Monday 31 May 2010

Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant (2009) perhaps marks a point of transition for the German filmmaker from a magico-realist European phase to a mainstream-Hollywood American phase. Kudos to the director for nabbing Val Kilmer to play second-fiddle policeman Stevie Pruit.

For marquee actor Nicholas Cage, this film can do no harm at all, although I estimate it's not as good as the 1992 original with the same title, the one that was directed by American Abel Ferrara.

Cage plays a crooked cop with a back injury sustained when he saved a prisoner caged in the basement of an inundated New Orleans lock-up during Hurricane Katrina. The pain pushes Terence McDonagh into the relaxing and beguiling arms of illegal substances, a habit he shares with girlfriend and call-girl Frankie Donnenfeld (played by Eva Mendes).

The drug-use causes McDonagh to do stuff a good cop shouldn't do. This includes raiding the police station's property room, harassing rich kids on their way out of discos, and pocketing any stray plastic bag he discovers while out on the streets on duty. And his gambling gets him into trouble, too, eventually pushing him into joining forces with a prominent drug dealer he had been investigating as part of a quintuple-murder probe.

McDonagh stumbles through his dizzy life of petty crime and strung-out highs with a certain quotient of manly aplomb, although we feel our frustration growing as things eventually go from bad to worse. And this is where Cage's considerable talents come into play. It would have been so easy to play this too hard, too chipper. Cage maintains a certain slovenly dignity - aided of course by the director - despite his numerous inadvertent slip-ups and aggressive misdemeanours.

A low point is reached when an internal investigation team bundle Terence up at his father's substantial but run-down rural mansion, and promise in no uncertain terms to end his promising career.

There's no need to spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it. Suffice it to say, the good things about McDonagh - especially his rich and heartfelt relationship with Donnenfeld - seem to serve to carry him through a series of damaging rencontres with the law and the lawless alike.

But this is certainly not Herzog's best film. For those with a taste for hardboiled American police drama, however, this neat film will satisfy.

Sunday 30 May 2010

The 2009 documentary The Cove makes engrossing viewing, combining a conservation message with undercover surveillance of a small cove at the town of Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. The filmmakers are not welcome in Taiji, as the face of this man shows. "Go home!" he shouts at the camera.

Like Chinese plainclothes police who manoeuvred their umbrellas in front of Western journalists who visited Tiananmen Square last year for the 20th anniversary of the political demonstration that culminated in bloodshed, the guy in this photo and others like him did everything possible to prevent Ric O'Barry and his co-conspirators from filming in the area of the dolphin hunt.

Although it's not really a hunt, in any sense of the word. The fishermen merely harvest dolphins in industrial-scale boats. The dolphins are speared with short harpoons, are loaded onto transports, and are removed for butchering.

O'Barry is passionate about saving these dolphins. He holds a special place in dolphin lore as he was the trainer of the dolphins used in the TV series Flipper and has been actively working to free dolphins wherever possible for many years.

The group of specialists recruited for the purpose of making the film worked for months preparing high-tech equipment including special rocks for hiding high-definition cameras, underwater sound-recording equipment, and even a small dirigible for filming from the air. Getting the gear onto the plane and into Japan was a fraught process.

They were so sure, after their arrival, that they were being followed they organised decoy vehicles to draw the police away from active group members, on the night the team set out to plant the fake rocks, set up the cameras, and finalise the equipment. The next day, the fishermen did not know they were being filmed.

A special moment happens in the film near the end with a representative of the fisheries department. The dolphins are killed with special knives, he tells his interviewer, that are plunged into the creature's spine, killing it instantly. A video camera is produced and the shocked functionary watches the footage captured only a few days beforehand. "Where and when did you take this?" he asks.

When will the slaughter end? Japan now has seen, in limited release, a film that to make took copious ingenuity and boundless goodwill on the part of many individuals. Japan also now knows that dolphin meat contains high levels of mercury. My guess is that it is only a matter of time before the practise of killing dolphins is officially banned in Japan.

Saturday 29 May 2010

Review: The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin (1987)

In this ground-breaking, experimental memoir, British social anthropologist Bruce Chatwin takes the reader to the dry, isolated Outback where we get to see as much of the local Westerners as of the local Indigenous people. Indeed, his survey shows up a contrast between apparent dysfunction among the former and wisdom among the latter.

Before going bush, Chatwin had already travelled to isolated places. He had runs on the board, too, in having read a number of books about Aboriginal songlines - the incantations used to realise through song the existence and the reality of the country the Aborigines live in. A songline is the way, Chatwin tells us, the Aborigines actualise the land. Without song, they believe, the land would cease to exist.

And it's almost every aspect of the vast country that requires song, we find.

To ensure an accurate rendering of the countryside, Aboriginal society has developed a complex web of obligations between individuals. These obligations give Aboriginal society its solidity. They make for meaningful relationships between people, and between people and the land.

Take the land away from Aboriginals and you remove the superstructure. But out here, in the bush and in the desert, this superstructure persists to a degree that is absent in urban centres where all land has been appropriated by Western cities.

It's the Westerners out there who are falling apart, tortured by their isolation and their inability to bring the Aborigines into the embrace of their own culture. Misanthropy, despair, racism, and alcoholism are rife among this small population of Anglos and immigrants.

Chatwin's mate Arkady is an exception, and there are others too. But strange behaviour is everywhere here.

But while Chatwin effortlessly underscores this dysfunctional society with his elegant and accurate renderings of everyday drama, he is less censorious when it comes to Aboriginal dysfunction. Published over two decades ago, the book was revolutionary. Given events that have unfolded in the interim, we are in a better position to assess some of the casual remarks he includes. The condition of some Aborigines, he remarks, is better than others'.

The problems we see nowadays existing within Aboriginal communities were already present, and alcohol was, and is, the main culprit when it comes to Aboriginal dysfunction. Chatwin never takes his eyes away from the underlying reasons for this degradation, however. Take away the land and you take away an Aboriginal's very soul.

For me, the book contains added drama. On the flyleaf, my father inscribed a birthday salutation. The year was 1988, when I was 26 years old and still confused by life. The book was therefore part of an attempt by dad to come to terms with me. It is clear that he read the book, but it is certain that we never talked about it, mainly because I didn't read it until now.

The memoir - the book chronicles a period of time in the writer's life, and he's an actor in it - is experimental because Chatwin breaks off the stunning narrative after a time and goes on a journey of his own. The last part of the book is a songline for an educated Westerner. It takes in snippets of prose extracted from a reader's reality: extracts and quotes from eminent and admired writers, short glimpses into lived experience, and rememberings.

But it doesn't work. A Western songline cannot divert from the novelistic form if it is to remain faithful to its core. Chatwin has tried to break the mold but, instead, merely underlines the importance of the elegant narrative form that has developed, in the West, over thousands of years starting in pre-history. In this sense, the second half of the book is a failure. But it is a useful failure because it tells us about ourselves and about the enduring power of our own narratives.

Friday 28 May 2010

It seems miners and the federal Opposition are busy fomenting a distracting illusion that the economy will suffer if the "super profits" tax is passed into law. Treasury Secretary Ken Henry has contributed valuable nuggets of information to show that it's not true.

It is true that Australia avoided a recession, but the Australian mining industry actually experienced quite a deep recession. In the first six months of 2009 it shed 15 per cent of its workers. Mining investment collapsed, mining output collapsed.

Had every industry behaved that way our unemployment rate would have climbed to 19 per cent.

He added during a Senate Estimates hearing yesterday that he was fed up with people telling him that the mining industry had saved the Australian economy from recession. It was "curious to say the least" so to assert, he said.

Estimates hearings are usually pretty interesting places to hear what prominent - but often overlooked - public servants really think about the state of the federation. The government has started to stream them live online but they're still overshadowed by parliamentary Question Time, which is a shame as they are far more revealing of facts than the usual party-room spin that's reported.

Henry's considered opinion deserves wider play due to the massive and well-funded campaign by the miners that aims to cement in the minds of Australians a belief that resources are key to the country's prosperity and that the tax big miners so dread will cripple their operations, leading to unemployment and slowing growth.

The quietly-spoken, beetle-browed bureaucrat and author of the tax report where the idea for the tax originated offers his opinions in a far less obtrusive way. But that doesn't mean they are less worthwhile.

It's a hard sell. Mining contracts sealed with overseas buyers, for example, often come with big-buck dollar deals attached. 'Billions' is a weighty word when connected to money. Deals that cover large periods of time - they may extend for thirty years - also capture our imaginations. It's a matter of national pride.

Because of this, mining is a sexy industry. It's also easy to conceptualise. You imagine hard-hat wearing engineers, electricians and mechanics shod in dusty boots and clad in khaki shorts, short-sleeved shirts and fluorescent safety vests wiping the sweat from their brows as they toil under the oppressive, 40-degree sun of the Outback.

Another thing in its favour is that you can actually see the result of mining. Big bulk-carriers run aground on the Great Barrier Reef. TV news report wallpaper shows massive equipment digging up, transporting, and loading onto ships a steady brown stream of ore or coal. Natural gas in the photogenic spheres mounted on the decks of LNG transports is way cool. There's nothing abstract about it. The positive affect such vision produces helps give miners a heavy handicap in the political stakes.

But Henry is not alone in being sceptical and cool when it comes to looking at the figures. University teachers are, in fact, as essential to Australia's economy as those rugged engineers. Foreign enrolments at our universities account for about the same amount of economic activity - three percent of the total - as mining. The Indian student bashings in Melbourne are a bigger threat to national accounts than the super profits tax.

Guy Pearse, a University of Queensland researcher and author of 2007's High and Dry, a book about the Howard government's performance on climate change, is as fed up as Henry about the cachet and importance commanded by the mining industry, especially coal mining.

The media, and especially The Australian, are doing a lot to promote the views of miners. The Murdoch broadsheet, especially, stands shoulder to shoulder with the Minerals Council of Australia and the federal Liberal Party in its zeal to punish the government on this score. It's time for rational perspectives, like Henry's, to get a say. Which is why I wrote this post.

Pic credit: The Pongo Blog.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Spam sushi anyone? It's popular in Hawaii and, with news Abu Dhabi will use technology developed at Japan's Kinki University to farm tuna, an analogue may become prized in the Middle East as well. The reason is that farmed tuna doesn't taste good, according to sushi chef Kazuo Sato.

Farmed tuna's disadvantage is that "it doesn't have a fish taste, and its color is almost white," said Kazuo Sato, 56, who has run a sushi shop outside Tokyo for 31 years.

Of course, Sato-san could be a hard-core purist, one of those people who are usually more polite than a tea spoon unless asked to question one of their dearest beliefs, whereupon they scoff more loudly than a boiling kettle.

Mike Hirshfield, chief scientist at Oceana, an advocacy group for the world's oceans, makes the solid point that it's a terrible waste of good fish to use it to fatten baby tuna for the consumption of Sato-san's complacent customers.

So Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc., Japan's biggest seafood company, comes to the aid of these upstanding citizens. The company plans to use fish-meal sausages to feed the ravenous tuna circling like slimy sheep around the enclosures they inhabit off the Japanese coast. "Eventually, Maruha hopes to develop a vegetarian tuna feed," writes The Japan Times' Yuri Kageyama.

Yikes. Would you want to eat farmed tuna that has been fed vegetarian sausages maybe "mixed with oils and nutrients"? Anything is acceptable, it seems, as long as the Japanese will be allowed to eat tuna.

Considering that it took the government there 60 years to start adequately compensating Minamata disease sufferers, there's little hope that the Abu Dhabi deal won't lead to other countries looking to "alleviate stress on natural fish stocks and improve food security" by seeking ties with Kinki University's industrious (and patient - they've been working on it since the 1970s) researchers.

Meanwhile, pregnant women are advised not to eat tuna sushi due to the high levels of mercury it contains. Gah!

Pic credit: News of the Restless.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

In Sydney it's called "new housing in existing suburbs" and in Brisbane it's called "development of infill sites". Whatever you name it, increasing the density of housing near good transport hubs is a growing reality for panicked long-time residents. They are turning into NIMBYs - "not in my back yard".

But there are rewards, too. Busy Chatswood on Sydney's Northern Line has just received a major facelift - the photo shows a planned building that straddles the spanking-new railway station. And the state government last year completed a new line from the station which takes passengers to Epping, a suburb to the west, via Macquarie University. The isolated campus badly needed a rail link.

Most residents of these big coastal cities, where population continues to grow along with Australia's high levels of migrant intake, would have little sympathy for the NIMBY position. It's well illustrated by comments from the mayor of Ku-ring-gai, Ian Cross, who labels the plans the NSW government has pushed through using powerful planning laws enacted several years ago "a recipe for disaster", according to a Sydney Morning Herald story today.

But disastrous for whom? Sure, a few nice old houses might be torn down to make way for six- or eight-storey apartment blocks. But the proximity to a rail line that is vastly under-utilised compared to other Sydney lines, makes the plan a no-brainer. Ask a commuter who lives on Sydney's busy Western Line or Bankstown Line how they feel about the gripes of north shore residents, and they'll probably scoff at the quibbles.

Brisbane has just started to tackle the problem, and the state premier, Anna Bligh, has announced the formation of a new body, Growth Management Queensland, that will "encourage developers to provide infill developments, which are at present more expensive than cheaper 'greenfields' land", according to a Brisbane Times story today.

Most of the work of the new entity will be convincing residents of inner-urban suburbs to accept development. Brisbane is unusual in Australia, where most large cities already have a substantial number of apartment blocks. In Sydney there are art deco blocks dating back to the 1930s and thousands of red-brick, two-storey blocks built in the 1970s. Brisbane has nothing like this, and it's time for the city to bite the bullet and accept that growth must sometimes be up, rather than out.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

We've got to get the message out that catching bluefin tuna, like the one shown in this trophy photo taken at Port Fairy in Victoria, is outdated and wrong. Khal Kassab, 44, from Craigieburn shows off next to the 156.4kg southern bluefin tuna he caught on Saturday. In the bottom photo a dead Asian tiger is shown off by a group of early-20th-century hunters. Given the scarcity of bluefin tuna, there is effectively no difference between these photos in the sense of how much damage these practices do to the environment.

Pic credit: Herald Sun.

Monday 24 May 2010

The film Tuna Wranglers (Discovery Channel, 2007) gives you a lot of useful information about the bluefin tuna fishing industry in Australia. But with an American-accented narrator and a goofy cowboy theme, the film does a pretty fair job of alienating an Australian viewer.

It's a documentary, but it's not a great documentary. Drama here is very often manufactured for effect, an unfortunate measure which ultimately devalues the material and makes you regret the hokey, down-home narrative that drives the story forward. Tuna fishermen make good money. They're not in it for the love of it. It's not "in their blood", as the narrative imputes at one stage near the end of the film.

In the film we get to see Marcus Stehr, an owner of the Stehr Group which is one of the major players in Australia's tuna industry. Marcus' German-born father, Hagen Stehr, founded the company in 1969, when tuna was still fairly abundant in the waters off South Australia.

It's in the waters of the Great Australian Bight that the action takes place. All the main elements of fishing are described on video, from the bait boat which attracts and herds the school of tuna, to the spotter plane, to the divers who manage the catch in enormous nets that are towed out to sea and back, and that contain the juvenile bluefin before they are unloaded to holding pens off the boats' home town of Port Lincoln.

Once the catch are brought to the small port located at the mouth of Spencer Gulf, a Fisheries boat draws up alongside and inspectors board the main boat. They sample the catch by hooking and weighing 40 fish. This gives them an average weight. Then a camera is set up at the mouth of the holding pen before the fish are herded into it. An inspector counts the number of fish. This number is multiplied by the average weight to establish whether the catch exceeds the Stehr Group's annual allocation.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see the inspector's decision. It was removed by the film's editor. For Marcus Stehr and his crew, exceeding the catch is a problem because it means they must tow the excess fish back out to sea and release them.

But the fishermen already have some idea while still out at sea about the size of the catch. Once the fish have been encircled by the purse seine net and its bottom has been cinched, completely enclosing the fish, and the fish have been transferred to the transportation enclosure, the lead diver enters the enclosure and visually gauges the size of the fish.

If the lead diver says the fish are large enough to be profitably taken, the boats either go for the next catch or return to port.

Tuna, especially bluefin tuna, are scarce. Each fish, we're told, is worth about US$70,000. A full complement of fish can be worth US$20 million. Most of the tuna is exported to Japan.

Of course, the film completely sides with the fishermen and conservation of the fish gets no mention at all. The boys' undertaking is given an heroic cast in the narrative. They're sea-going cowboys who wrangle sharks out of the nets by hand and endure months at sea. The film says nothing about the scarcity of the fish.

It should. The film is ultimately a lost opportunity. Given a less sensational tone and a more challenging script, it could have advertised the downside of harvesting tuna from the Southern Ocean. Instead, it merely glorifies a bunch of very ordinary guys who just happen to be fishermen.

Sunday 23 May 2010

Wikileaks, says the only declared member of the organisation, Australian globetrotter Julian Assange, "has released more classified documents than the rest of the world press combined," according to a long story in The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday. Assange is cutting about the performance of the world's media.

That's not something I say as a way of saying how successful we are - rather, that shows you the parlous state of the rest of the media. How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It's disgraceful.

Australia's media is more concerned about a NSW police minister being "potentially compromised" because he regularly visited gay sex clubs. Not that there's a prurient interest among the general community in salacious details of a high-profile, middle-aged, married man bonking blokes behind his sick wife's back.

Oh no, not at all, says Seven Network's news director, Peter Meakin.

If the guy is a minister for police and is frequenting brothels and sex clubs, heterosexual or homosexual, I think that's a matter of some interest because he is exposed and he is potentially compromised.

Former High Court justice Michael Kirby says the Channel Seven newsroom are "serial homophobes". He reminds us of that other high-profile figure, former Law Society president John Marsden.

According to mUmBRELLA, Marsden was accused of having sex with underage boys in the 1990s and when Channel Seven lost the case they paid him millions of dollars in compensation.

Saturday 22 May 2010

An ex-ANZ employee who operates an eco-tourism property in far north Queensland is set to become the next Sir Nicholas Stern with a United Nations Environment Program report he helped author to appear in October. The report will warn of humanity's profligate spending of the earth's environmental capital.

Pavan Sukhdev worked in financial markets for the ANZ Bank in India and London from 1983 to 1994. He then joined Deutsche Bank to head up their Global Markets Division in Mumbai, where he held a number of roles before moving to London to become chief operating officer of the bank's Global Emerging Markets Division. He is now chairman of the bank's Global Markets Centre in Mumbai.

Sukhdev took a two-year sabbatical from his bank duties to write the study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).

He has also been active in establishing a number of NGOs operating in areas of conservation and sustainability.

The report will detail changes that will involve "a wholesale revolution in the way humans do business, consume, and think about their lives", according to a Guardian story by Juliette Jowit.

Friday 21 May 2010

A scientific exploration voyage to the Southern Ocean has discovered traces of illegal longline fishing in areas where fishing is prohibited. The Catalyst segment included footage taken by a camera attached to a beam trawl showing continuous lines dragged along the sea bed. The scientists also retreived a longline of 3km in length, which they examined in order to identify its provenance.

The team from the Australian Antarctic Division of the federal Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts took their gear to an undersea plateau called Bruce Rise, where fishing is prohibited under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

Information gleaned during the research trip would be sent to CCAMLR. Dr Andrew Constable, head of the expedition, spoke about the findings:

What was really fascinating about Bruce Rise, and a real surprise, was that it was covered in long, straight furrows. And we repeatedly encountered that. The quantity of the furrows and their characteristics would suggest that there was fishing already happening on Bruce Rise. In the closed area.

The ten-day trip involved deck crews as well as staff in the "wet lab" where samples taken from the seabed are sorted, examined and classified.

The crew's difficulties on top of working in a cold environment include hazards to the gear such as "dropstones" - rocks that have fallen out of icebergs and from glaciers. The beam trawl struck stones on numerous occasions, and even caused the ensemble to tip over at least once.

Information on the type of animals and flora living up to 2km below the surface and at icy temperatures, as well as photographic evidence of longline fishing, can be used to improve conservation of a high-value marine environment.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Does anyone even remember how it was back in 2003 when Baghdad was bombed by aircraft unleashed by George W. Bush? Does anyone remember the moment the planes flew into the Twin Towers on Manhattan? Well, you don't need to remember or, if you forget, you can watch Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Michael Moore's paean to the US military-industrial nexus, to refresh your memory.

I remember thinking, at the time, "don't fuck with the Americans". But it wasn't just the Americans who were taking tiny fragments of "intelligence" as the basis for policy, and working night and day to hoodwink both its elected representatives and the populace. It happened in Britain and Australia too.

America had the opportunity to lead in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, but its invasion of Iraq meant it forfeited any moral advantage. The fireworks were interesting, fascinating even, but the upshot is a political and financial disaster the current president struggles to this day to clean up. Britain paid a high price, too, as its transport system was targeted by a gang of disgruntled young men in July 2005.

Moore infuriates conservatives in the United States, and the documentary shows why. He's like a dog with a bone: harrying and harrassing his targets until they reveal the truth. Interspersed with real footage are clips from other random films designed to inject humour into the mix. To show up the Coalition of the Willing, Moore inserts such clips as a man grinding grain with a stone (to illustrate the technological level of the country) and a string of people on bicycles riding down the street.

He creatively uses the soundtrack, too. During a speech by Bush, Moore adds in threatening music to illustrate how the president engendered fear in the American people in order to get his measures passed by congress.

It's like a cartoon, and as such appeals to our most visceral intelligence.

What also struck me when watching this film, six years after it was made and seven years after the events it chronicles occurred, was how right he was. In hindsight, the American response to the 9/11 attacks was disproportionate. And we now pretty universally recognise that Iraq was not the correct target. No weapons of mass destruction were found. Yes, Saddam was a bad guy. Sure, he oppressed his people. But that was no reason to make them suffer more by killing and maiming them using the advanced weapons at the disposal of the US military.

Meanwhile, the real threats persist.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Here's a fantastic opportunity for a coder to participate in a worthy data mining project. In the pic is the An Wen Fa No. 22, a tuna longliner registered in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. It is operated by Tsay Bao Jia and can hold over 54 tonnes of tuna. There are over 1900 similar vessels registered for Taiwan by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).

I started to think about these boats after writing on the subject of sustainable tuna fishing and after reading an article in today's Courier-Mail about overfishing. The problem is with industrial-scale boats like the An Wen Fa No. 22, and with their numbers.

The WCPFC has an online register of all vessels approved to fish in the waters it regulates. Regulation like this is possible nowadays, but it means little if people do not understand the scope of the problem. The WCPFC was established in 2004 on the back of treaty talks that started in 1994. The trouble is that, despite treaties, quotas, and consensual agreements, the stocks of fish are shrinking alarmingly.

A dedicated reporter with several months free could trawl through the online database to find out things to write about that would make an impression on readers in countries like Australia. But I imagine the job would be vastly facilitated if the reporter had available a dedicated coder. There's a comprehensive CSV file as well as a PDF file as well as the online database (which looks like it was built using SharePoint).

Taiwan is not the only country where vessels registered with the WCPFC operate out of. Australia has about 300, and there are a similar number in China.

If anyone knows of a clever coder who wants to get involved in a potentially rewarding project, please contact me.

Monday 17 May 2010

In New Moon (2009, dir Chris Weitz), Bella Swan assumes greater agency than in the preceding film, Twilight, as she takes on responsibility for modulating the actions of the American Indian youth, Jacob Black. The clammy romance brought forward from the earlier film changes, to our relief, to drama when Edward Cullen is forced to leave Forks for family reasons. Bella is tortured by his absence but soon adopts Jacob in a close and sincerely-held friendship that is made more poignant when she learns of his lycanthropy.

It isn't the werewolves who are killing people but, rather, vampires who still roam the forest. We know that Victoria is waiting for an opportunity to close in on Bella.

The Indian youths who carry the werewolf gene prowl the forest like an outlaw posse in search of bad, bad men. They embrace Bella. She enters their circle in the same way she entered the Cullen clan's tight family unit. Tensions run high when Alice Cullen returns to warn Bella that Edward is in trouble. He plans to break vampire law by revealing himself to the humans. Alica and Bella dash off to Italy where the Volturi - "the closest thing to vampire royalty" - live in archaic splendour.

She's just in time, but her bravery brings her into the heart of the coven. Her life is spared only because Edward promises to "turn" her. The Volturi thinks she knows too much to remain human.

Edward and Bella plight their troths to each other in the movie's final scene, which twinkles to black just as Edward asks Bella to marry him.

But the filmmakers may have taken heed of objections to Twilight, which was called demeaning to women as it placed a young girl in a position where her only way to attain agency was within the romantic embrace of a man. In the new film, Bella becomes central. Instead of romance, with Jacob she finds the kind of true friendship we sometimes ask boys and girls to prefer over one where marriage is the sole possible outcome.

As with Edward, Jacob promises never to hurt Bella, despite the temptations. The risks with werewolves, it seems, are equally as dangerous to life and limb as those with vampires.

It's the danger that becomes paramount in the new film. And Bella faces it practically alone. Early on she conquers dangerous humans. It's only a matter of time before she takes charge of Jacob and his posse of furry friends. And when Alice turns up, Bella again makes the decisions. This time she must come to Edward's aid. Only her love can save him.

And save him she does, in a scene punctuated by a dash through an Italian fountain. The shallow water splashes over her sneakers. She throws herself between Edward and the human onlookers, sheltering him from their eyes as his skin sparkles as only the skin of a vampire can do, and pushes him back into the shelter of a stone-lined hallway. Bella takes the plunge more than once in this movie, and comes out of the water alive and with poise enough for the most punctilious feminist commentator.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) is "about greed" we're told by the filmmaker. Moore told us this when he spoke to participants in a Commonwealth Club of California forum last year. The Commonwealth Club is "a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization". The forum was hosted by Angie Coiro, an American talk radio host who has a show on KKGN in San Francisco.

Moore opened his talk with a reminiscence. It had been 20 years since his first blockbuster, Roger and Me, had debuted at the Toronto Film Festival.

Moore said that in the new film he tried to make something that would ensure he never got another gig ever again. This is confronting. But so is the story he tells in it. In fact, it's a set of stories that point to a bankrupt system of governance.

Democracy is not well served when executives from large banks are invited to participate in reform of regulation, Moore says. It is not well served when airline pilots are underpaid. It is depleted when corporations take out life-insurance policies on employees whose families, when the employees die, get nothing.

Democracy suffers when ordinary people are given loans at low interest and are unable to pay the interest after the interest rate suddenly ramps up at the end of a teaser period that they didn't know about because it was buried in the fine print.

Typically, and humourously, Moore gives us yet another close look at a bunch of mentally-deficient security guards who stand around outisde corporate headquarters like a bunch of thugs in uniforms. These hilarious contretemps were employed to great effect in Roger and Me, and we should be thankful that they reappear in Democracy: A Love Story as the filmmaker attempts to make a citizen arrest on Wall Street. It's the executives he's looking for. Sadly, for us, all we get to see are the darn security guards.

A precious moment occurs as Moore unravels a yellow spool of tape as he walks down the street in front of the corporate headquarters of these large banks. On the yellow tape is printed "crime scene". Behind the glass doors a security employee shakes his head sadly. It's a poignant moment. The guards are furious but impotent.

A lot of people were deprived of their homes as a result of the GFC, and they are surely furious and impotent too. What Moore does is give these people a voice.

In Australia there were defaults but we didn't get so many defaults because we have regulation that is adequate for its purpose - that is, preventing financial meltdown. But we still suffered for it. We're still seeing, now, the federal opposition throw dirt on the government for having let the exchequer go into the red.

What the boys on the opposition benches never tell us, however, is that it was a conservative, neo-liberal, Republican government in America that allowed the situation to get so bad that the value of some major US companies dropped by 50 percent in a very short period of time. The US government became the world's second-largest carmaker in the aftermath of the implosion.

Those who enjoy Moore's iconoclastic style will get a kick out of this movie. It is funny, fact-based, uncompromising, and wise. It tells stories that nobody else tells.

It is also an indictment of the contemporary media and the commentariat in most developed countries. They should have warned us. Nobody did. The film is a part of the echo of the crash, and nobody who watches it should forget that the people who made the movie possible are yet to be convicted of any crime. Greed is not, it turns out, a crime.

Islamic finance, anyone?

Saturday 15 May 2010

Of course, we only picked Up In the Air (2009, dir. Jason Reitman) off the shelf because of George Clooney, who plays professional human resource consultant Ryan Bingham. Little did we know that Vera Famiga, who plays the seductive Alex Goran, and Anna Kendrick, who plays the purposeful young up-and-comer Natalie Keener, would shine even brighter than the headline star.

Keener turns the movie's path radically off course when she collapses in Bingham's arms in the middle of an airport (see pic) after her boyfriend ditches her. After all, she had settled in Omaha, where Bingham lives and where his company is headquartered, because she wanted to be with him.

Prior to this point, the movie seemed to be about the GFC. As soon as the young woman unburdens herself, the movie starts to be about "what matters in life". It's not long before we're leaving the GFC behind and attending Bingham's sister's wedding in Wisconsin, where the groom has cold feet.

Goran and Bingham are both high-flyers. They're addicted to amassing frequent-flyer miles. They're totally au fait with the rental car companies and the hotel chains. They are seasoned out-of-home road warriors. Only, Bingham starts to have second thoughts about the bachelor lifestyle. Can he convince Goran to take the plunge? It's one of the movie's most dramatic moments.

The death by suicide of one of the people Keener and Bingham fire is hardly as impressive. This says something about the priorities of the movie's designers. It also says something about the fact that everything is about Bingham: the decent man doing a very unpopular job.

We learn just how decent he is when we find out that his beliefs - he regularly goes on the lecture circuit to tell conference-goers how to remove burdens from their lives - are sincerely held. The lectern is where he has his epiphany - and runs away from the listening crowd to pursue another dream.

Up In the Air is an engaging film that takes a look at "the rat race" and how people find a place for themselves in society. The people Bingham and Keener fire are often the ones who have never really tried, it seems. Keenan is young, she's 23, and when she leaves the company and Omaha she soon finds her feet. Bingham gets his 10 million frequent-flyer miles, the gold card, the perks.

But when you're up in the air it's often difficult to know by looking at the back of their heads who is happy and who is just going through the motions. Bingham gets to follow his dream, and it's one that runs on kerosene. Pity the polar bears.

Friday 14 May 2010

I waited this morning for several seconds while the TV gave me no news about Jessica Watson, the 16-year-old girl who has spent the past seven months circumnavigating the globe unassisted on a 10.23 metre yacht.

So I went and had lunch. As soon as I came back to cook dinner, I checked the news online only to find that the young sailor's arrival would be tomorrow. I'd thought today was Saturday, but it was actually Friday.

I've been kicking myself ever since discovering that the welcoming event - with thousands of boats expected on the harbour - would be a smash. Before she left the Sunshine Coast, where I live, I had contemplated doing a story on Watson.

During her voyage I observed her progress on the nightly news with mounting interest. Her first leg, to Sydney, was almost catastrophic as she collided with a cargo vessel on the way down.

There were two ways to think of this. Either she was getting all her bad luck completed quickly. Or else she simply wouldn't make it. Turns out the first surmise was the correct one.

Pic credit: Eddie Safarik

Thursday 13 May 2010

A couple of months back I visited Brisbane, capital of Queensland, where I live. Mooching around the city centre on Queen Street, I was sucked into an ornate gem of a foyer with outlandish decoration that was a throwback to a more genteel era than that represented by the hideous entertainment gondolas strung along the street outside.

Outside, you've got shops selling mobile phone plans, inexpensive clothing, coffees, pharmaceuticals, sports gear and every other kind of humdrum consumable. They're housed in drab, glass-encased, marble-clad boxes with automatic doors and nasty echoes. They are functional, commercial, and boring.

You can find shops like this in any Australian city. Anywhere in the world, indeed.

The Regent Theatre is different. Inside, you breathe a rarefied air. You goggle. You strive to take in all the references harboured in mouldings, paintings, and scrolls. In the vaulted cieling. In the heavy ballustrade of the staircase.

It challenges you, who are used to the dullness outside with its constant seeking after cash and custom. But now they're going to tear down the theatre and replace it with more dull, vanilla blandness. It's a crime.

Pic credit: the foto fanatic

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Families and responsibility were the keystone concepts of David Cameron's first speech as prime minister of the United Kingdom. It was delivered outside No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence in London.

Cameras flashed and crowds cheered as Cameron stepped from a barely-stationary Daimler. He opened the passenger-side door for his pregnant wife, who followed him to the mic placed in the street and then stood, demure, behind and to his right-hand side as he prepared to speak to the gathered media.

Electoral reform got a brief mention near the top of the delivery but the focus on personal responsibility meant that Cameron consciously echoed John F Kennedy's famous "Ask not what the country can do for you" inaugural address of January 1961.

Cameron's focus is also consonant with the Conservative manifesto, or 'Invitation to Join the Government of Britain'.

In the speech, the new prime minister said "that those who can should, and those who can't we will always help. I want to make sure that my government always looks after the elderly, the frail, the poorest in our country. We must take everyone through us [sic] on some of the difficult decisions that we have ahead."

The Tories have not been in this position for 13 years, during which time they have had many leaders. Cameron is young - he is 43 years old, as is Nick Clegg of the coalition's Liberal Democrats - and his party's manifesto is designed to place some distance between the new administration and that of the last Tory regime - that of the despised Thatcher and ineffectual Major.

The announcement today from London was, I must admit, a surprise.

There had been no announcement of how and when a referendum on proportional representation would be held. The issue cannot fail to be high on the agenda of the Liberal Democrats. Yesterday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced his resignation due, we were told by the media, to a desire to facilitate a LibDem-Labour alliance. Then today we have Cameron standing outside 10 Downing Street with a gaggle of New Tory catchphrases tumbling out of his mouth like a string of coloured handkerchiefs from a magician's upturned hat.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Is Kevin Rudd's proposed "super profits" tax a watershed moment in the vein of Mark Latham's disastrous March 2004 "wealthy non-government schools" funding change announcement?

The media and the right-wing commentariat pounced on Latham and, says Anthony Ashbolt at the University of Wollongong, "saturate[d] public discussion" with the term "hit list", referring to the 67 "wealthy private schools" Latham was determined to deprive of some of their government funding.

Certainly, both policies smack of "old Labor" and the perennial spectre of fiscal redistribution the party seems forced to dispel at every turn. The Liberals make hay with such policies, helping to conjure up the old "social engineering" demon that, they say, just won't be put back in its bottle.

The fact about big mining companies being partly foreign-owned (70 percent for Rio Tinto and 30 percent for BHP Billiton, for example), which results in their "super profits" being taken offshore is, on the face of it, true. But truth in the public sphere is a clumsy and contested quality.

For this reason, it strikes me that Labor has reached for the golden goose too often. First, a new tax on cigarettes. Then this. What else will they need to do to stop Australia's fiscal haemorrhaging?

It doesn't look good for Labor, and Rudd's partyroom is starting to ask questions that, a month ago, were never voiced. How quickly things change in politics. With policies like this drawing the swing vote away from Labor back to the Opposition, a change of government seems possible come October.

Monday 10 May 2010

The Australian Liberal Party - actually the party of conservatism - have launched disturbing images to feed low-level distrust of Asians among the general population. A YouTube video plants the Liberals' early-campaigning flag firmly on the side of border protection and attemps to take advantage of their opponents' lack of a majority in the upper house.

The Liberals have successfully used their power in the upper house to block a range of legislation. While under Australia's system of government the incumbent party can call an election if the same piece of legislation is blocked twice in the upper house, Labor has chosen not to do so.

A federal election is due in October, and Liberal leader Tony Abbott, who appears in the video, is pinning his hopes of a win on a recent poll that places his party first in the rankings for the first time in three years.

The keyline in the video is "real action", a clever marketing slogan that attacks several recent policy reversals by the Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

Rudd has angered many who voted for him by, for example, shelving a well-hyped emissions trading scheme after it was blocked in the senate by the Liberals and the Greens - by the former because it attempted to do too much and by the latter because it didn't go far enough.

Rudd also decided to suspend the asylum applications of Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers - for six months and three months, respectively.

Tony Abbott's tanned face - he can run a marathon and recently competed in a triathlon - appears interspersed with images that conjure up dissatisfaction with the PM's handling of a number of issues, including asylum seekers.

Treatment of asylum seekers was a key platform for Rudd during his successful election campaign, which led to a change of government. The Liberals have a poor track record when it comes to what they call "illegal immigrants" - basically, people who try to reach Australia on boats using "people smugglers". These middle-men are paid vast sums of money to transport asylum seekers across the ocean from Indonesia and other countries. They usually reach Australian territorial waters off Western Australia - hence the arrows coming in from the north-west.

The Liberals have a healthy tradition of scare-mongering. In 2001, they won an election after telling voters that arriving asylum seekers had thrown their children into the water in an effort to prevent authorities returning them to their countries of origin. The scare campaign turned out to have been based on lies, but its short-term effect was to secure government for the party. By the time the lie was revealed, other concerns were dominating the news.

Now, Abbott and his spin-doctors are stirring up the ghosts of 'Yellow Peril' campaigns conducted early last century during the White Australia period to engender disgust in the population toward Asians. The insidious-looking red arrows in the graphic mirror early attempts to summon hatred for the 'Asiatic horde' stationed just north of Australia's top-end.

Abbott's image resurrects a fear embodied in these items of retro propaganda, published during WWII. The first one shows a rampant Japanese soldier encroaching on the northern borders of Australia, gun in hand. We don't need to be told what's on Hiro's mind, the scheming Nip! The second is from a WWII movie produced circa 1943 in the US titled Why We Fight.

This kind of hard-boiled rhetoric is typical of Abbott's approach: go in hard and fast. But his no-nonsense method seems to have struck a chord in the electorate, if those poll results are anything to go by. Abbott took hold of the leadership in November as his party imploded over the issue of support for an emissions trading scheme. The deposed leader, Malcolm Turnbull, supported the law.

We can only be thankful that some people have chosen to reflect the insidious image in a humourous light, such as this from Wolfcat on Twitter.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson's April 2010 TEDTalk illustrates blindingly the fact of overfishing, if we still needed evidence to convince us to stop ripping the guts out of the world's oceans.

The trophy board at Key West in Florida shown here in the 1950s and in the present should do the trick, right?

The bottom photo was taken, say, 55 years ago "from the same boat, in the same place, on the same board, on the same dock. The trophy fish were so big that you couldn't put any of those small fish up on it".

The video was recorded on the Mission Blue Voyage on the National Geographic Endeavor, the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and TEDTalks cover these topics as well as science, business, development and the arts.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Happily, Meredith Jones' Don's Party-themed bash to welcome in the new government in November 2007 has raised its profile and entered the mainstream record - with two Sydney Morning Herald journalists taking time to talk with some who attended, to gauge their new opinions of the Rudd administration.

Damien Murphy and David Humphries did more than just canvass three of Meredith's fabulous guests, however. They also ventured out to Penrith, where swing voters live. It's pretty rare to find journos willing to do so much pavement bashing, and their effort deserves our heartiest applause.

Yes, Damien, the optimism has definitely faded in Sydney's latte belt, but some knew at the time that it would be disappointing.

I remember the party well, mainly because there were a lot of interesting people who, suddenly finding they had time to talk, talked about a whole range of things. The election broadcast came on quite late, but I stayed outside on the deck that juts above Meredith's kitchen garden.

The backyard is well-stocked with veggies and - perhaps now - even a chicken coop to supply fresh eggs for breakfast omelettes. I can't be sure. It's been almost a year since I left Sydney for warmer climes.

What hasn't changed is the memory of a roomful of people cheering loudly as Kevin Rudd spoke. The ballots had come in and the decisive nature of the election was clear. The dead-eyed years of Howard were over and gone. As Meredith wrote at the time, the preference would certainly have been for a Gillard victory, but Rudd "will do for the time being".

Not any more, Meredith. Right?

Pic credit: Marrickvillia.

Friday 7 May 2010

As exit polls feed into the media following Britain's election and it looks like a majority in the parliament will hang on a coalition between two parties, nobody's spoken a word about who'll decide the outcome. Isn't it the Queen?

A month ago almost to the day, the election in Tasmania delivered an analogous result, with the Greens holding the balance of power. State Governor Peter Underwood invited the Labor Party to form a government on the strength of promises from the Greens not to support a no-confidence motion.

In Britain, it looks as though the Conservatives will garner about 300 seats, Labour about 230 and the up-and-coming Liberal Democrats a healthy 80. About 30 seats will be taken by other parties and independents. These are preliminary figures. So while the outright winner is no mystery, there is no guarantee that the Tories will be invited to form a government in a couple of days' time.

In fact, it could still be Labour's Gordon Brown inhabiting Number 10 Downing Street for another three years.

The outcome would depend, as in the case in Tasmania, on the explicit wishes of Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, or some sort of complex alliance between the Tories and the smaller parties and/or independents.

Pic credit: UPI/Matthew Cavanaugh/POOL

Thursday 6 May 2010

Queensland MP Aidan McLindon has joined hands with another state MP and jumped ship from the Liberal National Party of Queensland, vowing to go it alone as an independent. In doing so, he has committed to following a dream - acting as a true liberal - and has called the major parties "two heads of the same creature":

They are stagnated in a parliamentary system that is neither accountable or is justified in how they create and execute legislation in this state. And this is a derivative and a direct ... We are seeing now ... We are absolutely reaping what was sowed in 1922 with the abolition of the upper house.

In other words, the system is broke, mate.

McLindon's post-announcement press conference was held in his local office, the journos pressed together in the small space. Some fired questions at the defector in an attempt to rile him. It didn't work. McLindon has passion and won't be swayed.

The presser started with his denunciation of the sale of state assets, which seems to be a big issue for a lot of Queenslanders.

But the malaise he has been feeling lies deeper than this, as the quote shows. He's not concerned about going it alone. Answering a question as to whether, as an independent, he would become "irrelevant", McLindon said that "It's people power that will change the political spectrum."

He's quite confident of this power, saying that it is his "strong opinion that neither of the major parties will win at the next election".

We've seen over the course of months issue after issue and I cannot sit on the sideline and watch these issues unfold under a complacent major political party.

McLindon sits for the seat of Beaudesert, which borders Brisbane on its southern extremities and extends as far as the NSW border. His fellow defector is Bob Messenger of Burnett - a seat in the area of Bundaberg north of Brisbane. Both are largely rural seats.

Griffith University political expert Paul Williams says that it is "not out of the question" for an independent to retain a seat, but that "it's still a greater than 50 per cent chance that at least one, if not both, will lose at the next election".

McLindon's swipe at the abolition of the upper house is interesting, as is a lot of the talk surrounding the defection. It's interesting because McLindon has stuck a flag in the ground and the flag is emblazoned with the word 'liberal'. He's articulated a set of guiding principles, which were published by The Courier-Mail today:

1. Protect and care for all our children

2. Protect and care for all our sick, disabled and elderly

3. Help empower First Queenslanders to live stronger, longer and healthier.

4. Advance social and economic policy which will help our families thrive and flourish

5. To act as responsible guardians of the environment

6. People always come before party policy

7. To give and serve without a thought of receiving.

Both parliamentarians have said that they might, in future, support the Labor Party over the LNP but not with the current leadership.

Messenger called them "horrible".

Wednesday 5 May 2010

What do a Young Liberal and an iconoclastic Melbourne columnist have in common? Well, it's the way they were treated after tweeting candidly during a TV broadcast. In Deveny's case, losing her job as The Age columnist must hit hard. Struggling Leftie journos don't have a lot of choice between gigs in our thin economy. In Sowdon's case, being expelled from his political party must hit hard, too.

Sowdon hit the headlines three weeks ago when his tweets about Barack Obama - interviewed in Washington by the ABC's Kerry O'Brien - being a "monkey" were "taken out of context" as they had been meant as "a joke between friends".

Deveny, surprisingly, also sought refuge in the 'out of context' defense, according to the Herald-Sun:

"It was just passing notes in class, but suddenly these notes are being projected into the sky and taken out of context," she told The Age.

"This [the Bindi Irwin comment] was a ludicrous remark that was as ridiculous as me saying I hope the dog that Molly Meldrum brought with him got drunk,'' she said.

The disconnect between the reality of Twitter - a global publishing engine - and some people's "take" on how it "should work" is astonishing. Sowdon responded in a similarly bemused manner to Deveny when confronted by his actions:

"I think the people follow me know (it's a joke) and the people who are my friends know and the people on Twitter don't unfortunately," he said. "I don't think Obama is a monkey. You can't be a monkey and be President of the United States." When asked if he'd apologise, he said: "Yes, sure, why not."

Well, Deveny is a tad more self-conscious than her younger peer. But the sense of "what's all the fuss about" is identical.

Unlike in Facebook, where you can choose to keep posts within a select group of people, Twitter is a global publishing engine. If a friend retweets your tweet it automatically gets spread to all the people following them. If one of those people retweets it, the affected circle expands.

Simply, once you tweet you have no control over who will see the post.

As the service becomes more-widely adopted, legal issues will proliferate. There will be cases with even more serious consequences than in these two. Someone will be taken to court with a defamation action hanging over their head. It's just a matter of time.

Pic credit: Herald-Sun.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Review: The Big Short, Michael Lewis (2010)

About 18 months ago I was driving my car in suburban Sydney listening to the radio when they started talking about the exposure of municipal councils to the mortgage bonds that had, by losing value so spectacularly, sparked the global financial crisis. The bonds, said one municipal employee, were triple-A rated. The council was therefore not responsible for the massive deterioration of its financial health.

This moment stays with me because I remember thinking, at the time, "If the bonds were so safe, how could they have fallen? Sure," I thought, "it's not the council's fault they lost so much money if they were rated as a safe bet."

The GFC was unprecedented because of the amount of money governments poured into financial firms and the larger economy. In 2009, I received - along with anyone else who had completed a tax return that year - a $900 cheque in the mail. I bought an ink drawing with it. I remember telling the guy who sold it to me, "This is my stimulus cheque." He laughed. The self-portrait was done in Paris during a sojourn he made there. It shows the artist after a late night of partying.

Subtitled, 'Inside the Doomsday Machine', Lewis' book is an anatomy of pending disaster, a portrait of a whole industry drunk on sneeky profits.

Lewis overcame the problem of how to write the book so soon after the crisis by pinning down the guys who won, not the ones who lost big-time. Winners are much more likely to talk, at length, to a nosey journalist than losers, many of whom face the prospect, nowadays, of serious legal trouble.

Think Goldman Sachs. The brokerage firm had generated a large number of mortgage bonds in 2005 and 2006 based on so-called "sub-prime" mortgages. By doing so, they ensured that the supply of such mortgages continued to flow. Lending companies picked people with little chance of repayment. They set a "teaser" interest rate of six per cent, say, and allowed people to only pay off the interest (no capital repayment necessary!).

Once the two-year "teaser" rate period ended, however, the interest rate suddenly doubled and the borrowers had no chance of keeping up with their payments. They defaulted. The bank moved in to repossess. When enough people defaulted, the supply of housing pushed down the value of real estate so that the collateral held by the bank was worth less than the amount of money they were owed.

Why did they keep lending? For one, they bet that house prices would continue to rise. Secondly, the finance companies higher-up in the food chain were collecting these sub-prime mortgages together and creating financial instruments that were sold to greedy organisations. These organisations saw two things that attracted them: a triple-A rating and a high yield. They didn't blink before buying.

This demand pushed mortgage lenders to keep making sub-prime loans.

The ratings agencies, Moody's and Standard & Poors, kept rating these poor bonds triple-A because they didn't look at the detail, the nature of the loans underpinning the bonds. And also they were paid per rating. That means that if they didn't rate, they wouldn't get paid. If one of them downgraded the rating, they were afraid, the customer would just go to the competition to get the rating they wanted.

In 2007, as all those loans came due and the value of property started to crash, there was a mad scramble to exit the scheme by a lot of people.

A few smart men - the men Lewis talks to at most length - 'shorted' the bonds, and profited handsomely long-term. This means they bought insurance to the effect that they believed the bonds would lose value. The cost of the insurance was much lower than the potential gain, so this was a good deal for them. Nevertheless, without hindsight, these guys took a risk at a time when everyone else in the industry was going 'long' on the bonds (ie betting they would retain value).

Anyone who wants to understand the causes of the GFC should read this book. It's a cracker.

Monday 3 May 2010

The modern coming of age story can easily revolve around the concerns of middle-class thirty-somethings, don't you think? I mean, if 30 is the new 20, then this is just as much a locus of uncertainty as adolescence in the age of Catcher in the Rye. More, in fact. Youngsters are so busy these days studying and earning a living that they don't have much time to ponder the great unknowables.

Burt Farlander (John Krasinski, pic) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) in Away We Go (dir. Sam Mendes, 2009) are at that stage of indecision. Unmarried because Verona will not marry Burt if her parents can't be present and her parents are dead, she is six-months pregnant when they discover that Burt's parents, who live nearby somewhere in the semi-rural expanses of broad America, plan to relocate to Antwerp for two years. Why stay, asks Verona. Why not check out other places before the baby arrives?

The angst is sweetly but embarrassingly palpable. "Are we fuck-ups?" asks Verona on a cold evening when the electric heater has blown the house's fuse. "We've got a cardboard window!"

But as they travel from Phoenix to Tuscon, from Madison (WI) to Montreal to Miami, they discover something. It's not something about themselves, exactly. Or, not directly. What they find is that other peoples' problems make their own pale into insignificance.

Verona's ex-boss is a loudmouthed, frustrated housewife whose children don't listen any more. Burt's old family friend is a vegan Nazi who can't abide baby strollers and whose husband is a no-good layabout. Verona's friend in Montreal keeps having miscarriages and the strain of yearning for a genetically-related child is tearing the marriage apart. And in Miami, Burt's brother's wife has just run out on him, leaving their little girl bereft.

'Home' reads the final interstitial. As Burt's claped-out Volvo sedan rolls down the green paddock in front of this dreamed-of house, it rocks gently from side to side against the lay of the uneven ground. Inside the car's dingy cabin, however, Verona and Burt are secure. They love each other. When they finally open the back doors of the huge Southern mansion to view the river outside and enjoy the play of the breeze across the lawn, they collapse in a contented heap on the verandah.

Dave Eggers, of San Francisco literary fame, is a co-writer on this lovely little production. Those who know of him through his novels will recognise the deep humanity that motivates him, and enriches his work. This is a gem of a film, and comes highly recommended.

Sunday 2 May 2010

This wasn't the still from the movie 2012 that I wanted to put here. What I wanted was the shot of the arks steaming three-in-a-row across the calm, post-apocalyptic sea toward the Cape of Good Hope. Bringing restless humanity back from the New World to the first inhabited continent.

But that picture is not included in the promotional trailer. More's the pity.

In a nutshell, the movie is visually striking, serving up disaster in dollops large enough to satisfy the most jaded tastes. Criticism of the weak plot sorta miss the point.

Most interesting of the characters is Woody Harrelson's Charlie Frost, a dedicated end-time observer who lives in a campervan on the grounds of Yellowstone National Park. He has sussed out the entire devious plot behind the deaths of numerous people killed by the government to keep quiet some fairly disquieting astronomical developments and the massive engineering project that has been launched to save humanity from extinction.

The science behind the disaster is not, of course, spelled out in detail. What it comes down to is that there is a period of solar flares that spits out neutrinos that attack the earth's matrix, causing the hot stuff under the crust to heat up. The crust 'destabilises' causing massive movements of the earth's surface.

This tectonic shift is humorously brought home to us. Having left North America behind, aboard a giant Antonov jet freight carrier, Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), his family and wife Amanda's new boyfriend Gordon Silberman (Thomas McCarthy) decide it's better not trying to refuel on Hawaii as the island chain is now engulfed by volcanic eruptions. As they fly over the Pacific, low on fuel, they see mountains. It's the Himalayas, which have shifted 1000 kilometres east on top of the rapidly-moving continental plates.

Naturally, they escape the doomed aircraft on board a Bentley (! Curtis, a novelist, supplements his meagre income from writing by chauffeuring for a rich Russian expatriate and his bratty children).

Having escaped California on aircraft, the troupe, which includes Jackson and Amanda's two children, try to get onto one of seven arks built by world governments. These fantastic craft are waiting for the expected tsunamis high up in the mountains of Tibet.

A lot of others, mainly people rich enough to have been able to afford the $1 billion price tag, are also waiting. But there seems to have been a glitch in the system. The US president has stayed behind in Washington, so command of the mission switches to Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt). Anheuser argues with scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) over the wisdom of allowing this mass of humanity onto the craft. The clock is ticking, with a wave expected in minutes.

Helmsley wins that argument, but it may be too late for everyone. The reason for this is that the cargo door cannot shut. Getting Curtis and his clan of renegades onto the boat caused a pneumatic wrench to get stuck in the gears driving the doors. It's now a race against time to extricate the equipment from the mechanism before the ark will crash into the looming bulk of Mount Everest, which is now being washed by billions of litres of ocean.

It all turns out OK, of course, except for Gordon who gets crushed by the gnashing gears. Rack up one point for the nuclear family.

This little drama is overshadowed by the heated spat between Helmsley and Anheuser, which is one that comes down to safety for the chosen elite or compassion for the clamouring majority. Set aside the fact that those people waiting on the dock for salvation are wealthy. Compassion is an important message that does not get lost on the audience. "What kind of stories will we tell out children," asks Helmsley at one point during the set-to.

It's a good point, and one that highlights the good intentions of the movie makers. Criticisms of the plot's clunky underpinnings are not unwarranted. But the fantastic special effects compensate for any weakness in this area.