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.