Sunday 29 October 2023

Waterloo Station Open Day

Popped into visit Waterloo Station for Open Day, it was great to see the new much needed infrastructure, God we need more of it. Let’s build more train lines, ok, can wee all agree we need more trains?

After seeing the inside of the station my friend John Smaha gave me and his Arabic friend some lunch and we discussed Palestine, we disagreed politely, but can’t we all agree we need more public transport? I’m sick of driving my bloody car up Botany Road to get anywhere, let’s put the Metro down to Kyeemagh, the philosophical centre of Sydney, if they did that we could have a new train station just down the street from my place. I swear I wouldn’t complain about tunnelling, you can almost bet on it (I might if they disturb my beauty sleep).

No time or inclination to sleep inside Waterloo Station (unless you’re homeless) it’s sort of like descending into Mordor the escalators are so long and steep, it reminds me of Kings Cross or Martin Place, they go on forever. See pics below.

Friday 27 October 2023

Movie review: Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell, dir Emmet Malloy (2021)

I’ve been watching a few hip hop things on Netflix, there’s a crime drama about the assassination of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Amaru titled ‘Unsolved’ which is ok. I prefer the docos like ‘Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell’. The music industry is particularly well suited to this sort of treatment because of the ready availability of relevant music to go with the on-screen action. It’s easy to find something to accompany the visuals when you’re dealing with a musician.

Another good doco is ‘Onefour: Against All Odds’ (2023, dir Gabriel Gasparinatos) which deals with the Australian drill rap group and their ongoing struggle against Strikeforce Raptor, who have been successful in shutting them down up to this point in time. When the state is against you performing because of the incendiary nature of your lyrics you have a case of censorship on a grand scale. To give substance to the group’s relevance, the filmmakers brought in Osman Faruqi, a left-wing journalist and the son of the NSW Greens politician. I’m not a fan of either of these two characters.

The story of hip hop is inherently cinematic because of its association with crime, violence, cars, guns, and drugs. There’s something anarchic about this underground, which is why the cases of Biggie Smalls and Tupac are still unsolved: nobody will talk with the cops. Hip hop is graffiti, it’s the streets, a strange gallery where people perform some role that is denied them at home.

Another doco is ‘Hip Hop Evolution’ hosted by Canadian rapper Shadrach "Shad" Kabango, which came out in 2016. This is a series and it goes into some detail ion a more geeky vein than the other ones mentioned. I find this show thoughtful and insightful but it’s not as dramatic as the others obviously because crime isn’t the central plot point. Nevertheless this show and the others demonstrate that there’s an enduring audience for this sort of music, which is close to my heart because I use rhyme too in my own poetry.

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Is there a divide between beautful art and meaningful art?

This post is a response to Andrew McIlroy’s article on “value-free” art in Australia. I read the post with eagerness because this is something I think about a lot, the difference in art between the purely decorative and the meaningful. I wonder how you can split the two things into separate categories? Is it a question of working withing a specific tradition? How has popular culture, specifically advertising and other media such as cinema and TV affected the fine arts? What barriers are there in people’s minds, people in the street or in the commercial gallery who come along to a show opening to mix and mingle, chat and view the works for sale?

It's a conundrum.

I think Andrew has a point in that there is a lot of art available that is objectively beautiful, and you think that the gallerist and the artist want to offer something for sale that will be acceptable to buyers who might want to take a work home and put it on a wall. I mean, it’s easier to feel comfortable with a Klee than a Kollwitz. Because of the coexistence of different styles now – it’s just as acceptable to paint an abstract as a figurative landscape – there is a lot of choice for artists who want to appeal to buyers. I wonder if Francis Bacon if he were an up-and-coming artist would have many buyers? For my part I am not a fan of Bacon but accept that he’s a valuable commodity.

In literature I coined a new term Divergism to describe the market for books, there are so many genres available now that there’s no longer a mainstream, there are several mainstreams. In visual arts it’s the same, you can do anything now it’s fine people will understand (or at least the community of collectors and aficionados will understand) if you paint abstract, figurative, semi-figurative, semi-abstract; anything goes. I guess this means that it’s possible to paint something that is objectively beautiful and that simultaneously is meaningful. I might borrow tropes from commercial art, styles of combining colours or of making lines that are common to advertising, but in doing so make a comment on life more broadly. Or I might try to be ugly, or use just black and white, and do something that is essentially designed to be merely beautiful. I fear I’m not making myself clear however, and so I’ll backtrack a bit.

In television there are two very popular types of program: cooking shows and shows that feature real estate. Both are innately highbrow but they also manage to be popular. Some are more popular than others, so for example while Nine Entertainment has ‘The Block’ the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has ‘Grand Designs’. Network Ten has on weekends many cooking shows in the afternoon. You get tradies and sportspeople cooking on ‘MasterChef’ and you get everywoman and her dog fronting up for ‘The Block’. Food and shelter are perennials.

It's different for art. It’s hard to get someone coming in off the street to front up $1000 for a painting where you can use the same amount of money to eat for two months for the whole family. But the people who are buying the paintings are the same people who are watching ‘The Block’ and ‘Grand Designs’. You know they’re interested in culture (design and food are great cultural products) and you know they value their way of life. So if all art is flattery what are the triggers that are going to separate the punter from that elusive $1k?

In the era of ‘Kath & Kim’ what’s low brow enough to please the average gallery visitor? It has to be something they want to live with, but they also want to feel as though they’re getting in on the ground floor. Everyone likes a bargain but art is inherently exclusive. It’s a fine line that commercial galleries have to walk in order to do conflicting things. On the one hand they need to appeal to the masses but on the other they need to signal that what they’re offering is high-brow.

I think that at a time when we’re confronted by Postmodern works of art that were written by our grandparents we need to find ways to accommodate a range of imperatives. I don’t think that purely decorative art is meaningless but perhaps we have too much choice. There literally are no rules, there are galleries in Sydney aimed at a range of tastes (I can’t speak about Melbourne) from Pop to Neofigurative, from Abstract to Aboriginal. In this world of zero boundaries perhaps our preference for the beautiful is a way to anchor us to something in the face of too much liberty. Perhaps we need the chain of gorgeousness to stop us from floating away on a wave of excessive feeling?

Saturday 14 October 2023

TV review: Quicksand, Netflix (2019)

Unaccountably this brilliant limited series show doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on the audience. I don’t remember why I bookmarked it but I’m glad I did. It recounts the story of a girl named Maja (Hanna Ardéhn) who’s accused of murder as well as a list of associated crimes.

The job of the filmmakers is to show what happened in the run-up to the fateful day at Djursholm senior high school. Maja is not alone. Her boyfriend Sebastian (Felix Sandman) is killed, but Sibbe has problems, including a distant father who’s given up on him. Maja refuses to abandon Sibbe when everyone else dose, hence the title of the program.

The drama takes place in the present, which mainly results in shots of the inside of a prison, and flashbacks to fill out the lead-up to the school shooting. It quickly becomes evident that Sibbe’s drug-taking is dragging him down, but along with him Maja follows.

I really enjoyed watching the politics of the young people be outlined. At least in a sketchy fashion this allows you to understand something of where the filmmakers are coming from. There is the vile (Maja’s word) Claes Fagerman (Reuben Sallmander) who is the archetypal capitalist villain, and there is Samir Said (William Spetz) a classmate of Maja’s who is the son of immigrants. The politics of this show are relatively sophisticated, matching the topical storyline.

I once wrote a story on school violence, which happens everywhere. The difference with regard to ‘Quicksand’ is that Claes and Sibbe are recreational hunters, so guns are available. The catastrophic result of this mixture – unbraked capitalism, parental neglect, and a kind of uncontrolled nihilism – is the assassination Maja is accused of being involved in. I learned a lot while watching this program though it is very entertaining.

Wednesday 11 October 2023

Movie review: Britney vs Spears, dir Erin Lee Carr (2021)

In recent times I’d vaguely been aware of Britney Spears’ legal situation, which had come to a close, but this documentary adds a lot of flesh to the bones, so to speak. Britney Spears is a talented pop singer and composer but besides unwittingly listening to her songs on 2 Day FM (my favourite radio station), I hadn’t really known much about her life until her legal situation came onto the airwaves while I was driving. 

I only listen to music in the car so this is not surprising. The documentary is quite one-sided, which is a shame, as Spears evidently had problems with relationships. I was struck by the lack of confidence her family had in her ability to make good decisions regarding who to spend time with. When her health spiralled out of control due to substance abuse this became a matter for the courts to resolve. I took onboard the faceless functionaries the court relied on in making its decisions, but most people have to subject themselves in similar ways at some point in their lives, notably when they get old and power of attorney comes into play.

The legal systems used in the two countries (US and Australia) being different is one hurdle that I had to surmount when viewing this movie. But the bias on the part of the filmmakers was unnecessary I thought. I don’t particularly care about Britney Spears one way of the other and in my life I will no doubt be at some point subject to someone else’s control, but were the conditions of the guardianship actually so onerous? I mean, Spears wasn’t living in a locked room with no food or shower facilities. A lot of people in the world have to cope with far more difficult conditions. It strikes me that Spears brought a lot of the problems on herself by capsizing so easily, though having never had to deal with such adulation – they either raise you up on a pedestal or try to bring you down – I can’t categorically say that I’d cope any better than she did.

This is a decent program however, and it shows a bit of what it’s like to live in LA, which was nice. I think it could have had more palm trees though. Perhaps someone can do a follow up show now that Spears has gotten control over her finances. I wonder if she learned anything about life during her guardianship. That’s definitely something I’d like to know.

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Movie review: Reptile, dir Grant Singer (2023)

“Creepy” is the word to describe this directorial debut by a music video maker. The next one that comes to mind is “brilliant”. Without using excessive violence, Singer manages to convey the true horror of killing. The plot is hard to follow because the scripting is very basic, you get just enough information to barely follow the story, but it’s very little to go on. You feel as though you are in the shoes of Tom Nichols (Benicio del Toro) as he tries to track down the assassin of a real estate agent.

The title is clever as well. In one scene the victim Summer (Matilda Lutz) finds a snake skin in the house she’d selling. She picks it up and puts it back down. Within minutes she’ll be dead, stabbed many times so hard the blade wedges in her bone. The secondary characters are also creepy and the amount of information you know about people is, as in real life, sometimes incomplete. So when Tom asks his boss Robert Allen (Eric Bogosian) about a car in Allen’s garage, you feel the distance between the two men, the inseparable gulf that exists even between people who see each other every second day; Allen is also the father of Tom’s wife Judy (Alicia Silverstone).

You also feel Tom’s inner anger, as when he confronts a workman who’s been doing up his kitchen. Tom thinks that the guy has designs on Judy so he threatens him with violence. You find unaccustomed behaviour by the major characters like this all the time in ‘Reptile’ so you’re always on your guard in case someone you’re supposed to trust turns out to be guilty. This is the way the world is.

When I decided to watch ‘Reptile’ I’d already come across the movie before. This was in a tweet where someone had said that the movie was slow and that they’d guessed the killer at the beginning. I find this hard to believe, at least I find it hard to believe that the killer was already accounted for in this interlocutor’s imagination. I can see how the movie might seem ponderous to some, as nothing much happens for long stretches of time. The camera work is however excellent in an effort to add to that “creepy” feeling I mentioned earlier. I loved the movie in all of its aspects, and recommend it to anyone.

Monday 9 October 2023

TV review: The Innocent, Netflix (2021)

This camp show has a lot going for it but it trips up in two places. One was the sex scenes with underage girls, which is just silly. You have these masked men leading these Lolicon clad chicks up a staircase in a dark warehouse. It’s supposed to be dreadful but it just looks dumb. There’s nothing sexy or cruel about the scene-making at this point, it looks like a bad theatre production.

The second place I got irritated was where they have a guy use a special implement to cut off a woman’s finger. Now I forgave the filmmakers for the Lolicon stunt but I couldn’t stomach this gratuitous violence. In one case they pull back from exposing too much that is real and in the second instance they go all out to make it as real as they can.

I didn’t object to how the flashbacks work, they add to the forward movement of the plot but it got to the point where all you got was flashbacks. The program is deeply conflicted, it doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going, probably the fault of the writers who were working from a novel. You can get away with much more in literature because you don’t have to show with actors what’s going on. Once you move from the page to the set you have to worry about breaking pornography laws, the medium is more immediate and less suggestive.

I gave up watching in episode seven, it runs to eight eps so I did pretty good but I couldn’t reconcile the disagreements between wish and reality. In the end I stopped watching in the middle of a flashback.

Saturday 7 October 2023

Movie review: Take Care of Maya, dir Henry Roosevelt (2023)

I’ve seen a few documentaries recently about abuse of children but ‘Take Care of Maya’ is the opposite, where parents have been abused by the legal system. It’s a tragic story but apparently quite common if you go by what the filmmakers have to say. Maya is a ten year old girl with a rare genetic disorder and when the pain prompts her parents to take her to hospital they are accused of abuse. The outcomes are just awful and illustrate how a few bad actors can poison the system for everyone. There are more stories like this and it makes me ashamed to be such a devotee of crime dramas. I think, “If this type of thing is happening what am I doing looking at shows where the police are the good guys?”

‘Take Care of Maya’ is a gentle story and not a blockbuster by any means. I came across it when I did a search for the word “docuseries” on Google; it was one of a number of programs listed in an internet story that came up in the search results. I went to Netflix and bookmarked many of them and so far all have been worthwhile. ‘Take Care of Maya’ is no exception, it reminded me of the false accusation shows I had been watching. I stopped watching them because it became too painful. Certainly ‘Take Care of Maya’ is painful. I guess the payoff comes where you think about the fact that, just by watching the program, you are somehow doing some good. If your completion of the movie encourages Netflix to sponsor another, similar program, then you’ve contributed in some small way toward a better world.

Because it is terrible if parents are penalised for just taking care of their children. In the case of Maya’s mother Beata, I think a contributing factor is the fact that she was born in Poland and so came to America after her base character had been formed. Her way of dealing with the crisis meant that she rubbed the authorities up the wrong way and perhaps there was a degree of racism involved on their part as well. I wonder. Certainly the relations between Maya’s parents and doctors soured quickly once the girl was in the hospital. I think that the whole story is ghastly, but what does it say about humanity if we deem such displays “watchable”?

Thursday 5 October 2023

TV review: Burning Body, Netflix (2023)

A Spanish real-life crime drama, ‘Burning Body’ ticks all the boxes. It’s got violence, sex, family, money, even real estate (Rosa Perales lives in a nice big house with a pool). It’s a walking soap opera. It’s not just true-to-life but Perales is attractive in real life – Netflix has a docuseries out about her as well so you can see what she looks like in the courtroom. The title hints to the motivation behind the crime but people outside Spain won’t know anything about Perales so I won’t disclose the details.

The soundtrack used is sexy and knowing, as well as fun. Sometimes one of the actors does a take straight to camera in order to point out the irony of the facts, and this technique adds humour where in reality there is none. It’s not funny when an innocent man (even though he did argue with his girlfriend and was probably overly macho) is murdered, driven to a secluded spot by a reservoir, and burned in his car with petrol. Eva Llorach is good as Ester Varona the detective who’s appointed to investigate the crime. There is a lot of suspense as she starts to doubt Perales’ account (Perales blamed her ex-husband Javi; played by Isak  Feriz) and step by step with her subaltern Eduard (Pep Ambros) she hones in on the truth. 

It was especially interesting to see how a jury trial is conducted in Spain for this kind of case, the jury sits in open court (no box) and the prosecutor is where a judge would sit in the Anglo system. The defence attorney sits off to the side near the person charged, and there is no box for the accused as well, they just sit on a bench. Another difference is the fact that a jury’s decision doesn’t have to be unanimous in Spain, one or more jurors can dissent from the majority opinion, with a threshold being set by the court. So when Perales was convicted it had to be at least seven jurors in favour of a “guilty” verdict. One dissented and she got eight “guilties”. 

It's a strange plot because it’s tied to reality. I think a show like this entertains because of the idiosyncrasies of the plot, some things – like how Perales allowed Pedro (Jose Manuel Poga) to proposed marriage when she actually still liked Albert (Quim Gutierrez). It’s a strange story, stranger than anything I’ve seen coming out of the offices of fictional drama movies or TV shows. There’s something so dodgy about Perales that you cannot imagining anyone dreaming up the story out of thin air. Well worth watching.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

TV review: Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer, Netflix (2021)

In 1978 I was in Times Square. I remember dad took us into a cheap restaurant that had a juke box at the end of the table. 

‘Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer’ captures an era, a time of sleaze, peep shows, prostitution, and crime that back in the day I had no inkling about. I remember when we were walking at night in New York someone ran across the road chasing someone else or getting away from a pursuer.

It’s such a long time ago.

Ron Howard is one of the producers of this show, and it’s nicely made with a set of themes – exploitation of women, commerce, and the idea of freedom – but nothing is left unexplored. It’s as if it was as important for the filmmakers to depict the era as it was to show the progress of the police case.

The killer’s name is Richard Cottingham and he was prolific. Parts of the movie are unexpected, especially as relates to Cottingham’s later revelations. Even though he was convicted in the 1980s – a time when Times Square was changing as a result of the AIDS epidemic – he pled not guilty, so that the closure that families sought was absent.

Coming back to this period of time now is like going to a museum where they have dioramas. I used to love the Australian museum when I was small, the little displays in the long room showing dinosaurs underwater. In modern aquariums they do similar things with live displays by having the water go right up to the glass enabling children to see the fishes swimming. It’s as though you’re watching another world. Howard and his team have done something like this for 70s New York, and I remember being there. It was for me a visit too short by a long shot.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

TV review: The Sinner, Netflix (2017-21)

This slow-moving crime noir features Bill Pullman as an unlikely detective who revels in a bit of S&M on his days off, I really liked the secondary themes of redemption and the need to find a reason behind each killing rang true. I’ve been watching another Netflix TV show titled ‘Criminal’ which features detectives in the interview room, a low-budget production with long takes that relies purely on dialogue and it also requires the REASON for the crime to be evident before the cops will charge someone. 

With ‘Criminal’ there’s also a French version which only unfortunately runs to three eps. ‘The Sinner’ runs to four seasons with each season having about eight eps. This is slow crime, moody and muted, dark and uncomfortable where the dialogue takes you to places other than where you set out from, a living room or a den in a house you’ve been living in seemingly forever. The fact that there’s a truth to uncover is an added bonus but the main part of the action is in the feelings you get while watching the incremental progress of the story, watching the close-ups of faces that hardly change expression.

With ‘The Sinner’ you also get nice northern/New Englandy settings. Season four was shot entirely in Nova Scotia so there are pine trees and there’s cold, clear water. In one scene Harry Ambrose the main character is submerged in the water as though he’s being baptised. This is in season four. Also in season four there are tiny charms the girl who seems to jump off a cliff (did Harry really see that, it was late and dark and his mind might’ve been playing tricks) had put about the landscape. A tiny ceramic Buddha is among them, but what does it mean?

The issues that this show deals with are interesting and the ways it deals with them are intelligent. This is in contrast to most crime dramas which always seem to take one of a number of superficial approaches to the subjects they deal with. ‘The Sinner’ is about the dialogue so as you’re watching, as in any good soap opera, it’s not the plot so much as the things the characters say that drags you under, lulls you with a sense of right, and leaves you quietly musing on the shore of your imagination. I loved both ‘The Sinner’ and ‘Criminal’ because they show what crime can be in competent hands.

Monday 2 October 2023

Movie review: The Craigslist Killer, dir Stephen Kay (2011)

This cosy little movie by New Zealand director Stephen Kay is a keeper, it came out over a decade ago and seems good now. We never had Craigslist in Australia so it’s a bit hard to relate but I liked the early-century vibe when the internet was still a bit of a novelty. 

You can guess the plot roundly from the title – a guy starts robbing people, and kills one he meets on the internet site – but the beauty of this film is in the superior directing, the neat script, and the wonderful acting. I think the whole thing is pitch-perfect and lovely.

It’s hard to remember, now, a time when the internet was a novelty, but it really wasn’t so long ago. Jake McDorman plays Philip Markoff, a medical student who goes online behind his fiancee’s back to make liaisons with masseuses so that he can get money to feed his gambling addiction. During the day he sparkles as the top med student and at night he turns into a homicidal creep. McDorman is matched with Agnes Bruckner as Megan McAllister. Based on a true story the website took down the particular page Markoff used after the crisis played out in Boston.

What I liked most about this film is the way everything fit perfectly into place. There’s not an instant of dead time, no unnecessary shots, like a lace collar on a Renaissance gentleman. I really can’t say enough good things about ‘The Craigslist Killer’ and I’m glad I bookmarked it. I’m not sure when I bookmarked the film but it would’ve been a while ago because I don’t remember doing it. I am a fan of crime dramas so it’s no surprise that I did.

Sunday 1 October 2023

TV review: Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street, Netflix (2023)

Really nice docuseries, this show chronicles the promising story of Bernie Madoff who ran a Ponzi scheme from the 1960s to 2008 when the GFC brought it down as investors started to ask for their money back. Madoff was a crook of the most insidious kind, fooling an idiotic Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Wall Street watchdog, at multiple points despite having the fraud handed to them on a platter by a Boston quant. 

The SEC comes out of this debacle looking as foolish as the ratings agencies who enabled financial institutions to convince investors to buy their flawed home loan securities. In the case of Madoff, time and again the SEC was told that something about Madoff’s hedge fund was wrong, and on one occasion Madoff told the SEC commissioner, “I don’t have a hedge fund” when he had a whole office building floor of employees forging documents to keep investors happy. The scheme was grandiose and sustained over a period of decades and nobody ever looked into it apart from the Boston company already mentioned as well as a couple of journalists. These people ended up being vindicated but I imagine it was a bitter pill to swallow considering how many people had their life savings eliminated.

Netflix does these series really well and this four-part dramatic work, much of which uses actors to pretend to be Madoff and his family and employees (family were often employees) is a good example of how television can offer up something that is both true and interesting. We think of real life as lacking the drama of fiction, and of course it does, but it also has the added quality that only was is true can give: serendipity. In the Madoff case nobody would expect the SEC to so signally fail at so many points, and when finally the banking crisis brings the Ponzi scheme down it’s not just a relief but you also worry about the principals. 

In fact the disaster deeply affected the Madoff family as you can see if you take the time to watch the film. This is a pity, even though you are forced by your own conscience to deplore the criminal activities that Madoff was engaged in. I felt a deep sense of sadness and an allied sense of relief that nobody in my family was misted up in it.