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


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


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. 

April 9, 2012

Quick review: CORIOLANUS (World Cinema Showcase)

You gotta give Ralph Fiennes credit for the size of his balls. Not only does he make his directorial debut adapting Shakespeare, but he does so with one of the Bard's lesser known plays and one that has never previously been filmed. That takes chutzpah.

One of Shakespeare's tragedies, Coriolanus is set in ancient Rome. The title character is a gung-ho general in the army, happy to charge into fierce battle with his men and with a prideful disdain for the common citizens. Events take a turn for the worse when Coriolanus is pimped up for a place on the Senate and two slippery types decide to turn the people against him. He is banished from the city; from the home he has fought and bled for and surrenders himself to the city's great enemies, to help them overthrow the Roman people. Through prideful vengeance he turns on the people of his home and visits ruination upon them.

So, it is a play with a lot to it; with a lot of meaty themes to chew over. And Fiennes updates the setting to modern times; to a modern Rome as an obvious stand-in for the United States. He makes ample use of CNN and "action-news" style cutaways to cover a lot of exposition. But where, say Baz Luhrmann invested his retelling of Romeo & Juliet with fizz and glam, Fiennes keeps things sombre.

Frankly, I've never really been a big fan of the Bard. Perhaps that is thanks to years of dreary high-school and University lectures and monotone recitations by students who don't understand the language. But in a film like Fiennes', and with the mouths of such skilful actors as Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox playing with the poetry, the language truly flows and lives.

I don't really know if the rest of the film does though. The story seems almost too big for the film. I know this will be seen as an impossible heresy by some, but I couldn't help thinking that this would have been better with the story used as a jumping-off point for a miniseries or TV series. In this way, the modern setting could be more fully embraced and there could be more time to delve into these characters and their lives. Coriolanus is not the most sympathetic character around - he is prideful, vengeful and full of contempt for those ordinary citizens who make up the masses but fight in no army. But there is much to intrigue about him - his anger is understandable, he has a domineering mother constantly pushing at him and he has little interest in parading himself and his wounds to "prove" his service to Rome. He is a complex and intriguing, but haughtily unsympathetic, tragic figure.

Coriolanus is an interesting adaptation that so very nearly works. And again, the sheer stones on that man Fiennes. 

Quick review: THE SWELL SEASON (World Cinema Showcase)

The small indie musical Once made waves around the world; I still vividly remember the impact it had on me at the time. A tale of deep, thwarted love the film still had a happy ending with the reportedly blossoming relationship between the two leads, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

They started seeing one another and touring with their band, the Swell Season. This documentary is a telling of these two people's lives after their phenomenal success (including an Oscar win for Best Original Song) and the strain in places on their relationship.

As they both struggle to redefine themselves in terms of their new-found fame they're also touring, being overwhelmed by fans and waking up in new cities. While Hansard, after years of struggling and working as a musician, seems to take to the exposure like an Irishman to whisky, Irglova finds herself struggling to maintain some sort of sense of identity. It's easy to forget how young she was (19-20) and how unlooked for the fame was. She never comes across as precocious or resentful, but intelligent about her own feelings about it. Which, unsurprisingly, Hansard simply doesn't understand.

At times it all feels a little voyeuristic as you watch this relationship, this relationship that seemed like such a real-life romantic fairytale (with music!), collapse in on itself. Footage from the road is interspersed with interviews and concerts. The interviews span a term of years with no clear indication given as to when or what stage of the relationship they're given. The clearest indicator of the intervening years is Hansard's shaggy hair and beard (or lack thereof). The bias, if any in the film, really leans more towards Hansard. There are interviews with his family (including his now deceased father) and more time spent with him and his backstory. Irglova is more generally defined in terms of how she relates to Hansard and his story.

I haven't revisited the film Once since I first saw it, and it may be some time before I do. The Swell Season was an interesting follow-up to the story, with a fair amount to recommend it, but I wonder how entirely necessary it was. 

April 8, 2012

Quick review: ALOIS NEBEL (World Cinema Showcase)

The starkly black & white animated film Alois Nebel covers the transition of Czechoslovakia from Communism to Democracy, aka the Velvet Revolution. And it does so through the experiences of a station master at a remote train station, the fellow station employee involved in less than legal dealings and a mute man out for revenge.

And dammit. It's actually kinda boring. Alois Nebel is the title character, the station master who finds himself committed to an asylum and then cut adrift. He's a passive, nigh useless character who is difficult to follow. You can't sympathise with Alois; not because he makes poor or evil-minded decisions, but because he makes no decisions at all. He floats from station to asylum to Prague main station and then back to a smaller station in the mountains; all through absolutely no decision of Alois.

Perhaps the fault is mine. Perhaps these characters carry a deeper allegorical meaning that would be easier to understand with more knowledge of Czech history. But seeing as how I don't have more than a passing knowledge of the Velvet Revolution and the events surrounding it, I cannot approach the film in this manner.

The animation is, as I expected, gorgeous and often beautiful to look at. There is that starkness, the high contrast that soaks the film. The film is rotoscoped, allowing a fluidity and real human motion to infuse the characters but giving enough of a distance, as opposed to the more high-tech performance capture.

Ultimately, it is a film of dense atmosphere and history with only a smattering of character and story. How much you get into to it or out of it will depend entirely on how willing you are to have yourself enveloped by that rather than a compelling character. 

Quick review: WOODY ALLEN - A DOCUMENTARY (World Cinema Showcase)

The director of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People and a number of Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes directs this entry in the American Masters series, this time focussed on the confrontational, hard-working, prolific, funny, maudlin, still working, nebbish, brand unto himself, Woody Allen. 

This nearly 3 hour long documentary covers the entirety of Allen's life, going back to his parents and grandparents. And while the film covers a lot of ground - from Woody's early writing days before moving into stand-up and then through to writing film and then directing - there are still a number of omissions. What about his actual first directorial effort, What's Up Tiger Lily? Or the voice work for Antz? Or the large number of films during the 90's and early 2000's that were just really no good?

It borders on hagiography - there is little dissent from the view that Allen is an unmitigated genius. While, yes, Allen is indeed an important cultural voice, to argue that he is without fault (as this documentary seems to) is ignorant at best and wilfully rewriting history at worst. But, there is little wonder this is the approach taken - this is for the American Masters series and there would little point in tearing down one of those masters. 
There are interviews with long-time collaborators, various actors, producing partners, agents and one or two ex-wives. Mia Farrow (and Soon-Yi at that) are notable by their absences. 

Perhaps you think I'm being too hard on the film or Allen. Perhaps so. I enjoy some of Allen's films; not everyone does. Allen is an intensely interesting figure, as much for what he says in his films as how he says it. While I certainly would have preferred a fuller picture of Allen the man and Allen the artist, the film does do well in following Allen through a 6 decade long career.  

April 7, 2012

World Cinema Showcase: OUR IDIOT BROTHER

The opening night film for this year's World Cinema Showcase was the very charming, very funny Paul Rudd starring Our Idiot Brother. As a film to open a film festival it's an interesting choice: a relatively unchallenging comedy with a cast of Hollywood A-listers. No serious-minded Swedes and their existential dread here thankyouverymuch.

And how thankfully refreshing it is. While it may not set the tone for the rest of the Showcase to follow,
Our Idiot Brother is still an intelligent and engaging comedy about a well-meaning and aimless drifter affecting and disrupting the lives of his uptight sisters.

Paul Rudd is that brother and, frankly, the film had me within the opening moments. Rudd is sent to jail for selling pot to a uniformed officer and, while being far from an entirely smart thing to do he isn't entirely idiotic. He is simply a more open, more naive and optimistic character. And when Rudd leaves prison, shaggy hair and beard flowing with a large grin on his face I couldn't help but be enamoured. It is the rare person who doesn't like Paul Rudd; that nicest guys of nice guys in Hollywood. Coming home from prison, he no longer has a home on the organic farm he once worked on and so finds himself bunking at his mother's, before moving through his sister's accommodation and goodwill. 

Emily Mortimer is the eldest sister; the mother with two children who, with her distant English director husband, is trying to raise her children in a politically-correct molly-coddled way. Elizabeth Banks is the career focussed journalist who is in love-denial with the cute neighbour across the hall (Adam Scott). And Zooey Deschanel is the youngest of the female siblings, a bisexual stand-up comic currently involved with Rashida Jones' very cool lawyer. They live in some sort of communal loft/open apartment thing. Deschanel seems to playing the most against type of the three; she isn't the happy dreamer or "manic-pixie-dream-girl" that has become so associated with her, especially with her new (rather good) sitcom New Girl

The family is fractured and largely happy with that status quo. Or, if not happy, then at least settled into it. And Rudd just wanders through it all, the epitome of the well meaning doofus who stumbles into bad situations. He doesn't so much upset the apple-cart as set it on a collision course down the hill, chasing after it in his crocs and causing more damage than the actual cart.

The film is not without its flaws or moments of predictability but these quickly make way for the next joke or set-up. Our Idiot Brother is an intelligent comedy centred around the charming performance of Paul Rudd. In any number of actor's hand the character could have been more annoying than anything, but with Rudd's easy likeability he anchors the film around him and allows the audience to have a good time with him. 

April 1, 2012


This is first in what I assume will be an ongoing new feature here at rockets and robots are GO! With my primary focus for the year being my MA, I'm not going to have anywhere near the amount of time I would usually spend on writing up reviews for everything I see at the cinema. It's unfortunate, but the blog just cannot be my sole writing focus for the year. However, I am determined to keep this blog as something of an online journal of my cinematic viewings so, at the end of every month those films that I have yet to write up individually (usually retro or classic films) will be featured here.

To kick it off:
Poster design by Mark Carroll

British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen's Shame is a stark look at one man's addiction, the depths he sinks to and what it costs him. It doesn't pull punches and really doesn't shy away from showing anything and everything. And that is graphically shown in the first few minutes of the film with Michael Fassbender's Brandon wanders to and fro in his fancy apartment, absolutely starkers and yes, his cock in full view. 
But despite all of the nudity and the subject matter this is no erotic film. It is, in fact, entirely un-erotic, the sex and nudity being frank, matter-of-fact or entirely hollow and emotionless.

Brandon is a charming, well groomed and intelligent man with a job he seems to enjoy and is particularly good at. He has a nice enough apartment, no doubt expensive. He enjoys a drink with the lads. He is a sex addict. He picks up random women from bars or employs prostitutes. He spends his night's at home hollow-eyed and hunched over his laptop, surfing the internet for porn. He's not picky where he gets his fix from and, like most addicts, manages to keep it all secret from his boss and workmates.

This perfectly structured life of Brandon's is interrupted and thrown around by the arrival of his sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan), a singer who has decided to stay for an indefinite period of time. There is a lot of history between these characters hinted at, rather than spelled out. There is that sibling closeness, followed by Brandon blowing up at having to constantly "look after" Cissy.

McQueen allows scenes to run and run, the takes lingering and only cutting away when it becomes absolutely necessary. In this way, he allows the film to really get under your skin; to soak into you. The camera doesn't look away and, thus, neither can you. This long-take technique never becomes pretentious or allows itself to become a distraction to the viewer but instead is just another tool in McQueen's director's toolbox.

When you have a director who is using long-takes, it helps to people the film with actors who are really at the top of their game. Fassbender and Mulligan, two young British actors who have really broken out in the last couple of years, own the frames. Fassbender is an actor who projects and easy charm and charisma, as evidenced in Inglorious Basterds and as the globe totting Erik Lensherr in X-Men: First Class, and Shame is the first time I've witnessed that dark side he is capable of. 

Mildred Pierce
(Wellington Film Society screening)

The Film Society kicked off it's mini-season of noir films on 35mm with this Joan Crawford starring classic (recently remade with Kate Winslet in the title role). And thanks to the truly horrendous and spoilt daughter of the heroine, it was no less a difficult watch than Shame.

Mildred Pierce begins with a death. From there the story of how we reach that death is a tale told by Mildred to the cops. Mildred is a strong, independently-minded woman who has always wanted to do the best for her two daughters, especially eldest Veda. Poor Mildred is a woman used and abused by all the males close to her though; her cheating first husband, her close friend Wally and her lover/second husband Monte. They all use Mildred in different ways, the only half-way decent one being the cheating first husband Bert.

Michael Curtiz (Casablanca and the Errol Flynn starring The Adventures of Robin Hood) directs the screen legend as Mildred opens her own restaurant which becomes a flourishing chain. Veda sees the business as nothing more than money for her to buy things. This girl, this incomparable brat of a girl, is one of the most horribly selfish, materialistic and mean-spirited characters I've ever had the displeasure to witness. She truly cares not a whit for anyone or anything past herself and her own enjoyments. When Mildred finally whips round and slaps the hussy a well-deserved open right hand, I cheered.

A film that grips you rather than has you gripping the edge of your seat, the tale takes its twists and turns but is nowhere near as lurid (to modern eyes) as the advertising would have us believe. Instead Mildred is a strong woman in a man's world played by a strong woman in a man's world.

It Happened One Night
(Embassy Retro Showcase)

This is in fact the first Frank Capra film I've ever seen. Yup, including It's A Wonderful Life. Starring Claudette Colbert and Gone With the Wind's Clark Gable It Happened One Night puts modern romantic comedies to shame.

Colbert stars, luminously, as heiress Ellie who is, essentially, held under house(boat) arrest by her wealthy father. Actually, these opening moments, to modern eyes, give the feeling that this is going to be anything but a romantic comedy. More like a horrifying thriller.

But she escapes! Huzzah! Because she is in love with (and married to, though Daddy wants an annulment) Westley, who is in New York. Penniless but determined Ellie sets out from Florida to New York, travelling by bus. It is on the bus she bumps into Gable's drunken newspaperman, Peter Warne. He is a character of the age; an intelligent, charmingly drunk reporter of strong moral character(ish). He's a fast talker and a bit of a wise ass, though she's no slouch in that department either.

These two knock each other about cross-country, Warne looking out for the heiress who has little idea how the world works outside her sheltered life. And, surprise surprise, they find themselves falling in love. It's a light-hearted romp, with plenty of sparkling dialogue brought to life by two actors with a fine ear for it and actual chemistry together.