December 29, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 26, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Earth

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

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

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

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

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

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

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

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

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

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

December 22, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

December 20, 2011

09.12: THE HELP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 11, 2011


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

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


Flowers in the gutter

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

Not to be.

I love the strange things you can find anywhere

Comings and goings at Wellington harbour

My home town. I love shots of Wellington city.

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

December 7, 2011


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

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

So! Concept sketches ahoy!

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

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

Just some doodles. A dinosaur, why not?

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

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

December 2, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yes, for my preference, on 35mm.