Monday, 28 June 2010

I'll be out of town for the next two days at the Kobe Workshop on RFMO Management of Tuna Fisheries, to be held at the Brisbane Convention Centre, Southbank.

RFMO stands for Regional Fisheries Management Organisation. These bodies number five in total. They are responsible for administering the ocean's fisheries to promote sustainable use of wild fish stocks.

Unfortunately, this isn't happening. A source tells me that the RFMOs "were recognised to be failing in their mandate to sustainably manage tuna stocks" and so these talks have been organised to address the failure. I'm not sure how many people will be attending, but I guess they'll number in the hundreds.

My plan is to write some stories for publication, and to that end I've approached a couple of editors with ideas.

I'll drive down to Brisbane early tomorrow. Conference registration starts at 8am and the workshop itself begins at 9am. I've organised a room at a nearby motel, and will stay overnight for the two-day event.

Pic information: Logo of Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA).

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Gerard Butler is Clyde Shelton in Law Abiding Citizen (dir F Gary Gray, 2009), a crime thriller and revenge fantasy in which Shelton gets back at all of those who were implicit in the light sentence given to the killer of his wife and daughter.

Shelton is an interesting character. He's a tinkerer, engineer, inventor. But he's also an associate of spies and secret government agencies who makes death possible in impossible situations. As one spook declares, "If Clyde wants you dead, you're dead."

Playing opposite Butler is Jamie Foxx as Nick Rice, a Philadelphia assistant district attorney. Rice is heavily involved in the token sentence the killer receives, but he's immediately spared vengeance. Shelton wants to teach him not to deal with murderers. It's a lesson Raice learns well as, one after the other, his colleagues and associates are wiped out by Shelton's high-tech arsenal.

But the film is also interesting in terms of the post-9/11 era of anti-terror actions by the US government. Unable to stop Shelton's relentless motion, the governor invokes the Homeland Security Act in order to stop him. Anything is legitimate, she says. Shelton is to be dealt with as if he has no rights.

Given the one-sided nature of the conflict, the implication is that Iraqi insurgents were justified in using violence to offset the injustice meted out to them. There's no explicit articulation of this theory, but the way the story unfolds in the movie makes it easy to make the connection.

There's a lot of cool equipment in this film, and the violence is pretty tame compared to what's available in a lot of horror movies. The highly unpleasant murders at the start of the film constitute the most gruesome moment, so those without a high tolerance of violence need not worry. The film is well-made and highly watchable.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

The clear skies ahead of Julia Gillard - polls announced this morning show a solid jump in Labor's rating and her own rating as preferred prime minister, and a drop in the Greens' share from 15 percent to eight percent - should spur her on to action on climate change.

The signs couldn't be clearer.

After Kevin Rudd announced he would delay action on climate change until 2012 - a date chosen to coincide with the expiration of the Kyoto agreement, by which time "governments across the globe will need to redefine their carbon reduction commitments", according to an International Business Times story - on 27 April this year, the Greens' share of the vote doubled by early this month. The Greens also attracted 13 percent of the vote in the recent Penrith by-election.

In the latest poll it has dropped back to where it was before Rudd's April announcement.

Pic credit: The Age/Paul Harris.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Review: Jarhead, Anthony Swofford (2003)

This sad and curious book ends in 1991 with the soldiers of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, Second Batallion, Seventh Marines, arriving on a combat mission in Kuwait after the extensive aerial bombing of Saddam Hussein's forces by the aircraft of the UN-backed coalition. The arrival is something of a disappointment after seven months stationed in Saudi Arabia in direct preparation for war and after years spent training at bases in the US, Okinawa, and the Philippines. One of Swofford's mates retaliates by desecrating the corpse of an Iraqi soldier.

The bodies are everywhere: in bunkers, in trucks and jeeps, seated around campfires that have long been extinguished. The devastation of the Iraqi Army is total, with over 100,000 aerial sorties completed by coalition bombers in a few months. To say that the Iraqis had been "softened up" would be a gross understatement of the facts.

Marines such as Swofford, who wrote this memoir over a decade after the events it describes ended, are trained to kill and, in fact, as a youth Swofford had yearned for entry into the force against his father's desires. The book is sad partly because the insight that combat and intensive training delivers is earned only alongside the ennui of disillusionment.

This feeling of disappointment is chronicled by the author in flash-forwards and flashbacks from the main thread of the narrative - which is the preparation for, and execution of, the Gulf War.

So, for example, we read about his adolescent self and how he used to fight with an authoritarian father in his hometown in California. We also learn about what happened to certain of his platoon mates after the end of the war, with their return to civilian life. The sadness accumulates and spreads out in all directions, like a physical complaint that is left to grow because it is not so painful that immediate surgery is required.

But I think it's this sadness, coupled with a world-weariness, that saves the book. Swofford is not overly dramatic and is also not overly pessimistic about life in the armed services. The readbility of the book is testament to the effort expended in telling a story that needed to be told.

Allied with the sadness of experience, is the anxiety that is generated by knowledge that the US decided to fight for Kuwait in order to protect US interests, rather than for humanitarian reasons. The book thus provides valuable insights for those who are concerned by a militaristic US administration and its thinly-veiled justifications for action in remote sectors of the globe.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Stylish and impressive, 2:22 (dir Phillip Guzman, 2008) is a crime thriller that punches above its weight and maintains a satisfying level of suspense throughout the duration.

The robbery takes place in a hotel in the dead of night. The four thieves break open dozens of safe-deposit boxes, emptying the contents into a pair of large, black bags. There's some trouble with one of the guests, however, who returns to his room late, interrupting the robbers at their tasks. He demands a bottle of champagne, then returns to his room. Spooked by this troublesome man, the thieves knock him out with the butt of a gun and drag him down to the kitchen, where a number of other guests have been constrained along with the hotel's night staff.

Then two heavies appear at the hotel's front door, demanding access. A police car drives by, and the cops get out and move the toughs along. The two remain suspicious, however. It's the little things that count - in this case the dirt under the nails of Gulliver, the robber who appears at the door. When the robbers pack up and leave, the two guns are waiting for them, and open fire in the snow-filled street. There's a short battle, the robbers get away, and the police arrive soon after, alerted by the gunshots.

Days later, one of the robbers takes an amount of drugs he secured during the robbery to a dealer. While he's inside the tattoo parlour which fronts as the dealer's HQ, things start to go horribly wrong. Then when the troublesome guy from the hotel turns up at Willy's place, they get even worse.

Loyalty, skill, nerve, and a lot of good, old-fashioned police work contribute to make this something of a nail-biter right to the end. The good guys and the bad guys are easily identified, and it's a testament to the hard work put in by the director and writers (Guzman and Mick Rossi, who plays Gulliver) that a bunch of rotten jewel thieves can be turned into a posse of white-hats.

But it's only a matter of time. There were mistakes made. People aren't stupid.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Tasmania's Liberal Party, in opposition, is freaking out because a voluntary euthenasia bill has been proposed for introduction into the state Parliament. Tasmania is governed by a coalition of the Greens and Labor. The bill is being proposed by Labor Attorney-General Lara Giddings.

Giddings crossed the floor in November, before the election that ushered in the coalition, to vote for a private member's bill introduced by the Greens leader Nick McKim that would have made voluntary euthenasia an option for Tasmanians.

Now, she says she supported the bill "on principle" and says her new bill will be different in its details.

The Hobart Mercury, a News Ltd tabloid, couldn't resist labelling the agreement that would be reached between a doctor and a patient under the rules of the embryonic legislation a "pact", echoing hysterical language used by conservatives in the US during the debate about health care reform. A "pact" is a word generally used to describe agreements between young people who collectively decide to kill themselves, and the word shows up the conservative agenda of the newspaper.

Mainland newspapers have yet to focus on the Tasmanian plan to introduce a voluntary euthenasia bill. Voluntary euthenasia used to be legal in the Northern Territory before Prime Minister John Howard overruled the legislature there several years ago, making it illegal.

Conservative politicians, such as those in the Liberal Party, are on principle against progressive legislation, such as voluntary euthenasia.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

A rare thing, The Hurt Locker (dir Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) is not only an Academy Award winner it's a brilliant, unique film. Most winners are of a certain type. They're big, controversial movies with masses of marquee actors in them.

This film is different. Ralph Feinnes appears briefly but he's quickly despatched. The thing that makes this movie great is that each of the major characters - Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) - is played by an unknown, but on-screen they are all individuals.

There are no jarhead stereotypes here. There's no loud-mouthed staff-sergeant bullshit. There's no high-ranked political pontificating. And there's no evil rag-head to hate to make the US warriors look good. There's just three young men caught up in war who are trying to stay alive until tomorrow.

Granted, James is a little odd. He's more of an individual, more romantic, more intellectual, and more articulate than the others. He's got a hard, technical job - defusing bombs, mainly improvised explosive devices (IEDs). But he's not hardened. He's not a time-server, either. He takes a perverse delight in solving difficult problems.

The action is compelling, brutal, and fast-paced. There are stories nestled within stories. There are important messages delivered, but they're not shoved down your throat. A war movie of this calibre is a rare item - most of them are just plain crap to endure when all the good films have already been watched.

Highly recommended - don't miss it whatever else you do.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Bruce Willis plays a (you guessed it) good cop in Surrogates (dir Jonathan Mostow, 2009), which is Robo Cop meets Stepford Wives with a little Terminator added for effect. As a good cop, he's dedicated to finding the criminal but it also means he must save humanity. No surprises there.

In this world, where people live their lives via robotic surrogates, people live inside their houses, reclining on "stem chairs", controlling their surrogates by computer link-up direct to their brains. There are still hold-outs, of course. The "Dreads" live in quarantined enclaves, one of which is headed by Ving Rhames. One "meatbag" named Miles Stickland who causes havoc early in the film, seeks refuge in the guarded territory but a surrogate controlled by Tom Greer - the Willis character - follows him there.

It's not Greer who finally does him in, however. It's the leader. But this cat turns out to be something different from what he appears, which is not surprising in a movie where peoples' surrogates are walking around the city, driving their cars, catching their trains, and dancing in dark and fuggy discos all night long.

It's outside a disco where the action starts, when Strickland uses a strange weapon to fry a pair of surrogates who are making out on the street. One turns out to be the surrogate of the son of Lionel Cantor, the scientist who invented surrogacy. But whereas most surrogates when destroyed leave the human unscathed, this time the young man is killed too. Greer's first job is to find the weapon, discover who made it, and get it back.

It's an impressive idea, but the film is definitely not without its quota of weak moments. The wooden, youthful faces of the surrogates recall The Stepford Wives, a bevy of perfect simulacra for human beings. Greer craves the human touch and tries to get his wife to relinquish her attachment to the robot that fronts for her in the real world. These scenes are creepy but also just a bit odd, as Greer tries to argue with his hidden wife, a woman still regretting the car accident that killed their son.

As for depth and meaningful messages, well, it's not hard to see where it's all heading. Sunshine, fresh air, baseball and walks in the park come to represent a real life in opposition to the synthetic cheapies offered by surrogacy. So when Greer is given the opportunity to fry all the robots, it's hardly a mental challenge to work out where the film is going to end up.

In short, it's a fairly interesting alternative version of the future based on some emerging technologies, mainly how objects can be manipulated only using brain waves. But it's not a great film. Worth a look, but don't stay up late.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Arthouse director Jim Jarmusch's 2009 The Limits of Control is a cool crime thriller that intrigues as it exasperates. Set in Spain, it uses a series of curious, repetitious moves by a Lone Man (Isaach de Bankole) as he moves through the urban and rural landscapes.

The Lone Man has been tasked with something mysterious by two men in an airport lounge, and while we're left guessing what it is he's supposed to do until near the end, we're never bored by the action even though the same things are done time and time again.

The camera work is so good that we don't mind the enigmas that surround the Lone Man's progress from high-rise tower to suburban flat to a delapidated house nestled among the dry hills of the country's outback. At each step, he goes through the same motions.

The two cups of coffee, the "boxing man" matchboxes, the tiny notes scribbled with numbers, the men and women carrying musical instruments - these props for the drama carry a weight but are not ponderous. Similarly, the Lone Man's shiny suits, his exercises, and his tight-lipped dedication to his pursuit are never dulled by over-exposure. Mystery is omni-present but not overwrought.

With appearances by such marquee actors as Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and John Hurt, there's added drama in the filmic presence Jarmusch is intent on creating. Brief discussions about movies and modes of representation add a postmodern delight that fails to overshadow the film's main thrust toward its denouement.

This curious and seriously underexposed film should stand the test of time. Its cinematography is so good that, ten or twenty years from now, it will be able to withstand scrutiny by the most demanding viewer. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Chinese businessman Dr Chau Chak Wing's Australian investments are small and inconspicuous, but he's about to become higher-profile. The Australian dual citizen has just donated $20 million toward the construction of the University of Technology, Sydney's (UTS) new business school, which is to be designed by the famous architect, Frank Gehry.

The new building, on the university's Broadway boundary, will be named the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building.

Dr Chau was the subject of a sustained investigation last year by The Sydney Morning Herald, which keeps a correspondent in China. The investigation was kicked off by a UTS journalism student, Nic Christensen, who had been scrutinising donations to Australia's major political parties.

The story shows that Dr Chau made a lot of money early on in his career due to his close relationships with senior Communist Party officials in China's southern Guangdong Province. But details are scant and Dr Chau himself turns out to be tight-lipped about his business history.

Daughter Winky Chow operates one of Dr Chau's Australian investments, the Australian New Express Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper. Chow has also been close to the erstwhile NSW premier, Morris Iemma. In this, she has emulated her father's method of chasing profits through close ties to political leaders.

Christensen's story won him the Walkley Foundation's Media Super Student Journalist of the Year Award in 2009. He is now employed as a journalist in Sydney.

Friday, 18 June 2010

A New Zealand Green Party leader found himself on the wrong side of the security detail in Wellington today, when Chinese security guards accompanying touring political bigwig Xi Jinpin ripped a Tibetan flag out of his hands and threw it to the ground under their feet.

New Zealand police say they will investigate the incident, according to the New Zealand Herald.

Russel Norman is incensed that a lawful protest in the grounds of the Parliament could be handled in the manner demonstrated by the security detail. He said that NZ security guards attending the delegation did not do anything to infringe on his right to free speech.

Pic credit: Mark Mitchell.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Herve is the main protagonist in The French Kissers (Les beaux gosses, dir Riad Sattouf, 2009), a fabulously funny coming-of-age story. The cast of young people playing school kids in a small French town give excellent performances under the direction of this untried director, who also writes and illustrates comics.

Herve is a bit of a geek, as are his friends. They try to come to terms with their sexualities while at the same time coping with homework, exams, bullies, and parents. But sex is the major preoccupation, and it's where the biggest laughs come from.

On the bus, Herve finds himself often sitting next to a girl, Aurore, who hangs with the cool crowd. Unable to grasp the import of these advances, he stumbles along until, one day, she takes matters in hand and kisses him. And while Herve tries to convince his best friend, Camel, that she totally gives out they continue to kiss, and kiss, and kiss.

She teaches him things, and he treats her with respect and affection - until he sees her dirty feet! When he starts kissing another girl, she retaliates. When he tells her he loves her, she asks that they just be friends.

Herve's mother, meanwhile, tries to maintain her dignity though divorced. At a party one night, she meets a guy. But at least she stops ribbing Herve about his onanism, which at times is conducted in tandem with Camel.

It's tough being young, but there are compensations. The French Kissers illustrates the many pitfalls and victories that strew the path of the young but it mainly tries to show how amusing it all is. This is a fresh-faced film by a new director using an unfamiliar cast. And it's well worth the time spent watching it.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Antonio Banderas teams up with Morgan Freeman in The Code (dir Mimi Leder, 2009), an Antonio Banderas and Morgan Freeman "vehicle" in which two jewel theives go through the required steps in an effort to lay their hands on a pair of Faberge eggs worth more than a king's ransom.

Wooden acting? You get it. Stagey takes? Ditto. Clumsy security guards? In abundance. High-tech safe-cracking gear? Heaps of it. Add into the mix earnest, lead-footed New York City police and you've got a run-of-the-mill crime thriller that is so artificial that every scene seems to have been heisted from some other robbery flic that you saw back in the days when this genre still had some legs.

The Russian immigrant angle does little to freshen up the dynamic between the actors, two of whom are notionally decent at what they do. But if ever Banderas and Freeman decided they wanted to make a picture so bad it would end their careers forever, this picture would be the one they chose.

The double-crosses and revelations that stumble over each other in the closing minutes of the film do not compensate for the poor quality of what went earlier. Please watch this movie if you've nothing better to do with your time than groan at the cliches that tumble out of this rancid movie. It's so bad, it's just a little bit engaging.

Monday, 14 June 2010

The truth is elastic in fiction, especially fictionalised accounts of actual events. In Nothing But the Truth (2008), director Rod Lurie shows how far a reporter will go to protect a source when the thing at issue is "national security". Kate Beckinsale plays Rachel Armstrong, a political reporter based loosely on real-life New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent three months in jail for withholding the identity of her source for a story in which she revealed that Valerie Plame was a CIA operative.

Miller now works for the Fox News Channel. Her stories on weapons of mass destruction helped the Bush administration, in 2003, to convince Congress to go to war against the administration in Iraq. In this light, Miller's new role with a right-wing news service is not surprising. It is surprising that her case was used to make a story about an intrepid reporter who finds hersefl facing off against a determined federal administration.

Unlike Miller, Armstrong has a hard time taking the fight up to the government. Initially jailed for not revealing her source, Armstrong serves over a year in prison. The US Supreme Court then goes against her by ruling that she was in fact in contempt of court when she refused to reveal her source. And after the district court judge releases her, she is arrested again, this time on a criminal charge for the same offence.

Armstrong suffers further indignities due to her steadfastness. Her husband, Ray Armstrong (David Schwimmer), starts dating other women and her son is so embarrassed by the whole affair that he virtually gives up on his mother. He is helped along by Ray's contention that Rachel made a choice by refusing to identify her source. The father's lack of faith in Rachel leads the son to forsake his love for his mother.

The film contains a great many good scenes such as those which include the boy, Timmy (Preston Bailey). Alan Alda is good as the lawyer, Alan Burnside, who Rachel's newspaper retains. Schwimmer is also good as the callow husband.

What seems to happen is that the public gives up on Rachel's cause. This is due, says Burnside at one point in the film, to the public's disenchantment with the media in general, an outcome Miller's work serves to hasten.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The 500-kilometre road trip from Glen Innes to the Sunshine Coast (see map) should take just over five-and-a-half hours, according the Australian online roadmap service Whereis. In fact, it took me six-and-a-half hours each way.


The difference can be accounted for due to the fact that the online trip planner does not take into account rest stops. And anyone who thinks they can do a trip this long without a break or three, is frankly insane.

But with a continent as big as our is, you can see why some drivers like to boast about their prowess, skill, and endurance. In reality, these qualities kill. There's a sign up on the New England Highway just this side of the Queensland-New South Wales border that says there have been 70 fatigue-related deaths on the road this year alone. Boofheads who push the envelope are the cause of this carnage.

The less said about the skill of Queensland drivers, the better. Suffice to say that I am extra cautious about driving between Ipswich and home.

On the road just after 7.30am, I saw the frosted fields lying cream under a pale-blue sky. As the sun warmed them, the fields turned straw-colour. This is their natural tone in these days of drought. The sky delivers much-needed moisture, which in the chill of early morning turns to ice on the grass.

On the stereo I had Steely Dan, Joan Armatrading, Simon & Garfunkel, and Nina Simone. Thoughts crowded my head as I drove to these sounds. Each song brings with it a bevy of attachments, cultural and aesthetic. Driving in the morning can be pleasurable. Driving at night can be a lottery.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Myall Creek Massacre commemoration this year was typically replete with bonhomie and goodwill. It was typical in another way, too. The winter sun didn't let us down, casting its golden refulgence (no hyperbole here!) over the gathered crowd of well-wishers come from far and wide to take part on an important date on the reconciliation calendar.

Having injured my left foot badly last Monday, I was surprised to be able to walk all the way up Whitlow Road to the commemoration site. The hobbling, let's just say, was not glaringly obvious. On the way back it was a bit more challenging, but I managed to acquit myself decently.

I made a few new contacts this time. This time, I'd planned to seek out participants for a story I want to write about the inception of the commemoration. The memorial rock was set up in 2000 but the push for some sort of organised ceremony predates that year by a fair distance.

So I've collected four key telephone numbers of people who both have agreed to be interviewed and who have been involved in the push from an early date.

The trick, now, is to sell the story. So far, I've approached two quality publications but the response have been silent to this point. With the information I gleaned today, however, I should be in a better position to pitch beautifully - and in a way that will compell my targets to want to run a feature story.

Friday, 11 June 2010

It's about 500 kilometres from my place to the small New England town of Glen Innes. Most of the time you travel through southern Queensland. You know when you're over the border because the roads are better and there's less traffic.

The roads are a lot better in New South Wales. It must be because there's more people to support infrastructure down south, where the distance between towns is smaller and the towns themselves are better looked-after and feature older architecture.

The country is dry: mustard and olive. These dun tones compete on occasion with the blue of the mountains sitting wisely in the distance. It's the blue of the eye of an extinct species. It's an old, dark-turning-pale blue that reminds you of "exquisite" items of domestic pottery that you used to fear toppling in your great aunt's house when you visited for summer holidays.

Mustard and olive cut through by the grey macadam, its trim picked out in white. These lines sweep past your car windows at terrifying speeds, too fast to watch while driving (obviously). But also too fast to see clearly the small, twisted silver-dollar eucalypt standing amid the tall, hairy trunks of its cousins up the earthen embankment.

At a small newsagnecy-cum-take-away with a single bowser standing on the street frontage, I buy a bottle of water and ask if there's a loo in the area. "I'll get you the key," responds the tall youth behind the counter. In the toilet there's a small bottle of liquid soap to use to wash your hands and a dangling hand-towel to dry them.

I splash coffee on my shirt. I eat KFC in the parking lot in Warwick after making entrance the wrong way. I take it slow the whole way, never going over the 100km/hr speed limit. In NSW I see two patrol cars. They look like Christmas beetles.

Back in Aratula, a small convenience stop lying at the foot of the Cunningham Range, I went into a bric-a-brac shop and browsed the second-hand books. I settled on three of them, which set me back $20. They are:

Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland, Constance Campbell Petrie, Currey O'Neil, 1980.
Australia's Gulf Country, Dick Eussen, Rigby, 1976.
Jungle Warfare with the Australian Army in the South-West Pacific, Australian War Memorial, 1944.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

While news of further attempts to sanction Iran through the UN Security Council continues to appear on Australian media websites, an interesting item of investigative reporting by The New York Times is ignored by the editors of our broadsheets.

The report from correspondents on three continents, shows that Iran has gone to extraordinary lengths to mask the activities of ships previously explicitly (and ultimately) owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, IRISL. Hundreds of ships are now owned by shell companies based in places like Germany, the Isle of Man and Hong Kong, and these ships are doing business for Iran. One ship, The Diplomat, picked up a high-speed boat in South Africa that is classed among goods forbidden for trade with Iran.

In addition to a three-page news feature detailing the ship rebadging and reflagging, the ship ownership links with IRISL and the types of trade being undertaken with reflagged ships, the report includes an interactive graphic.

The graphic shows that there have been over 400 changes to 123 Iranian ships since 1990. Half of the changes have taken place since the beginning of 2009.

One thing the report does not detail at such length, however, is how new vessels built recently have been handled. There is some detail on this aspect of the case, but the journalists clearly point to further attempts by Iran to break the UN blockade by creatively flagging newly-built vessels, and placing them under complex ownership regimes.

The implications of the report are immense. In effect, Iran has been illegally trading, buying and transporting goods using secretly-owned ships for decades, and the extent of the activity has accelerated at the same time that countries like the United States have been most vocal about the country's nuclear program. Who knows what other technologies have successfully been shipped to Iran for inclusion in its uranium enrichment program from other countries?

The report appeared on Monday.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Pedro Almodovar delivers great cinema in Broken Embraces (2009), as always. Like his other films, there is a special place for the ladies - in this case his favourite Penelope Cruz - and there is a place for metanarrative. This time, however, Almodovar's theme is memory and regret.

The story is a pure love story. Cruz plays Lena, a corporate secretary who sleeps with the boss - construction czar Ernesto Martel. But she wants more, and finds it in the arms of film director Mateo Blanco. The love affair discovered, Martel exacts the maximum revenge he is capable of. After Lena recovers from the fall down-stairs, she escapes into the countryside in a car with Mateo.

Martel's revenge then takes the form of sabotage of the film Mateo and Lena have been working on. He also dispatches his son to the resort district the two lovers found solitude in. The boy has filmed the entire production, and now he films Lena's accidental death. Mateo survives but is permanently blind as a result of the car crash.

The film opens with Mateo - who now calls himself Harry Caine, his erstwhile nom de plume - being read to by an attractive girl he has met on the street. Martel, he learns, has just died. The same day, Martel's son appears at Harry's door wanting to hire him to write an autobiographical screenplay - following his accident, the director has turned to writing to earn a living.

Judit Garcia, Harry's agent, arrives to tidy up after Harry's impromptu tryst with the pretty girl from the street. Judit's son, Diego, also arrives. He serves as a factotum and, when Ray X - Martel's son has adopted a pseudonym - returns, he throws him out of Harry's flat. He also helps to reconstruct a bag of torn photos that date from the resort refuge.

Diego is the catalyst which allows Harry to face up to his past - his dead lover, Lena, the dead tormentor, Martel - and seek out Martel's son, who has never abandoned the documentary he was making even as Lena was crushed to death by a speeding black four-wheel-drive.

Diego's mother, Judit, also comes clean. She tells Harry about her betrayal of his vision. She had allowed Martel to destroy the film by making use of the worst cuts available in the tin. But now she reveals more. She tells Harry that she still possesses the entire shooting product. Diego, Harry and Judit sit down to reconstruct the film - Girls and Suitcases - from scratch. This time they use quality takes. Lena returns to life, Harry is reborn - and there's another secret too, which will remain undisclosed.

Life in retrospect is messy. Anyone's life contains unexpected and regrettable episodes. Almodovar seems to be telling us how we can reconstruct a credible story from fragments of lived experience. He seems to be telling us how that story can justify our current existence, even though it requires an effort. He offers some sort of redemption through art, through the assemblage of images and words, through the art practice as an essential element of any person's life.

Blind, alone, and lonely, Harry/Mateo rediscovers his true place within the perplexing patterns of his past. A very beautiful film.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Marine biologist Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia gives a great interview in the online magazine OnEarth, mainly dealing with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that has led authorities to shut down the fishing industry in that body of water.

This could be good news for the fish stocks in it, says Pauly. He itemises the damage that can be done to both plankton and the fish that feed on them. The final third of the interview concerns overfishing generally - the magazine didn't let an opportunity pass to highlight the serious plight of the world's fishing grounds.

The price of fish would have to go up, says Pauly, if fish were being fished sustainably. At current levels of fishing, the stocks will eventually run out, he says, so reducing the scale of the take will allow us to "live off the interest". Taking the financial metaphor further, Pauly says industrial-scale fishing such as we currently undertake is a "Ponzi scheme":

Natural resources such as fish and trees and such provide a certain interest, so you can leave the capital in the bank and live off the interest. And that you can do forever. But we have extracted more than the interest. In other words, we have gone into the capital. So we have in effect run a Ponzi scheme on natural resources, and we have depleted the ocean everywhere, including in the Gulf where only shrimp and menhaden (a small fish used for fertilizer) sustain seasonal fisheries.

Pauly was used extensively in the film End of the Line which appeared recently and screened in Australia this year. There is an increasing amount of coverage of the issue of overfishing, including a segment, last night, on the popular 7PM Project on Channel 10. A major UN study on biodiversity is due to be published in October.

Monday, 7 June 2010

I was immensely relieved to learn that An Education (dir Lone Scherfig, 2009) is based on an autobiographical memoir. And the best thing about the film is Carey Mulligan as Jenny, the character based on British journalist Lynn Barber, who wrote the book Nick Hornby based the screenplay on.

Jenny is bored with life's prospects, so when she meets the debonaire David she is deeply attracted to him. She gets to go out with him because Jenny's father is a utilitarian oaf whose boorishness is only matched by his stupidity. Her mother is a wilted rose of a woman who is completely dominated by her husband. It seems a recipe for disaster from the start, although the director and cast take pains to paint David in a positive light for most of the film.

Jenny goes to a private girl's school but she's disenchanted with the work although she excels in English. Her ambition - to study at Oxford University - is challenged when David starts to invite her out to swish restaurants and new, exciting places. But why nobody saw through this serial philanderer is a mystery. Jenny's parents are caught napping but luckily she takes precautions before having sex.

Eventually, Jenny discovers David's real situation. Her new challenge is to return to plan A. To do this Jenny conscripts the help of her understanding English teacher.

I frequently wondered why this movie had been made at all. The predicament is so not-2010, so outdated and pre-oral-contraception. Luckily, it's saved by fine acting by Mulligan. Alfred Molina, who plays Jenny's dad, may be a marquee actor but he does not stand out here. All in all, it's a decent film with a genuine centre of gravity but the volumes of anguish associated with becoming a fallen woman is, frankly, antique. If Mulligan had been a worse actor, the film would be a dud.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

It was a perfect Sunshine Coast day when Jessica Watson navigated her 34-foot sailboat around Alexandra Headland dodging a cluster of eager craft carrying sightseers. The beach at Mooloolaba was slightly crowded and a couple of thousand well-wishers lined the heights as Watson did a victory lap of the beach before turning south again to make for the canal, where she would dock at the sailing club.





Saturday, 5 June 2010

Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne in Bright Star (dir Jane Campion, 2009) is chillingly mesmerising adorned in her widow's weeds - tho never married - at large in a snow-bound copse, her brother trailing dutifully after her having been sent on this important errand by his concerned mother (Kerry Fox). It is a formidable introduction for the youth to the power of love. And the subject of this film is love.

Yes, Keats died. Unloved by the public. Undiscovered by the critics. A bright star in the firmament of English poetry, Keats (Ben Whishaw) shone the beams of his intelligence into areas of the human soul that had long lay in darkness. But another achievement has been overlooked, for it is no mean thing to capture the heart of a girl.

The many colours of love, indeed. Keats' confidant, Mr Brown (Paul Schneider) rather eagerly and dishonourably exerted himself in embodying another form of love. The rather carefree Mr Brown in fact got the Brawne's maid Abigail (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) with child, married her under duress, and returned to survey the field after his friend died. Fanny is of course bereft.

Cornish is more than up to the task of playing the love-lorne Fanny. Collapsed at the foot of the stairs, Fanny gasps for breath. "Mama," she cries, "I can't breathe." "There is a holiness to the heart's affections," Keats had warned his friend Brown, on finding that he had sent Fanny a Valentine note. Knowing that Keats was fond of Fanny, Brown's paper dalliance was at least in poor taste. Fanny, luckily, is true to the end, and Campion keeps the camera focused firmly on the black-clad female who wanders in the chilly woods reciting her lover's wonderful verses.

It's not a complicated love story, although the costumes and the bare wooden floors try to transport us back in time to a simpler era. Those are excellent props, I found, and they are deployed meaningfully and without ostentation. The language, the domestic fittings, even the tiny wrapped letters - mark of a time when paper was an expensive luxury - generate the required quotient of authenticity. But we find that love was, then, just as it is now: a thing of wonder. Campion's restless camera lingers on a wide variety of 18th-century-looking scenes, but the real trick is that we never know what's going to happen next.

One key element is the friction that Fanny and Mr Brown generate when they appear together on camera. The slightly trumped-up Brown lacks Keats' genuine richness of vision and he compensates by indulging in cynical musings, finding Fanny lacks the qualities that should allow her to tie herself to the real poet. The friction generates rising heat, however, late in the film when Mr Brown returns to the Brawne's house with his new wife Abigail in tow. There is a menace within this menage that threatens the pure link between Keats and Fanny.

Campion's taste is excellent, too. She zooms in on delicate flowers, she lingers lovingly over a hand as it touches a wall, she relishes the original and lovely garments that talented Fanny creates with needle, scissors and thread. Campion's deep respect for Fanny's achievement is evident in the care she takes to render the romance in bright, fresh colours - the colours of butterfly wings and cherry blossoms and ripples on a cold, dark pond far out in the woods.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) is a robust, entertaining film that serves to show Heath Ledger's superiority over alternative male leads. When he is on the set, Ledger, who plays Tony the conman, galvanises the viewer's attention and provides the kind of strong, compelling acting only great actors can provide.

Sadly, Ledger died during filming. The film credits end with "From Heath Ledger and friends". In his intro, Gilliam the director registers the form of shock Ledger's death produced on the cast, which includes stand-in performers of the calibre of Jude Law and Johnny Depp. None of them put a dent in Ledger's performance, which is outstanding.

While Ledger was clearly in a league of his own, the film still entertains in his absence. Gilliam's fantastical imagination combines a hard-boiled, street-smart realism that depends on strong performances with superb special effects that do nothing to detract from the importance of the individual actor and his or her craft. It is a wise, funny and gripping film that derives most of its force from ancient forms, such as the morality play. Tom Waits as the devil is a fitting foil to Christopher Plummer as the idealistic but flawed Doctor Parnassus. The two duel it out in a battle where the stakes are high. The future happiness of Valentina (Lily Cole) hangs on the outcome of the contest.

Gilliam's tough stance toward good and evil is refreshingly clear-cut in the play of the film's drama. Good things may happen to good people, but the bad ones will meet with a savage fate indeed. These choices exist within a context of slapstick action that ropes in an over-the-freaking-top troupe of modern-day gypsies whose repertoire of magic tricks includes a walk-through mirror that leads to an altenative dimension.

It is within this alternative dimension that peoples' real desires and motivations are made visible, and here lies a powerful medium Gilliam takes full advantage of as he illustrates his dark-but-hopeful world view. Conmen and gangsters get their just deserts and the devil himself is held at bay as individuals who are set loose in the fantasy world beyond the curtain discover their true selves, and get to glimpse their futures.

Gilliam has fashioned a wonderful, rewarding and fun film that is highly recommended.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has to eat it all up. Eight months after winning the national election, the leader of the country's Democratic Party finds that it is impossible to both please the people and support the country's strategic interests.

His resignation means that he has choked on a rank mixture of geopolitical conservatism and xenophobia.

Keeping the US base on Okinawa was never his intention - at the start. During the campaign, Hatoyama told the Japanese he would stand up to the Americans. For most Japanese, this meant doing something about the military base, which not only annoy local Okinawans but also irritate other Japanese because it underscores the country's dependence. Admitting that you need help is a hard thing to do for a proud people.

Unfortunately, the Japanese do need help. Not only is China expanding its military power in synch with its economic growth, but North Korea remains a real threat. Neither country likes the Japanese much.

The Americans like the Japanese. A bit too much, it turns out. US military personnel are known more for their sexual indiscretions than for the annual o-bon festivals they generously host at their bases. Summer fun is no substitute for safety, especially for a highly conservative and decorous folk like the Japanese.

Hatoyama's premature demise - he resigned the leadership today - in advance of July elections for upper house representatives will please the Liberal Democrats. The LDP had been in power almost uninterruptedly for over 50 years. The resignation will give them hope of regaining government, which would be a bad outcome for Japan. Diversity and change are rare quantities on the archipelago.

Pic credit: Telegraph.co.uk

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

With the Greens holding the balance of power in Tasmania so government there in fact has two heads, and with the UK leadership split between ideologically-opposed parties, news from last night that the Greens' primary vote in Australia had lifted by four points, to 16 percent, should give us pause.

We're not very well-served by the media, however. News Ltd's Hobart Mercury does little enough to illustrate the stresses that must be playing on the Labor Party leadership as it negotiates government and administration with a strong-willed partner in the form of the Tasmanian Greens.

And that newspaper's sister publication, The Australian, is equally remiss in ignoring what's happening down south. The Greens' performance in Tasmania should be recounted nationally. It can serve as a guide for average Australians, many of whom are now contemplating, in polling answers at least, removing favour from the traditional big-two and bestowing it on the major alternative.

It's probably too much of an ask to predict an outright Greens win federally. The figures are just not showing such an outcome. But a divided leadership, a shared mandate, a joint venture in the busienss of government is certainly not beyong imagining for the Commonwealth.

Pic credit: AgileProductDesign.com