Saturday 29 February 2020

Movie review: Skyscraper, dir Rawson Marshall Thurber (2018)

This formulaic vehicle for Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) provides plenty of spectacle if not plenty of poetry, although there’s a good secondary plotline involving Sarah Sawyer (Neve Campbell) and the Hong Kong policeman (Byron Mann) in charge at the crime scene which is knitted into the plot in an efficient way, allowing for sense-making. Their cooperation provides relief in light of the aggressive lawlessness of Kores Botha (Roland Moller) and his thugs.

But rather than great art it’s competent filmmaking. The director also wrote the screenplay and Johnson is credited as one of the producers. Theirs is a simple story with uncomplicated characters. Will Sawyer (Johnson) and his wife Sarah and children are staying on the 98th floor of a new building in Hong Kong, the world’s tallest. The skyscraper is taller than the Burg in Dubai and only the first half has been occupied when Will – a former FBI officer – is brought in to do a security assessment for the owner, Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han).

Will’s biometric data (using his face) is scanned to allow access to a digital device like an iPad that provides security access to the monitoring and control system for the building. A thug steals Will’s bag as he’s on his way with his friend Ben (Pablo Schreiber) to inspect the offsite control centre, but Will has put the device in his pocket, so it is not lost. Ben and Will then fight for the device in Ben’s apartment and then things get out of hand when Will realises that there is a sinister plot to destroy the building.

The rest of the movie sees Will try to save his family, who are trapped in the burning building, and foil the baddies. It’s tremendous fun, and the visual stunts – most of which are made using CGI – are amazing. This is action at its best, a film that embodies the term “cliff-hanger” in the best tradition of the ‘Mission: Impossible’ films.

There’s a knowing nod to the novelist Vladimir Nabokov in the name of the manufacturer of the parachutes the baddies have brought to the building with them to make their escape. It’s “Sirin”, which was the pen name Nabokov used when he published some of his Russian works as a young man. Nabokov famously studied butterflies, and even named some North American species.

Friday 28 February 2020

Movie review: Den of Thieves, dir Christian Gudegast (2018)

Featuring a bulky, middle-aged Gerard Butler as an unpleasant Los Angeles police officer named Nick O’Brien, this product wants to be more than a formulaic heist movie. Attempts to make the cops look more interesting through the use of dialogue doesn’t lead to enough high notes to overcome the desultory rumble of Butler’s epic wiseguy routine.

O’Brien is not just a smartarse, he’s actually toxic. In one scene he intimidates people who are portrayed as more successful than he is, and in others he is seen clashing with an FBI operative who is a vegan. The really objectionable thing is that it’s done almost without irony, but I’ll return to this point at the end of this review.

The shootout between, on the one hand, robbers Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), Enson Levoux (50 Cent) and their crew and, on the other, the sheriff’s posse, is a bit too reminiscent of a war zone to really convince, though a war metaphor is apposite as two of the baddies had fought in the Middle East before turning to crime to support their mainland lifestyles. In real life police would never allow the kind of gunfight that ends the movie to happen out of fear of collateral damage in the form of death or injury of innocent bystanders.

Gudegast also wrote the screenplay and he attempts to blur the boundaries between the morals of the cops and those of the robbers, along lines marked out by character. I had to think about this movie for several days to understand what the filmmakers were actually trying to do. This is a cultural artefact that could only have been made post-2016, with its presidential election. And while the story is classic Hollywood – illustrating the twin obsessions of violence and greed, so often resorts for artists, especially in cinema – the close is neat; you won’t see it coming.

Thursday 27 February 2020

Movie review: The King, dir David Michod (2019)

Basing a film on three Shakespeare plays is, for a start, a ploy fraught with danger. There was, in actual fact, a revolt led by Hotspur but Hal’s brother Thomas died of natural causes, not fighting in Wales. I also have on good authority that there was no one-on-one combat with the dauphin at Agincourt. Shakespeare, my source says, “was a Tudor propagandist,” so everything in his plays is debatable.

And on top of that, here you have a Hollywood production including writers, producers, and a director who are looking to create an engaging story. So this film is mostly fiction, loosely based on random facts chosen for their dramatic relevance rather than for their historical accuracy.

The screenplay was written by the director and actor Joel Edgerton (an Australian and an American; Edgerton adeptly plays Falstaff in this film). While I’m not an expert in 15th century English politics, I might have asked someone in the know – a historian or some such other scholar – for advice before venturing into the regions the filmmakers try to make their home for a while.

This film is classic Hollywood, depending, as it does, on a good guy (Henry V) and a bad guy (I won’t give away the ending by telling you who it is). At the end, you have a sudden eclaircissement due to the good offices of the daughter of the king of France, Catherine of Valois (Lily-Rose Depp), who tells Henry things he would have wanted to know earlier, but didn’t. The use of decisive plot elements like this – Falstaff’s plan for the Battle of Agincourt is one, but there are others – serve to whittle down the scope of the drama to a simple, unambiguous thread, one shorn of the messy business of real life, so I wasn’t unduly moved by this film.

The settings, furthermore, are dreary and predictable – there is little of the pizzazz and glamour of the House of Lancaster – and medieval London looks dull if not hellish, which isn’t hard to do, is unsurprising, and is not much fun for the viewer.

Michod is famous for the disgusting ‘Animal Kingdom’ (2010), which I didn’t finish watching because parts of it were too vile to countenance, so it seems he has toned down the objectionable parts of his personality and replaced them with merely pedestrian ones.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Movie review: The Last Thing He Wanted, dir Dee Rees (2020)

You would think, reading Time’s review of this film, that the person who wrote it had never read a book by Joan Didion. There was also negative press in Spanish. From what I can gather, this type of review – almost aggressively negative, expressing a level of perplexity that reveals frustration at having been given a difficult product when a simple one was expected – is typical for this Netflix original film.

I’m not going to unquestioningly go down the same road as such reviewers. Though I have read a good number of Didion’s books, including both some of her journalism and some of her prose fiction, and two of her memoirs, I have not read the 1996 novel this film is based on. Having said that, I want to point out that going by what I have been able to gather from online sources the film diverges from the novel in significant ways.

The filmmakers had a difficult task: to translate the allusive, complex prose of a great 20th century prose stylist into another medium: film. And they deserve at least some recognition for what they have attempted. God knows we get enough straight-down-the-line, unambiguous, goodie-versus-baddie, white-bread and boiled-egg movies every year from Hollywood studios. Can’t we tolerate a bit of ambiguity? A touch of improvisation?

Anne Hathaway does a good job playing Didion’s heroine, Elena McMahon, but there is a little too much ambiguity in the Ben Affleck role. He plays Treat Morrison, in the novel a politician, but in the movie a CIA operative. In the novel he might, of course, be both; I can’t tell without reading the book. This role might have been better clarified since McMahon and Morrison become romantically involved. The scenes of McMahon in bed with Morrison – his hand playing over the scar left by her mastectomy as they lie together on the sheets – or the one where she is reciting poetry as they sit by the sea watching the waves come in from the vast expanse of water beyond – are full of a kind of secondary sense-making that good writing and good cinematography are meant to deliver.

The character of Jones (Ed Gathegi) is, like Morrison, shadowy and elusive. He turns out to have an important role to play in the story, but this won’t be revealed until the film’s final moments. In the novel there is a planned assassination that, in the movie, does not emerge in the writing and this, it seems to me, is a major flaw. But Willem Dafoe as Elena’s father, a man living with dementia, adds lustre to what should have been greeted with applause instead of catcalls.

The history of US involvement in South American politics is too rich with stories to need another plain vanilla thriller. It is precisely the blurring of appearances and facts – qualities that Rees’ and Didion’s storytelling throws into relief – that characterises the CIA’s meddling in the politics of other countries. In any case Reagan’s selling arms to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua is, also, too well-known to need a voiceover or some form of plodding, predictable method that would provide a fair recount.

What? Have we failed as viewers? Though I can understand a consumer feeling a tad frustrated at the methods used to make this film, I would have expected critics to be more forgiving. 

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Movie review: 1917, dir Sam Mendes (2019)

This British film provides relief for movie-goers who might be tired of American exceptionalism in the form of a certain type of violent war movie and bald celebrations of individual valour.

The story resembles that found in Stephen Spielberg’s 1998 movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ where, in WWII, the Tom Hanks character is sent behind enemy lines to find the brother of three men who had already been killed in action, so that he might be brought home alive. I remember that movie as I was staying at the time in a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona, where I had gone on a business trip. But ‘1917’ is a very different film cinematographically speaking (partly because of the small number of cuts used to make it).

Poetically, as well, ‘1917’ has certain characteristics that set it apart from its predecessor. There are a few small details that function to provide cohesion and to link different parts of the film, to form tonic moments where, due to the eradication of the interstices between things, the viewer is touched by the same brand of inspiration that motivated the filmmakers. I won’t detail these correspondences as to do so would spoil the movie for those who are yet to see it.

At the outset, two soldiers in northern France are selected to bring a message to another fighting unit located about nine miles away, closer to the enemy and beyond what had been the front line of battle. The goal is to stop an attack as Allied commanders had received aerial intelligence that a trap was being set for the British by the Germans. One of the young men is Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and the other is Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George Mackay). As well as the two leads, you have a good performance by Mark Strong, who plays an officer met with on the journey.

While some historical details might be shaky – the battle scene is, I was assured by the person I saw the movie with, not entirely true-to-life – one thing that struck me watching this movie is the quality of the writing. Moments that might otherwise have been empty of action are, here, filled with colour that serves to give characters form and weight, in order that you might more fully experience their humanity. A scene in the back of a truck, during which a group of soldiers talk among themselves, is particularly fine in this regard.

Overall I give this movie, which I saw at a cinema, a thumbs-up. It is not a celebration of war, but a lament. Lest we forget.

Monday 24 February 2020

TV review: The Spy, Netflix (2019)

This short miniseries, six 45-minute episodes, is based on true events. I wasn't the only one to enjoy it, as this tweet shows.

The acting is low-key and the show is character-driven but it is in English even though most of the dialogue in real life would have been in Arabic and Hebrew. Perhaps subtitles should have been used instead of English dialogue. There are some action scenes but because you always sense the normalcy of the leads – especially the spy Eli Cohen, played by Sacha Baron Cohen – such elements take a backseat to the personal relationships Eli has with other people, most notably with his wife Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem).

Because it is important for the viewer to understand the complexities of Eli’s character, a good deal of time is spent developing the Nadia character. The couple had two small girls and the family unit forms a central aspect of the dramatic life in this excellent historical thriller.

Alexander Siddig is good as Suidani, Eli’s nemesis, who brings a sense of threat to every scene in which he appears. Mossad manager Dan Peleg (sensitively played by Noah Emmerich) is also compelling, and you feel his anxiety at various points as he prepares Eli for his new life as an agent working in Syria in the years leading up to and following the military coup that, in 1963, brought the Ba’ath Party to power in that Middle Eastern nation. Under cover as a trader, Eli befriends a number of prominent Syrians and sends useful information back to Tel Aviv. Some of it is packed into exports of furniture and some is transmitted via Morse code.

The series was written and directed by Gideon Raff. I suspect that, due to its controversial nature, his achievement will not be rewarded with many views, but Israelis have long memories, and the troubles of the era that is covered in this film are still fresh in the minds of many who live in that country.

Sunday 23 February 2020

Movie review: American Factory, dirs Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (2019)

It’s hard to talk about this Netflix film without giving away the ending, but I’ll try. It chronicles the acquisition of a factory in Dayton, Ohio, that used to be run by General Motors before it was closed down. Then a Chinese company called Fuyo, which makes glass, bought the building and filled it with glass-making equipment. They hired local people and started making glass.

But managers struggled at first to make a profit and, in addition, they resist the efforts of workers to join a union. The movie’s story comes down to how the company functioned to achieve its goals and how the employees, most of whom are American, coped with that. It also looks at some of the cultural differences between American workers at the factory, and Chinese workers brought in to perform some tasks.

Pop psychology used by Chinese managers in an effort to manage their local workforce is particularly galling, as though controlling the means of production gives you an ability to understand the world in a way that the people who work for you do not. We often complain of American exceptionalism, but Chinese exceptionalism is just as nauseating.

But this movie, even though on its own merits it is competent and lucid, tells only half the story.

The other half of the story is how manufacturing workers in Japan – who are even more efficient than Chinese workers, and who make even higher-end products, and whose companies make profits – are usually members of unions. In fact, Japanese unions (although they are organised differently from unions in America, being company based rather than industry based) have been remarkably successful in both protecting their members and ensuring profitability for the companies they operate in. The wage gap between the managerial class and the working class in Japan is, by American standards, remarkably low.

So a workforce free of unions that is profitable, or a workforce that is unionised but that is not efficient, do not have to be the only outcomes for either Labour or Capital. The narrative being pursued for selfish ends by Fuyo’s managers and, by extension, by the Communist Party of China, is simply not the only alternative available if you want happy workers and profitable businesses. Japan offers a third option.

It would be good if the filmmakers of ‘American Factory’ made a second instalment. Perhaps the Obamas, who backed this prize-winning film – which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, where I heard about it – could get behind another one to provide answers to some of the questions this one poses.

Saturday 22 February 2020

Movie review: American Assassin, dir Michael Cuesta (2017)

This action thriller has the lot, from a car-chase in Rome to a nuclear device stolen from a Russian arms repository. It starts out with a terrorist attack on a Thai beach (shades here of Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Platform’, which came out in 2001) and involves plenty of choreographed hand-to-hand fighting.

Michael Keaton does well as Stan Hurley, a grizzled CIA operative who takes a nondescript Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) under his wing to prepare him for operations in the field. Mitch’s loss of his fiancĂ©e on that Thai beach has led to him being personally involved in what he does, so he’s a bit of a loose cannon. I haven’t seen O’Brien in any similar movies and I wonder why, though I wait to be surprised.

This movie has plenty of reliable elements, and Sanaa Latham is serviceable as a CIA manager, while a wooden David Suchet (from the Agatha Christie movies) plays the CIA’s director in the same style as Sidney Poitier does for the FBI in the execrable ‘The Jackal’ (1997, a Bruce Willis vehicle).

‘American Assassin’ is pure genre and has quotes within quotes. There are a few novel twists in what is mainly a predictable plot, which revolves around Iran trying to get a nuclear warhead to use against Israel. Annika (Shiva Negar), whose function appears late in the movie but who kicks some ass in the meantime, is also a loose cannon. To cap off the pizzazz, the movie even has a battle formation: the US Sixth Fleet off the coast of Italy. The special effects used to make these scenes are engrossing.

The whole thing is Bond-like and fun, a piece of nationalistic exceptionalism that celebrates US power even as the aesthetic fatigue you feel at the use of tired tropes removes the sting. While harmless, the movie has some unpleasant violence.

Friday 21 February 2020

Movie review: Inside Man, dir Spike Lee (2006)

I’ve been gravitating to older fare on Netflix, using the little snippet of text that appears when, with the arrow button on the remote control, you bring each show icon into focus. This one was, I saw, by a famous director but it was listed in the “Action and Adventure” section on the home page, so I was intrigued. “Spike Lee doing an action movie?” I thought to myself. “That sounds like fun.”

It was. The story is of a bank robbery, in fact, so it’s a heist. The bad guy, Dalton Russell, is played by Clive Owen and Denzel Washington plays Keith Frazier, a detective from the NY Police Department who is brought in to get the hostages – there are about 40 of them – out of the bank building. Other stars in the film are William Dafoe as a NYPD uniformed cop, Jodie Foster as a fixer, and Christopher Plummer as the bank’s owner. There’s also Chiwetel Ejiofor as Frazier’s partner.

It’s interesting that Lee chose to do a movie like this at this time – half a generation ago now – when PC was starting to be used in artworks conforming to the rules of genres such as crime, romance, or fantasy. In this sense, Lee was ahead of the curve. Another genre that has since boomed in popularity even as it is full of social commentary is the superhero movie.

In Lee’s film, there is plenty of knowing humour and engaging dialogue. Washington is excellent as the sassy NY cop who has carved out a space for himself despite adversity. In order to give him space to shine, Dafoe plays his character with a straight bat, as does Plummer. Foster is creepy as the college-educated insider with flexible morals.

The plot is complex and the means by which the baddies execute their plan is devious. The music is really amazing using, to create suspense at unexpected moments, the kinds of heroic chords that you find in cowboy films. But there is no gratuitous violence. I was really impressed by this movie, which did well at the box office and got good reviews when it first screened.

Thursday 20 February 2020

Book review: Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer (1997)

This copy of Dyer’s bibliomemoir – in which he talks about his interest in DH Lawrence – was printed in 2008 and I bought it online recently after finding mention of it in a review of books that were published in the 90s. I use AbeBooks for purchases like this, for books that are probably out of print (I didn’t check before placing my order).

Like Nabokov’s biography of the Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, this is a minor classic. In it, the author melds his own preoccupations with those of the object of his enquiries, so that you get something like a confessional tone upon which he is able to weld observations about life, the universe and everything.

Lawrence belongs to the last generation of writers who were able to celebrate the individual. His vaunted hatred of religion – something Dyer chronicles in the book – betrays a desire to find meaning that clashed with the equally strong desire to maintain individual integrity. There is something universal about the themes in this book.

Writers these days are so bound up with the ethos of the collective that literature itself is a niche interest, and it is in the various types of genre fiction – in the sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that proliferate in our postmodern world of frictionless markets and immediate gratification, of bingeing TV series and of scolding streaming video providers for cancelling a promised third season for our favourite show – that the most politically engaged writing is found. With the deaths of writers such as Lawrence, Nabokov, and Miller came the birth of the selfie generation, the predominance of applied arts as objects of desire for a fetishizing collective, reality TV, and Donald Trump.

While the title of this book suggests anger it is actually very funny, and Dyer makes Lawrence accessible even to the most jaded Boomer. He might even appeal to Millennials, should any of them become aware of Dyer’s output beyond the confines of the universities he teaches at. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and found it made a refreshing change from the action thrillers I so love and that I have been watching in vast quantities since I got Netflix in January.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Movie review: Body of Lies, dir Ridley Scott (2008)

This action thriller had a mixed critical response, according to Wikipedia, but it did well at the box office. The film has a star cast, with Leonardo Di Caprio as Roger Ferris, a CIA operative, and Russell Crowe as his boss, Ed Hoffman. The director is famous for such modern classics as ‘Alien’ (1979) and ‘Blade Runner’ (1982).

Both leads in ‘Body of Lies’ are cocksure and accident-prone. Mark Strong does a good job playing Hani Salaam, the head of Jordan’s intelligence body, a man who is confident living in his element. The story is complex and episodic, and you are given multiple chances to recover from points of high tension, each more violent than the last.

As an artefact of the US War on Terror – which, of course, is still playing out, as various rogue loonies stage attacks in places like Paris and London – this film is solid and interesting. The writing is good and the directing is excellent. It is self-consciously a genre movie but its quality sets it apart from the bulk of films of this nature.

What it does well is to show how, in league with various American administrations, the CIA has earned a reputation not only for mendacity – what else are spies but consummate liars – but for unethical and, even, immoral conduct. Looking at the broader historical landscape (cf especially the overthrow, in the 50s, of an elected Iranian government), grubby tactics used by the CIA and its managers has been responsible for bad outcomes, and this film illustrates this legacy of lies.

The bodies in question belong to the men and women who are intelligence operatives, who are agents, who subscribe to militant Islam, or who get mixed up in the circus through no fault of their own. The body sometimes suffers due to the ideas of its owner or, more insidiously, due to ideas someone else harbours in their mind.

There is thankfully no gratuitous violence in this film, which I saw on Netflix, but while watching it and thinking about it afterward I felt that the secondary characters might have been better realised. A criticism the film drew was that too much depends on the performances of Crowe and Di Caprio.

We know, for example, that many terror attacks in the West are carried out by men who have mental health issues or who have previously engaged in petty crime. Nothing like that is evident in the plot of this movie, as most of the secondary characters are not fleshed out enough, so it remains a competent production rather than an excellent one. Keeps you on the edge of your seat though …

Tuesday 18 February 2020

Movie review: Marriage Story, dir Noah Baumbach (2019)

Solid, interesting movie about love and identity featuring Gen-X actors Adam Driver (Charlie) and Scarlet Johanssen (Nicole) who lob into Los Angeles so Nicole can do some work in a TV show. While in the city she files for divorce. The rest of the film is about the legal process, with Charlie acting like a complete dick because he can’t get what he wants (which is to stay in New York, where the two had been living, so that he can continue his career as a theatre director).

Julie Hagerty is very good as Nicole’s mother Sandra, injecting whimsical humour into what might otherwise have been overly serious fare, and Alan Alda as lawyer Bert Spitz has the best line of the whole movie when he reminds an irate Charlie that Charlie’s son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), will grow up and make up his own mind about which of his parents he wants to see, so getting angry over the divorce is not only counterproductive but useless. Of course, Charlie ignores Bert.

On technical grounds I have no opinion to venture beyond saying that the majority of divorces in my country never get to court, and so the histrionics that Charlie subjects everyone to because of his ego seemed, to me, to be a bit over-the-top. On the other hand, Charlie’s concern for his own happiness at the expense of everyone else’s is probably typical. And small things count in this movie: the echoes of the beginning you find at the end are nice.

Monday 17 February 2020

Book review: Salvation of a Saint, Keigo Higashino (2012)

I bought this book in October 2012 and have kept it unread in my collection. Not by design, it’s just the way things turned out. A sticker on the front says “Free book with purchase” so presumably I bought something else and got this gratis.

Like ‘Malice’ (2014) by the same author, ‘Salvation of a Saint’ is a murder mystery that turns on the outcome of events located in the pasts of the protagonists, in this case a man named Yoshitaka Mashiba and his wife Ayane. Yoshitaka is poisoned when his wife is away from home, and the detectives on the case work out are stumped as to who administered the substance and how.

Kaoru Utsumi, a young team member, decides to bring an old friend of Detective Kusanagi onto the case. Yukawa is a physics professor at a university with an analytical mind and a taste for high fashion. His inclusion on the investigative team allows Higashino to recount, in conversations held for the reader’s benefit, a large quantity of information about the investigation. Together, the three bring their minds to bear on what appears to be an indissoluble problem, the solution to which rests with an unlikely item of evidence.

The dynamics that evolve in the relations between Yukawa, Utsumi, Kusanagi, and Ayane also serve to lend depth to the novel’s characterisation. At the beginning of the story, conversation at a dinner party at Yoshitaka’s and Ayane’s house serves the same purpose. This kind of writing is very strong and this novelist able to give his characters multiple dimensions.

Things that are more noticeable in Japan are also on view, such as the police’s consideration for the feelings of the suspects. Yoshitaka’s house, furthermore, becomes a burden rather than a resource, reflecting the way that such a death would be viewed in Japan, where personal reputation is so precious. Selling a house where a man had been murdered might be difficult if word got out, as it must do. Details such as this provide realism.

Sunday 16 February 2020

TV review: October Faction, Netflix (2020)

I was sceptical about this series and initially watched about 20 minutes of ep 1 then stopped because I found the acting stagey and inauthentic. After I came back to it on another day I was engrossed. I absolutely loved this miniseries, which runs to 10 episodes, and the following tweet shows that others had the same reaction.

The supernatural is so compelling to humans, and always has been. Last month, for example, I went to see an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales dedicated solely to Japanese supernatural figures as depicted in art over the centuries. There is something universal in the quest to explain the world in a way that chimes with our senses, our feelings, and our minds. Such simple everyday things as birth and dreaming provide, it seems to us, evidence of life beyond the material existence, an existence that can bore and frighten and confound us.

‘October Faction’ has some really good performances. There are four main leads. Tamara Taylor and JC Mckenzie play Deloris and Fred Allen, a married couple who belong to a shadowy, powerful organisation called the Presidio. Their children, Vivian (Aurora Burghart) and Geoff (Gabriel Darku is especially good) are twins aged 17. The family has just moved back to upstate New York after a posting in Osaka, and Viv and Geoff are enrolled in the local high school.

While in town, Deloris and Fred come across supernatural activity that alarms them. A warlock named Alice (Maxim Roy) appears, upsetting the Presidio, but things are not how they seem and with the help of Viv and Geoff, Deloris and Fred begin to ask questions about their lives that they had never had cause to ask before.

I can’t say much about the plot due to the risk of revealing essential elements to people who haven’t seen the series yet and who might want to, but a general observation can help readers of this post understand the kinds of issues this series deals with.

Fantasy helps creative people who want to tell a story because it allows them to make distinctions between people that are meaningful for the audience without resorting to reality. This is useful because reality can be messy, and can unearth undesirable emotions in people depending on which group they belong to, emotions that can trigger ennui. Fantasy lets you discuss such things as prejudice and discrimination at arm’s length, as it were, and to confront personal issues with a clear mind. It gives you a fresh pair of eyes.

In ‘October Faction’, additionally, there are secondary themes around bullying and homosexuality that add drama. Anwen O'Driscoll as Cathy, a girl who befriends Viv, and Praneet Akilla as Phillip, a boy in whom Geoff takes a romantic interest, help the filmmakers provide depth to two of the leads.

There are other themes explored in this drama, such as heritage, authenticity, our ties to the past, and the meaning of a good life. I was thrilled by the action at many points, especially near the end, so I have to congratulate the makers of this series for a job well done. Who said America isn’t great …

Saturday 15 February 2020

Movie review: Total Recall, dir Len Wiseman (2012)

This movie has aged well, although the story is a bit formulaic. I liked how it echoed the excellent 2002 film ‘The Bourne Identity’ (which I saw at about the same time and which has been reviewed on the blog). That fine film, of course, spawned a whole franchise of spin-offs, and ‘Total Recall’ belongs in the same stable of action films that centre on an intelligence operative who has lost his memory (although, in both cases, he remembers how to kick and punch and shoot).

The links are extensive, and include a bank safety deposit box accessed using a number and biometrics and that contains cash and passports, an expensive apartment the hero resorts to once he has got his stash, and a chase scene.

Unique to ‘Total Recall’ is the brutalist architecture in the Colony where Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) lives before he finds out who he really is. The pursuit sequences really are tremendous, with perfect choreography. I especially liked the one that takes place in the United Federation of Britain in a series of transport shafts where lifts go up and down and sideways. This is nail-biting stuff, and is of a high calibre.

The negative comments the film has gotten on account of the characterisation I feel are unwarranted. I was engaged by the story, which is not in the least complex, and I felt that Quaid, who is not sophisticated and who draws on the trope of the good soldier, has an innate virtue that is hard to quibble with. His nemesis, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), and the woman he meets who is part of the resistance, Melina (Jessica Biel), help Quaid reveal his true character. This film is a lot of fun.

Friday 14 February 2020

TV review: Giri/Haji, BBC (2019)

Japanese TV drama is not watched in the West but this British production, which is in both English and Japanese, gives Westerners a clear view of some of the themes that you can see on TV if you live in Tokyo or somewhere else in the archipelago.

It is an excellent eight-episode miniseries that uses some unusual techniques: animated sections and an interpretive dance routine. I wasn’t the only person recommending the series (see tweet below).

The action centres on the career of a yakuza (Japanese mafia) member named Yuto Mori (Yosuke Kubozuka) whose brother Kenzo (Takehiro Hira) is a detective with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. There’s a murder in London that the cops in Tokyo think Yuto carried out and they send Kenzo there to find his brother and bring him back home. In London, Kenzo meets a half-Japanese Brit gay man named Rodney (the very talented Will Sharpe) and Kenzo’s daughter Taki (Aoi Okuyama, who is excellent) steals her mother’s credit card and catches a plane to the British capital as well. 

So it’s a complex story – one that is suitable for a streamed miniseries because of the extra space made available for character development and for subplots. Kenzo’s married to Rei (Yuko Nakamura’s performance is strong) but he develops feelings for Sarah (Kelly Macdonald, who is Scottish), a London policewoman with a problematic relationship with her ex-boyfriend. On balance though the most interesting relationship is probably the one between Kenzo and Taki.

I was completely drawn in by this wonderful production, one which might be a bit hard for some people to navigate because a good deal of it is conveyed with English subtitles. The following tweet was seen on 10 February but the number of tweets on TweetDeck for this drama was far less than, for example, were appearing for ‘The Stranger’, another a Netflix series I watched. 

The translations for ‘Giri/Haji’ are not bad, but some could have been better, although it’s difficult to communicate the subtleties of a foreign language in such cases, where the source culture is so different from the destination culture. How do you translate “otoo-san” (father) when it is used in place of the personal pronoun “you”? This kind of puzzle exists in Japanese-English translation and here the filmmakers made do with what sounded demotic in English.

But I give this show a solid five stars. I watched it on Netflix over two days, which can probably be classed as bingeing.

Thursday 13 February 2020

TV review: Messiah, Netflix (2020)

Because the acting is so good in this miniseries, which has 10 episodes, I was completely drawn in once I got past the first 15 minutes of ep 1. The drama centres on a man who comes out of Syria claiming to do God’s work. But you have to persist a little with this production.

A deceptively simple story allows the filmmakers to examine a range of issues confronting people in the West, including militant Islam, immigration, existential despair, and the search for meaning and justice that plagues everyone wherever they live. Naturally, Israel and America sit at the dramatic centre of events, but Russia and Iran also enter into the equation.

After five episodes (watched on one day; it took me three days to get through all eps) one thing I didn’t see – it was present only as a missed opportunity experienced off-camera by Rebecca Iguero (Stefania LaVie Owen) – was that traditional staple of cinematic drama: romance.

There are five leads. One is the al-Masih of the miniseries’ title (Mehdi Dehbi) who has long, black hair and a clipped beard and who looks like your traditional depiction of Jesus apart from his dark skin. There’s Felix Iguero (John Ortiz), an unexceptional Texas pastor who, at the outset, is in dire financial straits and who gravitates toward al-Masih by dint of their shared interest in a deity whose plan, while mysterious, is compelling.

I’ve already mentioned his daughter Rebecca, then there’s Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan), a CIA officer who struggles with her own problems and who is trying to understand who al-Masih is and what he seeks to achieve. Then there’s Aviram Dahan (Tomer Sisley), a Shin Bet (Israeli internal security service) officer who gets in trouble with his superiors and who also has an interest in al-Masih.

Just looking at this list you can start to understand some things about this fascinating Netflix series. Because of the attraction of the West for people who live in the third world, and because of the aimlessness of life for many people who live in the West, the stories contained in this series, and the themes they illustrate, are universal. I liked the way that so many topical issues are mixed into the story, and I loved the writing and performances. Even secondary actors do good work – such as Eva’s father Zelman Katz (played by Philip Baker Hall) – helping to sustain the fiction and to keep the viewer engaged.

The speed at which the story of the “messiah” gathers momentum in the community is helped by the way the filmmakers deploy social media. When Rebecca takes a photo and posts it on Instagram, the response from the community is large and her mobile phone screen is displayed on the TV for you to see her posts and the number of likes made by people who, in her fictional world, have seen it and engaged with it. Text messages that Eva sends are, likewise, shown on your TV screen so that you can follow important conversations she has with people in other localities.

Such tactics give immediacy to the drama and faithfully demonstrate how the internet has changed our world. This series could not have been made even five years ago (although, perhaps it should have been). Overall, an impressive production. Far better than your average limited commercial TV series, in my view.

We all search for meaning in our own ways, and fiction gives us the opportunity to feel the satisfaction of resolution, even if it is only temporary relief. Brief respite from the pain of existence is, sometimes, all we can hope for.

Wednesday 12 February 2020

Movie review: The Bourne Identity, dir Doug Liman (2002)

You don’t see many old action flics listed on Netflix, so when the icon for this one caught my eye I was intrigued. On an earlier occasion I had seen one of the movies in the franchise, but I hadn’t seen the first of them, so I clicked “Play”. I was entertained. There are so many dud films on Netflix, you are lucky if you finish one in three that you start (at least, that’s my experience so far).

Matt Damon looks young in this almost 20-year-old film. The cathode-ray tubes attached to personal computers in the office Conklin (a heavy-lidded and saturnine Chris Cooper) heads and the flip phones everyone uses are lively timestamps of an earlier era, but apart from that the ingredients used in this film are familiar to anyone who has watched Tom Cruise in a ‘Mission: Impossible’ film.

For example, the car chase around Paris streets with Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente) in a red Mini. The scene in a Swiss bank reminded me of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (2011; based on Stieg Larsson’s 2005 novel of the same name) as did Bourne’s tony Paris apartment.

Poetry is added by shots of the Mediterranean seen close up at night and by scenes showing mountain roads during the day as Bourne and Marie drive from Switzerland to Paris. Winter scenes shot in hilly French countryside are also evocative and moody; the terrain and the cinematography giving these scenes a claustrophobic feel that lends drama to the action.

Clive Owen is good though his time on-screen is short. As far as the writing goes, Bourne’s interior life is richly realised and romance adds lustre to the product. The film stands up despite the passage of time unlike ‘The Bourne Legacy’ (2012), part of which I also watched at around the same time.

This later film has a different director (Tom Gilroy, who co-wrote the three earlier films in the franchise) and a different primary actor (Jeremy Renner), and its feel is less poetic, more procedural. In this film, there is something mechanical about the plot and the characters do not engage you as much as do the ones in the earlier film. ‘The Bourne Legacy’ begins with a shot of Renner lying face-down in a body of water (shot, as in the opening of ‘The Bourne Identity’, from below) but the similarities between the movies are mainly those stemming from the story, which turns on the fate of an elite band of US-government killers managed under the program name Treadstone. As artworks, the two films are very different.

Monday 10 February 2020

TV review: The Stranger, Netflix (2020)

I wasn’t the only person impressed by this police procedural, as the following tweet seen on 4 February demonstrates, though watching two episodes didn’t allow me to grasp the identity of the female character Dannielle refers to here.

After searching online for information about the novel this eight-episode Netflix miniseries was based on, I quickly uncovered a Newsweek story dated 30 January that included this:
‘The Stranger’ on Netflix is an adaptation of Harlan Coben's 2015 novel of the same name, but some big changes have been made on the way from page to streaming service. Most noticeably, [the] Stranger has been turned from a male character into a female one, played by ‘Ant-Man’ and ‘The Wasp’'s Hannah John-Kamen, and the story has been moved from New Jersey to a British town (the series was filmed in and around Manchester in the north of England).
To start with the second observation in Newsweek’s story: the British setting makes this series look and feel, for Aussie viewers, very much like standard end-of-week drama fare, the kind of show you might see on the main Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) channel on a Friday night, when people are at home and the kids have been put to bed. I have watched this species of drama for a long time, and especially enjoyed ‘Silent Witness’ (a kind of low-key UK version of ‘CSI’)  and, more recently, ‘Vera’ (where the top cop is a woman of mature years, as in ‘The Stranger’).  Naturally, I loved ‘Spooks’, the BBC1 TV series that ran from 2002 to 2011 and that screened on the ABC. It starred Richard Armitage, who plays Adam Price in ‘The Stranger’.

I have read some of Coben’s novels but I don’t remember anything from that experience. All I remember is that I was entertained and the same was true when I watched ‘The Stranger’ on TV.

In the miniseries the plot gyrates madly from one moment to the next, you are never left waiting long before the next twist diverts you. Just as you thought you were getting on top of the story, something else happens to draw your attention to another facet of this gem. It’s a kind of divertissement, of course, for which we turn to genre fiction (see that last link, above).

Modern genre fiction provides other attractions as well, and in ‘The Stranger’ you get some stereotype-busting casting – notable in this regard are Kadiff Kirwan as a gay, black cop and a groundskeeper (I couldn’t find his name in the IMDB credits list) who sits on the autism spectrum. The presence of many people of colour in the cast list for this film makes it stand out from comparable productions, such as the British TV series ‘Midsomer Murders’, which started airing in 1997, is still going strong, and is predominantly Anglo.

The use of technology to progress the plot in ‘The Stranger’ is also well done. Often a text message from a family member will provide the trigger for a change of direction in a conversation, in the same way that, traditionally, someone entering a room or receiving a phone call might have done. In a film where youth is a theme this tactic is obviously important.

The narrative in this miniseries comprises two separate storylines, one involving children and another involving adults. The main storyline, involving adults, challenges preconceptions about the world. A central premise is that privacy has been eroded by the internet. The fiction turns on facts delivered by a woman (the stranger of the series title, played by Hannah John-Kamen) who tells others compromising information about their loved ones. Armitage’s Adam Price is one of the people who receive such information, in his case when he is at a sports club for a soccer match in which his youngest son, Ryan (Misha Handley), is competing.

You are however constantly hearing people hide secrets, in a way that, you think, will be harmful to them. The dialogue, furthermore, is not always true-to-life; you frequently feel frustrated as people behave in ways that militate against their own best interests. On several occasions you wish that people would leave things to the police rather than taking action themselves. So, the movie is not entirely realistic but is, rather, designed to maximise suspense; you cannot have any idea, at the outset, how matters will turn out.

The use of music is effective and good casting demonstrates the amount of thought that went into planning the enterprise. Secondary characters do as much work as the principals, and this adds to the feeling of quality you get from the series. Different episodes were written and directed by different people, so I won’t list them, and Coban helped write the screenplay.

The title draws the viewer’s attention to how people can preserve secrets regardless of proximity. This is certainly true of Adam’s eldest son Thomas (Jacob Dudman), but it applies equally to others, including Adam’s wife Corinne (Dervla Kirwan). The performance of Brandon Fellows as Thomas’ friend Mike Tripp stood out, for me, due to its quality but all the leads are good, and secondary characters are solid.

It requires a total stranger to show Adam how little he knows about people he cares deeply about. Ancillary reverberations this series creates stem from notions of the fragility of life and the importance of small things. People telling lies can have a major impact on the lives of others. It seems to be saying that all of us function to maintain quality of life; there are no easy targets when it comes to the maintaining wellbeing of the community. It takes a village.

Sunday 9 February 2020

Conversations with taxi drivers: Fourteen

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

22 January

I had been to the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the ‘Japan Supernatural’ exhibition and caught a cab from Macquarie Street to home. I didn’t talk to the driver apart from telling him where to go until we got to the lights just before the Western Distributor, where we drove straight through. Then I said, “All these people complaining about the prime minister but you don’t see many EVs on the roads.”

The driver didn’t answer me straight away, but instead asked me how I wanted to proceed. I told him to take whichever route he preferred and we headed down toward Harris Street beneath the overpass where an arm of the motorway meets with Fig Street.

As we queued at the lights I asked him if his car was a hybrid and he said it was. He said you get mileage of about 100km per seven litres. I told him I was getting a RAV4 hybrid but that they couldn’t deliver to the dealership until April. “They’re not making the car until March,” I went on, explaining about the high demand.

Toyota was bringing out more cars in hybrid models, I said and he said that you would see more EVs in future. “That’s the go for the next five or ten years,” he added. He said that people are blaming the prime minister because of his denial about the link between burning coal for power and climate change. Then he said that Tony Abbott was in Washington saying there was no link. “We dodged a bullet with Abbott,” I said, adding that I thought he should stay in Washington so we wouldn’t have to listen to him.

At my street I paid using EFTPOS and got out of the car, then went in through the side door and up in the lift. Once there I put some clothes on to dry.

Saturday 8 February 2020

Movie review: Spotlight, dir Tom McCarthy (2015)

This engrossing movie about the media won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016 in a field that included the brilliant ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, the competent ‘The Martian’, and the stunning ‘The Revenant’ (which I also saw but did not review).

‘Spotlight’ has good performances by Michael Keaton as Walter Robinson, head of the Spotlight investigative team at the Boston Globe, and Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, a Portuguese-American reporter in the unit.

But I’m making a mistake. All the leads are good, including Rachel McAdams as Sascha Pfeiffer, another reporter in the unit, Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, the newspaper’s editor, and John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr, another senior editor at the paper.

In fact, the directing is solid and the major characters are credible and compelling. A complex and satisfying film that tells a now-familiar story. There have been investigations into clergy child sexual abuse around the US and around the world. In many cases they are still playing out.

I saw another movie about the media a couple of years ago. That was ‘The Post’, directed by Stephen Spielberg, about Watergate.  Both films demonstrate why journalists make good movie subjects. You have the first inkling of wrongdoing, the slow build, with suspense, as more facts are uncovered, predictable pushback from parts of the community who stand to lose something if a story goes public, and then a climax as the story goes public and the reactions start coming in from the community.

In McCarthy’s film the final phase of this sequence of events takes place, in the film’s closing minutes, as members of the Spotlight team converge on their office along with other Boston Globe staffers delegated to answer phones. Low-key? Maybe, but I found poetry in these moments. I saw the film on Netflix.

Friday 7 February 2020

TV review: The Crown, season 1, Netflix (2016)

You wonder how the directors manage to keep finding original ways to show people entering rooms accompanied by footmen, or getting out of large, black cars in front of grand, Italianate buildings.

One reason why espionage and crime make good material for TV and movies is because they are inherently cinematic; there’s always lots of physical stuff happening that can be used to develop character or to progress the plot. I fear that royalty is not in the same class of thing. One scene, for example, shows Princess Margaret arriving in a car at Buckingham Palace with the camera mounted above her, near the ceiling of the entryway. The filmmakers went to extraordinary lengths to mix things up, and this scene is evidence of the kinds of tactics they felt constrained to use.

And as TV and movies get longer and longer the danger is that you lose the snappy resolution and instead just get lingering shots of people sitting in rooms. In this sense, both types of production are tending to become more and more like soap operas, cultural goods where endless quantities of time are used for the most trivial aspects of the hero’s or the heroine’s fictional existence. Lighting a cigarette becomes freighted with meaning, or greeting your horse with a pat. Every roll of the eyes or turn of the head becomes material for dramatic art.

There are a number of different directors used for this very good series but the constant seems to be the writing of Peter Morgan, which is uniformly strong despite the fat that enters the equation once you have converted those long minutes of each episode into establishing shots and other types of action. Slow pace seems, these days, to equate with quality.

I would have to say that if the whole thing has a theme, it must be the problem of living a good life when your options are constrained. In our modern world, where religion is more relevant than it has been at any time since the 17th century, this kind of story can have universal applicability. So Elizabeth II is not so much exceptional as typical, although not everyone gets to run their own horse in the races or to spend a summer weekend at their own personal estate in Scotland.

Season 1 covers the history of Elizabeth from the time of her father’s death until the time of the appointment of Anthony Eden as prime minister. Because not all the action centres strictly on Elizabeth, perhaps a better title for the series would have been “The Royal Family”, but this is a minor quibble to make. Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill do well but it’s hard to know if that is due to the writing or to the acting.

They are given a run for their money by Matt Smith as Prince Philip, a creature that chafes at its bridle and that provides a good many dramatic moments in what might otherwise have been a stale narrative. Philip’s outspokenness and idiosyncrasy are brought to the fore in an illuminating manner, telling us new things that are corroborated by direct experience.

The way that the monarchy has modernised under Elizabeth warrants emphasis. I felt many thrilling moments while watching these programs.

Thursday 6 February 2020

Movie review: Sicario, dir Denis Villeneuve (2015)

This unconventional film details North America’s war against drugs and uses a secondary character – Kate, played by Emily Blunt – to embody the viewer while recounting the exploits of an assassin and his handler. I wouldn’t know how accurate any of these depictions are because this is not a documentary and I don’t know enough about the situation in the south of the US and the north of Mexico, but the drama is compelling.

Whether the movie outlines a new state of affairs I something I also cannot say, but you hear things from time to time in the media (if you are paying the least bit of attention). In his defence, the director impressed me, as he had done on earlier occasions when I had seen 2016’s ‘Arrival’. 2017's 'Bladerunner 2049' wasn't so good.

Kate, like the other leads, in law enforcement, gets into trouble and then has qualms about the methods that Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) use to achieve their aims. Her colleague Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) is a foil to the unorthodoxy of the two leading men and the completeness of his character is a credit to the writers of this drama. Blurring of the lines between crime and justice is a major theme.

It’s difficult to accurately demonstrate how violence and injustice function in the lives of individuals and I’m not sure that the Mexican family that appears at different times in the narrative ideally serves that purpose. Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez), a policeman, and his wife (Kim Larrichio) and son represent an attempt by the filmmakers to demonstrate how the US drug market and US law enforcement affect Mexican communities. I suspect that this film, which I saw on Netflix, will stand the test of time.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Movie review: London Has Fallen, dir Babak Najafi (2016)

This four-square action flic stars Gerard Butler as Secret Service agent Mike Banning. Alon Aboutboul does a good job as his nemesis, arms dealer and terrorist Aamir Barkawi. Craggy-faced Aaron Eckhart plays US President Benjamin Asher and Morgan Freeman plays vice-president Allan Trumbull. All of these people perform their roles well.

I can’t imagine why this film isn’t better-known unless it is because the premise – a large-scale terrorist attack in London in retaliation for a drone strike in Pakistan that killed innocent people (including Barkawi’s daughter) – is a bit odd. It seems like a reasonable response to continued external interference in the Middle East, but the narrative is slightly challenging for people who identify with the West.

I found no fault with this movie, which is topical due to the number of terrorist attacks carried out in London since 2001. A pulse-quickener that plays with notions of safety and danger it also poses important questions; I liked the way it interrogates the role the US has played in world affairs since the 90s.

A long chase, during which Banning and Asher evade and Banning kills dozens of would-be assassins, and the final confrontation with the terrorists, are beautifully orchestrated. They are absolutely stunning in their conception and execution.

Waleed Zuaiter as Aamir Barkawi’s son Kamran is good and though he might have been developed a little more to make him less two-dimensional this film is intelligent and thoughtful as well as thrilling. This Netflix-available film, oddly enough is classic US product from a Swedish director of Iranian ancestry.

Tuesday 4 February 2020

Movie review: Miss Americana, dir Lana Wilson (2020)

This documentary is worth watching if you want to understand more about youth, and I enjoyed every minute though I don’t go out of my way listen to Taylor Swift’s music. I found out about the movie from a tweet (see below) in the Netflix hashtag stream that impressed me with its ardour.

The movie is more than a docudrama; in fact, its message is universal. Although it’s hard to know how much of the footage is truly candid, at its most basic level – beyond the concert appearances, the prize-givings, the flights in a private jet, and the friendships at the core of Swift’s life – the film shows a person’s coming of age. Swift is shown learning to define herself by something other than what people think.

In the end, she decides to be transparent about her politics, and the movie ends on a high note with the closing credits running over a soundtrack with a song titled ‘Only the Young’. It’s a catchy tune that chimes well with themes explored in the movie, one of which I’ve already mentioned. Though people change as they get older, so it’s not certain that Swift will think the same things in 20 years’ time (if she lives that long) as she does now.

And to be fair old people also run; a friend of mine who is 60, for example, jogs several miles two or three times a week. And if you’re talking about politics, not only do old people run for office but, more importantly, they are also more likely to vote.

While the movie illustrates people’s need to narrate their own existences it suggests that Swift’s success might be seen as a reason for her change of mind. She has over 85 million followers on Twitter, and if that were my tally I wouldn’t be too worried about what people thought of my politics. Swift might also have decided to take a stand following a period of time made difficult by a lawsuit she brought against a man, and the ensuing backlash.

The YouTube generation is posting as many thoughts explaining itself as Donald Trump is, and the hard-working Swift is its spokesperson. Even the title of this movie has a political overtone: the noun’s inflected ending is designed to resemble usage in Latin languages while its substance presumes a patriotic reaction. 

Monday 3 February 2020

Movie review: Venom, dir Ruben Fleischer (2018)

What do you get when a reporter becomes a superhero? Well, once upon a time you had Superman, whose alter-ego was mild-mannered Clark Kent. Superman is still with us, of course, but now you’re got investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) who, infected by a parasite from an asteroid, becomes Venom.

I thought the conception of and writing for this movie were strong. The action scenes are also good, but its charm lies in the relationship between the alien and Eddie, who shows his true colours (to us and to the creature) in scenes where he’s speaking with Anne (Michelle Williams). Here the dialogue is not brilliant and Hardy pronounces some words awkwardly, but this is an action movie, not stage theatre, so you make allowances.

Anne and Eddie are Millennials and their banter has this novelty. Riz Ahmed as Carlton Drake is also good. This actor plays an entrepreneur with quiet aplomb, as befits a character with power. In this regard he resembles Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) in 2014’s ‘Ex Machina’, which took a look at technology in the form of robots and was directed by Alex Garland.

I would say that ‘Ex Machina’ is the better film, but ‘Venom’ is a decent attempt at tackling the issue of the ethics of Capital in the Facebook era. And it’s refreshing to see a journalist portrayed with strong personal values. I saw this movie on Amazon Prime.

Sunday 2 February 2020

Movie review: The Foreigner, dir Martin Campbell (2017)

This fascinating action thriller stars Jackie Chan as Quan Ngoc Minh (surname “Quan”), a Chinese restaurant owner who at an earlier stage in his life was trained by US Special Forces. Quan’s three daughters have been killed: two by Thai pirates when the family was escaping Vietnam in the 1970s, and one, the youngest, by the IRA in London in the present day of the film. Quan’s quest is to find the killers of his youngest daughter.

To do this, he contacts Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan), a former IRA member who is now a state functionary in Northern Ireland. Hennessey at first puts Quan off, saying he doesn’t know who orchestrated and carried out the bombing, but Quan carries out a series of attacks of his own in order to find out the identities of the killers.

That’s all I’ll say out of fear of giving away too much. Suffice it to say, Quan is a compelling action hero. I found the ideas motivating this movie – specifically, the relations between parent and child – to be credible and the story to be satisfying if predictable. I’ve seen other action flics where the hero is an old man (‘Red 2’, starring Bruce Willis, is also reviewed on this blog) but ‘The Foreigner’ involves a large number of fight scenes Chan performs.

From the point of view offered by the themes the movie retails in, you are confronted by an array of emotions while watching it. You are also made to look at history and how that worked out for the Chinese and for the British. This kind of subject makes you think of the future. I give this Netflix-available movie four stars because parts of the story are unclear.

Saturday 1 February 2020

Grocery shopping list for January 2020

This post is the thirteenth in a series. 

2 January

On the way back from the city, with my son, I went to Woolworths and bought a container of pumpkin, couscous and fetta salad, sandwich bags, and some flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

3 January

On the way back from the tailor’s I went to Woolies and bought bread, “ancient grain” salad, and some flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

4 January

Went to the Woolworths website and bought eye fillet steak, bacon, lentil salad, bean salad, tomatoes, mushrooms, a capsicum, strawberries, a pawpaw, a sultana butter cake, eggs, King Island “Roaring Forties” blue cheese, Marsh’s extra tasty cheese, rice, milk, Jatz crackers, beetroot-almond dip, garbage bags, cling wrap (biodegradable), mouthwash, soap, Calbee “Harvest Snaps”, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). Delivery at no charge due on Monday the 6th.

Later, at about 8.20am, I headed out on foot and bought some flavoured mineral water (no-sugar) at Woolworths, and after lunch I walked to Broadway Shopping Centre (to get some shoes fixed) and, while there, I bought some luggage tags. I had given mine to my son upon his return to Japan.

6 January

The night before at 8.04pm an SMS came from Woolworths reminding me of the delivery to be made this morning. There was also an email in my client application in the morning, timestamped 1.37am, about the bean salad, which they said was out of stock. I had noticed that the salads hadn’t been available in the store near me, either, so I guessed that some products were not being sold anymore. I had wanted to buy taramosalata but it had not been listed on the website.

Some selected items, the email went on, weighed less than the advertised amount. So, because of these eventualities, the charge for my order would be reduced by $18.77 prior to payment finalisation.

Before the Woolworths delivery arrived I went to the Feather and Bone website and ordered sirloin steak, pork chops, beef sausages, and bacon. Delivery for my zone was due on Thursday 9 January and cost $10.

At 7.04am the intercom buzzed and I told the guy whose face I could see downstairs, to come up. I repeated the phrase twice to make sure he got the message and then unlatched the street door using the control on my console. I ushered him inside when he arrived at my floor and he walked to the kitchen to put the goods on the bench. I helped him by making space, transferring items to another bench so that there would be room for all the things. I mentioned about the bean salad and he said he didn’t know, hesitatingly admitting that he was only involved in deliveries. I said that the local Woolworths supermarket had also not stocked the bean salad when I had been in there recently.

When everything had been removed from the two crates he had wheeled upstairs, I signed with my finger on his mobile phone and he left. I put everything away, bagging the steak and putting it in the freezer. The invoice that came with the delivery showed a final total of $152.58. 

There were two steaks and they came to 255g in weight. I had ordered two tomatoes – and the tax invoice that came with the order showed this as fact – but three tomatoes had been delivered. The mushrooms were loose in a bag though I had ordered a punnet, and the invoice showed “punnet” listed with the other items.

In the afternoon I went in the car to Broadway Shopping Centre to pick up shoes I had left to be repaired and, while I was there, I visited Harris Farm Markets and bought sirloin steak, pickled herrings, smoked mussels, double-Gloucester cheese, Danish fetta, sliced sorpressa, sliced Spanish salami, cremeux d’Argental cheese, marinaded goat’s cheese, bread, dill pickles, and pitted green olives.

7 January

On the way back home from the tailor’s I stopped at the bottle shop near my place and bought 10 bottles of Carlton Zero and one of Heineken 0.0%. This was everything with no alcohol they had in the shop. I had gone to the other bottle shop, the one near Miller Street, but they hadn’t had any zero-alcohol beer in stock.

8 January

On the way home from the post office I stopped at Woolworths and bought some flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

9 January

At around 8.25am the deliveryman from Feather and Bone Butchery buzzed me on the intercom and I told him I would let him in, then released the lock on the front door using the control in my apartment. I waited with my front door open and he came in presently, telling me that I wouldn’t need the box (I wouldn’t) presumably on the strength of memory: I had said the same thing last time he had come.

He put the box on the dining table and took out the meat, placing it on its surface. I thanked him and told him about the renovations to the building lobby. He said that I should leave a note next time I ordered and that he could meet me in the garage if necessary. I thanked him again and said that I wished the body corporate would do something about the lift buttons. He agreed, saying that he had tried the button on the right-hand side of the gondola, but that it hadn’t worked so he had used the one on the left. 

He departed, going back to his truck, and I repacked the meat he had brought using small bags, and put it all in the freezer except for the bacon, which went in the fridge.

10 January

On the way home from the tailor’s I stopped at Woolworths and bought fillet steak, lamb steaks, sliced corned beef, bean salad, couscous with cauliflower and cranberry, eggs, a cos lettuce, and some flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

11 January

Drove out to Lakemba and did a bit of shopping. Bought some prepared meals – chicken curry, and aaloo gosht (made with chicken and potato) – as well as some biryani. Also bought Egyptian green olives, Camel-brand (Indian) mango pickle, Lebanese pita bread (which was $1 for a pack of seven discs), some dishwashing sponges, and a bottle opener.

13 January

Went to Woolies and bought strawberries, laundry liquid, toilet paper, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). See photo below for receipt.

Went to the Woolworths website to ask if I could temporarily suspend my subscription. The building where I live is having a facelift and the lobby would be blocked for nine weeks, making it more difficult to deliver groceries to me. The assistant with the company I spoke with said I cannot suspend a subscription, but added that she would pass on a suggestion.

14 January

This morning I went back to the Woolies website and cancelled my subscription, since I wouldn’t be using it until the lobby renovation is finished. To cancel this there is a tool and Woolworths said they were “sorry” about my decision, but their policy left me with no alternative apart from paying $19 a month for nothing. Instead of being sorry they might have been more flexible. 

I wouldn’t have the problem with Feather and Bone Butchery. I had spoken with their deliveryman the previous Thursday when he said I should leave a note about delivery options with my order. In the event that I put in another order with them, I would have to come downstairs to meet the guy since the way for pedestrians to get into the building for the foreseeable future is via the second-floor garage or via the back entrance on the fourth floor. In this instance, the former option would be employed. You can still get in through the roller-door on the ground floor, but this can mean dodging cars.

In the afternoon I went to Woolies and bought sliced corned beef, sliced turkey breast, cos lettuce, a pawpaw, raspberries, strawberries, a cake, avocado spread, marinaded goats’ cheese, bread, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

15 January

On the way home from the post office I stopped at Woolworths and bought lentil salad and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

16 January

Went to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

19 January

After coming home from the homeware centre in the car, I popped in at the convenience store and bought some eggs.

20 January

Since I was down at the pharmacy I stopped by at Coles and bought chicken sausages, short-cut bacon, quinoa and tabouleh salad, coleslaw, artichoke hearts, strawberries, blueberries, a pawpaw, bread, olive oil spread, milk, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

22 January

At 2.56am an email came from Australia post about an order I had made on the Campos Coffee website, telling me three kilos of coffee would be delivered this day. An SMS came at 7.03am about the same delivery and I told the company to leave the parcel in a safe place. I had made the order a few days earlier.

Later, while I was out in the car, I stopped at a Woolworths and bought sliced corned beef, Somerdale truffle Cheddar cheese, eggs, taramosalata, strawberries, and flavoured mineral water (some with no sugar and some with no added sugar).

23 January

On the way home from the post office I stopped by Woolies and bought bean salad, minestrone, couscous with cauliflower and cranberry, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and a bottle of Coke No Sugar.

24 January

On the way home from the tailor’s I stopped at Woolworths and bought strawberries, blueberries, honey-macadamia ice cream, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). 

In the afternoon I checked the post box but the card for the coffee wasn’t there. I looked at the Australia Post email and called the phone number at the bottom, in the footer, but I didn’t manage to retrieve, in the recording, the tracking code I needed. I went to the URL of the web page the phone message contained and pasted in the tracking number, to find that the parcel had been at the post office since the 22nd. 

I put my shoes on and walked down there and used my photo ID to retrieve the coffee. Then went to Woolworths and bought shortcut bacon, lamb sausages, chicken pate, coleslaw, sultana cake, a lettuce, and bread.

25 January

Drove out to Lakemba in the car and bought some prepared keema aloo (potatoes with minced meat), eggs, beef sausages, lamb cutlets, and some prepared biryani rice with lamb.

26 January

I was out driving after dinner and stopped in a suburban street to park, then went to Woolworths where I bought T-bone steak, Scotch fillet steak, a ling fillet, salmon fillets, sliced ham, pastrami, shortcut bacon, a packet of Smiths lamington flavoured chips, and some flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

27 January

Went to the bottle shop and bought 10 small bottles of Carlton Zero.

28 January

On the way home from the tailor’s I went to the pharmacy and then to Coles, where I bought quinoa and tabouleh salad, artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, and a container of coleslaw. Also bought milk, sandwich bags, cos lettuce, a pawpaw, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). As Coles’ automated machines always give me an error I queued at the staffed checkout, and as I was standing there with my trolley a sales clerk came along and opened up a register so I didn’t have long to wait.

29 January

Went to Woolworths and bought sliced corned beef, Edam cheese, Gouda cheese, bread, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

30 January

Drove the car to Bunnings and bought drain cleaner, liquid soap, and a sink plunger. To find what I needed I asked for help several times. 

31 January

Went to Woolies and bought chicken sausages, Scotch fillet steak, eye fillet steak, eggs, sultana butter cake, blueberries, strawberries, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and lemonade (no-sugar).