Archive for April, 2016

Film Review: Jimmy’s Hall (2014). 3.5/5 Stars

April 22, 2016

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Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward).

The Irish war of independence (1919-1921) was not a forgone conclusion supported by the majority. There were many factions most notably those loyal to the British crown and in between were those caught between a rock and a hard place, the powerless working people whose story, shaped by oppression and famine, was the subject of another Ken Loach film ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ (2006).

Loach is a socialist filmmaker, that is: he makes films that explore the social condition of the powerless. He is a humanist filmmaker and ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ is a story that examines how the war of independence affected ordinary families from small rural communities struggling to remain whole through the wild storms of change largely beyond their ability to address or influence.

‘Jimmy’s Hall’ is set in the aftermath of the war when Ireland has achieved its emancipation, a victory that came with a high cost not least of which was the division of the island into two separate states. The process set families and neighbours against each other and though the dust has settled, wounds are still raw.

The war saw Jimmy Gralton, a non-conformist thinker who was not viewed kindly by the local ruling elite, forced out. He sought refuge in New York and ten years after the fact he returns home to find his peers struggling with economic and social forces that seem determined to undermine the rights promised by the new republic- the right to freedom of thought, expression and dignity.

Sinead O’Connor once famously said that it might have been better for the people of Ireland has they remained under British rule given the mixed blessings that came with the formation of the republic: a corrupt political system dominated by a patriarchal church determined to control the hearts and minds of the people and in this light and despite his better judgement Jimmy is once again drawn back into the fight against ignorance and fear.

The hall at the centre of the film is a welcoming place that is a beacon of light in a harsh world, a place where people can meet in peace to celebrate culture. It is a sanctuary dedicated to freedom of thought and expression and a thorn in the side of the local priest. In his eyes Jimmy and his hall (his hall because it was built on his families land) is a subversive concept that undermines the right of the church to determine what the people can or cannot think and feel.

‘Jimmy’s Hall’ is Loach’s final fling (he has since retired) and is a resounding farewell that reminds us of the dangers posed by those who would use fear and violence to stop us from being our authentic selves. A beautifully composed naturalistic film ‘Jimmy’s Hall’, based on the true story, is not a perfect film suffering some obvious narrative bumps as it does, but its sheer passion for life and liberty carries it along regardless. An allegory about the tensions that define social evolution, it is a delightful and affirming cinematic experience.

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Film Review: Ugetsu (1953). 5/5 Stars.

April 22, 2016

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The ghost of Lady Wakasa.

Japan began making films only a few short years after the medium came to light and by the early 1920s the industry was churning them out: horror, romance, dramas, thrillers, comedies. This was a self-made industry run and maintained by self-educated men and women. Rough and ready at first by the time the 1930s rolled around its players were becoming ever more ambitious and assured and by the end of that decade something extraordinary was happening.

Long time followers of more progressive filmmaking nations, Japanese directors and writers were beginning to find confidence in their own voice and over the next 25 years a slew of groundbreaking films hit the cinemas both at home and internationally. This was the golden age of Japanese cinema an era highlighted by three names: Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi. Between them, these three men led the industry into new territory, a purely Japanese way of story telling that took all that had come before and from afar remaking it into something unique, specific and wholly Japanese.

Mizoguchi, much like Ozu and Kurosawa fell into the craft and learned by doing. He made dozens of films, both silent’s and talkies, none of any great artistic value and most now lost to time but in the doing he honed, considered and pushed himself, often to breaking point. After each consecutive breakdown he returned to the harness, invigorated and with a fresh new vision and by the 1930s his films were no longer simple production line entertainments, he was reaching for more and was finding it.

By the time of 1953s ‘Ugetsu’ his reputation was complete. A perfectionist with high expectations of his crew, he was also kindly and encouraging bringing the best out of those around him while pushing all concerned to better and greater. With only three years left before leukaemia that would take his life set in he made six more films, all masterpieces that went straight to the heart of the human experience and the Japanese condition.

To contemporary eyes there is nothing all that remarkable about ‘Ugetsu’, but to Japanese filmmakers of the time it was a revelation causing the same kind of paradigm shifts in narrative possibility that Orson Welles ‘Citizen Kane’ did some 10 years earlier in Hollywood. Described as the first whole and complete Japanese film, it describes the world from a uniquely Japanese perspective drawing on Buddhism and Shintoism, the two religious world-views central to the Japanese experience. (Shinto predates Buddhism’s influence by unknown millennia. A primordial religious expression that describes a world where every object and living thing is animated one way or another by a spirit or god. The Shinto method is deeply ingrained into the Japanese experience and often the two religions overlap having soaked up elements of each other in passing)

Taking a popular 16th century ghost story, Mizoguchi turns the film method inside out establishing three layers of reality: As the individual experiences it, as nature proposes it and the unseen supra reality- the place inhabited by nature spirits, gods and ghosts. Of more contemporary Japanese filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki in particular has taken the narrative method laid out by ‘Ugetsu’ and has refined it to its purest distillation in films like ‘Spirited Away’. The method is also especially evident in genre films like ‘The Ring’ trilogy and any number of films by horror guru Tkakshi Miike. This world is infused by spirits and ghosts who walk among us but a step away as farmer/potter Genjuro is about to discover when his ambition leads him to the market of a far off city to sell his wares. Here he is seduced by the ghost of woman seeking to find the love that she never experienced when alive.

Japanese Buddhism plays a central role in ‘Ugetsu’ with the idea that reality is illusionary and that ambition is a delusion liable to lead us astray and indeed the central characters Genjuro and Tobei abandon home and heart in search of dreams and fortune only to find that the thing they were seeking was already right there in front of their eyes. Life is a learning experience and sometimes that learning is harsh. Sometimes we have to make mistakes in order to become wiser and to be satisfied with what we have. This is the only cure to the seductive concept of ‘if only I had a little more I will be happier’.

Mizoguchi’s camera spends most the film in deep focus drinking in time and place, giving us a clear view of the situation of life in 16th century Japan. It explains village life and the lot of the working peasant while telling us about the immorality of war and the wisdom of a woman’s love.

As it shifts between the seen and unseen it is helped along by a somewhat disturbing score, a surreal juxtaposition of sounds that mixes the music of traditional Japanese Noh theatre (the theatre of the common people) with Western rhythms giving us a template for every supernaturally themed film to follow. This is the music of the spirit-world- the lament of the dead and a warning signature for the living to be very careful about walking through doors of unknown purpose.

‘Ugetsu’ features on many ‘Greatest Film Lists’ composed by critics and filmmakers alike. It is a flawless composition and is a must see for any student of the cinematic arts. Also worth casting an eye over are ‘The Crucified Lovers’ and ‘Sansho The Bailiff’ two other late period Mizoguchi masterworks that like ‘Ugetsu’ explore the human condition with visceral honesty and profound wisdom.

Film Review: Kingdom of Dreams and Madness: A Portrait of Hayao Miyazaki (2013). 5/5 Stars

April 17, 2016
Afterword: Hayao Miyazaki. I am pretty sure that when they talk about the greatest film directors of all time a hundred years from now he will be on that list. Some are saying that cinema is dead. They are misguided.
1. They are not looking hard enough.
2. They are looking in the wrong places.
If Disney were a social progressive with a social democratic outlook his movies might have been half as good as Miyazaki’s. Disney was a pioneer and innovator but Miyazaki is the better story-teller. And what stories they are. Vast and multi-layered, Ghibli’s productions are visionary stories that explore the virtues of imagination, compassion, intellectual enquiry and inclusiveness. They also offer commentary on life’s complexities and mysteries and not the preachy kind, rather the broad perspective kind.
If some kid should ask me “What should I believe?” I would say, “Watch Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Grave Of The Fireflies, Porko Rosso, Laputa – Castle In The Sky… The point is this kid, you can learn a lot about virtue and being a good human being from these films. So put away that Bible/Koran and do Ghibli instead. We will all benefit.”

 

 

 

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In 2002 or maybe 2003 I was leafing through programme for the Hamilton international Film Festival and was taken by the blurb for a film called Spirited Away. Billed as an animation adventure for both adults and children, it looked like it might be fun.

I loaded my 11 year old step-son into the car and of we went. What followed was one of those rare film events that plays like a mystical voyage of discovery and as the final credits rolled I sat there somewhat lost for words. I looked at Winston and he looked at me. What could we possibly say to each other that could summarise the beauty and joy of what we had just experienced?

After that I became a rabid fan of all things Ghibli the studio founded and helmed by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and among the many films that became family favourites over the next few years was Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988). This story of a brother and sister trying to survive the last days of World War Two educated our four-year-old girl about life and its relationship to death. I have wonderful memories of Charlotte imitating the doomed Setsuko, the young girl at the centre of the story. I even found the same brand of boiled sweets Setsuko enjoyed and made sure Charlotte always had some at hand.

While some parents might balk at a four year old exploring such themes we let her to it and a few months later when her grandfather died I sat her down to explain and her response was reassuring. “I know all about these things.” Later she approached the death of numerous beloved cats with the same stoic pragmatism reinforcing my own beliefs that children are better off knowing the ways of the world rather than being sheltered from the stark realities. These were not simplistic animations; they were profound and multi-layered stories that addressed difficult subjects while attempting to offer some commentary on the inexplicable mysteries. The insights, I was learning, were invaluable.

Then there is the nature imagery. The flowing grasses, the prescient blue skies, the mystical woodlands. Somehow Miyazaki seemed to share a similar inner-world view to myself perhaps proving Jung’s idea about shared symbolic archetypes. If I were to try and explain the landscape of my unconscious mind, what better medium than Nausicaa Valley of the Wind or Laputa Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke and yes, Spirited Away.  Ghibli was turning out to be both an entertaining and spiritual experience, for me at least.

We hear about the man from his long time producer Suzuki and we learn about the even more complex (and mysterious) Takahata from Miyazaki himself. The camera stares down the studio’s resident cat (cats feature heavily in the Ghibli universe), visits Miyazaki at home and takes us out onto the roof of the Studio and shows us the skyline that is so much a feature of the films. Miyazaki explains his routine one that includes a half-day of river cleaning every week and if you have seen Spirited Away you will know his feelings about the state of Japans waterways.

I cried through the final credits of The Wind Rises, as did Miyazaki. A fitting film to end an unique career it is perhaps Miyazaki’s greatest personal achievement touching as it does on his memories of the war with America, his fathers role in the Japanese war machine and the state of public indifference that allowed the imperial Japanese forces to act as they did. Otherwise all the typical Miyazaki preoccupations are there: female emancipation, flight, the environment, dreams and the human heart in all its manyfold colours.

As for Jiro, the man who designed Japans deadliest war machine (the Zero fighter) and the central figure of The Wind Rises– Miyazaki reminds us that dreamers always hope the best for their creations but humanity has a bad habit of distorting those dreams, twisting them, breaking them. On that note, mid-way through production the government steps in. Concerned about Miyazaki’s subject matter they offer him a list of instructions on what he can and can’t say, the Second World War still being the touchy subject it is in Japan. Miyazaki shrugs his shoulders, mutters and carries on regardless.

The closing shot of Kingdom of Dreams and Madness sees Miyazaki-San walking toward the camera, cigarette burning and eyes ever turned toward dreams. More than just a tribute to one of cinemas great creative artists, Kingdom of Dreams and Madness transcends the dutiful portrait. As deftly crafted as any Ghibli animation, all the appropriate notes are played and the result is mesmerising.

Afterword: Hayao Miyazaki. I am pretty sure that when they talk about the greatest film directors of all time a hundred years from now he will be on that list. Some are saying that cinema is dead. They are misguided.
1. They are not looking hard enough.
2. They are looking in the wrong places.
If Disney were a social progressive with a social democratic outlook his movies might have been half as good as Miyazaki’s. Disney was a pioneer and innovator but Miyazaki is the better story-teller. And what stories they are. Vast and multi-layered, Ghibli’s productions are visionary stories that explore the virtues of imagination, compassion, intellectual enquiry and inclusiveness. They also offer commentary on life’s complexities and mysteries and not the preachy kind, rather the broad perspective kind.
If some kid should ask me “What should I believe?” I would say, “Watch Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Grave Of The Fireflies, Porko Rosso, Laputa – Castle In The Sky… The point is this kid, you can learn a lot about virtue and being a good human being from these films. So put away that Bible/Koran and do Ghibli instead. We will all benefit.”

 

Auckland and Hamilton: A Personal Tale of Two Cities.

April 16, 2016

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Hamilton, The City of Floating Balloons.

The Southern Pacific Ocean as defined by the Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific is an exotic and mysterious paradise that warmed by a benign sun, caressed by a gentle breeze and exists a perpetual state of dreamlike serenity. It is an region that includes Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, The Cook Islands and the North of the North Island of NZ, that gently scented air petering out at Auckland.

Auckland, New Zealand’s most populous city, has a particular feel to it, one that sets it apart from every other city in the country. It is an especially Polynesian vibe courtesy of that breeze, and while it has lost much of the regions heat by the time it touches the city, it is still redolent with the scent of the tropics.

There has always been something of South Pacific the musical about Auckland for me: the volcanic peaks, the tone of the light, the salt air casting off the Waitemata Harbour and whenever I chanced to hear ‘Bali-Hai’ my thoughts turned to that city, a comparison that makes little sense but that is the associative power of the imagination for you.

The farm I grew up on in the central Waikato some two hours south of Auckland was formed from an English mould, all bucolic pastureland interspersed with oak and walnut trees the native flora long banished to fire and the first thing that struck me on those rare Auckland visits was the plant life. Most notable was the majestic Pohutukawa, a rare form of tree in the heavily Anglicised Waikato, and a host of other semi-tropical forms whose names I could not describe but whose features told my untrained eyes a different sort of natural history story to the one I was most used to.

Perhaps the most telling difference between home and Auckland was the grass. Kikuyu is a harsh and brittle grass introduced from Zimbabwe in the 1920s and suited to the hard clay soils of the Auckland region. An unkindly juxtaposition against the soft lush ryes and clovers of the Waikato, it was the one thing about Auckland I didn’t like. Whenever we went to Auckland to visit relatives I would stare out the car window at this grass and wonder at the wisdom of it.

Kikuyu is an ungainly predator that will overwhelm anything in its presence creeping out over edging and up trees. Its trail is unsightly, its texture hard on the feet and its scent ungracious which is perhaps a fertile metaphor for the city itself at least in the eyes of a nation that views the regions hunger for tax resources with a degree of uncultured cynicism, otherwise I was always quietly excited by the city and its incessant bustle. Aucklander’s were different too, unlike like the stoic Irish descendants of the central Waikato, these people seemed worldly and sophisticated.

When I got a bit older my parents took me aside and offered me two choices. I could spend my teenage years at the local High School or go to a Catholic Boarding School in Auckland. I choose the latter because I knew it was what my Catholic father wanted and because I was drawn to the city. I hated the school, a and unkempt institution slovenly bound to bad food and bizarre beliefs, but loved its proximity to Queen Street and K-Rd names I had long regarded with a kind of mystic awe, all bright lights and crowded streets with an energy that made Hamilton feel even more small town and provincial than it was. The thing about the Waikato then was its utilitarianism. It was conservative and suspicious of art and culture, a proclivity it still ferociously clings too despite the concerted efforts of a growing minority to break those chains.

Auckland on the other hand had museums, galleries and public art. It also had shopping. The offerings in the record stores and bookstores went far beyond the middle of the road staples of their Hamilton counterparts, here was a cornucopia of the unimagined and mysterious, a gateway to new horizons in word and sound. Any chance I got and many chances simply taken saw me on the bus into town and wandering from store to store. I had no money but the mere sight of otherworldly album covers and strangely titled books was enough to fulfil a particular longing.

The weekends were the most special. Here I got to hang with my mother’s younger brother the family’s glib and gifted black sheep he was man on the make with a massive stereo system and delirious record collection. He was bad boy with a sharp intellect and over the years that marked my school tenure we cruised the neon lit city suburbs through the early hours in his panel van as he chased down work and money while chowing down on Wimpy Burgers and Radio Hauraki. If only I knew how to describe my double life to my schoolmates then perhaps I would have been regarded with less disdain than I was.

Auckland was a dream, Hamilton was reality and while I eventually returned to reality the dream has kept calling and every now and again I would succumb, pack up my things and settle in until my restless moods undid me and I retreated back to the Waikato. When I was a teen, the bus trip took upwards of four hours. During the four years of my schooling from the bus window I watched the motorway being built and eventually that journey dropped to three and now with a sharply shaven expressway joining the cities, it’s a snip at just under two hours.

The two cities are anomalous in this under populated land being as close together as they are and this proximity joins them in filial manner that neither are comfortable with. Auckland is the older wiser sibling, self-assured and secure of its place in the greater scheme of things. Hamilton on the other hand is a little confused, uncertain and wants to be cool like its older cousin but doesn’t quite know how.

Auckland is a deal maker, a glib media savvy salesperson on the make. Hamilton is a city of industry, a hard grafting manufacturing plant that spits out commodities, research and finely tooled engineering. Both have world class universities, mega-malls and destination concert venues though it must be said that Auckland’s much vaunted Vector Arena looks decidedly shabby against Hamilton’s Claudelands Arena.

As for Rugby, the nations favourite sport, both cities have professional teams and much to Auckland’s chagrin, they are seldom able to beat their local rival despite a much larger population resource. As NZ punches above its weight internationally, Hamilton often out punches its older cousin in any number of ways. This has to grate but Auckland is big enough to pretend otherwise. As for personality, Aucklanders are sharper and more straight up, unafraid to a say yes or no, a quality unusual in a land that uses polite courtesy to hide its shyness. Hamiltonian’s share this latter proclivity and often unsure how to proceed will string you along out of fear of making you uncomfortable.

Auckland is four distinct flavours. The crowded, affluent and professional inner suburbs, the feral West (bigger Hamilton as it has been described to me), the Polynesian South and the North Shore. This latter group aren’t Aucklanders per se, they are a slightly different breed informed by the migratory origin of their population and a dearth of white sand beaches. Here you’ll find enclaves of South Africans, Chinese and English ex-pats plus a kind of Kiwi who is decidedly distinct from the folk on the other side of the harbour, more akin to the traditional sort you find further down country. They are here seeking opportunities not available in the provinces and are more relaxed than their kin on the exact other side of the bridge.

As Auckland is divided by its harbour, Hamilton is divided by a river, the countries longest. The University of Waikato dominates the Eastern bank of the river and between enclaves of students and minimum wage earners are the streets of upwardly mobile University lecturers and administrators. These leafy suburbs wind their way out to the cities southern edge where they give way to the districts of Tamahere and Matangi, former dairy farmland that is now the province of the uber wealthy, all Mc Mansions and European SUVs.

Except for the plush estates around Hamilton’s centrally located peat dome lake, the West side is middle income territory giving way to Bogan Dinsdale on the cities western edge, the gateway to the black sand beaches of Raglan, and Nawton the cities version of Mangere/Otara, ethnically divers and low income. As for Ponsonby/Remuera, you’ll find that 10 minutes south directly down the recently completed $200 million expressway. Its called Cambridge and it does the job beautifully.

These days the differences between the cities is les striking. Hamilton has more people, more options and the Internet has democratised the shopping process. Auckland is bigger than ever and with more people than the entire South Island it is more akin to an international city than just a big one on a far off island at the bottom of the world. Perhaps the biggest differences are the people and the weather.

Hamilton still tends toward the provincial and feral while Auckland, is a  seething multi-cultural mix that it is more or less urbane. At its best Hamilton is down to earth honest, at its worst Auckland is a victim of its own importance and confidence. Hamiltonian’ tend toward pragmatic and suspicious conservatism, Aucklanders throw caution to the wind knowing that the central government will pick up the tab when they get it wrong.

As for the weather, despite their geographical proximity they have little in common. I remember my first day at boarding school and the humidity that dripped off everything making the tiled hallways a health and safety nightmare. Hamilton’s inland humidity has nowhere to go but sit around all summer long chocking the life out of you. Auckland’s is less clingy informed as it is by the ever present cooling breeze wafting off the harbour.

Auckland doesn’t get the great rolling Waikato fogs but I do, missing the deep insulating moisture that rises out of the river and swamplands. This thing is mysterious and satisfyingly claustrophobic sheltering the soul as it does from reality, turning light into warmth and confusing day and night. Being something of a night owl, this is a quality I appreciate.

Auckland gets cold for a minute or two in depth of winter but never bone cold like the Waikato where the frosts set in for weeks crystallising the landscape and torturing the unwary and lightly dressed. The morning frost is the promise of razor sharp blue skies and clear yellow sunlight much as Auckland gets most days regardless of the time of year.

That’s one thing I will never miss about Hamilton, those leaden skies, a dark grey omnipresence that leaks into ones soul without fear nor respite. They hang about for weeks until a storm might whip up over the Tasman sea to the far west and sweep it all away. It’s all very wild and woolly and standard for the land beyond the Bombay Hills a district named for a ship named after the Indian city that bought settlers specifically designated to this area of rich volcanic soils that were destined to grow cauliflower, potatoes and onions for the growing city up the road.

Auckland ends at the Bombay hills from whose peak you can see the entirety of the Northern Waikato. This is the end of Polynesia and from here on the atmosphere is a very different quality. This is the atypical New Zealand of wind swept skies and endless rolling hills, bush, farm and every 30km or so a small town or village. Otherwise it is empty, austere, stark and rugged.

Here the air is shaped by the breath of the winds sweeping up from Antarctica and across the surface of the brooding and Tasman sea, the gateway to Australia. Gisborne, Tauranga and Napier have hints of Polynesia about them but the ominous landscape that rises up behind them tells a different story and as for the South Island, windy Wellington on the North Islands furthermost point is the first hint that things are about to get crazier.

Fault-lines, raging sub-Antarctic weather, dripping forests, granite grey landscape and snow. This is an entirely different place with different attitudes. Auckland and Hamilton can be marked by their business orientated conservatism, The South Island favours socialist collectivism. Here the comforting warmth of the north of the north gives way to a more stoic realism fuelled less by sushi and more by mutton fat.

So here I am again for the umpteenth time living in Auckland, a city where much of my extended family has gravitated to over the decades, and a place I am uncertain of calling home. I always think fondly of Hamilton until I remember its self-satisfied and well-healed ruling class who lavish the city with gifts while paying homage to libertarian political philosophies, the kind that hint at an innate selfishness of the type that sets in once wealth has confirmed a certain intellectual superiority.

As for the cities influential conspiracy lobby, a loud and boorish collective of the ignorant and misinformed convinced that fluoridisation is eroding their liberty and giving them cancer, these folk determinedly soak up public time with their endless demands for attention. They stand in stark contrast to the cities small and determined arts set, those with dedicated cultural aspirations who live in the shadow of sport, the one constant that gives the city meaning. If winning an olympic gold medal is your dream, then you ought to move to Hamilton tomorrow, the region produces olympic champions the way it produces milk. It is also a dab hand at making hit songs though this hardly matters in the broader context of…….. sport.

Hamilton is still a callow teenager with an underdeveloped cerebral cortex, the biggest cow-town in a land of cow-towns, the brightest light in a dimly lit hinterland. Auckland’s a little more grown up, not much more, but enough to allow the eccentric, subversive and go getter anonymity and space to breathe. In Auckland a man can walk around in a dress and no one blinks an eye. In Hamilton a bald man out on a Saturday night will suffer an endless stream of abuse from half-cut kids pointing out your deficiency as they cruise up and down the main street, bored drunk and clueless.

From a high point (of which there are few) you can look out across Hamilton and wonder where it is hidden as it is beneath a towering canopy of deciduous trees the gift of long dead British settlers determined to reinvent this region as little England. From a high point in Auckland (of which there are many) you can look and see the Sky Tower, a space age ode to gambling culture and a statement that says none to subtly, I am big and I am here.

Both cities are more alike than either would admit, dedicated as they are to the cause of money. They are also both remarkably peaceful, safe and benign though Hamilton, marked as one of the countries most geographically and climatically stable areas, holds down all the communications infrastructure of national importance. Auckland on the other hand sits on top of fault lines and a restless volcanic field. Built around 48 extinct volcanoes, it is expected to blow up at any minute. When this happens I can always go back to Hamilton the city that once infamously called itself the place ‘Where it Happens’ an irony that escaped no one.

 

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 Auckland, The  Sky Tower City.

Film Review: Eastern Boys (2013). 5/5 Stars.

April 14, 2016

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A group of close knit boys, all social castoffs living on the edge of society in Paris, survive collectively through a scam centred on gay men. Marginalised by their desire these men are ripe for the picking, unfortunates who have little recourse in a society that is unsympathetic to their sexuality. Daniel’s desire unwittingly draws him into the scam, a terrifying narrative sequence that examines a kind of emotional rape easily directed at sexual minorities in a hostile environment.

In the aftermath Daniel has every right to be bitter and frightened but when one of the boys come calling again he opens his door on more potential humiliation and invites him in setting off a series of events that reveal Daniel to be a man of profound character and deep abiding humanity.

Ostensibly a thriller ‘Eastern Boys’ opens the door on the complexities of the heart and asks us to reconsider the gay stereotypes that inform so much fictional narrative. Intense, thrilling and a beautifully realised meditation on love and emotional responsibility, ‘Eastern Boys’ is a slow cooked film lovingly prepared from quality ingredients blending complex flavours into a sumptuous cinematic feast.

 

Film review: They Came Back (2004). 3/5 Stars.

April 14, 2016

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My paternal grandfather and I were very close and when he died I was devastated. One night I dreamt that he had come back. He was standing in his garden under the big oak. I was relieved and I ran to him my heart singing with joy but as soon as I was close enough to see him clearly I realised he was not the same. His eyes were empty, his posture unfamiliar and the more he looked at me the more unsettled I became. I awoke hope dashed and the grief rose up again like a fresh tsunami.

Though it has been years since he died I still sometimes dream that he is back and that everything is how it was and I still wake to the shock of grief, not as intense as it was but still prescient. This is the circumstance of French Film ‘They Came Back’, an allegory about death.

70 million recently dead arise and return to the world. The how and why are never revealed but as the authorities come to terms with the situation they realize that the risen dead are somehow deficient in the way my deceased Grandfather was deficient in my dreams. They are shadows going through the motions, living memories without the emotive spark that fuels the fire of living.

This is no Zombie flick as it is so blithely labelled, this is an intense examination of the machinery of grief as experienced through the eyes of three family’s coming to terms with the return of the loved ones. Hope, fear, confusion are among the emotions explored in this strange and unsettling little film that asks the very questions I have asked myself every time I have lost someone close. An honest and oddly imagined film, ‘They Came Back’ describes the relationship between life and death, explores the process of ‘letting go’ and offers some advice on how to manage the grieving process.

Richard Dawkins: The Unbeliever.

April 12, 2016

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A while back I realised that I did not know as much as I thought about Darwin and his paradigm shifting ‘Origin of Species’ and in my quest to sharpen my understanding of Darwin’s legacy I watched a TV series exploring the man and his work hosted by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (‘The Genius of Charles Darwin, 2008), a person whose name I had seen bandied about but knew little of outside his ‘banner waving’ atheism and association with evolutionary science.

The series was a little underwhelming and I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know but I learned an awful lot about Dawkins, a man of absolute conviction with a fondness for polemic. While I did not disagree with his anti-religious sentiment I found his own world view a little blinkered, especially on the subject of scientific reason. Perhaps I am being too harsh because the man feels passionately but seems to struggle to express himself as fully as he might. However, I was interested enough to give another series called ‘The God Delusion’ (2006) a spin.

A visual account of his best selling book of the same name, here Dawkins lets rip at those extreme sort of religious believers who dismiss science in favour of bronze age fairytales (his words not mine), quite rightly pointing that humanities old stories about ourselves no longer fit in light of new knowledge about how the world came to be. He goes on to suggest that these people are evil potential: wilfully ignorant and happy to use fear and violence to protect their belief system/world view, a perspective I agree with fully.

The 2013 Netflix documentary film ‘The Unbelievers’ examines the Dawkins phenomenon as stadium filling atheist rock star. Dawkins is on the road with friend and colleague physicist Lawrence Katz. Both men are frustrated with the religious world view and are on a crusade to change hearts and minds. Listening to them speak to adoring audiences about the beauty of evidence based reason while making dismissive comments behind the scenes about those who see things differently was, for me at least, a little uncomfortable, not because I disagreed with much of what they were saying I simply did not agree with their absolutist conclusion that reason precludes the idea of a creative intelligence at work in the machinery of existence.

Okay, cards on the table time, I am not a god believer (in the human centric sense of the term at least) but neither and I a strident atheist- the question is too big and the unknowns to numerous for me to be able make a comfortable assessment and to say ‘this is absolutely how it is’ especially in light of the work of physicists like Katz who are attempting to flush out the mysteries that underlie the universe: What is the Universe and where does it come from? These questions are the new holy-grail in our quest for understanding and they are questions whose answers have the potential to answer nothing, rather to simply open more doors to broader horizons.

The ‘absolute truth’ is concept is best left alone for today’s certainties have a tricky habit of turning into tomorrow’s quant philosophies. Science is an ever evolving/broadening/shifting canvas of inquiry forever opening up new frontiers. Yes, we should embrace the pursuit of rational knowledge and yes we should be frightened of those who perpetuate ignorance as lifestyle choice. Yes we should be open minded but being open minded does not preclude thought experiments which may not be acceptable to believers, and here I am talking religious and the non-religious alike.

Atheistic absolutism is as dangerous an ideology as any, here I cite Nazism and Communism, and our challenge in building a more just, inclusive and informed human world is lifting our eyes above and beyond the strictures of the black and white perspective favoured by Dawkins and those he opposes so rigorously.

The cult of Dawkins is not a dangerous one, just a blinkered one that is somewhat suspicious of imaginative enquiry. It is imagination that allows us to navigate the unknown, formulate ideas then use scientific reason to study these ideas. Ideas can be seductive and a healthy dose of cynicism can do us all a world of good; our responsibility as thoughtful thinkers is to be careful about our ideas becoming impenetrable ivory towers. After several hours with Dawkins I came away understanding that to some degree we are all believers and that believing in something is part of the human condition. Dawkins is a believer, he just doesn’t see it.

Film Review: I am Steve McQueen. 4/5 Stars.

April 9, 2016

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I was 13 years old the first I saw Steve McQueen in action. The film was the Peckinpah directed ‘Junior Bonner’ (1972) and at some point McQueen’s rodeo cowboy Bonner parks up at a roadside café in the Arizona desert and takes a booth seat, lights up a cigarette and orders black coffee and I am watching and thinking “That is exactly the kind of man I want to be, a cigarette smoking black coffee drinking loner.” He was cool, and I knew this without properly understanding what cool was. Whatever it was, he was compelling and I was responding as many other men had before me and since: “I want to be Steve McQueen.”

I have seen pretty much every film McQueen made and besides ‘Junior Bonner’ the other standout for me was ‘Papillion’ (1973), a gut wrenching film about freedom and injustice. McQueen inhabited the character of convicted murderer Henri Charrière and the agony of it deeply affected me. As I left the cinema horrified by the ugliness of the French penal system (as it was) I vowed to fight injustice for the rest of my life. Oh the power of a good movie!

 

 

‘I am Steve McQueen’ features archival interviews with the man himself plus a host of stars, ex-wives, descendants and people who knew him and worked with him offering insight into the mans character, stuff you already know this if you have ever watched any of his films. He was no method actor, he was Steve McQueen playing himself and what you saw was what he was: competitive, obsessive, dangerous and moody. He was his own man, a loner who lived life totally on his own terms and this documentary is a damned interesting visit with one of the great Hollywood movie stars of the 1960s-70s. Steve McQueen dead aged 50 from pleural mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos to which he was exposed while serving in the Navy as a young man.

 

Hamilton Drivers: You Suck.

April 8, 2016

 

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On a recent visit to Hamilton I was shopping with my wife at a central city supermarket and as we returned to her vehicle a man with three children in this car drove straight at us. It was a deliberate act that included a sudden rush of acceleration and a grim defiant stare. There was more than ample time for us to cross the lane had the car remained at the speed it was going but our emergence seemed to trigger a reaction in the driver of the kind I have encountered so many times before in this city.

I am not a car owner and spend a lot of time walking and my 4 years living in the Hamilton CBD taught me that pedestrians and cyclists are viewed negatively and it was not the first time a driver had accelerated and driven straight at me while crossing the road, it is exactly as I would expect of Hamilton.

This negative perception of Hamilton drivers was reinforced when I moved to the Auckland CBD some 16 months ago. The first thing I noticed was the vastly different attitude toward pedestrians. The Auckland CBD is organised with the pedestrian in mind and with many ‘pedestrian only zones’ and routine crossing lights which feature handy timers that tell you exactly how long you have to cross the road, all of which conspires to make it a an easy and safe place to traverse on foot.

The Hamilton rule is that once the little green man starts to flash red, it’s game on. The cars are start coming straight at you even though that flashing red figure is just an indicator informing the pedestrian that the lights are about to change and you have around 20 seconds to complete you crossing manoeuvre.

One day I slammed my hand on top of a car that came perilously close to hitting me. The driver, a Pakeha male of advancing years screamed back at me “the crossing light is red you f***ing a***hole.” In actually the crossing light had just started flashing red as I approached the centre of the road. Not only had he misunderstood how the crossing lights worked, he seemed to have no understanding of the first and most absolute rule regarding pedestrians; they have the right of way. This incident was not isolated, it was typical.

A friend once noted “Many Kiwis still drive like they are still on the farm” and perhaps this is key to understanding the fault at work with the psyche of the Hamilton driver who tends to drive like a rugged individualists beholden to no one but themselves. Aucklander’s more used to congestion and crowded roads seem to have had this habit somewhat breed out of them. Up here you could easily go balmy with frustration, the roads being as crowded as they are, and cultivating a more patient attitude is essential to peace of mind.

Historically Kiwis are not patient people, used to absolute freedom of movement in our underpopulated land and our general attitude seems to be that anything that hinders our journey is an affront to our ‘rights as citizens’, a response cyclists seem to engender in spades. I have listened numerous conversations where drivers (always Pakeha) describe cyclists as a ‘a bloody nuisance’ while laughing about the pleasure they glean from driving at them in a manner designed to frighten and intimidate.

The population of the Auckland CBD is around 40,000, mostly recent migrants and overseas guests from built up cities in Asia and India and they have much to teach us about the art of city driving. They will slow up when encountering you crossing the road and often stop and wave you on when they see you waiting to cross. They drive with more care and awareness, probably because they are used high-density cities and have grown up understanding that city driving is a co-operative endeavour rather than a battle for supremacy.

When exiting a car park building your average Asian or Indian driver will wave you on before they move across the footpath toward the road. Your standard Pakeha driver will just pull out scattering unwary walkers who then have to either wait for the car to pull out into traffic or negotiate a way around it in order to continue on their way. While Auckland Pakeha don’t speed up at the sight of you, neither are they bothered if you are halfway across a road, they will drive on as if you aren’t there. While Aucklander’s lack the aggression of Hamiltonian’s they are still lacking an elemental awareness of those beyond the inner sanctum of the car.

It has been often said that Kiwis are the nicest people in the world until they get behind the wheel of a car and not being a driver I have often the occasion to experience this first hand as an observing passenger. The standard Pakeha driver flings the vehicle about with scant regard for other drivers let alone pedestrians and cyclists whose presence elicits a squawk of frustration from the driver always desperately in a hurry to get nowhere fast.

My migrant friends, mostly Indian, have an entirely different attitude. They drive with a great deal more awareness of other people and their needs. For these driver’s courtesy and patience is an inbuilt virtue and if by some chance you time your road crossing badly, there is no blaring of horns and rude hand gestures, rather a smile of understanding that says “we all make mistakes.”

I don’t know for sure what is going on in Hamilton but there is something untoward in the driving culture, something unpleasant, aggressive and reactionary. Perhaps the problem is patience or to be precise, a lack of it. A virtue born of necessity, Hamiltonian’s have had scant need to cultivate patience on the cities fast flowing and uncrowded roads and the result is an unsophisticated and impatient driver who often makes the Hamilton visit a less than pleasant one.

Son of Saul (2015). 4/5 Stars.

April 6, 2016

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When enough people affirm the negative action of their peers the action becomes acceptable and once the German’s decided that the Jews were not fully human they had given themselves permission for wholesale murder. ‘Pigs’ is the background word for the lines of people awaiting slaughter, funnelled along in rows and undressing for the showers: ‘Hang your clothes on a peg and take note of your number so you can retrieve them after your shower. Be quick, your hot drink is getting cold’ and even as they enter the gas chamber comforted by a lie conscripted workers are sorting the clothes, removing valuables and paperwork, preparing for the next intake. Saul is one of these, a slaughterhouse worker surviving through disassociation.

Dead bodies are piled and moved to be incinerated while their death-expelled shit and piss is scrubbed away. Later their ash is shovelled into the river, the fast flowing water swiftly dispersing the evidence of this ghastly conspiracy. All is revealed via a frantic camera focused grimly on Saul who has discovered the body of his son among the ruined piles of the reeking dead. He decides that a Rabbi must be found to pray over the corpse and his ensuing search for a man of faith is a potent act of defiant affirmation in a world without reason, compassion nor conscience.

Holocaust films remind us of the tenuous nature of society, warning us in the most visceral way imaginable of the psychopath resting closely beneath the veneer of civilised society. ‘Son of Saul’ is both a description of this psychopath and an account of how darkness magnifies the potency of the light. This film is not light reading, this is a dense and visceral endurance test set apart by its inventive method. Compelling, ghastly and honest.