February 23, 2011

15.01: 127 HOURS

I was intending to write-up my review of the new Danny Boyle film 127 Hours, the true-life tale of trapped amateur climber Aron Ralston (James Franco). But doing so after the massive earthquake that struck Christchurch yesterday, utterly devastating the South Island city, seems a bit... vulgar. To write about a film where one man is trapped in a rocky canyon for 5 days, while as I write this many more are trapped in buildings that have just collapsed in on themselves... I just don't think I can do it. I do feel I need to write, however. I cannot really explain this compulsion. Perhaps it is something that has become more hardwired into my brain over the last few months of this blog. Perhaps I need a way to organise my thoughts on this disaster, and writing it down is just how I do it. I'm not sure.

For those who read this blog, and live outside New Zealand, a massive earthquake struck the major South Island city of Christchurch yesterday afternoon. Christchurch was earlier rocked by an earthquake in September and much was talked about how lucky the city was that this struck in the middle of the night - there were no fatalities and those injured was minimal. The city was not so luck this time. The earthquake was shallower and struck right in the middle of lunchtime. The city centre looks utterly destroyed - many landmarks (including the Christchurch Cathedral) have been reduced to rubble. Workers returned from their lunchbreaks to find their workplaces gone, with many workers still trapped inside. There have been deaths, many deaths, and there will be more. 

I have no friends or family in Christchurch. But my friends do. I have colleagues down there. I live in Wellington, where they have been predicting "the big one" for the past 20 years or so. It seems to have struck Christchurch instead. The images that have shown on the news, constantly, have been truly shocking. Dust settled over the city, much like in New York after 9/11. The facades of buildings lay in the street, the rubble crushing cars underneath. People were frightened, in shock, injured. Some, depite being covered in blood and dust, were helping co-ordinate rescue efforts for their buildings.

They're still digging people out of the rubble. Bodies too, with the death toll rising and nearing 100 with more still missing. But people too. People have survived the night, and are still being discovered and rescued. A national state of emergency has been declared. Many people have lost their homes. To even go about regular day-to-day activities seems absurd to me. To write about a film, this film in particular, seems absurd in the extreme. 

If there is something you can do, or want to do, to help this city and the people in it... please do it. 

The NZ Red Cross
NZ Civil Defence
Stuff.co.nz: How to Help
Herald: How to Help
3News site

February 22, 2011


The Colin Firth starring, Tom Hooper directed The King's Speech is a solidly entertaining film. There are obstacles overcome, a period setting, a cast of fantastic actors and more than a little humour. I don't really see too much more to it than that. Solid, but not Best Picture material.

And this is no bad thing. Too often nowadays we are deprived of decent dramatic films. All too often, what's on at the cinema is pre-packaged and pre-sold and (more often than not), less than satisfying. The King's Speech is a very, very good film. It's not hard to see, though, why the Academy (and BAFTAs etc.) have warmed to it: a little known, true-life tale about a monarch facing a very human struggle; with said royal portrayed by certified British national treasure Colin Firth. Which is not to say I believe it was a cynical exercise in fishing for awards glory. No, you can tell that bringing this tale to the screen was a very real desire to tell this particular story. This is a tale that, before all the awards and buzz, you may have struggled to see the appeal of: it's all about a stammering royal learning to speak properly. "Yes, its got a great cast but boy, I bet we're in for a lot of stuffy English folk standing around, talking. Snore!"

Not so. And, in fact, this is a film I've been looking forward to seeing ever since I first heard of it. What a bloody great, little known facet of history! That King George VI, current Queen Liz's da, was a stutterer and had to consult with an unconventional Aussie speech therapist in order to help lead England through WWII. It's the kind of historical oddity I geek out about a little bit. And the film covers a decent swathe of history; there's two other blokes (King George V and King Edward VIII) who are king before Bertie is crowned.

Colin Firth anchors the film as the Duke of York, Prince Albert (or Bertie to his family), later to be King George VI. His speech afflicted royal is a very human figure; sympathetic but with an angry streak. Giving more than able support (both in his role, and with his character) is Geoffery Rush as the speech therapist from the colonies, Lionel Logue. It's a delight to see Rush out from under the pirate make-up again, and the role seems an absolute natural fit for him. Logue is a failed actor fallen into speech therapy (after helping many of the boys coming home from WWI) and he has an obvious love of language and desire to help those who struggle. He is family man, with a wonderful and joyous interplay between himself, wife and sons. Whereas the stuttering Duke has to contend with a pressuring, demanding father and a teasing, dashing father. 

Thankfully he has Helena Bonham Carter as his wife, Elizabeth (ie. the Queen Mum). Bonham Carter brings her typically quirky approach, making Elizabeth something of a delightful eccentric with a warm heart. Thankfully, she never overdoes it and it makes for her best role in ages. Guy Pearce also delivers another fine supporting role as George VI's brother, the flinty King Edward VIII who abdicated to marry the American divorcee Mrs. Simpson. Pearce is perfectly plummy and his Edward VIII is, despite the oh-so romantic notion of giving up a kingdom for love, a decent example of privilege gone wrong. He is something of a man-child, never willing (or wanting) to take responsibility for anything, least of all a country. Timothy Spall, however, threatens to upend things as a caricature of Winston Churchill. The film has a surprising streak of comedy through it, often cropping up unexpectedly and Spall's Churchill sticks out as simply going too far. 

I also found some of director Tom Hooper's photography choices distracting, with a few scenes looking like they had been shot with an almost fish-eye lens. This caused the picture to look flat and unreal at the edge of frame. This, and other choices such as framing actors off-centre, do however lend the film something other than a stuffy period drama air.

Screenwriter David Seidler, Hooper and the cast have made a commendable film; a film about the struggle of a king, an unlikely friendship and family. There are moments of surprising humour (the soon to be classic swearing tirade) and scenes that are genuinely touching (such as the struggling stutterer giving his daughters - the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret - a bedtime story. The desire to not disappoint his daughters and the creativity and humour he displays really help you warm to him). As I've said, The King's Speech is a solid, well-made and entertaining drama bringing a real historical tale to life. For whatever reason, I didn't find much more than that to it.

February 19, 2011


One of Black Swan's many fantastic posters
From one controlling mother figure in Disney's Tangled, to another in ballet psycho-drama Black Swan: a double feature I did not expect to have a connecting thread.

There has been much written (and that I have read) on Darren Aronofsky’s new film. More than a few people (and critics) have found themselves disconnected from the film’s events and although I loved the film, I can perhaps see why some found it so hilarious. And while it shares some DNA with Aronofsky’s previous The Wrestler, Black Swan is very much its own heady mix of psycho-drama, melodrama, body horror and obsession. In short, a cinematic cocktail that can easily become over-the-top for some viewers.

However, I went with it. I loved it and found it to be an intense charting of one woman’s pursuit of perfection and her descent into madness. While simultaneously exploring creativity and the obsession that can result from it and casting a light on an otherwise little seen aspect of ballet (as opposed to The Wrestler’s, well, wrestling). A heady mix indeed.

Portman as Nina, the perfect but passionless ballerina, gives a devastating performance. She utterly disappears into the role of the prim and disturbed Nina, constantly under the thumb of her mother and choreographer. The role is something akin to performing ballet atop a high wire – there are so many precise moments and emotions Portman has to hit, so many little suggestions she has to give us while at the same time balancing the delicate nature and psychosis of Nina, without making it absurd. And come the end, with her transformation into the confident, vengeful and sensual black swan, it is a change so convincing and so complete I was utterly stunned.

I don't think the (admittedly mad) pursuit of the unattainable perfection is what sends Nina over the edge of sanity. No, I found it intriguing that the first sign we are given of her paddling dangerously close to the waters of insanity comes before she is given the role of the Swan Queen, before the pressure and expectation are really, truly piled on. It lends a curious new dimension to the film: it is not the creative process that sends her into insanity; instead it becomes a dangerously off kilter person who is pushed further out.

To be sure, you can surmise that that pressure has always been there for Nina - in the form of her creepily obsessed mother Erica. She was once a ballet dancer; she never made it very far and having a child obviously put paid to her career. She lives her life through her daughter - always pushing her, always wanting Nina to succeed to validate her own life. Barbara Hershey is mesmerisingly excruciating as the mother, bringing equal effect to the smallest interactions and the largest dramatic gestures.

Throughout the film, Aronofsky focuses on the duality of the white swan/black swan and Nina/Lily (Mila Kunis). He teeter’s dangerously close to swamping us with the virginal/sensual, white/black, female/male, mirrors, twins and doppelgangers imagery and themes. Mila Kunis' Lily is the opposite of Portman's Nina in just about every possible way, and this is continually pointed out to us. Aronofsky's use of visual effects to enhance proceedings is far more subtle and strong work; the CG (and there is plenty of CG) never once screams "Look at me! Look at how wonderful this visual effect is! BE DAZZLED!" Instead, Aronofsky proves himself one of the few directors with an understanding of how CG and VFX can be used to enhance rather than distract from the story. The use of a handheld aesthetic helps add to the feeling of immediacy and never once feels like an overused gimmick - which is saying something, because it kind of is nowadays. It is a fine balancing act Aronofsky has to maintain throughout the runtime. I would say he is largely successful with it, though I know others will disagree. 

Ballet, to me, can often seem like a bizarre challenge/torture to the human body. The supreme, painful effort ballet dancers have to put themselves through for each performance has always struck me as a little mad. But, when they create something graceful and beautiful it all seems worth it. However truthful to the actual life of a ballerina Black Swan is or isn't, I believe it succeeds in being a dizzying mix of melodrama, body horror, creative forces and psychodrama. I know that reactions tend to fall under "loved it!" or "laughed at it!", but I will happily say I loved it and that I cannot wait to see where Aronofsky takes us next.

February 12, 2011

29.01: TANGLED

Tangled is a film I initially had absolutely no desire to see. The name change from Rapunzel and the rather insipid trailers really turned me off. Disney was trying too hard to interest the young boys (the trailers focused on the dashing male hero of the film) and it just really didn't work. Thank goodness then for a number of positive reviews. Anyone who decries well written reviews from professional critics and argues that they are no longer relevant: go hang. Those reviews are what got me in to see this, Disney's 50th animated feature film.

And Tangled is something interesting: it ticks the classic animated Disney boxes: fairytale, beautiful princess, plucky animal companion, songs and an evil witch/mother but still somehow feels like it’s doing something new. And by “new” I don’t mean “shoe-horned pop-culture references” (a terrible trend that seems to be on the wane, thankfully). It may be the look of the film; the animation is truly beautiful, seamlessly blending the computer generated with the look and feel of the traditional cel animation. Or it may be the deep dark psychology of a child being snatched in the night and raised by a crazed, controlling mother figure.

Mandy Moore impresses as Rapunzel: the young princess, whose golden hair carries magical healing properties that disappear once it is cut. Hence why she is stolen away by Mother Gothel and kept locked away in a tower for 17 years. The relationship that has developed between these two is nothing short of creepy, with Mother Gothel often professing her love for her "daughter" and wanting to "protect" her from the outside world; you almost cannot help but think of the many recent real world examples of this kind of thing. Mother Gothel's imprisonment begins to unravel, however, when a young thief on the run from the Royal Guard and his own partner's in crime climbs the tower walls in a desperate bid for somewhere to hide. Chuck's Zachary Levi turns on the charm as the male hero of the tale, dashing thief with a heart of gold Flynn Rider. After seeing him as the bumbling Chuck for so long, it's a nice surprise to see (hear) him as a charming rogue - someone Chuck would so desperately want to be. He really gives it all in his performance, while managing to not come off as an annoyingly cocky character.

Overall, Tangled impressed me far more than I thought it would. The characters are (ahem) well drawn, and really brought to life by their voice actors. The animation is fantastic, with it really coming to beautiful life in a scene on a lake, surrounded by floating lanterns. The songs zing along (although they're not entirely memorable), with the best of them coming from a gang of cut-throats and ruffians. The whole thing is a wonderful fairytale, that could only have been told like it is by the Mouse House. Disney may no longer be the sole animation giant it used to be, but Tangled shows that they've still got some of that magic.

February 3, 2011


When first approaching The Fighter, you can't help but think of all the boxing films that have come before; the true tales, the underdog proving himself in the ring, the hubris... films like Rocky, Raging Bull all the way through to Million Dollar Baby. How in the hell can this possibly measure up? The amazing, almost breathtaking thing is, it does.

Mark Wahlberg is the centre of the film as Micky Ward, blue collar welterweight boxer whose best years are behind him. But Ward isn't the only fighter in the film; the title could just as easily refer to his half-brother Dicky. Christian Bale nabs the showier role of Dicky Ecklund, Micky's crack addicted ex-boxer older brother. David O. Russell directs, and manages to surprise; The Fighter is something vastly different from Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. I don't know what original director Darren Aronofsky would've done with the material, but Russell manages to bring an un-cynical eye to the tale while reigning in on the schmaltz. Much like a champion boxer, the film dances and you’re never sure where it’s going to hit you next.

Christian Bale is (deservedly) earning the lion’s share of the plaudits for his performance as Dicky Ecklund (I can’t help but wonder what the brothers make of all this...). For the first time, in a long time, he seems to be having some fun. Bale is often an intense performer; growling, losing weight and with laser intensity shooting from his eyes. It’s got him a bit of flack lately, with many critics wanting him to loosen up a little and stop shouting so damn much. And while his performance here is committed (right down to the weight loss and little bald patch), it is also loose; you get the feeling a lot of his stuff could have been improvised right there and then. Dicky Ecklund is a man who had one shining moment, and who has been dining out on that for the best part of 20 years. He's a wastoid, but a charming one and someone his brother still looks up to. I think it’s Bale's best since American Psycho.

But while Bale may be gathering all the attention, it’s the performance of Wahlberg that really holds the film together. He’s the quiet, calm centre of the family storm fighting to hold his family together, while also fighting for his sense of self. Micky Ward is a man who seems to have been used, for his entire professional life, by those that should be looking out for him: his older brother and his mother. And it takes a vicious defeat by a boxer out of his weight class, in a fight set up only so his mother and brother (manager and trainer respectively) can be paid, that he becomes fed up with this. He’s tired of being a stepping stone for other boxers; tired of being used by his family... he’s tired of losing. And Wahlberg never overplays it, never tries to show off or divert attention; he’s just there, doing a damn fine job. Wahlberg as an actor can depend a lot on the material and the director: here, he's come up aces with both. Mickey Ward doesn't have to overcome adversity, he doesn't have to overcome age (though he is getting older) - his big fight is against his family.

Filling out the cast is Melissa Leo as the boys’ controlling, big haired mother Alice and Amy Adams as Charlene Fleming, the feisty barmaid who picks Micky up and gets him to start fighting for himself. Leo is a fantastically toxic presence, weilding control over her two boys and half-dozen daughters with a steely determination. Adams comes in relatively late and thankfully isn't some all pure and amazing woman there only to support Ward. She has as many flaws as saving graces, and feels more like a real woman than these type of characters generally do.

Russell brings real heart, humour and truly brutal scenes in the ring to this tale of an underdog boxer. Nothing feels over done or overwrought. I think The Fighter can easily stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull and Rocky.

February 1, 2011


Not to be confused with the Green Lantern, Green
Arrow, the Green Goblin or the Incredible Hulk

The much troubled adaptation of the radio serial/Bruce Lee TV show The Green Hornet is an interesting beast of a film. It has had a much publicised struggle to get to the screen, finally making it with Seth Rogen as the titular hero, Asian pop star Jay Chou as Kato, Christoph Waltz as the villain and with Michel Gondry behind the camera. The resulting film feels very loose and shaggy, as opposed to the iron-tight Kick Ass. Not entirely surprising, as it is scripted by Rogen and Evan Goldberg: the duo behind Superbad and Pineapple Express.

Despite everything there was going against it: troubled production history, relatively obscure character, a leading man more known for his schlubby stoner characters... it actually kinda works. Not in a game-changing, blow-your-socks-off kind of way, but it does work.

Seth Rogen plays Britt Reid, the heir to a newspaper empire*, as a maladjusted man-child. He's a self-involved slacker, raised in privilege and about as far away from that other millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne as you can get. After the death of his father, he has the run of the palatial estate (although still crashing in the poolhouse). It is at this time that he first meets his father's mechanic/coffee maestro Kato. The two unlikely friends bond - not over the death of Reid Snr. and a shared desire to avenge his death. No, Reid likes Kato because Kato seems to be the only other person who thought Reid Snr. was, well, a bit of a dick. After accidentally stopping a mugging (and being taken for bad guys) they decide to team-up and fight crime. By pretending to be bad guys... What comes out of this is not the usual hero/sidekick dynamic: Kato is the man of action, the cool asskicker where Britt Reid is a clumsy loudmouth, barely managing to not knock himself out. Britt Reid is also a complete asshole, without much in the way of redemption or change - in a lot of ways he's the same self-involved and deluded idiot he is at the start. It may turn some folks off (and I certainly struggled with it), but for some reason Chou's Kato finds within him a brother.

It's this relationship between Rogen and Chou that really makes the film work. They work well together on-screen, feeding off one another and working like a classic double act. It's also a pleasure to see Christoph Waltz again - in his first role after Inglorious Basterds - here, as the big bad guy Chudnofsky. And again, he's not the typical villain. Chudnofsky is a bad guy going through a mid-life crisis, fretting over whether he's still frightening enough. And the way that Waltz plays him? Icily, scarily charming. I just can't see what Nic Cage was wanting to do with the Jamaican accent... Cameron Diaz, as great as she can be, doesn't really get given a lot to do. She seems to have been thrown in to a) provide something of a female balance and b) plot mechanics - she applies for a job as Britt Reid's temporary secretary, even though she carries degrees in journalism and criminology. Convenient!

What feels very strange is that the film doesn’t really carry any of Gondry’s typical home-made charm or visual whimsy. With its extending backgrounds the first instance of “Kato vision” comes closest, but otherwise Gondry's presence melts into the background. The Green Hornet feels earthier, more grounded than his previous films. Again, you cannot help but wonder what may have been; if Stephen Chow had stayed on as director - would his hyperkinetic action style have been brought to the fore? Or would that have been compromised?

It's a shaggy kinda film; it meanders a little and dances from comedy to brutal action to cartoon violence and thus, back to comedy again. It doesn't take itself, or it's genre, too seriously and everyone involved seems to enjoy making an atypical superhero movie. It seems to carry it's pre-production history with it, in a strange kind of way, but you can't help but kinda love it for that.

*are there really any newspaper empire's left?!