Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Case for the Sound of Thunder

It snuck up on me all of a sudden. While seated in the darkened cinema, an advertisement screened for the most ridiculous soft drink I had never heard of. That was followed by a trailer for another sequel to a trilogy of films I had never heard of. And by the time Robert Downey Junior showed up in a cassock with Tobey Maguire clutching his rosary beads, I knew the movie – if not the movie proper – had begun.

Tropic Thunder begins (after the mock trailers) with a bang or seven, and then settles down into a fairly familiar rhythm. This is a Ben Stiller film, so everything is pretty much telegraphed from the get-go, but there are still chuckles aplenty. Amazing turns from Robert Downey Junior, as a scarily-blue eyed Australian wunder-thesp who had cosmetic surgery to turn him black for his current role, and a barely recognisable Tom Cruise keep things very lively, though when Ben Stiller appears solo centre stage, a feeling of creeping death started to gnaw at me.

In fact, quite a few people were turned off Tropic Thunder by the Ben Stiller factor, and I have to say that I am turning into one of those people too. His scenes just weren’t that funny, and his character was just a slightly less dense (and much less appealing) Derek Zoolander. Jack Black played the fat man to a similar level of comedic success, and Nick Nolte played grizzled experience for the first 15 minutes of the film and then kind of faded away. But they didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things: Robert Downey Junior and Tom Cruise are all the reasons one needs to see this film.

There were guest cameos aplenty: Jon Voight, Jennifer Lovely Hewitt and the aforementioned Tobey Maguire (amongst others) all showed up for a wee while, and there were plenty of “white men being black” scenes for negative hipness points. As the movie is all about guys making a war movie, there were no female characters, and thus no love story, which leaves lots of room for guns, explosions and fairly quick and trite self-epiphanies, of which there were plenty.

But for all of its unoriginality and superficiality, Tropic Thunder is loads of stupid, simple fun, with a few movie references thrown in for good measure. For me, the film started at a high comedic point (especially with those trailers) and then swiftly plunged into only moments of hilarity by the time Steve Coogan departed. But there were still guffaws to be had throughout, and the final dance scene has to be seen to be believed.

Verdict: Aiming low and reaching that goal, Tropic Thunder is a load of nonsense with a few very good performances making it worth the watch. Everyone had fun though, both on the screen and in the audience, which was the main thing. 6.5 Platoons out of 10.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Case for Olympic Gold

As I write this, and the fantastic amendments to the list of book fair attendees continue to come in, the Olympics are still raging. Tonight, however it will come to an end.

Watching a wee bit this morning, I saw a medal being presented to a victorious Russian Federation athlete, whilst in the background, the strains of the national anthem played, an anthem I always associate with the Soviet Union, filled the stadium. For me, it was a reminder that at any Olympics, politics lurks everywhere, despite what might be claimed.

While some are commenting on the best and worst of the games themselves, let me just hand out a few medals to the Olympic Organisations as well, for excellence in self delusion of being politically neutral in the face of strong evidence to the contrary:

Bronze Medal: to Team sports based on national boundaries for selection. While one could argue that for any two athletes to get together, it probably needs them to be in the same country, but surely if the Olympics was not about political boundaries and was more about individual achievement, these sports wouldn't really be in there.

Silver Medal: to those nations entering the arena on opening night under the Olympic flag (hello Chinese Taipei!). If you can't come in under your own flag in a supposedly neutral environment, politics is definitely playing its part.

Gold Medal: to the Australian comedy series The Games. TVNZ is repeating it far too late at night on TVNZ 6, and were I not keen to get before midnight, I would want to re-experience it myself. Watch it, laugh and weep.

Verdict: The Olympics is as much about politics and big business as it is about sport. But the chance to see athletes from all over the world compete together, challenging each other to perform their best... well, that is definitely worth a gold medal.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Case for Book Fair Attendees

The Wellington Inner City Mission Annual Book Fair is just around the corner (the 6th and 7th of September), marking the end of the winter book fairs. While offering a broad selection of pre-loved literature, this is undoubtedly one of the least pleasant book fair experiences, due to the unrestrained and repetitive uses of loudspeakers and the opening morning queues that can at times spread itself around all four walls of the auditorium.

Of course, the patrons of these book fairs can add to the misery of the experience. Here then, with some assistance from another experienced book fair attendee, is a taxonomy of some of the people you may encounter at your next book fair. Mark them well, as they come with their own sets of social rules of engagement, or avoidance, in the rarified book fair atmosphere.

Amateur Attendees


See a book. Pick it up. Read the first chapter of about 30 pages. Take about 10 minutes. Move on to the next book Stand block still while the crowd throngs around you, unable to pass by due to the proximity of the other tables. Try and avoid them, or be unashamed to “bump’ them a little.

Bulk Buyers

Opening day, and the race is on to fill the ridiculously large Two Dollar Shop bags they brought with them. Strategy: store now, sort later. They have their maps and head like hyenas towards the wounded book tables, ready to pick the carcass clean. One of the scariest of the book fair breeds. Stay out of their way, though when they sit down to try and sort their books, be sure not to give them any room.


There is no spoon. There are no other attendees. There is just you, and the book or the table you want to get to. Be brave.


It takes two to tango, or to have a loud and long conversation about nothing over books as those around you try and scurry by, but there are frequently those who meet over a crowded book table that decide that then and there is the perfect time and place to start a discussion about the minutiae of life. No thought is given to meeting up after books have been selected, either outside or in a café or even via the newfangled telephonic invention. This is the here and now, and for them at least, no one else exists. Until you speak up and ask them to move along. Go on.


These are the poseurs of the scene, who display a staggering amount of knowledge in a huge amount of noise, but who don’t actually translate their words of action into deeds. Harmless, if mildly annoying.


Never in this person’s life have they seen so many books. Or magazines. Or records. Or DVDs. Or people wanting to kill them for standing in the middle of the busiest thoroughfare, mouth open, for ten minutes. Treat them with pity.


I only recently noted these ones, but these are the people who will pick up the books that have been laid spine up to assist others in reading the title of the book, look at the cover, and then place the book back down on top of the other books, cover down. These people tend to do this with every book, without any consideration for those following them. While I would label their assassination justifiable homicide, any blood spilled would mess up the books.


These are the experienced ones, who know what they are looking for and who have strategies for getting in and out with a minimum of fuss. Their book selections tend to be made with surgical precision, rather than with the (literal) broad strokes of the Bulk Buyers. Plays well with others.

Quiet Ones

The majority, looking for a book or two for their later enjoyment. Quiet ones can become vocal though, should the queues end up kilometres long. A good breed.


These are the Antiques Road Show people of the book fair world, hunting for those rare objets d’art to make a fortune on. They therefore tend to be serious, determined and very, very picky. Avoid.


Because the crush of the first few hours of opening is not enough if it is just made up of people, some decide that their prams and pushchairs should be brought along not only to add to the morass, but also to be used as a fairly hand weapon. Children are ancillary, as noted by those parents whose children are screaming their heads off in utter boredom or bewilderment, while they themselves remain blissfully ignorant, eyes intently reading the latest Jackie Collins and ears closed through years of practice. Not to deny those with children the opportunity to search for a book or 17, but please…

Professional Attendees

Ambitious Scouts

These are the gamblers, always in the lookout for that rare first edition – to be sold for a good profit, of course.

Desperate Scouts

These are the failed book dealers in need of urgent profits. They are similar to the Grim Digs Scouts, except a bit less fussy and a much more hurried demeanour. Partly harmless.

Dishonest Scouts

The car salesmen of the book fair world, offering false advice on the chance of obtaining the book in your hand for theirs. There aren’t many of these out there, but they are around. Sometimes, they are not even professionals but just unscrupulous amateurs. Keep an eye out.

Grim Digs Scouts

Be careful of these ones – they are on a mission, and the ridges on their forehead let you know it. They will get the best condition, most easily sellable books delete over your dead body, should there be any possible doubt over who claimed the book first. Hold your ground.

Hobby Scouts

These are the happy-go-lucky kind, who wander around with smiles on their faces but a list in their hand, and who will offer friendly opinions on your selection in a fairly unobtrusive way. Mostly harmless.

Junk Merchants Scouts

Finding fools gold in them thar books.

The Volunteers

Cashier (Competent)

Either an old hand or a cool calm customer, the competent cashier is a blessing for those waiting in line. While this person can be assisted by a competent organiser, in and of themselves, they are able to total up the cost of your purchases and get you through the checkout in about a minute.

Cashier (Harried)

I won’t use “incompetent cashier”, because they are all volunteers so I think it is unfair to label them such. So I will stick to the “harried cashier” title, denoting those who have just lost the plot, either by being un-ably assisted by other cashiers or organisers, having forgotten basic counting and arithmetic skills, or being assaulted by faulty technology. One may feel sorry for them, unless one has been waiting in line for an hour due to their bungling.

Tea Ladies

Bless them, these people make the whole book fair world go around. Women or men who grease the wheels of the machine, with cups of tea and the odd biscuit.

The Organiser

The only time one really notices the organiser is when they are doing a bad job. Usually, the official organiser tends to fade into the “tea ladies” category, but when they surgically attach microphones to their mouths and decide the chaos of the book fair needs to be made more chaotic through “helpful” bulletins that are about 10 minutes out of date, they become more pronounced. And unappreciated.

Well, these are the ones I know of. Are there any others you may have spotted in your book fair adventures? Let me know!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Case for the Darkness

What can I say about the Dark Knight?

Well let’s start with the cast: Christian Bale plays the humourless hero, Morgan Freeman plays the moral centre, Michael Caine plays wise experience, Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as a more world-weary love interest, Aaron Eckhart has the best hair (for most of the film anyway)… and then there is Heath Ledger.

I had heard huge amounts of hype about his performance, and while I am not going to debate its merits in the grand scheme of acting things, I have to say that in this movie, he is definitely the centrepiece. The film feels emptier without the psychotic presence of his Joker. He outshines some pretty hefty thesping talent (like Gary Oldman) and is able to camp his Joker up on a few occasions without reminding me of one moment of the 1960s Batdancing TV series version. His portrayal is of a psychopath on the edge, adding an unbalanced danger Jack Nicholson’s interpretation never had. He is scary, but a fascinating, alluring way.

The story itself plays brilliantly as well, albeit fairly contrived in the villains favour. But, despite the length, it still keeps the pace up, the action thrilling (rather than overshadowed by CGI) and the people miserable – for the most part anyway.

And what can one say about Gotham? It must be one of the most depressing cities on earth, despite all those who want to rescue it from its depravity. No one swears in it though. Perhaps there is really no point.

At any rate, this film was great. I found my suspension of disbelief sorely tested by the end of it, however much I loved the bad guys, but overall, it was definitely a film to be enjoyed at the cinema, and one I enjoyed seeing there.

Verdict: The Dark Knight was really good. A great cinematic movie that I doubt would be as enjoyable on the small screen. Not sure if I want more from the franchise, as I am not sure they can keep up the quality. But for this film, 8 Batarangs out of 10.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Case for the New Wave

My final film for the 2008 Film Festival was a German film called the Wave.

Based (apparently quite loosely) on a book of the same name, the Wave follows a week in the life of a school project into various forms of government, in particular autocracy. And of course, being in Germany, the kids all breathe a sigh when one of the most famous autocracies, the Third Reich, is brought up, convinced that history could never repeat itself.

The reluctant teacher (Wenger, who would rather teach anarchy) therefore decides to give discipline and uniformity a good shot. What follows is a very quick lesson as the kids discover a cohesion they never had before by surrendering themselves to the directives of the teacher and conformity and interaction with each other, and through the exclusion of anyone who might be a bit different.

As with the Germany of the 1930s, a well educated country brought bank from the brink of financial and nationalistic ruin through the firm hand of the National Socialist Party, the positives of the unity of purpose and the group bonding behind banners and slogans masks the dark undercurrent of the loss of individual freedoms and expression, and the pitting of the inner crowd against the outer. There has to be some suspension of disbelief to fully buy into the idea that a whole class of high school children would be so willing bound together in just a few very long days, and some of the individual stories and motivations are lost in the telling of the bigger picture, but the ideas make sense, especially with the character of Tim (an amazing actor this one, to appear so needy and scary yet still be sympathetic), a disaffected rich kid who finds meaning and purpose in a group that he lacked elsewhere.

Personally, I found the film fairly hard to watch. The sense of unity brought on by strict authoritarianism reminded me of my own high school days when, in my first year, the school seniors enforced "school spirit" while armed with cricket bats that were used on the less enthusiastic students - and, five years later, one of my own classmates remarked that those seniors were some the most inspirational he had ever had. Finding commonality through conformity can be a wonderful sensation for those on the inside, and can have many positive results. However, while the majority may just go along for the ride, there are others who will take things much more seriously, or manipulate the situation to suit their own end. And in those circumstances...

Well, the result (in the film) is a bit too hasty, a bit too pat. Individuality by the masses is surrendered just that little bit too quickly. However, for the disaffected, like Tim, the ending feels a lot more convincing, while Wenger's final shot poses questions that are never answered. There are perhaps some cultural differences that stopped me from fully understanding this film, but the story itself is powerfully - if not perfectly - told.

Verdict: 21st Century Germany is full of beautiful people, but tragedies of the past still haunt them. The Wave is a really interesting movie on peer pressure and society in general, with Hitler's shadow forever looming in the background. Not completely convincing, but perhaps that was deliberate. 7 waves out of 10.