October 26, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

October 22, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 19, 2010

12.10 : BURIED

As cinematic hooks go, this has to go down as one of the bravest/craziest: one actor on-screen, stuck in a coffin for the entire run-time as events play out in pretty close to real-time. And, as if that doesn’t sound claustrophobic enough for you, I’ve heard of showings organised where people have volunteered to be buried.

I don’t know how that little experiment in extreme movie watching worked out but the film, on a large cinema screen, begins on black. Not the usual movie darkness it must be noted, where everything is a tinge of blue; but on complete and utter pitch blackness. It fills the screen; smothers it. It holds on this for a good minute or so before we hear Ryan Reynolds’ Paul Conroy waking up. Some small illumination eventually comes from his Zippo lighter as he wakes up to discover himself bound and buried somewhere in Iraq. If you can believe it, things get worse from there…

Being a one-man, one (cramped) location show, there has to be some drama and confrontation brought in from external sources. Some of these instances work magnificently and heighten the tension and sense of frustration; various cell phone-calls to nightmarishly bureaucratic figures are exercises in frustration, as no-one takes him seriously and no-one wants to take responsibility. They put him on hold (on hold!) while they try and make decisions, hearing him but not listening.

It’s these types of situations, the seemingly small things, that really work best in helping to crank up that tension so your heart is pounding and your gut is wrenched. A phone-call between Reynolds and Stephen Tobolowsky’s none-more-asshole Human Resources boss is achingly painful to sit through. Other times things nudge perilously close to (and possibly a tippy toe over) the line of believability and plausibility. But, overall, Reynolds and director Rodrigo Cortes must be applauded for having the stones to never, not once in all the runtime, leave the confines of the coffin. There are no cutaways to the people on the other end of the phone, no instances of following the would-be rescuers or captors. Nothing. No respite.

I left the cinema feeling physically nauseous and dizzy from the claustrophobic tension; overwhelmed by that ever-present darkness. I can only imagine what those crazy bastards who watched it while buried felt.

October 18, 2010


The story of the Guardians is pretty basic, pulling in some usual fantasy film tropes and riffing on Star Wars a fair bit. Young owl Soren, enamoured of the legendary Guardians, and his brother Kludd are swept up by two large owls working with the evil baddies, the Pure Ones. Seems lots of young owls are being carted off to work in slavery for the Pure Ones. Some, such as Kludd, come to find their place here, letting their vicious selves loose. It’s not long before Soren has broken free and hooked up with the usual unlikely gang of misfits to track down the long-unseen Guardians and ask for their help.

Things move along at a brisk clip, occasionally having the feeling of box ticking as we rush from story-point to story-point. There is, however, a true sense of adventure throughout and it’s nice to have a kids film that doesn’t talk down to them. If I was 10 years old and watching this, I’m fairly certain I’d love it. There are moments of darkness, and Snyder doesn't shy away from the violence (or the fact that owls are, y'know, predatory birds) and big bad guy, Metal Beak is a truly frightening figure, especially as voiced by Joel Edgerton.

That Star Wars influence seeps through everything in the film: a young hero thrust to the forefront of the action but guided by an inner mystical feeling, a crazed mentor who is more than he seems, a bad guy maimed from a previous encounter with crazy mentor, a “twap!” for the goods guys that gets taken down by our plucky heroes...

It's relatively unsurprising these days to find actors you're more accustomed to seeing in live-action doing voice-over work for animated films. It is refreshing to have them speak in their native accent: there's a strong Australian and English voice cast here and it helps to mark Guardians out from the rest of the animated pack. What is unusual is having a director more accustomed to live-action filmmaking coming into direct an animated film. We've seen a couple of animation directors move into live-action recently but no much the other way around. It helps that Snyder has a strong visual style already. Whatever else you think about the man, you can't say he doesn't have a strong, singular style of his own.

Have I said before how much I am loving the Sunday afternoon films at the Embassy? Because I am. This is, quite frankly, an absolutely phenomenal thing that’s going on. Touch of Evil is a classic, and is far and away better than most new releases I’ve seen this year. Thanks to the Embassy Theatre and Event Cinemas I have seen an Orson Welles noir on the big screen (after narrowly missing out seeing The Third Man in Vienna). It used to be I was nostalgic for my year in England, cinema-wise; I saw Manhattan, Alien, Die Hard and King Kong. But now, well, just look over my recent posts: Ghostbusters, Enter the Dragon, Badlands and now Orson Welles' 1958 Touch of Evil with more to come!

This is, without a doubt, a towering classic of American noir.
Yes, Charlton Heston is in brown-face as top Mexican narcotics cop, Vargas, but you get past that pretty quickly. Especially once Orson Welles and his impressive bulk wander on in as Detective Quinlan. Welles' Quinlan is one of the most fascinatingly nasty pieces of work in cinema history: a bloated, racist and vindictive cop, he's also something of a local celebrity in the border town due to his famous "hunches" and his outstanding arrest and conviction record. 

As with a lot of the great noir films, the central mystery barely matters: two American tourists are blown up on the American side of the border from a bomb planted on the Mexican side. But this takes a definite backseat to the back and forth of Vargas and Quinlan, and this struggle between the two is a deliciously dangerous dance to watch. It's not long before Quinlan is approached by representatives of a Mexican drug cartel being squeezed by Vargas, and they arrange to have Vargas' newly-wed wife abducted and discredited. Things get pretty dark, pretty fast with a sense of tension you couldn't cut with a knife. 

Some poor decisions made by characters aside (if you're the top narco officer on the other side of the border would you stick your newly-wed wife in a cheapo motel in the middle of nowhere?)... this film, woah. This freakin' blew me away and woke me up (again) to that crazy talent of Welles'. And how, barring Citizen Kane the poor guy could barely make a film without studio interference (even on this; Welles was famously fired in post-production and the film cut according to the studio suits. I saw the restored cut from 1998). Although this was made some 50-odd years ago it manages to feel fresh and modern still. It's a film that somehow feels more with it, more exciting in it's use of cinematic language than a lot of newly released films I've seen this year.

October 17, 2010






There has been a lot written on this, billing it as a British, more violent Gran Torino. As snappy as that sounds, it’s really not the case. Where Eastwood went for notes of hope and redemption, Caine and director Berber go more for unrelenting darkness. This is more along the lines of Caine’s earlier revenge flick Get Carter.

There seems to be a growing trend of vigilante/revenge films lately – The Brave One, Taken, Law Abiding Citizen - and whether this is an extension of the recent superhero films (often operating outside the law, and often being misunderstood by it), or a societal fluctuation such as occurred in the 70’s (Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Taxi Driver) I can’t really say. I’m not going to argue the political/moral implications inherent in the vigilante sub-genre either. These types of films tend to walk a fine line of fascist wish fulfilment, but having said that you are often meant to be identifying with these characters pushed beyond the law.

But as for this film, which finds Caine’s eponymous hero dishing out violent retribution to the local hoodie gang on the council estate, it’s something of a depressing, violent watch. Caine is as magnetic a lead as ever, and he marks the transition from grieving widower and friend to vigilante with a real humanity. You cannot help but feel for him - he has no family to speak of after his wife dies and his best (and only) friend is brutally murdered. On top of that, it's Michael bleedin' Caine; one of the coolest men in cinema and a man who has turned to many a fine piece of character work in his older years. His Harry Brown (ex-service man, served in Ireland during the Troubles) doesn't switch to a cold-blooded uber-killer quickly or easily. He makes more than a few mistakes, and his age proves a hindrance. It's a refreshing change from the non-stop, no-mistakes anti-heroes of recent efforts.

It's a pretty depressing watch overall. There are, here in real life, actual gangs of youths roaming various council estates causing all sorts of trouble. And as mush as it is a visceral thrill to see these callow youths get violent comeuppance, somehow I don't think shooting them all dead is the all-encompassing answer. And where does Harry find himself at the end of all this violence? He doesn't appear to feel any guilt or remorse; he looks as if he doesn't feel much of anything anymore. He's doled out his violent justice, but he's still alone.

October 14, 2010


I will admit to being somewhat surprised at how much I actually enjoyed this. I had heard some good things, but also some mediocre things. I think this may fall somewhere in between.

Steve Carrell is supervillain Gru. He’s a supervillain of the old comic-book variety, stealing monuments and suchlike with all manner of supervillain weaponry and a secret lab hidden underneath his house. Carrell plays him with a thick stock Eastern European accent and it works a treat. It’s almost a novelty going to an animated film nowadays and not being able to visualise the actor voicing them. But the real chameleon of the voice cast is Russell Brand (he of the feathered hair and prancing about) as Gru’s hideously old lab assistant Dr. Nefario and he’s an absolute scene-stealer.

Gru’s in a bit of a rut, villainy-wise and it doesn’t help things when hip new villain Vector (Jason Segel) – an orange warm-up suit clad Steve Jobs/Bill Gates type - arrives on the scene outdoing Gru at every turn. In retaliation (and from a deep-seated childhood desire), Gru plots to steal the moon! But first he needs to steal back a shrink-ray from Vector, and in order to get inside his super-modern fortress Gru adopts three cookie selling girls.

From there, the plot is really all pretty predictable: Gru grows to care for the girls (the older intelligent responsible one, the moody middle one and the cute youngest one) as he tries to balance the needs of his villainous mission. There are even two entirely pointless “cool” and “funny” dance sequences, as is becoming horrifyingly obligatory for kids films these days. What really saves the film is it’s higher than average intelligence (there are a few very adult jokes. As in, banks and taxes adult), great design (with some ace visual gags, such as Gru’s trophies) and the not-so-secret weapon: the minions. They’re the super-cute worker’s in Gru’s lab, essentially cross-breeds of the Toy Story aliens and ReBoot binomes. They’re put to good use, helping to keep the film buoyant and act as punching bags/punchlines. Like true minions should.

It doesn’t near the heights of How to Train Your Dragon (the best non-Pixar animated film this year) but it certainly doesn’t fall flat. It falls somewhere between derivative and creative with more than enough to keep it interesting. This is a neat little world they’ve set up here. I just hope they don’t Shrek it.


I guess this could class as a Catch-Up Classic, though it's not on my list. And Sam Fuller's tale of young men in World War II is something of a forgotten classic when it comes to war films; everyone knows Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon. It has also been drowned out by the spate of modern war films like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line

It follows four young enlisted men and their Sarge, all members of the First Battalion - The Big Red One - through World War II. Their tour of duty takes in Africa, Sicily, D-Day, Belgium and Germany. So, it's almost like Band of Brothers, but condensed down to five characters and in two-and-a-half hours. Now, yes, that's a very simplistic breakdown of the film but it largely applies. It carries with it the pretty standard war movie theme: War Is Hell and Destroys Young Men. It also deals with the bonding of the five main characters (referred to as Sarge and his Four Horsemen by the other men) during combat. Every other character comes and goes with alarming speed - cut down during battle or just disappearing, presumably killed. Fuller keeps it all pretty disorienting and confusing, suddenly cutting from a small Italian village to a German officer recovering from a wound. Oh, and yes, all the Germans speak English. To each other. It's a somewhat small thing, but it's just one of those "movie things" that annoys me no end.

Coming back to those modern war films, it's difficult to prise them and their visceral impact out of your cinematic brain, especially when watching something like this on the big screen. The Big Red One definitely falls into the "shoot a lot and bad guys fall down" time of filmmaking, rather than the "shoot a lot and various arms and viscera fly out" time. How far special effects have come. 

I'm not sure if it's because of the different cinematic sensibilities, or the cinematic language or something else entirely but I never felt myself connecting with any of the characters and, by extension, the film. Perhaps if this story had played out over a mini-series timeframe, I could have got to know the characters more, could've felt less disorientated as locations changed and large swathes of time were cut out. It's been difficult to write about this film, not because I hated it or anything but because I have struggled to feel one way or another about it. It's easier to write about a film I love or hate, but I'm afraid to say Sam Fuller's The Big Red One just left me distanced.

October 11, 2010


This marks the fourth feature film collaboration between star Ferrell and writer/director McKay, and their best since the bona-fide modern classic Anchorman. Where the middle two, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers often found Ferrell as a screaming man-child, here he’s thankfully toned down as a Forensic Accountant. But don’t worry, there’s more than enough crazy to go around. 

On that note, how great is it to see Michael Keaton back in a big-time comedy? He almost steals the whole damn film as the TLC quoting Police Chief, often waltzing away with scenes with a twinkle in his eye. Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as the star cops are also having a ball of a time during their brief time. Mark Wahlberg is perhaps the weakest link; though he seems more suited to something like this than a heavyweight drama like The Lovely Bones, he doesn’t quite carry it away. He’s certainly not awful but he’s not The Departed great either. 

The Other Guys doesn’t pay homage to or mark the genre and sub-genres of the buddy-cop film as much as the fantastic Pegg/Frost/Wright Hot Fuzz did. The team here aren’t interested in playing around with genre convention too much, instead using the buddy-cop actioner as a springboard for their own type of absurdist humour. Absurdist, but with more than a touch of anger. McKay is downright pissed off at the financial sector, but cannot help finding the humour in it. It’s the first Global Recession comedy. 

Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed the film itself, the viewing experience was so bad it’s become nearly all I can think about. Aside from the usual monkey-idiots on their cell-phones throughout (why?! Why do you spend your money on a film you’re not even going to watch?!), this screened in Cinema 1 at Readings Courtney Central. The thing with Cinema 1 is the acoustics are rubbish and when the cinema isn’t full of bodies to soak up the sound, there is an echo effect. Sadly, this is nothing new at Readings – it’s been like this since day one.

October 6, 2010

26.09: I AM LOVE

Having missed this Italian melodrama at the end of the Film Festival (it played as the closing night film), I was quite keen indeed to get along to I Am Love. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but this successfully confounded any and all expectations I did have.

The film centres on a wealthy Milanese family, the Recchis, and in particular Tilda Swinton's beautiful Russian matriarch Emma. Swinton has to be one of the bravest, most confident actors around. Not only is she ridiculously comfortable in her own body, she learnt Italian and Russian for the role and speaks not a word of English in the film. It's a phenomenal performance, and she anchors everything.

I Am Love is a film not afraid to throw you in the middle of things. We start in the midst of birthday preparations for the elderly family patriarch and we have to keep up with the swooping camera as it weaves it's way in and out of the family property. Characters are thrown at us and their relationships are slowly introduced and teased out over scenes. I'm not sure if it was because of this then, or if it was because I couldn't (at first) relate to any of these fabulously characters, but I didn't connect to the film. I appreciated the craft and the beauty of these images, but I just didn't find myself engaged, not completely in any case. Whether it was because I didn't believe in the central attraction, the wealthy characters or the strange pace the film moved at, I'm just not sure.

It is an ambitious, sensual, melodramatic and overwrought film; these are not necessarily bad things. The photography is often gorgeous and Swinton is, as previously said, outstanding. It is a great film, and one I would encourage people to see. But I perhaps need to see it again to discover what it was that disconnected me from so much of it. It's a little infuriating: I can see that it's great film, intelligently and passionately made but... it didn't fully engage me. Maybe it's me.