Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Case for Oo-Arr

After the craptacular disappointment that was Pirates of the Carribean 2: Dead Man's Chest, it was with a sense of "anything has to be better than the last one" that I went into Pirates of the Carribean 3: At World's End. While Hoyts Regent on Manners refused to make the experience more physically comfortable by providing a modicum of heating on a rather cold late May evening, the movie itself proved enough to keep me entertained for its nigh on 3 hour length.

That's not to say the movie does not have its flaws. The final 45 minute battle scene is utterly preposterous for all its spectacle, and, even with multiple Johnny Depps appearing in several scenes, I still felt there was not enough of Captain Jack Sparrow and a bit too much of Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom's characters (love story? Pishtosh). Almost every character was a stereotype (especially the Pirate Lords), the moral of the film seems to be that piracy/theft and deceit is preferable to the rule of law, and the film technically wasn't limited to the Carribean, but it was a fun film to spend most of an evening watching.

Of course, there were some unresolved issues that paved the way for another sequel (please, no...), but at least this film actually had a resolution (unlike the last one). And at the end, everyone seemed to have enjoyed the show despite the chill, and really, what more can one ask from a film than that?

Verdict: 8 out of 10 bottles of rum

Oh, and Suzanne won! Wonder what I will get as a prize...

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Case for Planet Simpson

Sometimes, I think that I am a bit too cynical about the state of the world. I still recall a few years ago now (perhaps 10?) voicing said pessimism in a class discussing how the fall of the Communist Bloc would usher in an era of peace, with my take being that things would actually get worse as smaller conflicts rose up to take the Great Satan’s place. And so, it was interesting to find the book
Planet Simpson by Chris Turner that seems to even exceed my own general disillusionment with the state of the planet.

While the book is ostensibly about how the Simpsons reflects modern day life, and what that really says about human civilisation, the book tends to degenerate towards the end into a nihilistic diatribe about the disenfranchisement of individuals from society.

Some of the major Simpsons-related points include:

1. Homer Simpson is everywhere. And he tends to be in positions of power. Think of the number of world leaders who take major decisions for their “family” without considering any of the repercussions, and then refuse to take responsibility for those actions. “Homer” examples include the current US President Bush (who wilfully interprets any criticism of his handling of the war in Iraq as an attack on the “troops” rather than a critique of his own performance), the head of multinationals like Shell (who, in the film the Corporation, advocated that he was not responsible for Shell’s actions as he was only doing what the shareholders wanted), and also Road Ragers (those who exact physical revenge on some inconsiderate, but not necessarily dangerous, drivers) and (of course) wanton consumers (lets all buy SUVs!).

2. Homer Simpsons may be close to incompetent, but they are personable and well liked. As they are never held accountable for their own actions (it always tends to be someone else’s fault, of course), their performance (or lack thereof) becomes secondary to their charisma. Therefore, they hang on in there, and move on to bigger and brighter things, like the World Bank.

3. Marge, as the heart of the Simpsons, is the major offender in forgiving the Homers of the world. She does it out of the best of intentions, for the sake of harmony of the whole, with the hope that Homer or Bart will eventually sort themselves out. She believes in home and hearth and almost divorces herself from everything else to make sure what she holds dear remains safe. I always imagine these people to be those who vote for George Bush, religious parties, or the extreme right parties as well, but who aren’t actually out there doing anything about the state they find themselves in. I may not be a Right-wing voter, but I have to say I am probably a Marge myself.

4. Bart is the punks of the world. He rebels against conformity while, at the same time, is one of its greatest slaves. These days, anything “rebellious” tends to be marketed and made cool and mainstream. Think of grunge, rap, Ren and Stimpy. And the book brings in Kurt Cobain’s suicide into the mix as well, inferring that this death was due to Cobain’s realisation that, perhaps against his wishes, he had become the popular, mainstream, “cool” thing that he had been struggling against.

5. Lastly, little Lisa is the principled one, the dreamer, who many lefties would like to be but in the final analysis aren’t. She battles against “evil” corporations, is vegetarian, is smart and witty. She is also cynical, self conscious about her appearance and fairly unpopular with her peers. She can be guilty of the same excesses of morality and idealism she accuses her opponents of being. She is the “Greenie” protestor who lets wild animals loose in large cities rather than see them caged. She is Michael Moore on one of his more sanctimonious crusades. Or at least she can be – as she realises every so often the dangers of extremism.

And like that, the book seems to sum up (in fairly broad strokes) how society looks today: how the individual is becoming more and more important now that there is no major evil that we need to “stand together against” and with the decline in popularity in the major religions; how the attempts to generate social cohesion on the back of the War on Terror has failed as it doesn’t really deliver a concrete enemy or the possibility of defeating it; how we tend to define ourselves in what we own rather than who we are (
Destiny Church seems more fixated in solving financial problems through prayer than attempting to spread peace and understanding); and how both our shared sense of self (a nation of Rugby supporters) and our sense of individuality (our “uniqueness”) are becoming more and more meaningless and corrupted as they are more frequently used in marketing and branding to sell us all something.

As I said, it is a fairly bleak book, and doesn’t offer any real answers, merely pointing out how the Simpsons tends to reflect all these things back at us. It seems to conclude by saying that there is no way forward as we are too busy laughing at ourselves to really do anything about it. Why change something we get so much amusement from?

Strange to think that, at the end of a book about the Simpsons, I would end up so far from finding a great many things funny.

Verdict: A pinko, lezzo, commo rant after my own heart. But not for everyone.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Case for Rage

The first twenty minutes or so into 28 Weeks Later, and I was convinced I had made a mistake. This film looked scary, tense, depressing, and fairly gory. I was certain that I was going to have a hard time trying to watch it, so intense it seemed.

Luckily for me (in a way), the movie quickly degenerated into something approaching rubbish. The two kiddie protagonists turned out to be the cause for the whole resurgence of the outbreak of Rage virus so skilfully played out in the original film (28 Days Later, a superior film despite a much minor budget), and were very hard to sympathise with as desperate survivors. Actually, every character in this film was fairly hard to sympathise with. I was cheering for the zombies at certain points, though they didn't really need any encouragement.

I had heard mention that some people found the portrayal of the American taskforce as trigger happy and quite dismissive of the local populace as a bit disturbing. Personally, I find that, in the face of a deadly and fairly disgusting virus like Rage, a "Nuke the Entire Site from Orbit - its the Only Way to be Sure" policy is always the best. So it enraged me when stupid decisions were made, security was unbelievably lax, and the tough measures were taken only after about a gazillion Rage-infected zombies had broken the perimeter.

Yep, I can't claim this one will go down as one of my favourite movies ever. And it is so easily dismissed it won't go into the "worst" pile either. Disappointing really considering how much better the first one was (not sure if it ever reached "good', but it was definitely interesting). And I think I have seen enough of Robert Carlyle for this year, and possibly 2008 too...

Verdict: Britons never will be slaves, but they may be zombies

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Case for Snow Food

I went into the movie Snow Cake with two preconceptions floating around in my head:
1) Movies with a lead character with a mental illness tend to do nothing for me, and
2) Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman are amazing actors who may be able to pull 1) off.

To start off with, Alan Rickman (Alex in the film) was incredible: sympathetic but a bit of a b@stard; a bit depressing but still lighting up the screen; and definitely leading man material, though in an unconventional way of course. In the biggest stretch in plausibility, the beauteous Carrie Anne Moss did her best to portray a woman who could say no to Mr Rickman’s advances. Together, they kept me interested in the film and added a bit of warmth and depth to the otherwise depressingly cold and bleak Canadian backdrop.

Unfortunately, while Sigourney Weaver is an amazing actress, playing an autistic character in a way that makes them interesting and sympathetic and something beyond just someone with strange personality quirks was always going to be a tough challenge.

I have never seen Rainman, but I have been told that Dustin Hoffman pulls off playing an autistic very well. However, almost every time I have seen a competent actor trying to portray a mentally challenged person (as opposed to a person with a physical disability but with mental faculties left more or less intact), I have been left less than impressed. I am sure the actor involved think that the role is demanding as it is playing someone quite different to him/her self, but in the end, playing someone who the audience knows only through physical ticks and strange behaviour can lead to a character that is completely two dimensional. The character has no depth because you are not meant to be able to understand them. What is on the surface is what is, and whatever might be behind those actions and deeds is based on some internal logic that defies understanding and/or social convention.

And so, eventually, I am a person who is left feeling that Forrest Gump is really no different from Mr Bean, two characters that live entirely on the surface, have different ways of looking at the world, and really don’t appear to have a whole lot going on behind them. It seems cruel to equate a mental illness with a comic character, but the smattering of laughter at the strange behaviour and the odd touch of sentiment and “endearment” that these characters portray end up being based on the same sorts of behaviour.

So I was not surprised when one of my fellow moviegoers admitted afterwards she had the barely suppressed urge to laugh every time Sigourney Weaver’s character (Linda) appeared on screen. The film is mainly about dealing with loss, but while Alex shows his grief in many ways and about many things (he has a fairly convoluted back story that I chose to ignore to enjoy the performance), Linda does not deal with the loss at all. It’s hard to feel empathy for someone who doesn’t actually feel the emotions the film is meant to be portraying. Linda is apart from everyone and everything in the film, an island, and ends up almost as a redundant character.

There is one strange attempt to try and get inside her head and portray what is going on there, but that is one of the most hollow parts of the film. By trying to make me understand what she is thinking or feeling, I felt they destroyed the whole idea of her motivations being “un-understandable”. It felt like a shallow attempt to get the audience to sympathise with Linda at the very end after she disrupts everyone else’s time of (not always sincere) grieving.

It’s hard to really sum up Snow Cake. It’s almost like two movies: Alan Rickman and Carrie Anne Moss are in a strange, interesting adult relationship out of an art house film; while Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman are in a strange, interesting buddy relationship out of a Disney flick. I did enjoy it, possibly because of the power thespians on screen rather than because of the film having a huge amount of merit. But it was also a bit disappointing. And it really did not make me want to go to Canada.

Verdict: Stay inside and stay warm

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Case for Clever Toys

KiwiinZurich has pointed out that some people have no idea what I am referring to when I talk about the fantastic new Clever Toys Telecom ads!

I have found them on YouTube for those of you who want to know more:

1. NZ Telecom Clever Toys Ad #1
2. NZ Telecom Clever Toys Ad #2

The toys can be a bit hard to understand, but that's because they are speaking Nu Zild.

Verdict: A giant leap for Muppet kind

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Case of the Judging Shark

Every so often, I want to jump on the bandwagon and try or experience something that sounds fairly nifty. Be it a popular show (haven’t quite got around to attempting Dancing with the Stars, and I think I will be able to resist that), a popular song (though probably a “good song” is a better description here as my music taste is infamous), a popular ad (nothing beats the Telecom stuffed animals range at the moment) or a website that sounds quite interesting.

So, it was with a modicum of anticipation that I found the website Jump the Shark. This, I had read, was a site that defined the point where TV shows “turned” and started descending from once great entertainment and must-see viewing down towards banal story lines and shameless grabs for ratings points. The “jump the shark” reference, as an example, is an allusion to the notorious Happy Days episodes where the Fonz, with a cheery “aaaayyyy!”, got on waterskis and, literally, jumped over a shark. Or at least the Fonz’s stunt double did.

The promise of a definitive, albeit subjective, list of something as inconsequential as TV shows appealed to my judgemental sensibilities. And if it was a recommended site, then, well, someone obviously enjoyed it.

Of course, I would not be ranting about it if I had been completely thrilled with my first experience. In fact, I was bitterly disappointed. The whole point of this kind of thing would be to say “this show jumped the shark at this point”. People can comment and contribute and disagree sure, but there should be (in my opinion) some sort of conclusion, even if that is later revised in light of new evidence. So how come the X-Files appeared in several “jumped” lists as well as the “never jumped” one? [As an aside, it did jump, and as evidence I give testimony to the fact I got bored with it even before Mulder left]. And Law & Order [that show has never jumped] appeared simultaneously in the “never jumped” list, the “jumped because of the new woman” list and the “jumped because Jerry Orbach died” list.

Yes, a savage blow to the world of one-eyed judgements on inconsequential subjects this was. But, never fear. I shall carry on for as long as I can!

Verdict: Less a shark, more a limp sardine.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Case for Arachnophilia

While not a huge fan of the first two Spiderman films, I did enjoy them. And so it was with a mix of mild interest and detachedness that I went into the third instalment – and, surprisingly for Sky Village in the Hutt, about 30 other people were in the movie theatre as well (it fits around 300 so we were all still fairly comfortable…)! I had already read Morgue’s (4 May 2007) critique of the film, so I felt I was fully braced for what I was about to see.

Spiderman 3 was big, spectacular, and long. The action scenes were impressive, dizzying, occasionally nauseating; the romance scenes were formulaic and involved the odd “romance to music” device which works in Ghost but I wasn’t so sure here; most of the original cast was back for mostly fleeting appearances, though they were joined by the welcome but unfortunately underused talents of Topher Grace (I reckon he stole every scene he was in, but then Peter Parker always seems like a bit of a wet fish in most scenes, so that’s not really that hard); and the plot was as incidental to the set pieces and spectacular special effects as ever.

Some plot spoilers here: quite a few people realised that Peter Parker was Spiderman in this film, though luckily they were all killed or de-molecularised at some point. The whole origin of Sandman was actually pretty naff: crook stumbles across an open air de-moleculariser that is being tested at what looks like 1am, and where the mad scientists are trying to de-molecularise sand into… well, sand, though of course no-one checks out the de-moleculariser once the test has been completed or takes any samples or precautions about overnight precipitation or anything because… well, because it’s dumb. And why did the baddies decide to dangle a car and a lorry from the one millionth floor of an under construction building (how long does it take to fall down that far? 20 minutes or so it seems), especially when one of the evil henchmen is bound to the bottom levels? And why did none of the debris fall down and hit the annoying “British” journalist in the face causing instant and gratifying deadidity?

But should I really have been surprised? It was big, dumb fun, and may not even be the last Spiderman film considering how well this one has done at the box office. I was surprised that there was actually no real character development for Spiderman (it just rehashed something I thought was resolved in movie one), and the hero at the end of the day did not seem to be Spiderman at all. But then, the whole “mostly, nothing really changes” is part of the whole comic book ethos, so perhaps I should have expected the “new villain; same plot” format.

And I think I actually enjoyed the film a bit more than the 30 other people in the theatre in the end. The kiddies were apparently comatose by the halfway mark, so little noise did they make; the High School lads were busy mocking each other and throwing jandals around the theatre (luckily not too noisily); and most other people must have knocked their popcorn over as they dozed, so unkempt was the cinema floor (really!).

Already the details of the film are dissolving and fading (apart from sweet Ursula – she was awesome!). And perhaps that is what will make it such a huge success – it’s instant forget-ability and unsurprising storyline allowing easy repeat viewing. Though not by me.

Verdict: Sit down, brain off, enjoy the spectacle, take a pillow.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Case of the Dancing Stars

I do not actually watch Dancing with the Stars on that delightful TVNZ (I find the light surrounding them a bit too intense at the moment), but I have become involved in a betting pool run by JudgeNot the NotKate, and have ended up with the leading contender in that particular race. I am riding (figuratively speaking) the effervescent Suzanne Paul to victory. As the other contenders fall by the wayside, Suzanne's natural glow and Blue Monkey-refined dance technique continues to shine through.

However, while this does give me an interest in knowing the outcome, I won't be watching the show. I am looking forward to Ms Paul shimmering and vibrating her way to victory, and have to thank JudgeNot for involving me in this competition.

I think the prize is a lifesize cutout of my horse's face (figuratively speaking). Should she win, I may need to take a photo with it on...

Verdict: Not all gambling is bad

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Case for letting the Sunshine In

Luckily, this is not really a case that I have to spend too long on, as Morgue (23 April 07) has so elegantly covered off the pros and cons of the 2006 film Sunshine. It is a beautiful looking movie, stocked with beautiful people (a special surprise for me when I noted the wondrous Michelle Yeoh was aboard, though unfortunately she did not get to kick any butt) with a tragically awful ending to really ruin everything that had come before. The huge gaps in plot logic were as a narrow line in the sand compared to the Grand Canyon of the final tedious moments.

One thing I do find interesting about these films though is the political structure that these films of the future seem to suggest. While the ship was built by the Japanese or Chinese (New Zealanders would probably find all the English / Japanese / Chinese signage quite normal, though I wondered what an American audience would think) and had Japanese and Chinese crew in key command positions (though they were removed from them fairly quickly), the majority of the crew, no matter their skin colour, were portrayed as Americans through and through. One shot of the Sydney Opera house paid lip service to the rest of the planet (speaking of which, without fissile material, little solar power and probably no hydroelectric power on earth either, how did everyone get by?), and the less said about the “baddie” the better. But was one of the messages of the film that only white, “apple pie” American boys and girls would be intelligent, mentally stable and tenacious enough to save the planet?

This is probably reading far too much into what was obviously just meant to appeal to the crowds in a very broad, easily identifiable way. But, much like in art and in music, I can sometimes find messages hidden within the words and images that the artist didn't always intend, though spun out in an overly analytical way, it can sometimes make the work a lot more interesting than it would otherwise be at face value.

Verdict: Slip on a shirt, slap on sunscreen and slap on a hat - and avoid.