‘The Hobbit II: The Desolation of Smaug’

These Use To Be Fun

It has remained this weird mystery as to why (and how) Peter Jackson and his team decided on making ‘The Hobbit’ into 3 films. He had enough trouble cramming ‘Lord of the Rings’ into 3 movies and it gets very rushed towards the second half of the earlier trilogy. This time he’s expanding out the rather diminutive book into am epic of equally long 3 films. One thing is for certain: short-and-sharp won’t be figuring into these at all.

What’s Good About It

Peter Jackson is getting better at these. The thrills and spills are more elaborate and convoluted. The film really does have a lot of action cues that make good use of locations and props. When it comes to directing action, Peter Jackson is every bit as sharp as Steven Spielberg in his heyday when he was making Indy Jones movies.

The film also has a lot going for it in being consistent in tone with the 3 ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies and the previous installment. By the time he is done with the Hobbit movies, it’s going to be a grand Wagnerian monument in the history of cinema. There are rumours that Jackson is also looking at ‘The Silmarillion’ for more film material. It kind of makes you ponder how good that might be.

Oh, before I forget, the dragon Smaug is pretty spectacular. It might even be better than the dragon in Zemeckis’ ‘Beowulf’.  it’s certainly much bigger and lithe and slithery. The only problem is that it is still a little too CGI in parts, and it threatens to ruin the mimesis of the rest of the images.

What’s Bad About It

Those same beautiful action sequences do go on a bit. By the 10th Orc that cops an arrow to the head or gets its head chopped off, I’m kind of wanting the film to get on with it. If it’s going to be three movies because Peter Jackson wants to lovingly render out Orcs copping arrows through their heads and getting killed in all kinds of interesting, inventive ways, then I’m sort of longing for the story to get on with it.

If Jackson is indeed doing the Silmarillion, I hope he does it in simpler bite-size chunks. These epic 3 movies are pretty imposing and borderline sadistic grabs for the wallet.

What’s Interesting About It

For a film that has very little plot surprises in it, they manage to creep you out a bit. They invent a character called Tauriel – that’s okay. She’s the love interest of Legolas – You find yourself saying “Oka-a-a-a-ay…”. Then there’s this dwarf Kili who puts his moves on her – “hmmm”. So this creates a love triangle that wasn’t in the book and as far as one can tell it’s going to be Elf Prince, Elven shield maiden, with a Dwarven warrior kind of thing.

It surely is interesting – you have to hand them that – but I kept thinking, isn’t that a bit like Prince Harry being in love with a female captain of the Guard – one of those Beefeater types, but a pretty young female one, but the said captain of the Guard is in love with a Neanderthal or a chimpanzee? Yes, they’re all sentient humanoids and stuff but we’re talking inter-species sex here, aren’t we? Isn’t this all a bit closer to bestiality?

All this brings me back to the argument about race politics in Tolkien’s work. There’s a certain level in all this Tolkien fantasy land that is so Eurocentric, it makes you blanch a little bit (pun intended!). The dwarves, for all their interesting attire an appearance are so much the product of a European kind of cultural inflection, it’s hard to see any sense of a multicultural sensibility in any of this. The elves… well, all the platinum blonde on pale skin is Eurocentric as hell. And the humans in the Lake settlement are like groundlings from ‘Shakespeare in Love’ with nary a dark skinned person.

But it’s not just the skin colour thing. There are characteristics assigned to races that are essential characters of those races. So when the elven king slams Thorin for being greedy, well, he’s okay with it because greediness is what makes him a dwarf. And if he is a king of dwarves, it stands to reason he is justifiably king of the greedy things. and that’s okay because that’ the essential nature of dwarves, reason be damned. In one sense, the elven king is wasting his breath because no amount of logical persuasion is going to overcome the essential greediness of a dwarf.

The essential nobility of elves is just as troubling as the assignment of the hobbit Bilbo as the burglar, pretty much on the strength of his racial characteristic as a hobbit. Forget his natural temperament and desire to stay at home in his hole in the side of a hill. The essential hobbit-ness includes the burglar talent (and if you read the second edition AD&D player’s handbook, they get a higher ‘magic resistance’). And all of this is at once interesting as well as worrying.

I’m led to believe Tolkien spent considerable time defending himself from accusations of racism, but you could equally ask Peter Jackson and his production and casting crew the same thing. Are they racial essentialists? Is this what we’re watching here? I would say the answer is staring right at us in this concocted love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and Kili. In Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, characters can overcome the inbuilt prejudices and essential characteristics and that’s the good news. The bad news is that it cavalierly opens the door to inter-species sex, and through that door, Pony the Orangutan says ‘hi’.

The Prequel Trilogy As One Big Exposition

It happened with the Star Wars movies where the second trilogy went back up in time to tell the earlier story, and ended up sort of making the whole thing a lot less grand. By the time ‘Revenge of the Sith’ finished up, it was clear the 6 movies taken as a whole was about how Yoda really screwed up once and then almost screwed it up again. I’m pretty sure that’s not what George Lucas had in mind when he started writing the whole damn thing.

What I’m worried about is that maybe when we’re done with the Hobbit movie trilogy we might see the 6 films as the story of how Gandalf fucked up in not noticing Bilbo picking up the One Ring, and then spends the LOTR trilogy trying to fix up things after his own mess. Right now, it’s starting to look that way.

 

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‘American Hustle’

A Story Set In NYC, 1978? Count Me In

Spoiler Alert!

Got it? Good.

Okay, so forget the amazing cast for a moment. This movie is only partly about that. The rest of the movie is plot and dialogue and all those things that make sense of it which is the normal movie deal, but the truly appealing thing about this film is its production design and costume design. From Christian Bale’s hairpiece to Amy Adams’ insanely pointy high heels to Bradley Cooper’s tight curls and beard and chains look to Jennifer Lawrence’s piled-high-blonde-mess hair to an appearance by Robert DeNiro as the scary mafia don sporting Ray Ban wayfarer frames as regular glasses to Jeremy Renner’s *amazing* bouffant do, this film for me, was all about the glory of production design.

I know some people love Edwardian period pieces with the hats and hair and frocks and rollers. I just love period pieces set in the 1970s. There. I’ve said it. And if they can nail the look, the vibe, the mood, the feel, it gets an extra 3 stars out f 5 from me.

So really, we’re only talking about whether this movie deserves another two stars with its writing direction, acting, cinematography, editing, and sound combined, is a worthy question.

What’s Good About It

A complicated long con that involves the FBI is an interesting setup. What gets even more interesting is how the story covers a great area of corruption, which in the light of recent events in NSW, seems exactly to be the kind of problem a Federal Agency should be looking into. It’s made clear in the film that Renner’s Carmine Polito does take the money, but only because he is prevailed upon to take the money by Bale’s Irving. This opens the door to further busts of politicians who take money but it is clearly entrapment. It’s certainly an interesting take on the Abscam chapter of he FBI.

The editing is pretty snappy and it gets through a lot of complicated story in a quick sequences. Perhaps that too is an homage to the 1970s films that did a lot of adventurous cutting that died out in the 1980s as studios decided to buy the snake oil sold by story consultants that flashbacks didn’t work and that stories should go from the beginning to the end in a linear fashion. This film clearly shows the folly of such ways with its clever construction and juxtaposition of scenes.

The disco scene is also a big winner with its references to ‘Saturday Day Night fever’. Cooper and Adams do a credible pastiche of Travolta and Gorny’s moves from the earlier film. It’s a weird kind of pleasure because it telescopes 1978 popular culture down to a bunch of  shots and dance moves and then goes back to the plot. But the film is full of such pleasures. DeNiro’s appearance as the big mobster boss from Florida evokes at once ‘The Godfather II’, ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Goodfellas’. The fact that it is talking about Atlantic City alone evokes ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – and it even has a couple of actors from the TV series doing cameo roles. It’s a film for film buffs. It’s almost a tragedy they couldn’t find a role for Joe Pesci.

Oh, and the cars, man! Those 1970s American beasts of Detroit…

What’s Bad About It

In trying to capture the 1970s ‘look’, the cinematography veers towards the lighting style of the 1970s which is flat and hard. Apart from the fact that it’s very unattractive, it makes the film less compelling than if it had been shot with more sculpting of shadows. The 1970s films looked that way because budgets were thin and the film stock was slow. You had to blast 2k and 5k lights to get any kind of reading. I think there were better ways of conveying the 1970s than going for that 1970s film look.

Also, I know they’re great songs but it leans too heavily on the hits of the 1970s. Yes, Paul McCartney and Wings’ ‘Live and Let Die’ is a great song for the big transition; but this is like the third film where I’ve seen it used outside of the Bond movie ‘Live and Let Die’. The best one would have been ‘Grosse Point Blank’ where Martin Q. Blank emerges from his car to see the house he grew up in has been turned into a convenience store. If you can’t beat that one, maybe you shouldn’t be using that song.

What’s Interesting About It

The ricochet of ‘Boardwalk Empire’ runs right through this story. Not only do we see the familiar mugs of Shea Whigham (Eli in BE) and Jack Huston (Richard in BE), we’re regaled with the remains of an Atlantic City casino. There’s something poetic in the casting of Jack Huston as one of the gangsters awaiting Irving and Agent DiMaso.

The interest in Atlantic City as a story location is growing as a result of ‘Boardwalk Empire’. Even an innocuous film like ‘Imogene’ sits astride of modern day Atlantic City. At the end of the day it seems blatantly obvious that the mix of politics, construction and gambling forms such a phantasmagorical nexus of corruption. This is true for the unfolding stories in ‘Boardwalk Empire’ as it is for the Atlantic City of 1978 in this film and really, if there were a working film industry in Australia, then the casinos in Australia would make fantastic story fodder about corruption.

I mean let’s face it. What did it take Jamie Packer to convince Barry O’Farrell to give him a casino licence in Barangaroo? What the hell was that? And why so little pubic scrutiny? Inquiring minds would like to know. No?

True Story Loosely Based On Fact – Part 303

As the world grows smaller, we’re left with fewer unknowns about our own planet and our own history. With any luck they’ll make movies about Africa or the Eurasian steppes or something but in most part we know our world a lot more than we used to. Perhaps this sense of limit is driving the crop of films towards ever refined tellings and retellings of stories which happened. The alternative is to go off world and tell science fiction stories or fantasy stories – but even something like ‘Game of Thrones’ ends up approximating the sense of history we have from the Hundred Years War.

The drive toward verisimilitude inevitably is leading us to these stories which ride on the back of true events but are tweaked enough to make it a better narrative and a more exciting story. As I mentioned before the film works hard for its 1970s look, which in turn works hard to establish the 1970s as a sense of time and place. Maybe the only way we can convince studio executives that a story is worth doing is if something vaguely like it happened, and the screenwriter can piggyback on those events to give added gravitas to the narrative. After all, you just can’t think some of this stuff up on your own.

Bra-less And Slightly Slack

That being said about verisimilitude… I just want to talk about those dresses.

For those who don’t know, that’s a joke Bill Bruford made about the album title ‘Starless and Bible Black’ when he was playing with King Crimson in the 1970s. I know it’s incredibly slack of me to bring it up, but it’s the perfect line to describe Amy Adams’ attire in this film. Scene after scene we see her in these outfits that can only be described as 70s-daring. try as I might I couldn’t really think of anybody real wearing anything like that in New York City in 1978. Maybe I was a sheltered kid; but it needs no explanation that April in NYC is still pretty cold.

Seriously, the only person I could think of dressing like that, on any regular basis was Farrah Fawcett in her ‘Charlie’s Angels’ heyday, and maybe Diana Ross. 1978 was all about guys bearing their hairy chests so people can see the gold chains, remember?

So this whole thing of Amy Adams’ character flashing so much breast in scene after scene is more the director’s fetish than any kind of 1970s sensibility. If anything, there were plenty of people getting about looking like Dianne Keaton in ‘Annie Hall’ than these extreme get ups they designed for Amy Adams. It’s just overkill. It’s a nice little sleazy fantasy I guess, but it’s pretty far from the way it really was.

Was 1978 Really That Cool?

You’d better believe it. Think about the great debut albums of 1978. I’s just an amazing list. ‘Van Halen’ by Van Halen; ‘Outlandos D’Amour’ by the Police; ‘Dire Straits’ by Dire Straits; ‘For You’ by Prince; ‘Nina Hagen Band’ by Nina Hagen Band; ‘Are We Not Men? We Are Devo’ by Devo; ‘Generation X’ by Generation X; plus debut albums by the likes of Toto, Quiet Riot, Squeeze and The Cars. So yes, it was cool. Did any of this music end up in this film? No.

America under Jimmy Carter had a strange admixture of bleak cynicism and a naive kind of hippie hope. This would all get dashed when Ronald Reagan won in 1980 and it’s all been trickle down economics ever since. But the way New York City was then was the cipher stone for things to come. The Greed-is-Good thing was nascent but there amidst the glam and sleaze. There was a lingering egalitarianism that meant you could be living in the same apartment block as a New York Yankee as well as a Mafia Capo. It was a strange, strange time before big time money stratified society. Maybe the 1970s was the last decade that New York belonged to New Yorkers. Since then it’s become something else entirely. The strange charm of this movie is that it fits right in with the confused, dying embers of a certain kind of Americana that is no longer there.

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Quick Shots -19/Apr/2014

What I Lie Awake Thinking

I was thinking in my half-waking sleep dream mode this morning that the world’s free market could be understood very clearly as this giant chaotic mass of fear and greed. The bears and bulls are exactly that, animal spirits of fear for the market and greed for the market. It then occurred to me that Karl Marx could see the logical ramification of this capitalist system as a giant train wreck and that somehow human beings with our superior rational intellect would want to add rationality in to the mix.

Of course the communist experiment of the Twentieth Century ended up being mostly fear: fear of Stalin, fear of Mao; fear of counter-revolutionaries; fear of freedom and the corrupting influence of capitalism and so on. But you look at something like the post-Soviet economy of Russia and it is clear that the logical outcome of capitalism is the kind of oligarchic Kleptocracy and all that inequality that comes with such structures. China has similarly headed straight to the income inequality and disparity between the oligarchs and the ever-suffering peasants.

The most worrying aspect of free market capitalism isn’t even this disparity in income or the mis-valuing of labour or the reification of money or the degradation of government and public finnances or the emergence of these oligarchs. It’s that the more we commit to it, the more extreme our reliance becomes, upon a system that is essentially held up by our collective fear and greed. Think about the fact that we are 72hours away from starvation and riots. All that fear and greed has taken us to the ledge and here we are thinking this is the best deal going on how to distribute goods and services.

I’m not about to go become a communist but you’ll pardon me if some mornings I think to myself there must be a much better way than what we’ve got.

Is QE Really Working?

This is what makes me ponder each and every day. It seems that the most successful thing Quantitative Easing has done is shore up the prices of equities and risk assets. The second most successful thing it has done is gone out of the first world into emerging markets in the carry trade – which is another way of saying it didn’t really go to the places in the economy for which it was intended. This is disturbing because the ramification of this is that the economies that most propped up asset prices did so by shipping inflation out to the emerging markets.

I don’t know about you, but I imagine this is having an effect on commodity prices because frankly, you can’t print that much money and not have inflation showing up somewhere.  It sure hasn’t been appearing in America or Australia or the UK, but lately the price of food staples have gone up steadily. The last time this happened it prompted the Arab Spring so we may be headed for even more instability around the globe.

Just to make things a little tricky, Bernanke’s successor Yellen has announced the taper will progress at a constant rate and this is sending investment money back to America, but you have to wonder if the emerging markets are going to be able to handle the drop in liquidity and the rise in commodity prices for food staples.

Then there is the little issue of moral hazards associated with the bail outs. It seems the people who benefited the most from QE and TARP and all the socialised losses governments have taken on around the world as debt (and bad debt at that), were not the people on ‘main street’ as they are called but the top echelon of the wealthy. Not the 1%, but in fact the top 0.1% have made the most wealth out of this exercise. If you lost your house and job in the GFC, I think you’d be entitled to feel quite duped by all of this stuff. The data coming out of the USA saying there’s a recovery going on seems to betray the fact that a lot o the jobs created since the GFC are lower in value than the jobs lost. If the Fed and the US Government worked so hard for this outcome, then surely there’s a problem in reflexively thinking that the bail outs were a success. Thus,  seven years on from when the GFC started to happen, we should be asking just who is benefiting from all this Quantitative Easing?

Ukraine, The Ugly

It’s one of those situations that won’t go away. Russia has essentially taken the opportunity of the instability to annex Crimea back into Russia. While there has been much tub thumping condemnation of Russia by the first world, it seems the other nations in the BRICS have tacitly moved behind Russia. NATO i making noises about moving troops in to Ukraine while the interim government in Kiev has declared the Russia-sympathisers as terrorists. You can see that this is not going to go in any direction of pretty.

Putin and his government have been saying this week that Ukraine is on the brink of a civil war. They may well be heading in that direction right now. All the while I’m a little curious as to what exactly the Obama Administration thinks it is going to accomplish in Ukraine. There is a growing bit of incredulity every time the White House announces it’s going to send a ship through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea. This lone vessel encountered (or rather, got buzzed by) a Russian jet that came within 1000yeards.

It’s enough to make you wonder if Obama and Putin want to repreise the Cuban missile crisis. Unlike Kennedy ad Khrushchev who had to work through elaborate diplomatic channels. Obama and Putin have been on the phone 6 times with very little to show for it. Putin being an ex-KGB man makes it immensely difficult to read, let alone game for advantage, while Obama has a record of drawing lines in the sand and letting people walk all over them.  If all of this ends up as a hot war in Ukraine with NATO troops on the ground, I think that would be the day things have gone incredibly wrong.

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‘Anchorman 2′

I’m Completely Stupid And So Are You

Broad comedy has one saving grace – it never has to get too profound so one thing it will never get mistaken for is Critical Theory. We are never going to mistake a film starring Will Ferrell with ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. This is a good thing because it shows our understanding of genre protects us from exposing ourselves to ideas and notions we would rather not have. Thus comedy draws the most knee-jerk critics when in fact the comic vision sustains the sharpest critique of our milieu.

That being said there are comedies and there are comedies. Some are more cutting than others while broad comedy has an anodyne quality that makes it seem like it is neither poison or medicine. ‘Anchorman’ was such a film and became such a hit that many years later, it spawned this sequel.

What’s Good About It

The bits that make you squirm in your seat with laughter. This one is probably funnier than the first but in bursts. The awfulness of Ron Burgandy can be pretty intoxicating. The inappropriate lines come flying one after the other. The study of Ron is better when he is on top and commanding more than when he is down and out. When he is down and out, the humour is just too maudlin. When Ron thinks he’s in a commanding position, the inappropriateness grows bolder and sillier.

What’s Bad About It

The bits that make you cringe in your seat with laughter. Political correctness gets a right bollocking, but it’s actually hard to say things have come a long way in 30years. It’s not the film’s fault, but the gap is uncomfortable.

What’s Interesting About It

This is the weird thing. The film is a celebration of network news and around-the-clock news coverage while it posits a problematic that say the demand for 24hour news creates the need for increasingly spurious stories. So, on the one hand you have the glorious 24 hour news channel feeding news to the world non-stop as it comes off the feed, but not everything that comes down the feed is of equal importance. Then there is the problem that Television is more given to sensational topics than thoughtful pieces. It’s the nature of the beast as long as it must chase ratings for revenue.

The film is actually quite didactic about this problem. While Ron’s desire to get ratings essentially drives down the average intellectual content to the lowest common denominator, it is also true that he drives the stories to their most sensational apex. All the stylistic quirks we know of contemporary news programs are explained away through Ron Burgandy’s idiotic need to be sensational all the time. You’d almost think the film was a savage satire instead of a simple, broad comedy. But then it quickly abandons this project in favour of a plot-line where Ron loses his sight and therefore his job. With Ron’s eyesight goes any pretension at explaining what made news programming so awful.

The Perils Of Stardom

In the intervening years between the first film and this film, Steve Carrell’s star has risen considerably. This has meant his character Brick Tamland has got the B-plot over Paul Rudd, Christina Applegate and David Koechner. The problem is that Brick was such a minor character the first time through, and such a moron that the plot really doesn’t go anywhere smart or interesting. instead, Carrell gets to play what can only be described as ‘dueling idiots’ with Kristen Wiig.

Yes he gets second billing behind Will Ferrell, but brick is such an idiotic character they have tremendous difficulty extracting anything meaningful out of the B-plot.

I am guessing this sequel is going to do nothing to rescue Chrstina Applegate’s star. She’s really not doing a good job in this film. I never thought I’d say this but, she’s actually bad in this movie, when it’s exactly the kind of film that should be her bread and butter.

Harrison Ford’s cameo is beyond perplexing. He was sort of re-doing his Morning Glory role of Mike Pomeroy, but it was a strange choice.

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‘Captain Phillips’

‘Somali Pirate’ Is A Losing Script

People like this film a lot. You just need to see the Rotten Tomatoes ratings for this film and you realise quite a number of people like this film like it’s some breakthrough film. It’s also one of those movies where once again it’s “A True Story Loosely Based On Fact” so everything you see is a little suspect.

You can run all kinds of simulations and role-plays, I tend to think Somali Pirate is just one of those starting hands that’s got very limited upside. Beating upon them in a Hollywood movie seems more cruel than fair game.

What’s Good About It

Lots of Hollywood-special tense moments. The character build for the Somali pirates is short-handed but good. They don’t waste too much time explaining Richard Phillips. He’s a ship captain, he goes to sea, misses his family when he’s out to sea; all this gets told in under 5minutes screentime and really, that’s all we want to know or need to know before the action begins.

What’s Bad About It

I think Paul Greengrass and his wobbly telephoto look is a terrible choice in this film. For a film that’s already set at sea, the wobbly cam only ads to the sea-sickness-making horror of drifting horizons. I felt ill 20minutes in and it got worse and worse. Worse still, the action sequences were so chopped up they were practically indecipherable as action. You see a flurry of motion but you don’t know what the hell is going on. It’s like his other work, but … worse.

What’s Interesting About It

Somali pirates on the big screen actually is a big draw card. You know me. I’m sick of Russians mafia in Black four wheel drives with machine guns and bad accents.But then one of the first bits of action in the Somali side is a convoy of Nissan 4wheel drives arriving with men touting AK-47s, demanding the fishermen go out and do more piracy. The more things change in Hollywood you realise the more it’s just the wardrobe department working its budget.

Still, it’s interesting to see Somalis on the Hollywood big screen. Of course, this being a Hollywood movie, they really don’t get a good airing, but at least you get a picture of Hollywood trying to do something more representative of the world in which we live.

The race politics is pretty transparent. The film only lets you sympathise with the Somali pirate leader only to a certain extent and there is his right hand man who spends most of the movie angry and hostile, who basically reduces the group to a caricature as damning as the four Muslims in ‘Four Lions’.  You’re watchingit knowing full well that they’re not going to make it, and then the Navy SEALs turn up an of course this being a Hollywood movie, those guys are invincible, so you don’t get the ending telegraphed to so much as given a big billboard on Sunset Boulevard with smiling Navy SEALs brandishing their sniper rifles. Okay, so that bit is not all that interesting.

The denouement is short, and you’re mercifully spared the family reunion scene.

Does Anybody Remember…

… the last democratically elected Somali government head? No? Didn’t think so, because I can’t either.I was freshly minted a graduate out of AFTRS when the first signs of collapse in Somalia took place, and it was Bill Clinton’s first military action as POTUS where he sent troops overseas. I – blithely in my youthful stupidity – tried to hook on with a camera and get out to Somalia for a look so i could make some interesting docos. Fortunately for me, I utterly failed to find any backers here in Australia or over in Japan. I say fortunate because the way Mogadishu turned out, turned into ‘Blackhawk Down’. Somehow I don’t think I would’ve survived that chaotic mess.

In my own defence, I had read “Into a Black Sun’ by Takeshi Kaikoh which filled me with the delusion that I should poke my head into a hot zone with a camera. Somalia, like the Balkan wars that followed, made a point of shooting at camera people and journalists. It’s hard to put this down to any particular reason, but basically the 1990s showed just how bad your cause could look to the world through media, and so it became worthwhile for people in civil wars to silence the press and documentarists by shooting at them.

All that said, I was desperately, then tepidly, then vaguely interested in Somalia for the rest of the decade, probably right up until 9/11 changed everything. The reason I bring all of this up is because I have to confess I haven’t seen any signs of Somalia returning to a functioning state, and the one intervention from the outside resulted in a mess. It’s not that surprising piracy has surfaced as a means for survival with the coastal population. What’s probably more shocking is that there is a whole generation of Somalis who grew up under this chaos and warlord-ism, who know nothing of functioning democracy or even a proper state or that matter. You wonder how they’re ever going to find their way back.

Not Post-Apocalypse, But Post Civilisation

What freaked out Tony Blair in his day as a PM was when he asked how long food supplies could hold out in the UK if all shipping were stopped. The answer he got was 72hours, and then riots would break out. Our modern civilisation is complicated and intertwined with the world, it would only take 72hours for the edifice to find itself in grave danger. Somalia as it exists today appears to be what is left after the state crumbles, and so shipments cease to arrive to a nation. The Hobbsean nasty brutish and short is what is mostly left there from what we can gather.

The general point being, there but for the grace of something larger go us. It’s totally hubris on our part to think that we won’t fall to such chaos. If you read about the English Civil War for instance, you come to realise that the people of England did not anticipate the war breaking out in the way that it did let alone the depredations that came about as a result of the civil war.

In that sense, Somalia is leading the way in some kind of weird experiment of civilisation collapse. Like a canary in the coal mine, if you will, Somalia illuminates the way in which a modern nation state can unravel into this strange warlord-ism. What’s frightening is that maybe that kind of existence awaits us somewhere in the future when our governments lose credibility and things simply fall apart. That’s the truly frightening vision. In that event, we’ll all be Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips, except not as well paid for our ordeals.

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Adrift

Hard To Identify With Anything

I’m keeping it simple today. I was reading some magazines from Japan in the last few days and surfing blogs in Japan. And I have to tell you I just don’t identify with the tenor or spectrum of politics over there at all. I don’t know if I ever did, but I used to have a handle on it. Now it feels like the children are running the kindergarten, and there are a lot of emotionally immature people in charge of institutions both public and private. And it’s really quite alienating.

Be that as it may, I feel really alienated by Australia as well. I know I’ve tried to just live with it and get on with it, but this Abbott Government has to be the most alienating government in Australia I’ve ever experienced. I thought the John Howard years were pretty awful, shameful, pathetic and on the whole hard to bear, but 7months in, this Abbott Government just creeps me out. And with that comes my deep alienation from the idiot mainstream that thought voting for this was better than voting for Kevin Rudd’s ALP.

So here’s the thing. I’ve tried to be a grown up and talk about things that matter in between writing about movies and music and whatnot, but I just can’t get my head around how bad politics has become around the world. Even the USA has turned into a place I can hardly relate to, and so even pop culture has become a spent refuge. I can’t hide there any more. I’ve tried the bread-and-circus routine, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in the bread-and-circus tumble-drier of cultural flotsam.

But today, is the day I’m saying I don’t know what to tell you that is both meaningful to me and meaningful to you. It’s insane. I don’t know how I’ve ended up here. I don’t know how the world has ended up here. It’s seven years from the GFC, employment growth is returning but we keep exporting jobs to Asia, the government keeps lying to us about inflation; real wages are not going up, they’re stagnant or going down, but the government wants us to believe our productivity is falling so we should all take pay cuts; but they’ll go into debt hard even while they vilify debt; they’ll print money and make it easier for the rich to do business but they’ve locked a generation out of housing in many parts of the world; there is no future, there is no revolution, we’re sort of at the precipce where we go from ‘Brave New World’ into Orwell’s ’1984′ (I kinda wish it was Van Halen’s ’1984′ – at least that would rock).

It really is a terrible world, and these politicians really do suck hard. I’m surprised we’re not occupying places and throwing up barricades. I’m not advocating it, I’m just surprised we’re not there.

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‘The Fifth Estate’

Julian Assange, Future Imperfect

So much ink has been spilt and pixels rendered to the name of Julian Assange. I must say that in most part, I’ve felt like a supporter more than somebody calling for his head; but he is a disturbing man in many respects, and he seems to have dreadful personal manners. He might even have Aspergers or Borderline Personality Disordered because in spite of his high-falutin’ stated position and ideals he seems to create dramas in his wake that most normal, ordinary, mere-mortal-citizens would likely avoid. In many ways he’s a gatecrasher who has arrived loudly but with a very strange party trick.

There have already been two movies made on the subject of Julian Assange. The other film covered the strangeness of his upbringing and circumstances. This one takes a hatchet to the self-mythologising and the self-agrandisement we’ve seen from him. At his best, Julian Assange provides us with an interesting standard around which the outsiders can rally against power. At his worst he seems to be an egomaniac with very little care for the lives he might be destroying. It’s not surprising that the man has ended up fictionalised and immortalised on film so quickly.

What’s Good About It

The film makes a very good way towards unpacking the abstract concepts it must discuss in order to address the concerns of Julian Assange, and unpack the intricacies of the argument so that even a lay person can come at the story. The film goes to great lengths to contextualise the events so the cause and effect of these rather abstract choices do get played out for the audience.

The cast is quite impressive. It boasts Benedict Cumberbatch doing his best Australian accent while David Bruhl plays a nervously charged Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The smaller roles have David Thewlis, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci rounding out the cast and while David Thewlis plays a real person the others play fictional members of the US government to great effect. It could’ve been very cheesy; but the fact that you don’t feel it’s cheesy is a great bonus in a film like this where you have to wade through all the risks of telling “A True Story Loosely Based On Fact”.

What’s Bad About It

I’m not a big fan of the shaky camera thing. The subject matter of the film is subtle enough without the distractions of a jerky camera hoping to add style to a rather grim looking film. Parts of the script are really forced and if they didn’t have such good actors, I don’t know if it would’ve worked. I don’t normally sit there trying to picture the way it would’ve been written, but for some reason this film kept throwing screenplay pages into my mind as I was watching. Not a good sign if you ask me.

I’m also unsure about the metaphorical office landscape as a device. It  seems very contrived and never gets out of it being this adjunct visual device that commentates on the action. The abstraction inherent in the activity undertaken by Assange with Wikileaks denies easy visualisation. In fact there are two gags in the film about how Julian Assange and graphic design don’t mix.

You sort of get the feeling that somebody wanted to get a free moralising boot in to a part of Assange’s story without knowing where to put it. I’m definitely not convinced the film hits any mark near where Julian Assange lives and dreams. And that being the case, the film is largely in danger of being a fantastical imagination of the life of Julian Assange that has very little reference to the true problematic that drives the man. The man, whatever his strengths and faults, is complicated and convoluted. The film tries to show that picture but actually misses which parts of this man’s complications are interesting.

What’s Interesting About It

Perhaps the most venal aspects of the film are the most gossip-tinged and interesting. We have no idea who Domscheit-Berg (“dumb-shit berk” sprang to mind) might ave been prior to Wikileaks. What kind of techno-geek wants a revolution based on transparency and truth so much that he lets a sexy girl walk out on him? It’s a strange terrain. This Domscheit-Berg gets so involved with the Assange vision, he inadvertently cracks open what the film calls the Fifth Estate. Oddly enough, the real life Assange is quite contemptuous of other entities in this Fifth Estate.

Assange’s put down in this film is great. “All these kids are excited reading ‘Neuromancer’ and playing ‘Call of Cthulhu’,” he says so dismissively. It’s true, I’m exactly one of those he would accuse of being complacent about the world; for indeed, I did read “Neuromancer’ with much excitement way back when and also played ‘Call of Cthulhu’ with my mates. And no, I didn’t change the world one iota – it still sucks.

Assange of course famously denounced Bloggers for being only interested in impressing their friends and are not really doing what we are supposed to do, which is read the wires he’s leaking at Wikileaks and getting angry and agitating. All of this is true too.

All the same, I’m inclined to give the man moral support even if he would think I was not helping one bit. I’m just not willing to head down to the barricades with my Guy Fawkes mask on, on his say so. Excuse me sir, but I do think for myself.

Hypocrisy On A (short) Stick

The most poignant observation the film does make is that only a man so obsessed with his own secrets as Julian Assange could bring the world to the brink through exposed secrets. Indeed, this quality of having two sides to the same problematic in his head leads us to wonder out loud just how much self-control this man possesses. One is – okay, I am – inclined to think that part of Julian Assange’s problem is that he’s so used to not having the rules of society apply to him in society, he keeps living in a thought bubble where he thinks laws and regulations don’t apply to him either. He’s easy on himself – which is why he ends up in very strange circumstances involving sex and Sweden and secrets and strange denials.

The film goes a great way to intimate that the sexual encounter he had in Sweden is somehow laden with this kind of permissiveness that he applies to himself. I’m not certain it’s so conclusive, but there are days where I do think maybe it’s all a beat up and Julian Assange really ought to face the music in Sweden. Then I think of Edward Snowden and think that maybe the Ecuadorean embassy is exactly where he needs to hide. Its absurd. It takes an incredibly absurd person to find himself in such circumstances. And none of this Swedish Sex Crime bit really made it into the film.

An Aside On His Bad Manners

Look, I’ve never met the bloke. I know hackers in Australia that came across Mendax in their time back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yes, he was a ‘name’ in the hacking community. It’s interesting how one of the things he ‘inspires’ in people is this complaint about his manners. While Geoffrey Robertson was handling his extradition case in the UK, Assange stayed with the Robertsons. Mrs Robertson, Kathy Lette was later on air saying that Julian Assange might be somebody doing something incredibly important, but he was also the person with the worst manners of anybody she had met. And this is coming from Miss Puberty Blues, the Proto-Bogan surfer chick. Of all the things she could have said about the guy, this was it.

Having watched several videos of him giving talks about what journalists are doing wrong, I do get the impression that maybe he’s a pretty far gone Asperger’s case on the loose. I’m not convinced he’s NPD as the film portrays him.  Still, is this even all that interesting next to the actual damage he has inflicted on Governments through advocacy for truth and transparency? Somehow I think the film chooses to miss the point so that it doesn’t have to address the deeper, bigger, more vexing philosophical issue to do with truth and transparency. It opts to tell how two men in partnership fall out.

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