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Don't let a war ruin your movie
'Don't let a mobile phone ruin your movie.'
It seems that those ironic cynics at Orange, producers of the anti- marketing marketing filmlets that preface virtually every British cinema release, missed a trick with the Rodrigo Cortes-directed taphephobic thriller, Buried. For what is normally a pain in the narrative for the modern thriller, where the peril of the protagonist is undermined somewhat by the fact of help only being a touch-screen away, is an indispensable plot mechanism in Buried.
The reason for that – as the pre-release hype, not to mention the title, intimates - is that Buried is set entirely in a coffin. It features just one visible actor: Ryan Reynolds. So unless you're currently pining for an alternate 1980s version of Buried, in which we get to watch a Hollywood sort-of-star slowly asphyxiate for no apparent reason, then you'll be glad of that incessant buzzing and pinging of a mobile phone. It doesn't ruin the movie; it makes it. That and the zippo lighter.
Although not quite up there with Krapp's Last Tape, Buried is a drama conjured up from the barest of elements, the most meagre of resources. During the opening couple of minutes it's as if the Spanish director is just bringing the component parts of the story together. Look, it says, out of nothing, something. In the beginning there was blackness, and then, suddenly, we hear the sound of breathing. Human breathing. Then the thumping starts, an indication that there is a solid world out there, in the dark. And then, at last, there was light. And now a face, a body, in a wooden coffin.
That is the premise. A man, whom we later come to know as American truck driver Paul Conroy, wakes up entombed, and he knows not why. He scrabbles about a bit. There's a bit of histrionics. And then with the discovery of a mobile phone, the drama starts. Because it's only through the various fraught, frustrated conversations that we learn a bit about Paul Conroy, what he does, what happened, and, to a lesser extent, what sort of man he is. And it's also only through that phone that there is any hope of resurrection.
There's no doubting the film's central achievement: to do so much with so little. Cortes seems to revel in the pacing of the narrative, of deciding precisely when to give the drama some propulsion and when to let it flag, when to let the audience hope, and when to let us despair. At points it almost feels like an experiment, an examination of the nature of narrative suspense, of what makes us tick, as much as showing us what makes Conroy tick. Although one cynical move, which gives a new meaning to the phrase trouser snake, does suggest an exhaustion of dramatic ideas rather than their fruition.
More effective is the claustrophobic setting, aided and abetted by the up-close-and-personal camera work. Not in the visceral sense of 'oh, that's what it would be like to be buried alive', or even 'doesn't Reynolds have thick bristles?', but again in the dramatic sense. Conroy's isolated, impotent situation is ours, the audience's; and his partial, inadequate viewpoint is all that we have to go on. We yearn for some other perspective, some viewpoint that might literally shed light on the darkened proceedings. And it's this prospect that drags us on, that is as vital to us looking for a point as it is to the character looking for a rescue.
Yet if this claustrophobic perspective, this frustrating limit to our knowledge, does seem to open up space for a more interesting film, this space is quickly filled by a really clumsy commentary on the Iraq War. It's this that ruins Buried, not a mobile phone. It removes a certain depth to Buried, digging for it instead a very shallow interpretative grave.
Conroy, we learn, is a truck driver working in Iraq on behalf of an American contractor. As we discover, the bad guys here aren't so much the kidnappers – despite their predilection for YouTube beheadings – as the Coalition of the Willing and Conroy's smarmy employers, both of whom combine bureaucratic indifference with legal slipperiness and sheer disingenuousness. Their willingness to evade responsibility for Conroy becomes all too achingly metaphorical. His mess is Iraq's, too. A mess better buried than confronted.
Which for anyone as unmoved by Reynold's performance as I was does have its benefits. Shouty-angry – and yes voicemail can be annoying – is never going to ingratiate you to any would-be rescuers. Nor will it win you sympathy from an audience, unless brattish prattishness in a confined space is your thing. And the occasional lapses into frat-boy wiseacre mode seem to come from a supercilious place closer, perhaps, to Reynolds, than to a man buried alive somewhere in Iraq.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
The Miles Davis of anti-capitalism
Michael Moore has a pretty good knack for making documentaries that capture the spirit of their times. Bowling for Columbine (2002), for instance, tapped into the feverish gun control debate in America; Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) was released in the aftermath of the disastrous Iraq War of 2003; Sicko (2007) prefigured the recent US debate on state- run healthcare. In the midst of a serious economic crisis, Capitalism: A Love Story appears to be a timely investigation into bank bailouts, bankruptcies and the return of mass unemployment. So why do all of Moore's stunts, dashed-off analysis and gloomy conclusions in this film feel so tired and out of date?
To begin with, Moore makes an apposite, albeit superficial, comparison between the dying days of Rome and contemporary America. He introduces some clips from what appears to be an old educational reel titled Life in Ancient Rome, which he then juxtaposes with more recent totems of American power, including the Metropolitan Opera House at New York's Lincoln Center draped in the Stars and Stripes. He makes the point that America's long-standing support for the free market has gone the same way as countless failed businesses: from unqualified confidence to directionless decadence. He proceeds to flesh out the scale of corruption in modern American society, using human-interest stories to elicit viewers' anger.
Indeed, his well-worn directorial devices in this latest film reveal his limitations. As in his previous films, Moore inhabits the role of the burly, conscientious documentary-maker on a mission, who nevertheless lets people's stories speak for themselves. He intercuts these testimonials with a morass of kitschy stock footage and B-movie warnings that what we're about to see is 'truly one of the most unusual movies ever made' (except it isn't). The scenes where Moore battles it out with stern-faced corporate security guards and tries to access the high-seats of capitalism through silly stunts have a groaning over-familiarity to them.
As in his previous films, Moore reveals an absolute aversion to the notion of personal responsibility. For example, he blames Ronald Reagan's policy of expanding the availability of credit for a lot of the current economic mess. The film offers the rather lame notion that no individual could possibly have been expected to understand the terms and conditions of the loans they signed their names to and that they were coerced into doing it. But in taking this approach Moore in fact reduces autonomous individuals to hapless victims. As a result, the burden of private debt is all the fault of rapacious financial institutions, riding roughshod over ignorant, ordinary Americans. He then borrows some divine authority from the Catholic Church by simply labelling capitalism as fundamentally 'evil'. Now that's telling 'em.
This is where Capitalism: A Love Story really falls flat. Far from analysing the subprime meltdown, the credit crunch or the slump in productivity in the West, Moore avoids any coherent argument about how and why the crisis happened or why the consequences were so grave. Instead, he blurs and improvises one ill-conceived idea after another, becoming the Miles Davis of moralistic anti-capitalism.
Moore is on firmer ground when he isn't strong-arming security guards or jabbering incoherent theories. The more effective scenes are the straightforward interviews with people who have lost out to unscrupulous employers. In one scene, he visits a widower whose wife was unknowingly insured by her company — a dubious practice called 'dead peasant insurance' — which earned the company quite a substantial amount of money when the woman died. Like many of the stories Moore explores, dead peasant insurance might not be massively revelatory, but it is effective in generating outrage and empathy amongst viewers.
In many ways, it is precisely this kind of posturing that makes Moore's films such hits with liberals on both sides of the pond. In Moore's universe you can appear outraged, concerned and engaged with the world without having to fight for or justify a better alternative. Moore's conclusion, for all the leftist rhetoric in the film's title, suggests that the politics of TINA - There Is No Alternative - is very much alive and well in the US.
Capitalism features strikingly retrograde ideas dressed up as faux radicalism. It's all very well to bemoan 'selfishness' and 'greed' in modern society, but when Moore conflates rational self-interest with anti-social behaviour and disregard for others, he is justifying clampdowns on basic freedoms and rights. By equating individual freedom only with degradation and amorality, he is going some way to legitimising the culture of unfreedom prevalent in both the US and the UK.
Even more disgracefully, he borrows a quote from Roosevelt to suggest that people who are unemployed 'are the stuff of which dictatorships are made'. Raising the spectre of the masses voting for demagogues has long been the conceit of political elites. Moore is foolhardy for repeating it here, especially when the idea of limiting mass democracy looks set to define the new decade.
After two decades of filmmaking, Moore's methods and arguments are essentially the same, but the impact of his films has grown ever weaker. Indeed, Capitalism repeats many of the same tricks and devices used in Moore's 1989 film Roger & Me, about the effect of General Motors downsizing in Flint, Michigan. But whereas that film appeared fresh and amusing 20 years ago, the same shtick – harassing security guards, staging publicity stunts outside corporate offices - is now wearisome, irritating and rather contrived.
The main weakness of Capitalism, though, is that Moore doesn't quite know what to say. In his better films, like Bowling For Columbine and Sicko, his persona as affable, single-minded ordinary bloke was effective, but here the subject matter - capitalism - seems too big and complex for him.
When one Wall Street employee asks Moore 'Why don't you stop making films?', it was one of the few sentiments in the film I could sympathise with.
Haneke: films for middle-class masochists
Austrian film director Michael Haneke's latest, The White Ribbon: A German Children's Story, has already won the Palme d'Or. The chances are it'll pick up Best Foreign Film at next month's Oscars, too. Critics have heaped praise upon it, and art-house audiences have flocked to see it. You see, there's just something about Haneke's work that culture vultures can't stick their beaks into quick enough.
Which, in its way, is puzzling. Not because Haneke is not a talented filmmaker. Far from it, in fact. From their stately structures to the languorous, deliberately disconcerting extended takes, his films are always painstakingly crafted. No detail is accidental, no thing unthought. No, what's puzzling about Haneke's popularity amongst those who take their films nearly as seriously as they take themselves is that his films are so desolating. Almost every review of Haneke's work gushes with the same adjectives: disturbing, disquieting, discomfiting. Haneke's films don't please, they unsettle. They are the artistic equivalent of middle-class masochism.
Funny Games, for instance, was the heartwarming tale of a nice bourgeois family tortured to death by a couple of boys in tennis kit. The Piano Teacher was the groin-girding story of a nice bourgeois society driving a libidinous pianist to torture her genitals. Hidden was an endearing portrait of a nice bourgeois couple tortured to distraction by post- colonial guilt, and unfathomable surveillance. But it's not just the content that is so dismal. Formally, too, his films resist pleasure. Almost without fail they refuse to resolve themselves into anything resembling a conclusion. This is hardly surprising: agency in his work, whether that of psychotic kids or camcorder-wielding stalkers, is without reason. Bad things happen, that's all we on Earth can know.
The White Ribbon: A German Children's Story is no exception to Haneke's rule of thumb – build something dispiriting and the plaudits will come. Set in a German village on the eve of the First World War, it centres around several inexplicable acts of cruelty and misadventure that perplex the small community. The local doctor is sent tumbling from his horse by a trip wire; a female labourer has a fatal accident at the saw mill; the son of the village baron is found hanging upside down in a barn, his backside bleeding following a severe beating. Misfortune and malice continue to afflict the locals. And they, along with us, have no real idea, but plenty of suspicions, as to who is causing this.
The chief suspects are ostensibly the village children, a ghostly bunch that congregate near the houses of victims. Whether this is out of concern or cruelty we are never sure. But Haneke has a deeper motive than creating some Turn of the Screw-style ambiguity around pallid kids, or even a whodunit, with no who and little dunit. His concern, rather, seems to be with a society that breeds cruelty.
Consequently, the village here functions as Haneke's view of society as a whole. It's a study in psychopathology, a portrait of a community in which cruelty is mundane and evil banal. Haneke seems to want us to see this village as an incubator for some coming monstrosity. Little wonder that every relationship is packed full of latent violence, each interactions pregnant with menace. And given the film's pre-First World War German setting, we can be in little doubt that Haneke intends us to see where and when the seeds of fascism were sown.
The problem with all this is that it is so thoroughly hackneyed. The principle unit of socialisation here – the family – is portrayed as little more than a Freudian caricature, which, given that Haneke studied psychology in Vienna, is perhaps apt. Still, that doesn't make it any more edifying an insight. From the doctor 'fingering' his 14-year-old daughter to the pastor tying his son's arms to the bed to stop him from masturbating, abuse and repression is the familial norm here. And so it must be if Haneke is to reduce the brutal extremes of Nazism to a psychological sickness generated in the bosom of the family.
Perverting the great psychoanalyst himself, one child, Erna, asks her teacher 'if you dream of something, really dream of something, can it come true?'. Her dream? The torture and near blinding of the local disabled kid. The suggestion is clear. The routine repression, often cruel, always damaging, is creating psychotic dreamwork, and dreams here, as the eventual torture and near blinding of the local disabled kid show, do become real.
To Haneke, this is just how it is – 'the truth is obscene', he said in a recent interview. All he's doing is making us see. And what a vision it is. In Haneke's films, human society is sunken, rank, a place where mass culture is dumb, where people, turned on and tuned off by TV, are cruel and complacent, and where families will, for time immemorial, f*** you up. Socialisation here is virtually synonymous with corruption.
Why is this vision so popular? What is it about this crass, aloof moralising that is so attractive? The answer lies in the question. In Haneke, every countercultural prejudice, from the perils of consumerism and mainstream entertainment to the denunciation of the family, is given a sophisticated artistic form. Never has liberal snobbery looked so clever.
You need more than rugby to bury Apartheid
'One Team, One Country.' The team was the Springboks; the country was South Africa. The slogan was the brainwave of Edward Griffiths, who was CEO of the South African rugby union and communications director of the South Africa rugby team during the 1995 World Cup.
On 24 June 1995, 43million South Africans came together to watch the Springboks beat the New Zealand All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final at the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. Invictus, a new film directed by Clint Eastwood and based on John Carlin's book Playing The Enemy, celebrates this feat as the crowning moment in Nelson Mandela's campaign to forge a new, democratic South Africa. Non-South Africans may wonder: why rugby?
For South Africans, rugby is a big deal. It was the sport of the hated ruling Afrikaners and as much an icon of Apartheid as the orange-white- blue flag of the old regime or its national anthem 'Die Stem'. No black person would be associated with the sport on principle. Football was the game of black South Africa, while Indians, like my family, played cricket. Everyone (including all the prisoners incarcerated with Mandela on Robben Island) always supported the away-team against South Africa. My mother still supports England against South Africa – old habits die hard.
As much as rugby was hated by the black majority, it inspired a religious fervour in the Afrikaners. They had suffered under the sports boycott that prevented South Africa from competing internationally in the one sport it excelled at. Mandela's eureka moment was to recognise that if he could win the hearts and minds of the Afrikaners through their one great passion, rugby, then governing the new South Africa would be a great deal easier. With the 1995 Rugby World Cup being held in South Africa, Mandela saw an ideal opportunity to unite the country. But winning over the black masses to his PR campaign was not going to be easy.
The campaign around the Rugby World Cup reflected the realpolitik of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). During the struggle to overthrow Apartheid, the ANC had allied itself with the Communist Party (SACP) – and the SACP's rhetoric was far more effective at mobilising the black masses than the elitist middle-class nationalism of the ANC leadership. But in power, after the first democratic elections of 1994 following Mandela's release from prison in 1990, the ANC was eager to shake off its communist and working-class allies and build new alliances with the middle classes and capitalist elites in South Africa. What better means than rugby to achieve this new coalition?
Invictus, Latin for 'unconquered', is the title of a short poem by the British poet William Ernest Henley. Mandela used to recite it to himself while in prison. Eastwood's film focuses on the build-up to the World Cup final and the developing bond between Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) and Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman). Damon is a convincing Afrikaner, while Freeman, who has been Oscar-nominated for his performance, is an uncanny look-a-like for Mandela. He's so impressive that I can forgive the odd lapse in pronunciation. It doesn't matter that he says 'perry' instead of 'petty' and 'Springbucks' instead of 'Springboks', because in every other way he is very credible.
Alongside this pivotal relationship, there are some lighter comedic moments, too, like the understandably indignant reactions of the newly appointed black bodyguards who find themselves having to work alongside those who once protected FW de Klerk's Apartheid government. The white guards talk rugby; the blacks don't. They are puzzled by Mandela's newfound interest in the sport, especially when he overrides a decision by the militant government sports department to change the name of the team from the hated Springboks to the more neutral Proteas.
Why take such a stubborn stand over such a petty issue, Mandela's secretary asks him? Mandela responds that if he can't face up to hard decisions now, then he never will. This recognition of the difficulty of forging a new alliance underpins the worldwide respect and admiration for Mandela.
Towards the end of the film, a Boeing 747 flies low over Johannesburg; its thunderous roar terrifying the 62,000 in the stadium waiting for the big rugby final to start. Then, when the plane's underside with the words 'Good Luck Bokke' painted on it in giant black letters, become visible, terror turns to delight. Just before kick-off, Mandela walks on to the field to meet the Springboks team. 'Nelson, Nelson, Nelson ' call the crowds ecstatically, and the chants are shown reverberating in living rooms and pubs around South Africa.
I left the cinema feeling a little teary – but optimistic, too. It may be because as a South African living abroad at the time, I wasn't there when the masses celebrated Mandela's release; I wasn't there when the nation queued to vote in the first democratic election; and I missed this last euphoric moment when rugby briefly united a country.
Today, it all feels like a long time ago. The assertion of ethnic rights, the desperate protests in the squatter camps and the squabble over resources in a period of global recession have seen to that. Will this year's football World Cup achieve something similar? Or is the belief that sport can bring unity and purpose to a divided country nothing but a chimera, like the rainbow that disappears when the sun is no longer shining?
A Single Man (2009)
A Single Man: all style, no substance?
Tom Ford's directorial debut A Single Man, based on the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel, is a thing of beauty. From a lingering shot of a perfectly mascaraed eyelash to a languorous close-up of full, plump lips dragging protractedly on a cigarette, Eros makes his presence felt everywhere.
It's not just the human form itself that is so enchanting – and enchanted – here. Objects, too, whether a car dashboard or man's suit, ooze sex appeal. Unfortunately, it is this aspiration to the sublime, this self-consciously artful approach, not to mention the too- mentionable fact that Ford is a fashion designer, that has led some critics to wonder if there's too much surface in this movie. A Single Man looks wonderful, they say, but it glosses its content, it loses its depth. Even the excellent Colin Firth – slim to the point of ripped – looks just too damn good.
Which is strange, you'd think, given the depressed subject matter. Set in Los Angeles in 1962, A Single Man is a day in the life of aging English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth), who's struggling to come to terms with the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car crash. It is ostensibly a portrait of a grieving man, one whose mourning for the man he loves and has now lost is stunted and repressed. After all, you can't mourn for a love which, even in the early 1960s, still dare not speak its name. He wasn't even invited to the funeral.
But while A Single Man is a sometimes moving study of living after the end of one's reason for living, its scope is broader. The Western world, too, seems at its end. In the background, the Cuban missile crisis is playing itself out, a symbol, it seems, of a world poised on the edge of self-annihilation. But the sense of exhaustion, the sense of a world consuming itself, goes deeper. While there might well be a postwar boom, with cars and TVs and dental products available everywhere, there is little in the way of euphoria. Rather there is a sense that something is being lost, that the best which has been thought and said in the world, the Great Tradition, the liberal arts, is being lost to the unfeeling, virtueless world of commerce and consumerism.
Not for nothing is our single man here a professor of English, a voice of that disappearing world of high culture. Assessing his current students, Falconer notes that they 'aspire to nothing more than a corporate job' and raising families of 'Coke-drinking, TV-watching children'.
If Falconer himself is struggling to see a reason for going on, for living after the end, A Single Man is also struggling to see much future for humanity as a whole. In the portentous words of Kenny, Falconer's flirty, arch student, 'Death is the future'.
But if the death drive in a decadent early 60s California seems to be in the ascendance in A Single Man – a fact rather unsubtly emphasised by the inclusion in Ford's screenplay of the question of whether Falconer will shoot himself – it also explains why the film seems so concerned with surfaces, with enchanting the appearance of things. To death, to Thanatos, A Single Man counterposes life, Eros. He might be stranded in a dying, muffled world, but beauty is constantly arresting and taking possession of Falconer. While a colleague harangues him about nuclear war, Falconer's attention is caught by two men playing tennis, their naked chests and stomachs glistening in the autumnal heat; while a secretary is informing him that someone has asked for his address, Falconer is drawn to her eyes, her mouth, her hair. A Single Man sublimates. It gives to the everyday an allure, a beauty which, just occasionally, will take Falconer away from his dream of death.
But only occasionally. Because it can't stop time. Throughout A Single Man the loudly ticking clock is a symbol of the harsh, unsentimental, all-too-rationalising modern world. It is also the herald of the inevitable. Little wonder that in A Single Man, that which is not a product of human thought and society, that which is not rational – namely, feeling and sentiment – is idealised. 'Sometimes I have moments of absolute clarity', remarks Falconer. 'I can feel, rather than think; the world feels so fresh. It's as though it just came into existence.' The desire to stop time, to have the 'now' forever is as suicidally death-laden as the world that is exhausting culture, killing feeling. But in A Single Man this decadent posture becomes an ideology. It urges a plunge – literally so, given the underwater body imagery – into a world of pure sensation, of pure, thoughtless physicality. In other words, an immersion in surfaces.
A Single Man bears an uncanny resemblance to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. But Mann's novella was an ironic portrait of art in the era of its impossibility. Things were too easily disenchanted; there was no elevated meaning to be embodied in art, religious or otherwise. Instead, beauty was too easily reducible to sexuality, the sublime to sublimated homosexuality. A Single Man, however, refuses to break the spell; it refuses to yield to the temptation to reveal the sex-and-sweat root of its aesthetic – for all the homosexual longing, there is no sex in this vision.
Instead, the vision, despite its subject matter, is almost uplifting, almost affirmative – there is life after the end, it seems to say. 'I had a hunch you were a romantic', Kenny tells Falconer. And so he must remain in this beautifully superficial film.
Dirty Oil (2009)
What's wrong with exploiting nature?
Michael Moore and Al Gore have a lot to answer for. They popularised the campaigning documentary, with films such as Roger and Me, Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth, and now new docs are being pumped out faster than Saudi crude. And 'crude' is a decent summation of the ideas contained in most of them.
Dirty Oil says this has 'staggering' environmental costs. The extraction process is messy, leaving huge pools of 'tailings', a mix of water and sand with an unhealthy dose of some nasty, bitumen-related chemicals. The film suggests that the pollution from the extraction process threatens the health of local people and wildlife. Worse, the carbon emissions from this 'dirty' oil are helping to push the world towards catastrophic climate change.
The film opens by asking Americans where they think their oil comes from. 'Saudi Arabia' and 'the Middle East' are the common answers. Wrong. As a Canadian journalist notes: 'For the past seven years, Canada has been the number one supplier of oil to the United States We are the new Saudi Arabia.' The press notes for Dirty Oil actually state that: 'It is a little known fact that America imports the majority of its oil from Canada and not the Middle East.' But this is nonsense. The biggest single source of America's oil is America itself; 36 per cent of US crude is produced domestically. It's a far cry from the glory days when the US produced all its own oil, but it does put into perspective the idea that the US is dependent on unstable dictatorships to keep chugging along, and rather makes a mockery of the idea that the Iraq War was really a war for oil.
After this dubious start, obviously aimed at convincing Americans that This Stuff Really Matters, Dirty Oil takes us to the new oil boom town of Fort McMurray, where a 26-year-old worker describes how he manages to earn $100,000 per year: driving a truck that's the size of an average house. The truck is 30 feet wide, 30 feet high and 50 feet long. We are encouraged to fret about these monsters tearing up the landscape. I just thought how cool it would be to drive one. Surely the ability to organise such a huge operation – you need to shift about two tonnes of oil sand to get one barrel of oil, and yet the area produces 1.3million barrels per day – is worthy of a little awe?
Dirty Oil claims that oil-sand extraction is damaging the health of local people. Down river in the town of Fort Chipewyan, Dr John O'Connor claims that he has seen an extraordinarily high number of rare cancers in a community of indigenous people who rely on fishing for food. However, far from investigating his claims – so the film tells us – the health authorities have brought a case against him for causing 'undue alarm'. The film suggests this is a case of the little man being stomped on by the big corporation. So depressed is Dr O'Connor by these proceedings that he eventually leaves the area and returns to Nova Scotia, broken by a big conspiracy against a whistle-blower.
The big claim of the film is right there in the title: this is 'dirty oil'. The extraction process requires a lot of energy from natural gas, which means that the whole process produces three times as many greenhouse gas emissions as conventional oil production. However, some perspective is required. The majority of carbon emissions involved with creating and using petroleum products comes from burning them in vehicle engines. Taking that into account, petrol derived from oil sands in Canada produces only 15 per cent more carbon emissions than petrol from conventional sources.
Even if we accept the wilder claims about what climate change will mean for humanity, the answer is surely to move to an economy based on low- carbon technologies, not to fret about particular sources of fuel. Alberta's oil boom will end when we no longer need the oil. That means developing forms of transport that use electricity not oil, and power sources like wind, solar, geothermal and – most importantly – nuclear. These technologies could have benefits that go well beyond reducing carbon emissions. But they need time to mature and be rolled out. We need economic growth to pay for these things – and keeping the oil flowing is crucial to that.
While Dirty Oil suggests that we shift to renewable energy sources, it also provides a childish view of the relationship between big business and the rest of society. This is 'big people picking on little people and assuming that they can get away with it', says a spokesperson for the green group the Natural Resources Defense Council. The film also suggests that it is somehow our individual greed which, by creating demand for this 'dirty' oil, is screwing up the planet. But there's nothing wrong with wanting to be better off; the whole world should enjoy the living standards of the average American. Cheap, reliable energy is absolutely essential for that. Alberta's oil boom is set to continue for many years to come.
Sons of Cuba (2009)
Sons of Cuba: a knockout doc
How do you deal with the pressures of competing in sport at a high level? What sacrifices would you make and how would you cope with defeat, knowing that your best wasn't good enough? And what if you had to confront all that when you're not even 12 years old?
These are the questions the young boys at the Havana City Boxing Academy grapple with in Andrew Lang's debut documentary Sons of Cuba. The academy is one of a number dotted around Cuba where the pick of the nation's boys live, train and study, all hoping to emulate the dozens of previous amateur world and Olympic medallists – including three-time Olympic champions Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon – who have represented the Caribbean island. With a population of just 11million, the country's success in boxing is extraordinary, built on a Stalinist prioritisation of sport as a way of providing a positive image to the world at large.
There are peculiar factors involved in Cuba's ascendancy in the world of boxing. Firstly, there is the drilling of children from an early age to become elite sports stars, typical of Soviet-style societies. For Cuba, the sport of choice has been boxing. Secondly, there is the advantage that the country's best fighters remain in the amateur ranks, so they can compete in the Olympics and the world championships again and again, while in most other countries amateur success is merely a stepping stone to the professional ranks. For example, Britain's Olympic Wunderkind from 2004, Amir Khan, lost out on gold to the veteran Cuban Mario Kindelan, but has since gone on to claim a version of the world light- welterweight title as a professional (though he defeated Kindelan in a rematch in what would prove to be Khan's last amateur fight).
Cuba is still scarred by buildings that are falling apart and beyond repair, while the much-admired Fifties cars that sparsely populate the country's roads are unreliable, kept in use out of sheer necessity. Even today, Cubans struggle to get from A to B, queuing at street corners to hitch a ride on anything that has wheels and that is going vaguely in their direction.
The making of Sons of Cuba coincides with other traumas for Cubans. The ill-health of their long-time leader Fidel Castro, who announces he is stepping aside in favour of his brother, Raul. With the constant sense of threat from the US and the privations of the Special Period, the loss of their leader only adds to Cubans' sense of uncertainty. For the boys in the boxing club, this uncertainty is compounded by the defection of some of the country's leading fighters to the US, something seen as the worst kind of betrayal.
Yet for all the peculiarities of the Cuban situation, Sons of Cuba deals with many very universal themes, too. For example, the relationship between Cristian and his father is an intriguing one. Luis Felipe is clearly a fairly arrogant man who has fallen on hard times and lives on past glories. He is pretty hard on his son, who he believes will never be as good as him. Yet when he finally realises that his son might be good enough to be a champion, too, he is reduced to tears of joy. If you do catch Sons of Cuba, bring the Kleenex; behind the machismo, this is a deeply touching story.
If there is a problem with Sons of Cuba, it is the nagging feeling we've been here before. The low-budget documentary, following the lives of people through a familiar narrative, which ends with some kind of triumph over adversity. A good and equally entertaining example from last year was Sounds Like Teen Spirit, the story of children trying to win the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. Of course, a director needs to find some kind of way of pulling the material together to make sense of it all, but there is the danger that the resulting story is a little trite.
But if the triumph-over-adversity story arc is a little too familiar, the joy of Sons of Cuba is in the detail, and in the very human range of emotions that the boys – and their mentors – go through along the way.
Crazy Heart (2009)
Crazy Heart: another Hollywood sermon
Last Sunday, Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for his performance as Bad Blake, an ageing country-and-western star, in Crazy Heart. For me, about three- quarters into the film, which has a good soundtrack and some fine acting, I got the sinking feeling that I'd been tricked. A pretty good movie had turned into a grating sermon.
Most movies about musicians show them trying to deal with pressures through booze and drugs, and inevitably self-destructing. But my own experience as a touring musician for 30 years is that while I've seen a few burnouts, they're a small minority. The smart ones quit their destructive habits - or quit touring. The even smarter ones learn how to pace themselves, and still have a good time. Watching Bad Blake chain- smoke and swill whisky, though, I would have bet any money that Hollywood wasn't going to let him out of this movie alive.
For a while, things start looking up for Bad. He meets Jean, a rather implausibly young and attractive woman with a cute little son called Buddy. Will Bad be true to his name and blow it? Well, he almost does, when he drives his car off the road and wakes up in hospital. This is the moment of reckoning. His broken ankle will heal, the doctor says, but if he doesn't stop smoking and drinking and lose 25 pounds, he will soon die from cancer, emphysema, a stroke, or all three.
Bad then leaves the hospital and promptly goes back on the sauce. I watched the film in New York, and there were audible groans as he lit a cigarette. I wanted to cheer, which I guess shows me up as an irredeemable degenerate. I apologise: it was becoming clear, at this point in the movie, that Bad was an alcoholic, and I know very well that an alcoholic is not a good thing to be. I know this because I've known a few alcoholics.
So Bad has been warned, but will not listen. And here comes the thunderbolt. Bad is trusted to take his girlfriend's son out for the afternoon, but while he's ordering a drink, the kid wanders off.
Never mind that this happens not in, say, a war zone, but in a shopping mall. Never mind that the shopping mall is teeming with security guards, who find little Buddy in about five minutes (after pausing briefly to lecture Bad about his drinking). Never mind that little boys will sometimes wander off if you take your eyes off them for three seconds. Never mind that this could have happened to anyone, even if they'd stopped to buy a Bible instead of a bourbon. Jean is outraged and the relationship is over.
Once again, we expect Bad to crash and burn. But what actually happens is, given the politically correct climate of today's Hollywood, probably the only possible alternative: the polar opposite. Bad goes to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
I confess I have my own bias here. I'm convinced that many people are in AA for peculiar, narcissistic reasons. I've been to a few AA meetings myself, as a guest and observer, and they gave me the creeps. The people I've known who have quit drinking without AA have all seemed healthier and less neurotic, and it strikes me as sad that the only alternative to self-destruction should be a quasi-religious cult, with a Holy Book, a set of rules and its own Devil; booze continues to occupy a place of dark, exalted power in these peoples' lives.
I'm not the first to point out that we live in strangely puritanical times, in which everything is seen as dangerously 'addictive' and the road to Redemption lies in therapy. Nevertheless, I try to put my personal reservations about AA aside when people say it has saved their lives. It's pretty hard to argue with that. Yet Crazy Heart does seem to me to reflect a climate in which people are obsessed with risk- prevention, in which children are wrapped in cotton wool, and no middle ground is seen between destructive excess and puritanical self-denial.
Oddly enough, though, when Bad goes back to Jean, apologising from the bottom of his heart and promising to stay clean and sober, she rejects him. She rejects him even though he's willing to sacrifice the name he's always used and go back to the one he was christened with, which, of course, turns out to be something humble and vaguely funny: Otis.
This was puzzling to me. Maybe she's one of those women who, having got the kind of nice, safe, unthreatening modern man she thought she wanted, doesn't find him so sexy any more. Maybe she's still punishing Bad/Otis for the shopping mall incident. Then again, maybe the filmmakers are punishing him for disobeying doctors' orders. One thing's for sure: while Bad may be better off without his drinking problem, all the colour, humour and fun seem to go out of the movie along with it. Bad may have been bad, but Otis is kind of boring.
I suppose Crazy Heart is well-intentioned, and has a valid story to tell. But I wonder how many people were, like me, left pining for the kind of old Frank Sinatra movie in which an entertainer's life is one big party and people admire and envy him for it. I couldn't help trying to imagine Bad Blake as played by, say, Dean Martin or Robert Mitchum. And I couldn't help mentally writing my own alternate ending. Two of them, in fact.
In the first one, Bad eases up on the gas pedal, loses 10 or 15 pounds (he really didn't need to lose 25), gets a shave and a decent haircut - and gets the girl. In the second, he roars off into the night, as ornery as ever, clutching a bottle of bourbon and telling us all to go to hell.
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Still haunted by The Ghost of Blair
The Ghost is a film a little too haunted by reality.
In the first instance, the knowledge that The Ghost's director Roman Polanski is currently holed up in a Swiss jail awaiting possible extradition to the US to face decades-old sexual assault charges can, if you let it, insinuate its way into the viewing experience. The fact that he edited the film while incarcerated only adds to the intrigue. Maybe The Ghost captures something of Polanski's state of mind? Perhaps it articulates, at some level, the vision of a man, who like its key protagonist, the ex-British PM Adam Lang, has been exiled and demonised?
All of which is a bit distracting. Given that Polanski turned to Robert Harris's novel The Ghost almost as an afterthought, following the collapse of their original project Pompei due to the screenwriters' strike, there is definitely a risk of reading too much of Polanski's biography into this adaptation. But in the second case of real life haunting fiction, the spectre can't so easily be dismissed.
The Ghost of the endlessly playful title, is an unnamed ghost writer (played by Ewan McGregor), commissioned to write the memoirs of the former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) following the mysterious death of his former ghost writer, Mike McAra. The thing about Lang is that he is more than a little reminiscent of former PM Tony Blair. He was swept into power on a wave of personal popularity – 'everyone voted for him; he wasn't a politician, he was a craze', says the ghost. He then led Britain into a massively unpopular war in Iraq. From which, judging by his exile in the bleak New England winter, he is yet to recover. He also has a super-smart, put-upon wife, played by Olivia Williams, which might or might not be Cherie Blair.
The Ghost takes this partial mirroring of Blair's own trajectory that one step further – into full-on anti-Iraq War fantasy. For Lang is not only vilified by those who were once besotted with him – he is also due to face trial before The Hague War Crimes Tribunal for approving so- called torture flights. Into this volatile, conspiratorial mix steps the innocent hack abroad, tasked with the job of ghosting Lang's memoirs, and unwittingly discovering the truth of Lang's rise and fall.
What saves this from being a clumsy exercise in Blair-bashing is the lightness of touch. From a decent, playful thriller, Polanski has produced a noirish, almost comic thriller. Helped by Alexandre Desplat's quirky, retro score, not to mention the twisting, turning narrative, The Ghost refuses to take itself too seriously. Despite the subject matter, despite the director's own situation, this is no brooding, high-minded exploration of corruption, of innocence lost. It's a playful, witty pastiche.
This may come as a surprise to anyone expecting the evisceration of New Labour's deposed, now despised, prince. Especially so given that Harris himself was once a close friend of the Blairs up until the Iraq War. Talking of the novel, Harris explained that it was born of 'a sort of disillusion and a sort of anger that Britain went along with something which seemed so, even at the time, to be a bridge too far and rather illogical'. This angry incredulity is expressed in an exchange the ghost writer has with an old man he meets while out for an abortive bike ride. 'He seems intelligent', the old man says of Lang, 'so why'd he get get mixed up with that damn fool in the White House?'. The ghost's reply echoes the demand for a thousand inquiries on the part of disillusioned New Labour supporters: 'That's what everyone wants to know.'
And that's the strange part, the revealing part, if you like. The Ghost's focus on a Blair-like figure as the source of the souring, the corruption of that bright New Labour, New World dawn in 1997 refuses to yield a sufficient explanation for what went wrong. As much as Harris, an author once enamoured with Blair but now disenchanted, wants to pin the downfall of New Labour on Blair, and the decision to invade Iraq, it just doesn't quite make sense. It's a 'bridge too far'; it's 'illogical'. Or rather, if it is logical, if Blair-cum-Lang really was the central reason for what went wrong, then it must play itself out as an incredible conspiracy, a Manchurian candidate for the anti-Iraq War generation.
This, to an extent, is what The Ghost does. And in doing so with its tongue often wedged firmly in its cheek, it not only satirises Blair and his cronies, but Blair-bashing itself.
Will Generation X ever grow up?
Noah Baumbach's Greenberg is a coming-of-middle-age story of the eponymous Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), whose affair with an aspiring singer, 15 years his junior, gives him a new lease of life.
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is all New York: a neurotic, self-obsessed hypochondriac devoted to pedestrianism and kvetching. Recently dispatched from a mental hospital, he returns to his hometown, Los Angeles – the land of sunshine, pool parties, farmers' markets and yoga studios – to 'do nothing' while house-sitting for his brother, a Hollywood Hills hotshot who is on a six-week holiday in Vietnam with his wife and kids.
But Greenberg fails on all accounts. His sister-in-law's 20-year-old daughter throws a mayhem house party, the family dog contracts an auto- immune disorder and a $3000 vet bill, and Greenberg starts up an awkward affair with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother's family assistant.
While Greenberg is immersed in a midlife crisis – a failed rock musician turned carpenter wondering where the first half of his life went and what the hell to do with what's left of it – Florence is approaching her thirties, getting more and more disillusioned as she drifts further away from her college years. Living in a tiny studio apartment, doing the rounds at open-mike nights and trying to get over a failed relationship, Florence is a ditsy, mumbling lost soul prone to putting others before herself.
Greenberg's old friends are busy running their own businesses, making fancy dress costumes for their kids and going through divorce. When explaining to an old ex that he has decided to come to LA to 'do nothing for a while', she responds 'that's brave – at our age'.
Greenberg is trying to convince himself, as much as those around him, that being a temporary drifter at 40 is a worthwhile pursuit. It doesn't have much truck in this circle, where success is measured by whether or not you've managed to settle down, have kids and buy a detached house with a swimming pool. Here it's not so much the rat race as the yummy- mummy race that matters. How long can Greenberg fool himself that settling down to routines is not his dream, too?
Greenberg's misanthropic cynicism jars with the sun-drenched affluence of his brother and childhood friends. Pondering the ways of the younger generation, his gloomy best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who is staying in a motel as his marriage is failing, observes that youth really is wasted on the young. 'I'd go further', responds Greenberg, 'I'd say life is wasted on people'.
Greenberg's encounters with the younger generation at once confirms his despondency and salvages his hopes for a life worth living. When it comes to Florence, she is in some sense a younger version of him. Direction-less, socially fallen by the wayside, and filled with hopeless dreams of becoming a singer. But where Greenberg is curmudgeonly, bitter and egotistic, Florence is caring and lets herself be trampled on all too easily. More importantly, she has 15 years either to end up as Greenberg or to make something of her life. While, at first, this is an irritating reminder to Greenberg of what he could have made of his life, it is also a glimmer of hope that eventually rubs off on him.
The twentysomethings who take over Greenberg's house one night for a drug-fuelled party are also a painful reminder to him that the time of dreaming about the future rather than living in it is over. Their self- assuredness and sense of self-entitlement freaks him out. 'The thing about you kids', he tells them, 'is you're all kind of insensitive. I'm glad I grew up when I did because your parents were too perfect at parenting, all that Baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs. You're so sincere and interested in things. There's a confidence in you guys that's horrifying.'
Greenberg fancies himself as a person who has learnt about life the hard way. But we don't really get to know much about his past – apart from the fact that he blew his chance at a record deal and from there, it seems, everything went downhill.
Mainly, Greenberg comes across as a Woody Allen with a humour failure, a New Yorker who hates Manhattan. He channels his anger into petty letters of complaints to 'evil corporations': American Airlines' seats don't recline properly, Pet-Taxis' floors are too hard, Starbucks' has 'manufactured culture out of fast food'.
Greenberg is a film that explores tensions – between genders, generations and lifestyles. The juxtaposition between New York and LA is pivotal, too. Baumbach wants to challenge the image of LA as a vacuous, celebrity-fixated, silicone-scape and presents it as a real city, a place where you can raise a family and lead a normal life within easy reach of natural beauty. By contrast, when Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer follows his lover to LA in Annie Hall, he is appalled by the health-conscious, mantra-chanting Californians and can't wait to get back to the Big Apple. Here, however, LA is Greenberg's path to happiness.
Greenberg is a believable and considered film about the ageing Generation X, preoccupied with self-fulfilment, therapy and political correctness. It shows a world filled with the people that the term 'the worried well' was invented for. But you get the feeling that rather than recognising the limits that this navel-gazing generation's lifestyle has come up against, Baumbach is trying to salvage it.
Lymelife: infected by the American Dream
Derick Martini's Lymelife is a funny and profoundly moving portrait of the American family. The film examines the highs and lows of those trying to fulfil the American dream - from the thrill of success to the devastating feeling of personal failure.
Set in Long Island in the 1970s, the film exposes the dark side of what looks like a suburban paradise, tracking the ups and downs of two dysfunctional families living through this tumultuous decade. The story revolves around the shy, awkward, 15-year-old Scott (Rory Culkin), whose family is enclosed in a world of pessimism and regret whilst an outbreak of Lyme disease threatens their community.
Scott's father Mickey (Alec Baldwin) is a workaholic determined to be, as he puts it, a 'chaser', not a loser. Mickey's wife Brenda (Jill Hennessy) is forced to endure the burden of his desperate need for success – pushing the couple to the edge of divorce. In the midst of all this turmoil, Scott develops a crush on his next-door neighbour, Adrianna (Emma Roberts). She seems to be the only person in the world who is sympathetic to Scott's sensitivity as she also comes from a troubled family. Her depressed mother Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) is caught up in a clandestine love affair and her father Charlie (Timothy Hutton) is slowly losing his battle against Lyme disease.
True, Lymelife brings to mind several other coming-of-age indie flicks and the central story – geeky boy from weird family in American suburb falls in love with the girl next door – is not very original. Still, Lymelife is far from a run-of-the-mill Sundance contender. The exceptional performances by the blue-chip cast, combined with a gritty narrative, raises it above the level of the average independent movie.
Take the scene where Mickey and Brenda are arguing over how to punish Scott for brutally beating up a school mate (a real bully who, frankly, deserved the thrashing). Here, a typical parental conflict escalates into a whirlwind of vulgar language, animated body language and frustrated facial expressions, making it a deeply moving scene. It's a very realistic moment and the audience is compelled to consider how these kinds of domestic scenes affect innocent children. In Lymelife, Scott and Adrianna are suffering from their parents' shattering marriages, whilst trying to adjust to the frightening world of adulthood.
The dark side of the film is made bearable by Martini's use of double entendres and wit, smoothing over some of the choking intensity. This is executed through the endless disputes and futile quarrels between Scott's parents, reducing them to childlike behaviour and leading to roaring moments of laughter both on and off the screen. However, this also sometimes detracts from the seriousness of the film and the message it tries to convey.
Overall, Martini has drawn from a deep well of the kinds of meaningful people, circumstances and events that we are all bound to encounter at some point of our lives. Martini has admitted that the film is 'more than a semi-autobiography', featuring events that occurred in his childhood, including a family friend contracting Lyme disease.
In the film, the aggressive outbreak of Lyme disease spreads anxiousness and paranoia - as it did in real life in 1970s America. After contracting the disease, Charlie slowly drifts away from reality into an unknown and lonely world, triggering obsessive behaviour. This is painful to watch as we witness a man stripped of his pride and exposed to all kinds of humiliations. Hutton captures well the nervous movements and erratic behaviour of a person afflicted by the illness; his performance is compelling and at the same time distressing.
In Lymelife, the outbreak of Lyme disease is also an extended metaphor. Just like epidemics will have corrosive effects if an illness goes untreated, Martini seems to be saying, so rifts will emerge in relationships if the people involved do not confront their problems. In the film, the effects are evident: failed marriages, deep distrust, emotional damage.
Lyme disease is transmitted by a bite from a blood-sucking parasite which normally lives on deer. In a scene in the film, a herd of deer is galloping freely in the woods. They are meant to symbolise the desire of Matt and Adrianna – and countless other children – to run away from their intolerable lives. But then, the woods become more dense, confining the movement of the deer – just like Matt and Adrianna are blocked by the obstacles set up by the circumstances of their families and community.
Lymelife shows the effect that individuals' pursuit of success and happiness can have on the people around them. Here, it is Mickey's family that pays the price for his desperate attempts at chasing the American Dream. Behind the idyllic white picket fences of American suburbia lurks a not so black-and-white world that Martini exposes in an engaging and moving way.
The A-Team (2010)
Pity the fool who doesn't enjoy this film
When I heard that they were making a movie of The A-Team, I fully expected a Thanksgiving-size turkey. I was never a massive fan of the TV series, which despite the running theme of good guys versus the government always felt like a smug, popular-culture expression of Ronald Reagan's politics. Just because you can remember the catchphrases doesn't mean it was any good.
The TV show was formulaic down to having exactly the same stunt - a car spinning over sideways - in every episode. Why bother making a film of it? Since there have been few enjoyable remakes of old American TV shows - only the Ben Stiller / Owen Wilson parody of Starsky and Hutch springs to mind - the omens were not good.
The film version of The A-Team is not merely over-the-top. It's in a geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above over-the-top. Ridiculous does not even begin to describe it.
There's the way 'Hannibal' Smith (Liam Neeson), having been beaten half to death by crooked Mexican cops, avoids being shot with his own gun by the forward thinking of taking the firing pin out - and then uses said firing pin to free himself from his handcuffs which he then puts on the two nasty-looking dogs sent to finish him off. And then says 'I love it when a plan comes together!'
Then there's the way Smith randomly chances upon another former US Army Ranger, BA Baracus (played by cage-fighting star Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson) - who has just had to beat up an entire gang of Mexican smugglers to get his beloved GMC van back - in the middle of the Mexican desert. The two of them go off to rescue Smith's partner, 'Faceman' Peck (Bradley Cooper), crashing into the gang's camp just as 'Face' is about to be burned alive (although he's still laughing and joking about it all, naturally).
The crew then dash off to a local mental asylum where they are told that the best pilot (and biggest lunatic ever), Captain HM 'Howling Mad' Murdock, can be found. Having sprung Murdock, the four make their escape in a hospital chopper which is then chased by the nutty Mexicans in a helicopter gunship. Having used a variety of ludicrous means to evade the gunship's missiles - including stalling their chopper to avoid heatseekers - the fearless four cross into US airspace where a jet fighter is conveniently ready to shoot down the Mexicans.
None of these facts are spoilers. All of these things happen before the opening titles.
The A-Team is like Hollywood Action Movie Lasagne: it's a layer of cliché, followed by a layer of implausibility, followed by another layer of cliché and so on, with the whole lot finished off with a sickly rich layer of computer-generated special effects. There's one spectacular set-piece after another. If anything, The A-Team tries just too damned hard to blow us away, to the point where the possibility that anything that is displayed on screen could actually happen becomes inconceivable.
While they were blowing all that money on CGI, they clearly didn't bother spending much on make-up. Liam Neeson's grey hair looks like it was done by the people responsible for the 'before' shots on those Just For Men adverts. In other words, it's every bit as implausible as the rest of the film.
And just when the implausibility ratings couldn't get any higher, the woman pursuing our friendly rogues, far from looking like The Freak from Prisoner Cell Block H (as you might expect a ball-breaking military chick to look), wears high heels, a sleek black leather coat and looks like Jessica Biel. (Oh, hang on, it is Jessica Biel.)
And yet, after watching half an hour of this utter nonsense, I noticed something else: I hadn't stopped smiling.
As one high-octane, tongue-in-cheek incident followed another, I found myself muttering 'No way!' as frequently as BA Baracus was grunting 'This is bullshit, man!'. In other words, a lot. Because the truth is that The A-Team is fun. Just leave your reality check at the door.
Not that action movies should ever try to be kitchen-sink dramas. In fact, this is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink drama. So it's one 'gag' - in the old Hollywood sense - after another. It's as much an homage to Buster Keaton, albeit a very loud, violent homage, as it is to the original A-Team TV show. And at least it doesn't take itself as seriously as Mission Impossible.
It's also got 'FRANCHISE' stamped all over it. At the very least, expect a sequel. For those familiar with the TV series, where Hannibal, Face, BA and Murdock are soldiers of fortune in the Los Angeles underground, this film is like a prequel: it ends where the TV series begins.
And don't worry if don't catch it at the cinema. If you've got a problem, and you know where to find a Blockbuster, you can hire The A- Team. On DVD, in a month or two, at least.
Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) (2010)
Serge and the soul of modern France
It would be difficult to make a dull film about someone as fearlessly unconventional as iconic French songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg (1928- 1991).
This, after all, was the man who coaxed a teenage starlet unwittingly to sing a song about oral sex; who outraged French nationalists by releasing a reggae version of 'La Marseillaise' with Jamaican musicians, Sly and Robbie; who propositioned Whitney Houston live on French TV. His sex obsession wasn't all talk, either; he seduced the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Gréco and Jane Birkin. In Britain, he is best known for the chart-topping moan-and-groanathon 'Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus' and largely remains a minority interest here. In France, however, he has long been held up as a national treasure, a symbol of Gallic panache, style and defiant rule-breaking. And today, you can't help wonder whether the French need him more than ever.
As a first-time director, Joann Sfar does a credible job with Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) in charting the many colourful incidents in Serge's career. There are so many rich pickings in Gainsbourg's life that some of them, the aforementioned Houston controversy and the 'Lemon Incest' single that he recorded with his daughter Charlotte, are left out. Likewise, Gainsbourg's relationships are sometimes covered in a sketchy way; his life with his first wife, Elisabeth 'Lize' Levitsky, is mentioned only fleetingly.
To be fair, though, Sfar appears intent on giving us a psychological portrait of Gainsbourg (superbly played by Eric Elmosnino), an exploration of what fuelled his demons, insecurities and ambitions. The film starts with the young Lucien Ginsburg - his real name - experiencing the degradations of Nazi-occupied Paris. As Jews, he and his family are forced to wear the yellow star and to look at grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures everywhere they turn. This is perhaps the most eye-catching part of Gainsbourg - it's an unflinching examination of French complicity in the persecution of its Jewish citizens. Elsewhere, the film notes how Gainsbourg's 'trouble making' was sometimes blamed on his Jewishness, and was therefore said to have played a part in stirring up anti-Semitism.
All of this is dealt with in an impressive, playful style: an anti- Semitic caricature from a Nazi poster comes to life and follows young Lucien around. Later on, a similar grotesque version of Gainsbourg himself, 'The Mug', acts as a sort of right-hand demon, willing Gainsbourg on to greater mischief, seduction and, importantly, artistic achievement.
We see Gainsbourg the struggling painter and writer, earning a crust playing muzak piano in Paris bars before discovering his real strengths as a witty lyricist and strikingly original songwriter capable of turning his hand to any musical genre. Curiously for a music biopic, Gainsbourg's songs only make cameo appearances, such as when Bardot (Laetitia Casta) zips up her boots to the sound of an instrumental version of Harley Davidson. And there's an amusing scene where, mid- 1970s, Gainsbourg tries his hand at jerky new wave – successfully – with his notorious 'Nazi Rock' single. Unfortunately, no amount of stylistic brilliance compensates for his declining 1980s period, wherein Gainsbourg's Olympian intake of cigarettes and alcohol took its toll on his appearance, voice and general demeanor. It almost unravels the iconography he created during his peak, but the fact he could still pull beautiful young women suggests he hadn't quite lost it.
The fascinating thing about Gainsbourg is as much what it says about contemporary France as about Serge's life. The film was released in France in the midst of a national debate on French identity. And since the fiasco of France's World Cup campaign in South Africa this summer – when the team revolted against the coach and suffered an ignominious early exit - this identity crisis has intensified. One French journalist reckons that the 'bad-tempered, illiterate and uncultured' national football team are symptomatic of a broader malaise across the whole of French society. The world of art, music and writing so lovingly portrayed in Gainsbourg is no doubt a forlorn reminder of the High Life that France was once fondly associated with.
Serge's musical gifts are an advertisement for the cultural gifts that the French nation has often given Europe and the rest of the world. But the film's recurring meditation on racism and anti-Semitism in France - and the constant shadow of Nazi collaboration - is also a signifier of national self-loathing and self-doubt. Indeed, last year's French remake of the Gaullist 1969 film Army of Shadows, retitled Army of Crime, acknowledged the French state's complicity in Nazi atrocities that the original left out. This would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
In this sense, France is going through a similar bout of national self- abasement to the one Britain has been experiencing for the past 10 years or so. Revelations and then movies about Britain's dirty war in Northern Ireland have become commonplace, as have apologies from on high for Britain's colonial record generally and its role in the African slave trade.
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was on to something when he said he was worried about the shift towards 'self-hatred' within French society and its potentially destructive impact. Unfortunately, his call for a debate about 'national identity' has been as clumsy as that initiated by British politicians, while his decision to stop Muslim women wearing the burqa in public suggests that France really has lost its understanding of what it means to be a secular, liberal nation rooted in Enlightenment values.
Gainsbourg appears to be influenced by these contemporary tensions in French society. While on the one hand it happily plays on the Gallic stereotypes of freedom-loving aesthetes with a liberal attitude towards sex, it also morbidly dwells on the Nazi occupation and residual racism across French society. Appealing to past glories and abasing past disgraces, however, won't help resolve the question of French national identity today. The French only need to look across the Channel to see the folly in that strategy.
Peepli (Live) (2010)
Bollywood meets art-house
'(A) penchant for convolutions of plot and counter-plot rather than the strong, simple unidirectional narrative; the practice of sandwiching musical numbers in the most unlyrical situations; the habit of shooting indoors in a country which is all landscape
all these stand in the way of the evolution of a distinctive style.'
This verdict over commercial Indian cinema was passed in 1948 by the Bengali art-film maestro Satyajit Ray in his essay What is Wrong with Indian Films. It still sums up many of the objections commonly raised against India's dream-factory, Bollywood, and explains why its products are consistently ignored by both mainstream and art-house audiences in the West. Peepli (Live), Anusha Rizvi's directorial debut, is a bit of a sensation, therefore, as the first Bollywood film to be accepted on the international film festival circuit.
The film, a comic satire, tells the story of Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), a poor farmer in the fictional state of Mukhya Pradesh. Faced with the prospect of losing his ancestral land, Natha is convinced by his brother to commit suicide so that his family will receive a compensatory 100,000 rupees from the state government. As Mukhya Pradesh is preparing for elections, Natha's story is picked up by the media and quickly becomes the focus of political debate and of competing media outfits. Eventually, the humble farmer, his family and their goats are virtually imprisoned in their shabby house, surrounded by raving flocks of TV reporters, while politicians show up bearing gifts of hand pumps and TVs for which there is no well or electricity.
In my eyes, Bollywood films deserve their reputation as shallow and yawn-inducing, not because of their overwrought melodrama or the hammy acting, and certainly not because of the singing and dancing (although the quality of the musical scores has deteriorated in recent decades). Instead, it is the extreme moral conservatism that is most off-putting, along with the plots, which manage simultaneously to be entirely predictable and, as Ray observed, convoluted to the point of seeming random (the latter characteristic supposedly a result of influence from the great Indian epics like the Mahabharata).
Bollywood films – in which, to this day, kisses are banned, but romantic dance numbers show the smuttiest scenes you will see in a non-rated movie – perfectly convey stifling Indian middle-class values. At the same time, there is a certain folksy quality in Indian commercial cinema, although it is more easily discernible in the country's many regional film cultures (which can be more fun, if more unpolished, than Bollywood's fare). Ray denigratingly explained that the dismal state of Bengali cinema was due to the 'deliberate and sustained playing down to a vast body of unsophisticated audience brought up on the simple tradition of the Jatra, a form of rural drama whose broad gestures, loud rhetoric and simple emotional patterns have been retained in the films'.
Unlike the few other Indian films that have achieved any circulation in the West (mostly bores like Monsoon Wedding), Peepli (Live) manages to make good use of the folk drama buried somewhere in the Bollywood conventions, but is also much edgier than the usual bland works. Several of the actors are members of the Naya Theatre, a group formed five decades ago by Habib Tanvir, who was influenced by Bertolt Brecht and folk theatre.
Having set up its rich mix of rustic farmers, hypocritical politicians and frenzied media hacks, the film goes on to have fun with the surreal disconnect between the world of media and politics on the one hand, and the rural commoners on the other. The tendency of mass media to turn reality into a spectacle is given a literal illustration, as TV teams arrive to the village of Peepli in clouds of dust. The village finds itself turned into the site of an impromptu festival, with street vendors, acrobats and merry-go-rounds gathering around the unlikely centre of public attention.
The film takes rather easy swings at the hypocrisy and insularity of the urban ruling class and its cohort of middle-class media lackeys. There is little here to suggest the real brutality of caste oppression and unreformed patriarchy still reigning in many an Indian village, that nucleus of social and spiritual life memorably described as 'a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness, and communalism' by BR Ambedkar, the Dalit ('untouchable') jurist who drafted India's constitution.
But although the film's burlesque of Indian media and politics grows more predictable as the plot progresses, Rizvi is right to stay within the confines of satire rather than trying to elevate the film to a social critique. The punch packed by Peepli (Live) lies not so much in the story as in the places and faces it brings to the cinema screen.
Pier Paolo Pasolini once maintained that there is nothing to unsettle a bourgeois audience more than 'the face of a black, or the smell of a poor person, or the bewilderment of a Jew, or the provocation of a homosexual'.
I watched Peepli (Live) on a Saturday afternoon at a packed Kathmandu cinema. Here, the audience's visceral reaction to the opening sequence brought home just why the film is a welcome novelty in Hindi cinema. It shows a close-up of Natha's dark, flat-nosed face and tangled hair. This is a type of face that is rarely seen in the universe of Hindi cinema, or that shows up only for comic relief, and here it belongs to the film's protagonist! Next, the brute leans out of the bus he's travelling on and, for no clear reason, vomits.
More than its lampooning of glib TV-hosts, that kind of brashness makes Peepli (Live) worth watching.
Wall Street 2: we're all Gordon Gekkos now
Wicked characters can be very entertaining. It was true of Gordon Gekko in 1987's Wall Street, and it is the case once again in the sequel, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. In his reprise as Gekko, Michael Douglas turns in a brilliant performance – now much grizzled and world-weary, but arguably even more devilish. It left me wondering if he could win two Oscars for the same role.
The film is a fairly straightforward morality play. But it unintentionally glamorised what it sought to criticise. As Stone himself has noted, many Wall Streeters have said they were inspired to work in finance by the Gekko character. In particular, they took his 'greed is good' speech in the film to heart.
This time around Stone seems to be trying extra hard to make sure we do not come away with any sense that the Street is glamorous. But he is only partially successful in that. The displays of wealth are still eye- candy, and the wickedness is still engaging.
The central character in the sequel is Jake (played by Shia LaBeouf), a young, striving investment banker with a shade of green politics. His firm (like Bear Stearns) is the first to be brought down, leading his mentor to commit suicide. In turn, Jake seeks revenge on other bankers he blames for his firm's downfall, mainly Bretton James (played by Josh Brolin). Jake is engaged to Gekko's daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), and he sidles up to the supposedly reformed Gekko in the hope of both receiving assistance in his revenge plot and reuniting father and daughter.
The two films differ in important and revealing ways. The first Wall Street was akin to a gangster film, with raiders like Gekko the hit men, the obvious bad guys. The main victims were workers, like the unionists at Bluestar, who lost their jobs. Its message echoed the brutally ruthless mafia line: it's not personal, it's business.
Stone could have taken a similar approach with the sequel – certainly, many more people have lost jobs this time around than in the aftermath of the financial crashes of the Eighties and Nineties - but he doesn't. He remains unsubtle, but in a different way. He clearly identifies the good guys: Winnie, who runs a leftie blog, and Jake, who wants to save the world with clean energy (and make a lot of money in the process). And Stone has plenty of cardboard cut-out bankers who play the bad guys, like the one who motivates an investment to his colleagues on the grounds that it will bring 'what we want - big bonuses!'
But there's more going on. The key difference is that Wall Street 2 considers the main downside of finance and the money culture is its damaging effects on personal relationships and one's own soul, rather than, as in the first film, the other financial players or the masses of workers. In the sequel, Gekko is sad and lonely, estranged from his daughter. Money threatens to tear apart the relationship between Jake and his fiancée Winnie. Personal dramas are at the forefront, and the details of the financial meltdown crash are not really examined - they are just a setting. In Wall Street 2, the mafia line has been reversed: it's not about business, it's personal.
Wall Street 2's emphasis on fallen nature might appear to be a more 'human' story, but it actually denigrates people. Not only does this outlook spread the blame for the crisis to working-class folks, but it also assumes our natures are essentially wicked and easily corruptible. This explains why - somewhat surprisingly - the film ultimately does not stir up outrage. Because the fault apparently lies in immutable human nature, there is little that can be done about it. Stone ends the film with a plea from Gekko to his daughter for understanding, because 'we're all mixed bags'. He reaches a relativist conclusion that we should accept that some of us will succumb to temptation, and we should look charitably upon those who do.
Wall Street 2 echoes many of today's prejudices and misunderstandings about the crisis, and this, in fact, hurts the film as drama. The first film was very timely. The Eighties saw the beginning of the financial bubble, when financiers were celebrated, but Stone came along and challenged this. His film was released in December 1987, only two months after the Black Monday stock market crash, and it became a touchstone for an emerging backlash amongst certain sections of society.
In contrast, the sequel comes at a time when nearly everyone – from academics to the proverbial man on the street – already blames greed for the downturn. Stone's second take is not a challenge to the status quo, but simply a re-confirmation of it, two years after the market crash. On top of this, his desire to dwell on personal lives in the sequel noticeably slows down the pace of the film compared to the first. The two green goodies, Winnie and Jake, are essentially dull as ditchwater.
Wall Street 2 is at its most energising when it evokes the real dread and panic that emerged when the markets started a freefall in 2008. I wouldn't expect any drama – especially one made by Stone, whose historical films are notorious for their inaccuracies - to come close to explaining what caused that meltdown and why it struck such fear in the hearts of the establishment. But I can do without Wall Street 2's message about how we're all greedy and to blame for the crisis: I've already heard more than enough of that from politicians and intellectuals over the past two years.
The Social Network (2010)
Facebook: the heart in a heartless world
The great insight of David Fincher's brilliant The Social Network is that social inadequacy was the main driver of the Facebook juggernaut.
The film kicks off in 2003 with the nerdy, OCDish Harvard student and future Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) meeting Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) for a date. After Zuckerburg fails to impress with his rat-a-tat-tat of facts and feelings - think The Simpsons' comic book guy mashed with Stephen Fry - Erica torpedoes him with one of the film's many memorable lines: 'You're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole.'
Facemash, via a couple of posh, handsome, Harvard twin brothers asking Zuckerberg to help them build a social-networking site for students, becomes Facebook - or TheFacebook, as it was originally known, before the founder of Napster, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), made his enormous contribution to the project. 'Drop the "the"', he tells Mark. 'Makes it cleaner.' Initially a Harvard-based info-sharing site, Facebook, in Fincher's telling, is born directly from a student's need to hook up with people in some fashion, when so many of the traditional ways of doing so - meeting in bars, conversing face-to-face, joining clubs - are increasingly closed off to him. In this way, Fincher subtly yet profoundly captures what remains the lifeblood of the extraordinary Facebook phenomenon: not social inadequacy per se, but certainly social discombobulation.
Written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame and directed by Fincher of Seven fame, The Social Network focuses on the lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg in the mid- and late 2000s. With Facebook a household name and worth an estimated $25 billion (Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire ever), he was sued both by those posh twins, who claimed that he stole the idea from them after they asked him to construct a social-networking site, and by his best friend and the original funder of the Facebook project, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who is ruthlessly ousted by Zuckerberg as he gets closer to Parker the Napster maestro.
The Social Network taps into what has made Facebook so popular: the desire to carve out an identity, a life narrative, at a time when it seems increasingly hard to do that through real social relationships in the real world. 'People lived on farms and then in cities and now they will live on the internet', says Parker. He says it's no longer enough just to go to a party – you must 'go to a party with a digital camera and share the photos on Facebook'. Everything – from their job title to their interests, their relationship status to their religious beliefs, their social antics to their childrearing experiences – gets recorded and logged by the FB generation, as a kind of makeshift but also permanent personal narrative, which tells everyone who they are and what they believe.
This is what is really significant about Facebook starting off as a university phenomenon before spreading to the rest of society. At uni, people's cultivation of a personal identity is necessarily a bit forced. Lacking the social cachet that goes with having a certain kind of job, living in a certain kind of neighbourhood, and moving in certain kinds of adult social circles, students instead physically sign up for societies or join clearly demarcated and often caricatured social networks (the Rugby Drinkers, the Political Club) to demonstrate who they think they are. Today, in the absence of the old solidarities and the old informal networks of community and shared interests – that is, at a time of great alienation – that experience of needing fairly self- consciously to magic up an identity is repeated across society. So a fundamentally student site now has half a billion members.
Facebook is better understood, not as a country, but as a refugee camp for people who feel today's lack of identity-forging social experience. The scene in which Zuckerberg tries to befriend – or rather 'friend' – Erica on FB after their disastrous date and his pathetic apology, where he keeps hitting the F5 refresh button to see if she has accepted, is as painful a study of alienation as you are likely to see in the cinema this year. An intelligent, funny and humane exploration of society's new networks – if I were on Facebook, I'd definitely 'Like' this film.
Another Year (2010)
The loneliness of the long-suffering singleton
Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh's 10th film from 2008, was a surprising shift in tone for the now 67-year-old Salford-born director. Rather than bleakly dwelling on life's waifs, strays and ne'er-do-wells, it featured a group of well-adjusted and attractive young women cheerily getting on with living and working in north London. In many ways, it was the anti- Mike Leigh, Mike Leigh film, but it still polarised opinion, as most of his films tend to do.
Many women found Happy-Go-Lucky's lead character, Pauline 'Poppy' Cross (Sally Hawkins), teeth-gratingly chirpy and thought she gave an unflattering portrayal of a modern, 30-year-old woman. Men, on other hand, tended to be charmed by her wit and warmth. And, let's be honest, many guys fell for Hawkins' watermelon grin and tractor-beam charisma. After the international success of Happy-Go-Lucky (Hawkins received a Golden Globe) and the glowing notices for Mike Leigh's 2004 film, Vera Drake, anticipations are high ahead of this Friday's UK premiere of Leigh's latest offering, Another Year. Although it didn't win the Palme d'Or, Another Year was still one of the most talked about movies at this year's Cannes film festival.
Anyone expecting the light (though hardly lightweight) touch of Happy- Go-Lucky could be a tad disappointed. Another Year returns to familiar Leigh territory: gut-wrenching sorrow, frustrated lives, claustrophobic social tensions and excruciating embarrassments. It's all highly watchable rather than unbearable thanks to the compassion Leigh generates for his dysfunctional protagonists, as well as the regular flashes of brilliant, caustic wit. In fact, Another Year features some of Leigh's funniest and most memorable lines since Mean Time or Career Girls.
Tom's life-long pal Ken, though, is an altogether lost soul. He makes half-hearted attempts to chat up Mary at Tom and Gerri's summer barbecue, but isn't quite deluded enough to think he stands a chance. A heavy drinker, smoker and eater, any traces of handsomeness have been erased along with his personal hygiene or any pretence to a decent wardrobe. He bemoans how rubbish pubs have become in his native Hull, all redesigned to 'exclude old people like me', and his social networks have closed down one-by-one through friends emigrating or dying. He carries on working for the local council when he could easily retire because he doesn't have anything else to occupy his time. Isolation and loneliness have often hit people late in life, but Leigh is showing how the collapse of any public life in the provinces is making this unfortunate situation more likely for more people.
It would be easy, and wrong, to see Tom and Gerri – yes, this awful gag is deliberately played upon from time to time – as a smug couple lording it over their unfortunate friends. Yes, they're allotment-loving greens who fret about climate change, but in lots of ways they don't conform to an easy liberal-leftie stereotype. The couple, like the hapless Ken, benefited from grammar schools and universities worth their name in the late Sixties. They're the first of their respective families to go to university and, as we see from Tom's wider family in Hull, are from unremarkable backgrounds. As Gerri remarks to Tom early in the film, 'we're lucky really', and it's this grounded awareness that informs their compassion, patience and loyalty to their sometimes-trying friends.
So would Mary be happier if she found a decent man? It would no doubt help, but it seems her real discontent is rooted in doing a badly paid and unfulfilling clerical job, unable to afford a decent flat or go on holiday. In a fantastic dig at environmentalists, Mary rationalises her poverty through the prism of green thinking: 'I'm the most environmentally friendly person here', she says. 'I don't drive, I don't consume much, I live in a small flat and I don't fly abroad.'
In an earlier scene, too, one of Gerri's patients, Janet (Imelda Staunton), responds to the question 'what would make you happy?' with 'how about a new life?' and rightly can't see what a weekly therapy session would do to change that. Nonetheless, Janet is deprived of sleeping pills from a medical doctor until she agrees to weekly psychological probings by Gerri. Gerri's psychobabble also works against her better instincts, as when she falls out with Mary and, rather than work through the squabble as long-time friends should, she coldly advises Mary to 'seek independent professional advice'. Leigh's disdain for the 'happiness agenda', quack therapy and environmentalism is a sly delight throughout the film.
At the question-and-answer session that followed the preview screening I attended, Leigh unashamedly said how much he enjoys film-making at the moment. Certainly, his output over the past decade has seen him grow as a director with each new release. Another Year is a beautifully shot, deeply humane and – even by Leigh's standards – minutely observed portrait of the dynamics of life-long friendships. What gives this snapshot an absorbing quality are the unexplained back stories and unspoken hostilities that are palpable amongst the main protagonists. It's a film that keeps you searching for answers long after the credits have rolled.
Wai dor lei ah yat ho (2010)
The horror of climbing the property ladder
The new film from Hong Kong director Pang Ho-Cheung, Dream Home, depicts the unsettling descent into madness of a seemingly ordinary young woman as she endeavours to secure the sea-view apartment of her childhood dreams. But this is a far cry from Grand Designs. Despondency and desperation at a stressful, overworked lifestyle, Hong Kong's ever- rising house prices and her insufficient savings prove so overwhelming that her sanity begins to wane, and she ventures down a more direct, murderous route to reach her goal.
With its satirical portrayal of Hong Kong's booming property market, and the extraordinary lengths to which aspiring owners will go to get on the ladder, this film is a neat piece of social commentary. But that is perhaps not how most viewers will remember Dream Home. For it is also a protracted exercise in bestial, blood-soaked horror likely to repulse all but the most strong-stomached of the genre's veterans. This incongruous mix of styles is the reason that the film ultimately fails to impress.
Pang leaves us with no doubt from the outset that this is not a film for the faint-hearted. The camera pans down myriad empty corridors, before settling on the face of a dozing security guard. A mysterious dark figure looms over him, a cord is slipped round his neck and he is brutally garroted from behind. Any impression that this is just another Bond-style action film is quickly dispelled; we watch, transfixed and helpless, as the guard writhes and splutters on the floor for what seems an eternity, hacking frantically at his neck with a knife in a vain attempt to release himself. He finally succumbs, falling back into a pool of crimson.
This sets the tone for later butchery, scenes of which are interspersed through the main narrative, set several years previously. It transpires early on that quiet, unassuming young telemarketer Cheung Lai-sheung is the perpetrator, but her motives are as yet unclear. The film relates her day-to-day trials, and as she grapples with two part-time jobs, a callous, terminally ill father, an uncaring partner and dwindling chances of obtaining her dream home, we gradually uncover the rationale for the killing spree on which she will later embark.
Underpinning Dream Home is an artful tension between our sympathy for this cute, hard-working idealist and our revulsion at the savage, merciless psychopath she becomes. A clear part of Cheung's appeal is the determined, Gatsby-esque aspiration and innocence that her profound desire to realise a childhood dream reveals.
This stands in distinct contrast with the depraved, hedonistic Hong Kong metropolis around her that Pang adroitly depicts. In a particularly telling scene, as she waits patiently in a hotel room for her partner, she can find only porn on the television as she flicks through the channels. Her lover is an arrogant and reckless alcoholic; while she saves her wages her friends plan to blow them on a wild weekend in Tokyo; her victims include three coke-snorting, bling-sporting young men attempting to sleep with a delirious, topless girl half-asleep on their sofa.
However, our fragile bond with Cheung is increasingly hard to sustain as the film progresses and victim after innocent victim falls at her hands. Insofar as these killings are a form of satire, a dramatic representation of the desperate pursuit of real estate in Hong Kong, they seem acceptable to the audience. The needlessly brutal nature of their execution, though, is hardly justifiable on these grounds, and will strike most viewers as utterly repulsive, perplexing and gratuitous. We can just about understand, if not accept, Cheung's decision not to pass her dying father his ventilator as he struggles for air. Her asphyxiation of a pregnant woman, by the ingenious use of a plastic bag and vacuum cleaner, and her severance of a young man's genitalia, however, fall well beyond the realm of comprehension.
It can only be concluded that in Pang's excitement at his first film venture into the world of horror, a sense of proportion was the unfortunate casualty. My suspicion is that for those in search of the astute social analysis for which Pang is renowned, the relentless carnage may ruin Dream Home. For the faint-hearted or even average viewer, the blood and guts may simply prove so shocking and sickening as to obscure all other merit in the film. Even for those more able to comfortly stomach the gore, it could easily seem rather puerile, and its recurrence throughout may prove too great a distraction. Conversely, horror fans might find the film too bogged down by backstory, as impressive as the special effects may be.
If you're one of that select group for whom a large dose of senseless, grisly bloodshed and a moderate sprinkling of intelligent social observation makes compelling viewing, go and see Dream Home right away. If you're a normal human being, however, probably best not to bother.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Lesbians: the new smug marrieds?
Comedian Susie Essman (of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame) has a great routine about soccer moms and gays: 'Gay men used to be the most fabulous creatures in the world but now they all want to get married and move to Montclair f****** New Jersey and have babies. So lesbians are the new gay men, gay men are the new soccer moms and soccer moms are the new lesbians.'
But Essman's routine is a couple of years old now and if she's seen Lisa Cholodenko's latest movie, The Kids Are All Right, she may want to update it. Because judging by this right-on Southern Californian tale, lesbians today are not so much the new fabulous gay men as the new co-op mummies. They, too, want to get married, have babies and a composter for their leftover organic veggies, ideally grown in the backyards of their own suburban villas decorated with family photos, clay pottery and big, fluffy cushions.
Considering the film's storyline – a lesbian couple's teenage kids find their sperm-donor dad, causing the near-idyllic family to unravel – The Kids Are All Right ought to be an extraordinary story. Yet it tries so painstakingly hard to communicate the message that hey, there's nothing odd about two women raising a family together, man, that it ends up being a fairly ordinary film about, well, a married couple wrapped up in a middle-aged crisis with two teenaged kids wrapped up in a teenage crisis.
The film chronicles Joni's (Mia Wasikowska) last summer at home before going off to college. She has just turned 18, which means she is legally entitled to try to contact her biological father. Her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) pushes her to call the sperm bank that their mothers Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) used. The sperm bank contacts the donor, the olive-skinned, super chilled-out Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who runs an organic restaurant and who composts.
While there are certainly hints in the film of what happens when lesbians lead a typically heterosexual lifestyle, the motions that the characters go through could just as well have been experienced by a husband and wife and their kids dealing with married life, growing up, infidelity and composting.
Watching the film, I was reminded of a story I heard at a Thanksgiving weekend party in the Hamptons a few years back (la-di-da). The host couple's seven-year-old son was friends with a black boy and girl who had been adopted by two white gay men. One day in school the seven-year- old asked his friend how come he had two dads. The friend shrugged his shoulders and said: 'Cos I do.' The boy was apparently satisfied with this answer and that could have been the end of it, but the dads found out and called up the boy's mother to discuss the matter.
The fact is, even in this day and age two white, gay men adopting two black children represents a pretty extraordinary cultural shift. Of course, normalcy is a fair enough aspiration for gays. They should have the choice, just like anybody else, to lead a conventional lifestyle or a non-mainstream lifestyle, to be single or married. But being curious about gay marriage, adoption and sperm donation – how it works, what is the impact on those involved, how they get treated by the rest of society – is perfectly acceptable, too.
These kinds of questions, this kind of curiosity, which one could reasonably expect The Kids Are All Right to deal with, are not really confronted. Instead, everyone is so right-on, so cool, so open-minded that their brains may spill out at any minute. Anyone who interacts with the family accepts them as they are and no one seems to think much of their fairly unusual set-up. This goes for Laser's knucklehead mate, as well as Joni's male and female friends, Nic and Jules' straight friends, and Paul and his part-time mistress. Finding out that his sperm (donated when he was 19) had been inseminated into the wombs of a same-sex couple, he says something to the effect of 'Oh, yeah, okay, I love lesbians'.
In short, the kids are all right, we're all cool, everything is sunny- California-fine. I've not spent more than a couple of days in southern California, but for a realist comic drama, The Kids Are All Right seems pretty idealised, even post the overturning of Proposition 8.
Of course, a film about gay people doesn't need to be a miserable drama about prejudice and discrimination. In fact, it's actually refreshing that The Kids Are All Right is not that. But for all its right-on-ness, it has a distinct air of intolerance about it. Just like that gay dad in the Hamptons automatically thinking there was a problem about his son's friend's curiosity, it's as if Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, who co-wrote the film, believe that to have any issue at all with, or indeed any curiosity about, two women raising a family is just not kosher. 'We're all cool with this', the filmmakers and cast seem to be saying, 'and if you think there's something odd about this family, then there's something wrong with YOU'.
Californians or not, we should be free to live with anyone we want, to raise kids, to grow our own organic vegetables and to compost our kitchen scraps – but we should also remember that it's pretty intolerant to expect others not to criticise our lifestyles, or at least be curious about them.
Mine vaganti (2010)
A queer take on Italian family life
For a film in which each character harbours some tragic secret - of unrequited love, betrayal, unfulfilled ambition, alcoholism, a death wish or suchlike – Ferzan Özpetek's Loose Cannons is surprisingly uplifting.
In this family drama/rom-com-with-a-twist, the Istanbul-born Italian director combines precise aesthetics with good-looking actors, but, regrettably, Loose Cannons is also full of all-too-predictable stereotypes. This makes the film, despite its underlying theme of the pressures of stifling social conformism, easy on the eye and light of heart. Think Festen meets Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
The loose cannons of the title are found amongst the Cantone family, the owners of a pasta factory in Puglia, in southern Italy. The father, Vincenzo, has decided that the time has come to hand over responsibilities to his sons, Antonio and Tommaso. His daughter's husband being an imbecile and his daughter being a woman, the brothers are the obvious heirs to the family business.
Tommaso, ostensibly enrolled in business school in Rome but actually a gay literature student with a novel freshly submitted to a publisher, returns home for a pompous dinner where Vincenzo plans to announce the generational handover in front of the entire family and some new business associates. Tommaso, having just confided in his brother that he is planning to use the occasion to reveal his literary and same-sex relationship aspirations, is himself taken by surprise at the dinner: Antonio beats him to it, coming out of the closet and triggering a heart attack in his father.
Antonio is disowned and Tommaso, afraid that opening up about his gayness would be a final death knell for his father, reluctantly steps in to manage the factory with the assistance of Alba, a beautiful young family friend with a nose for business deals and eye-catching pasta packaging. No matter how hard he tries, even caressing the freshly-baked pasta every morning as his grandfather used to, Tommaso can't develop a passion for macaroni. He wants to get back to Rome, to his writing and his gay lover, a bookish doctor.
While the film centres on Tommaso and his dilemmas, Loose Cannons has an assortment of characters with an assortment of repressed emotions. There's the homophobic and patriarchal father; the outwardly stoic, but in reality sensitive, mother; the daughter stuck in a passionless marriage with a podgy husband and two chubby daughters; the spinster auntie indiscreetly drenching her sorrows in whiskey; the diabetic grandmother dishing out pearls of wisdom; and the ugly, frustrated maid.
Though Loose Cannons is never dull, with plenty of narrative twists, flashback scenes and regular introductions of new characters, all the typecasting soon grates. The scenes with the multi-generational, loud- mouth Cantone family gathering around tables brimming with food quickly come to feel like quirky pasta adverts.
The film is marked by clichés from the outset. The opening scene, which turns out to be a flashback sequence into the past of granny Cantone, couldn't be more kitsch: a beautiful, teary-eyed young bride runs up the steep staircase of a solitary stone house, where she confronts a man, his shirt unbuttoned at the neck, with a gun – first aimed at him, then pressed against her own chest. The man tries to wrangle the gun out of the bride's hand, at which point the film cuts to a shot of the house's exterior and the banging sound of a gun shot is heard.
Things don't get better when, during a transitional phase of the film, Tommaso's gay friends from Rome show up for a surprise visit. Tommaso's parents convince them to stay overnight – cue camp homos who try to act straight but still can't help admire Alba's dress or flirt with Tommaso's brother-in-law. During a trip to the beach, the boys perform a silly coordinated dance before splashing each other with water. It's funny, but so predictable. At times, it's hard to tell whether all the typecasting and melodrama is done knowingly or is just crass.
For a film exploring the themes of family obligations, tradition, clash of values, sexuality and love, you'd be better off watching Özpetek's Hamam: The Turkish Bath from 1997. Still, the graceful final scene of Loose Cannons, set to the melancholic tones of Turkish diva Sezen Aksu's 'Kutlama' (Celebration), is almost enough to redeem the conventional and clapped-out feel that colours most of the movie.
Killing Bono (2011)
Killing Bono: on the wrong side of history
A few years ago there was an achingly trendy 'electro rock' band called Bono Must Die. It was sued out of existence by Bono himself who clearly didn't like the idea of young, hip people swinging their pants to tunes built on Bono-hatred. Now there's a new film out called Killing Bono, yet far from troubling the normally so sensitive singer, it has received his backing. It isn't hard to see why. It's like a creation myth for U2, depicting Bono as a long-suffering saint and his band as a punkish, rebel outfit rather than the Po-faced promoters of 'world music' they really were.
The film is based on rock critic Neil McCormick's book, I Was Bono's Doppelgänger. It tells the true-ish story of Dublin-born Neil and his brother Ivan trying to make it in pop and/or rock while continually being overshadowed by their former schoolfriends Paul Hewson and Dave Evans – otherwise known as Bono and The Edge, whose band The Hype later becomes U2 and conquers the world, while Neil and Ivan scrape by in a dingy flat in London where their numerous record company rejection letters are pinned to the wall in the shape of the word 'WANKERS'.
The trouble is that in turning U2 into the barometer by which he measures and gets miserable about his own rubbishness, McCormick's book and now celluloid life story make Bono a saintly, inscrutably good, otherworldly figure. Bono (Martin McCann) floats through the movie in a Christ-like fashion, always impeccably turned out, voice calm, never saying words like 'bollox' or 'shite' as his schoolmates and the McCormicks do. He does, however, eat chips at one point, which is a kind of shocking image.
It is entirely feasible, of course, that Bono really was like this: aloof, pure, pompous. That would not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen footage of Bono performing in the Eighties, with his big hair, high heels, and breathy, strangely American-accented mini-speeches about uprisings in Soweto (good) or uprisings in Northern Ireland (bad). Yet in investing Bono with an ethereal quality, in making him the yin to McCormick's yang, the movie comes across less like a rock biopic than as a conservative morality tale stuffed with righteous seers and wayward scallywags. Bono effectively saves the McCormick brothers, with a speech in the back of a limousine about brotherly love, in a not dissimilar fashion to the way Christ rescued James and John from a life of fishery.
The mythologising extends to the way U2's music is presented. They're depicted as the heirs to punk, bashing out Iggy Pop songs in a garage before going on to conquer and colonise a bland pop landscape with heartfelt music. In truth, far from being the punks of the Eighties, U2 were the equivalent of those Seventies Po-faced prog rock bands that punk eventually swept aside. U2's own comeuppance came towards the end of the Eighties when, after a decade of thrilling ageing rock critics and Americans but boring the rest of us rigid with their sweeping and serious guitar songs, they were elbowed aside by the rebirth of pop hedonism: rave, acid, baggy, whose adherents didn't go to gigs to learn about Nelson Mandela but to get smashed.
U2's out-of-touchness was brilliantly illustrated by their release in 1988 of the film and album Rattle and Hum, their most worthy dose of blackish, bluesy, Elvisy Americana to date, at a time when the kidz were knocking back Es and dancing like mental patients. 'Bombastic and misguided', said one critic of Rattle and Hum. 'Pretentious', said the rest. And of course U2 only made things worse when they tried to recover by releasing the electronic dance-inspired Achtung, Baby! in 1991. It was as if Jethro Tull had tried to play 'Pretty Vacant'. Just as the punks cheered upon hearing of the death of the fat, bloated Elvis in 1977, so some young 'electro rockers' today wish for the death of Bono.
It really is only a handful of serious rock critics who still treat U2 seriously, fantasising that they are 'real' where most others are fake. As a result, Killing Bono, the life and times of a rock critic in the making, ends up being deeply conservative. Part On The Buses, part Rattle and Hum, it combines slapstick humour with Bono sanctification to tell a pretty warped story about both U2 and the Eighties.
Dodging the burgers won't save the planet
Meat is murder, sang The Smiths. But according to a new documentary, the real problem is that meat is killing the planet – and maybe us, too.
Planeat is, pretty much, a 75-minute advert for veganism made 'independently with absolutely no funding' in their spare time by Shelley Lee Davies and Or Shlomi. But it's not all hard polemic. Instead, it weaves in mouthwatering pictures of plant-based food from a variety of plush restaurants in an attempt to persuade you that not only is cutting out the animal-derived foods the ethical thing to do, but it won't involve wearing a hairshirt, either. Not only will you be saving your health and the planet, but you'll be discovering a whole new world of eating.
The three pillars of Planeat are T Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn and Gidon Eshel. Campbell is an American biochemist who worked on a 20- year study of Chinese diets and health and later produced a bestselling book, The China Study, which can apparently count former US president Bill Clinton among its advocates. Esselstyn is an American doctor who advocates a plant-based diet to treat heart disease. Eshel is an Israeli physics professor now working in New York with a particular interest in food and climate change.
As for saving the planet, the film shows Australian philosopher Peter Singer declaring that 'Nothing changes the face of our planet as much as the way we produce our food. You have to think about the choices you make in terms of what you eat as choices with ethical consequences.' It's a view fully endorsed by Eshel: 'Most people have no greater spatial effect than their dietary choices', he says. Eshel argues that by switching from meat and dairy to a plant-only diet, our ecological footprints would fall dramatically.
Unsurprisingly, these claims are disputable. Campbell has been criticised for a rather selective approach to the data, making claims about links between animal protein intake and liver cancer, for example, that just aren't supportable. As Denise Minger points out in a critique of The China Study, there are better explanations for some of the disease links Campbell makes and it's even the case that many of the plant foods that he praises have stronger correlations with disease than animal foods.
Which all makes Esselstyn's claims a bit harder to swallow. Unless we could conduct long-term trials on his methods, it is difficult to tell whether Esselstyn is really achieving the miraculous results he claims and whether those results are due to cutting out meat and dairy products. We have to fall back on the kind of epidemiological evidence that Campbell cites – and that doesn't really support Esselstyn's case. A point slipped in at the end of the film, however, is that we're not just talking about a plant-based diet – we're talking about a whole foods diet, too. That means excluding all the sugary and easily digestible stodge, too, not just animal foods. Could it be that it that it is the rapid increase in carbohydrate consumption in recent decades that has caused increasing obesity, heart disease and type-2 diabetes, as other authors like Gary Taubes claim? To the extent that Esselstyn has identified something of therapeutic benefit, it may well have nothing to do with cutting out the meat.
As it happens, while Campbell and Esselstyn's dietary suggestions won't kill anybody, they might just bore them to death. In the film, Esselstyn's wife Anne gives a little cookery class in how to make a kale and lemon sandwich. Yes, a cabbage butty, with no-oil, no-tahini houmous and lemon juice. She thought it the greatest thing ever. My impression was that it's just the kind of thing that gives veganism a reputation for crankiness. Still, it's better than self-flagellation, I guess.
Eshel's claims that avoiding animal foods will save the planet seemed dubious, too. It's an idea that has already been roundly and convincingly criticised by former Ecologist editor Simon Fairlie in his book Meat: A Benign Extravagance. For instance, using animals allows food to be produced in all sorts of places – like hilly pasture and semi-arid desert – where growing crops would just not work. The film also suggests that small-scale organic production is better – an idea that would involve ploughing up billions of acres of land to make up for the productive shortfall that organic agriculture inevitably entails. At the London Green Festival screening that I attended, the Friends of the Earth representative accepted that some animal food production was probably beneficial.
What was pretty much absent from the film was any discussion of animal rights. Having failed to win over anything like a majority of people to the idea of eating plants as a way of avoiding 'cruelty', it seems that vegans have adopted the tactic of trying to convince us that we should eat tofu to save our own lives. But if the issue of animal rights is sidelined - it was always a dubious idea anyway - there is no basis for being vegan. The evidence that it is healthier is unconvincing. If our current method of meat production is really screwing up the planet – and that claim seemed rather overcooked – then we can always change our production methods.
The one thing we don't have to do is give up on all that lovely steak, chicken, bacon and cheese. As ever with green campaigning films, in Planeat problems are exaggerated and the ecological message – eat less, travel less, apologise for your existence generally – trumps all potential alternative solutions. While it may be considerably less hectoring than many other such eco-films, Planeat is still an unappealing dish.
127 Hours (2010)
A kind of Eat, Pray, Love for men
'We were going to make an action movie in which the hero can't move', said director Danny Boyle of his latest movie 127 Hours, treating its completion as something of a challenge. Boyle needn't have worried; heading a team drawn from his earlier productions, he delivers a punchy, convincing and watchable piece of work. (Rodrigo Cortés got there last year with Buried, a taphephobic thriller trapping Ryan Reynolds in an underground box. And film purists will say Hitchcock did it with Rear Window.) Fortunately, cinematography and sound design help to create enough variety around likable protagonist James Franco for the movie not to seem like being trapped in a canyon for 127 hours.
Adapted from Between a Rock and a Hard Place – a memoir by Aron Ralston – the film concerns the five-day period when, following a freak accident, a young climber's right hand was pinned by a falling boulder. Since no one knew of Ralston's whereabouts, starvation and dehydration loomed even though the pain of the injury had subsided. In print, Ralston's involuntarily immobility is an opportunity to reflect on his past life and mistakes; the movie uses condensed flashbacks, which mean Ralston's personal reflections seldom displace the more practical issue of survival. Despite these differences, book and film alike act as unwitting barometers of certain changes in society's values.
The opening images reveal huge crowds on the move, combining what could be footage left over from Slumdog Millionaire with a basketball game at Utah Jazz's EnergySolutions Arena. Quite deliberately, this creates a contrast between the heaving multitudes of modern life and the solitary virtues of the wilderness. By showing rather than telling, Boyle lets us work this out by ourselves – which comes as a relief, compared to equivalent passages in Ralston's autobiography. In both film and book, the central narrative – trapped man has to go to extremes to escape – grabs the imagination.
Ralston's memoir shows him embracing the outdoor life and abandoning a conventional career. Trained as an engineer, he focuses on the weekend – athletically hiking and attacking canyons and mountains with vigour – until the weekend's activities take priority completely. Eventually Ralston downsizes to working in a climbing gear shop and as a rescue volunteer because that is what he wants to do: 'because it's there' is the rationale for his outdoor activities. 'Climbing fourteeners in the winter by myself wasn't just something I did; it became who I was', he writes.
Ralston writes of human estrangement from nature, all the while revealing his estrangement from other humans. For Boyle, there's no need to spell this out as ploddingly as the book does; instead it is implied, by cutting back and forth between beautiful landscapes and Ralston's claustrophobic surroundings, or between a crowded screen and the isolated figure cut by Franco throughout his restrained performance.
The protagonist's estrangement from friends and relatives ends up played out into a half-hallucinated domestic world in which the dying Ralston makes (and videotapes) his apologies. Boyle has been accused of misanthropy before, as in his pseudo-zombie fest 28 Days Later, but here the disdain for humans seems to be more Ralston's message, whose ordeal could be seen as a realistic personal apocalypse.
It is no spoiler to say that Ralston escaped by cutting off his right forearm. Indeed, among various commentators the shorthand – no pun intended – is to call this 'the amputation scene'. 'If you don't mind, I'm going before the arm', one squeamish critic told the receptionist at the press screening I attended. Those who stuck around witnessed a realistic looking scene where mobility is regained by hacking through flesh with a blunt multi-tool – one of those steel knocks-off of the Leatherman multiknife, handed out as freebies at petrol stations. Not only are they useless for chipping away at boulders, but, as audiences will see, they are also completely unsuitable as surgical instruments. Given the annual popularity of the Saw franchise, it is not impossible that this gruesome 'money shot' will be one of the things bringing people into the multiplexes and scooping up the pirate DVD in pubs, especially since improvements in prosthetics and digital effects are such that surgical scenes have acquired greater verisimilitude in the past decade.
More seriously, the film has the universal appeal of making one ask 'what would I do in that situation? How far would I be prepared to go?' For this generation, more distant from the horrors of warfare and taught that the body is a temple, the loss of a hand is about the worst thing that could happen, unless bigger body parts were to be amputated and left under a rock. All this should perhaps prompt some reflection on how body horror got so mainstream.
127 Hours ends – more or less – in a rescue, showing starkly some of the benefits of modern life. A black helicopter gets Ralston out of the wilderness and into hospital, not a snow-white ptarmigan. Accidents aside, Ralston's commitment to nature (and its capture on film by Boyle and team) is possible precisely because of us living in a developed society, with other people chipping in their skills towards his care and rehabilitation and, more recently, to back up his continuing career as a mountaineer.
If filmed ordeals, body horror and wilderness worship all combine to make this inspiring tale of survival into a message of the moment, so too does the rise and rise of Ralston himself. 'My accident and rescue from Blue John Canyon were the most beautifully spiritual experiences of my life', his book concludes – a kind of Eat, Pray, Love for men. That Ralston stepped out of hospital and on to a treadmill of talkshows and the high-priced motivational speaking circuit makes him quite a typical accidental celebrity for our times.
When economics becomes freaky
Until 2005, the words 'economics' and 'fun' were unlikely to be found in the same sentence. Economics was seen as a dry, technical, mathematical discipline: the preserve of driven businessmen, greedy bankers and staid Treasury officials. Fun was its opposite: spontaneous enjoyment available to regular people.
The publication of Freakonomics in 2005 changed all that. Steven Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Dubner, a New York Times journalist, somehow gave economics popular appeal. So far the book has sold over four million copies worldwide. Last year, a sequel, Superfreakonomics, was published and there is also a Freakonomics blog linked to the New York Times website.
Wherever there's an unexpected publishing hit, you can be sure that a bandwagon will soon follow. In 2007 alone we had Steven Landsburg's More Sex is Safer Sex, Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist and Diane Coyle's The Soulful Science. Nor is the fun confined to the paperback stands. Earlier this month there was even an international academic symposium on 'economics made fun in the face of economic crisis' at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
The film follows the structure of the book with chapters loosely linked by the broad approach of the authors. There is little sense of narrative beyond that. However, one innovation is that different chapters are made by different directors including Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Seth Gordon (The King of Kong).
Freakonomics the movie is worth watching for two reasons. As with any cultural phenomenon, whether it is The X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing (aka Dancing with the Stars outside the UK), it is interesting to ask why it catches the popular imagination. This is particularly true when the subject matter is – or at least was – widely seen as incredibly dull.
Understanding the approach to economics taken in the film also helps reveal some deeper truths. It shows the limitations of contemporary economics and can even help viewers understand fashionable policy initiatives such as the attempt to 'nudge' people to behave in a particular way.
The first thing that viewers of the Freakonomics movie are likely to notice it that has little time for the traditional subject matter of the discipline. There is no room for discussion of business, supply-and- demand curves, and certainly no mathematics. Instead it covers such subjects as parenting, naming babies, cheating at exams, corruption among Sumo wrestlers and crime. If anything, such topics would normally be classified as sociology rather than economics.
From the authors' perspective, what makes their book economics is their approach to these subjects. Their concerns are unashamedly practical. They want to use economic tools to help improve human behaviour in all these areas.
Levitt and Dubner's mantra, and indeed that of contemporary market economics generally, is that 'humans respond to incentives'. Such incentives are often financial but they can also be moral and social. In each case the authors ask themselves what incentives would work best to improve outcomes:
Is bribing toddlers with M&Ms a good way to potty train them? Should pupils be paid to perform better at school? If so, at what age and exactly how? Does choosing a particular name for a baby improve its life chances? For example, through the choice of name alone, is a Brendan likely to do better than a Deshawn? Both the attractions and limitations of this form of economics should already have started to become clear. The subject matter of Freakonomics relates to everyday interests and concerns. It is about practical questions that confront individuals and parents as well as policymakers.
In many ways it is better seen as a form of self-help than economics in the traditional sense. It is an attempt to find better, supposedly more scientific, ways to improve the behaviour of errant individuals. It says little, if anything, about traditional key economic questions such as how to organise production, how to raise productivity or how to create a more prosperous society.
Although the Freakonomics approach is not entirely mainstream it is not marginal either. Gary Becker, also a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1992 for work on similar questions to those raised in the film. Although his work was not aimed at the general public, his concerns were comparable to those of Levitt and Dubner's.
Even mainstream economics, although more concerned with business than Freakonomics, suffers from many of the same weaknesses. Its focus is largely on individual consumer behaviour, its approach is ahistorical and it has little to say about the process of production.
Freakonomics the film, like the book, is entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking. Although it is more self-help than traditional economics it shares many of the weaknesses of more serious works in the discipline.
Its focus on individual behaviour also lends itself to a preoccupation with manipulating individual choices. That is where Freakonomics becomes truly freaky.
Gasland: turning good news into bad
It's a 'game changer'. After years when America's reserves of fossil fuels have been dwindling, an enormous new source of energy has become available: shale gas. Enough exploitable natural gas - 1,000 trillion cubic feet - has been found under states like Pennsylvania to supply US needs for 45 years. In Europe, there are 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. No drilling in deep water, no nasty oil spewing out, and substantially lower carbon emissions than you get from burning coal. Isn't this good news all round?
Apparently not. And there has been no higher-profile effort to present the good news about shale gas as a disaster than the documentary Gasland. The film starts at director Josh Fox's home in rural Pennsylvania. A gas company has offered him nearly $100,000 to drill for shale gas on his 19-acre property. That's a nice little payday for basically doing nothing. Should he take the cash?
First, a quick explanation of what's different about shale gas. The existence of stores of methane thousands of feet underground locked inside rock has been known about for a long time. What hasn't existed until recent years is the means to exploit these reserves. A pipe is drilled into these gas-containing rocks, then charges are exploded along its length to open up the rock. Then, a mixture of water, sand and a small percentage of chemicals is forced into the rock to open up fissures and free the stored gas. The process is called hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking'.
Yet what should be an interesting opportunity to explore some longstanding questions - like what balance we strike between the interests of a relatively small number of rural residents and those of wider society - is missed. It becomes a black-and-white tale of little people against malevolent corporations. By starting from his own situation, Fox might think he is providing human interest, but it felt more like he was saying: 'I've got this rural idyll, how dare you screw it up.' With his smug manner, I was less inclined to sympathise with Fox than fantasise about punching him.
The possible problems associated with fracking represent a serious enough story without Fox reaching for hyperbole and scaremongering, but he does that anyway. By throwing up a few liberal dog-whistle ideas - like 'chemicals' and 'Dick Cheney' - Fox tries to turn problems with a new technology that need to be sorted out into a wider suggestion that 'fracking' is fundamentally unsafe. And hey, if you don't care about Fox's water, he throws in the idea that shale-gas drilling could ultimately poison the watershed that supplies New York and New Jersey's water. Scary enough for you now?
It would be naive to ignore the fact that energy companies have a trillion-dollar reason to downplay problems related to shale gas. But in many respects, that's as much a consequence of Americans' bad habit of solving every problem by litigation, and a wider culture of risk aversion where anything new is treated with suspicion. In principle, fracking is a safe way of producing energy. Where companies screw up, they should learn the lessons, clean up the problem and compensate those affected.
What's missing from Gasland is the equally pertinent observation that environmentalists are desperately trying to find a reason to scare people away from a cheap new source of energy that isn't renewable or zero-carbon. If shale gas takes off, as it seems to be doing, the pressure from scares about 'peak oil' and the dangers of deepwater drilling for energy won't have the same purchase in the public's mind.
As one analyst wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year: 'I have been studying the energy markets for 30 years, and I am convinced that shale gas will revolutionise the industry—and change the world—in the coming decades. It will prevent the rise of any new cartels. It will alter geopolitics. And it will slow the transition to renewable energy.'
For Britain, this debate is now playing out closer to home. In 2010, test drilling started in north-west England on shale gas deposits there. With supplies from the North Sea declining and dependence on gas from overseas growing, a new domestic source of gas would be welcome. Yet there have been calls by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, in a report funded by the Co-operative, to halt work on exploiting these reserves. (The Co-operative is also backing Gasland in the UK.)
This seems mad, even in environmental terms. When UK carbon emissions fell in the 1990s, it wasn't because of concern about the climate, but because of the so-called 'dash to gas' as a wave of gas-fuelled power stations were built to replace coal-fired plants. Because gas contains a higher proportion of hydrogen to carbon, burning gas is regarded as 'cleaner' in climate-change terms. Encouraging gas usage would seem like a good way, therefore, of reducing carbon emissions while still getting affordable, reliable energy - something wind, solar and other renewable energy sources are failing to provide right now.
Gasland has been nominated for the Oscar for best documentary, much to the gas industry's dismay. Rather like a previous winner of that award, Al Gore's global warming diatribe An Inconvenient Truth, Gasland cranks up alarmism at the expense of a balanced discussion of an important issue.