Friday, June 29, 2007

The Case for Supporting Local Theatre

I did something very noble during the week. I supported local theatre.

Or at least, I felt like I had achieved something that was civic in its duty, something supportive of the domestic arts, and something that I do not normally do on a Wednesday night. I went to the theatre, and they told me that I was being a very good boy for doing so, and I believed them too.

The occasion for this act of societal selflessness was a musical based on a cartoon that I enjoyed in University and continue to enjoy in the Capital Times, when I can get my hands on a copy. Fitz Bunny – Lust for Glory follows the adventures of budding reporter Alex Kincaid and her association with an unhinged talking bunny set on world domination. Obviously, the idea of an “old favourite” taking to the live stage made me slightly wary, but the actual production itself was actually very good and left my previous Uni memories intact.

The performances were all routinely superb, though I sometimes struggled to hear the lyrics to some of the songs (either because I am becoming deaf with old age or the music was just that wee bit overpowering). The plot and script were what one would expect if one followed the comic, though there were some pop cultural references that left me as perplexed as the Indian guy listing various “congressional positions” in that wonderful film 40 Year Old Virgin. Obviously, I am nowhere near as "hip and with it" as I may have imagined.

Potential wardrobe malfunctions were averted (more through luck than pre-emptive action), singing voices became bolder as the temperature of the (un-airconditioned) auditorium increased with the bodyheat of a warming audience, and everyone seemed to have a lot of fun. One of the audience members got into the show as well with some very interesting interjections, but the cast dealt with this like old (and deaf as post) pros, and kept dancing, singing, mugging and overacting, as one would expect from such a production.

After an hour, and a final song thanking me for my social conscience, I left Bats feeling all the better about myself and impressed by the calibre of local amateur dramatics (my apologies if anyone was a professional). Not sure when I will next do my part for the Wellington theatrical scene, but I hope I am as entertained as I was then.

Verdict: 4 Megalomaniacal Animals out of 5

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Case for Fantasy

No, not a blog on drugs – this one is about the latest film in the Fantastic Four franchise, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I have never really followed the comic books, so I was not quite sure how the story should go. However, I would hope it would be a little more coherent and have a bit more dramatic tension than the cinematic version.

What can I say about the film – action packed, amazing special effects, attractive cast (both Jessica Alba and Chris Evans had mandatory “mostly undressed” scenes), and was fun. Other things I can say about the film include stupid, infantile and cheesy.

Where else but in cinema can the US Army send a dozen helicopters laden with hi-tech equipment and their toughest soldiers into London an hour after discovering the necessity of going there (I would not have imagined even Blair’s Britain would be so accommodating) and then travel on to their exclusive research facility in the heart of Siberia (either Putin is not as hard nosed as we were led to believe, or there is an American enclave there akin to Guantanamo Bay). Where else would well known uber-criminals like Dr Doom be instantly rehabilitated into important positions with the potential to put their hands on vital and possibly lethal information – especially when said trust is given in preference to proven do gooders like Mr Fantastic? And where else can Stan Lee be guaranteed to make another cameo appearance… again. Total cheese.

But the cinema was warm (thanks, Reading!), the seats comfortable, the display dazzling (a must see on the big screen), and, at 100 minutes long, the film did not outstay its welcome

Verdict: On a scale of Appalling to Fantastic, let’s peg it in the middle at around a high Okay.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Case for Book Fairs

Come the end of autumn, throughout the land of Wellington, the various Rotary Bookfairs come into bloom. And glorious places they are (for those who like that kind of thing), with a wide selection of soft and hard cover novels to cater for almost every taste. From sobre non-fiction accounts of modern economics, to garrishly-covered romances from the poison pens of Kitty Kelly and Jackie Collins, the bookfairs provide the chance for people throughout the land and dispose of reading materials they want not, and for others to pick up some much loved literature and take it into their hearts.

Yup, I am a big fan of the book fairs, and I try to make it to most of them. Normally, the event of the season tends to be the first one, the Heretaunga book fair. However, this year, the winner by a country mile had to be the
Wainuiomata Rotary offering ($5 for a bag; $10 for a box) - definitely worth the trip! The Johnsonville one... well, it was okay.

However, while a wonderful experience for those who enjoy perusing pre-loved books, the events are not without their perils. Top of the list of dangers are those who arrive at these special events the earliest. The crazed, the blood-thirty grannies. Clutching large knitted bags in their gnarled claws, these women of a certain age look all innocent and light, but put them near a table covered in Mills and Boon romances or with the opportunity to get some pre- and post-Coronation Street reading materials, and the normally placid, biscuit-offering paragons or maternal fortitude are turned into rabid, unhinged creatures from another dimension, hell bent on maiming and trampling over anyone who gets in their way. Saliva dribbles from dentured mouths, and blue rinse is used as mace. There are no rules, except survival of the most determined.

But I am willing to put myself through it all again - the Wellington Inner City Mission bookfair tends to mark the beginning of spring (daffodils? what be these mythical outdoor apparitions) and I intend to be there. Though I may perhaps leave the grannies of doom a bit of breathing room and go in the afternoon...

Verdict: Required reading for unfussy booklovers

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Case for Thirds

It has been a season of thirds so far at the movies. Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Carribean 3 - and this week I saw another number 3, Shrek the Third.

And in this case the third film definitely proved to be the least. It was a film full of whining, mainly by Justin Timberlake's character. There was the odd scene of unadulterated and pop-culture laden insanity, but these were spread far and thin in between large tracts of land inhabited by the Moaning people of SelfDoubting land. Princess Fiona was relegated to a minor role, as she was left behind while the boys ran off to have their none-too-adventurous adventure. And the climactic reunion scene was a little bit of a fizzer really.

Perhaps I am being too harsh. It is kiddie fare after all, and the babies that sprung up all over the place were disgustingly cute. But I suppose I had been led to expect a whole lot more after the first few films. This one seemed just seemed a shadow of former Shrek greatness. Not much else to write really.

Verdict: The second Happily Ever After should have been the last.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Case for Two Movies in One Week

I managed to make it to two movies this weekend, and I was fortunate in that both of them were of exceptionally high calibre.

The first, Three Needles, was part of the Outtakes Film Festival, and one of the only films in the flier I decided was probably not an excuse for screening porn. And the female cast totally sold it for me: Lucy Liu (featuring in the first story, set in Southern China); Stockard Channing (always incredible, even with a dubious French Canadian accent); and Chloe Sivigny, Sandra Oh and Olympia Dukakis (the lead actresses in the third story set in Africa).

The stories were all about today’s take on AIDS, whether passed through lazy sterilisation practices by those capitalising on the blood of poor farm villagers (South China story), passed through wantonly careless professionals (Canada), or passed through a combination of fear, ignorance, poverty and malice (Africa). So really, the whole movie was fairly depressing. But there were scenes of humour and wonder, and the scenery of rural China, Africa and (I presume) Montreal were stunningly shot. And the stories themselves, illustrating how wide spread the disease is, how it is having a devastating effect on the poor and how it continues to affect people in the more affluent countries, was a sharp reminder of how widespread and, apparently, hopeless the situation seems.

The second film for the week was the Oscar winning German film, The Lives of Others, set in Stasi-ruled East Berlin. While I am not sure if should have won the Oscar over the superb Pan’s Labyrinth, it is definitely an incredible story, made more so because the people involved actually seemed to believe in the German Democratic Republic’s brand of socialism, but found the corruption of senior officials and the state of constant fear produced by the Stasi Secret Police and their hundreds of thousands of informants too much to bear. The story follows one Stasi man who is asked to spy on a leading playwright so that incriminating evidence can be found so that he can be discredited – and thus force his gorgeous girlfriend into the arms of a prominent politician. The performances are incredible, the grey East Berlin architecture austere and imposing, and the characters chilling, sympathetic and all too human. I found the final few “flash forwards” that attempted to bring closure to the main events of the film didn’t mesh well with the rest of the story, though the scenes were a lot more realistic and well done than the typical Hollywood “everyone gets their just desserts and ends up happily ever after” endings.

Both of these films are definitely not top of my list of cheerful movies to see. Both of them highlight man’s inhumanity to man, both intentional (e.g., torture) and a result of misguided good intentions (e.g., as a “cure” to AIDs). But both films also highlight the idealism and hope that drive people onward. Both I highly recommend.

Verdict: Two good ones.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Case for TV News

I woke up early this morning and flicked on the telly and realised that I have not been judgemental enough about what is on the box recently. Inspired by the dearth on early Saturday morning television and what Triangle TV offers, I thought I would do a “possibly positive awards” review of the many TV News shows that permeate NZ airwaves.

Let’s start off with some local product:

The award for services to rural news: 5.30 News (Prime).

Obviously, people who have to deal with peak hour urban traffic would never be able to make this one.

The award for smug superiority: 3 News (TV3)

They are better than One News and they know it, even if most New Zealanders don’t recognise that fact.

The award for best presentation: One News (One)

Simon Shallow and Wendy Petrie Dish. Does anyone actually listen to what they say?

International Awards:

The award for sheer audacity: Fox News (Prime, Sky)

Only a station run by Rupert Murdoch that so blatantly and obviously and unquestioningly supports the American Right Wing hegemony would have the guts to call itself “fair and balanced”. Got to give them credit – for something. And they even beat One news as “news programme most likely to make me scream”.

The award for services to the Middle East: Al Jazeera (Triangle TV)

Actually the inspiration for this list. It’s incredibly refreshing to see the news from a completely non-Western perspective (who else has a show called “Inside Iraq” that appears on the screen anytime I watch) and I love their station identifier jingle. I never stumble across an actual news show though (as most seem to be “specials”) so I can’t really judge the actual "news show".

The award for best looking sinking ship award: BBC World (Sky)

It's amazing the number of people who used to be on this respected international news service who now appear on CNN and Al Jazeera TV. But still they hang on in there, and still are my most trusted news source.

The award for services to geriatrics: CNN (Sky)

The most celebrated news service also tends to be the most forgiving when it comes to old people - well, men anyway. No idea how good Larry King was in his hey day, but there always seems something fishy to me when "hard hitting interviewers" have people who keep wanting to come back for more. I will tune in on the day George W Bush shows up though...

The best weekday, midday news award: TV5 (Triangle Television)

The best of French news on at a time that guarantees I will never see it.

The award for most incomprehensible news: That Dutch one on Triangle TV

Fascinating, in a completely confusing and bewlidering way.

The award for services to the Fatherland: DWTV (Triangle TV)

Never has it been made more obvious who won the war when the German news is presented mainly by Americans (and/or Canadians; the accent always gets me).

The award for services to the US of A: the PBS News Hour (Triangle TV)

PBS shows what public broadcasting really can be like: low budget, a bit naff, but also really insightful and providing in depth analysis of news and current events even with an ultra PC bent.

The award for best news show: the Daily Show (C4)

Well, it's kind of news, and some of the segments are ridiculously non-funny and the interviews completely unenlightening, but the first 10 minutes or so really points out how crazy some of the news out there is, and what a sometimes insane world we all are living in.

The award for news I never watch: Sky News (Sky)

Because I obviously watch far too many news shows anyway...

Verdict: We are well provided for television news, though "well serviced" is obviously a matter of opinion

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Case for Hobbiton

Over the hills and far away, young and old hobbits come out to play…

Or at least they used to. Deep in the Waikato, near Matamata, lies the remains of the small settlement that is known as Hobbiton. Now, a few years after its hey day, the town is but a (literal) shell of what it once was. But, since the original inhabitants departed, the tourists have descended in droves.

I was surprised how many tourists were with us on the tour after the fairly grotty weather of the day and the dire weather predictions of the day before, but in the end, the Shire provided us with splendid conditions to wander around what used to be busy Halfling streets.

At $50 for a two and a half hour tour, it wasn’t the cheapest trip I have ever done, to be sure, but the enthusiasm of the guides and odd stories of tall Germans obsessed with living under the party tree made the whole trip seem worth it. There wasn’t a whole lot left from the movie set, with the bridge torn down, all the polystyrene facades removed, and not a hobbit to be seen. But it was interesting how much smaller the “set” was in real life, and how some people are completely oblivious when others either want to take photos or how long people themselves take when setting up the perfect shot.

In a moment seemingly fated by Gandalf, we found ourselves forced to shelter in the only “active” hobbit hole – the remains of Bag End. Obviously, the great White Wizard was not at all offended when none of us chose to dance under the party tree, opting instead to hug and, in one case, mount the tree instead.

It was a very entertaining if not always warm trip. It was one of the few tours I had been on that actually made me want to look at the merchandise on sale (not available anywhere else, apparently), though the spirit of the Wizards protected me from fiscal folly and closed all the stores before we got back to Matamata. No hobbits spotted, no wizards nor elves neither, but a (dare I say it? Dare! Dare!) magical experience nonetheless.

Verdict: Recommended for Hobbits and other inhabitants and fans of Middle Earth

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Case for Scottish Sympathy

In yesterday's paper, I noted there was a reprint of an article written by Sean Connery for an American paper on the future of Scottish independence, now that a pro-Scottish party has been elected. His letter encouraged Americans to support Scottish independence, and showed his obvious pride in the recent gains the independence movement has made. Scottish independence is obviously a subject best left to those who live there, but I did find the tone of the "letter" quite interesting.

While the USA did declare independence from the British Empire, which is what I imagine Mr Connery is thinking of, I wonder if Mr Connery would support the independence claims of some Native American and Hawaiian groups? Shouldn't his letter therefore have urged similar consideration of the first peoples of the USA? I know that wasn't the point of the letter, as it was a "solidarity against the British" themed missive, but I do wonder what reaction it would have received from its intended audience?

Verdict: Breaking the chains one link at a time.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Case for the Signs of the Zodiac

T'was not my intention to go and see the film Zodiac when I went to Auckland recently. All I had intended to do was go to the famous benbag "halfpipe" cinema at Sylvia Park. However, our attempts at enjoying a film sharing a large bag of beans (well, actually, the demonstration bag appeared stuffed with sheeps wool or something equally as warm, squishy and soft feeling) were thwarted by a huge number of Aucklanders who had the same idea on their minds, so as a back up, we went to see Zodiac, the story of a psycho killer.

Well, it wasn't really the Zodiac's story, in that it was the story of the people who tried to find him. We were in the San Francisco Chronical editorial room when they got the cryptic notes from the spelling-challenged serial killer; we were at the murder scenes and followed the investigators as they tried to track down the identity of the mystery murderer; and we were with the intrepid cartoonist-become-detective as he obsessively tries to find the killer once the trail goes cold.

And yes the film is as long as that description implies. The film really is in the three parts as described above: the first part, with the amazing Robert Downey Junior as a sarcastic drunk reporter, is a fascinating recollection of the era of the Zodiac and the panic that set in trying to guess the killer's next move; the second part starts to slide a bit as the investigation proves frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful, and the third bit... well, its more choppy, as evidence is pieced together in new combinations, red herrings pop up and are never really explained as to why they are red herrings (what was with the freaky guy with the basement and the hand-writing?), and the Zodiac is identified, but not really for certain.

The person next to me at several times during the film started to snore as "change overs" in the story took some time happening. Chloe Sevigny's arrival, while welcome, marks the beginning of the decline from the strong opening. While still a very interesting film, it begins to drag and slow as the events in the Zodiac story happen further and further apart. And the shifts in the film's focus, while showing how the story develops, also make it harder to follow.

But overall, I really enjoyed this film, though more for the actual story and the knowledge that this was the "real" story behind the events depicted in the first Dirty Harry film. It is a long film that could probably have been shortened somewhat (its length intensified by the drive from Wellington on the same day I am sure), but worth it if you enjoy "real life killer" stories - though it would probably lose nothing on the small screen.

Verdict: 6 Aries out of 10 Capricorns