27 November, 2010

I turned my collar to the cold and damp

So here's the thing.

It seems to me to be pretty unusual to see a film or TV series these days that has a strong sense of place. Often, the difference between a film set in New York or Los Angeles may be an establishing skyline, and that's about it. It's a situation that certainly isn't helped by the common approach of filming in one place to fake another. Indeed, sometimes it almost seems as though the filmmakers are lucky to be filming in the same country as the film is set. Is there a major city in America that hasn't been played by Vancouver? How many times have Eastern European forests been called on to stand in for the country regions of the States? And often this all happens for a very understandable reason: money. Show business is, after all, a business, and if the filmmakers can save some millions of dollars by shooting a film somewhere other than where the story actually takes place, why not?

But the problem with that is that there seems to be something lost when you film somewhere else. Filmmaking is all fakery and acting, I'm not unaware of this, and it's certainly possible and reasonable to expect to be able to fake a location. But different cities, areas, regions, have different cultures. Filmmakers may gain a surface level idea about these differences in a short research trip, but when they go off somewhere else to film, you often end up with generic city, generic region, perhaps with a few obvious touches thrown in to signify the setting but without any sense of authenticity. But when you're filming in the area being presented, when you're spending weeks and months surrounded by the residents, filming in the house of someone exactly like your characters, casting locals in various roles, something about the representation of that area becomes real. It's difficult to define the difference exactly - it's often just richer in presenting the nuances and the sense of an area.

But even apart from the filming location, it sometimes seems as though filmmakers may almost be afraid of stories that are too location-specific. It's as though they're afraid to make a movie that is absolutely pinned to a certain location for fear of losing some universality. I sometimes wonder whether that plays a part in explaining why it often seems as though the location was chosen as an afterthought, a "we have to set it somewhere, so let's set it here" decision, rather than being a significant character in the story being told. And it's a position I don't understand. Specificity is not something to be afraid of. Rather, by presenting stories that are true to a place and exploring how different people behave in this environment and these types of circumstances, it gives a greater portrait of our world and who we are in it.

Winter's Bone (see the trailer here) is absolutely inseparable from its setting, and indeed is really about its setting. The film is set in (and was filmed in) the Ozarks, a region which was once notorious for moonshine, but these days has transitioned into being a centre for methamphetamine production. Ree Dolly, an impoverished 17-year-old girl raising her two younger siblings because her non-functional mother cannot, learns that her missing meth-cook father has put up the family home as part of his bail bond, and unless he turns up in the next week, the family will be evicted. So Ree goes off in search of her father, be he alive or dead, to try and save her family from being thrown out onto the dirt track that functions as a street.

There's a scene early in the film that in many ways summarises who Ree is as a character. Starving, her two siblings look longingly at deer carcasses that sit curing outside their neighbours' house, and suggest that they could go and ask the neighbours for some food. But even though you can see her own desperate hunger, Ree angrily rejects the suggestion, exclaiming "Never ask for what ought to be offered." Accepting a gift is fine, and asking for a big favour is okay if absolutely necessary, but asking for some small act of charity is intolerable. This is someone who doesn't have much, but who does have her pride, and who would fight to preserve what little she does have. In the main role, Jennifer Lawrence is utterly captivating. So much of her performance is carried in her eyes - Ree is a girl who has learned to be strong despite whatever life throws at her, and so as she moves further out of her depth, she continues to act strong and confident, and it's only through her eyes that we glimpse her fear, her exhaustion, or just how overwhelmed she is. Lawrence's ability to communicate a powerful performance with such subtlety is impressive, especially from someone whose previous career highlight was playing the daughter in a forgotten family sitcom, and one can only hope she receives some much-deserved awards recognition.

The self-sufficiency of Ree seems to be largely representative of the entire region. This is a film that could so easily fall into some awful clichéd portrayal of hillbilly life, but instead presents a living, astonishing, convincing world. There are moments where it almost feels like we're watching a film set 100, even 200 years ago, and it staggers the mind to think that in the United States there are entire communities of people that live like this. And in this society, at times almost unrecognisable as part of the modern world, the isolation and lure of easy money, as well the temptation of escape, make the growth in methamphetamine production and the rise of a protective culture around that seems inevitable. This is the story of an enclosed world where self-sufficiency is prized and the ability to protect your own interests from those who would threaten them is essential, creating a community where even your own family members are viewed with suspicion. So when Ree starts asking questions, everyone closes rank. These are people who don't want questions asked about where Jessup Dolly is, and even a 17-year-old looking for her father is a threat. She can't even rely on family and friend relationships for help - her recently-married best friend can offer no assistance, her uncle just tries to discourage her from investigating, and most of the remaining extended-family were in some way involved in whatever is going on.

To a large degree, the film is about the impact that methamphetamine has had on this isolated community, and it's handled impressively well. The film definitely has something to say about the effect of the drug in this world, and it's certainly not subtle in saying it, but yet it never once comes across as preachy. That's largely because the film is so rooted in character. The central character is someone who has grown up in the culture of drug production, who has seen the problems inflicted on those around by drugs and has chosen to avoid them. Any drug users are presented sympathetically and with realism, and even where people are actively involved in production, the situation that would lead them to that position is shown honestly. We can understand how this problem became so prevalent, even as the film argues that this needs to stop and points to the destructive influence that the drug is having on what should be a tight-knit community.

One of the things I love about this film is the fact that it had the potential to so easily turn into Precious-style misery porn. An impoverished girl, struggling to raise younger children, trying to survive in a harsh and hostile world - this could so easily turn into a film where the audience is expected to look at the film and tut-tut in amazement that someone would live like that. But it's not like that, and it's not angling for that reaction. When the film ends on a hopeful note, we can accept it because we've spent the entire movie with Ree Dolly - we've seen her resourcefulness, her intelligence, her determination, her bravery, and so we know we don't need to worry about her because she will be able to cope with anything that comes. This isn't Precious, where we're supposed to be hopeful just because the film is yelling "this is a happy ending and she's going to be okay, regardless of the actual evidence in the film;" this is a natural and honest moment of happiness for someone who we can genuinely believe will be okay because the film shows us that she'll be okay.

I worry that I'm making the film seem like some great exercise as a character piece or in portraying a community - something that may be worthy but ultimately dull. And it's not. Certainly, these are the areas where the film is strongest, but it's all an integral part of a genuinely suspenseful, well-made, and entertaining story. The film is basically a traditional noir-esque detective story, but with a 17-year-old girl as the detective. There are moments where Ree seems in genuine peril, relying solely on her own ingenuity and determination to avoid death. And in those moments, there is real tension and suspense. Director and co-screenwriter Debra Granik (working from a novel by Ozarks native Daniel Woodrell) has a masterful control on the narrative flow of the story, easing you into the story, then carefully building the tension until it becomes unbearable. By the time the film reaches its climax - with Ree going on an expedition to the middle of nowhere with several threatening figures to find a scene that is truly gruesome - you could feel your body completely tensed in fear for the possible outcomes. And yet, given that it's focused around a central mystery, the film does a really great job in almost avoiding that mystery - in one of the last scenes in the film, several characters draw the audience's attention to the fact that the question that would be the main point in any other film is left unanswered here. By the end of the film, we know enough to put together a vague picture of what happened and why, but key questions are unanswered. And yet the film doesn't leave the audience dissatisfied, largely because they're not questions that Ree is really all that concerned about. It's an unusual but fine thriller; one that has a lot on its mind, but that never forgets that its primary purpose is to entertain. I've watched it twice now (once at the film festival, once on general release), I'm picked up a copy of the book, and I'm looking forward to owning my own copy of the film. It's certainly not a typical thriller - the film has a gentle, cool, quiet tone that reflects this world in the middle of nowhere, and it comes across as so honest and realistic that it becomes all too believable, and is all the more horrifying for its realism - but it is absolutely beautiful and involving. I love this film.


And a small side-note here: When, following its New Zealand release, I managed to see Winter's Bone for the second time, I walked into the cinema very excited to see this great film again. My excitement quickly died when the octogenarian couple sitting a couple of rows back and six or so seats along started talking. Often it was just a loud noticeable murmur, but not infrequently it would turn into audible comments: "Look, they're going to play the banjo;" "Where is this?" "I don't know, Missouri, maybe;" "Look, it's little chicks" "Yes, aren't they young" "And so cute." And this carried on through the ENTIRE film. And the fact that they were such a distance away from me, and yet I could hear them, really shows just how obnoxiously loud they actually were. Now, I realise they were old, but that is no justification for what they did. The problem is amplified by the nature of the film - it's often a very quiet film, which made their talking even more noticeable, and meant that their comments interrupted the calm still tone that the film was working so hard to establish. In fact, it ruined the filmgoing experience for me because I found I wasn't watching the film so much as bracing myself for their next comment, and then mentally erupting with every kind of profanity when they did say something. I actually stalked them out of the cinema, following them up the street (which, since they were 80 years old, took them a looooooooooong time to walk), trying to summon up the courage to tell them to SHUT THE HELL UP NEXT TIME. But I decided not to. The film was over, so it was too late to save my screening from be ruined. And given what I had imagined calling them during the film and how angry I still was, I was worried I might say something I would regret. I thought about the possibility that it might spare future audiences from their constant chatter, but then I realised that they're probably set in their selfish ways and one guy approaching them in the street isn't going to change anything. Besides, does it really matter that I didn't say anything to them? It's not like I'll be saving that many future audiences - they're old, and while they may ruin a few more movies for a few more audiences, the truth is they're going to die soon, and then they won't be able to ruin any more films. And that's the important thing.

21 October, 2010

The Day of the Lion

So here's the thing.

I was listening to Kim Hill a couple of months ago when she was interviewing one of the main people behind The Onion. During the interview, the fake newspaper's post-9/11 issue was mentioned as a key point in raising the profile of the website. There was a lot of hyperbole in the immediate aftermath of that attack about how this event entirely changed not just the world but humanity itself. Reputable magazines were publishing articles about how this was the "death of irony" or some such rubbish, that the world had changed irrevocably and that our flippant and cynical attitudes had come crashing down with the towers. It was all rubbish of course, and The Onion sought to demonstrate that. With articles like "Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell," "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake" or "American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie," The Onion attacked the monsters that launched the attack, while also placing the attack in a wider history of religious intolerance, pointed out the ridiculous nature of much of the subsequent outpouring of patriotic expression, and examined the attacks in the context of a culture that consumes such attacks for entertainment. It even mocked the prevailing "death of irony" sentiments. And all the while it remained sensitive to the truth of the matter, targeting the jokes at the events around the attacks, but always aware that the tragic deaths of thousands of real people in a terrorist attack is not a laughing matter.

Of course 9/11 was a significant world-changing event - nearly a decade later we are living in a world that is much more sensitive to the risk of terrorism, and certainly there have been a number of horrifying and tragic terrorist attacks since then. But these days, you're just as likely to hear about the hilarious misadventures of unsuccessful terrorists. There was the shoe bomber (whose bomb didn't explode because his sweat dampened the wick), or the underpants bomber (the joke of which really doesn't need any more explaining). There was also the guy who left an ineptly-manufactured bomb in a car in Times Square - the bomb didn't go off, it was discovered, and police identified the attempted terrorist by his keys which he had accidentally locked in the car. Or there was the guy who planned to kill a Government minister from Saudi Arabia but succeeded only in blowing himself up with a bomb shoved up his anus. And there's something almost comforting about such stories. We see 9/11, or the 7/7 London attack, or some bomb going off in a nightclub somewhere, and it's horrific; you get an impression of coolly-planned operations efficiently executed. So it's a relief to hear these stories about the other guys and be able to laugh, knowing that terrorists apparently are still human, and some of them are just as stupid and bad at their jobs as the rest of us.

It's in this context that Four Lions (see the trailer here) works so well. The core idea, a group of British Muslim jihadists plan a terrorist attack, doesn't seem that promising an idea for a comedy, and I've even had some people questioning the taste of basing a comedy around such a horrific concept. But the success of a comedy lies in the quality of the humour within, not the core concept (After all, a surgical hospital in a war zone doesn't sound like a promising comedy either, yet M*A*S*H is one of the defining TV comedies of last century.) And who cares about whether it's seen as tasteless to make a comedy about terrorism? It's like Mel Brooks once said, "Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance." If we treat these people, be it Hitler or your local jihadist, and what they do as something so big and terrible that they can only be treated seriously, then they have power over us. But if we hold them up to mockery and ridicule, that cuts them down to a manageable level. It says that we're not frightened of them, they have no hold over us, and they're worthy of nothing but our laughter.

And there's a lot of laughter generated by this film. It's always a little difficult to describe comedies, since the success of the film ultimately rests on the quality of the jokes. And the quality of jokes on display in Four Lions is very high - in fact, this is easily the funniest comedy I've seen since In the Loop at last year's festival. But how does someone gets across just how funny it is to watch a bearded man describe disguising himself as a lady to purchase vast quantities of chemicals, or watch someone record a terrorist video while holding a tiny replica machine gun, or hear Barry lay out his plan to bomb a mosque in order to radicalise the moderate Muslim population. There's the fake suicide bombing, or the exploding birds, or the unsuccessful use of a rocket launcher. This is one of those films where the comedy just keeps giving; where you discuss the film with your friends, and every time someone mentions this scene or that, it reminds you of yet another hilarious scene or line that had slipped your mind.

A recent Onion News Network video exclaimed "Al-Qaeda Calls Off Attack On Nation's Capitol To Spare Life Of 'Twilight' Author," and the film takes a similar joy at exploring the uneasy way religious fanaticism mixes with western lifestyles among those living in the West. In one of the film's best moments, on their way to conduct their attack, the group find themselves cheerfully singing along to "Dancing In The Moonlight," Barry looking at the group in horror at their wholehearted embracing of the worst of Western pop culture and their inability to treat their upcoming mission with the seriousness it deserves. In another great scene, the uncertainties of Western architecture are debated in the context of prohibitions on being in the same room as a woman with an uncovered head; it's funnier than it sounds, especially when the water pistols come out.

The characters in the film are perhaps a little shallow - by the end of the film, I really only felt that Omar (the leader, and most level-headed of the group) and Barry (the most radical of the group, seemingly out of defensiveness due to his status as a Muslim convert) were well-fleshed-out characters. The remaining characters, while all getting their own very funny moments, simply aren't that developed as characters.

It's to the film's credit that it does follow through with the premise. It's a slight spoiler to say that the characters do end up dead, mostly blowing themselves up in the execution of their plan. There's no last-minute decision not to do it because this is wrong; for the most part the characters generally remain committed to their goal, even while the absolute pointlessness of their actions is illustrated. And I don't want you thinking the film adopts a simple "aren't terrorists stupid" approach. The film actually thinks everyone is stupid. (By the end of the film, when the final body count is tallied up, there's more than one person dead due to the incompetence or bad decisions of the people supposed to protect us.) It's just that, when the terrorists are the main characters, we get more opportunity to see their idiocies.

But it seems that less-than-competent terrorists is not strictly a post-9/11 phenomenon. In one surprisingly funny moment early in Carlos (see the trailer here), a couple of terrorists twice try to fire a rocket-launcher at an Israeli airliner, both times hitting other planes instead. Working with people with such poor ability, famed real-life terrorist Carlos (later nicknamed Carlos the Jackal) several times finds himself needing to act quickly to fix problems created by others. And Carlos himself isn't exactly perfect in his planning - his otherwise seamlessly-executed attack on an OPEC meeting ultimately fell apart because of one small miscalculation in his planning.

Carlos is quite an impressive achievement. Originally made for French television, the biopic runs for 5½ hours, spread out over three parts. It certainly makes for a long day in the cinema, but it seems much shorter than it actually is. (By comparison, I really liked last year's Che, but it really did feel 4½ hours long. Carlos, even at an hour longer, felt much shorter than that experience.) Each part has a very clear focus - the first looks at the rise in prominence of Carlos, and ends with the terrorist leading a group on their way to attack the OPEC meeting. That attack occupies a significant portion of the second film, before focusing on how that attack made Carlos possibly the most prominent terrorist of the time. And then the third film finds an older Carlos settled down to a degree, in a long-term relationship, trying to stay ahead and protect himself as the number of friendly nations slowly reduces, until finally he is captured and imprisoned for a couple of impulsive murders committed back in Part One.

While the whole film is excellent - exciting, involving, gripping - easily the most phenomenal section of the film lies in the OPEC attack. Running about an hour, it is easily one of the best suspense sequences I have seen in a long time. Every moment is filled with the threat of possible violence - Carlos by this point has been established as someone who will kill without a second thought, and he openly tells certain people "you will die." The raid is a success, but as Carlos takes his hostages onto the plane to fly to Iraq, he's frustrated to learn that the DC7 he's ordered doesn't have sufficient range to make it to that destination, even if they do refuel. It prompts hours of frustration, the plane and its hostages frozen while Carlos wavers in indecision. It's a phenomenal sequence, suspenseful and tense. And it really illustrates how a long running-time can be used well. There's no need to hurry the sequence, there's time to make clear every part of the operation, while being able to replicate the sense of being in that room or that plane, just waiting for something to happen, with the constant threat of imminent violence hanging over their heads. It's truly masterful. I read that a shorter 2½ hour cut of the film has been made for general release, and I shudder at the thought. While you could perhaps trim a half-hour from the final part if you had to (as Carlos stagnates and loses much of his drive, the film does run the risk of doing so as well), on the whole there is so little slack in the film that a shorter cut could only be damaged, and I can't imagine a heavily-edited version of the OPEC raid in particular having anywhere near the intended impact.

The film is also careful to remind us that it's not possible for someone like Carlos to operate without significant backing. There are scenes where the man meets with various recognisable presidents or prime ministers or leaders in various countries, who casually agree to accommodate and shelter Carlos; as long as he refrains from attacking them, they don't really care what he does to anyone else. And I think we all understand that there have been certain states that have, at times, given some level of support or backing to the activities of people such as Carlos, but there is something shocking to actually see such scenes play out in front of the viewer.

In the lead role, Édgar Ramírez gives an extraordinary performance. As a young man, he's all fire and passion for the cause, cold-blooded to his enemies, and full of fury at anyone with any less commitment to the fight, with an charisma that's so strong it seems natural that people would gravitate to this man and do anything to maintain his approval. As a result, it's a shock to see the Carlos of the final part, overweight and lethargic, holding to his ideals in a theoretical way only, having become one of those half-hearted pseudo-radicals that the young Carlos would have railed against. Much as we may hate the young Carlos, so callous with the lives of anyone that stands in his way, it's sad to see that fiery charisma gone, and replaced with an air of self-preservation. The character changes dramatically over the course of the story, and Ramírez skilfully navigates these character changes; convincingly determined in his youthful idealism, and in his later form subtly listless in his awareness that he has changed from one of the world's most notorious criminals to a forgotten and historic footnote.

Inevitably most people that see this film will either see the cut-down version (which you should avoid, since I can see no possible way it can work), or the complete version at home on DVD (since I assume big screen prospects for a film that occupies six hours of screen real estate are obviously limited). And since the film was originally made for television, no doubt it works very well on the small screen. But if you do get a chance to catch a cinema screening of the complete Carlos, do not miss it. Certainly I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to watch the film in cinemas. But however you get to see it, it's well worth your time. One of the highlights of my film year.

05 October, 2010

Playing scrabble and eating petits-fours

So here's the thing.

Back in 2004, I was watching the Oscars as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was sweeping every category it was nominated for. One of those categories was for Best Song, for "Into The West" performed by Annie Lennox. And I think we all knew that it would win, although going into the show I preferred "There's a Kiss at the End of the Rainbow", the song from Christopher Guest's folk-music-mockumentary A Mighty Wind. And that was my favourite song of the year, until Lady Haden-Guest came out to introduce a song from some animated film that I'd only vaguely heard of. For the next two minutes, I watched this. My reactions were probably the same as most people watching the song - I started at "This is a really cool song," quickly progressed to "Are they playing a bicycle?" before becoming "Is that a vacuum cleaner?" and finally "That is my favourite song of the year, and I really need to see that film."

Several months later, The Triplets of Belleville played at the film festival. And watching the film, I was delighted to discover that that song was the most normal thing about the film. For a start, the film's story is insane - a cyclist is abducted during the Tour De France race, so the kid's grandmother follows him on a pedal boat across the ocean to America, where she enlists three ageing singing stars to help rescue her grandson from an illegal underground gambling operation run by the mafia. The film is effectively free of dialogue, which seems give the animators free reign to use their art to carefully develop their characters as expressive actors. The highly stylised character design is often grotesque, but never not fascinating to watch. And the humour in the film manages somehow to simultaneously be absurd and farcical, yet nice, gentle, and honest. It's just a genuinely fascinating film, and one that I love to revisit.

The film was very clearly and openly inspired by the great French comic actor/director Jacques Tati, whose own films also minimised dialogue in favour of elaborate visual comedy. (Indeed, in one scene the triplets are seen watching Tati's Jour de Fête.) So I was understandably excited to find that this year's festival featured The Illusionist (see the trailer here), a new film from Sylvain Chomet based on an unproduced script by Tati.

The film follows Tatischeff, a stage illusionist in an era where the appeal of such entertainments is waning in favour of rock bands. Finding himself performing to ever decreasing crowds, or largely ignored as garden party entertainment, he eventually goes to perform in a small Scottish village. There he meets a largely-ignored young girl, who's never seen a stage magician before, and so believes that he really can do magic - a view that's reinforced after he buys her a new pair of shoes and gives it to her by performing a piece of magic. When he leaves the village, the girl follows him. This sweet father-daughter-style relationship develops between the two, with Tatischeff desperately trying to preserve that sense of magic, taking on extra jobs for which he is entirely unsuited to pay for the gifts he buys for her, while at the same time trying to hide his constant absence as he runs to one job or another.

When you have a movie that is based on a script by one of the great film comedians, and that is made by the man who created a hilarious film like Belleville, you expect it to be funny. And it is, absolutely, genuinely hilarious. There are great comic sequences - a particular highlight comes when Tatischeff believes Sophie has made a stew out of his white rabbit - as well as many simple funny jokes, and even some nice subtle jokes slipped into the image without comment. (I look forward to the Blu-Ray, if only to be able to examine the image for every joke.) But what is striking about the film is just how sad it really is. There's a tone of melancholy and sorrow infused into the film. And I think the reasons for that goes back to Tati's motivation in writing the film. It's generally believed that the script was written as an expression of regret by Tati for being so focused on his career that he missed much of his daughter Sophie's growing up (although Tati's first, illegitimate daughter claims that it was about his regret at abandoning her as a baby). Regardless of who Tati wrote it for, that sense of sadness is palpable in the film, with Tati seemingly trying to present himself as the father he wished he had been. To some degree, with that knowledge, it almost feels intrusive to watch the film, as though we're watching something too personal, too intimate, for public consumption.

What also hits you about the film is the incredible sense of nostalgia infused throughout it. Tatischeff is not portrayed as a great magician - he's actually pretty middling, with a fairly clichéd performance (he actually has a rabbit in his hat) - but still it's sad to see the simple pleasures of his show being rejected. Early in the film, we see Tatischeff patiently waiting while a grotesque Beatles/Stones amalgam band perform for hordes of screaming fans, who don't stay for his performance. And it's heartbreakingly sad, because it seems to mark a point where this unique and inventive artform went out of fashion. A few years ago, there were a couple of period films about stage magicians that both came out at about the same time, The Prestige and another film called The Illusionist. Watching those films, it was startling to realise just how big the general audience was for magicians was 100 years ago. These days, of course, the typical magician is relegated to a children's entertainer, and the only people who ever get a wider audience are EXXTREME magicians like David Blaine or Criss Angel, people who are more tiresome than magical. To many, maybe even most adults,stage magic is just kid's stuff, and that sense of wonder that comes with watching a good magic show, of questioning "how'd he do that?" almost seems to be lost.

It almost seems fitting that this paean to an "childish" art form should be presented as an animated film - after all, animation itself is an art form that was once intended to entertain all ages, but is today mostly regarded as kid's fare. Which is a shame, because animation really can be beautiful, and the animation work in the film is simply extraordinary. The character-design fluctuates wildly, from a very naturalistic look for some characters (the design of Tatischeff in particular is as close to a replication of Tati himself as animation could achieve) through to a more exaggerated look (similar to the look of the characters in Belleville) for some supporting characters. Yet the varying looks of the characters all seem to work well together in the film, and never feel incongruous. But the really great thing about the animation is this beautifully designed and detailed world they inhabit. Much as I love the Pixar films, and think some of their films (with Ratatouille as an obvious example) feature some stunning design work, there is something about looking at a traditionally-animated film and being able to see the careful intricacies in the hand-drawn detail that is quite breathtaking. (Again, the Blu-Ray will be an essential purchase.)

The Illusionist is not the film I though it would be, but in a good way. This is not the film that you might expect from a combination of the efforts of the creators of Mr Hulot's Holiday and The Triplets of Belleville. It's not as funny as that combination might lead you to expect, but it is deeper, richer, and a more moving experience, and one that stays in the memory.

26 August, 2010

Was it the same cat?

So here's the thing.

One of the highlights of my week is my regular visit to the film society. Every Monday night, they have a free film screening, and I try to go to those screenings knowing nothing about the film I'm going to see - not even its title. Sure, I check the year's schedule when it's initially released, and look for particular must-see films that I take care not to miss (this year, I've got the screenings of OSS117: Cairo: Nest of Spies, Swing Time, The Motorcycle Dairies, To Have Or Have Not, and Some Like It Hot marked in my calender), but other than those films, I try to walk into each film society screening with absolutely no idea what I'm about to watch. These days, every film you see is so promoted and spoiled and discussed that before you see a film your expectations are already well-formed. So it's nice to watch a film with absolutely no idea what to expect, and to just assess each film on the quality of film-making in front of you. Sometimes this lack of expectations can be surprising and thrilling (discovering that we're about to watch a Korean adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses - a novel that I really enjoy - or unexpectedly seeing the name of a favourite actor in the credits); occasionally it can be disorienting, demanding effort just to work out what it is that you're watching (it once took me a good fifteen minutes to realise that week's film was a documentary). Occasionally, a film may be dire, causing me to wish I had read up about the film in order to know in advance to avoid it. But other times there are films that I might have skipped because they sound awful in the writeup, but in fact prove to be an exhilerating experience. The key thing is that I have no idea what to expect.

Of course, sometimes you may just have a nothing response to a film. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, the film was a French documentary called Back to Normandy and, to be honest, I didn't care too much for it one way or the other. The filmmaker had, thirty years earlier, worked on a film based on a true crime from the 1830s where a young man murdered his mother, sister, and brother. The film had been shot in the region where the crime had actually been committed, and many of the local residents had been cast in the main roles. In this film, the filmmaker revisits the region and interviews many of the people who acted in the film, as well as showing us clips of the previous film and giving some background to the original case. And as I watched this film, my response sadly was "why does this even exist?" It seemed to have no purpose or reason for being. The writeup on the film society website talked very high-mindedly about how "the director’s sidelong, subtle approach has teased out modern-day parallels to the issues that surrounded the Rivière case," but if so, the approach was too subtle for me. I saw no real parallels, just a bunch of brief interviews that never seem to go anywhere.

Had I read up about the film before the screening, I would at least have been forewarned about the very first shot in the film - a closeup, fully-on-screen image of a pig giving birth. There are many things that I enjoy seeing on the big screen, and a few things I do not enjoy seeing. A pig giving birth would most certainly fall in the latter category. I did not need to see that. I would have been quite happy to never see that again. Later on in the film, we watched a pig getting a blow to the brain with a hammer, then having its throat cut and its guts removed. It was too much for at least one person, who I saw quickly leaving the cinema at that point, but I stayed. After all, I made it through watching the pig birth - the least I can do is watch how bacon is made.

But what they showed of that farming operation seemed very similar to what we imagine a traditional pig farm looks like, how they've probably operated for many many years. Certainly the pig farm I found myself watching the following night seemed very different. I'd been rewatching the TV version of the radio documentary This American Life over the previous week, and had coincidentally reached episode 6, "Pandora's Box," which featured a story about how the efforts of genetic science to breed particular characteristics into pigs has radically changed the process of pork production. There were images of the crew undergoing an extensive sterilisation procedure prior to entering the pig farm, because the pigs were so vulnerable to contamination. There were the expected images and issues - pigs in pens on metal floors, people questioning whether they could continue to eat pork having seen how it's produced these days, people discussing whether the supposed improvements introduced by genetic science have been advantageous. And then, all of a sudden, there was a closeup, fully-on-screen image of a pig giving birth. For the second time in two days, I found myself watching a pig giving birth. I ask you, what are the odds of that? When was the last time you saw something like that in a film?

Earlier that same night, I'd been watching Battle Royale, a Japanese film I'd heard a lot about. The film was about a group of schoolchildren who, under an officially-sanctioned programme, are kidnapped, put on an island, and then forced to kill each other under a only-one-person-survives-or-you-all-die system. The film was suspenseful and interesting, but I felt it was rather a disappointment. The explanation for how this bizarre situation arose didn't make any sense at all - exactly how picking one class at random from all of the country and forcing them into a fight-to-the-death would manage an out-of-control youth population just isn't clear, especially since the kids don't seem to have any prior knowledge of the existence of the Battle Royale that might motivate them to moderate their behaviour. The film definitely seemed like it was trying to say something, but I was never entirely clear on what exactly that was. Was it a commentary about how the older generations often view youth culture as something threatening? Perhaps, but if so that's a line that is abandoned pretty much as soon as the introduction ends and the battle begins. Is it some kind of Lord of the Flies situation? But there's a difference between that novel, where the inherent savagery of human nature is brought out without external influence, versus this film where the kids are only killing other kids in order to avoid dying themselves. I don't know that it's a big revelation to learn that, if forced into a kill-or-be-killed situation, some people would rather choose to die, others would kill reluctantly, and a few might enjoy killing. I'm also not sure what's gained by exploring that idea. So it was an interesting and enjoyable film, but frustratingly its message was so muddled that I couldn't help thinking it was just an excuse to justify a film where lots of under-age kids commit bloody and gory acts of violence against each other.

There was one scene that I found particularly interesting. A group of boys had banded together to try to fight back against the adults who captured them. One gives orders. "You, get some fertiliser. You, find some molasses. We're going to build a bomb." Shortly after, of course, all of them are dead, killed at the hand of the psycho who voluntarily came on the battle for fun. But I found it interesting because, while we obviously hear references to "fertiliser bombs" every now and then, I've never really understood how fertiliser ever actually gets used to make a bomb. But now I have (just a little bit) more information on the subject. Apparently molasses, a syrup formed during the refining of raw sugar, are involved in the process somehow. Just how, I have no idea (and I'm not going to look it up on Google for fear of accidentally ending up on some watchlist), but apparently those two substances somehow interact when combined in some way to create an explosive device. Who says movies aren't educational?

An hour later, I was watching the TV show Leverage. That week the show, an fun if inconsequential show about former criminals who perform heists to redress wrongs committed by other people, had our heroes trying to recover money stolen from various characters, only to discover that the stolen money was being used to fund the activities of a militia. Two of our heroes are captured by the militia but escape, before realising the significance of the strange smell at the militia camp. "Fertiliser and molasses. They're going to build a bomb."

Now I realise references to fertiliser bombs, if not common-place, are certainly not unique. And given the fact that I'm a guy, and guys like shows with explosions in them, it's quite possible that I might get a coincidental reference to fertiliser bombs in several programmes in a short space of time. But such references always focus on the fertiliser component of the bomb. I cannot remember the last time I ever even heard the word "molasses," let alone referenced in the context of trying to make a home-made explosive. To get two such references in the same night must be at least improbable.

The following night, I sat down to watch another Asian film, this time from Korea. The film, called The Host, was an enjoyable movie about a creature that mutates after chemicals are dumped into the river. The creature wasn't absurdly huge, running rampage and knocking over the high-rises of Seoul, but nor was it small. The thing was about the size of a truck, and could easily catch and hold people inside its mouth. The film itself was well-made, by a director (Joon-ho Bong) whose work I've discovered over the last year and with whom I've been quite impressed so far. His films seem to cross a wide variety of genres, but are always skillfully made and deliberately constructed, and this film, essentially a modern take on the classic Asian monster movies, was no different.

Finishing the film, I started to watch a new episode of Mad Men, the excellent drama about an advertising company in the 1960s. In one of the more memorable moments in the episode, the show's main character, Don Draper, goes out for a night on the town with the firm's financial officer, Lane Pryce, getting drunk, and then going to the movies. Now, I thought they had gone to see Godzilla, but it seems it was actually Gamera they were watching (my knowledge of the 60s-era Japanese giant monsters is evidently pretty poor). In any case, an on-screen appearance of a classic Asian monster movie (in a show like Mad Men, of all things) immediately after watching a modern-day variant on such films is definitely noticeable.

Now, I realise all these coincidences are meaningless. There's no significance to it. And, as a friend of mine said, when you watch as much television as I do, occasionally you get coincidences. (Indeed, I remember one night last year where, on two different programmes, I heard Europe's "The Final Countdown" played on a ukulele and a brass band. How improbable is that?) But it actually doesn't happen that often - that's why each of these coincidences in and of themselves were noticeable. When you get that many instances in such a short space of time (and remember, all of these took place in the space of three days), where different documentaries and movies and television shows, produced over a period of ten years in a total of four different languages and all different genres, all happened to be watched by myself in the same short period of time, where they all had distinctive elements that resonate with each other, that is unusual. It's not just a coincidence, it's a coincidence of coincidences.

Or perhaps it's not a coincidence. Perhaps someone somewhere is trying to warn me and prepare me. Who knows, perhaps one day we'll be attacked by a giant mutant pig giving birth to smaller mutant pigs. If that ever happens, I'll know exactly what to get from the garden-supply store and the wherever-the-hell-you-get-molasses-from store in order to destroy the monster.

Or perhaps it just means I watch too much television. Gee, I hope not.

03 August, 2010

Let's see what you can do

So here's the thing.

I'm looking at the Stuff website, and I come across this article. Now, I realise this is just an entertainment article, and we can't expect too much from such articles, but still, I was shocked at just how appalling it was. An extraordinarily pointless article lacking in any focus at all, jumping from topic to topic, seemingly just throwing any vaguely-relevant information into the text in order to pad the word-count out.

Here's what I mean:

'Hit Girl' in killer new role
By NATALIE HAMBLY - Sydney Morning Herald

Chloe Moretz, the young teen famous for playing a foul-mouthed assassin in Kick-Ass, will next appear on our screens as a vampire.

Okay, first question - how is this news? It's been several months since Kick-Ass was released, it's been ten months since her casting in Let Me In was announced, and it's several months until the film is actually released. And really, reading through the rest of the article, there is almost nothing that I can find in this article that could not have been written four months ago. So why is this supposed news article being written now? I read this thinking it was going to be about a new piece of casting, not one that happened last year.

The 13-year-old actress is starring in the Hollywood remake of the Swedish horror hit Let The Right One In.

I'll just say right now, Let The Right One In is a phenomenal film. It's chilling and haunting, and sweet in a disturbing way. It's also an interesting example in how a story changes between book and film, even when the film tries to stay close to the book (as Let The Right One In does). I finished the film with a very clear understanding of the story being told. But then I read the book by John Ajvide Lindqvist (which is also very good), and it completely changed my interpretation of what happens in the story. While the original film stays very close to the book in relation to the actual events during the main timeframe (albeit with one major subplot omitted), it does leave out pretty much all of of the backstory, particularly in relation to the vampire's 'father,' and that backstory actually meant that I interpreted the entire story differently to how I'd interpreted the film. Anyway, back to the article.

Based on a novel, the film follows the relationship between a bullied and lonely boy and his unusual new neighbour (Moretz). Around the same time the young pair meet, their quiet neighbourhood is reeling from a spate of grisly murders.

Now, I have two points to make about this paragraph. Firstly, note the first four words: "Based on a novel." I ask you, what does that vague generic barely-informative phrase actually have to do with anything? The original novel never gets mentioned anywhere else in the article - the rest of the article focuses solely on the remake and the original film. Now, the fact of the novel could have been relevant to the article - they could have mentioned, for instance, the fact that the remake's director defends the film by talking about it as a new adaptation of the book rather than a remake of a film. But they don't. The novel is irrelevant to anything else in the article, but still it's mentioned. And as you'll see, that's one of my problems with the article - the article, at least initially, appears to be about Chloe Moretz playing this role, but there's so little substance in that article idea that the writer starts throwing every piece of available information into the text to pad it out without considering what that information has to do with anything else in the article.

Secondly, pay attention to that paragraph. We're definitely talking about the remake right now - notice the reference in this paragraph to Moretz playing the neighbour. Now, watch what happens next.

The movie, described as dark, atmospheric and cold garnered rave reviews. The Sydney Morning Herald said: "At once quietly complex and profoundly creepy, this extraordinarily resonant work ... manages ... to breathe life into the oversaturated subset of the horror genre, the vampire film."

Wait - how are there reviews of this film already? It's several months away from release. I'm confused.

In David Stratton's review for At The Movies, he was dismayed that it was getting the Hollywood treatment.

But this film is the Hollywood treatment, so how... ohhh, he's talking about the Swedish film now. So when exactly did we make the transition from the Hollywood to the Swedish film? Can anyone point me to the place where they clearly and unambiguously switch from discussing the remake to the original?

"I'm horrified that they're going to make a Hollywood remake, because they're going to complete ruin it ... but it's really worth seeing," he said.

Okay, let's be generous and overlook the "completeLY ruin it" typo. Let's just ask, what does this sentence actually contribute? It's a Hollywood remake of an excellent foreign film, so we can all just assume the critics are, at this stage, against the remake. But the key point is, they haven't actually seen the film. It's just an assumption that the remake will be inferior - a justified one, because most remakes are. But there are occasionally good remakes of foreign films - Infernal Affairs became The Departed, Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven, Christopher Nolan's remake of Insomnia, all come to mind. So it's possible that this may actually prove to be a good film. The key point is that, right now, the critics have no idea whether this will actually be good or not. It's just speculation on David Stratton's part that they will ruin the film. And besides, what does any of this discussion about the merits of remakes have to do with Chloe Moretz, who I thought was supposed to be the subject of the article?

The Hollywood version has been renamed Let Me In and is directed by Cloverfield's Matt Reeves.

Young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (Romulus, My Father) will star opposite Moretz as the ostracised boy.

"Hey, we haven't mentioned the name of the remake, who directed it, or who plays the other main character. Find somewhere to cram that information into the article."
"Should we mention the Oscar-nominated actor playing the girl's 'father'?"
"Who? Richard Jenkins? Who cares about him? Besides, we don't want to have too much pointless information in this article. It'll lose its focus."
"Wait, this article has a focus?"
"Yeah, it's about Chloe Moretz."
"You mean the actress we haven't mentioned in four paragraphs, because we've been discussing how good the original was and how bad a remake will be?"
"Yeah. Actually, throw in a reference to her so that we can get the article back on track."

Moretz became famous for playing Mindy Macready, aka Hit Girl, in the film Kick-Ass.

Okay, the first sentence of the article already said that she was famous for her role in Kick-Ass, so we already know that. The only thing this sentence adds is her character's name, but if you've seen Kick-Ass you know who she played (there's only one foul-mouthed 11-year-old girl in the film), and if you haven't seen the film, knowing that the character's name was "Mindy Macready, aka Hit Girl" is useless information. So why is this paragraph needed again?

She was the subject of much controversy because her character was an 11-year-old skilled assassin who was prone to profanity - notably the f- and c-words.

My favourite story about Kick-Ass is that the original comic had the line with the c-word, but the script omitted the c-word (presumably because it would involve an 11-year-old actually saying the word). Moretz's mother was apparently reading the comic, thought the line played better with the c-word (which is probably true) and so talked the director into including the word. I repeat: the girl's mother had the c-word put into the film. Nothing to do with the article - I just find that amusing.

Parents were warned against taking their children to the film and questions were raised about whether a young actor should be asked to perform such a role.

Moretz is now 13 but there has so far been no controversy about her playing a murderous vampire.

And now we can see the point of the article. They're trying to draw people's attention to this film in order to create controversy about her playing a murderous vampire. The question is, what is the controversy they're trying to create? Is it (as with the alleged controversy around Kick-Ass) about a young girl like Moretz playing this more-adult role? If so, having made it through Kick-Ass seemingly well-adjusted, the role of the vampire is by comparison rather tame. Is the controversy over concerns that parents may need to be warned so that they don't accidentally take their young kids to see "that film where that nice girl from Kick-Ass plays a vampire," and are then shocked to discover that she does vampirey stuff? Or is it a controversy over the general audience being harmed by seeing a young girl doing scary stuff in a horror? If so, we'll just have to hope no-one in Hollywood ever reads The Exorcist, because that would really be a disturbing film.

And incidentally, the saddest part of the article is the fact that they now have to explicitly state that she's playing "a murderous vampire". I remember a time before Twilight when the word "murderous" didn't need to be used as a descriptor of vampires, because it was pretty much taken as read.

Let Me In is due for release in October. A trailer has been leaked on YouTube.

Strangely enough, this may actually be the part of the article that annoys me most. A trailer has NOT been leaked on YouTube. The trailer was officially released by the studio, and then posted onto YouTube. This is not some cloak-and-dagger surreptitious action of someone trying to release secret information. This was part of the official promotional campaign of the film, and to say that it was "leaked" is a patently transparent and pathetic attempt to add a little bit of excitement to a nothing story.

Look, I'm aware that it's silly of me to hold Stuff to any standards in its entertainment section. By definition, pretty much any article that ends up there is almost certainly not going to be news by any objective standard. Right now, the site is featuring articles about how Jennifer Aniston is enjoying single life, or how Zac Efron went to a strip club but didn't like it. And I realise that, as someone who probably went into journalism with dreams of being the next Woodward or Bernstein, it must be dispiriting work for the reporter to have to write articles about the career choices of a 13-year-old actress. So I realise how strange it is that I would be made so angry by this by such a small unimportant article. But that's exactly why it maks me so angry. This article wasn't tucked away in the Entertainment section of the website. It was given prominence on the front page of the website - you know, where real news is supposed to be posted. And yet, when I finished the article, my response was "why does this even exist?" And that's not a good thing.

Listen, Stuff, I've complained about your website before, and to your credit, you have thankfully stopped highlighting the CuteStuff articles on the front page. (It's still there on the site, and it's still pointless, but at least these days it takes several deliberate clicks to find.) [EDIT 4 August 2010: I spoke too soon. I hadn't seen it in a while, but guess what was up on the Stuff website today. Sigh.] But if you're going to claim to be a news website, the one thing you need to do when highlighting an article on the front page of your news website is ask yourself "Is this article news, or are we just publishing it to make it seem like there's something new on the site." If it's the latter, by all means use it to pad out the Entertainment section, but don't waste perfectly good, and limited, space on the front page of your website drawing attention to it.

And one last thing. I know last time I said how much I hated your "if our team don't break stories first, there are consequences" campaign. I take it all back. Please please please bring back the campaign, if only because I desperately need to know what you would do to the person responsible for posting a news article ten months after it took place.

16 July, 2010

By request

So here's the thing.

I first became familiar with the work of Steven Moffat late one night back in 2004. It would have been about 11:30pm; I was flipping through the channels during an ad break to see what else was on, and stopped on some British comedy programme. Less than a minute after I paused there, I found myself watching a beautiful blonde woman walk up to the counter of a science-fiction memorabilia store, smile at the guy behind it, and observed "isn't it exciting that they've found episode 2 of The Daleks' Master Plan?" (Ten seconds later, the guy behind the counter woke up from his dream.) But that scene made me take notice of the show. At the time the discovery of the previously-missing episode was still recent news, it had only taken place a couple of months earlier (we still hadn't actually seen it, since it wasn't released on DVD until the end of the year), so it was a surprise to me to see it referenced so soon. Whoever wrote this is clearly a Doctor Who fan.

So I stayed watching the show, which was called Coupling. It was certainly funny, and later in the week when I noticed a rerun of an older episode on UKTV, I turned it on. And it was that episode that turned me into a fan of the show. Literally half the episode revolved around a single scene where two characters try to have a conversation even though they speak different languages. The show presents the scene twice, once from each character's point of view. It was so perfectly written, the intricacies of the communication break-down and misunderstandings so carefully worked out, that I was genuinely impressed. As I watched the rest of the show's run, I discovered that it regularly broke free of the basic sitcom formats. Entire episodes were presented in split-screen, or chronologically took place before the previous episode, or contrasted drunken flashbacks against the reality, or replayed the same short period of time telling the stories of different characters in the bar. It's not so much that these are especially original ideas, but they're certainly not commonplace in the typical sitcom. Steven Moffat was clearly a talented writer who wasn't just content to write jokes, but was instead testing the boundaries of the sitcom format, trying to find something new to do with the form. And I liked that. It also helped that Moffat is a very very funny writer.

Meanwhile the revival of Doctor Who, under the control of lead writer Russell T Davies, was in production, and Moffat was announced as one of the show's writers.

Much spoiler-filled discussion of the last 5 1/2 years of Doctor Who (including detailed comments on the finale to the most recent series - Matt Smith's first) follows after the jump.

22 June, 2010

Revenge of Suspense, Laughter, Violence, Hope, Heart, Nudity, Sex, Happy Endings... Mainly Happy Endings

So here's the thing.

It is rather an impressive feat to manage to be a jerk even when you are explicitly trying not to be.

Last year, I posted about my experiences while queueing for film festival tickets, and my annoyance at these two guys who parked their car on the forecourt in front of the ticket office, sat in their car for a couple of hours, and felt that this entitled them to take the front position in the queue. I also mentioned how angry I was, both at them for being jerks, and at myself for letting them take that front place in the queue. So this year I was ready, I've spent the last few weeks psyching myself up for this. If they did the same thing this year, I would wait until they left their car and tried to claim front place, and then I would refuse to accept their claim. I would send them to the back of the queue, with (I assumed) the support of those around me. (I would have discussed it with people ahead of time.)

So it was 6am, I was walking to the ticket office, I could see it at the end of the street, and it was empty. Not a soul was visible, no cars, nothing. And then, as I watched, a minute away from the ticket office, a car pulled up, but not on the forecourt. A guy got out and put some box-shaped object on the ground in front of the ticket office, then went back to his car and brought another out to stack on top of the first object. As I walked up, I saw that he had two stereo speakers, one on top of the other, and he was putting a jacket around the speakers. And sure enough, this was one of my mortal enemies, and look, there's my other mortal enemy sitting in the car.

So the guy looks at me and comments that this was their "person," that they decided "not to be jerks" this year by parking on the forecourt, and rather they had made this person as their stand-in holding their place while they sat in their car in the car park a few metres away. Well, I wasn't expecting this exact situation, but I was still mentally prepared to take a position on this issue. "No," I said, "you cannot save a place with a stereo. If someone wants to wait in the queue and save a place for someone else, that's one thing. But inanimate objects do not get to save places for people." I told them how annoyed I was at their actions in the past, and I felt that their actions this year were just a further example of inappropriate behaviour.

So they tried to defend their actions.
"But it's cold," they said.
"I know it's cold. I know because I'm cold."
"Well you could bring your car and wait in it if you wanted," they said.
"No, because that's just not how you queue. Plus, if everyone queued in their car then pretty quickly we'd have thirty cars and a bicycle lined up in front of the ticket office inconveniencing everyone."

So they went, and they sat in the car. Meanwhile I stood out in the cold, standing by the two speakers. I had made my position clear - I did not accept their scarecrow saving their place, and I was planning on moving it out of the way, but I wanted to wait for someone else to come along before I did so. (I felt that I wanted someone else in the queue to support my position that their claim had no validity.) But after five or ten minutes, they must have had a change of heart. One of the two got out of the car, put the two speakers side-by-side to form a makeshift chair, and sat down, where he stayed until the ticket office opened. "Victory," I thought.

Here's the point where they actually became jerks. Since the guy sitting outside was now not in the car, he couldn't listen to the music they had playing. So the other guy opened the doors, turned the stereo up, and proceeded to play some really bad music really loud (certainly much louder than should be allowed at 6.30 in the morning). So here I am, trying to listen to episodes of This American Life on my iPod, but since the show is mostly just talking, even with the volume turned right up, it was hard to focus on Ira Glass's voice with the constant barrage of noise coming from the car. The guy who wasn't in the queue started doing something around his car (I wasn't paying close attention, but it seemed like he was cleaning the windows, which seems like a weird thing to do), before eventually driving away about 7am, only returning shortly before 9am to pick up the speakers and then leave again.

Meanwhile I waited, happy in the knowledge that I had actually won, and at 9am, I bought my tickets. This year I'm going to either 22 or 24 films (depending on how you count them) which makes this the most films I've been to during the festival however you count them. I'm going to be seeing:

* The Concert
* Animal Kingdom
* Four Lions
* The Housemaid
* Once Upon A Time In The West
* Exit Through The Gift Shop
* Cell 211
* Please Give
* The Most Dangerous Man In America
* A Prophet
* The Ghost Writer
* Oceans
* The Two Escobars
* Farewell
* Winter's Bone
* Cyrus
* Splice
* Carlos (Parts One, Two, and Three)
* The Double Hour
* The Red Shoes

There's a lot of films that I'm really excited about. I'm probably most looking forward to Once Upon A Time In The West. I've actually owned it for about five years, purchased solely on the basis of reputation, but just never got around to watching it. But I recently watched Once Upon A Time In America (another film I've owned for years but never actually watched) and loved it, and that reinforced my need to actually start watching Leone. And now I have the opportunity to see one of his best films at the Embassy? That is exciting.

And speaking of classic films, I've also never seen The Red Shoes, which is supposed to be extraordinarily beautiful, and with a new restoration should be a great experience.

I'm also excited to see The Illusionist, the new animated film from the director of the incredible The Triplets of Belleville. That film was quite openly inspired by the comedy movies of Jacques Tati (indeed, in one scenes the characters watch a Tati film), so it's especially exciting that in this film Sylvain Chomet is working from an unused script written by Tati.

I will admit that I am conflicted about including Polanski's new film The Ghost Writer. A friend and I had a debate last week about the film - my friend saying that she would take a principled stand against Polanski (who has, admittedly, done some rather unsavoury things in his lifetime) and refuse to see anything he does. I'm not a big Polanski fan in any case (although Chinatown is really is phenomenal), but The Ghost Writer (which had most of its post-production undertaken by Polanski while on house arrest) has a great cast and has received some really excellent reviews, and if the film were from anyone else, I wouldn't hesitate to see it. And so I don't really see the point in refusing to see the film. I don't really think Polanski cares whether one person in New Zealand refuses to see his film because of something that happened thirty years ago, and for me to refuse to see it would deprive myself of a film that I might enjoy in order to make a point that no-one would notice or care about. And what would be the point in that? So I'm seeing it.

The Two Escobars is a film I would never have thought about seeing but for a coincidence of timing. Although it's not mentioned in the programme listing, the film was produced as part of a highly-acclaimed series of 30 sports-based documentaries intended to commemorate ESPN's 30th anniversary, and the day before the festival programmes came out, my favourite TV critic previewed the upcoming screening of the show in the States with the comment that "It's an incredible film, arguably the high point so far in a series that's been full of award contenders."

Similarly, the programme description of Winter's Bone doesn't sound too fascinating, but a week ago I heard several highly-praising references to the film, first a brief reference in the Firewall and Iceberg podcast, and then an entire segment dedicated to the film in the AV Talk podcast, so I'm excited about that one.

I was toying with the idea of seeing Predicament, the New Zealand film that is having its world premiere as the official opening night film. But when I realised it would clash with Inside Job, the documentary about the recent financial crisis (because yes, I am that boring), my decision was made for me. If Predicament turns out to be any good, I'm sure I'll have other chances to see it.

Then there's the Carlos the Jackal biopic, Carlos. I was uncertain about seeing the film - it's actually three films totalling 5 1/2 hours, and a film at that length can be daunting, especially if the film doesn't work for you. But a quick Google search brought up a lot of rave reviews from the Cannes festival, so it should be good.

Back in 1999, Vincenzo Natali's Cube was one of my favourite films of that year's festival. I don't think I've seen anything of his since then, so it will be interesting to see Splice and get an idea of how he's developed as a filmmaker, especially now he's working with (I assume) a bigger budget.

And then there are the rest. A Prophet is supposed to be incredible, The Double Hour sounds fascinating (although I am anxious about seeing it at the end of a day that features the marathon Carlos), Exit Through the Gift Shop is supposed to be a lot of fun (although I know even less about the film's subject, graffiti artist Banksy, than most people), and the rest of them just sound like they should be enjoyable movies. And then there are all the films I wanted to see but can't get to because of time clashes (a lot of those this year) or just needing to keep the number of films down to a reasonable level. It's been a particularly hard festival this year to make my film selections - and that's a good problem to have.

For me there are two real disappointments around the festival. Having attended the Live Cinema event the last few years (where they screen a silent film with live musical accompaniment), I was a little disappointed by this year's Live Cinema film, which doesn't interest me at all. Still, I wasn't too disappointed until I discovered that, in Auckland, they are showing Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr - one of the best films from one of the masters of silent comedy. Now that would be a great film to see, but sadly the Wellington festival isn't getting it.

The other disappointment is around a film that isn't screening anywhere in the festival. The first time I ever saw Metropolis, it was at a festival screening of the then-new restoration back in 2003. Of course, since then, the complete uncut print of that incredible film has been discovered and, with it currently screening in US cinemas, I had my fingers crossed for a festival screening of the complete Metropolis. Sadly, the film is nowhere to be found in the programme. I was hoping for my first viewing to be on the big screen, but it seems I'll probably need to wait for the Blu-Ray release later this year.

Still, with such a wealth of potentially enjoyable and possibly great films ahead of me, I can't be too disappointed. I'm anticipating a good festival this year. I have my tickets, now I just want it to start.

19 June, 2010


So here's the thing.

I think I may be a monster. I'm worried that I may be a horrible, cruel, unsympathetic person.

Let me explain: this whole thing has arisen out of an episode of the This American Life radio show. I've written in the past about my love for the show, and two years on from writing that post, I remain utterly fascinated by it. I look forward to hearing each new episode, I'm still working my way through the 400-odd episode backlog of the show, and it still hasn't lost its hold on me. I love it, and if you've never heard it, I strongly encourage you to go to the website and just start listening. It's really great.

There's one story in particular that I would encourage you to listen to. It's from episode #363: Enforcers, and the story runs from 5:30 to 35:30 in the episode. So it's a long story (half an hour), but it's worth it. Feel free to go away, listen to it, and then come back.

Okay, so hopefully you've listened to it. If you haven't here's a quick summary. These three guys run this reverse-scam on someone running a Nigerian email scam. The three guys pose as a church, and then when the person running the scam (who incidentally really is Nigerian) asks for money, they tell him that if he travels to the neighbouring country of Chad, the representative from their church's mission will be able to meet him there to give him the money. Now, bear in mind, as far as the scammer knows, he's stealing from a church, taking money that is intended to help the people of the region. So the scammer travels across the border into Chad. But then the church's representative supposedly has difficulties getting to to where the scammer is, so the scammer has to go further to find the representative. And so slowly they draw the guy deeper and deeper into Chad, further and further away from home until finally he's 1400 miles away from home, in a city on the edge of Chad less than 100 miles from war-torn Darfur. In other words, this is a bad situation for the scammer. And then they left him there. For weeks, months even, constantly emailing him "it won't be long" to keep him around in this very dangerous situation. And he was apparently in real danger, but still he waited and waited for his money to come. Eventually the three guys got bored with him, so they emailed him and told him they had heard that his mother was dead. The scammer no doubt had a few moments of horror, but eventually got in contact with his family and discovered it was not true. And so the story ends, the scammer knows he's been played, goes home, and resumes scamming people.

Anyway, I loved that story, I genuinely think it's a fascinating story. In fact I told it to a few friends of mine, none of whom expressed any concerns about the story until I reached the part about the dead mother. Then people tended to speak up - "Oh, that's gone too far, that's not funny at all." Which I don't understand - I mean, I realise that hearing that your mother is dead is not good news, but it's not like she's really dead, and as soon as he gets in contact with his family (which you know became his first priority on receiving the news) he'll discover the lie. But the other thing I don't get is why it's the dead mother story that goes too far. I mean, why didn't my friends say anything when they abandoned the guy in a dangerous town right beside a war-torn country. Now, my friends all claimed that they had been concerned at that point, they just hadn't said anything. Maybe. But it was the dead mother story that prompted them to speak up, which would suggest that they thought that was worse than leaving the guy in Chad to begin with. And that I don't get. I don't see why telling an easily and quickly disproved lie, even one as personal and upsetting as "your mother is dead" is that much worse than putting someone in a life-threatening situation.

Anyway, there a reason why this has come up again, a couple of years after the episode aired. An interview that TAL host Ira Glass recently did has been posted on the show's website, and there's one point in the interview where they ask about instances where someone thinks they'll be the subject of a positive story, and it turns into a negative story. Ira's response?

It was a story we did about those guys who - you know those Nigerian e-mail scammers? There are guys who reverse-scammed those scammers, and a bunch of them got in contact with the radio show, saying "we're doing this really funny reverse-scam against those Nigerian scammers", and the reverse-scam basically involved - they tried to get one of those guys into a war zone in Sudan, and he nearly died, and it wasn't funny at all, and the guys seemed like monsters. But they didn't seem able to tell.

I remembered the show well, and I remember that at the time Ira wasn't entirely impressed with the guys - he clearly felt they had gone too far - but "monsters"? Really? Had the story been that unsympathetic to the reverse-scammers, had they really been presented that badly, and I completely missed it because I was on their side? So I listened to it again, and indeed the reverse-scammers really were presented very negatively, pretty much as monsters - laughing as they read his emails about his difficulties and troubles in Chad. And I missed that, because I had no problem with anything that they did.

Now, it's not like I'm entirely devoid of sympathy. Admittedly I don't have any sympathy for the scammer, nor to be honest do I have any sympathy for the scammer's victims (most of whom are, to be honest, fooled by their own greed). But listening to the story, I felt a lot of sympathy for a lot of people, chiefly the people who have to live in the town normally, whose lives are in this horrible dangerous town. I can't imagine how terrifying it must be to have to spend your life there, knowing that the prospect of a violent death is that close. So I do have sympathy, I just don't feel any sympathy for the scammer. This is a guy who came to the town, and then chose to stay there knowing it was dangerous, because of his own greed. The three guys baiting him didn't force him to stay, they just held out a choice, "our money or your life," and he wanted the money. He could have left at any time, but he chose to stay because he wanted to steal from a church money that was intended to help people. And he made it out alive - I would probably feel differently had he died in this situation, but since he didn't, so I don't need to worry about moral issues about responsibility and can just enjoy the story. So I can't understand why this guy gets any sympathy. Why are the three guys baiting him monsters, am I a monster to being on their side, and why is the thieving bastard trying to steal money intended for charitable purposes not a monster? I honestly can't understand it.

I mean, there's a little coda to the story where the scammer actually manages to do worse than try to steal charitable money from a church. Some time later, the guys are contacted again by the same scammer, and this time they pose as a father with a sick child. At one point, the guys tell the scammer "I need the money for an operation to save the life of my child," and the scammer says "give me your money, and the money you make will pay for the operation." The scammer was actively trying to steal money believing that without that money a child would die. And I don't see any ambiguity about that. That is evil. Pure evil. And from my point of view, someone as evil and hateful as that deserves everything that he went through. Every single moment of terror, of pain, of grief, all deserved. And I find it bizarre that anyone would argue that there is anyone else in the story that deserves the label of "monster". And yet the guy who makes the show that raised the whole issue thinks I'm viewing this story from the entirely wrong point of view.

So this is what I'm grappling with. Who are the monsters in this story, and if it's the three guys (which it seems is the position of both Ira and those friends that I told the story to), then what does it say about me that I am on their side? Does that make me a cruel and unfeeling and vindictive monster because I can't see how terrible they are? I like to think I'm a generally good nice person, and while I occasionally joke about hating all of humanity, I don't think I'm that bad. But who knows, perhaps my grumpy-old-man act isn't as much of an act as I thought it was. Perhaps it's hardened me to the point that I can easily dismiss the suffering of another person with a response of "he deserved it, the end." And the thought of actually being that person scares me.

07 March, 2010

1202 minutes

So here's the thing.

It was a big surprise when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced back last June that they were going to be having ten Best Picture nominees for this year's Oscars, rather than the five nominees that have been standard for the last sixty-odd years. The main reason for the change was to address concerns that the films being nominated just had no popular appeal, and that the nominations were going to more elitist films rather than popular entertainments. Just look at last year, when nominations went to films about a gay local politician or one guy interviewing another guy, while at the same time a well-made and hugely popular Batman film was completely ignored. Reduced viewerships for the Oscars were blamed on that fact - no-one is watching the Oscars because most people haven't even heard of Slumdog Millionaire, while not even the host of the Oscars saw The Reader, and therefore no-one cares enough about the films being nominated to see which one wins. Hopefully an expanded list of nominees would allow for some of the bigger popular films to get on the list, and therefore hopefully prompt fans of these films to watch the ceremony.

And it does seem to have worked - of the ten nominated films, five have grossed over $US100m. While the list does feature a number of the usual smaller, lower-profile films, there are a lot of films that people will have heard of and most likely seen. But the funny thing is that it wasn't necessary. It's easy to identify the five films that would have been nominated in any normal year, and of those five films, two (Avatar and Inglourious Basterds) were genuinely popular hits with a substantial fanbase. In other words, they expanded the number of nominees to allow for the inclusion of more popular films in a year when the popular films were going to be nominated anyway.

[Comments on all ten Best Picture films - Avatar; The Hurt Locker; Up In The Air; Precious (Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire); Inglourious Basterds; A Serious Man; Up; District 9; The Blind Side; and An Education - after the jump.]

08 February, 2010

Conspicuous consumption

So here's the thing.

I've written in the past about my excessive consumption of V energy drink, and my tendency to accumulate large numbers of bottles at my desk because I can't be bothered walking the 24 paces to put the bottles in the recycling bin over by the kitchen. As a result, the bottles would tend to only ever get thrown out when my manager told me that I need to get rid of them.

However, for most of last year, I actually became very good at removing my empty bottles daily, always aware that if I failed to, my manager would remind me that I needed to do so. All of a sudden, it was rare for a bottle to sit on my desk overnight. On one occasion she even praised me for having improved so much in the regular disposal of my bottles. However, my manager has been away for the last few weeks, and without her watchful eye, I sadly fell back into old habits.

So this is what my desk looked like when my manager returned from her break.

You see, it seems that while I am too lazy to expend a little amount of effort to dispose of my bottles, I will go to great lengths and expend a large amount of effort in order to not throw out my V bottles in a timely manner. For the last ten or eleven months, I was not disposing of my bottles in the recycling bin. Instead, I had a dedicated hiding place right by my desk where I would stash each day's empty bottles. (There were a couple of times when my manager actually walked into the room while I was in the middle of hiding that day's bottles, and I was certain I was caught, but apparently she never noticed a thing. Although the hiding place would move for a few weeks after each of these close calls, just to be on the safe side.) Then every couple of weeks I would call into the office out of hours, put my accumulated bottle collection in a box, and take them home to store in my garage, waiting for the day when I would cover my desk in V bottles. Fortunately it was timed perfectly, so that I had the exact number of bottles that I would require right at the point when my manager took a sufficiently extended break for the joke to work. (I know there is that one empty space on the desk, but it was always the intention for me to leave just enough room for me to work at the computer - the whole idea of the joke was that I was still trying to work in these severely constrained circumstances.)

When it came time to actually execute my plan, I realised that, since my intention was to drop the bottles off in the recycling bin close to my house once the joke was finished, it would be neccesary to rinse all the bottles. (Always rinse your recycling, kids.) Unfortunately, this was an aspect of the plan I hadn't previously prepared for. So, last Saturday afternoon, I sat in my lounge in front of the TV with a bucket of water, and slowly removed the lids of every bottle, rinsed out the inside of each bottle, put the lids back on each bottle, dried the bottles, and reboxed them all ready for the big event. That took five hours. Add the half hour that it took just to load my car with the boxes, and the nearly an-hour-and-a-half it took to actually set them all up on my desk, and we're looking at a good seven hours of work in just this last weekend for this whole thing. (Plus there's all the time involved in the extra weekend visits to the office to pick up that fortnight's bottle collection, and so on.) All this effort for a five second reaction. Clearing the desk was much faster - they were all gone after about fifteen minutes, although I did have help from the only other person in the office that knew in advance about the plan. (To give her some credit, the whole idea of doing all this came out of a conversation I had with this co-worker, when we were bouncing different ideas around for things that I could do if I started collecting all my V bottles. I'm not actually sure which one of us came up with the idea of doing this, but at the very least she contributed to the idea.)

And I do want to be very clear about one point. This really is my desk. I did this to myself. I didn't inconvenience anyone else but me. And, since my manager gets into work earlier than me, I ended up coming into work much earlier than normal in order to be there before she arrived, and I (rather awkwardly) did some work while I waited. Plus I had my desk cleared by the time I would normally start work, and I then worked a full day from that time, so none of this even took time away from my work. (If anything, it saved time at work, since over the past year it was faster to hide the bottles than it would have been to take them down to the recycling bins if I had been throwing them out - I saved fifteen seconds every day that I could put towards the office's work.)

The thing I liked about the idea was, firstly, the fact that it was in my view a very funny image. I laughed out loud when I actually finished setting it all up and stepped back to look at what I had created, I laughed again when I came into work this morning and saw it all set up. The photos don't quite capture the sheer absurdity of the scene. It really looked silly. But I think it also works because it shows my manager exactly why we need her at work to keep us/me under control, and reminds her exactly why she needed a break from us.

So how did my manager react? Well, her reaction wasn't initially positive - in fact, her first words were a much-more-serious-than-I-expected "you need to get those off your desk NOW," which had me worried I had gone too far. (In fact, I was wondering whether she thought I was planning on trying to work for the whole day with my desk like that. That was never the plan - they were always going to be cleared away pretty much immediately. And trust me - I was trying to work for a while before my manager arrived, and it was pretty difficult with all those bottles constraining your movement, so there is no way I could have lasted a full day.) Later she came into my office and, when I tried to prompt her to admit that it was a little bit funny, she stated that she couldn't possibly say that - but she was smiling at the time, so I don't think she was entirely unamused. (Incidentally, my manager is almost certainly going to read this so, welcome back to work, we missed you, and are glad you're back.)

And, if anyone is curious, there are 413 bottles and 31 cans on the table. (You can see the cans on the middle raised tray to the left, but what you can't see are the cans that are under the phone-book holder, which isn't high enough to fit any of the bottles underneath.) Almost all of these are of the sugar-free variety, but there are 4 normal V and 4 lemon V bottles that I bought on occasions when the stores were out of sugar-free. This equals 152.3 litres of V consumed by myself over a period of a little less than a year. Wow. That's rather a lot. And assuming a price of about $3.00 per bottle (a little lower than the standard price in order to allow for any purchases on special pricing), that means I spent... wow, I could have bought my laptop on one year's worth of V drinks. Hmmm. Something to think about. And then forget about.

And if you're wondering why none of the bottles have labels on them - well, the reason for that predates this whole plan. For some reason, back in late 2008 I just started removing the labels and sticking them together, wrapping each label around the top of the previous labels. Some 15-or-more months later, I now have the thing to the right. It's big, solid, and surprisingly heavy. I still have no idea why I made it, but every time I drink a extra bottle of V outside of work, I still take the bottle in to work just so that I can add the label to this thing, because it would be a waste to throw a perfectly good label away. (And it still annoys me every time I look at it and see the point where they changed the label design.)

Well, if you'll excuse me, I need to go. Countdown are selling bottles of V, 3 for $5 - that really is a great price. Plus I need to go to bed. For some reason I've been having terrible difficulty getting to sleep lately.