Thursday, January 24, 2008

Darjeeling Limited, a film by Wes Anderson (2007)

In some quarters, going on a pilgrimage to India to find oneself is a still a big deal. For others, it is more about the drugs and for yet others, it is about the shopping. Wes Anderson, who seems to delight in making slightly off-kilter movies, combines all three motivations, but gives them an ironic twist. The three Whitman brothers have not seen each other for a year, not since their father's funeral, and they all have stuff, important stuff, happening. Who knows how long it is since they last saw their mother; Francis (Owen Wilson), who just has to be the oldest brother, has had to hire a private detective to find her. I don't know how he convinces them, but Francis then organises his brothers into taking a trip on the so-called Darjeeling Limited, a train that will take them for a six day journey across India, without really telling them what they're doing it for. He has meticulously organised his path to enlightenment, down to the point of bringing his personal assistant along to create daily plans, with every minute planned; multiple visits to spiritual places is the key ingredient in their enlightenment. As they go, they take a variety of prescription drugs and buy some rather peculiar objects - such as a poisonous snake. It becomes clear that these are rich guys - one is wearing $3000 shoes, and they fight over a $6,000 belt - products so ridiculously priced that I expect they are being mocked.

But at the same time, there is something quite important going on: their familial relations have been fractured, they insist on keeping secrets from each other - one brother would often reveal something to another while the third was absent, with instructions "don't tell him", but he always would. In this way, their stories are gradually revealed (e.g. that Peter (Adrian Brody) is about to have a baby (and thinking of leaving his wife) or that Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is more than a little obsessed with a girl he dumped a fair while ago (there is a connected short movie called Hotel Chevalier which I saw with The Darjeeling Limited - it was even credited as being Part One of it, but apparently not all theatres are showing it). Despite themselves, you might say, they are getting the proclaimed benefits of a trip to India.

I am still a little confused as to where the trip started from - maybe Calcutta, but if so I don't know why it would take six days (I did Mumbai to Calcutta in three, and their journey was to Udaipur). Since seeing the trip was my main reason for watching this movie, I was a little disappointed that they were thrown off the train after about a day - bringing the poisonous snake on board was a bit much for the train manager, but he relented; then the brothers fought and that was too much - but it was a vital stage in their development. While they were on the train, there was a kind of Lost in Translation feel to their voyage. Oddly enough,the English spoken by the train staff bore no signs of being Indian English - Rita's sounded very posh (and it turns out she was played by an actress born in England who went to Oxford, who seems to have been asked to speak in her own accent).

There is an aura of inauthenticity over the entire venture until they find themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere, forced to haul an amazing amount of luggage (all stamped with their dead father's initials) to wherever they might be going. Going "off script" as it were seems to be the making of them, when
they get involved in a local village's life (with no language in common).

Of course, Francis's ultimate objective all along has been to be reunited with their mother, who has become some sort of nun. She seems to be a character straight out of Dickens' Bleak House - the woman so concerned with the plight of starving children in Africa that she fails to attend to, or even notice, her own family and how much they need her. Even when they make this huge trip across India to see her, mum is not very motherly. No matter - the trip seems to work its magic on the brothers so that they can now have functional relationships. As they returned to the East on the Bengal Lancer, I was intrigued by the fact that the train staff were now speaking in heavily accented English. I did think there was a certain triteness to the end: with enlightenment comes a release from worldly possessions: these guys are running so hard for their train, they have to discard their luggage, or should I say baggage, to avoid missing it. And thus they symbolically divest themselves of whatever power their dead father may have had over them.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Northland Trip - Stage Five (The Cape)

This was the biggie: the Cape. Big in two senses; quite a lot of driving (Mangonui up to the Cape and back to Henderson's Bay) and big because, despite growing up just down the road, it was my first time. Family mythology was that we had got as close as Te Kao and dad got sick of driving so we went home, but my mum has, since I went up there, confessed that we had had to abandon our previous attempt "because I forgot my lipstick". I didn't ask.

I was a little disappointed at the shopping opportunities, or lack of them. I did not expect the extravaganza built up around Niagara Falls, I didn't even expect the various shops and exhibitions at Land's End in the UK. But I would have thought that getting to the very end of New Zealand's Highway # 1 and, of course, to the end of New Zealand itself might have had a bit more celebration than
Going over that bank, there is a small celebratory sign, but still not much
There is, of course, one of New Zealand's more famous icons
Out to the west, there is a bit of a path that one can take and get down to the beach - I was feeling a bit like going for a walk, but standing on top of the hill, I had a weird panic attack, and had to sit down for fear of falling off - falling off solid land, that is. So I took a picture of New Zealand's most northern pointand returned to my lodgings at Henderson's Bay - a very quiet, out of the way place with about three houses, yet it was one of the noisiest nights I have had for a long time. It was amusing in its own way - we had a German fellow staying at the backpackers, and he had a few of his countrymen to stay. I have no idea what they thought they were doing, but around midnight, they all went outside and started making all sorts of animal noises, singing and shrieking - no actual conversation was happening. This went on for a while, until another guest yelled at them to "shut the f*** up, you f***ng morons". I'll bet he regretted it because they then mimiced him for a while, before resuming their earlier pursuits. It wasn't bothering me, because I was not sleepy anyway - the Germans had all collapsed by the time I was ready to sleep.

On the way up, I had to take a tiki tour out to Tokerau Beach and Whatuwhiwhi
- most of which seemed to be for sale
check out Hohouraand stop in at Te Kao for a fantastic ice cream.


Monday, January 21, 2008

Monsieur Ibrahim, a film by François Dupeyron (2003)

I missed this movie when it came through Dunedin in the film festival and if it was on general release, I didn't notice. It is an extremely charming movie, one which would have been just too nice if it were not for the way it ended. Momo lives in Blue Street, Paris. His father seems to require a lot of care: Momo does all the cooking and housework; all dad does is eat and retire into his rather fabulous library. They do not seem to get on at all; Momo has the idea that he has failed to be as interesting as his older brother. But he makes other friends: the movie starts with him breaking into his piggy bank to get the necessary funds to pay for a prostitute - they are abundant in his street and all seem to be gorgeous and have a heart of gold.

Momo does his shopping in the "Arab's" shop across the road. The "Arab" turns out to be a Turk, Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), but such distinctions do not seem to trouble many shoppers; being Arab simply means the shop is open from 8 till midnight, Sunday's included. There is a scene which reminds me of a childhood incident when I engaged in a little shoplifting, not knowing that I was observed and that the shopkeeper had discussed my theft with my parents. Momo helps himself quite liberally to various treats, not knowing that he is always spotted doing so.

For some reason, M Ibrahim takes a shine to Momo, makes him his protege, forgives him his trespasses, conspires with him to feed his father catfood in the guise of pate and rob him, so that Momo has money for the ladies. He is a Moslem, but one who has no problem with taking the occasional drink: while all the truth he needs is to be found in the Koran, that truth can, it seems, be modified when the circumstances dictate.
This leads to M Ibrahim being a man both of wisdom but also great kindness and warmth - an ideal role for Omar Sharif.

When dad does a runner and then kills himself, things get even nicer in this movie: M Ibrahim adopts Momo. Everything goes swimmingly, and now that he has a son, M Ibrahim decides it is time to go back to Turkey - which leads to one of the few purely comic moments in the movie, as he has never had a driving licence and needs to learn to drive. He gets a pretty cool car to do it in:

I enjoyed it when the movie transformed into a road movie - they drove all the way from Paris to some remote region of Turkey, through landscapes I am never likely to see myself - but have to say that the end came as a bit of a shock. I just don't get how or why it happened, and it jarred with the mood of the movie.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

American Hisotry X, a film by Tony Kay (1998)

Without realising it, I saw some of this on TV a couple of weeks ago: it looked awful. This horrible skinhead with Nazi insignia tattooed on his body was having a row with his family - making his mum feel awful for daring to date a Jew, making the Jew in question leave the house, hitting his sister. Worse, his brother was saying "I still trust you". I did not know the movie, but if I had known it was American History X, there is no way I would have taken the DVD out of the shop. As it was, when I saw it, I though "hmm, that's supposed to be good, I'll give it a go".

And it was good, the performances were spot on, even by minor characters such as Stacey, although I don't know that I completely buy the transformation that overcome Derek Vinyard (Ed Norton) while he was in prison. He'd been put there for killing a couple of African-Americans - one he might have got away with, as it could have been self defence, but the other was a gratuitous, hate-inspired killing. It didn't help that Derek
was caught up in some sort of white supremacy outfit. He had the fellow put his head on the kerb, mouth open, and just stomped him on the back of the head. In jail, his early alliances were with other white supremacists: naturally, he lived in fear of the African-Americans in jail with him. He seems to have spent quite a bit of his time inside assigned to working with one, but refusing to talk with him.

But things change for Derek when he realises that his fellow supremacists are tossers and decides to go it alone (is the prison population really made up of just white supremacists and those they hate?). Only now do things start to lighten up between him and his co-worker: I think the idea is that Derek finally gets to see him as being a human being, rather than some black cypher, and that this transforms his whole world-view. Mind you, the co-worker does seem to have done a lot to deserve Derek's admiration, by keeping him safe.

Derek is revered by his little brother Danny, so Danny naturally follows in his footsteps. The film is largely told through his eyes, with flashbacks: he is writing an essay for his teacher about his relationship with Derek, just after Derek has been released from jail. This is a huge moment for the white supremacist group: somehow word has not got to them of Derek's change of heart, and so he is welcomed as a hero.

I think it would have been incredibly easy for Derek to just fall back on his old ways, take the worship that was being offered. Instead, he takes the hard road: his old "friends" now see him as being "no better than a nigger". Of course, the big thing for him to worry about is Danny: he wants him out, he wants to maintain his relationship with him and the whole relationship is based upon their shared hatred. When Danny confronts Derek, Derek sits him down and just tells him what happened while he was in jail: the honesty is supposedly enough to have Danny reverse his attitude. It all seemed just a little bit too contrived to me, as if this transformation could be so easily achieved. Of course, as anyone who has seen the movie knows, it was all a bit too late: the last sequences of the movie have such a feeling of foreboding to them, that it was obvious something bad was about to happen.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Battle Royale, a film by Kinji Fukasaku (2000)

I can't believe I watched this; I am having trouble believing that people think it is a great film (it is rated more highly on IMDB than A Quiet American). Surely, it is an appalling movie? The storyline is just grotesque. A friend described the battle royale phrase as a wrestling term, in which there is a round-robin fight to the death. That is the basic idea underpinning the movie.

Japanese society has turned bad, the adults blame the kids. Since the adults have the power, they pass a law, the Millennial Education Act. Every year, a "lucky" high school class wins the chance for a battle royale. The kids are taken to a remote island, issued with a random weapon and told to fight it out. The weapons range from a machine gun through rifles and handguns to, um, a potlid and binoculars. They have three days. Every few hours, a list of the dead will be called out. To make sure they play the game, each has been fitted with an explosive necklace: if there is no winner at the end of the three days, all necklaces will be detonated.
Their teacher, a dour sort of fellow with a grudge, gives them an example when one pupil misbehaves. There's also a video, with an incongruously perky girl setting out the rules for the massacre, although the teacher makes it simple: "So today's lesson is, you kill each other off till there's only one left. Nothing's against the rules".

Not all of the kids respond kindly to this: some suicide, some devise complicated plots to break out. Some seem to thrive on the rules of the game. One fellow has chosen to be involved: he turns out to be the best armed.

Friendships splinter. Others are strengthened.
Some reveal long secret loves - these scenes were particularly sweet. But, as the rules stipulate, almost everyone dies: generally with lots of blood, and after a huge number of bullets have been fired into them.

The weird thing was that after knowing the premise of the movie, it didn't seem to trouble me, watching all these innocent kids (and, yeah, they seemed pretty likable, gave no reason to think that they were a menace to society) killing each other. A few of the killings were a bit more shocking than others, but ultimately I'd say I quite liked the movie, think the fellow was very bold for making it.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Quiet American, a film by Phillip Noyce (2002)

Early 1950's: Vietnam is at war, the Communists against the French. The Americans are yet to get involved. Pyle (Brendan Fraser), the quiet American, has just been murdered. Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), journalist for the Times of London is questioned: "I am not guilty". As the movie unfolds, my stance on that question changed. Fowler seems to be a very respectable chap, but maybe he's just in Vietnam for the sensuous delights it can provide. His newspaper certainly does not think he's working very hard: in an entire year, he has produced three pieces and they recall him. But Phuong, the beautiful young Vietnames woman is too much of a drawcard: "to lose her would be the beginning of death".

Unfortunately for Pyle she is something of a drawcard: it is love at first sight for him. Her feelings are not really disclosed, but she is concerned that Fowler cannot marry her (he is entangled with a Catholic wife who cannot divorce) and might leave her behind. On these practical matters, Pyle is a much better bet. So here is an initial motive for Fowler to kill Pyle, the oldest motivation of all.

Ironically, Fowler finds himself working harder than ever and with the biggest story possible on his hands: secret American support for the upstart new Vietnamese General, who would fight both the Communists and the French. The turning point comes in the famous bomb scene, when central Saigon is ripped apart by a number of car bombs, which take their victims in their naturally indiscriminate ways. Where does Pyle fit in to all of this? Fowler works it out. His assistant (I never quite worked out who this fellow answered to) has a plan for Pyle, but needs Fowlers help. Is the death of the women and children in the car bomb the reason he agrees, or is it to get Phuong back? Maybe good fortune and doing the right thing fortuously run hand in hand.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Northland Trip - Stage Four

I had the feeling that I could have stayed in Whangaroa a lot longer, but I'd made bookings, so had to move on (a whole 30 kilometres!). First stop was to take a look at Totara North, across the harbour from Whangaroa - but there is nothing there now unless you count the fish packing shed or the seagulls. My destination for the day was Mangonui.I was there in time for morning coffee! Not sure why there are no photos, because I did like the place. I couldn't help comparing it to Paihia - which has few heritage buildings, just a little horrible shopping mall built in the 1970's, complete with stucco. I don't know what was there before then. Mangonui, by contrast, has a lot of original buildings, erected in the 19th century and beatifully maintained (although the old wharf has been taken down).

Wandering the town kept me busy until it was time for lunch, which I took at the same place as I'd had my morning coffee, the Galley Cafe and Bar, a very pleasant place. Since I was still ridiculously early to check into my hotel, I made a quick trip up to Kaitaia, to do Christmas shopping and find the internet (MacDonads again did the trick). Kaitaia produced an odd exchange: I walked into a cafe, to be greeted by the counter person "You taught cells at Otago". When I made it clear I had nothing to do with any of the sciences and told her what I did do, she responded "ah, it is hard to keep track". So, it seems she has been a student of mine in the past, although it would appear to be an odd paper choice for what she studied. I should have stayed in her cafe longer: I was opposite my car, in what passes for a mall in Kaitaia, when the heavens opened. I was stuck for nearly an hour - the rain was far too intense to even think about crossing the road in it.

Back at Mangonui, I might have even gone back to the Galley for tea, because it was pretty good, but when in Mangonui, one must have at least one meal at the Fish and Chip shop - built out over the water, with an adjoining area of decking, fully licensed, it does a roaring trade in tiny pieces of snapper .


Northland Trip - Stage Three

So, with no feeling of any need to hang about in Paihia, I headed up the road to Kerikeri, where I knocked about for a couple of hours. I found a decent coffee, an interesting bookshop and even MacDonalds proved useful, by having the best internet in town. Nothing really appealed for lunch (although I was nearly tempted by the Jerusalem Restaurant). Just as well, because a mere five kilometres up the road, I was flabbergasted by Waipapa. When I left the north, it had maybe a dairy and a service station. I knew it had developed a tractor salesyard in the meantime, as a family friend worked in it for years. I'd heard rumours of a Warehouse going there recently. But nothing prepared me for the fact that Waipapa has a shopping mall! Noel Leeming, Dick Smiths, Lighting Direct - they're all there. Plus a pretty good cafe which made me mussel fritters for lunch. That's something I've not had for a while. Apparently the mall has been in Waipapa for two, maybe three, months so it is little wonder its existence had escaped my attention. As I headed north, I was struck by how pleasantly green everything was but also at how little livestock there was to be seen. I think that when I went to our old farm, I did not see an animal of any sort. I stopped in for a quick look at Matauri Bay - reputed to be the best beach in Northland, This place was notorious in the 1980's because of local Maori resistence to public access: they had the cheek to block the road and charge a fee to go to the beach. The beach! It is every Kiwi's birthright that he or she shall have unrestricted and free access to the entire coastline, so this was an affront. Of course, in the meantime, all sorts of people have bought bits of the coastline and put up the "no trespassing" signs.

There was no indication of any toll today, but funding seems to be coming from other sources
- development is underway (since being up there, I noticed an advertisement for Matauri Bay sections in the Sunday paper).

When I was a kid, I always preferred the next beach up the coast,
but I'd be hard pressed to say that even it is the "best" in Northland. Indeed, my tastes now tend more towards the Whangaroa Harbour, just a little further north: It is a very peaceful place , no beach as such, but I'm not actually a big fan of the beachThe "town" was just a pub and a general store, and my backpackers tucked up behind it all. I was a little bit worried about what I'd get for tea, so worried that I drove out to Kaeo for some emergency supplies (not that there was anything better there in terms of food suppliers) but my concerns were groundless. There were a few people drinking in and around the pub; around 7 or 7:30, there was a general movement towards its restaurant, and the guy there did us proud. He seemed to have a fairly new assistant - she can't have been much more than about 16. The chef was a little like Gordon Ramsay, in the way he was constantly talking her through her job, but completely unlike Mr Ramsay in that he was issuing instructions and giving encouragement to her the whole time, a very polite and nurturing version. It felt good, seeing this local kid being given some decent training, an opening to a potential career, right there in Whangaroa. And the food that kitchen put out was fantastic - I had a pretty humble steak, chips and eggs (the mushrooms were lost in transit), but the steak was magnificently cooked and very generously sized. Steve Braunias would do worse than go there in his hunt for a decent New Zealand steak.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Northland Trip - Stage Two

It took a fair while to get out of Whangarei. After picking up my car (the prominence given to its price caused a fair amount of amusement to my family when I caught up with them)

I had to check out whether Caffeine is still any good (I was living in Whangarei when it opened, and I'm glad it has kept it up as a fine place to have coffee), take a look at the new library (which was even giving away books!) and have a general wander around the streets. This produced quite a haul of books. One thing I hadn’t noticed on my first day was that the building in which I had my very first job has gone; in its place, a carpark.

Once I did leave, it took hours to go a whole 21 kilometres! I went out through Tutukaka(the hotel is gone!), Matapouri (far more pleasant) and into Whananaki South – a very odd place, as the road just stops and anyone going there has to go by way of a footbridge.Out through Whananaki North (famous for being the place where three brothers who became MP’s (one is still the Minister of Foreign Affairs) grew up),I found myself at 6:00 to be on the main road north just 21 kilometres from Whangarei.

But Paihia was not much further and there was little to detain me, apart from random churches although I was a little curious about this homestay – it seems to be a place for homes to stay, rather than a home for travelers.

Leaving the hostel for dinner, my plan was to go as far as the first nice place – that happened to be next door. The menu had not impressed, but on the way out, I saw a girl with an amazing … chowder, and just had to have one. It was truly good. The main course was a bit too fusion for me – the fish and new potatoes were good, the asparagus OK, I could tolerate cucumber but the rest, I had to leave.

I had two nights in Paihia, so went out to the old farm to have a bit of a look around. Unfortunately, it was a bit too wet, so I went to town – Okaihau. I was impressed to see the butchery is still going strong, although the bakery is not doing so well. A fellow came over and talked to me as I was peering in, told me the recent history of this building. He was a teacher, waiting for the school prize-giving to start. If it had been the college one, and not the primary school, I might have gone along for old time's sake. My old school still looks pretty good, but not poor old Kaikohe. Now that’s a sad town, lots of empty buildings. I think you know a town is in trouble when the prime main street shops have been taken over by second-hand dealers, car parts shops and, most odd of all, monumental masons (three of them!)

Since Russell is THE place to go in the Bay of Islands, I thought I’d better at least go and have dinner. I didn’t stay long – a quick beer in a vastly remodeled Duke of Malborough and some fish and chips, and it was back to Paihia. Neither are really my kind of place, so I headed away pretty much as soon as I awoke, after getting through the police blockade - there was a bad beating here in the early hours of the morning.