Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Case for Winning Losers

Straight off: the Losers is a stupid film.

I am sorry, it just is. I knew this going in, and it lived up to that. How am I defining stupid? The story was moronic (and will have many similarities with the upcoming A Team movie I am sure), loud rock music punctuated every action scene, the action scenes themselves were designed as slow motion ballet sequences but executed a bit on the elephantine side, and explosions replaced any real sense of character development or depth.

But, again, I knew all that going in. It was bound to be rubbish – but entertaining rubbish. And entertaining it certainly was, featuring a ridiculously good looking cast. It’s hard to take the “loser” claim seriously when Jeffrey Dean Morgan (the Comedian in Watchmen and “dad” in Supernatural) plays the principled Colonel Clay, the gorgeous (yet so thin!) Zoe Saldana (Uhura in Star Trek) plays the fiery vixen Aisha, Chris Evans (Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four) is the athletic yet off-the-wall techno geek (you can tell he knows computers because he wears glasses), Idris Elba (Stringer Bell from the Wire) plays the no-nonsense Captain Torque, Columbus Short is family man automotive expert Pooch and Oscar Jaenada plays the mysterious man in the hat, Cougar. Being a “loser” obviously does not mean having compromised morals, or not surviving battles, or being unlucky with women (besides the geek, of course), but none of that really matters. They are meant to be the underdogs, and their team name tells you that – it’s that simple.

I imagine the pitch to Jeffrey Dean Morgan to get him to sign on to his film went something like this: “You will be the rugged, world-weary leader of a band of fit young professional soldiers. You will have a strong moral code and a physical toughness and personal charisma second to none. And you will also get the girl”. The fact that “girl” ended up being Zoe Saldana would have widened that Comedian grin, I am sure. For Zoe Saldana, it may have gone like this: “You will be a tough woman from the wrong side of the tracks, handling guns and kicking butt alongside, but not with, the rest of the team. You will have girl power galore, a strength that is not lessened by your relationship with the leader of the Losers.” Perhaps, though they had them at “hello”.

The other characters are all caricatures (as well), which is also fine. Columbus Short is the nervy guy with the wise cracking attitude. Oscar Jaenada plays his sniper with the cool of an Hispanic iceberg. Chris Evans seems to love playing these nerdy/geeky-but-still-jocky roles and he appears to be having a whale of a time. Idris Elba meanwhile is brooding menace, even more so than in his television days. But then, they all fall into the clich├ęd shade as Jason Patric rolls out the high camp malevolent menace as manipulating Max.

There are no surprises (well, besides the fairly shocking plane and bike CGI scene which amazed me in its obvious awfulness – it will be worse on the small screen, I am sure) but plenty of laughs to be had, though the bullets and explosions outnumber the words of dialogue about 10 to 1. The only real interruption to the pace of the film was the unintended break when the film, for no apparent reason, stopped for about 5 minutes, just as one of the first major action sequences got underway. Luckily, the Readings staff got everything sorted before the natives got too restless and took violent action of their own.

Verdict: While visually the Losers is a feast, albeit with a few dishes undercooked, it is a spiritual and mental famine. So empty calories really, which I quite felt like at the time. But, unlike after eating KFC, I didn’t feel too gross afterwards, and I was actually able to appreciate what little the film had to offer. 6 sonic explosives out of 10.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Case for the People in the Neighbourhood

First off, the Jetstar report: while an indulgent cup of tea and ridiculously congested cross-town traffic meant that I arrived at JetStar check in at Wellington Airport one minute late, and was subsequently growled at by the check in attendant, I was (mercifully) allowed on the plane. My initial panic was not relieved when I saw the queue to go through the scanner (half of whom turned out to be not on the flight but a family who were - unthinkingly - following one woman as far as they could go to embrace her, but holding up everyone behind her and them in the process, meaning everyone had to skirt around her and them once the family decided they had to embrace her one final time), but then, as I rushed to my seat, I noted a small train of latecomers blithely boarding the flight, obviously experienced travellers used to arriving with little time to spare and expecting everyone else to wait for them.

That was a sobering JetStar experience, not quite the friendly face I was expecting. But once the door shut and the flight proper got under way, the crew adopted a more relaxed demeanour and the evidently Australian captain mangled a few Kiwi place names ("Off to our left is Mount Egmont, or Mount Teereeneekee), and the plane itself was incredibly quiet and my ears did not get horrendously blocked as they have the last few times on Air NZ. We arrived on time, and were quickly herded off so the plane could take off again.

Suffice to say, for the return journey, I was at Auckland Domestic very early (and even had the time to play on free internet - listen up Wellington Airport!), and there were no return issues, the flight even pulling in to Wellington early.

And yes, I did get my allocated seats, both ways.

One interesting phenomenon though is the people on the plane. I may start up a classification system as per the book fair folk for these, though that will have to wait for another posting as...

... the second part of this is about the show I went to see in Auckland, Avenue Q.

Thanks to the Bananaboat, we had amazing seats overlooking the stage. It was interesting to note that the Civic in Auckland was not full, though they had curtained off the rear section of the upper level which gave the impression of the session being fuller than it actually was. The whole atmosphere was very relaxed, unlike the buzz and excitement I remember experiencing for the Priscilla show about two years ago. But then, this show was very much lower in key, with no big Barbie bus and no large production numbers featuring a multitude of dancing paint brushes. No, this was an altogether different, more humble affair, and the smaller audience reflected that.

For those not in the know, Avenue Q is a musical about a guy, Princeton, who moves into a poor neighbourhood and has many lessons in life and love and getting by in the big city. Of course, the twist in this is that Avenue Q is based on Sesame Street, so a lot of the characters are muppets as is Princeton himself, but the dialogue and songs come more from Deadwood than the Children's Television Workshop.

The songs are all irreverent and amusing, the stand outs being the frank "Everyone's a little bit racist" and the brilliant "The Internet is for p0rn", its refrain ringing throughout the rest of the show. The muppeteers are all incredible, handling at least two characters each, some working in perfect unison with one of their colleagues to handle one muppet. It's very odd, but after a while, you kind of forget about the actors and focus on the muppets, seeing the legs of the actors as extensions of the muppets rather than the other way around. The actors portraying Kate Monster and Princeton were singing power houses, and it was incredible to reflect back and realise that they had been singing as either the main characters or one of the supporting roles for almost the entire time.

As the show is based on Sesame Street, there are human characters living on Avenue Q as well, though these are a bit less entertaining than Kate, Princeton or the scene-stealing Trekkie Monster (no relation). One character is based on Gary "wotchatalkinabout, Willis?" Coleman, but the jokes around the character to me fell a bit flat, either because I didn't know the actor's history that well or because the jokes just weren't any good. That is not to blame the actor for anything whatsoever, as she is, as well as her muppeteering colleagues and other human residents, including the incredibly gifted singer playing Christmas Eve, absolutely superb.

Surprisingly, with a cast of only 8 actors, the show never flags and there are never obvious "pauses" as people change characters and catch their breath after major songs. As the show was created quite a while ago, some of the show feels a little dated (the hilarious muppet $ex scene is very reminiscent of a similar steamy encounter in Team America: World Police), though a few popular, and some New Zealand, references are incorporated as well.

Verdict: All up then, Avenue Q is a great show. It is very funny, light and entertaining. It won't blow your mind, but it will make you laugh and think and tap your toes a bit as well. 15 letters out of Q.

Verdict 2: JetStar performed really well when my own lateness nearly caused a problem. The ground staff are not as friendly as the cabin crew, and the airline's Australian origin is on display as brazenly as one would expect. But, for this trip at least, I will give them 4.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Case for a Definition or Two

I find the dismissing criticism of people who have achieved as “Tall Poppy Syndrome” a very intriguing phenomenon. The call doesn’t seek to justify or excuse actions, merely dismiss the allegations as unworthy of response as those of the perpetually disgruntled. Much like those who blame terrorist acts on Western states on those envious of the Western way of life, it seems a lazy shorthand, providing an easily-grasped explanation as to why people say or do something when in fact it doesn’t really address or explain anything at all.

What got me thinking along these lines was an article in the Herald about Mike Hosking , rallying to the defence of a founder of a now failed Investment company. I have no idea of the relationship of Hosking to Hotchin, but the call that Hotchin was being “unfairly hounded by media” from a media personality smacks of hypocrisy. If Fair Go were to hound a builder who had bought a car on unfinished work, would this be considered “fair”, and any pestering by a TVNZ camera crew justified?

At any rate, I decided to go to the font of knowledge and check out the definition of the aforementioned term on Wikipedia. Their definition is the following:

Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a pejorative term used in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada to describe a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.

While I like the general thrust of this definition, I see it as flawed in several respects: it has the cringe-worthy phrase “genuine merit”, which to me is a wholly subjective term that I think is more appropriately considered as “socially recognised achievement”; and it fails to incorporation the notion that such criticism is “unfair”, as otherwise the definition appears to give a blanket pass for anyone who has achieved to never be criticised - which, if Hosking uses this definition to defend his position, makes his position completely understandable.

I suppose the opposite of TPS would be “Beneficiary Bashing” (which does not have an entry in Wikipedia – as I write this – though I have now decided I can refer to it as BB), though that does have the major benefit (from the critics point of view) of generalising a great many people than picking on the flaws (or lifestyle) of particular individuals. While the USA is praised in Wikipedia for its relative TPS-free culture, I view the recent Healthcare debates as a sign that BB is fairly common.

Perhaps I should write to Wikipedia to try and get them to change that definition. Perhaps I should write to Hosking and ask him to define what “fair media hounding” would be, and perhaps also to which people in society this definition would apply and if it applies to everyone.

Both Tall Poppy Syndrome and Beneficiary Bashing are useful catch cries that stifle real debate and exploration of issues. True, as these tend to be attributed to individuals, it can be a useful shield in deflecting attention from the individual back so that we end up questioning the motives of the accusers. But both the accused and the accusers should be given the chance – and be expected - to justify themselves and their positions should there be a genuine grievance. Of course, we don’t always live in that kind of society.

Verdict: Nice to know “Tall Poppy Syndrome” has an acronym, and that “Beneficiary Bashing” is not considered important enough to have its own entry. I think this difference tells its own story, really. But if anyone thinks I should go to Wikipedia with my comments about their TPS definition, let me know. 3 tikis for wiki out of 5.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Case for Budget Airlines 1: JetStar

In a short while, I will be flying JetStar to (and from) Auckland. As the date approaches, I reflect on the various terms and conditions of my ticket, of the process of buying said ticket, and of previous JetStar experiences.

I have not had that many, truth be told; only twice before this one, actually.

I have flown JetStar once in Australia a few years ago, from the northern airport of Darwin down to Adelaide. The ticket price was quite cheap, on special then (at a price which still compares favourably with the prices advertised now), with checked bags (well, I assume 1 bag, but I didn't have 2 to test these sometimes controversial waters) included. The flight left at around 2.00am, with Darwin airport doubling for an evil Purgatory (or a mild form of Hell) during the hours spent waiting from the arrival of the last bus from the city centre until the time we could actually board the plane. The ticket was akin to an EFTPOS receipt (not touristy enough for my liking), though the check-in was efficient. Once on the plane, there was no need for inflight service or entertainment as the 6 hour flight was at the perfect time to get a good sleep, and the flight arrived in Adelaide more or less when JetStar said it would.

My second experience with JetStar was a lot shorter, in flight terms, though not in aggravation. While I was in South America last year, JetStar took over from Qantas flying domestically in New Zealand. My return ticket from Auckland to Wellington was carefully arranged so that there would be no problem with my connection from LAN Chile with two checked bags - I even had a second "special" ticket purely for the sake of the JetStar people. According to Qantas, I was booked on that flight. I knew this (and you knew this was coming) because I had to call Qantas when JetStar told me that they had no indication that I had ever been booked on the flight. JetStar may be a Qantas subsidiary, but the word of the parent bore no weight with the offspring, and so I was told I would need to buy a new ticket - but not for the flight I was expecting to take, as that was full. I was told that I could buy a ticket for the next flight, meaning that I would need to wait about 8 hours for the 2.00pm flight to Wellington. As I had arrived in Auckland at 3.00am, this option held little appeal. So I forewent JetStar on that occasion, and got myself a $400 one-way ticket to Wellington on Air NZ, the cost of which was later reimbursed by an apologetic Flight Centre.

And so, now we come to my upcoming trip. I bought some cheap tickets to Auckland a few months ago, wary of the limitations of the different fare classes. For example, I knew JetSaver Light looked the cheapest, but that was because it came with no checked luggage, and if one was unfortunate enough to want to take luggage, one would be hit with an additional one-way cost probably more than price of the entire original return tickets. Armed with this knowledge, I went through the process knowing I would take only a bit of hand luggage for my overnight stay, and proceeded through the screens expecting that I had things well sussed.

I was therefore a little bit surprised when I came to the "where do you want to sit?" screen. Some people do have preferences when it comes to seating, so I thought it was a nice thought to have this option there, but, for an hour long flight, it didn't really bother me. So, I thought I would just leave that alone and let them place me wherever they liked. But I couldn't. The screen would not allow me to continue without having first selected a seat for each journey. And then I saw why - there was a "seat reservation" fee, on top of the price of the tickets. I am not altogether sure how this works, as I imagined the ticket I was trying to purchase was for a seat on a plane, rather than, say, lying in the aisle or stowing myself away in the luggage compartment, but a nominal fee there was. So I selected some seats, and the fee was added to the price of my ticket. But now for the kicker: when I checked my ticket, the terms and conditions read, in effect, that I might not get my seat if JetStar decided otherwise. So, I read this turn of events this way: I have to pay to book seats which I might not actually get on the flight, should the computer say "no". Aha. Well, I will be keeping a mindful eye on which seats I eventually end up inhabiting, and may well ask for a refund for that portion of my fare should they not be the ones I actually requested. We shall see how that goes...

Verdict: JetStar does not have the best reputation in New Zealand, though I think that reputation is slowly getting better after its disastrous first few months of operation. I still get the impression that sometimes it is trying to pull a "fast one" on me, but we shall see how this next trip turns out. Stay tuned! Star rating - to be determined.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Case for Singularity USA

Imagine a world in which people wear incredibly stylish clothes, live in ultra fashionable homes, drive super cool cars, everyone is super good looking and everyone loves you or wants to be loved by you. So far, so the Bold and the Beautiful. Now, take that scenario back to the 1960s, remove the histrionics and add a huge dose of depression, and there you have the setting of A Single Man.

Colin Firth stars as George, a professor mourning the loss of his partner. The story follows his exploits on one day in particular as he goes to work, goes to the liquor store, goes to the bank, goes home, and along the way meets old friends and new faces, all the while haunted by sad memories.

It's a very talky, emotional film then, with almost no "action" to speak of - and mercifully, no one is expected to sing - and so Firth is completely suited to the role, and deservedly has won several awards for this performance. He is ably assisted by the wonderful Julianne Moore as his neighbour and long time friend, Charley, as Moore makes an unfortunately brief appearance in a role that appears to be based on a mix of Patsy Stone's hair and Edwina Monoon's luck with men. And the About a Boy boy, Nicholas Hoult, shows up in wide eyed innocent youth form - at first I thought that he had experienced a terrible fake tan job until I realised that the colour vividness in the film changes to reflect George's mood.

In the movie's temporal setting and negative tone, it is very similar to A Serious Man, also about a professor facing a difficult period in his life, though the films are completely different in style: A Single Man shows the 1960s as a period of dignity and refinement, great clothes and taste, while A Serious Man shows a more clinical, orange and beige side to world. These differences highlight the fact that in A Single Man the anxiety is coming from within whereas in A Serious Man it came from the external factors. Because of that difference, A Single Man is the easier film to watch, as George encounters positive signs and portents completely absent in the A Serious Man world.

There was one thing that I thought let the film down, which I won't go into here as it is a plot point and I don't want to put a spoiler in this review. I think one of my fellow attendees said that the film was very true to the book though, so I will not lay the blame for this at the feet of the director. Suffice to say though that the film was, overall, very good, and the music was nowhere near as annoying as I had originally feared from the promo.

Verdict: A slow meditation on the nature of love and loss, or self indulgent navel gazing by someone who needs a good slap and to be told to build a bridge? I tend to fall into the former camp. A Single Man is a slow, quiet film, with every performance brilliant and every thing fashionably stylish. 4 pencil sharpeners out of 5.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Case for a Few More Links

Well, I am doing it again - a few links and brief comments of things I have found amusing this week:

1) Hypocrisy just keeps on getting more amusing: anti gay minister hires a hot escort to carry his bags (ahem) around Europe. Boy, how I miss the Daily Show with Jon Stewart at times like this...

2) It seems I am not the only one to question what Mau brings to Fair Go, as the NZ Herald takes up the cause.

3) And, if you are ever home alone and bored at 11.00pm on a Friday, check out Tool Academy, where a few "blokes" get taken to task by their girlfriends for their stupid behaviour. The show acts as a magnifying lens, intensifying the very behaviour the show purports to be trying to beat out of these guys. Last night, a "mystery girlfriend" crashed the show, proving that these guys aren't actors but are definitely... tools.

Verdict: There is some dumb stuff happening out there, and it makes me feel good to be able to laugh at it from time to time. 4 accidental rent boys out of 5.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Case for the Ironing Board

Could Iron Man 2 ever have been as good as the original Iron Man? Well, only if they did not mess with the winning formula of the original: wall-to-wall Robert Downey Junior. And so of course, they did.

Mickey Rourke plays a great broken man. Sam Rockwell plays an annoying conceited man infuriatingly well. And Scarlett Johansen pouts and fills out a tight leather catsuit admirably. The only problem with all of these things in Iron Man 2 is that there is too much of them, and too little of Robert Downey Junior (to be known as RDJ for the rest of this posting).

I blame the fact that the film makers were trying to inject plot and some depth to their supporting characters. The fact that the writers fail in this as well as robbing the audience of RDJ time is downright criminal. Who cares about the power struggle that goes on between industrialist Hammer and brilliant inventor Ivan Vanko? All we need to know is that they are in cahoots and that they are out to get Tony Stark, and then they really should just get on with it.

That is not to stay Stark’s storyline is any the more well executed. It’s not. Actually, it’s quite stupid, but made bearable and enjoyable because it puts RDJ on the screen, acting all arrogant and narcissistic, dropping devastating one liners at the speed of light, valiantly combating desk ornaments and batting eyelids at a fairly superfluous Gwenyth Paltrow, who returns again as the long suffering yet highly appealing EA Pepper Potts (incidentally, in the credits, Ms Paltrow appeared to be the only one needing a personal trainer for the film). There are nods to most of the remaining characters from the first film, though the awesome Don Cheadle takes over the Rhodes/War Machine character, as the previous actor… well, apparently he was more like a real life Tony Stark though his presence on the film was not deemed as necessary by others than him.

Eventually, after much fluffing about – broken up by guest appearances by Garry Shandling as an evil Senator (whose stiffness of face was a bit distracting, though I am not sure if this was caused by the lenses, an illness or cosmetic surgery, or all three) and by Samuel L Jackson, not quoting god as Fury but still sporting a big attitude – things actually happen. Or rather, things go bang. Yes! And I will leave it at that.

Having missed out on the “post credit teaser” last time, I sat through the half hour of credits to bear witness to what turned out to be a complete anticlimax and thus a complete waste of time – mainly because, again, they took one vital ingredient out of the formula. And minus that ingredient, no matter what or who else you may throw in to that mix, the result will probably always be disappointing.

Verdict: For all my criticism, I really quite enjoyed this film. It’s not as good as the first Iron Man, and the reason for that is clear: there is less RDJ. Iron Man may be a superhero film, but the hero of this franchise is RDJ. It will be interesting to see if diluting him in a pot of Avengers will still result in an amazing movie, but whenever he takes centre stage in this film, Iron Man 2 soars. 7.5 super suits out of 10.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Case for Chairman Mau

I have to admit to not fully comprehending the tastes of New Zealand audiences when it comes to television presenters. Some things I get, like shock jock Paul Henry’s ongoing popularity due to the fact no one knows quite whom he will insult next, and faces like those of Kevin Milne and Jason Gunn live on as these people are New Zealand television institutions. My heart sighs in the face of Jeremy Wells’ absence, Carly Flynn’s dawn dismissal and at the sudden blindness that struck Thingy and his subsequent withdrawal from public life.

But then there are other people whose popularity remains a complete mystery to me. I can only imagine that people are voting Simon Dallow as best news presenter in the face of such annoying competition as that Alistair Wilkinson guy on TV3, as I have never really appreciated Shallow’s fresh faced yet utterly unauthoritative style. Television news presenters in general these days (but especially the females) appear to have been bought from the same company as the one that manufactured Kryten as they all seem permanently set on smug mode. And then there is the Duncan Garner school of… mid sentence presentational pausing which… is damned irritating, and on which I have commented before. But these people are already on TV and, whether I care for them or not, they have a job, and far be it from me to force them from our screens at this early post financial crisis time.

Which is why I felt I had to mention the intriguing case of Alison “the Chairman” Mau, whose Cultural Revolution appears to be that she has persuaded the teledei that she has to be somewhere on New Zealand television, or else the country will fall to chaos. If there is not a vehicle for her, then one is found, so that she remains, in one form or another, on our screens. She jumped the good ship TVNZ to go to Prime (for a fair amount of money, I presume), but when that experiment went bust, both she and Paul Holmes were repatriated to the TVNZ fatherland – though why this act of mercy was bestowed upon these traitors was a bit beyond me even at the time.

And now, the TVNZ Overlords have decided that, after doing her bit to generate some hysteria on Breakfast (“Those damned women’s mags! I am going to tell the women’s mags about my indignation – right after I present an item that is very close to impinging on their privacy…”), she would be the perfect lemon-juice-in-the-eye sting for the otherwise fairly sedate yet undeniably popular Fair Go. Is this really a match made in TVNZ heaven, or from that other place where ratings are king? Is she being groomed as young Kev’s replacement, so that yet another flagship Kiwi institution is ready for an Australian takeover? Are the Fair Go ratings slipping and so a fresh face makeover is required, even if the fresh face has actually been around for quite a while? Or is the Chairman biding her time before unleashing her own televisual Great Leap Forward?

To be honest, I actually much prefer Ms Mau to a great many other presenters, her ex especially. But the apparently incestuous nature of TVNZ, with the obviously still strong cult of personality that exists around those people who have been deemed worthy, gets to me a bit. I wouldn’t call this tall poppy syndrome, as I am not dismissing her talents whatsoever. But I question that some of these people actually are as “irreplaceable” as we are lead to believe, and whether recognition really does equate to quality – and perhaps, more importantly, ratings.

Verdict: I am not sure if I feel a light surrounding me, and I know that my news would never mesh with being one together, but I do have a sneaking suspicion that the TVNZ Death Star (and TV3’s equivalent - “Yavin” perhaps?) really do exist in a galaxy far, far away. 2 NZ Logies out of 5.