Saturday, January 27, 2007

Babel

Sadly mispronounced by many as 'babble' (whoever heard of the Tower of Babble?), the central concept of this film is the difficulty of real communication between individuals and cultures and the many reasons for this. Shoved on top of this pivotal exploration are modern day themes of insecurity, immigration, societal dislocation and interconnection and individual alienation. That said, it is also a kind of action murder mystery with big name actors jammed in to catch the eye.

Inarritu cleverly weaves these elements into an absorbing tale full of narrative jolts and fantastically sensitive penetrations of individual lives from vastly disparate cultures. No easy task, though anyone who has seen 21 Grams knows just how well the director can tell a story and how much he can get from his actors.

The linking of the four component stories is possibly a little redundant. Films like Short Cuts and more recently Crash have used this device to good effect to show how small our worlds really are. The real power in Babel is how close to the characters we get and how much we are able to identify with them. Inarritu draws us into a Morrocan village on the edge of the Sahara, a community wedding in northern Mexico, the world of a traumatised, deaf adolescent teenage girl in Tokyo. A desperate chase into the hills, pursued by police; a terrifying trip at night across the US desert; confusion and joy followed by crushing disappointment upon a first experience of Ecstasy. All these contexts grip us and pull us close to the characters, every one of them victims often of nothing more than fate.

The fact that all these characters face some of the same forces silently arrayed against them as well as their own individual woes does not really need a device to physically link them for the film to succeed and it feels a little too formulaic as the truth dawns on the viewer. The vitality and grittiness of the stories as they play out makes this an emotionally charged experience however and the need for a little commercial gloss to balance this out can be forgiven in a work of this calibre.

One of the major flaws in fact comes with the performance of Brad Pitt who is miscast with Cate Blanchett. There is no chemistry between them. It is hard to imagine them as a real couple and even harder to imagine they have a family together. It's not that the director can't get the best out of big stars - Benicio del Torro was truly awesome in 21Grams - but quite simply that for Brad at least this is beyond his range. Blanchett is kind of anonymous as the gunshot victim central to the linking of the stories - a surprise given her magnetism in some other films but then again she doesn't have much dialogue to work with.

The real power in this film comes from its humanity and hard, unprotective look at individuals in crisis and some may find it less than distracting because of this. Sometimes though there is much to be gained from a good hard look at what it is that makes people act as they do in the face of impossible situations.

Often the same culprits can be seen lurking in the background: fear, loneliness, oppression, desperation, confusion.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The films are stacking up a bit so I need to opine...

Apocalypto, the latest offering from Mel Gibson, had me quite excited. Mostly because of how The Passion of the Christ had turned out. I expected a very slick, slightly gritty epic. You can't always get what you want however.

Putting aside briefly the kerfuffle over Gibson's apparent antisemitism, the expression of which might be seen at best as the drunken rantings of a ludicrously insulated and egotistical Hollywood celebrity, his work has, over the years, shown that he has genuine talent both as an actor and a director. Whether he chooses to reveal this on occasion, rather than being led by his more highly developed commercial instincts is perhaps due to nothing more important than what he most enjoys doing.

His work in Zeffirelli's 1990 version of Hamlet was of a very high calibre. As someone who studied Hamlet for A-level English and saw several productions of the play including Daniel Day-Lewis at The National in London I feel at least partly qualified to comment in this regard. As a director on The Passion he again proved his ability with a film that was both original, technically superb and also potentially very difficult to pull off - and it was all in Aramaic. Definitely not pandering to the cinema-going public.

With Apocalypto, a tale of tribal infighting and enslavement in the equatorial rainforests set in Mesoamerica in the era prior to Spanish conquest, we have a film that has the potential to take us into the minds and lives of its subjects, beneath the veneer of studio gloss and set construction and also provide a genuine spectacle. They have gone to the trouble of making the film in the Mayan Yukatek language and there is a large cast of extras.

What seems to have happened with this film is that the studio has taken over. The film is basically shot in the back-lot at Universal. There are locations, but they have the feel of being tacked on to the film. And with this comes a lot of studio based gloop in the form of a hammy plot adorned with hugly expensive sets, costumes and makeup. The initial village scenes in the jungle show us the apocraphyl noble savages returning after a hunt to their village idyll. All this just about holds water but as soon as this peaceful haven is invaded by slave hunters from another tribe so the film begins to suffer from a Ben Hur-like addiction to rampant cliche and a feeling of unreality which never progresses to anything even approaching mystical fantasy.

This is a great shame because this commercial slant, which basically makes the film nothing more than a bit of rumble in the jungle which might have wide appeal but at the cost of any substance, does not have to preclude the vitality and compelling themes which are present in the idea behind the makeup. If you've seen The New World or Ten Canoes you will know what I mean.

Eden before the fall is not an original idea but it is compelling and evokes many things in the mind of an audience, offering as it does a glimpse into the past as well as an examination of humans in general and each one of us in particular. There is some of this present in the film but it is too unsubtle, too Hollywood and too unsatisfying to make the picture into anything other than a forgettable weekend outing which panders to stereotypes and takes its lessons in history from the kinds of text books one comes across well before the age of 16.

Monday, January 22, 2007

ReNoosa

Well, after Helen had so much fun with her bodyboarding lesson, ably conducted by 'hunky' but linguistically impaired (it seems de rigeuer for surfing instructors to be able to say words such as 'barrel', 'paddle' and other two syllable combinations within the context of the lesson but once outside that narrow safety enclosure to revert to communicating with Bill and Ted like leers, grunts and hand signals which look a bit like the Metallica salute plus the one solitary two syllable word, be-er, which is permitted) surf instructor Sammy, and I actually managed to 'catch' a few waves convincingly and consistently enough to believe that I might have a recreational surfing future it is back to Noosa until the middle of February. We'll drop mum on Monday at the airport and then head back there.

I got so into the surfing that I have a stupidly tanned face - almost scaley in fact - and have the bloodshot eyes to match. Nice look eh? Perhaps not great for getting to know any of the lovely looking bikini clad single mums with HUGE divorce settlements who seem to populate the cafe latte hangouts in Noosa while their kids congregate at the gelato bar next door. But whatever, that's what you get for spending 4 hours splashing around on a board in blazing 30C sunshine with only one application of sunscreen at 830am.

We figure 2 weeks extra is not going to hurt anyone and still leaves us both time to attend to business matters once back in our respective home countries. Priorities, right?

Oh, and forgot to mention that in Noosa had a very sweaty practice with the guys at Peregian beach. They use a room at the Bowls club there which is pretty nice. They had about 12 people doing a led class and 8 of us doing self practice. It was hot in that small room. This meant that I actually managed (with help) to get bound both sides in Marichyasana D for the first time ever - its coming!


With a week left in Brisbane we have all sorts of things planned, like going to see Roger Sanchez (ok, its a shite website full of ridiculously cliched and incomprehensible dj-like ramblings which I imagine are meant to be 'cool' and he should stick to playing records. Basically he is a very big name US House DJ) on Australia Day night for a proper clubbing night out. I guess mum will stay at home for that one. On the day though we will hook up with local friends and get into whatever the city has organised. Before that, we still have some bbqs to do in scenic places, walking tours of the city and other things of that ilk.

Time to get on with it

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Noosatimes

Well the first word that crops up in the LP section on Noosa is 'Gorgeous'. I have to say it lives up to the rep. Much more than seedy overloaded Byron and beautifully situated but slightly soulless Coff's. Gotta see the contrast tho to recognise the good stuff I guess, and so while mum is up on the Great Barrier Reef fulfilling a lifelong dream to visit which she only just remembered about the other day while we watched a hefty flying fox swoop back and forward across the pool in Brisbane, Helen and I have decided to visit this little slice of holiday heaven.

I think we missed the serious crowds and so althoug there is life here its all pretty accessible. Went kayaking again today, off Noosa Heads National Park. Watched the surfers cruising on the easy right hand point and reef breaks. There's small but regular surf here at the moment and the water is crrry-stal clear. We saw a friendly loggerhead turtle breach right in front of the kayak. That's two in total this visit to Aussie.

We have identified the best place for fish and chips - that's gonna be tomorrow, and we've got some more water activities for Saturday. Helen is going to have a private bodyboard lesson and I'll try surfing (again..!) to see if my attempts are any better than any of the previous times I have had a bash. I kind of hope the yoga will help. Surely the old shoulders and arms have a bit more strength after all the thousands of vinyasas of the last 2 1/2 years. They'd better or I want a refund!

This morning while waiting in line for the espresso we reckoned Noosa is like Hampstead in N London but in a subtrop setting and a lot more laidback. Yep, the shops are all staffed by anorexic looking sales assistants who are all good to hang bikinis upon on their days off but don't offer much of anything to grab onto for the rest of life's marrow. Pandanis trees pop up everywhere to lend that essential spiky tropical look to every eye scoop and the temperature is a constant 28C. Best of all though is the way that Noosa manages to present itself in a tidy, clean and sculpted manner, as if the organic slap, suck and mulch of the mangrove swamp was a little detour on the evolutionary path to this, the fully finessed destination.

As always, whenever a new destination is ticked off nowadays I make sure to track down the ashtanga connection thereabouts. Off to Peregian beach this evening for Mysore practise with these guys. They operate at Peregian Beach Bowls Club apparently and Stacey, one half of the couple, was very helpful when I called in the middle of what was a family bbq last sunday.

Noosa Noosa Noosa.....

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Family Hols

So we continue on our merry way here in Brisbane. So far we have explored some of the islands off the coast in Moreton Bay with the 'help' of Manta Lodge and Scuba Centre (the guys running the boat out to the snorkel/dive site clearly didn't care one iota about the enjoyment of their paying customers, they just wanted to get their free diving in. In response to my mother's query as to what a Manta Ray is the fat chain smoking tub of wanna be Hell's Angel squeezed unappetizingly into a layer of neoprene replied 'It's a Ray'. Cheers buddy. We did though get to see Leopard Sharks and Loggerhead turtles.), enjoyed the delights of the newly opened South Bank entertainment complex including super mod-min library, modern art gallery and fake beach/open air cinema, visited some of the national and state parks which surround and abutt the city and also went to a koala sanctuary where we actually saw some of the little blighters nestling in trees in The Wild! Mum spotted it about 20 metres up. It looked like a burr or a nest of some sort until it scratched its ear.

I'm going to dispel a myth now, so don't be too disappointed with the new lense through which you will be forced to view the universe; long has it been 'known' that koalas sleep for much of the time. As much as 20 hours per day when rest and sleep are added together. This, many folk will happily tell you, is because they are intoxicated by the eucalypt leaves on which they sustain themselves. IT IS A LIE! They sleep because they have very little energy due to the fact that eucalyptus leaves have very low nutritional value. They are also very cute and likeable even when being boring and asleep.

Recently I have seen Apocalypto and Babel about which more will be said when I have got back from a short trip to Noosa with my sister. Mum is off to the Great Barrier Reef for a few days.

Hey Nick, who was on the throne in 1563? Quickly now......I'm waiting.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Cost benefit analysis, the free market and Iraq

This article in the Guardian, by Terry Jones, once of Monty Python, neatly sums up what it is that annoys me so fucking much about neo-classical economists, right wing politicians and most mainstream media.

Firstly, neo-classical economics teachers like to start out university courses with a quick whip through the philosophy pertinent to economics before concluding that we humans only have somewhat limited capacity for pure rationalism and isn't this an interesting contradiction given how we like to think of ourselves here in the West and....blah blah blah. They then pretty much forget this little wrinkle and proceed to instil their first year students with unquestioning respect for concepts such as supply elasticity, diminishing returns and so on. Often given a passing mention is the concept of cost benefit analysis and how it is used within the concept of rational business decision making. This in itself is always discussed as though such situations are akin to laboratory experiments, carefully sealed off from all things political, ethical or social.

Right wing politicians - well what can I say. You might talk about personal freedom, the might and right of the free market and small government but we all know that what you really mean is you want the right to make the rich richer, increase inequality to the absolute limit of acceptability and in the process hide the massive and brutal exploitation which inevitably ensues. Need I say more?

The mainstream media nowadays so infrequently reports meaningfully on anything resembling what is really going on in geopolitics these days that I have to say I have given up hope that this will change.

People wondered aloud why it was that the US was going to war in Iraq. Oil, 'Terror', Saddam, Iran, Israel, all of the above, these were regularly cited. In the end though it has really been about one thing. Profit, personal and corporate. The 'cost': US$500bn, 500,000 dead Iraqis, 3000+ dead western soldiers. The 'benefit' years of profitable revenue streams for major US corporations and a hold over huge oil reserves. For George W and his neo-con mates all the shit, blood and guts is but a trifle. They exemplify the concept of a criminal regime.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Borat

A lot has been written and spoken about Borat the movie. I went and caught the last showing at the local multiplex last night.

In essence it is a film about ignorance and intellectual snobbery that is too snobby itself to connect with much of its audience in anything other than a superficial way, and not intellectual enough to connect solidly with the remainder of the audience who, as a result of the accidents of upbringing, ethnic origin and education, would actually get the few references and attempts at irony of which there are a smattering. It is also full of moments of barely comic crudity and crassness. It is also, sadly, quite enjoyable.

The shots of Cohen squatting in the flowerbed outside a Manhattan office block, naked 'wrestling' with his grossly overweight screen buddy or the surely to be notorious dinner party-'pooping' moment are true slapstick. On the other hand his humiliation of several randomly interviewed individuals, at rodeos and on the street would be funny if they were truly original but sadly Ali G and Louis Theroux have already cornered this market. The joke 'let's go back to New York, there are no Jews there' fell totally flat here in Coffs. Not surprising. Why should such a reference, typical of the film's humour and definitive of its ironic slant, appeal to Middle Australia or indeed anyone outside of metropolitan elites in the Northern Hemisphere?

The film is edgy and has moments showing the talent that has got Baron-Cohen both into Cambridge and as far as this in the world of entertainment. It made me laugh and it made me, as an outsider here and also as a British Jew, feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I was laughing at the film, sometimes at the film maker and sometimes at the audience of which I was a part. I think that this may be what the writers intended. If so then the film is a success. If they intended also to illuminate the ignorant then they may have ended up being too clever for their own good.