died some time later. But the memory of Puhi really seems to have stuck with Ward, and so 30 years later he returned to make Rain of the Children (see the trailer here), in an attempt to try and fully tell the story of Puhi's life and discover who she really was.

There's a haunting image early in the film, documentary footage from Ward's first filming, of Puhi travelling into town in Ward's van. She apparently insisted in sitting in the back of the van, even though there were no seats, and as she sat on the floor of the van she prayed, non-stop, for the entire trip. It's a fascinating, somehow troubling image that gains great importance as we discover just why she prays so much.

The film is essentially an extremely personal documentary by Ward. He is the first person we see in the film, telling us about his earlier film, and he provides the narration throughout the entire film. The rest of the film consists of numerous talking heads, footage from the earlier documentary, and reenactments of scenes dating back over a hundred years. And it was those earliest scenes that for me weren't terribly interesting - hearing about how the tribe moved from this location to that, or about the rise of a local prophet honestly just didn't engage me. There was just something a little abstract about the events. While Puhi, as the central character of the film, may have been present, she was a child and wasn't really involved. It wasn't until Puhi became a teenager, married and pregnant at the age of 14, that I found the film start to get its focus, which it held for the rest of the film.

Ultimately, the film becomes something of a tragedy, as Puhi loses husband after husband, and child after child after child, until she starts to see herself as cursed. It becomes clear that by the time Vincent Ward first met Puhi, her life had been completely subsumed into her son's life, desperately trying to protect him from the curse waiting to take him if she ever let her guard down. And it is heartbreaking as we see the consequences of this on her son, left after her death in a world he was completely unprepared for.

I've sadly only seen a couple of Vincent Ward films, but what I do know is that Ward, as a filmaker, has an extraordinary visual sense, presenting images that remain in the mind years later. And Rain of the Children is no exception , with images of pure beauty, of sheer terror, of haunting power. In some ways, I wish the entire film had been a complete dramatisation, rather than a documentary/dramatisation mix, because as fascinating as the documentary elements were, the restaged moments were so beautiful and powerful (in a way that talking heads or footage shot in the moment cannot be) that it almost seemed a shame to leave the recreations.

Anyway, fascinating, powerful, and moving movie. There's no doubt that it will make its way back to the cinemas, so keep an eye out for it.

21 July, 2008

It's funny what we do for love

So here's the thing.

I never notice when there's a filmmaker attending a film festival screening. So it was a surprise when the screening of Married Life started with someone introducing Ira Sachs, the co-writer and director of the film. I always feel a little uncomfortable when a filmmaker is present, largely because I worry "what if the film isn't good? How horrible will that be for the filmmaker?" Thankfully, it's not a problem we needed to worry about with Married Life (see the trailer here), which right from the opening title sequence (constructed out of images that could have been cut from a 1940s magazine) was clearly going to be a wonderful entertainment.

I'd not heard of the film before, nor the director, and solely went because of it had an interesting and talented cast (Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan, and Rachel McAdams) and the write-up in the festival programme sounded interesting. Chris Cooper, who is always worth watching, stars as a married man who starts an affair with a girl nearly half his age (McAdams, who is usually terribly beautiful, but is quite stunning in 1940s styles). Cooper does still care about his wife (Clarkson), so decides that leaving her will be too cruel. The only choice he has left is to find a painless way to kill her. Meanwhile, Cooper's best friend (Pierce Brosnan, playing a womaniser in a real stretch from his previous roles) tries to seduce the young McAdams.

It's a nice concept for a movie, with a strong film noir storyline combined with a fascinating domestic drama. Plus, Ira Sachs is clearly aware of the humour in the whole "husband tries to murder his wife to avoid hurting her" storyline, playing the laughs while managing to never actually go into black comedy. It's well-written, with some beautiful dialogue, a storyline that is genuinely suspenseful and, while plot developments are never really surprising, every time I thought I knew what would happen next I was wrong. Add to that the great design (the 1940s period is a visually rich period), and the film just comes alive.

(My only real problem with the film initially was with the casting of Rachel McAdams, an actress who I like and who absolutely looks perfect for the 1940s, and who does play the role extremely well, but who frankly seems a little too young for the role of a woman who married ten years and who was widowed by the war. Imagine my shock when I check the IMDb and discover McAdams was born in 1976. She's older than me! Which means she's pretty much the right age for the role. That's the problem with Hollywood getting people in their mid-20s to play high school students in films like Mean Girls - when you try to get them to actually play their age, they just seem too young.)

Anyway, I'd never heard of Ira Sachs before, but based on the strength of this film, I'm interesting in seeking out his earlier films. In the meantime, it seems the film is coming out next month. It's a wonderfully-crafted film, and well worth your time and money.

18 July, 2008

Hold me closer tightrope dancer

So here's the thing.

I started my 2008 Film Festival with Man On Wire (see the trailer here), a really enjoyable documentary.

A French tightrope-walker named Philippe Petit had seen an artist's impression of the World Trade Centre in a newspaper article in the early 1960s, when construction was just commencing, and apparently immediately had a dream of one day crossing between the twin towers. In the years since seeing that picture, he's tightrope-walked between the spires of Notre Dame, and between the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And then one night in 1974 his plan came together. The structure of the World Trade Centre was finished, the roof was on, the bottom 80-odd floors were occupied and functioning while the top 20-or-so floors had final construction work to be completed. A small group of people stole into the building, went to the roof, erected a wire between the two buildings, and then the next morning, Philippe walked out and spent 45 minutes crossing between the two buildings eight times.

It was a really enjoyable film. The documentary presents the events of his stunt, nicely interwoven with the larger story of Philippe's decade-long preparation for the event. Philippe has extraordinary charisma - it becomes clear how he was able to gather together a group of people to in effect break the law. He recreates moments from the events of that Above all, Philippe is an incredible performer. He doesn't just walk across, he kneels, he even lies down on this thin wire 400 metres above the ground. One of the cops on the roof trying to bring him down actually called him a tightrope dancer, since what he was doing certainly wasn't walking. I've always viewed tightrope walking as a stunt, but Philippe's performance definitely supports his view of it as an artform.

In a surprising (at least to me) way, the film turns out to be a bit of a heist film. Philippe watches gangster films constantly, imagining the preparation for the event as a bank robbery requiring careful planning, and in a funny way, he's right. After all, they're not allowed up there, so the exploit requires two groups of people in the two towers, fake IDs and disguises. And, as in any good heist film, problems arise (Philippe and another guy get trapped under a tarp for three hours, and in another moment play hide-and-seek with a guard checking the roof).

There are two things I'm disappointed by with the film. No film was apparently taken of the actual stunt from the roof-level, so we have to make do with (admittedly spectacular) photographs and footage from his earlier performances at Nortre Dame and the Harbour Bridge. But that couldn't be helped. The other disappointment was just that I would have liked to get to know a bit more about Philippe - how he actually got into tightrope walking would be a fascinating story.

But still it's a well-made documentary, nicely combining talking heads, footage from the time, recreations, and even Philippe enacting moments in his own house. Plus, it (thankfully) managed to avoid any mention of the towers' ultimate fate (which I was a bit worried about). It's just an enjoyable entertaining film, laugh-out-loud funny, and well worth trying to take the time to see.

17 July, 2008

Here we go


So here's the thing.

24 hours to go.

Tomorrow is the first day of the Wellington Film Festival, and at 7pm I will be sitting down in seat K26 of the Embassy, ready to enjoy Man On Wire, a documentary about a man tightrope-walking between the Twin Towers back in 1974.

Over the following 16 days, I'll have a further 20 festival films to attend (and, as if that weren't enough, a Saturday afternoon screening of The Dark Knight).

It's going to be an intense and exhausting two weeks, but it should also be a lot of fun. I'm excited.

Erased from existence

So here's the thing.

I'm a big fan of the Back To The Future films (BTTF was one of my most-watched films growing up). I always found it disappointing when Claudia Wells never came back to do the sequels, so the role of Marty's girlfriend Jennifer was filled by Elizabeth Shue. She does okay in the role, but she's not that great.

I've always thought they did a pretty good job in reshooting BTTF's final scene for the opening scene of BTTF2 with the new Jennifer. Which is why I thought it was pretty cool when I came across this rather great video on YouTube, presenting the final scene from BTTF and the opening BTTF2 scene simultaneously. And it's pretty interesting just to notice how much the pacing of the scene (subtly) changes between one version and the other - one film lags behind the other, then suddenly overtakes the other, and so on. It's also surprising to note that Michael J Fox actually introduces an extra use of the word "man" in the sequel.

Anyway, I just love that someone's done this - largely because it's the type of thing I wish I had thought of doing. Enjoy.

14 July, 2008

What do you think? Think they stand a chance?

So here's the thing.

I sat down a couple of weeks ago to watch Funny Games, the original German-language film by Austrian director Michael Haneke. My reason for watching it was quite simple - Haneke himself has recently made a shot-by-shot remake of the film, this time in English, with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. I quite liked the trailer - a nicely effective trailer that in its last half reminds me of the trailer for A Clockwork Orange (which is itself possibly the best trailer I've ever seen). And there is something appealing about a director trying to absolutely replicate his own film - obviously there have been directors who have remade their own films (Hitchcock made two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example), and there have been shot-by-shot remakes before (Gus Van Sant's remake of Hitchcock's Psycho, which was really awful, and which changed just enough in the film to even render its shot-by-shot status questionable). But the idea of someone returning to a 10-year-old work and trying to absolutely replicate every detail (probably in order to try and reach an audience that wouldn't watch a subtitled film) was interesting to me. Would different casting, different languages, even just an older director, cause the film to feel different to the original? It will be interesting to find out.

So, when the Film Festival programme came out, and the remake was in the listings, I knew I had to see the original film first. Especially since I'd started hearing comments that made me uncomfortable about seeing the film. I'd heard it compared to torture porn films like Saw or Hostel (a genre I find terribly offensive), comments about people feeling sick watching it, unable to watch it. On the other hand, I had heard reports about the violence in the film being largely off-screen or very fast, over before you even see it. Which made me curious as to how a film can be that disturbing if you don't even see it. Besides, I wasn't sure whether I would actually be able to watch this film once, let alone twice, and if I was to watch the original before the remake (which I wanted to), I had to watch the original film before festival tickets went on sale, because I didn't want to buy tickets for the remake and then discover I didn't want to sit through it again.

So I watched it.

And I thought it was ... interesting. It is a very challenging and disturbing film, and has stayed with me over the last few weeks. I don't really know whether I want to sit through the film (or at least a close facsimile of it) again, but I know I can make it through the film, so I did buy tickets for the remake. But the thing I found really interesting about the film wasn't actually in the film - it was actually an interview with Michael Haneke that was included on the DVD. And some of the things he said really bothered me.

The film is about this really nice family - a wife, husband, and young son. They're very happy together, live a good life, evidently fairly wealthy, and just generally have pretty much that any of us would want. Then one afternoon, they drive up to their holiday home looking forward to a week away. Not long after they arrive, a couple of polite, clean looking youths come around, initially asking to borrow some eggs. But it very quickly becomes evident that these people are planning to torrorise the family, betting that within twelve hours, all three family members will be dead. Let the games begin.

(Just a note - from this point, I'll be discussing the film's content. While I'm going to try and be as vague as possible about the details, there will be general spoilers how the film develops.)

Haneke starts to play his hand very early, working to make the audience complicit in the events of the film. At first you're not quite sure whether it is actually happening - the youths break the fourth wall for a split-second, seem to look at the camera (a big no-no in filmmaking) but it's so fast that you're not quite sure if you really saw that. Then, after the youths make their bet with the family, the lead youth actually addresses the audience, asking whether we think the family have a chance, noting that we're probably on their side. It's an unsettling moment, an indicator that the fourth wall will be broken fairly frequently throughout the film, constantly reminding us that this is a film.

But one of the problems the film has is that, because it is so well established within the film itself that it is a film, it stops working as a piece of drama. This really becomes evident takes place as we start the final third of the film. The youths vanish, actually leave the property, allowing one of the family members to try and escape. It's not much of a surprise that they recapture that person - what is surprising is how close they actually allow that person to get to being rescued. That person actually would have been rescued had they made one decision differently. There is no way that the youths would ever have done what they do - they basically surrender all control of the situation. It literally only works because it is scripted to work. And that really undercuts the film a lot. (Even moreso a later event, but I don't want to spoil that development for anyone that sees the film.)

But the other problem is that I'm not entirely certain that Haneke actually knows quite what he's done here. The film would be a lot worse, more harrowing, more disturbing, might actually achieve what he wants it to achieve, if he didn't have his characters making their aside comments to the camera. Because film to a large part is about forgetting that you're watching a film - you get drawn in, the people become real people, you empathise with their sufferings, you're happy when they're joyful. But with Funny Games, although Haneke is constantly trying to make us complicit in the torture - these events are only happening because we the viewers are watching them and are entertained by them - in fact what happens is that they stop being real people who are suffering, and instead become fictional people, and why should I be bothered by the suffering of people who don't exist? Haneke's efforts to make us complicit actually undercuts his whole message.

Haneke's attitude is basically that the film is almost a test. If you turn the film off then you pass the test. If you make it to the end of the film, then you need to hear what he's trying to say. And what he is trying to do is get us to question why we get so much enjoyment out of watching people suffer. Which is all very fine, but he's actually trying to criticise and condemn the viewer for watching the film that he made. In fact the film that he made was intended to cause us to suffer - Haneke has admitted trying to brutalise the viewer into realising how terrible it is that we watch this stuff. He has made a film to torture the viewer to tell us off for wanting the characters to suffer.

But what I'm not sure Haneke quite seems to get is that the violence, the parts of the film that he's criticising us for are not the parts that we enjoy. Now, I'm not talking about horror films here, largely because Haneke's film doesn't really feel like a horror film. Funny Games feels a lot more like a thriller, albeit a more extreme thriller. And in your typical thriller, there may very well be scenes where people are scared, people are hurt, people are even killed. But that's not really the point of the film. That's all just scene-setting, establishing the situation, confirming the threat. Instead the point of the film is the suspense around the person trying to fight back. They have their life taken over by some intruding force, but there will be some moment where they decide to take it back. And that is the moment when your typical thriller becomes interesting, because suddenly its not about one person inflicting pain on another, its about a battle of wits between two equally matched people, and the suspense around who will win. That's what this film constantly feels like it's about to become, but it never does. Instead, the family suffer through the torture and the killing, trying occasionally to take the initiative, actually succeeding (or almost) once or twice, but it never develops.

Now, what I'm just said is relevant in terms of a thriller, because to my mind that is the type of film that Haneke has made. I suspect he was actually thinking about horror films, in which the evil is never really vanquished, and if you do happen to survive the first film, you'll probably be killed off in the sequel, clearing the way for new flesh. And I think there he's got some legitimate criticsm of those films, but this film does not feel like those films, partly I suspect because the violence is all offscreen. A horror film would show you the killings, the deaths, would go to great lengths to invent new means of killing that we haven't seen. This film doesn't do that.

And having seen the original film, I think that's the really big failing with the idea of making a shot-by-shot remake. As an experiment, it's a fascinating idea - in fact, it was the thing that first caused me to be interested in the film. And I know Haneke actually wanted to make the original in America - he was speaking about American filmmaking - but he couldn't get the financing, so had to make it in German. Since he had some success in the US with Cache [Hidden], this has allowed him to try and make the film he originally want to make. But American filmmaking has moved on in the last ten years into ever more dark and scary areas. The rise of the torture-porn genre that really deal in the depths of human suffering and depravity, films in which the characters have no hope for anything but, if they're lucky, a quick death. To the degree that Haneke has a point in what he is trying to say, he's saying it to the people that watch this type of movie. The problem is that if you're trying to make a film to speak to the Saw audience, you need to be a lot more graphic, first to attract them, then to actually shock them enough to make your point. But since he's trying in effect to present an exact copy of the first film, that's a big constraint that limits his ability to do what needs to be done in order to achieve what he's trying to achieve.

Now, what the film does do, and do very well, is show you the true cost of what happens on the family. There is a scene immediately after one of the family is killed (off-screen). The blood is splattered all over the TV screen. The camera cuts to a wide shot, we can see about half the lounge, and in the far end over by the wall, we see one of the family members (I won't say who). That person sits still for a moment, afraid to move, then gets up and moves to the TV, rubs against it until they cut through their bonds. They then stand up and cross the room, the camera pans to follow them, still at a wide shot. They stop at the door, go back to the middle of the room, help the other surviving family member to stand up, and then walk back to the door and out of the room. That's all that happens in the shot. The shot takes just over ten minutes. Ten minutes. That is a long time for such a small amount of action to play out. But it's very realistic - they've just seen someone from their immediate family killed, they're traumatised by that, they're afraid that the killers might attack them at any moment, they're physically exhausted (it's been a long night), they're tired and sore, every step they take is agony, they feel on the verge of collapse. It's realistic that people in a situation like that would take that length of time. So what the film does do, and does really well, is present the emotional toll that these events would have on the people.

But I think the thing that really made me angry was a comment Haneke made about the audience's reaction to one scene. There's an incident late in the film where, for a moment, it seems like the family are going to get the upper hand. In fact, one of the youths is actually killed, on-screen. For real. Dead. And then ... something happens. I'm not going to tell you what, and you'd never guess what it is, but it's an astonishingly audacious thing for Haneke to do. David Lynch would reject the idea for being too out there. But here's the problem. Haneke talks about being in the movie audience when that death takes place. People cheered at that death, and then when this subsequent event takes place, they realised what had just happened. They had just cheered a murder. And the way Haneke talks about it, it's this whole attitude of how terrible that is. And that, I'll be honest, really made me mad. Because I don't like the idea of some European telling me how bad it is when someone kills someone else in self-defence. This was not an unprovoked murder. These people had already killed one person, they had openly stated their intention to kill the other two family members. And perhaps it's just me, but I can't conceive of how anyone could have any moral problem with that killing - it is the clearest situation of a justified killing that could be concieved. Kill or be killed. And if (as I would argue) there is no moral problem with that killing, then I don't see why there should be any problem with an audience being happy and relieved, even glad about the fact that it had taken place. Because we like these people, we're not actually enjoying watching them being tortured, we want them to make it out of the movie. And if them surviving requires that they kill the people who chose to inflict such treatment on them (which it does), then so be it. I see no problem with that.

But then, that's just me. And I'm generally pretty vindictive.

Haneke is a brilliant director, no doubt about it. He managed to make a phenomenally disturbing, harrowing, sickening film with barely any onscreen violence. Hell, the film had an R18 rating for "graphic violence", yet there was only one incident of actual violence I can think of in the entire film, it's over in a flash, and I've seen worse violence in lower rated films. The film feels a lot more violent than it is. I know I'll be able to make it through the festival screening of the remake, but I'm really not looking forward to it. A lot of it is the film itself, which really is an intense and unpleasant experience. But a lot of what I hated about the film came from Haneke and his whole attitude of judging the audience watching his film. I was talking to a friend at work who I knew had seen the original film, and he said he found Funny Games to be rather an immature work. He suggested that Cache was a more reasoned and honest exploration of many of the same issues, which sounds good - I must try to see that.

But Funny Games? It's a well-made film, but certainly one of the most difficult films I've ever seen. I'm just glad I'll have had four weeks to recover from the experience before seeing the remake.

I had a lot of other things I wanted to say about the film, but it's taken a few weeks for me to get this far into the post, and I honestly can't be bothered working any more on it. I might talk a bit more after seeing the remake, then again, I might not. We'll see.