Sunday, July 31, 2011

Guilty Pleasures

Mills and Boon romance novels are big business and are enduringly popular. Why is that and who reads them? Guilty Pleasures explores those questions by making a film that meets three readers (all women) and an author and a cover photo model (both men) and examines them and their relationships in a gentle and good-humoured way.

Hiroko, the first of our readers, lives in Japan with her husband and two young sons.Her husband seems like a perfectly nice guy who admits to not being that demonstrative or romantic and seems comfortable with his wife reading novels as compensation. Hiroko moves on from reading and takes ballroom dancing lessons to increase the romance and glamour levels in her life.

Shumita lives in Delhi and she separated from her husband five years ago, but seems unable to let go. This is a pity, because he's clearly a self-centred bastard and she should move on.

Shirley lives in Blackpool and her husband is the most romantic of the three, (and a definite improvement on her previous abusive partner) but he's bipolar and so she has to live with his regular periods of gloom. He, too, is unperturbed by his wife reading romance novels.

Stephen the cover model is included (I think) to remind readers and watchers to be careful what they wish for. Beautiful men with perfectly sculpted bodies don't get that way without hard work and this probably means that they're obsessed diet, exercise and themselves which is not really ideal romantic hero.

And then we have Roger the author, who prefers his own company. We learn that most Mills and Boon authors are older people and that writing romance novels is a learned craft and not a reflection of the writer's views or experience.

Now, in case you're thinking this all sounds rather dysfunctional, Hiroko and her husband come to the rescue. Hiroko wants to move onto competitive ballroom dnacing and finds that having her dance teacher as a partner will be very expensive. So she persuades her husband to learn to dance. He is surprisingly enthusiastic and they go on to win a competition. And if that's not a dream come true, I'm not sure what is.

I'm not sure if Guilty Pleasures is really trying to make a point or just give us an interesting overview of the genre. The featured characters are interesting enough for that not to matter particularly.

The last word should go to Hiroko's husband; "I have to be careful not to polish myself too much, otherwise I'll become attractive to other women and my wife will suffer. So I have to aim for just the right level of improvement" Very considerate!

Anne's rating 3/5

Hot Coffee

This talking heads doco looks at the influence of big business on the civil justice system in the US, and the lengths that big business will go to to erode individual rights, and to influence both the nation's politicians and the judiciary.

This is New Zealand, not America, but even here we buy into the concept that Americans sue big companies at the drop of a hat and for the flimsiest of excuses. Once you've watched this documentary, you won't be so sure. Hot Coffee will ensure you never use the phrase "frivolous lawsuit" unthinkingly again. And you'll reflect that if you received a dollar for every time a republican politician used that phrase, you'd be quite rich by now.

Hot Coffee is named after a world-famous-in-America case where an elderly lady in New Mexico named Stella Liebeck sued Macdonalds after being burned by their coffee. Stella has become a poster girl for the ultimate in frivolous lawsuits, but only because spin doctors have made her so. Hot Coffee the movie examines this case and three others and shows how the concept of the frivolous lawsuit has been used to sanitize some outrageous miscarriages of justice. You'll learn about tort reform, big business "buying" the outcomes of judicial state elections, mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts (and what's wrong with that) and about how republican politicians have been lobbied so effectively that they'll parrot the Chamber of Commerce's line on tort reform over and over again. And the best part is, you'll be engrossed, educated and probably outraged so your time in the theatre will fly by.

My new fact for the week is that the American Medical Association is a member the Chamber of Commerce. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised - Medicine is big business after all.

Anne's rating 4/5

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver is one of those films I was aware of without knowing anything about it. A film that appears in people's top ten film lists. A film that writers drop into articles without explanation, in expectation that the reader is already familiar with it. It is the first film I saw at this year's International Film Festival.

Taxi Driver stars Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle an inarticulate, contradictory, angry young Vietnam veteran who takes a job as a night time taxi driver in New York to cope with insomnia. Apparently from a small town, Travis is both repulsed and fascinated by prostitution, pornography and homosexuality. Ranting (mostly in his diary) about the need to clean up the filth, he watches porn during the day. Travis becomes obsessed by two women: romantically by Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) a political campaign worker and Iris a child prostitute (played by then 13 year old Jodie Foster) who he wants to rescue. Neither is keen to fit in with Travis's ideas for them.

Taxi Driver is a slacker film for the most part, with a violent end that is clearly signalled during the long slow build up. We know he wants to kill someone but it is not clear that he knows who or why. Robert DeNiro is in virtually every scene, and there an obvious contrast between the to-the-audience narration by his character which comes across as moderately articulate (albeit somewhat vague and rambling) and his often tongue tied conversations with co-workers, clients and others where he comes across as a throwback from another time and place. The ending was a bit odd, the police were on the scene extremely quickly, but for reasons not explained it seems that they chose not to prosecute Travis.

The film is more about an idea than a character or events. The alienation of people from each other caused both by living in a big city and by serving in a war like Vietnam. You could substitute the Iraq War and both the US and USSR's wars with Afghanistan, but I am not sure that current day New York is quite as exciting and menacing as 1976 New York.

I particularly liked Harvey Kietel's performance as a long haired pimp, while the late Peter Boyle looked almost the same in 1976 as he did in the almost current Everybody loves Raymond.

Ian's rating 3/5

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (3D)

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Chauvet Cave) is in Southern France. It houses wonderful 32000 year old animal sketches, pristine stalagmites and stalactites, animal bones, cave bear and wolf paw prints, all undisturbed since a rockfall closed the cave some 20000 years ago. Access to the cave is tightly controlled so unless you're a French archaeologist or the German film maker Werner Herzog you'll never get to see the real thing. Viewing the cave on the big screen in 3D seemed like the next best option although I was slightly worried by the fact that the film was written, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog. (I suffered through his Aguirre:Wrath of God at a film society showing a few years back). Foolishly, I thought a documentary about a cave shouldn't go too badly.

Unfortunately, it did go badly. It was too loud (probably not Mr Herzog's fault), the music was discordant, the narration was slow and condescending and there were far too many talking heads. Ricky Gervais or the Monthy Python team could have had a field day with the experts talking in this film, who included an pony-tailed ex-juggler, an aging archaeologist demonstrating throwing a spear to kill a horse without there being a horse, and a younger one clad in reindeer skin playing "The Star Spangled Banner" on a bone flute. Talking heads in 3D seemed a technology overkill. I'm wondering why Werner Herzog got to visit the cave and make a film - why not the French equivalent of the BBC natural history unit?

And what of the cave itself? It was certainly worth seeing. The drawings were lovely and seeing the animal's heads emerging through openings in the rock was charming. However, rather than subject yourself to this very peculiar film I'd recommend getting a book out of the library and admiring the pictures while playing music you actually like.

Anne's rating 2/5,

The First Grader

The First Grader was my first watch of this year's NZIFF and it was a great start. A big landscape, an engrossing story, a minor history lesson, great acting and cute kids - what's not to like? And in case you think that all sounds a bit saccharine, there are some hefty doses of brutality - this is Africa, after all, and you don't have to look far to uncover injustice and bloodshed.

It's the story (based on fact) of an 84 year old Kenyan, Maruge, who takes the Kenyan Government at its word when it promises free education for all. He's illiterate, and he wants to change that, so he fronts up at his local primary school and asks to be admitted. There's resistance to this idea from both the teachers and the parents of the current pupils parents but eventually Jane the headteacher relents and lets him in. It's not all plain sailing once he's in - Jane's boss has a particular objection to him being there and insists he should be at adult education classes in Nairobi and not taking up valuable space in an overcrowded rural school. Jane gets round this problem by appointing Maruge as a teacher aide.

Meanwhile, we get Maruge's (and Kenya's) past in flashback. He was part of the Maumau uprising in the 1950s and his wife and children were murdered. He was imprisoned and tortured by the British. There's particularly poignant scene in the classroom when Maruge has a meltdown at the pencil sharpener as he flashes back to being stabbed in the eardrum with a sharpened pencil by a British Officer.

In addition we get to find out the effect that going out on a limb has on Jane's career, her personal safety and her relationship with her husband.

I particularly enjoyed the pupils rioting when the education board tried to impose a new headteacher on them, having banished Jane to another school 300 kilometres away. I also enjoyed Maruge interacting with the children and him paying his minibus fare to Nairobi with a goat (who came along in the minibus since there was nowhere else to put him). The happy ending completes a very satisfying film.

Anne's rating 4/5

Friday, July 15, 2011

Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine

I saw this 2002 documentary on Monday night about Garry Kasparov's second match with IBM's Deep Blue in 1997. The film follows Kasparov's view of the match and the related conspiracy theories. Unfortunately apart from some interviews with 3 of the Deep Blue team it doesn't seek the views of computer chess experts, so the naive views of computer chess by Kasparov and others are not challenged. The film is punctuated with shots of "The Turk" (actually a replica), which clearly signal where the film maker's sympathies lie. That said it is an interesting film.

For those of us who can't tell one Russian world chess champion from another the film gives us a background on Garry Kasparov's rise and his challenge to the reigning world chess champion, Anatoly Karpov (with those amazing ^ ^ eyebrows).

Garry Kasparov had beaten Deep Blue in their first match in 1996, winning 4-2 in a 6 game match (Kasparov winning 3 and drawing 2 games). But before the rematch in 1997 Deep Blue's hardware was upgraded to make it twice as fast and it's software had been improved and tuned by a team including 4 grand masters.

The six game 1997 rematch was played at an IBM building in New York. Kasparov won the first game easily and was surprised at how differently Deep Blue played in the second game. He offered a sacrifice and was taken aback when the computer ignored the offer. He went on to resign. He accused IBM of cheating, claiming that a human must have intervened during a 15 minute move. He publicly demanded to see Deep Blue's logs from the match (a demand he repeated before and after every game for the rest of the match). That night another grand master suggested that Garry could have forced a draw if he had continued.

Kasparov was convinced that computers were stupid and thought that all computer programs couldn't resist sacrifice offers and accused Deep Blue of not playing like a chess program. The next three games were draws but Garry was unsettled by losing game 2 to a computer that didn't play like a computer, by IBM's refusal to hand over the logs and the general attitude of a public relations conscious corporation. IBM may or may not have deliberately played on his nerves, but ultimately it looks like he was psyched out by game 6, which he lost hence losing the match.

Unfortunately the film doesn't talk to independent computer chess experts about the match. They might have pointed out that there is nothing implicit in chess programs that mean that they have to take offered sacrifices. It is just that comparing material is about the easiest calculation to put in a chess position evaluation function, and hence the tendency for chess programs to prefer to take pieces.

IBM retired Deep Blue after the match. The other conspiracy theory in the doco was that IBM's share price rose 15% because Deep Blue beat the world chess champion and IBM didn't want to risk someone beating Deep Blue.

Note that the 1984 Karpov Kasparov match lasted 48 games before being called off, they played 4 other matches each lasting 24 games over the next 6 years, so the 6 game match against Deep Blue was unusually short by comparison.

Here IBM's description of Deep Blue and of the match including log files.

Ian's rating 2/5