Sunday, April 30, 2006

Jackson bollocks

So I finally see King Kong, albeit on a DVD. (I have a kickarse home theatre system, and given that Kong is long, nearly three hours, my recliner at least doesn't give you numbbum.)
It begins entrancingly, with Depression-era New York summoned up in lavish scenes of deprivation, and Naomi Watts being a brave little trouper off Broadway who queues at soup kitchens for her dinner. Indeed, her fortuitous meeting with Jack Black as the grandiloquent bullshitter and movie director (same thing?) Carl Denham convinces me I am in for a tale well told and I snuggle down happily. But this euphoria is to be crushed before the hour is out as the Ringmaster hurls wave after wave of CGI at the viewer, seemingly having conceived of a three-hour movie in advance and having to use great wodges of dinosaur filler to eke it out.

It follows the bare outline of the original Kong movie, and Naomi Watts copes exceptionally well to simulate falling in love with greenscreen. But it isn't a coherent movie, it's a few sparsely linked action sequences:

1, The tramp steamer falling foul of the glistening black rocks of Skull Island and the locals, a cross between voodoo shamans and refugees from Michael Jackson's Thriller (hmm, Jackson).

2. The encounter of the brave little trouper and Kong, who subsequently run off together. He's
a lovable bastard type, well rendered by Andy Serkis, who has grown a lot since being Gollum.

3. The dinosaur hoohaa, which is where I finally subsided into resentful endurance mode. It is not being believable even in the context of fantasy, with human beings running between the treetrunk legs of stampeding saurians yet somehow not all being squished. Or a man being cleansed of giant cockroaches by machine-gun fire without catching a few bullets.

4 The capture of Kong. I started laughing when the first bottle of chloroform was hurled. I doubt it woult take just three pints to KO a 25-foot ape, even if he inhaled all of it. Another sequence without credibility.

5. The escape of Kong and the trashing of New York as he is reunited with his very durable beloved. The biplane attack on the top of the Empire State building is clearly all model stuff. Thank God, the big lug finally succumbs to lead poisoning. Naomi swiftly gets together with playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who is remarkably sanguine about being picked up by a girl on the rebound from a giant simian.

All things considered, I found this more disappointing even than Lord of the Rings, which was based on some fairly crappy novels and never rose above the material. It fell way short of the savage innocence of the original King Kong, which I am fond of.

CGI has a place in films, but I think the capacity of the audience to suspend disbelief has long been exceeded. No matter how lavishly it is used, it cannot hide the paucity of story and character, and the law of diminishing returns is now being applied; Kong's box office fell well short of projections, and there's a message there. Of course, DVD sales will put a better face on the figures, but the fact is that the film cost $207m to make (and would have cost about $100m to market). It has grossed $218m in North America in a total of $519m worldwide (latest available). Spider-Man, in contrast, cost an estimated $139m to make (add $80m for marketing) and took $115m opening weekend alone, going on to gross $403m in North America and $827m worldwide (all 2002 figures). Even allowing for inflation, there's only one dog in that fight.

But will Hollywood learn? Not if the trailer stuff for Mission Impossible III is anything to go by. $150m shelled out so far (marketing, I'd guess another $100m). Expect this to be front-end loaded (huge number of theatres, maximum opening weekend push). And then we'll see -- well, those of us who enjoy watching Hollywood throw its money in the air and dance around trying to catch it, that is.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Motorway madness

Although Cape Town was one of the first South African cities to construct a freeway network, it was eccentrically designed, with unconventional touches here and there that make driving an unpredictable experience, such as occasional entry ramps from the right in a country that drives on the left. The most inspired piece of lunacy is one I have to negotiate every day. Not only does it feature an on-ramp from the right (thus having motorists entering via the fast lane or trying to) but it has a confluence where a two-lane highway (which I use) enters the freeway proper (mercifully from the left). This would be unexceptional were it not for the fact that the meeting point is about 150 metres from a split in the freeway, with the two leftmost lanes peeling on to the airport road (N2) and the two rightmost (the M3) ploughing straight ahead through the suburbs and out to my coastal refuge.

So immediately you gain entry to the freeway from the highway, you must immediately move across two fast-moving lanes to lanes 3 and 4 -- while many other drivers already in the two right lanes are frantically attempting the reverse. Apparently there used to be a road sign at this point which said: "Weave". And that is what you do.

Amazingly, after the first few bouts of terror at the wheel, you get used to it. Providentially, for every driver seeking to weave to the M3, there seems to be another wishing to sashay into the N2. Still, no sooner have you reached the sanctuary of lane 4 than the on-ramp from the right looms -- and the traffic on it, driven by necessity, is travelling faster than you are. Many drivers then dice for the right of way, with sometimes painful results, or simply don't see their nemesis homing in.

On Tuesday, pelting rain was added to the mix. This meant both the highway and the freeway were packed with vehicles and changing lanes was simply a gamble. It was misty, yet most of the idiots didn't have their lights on, or thought parking lights would do. Do they think they're saving electricity? It certainly didn't inhibit their taste for excessive speed.

Anyway, as I tried to see the way ahead while checking my side mirror for an opening, the large SUV in front of me, attempting a similar manoeuvre, was forced to slam on the brakes as selfish sods ploughed past on our right, stranding the cars in our lane. I whacked the SUV very hard indeed trying to brake. Result, total chaos as our lane now became a no-go zone. The nice lady in the SUV had a very large umbrella (the golfing kind) and dashed to my window, to exchange details. Damage to SUV: nil. Damage to VW Polo: shattered light and battered bumper. Damage to my day: total. Cost of new light (the whole fitting): ridiculous. But just enough to fall below the policy exclusion level.

I was hoping to get a photo of the piece de resistance of our idiosyncratic roads network, the Freeway Interchange to Nowhere that rears over our Foreshore like an ambitious sculpture, rods sticking out of the end bit where abandonment took place. But there seem to be none available, as if it is too shameful to expose to the world. I shall take one myself.

Why was it never finished? No one seems to be sure. There is now talk of completing the job as we become a "world city", indeed the city council is still asserting on its website that it will be finished before the International Conference Centre opens, which was in 2003, actually. It is a popular location for action movie shoots, so it does bring in a bit of revenue. Grand plans are a great Cape Town tradition. They make a headline or two and then everyone sensibly forgets about them. Capetonians are like old hippies, still yarning about the same utopian visions but couldn't be arsed to try to realise them.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Completely Lost

Some unaswered questions – and a few speculative answers -- about Lost , with NO spoilers for Brit viewers:

1. What is the point of Hurley, the fat dude, apart from his "numbers"? He stands around looking uneasy most of the time, perhaps in case someone asks him where he has hidden all the Mars bars) and has never uttered one word that isn't a cliche. And how is he managing to keep the pounds on? Maybe he's some kind of demographic, since, as we all know, gargantuan obesity is now fairly common among young Americans.

2. Why, after all this time, are everyone's clothes still looking pretty crisp and clean? And where are the clean-shaven guys getting their razor blades? In fact Jack takes the trouble to maintain his designer stubble, an awesome contribution to style in adversity.

3. There are polar bears, but why are there no birds? It's a jungle, for crying out loud. Has anyone ever heard birdsong on the sound track?

4. Pretty well everyone has had a flashback, but why are some people getting lots of repeats while others appear to have been abandoned midplot? I surmise the writers have simply given up trying to follow the huge number of personal plot lines.

5. Is the island supposed to be a real place in the actual, you know, world? I mean, mysterious unseen monsters, apparitions, polar bears (again), the miraculous healing of John, who thinks the island is telling him stuff. I still reckon it is a kind of purgatory where all the survivors must atone for their sins (and we know from the flashbacks that they are all sinners).

6. Anyone have any theories -- or more questions?

For those who haven't cheated by checking
Television Without Pity (shame on you), I can assure you that things just get weirder and more mysterious in season 2. There are questions I have refrained from asking because they're spoilers. Such noble self-restraint.

Creepy update: In the evil terror mastermind al-Zarqawi's video he looks the dead spit of Sayeed from Lost. Could Naveen Andrews be moonlighting?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Blogged down

I'm afraid I'm having a tough time finding the inspiration to blog right now. I'm one of those people who endure occasional bouts of severe depression, when my word world fades away and the colour drains from life -- and there isn't an original thought in my echoing skull space. The writer William Styron, author of Sophie's Choice, was stricken by a deep and chronic depression at the height of his powers and was unable to write at all -- or even function -- for years. When he finally did, it was to produce a terrifying, yet very valuable account of the experience. I ain't no William Styron, and I don't have attacks that bad, but the symptoms are quite similar. I've just noticed them coming on, and hence probably my failure to blog merrily. Well, that's my excuse. People who blow children up "in self-defence" may just have lit the touchpaper.

Update: now seems as good a time as any to post the speech from Hamlet which describes the classic symptoms of depression, or melancholia, and from which this blog derives its name (and which is, of course, Withnail's finest ever performance):

I have of late -- but wherefore I know not -- lost all my mirth, forgone
all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition
that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this
most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament,
this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other
thing to me than a foul and pestilential congregation of vapours. What a
piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in
form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in
apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no,
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Atlantic sunset

The perfect signoff to the perfect Easter Saturday. A walk to the top of the mountain behind my home, where the view is a sweeping vista of the whole of False Bay and its peninsula. The wind was autumn cold and we didn't spend too long admiring the huge expanse of the Indian Ocean. Then, on the way down, this sight of the Atlantic side stopped us in our tracks again. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Gloom and doom

From the first scene in a witch's seedy Moscow flat, the Russian fantasy noir Nochnoi Dozor (Night Watch) electrified me in the same way The Matrix did, rendering the mundane world a very strange new place where I could not imagine what would happen next, and couldn't wait to see it. In director Timur Bekmambetov's version, the Matrix is the Gloom, a magic-charged alternate universe superimposed on the ramshackle, decaying apartment blocks of post-Soviet Moscow and the cavernous underworld of the subway (although the St Petersburg subway was the location). Here the Others of the Light (the Night Watch) and the Dark (the Day Watch) monitor each other to maintain a balance of good and evil in the world.

The movie was shot on a budget of around $4 million and looks like $80 million. State-of-the-art CGI is deployed with bravura style around a cast of scruffy, knocked-about Others headed by the terminally resigned Konstantin Khabensky as Anton Gorodetsky, an antihero for our times. His ignoble purpose, which upsets the balance and unreels the entire scope of the action, is unveiled in that first scene, where he is enlisting the witch -- a supernatural Fifties backstreet knitting-needle abortionist -- to get his girlfriend back. The snag is she is pregnant, the witch tells him, but she can fix that (natch). As she goes into her spiel, a couple of Others, in dirty overcoats, materialise to prevent her clapping her hands to abort the baby -- while Anton stumbles into the Gloom and realises what he is. The child is the random factor that is to upset the balance. Yes, it's a pretty familiar plot, but it scarcely matters. I feasted on this movie. In the pervading state of decay and despair, you can almost smell the stale sweat. Even the vampires are crackhead squatters in an abandoned warehouse. The occasional glittering eruptions of mafia Moskva are pure adland scifi in this landscape.

It's a dazzling kaleidoscope of action -- brilliantly edited and moving at breakneck speed -- and the director never puts a foot wrong until the climax, where the need to leave a loose end to pull on for the second film (it's a trilogy) results in a bit of a fizzle.

The visual detail is fascinating and every second of it carries plot and action, whether in the images from a video game or a flicker cartoon (the kind where you flick pages to make the figures move).

The way to see this is in Russian with the subtitles. The ones on the rental DVD were bog-standard, but I understand the original movie version subtitles are highly creative in themselves.

I'm holding thumbs part 2 doesn't fall off a cliff like the Matrix sequel.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Bad Saturday

Ah, Easter. One of the few holidays on which we don't publish, so it's a long weekend for me. But there'll be no taking it easy come midnight or so Friday, when merry crews will clash bits of metal and drag stuff across the road as they erect the bandstand and deploy the drinks tables and roadblock barrels for the Two Oceans marathon. This is called an "ultra" because the runners cover 56km between the Atlantic and the Indian, near which the Congregation resides. The route passes along the road below my house as it heads towards the ocean. Once the construction crews and marshals have wound up their metal bashing, around 4 or so, there's a quick sleep break for me (if I'm not pumping adrenalin). Then the real din begins at around 7, as the panting hordes are greeted along the way with very loud rock bands, cheerleaders, bellowing, clapping supporters --- most of whom seem to locate themselves near my house. This goes on until about 9 or 10, until the stragglers pass by, egged on by pissed diehards. It's a great Cape tradition. But in my house we call it a fucking nightmare.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Wigged out

I have just seen what I believe must be the worst science fiction movie of the modern era. In fact A Sound of Thunder is pure essence of badness, with not a single redeeming feature, and thus can be recommended for a fun evening at home with appallingly bad dialogue, lashings of really cheap and nasty CGI and terrible acting from what is on the face of it a decent cast.

It's based on a Ray Badbury time travel story I've read, in which an outfit called Time Safaris sends rich folks looking for thrills to the Jurassic to kill dinosaurs. One steps off the "path" from the future and squashes a butterfly -- thus changing history and sending evolution in a different direction. When they return to their own time, it is already being changed by "time waves", kind of transparant tsunamis that roll over Chicago, changing it more and more radically.

The director is Peter Hyams, also responsible for the risible Schwarzenegger vehicle End of Days and the Jean-Claude van Damme stinker Timecop. His last decent movie was Outland, in 1981, with Sean Connery. Somebody must have thought Timecop was sufficient recommendation. What we get is a movie in which character is a malleable concept, plot descends into a hopeless muddle and the whole thing finally collapses and dies.

It features what must be Sir Ben Kingsley's worst performance by a very long way. He seems to have realised what a mess he is in about 10 minutes in, and tries out several ways of saying the words, all of them totally unconvincing, laughable even, augmented by bits of business, like actorly gestures that belong in some other movie. Indeed his expression, by turns uneasy and baffled, gives away his wish to be in any movie but this one. I imagine the part was originally written for a specific American actor, a blustering, wisecracking type, though I haven't worked out which one yet. The role sits on Kingsley as uneasily as his unfeasible snowy white bouffant wig, with its tall crested coif. It appears to be about to launch itself off his head, perhaps pining for some Arctic seabird colony. It is hair as performance, and the only consistent one of the film.

A haggard-looking Catherine McCormack plays the inventor of the artificial intelligence that runs the time travel trips. She opts for hardtalking bitch mode throughout and if there is meant to be something between her and the expressionless Edward Burns (phoning in his turn as the safari leader) it isn't ever discernable.

Also nonplussed about his character and indeed his motivation is the government inspector from the Department of Temporal Affairs, which sounds like a wing of the Vatican. As Chicago is overtaken by jungle and weird forms of wildlife, he remains a mildly protesting straight man for Sir Ben. With some very sulky closeups. You'd think maybe with humankind about to be extinct, the department or indeed the Feds might just have sent in reinforcements. But plot appears to have been wrenched hither and thither by various credited screenwriters and very likely some who preferred being uncredited. Alan Smithee would have been ashamed to have his name on it.

I've done my best to describe what's describable. To get the full awfulness you have to see it.
Apparently the budget was $55 million, most of it presumably spent on the hokey CGI. Hyams has form in this department: End of Days had really cheap-looking effects too. I see he's since done a TV series called Threshhold, about the discovery of an extraterrestrial craft in the ocean by the US Navy. A team of experts is assembled. Perhaps Ben Kingsley's wig got a casting call ...

Friday, April 07, 2006

Say aaaarrrgh!

Great heaven, it is slain at last. This the maw of the beast that has spewed its deadly load of toxins into our newsroom these many years, a dark essence of carcinogenic printer's ink sucked from the bowels of the building. And they call it airconditioning! Today it lay grotesquely next to the fire exit, excavated from the innermost recesses of the old building. When our newsroom was given a complete makeover, only a couple of defiant voices asked why the airconditioning couldn't be replaced first. Given an either/or, the company opted for the swank, and to hell with the workers' innards. A lone crusade by an indefatigable revise sub (indefatigable is a job requirement) and threats from the health department finally won the day after a six-year battle. Spiffy and very expensive new aircon system on the way. Oh, how the beancounters are suffering today.  Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Return of the Native

I left apartheid South Africa in 1982 as the last of its crusading newspapers crumbled around me, either beaten by censorship, run down by their accommodating owners, as in the case of the late great Rand Daily Mail, or banned outright in one case (over coverage of the Biko affair), neatly severing me from a job. I came back to the land of my birth with a sense of sadness for a life unfinished, and got down to work. In the 13 years I lived in London I knew only Tory rule. Thatcher was a history woman, overseeing the great transition to a consumer society which had no communities, just families, as she explained. I put my cross next to Labour without any particular love of socialism; they were just decent people, they had a chance of power, and that would do.

When Mandela was freed another chapter of my history opened too. By the end of 1995 I had made the great trek back, this time to ruminate in my beloved Cape and eke out a living in a media backwater. How ironic that the next great British event was the coming to power of a Labour government at last.

Now, this May, I am returning for the first time in 10 years, and it is going to be fascinating to see just what hath Labour rule wrought in my absence. Although two and a half weeks isn't a lot of time to cover all the bases, and I probably won't be spending much time cursing the Northern Line ...

It's a curious feeling: I was born in north London and left it as a child, then lived in Finchley for all those 13 years of exile; and this time I am a visitor, though hardly a tourist. I do hope I don't really fancy the old place now. I am not sure I could handle another uprooting and replanting. George Steiner believes that the writer is always in exile, and now I believe he is right. I often feel that I am occupying my own Lost island. Except I have all my bloody luggage to tote around.

London doesn't belong to me, exactly, but I belong to it, in a tenuous kind of way. This post is becoming extremely tenuous too, so I'll wrap it up. Pretty soon the Oyster will be my world ...

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Looking daggers

Having rented the much-acclaimed House of Flying Daggers last night, I almost switched off in disgust when I realised that it was dubbed into sort of Oriental American accents instead of Mandarin with subtitles -- and in a lousy 4:3 format to boot, the local distributor being wont to use the videotape master because of occasional release date anomalies (what is the point of pretending there are still inviolate zones?). But this was soon forgotten as I was drenched in the first lush and extravagant setpiece in the Peony Pavilion knocking shop. The sets are a sumptuous example of Chinese design aesthetic in full flower. And the dance sequence with its electrifying wraparound drum notes is easily the most breathtaking piece of choreography I have ever seen on a small screen (a rather big small screen in my house). I didn't think this could be bettered, only to be knocked about by the fight in the bamboo forest, a scene entirely in shades of green apart from the faces. Again, this is heightened by spectacular sonic effects, placing the viewer amid cracking and splintering bamboo, lashing foliage and zipping knives.

The fights outdo those in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in every respect: the editing is almost symphonic, the movement whirling, balletic, with close-ups of slow-motion savagery. The love story that propels the plot is sweet and sad. Every movement and gesture of the thwarted and feuding lovers is delicate, affecting and beautifully paced. The final duel and denouement rage through a change of seasons, autumn trees becoming fountains of white, heavy-boughed with falling, swirling snow that finally whites out the screen and its two main protagonists.

Zhang Yimou's direction is masterly. There are no gimmicks. Cuts between scenes are formal and clean. Curiously, a Japanese actor was chosen to play the romantic lead; the same kind of cultural blurring which had a Chinese actress playing the lead in Memoirs of a Geisha. Ziyi Zhang, as the rebel girl Mai, has a luminous presence. Her face conveys much with the subtlest movements, a slow raising of the eyes, a parting of the lips. In contrast, her body is lithe and mobile as a cat's, blurring through the fight scenes, and she seems to do a lot of the work herself. A considerable performance.

I guess it's obvious I loved this movie. Now for the proper widescreen collector's edition with subtitled Mandarin.