Friday, November 23, 2012

Skyfall

If you haven't seen this movie yet, this is a warning that there may be spoilers scattered throughout this post.

Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, opens with a lengthy sequence in which Bond and a fellow-worker (Naomie Harris) chase one of the more important and less anonymous baddies - Patrice - through one of the innumerable foreign countries that feature in the movie.  This was Turkey, by the look of it, but that was scarcely important.  What was important was the wreckage of everything in sight, (some shots will have VW lovers weeping), the chasing on motorcycles and in cars - one breathtaking sequence has the two motorcyclists sweeping across the roofs of the bazaar, and of course eventually crashing down into it- and finally a struggle between Bond and the baddie on top of a train, which most inconveniently keeps going into tunnels.  This opening is not only Bond-moviemaking at its best, but superb in every sense.  Not a shot is wasted, things coming flying at the audience with choreographed ease, people get in the road (and rapidly out of the road) and all the mechanical things do their best to make a mess of all the other mechanical things.

We get a breather while the credits roll by, surprisingly casually for credits that arrive some ten minutes into the movie.  Behind the credits are animated sequences that incorporate themes and material from the movie still to come, and then we're off again.

Bond, who 'dies' rather inconveniently before the credits, turns up again (how could he not?) and sets off after Patrice in yet another foreign location; this time it's Shanghai, which looks gorgeous by night.  (The cinematography is superb throughout.)  There's a rather daft sequence in which Bond tries to get back something of considerable importance that's been stolen from M16, and he and Patrice play out their cat and mouse game against shimmering glass and enormous neon signs before someone is shot in the building next door and Bond disposes of Patrice.  Now from this point on, the structure of the movie seems to lose its way.  That's not to say that the set pieces are any less bravura (a tube train crashing through the roof is a fairly spectacular sight) but they whys and wherefores of the plotting aren't quite up to the other things that happen in the movie.

With Patrice dead we might be at a loss for a real baddie.  After all, Patrice was pretty anonymous, and spent most of his time running.  There's a kind of gap in which Bond rather off-handedly pursues a beautiful woman (played by Bérénice Marlohe), finds her, and is warned off by him because the real baddie of the film is her guardian, and she's terrified of him.  This scene is odd: Marlohe seems uncomfortable somehow - it's only as the scene progresses that we discover that under her seductive charms she's terribly afraid.  However, what comes across to the audience, I felt, is an actress who isn't confident of what she's trying to portray.  

Finally, Bond meets the big baddie, Javier Bardem, and quite honestly, he's a bit of a let-down.  He just doesn't have the class to be a Bond villain.  Admittedly he always seems to be one step ahead of everyone, and has everything planned to ridiculous perfection, but in the big climax, he drops into ranting and raving like someone who doesn't quite know what to do next.  When we first meet him, he has a long speech as he strolls towards Bond, and towards the camera.  For me, Bardem's timing is off; the speech doesn't work, and he pauses 'significantly' rather too often, losing tension.  He doesn't exude the real menace that a Bond villain should possess, and you get the feeling that as soon as Bond gets his hands untied, he'll deal with this wannabe baddie in a matter of moments.  He doesn't even have the usual Bond-film henchman to cause additional trouble.  Alongside the coterie of British actors (this film not only has the inimitable Judi Dench in it, but also Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort himself), Albert Finney (briefly at the end), Ben Whishaw as the new-look Q, and the aforementioned Naomie Harris, who has a much better romantic scene with Bond than Marlohe does, and steals the latter's thunder.   Alongside these, Bardem is a bit of a patsy.  Even the woman playing the politician, the redoubtable Helen McCroy, is a good deal more menacing than Bardem.

So much for the villain.  The flaws in the movie aren't enough to let it down, and it cracks along at a terrific pace for its full 143 minutes.  It's worth seeing for the opening sequence along, which is much better handled than the one at the beginning of Quantum of Solace, where the editing was so irritating you couldn't figure out what was going on most of the time.  

The Daniel Craig Bond movies have been a bit of a mixed bag, though Craig himself makes an excellent Bond, for my money.  He's certainly a good deal more serious than most of his predecessors (though even if he does lack the humour of Connery and Brosnan, this film takes the mickey out of the Bond series on more than a few occasions), but he exudes a tension that feels like it could explode any minute.  The sex scenes in these three movies are rather under par (although not when you look back at the embarrassing Connery ones), and in this latest one in particular, make little impact.  And there are awkwardnesses about the structure: the lengthy coda in Casino Royale seemed to be tacked on to the main film, and the best parts of this movie are in the first three-quarters, with the climax not quite hitting the mark.

But given those issues, these three films exhibit top quality film making of the blockbuster kind.  Every inch has been fine-tuned: the photography, the editing, the music, the sound effects, the visual effects, the stunts.  None of these areas let the films down.  In general the actors are strong and well-cast, and the directors take the whole schemozzle and pull all its elements into place.   For $11.50 (pensioners' price) you certainly get your money's worth!



Thursday, November 22, 2012

My Cousin Rachel

On our return trip from Christchurch a couple of days ago, we listened to Mel Gibson reading My Cousin Rachel, the novel by Daphne du Maurier.  I think we've begun listening to this before, but perhaps hadn't completed it, as only the early parts of the story seemed familiar.

In some ways it's less complex than Rebecca, but it shares that same ambivalence, that sense that we're never quite sure who's fooling who, and whether the people who seem to be wrongdoers actually are.  In Rebecca, we eventually learn that she really was a nasty piece of work, and that Maxim de Winter isn't as difficult a man as the narrator first thinks.  In My Cousin Rachel, we again have a first person narrator, Philip Ashley, a young man who's naive, impetuous, and unable to listen to the advice of his betters.  The consequences are disastrous, but was he entirely wrong in his assumptions, or did he just misread the behaviour of Rachel, and misread the letters that his older cousin and father-figure, Ambrose, had sent him when he was ill.

One minute we think, Yes, he's got it all wrong.  The next we think, No, we've got it all wrong.  Du Maurier leaves the story wide open.  I'm sure there are readers who are convinced they know what the truth of the matter was, and perhaps it's possible to go back and work it out sentence by sentence, but this is such a shifting sands of a tale that on the first reading (or hearing, in our case), it's almost impossible to gauge whether you've got the picture right or not.

There's a 1952 movie version of the story, with Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland, directed by Nunnally Johnson.  Apparently there's a slight but significant change at the end of the story.  I haven't seen the movie, but by all accounts it's otherwise faithful to the book.

The audio book version (which may or may not have been abridged; it certainly doesn't say it is) has music by Don Heckman.  He's not a composer I know, and while he's listed on Google as a writer about music there's not much about his compositions.   The music on the audio book is perfect for the story, very simple, often using only a couple of instruments at a time, and being brief variations on a very simple theme.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hanmer hip hop

When we stayed in Hanmer Springs the other day (Hanmer, not Hamner, as I've always thought in the past) we came across a French family who are now living in NZ.  The older of their two children, a boy of around eight or nine, is training to do hip hop.  He's not what you might expect a hip hop dancer to be, somehow, but anyway, his ambition is to do well at it and make lots of money.  Of course.

One of the highlights of the TV show New Zealand's Got Talent is/was the Limit Break Dance Crew.  I've just watched their audition (I hadn't seen it the first time around) and it's a delight.  Their humour is one of their strong points, something that a few other hip hop dancers could pick up on.  Hip hop isn't just about muscle strength; it has to be something.  

It's annoying in the audition clip that the camera constantly cuts away from the dancers to the three judges.  Why do we constantly need to see these three smiling, or clapping, or laughing?  Fair enough in moderation, but the cuts continually break up the flow of the dancing and some of the best moments are missed.   You can see some of their dances in full on You Tube...and their progression.  They're vastly better and tighter in the Talent Show than they were earlier, but they've always had plenty of energy, obviously. There are a lot of videos on the Net relating to them, some better than others, and some could definitely do with some DJ lighting.  Nevertheless, this is a group to watch.

Back to Hanmer for a moment: how did it get such a peculiar spelling?  Well, it seems that the spelling isn't all that peculiar.  The site was named after Thomas Hanmer; there were several such gentlemen, Baronets ranging through the 16th to 18th century, so it's obviously a much better-known name that I thought.

Exit Music

While we were touring around over the last couple of weeks, I dropped into a few secondhand bookshops (and one or two new book shops, as well).  In Picton, if I remember correctly, I found a very good secondhand bookshop and a proprietor happy to talk at length if I'd so desired.  He had a copy of Ian Rankin's Exit Music, originally intended to the the last in the Rebus series.  We had this on CD, but I'd never listened to it, so I got the trade paperback he had in stock.

Having just read the most recent Rebus book, Standing in Another Man's Grave, in which Rebus, although officially retired, is in no way devoid of his usual energy and insight, it was a bit odd to go back a step and see him preparing for imminent retirement.  Like the latest book, hinges on a huge red herring, though in saying that, the red herring here is actually a vital part of how the book works itself out, rather more so than in the most recent story.

In the first chapter the body of a Russian poet is found on the street in Edinburgh, and everyone who appears in the story - and I mean everyone - is in some way involved with this man, from politicians to small time crooks, from drug addicts to pushers, from academics to bankers.  Not a soul is outside the ever-widening circle of people who are affected.  It's so well written it would easily have made a fitting climax to the Rebus series, and Rebus himself is in fine form - ageing  but not old; sarcastic but witty, anti-authoritarian yet endeavouring to train the younger police officers to respect the right channels.  He knows from his own career how difficult it is to go against the flow.

There's a lot of warmth in this book; more than in some of the Rebus stories.  There's minimal violence - apart from the murder(s) obviously - though the arch villain Big Ger Cafferty comes a bit of a cropper, much to Rebus' annoyance (!)  It's the sort of cropper that could see Cafferty die before he pays his dues.  Rebus would much prefer that he's put behind bars legitimately.

Perhaps, having read the two most recent Rebus titles back to front, I should continue in the same vein, and read through the series again, in reverse!

South Island holiday

We've been on holiday for the last fortnight, travelling around the South Island, from Dunedin to Christchurch (with a couple of overnight stops between) up the Kaikoura Coast, to Blenheim, Nelson and back down through the middle of the upper part of the island, a trip we've done before but had pretty much forgotten - in terms of what kind of scenery it was, and so forth.  In fact the last time we did that trip we had my 13 or 14-year-old son with me and we spent much of the time trying to remember all the names of the various bridges, rivers, culverts and so on, linking them together in a great long sequence.

It obviously wasn't very effective, as I didn't recognise a single name as we drove by this time!

I'm finding it tricky coming back to my usual PC keyboard; I've been typing on an iPad, and the difference is considerable.  The iPad keyboard is smaller, and it's very easy to hit the wrong key (though at least it does a good deal of correcting for you as you go along, some of it rather random).  Plus, a number of items are in different places, and at present I'm still reaching for where things are on the iPad rather than the keyboard.  That's the least of any problems.

Just before we went away we tried to scan something onto the computer.  My older printer, which is the one with the scanner, refused to do it.  Another older computer, attached to the laptop, refused to do it.  Obviously both of them felt they were in retirement mode, and didn't need to keep working the way they used to. (My current printer is a Speed King, printing out reams of pages at a great pace.  But that's all it's capable of doing.)

Perhaps I need to investigate some print shop websites to see if I can dispense with printers altogether!

Anyway, our trip around the South Island was full of highlights.  I've kept a diary of the day to day activities and people we met (and animals - there were several that made some brief impact) and I'll post some of those on the other blog at some point in the next week.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Standing in Another Man's Grave

Ian Rankin's latest book features Rebus again, that incorrigible policeman who works as much by hunch and instinct as by the rule book; perhaps more so.  Certainly he "solves" the crime in this story purely by hunch in a way that's a little less than satisfactory for the reader: the murderer comes out of nowhere almost, so that much of the book is about red herrings rather than about pinning down a particular character as the villain.  In fact, many of Rankin's books are more about the characters than about the mystery, although the mysteries can be very intricate.  They aren't really whodunnits in the sense that the reader can work out who murdered someone, but more about peeling back layer upon layer and revealing the corruption at the heart of a particular set of circumstances.  There's quite a bit of that here too, with some of the obvious villains being exposed, a young man revealing himself as more villainous than he first appears, and the presence of Cafferty, that perennial thorn in Rebus's side, who is still pulling strings - though less successfully here than elsewhere because he too, like Rebus, is feeling the effects of old age.

Old age pervades the book, and what Rebus is going to do with his retirement is a major question.  He knows little else besides police work and it obviously energises him.  At the opening he's back working after having officially retired, this time for the underfunded cold case office which is due to be disbanded  at the drop of a hat.  He's also considering reapplying for the force but he's hounded by Malcolm Fox, the main character from the two Complaints books (who appears here rather differently, since we're not in sympathy with him particularly and Rebus certainly isn't).  Fox is out to get Rebus, the man who's broken so many rules in the past, but Rebus is always too wily, too old-school for him.  

The story mostly concerns a missing girl, who may have been murdered.  It's a case Rebus should never have taken on; indeed, he only comes across it by accident, and it's almost by accident that he stumbles across the possibility of a serial killer at work, and the consequences of what that brings.  Rebus has a knack for going outside the boundaries, for insulting people with wit and insouciance, for mentoring Siobhan Clarke, his young police companion from many previous books, even though she's never quite sure if his style of mentoring is satisfactory. (Fox definitely doesn't think it is.)   He can undercut authority without blinking and keeps the pompous in their place.  He's a rich character and it's not surprising Rankin has given him yet another outing after implying he wouldn't write any more books about him. 

There's an enormous amount of chasing around the countryside in this one - Rebus, in particular, spends a lot of time on the road following up hunches - and Rankin delights in describing the nature of the different areas, in describing the traffic snarl-ups and the queues and the road works and the huge trucks getting in everyone's way.  He plainly has a love-hate relationship with Scotland and its traffic.   You almost need a map beside you to keep tabs on all the shifting scenes. In fact it might help to make more sense of how much driving Rebus actually does, sometimes alone and sometimes with others and where he's going.  Maybe I'll do that next time I read the book!

Monday, November 05, 2012

Scathing remarks

A friend of mine, Lynne Baab, has recently brought out a new book entitled, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation.  The focus is on ways to use the well-known spiritual disciplines or practices of the Christian church in groups, or even with full congregations.

This is an interesting take on the disciplines, which have certainly been used communally at many times in their history, and it's good that Lynne has brought them back into focus in this way again.  I haven't finished the book yet, though I'm getting close, but I just wanted to make a comment on the section I was reading this morning, which is about Hospitality.  Some might not regard hospitality as a Christian discipline, any more than they might consider the first item on Lynne's list, Gratitude, to be one.   Be that as it may, both are in the book, and both need discussing in terms of our Christian lives.  (This is not to say that people of other religions, or those who don't believe in any god at all, are never grateful or hospitable.  The focus of the book is on these things from a Christian point of view.)

One thing struck me this morning in the section on hospitality.  It came out of this passage on pages 124-5.

Holding a coffee hour before or after a worship service provides perhaps the most basic opportunity for hospitality.  Recently my students engaged in a spirited online discussion about the role of coffee hour in a missional focus for a congregation.  They had scathing remarks for the poor-quality coffee and cookies that are so often offered at coffee hour.  Several of them said that we talk in Christian circles about Jesus' abundant welcome, and then we provide mediocre food and drink at coffee hour, a cognitive dissonance that does not exactly welcome the stranger. 

I stopped reading at this point.  Now, Jesus certainly talks about abundance, but while he was on earth I don't think there was any point in the many meals he shared with other people when he stopped and said, Look, I can't drink this coffee, or eat these cookies (biscuits, depending on the translation).  It's substandard.  I'm the King of Kings, for goodness' sake.  Are you seriously giving me coffee that tastes like dishwater and cookies that look as though one of the kids threw them together while they were playing on their iPhone?

My sense is that Jesus wouldn't have fussed about it.  Like Paul, he would have said, I don't speak from want, because I've learned to be content in all sorts of circumstances.  I know how to drink mediocre coffee and crummy biscuits, and I also know how to drink my skim cappuccino freddo and eat my caramel crunch slice; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.

I think it was the mention of 'scathing remarks' that really struck me in the students discussion.  There's an element of arrogance here, a middle-class tone that says that proper coffee is more important than hospitality.  For me the cognitive dissonance comes between the students' attitude and the apparent lack of humility.  Surely the coffee and biscuits are merely a means to an end, and that is to relate to the people who might come to the coffee hour.  Perhaps you can agree together that the coffee isn't anything to write home about, and then get onto the more important topic of who that person is that's decided to grace your coffee hour by drinking your mediocre coffee and tired biscuits.  


Friday, November 02, 2012

Argo

If you haven't been to see Argo, go and see it.  Ben Affleck's new movie is an accomplished piece, full of suspense, excellent acting (including Affleck himself), a well-told story and a film that has you sitting on the edge of your seat in more than one place.

The opening sequence, in which a mob of Iranians storm the American embassy in Teheran is quite terrifying, and the last half hour or more of the movie is nail-biting as the six 'Canadians' attempt to make it out of the airport.  

Okay, have I said enough to convince you this is worth watching?   When the story isn't in suspense mode, we have some wonderful performances (and great lines) from John Goodman and Alan Arkin as two old-timer Hollywood movie-makers who can turn a turkey in to an eagle but who, in this case want the turkey to remain a turkey.

The movie tells the true story of six American embassy workers who escaped out the back door of the embassy when it was stormed by Iranians angry at the US for harbouring the Shah, a man who was apparently much hated by his people for his opulent behaviour and more.  (At that stage they didn't know they were exchanging one devil for another, in the form of the Ayatollah Khomeini.)   The six men and women managed to find shelter at the Canadian embassy (at this point the Canadians were still okay as far as the Iranians were concerned).  They hid there for nearly three months, while the Yanks back home figured out a way to get them to safety.

Finally a plan to turn them into a Canadian move-making team scouting for locations in Iran was hit upon; ridiculous as it seemed, it was even less ridiculous than some of the other ideas the US Government came up with.  Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez who was given the job of getting the job of going to Iran and getting the Americans out.  He was the right man: he had contacts in Hollywood who set up a fake production company, and he had the nous and courage to walk into Iran, and persuade the American that this was somehow a good plan.  (Not all of them agreed!)

Affleck shows utter assurance throughout not only in his acting, but even more in his directing, which manages to give background to the story in a few short minutes (much as the first film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy did), enables us to clearly understand what's going on at all times, and presents the story via a huge cast, many of them familiar faces in small roles.  He even manages to give enough personality to the many characters for us not to feel in any way disengaged from them.  This film marks Affleck as a major director: he never eschews story-telling for action sequences (though there are several) and we never think...uh, oh, lots of people running round and lots of guns.  There are lots of guns - a scary number, in fact, many of them in the hands of women - and there are plenty of big crowd scenes, but these are so expertly handled that they never revert to filler.

This is movie-making at its best.  Go see it!