August 15, 2012

NZIFF 2012: Wrap up (Wellington edition)

The two most glorious weeks of the year have, once again, concluded.

The total number of films I saw is about half of what I got to last year (27 in total) and largely due to my low key presence during the first week (working on that all important second draft) the whole fest felt like it just whipped right on past me. I missed far more than I saw.

I had a lot of fun with films like The Angels' Share, How to Meet Girls From a Distance and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

How to Meet Girls From a Distance was particularly impressive given the limitations placed on the filmmakers. These guys were the winners of the inaugural Make My Movie competition, with a prize of a $100,000.00 production budget. Which, as anyone involved with making a film can tell you, is not a lot of money really. And then they only had a limited time to actually make the film and even less time to cut it, ready for the Festival. Chuck in the fact that they decided to make a romantic-comedy about a stalker and you can see that they weren't short of challenges.

I am so pleased I went to the Far Out Far East double feature of Henge and Young Gun in the Time that played at the same time as Moonrise Kingdom. Henge was a low-key body horror that morphed through oddity to domestic drama to mild conspiracy to murderous relationship to kaiju. Every time I thought I knew where it was heading, BAM! It went somewhere completely unexpected. And Young Gun in the Time is the follow-up film from the director and star from Invasion of Alien Bikini. It's a (very) low budget Korean time-travel film about a broke private detective. It wasn't incredible but it had a strange charm to it, and I had to respect them for making what they did with the budget they had.

As always, there were a couple of bum notes in the festival. While Beasts of the Southern Wild was in no way a bad film, and I absolutely enjoyed it... I was expecting more from it. I was expecting, nay hoping, to be grabbed by it; for the film to reach out to me and move me in some profound fashion. And while there was a lot to like about the film (seriously. See it if you get the chance), for me it just didn't have that indefinable "oomph".

V/H/S though was an entirely frustrating, boring and slightly painful experience. An anthology of found footage horror films, too many of them became about the gimmick than anything truly frightening. There were a couple of neat ideas in one or two of the segments but it was, overall, the low point of festival. Also: just about every single character/victim in these films were complete douchebags. I didn't really feel bad that any of them died in the end. Contrasted completely with Cabin in the Woods.

I am so damn thankful that I got to see Cabin in the Woods on the big screen. After all of the hoo-hah with MGM's finances going down the gurgler, a delayed release in the States and a threatened direct-to-DVD status in Australia and New Zealand I thought I would never get to see this wild ride of a film with a packed audience. But I did. THREE times. Every time was amazing. Every time was with a packed, fun-loving, appreciative audience. And one of those sessions was a weekday day-time screening and the other was a late addition that packed out in less than three days. That's at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington - a cinema with a 700-odd capacity. And boy-howdy the film delivered. Fun and crazy and inventive and intelligent and bursting with ideas and great performances. I want to see it again. Right now.  I had a lot of fun in the Cabin.

I also had a helluva time with Ben Wheatley's Sightseers. I went in utterly blank on what to expect. I have heard good things about Wheatley's Kill List (which I'm still hoping to see soon) and just went in blind. And I loved it. A strange, darkly comic British camping trip with two (somewhat) lovable and messed up people, I had a ball with it and encourage everyone to see it. It's an off-kilter film in the absolute best way possible.

Your Sister's Sister and Liberal Arts carried a gentler sense of humour to them and I enjoyed them enough, and they were finely made with some charmingly watchable performances, but they're not on the list of stand outs.


In addition to Marilyn and her diamonds and Gentlemen, the classics at the 2012 NZIFF were: 
The ShiningBonjour Tristesse and Mantrap. All of these films were my first ever viewings. I enjoyed the hell out of Gentlemen and Mantrap - I find Marilyn a fascinating actress to watch (in addition to, yes, being drop-dead gorgeous) and Mantrap was the live cinema event for Wellington. A Clara Bow starring silent from the 20's it was a lot of fun, even if it took a few odd turns. But boy, that Clara Bow was full of some popping zest! 

In her second low-budget scifi, Brit Marling told us to listen to the Sound of My Voice, Mads Mikkelson's falsely accused paedophile tried to evade The Hunt and Woody Harrelson stormed the Rampart in a racist haze of alcohol and cigarettes. All were fine films but, as with Beasts, they didn't quite grab me at the visceral, emotional level.

That task was left to the utterly devastating documentary Bully and the profoundly disturbing Compliance. I saw Bully the morning after Compliance which, as you will soon read, may have fed into my emotional response. Because that emotional response was... well, it was quite emotional. I'm not, generally speaking, a big crier at the movies. I'll get choked up from time to time, but I tend to hold the tears back or just not quite get to that emotional point. Bully had me weeping openly, profusely and often. The crew just spend time with these kids who are being bullied, with the families of the kids and with the families of kids who have taken their own lives due to bullying. The school system and the authorities are shown to be, at best, ignorant and, at worst, lazy and just not giving a damn. It should be noted, that Bully focuses on the extreme examples of bullying; these go beyond school-yard taunts and become physically and mentally aggressive. There is criticism to be levelled at the film and the possibility of different approaches untaken (really, it should be called "Bullied"), but this documentary hit me on an emotional level like nothing else.

But the film that really had an effect on me, the film that I am choosing as my pick of the fest, was Craig Zobel's Compliance. There are few films that have got under my skin as much as this one did. Based on true events, the film details the horrible and horrifying systematic degradation of a young fast-food restaurant employee. A man phones the manager, claiming to be a police-officer and accusing the pretty young blonde girl of stealing from a customer. Over the course of the day she is humiliated and violated by the manager and other people. I'm not the only one that was affected by the clinical degradation of the film: there were a number of walk-outs; people who could no longer stand to see what was happening to this innocent girl. And part of that comes from the (to us) patently outrageous commands and requests coming from this bodiless voice on the phone but that, over the course of the day, these people are berated and placated into following.
Compliance sent me out of the cinema angry, dizzy and spiraling into a weird, dark mental place. 

I may not have seen as many films at NZIFF 2012 as last year, but I can say that there will be a number of ones I did see that will stay with me for a long, long time to come. And that's why I go the festival every year.

July 24, 2012

Why I write this blog

What my head would've done if I hadn't written this
After posting my thoughts, on Twitter and here, on The Dark Knight Rises - a film that has had it's fair share of comments on, with a rabid fanbase hate-spamming negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes - there were a couple of comments that, thinking about them days later, have really riled me up. These comments have less to do with the content of my review/thoughts and more to do with the fact that I have had a review/thoughts.

That pisses me off to no end.

To be clear:

I do not write about movies to needlessly pick them apart.

I certainly don't do it to be cool.

I don't do it because I'm some pretentious over educated film student.

I do it because I love movies.

And because I'm a human fucking being.

Movies are the most popular form of art/entertainment in the world*. Films, like most forms of storytelling, have a power to them. Films are watched by young & old, rich & poor, the world over. They are accessible to just about everyone. Every. Single. Person. On the planet. They combine so many disparate elements: storytelling, visual language, sound, music... They are, to me, something fantastic.
You know what the best thing about going to see a movie with a group of friends is? Talking about it afterwards. Getting excited about what you loved in the film, trying to work out what went wrong, hearing and trying to understand different viewpoints. That's what I'm doing here. I'm trying to get my thoughts on a film out and on the interwebs, and hopefully provoke some discussion with fellow film-lovers. 

You absolutely should not, ever ever EVER, being going to a film and "switching your brain off". Why would you do that?! Film-making can be one of the most involving forms of story-telling possible! Sure, you might mentally opt out of a film if you get bored because it's not working for you, but that's entirely different to checking your brain out before you even get past the trailers. And if you're bored and the film isn't working? Why not try and switch your brain back on and think out why it's not working. I promise the experience will be much richer, and far more rewarding.

There has to be some level of engagement with the action onscreen, there has to be something, anything, to hook me in. It doesn't take much! Honestly. I'm more than happy watching a big-time action blockbuster - but there has to be an interesting character, or relationship, or it just has to be made really, really well. Fast Five is a great example. There's not a lot going on under the hood in that film, but it works. It really, completely works as a fun time at the movies. And I can think about that and understand why that's a fun film and why Transformers 2 & 3 aren't fun films. There doesn't necessarily have to be a deeper meaning to it all, or some hidden subtext. But it does have to engage me. If you're not engaged with a film, if you have no desire to engage and not think about it past the surface presentation? If you just want spectacle with pretty lights and big noises go and watch a fireworks display (which is not to say there cannot be a certain amount of artistry in fireworks).

So. That, in a big ranty nutshell, is why I write this blog. This is why I write about movies. I enjoy writing about them. I enjoy talking about. I enjoy engaging with them. I enjoy learning something new about them, or a viewpoint I hadn't previously considered. I know this post carries quite a large aggro vibe, and I do apologise for that. It's just something I had to get out of my head and onto a computer screen before my head exploded.

To everyone that reads this blog and talks about movies and whatnot with me here, on Twitter, on facebook and in real-life: thank-you.

*You could make the argument that video-games are more popular forms of entertainment, but in worldwide terms I would dispute that. And video-games are not "art", not yet.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: What I liked

Following on from my previous post on The Dark Knight Rises (and a lengthy facebook discussion), I realised I left out a few things I liked or enjoyed about Nolan's trilogy capping film. I have a tendency to do this I think; to become too critical and focus on what doesn't work with something. So, I wanted to offer, not a counterpoint, but a balancing post.

Needless to say, this will be getting spoilery too. 


So, here's some things I enjoyed in the film:

  • Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle. While never directly named Catwoman in the film, we all know who she is. And Hathaway was a marvel in the role. She alternated between fierce and a fake vulnerability with ease. She was sexy while never being just a sexual object. 
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt's good, honest Officer Blake. He projects so much, with so little movement. While he nor Hathaway reach the incendiary highs of Ledger's Joker they are the shining, stand-outs this go around. 
  • Michael Caine's Alfred is still the heart and cockney soul of the films. 
  • Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow/Jonathan Crane popping back up. I really love that he's made it through all three films. Surely the only villain to do so in consecutive comic-book films?
  • That, despite the themes not entirely gelling together or engaging, the fact that Nolan & Co. once again reached for something more than a man running around punching things in a rubber suit. 
  • That, intentional or not, the final bit in the final action scene with Batman towing the bomb around Gotham reminded me of this: 


July 23, 2012

Film review: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Designed by Ben Whitesell
Well, it's over. The final film in Christopher Nolan's Bat-trilogy is here, wrapping it all up. Sort of.

Two warnings before you read any further: I'm gonna get all SPOILERY up in here and this is less a "review" and more a grab-bag of thoughts on the film and trilogy as a whole.

And one final thought before I get further into the "review" or whatever I'm going to call it of the film itself. As we are all aware, someone made the horrific decision to fire upon and kill 14 people at a midnight showing of Rises in Aurora, Colorado. I'm going to try and keep my own thoughts and opinions about this frightening incident out of this post, as I frankly don't think this is the proper forum for me to be talking about it and I don't know that I'm even qualified to offer an opinion past the obvious horror and sadness. Honestly, what can I even offer that a multitude of other, better, writers haven't already? Instead this post will be solely focussed on the film itself and my thoughts on same.

With that said, on with the grab-bag.

The reason for it being more a grab-bag, more a series of impressions and thoughts than a well-rounded review? Well, to be honest, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I thought of the film. I came out of the two-and-a-half plus hours with a shrug of the shoulders and a vague feeling of "that's it?"

Let's get all the plot guff out of the way first shall we? 8 years on from The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is a hobbling recluse and the Batman has disappeared. However, ol' Brucie ventures out of the mansion when a slinky, seductive cat-burglar by the name of Selina Kyle swipes his mother's pearls. And just as Bruce is coming out of his self-imposed exile, a new villain arrives on the Gotham scene: Tom Hardy's massive and masked Bane. He's in town to follow through on Liam Neeson's plot to destroy Gotham from Batman Begins, with an overly complicated plot designed to net him a fusion-powered nuclear reactor or something. Which, after breaking Batman and tossing him down a hole, he sets on the looooongest countdown in history. Seriously, the bomb has a 5 month countdown. Why? Who the hell knows?

That 5 month countdown is really just a convenient plot device to allow Batman time to heal. Bane makes some mention of the wait being to allow the citizens of Gotham to hope for a saviour but... you never see a regular Gothamite or their reaction and the intangible idea of hope never coalesces in any meaningful fashion.

With Nolan's previous Bat-films, he has used them to explore or, at the very least, raise interesting themes and ideas and explored them through the Bat-villains. With Begins it was Fear tying into the Scarecrow and, on a larger scale, the League of Shadows and Batman himself. With Dark Knight it was Anarchy and Chaos, embodied in Heath Ledger's ghoulish Joker, as a directly opposing force to Batman's Order. With Rises... I hesitate to call it thematically inconsistent, as Nolan doesn't seem to really be truly engaging with any themes here. There are a number of possible avenues opened up (Hope? Evil?) but none that are fully explored. There are dalliances with popular uprisings and a tip-toe into the waters of the financial crises but the scatter-gun approach leads to the film feeling muddled on a fundamental level. What is it, exactly, that Bane represents? Whatever it may or may not be, it's completely undercut by the completely unnecessary and obvious twist reveal before the end. And once his usefulness to the plot is done with, he is summarily dispatched. Almost offhandedly.

Something I'm still processing, as a comic-book reader more than anything, is that this may not be Batman as we know him but it is unequivocally Nolan's Batman. The Batman I, and many other comic-book fans, know would not have quit after the events of The Dark Knight. In fact, the end of that film seemed to give Batman more impetus to continue his mission.

Which brings me to another point. Every other death in the trilogy has meant something; has resonated somehow. Whether it be Ra's al Ghul/Ducard in Begins or Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. In Dark Knight Rises, they just... happen. They don't tie in to the life of Bruce Wayne/Batman or the larger thematic concerns that Nolan may (or may not) be exploring.

Is Batman a conservative hero? What, if anything, is Nolan saying about the Occupy movement? Should Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Officer Blake have taken up the mantle of the Bat earlier in the film? Can anyone but Bruce Wayne be Batman? Where did Bruce Wayne's secret stash of inheritance money come from? Why did he have a bum leg if he quit crime-fighting? 
There's more to consider with The Dark Knight Rises but, for now, these are my thoughts.  

Also, Liam Neeson's ghost dissolve?! Really?! And "Robin"? C'mon. It's just so... off. 

July 13, 2012

Better late than never: PODCAST part 2

Following on from the first podcast post yesterday, here's parts three and four of "Shut the Hell Up, We're Talking Movies".

A big thanks also to Kevin MacLeod for the nifty title music.

Again, difficulty in actually getting the videos embedded from YouTube unfortunately means I must point you here for Part 3 and here for Part 4. 

July 12, 2012

Better late than never: PODCAST

So, as you may or may not recall, I mentioned a few months back that I was looking at getting a podcast up and going. Well, way back at the start of the year my friends Rajeev, Chris and I sat down and recorded the first (and, so far, only) episode of the Rockets and Robots "Shut the Hell Up We're Talking Movies" podcast. Unbeknownst to me, finding a suitable (and free) place to host the podcast seemed all but impossible and the enterprise got dropped by the wayside. 

But thanks to the tenacity of Rajeev, the podcast (or vodcast? It's video, so... I dunno) has the first two parts up on YouTube and you can watch them here! The other two parts should be up sometime tomorrow, and I'll be posting them here too. 

Let me know what you think - this is obviously a little out of date (being a wrap-up of 2011) - but any feedback would be helpful. I'll look around at other hosting options before recording anymore podcasts but hopefully they'll be a little more regular. 

On with the show!

(and, apologies, but this is only the first part. Blogger/YouTube is being a shit and not allowing me to find/link/upload Part 2. Direct link to it on YouTube here though)


Seriously, big ups to Rajeev for getting this up and in a watchable form. I'm just here nattering away and taking all the credit here. 

July 8, 2012

2012: The Best... so far

The Best of 2012: not this.
So, seeing as how we're just over halfway through the year and with the New Zealand International Film Festival on the horizon, I thought it might be a fine opportunity to take a quick look back at the months that were.

As you're aware, my writing on here has taken a backseat recently due to the workload associated with my MA in Scriptwriting. It's unfortunate, as one of my stated goals for this blog was for me to write about every film I see in a cinema during the year.

When putting together this "Best so far" though, it was interesting to me that there have been no real stand-out films since my writing about them dropped off. Take that as you will.

For reference, here's my "2012: Looking forward" post. Interestingly enough the first four films on that post are mirrored here.

Hugo

Martin Scorsese's 3D kids film was a wonderful love letter to the early pioneers of cinema, and to cinema in general. Something about it absolutely clicked with me and just fired me up. With a rare kind of joy just seemed to radiate from every frame Hugo was a fun, adventure filled call-to-arms that captured me utterly.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

You know how, sometimes, when you've been anticipating a film for a long-time, the kind of film that builds up a fair amount of overseas critical buzz, and when you finally see it the film doesn't hold up for you? This was not one of those films. Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of the John le Carre novel held me entranced as Gary Oldman's tired old spy set about.

Young Adult

Diablo Cody knocked it out of the fucking park for the script on this one. Mavis is a horrible, self-absorbed, impervious to change character but the way Cody writes her and the way Charlize Theron owns the role are, simply, inspirational to me. Not only is it a great, female-centric answer to the rash of "man-child" films that have seen release over the last few years, it effectively thumbs its nose at them and flips 'em the bird.

The Raid

Director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uweis took a gigantic leap up from their previous film together, Merantau and delivered the most intense, frenetic, kinetic, utterly enjoyable action film in years. This is a film you need to see with an audience; you all need to be wrapped up in the face-punching, flying-kick, elbow-smashing fighting, laughing, whooping and wincing together. But the boys don't just rely on the intense physical-interplay between cops and henchmen, they also layer in some simple but honest emotional beats and amp up the tension with consummate skill.

Margaret

Simply put, this is the best performance of Anna Paquin's career. Off cavorting with vampires and fairies now but way, way back when Margaret was filmed she dug deep into something honest and confronting and, yes, profound. Her character Lisa is hardly ever likeable, but she is empathetic. She's a young woman, struggling to make sense of and process the world around her - and that's key, really. The world around her; everything and everyone revolves around her, in her privileged teenage worldview. Margaret is shaggy, shambolic, frustrating, emotional, honest and more besides.

The Avengers

The pinnacle of comic-book filmmaking. I mean, how much do I really need to write about this film? Everyone saw it didn't they? It was absolutely everything I wanted and expected and even more besides. Even now, some months after last seeing it, I want to see it again. I love it, top-to-bottom, no questions, hands-down, flat-out love it. While not every comic-book movie needs to be (or even should be) like The Avengers, Joss Whedon and his tights'n'capes crew proved that smart, escapist fun done well still works.

So, that's a quick rundown of my favourite films so far. Feel free to share yours in the comments below; it's always interesting to see what clicked and didn't click with others. And even if you think the last 6 months have been absolute balls at the cinema, the rest of the year is shaping up to be a cracker. The films I'm still looking forward to: Cabin in the Woods, Looper, Django Unchained, The Master, Argo, Lawless (formerly The Wettest County) and Moonrise Kingdom. I feel the best is yet to come. 

June 29, 2012

New Zealand International Film Festival: My Picks (Wellington edition)

It's really getting into winter now which can mean only one thing for film-lovers: the annual New Zealand International Film Festival is once again on its way around the country.

Which of course means there are previews upon previews for upcoming films. And with the launch of the Wellington programme last night, I would be remiss if I didn't also offer my picks for 2012. Where possible, I've included links to trailers.

Hold onto your butts, and here. We. Go.

The opening night film is Beasts of the Southern Wild. I first heard of this coming out of Sundance and, aside from watching the magical trailer, I have avoided reading too much about it. It's one of those films I want to be a surprise.

Other films I've heard about but not read about to preserve as much of the discovery as possible, include the weird Cannes hit Holy Motors, the new film from Ben Wheatley Sightseers, the horror anthology V/H/S and Brit Marling (whose Another Earth I really, really didn't like) and her other low budget sci-fi Sound of my Voice. And, of course, the film rescued 
by Ant Timpson and the Festival from a direct to DVD release, Cabin in the Woods. One film I have seen but think everyone should see (everyone. I mean it), and with as little knowledge beforehand, is Klown. There's only the one showing in Wellington so make sure you get your tickets in early. 

The Festival is also chock full of great documentaries, with ten feature-length New Zealand docos this year! There's mad maestro Werner Herzog with a basket-full of films interviewing death-row prisoners (Into the Abyss and various Portrait of... films), the Keanu Reeves produced investigation of film vs. digital Side by Side and Bully which will no doubt be an emotionally traumatic (but rewarding) experience.

The classic films lined up for this year are a truly delicious bunch. I'll be seeing, for the first time ever and on the big screen, Stanley Kubrick's horror classic The Shining. I'm going to be falling in love with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell all over again in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and I'm sure to fall for Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse. And the Live Cinema event this year is the Clara Bow starring Mantrap.

This year the Festival has done something slightly different, when it comes to their selection of New Zealand shorts. In previous years there have been collections under the banner Homegrown. This year, in association with Madman Entertainment (who's logo I'll be seeing a lot of at the Festival) they're holding their first ever competition: New Zealand's Best. Other Kiwi films I'm looking forward to checking out are the two Wellington features Existence and How to Meet Girls from a Distance; a post-apocalyptic dystopia sci-fi and a twisted romantic-comedy respectively. Costa Botes makes his return with The Last Dogs of Winter,  his documentary exploring the endangered native Eskimo dog the Qimmiq. There's also a number of other great looking documentaries and a selection of Maori and Pasifika short films.

And then there's all those other films that I've been hearing about for the best part of a year, coming out of other film festivals or having small, limited runs overseas. Films starring big-time Hollywoood actors in dark roles, like Rampart with Woody Harrelson as a violent, intolerant LA cop or Killer Joe with Matthew McConaughey as a killer for hire or Bernie with Jack Black as a suspected murderer with the creepy moustache to prove it. I was honestly not expecting Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom to be in the Festival as I'm sure it already has a general release secured. But hell, I'm certainly not complaining about getting to see it early!

Looking over my scribbled notes, lists and spreadsheet I could quite easily keep writing about the great films on offer. The new Studio Ghibli film Up on Poppy Hill, the delightfully charming looking I Wish, the bizarre and amazing looking double feature Far Out Far East (featuring body horror and time travelling), the Joel Edgerton and Antony Starr, um, starring Wish You Were Here. I've been a fan of Mads Mikkelsen since Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself and his performance in The Hunt earned him Best Actor at Cannes. Mathieu Kassovitz's Rebellion about the French response to an uprising in New Caledonia should be intriguing and visceral. How I Met Your Mother's Josh Radnor directs Martha Marcy May Marlene's Elizabeth Olson in Liberal Arts, which should at least be funny and sweet. Sean Penn goes super intriguingly weird in This Must be the Place and Gael Garcia Bernal features in No as an ad man attempting to defeat Pinochet in Chile's referendum and The Loneliest Planet as an adventure tourist travelling with his girlfriend through the Caucasus mountains. Ken Loach has the sweary Scottish comedy The Angel's Share, Micahel Haneke ponders love and death with the Palme d'Or winning Amour and... see? I've just gone on and on and on. I was supposed to be wrapping it up in this paragraph.

Ok. So, I've given some of my picks but one of the true joys of the Festival is discovering cinematic gems yourself. Do yourself a favour: pick up a programme, flick through a few times and just pick some films. Pick something that you might otherwise never get the chance to see; don't just go to the big nights. Get along to the documentaries, the small indie charmers and shockers. Surprise yourself.

So, what are your picks so far?

June 17, 2012

Why I love movies

There was an article put up over at BadassDigest a few months ago by the FilmCrit Hulk about why he loves movies. It's a pretty great list and there's even more positive greatness in the comments section (how many times can you say that about an internet article?) and you should totally read it. After seeing The Good, the Bad & the Ugly at a screening last week it got me thinking again about all of the things that make me love movies. I'd also love to hear from anyone who wants to comment as to why they love movies - what is it about them that fuels your passion; that makes you want to watch everything, or make movies or just talk about them.

So here, in incomplete form, is why I love movies:

Because of Eli Wallach's run through the graveyard in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Because of Eli Wallach's introduction in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Because of Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Because of Grace Kelly


Because of Lauren Bacall

Because of Bogie

Because of Cary Grant

Because of Ed Wood

Because of Ed Wood

Because I have been lucky enough to see the following classic films, for the first time, on the big screen: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Once Upon a Time in America, An American Werewolf in London, Manhattan, Badlands, Lawrence of Arabia, Steamboat Bill Jr, The Lost World, Bambi, Metropolis, Touch of Evil, The Adventures of Robin Hood, It Happened One Night, The Asphalt Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, The Big Sleep, The African Queen, North by Northwest, The Freshman, Safety Last, M, Singin' in the Rain, Blue Velvet, A Streetcar Named Desire, Gone With the Wind and The Apartment

Because I've also been lucky enough to see these classics on the big screen: Alien, Die Hard, The General, Gojira, Taxi Driver, Blade Runner, The Sound of Music, Rocky, 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Jurassic Park, Enter the Dragon and Some Like it Hot

Because of the little kid who got freaked out in a screening of the silent horror classic The Cat & the Canary and the rest of the audience knowing exactly what that felt like

Because of live cinema events

Because of the Back to the Future triple feature at the Embassy Theatre earlier this year

Because of the New Zealand International Film Festival, every year

Because seeing a movie in the cinema is still the best way to experience it

Because I cry like a little child at the end of The Iron Giant every. damn. time.

Because of the
FilmCrit Hulk and how he has made me a better film watcher and writer

Because of those great soundtracks and themes that call to mind entire films with a few chords

Because of the work of Drew Struzan, Richard Amsel, Renato Casaro, Vic Fair and other amazing poster artists (check out the astounding Film on Paper)

Because of Mondo

Because of The American Astronaut, Rejected, Boy A, Donnie Darko, Winter's Bone, Cell 211, A Town Called Panic, Milocrorze: A Love Story and many more great, surprising and astounding films I've seen at film festivals

Because of Fantastic Fest

Because they combine visual, aural and chronal components in a way no other art-form can

Because of Terrence Malick


Because of Edgar Wright

Because of P.T. Anderson

Because of Paul Verhoeven

Because of David Lynch

Because of Martin Scorsese

Because of Steven Soderbergh

Because the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Diablo Cody all continue to make dialogue better

Because Sigourney Weaver rising four feet above the covers in Ghostbusters made me hide behind the couch as a kid

Because I had a VHS with RoboCop and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when I was a kid and it blew my mind

Because of the enthusiastic first night crowds I saw Spider-Man, X-Men 2 and The Avengers with

Because Rocky and First Blood are actually really, really good (also Conan The Barbarian)

Because of film noir

Because of Danger: Diabolik

Because of Jim Henson

Because of Buster Keaton

Because of Jackie Chan

Because of Arnie

Because of Marilyn Monroe

Because "Nobody's perfect!"

Because of Matthew McConaughy talking entirely in grunts in Reign of Fire

Because the first reveal of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park is still awe-inspiring

Because of stop-motion

Because of musicals

Because of the musical numbers, car chases and massive pile up in The Blues Brothers

Because, back in 1999, The Matrix blew my freaking mind

Because I've subsequently had my mind blown by There Will be Blood, The Fountain, Badlands, Animal Kingdom

Because, even now, when I see a truly drop-dead phenomenal film I feel it as a very physical thing

Because High Fidelity has helped me through some rough times

Because movies can still utterly destroy me and leave me a quivering, emotional wreck

Because movies can still utterly destroy me and leave me a laughing, gasping mess

Because there's trash and masterpieces... and sometimes they're the same film

Because of movie days/nights with my friends

Because of movie marathons

Because they're my autobiography

Because every single year sees the release of more amazing and surprising films that get added to my absolute favourites list

Because I still have so many great films to see

UPDATES:

Because Back to the Future is a perfect film in every aspect

Because of Christopher Reeve in Superman

Because The Princess Bride is still gloriously romantic and adventurous and hilarious and a little bizarre

Because of Bruno Lawrence in Utu

Because Gordon's alive!

Because of the school holidays I spent watching Hot Shots Part Deux! At least 15 times in 2 weeks

Because of Jimmy Stewart

Because of the cult of Bruce Campbell

Because I've seen Dirty Dancing a few times and I still don't get it. But I see why others do

June 10, 2012

Film review: PROMETHEUS (spoilers)

Poster by BLT Communications
Just in case you missed it right up there in the blog post title, this will be a SPOILER filled review of Ridley Scott's Prometheus
That covered, we can move on. 

And yes, hello. Welcome back. It's nice to come back and write about movies again and what better one to kick back in with than the highly anticipated prequel/side-quel/whatever to Alien? Lets get down to it shall we? Brass tacks as it were. Prometheus, celebrated director Sir Ridley Scott's return to the petered out Alien franchise, is really rather stupid. 

Yep. Stupid. For a film nominally about the search for the beginnings of human life, helmed by one of the smartest and visually interesting directors still working, Prometheus is monumentally bone-headed. The script, by Damon Lindelof from a draft by Jon Spaihts, is riddled with plot-holes and peopled by barely sketched and needlessly contradictory characters who blunder about and occasionally find themselves running into barely explored themes.

I barely even know where to start with talking about this. Before I saw Prometheus, I'd heard chatter that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. But still, I went in with my high hopes. Slightly dampened, but still. C'mon, right? This was Ridley Scott returning to Alien territory. Alien is still the best all of the various Alien films and sequels; much like the horrific xenomorph that stalks the corridors and ducts of the Nostromo it's a sleek, fierce and deadly film. There's no fat on Alien's bones and it is still a remarkable, frightening film. Prometheus has no idea what it is. It tries for drama, dread, thrills, deep questions and more and comes up short on all accounts.

Let's start with the characters. The ship Prometheus is peopled with a huge array of extraneous barely seen characters who are summarily beaten and chewed and killed to absolutely zero effect. They're barely there as cannon fodder. Our main characters fare little better. Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw is a barely defined muddle of a generic "scientist". At various points she is an archaeologist, astronomer, xenobiologist and more. Oh, and she's also vaguely religious too. 'Cos science and religion y'know, man? Woah. Her partner/husband is even less well defined, seemingly only to serve to get infected with the space-worms they find and then knock up Rapace with an alien space baby. Yeah. Sure. Okay. Whatever.

Similarly wasted are Rafe Spall and Sean Harris as a stupid biologist and oh-he's-a-geologist? respectively. Spall is a nerdy biologist who, at his first sight of a (dead) alien body decides he wants to scarper back to the ship. But, after he and Harris get lost (again, stupid stupid plot-hole. Harris is the geologist for fuck's sake! Not to mention there's a big ol' holographic map back on the ship detailing all of the explored caves and where everyone is. And they all have nifty gadgets on their suits that provide them with co-ordinates. It is unforgivably bad writing that they get lost) and they find some mutated-alien goo worms that look exactly like penis eels with vaginas for faces, Spall wants to give it a cuddle. Freaked out by a long-dead alien but totally ok with a living alien creature.

Coming out slightly better off are Charlize Theron as the calculating boss, Meredith Vickers and Idris Elba as the charming, working-class pilot Janek. But they're not really given enough to do and the film would have benefited from focussing on them more. In fact, I would have much rather followed Theron's icy corporate type than Rapace's poorly defined scientist; she's a better character and Theron is a markedly better actor. Oh, right - and Guy Pearce shows up in old-man make-up as an elderly Peter Weyland 'cos... there are no old actors in Hollywood? And he's Theron's dad - which is just thrown out there arbitrarily and entirely un-revelatory.

It's Michael Fassbender, as the android David, who really comes out the best. Fassbender's performance is great from beginning to end; some of the best stuff is in the first 20 minutes and is just David hanging out, shooting hoops, watching (and cos-playing as) Lawrence of Arabia during the crew's cryo-sleep. He's fascinating to watch and you get the feeling Fassbender has been tricked into thinking he's in a much better film than he actually is.

Almost ironically, David is the most human of all of the characters. He really is more relatable than any of these other dunderheads. Upon discovering alien life - honest-to-gods proof or alien life and civilisations, not to mention being the things they had set out to find in the first place - there is almost uniformity in how the crew reacts: meh. Dead or not, this marks the most significant discovery in human history and no-one really gives a shit. Because Scott wants to hurry up and get to trying to scare you.

This seems like a lot of bitching, and a lot of bitching at surface details at that. Apologies but it's just, the more I've been thinking about it, the more pissed off and disappointed it's making me. 
This could have been, and really should have been, something more. Something larger than any of the Alien films, grappling as it does with the very beginnings of mankind. There was the chance for Prometheus to be an elegant, moving science-fiction film with some great terror thrown in. But  Scott obviously no longer even cares about things like story, characters and themes. He's all about the visuals. And, to bring in some positivity, the visuals in Prometheus are suitably staggering. They are images of strange, otherworldy beauty; vast alien landscapes (some right here on Earth) that stretch to the stars. But now, much like his brother Tony, Sir Scott only seems to give a damn about how it all looks. 

It just, aaggh! It's all so monumentally stupid. The second scene of the film has Rapace and her partner man finding a series of cave paintings on the Isle of Skye in Scotland - except the cave paintings are lifted directly from the Chauvet cave already and recently explored by Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Sure, your average movie-goer will probably skip right over that but to me it is a perfect example of the lack of ambition inherent to the film. Scott and Lindelof aren't interested in exploring questions any further than just asking the questions. And by asking the questions, I mean they have characters, at various times, asking these questions directly.

Prometheus is a visual marvel, I cannot call attention away from that. It looks absolutely phenomenal - quite possibly the best looking film of the year. But there's nothing really going on underneath that. The film is all surface, desperately pretending to have hidden depths but failing to engage in any meaningful way. It doesn't hold a candle to the original beast and Alien still stands tall as the greatest of them all. 

As a bonus: I think I've solved the riddle of Prometheus. In the film, the Engineer's (the space jockey creators of human life) are killed off some 2,000 years ago, just before they're readying to wipe out life on earth. And the question is asked (often but, again, barely explored): why? I think I have the answer. What happened 2,000 odd years ago in human history? Why, Jesus Christ of course. The Engineers got wind of this and that's where the decision came from. King of the Jews? Can't be having with that! The Engineers are inter-galactic anti-Semites. YOU'RE WELCOME.

May 8, 2012

STATE OF THE BLOG

To all those still reading, 

I just wanted to take a quick moment, a very quick moment, to address the current state of rockets and robots are GO! As you may have noticed, there hasn't been a new post on here for a while. For a rather longer than intended while in fact. And this state of affairs is not down to me not having anything to write about - I still have a number of films from the World Cinema Showcase that I haven't written up yet. No. I am, perhaps for the first time, too busy to dedicate all of the energy I would like to this blog. 

And frankly, it's really damned awesome that I'm too busy. As I'm sure I've mentioned I am currently working towards my Masters in Scriptwriting this year. It's been a fairly full-on course so far and things are really just starting to ramp up. And I love it. But damn things are hectically busy at the moment, in this totally different sphere of my writing right now.

I'll still try to write about every film I see in a cinema during the year. That's my stated mission goal for this blog and I intend to stick with it. I'm not entirely sure what form these pieces will end up taking, but they will be there. For now though, this corner of my writing world needs to take a back seat. I've got a huge amount of work and I feel it is absolutely essential that I focus on that for now.

There might be some slow down, but I'll still be here.

Thanks for reading,

Andy

April 25, 2012

Movie review: THE AVENGERS

Black Widow, by Olly Moss for Mondo
Before I get to my actual review of The Avengers I'm just going to talk a little bit about comic-book/superhero movies in general and my reaction to some of them and the increasing trend of them. And, let's face it, The Avengers is something of a turning point for this recently popular sub-genre.

I'm old enough that I remember the early days of this recent trend: I remember hearing about the Wesley Snipes starring Blade (I was too young then to get in to see the R-rated slashenings) and the storied rumours of an upcoming X-Men film (my favourite comic-book characters). I remember watching the TV movie of Generation X with my mates, so starved of comic-booky movies were we. A Spider-Man movie looked to be an impossibility, with the character's rights tied up in weird legal legally things. Superman hadn't been around for awhile (not since he Quested for Peace and fought on the moon). Batman had recently shat the bed. And Judge Dredd had taken a steaming shit on the multiplex.

But after X-Men hit in 2000 things started to improve for the frustrated comic-book/movie geek. Then Spider-Man swung in in 2002 and got the mainstream geeking out about people in tights. Thwip! KA-BOOM! The floodgates opened: Hellboy, more X-Men, the return of Superman, more Spider-Man, Batman got real, Fantastic Four, Hulk got art-housed, Daredevil, Constantine, more Blade, people even watched the Watchmen and the X-Men went back to class. Indie, non-superhero comics like Ghost World and American Splendour even got a look in. And the superhero genre itself has been skewered with the likes of Kick-Ass and (the not based on a comic-book) Super.

And so, late last decade, Marvel Comics decided to stop shilling its characters out to other studios and instead began developing their own movies based on their large library of characters. Thus, in 2008, Iron Man was released and the first step on the road to The Avengers was taken. Since then Hulk became Incredible, Iron Man got a sequel and two characters who I felt sure would never grace the silver screen got fairly great movies: Thor and Captain America.

So within that context, you can see how The Avengers is a culmination of not just these characters and four years of Marvel Studios films but something that has been building for a decade now. The Avengers is the first spin-in film; the first film to have characters from their own starring films appear in the same film together and facing a threat no single one of them could defeat on their own. The Avengers is, to paraphrase Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal.

There is so much that could have gone wrong with this film; I'd be lying if I wasn't just a little worried going in. Not only did the threat have to be big enough to pull all of these characters together - a super soldier, a high-tech man-as-weapon, a god, a monster and two highly-trained black-ops spies - but there was a balance that needed to be struck between all of these disparate characters. Not only did they all have to have their own storylines and moments to shine but the chemistry between them had to be right, had to work seamlessly.

The good news is: it works. It all, amazingly, works. The Avengers is big, bold, confident, emotional and a very real, very large achievement and turning point. Frankly, given the history of similarly packed superhero films The Avengers has absolutely no right working as well as it does. Those worries that the chemistry and characters could be the biggest weaknesses are instead film's greatest strengths. And no small thanks should be given to writer/director Joss Whedon for this. A favourite among the geek community, his only other feature film directorial credit was for Serenity, the continuation of his much admired but cancelled TV show Firefly. In hindsight, Serenity was a near perfect training-ground for The Avengers: peopled with characters who already have an established history but not one that is known by everyone in the movie-going public they all have to be introduced, have their own arcs and times to shine. 


The various members of the team, far from being one-note and voiceless, are instead given moments upon moments that distil their essence. Chris Evans' Captain America remains my favourite Avenger - he's such an unpretentious, aw-shucks kind of good guy you cannot help but like him. But characters like Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow are really given time to shine here: in between the explosions and martial artistry she's given a real characters storyline and we're given more of an insight into who she is and what drives her. Mark Ruffalo subbing in for Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner/the Hulk brings a completely different energy to the role, and I have trouble seeing how Norton's intelligent intensity would have worked with the dynamic. And when Ruffalo becomes the Hulk, it's a Hulk we haven't really seen before and he is absolutely one of the (many) highlights. Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man was the character I was most worried about: I feared him dominating proceedings due to the outstanding success of the previous Iron Man films and the upswing Downey Jr's career is currently on. But Whedon's smarter than that. Sure, Downey Jr likely gets the lion's share of the cracking one-liners but he doesn't come to overly dominate proceedings.

Tom Hiddleston's Loki (along with Hugo Weaving's brilliantly demented Red Skull) has been one of the great comic-book movie villains and here he is even wilder, crazier and vengeance-driven than in Thor. Hiddleston continues to impress as the emotionally volatile god of mischief and the relationship and interplay between him and his brother, Chris Hemsworth's Thor, is one of the stronger in a film of strong relationships. Hemsworth's Thor is still a delight to watch. Thor is such an out-there character, a god bestriding the world of mortals, but Hemsworth continues to play the human in the divine. And the more human characters, Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson, are also given their time in the spotlight. Jackson's Fury really gets a bump up here and Coulson, a surprising common thread through most of the separate films, really comes into his own in The Avengers. The only major character to really get short-shrifted is Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye; but even then he has his own very definite arc within the film.

Surprising me, in the most delightful way, is how downright hilarious the film is. It never veers into mocking or camp territory; Whedon and co-plotter Zak Penn are too respectful for that. Instead, it is dialogue and moments of humour that are used to illustrate character and punctuate tension. There are laughs, with nary a one not landing, throughout: from these larger-than-life characters arguing on the Helicarrier to the big-time balls out finale.

And that final battle that rages across New York City is a wonderful piece of action/comic-book filmmaking. Not only is it a visual spectacle, but the outcome actually matters because the character's care and matter. Coming into the film, this was one of my biggest worries. Whedon, as a director of big-time cinema action, is relatively untested. But, boy howdy, he and his crew really get into it with confidence and an amazingly sure hand.

The Avengers
 is, in many ways, the ultimate distillation of a comic-book movie. While Nolan has been stripping Batman down to a more "realistic" level, Whedon fully embraces the world of the comic-book. He is a man who knows his genre and has no qualms opening himself up to the craziness of it all: just like in the best team-up comic-books, the heroes come to blows with one another; there is crazy sci-fi tech (the SHIELD helicarrier) and aliens, gods and super-heroes fit side-by-side effortlessly. Whedon has an incredible amount of fun with that world and these characters and I had a big-ass grin on my face almost the entire way through. 

If I was to review
The Avengers completely dispassionately it was probably not the best idea to see it at a midnight showing, with 700-odd other amped-up geeks. But as a fan, this is exactly how I wanted to see The Avengers and it was the most wonderful, pure and entertaining piece of superhero cinema yet. We were all whooping, laughing and cheering as one; every single person in that cinema had the time of their lives. I, unashamedly, unreservedly and geekily, loved the hell out of The Avengers.

I almost still can't quite believe it, but The Avengers have assembled. And they're phenomenal. 

April 21, 2012

Quick review: THE FRONT LINE (World Cinema Showcase)

The Front Line is a Korean film set in the dying months of the Korean War and is a film that has taken a lot of obvious influence from Western war films, particularly the World War II films of Hollywood. It has a knowledge of the genre tropes and the typical characters that populate a film such as this. It goes big, bombastic and with a clear obvious message at it's heart.

My knowledge of the actual war itself is incredibly sketchy, something I should really rectify. But any sense of history isn't really required, as the film takes place during the protracted negotiations to end the war; negotiations that have dragged on for years. South Korean CIC Officer Kang Eun-pyo is dispatched to a post on the front line - a sad, dirty camp that has fought with the North Korean army over a single shitty hill for far too long. One day the South Koreans have the hill. The next, the North. The day after it's back with the South. This has gone one for months. At the camp Eun-pyo (who, from what I could gather, is some sort of MP) finds his friend Kim Soo-hyeok, who he thought was MIA years ago. Soo-hyeok has been aged by the war into a hardened, bad-ass officer making his way up the ranks by attrition.

Eun-pyo doesn't really do much in the way of investigating reports of a camp mole, but instead serves as the outsider whose eyes we see these beaten soldiers through. They're a close-knit group but allow Eun-pyo and the fresh-faced new recruit he brought with him into their fellowship. Less welcome is the new CO; he's from the school of ignorant, pompous braggart of Movie Officer Training School.

The bulk of the film is taken up with various excursions to and from the hill, battles that win it and battles that lose it. Also hiding in the surrounding countryside is a North Korean sniper nicknamed "Two Seconds" by the poor bastards that come under fire. But within all this brutal warfare there are moments of shared humanity - a hidey-hole where soldiers from both sides swap notes, booze and cigarettes. It becomes an exhausting watch, getting a little bogged down in the constant fighting and sense of tension but makes up with a couple of unseen turns (or, at least, unseen for the time they happen at).

The final third is where The Front Line really, painfully hits its mark: after yet another painful assault peace is finally declared. But, due entirely to a stupid bureaucratic fuck-up, the higher-ups on both sides decide there's still 12 hours left to fight of this devastating war. It's a kick to the guts for the characters and the audience. And director Hun Jang really uses the time to hammer his point home: what, exactly are they all fighting for? None of the poor grunts slugging it out on the front lines know. Who the war doesn't kill it utterly destroys.

This is very much a Korean tale to be told and I'm glad it was told by Koreans and for Koreans. Despite the obvious influence of their filmmaking style, the American (and UN) forces barely make any sort of appearance.

April 18, 2012

Quick review: MARGARET (World Cinema Showcase)

Famously delayed, Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret makes it to NZ courtesy of the World Cinema Showcase, after an incredibly minimal release in the States.

Anna Paquin's Lisa Cohen and her reaction to witnessing and being part of deadly bus accident is the focus of this long-in-post film. It is the examination of a precocious and self involved teenager who is involved in an horrific and deadly accident - both as an observer and cause - and struggles to comprehend and move on from it; it is a film almost tangentially focussed on the aftermath of 9/11 in America and New York (filming as it did in 2005, just 4 years after those attacks).

The cast is one of outstanding quality. Paquin is given the opportunity to really do something special here and she grabs it with both hands and tears into it. Lisa Cohen is not an easy person to know, or even a very likeable one; she's in many ways a typical teenager arguing with her mother, flirting with the cute teacher and she carries a fierce intelligence, her speech often hyper-articulate. But she is, at heart, still a teenage girl more lost than she even knows. As she struggles with her own sense of guilt she throws herself into the lives of the accident victim's friends, berates the police and charges forward with a lawsuit in her struggle to accept and share the responsibility.

Surrounding her are Matt Damon, Jean Reno, Matthew Broderick and Mark Ruffalo. Though all of their parts, at least in this cut, are minimal they all make an impression. And doing impressive work as Lisa's mother and her mother substitute are J. Smith-Cameron and Jeannie Berlin. As the film is equally about Lisa and her mother and the woman who becomes something of a mother substitute for Lisa.
 It is a film of people talking; talking at and too one another, people yelling at one another, people arguing and being disappointed in one another. 

It is also a film about New York, with the camera often taking to wandering the skyline or watching the traffic passing on rain soaked streets. There is something almost Terrence Malick-like about the way Lonergan captures the city that never sleeps. There is beauty in the city, in addition to ominous images of air-planes and helicopters flying through or near the city.

It's a messy, shaggy, oblique and occasionally frustrating film. But then so is life and that's rather the point. Yes, you could lock Lonergan back in the editing room (or out) and cut a storyline here, cut a storyline there, nip & tuck a few things and make Margaret a stream-lined film about one thing and one thing only, but then that would really be taking away a large part of what makes Margaret special. It's flawed and one of those films that is kinda great because of those flaws. 

April 17, 2012

IN APPRECIATION OF... SOME GREAT (BUT OFTEN OVERLOOKED) TV CHARACTERS

For my In Appreciation of... column this month (yes, I'm trying to do them monthly-ish now) I thought I'd have a bit of fun. Rather than focussing on one particular (usually) film related thing, I'd instead turn by spray-like focus to the world of TV and some of the great characters that reside therein.

First, and perhaps most importantly, this will not be a complete list. I hesitate to even call this a list - the world of the film blog is already infested with far too many of them - but perhaps think of this more as a spotlight. And feel free to add some of your favourite (but overlooked) TV characters in the comments; there's no reason we can't start a conversation rather than it just be me typing away into the cyber-aether.

Woah. Ok. Back on topic: as we are all aware the realm of television has been experiencing a golden age lately. From The Sopranos (quite rightly seen as the godfather of this age) and The West Wing to The Wire and Mad Men these are the new homes of great characters as writers, actors and directors are given the space to allow the characters to grow and breathe in new and exciting ways.

So to reiterate, this won't be a complete spotlight. There are any number of great shows I just haven't had the chance/time to really dedicate my time to (Treme, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire etc). These are also all characters and shows from a recent years and there are any number of reasons for this: that aforementioned Golden Age, these shows being topmost in my recollection and hopefully these can serve as introductions to new favourite characters you just haven't met yet, but can easily catch up on. There's really only been one rule of thumb for me when I was compiling this: that the character is legitimately great but has been overshadowed by, not necessarily stronger, but more fan-friendly/stand-out characters.

One last quick note: I deliberately haven't included any characters from The Simpsons or The Wire. Over their 20+ seasons The Simpsons have mined every single character, minor character and background character for all they're worth. Whereas The Wire has nothing but great characters. To pick just one from that cast would be an exercise in futility.

Let's kick it off:

How can you not love this?

Britta Perry from Community

Community is a flat-out great TV show and makes for hilarious comedy. And one of the reasons it works? The characters. This study group of community college no-hopers are some of the strongest, believable characters on any TV show. And one of the best is Gillian Jacobs' Britta Perry.

In a TV show filled with great characters (Troy & Abed, Dean Pelton, Magnitude (Pop pop!) and more) Britta is one who is often overlooked. Which is a shame, as she is a truly great character. While I, and I'm sure many geeky others, identify more with the characters of Troy & Abed or laugh at the Dean and his outrageous outfits, it is Britta and, more importantly her evolution, that I really find fascinating and hilarious. Britta started out as the annoying, slightly shrill party-pooper of the group but she has become more... real. She's still the party-pooper, but not because she wants to spoil the fun, but because she's just so uncool. And here's the great thing: she thinks she's actually really cool and together. But she's awkward and not nearly as cool as she thinks she is and kind of knows.

She's a strong female character in a pop culture starved of them. And it's not because she has it all together, is boringly sensible and has all the answers but because she doesn't. Also, she dresses up as a squirrel, a T-rex and can't pronounce "bagel".


Helo from Battlestar Galactica

The rebooted and refitted Battlestar Galactica was another show packed to the gunships with great characters. Within one show you have a gruff but lovable commander, his booze-soaked and cranky XO, the uptight and proper son of the commander, the bolshy civilian president and one of the all-time greatest female characters in the form of Katee Sackhoff's Kara "Starbuck" Thrace. And amidst all that, it's not much of a surprise that Tahmoh Penikett's Karl "Helo" Agathon got lost in the shuffle, despite his impressive height.

But Helo was an equally great and fascinating character and, even more importantly, he was the conscience of the show. He was, in many ways, the most selfless and most heroic character. When the world was, literally, ending he gave up his seat on the last flight out (to Dr. Gauis Baltar, the most quixotic weasel to ever grace TV screens), fell in love with and had a child with a Cylon and, thanks in no small part to that love, stopped Adama and Roslin from committing genocide on the Cylon race.

When no-one else wanted the job, Helo took over administration of the refugee camp on Galactica and strenuously defended their rights. He served as the XO when Tigh had crawled too far into his bottle. He believed in Starbuck's visions/feelings enough to accompany her in the search for Earth. Helo was steadfast, loyal and never compromised his own sense of what was morally right. That in itself should set him apart, as BSG was a show full of characters making painfully compromised decisions in order to simply survive.

Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation


It's taken me awhile to get on board with Parks & Rec. My initial reaction was predicated on the faux-documentary style of the show, which I have become bored of now. But, once I got past that foolish assumption, I found a show about a great bunch of characters, all lead by a wonderful, passionate woman who loved her job.

Most people, quite rightfully so, love Nick Offerman's Ron Swanson. He is, after all, a mustachiod man's man happiest when he's having a breakfast of meat, bacon and meat. But the hero (and main character) of the show, the beating heat of the Parks Department, is Leslie Knope. She is a character at a complete 180 to Ricky Gervais' awkward and often hateful David Brent. Leslie loves her job, she truly believes in the Parks Department and despite her occasional exasperation with some employees, loves everyone working there. She is relentlessly cheerful and dedicated and somehow despite all of the hours long meetings, dawn brainstorming sessions and unpaid concert set-ups she organises, she has the respect and loyalty of her staff and boss.

When others give in or can't be bothered, Leslie happily steps up and fills folder upon folder with ideas and sketches. She looks for the good in people and situations and only wants to do right by the good people of Pawnee and give them the best Parks Department they've ever had. For all of us wage slaves hating our jobs, or people struggling to make a living out of what we love to do, Leslie Knope is nothing short of an inspiration.

Dean Winchester from Supernatural

Supernatural is a show I've only recently got into (having just finished Season 2) but I'm pretty much a fan already. About two brothers who are also Hunters; that is they criss-cross the States in search of monsters, legends and spirits. It's like a cross between Buffy and The X-Files but is still very much its own thing. The anchor of the show is the often contentious but always close relationship between the two brothers: Sam and Dean Winchester.

While Sam is the ever-questioning younger brother, with the vague hacking/IT skills and the (cut short) Ivy League college career, Dean is a simple man at heart. He loves his car, heavy rock, horror movies and girls. He has little knowledge of the modern world (MySpace and such) and likes it that way. He's not afraid to speak his mind or defend his family.

And that's the defining characteristic of Dean right there: he's the ultimate big brother. Where he probably gets noticed more for his dry wit and id-based hilarity, it his desire to protect Sam at all costs that defines him. He has a secretly low opinion of himself, seeing himself as utterly expendable in the efforts to protect his little brother (who he enjoys teasing mercilessly). While the moments of "Dean-ness" capture your attention, it is those unguarded moments that occasionally make themselves known that truly get to you. A character more complex than first glance would guess at, Dean Winchester is a big reason I'm now such a fan of Supernatural


Zoe from Firefly

Now, this is a character from a show I almost excluded from consideration, purely down to the fact that, again, every character is a strong one. But when I thought about it more, there a few characters that stand-out and hog all the conversation: Nathan Fillion's gruff but lovable Captain Mal, Adam Baldwin's man of pure id Jayne Cobb and Jewel Staite's sweet and sexual Kaylee. Which is fair enough; they're all great notable characters. But there's one character on the crew of Serenity that does a lot of heavy lifting in the background, and so deserving to be on this list: Gina Torres' Zoe.

Zoe is the Amazonian warrior-mother figure of the good ship Serenity; fiercely protective of those in the crew, quick to direct violence on those who would do mischief to them. She's the dutiful soldier, taking orders without question from the Captain but who is really the one holding him/it all together. And just because she follows orders and keeps a cool countenance, doesn't mean she's an unfeeling robot who blindly follows.

She's a woman who hides a dry and witty sense of humour; the moments when you see Zoe laughing are when you know it's really funny. She'll give sass to the Captain and enjoys a joke with the crew. And c'mon; of course she's not a humourless warbot: she's married to Wash! The pilot who wears Hawaiian shirts (despite there likely being no Hawaii anymore) and plays with plastic dinosaurs. Zoe is a woman of hidden depths and who is cool and fierce in equal measure. She's the last lady you want to double-cross but the first you'll turn to when your back is against the wall.


So, that's some characters from me. Again, not complete or absolute by any means but merely a smattering of characters worthy of more attention than they generally receive. Who would you have on here? 

April 16, 2012

review: THE BACK TO THE FUTURE TRILOGY

amazing poster by the great Drew Struzan
As anyone who follows my twitter (@TheRocketRobot) knows, on Friday night I and a couple of mates attended a marathon viewing of the complete Back to the Future trilogy at the Embassy theatre here in Wellington. This was, to be absolutely literal, a dream come true.

If you've read this blog, or my twitter, or even just talked casually to me in person then you'll know that I am a passionate defender of the cinema. Despite the multifarious options available, the cinema is still the undisputed best place to see a movie. We can argue the merits of 35mm vs DCP, but that's beside this particular point. And that was proved with the screening of the first Back to the Future. It was a packed audience - some 500 or 600 people - and there were fans and first-timers alike. But everyone, everyone, loved it. And this is why the cinema experience trumps anything else. When you're in the middle of an appreciative audience, all wrapped up in the unfolding cinematic magic on screen... well, you just don't understand why people would download and watch on a tiny screen.

And that's the other thing - the cinema screen. These three films happened to be DCPs, as Universal is apparently releasing a number of their classic films to celebrate their anniversary. But for someone like me, who has only ever seen these films on DVD, it was like watching an entirely new film. I never noticed how wildly animated Christopher Lloyd's face is, or how truly beguiling and enchanting Lea Thompson is. Not to mention the pleasure of a larger-than-life Crispin Glover, who's George McFly is so wonderfully weird, with that slight whisper of a voice and his limbs flailing about. And that's not even mentioning the secret hero of the cast: Thomas F. Wilson. His various Tannen's (whether they be young Biff, middle-aged Biff, old Biff, Griff or Mad Dog) are sneer-worthy villains, all of them without redeeming characteristics and just this side of moustache twirling. He's a big lug and the audience can't help but cheer as he is covered in manure again and again and again.

The first Back to the Future is still my favourite and, to my mind, the best of the trilogy. The emotional story is so strong and the script is unquestionable perfection. It's simply a tight adventure script, with great characters and humour that Hollywood just doesn't seem able to do any more. Anchored by all-time great performances from character actors, new comers and a TV star the first Back to the Future is the big-budget studio system at it's very best. And this showing of it was the greatest viewing I've ever had of it. I had the greatest time and loved the enthusiasm from the crowd: the DeLorean got a cheer on it's first appearance.

Part II is still a good film but it doesn't have the same emotional connection as the first one. To me, it works more on an intellectual level than the emotional as we unwind the tangle of time that Doc Brown's DeLorean has created. To some extent the second film is just further set-up for the third and you can all but see Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis attempting to live up to the promise of the end of the first film. It's still strange to me that Jennifer is picked up by the Doc to be taken to the future, only to be dumped for most of the rest of the film. Which is not to rag on the film entirely. The way Gale and Zemeckis tie Part II into the first film, going back into it and having Marty desperately run around trying to ensure everything happens as it did but also running into even more obstacles is a lot of great fun. And the extent of the set-ups for Part III are staggering. It just lacks that sweetness that was so inherent to the first. But hey, it did also give us a flying DeLorean, hoverboards and automatically lacing shoes.

Part III would be my second favourite of the trilogy and is just a whole lotta fun. I read a quote from Gale or Zemeckis somewhere that they set Part III in the Old West simply because they'd always wanted to make a Western. So they did. It's a blast of pure, unbridled fun to wrap up the trilogy as Doc and Marty play at cowboys in Hill Valley, 1885. Along the way Marty invents the frisbee, runs into his great-great-grandparents and the Doc falls in love. And there's that emotional story that helps tie in the film together and lets the audience in. If Part III is anyone's film, it's the Docs; he truly takes centre-stage as the sweet but badass blacksmith/inventor. To top everything off Part III was doing steampunk before steampunk was even a thing. So, I guess that's one "future" thing the trilogy was bang on the money with. Watching all three films on that big screen, back-to-back-to-Back you really pick up how tight all of the scripts are, how they have numerous set-ups and pay-offs (sometimes taking an entire film or more to pay-off) and how they have numerous echoes throughout each one. They hardly ever call attention to themselves but allow neat little moments for people paying attention.

Honestly, I never, ever thought I would get to see the first Back to the Future in a cinema, let alone a marathon of the entire trilogy. Absolutely a life dream fulfilled on Friday night and now I can only look forward to whatever comes next. The Indiana Jones trilogy? A Hitchcock marathon? Predator? RoboCop? Cinemas: you play 'em and I'll be there with a giant grin on my face and as many friends as I can get together in tow.