Film Review: Sizzle

i-7bf6ca8410168a3d5b30bf78bfc2a7f6-polar-bear-face.jpgI know what a documentary film is. I know what fiction is. And I know what a mockumentary is: a fictional documentary. Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy attempts to combine these approaches within the framework of comedic fiction, and it left me really confused.

Director and narrator Randy Olson exists, I know that. But what about the scientists he interviews? Are all of them real? Some of them? None? There certainly are a few pretty outlandish characters there. Yet the only people in the movie I could be entirely sure must be played by actors were the in-movie camera man and sound guy, because they appear on screen as they couldn’t if they had actually been shooting and recording. But that in turn suggests that every scientist that interacts with the fictitious camera man is also acting, at least to some extent. And that guy is one of the film’s main characters, who talks to everybody. What am I supposed to do — Google everybody on my handheld to check their ontological status as I watch the movie?

I have to rate this film from two different perspectives: as a documentary and as comedic fiction. On one hand it’s a sitcom about in-movie Olson having to deal with cliché gay airhead producers, his camera man interrupting his interviews, and everybody being more interested in celebrities than scientists. And in this perspective the film’s mildly funny. Olson is a decent comedian.

On the other hand, Sizzle can’t escape comparison with An Inconvenient Truth. In some sense, this is marine biologist Dr. Randy Olson communicating about global warming. We learn that he thinks a) it’s a serious issue, b) we cause it, c) we need to do something about it. And we learn (if we didn’t already know) that global warming denialism is a tiny minority position among scientists. But Olson doesn’t offer any data or argument for the audience to mull over. In fact, he ridicules the idea of presenting data in a documentary. Instead it’s on from one talking head to another via comic relief scenes with the camera man. Denialists are given equal screen time. To the extent that Olson offers any constructive ideas to the issue, it seems mainly to be that if everybody got to see a polar bear they would care more about them, and if/when Hurricane Katrina repeats itself, everybody will start to take the issue seriously.

As far as I can see, the film doesn’t even try to deliver a serious message. It’s more like Olson secured funding to do a documentary but got bored and decided to put the money into a low-budget comedy starring himself instead. Then, as an afterthought, he tacked some criticism of the New Orleans rehabilitation efforts onto the end of the thing.

Even if it reaches a large audience, I can’t really see Sizzle influencing US public opinion — and thus policy decisions — on global warming. Indeed, I’m not sure if Randy Olson has any such hopes for it. If he does, I’d humbly advise him not to blur the distinction between fact and fiction next time.

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Film Review: Journey to 10,000 BC

i-ca874a8ec597993c3eed6ae37cee2511-journeyto10000bc.jpgJourney to 10,000 BC is a new made-for-TV documentary about Clovis-era North American archaeology and palaeontology (not to be confused with Roland Emmerich’s baroque fantasy feature 10,000 BC). The format of the film is conventional: a voiceover intercut with clips from interviews with scholars. The academics acquit themselves well and get a lot of interesting information across in the brief soundbites allotted them. This is the film’s main strength. The voiceover (written by David Padrusch and Ian Stoker-Long) isn’t too bad either: there are a few sensationalistic bloopers and endorsements of controversial views, but mainly the information given is correct and delivered in a lively way.

Half-way through the film, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institute and David George of Saint Anselm College are given ten minutes to air the controversial Solutrean hypothesis. Briefly, this holds that the Americas were not peopled from Beringia, or not exclusively from Beringia, but (also) from western Europe. The similarities between Solutrean projectile points (France) and Clovis ones (US) are in fact superficial and cannot be taken to indicate any genetic relationship. Yet this is the main argument for the Solutrean hypothesis. Few specialists accept it, and its inclusion is my main scientific point of criticism against the film. As Wikipedia puts it, “The hypothesis is challenged by large gaps in time between the Clovis and Solutrean eras, a lack of evidence of Solutrean seafaring, lack of specific Solutrean features in Clovis technology, and other issues.”

The film pushes the Solutrean angle further by mainly using actors with Europid features (and 80s hair-metal wigs, which kind of tends to ruin the impression) to portray Palaeoindians. Then, ten minutes before the end of the film, Beringian immigrants are introduced into the narrative, and they are played by actors with Native American features. Anyway, the message isn’t one of white supremacy.

Overall, the film has very poor visuals. It looks cheap, it’s repetitive and it conveys a lot of wordless errors. We get endless ugly machinima-level computer animation combined with bluescreened live actors who interact with beasties that aren’t visible to them. There are many cloned copies of each digital being, with jerky movements that Harryhausen wouldn’t have accepted 40 years ago. The same clips recur time and time again: the viewer will grow to loathe a model of a mammoth head whose beady animatronic eye keeps showing up in extreme close-up to scary music. A wounded digital mammoth stomping on the head of an unfortunate hunter in slow motion is pure slapstick.

Director David Padrusch has a whole excavation team march toward the camera brandishing shovels, then cuts to the first Palaeoindian colonists, walking around in a similar group. We see no children, no elderly people, no luggage, no winter clothing, and the actors are looking around with dreamy astonishment at everything they see. It’s as if what they met with in North America were wildly different from what they’d known for all their lives in their area of origin, which in Beringia’s case would have been, like, fifty miles to the west.

Berries and nuts are collected in smooth leather dishes that look like upturned cardboard lampshades. Finely tanned and industrially finished animal skins are uselessly stroked with flint scrapers tilted the wrong way, scrapers that would in any case have been applied only at the messy beginning of the tanning process. Late Palaeolithic people sail across the Atlantic to illustrate the Solutrean hypothesis, and the mast is at the aft of the boat. Painful stuff.

I don’t know who the target audience of this film is, but the production values suggest screenings at underfunded schools and museums. The production company might actually hire the voiceover guy to record a few introductions to the interviewees and then re-cut the film’s soundtrack as a decent radio documentary. But as it is, Journey to 10,000 BC is a pretty sorry excuse for a documentary film.

The film is also reviewed at Archaeoporn .

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Film Review: Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills

There was a time, around the age of twenty, when I saw some pretty weird movies. First I lived a short bike ride from the Swedish Film Institute, where I caught Kenneth Anger and Luis Buñuel (neither of whom I liked much — I walked out on Anger’s shorts). Then I moved to a place with a TV set just as Swedish commercial television took off. The stations didn’t have much money yet and would broadcast the weirdest, cheapest feature films on weekend afternoons. Two stuck in my mind: one a low-budget Italian Conan rip-off whose title eludes me, the other an American picture from 1989 named Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.

I only saw about the last third of Scenes at the time, and it really amazed me. It was this completely dream-like ironic bedroom farce where everybody got it on in random combinations. I never forgot it, and so I recently bought it used on video tape (there’s a 2005 DVD edition as well) and had a good look.

I wasn’t disappointed. Scenes is just as weird as it seemed when I stumbled into it. Stylised yet silly, comedic yet with a strange sense of unreality.

The story is simple: a wealthy Beverly Hills divorcee has to find accommodation over a weekend while a bug extermination company wraps her house in orange plastic (cue Christo joke) and gasses it. With her teenage son and chauffeur, she moves in with her equally affluent neighbour, a recently widowed ex-movie-star. A number of other people come to visit, and everybody starts fucking everyone.

There’s a lot of meta-stuff going on. The film helps itself to the good bits out of Buñuel and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the latter providing a template for a lot of purposely hammy acting and dialogue. Reading up, I learn that the whole thing is loosely based on the 1939 French feature La Règle du Jeu and that the title parodies the 1977 US documentary Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal. Only mentioning stuff I’ve seen myself, Scenes shares cast members with The Princess Bride, Six Feet Under and Nip/Tuck.

Scenes is a playful, ironic, surreal comedy. It’ll make you laugh, it’s got some righteously soft-porn moments, and after you’ve watched it you’ll feel like your worldview is slightly askew for a while.

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Film Review: Spiderwick Chronicles


9-y-o Junior has had a remarkable streak of luck involving the kids’ fantasy movie Spiderwick Chronicles. First he managed to check his e-mail just as the book-club he’s a member of sent out a mass-mailed invitation to yesterday’s pre-screening of the film. Then, when he and I sat down to watch the thing, the Spiderwick books’ Swedish publishers ran a lottery with the seat numbers, and he was the first winner, harvesting two new books and a merch note pad.

In Junior’s opinion, the movie was a 8/10. I’m not a member of target audience, and I give it a 5. It’s a contemporary-world children’s fantasy in the tradition of Edith Nesbith: about three siblings who move to a big old house and find the field journal of their great-grand-uncle Arthur Spiderwick, who studied fairies and goblins in the 1920s. The movie’s action-filled and pretty violent, though most of the beings that get hurt are barely humanoid CGI critters. The mood is rarely particularly menacing or eerie. A funny detail is that twin brothers Jared and Simon are both played by Freddie Highmore (of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame), who does a very fine job of keeping the two characters distinct. (The integration of the separate takes is seamless.)

So, if you’re a grown-up looking for fantasy entertainment, then you can do far worse than this. And if you want to entertain a 9-12-year-old, then you are unlikely to do much better than Spiderwick Chronicles.

(On a side note, the art in Holly Black’s original book series, by Tony DiTerlizzi, is heavily influenced by Brian Froud. Anyone into him or the 1986 David Bowie flick The Labyrinth might check the books out too.)

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English-Speaking World Catches On To Ansiktsburk Lyrical Method

Scandy readers will be very familiar with this. As we learned from “Hatten Är Din”, “Ansiktsburk”, “Fiskpinnar” and other Turk Hits back in 2000, you can get wonderfully absurd results if you listen to a song in a foreign language and pretend it’s actually sung in your mother tongue.

Now, a talented Ansiktsburk poet has subtitled, in English, a typically over-the-top music video from southern India. Unbelievable stuff!

“Have you been high today?
I see the nuns are gay
My brother yelled to me
‘I love you inside Ed!'”

Mistranslations of the Third Kind


Over at David Nessle‘s, his witty readers are discussing translations — more particularly, bad translations. I collect crap translations from English to Swedish, so I decided to offer some to you, Dear Reader. To make this palatable to non-Swedish-speakers, I’ll add a second step to explain what the Swedish mistranslation means literally in each case.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Main character drives around on a rainy night looking for a place called Cornflower. Meeting someone, he asks for directions, but the other guy just drives off and our hero yells an insult after him.

“Excuse me — is this the way to Cornflower? … Turkey!”

Ursäkta, var ligger Cornflower? I Turkiet?

“Excuse me, where is Cornflower? In Turkey?”

Thriller novel about crazy man who takes a hostage and barricades himself with a bomb in Central Park. (Don’t remember title, please help.)

“He was very proud of his small arms.”

Han var mycket stolt över sina små armar.

“He was very proud of his small upper extremities.”

“Tanks were assembling in nearby streets.”

Tankbilar samlades på gatorna runt omkring.

“Tank trucks were assembling in nearby streets.”

“He stopped dead.”

Han stoppade döden.

“He stopped death.”

“We’ve got to do something about that flat [tyre].”

Vi måste göra något åt den där lägenheten.

“We’ve got to do something about that apartment.”

Finally, a tale told by my good friend Ylva about one of her first translation jobs, taken on while she was still in high school. (She later went on to become one of Sweden’s best and most prolific translators of speculative fiction.) Teen Ylva calls her mother, a teacher, and says, on the verge of tears, “Oh Mom, I just can’t figure this out! It says here that the hero is wearing a piece of cod!”

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Turn On, Tune In LazyTown, Drop Out


My kids have taken to watching LazyTown, this really druggy and garish kids’ show on Playhouse Disney. It’s got a lot of caricatured puppets of children with the hands of real people, but also three live actors, the main character played by a little girl in a pink wig. The live actors, particularly the tall fey lantern-jawed villain, ham up their performances mercilessly. Their interactions with the vacant-eyed puppets lend an extra dimension of unreality to the show, and when you add the fact that it’s all been dubbed into Swedish so the lip movements don’t synch, you’ve got a product way off the scale on the weirdometer. Bad trip. Baaad trip. Yet LazyTown’s intended message is about the virtues of sports and exercise!? It’ll have a whole generation huffing paint stripper, mark my words.

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