Sahara (short review)

When Sahara is an adventure movie, it’s fun. The actors are all good, the landscapes are great, there’s some nice action scenes, and the writing isn’t half bad. When it tries to do African politics, and tries to appear critical of the United States (for NOT intervening in another country’s politics), it’s quite silly. All in all, have a look if you like adventure movies, but watch for the traps.

Greek Thoughts

  1. All the prices here have gone up to EU standards, even on local things like fruit – but people still have approximately a third of the income. Isn’t the EU a wonderful thing?
  2. The amount of cool and exotic animals – from water turtles to colourful lizards to wild jackals – is staggering. And yet very few people appreciate this, and if things continue like this it will all be lost. The seas are already totally overfished, and more than a few species that used to be common on land are now very rare. It’s depressing.
  3. The landscape is more or less the same. This is an incredibly beautiful country, but every year when I come back here, more and more has been built. Soon, there will be no empty space left at all. The beaches are already filling up with bars and chairs.
  4. Let’s not even talk about the corruption, and about the current government. If this country does not get some serious left-wing (i.e. not PASOK or, heavens forbid, KKE) leadership, it’s going straight to hell.
  5. Which of course it may be doing anyway, with the whole absurd “Macedonia” issue. Now there’s talk of an oppressed “Macedonian minority” in Greece. As if there weren’t enough internal probems, people have to start chipping away from the outside, making up fictional groups and re-writing history. Look, I’m from Macedonia. We have enough right-wingers here, we don’t need right-wingers from outside trying to claim a country that has historically been Greek for several thousand years and thereby also inciting a nationalist reaction from within Greece. There’s enough absurdity going on already, this is taking it too far.
  6. And for those who think there’s no such thing as climate change, and the ozone layer is a myth: thirty years ago, my father stayed in the sun from morning to evening for 3 months each year, without ever getting a sunburn. Now you can’t stay in the sun for more than 10 minutes at noon without risking serious damage. It’s fucking crazy.
  7. Also, as the temperature goes up we get more jellyfish. I hate jellyfish. Can we please start some kind of sea turtle breeding project?

Thinking on a Battlestar

Verena and I have been re-watching Battlestar Galactica. Well, it’s re-watching in my case; Verena hasn’t seen it before. Now, as you may know, I am prone to complaining about BSG, my main complaints being its militarism, its confusion of personal issues and responsibilities with politics, its lack of humour, and its attempt to create a serious, edgy atmosphere by making the camera shake a lot.

So which of these complaints are still there? Well, I’ll give you a detailed answer when we’re done re-watch╬Żng everything up to the end of (the first half of) season 4. But for now, here are my first impressions (currently at season 2, episode 13 – “Epiphanies”).

  1. I was partly unfair about the humour. I used to say that only the character of Gaius Baltar and the episode “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” contained any humour. Not so. There are plenty of amusing lines in the first season, though very few (if any) are actually funny, let alone hilarious. Still, this makes the first season a hell of a lot more affecting. Later on things are more grim, but they affect us less – because humour is a vital part of human behaviour, even in the worst situations, and without it the characters seem less real. And on a storytelling level, humour creates a contrast to the tragedy that allows both to shine more clearly. Babylon 5, Firefly and Rome (basically my three favourite series) all achieved this to a great degree – which is part of why they were so affecting. (Galactica is exciting and interesting and touching, but it has never brought tears – of any kind – to our eyes.)
  2. The effects are excellent, but the ships are dull. One does feel a certain fondness for the Galactica after a while, but the ship design doesn’t help. I guess it’s just an aircraft carrier, but still… there’s something dull about the look of the CGI. Extremely well-done, but kind of dull.
  3. I remember that when I first watched the show, I really liked it until “Epiphanies”. Same effect this time as well. I have the impression that in the middle of the second season, the writers starting pulling their punches, and some really sloppy writing creeps in. “Epiphanies” could’ve been a DS9 episode. (I’m a Trekkie and always will be, but sloppy writing has always plagued Trek. Especially technobabble and out-of-nowhere solutions – like to Roslin’s cancer.)
  4. The characters also start making incomprehensible decisions that seem more motivated by the writing team’s desire to do this or that (usually create conflict) than by what would make sense for the character to do according to what we’ve seen. Like everyone suddenly deciding to kill Helo and Boomer’s baby, or Starbuck’s behaviour in the Pegasus episodes. WTF?
  5. Personal guilt is not a replacement for political responsibility. When President Roslin makes immoral choices, which result in people’s deaths, she writes it down on a piece of paper – and we’re supposed to admire this. When soldiers shoot civilians, the show’s answer is that the people of the military do not need to be punished because they will feel guilty anyway – and we’re supposed to feel sorry. Furthermore, we constantly see political choices being personal ones – the kind of logic that leads people to assert that the only reason Iraq was invaded was because of Bush’s daddy. This is not how politics work, and perhaps the show’s greatest flaw. (A lot more on this in the longer article that will follow later.)
  6. Some of the characters may be despicable, but the acting is excellent and the cast is fantastic. It’s also great that there are so many minor characters who appear regularly and then become more important. It’s a shame, on the other hand, that there are so few black actors in the show. I’m not big on the whole political correctness thing, but it is actually quite noticeable in BSG. Still, in general, there’s plenty of people of various backgrounds, and that’s great.
  7. The music is good, except for that heroic Scottish-sounding thing they play in the patriotic scenes, which is awful and makes some of the scenes quite ridiculous. On the whole, though, the show’s music – even when it is not original – does give it a lot of texture.

The most important thing, perhaps – and I may not have appreciated this before – is that this is a serious attempt at telling a good and deep story. It fails in a million ways, but it does try to seriously examine or at least present topics that are important and meaningful. As such, I think it ultimately beats Lost, which started out excellent, and which continues to occasionally have episodes that are very, very good – but which has become more of an attempt to stuff more and more (and less interesting) twists into each episode, and has forgotten that storytelling should be about something.

Bender’s Big Score

Here’s the first in a long series of short reviews. I don’t have much time to write these, but I do want to jot down some thoughts. (The way I work, don’t be surprised if some of them turn out a little longer after all.)

Saw Bender’s Big Score yesterday, and loved it. To a geek, I really can’t imagine anything more funny than Futurama. And yes, the Simpsons are funny, but Futurama is brilliant. I love its emphasis on story and character rather than just gag (though there are plenty of those). It makes Futurama more memorable and ultimately also more funny than a lot of other shows. That’s something I’ve always believed – humorous storytelling, whether it’s a panto or an animated movie, is about more than just the momentary joke. Structure and story are still just as important, and emphasising them achieves a lot more than just stringing together a bunch of one-liners. When jokes are repeated or build on each other, they can become considerably more funny than on their own; and good characters who are more than just one-joke setups give the comedy a basis on which it can work, and a reality in which the plot (funny or crazy as it may be) actually means something to us – and is thus a lot more hilarious.

Does that make sense? I think so. Now I have to go, I have a bus to catch. (And the bastards are really slippery.)

Going for the Hitler thing…

Berlusconi has been in power for just two months, and already he’s going for the full-on Hitler thing. It’s amazing to see fascism spread its wings over Europe again, and most people not even reacting. This why shit happened the last time, you’d think someone would get that this is why it’ll happen again… only with a different face. This time it’ll be Muslims and other immigrants instead of Jews… though the Roma and Sinti seem to be on the list yet again. Not that anyone remembers these days what was done to them back then.

It’s depressing, really.

[from Italy: Berlusconi government steps up its attacks on Roma and foreigners ]

Silvio Berlusconi has now governed Italy for two months. The multi-billionaire media magnate enjoys a clear parliamentary majority following the humiliating election defeat of all those organisations which emerged from the former Italian Communist Party-in particular Communist Refoundation (Rifondazione Comunista).

Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition […] has introduced repressive anti-immigration measures, forcibly deported poor immigrants, opened the way for the use of the Italian army for domestic purposes and agreed on Italy’s return to nuclear energy. At the same time Berlusconi has introduced a new immunity law which exempts him from legal prosecution.

[…] the latest measure to be agreed by the government: a file is to be drawn up, particularly for Sinti and Roma, containing a DNA data base with digital fingerprints and photos of each individual. The file is to be extended to small children. In order to implement this data base, the government reactivated a fascist law from 1941.

It’s time for worldwide socialist movement. It’s time for these people to get kicked out and, in some cases, put into prison. There’s no more time or space for half-measures and foolish hopes in Social Democrat parties that do nothing but implement the same policies with different names. Either we learn from history or we’re going to repeat the extra-shitty version of it.

George Carlin

As most of you probably know, George Carlin died a few days ago. I’m still shocked. I mean, it’s George Carlin . He wasn’t old, right? Not possible. The guy was so alive. So present. But since when has that meant anything? A lot of people I admired died a long younger.

But George Carlin! The whole world seems a little darker now, a little emptier. There’s not going to be another like him. The side of reason and logic has lost a great defender. And the world of humour has lost a grandmaster.

It sucks.

I hope there’s an afterlife, and he’s there kicking some ass and pissing some idiots off by revealing hypocritical language use.

Forwarding…


URGENT: Greenpeace whale activists arrested in Japan

Two Greenpeace activists who exposed a whale meat embezzlement fraud in Japan — Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki — have been themselves arrested — for allegedly stealing the whale meat that they turned over to police as evidence.

This is the backlash. We’ve uncovered a scandal involving powerful forces in the Japanese government that benefit from whaling, and it’s not surprising they are striking back.

What is surprising is that these activists, who are innocent of any crime, would be arrested for returning whale meat that was stolen from Japanese taxpayers. Theirs are, to date, the only arrests that have been made in the Tokyo public prosecutor’s investigation into the embezzlement we documented of millions of yen worth of whale meat.

This was not a police action — it was an intimidation tactic by the government agencies responsible for whaling — and the kind of harassment of whistleblowers that a modern democracy should not allow. Our first news that an arrest was imminent came from Japanese television stations. Someone leaked the information to ensure images of Greenpeace activists in handcuffs appeared on news reports in Japan.

More than 40 police officer raided our offices and the homes of the activists, and spent 10 hours seizing cell phones, documents, and computers, despite the fact that we had documented every step of how we obtained the whale meat, turned the full dossier over with the evidence, and made ourselves available to police to help with the investigation at any time. A simple phone call could have brought Junichi and Toru to the police station. Instead, the government made a public spectacle of shutting Greenpeace down.

Don’t let Japan shut down the truth. Demand the release of Junichi and Toru and demand an end to the whaling programme in Japan. The corruption of a few bureaucrats who profit from whaling should not be an excuse for harassing those who have exposed it. The domestic and international shame which this scandal is bringing on the Japanese agencies responsible for whaling is just one more reason that Japan should stop its sham scientific whaling programme in the Southern Ocean forever.

Please, take action now and pass this message along to your friends. Let’s get Junichi and Toru back with their families, and demand the real criminals go to jail.

Thank you,

The Greenpeace whale team

Demand the Japanese government free the activists

While I personally believe that problems such as this one are ultimately down to, once again, the profit system, and true change cannot come solely through environmentalist groups but through a larger political and social movement, it is still important to support groups like Greenpeace in their attempt to save what’s left of our ecosystem – and since individual lives are still worth something, to help these people who are being prosecuted for doing what is right.

Stan Winston, 1946-2008

Stan Winston has died. A sad day in movie history.

At least he went in peace, having accomplished much. This is a lot more than most people get.

If there’s an afterlife, they’re about to get really cool special effects.

M. Night Shyamalan and The Happening

The Happening(This, in case you were wondering, is a review of the film The Happening, by M. Night Shyamalan, and some thoughts about his work in general.)

First, Shyamalan gifted us with The Sixth Sense, a movie about dealing with pain and loss, overcoming fear and working towards compassion, and using your gifts to help and heal others. It was successful because people wanted to see the scene with the kid whose head is half missing. “Whoa, creepy!” and all that. And it was remembered because of the twist at the end, which is nice but not the point of the movie.

Then there was Unbreakable, a film that sounds and feels and looks absolutely unique, featuring the best and most layered performance Bruce Willis has ever given, also a fantastic performance by Samuel L. Jackson, an incredible score by James Newton Howard, and a very original plot about finding yourself that succeeds at being dark and inspiring at the same time. Unfortunately it also has a really good twist at the end, which also isn’t the point of the movie, but was apparently the only thing people were capable of latching on to.

Third came Signs, which gave Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix deep and simultaneously hilarious parts, and which was scary in a subtle, intelligent way, and which had a twist ending which was well-conveived but ill-executed. But at this point, barely anyone was actually watching the movie anymore, they were just waiting for the twist, and they all missed the wonderful scenes between Gibson and Phoenix and the children – some touching, some hilarious.

Then there came The Village, a profoundly touching love story that was marketed as a horror movie, and which people went to see hoping to see some gore (or at least something scary)… and the twist, which once again isn’t the point of the movie (except in that it propels the love story in a different direction, and makes the ending a lot more positive and hopeful and progressive than it would otherwise have been). And of course people complained, and the critics hated it, and missed the beautiful cinematography, yet another great score by James Newton Howard (Signs was OK; more on that later) featuring the amazing violinist Hilary Hahn, amazing performances by every single actor, and a script that is more intelligent and complex than the publicity ever let anyone think. Those who wanted a horror movie hated it. Those who wanted a period piece hated it. Those who just wanted to hate it hated it. Very few people got what it was actually about, even though it’s entirely obvious. Publicity can all too easily work against a movie.

And finally, there was Lady in the Water, a bedtime story that is half comedy and half drama, full of underplayed sadness, eccentric but likeable characters, and a hilariously mad self-referential critic character played by the wonderful and underrated Bob Balaban. The critics, who generally hate anyone who makes movies that are subtle and emotional instead of contrivedly sentimental or exhibiting apathy disguised as world-weary cynicism, hated its guts. And I don’t think they took to being made fun of very well, either. Nobody got Lady in the Water – nobody got that large parts of it are funny and silly and meant to be so. That this is what a supernatural event might be like if it happened to everyday, flawed people. In a way, it’s a very realistic movie. But the very idea that art may be meaningful, that normal people can change the world… not very popular. Especially when there’s a well-done anti-war undertone to the whole thing. Can’t have that, no. And to top it all off, Shyamalan gave himself the part of a flawed but very important character. That’s just egocentric. When an actor casts himself in the lead part of a movie he’s directing (see Braveheart), that’s just super – but when a director, who has also done some acting for most of his career, gives himself a small but important part… that’s a crime.

M. Night Shyamalan has the problem that anyone who is both good and successful, while simultaneously maintaining integrity and vision, has: it has become fashionable to hate him and his movies. It has nothing to do with the actual movies he makes. Which is one of the reasons The Happening is likely to fail – had it been directed by John “Boogie” Generic the Third, Lord of Troutville, it would’ve been a real success, hailed as a “shocker” that “strikes deep into the heart of modern fears” while simultaneously having “strong, unique performances by actors cast against type” in a movie that has “more levels than just that of horror.” Or something like that.

But that is unlikely. Chances are it will fail at the box office for two reasons: it’s a Shyamalan movie, and it’s really old-fashioned. What does this mean?

  1. It ain’t about blood and guts. It’s not like Saw, or Hostel, or all the other torture porn trash being pumped into cinemas by incompetent directors and greedy film studios. The horror here is psychological, even cosmic (in a Lovecraftian sense)… this is about something big, something uncontrollable, and about a few people’s reactions to it.
  2. As such, it is a character movie. It’s about characters’ emotions and thoughts – and these characters aren’t cardboard cutouts. They’re people. Quirky people. Imperfect people. But their imperfection, in turn, does not lead to the fashionable misanthopy so widespread in modern cinema; the movie doesn’t try to sell us that everyone is evil or that people always do bad things to one another.
  3. The camera doesn’t shake all the time, and we actually get to see character’s faces. In that sense, and in many others, this movie is The Anti-Cloverfield. Where Cloverfield was sloppy and generic, The Happening is methodical and specific; where Cloverfield was about characters with the depth of about seven quarks, The Happening is about characters who are emotional and whose emotions matter.
  4. The performances are good; they are also subtle and quite unusual. Mark Wahlberg does not play the brave superhero (or worse, the supersoldier of the catastrophically bad Shooter) – instead, he is quiet, emotional and often confused or unsure of what to do. Zooey Deschanel is even more quirky, and (once you get the hang of her character) often quite hilarious. And John Leguizamo, an actor whom I like a great deal, is thankfully neither a Latino cop nor a Latino criminal, but a very likeable and sad math teacher. Yay! He is also in what is possibly the most touching and shocking scene in the whole movie.
  5. As I said above, the movie is old-fashioned. An equally appropriate term would be Hitchcockian – this is a lot like The Birds, not that anyone will appreciate this. It is also often Hitchcockian in its writing (especially near the end – I don’t want to spoil it, but Betty Buckley’s Mrs. Jones is wonderfully scary and eccentric), cinematography, and especially in its music. The latter feature it shares with Signs, and in both cases I find this to be a weakness – but I do appreciate the point of the attempt. I just don’t like the music of most older movies. If you do, or if you’re nostalgic, it should work wonderfully for you.
  6. The movie is about what humanity is doing to the global ecosystem. This alone will create a huge backlash from all sorts of people – those who believe global warming is just a hoax by evil scientists (tell that to the weather we’ve been having for the past few years), those who believe movies should be pointless and every attempt to make a movie be topical constitutes preaching, and those who simply hate anything they consider to be left-wing, nature-loving, tree-hugging, and so on. And more – there are tons of people who will hate the movie for this. In its topicality, the movie is also strangely old-fashioned; it just doesn’t have that cynical/nihilistic vibe the critics love so much.
  7. The movie is sometimes very funny, without being cynical, without making jokes about shit and sperm, and often in scenes where we totally do not expect it. Old-fashioned verbal humour, often totally underplayed. Or visual humour, just Zooey Deschanel’s facial expressions. This aspect will, as usual, be ignored. Humour isn’t interesting, right? It’s easy to write and it’s just filler. Which is why we have so many great comedies these days…

So what is likely to happen? People will complain about the film being preachy. The performances will be trashed, especially Mark Wahlberg’s – because he was a rapper, or because it’s a Shyamalan movie, or because some women find him attractive, or because some people just don’t want to admit that he can act. Kind of the Ben Affleck effect. (Affleck is actually an even better actor, and a really good writer. Shame the media were looking for a toy to play with. He did make some crappy movies, but who hasn’t? He also turned in some great performances and was ignored for the longest time.) Some people will even complain about twists, when there really aren’t any. There are some plot developments, sure, but if you count those as twists, you’re an idiot. Same goes for the ending.

Others will find the film too slow, too boring, or will compare it unfavourably to Cloverfield and similar content-free shakycam trash. And maybe thirty years from now, people will see that this is a pretty good film. After all, they trashed Blade Runner. And Citizen Kane. And The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions. And Star Wars. And Southland Tales. And a lot more of my favourite movies. But the real question, to my mind, is what will happen to the career of M. Night Shyamalan, one of the most talented and visionary writer/directors I know, someone with both the technical talent and the originality that mark a true artist. If The Happening flops, as it probably will (I saw the preview in a cinema the size of a cupboard; they were playing Sex and the City on the big screen), this will make financing even harder to find for his next project. And I’d really like to see what else he’ll come up with.

Third edit: More up-to-date thoughts in A Summary of Shyamalan.

New teaser trailer for “The Great Machine: A Nightmare”

Yay! After months of problems, finally a new teaser. I think it gives a pretty good impression, in an abstract sort of way, of what the movie is like, especially when combined with the old teaser.

Watch it or download it here – TEASER TRAILER FOR THE GREAT MACHINE: A NIGHTMARE.

If Firefox refuses to play it, download it and watch it from your harddrive. Windows media files are strange sometimes.

Reasons I haven’t been posting much:

  1. Working on Desert Bridge.
  2. Working on The Great Machine.
  3. Terrible pain in my left shoulder.
  4. Today was the last (for now) day of my Grand Adventure in the Land of the Dentists, which went on for nearly 8 months – and that’s just for two bloody (literally) teeth.

Now I shall have a look at Oblivion, and then continue working.