Balibo Thoughts

January 31st, 2010

balibo

Balibo is the true story of 5 Australian journalists (the Balibo Five) and Roger East who were killed by Indonesian soldiers in the invasion of then Portuguese Timor in 1975. Both the Australian and Indonesian governments have worked to conceal the truth of the events which itself is, by recent Australian inquiry, inconclusive. The story is based on Jill Jolliffe’s Cover-Up and, as one of the other reporters on the island near the time of the invasion, assumes her interpretation of the events.

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I don’t like Anthony LaPaglia, supposedly he’s from Adelaide, but that still doesn’t change the fact. At the start of Balibo, his role as ABC reporter Roger East, validates my opinion. He comes across as an asshole; self-interested and ignorant to the plight of youthful FRETLIN politician José Ramos-Horta. Impressed by the sense of justice shown in East’s previous coverage of the Vietnam War and in South American, Horta comes to Darwin to convince Mr East to join his news agency in Dili, in the hope that he will spread awareness of the growing injustice of the Indonesian government towards the people of Timor. East refuses and while quarreling with Horta asks about the five young journalists supposedly situated on the island. Horta spitefully hands East photos and reveals that the men have been missing for 3 weeks, before leaving.

There’s an uneasy air surrounding the situation in Timor and East grows curious, he senses something amiss and decides to rest his suspicions. He meets ABC reporter Michael Richardson who was formerly with the other journalists, but returned to Australia in fear of his safety. Distraught from his experience, he tells East that an Indonesian invasion of Timor is surely imminent and that East would be foolish to go after them.

Determined to seek resolution of the whereabouts of the journalists, East agrees to work in Horta’s newsagency, so long as he can first go to Balibo (where the journalists were last headed). It’s implied that East plans to use Horta to reach Balibo and find answers. Horta accepts the deal.

Balibo is actually a telling of two stories, woven into the one. The overarching story is of East’s—the unofficial 6th member of the Balibo Five—pursuit for the truth. The second story is of the original five and is told a month ahead of East’s story as a series of vignettes.  This creates a riveting dynamic where East is following the trail of a story whose event’s–interspersed with his own–are unfolding before the audience. We can see the tragedy which is about to occur, and it leaves a haunting tone throughout the feature. The Balibo 5 story is shot with a 16mm-to-35mm lens, adding a blue filter to the scene and allowing viewers to differentiate between the two storylines.

The two stories are part of a dual narrative presented through the recollection of an East Timorese woman who is being interviewed for documentation purposes. As we discover, as a young girl, the woman worked in her father’s hotel, the Gran Turismo, where the Balibo Five and East had stayed during their time in Timor. She also witnessed East’s shocking execution at the end of the movie. She’s being interviewed alongside many hundreds of East Timorese who lived through the invasion and liberation of their country. By beginning and concluding the movie in the present day and in such a context, frames the story of the journalists in the wider struggle of the East Timorese’s fight for independence. As the lady leaves the interview at the movie’s closing, and the next person in line steps in and were given a scope of the real people who lived through their own stories of the invasion.

The story of the Balibo Five is frightening as their execution, by the hand of the Indonesian army, looms over the story. One can see the group’s naïve dismissal of warning signs with insistence of bettering the rival stations; Richardson warning the others not to venture any further, the mortar fire which drops during a shoot, the further warning by the group’s driver and then their final pursuit for footage of the invading Indonesian forces undressing from civilian disguises, which ultimately led to their demise. Two of the movie’s key scenes: the initial drop of mortar fire on the journey to Balibo and the killing of the Balibo Five are downright shocking. The film was shot so that the actors themselves traced the journey of the original five. It’s clear that this journey gave the actors a sense of respect and understanding which contributed to these  scenes that they largely improvised. They portray a realistic fear of life about to reach its early end and it’s incredibly moving.

East suffers the same fate, but his story inspires a little more hope. As East travels to Balibo he slowly warms to the Timorese and looks beyond the death of the five journalists to the greater impact on the native people. His realisation all comes to the forefront when in a school torn apart by the Indonesian army, he argues with Horta that in the Australian press the importance of the five Australian journalists far outweighs that of the Timorese population, Horta labels this as selfish and irresponsible, their argument leads into a brief fight. In the end, I think, East, through his personal experience, begins to understand Horta’s message and therefore eventually takes up his cause. Balibo doesn’t assert much political opinion, however, this scene wisely provides context of the situation at large.

The movie ends with the invasion of the Dili by Indonesian forces who physically remove East from Horta’s newsagency and drag him out for execution on a neighbouring jetty. I found this scene to be incredibly arresting as East, attempting to escape the soldier’s grip, cries “I’m Australian”, trying to alert the soldiers of his separation from the conflict. He learns, however, that he is an innocent as the East Timorese.

Conclusion

I guess I appreciate Anthony LaPaglia now, Balibo is one of the most gripping movies I’ve seen in a long time. Balibo is unsettling and at times frighteningly realistic, but as is repeated many times throughout trailers and the extra features (which are plentiful), it’s a story that had to be told. A compelling tragedy which concludes on an uplifting note.

Blade Runner Thoughts

January 21st, 2010

blade-runner

Quite often I find myself reading deeply into a game which I’ve never played, becoming enveloped in its lore before I’ve even had the chance to play it. One of those games is Snatcher. Snatcher‘s been on my mind for a few years and yet I know it’ll be a few years more until I get around to playing it. Snatcher is a rarity which leaves me with little choice but to emulate it, yet I don’t plan on getting into game emulation until I clear off more of the games which I’ve paid for, so I probably won’t get around to it this year, I suspect.

Another game which has caught my attention is Blade Runner, an early 3D detective game for the PC, set in the universe of the movie with the same name. Blade Runner is interesting because it circumvents the use of a graphics card to render it’s high production 3D visuals.

Snatcher is heavily derived from Blade Runner‘s (movie) neo-noir universe, the similarities speak volumes of Hideo Kojima’s adoration for hollywood. Blade Runner began an aesthetic trend which has populated a number of my favourite anime movies as well. So with all facts considered, I decided that I’d be worthwhile for me to investigate the origins of Snatcher, the Blade Runner game and the numerous anime films which share a visual likeness.

Blade Runner (movie)

Blade Runner is an aesthetically-driven movie. The detective, noir plot plods along at a turtle’s pace and the events that unfold are genuinely less interesting and less important than the goings-on pertained in the visual environment of the hypothetical dystopian future.

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Rick Deckard, a detective played by Harrison Ford, is a something of a wanderer with a soggy attitude. I think he’s a jerk, but I guess it was normal in the 80’s for men to throw their girls around. Deckard is assigned to destroy four remaining replicants (robots in the guise of humans) on Earth. Considering the replicant’s  pursuit to extend their limited 4 year capacity, the roles of villains and heroes aren’t so clear cut. The film supposes that Deckard is the protagonist, but I would argue otherwise. I would argue that the replicants are just as innocent as Deckard. They both kill others to meet their own ends, and although the replicants are robots, they exhibit human-like initiative which normalise them into the wider population. The replicants refuse to perish because of their continual likeness to human beings (the 4-year life span is a failsafe to prevent the replicants from becoming indistinguishable from human beings) and there’s an admirable quality to be seen there. The question then is of what rights do we grants our manufactured counterparts?

Thematically, Blade Runner is very rich, however, little meaning is incorporated into the story as much as it pertains in the visual environment. The city (Los Angeles) has a strong oriental influence from Japan and is overall a very multicultural take on American, suggesting greater ethnic integration in the future, perhaps Japanese dominance (a concern of the time). The most striking visual feature is the retrofitted nature of the metropolis, which is not only a realistic mix of the past and the future, but visually distinct, metaphorically conveying a strong sense of comparative ideologies of the old and the new. General speaking, the hyrbid  approach allows artists to display two ideas embedded into the graphics as dominant and weak, a fusion, cooperative, co-existent and so forth. I think it’s a very powerful way to express comparison.

Taking into account that most of Blade Runner‘s themes are built into the environment, and therefore implicit, the most overt topic posed is one of what it means to be human. Emotion is the answer offered by Blade Runner and it presents this through the Tyrell corporation who attempt humanise their robots through memory implants used to elicit an emotional response. The Voight-Kampff test (a series of questions designed to evoke emotion + a retina scan) used by the humans is a measure for checking whether someone is a human or replicant . The legitimacy of the human condition is put under scrutiny when Deckard uses the technique on Rachael (Sean Young) and struggles to classify her. She’s one of Tyrell’s best models, the Nexus-6, and proves just how indiscernible the line between real and artificial life can be. She believes herself to be human, which conjours up René Descartes notion “I think therefore I am”.

Personally, I consider the unicorn sequence to be a stroke of genius. Early in the movie Deckard dreams of a unicorn galloping through a forest, at the end of the movie he finds an origami unicorn left by his apartment door, the calling card of Gaff, another police officer monitoring Deckard. This is clearly the most intentional question put forward: whether Deckard is a human or a replicant.

Conclusion

I’ve wasted few words discussing Blade Runner‘s story, because the movie is far more interesting as a visual and thematic piece than it is for an engaging narrative. I find it a little bizarre actually that Blade Runner is more enjoyable if you ignore the foreground elements (Deckard’s story) and concentrate on everything happening in the background (the visual landscape, themes and the questions presented by the film). By the way, get the directors cut (seems to be the standard edition now), as it ties together the unicorn sequence in the conclusion.

Influences

I mentioned earlier, Blade Runner likely inspired other forms of media, so I just want to quickly run through some examples. Snatcher is a complete Blade Runner rip-off, just take a read of the story the entire premise is identical. Akira, aesthetically borrows liberally from Blade Runner, particularly the futuristic architectural designs. Lastly, Wicked City uses the same bad-guys-in-the-guise-of-humans which the creatures of the dark world.

Additional Readings

JUNKER HQ (Interview with Jeremy Blaustein by Chris Barker)

Retroaction Issue 3 – Cover Feature

Die Hard 4.0 Thoughts

January 19th, 2010

live-free-or-die-hard

On name alone, ‘Live Free or Die Hard‘ had me excited for another Die Hard sequel, in fact I’d probably have bought into Die Hard 4.0 a little more if they’d stuck with the coolness of the original name. However, they did not (outside of America) and in turn I didn’t really enjoy Die Hard 4.0 either. I guess, I didn’t enjoy Die Hard 4.0 for the simple reason that it was only a “great” movie and not an astoundingly brilliant one. So colour the following criticism as rather harsh then.

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Die Hard kinda switched off my radar after a friend explained that the, at time, new movie was a soft-cock iteration of the John McLane legacy. Looking at the American ratings system though, I’m a little confused by all the drama. According to my imported copy of The Ultimate Matrix Collection, all three movies were given an ‘R’ classification rating and yet the equally violent Die Hard 4.0 was given a PG-13 rating in the states. How this makes sense, I do not know.

The problem with John McLane’s resurrection has less to do with a lack of yippee ki-ays and soft-cock action and more to do with lame special effects and an under-realised narrative. The former we can get out the way fairly quickly: McLance, handling a semitrailer, takes on a jet firing missiles under a series of computer-generated concrete highways and manages to end up the victor. The entire scene is as ridiculous as it is fake and unengaging. This coming from a crew which is proud of the realism of their action sequences. Without exaggeration, the scene was disingenuousness and made me feel sleepy.

The majority of the action sequences are actually quite good, most notably when a car is launched into a helicopter (McLane “was out of bullets”). The premise to this sequence masterfully makes use of the technology-savvy villains who redirect traffic into both sides of a tunnel, wait for McLane to reverse (attempting to trap him with a luring chopper waiting for him on the other side) and then proceed to switch off the tunnel’s lights for ensuing mayhem. Such cleverness rekindles the shock of the “I hate niggers” sequence from Die Hard: With a Vengeance.

The narrative is ultimately what soured me over on what is an admittedly good Die Hard flick. The premise is that a group of youngish cyber hackers have taken over Washington, D.C. , starting a firesale: a three step process of disarming control of a country. The group first begin by closing down the transportation system, then they destroy communications and lastly they shut off utilities. This concept sets up two interesting dynamics for the narrative. Firstly it allows for some clever confrontations as McLane works on the ground and the cyber criminals attempt to stop him through indirect measures. Unfortunately, unlike Die Hard: With a Vengeance which mostly delivered on its core premise, Die Hard 4.0 concocts very few battles which utilise the villain’s unique form of control. As such, the primary action sequences wouldn’t be out of place in a lesser action movie, there’s no defining ingenuity to raise Die Hard 4.0 above convention.mclane-die-hard-4

Besides the car-chopper and semi-trailer-army-jet scenes, the other two action sequences which constitute Die Hard 4.0 feel very familiar. The first bit of action in the movie, an escape from I’m-like-a-son-to-you-Mc-Lane Matt Farrell’s apartment, is typically Seagal, particularly shooting a fire extinguisher. McLane later faces off against Mai, an archetypal ninja women—represented by the Asian-ness of Maggie Q as Mai, in an industrial setting. Mai’s unwillingness to die (Mai is roughed around, hit with a car and falls down an elevator shaft, yet continues to get back up) and the insane lengths that McLane goes to kill her is reminiscent of Terminator 3. One character plays the action movie trope, the other, a slender, unstoppable force. The blue hue of the set and overall industrial aesthetic further adds to the likeness to T3.

The second dynamic created by the firesale concept is the underlying theme of “an analog cop in a digital world”. McLane’s an old hat, a white cop who wears his battles on his bloodied body. He continues to embody the characteristics of his 1980s/1990s persona. In many ways, McLane’s lost in this world, an outdated stereotype in a more sophisticated kind of action movie. The narrative interesting explores this side of the legacy and it actually makes John McLane the most dislikable character in the entire film. McLane comes off as arrogant, narrow-minded and uncooperative. He’s also clueless when it comes to dealing with the smarmy cyber terrorists and takes a brute force approach to taking them down. In a sense, he’s the butt of a joke which only the viewers are in on. I wouldn’t consider McLane a detriment to the movie (after all, it is his movie), because I think that his juxtaposition with the other characters says a great deal about social and cinematic changes in the over the past 20 years. Here are a handful of possible interpretations:

The villains, a bunch of computer-hacking university graduates, are lead by the nefarious Thomas Gabriel, who in his role struggles to show villainy.  Gabriel was formerly a programmer for the government who was fired from his position after finding a large security hole in the networking system and, typically for computer types, being pedantic about the issue to the point that he was sacked for his annoyance. Gabriel is therefore taking revenge the only way he knows how, by exploiting the security hole, in turn further proving his profound ability to annoy people in power. Timothy Olyphant is a little too young for his role and frankly an unappealing antagonist who seems to get angry at McLance just for anger’s sake.

Conclusion

There’s a whole bunch of essential information which the movie tries to make a point of (McLane’s wizz kid, side kick) which I haven’t mentioned because it’s obvious and laboured. Otherwise, Die Hard 4.0 is a good installment of the Die Hard series which I can’t bear to like for its failure to pull original action sequences from a premise which could offer many, McLane’s role as an awkward fit and the generous use of computer graphics in that one particular scene.

Additional Reading

The Lean, Mean, Macho Machine – Popmatters