Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Case for Crossing Tongariro 2011

A few photos, starting with the Beehive with the flag flying at half mast on this sad week due to the Christchurch earthquake:

Last weekend, I was off to do the Tongariro Crossing with some good friends. It's an amazing if occasionally gruelling traverse, and while the descent was a bit tedious, I am definitely contemplating doing it again - a bit slower perhaps, to allow for more photos around the lakes and perhaps a side trip.

And finally a photo from Wellington (well, Petone actually) to show how it can't be beaten on a good day.

And as a total aside, a big THANK YOU to Triangle Stratos for now broadcasting on Freeview terrestrial, especially as it means I now have access to Al Jazeera English (when it is on), featuring a complete blast from the past reporting from the Middle East, Anita McNaught.

Verdict: Well, some pluses but a pretty big minus in the last week or so. All the best to those in Christchurch. A rating of much, much sadness.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Case for 127 on the 22nd

It seemed very bad timing and a bit insensitive to be going to a movie (at all) about a man who gets trapped for days and is forced to resort to desperate measures to free himself considering that, a few hours before, the devastating earthquake of 22 February 2011 struck. But despite the news, the queues to the ticket counters were decidedly healthy. Still, we were a little late getting to the film as we watched the coverage of what was unfolding in the Garden City - with the odd wince when TVNZ decided the images could not speak for themselves and put on some nauseatingly overwrought music to accompany the powerful visuals.

The opening visuals of 127 Hours proved frenetic enough to snap me away from the reality of now to the reality of then. Danny Boyle seemed to be using leftover footage from Slumdog Millionaire to grab people's attention, bright lights and louder shirts flashing on the trisected screen until the film shifted from the city to the desert and a calmer, singular scene.

The scenery is absolutely stunning, shot lovingly, the various shades of red and earth adding warmth to the screen. Into this peace comes the disturbance of Aron Ralston, who I am sure would have mowed down any road runners or coyotes that crossed his path in his solitary pursuit of sensation and thrill. His brief interactions with others paint him as a fairly decent bloke, but as one of those he encounters comments, he barely seems to register those around him and is fairly self sufficient.

Of course, this self reliance comes at a cost when Things Go Wrong. An accident leaves his arm pinned under a boulder, with noone aware of where he is and noone within shouting distance who can assist, leading to 127 Hours of Aron fighting for his survival.

James Franco plays Aron, and he is as good as ever, convincingly charming. During the 127 Hours of solitude, he convincingly portrays the panic, frustration, sadness and despair that one imagines a person in so desperate a situation would undergo. I was not convinced that his performance outshone that of Colin Firth in The King's Speech myself, in I thought the situation built the character more than the person playing him (if that makes sense), but it was gripping nonetheless.

I was a bit less certain of the "dream sequences" that the delirious Aron experienced as time wore on, though perhaps this is more a reflection that came in hindsight when a fairly inane "afterword" was made about one of these "premonitions" (I am sorry, dreaming of surviving and experiencing domestic bliss might have been quite unbelievable at the time considering his circumstances, but it is not a premonition). There is very little narrative to explain exactly what Aron is seeing, which can occasionally lead to a bit of confusion (perhaps in the "premonition" thing), but they are all beautifully shot.

Also well shot, but a lot more gruelling, is how Aron finally escapes his predicament. The score carries across the same intensity as what is happening on screen - I know, as my eyes were buried in the NotKate's shoulder but I still had an appreciation for everything that was going up on screen. Following that with a satisfying ending would always be tough, and the return to the frenetic flashes of "city life" style from the opening scenes seems almost like a way around having to really make the post accident story interesting, leaving the actual "what happened next" to the aforementioned afterwords.

Verdict: 127 Hours is an amazing cinematic experience about an twit who goes out by himself, gets into trouble, gets out of it through extreme measures, then goes on to become a celebrity off of his initial idiocy. Aron's is an extraordinary story of determination, but I felt that the film was much more successful in conveying the reality of what happened than portraying any greater impact on Aron's relationships or sense of himself. But I suppose there is enough real trauma at the moment. 7 Swiss Army knives out of 10.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Case for the Hunter

I decided to try a $10 Hunter burger when passing through Hunterville. Little did I know the challenge that awaited me.

Not only did it have a meat pattie, an egg, a piece of steak and bacon, but what I initially thought might have been a hash brown was actually a crumbed chicken pattie. Heart attacks don't often come bigger or with beetroot. Yummo - though not actually edible as a burger.

Verdict: This was definitely a burger to give me energy for the journey ahead - not to mention a steroidally enhanced cholestoral shot. 4 Hunters out of 5.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Case for Grittiness

First off, a big thanks to LJ Holden for a fairly comprehensive and multi-entry replies to my last post – there is a lot of food for thought. I definitely jest when I talk about Mr Peters (though I have a secret fear, exacerbated by a NZ First supporting family member), but it is good to have my more serious points well considered.

The final three points noted as the republican reasons are where, I think, my main difference of opinion lies. True, it is definitely more democratic to have a President (assuming we decide to have one elected by the people, or even just by the majority of Parliament), but I personally think that New Zealand’s senses of independence and nationhood are not reliant on being a republic, as I think actions over the past 30 years have demonstrated. Whenever I travel abroad, I have no problem pointing to things that make “New Zealand-ness”, and don’t feel held back by the fact the country is still a monarchy. This is obviously not a sentiment felt by everyone.

A similar change (though not quite as profound) would be wrought if/when a new flag was ever decided upon, I am sure – and I would like to see Mr 2Trees’ entry for the new NZ flag, as he has a great eye for design.

The Coens are able to get amazing performances from their actors, and
True Grit gets some pretty fine acting out of Jeff Bridges (who probably saved all his acting fuel for True Grit while sleeping his way through Tron: Legacy), Matt Damon (looking a bit chunkier out of his Bourne identity), and Hailee Steinfeld, who grabs attention as a precocious youngster in the opening part of the film though has to relinquish centre stage pretty soon to the aforementioned Bridges.

I am not a big fan of Westerns, but I loved this film. The dialogue, seeming to come straight from the source novel (but tweaked, I am sure) is frequently hilarious; the acting from all concerned is outstanding; and the wild west looks stunning, though the very brown landscape meant that I could never quite see it as “cold” even when there was meant to be snow falling.

It was a pretty packed session at Readings (the queues at the Candy bar beforehand were incredibly long, though I don’t think our session in cinema 10 was totally full), but again it was another movie where barely a word was spoken, so intently was everyone staring at the screen.

There was no intense Mexican with a bad haircut in this film, but Josh Brolin made a mumbling appearance and there were a few exotic (and bizarre) characters that graced the screen from time to time, but the film really belonged to Bridges – once Steinfeld was sidelined, of course.

The story of
True Grit is one of revenge, but its not full of swearing (these are God fearing folk) and only occasional flashes of violence. There is machismo and drinking, and a bit of common sense versus bluster, and the whole thing feels lovingly crafted and excellently executed.

There’s not a lot more I can say. It was a brilliant film though, in the Oscar race, my favourite still has to be the more psychologically thrilling
Black Swan – not that my opinion counts for much with that august Academy of course. But True Grit is definitely a brilliant film to watch, a more family friendly film than No Country for Old Men set in the Wild West.

Verdict: What can one say about the Coen brothers and their films? They all tend to be pretty great, and
True Grit is one of their greatest. 8 ten gallon hats out of 10.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Case for Re:Public 2011

Around Waitangi Day (and Australia Day, of course), a couple of old ideas spring to life again: that New Zealand should adopt a new flag, and that New Zealand should become a republic. The two issues could be closely linked, but they aren't: the former is easier, and the latter is even harder on which to get consensus.

It seems to be that when the Australians consider changing their flag, or becoming a republi
c, then the media here decide it's something that needs to be discussed domestically. Of course, if the Australians ever did change their flag (which a lot of them claim they want to do, but they have no idea what to change it to), then the main argument against having the flag here (that it looks too much like Australia's) goes down the dunny, but that's not really what this blogspot is about.

In general, I am pretty much for the ideals of republicanism. It seems ridiculous to have a hereditary head of state in a fairly secular, egalitarian, social democracy society like the one New Zealand purports to be. BUT... there are quite a few reasons why I am against the move to a Kiwi Republic. Here they are - and I am happy for you to disagree or try to dissuade me.

1. A Kiwi Republic as a truly Independent Nation

One of the arguments for the Kiwi Republic is how it will make the country look in the eyes of others. The argument goes that being tied to the United Kingdom through the Royal family does not make New Zealand look like an independent nation, strong and confident, with our own opinions and ideals.

So, because other nations disapprove of the nuclear legislation (which they may actually be aware of), it should be changed? Because countries like Libya, Egypt and Iraq are republics and have Presidents, they are seen as respectable, responsible and democratic nations?

It's the kind of argument that annoys me in that it seems to be for the most wrong reason of all for making a fundamental change to yourself: doing it for someone else.

2. The form of the Kiwi Republic

It's easy enough to say "we want to be a republic", much like it is easy to say "we want a new flag". But the devil is in the detail with this: what will it actually look like?

The simplest way is to replace the Governor General with a President elected by Parliament. Simple, and so ultimately pointless - having an elite choosing the President is exactly the same as an elite choosing the Governor General. It would be all style over substance, and not really terribly democratic.

The truly democratically elected President would therefore be the only option that would be "worth" it. But, if a President were directly elected, what power would they have? Would the people give the President a mandate to actually do anything, besides opening parliament and wearing lots of funky robes (actually, all those would have to go with the whole republican ethos)?

I think the main thrust of the republican debate doesn't really focus on the nature of the proposed Kiwi Republic, more on the perception of it. As a detail person, that just throws me right off.

3. Presidential Candidates

A simple enough question: who would be the Kiwi Republic's President?

At the moment, the Governor General is appointed as a responsible caretaker. In this high profile position, the Governor General is pretty low key - so low key, in fact, that there can even be questions about their New Zealand-ness.

All that would have to change under any republican system. The whole point is that it would be a very high profile position. And, assuming the person in the position is democratically elected, who would assume the mantel (and baubles) of that office?

Yup, I am pretty convinced Winston Peters would be the first democratically elected President of New Zealand. Having no idea of what powers (or otherwise) the position would hold, and assuming it would be a position for a person both versed in politics and determined to keep the government honest, I could think of no candidate t
hat would be more appealing to a lot of New Zealanders. Of course, I personally would have to migrate were this nightmarish situation ever to occur.

My own vote would go to Daniel Carter, standing in his Bendon underwear with his attractive and equally (or egalitarianally) attired bride-to-be
Honor Dillon at his side. Imagine the amount of international good will this couple could generate as the President and first lady? Or, if she has more political aspirations than he, Honor could be the first Madam President and he can continue to concentrate on his underwear and associated rugby career as the First Man from the First XV?

It would be an interesting Presidential race if SBW also stepped into that competitive ring, though I would have a few doubts that he would stay in the post for long.

4. The Kiwi Republic and Maori

Now, this is an interesting one. Would the Kiwi Republic bring over exactly the same relationship between "The Crown" (that will have to be rebranded) and Maori? What place would the Treaty of Waitangi hold in the new order? Is the declaration of a Kiwi Republic the chance to incorporate, address, or remove the Treaty as a founding document of New Zealand - soon to be the People's Republic of New Zealand?

I am not even going to speculate on this one. It's such a sensitive issue that would probably just be glossed over in the rush to Republicanism, as its decided that "nothing will really change" with a President, when it's actually an incredible opportunity to really make sense of it all.

5. The Need for Change

I was lucky enough to be able to vote for the MMP system that now plagues government and causes highly unpopular coalitions. Yes, I am that old. And yes, I am glad I did so and would do so again.

But even this still rather large change to the political landscape of New Zealand has caused major problems, reconsiderations, and recriminations - not necessarily with the system, but with the people involved and with the outcomes that have eventuated.

No system is perfect, but MMP sought to provide greater representation in Parliament for representatives outside of the two main parties, so that New Zealanders did not have to vote for one of two parties in key electorates for their opinion to count. In this, it has succeeded.

What is the point of republicanism? I assume it is to address the issues in the points above, which is why I have mentioned why I doubt it will work. I suppose the real question then is what problems will becoming a republic solve? Personally, besides the whole hereditary thing, I don't see many problems with the current way things work (thanks MMP). But I could be wrong.

Verdict: I have probably written on this before, and will probably do so again. It's a subject that will stay around for a while methinks, as no change is likely in the future that I can foresee. I imagine the shift will happen one day, but not for a while yet. A dawn's early light that you can say you can see by.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Case for Being About Town

Over the weekend, I mastered the art of downloading photos from my phone.

Today, I snapped a few shots.

The first shows how completely I am not the demographic for anything on TVNZ channel ONE. I don't know if they could find a more repellant advertising campaign for me if the advertising company was deliberately targetting me with the express objective of making me not want to watch the shows.

The second was a prominent advertisement that somehow feels redundant given recent developments between National and the Maori Party.

The final that came out okay was the sight down the valley when I returned home. Awwww.

Verdict: It's really handy having a camera always on call, even if it is a small one and my shots do come out a little blurry. But I won't let that stop me! 3 megapixels out of 5.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Case for Black Swannage

Wow, two amazing movies in a row.

Last week, it was
The King’s Speech; this week, Black Swan. Like the King’s Speech, Black Swan hangs on the performance of the lead actor, and Natalie Portman, used to wearing ridiculous outfits as Amygdala* from the Star Wars films, is spectacular in the role of Nina, prima ballerina of a New York ballet company.
On her slight shoulders and in her large eyes lies the heart and soul of the film, even if they are both broken and fragmented.

Black Swan
is almost the opposite of the King’s Speech in many ways, in that the King’s Speech had one man asked to assume a position of power being rescued from his shortcomings by loyal friends and family, whereas Black Swan is the story of a ballet dancer who attains her dream of being the lead in Swan Lake only to find the pressure isolating and overwhelming.

The supporting characters are all wonderfully ambiguous: is Vincent Cassel’s director a lecherous seducer or a man incredibly passionate and dedicated to his craft? Is Mila Kunis’s beautiful (this is no Meg Griffin role for Klunis) “wild card” ballerina a happy go lucky (how I hate that phrase after the movie of the same name) free spirit, or a manipulative schemer determined to be the lead? Is Barbara Hershey’s mom a “wind beneath my wings” caring parent or a head case? And what really happens with Winona Ryder’s fading ballerina character?

But most questions are reserved for Nina. We follow her story from her persp
ective, the “unsteadycam” used to occasionally nauseating effect to show how things in her world get slightly unhinged from time to time. But is what we see that she is seeing real? What exactly is it that we see? It’s all very confusing, occasionally Lynchian, and utterly engrossing. Of no doubt is the power of the score, ballet inspired and (from my limited knowledge) possibly all from the Swan Lake ballet itself. In a large dark cinema with a powerful surround sound system, the music washed over me, and drowned out anything anyone else might have said – not that I can imagine anyone being distracted from the film, so hypnotic is its influence.

I am also severely limited in my knowledge of what makes good dancing, so I have no idea of the merits (or not) of what I saw on stage. We are told Nina is a perfectionist just lacking the spark of passion and fire needed for the darker aspects of the
Black Swan role – the aspects the director wants to unleash for a performance that will save the ailing company. Whatever the true merit of the dancing, its really Portman’s face that conveys the shifting in emotions, from competent perfectionist, to a person uncertain in the leading role that they have been asked to take, and then the occasional burst of self confident fire that the director sees lurking underneath and tries to bring to the fore.

I have tried my best to express the power of the film. Darren Aronofsky has done an amazing job keeping the whole thing together, allowing Portman to shine and highlighting the beauty of the ballet in amongst the horror of Nina’s obsession. While The King’s Speech was an amazing film because of the actors, Black Swan has amazing actors in what is an incredible filmatic experience. If this doesn’t win the Best Picture Oscar, then I would be incredibly surprised – though I have yet to see True Grit.

Verdict: An incredible yet disturbing experience, with extraordinary performances from all the actors though (of course) especially Portman.
Black Swan has that extra kick though in an engrossing, intriguing and confusing style that elevates the whole experience above purely a “good acting” film. I am reluctant to give any film a maximum score, but I will have to top The King’s Speech by giving Black Swan 9.5 tutus out of 10.