Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Case for Human Rights and Wrongs

Penguin have released a large number of “modern classics” in their hideous orange and cream range of books. While the covers may be offensive to the senses, the books themselves cover a range of subjects and styles and are sold at a very good price. I flicked through them one day and spotted one large tome that looked like a very interesting non fiction read, Crimes Against Humanity by Geoffrey Robertson.

And, hefty as it was, it was a very interesting read, delving into the mind of an obviously very learned individual, who didn’t allow his own exhortations for the right of individuals to live free in their own beliefs to stop him from casting disparaging remarks the way of Scientologists, the Catholic Church and, of course, the French.

The author traces the history of Human Rights and the attempt to make them universal and the flouting of these rights by governments punishable from early anti-Piracy laws to the sense of urgency that came as a result of the German government’s World War Two actions through to the modern era of Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Pinochet, Guantanamo Bay and terrorism used to punish civilians. International respect for Human Rights have, through the work of NGOs and the media, become real and immediate and, through bodies such as the International Criminal Court, something that transgressors can be punished for abusing.

So Human Rights are well and dandy, but (and the author stresses this) the current state of the world means that they (and their enforcement) are not respected because they are feared by the very Western nations want them to be universal. Human Rights may be based on the Western ideas of individual freedoms and they are meant to be guaranteed by precedents established by Western international law, but then it all turns to custard when the Western nations themselves either fear or ignore what they are supposedly all about – or else redefine those rules to suit their own purposes (some “enhanced interrogation” anyone?).

The author saw the solution in international law. The argument is that Human Rights are immutable and the law needs to recognise that. However, in my opinion, the law does not work that way – there are shade of grey that the law defines through precedent, and those precedents pave the way for loopholes and so the whittling away of these inalienable human rights. And then there is the fact that nations act in their own interest, not (necessarily) to defend people from Human Rights abuses and to prosecute Human Rights offenders.

The author’s solution seems to be to amp up the UN, remove its political appointments, give it a police branch to enforce the peace, and make it an independent unifying body. Of course, it does all this while respecting the sovereignty of states, the rights (though not necessarily the customs) of different cultures and to wrap all its decisions in a binding legal framework. One law, one government, one world – an idea which must have survival camps out in the wilds polishing their AK47s waiting to defend their freedoms as I write this.

Being me, I see massive problems keeping the idea of “one morality” from interfering with the notion of continuing with “many cultures”. The West, whose culture forms the basis of what is considered Human Rights, has taken hundreds of years to get to where it is, and not all Western nations agree where that “is” anyway - the French position that “there are no minorities” in the French departments and territories is scoffed at by the author, but it definitely gets around those problems of cultural relativism that I get myself tied in knots about.

The book is a history lesson and a soapbox. The author thinks the world is moving towards a more international justice system since the end of the Cold War and decisions to detain former dictators such as Pinochet. It will be interesting to see though if terrorists and/or human entropy will throw a spanner in the human rights works.

Verdict: Really interesting if a bit of a mission to get through it all. The fact there are random digs at religions or ways of life that don’t quite gel with the author’s (rather than Human Rights) ways of looking at the world unfortunately serve to undermine the main message of the book. 7 Amnesties out of 10.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Case for Dobby the NZ Cultural Icon Elf

For my first concert of this Spring/Summer season, the Fisherman arranged an expedition to go and see the world famous in New Zealand legend that is Dave Dobbyn at the St James.

The concert was apparently a part of Dobbyn’s celebratory tour after 30 years of producing mainly mellow hits for a mainstream crowd. And the crowd on the night reflected that output, with the audience mostly around the same age and the attire varying from someone dressed as an orange, to the (majority) middle of the road casual, all the way to the odd person fully decked out – in a Kiwi kind of way, of course.

Within an hour of people being allowed to take their seats, Dobbyn and his band took to the stage. He was introduced by a man who warned that there would be two sets: a slower one, then a “hit parade”. It takes a brave man to lead off with a hauntingly mellow, mostly unknown and ultimately soporific song, but it was Dobbyn’s show, so he could do what he liked. And he did. And the crowd liked it too.

As did I, though unfortunately I was suffering greatly from low energy. This had the effect of allowing me to appreciate the craftsmanship of the music, but unfortunately had my internal pacemaker screaming for a faster tempo to snap me out of my increasing bouts of reverie. The normally hyper lively “Slice of Heaven” was reggae-fied, and I was not sure if the faster pub hits of “Devil You Know” and “Be Mine Tonight” were deliberately interspersed between slower more reflective songs to break the dancing spirit of those who rushed the stage – a tactic that defeated some, but not all.

As my ears were filled with musical magic, my eyes were drawn to Dobbyn’s band. They were all incredibly talented people, but I was surprised at the dichotomy between the slobbish males and the stylish females. The guys wore comfortable pants and polo shirts and looked like they had just tidied themselves in a mirror before coming on stage, whereas the ladies donned sophisticated dresses and high heeled shoes and had impeccable makeup applied with surgical precision.

Dobbyn was a gracious “main man”, lavishly praising his band and endorsing their individual musical endeavours. It seemed like a group that really enjoyed working together – an illusion perhaps that will be shattered by a tell-all “my Dobbyn Hell” memoir released once the tour is over. But I choose to believe they all loved being together and performing Dobbyn classics. Even the advertisement standard “Loyal” was sung with fresh breath and what appeared to be genuine enjoyment. You could feel the love in the air, even if I could barely make out the words in “Shouldn’t you ought to be in love” when Dobbyn surrendered the microphone for a spell.

Bursting out of the humid auditorium onto the refreshingly windswept streets around midnight, it was incredible to reflect on the professionalism and talent of the man and his band, and the fact we had just spent several hours being entertained with songs that have become a part of Kiwi culture, all for less than $20 each.

Verdict: A fantastic night out for an amazing show for a wonderful price. Bravo Dobbyn, Fisherman, and the rest of the people that made it all happen. Next time, though, I will bring along a metronome that I will put behind the drummer to make him play that beat just that little bit faster… 4 Slices of Heaven out of 5

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Case for Animus and Anima

For the boys

Well, apparently there is a big debate about the sporting soul of New Zealand going on.

Could it be that New Zealand will soon be a nation that recognises football as soccer, rather than as a generic name for a game with a large-ish ball on a grass field? After the recent All White success coupled on the same evening with a lacklustre All Black performance and reception, I have read some commentators who think that this is the end of the Rugby Age.

The reason for this is threefold, in that: 1) New Zealand enjoys the success of the All Whites, while not being impressed with the form of the All Blacks; 2) the recognition that Football is a global game in the way no other is; and 3) that the All Blacks have hyped themselves from everyday folk to supermodel athletes – and so, in a way, become Soccer/Footballers, as that’s where those professionals have been for a while.

It’s odd seeing the All Blacks (and people’s reactions to them) these days. On the one hand, they are sporting giants – some literally so. On the other though, they are individuals out to make a buck or prove their theories of game-winning right. An All Blacks game is still a religious experience; but the All Black priests themselves, as a whole if not certain individuals (e.g., McCaw and Carter), have somewhat fallen from grace.

It is not necessarily true that sporting heroes are interesting people with whom to talk, no matter how good they might look in only their underwear. And it is a bit na├»ve to think that professionalising a sport will not affect how people view and feel about the athletes. Once upon a time, I suppose the All Blacks were “ours”; now, they appear to belong to addidas instead.

The All Whites, on the other hand, don’t come with the legacy and the baggage of their Rugby brethren. They come back from training grounds overseas to represent the nation, rather than rising through the ranks in New Zealand to make money abroad. They are Kiwi battlers making a name for themselves in the world, rather than the biggest names managing to remain there. They have so little to lose for themselves and so much to gain for the country, while the All Blacks seem intent on gaining for themselves (and why not – it’s their shot to do so) while the nation’s pride and faith in them shatters with every loss.

It will be interesting to see if this trend continues. New Zealand’s sport is Rugby – it seems so natural a combination now. But in the future, could it be the other football that dominates, if the current All White success continues?

For the girls

Okay, now I know that this is SOOOO in the past now, but what is up with Rory and her choice of boyfriends in the Gilmore Girls?

[BTW: Spoiler alert if you are even further behind than me]

I am just up to the end of season 5 and so Dean is gone (for now) and off to star in Supernatural as Sam (rather than as Dean – couldn’t he have kept the same name?). Of the three love interests (that I know of), he was the nicest!!

He was nicer than super broody and tortured Jessie. Jessie may have been “misunderstood”, and Rory’s choosing him was partly a “wrong side of the tracks” attraction, mixed in with a bit of an intellectual equal thing - Dean may not have been as smart as Jessie, but he is tall, and not as mean either. And the car! Despite all the Dean pluses, those other factors do provide some mitigating circumstances, so she can be forgiven that dalliance I suppose.

But now, in season 5, with Rory at Yale, she comes across the ultra-rich and super smug Logan. I have to tip my hat to the actor because, if this guy was meant to be played as a prat, the actor is doing a great job. Really, what does Rory see in him (I am assuming she is not gold digging here – that is not a noble Gilmore endeavour!)?

Okay, so the Dean thing did turn into a bit of a disaster, with him unhappily marrying Leslie. But, on the other hand, he left Leslie for Rory! He made his name mud in the incestuous pool of busybodies that is Star’s Hollow for her! And how does she repay him? By falling for some smarmy creep! ARGH!

And so, with only 2 seasons left, I am going to throw myself behind Loralie’s love life now. Sorry Rory, you have chosen poorly and so I will not angst when you angst, as you inevitably will (or have, considering the show has been over for several years now). I assume Dean is now done and dusted and/or relegated to the limbo oblivion of guest appearances and/or off-screen implied antics. Shame!

Verdict: Changes and choices, serious and not. It’s amazing what can occupy the mind at times, and how silly a lot of it actually is. Several irrelevancies out of many more.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Case for Jossercise

Yesterday, I bought Complete Buffy on DVD. I was determined. It was a good deal. I had a credit card. And I tend to like Joss Whedon’s stuff.

Joss Whedon in brief: writer and director with a flair for drama and the comedy that comes from that (or perhaps more accurately a flair for comedy and the drama that comes from that). Most of his most well known series are supernatural (or superscientific) in nature, and he is known for including strong female characters that tend to be played by devastatingly beautiful actors – like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself.

To be honest, I am more of a Firefly fan, and I got the series for myself as soon as I could. If you have not seen this series, and (as many people have commented) cursed its “sudden yet inevitable betrayal” by its cancellation after just one series, then you have missed a great ensemble show with great comedic moments. I never did get the whole science scenery around which the Firefly universe was built (how many terraformed planets were in this one star system again?), but the joy of the show didn’t come from the technobabble anyway. Captain Tightpants, the curvaceous Zoe (my word, Gina Torres has an incredible rear end), “Socialator” Anara, cynical Wash – the characters Joss Whedon creates and the actors he selects to portray them are incredible and (given the context) believable, and is why I keep going back for more.

The most recent Whedon effort was Dollhouse, which was cancelled after two series (better than Firefly!). It was a series which appears to have split Whedonians a bit (see the comments on this blog that Moosetastic originally led me to) in that it is actually quite a dark series, with most of the main characters actually involved in fairly dubious activities, despite the occasional effort to make them appear noble (Buffy and Firefly were about noble people, even if they weren’t always “right”). The banter is as witty as ever, the cast beautiful to behold (including Amy Acker, Eliza Dushku and Enver Gjokaj), but the story and the direction it was going to take was always a bit murky. But it is (or was) still Joss.

I am not quite sure why Whedon’s shows are in reality less popular than in my experience, considering the number of people I know who like them. Maybe its an American taste thing and New Zealanders like his stuff more, though Buffy and Angel and Firefly never really did get a lot of primetime exposure. Possibly its because people who are interested can’t wait for the series to hit our TV screens but instead get them as soon as possible from other sources, thereby crippling the potential NZ ratings then and there, though it doesn’t really explain the American “disinterest affair”.

Ah well, whatever, at least someone in the FOX Empire is still giving Joss Whedon the occasional green light to let him at least give us a taste of his taste. Here’s hoping he has another series out soon.

Verdict: When it comes to televisual quality, look for the Whedon stamp. And he does great DVD commentaries too. 4.5 Emmys out of 5.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Case for Home and Away

I read a review of Away We Go just before I went into the film. Empire magazine panned it with a two out of five, but it did not dissuade me from going in, so much of an impact did the original trailer make. The reviewer condemned it with words to the effect that the film was pointless. I think the reviewer was either in an overly cynical mood at the time they saw it, or just has no taste.

I can’t claim that the film is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It isn’t: it’s slight, with a minimal plot (though not pointless) and a minimal budget. But, if you like charming light comedies with a touch of sadness and whimsy, Away We Go delivers.

The film follows the travels of a smart pregnant woman and her adorkable husband trying to decide where to raise their unborn baby. They visit workmates, friends and family all over the continental United States to try and find an environment they like, and one that likes them. On the journey, they meet up with Catherine O'Hara with an hilarious turn as a completely unhinged and unhindered mildly racist mum, one of my favourite actresses Allison Janney with an hilarious turn as a completely unhinged and unhindered seen-it-all ex-boss, Maggie Gyllenhaal with an hilarious turn as a completely unhinged and unhindered patronising hippy, and various other characters of less unhinged and unhindered natures (including Melanie Lynskey, who is always fairly awesome to watch).

With such an episodic formula, there needs to be a firm focus, and it’s a credit to the film that the leads do keep the whole thing together: John Krasinski shines as the charismatic and unpredictable “funny man”, while Maya Rudolph plays the unconventionally beautiful, focussed “straight woman” with aplomb. There is plenty of humour with which to weather the occasional bouts of sadness (the “Best Use of the Sound of Music” and “Most Psychologically Devastating use of a Stroller” awards will definitely go to this film). And, in the end, the film left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, which I think was shared by those with whom I went.

Verdict: A mild, gentle comedy with a streak of occasional sadness, some amazingly understated and some amazingly overstated performances, and an intimate setting and direction that narrowed the whole world down to just a few different people trying to make the best of things. While this film is not Citizen Kane or Casablanca, Away We Go is what it is, and I liked what it is a lot. 2.5 Ss out of 3.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Case for Capital Punishment

Capitalism: A love story is a documentary from film maker Michael Moore. I could say that it is a film by documentary maker Michael Moore, but I think that underplays the role of the director in the direction of the film. I could also probably just say that for this review and leave it at that, as when one goes to a Michael Moore film, one knows what one is going to get. And I did.

There were fewer “commies” in the audience than I had expected, but the film incited enough moral outrage by the people who did attend with me to equal a Fox News anti-Holocaust/Health Care rally in the USA. Some of the stories that the recent global economic crises has created were heartbreaking; others were infuriating. With his complete lack of subtlety, Moore interviewed ordinary people to show ordinary suffering, and then drew his own conclusions as to the motivations of the rich and powerful who (in his argument) are responsible. And then, rather than get an interview with them to try and address those issues, Mr Moore goes for the grandstanding angle.

This is, for me, one of the weaknesses of his documentaries. On the plus side, they are well put together, tell great “common people” stories, and raise some important questions and linkages. The downside is that Mr Moore appears happier when the “villains” refuse to front to explain their side of the story, and relishes the opportunity for populist stunts against them instead. And, while I love that the “Inconceivable” guy from the Princess Bride has an interest in economics, it seemed strange to use him as an expert on American social development in the past century (surely they have a few academics interested in that).

During the film, as Moore taped up Wall Street with “Crime Scene: Do Not Cross” tape, I thought that what he really needed was to combine forces with Sasha Baron Cohen. Just imagine that: a documentary maker with a heart teaming up with a master of disguise also able to elicit some highly illuminating interviews. A match made in heaven? Or an unholy union formed in left wing hell? If only it happened…

Anyway, as I said at the outset, this is Michael Moore in a Michael Moore film. I liked it, but then I know that Moore is a polarising film maker. If only the topics of the films he makes generated as much discussion as the filmmaker himself.

Verdict: Capitalism: A love story is another attempt at Moore to make Americans look at themselves and examine things in ways that the news networks and journalists routinely fail to do. As a person, he is controversial, and he seems to have developed a bit of an ego over the years. But despite that, he is great at getting the stories of the “underdog” and giving them the chance to tell their side to the world. 3.5 hearts out of 5.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Case for Sickies

Very strange hearing the level of debate around Hone Harawira and his comments around what initially was being caught pulling a sickie to visit Paris while on work business to Europe, but then following a heated e-mail, morphed into a discussion around racism in New Zealand.

Some mainstream background and opinions can be found here, and here, and here.

Mr Harawira’s Mum and Derek Fox on National Radio (or Radio New Zealand National) seemed to say that what he said is similar to what lots of other people say about Maori, reflects historic wrongs against Maori, and the sentiment of Mr Harawira’s constituents. Which is all true.

But does that make it any less racist? Couldn’t Don Brash’s Orewa speech of a few years ago be “justified” by exactly the same kind of logic?

The Human Rights Commission says the comments are not nice, but then New Zealand’s freedom of speech allows them to be said with no censure.

And he probably should be allowed to say what he said, much as Don Brash was. Why not? It can only help when this kind of feeling is expressed, to get these issues out in the open and hold a proper discussion on them.

Of course, it doesn’t. New Zealand does not yet seem to be able to take that step. Mr Harawira’s Mum claimed Mr Harawira can use the English language as he liked (no comment on whether it would be impolite in Maori), while the apology for the language has overshadowed the dishonour of the initial act by both the media and the “justifiers”.

As far as (in my opinion) New Zealanders like to think it has come along the path of race relations, and how mature we might like to think we are in discussing it, these kinds of things just highlight the sentiment that bubbles underneath our “one nation” calm surface: some Maori (obviously) still see themselves as the oppressed-yet-proud eco-friendly warriors living in, and sometimes exploiting, an alien system in an occupied territory; whereas (from Mt Brash’s speech) some non-Maori see Maori underachievement in mainstream New Zealand as a sign of laziness, with the glory of Maori culture an historical treasure now incorporated into New Zealand’s social fabric.

I am not going to say that I have the answer to New Zealand’s nation-building issues, and I doubt anyone (who is not a xenophobic extremist) does. It takes time, and generations, and understanding. And we obviously have a fair distance yet to go.

Verdict: It’s a hard thing to balance the influence of the past and the actions of the present, but a much easier task to flame “racial” discontent for political gain. If some good or clarity actually came out of the latter, then perhaps it would be worthwhile. 25% visibility out of 100% (obviously).