Films of 2018

This year I’ve seen fewer films than any year for quite a while – 32, which is significantly down from last year’s previous “new low” of 48. You may need to go back to my mid-20s to find such a year of poor attendance. Yet, I think the trade-off for being less motivated and less adventurous is that I’ve seen relatively few absolute stinkers and far more films that I genuinely really liked. Picking a top-5 would be fairly hard this year, so instead I’ve decided to go the route of the MTV Movie awards, and single out incidents and occasions.

Best Scene Stealer

Death of Stalin is a hugely entertaining black comedy; there’s a seething sense of petty resentment and paranoia through the first half of the film, and then suddenly Jason Isaacs bursts into frame as Field Marshal Zhukov and kicks the whole film into another gear. He’s not on screen much, but when he is, you can’t look at anything else.

Best On-Screen Team

Mel and Jen from The Breaker Upperer’s are perhaps only a duo rather than a team, but they go through some stuff in the film and come out stronger than ever.

Best Fight

It’s been a year with big action films a-plenty, so picking a Best Fight is hard. In general though, the best fights advance the story or reveal character – a bit like the songs in a musical. There are some amazing set-pieces in, say, a film that’s otherwise a dumpster fire of ineptitude, The Spy Who Dumped Me, but the fantastic choreography only reveals how poorly they’re integrated into the story. The film which used its fights better than any other was Black Panther, where the titular character goes through some pretty major character growth in key fights.

Best Kiss

Kissing (and sex in general) is bizarrely treated in films – so fetishised and fantasised that it’s often hard to recognise as a human activity. Only one film I saw this year showed any kind of physical affection that I could relate to as a human experience – Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan in Ideal Home.  Their kiss may not have been “sexy”, because it was way better than that.

Best Hero

What is a hero? I’ve met a few people this year confused about that, describing Thanos as the “hero” of Avengers: Infinity War. Is the film sympathetic to a genocidal madman – maybe, but he’s still definitely the villain. So – who came out from behind, did the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds? It’s pretty hard to go past Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther; because he fought the toughest opponent and won – changing his own mind about something, and hence growing as a person. What? Character development in a super hero film, whatever next?

Best Villain

Not picking Eric Killmonger would be pretty crazy this year. I’ve got a few misgivings – such as the film never giving him a real name, and the absolutely unnecessary disposal of a superfluous girlfriend, which was done purely and only to make the audience less sympathetic to him. But, he was the villain whose motivations, methods, and purposes I understood, who was the most sympathetic, and yet who was still irredeemable.

Best Scared-As-Shit Performance & Best Comedic Performance

I couldn’t be bothered looking up their names, but the guys who did this the best were the gangsters in the bar in Game Night. Their utter terror played perfectly against Rachel McAdam’s straight-faced messing around, setting up an early big laugh that really cemented this film as my favourite comedy for some time.

Best Performance in a Movie

My cinematic year was without any Big Performances – you know, the kind of stuff that usually wins this award. The actor who really had to work the hardest though to win the audience over, hold their attention, and sell a range of emotions was probably Josh Brolin as Thanos. That would have been an extremely easy role to completely face-plant and ruin the whole movie, which relied on Thanos holding your attention.

Best Show

I don’t really track TV the way I do film, so just off the top of my head, the show I’ve enjoyed the most this year was probably the latest series of Brooklyn 99.

Best Movie
Time for the big one. If I could only advise you to go see one film this year, what am I picking? Mission Impossible: Fallout, for showing that a franchise this long can still deliver twists, surprises, action, and the portrait of Tom Cruise? No. It’s a best in breed, but not best in show. A Quiet Place, for being so terrifyingly tense that you could hear a pin drop in the cinema? It’s an outstanding achievement in direction and acting, but maybe didn’t explode the human condition enough to be the single top pick. Blackkklansman, an incisive look into institutional racism that’s tense, yet has a light touch? It’s got to be in consideration, though it’s historical inaccuracies are a problem for some. Sorry to Bother You, with its excoriation of consumer/capitalist culture combined with an avante-garde take on race relations? Look – another 5-star all-time classic that’s just not quite as in my wheelhouse as…

The Death of Stalin. That’s my favourite film of the year. I’ve seen it twice, and both times I was completely enthralled.

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Seismic Risk & Resilience

Recently my profession has come under a bit of fire for sub-par performance of buildings and failure to prosecute the engineers behind the CTV building collapse. The main response seems to have been re-branding from “The Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand” to “Engineering New Zealand” – perhaps they were concerned that the word “professional” was a bit misleading? They’ve also issued a document called Engineering a Better NZ, with this stunning piece of advice:

If community expectations don’t match what will be delivered, it’s because engineers have failed to accurately convey risk.

This is possibly accurate, but it’s also a somewhat depressing version of “caveat emptor” – you didn’t like what you bought, which isn’t the fault of the seller except inasmuch as they let you buy it. Like all professionals working in the area of seismic retrofitting, I’ve had my share of conversations about why a second, or even third, round of strengthening is needed as seismic codes are refined and our understanding of risk evolves.

The truth is that risk is something that’s fairly heavily buried even for us – I’ve posted on that once or twice in the past. There are layers and layers of probabilistic evaluations that need to be made for every step of the process. The design and evaluation standards we use do their best to summarise the best-guess median values for different key properties, and we take both a detailed and holistic view of the risks. We assess, we evaluate, we rank – we fix the worst risks. But what is risk? How can we understand this word in a useful way and fulfil Engineering NZ’s mandate?

The basic definition of risk is:

Risk = f(Probability of Occurrence, Consequence of Occurrence)

We’ve got to understand probability here not in terms of will it/won’t it, but as a matter of how far into the future the event happens. Seismic activity in Wellington is inevitable, but it’s not inevitable today, or tomorrow, or within the next five years. What we have is a time-bound probability field, where the probability of a minor earthquake within 5 years is X, the probability of a minor earthquake within 50 years is some multiple of X, the probability of a major earthquake within 5 years is some fraction of X, and so on. So we can think of this from the inverse perspective – the average interval between now and a minor earthquake is 1/X, which we could think of as some kind of lifetime.

The “New Building Standard” requirement of 33% is just such a minor earthquake, while the 100% level is a major quake (these being the two most relevant scenarios for practical purposes). Using our inverted way of thinking, 33%NBS represents an average lifespan of 1/X years, while 100%NBS represents a much longer average lifespan before the building is destroyed. Given that a 100%NBS earthquake is based on a 500-year return interval, and buildings are “intended” to survive for 50 years, we roughly think of a 100%NBS building as having a 10% chance of encountering a 100%-level shake. A 33%NBS quake has a correspondingly shorter return interval of 150 years. So we can, extremely roughly, think that a 33%NBS building has a “lifetime” not of 50 years, but of 15 years. I suspect it is not entirely coincidental that the timeframe required for strengthening is 15 years for most buildings, 7.5 for the most critical.

In terms of the consequence of failure, what the “New Building Standard” means is that the building is safe to evacuate, but that the building is probably a write-off afterwards. In engineering-speak we could talk about this as “resilience”, but that’s another topic for another post. If we think that the “lifetime” of a building is 15 (or, indeed, 50) years, then the only sensible thing to do is to depreciate its value over that period with a view to replacing the building entirely when the event happens.

Risk then declines over time, at least in financial terms. In the first year of an Earthquake Prone building’s life, the chances of a >33%NBS earthquake are 1/150, and the consequence is a total financial loss. In the second year, the chance of a >33%NBS earthquake is 1/150, but the consequence is a financial loss of (15-1/15)%. And so on. After 15 years, the consequence has virtually declined to zero, so the risk is zero. What this requires, however, is a 15-year plan with sufficient funding. You could then think of risk instead as a comparison of rates – what if I depreciate the building over 20 years instead of 15, that extends the exposure period by 5 years.

Whereas, what’s happening right now is that owners target 34%NBS and then assume Risk = 0 at that point. If those owners who strengthened to 34%NBS (although it was expressed differently in my youth) had seen that as a deferment or extension of a replacement cost, right now they’d be tearing down those risky hulks and building far more profitable modern buildings. Always assuming, of course, that the mystics in charge of so-called “Heritage” in NZ allow them to do the sensible thing.

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Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power [1992]

The Philosophy-101 aphorism on the value of a historical record is that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”. Over the past couple of years we’ve had an interesting time re-learning historical lessons – by which I mean, repeating ourselves. Just to put that a third way, for emphasis, I’ve had a powerful sense of deja vu when watching the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings because I read the selection of essays edited by Toni Morrison on the confirmation hearings for one Clarence Thomas, back in 1991. It’s absolutely shocking how the play-by-play has unfolded, except that since this is 2018, the charges against Kavanaugh are, of course!, an escalation on those of Thomas. The essays don’t exactly form a single coherent argument, but there are recurring themes and factors identified here and there by a good number of the learned authors – quite a lot of what they write about is about racial politics and so less pertinent to Kavanaugh, but I think the main target of their ire is the Patriarchy, which is still well-alive and absolutely kicking.

The book identifies really three main strategies that Thomas and his allies used to shepherd him through the process and into a lifetime appointment of subtle but far-reaching power. What they did was really actually quite brilliant, because it capitalises on the inherent weaknesses of dirty tree-hugging liberals like myself, principally, our core belief, sometimes buried deep deep deep, that people are actually good – we want to believe in honesty, virtue, some kind of generalised niceness, and we really don’t want to believe that all the horrific things that go on are real. We’re suckers.

The first main strategy is to play directly on this assumption of goodness, cloaked in the fundamental tenet of Western justice, whether Constitutional or Common Law, which is that someone is innocent until proven guilty. This is an absolute god-send to what we could describe in the broadest sense as emotion-based crimes. Go ahead and prove that I hate X person, or that I was mean to them, or that the sex we had wasn’t consensual. What? There’s no video-tape of every second of our lives, and so conveniently when I just say that it didn’t happen, there’s “reasonable doubt” right there? Amazing. In 1991 then-Senator Biden made this classic mistake, of assuming innocence, and then doubly-wrongly, assuming that the standard required was that of criminal proof rather than any kind of balance of probability. I would have thought that, if anything, the standard were actually the reverse – guilty until proven innocent. Even an ephemeral or miasmatic sense of improper behaviour really ought to eliminate from consideration anyone being selected for such far-reaching office. Yet, I don’t suppose we can hold this specific set of senators too accountable (look at my liberal weakness!) because this is broadly the systemic problem which has allowed sexual abuse to run rife through, in short, humanity.

The second strategy, a little less potent but still vital, is to somehow paint the candidate as that good person we all hope they are. In the case of Thomas, they hard-sold to his “boot-strap” rise to political power, pointing out his extremely humble family origins. What the essays make clear again and again is that this rise was made possible by exactly the kind of societal interventions (affirmative action essentially) that Thomas opposed. In New Zealand we’ve seen that story played out all too brutally in the most recent National government, whose ministers openly scorned people presently suffering from the same vicissitudes that they had been helped out of as youths. Never mind – Thomas had surely made it to the top, and that’s the narrative that matters, because in the minds of Americans (and really, in all believers of so-called “meritocracy”, the lie at the heart of our culture) if you made it, it’s because you deserved it. Kavanaugh’s career has been somewhat less of a spectacular rise, but only because he started in pole position.

The third strategy is to negate the accuser. Luckily, the accuser is a woman, whose political and social capital is therefore inherently minor and negligible. In both cases you’ve got what are basically learned professors at the peak of their careers being written off as political assassins fabricating lies about the virtuous man. In other words, it’s not sufficient to claim “reasonable doubt” or a difference of views as required by Strategy #1; basically because if we for some reason decided “well, this woman is a good and virtuous person, who’s wrong in this instance”, and if we treated her with any kind of compassion, it might encourage other women to come forward at a later time. By vilifying, humiliating, and actively attacking the accuser, it sends a handy message to others that not only won’t you be successful, not only are you hurting a good man (whatever mistakes he may have made), but you yourself will suffer personally and professionally as a result. It’s not that easy to see, in fact, why Dr Hill or Dr Ford came forward.

And that’s how it was done in 1991, and I expect that’s how it’s going to play out here. At least Kavanaugh’s ascent won’t also have the damaging impact on racial politics that Thomas’ did. I think that was honestly the most ingenious trick they pulled off – claiming that any attack on the character of Thomas was racially motivated in effect shielded him, and moreover, allowed Bush to install a Justice with a decidedly anti-black track record. I hope whoever thought of that got a raise (and is now burning in hell).

So, what’s the conclusion here? The way the Kavanaugh hearings are playing out, and the way a lot of well-meaning people are reacting on Twitter, and the way a lot of celebrities are opposing him, seem to be ignorant of these corner-stone strategies. In fact, the furor about Kavanaugh seems to have obliterated this memory of Thomas altogether. This almost literal repetition of history is not mentioned in any of the major news stories I’ve seen about him in the Guardian, BBC, or Stuff. It seems to me like the antibodies we should have developed 27 years have instead become the precedent that will allow this awful decision to go forward. I hope to be wrong, but in the age we’re living in, I’m not: the world is.

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The Spy Who Dumped Me [2018]

Just a foreword here that since I think few people will have seen this film at the time I’m publishing the review, I’ve tried to keep it spoiler-lite. I talk about one specific set-piece that occurs early in the film, but every other piece of commentary reveals nothing more than was in the trailers, or is the kind of high-level summary necessary for any review to be useful.

This is the third spy spoof film within a quite short time-frame, following Spy [2015] and Central Intelligence [2016], each of which I’ve seen a couple of times now. These two films worked really well for me so I laughed all the way through both, and they also more-or-less work as straightforward spy-thriller narratives. This is one of the things I always say: a satire must be structurally closely related to its original material. The Spy Who Dumped Me invokes the famous James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me [1962], which is written from the point of view of the usually-disposable girlfriend that Bond acquires in each adventure. The novel is a very peculiar mix of objectifying and empowering, with a protagonist who struggles against forces she doesn’t understand but is rescued by Bond in the nick of time. It’s been 25 years since I read it, so I won’t dwell on that too much but the central concept to keep in the front of your mind is that Bond’s fleeting love rescues her, and yet is revealed as being extremely dangerous because it is an aspect of a subterranean world of crime and sexual violence. For all that Bond is sexy, being in his world is absolutely not to be desired. To that extent, Fleming’s novel is an unfulfilled Romance. Continue reading

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Bibliophilic Calgary

I’m writing this in Cafe Milano, a casual 5-minute walk from the central metro line that bisects Calgary’s main shopping district. I ordered a flat white – the flavour is good, but there’s too much milk. So far, this may be the best coffee I’ve had in North America. I should hasten to point out that I’m no real aficionado – I can’t talk the talk, let alone drink the talk, in terms of discussing different blends, being knowledgeable about the different brewing techniques. When it comes to coffee, or art, I don’t know anything, but what I like. All I can tell you is, this is fine. Coffee is one of the things I enjoy uncritically, or if I’m honest, more often end up not enjoying uncritically. My technique for finding passable coffee is pure mimicry of what I imagine a connoisseur would do: I avoid chains, I avoid big places, I look for a certain amount of care in the decor and presentation. So far my strike rate historically is about 50%. Coffee is one of the things I always go looking for when I get to a new town.

What do you look for when you go to a new city? Museums? Local art galleries? Adventure spots? Hiking trails? For me, the quality of a city is measured by just one criterion: what is the best book store in the city? I’ve never been to Powell’s in Portland, but I’m always on the hunt for the next The Strand or Blackwell’s of Oxford, being the two best book stores I’ve ever been in. It’s not even really that close for 3rd place – we’re talking about another league. I wish I’d known how cheap surface shipping was from the UK to NZ, because I could have spent a lot more money in Blackwell’s. That might have bothered my wife, but given how things went anyway, at least I’d have a pile more books I wanted. So, after hitting Lonely Planet’s #1 tourist spot in Calgary, the Glenbow Museum, I decided to find my own personal #1, by systematically visiting every bookstore Google could find. For a city of approximately a million souls, this was a tragically small number.

There turned out to be two book-stores worth talking about, which is a relief, since any city that can’t manage at least one must surely be well down that slippery slope to cultural annihilation. Continue reading

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Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado [2018]

When Day of the Soldado was announced I had much the same response as I often do to sequels and prequels: scepticism. This felt, if not quite as pointless as Solo, fairly superfluous, especially when the announcement made clear that the film would be following the least-interesting part of Sicario [2015], Benecio del Toro’s “Medelin” , a lawyer-turned-assassin, the “sicario” of the title. I described Sicario as a film with a hole in its centre because it was about the War on Drugs ™ without ever really addressing that war – its supply lines, its soldiers, its victims – in the way, say, Traffic [2000] was. This is what I’m starting to think of as a narrative of refusal, which treats its central topic as such a given, such a well-known quantity, that any direct exploration is redundant and hence refused. In Sicario, Alejandro is a pure cypher: the film makes no attempt to humanise him or his story – in fact, that’s a big part of its representational strategies, showing the dehumanising effect of the WoD. Even the notional protagonist, Kate Mercer [Emily Blunt], is the thinnest possible sketch, a woman about whom we know almost nothing. What concerned me most about a sequel was that it would be redundant, but a close second was that the sequel would become enraptured with its subjects and destroy the beautiful emptiness of the original. Instead, I think Day of the Soldado doubles down on the amorphous narrative, the cypher-like characters, the inscrutability of the story environment – the things which made Sicario interesting.   Continue reading

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X-Films: Confessions of a Radical Film Maker [2008]

Alex Cox came to my attention when I picked up Alex Cox’s Film 101, which is a compilation of his lecture notes from a guest course he taught. His introduction to film was very idiosyncratic, representing his own experience as an independent film-maker. He venerated directors like Dennis Hopper – whose life as a director was news to me. His vision was based on practical experience, and was a very entertaining read. He seemed like the perfect companion when navigating the deep waters of pure film theory. When I saw Confessions at a junk store during my book crawl in Christchurch it was a very easy purchase. Continue reading

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