July 31, 2010

Film Fest: Day Fourteen

After covering the start of someone's shift at the Embassy, I scooted down to the Film Archive for my own usher shift. It's not a shift I was particularly looking forward to - the usher seat at the Film Archive is absolutely awful and considering the film was a collection of indie European digital animation? Cause for concern.

Autour de Minuit
So, my initial review of this was merely going to read "Pretty pictures but sitting in the front row made me feel somewhat sick". There were some nice looking short films, but most of it was just so much visual noise. However, the entire programme was pretty much saved by the final film: Logorama (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81d8SUaCMJo). It was a technically awesome, well written, smart and funny short film. It knew what it's message was, and it made sure you knew. And in the most entertaining way possible.
Another standout was Plasticat - in a futuristic city, a cat passes a bum on the street. He is then hounded by, not just his shoulder angel and devil, but a whole host of little flying consciousnesses. Very charming, and quite well done.
I'm glad there's a place for this type of indie, experimental animation. If everything was from the big animation houses, the artform would die out pretty quickly.

July 30, 2010

Film Fest: Day Thirteen

Well, despite finishing work at the day-job early and hauling ass down to the Paramount, I still missed out on 25 Carat. As it was Sold Out. A little surprising, as I thought it was flying under the radar a bit but I guess all I can do now is hope it gets some sort of release later. At least I was able to go home, catch my breath and do some dishes!

Gerard Depardiu stars as Serge in what could be thought of as a coming-of-retirement-age tale. Forcibly retired from the meatworks at 60, he has to set off across country, collecting proof of the various oddjobs he's been doing over the years in order to claim his pension. He's a sweet natured, somewhat naive elephant of a man.
The film is filled with some hilarious scenes (Serge's retirement party and Serge and four other men bawling their eyes out in a crappy hostel restaurant are stand outs), and some very random ones. These are moment of pure, unforeseen strangeness; such as Serge and his elderly cousin jerking each other off. It's a brief scene, seemingly unconnected to anything else and not mentioned again. It just adds to the overall feeling of slight oddness. In a good way.
What it's really all about is a man, a couple, who have worked their entire lives and only now learning how to live. How to live, breathe and be happy.

How I Ended This Summer
I got the feeling I may have enjoyed this film, if given more time and space around it. But with my head packed with films, I just couldn't get into this. We have yet another unsympathetic protagonist. In fact, he's a bit of an asshole.
Two men are stationed on a remote Soviet monitoring station in the Arctic. The old hand who's been there most of his life and the young man who's come up for the summer. It becomes part psychological thriller, part survivalist film. But it's hard to sympathise with the young guy when he's brought it all on himself. It becomes somewhat touching at the end, but as I said, given more space in my brain I think I would have appreciated the whole a lot more.

July 28, 2010

Film Fest: Day Twelve

The Invention of Dr. Nakamats
Japanese inventor Dr. Nakamats purportedly holds over 3,000 patents, easily beating Thomas Edison’s 1,000-odd. He claims to be the inventor of the floppy disk, has a street, avenue and square named after him. He is approaching his 80th birthday and considers it middle-age. He’s a fascinating character and it’s difficult to know whether he’s for real, a fraud or a crack-pot. This documentary really doesn’t illuminate which.
Essentially being a “week-in-the-life-of” style documentary, we see nothing outside of the Nakamats bubble. Everything we find out about the man comes from the man. Perhaps I’m just used to more wide-ranging documentaries but I would have appreciated interviews with his family and other inventors, for example. There are a couple of glimpses into what may be the real Dr. Nakamats: an awkward hug with his daughter and upon receiving an electric shaver from his children for his birthday he still elects to get his shave at the barbers.

Wah Do Dem
You do have to give props to the two young directors for getting this made. Good on them for making a feature film with, what is obviously, a very small budget. It’s just a shame it couldn’t be… better.
It has a distinctly low-fi aesthetic; what this means is that it all looks very digital, not crisp and clear visuals, and the sound is murky and hard to make out at some points.
All this could be forgiven if the narrative was in any way interesting to me. It lost me at the start with a set of characters so painfully hip I wanted to slap them. And then none of the guys friends want to go on a free cruise? What's up with that?! So, our main guy (Max) ends up having all of his stuff stolen (pretty much my worst nightmare) in Jamaica and has to begin the cross-island trek to the US Embassy in Kingston. Despite there being a clear goal for our character, the film strangely wanders and drags.
If you can get yourself into the mindframe, I'm sure you'd enjoy this film. I know more than a few people have. I didn't.

July 27, 2010

Film Fest: Day Eleven

A smart, tense espionage film Farewell sheds light on an otherwise unknown tale of the Cold War. Specifically, the events that helped bring about the end of the Cold War. A high-ranking Russian official in the intelligence network begins passing on incredible information, detailing Soviet penetration in the highest reaches of Western governments, to the French in the form of a young engineer stationed in Moscow.
A very atmospheric, if sometimes conventional, spy film the true-story at the heart of it all is amazing enough. There are moments of high tension and sheer disbelief and the film pulls in everyone from the French engineer and his family caught up in the intrigue, to Ronald Reagan and Francois Mitterand.

Our Russian spy is a bear of a man, dancing through the webs of intrigue. He’s not giving away secrets of the State for money, or because he was turned by the West. He’s a Francophile, but is doing this for love of his country. He knows the system is frozen, that the majority of Russian research is merely plundered from the West, and that urgent change is needed. It's a compelling motivation and is really the heart of the film.
Honestly, it's a little difficult for me to write about Farewell. As good as it was (and it was really very good) it was absolutely blown out of the water by my second film of the night...

Winter's Bone
17 year-old Ree is raising her younger brother and sister and looking after her mentally ill mother in rural Missouri. Things are hard enough for her, but then the law comes a-callin’, telling her that her no-good con of a father put the house and property up for his bond. He’s got a week before his court date, or Ree and the family lose the house. Ree ain’t gonna let that happen, so she gets to huntin’ down her pa.
Don’t let the Southern setting and female protagonist fool you – this is a hard-hitting noir film. The places Ree’s got to go, and the people she has to see… well, let’s just say these folk ain’t no good ole’ boys running rings around Boss Hog. These are oftentimes mean and nasty drug cookers, living in tumble-down shacks and farms far from prying eyes. The fact that everyone seems to be related to everyone else means little.
It’s a powerful film, with a tension that sits in your gut and is anchored by the fierce central performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. She’s in almost frame of the film, and never lets up. She’s a young woman with the weight of her family on her back and the temerity to keep them together. Whatever the cost.
It could be considered as a distant Southern cousin to Rian Johnson’s Brick – a noir film outside of a city and the shadows, a protagonist you wouldn’t expect and complete with its own nigh-impenetrable dialect. But where Brick was very stylish, and stylised, this is far more real and dirty. Watching this for the first time is just as astonishing as watching Brick for the first time.
This is a phenomenal film, one of my picks of the Festival and one I want to get people to see. It deserves to be seen on the big screen and I absolutely, thoroughly recommend you get to it if you have the chance.

July 26, 2010

film Fest: Day Ten

Animation Now!
I’ll be bluntly honest: I was incredibly disappointed with this year’s Animation Now! I haven’t made it to the past couple of years showings, but from when I have gone there are usually at least one or two films that really stick out. Absolutely nothing in this programme of short animated films resonated with me. There are, again, the usual couple of Eastern European films sitting comfortably with the art-wank doodlings that seem to carry no real point to them.
Is Spike & Mike’s Twisted Festival of Animation still going? Why don’t we seem to get anything from there? No more Don Hertzfeld films? Very disappointing.

Teenage Paparazzo
Yes, yes the director, Adrian Grenier of Entourage was in town for this. So, because he’s a famous(ish) actor type it was a sell-out show. With a lot of young girls. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but I missed out on the Q & A being posted on the door to stop anyone trying to get back in. Yep. I was Security. Grrr.
As I was also acting as Security on the door beforehand (Karate Chop!) I missed the first few minutes of the film. Easy enough to pick up though. Grenier, in his role as a celebrity and usual target of the paparazzi, came upon this 13 year old kid, Austin, snapping pictures. This fascinated Grenier, so he began documenting Austin at work and at home. The whole thin becomes rather cyclical as Austin becomes a minor celebrity in his own right and Grenier begins hunting him. Grenier manages to get in with some paparazzi and discusses the modern fame obsession with professors, historians and celebrities – actors like Matt Damon and people famous for being famous like Paris Hilton.
Nothing new is really uncovered about the celebrity obsession we have; part of it comes down to monkey evolutionary social dynamics, part of it from the media saturation of the modern age.

The Double Hour
My one and only Festival film up at the Penthouse theatre, The Double Hour was unfortunately a bit of a letdown.
This Italian thriller begins with Sonia, a young maid from Hungary working in a hotel in Turin, cleaning a room just as the occupant leaps to her death. It’s one of many things in the film that is an interesting idea in of itself, but carries little relevance to the overall picture. Sonia meets the dark, mysterious Guido at a speed-dating evening and the two start dating. While out at the wealthy estate where Guido works as a security guard, the two are attacked and the estate robbed. Then things get a little strange for Sonia…
There a few decent jump scares in the second act, but it doesn’t all add up. The reveal at the end of the second act is reasonably easy to figure out and loses some (if not all) of its impact. This second act is especially susceptible to unexplained goings on. While there is something of a reason for this, it really isn’t satisfactory to explain everything.

July 25, 2010

Film Fest: Day Nine

As we reach the midway point of the Festival, I'm beginning to have trouble remembering what day it is, what time it is or even where I am. That can't be good, right?

This may be my favourite documentary of the Festival thus far. It's the sadly moving tale of Mark Hogencamp, who ten years ago was an alcoholic who got the living crap beaten out of him by five teenagers. He ended up with massive brain damage and memories missing. A talented sketch artist (we see some of his work on what appear to be war comics) before the attack, he has a very unique form of personal therapy. He began his own town. Of dolls.
Marwencol is the small town, the new world, created by Mark in the wake of the attack. It is a WWII era Belgian village, populated by Barbie dolls and large G.I. Joe figures. A number of the residents are the alter-egos of various friends and family members of Mark. He uses the village to work on his fine motor skills and also to work through the trauma of the attack.
Mark seems like a gentle, creative man who no longer needs or wants to drink (perhaps the one upside to the attack. And it is always mentioned as the attack) who occasionally has trouble distinguishing Marwencol from reality. In Marwencol he controls events - his alter ego can be captured and tortured by the SS, but then saved by three gun-toting women - so it's little wonder he feels safer there. He's constantly telling the story and taking photos, really beautiful photos, to help him tell it.
It's a pretty moving tale. If you want to check out more: www.marwencol.com

The Misfortunates
This tale of a (severely) dysfunctional Belgian family, the Strobbes, living in a small village in the 80’s didn’t really do anything for me. I guess you could call it a coming of age tale. And there are moments of non-PC hilarity, but for the most part it is rather depressing.
Gunther lives with his dad and three uncles at his grandmother’s place. All four brothers are such incredible fuck-ups, none of them can afford to have their own place. They're a tight-knit family, possibly because they don't have anyone else, willing to defend Strobbe honour at the drop of a hat. Unless, like the sister, you marry out of the family and no longer call yourself a Strobbe. Then they don't care if your husband beats you. They're misanthropic and misogynistic and there's not a charmer among them.
The film dragged particularly in the middle and the overall pace never managed to keep me engaged. Things seem to wander between Gunther's childhood in this house to adult Gunther, but never in any sort of order or purpose.

It's an... ok film. An average coming-of-age story with a portrait of a very fucked up family. Nothing of it stayed with me after I walked out of the cinema (that could be in part to the amount of films I've seen).

The Room
Majestically, heroically awful. As opposed to the atrocious Birdemic, The Room is watchably bad cinema. Writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau is like an alien combination of van Damme and Schwarzenegger... in a dramatic role. He has some of the same bizarre watchfulness as Arnie, and a weird unplaceable accent. He flicks his long black hair around, mangling language and giving us way too many shots of his bare ass.

There are many, many unexplained events in The Room, and they all add to it's bizarre charm. Well, maybe not charm, as there is some truly horrendous (not so) subtextual messages about women, but... something. Where Birdemic was a really bad film made by someone who seemed to have never watched an actual movie, The Room seems to have been made by Martians who have watched too many films (and soap operas) but fail to understand how real people actually interact.
If you get the chance to watch The Room at a cinema, preferably with a lively audience, I recommend it. There'll be spoon throwing, yelling at the screen and a good time had by all. The Paramount are due to be showing it once a month for the next few months. Get along.

Film Fest: Day Eight

Today was my one day off work entirely: no day-job and no work at the Festival. Just a day to go and watch movies. I certainly don't think I saw as many as I could've (or planned too), but it was nice to have the day off just the same.

I'm not familiar with Allen Ginsberg's famous poem, with it's impact or with it's poet. I know the name Ginsberg, but do not know his work. I'll cop to that. HOWL is bio of the poem, and as such we learn little of the man. The script is taken from HOWL, court transcripts and interviews with Ginsberg (played magnificently by James Franco).
The interview talks to us of the lead up to writing HOWL, the process in writing it and little bits of Ginsberg's life. This is intercut with the obscenity trial, which seems a little lifeless at times. A little too stagey. We see nothing of the impact of the poem outside of the courtroom - the focus of the film is so tight, and so intent on not inventing anything, we never really get the full social impact HOWL had. However, it must be commended for not imposing it's own meaning on the work.
The various styles on display make for a kaleidoscopic effect: there is the interview, the writing process and reading in black & white, the trial and segments animated to Franco's reading of HOWL.
This would likely resonate more with someone who knows the poem, who knows Ginsberg and who knows poetry. I enjoyed the film (aside from the random high-pitched whine coming from the theatre's speakers), but I don't think it will have much of a lasting impact on me.

I Love You Phillip Morris
Making the decision to not see a film straight after HOWL, and allowing myself time to sit and have lunch before I Love You Phillip Morris allowed me a chance to catch my breath, albeit briefly, before once again diving into the Festival madness.
I Love You Phillip Morris is a bit of a mad romantic comedy. Jim Carrey is a scary looking con-man, with a whacked out kind of hair do, who falls in love with Ewan McGregor's sweet Phillip Morris in prison.
Similar in tone to Bad Santa, no surprise as the writers of that are the directors here, it doesn't quite match that films outrageous hilariousness. I'm not sure if this has been toned down since it first screened, and I first heard about it, but it doesn't seem overly outrageous. Sure, you still get the full-on shot of Jim Carrey fucking a guy in the ass, but the rest of it seems... I don't know. Maybe it was more my expectations of outrageousness.
In any case, the love story at the heart of it all, is sweet. In a creepy kind of way. Ewan McGregor gives one of his best performances in years, as the sweet and slightly naive Phillip Morris. Jim Carrey's Steven Russell is a little creepy in his utter devotion and obsession with the love of his life. He's a constantly lying con-man, continually ending up in hospital for various reasons.
The comedy is there, never real full belly laughs, but it makes for a more than enjoyably wee film. You're not likely to see a romantic comedy quite like this again.

A Town Called Panic
I don't know if I can fully explain this slice of Belgian insanity. Not in the way that I couldn't explain Enter the Void, but more in the way that to explain this film, to break it down, might detract from your viewing and appreciation of it. I'll try my best and be as brief as possible.
Indian, Cowboy and Horse live together in a small village. It's Horses birthday and Indian & Cowboy have forgotten. They race to get Horse a gift and in so doing set off a chain of events that sees them on many, many adventures. It's a sugar-rush of a insane child-like invention you just have to let yourself go with.
It was the most enjoyably bizarre film I have seen in some time, and one I wanted to watch again straight away. Seek it out.

A Prophet
Continuing the theme of prison films for the week, A Prophet follows Malik, a young French-Arab sent to prison and his life there. Aside from yet another idiotic texter, I found it difficult to get inside the film. Where Animal Kingdom throws you in with the family, I felt like A Prophet kept us at arm's length; possibly because I cannot personally relate to life in prison and that feeling of isolation and having no-one.
The transformation of Malik throughout the film is something phenomenal: it's hard to reconcile the Malik at the end of the film being the Malik at the start the change is that impressive. He gets taken under the wing of some Corsicans, who run the prison, and quickly teaches himself the ins and outs of prison (and criminal) life.
One perfectly wel timed power surge later (cutting power out to most of the surrounding block. Just after I told the stupid texter to stop using her phone) we were up and away again. Things become a little strange when Malik begins seeing Reyeb, an Arab he killed to stay alive and get in good with the Corsicans, and strange flashes of prophecy. It doesn't really gel with the otherwsie realistic film: all grim shades of grey and Malik's scarred body.
It's a great film, a new French crime epic, but it just didn't connect with me. I far more enjoyed Anima Kingdom and Cell 211.

July 23, 2010

Film Fest: Day Seven

Have taken the day off work to usher at the Embassy. Starting at 12:00pm and not finishing my day until around 1:30am, I think it's safe to say this was my longest day at the Fest so far. What did I get packed in? Why, read on. Read on.

La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet
I'll be upfront, ballet really isn't my thing. I have a passing fascination in dance, and how dancers can move their bodies and the way in which they can tell a story but that's it really. I'm not familiar with famous dancers, especially famous ballet dancers. But whatever. What La Danse is is a collage of moments from the Paris Opera Ballet. They don't really lead anywhere - there isn't much of a narrative through-line - and so are just there, on the screen. The various scenes are not really building to anything. We see various rehearsals and classes going on, but no real idea of if or when they'll be performed.
It does give a pretty comprehensive glimpse inside the Opera Ballet. There are snapshots from sewers to stage, from studios to rooftops, from the dancers to costumers to Artistic Director.
The Artistic Director, in fact, is the only person we really get to spend any time with. We never get to know any of the dancers, never get a sense of what it's actually like to live and breathe as a ballet dancer. Yes, we see their strength with massive leg muscles holding them up; their almost inhuman grace and flexibility. But we never get a sense of their life. Of how a ballet dancer may start out at the Paris Opera Ballet and progress to being a part of the company and then a star. We get glimpses of some of this type of life, but not much. Certainly not enough for the two and a half hour run-time.
And I think that run-time, and lack of progression, led to the opposite of late-comers: early-leavers.
It's a well shot documentary that allows you a peek inside one of the top ballet companies in the world. Depending on how much ballet interests you will depend on how much you get out of this.

Cell 211
See my write-up from Day Six.

Documentaries like this one live or die on their photography. And, boy, does this live. There are absolutely stunning shots throughout, from the ocean floor to a fishing ship being swamped by massive waves.
There is a wide variety of sea-life on display, from cute and cuddly favourites to weird new creatures. And the whole thing is narrated by Pierce Brosnan sounding like a bit of a woolly school-teacher. There's also a bit of anthropomorphic personification in some of the scenes - crabs massing on the sea-floor like armies in a scene to dwarf anything from Lord of the Rings; otters relaxing on the waves like Florida retirees and a neighborhood stoush between a crab and a shrimp. While this helps make the film more watchable for the kiddies, the aspect of death is not shied away from: baby turtles are shown being picked off by waiting birds.
The whole comes across as a kind of soft-activism. It tugs at your heart more than it engages with your mind. I'm not putting this type of film-making activism down, merely pointing out what this film is.
Oh, and there's a truly awfully horrendous Disney song at the end.

Claustrophobic. That would be the one word review of Lebanon. And seeing it in the Bergman theatre at the Paramount just adds to that feeling - it's such a small theatre, you feel crammed in with the main characters.
The reason the film is so claustrophobic is it follows an Israeli tank crew during the Lebanon war. The entire film, bar bookending shots, is inside the tank. All shots of the exterior are shown through the limited view-scope of the tank. We are crammed in with these frightened young men, as they crack under various pressures. As with many other films in the Festival, the tension is ratcheted up and the pace keeps you off-balance: just like these poor recruits.
It's exceptional cinema, and one I need to revisit. Part of that is I found myself pulled out of the action, pulled out of the tank, by a jackass on a cellphone a couple of seats down from me. Lebanon is the type of film where you're thrown in with the characters, as disoriented as them, and to be pulled out of that by some dumbass who can't wait two hours to text someone is grating to say the least.
This is a film that should be brought back for general release: it deserves to be seen on a cinema screen. Just without the cellphones.

Enter the Void
I'm really not too sure what I can say about Gaspar Noe's latest mindfuck. I certainly don't "get" it. But then, I don't know if it can be completely "got".
Noe loves to fuck with your eyeballs and the opening credits are a dizzying array of strobing colours and fonts. From there we have a POV of Oscar, a low level drug dealer in Tokyo, as he heads out into town and is shot by police. We flash through events in his life, and events that lead him to his death and then POV of his spirit watching over the fallout.
That's a very quick summation of it all, I'm sure there's more stuff around the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but that pretty much sums it up. And it goes on for well over two and a half hours. Add that all the characters are absolutely awful people, constant strobing effects and that the final segment is far too long and self-indulgently wanky and you have a very, very difficult film to watch. I certainly won't see another film like it, especially at the cinema, but I don't really know if I like it. I don't hate it. But I don't like it either. I certainly couldn't recommend it to anyone.
The visuals on offer are indeed stunning but I can do without anymore strobing effects thanks. It's repetitive, challenging, obtuse, art-wank, beautiful, scary, maybe brilliant and maybe bullshit. I can't recommend you watch it, and I say you have to make up your own mind with this one. But, for me, I think if I want to watch a crazy film with fantastic visuals that deals with death, I'll rewatch The Fountain.

July 22, 2010

Film Fest: Day Six

Kawasaki Rose
You could almost think of this as the Czech The Lives of Others; a country still coming to terms with it's days under Soviet rule and the constant surveillance of the Secret Police. But while The Lives of Others was placed in the time during Soviet rule, Kawasaki Rose is placed in the modern day where the secrets of the past arguably carry more weight.
This was, again, a film I had an initial trouble becoming involved. I'm sure that is, in part, to ushering it and having to usher late-comers to seats. That's alright, comes with the volunteering. My main issue was with one of the main characters. The son-in-law of a hero of the Velvet Revolution, who works as a sound man on a film crew shooting a documentary about said hero and father-in-law, he's a bit of a selfish asshole. And by "a bit", I mean unrepentant: the guy's wife is just getting out of hospital and he's dicking around on her, and decides to tell her when she's still recovering. It does all tie, thematically as well as plot-wise though. He projects his insecurities onto his father-in-law and it is because of this asshole, and the documentary, that some secrets come to light. Secrets that could destroy the family and everything the father has worked for.
Once the focus shifts away from this guy and onto his wife and daughter, things definitely improve. I'm still considering this film and would enjoy seeing it again, from start to finish. I'm not sure if it fully connected with me, but there's something there. Something in this story of secrets, lies, betrayal and redemption.

Cell 211
Holy shit am I glad this was at the Festival. I had no idea what to expect with this when I rocked on in, and boy. It's the type of film I wouldn't imagine coming back for a cinema release (unfortunately), but it's Hollywood remake would. And it's a film with such a great, simple premise I'm almost surprised it wasn't made in the Siegel/Bruckheimer heyday: the new guard at a prison comes for a visit the day before he's due to start. While there a prison riot starts and he has to pretend he's an inmate to survive.
BAM. There it is, your concept all wrapped up for you. This is high-grade B movie stuff, a high-concept prison thriller, made with such precision and skill it grabs hold and doesn't let up. Juan is our nominal hero, the prison guard who finds himself in the middle of the riot, and he's the audience identification character. At first, he's pretending to be an inmate to survive, but he gets pulled deeper and deeper into the situation and the violent men behind the riot.
Juan is like the Ethan Hawke character in Training Day, a young family man caught up in a crazy situation. And while you can identify with Hawke, you're really there to watch Denzel. And Cell 211's Denzel, and secret weapon, is Luis Tosar's Malamadre. The leader of the prison riot and a magnetic, violent presence. Sounding like he's smoked fifty packs of cigarettes a day for twenty years, with his shaven head and beetle-eyebrows he commands instant respect and fear in the prison. He seems to take Juan under his wing and may even start to consider him a friend. But what happens when he finds out the truth?
The growing tension becomes palpable as Daniel Monzon places his characters in prime situations for things to go wrong. The stakes keep getting raised for Juan, and you're ultimately unsure what side he's going to end up on. The film may raise some questions around the treatment of prisoners, but it's less concerned with that than having you on the edge of your seat. I even found myselff what the heel could possiblyy happen next when I saw it again the next day.
It's a damn cracking film, and I am very glad the Festival saw fit to include it in the program. Maybe it's not a serious minded film, with oblique references and disorienting camera-work (or, as Cartman would put it: "a bunch of gay cowboys sitting around eating chocolate pudding") but I'm glad I got to see this at a cinema. I think it's right up there with other fantastic Spanish genre films of late like Timecrimes. Check it out if you can. Before Hollywood get a hold of it.

July 21, 2010

Film Fest: Day Five

After feeling like I went 0 to 150mph in terms of film watching, I felt like I got my second wind today. And it was a relatively light day for me today; just work and then two films. Two films?! Feh! Beginner’s stuff! Which isn’t to say today at the Festival was not without its fair share of running around like a loon. I did a bit of a numpty thing and got the start time wrong for I Killed My Mother – it started later than I thought. But I managed to fill the time helping usher down at the Paramount. Why not, yeah?

I Killed My Mother
This is the first film from French Canadian writer, director & lead actor Xavier Dolan. He’s 20 years old and already has a second film out. Are you feeling a little sick after reading that? It’s ok. That’s normal.
For a first film, it's remarkably confident - precocious and more than a little pretentious, but confident. It concerns a teenage son and his single mother. They, to put it nicely, don't really get along. They can barely have a conversation without it eventually turning into a screaming match. And sure, he's an intelligent angsty teen who's a bit of a selfish asshole, but she's no picnic either. It's a stressful watch at times. Just as things between them seem to have settled, BOOM! One of them sets the other off and we're away screaming.
This by no means makes it a slog - it's an often beautiful film with moments of humour and you're constantly wondering where this relationship is going to end up. At times you're hopeful they can sort things out between them, other times you just want them to get as far away from one another as they possibly can. They love each other, but they can't stand one another.
The direction is playful at times, with Dolan playing with different stylistic flourishes and framing. It straddles an interesting line between a first-time feature director finding his voice, and an amazingly assured film. It's one I wouldn't mind checking out again and Dolan is cetainly a director to watch.
The second the film finished I had to race my ass back down to the Paramount to help put in…

Scheherazade, Tell me a Story
A (surprisingly) sell out show this one. I had no idea so many people would be interested in this. So, a sell out show mean absolutely all seats are full. Oh, except for those late-comers. Those late-comers whose seats are in the middle of a row.
The film itself was, like those seats in the middle of the full row, a little hard to get into. That mainly lay with the different cinematic language. I'm not talking about the language spoken by the characters, I'm talking about the language of the film. It's cut in such a way that it looks slightly off to Western eyes. I'm told other Middle Eastern films have this similar style, which is why it's like another language. Interesting to view and appreciate, but a little distancing for me.
The Scheherazade of the film is Hebba, a late-night TV host in Cairo known for her political attacks. Her husband and other want her to tone the show down (at least until her husband can score a political appointment). She does so by telling three stories over three nights. Stories that explore the position of women in modern Egyptian society. These at first delight, and then inflame.
I was surprised as to how much of the run time was taken up with the stories; it certainly feels like the majority. Each story explored a different exploitation of women, of wives, and it was difficult for me as a Westerner to understand the attitudes. They are perhaps not all too dissimilar from attitudes still prevalent in the West, especially in more conservative areas.
I think the film was intended to be politcal; to show Egyptians this side of their society. To open their eyes to the daily fear and suffering some women go through. I fear that conservatives may view as further proof that women need to be more tightyl controlled.

Film Fest: An Interlude

I just wanted to take some time out from writing about the Film Festival on here at the moment to talk a little about another film festival: Fantastic Fest. Fantastic Fest is one of the film festivals in the US, and is the premier festival worldwide for cult, genre and just plain odd films.
It runs for a week in Austin, Texas at the end of September and it’s one of my Things To Go To In My Lifetime. I LOVE cult, genre and just plain odd films! A lot of films that may never see the darkened corridors of a cinema get a showing here, at Tim League’s annual festival of outrageousness. This is more than likely to be one of the hotspots Ant Timpson picks up films for the Incredible section of our own Film Festival.
The first lot of films have been announced (via the Motion/Captured blog at Hitfix:
http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/2008-12-6-motion-captured. Among them is a film I just cannot wait to see, and hope it comes over this way next year for the Festival (and I know someone who’s going to be seeing it within a week in Melbourne): Rubber. The story of a psychokinetic, psychotic tyre. I’m sold.
There’s also musical terrorists, zombies, more zombies (*sigh*) and the return of Takeshi Kitano. And that’s just the first run of announcements. Check ‘em out.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled Film Festival.

July 20, 2010

Film Fest: Day Four

Well after a weekend that saw me take in 11 films, it was back to work on Monday. To tell you the truth, I was looking forward to the brief rest it would allow from films. Having said that, I did ask to leave early to catch Four Lions as I'd missed it at the Embassy on Sunday (sold out). I'm sure it's one that'll come back, but I've been dying to see it since I saw the incredibly hilarious trailer. And how could I pass up a comedy about suicide bombers?

Four Lions
The film follows four radical British Muslims (never explaining why they’re radicalised in the first place) as they try and wage Jihad. The problem is, they’re all pretty much idiots. Omar is the leader of the cell, trying to hold everyone together with support from his loving wife and telling his son stories of the glorious martyr, Simba. Waj is his best friend, the stupidest of the lot coerced into it all by Omar. Barry is the white convert, blustering and idiotic and constantly trying to wrest control from Omar. His big plan is to blow up a mosque and blame it on Jews, while also claiming credit for it. Fessal is the weird, nervous one who shoves a box on his head so his face won’t be shown on camera.
As you can imagine with a comedy about terrorism, there is a strong dark streak running through the film, and director Christopher Morris handles the balancing act of laughing at such horrible things well.
Despite the fact these guys are all terrorists and are (for some reason) wanting to blow “fit slags and Jews” up, you can’t help but feel sympathetic towards them. Look, they try so hard and mess up hilariously at just about every turn. And the ensemble works great together, giving ground to one another when needed and every character gets a particular moment to shine. If they weren’t trying to blow people up, they’d be kind of well-meaning.
While it likely won’t change your thoughts on terrorists or the response to them (the authorities don’t come across particularly bright either), you’ve got have a laugh, don’t you? In the Joan Rivers doco, she asks one audience where’d we’d be after 9/11 if we couldn’t laugh. Allowing ourselves to laugh, even in the bleakest of times, is what helps make us human.
I laughed a lot.

Costa Botes new film is the, somewhat depressing, tale of David Klein – the inventor of the Jelly Belly jellybean who has now been all but written out of history. It’s the all too familiar tale of an intelligent, creative person who invents something wonderful being screwed over by the money men. But David Klein hasn’t let it ruin his life; sure, he had a dark period there (how could you not?) but he’s still around today, inventing new candies and helping up-and-comers in the candy business.
This could be, at least in part, because he’s addicted to helping people, addicted to ensuring their loyalty as his son, Bert says. Bert really seems to have a handle on his old man; he may even know him better than David knows himself. David wanted Bert to join the family business, but Bert went off and entertained kids in his way: he became an animator at Disney.
David is a fascinating character, a man who genuinely believed in and loved his product, Botes’ distinctly low-fi approach allows us to just get to know this strange, wonderful man and his story. His story of passion, bad decisions, regrets, family and generosity. As one person puts it “Willy Wonka’s got nothing on him.”

Once Upon a Time in the West
Oh man, this was so slow! Gods! Just a bunch of guys standin’ around staring at each other, with an occasional gruff one-liner. Where’s the action? The gun fights? The…waitaminute. No, that’s not right. Oh yeah, this is a friggin masterpiece. It’s the Spaghetti Western as Epic, with a white-hat Charles Bronson facing off with the black hat Henry Fonda. There are villainous bad guys, heroic outlaws and a damsel in distress. It’s violent, epic and surprisingly romantic.
This was, to my great shame and honour, the first time I’d seen Once Upon a Time in the West. My shame that I haven’t seen it before (even though I own the DVD. I know, I know). And my great honour and pleasure to see it for the first time, in a restored print on the massive Embassy screen, in a full house. You couldn’t ask for a better first experience of such a cinematic film: like Leone’s other Westerns this was made to be seen on the biggest canvas possible. The vistas just stretch on forever, and Charles Bronson’s eyes fill the screen.
I won’t say too much else about this: I’ll be having an In Appreciation of… column for this coming soon (by a guest writer!). But if ever there was an argument for seeing more classic films at the cinema, this is it. The Embassy has been doing really well recently with their 80’s classics (and I salute them for it) but I want to see more of these; more of these films that should be experienced at the cinema.

Film Fest: Day Three

Coming in to the Embassy in the morning to start my first ushering shift there, there’s even more good news! So, while the Paramount was initially missing a row of seats, at the Embassy there had been a bit of a ticketing snafu. A misallocation of available seating resources, if you will. For a brief period of time, the front three rows had been selling first. For those who don’t know: the front three rows at the Embassy are terrible – you are literally metres from the giant screen (although, some people dig that). This meant that some people who had booked their tickets nice and early ended up in the worst seats in the house. Thankfully, we managed to find everyone better seats in the theatre, and everyone was very appreciative for this rather busy Sunday morning session. Fun times.

Inside Job
This was shown on DigiBeta (as it’s apparently a work in progress), which I had never seen at the Embassy before, and was surprised that it actually looked really, really good. Almost (almost) indistinguishable from film to the lay person. Which is good, because this was a very slick, very well-made documentary on the ole’ GFC – global financial collapse.
Inside Job joins recent other documentaries like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room in detailing the corrupt, unregulated financial sector in the U.S. helping to explain something that, from the outside, is a huge tangled mass of confusion. And like these (and Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure) the director Charles Ferguson has gained access to a vast array of the people and information involved; tracking down the architects of this fustercluck and going after them without mercy. He lays out exactly how we got to where we are now, and the warning signs that were not heeded. From the blatantly illegal mergers, an explanation of the sub-prime mortgages to the explosion in derivatives trading – essentially gambling, but on a grand scale – all are illustrated with devastating clarity. He even scores interviews with some of the men (and they are, all, men) working for President Bush and various Government Departments (Treasury, Federal Reserve) before the crash. It’s immensely enjoyable to watch these guys on camera, squirming, getting angry and trying to weasel their way out of responsibility.
Having said that, the film does not take an “anti-Bush” and “pro-Obama” stand, as under the Obama Administration things have pretty much stayed the same. The same men who worked at deregulating the industry, and who lead the financial world to where it is now, are back. Back in Government positions, once again helping to ensure the rich get richer and the poor get fucked.
Inside Job is an example of what I think of as the new political cinema – well made, intelligent documentaries on massive subjects. A world away from Michael Moore’s brand of gonzo documentaries, running up to Wall Street traders with an empty money sack. Ferguson instead asks questions, provides some answers and calls people to action.

Ne Change Rien
I tried with this film, I really did. I’ll be upfront: I’m no particular fan of long-take slow cinema, but I’m willing to give anything a try, and different story-telling methods work for different tales. However, I found this documentary to be interminable. A doco on the recording of an album (one track in particular) it showed that recording music is much the same as being on a film set – repetitious, frustrating and boring. Or rather, much like this film. The whole thing seemed rather oblique – the camera being plonked seemingly at random, with most scenes being very dark. As in, poorly lit. These musicians were almost recording by candlelight.
And that’s it. That’s all I want to say about this film: repetitious, frustrating and boring.

The Housemaid
A well constructed, finely acted melodrama I really felt neither way one nor the other about this in the end.
It follows a young poor woman in Seoul (so poor, she not only shares a room with her best friend, she shares a bed too) who is offered the opportunity to be a housemaid and nanny to a wealthy family. She is approached by the elder housemaid, the one who has been with the family for years. There is the pretty young wife, heavily pregnant with twins, the highly intelligent daughter, and the businessman husband.
So, she gets along fine with the daughter and is learning the ropes around the household with some cold help from the older maid. Then she has it off with the master (in a couple of pretty steamy sex scenes. Rowr) of the household and gets knocked up. The wife’s mother finds out and tries to knock the maid off. When that fails her and her daughter plot and scheme the maid’s abortion. They’re a bit of a dark, scary family really.
It all ticks along quite nicely exploring the hidden darkness in wealthy families, goes a bit bonkers in the final couple of minutes, and then finishes.
I almost wish I’d gone to see The Loved Ones down the road instead, but I do love me some South Korean cinema. And it’s not like The Housemaid was bad, far from it. It was good (the cinematography particularly sumptuous), not great. I just didn’t really engage with it.

July 18, 2010

Film Fest: Day Two

Somehow rousing myself out of bed and stumbling down to the Paramount for my first ushering shift, I started my second day of Festival.
And what a lovely surprise to find, upon arriving at the theatre, they had misplaced an entire row of seats. Ahhh, so goes Festival.

Animation for Kids
I was feeling a genuine sense of trepidation having this as my first shift: a theatre-full of kids hyped up on Sugar-Os, running rampant around the theatre and likely damaging themselves? Not the way I want to start my day. Thankfully, the wee buggers behaved themselves and it was also a surprisingly clean theatre afterwards. It's the small mercies.
As for the programme itself, there was the usual sprinkling of Eastern European films, with their own sort of roughly drawn charm.
The standouts, however, were Ormie and The Lost Thing. Ormie was simply about a pig trying to reach a jar of delicious cookies atop a refrigerator. The slapstick shenanigans were an example of pure well timed visual comedy, as poor Ormie utilised everything from plungers to skydiving to try and reach those yummy cookies. The Lost Thing was a story with a fantastically realised world. Based on the children's book, this Aussie animation about a young man's discovery of a lost "thing" (a superbly designed cross of a large, cute steampunk Cthulu) in an otherwise, perfectly ordered world and his attempt to find a new, well suited home for it.

Homegrown: Works on Film
The first full showing of the Homegrown selection I've seen in awhile (part of the reason I'm ushering at the Festival this year instead off my usual Box Office duties, is I just missed too many films selling tickets. Not this year though!). Surprisingly for a short film selection, there were absolutely no duds. Usually there are one or twon films that just seem to drag on, or just don't click, personally. Not this year I'm happy to say.
All of the films had a strak of darkness through them, adding to that famous New Zealand "Cinema of Unease" (except, possibly Jason Stutter's Careful With That Crossbow which is played for slapstick laughs).
The standouts from this selection of six for me were Manurewa, a self-finaced tale based on the true-story of a Sikh liquor shop store owner killed in a robbery, and Choice Night following a teenage boy and the choices he makes one night.
Manurewa, in 19 minutes manages to tie in the liquor store owner, his funeral, the young men who robbed and killed him and the emergency services response. It doesn't offer up a lot of answers, but it does put up a few questions - especially around the emergency services procedures as the police and ambulance crew are hamstrung by off-the-line orders.
Choice Night keenly realised the awkward and angsty teenage years and the peer pressure that comes with puberty. The work of the two leads was superb, and it was refreshing to see the main character make the wrong choice, in the end.

The Illusionist
I absolutely fell in love with The Triplets of Belleville when it played the Festival a few years ago, so I was really looking forward to the director's new one. Throw in that it's based on an unshot script by Jacques Tati, features a music-hall magician and Scotland and I'm sold.
As with Belleville, there is little to no dialogue for the running time of the film, and what there is is usually muttered in French or thick Scots with no subtitles. It seems like an affectation to begin with, but you become so swept up in the tale and the beautiful vistas it quickly become the norm.
Following the aforementioned magician from 1959 Paris, as he is kicked from his regular slot, travelling to London to book work, as
he knows no other career and thence to a small Scottish village on a small Scottish isle. There he has the most appreciative audience he's likely had in years. He particularly impresses a young girl who follows him to Edinburgh, and where he acts as a sort of father figure working harder and harder to buy her whatever she wants. You may query and debate those gender politics, but the young girl is not meek and servile.
Edinburgh here, looks absolutely stunning. Quite possibly the best it's ever looked on film. The gothic architecture, cobble-stone streets and surrounding countryside are like a watercolour brought to wonderul life.

Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress
Thankfully, the missing row of chairs was hurriedly replaced (after being dropped onto another usher’s knee) in between sessions before Joan Rivers – it was a busy session, and trying to find replacement seats for 14 people would’ve been an unneeded complication.
The opening Extreme Close Ups on Joan Rivers’ – the 75 year old comedienne, and advocate of plastic surgery – face as make-up is applied sets the tone for the film (or, at the very least, what Joan Rivers and the filmmakers want the tone to be) – open and unvarnished.
I’ve never seen Rivers’ stand-up before, and have only peripherally been aware of her as the rasping, red carpet interviewer at awards ceremonies. Her comedy is filthy, shocking and often hilarious in the brief snippets we see. And even outside of the clubs and gigs, she possesses a sharp wit and a wry, self-deprecating humour. No subject seems to be taboo for Rivers – even at 75. Indeed, she was one of the first women/comedians/anyone to talk about abortion on prime-time TV.
And, as Rivers will seemingly make a joke out of almost anything, so will she do almost anything for a pay cheque. Beginning the film with a blank booking diary, she works tirelessly to fill it with various engagements and appearances. She’s a workaholic and won’t turn down a paying gig. In this way, she’s similar to just about every other working comic. But unlike most comics, she has slightly higher bills to pay. As one person mentions in the film, “no-one lives like Joan. Except maybe the Queen of England.”
As much an examination of her life to date (from her first appearance with Johnny Carson, his later blacklisting of her, her husband’s suicide) as a year in the life of, it offers a fascinating insight into an icon of American comedy. Behind that plastic fa├žade that is her heavily worked on face, Rivers betrays a sentimental, vulnerable side – she seems legitimately upset about letting her long-time manager Billy go, as he is as she says “one of the last links”, one of the last people connecting her to her past. Having said that, the documentary cannot help but be sympathetic towards her but approaching it as a portrait, however biased, and a window into an otherwise unknowable world makes for a fun, intriguing watch.

Animal Kingdom
Because four films in a day simply weren’t enough, I topped off my first full day of Festival madness with the hugely impressive debut feature film from David Michod, Animal Kingdom. The director was in attendance and kindly answered various audience questions for a good half hour, until past midnight.
Make no mistake; this is a sprawling, epic and impeccable debut. A crime film on a grand, yet intimate scale, it follows a Melbourne family of criminals in the last “glorious” days of armed robbery. Although deftly allowing the focus on different characters throughout, the protagonist, as the director said, sneaks up on you. J comes into the family after his mother overdoses and is swiftly pulled into an ever imploding cycle of crime and violence.
At the centre of all this is Uncle Pope – Ben Mendhelson as a grade-A, psychotic, seedy, paranoiac nut-job. He’s fascinating to watch as he pulls the family further and further into his fucked up head. And watching over everyone is the matriarch of the family, Smurf. She's mother and grandmother to these crims and just wants to be around her boys. She's a midget Machiavelli and is brought to wonderfully vile life.

Although the tone may shift from scene to scene (and handled with a sure touch), you are consistently tense from the growing sense of menace. It is omnipresent throughout and you barely recognise it consciously; it’s not until we reach the climax you suddenly feel yourself relax from a tension you didn’t even know was there.
As a final note, this film should’ve been a sell-out. It was one of the Special Presentations and the director was there for a Q & A afterwards; not even mentioning the fact it was an excellent film. Was it perhaps because it was on a Saturday night and there was rugby on? For a Film Festival crowd… somehow I don’t think the rugby really matters that much. So, what was it? How can something like this not be jam packed, while Babies, a documentary about friggin’ babies, sells out three shows?!

July 15, 2010

Film Fest: Day One

After racing out to the Hutt to borrow the car from the parentals, it was a pell mell speed dash back into town and to Te Papa to kick off the Film Festival.

Space Tourists

When perusing the Festival programme, this film leaped out at me. Because of the that one simple word, Space, and the accompanying picture of an astronaut. I'm a bit of a space geek and I didn't even need to read the run-down of the film to decide I was going to go see it.
In the end, this documentary around the Soviet space programme manages to feel scatter-shot and heavy-handed at the same time.
The film starts with a photographer in Kazakhstan, capturing striking images of massive monuments to the Soviet space programme in desolate ghost-towns. We then follow and an Iranian-American business-woman as she becomes the first female space tourist, with her her talking about her desire to get to space. As her shuttle is launched we meet a group of Kazakh scrap dealers, who race out and salvage the detritus of the boosters. This is really where the film (albeit briefly) takes off. Sure, it's great to be on the International Space Station and watch the daily lives of the astronauts and cosmonauts in zero-G, but as breath-taking as all that can be it's stuff we have seen many times before. The colourful characters who live off the space junk are not. They deserved their own documentary; riding around in the Kazakh wasteland, using parts of rocket-boosters for a dinner pot. As did the enthusiastic Georgian engineer/theologian as he builds a sort of rocket balloon in his backyard. He's a fellow space geek, and he's a direct counter-point to the space tourists. Where they are paying to get to space and have a look around, he's very much wanting to make his own way there in the pursuit of pure science. He seems a little naive, perhaps, but watching his face as the rocket balloon at first fails to get off the ground... just a little heart-breaking. And then the film wraps up with the training of another space tourist.
The photographer, in particular, strikes a derisory tone to the space tourists - the noble Soviet space programme, selling itself for money. Unfortunately, space programmes cost money. A lot of money. And they're not particularly popular at the moment. And as someone points out earlier, the money shelled out by one space tourist pays for more than half a Soyuz rocket launch. And the space tourist herself talks of "seeing no borders from up here" and it "looks so peaceful". A little bit pap and sentimental - and again, something we've seen and heard before. It's the Kazakh scrap guys (just change the focus and call it Space Junk and be done with it) and the Georgian backyard rocket-builder that are really the heart of the film.

It's great to see another Kiwi film (or, a film from a Kiwi director, in the case of last year's Bright Star) officially opening the Festival. It took me a little while to settle into this one, but once I did I well enjoyed this fantastical, dark and comic gem.
Set in a nameless small New Zealand town sometime in the 30's it follows Cedric as he falls in with, what could best be described as, a couple of bad apples - Heath Franklin's Mervyn and Jemaine Clement's Spook, two actors better known for their comedic pursuits. It all starts simply enough for poor Cedric; time to kill on his holidays and no friends because of his crazy dad's "Leaning Tower" in the front yard. Mervyn happens upon him, and it's not long before the ruthless bludger has weaseled his way into Cedric's home. His creepy friend Spook follows soon after and Cedrric finds himself caught up in revenge, blackmail and murder. Quite a predicament.*
Hayden Frost is excellent as the nervy Cedric, eventually finding the courage to stand up and be a man. Heath Franklin, who I've only known from his Chopper impersonation, is surprisingly great as the smooth talking, vicious bludger Mervyn. But it's Jemaine Clement as Spook who almost steals the show. He's a weedy voiced sneak, almost like a distant cousing of the Addam's Family, creeping around the town's of Taranki trying to raise the capital for various schemes.
Jason Stutter, as screenwriter (adapting the novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson) and director handles the changes in tone, from tense to dark to comic, with a deft touch with some scenes turning on a dime.
A great film to open the Festival and one I hope to catch again in cinemas soon.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror
Oh gods. What a way to wrap up my first day of Festival. With Birdemic. The newly minted Worst Film of All Time. I can unequivocally support that. It is, categorically, the worst film I have ever seen in my Entire Life. An experience to watch with a lively crowd to be sure. Just expect pain. Actual physical pain. My brain wanted to throw up and I felt physically ill at the utter awfulness afterwards.
The best thing to be said about the whole mess, is that lead actress Whitney Moore is incredibly awful. She wouldn't look out of place in some cheapy horror, and acquits herself as well as anyone can. Alan Bagh, as the entirely boring Rod, looks like he's trying to remember how to walk. And there are a lot of scenes of him walking. And driving. And then walking again. And then maybe driving some more.
Look, this is a fucking bad film. The only way to enjoy it, in any way whatsoever, is to have (quite) a few beers and laugh at the ineptness on display. It looks like something my friends and I may have made at age 14 with a shitty camcorder, no lighting or sound gear and given a few days to make it in. And had never before watched a movie.
And I'm torn in a lot of ways. Where this worthless piece of junk has become some sort of phenomenon, travelling all the way here for a Film Festival, other low budget filmmakers struggle and plug away with their perfectly great films; such as my friends Miles and Tony with their self-funded Crimefighters, which has recently bowed at the Edinburgh Film Festival and are now touring the UK with it. But then, watching something so outrageously, mind-kickingly execrable with an, I guess, appreciative audience is an experience all in itself.
And there's a sequel (according to IMDB) in the works: Birdemic: The Resurrection.

*Sorry. Couldn't help myself.

Film Fest: D-Day

Well, this is it. Time for the kick-off of Film Festival for another year. Over the next two weeks I'll be watching around about 50 films. In addition to this (and my day job) I'll be writing about every film I see. I figure the easiest way to do this is to split up each blog entry into days, so we'll have Day One, Day Two etc. with my wrap-up of the films I saw that day. I'll be seeing up to five films a day, and I'm sure I'll have more to say about some films than others so please excuse the occasional late entry. I'll try to keep as up-to-date as possible.

I, of course, would love to hear any feedback you might have on any films you've seen at the Festival. I hope to see you there (if you're in town). If you're not in town, or simply can't make it, I hope you enjoy my mad wee experiment/challenge. I'm interested to see how well I do.

Wish me luck. Enjoy the films.

July 14, 2010

11.07: Toy Story 3

I think I may still be processing Pixar’s latest animated masterpiece. It was an intense journey. There may be a follow up piece when I see it again (in 3D this time too).

I guess part of the difficulty, for me, lies in absolutely loving Toy Story 2. I think it was a perfect sequel, speaking to me on different levels. But more than that, it's difficult to categorise Toy Story 3 with 2 as 3 has not yet had the benefit of time and growing meaning. The Toy Story 2 I watch now is entirely different to the Toy Story 2 I first watched. Having said that, this third entry is right up there with the rest of Pixar’s work and it's a more than fitting send-off for this beloved group of characters.

Toy Story and Toy Story 2, while being fun-filled kids films with a cast of fantastic characters also dealt with deeper issues, handled with a deft balance. And this isn't even talking about Pixar's latest, riskier outputs. So, Toy Story 3 has a lot to live up to. And while I don't think it reaches the lofty highs of Toy Story 2, The Incredibles or Up it's still far superior to pretty much everything else released this year. That's how high the bar is set with Pixar.

As Andy is moving away to college the remaining toys find themselves at Sunnyside Day Care. At first glance it seems to be a haven for old toys but they soon realise the place is more like a prison, ruled over by the cuddly but cold Lotsa Huggin Bear. There are a couple of cool riffs on classic escape films such as Cool Hand Luke and The Great Escape, as the crew of Andy’s toys attempt to extract themselves from Sunnyside. Hilarity, as they so often say, ensues. But not just hilarity; there is a very real pathos and a couple of truly dark moments as this make-shift family try to find a new path. Not just out of the tyrannically run day care centre, but a new home as Andy grows up and moves on.

And boy, does it get dark. There is one point were it seems, very possibly, to be the End. Where it seems like there is no hope of escape or rescue and that Disney/Pixar are going to let these guys be killed off. It's harrowing, and I don't say that lightly. It possibly even carries more weight for the fact it's found in a kids' film. I would say it's right up there with the death of Bambi's mum, in terms of pure emotional impact.

There are, of course, a bunch of new characters introduced with many of them being a lot of fun. There is a downside to introducing so many new characters: barely any of them get a chance to shine, to really stand out past a few golden lines. Even the main characters suffer under the weight of so many new toys. Even so, the real joy is just getting to hang out with these guys again. Woody is as neurotic and loyal as ever and we get a Latin spin on the “Buzz thinks he’s a real spaceman” shtick (which is actually funnier than it sounds).
This is all, of course, rather surface viewing. As with all Pixar films there is a lot more going on under the surface, and totally open to interpretation. This is what I'm still mulling over; I've already read two reviews with two very different takes on it. One positing that the toys are all employees doing a job, with Andy as their boss and Toy Story 3 is all about retirement (Empire.com). Yet another reviewer's take on it was that Andy is some sort of benevolent God and the films deals with losing faith, and sticking to the faithful path (Chud.com). Neither one really ring right with me, and it's this I hope to talk about in a second review (after the insanity of Film Festival of course).
My journey with these characters is over (although sure to be revisited on DVD), and I couldn't be happier with the send off they were given.

July 12, 2010

In Appreciation of... GHOSTBUSTERS

The other night I was privileged enough (along with 700-odd others) to see Ghostbusters back on the big screen, some 26 years afer it was first released.Ghostbusters is one of those films, one of those formative films that every film-lover has. For a lot of people of my generation it’s Star Wars. And, sure, Star Wars was a big influence on me, but it wasn’t formative. No those formative films, for me, are: RoboCop, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (both on one awesome VHS taped off the TV!), The Transformers Movie, The Blues Brothers, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Ghostbusters.

When I first saw Ghostbusters (no doubt on TV), I couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7; I remember it being the first film to really scare me (and there is some truly frightening stuff going on). I even hid behind the couch during the Dana levitation scene! To this day, it is the only time I’ve done this and I really couldn’t tell you why it scared me so much. Just something about the whole sleeping “…four feet above her covers!” really freaked me out. This, of course, didn’t stop me running around school with my jersey tucked in my backpack with one arm hanging out as my No. 8 wire version of the proton pack.

Of course, at the age I was, I had no idea how damned hilarious Ghostbusters was. I didn’t know Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis were comedians, and Saturday Night Live alumni at that. Heck, I didn’t even know who they (or SNL) were. I knew there was humour in it (one of the greatest lines of all time: “Yes, it’s true. This man has no dick.”) but, with all the special effects and spookiness going on, the comedy totally missed me. Of course, I now realise it’s one of the greatest comedies of all time; not only is it a great supernatural blockbuster, it’s downright hilarious. One-liners are let fly with such regularity they trip over one another and just become part of the conversational dynamic.

And that dynamic, that wonderful relationship between the three leads, is what really drives the film. Harold Ramis’ Egon Spengler could almost be a Mad Scientist run amok, collecting “…spores moulds and fungus” and creating backpacks powered by unlicensed nuclear generators. But he’s held in check by the wide-eyed Ray Stantz, running around the old Fire Dept. building with his childlike enthusiasm, asking “Does this pole still work?” And Bill Murray is the wise-cracking parapsychologist, at once having a ball and also having a quiet snicker at the whole idea; he doesn’t act like a scientist but is instead “more like a game show host”. And sure, Murray does snaffle up all the best lines, and becomes the team’s de facto leader (he even comes out of the Stay Puft explosion relatively unscathed) but it never feels like they’re not all working as a team. Each of them has a part to play; even the (at first glance) perfunctory Winston Zeddemore – he’s the blue collar regular working stiff brought on to help the overworked ‘busters and he provides a brief average Joe glimpse on the proceedings.

And then of course there is the support – Sigourney Weaver as the haunted, and then possessed, Dana Barrett; Rick Moranis as the wonderfully nerdy accountant Louis Tully and the brilliantly dickheaded Walter Peck, played by veteran dickhead William Atherton (see Die Hard). The film wouldn’t be the same without any of them – it’s jarring to think of John Candy in the role of Louis Tully (the original actor cast, but he departed as his ideas – his Tully had a German accent and two dogs – weren’t being listened to. Thank goodness).

What really impresses with Ghostbusters is that it is absolutely fun science-fiction. More so even than Star Wars which, with its wise wizards, cocky fighters and noble knights carries itself far more seriously and po-faced. I love science-fiction, and I love sci-fi that explores ideas about who we are, where we're going and what it may look like when we get there. But there can't really be said to be a whole heck of a lot of fun sci-fi. Whereas, with Ghostbusters being run by comedians, they seem to be having a lot more fun with the whole conceit. And despite that fun, those laughs that so many little moments bring, it doesn’t shy away from the dark and scary. I’ve already mentioned the levitating Dana, but then there are also the demon arms in the sofa and the demon dogs (occasionally looking a little hokey in the stop-motion, but the puppets still look amazing) with their hellishly glowing eyes. Which is fantastic and totally works. It’s all a bit of a scare and a laugh, innit?

I, for one, hope the constantly talked about Ghostbusters 3 never happens. Ghostbusters 2 wasn’t all that great and just take a look at other belated sequels to 80’s classics: Blues Brothers 2000 and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If it ain’t broke, don’t do a sequel 20-odd years down the track.

Ghostbusters is funny, smart, fantastical and a little scary. It has a top-notch cast working for a great script, and the more than occasional ad-lib. Ivan Reitman’s direction is spot on, balancing everything so the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It’s one of my all-time desert island favourite films and was a huge influence on me; not only in my taste in cinema and pop culture but in how I see the world. Watching the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering through downtown Manhattan is one of the greatest scenes in movies, and it was an absolute joy to see it on the big screen. Sure, some of the special effects don’t seem so special now (although a lot of the low-tech stuff is the stuff that works best. See the opening scene in the library) and the print we watched wasn’t in the best of nick. But absolutely none of that distracted from having a helluva blast at the cinema. Especially when there was 700 of us answering the question, “Who ya gonna call?”


What else have they done?

Bill Murray (Venkman): a slew of things from Groundhog Day, Ed Wood, Hamlet, Garfield, Lost in Translation and a slew of films with Wes Anderson. Also, a lot of golfing.

Dan Ackroyd (Stantz, co-writer): Blues Brothers, Coneheads, My Girl, Grosse Point Blank. He also apparantly wrote some episodes of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon show and (I didn't even know this existed): The Blus Brothers Animated Series. Reserve Commander for the Police Dept. in Harahan, Louisiana and noted Spiritualist and UFOlogist.

Harold Ramis (Spengler, co-writer): writer on Groundhog Day, Analyze This and (sadly) Year One.

Sigourney Weaver (Dana Barrett): Aliens, Gorillas in the Mist, Galaxy Quest, The Ice Storm, Avatar. Basically, one of the biggest female stars of her generation.

Rick Moranis (Louis Tully): Honey I Shrunk the Kids (and sequels), Parenthood, The Flintstones and Spaceballs. Retired from acting in 1997 to raise his kids after the death of his wife in 1991.

Ernie Hudson (Winston Zeddemore): Congo, Mr. Magoo, Miss Congeniality and a bunch of TV.

Ivan Reitman (director): Twins, Dave, Junior, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Jason Reitman.