Saturday, April 26, 2008

4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 days, a film by Cristian Mungiu (2007)

Just the one movie today, and even more sombre than On the Edge of Heaven, more like hell. The movie is set in the Romania of 1987, a time when there was strict surveillance, and a repressive internal security force. This is two years before the Romanian Revolution, so it can be imagined that things were pretty much at rock bottom, in terms of morale and its economy.

Wikiepedia says that Ceauşescu's Police State apparatus was "greatly strengthened" at this time. Abortion was a hot button issue in Romania:
Ceauşescu had banned it (along with sex education and contraception) in 1966 in order to populate the country. Women were even tested for pregnancy and fined for failing to conceive! "The fetus is the property of the entire society ... "Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity." The only way to get an abortion was to have it illegally and incredibly stealthily. Given that knowledge about human sexuality was a "state secret" and the poor state of the economy, unwanted pregnancy must have been the norm and abortion a natural response.

I wish I'd known all this before seeing today's movie, as it would have given a context and helped me get the deadened responses of its two main characters, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu). They're both students, sharing a dorm.
Gabi is pregnant (I think the title is a reference to exactly how pregnant she is, although it is not made clear and she certainly doesn't look pregnant) and has made arrangements for a hotel and an abortionist, Mr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). The movie starts with the two of them making preparations for being away for a couple of days - as one of them wryly comments, they could be going on holiday. It takes a while for the film to reveal just why the two of them are checking into a hotel. Of course, all has to be done under great secrecy, so it is understandable why Bebe is concerned when it is not Gabi but Otilia who meets him and when his nominated hotel is not the one they've checked into. The fear of him not doing the job if he knew the truth makes it understandable that Gabi has not told him how pregnant she is (and might be the explanation of why she wouldn't meet him herself). I think it probably explains why Gabi has not told Otilia all the details as well.

Of course, it doesn't take Bebe long to find the truth out as soon as he starts examining her: Gabi's situation has given him enormous power over her, which he is not too scrupulous to use.
I was pleased that after this sordid bit of business, he did seem to adopt a professional manner and ensured that what he had been "paid" for was done.

The thing that disturbed me the most about the movie was the near complete lack of emotional responses of Otilia and Gabi: they never smile or laugh, which is understandable, but they never show any anger either, or give each other a hug. Having to get the abortion and to pay the price that Bebe demands seems to be just what they have to do - there's an interesting contrast with the other characters we see in the movie. Otilia's boyfriend's family and various other people in the hotel seem to have a good time and to have a punch up when they're angry. Otilia even has Bebe's rather formidable looking flick knife but does nothing with it.

They finish resolving never to talk of these matters again, in near complete stillness:

On The Edge of Heaven, by Faith Akin (2007)

This was a much more sombre movie, quite a shift from seeing Outsourced just half an hour earlier. Gone was the exuberant sound track (this movie has hardly any sound at all) and fast pace. Instead, death predominates - the two central sections were announced off by reference to deaths and then showed how those deaths happened. I'm sure there was more going on than I was aware of, because I'm not really up with the current situation of Turks in Germany (the central concern of this movie).

In the first main section, "The death of Yeter", Ali Aksu (Tuncil Kurtiz) has moved from Turkey to Bremen, in Germany. He's a widower and pensioner and, it seems, lonely. He does a deal with Yeter (Nursel Köse) by which she will stop being a hooker and live with him if he pays her the same as she'd earn on the street. He's an unpleasant drunk, but luckily this particular segment of the movie was not long. I'm not sure why, but after Yeter dies, Ali's son Nejat (Baki Davrak) tries to find Yeter's estranged daughter, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay). This search provides the only slightly humurous element to the movie, as she ends up in his house, possibly without him ever knowing it - the movie ends with Nejat out on the Black Sea coast wanting to re-connect with his dad.

To say how Ayten was in Nejat's house would be to give too much away. She is in some sort of political movement struggling against the Turkish Government: it has decided she's a terrorist. She flees to Bremen to find her mother - I think there is even one point where their paths cross - but instead finds Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska),
who takes her in to her home and to her heart. The happiness is not to last: sheer bad luck sees Ayten deported back to Turkey, where she's imprisoned. Lotte devotes her life to seeking Ayten's freedom, much to her mum's displeasure. But bad luck intervenes yet again, and there's another death. Or maybe it wasn't luck, maybe it was a death ordained by events Ayten had triggered.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Outsourced, by John Jeffcoat (2006)

I'd never heard of this director - not surprising when you see his one previous effort, Milk is listed on IMDB with no reviews, no discussion, nothing. But the premise sounded entertaining so I went along, making this my first movie of the World Cinema Showcase.

I'm so glad I went - the title and poster give much of the plot away, but give no indication of how much of a light-hearted comedy would be provided. Todd is the "Fulfilment Manager" of a Seattle-based firm which sells "kitsch to rednecks" i.e. patriotic memorabilia to America, such as big foam blocks of cheese to wear on their heads or cowboy hats emblazoned with the stars and stripes or a hot dog toaster. As is the modern trend with many phone-based work, Todd finds out that his work has been outsourced to India: his job is to go out to a town near Mumbai and make the new team work.

It is obvious he's never been to this part of the world: I love the way he hits Mumbai airport, is completely bemused by the hordes of drivers with signs waiting for their passengers. Instead of going to the taxi chit desk, he wanders out to the taxis and is mobbed by all those drivers who don't yet have fares. There is at least a football field sized lot filled with taxis.

His task: to make the team of Indian telephone operators sound like those they're selling the product and get their time on each call down to unfeasibly low levels.The moral is as old as the hills: when in Mumbai, do as the Mumbai-ites do. Until he does, he's unhappy with things like this
happening and is no good at getting his new workers on board (although watching his culture shock was amusing). Only when he immerses himself in holi (the festival of colours) by retaliating on those who bomb him with coloured powder do things start to come right. He responds to his new team as regular people, becomes friendly with the fellow he's training to replace him and calms his fiercest critic, Asha (Ayesha Dharker)Ultimately, the movie is a sort of romantic comedy, so we can't expect too much by way of a searing commentary on globalisation, but I doubt many would watch the amazing job Todd's team of workers did to meet their impossible target and not at least wince when the inevitable happens: if this team has only been chosen because they equate to "eight heads for the price of one", then when "twenty heads for the price of one" can be found, they'll be out of a job. I say a sort of rom-com because there is an overlay of the Indian way that dictates the outcome of their relationship. In the meantime, they enjoy their "holiday in Goa", as did I watching it (and listening - the movie has a vibrant soundtrack).

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Gary Numan

I hadn't thought about him for a decade - I think I may have bought a vinyl version of Replicas about then. But flying home from Wellington yesterday, reading the Mojo feature on him, I was having a musical emergency. I needed me some Gary Numan: back when I was first getting serious about music, it was because of people like him showing up on Radio With Pictures and doing things I'd never considered. The Mojo article was a very good reminder of what I had liked about him.

And so I leapt into my car and made a beeline for Real Groovy, to discover that Replicas has been re-released to mark its 30 year anniversary (unfortunately my need for Gary Numan didn't stop me buying half a dozen other CD's). I had it playing before I'd left Litchfield street, and was once again enraptured by "Are Freinds Electric":


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl, by Craig Gillespie (2007)

Loved this movie even more than Juno. I wonder how many went in knowing it was about Lars (Ryan Gosling) having a relationship with a RealDoll, only to have that knowledge swept away from them. Sure, he does have a RealDoll, her name is Bianca, he bought her off the net, and he constructs a fairly elaborate backstory and set of interests for her. He presents to his family and community as his girlfriend and they knock about together, as much as one can with a life sized plastic doll:
Of course, his family is concerned, his brother is angry with him, wants to knock him down for his idiocy but Lars is recognised not to be well and the whole community eventually goes along with the notion that Bianca is real, and she does take on a sort of reality for the community. But as Lars sister in law, Karin (Emily Mortimer) makes it clear - this is for love of Lars - Bianca acts as some sort of catalyst for this to come out into the open. Sure, it is a bit of an idealised world, but if we can't get to see ideals in our fictions, where the hell do we get to see them realised? And just maybe the film was made with the notion in mind that communities don't actually behave like this but asks the question "what if they did?"

But the real story is about Lars. We see very little of him before Bianca's arrival, but I'd say he doesn't get out very much, has a lot of trouble socialising, is more than a little sad
And let's not forget the title - there is a real girl, she works with Lars, is really rather taken with him and is simply impossibly cute: This is Margo (Kelli Garner). I loved the little skips of joy she'd do while she was bowling.

I'm no expert in psychology, but it seems to me that somehow, despite whatever was ailing Lars, he was able to recognise both that Kelli was into him in a big way and that he needed somehow to fix himself to be able to take on that role, to be a man. One possible thing that is ailing him is guilt or hurt over the fact his mother died in giving birth to him - he needs to mourn her death properly. And so Bianca is the prop he needs to make that breakthrough (although it is a bit odd that he takes her as a girlfriend if she's the mechanism to mourn his mother).

But I know how hard it can be to get involved in social activities when there's just the one of you, it is much easier to stay at home and read, or blog, or whatever. And so I get how inventing a companion to spur you into action, to join into the social world, might seem to be a good way out. I saw this most clearly when he went to his workmate's party: he was getting ready to bolt, but he'd made a commitment to Bianca to take her, and so he pressed the bell and went in. He socialises more and more as the movie goes on, even manages to have a sort of date with Kelli (not that he'd cheat on Bianca, of course) and his subconscious tells him when Bianca needs to bow out and how to make it happen.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sidetrip: Great Barrier Island

One of the things that has made it very hard to keep current here is the fact that I've had several chances to go travelling. I finished my trip around Northland on 2 January, but that does not mean I cam straight home. Oh, no; I had an addendum all arranged - a night in Auckland, and then a stupidly early (7:00 a.m.) ferry for four hours out to Great Barrier Island. Very few people have been there, it hardly ever features, either in the news (although there has been the big court battle between the two airlines serving the island over their names and yellow pages adverts) or in general conversation. I didn't think I knew anyone who'd been there at all, but once I'd made my bookings, I was talking to a colleague about summer plans, and she said that not only had she been there but loved it so much they'd never go back, so their memories might not be besmirched by reality.

Only a few hundred people live on the island, in several small settlements. Ferries arrive in Tryphena Harbour

The voyage over was peaceful, only a handful of people wanting to go to the island. It was a little disconcerting to get there and find crowds of people waiting to leave (apparently it is horrendously busy over the New Year, but by about 2 or 3 January, the numbers are dropping off dramatically). Even more disconcerting was the sight of the local policeman on the wharf, wearing not only an armoured vest of some sort but also his sidearm. He turned out to be a friendly fellow - I met him on the road several times while I was there and he always waved; the gun and vest were because there'd been some sort of incident in the pub and police HQ in Auckland had told him to go prepared until the people involved left the island.

Tryphena town is tiny, and even so, split into two - one part has a store/cafe,
camping ground and librarywhile the other part has another store and Irish pub. They're separated by a headland, but look out in the same general direction: I was nearly confined to this part of town, as the rental car I had booked never showed up and public transport is limited. I had a slightly uncomfortable session on the phone when I rang the rental car people to complain about their no-show: I had rung the wrong firm! Luckily, they could produce a car for me - not the biggest car I have ever seen. In fact, I had carefully not booked with this firm because I thought their cars were too small. Given the rugged nature of the roads, it turned out that the Mazda 121 was a good choice, and was fun on the corners - it would bounce its way round them and then roar off to the next one.

So, I explored the island for a couple of days - up to Port Fitzroy
where I took a bit of a walk in the bush, along an old logging trackNow, the island, even today, is a four-five hour ferry ride from the mainland, and is mainly covered in bush yet some brave souls have attempted farmingWhangaparapara Harbour is on the West Coast of the island:- here I tried to get some lunch and maybe hang out on the internet, it was about 2 in the afternoon, but I was told that the generator was off so could not have anything involving cooking. Hard to believe that I am still within the boundaries of Auckland city! The East coast has the only traditional white sand beach on the island - this is Medlands Beach:
For my last night on the island, I just had to try the local Thai restaurant (I'd eaten at the Irish bar, my hostel (Stray Possum) and the cafe in Tryphena) simply because it struck me as odd that there would be one in such a remote place. They were doing a buffet only, and probably the less said about the food the better. At least I tried them out, and they did appear to be lovely people.

So, it was time to go home (although I had several hours to kill, reading Don de Lillo's Underworld before the ferry departed)

I think I'd be quite happy to go back, it was very peaceful, particularly as my hostel was in the bush, a couple of kilometres from Tryphena.

This was not quite the end of my northland holiday, however. My flight back to Dunedin was for the next day, with my time carefully planned so I could hire a car (a very nice shiny red Suzuki Swift) and go up to the Leigh Sawmill Cafe to watch Don McGlashan (with the Seven Sisters) and Little Bushman (Warren Maxwell and his band) perform as part of their Summer Sunsets Ultimate Warm Lazy Summer Concert series. It was a great way to finish off my trip, a very chilled atmos and warm-hearted music.


England All Over, by Joseph Gallivan (2000)

This is one of my more random acquisitions, and just goes to show that you can make some judgment of a book based upon its cover. I found it in the discard bin at the Whangarei Public Library; unlike many such bins, the contents of this one were entirely free, so I spent very little time on the selection process. For this one, I thought "English travel book, free, cool" and picked it up without even looking inside.

It is actually a novel, and quite an interesting one and surprisingly funny (although I don't think any of the jokes are family friendly). Clive Pointing was a geography teacher who had an affair with one of his pupils. As a result, he was fired and has been cast down a bit by the difficulty in finding a job. He's living in a horrible sounding flat (the last occupant killed himself, but not before amassing a bunch of debts to some unsavoury characters) in Streatham, South London which is far from being one of its more salubrious or interesting suburbs. As the novel opens, he is waiting in a pub to be interviewed for a job as tour guide:
The way Clive saw it from his seat in the Shakespeare just outside Victoria it looked like a bit of a row. Thirty people stumbled from a coach which was illegally parked and had its hazards going. They spread across the pavement with shocked looks or scowls on their faces, as though they were emerging from a fart-filled lift. Several made a beeline for the nearest fast food. Six well-dressed women hurried into the pub, brushing past Clive on their way to the Ladies. After everyone was off the coach, a fair-haired, slightly pudgy young man in a red parka emerged with a clipboard. One of the ladies, tall with silver hair, a belted raincoat and a silk scarf, moved into his path and began fiercely asking him questions. At first the man hung his head, then looked away, then wrote on his clipboard. As he went to the luggage compartment he said something to her over his soldier. The lady followed, still talking, still castigating hiom. After thirty seconds he slammed the door shut and turned on her, talking very close to her face, his head bobbing. She shrank back in surprise, but when he paused, she started back at him again. Definitely telling him off.
This is Barry, a fellow born and bred in East London, a man who lives to drink and pull, generally from the female customers off his buses, although he has a circuit of pubs where women tend to congregate. He and Clive are chalk and cheese, really; Clive is off drinking altogether, so he can prove to the court he can be a fit father to his daughter. We see their differences most plainly in the way they do their tour guiding: Barry makes stuff up, both because he doesn't know much but also because he wants to be liked. Clive is far more knowledgeable, but his lectures, at least at first, turn the customers off. It takes him a fair while to get into the swing of using his storehouse of knowledge in a way that makes him a good tour guide, but he gets there.

For me, this was the most fascinating part of the book, reading his lectures cum commentary, as they were very educational, and quite inspired. I can imagine some readers being put off, in the same way that his customers were, both by the level of detail and the oddness of the things Clive saw as important. But the novel is a love story to these odd charms, the kind of England that the normal tourist outfit does not show tourists - they get a whip round "Bath Stone'enge and Windsor Castle ... all in one fucking day". Brittannia Tours is one of these firms, but it goes broke.

Clive has a bit of a revelation: things have got so bad that he throws himself off Blackfriars bridge to put an end to it all. Before he hits the water, he has already changed his mind, and luckily he survives. He spends several days making his way home, walking through London, seeing so much to recommend it, and taking the reader with him on his walking tour. He sleeps rough in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Instead of being robbed, he finds that every hundredth person drops a few coins at his feet and he wakes up to find that someone had given him a sandwich. I think this is my favourite chapter in the whole book - there's a glorification of the humble things about living in London:
The Greek scooped me out a triple hopper of pale golden chips and threw on a huge curling cod. I don't remember what it cost, other than to say it seemed a lot more than it used to, but as soon as I tasted it I knew it was the best meal I had ever tasted. I bit the chips in half, and watched their floury insides steaming, and the cod oozed hot fumes from under its bronze batter coat and warmed my lips. I stood in the street devouring them transported back to Folkestone... By the time I tasted the sticky inside of the batter and felt the vinegar fumes tickle my nostrils, I was ready to kiss the tarmac.
Then he has a pint, the first in more than a year, and is well set up for a comeback. I think the turning point is when he thinks back to the girl with whom he'd had an affair and basically thinks, bugger it, I'm not going to defend myself, I did it, it was wrong, and stupid because I lost everything,but I enjoyed it. Now he has a new plan - tour guiding, but of the real England, places off the map, such as the Fleet River, power stations, shopping malls, housing estates, slaughterhouses, ruined seaside towns (Blackpool gets some stick, but I enjoyed the notion of meta-tourism, taking tourists to see tourists tour), race tracks, old markets, other prehistoric sights, not just Stonehenge...

He gets the old crew together, hires a bus (with the lovely Rose at the wheel) and it is all go, they do well. Sure, they had a bit of a fluke with their first tour, to Princess Diana's home - their tickets are forgeries, they break in the back way, the boss is arrested, the press is all over the story and Albion Tours is on the map - but the customers seem to love the novelty of being taken to the odd places Clive arranges for them, and Albion makes a fortune taking passengers on day trips to a surprisingly dry Glastonbury Festival.

Apart from the development of the business, there are all sorts of side stories going on - such as Barry's dad's attempts to star in a documentary about cab drivers, Clive's ongoing problems with his ex, his relationship with his own family (and his mother's love for traditional English poetry) - and various nights out, most amusing being the night our narrator gets so drunk he can't remember, so over the next few chapters, bits of the night are narrated back to him by his companions. Its just like real life. But the major sub-story is, of course, Clive and Rose - I love the way they ride off into the sunset at the end, just the two of them in a flaming big tour bus. Completely appropriate. She is only in the second half of the novel, and every so often Clive ticks off the things that are one more step towards them being in love. They seem to find joint nirvana in a spare parts catalogue:
Clive explained how he loved all the things people filtered out, things that were just too common to care about, or too confusing to worry about. 'It's like the unspoken language of the landscape.' He felt he had gone a bit too far, so he added: 'Some of the names in there - we used to think they were so funny. Things like vice-jaw tools, banana plugs, caged nut-insertion tools, deep-throated g-cramps..."
'I know! L-shaped ball driver sets, clinchnut riveters, oblique-cut cutting nippers, fire-resistant sheaths...'
Fantastic! I only have one quibble. There is a lot of poetry in this novel, Clive seems to have a certain knowledge of English poetic history (can quote Blake, for example) yet he apparently does not know who Alexander Pope is, despite the fact that at times the novel seems to channel his spirit.