Sunday 31 January 2010

Review: The Combination, dir David Field (2009)

Written and directed by two actors the film goes deep behind the headlines relating to ethnic discord in Sydney's western suburbs. It's a cracker of a film, filled with pain and humour, fear and passion. It should be gold-plated and hung, like a mirror ball, from the ceiling of the Federal Parliament.

George Basha, the writer, also stars in the lead role. David Field, the director, memorably played the main oyster farmer in The Oyster Farmer (2004).

Basha has written a moving sequel to Romeo and Juliet, but has set it among the roudy schoolkids and middle-class parents of modern Australian suburbia. For me, whose grandfather came from Africa as a migrant early last century, the afterglow of the kind of hatred and fear the movie displays is more or less still real.

The movie also shows that you can make a fantastic film on a low budget using unknown actors. All the actors deliver value, giving the film a finely-balanced, forward movement. There are no glaring standouts. All of the crew deserve a solid round of applause.

The events of the film bracket the Cronulla riots of December 2005, when crowds of Anglo-Australians descended on the beachside suburb, many wrapped in flags, intending to deal out summary justice to young Lebanese men. The conflict started a few days earlier when a group of Lebanese men bashed a lifeguard, and the message to assemble was communicated by text message. Arrests were made and the recriminations continue to be felt in the fabric of Australian society, as the violence unmasked a discord that is constantly present in the community.

In The Combination, schoolyard conflict spills over into the streets when Charlie (Firass Dirani) starts to deal in amphetamines, supplied by Ibo (Michael Denkha), a BMW-driving mid-level dealer with a cruel streak.

Charlie doesn't really know what he's getting involved in, and his brother John (George Basha), who has just got out of jail, starts to get worried.

John, meanwhile, has met a young Anglo-Australian woman, Sydney (Clare Bowen), and a deep romance builds despite her parents' outright rejection of her new boyfriend. They give her an ultimatum: drop him or move out of home.

(There's a great scene where John, waiting on the doorstep having just spoken with Sydney's mother - who clearly doesn't approve of him - looks down at the doormat at the front door. 'Welcome', it says. John's face shows the irony in the woven inscription.)

Sydney's mother and father, and Charlie's and John's mother, are played with energy and talent, adding to the film's flawless ensemble.

Charlie, for his part, is keen on Anna (Katrina Risteska), despite the fact that she's the girlfriend of the ethnic gang's main nemesis, Scott (Vaughn White).

So while Charlie and his mates get tangled up in drugs, money, guns and violence, John cleans out toilets at the local boxing academy and deepens his involvement with Sydney, taking her out and giving her the attention she's not getting within her own tribe.

(She reminds me of my own grandmother: a young, beautiful girl looking for love in the big city and finding it in the arms of a charming, kindhearted wogboy.)

The violence simmering just below the surface of the Lebanese-Australian community erupts sporadically, making you fear for Sydney's safety. As an innocent, she deserves the best, you think, and you worry lest the dream she's living will be shattered by an overspill of that violence. It bubbles and crackles incessantly. It has a life of its own, and the weak humans that populate the scene are animated by it.

There are two deaths, one on each side of the racial divide.

Basha's vision imagines resolving the conflict. To achieve this goal, he tries to tell the story truthfully and unflinchingly. If you can support the tension the film creates, in the watching, you should watch it. You really won't regret it.

Saturday 30 January 2010

Review: Secrets of the Jury Room, Malcolm Knox (2005)

Laws in Australia circumscribing what can be said about juries - and, specifically, the jury YOU sat on - mean that journalist and novelist Malcolm Knox has had to range far and wide to assemble details for this excellent book. He goes to movies and fiction, academic studies and interviews with judges, police and jury members. He does his homework.

Which is a good thing as juries are about as well-understood as those thermally-tolerant worms that inhabit mid-oceanic ridges. In fact, they're probably less well-understood than these rare creatures.

That's because if you sit on a jury you can't talk about your deliberations. This is one of the shortcomings of being a juror that Knox identifies. Post-jury stress, it seems, is a real problem. And this is the type of problem that Knox is eager to canvas in the book.

Other interesting things emerge, too. For one, Knox tried - as so many eligible jury members do - to exempt himself from participation. When he was unsuccessful in this ignoble assay he simply shrugged and got on with the job. Surprising for Knox, he discovered that the experience enriched his understanding of the processes of the law, and furnished his memory with much else besides.

This sort of positive experience is not unusual, we find based on studies undertaken in Australia and overseas.

Knox says that juries are one of the least-understood elements of the democratic process. For various reasons there could never be a jurists' union but, he says, such an organisation might go some way toward improving the conditions under which juries operate.

Empanelling can be stressful, he says. Once empanelled, the judge is likely to immediately commence the process of presenting evidence. Instructing juries on their rights does not occur at this point, although Knox says that it should. Juries are so busy, he says, taking notes and concentrating on the evidence being presented that they do not ask many questions - as is, it seems, their right.

This is one of the shortcomings of the experience that Knox's book attempts to address. He assembles 12 items at the book's close that he thinks should be addressed in order to improve the stressful experience of being a juror.

Despite restrictions on what can - and cannot - be said, this is an excellent introduction to what being a juror involves, and is recommended reading for all Australians. One day, after all, your turn could come.

In Knox's case, the crime that was alleged was that of soliciting to murder. Knox takes us into the details of the case, having expunged any identifying details that might be cause for an appeal by the defendant, and that might incriminate himself.

In this sense, the book doubles as a crime drama. We are exposed to evidence from the prosecution including transcripts of telephone conversations that were recorded by the police. Knox tells us how the two attorneys handle this information in court, and how the jury reacts to it.

We get a fly's-eye view of the court proceeding (within the limits set down by the law). We also go right into the jury room where the 12 individuals spend a lot of their time waiting, chatting, getting to know each other, and sharing - food, books, cooking tips, opinions about real estate and dating.

It's an intimate scene. This intimacy - which leads to familiarity - may be one of the elements of being a juror that most appeals to Knox. He convinces us that - despite dramatic differences in age, social background, education and upbringing - the jurors 'get on' with one another in an environment of friendliness and cohesion.

It's not always like this, Knox tells us. But that's another reason why reading this book is a good idea. When your time comes to serve, you'll be better prepared for the shocks that will inevitably come.

Friday 29 January 2010

Review: Funny People, dir Judd Apatow (2009)

This intimate, serious bromance is full of fast one-liners and single-issue riffs. What happens when you assemble an excellent comic cast - and it ain't a cast of thousands, either - is a heap of scatalogical jokes delivered in a low-key way so that the pathos of the elephant-in-the-room (George Simmons (Adam Sandler) contracts a form of deadly leukemia) isn't buried in laughs.

Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is a nice guy who is picked up in a club's back room by the despairing Simmons who needs help shepherding himself through the rougher phases of chemotherapy. Simmons is older, wiser, richer and a lot more brittle than the resilient Wright, who nevertheless brings to the relationship more than just a set of killer scripts. He's hired to write jokes but he ends up functioning as Simmons' best friend.

The sad truth is that the middle-aged comedian - who's got a garage full of cars and flat-screen TVs he's been gifted over the years by sponsors - has no real friends he can rely on in his hour of need.

While he flails around, fighting the black dog of depression that the illness has burdened him with, he faces up to the fact that his once-girlfriend Leslie (Laura Mann) constituted his best chance at happiness. He decides to contact her. She visits. He invites her to a concert - her Australian husband Clarke (Eric Bana) is often away in China on business - and she invites him to visit her at her home just north of San Francisco.

Simmons - now in remission - and Wright drive in the classic rich-guy SUV from their base in Los Angeles, and enter a fraught zone of rich relationships that presents a nexus of trust the two funny men are totally unused to. With two little girls as company, Leslie makes the guys comfortable in an intimate, domestic setting. The lovers take a roll in the hay. Clarke returns unexpectedly. Things are on the verge of mayhem.

Which is, of course, where it all ends up. Naturally, there are recriminations and accusations of trust destroyed. Simmons dismisses a furious Wright, and drives off into the night to return to his own personal planet of luxurious loneliness.

It won't entirely spoil the ending for you, but it's not a downer, trust me.

One thing, for an Australian audience, that is refreshing is that Bana 'does' his character with an authentic, broad Australian accent. Unfortunately, he also ends up looking like a buffoon with a funny accent. Wright and Simmons have a poor track record here, making fun - to his face - of the treating doctor whose accent is Nordic or German.

Bana's Ozzie is a big, thundering brawler who loves Aussie Rules football and is liable to turn maudlin and self-reflective at a moment's notice. He's a rough diamond, as though Australia lacks the cultural depth to turn its children out as humans fully-rounded enough to become comedians with razor-sharp wits and the capacity for quotidien friendships.

This marks a sour note in the film. It's unfortunate that Apatow - who wrote the screnplay as well - finds it necessary to demonise one tribe in order to artificially bolster the humanity of his own.

Are comedians so inherently unlikeable? Perhaps, but the film is quite good.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Review: The Ugly Truth, dir Robert Luketic (2009)

This film may not seem to be for those chicks who love an iPad-toting intellectual, or for those guys who adore a serious, inquiring mind in a woman. Put aside your mundane expectations, those biases ingrained by lived experience, those quirks of hard-earned habit, those misgivings trained by exposure to reality. This film is - on the surface, at least - about hairy, crass, untutored men and compliant, eager-to-please, besotted women.

At least this is so in the beginning.

What doesn't change from one moment to the next is the film's assumption that girls are just as desirous of a roll in the hay as their rougher contemporaries. But they don't call 'em the fairer sex for nothing.

In the red corner stands Abby Richter (Katherine Reigl, pic), a TV news producer with high standards, exceptional morals, and clean underwear. Abby is looking for That Guy but her show's daily ratings are trending downward, causing the station's managers to bring on-board Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), a heathenish, pussy-seeking ratings device wrapped in a rough, manly exterior.

Mike's credentials, professionally, are his successes running a cable-TV show called 'The Ugly Truth' where he gives lonely women pointers on how to nab that ideal fella. In his world, guys give not a fig about brains and romance. They're in it for one thing, and one thing only.

And I don't need to tell you what THAT means, vidiers. As long as she's wrapped in lacy underwear and is willing to apply her orifices to achieving his physical satisfaction, this brand of femininity will undoubtedly get the guy of her dreams.

They're off to a rocky start, with Chadway scheduled to appear on Richter's nightly news show. Forced to run the same race, the sparks fly. But lovable Chadway gets the job done. Ratings soar. Richter begrudgingly acquiesces in the new regime of Bonobo monkey orgies and cherry-jelly girl-on-girl wrestling.

She also starts to allow her lumbering anchor to give her tips on getting next-door's ever-so-available doctor, Colin (Eric Winter), to toe the love line.

Romantic comedy can be tiresomely off-base when you're asked to buy into a screed. The Ugly Truth spins a line, but there's enough reality - spiced by references to vaginas - to keep things running on rails, rather than heading off into la-la land.

Richter's vagina stars in the central scene, where the horny producer (unbelievably; it pays not to ask for too much reality with this film) slips on a pair of vibrating panties just before heading out to a work dinner party. When a curious child picks up the remote control device for the stimulating underwear, Richter credibly fakes a stand-up orgasm as her colleagues look on.

Fun times, fellers.

Fans of Shakespeare will remember The Taming of the Shrew and others of the bard's comedies, where strong, articulate women face off against their intellectual equals of the male persuasion. Given these precedents, the ending is hardly a surprise. What's suprising, though, is how happy you are that the two finally see eye-to-eye on love.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Review: Bruno, dir Larry Charles (2009)

It’s not every day you watch a film that is designed to cause the same level of distaste as a handful of fingernails scraped violently down a dusty blackboard.

English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has written a devilish screenplay that aims to reveal the intolerance that underlies many parts of contemporary society.

He’s chosen America, but you feel that Cohen’s hijinks would generate the same type of fury anywhere he managed to drag his extensive, rathouse-shiny wardrobe.

Where to start? Perhaps the best place to start is at the end of this happy-making movie. Because in the end, Bruno achieves what he sets out to achieve: global fame.

It’s the crunchy bits in the middle that are so hard to consume.

At the start, we’re already in the thick of it. Wearing a suit made entirely out of Velcro, Bruno throws himself into covering a fashion show. An established figure in the Austrian fashion scene (the script says), our intrepid reporter is ejected from the gala event having destroyed half of the backstage. Blacklisted, he vows to try out his talents in the world’s biggest market: America.

In California, Bruno approaches a talent agent who schedules him in as an extra in a courtroom drama. Over-eager to achieve fame fast, Bruno’s shenanigans ensure that he is soon ejected from the set. Undaunted, he sets about making a celebrity show featuring himself as the compere. The audience pilot session is an unmitigated disaster, but Bruno picks up a valuable tip from one of the sample group. He decides to make a porn film.

With a real-life personality – an ex-Presidential candidate – Bruno sequesters himself in a bedroom with the unfortunate man who ends up storming out in disgust.

What next for Bruno? Middle East peace? Yeah! So off he flies, securing an interview with a representative of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, who throws him out as the group refuses to kidnap this whacko foreign running dog.

Undaunted, Bruno travels to Africa and finds a black child to adopt. Back in California, he sets up a photo shoot and manages to outrage the audience of a trailer-park chat show. Stretching the possibilities of umbrage to their ultimate end, a child protection officer takes the kid into care.

Apparently dejected, Bruno overdoses on sweets and other sticky carbohydrates at a Texas diner. Sunk in the depths of despair at seeing his precious infant taken by the dead hand of the state, Bruno has a fling with his assistant’s assistant, Lutz - the only one among his former confederates who cared to accompany the rising 19-year-old superstar across the Atlantic. In the morning, they are startled to find themselves, in the hotel room, chained together by a rattling agglomeration of sex aids.

Bruno calls the desk but the hotel staffer who comes to his aid is so outraged by the sight of the kinky paraphernalia he finds in the room that the pair is summarily ejected – still bound together – into the street, where an anti-Gay rally is taking place.

They stagger onto a bus until a passing police officer discovers them, naked except for a few strategically-placed items, on the floor of the bus. They’re taken into custody and released the next morning, whereupon they argue and Lutz leaves his naked idol outside the remand centre.

Bruno decides to turn over a new leaf and tries to find help in the form of a counsellor who promises to convert the high-achieving aesthete away from his erroneous lifestyle. Anything for fame – even heterosexuality, says the shiny-eyed Bruno. We’re in Alabama, but the man’s advice leads Bruno to seek macho companions in a number of locales, including the US Army, among a group of hard-nosed Southern hunters, and at a swinger’s party.

Repulsed by the men at the party, Bruno’s jacket is firmly grasped by a buxom lass on the stairs who unceremoniously marches him down into a bedroom, where she proceeds to whip him to make him remove his clothes. “Get down on your knees and suck my spike,” orders the over-busty Amazon. Bruno manages to make his escape out the window, scuttling into the darkness dressed only in a skimpy pair of underpants.

Eight months later, and still consumed by the desire for instant fame, Bruno finds himself in a fighting ring. Beyond the mesh fence surrounding the ring hundreds of die-hard rednecks boo and halloo, spoiling for blood. Interrupting Bruno’s macho palaver, Lutz descends from the bleachers and enters the ring. They fight. Tasting blood, Lutz and Bruno tear each others’ clothes off in a lustful frenzy as the incredulous spectators bay and howl at this sickening betrayal of a sacred social more.

It’s just one cringe worthy scene in a film that has rewritten the book when it comes to making enemies. In some parts of society, people like Bruno just ain’t welcome.

Be scared. Be very scared.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Tech fans are on the edge of their seats as tomorrow's anticipated news of Apple's new tablet device approaches the desktop. The device is expected to usher in a new era of consumption for media companies. tells us that The New York Times has made some changes organisationally in advance of the Apple launch, although executives are being coy about the motivations for the steps taken.

On Monday, The Times also announced that its media group division had created a new segment for “reader applications,” and named Yasmin Namini, the senior vice president for marketing and circulation, to head it.

Related news informs us that the newspaper has placed staff in Apple's HQ in order to develop "a large-screen version of the newspaper’s iPhone application that incorporates video for the yet-to-be-unveiled device".

Newspaper companies have signalled obliquely - and sometimes forthrightly - that a new delivery platform could help to offset losses in advertising, by forcing owners of the device to pay for a subscription.

Mobile phone companies have plenty of experience in the fine art of overcharging for enhanced convenience, and newspapers evidently see the potential for profits by placing a premium charge on feed delivered via a mobile platform.

You can bet that media executives attending next month's Media 2010 conference in Sydney would count themselves as tech fans right now. Across the sector, ad spend dropped by 50 per cent from 2000 to 2009.

Even The New York Times cut staff last year, in a moment of drama for media watchers. Whether that moment will be repeated this year is a matter executives, journalists, and editors are eager to know. For the moment, the iTablet holds out the promise of better financial returns.

Maybe, this year, things will start to turn around for newspapers.

Monday 25 January 2010

Have the leopards changed their spots? On one hand we’ve got The Australian dubbing Kevin Rudd ‘Australian of the Year’ for his handling of the GFC. On the other, we’ve got The Sydney Morning Herald giving two days of front-page, above-the-fold exposure to Tony Abbot’s whinge about migrants not appreciating their luck by gaining residency in this sun-soaked, untroubled and spectre-less land of ours.

Over at Crikey, Bernard Keane thinks that The Australian has “swallowed its pride” and admitted they were wrong about Rudd, whose contra-GFC economic stimulus measures attracted uncompromising criticism from the News Ltd flagship.

But things may not be as black-and-white as they appear. The motivation for The Australian’s volte-face may lie elsewhere.

At the same time as they were tapping Rudd on his newly-besuited shoulder – the PM has just returned from his end-of-year holidays - for mustering the nation’s formidable resources to combat a scourge of biblical proportions, editors at The Australian also saw fit to give space to Malcolm Turnbull’s screed against the monarchy.

This took the form of an editorial and a video of Malcolm – sans necktie – promoting the notion of having an Australian as head of state.

The video appears to be spontaneous. It’s as if the ex-opposition leader had quietly sat down with a cup of latte and a bunch of mates in order to give his personal viewpoint an impromptu airing. It’s effective and, for many, long overdue.

So is The Australian backing the fallen in preference to the actual challenger?

A few things should be borne in mind. One is that Rupert Murdoch declared a couple of years ago that he would support the notion that climate change has been caused by human activities. We know that Tony Abbot, who took over the reins of the Liberal Party from Turnbull a month ago, is a climate sceptic.

The other thing worth noting – at least in passing – is that, historically, there have consistently been three leadership changes in the opposition party in the aftermath of an election defeat. Abbot gained the helm as a result of the second leadership change since the 2007 election. The next election is due this year or next.

So perhaps The Australian anticipates that Abbott will not last long. This will be welcome news for many, if it is true.

The decision by Fairfax to give Abbott leverage over its readers’ time is equally mysterious, but it’s mitigated by the counter-punch appearing yesterday evening at 11.30pm.

It’s not merely likely that Abbott chose to have a go at migrants – they don’t believe in equality, their youth engage in gang violence – to conjure up the xenophobic devils that served his former master (John Howard) so well in 2001. Abbott got a 2-point rise in the preferred party polls recently, and is looking at any method available that will knock Rudd off the perch that his broad popularity has given him – for a long time.

I can’t find a good reason for it. The story that appeared late last night showed that the Sydney Morning Herald may have been simply doing the standard thing that newspapers do: give both sides of the story.

Titled ‘Abbott taken to task over 'offensive' citizenship message’, it includes quotes by two NGO operatives blasting Abbott’s words as “divisive, hurtful and deliberately crafted to push buttons and play the race card before Australia Day”.

We’ll see how prominently this story runs on the website. So far, it’s only been a few hours and it’s already set to fall below the fold.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Review: Disgrace, dir Steve Jacobs (2008)

This movie is a rare thing: an adaptation of a great novel that is, itself, great fun to watch. Writer Anna Maria Monticelli reportedly had full cooperation from novelist J.M. Coetzee. It shows in the result, but this is more than just a faithful rendition of a modern classic.

David Lurie (John Malkovich) is a 52-year-old English professor specialising in the Romantic poets. He has one child, Lucy (Jessica Haines), but is now separated. One bright spring day he invites a student of his, Melanie (Antoinette Engel), for a drink. They begin a - rather sordid - affair until, one day, Melanie does not show up for her exam.

She has taken sleeping pills and overdosed. Her family and the faculty rally round and Lurie is expelled from the system in disgrace. Sobered, he gets in his car and heads out into the wastes of the South African hinterland to visit Lucy.

But things turn out differently to what he anticipated when three boys rape Lucy and rob both him and her.

The politics of life on the land, where you are forced to rely on your neighbour, are different from those that apply in the city, where Lurie taught at university. It turns out that one of the boys involved is the son-in-law of Petrus (Eric Ebouaney) - Lucy's erstwhile farmhand and now her new partner in the agricultural business.

Lurie confronts Petrus on several occasions in the film, but the logic of life here is very different to that which held true in the bosom of the crowd. Family ties are everything. "I will marry Lucy," says Petrus as he shovels grout into the window frame of the house he is building in front of a disbelieving Lurie.

Lucy then coldheartedly runs through a catalogue of what she's prepared to tolerate in order to remain in the country. It's clear that she can't survive alone. With Petrus to shield her from the routine shocks of her chosen, hard life, she may manage.

Lurie is also dismayed to discover that Lucy intends to keep the child who is the offspring of one of the boys who raped her.

Undaunted, Lurie helps out at a local animal shelter, where he begins an affair with the middle-aged proprietress, Bev Shaw (Fiona Press).

In the novel this scene seemed a lot more sordid than it does here, where the physicality of the buxom Press mitigates against pathos. In fact, Lurie's downfall seems less dramatic in the movie in general. From a professor to a man filling an incinerator with the dead bodies of euthenised dogs seems a long way but, here, it seems to be just part of one of those natural turns that life takes from time to time.

Jacobs and Monticelli also introduce us to the beautiful countryside of South Africa, a place strewn with granite boulders and riven by the high backs of granite hills. The long, lonely roads of the landscape resemble those of Australia, which gives the film a familiar look.

What is different in South Africa is the level of security everyone lives under. Auto-release gates are de rigeur for Cape Town houses, and barbed wire is not unusual. Keeping large dogs for protection appears to be a minimum requirement in this country, where post-apartheid lawlessness has made people turn into brittle paranoids.

But what is the movie 'about'?

We are invited here, as in the novel, to draw a moral equivalence between Lucy's rape and Lurie's taking advantage of Melanie. Rather than bottles of wine and expensive lunches by the water, there is a rough, forced entry. But what matters, it seems, is the lack of consideration, the lack of personal accountability.

Society is only as safe as the individual makes it.

Where, on the one hand, Lurie espouses giving into one's desires - as a scholar of the Romantics he has the lines down pat - rather than living in self-censoring fear, on the other sit the wild boys who take advantage of Lucy's single state.

Marked differences in the domestic politics of the country and city underly the validity of the equivalence. Out there, things are different. Out there, you need protection. Out there, a single woman becomes a target for routine violence. In here, an ageing Don Juan merely forces himself upon a young student in a moment of tawdry complacency.

Nevertheless, Melanie suffers. That she does so with such understated efficiency, on the screen, is a testament to the powers of those who developed the movie and brought it to life. The movie is therefore highly recommended.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Review: Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit ... and the rise of Hamas, Paul McGeough (2009)

Emerging in 1987 in the First Intifada, Hamas – the Islamist Palestinian resistance group – slowly consolidated its power. In the early days it did so with the help of Israel, which was ever eager to undercut its traditional foe: Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

The rivalry between the two organisations is a constant theme in the book.

Led by men such as Khalid Mishal, who grew up in Kuwait as his family was evicted from Palestine after the 1967 war, Hamas prospered by offering the people a basket of services from prayer halls (mosques) to hospitals, from financial support to rocket attacks and suicide bombers.

It’s salutary to know that Fatah - Arafat’s secular resistance organisation – also emerged in Kuwait.

After training in physics at university, where he became radicalised, Khalid taught at secondary school until he began participating in the organisation of an Islamist resistance movement in 1984.

The book’s title refers to an assassination attempt in 1997 in Jordan – where Khalid was at the time based - by Mossad which involved a group of faux foreigners squirting a strong anaesthetic into Khalid’s ear. The injection was successful but two of the would-be assassins were rounded up by Khalid’s bodyguards and a passing local, and taken into custody.

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Jordan’s King Hussein wangled the antidote out of the Israelis. In exchange for the six Mossad agents marooned in Amman, dozens of Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli jails.

The event helped to cement Khalid’s position as the senior Hamas figure.

It also illustrates how undercover shenanigans by Israel would repeatedly lead to Hamas gains. Later, when Hamas won the Palestinian elections, Israeli and US attempts to arm Fatah would come to nought when its soldiers refused to fight against the new emergent power in the Occupied Territories.

Sunni Hamas, like Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah, enjoyed – and enjoys – immense support from its main constituents: ordinary people.

McGeough’s 417-page history charts the progress of Hamas from its beginnings to its eventual rise to supremacy in Gaza.

The author takes great pains to provide details of the relations between major players in the evolving drama. They are Palestinian, Kuwaiti, Iranian, Jordanian, Syrian, American, Canadian and Israeli. Their struggles meet, here, with the attentions of an accomplished and knowledgeable writer.

The book is highly recommended.

Thursday 21 January 2010

'Australian Legends' stamps have been given out since 1997 in a sort of common man's Australia Day honours list. This year, writers get a run, with no surprises to be found on the blocks.

Each one is immediately recognisable and unarguably 'iconic' - eek! That damnable epithet!

Three of the writers are of the distinctly 'literary' type: Peter Carey, Tim Winton and David Malouf. Two are 'popular' authors - Colleen McCulloch and Bryce Courtenay. Then there's that rag-and-bones man, Tom Keneally, whose inclusion is far from unexpected but whose output defies easy analysis comprising, as it does, historical fiction, history, and general fiction.

Iconic literary journo Susan Wyndham was given the job of covering the release for The Sydney Morning Herald.

A notable did-not-run - at least for me - is Christos Tsiolkas. The Melbourne-based writer is arguably the best writer working in Australia today.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Review: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)

The book chronicles the fortunes of Thomas Cromwell, an English statesman and Protestant sympathiser who had worked previously for Henry VIII’s leading adviser, Cardinal Wolsey.

Wolsey failed to achieve the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Spain, and was arrested. The cardinal died en route to London where he was to be tried.
Cromwell survived and prospered under Henry, the English monarch most desirous of a live son.

The title of the book is ironic, as Wolf Hall turns out to be the home seat of Jane Seymour, an attendant on Anne Boleyn, whose inability to deliver the desired live son led to her dramatic downfall.

Cromwell, the fixer, has his eye on Seymour and, the final page of the novel having arrived, works to alter the course of the king’s annual Progress so that it stops at Wolf Hall. Then the book ends.

We know, of course, that Seymour will get married to the king later and, tiresome as it sounds, will also lose her head. Modern scholarship says that Henry had a sexually-transmitted disease that made him infertile.

Much of the action in the book takes place at court or at one of Cromwell’s domiciles. We never enter Parliament, which is a shame as that inclusion may have lessened the burden carried by the king’s mere desires, in deciding the fates of the men and women who surrounded him.

But we are constantly reminded that the king is ever forced to generate support for his decisions in order to prevent rebellion and civil strife. Parliament was a key element of the court’s damage control efforts, and Cromwell was the chief means at the king’s disposal toward achieving the official sanction it offers.

Mantel’s art is to take us into the daily round of life in the Renaissance. It was a tough life of shocks and close relationships among family. Men such as Cromwell assembled a wide household around themselves, which included men to do things and wards to take care of children. Others are introduced into the household out of charity.

Death was omnipresent.

The role of religion is present, in the book, in the language used in the course of daily life. Fear of death and the part played by conscience in decision-making meant that one’s relationship to God was as important as one’s relationship to a husband or wife. For a monarch, the demands of statesmanship and the requirement to be ready at all times for war meant that sovereignty had become a more persistent concern than in the past. Allegiance to norms set in Rome, within the Catholic See, had become something of a relic under the new ethos of independence. It is not surprising, then, that the Reformation occurred in its most dramatic form in Northern Europe.

In England, self-determination had already taken the form of the Lollard heresy, a generation before the events that take place in the book. The Lollards, like the Lutherans, desired to be able to read their scriptures in the vernacular.

Mantel also makes Anne Boleyn a Protestant. Being intimate with the court, Anne would anyway have been able to secure copies of English translations of the Bible. But Mantel turns her into a stout follower of Luther, and does the same with Cromwell.

Personal preferences could very quickly become a public matter, in the Renaissance, as heresy was a sin punishable by a very unpleasant death.

The most rigid persecutor of heretics, Thomas More (author of bestselling book Utopia), himself faces the block as a result of an inability to bring himself to swear that Henry was now head of the Church of England.

To complete her task, Mantel must have read very widely. Her command of contemporary terminology is astonishing. Equally surprising is her grasp of the political and religious issues of the time.

The book won the Man Booker Prize last year and, in my estimation, the judges made a good choice.

Monday 18 January 2010

Six weeks ago, Rupert Murdoch revealed that all News Corps web sites would charge for content. "Good journalism is an expensive commodity," said Murdoch. A few days ago the company changed its management structure for flagship Australian broadsheet, The Australian.

Now, The New York Times has said that it will charge for access "within weeks".

The Times will likely deploy a metered system, meaning you can read a certain number of articles for free before you’re prompted to pay up. However, the system won’t be implemented for a few months – likely in [March/April].

Comments on the Mashable story almost universally decry the move, with individuals writing that they will not pay for their news. Andrew Kuzmin, for example, says "sorry NYTimes- looks like the BBC has won for me".

Fear of public media is already part of the debate, with News Corp executive James Murdoch voicing disquiet about the BBC, in terms echoing those used by his father, who has said that the idea of government intervention "ought to be chilling to anyone who cares about free speech".

Comments from US-based bloggers on Twitter mimic this response. There seems to be deeply-ingrained unease in that country about government-run media, which flies in the face of the experiences of consumers in countries where such a service is popular - Canada, the UK, Australia. In those countries, the public broadcaster has a better reputation than its private counterparts.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Review: Donnie Darko, dir Richard Kelly (2001)

This fascinating little love story takes the viewer into a Twilight Zone located at the end of every suburban street. In fact, it reaches inside your house, too. No bathroom has ever seemed this weird and malevolent.

A masterpiece of modern cinema, the film tanked when released immediately after the September 11 attacks over New York. Since earning just over $4 million at the box office then, the movie has gone on to become a cult classic on DVD, earning far more in this incarnation.

Brilliant performances are delivered by major characters, including a simmering Drew Barrymore as the cool English teacher, Karen Pomeroy, and Patrick Swayze as the unctuous pop guru Jim Cunningham. But supporting roles are also well executed, including a stunning performance by Beth Grant as Kitty Farmer, the neurologically-challenged health teacher.

Die-hard fans will be keen to unravel the 'truth' behind the mystery presented here, but for any watcher of taste, Donnie Darko offers rare pleasures. Made on a shoestring, the film punches well above its weight by attempting to achieve an almost impossible task.

In short, it gives the viewer a credible insight into full-blown schizophrenia - a condition that molds the world to fit a delusion. Regardless of the 'truth' explicit in the director's vision (Kelly also wrote the screenplay), the overall, low-level unease that permeates the film competently illustrates what schizophrenics go through when beset by their devils.

Some things militate against such a diagnosis, however. Near the end, Dr Lilian Thurman (played by Katherine Ross), Donnie's psychiatrist, recommends ending the use of medication for her patient. Given his delusions, such a decision would be highly unlikely in the real world. What this plot twist does is try to increase the viewer's uncertainty about what is real and what is merely imagined in Donnie's mind.

Kelly sets up an elaborate conceit, with intimations of the possibility (and reality) of time travel. If Donnie can reverse the train of events leading up to Gretchen's death, then he can presumably save her life, even if it also means obliterating their love story. In this scenario (many justifications are possible for the complex plot) the film is a love story. To me, this seems like the most suitable interpretation.

The twists and turns of the plot serve to illustrate a deeper truth, however. The school environment - including satellite centres such as family dining rooms - is a microcosm of the world. Here, individual curiosity is thwarted or channelled into 'worthy' pursuits. The bullies are as much a product of the 'system' as Jim Cunningham's reductive videos, which attempt to circumscribe human behaviour along a rigid, dualistic continuum that reflects the classical Judeo-Christian one.

But many behaviours are not just good or evil. There is sometimes good in evil - such as when Donnie's burning down of Cunningham's house unearths a child porn cache - and sometimes evil in good - as when a typical family dinner at the Darko house ends up as a mere exchange of vicious insults.

Added to a competent soundtrack and a creepy visual aesthetic, the complex and paradoxical world of Donnie Darko promises a ton of goodness for the video enthusiast. I cannot recommend the movie highly enough.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Review: The Taking of Pelham 123, dir Tony Scott (2009)

The film opens with trains and a disparate group of men - none of whom you'd want your daughter to bring home for dinner - holding bulky bags while standing on platforms. One guy has a beard, another looks foreign, the third is Hispanic. Then there's John Travolta with a tattoo of a gun on his neck.

With an opening sequence like this, meshed with a hard-core soundtrack and cut with images of the city of New York, you might think: terrorism. But the DVD case and the title say: robbery.

Without wishing to spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it, the reality is that it's an amalgam of both.

Travolta's Ryder hijacks the train with his band of hard men and contacts rail transit officer Garber - played by a bulked-up Denzel Washington - so that he can get the money the heist is ostensibly about. But the true story only comes out during their conversations, some of which are overheard by the city mayor - played by James Gandolfini.

Putting together the clues provided by a visual link in the form of an open Skype connection between a hostage and his girlfriend back home in the city, the mayor and the police isolate the real reason Ryder has taken the train. It's to do with stock market reactions to terrorist attacks. The fact is that the price of gold routinely rises as the US dollar plunges, whenever an attack takes place.

Ryder has been out of prison two weeks and "seed money" from his earlier, white-collar crime has been used to buy gold. Using a laptop in the train's driver's compartment, Ryder watches his profits surge as news of the heist filters out through the media.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Paul Byrnes called the movie - which is a classic straight-to-video, if you ask me - "mechanical and unspirited" but at least it's vaguely interesting. The dialog isn't bad and the visual effects - it's shot in a dark, slightly grungy way - are fun.

The violence is unconvincing, which is a major drawback in a film where fear should play a role.

For a quiet night at home with a pizza, The Taking of Pelham 123 is as rewarding as a lot of movies are. But if you miss it, you're not missing much.

Friday 15 January 2010

Migrant domestic worker abuse is, I knew, a problem in the Middle East. In countries like Lebanon, migrant domestic workers routinely have their passports taken away and their movements restricted by abusive employers. If a female migrant domestic worker is raped, she has no recourse to the law.

These things I've read at another time. But similar problems exist, it seems, in Asian countries that commonly employ migrant domestic workers, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, according to a study by Human Rights Watch.

Almost 150 deaths of migrant domestic workers in Singapore over a 6-year period from suicide or workplace accidents, have been studied. Many workers died when they fell from apartments, having been asked to clean windows or perform other outside tasks where no safety precautions were in place to protect them.

Other workers committed suicide. It is common for the movements of migrant domestic workers to be restricted by Singaporean employers, who pay them a pittance to work as virtual slaves. Employers are reluctant to entrust their children to the care of migrant domestic workers, assuming that they are incapable of taking responsibility for their welfare.

But more substantial abuse is also widespread, it seems.

Interviews with government officials, embassy officials, aid organizations, domestic workers, and employment agents suggest that causes of these falls likely include suicide and hazardous workplace conditions. Isolation at the workplace, excessive work demands, employer abuse, and financial pressures are all factors that may contribute to anxiety and depression.

Employers may prevent migrant domestic workers from using the telephone or from talking with their compatriots in neighbouring houses. Some migrant domestic workers boast how they hide mobile phones from their employers as a last resort.

While compensation may be levied on employers in cases where a fall was due to an inappropriate request, in cases of suicide there is none.

No compensation is offered in cases of suicide, and as the woman quoted above suggests, women who attempt suicide face possible criminal prosecution.

Some employers illegally take away residency papers in addition to passports.

It seems that being a migrant domestic worker in the economic paradise of Singapore is no simple task!

Thursday 14 January 2010

Pictures of young Chinese laying bunches of flowers on the Google sign in Beijing remind us that there are a lot of individuals in China who do not agree with their government's censorship of the Web. From a NY Times story:

“The government should give people the right to see what they want online,” said the woman, Bing, who withheld her full name for fear that it might cause her problems at school. “The government can’t always tell lies to the people.”

A government that censors and lies may not, it would seem, possess the mandate from heaven: traditionally the quality of leadership that distinguishes a valid regime from a mere usurper.

Other stories remind us that the cyber attacks which caused Google to consider moving out of China may not even have been launched by the government, but by rogue hackers with a nationalistic outlook.

American journalist living in Shanghai, Adam Minter, has written a long piece that examines the modus operandi of Chinese hackers, most of whom support their government while operating independently of it. Minter interviews another China-based journalist, Mara Hvistendahl, who has written extensively on the subject. She says:

Probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve read in the past few weeks is the assertion that Chinese Internet cops double as hackers. That level of organization and sophistication is absurd to anyone who has had actual experience with local bureaucracy in China.

She says also that "online nationalism and hacking are very much linked":

After witnessing a few protests, I’d already decided that nationalism in China didn’t quite work the way it’s often portrayed in the Western press, which is as a government-sponsored force. In 2005, the anti-Japanese protests converged on my street. They didn’t look like a staid government demonstration. The government bears responsibility for skewed history books and persistent spin doctoring, but assuming that Chinese simply swallow government dictates denies them agency.

Another possibility is that Chinese authorities have been covertly leveraging the expertise of such individuals, and supplying them with the names of human rights activits - the people targeted in the recent attacks.

Whatever the truth, the decision by Google to leave China - no other outcome seems even remotely possible - is incredibly embarrassing for the Chinese government.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Brisbane to become Sardine City? The Australian's emotionally-charged headline belies the truth: Brisbane is vastly underdeveloped compared with Sydney and Melbourne. Just drive around to see for yourself.

I did recently: from Southbank out to Manly West, a new suburb built on what used to be the Edgell vegetable farm. It's spacious, uncluttered, low-traffic, and well served by parks. There are no apartments at all.

A similar story ran today in the Brisbane Times, where the Property Council of Queensland was reported saying that there was no chance of getting enough new development built within already-built-up areas.

The Property Council of Queensland represents property developers.

"Under the current regulatory arrangements," a spokesperson was quoted as remarking. The buck passes to the government, with the infrastructure minister saying "the problem rested with the construction and development industry and local councils".

The buck passes to the city council.

Brisbane City Council declined to comment, saying they set the conditions for developers and the government to act.


In NSW, the government - which everybody feels justified in ignoring due to its present malaise - passed laws a few years ago enabling it to override local council restrictions on development applications.

As a result, unpopular apartment blocks have been built in areas considered elite, and where existing train lines well-serve a small, and ageing, population.

The NSW system, while unpopular with many, has set about achieving a good outcome for the city and for those who can afford to buy into such expensive areas. The Australian's story says that many don't want to live in such conditions, depsite the fact that average apartment sizes are increasing.

But with fears Brisbane will turn into Sardine City, the Property Council of Queensland and the Urban Development Institute of Australia warn that high-rise living is more for singles and childless couples, but most families with children still want a house with a backyard.

Brisbane can easily accommodate additional apartment development in built-up areas. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous. There are no terrace houses in Brisbane, and very few of the standard, red-brick, 2-storey, 70s-style apartment blocks that cluster around Sydney's suburbs.

The deluge of negativity coming from the peak development body - and the gutless buck-passing from state and city councils - is a cause for shame. Brisbane can handle more density and interested parties can do better than this, in attempting to achieve higher-density living for Brisbane residents.

Monday 11 January 2010

Review: Understanding Iran, William R Polk (2009)

Polk is an avowed Democrat and he pulls no punches when dissecting the history of Iran. Remarkable, however, is the lack of responses on Google. The Neocons he lambasts so thoroughly are remaining silent, it would seem.

While a good deal of the book glosses over Iran's ancient and early-modern history, the author comes into his element when talking about events in the twentieth century. The book's Afterword constitutes an appraisal of the future prospects of US-Iran relations.

Here, Polk says that Iran's target of developing nuclear capabilities - a warhead and the means to deploy it - is, without doubt, firmly in place. While talking rapprochement (which, he says, happens obliquely at times) the administration is undoubtedly aiming to have nuclear capabilities as soon as possible.

He says they have little option, especially since George W Bush's hawkish words - and equally hawkish actions - which have as yet to be diluted by Obama's attempts to difuse the situation. A nuclear capability would make everyone else play nicer than they do - or have done in the past.

It's in that past, of course, that the problems started. Especially the overthrow of elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 as an element of British foreign policy. Mossadegh had threatened to nationalise British Petroleum (BP; it went by a different name in those days) and the Brits conscripted the CIA, who urged the US president to summon up the Communist spectre. The manoeuvre worked - for about 25 years.

Having supported the Iranian king (shah) for all that time, there was no viable opposition in place when the revolution happened. The people, naturally, turned to the ulama (religious establishment). The rest, as they say, is history.

The shah got rid of the National Front party because he was unable to tolerate any opposition. Fawned on by American politicians, businesspeople, and NGOs, the king felt too confident, says Polk, and overstretched his bow. In the end, the army defected as the populace turned on a despised leader believed to be a puppet of the equally despised Americans.

Who knew?

But there's more, according to Polk.

Unlike the other powers, the United States also engaged in the [Iran-Iraq] war [1980 - 1988]. In 1987, America "reflagged" Kuwaiti and other oil tankers seeking to break the Iranian blockade in the Gulf, stationed there what a congressional study termed "the largest armada deployed since the height of the Vietnam war," and maneuvered "as if our objective was to goad Iran into a war with us." The U.S. government nearly succeeded in causing that war. The U.S. naval forces destroyed about half of the Iranian fleet in the Gulf in 1988 in what was described as "the biggest sea battle since World War II." In a particularly tragic incident, the USN guided missile cruiser Vincennes, operating within Iranian waters, shot down an Iran Air civilian passenger plane, killing all 290 passengers, in July 1988.


Well, it's in Wikipedia so it must be true.

Polk also looks at the recent Iranian election won (allegedly) by Ahmadinejad by a wide margin. Polk is restrained in assessing the evidence of corruption, and his summary is not conclusive either way.

The reaction of ordinary Iranians, however, seems to support doubt as to whether the election was rigged.

Polk underscores the country's Shiite traditions and the intense patriotism of the populace in explaining the depth of feeling and the sometimes unrestrained passions evident during uprisings, most notably during the revolution in 1979 and the subsequent taking of the US embassy.

Like Mark Bowden, in Guests of the Ayatollah (reviewed recently), Polk highlights the severe consequences of ignorance of the forces at play in Iran, for foreigners and foreign governments. Certainly, news reports that show speeches given by president Ahmadinejad - who seems to extract perverse pleasure from the West's displeasure - never talk about the past sins of Iran's colonial masters.

Saturday 9 January 2010

Review: Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden (2006)

The author spent over five years working out why a group of Iranian students took hostage the entire complement of staff in the US embassy in Tehran. He shows that the symbolism native to the Iranians was totally foreign to US authorities and defence agencies, who completely missed the signs that such an assault was likely. The romantic urge of the hostage takers was alien to US strategists.

Bowden also answers the equally compelling question of why the Iranian authorities finally decided to free the hostages. With Russian forces in place in Afghanistan to the east and Iraqi airstrikes echoing through the streets of Tehran, the need for American military supplies was pressing. That, and the fact that the students had gotten tired of their onerous task.

Keeping over 50 people prisoner for over a year is not a trivial undertaking. Bowden shows how various external factors influenced the jailers, causing them at times to increase surveillance as well as the severity of their measures. At other times, such as Christmas, they gave their charges treats and special treatment.

With such a large number of players in this 637-page tome, it is not surprising that you lose track of the majority. Bowden spoke with almost all of the ex-hostages for the book, but only a few are well-delineated enough to evoke recognition in the reader each time the author returns to their story.

This is a shortcoming, but it is not fatal.

More important is the insight the book gives the reader as to the motivations for the attack. The way Iran's religious leaders leapt on the attack as an opportunity to cement their own positions more firmly in the country's evolving politics, reminds us that random acts in a time of flux can have unforseen consequences.

The students' utter conviction that what they were doing was right is cause for disquiet. Those religious leaders, who only recently had been freed from constraints imposed by the deposed shah's regime, were whipping the country into a frenzy of excitement. Taking the American embassy was just the most obvious way to create a significant other that was then exploited by the mullahs to create cohesion in the country, with themselves as the powerful core.

In this way, the students played right into the hands of their more formidable compatriots, some of whom were imprisoned by the shah in the time of his reign.

Bowden goes the extra mile by providing updates from the present based on interviews conducted in Tehran, showing how the student hostage-takers prospered under the mullahs.

All-in-all this is an engrossing and well-concieved book. There are some problems in execution however careful the reader. Nevertheless, it comes highly recommended from me.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Review: My Sister's Keeper, dir Nick Cassavetes (2009)

What looked to be a chick flic turned out to be a highly entertaining movie. I'd exhausted all the guy movies in the new releases section and settled on this one as a next-best option. Little could I anticipate how fantastic it would turn out to be.

It didn't have an entirely auspicious start, either. The husband is a fire-fighter, for a start. Here's the classic good guy, I thought, the real he-man with big, strong, warm arms and a job absolutely above reproach: the thinking woman's beefcake casting decision.

But this turns out to be just part of the film's infrastructure. An incidental element in a complex structure.

Kate Fitzgerald (Sofia Vassilieva) has leukemia, a form of blood cancer. Parents Sara (Cameron Diaz) and Brian (Jason Patrick) decide to engineer a new child so that it can provide body elements - blood, bone marrow, a kidney - to their sick daughter. They feel entitled to do this and certain there will be no problems in future.

They find out how wrong this assumption is when younger daughter Anna (Abigail Breslin) decides to sue her parents for her own biological independence. With $700 in her pocket, Anna visits well-known lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) to start the ball rolling. Needless to say, the act renders her mum and dad speechless.

Sara, a lawyer herself, shifts into fight mode, fronting Judge De Salvo (Joan Cusack) and challenging the action.

But the family continues to live their life. Anna stays at home. She loves her sister, whose condition is deteriorating. But the film gives more than just this one story line. Flashbacks furnish us with additional detail, as when Kate finds a boyfriend in fellow cancer sufferer Taylor Ambrose (Thomas Dekker). Their romance is special, and adds poignancy to the denouement.

I won't spoil this for readers. It's fantastic, and is ushered in by dyslexic brother, Jesse (Evan Ellingsen), during one of the fiery courtroom skirmishes between a recalcitrant Kate and a fuming Sara.

The film is definitely one for the archives. It is based on the novel by well-known author Jodi Picoult.

Monday 4 January 2010

Review: The Age of the Warrior, Robert Fisk (2009)

The author is The Independent's Middle East correspondent. This collection includes pieces published in that British newspaper spanning the period 2002 to 2008. Fisk fearlessly attacks Western media and politicians for deliberately misleading their constituents about the situation in that unstable region.

He is most scathing of comments made publicly by ex-president George W Bush and ex-prime minister Tony Blair, but others are also fair game. To hammer home the point, in regard to Arab scepticism about the Jewish Holocaust, he ends the collection with ruminations on Suite Francaise, the novel - published posthumously - by Irene Nemirovsky, who died at Auschwitz.

There is an occasional feel about his columns, which rarely are long. They are easy to read, entertaining - Fisk has given nicknames to his most hated opponents - and well-informed.

Fisk doesn't hide his biases. There is no attempt at 'balance' here.

Nevertheless, we feel as though we are in safe hands. Fisk is critical and educated, compassionate and knowing. There is a world-weary grumble in the undertones of his articles that amuses, as though Fisk were always intended to be a character in the writings. Indeed, often the author refers to 'Fisk' in his boyhood, and sometimes even dedicates an entire column to chronicling his own adventures, as when he tries to secure a new passport. The result is amusing.

Fisk lives in an apartment in Beirut, and has done so for decades. He covered the 1982 Israeli invasion personally and has covered the region faithfully since that time.

More important than his knowledge is the fact that it is easy to like Fisk. As in the case of the great Hunter Thompson, by wearing his heart on his sleeve, Fisk is able to demonstrate that there is nothing hidden up it.

The book is recommended reading for those interested in the Second Gulf War, terrorism, and the West's attitudes toward the Middle East. Fisk is aware that he is a small voice in a crowded square and, like any good representative, he stays on message. Fortunately for him - and us - his message is the right one.

Sunday 3 January 2010

Review: Battle for Haditha dir Nick Broomfield (2007)

I was pleasantly surprised that this fictionalised reconstruction of events that actually took place on 19 November 2005 was as good as it is. Comparisons with films like Blackhawk Down are inevitable, and Battle for Haditha survives them well.

The film uses the real events - when 24 Iraqi civilians were killed by Marines - and adds plenty to show how the insurgency works. It works, it seems, because of greed. At one point the older insurgent tells his young accomplice that, when he left the Iraqi army, he was paid $50. When the two arrive at the base of the 'foreigners' to pick up their improvised explosive device (IED), they get $500 immediately with the promise of another $500 if the attack is successful.

The older guy is an unemployed family man and the young guy works in an electronics store.

With the bomb in their truck, they pass through a US checkpoint and then get to work with picks and shovels, burying their deadly cargo. Neighbours see the work underway and complain among themselves - some even leave the area - but there is no thought of reporting it to authorities.

We get to know these neighbours, including a young woman and her husband. The woman will be one of the few to survive.

Corporal Ramirez (pic) is a two-term soldier who takes charge when the explosion goes off. He's been having bad dreams and resents the military for their treatment of him and his like.

Once the bomb has been planted, it is a waiting game. The two insurgents sit on an old couch on top of a nearby house with a gun, a video camera, and the mobile phone that will be used to detonate the IED. Finally, the convoy of Americans passes by on the right side of the road and they strike.

A soldier is killed instantly and others are wounded. Ramirez goes into action. Accompanied by a posse of Marines, he heads across the gulley by the road. They break down doors, shoot indiscriminately before asking any questions - there's no translator anyway - and set off grenades. It's a bloodbath.

The film shows how stress and desperation combine with money from overseas to destroy lives in Iraq. Talk of 'democracy' and 'freedom' that comes from the lips of some of the Marines at the beginning of the film sounds childish and uninformed. The movie has done its job well.

Saturday 2 January 2010

Review: China and Iran: Parallel History, Future Threat?, Edward Burman (2009)

The area known as Central Asia is awakening and its neighbours, China and Iran, are developing close ties. The author, a China resident and long-time Iran resident, is uniquely placed to comment on the future. He's also well versed in the past. The book looks both back and forward as it develops themes, the most important being resentment of third-world countries such as these toward past humiliations.

It may be true that colonialism has led to the two countries chronicling similar pasts. What is important to remember, says Burman, is that these similarities draw the nations together as they negotiate the present, and plan for the future.

China's new model of governance has received coverage recently, most memorably on The 7.30 Report a couple of days ago. In the program, a US-based academic warned that China's anti-Enlightenment attitudes constitute one of the most dangerous elements in modern geopolitics. Other third-world countries that aspire to economic independence can draw on China's experience when developing policies, he said. This tendency can lead to unpleasant outcomes for activists in those countries.

In the case of Iran, China offers both a source of capital and a source of advanced technology. Iran offers China cheap energy. Burman says that this equation causes their foreign policies to coalesce, especially important considering China's permanent seat on the UN Security Council. When asked to sanction Iran's nuclear program, he says, China treads softly.

A point to remark on, however interesting the themes and topics covered in the book, is Burman's sometimes erratic syntax. Sentences lose the thread on occasion, which tires the reader. There is also a need for a bit more professional editing as errors of grammar and dropped articles reduce legibility.

Overall, a good book for the holidays. It's the kind of book you want to read when you've got some free time, and when the regular media is in low gear as journalists take a well-earned break from their labours.

Friday 1 January 2010

Review: Inglourious Basterds, dir Quentin Tarantino (2009)

Imagine one day Tarantino decides to dig into his stored lore of war films with both hands, and dredge up a mass of imagery. How would the idiosynchratic filmmaker treat the subject matter? With wild abandon, it turns out.

A crew of Jewish American soldier infiltrates behind enemy lines, killing German soldiers. Brad Pitt plays their leader - Lieutenant Aldo Raine - with considerable flair. It's a role that offers plenty of scope for comedy, and Pitt takes advantage of this.

On the other side is the German intelligence officer, Colonel Hans Landa, played by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz. Landa hunts Jews so they can be transported to Poland for extermination. In Nazi-occupied France he makes himself busy.

As usual in a Tarantino film, there's plenty of good dialogue. One scene that adds little to the plot takes place in a cellar bar. A group of Allied soldiers working under cover, and a German actress working with them, is bailed up by a nosy SS officer. The word-play is rich, but this side story does not add much to the plot. The pleasure is in the interplay of received tropes and Tarantino's invention.

The main focus of the plot is a Jewish girl named Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) who now goes by the name Emmanuelle Mimieux. She runs a cinema and attracts the attention of a celebrated German sniper, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). With his input, the premiere of a film detailing Zoller's deeds is scheduled to play at Shoshanna's cinema.

She hatches a plot, seeing that a large number of high-ranking German officers will attend.

The film exploits decades of WWII films to create an imaginative pastiche with its own values and a strong momentum that carries the viewer happily toward the ironic denouement. Highly recommended.