November 22, 2011


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

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

But not no more, no how.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 21, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

November 16, 2011

07.10: WARRIOR

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

November 7, 2011

05.10: THE LION KING (3D)

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

Only in America, huh?

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

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

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

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


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

November 4, 2011

01.10: 50/50

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

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

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

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

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

November 1, 2011


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