Monday, 31 January 2011

Walk like an Egyptian

Last week and over the weekend (yes, I know this is late, and no, I don’t have an excuse) Egypt imploded into internal turmoil, culminating in riots and angry crowds calling for President Mubarak to stand down. The unrest was triggered by the downfall of the Tunisian government earlier this month. Mubarak has a 30 year history of abuse, negligence and oppression in Egypt which looks set to end in the coming weeks.

The most interesting thing about this story as far as I am concerned is that in most people’s list of countries with oppressive and undemocratic regimes neither Egypt nor Tunisia tend to feature very highly. We all know about Zimbabwe, North Korea, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, indeed most of the Middle East would be black listed by most people with a working knowledge of international politics. Mubarak’s 30 year dictatorship, along with President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia’s 23 years in office have largely slipped under the radar.

This begs an obvious question. Why are some world dictatorships given a far worse press than others? An obvious answer would be to look at the severity of the offences; here we can clearly see why Zimbabwe and North Korea remain in the public eye. However given the revelations that have come out in the last few days about lack of basic freedoms in a grossly undereducated population in Egypt indicate that there might be something more sinister involved.

If one looks at the regime in Iran for example, there is little to suggest that the situation is any worse than in Egypt. While internationally aggressive, internally Iran has far better standard of education and, in many cases, more freedom. Yet the media focuses far more on the evils of the Iranian government (of which there are many) that they do on those of Mubarak.

Perhaps the most obvious case of double standards amid the international community is the example of Iraq. The Iraqi people did not even have to rise up in revolt for the American government to send in the troops. Saddam’s regime was terrible and there is no avoiding that, but then so is Mubarak’s. The international response has generally been to talk a lot of nonsense about moving towards a democracy and supporting the Egyptian people’s right to freedom of expression. There has not even been a hint of condemnation directed towards Mubarak from international leaders. I suggest that, were this to happen elsewhere in the Middle East, the international community would be up in arms condemning the government for crimes against its people.

A simple explanation for this seemingly unbalanced response from the international community is that Egypt has generally internalised its troubles. Egypt does not strut around on the world stage like Iran and North Korea. Mubarak is not outspoken like Mugabe. Egypt rarely finds itself in the international limelight these days and if it does it is usually in relation to Israel. Egypt simply isn’t interesting. The dictatorships people have heard of generally pose a threat to world peace.

This is, of course, not an excuse. An offence against human rights is an offence against human rights whether is threatens to spark an international conflict of not. The Egyptian people will not take solace in the fact that, despite 30 years of an oppressive regime, their government is not a threat to anyone else. While of course it is the job of journalists to report on international affairs and focus on the ones which are most dangerous to the world at whole, the fact that Mubarak can pass under the radar in such a way for 30 years is unacceptable.

The interesting thing is that, for many years now, Egypt has been an ally of the United States. The Suez Canal is a vitally important international trade route that, according to the American government, needs protecting more than the freedom of the Egyptian people. Mubarak has no ambition to hurt America, so is considered far safer that other Islamic leaders, so, despite the lack of democracy or liberty, Egypt is a good ally to have.

This blatant, shameless and unprincipled manipulation of international affairs with the sole intention of strengthening America’s position on the world stage should surprise no-one in light of the Wikileaks scandal. For a country built in principles of life, liberty and happiness for everyone (not just Americans) it is depressing that the US government openly supports despotic regimes for their own benefit.

The dreadful situation in Egypt is an exemplar of what is wrong with international politics. Democratic countries in which political and social freedom is widespread did not leap to the support of the Egyptian people as they burst out in protest against 30 years of oppression. People, you see, are volatile. The Islamic Brotherhood, an extreme Islamic group, may well aim to fill the power vacuum left by Mubarak. This would lead to The West losing a valuable ally in the Middle East and control of the Suez Canal. Better for Mubarak to remain in power so as to maintain America’s favourable status quo. Of course there is another option. The protests are not explicitly religious. There are, of course, religious elements to the protests, but protests calling for greater freedom are hardly likely to end up supporting extreme Islamist groups who would doubtless curb freedom just as much as Mubarak. A democratic process could be established which allowed the Egyptian people to chose who rules them.

Fortunately this is most likely to happen. However it will happen in entirely the wrong way. The Egyptian people will and have been left out to dry by the international community aiming to maintain their political advantage. The right thing will be done because that’s what works best for America, not because democracy and freedom are political rights that all should have and that all should strive towards. 

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Green Hornet/The Tourist

People who tend to become superheroes usually fall into one of three categories; nerds (like Spiderman), dark, gritty individuals who have suffered personal tragedy (like Batman) and aliens from another world (like Superman). It is not often that a frat boy who spends most of his time partying and doing stupid things because they think it’s cool becomes a superhero. Well Seth Rogen seems keen to change this with his portrayal of Britt Reid, a rich frat boy who spends his youth partying and witling away his father’s considerable fortune, before inheriting his wealth and turning vigilante, mostly by accident.

Thus he becomes the Green Hornet, possibly the least capable superhero ever to have donned a mask (well maybe apart from Kick Ass, but that was the whole point). If not for his martial arts expert, coffee making genius, weapons designer and mechanical maestro Chinese sidekick, the Green Hornet would have been dead within a week of starting his new job. Still it’s nice to have a superhero who is most certainly human; without the power to sling webs, or have a utility belt that means he can do anything. Although that does raise the question of what makes him terribly super. A mask does not a superhero make. If anything his sidekick is much more of a superhero, given that he can slow time, but then the film isn’t really about him is it.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed I’m reviewing The Green Hornet today. I know! A film review! Stop the presses! Two film reviews actually, because I’ll find some way of segwaying onto The Tourist once I’m done with the Green Hornet.

The astute reader will have noticed from my previous reviews of films that I really don’t like action films and with that in mind allow me to say that The Green Hornet is a very good action film. There is lots of the fun explosions and car chases and absurd fight scenes, just as you might expect from an action film, however it is actually held together by a decent story and some well rounded, if a little unsophisticated characters. Both of these elements are given enough time to be developed so that they form a competent support for the action.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that there is nothing wrong with a film being more than an hour and a half long. If you needed any proof of this assertion, watch The Green Hornet. Were it only an hour and a half, rather than two hours I would most likely be slamming it as a typical action film in which the plot is simple a very thin window-dressing. As it is I’m giving it a cautiously positive review. The luxury of time allows the film to have all the high energy, very expensive and usually gratuitous action sequences that define the genre, as well as dedicating plenty of time to develop the characters of both the protagonists and the antagonists, and giving the plot enough to meat to carry it all along.

While the protagonist were mostly fairly dull caricatures who were predictable and rather bland (although somewhat amusing), the antagonist stood out for me as a really interesting and well thought out character. I love my villains to have an element of the crazies about them – in turn I really hate villains who are just evil for evil’s sake – and Chudnofsky (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz) was a fantastic psychopath. In fact I’d love to have seen a lot more attention paid to the villain, because frankly the protagonists got a little dull after a while. I suppose that, as with many superheroes (especially Batman), the villains are often more interesting that the heroes.

Some of you might be wondering why I’ve insisted on calling The Green Hornet an action film, rather than a superhero film. I went into the film expecting and hoping to see a superhero film focusing on the character of the superhero and his attempts to thwart the efforts of some criminal or other. Instead I got a rather fun but not particularly serious action film in which the heroes wore masks. I suppose this is why I was somewhat disappointed with the film. As a big fan of superhero films I was expecting the wrong thing. Superhero films are character studies of the hero in question, usually from their genesis, through their initial errors and to their eventual victory and coming of age as the hero. There were only the vague trappings of this in the Green Hornet; a thin veneer of character development masking a fun, but unsophisticated action film.

If you want a superhero movie than I suggest waiting for Thor to come out, because that looks like it might be a bit better in terms of actually being a superhero film. In the meantime re-watch Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, because that’s how it’s done. If you want an action film then go watch the Green Hornet; it’s exactly how a good action film should be. 2 hours of really good, clean fun that actually works as a film. Do not, however watch The Tourist if you want an action film. Do watch The Tourist is you want a really stylish, slow-boiling, slightly Noir thriller.

Set in Venice, The Tourist follows a woman (Angelina Jolie) following mysterious instructions from a former lover and wanted criminal trying to shake off the police sting operation on her and a gang of Russians lead by the English Gangster from whom he stole several billion pounds so that they can be reunited. Part of this evasion is to try to convince the police that someone else is actually the man they want. That someone else is an American tourist (Jonny Depp), who, inevitably falls in love with the woman. And I’m sure most of you can guess what the big twist was.

Luck Number Slevin this film is not, but I don’t think it was trying to be. The twist is fairly obvious, but the way in which the story is told is a real strong point. I mentioned stylish a while ago and that really is the word. The Tourist is beautifully filmed in a really majestic setting (I really need to go back to Venice some day; my 11 year old self was too young to appreciate it). The story is told so well that it makes up for some of the writing deficiencies.

There are writing deficiencies though. For example it is made pretty obvious that Depp’s character has fallen in love with Jolie’s, so we don’t need to have him say it to no-one in particular. Less is more when it comes to films like this; the more you can show visually, the better. Jonny Depp was an interesting pick for the male Protagonist as well, although I can hardly blame him for trying to associate his name with something other than the train wreck that is the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. His style of acting is not exactly suited to the role and Captain Jack Sparrow did make the odd unwelcome appearance. That being said Jolie does a fantastic job, as she usually does.

There’s really very little else to say about The Tourist. It’s a victory of style over substance. There’s really not much to the film or the characters, but all of that can be overlooked because it’s just executed so well. Usually I’d be criticising the lack of deep characterisation and the somewhat predictable plot, but there’s just enough of both of these for the film to work.

So if you want a strong story with a focus on characters, go watch a Christopher Nolan film, because neither of these films will satisfy your desires. If, however, you fancy the best action film made in recent years, go watch The Green Hornet; it’s a lot of fun. If you’re looking for something a bit more reserved with some fantastic examples of good film making, go see The Tourist.

But if you want to enjoy some really good stories from the comfort of your own home for absolutely free, then you should try listening to some podcasts. You don’t even have to go to the effort of reading these stories because they’re wonderfully narrated to you. If you’re a fan of Sci-fi, Fantasy or Horror stories (or even if you’re not) then check out Escape Pod, Pod Castle and Pseudopod for weekly short story podcasts. You will not regret it.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Back on the Horse

Holy God. A blog! What madness.

The last month of my life has been a crazy one in which I’ve lived out of a suitcase and without a reliable internet connection. I’ve been insanely busy travelling around Australia, either with my family or on my own. The few days in which I stayed in one place passed in a drunken haze while I watched England beat Australia in the cricket. Not terribly productive, but what can you do?

I’m back on the horse now however and thought it would be a good idea to tell you in a little more detail what I did on my extended hiatus.

Soon after my last blog, my parents and brother arrived from the UK (only one day before snow covered the country and closed Heathrow) and travelled up to Orange to see me. We did what little sightseeing there is around this town; hiking around the local hill, wine tasting, that sort of thing, before driving back to Sydney via the Blue Mountains for yet more walking!

From Sydney we flew to Melbourne, where we were staying for Christmas in a hotel in China Town. Christmas Eve was spent on St Kilda beach (I really hate beaches), and I managed to get a sunburn – a great start to our stay in Melbourne. Christmas Day was a bit better – we ate lunch at a really nice restaurant on the dockside before walking the length of the CBD along the river (my parents really like walking). It wasn’t terribly Christmassy, what with it being the middle of summer, but we survived. Actually it’s very strange how Australians have imported Christmas almost entirely unaltered from England, despite the fact that the weather is totally different – Santa still wears a huge red coat and all the cards have snowmen, reindeer and other wintery things on them.

On Boxing Day we took a bus tour around the City, hopping off to do some shopping (I also hate shopping) and some more walking. Stupidly I forgot to take my camera with me, so I didn’t get any photos of Melbourne. The day after Boxing Day we went to the MCG to watch a day of the cricket between England and Australia.

That marked the end of our visit to Melbourne. I found the city to be somewhat quiet, although visiting around Christmas may well have contributed to that. It was also quite unfinished. The area around the docklands was still being built, so it seemed like most of the city was a work in progress. It also felt very planned and soulless – it was built on a rigid grid pattern and seemed to have very little history – none of the city was really all that old.

Sydney was a stark contrast. We flew there on the 28th and spent the next four days there. We met with some family friends the day after we arrived and walked around Sydney (yes, more walking). We did all the typical touristy stuff, like walking over the bridge, going up to the top of the Sydney Tower and walking through the Botanical Gardens to the Opera House. We were staying out in the Suburbs, a good 15 minute train journey away, which was a bit of a drag, so we spent pretty long days in the city to make the most of it.

The day before New Year’s Eve we took a bus trip around the city and out to Bondi Beach (more bloody beaches). I didn’t get sun burned this time, because a flatly refused to actually go to the beach; I went to an internet café instead. On New Year’s Eve we went to a point almost directly under the Harbour Bridge and staked out from 2 pm for the fireworks, which were absolutely spectacular! In our long day sitting around doing nothing, I started reading Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl Who Played with Fire’ (having not actually read the first book…) which I might review next week unless something more interesting comes up.

On New Year’s Day (happy new year, by the way), we went to Manly (a suburb or Sydney) to visit some more family friends and then went to the beach (again. This time I read). The day after that was my family’s last day in Aus, so we did some more wandering round Sydney (including going to the Chinese Garden) before saying our farewells. I then travelled to King’s Cross to the hostel in which I was staying for another week or so.

Thus began the part of my trip in which it was just me! Some of you might know that King’s Cross in Sydney’s Red Light District, which I didn’t know when I booked the hostel. Don’t fear; I didn’t hire any hookers during my week there. The reason I was staying in King’s Cross was that it is only a fairly short walk from the SCG, where I was going to watch the cricket that week.

The week passed in a fairly drunken haze, while England won The Ashes and I tried to survive without my parents paying for everything! It ended a rather enjoyable time in Sydney, which I preferred to Melbourne. Sydney was a lot busier (although that may have something to do with the time of year) and seemed more organic as a city – it was built on a grid, but it didn’t always stick to the grid like Melbourne did. Unfortunately it was also a lot harder to get around and there was an awful lot of traffic.

On the Saturday (that’s the 8th) I flew to Hobart for a tour of Tasmania. My Tassie experience began first thing on Sunday with a trip to Richmond – a small village with an old bridge and some cute ducklings – we didn’t stay long – before continuing onto Port Arthur, the place where all the bad people went. And not just stole-a-loaf-of-bread bad, the repeat offenders got sent to ‘Hell on Earth’ as they called it. In the evening we got the opportunity to go back for a ghost tour, which was actually pretty spooky and very fun – basically the guide just walked us round the site and told us ghost stories relating to the places we visited.

On Monday we jet boat cruise around The Tasman Peninsula, which was great fun – we saw lots of dolphins and seals, as well as some stunning scenery. The sea was a bit choppy, so we got thrown around a bit, but it was all good fun. In the afternoon we drove up to Cole’s Bay on the edge of Freycinet National Park.

The next morning we walked through Freycinet and took in the beautiful Wineglass Bay, then it was up north to the Bay of Fires for more beautiful beaches and scenery.

On Wednesday we went across to Launceston (Australia’s 3rd oldest city) to look at Cataract Gorge and pick up the 7th member of our tour group and only the second non-English speaking. I was the only Englishman, there were 4 Aussies, a Dutch woman and a French Swiss (the latter we picked up in Launceston), overall a pretty good group. The Swiss girl’s English was pretty poor, which wasn’t ideal (neither was starting half way through).

After we left Launceston we drove all the way to the top the Cradle Mountain, where it was raining and we had no power… So we went to a local pub with a generator and stayed there for a little while, before huddling in front of the fire playing card and retelling ghost stories that we heard on the ghost tour (to the people who were too scared to go!)

The next day we were supposed to do some hiking around Cradle, but it was very wet and cold, so we walked for a bit, and then retreated into the pub, which was unfortunate. Despite the cold and the wet Cradle was beautiful. In the afternoon we drove down to Strahan, where it was supposed to be warm and dry.

Of course it rained most of the next day. We were supposed to go Quad Biking or Kayaking or some other optional activity, but we ended up just hiring sand boards and getting very wet on the dunes (and sandy). After a shower and a warm cup of tea, we headed out to the Franklin River to sample the fresh waster of the world’s only wild river (it runs without any human interference or usage from start to finish).

Saturday was the final day of our tour and it began with a stroll around part of Lake St Clair (Australia’s deepest freshwater lake), before heading out to Mt Field National Park to see the tallest flowering trees in the world. We staked out for a while to see some Platypus, but it was the middle of the day, so they refused to oblige us. Still we saw some very pretty waterfalls. Before returning to Hobart we stopped off at a wildlife sanctuary to see some of the locals. We met an adorable Wombat; some very misunderstood Tasmanian Devils (much cuter than the cartoon); a sleepy Koala (not actually a local); an Echidna; lots of Kangaroos (we even got to feed them) and even a Tasmanian Tiger! (Just kidding, they were extinct in the 1930s)

Then it was back to Hobart to say farewell and have one last evening of drinking together. Overall a fantastic tour; plenty of sights to see, even despite the weather. Tasmania reminded me of New Zealand in many ways – the North Island certainly (without the volcanism). It was lovely to see a part of Aus that most tourist neglect (some even miss it off the maps!). I’m especially glad that I was wise enough to leave Queensland until a little later on in the year (April), because I don’t think I’d have gotten very far!

I did actually have another day in Hobart. A number of the tour group met up for breakfast and explored the city a little (it didn’t take long) before going out separate ways. I first went to an internet café to catch up on what I’d missed (Tasmania is pretty backwards with regards to internet, so I was somewhat adrift all week. In fact one of the charms of Tassie, as well as one of its downfalls that it is a little like stepping into a time machine and going back somewhere between 5 and 20 years; so much is old fashioned and backwards.)

Anyway, after catching up with the world at large I went for another stroll along with picturesque dockside and followed my ears to a local music festival that happened to be going on (it also happened to be free!). It was an alternative Music Festival and had some very alternative stuff indeed, like an Italian man playing Minimalist music with kitchen utensils and a mixing deck, and a giant ball which made noises when hit that was released into the crowd so that we could make the music ourselves. There was some more conventional music as well, like a string quartet playing rock music (ok, not so conventional, but at least it’s with actually instruments, not pots and pans!)

And that’s why I’ve not had a blog in over 3 weeks.