November 26, 2010

24.11: THE TOWN

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

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

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

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

November 25, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 23, 2010

Oh no... a Buffy reboot

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

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

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

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

November 19, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 11, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right. A Batman stage show.

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

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

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

November 10, 2010


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

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

November 7, 2010

02.11: RED

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 1, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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