April 29, 2011

23.04: BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK

This is another return from the NZ International Film Festival last year, and I'm glad it came back. I missed it last year (too many films to see, this was relatively far down my list) but I'm rather pleased I saw it. A documentary on fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, this is a portrait of the artist, and through him a portrait of New York and fashion. 

But really, to call Bill Cunningham merely a "fashion photographer" barely does the man justice. Yes, his main subject is fashion but it's the way he captures what he captures that makes him so unique. Bill Cunningham is distinctly old school in his approach - he has a focus and he doesn't deviate from that. He photographs relentlessly: out on the streets capturing the fashions of New Yorkers, at society galas, at runway shows, in New York, in Paris... this is what he does. And the man himself if so egalitarian, humble and kind hearted. As many people attest to throughout the film, Bill never shows a bad picture of someone.

While the film of course focuses on Cunnningham now (who, nearing 80 years old still bikes around the city of NY!) there is some delving into his past, and how he got to be where he is. Most of the people interviewed (usually subjects of Cunningham's photography) have no idea about his life outside of the photos. Which, I think, suits Cunningham rather finely. His life is his photos. He does not seem to have, or want, much in the way of money. In fact, he seems to view it as grubby, tarnishing. So much so, he won't even have any food or drink at the society galas he photographs. And he is so devoted to doing what he does, he has little to no time for anything else. Except church every Sunday. This is one of the few instances where the director, Richard Press, makes his presence explicitly known and actually interviews Cunningham. Press questions Cunningham on his relationships, trying to subtly ask if, well, if Cunningham is gay. This, unsurprisingly, leads to one of the more emotional moments in the film. Possibly even more so than Cunningham being surprised at work for his 80th, or being inducted as an Officier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. 

To think that there are still people out there in the world like Bill Cunningham can't help but make you happy. As the world changes around him, becoming more commercialised with everything and everyone chasing moneymoneymoney, Bill just keeps on doing what he does. The best example is that of Carnegie Hall, where Bill was living cramped into a tiny artist's apartment. He, and others like him, were happy there. They'd been there for years and many people had come and gone, using these spaces available to artists. However, the Hall management decided to boot everyone out and turn the space into telemarketer cubicles. But Bill never compromises his values. He does things his way. He's a character, full of life and humour who bikes around in a cheap blue smock all the while snapping away. And if you think he may be a bit lonely, never having time for relationships, I think that in his own way he's really rather happy. And, also in his own way, he's something of an inspiration.

April 28, 2011

23.04: FREAKONOMICS

I have not yet read the wildly popular book this collection of documentary shorts is based on, but the premise seems to be based around incentives and, following the correct incentives, the predictions of human behaviour. The film is broken up into four distinct segments, with bookending and bridging interviews with the book's authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. It's an intriguing concept for a film and an even more intriguing line up of documentary film-makers. It's a shame then, that it doesn't really come together. 

After a quick intro with Stephen and Steven, Morgan Spurlock is first off the block with A Roshanda by Any Other Name. It's an examination of the impact of a child's name on their life. As it's Spurlock the segment is played fairly humorous and skims the line separating documentary and fiction by having the majority of his play out with actors. There are some appearances by talking heads, discussing things such as the rise of unique "black" names and how someone with a "white" sounding name is more likely to succeed in the workplace than someone with a "black" name. Frankly, it's hardly revelatory stuff and having the breezy, humorous section at the start of the film only serves to unbalance everything that follows.

Alex Gibney's docu-investigation into cheating in the world of sumo, Pure Corruption, offers a similarly slick but more traditional documentary take on the content. The investigation itself is somewhat fascinating; sumo is an ancient Japanese past-time, steeped in honour & tradition and the conflict between that and the reality of cheating rigged matches is really great dramatic stuff. Gibney is gifted at making the investigation of data - numbers upon numbers upon numbers - watchable. But again, the conclusions reached are hardly revelatory. Cheating and match fixing in sport? Even one as ancient as sumo - wow. Big surprise. And Gibney then ties it in to Wall Street - you can see the link, with venerable, previously thought sacrosanct institutions brought low by cheating and scandal - but it feels a little tenuous. Again, no real surprises or hidden secrets revealed here.

Eugene Jarecki's It's Not Always a Wonderful Life offers the most intriguing revelations in the whole film. Jarecki explores the dramatic drop in crime at the beginning of the 90's just when all the pundits were predicting the rise of some sort of super-crime. The reasons given for the crime-rate drop didn't jibe with one of the Stephen's, so he looked into the data more. What he found was actually a little astonishing: the crime-rate at the start of the 90's dropped in large part because of the legalisation of abortion some 20-30 years before with Roe v. Wade. This led to less children being born to unwilling parents and therefore not getting mixed up in bad business. It's one of the better segments, actually revealing something you probably had never considered before.

Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady's Can a Ninth Grader be Bribed to Succeed follows an experiment in an American school. It is the closest to what is traditionally considered a documentary, in that it documents the experiment rather than animating, or dramatising pieces over talking heads/narration. This part of the film is lit up by one of the students: Urail King, a smart, fast-talking and charismatic salesman of a kid. He wants the money offered and he wants to be eligible for the monthly draw. He is motivated, if not focussed ('cos he's a kid after all). The complete flip-side to Urail is one kid who just really can't be bothered. It seems he can't be bribed and continues to flunk everything. So, the answer to the question of "can a ninth grader be bribed to succeed?" is "yes". And "no". It would have perhaps benefited from widening the study.

Unfortunately these four segments (and wrap around interviews) from "six rogue filmmakers" don't actually offer up any incendiary, "secret world" shattering conclusions. It works best as a reminder to look for less obvious causes for effects. For a documentary with so much possibility to offer, and from six excellent documentarians I was left neither shaken or stirred.

21.04: TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL

Eli Craig's Tucker & Dale vs. Evil comfortably situates itself within the "evil hillbilly" subgenre of horror films. Except it's from the hillbillies perspective, and they're not so much inbred vicious murdering good ole' boys as holiday home owning chaps who enjoy a bit of country music and dungaree wearin'. Yep, Tucker & Dale is a bit of a piss-take. 

Now, I'll fess up to not being any sort of expert on horror films in general, or evil hillbilly films in particular, but Tucker & Dale seem to hit more right notes than not. The film begins in standard enough fashion, with a group of douchey college kids off for a drunken weekend in the woods. They come across our boys Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) pickin' up petrol & supplies and are monumentally freaked out by them. The poor boys are just confused (and maybe a little hurt) by the college kids' reactions as they continue on to Tucker's recently purchased holiday home: a broken down piece o' crap that just happens to have once been the site of a brutal backwoods massacre (20 years ago today!). Tucker and Dale rescue one of the kids from drowning (the pretty, blonde one that Dale has a crush on), though the kids think she's been kidnapped. Hilarity and deliciously bloody (but accidental!) kills ensue. 

I'm a big Alan Tudyk fan but, boy howdy, Tyler Labine steals the film as it's big, dumb and hairy heart Dale. He's always so earnest and confused, but never over-selling it. Neither or these guys go for the "comedy hillbilly" and this is to the film's benefit. If these guys took it too far into comedy stereotype, they would have risked distancing the audience. And the chuckles wouldn't have worked half as well if we didn't care about the fates of Tucker & Dale. Katrina Bowden as Allison, the rescued/kidnapped young blonde girl does much with a fairly thankless role: she's essentially the straight man to all the crazy going on around her. But she's smart, pretty, funny and once she begins to see the real Dale you really hope she makes it through ok. The leader of the college kids is Chad: asthmatic, vengeful and a couple o' spoons short of a full jug band. Jesse Moss, as Chad, lays it on thick and nearly ends up chewing the scenery but for him, it works: he's the leery, sneery bad guy! And boy, is a he a prick.

There are a couple of minor hiccups and perhaps Craig didn't milk the concept for all it was worth; there may have been opportunity for him to make more reference to actual "evil hillbilly" horror films in more specificity. But like I said, I'm no horror aficionado and I had hoot of a time: Craig keeps the laughs and kills coming, with a lot of both being just pure dumb bad luck for our hillbilly heroes. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is a damned fine addition to the horror-comedy genre with two lovable lead characters you can't help but root for. And I'll say this as well: thank the dark gods it's not another bloody zombie movie.

April 27, 2011

21.04: YOU DON'T LIKE THE TRUTH

You Don’t Like the Truth is the latest in a long line of recent documentaries highlighting and criticising the absurd and unjust committed by the United States in their “War on Terror”. The title of this film could serve as a perfect summation of the wider audience reaction to these documentaries (and also feature films). In general terms, I’ve found these documentaries tend to be preaching to the converted; that is, the people seeing these are seeing these films to, essentially, validate what they already know. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing or that these films are bad, wrong or shouldn’t be made. I’m just… curious I guess to know how effective they really are at reaching a wider audience, an audience that may be truly changed by what they see on screen.

This documentary focuses on Omar Khadr, a 16 year-old Canadian-Afghan held at Guantanamo Boy for war crimes. The filmmakers Luc Cote and Patricio Hernriquez have obtained security camera footage of a four day interrogation of Omar by Canadian Intelligence officials and, intercut with interviews with fellow detainees, lawyers, journalists, diplomats and interrogators, it plays out like bad theatre. Here's the scoop: Omar, aged just 15 was arrested in Afghanistan after being left there by his father, accused of killing a US Army Medic Christopher Speer. He is, as is pointed out many times, just a child. A minor, and therefore a child soldier. And is accorded rights and recuperative assistance under UN Human and Child Rights Laws. Ah, but the killing of a Medic is indeed a war crime. But, as is also pointed out the soldier killed was trained as a Medic but at that time was not a Medic. There is also ample evidence given by journalists, lawyers and others that Omar could not have physically thrown the grenade that killed Speer. But tough shit for Omar: he's picked up by the US Army, shunted around a few detention centres before being shipped off to the legal black-hole that is Guantanamo Bay.

We're given the back-story of events leading up to Khadr in Guantanamo by various interview subjects. Most of these are ex-detainees (who are usually British citizens) who describe the conditions they were held in when with Omar. One of the most surprising inclusions is that of ex-interrogator Damien Corsetti who was so feared he was given the nicknames "The Monster" and "The King of Torture". And this guy sympathised with Khadr! When someone like Corsetti could see the injustice of what happened to Khadr you know the system is broken; broken and downright wrong. And this is not just the American system. The Canadian Government, as seen here, does very little to help Khadr.

As you can likely tell from reading thus far, the documentary is effective in conveying it's message. Even without the context of the interviews, the surveillance footage paints a pretty grim picture of the poor interview techniques used to obtain intelligence from within Guantanamo. Even if Khadr was responsible for the death of a serving American soldier, he deserved his rights. Instead, they were routinely crushed both as punishment in of themselves and for expediencies sake. I can't help but feel that if Omar Khadr had been an Owen or an Aaron, the Canadian Government would have done a lot more to try and get him back.

April 26, 2011

21.04: RUBBER

This poster best gives you a sense of the film
I think it's safe (and slightly odd) to say I didn't get quite what I was expecting from Rubber, the film about a psychotic, psychokinetic killer tyre. Going with that description, and the accompanying trailer and posters, you would be forgiven for expecting a wham-bam crazy-time film filled with mayhem and hilarity. I certainly was (this could also be just me projecting my own thoughts on what to expect from a crazed tyre film). Rubber, though it has moments of humour and zaniness, is not that. 

What Rubber is, is an odd slow-paced existentialist homage to "no reason". We are treated to a bizarre opening monologue from a sheriff, direct to camera, all about films and things having no reason. There is a group of spectators, here to watch the "film" through binoculars. They bicker and watch (even stopping one guy from recording) as events unfold. And what are they watching? Yes, a tyre that gains sentience (for no reason) and explodes people's heads with it's psychokinetic powers (again, no reason), going on a kill-crazy rampage (there is something of a reason here though). 

Events unfold slowly, with fairly bad acting from most of the cast. The Sheriff and, yes, the tyre give the most convincing performances. The tyre (or Robert, as it is billed) is given quite wonderful life, in that odd way that inanimate objects can be. At no point in the film are you left wondering about the tyre's motivations or feelings. The film often looks like it may have been shot on digital, but Dupieux still composes some really beautiful shots in the desert. And some of those beautiful shots are of things (rabbit, crow, heads) exploding. There has been, thankfully, no expense spared when it comes to the ka-BOOM. All of the effects look practical, bloody and wet. They look the better for it, and seamless to boot. There is a dark vein of black humour throughout, but (at least when I saw it) this raises little more than titters from the audience and the remainder of the run-time is as dry as the desert where it is set.

I can't help but feel that the trailer, and subsequent marketing materials, pulled something of a "bait-and-switch". The trailer and various posters sold the oddity, the action, humour and B-movie characterisations of Rubber, but not the long, dry silences and meta-textual themes. And yes, the argument is easily made for wanting to sell the film and getting people in to see it... but this type of advertising can easily back-fire. This is almost the opposite of my experience with Catfish: I went knowing and expecting nothing and was delighted in return. With Rubber I obviously entered with false assumptions and left feeling... I don't know. Rubber is indeed a strange beast of a film and I don't think any advertising could properly prepare you for what you see. It's a film that doesn't think much of it's audience: and not in the way you feel that summer blockbusters think people are idiots. Rather, the spectators serve as the film-makers' persepctive on the audience and they do not come out well.

I'm not really sure where I fall when it comes to Rubber. I didn't get what I wanted, or expected, from the film but I can't help but feel there might be something strange and original there. It doesn't fulfill the strange promise of gory exploitation (a different kind of blaxpoitation?) and I'm really not sure what the whole point was. I'm strangely reminded of an episode of the brilliant Futurama: giant evil brains attack Earth and the only one who can stop them is the gentle idiot Fry, by trapping them in a literary loop. The head evil brain is fooled and the brains fly off proclaiming: "And now we must leave Earth for no raisin!" It's brilliant, pulpy, funny and bizarre. Kinda what I was hoping Rubber would be.

15.04: REIGN OF ASSASSINS

I don't know if it was just because it was late, if it was because I'd already watched two films or if it was actually just the film... but I felt the full two hours of Reign of Assassins. With a title like that, and with a cast including Michelle Yeoh, this film promised so much. And I just felt like it didn't deliver. I knew we were in trouble at the start when, during the opening scenes, the voice-over narration describes something that has just occurred on-screen! It adds nothing to the telling of the tale and just serves to slow things down. Which is not something this film needs.

As is usual for this sort of kung-fu film, events begin in non-specified ancient/medieval China. A mummified corpse of a kung-fu master is said to grant whoever possesses the two pieces of it ultimate control of all kung-fu. Or something. As you would expect, many nefarious folks are after it. One such gang of assassins kills a local governor and his son to gain possession of one half of the corpse. In the midst of all the hacking and slashing, young female assassin Drizzle makes off with it. She disappears with a sizeable bounty on her head and so undergoes dramatic facial reconstruction surgery (!) to become Michelle Yeoh. She moves to a small village and begins a new life. There are moments of broad comedy as her new land-lady tries to set her up with various rich, ugly suitors. Instead, she falls for one of the other tenants: The Good, the Bad and the Weird’s Jung Woo-Sung as Jiang A-sheng. He’s a kind-hearted, somewhat bumbling man who appears to be a hopeless romantic. They get married and eventually trouble comes a-calling, in the form of her old assassin mates. Wire-fu ensues.

Michelle Yeoh, as great as she is, never really gives a hint of once being a cold-hearted assassin. Oh sure, there are a couple of fight scenes helping to point this out, but she doesn’t seem to carry any of the baggage of her old life. And her husband is also carrying a secret with him, a secret that is barely hinted at previously in the film but is easily guessed at because, well, it’s a fairly predictable affair. This would be fine and good if it was still enjoyable. But things drag out and crucially, what this film really lacks is a sense of fun. This could of course just be my perception of a film I watched late at night, after a long day at the day-job and two intense films. But I did feel the full run-time of it, though there were plenty of crazy kung-fu set pieces and wildly veering tonal shifts (thriller, romance, broad comedy, kung-fu action) to keep me on my toes.

15.04: CATFISH

There was a lot of mystery surrounding this film, for me. I had been told to avoid absolutely anything about it and so I did. I read no reviews, saw no posters. Going into a film pretty much stone-cold is something of a novelty for me nowadays: I am a consumer of vast sums of interweb film news and reviews. I'm glad I managed to do it. So, for those of who are wanting to see Catfish, I would recommend reading no further. 

Still here? Ok then. What Catfish is then, is a documentary about, well, the modern digital age. It takes that form in the story of Nev, a young professional photographer living in New York city. His brother, Rel, and friend, Henry, are film-makers who share an office with him. They're all charming, funny, intelligent and creative guys and the film would've been a different experience entirely if, say, Nev was some sort of arrogant douchebag. But he's not, and one day Nev receives a package in the mail: a painting of one of his photos by Abby, an 8 year old girl from Michigan. Nev and Abby begin communicating, first with mail and e-mail and then with, as is the norm nowadays, facebook. Through facebook Nev connects with Abby's wider family such as her mum (looking very very good for her age) and, in particular, her sister Megan. Nev and Megan begin getting, well, pretty hot and heavy with Rel and Henry documenting the growing virtual relationship. Nev feels a real connection with Megan and feels like he really knows this person; through constant text messages, through talking to her on the phone, corresponding on facebook with her and her friends, and listening to her music... for a number of months. Except, as Summer Movie Trailer Voice Over Guy might say, all is not what it seems...

The boys begin to grow increasingly suspicious of Megan and the wider family. It's something that begins small enough and then they decide to take a surprise road-trip to Michigan to visit Abby, Megan and the rest of the family. That's when the whole sorry story unravels, though not in any way that you might expect. I'm hesitant to actually spill the beans on what happens when the boys meet the family here, even for those that have seen it. I feel like this is a documentary (and there has been ample discussion/argument across the 'net as to it's veracity) that should be discovered by more people here before I go spoililng things. Suffice to say, what happens is entirely unexpected, awkward and heart-breakingly uneasy. And it's all captured by Rel and Henry, even as they find themselves involved in the unfolding events.

Catfish is marvelous as a reminder of the perils and joys of the digital age. Though Nev and the boys were fooled through digital means, they were also able to uncover the deceit with the use of digital tools. The digital landscape and it's impact is made explicit in subtle touches, such as the use of Google Earth and Google Maps to illustrate distance and travel and the contsant use of various web applications. This would make an excellent double-bill with either The Social Network (the creation of facebook and it's aftermath) or Exit Through the Gift Shop (is it real? Is it too weird not to be true?).

April 22, 2011

15.04: RABBIT HOLE

Rabbit Hole, a film about a couple grieving the death of their only son in a car accident, is something of a change for director John Cameron Mitchell while still being a deeply personal work. Mitchell is perhaps better known as the director of the outrageous Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the "family-values" baiting Shortbus. Both of these previous films have dealt with sex and sexuality, subjects obviously pertinent to Mitchell. Rabbit Hole is no less personal: he lost his younger brother when he was 14. As such, you can be sure Mitchell knows about families grieving. 

The film begins some 8 months after the accident, and focusses on Nicole Kidman's character, Becca. She seems to have shut herself (and her husband, Howie) off from the world. They no longer see friends, they don't go out, they just... exist, as best they can. Nothing is explicitly stated here, all the details are slowly teased out as they would be in life. Howie struggles to find a way to move one, while Becca seems to work to "erase" their son - packing up his paintings, getting rid of his clothes, wanting to move house. This all, of course, causes friction in their marriage. Eckhart as Howie and Kidman give such honest, raw and pared-down performances it never seems like they're "acting". 

As the story progresses, Becca continues to antagonise and push people away; including her sister and mother Nat (the wonderful Dianne Wiest), who also lost a son. The only person she really begins to talk to is the young teenage boy who was driving the car, Jason. She begins by stalking him - not in a scary way - rather, more out of curiosity than anything. They talk in the park, and he's shy and creative and remoresful and inarticulate. So, basically an actual teenager. Howie connects to a woman at group therapy (Sandra Oh). They get high together and they seem to make a real connection; the type of connection Howie is missing with Becca. You wonder how far they're going to take it, wanting and not-wanting them to do something.

But the film is not entirely a maudlin and depressing wade through a couple's grief. There are surprising moments of real, honest humour throughout; both for the characters and for the audience. These moments serve as tension relievers, just when they are most needed. One scene finds Howie and Becca at group. Instead of it being a circle of cycling grief, with everyone weeping, Becca just blurts out something so outrageous you cannot help but laugh in reflex. And you can see why Kidman was nominated for an Oscar for this performance; it is real and devastating. But you can also see why she wasn't in with a chance: it's too reserved for the Academy, she has internalised all her grief and she comes across inititally as cold.

Rabbit Hole marks an important maturity point for Mitchell as a film-maker. It is a quietly powerful film, about a tough and possibly touchey subject that never feels like a tough watch. Come the end, nothing is resolved, nothing is really tidied up. There are perhaps a couple of moments of cliche, but nothing ever feels like it's not real, not honest. And it helps that the film is anchored by such fine performances as these. I hope it finds an audience on wider release here.

April 20, 2011

14.04: POTICHE (TROPHY WIFE)

The opening night film for the World Cinema Showcase was the charming 70's set French film Potiche. Catherine Denevue is the trophy wife of the title, Suzanne Pujol. She seem content to run in the woodlands, meeting cute critters and composing short, almost kitschy, poems. Her weaselly bastard prick of a husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), runs the umbrella factory that once was run by Suzanne's father. As a boss he's as weaselly, bastardly and pricky as he is a husband and the workers are on strike! They are encouraged in this by the lefty Mayor MP (and brief one-time lover of Suzanne) Babin (Gerard Depardieu). Robert, who being the weaselly bastard prick that he is is having an affair with his secretary, heads down to the factory to sort these striking workers out. He's taken hostage and eventually has to be hospitalised, leaving Suzanne to step in and run the factory.

Suzanne, being lovely and kind and actually having a pretty keen mind behind the shell of her domesticated self, does a far better job of running the umbrella factory (and, of course it's umbrellas; it's Denevue!) than her husband ever did. She even brings their son and daughter into the business, where they both shine. She's no longer a mere trophy wife, she's a successful business-woman. The factory has never looked better, the workers have never been happier and things are generally looking up. And when her bastard husband returns, she is well prepared to give him the old heave-ho; personally and professionally.

The central performance from Denevue is fantastically charming. She takes Suzanne from somewhat dim-witted domesticity to powerful, yet compassionate, leader. Really, the film is a showcase for her and you can see why: beautiful, hilarious and a consummate performer Denevue has, thankfully, not faded a jot. Fabrice Luchini as her husband, Robert Pujol, is fantastically hateful as a schemey, weaselly bastard of a prick. The man has, quite literally, no redeeming features and I just wanted to punch his beard down his throat. But Luchini never feels like he's going over the top with the character; he plays Pujol as a spoiled child, demanding and wanting, wanting, wanting. And when things don't go his way, he pouts. He pouts and plots. Notably against (and later, with) Gerard Depardieu's man of the people Babin. Depardieu, as great as he is, just cannot hope to stand above the wonderful work from Denevue and Luchini.

It is a shame though that this had to be screened on digi-Beta, as this would have been a lush, wonderful experience on film. But sometimes these things just cannot be helped, as prints may not be able to be sourced or shipped. Cest la vie. But Potiche is a wonderful film full of charm, with plenty of twists and turns and a cheeky sense of humour. There is a legitimately wonderful central performance, surrounded by more than capable supporting turns. It touches on politics and women's rights but is, at it's heart, entertainment. Which is all summed up beautifully come the end with Denevue, post election campaign, serenading us out.

April 19, 2011

11.04: RUSSIAN ARK

Russian Ark was a film I had wanted to see at a previous Film Festival, but missed. So I was quite pleased when I saw it on the programme for the Film Society. However, the more I thought about it before I saw it I had to wonder... yes, a one-take film is a neat gimmick, but isn't the whole point of film the editing. The use of cuts help to tell the story, whether it be to focus our attention on something or to show the passage of time. Yes, one-take films have been attempted before (most famously with the Master, Hitchcock, and his Rope) but Russian Ark is the first true one-take film; all previous "one-take" films actually hid the cuts as cameras could not be loaded with the necessary amount of film. So, an interesting idea and experiment but if you're going to do it you need to have a strong story-telling need for it. I struggled to find that with Russian Ark. It was, in fact, pretty damned boring. The story (such as it is) finds an unknown and unseen man waking up, not knowing where he is, when he is or, indeed, who he is. We never see this Man because the whole film, as well as being one-take, is in point of view. He awakens in the midst of 18th Century guests arriving for a party and although he can see them, they cannot see him. In his wanderings the Man finds another displaced gentleman, referred to as the European. He is/was a French diplomat and has no idea how he found himself here either. He is cantankerous and disdainful of Russian history and art and is seemingly just as invisible as the Man. They wander around the Hermitage Museum (where the film is set and filmed) entering new periods in history with each room they enter. Essentially the film is a tour through a couple hundred years of Russian history and art, though only being glimpses. Your enjoyment of the film will really depend on how much you know about Russian history already and if you’re quite happy to sit in a cinema looking at a painting. Quite frankly, I found it to be a stilted, unnaturally paced slog. Confined as it is to one location the history that can be shown is limited and is presented almost entirely without context; the movements between rooms seem to follow no reason for their order. There is barely anything to grasp on to, as you are sent from room to room; period to period. It doesn’t work as narrative as, well, there isn’t much of one. And it doesn’t work as history lesson as a decent working knowledge of Russian history seems to be required to understand all the snapshots provided. The selection of the historical periods covered can be somewhat baffling; again, this is more than likely due to the restriction of having one location and one shot to capture it all. I can see reasons to like this: it’s a bold experiment in cinematic storytelling, the costumes are gorgeous and the final sequence, with a grand ballroom scene followed by a massive amount of people exiting down the main staircase is breath-taking and impressive, especially in this day of CG populated crowds. But, for me, it didn’t connect. The POV one-shot served to distance me, more than involve me. And, if you’ve been paying attention (which I’m sure you have), you’ll see that I have used no paragraph breaks in this post. See what I did there? Makes it a bit harder to read, doesn’t it?

April 14, 2011

10.04: SUCKER PUNCH

Produced for the Zack Snyder series
at Mondotees

One thing you definitely cannot fault in Zack Snyder’s first original film is the visuals. Whatever else you say about the film, whatever else you think about the man, you cannot say Snyder doesn’t know how to make action look fantastic. The man knows what he’s doing with a camera. And yes, his infamous speed-ramping is in full effect here but that’s the thing: in Sucker Punch it is a full effect, it’s no longer a distracting director’s tic. A shame then that Snyder the writer cannot tie everything together so neatly.

Emily Browning (all grown up from her adventures with Lemony Snickett) is the protagonist, Baby Doll. The film starts with the raising of two theatre curtains and a slow-mo, dialogue free prologue: 1960’s, dead mother, evil step-father, little sister, accidental death, Baby Doll incarcerated at Lennox Home for the Mentally Insane (Mentally Insane?! Love it). Boom bam boom and we’re away. Once there, she’s set up by her step-dad and a crooked orderly for a lobotomy. She escapes into a fantasy where the Asylum is... a burlesque house. And from there she gets a group of girls together to plot an escape. They all have Roles in the plan, and aren’t much more than pretty caricatures. The plan consists of obtaining four items and to get these items, Baby Doll dances to distract the men-folk. Which then leads us into the third level as the obtaining of the items is played out in big geek fantasy set-pieces. The majority of the film plays out in these two “fantasy” levels with the “real” serving more to bookend the film.

So that tells you the plot, such as it is. But what Sucker Punch really is, is a culmination of ideas, images and assorted other bits and pieces that have been swimming around in Snyder's head. This is a mash up of everything from Moulin Rouge (repurposed pop songs, the burlesque house) to samurai films (the first action fantasy with giant robot samurai) to Hellboy and steam-punk (steam-powered WWI zombie Germans) to Lord of the Rings and fantasy (orcs, knights and dragons) to manga/anime (mecha) to future sci-fi (robots on a speeding train). The obvious question is, of course: how are all these geek-centric fantasies relevant to a young girl in the 60’s? They’re all incredibly cool looking, and Snyder impresses with the sheer amount of passion and detail in these scenes but they fit the director more than they do the character of Baby Doll.

And there is no real dramatic weight to these fantasies: in the very first sequence, Baby Doll is tossed around by these giant robot samurai with nary a scratch on her and no real threat to life or limb. And because these fantasies don’t feel like they relate to the character of Baby Doll or to the first or second level of action they're hard to ascribe any sense of peril to. And you have a tough time relating to anyone in the film because they're all of the broadest archetypes and Baby Doll herself is incredibly passive for a large portion of the film. Abbie Cornish's Sweet Pea feels somewhat more real and relatable (although this could just be down to the kick-ass performance of Cornish herself), even if she is the Angry Reluctant One. You could certainly have an argument around the depiction of women in the film. While all the girls are types rather than actual characters, the same is true for everyone. But in these "fantasy" sequences of Baby Doll's, are the scantily clad women self-empowered and fully confident, using their sexuality as a weapon? Or are they dressed to titillate; to be a part of the fantasy, rather than fight it?

Ultimately, I feel like it's another symptom of the story, themes and characters not connecting. You get the sense that Snyder is reaching for something more with this film, but he just doesn't quite grasp it; it doesn't all come together in a cohesive whole. But it's not all bad. The images offered up here, especially in the third level fantasy sequences, are stunning. The work of a master visualist. The train sequence is easily the stand out set-piece, being an extraordinarily well choreographed and executed piece of balletic mayhem. And, unlike the other sequences, I found it had some real heft to it; that, at this point in the game, the stakes were actually higher. And that's another point: Sucker Punch would work really, really well as a video-game. And I don't mean that in a derogatory way (though the story-telling may certainly be on that level). Much like Matthew Vaugh with Kick Ass, Edgar Wright with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and even Christopher Nolan with Inception, Snyder has taken the language of video-games and successfully transposed it to film. And hey, look at the title of this blog. Look at the url. Of course there are bound to be some things I enjoy and appreciate in this film!

One of the things I found most interesting, leading up to the film's release, was the advertising. Throughout the campaign, the tagline has been "You will be unprepared". When, really, the whole point of the advertising has been specifically to prepare you for it. I was prepared for Sucker Punch. I was just a little let down.

April 13, 2011

09.04: NEVER LET ME GO

No running please, we're British.
Hopefully you won't consider the next part a spoiler, as the film has been out for awhile, has been reviewed and it is really given away in the first few minutes: this is a sci-fi film about three clones, our narrator Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan) and her two close friends Ruth (Keira Knightly) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield). This is no whiz-bang action spectacle sci-fi; it approaches similar material as The Island from a completely different direction.

Tommy, Ruth and Kathy H. all attend Hailsham together, and from first glance it's just another poncy private English school. Ruth and Kathy H. are best friends and Tommy is the quiet, shy boy that ends up coming between them. There are small hints and clues, both in the film and narration, that all is not really what it seems; that this isn't a normal school for normal children. These kids are special, they've been bred and raised special. And we spend a fair amount of time with these characters as children. Aside from the small differences, those oddity's that stand out mainly due to their slightness, these are just three regular kids mucking through school. The only upset comes with a new teacher, Ms. Lucy (Sally Hawkins) who expressly tells these children what they are for: to be chopped up. To have their vital organs "donated" to extend the lives of others and to have absolutely no say in the matter. Ms. Lucy does not last long at Hailsham. And then these children are grown up and, knowing their ultimate fate, just keep going. This fact, the simple fact that these characters barely do anything to avoid their fate... well, that was simply a bit much for me. 

Why, for the love of Bay, don't they run?! I can understand that this may be a concept they do not understand; that they have been bred and raised to accept their destiny, their "completion". But, given the time period covered in the film (from the 60's through to the early 90's), I would have thought someone, somewhere would have kicked up a fuss about this sort of program. Ms. Lucy (Sally Hawkins) is the only person who enters the film from outside the bubble of "donors" and "carers". I guess the characters never even reach the stage of giving up, because they barely have anything to aspire to in the first place. And yes, I know it's really not the point of the film and perhaps it's just my Hollywood-raised brain demanding action, but I find it hard to believe that anyone, any human, would just willingly go along with having their body chopped up, especially if they're in love. 

Luckily, the film is anchored by three incredibly powerful performances. Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan are two of the most wonderfully human actors of their generation. Where Ewan McGregor was acting his childlike curiosity for the world in The Island (and very, very well mind you), Garfield just is childishly curious. And where Kathy H. could have been cold and aloof, Mulligan makes her sympathetic and the real heart of the trio. Knightly is, quite bravely for a Hollywood starlet, the ugly cold bitch of a best friend. There's an insecurity Ruth carries with her and Knightly isn't afraid to give us glimpses of it through her haughty demeanour. She is hurtful to Kathy in the way only a best friend can be. I haven't read the original novel so cannot comment on Alex Garland's adaptation but the script, as a script, is quiet beautiful. While I may have a problem with something at the centre of the film, so many moments are just perfect: the three clones out at a coffee house for the first time, Kathy flipping through porno magazines to find her original, Tommy with no hope left. This is also down to, of course, director Mark Romanek. He shows a deft hand, never overplaying things (indeed understatement is the name of the game here) and really makes you wonder what his Wolfman would have been like. 

I guess the glib answer to the question of why they don't run is: they're British. Running would simply be causing too much of a fuss. Thinking about it as I've been writing this, however, has made me more... forgiving in my own mind of this aspect of the film. It's intelligent, beautiful, funny and heart breaking. I would dearly love to read the novel now and, after that, revisit the film.And, really, that's one of the best things you can say about a film isn't it?

BLOCKBUSTER SEASON: ALTERNATE CHOICES

As promised, here is a quick run-down of some intriguing, non-blockbuster films, coming out in the next few months of explosions and excitement. This is an incomplete list, but serves as a taster of something else to look forward to in the coming months. Of course, the obvious and earliest opportunity for some alternate picks (if you're in NZ anyway) is the World Cinema Showcase - playing now in Auckland, starting in Wellington this week and hitting Dunedin soon. My preview is here. Also if you're in Wellington I recommed heading along to the City Gallery for the Graham Percy exhibition. On until the 25th, I cannot recommend enough, especially if you have any interest in illustration. Also, it's free!

The films:

Hanna

From director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) offers something of a change in direction here. Saoirse Ronan stars as the eponymous character; a young girl raised her entire life by father Eric Bana to be a merciless killer. She is sent on the hunt for Cate Blanchett’s top level spook. Wright has shown himself to be a filmmaker with an astounding level of skill (it’s hard to not be impressed with Atonement, only his second film) and this looks to be a cracking action film that doesn’t talk down to us.


Source Code 

Duncan Jones made a very, very impressive film with his low budget debut Moon. I, for one, am hoping the bigger budgeted, Michelle Monaghan and Jake Gyllenhaal starring follow up Source Code is up to the same standard. The trailer hasn't really done too much for me, but it's already been released in the States and I've read good things. Gyllenhaal (in his first time travel film since Donnie Darko?) is a young soldier, sent back into the body (and life) of a man in the last few minutes of his life.


Super 

So long as someone like James Gunn (Slither) is out there making movies, I'm happy. Super is looking to be this year's Kick Ass, but a whole lot more demented. Rainn Wilson is just a regular schmoe who, when his wife leaves him, decides to fight crime as The Crimson Bolt! Ok, so it might not be an origin story on par of that of Superman, Batman or even Aquaman but I am definitely looking forward to another skewering of the superhero movie.

Bad Teacher 

This looks like it could be the comedy hit of the year, which feels slightly strange to say about a Cameron Diaz vehicle. But Diaz looks absolutely filthily hilarious in this, as if Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa was a teacher. Her output of late has been... well, less than stellar. She hasn't been really great in anything since 1999's Being John Malkovich, so here's hoping Bad Teacher can remind us why she matters. The recent red band trailer had me giggling away and Ms. Diaz is ably supported by some fantastic comedians.

Hobo with a Shotgun

Starring Rutger Haur, who looks absolutely insane. And just look at that poster. LOOK at it! That's a slice of pure fried amazing right there. I'm unsure if this film (based on a trailer knocked up for a Grindhouse competition) will actually make it to our shores (perhaps at the Film Festival?). I remain ever hopeful, albeit realistic: Death Proof didn't set box office tills ringing, Planet Terror never even got a cinema release and Machete was gone inside two weeks. Still, I can but hope.

The Tree of Life 

A new Terrence Malick film? Yes please. A new Terrence Malick film with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn? Yes please and when does it come out please? Let’s be blunt: a new Malick film is an event that I anticipate more than any so-called “event” movie. I was taken in by The New World in 2005 and absolutely fell under the Malick spell with Badlands last year. To say I'm somewhat looking forward to this is an understatement. Malick is one of THE filmmakers and this should be a magical, spiritual and beautiful film.


The NZIFF

Well, this is the big one isn't it? 2 weeks of films, from all over the world covering a variety of genres and time periods. The annual International Film Festival packs in hundreds of films and it's always a mid-year treat. 

So what films are you looking forward to for the rest of the season? Can you not wait to be chilled and thrilled like you were in high-school with Scream 4? Or is it the Bayhem of Transformers 3: The Dark of the Moon that has you excited? Or is it the mystery surrounding J J Abrams' Super 8?

04.04: COUP DE TORCHON (CLEAN SLATE)

This rather terrible poster is the best
I could find
Coup de Torchon (or Clean Slate) played at the Wellington Film Society as part of their Isabelle Huppert mini-programme (three films within the wider context of the Film Society programme). The film is based on American writer Jim Thompson's pulp novel Pop. 1280 but transplants the action to French West Africa in the lead up to WWII. After having watched the recent adaptation of his The Killer Inside Me it was interesting to see some of the same themes and preoccupations coming through in this very different work.

Our "hero" is a small town police chief, Lucien, (he is, in fact, the entire police force) who just wants to be left alone to sleep. He's a passive character at the beginning: letting his wife and her "brother" walk all over him, being pushed around by two local pimps; basically struggling to avoid conflict at all costs. These types of characters can tend to annoy the hell out of me and make it an initial struggle to follow: that schlub just took your pudding?! Do something about it man! Thankfully, as the film progresses and we spend more time with Lucien we come to sympathise with him a little bit more. Sure, he's a chump but he begins to be our chump. That is, of course, until he goes totally off the rails.

Lucien makes the coldly calculated decision to solve his problems by brutally murdering them. This seem to work, as no-one can really bring themselves to suspect Lucien; he's so easy-going, so manipulable it's almost inconceivable he could harm a fly. But there's something dark roiling inside him and Philippe Noiret is fantastic as Lucien. He's lazy and uncaring but in a vaguely charming Gallic kind of way, as he mopes around the streets. But there's a blankness there, a dark monster that he's shrugged off the leash. The only thing he seems to want is to be left alone, and he goes about making that so by calmly manipulating all those around him.

As with The Killer Inside Me, the protagonist juggles a few women while loving none of them. Of course, this film doesn't have the brutal beating of said women by the psychotic protagonist; Lucien saves his calm rage for those he deems to have deserved it, those who have wronged him in some fashion. Which doesn't mean they get off scot-free; all the women who come in contact with him (his wife, his young mistress, a young teacher who moves to town and becomes the new object of his affection) suffer in some way; he is callously brutal to them. Huppert as Lucien's young mistress (and wife to a violent drunk) Rose handles a possibly unsympathetic role with grace and, well, a sense of fun. She's young, yes, but she carries the tiredness of someone twice her age.

But hey, it's not all gloom! There are moments of black humour you cannot help chuckling at (though some do fall flat). The sense of atmosphere and tension slowly builds and builds. At times though (especially during the latter half of the second act), I felt like it meandered. That instead of being a slow build it became a slow let-down, with all the air going out of the drama. Digression began to follow digression and I found myself just wanting to get to the point of it all. An interesting and entertaining sun-bleached neo-noir that just needed to pick up the pace to really hit home.

April 11, 2011

BLOCKBUSTER SEASON

A time of crisis...

A world in peril...

A hero will rise... 

Thaaaaaaat's right! Blockbuster season is a-coming! (Some may say it's already here with the release of such explosive fare as Sucker Punch and the brain-dead Battle: LA) Another year, another slew of Hollywood bombast and noise! 'Tis the season for big screens, big budgets, big EXPLOSIONS and little cinematic nourishment. But hey, there isn't anything wrong with a decent, well-made Hollywood blockbuster. If you've been reading this blog for that long, you can see I don't mind a fun time at the movies. 

So, in that spirit here's a quick rundown of the big films that I’m looking forward to this year:


Thor 

Hopefully not your average comic-book movie, with the superhero protagonist being the Norse God of Thunder and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Some internet commentators have likened the Asgard set to Flash Gordon. To me, that is not a bad thing. The second trailer really helped sell me on this, and I just hope it's as crazy nutso as it is in my mind. Well, I really hope Anthony Hopkins is as crazy nutso as he was in The Wolfman. This will be showing in post-converted 3D and I will (if I can) see it in 2D.

X-Men: First Class 

Matthew Vaughn finally gets his hands on a Marvel movie (after previous attempts with X-Men 3 and, funnily enough, a previous version of Thor) and this prequel tale... actually looks kinda cool and interesting. The trailers are really going for the 60s setting, tying the comic-book mythology in with the real-life Cuban missile crisis. They also totally kick ass, which cannot really be said of the posters so far (barring the pretty neat first teaser poster to the right). Absolutely zero design going into them. Which is a shame, because I actually have high hopes for the film: great writers, great director and great cast. Also me = huge X-Men geek.

Green Lantern 

Warner Bros. are finally doing something with the rest of their DC comics character library. Ryan Reynolds (in his third comic-book adaptation) dons the green for, what I'm hoping, is a literal out-of-this world adventure. I'm still not entirely sold on the vein-y suit (though the decision to make the suit entirely CG makes sense to me) but I have faith that director Martin Campbell can deliver the cosmic goods, especially having just watched the recent four minute trailer. And that's what I'm really wanting with this film: a cosmic superhero. Not only do I want a comic-book superhero flick, I want a sci-fi space adventure.

Captain America

The final stepping stone in Marvel's planned Avengers super-team plan, Joe Johnston's Captain America looks like it could be a good old fashioned rock 'em sock 'em adventure flick. Much like his previous The Rocketeer I hope. And again, the trailer is a cracker. Sure, some people are going to get uppity about a super-hero named Captain America. Screw 'em. In his first comic-book appearance he punched Hitler in the face. Are you gonna argue with that?! Chris Evans looks to be fitting the patriotic boots nicely and it looks like they'll be pushing the Howling Commandos as an international team of hard-nosed Allied fighters.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows vol. 2

And while all these other blockbusters are beginnings of one sort or another, this is an ending. Harry and Voldemort finally face-off against one another. As Connor MacLeod would say "There can be only one" (or as Optimus Prime: "One shall stand. One shall fall" Dum-dum-dum TSSH! You got the touch! You got the powwwwwwwerrrr... YEAH!). The last few Potter films have got better and better, so hopes are high for this franchise closer. This film will be tying a bow on a film phenomenon that will have seen the original cast members (barring Richard Harris sadly) across 8 films, 5 directors and 10 years. It cannot be anything but epic.

And yes, I have noticed that all five of these are franchise films, with four of them being based on comic-books and three of those being Marvel. I make no apologies. I am a huge-ass geek. Also, this is blockbuster season we're talking about here. And these are the movies, the big loud and entertaining movies, that I am most looking forward to over the next few months; the ones that may offer something a little different, or a little bit more interesting. Heck, even the ones that just look downright entertaining.

But what if blockbusters aren't your thing? Or what if you just want a palate cleanser for your cinematic tastebuds? Next up I'll be bringing you some of my picks of alternative viewing for the upcoming season.

April 8, 2011

03.04: PAUL

I’m just gonna say it: it’s a little strange seeing Pegg and Frost together without the direction of Edgar Wright. Don’t get me wrong; it’s great that the three of them have grown and don’t need to rely so heavily on any one of the other of the three to produce a great film... it’s just this is the first time the two best buds are under different direction (from Greg Mottola - Superbad and Adventureland ). Mottola has his own, more laid-back, approach to story-telling than the fantastic, often dizzying wham-bam-bam approach of Wright. It seems... gentler somehow. Perhaps it's also that they're actually in an American film actually set in America this time - they're out of England now. 

Pegg and Frost are two geeks (Graeme and Clive) who, after attending Comic Con, jump in an RV and head off on a UFO pilgrimage across the States. This is where things are roughest, I found, as the film settles in to itself and possibly offers up a bit too much exposition a bit too readily.But, at this point, these two guys have to be acknowledged as one of the finest duos in cinema and their natural, easy chemistry carries us through.

Things really kick-off, of course, when they come across the eponymous hero: a little grey alien freshly escaped from 50 years in the Government's hands. He's kinda rude and smart-ass but also very charming. Seth Rogen is perfectly cast as Paul, his delivery of insults being never too insulting and bringing that easy-going stoner vibe he does so will and contrasting it with the two more uptight Brits. Frost is also, for once, not the clueless and coarse (but lovable) idiot. He still has the sweetness he brought to Danny Butterman in Hot Fuzz, but he never overplays it and Clive is an obviously intelligent (albeit Klingon speaking) man.

It is great to see that the Pegg/Frost writing team is different to the Wright/Pegg writing team. There's slightly different sensibilities in play here: yes, they're all interested in the same geek-centric stuff but Paul seems to be... more low-key than Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. This is, of course, also down to the less frenetic direction of Mottola. The laughs are never full belly guffawing ones, but they're plentiful. As you would expect there are a few geek references made throughout, and on more than one occasion I was the only one in the theatre laughing... These various references never feel like box-checking and they're always affectionate and tend to look towards the films of Spielberg and Lucas; two filmmakers who have had an obvious influence on the boys.

And I cannot forget Kristen Wiig as a one-eyed bible thumping Christian RV park attendant mistakenly abducted by the three fugitives. She's healed by the little grey guy (in more ways then one) and, through her character, you get a sense of the frustration these two English blokes feel about the American Christian Right. Her switch to continually extreme profanity may happen all too quickly, but she embraces it with such naive gusto, it's hard not to be charmed by her. The secondary characters are an embarrassment of comedy riches. The always great Jason Bateman is the lead agent chasing Paul, with Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio giving him some great foolish back-up. I love the work that Hader does and Lo Truglio has been such an interesting presence in so many recent films, I wonder if he'll get his own vehicle sometime soon. Jane Lynch, David Koechner, Jeffrey Tambor and John Carrol Lynch all offer up something interesting in their appearances.

The character’s journey mirrors that of the actor’s: they go from being fanboys and geeks to the object of affection for fanboys and geeks. Paul largely works as a strange, largely fruitful marriage of the Brit-geek humour of Pegg & Frost with the coarseness and improvisational feel of the Apatow school & SNL. This is a sci-fi road trip flick of America through the eyes of two Englishmen, filtered through an American director. It's intelligent, original, funny and offering up affectionate winks to many aspects of geek film culture. Affectionate being the operative word there.

April 7, 2011

02.04: RANGO

This is such a wonderfully odd "children's" film. There's nothing particularly revelatory or strange about the story or central themes (protagonist searching for identity, builds one with strangers only to have to redeem himself and save new-found friends come the end), but rather more in the telling of it.

Things start a little rough, as they try to set Rango up straight away as "weird" and "kooky". It just didn't flow right to me - yes they needed this character set-up for the rest of his decisions to make sense but I just feel it could have been handled somewhat more delicately. But once the weird chameleon is thrown from his glassed in world, and tumbles along the highway, things really kick off. He winds up in the wild west town of Dirt and convinces the townsfolk that he is one mean hombre. 'Fore too long he's made the Sheriff or this here town that is slowly dying of thirst.

Director Gore Verbinski gave us one of the most entertaining films of the last decade in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and followed it up with two of the murkiest sequels. And so, at first glance, his decision to give us an off-beat animated kid's Western with plenty of darkness and oddity is perhaps not the most logical next step. But he also gave us the delightfully knock-about Mousehunt so, combined with the Disney juggernauts, this is hardly virgin territory for the man. This is suitable for kids - the darkness found throughout is similar to that of early Disney - but it never talks down to them. There only two blatant pop culture shout-outs made - and they're both for adults (and film fans) more than anyone else.

Depp feels like he's in something of a safety area here as the voice of Rango - he's played the kooky outsider for so long and so often, it can barely be a stretch for him anymore. Thankfully, his voice-work here is definitely not a case of him phoning it in. The rest of the voice-cast is similarly impressive. And while I may lament the modern day demise of the dedicated voice-actor, with the majority of studio based animated films casting name actors, when films like Rango cast as well and appropriately as this, it becomes easier to bear. Isla Fisher, in addition to being a gifted comedienne, is vocally unrecognisable as the love interest, Beans. She brings such fire and commitment to the character, you cannot help but love her. And when the rest of your cast includes people like Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone and the wonderful Stephen Root you can't go far wrong.

Verbinski certainly hasn't skimped on the visuals either - the film looks stunning. The animation is so good you don't even come to think of it as animation. It's just there, looking gorgeous and real and crisp. Again, when you bring someone like the legendary Roger Deakins on as a "cinematography consultant" there's not a lot you can do wrong. I seem to see a pattern emerging here... Verbinski has done excellent work in just picking the right people for the job and then getting on with it. Everything looks artistically beautiful and each frame is crammed full of wondrous detail.

Rango will be quite unlike any other animated film this year. Again, there's nothing too original going on with the story or characters, but it's more in the way it is told. It pulls inspiration and reference points from a number of places, but usually finds a fun and interesting way of interpreting them. It doesn't talk down or become too winky-winky and you'll find yourself wanting to spend a little more time with the fantastic characters of a town called Dirt.

This is not even the weirdest thing in the film

April 6, 2011

01.04: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (catch-up classic)

I wasn't too sure what I was expecting from this classic Vivien Leigh & Marlon Brando film; my only exposure to the source play comes from an episode of The Simpsons (oh, that great pop-culture teacher). For some reason, I had it in my head that Blanche has an affair with her sister's husband, Stanley. As anyone who has already seen the film can tell you, that's really not the case...

Vivien Leigh is a faded, and little loopy, Southern belle by the name of Blance Du Bois. She is newly arrived in New Orleans, where she has come to stay with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stella's brutish and brooding husband Stanley (Brando). She's a prim and proper type, not entirely suited to the hectic New Orleans lifestyle and certainly not to where she finds her sister living; in a downstairs shack in the midst of a district rife with drink and low class characters. Blanche has lost the family home and has come to (possibly) swindle her sister, as everyone back home has got wise to her game. Stanley the uneducated, violent and often shirtless caveman sees through her straight away.

Leigh (who appeared in less than 20 films in her career) is perfectly flighty and diminished, with an active and intelligent mind spinning off in various directions. She's a faded seductress and is constantly talking, constantly getting everyone to pay attention to her, to listen to her, to wait on her. Brando is in direct contrast, preferring to do most of his conversing with grunts. When they don't suffice he shouts and pushes and punches. He exudes raw, dangerous power, often of an obviously sexual nature. They disgust one another and the ensuing four months under the same, cramped roof come to press down on both of them. An explosion of some sort is inevitable.

Brando is magnetic. It's not hard to understand how he became one of the biggest stars, and finest actors, of his generation. His performance here, full of power and subtlety, is more than enough to make me want to track down more of his early work, such as On the Waterfront (also directed by Elia Kazan). And Life magazine has just posted this fascinating timeline of his life and career, to celebrate 60 years since his first screen appearance.

Though adapted from a play, and set largely in one location, the film never feels stage bound. Kazan has worked wonderfully to break the action out from the stage with a set that is both expansive and claustrophobic. He shoots and shoots and shoots from a variety of angles, often moving with the actors and keeping things alive, the tension growing. No easy answers are given in this adaptation, no quarter given; Brando is a wife-beating brute, but he's just so damned sexual Stella can't keep away from him. Your sympathy for Blanche dips and crests as you become annoyed and fed up with her, then understanding and finally crushed come the end.

The mere fact that I got to see this on the big screen, to have Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando once more stride at 24 frames per second, was wonderful. This marks the beginning (I hope) of the Embassy Theatre's programme of classic film for 2011. I know I'm not the only one who appreciates it, judging by the size of the audience in attendance. Even the Sunday matinee showing was reasonably busy. Film like these... they are cinema. At least to me. To see them at a cinema, in the dark and surrounded by strangers with the projector click-click-clicking away in the background (not that you can hear the Embassy's)... that's pure magic to me. And I'll never stop loving it.

April 4, 2011

30.03: BATTLE: LOS ANGELES

Battle: Los Angeles (or World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles if you're in not-America) is a very, very silly movie. In fact, it's kind of stupid - but not joyously so. It's a movie with one hook - a faux-documentary feel to following a group of Marines during an alien invasion. It tries to wring absolutely everything it can out of that photography choice and it is often nauseating and headache inducing. And to clarify: this is not a "found footage" type of film, like The Blair Witch Project or the more recent Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. This is more like an ADHD Bourne film.

It starts strong: right in the middle of the first stage of the invasion, with the Marine unit en route to they-don't-know-what. It immediately loses that forward momentum though when things cut back to 24 hours previous. And why cut back in time? To get to know these Marines I guess? So we maybe care about them a little when they eventually die in some alien-related fashion? Well, it would help if any of these Marines were actual believable characters. As they are, they're barely rough characterisations and speak in cliche and exposition. Yes, I don't really expect fully drawn and realised characters in this type of film, but there's got to be something more there - especially as we could have learned the same, if not more, about the characters once they hit the ground.  

And, really, you don't even have the visual effects for your eyes to distract you with. For a big, studio-based, effects heavy film a lot of the VFX look, frankly, cheap and shitty. While the cinematography (if, as the purists sniff, you can call it that) is there to all but scream at you THIS IS REAL! See, 'cos it's out of focus and stuff! What would have actually made the film more "real" would have been believable characters and decisions. Aaron Eckhart does his level best with the shoddy writing he's given. The script feels like a mash-up of Cloverfield, Independence Day, Signs and video-game cut scenes with none of the fun or inventiveness of any of them (it baffles my mind that some people are saying this is better than Independence Day. It's not).

It's not all bad, however. There are moments of pure visceral thrills and you really come to believe Eckhart as the tougher than nails Staff Sergeant Nantz. If there really must be a sequel, it could do worse than following Nantz once more into the breach. The film also works as an excellent way to blow out the cobwebs in your brain, just from it's sheer frenetic sense of action, action, ACTION! But if you're looking for a grunts vs. aliens film you really can't do better than Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. Everything that Battle: LA gets wrong, Troopers gets right: from the action, to the sly subversive intent, to the gore, comedy and fun.

April 3, 2011

26.03: IF GOD IS WILLING AND DA CREEK DON'T RISE

I did not make it to anywhere near the amount of films I wanted to at the recent Documentary Edge Festival in Wellington. There were various reasons ranging from being too damned busy to just being not damned bothered. The one I did make sure I saw however was Spike Lee's examination of New Orleans 5 years after Hurricane Katrina and more recently, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise is really two two-hour HBO specials, played together and is the follow-up to Lee's When the Levees Broke (which I unfortunately missed at an earlier Documentary Festival). Lee canvasses a wide range of people: going back to folk he talked to in When the Levees Broke, regular folk just trying to get on with their lives, New Orleaneans still displaced from their homes, mayors, the ex-Governor, intellectuals, journalists, actors, emergency workers... You get the idea. And the best thing he does is just let them talk. He does not try and insert himself into proceedings, doesn't ambush people in positions of power or goad anybody. He's just there, occasionally encouraging, occasionally questioning but otherwise, this is just the people of New Orleans and those associated with her recovery. 

Lee kicks things off with a suitably angry performance by a spoken word poet and this gives you a real sense of the frustration, anger and broken promises endured by these folk. But Lee isn't just focusing on this: we cut directly to the jubilant build-up to the New Orleans Saints at the Super Bowl - the first time they had ever made it. The sense of joy and anticipation, from the crowd at the stadium to the people crammed into bars is palpable. And when the Saints win... it's an explosion of carnival revelry and just a huge exhalation for a city that has faced a lot in recent times. 

But as great as the Super Bowl win is for the city, there are plenty of people still hurting. There are those who still bear the scars of Katrina; physically yes but, more often, emotionally and psychologically too. From projects dwellers who are kicked out to make way for condos, to people who have lost family or their support systems (such as schools). New Orleans seems to be a city whose infrastructure is still struggling to get it back on it's feet. And, as someone describes it in the film, Katrina is like a nuclear bomb that has exploded in the psyche of New Orleans. And this is, of course, when the new Governor decides to shut down the only dedicated mental health facility in the city. There are, sadly, many more tales like this in the film. And they're all told with such passion and honesty by the people involved (or, what you suspect may be honesty. With some of the political figures involved you can just never be sure as to whether they're covering their own asses or not).

The second half (or Part Two if you will) focuses on the wider tragedy of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It's a surprising shock to be reminded, helped by footage of the pipe gushing, that this went on for near to 3 months. This is a large scale environmental disaster that no-one outside of Louisiana seems too concerned about cleaning up. Not only does it directly affect people's lives and livlihoods but it has destroyed (and continues to do so) the wetlands and marshes that are such fertile breeding grounds. The fact that this happened, and that one of the most powerful, wealthiest countries in the world cannot get it's act together enough to help these people out... it's infuriating. This goes beyond thinking that some people just gotta help themselves. It's well and good to do that, but when you're life is destroyed by something entirely outside of your control, you need a little help sometimes.

Lee employs studio and location interviews. The studio interviews tend to suffer the most from... almost a tic; Lee frequently cuts from a frontal close-up on the subject to a profile. Often in mid-sentence and it really only distracts and annoys. But in the larger picture, it really becomes a minor quibble. Because what Lee has assembled here is akin to a patchwork quilt, or a kaledioscope: there is a full-range of people and views & impacts covered with an, at times, remarkably acute focus. This is a, well, it's a huge film that manages to take a lot in in it's 4 hour run-time. And this has made it very hard to write about - unlike a lot of recent documentaries there is no "narrative". This is just people - from artists to parents to activsits to teachers to journalists to emergency workers to mayors to governors to celebrities to Lee himself - trying their best to pick themselves and others up and march on. It is angry, joyous, shameful, disturbing and hopeful. Seek it out.