June 27, 2010

Catch-up Classics

Ok, so before I start there’s two things you should know. Number one is, despite my love of films (and having a degree in the study of Film), there are a number of indisputable classics I haven’t seen. Quite a large number, actually. I can’t tell you why, exactly, I haven’t seen them. It could be something to do with being raised in the post-Spielberg/Lucas 80’s. It could be that these films just weren’t available to me when I was younger (that, or I had no idea about them). I’m fairly certain I had some sort of prejudice against older films when I was younger (mainly on the sound quality I think). It could be whenever I heard “you have to see this!” there was some small, strange part of me that rebelled; that said “I don’t have to do anything, man! I can watch whatever I want! And to prove it, I’m gonna watch Bring It On: All or Nothing!”

Whatever the damned stupid reason (and it is a damn stupid reason. I worked in a video-store at one point), my cinematic education is lacking. I haven’t seen Jaws. I haven’t seen The Godfather II. I haven’t seen Gone With the Wind, Seven Samurai or A Bout de Souffle. I bloody well haven’t seen Psycho. So, what the fuck is up with that?

Number two is the book. The book is 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die. It’s a hefty tome I received as a 21st present a few years ago. I haven’t really looked at it in a while, but the other night I went through it with my girlfriend. My girlfriend who, despite not having a degree in Film, has a film education superior to mine. She took note of the films I haven’t seen and she thinks I should. I also took note of the films I think I should (and want to) see. All up, it came to about 200 films. Which is not to say I’ve seen the other 801; just that these are 200 films I really, really should have seen by now. The kind of films, like Psycho and Jaws, that are the barest essentials of cinema.

So these two factors have me adding a new occasional column to my already running mini-reviews (including the upcoming Film Festival), In Appreciation Of... and other random bits and pieces. That new column? Why, the title of this post: Catch-up Classics. I’m sure you’ll be surprised and horrified at what I haven’t seen. It's time I caught up.

June 24, 2010

22.06: Paperheart

It’s interesting watching this documentary from Charlyne Yi less than a week after Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. This is because, as much as the film is a documentary – with Yi interviewing various couples across America about love – there is also a bit of fakery going on.

It’s all about Yi and her search for the meaning of love; she says she’s never felt love and doesn’t know if she can. So, she sets out across the States (with director and camera crew in tow) and interviews people who have had various experiences of love. This includes a divorcee, biology professors, old married couples, bikers, Las Vegas chaplains and more. Yi herself is shy, giggly, awkward and a little tomboyish and the rapport she shares with director Nicholas Jasenovec (played by Jake M. Johnson, though the film is directed by Jasenovec) is perfect. And yes, you read that right. The director seen on screen is played by an actor. And the unfolding relationship Yi has with Michael Cera is also “fake”. Although, the two of them were going out at the time (I have no idea if they currently are and absolutely no inclination to find out). So there’s an interesting, and playful, tension between real and imagined; between love, as it is defined in films, and love as it is out in the world.

Can it all be a little too twee and “quirky” at times? Possibly. But that’s what I loved about it. It’s also a sweet, intimate film that covers quite a lot of ground in its running time. There's laughter, sadness, awkwardness, disappointment and discovery. Just like love.

June 20, 2010

2010 New Zealand International Film Festival

The two week long International Film Festival is back in town (Wellington) at the end of July. I fear this Festival may break me. Previously I have worked at the Festival as a Cashier; y'know on the box office sellin' tickets and telling people they're at the wrong theatre and their film is starting on the other side of town right now. And that was fun and all, but I realised something last year: being out on the box office, I'm missing all the films. And that's the reason I started working the Festival in the first place! So, this year I shall be a volunteer usher. Sure, I won't get paid this year, but I'll see a stack more films.

And that's where the Festival may break me. As mentioned in a previous post, I'm writing something about every single film I see this year (at the cinema). Every. Single. Film. What this means is that, in the space of two weeks, I may very well be writing mini-reviews on up to 50 films. And what might those films be? Well, here's a list of the films I'm hoping to see:


I Am Love
Animal Kingdom
The Illusionist
Once Upon a Time in the West
Sheherazade, Tell Me a Story
A Prophet

The Housemaid
A Somewhat Gentle Man
How I Ended This Summer
Cell 211
The Ghost Writer
The Killer Inside Me
I Love You Phillip Morris
25 Carat
After the Waterfall
The Double Hour
Four Lions

Winter's Bone
Cooking History
Draquila - Italy Trembles
Inside Job
The Invention of Dr Nakamats

Inside Job
The Most Dangerous Man in America
Presumed Guilty
The Peddler
Space Tourists
The Red Shoes
When You're Strange
American: The Bill Hicks Story
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today?
Birdemic: Shock and Terror
Dream Home
The Loved Ones
The Room
A Town Called Panic

17.06: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Is this, a Banksy film, all a bit of a put on? Or is it all actually, unbelievably, real? There has been a fair bit of talk around the reality of the film since it premiered at Sundance; some even saying it was secretly directed by Spike Jonze. Whatever the "truth" is, this is a fascinating look into the street art subculture.

Ostensibly beginning with Thierry Guetta and his compulsion to video everything, the LA-based Frenchman stumbles onto the burgeoning street art culture via his cousin, the street artist Space Invader. Soon Guetta is following more and more street artists around, filming them as they clamber over buildings pasting massive posters and spray-painting. All illegal of course. Which makes the fact that he is filming these people - including Shepard Fairey, whose "OBEY" has become known all over the world - all the more incredible. However, this just drives Guetta to want to capture the unobtainable - the reclusive English artist, Banksy, at work. And he does. And more than that, they become friends. And then things take a strange turn...

Guetta, after a gentle nudge from Banksy, throws himself headfirst into becoming a street artist - under the moniker Mr. Brainwash - himself. Whether Thierry is real, or an imagined character, he still manages to become a street art star almost overnight. And his work... is terrible. Derivative and mass produced for consumption and commercialisation, his quickly hashed together exhibition rakes in the punters.

So, is it all real? Or is it all a massive prank, executed on all of us by Banksy? Or, does that question even matter? This documentary asks us a possibly bigger question: what is art? These street artists, who were perhaps considered little more than graffiti artists and vandals when they first appeared, are now part of the art establishment. Whether they like it or not. So, who then is to judge what work can be considered art or not? And the really magical thing about this documentary is, you can be considering all these questions even as you watch it, and it's still damned entertaining. Banksy himself (possibly. Appearing in shadows, with a distorted voice and almost too perfect line delivery) has a few cracking lines.

In the end, perhaps Guetta is just the perfect example of the 21st Century artist: manufactured and cannibalising the icons of the past, with no deeper meaning and with nothing really to say.

June 16, 2010

Death of a Superman

Today marks the anniversary of the death of George Reeves - the Superman of the 1950's TV show. He was found naked, face up on his bed at home with a gunshot wound, from a 9mm Luger, to the head. The death was ruled a suicide, and while there have been various theories about the "truth" of his death there has never been any concrete proof of wrongdoing. It seems likely he was a man immensly depressed and saw his career going nowhere outside of Superman.

And that got me thinking a little bit about the character of Superman.

The Last Son of Krypton is, of course, an icon. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who
doesn't know who Superman is. He's the first true superhero, ushering in the trend of crime-fighters in tights with fantastic powers that continues to this day. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster back in 1932 (it was also the anniversary of the release of Action Comics #1 earlier in the week), Superman is many things to many people. For some, he is the ultimate outsider; the last survivor of a doomed planet. For others a farm raised boy-scout paragon of virtue, illuminating our potential. For others still he is an adolescent power fantasy wreaking havoc. Superman is all of these things, and more.

Having said that, I've never really been a fan. Sure, that S shield is known by everyone from here to Timbuktoo. The majority of his super-powers - strength, invulnerability, flight - are all the default for any new super-hero created. He even popularised wearin' your underpants on the outside. But he never really clicked for me (except for the undies on the outside thing. I did that). I think, and there's likely a lot of people who agree with me, he's too super. He's too perfect. When almost all other super-heroes have some sort of flaw, be it powered or character-wise, they're much easier to identify with.

What are Superman's weaknesses? Not many, that's for sure. He doesn't even have a sidekick people can mock and make suggestive references about. What about magic? Sure, why not? Kryptonite? Ahhhh, yes, kryptonite. It has permeated the public consciousness almost as much as the Man of Tomorrow himself. In fact, it may hold equal measure as Achilles heel in describing someone's weakness. But these are weaknesses introduced after the fact, specifically introduced so the character would have some sort of weakness.

But aside from those two, he cannot be harmed. The man can fly, move mountains, deflect bullets and rescue your kitten from a tree. Which, true, is what Siegel and Shuster were going for. They were two Jewish sci-fi geeks from Cleveland scrabbling around for a way into the funny books. Siegel's father had been shot and killed in a robbery years before, and the perpetrator never caught. It's not hard to see why their most famous creation can deflect bullets. But it makes it hard to relate to him. It's easier to identify with Peter Parker, where his costumed crime-fighting as Spider-Man caused him more grief than plaudits.

It will be interesting to see which interpretation Christopher Nolan "godfathers" the new Superman towards. He's apparantly interested in getting to the core of the character again; something I felt was missing from Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. His vision was too slavishly devoted to the Richard Donner originals (not too surprising I guess, as he worked with Richard Donner's wife Lauren Shuler Donner on two X-men movies) and hadn't realised the characters had moved on since then.

George Reeves, of course, was never "my" Superman. The Superman I knew was Christopher Reeve, all American boy-scout. Failing that it was George Newbern (voice actor in the Superman animated series and Justice League). I never picked up an issue of the book, I knew the character form other media and general pop-culture awareness. In fact, the first Superman comic I ever read was The Death of Superman back in the '90s. Killed by Doomsday, and not Lex Luthor?! What the hell was that?! There was no historical resonance with that. Just like kryptonite, Doomsday had been created merely as a way to kill Superman. And everyone knew that was a sales gimmmick; there was no way the Man of Steel would be gone for good. In fact I learned more about (and was subsequently more interested in) the character from the excellent Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones, which details not only the creation and impact of Superman but all the events leading up to the creation of the comic book.

But hey. Here's to George, one of many to wear the tights. Superman is dead. Long live Superman. What are your thoughts on Kal-El/Clark Kent, the Man of Tomorrow and Last Son of Krypton?

Wednesday Haiku

Superman is dead;
Man of Steel shot through the head.
Long live Superman.

June 15, 2010

Tuesday Haiku

Steam flows like amber
Surrounding and caressing
A chill in the warmth

June 14, 2010

Haiku for 14.06.2010

Today marks 3 years of me writing (and sending out) a daily haiku. I sure as hell never thought I'd still be doing them now. What initially started as a way for me to dodge soul-crushing boredom has become... well, still a way for me to dodge soul-crushing boredom.

I've now decided to start posting these haiku here. There's no way I'm going to do a "catch-up" post though - three years worth! That's... quite a few haiku. enough of my blathering. Haiku are brief. I should be too. Haiku for 14.06.2010:

Well, that was three years.
The March hare is still awake
Playing minesweeper

June 13, 2010

12.06: The A-Team

Joe Carnahan's big screen adaptation of the 80's action show is exactly what you'd expect and want from it: crazy big fun, with a smart-arse grin and over-the-top action. And that crazy big action is where the film really works its mojo.

I enjoyed the TV show enough when I was a kid, not enough to remember much about it or want to revisit it now and I was initially sceptical bout a film adaptation being worth anyone's while. But, boy it works. Part of that is down to the cast; while they don't have the easy chemistry evidenced in The Losers, these four guys still work really well together. Liam Neeson's Hannibal anchors the team, while Bradley Cooper as Face is all charm and smarm. Strange to think how he's come from being the slightly annoying best/boyfriend on Alias to starring in major blockbusters. Quinton Jackson is fine enough as BA Baracus, as he's not really asked to do any heavy lifting when it comes to character work, though occasionally hard to understand. Sharlto Copley gives us a properly insane Howlin' Mad Murdock. The guy is unhinged. And they each get their own beats and moments. As do the villains of the piece - Patrick Wilson's slippery CIA man is all talk and tech flash, while Brian Bloom's Pike is a credible threat to the A-Team and the scene with the two of them in the car... priceless.

I think the best way to describe the film is, its like watching the imagination of a 12 year old boy running around, playing crazy games with his toys. It's just that this 12 year old boy's toys happen to be Hollywood actors, jet planes and flying tanks. That's right. Flying tank. For me, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was one of the best bits about the whole damn film. It summed up the perfect ridiculousness of the whole thing, but ridiculousness we were all in on and more than happy to go along with.

Easily one of the most enjoyable films of the blockbuster season. Its nice to be able to recommend a big summer film, that also happens to be an adaptation of an old TV show, instead of warning people off (see: Prince of Persia). Even nicer is leaving the theatre, and wanting to see a sequel, wanting to see where the hell they can go next.

09.06: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Oh my gods. I wasn’t expecting much with this. I’d heard it wasn’t that good. But, dear lords... this was an awful, horrible film. There is, quite simply, absolutely nothing to recommend it.

It always surprises me a little when a film like this, with a decent cast, a half-decent director, available funds and powerhouse producer fails so utterly. Sure the suits and the money-counters want to dumb everything down to reach the widest audience possible, but that doesn't mean they have to foist such unctuous crap on to us. You'd think, with a cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Sir Ben Kingsley and Gemma Arterton and with Jerry Bruckheimer (the man behind Pirates of the Caribbean) and Mike Newell directing, this would be the film to break the dreaded video-game movie curse. Alas and alack, they did not.

There is, of course, some sort of hokum “plot” about a mystical dagger and a street urchin prince and an evil uncle, but none of it really makes much sense. And honestly, no-one really gives a damn. Gyllenhaal and Arterton give it the ole' college try with regards to the direly awful "banter" they have to try and deliver to one another, but it never works. The action and fight scenes are ugly and confusing, with no style or even geography to them. The special effects are barely that, with the CGI looking obvious and ropey. Due to the whole "sands of time" malarkey, pretty much the entirety of the story is rendered null and void in the end, making the entire film utterly bloody pointless.

You can see what they were going for here. They were trying to make a sand filled Pirates with hints of Indiana Jones like adventure; but there is no wit and no energy to Prince of Persia. It takes a leap... and falls. On to big sharp pointy spikes of death. Covered in poison. With boiling acid then poured on it.

Game over.

June 10, 2010

05.06: Home By Christmas

This is a bit of a mashed-up hybrid between being a documentary, a dramatisation and a home movie. Gaylene Preston takes conversations recorded with her father, Ed, about his experiences in World War II and re-enacts them with actor Tony Barry. We also have Martin Henderson and Gaylene's daughter Chelsie Preston-Crayford as young Ed and Tui, Gaylene's mother.

I thought going to see this at the Embassy would be a slightly strange experience for me. I used to work with Chelsie at the Embassy. And now there she is, in a major NZ movie release, playing her grandmother Tui, on the Embassy screen. But due in large part to the stylistic choices made by her mother, director Gaylene Preston, she’s barely a supporting role.

Its possibly due to budget constraints that there is absolutely no dramatisation of Ed’s war experiences, instead having them told with voice-over and archival footage and photographs (with Martin Henderson’s head photoshopped in). We get some sense of what it was like for those at home, as the brief sections with Chelsie and Ed Jr. are wonderful. But they are too brief to become fully involved in. I’m not sure how much Gaylene talked with her mother Tui about her experiences, but as presented here they almost feel like an aside. Or, more likely, she felt like she had laready covered them in her documentary, War Stories Our Mother's Never Told Us.

In the end, it may be that I, as an audience, is used to being shown more, but I couldn't completly connect with it. It feels a little too much like watching a talking heads documentary, with the camera on Ed just… sitting. I felt no movement, no life to it all. All of the truly interesting, intriguing pieces; such as Ed's experiences in Italy or as a POW, or Tui's brief flirtation or even the returrn home of Ed and the discomfort and upheaval that even that brings, are not given to us fully formed.

The Year in Film, so far

For the past 7 years I have kept lists of every film I see in a cinema. I see just under 100 films, in the cinema, a year. This year, I decided to write mini-reviews, or "reviewettes" for all these films. These are not full reviews, but more a collection of my thoughts on each film. I may have a shot at writing full reviews later. This is catching up on what I've seen so far, so I apologise for the size of this post (way-hey!).

The Princess & The Frog
Princess & the Frog marks the return to the hand drawn cel animation (and singing) that made Disney the animation powerhouse it is today. And while this is no instant Disney classic, the likes of Aladdin or The Lion King, Princess & the Frog more than stands (or hops) on its own two feet.
While some have pointed out the parallels between Disney’s first black princess, and America’s first black President, I think the genesis behind this jazz-age New Orleans set tale lies earlier: in Hurricane Katrina. The Princess & The Frog is almost a love letter to the old New Orleans – the voodoo, the jazz, the mardi-gras atmosphere.
This is a charming enough film, with some winning characters (including a Cajun firefly and a trumpet playing ‘gator), but stacked up against The Great Disney Catalogue, it falls *just* short of true classic status.

12.01: The Lovely Bones
I have read the book, but I haven’t read it in a couple of years, so I cannot really speak to the film’s fidelity to source material. However, I don’t think it’s all that much of an issue – a film adaptation of a book has to work as a film in its own right. Yes, it shouldn’t go changing things willy-nilly, but it doesn’t have to be slavish to the original text.
Saoirse Ronan, Susan Sarandon and Rose McIver all do exceptional work as Susie Salmon, her grandma and sister respectively; but its Stanley Tucci as the creepy Mr. Harvey who really stands out. Funnily enough, his seems to be the most fleshed out character.
Jackson uses montage a little too much for my tastes. It’s like he and his writers wanted to get some relevant point across (eg. Grandma being terrible at housework) and, instead of incorporating it into the story, throws in a montage showing this. Other times, such as Susie’s sister breaking into Mr. Harvey’s, Jackson’s direction is superb and sublime. But it's not enough, and it ultimately never comes together as a whole.

18.01: Avatar
This marks the second time I’ve seen Avatar and while still impressive on a technical scale, and being an unparalleled spectacle, the story still doesn’t quite engage me. I wasn’t really expecting anything incredibly original, but absolutely nothing, story or character-wise surprised me. In the slightest: outsider white-man infiltrates the natives, at first to betray them but as time goes on he becomes one of them and, eventually, their saviour. Ho-hum. And that Sully’s growing connection with the Na’vi and Pandora is told through montage and voice-over really doesn’t help.
However, Stephen Lang is still a joy to watch as the scene-stealing and chewing Col. Quaritch – the man is such a hard-nut ball-busting tough-ass, he puts out his burning arm when he’s damn well got the time. Sam Worthington really shows why he’s being talked up here – a vast improvement since we saw him last in Terminator: Salvation. Zoe Saldana, if there’s any justice, is on her way to be being a major star.

30.01: Up in the Air
I’m not sure how much I really have to say about Jason Reitman’s follow up to Juno. I have, in fact, been trying to think of something to say for the past few days. While the performances are fine (Clooney almost doing a deconstruction of his screen persona) and the whole affair comes together quite nicely, the film feels… light. Perhaps I’m missing something here; I’m just not sure what. Clooney’s character, let’s be honest here, is a bit of an asshole. Sure, he’s a charming asshole, but still a bit of an asshole. He fires people for a living. Sure, he’s pretty nice and understanding about it but the reason he does the job, the only reason? To earn air miles.

14.02: Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief
It’s not going to be the new Harry Potter – nothing is. Potter was/is a publishing and film phenomenon. Percy Jackson is quite a decent successor though. The film itself is better than the first Potter by a long shot. This is quite something considering they were directed by the same man – Chris Columbus. He’s obviously come some way since that franchise entry, and possibly enjoying the relative lack of pressure in this adaptation. The three teen leads do a fine job each; if Logan Lerman is to be the new teen Spider-Man, he’s not a bad choice for the role. You also have Sean Bean as Zeus and Uma Thurman as Medusa and unfortunately, neither of them really have much to do: Zeus is there to be peeved about his missing lightning bolt and Medusa is one of the stops on the quest to save Percy’s mother.
While many films have been released in an attempt to become the new teen fantasy franchise (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Narnia, The Golden Compass etc.) and had varying degrees of success, I personally have hope for this one. A well as really digging the Greek mythology aspect I think Columbus has set up the world nicely and there is room for expansion.

20.02: The Wolfman
I’ll start off by stating I haven’t seen the original, Lon Chaney starring Wolfman or, in fact, ay of the classic Universal Monster movies. I have no personal connection to them, aside from recognising them as the classic monster movies of yore and the pop culture references they have spawned. Now, having said all of that: I thoroughly enjoyed the new Wolfman. Perhaps a part of that enjoyment is the visceral thrill of seeing a big old fashioned gory creature feature on the big screen.
Honestly, I didn’t think this was going to be anywhere near as good as it was; especially with the well known troubled production history it’s gone through. But it does seem to have come together remarkably well. The photography is gorgeous and atmospheric, the effects admirably practical (for the most part; there are the occasional uses of CGI), the action gory and horrific and the acting superb.
Benicio Del Toro is a natural replacement for the haunted looking Lon Chaney Jr., his deep eyes betraying the haunted sadness within. Anthony Hopkins appears as if from another film; what that other film could be I have no idea. His is a brilliantly demented performance. Emily Blunt is wonderful and manages to be more than the simpering woman in peril; despite not having all that much to do she manages to make her presence felt.
So, even though he only came in 2 weeks before the start of shooting, Joe Johnston has managed to pull together a wonderfully scary, horrific, gothic and atmospheric new take on the Wolfman that doesn’t seem to disrespect the source material.

21.02: Toy Story/Toy Story 2 Double Feature
What a treat to catch these masterful, groundbreaking films at the cinema again. And as a double feature! While the animation may look a little dated now (especially Toy Story) these films have more heart, intelligence and downright humour than most other animated movies today.
Toy Story 2 remains a seminal film for me. It’s one of those perfect sequels; it doesn’t rely on re-treading the same ground, or throwing in a bunch of needless new characters. It instead builds on the characters and their relationships: with each other, and with Andy. But more than that, the film speaks of growing older, and the inherent pain of that. You could easily replace the toys with parents and get the same emotional punch.

23.02: Shutter Island
From the opening of Scorsese’s latest, you know you’re in for something… other. The music is relentless and ominous. The action, washed out. I also don’t know if it’s because I had already guessed the “twist” ending before I even sat down, or if it’s really because Scorsese isn’t focussing on it. Sure, there’s a twist there, and when it’s fully revealed it is something of an emotional gut punch, but it’s not the true focus of the film. Instead, Scorsese is using genre material to examine themes of delusion (particularly self), violence and guilt. All wrapped in a fantastically creepy and atmospheric package. It’s a strange detective tale with distinctively suffocating overtones.
DiCaprio is once again giving his all here as a damaged man. He still looks young on the outside, with weedy facial hair, but you can see the pain etched into his eyes. Michelle Williams is a haunting presence as Teddy’s deceased wife; both within the film and her performance. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow are suitable creepy as the island’s administrators with something to hide.
What saddens me about this though is that everything, from the music, the cinematography, the performances and the direction, is so far above the story/source material. But then maybe I’m putting too much emphasis on the “twist” here.

07.03: Alice in Wonderland
Well, there’s no doubt this is a Tim Burton film – you would actually have to be blind to miss it. And therein lays its strengths and weaknesses. So while the film is beautiful to look at, it really does look like every other Tim Burton film, especially of the last 10 years or so.
I’m not really too sure what else to make of it. It certainly felt...wanting. As if Burton wasn’t all there; as if he was just following the “a Tim Burton film” formula and didn’t dare deviate from it. In fact, the more I think of it, the less original the whole enterprise feels. This Alice seems to be a mash-up of Alice In Wonderland, Narnia and even a bit of The Wizard of Oz tossed in for good measure (“Oh, Mad Hatter, I’m going to miss you most of all...”). It’s like Burton is doing a mish-mash of popular kids fantasy films through the lens of a pastiche of a Tim Burton film.
I can’t shake the feeling that Burton, like his Alice, has lost “much of his muchness”. Here’s hoping he can find it for his next film.

21.03: The Goonies
The Embassy Theatre in Wellington is continuing a fantastic trend of classic films on the big screen lately, and I was lucky enough to catch that 80’s favourite, The Goonies.
The Goonies, if you grew up with it as I did, is a fantastic film. I have read a few things lately that have called the quality of the film into question, noting that it doesn’t really stand up. While, yes, the film may not be one of the greatest ever put to celluloid, I can’t help but love it. And only part of that is nostalgia. I mean, yeah, I wanted to be one of the Goonies when I was a kid (specifically, Data). And yes, the film is a bit shaggy with some dodgy performances and the effects don’t quite hold up. But The Goonies does have a lot of three things: charm, adventure and fun. They’re things that are sadly missing from a lot of kid’s films these days. Thankfully, The Goonies is missing the “destined saviour” line that is so prevalent in kid’s adventure films.
If you weren’t a kid when you first saw The Goonies, I don’t know if you’d really like it; I feel like you wouldn’t truly “get” it. The Goonies were, simultaneously, just like us and who we wanted to be. They were a gang of friends who played pranks on each other, swore, messed up, broke things, laughed together and at one another and got in trouble together. Who didn’t want to have a gang of friends and trek off on fantastic, death defying adventures defeating murderous criminals and solving old pirate mysteries when they were young?

25.03: Green Zone
When you get right down to it; past all the “shakycam” work, past the disorientation/immediacy of it all, Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone is a pretty standard thriller. Possibly even more so than the Bourne films. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if Greengrass is wanting to maximise the number of people through the door.
I don't really have too much else to say on it. It was a finely made film, with superb performances all round. It was just, at least from where I was sitting, preaching to the converted a little.

26.03: How to Train Your Dragon
My appreciation of this film may be a little biased – I really dig dragons and Vikings. In addition, this has some truly breathtaking (as in, literally taking my breath away) flight scenes; and that sense of flying freedom has been one of my honest wishers since I was a child. So, I really quite loved this film. I appreciated it the more so for the overall lack of “ironic” pop-culture references usually found in Dreamworks’ Shrek franchise. Thankfully, the directors of one of Disney’s freshest films, Lilo & Stitch, are behind this.
Instead of snarky jokes and irrelevant pop-culture references we instead are treated to something with real heart and a genuine sense of adventure. The voice cast all do admirable work, and I appreciate that they’re not all big time celebrity actors slumming it as voice-actors. Instead they all bring real character to their voice-acting, something that’s a lot harder to do than it sounds. You’re not continually trying to guess who the actor doing the voice is; instead you just get swept up with the characters.
And again, those flight sequences. I absolutely thrilled to them, and here is where the 3D really kicked in. I was gripping my seat, moving with the characters as if I was flying. And that’s what it felt like; there are twists and turns and you’re not sure what’s up and what’s down... And then they break through the clouds and, wow. There’s some real beauty created there.

07.04: Antichrist
Ok, Lars von Trier’s Cannes shocking psycho-sexual, cabin in the woods horror. At this point, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film. I’m not sure it’s something I really understand, nor do I think I ever will. My brain, essentially, just isn’t wired for this sort of thing. I think it’s fantastic that there’s room in the world for these types of films – confusing, personal, angry, defying expectations – I’m just not sure I can fully appreciate them.
As to the infamous shocks – I’m no stranger to terrifying images on screen. While I haven’t put myself through the almost fetish like violence of Hostel or Saw, I have seen films like Bully (which I came out of literally shaking), Irreversible and Un Chien Andalou (famous for the eyeball sliced by a razor). And where Andalou was graphic, it was (as it always is in film) faked.
What I really take from Antichrist is that it is a film of oppositions – there is some truly beautiful imagery here, as well the shockingly violent and graphic; male and female; order and chaos; rational thought and animalistic behaviour; European art film and exploitation horror. It’s a tough film, but not necessarily a good one. I certainly didn’t “enjoy” it, and I don’t think I took all that much away from it. It does demand a response though; this is certainly not a film where you can “switch off” your brain. You have to engage, even if that engagement is to pull away.

09.04: Good Hair
Chris Rock’s documentary on black women’s hair and their search for “good hair” is an entertaining glimpse into a world I previously knew nothing about. It’s interesting for me, as a white male Kiwi, to watch this and essentially re-evaluate everything I know about black women’s hair. We’re so accustomed to seeing black women with straight hair; it’s easy to forget this is not natural (and sometimes not even their own natural hair). Usually, a black woman with straight hair has a weave. That is, other hair (usually from Indians) woven into theirs. Or masses and masses of chemicals to help straighten it.
What Rock touches on, is how unnatural this all is, and trying to find out why straight (read: white) hair = good hair. he never achieves answering his own question, but the search is more than entertaining.

09.04: Kick-Ass
Ho boy. No. Scratch that. Holy frackin’ jimmy what, wow! What a film, what a thrill ride, what an adrenaline shot! Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s comic-book flips a middle finger salute to all other comic-book movies. While also having the best godsdamned time being one of them.
The film starts out as an exploration of what might actually happen if someone was fool enough to go out and try to fight crime in a costume (get beat up a lot, become a YouTube sensation). But before long the foul mouthed, purble be-wigged Hit Girl slices, swears and dices her wee way into the film. As engaging as Aaron Johnson’s Dave/Kick-Ass is, Chloe Moretz’s Hit Girl is the film’s secret weapon.
Ultimately, I think Kick-Ass works as a satire of the comic-book film better than Watchmen did: where Zack Snyder's adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel felt stuffy and drained of life, Kick-Ass brims with action and energy constantly propelling us forward. There’s a lot hinted at (the link between superheroes, sex and violence for example) and there’s more that’s pretty damned explicit: Aaron Johnson’s almost pastiche of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and Nicolas Cage’s Adam West vocal impression. And really, I need to take another moment to talk about Nicolas Cage; this is one of his finest performances and his best since Adaptation. He plays an unhinged weirdo, sure. But one with a kooky sense of humanity and sadness.
Vaughn also proves himself a master of action scenes. Each and every one has its own feel, its own rhythm and intent: there’s the confusing and brutal fight outside the diner with Kick-Ass and thugs; the entrance of Hit Girl, a whirling dervish of death; the bravura, thudding assault by Big Daddy and, of course, the knock down, drag out, absolutely off the charts final showdown.

11.04: The Road
Bleak. That’s the word to describe John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee trudge through a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland, struggling their way towards the coast and the vague, nebulous hope of... something. Not salvation – the apocalypse has come and it has destroyed everything. No crops grow. No animals thrive. Humanity is hanging on by the barest thread. Civilisation is dust.
Like I said: bleak. Thankfully, Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are so engaging we have something to grasp on to. Plotwise, there's really not a lot to it. There is no 3 act structure, no salvation at the end of the road. It is just continuously... bleak.

12.04: The Men Who Stare at Goats
Gregor Jordan’s The Men Who Stare at Goats is entertaining enough, but it feels like something of a missed opportunity. The tale of the US Army’s experiments into paranormal warfare and the resulting link to current “enhanced interrogation” techniques is a damned interesting one. This just doesn’t manage to pull it together. It doesn’t help that the framing device of Ewan McGregor’s journalist feels unnecessary, and just plain wrong-footed. Unfortunately, like Up in the Air, this is one more Clooney film from this year that I'm really struggling to talk about. There just wasn't much there for me.

12.04: Bronson
Tom Hardy plays what should be a star-making turn as Michael Peterson/Charlie Bronson: Britain most famous criminal. A man who has spent 34 years in various jails, with 30 of those years in solitary. Yet he’s never killed anyone. He has, however, been in lots and lots of fights. And taken a few hostages. As Nicolas Winding Refn and Hardy portray him, Bronson is a man who can only fully express himself through violence.
It is interesting to watch this and compare and contrast Bronson and its depiction of violence – almost artistic – with Kick Ass, which takes an equal..., joy, perhaps, with its depiction. Whereas the joy in Kick Ass comes from the overall direction, Bronson is the joy of Charlie Bronson. I think it’s more that each film let each action scene/moment of violence have its own rhythm and purpose.

22.04: The Hurt Locker
I finally, finally, got to see this. After more than a year passing from seeing the first trailer, to the various amazing things I heard about it all the way though the Oscar race... FINALLY. And in the cinema – I held out for that. No ordering the DVD from Amazon.com (not least because I don’t really blind-buy), or watching friends’ copies who had ordered it from Amazon.com.
So, how does it stand up to that long wait, and weight of expectations? Pretty damned fine in my books. It’s an impressive work of film, succeeding where the recent Green Zone and Men Who Stare At Goats didn’t quite. The narrative to be had is spare – this is no typical Hollywood type film. There’s no main villain or bad guy; instead where with these bomb disposal experts, notably the on-the-edge Jeremy Renner as he lands in with a new team (replacing guy Pearce who gets blown up spectacularly in the film’s opening minutes). From there it's a study of this man who willingly walk into immediate, mortal danger with a balls of steel and an addiction to the thrill.

25.04: Boy
Damn Taika Waititi. Damn his talented ass. Boy has already become the highest grossing NZ comedy here at home – and it’s easy to see why. Once again (after Eagle vs. Shark) locating the action in a small NZ town on the coast, a lot of people can recognise the characters and identify with them too. It is fantastically, bravely kiwi – and 80’s kiwi at that. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays overseas – notably in Australia and the UK. I hope they can give it a fair shake. It’s a pretty universal story (coming-of-age with, as one of the tagline puts it “What happens when you find out your hero is a egg?”)
One of the best things about Boy, and there are a few, is that it shows a real progression, a definite growth, in Waititi as a filmmaker and story-teller; despite the film focussing on younger characters. While Boy, his brother and cousins may be younger in years than Jemaine Clement’s character from Eagle vs. Shark, they’re a lot more mature. The whole film feels a lot more mature. It just feels… more. There’s more genuine heart and concern for the characters.
It’s really, really good to see a great kiwi comedy up on the big screen, devoid of any cultural cringe while not glossing over anything. With Boy, Waititi is almost becoming this generation’s Billy T., but working in film.

29.04: Iron Man 2
Favreau, Downey Jr. et al sure had their work cut out for them for the follow up to their surprise 2008 hit Iron Man. The level of expectation was huge, especially as Iron Man continues to be Marvel Studio’s flagship character – the gateway to introducing the rest of the Avengers. And in the few weeks since I first saw Iron Man 2 and now writing this, there has been a lot of feedback on the film. Decidedly mixed. Some seem to have dug it, while others have really hated it. No-one seems to have loved it, and I don’t think anyone really could. It’s a strange beast, in that the whole thing is really more of a teaser/middle issue for the rest of the marvel films. It does work in its own right, but not really as well as it should.
I come down on the side of the lovers; even more so after my second viewing. I was actually a little surprised at how much more I enjoyed it that second time around; perhaps it helped knowing what to expect, or perhaps it helped that I understood more that Tony Stark is the real villain of the piece. That’s right: the main bad guy is Tony Stark. He’s the cause of his own downfall, especially in the drunken party scene (a nice little nod to the Demon in a Bottle storyline from the comics). Tony Stark/Iron Man is certainly no Bruce Wayne/Batman. And thank gods for that.
There are some inherent problems with Justin Theroux’s script, no doubt about it: the guff about Tony dying with the digital crossword infection and his miracle recovery with the new element (hidden in a park layout! That his father did some 30 years ago!) are a bit of a stretch. The final showdown with Whiplash is, like the showdown with Iron Monger, anticlimactic.
However, on the plus side, we have a collection of wonderful performances (Sam Rockwell in particular) and some very kick-ass action sequences. And it’s fun.
I, for one, am really looking forward to where Downey Jr. and Favreau take ole’ Shellhead next. I’m hoping they’ll learn from the (valid) criticisms levelled at this one and bring us an Iron Man 3 that blows everyone away. Just in time for The Avengers.

23.05: The Losers
In a year that also sees the release of other men-on-a-mission flicks, The A-Team and The Expendables, The Losers is the first outta the block.
It’s an enjoyable enough film, with a great cast who trade some witty banter. And there’s really not too much more to it, there’s nothing particularly new and exciting in the execution, but neither are there any massive missteps.
The cast of Losers are uniformly excellent; Jeffery Dean Morgan once again showing has fantastic natural charisma, Idris Elba once again pulling off second-in-command duties and Chris Evans as the wise-cracking tech expert. Zoe Saldana gives as good as she gets, both in terms of banter and in terms of action. And everyone seems more than happy just hanging out with one another, trading banter and some fisticuffs.
There are a couple of things that stick out; mainly to do with the antagonists – Jason Patric as Max is less than intimidating while his offsider has slightly less personality than a block of wood. Max’s devilish plot is nonsensical, far-fetched and plain unnecessary. Sonic implosion bombs? A sci-fi techno nonsense that isn’t required.
The Losers: enjoyable enough, with not too much else going on besides. There’s some laughs, some thrills and some explosions. We’ll see how The A-Team stacks up.

June 8, 2010

In appreciation of... COMMANDO

With the (somewhat) recent announcement of a Commando remake, I thought I would open my blog and one of its regular columns, with an appreciation of that classic 80’s action film, Commando. And when I say classic, I don’t necessarily mean its any good. Let’s face it; Commando is a B-movie at best, arriving at the beginning of the 80’s action film cycle. So, why does it endure? How is it, 25 years since its release I’m writing about it now? Well, I hope you will indulge me as I write about one my favourite gloriously bad movies.

Mark L. Lester’s film starts with the scary shaving dude from Predator (Bill Duke) killing a bunch of regular seeming schmoes and Vernon Wells. So far, so typical action film. But then, then, we’re introduced to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix. And how are we introduced to this true blue American ex-Marine? Why, with extreme close-ups on his massive, sweating biceps (invoking Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films apparently) as he carries a fucking tree on his shoulders through the woods to his secluded, palatial cabin. Seems while the rest of Matrix’s unit got real jobs, a house in the suburbs and a beer belly, he’s stayed in ridiculous good shape. By carting the forest around on his back. And then, holy shit there’s someone sneaking up behind him!! Watch out Matrix! But don’t worry! It’s just his daughter; Jenny. They proceed to have a super fun montage together, eating ice-cream, laughing, fishing, feeding a deer, martial arts training. Y’know, your everyday idyllic life-style stuff. See, this is important for later, ‘cos this sets up the perfect life that is put in jeopardy by the bad guys. Do you get it? Their life is perfect and they have no problems. Once we’ve got through the set-up and credits, shit hits the fan. And we’re only 11 minutes in. Bam! That’s how you do it. That is a tight set-up. So, there’s a day-time assault by the bad guys and they make off with Jenny. Now we have ourselves a plot!

Matrix is given one choice, and one choice only to get his daughter back: kill some South American president so the bad guy can take over, or some-such. He’s put on a plane (telling Sully he’ll kill him last. Oh Matrix, you big liar) and sent on his way. See, if he’s going to save Jenny he has to do it before the plane lands on the other side and the bad guys discover he scarpered; a ticking clock! Now the tension is really piling on for Matrix, but that doesn’t stop him from casually murdering his escort, covering him with a blanket and asking for him to not be disturbed as he’s “dead tired”.

Ah yes, the one liners. They’re a hallmark of action films, notably in the 80’s and especially Arnie films. The Austrian oak shines here, in what helped to set the template for his future action career. This is after all, only just after Conan (not so much of the one-liners there. Conan defining happiness doesn’t count) and The Terminator (silent, nigh-unstoppable emotionless robot killing machine). Not many other actors could get away with the “brutal murder then cheesy one liner” combo like Schwarzenegger. Willis is possibly the only one who came close, but of course his delivery was markedly different, and the lines weren’t anywhere near as cheesy. This, of course, reached some sort of nadir for Schwarzenegger with the truly awful Batman & Robin (“You’ll never take me to the cooler” “Ice to see you”).

Partly for this, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Arnie filling Matrix’s massive shoes, even though original screenwriter Jeph Loeb had Gene Simmons and then Nick Nolte in mind. But this was in a vastly different draft: the Middle East was involved, and the retired Colonel was an out of shape Mossad agent. For some reason, I can’t really picture Arnie as a Jewish special forces agent... And that leads us nicely into the remake.

Somehow I don’t think any remake would retain the same... daftness as is present in Commando. First, we have to buy into Schwarzenegger being some sort of all-American super commando type. Despite his massive build (making sneaking around pretty damned difficult) and, oh yeah! His thick Austrian accent. Then we have to buy his name – John Matrix! Hmm. Interesting that Joel Silver was a producer on this. But somehow, through some sort of bizarre Arnie magic... we go along with it. We have no problem believing this man-mountain “eats Green Berets for breakfast”. Or that he could assault an island base and murder everyone single-handedly. What is it? What magic is cast over this film that we buy into it all? A number of factors, I think. Arnie is definitely one of them. A tight script; the action kicks in and pretty much keeps going until the steam pipe through a certain mesh-shirt wearing villain. The fact that it’s so very over-the-top (from the acting, through to the action to the music) and I’m not quite sure if it’s all done with a nod and a wink, or if it’s all straight faced; it walks that line, that balance.

Which just makes the idea of a remake so mind-bogglingly stupid. Sure, you get a little bit of name recognition with Commando but there is no modern day Arnie. The man, for better or worse, is one-of-a-kind. There is absolutely no way to do this film justice in today’s filmmaking climate. There’s no-one clamouring for a new Commando film, surely? A sequel was mooted at one point, but when Arnie wasn’t interested it was reworked and turned into Die Hard. And that’s fine. Commando works fine by itself. I fear the remake is yet one more example of Hollywood cannibalising itself, rather than try and come up with anything resembling an original film. And hey, that’s fine sometimes. But, Commando? Really?! Was there a story there that was clamouring to be told? Is Commando that much of a known quantity nowadays?

No. We will always have Arnie’s John Matrix. With his oiled muscles, his little mullet, his love for his daughter Jenny. His brutal nonchalance. For his one man assault on an island fortress. For the low production values. For the over-the-top nature of the entire thing. For Bennet’s gut and chain-link vest. And for that massive pipe hurled through him. Everyone, say it with me now: Let off some steam, Bennet.

What Else Have They Got Up To?

Arnold Schwarzenegger: do you really need me to write anything here?

Alyssa Milano (Jenny): Who’s The Boss?, Embrace of the Vampire, Double Dragon, Charmed, My Name is Earl

Vernon Wells (Bennet): Fortress, Innerspace, Jumper, Ultimate Spider-Man videogame.

David Patrick Kelly (Sully): Twin Peaks, The Crow, Flags of Our Fathers

Mark L. Lester (director) – nothing much worth writing about.

Steven E. de Souza (screenwriter): The Running Man, Die Hard, Street Fighter, Judge Dredd, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life

Joel Silver (producer): a veritable tonne of films, including Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Matrix, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, V for Vendetta, RocknRolla, The Losers...

June 7, 2010

The First Post

So, I should perhaps write a little about myself and what I want to achieve with this blog thing I seem to have started. If it's out there, if it's in the public domain, it may encourage me to keep up with it. Not that I'm expecting an overwhelmingly large amount of people to read this but hey. You never know.

What do I want to do with this blog thing? Well, and this may seem obvious, I want to use it to write. See, I like to think of myself as a writer. I love writing. Ever since I was kid. It's just... my follow-through with it may be lacking sometimes. So, I want to start more projects, but more importantly I want to finish more projects. And this blog is one of them. What can you expect from this blog? Lemme tell you.

I like movies. I love films. I totally dig on them. As most people of my age, I have a disposition towards genre films. I tend to see close on 100 films theatrically in any given year. My aim with this blog is to write about them. Small reviews and the like. I'll also be doing a column "In Appreciation of..." which will hopefully be a longer form review of a classic/"classic" film. I'll likely add my voice to other happenings in the film world, my views on 3D, comic-book movies, the blockbuster template etc.

But it won't all be film related! Oh-ho no! I also write a daily haiku (Monday - Friday) which I'll be posting here. I hope to also talk about comics, awesome books, TV shows and general nonsense. I may even get some guest posters up in here. I am new to this whole blogging thing, so please hang in there as I get a handle on it.

Coming up in the near future: my reviews of films I've seen thus far this year. An Appreciation of Commando. A preview of the upcoming New Zealand International Film Festival (followed by reviews of all the films I see). Haiku. Updates on various projects I'm involved in. I hope you find something here to enjoy. I'll keep on writing anyhow.