Posted by Lou. The time is 10.35pm here in London, UK.

I'm going to put my hand up right away and state that as somebody brought up to fully engage with my Irish heritage - Catholic Irish heritage at that - I'm a sucker for a good film about those fighting for Irish emancipation from Britain. So of course I have eagerly awaited finally getting a chance to see multi-award-winning Hunger, a film about the IRA volunteer Bobby Sands' prison term during which he went from the blanket/ no wash strike to calling a full-blown hunger strike that led to his death in 1981.

The film is simple - it is primarily without dialogue and almost entirely set within the walls of the prison, capturing the tension and aggression between the Irish prisoners and their guards. The actors throw themselves into it to an extent that can be painful to watch, particularly the depiction of guard brutality and the sight of Sands' increasingly emaciated form as his hunger strike stretches out (I had to pretend to myself that his appearance was 95% CGI). The vast majority of the film's dialogue all occurs in one brilliant scene plopped into the middle of the film where Sands and the prison's priest - an Irish Replublican also - argue over the merits of Sands' looming hunger strike.

The film's strength lies in the fact that it portrays little of the political context other than some perfectly selected and timed snippets of Thatcher coming out of a radio. This takes away the issue of arguing a rightness or wrongness of the hunger strike, or of the quest for Northern Ireland to reunite with the republic. It rather allows the story to be about one man's belief in his cause, and the extent to which he will persue it. It doesn't say he was right or wrong, but does allow some sense of dignity for his sacrifice/ suicide.

Not a film I would recommend to all, but certainly one worthy of the attention it has garnered.

A related film recommendation:
Watching the above prompted me to my millionth viewing of one of my absolute all-time fave films, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. I love this film and still maintain that Cillian Murphy's performance is one of the great unrecognised performances of this decade. Set in early-20th-Century rural Ireland it is a drama capturing the grassroots fight for freedom. It is absolutely beautiful - the colours and landscapes and clothes are gorgeous - and emotively dramatises the issue through extremely an extremely empathetic protagonist. Watch it!

What is the What

Posted by Lou. The time is 10.18pm here in London, UK.

What is the What is the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese Lost Boy, as told by Dave Eggers. It contains violence, death, tragedy, war, starvation and unimaginable suffering. Sounds like fun, huh? Well, the amazing thing is that it's really surprisingly readable. Eggers has found a way to tell Achak's story in a way that makes it a page-turning tale without shying away from any of the hideous detail. In this way it is a brilliant combination of subject and writer - both their personalities combining to tell an extremely important story in way that is digestable.

The novel switches between Achak's new life in America and his experiences caught in the grips of the horrors of the outbreak of war in Sudan, and the long years of refugee camps. I'm going to have to steal the title of Eggers' own memoir to describe how this works - it is, quite frankly, a heart-breaking tale of staggering genius. That people survived this and went on to rebuild their lives is amazing. I was so wrapped up in this story that it wasn't until the last 50 pages or so that it caught up with me and I found myself sobbing to the finishing line.

I whole-heartedly recommend you read this book. In fact, I command that you read this book. And buy it, don't get it out of the library. You'll be supporting Achak's Sudanese education charity.

The Working Week

Posted by Lou. The time is 4:56pm here in London, UK.

I haven't posted anything for a while so thought I would share with you a new dresscode myself and a couple of colleagues have come up with to jazz up our lives:

Make an effort Monday
Take time to think about it Tuesday

Come as you are Wednesday
Switch it up a gear Thursday
Lower the tone Friday

Let's hope it produces some interesting results!

(Oh god, I'm so boring........ tried to match the font effect to the title to jazz this pitiful piece of work up... and made it even more pitiful!)

Book review: "Nightwood" Djuna Barnes

Posted by Bel. The time is 7:45pm here in Wellington, NZ.

Judging the cover (as I do), I thought this was going to be a winner. Stark, striking and contemporary - perhaps even futuristic. However these are not words I would use to describe the novel at all.

The writing is of the florid, verbose, convoluted style that brings to mind authors such as Louis de Bernieres and Lily Prior. When I went back and read the preface, it was only to discover this woman was a contemporary of Gertrude Stein (see previous review), swanning about with the arty intellectuals in Jazz Age Paris. I thought, "shoulda knowed it".

By throwing in another adjective-filled phrase where most would put a fullstop, Barnes packs "Nightwood" with language that is intoxifying and full of illusion, creating a sense of musty 19th century antiquity. I found it hard to wade through, especially as the novel is essentially plotless. Through the character's long-winded anecdotal and philosophical conversations, the tale of a love gone wrong transpires, but there is little resolution.

"Nightwood" has been heralded as a landmark of gay literature, and I'm sure it has its historical importance. But don't pick this up thinking it will be an insight to early lesbian counterculture or a tantilising bodice-ripper. Elements still hold - as betrayal and brooding hearts are somewhat timeless - but you will know straight away whether this is your flavour or not, and won't be persuaded the other way I imagine.

I am now reading "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers. Despite a dreadful cover, am loving it and expect to knock it off soon.

Pavlova - fuck yeah!

Posted by Lou. The time is 10.40pm here in London, UK.

I got home tonight to discover that four eggs were about to expire - well, we know what you can do with four eggs!

So I...

Pre-heated the oven to one-hundred-and-eighty-degrees-celsius
Beat those mutha-fuckin' egg whites

Then added one and a quarter cups of castor sugar gradually whilst beating them more and more and more until it looked like a glossy bit of stiff heaven
Then I took a teaspoon of white vinegar and a teaspoon of vanilla essence and mixed them with a tablespoon of cornflour
Chucked that nasty looking mix in with the egg white and did what Michael Jackson did best (beat it!) until it couldn't be beaten any more (litearlly - the hand-beater start to spack out as it was too thick for them to rotate in)
I then lovingly put it into a small intimate circle on some baking paper on an oven tray (Jamie Oliver tip - use a dot of mixture under each corner of the paper to keep it in place) and put it into the oven, immediately turning the temperature down to one-hundred
I'm not a twat, so I didn't open that oven door even though temptation gripped me
Then an hour later I turned the oven off, opened the door slightly, and let the pavlova cool within

And was rewarded with this beautiful speciman:

You did me proud eggs, you did me proud.

Two Films and a Musical

Posted by Lou. The time is 9.18pm here in London, UK.

While we're doing review round-ups I may as well throw some in...

On my flight to Montreal I decided to go with Last Chance Harvey, a film I had been meaning to see ever since I saw them shooting a pick-up outside my work last year [the scene pictured left]. It spent a fair whack of time in my local hood (Southbank) so I wasn't disappointed on that front, though did find it frankly bizarre that they depict Paddington to Southbank via Piccadilly Circus as a light stroll. Anyhoo, the bonus is that it was actually a really sweet little film - intimate (just right for a small screen), unconventional (a romance between two people in the second half of their life? shock! horror!*), and starring one of the best performances I have ever seen from Dustin Hoffman.

I absolutely loved his portrayal of the pitiable Harvey - it moved to tears at times, and transcended the somewhat familiar territory it was carved in. Emma Thompson (who I will always love for her Sense and Sensibility) is also excellent, giving a very empathetic portrayal of a woman who has been disappointed to the point of not trying. Aside from one hideous scene - a cliche montage lifted straight from Four Weddings and a Funeral (and it was terrible in that too) - I thought it was a pretty sweet little film, perfect for a snuggly sofa night in.

*oh my god, I just looked up Dustin Hoffman's age and he is - would you believe it?? - SEVENTY ONE YEARS OLD! Fuuuck! I hope I age as well as him! (this prompted a flat "guess the age" competition - the most shocking one is that Gene Hackman is 79!! (and cripes is Meryl Streep ageing well at 60!!))

The other week I obtained some free tickets to Sister Act - the musical (yes, I know) - and hey, guess what? It was really good! It helped that I'd had a couple of pints before and a couple more during, but honestly, after a bit of a slow start it really got kicking and was a bundle of fun! Which, in retrospect, shouldn't have surprised me - I caught a bit of the movie on tv not long after and was reminded that that was a heck of a fun movie too.

It is an entirely new soundtrack, but the storyline varies little (other than a romantic sub-plot) and the nun characters are basically the same. The performers were all brilliant, and hilarious. But I must particularly single out the staging - during the slow start I was concerned that it was pointless showing off with bits moving here and there unneccessarily, but once they got to the convent and cathedral the staging really excelled. Go see it!

I was staging a "cheer up" weekend for a broken-hearted friend, which included going to the cinema (my first time in far too long). We nixed Sunshine Cleaning (but by god I will get there!) for a Swedish vampire film (I know!) called Let The Right One In (Låt Den Rätte Komma In), and so found ourselves sitting in a cinema on a Sunday afternoon loaded up with chocolate-sauce-covered-ice-cream ready and waiting for an hilarious Scandinavian vampire romp. Errr... which it wasn't.

So turns out that Let The Right One In is a genre-bending vampire-horror-crossed-with-melancholy-drama kinda film. Brilliant - except if the point of going was to cheer up a friend. Thankfully there are some delicious genre elements from the vampire side, but for the most part it is atmospheric and sombre, strangely beautiful and sweet. Particularly notable for the classical elements, a fantastic cameo from my favourite animals, and an unsettlingly brilliant performance by the young girl. I would definitely recommend this for a dark and wintery night, when you feel like some "serious" cinema.

Weekend DVD roundup

Posted by Bel. The time is 3:20pm here in Wellington, NZ.

We got through four DVDs this weekend, so I will bang out a few reviews here in case you stumble across them next time you are down at the video store.

First up, a random pick grabbed because it starred that chick from "Shameless". The film is called The Waiting Room and I would hazard a guess that it is a relatively recently made, low budget Brit indie.

It was quite nicely shot and fairly well acted, but the simplistic storyline meant that it was hard going. Basically (i.e. here is the whole story) two people have a chance encounter and yet fall in love. They are respectively in shit relationships, which by the end of the film have fallen apart, leaving them to bump into each other again and presumably get together. Sorry if I just wrecked it for you, but you'd probably be able to pick it yourself from the DVD cover, which has a picture of them two and a love heart.

After that low key distraction, we watched an Italian film called My Brother Is An Only Child. Set in the 1960s, this was a wonderful exploration of the dynamics of family and the personal impact of politics.

I think anyone who has argued over the dining table will gleam something from this, as the main character, Accio, determinedly follows the path of fascism as Italy is gripped by the revolutionary spirit of the 60s and his older brother leads local communists in a working class uprising.

Accio's search for belonging comes full circle and the emotional resonance of this film is heightened in learning that it is based on an autobiography. Wonderful young actors and it's just so fun hearing Italian spoken - yelled - gesticulated all over the place.

On Sunday it rained, which filled me with glee, and I watched Look Both Ways. I remember when this was at the NZ Film Festival and it got a lot of hype. Well. Goodness me, I am glad I didn't bust my guts going to see it back then.

It's a bit like "Me and You and Everyone We Know" except none of the humour or quirk or sexiness.

Meryl's constant anxieties are demonstrated through animated sequences, initially pen and ink drawings, but more successfully in paint such as the artwork her character produces. Other than this feature (and a similar technique to show some of the, um, photographer guy's thought processes), the film is visually quite staid and relies on the plot device of interweaving stories to maintain interest.

To me, this felt more like a soap opera and I found my interest, particularly in the secondary characters, was tentatively held. I like to be supportive of female filmmakers, but this just wasn't my cup o' tea.

Spanish madness was about all me and my square eyes could handle at this point. Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown seemed most appropriate.

This film is pretty much mental. You just have to throw your hands up, assume there are some cultural divides which cannot be crossed but can still be admired and settle in for the ride.

This film also has a touch of soap opera to it - but in a fabulous Joan Collins kind of way, not a Home & Away double episode kind of way. The plot kicks off with a TV star discovering that her lover is leaving her and then involves her changing outfits at least five times in the course of the day, setting her bed on fire, throwing the phone out the window (twice), accidentally drugging the fiancee of the step-son she's never met before and much more. Including a whole thing with Shiite terrorists.

It's Almodovar, it's genius - see it because it's Antonio Banderas' first film appearance if nothing more.

Eat Cadbury and kill an orang-utan.

Posted by Bel. The time is 9:18pm here in Wellington, NZ.

You thought it was bad enough that Cadbury had dropped its king-size chocolate bars from 250gm to 200gm, without changing the price.

So what if you knew that also in each and every one of those lightweight bars, they were including palm oil instead of cocoa butter - a cheap alternative with disastrous effects on our environment and on the habitat of some of the most endangered animals in the world.

Glenn Hurowitz, LA Times, writes:

"Whether it's used as an additive in soap, cosmetics or food, or processed into a biofuel, palm oil is one of the worst culprits in the climate crisis.

Most of it comes from the disappearing, ultra-carbon-rich rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, of which a whopping 25,000 square miles have been cleared and burned to make way for palm oil plantations.

That burning releases enough carbon dioxide into the air to rank Indonesia as the No. 3 such polluter in the world. It also destroys the last remaining habitat for orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, tigers and other endangered wildlife."

[Source (now archived)]

Once these tropical rainforests are gone, replaced by crops of palm oil (the demand increasing thanks to companies like Cadbury), animals, most specifically the orang-utan and the Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros which are already critically endangered, will face almost immediate extinction in the wild.

An orangutan is seen with an tranquilizer dart in his side - to make him sleep before rangers relocate him to another place on Borneo island, away from this palm oil plantation.
(Click for larger) [Source]

So what can we do about it? Well, be picky about our brands, for a start.

Auckland Zoo have taken all Cadbury products off the shelves of their shops and restaurants as a demonstration of their commitment, as well as removing palm oil products from animal feed. Wellington Zoo says it "supports" this stance, but is not partaking of the boycott, despite the vision statement on their website saying that the Zoo has "a belief in the need for a sustainable co-existence between wildlife and people".

Whittaker's have a chance to romp home here, as not only is their chocolate made from 100% cocoa butter (no palm oil), a block of Whittaker's milk chocolate is 33% cocoa butter, as opposed to Cadbury's 21%. (According to the Sunday Star Times, who I'm sure had a blast doing that research.)

Check food labels, that's really important. If you're a veggo or have had someone in your family or flat with allergies, you'll already be in the habit. And personally, I think it's a good one to be in. Sometimes simply the sheer number of long, scientific-sounding, non-food-sounding ingredients can be enough to make you put something back on the shelf.

This is a great opportunity for consumers to lead the change. There is no need for us to be complicit in the further degradation of our planet just because we want some chocky.

Essential reading:

  • Auckland Zoo has some great background info on palm oil and its effects on endangered animals.

  • Go there also for the "Orang utan Friendly Shopping List" for which they are updating based on on-going suggestions.

  • Here is Wellington Zoo's contact page. Email them and ask them what they doing regarding this matter! I have! They didn't reply!

  • Taking a step further, here's an Australian website called Palm Oil Action. It has flames on it and uses the word 'deadly' in quite large letters. Awesome.
    But it has a useful section under "Action" of "Sample Letters", which we can copy and paste to help spread the word and let decision makers know that there is public concern on this issue.

'List' fail #2

Posted by Bel. The time is 4:01pm here in Wellington, NZ.

Turns out the library emails you now when you have an overdue book. A book such as this one, Gertrude Stein's "Three Lives", which even after five weeks I still had not finished. (I am a fast reader. Five weeks is practically three lives for me.)

The novel had a lengthy, academic introduction (over 50 pages long!) which made for a daunting start. I then found the writing style too simplistic and repetitive for my liking.

Rather than evoking the commonplace lives of the working class women that the stories focussed on, it seemed to overemphasise the simplistic, plotness nature of the book and in general, lulled me to sleep as I struggled to hold the thick wee tome open. (Short pages with a wide spine is SUCH an awkward size for a book! Enough, I say!)

The fact I returned this to the library half unread is indicative of how little I was enjoying it: 1) I never made the time to keep up with it, and 2) I wasn't willing to pay to extend my loan of it. "Three Lives" gets two stars and one of those is only because of all the stuff in the introduction about Stein being friends with Cezanne and Picasso and stocking up on artworks constantly. Le sigh.

Fat, fiction and fauxtography

Posted by Bel. The time is 11:12pm here in Wellington, NZ.

The adage 'Don't always believe what you read in the papers' is becoming more true, and more adaptable, as time goes on and media develops.

The article "Sorting inbox fact from fiction" has a great slideshow with it, where the captions reveal which pictures are genuine and which are internet hoaxes, forwarded by overexcited office workers on boring Friday afternoons. A couple of the photos declared to be 'false' are works by artists (such as Li Wei's gravity-defying self portraits and Ron Mueck's hyperreal disproportionate sculptures).

In the art world, we can appreciate the craft that goes into creating something that deceives the eye. But what about when this done solely from a commercial perspective?

Check out this interview with someone you never would have heard of. But chances are you have seen his work somewhere. In last year's March issue of Vogue, Pascal Dangin tweaked 144 images: 107 ads (Estée Lauder, Gucci, Dior, etc.), 36 fashion pictures, and the cover, featuring Drew Barrymore. Because, you know, she needs work.

Dangin is the man who turned Annie Leibovitz's series of portraits of "The Sopranos" cast into this tableaux:

You mean they didn't all get up at dawn for a moody photoshoot on the Jersey Shore, schlumping around in the mud? Dang indeed.

This video from the NY Times "Sex, Lies and Photoshop" suggests that magazines credit the retouchers, as well as photographers, in order to draw attention to the extent of manipulation of images.

Speaking with those in the industry, it shows how four different images were used to create a composite for an advertisment photo. The photoshopper himself muses on the impact this might have on a model's self esteem - let alone the rest of us, in a world where we are bombarded by these falsely constructed images of perfection.

Jezebel's Photoshop of Horrors has done a wonderful job of drawing attention to the butchering of the human form which takes place, generally in print advertising. It is usually up to alternative media to be the watchdogs, as everyone else is dependent on the revenue brought in by these warped images. If you want a quick scroll through of just what other bullshit is attempted to be passed off as acceptable for general consumption, pay a visit to the blog Photoshop Disaster for some LOLs/heartache.

[Click on the image for large version and play spot the difference! 3 different eye colours! Nose shapes! Chins! She's an Oscar-winning Mr Potato Head!]

As rampant and blatant use of retouching becomes so commonplace (whether it be a fantastical glossy fashion mag, or a supposedly reputable news source), the impetus falls upon the reader. It is up to us to treat these images as fiction and not as representations of real life or of achieveable ideals. And to question if a cat could if really get to that size.

Cellphone radiation gives super sumo strength?

Posted by Bel. The time is 6:15pm here in Wellington, NZ.

It's well known now that Hollywood actors will shoot commercials screened only overseas for, well, a bit of pocket money? Extra cash for that second yacht?

Or in Brad Pitt's case, most likely numerous multi-seater prams and self-defense anti-paparazzi classes for his clan. Here he stars in a Japanese ad, directed by Spike Jonze - apparently for cellphones.

Click here for a few behind-the-scenes shots.