Tuesday 31 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 30 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 29 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 28 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 27 March 2020

TV review: Bodyguard, BBC (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 26 March 2020

Book review: Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 25 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 24 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 23 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 22 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 21 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 20 March 2020

Movie review: Bright, dir David Ayer (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 19 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Book review: Blow, Bruce Porter (1993)

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 17 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 16 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 15 March 2020

Conversations with taxi drivers: Fifteen

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

3 February

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 14 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 13 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 12 March 2020

Movie review: Patriots Day, dir Peter Berg (2016)

A dramatisation of the Boston Marathon bombing and the investigation that followed that event, this is a good film that addresses the real concerns many people have about militant Islam. Mark Wahlberg stars in the film as Boston cop Tommy Saunders, who was there on the day of the explosions and who subsequently participated in the manhunt that led to the killing of Tamerlan Tsunaev and the capture of Dzhokhar Tsunaev.

The film did badly at the box office but got applause from critics. I agree with one of the judgements posted on Wikipedia’s web page. Because I think the film deserves attention it’s good that it is available on Netflix. I found it because it was suggested to me in the home page’s “Action and Adventure” section.

There have been many cases of terrorism in the West in the years since 2013 – when the bombing this film details took place – and radical Islam shows no signs of going away.

Purely as a work of art I have to say that ‘Patriots Day’ does the job it was designed to do, and it does it well. There is no unpalatable exceptionalism on display, no chest-beating, no expressions of a desire for revenge. What there is is a gradual build of tension as law enforcement comes closer to the suspects, a process that took several days. The meticulous planning of the response, and the bravery of the police involved, is displayed in a deliberately pedestrian fashion.

In the end, before the final credits run, there are some clips showing actual survivors talking – rather than the actors used in the rest of the film to portray them – and one of them, a man who had lost a leg in the attack, said something that reminded me of what Jill Hicks said in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings. Hicks, an Australian who lost both legs, published a book titled ‘One Unknown’ chronicling her adventure and though I didn’t read it I was interested to hear through the media what she wanted to communicate about her experience. Possibly, those closest to this brand of lawlessness have the most moderate views.

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Book review: We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch (1998)

It’s difficult to know how to start a review of a book of this nature, that deals with such horrific matters, but I’ll say that the structure Gourevitch uses is effective. He starts with some stories of survivors of the genocide of ethnic Tutsis at the hands of government-backed Hutu killers. (One thing that is hard for neophytes to comprehend is the different meanings that are associated in the minds of Rwandans with these two terms but, by the end of this book, you will have no uncertain understanding of them.)

So, the narrative is not a straight chronology – it might have just taken the reader from a time before the start of the crisis to its aftermath – and this strategy serves Gourevitch well in his task. I was deeply impressed by his dedication to uncovering the truth although I’m a bit disappointed by his notions of the place of the US in the world. Perhaps in 1996 – at the midpoint of his writing activity – saying that the US is “the most powerful nation in the world” might be possible to pull off without irony but after 2003 the fiction of US geopolitical supremacy is wearing a bit thin. I also don’t think much of Gourevitch’s taste in movies: he seems to love formulaic Hollywood films as much as the next doofus on Twitter.

Take-aways? Personally, I don’t think much of Donald Trump, and his description of third-world countries as “shitholes” is due to the same exceptionalism that allowed Gourevitch to claim superiority for his native country, but there’s no doubt that Rwanda’s problems – while exacerbated by colonialism – must be ascribed to failings in its own people. Tribalism of the most extreme kind, in short and, given the ways that people behave on social media, something that continues to pose a threat even to pluralistic democracies.

Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was as big a mistake on the part of the international community as ignoring the warnings coming out of Rwanda in the months leading up to the genocide, so it is time for a truly global consensus. I fear that as long as Americans remain wedded to their ideas of manifest destiny and as long as people in developing nations blame all their problems on colonialism, the world will not find the peace it so deeply craves. Instead of blaming others we should try to see our own faults for what they are.

Tuesday 10 March 2020

TV review: The Protector, season 1, Netflix (2018)

This diverting supernatural drama displays the best parts of Istanbul, parts that visitors will be familiar with, such as the Golden Horn and Ayasofya – there are multiple aerial shots taken from a helicopter flying above the city – but the show also features contemporary pop music. Most people will not have heard much Turkish rap music, so this show gives you a chance to sample cultural products you will not be familiar with: a change from the everyday.

Istanbul relies on tourism for a good deal of its income, and the reliable stream of Western tourists, looking for relics to view, is very visible on the streets of the city, especially those near the main landmarks and on Istiklal Street (which makes an appearance in some scenes of the movie), but the past, for Turks, means more than Roman rule. There is also the little matter of the Ottomans.

I wasn’t blown away by the acting some of which is hackneyed and relies on dramatic conventions substantially different from those used in the West. So, this production is vastly different from what you are normally served up as entertainment on Netflix. At points of heightened drama the protagonist, Hakan Demir (Çağatay Ulusoy, see image below), starts yelling uncontrollably in a way that a normal person would not do.

But the way historical Istanbul is woven into the tale is enjoyable though there is a good deal of predictable directing. Shots from the air showing a large commercial building owned by a wealthy businessman named Faysal Erdem (Okan Yalabık) with police sirens wailing in the distance, are an example of the kinds common cinematic trope the filmmakers use to narrow the distance between their product and comparable ones from the West. 

They try to show a modern, developed Turkey and so, for example, their actors are constantly pouring whiskey out of cut-glass decanters and sipping red wine from elaborate glasses as they sit in modern apartments. 

The story centres on the exploits of Hakan, the adoptive son of a vendor in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. One day, a woman comes into the man’s shop looking for a shirt. The old man tells her he doesn’t have it but it turns out he does and it turns out to be a talismanic garment that, when Hakan puts it on, makes him invincible. He is the “protector” of the show’s title, a man fated to defend the city from the “immortals”, only one of whom is still alive. With the “loyal ones”, the protector must use certain talismanic objects – a ring with a magical stone, an ornate dagger – to find and kill the last immortal, and so save the city from a dark fate.

Hakan is employed by Faysal through the good offices of Leyla Sancak (Ayça Ayşin Turan), one of Faysal’s employees. Hakan’s new job is to work in security and there are some unconvincing attempts on the industrialist’s life, while Hakan in his time off works with the loyal ones to retrieve the talismanic objects so that they can identify and kill the last immortal. 

The action in this show, which will have a third season (as noted in the tweet in the image shown above), is a bit too highly-flavoured, involving fights and shootouts, hidden lairs, and overwrought verbal exchanges but the stagey drama is leavened by romance and Hakan appears to have a choice between two options. It’s good fun.

A final note: please watch this movie using subtitles. You are going to lose a lot of signification if you rely on dubbing. The actors’ voices convey meaning, especially when they say each other’s names, so subtitles allow you to enjoy this aspect of the drama. I saw one strange caption, however, where the sound of birds in a hedge was communicated as “crickets chirping”, which was silly as the scene this happened in was shot during the daytime.

Monday 9 March 2020

Movie review: Train to Busan, dir Sang-ho Yeon (2016)

It might be difficult for readers of this blog to credit, but this is the first full zombie movie I have ever watched. This particular type of movie never appealed to me but now, with Netflix, I can sample any old thing without making much of an investment of time. If I don’t like a movie after five minutes’ viewing, I can just stop it and watch something else instead. In the present case I had seen a tweet with a comment about ‘Train to Busan’ and so I had some form of recommendation. Using a pad of paper I keep next to my keyboard I often write down the titles of movies or TV shows I have seen spoken of.

So readers of this post can know that I have little to which to compare this movie, and cannot say how good it is in relation to other exponents of the genre. Having said that, this movie was not scary and it efficiently uses such things as dialogue and character to make meaning. Overall it was enjoyable.

The presence in the movie of zombies – who are intent on biting anyone they see who is, themselves, not a zombie – adds drama to the product. Small snippets of dialogue that in another movie might just serve to fill in space between more significant events serve, in this movie, to convey large quantities of meaning because the risk of death is ever-present. So minor character flaws or minuscule moments of emotional congress involving two people are magnified out of proportion.

The primary point of focus in the movie is the relationship between a father named Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) and his daughter Soo-an (Su-an Kim), who is aged about eight or nine. Seok-woo is a fund manager and has separated from his wife, the mother of the child, and the child lives with him in Seoul in his apartment with his own mother and himself. When the movie opens it’s Soo-an’s birthday the next day and she wants to go to Busan to see her mother.

The two set out in Seok-woo’s car when it is very early in the morning and still dark, to drive to the train station, where they board a carriage and sit down with other passengers. But a young woman who ends up staggering onto the train at the last moment turns into a zombie and begins attacking the passengers who, once they have been bitten, quickly turn into zombies themselves.

The zombies are quite fun and there’s one scene where, in a train station, Seok-woo jams a book in the open mouth of one of the monsters as it grapples with him in the floor. I thought this variation on self-defence – and there is a lot of punching and throwing that happens in the course of the movie as the uninfected passengers battle it out with the ravening zombies – was especially charming, though it’s not altogether flattering, as an avid reader myself, to see a book reduced to such a prosaic use.

With all of the death and drama odd links form, such as the one between Seok-woo and Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), a burly, working-class man whose wife, Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung) is heavily pregnant. Sang-hwa dislikes Seok-woo at first and says he thinks he is a ravening zombie in real life because of what he does – buy and sell shares in public companies – but the two are forced to reassess their relationship due to the demands of the situations they find themselves in. The social commentary is palpable in this genre flic, and moral points are hammered home by the filmmakers with enthusiasm although it’s not at all clear from the drama if the filmmakers actually understand what a fund manager does; they seem to think they are like entrepreneurs who run companies.

In a zombie movie, a hammer can save your life. In my world, I might use one to hang a painting on the wall or to put together a piece of furniture bought at Ikea. In a zombie movie, small tasks seem like distant memories, and endemic violence – common also to other types of genre movie such as crime thrillers or spy thrillers – is relaxing for the viewer as it helps you to experience mundane things in the way that they should be experienced: as something to value rather than a chore. Hence, paradoxically, zombie movies remind us of our humanity. They tell us why we are alive.

Sunday 8 March 2020

TV review: Time: The Khalief Browder Story, Paramount Network (2017)

This is journalism so the story is messy and atypical. There are no neat resolutions in this six-part series, and there are no perfectly good guys (though there are some perfect villains). But there is suspense in each of the 45-minute episodes.

This is a show about courage and conviction. It was originally produced by Spike TV, the target audience of which was young men. Harvey Weinstein’s company was involved in the production. It includes archival footage as well as interviews and dramatisations.

Khalief Browder was a 16-year-old secondary school boy who, at 2am when police stopped him on a New York street, said he was coming home from a party. On account of an accusation made earlier, by a man who said someone had tried to steal his backpack, the cops took Khalief to the police station. He was then jailed pending trial for three years, including months in solitary confinement.

I won’t say much more about the story for fear of spoiling it for those who might want to see the show, but this case is an almost ideal one to demonstrate how an entire system is geared toward harming a class of people. Slavery might have died and the Jim Crow era replaced by a system of law enforcement that continued to penalise black men, but while though those bad, old days of the 70s are gone, ‘The Khalief Browder Story’ tells us that discrimination persists in the United States of America.

It shows, in detail, what happened to one African-American boy who got on the wrong side of the law. It is brilliant journalism because even if racism wasn’t the motivation for the abuse Khalief experienced, the system that allowed him to be jailed without trial for so long needed exposure.

Saturday 7 March 2020

Movie review: Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story, dirs Nate Adams and Adam Carolla (2020)

This documentary about the career of the first African-American to qualify for the Indy 500 car race – which is held every year in Indianapolis, Indiana, a Midwestern state of the US – chronicles events in the 70s, 80s and 90s. There is a good deal of drama, the story is well-crafted, the editing is solid, and Ribbs himself is compelling.

This is important as, due to the nature of the medium, a lot of the narrative is delivered by people who are interviewed on-camera. When he’s shown sitting in a room full of cars, Ribbs gives you the impression of a being person who is not prone to embellishing the facts. On the other hand he’s a fighter, and his passion is evident in his voice even though, when the shooting for the film was made, he was a lot older than he was when the events he is talking about took place.

In retrospect, he was a hothead but given the sport he was competing in that is entirely understandable. Motorsports is for people who are driven to excel but they are not always intellectuals. On the other hand, sports stars are often worth listening to precisely because their experiences – when conveyed in a cultural product of this kind – help us to understand ourselves. Sport stretches over boundaries between the self and the community. We are social animals, and the position of the individual vis-à-vis the collective is where politics comes alive; it’s fraught with both possibilities and with danger. Spectator sport enables the gifted among us to do what they are good at doing but along with that privilege come other things as well.

Most Americans who follow motorsport are white. Racism is an especially pernicious kind of injustice because once you suspect it exists it is very hard, in real life, to know when it is operating and when it is not, so you can get a lot of false positives regardless of how perceptive you are, or how objective you try to be.

The makers of this documentary made the testimonies of many of the major players available to the viewer, but some are left out. A journalist might argue that leaving out the words of a person in the story who is accused of being racist – for example, a motor mechanic who puts a faulty part in an engine in order to make it malfunction on the track – is to do violence to the truth. But this movie is not journalism although it uses race footage that would have originally screened on TV in the nightly news. A film like this was made in Australia: the Adam Goodes story. Like it, the story of Willy Ribbs is one of an individual’s fight against both blatant and subtle discrimination.

Both stories have human rights at their core and there is something inherently interesting in such stories; they are as old as history. But while this film is of a very high calibre it isn’t getting talked about much. I only found out about it because I monitor the Netflix hashtag on Twitter, so I am constantly looking for new things to watch. You won’t see this movie listed on the Netflix homepage; I had to do a search for it. Unlike a lot of what you find on Netflix, it is worth taking the time to watch.

Thursday 5 March 2020

Book review: Enigma Variations, Andre Aciman (2017)

I bought this book at the shopping centre at Dymocks one day when I had an errand to carry out. It was on the general fiction shelf – they have dedicated sections for things like true crime and science fiction, as well – and I had remembered the author’s name because of a film adaptation of another of his books. That film had homosexuality as a theme and had done well critically so when I saw this book sitting there my mind engaged.

The book I was reminded of when reading this novel was Ali Whitelock’s collection of poetry, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ (2018). In both books the stories are grounded in everyday reality, but in Aciman’s case romance is the key factor. Whitelock spreads her net wider but still stays rooted in this brand of material. Aciman’s is a novel of manners that charts one man’s life from adolescence through to old age. It is about how we live many lives in one life and how we have many special relationships that others in our lives may never learn about.

In one chapter the protagonist – Paul – and the woman he is walking with after having had a coffee in a café are stopped on the pavement by a gaffer belonging to a film crew managing crowds for the purpose of enabling a shoot to take place. This scene is a kind of mise-en-abime that encapsulates, in a nutshell, the entire novel. You sense that the author knows he is setting the reader up for a special effect, just like a movie director gets actors to say scripted lines and to make their eyes move to the right or to the left, all the while capturing everything with the faithful, artful camera. Aciman’s prose has, like film, a kind of deliberate, self-conscious glamour.

There is unquestionably something cinematic about his style, something that reminded me of the opening scenes of action movies, something basic and universal that celebrates this time of incredible wealth and privilege and that we casually traverse as though we were always and forever just walking across a street on the way to a dinner date in a restaurant we had booked over the phone the day before. How blessed we are to be alive, how fortunate to be alive now, at this time in the evolution of the species.

Aciman has chosen a theme that crops up from time to time in contemporary literature – in Nabokov’s ‘Ada’ (1969), Garcia Marquez’ ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ (1988), and Mailer’s ‘Harlot’s Ghost’ (1991) – of timeless love, the kind of love that never ends as long as the two people involved are still alive. There’s something in this formulation – in a purely literary guise just as, in film, action movies let us celebrate ourselves in a certain, otherwise inchoate, visual way – that is thrilling and compelling. I never get tired of such stories, but Aciman adds a wry denouement that you will never – not in a million years – guess before you get to the final line of this brilliant novel.

What is the enigma? Is it Paul’s sexuality? Is it the compulsion to find meaning through others, and through what we call “love”? Is it the way we separate our interior life from the everyday, so that we are, for all intents and purposes, lying a lot of the time to people near to us?

Or is the enigma of Aciman’s title the very transience of life, it’s fleeting beauty, which the Japanese celebrate every spring when they take their beer and their grilled cobs of corn and go and sit on rugs to look at the cherry blossoms? Is it the fact of life itself?

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Movie review: Wheelman, dir Jeremy Rush (2017)

A Netflix original movie, ‘Wheelman’ is shot almost exclusively inside or from the bodywork of cars, initially a manual BMW sedan. Due to great camera work you don’t feel claustrophobic, despite the deliberately limited visual lexicon. This film is cinematic and, although the story is complex enough, the visual elements used are minimal, making the thing feel very pure.

Its dialogue is emotionally laden, which is cathartic for the viewer – we often feel like expressing strong emotions, but are prevented from doing so by convention or out of fear of making those near us respond in kind – so there’s this aspect of the movie as well to provide entertainment. So, loose language and a speeding car: a sure recipe for uncomplicated fun.

It’s a good genre movie with a backstory that isn’t entirely clear even by the end of the show. It’s a crime thriller that chronicles what happens after a bank robbery. A lot of the story relies on phone conversations that the driver (the “wheelman” of the movie’s title, played by Frank Grillo) conducts with others involved in the heist. There is gunfire and death but strangely what endures after the credits roll is the importance of close personal relationships.

So, another simple trope is used and on top of it is the idea of the value of expertise. The getaway car driver was chosen for the job at hand because he’s good at driving cars. He knows how to make a manual go fast on city streets, he can slide the BMW through corners and end up facing the right way, he can use the pedals and the wheel. So he’s a man who is used to some form of discipline; he’s not just a thug who holds a gun and points it at people. He’s a kind of specialist and this sets him apart from the other characters who appear – mostly in the form of voices on the other end of a telephone connection – in the film. Then there’s his daughter, a 13-year-old whom he has taught how to drive and who displays uncommon bravery and intelligence.

The movie made little splash when it first came out and that I only heard about in passing on Twitter while following the Netflix hashtag. It is a small-target production so its reception is not surprising though it’s much better than other Netflix originals I’ve started, such as the awful ‘The Discovery’ (which stars Robert Redford as a scientist). ‘Wheelman’ deserves to be more talked about, and I’m sure we’ll get more product from Rush, who also wrote the screenplay.

Tuesday 3 March 2020

Movie review: The Hitman’s Bodyguard, dir Patrick Hughes (2017)

This light-hearted action flic is a vehicle for a jazzy Samuel L Jackson playing a hitman named Darius Kincaid, who is wanted by prosecutors to appear as a witness at the International Criminal Court for the trial of a Belorussian dictator named Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman). Dukhovich is a bloodthirsty tyrant and a posse of henchmen is dedicated to wiping out Kincaid on his journey from Manchester, where Interpol has a headquarters, to the Hague.

To help get Kincaid to his destination, Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), conscripts a bodyguard named Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), who plays a straight bat as Jackson riffs off his homeboy persona, made famous in one scene in the Quentin Tarantino movie ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994).

The two men had fallen out long before the story that begins the movie started, due to an incident that caused Bryce to lose his status as a top bodyguard. They return to this subject in conversations from time to time during their journey together in cars, on foot, and on a ferry, heading toward Kincaid’s date with destiny.

The filmmakers pump Jackson’s wisecracking for all it’s worth, but this movie hangs together despite the wear and tear that this kind of treatment metes out to your credulity. I enjoyed the film, though it won’t last over time and will not be considered a high point for any of the leads, including Salma Hayek, who plays Kincaid’s wife Sonia.

Looking more broadly, the film is an homage to America’s position as global policeman. The Eastern European angle combines with a South American angle to add local colour to the familiar as embodied in the dialogue between Reynolds and Jackson, two Americans bound by honour to carry out their assigned roles. As knockabout heroes with compromised morals, Kincaid and Bryce stand in for two sides of America’s self-image: rough diamonds with the ability to kick ass. The film, which is available on Netflix, is a celebration and a bit of harmless fun but better things could have been made with the money that was spent on it.

Monday 2 March 2020

TV review: You, season 1, Warner Horizon (2018)

Once you get past the discomfort of watching a nerdy bookstore clerk turn out to be a serial killer – it might just be so typical for someone, for example a lazy person, to think, if she were so inclined, that a person who likes reading BOOKS would also be a psychopath – this romance-cum-crime-thriller is very clever.

There are other flaws, though, such as a tendency to rely on such tired formulations as the abused child who turns out to have problems controlling his emotions or, even, of perceiving the world accurately. The show is also heavily plot-driven so that secondary characters are as fully realised as the leads. The police are remarkably obtuse, and because of the physical damage that the protagonist, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), sustains, some episodes verge on slapstick (you wonder if he’ll suddenly turn into one of Monty Python’s “Knights Who Say Ni”).

Despite his homicidal tendencies, we root for Joe all the way, partly because of the narrator’s voice (Joe’s) that efficiently lambastes Millennials by attacking their weakest points. Hookup culture and the gilded lives some people show the world on social media have had equally harsh critics but this is on Netflix so more people are going to be exposed to this satire. The following tribute for Joe from a viewer was not uncommon on Twitter.

You might say with some justification that a major theme of this series is the ways that men mistreat women. Secondary character Claudia (Victoria Cartagena), has an abusive relationship with a man and her son Paco (Luca Padovan) turns to Joe for support. Guinevere Beck (who calls herself “Beck”; Elizabeth Lail), the female lead, starts seeing Joe and their relationship runs alternately hot and cold until the crisis.

What is good about this show apart from the suspense it engenders in the viewer? It is compulsively watchable, and its poetry is strong: inspired writing adds lustre to scenes that might otherwise have been tepid or perfunctory. The need to add death as spice for plots in productions of this kind is unfortunate, but ‘You’ cleaves faithfully to the rules of its subgenre, so arguing with fate is pointless. 

Crime is not the only fictional method of showing how men and women interact, or the ways women cope with the crap that some men deal out, but women are drawn to crime dramas, and ‘You’ has been popular on Netflix, as the following tweet confirms.

Sadly, in the same period of time I was watching this series another Australian woman was murdered by an intimate partner. In this case he burned her so badly she died, and her three children died by fire as well. He was a football player of some renown, so aggressive behaviour was encouraged, in his case, by the community’s seemingly insatiable desire for such entertainment. 

Sunday 1 March 2020

Grocery shopping list for February 2020

This post is the fourteenth in a series. 

1 February

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

2 February

Went to Woolworths and bought bean salad, quinoa tabouleh salad, and a container of couscous, cauliflower and cranberry salad. Also bought a sultana butter cake and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

4 February

After leaving the pharmacy I went to Coles and bought pork loin chops, blue grenadier fillets, smoked cod, sliced ham, artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, a container of quinoa and tabouleh salad (topped up with couscous and pumpkin salad because there wasn’t enough of the other to fill the container, the size of which I had specified, though I didn’t ask the sales clerk to put it in), coleslaw, canola oil, chocolate, chocolate biscuits, Tim Tams, Jatz crackers, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

6 February

On the way home from the post office I walked to Woolworths and bought pork sausages, shortcut bacon, sliced turkey breast, guacamole, eggs, milk, bread, a cos lettuce, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

7 February

I started reading an email from Feather and Bone Butchery that talked about aged hogget and so I went to their website and ordered sirloin steak, lamb and lemon thyme sausages, and andouille sausages. I emailed the company asking also for six hogget loin chops and someone called me about the note I had left on their website, in which I had mentioned my email. 

The guy I spoke with said he couldn’t see my email in his inbox and asked me to resend it, which I did. He said that the new email went into the spam folder, and then asked me for my credit card details so he could bill me for the hogget (which is lamb from an older animal). I gave them to him and mentioned the delivery instructions I had included in the email and in my note at checkout, via the website. He said he had noted what I had written. Delivery was booked for the 11th.

8 February

Drove to Woolies and bought snapper fillets, a Nile perch fillet, couscous with cauliflower and cranberry salad, lentil salad, chicken and corn soup, minestrone, dental floss, mouthwash, Tim Tams (two flavours: “chewy caramel”, and dark chocolate with raspberry), sandwich bags, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and flavoured Schweppes drink (no-sugar).

10 February

On the way home from the tailor’s I stopped at Woolworths and bought shortcut bacon, sliced corned beef, bread, a pawpaw, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

11 February

Late in the morning Neville from Feather and Bone Butchery called me on the phone and told me he was downstairs, so I got in the lift and went down to the street. He was standing near one of the garage entrances and I waved him over then said he should come upstairs. We went into the building through the second-floor garage entrance and then got into the lift. 

In my apartment he opened the Styrofoam box he had brought with him containing the meat I had ordered and I put the contents out on the bench. On the way out the door I mentioned to Neville that they had had no beef sausages in stock – there had been a mark against the product photo on the website – and he said they were making more. I also said that their sausages cook well, unlike many sausages which won’t fry properly in the pan, and which require water to cook through. He said they don’t put any “rubbish” in their sausages and though I didn’t know what he was referring I didn’t ask more questions. 

I took him down to the garage. I had pointed out to him, on the way in, the street door release button and so I stayed in the lift while he walked off back to his truck.

Upstairs, I got out some sandwich bags and separated the sausages and chops into meal-sized portions, then put everything away in the freezer, apart from three of the andouille snags I intended to have the following day for breakfast. 

Mid-afternoon I got in the car and drive to a suburb about 13 kilometres away and parked in the street, then went to Woolworths and bought flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

12 February

Went across the road in the evening, heading to the convenience store, where I bought Doritos, McVitie’s digestive biscuits, caramel Tim Tams, and some dark chocolate.

14 February

On the way home from the tailor’s I stopped at Woolworths and bought shortcut bacon, coleslaw, a container of couscous with cauliflower and cranberry, some bean salad, avocado spread, eggs, milk, banana bread, Tim Tams, chocolate biscuits, kitchen paper towels, and dishwashing liquid.

15 February

I walked to Kmart and while in the shopping centre I went to Harris Farm Markets and bought spicy sorpressa, mortadella, pork and fennel sausages, cauliflower and tomato curry soup, sardines, smoked mussels, Heysen blue cheese, “Black Jack” Cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese, quinoa and coconut salad, bread, and hot English mustard.

16 February

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

17 February

Drove to Campsie and went to Woolworths and bought flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

18 February

Went to Woolies and bought sliced corned beef, sundried tomatoes, coleslaw, bean salad, Tim Tams, bhuja mix, and Calbee “Harvest Snaps”.

20 February

Drove to Lakemba and bought chicken and garlic sausages, eggs, lime and chilli pickle, lime pickle, “lemon salad” (which turned out to be a type of relish), mango pickle, and pickled eggplant.

21 February

Went to the tailor’s, then the pharmacy, and on the way home I stopped at Coles and bought shortcut bacon, artichoke hearts, quinoa and tabouleh salad, taramosalata, olive oil spread, Schweppes no-sugar flavoured drink, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

25 February

On the way home from the tailor’s and the pharmacy I went to Coles and bought bacon, snapper fillets, milk, bread, coleslaw, quinoa and tabouleh salad, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and Schweppes flavoured drink (no-sugar). In the afternoon I went to the convenience store and bought Tim Tams, chocolate, and a piece of banana cake.

26 February

Drove to Broadway Shopping Centre to go to the camera store and on the way home I went in the car to Woolworths in Pyrmont and bought some flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). It was my first time to use their parking floor, and I used the service desk to check-out as you need to get your parking ticket authorised there before exiting to the street.

27 February

Went to the bottle shop and bought a six-pack of Carlton Zero and five individual bottles of the same. Then popped into the convenience store and bought banana cake and Tim Tams. A little later I went to the Feather and Bone Butchery website and put in an order for sirloin steak, lamb loin chops, beef sausages, lamb merguez sausages, and andouille sausages. Delivery due Tuesday 3 March.

28 February

On the way home from the tailor’s I walked to Woolworths and bought pork chops, pork sausages, salmon fillets, bread, coleslaw, sundried tomatoes, lentil salad, bread, lettuce, avocado spread, sultana butter cake, Tim Tams, and chocolate.