Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dude, where's my sense of humour?

This week we've treated ourselves to several American comedies of the kind one perhaps all too reflexively refers to as 'dumb'.

I'd hestitate to describe the target audience for these films as mature, but their makers do seem to be addressing a more profound, late-stage kind of puerility. I suppose if Disney can make kids' movies that parents can enjoy, there has to be a market for movies for slightly older juveniles which can also be appreciated by adults...or at least adults who occasionally like to let loose their inner adolescent.

Judd Apatow's 2005 comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin, starring Steve Carrell (and the ever-likeable Paul Rudd) was a fine example of this trend. Sure, plenty of the jokes were based on simple expletives, gratuitous nudity etc. but on the other hand, there were glimpses of real pathos and in the end (and end which did take a long time to come) it was all rather heart-warming.

If I didn't know that Yes Man was based on the book by Danny Wallace I'd have to have imagined that it was a cookie-cut vehicle for Jim Carrey. It's like someone said we'll take his hapless Stanley Ipkiss bank employee from The Mask, add a bit of the emotional depth and zany romance from Eternal Sunshine... and then impose on the protagnist the kind of drole fixation suffered by Fletcher Reede in Liar, Liar. Roger Ebert reported sensing that Carrey had to work hard to overcome the flatness of the comic material, yet I'm not sure I wasn't picking up signs myself of the director working just as hard to deter Carrey from his wonted excesses of improvisation.

There was certainly some sort of strange tension going down here. Some of the gags seemed genuinely smart, such that there might be a short delay before engagement of chuckle. With others either the delay was too long, or the joke wasn't really that smart after all.

Last night it was the turn of The Hangover, superior than the others for sheer laughs, but also for the sophistication of its concept and the effort made to create more complex, believable and ultimately sympathetic set of nitwits at the heart of the story. And in the mid-section there's also a pall of darkness that reminded us both of After Hours. It's perhaps a pity that these hints of real ugliness are dispelled towards what is ultimately a fairly conventional conclusion, but it has set my mind racing about how one could go about blending more overtly the horror and 'dumb' comedy genres.

Grade: A collective B+ (Though a B++ for The Hangover.)

Passengers

A few minutes into this movie and V turned to me and said "I see dead people". Yes indeed, here we have a ludicrously inept attempt to riff off Sixth Sense.

Ronnie Christensen's script leaves unanswered a number of important questions...such as how did it ever get made into a movie, and what on earth was Anne Hathaway thinking when she read it?

Patrick Wilson, himself something of a B-movie specialist, was less excrutiating to watch when he was having his bollocks sliced off in Hard Candy.

Grade: C---

Monday, July 27, 2009

Moscas

Fortunately our cats, Bali in particular, have learned to be more expert fly-catchers!




Agincourt

Is the battle of Hastings was famously a victory for the equestrian over the pedestrian classes, Agincourt, at the opposite end of the Middle Ages, produced an unlikely reverse result...for every Englishman on that autumn day in 1415 fought on foot, the King included.

And although the English upper classes had embarked on this cross-channel escapade in order to enforce a union of states already suggested by the Lancastrian monarch's coat of arms, their victory would unleash English political and cultural life from the francophonic hegemony originally applied by the Normans.

As soon as I finished Juliet Barker's account of Hank Cinq's epochal gamble, I handed it to my father, who in turn found it un-putdownable. He did however note that the battle itself plays a rather small part in this often dense account of Henry V's first continental campaign.

Indeed, if logistics are your thing, there's plenty to get excited about here. Personally I liked the sound of the 'job bag' system that Henry set up so that he could keep an accurate track on the sums 'indented' by those boarding the ships of the invasion fleet he had hastily put together (in part by pawning his own jewels), and was surprised to find that the process of haggling between crown and parliament for the necessary war-chest was already reminiscent of the separation of powers that characterises American government today.

It would take Henry's expedition three days to disembark in Normandy, and so frustrated were the French at their Constable's inability to defeat this D-Day precursor on the beaches that they later accused him of treachery. In fact it seems that D'Albret had simply had the bad luck to position himself on the wrong shore of the Seine in advance of the landing.

Henry certainly made a number of crucial tactical decisions after the capture of Harfleur which prevented his cause experiencing a bloody letdown, such as the short-cut taken between Corbie and Nesle which allowed the English to cross the Somme unhindered. They were also helped by the fact that the French were obliged under the rules of chivalry to give their enemies the choice of battleground, and that subsequently — and more mysteriously — they permitted them to advance on the eve of battle to the narrowest part of the chosen field, thus spannering the home team's pre-battle strategy of outflanking Henry's longbowmen.

It seems however that the flower of French aristcracy had a perfectly viable plan for overcoming Henry's smaller, dysentry-ridden force (archers included), and might have carried the day but for their comparative lack of centralised leadership. They had set aside many of their factional differences in order to gather there in such large numbers, but it appears that every senior lord present was determined to take up a position in the van, and some accounts tell of so many heraldic banners in the French ranks, that they ended up becoming an obstruction.

My father remains 'amazed' that Henry, strutting around in full royal battle regalia, wasn't singled out and whacked by a dedicated hit squad of French knights fairly early on. (Someone did however manage to lop the fleur-de-lis off the top of his helm with a well-aimed swipe.)

He also expressed astonishment at the levels of sophistication which prevailed in higher-end European life in this period. I somehow managed to skip the later middle ages at both school and university, and it is less the incipient modernity than the post-medievality that fascinates me now — post used here in the same sense as post-modern, for all over Barker's book there is evidence of the courtly culture of the Middle Ages disappearing up its own rear end.

The Monty Pythonesque qualities of fifteenth century warfare are here epitomised by Raoul, sire de Gaucourt, defender of Harfleur and founder member of the Order of The White Lady on a Green Shield and the slightly kinkier Order of the Fer de Prisonnier. For men such as these there was no better way to settle the issue of a siege than underground mounted combat a l'outrance in the narrow tunnels dug by humbler-class (and in this instance Welsh) miners.

Yet it was realpolitik driving Henry's decision to postpone for years the release of de Gaucourt — in spite of the fact that this colourful knight had successfully completed the quest mandated by his captor to recover Henry's crown, coronation orb and assorted fragments of the true cross: all pinched by light-fingered Frenchies during the course of the battle.

Barker's book nevertheless also serves as a reminder that when we describe the Saudis as 'medieval' we are in fact doing a an injustice to the men-at-arms who faced up to each other near the village of Azincourt. Theirs was indeed a maculine, chauvinistic ethos, but the special courts of morality they set up, were there not to try adulterers for capital crimes but rather to shame those male members of their class who had committed "offences of chivalry against ladies."

Most memorable character? French man of the cloth and possible double-agent Raoul le Gay, who after 'escaping' from captivity at Harfleur reported to the local Normandy authorities that the worst part of his experience had been the English beer.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Que no lo estafen!


The pic above is testament to a common enough scam here in Antigua: the sale of well-situated terrenos by individuals who are not actually the legal owners of said plots.

At the legitimate end of the market it's hardly surprising that in a town once called Santiago of the Knights of Guatemala that there should be lingering pretensions of aristocracy in the marketing of real estate opportunities. A brief perusal of the local estate agents' rag Inmobilia reveals a plethora of blue-blooded residenciales: El Condado de this and Doña Fulana de that.

Then there are the ads which pander to our almost primeval desire to seek the security of dense woodland: 'Bosques de Antigua', 'Bosques del Eden', 'Portal del Bosque', 'Condominio Bosques De La Fontana' etc.

Amongst the most eye-catching and existentially-rattling pitches this month were:

Because my family deserves a better tomorrow - Plus Real Estate
Don't leave it in your dreams - Donde Vivir
A parenthesis within the city - La Boscana
Your family deserves this lifestyle - Portal del Bosque
They [your kiddies] will thank you - Condoiminio Bosques Del La Fontana
Drive 5 minutes more and save $30,000 - San Patricio Residenciales
Inspired by the urban architecture of London and Paris - Residenciales Premier San Cristobal


Though this one was less enticing...

We're holding 2008 prices - Bosques del Eden.


Meanwhile here in El Panorama there's a property being advertised in Que Pasa as part of a 'small gated community'. It does in fact effectively adjoin the compound currently being used by the PNC as their lock-up!


Saturday, July 18, 2009

The International

Clive Owen looks a lot more like Tracey Emin's bed in Tom Tykwer's grey-market finance caper. It's fast moving, stylish and ultimately shallow, all in a sub-Bournish kind of way. (And perhaps a bit sub-Bondish at times too.)

All very entertaining for sure, but questions linger...

Token yank or token female? What exactly is Naomi Watts's role in all this?

Why do all the IBBC's bankster board members dress like advertising or PR execs?

Wouldn't it have been easier just to do the deal with the Turk in the first place rather than going to the trouble of assassinating a senior Italian politician?

Really, in this day and age who was going to believe that the Red Brigade had bumped off Calvini?

How did so many gun-toting goons get inside the Guggenheim?

Why did 'the consultant' take off his bullet-proof vest?

And whichever way you look at it, the two snipers/pre-prepared extra bullet-casing ruse makes no sense at all. What if the first sniper hadn't missed...or if they both had?

NB: The literally cut-throat banking practices of the IBBC in this movie, are of course based on the factual activities of the truly toxic BCCI - responsible, amongst other things, for the murder of Financial Times journalist Anson Ng, who had chasing a big story about the bank down here and was found dead in an apartment in Guatemala City.

See The Outlaw Bank: A Wild Ride into the Secret Heart of BCCI by Jonathan Beaty.

Grade: B+(+)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Duplicity

In as much that this film is a success, it is Clive Owen's success. He provides the film's likeability, even while Gilroy's looping plot structure is working hard to generate a contrasting mood of arduousness.

Julia Roberts's character Claire Stenwick is by no means unattractive (though V and I had a little debate about what Roberts might have had done to her eye-lids recently) but she's the more inscrutable, less innately vulnerable of the pair.

Given the success of Michael Clayton I was wondering why Gilroy didn't essay a more serious piece on industrial espionage, but perhaps even he realised that the resolution of this particular tangle would depend on some major assumptions and some pretty ropy plot points (the photocopiers!) and hence chose to douse the whole thing in low key levity in order to distract audiences from these imperfections.

Grade: B+


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

Short, shallow and yes (mostly) sunny throughout, this is a movie whose lightness and desire to be liked I found wholly forgiveable.

A lot of the critics seem to disagree with me*. Sure, another writer could have taken the same characters in the identical situation and come up with something a bit more incisive. What we have here is a slice of life with at best, only the outline of a plot, yet I found the characters engaging enough not to rue seeing them pushed into profounder situations.

Emily Blunt in particular gets a great deal out of the simple details, and it is as a rather coy collection of these that Sunshine Cleaning ought to be judged.

* Stephanie Zacharek in Salon for example: "Sunshine Cleaning is something like Little Miss Sunshine, in that its quirkiness has a facile, efficient quality. It has nothing of the openheartedness of Juno (a quality that softens even the aggressive cleverness of Diablo Cody's script). So how you'll feel about Sunshine Cleaning probably depends on your tolerance for slender, semi-hip comedic dramas about oddball families grappling with sometimes overwhelming problems." and Roger Ebert: "This is promising material. Gene Siskel loved movies about what people actually do all day. There is even a documentary subject here. But not this film that compromises on everything it implies, because it wants to be cheerful about people who don't have much to be cheerful about. How can you make a feel-good movie about murder-scene clean-ups?...You won't have a bad time seeing this film. You may get a little frustrated waiting for it to take off. It keeps heading down different runways. There's a movie here somewhere. Not this one."

Grade: B(+)


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

RocknRolla

Fun for about fifteen minutes.

It starts off like one of those Guatemalan after-dinner stories. The teller is known to you and for a while you listen with a smile on your face, tickled by the way the tale is being told.

But sometimes, as happened here, the story will start to spin in circles of decreasing fascination, and your cheeriness will slowly subside as the punchline edges nearer, like una decepción anunciada.

It doesn't help that Ritchie's script lacks a central protagonist — the eponymous rocknrolla is a minor, rather distracting character really. And the only real sting in its tail is the brazen threat of a sequel.

Grade: B(-)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Happy Planet


Central America has come out rather well from the second global compilation of the Happy Planet Index. The colour-coding in the map above reflects each country's rating relative to the three key metrics of Life Satisfaction, Life Expectancy and Ecological Footprint.

Meanwhile, the US ranks alongside sub-Saharan Africa as the shittiest place to live on Earth.

One does however tend to be suspicious of data emanating from a region where so many people are manifestly incapable of thinking for themselves. Unlike Richard Dawkins I don't actually think the world would necessarily be a more functional and contented sort of place if atheism and free thinking were the norm, but it does bother me how the majority of my neighbours here in Guatemala wear their conventional (and conditioned) worldviews like a kind of straight-jacket, which indubitably hampers them in so many ways...and yet their very rigidity prevents many from flourishing as they ought, for they seemingly fear unconventionality as others fear depravity.


Friday, July 03, 2009

JCVD

Works hard to be almost a lot of things, starting with clever.

Almost a comedy, almost a thriller, almost even a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a washed up action star.

And in spite of its manifest meta-aspirations, its whole is some way short of the sum of its parts.

Grade: B(-)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

High in Hants


One of the apparent knock-on effects of the 'success' of the war in Afghanistan has been a global shortage of the kind of poppies typically used to make morphine. So — a little on the quiet — the UK government has been encouraging farmers to grow their own. This particular opium poppy field in rural Hampshire has proved handy for my mate 'Dead Man's Hat' who has natural laboratorical tendencies, usually taking upwards of thirty minutes to produce even the most basic cup of home-roasted coffee!