Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Case for Clayton's Choice

Intrepid movie buff that I am, I went to the most bleak and desolate of places (Upper Hutt) in my ongoing quest. Undaunted by the fact I ventured alone, I went forth. And even when the person selling me the ticket told me he would "thread the projector" just for me... well, that gave me pause, but in I went.

Yes, Michael Clayton was evidently not a big cinematic drawcard despite its Oscar-winning performances. To be honest, the story (evil corporation cover up - or is there!?!?!?) has been done a gazillion times, so perhaps such ambivalence is not surprising. However, this rendition is told well, albeit a bit slowly, though the true credit for the merit of the film belongs with the performances. Tilda Swinton in particular doesn't play the ruthless, unstoppable corporate monster, but rather, in the few scenes she is in, gives a human face to fairly brutal decisions, her icy features seeming appropriately pale at all the right moments.

Not too much to write about this one then. Long, fairly straight forward story, though the "twist" at the end I was anticipating never really came (so that would make it an anti-twist? Or a twist nonetheless?); but it was a superior film (for the type it was) with superior performances.

Verdict: While I liked the film, a theatre full of empty seats can't be totally wrong. 6.5 class action suits out of 10.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Case for the Star Trek Scale

I do like the Star Wars films, as I do like a Grand Space Battle (GSB) or three. But, as much as I worship the original trilogy, I still must shamefully admit myself to be a bit more of a Trekkie.

But that is not to say I am always thrilled with the Trek offerings. And soon, another Star Trek film will be hitting the big screens. How to judge such a film, knowing that I will have to see it and my own biases? The most logical way I can think of by comparing them with the Trek films of the past – and luckily, there are 10 of them to allow me to make a fairly comprehensive scale of goodness in a Trek universe.

And so, without further ado, the Star Trek Scale, from 1 to 10, where 1 is the worst Trek film to 10 being the bestest:

1) V The Final Frontier: Unsurprisingly, the scale starts with the odd numbered films. This one, I never really understood, probably because it is rubbish. And I never wanted to go back and try it again. Marshmelons. Bah.

2) IX Insurrection: What is to like about this film, besides the fact it has the TNG cast? There is singing. And dull villains with silly big weapons. And Riker grabs his joystick and pulls a U-ey with the Enterprise E. I would like to say I slept through most of the film, but I think I was too bored to do so.

3) I The Motion Picture: I have a soft spot for this one. It is unbelievably slow and ponderous, and seems to come from the 1960s, with the special effects unfolding at the glacial speed last seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike that film though, the Motion Picture is not one that gets deeper with drug use, but the effects themselves are quite gorgeous. New characters are killed off and the pyjama uniforms are gone by the next movie, but there is some kudos in that this brought Trek back.

4) III The Search for Spock: Inaction sequences and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo are saved by the wonderful overacting of Christopher Lloyd as a Klingon commander with a targ up his butt, and a cool self-destruction of the Enterprise.

5) VII Generations: Original and Next Generation casts meet (well, kind of) as the movie torch is passed on to the future. Whoopi Goldberg oozes plot exposition and they blow up another Enterprise. Too much wandering around pondering the nature of one’s choices, but the Enterprise E is beautifully lit, and Picard’s goldfish survive.

6) IV The Voyage Home: Over half way and into the even numbered films. I am never altogether sure about this one. It is “cute”, and all the characters are put to good use, a rarity in films that tend to concentrate only on one or two main characters. Not much happens in it, besides a “save the whales” statement and a feeling that Earth in the 23rd century is a dull, militarised zone with pretty poor defences, but it is… nice.

7) X Nemesis: As mentioned, I like GSBs, so the Enterprise and Warbirds assault at the end is a definite thumbs up in my book. Not even disturbing Troi on Riker scenes and far too much Data melodrama can detract from some pretty explosions with quantum torpedoes all over the place. Plus a beginning with lots of cameos (Whoopi again, Wesley, Janeway) and this feels more like an ending, even if the actual ending threatens a “search for Data” movie.

8) II The Wrath of Khan: After the Motion Picture, the Star Trek franchise needed a saviour, and this was it. Gone were the peacenik overtones and flared pants, and in were the red uniforms and militaristic insignia. Out was the sense of wonder, and in was Ricardo Montalban and his menacing plastic chest. Instead of a potential threat to Earth, the stakes were upped to universal Armageddon, with early computer-generated graphics beautifully rendering the possibilities of the Genesis device. And of course, a GSB of Moby Dick proportions, culminating in a very socialist “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” ending. Kirstie Allie plays a logical Vulcan through her tears; Starfleet is obviously spread pretty thin if the Enterprise is the only vessel anywhere near Earth or the Regula system; and Sulu, Uhura and Scotty aren’t given much to do; but the Trek universe became a dangerous place again, where sometimes talk would not solve a problem.

9) VIII First Contact: The Borg are back. Picking up on some threads sewn in the TNG TV series and recasting the communist Collective as a dictatorship, Earth is in peril again and only the Enterprise E crew, through some nifty timetechnobabble, can save the Federation. A GSB starts the proceedings, and then things settle down again into some interesting drama. Picard’s arc is best, with the gorgeous Lily as his conscience and love interest (more Moby Dick too); Data dances with a Borg queen who uses too much oil of Olay; Troi gets drunk; LaForge gets rid of the visor and gets funky blue eyes; Worf shows his mettle by standing up to Picard and not ripping his arm off; Crusher gets to be 2 I C for a bit; and Riker… well, he’s directing. Still don’t get how humans discovering warp drive when the Vulcans had more advanced versions of it all along led to warp drive being a “human” thing, but then I was never a fan of the Enterprise TV series and I couldn’t be bothered finding out. But VIII itself is great.

10) VI The Undiscovered Country: It starts off with a bang (and a shockwave of dubious origin that has been copied often, even making it into the remastered Holy Trilogy), gives the Klingons depth, shows Starfleet is not one big happy benign family, has a bit of humour thrown in as well, climaxes with an okay GSB (with the Enterprise being holed in the hold), has a naff “Kirk knows best” speech, and then ends with a nice “handing on the baton” speech (though of course it didn’t end there, as Kirk came back in VII). All the cast are well used (though some more than others) and Valeris gulps very loudly. No Moby Dick in this one, but the avoiding “lying” jokes are very II, and seem to show the Valeris part was originally intended to be written for Saavik, but that’s not a biggie. Overall, with the age of the cast used as part of the plot about the times changing with the Federation’s relation to the Klingon Empire, and the whole fall of communism timing of the movie’s release too, make for a great story that would be hard to tell and for the audience to relate to without Star Trek’s history. But the fact it’s a great idea told well is the best thing.

Verdict: The Star Trek movie series has definitely had its low and high points. But, where will Star Trek XI fit in the Star Trek Scale? We shall see come the end of 2008…

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Case for Teen Pregnancy

At first, I was a bit worried that I was in a film where, once again, the hype was not going to live up to the reality. It started with lots (and I mean lots) of deep and meaningful music, and yet another lead character with attitude, who knew everything and had swallowed a dictionary and been raised on a steady diet of popular culture references.

After five minutes though, I realised my initial assessment was wrong. Incredibly wrong. Wonderfully wrong. Because Juno turned out to be absolutely brilliant.

Juno, the lead character, had attitude (yes), had dialogue from the coffee-powered, 40-something writers of the Gilmore Girls (oh, yes); but, refreshingly, she did not know it all. In fact, everyone in the film was incredibly human. Not perfect, not perfect losers, but quirky in their own way, with their own problems and their own solutions. Juno herself was given a reality check on several occasions; and the other characters all had believable reactions, within the realms of believability and how their characters were established. Jason Bateman and, in particular, Jennifer Garner, playing the adoptive couple, were particular standouts – no hysteria or overwrought emotion, but well-played, believable reactions in fairly stressful and uncertain circumstances.

Actually, the entire main cast is incredible, without a weak link amongst them. Juno (played by Ellen MacGuff) is amazing, though Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons as her parents steal the show whenever they are in a scene. The characters were quirky, though the actors played them as just normal people doing normal things, which made them all the easier to sympathise with. Much kudos to the script, as it is amazing (though I seem to recall Juno is Jupiter’s wife, not Zeus’s; but that is me being picky; and I will now never use the word “junk” in vain). However, for me, the music was copious and mostly tolerable. So not perfect, but very, very good.

Verdict: The test came back and it was positive: 95% certainty.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Case for Investigative Journalism

A wee while ago, Morguetastic commented on the state of newspaper journalism today. Rather than being the voice of the general public opinion reaching out to the towering pinnacles of government and big business, newspapers and the like are more and more becoming mouthpieces for the government and big business in the guise of still being all about the little man or woman on the street. Quality investigative journalism and comment is being replaced by vox populi, where the word of the “ordinary citizen” on the issues of the day is sought rather than experts on the topics yet to be brought to public attention; or else the extremists and their opinions are either canonised or demonised, while moderate, more considered discussion of the issues is left off the agenda.

Right off, I run into a problem. I am being elitist. How can I not be when I am already asserting that the word of the individual on the street or the impassioned is less “worthy” than the opinion of experts? Let me explain.

The world is gearing down towards the ordinary Jane. The internet has given the word of the smallest person extraordinary power. Even I, not the most well-versed of people in matters of import (not by a long shot), have taken the opportunity occasionally to offer my judgements via the world wide web on matters of minimal import to humanity as a whole. My voice is heard by those who might like to listen. I am even getting “pinged” by people placing advertisements for medication on this site (honestly). I matter.

But I don’t. I have no delusions of grandeur here. My opinion is my opinion, but it is just that. There are others out there who are far more learned than I, those willing to do the hard yards in investigating and finding out “stuff”, tracking down people of interest, spending weeks and months chasing leads and making breakthroughs every once in a while. Getting the scoop. All terms from newspaper life years ago. And all heard too rarely these days.

Why bother digging up dirt when interested parties or individuals will do it for you? Why arrange meetings with people of learning from different parts of the country when there are hundreds of people passing by on the street every day? Greenpeace will keep a track of those pesky Japanese whaling ships; the US military is on the ground in Iraq; prisoners can tell us how they were treated. The story these days tends to be not what journalists have ferreted out, but rather what has walked in through the door that morning.

One could argue though that we get what we deserve. The reason the mainstream papers and media is “dumbing down” (another elitist term) is because people are drawn to the extreme and the immediate. I know when I surf the internet, I tend to gravitate towards sites that interest me, or are written from a perspective that I either agree with or find entertaining. In response to people like me (I assume), the “big media” are catering to the common denominator, to what advertisers want their advertisements to appear in, and what the public is currently buzzing about. What is the point of coming up with something new that potentially will not draw public interest, especially when one needs that interest to stay viable?

Do you remember when there used to be documentaries on the telly? When 60 Minutes or 20/20 actually did serious investigations rather than Vaseline-lensed puff pieces on celebrities or this week’s “medical miracle”? Documentaries on real issues these days are fringe – they basically have to make it as a feature film first to grab attention, and only then do the mainstream media pick up on their message. Even there, though, sometimes the investigator outshines the subject (yes, I am referring to Michael Moore here).

It’s a double edge sword to have so much information at your fingertips, and by allowing the motivated individual to have so much power to get their own message out there. The newspapers no longer need to act as intermediaries for the discoveries of the passionate, so they don’t – unless the money is right.

The mainstream media revel in democracy and provide pleasure to the masses, but they are no longer democracy’s guardians, more its messengers. Fox News and its antithesis The Daily Show (both of which I have mentioned before) don’t really seem to investigate (create?) the news, but they report the news in a way that their target audience will enjoy. The facts, known to almost everyone, take a back seat to the style of presentation. The “digging deeper” (without a political or presentational agenda) may not occur at all. To give The Daily Show some credit (I do enjoy it after all), they do ask some “deeper”, analysing questions, but all too rarely does one get an answer other than a cynically raised eyebrow.

Perhaps the age of the newspaper (and mainstream news media?) as we knew it is over. Perhaps the newspaper becoming the Woman’s Day of non-celebrity news: something light, something frothy; something informative but not overly deep; with a cartoon and star signs and ads for the latest products.

Does this all sound elitist? Probably. Definitely, if my opinion is not shared by the majority. But sitting here on my ElectroThrone of Judgement ™, I gaze out across the cyberscape and see a land of divergent opinion: some based on solid fact, others based on their own interpretation of the world; some concerning matters of depth and subsequence, others documenting day to day life. The newspapers are no longer the ”breaker” of stories; more and more, the source for the latest scandal is the internet, and the individuals who contribute to it.

Verdict: I miss my investigative journalism. But perhaps that is because I am looking in the wrong place. 3 stars out of 5 to the internet, for the power and the responsibility. Mainstream media, 1 star out of 5 for abdicating one of its biggest contributions to society – shame.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Case for Old Time Justice

The Embassy Theatre can make almost any movie worth watching. But it had no need to go to any effort for No Country for Old Men, the latest film from the Coen Brothers.

It is dark. It is depressing. The final scenes for each character are filled with unexpected twists, well-telegraphed incidents, and an overall sense of an absence of Divine Justice. It’s this last theme of the film that struck me the most. Bad people don’t always get a comeuppance, and the innocent and guileless can find themselves in the most terrible of circumstances.

Javier Bardem, as the lead madman, is sensationally freakish as the wide-eyed killer with a twisted code – noone would mock his hairstyle in the 80s for fear of a highly unpleasant confrontation. The rest of the cast are also superb, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones both flawed “heroes” running from and after the merciless murdering machine. The violence is savage even if “tastefully” rendered for the screen, with the killer’s complete lack of conscience for those he eliminates – both those he encounters in relentless pursuit of his goal or those who incidentally get in his way – add an extra chill factor.

Story-wise, it is a fairly straight forward film following a plot that is common enough. Where the film excels of course is in the execution (pardon the pun): brutal, bleak, devoid of a huge score revelling in the carnage. It is a quiet, menacing film, the extraordinary amongst the mundane. I imagine the 80s setting was to allow the Nam references and the absence of mobile phones and other present-day technologies to add an extra layer of suspense and also add to mood of inexorable change to a darker, more violent world than those who fought in World War Two returned to find.

So, would I see it again? Not any time soon. And I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. But it is a damned good film.

Verdict: 45 States out of 50.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Case for Heroes in the Half Pipe

Once I went to the Lighthouse movie theatre in Upper Hutt and delighted in the novelty (at the time) of the seat/couch combination and also pointed out the bean bag sitting in the corner, unused, but possibly a wonderful idea in front of the screen.

Fast forward several years later (more than I would care to admit to) and to Auckland, the Sylvia Park Mall, the Hoyts movie theatre. Yes a Hoyts. And guess what: they have a theatre where the only seats are bean bags.

Well, kind of. They aren’t really bean bags. They are actually wool-filled bags that can comfortably seat 2 adults and a child with minimal roll together and rustling. They cost $30 per bag (and single patrons can’t only get “half” of one) and the room itself contains about 30 of them.

For some inane marketing reason, the name of the room is called the halfpipe (this may be come skating reference that completely eludes your truly), but there are two rooms (I believe) dedicated to this type of cinema experience. The movies screened tend to be fairly family friendly fare (we went to enjoy the beanbag experience and had to suffer through National Treasure 2 – a star-studded cast (Nicholas Cage, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris) trapped in action adventure hell, the characters causing so much destruction and breaking into so many sensitive areas that they should have all been arrested for acts of terrori
sm, though luckily for the movie the British law enforcement forces are completely incompetent and in the USA, it pays to have the president as a confidant. But I won’t try and remember a film I was successfully managing to suppress until now...

Back to the half pipe then. While the movie itself may be mind-numbing slush (as it was) the fact one is practically horizontal on a bag of wool gives one the opportunity to close ones eyes and drift away.

The experience is not without its drawbacks: we were in the front row which means, from a lying position, you are looking down towards your feet to see the screen; and the wool is not as malleable a seating substance as polystyrene beans, meaning it is hard to craft a high back on the “chair”.

But, for a family friendly film, the children were able to move around fairly freely without disturbing the other patrons much. A definite plus if one has attention-deficit disorder children who might not like sitting down for over 90 minutes.

Verdict: Silly name, and definitely not very space-efficient, but a brilliant idea and damned comfortable. 4 beans out of 5. [National Treasure 2 on the other hand got 1 bean out of 5. Blargh]

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Case for Killer Haircuts

So there is this guy, and he comes back from Australia, seeking revenge through the skill of his barber's knife and a couple of killer songs.

Sweeny Todd; the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. An R16's worth of blood and darkness. Stunningly dark cinematorgraphy mixes with the sheer coolness of the cast (Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman (who plays a bad man better?), Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham-Burton) and a couple of wicked pairs of trousers (akin to the Goblin King's in Labyrinth) to create a film that broods and exudes. But this is a musical.

And a fairly dull one at that. The full orchestra puts their heart and soul into the score, the cast perform ably, but the songs themselves (at least in my humble opinion) are fairly forgettable. Some songs do quicken the plot, but most just seem to dwell on points already well made and were now being beaten to death, when all that was needed was a quick slice to the throat. Sweeny Todd felt every minute of its two-hour plus duration.

The other problem was the "love subplot". When the aforementioned cast aren't on the screen and the two young lovebirds show up to sing their heartfelt lovesongs to each other... well, I fell asleep. Completely and utterly lacking in any chemistry or on-screen charisma (this may have been deliberate), the two love-struck youths have a story so boring not even the director decided to let us know what happens to them.

Verdict: Gorgeous to look at, but a bit taxing on the ears and patience. 3 steak pies out of 5, mainly for the superb cast.

A quick aside:

Did anyone see Theroux - America's Most Hated Family (TV1, Monday 4/2)? A documentary on one of the more extreme evangelical family, it was fascinating in its appallingness. But I have a problem in that I end up hating Louis Theroux almost as much as his subjects. It's hard to fully gauge the family as he kept asking them the same questions over and over again, and then, to their face, criticising their answers as deluded. Documentary making has changed a bit since I was a lad, but the family kept having him around so someone must have liked him. A really interesting study in how both religious extremists and liberals can both be obnoxious.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Case for Human Communication

A few blogs ago, I was on the receiving end of a “heckler”.

This was the first on my blog and, mercifully, the heckler was actually fairly tame. Being called a pensioner is not altogether flattering (I am not quite that old), but neither did it send me spiralling into a fit of depression.

However, what I found most interesting was not the style of insult but rather with what Anonymous took umbrage. To summarise: I made a comment about how, on a non-smoking train, I was amongst a group (of non-smokers and smokers) who bonded by mocking (behind his back) a man blatantly flouting this rule roughly every 30 minutes by hiding in the toilet, and whose fixed smile and aroma on exiting gave the impression of having a stronger herb than tobacco in his cigarette. Anonymous found my attitude very 20th Century, and thus questioned my superannuitant status.

Again, the tone of the message was not what caught my attention. The fact Anonymous read through my entry and picked up on that one (minor) point and (from her (or his) perspective) appeared to take this as testament to a firm belief on my part on the wrongness of smoking (and/or pot), and felt the need to criticise this stance really brought home why I quote Oscar Wilde on my blogspot page.

To be truthful to Anonymous, I am not a smoker. To be fair, the smoker on the train was the object of some scorn, mainly for his blatant disregard of the train rules. But for further honesty, while I am not going to sing from the church steeple about the wonders of smoking, neither do I disassociate myself from those who indulge. As to the wacky baccy, well, in principle I don’t see much difference between that and “normal” cigarettes (though I know there is a difference in law).

The point though is that I had never intended that sentence to be a judgement on smokers and the act of smoking (I will save that for another entry). But, evidently, someone out there interpreted what I wrote that way. Or at least, that is how I have interpreted their response.

Which brings me back to the title of this entry: human communication. In particular, the written language. How do we get it all so wrong?

I have to admit, time and again, I make the mistake in assuming that the written medium is a trustworthy means of communication. It isn’t. Not because a missive may be poorly written or of dubious merit, but mainly because the writer and the audience are completely different people (for the most part).

How many times on blogs (or in e-mails) has one seen “that’s not what I meant” answer? How many innocuous e-mails have required clarification or led to all sorts of strife between friends or between workmates (I have been caught in the middle of one of those and it was not pretty)? There are even articles on how the written word can be misconstrued and how to avoid misunderstanding.

And the reason is because words can mean more than one thing; sentences, as strings of words, compound the problem; and paragraphs, well, we are talking logarithmic scales of comprehension issues here.

As Oscar Wilde points out, we can never approach anyone else completely impartially. We approach and try to understand everyone else through our own lens. We interpret actions and words based on what we know of others and ourselves. Subsequently, we can never really know that other people will understand the things we say the way we intend them.

For example, I take a person with a PhD in biology fairly seriously when it comes to discussions on that topic, but am more inclined to believe the argument of a Darwinian rather than an Intelligent Design supporter because of the way I happen to view the world.

On less contentious matters, I tend to judge the opinions other people proffer on their blogs in the context of what I know about that person. I can find the contribution of people I don’t know fascinating and intriguing; but when trying to weigh up the more ambiguous or unsubstantiated claims, there is no context to actually give meaning to what is written. Anonymous, for example, is obviously very erudite and has a good grasp of popular culture (though she (or he) assumes I have one too). But I have to base my mental “context” picture of Anonymous on the comments posted, which leads me to conclude she (or he) is probably a smoker, possibly of pot, and a daily denizen of the blogosphere, which in return influences how I read her (or his) comments.

Understanding the context is important in every day life. It helps one understand irony and hypocrisy, and gives meaning to fairly obscure concepts. But it is even more important on the blogosphere where all that is known of bloggers and commentators is based on the few lines written down – or, to be more accurate, typed out. How an individual perceives someone through their blog – or their e-mail – is based on that individual’s interpretation of events, the individual’s worldview, and what the individual expects others to mean and say. Other people react completely differently. Some people take a broad view of a complete message; others get picky about the small points. I tend to mix and match.

The written word has proved its limitations time and again, and the blogosphere itself has been found wanting. While the internet age has given everyone a voice and the chance to be heard, it can’t guarantee that those who are listening will understand. What is worse though is that there are always those who will choose not to understand, and those who will never try to understand other people with different points of view.

Verdict: Everyone is other people. And everyone signs a slightly different tune. So how useful are blogs in really helping other people’s understanding of each other? A hung jury on that one.