Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Case for Herculean Efforts

The reason to go to a Dwayne Johnson film is because the man himself oozes charm and watchability out of very muscular pore.

And Hercules, the second film about the Greek demi-god released this year, only really works because of his incredible charisma.

The rest of the cast is pretty impressive, considering the style and the material, with Ian McShane being only partly cray cray, John Hurt being old and yet threatening, and Ralph Feinnes as the King of Athens looking all delicate and flimsy next to the bronzed bulk of the mighty Rock.

But the story is fairly predictable (and occasionally a bit nonsensical; where did all the armour and weapons come from again?) and the jokes are fairly hit and miss, and it all comes across as if everyone is not taking the material seriously at all – though to be fair, that is probably a good thing.

In this tale, Hercules is a man for hire, off to help Kings and men, all for a price in gold.  He is joined by a thief, a wise man, an Amazon warrior, a berserker and a story teller, all of whom bring different skills and talents to help build the myth of the invincible Hercules, assisted ably by the imposing presence of the man himself.

As with all these sorts of tales, there is a dark back story as well, with Hercules having suffered a personal tragedy in the past that haunts him and on occasion forces him to second guess himself.  But overall, he is rather up beat, and when the Rock smiles, its hard not to smile along with him.

Along with the cast’s good humour, the film also made an amazing amount of hay out of its 3D.  Normally, I just forget the 3D after a few minutes and the extra money and the need to wear silly glasses just feels pointless.  However, the use of 3D in this film was great, with “very obvious” 3D scenes reminding me that I had paid a bit extra to experience javelins being thrown towards me, and I was much the happier for it.

Oddly though, the cinema was not as packed as I had imagined it would be for a cheapskate Tuesday at Readings shortly after the films release.  I imagine the film itself has been a modest success, and considering how much I enjoyed it, I am quite keen to recommend it to all who may be into that sort of thing.

Verdict:  The Rock’s Hercules was a huge amount of fun, if a little slow and predictable.  For all its many, many faults and lack of originality, it was very well made and (mostly) lots of fun.  Good on the Rock too for being so damned awesome.  7 tasks out of 12.

 PS - we didn't see this version; I don't think it even got a theatrical release...

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Case for Mice and Bears

I went to Ernest and Celestine due to the lack of anything of else of interest in the lead up to the International Film Festival and after seeing that it had an incredibly high score on Rotten Tomatoes, always a good barometer of a good movie!

A small animated tale of French origin (visible in the animation, if not the voices in this dubbed version), the film focuses on young mouse Celestine and her relationship with Bear bum, Ernest.  The two are misfits: Celestine dreams of a bear buddy in a world where bears have the roles of humans and the mice in similar style though underground and in fear of the bears above; Ernest is an artist who lives outside of town but comes in every so often to try and scrounge for food, busking for some scraps from the more well to dos.

Circumstances throw them together, and then the societies throw them out.  Together they find they are happier than they ever were alone and with their own “kind”.  It is a thoroughly sweet tale of friendship and prejudice, with a few knowing jokes about candy and teeth, and all wrapped up in a lovingly animated style.

The voice cast is great too: even just hearing Lauren Bacall is a treat, and with some well known men in leading roles (Forrest Whittaker as Ernest and William H Macy as the lead Dentist), the film doesn’t lack for star talent. 

The story is sweet, if a little prone to syrup every now and again.  The ending almost comes undone with its mawkishness (I am not a big fan of oversentimentality, so it may just be me), but it doesn’t dwell on that too long and the road to get there is so amusing and entertaining that both adults and children alike can (and did) enjoy the journey.

Finally, the animation is amazing.  Not overly detailed, with backgrounds looking almost half completed most of the time, its still incredible to behold and get lost in.  There is no highly detailed hair or 3D rendering.  This is all two dimensional, with the background disappearing every so often as the story dictates, and the film also nods to the fact it is animated too, doing things not possible if all the characters believed their world was “real”.

All up then, the film was a real treasure.  It didn’t quite hit me as strongly as the last Rotten Tomatoes-recommended film I saw, but then, as a tale for the whole family, it possibly couldn’t have (well, it could have, but its not Up!).  For what it was though, and as a nice and not overlong film, and for a cold winter’s evening, it was wonderful.

Verdict: Ernest and Celestine is sweet and lovely and very child friendly.  Totally lovely, and the kids in front of me seemed to love it as well.  8 premolars out of 10.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Case for Transformers 4

Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Well let's let the expert give the lowdown:


What more can I say but that the first 45 minutes were tedious, almost bereft of Transformers and  sustained only by Mark Wahlberg's on-screen charisma.  Then the Transformers show up and the story becomes nonsensical and... well, its in sanely long too.  Though at least its better than the beginning.

Verdict: You have to see Transformers: Age of Extinction on the big screen if you are to see it at all, though 3D is not required.  Its rubbish though.  4 explosions out of 11.

The Case for ShadowPlays

Seeing What we do in the Shadows in a nigh sold out session at the Embassy Cinema is probably the best way to experience this Kiwi comedy.  Sure, the people were still slowly coming into the theatre as the lights dimmed (though they were put back up as people started stumbling) and the movie started but eventually, eventually, everyone took their place.

And the laughter started.  Mocking Vampires is not new, and neither is almost anything else in the movie.  But seeing Wellington mocked (the Big Kumara in particular) is a rare treat, and seeing Police stereotypes lovingly taunted also scored big with the audience (and me) too. 

Taika Waititi is hilariously cute as Viago the main dandy vampire, pining for a lost love, whereas Jemaine Clement plays Vladislav, almost the exact opposite, a dangerous vampire, one wounded by his past experience with the Beast.  They and their flatmates of vampires old and new wander around Wellington, trying to deal with blending the old with the new (Big Kumara versus Boogie Wonderland) and generally just getting by. 

While it seems like more than half Wellington’s population must be a supernatural creature of some kind, and that the rest are subject to a suspiciously high disappearance rate,  it is hilarious to see familiar landmarks acting as the backdrop to familiar supernatural comedy tropes. 

And the humour is all done so low key that it is kind of like watching Flight of the Conchords if they relocated to Wellington, got bit by vampires, became undead, and didn’t burst into song every 10 minutes or so. 

The low keyness means that not all of it works.  I found myself not laughing at certain “funny” moments, though I knew mentally they should be quite funny (the young girl vampires and their chosen prey, for instance).  But to be fair, that was a very rare occasion – mostly, I was smiling my way through it all, if not necessarily laughing.

My one regret was that, despite the appearance of the wonderful Madeline Sami, there were very few interesting female characters.  The female cop was comedy gold and basically stole the movie for me, and the scene where she and her stoic male off-sider arrested the full moon night killer was the best in the film.

Verdict: What we do in the Shadows was a hilarious film that brought understated Conchords-type humour to the big screen.  Everyone appears to be having heaps of fun, and the audience – albeit from a biased Wellington perspective – is in on it.  8 vampire bites out of 10.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Case for DocoFest 2014

I quite like a good documentary!

Maori Television is doing a really good job of screening some interesting documentaries every Tuesday night, but I also thought I should support some of the films showing at the Edge Documentary Film Festival, especially when some of the films clash with the new Rugby Season and so are almost guaranteed to be sparsely attended.

Such was the case with the first film Bridegroom.  About 10 people were in the screening of the documentary about a couple, Shane and Tom, and the aftermath of Tom’s death.  The blurb hinted – actually, no, outright stated – that the film would be about the struggle Shane had in having his right’s as Tom’s partner recognised.  It didn’t quite turn out that way.

The documentary mainly tells the story of Shane and Tom respectively, how they grew up and how they got together.  Shane was a troubled teen with an amazing family who supported him when he finally came out (Shane’s mother, grandmother and great grandmother are all fierce and hilarious women); Tom was a golden boy who excelled at everything but whose parents never accepted his sexuality and never really accepted Shane.

The film spends about an hour setting up the back stories and generally showing the two guys as a loving, caring couple.  There are a lot of songs, name drops (Anne Hathaway!) and odd sorts of testimonials from various friends and family.  Basically, it came across as a particularly manipulative episode of 20/20.  And then the tragedy comes.

Tom’s best friend Alex retells the story of Tom’s accidental death, falling from a four storey apartment complex, and everyone’s reaction to the event is heart-breaking.  Shane rushed to the hospital but, as he was not considered family, he wasn’t technically allowed to visit Tom’s bedside.  He came across as completely at a loss when Tom’s mother came to claim the body, arrange for it to be shipped home for a burial, and then realised that he had not been invited for the funeral and was basically sidelined from every decision.  And it was here that I expected the film to focus.

But it didn’t.  In fact, while I was expecting things to be laid out, to be made absolutely clear what happened and what injustices occurred, the film kind of skipped over it all.  The problem at the hospital was an obvious issue, but the talking heads totally skipped over the funeral.  From the sounds of it, Shane wasn’t old much about what was going on, but it seemed some of Tom’s friends were, though they never really talked about it with Shane.  Alex and some of Tom’s friends were invited, but none of them appeared to have said or did anything at the funeral, not even ask a, “Where’s Shane?”.  Shane was actually in town, but he was being very discrete (which was very respectful of Tom’s parents’ wishes he not attend the funeral, I suppose) and appears never to have visited Tom’s family at all.  And there were a few talking heads, like the highly charismatic Sasha, another of Tom’s supposed great friends, who totally disappeared from the narrative around this stage too.

And from there on in, it all got very rushed: lots of Shane (unsurprisingly) distraught, lots more manipulative songs and montages, and then a trip to Tom’s grave, his tombstone distastefully placed in the middle of the tombstone of his parents, though neither of them are yet dead.

So it was interesting, but ultimately disappointing.  Even the end credits seemed a bit misleading: the list of people on the “thanks to” and “honourary executive producers” (what on earth is that?) seemed a wish list of people the fllm makers would like associated with the film rather than anyone who actually participated.  The point seemed to be lost in amongst all the people wanting to tell their story.  It seemed to become more about them than about the issue.  Which is fine I suppose, but not really something that left me talking about injustice afterwards, but more wondering why close friend Anne Hathaway hadn’t made an appearance…

Verdict: Bridegroom is an extended 20/20 story: long on the tears and musical montages; short on actual issues and analysis.  Definitely emotional and moving, but more a tribute than a true documentary.  6 Annes out of 10 Hathaways.

The second documentary film was Life Itself, recounting the life of influential film critic Roger Ebert as he was captured, quite by chance, in the final days of his life.

Going in, I knew this one would be hard.  Sure, Ebert had led a very colourful life, winning a Pulitzer prize for his insightful and well written reviews, and gaining global success with Gene Siskel in their decades-spanning movie review show, but it also showed his decline, struck by a cancer in recent years that had required the removal of his jawbone, rendering Ebert unable to speak though not, through his mastery of English and computers, to be silenced.

The film went backwards and forwards through time, using the words Ebert had written in his memoir (Life Itself) to retell the story of his life, stopping along the way to talk with friends and colleagues who knew him.  In the present, his incredibly strong wife, Chaz, deal with his day to day needs, remaining cheerful and chipper as she saw her husband getting weaker before her.

There was a huge amount of humour in his relationship with Siskel, with some scenes of shared mirth, though mostly we were entertained by some of their more famous disagreements, like Ebert giving the thumbs up to Benji the Hunted whilst giving the thumbs down to Full Metal Jacket, and their own behind the scenes spats that were filmed (if not aired) throughout the years.

Martin Scorcese also appeared regularly, giving a moving tribute to the man who pegged him as a future star of American cinema and who encouraged him through some of his darkest times to continue his craft and become one of cinema’s greatest directors. 

Missing from the list of colleagues and friends was any of Ebert’s later co-hosts, once Siskel passed away and the show they had starred in together for over 20 years evolved.  This seemed a strange oversight, and the documentary seemed to imply Ebert’s TV career ended after Siskel’s death (which it did not), though there were so many other people to get through, maybe there just wasn’t the time to include things from his later years, other than Ebert’s battle with cancer.

And what a toll it took on the man.  While appearing incredibly positive, we learned from Chaz the difficulties they had lived through as the disease and his treatments had progressed.  It was heartbreaking stuff, even as it sometimes inspired.

Overall then, the film is an emotional roller coaster.  Lovingly told, its hard not to laugh and cry at everything before you.  I was left wondering how old Chaz actually was (the woman seemed to be permanently stuck in her 30s) and being impressed by how much positive influence a critic could have.  Definitely worth missing the rugby for.

Verdict: Life Itself is an amazing tribute to a man who supported so much American cinema (even if he did co-write Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).  An amazing tale of strength and courage and love, it ultimately turns into a tragedy, but its an incredible journey nonetheless.  8 Pulitzers out of 10.