Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Book review: The Tennis Partner, Abraham Verghese (1998)

I bought this memoir on AbeBooks after a person I follow on Twitter named Michelle Matthews posted, on 19 November last year, a link to a Slate article listing nonfiction works from the 1990s.

Subtitled ‘A Doctor’s Story of Friendship and Loss’, the book deals with the author’s experience with a friend met at his teaching hospital in El Paso, Texas, in the early 90s. Abraham Verghese was working there as a specialist in infectious diseases and internal medicine, and David Smith was an Australian who won a scholarship to study medicine in the US on the strength of his tennis prowess. Outside of the hospital, Abraham and David bond over the games they play together on local tennis courts. Smith was a better player but they shared a love of the game.

Verghese and his wife Rajani are ethnically associated with southern India, where a vibrant Christian community has lived for the best part of 2000 years. The marriage was breaking down at the point where the book starts, and so Abraham valued highly the interludes with David. Initially moving out of the family home where his wife and two young sons lived, Abraham found a rental apartment nearby in the town, which is on the US-Mexico border.

At work, Abraham was senior to David, and the author made concessions as the younger man struggled with his own demons. While Abraham uses his powerful diagnostic acumen to see things about David that perhaps only a doctor could see there is, in the memoir, a lack of attention given to Abraham’s relationship with Rajani. Though the author is attentive to the reasons behind the changes in David Smith’s circumstances, the reasons for the breakdown of Abraham’s marriage are obscure. It just didn’t work out, and we’re left to be satisfied with that. This is not like a book of Knausgaard’s, where every stray thought is captured and displayed in the author’s attempt to render meaning.

When he is being sincere it’s perhaps unfair to blame an author for not being innovative, but Abraham’s reluctance to include certain things in his account reduces the power of his story. Abraham alternately sees a flaw in David’s character and evidence of an illness but he seems not to accurately read his own reactions to the problem and the reader of the book is left wondering if he is perhaps not a reliable witness. On the other hand it is clear Abraham is a subtle observer of the world, as the following extract demonstrates.
My friendship with David, during its inception, and during the heady period when our lives revolved so much around each other, had held out the promise of leading somewhere, to something extraordinary, some vital epiphany – what, precisely, I couldn’t be sure of. Still, that was how it felt – magical, special. And that was enough; that was reason to keep going. 
Playing tennis seemed to express this, as if it were a beautiful experiment we two had created out of thin air. The uniforms were simple, the equipment rudimentary, but in our rat-a-tat volleying at the net, in our mastery of spin, in the rallies, in the way the rackets functioned as extensions of our bodies, in the way we came to know each other’s tics and idiosyncrasies, in the way we controlled the movement of a yellow ball in space, we were imposing order on a world that was fickle and capricious. Each ball that we put into play, for as long as it went back and forth between us, felt like a charm to be added to a necklace full of spells, talismans, and fetishes, which would one day add up to an Aaron’s rod, an Aladdin’s lamp, a magic carpet. Each time we played, this feeling of restoring order, of mastery, was awakened. It would linger for a few days but then wane. The urge to meet and play would build again.
Abraham shows in this colourful passage how he had control of his material, and the book serves, like one of his games of tennis with David, as an attempt to put order on his world. For anyone, tiny shifts in the balance of things can lead to going off kilter or to spinning onto a dangerous trajectory. The passage shows how sport can function as an antidote to a need for other ways of mitigating the pain of existence.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Tennis Partner’ and completed the whole of it in a few days. I love literary journalism because reality has a different texture from fiction. Neither is better than the other, but they do different things. To be able to give a satisfying structure to a tale drawn in all its details from real life is a special talent, and it provides its own pleasures for the reader.

Monday, 6 April 2020

TV review: Dirty Money, season 2, Netflix (2020)

I was pressed to find a linking theme for the six episodes in this season of the show but agree with comments seen on Twitter: it is good journalism. It won’t please everyone though. Each ep chronicles a type of fraud or corporate wrongdoing, ranging in seriousness in terms of the extent of the corruption involved and in the amount of harm done.

In each case the narrative progresses quite fast, so you’d better concentrate if you want to keep up with one of these stories. If you zone out for 20 seconds then come back into focus on the screen you might miss something important. Parts that are in a foreign language are properly subtitled, so there is no danger of missing anything because of a lack of Chinese or Spanish.

I can’t really pick out one ep for special comment as all are excellent exponents of the genre, but the one that seemed to get people exercised on social media was episode 3, ‘Slumlord Millionaire’, which is about Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. He had used various unethical tactics to maximise the yield of his real estate holdings and was, to be quite frank, callous and deceptive in his dealings with tenants and with local government.

The final episode in the series sticks out because it’s different in nature from the other eps. It is titled ‘Point Comfort’ and is about Taiwanese manufacturer Formosa Plastics’ industrial plant polluting a Texas town. While the other eps had money at the centre of the drama, this one dealt with poor conduct in relation to the environment. It chronicles the efforts of whistleblowers and community activists to make authorities take notice.

Episode 2, ‘The Man at the Top’, is about Malaysia’s ex-prime minister (Najib Razak), who allegedly used a company called 1MDB to siphon money out of state coffers. Episode 4, ‘Dirty Gold’ combines the environmental and money themes and is about the use of illegally mined gold from Peru to launder cash earned from the sale of drugs in the US. I’d have to say these are the most serious cases chronicled in this season of ‘Dirty Money’ simply due to the quantity of money involved in each case. With Razak’s corruption you’re talking about billions of US dollars stolen. 

But episodes 1 and 5 compete for prominence in the seriousness stakes because they are about systemic failure. Ep 1 is about a US bank named Wells Fargo that over-serviced some customers with unnecessary products. Ep 5 is about the US guardianship system and uses, as material for its storytelling, two cases of elder abuse, where senior citizens were exploited by various people in the community who profited from schemes aimed at institutionalising them and stripping them of their assets.

Apart from money, two other things unify all of these cases: concerned citizens and the media. In each case, some people who knew about the corruption spoke out. The media had a role in the end but its action was delayed.

The media comes in for a lot of criticism from many people – you can see their thoughts now because of social media – but without it our societies would be more oppressive places to live in. One message that has to come from watching this show is the importance of financially supporting the media. Newspapers and TV stations may not always get it right, and they might not express views that agree all the time with every person in the community, but a free media is essential for a healthy polis.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

TV review: Caliphate, Netflix (2020)

A spectacular show, in eight one-hour episodes ‘Caliphate’ helps you to understand how the nihilism natural to youth might, in some circumstances, be expressed using the language of radical Islam.

The movie has a Swedish intelligence service operative named Fatima (Aliette Opheim) who manages a spy named Pervin (Gizem Erdogan). Pervin and her husband Husan (Amed Bozan) live in Raqqa, Syria. Fatima begins to cotton onto a plan involving the mercurial Ibbe (Lancelot Ncube) after Pervin tells her things using a clandestine phone given to her by a friend who is arrested by the ISIS police.

While trying to uncover the terror plot Fatima promises to help Pervin to get out of Syria, to where Pervin had, earlier, voluntarily travelled. In addition to that plotline you have one belonging to a Stockholm family made up of 17-year-old Sulle (Nora Rios), 13-year-old Lisha (Yussra El Abdouni), and their parents Suleiman (Simon Mezher) and Tuba (Ala Riani).

The articulation of key ideas in ‘Caliphate’ is of a high quality and so it stands apart from most similar cultural products that have been made over the past two decades. At the same time as I was watching it over three evenings in March I also watched an occasional episode of ‘NCIS’ (which began screening in 2003 and is still going) on one of Network Ten’s secondary free-to-air channels. ‘NCIS’ also frequently takes terrorism as a subject but the stories it uses are no match for the forensic clarity of ‘Caliphate’. The ‘NCIS’ version of radical Islam of a decade ago – the era that gave us the spectacle of Western military forces invading Iraq for the second time in a generation – is clunky and different from what we can see on TV now. Thank the Lord for small mercies.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Book review: The Grass Dancer, Susan Power (1994)

I discovered an extract from this beautiful fantasy in an anthology I read earlier this year, then bought ‘The Grass Dancer’ second-hand on AbeBooks.

The story centres on a young woman named Pumpkin who sometimes performs as a grass dancer in ceremonial events of the Native American community that still exists in the Midwest. She has red hair and green eyes and leaving a powwow in 1981 is killed in a car accident. At the event she had spent the night with a young man named Harley Wind Soldier and had also attracted the unwanted attention of a young woman named Charlene Thunder, whose grandmother, Mercury, is a shaman.

After looking at the personal histories of several characters by taking us gradually back in time, following the ancestors of Charlene and Harley, and recounting the events that combined to make up the parts of their lives the reader needs to know to understand a history of the Dakota nation, the author returns us to the early 80s. In the book’s Escher-like architecture, where figures come into focus and disappear, only to come back again later, deracination and entrenched disadvantage are examined, but the main theme is that of destiny and free will.

The final chapters are dated in the early 1980s, so there is a logical point of closure for the narrative, but what really impressed me was the inventiveness of the writing. The striking visual imagery, the reliance on mystical sections that recount feelings and dreams, and the allusive quality of the prose combine to serve up a rich intellectual concoction that startles and delights at every turn of the plot.

The novel offers readers who, like me, chance upon it, a kind of cross between a crime thriller and Garcia Marquez. It keeps you guessing right up to the final chapters but the real drama is in the language. This book is a kind of hybrid and has slipped through the cracks, virtually disappearing: where is the author now? In her novel, subtle nods to such classics as ‘Star Wars’ (1979) and Jane Austen, both so popular nowadays, serve as confident articulations of her superior aesthetic judgement. She was ahead of her time in other ways, too. Magic in fiction is now commonplace, but in the 90s it was exceptional to find it in novels, though dreams seem to appear frequently in stories from that decade. What is also more prevalent now are stories with strong women at their core. In ‘The Grass Dancer’, women are not merely powerful, some of the female characters possess what appears to be almost limitless agency.

It is a timeless work that can delight if read in the 21st century. The character of Jeanette, who we encounter in the first chapters of the book and who feels an affinity with Native Americans as outsiders, is as fully formed as the principals even though she performs a secondary role in the story. Power has formidable attention to detail.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Movie review: The Incident, dir Isaac Ezban (2014)

I am not specifically a fan of science fiction but occasionally you find a sci-fi work – like this brilliant but largely ignored Mexican film – that pushes all the right buttons. The premise is simple – an unexplained incident that is market by an explosion in Mexico City and that changes lived reality – but it is extraordinary how the story is developed to encompass a wide range of themes.

And it does so with a minimum of props and zero special effects. This is a low-budget gem that alternately uses heightened drama and a zany form of humour; both are necessary to make the finale work, so you are prepared for the punchline when it arrives but it might take days before you finally come to understand the denouement.

Like such classics as ‘King Lear’ (1606), ‘The Incident’ critiques the entirety of existence and links such things as responsibility, individual fulfillment, ennui, carnal appetite versus creativity, the means of production, desire, destiny, mortality, legacy, youth, old age, and the notion of personal responsibility. It even looks at the nature of reality itself, and because it questions the usefulness of certain types of behaviour it also asks us to think about mental health.

Which Shakespeare’s play, of course, also does. Unlike ‘Lear’, though, ‘The Incident’ avoids politics almost entirely, unless you consider manners to be political. Which many, with some justification, do. What I wanted to mean by using the word “politics” is civil life. There is little of this in the movie because all of the action takes place in circumscribed spaces with only a few individuals. Mirroring the dynamics of social media, civility in the film is concentrated in an intimate sphere comprising interpersonal relations.

The label “sci-fi” is doubly apt because the film seems to posit the existence of an alternate dimension but, seen another way, some parts of the film suggest that the future depends on free will. Inside the film: paradox upon paradox. The story is almost impossible to summarise and hinges on a fact that, to reveal to people who had not seen the movie, would spoil it.

I learned about it in a tweet that referred to another Spanish-language production – ‘The Platform’ (‘El hoyo’ in Spanish) a film directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia and released in 2019 which is also accessible on Netflix – which in March garnered a good deal of attention on social media. The tweet I saw just had the name of the 2019 film with images for two earlier films, and I looked them up on the Netflix website. Only ‘The Incident’ resulted in a match, so I flagged it to watch. I was enraptured by Ezban’s production and hope more will follow.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Movie review: Annihilation, dir Alex Garland (2018)

The best movies say things using cinematographic means, and in his wonderful science fiction movie Garland and his team use distortion to create meaning.

It starts early, in the home that Lena (Natalie Portman) used to share with her husband Dan (David Gyasi), as the two are facing each other across the kitchen table. Dan turned up unexpectedly one day; Lena hadn’t seen him for a year. As they sit there holding hands, in front of them is a glass of water and the camera is positioned so that you can only see their hands through it. Their fingers appear fat and odd-shaped. This is excellent foreshadowing as twinning is a theme used elsewhere in the film.

The “Shimmer” is what authorities call the phenomenon caused by a meteor strike on a US shoreline that Dan had been sent to explore. Lena and a crew of other women, some of them scientists, must also enter the Shimmer, on the periphery of which light is distorted to show a strange spectrum, like those AI-generated readings of images that were produced a few years ago and that showed a tendency of the machine to find eyes everywhere it focused on. Even inside the Shimmer light refracts as though it is seen through a prism: colours are shown as in a rainbow.

The filmmakers made Lena a biologist; this is the reason she is chosen to go into the Shimmer, though she had served in the army prior to that. Her fighting skills might come in handy and her education makes her an ideal vehicle for commentary on places the women will visit and things they will see. They must make their way to the lighthouse that was the centre of the event.

Once inside the Shimmer, they find a lush landscape of swamp and derelict buildings. Visually, this part of the movie is also excellent, redolent of the best apocalyptic dramas that have been made that use futurity as a creative trope. The bright, summery flowers are eerie, and suggest a kind of poison at the heart of the Shimmer, which is a kind of skunkworks where different approaches to understanding life on earth are tried. Rather than with the word “annihilation” the movie might better have been titled with the word “creation”: Dionysian chaos versus Apollonian calm.

As a theme, the rapturous rearrangement of matter must have compelling currency in our globalised world, where ideas from one country are borrowed for use in another, but are changed in the process (think of Japan, for instance). Despite its poor box-office, the movie deserves attention though it has a common Hollywood failing: being somewhat overdetermined. The best parts of the movie are those that you cannot precisely catalogue and I appreciated the filmmakers’ use of clever visual devices to create meaning. It is an efficient and valuable addition to the genre of alien encounters. There are a few edge-of-seat moments but the special effects near the end of the movie are wonderful.

In 2015 I saw another movie by this director, one about the nature of artificial intelligence and robots, and enjoyed it, and the new production bolsters my impression that Garland is a man of talent. 

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Grocery shopping list for March 2020

This post is the fifteenth in a series. 

2 March

On the way home from the tailor’s and the pharmacy went to Coles and bought beef sausages, shortcut bacon, barramundi fillets, a smoked cod fillet, milk, Tim Tams, Schweppes flavoured drink (no-sugar), and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

3 March

At about 11.07am had a call from Neville from Feather and Bone Butchery, who said he was downstairs in the driveway. I was expecting his call sometime during the day, so picked up my keys and phone and went down in the lift to meet him. This time around, he had a blue singlet bag and he put the sausages, steak and lamb chops into it, saying, “Saves me coming upstairs.” I told him I’d bring down my own bag next time, which he acknowledged by saying, “Thanks.” Then I turned around and went back inside – I hadn’t closed the street door next to the garage door, and had held it open while receiving the meat – while Neville went back to his van on the street.

Upstairs, I bagged the produce, finishing the job by about 11.25am when everything was put away in the freezer apart from some sausages for the next morning and some chops for the evening meal, both of which went in the fridge. Later, I went to the convenience store and bought eggs and a bottle of no-sugar lemonade.

5 March

Despite the rain I went out and on the way home from the tailor’s I stopped at Woolworths and bought shortcut bacon, coleslaw, lentil salad, eggs, a cos lettuce, Edam cheese, sultana butter cake, bread, Calbee “Harvest Snaps”, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

7 March

Got in the car in the middle of the afternoon and drove to Campsie, parking on the street before entering Woolworths. I bought Cheddar cheese, sliced chicken, sliced soppressata, sliced ham, taramosalata, olive oil spread, Tim Tams, Jatz crackers, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). When I went to the checkout the young man behind the counter made a comment about my backpack (which I always use for shopping). Behind me in the queue was an old man with one unseeing eye who bought two items, one of which was a can of Spam. After carrying everything of mine back to the car I popped into a Nepalese supermarket and bought bamboo pickle, bitter gourd pickle, and cucumber pickle. Then I drove home through Leichhardt.

8 March

Went to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero beer. Next door, at the Jordanian’s convenience store they had no toilet paper so I went to the other one, near the light rail station, and bought two packs from the man there. He stood at the counter and spoke good English and I mentioned at the end of the transaction that all the supermarkets had sold out of toilet paper. I observed that people were panic buying because they thought they might not be able to go outside, and he replied, “It’s not going to happen here.” He meant to refer to a quarantine, not to whether or not there would be a supply of toilet paper in the shop. The owner of the store is Chinese.

10 March

On the way home from the post office and the tailor’s I walked to Woolworths and bought shortcut bacon, coleslaw, bean salad, sundried tomatoes, eggs, banana cake, Tim Tams, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), Schweppes flavoured drink (no-sugar), and toilet paper. 

The woman at the deli counter put each of the containers of salad into a plastic bag before taping it closed neatly with a price sticker. This was done to make sure their contents didn’t leak out and spoil other items in my totes. At the checkout, the woman at the register was careful about how she packed my purchases putting, at my suggestion, most of the bottles in the backpack so that everything would be easy to carry home and, in the second tote bag, putting the eggs on top.

12 March

On the way home from the tailor’s I stopped at Woolworths. They had started putting coin-operated locks on the trolleys as, the woman at the service counter told me when I asked, people had been stealing them. She changed $5 from my wallet so I could unlock a trolley. Then I went and got some soup (one container of minestrone, and one of chicken and vegetable), lentil salad, canola oil, milk, cos lettuce, bread, Tim Tams, Calbee “Harvest Snaps”, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), mouthwash, and toilet paper. When I got home I washed my hands in the bathroom.

14 March

Went to the Feather and Bone Butchery website and ordered sirloin steak, lamb chump chops, lamb merguez sausages, and “Lambaaaada” sausages (lamb mince, pepper, garlic, salt, and spices including roasted cumin and coriander seeds). 

Delivery was due on the 17th of the month but I checked my calendar after I had completed the order and saw I had a clash, so at around 9am I called the butcher’s and asked if I could change the delivery date. It would be fine to do so, the woman said, and we made it for Wednesday the 18th instead. A confirmation email arrived at 9.10am from a butchery employee to mark the change of date.

In my browser, a tweet appeared with a photo showing empty supermarket shelves, and a comment about panic buying. It looked like it wasn’t just toilet paper anymore, so despite the rain that threatened to fall I went out, visiting Woolworths. It was 16 degrees Celsius and I had a jacket on, but some young men were in shorts and T-shirts. The weather had only just started to show signs of autumn. I felt old and decrepit. In the supermarket I had to find change – once again – to unleash a trolley, and managed to get hold of the needed “gold” coins (what in Australia we call $1 and $2 coins) by handing over a $5 bill at the service counter. 

I couldn’t remember when I had last been in the store at 9.30am on a Saturday, so didn’t know if there were more people than usual, but all of the self-serve checkout machines were occupied when I came to exit. One was freed up quickly and, feeling a bit weak, I used it to pay, then returned the trolley and walked home with shortcut bacon, a Nile perch fillet, a barramundi fillet, pork loin chops, a sultana and butter cake, bean salad, couscous with cauliflower and cranberry, avocado spread, Calbee “Harvest Snaps” (a new flavour: black bean and sour cream), Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). I had to take off my backpack half-way to get my umbrella out, as the sky started to spit rain.

When I got home I washed my hands with soap at the kitchen sink, then packed the protein in sandwich bags and put it in the freezer. The cake also went in the freezer, as did the bacon, as I still had some of each in the fridge.

On Twitter I saw a tweet from Missouri mother Christa Nausley that went, “Shopping with all the other panic buyers & hoping to store some freezer meals this weekend. Also priorities while I'm stuck at home with 2 small children.” The tweet came with a photo showing a full shopping trolley in a supermarket aisle, its shelves laden with bottles of wine. Then I saw a tweet from Irish footballer Blake Forkan that went, “Just been in Aldi there. Milk gone. Meat gone. Fruit and veg gone. Eggs gone. Flour gone. Biscuits and sweets [aisle] absolutely packed full of stock. Irish people might be absolutely mental but by God we don’t mess with Lent.”

15 March

Saw a tweet from former journalist and anti-gambling advocate Stephen Mayne, timestamped 8.18am, that went, “Just back from the local Woolies – the staff estimate there were 60 people queued up to get in when the store opened at 7am. Maybe it is time Woolies went to 20 hour a day trading, just like 50 of their 78 Victorian pokies venues.” “Pokies” are what Australians colloquially call poker machines.

At just before 10am I went out and had a haircut before going to the pharmacy. The barber said business had been quiet since Tuesday (the 10th) and I could tell he was glad to have my custom. The café next door to his shop had plenty of people dining inside the back courtyard, which had plastic screens over the windows and doors to keep the air out; the temperature was autumnal.

After picking up my medicine, I went into Coles and bought sundried tomatoes, smoked cod fillets, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). There was plenty of stock on the shelves – things like bread, meat, milk, fruit and veges – and it didn’t seem more crowded than usual for a Sunday. The automated checkout machines were being used steadily but I didn’t have to queue to get access to one. The staffed checkouts had queues of people.

16 March

Went to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero. On this day, Woolworths announced that it would close all of its stores for a day starting on Wednesday 18th, and that it would allocate daily shopping hours just for elderly people. Coles announced that it would close all stores from 8pm every day to enable restocking of shelves and cleaning. It also announced it would newly employ 5000 casuals to do restocking.

17 March

On the way home from my psychiatrist’s office I stopped at Woolies and got a trolley to do some shopping. Had to change a $10 note to make coins for its security device. I bought half a kilo of bacon, edamame and mixed grain salad, lentil salad, capsicum and cashew spread, bread, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and a box of tissues. The clerk at the checkout had to take one of my tissue boxes away because I had brought two to the checkout, and the store has a policy of allowing people to buy only one at each shop.

18 March

Not long after 10am Neville from Feather and Bone Butchery called me on my mobile phone when I was having a conversation with someone else. I interrupted the first call and went downstairs to the garage entrance to meet Neville. He opened his Styrofoam boxes and put the meat and eggs I had ordered into the Ikea bag I had brought downstairs with me. He mentioned in passing that orders from the website had been so heavy that they had closed the shop and were just processing online orders.

Two of the eggs I had to throw out because they were badly broken, and a third egg was slightly cracked; I put it in the rack in the fridge door to use the next day. The meat I unpacked, bagged, and put in the freezer. 

19 March

The following appeared early in the morning on Twitter. Riddell’s Creek is a town in Victoria, Australia, about halfway between the capital city of Melbourne and the town of Castlemain. Sad that things had arrived at this point, but panic-buying had gotten out of hand although my local Woolies had plenty of stock when I visited.

At 8.01am the Sydney Morning Herald’s Stephanie Peatling tweeted, “Chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, blunt about people hoarding and panic buying: ‘It's unfair and it's unnecessary. There's no supply problems. There's a selfishness problem.’”

20 March

An email arrived at around 6am from Feather and Bone Butchery talking about “rona”, though not using that term. I had seen this name used for the novel coronavirus, or Covid-19, that had earlier in the year begun to spread from Wuhan in China. Their shop would reopen, the email said, and they had gotten on top of the surge in orders (comparable to Christmastime but without any preparation), assuring customers that they had a reliable supply of meat. 
Please be reassured that our short supply chain model based on direct purchasing from farmers remains robust and supply is good. But we urge you to please be considerate and only buy what you need for the short term. There will be plenty to go around and we have every intention of continuing to supply all of you with fresh, traceable, local food.  
Later, I went in the car to Woolworths, parking under the building. I had to get a gold coin (see list entry of 14 March for definition) for the shopping trolley. I bought a sultana butter cake, milk, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), lemonade (no-sugar), dental floss, toilet paper, and a box of tissues. I got everything into the boot of the car and drove away, arriving home just before midday.

22 March

Heard on social media about Woolworths’ priority delivery service. With the service, eligible people (the elderly, people with a disability, and those with compromised immune systems) could be vetted through the use of documentation, and have groceries delivered at certain, scheduled times.

Went for a walk and stopped by Woolies where I got couscous and pumpkin salad, quinoa and tabbouleh salad, chicken soup, Calbee chilli flavoured “Harvest Snaps”, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and toilet paper. 

23 March

On this day I went to the pharmacy then to Coles, and there bought eggs, coleslaw, sundried tomatoes, taramosalata (in a container labelled “caviar”, which is both accurate and misleading), chocolate biscuits, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and sandwich bags. 

25 March

Went to Woolies in the car and bought porterhouse steak, bacon, lentil salad, quinoa and tabbouleh salad, bread, sultana butter cake, chicken soup, grilled capsicum, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

26 March

Drove to Woolworths and bought flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), soap, tissues in packs small enough to put in your packet, and toilet paper. The following sign had been put up at the parking garage entrance to the store.

27 March

Got in the car and drove to Lakemba to buy pickles. Got a range of options: left to right in the photo below are chalta (elephant apple), mango, chilli, mango, lime, okra, eggplant. Also bought eggs and chicken sausages. 

The trip took about 90 minutes, including a stop to fill the petrol tank. As I was pulling out from my parking spot on Haldon Street the radio was conveying news about a possible “lockdown”; I had no idea what this was supposed to mean but it sounded appropriately dramatic. I was listening to 2Day FM. One store I had gone into had milk crates set up around the counter and a sign on the counter front telling customers to keep 1.5 metres away from the sales clerk. The counter in the petrol station had a sheet of cling wrap placed over the gap in the Perspex barrier which had been installed, when the shop was set up, to keep potential criminals away from the register.

Coles, it was announced in a news story on this day, had four rules for shoppers visiting its stores, these being: 
  • Maintain social distancing by using a trolley
  • Load groceries at the end of the belt at the checkout until customer ahead is gone
  • Pack your own groceries at the end of the register
  • Pay in a contactless way and avoid handing over cash
28 March

Went down to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero. In the lift there was a sign asking people not to get in when others occupied it, but instead to wait until it was empty.

30 March

Drove to Woolies and got a trolley (I remembered to bring gold coins this time), then bought bacon, a smoked hake fillet, salmon fillets, coleslaw, strawberries, milk, bean salad, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), toilet paper, tissues, and kitchen paper towels. By this Monday, I’d given to people who had run low: two boxes of tissues and four packets of loo paper. 

At the checkout I bagged my purchases, walked down the ramp to the basement, and put everything away in the car’s boot. The carpark wasn’t crowded though other shoppers had arrived just ahead of me.

Network Ten journalist Sandra Sully tweeted on this day: “Woolworths Launches $80 ‘Basic Box’ Of Groceries For Struggling Shoppers.” A linked story on the broadcaster’s website said: 
The supermarket is stepping up its efforts to get food to the elderly and other vulnerable people who are stuck at home as coronavirus spreads. 
Australia Post and other distribution channels will be also used to get orders to isolated people faster. 
The 'basic box' includes meals, snacks and a few essential items, and can't be customised. It can be ordered online from this week in the ACT, NSW and Victoria.
Later, in the early evening, I went across the road to the convenience store and bought Tim Tams.

31 March

The New South Wales government announced there would be fines or jail terms given to people outside their homes without an appropriate reason, such as shopping. The day before they had announced that people outside in groups of more than two would be fined $1000.

In the mid-morning I drove to Woolies and parked, picked something up from the post office, and bought Tim Tams and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar) on the way back to the car. At the entrance they had a desk with hand sanitiser to use before entering the store.

On this day, retailer Coles announced new measures to be followed in its stores after two employees came down with Covid-19. Employees now would have to wash hands regularly. And: 
[A new corporate document] also instructs shoppers [to] disinfect their hands when entering using hand sanitiser that will be provided as well as wipe down trolleys/baskets with antibacterial wipes. You should also maintain distance of at least 1.5 metres at all times [from] other shoppers.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

TV review: Black Mirror, series 5, Netflix (2019)

I started with these particular episodes because series 5 was the first one the TV interface offered me to view when I logged into Netflix and selected the program icon using the remote control. I’m not sure if I’ll try any of the other series available – some of which were produced by another company – because, let’s be honest, there is just so much content available online nowadays. My daughter recommended ‘Black Mirror’ to me.

The episodes are short divertissements and are weak on character though they have solid plots. They are an hour long so they are like novellas, if you would compare them to books and literature. Rather than “novels” (you might say that feature-length movies or multipart TV shows are like novels).

There is little development of character simply because there is not much time available for the filmmakers to play with. So the drama is not so much dependent on your concern for any one individual included in each episode, but rather is a function of the relevancy of ideas that have currency in the zeitgeist today. These are concept pieces rather than comedies or tragedies. While there is some character development in ‘Smithereens’ and in ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’, a movie that operated like one of these shorts would probably have to be regarded as too abstract if not weak, to give an example 2016’s ‘Collateral Beauty’, which was reviewed yesterday on this blog.

I’m old enough to remember watching ‘The Twilight Zone’ and even remember some of its episodes. Looking back, what stands out for me with regard to that show is how off the mark its predictions were. Dystopian futures rarely eventuate and I am sceptical about the likelihood of any of the futures put forward in the three programs I saw in series 5 of ‘Black Mirror’ actually happening, although some of them are set further into the future than others. The story in ‘Smithereens’, for example, could easily happen today.

Short-form video can be fun, but when it comes to this kind of product, ‘Black Mirror’ eps are actually not all that short. Back in January when social gatherings were still allowed I went to Bondi for Flickerfest to see films that were much shorter and just as good as any ‘Black Mirror’ episode, with some of them being superior in quality.  The short form promises to become more popular in future. Now Quibi is launching: a mobile phone-only short-video streaming service that will offer 10-minute videos suitable for train trips or for watching in the back of mum’s car on the way to soccer practice. 

Monday, 30 March 2020

Movie review: Collateral Beauty, dir David Frankel (2016)

The ambition of this movie somewhat exceeds the abilities of its filmmakers. I watched the whole of it though and this in itself is some guarantee for its entertainment value as, for many films, I might stop watching after five or 10 minutes. It depends on how bad they are.

Here, an ensemble cast – including Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, and Will Smith – promises a rewarding experience. The premise is also promising: a man confronted by the passing of his six-year-old daughter starts writing letters to personifications of death, love, and time that he invents to manage his grief. The drama that emerges involves an elaborate plan to save his finances that is hatched by colleagues at his company.

But the writing is flabby. It’s not just that there is the occasional clanger – as when, in one scene near the end, Howard (Will Smith) inadvertently compares Death (Helen Mirren) to shrivelled fruit – it’s that the place that is being aimed at – the inchoate, the inexpressible – is not well-enough understood by the filmmakers.

You find this often in popular culture. There is the truism taken out of a self-help book or from a producer’s occasional reading about a discovery of Einstein. It gets shunted around between people like a piece of folklore, handed on from one person to another, in each generation, like a coin. There are the sayings that are used as tokens of value to create community, to tie people together (again, often along generational lines). There are the urban legends that turn out, in fact, to be pure fiction but that serve as material for conversations at backyard BBQs in any number of places. This is where meaning is created, because even though there may be no basis in fact in what is being said, the people involved think there is, so a lie or a misunderstanding can have practical use even though it will never actually be worth anything. Reality is subjective but we follow fashion slavishly. Urban myths are surprisingly resilient against action by the truth.

But while this film’s intelligence quotient is not excessively high and the literalness of its narrative expression is overbearing, there are moments of sparkle and promise; aspects of the finale are unexpected and touching. Worth watching, and it’s a short film at just-on 90 minutes’ duration. On Netflix.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Movie review: End of Watch, dir David Ayer (2012)

This small-budget police drama is another film about the US’ endless and useless war on drugs. It’s a war the country is not only losing but which is becoming more and more irrelevant as numerous states change their laws to make them more rational. Rather than a crime issue, drug use should be dealt with as a health issue, because what you get with the first option is a lot of sensational headlines about drug busts and a lot of human suffering.

At the centre of this movie are two Los Angeles cops – Jake Gyllenhaal is Brian Taylor and Michael Peña is Miguel Zavala – who get mixed up with criminal elements whose tactics go beyond what they have been trained for. Police are not intelligence operatives and they are not soldiers.

Policing is a very dangerous job and the rate of discharge due to mental health issues is very high compared to other professions. I thought that this film did a good job in showing why that is but the narrative falls a bit too easily into a predictable rhythm. Taylor and Zavala will be driving in the street in their patrol car talking about the women in their lives and then the radio will crackle to life and they will rush off to attend to some new problem – a fire in a suburban house or a woman’s search for her two children – that needs their attention.

Another problem is that the film telegraphs its punches because of how the leads’ personal lives are embellished. If the viewer relates to a character because the story shows him or her enjoying normal things like weddings – Taylor gets married to a woman named Janet (Anna Kendrick) – and births – Zavala’s wife (Natalie Martinez) has a child – then odds are that something bad is on the way.

You don’t often talk about a “Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle” because he’s done such great work in other films, but it’s fitting in this case because this is not his best work. For this I blame the writing.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

TV review: The Valhalla Murders, from the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (2019)

For fans of police procedurals – and there are lots of them going by the number of crime thrillers available on Netflix, where I saw this show – this TV drama offers everything you could want. You also get the most wonderful shots of the Icelandic countryside in winter: dark slopes of inactive volcanoes streaked with white, winding seaside roads, and piles of snow beside the suburban streets of Rekyavik, that nation’s capital.

I was particularly impressed by the TV show’s soundtrack to create suspense. This is a crime thriller (based on real events) but there are moments, created by the skilful use of sounds, that produce in the viewer’s imagination the sort of tension you feel when watching horror movies (which normally I won’t spend time with).

If you wanted to seek out an adjective to use to label this show you’d probably go with “gritty”, but this is a decidedly superior product. In addition to investigating the murders of several men and one woman, Kata (Nina Dögg Filippusdottir) must also find out about the rape of a 17-year-old girl at a party her son went to. Kata is joined in the first task by Arnar (Björn Thors), a local who is flown in from the Norwegian capital of Oslo, where he lives, to help solve the case. The show also takes notice of office politics, so the writers were mindful of the need to keep the viewer entertained; a lot happens and there is not a moment of unnecessary footage.

The opening shot shows Kata in a confined space with a wound to her head. She is lying down and reaching for something with her hand. Once this shot has played out, you are taken back in time to a moment 12 days earlier when, after a drunk man leaves a bar with a woman, the first murder the police are brought in to investigate happens.

A theme the movie deals with is sexual violence, but other subjects get a look-in, including the relationships between parents and children as well as the role of the media, so (to make my main point again) the filmmakers have packed together plenty to think about. 

Friday, 27 March 2020

TV review: Bodyguard, BBC (2018)

An ex-soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder works as a bodyguard for the Metropolitan Police Service in London. He is assigned to protect the life of Britain’s home secretary (a cabinet minister in government) and becomes romantically involved with her. There are several attempts on her life while he is in charge of her safety.

This series is not over-long at six hour-long episodes, which is a mercy. But I guarantee that if you enjoy crime movies, police procedurals or spy thrillers, this product will entertain. You won’t see the ending coming.

On the face of it, the show looks at the issues of terrorism and of the surveillance state that has, in many countries, emerged to cope with it in the years since 9/11. Other issues are explored in the show but to note them all would give the game away, so I will not do so.

I can safely say that secrecy colours people’s relations in this TV show, and it helps generate a number of plot points. Anyone who has worked in an office will be able to understand the dynamic that guides the characters of Anne Sampson (Gina McKee), the head of the Met’s counter-terrorism command, or Louise Rayburn (Nina Toussaint-White), a detective-sergeant who is investigating the assassination attempts.

For these two characters a stern face suffices most of the time, but Richard Madden has more scope to vary his expression playing David Budd, the sergeant looking after Julia Montague MP (Keeley Hawes). The normally disciplined Budd is sometimes wobbly in private and on top of that he doesn’t much like Montague’s hawkish brand of politics.

The other police in the drama are played fairly straight and don’t offer competition for the viewer’s sympathies to Madden’s Budd. Sophie Rundle is convincing as Vicky, Budd’s wife, from whom he is estranged. The fact that Budd won’t accept counselling for his PTSD is a plot point that appears frequently in the story, so the issue of men’s mental health adds depth to it. And Anjli Mohindra is good as Nadia, a suicide bomber.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Book review: Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska (1990)

My copy of this fictionalised biography of the author’s mother has a sticker on the back saying “$16.95” stamped with the name of the bookstore (Gleebooks), and a sticker on the front saying “$3.00” that shows it was bought subsequently at a sale, probably at one of the charity book events that are held regularly in Australia’s major cities.

The cover design is of its time (as all book covers are, despite the fact that good books, like this one, are timeless) and is made in pale blue and a dark pink, with black and grey in some parts. The mixture of different fonts is typical of the era, as is the inclusion, in the text, of a number of dreams; such elements serve to form part of the book’s fictional hemisphere.

I almost gave up after reading about two-thirds of it at which point, in terms of the narrative, the fabric of the book started to loosen. I persisted after a delay of a couple of days and was glad to have followed the thread to its end.

This work is also a kind of literary journalism, and the author is included as a protagonist in the narrative (something that must have happened anyway considering her relationship to the main character). But names have been changed, so the author appears as someone named Lalage though she does retain certain characteristics that tie her closely to the figure of the author, being for example an avid reader from childhood. 

‘Poppy’ explicates the author’s life in a good deal of detail, using, among other things, the mother’s diaries and some diaries from a man named Marcus, a Catholic priest Poppy has a relationship with. Not all the diaries are made available to the author as Poppy destroyed some, notably those that deal with the beginnings of her affair with Marcus. 

There are no neat lessons that emerge from the story, although it is notable how the author doesn’t point out explicitly – though she cannot have been unaware that a reader would come to realise this – that it was precisely the same social shifts that prompted Richard, Lalage’s father, to abandon Poppy that allowed Poppy to subsequently make a career in the British probation service. Lalage was born in the 1940s, so times were a-changing, and it was Poppy’s generation – the generation that came of age at the time of WWII – that was exposed to many of the social and political adjustments in the developed world that came to be known as the counter-culture.

Modjeska makes a good point when she uses Poppy to point out that while “family” was important as an idea used in the public sphere to moderate the effect of the changes, when push came to shove her husband was unfaithful and her parents blamed her for the illness that took her into an institution for the mentally ill. So family let Poppy down even while it asked her to maintain itself as an institution, but Poppy would make some of her parents’ ideas her own when it came time to settle her own daughters. The matter of love and marriage returns again and again as something to be dealt with.
You can feel Poppy’s generation welcoming change – change from the 19th century values of their parents – but you can also feel Lalage’s generation having second thoughts despite the drastic alterations that took place to make life easier for women. 

There is so much that is fluid, especially with regard to romance. I found similar misgivings and hesitations expressed in the biopic of Mary Shelley that came out a couple of years ago and which was reviewed on this blog. While changes at the beginning of the 19th century made the community more responsive to the individual’s needs, it disadvantaged women as the security of marriage – necessary, in those days (and, for that matter, still nowadays), to provide a solid foundation for the raising of children – began to disappear as sexual liberation gathered pace. 

Jane Austen explores precisely this theme in ‘Mansfield Park’ (1814) and such ideas are explored in Modjeska’s book, but in the end words – in which she puts so much stock – fail her and only the characters are able to express what she took it upon herself to communicate. There are no easy answers, the glib lines of sung heroines are not up to the job at hand, and the ending seems weak until you get to the final word, at which point the metaphor of the labyrinth looks attractive and the book assumes a shape resembling a noontime soap opera, where close personal relationships are the primary locus of sense-making. The whole story has to be told to understand what feminism has meant to Modjeska’s generation. 

Like Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, ‘Poppy’ attempts to understand the nature of the maternal, and is possibly a better book. While the biological imperative looms large – women desire stable relationships with men due to the need to raise children – both Poppy and Lalage began to contemplate the necessity of a spiritual dimension to life in order to understand their worlds, something that I found revelatory. 

Complexity is what I especially admired in this work; you cannot ignore certain things but they are not stuck in your face like a gun pointed at a hero in an action thriller. You have to do some of the work yourself though, and the story is sometimes hard to follow since people are frequently named without any context so, for example, I never worked out who Jacob was even though his name appears in the text often. This tactic performs a role in maximising the “etrangement” the book uses, the “making strange” – something authors deploy in order to put a new spin on ideas – and you feel at times as though you are hearing things about a family you don’t know well. Which is appropriate because that is precisely what you are reading.

Through the stories of these people – China, the author’s grandmother, Poppy, the author’s mother, and Lalage, the author herself – you learn a good deal about being a woman in the 20th century or, at least, in the period after WWI. The changes that took place in society are given prominence and you feel as though you have come to some sort of accommodation with ideas that changed the world. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Movie review: The Night Comes for Us, dir Timo Tjahjanto (2018)

You don’t often see an Indonesian action thriller, but given the country’s bloody history I can understand the level of violence of this film. Knives feature a lot, and in case blood is your thing death by garrotting is also on display. The story is wonderful though (it was written by the director), and so this movie is a real treat for fans of the genre (like me).

The drama centres on Ito (Joe Taslim) and Arian (Iko Uwais) who are two of a renowned “Six Seas” clique of enforcers for a Southeast Asian triad, a mafia-type organisation that among other things controls drug smuggling. Ito rescues a small girl – she must be about nine years old, and her name is Raina (Asha Kenyeri Bermudez) – on a beach where a boatload of villagers has been killed by his men. The abduction (or, if you choose to see it in another light, the rescue) puts Ito at odds with his bosses, so Arian is sent on their behalf to enact justice.

Adding colour to the mix are a shadowy operative who is unnamed (Julie Estelle) and whose allegiances are unclear, as well as two Triad assassins – Elena (a blonde Hannah Al Rashid) and Alma (the pretty Dian Sastrowardoyo), the second of whom uses a lethal wire weapon to kill her opponents. The friendship between Ito and Arian is bolstered by flashbacks, and other friends – Bobby (an unhinged Zack Lee) and Fatih (Abimana Aryasatya plays the role straight) – are given prominence as well.

This is an interesting film because of the way loyalties rest at different moments in the drama. It’s also another Asian movie that I watched in recent weeks that underscores the importance of children; the other was Korean film ‘Train to Busan’, a zombie movie.

‘The Night Comes for Us’ features some great performances and like all good exponents of the genre the action is unrelenting. It’s also inventive. Martial arts fans fall in line! I didn’t flinch at the blood because it’s all largely symbolic, and totally stagey. This movie wears the label “kitsch” with pride and the lesbian theme embodied by Elena and Alma, both of whom are Eurasian, is particularly amusing. I watched this movie with English subtitles.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Movie review: Tuna Girl, dir Mana Yasuda (2019)

This curious and lovely film has a simple goal (and it fully attains it): to show how a dedication to craft warrants respect. It seemed to me to be a distinctively Japanese film, so viewers from other countries might be puzzled by the beginning, but stick with it and it delivers in spades.

Minami Takayama (Fuka Koshiba) is a student who arrives at a private research institute to learn about the cultivation of tuna. She’s accident-prone but well-intentioned and piques the interest of the organisation’s leader (Hidetoshi Hoshida) who asks her to help promote it so that he can attract more funding. Minami comes up with some ideas but (naturally) things don’t go according to plan.

Possibly, only a woman could have made this film but Yasuda also runs commentary on Japanese celebrity culture. The often vapid, sometimes sneering tone of Japanese commercial TV is taken to task; it is something that any foreigner who has lived for a period of time in Japan can understand. The film also includes a critique of social media that can’t go astray. Fourthly, the movie underscores a related subject, something that comes up from time to time in online debates: the necessary contingency of knowledge. All that science can do is use evidence to reveal new truths and, in this process, there is no limit. There are no tablets of stone, and new ideas must be tested before being rejected out of hand.

What most impressed me in this film is the way that the different characters pull their weight. I couldn’t find the names of some of the actors on IMDB – I’m not sure what the site’s policy is with regard to listing film credits – but even the people playing minor roles did solid work so the economy of the film is remarkable. Ryosuke Yusa plays Shun Hosono, who breeds parasites for use in the institute's research. Syuri Tanaka plays Akira Kuroda, a serious young woman who is a classmate of Hosono and Takayama. The writing is also excellent.

I wrote a number of journalistic stories on tuna back in the day so I was prepared for some of what this film offers. Japan’s appetite for the fish is legendary. It might not be common knowledge that wild stocks are depleted but many people already know that tuna fetch a high price in Tokyo’s fish market. It is also commonly known that Japanese cuisine relies on fish for a considerable part of the protein it uses, although beef and other types of meat (though not, for some reason, lamb) get yearly more popular. So this film is topical, addressing, as it does, the issue of the sustainability of a natural resource.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Movie review: Q Ball, dir Michael Tolajian (2019)

I was a bit surprised to see that Fox Sports is one of the names behind this movie, which is a snapshot in time for some of the men in the San Quentin State Prison basketball team. This maximum security facility north of San Francisco is the oldest prison in California. It is where people who are condemned to death in the state are accommodated.

I love a good documentary, and the filmmakers in this case have produced something revealing. The director was also the writer, and the film is in three parts of about equal length. The primary focus is a man named Harry Smith, who was incarcerated for domestic violence; he got into an argument with his girlfriend outside a bar and pushed her accidentally, causing her to fall on the ground. Another man who is featured is Rafael Cuevas, who was put in prison for stabbing a man to death in a carpark after a baseball game. Allan McIntosh, a third man, was imprisoned for possessing a weapon after having been, on two previous occasions, put in jail for violent crimes; this is the state’s “three strikes” rule. McIntosh and Smith are African-American.

Prison officials allowed inmates to form a basketball team, and there are always more candidates available to play, on any given match day, than spots on the team that goes on the court. The opposition alternates between several teams made up of men from outside the prison, in the community, and the name of one team – Imago Dei – suggests its members are affiliated with a religious organisation. Most of the outside players are white, and most of the inmates playing are black.

When the movie opens, Harry has about six months to go before his release back into the community. And sometimes players associated with the Golden State Warriors – the state’s NBL team – come to the prison to play. Harry is keen to impress them and possibly get a spot on their team for the “G League”, a minor league competition in the US. Harry’s story contains the major plot points that are used to create suspense in the movie, although the effect it has is subtle; other people also help to push things along.

You hope that they will all be given a break, released, and helped to succeed. The movie shows how basketball can have a positive effect on inmates’ lives by helping them to understand their own emotions, and to control their impulses. Because they enjoy playing, being sanctioned for a breach of contract – a document all players must sign before they are allowed to compete for spots on the team – is a major imposition, so they strive to be eligible to play. Then also try hard to remain on the court. Because the sport links in with players’ emotions, lessons learned through the game have more impact and are more enduring than any punishment could be. A sanction causes pain, so to avoid it the player must moderate his behaviour.

I was impressed by this movie, although you do get the feeling that the people involved are aware of the filmmakers and their camera. I wonder if life inside the big house is really how it is portrayed in this film.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

TV review: Money Heist, part 1, Netflix (2017)

I’ve ascribed this show to Netflix even though, in actual fact, these first episodes were made by a TV station named Antena 3, which is headquartered near the Spanish capital of Madrid. In making the show available on Netflix, however, certain adjustments were made to the episodes, so I have labelled this season accordingly.

The show is great fun and the writing is excellent. You follow the fortunes of a group of robbers who hold up the Mint in Madrid (the Spanish title is ‘La casa de papel’, which translates directly as “the house of paper”). You are also given the viewpoints of some of the hostages taken during the attack, and those of some of the police who respond to it. In the first part of the show there are 13 episodes. Just before I started watching this show, part 3 was announced and was talked about on Twitter.

The robbers all wear red jumpsuits and get their hostages to wear the same gear (a plot device that was used in Spike Lee’s wonderful 2006 heist movie ‘Inside Man’, though in that film the jumpsuits were dark blue). In ‘Money Heist’ there’s another twist on the same ploy as all the robbers wear masks made to look like the face of Salvador Dali, the 20th-century Spanish surrealist painter.

Thematically, the show is about inequality and Capital. The guy running the show operates outside the Mint in a Madrid building and he’s called the Professor (Alvaro Morte). Apart from him, each of the robbers uses the name of a city to identify him- or herself. The Professor’s grandfather was a supporter of the partisans in WWII, which puts him (the grandfather) firmly on the left, politically speaking. The Professor is also a progressive and there is one scene in episode 13 where he and Berlin (Pedro Alonso, who is outstanding) are singing an old song from the era titled ‘Bella ciao’. The robbers in another episode sing this song while celebrating a moment of success in their adventure, jumping around in their red suits and waving their arms in the air. It is an anti-fascist song.

But the critique works both ways. The robbers have hostages who naturally enough are not glad to be caught up in the heist. The message is that the oppressed become the oppressors, and so the film modulates a traditional left-wing pose, taking aim with its most penetrating barbs at such groups as the Soviets, who took control of Russia in 1917. We all know how that experiment turned out: untold suffering, material want, and death on a grand scale. Given Spain’s history – the civil war that started there in the 1930s was a prelude to WWII, and attracted Nazi support in the form of bombing raids (Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ was made in 1937 as an homage to the victims of such an attack) – it is hardly surprising that a show such as ‘Money Heist’ would be made there. The filmmakers are of two minds about Capital and about the revanchist push that always accompanies its success.

The best parts are in the spaces between tonic events – in the downtime, when not much is happening in terms of the genre the forms of which the film is made to obey – where people talk to one another, have liaisons, or make friends. And in flashbacks that point to the months prior to the day of the attack, on days during which the robbers planned it and socialised together in a house on a property outside the city. There’s a terrific scene in one episode where the robbers stage a “hostage of the month” ceremony, getting their charges to applaud a timid man who helps them printing money. It is ripe with signification and is emblematic of the filmmakers’ inventiveness.

In ep 11 you begin to feel things will start to flag when the robbers stage their impromptu celebration and when a hostage named Arturo (Enrique Arce) devises another of his wild schemes aimed at freedom, but things quickly take a new turn, keeping the suspense alive.

Apart from Alonso, I was impressed by Alba Flores (Nairobi, an expert in counterfeiting). Maria Pedraza, who plays a hostage named Alison Parker, is also good. All up, this show is worth watching if you like oddball genre films. It’s not just Hollywood that can make a formulaic vehicle shine.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Movie review: Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened, dir Chris Smith (2019)

This documentary is one of a number of cultural products chronicling the misbehaviour of some people in the tech sector; I reviewed books on Uber and Theranos last year. All of these nonfiction works are competent and involve in-depth reporting of the facts in each case.

To make ‘Fyre’, Smith got hold of a large quantity of video footage taken by people involved in the planning of a 2017 music festival which was to be held on an island in the Bahamas.

The festival was to be part of the product launch of a website where people would have the ability to book popular talent. To promote the event the company head, a man named Billy McFarland, got associates to conscript the services of fashion models and social media influencers. McFarland raised funds from investors as well as from paying customers who responded to a barrage of cryptic posts on such platforms as Twitter that were launched to generate buzz. By booking places at the event, people were supporting it, and providing funds to McFarland.

Smith also interviewed a number of people who helped to build the facilities for the event as well as those who executed it, built the company website, and catered for it. Many of these people reported how badly the event affected them emotionally due to McFarland’s unscrupulous conduct. As in the case of Theranos, a take-no-prisoners leadership style exacerbated the situation. If an employee or associate voiced misgivings, there would be consequences for them.

The film runs commentary on how vapid social media at its worst can be. The film can have broad appeal because of how deeply we have allowed social media to insinuate itself into our lives. This movie shows how social media is a part of life in a way that, a decade ago, it was not.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Movie review: Bright, dir David Ayer (2017)

When I first started watching this movie I got about 15 minutes in and stopped. Later, on Twitter, a Pennsylvania man named Matthew Ortiz tweeted to me, “I would encourage you to revisit the film and give the full experience a chance.” So I went back and watched the whole thing and was enchanted.

This movie is done in shades of pale grey though of course it is in full colour from a technical perspective. What I mean to say is that are no heroes. The film explores a number of themes, including structural racism and inequality. It centres on two Los Angeles cops, one a human named Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and the other an orc – this is a work of speculative fiction – named Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton).

One night, in response to what they think will be a routine callout the two receive while driving on the street in their patrol car, they meet an elf named Tikka (Lucy Fry) who has a magic wand. Earlier, they had picked up a homeless man (Alex Boling), whom they had assumed to be crazy and who had been brandishing a sword in the street, making a fuss. He kept talking about the “Dark Lord” and at first they don’t put the clues together in a way that can make sense of what they have seen.

Of course this being an action thriller things soon get out of hand. But it’s an unusual genre film, one that interrogates the issue of entrenched inequality in the US, as in the film there are different species that cannot mix. You cannot move from being an orc, for example, to being a human, although due to positive discrimination policies Jakoby is the first orc in the country who is the member of a police force. In the real world you can move from being working class to being middle class or, at least your children can switch from the one to the other even if you yourself cannot.

In this film, by turning the dial a few notches to the left you see the world in a different way, and you begin to understand that there is happiness to be found regardless of your material circumstances. On the other hand, it also shows how discrimination can lead to corruption and injustice. It’s a bit of meaningful fun where fantasy – as a generation of ‘Harry Potter’ fans found – helps make life strange so that the consumer can see what is real about people and what is merely imposed by ideas that come from elsewhere. Form versus substance.

I liked Edgerton’s Jakoby, who is gormless and talks too much but loves his job. And the elves are great. Noomi Rapace is Leilah, an elf who belongs to a group called “Inferni”, and Edgar Ramirez is Kandomere, a federal law enforcement operative.

For people who enjoy fantasy, this film offers plenty of good things, including magic wands, spells, and powerful forces that only the elect can control and use. I really loved watching it once I had gotten past the feeling that its genre elements were overdone. They are utilitarian and somewhat crude but they help to unleash significations that might otherwise have remained concealed. 

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Movie review: The Equalizer, dir Antoine Fuqua (2014)

Another stylish film from a master of the action genre! Based on an 80s TV series, this film has a simple premise but I won’t go into too much detail as to do so would give the game away for people who haven’t seen it and want to.

Fuqua returns to the combination that brought us the brilliant ‘Training Day’ (2001; review here). In ‘The Equalizer’ Denzel Washington plays a former intelligence operative who fights to return justice to the lives of people who have been wronged. This includes a young woman named Tevi (Alex Veadov) who works as a hooker. By doing so, however, McCall attracts attention from the Russian mafia (which features so strongly in ‘Training Day’).

From the opening scenes in ‘The Equalizer’ movie you can feel the director’s capacity to hold the viewer’s attention. The first shot in the movie is an aerial view of Boston, with a suspension bridge in the middle of the frame. This cuts to a daytime shot – same time, different angle – showing what’s visible from the window of McCall’s apartment. The camera then goes backward in a slow panning shot that takes in an alarm clock sounding and displaying the time (7.30), bookshelves filled with books, and the bathroom where McCall is shaving his head in preparation for the day ahead. While this panning shot takes place you get the theme music: a wistful melody made by violins alternating with the sound of an electric synthesiser that, in counterpoint, makes an insistent rhythm. This combination of elements is masterful and displays Fuqua’s power and poise.

These qualities are reflected in the character of McCall, who has a nightly ritual. At around 1am he folds a teabag in a tissue, takes a book, and walks to a diner near his apartment, where he sits, reading and drinking tea, for which the man behind the counter supplies hot water. Every part of his ritual is the same each time: from the package he puts in his shirt pocket to the way he sorts the cutlery – knife and fork to one side (because he’s not going to use them), and spoon to the other (because he’ll need that to stir the tea) – is precise, and is precisely identical each night McCall goes outside his apartment. Books are a perfect accessory for such a practice, and can even be used as a weapon.

Symbolism is everything in this movie and even though it is strictly an action thriller – there’s plenty of tightly choreographed fighting, and the use of various weapons in various places (including inside a hardware store) – it is what people stand for that is important. The filmmakers reserve their fiercest barbs for those who abuse power given to them by the people they are meant to serve.

McCall’s nemesis is Nikolia Itchenko, a sombre thug with a similar predilection for order and calm. He brings a gravitas to the role that is stunning, so full points to the writers as well as the director on this account. I came back to this movie having stopped it the first time about 15 minutes in because I thought it hackneyed, but having sampled the same director’s work elsewhere, I was convinced the second time around that I would enjoy it. And I did.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Book review: Blow, Bruce Porter (1993)

From what I could gather online from people’s comments, this book is better than the 2001 movie of the same name that is a vehicle for Johnny Depp. This book is a cracker, though the messiness and complexity of real life is probably the reason why the movie did so badly at the box office. George Jung’s (pronounced with a hard “J”) life, starting in regional Massachusetts, is certainly interesting (and I won’t give away the ending, in case you want to see the movie or read the book) and it is, in a sense, a history of the cocaine trade in the US and Central America.

The chronology of the book begins when George grew up in the 40s but the first chapter opens with incarceration after George was convicted for smuggling marijuana from Mexico and sentenced to a spell in a low-security prison. Inside it, he met a man named Carlos Lehder, a Colombian whose favourite song was John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and who deeply admired Hitler. Once George was freed he started planning ways to import the more profitable drug, which had just started, in the 60s, to catch on on the west coast of the US.

This book is also a portrait of an individual. The portrait is not always flattering. George is not a perfect man. His interest in drugs had been encouraged by an early interest in Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac and although George loved his father he was independent-minded from adolescence. As well as liking to do things his own way, George was also intensely physical and excelled at sport at secondary school. Once the money started to come in – he stashed something like US$68 million away in an offshore bank account – his lifestyle changed radically and he was conspicuous in his consumption. Perhaps if he had been a different kind of person (he also used cocaine heavily) the story might have been different. As far as I know he is still alive; the chronicle ends after a period of time has elapsed.

Porter does a good job of keeping a significant number of balls up in the air at once. This is a story heavy on specifics and biography written as journalism is a suitable way to use the material as it allows for the inclusion of a large number of salient facts. Facts like the types of cars George owned, where he secreted the proceeds of his deals, the types of aircraft he used to bring cocaine from Colombia to the US, and portraits of his business partners, men who, like George, are rendered in detail so that you can get an idea of what kinds of people they were (or, in some cases, what kind of people they are). Porter talked with a number of different people to gather information, including George himself.

As I said at the beginning of this post, his is not a simple story. It twists and turns, goes off on tangents and comes back to the mainstream, and ropes in folds a range of colourful characters all of whom, it must be emphasised, were (are) real. This is not fiction. And keep in mind when it was first published. Unlike the popular movies and Netflix TV shows we are served up as entertainment these days that have drugs as a subject, and which often enough have some factual basis, this book is actual history.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Movie review: Training Day, dir Antoine Fuqua (2001)

This is an outstanding movie about good and evil that won Denzel Washington, who plays a Los Angeles detective, an Oscar. The writing is brilliant, though at the outset you cannot grasp the meaning of what happens as Jake (Ethan Hawke) goes out with a senior officer in the narcotics squad named Alonzo (Washington), who visits a number of people over the course of a day.

The casting and directing are excellent. The word “stories” pops up in an early scene where Jake and Alonzo, who from the outset appears flagrantly unorthodox, are sitting in a diner.

There are elaborate stories told by various characters, including a man whose name is Roger (Scott Glenn), whose place in the story is not elaborated upon, and a man named Doug (Harris Yulin), who is with two men in an upmarket restaurant whom Alonzo consults while making arrangements. Other secondary characters do good work, notably Cliff Curtis, who plays a man name Smiley with whom Jake talks over a hand of poker in the back room of a house.

Washington’s performance is revelatory and Hawke’s nomination for a different Oscar is testament to the quality of the writing.

Monday, 16 March 2020

TV review: Narcos: Mexico, season 1, Netflix (2018)

There are some serious attempts on the part of the director and the cinematographer to mix up the shots so that, sometimes, if a scene show two people talking across a table, each actor has their face placed at the extremity of the frame. This allows the director to create suspense as you can see what is going on behind the actor; it might be a bartender washing glasses, it might be an empty room into which, we imagine, someone with a gun might suddenly walk. You are meant to feel anxiety with this formulation, you are meant to worry.

This kind of trick is not the only one the filmmakers resorted to to add spice to this competent product, which chronicles the establishment of a cartel in Mexico dedicated to the growing and transportation of marijuana for the US market. Sometimes they crop a man’s face so that you can only see the lower half of it, his mouth framed as he lights a cigarette. There are other tricks, too. In episode 8, for example, the director overlays the sound of a helicopter with a shot of a ceiling fan, explicitly copying a scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979).

And you wonder how the filmmakers coped with the need to show, again and again, a group of police or soldiers storming into a room, shooting automatic weapons, killing people. Given the diversity of possible available scenarios, there are a startling number of scenes that are very much alike.

Another shortcoming, in my mind, was the character of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the head of the cartel. He does a good job of looking, in a large number of scenes, impassive and hostile, just as his nemesis, Drug Enforcement Administration operative Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), in many scenes does a good job of looking pissed off. The writing is not always brilliant and Gallardo is not well-defined; he comes across looking more like an accountant than anything else, a man only interested in the numbers. Given the large number of people he has to deal with – his colleagues, their henchmen, his wife, his mistresses, the police (in various agencies), the politicians, and his suppliers – I would have thought that it would be possible to extract more drama from him than was achieved by the people who made this TV series.

You also wonder what kind of person he was and whether he only cared about having more and more money. What good does any of it do? What does Gallardo spend his leisure time doing? Does he go dancing? Does he read books? Watch films? Go for drives in the countryside? All that money and he just sits around in his hotel suite looking glum and chain smoking?

Some of the acting is, furthermore, just not very good. In episode 7 the plotline involving Don Neto’s son is dull because actor Joaquín Cosio doesn’t have the required range. Teresa Ruiz is more interesting as Isabella Bautista and Tenoch Huerta as Rafa Quintero is a zany foil for Gallardo’s starched shirt. This drama is typical of the kind of pedestrian stuff being made available now via Netflix, what people compulsively binge-watch and which, if you look a bit more closely, is both full of fat and slow.

There is too much boilerplate. Too many similar scenes. I can see the appeal of this: all those action movies that get made rely on stereotypical elements to tell stories. There is the flawed hero, the panning shots above a city (often at night) that add a sense of wonder and that relax the viewer, the boilerplate senior law enforcement agent who has to be convinced to give the go-ahead for the madcap strike, the massing of weapons, the car chase, the fight scene between the hero and the dastardly bad guy, the guns they point at one another across a street or across a room.

We are attracted to things that conform to what we already perceive to be meaningful. We are convinced that the inclusion of such elements is the mark of quality even though, if we thought about it, we might realise that we are being flattered, that the filmmakers are putting them into the product in order to keep us paying, to keep us coming back for more. They are our crack cocaine, our fix, and with streaming TV we have more of it than ever before. That doesn’t make it good for us, or interesting. It only confirms what the producers already knew: we can be gulled.

Having made all these points I have to add that ‘Narcos: Mexico’ is instructive. It puzzled me, however, that the filmmakers decided to bleep out the names of politicians in one scene (I won’t say more about it for fear of spoiling the show for those who have not yet seen it). This is a dramatization and it is a free dramatization: there is no way that some of the scenes in it could have happened like this in real life, reality is messier and more random. This is a slick product with carefully scripted scenes that are designed to give each turn in the plot a certain dramatic moment. The veiling of the identities of some prominent Mexican politicians seemed, to me, odd for a show that intentionally links crime to politics and to the Mexican police (and army).

To close, I have to say that the kick in the tail of this season is strong, and is a move I didn’t see coming, so I look forward to watching season 2.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Conversations with taxi drivers: Fifteen

This is the fifteenth in a series of posts relaying conversations I have had with taxi drivers. The first of these posts appeared on 6 June 2018. 

3 February

I had to go to the hospital due to a panic attack during which my heart accelerated and ran, at times, erratically. The crisis resolved itself without any intervention before the ambulance arrived, but they took me to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital anyway. I stayed there for several hours while the staff did some tests, and a bit after 1am a doctor discharged me. I walked out into the night, on the way exchanging some friendly words with a very large man sitting on a seat in the hospital’s waiting room.

Outside, I headed to the taxi rank and saw a cab waiting there with its light on. Just then, another cab came down Missenden Road with its light shining, declaring that it was vacant and looking for a fare. It didn’t stop for me, however, and when I got to the rank the cab waiting there no longer had its roof light on; the driver had evidently seen me being avoided by the taxi coming down the street and had decided he didn’t want to transport me home. I told him I had to get there and he gave me some story about waiting for a fare who had already booked him.

So I gave up with him and walked up toward King Street and saw a woman coming out the Marlborough Hotel’s rear entrance. She met up with a man on the pavement out the front of the establishment who was talking with the driver of a cab parked at the kerb. I walked onto the carriageway and hailed a cab, but then the man who had been talking to the other cab driver, and who was drunk, called to me and told me that the cab at the kerb was empty.

When I got in I asked the driver what the problem had been and he said the young man had no money. I told the driver where I wanted to go and we set off, heading north. I told him about the cab on Missenden Road and he said nothing. He looked Indian-born and I asked him if his car was a hybrid. He pressed a button on a dashboard display to show the drive system working and I said I was buying a hybrid RAV4. He said that he liked the look of the new RAV4 and I said that the 2019 model was the first with the new design, which has a large, open front grille.

As we got near my place, driving along Bank Street, he headed into the opposite lane. No cars were coming our way so there was no danger but I thought it was strange for him to make this manoeuvre. In my street I paid using EFTPOS and walked to the side entrance to the building and used my fob tag to gain entry, then went upstairs in the lift to my home.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Movie review: The Town, dir Ben Affleck (2010)

I was pleasantly surprised by this police procedural, which focuses on a group of bank robbers that includes two working-class men named Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner). It’s kick-ass, with the full range of conventional thriller components – car chases, shoot-outs, panoramic city views taken from a helicopter, suspense, heists – plus romance and politics (the last of these dependent on a link to Irish separatists).

The premise of the movie is fairly simple. MacRay starts stalking the manager of a bank the group had held up. Her name is Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) and the two form a relationship that sits dormant throughout the bulk of the movie. There is one excellent scene where, as MacCray and Keesey are sitting at a restaurant table having refreshments, Coughlin rocks up and starts bantering with the woman. The dynamics that evolve between the three help to push the story along. Before, MacCray and Coughlin had worked as a tight unit, but the appearance of Keesey threatens the stability of their relationship.

Change is also brought to bear in the form of John Hamm’s Adam Frawley, an FBI agent who is trying to rein in the thugs. You have to believe in Frawley in order to like MacRay, so Hamm plays his role straight and dry. A fifth wheel for this vehicle is supplied by Pete Postlethwaite as Fergie Colm, the criminal mastermind. He’s the foreign angle and runs a florist’s store in the city. I also loved Blake Lively as Krista Coughlin, Jem’s sister.

The film did well critically but I had never heard of it until someone from Japan mentioned it in passing on Twitter. The writing is particularly fine, though some of the conversations are a bit hard to understand due to wide use of a strong Boston accent. What a find though, this film! 

Friday, 13 March 2020

Movie review: In the Shadow of the Moon, dir Jim Mickle (2019)

Mixing speculative elements with a police procedural is not unusual since the 90s when ‘The X-Files’ (1993-2002) became popular. In the case of ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’, which stars Boyd Holbrook as a Philadelphia cop named Thomas Lockhart (“Locke”), the puzzle starts when a bus carrying passengers down a city street goes haywire and crashes into other vehicles. The driver is dead from a kind of brain haemorrhage and she has three puncture wounds at the back of her neck. Then, strangely, three other residents of the city die in the same way, blood coming out of their cranial orifices and their brains dissolving.

In the investigation, Locke and his partner Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine) are outranked by Locke’s brother-in-law, Detective Holt (Michael C. Hall), and the case is closed without further enquiry when the killer, an elusive young black woman (Cleopatra Coleman) who was clearly responsible for the murders, is killed.

All of this is set in 1988. We then cut to 1997 when Locke is a detective and the same kinds of murders happen again. As he is trying to solve the cases, a scientist (Rudi Dharmalingam) tries to convince Locke and Maddox that of his theory about the murders – they only happen at the time of a “super moon” – but they dismiss him. When Locke starts to voice ideas that mirror Rao’s he is ridiculed. Cut to 2006. Locke’s daughter, Amy (Sarah Dugdale), is grown up and estranged from her dad.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without giving away too much, so don’t read the “plot” section of the Wikipedia page unless you want to spoil the fun. Regardless of the fact that ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’ didn’t do well critically, I loved it: it has everything that you expect in a sci-fi movie with the exception (something I was grateful for) of excessive quantities of techno-speak. Coleman is an Australian, moreover, and I expect we’ll see more of her in the future.

As for themes, the movie is very much a child of a time (the era post-2016) when polarisation in the community has become so strong and (due to social media) so evident. If you see it in the light of concerns about today’s cancel culture, the film can be understood as responding to a new reality and is, therefore, knowing and interesting.

You might also see a parallel in the way China’s Communist Party controls daily communication in an effort to curtail precisely the kind of small, agile, and radical group that lies at the centre of the plot in this movie. The film also does a good job of pointing out the radical nature of the ideas behind the United States, ideas that continue, to this day, to inspire and motivate people around the world, even as they are turned to be used to accuse its leaders of various weaknesses.

They are hard ideals to live up to, it seems. And a primary plot device used in the movie is itself emblematic of America’s experimental bias. Because of where they come from Americans seem to believe that anything can be changed, even the structure of the universe. They continue to pioneer in a great number of ways even as their country becomes more and more influential, a state of things that risks its ability to live up to its originary ideals, ideals embodied by the lives and ideas of the founding fathers.

I cannot understand why other people didn’t like this movie. Holbrook does a good job playing a man who is intent on his mission, which is hard to do with credibility; a lesser actor might appear ridiculous. The acting and the writing are excellent and the casting is good.