December 31, 2010

2010: WHAT I MISSED AND WHAT THE F...?!

As with any year, there are certain films I've missed at the cinema. Whether it's because they were only out for two weeks, I never got around to seeing them or they just plain never came out, what follows is a run-down of some films I totally and utterly missed. And then there are some films I saw that were utter mindfucks. 

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO...?

Being in New Zealand means we can miss out on a bunch of movies sadly. What with us being way down in the nether regions of the world the actual cost of freighting an actual, physical film print must be, well, pretty astronomical (as a side note, I wonder how the digital distribution of films will affect the release slate here?). So, distributors must surely have some sort of arcane formulae for calculating whether they'd make a profit or not, right? They couldn't just randomly decide what films would be release and what wouldn't, could they? 

Waking Sleeping Beauty
This is a film I've read a little bit about from a variety of American movie websites: it's a documentary on the Mouse House and the animators who used to work in the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney. It's a film I'm hoping to see next year: whether at the World Cinema Showcase or the Film Festival I would be gobsmacked if this doesn't play somewhere in NZ next year.

Valhalla Rising
By the beard of Odin! This is a film I've been looking forward to for at least a year. It's directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Bronson), has Mads Mikklesen (Casino Royale) as a one-eyed viking warrior and, oh yeah, it's about frakking vikings! It even made Empire magazines end of year Top 20. I felt for sure this would've been at the Film Festival or at least as a limited release at the Paramount. No such luck. Perhaps it'll be at the 2011 World Cinema Showcase.

Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee
Yet another Festival favourite director not making the cut this year. This time it's Shane Meadows and his mate Paddy Considine with a musical mockumentary thing. I don't even know if this has a DVD release here.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
This is one that truly baffles me. Nicolas Cage going batshit. Festival favourite director Werner Herzog. Outstanding reviews (if not outstanding box office). In fact, the Film Festival wanted to show this. But the distributors, in their infinite wisdom, saw fit to send it straight to DVD. 
This annoys me.

Mesrine
This well reviewed French crime thriller starring Vincent Cassel was split into two parts. It actually played at the French Film Festival: but with only one showing and in the middle of the day during the week it was a bit hard to get to. Baffling programming.

WHAT I MISSED

And then these are the films that were release, that I wanted to see and then... didn't. Machete and Centurion were out all of two weeks before disappearing from cinema screens. The others here... well, I just didn't quite make it to the cinema. It happens. This list DOESN'T include films that came out in 2010 that there was no frakking way in seven hells I was going to see. Like Marmaduke.

Machete

Centurion

The Ghost Writer

Daybreakers

The Expendables

Fish Tank

Nowhere Boy

Predators

Runaways

WHAT THE F...?!

2010 seems to have been the biggest year for mindbending going on at the cinema. Even one of the biggest hits of the year had people scratching their heads and engaging in long conversations about what it all meant. And then there was Inception.

Antichrist
I'm still undecided about this film. You cannot deny it's powerful and that it provokes debate though. Is it misogynistic? Shocking for shocking's sake? An art-house horror? And what the fuck was with the talking fox? I certainly won't be watching it again, but there is a little part of me that is glad this film is out there. It's many things at once and I think von Trier disappeared up his own arse, but the fact that there is this... thing, this direct contrast to the mind-numbing blockbusters. Well, that is a good thing.

Enter the Void
And talking about disappearing up one's own arsehole... well, what can one say about this loose adaptation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead? What I can say is, without a shadow of a doubt, there was not another film like Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void this year. It's a marathon watch: epileptic fit-inducing credits, beautiful imagery, repugnant characters played by terrible actors, wandering non-plot...It really is endurance cinema as it meanders for over 2 and a half hours! But you cannot vault the bravery and vision on display. Again, it's not one I'll watch again and it certainly won't make my end of year list... but it's a film I'm glad is out there; that there is still room in this world for something so... unique.

Amer
Ahem. I saw this on the last day of Film Festival, exhausted and more than a little hungover. I'm sure I nodded off a couple of times. That may actually have worked for the film, with it worming it's way into my subconscious. There wasn't much plot to be had and the whole thing was incredibly oblique. But it had an obvious love for the old Italian genre/giallo films that soaked through the screen.

December 29, 2010

2010: THE YEAR IN REVIEW

2010 has been an interesting year for me with the movies. A lot of that is due to this blog I’ve been keeping since midway through. I’ve noticed a distinct change from my first write-ups that I started as just something for me, and my more recent writings that tend to go on a bit longer. I hope this means my writing has improved and that I am thinking and engaging with these films more and not just becoming a pompous windbag. Although if this means I get to wear a crushed velvet smoking jacket, then I shan't worry overly much.

I think I’ll break up this end of year review over the next few days, finishing up with my final pick of films for 2010. In fact, probably not until early in the new year will I reveal my picks - there are still films to see in 2010! For now, I'll start with a more general wrap up of the year. Don't forget to email your lists in too! Be it movies, music or... well, anything really.

The General Wrap-up

2010 got off to quite a slow start. It wasn’t until the end of February and Scorsese’s Shutter Island that I was really well and truly impressed by something at the cinema. And it wasn’t until the end of March (a full quarter of the yea!) that we got a film that has made it on to my 2010 Favourites. The “summer” blockbuster season was, quite frankly, utter shit. This may have been due to some sort of ripple effect of the Writer's Strike of 08, but to me it smacks more of an off year. I’m one of the few who enjoyed Iron Man 2 but even I’ll admit that it was underwhelming. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was absolute goat-balls and none of the other big studio releases really inspired - I just plain stayed away (no Expendables or Salt for me); until Inception and Toy Story 3 anyway.

It has been one of the strongest years for animation though – How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3, The Illusionist, A Town Called Panic etc. These have been heartfelt, moving, hilarious and, well, a damned sight better than a lot of the live-action releases. Anyone who says animated movies are just for kids... well, we need to have words. Which makes it all the more baffling they couldn’t get enough nominees (short by one film! One!) to widen the Oscar field.

This year’s annual Film Festival was the biggest for me, in terms of films seen. In two and a half weeks I saw 47 films (only three shy of my initial target!) and successfully blogged about them (check 'em out on the right!). It was… exhausting. But exhilarating at the same time. 47 was a lot of films, with a fair share of duds and unwatchables but then there were also the blasts of cinematic awesomeness that make it all worth it.

I’ve been ushering/cashiering the Festival since 2002 and this was one of the smoothest Festivals I’ve been involved in. Yes, there was a missing row of seats at the Paramount (quickly replaced), and there was a ticketing balls-up that meant some of the earliest ticket buyers got some of the worst seats but these sorts of issues were handled. There was no fire alarm between two full houses. No film sliding off the platter mid-show. No flairs on the stairs.

No, the biggest problem at Film Festival 2010 was… the audiences. I don’t know if it was because I was an usher this year (and thus more exposed to the seething mass of idiots that make up the mass of consumers) or if it was the continuing spiral downwards but the audiences this year were some of the worst I’ve ever encountered. Which is not to say that the vast majority of people were puppy-murdering jackanapes, but at every single screening there were late-comers (as in, 20 minutes) and texters. The bane of my cinematic existence; texters. You would think (or I would hope) that the audience at a film festival would have less idiots on their cellphones. Not so much.

Outside of the Film Fest and in direct contrast to previous years, there was a paucity of superhero/comic-book films at the multiplexes. The aforementioned Iron Man 2 was the biggest tentpole release, with Kick Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World being somewhat smaller in scale (and, sadly, box office). Don't take this for the beginning of a trend though.

My big thanks for the year are saved for the Embassy Theatre/Event Cinemas. Throughout the year the Embassy has had Friday night screenings of some beloved classics (mainly from the 80's). And after Event took over the cinema arm of Sky City Entertainment they treated us to Sunday matinee shows of bonafide classics. So, thanks to these guys I've seen not only Ghostbusters and The Goonies in a cinema but also Touch of Evil and Badlands. That is my definition of awesome and I hope they keep it up (and moreso) next year.

December 21, 2010

19.12: THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL

Poster by the Master (aka Drew Struzan)
Oh boy. This was my first film in two weeks. That's ages man. Ages. Some people need to watch sports or soap operas or take crack cocaine; I'm hooked on celluloid. And what a lovely pre-Christmas treat to see a Muppet movie at the cinema! The only other Muppet movie I've seen on the big screen was Muppet Treasure Island when it first came out (and which is still one of my favourites despite the mullet-haired lead child). It would be the height of awesome to see the original The Muppet Movie on a wonderful cinema screen (hint, hint Embassy). Oh, and this was also my 100th film of the year.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (in case you’re from another dimension and haven’t heard one of the 236,702 versions of it) retells Dickens' classic tale of miserly bastard Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by three Christmas spirits with a cast of Muppets and Michael Caine. At times it seems a bit of a forced mish-mash with the typical Muppet madness juxtaposed with Dickens' darkness. But all your favourites (bar Sweetums) make an appearance: from Fozzie and Kermit to the violent babies and singing vegetables.

Speaking of singing, the songs littered throughout are fine enough I guess. They're not anywhere on par with It's Not Easy Being Green or The Rainbow Connection, but those would be tough to match. Frankly, the songs aren’t all that memorable and occasionally get in the way of goings on. They’re not helped by Michael Caine occasionally looking a bit lost amongst all the singing and dancing Muppets. Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie was in attendance at the session and I’m sure he’s going to bring something special to the songs in the upcoming Muppet Movie.

After that last paragraph you may be thinking I didn’t enjoy the movie and spent the runtime slouched in my seat, muttering “Bah! Humbug”! Why, dear reader, nothing could be further from the truth! This are piffling gripes! The Muppets are as joyful to watch as ever and Brian Henson, the son of the famous founder, marks his feature length directing debut. While he may not carry the same spark as his dad, he’s certainly more than up to the task. Michael Caine plays his Scrooge dead straight with nary a nudge or a wink to the Muppetry ensuing around him. This works particularly well in the scenes with the Spirits of Christmases Past and Yet to Come; the imposing, cloaked Spirit of the latter is a fantastic indication of just what the Henson Company could really achieve.

Seeing this, at the movies with an appreciative audience (and filled with kids - more than a few brought long because of their parents' love for The Muppets I'm sure) was a real joy. I'm a big-time Muppet fan and cannot wait for the new Muppet movie. This was a timely reminder of just how much I miss seeing these felt characters up on the big screen.

December 17, 2010

05.12: MONSTERS

First time feature film director Gareth Edwards is someone who obviously comes from the Robert Rodriguez approach to filmmaking; in that he’s a multi-hat wearing one-man band. He's the film's writer, director, cinematographer and special effects lead. And his debut film is really something special: a film of ideas, relationships, subtlety and heart. Oh, and great fuck-off aliens.

The story of Monsters is deceptively simple: set 6 years after alien life-forms have crash landed in Mexico; the whole area has now been quarantined as an “infected zone”. The American military regularly bomb the zone, in the hopes of containing the creatures. In Central America, US photo-journalist Andrew Kaulder has to babysit his boss’ daughter Sam as she tries to get home to America. The initial plan, to skirt the quarantine zone by boat, goes awry and the two unlikely travelling companions have to traverse through the decidedly more dangerous infected zone.

The easy comparison to make is with last year's low budget alien sci-fi District 9. And while there are indeed similarities (the affect of resident extra-terrestrials, low budget but awesome visual effects, improvised dialogue) I think Monsters is altogether subtler and carries a different tone to it altogether. The better comparison, to my mind at least, is to Douglas Jones' Moon; it carries a similar atmosphere and both are, essentially, two-handers. But heck, if we're talking comparisons you could also say Monsters is a small budget, low-fi Jurassic Park. Really, it's part of a larger trend; a trend that includes D9, Cloverfield and Moon, for low budget thought-provoking sci-fi. Not only have all these films been made on considerably lower budgets (and outside the usual Hollywood studio system) they also all carry big ideas and really great character work. While I think the the big flashy Will Smith brand of sci-fi certainly has its place, I much prefer the smaller, more intelligent sci-fi films. I'm a sci-fi geek, and I prefer to get my brain engaged with what's going on rather than just sitting back looking at all the pretty effects and explosions.

The visual effects in Monsters are indeed impressive (even more so for the whole film being done under $1mil!) and they work because of their scarcity; they're only used when absolutely necessary. But the real visual shock comes from the smaller moments captured by Edwards: images like Kaulder and Sam looking down on a Mexican church filled with thousands of candles for the dead, or rusted out boats abandoned on riverbanks. The performances from the leads (the only professional actors in the cast) are understated and real. Scoot McNairy as the photog Kaulder is, well... he starts out as a bit of a dick. But, thanks in part to McNairy, you warm to him their trek progresses and Kaulder changes. Whitney Able as the boss' daughter Sam thankfully doesn't play as a useless heiress/daddy's girl. Thanks to her and Edwards, she's a more well rounded character than that. As opposed to Kaulder, she actually speaks the language; she's the one taking the lead in a lot of situations. She has a vulnerability and more than a hint of sadness. But Able gives her an inner strength. Basically, these are two people who, under normal circumstances would never have met. And they have to make this strange, wondrous, perilous journey together.

While the similarly low budget, and alien themed, Skyline has been sucking up all the headlines and advertising space (and bad reviews) the far superior Monsters is already out of cinemas. This is one of those great sci-fi films, with great characters and ideas; the best have ideas that encourage other ideas. It used to be you needed a huge budget to make a sci-fi films with aliens or robots or whatever... but thanks to films like Monsters that's no longer the case.

Edwards has made a bold, striking, simple and beautiful film. There are brilliantly evocative shots that are never overstated and the tale is a simple road movie about two unlikely people growing close to one another. Edwards moves effortlessly from a scene of taut terror directly into something of striking and ephemeral beauty. Monsters is a gem of a film and one I’m looking forward to visiting again.

December 13, 2010

05.12: RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE

Joyfully, this darkly funny Finnish film was not what I was expecting at all. This is a welcome change for me; too often I spoil it for myself by devouring various film news items and reviews. And being the consumer of a large number of films, I can often guess each beat of a film (especially the more mainstream fare) from the trailers alone. So, to walk into this with no solid expectations and to then have those I did have utterly confounded… quite a delight in of itself.

So what was I expecting from this? For a start I was expecting something closer to a more traditional horror film, sort of a  Silent Night, Deadly Night, but with an actual Santa Claus instead of a psycho dressed as Santa. But no. Rare Exports is smarter than that. This is closer in tone to a (very) dark Spielbergian kids action-adventure film from the 80’s; maybe something Joe Dante could’ve directed (Gremlins - soon to be added to my Catch Up Classics).

It takes the core of its story from the more traditional myths around Santa Claus, specifically the ones where Santa is a punisher and devourer of naughty children rather than some benevolent red suited old chimney climber. Certainly not the jolly red fat man from the Coca Cola commercials (as an aside: I love this sort of stuff in general; the pagan, often dark origins, of generally accepted traditions). From there it builds a cracking adventure film with genuine feelings of danger and mystery swirling around the icy, forbidding landscape.

It all kicks off with a mysterious dig on top of a mountain near the border of Finland and Russia. It is sponsored, as is cinematic law, by an eccentric millionaire with a crazy dream. This is witnessed by two local kids; one of them our hero Pietari. The dig strikes something that shouldn't be found in a mountain. Something that, if sense prevailed, should never be disturbed... But this is a movie and it's not too long before shit starts getting disturbed all over the place. Y'see, something is unleashed from that big hole in the ground. Something dark. Something frightening. Something... Christmassy. You better watch out indeed. Pietari, of course, is one of those plucky young kids who knows more about what's going on than the adults.

And a quick note on that: the relationship sketched out between Pietari and his father (a widower) is one of quiet heartbreak and struggle. The father tries his best with the running of the household, but he's not someone who has ever done this before. You also get the impression that the father never quite understood his son, as he's still a boy and his father is one of those manly men that really only understands other men. And those other men make quite the motley collection of adults that join up with Pietari.

With a film like this, tone is of paramount importance and writer/director Jalmari Helander balances it perfectly. The terrifying moments of childhood are keenly felt: from not wanting to disappoint your dad, to the fear of the dark unknown just beyond the back door. But then there are also the moments of a really great adventure; the type of adventure you have as a kid, running around in the great outdoors. And boy, are those outdoors looking amazing here. You haven't seen beautiful, snowcapped and massive mountains like this since Frodo went for a wander. However, I'm not sure if it was shot on digital as well, but it was projected digital and I'll admit: I'm an old fogey. I much prefer watching something on film. It's more than the knowledge of the physical film strip being projected; there's some unidentifiable otherness to digital.

I initially thought the end would’ve made an excellent film or 2nd Act twist in itself, and then I discovered that the whole feature acts as something of a prequel for two short films on the same theme (and keeping all of the same actors which you can find here and here). It's a fantastic Christmas tale and makes for a welcome refresher from the schmaltzy pap that generally gets churned out at this time of year (interestingly enough, I think this is the only Christmas themed release out in 2010...). Made for a budget paltry by Hollywood standards this offers up more fun, adventure and inventiveness than almost anything else this year. To be enjoyed by adults and (intelligent, maybe slightly odd) kids alike.

December 7, 2010

03.12: EASY A

Would it be terrible if I said
"the writing's on the wall"?
Much like 10 Things I Hate About You was a high-school set retelling of Taming of the Shrew, the Emma Stone star vehicle Easy A is a comedic high-school spin on The Scarlet Letter. It’s a smart and sassy film; much like its lead actress.

This type of film stands or falls on the strength of its lead; there’s no doubting that this is a star vehicle crafted for up and coming Emma Stone. Easy A can stand tall, as Emma Stone, despite her relative lack of acting experience, is a winning screen presence and a fine comedic actress. This is her Mean Girls. Or, considering where Lindsay Lohan is now, hopefully more her Juno.

In fact, those two films are an excellent indication of where this is aiming: Easy A has all the sharp wit and intelligence of Tina Fey’s script for Mean Girls and the quirk and snappy dialogue inherent to Diablo Cody’s Juno. I know some may be put off by the deliberately quirky touches and the highly intelligent, pop-culturally knowing dialogue but it was all done so well it just became part of the cloth of the film.

Emma Stone stars as fairly anonymous high-schooler Olive; she’s not the most popular girl in school, but neither is she ostracised. That is, not until one little lie about a non-existent one-night stand spins out of control. It is then she experiences these two extremes of high-school: she's popular with all the boys while the ostracism is lead by Amanda Bynes’ short skirted moral crusader. She’s fine enough as the snooty Christian, even if Mandy Moore did it better in Saved! and the film (bravely it must be said) takes real aim at the Christian characters: none of them make it out unscathed. In the midst of it all Olive starts to relish the role of school harlot, playing up to it and helping out some less than popular guys with fake trysts, before she discovers what a double-edged sword that kind of rep can be. Especially when her best friend turns on her.

The real scene stealers are Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as the requisite caring and kooky parents. Both of them are obviously having a lot of fun with their roles, Tucci scoring a lot of the really choice lines and Clarkson doing something strangely wonderful: she seems like an old flower child, ditzy at times but with a lot of smarts. Thomas Haden Church also hands in a wonderfully dry performance as Olive's favourite teacher, Mr. Griffith while Lisa Kudrow relishes her role as his wife and school guidance counsellor Mrs. Griffith; who is something of an uncaring bitch. Or at least a harried, unsympathetic character.

The difference between what is acceptable sexual behaviour for a young man and what is acceptable for a young woman is acknowledged (how could it not be?) but never focused specifically on. And by that, I mean it's one of the themes of the film but not one they get too caught up in hammering away at. Which is fine as it's a self-evident dynamic. We do get a mix in and mention of John Hughes and his classic 80's teen romances, with an appropriate homage in the third act.

My only real issue is that it all doesn't quite feel as good as it could. It is very, very good and more than enjoyable: it's breezy, funny and doesn't dumb things down. I just felt some things needed to be tightened up just that little bit more, such as the rushed resolution with Olive's best friend and not all the performances are out-and-out stellar.

But this are piffling gripes! It's a real joy to watch a film (a rom-com no less) with a strong female lead character. This really is Emma Stone's film; it's her first starring role and is really her debut as a bonafide movie star. She's an intelligent comedic actress with charm, chutzpah and charisma. It'll be interesting to see where her career takes her from here.

December 6, 2010

28.11: SOME LIKE IT HOT

I have been quite the lucky film fan this year. 2010 has been a banner year for me seeing classic films on the big screen. And what better way to cap it all off than with a 35mm print of Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy classic Some Like It Hot?

Thankfully, this is not one of the films on my “Catch Up Classics” list as I’ve caught this _ comedy a few times now. The first time I was introduced to Sugar, “Daphne” and “Josephine” I was working at a video store. Me and one of the guys I worked with would take it in turns picking and playing movies in store. One day he picked out Some Like It Hot. Sure, watching this on a shitty little TV as I served customers (damnable customers!) probably wasn’t the best way to first experience this madcap tale, but damn if I didn’t enjoy it.

If anyone reading this hasn’t seen it (who are you? Do I know you?), I’ll give you the quick gist: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are two struggling musicians in Depression era Chicago. As their continuing poor luck would have it, they happen to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They’re eyeballed by the gangsters and have to hightail it outta town – and fast! it just so happens they know of a gig leaving for Florida the next day. The catch? It’s an all-girl band. Hi-jinks, love, hot jazz and hilarity ensue as they smuggle themselves aboard.

Jack Lemmon really hams it up as the put upon bass player Jerry/Daphne while Tony Curtis is the fast talking saxophone man with a plan Joe/Josephine/Junior. Tony Curtis (or “Coitus” as he preferred to pronounce it) was indeed an attractive young man and Lemmon carries a certain eager boyishness with him, and they play off each other with aplomb. They give the appearance of being a double act that has worked together for years. And Curtis' bizarre Cary Grant impression as his millionaire disguise is quite a treat.

My goodness. How have I managed to get this far in my blathering without even mentioning the wonderful Marilyn Monroe? She's Sugar - the ukulele player and singer in the band. She is, by her own admission, not very bright and Monroe plays her with a beguiling innocence. She's someone who has been hurt in the past but, somehow, it doesn't stop her from seeing (or hoping for) the best in people. Which helps to explain how she fall for Joe posing as wealthy oil tycoon, Junior while telling Jerry (as Daphne) and Josephine (aka Joe) all about it. And she's Marilyn! She's sultry, beautifully curvy and blessed with a true comedienne's touch. Though there are persistent rumours of difficulty with her on set, none of that really matters when you get to see the end product.

Director Wilder keeps everything humming along; you barely have time to catch your breath before there's the introduction of deluded suitor (and real millionaire) Osgood Fielding III, the Chicago gangsters, engagements, broken hearts, chases, unmaskings and true love. He displays his sure touch in many scenes, with standouts coming at you constantly: whether it's the opening bust, the party in Daphne's train bed, the late night tango or Marilyn biking to the waterfront and Joe. It's a whirligig whirlwind of a comedy with intelligence, charm and is truly laugh out loud funny. 

White Chicks it ain't.

December 1, 2010

25.11: THE SOCIAL NETWORK

It's like there's a book on his face... Oh.
Yes, The Social Network is "the facebook movie". But you would be foolish to dismiss it as such. At heart it’s an examination of creativity, obsession, arrogance, power and betrayal. And coming as it does from the pen (or keyboard) of Aaron Sorkin and directed by the keen eye of David Fincher I simply wouldn’t understand anyone writing it off as "the facebook movie". Fincher keeps a tight stylistic control on the film, using complimentary palettes rather than overt visual highlighting. It helps him no end that he is working from such a cracking script, courtesy of Mr. Sorkin.

Obviously, I can't comment on the real people involved or the actual events themselves: I don't know Mark Zuckerberg, I wasn't around at the beginning of facebook and I haven't read The Accidental Billionaires, the book on which the film is based. This is an adaptation of real events, so when I am talking of Zuckerberg or Sean Parker or Eduardo Saverin I am speaking of the characters in the film, not their real life influences and so on and so forth.

Interestingly, they haven't made Zuckerberg the out-and-out villain of the piece (which is what a lot of people thought was going to happen, what with his and facebook's various legal battles and privacy issues) but nor is he the hero. He is the creator of this amazing undefinable thing; sure he can be arrogant and distant and a bit of a dick but he's no schemer or planner. As Jesse Eisenberg brilliantly plays him, Zuckerberg is someone who's brain is operating on a different level; he doesn't process things (like social interactions, conversations and relationships) the way other people do. This is all layed out brilliantly by Sorkin and Fincher in the opening scene between Zuckerberg and girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). The dialogue is fantastic and the conversation leaps around and you have to get involved and pay attention right there and then. It's a fantastic way to introduce the character. Eisenberg is written off too often as a Michael Cera-alike and while there are similarities to be sure, they are two distinct performers. I, for one, cannot imagine Michael Cera as Zuckerberg (or Eisenberg as Scott Pilgrim).

The hero of the film or, at least, the character who gains the most sympathy is that of Zuckerberg's best (and only) friend Eduardo Saverin. Eduardo, played by future Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, stumps up the initial capital for Zuckerberg's site and ends up getting screwed out of everything. He even has to contend with a crazy girlfriend! Eduardo and Zuckerberg start to become distanced as Eduardo, being a Business Major and the CFO of the fledgling endeavour, wants to get some advertising dollars in (there's also the petty jealousy Zuckerberg harbours towards Eduardo getting into one of the Harvard "first" clubs). They are approaching facebook from entirely different standpoints: Zuckerberg is the creative side, the driving force behind it. He's not sure what it is or could be, just that it's exciting and new. Eduardo approaches it from a more traditional business model; other websites make money from advertising, hence he schleps up and down Manhattan in the search for advertisers. That business model just won't work for this and Zuckerberg isn't interested in it (somewhat ironic now given the targeted advertising now practised on facebook). Garfield is a gifted performer and I'm looking forward to what he does with old Webhead. I would recommend you check out his quietly intense performance in Boy A

The real villain of the piece comes in the form of Justin Timberlake's Napster founder Sean Parker. He's everything Zuckerberg wants to be but he's also the cautionary tale. Parker is cool and suave: he's a rock-star of the nerd world. But he's also a Machiavellian loser douchebag who eggs Zuckerberg on with talk of billions not millions, actively works to distance the two friends and is paranoid, petty and sleep with young (teen) girls. He's creepy and gross and Timberlake brings the right mixture of charm and sleaze to him.

At its heart the film is about creation, ideas, ego and conflict. Its about who can claim ownership to an idea (structured as it is, with the creation of facebook told in flashback during two separate depositions), especially when said idea starts to involve large sums of money. Its about a socially awkward computer genius with one real friend in the world creating and defining the social experience in digital form. True or not, this makes delicious dramatic sense. I'll also quickly mention here Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins: good looking blue-blood "gentlemen of Harvard" rowers. They're the antithesis of Zuckerberg and he leads them on a jolly merry-go-round of procrastination, prevarication and provocation. Hammer perfectly conveys the sense of entitlement and outrage of the Winklevoss', twins who are used to having everything run their way, with their prize deflation coming in the office of the President of Harvard. 

It is also serves (rather unnervingly so) as a timely reminder of just how young facebook is. This website/social-networking site/whatever has changed the face of digital life, and indeed the social experience. I’ve been signed up since 2006, not long after it was first created apparently. It is, in this world of information, unusual to find someone, certainly of a particular age bracket, not on facebook. Whether you're an avid, addicted facebook user, an occasional poster and updater or if you've never used this newfangled social media thing before, you should be getting to The Social Network. It's a fascinating portrait of an individual and a time and all the things that can go wrong with a good idea.

DECEMBER

Well, today marks the first day of December. The beginning of the end (of the year) if you will. It’s a busy month all round; between now and the end of the month/year I have three 30th birthdays, a move out and then Christmas to look forward to.

I’m currently working on my write-up of The Social Network and haven’t even started on Some Like It Hot (I was very lucky to be able to see a 35mm print of this at the Wellington Film Society on Monday night). I’ll have these up soon though. Coming up in the rest of the month there’ll be my favourite films of the year as well as some contributions from guest writers. Excitement ahoy!

But for now, please allow me to cast my grubby eyes forward to the cinematic pleasures that still await before the end of 2010:

Film I have yet to see (and hopefully before the end of the year):
Monsters
The Disappearance of Alice Creed
The American
Let Me In
Machete
The Ghost Writer

Coming out tomorrow:
Easy A
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
Rare Exports

Rest of month:
The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Tron Legacy
Megamind
The Tourist
The Kids Are Alright 

That's 14 films in 31 days. I doubt I'll see them all before the end of the year, especially those coming out nearer the end, but I'll make my best effort to. 

So, two reviews coming soon and lots of end of year goodness to be had.


Want to contribute an end of year list? Flick me an email at RocketsandRobotsblog@gmail.com

November 26, 2010

24.11: THE TOWN

Nuns on the Run II: Requiem
Ben Affleck’s The Town is a solid film that is occasionally very, very good. There are a few bumps along the way, and it’s not as outstanding as his debut directorial effort Gone Baby Gone, but overall it makes for fine entertainment and marks Affleck as a talented filmmaker to watch.

The Town finds Affleck back in his old stomping grounds of Boston again. Specifically, Charlestown: the armed robbery capital of America. Affleck is Doug MacRay, the lead of a very professional stick-up crew: they’re assigned targets (armoured cars and banks), scope them out and learn their patterns. Only once they have a solid plan in place do they launch into action. They cover all the angles: full masks and body cover, misleading DNA, no fingerprints and they torch their getaway cars. They are, as Jon Hamm’s FBI Special Agent Frawley notes, “the not fucking around guys.” During the opening bank heist they kidnap Rebecca Hall’s Bank Manager Claire, just in case, before releasing. In the following days Affleck begins to keeps an eye on her to make sure she doesn’t know too much. They end up dating and falling in love.

So, the story has an obviously interesting hook and plays it out more as a romance than a tense thriller. What this really is, is a collection of some of the finest actors working giving solidly great performances. Affleck (Armageddon) shows he’s still got charisma and charm as the tough but sweet Doug MacRay. His right-hand man, and the closest thing he has to family, is the violent Jim Coughlin played by SWAT’s Jeremy Renner with an easy intensity. It’s the kind of role I think Renner could do with his eyes closed at this point. Rebecca Hall is an actress I’ve loved since her wonderful performance in Vicky Christina Barcelona. The role of Claire is not entirely thankless, with some big emotional scenes, even if she is a little too perfect (she’s successful, funny, smart, beautiful and hey! Helps out needy neighbourhood kids and has an allotment garden!). On the other end of the spectrum is Blake Lively (from The O.C. or Gossip Girl or something, right?) who is surprisingly amazing as Renner’s single mother sister (and Affleck’s occasional casual partner), the drugged out and drunk Krista Coughlin. Pete Poselthwaite (always nice to see) is casually menacing as Fergie “The Florist”, the man who sets up the robberies and becomes a threat to Doug and Claire. And Chris Cooper pops in for a scene! One scene!

As Affleck has decided to focus on the romance, you care for how the relationship between Doug and Claire will turn out, but at the loss of possible tension. Hamm’s Agent Frawley is someone I would’ve like to have seen more of, if just to get the sense that the Feds are constantly closing in. However, Affleck stages truly phenomenal robbery scenes; the penultimate one having one of the best car chase scenes in recent history as the crew run from the cops down the narrow streets of Boston. When the film works, it works. I, for one, am looking forward to Affleck’s next directorial effort and only hope that he takes the chance to stretch his legs out of Beantown and crime.

November 25, 2010

19.11: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1

My journey, I guess you could say, with J K Rowling's Harry Potter began with sitting down to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone back around 2000. I had heard some sort of hoopalah about the book and wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I read it in one sitting. It wasn't a particularly great book, I just found compellingly readable. From there I have read all the books (getting so frustrated with Order of the Phoenix I was frequently yelling at it) and seen all the movies. I'm no big Potter fanboy, but I do know J K Rowling's world.

So now, we come to the beginning of the end: the penultimate film in the series, and the first part of the final story. We start with our three principles preparing and waiting: Ron constantly standing guard outside the Burrow, Harry bidding the Dursleys and his old room under the stairs a farewell and Hermione, in a scene I am very glad they kept, erasing herself from her parents’ memories to protect them. Very quickly we are reminded of where it all began, and more importantly, how much these kids have all grown up.

This is not a film for the uninitiated; you either need to know the six previous films or, preferably, the books. There is a lot of set-up and exposition to take care of, some of it handled alright but other times appearing a tad clunky. For example: if you haven’t read the books you may be wondering where exactly Bill Weasley came from, what he’s doing and why he’s getting married to Fleur DeLacour (from Goblet of Fire).

There is no doubt that this is the darkest of the films so far. Yes, they’ve been saying that since Chamber of Secrets; in this case it is very, very true. Numerous characters are killed and more often than not these occur off-screen with their deaths only mentioned in passing. Instead of coming across as flippant though, this adds to the pervading air of rising menace as beloved characters, who have appeared throughout the series, fall to Voldemort’s forces. They become too many to count. It seems now that Dumbledore has gone, anyone is fair game. These Death Eaters, and those in league with them, are actually, truly frightening villains and not mere cardboard caricatures. Everyone’s favourite pink fascist, Dolores Umbridge, returns and scores herself a plum position in the corrupted Ministry of Magic. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on trial in her darkened court.

In this world of darkness, our three young heroes are cut-off from all their usual comforts (and as a by-product, so is the film): no Hogwarts Express, no Quidditch, no adventures in the school grounds and absolutely no support from parents/professors. From the moment the trio Apparate in Shaftesbury Avenue they’re on their own. The three young actors who have grown up in these roles, Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, are no longer cringe-worthy child performers and Grint, as the usually affable Ron, delivers the best performance of the bunch. There is an embarrassment of British acting talent to round out the supporting roles, some of them barely more than cameos.

For most of the runtime the film moves along at a fair clip, with a number of thrilling early Death Eater attacks; including an aerial assault and a cafĂ© confrontation. However, just like the book, things tend to drag in the middle once the kids start faffing about on a camping trip to stay under the radar in their search for Horcruxes. A few moments work to pump up this stretch of the action, including a frightful encounter at Harry’s old home of Godric’s Hollow. Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom. So while it is the darkest of the series, it also carries the most humour. Or, at least, the most humour that works. Add in a wicked animated sequence detailing the story of said Deathly Hallows and it adds up to the most interesting Potter film to date.

It is quite a ride and genuinely is a once-in-a-generation movie series. David Yates is likely to be the director most associated with the Potter franchise in years to come; he has been someone who has built on what came before, while distinguishing himself from the pack. I can't wait to see what he and the team have brewing in the cauldron for the big finale. 

November 23, 2010

Oh no... a Buffy reboot

Joss Whedon, seen here with studio execs.
I totally missed Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it first aired. I caught bits and pieces of episodes here and there but, for whatever reason, I never really watched it. I didn’t fall under the Whedon spell until Serenity and Firefly (in that order), but that crazy sci-fi western got me hooked. My partner and I have been catching up on the adventures of Buffy over the past few months (she was already a big fan of the Slayer) and we’ve just finished Season 5. Now I know what I missed.

The Buffy series is damned fine television, whichever way you slice (or stab) it. Whedon and his ace team of writers quickly ditched the “monster of the week” staple in favour of longer story-arcs and stronger character development. The series regulars are some of the best characters, and one of the best ensembles, to ever grace the small screen. They change and grow; they occasionally make mistakes and fuck up but come through for each other in the end. Everything they do makes sense for them. In addition to these great characters the creative team wove a rich, detailed mythology to the world. It was frequently hilarious, but wasn’t afraid to go very, very dark. They also use, respect and subvert genre with deft skill and it paved the way for a lot of the really great shows currently on our screens.


Sure, there were a few poorer episodes and I wasn’t a big fan of Season 4 overall (though it did have some of the best single episodes), but I am currently loving catching up with the adventures of the Slayer and her Scooby gang. What I do NOT love is the recent announcement from Warner Bros. of a cinematic reboot, with zero involvement from Joss Whedon and co. UGGH. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a great, original TV show; this is nothing more than a cash-in on the current vampire craze and the recognition value of the name. I know it’s rather pointless to rail against the creative bankruptcy of the Hollywood studio system… but gorram. Surely the people who know Buffy, who are Buffy fans, aren’t going to be interested in a Whedonless Slayer. The real slap to the face though is the mention of Fran and Kaz Kuzui as the “creators”. Anyone who knows anything about Buffy can call bullshit on this. They hold the rights, sure, but they damn well aren’t the creators.


Thankfully, I’ve still got Seasons 6 and 7 to look forward to, and then the “expanded universe” of the comics. And maybe then I’ll go back and watch the original 1992 movie. I certainly won’t be watching this one.

November 19, 2010

15.11: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (Catch-Up Classic)

Bogart. Bacall. Classic.
I was certain this screening of the film at the Wellington Film Society was going to be a print (I have a thing about going to the movies and watching DVDs - I could do that at home thankyouverymuch) but, alas, this was not to be. Apparently the print available was in such a state as to be nigh-unwatchable. So, not my preferred viewing option but in the circumstances, I can understand. 

The film itself is based on Ernest Hemingway's worst book apparently. I wouldn't really know - I haven't read it and don't intend to. Well, it's his worst book isn't it? Why would you? From what I understand though, it doesn't hew too tightly to Hemingway's novel and director Howard Hawks instead makes something that could easily be considered Casablanca-lite (indeed, that is how someone described it walking out afterwards). There's the World War II setting in a French colony port, French resistance fighters, collaborators and in the middle of it all, Humphrey Bogart; a taciturn but kind man just wanting to mind his own business. 

And, frankly, there's nothing wrong with that. Not when it's as well-made as To Have and Have Not. Hawks is an acknowledged master of the form and all scenes back in port are soaked in glorious shadows with a sense of....oh, wait. I'm forgetting someone aren't I?

Lauren Bacall. This is her film debut, and of course, the beginning of her relationship with Bogart. She's 18 here, a little rough around the edges, a little like her character: a young woman out on her own, not entirely sure of herself but damn if she's going to let anyone see that. Bacall is electric, swapping pithy dialogue with Bogart like a pro. The interplay between these two is what this film is really all about. I immediatly want to track down the three other films they made together (I've been lucky enough to see The Big Sleep on the big screen before though) becuase I just want to watch more of them together. Bacall has more class, intelligence, wit and fire than any dozen modern actresses.

Managing to shine when Bacall and Bogart aren't on screen together, there's also the friendly drunk, Eddie who provides a few light comic moments of his own, and the positively slimy Capt. Renard, head of the Vichy police. He's, well, he's pretty downright gross actually - the way he slowly strokes himself, high up on his bloated chest as he deilvers his threats veiled in an oily tone... *shudder*. 

Everything ticks along at a fast, but unhurried pace, with moments of danger and peril. But Bogart's characters is one of those guys who knows the angles; knows how to work them. Until you see him thrown by Bacall's "Slim". I am sorry for going on about the two of them together but it really, honestly, is the best thing about the film. Do yourself a favour: if you haven't seen it, get it out. Pour yourself a drink, settle back and enjoy a slice of fine classic filmmaking and cinema history all in one.

November 11, 2010

BATMAN: THE MOST VERSATILE COMIC-BOOK CHARACTER EVER?

After some entirely unscientific research I have come to the conclusion that DC Comics’ Batman has appeared in more media, in more varying incarnations, than any other superhero (and, possibly, any other fictional character). Ever.

Aside from his changing appearances in comic-books (from vigilante, to detective, to camp super-hero, to fascist, to crippled, to grim, to manga, to lone avenger, to Justice League team player, to genius, to dead, to time-traveller) Bruce Wayne’s alter ego has appeared in just about every other media possible. He began in the pages of Detective Comics, but it wasn’t long before National Comics (as DC was then known) had him in his own book and newspaper strips. Things have progressed somewhat from there.

There has been the 1960’s Batman TV show with the incomparable Adam West; complete with spin-off film. There have been cartoon show appearances, such as Super Friends and even Scooby-Doo. Then he had his own cartoon shows; from Batman: The Animated Series, set in an art deco/noir world, to Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a primary coloured weekly super-hero team-up show.

He hasn't shied away from the big screen either. The famous bat-ears have popped up in film serials from the 1940’s, the gothic Tim Burton films of the late 80’s, the flashy campy Joel Schumacher films of the 90’s and the down’n’dirty “realistic” Christopher Nolan films of now.

To tie-in with all of these there have also been action-figures, Happy Meal toys, plushies, collectibles and Lego. There are a number of video-games based on the gothic Gothamite, some tying into the various other media incarnations and some being stand-alone adventures and interpretations.

He’s also had radio shows in the 90’s, pinball machines and fair-ground rides. And now, just this week, I have discovered that there is a Batman stage show and a porno parody.

That’s right. A Batman stage show.

Sadly, it won’t be a musical like the upcoming Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Which doesn’t mean they didn’t try it in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Surprisingly, this venture fell over but some of the music, by Meatloaf’s main composer Jim Steinman, is online. And, of course, this.

Have I missed anything in this rundown? Is there some part of our media culture that doesn’t carry the mark of the Bat? For a vigilante who stalks the night-time shadows, he is strangely omnipresent. But now, even in the comics where he began the Dark Knight is stepping into the light: current Batman writer Grant Morrison has announced that Batman will become Incorporated.

This is no doubt a typical Morrison meta-commentary on the Batman character. And fair enough. It’s been 70-odd years since the Caped Crusader swung into pop culture; you can’t have a successful character around that long without finding new facets and new angles to tell stories. But how long before everything is said? How much longer can this Bat-saturation continue? And why? The only other comic-book character that comes close would be Spider-Man, but even he hasn't gone through so many different interpretations. Ultimately it's a little baffling to me. But you can bet on the pointy-eared gothic crime-fighting vigilante dark knight genius detective being around for some time. 




November 10, 2010

ANOTHER WEDNESDAY SKETCH

I doodle most days. Generally at work, simply because *shudder* that's where I tend to spend most of my days. Today I doodled this: 
I believe it is me, sword in hand, challenging Dr. T-Rex who has no doubt just done something nefarious. Or perhaps merely passed wind.

I promise this will not be a regular thing. There will be posts of more substance coming soon. But for now, for today, there is this. Consider it a small peek into my brain. These will happen irregularly.

November 7, 2010

02.11: RED

It's not hard to sum up the appeal of RED. It's basically a chance to see Brucie back doing what he does best: headlining a film where he lays the smack down and cracks wise while he does it. Thankfully, it's not the Bruce Willis show: there is more than able support from some of the finest actors (of a certain age) around.

Based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, Willis is retired CIA agent Frank Moses. He's got a nice house in suburbia, and it's shown from the go that this world of picket fences and Christmas decorations is not his world. He just doesn't know how to operate in the regular day-to-day. As such, he's a lonely fella and his only real human contact is with his pension agent, Mary-Louise Parker's Sarah. The relationship played between the two of them really, almost bizarrely, works. In their own ways, they both crave something more from their current life: he's lived the adventure and doesn't know how to live otherwise, while she has never really had any adventure or life experience. But she craves it, and they both live out/re-live some of that through trashy romance novels.

Of course, it's not long before Willis' retirement is, quite literally, blown apart. He's been declared Retired, Extremely Dangerous so has to get out of town, kidnap Mary-Louise Parker (for her own good, of course) and, as Morgan Freeman states, get the band back together. That band includes Freeman (criminally under-utilised), John Malkovich in full-on maniac mode and Dame Helen Mirren, who looks like she's having the best of times in an evening gown, combat boots and behind a .50 cal machine-gun. Also thrown into the mix are Ed Asner, Brian Cox and Richard Dreyfuss; I had no idea these guys were in it! For some reason they've been left off the advertising entirely. Which is downright criminal, especially as Cox gives such a charming twinkly-eyed performance as a Russian agent. NZ's own, Karl Urban, is the growly-voiced young pup agent on the trail of Willis & co. He doesn't miss out on any of the action and actually manages to stand out from amongst this embarrasment of acting riches.

I had a blast with RED; it's a solid, fun-times action film. A far better star vehicle for Willis than the recent Cop Out (which, admittedly I haven't seen and likely won't. Nothing, from the awful trailers to the scathing reviews to Kevin Smith’s anti-critic Twitter rant, makes me want to see it). It is actually Willis' first really good leading role since 2006's 16 Blocks. There are more than a few really fun, over-the-top action set-pieces: from the world's least subtle covert assault team, the first chase scene with Karl Urban, Malkovich against a rocket launcher and Helen Mirren doing anything. Though these get close to being outright ridiculous, you just go along with it. It's so much damned fun and the tone has been set for the outrageousness and RED succeeds where Live Free or Die Hard fell apart - as the Die Hard series began as a more "realistic" take on the action film.


Which isn't to say it's all fun and games. As mentioned, Freeman is completly under-utilised and the relationship between his Joe and Willis' Moses never feels quite right. Perhaps if Samuel L. Jackson had been brought in instead, and he and Willis could've traded on their previous screen history. But that's just after-the-fact fan casting. The second act also begins to drag, after so many great set-pieces in the first and only really gets back on track with the final stage, after a visit to Dickie Dreyfuss.

But hell, overall, RED is damn fine cinematic fun. Director Robert Schwentke manages to keep a pretty even hand on the tone (as opposed to, say, Flightplan), and shows he can stage some damn fine set-pieces. Also: Helen Mirren + big guns = awesome.

November 1, 2010

FIGHTING CRIME... 8 BITS AT A TIME

So something I haven't really mentioned here is that in addition to the film watching, film review writing, film reading and general faffing about I do I also occasionally find myself involved in making something filmic. This latest endeavour is born of a vague (initially throw away idea) from a brainstorming session two years ago. First we knocked together a trailer. Then we decided to make it a six episode web series. Then we shot it. This is... Tetris Cops

Produced by an Indian, a Chinaman and a White Guy Productions, the original plan for filming was to shoot an episode a weekend, for six weekends in a row. That didn't quite work out as planned. Instead, as can so often happen (especially when you're working on zero budget) things got pushed out. Various uncontrollable things happened. Months went by. We regrouped. We took a week, glanced at each other meaningfully and said "This is when we film. Let's do this!"

A few of us took annual leave from our day jobs for the past week. We didn't use that leave to relax. Nossir. We used it to film. I was first helping out on a couple of other episodes, and then worked on directing mine. And it was great. Fucking awesome. I was exhausted at the end of most days; from standing up, from constantly working through scenes and problems, from driving around trying to navigate Wellington city streets, from holding a big ass camera over my head... I was exhausted and a little delirious. I felt a helluva lot better than after a regular day of my office job.
 
Directing!
Photo courtesy of Chris Tse 

The thing that really got me, is how great folks can be. Our two cops, Julian and Logan, are played by two professional actors, Simon and Paul. Acting is what these guys do for a job. And they agreed to help us out. The mad fools agreed to put on awkward box costumes and run around spouting dialogue in gruff cop-action voices. To top it off, they're totally ace, riffing randomness like the best of them. And our villain, also a professional actor trained in all types of cool stuff (Ben), was happy for us to whack a fake mustache and fake tan looking make-up on him as we made him strut around with a faux Mexican accent. And the same goes for all our cast. From the Chief, to the DA to little random insert characters. Just the fact that these people were willing to give up so much of their time, often taking time off from work, makes me feel all humble. 

Shakespeare, this ain't.
Photo courtesy of Chris Tse 

Not to mention the guy who let us use his car for the Tetris Cops' car. None of us had met this guy before. He didn't know us from Adam. But my friend, co-writer-director-producer Rajeev saw his car and flat-out asked him if we could use it for a shoot. "No worries." This dude, this awesome dude, let us borrow this:
The Tetrismobile
with no worries. No worries driving it. No worries hanging on to it over night. What can you say about a guy like that? Fucking. Ace.

Basically it's been a hectic, busy week running around like a madman fighting traffic, weather and the odds. We've got most of the footage we needed for the rest of the series, with only a day worth of shooting to go. It's been exhausting and rewarding. And I'm looking forward to y'all seeing it and hearing what you think of this crazy little series. Shot on a frayed shoestring, with a lot of goodwill and help, I'm pretty chuffed with what we've achieved so far. I'll be keeping you posted on release, likely early in the new year.

The challenge, for me personally, is to not let myself fall back into the morass of daily routine now. I'm already plotting and pondering new projects. I know I have to move beyond that initial stage and get going, get moving get creating. 'Cos that's when the good stuff happens.

October 26, 2010

VAMPIRES, ZOMBIES AND WEREWOLVES... OH MY!

Halloween, that great big Northern Hemisphere (particularly American) tradition is coming up again soon. It’s All Hallows Eve where the barrier between this world and the next is said to be at its weakest; a time for ghosts, ghouls and various creatures of the dark to come out of hiding. So, of course, some people celebrate by dressing up and wandering around the neighbourhood asking for candy. Others prefer to dress up and drink themselves silly. And some people prefer to turn off the lights, put on a movie and scare themselves silly.

There’s nothing quite like a truly frightening film to get you scared. The best work by not only making you jump out of your seat with fright, but by getting under your skin and having you lie awake in bed. The covers pulled up tight, you cannot help but be deadly afraid that some raving undead vampire ghost zombie lunatic demon will murder you horrifically while you sleep. You jump at every unusual sound, your adrenaline is heightened, and your fight/flight instinct is engaged. Just because you know monsters don’t exist doesn’t make them any less real.

The power of story, eh? It can be a truly dangerous, frightening thing. The right story, told well, can be more terrifying and longer lasting than a more immediate fright, like a rollercoaster ride or haunted house. I believe it has something to do with how the human brain is hardwired for Story (not just stories, but Story). Despite our best nature, despite our rational thought, we want to believe.

Horror has never been one of my favourite genres though. As a child, the closest I came was hiding behind the couch during Ghostbusters. I was always (and still am) more of a sci-fi geek. Perhaps, as a kid, I was generally pretty frightened enough just by the thought of creep, ooky monsters. I didn’t need the films; I had my brain. By the time I entered my teens in the mid-90’s, horror had entered something of a lull.

I’m interested in the history of the genre and enjoy more than a few horror films. As a genre, it gets something of a bad rap which is likely due to the massive amounts of schlocky examples there are. It all started so well in the early days of the 20th century with unqualified masterworks like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera. From these roots came the Cold War/atomic horror films and B-movies of the 50s and 60s (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Omega Man, Night of the Lepus) , the beginning of the modern age of horror in the 70s (The Shining, Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist), the horror series from the 80s (Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Child’s Play), the post-modern deconstruction and resurgence of the slasher flick in the 90s (Scream) and the torture porn and remakes of today (Saw, Hostel, Halloween). But this brief decade breakdown can barely hope to cover an entire genre, with its many branching sub-genres and practitioners. There’s also the Dead series from Romero, the low budget horror-comedy of The Evil Dead and Braindead, Hammer horror from Britain, sci-fi horror, video nasties, Roger Corman, Cronenberg’s body-horrors, Hitchcock, the arrival of J-horror, Abbot & Costello and more.

This is all a (rather long) pretext to me posing the question to you, dear reader: What’s your favourite scary movie? What film/s do you remember being frightened by the most? Are there certain films you revisit every year or so? Or do you prefer new scares?

October 22, 2010

CONCERNING HOBBITS

When this whole hoppalah first broke, I thought about writing a quick blog entry on it. Ultimately, and obviously, I decided not to. I got pretty worked up about the situation, as anyone who had a conversation with me about it at the time could tell you. So why didn’t I post my thoughts on it then? I kinda decided I didn’t really care enough. Not about the situation, but about The Hobbit itself. The film has already had such a long, tortuous process what with rights issues, MGM shitting the bed, losing a director, let alone that the final Rings film came out seven years ago. I felt the film’s time had come and gone. I also had a hope that Sir Peter would make something else, that he wouldn’t actually return to Middle Earth.

So, why am I posting something now? Well, for one thing, the whole situation has heated up this week with the Prime Minister (the Prime Minister!) signalling a possible law change. I think what everyone is realising is not only could NZ lose The Hobbit, but our film industry. Anyway, I wanted to get my thoughts out of my head and out there, just to… well, just to get them out there. In this post I’m going to try and not take a side, though I have a pretty definite side I come down on. I am someone who is barely on the peripherals of the NZ film industry, and I know people working in both sides of the equation. What follows is by no means a complete run down of the situation, but rather me gathering my thoughts on it.

The most important point of this whole debacle seems to be this: the NZ Actor’s Equity is not a union and, under NZ law, cannot be a union as actors are considered independent contractors. Thus, they cannot make a collective agreement. In the case of The Hobbit, as Jackson stated in his first press release on the issue, NZ actors would be getting a pretty generous deal, including residuals. Perhaps still not as good as their Hollywood counterparts, but certainly better than nothing. The specifics of the deal are, of course, kept under wraps. But if NZ actors really want a better deal in the NZ film and TV industry, The Hobbit is not the film to target.

So why target The Hobbit? And why now in the pre-production process? Why has this not been discussed earlier in the whole, drawn out development? Has this been something that has been bubbling away in the background for some time? Or was this action kicked of by del Toro departing? The Australian “parent” union, the MPEAA, has stated that high-profile Rings actors like Sir Ian McKellen, hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett support the boycott. But I haven’t found any such declaration from them or their publicists. These are questions I (and everyone else I am sure) would dearly love answers to, but will never get.

If NZ actors (as apparently represented by NZ Actor’s Equity, though the actual numbers of actors signed up with them is open to debate) really want a fair deal for productions made in NZ they need to be targeting the law and NZ producers. The Hobbit films, like the Lord of the Rings films before them, are not NZ films. They’re based on books by an Englishman and funded by American studios. The main reason they were ever made here, the only reason that New Zealand is considered Middle Earth, is down to Peter Jackson. If Actor’s Equity are thinking of claiming some sort of moral high ground they should know, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the American studios would, in Hollywood morals come cheap.

The Hobbit moving overseas would be disastrous for NZ; there is no doubt about it. There has already been considerable investment, both in terms of money and in terms of people’s time and work. Even if the films stay here though, and who knows what that will take, the damage to NZ’s filming reputation may already be done.

The NZ film industry, in its present state, cannot survive without the input of the Hollywood studios. The industry on its own is simply too small to accommodate all the actors and crew that are now out there. If Jackson and The Hobbit go overseas (London apparently looking attractive) what chances are there that the Avatar sequels would be made here? Or any other big Hollywood film? Or TV series? Would they consider NZ for a new Xena or Power Rangers? Why would they risk it? Would the infrastructure even be here anymore?

What we’re seeing now is both sides becoming more entrenched and a lot of poisonous information, disinformation and misinformation spread around. I’m not going to theorise on conspiracy theories involving the MPEAA, international actor’s unions, the studios, spider-men from Mars or anything else of the sort. I don’t have enough of a line on that and I find if you start with the conspiracy theories it can be very difficult to stop. Jackson is understandably upset; I don’t see him as talking about leaving New Zealand lightly. At the same time, the famously publicity shy Jackson team, has spoken out quite a bit (and quite angrily) about this issue. The appearance of Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly has me a little baffled. She doesn’t seem to fully understand the situation, and how the film industry works and is different to regular trades. I understand her siding with the actors in working for a better deal for them, but what about all the other people involved on these films? The technicians, the set-dressers etc. Are they not covered by the CTU? Or is it because they’re happy being independent contractors? Her claim that a Wellington meeting of Actors Equity members had to be called off due to protesting technical workers – citing safety concerns because they were like a “lynch mob” – is groundless bullshit. I a) don’t really see a group of computer geeks and designers starting a rumble and b) I could easily see a situation where Kelly would be organising a similar protest mob of workers who are about to lose their jobs.

NZ actors are right in wanting to get a fairer deal for themselves, and I can understand that. But the way they went about it – by targeting a blockbuster international film – may not have been the smartest way to do it. By the same token Jackson has been pretty vociferously angry about the actions of Actors Equity and MPEAA and this hasn’t helped calm things down any. Again, I can understand his frustration – he brought these films here and just when it was all finally coming together, it may have all come undone due to the actions of a New Zealand group.

I guess, aside from the situation itself, the thing that got me the most riled up in the first place was the poor reporting on the issue done by the NZ media. They were quick to side with Actors Equity at first and the only place I could first read Jackson’s initial statement, in its entirety, was on an American entertainment website. The NZ media took whole passages from that statement out of context and only helped to distort the issue. And because of that, because people mistakenly believed Jackson was “threatening” to take the films overseas, people were getting pissed off at Peter Jackson, saying how he should pay out of his own money. How he’s made out like a king from these films, so why shouldn’t he spread some of that wealth around? Yes, Jackson has done well. But that's from his own hard work. It’s that famous tall poppy syndrome kiwi’s do so depressingly well.

I hope against hope that tensions will subside and things can be worked out. As we head into the long Labour Weekend here in NZ, I cannot help but appreciate the irony.

Other links you may want to read:
The Council of Trade Unions statement
MGMs woes
Decent opinion piece
A blog entry from a techie involved