Thursday, March 31, 2005

Et Tu Brute?

There's a scene in Sonatine in which a young, aspiring gangster whips out a knife and stabs a fellow candidate in the stomach during an interview session which gets a bit out of hand. Later when both have duly been hired and are sitting next to each other on the team bus, the perpetrator offers his colleague some ice cream. "No thanks, my stomach still hurts from where you stabbed me", the other replies dryly.

That scene resonated with me. Coincidentally I was debating with Surfer on Monday which are more painful, social or professional backstabs. Whatever the context, for me the most painful are most often the ones where the assailant, instead of just walking off and leaving you bleeding at the scene, comes back, picks you up, and asks if you fancy going out for a bite.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Temporada de Patos

This monochrome Mexican movie came highly recommended to me, and without doubt it does have, amidst all its idiosyncrasies, quite a few endearing qualities. It's this residual appeal that stops you declaring "me vale un pito" at the end. The experience is stimulating on many levels, if not really complete as a story. This is really the sort of charming, semi-consequential film I would normally expect to turn up at festival time, not on general release at the ODEON.

It's a comedy, but I didn't catch the sound of laughter anywhere else in the darkness around me. I did manage a chuckle or two myself, but the comedy is like much else in Duck Season, the sense of the extraordinary and notable, catchy dialogue, memorable incidents etc - spasmodic and oddly superficial. There's no doubt an argument that this is the very nature of the world that Moko and Flama inhabit, but that doesn't mean that every film about banality has to be banal itself.

Ultimately I felt that writer-director Fernando Eimbcke had failed to convince me that the events that I had just witnessed had, or could have, taken place in precisely this way anywhere else other than in his imagination. And when you have four central protagonists it is important that the audience should be equally confident about the goals and motivations, of the basic reality of each one of them. Again, I don't think he quite pulled this off.

It's clear that Eimbcke is fond of the well set-up shot. This highly composed nature of each scene is one of the reasons this was produced as a film and not as a TV drama. The other obvious one is that much of the audience would reach for their remotes at the first commercial break. Trapped in the darkened cinema, the memory of having paid still fresh, you have more incentive to persevere. And perseverence is ultimately rewarded. For the three males at least something important has changed for them by the end of that quirky Sunday.


In Brother Kitano's wistful poeticism and existential angst were like stucco decoration incongruously carved on the facade of a prefab structure. In Sonatine however, they are very much part of the fabric.

Murakawa is a Yakuza demi-boss in full mid-life crisis. He has reached the pinnacle of the gangster profession in terms of sheer savage ability, but lacks the communications and political skills that would see him comfortably through life's Third Act. He may be a senseless killer, but he's not a tosser like his superiors.

So now there's little hope to overcome all the fear; just numbing dread. He confides that he's no longer afraid of dying because the constant presence of death in his life has made it hardly worth living. And he started young - his debut murder was a patricide. Unlike Lester in American Beauty he has no sense of having lost something better. He can't even turn to Pinot Noir like Miles Raymond in Sideways. He's not a feckless loser, he's just reached his limit. Through the action that takes place in Sonatine, Kitano offers this character a vision of transcendence, but he ultimately stops just short of going for it.

The main strand of the plot centres on how Murakawa and a handful of lesser goons are seconded to Okinawa to help another boss, a relative of their own in fact, who has triggered a winner-takes-all conflict with a rival gang in his patch. Murakawa catches a whiff of leftover sushi - and indeed this transfer is a prelude to some radical organisational restructuring that his leader and his shiny-suited lieutenants have in mind. (This is a corporate culture in which you can ambush a rival in the toilet, proceed to beat the shit out of him, yet still indulge in some polite banter when he next appears across the meeting room table! )

In the mesmerising middle section Murakawa's reduced team and some of their Okinawa counterparts are in a holding pattern, awaiting further instructions from their political masters, playing games involving more or less sublimated violence on a lovely deserted beach. In Death in Venice Thomas Mann described the Lido's coastline as "the brink of the element". Beaches are a recurring motif in Kitano's films. Here, as elsewhere, the beach is richly symbolic- a place to break out of the confines of everyday existence, a meeting point of the particular and the universal, of life and death; a place that always tempts you to stay.

In the end Murakawa is forced to do what many other victims of downsizing must fantasise about. He takes out the management. In fact he takes everyone out. While in doing so he may well have single-handedly solved Tokyo's crime problem, he's no closer to solving his own.

There are two superb 'fireworks' scenes in Sonatine. First a mock night battle on the beach. Then the climactic eruption of Murakawa into the Yakuza assembly point, the muzzle flares of his automatic weapon seen mainly as a series of eerie flashes from outside and below.

Roger Ebert made an observation which I think is both valid and interesting. Japanese gunmen don't seem to enjoy action scenes the way that say Bruce Willis or Arnie seem to enjoy theirs. Even the Terminator is somehow more into his job. In contrast the Japanese approach to dealing death is dead-pan! (I was also reminded of Hattori in Zatoichi.)

I've heard it said that Kitano typically takes a perfectly good American genre and adds a load of arthouse claptrap. This point of view is natural enough if you subscribe to the of common view of the Japanese as an essentially derivative bunch, that habitually take other peoples' pre-formed ideas and fashion them to their own purposes. Yet I believe that the relationship between the Japanese period Samurai dramas and the American Western is one of mutual exchange and I think something similar occurs in the respective organised crime genres.

Kitano made Sonatine in 1993, before a moped accident left one side of his face contorted and paralysed. It's one of the best examples of his particular contribution to cinema - his is a voice that describes fairly universal predicaments, yet does so with the stylised, almost artificial intonation of gangster ethics and convulsive violence.


The scale of yesterday's disaster disappointment is only now becoming clear. The previously unthinkable has occurred - the UK media want us to worry about Sudan and have some upwardly revised death toll figures to launch this 'new' story with. This is the "forgotten" crisis - meaning we forgot it, rather than they forgot to tell us about it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

I'm Lovin' It

Is it because I is Big Mac? Anyway, I'm currently lovin' McDonalds cynical little tactic of paying Hip Hop artists up to $5 every time any of their lyrics mentioning Big Macs get airtime. It's a campaign that will deliver far more than games of burgerword bingo on long car rides as it must surely also result in some useful data on the levels of credibility and authenticity behind the gangsta posture.

Missing Tsunami

Damp Squib registers 8.7 on the Murdoch Scale. The media are barely able to disguise their disappointment that there wasn't another killer wave speeding around the Indian Ocean at Boeing speed last night. But the pyschological damage wreaked by yesterday's sequel may ultimately be significant. British visits to Guatemala are already up 20% since Boxing Day. Yesterday's apparent non-event should bang a few more nails into the coffin of Far East tourism, something which Central and South America, and Mexico in particular, stand to benefit from.

Doctor Who

Restoration or replica? That would seem to be the crucial issue at stake here.

In some ways Paul McGann's eighth Doctor was an exciting restoration trapped within a misbegotten replica of a storyline. What of Eccleston?

AA Gill observed in Culture this weekend that the original long run of Dr Who had petered out into self-parody. The trouble confronting those that would re-spin the TARDIS is that any successful revival will have to appeal to modern children and the over-thirties that cherish the programme as a mirror of their childhood. So there's no escaping the fact that self-parody now has to be part of the formula, yet is clearly an element that needs to be controlled intelligently if the species is to be re-established in the current TV ecosystem.

Imagine that Coca Cola had been withdrawn globally for 16 years, then re-instated. It wouldn't matter if it looked and tasted the same if people had the suspicion that it was a revival that lacked all continuity with the original brand culture. In this instance the cast and crew and creative team are all new, the best they can do is claim to be long-term fans. The real link with the past is the BBC itself, and Dr Who may well be to Auntie what Mickey Mouse is to Disney and Astroboy is to Japanese Anime. It is a mythological product that fits nicely with the the Corporation's own mythology of its role and past achievements at a crucial stage in its history.

Writer Russell T. Davies claims to have preserved all of the main components. This is not strictly true, because the most obvious absentee may well be the cliffhanger endings. 45 minute, standalone episodes will make it harder to establish interest in the particular threat the universe is faced with in that weekend's storyline. I suspect that people will warm to the new show primarily because they enjoy the interactions of the two central characters, like Cybil and Bruce in Moonlighting. Just don't expect to have your mind blown by innovative science fiction conundra. Meanwhile the bad guys will be literally just special effects. Of course, if they keep coming back, like the Daleks, a new generation of fans will get a chance to bond with them.

Anyway, all this hiding behind the sofa nonsense is greatly exaggerated. Even as a pre-teen I found the Daleks about as funny as they were scary, so I don't buy Gill's conclusion that children brought up on Lord of the Rings and Star Wars will be massively underwhelmed. The Daleks were always at their most entertaining when things weren't quite working out for them - we loved loved the spectacle of such neurotically nasty beings having a bad day.

On Saturday night the killer dummies were nearly as scary as the ones in that Sophie Ellis Bextor video. Few reviewers have wanted to appear geeky enough to know this, but these were actually unacknowledged Autons. They were the first challenge for Pertwee's newly-exiled Doctor back in 1969 and reappeared again later in his incarnation. Crucially, we then knew how the Nestene Consciousness filled our department stores with mannequins equipped with deadly blasters hidden within their limp wrists. Here we are left to wonder what Charles Saatchi's role was in allowing it to take up residence beneath his gallery. Did he think it was some sort of installation? If the Nestene Consciousness had any taste and sense it should have opted for the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern.

There's still a lot of running around, though the corridors have been replaced with big-ticket London locations worthy of a Richard Curtis comedy. Billie Piper is great as Rose, and is ostensibly the star of the show. The Doctor is more her accessory than she his. This may well continue to be the case. She is in the Sarah Connor mould - an unfulfilled feisty female that needs a jolt from outside her time and place to assist her to live instead of merely existing. The programme makers perhaps thought they were being a bit risquee when they kitted Rose out with a coloured boyfriend; they certainly were though when they had the Doctor refer to him as a monkey.

Anyway, episode one gets a cautious thumbs up. It's certainly better written than many of the old episodes, and Eccleston has managed to play the role in a way that reminded me of several of the first five doctors; interesting, because he claims not to have watched any of his predecessors.

I would also disagree with AA Gill that "the one thing the future can't afford to be is old fashioned". Nostalgia has always had been important stream within the Sci-Fi genre.

Overall, this new Dr Who is slicker, but has yet to prove itself smarter. I'll be there for Episode Two though.

De Nada

The youngest member of our dinner party on Good Friday night, but one that lives in her own private spotlight, was "N", daughter of the Prime Minister of a small Middle-Eastern country that was famously invaded not so long ago by a bloke with a bristly moustache, black beret and RayBan aviators. Indeed said aggressor had her uncle tortured and terminated.

"N" is a loquacious fourteen-year-old would-be adult with eyes like beads of black jade set within a beaming fleshy mask. Her mother is Australian and her father's third concurrent spouse. That she's comprehensively spoiled goes without saying, but she doesn't really act it, though it's clear she's generally accustomed to the company of sycophants.

Buzzed up by The Wine Society's Malbec I decided to see what would happen if I led the conversation just a little out of the reach of this precocious child. I had an unwitting accomplice in the Australian girl sitting next to me, who had reason enough that night to want to make a favourable impression, and talking a lot about herself was perhaps the best way she knew how to do this.

"I'm lost" declared "N" a couple of times before excusing herself from the table, as if we were all collectively charged with ensuring that this didn't happen.

In truth the Middle East needs more girls like "N" and I'm sure that in a decade or so it will be a privilege indeed to know her. She is an undoubted expert on matters equestrian having learned to ride at the age of three. She swapped camel driving stories with D. She also told him that her family travels in the Emir's jet in which the passengers sit in a circle on a carpet to dine. Her passion for bacon sandwiches was also quite endearing.

Outside London it is still the presence or absence of sunshine that determines whether the ambient look and feel is end of winter or beginning of spring. The pool covers will stay on for another month. There's a large leaf-filled puddle in the middle of them, which the crows are using as a bath-tub. Above and around the high trees behind the house glide two pairs of red kites for the first time this year, seemingly intent on nest-building.

On Easter Sunday D and I went for a quick drink before the Boat Race at a pub called The Stone Kiln in the village of Frilsham recently acquired by Mike Robinson, a.k.a. The Safari Chef. He has that easy-going, minor public school charm and no doubt so will his restaurant and its future clientele. V has never been terribly impressed with his televised cooking which looks like an excuse for inviting yourself to dinner at a series of smart White Mischief type ranches in East Africa. But he has invested nearly £750,000 in this property, which lies at the end of a lane and can probably expect little or no passing traffic. The restaurant is yet to open and there's a TV crew on site filming a documentary about Robinson's progress. Some of them have been staying down at the farm. Parked right outside when we arrived was a WWII US Army Jeep complete with netted helmets and mounted machine gun.

We ended up lunching at The Bull in Stanford Dingley, which has had an annexe with guest rooms constructed since I was last there, which gives it an appearance from the rear of a university hostel. Apparently the owners played hardball with the council, persuading them to grant planning permission by threatening to close up and convert the property into a private residence thereby ending 500 years of continued service as a country inn.

Cambridge were rubbish.

Maria Full of Grace

This isn't yet another one of those movies about the traffic of Bolivian marching powder, its hapless victims and its pitiless propagators. It is perhaps yet another one of those movies about desperate Hispanics escaping their rural homelands and heading pa'l Norte. Which is a bit strange because you can be sure that the premise was explained to any number of potential backers as a story about a small town girl from Colombia persuaded to work as a mula for the narcos.

Peter Bradshaw for example, rues a lack of perspective in this film, comparing it unfavourably with Traffic. I think he's missing the point. Joshua Marston has very intentionally crafted a microcosmic, very personal drama.

The camera picks up Maria Alvarez just before she chances her future on an all-expenses paid trip to New York with an unborn child and 65 condom-wrapped pepas of cocaine in her belly. It never leaves her until the titles roll. She's one of those smart, characterful woman-girls that makes some very un-smart decisions, but somehow muddles her way through to a destiny that at least contains the possibility of self-realisation.

For the first twenty minutes I was ready to be underwhelmed, doubting that I would learn or feel anything that I hadn't already experienced through fifteen years in Central America. But the story is far from formulaic, and you are soon captivated by its unpredictability and the way the menace that moves in on Maria's existence is always just subdued enough to leave her unharmed and defiant. The gun you expect to be pulled at some stage in the story never is.

Of course, it works primarily because its star is just fascinating to watch. In many ways what Catalina Sandino Moreno delivers here is more of a persona than a performance. I suspect that if the script had called for Maria to be a rape victim or a prostitute, her contribution would have been essentially similar - the role is about resistance fired by suppressed desperation, escaping somewhere, anywhere, before you've made all of the wrong decisions and compromises. To shore up our sympathies early on Maria is provided with a hopeless and heartless boyfriend, boss, mother and sister, but these are not strictly necessary.

John Costello has said that screenwriters ought to be able to express their premise as a question followed by complications. So for example, Sixth Sense would be "what happens when a psychologist treats a boy who claims to see dead people, but doesn't yet realise that he too is dead?" With this film though it's trickier. Assuming that the script-writer would have to pick the risky trip to America as the basic premise you get "what happens when a young girl from Colombia chooses to carry drugs into the USA but..." The character of Maria supplies a whole load of complications, but none are straightforward enough to complete the sentence in a way that does justice to the film. This is what makes it interesting.

Most American films track their characters' as they fall out of equilibrium and struggle to re-attain it before the end. Maria's plight is a combination of her personality and her circumstances. The journey at the heart of her story is an extraordinary one, but at the end she is really no closer to stability than before, because she is essentially an outsider - strong, good-natured yet naive.

Nevertheless, unlike El Norte this tale ends on a note of hope; and it's not the final situation that gives us a right to hope, rather the individual.

As Roger Ebert points out, Maria is a victim, but doesn't think like one. He also highlights the way that newcomer Marston has paid homage to his favourite fellow director Ken Loach by suggesting that the evil resides in the system and not in the individuals. Mainstream Hollywood, by contrast, tends to work by the assumption that the evil dissipates the moment the bad guy expires.

(A minor quibble, but from my recent experience of American airports I'm sure Maria would have been picked up and questioned at JFK before baggage reclaim and not after.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Incredibles

I was explaining to Frode and Emily the other night why it is so hard not to give this film a straight A. What exactly is wrong with it?

"I think The Little Mermaid was better", Emily then cut in - not a film I've seen, but somehow I won't be rushing out to rent it on the strength of that recommendation alone. Let's assume she saw The Little Mermaid on the big screen about 15 years ago. Maybe for the child's imagination, any number of Disney movies make superior fodder to The Incredibles, but for us nostalgic adults, it's out there on its own, peerless, serving as a reminder to people of a certain generation what 'live action' cinema has lost in the past thirty or forty years.

I related to Frode and Emily why I thought computer animations were so popular these days across all generations. Just remember Brad Pitt in Troy - there's such a thick layer of celebrity veiling the Achiles experience. Not so with animated characters. Holly Hunter excepted, not even the voices in The Incredibles were that familiar. Frode is right that the most successful animations are the ones where the underlying stars don't poke through too much. And it's why I found Shark Tale so much more enjoyable in the Spanish dub. So, these on-screen beings are strangely more real to us than characters mediated through familiar personalities. And we saw in Team America, that even Thunderbirds puppets can be more expressive than many that grace the current Hollywood A-list.

Former Simpsons Director Brad Bird locates the incognito super-family in 60s suburbia. Mr Incredible, now plain old cubicle occupant Bob Parr, has been forced to live like a combination of Homer Simpson, Fred Flinstone and Dilbert after a series of opportunistic law-suits. The setting and the themes reminded me of Bewitched, where the supernaturally-talented have to try to keep up an appearance of conformity. This allows Bird to introduce some gentle political satire. The 60s retro theme is kept up throughout, with especially loud echoes of You Only Live Twice, and the Bond soundtracks of John Barry.

It's the kind of movie that restores that childlike desire to go straight back to the beginning and watch it again. (And not because, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind you didn't fully understand it first time round!) Indeed, the fact that you can enjoy any ten minute segement as a piece of exhilarating standalone movie entertainment was confirmed to me when I wandered into Virgin on the day of the DVD launch and found myself unable to go up the escalator before I'd finished watching the final fight against the robot.

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I have to admit to having had had the best part of a bottle of wine when I first started watching the movie, so my own mind was far from unblemished, and soon had difficulty staying on this trecherously winding road of a storyline. ("Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage, but it's on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you'll miss much")

Next morning I picked myself out of the ditch and carried on, trying to concentrate on the various shades of Clementine's hair, a device like the costumes and sets in Hero, spreading colour-coded breadcrumbs through this confusing maze of inner and outer space-time. At the heart of the labyrinth lurks Valentine's Day, the peak period for focussed partner erasure.

It's one of those sneaky films that you WILL watch more than once if you like it.

Intriguingly this could so easily have been posed as a thriller along the lines of Vanilla Sky (or Memento even), but the French director Michel Gondry has deployed a number of pacing tricks, most notably John Brion's scoring, to keep the tension fairly even. You care about what happens primarily because you care about the characters, and that is where Carey and Winslet come in.

I find that whenever I tell anyone that I am a long time fan of Jim Carey they generally give me the same sort of look that people give me when I try to suggest that Eyes Wide Shut is a great movie! As a serious actor Jim Carey appears to be drawn to stories with congenital traits traceable to that long dead granddaddy of cognitive paranoia, Phillip K. Dick. He was a chirpy but determined presence in The Truman Show, but this is a sadder, more painfully reflective movie, crafted to make us laugh with a tear in the eye, and Carey plays it to perfection. Kate Winslet is the impulsive, cartoon-kooky half of the pair-up here, dispelling all my remaining indifference to her. Without such captivating central performances I suspect Charlie Kaufman's words would have hogged the limelight, a film-diminishing effect similar to the fate of Closer.

As well as the age-old idea, most eloquently expressed by Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium, that each of us has another half we are somehow fated to hook up with, Kaufman also re-explores some of the themes from Stanislav Lem's Solaris - how much can we really ever know about the person we love and is the replica that we create in our minds in any way interchangeable with the real thing?

My only quibble with this Kaufman and Gondry collaboration is that originality of this kind is usually best spread a touch more sparingly. At times ESOTSM is just a little over-rich.

There's another French movie due out in London this month which similarly takes the viewer back from the wreck of separation to the unbreakable core of a relationship – 5x2. I shall have to check it out.


"Mr Howard? We've been waiting for you." said the male member of the couple standing by the departure gate at LAX.

In fact they had dutifuly waited for nearly eight hours whilst between flights, I had gone on pilgrimage to Hollywood Boulevard and the Kodak Theatre, dashed across to the Apple store in Santa Monica on a city bus, tucked into great sushi (a California Roll in California no less), haggled with Armenian Taxi cartels and caught a glimpse of the Pacific shoreline.

Well, there isn't exactly much to do inside the aiport; the shopping is better in Pangbourne - cheap ass tourist knick-knacks, premium-priced glucose and fat and business literature of the "Sun Tzu is for Pussies" ilk.

What could this little black-clad delegation want?

"Mr Howard, we have found traces of nitroglycerine in your suitcase."

Uh oh.

But the pair didn't look like they were about to spoil my evening. In fact their posture was positively apologetic. Nitroglycerine occurs in such small quantities in a number of household products I was duly informed, "such as face cream", but in this case the offending article was my pot of Carte Noire coffee.

Aggggh, that wretched French coffee! When V has asked me to bring it I had grumbled extensively...coals, Newscastle etc. Some slobbering Al Qaeda loon might have had his hands on it in the Isle of Dogs ASDA. You can't get the de-caf any more.

The guy kept offering to shake my hand during these exchanges as if I had won some Readers Digest prize draw or something. I was asked to sign some crumpled piece of paper. I was probably signing away my right to have a pleasant visit to the United States for the rest of eternity.

At least I wasn't given the full cavity search treatment like Canadian micro-publisher Jeremy Wright. He made the mistake of telling US Immigration that he makes a living as a blogger. Save that kind of stuff for the Mexicans! I was amused by this remark on one blog. "The details aren't yet clear on exactly why Jeremy had such an awful experience at the hands of the guardians of freedom and liberty." That would be The Department of Homeland Stupidity then.

On entering LAX on the return leg I was asked to show my boarding card at the base of the escalator leading up to the X-Ray machines. Just in case my identity had wobbled in vertical transit there was someone else at the top to check it again. I advanced ten paces towards the machine. "Boarding card sir?". And again once I had walked through. When I was asked to produce it once more in order to even enter the Duty Free shop I was ready to swing a punch.

Indeed, petty officialdom is out of control these days at most US airports. It's almost as bad as Moscow's Sheremetyevo in the mid-80s. Perhaps it has its minor compensations though. When I landed at LAX on the return leg from Guatemala there was a long queue for non-residents at Immigration. "One Face at the Border" the signs say. Well, two in this case - at least until all the locals have got through then the backlog of tired and frustrated aliens get a few more check-out slots. In front of me there was an aquiline, silver-haired patrician tico in a sports jacket accompanied by younger wife. He kept waving at the officials at the desks in front of us as if to attract their attention to the obviously urgent need to fast-track him and his wife through all these mucos. Obviously the peon-whipping sort. Thankfully they ignored him and even better, when he finally made it beyond the yellow line he was further delayed and marched off to another area because he hadn't filled out the right form. I should have slipped a jar of Carte Noire into his pocket. He looked like he could use a weekend break at Camp X-Ray.

Going in the other direction, my flight arrived at Aurora in Guatemala City at 5:30am, almost a full half-hour early. Half an hour in fact before Guatemalan immigration officials clock on for duty. The wait wasn't over though when they eventually showed up and hopped onto their stools - none of them appeared to know how to start their computers. Much banging of space bars ensued. Inevitably the one official with this crucial piece of knowledge was the last to appear.

On both legs of my journey the padlocks on my case were broken by security personnel at LAX. They helpfully left me little leaflets explaining why it's probably better not to seal your suitcase. This is a real catch 22 for anyone flying to Guatemala. An un-locked case arriving at Aurora is likely to hit the reclaim belt substantially lighter. I thought I was ahead of them this time when I waited to put the padlock on until re-checking my bag in Los Angeles, but I hadn't counted on the explosive kick in that jar of coffee.

I was amused by Frode's helpful suggestions the other day for more time-efficient staggered de-planing: "When they are landing after a substantial delay, why not announce something like: "Would passengers who are not connecting here or whose connection flights are scheduled to leave more than an hour from now please remain seated just until the connection passengers who are at risk from loosing their connection have deplaned? Thank you".

He's obviously never had to try to get on or off an aeroplane when the majority of passengers are Guatemalans.


If there is any kind of complex intelligence behind this situation we all find ourselves in it sure is a sneaky one: very astute, or rather astuto. The Spanish usage is far more direct with its implication of reprehensible cunning.

Take frames of reference for example. How bloody sneaky are they? From my perspective something like the collapse of a star will appear to be an objectively infinite process. Yet locally to the collapsing star, relativity theory suggests that the impact on the fabric of time itself will be such that the event is finite, short-lived even. For the very same reason it would be difficult to actually have a perspective local to that collapsing star, but my point is this. A universe that allows the same event to take place in both an instant and an infinite amount of time is muy astuto indeed.

Here's another thing - multi-dimensionality. Many physcists today insist that there are at least 12 dimensions, but you only need four to show why this aspect of the fabric of reality is utterly sneaky. Draw two dots on a flat surface. In two dimensions these points are obviously unconnected, yet they could be points on a three-dimensional circle. Our senses have trouble with anything more than three dimensions, but we know that the others are out there, with their potential for imperceptible connectivity.

The fourth dimension has its own peculiar set of sneaky qualities, such as a bendy nature that is greatly at variance with the way it is experienced down here on our scale.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Infernal Affairs II

If the jury has been out on prequels it may roll back in to deliver its verdict this summer when Revenge of the Sith is released. (The previous two movies were really just pre-prequels.)

Watching Infernal Affairs II I found myself asking whether the original movie always left room for this? (And what of Infernal Affairs III?) The cool and confusing narrative and style is reprised. Although the younger selves of the two moles reappear, the central and clearly rotational symmetry is now between the triad boss Sam and Inspector Wong. Sam is made more impishly appealing, while Wong, still looking like an agent from The Matrix, is shown to be somewhat flawed.

Some of the detail added here will increase your understanding of later events, others add enjoyment only by stealing it from your memories of the first film. Knowing that Wong and Yan died in the original is part of the problem of all prequels. With it's melodrama and eschatological undertones the producers possibly felt they had found Hong Kong's answer to The Godfather, but the second film in that series cleverly blended prequel and sequel elements and didn't rquire us to engage with the fates of characters whose demises we had already witnessed.

Some Light Chop

Could you repeat??” pleaded the American pilots as we passed over Scotland. Of all the people the Brits could have picked to handle the passage of Atlantic-bound wide-bodied jets over our nation, why did it have to be the one bunch even the rest of us can’t understand?

I was tuning into Channel 9, which on a United flight allows you to listen to all communications between air and ground in the current sector.

Having read the Economist article about how this novel piece of audio entertainment persuaded Microsoft to hire the Scobelizer, thereby making blogger history, I was just a little disappointed. This was eavesdropping on an FM channel not on the cockpit itself, but interesting none the less.

“Expect light to moderate turbulence on the descent today” LA Centre informed us as we approached, snow-capped peaks to our right and the line of the Pacific coast visible to our left through the lunchtime haze. Beneath us endless, ugly sprawl. Gulp; is it better to know, I mused. At least I now know where “light to moderate” is on the choppiness scale.

It's mostly flightdeck members with different accents exchanging requests and instructions with local air traffic controllers, often using obscure terminology - "American 655, what's your cruising Mach?" Over US airspace the dialogue can get pretty pally. “What’s the air like up ahead? What’s the ride like at 33?” etc.

When we made a final swivel turn before take-off at LAX I caught a glimpse of another big jet coming into land right behind us. Just enough time to wonder…what if we got stuck on the runway?

Shortly after this eastbound departure from Los Angeles I was tuned into Channel 9 again and could hear all the crews jostling for smooth ride flight levels. “You’ll get some light chop which will improve on the other side of Las Vegas” they told us. Vegas flashed enthusiastically below in many colours like a giant pinball machine while we bumped away, as if in sympathy. Others descended to 26, but our pilot said she needed to keep our speed up.

Sleeping on aeroplanes is less an experience of unconsciousness for me than one of altered consciousness. I shut my eyes and lean my forehead against the window. The buzz of the engines, the vibration of the bulkhead, the slight swaying of the plane all add up to a sense of disorientation that I tend to take with me into sleep. I've never had one of those meditative experiences where you sense that the particular nature of things has been temporarily suspended, but I suspect this is somehow similar - except that it is a source of cosmic anxiety rather than inner peace. I often wake with a start.

This is what happened shortly after I decided to have a little shut-eye over the Atlantic on the westbound leg. I woke with a very big jolt indeed, but it wasn't in my head. In times of turbulence I often reassure myself that it's really not much worse than being on a train. This time however it felt like the train had had a nasty prang and come off the rails! "Cabin Crew, please be seated", a voice announced urgently as we were then thoroughly shaken by some very bad air just above the eastern seaboard of Greenland.

Three weeks later and back over Britain, the clipped tones of a controller somewhere below us near Manchester instructed us to hold at Bovingdon as there would be the usual twenty minute delay at Heathrow. “You may slow down if you wish”.

I never feel especially comfortable on a plane going round in circles. It’s a bit like when you miss your turning on the motorway and are conscious of driving at speed in the wrong direction. It also reminds me of my two full-on emergency landings at Miami, both of which had earlier involved dumping fuel over the ocean for many painful minutes. When you are up in the air it helps to know that you are at least closing in on your destination!


Semana Santa - the pageant that Antigua Guatemala is perhaps most globally famous for, yet also the one time of year I have never been over there.

V has repeatedly warned me off being present during Antigua's annual transformation into The Jerusalem of the Americas. "It's a total nightmare", she insists: characterised by heat, dust and hordes of Catholic hypocrites "dressed up like dickheads", a symbolic expression of collective ignorance and enslavement to routines of thought and behaviour that are only partially understood and appreciated - in short a veritable parade of all the values she has struggled to shake off throughout her adult life. (Not a bunny or chocolate egg to be seen either!)

I too have an antipathy to crowds and a suspicion of collective rituals. Indeed, I've often wondered whether my unambivalently positive feelings about Antigua could survive exposure to this spectacle, which would have to be both magnificent and ridiculous in fairly equal measures.

On this particular trip however, I did at least manage to get a bit of a taster, as it would ultimately encompass the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Cuaresma (Lent), the slow funeral march towards Easter week.

Cuaresma is the time when the less grandiose religious houses outside the centre get to push or carry their andas in solemn procession, anticipating on a smaller scale the frenzies associated with the progress of the sacred image of Jesus Nazareno de la Merced, which will have made its way around the cobbled streets of Antigua yesterday - Domingo de Ramos. (The original image, carved in 1655, was relocated to Guatemala City after the massive Santa Marta earthquake in 1773, but made its first official visit to Antigua for about a decade on the third weekend of Lent. )

The largest event I witnessed was the procession of the church of San Bartolome Becerra. Festivities kicked off on Friday night with the Velación (vigil) which sucked in thousands of visitors from towns across Sacatepequez. Most turned up in Bluebird 'school' buses which were abandoned on grass verges along the main road outside this small colonia on the south-western outskirts of Antigua. Their occupants piled out and joined the crowds surging through the narrow streets towards the main square.

Inside the dimly-lit interior of the church was a massive carpet of coloured sawdust, framed by pineapples, coconuts and candles. Proper organisation would have entailed a system of channels and ropes a bit like US Immigration or Disneyland allowing the crowd to file towards and past the carpet in good order, but good order isn't something the Guatemalans really go in for. Instead the church was filled by an enthusiastic mass of shoving humanity. Stop pushing for just a moment and you would immediately find yourself locked in the jaws of the crushing clamp formed by the two warring tribes moving towards and away from the holy rug. It's all done with a most good natured kind of violence.

The plazuela outside the Church buzzes with the sound of generators feeding the lights that illuminate rows of junk food stalls and the smoke from incense and bubbling oil and cow fat that drifts between them. There's a fairground atmosphere, teenage couples go hand in hand, while the older generations circle around in an effort to count off all the members of their extended families.

On the following Sunday morning we had to get out of bed at first light in order to parade in amazement past all the wonderful multi-coloured carpets composed with sawdust, flowers, pine-needles, coroso stems and other ingredients according to the taste and creativity of the households whose facades they grace. I had been told that some of the most intricate designs result from the all-night labour of families whose homes will be passed by this particular procession alone. From 7am that morning until long after sun-down these short-lived masterpieces are trampled in solemn sequence.

However, on Sunday 6th of March during the Santa Ana procession, once of these carpets fell victim to the spinning wheels of a Dodge Ram V8. "Respete por favor!!!" screamed the householders at the would-be apostate in the driver's cabin, who responded by spinning his tyres even more, spewing pine needles in all directions. "Fortunately nobody was carrying a gun", reported the local paper. These are indeed joyous times for the sacrilegious. 45 cars were stolen that same day in the centre of Antigua alone. (Meanwhile I happened upon another stricken carpet that looked like a rectangular section of red and blue beach with multiple dog tracks written in its sand.)

People come from all over Central and South America to participate in the larger processions, heading for a particular church on arrival in order to sign on to the carry the anda for a particular stretch of its journey. The most expensive slots are the salida, the departure from the church, and the passage through the parque central alongside the cathedral where thousands of tourists and well-wishers are your witness as well as, tal vez, the Almighty himself.

The more substantial processions include Judios (Jews) with pointy red headgear and Roman soldiers with 'realistic' sandals and helmets crested by broom brushes. The most elaborate outfits, such as the Roman centurions, belong to the community, but just about every useful male member of Antigua society possesses his own purple Cucurucho costume. Purple is the ever-present colour of Cuaresma and the exquisite pain that it symbolises, an emotional shading further emphasised by the spectacular blooming of the Jacaranda trees across Guatemala during Lent.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Last Life in The Universe

Pen-ek Ratanaruang throws together this movie in much the same way that V likes to cook - he gathers together an odd set of available thematic ingredients and stir fries them into an unlikely, but undoubtedly tasty dish.

On any other day something completely different might have resulted from the same on-the-fry creativity. And I loved this film the way I love a great dish. If someone were to tell me that it wasn't at all to their taste I'd understand completely. I'm almost prepared to admit that it's actually quite easy to dislike, like oysters or sweetbreads. (Yet I'd be less tolerant if someone were to observe that my favourite book or work of art was utter rubbish!)

Each of the main ingredients brings it's own distinctive flavour to the final concoction. Yet the core idea is ultra-disorderly girl connects with obsessively orderly guy. While she lives within a domestic apocalypse, his devastation is internal. Ratanaruang says he has known many girls like Noi, the sort that leave their bras on top of the TV. Kenji meanwhile is a bit of a Thai joke on the Japanese, the MUJI shopper taken to his logical conclusion. He admits that suicide doesn't appeal to him for any of the usual reasons, it's just that he's gone so generic that only flirting with death can provide a bit of colour and texture in his life. His excessive cerebrality contrasts with her spontaneity and street smarts.

Tadanobu Asano ("Japan's Johnny Depp") says he didn't fully understand what Ratanaruang was trying to achieve with this film, but himself became fascinated with the character of Kenji, which was based on someone that the director actually met and who did indeed work at the Japanese Institute in Bangkok.

Having recently re-viewed Kitano's Zatoichi in which Asano played the wryly impassive ronin Hattori, I am becoming quite a big fan of his. His face has a strange asymmetrical serenity, one eyelid drooping just a fraction lower than the other. Apparently acting comes second in his life to his band Mach 1.67, but pays the bills. Yet he turns down hundreds of scripts and Ratanaruang was told that the mere fact that he had accepted the role of Kenji was indication enough that his dedication to the part would be absolute. The Thai director pays homage to Asano's most famous role, that of Kakihara in Ichi the Killer, when we see a poster for that film on the side of a bookshelf in the library where Kenji works...except that it is the face of another actor in the photograph.

This is a script that had to be filmed to be in any way complete. The finished film is the director's personal dialogue with his potentially unpromising material. Fascination is the key - the challenge for Ratanaruang was to make palpable the fascination that Noi and Kenji have for each other and to fascinate us with every detail of their story, even when on paper at least it should be utterly lugubrious.

The music plays a big, understated part in this. Ratanaruang says he picked a composer that lived in his neighbourhood and just asked him to provide a score that you won't hear start and won't notice when it fades. The cinematography is also outstanding. It's the work of the great Christofer Doyle, who teamed up with Zhang Zimou on Hero and regularly collaborates with Wong Kar Wai, most recently on 2046.

In the end the ingredients that got this strange but wonderdful film funded and produced were not the seemingly bland thematic vegetables, but rather the meaty presences of three recognised talents in Asian cinema, Ratanaruang, Asano and Doyle. Takeshi Miike also appears in a Yakuza cameo, and Ratanaruang has admitted that the Japanese director helped facilitate the location filming in Osaka.

The Day After Tomorrow

I can't recall the last time I saw a movie that starts out dumb and gets slightly smarter towards the end. It's so often the case that the reverse occurs.

To a certain extent TDAT could be written off as Independence Day with snow, yet the lowest common denominator formula is here offset by a cheeringly sardonic sense of humour - norteamericanos flooding across the Rio Grande as desperate refugees and debates about whether Nietzsche would make a worthy member of the NYC Library bonfire. (If the South were to experience a disaster of this magnitude would the North's borders open so easily?)

If there is one big weakness beyond the template itself, it is the muddled way the movie tries to depict how the crisis (and the sense of crisis) develops through reports in the media. And then there's a stage where the media is simply forgotten. Millions have died in America's largest city and the gathered officials eventually get a call telling them that something's probably up in New York. Not even a CNN text alert! Having said all that, the recent tsunami did show that even in the context of instantaneous globalised communications scientists can sit powerless in expensive yet isolated research facilities watching the disaster unfold as a stream of data.

Perhaps the scale of the disaster and the human tragedy involved here is just too huge to fit within the format of the two hour blockbuster. You could almost build a movie franchise or a spin-off TV series out of the situations suggested by this new ice age, but I suspect the problem would be that this scenario presents too great a threat to the cherished notion that the proper future of humanity is an American one. You can't just re-group the survivors and kick weather butt like you can with them darned extraterrestrials.

There are several hints of more complex dialogue and situations struggling to wriggle out of the blockbuster straight-jacket. The students trapped in the Library begin to ask themselves what it will be like to live now that the future that they were preparing themselves for no longer exists. We are also implicitly asked to consider whether the first book ever printed is somehow more valuable that the life of an unexceptional human being.

There are certainly also plenty of scenes of the sort that Frode would typically describe as "beautiful": Huge waves surging into New York, and then the ten degree drop per second that the eye of the storm portends. A Russian tanker winding its way between partly sunken skyscrapers.

The inclusion of some Brits made possible that rarity in Hollywood, an ordinary black guy with a white spouse. Cor blimey. Unfortunately the black roles on the other side of the Atlantic were all straight out of central casting - city cop, hobo brudder and brainy nerd. These Brits apart, the effort to include the rest of the northern hemisphere in the story is predictably pretty feeble - three English scientists in Scotland, toasting England with scotch as they freeze to death. Japan has a cameo - a deadly hailstorm in Tokyo which seems unconnected with the rest of the narrative and represents I think, a missed opportunity to bring some real horror genre- style escalating tension to these early scenes.

There is an underlying assumption that Canada is completely fucked.

LA, the ugly sprawl with so few postcard images is given very short thrift. Following my recent visit I'd say it is a richly deserved fate too. I chuckled as the tornado chewed up the Hollywood sign, but the comedy was undoubtedly intentional there. Few will have exactly gasped with horror.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Bomb Voyage

France now has 350 nuclear warheads. This compares to Britain's 200, America's 11,000 and Russia's 19,000.

An interesting documentary entitled Blowing Up Paradise on BBC4 last night outlined how when the two main superpowers were already able to destroy the world a thousand times over, the French aspired to the capability of doing it at least once and how this would involve substantial 'elth 'azards in Polynesia.

The first Gallic mushroom cloud was bent due to the prevailing wind. Not quite the postcard image they had wanted. Contamination levels in unwashed food in the region were subsequently proved to be worse than Chernobyl. Unlike the Yanks with their Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, the French have never offered anyone any recompense for physical and environmental damage done during their aerial and underground eye-drodgin berm tests. "I don't wish to dwell on that" said the French strategic nuclear enthusiast Bruno Tertrais when asked why this might be.

"Our principle is to be strong and to be ourselves" observed de Gaulle when the programme was launched. The first French test was actually the 105th in the Pacific, but France is synonymous with testing in this region because of the way they systematically bullied anyone that objected. "Jamais de terrible" was how one retired Minister described the vicious beating of the Greenpeace protestors on the Vega in 1972 .

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

At times rather like a soundtrack album illustrated by a story that is passably diverting largely because the stars, the characters and the situations from the original are familiar and mostly well-liked.

In his efforts to please the occupants of the American multiplex, Richard Curtis and Working Title are coming very close to insulting their home audiences. And I feel that their representation of foreigners in the Thailand scenes is especially trite and unworthy of European cinema.

Hugh Grant's Daniel Cleaver delivers the best genuinely comic moments. In one scene the Arts-Travel presenter dismisses the Sistine Chapel as "poof interior design gone bonkers". Grant leaves you hoping that the third in the series will feature Cleaver as the lead, now that the Bridget possibilities have so clearly been exhausted. At the very least we need a Cleaver-like character on Newsnight Review!

The Grudge

An American remake that tries to go hybrid and ends up being neither one thing nor the other when according to Roger Ebert, it could so easily have been "Lost, Eviscerated and Devoured in Translation".

Hollywood's take on The Vanishing amply demonstrated that simply retaining the original director doesn't guarantee a successful septicisation. So along with Takashi Shimisu, maker of Ju-On, we have Japanese characters and locations along with some credibility-stretching scenarios for keeping up the English-only dialogue.

So, The Grudge is a Japanese horror movie set in Tokyo with (mainly) American victims. It's framed like an urgent message to all Gaijin - stay away. Asian horror is very much in the tradition of The Shining and Takashi Shimisu's story of a house with serious issues is an extremely scary movie. It throws just about every single trick in the horror book at us, and therein perhaps lies the problem. Whatever it is that is doing all the killing has multiple manifestations - male, female, childlike, feline, mainly located in the attic of the house, but also able to visit empty office and apartment blocks at will. It also makes scary gargly noises seemingly borrowed from both Alien and The Predator.

Amidst all the technique of scarification the story goes walkies. It begins with a mysterious suicide which is later explained, but not really to my satisfaction. Of the three 'ghosts' in the house that we know about, the husband's flaw is brute jealously, whereas the wife is a Gaijin stalker of epic proportions. More could have been made of this. Toshio, the boy is there just for those extraordinarily portentous looks he does. And surely the only reason why the husband killed the black cat was so that it could add a supernatural beasty to the mix.

It's a pity that the narrative is ultimately empty because Shimisu deftly plays with time shifts and even throws in one scene where flasback is blended with 'live' action cleverly.

After the Sunset

Unfortunately not the concluding part of the Jesse and Celine trilogy.

Whatever Pierce Brosnan and Woody Harrelson were paid to make this goofy tourism promo for the Bahamas, it seems it wasn't enough to make them go to the gym beforehand.

Both have apparently opted to blend seemlessly with their clichés, playing it like we know and love these characters. Salma Hayek doesn't disappoint on the trimness front, indeed her front is very much on display, but wasn't she supposed to have become a serious actress by now?

A film made to be seen on a long transatlantic flight. I can't imagine having sat through it anywhere else.


It's not usually a good sign when a movie plays in Guatemala before reaching us here in Blighty. Turkeys are after all native to Central America.

This is a US remake based on a Luc Besson series that I haven't seen, so I have no idea how much of an 'ash they've made of it. The only interesting idea here is the elevation of Brazilians to strategic bad guy status, except that these are all the kind of Brazilians that look like they've never seen the sun.

Gobble Gobble.