Friday, October 31, 2008

The Case for Book Burning

I think a cast as big as one sees in the film Burn After Reading, the latest Coen brothers offering, is referred to as an “ensemble”, meaning a gathering together of lots of actors whose characters are about level pegging screen-time wise and plot wise.

Odd then that I find the main character, Linda, played by Frances McDormand as a Jane Sixpack (in the drink sense) is the one I most strongly remember, and seems the centre of the film. True, John Malkovich’s foul-mouthed analyst is the main figure early on, but he fades into the background quickly thereafter, popping up every so often to explode with obscenities and then goes away for a bit again.

So, back to Linda. Actually, sidestepping Lilly, we find Brad Pitt in a role he must have loved as an airheaded gym boy bunny fitness instructor Chad, who has a heart of gold and a mind of mush. For me, Chad was the most enjoyable and likable character in the film: Tilda Swinton played the anally retentive Brit to an obnoxious degree; George Clooney’s cavalier charmer was a bit of everything, alternating between suave and awkward, and so it was hard to like him; J. K. Simmons was his usual loud bluster (he played calm people on TV once, I am sure); and the other characters were all… well, less memorable.

And the film was all about the characters, as the story itself was quite silly. To sum it up, Burn After Reading is a wee bit of madcap action by and through a whole bunch of dysfunctional characters. The problem for me lies in that the characters themselves are all fairly unlikeable. For a movie like No Country for Old Men, this is not a problem as the story itself is compelling, but in a film like this… well, let’s just say the comparison is not favourable.

There were things to enjoy about this film and I did find myself smiling occasionally (scenes that make me laughing out loud are rare, though many such moments were packed into 40 Year Old Virgin, hence the reason I bought that the instant it was on DVD). On the other hand, I felt no sympathy or empathy for any of the characters in the film (except perhaps Chad), so I wasn’t captivated by what happened on screen.

Verdict: An entertaining movie, yet ultimately easily forgettable, Burn After Reading gets 6 books out of 10.

Oh, and as an aside, I take back some of the things I said about Clare Danes and the demise of My So Called Life. The "making of" documentary on the DVD has opened my eyes to the tortured development of the show, and the apparent lack of confidence it had from the network screening it. I apologise...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Case for Elections 1

Odd to think that once again it is time to take part in a process to elect a government to rule for over us for three years. Labour, under the firm leadership of Ms Helen Clark, is making another bid to be the party in charge, but National, under the more malleable command of Mr John Key, seems to be in the lead. It could be people want a change; it could be that people are unhappy with Labour; it could be that National is speaking sense. It could be lots of things. But could it be the campaigns?

I thought I would take a quick look at some of the campaign slogans thus far, and in my particular style, rate their effectiveness.

1. Labour

The first purely because they are the ruling government, they seem to be going with the “All about Trust” tack. While I would love to hear Ms Clark actually define New Zealandness, the appeal to trust is an interesting notion, especially considering that politicians always tend to end up as the most untrustworthy occupation in polls on that topic. If the New Zealand Nurses Organisation ran for government on that slogan, they would be a shoo-in.

Verdict: Labour – sounds nice, but one should only think about it in the context of other parties, rather than other polls. Three seats out of five.

2. National

“Choose a Brighter Future”. One so bright, one has to wear shades? Is this a sly indication of their pro-global warming stance? I do like the emphasis on the “choice” though, as rather than “trust” the party to do the right think (like Labour), the Nats want to put the power (if not necessarily the assets) back in the hands of the people.

Verdict: National – definitely deserve kudos for empowering the voter, though how that would pan out post election will (may?) be interesting to see. Four seats out of five.

3. Greens

Whoever thought up the “Vote for me” campaign is a genius. Who could argue with the influence on the viewer of the image of the planet, children and animals with those words boring into ones brain, forcing responsibility and the emphasising the individual’s ability to make change? Well those who hate kids, cuddly animals or the planet in general would probably be immune. And how many of those are there out there?

Verdict: Greens – brilliant idea, well executed. Or perhaps not executed. More… circulated. Executed does not really sound like a Green term. Five seats out of five.

4. The Māori Party

Actually, I can’t seem to find a slogan for this party. They probably don’t need one; their name says it all. Some of their recent policy announcements have made me look twice at a party that, on the face of it, is not really designed for my non-Māori-ness, but fact they don’t need a slogan indicates to me that they are a party confident in what they are and what they stand for.

Verdict: Māori Party – no apparent slogan, but there is no need really. We know what they stand for.

5. New Zealand First

I can’t find a slogan for this party either, but considering New Zealand First tends to be a one-man band anyway, perhaps that should be too surprising. If anything, “Winston Peters” is this party’s slogan (check out the website) . And… that’s all I have to say about that.

Verdict: New Zealand First – this party’s slogan is and always has been “Winston First”, even if that is not on the billboards.

6. ACT

I like this one: “Be the Difference”. For some reason, this one strikes me as empowering in a very red pill / blue pill way. It’s another one of those slogans that are wildly open to interpretation (is it secretly designed to bolster the Green “save the planet” vote, perhaps?), though one has to admire its positivity.

Verdict: ACT – I kind of wish I didn’t, but I do like this one, perhaps because it does convince me to vote for a third party. The only problem; it might not be ACT. Three votes out of five.

7. Progressive Party

The final party on my round up is the Progressives, who have “The strength to care”. This one strikes me in a very evangelical way, as if perhaps this were the political wing of the Salvation Army or a newly reformed Destiny Party. Again, a mixed message for me, not really appealing to my “vote here” button.

Verdict: Progressives – a warm and fluffy message, but does the party really have the strength to do anything besides care? Two votes out of five.

Now only one question remains - which party (and candidate; so perhaps there are really two questions) to actually vote for?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Case for True Lies

You might not be able to guess, but I get out to see quite a few movies. As a reward for my ongoing devotion to Reading cinemas, I was granted a free ticket a while ago, and with the expiry date just around the corner, for a change I went to a weekend movie. While initially I had intended to see a different movie, the friendly staff behind the counter generously allowed my fairly restricted voucher to get me a ticket to a new release.

Body of Lies, the new Ridley Scott film, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Ferris, a CIA operative trying to rid the Middle East of the terrorist element. Russell Crowe plays the annoying, interfering CIA boss Hoffman, Mark Strong the tough as torture yet impeccably dressed Jordanian Intelligence chief Hani Salaam and the bad terrorist leader they are all desperately hunting for is Al-Saleem.

I won't go into the plot too much, but it is all fairly basic fare (even the big conspiracy to bring down Al-Saleem seems a bit too pat) but well told and beautifully shot. For me, the more interesting thing was the portrayal of the bosses (Hoffman, Salaam and Al-Saleem) as unbelievalby arrogant, self involved and completely manipulative yet quite divorced from the real world in which their actions take effect. It's an odd sensation to find the CIA chief as appalling as the leader of a terrorist organisation, but from Ferris' point of view, they are both pretty much bastards. He only really seems to respect Salaam, but even there the respect is given with the knowledge that their friendship, due to the nature of their jobs, is limited.

I did enjoy this film, with the Middle East shown as a stunning place (including the gorgeous Golshifteh Farahani as the love interest), the action scenes heart-pumping, and the acting amazing, even if there are only two sympathetic characters. But it was a fairly harsh film in that non-leaders were shown only as pawns (sometimes pawns not even involved in the game) to be used and manipulated by higher powers for the good of their particular interests. In the end, it was a fairly harsh yet possibly accurate representation of the Middle East, and the world in general. A sobering thought for a Saturday night...

Verdict: A great film, though ultimately a bit of a downer, Body of Lies was a beautiful looking film that made me look to the sky and wonder. Six untruths out of ten.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Case for the Planet

Earth is a farily beautiful planet. And the dominant species on it, while helping destroy hundreds of species on the planet's face, are not always that humble about it.

But with a movie / documentary like this, that is not altogether surprising. Patrick Stewart adds his soothing tones as the presenter of a trip from the North Pole to the South, and then quickly back to the north again. We follow elephants and humpback whales and birds of paradise and penguins and lions and tigers and bears (oh my) in their more G-rated rituals. This is not a brutal, blood and guts version of existence, but nor does it shy away from death and paint every animal as living in harmony with every other.

Earth is beautiful to behold, the shots of the planet from space particularly spectacular. But I feel the "green" message would have been better served had they actually demonstrated man's influence on the environment. It is one thing to show cute furry animals in their natural, pristine environment, but it is quite another to see deforestation, oil slicks and busy shipping lanes.

Verdict: Taken as a kiddie nature doco, Earth is wonderful. Taken as a message for saving the planet... well, you definitely want to preserve what they show, but there is a disconnect between that and what we can actually do. 6 seas out of 7.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Case for King Khan

One of the films I was unable to see at the International Film Festival this year was historical biopic Mongol, about the rise of Genghis Khan. Luckily, the film received a general release, so I was able to enjoy it in comfort at the Light House in Petone.

Knowing nothing about the legendary Mongolian who conquered half the known world, the film was a revelation, though hopefully not too many factual liberties were taken in the name of “dramatisation”. His early struggle to primacy was fascinating, not least because of the constant set backs he encountered on the way. Indeed, it was almost incredible that from the hardships he endured that he could rise to power at all.

But more stunning were the Mongolian landscapes, weathered by incredible contrasts between seasons. While some shots were obviously doctored to appear more spectacular, others were grand without any electronic enhancement.

And then there were the Mongols themselves, stunning with high cheekbones and beautiful (yet PETA-unfriendly) clothing. The women were portrayed as strong yet subservient to the whims of the more violent and domineering men. And the Mongolian language, the beauty of which Khan at one stage wants to spread throughout the world, is an incredibly harsh and perplexing yet fascinating language to listen to, and I was surprised how I easily (I think) I recognised the difference between a part of the film spoken in Chinese (it may not have been Mandarin) and the rest of the Mongolian-only dialogue.

The story was well told (though some of the gore seemed a bit unnecessary), and the acting was occasionally wobbly but overall very convincing.

The only annoying part of the film was when we had 3 text or phone calls during the course of the movie, two to the same annoying blonde person at the other end of the row from me. These were the times I wished Mongolian hordes would leap off the screen towards the loudest audience members and disembowel them a bit.

Verdict: Despite an interrupted screening, I really enjoyed Mongol. It was great to see what could have passed as a fairly mainstream action film with decent production values that was not from Hollywood and starred a cast of (to me) unknowns. Nine yurts out of ten.