December 29, 2011

2011: CLASSICS & ALSO RANS

Before we get into the big, meaty wrap up of my favourite films from 2011 I thought I'd give a quick run down of those films that didn't quite make it into the final cut. In addition I'll quickly run through those cinematic classics I was lucky enough to catch, for the first time, on the big screen.

Catch-up Classics
The Dreadnaught
Lawrence of Arabia
An American Werewolf in Paris
La dolce vita
Singin' in the Rain


As I'm sure I've mentioned many, many times before I absolutely LOVE seeing classic films at the cinema. It really is the best way to watch a movie, and the best way to watch a bona-fide, slice of fried gold classic. I'm interested as to how the continuing digitisation of the cinema-going experience affects this - positively or negatively? Are we going to be more or less likely to see these films the way they should be seen - on the big screen?

And, without any further faffing about, those films that almost but didn't quite make my list of Favourites of 2011.

The Films Of 2011 That I Really Rather Liked, But That Didn't Quite Make the Top (Despite Being Really Rather Good)
Black Swan
Tangled
Rango
The Disappearance of Alice Creed
The Yellow Sea
The Man From Nowhere
Arrietty
Tiny Furniture
A Separation
Drive

Extraterrestrial
Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Contagion
Midnight in Paris
Real Steel

Headhunters
Thor
Source Code
Get Low
The Fighter
Warrior
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
The Innkeepers
Senna
Hobo With a Shotgun
Attack the Block
Manborg
Bullhead
Elite Squad II: The Enemy Within
The Man From Nowhere
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2


Some controversial choices in there, I'm sure. Ok, I'm fairly certain there are a number of folks who will be upset that Drive isn't in the top lot. I also wrestled with the placement of Attack the Block and Rise of the Planet of the Apes they could have both easily made my Favourites list. The Iranian drama A Separation was also a close almost-addition to that final list; it was specific and universal and surprised me with its almost delicate power. And all of these films listed here are films I absolutely enjoyed and would encourage anyone and everyone to get out and see them.

But I had to ensure my Favourites of 2011 were those cinematic experiences that were just that extra little bit special; those films that really struck something with me.

And I'll be bringing you those Favourites of 2011 very, very soon - there are still a couple of days left in the year and there's still movies to see!

December 26, 2011

2011: THE WORST

It can't be helped. Every year, no matter how hard you try, you're bound to see at least a few pieces of crap at the cinema. You may have the best intentions and all the excitement in the world going in, only to be beaten about the head with shoddy storytelling, idiotic and unbelievable characters, cheap special effects and boredom. Oh yes. It can be a tough time going to the movies. Generally speaking, I am able to steer myself away from the craptitude of the likes of Alvin & the Chipmunks 3: Chipwrecked - one of the rare times I'm thankful I don't do this professionally and have to see this type of soulless cinema as part of my job. But it's impossible to come away unscathed.

Often these sorts of lists have more than their fair share of Hollywood blockbuster cinema-destroyers and no-one is more shocked than I that I don't have more of them on this list. But I've really tried to limit this list to those films that really got to me, in the worst way possible. And this often comes from disappointment. It comes from expecting something great or different or even, heck, fun and getting served up something utterly lacking. That's why films like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Transformers: Dark of the Moon aren't on this list; I wasn't expecting much from them in the first place. They are of typical modern day blockbuster, in that bad they may be and filled with little more than sound and fury, but I can barely remember anything from them. They were basically white noise, with the occasional moment (good and bad) jumping out.

The following films, however, left me feeling despondent and disappointed. Films that I have absolutely no regard for and would warn ye off from. Abandon all hope ye who continue reading. The titles link to my original reviews.

Battle: LA
Aggressive stupidity on a massive scale. How stupid did I think this film was? Its on here and Transformers !!! isn't. Taking two things that are currently en vogue - alien invasions and shakey cam action - this was an ADHD mess, anchored by a solid Aaron Eckhart. He is the honest-to-gods best (and only good thing) about this film. This film that, with its shooting choices, was striving for realism in a fantastic situation was entirely let down by its unbelievably cliche characters.

The "shakey cam" effect in these types of films is quickly wearing out its welcome and Battle: LA may very well be the nadir. The effect is here overused to nauseating and headache inducing results, with the cinematographer seemingly unable to frame a shot or keep anything in focus. An utter failure on just about every level - story, character, camera and even FX - this was the big budget mess of the year.


Space Battleship Yamato
Continuing the theme of stupid sci-fi... Y'know, I was fairly excited for this adaptation of an old Japanese anime. The far flung future, with humanity fighting it out in space against aggressive alien invaders? And the spaceships all look like battleships with jet engines? That sounds like a slice of fried gold to me! I like some crazy Japanese films as much as the next guy (Karate Robo Zarbogar, Milocrorze: A Love Story) but Space Battleship Yamato is poorly paced, cheap and zero fun.

And that's the biggest problem with Space Battleship Yamato: it's no fun. I could have forgiven this film a lot if it had only been something approaching the lowest order of exciting. I'll happily wave away poor visual effects work, cheap sets and nonsensical story if I get the feeling people are having fun with it. But they weren't. So, instead Space Battleship was inert and childish.

Another Earth

This is, frankly, a big shock for me. I would have initially expected Another Earth to at least make it to the "also-rans" column when wrapping up the year. But, much like last years Splice, it instead falls into the Blog Post of Cinema Awfulness. I dearly love me some intelligent, small budget science-fiction filmmaking. I bang on about it often here on the blog and there have been a number of truly great examples of this type of work in recent years.

Unfortunately, Another Earth, really isn't one of them. Understand, I went into this with high hopes and an open mind. But this trite and immature dwelling on grief, with the spectre of a newly discovered parallel and identical Earth slowly growing, is obvious and maudlin. Toss in even more unnecessary "shakey-cam" and, hey presto! Welcome to the bottom of the heap Another Earth. An absolute shame to have you here.


The Devil's Business
An unfortunate entry from Fantastic Fest, I've seen films from high-school kids with more atmosphere and more to interest me than this utter bore. I had no expectations for The Devil's Business, as it was one of those many festival films I hadn't heard about.

Two English gangster cliches - the cold old hand and the over-eager new guy - hang about in the house of their intended target. Snore, bore. The majority of the film's time is taken up with these two uninteresting characters blathering away at one another. There's some attempt to build up an atmosphere and lead us toward the spooky finale but... nope. Didn't work.

The central idea may have worked as a mildly entertaining short film, but inelegantly stretched out to feature length it instead becomes a deflated slog. By the time of the (long seen) reveal, I was totally uninterested. One of those films where I couldn't wait for it the end to come, just so I could leave.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

The most recent entry in this year's list and yet another film I initially would not have expected to have on this list. But then, that's often how they wind up here isn't it? I don't go into films expecting to be disappointed!

As I mentioned in my review, I was expecting Detective Dee... to be some sort of martial arts Sherlock Holmes adventure (and distinct from Guy Ritchie's martial arts Sherlock Holmes). Instead, it was a fair bit of a mess, never happy to settle being on thing or another; whether that be palace intrigue, supernatural mystery or kung-fu film. The great Sammo Hung choreographed the fight scenes but they're all unfortunately limp and uninteresting with director Tsui Hark over-relying on CGI.

For something that could at least have been a little bit of fun, Detective Dee instead bored me with its overly complicated plot, wildly uneven tone and weightless action.


So there you have it, my least favourite films of 2011. You can also read my break down of my least favourite films from 2010 here and I'll be posting the Runners-up for the Favourite Films of 2011 list in the next day or two.

December 22, 2011

21.12: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL

Poster by Matt Owen
There are three spy/espionage franchises currently top of the heap in our current age: the continuing Bond films, the Bourne trilogy and Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible series. Which is interesting if you compare and contrast the lead character from those three franchises. Everyone knows Bond - he may change from actor to actor (most radically, of course, with the recent Daniel Craig outings) but he has the identifiable tics; the gadgets, the women, the catch-phrases and the Britishness. And - those recognisable things aside - the role is open to interpretation. Matt Damon's Jason Bourne is a more tortured, ground-level character and his story was (in my opinion) definitively completed with The Bourne Ultimatum. Damon and Paul Greengrass had finished the story they had begun with Mr. Bourne and those three films stand on their own; it will be interesting to see how Tony Gilroy and Jeremy Renner's The Bourne Legacy fits in past the name recognition. Ethan Hunt, until recently, has been more of a cipher. This may have to do with Cruise's desire to have a new director for each Mission: Impossible film, each bringing something of their own style to the mix. But so far the defining characteristic of Ethan Hunt has been getting his ass disavowed/going rogue - he has no characteristic tics like Bond and is a role entirely owned by Cruise but without the journey of Damon's Bourne.

Thankfully, there's a little bit more meat added to the Ethan Hunt bones in Ghost Protocol, partly due to it being a sequel to M:I III rather than an entirely self-contained adventure. And, hey, what an adventure those crazy IMF kids get up to this time! What's the impossible mission this time? Why, stopping nothing less than nuclear Armageddon of course. Oh, and they have do it while on the run from the Russians, as the IMF have been blamed for the bombing of the Kremlin and the entire IMF have been disavowed. Which means the small surviving team have no backup, no IMF network and will be branded as rogue terrorists if caught. This isn't Mission: Slightly Difficult y'know.

The action begins with an IMF mission gone awry, as Josh Holloway's Agent Hanaway is on the run from some bad guys in Budapest. It's a fairly impressive cold open, with the audience having to play catch-up right away. From there we come to Ethan Hunt in a Russian prison, about to be broken out by fellow IMF agents Jane (Paula Patton) and Benji (the returning Simon Pegg). The breakout leads into the rather aces opening credits, flashing brief glimpses of the action to come with Michael Giacchino's riff on the classic Lalo Schifrin theme.

After the Kremlin mission ends up going all explodey with Hunt and the IMF being hung out to dry, Hunt has to go on the run and picks up IMF Chief Analyst Brandt along the way. Meeting up with Jane and Benji the team have to clear their name by tracking down the real culprits and stopping them. 
The emphasis is not on the awesomeness of Hunt (and, by extension, Cruise) but on the team working together. From there, it's a series of intricately constructed set-pieces each with their own ticking clock aspect. 

Director Brad Bird hardly gives you a moment to breathe the entire run-time. Right from the start, it's go, go, GO. The sheer momentum behind the plot manages to get you over a few holes, giving you barely any time to question story problems before whipping you off to the next encounter, the next crazy impossible task. And the craziest, most impossible of them is the much publicised centre-piece ascension of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Bird seems to take some perverse pleasure in amping up the danger and getting a bit "Vertical Limit" with it - basically, anything that can go wrong does go wrong. Which doesn't detract from it being a genuinely thrilling and tense set-piece. As if there was any doubt, Bird proves himself equally adept at constructing and shooting an action sequence with live actors.

The high energy chase of the bad guy becomes a little exhausting come the final wrap-up in Mumbai. The tense scenes of various countdowns, of the team barely scraping through, really start to wear you out. Ogtherwise, this is an incredibly solid entry into the franchise and action film in its own right. Ghost Protocol may be not be an outstanding and flawless film but it's the best Mission: Impossible move since the original. 
It feels like more of a sequel, more of a continuation of a connected story, than any previous entry and, as such, Hunt the intense, the cipher becomes a little bit friendlier. A little bit easier to relate to. It benefits from an engaging (and engaged) cast, tech and gadgets just beyond next gen and, overall and shared by everyone, a sense of fun. It will be interesting to see where the franchise goes from here.

13.12: ARTHUR CHRISTMAS

If I'm being honest, I'm not really the most "Christmassy" person around. Oh, I do love the day and the get together with family and the eating and the drinking and the merriment and the food hangovers and the hangover hangovers and all of that. I'm just not big into the constant Christmas songs in every store you walk into; the forced Christmas jolliness with the blatant and cynical cash-ins like Christmas albums and... yes, Christmas movies.

However. Arthur Christmas is from Aardman animation, the delightfully English company behind the quietly brilliant Wallace & Gromit shorts (and feature film) and I had heard good things about Arthur Christmas. Opting for eye normalising 2D, I dared this Christmas film to entertain me. And, dammit. It did.

In Arthur Christmas the role of Santa is one passed down from father to son for generations and Arthur (James McAvoy) is the clumsy and well-meaning youngest son of the current Santa (Jim Broadbent). His older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) is the man in charge - he oversees Christmas night with military efficiency, ensconced in a high-tech war-room/mission control at the North Pole. However when one little girl is missed from the Christmas Eve delivery, Arthur is the only one who cares. So with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and enthusiastic wrapping elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) in tow, he sets out to make it right.

The strength of Arthur Christmas is, perhaps unsurprisingly, in its lead character of Arthur. In a family of Santas, he's the only one who still has a spark of Christmas joy and spirit about him. He enthusiastically answers every letter to Santa and absolutely believes in the magic of Santa and Christmas and James McAvoy successfully conveys his bumbling warmth. His brother Steve only sees Christmas eve as a job, a gargantuan task that he has perfected with technological precision. He's bucking for the top job and sees the passing of the red hat to him as a foregone conclusion. While his father, the current Santa, should really be retired. He's happy to take the glory but uninterested in the actual workings or any problems that crop up - such as a missed child. If it wasn't for Broadbent's warm voice-work, this Santa could have come across as too cold and uncaring instead of lightly pompous. In fact, excepting Arthur, the Santas are the least "Christmassy" folk around. They're too busy (like most families, as various Christmas films tell us) caught up in their own arguments and jibes at one another. 


For the most part, the film is a delightfully English affair, with well placed English voice actors and moments of silly English humour that Aardman does so well. It is gentle and eccentric, with a couple of laugh-out-loud scenes but certainly nothing worth busting a gut over. Also, in my somewhat cracked estimation, the film would have benefited from a few well placed puns. The weakest link in the rambling, rollicking story comes with an ill-fitting "Santa's sleigh mistaken for an alien spacecraft" subplot. Even stranger as it's Santa's original sleigh, rather than the exceedingly high-tech UFO-like S1 used in the opening scenes. It's an all but unnecessary sidetrack and adds very little to the overall film. The scenes are far too brief and feel too hurried to really add anything except a forced obstacle. You can't help but feel it was included to help sell the film to an American audience. 

Despite being Aardman's second computer animated film (as opposed to their usual claymation), the look and feel of the characters is identifiable as the work of Aardman animation. You don't need to see the thumbprints in the clay to feel the care put into Arthur Christmas

December 20, 2011

09.12: THE HELP

I know I'm coming to this film fairly late in the game, but it was one of the ones that got lost in the shuffle between the States and home. I was able to catch up with it thanks to the Penthouse Cinema's $8 "Oscar buzz" deal - films that are beginning to get some Oscar talk, playing twice a week for $8 a pop, a different film each week. I'm interested to see what else is coming up.

It's fairly obvious, but I'm just going to go ahead and state it upfront anyway: I am a white, middle-class male who grew up in New Zealand suburbia. I have never experienced racism first hand and my knowledge of 1960's America is limited to what I have learned from pop culture (my own historical proclivities tend towards the ancient). And through that (largely white male dominated) pop culture I have learned that minorities always need the help of a kindly white person to rise up and overthrow/stand up to the prevailing social hierarchy. Just look at the cinema of Ed Zwick who is the most recent purveyor of this kind of condescending film-making. Hollywood doesn't seem comfortable, or at least thinks audiences wouldn't be comfortable, with heroic minority lead characters. There's far more to be written (and has been) on the representation of African-Americans and Hispanics in American media and pop culture; far more than can be encapsulated within a movie review.

The Help is one of the least egregiousness examples of this type of filmmaking; the maid characters of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) wrestle as much of the film away from the limp protagonist of Skeeter (Emma Stone) as they can, forcing the focus onto them by dint of their performances and stories.

Skeeter is a newly graduated journalism student, newly returned to Jackson, Mississippi and all hot and bothered to start writing something life changing and full of meaning. Instead, due to prevailing social attitudes of the time (and the fact that she is newly graduated with zero professional experience behind her) she is assigned the cleaning advice column of her hometown rag. Through needing cleaning advice of her own, Skeeter begins interviewing her friend's maid Aibileen. But she very quickly (immediately, essentially) uses the cleaning questions as a cover for interviewing Aibileen on what its really like to be a maid and raise white children, even at the cost of raising her own. These are the days of Jim Crow segregation and on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement; their interviews have to be in secret and, at first, Aibileen is the only woman willing to talk. There is the possibility of very real danger that is never fully exploited.

The only real danger and villain of the piece is the racist and bitchy Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the queen bee of Skeeter's society circle. She is a deeply racist character, convinced of the lower nature of African-Americans and works to have separate outhouses for the maids installed in each house, to halt "their" diseases from spreading to whites. Hilly fires her longtime maid Minny when the woman dares to use the inside bathroom during a storm. Minny, all sass and with a large brood of children, ends up working for the socially shunned Celia (Jessica Chastain) and their times together actually provide some of the strongest moments in the film. Celia is a bundle of joyous nerves, with no idea of how to cook or maintain a household and with something of a white trash vibe about her. Despite, or perhaps because of this, she is more grateful than superior to Minny. It becomes a case of the maid trying to tell her mistress how things are supposed to run and, essentially, taking the woman under her wing. These two have a couple of powerful scenes between them and are more engaging than most.

It's a shame about the supposed lead character, Skeeter, then. Stone does her charismatic best to bring life to her, but crusading writer is barely more than a thinly sketched author surrogate. There's a mildly intriguing subplot with the mysterious firing of her family's much loved maid but a subplot with a boyfriend (all three scenes of it) are fairly forgettable and add nothing to the film but running time. This leaves the majority of the last half to stand with Aibileen and Minny; which is all for the better even if it initially feels uneven. Davis is powerful as the maid who gives all her love to the white children she raises and Spencer has deft comic timing in her role of the "sassy best friend" (and pie comeuppance giving) Minny. Howard and Chastain dive into their roles of villain and ditz with vigour. Howard seems to be enjoying the challenge of playing unsympathetic characters at the moment and it was a  joy to see Chastain with more to do than appear ethereal and angelic (Tree of Life).

But all this great character work by an ensemble of strong female actors is in service to a film that feels over-egged and dramatically limp. The entirety of this well-meaning drama made little emotional connection to me. It aimed for too much, perhaps, and felt a little forced at times. It is a decent enough film, I just felt that there was more to be discovered; harsher truths to be felt and a wider world to be seen. But then I am likely looking at the film through a different lens - this is no Malcolm X but a light, almost feel-good drama.

Fairly smart, if middlebrow and nonthreatening, expect to hear more from The Help around Oscar time. Especially when it comes to the acting nominations.

December 11, 2011

OOOOH... SNAP(S)!

Just before I left on my Fantastic Fest trip, I bought myself a new camera. A Canon SX30IS, it's not a fancy SLR type or anything, merely a "point-and-shoot". But it is a very, very good point-and-shoot and over the last couple of months I've been playing around with it, trying to get the best use of it. I've taken to wandering around my local suburb (possibly the beginning of a larger project there) and snapping some photos. I had an emphasis on playing around with the focus, foregrounding and backgrounding different aspects and, overall, just trying to capture something other than a snapshot.

What follows are a selection of photos I am suitably unembarrassed by to share. None of these have been colour corrected or touched up in Photoshop (or similar). 


Inside/outside

Flowers in the gutter


My camera has a pretty phenomenal zoom, so I enjoyed 
playing around with that to get some really tight shots
off small objects



Not to be.


I love the strange things you can find anywhere

Comings and goings at Wellington harbour

My home town. I love shots of Wellington city.

My hope is that these are the start of a larger project. If any fellow photographers (Chris? Sarah-Rose?) want to provide any feedback, it would be more than welcome. 

December 7, 2011

A PEEK AT SOMETHING NEW

Well, as I am currently caught up on all my film reviewing (for the first time in, yes, months!) and currently working away at my wrap-up of 2011 and a longer, more generalised piece I thought I'd post a peek at something else I'm currently working on and hope to have going live soon.

That thing would be a podcast. I'm hoping to not only have an audio version of the podcast you can listen to on your iThingamajig but also an animated version! It won't be a fully animated kinda version, simply because I just don't have the animatey skills but hopefully something a little different and interesting. I am currently open to possible podcast names.

So! Concept sketches ahoy!

The beginning of sorting out how an animated "me" will look.
It can be a little strange drawing a cartoon version of yourself
- you have an idea of what you look like generally but it's
important to get the defining specifics too.

Getting a rough idea of the standard layout. I'm hoping to
have a couple of guests on the first 'cast.
I'm also not terribly great with hands obviously.


Just some doodles. A dinosaur, why not?

Really just trying to get a sense of movement. I have
no idea why I'm telling off Clint Eastwood.

So I hope that gives you a tasty taste of something new coming to rockets and robots are GO!

December 2, 2011

28.11: SINGIN' IN THE RAIN

It seems somewhat appropriate that I would be talking about a 35mm presentation of Singin' in the Rain immediately after my post on 35mm projection vs. DCP. The print wasn't in the best shape - scratches and some audio drop-outs - but, especially with this film, it was less detracting and more a part of it. This special presentation of the classic Hollywood musical was the closing film for the Wellington Film Society's annual program and it was my first time ever watching it.

I know, this is a foolish tragedy on my part. But let me explain myself a little; this in no way acts as an excuse, merely explanatory detail. 


As a young teenage film fan, I was strikingly adverse to musicals. I thought them foolish, cheesy and old hat - I was far more enmeshed in sci-fi, action and anything else that seemed cool (and, often, explodey). Further putting me off was the pop-cultural prevalence of the lead song (and title), Singin' in the Rain - it was ever so much annoying background; a decades old song suffering from over exposure. Why the hell would I, an angsty, hormonal befuddled teenager desperate for peer approval, approach this film with a ten-foot pole?

Thankfully, I grew the heck up. I matured beyond my boring pretensions of discarding things I deemed to be "uncool" and instead opened myself up to enjoyment and new cinematic experiences (an ongoing process). And I'm glad that the first time I saw Singin' in the Rain it was in a cinema. Singin' in the Rain is pure, glorious, unashamed musical cinema.

It's an interesting trick of a film: a Technicolour MGM musical, about the early days of cinema and the move from silents to "talkies". Yep, it was a strange sense of surreal dislocation that set in around me as I sat in a cinema in 2011, watching a musical film made in 1952 set in 1927 at the end of the silent age and the dawn of the sound age. It was like "Old Hollywood" was looking back at "Old Hollywood" in some sort of bizarre mirror effect, reflecting it's light on to me in the now. Woah.

For all of that meta effect, the story is relatively simple: the end of the silent age in Hollywood. Gene Kelly is Lockwood, the male half of a popular duo, with Jean Hagen's ego-centric Lamont. It's lucky for her she became a star in the silent era, as she possesses one of the most comically annoying and horrible voices an actress could have. Unluckily for her, it's the end of the silent era. Kelly's Lockwood is a new star in the firmament, earning his stripes doing death-defying stunt work, something he had an aptitude for due to his rise from the vaudeville stage with his best pal, Don O'Connor's Cosmo (who gets the best routine in the film - the laugh out loud, knock down musical number Make 'em Laugh). So now the grounded and dashingly handsome Lockwood is paired with the shrewish and fragile egomaniac Lamont, who is quickly realising her shelf-life is getting shorter and shorter. As Lamont is on her way down, Debbie Reynolds' sweet and talented young actress, Kathy Selden is, thanks to Lockwood, on her way up. Events come to a head and there is much singing and dancing.

And boy, what dancing! This is joyous, big cheesy grins down the barrel of the camera, tap-dancing. Every single core cast member gives each dance number their all, whether it's O'Connor and Make 'em Laugh or Kelly in the eponymous Singin' in the Rain (and O'Connor had to be hospitalised and Kelly was running a fever). What Singin' in the Rain is, is a great big Hollywood musical love-letter to... great big Hollywood musicals. It's over-the-top, it's simplistic (in the best way possible) and a helluva lot of fun. If you haven't already seen this, do yourself a favour and don't be like me. And if you've only ever seen this on DVD or TV and there's a repertory showing in your town, or near your town, get to it. This is one of those bona-fide films that demand to be seen in a cinema, with an audience.

And yes, for my preference, on 35mm.

November 22, 2011

SO... DO WE STILL CALL THEM FILMS?

The landscape of film exhibition & distribution has changed dramatically over the past couple of years. Not only has the use of 3D been on the rise - both as a money making gimmick and as a story-telling device - but with it digital cinema projection (DCP). Cinemas have been phasing out/straight up replacing their 35mm projectors (and with them, their projection staff) and making the switch to digital. This has been happening over the course of years and digital projection has now reached the point where it is all but indistinguishable from film; even Roger Ebert can no longer tell the difference.

But hey, why the hell is "film" such a big deal? The short answer: it has to do with a) how a movie is shot and b) what it then looks like when projected. Film, as a recording medium, up until recently had a lot more versatility than digital options; film had wider ranges when it came to light and colour. You could often tell when a film had been shot on digital "stock" and you could often tell when you were watching a movie that was projected from a digital file rather than physical film. Film was still the superior medium - to both shoot and watch a movie in.

But not no more, no how.

Despite the admittedly superior experience of digital projection - crisper picture, no chance of reels playing in the wrong order, or the degrading quality of a physical film print - I am still a big fan of 35mm projection. Perhaps I am an analogue kinda guy, living in an increasingly digital world. Call me crazy, but I like knowing there's some sort of physical, tangible object involved in the world I'm watching unfold onscreen. I... you know what? I could go on and on about romantic, even nostalgic, thoughts around the use of film in a cinema. And these would be great thoughts, though ironically enough, rooted in the intangible. If we're talking quality, digital is at a point where it is superior.

Having said that, digital has it's distinct downsides. For one thing: history. Physical objects carry a history with them. With an old print, yes it may not be of the best quality, but you can tell merely by the scratches and missing frames that this is a film that has been enjoyed for years. You also just need to look at the on-going history of Metropolis. Fritz Lang's classic was originally released in 1927/8 in a much edited form and the original prints lost. Bits and pieces - film prints and part prints - were still being found as recently as 2008 and as far afield as Argentina and New Zealand! Metropolis - the final, definitive cut - is still being put together.

More common instances of this kind of history playing out include screenings of other classic films. There are people, collectors perhaps, who have vast archives of 35mm prints. Film prints that, if they had been sent back to the distributor/studio would have, in all likelihood, been destroyed. I just can't see the same sort of archival libraries happening with digital files. And that's a dangerous step towards a loss of history. Much talk is made of DCP being a boon to smaller, independent films - the requirement to send large canisters of film all over the world is gone, so there is a greater possibility of a distributor (or cinema) taking the chance with a film less guaranteed to bring in the punters. Frankly, my cynicism doesn't see that happening too often.

The majority of cinemas are moving to digital projection. It is inevitable and it makes sense for them - they're able to show 3D films, there are huge cost savings and they don't actually need a trained projectionist. All that needs to be done to start the show is for someone to push a button. It could be anyone - likely someone who hasn't the first idea about projection, lenses, sound or lighting. If something goes wrong, or if your film is projected incorrectly* - tough shit I guess. And y'know what? The majority of people won't notice. The vast majority of cinemagoers have even less of an idea about projection quality than the button-pushers. But that doesn't mean they should be served up an inferior product. And this is by far my biggest fear when it comes to digital projection - with no trained projectionist at the helm, quality control goes out the window and audiences (who were supposed to be lured in by the superior look of 3D and digital projection) eventually get turned off and go home to their Blu-Rays and HD televisions.


L
ike physical effects and stop motion giving way to CG, or painted posters stepping aside for photoshopped slap-togethers, I understand the inexorable "march of progress", even if I don't always like the results. But to do away with 35mm entirely (as is proposed by more than a few people - including the studios) seems like such a boneheaded, shortsighted move. There are still cinemas out there that profit by catering to repertory crowds (the New Beverly in LA is one of the more famous examples. They have an online petition I recommend you head along and sign here). Can I honestly see studios offering up their entire back-catalogues in digital format? No. No, I don't see that happening. They may digitise a batch of their classics, but that's it. There'll be so many more films we'll lose in the transfer and never have the chance to see in a cinema again. 

And a cinema is still, to me and many others, the best place to watch a movie. Nothing can beat that experience, and if you don't believe me then head over to BadAssDigest here and watch the video of Tarzan and Arab - filmmaking twins from the Gaza strip who had never seen a film in a cinema before. The power of cinema? Yer damn fuckin' right.

And, ultimately, whether they're projected on 35mm, 70mm or 4K DCP I'll still be watching them. And I'll still call them films.


*I will freely admit to being unsure as to what specific projection issues can crop up with DCP. Anybody want to shout out?

November 21, 2011

29.10: MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

Woody Allen is a director who, though prolific, has his ups and downs. I've yet to catch myself up on the vast majority of his filmography (part of my on-going "Catch-up classics") but of those films of his I have seen, my overall opinion tends to be pretty binary. When his 2005 thriller Match Point was released, there was a select retrospective of his films at the cinema I was working at. I got to see Manhattan on the big screen and loved it - it entranced me. However, his Melinda and Melinda - though I loved the concept - failed in the execution. Match Point was also disappointing and I would need to revisit these film to more fully explore why and how.

Allen's two following films -
Scoop and Cassandra's Dream - received no shortage of critical scorn and no cinema release here in NZ. You would've been forgiven for thinking Allen was now well past his prime and on the way out. And then he made the beautiful Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I loved it. You loved it. Almost everyone loved it. Hey, hey! Woody's found his mojo again! And then, due to his own schedule of making and releasing a film a year, there were another two misfires. But, the law of averages (and Allen's own talent and intelligence) meant we were bound to get another "good" Woody Allen film sometime soon. And Midnight in Paris is it. 

Owen Wilson plays the Allen substitute this time, Gil. At first Wilson doesn't appear to be the right fit for the role at first - carried over preconceptions of his cultivated surfer/stoner image. But then you remember that this is the guy who co-wrote with Wes Anderson. And Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter, come to Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. He falls in love with the romance of Paris, wanting to roam the streets and move there to finish writing his novel. Inez and her parents though are far more interested in finding bizarre and expensive furniture for the future newlyweds' home - they have zero interest in Paris past the shops and tourist attractions.  Gil is, of course, utterly mismatched with these people but he makes the best of it because he's relatively easy going and thinks he loves Inez.

All of this begins to change when, one night during a midnight stroll, Gil is picked up a cab on it's way to 1920's Paris - Gil's favourite period of French history, peopled as it is with Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald and more. And while this is no hallucination, this also isn't a typical "time travel" movie. Allen is not interested in the metaphysical aspects of Gil's journey or possible impact on future events (although there are one or two paradoxes set in motion by Gil). Allen is interested in having Gil experience and confront his romanticism; personified in part by Marion Cotillard's Adriana. An impossibly beguiling woman, she at first appears as something of an artist's muse flitting from artist to artist. But she and Gil experience a genuine connection to one another and an easy companionship.

As is usual for Allen's films, these are all very first world problems and upper class people. But that doesn't make them resonate any less. Gil feels a sense of nostalgia for a time and place he was never a part of. It's a feeling I am all too familiar with myself and while this tendency may feel more prevalent in today's society, Allen reminds that this too is nothing new. In fact, he rather hammers home the point when Gil and Adriana venture back to her favourite time in Parisian history, the residents which ache for yet an earlier time and so on. The desire for a perceived "better time" or "golden age" is a constant in humanity but, at the same time, we have to keep moving forward.

Midnight in Paris has a fun, almost whimsical approach while never coming across as light, fluffy or inconsequential. The cast, especially those playing around in 1920's Paris are all having a ball really chewing into these roles. While it won't stand up with Allen's greatest films, it easily stands above most others and is evidence that Woody Allen stil has some gas in the creative tank. 

24.10: REAL STEEL

From Warrior to Real Steel... both ostensibly sports films, but both very, very different approaches. Where Warrior strove for a more grounded (though still heightened) world, Real Steel features boxing robots. However, in a further congruence both films have a surprisingly effective emotional core and both feature broken families, with an emphasis on flawed father figures.

In
Real Steel that flawed father is Hugh Jackman's washed up boxer, Charlie Kenton. Back when boxing was still featuring human boxers, he was an up-and-coming star. With the advent of robot boxing though, his star quickly fades and he finds himself dragging a rusting old robot around the fringes of the sport, constantly trying to stay a few steps ahead of his creditors. This ragged existence of his is interrupted when his ex-girlfriend dies and Charlie has to take some sort of responsibility for his son - a son he doesn't know or want.

The extent to which the film goes to make Jackman's Charlie a complete asshole of a dad is actually really stunning and brave, especially in a Disney family film. Charlie Kenton is not only a guy who has had nothing to do with his 11 year-old son Max but who actively sells the kid to his ex-girlfriend's sister. Charlie needs money, the kid's aunt's husband has money and so Charlie brokers a deal. I mean, this guy is an asshole. But, y'know, at the same time he's Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman, a man with a very high charisma quotient. So Charlie still scrapes by as a charming sonuvabitch. The child-trading aside, Charlie has one summer to spend with his son before the smart-ass tyke goes to live with his aunt. So Charlie, not wanting some annoying kid slowing him up, tries to dump the kid with another ex. But Max is too smart for that; he's big in to robot boxing and wants to spend some time on the road with his dad learning about it. They're both incredibly clear-eyed about the father-son relationship - Max tumbles to his dad's selling of him fairly quickly - but the two of them come to know, appreciate and love one another.

Yep, Real Steel is not just a movie about robots pounding seven shades of crap out of each other (helloooooo Transformers 3!) but features an emotional "A" story about an estranged father and son bonding. And director Shawn Levy - the man behind 
such classic "comedies" as Cheaper by the Dozen and Just Married  - manages to not club the audience over the head with enforced pathos and obvious emotional manipulation. It seems when he isn't troubling over the "comedy", Levy can get some emotional honesty from a film. Or, the fact that screenwriter John Gatins is no stranger to uplifting sports movies - Coach Carter, Dreamer, Hardball - could also have helped, even if none of them ever really caught on. In fact, it seems like Gatins has only written sports films; know your niche I guess. Through whatever thrice-damned alchemy they used, they crucially never overstep into the overwrought or cloying sentimentality that could have otherwise crippled the film. 

As Max's bot Atom - old, clunky, can take a beating but can't dish it out - progresses successfully through bout after bout, the plucky trio catch the eye of the robot boxing big leagues. Max is a smart and fired up kid - he won't sell Atom and he won't quit. He's a little bit of a jerk, but understandably so - his father did walk out on him and then try to sell him. He's also smart - smarter than his dad, as is constantly shown throughout the film - but he's also still just a goofy kid; he's fascinated by the robots because, c'mon! What kid wouldn't be? The connection Max makes to this old sparring bot he digs up is realistically childlike and unforced. A lot of this is down to Dakota Goyo's portrayal of Max and the easy rapport he has going on with Jackman. As someone who is more accustomed to the annoying kid characters that are so obviously designed to try and fit a "cool, hip and outsider" mold and just don't, Max is something of a relief.

Real Steel is far from perfect; I wouldn't call it a great piece of cinema and it makes no pretense of striving for that. I would, however, say that the film and it's makers are upfront and honest about what it is and what it's goals are. Much like one of Charlie's robots, Real Steel is a pieced together machine of other films
. But the machine works so well, with a plucky trio at the heart of it all, you barely notice the gears. 

November 16, 2011

07.10: WARRIOR

Warrior: man on man action
One of those sports films I was talking about with Moneyball, Warrior is a film that unashamedly goes for the big emotions and grand gestures. It could almost be written off as a high gloss, high concept B-movie, but it's pulled off with such deft aplomb you cannot help but get sucked into the tale of familial melodrama.. and kickboxing.
Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are estranged brothers Brendan and Tommy. Their dad, played by Nick Nolte in full-on grizzled and haggard mode, is an ex-alcoholic and back in the bad old days, their mum left him. Tommy, a prize-winning wrestler trained by his dad, went with her while Brendan stayed with the old man. Brendan is now happily married with kids, a job teaching and money troubles that he tries to ease by fighting in car park mixed martial arts bouts. Tommy cared for their mother and watched her slowly die before joining the Marines. He washes up on his old man's doorstep. Neither brother has much to do anymore with the man responsible for so much pain in their lives - until Tommy washes up on his doorstep looking for a place to crash.

Both of these guys are fighters and both have very good reasons for needing money. Co-writer and director Gavin O'Connor is intent on giving the audience plenty of time with Tommy and Brendan, to really come to understand these two men and their motivations. It's possible too much time is given over to this set-up before O'Connor even reveals the pot o' gold at the centre of the film: a winner-takes-all mixed martial arts tournament with a massive cash prize.
Of course the two brothers are going to end up facing off in the cage in the final round. Everyone knows where the film is going, O'Connor just takes his time getting there. Yes, this allows the audience into the worlds of Tommy and Brendan but it begins to become frustrating when the tournament isn't even mentioned until a decent way into the film. But then, O'Connor has set himself a challenge by, essentially, attempting to give us two Rocky's in one movie. 

Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are two of the most interesting and physical actors working their way up Hollywood. Hardy of course has caught people's eyes with his transformation in Bronson and his scene stealing in Inception, while Edgerton made a big impression with little screentime in Animal Kingdom. They're both incredible presences and work to make their physicality as much a part of their characters. Hardy's Tommy is a hunched over bruiser, trying to hide his emotional bruising. As a fighter he's quick, vicious and brutal. He goes for the knockouts and doesn't stick around for the applause; he's only there to dish out the pain and win. Edgerton's Brendan though, stands tall; he has a solid base of family to support him and has worked through any demons he may have had. He's a battler, tenacious with his opponents. He doesn't give up, even against far bigger fighters.

And then between these two is the shambling presence of Nick Nolte, trying to do right by his boys but neither of them willing or able to forgive and forget his abuse. Nolte really knocks it out here - where Hardy internalises everything and lets that show through his physicality, Nolte cannot help but express everything. His Paddy Conlan is such a broken figure shuffling around his small house, hopeful for forgiveness but unsure he'll ever receive it.

Warrior is a big emotion sports movie - two underdogs, both equally compelling and both hungry for the prize. I know next to nothing about the world and sport of mixed martial arts, but then I don't need to. I'm not much for sports, but I do love sports movies. There's something about them, the way they're able to distill the visceral thrill of a game or a bout, with the emotional investment of a dedicated fan and Warrior does not disappoint. That final bout, the showdown between brothers, is what the film is all about and O'Connor ensures there's enough drama and tension to keep you invested. I think Warrior could comfortably play in a double-bill with Stallone's Rocky

06.10: MONEYBALL

I’m not much of a one for baseball (or, heck, any sports). I don’t profess or even pretend to know what the hell it’s all about. Through pop cultural osmosis I have learned some of the basics: loaded bases, home runs, the outfield (with or without angels) and beer & hotdogs. But the actual structure of the game, how it all actually works, eludes me. Not that that stands in the way of me enjoying your typical baseball movie; whether that be the antics of The Sandlot Kids or… um, I actually can’t think of another. In any case, you don’t need to know the ins-and-outs of the sport to enjoy a well crafted sports film.

But what about when the film is actually about the ins and outs? Specifically, this based on a true story about how, through the use of statistical matching, a low-ranking Major League team came within a whisker of winning the World Series? It helps that the cast is lead by the ever charismatic Brad Pitt as washed up player/Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane and the script is, in part, credited to Aaron Sorkin. Still, whether because it was all about the ins-and-outs or if it was missing something deeper, Moneyball left me cold.

As Jonah Hill, who plays the nerdy math guy behind the statistics, stated continually during press for the film, you don’t need to understand computer code or programming language to understand and enjoy The Social Network. But where Fincher and Sorkin’s film about the founding of facebook and the legal suits that followed is quite clearly about success and it’s cost, Moneyball doesn’t quite hit a similarly rich thematic vein. Beane's acceptance and insistence on the use of statistical analysis to populate his team ruffles the requisite old school feathers and gives a shot to players who would otherwise be put out to pasture


Capote director Bennett Miller does fairly solid work with the Sorkin/Steve Zaillian script (even bringing along chum Phillip Seymour Hoffman for what amounts to little more than an extended cameo as the antagonistic coach). And that really sums up the film: solid, with an intelligent and witty script brought to life by an on-form Pitt and an up-to-the-task Jonah Hill but never quite becoming exceptional. Pitt and Hill play well off one another, with Pitt's Beane trying to balance his work and family life with his young daughter, but the emotional core never quite resonated with me. Moneyball is a film then, that is very good but never quite reaching "great".

November 7, 2011

05.10: THE LION KING (3D)

While in LA on my way back home from Austin, not only was I lucky enough to catch the re-release of Disney's animated classic The Lion King, I had the extreme good fortune of seeing it at the El Capitan cinema in Hollywood. El Capitan is the cinema owned directly by Disney, specifically to play Disney movies. It is a grand cinema, looking more like an opera house with its box seats, balcony seating and multiple curtain raisings. Not only that but the pre-show programme was a show in of itself! No advertisements for shonky local restaurants or cellphone companies here! No, after the curtains have been raised/opened there's a wee diorama of LA on the stage where the sun sets and the lights come on in the mini city; including the famous Hollywood sign. And that's not all! After all of that hooplah, someone came out dressed as Timon and danced up and down the stage to music from the film. AND THEN, to top it all off, two massive confetti cannons fired off and showered the audience in colourful pieces of paper.

Only in America, huh?

As far as my knowledge goes the answer is, sadly, yes. But I'll leave my thoughts on the future of exhibition and cinemas for another post. For now, we'll return to that far-away land of the early-mid 90's. I was at Hutt Intermediate*, with the strangeness of puberty yet to rear it's hairy, angsty head. I was into comic-books and drawing, and I had no idea who Kurt Cobain was until some time after he shot himself in 1994. And the Mouse House was coming off a return to critical praise and commercial rewards with the recent Academy award nominated Beauty and the Beast and the Robin Williams starring Aladdin. For those who may not have been around at the time, The Lion King was huge. HUGE. The songs, by Elton John and Tim Rice, were everywhere. It is the highest grossing cel animated film ever. It has been referenced, parodied, direct-to-video sequelled, spawned a spin-off cartoon show and turned into a successful Broadway stage musical. It is, essentially, Hamlet with lions.

In fact, watching the film again after all these years and with my broader range of knowledge to draw on the parallels to be found in The Lion King and more adult fare, such as the Bard's tale of a Danish prince dealing with a murderous uncle and the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl, are numerous and far more obvious. Of course Simba doesn't mope about the place, Nala doesn't go insane and not everyone winds up dead. Comparisons with Shakespeare andd Nazi propaganda aside, it was just a delight to return to the savannah with Simba, Mufasa, Rafiki, Timon, Pumbaa and, my own personal favourite, Scar. I experienced the same emotions now as I did upon first viewing: the inescapable sadness of Mufasa's death, the jaunty enjoyment to be had with Timon and Pumbaa and the satisfaction of the final showdown.

Watcing it again it wasn't hard to see why The Lion King became such a phenomenon: the story is simple, yet rife with complexity. The narrative never slows down and really works on your emotions, while the songs are enjoyable and never really become over-bearing or too sappy; they're full of life and colour. The voice casting is nigh-flawless, with Jeremy Irons' fantastically camp and scenery devouring Scar being the highlight. The Lion King is a film that works; that had a lot of work put into it to make it look effortless. From that opening frame of the sun rising, and the opening call of the Circle of Life, the film grabs you and sweeps you up. This is a film firing on all cylinders and deserving of its classic status.

Timon, on stage and "Hakuna Matata"ing for all
he's worth.

Confetti!

*In New Zealand our schooling system has primary school (ages 5-10), intermediate (11-12/13) and high school (13-18).

November 4, 2011

01.10: 50/50

50/50 (formerly titled I'm With Cancer) is an emotional, hilarious and true story, based on screenwriter Will Reiser's time with cancer. Reiser wrote (and Rogen produced) 50/50 as there was the feeling that there was no "cancer film" that actually spoke to the experience of Reiser and his friends. Thus was born the dramatic comedy about cancer!

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Adam, the Reiser stand-in while Reiser's real life friend Seth Rogen is Kyle, Adam's best friend and constant source of support. Instead of working as a writer on Da Ali G Show as Resier and Rogen were, Adam and Kyle work as writers in radio. Adam is something of a wet blanket/doormat - he's nice to a fault. He agonises over perfecting a radio segment on volcanoes, is a healthy neat-freak and is involved with the passive-aggressive artist Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) where he's the only one who offers anything to the relationship. Kyle is, on the surface, the typical "Seth Rogen type character" we've all come to know - loud, a little on the obnoxious side but with such charm and zeal he gets away with it. Kyle often comes off as a selfish jackass more concerned with getting laid but he's really just trying to keep things as normal as possible for his friend and being there in his own way. Rogen's energy, to me at least, works better as a support actor than the lead of a film.

The overall view of the "cancer experience" takes in a fair amount of territory - from Adam's workmates already thinking of him as dead to the counselling sessions with Anna Kendrick's kind and well-meaning but inexperienced Katherine. The relationship between Adam and Katherine was sadly one of the more obvious and under-developed but the two actors are just damned good enough to get you through it. Adam bonds with fellow cancer sufferers Matt Frewer and Phillip Baker Hall and fends off his over-protective mother, Anjelica Huston. His girlfriend, Rachael, is pretty much the worst girlfriend imaginable. Howard's character is given absolutely no redeeming qualities and is an all around shitty human-being, let alone a less than supportive partner. While it would have been preferable to see something good within her, to at least explain why Adam is with her in the first place, Howard is absolutely fearless with the role. She fully embraces the absolute crapiness of the character and goes with it for all she's worth.

There are emotional gutpunches that really hit home thanks to a combination of understated performance and a script that shies away from open manipulation. It's all coming from a place of honesty and experience; not the facts necessarily but the frightening reality of it. I don't think there's a person out there reading this who hasn't been touched by the dark spectre of cancer in someway. It is, of course, a very sensitive subject. Some might see the use of comedy as some sort of cheap trick but really, our lives are made up of parts comedy and drama every day. Why should this be any different? And the fact this is coming from a real, experienced place and that comedy can be marshaled to say something about us as humans just as much (if not more) as overly sentimental mush should get any thinking person past any reservations they might have. Reiser and director Jonathan Levine show no interest in being mawkish or obvious but rather give us something original, honest and intelligent. There's a balancing act in terms of tone here - a comedy about cancer?! C'mon, that's an almost impossible ask - either you go for gross, offensive comedy or overly emotional drama. What 50/50 does is give a perfect blending of the two - Reiser and Levine know when to go for the laughs and when to pull back and let the emotion hit you.

The ending can't really be spoiled can it? Reiser obviously survived his time with cancer because he was around to write the script, but 50/50 is a film more about the journey than the end destination (whatever that may be). It's not a perfect film but it is a very human film.

November 1, 2011

HAPPY DIA DE LOS MUERTOS!

Just a quick sketch in biro - the red mess down the bottom is meant to be a bunching of flowers but I've never actually drawn a rose before so... Yeah, anyway, hope y'all had a great Halloween/Dia de los Muertos watching some scary movies/dressing up/drinking/eating candy!

October 28, 2011

01.10: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME

Expectations can be funny things, can't they? I've been disappointed by films that promised more than they could deliver, and I've been pleasantly surprised by films that knock it so far out of the park your eyes water. Often though, it can be best to approach a film with little to no expectations at all; just opening yourself up to whatever cinematic delights may be presented to you.

However, sometimes you cannot help but have certain expectations for some films. You can be fairly certain Michael Bay is going to blow some shit up at "magic hour", for example. My initial expectations for Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame were along the lines of "Sherlock Holmes with kung-fu". I was sorely let down on both of those counts. You know you’re in trouble when the kung-fu clips from the pre-show program outdo anything that follows in the feature film.

The plot, though seemingly simple in it’s set-up, becomes over-complicated and something of a mess. In ancient China, the current Empress is the first female to rule the land. She is something of a placeholder ruler who is soon to be permanently installed on the throne. To celebrate, a gargantuan statue of herself is being constructed – the type of statue you climb up inside and that can be considered (once finished) a bonafide wonder of the ancient world. Except it may not be finished, as important clerks involved in it’s construction keep bursting into inexplicable flame. Bit of a bother that, when you’re trying to cement your rule with a blimmin’ great tribute to your ever-lovin’ self. As the top cop sent to investigate finds himself quickly becoming a different sort of BBQ pork, the banished Detective Dee is summoned to the scene of the crime. And there seems to be a ton of back-story to his banishment that is touched upon but that I ultimately found redundant and that only weighs the story down. He and the Empress had a bit of an argy-bargy that lead to his imprisonment, though Dee once had a connection with the old Emperor who apparently gifted him with a nifty spinning staff thingy that can find any weakness. Handy that. Also, Dee’s old Watson is working on the Empress’ statue. And chuck in an albino cop, the Empress’ maidservant sent to spy on Dee and a couple of face-changing shape shifters while you’re at it.

As you can see, economical with story, this ain’t. In fact, Detective Dee is over long, fairly tedious and more than a little boring. Even the action scenes, which you could normally count on to spice things up, fall flat. Even with fight choreography by the legendary Sammo Hung, they don’t make ‘em like they used to. This is, yes, in part due to the disappearance of the old kung-fu/Chinese opera schools (because they were brutal and physical schools that took a flying kick over the line into child abuse) but also down to director Tsui Hark relying on a lot of poor digital FX. This only serves to make the action as weightless and dull as any number of poor quality Hollywood action films.

And Hark never seems to be sure on what he wants the film to be. Instead he tries to make it too many things at once – Chinese blockbuster, ancient epic, supernatural mystery, goofy comedy… none of them really hit home and gives the sense of Detective Dee veering drunkenly from tone to tone. If there was a sense of fun to proceedings that would have forgiven a lot but everything is played with such a straight face that the film plods when it should fly. A real disappointment.

19.09: CONTAGION

Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors I am endlessly fascinated with; he flows between genres as if it ain't no thing: from sex, lies and videotape to Schizopolis to Out of Sight to Traffic to Erin Brokovich to Bubble to Ocean's Eleven to The Girlfriend Experience to Che to Solaris to The Informant! to Contagion. And that's not even half of the films he's directed but already you've got low-fi indie, breezy caper, intelligent sci-fi remake, sweeping true-life epic, comedy, multi-character narrative, big-time Hollywood film and, now, disaster film.

As with Traffic, Contagion tells an overarching story with multiple characters; occasionally inter-connected but often not. Beginning on Day Two of the epidemic - i.e. we're already screwed - Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns track the spread of the virus and the growing panic and pandemic across the globe. The cast is suitably large and the science (at least to the lay person) scarily accurate. Gwyneth Paltrow is the first human carrier identified, bringing this extraordinarily effective virus to the United States from Hong Kong. She stops over in Chicago on her way home, thereby infecting the windy city too. From there it's all downhill for humanity. As the virus spreads, we are rapidly introduced to characters at varying levels of authority and proximity. Matt Damon, Paltrow's husband who is seemingly blessed with rare immunity and who provides a ground-zero viewpoint.  Laurence Fishburne is the head of the CDC and provides a high level, government response with a vulnerable humanity. Kate Winslet is the CDC lead on the case in the States while Marion Cotillard is dispatched to Hong Kong from the World Health Organisation. Jude Law's sleazy, muckracking and conspiracy theory obsessed blogger provides a rough approximation of the media response. John Hawkes, Demetri Martin, Elliot Gould, Chin Han and Bryan Cranston all make appearances in supporting roles. Burns and Soderbergh pull no punches; no cast member is safe.

Whoo. Ok, so I hope all of that gives you a fairly decent idea of the basic plot and the cast! Contagion is a wide-ranging film, hopping to places all over the globe but managing to remain remarkably focused (and, unfortunately, American-centric). Not all the threads work as well as one another: the storyline with Law's blogger is the weakest link. Law plays him with an increasingly sleazy kind of charm; a man seemingly just interested in stirring up trouble and trying to make a buck. Something about it just doesn't click, possibly that he has a fairly small impact on the overall proceedings. Far more intriguing is Damon, a regular guy who happens to be immune and works hard to keep his daughter safe from infection. Through him we see Contagion become something closer to a sci-fi film, with society falling apart and the survivors looting what remains. Damon again shows himself as one of Hollywood's least showiest actors. He's a guy who just does the work, letting little moments shine and not needing to go for the big, obvious speechifying.

All of these story lines have their moments of impact and the cast is peopled with such gifted actors that every character has at least one moment to truly shine. And with a multiple storyline film such as this, you really need that to connect with. Contagion is an intelligent disaster film, positing a "what if?" scenario and working its way through to a logical extension of the thought. The pace just doesn't quit, especially in the scenes of CDC scientists rushing to find a cure for this previously unseen disease. But this is no "miracle cure to save the world" type of film, this is a "shit gets fucked up in a very real, very frightening way" kind of film. Come the end the world is irrevocably changed. You'll want to bring hand sanitiser.

October 23, 2011

19.09: ATTACK THE BLOCK

Alternate poster by Deadlydelmundo via the
Posterocalypse tumblr

Joe Cornish's Attack the Block is a film I have been reading a lot about over the course of the year - it has been playing many film festivals overseas, enjoying a gradual release across the United States and had great word of mouth spread through the blogosphere. When I was recently in the States, I was lucky enough to catch it for myself (as it doesn't open in NZ on general release until March next year). If you have not heard of Attack the Block until just right now, it's an alien invasion flick set in a London block of council/low-rent flats with a young gang of "hoodies" as the heroes. It's well good. 

Comparisons have been made to Edgar Wright's debut feature, Shaun of the Dead, and it's easy to see why: Cornish has taken a typically big budget American genre (in this case alien invasion) and transplanted it successfully to a very British setting; Cornish and Wright are mates and both worked on the script for Tintin and have been working on an Ant-Man script for Marvel (Wright is also a producer for Attack the Block); both have performances from Nick Frost. But that's where the comparisons between the two end. Oh, except for Attack the Block also being really, really good. 

Cornish quickly sets up our band of hoodlums and associated block dwellers: Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is a young nurse, recently moved to the area and one night when on her way home she is accosted and mugged by the hooded and bandana clad gang. It's at this point something crashes down from the sky; the kids investigate and eventually chase and kill it. The gang is led by the badass Moses (John Boyega) and though we're introduced to the rest of this motley crew (none really as tough as they project) Moses is the heart and soul of the film. Sam is also a presence throughout the film and the relationship that unfolds between her and these kids is central to the film and the underlying themes; yes, this is a genre film that has something more to say. It's an interesting, potentially offputting, decision by Cornish to have a gang of kids rather than the typical sweet faced moppets (see Super 8) fronting up to the alien invasion. But then, Attack the Block is not your typical film. But Cornish gets the audience involved with these kids, who they are and what they're about. They might be little hooded shits, but they aren't without sympathy. As such, when things eventually get vicious and characters start dropping left, right and centre you actually give a damn about it - these aren't just disposable bodies there for the cheap thrills.

Cornish has an excellent handle on pace and storytelling. He effortlessly sets up moments in the beginning that will payoff later and economically providing background and motivation to the various characters. Each character gets at least one moment, one moment where Cornish provides some reason for us to care about them. The script is incredibly tight, again reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead as there isn't a wasted moment of screentime. The action sequences, as things intensify, are well planned and executed. They are tense, exciting and always have a payoff; they are about as far from "cool shit thrown at the screen to see what sticks" filmmaking as it is possible to get. The design of the aliens, however, is indeed some cool shit. These aliens are true beasts; like hybrid dog/gorillas with fur blacker than shadows in the night, no eyes and luminescent razor sharp teeth. They are a phenomenal design and the fact that, for the most part, they seem to be very physical presences rather than CGI creations makes them even scarier and downright badass. No ridiculous skin-bags around here, thankyouverymuch Mr. Abrams. 

Attack the Block is yet more proof that the indie sci-fi is in good health (better health, in fact than it's loud, brash big brother the Hollywood sci-fi). The script is tight as a drum, the tone switching from comedy to horror to action to gritty and dark and back round to comedy again. While not an out-and-out comedy like Shaun of the Dead, it's still a damned funny film. If you're one of the folks lucky enough to be going to the 24 Hour Movie Marathon next month in Auckland, you'll be in for a treat with this. As for myself, I can't wait to see it again when it finally gets a general release here in NZ. Allow it.