Saturday, 28 August 2010

Films on a Plane

Long haul flights are horrible. There's no other way to put it - it's a long time to be cramped up next to someone with a hideous cold (13 hours to worry about catching something nasty). I can't afford business class, let alone first class, and it takes me all year to pay off the credit card for cattle class, but I live on the other side of the world from half of my family, so needs must...

One thing that makes the trip bearable is watching the films on offer - so this is what I watched on this trip:

Cemetery Junction
dir. Ricky Gervais/ Stephen Merchant

Summer in Reading 1973 (filmed by the looks of things in Bourne End and Maidenhead) is quite pretty, but pretty quiet. It is a world of casual racism, sexism and homophobia. Freddie (Christian Cooke), Bruce (Tom Hughes) and Snork (Jack Doolan) go out at nights boozing, shagging (or trying to) and fighting. The options are to continue with this life; to work (in a factory or selling life insurance) until you retire and die with a wife, family and mortgage en route; or to get out.

The music, politics (starving children in Africa – ‘the government can’t keep the lights on; they can’t keep the streets clean’), and fashion put it in its place – actually, those black polo-necks, high-waisted jeans with buckled belts, leather bomber jackets, wide-lapelled shirts and polished brogues look very classy.

When you have such a privileged background, there is nothing much to rebel against except boredom. Julie (Felicity Jones), the love interest, wants to be a photographer for National Geographic but ‘people from round here don’t do stuff life like that.’ What they do is smoke and sulk because their parents get divorced (which still seems to be a Big Deal) – too scared to break out no matter how much they talk about it. ‘As long as you stay here you’re a big fish in a small pond and you can blame everyone else for holding you back. But you’re no different from everyone else – you’re nothing special.’

There’s some good writing and some great dialogue, and, while he plays Freddie’s dad very well, it’s interesting to see others delivering the lines written by Ricky Gervais (and Stephen Merchant). Ralph Fiennes does straight comedy very well as Julie’s dad, and her mum, Emily Watson, is the new Imelda Staunton with a great line in desperate angst.

Some of the ‘comedy quips’ are similar to those of Ben Elton and Richard Curtis – this is mainly a predictable coming of age tale about leaving the home town, breaking away from the old generation and forging a new and individual lifestyle. The acting and the script elevate it above the run of the mill, but it’s essentially and old story well-told.

Iron Man 2
dir. Jon Favreau

Over-the-top fight scenes and action sequences featuring guns, cars, machines, weaponry and lots of explosions are ten-a-penny, but as we’re talking Robert Downey Jnr. there is still a smattering of humour (one-liners that would take pages to explain and sound lame in the translation) and flawed genius.

Iron-Man’s ego is out of control (‘The suit and I are one’; ‘I am Iron Man’; ‘I have successfully privatised World Peace’) and so is his health – that which is keeping him alive is also killing him and he needs to discover a new element to survive. He also encounters a Russian nemesis, Ivan Vanko (played by Mickey Rourke), with a similar suit but enhanced by electro-whips.

There are spies, baddies, double-crossing, a love interest (Gwyneth Paltrow is ill-served by the part; her character, Pepper Potts, was more entertaining in the first instalment) and textbook narcissism which leads to (or is the result of?) a strained father/son relationship. But really, it’s all about the toys – including a race car, car race at the Monaco Grand Prix.

Das Weisse Band – Eine Deutsche Kindergeschinchte (The White Ribbon)
dir. Michael Haneke

I’m not sure what possessed me to watch a black and white German film with subtitles on the plane, but I’m glad it did. This is gripping stuff – not exactly action-packed though – a drama of psychological suspense and supposedly innocent children. A small village has all the usual characters – the priest, baron, schoolteacher, doctor, farmers, midwife and respective partners and children.

The villagers’ lives revolve uneventfully around the seasons – planting; harvest; winter – feasting and dancing, and could be a farmyard idyll with rustic scenes of pitchforks and scythes, haymaking and the village pump. There are no tricky camera angles – everything is straightforward – and no music; just the sound of the birds in the trees and the chickens in the yard; there are long silences and pauses with the sound of heavy footfalls and rustling skirts. It’s like a painting (in one funeral scene no one moves or speaks for about a minute and the focus doesn’t change) – but one where the perspective is skewed.

When there are mysterious deaths, accidents, tortures and disappearances, someone in the village has to be responsible. It soon becomes apparent that the village is intensely claustrophobic harbouring secrets, affairs, abuse and violence. Farmers mistrust each other, there are mutual suspicions and denunciation, dislike, jealousy, and revenge for perceived wrongdoings and injustices. The stilted family relations have no warmth in their interactions and the surroundings are ‘dominated by malice, envy, apathy and brutality.’ When a farmer hangs himself no one says a word.

The environment and the group of impressionable and malicious children (‘He’s at a difficult age’; ‘They’re always at a difficult age’) are reminiscent of The Crucible. The black and white filming works excellently as it should be clear-cut but there are shades of grey, and the story (narrated in a voice-over flashback from the teacher, Christian Friedel) is oblique and uncertain and curiously, interestingly, unfinished.

This is the last year of peace and, after the Archduke of Sarajevo is assassinated, the teacher is drafted and never returns to the village. Although he has his suspicions about the perpetrators of the pernicious crimes, they are never definitely proven. Whereas the village gossips discuss local rumours and small-town politics, the war makes the details irrelevant.

The children have been punished for the sins of the parents down to the third and fourth generations – the length of time since the First World War. Is the director (Michael Haneke) suggesting that global politics mean we should all move on and stop trying to apportion blame for past wrongs? It’s deep and it’s fascinating – the powerful mix of religious piety and terrifying evil may not be thrilling but it’s certainly chilling.

Shrek Forever After
dir. Mike Mitchell

Bored with monotonous domesticity, Shrek just wants to be an ogre again. He makes a deal with the malicious and maniacal Rumplestiltskin (voiced by Walt Dohrn) to have a day as a scary character of old rather than the ‘jolly green joke’ he has become. He claims he just wants things back the way they were, when he could do whatever he wanted, although as Princess Fiona admonishes, ‘You have three beautiful children and a wife who loves you. You have everything; how come the only person who can’t see that is you?’

The snag is that he trades a day of his life for the privilege of ogreness and Rumplestiltskin takes the day he was born, so he never existed and finds himself in an alternative reality where Princess Fiona rescued herself, Shrek has never met Donkey (although Donkey is shocked that Shrek knows his name), and Puss in Boots is now a Fat Cat.

Of course, it all works out as you would expect, with a fine blend of myth, nursery rhyme, fairytale and popular film culture played out against an eclectic soundtrack. The moral of the story appears to be that true love lasts beyond the initial flush of romance, but we are warned, ‘It’s all just a big fairytale.’

Thursday, 26 August 2010

My Newest Favourite Thing: Pub Quizzes

For the last six weeks we have been going to the pub religiously (a curious adverb, but I'll leave that for another time) every Tuesday eveneing. There is nothing unusual in that of course - I enjoy a good pint of bitter or glass of chardonnay as much as the next lush - but we have been doing more than just imbibing; we have been pub-quizzing.

The dynamic of a pub quiz is fascinating; all the personalities come out to play. We run the gamut of stereotypes: competitive; timid; bullying; loud; hesitant; passive aggressive; anal (I confess that last one is me but then you knew that, didn't you?). And there is always the person who, when the answers are read out, says, "I was going to say that", to which I always think, "So, why didn't you?"

I like the quizzes that have rounds in different categories as everyone has a chance to shine in their specialist subject. We have an eclectic group who cover history, sport, science, literature, art, music, geaography and gardening. We struggle a little with 'popular ' culture if it's based on reality TV as all of us are over 35 and no longer in the demographic that enjoys watching anorexic teenagers be mean to each other while wrestling with the profundities of life such as how to boil an egg or share the hairdryer.

There's a certain amount of snobbery involved in these quizzes. The team that routinely wins is terrible at sport and proud of it, boasting of how little they know about it. This seems incredible to me. My father used to get incensed by people who jokingly dismissed their mathematical ignorance as though the arts were somehow more important (he probably still does, but I haven't lived with him for over 20 years, so don't hear about it as often). You know the type: "Oh, I was woeful at maths at school. It's so boring; I leave it to my accountant. Haw, haw!"

Sport-phobes are as bad. I enjoy watching football (as I may have mentioned), cricket, tennis, athletics, rowing, cycling, triathlon, skiing, and most sports that England play, among other activities. I don't particularly enjoy motor-racing, show-jumping or snooker, but I know a bit about them just from listening to the news and not being blinkered. A complete lack of interst in all sport is surely wilfull ignorance, just as it would be for someone to claim they hate all books or all films.

Besides, how do you know you don't like it unless you've tried it? If I've forced myself to read a Stieg Larsson novel, you can watch a football match - the latter takes a fraction of the time and is infinitely more exciting and less predictable. As Sir Thomas Beecham said, "Try everything once except folk dancing and incest." I think he was a little harsh on the folk dancing but otherwise his sentiments are admirable.

Anyway, these quizzes are usually for a good cause, whether it be the volunteer fire brigade, the local primary school or research into childhood leukemia. There are often raffles at which you can buy tickets for things you don't want, or auctions at which you can bid for things you don't need (Him Outdoors bid for a poker set and we've got a gas fire) just because it's for charity.

And, of course, you learn stuff. True, it may be largely irrelevant, but I am now cognisant of many facts:

  • Pibroch is a type of music usually performed on the bagpipes
  • Kinkalow and Lambkin Dwarves are cats
  • Thanatology is the study of death
  • Waitangi is the principal settlement on the Chatham Islands
  • Members of the Queen's Council 'take silk'
  • Richard Nixon made the first phone call to the moon
  • The collective name for finches is a charm
Who knows when or if I will need this information again, but if I am ever called upon to climb the Auckland Sky Tower, I will know that there are 51 flights of steps to negotiate.