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


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.