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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

‘The Oil Road’ lecture by James Marriott and Anna Galkina at Shoreditch House, 29th January 2013

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It's easy to overlook the omnipresence of oil.  We know the traffic rolling down the street is powered by it, but we often forget just how much the black goo seeps into every aspect of our lives.  We are all almost literally oil-powered. The price of the food we eat is governed in large part by the cost of the petrol used in the lorries transporting it, a large part of our economic and geopolitical power is derived from British oil companies.  Oil infrastructure is what our banks invest our paycheques in, it’s what funds the museums and art galleries that we all enjoy.  When you imagine yourself in relation to the oil economy, see yourself as a monstrous and insatiable tick, your mandibles locked into the earth's skin, greedily sucking her blood.

The two speakers tonight, James Marriott and Anna Galkina are experts in this field.  James has spent the last ten years studying the oil industry; travelling around the world to investigate and expose the impact that the oil industry has had upon both the communities it operates in and the wider political stage.  Anna has a similar set of interests, with a focus on Arctic oil exploration, speaking with indigenous people who will be enormously affected by the northern expansion of the oil industry.  Both James and Anna are work for Platform London, a research, art and education organisation that campaigns for various social causes, with their current focus being the problems of the global oil industry, and tonight, specifically, BP. 

James begins by explaining to us how oil reaches the streets of London.  He paints a vivid picture of a bus as being powered by a “rumbling war of controlled explosions”.  The bus refuels in a depot in Streatham Hill which in turn is supplied by the Coryton Refinery on the estuary of the River Thames.  This refinery gets its oil from Rotterdam, which is shipped by tanker from Ceyhan, Turkey, which is supplied by an oil pipeline stretching across the Caucasus region, ending in the Caspian Sea oil rigs off Azerbaijan.  So when we see exhaust fumes coming from the back of a Routemaster bus, what you’re looking at is the geology of Azerbaijan gently dissipating into the London atmosphere.

The 'Oil Road'
As you can imagine, getting this oil here requires a colossal amount of physical, economic and political infrastructure, and it’s the insidious effects of this that James and Anna talk about.  We’re shown a diagram explaining in relatively simple terms what BP needs to function.  This ranges from close political support from government, to economic support and investment from banks like RBS and Natwest and even to popular mood being in their favour, which is achieved through targeted PR and arts sponsorship.

This huge network is apparently run by just 30 people, all men, and while the entirety of its impact upon society may be impossible to quantify we can discuss specific examples.  One of the primary topics of the night was the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, a 1,099 mile long oil pipeline stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The pipeline carves its way through a number of existing separatist conflicts functioning as an extension of Western power into an area traditionally considered Russia’s backyard.

One specific example that James told us about was a woman whose house stood in the path of the pipeline.  One of the European Central Bank’s prerequisites of investment was the minimisation of relocation of residents and compensation for those that did have to be moved.  For the majority of its route it bypasses most existing residences but there is the occasional house that the pipeline can't go around.  In this case, rather than pay compensation to move the family, it was decided to tunnel underneath the house.  Now the family has to live with oil rushing at 2m per second under their property, vibrations running through the building, cracks growing along the walls.  

A burned out pirate skiff.
We learn about the counter-pirate tactics of Operation Atalanta.  When tankers venture into the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden they string razor wire over their decks and summon the protection of US ‘Reaper’ drones. These pirates have held the crews of tankers hostage, and ransomed thousands of tonnes of oil back to the oil company.  So we see oil companies lobbying for development (presumably at public expense) of next-generation warships to protect their assets.  Incidentally, this operation taking place on the other side of the world is controlled from a military base near Watford, just within the M25.  The next time you’re sitting on the Metropolitan line consider that the twitchy guy next to you may have spent his day remotely killing Somalians.

Anna and James outline how the seductive qualities of oil render even the most disagreeable political regimes palatable to politicians.  The government of Azerbaijan is rightly criticised for its human rights record.  Journalists speaking ill of the government are routinely harassed, imprisoned and have acts of violence committed against them.  Authorities are accused of arbitrary arrests, indefinite detentions, severe beatings, torture, threats of rape and sinister sounding ‘disappearances’.  Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan has high levels of corruption, with the astonishingly wealthy dictatorial President Aliyev being named the “Corrupt Person of the Year” by watchdog Transparency International.  The country is so in thrall to oil that a popular health treatment among wealthy citizens is to literally bathe in crude oil for its restorative qualities.

Bathing in crude in Baku
Azerbaijan is a repressive and corrupt country with such a poor human rights record, so why do we find it being feted by people like Mark Field, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, who was being paid by pro-Azerbaijan lobby groups to promote the political interests of the country?  Why do we see the US State Department describing President Aliyev not as a dictator but as “the leader of a country with an emerging democracy”?  Why did Prince Andrew throw a luncheon for the man in Buckingham Palace in 2009?  It’s doubtful they’d be cosying up to these people if Azerbaijan didn’t have massive oil reserves, so the inevitable conclusion is that they’re prepared to prostitute out their dignity in exchange for some of that sweet sweet oil.

It's fascinating how much effort BP puts into PR, making sure its considered friendly and green in the public eye.  From the achingly facile rebranding from a shield to a green and yellow blossom and the laughable claim made by Sir John Browne that BP now stands for "beyond petroleum" and that "we are not an oil company".  It's such an impressive display of gumption, one straight from the Karl Rove playbook of making hay from your weaknesses, that it's worthy of a grudging respect.  

On a more concrete level, we see the BP logo propping up some of Britain's most respected arts institutions.  From the British Museum to the Royal Shakespeare Society to the National Portrait Gallery to the Royal Opera House.  They've got their oily fingers in all of our cultural pies.  The inevitable defence to this is that they've got to get their funding from somewhere, money is money, right?  The argument last night was that in days of yore you'd find exhibitions like this sponsored by British American Tobacco, a prospect considered so obviously 'wrong' now that these organisations have rules in place to specifically prevent it.  My kneejerk reaction is to disapprove of oil getting into art, but if you consider BP's money dirty it raises the obvious question: what corporate money isn't?

Oil spilling from Deepwater Horizon
All this positive PR proved to be a fragile and costly illusion, even though it seems you can indeed buy public approval (or at least tolerance) all it takes is one largest oil spill in US history and suddenly you're the epitome of evil.  Watching oil spewing endlessly into clear blue waters, choking animals of all varieties to a miserable death proved instantly more compelling than a million glossy quasi-environmentalist adverts and made the claim that "we are not an oil company" risible. BP, with the help of their impossibly slimy and incompetent exec Tony Hayward slid all too easily into the role of the bad guy, an environmental villain straight out of 'Captain Planet'.

It's tempting to view the BP executives who go yachting in Cowes while the Gulf of Mexico fills with oil, and those who cosy up to the government of Azerbaijan as utterly lacking in morals: rapacious, capitalist oil-hungry monsters.  But then, we enjoy the fruits of their labour.  Every bite of food we eat is tainted with acrid specks of oil, almost every economic action we can take will support the oil industry in some way.  We're a nation of addicts, hooked on a rapidly vanishing substance that's slowly killing us.  We were told that BP nearly collapsed as a result of Deepwater Horizon, and I asked what the consequences would be if they had.  James explained that Britain’s status as a major player in geopolitics would diminish, and ominously said that life would drastically change in the UK.

Heaven or Hell?
So does this make those of us who both criticise BP and enjoy the fruits of Western life hypocrites?  Is the standard of life we enjoy sustainable only through propping up despotic regimes and utterly destroying the environment?  Depressingly the answer is probably yes, we’re all morally compromised.   But this doesn’t mean we can’t hold the actions of the big oil companies up to scrutiny, we know they care about public opinion and we can at least try to ameliorate their worst excesses. 

It was a fascinating talk that covered a hugely complex subject in a concise and interesting way.  It's also a painful reminder of the consequences of our actions and the ways in which we contribute to world misery in the West merely by existing.  Depressingly it's difficult to imagine a world without companies like BP, at least not without a hugely painful and devastating transformation in society, a transformation that would disproportionately impact upon those already in poverty.  

Am I being too negative about this? Is there a viable way maintain our existence without the 'Carbon Web', a way to operate our society without propping up oppressive countries and destroying the environment?  If there is, (and if I've got anything wrong in this article) please let me know in the comments.

Big thanks to both James Marriott and Anna Galkina for a fascinating talk, and for Don't Panic for arranging it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

‘Wreck-It Ralph’ (2012) directed by Rich Moore

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

When I get confronted with a really good idea in fiction I feel a little thrill at the possibilities and potential stories it creates.  I felt that liberation at the beginning of ‘Wreck-It Ralph’. Very quickly it establishes itself as a film that can become whatever it wants, a film that can drape itself in whatever aesthetic it chooses, a film that’s only limited by the imagination of its creators.

Wreck-It Ralph’ is the self-titled story of a video game bad guy.  He’s the villain in a Donkey Kong-like 1980s arcade machine called ‘Fix-It Felix Jr.  Ralph’s existence consists of smashing up an apartment building, then battling Felix, the game’s hero.  Felix inevitably wins, and Ralph is then unceremoniously thrown off the top of the building into a pool of mud.  He’s been thrown off that building day after day for decades, and with the game’s 30th anniversary just around the corner, he’s suffering a kind of existential ennui.  He isn’t an evil person, he’s just someone playing the role of a bad guy, and yet he’s ostracised by the community within the game.  After being snubbed one too many times, he snaps, setting out into the wider world to prove that he can be heroic rather than just villainous.

Ralph at his support group for bad guys.
This wider world is the games arcade that Ralph’s machine is in.  When the arcade is closed characters freely travel from one game to the others.  Brilliantly, the world has shades of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, with the population consisting of ‘real’ videogame characters. When Ralph attends a ‘bad guy’s’ self help group he hangs out with M. Bison and Zangief from ‘Street Fighter’, Dr Robotnik from ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and Bowser from ‘Super Mario Brothers’.  Seeing these characters fraternising with each other provides some of the funniest moments in the film and goes a long way to making Ralph feel like a ‘classic’ character with a familiar story.  Clearly these writers and designers know their stuff, in wider shots you see more obscure characters walking by and graffiti referencing some pretty obscure gaming trivia.  The relish with which these references are made underlines one important fact about the creators of this film: these people get it.  'Wreck-It Ralph' isn't a film made by people trying to appeal to gamers, it's a film made by them.

The original characters in the film fit in seamlessly with the classics, and all of them are brilliantly voiced and animated.  John Reilly's gruff voice accentuates Ralph’s working class tenacity, capturing perfectly the stoical nature of a man caught in a Sisyphus-like scenario.  The mirror of Ralph is the hero of his game, Felix, (Jack McBrayer).  Going in I assumed that he’d be the villain of the piece; what better way to accentuate the story of a bad guy trying to be good than a good guy going bad?  But, smartly, Felix is genuinely a nice guy.  He’s got a down to earth, innate Southern goodness to him, sweetly exclaiming ‘Oh my lands!’ whenever he’s surprised.   My favourite though was the hard as nails space marine captain Calhoun (Jane Lynch).  She’s been programmed to have the most tragic back story possible, and spits a constant stream of hilariously hard-boiled dialogue like “Doomsday and Armageddon just had a baby and it... is... ugly!”

Calhoun (Jane Lynch)
The final character I found slightly less fun.  That’s Vanellope, the bratty, cheeky girl outsider living on the outskirts of the ‘Sugar Rush’ world.  She’s voiced by Sarah Silverman, and while I feel like a grump for saying it, she annoyed the crap out of me.  Granted, this is a film for children, and she’s a good child identification character, but she's a never-ending pun machine and she drove me up the wall.

When we’re in the world of ‘Fix-It Felix Jr’ the animators brilliantly exploit capture the blocky retro-game aesthetic; everything feels like a videogame, from the cuboid bushes to the way cake splatters in pixels across the walls.  But ‘Fix It Felix Jr’ is from the 80s, and our characters travel from there into more modern games: ‘Hero’s Duty’, a space marine shooter and ‘Sugar Rush’, a sweets based kart racing game.  These two, particularly ‘Sugar Rush’, unfortunately feel pretty generic, environments that could have been transplanted from any 3D animated film.    Once we enter the world of ‘Sugar Rush’, we stay there and it’s at this precise point that ‘Wreck-It Ralph becomes less compelling.

Get used to this colour scheme, you're going to see a lot of it./
Nearly the whole of the ‘Sugar Rush’ sequence left a bad taste in my mouth.  We switch gears from making jokes referencing videogames to jokes referencing sweets.  So, our characters find themselves sinking into ‘Nesquiksand’, or pursued by angry Oreos.  It’s not so much that they’re especially bad jokes, more that they have an unpleasant whiff of product placement about them.  I feel like a bit of a hypocrite complaining about this, one of things I must I enjoyed in the film was seeing classic videogame characters in the background of scenes, characters which are as much corporate figures as a brand of sweets.  Even so, something about product placement for Nestle doesn't sit right with me.

What’s more frustrating is that the film abandons its own compelling internal logic.  Whereas the other ‘worlds’ are small and self-contained, constructed tightly around the rules of the game they’re depicting, ‘Sugar Rush’ is it’s own mini-civilisation, much of which bears little resemblance to the kart racing genre it’s supposedly parodying.  It feels like you've stepped into a blander film; everything being pastel pink gets visually cloying pretty fast.  I found myself wishing the film would live up to its premise and let us see some more environments, but sadly not.

It’s also here that the characters begin to come slightly unstuck.  There’s a bizarrely disturbing scene where Ralph physically tortures someone for information.  He picks up a talking gobstopper called Sour Bill, and licks him repeatedly until he tells him what he wants to know.  Sour Bill’s reaction is sheer terror, and it’s deeply unpleasant to see our lovable protagonist torturing someone without consequence. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ has been getting a lot of negative publicity for its torture scenes, but the torture seems slightly more sinister here.  It's a worrying example of acclimatising children to the concept of the ‘good guys’ using torture to get information and at the very least the scene is a depressing symptom of a society that has grown to accept it..

But, despite the setting taking a boring and generic turn, despite the insidious corporate advertising that permeates and despite some character mis-steps, ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ remains worthwhile viewing, almost purely because the central characters are so likeable.  We understand and sympathise with them, and Ralph is such a likeable, put-upon everyman that it’s impossible not to want him to succeed.  ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a good film, one of the best non-Pixar 3D animated films yet, but unfortunately one that doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its premise.


'Wreck-It Ralph' is on general release from February 8th

Saturday, January 26, 2013

'LUPA 15' behind James Campbell House, 25th January 2013

Saturday, January 26, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 3 Comments

Mirei Yazawa and Marius Hermansen.
It was with a heavy heart that I missed December's LUPA I'm acutely aware that there are a finite amount of these things, something underlined by last night.  It was freezingly cold, the kind of temperature that chills so much it hurts.  You'd think it'd be difficult to corral crowds to a nondescript garage in Bethnal Green on a night like this, but apparently word has spread far and wide about how fun LUPA is, and it was packed by numbers few other nights of this type can muster.  This creates a bit of a problem: if there's too many people there it's difficult for everyone to get a good view of what's going on.  The performances are usually so interesting that people huddle forwards to get the best picture, creating a bit of a crush.  If you want a decent view of what's going on, you either have to get lucky or fight your way to the front.  Perhaps LUPA is beginning to become a slight victim of its popularity.

But anyway, I'm not here to talk about crowd control, I'm here to talk about the performances.  First up was the team of Mirei Yazawa, Marius Hermansen, Oda Edjar Starheim and Øystein Monsen.  Their piece took the form of a kind of loosely narrative interpretive dance.  Yazawa, dressed entirely in white, kneeled on the floor and placed her head inside a large unfired clay urn.  One of the team (I'm not sure who) moved around her, massaging her outsize clay head until her features were gradually exposed.  When she was freed of her clay prison she rolled around on the ground for a bit as her partner smeared the remnants of the urn onto his head, eventually dancing with each other.  Throughout this, a frankly sick as all hell soundtrack was provided by Oda Edjar Starheim singing softly, remixed by Øystein Monsen with a Kaoss pad into a spooky but remarkably danceable song.

It was a quintessential LUPA performance, overtly strange, with no obvious meaning but ripe for interpretation.  The relationship between Yagawa and her partner seemed irresistibly like that between creation and creator.  The first thing that sprang to mind was the relationship between Dr Frankenstein and his monster: the dance developed a nicely antagonistic tone as it progressed.  But, thinking a bit more literally about things, this was the birthing of a woman from clay.  The creation of humanity from clay is something found in most of the world's major faiths, extinct and current.  Perhaps the most compelling example is the story of Pandora, so this could be viewed as an inverting of an inherently misogynist bit of mythology.  The flavour of these universal myths added a nice layer of gravitas to a very enjoyable performance.

Next up was a short comedic song by John Walter.  He came out dressed in a green onesie with bobbles stuck over the outside of it.  The song concerned someone called Hilary Devey, one of the Dragons on the TV show 'Dragon's Den'.  I'd never heard of her before, but I have seen a load of parodies of the show so I guess she's one of the rude rich people the contestants show their inventions to.  

John Walter
Something about this rubbed me the wrong way.  Not because I didn't know the person he was singing about, not because the song was overtly filthy, but because it felt a little too calculatedly weird and 'monkey cheese' random for my liking.  The difference between a piece that's effortlessly strange and one that wants to be strange is difficult to define.  But as they say, "I know it when I see it".  Dressing up in a weird costume and singing a song about how you'd like to cum on a reality TV star's tits reeks of being desperate to shock without actually having anything to say.  

Moving swiftly on, the next performance by Selina O started brilliantly.  We gathered around a group of singers in pastel hoodies, and Selina instructed us to all whisper the backing vocals to Soul II Soul's 1989 single 'Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)'.  Hearing the entire crowd whispering "back to life back to reality" over and over again created an eerie cultish atmosphere.  I was really getting into it a few minutes in and could have gone on all night.  Embarrassingly, I was enjoying myself whispering in unison so much that I wasn't paying attention to the actual performers, so I'm not entirely sure what happened.  

Selina O and her singers
I'd been expecting an a cappella rendition of the entire song, maybe with some neat vocal emulation of instruments.  Sadly this wasn't to be, what we got instead were some abstract vocal sounds made over our chanting.  Now, I know that you write about what you have seen and not what you wanted to see, but even so I was a little disappointed that this didn't seem to go anywhere, eventually fizzling out a bit when Selina O told us that the performance was over.  I had a great time whispering along to late 80s R&B though.  

After this, Nadia Berri blew up a big red balloon that eventually went "BANG".  Sometimes simplicity is best.  It started as about beach ball size within the LUPA garage, and grew bigger and bigger until it was bulging out of the front.  The tension in waiting for it to pop, or wondering if it was going to pop was ridiculous.  I didn't want to take my eye off it in case I missed the explosion.  At one point someone hid behind me, hoping I'd shield them from whatever catastrophe was surely about to occur.  When it actually did pop it was a little bit of  an anticlimax.  I'm not sure what this was supposed to mean (if anything), but sometimes the emotion and tension you feel watching something as simple as a balloon expanding beyond all reasonable boundaries is good enough on its own.  


The final performance was by Adam James and friends.  They trooped out a garage in rags with disturbing melted burn victim masks on, some of them with deformed fake hands and outsized monster feet.  As they lined up in a semi-circle, four beers were placed in front of them as well as shots of vodka.  A weird thundery cylinder was twirled, apparently being the signal for them to start frantically quaffing their drinks while stripping to their underwear.  I should repeat at this point that it was desperately freezing. I don't envy anyone who has to stand around in their knickers on night this cold.  Towards the end, the cylinder was twirled, apparently functioning as a signal to stop.  Then, a hairy man in the centre of the semi-circle drunkenly sang his way through an off-key rendition of 'Amazing Grace', sounding a little bit like the dying HAL in '2001: A Space Odyssey'.  

The rendition may have shaky, shivery and punctuated with the odd burp here and there but it was surprisingly moving, especially so when on the last verse everyone spontaneously joined in.  These are the kinds of moments that only LUPA seems to be able to provide; an unprompted demonstration of where our group sympathies lie.  Sometimes its easy to take this sort of thing for granted; like a frog in a slowly heating pot of water you become accustomed to the weird.  This performance was bizarre enough to let this mask slip for a moment, what on earth must this look like from the outside?  A hundred or so people singing a hymn while a bunch of drunken deformed freaks shiver amongst a pile of rags and discarded half drunk beers - pretty damn odd I'd imagine  Regardless I enjoy being on the inside looking out rather than on the outside looking in.

I was very glad when it ended, not because I didn't enjoy the hell out of it, but because I couldn't feel my extremities (usually a bad sign).  Plus, I felt really sorry for one of the performers who'd had to stand in her underwear for the entire song.  She was shivering and shaking like she'd been plugged into the mains.  A pretty damn great LUPA, although I'm pining for some warmer weather for the next one.

‘The Last Stand’ (2013) directed by Jee-woon Kim

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Watching Arnie stride across a cinema screen is surprisingly disconcerting.  It’s been 10 years since his last leading role and something has changed, not necessarily for the best.  ‘The Last Stand’ is Schwarzenegger’s ‘comeback’ movie, a chance for an audience to get reacquainted with him following his absence.  He’s got a lot on his plate at the moment, with sequels to ‘Conan’, ‘Terminator’ and ‘Twins’ as well as three original films on the way, all within the next three years.  ‘The Last Stand’ functions as the opening salvo in Schwarzenegger's battle to reclaim his place at the pinnacle of the action movie genre.  But it's going to be a long climb.

Schwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, the Sheriff of Sommerton Junction.  It's a sleepy Arizona border town where nothing ever happens.  Well, that is until cartel kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes federal custody in Las Vegas and begins barrelling towards the border at 200mph in a modified sports car.  Cortez has an army of gangsters on standby to clear the way and once he reaches the border he’s home free.  The only thing standing in his way is Sheriff Owens and his plucky gang of misfits.  Can they succeed where all else fails?

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Sheriff Ray Owens
The Last Stand', as you can probably guess, is not a particularly complicated film.  It's a pretty straightforward setup, one which allows for big gunfights, a few car chases, some witty dialogue and several big explosions.  Director Jee-woon Kim delivers all this competently, but there’s a strange perfunctory nature to proceedings.  Elements of the film reek of a quick production turnaround, a need to get ‘something’ out there as quickly as possible while Schwarzenegger is available.  Given the bland nature of the much of the dialogue, I'd guess that this was an off-the-shelf script produced primarily because it's easy to shoot, and aside from Schwarzenegger himself, relatively cheap.

Unfortunatley, the main problem with this film is its most expensive element: Schwarzenegger.  The man can’t act.  I’m well aware that most people consider him never having been able to act, but in the right role he can work wonders.  No-one plays an emotionless robot killer quite like Schwarzenegger and throughout the 80s and 90s he exuded the strange indefinable charisma that’s the mark of a ‘true’ star.  A large part of this was his sheer physicality; he effortlessly dominates the frame in his iconic films, possessing an magnetic confidence that made up for any acting shortcomings.    

Forest Whitaker as Agent John Bannister with Arnie.  Whitaker must be one tall dude.
This charisma and magnetism seem to have ever so slightly drained away from him.  The reality of political office and personal scandal have slightly taken the shine off the man.  He could once rely on his simple presence to carry him through a scene, but now he's diminished and his shortcomings have become much more noticeable.  You notice with faint surprise that delivering natural sounding dialogue is absolutely impossible for him.  Everything is delivered in the same slow familiar monotone, frankly he sounds like a Schwarzenegger impersonator.  There are rare moments where the Arnie we know and love surfaces for a moment but these glimpses only highlight what’s lacking elsewhere.

Schwarzenegger looks every bit of his 65 years of age.  The man who was memorably described by Clive James as looking like “a condom stuffed with walnuts” now looks more like a chewed up pencil eraser.  His skin looks leathery, his hair unnaturally dyed brown and his gait lumbering.  He looks like he’s having difficulty even moving naturally, not even being able to walk across a diner without looking awkward and clumsy.  This gives him an unexpected vulnerability, but unfortunately the film doesn’t exploit this.  A slightly more thoughtful film might examine the psychological impact of ageing on someone largely known for their physical fitness, but aside from a few one-liners this rich seam of drama is almost entirely overlooked. 

Arnie with Johnny Knoxville as Lewis Dinkum.  Despite being on all the posters, Knoxville really isn't in the film much at all.
Perhaps as a result of the physical restrictions on what Schwarzenegger can actually do, ‘The Last Stand’ has a serious gun fetish, one that feels slightly distasteful given the rash of recent shootings in the US.  Johnny Knoxville plays ‘Lewis Dinkum’, an unhinged gun collector with some questionably legal firearms.  The camera lingers lasciviously over these weapons, with suggestive shots of rounds sliding seductively into a sniper rifle, chattering tommy-guns and a character practically becoming orgasmic as they feed an ammo belt into an unavoidably phallic WW2 era machine gun). 

Many of these guns are practically characters in the film in their own right. One particularly outlandish hand cannon named Henrietta even has a rudimentary character arc! This anthropomorphising of machines extends to the principle villain, who for all intents and purposes might as well be a Transformers-style intelligent car.  Following this train of thought has some weirdly metafictional implications for Schwarzenegger.  If all around him machines are being treated as people, is the film saying that Schwarzenegger’s power here comes from his ‘machine’ quality? The film treats him as the one incorruptible man who will never, ever back down.  The problem is that if we’re supposed to be equating Schwarzenegger with a machine, he’s in obvious need of some oiling and a few replacement parts.

Luis Guzman firing a shotgun.  Ah the simple pleasures in life...
‘The Last Stand’ does have certain charms: a familiar self-aware humour and a fine supporting cast including greats like Peter Stormare, Forest Whitaker, Luis Guzman and Harry Dean Stanton.  None of these actors are stretched in the slightest by the feather-light script, but at the very least they provide a firm backbone to proceedings.  The main problem is that there is nothing here you haven’t seen before in a hundred other films.  It’s painfully generic, and the thrill of seeing Schwarzenegger back on the big screen is tarnished by his disappointing performance.  Avoid.

**/ *****

Friday, January 25, 2013

‘I Am' (2011) directed by Tom Shadyac

Friday, January 25, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 1 Comment

I try not to be too much of a cynic, I really do.  Snidely pointing out flaws in people’s arguments, especially when they seem to be a person of principle makes me feel innately unhappy.  I think it’s important not to prejudge people on their past.  So the director of ‘Ace Ventura’, ‘The Nutty Professor’ and ‘Patch Adams’ wants to tell me about what’s wrong with the world, and how to fix it.  Fine.  I’ll give him a fair shake.  Hell, I likeAce Ventura’ (granted, I haven’t seen it I was 12 but hey).   So I went along to watch ‘I Am’ in Leicester Square with as few preconceptions as I could muster.  The film wants to teach us lessons about the importance of kindness, of how we’re interconnected and the illusions that modern society weaves around us.   Important lessons all, but head and shoulders above these is another, clearer lesson: Tom Shadyac is a fucking idiot.

Some background.  A few years ago obscenely rich and successful director Tom Shadyac was cycling around California.  He fell off his bike, broke his hand and banged his head.  This developed into Post-Concussion Syndrome, leaving him with blinding headaches and subsequent depression.  No treatment could help him, and he faced the possibility of a lifetime of sheer misery.  Apparently many sufferers of this end up committing suicide, but thankfully his symptoms eventually receded, leaving behind a more thoughtful, contemplative Tom Shadyac; one hungry for knowledge.

Tom Shadyac
Realising that his material possessions weren’t bringing him happiness he sold his vast Beverley Hills mansion, donated some of his fortune to setting up a homeless shelter and moved into a mobile home in Malibu.  Admittedly it’s an enormous and luxurious looking mobile home, but still, it’s a downgrade.  I can’t fault the man for any of this, after all, it’s not like I’ve set up any homeless shelters recently.  So a positive change all round, the man whose life was dominated by the voracious pursuit of material goods has had some kind of awakening and decided to try and improve the world. 

Fuelled with the characteristic zeal of the new believer he then set out to try and engender this awakening in a wider audience.  To this effect he’s made ‘I Am’, a documentary that consists of him travelling around the world meeting intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, spiritual leaders like Desmond Tutu and new age quacks like Rollin McCraty.  Interspersed with this are vast amounts of stock footage, the occasional animated explanation of a concept and the odd bit of film of Tom himself.

Tom chats to Desmond Tutu
Let’s leave aside the validity of the philosophy and message behind ‘I Am’ for a moment and focus on its merits as a piece of cinema.  It is awful.  Stock footage is cut together in a crushingly literal way, so for example when he talks about loneliness we see a man walking through the desert, when he talks about water we see a shot of a drop of rain hitting a pond and so on.  It’s a numbing exercise in saying what you see, a cinematic tactic that, ironically in a film about raising consciousness, stops us from thinking for ourselves.   

The meat of the film are the interviews with various luminaries.  These are edited together in such a way that it’s generally impossible to tell what question they’re responding to, and suspiciously you hear the audio of their answers being clumsily chopped together.  Naturally none of the interviewees in the film had any idea what the other talking heads were saying, so inevitably things get confusingly juxtaposed, twisting some of the messages.  One of the reasons I was eager to see the film was that Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn were involved.  I figured that their involvement with this, signified a certain mark of quality.  No such luck.  Chomsky and Zinn’s involvement is minimised, they get perhaps 5 minutes of screen time.  Unfortunately, what’s concentrated on more is smug, moronic Californian new agers talking utter shite.

I Am’ begins spiralling down this inane rabbit-hole by questioning “the official story” of science.  Shadyac points out that the scientific consensus has been wrong in the past, so why can’t it be wrong now?  He follows this up with a half-baked analysis of Charles Darwin, then misunderstands the Selfish Gene theory.  The thrust of the ‘science’ that Shadyac presents us is to convince us that co-operation and kindness are the true nature of mankind, rather than (as we are apparently lead to believe) competition and conflict.  To support this notion, he travels to meet some incredibly dodgy looking characters at places like ‘The Institute of HeartMath’ and the ‘Institute of Noetic Sciences’.  These people set out to prove to us that we’re all connected through various pseudo-scientific ways and therefore we should all be kind and compassionate.

Here, we see Tom Shadyac and a petri dish of yoghurt that is detecting his emotions. 
I watched this portion of the film through gritted teeth.  We see Tom Shadyac talking to a petri dish of yoghurt that can detect his emotions.  We hear that the heart can predict events “3 to 5 seconds” in the future and that it might even be the true centre of human consciousness.  We hear about how the biggest disruption to the human emotional magnetosphere was September 11th, which had such an impact that random number generators worldwide stopped being random.  Inevitably ‘I Am’ brings quantum physics into the equation, predictably equating subatomic events to humanity on a macro scale.  

Even if this ‘science’ wasn’t a crock of shit it would still be irrelevant.  Why should anyone need scientific justification to act in a humane manner?  We are kind and compassionate not because it’s the logical thing to do, not because we’ve been convinced of benefits to ourselves, not because there is some ill-defined energy field connecting us all, but simply because any considerate empathetic human being finds the needless suffering of living creatures to be repulsive. 

I Am’ is especially frustrating because Shadyac has accurately worked out a good chunk of society’s problems.  He’s right when he decries the never-ending rush to accumulate possessions.  He’s right when he points out that a global economy is a man-made illusion.  He’s right when he shows the problems with raising and educating children in competition with each other.  But his crucial problem is that he either consciously or unconsciously fails to join the dots.  One word is never uttered throughout the film, the word that’s the root of practically all his problems with modern society, one word so obvious that it’s the elephant in the room: capitalism.

Tom in conversation with Oprah Winfrey
Whether through cowardice or stupidity, Shadyac avoids directly criticising capitalism for the entire film.  Considering the subject of the film is what’s wrong with the world, it’s an outrageous oversight.  I suppose the argument could be made that politics is inherently divisive, that if ‘I Am’ came right out and said that capitalism inevitably leads to misery and exploitation then he’d be branded as anti-American and lose much of his Oprah-friendly audience.  But this reeks of hypocrisy.  He’s trapped in a particular kind of fuzzy Californian liberalism, frantically trying to justify his continued greedy suckling on the teat of global capitalism.  His enlightenment is the most shallow kind of political awakening, a willingly shortsighted altruism that allows him to act like he’s a modern Diogenes for downgrading from Midas-like opulence to ‘mere’ luxury. 

Throughout ‘I Am’ we hear about the many ways in which we’re all interconnected with each other.  We hear how inert atoms of argon pass forever between living organisms, and how the beating of a butterfly’s wings cause hurricanes and that outpourings of human emotion can even affect the mood of the earth.  Shadyac rides waves of elation on discovering these universal connections, but ignores the dark side.  We are indeed all connected to each other, but primarily through inflicting human misery via the developed first world’s exploitation of third world labour.  You want to see a real picture of the connection you have to the teeming masses worldwide?  Take this test and find out how many slaves work for you to support yours and my cosseted Western lifestyles.  I’ve got 26 slaves working to support me.  How many do you have?

By ignoring the political implications of his conclusions, Shadyac has inadvertently created something monstrous; a philosophy that espouses guilt-free capitalist exploitation.  Ironically, in merely seeking to make us feel better about ourselves rather than pushing for genuine societal change, Shadyac ends up reinforcing the very chains he’s trying to break.  A personal philosophy that concentrates on disconnected, small acts of kindness in a vast sea of cruelty is the equivalent of spitting at a hurricane.   Ultimately, the impression ‘I Am’ gives is that Shadyac is either unable or unwilling to conceive of true change in the world, preferring to swaddle himself in a comforting blanket of pseudo-scientific bollocks than engage with the consequences of his continued pampered existence. 

After the film there was a Q&A with the director, author Ed Halliwell, writer/comedian Tony Hawks and Director of Communications for 'Giving What we Can' Stephanie Crampin.  Tony Hawks was the only person to come out of this unscathed, politely pointing out some of holes in Shadyac’s philosophy.  Halliwell was a complete non-entity, afraid to put even the most mildly controversial question to Shadyac, and Stephanie Crampin was largely ignored, apparently not even warranting a round of applause at the end even though she was easily the most qualified person there.  Shadyac on the other hand blathered on endlessly, to the extent where in over an hour’s Q&A there was only time for 3 questions. 

The first was a question about the potential of technology to bring humanity together.  Shadyac didn’t seem to understand the point of the question, launching into an extended and rambling response without much content.  The second question was less a question, and more an advert for someone’s prayer based poetry YouTube channel.  The third, and most important question was whether Tom Shadyac would return to making populist comedy films.  The answer, predictably, was ‘yes’, although Shadyac assures us that he’ll take the minimum salary allowed by the Director’s Guild of America.  Naturally, he could take his normal full wage and donate the difference to some kind of charity, but for some reason this option eludes him.  FYI, the minimum salary for a DGA director on a major film is $16,797 per week.  Truly, a pittance. 

After this some tweets are read, the most memorable being a comment that tonight is “Rich people telling poor people that money doesn’t matter”.  Shadyac defends this by essentially explaining that yes, people living in poverty may be starving to death, they may be riddled with preventable and treatable diseases, they may be harried and hunted by armed militias, they may have their homes and lifestyles destroyed by pollution, agribusiness or urban development, they may have horrifying levels of child mortality, they may be under constant threat of rape and murder but in a way - in a very real way - aren’t they the truly rich, and aren’t we the ones living in poverty?  Really makes ya think huh?

In conclusion:

Fuck ‘I Am’.

Fuck moronic new age bollocks.

And Tom Shadyac, fuck you in particular.  Piss off back to your sunny life of Californian luxury and do what you apparently do best, make films about people talking out of their arses.

No stars / *****

‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ (2012) directed by Roger Michell, 13th January 2013

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

‘The Woman that Wanked off the President’ would have been a better title.  ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ tells you almost nothing about what’s to come, namely a soft-focus, dreamily serious historical drama about the woman whose job it was to wank off President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray).

Set in 1939, the film revolves around the visit of King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) to Roosevelt’s private residence in upstate New York.  Europe is on the brink of war, and the two have made an unprecedented trip to visit Roosevelt in the hope of form a relationship between the United Kingdom and the USA as allies against the Axis powers.  This pivotal moment in world history is told from the perspective of the shy Daisy (Laura Linney), the Presidents fifth cousin, a member of his staff, and the person whose responsibility is administering handjobs to the Commander in Chief.

Bill Murray as FDR
The film is drenched in summery, pastoral imagery.  It’s languorously paced, with a soporific, dreamy voiceover from Linney throughout much of the film.  It’s almost a bit too obvious to compare it to ‘The King’s Speech’, but stylistically and historically it covers some very similar ground, albeit far less successfully.

The problems of the film all boil down to the wanking off scene.  You can just tell that director Roger Michell is painfully aware that this element sticks out like a sore thumb in his highbrow glossy drama, and he does his level best to camouflage it as best he can.  It takes place in a field full of gently swaying flowers, the sun illuminates it like something out of a postcard, the camera angles are tasteful and the performances from Murray and Linney can’t really be faulted.  But, for all that, this is an old bloke being given a hand job in a softly creaking car.  You can only class it up so much. 

Bill Murray is the one thing that prevents this film tipping completely over into creepy territory.  He’s a charismatic, loveable and randy FDR, Murray’s natural ease with people shines through in all his interactions.  He may the most powerful man in the world, but still knows how to have some fun.  He plays the role as charmingly as he can, and with Murray’s considerable talent this is pretty damn charming.

Laura Linney as Daisy. 
But even Bill Murray can’t prevent the film being feeling deeply strange.  We are expected to take it in our stride that a horny FDR is in the habit of randomly summoning his distant relatives to his private country home, essentially to audition them for the role of Presidential wanker-offer.  The script is at pains to repeatedly emphasise that Daisy is FDRs fifth cousin, but as far as I’m concerned as soon as you introduce the word cousin into the equation there’s a faint and unpleasant whiff of incest to proceedings.

What makes matters even worse is the creepy way in which it happens.  Daisy is bizarrely naïve for someone in their late 30s or early 40s.  She's weirdly virginal and doesn’t seem to have had any romantic experience, this innocence makes the scenes preceding the first wanking session really quite creepy.  FDR waves away his police escort, driving off into the woods, Daisy asking in confusion where they’re going.  When the reach a scenic spot, FDR stares into the middle distance smoking, and gently guides Daisy’s hand into his lap.  She looks shocked and confused, but then gets on with the task at hand.  She doesn’t really have much of a choice.  There has to be better ways of setting the scene, if you make Bill Murray (Bill Murray!) seem like a creepy sexual predator then you’re doing something wrong.

Receiving the Royal Family, George VI (Samuel West) and Olivia Colman (Olivia Colman)
This bizarre half of the plot takes absolutely forever to link thematically with the visit of the Royal Family, and then proceeds to do it in an incredibly confusing way.  These segments of the film really do feel like a bargain basement version of ‘The King’s Speech’.  The stiffness and over-mannered nature of the Royals is emphasised at every turn, with the effect that they seem like caricatures.  Samuel West fails to capture any of the vulnerability that Colin Firth brought to the role, and Olivia Colman, generally a brilliant actress, gets to spend the entire film looking terrified.  I know the film is trying to play up the differences between the aristocracies of the USA and UK but they seem so confused and lost that they might as well be the Martian Royal Family.

The two strands of the plot finally link up when our Royals are served hot dogs at a picnic, an event portrayed as the lynchpin of the entire visit.  FDR summons Daisy over to the table, and as the King shakily proffers his quivering, pink sausage, FDR tells an awkward Daisy to spread some mustard on it, which takes place in lascivious close up.  Are we to presume that this hot dog the King is about to suggestively eat is a symbolic of FDR’s dick?  All signs point to yes, but what the hell does this mean?!

The gang hangs out.
I am genuinely boggled.  Perhaps the handjobs are FDRs way of relaxing, and he wants the King to relax so he gives him a handjob substitute in the form of a delicious hotdog?  Maybe this is a symbol of Daisy wanking off George VI behind the scenes unseen by the audience?  Could the suggestive way in which the King eats the phallic sausage be a point on the unequal power balance between the UK and USA?  It’s frustrating, there’s something happening here, but I don’t know what it is!  Fortunately I don’t much care.

The cherry on top of this muddled and confusing cake is that the whole film is predicated on the US coming to the United Kingdom’s aid in World War II.  George VI desperately explains that he’s seen cities bombed during the Spanish Civil War, and is terrified of the same thing happening to Britain.  The film ends in triumph – a ‘special relationship’ has been forged between our two nations.  Everything is going to be fine from now on!  Except the film is set in 1939 and the USA didn’t enter the war in Europe until 1942.  In the meantime Britain's cities got practically bombed flat.  


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