Saturday, December 7, 2013
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were not a lot of people who wanted to come along with me to a movie about two divorced middle aged people finding someone.
Even when I waved the fact that James Gandolfini was in it, the Elaine (Julia Louis Dreyfus) factor seemed enough to put others off.
Which was a shame as Enough Said is actually really sweet. Dreyfus plays Eva, a masseuse, who encounters Albert (Gandolfini) a man in a similar situation to her and who shares her (not neurotically Elaine) sense of humour. They hit it off, but when Eva unwittingly becomes friends with Albert's ex Marianne (played by one of my favourites, Catherine Keener), Eva tries to find out what went wrong with the relationship without letting either of them know that she knows them both.
It's all incredibly predictable from there, so there are no real surprises how things turn out; and the above is what is in the trailer so again I am not really giving things away.
What livens things up a bit are the great performances. Albert is played as a loveable slob, and Gandolfini and Dreyfus make you see what they see in each other and why, after a little while, they begin to connect - and disconnect, as things progress. While I like Keener, I was not quite so won over by Eva, though as the ex wife in the not-much-love triangle, perhaps that is the intent of her character. It was also brilliant to see Toni Collette playing a character with an Australian accent (better when Eva says she doesn't understand a word she is saying) though her fraught relationship with her husband and domestic help again seemed to make her a little less than likeable - and of course, as always with these films, she was noticeably absent whenever Eva had a crisis, as best friends seem wont to do in the movies.
Overall though, as mentioned, the performances are great, and the interaction (besides the aforementioned contrivances) seem natural. Eva's daughter and the daughters of all the other characters seem a little sketchy, perhaps due to the actresses playing them or perhaps due to the fact their storylines are so minor in comparison with that of Albert and Eva, but elsewise, its all pretty awesome.
And the film does not outstay its welcome either, finishing up after a sweet, amusing and occasionally painful 90 minutes.
But it leaves the big question unanswered: can James Gandolfini actually whisper?
Verdict: I don't need to write a lot about Enough Said. It's a well written rom com with some lovely performances from the leads even if the story itself is fairly straight forward - not that there is anything wrong with that. 7.5 rearranged items of furniture out of 10.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Hunger Games: Catching Fire reunites me with Jennifer Lawrence. It is a match made in heaven.
Well, not quite. Watching Lawrence on screen is a blessing, and she continues to impress with the role of Katniss Everdeen, though sometimes I wish she got the chance to smile just a little more.
Catching Fire picks up where the Hunger Games left off: Katniss torn between the man she loves and the man who loves her and the whole world thinks she loves; the oppressive Panem state clamping down on all dissent in the outlying slave "districts", and the ongoing repercussions of her involvement in the 74th Hunger Games.
Donald Sutherland returns and is awesome as the cold President Snow, determined to keep Panem - and his rule - in control. His calm voice and hard eyes almost sent shivers down my spine, his portrayal of a man making brutal decisions not because he is (necessarily) insane, but more that he is convinced that he is right, as is the way things are. He is joined in the adult stakes by the incredible Stanley Tucci, with his startlingly white teeth and extreme TV persona, Elizabeth Banks showing a huge amount of uncertainty and doubt despite the layers of makeup and mad clothing that make her into Effie, and Woody Harrelson is also back as the jaded ex-winner Hamich, though this time he seems to have more of a plan to his drunkenness than before.
Of the younger cast, it is Lawrence who stands head and shoulders above everyone else, except for Jena Malone as another near psychotic ex-winner, as Malone has always been a personal favourite. The love guys, Peeta and Gale (Josh Hutchison and Liam Hemsworth), are fine. Despite the influence they have on Katniss' life, their on screen characters don't really shine, either due to the writing or perhaps also due to the actors own limited abilities. Finnick the Merman (played with a winning smile by Sam Claflin) seems to have a lot more on screen spark of all the young males, but again he too is eclipsed by the amazing Lawrence (and, to my perception at least, the hilarious Malone).
The movie itself is well constructed, though it does seem to drag at times. It spends a lot less time in the Hunger Games arena than I would have thought, instead building up the world of Panem a lot more, and skilfully skipping a lot of detail in the book that, quite frankly, it was wise to do. Still, when it gets to the games, any slowness is forgotten as the killing begins... but where will it end?
While I loved reading the second book, the movie seems to make the point a bit clearer how the story is moving away from Katniss's story of survival and more towards how the world is reacting to her actions. The books were all first person narrative, but the movies by necessity are third person, and so when things start happening to Katniss or around her, it is much easier to weave that into the story than when it is Katniss who needs to experience or understand them. Still, it will be interesting to see how the third (and weakest?) book is translated into two movies. And I shall say no more.
Verdict: If anything, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a step up from the first Hunger Games film. Lawrence is inspirational in so many ways, bringing a real actor's "soul" to a driven yet conflicted character. This film has a whole lot of elements that combine brilliantly together, with only the necessary world building at the start of the film slowing things down a little. 8.5 mockingjays out of 10.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
Dolby Atmos! The Sound System of the Future! Added to the Embassy's 3D offerings on its massive screen, and I ended up feeling as if I was swimming in a cinematic sight and sound experience, which is probably entirely the point.
And it was great to be able to appreciate this to Thor 2, or Thor The Dark World. Even just waiting outside in the cafe area, the explosions and music thumped and thudded through the walls and floors; within the hall itself, the sound was not overwhelming, but definitely hard to ignore.
And there are lots of explosions and hittings and violence and quite a bit of humour in this Thor as well. While it never reaches the levels of engagement of the first film, mainly as there is a disturbing lack of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the film is nonetheless a lot of fun and action, a welcome combination considering the darker and more relentless offerings from movies from the Distinguished Competition comics. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is as tall, buff and manly as ever, though his deep voice was occasionally quite hard to make out, possibly because of the extra bass in the Atmos, or as Hemsworth had a bit of difficulty maintaining his Asgardian accent.
Nathalie Portman as Jane Foster is as stunning as ever, and has a lot to do in this movie, though a lot of it is running around and chasing after her action man. Most of the other characters are mainly just decoration, though Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo have a lot more presence than actual screen time, and Idris Elba is given a bit more to do than just look intimidating in the doorway. On the bad side of things, Christopher Eccleston is a bad-arse bad elf, scowling a lot and being as menacing as one would expect, though it is mildly surprising that the Asgardians hadn't advanced during the thousands of years that the Dark Elves were asleep.
But then, this film really does not stand up to a huge amount of logic. That's not what it is about. There are some mild attempts at technobabble to explain what is going on with the alignment of the worlds and the like, but these are kept short and sweet and really not discussed at length - explanations are accepted as good and true, and fact rather than conjecture.
However, the screen really comes alive when Loki comes to the fore. It is strange, but while Loki seems a lot more likeable (even if he is evil) in this film, Thor seems a bit more distant, not just because of the problems he has loving an earthling. While the film lingers over his well defined torso for one gratuitous scene, and the cheesy grin is whipped out a few times to very likeable effect, Thor doesn't really engage very much with the other characters in the film (well, excepting Jane) besides what seems necessary to forward the plot.
That is being quite harsh though, because, as much as Loki steals the film, Thor The Dark World is still a lot of fun and everyone puts on a good show. At times, the film does seem to drag a little, and it could have done with a good edit here and there (and perhaps a map of London; I have been told the Underground directions given by an Aussie traveller are completely incorrect), but that's a minor quibble (there is another bigger one, but I won't mention that here for spoiler reasons) and, while I probably won't see it again at the movies, I am looking forward to getting this on BluRay in a few months time.
Verdict: Thor The Dark World is a great sequel to the original, and keeps Avengers continuity in mind too. As much as Thor is the headliner though, it feels like Loki should be the lead character, and I hope we get to see more of him when Thor next returns. 7 hammers out of 10.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
I was not initially keen on Captain Phillips, a film in which I was sure Tom Hanks would cry and would be all very worthy, but a few amazing reviews convinced me that I should put my preconceptions aside and give it a try. And, like after my change of heart for Rush, I was glad I did.
The film is a “based on true events” story of Captain Rich Phillips (Hanks) is the commander of a freighter attacked by Somali pirates and who is then kidnapped to be held for ransom. The film also briefly follows the story of the leader of the Pirates, Muse (played by the incredible Barkhad Abdi), and the events that brought him to this place and time.
The tension rachets up early on in the film, as the pirates chase down the Maersk Alabama, and from then on, it rarely eases up. The Captain does everything by the book and, somewhat surprisingly how these things are often portrayed in film, the book works pretty well, though eventually the pirates board and events become less text book and more improvised. Eventually, the pirates leave with Phillips in a life boat, and then the US Navy steps into the chase.
It’s odd that the military seem the least human of anyone in this film. The pirates are given depth, and as their mission becomes more and more doomed, I even found myself rooting for them given their underdog status. Meanwhile the military seem to be completely reactive in an almost incompetent way (the US Navy “911” number seems engaged to start off with and then they seem to wait before someone is kidnapped before they even send ships anywhere near the cargo freighter), but once they are on the case, they are an efficient and ruthless machine, almost completely devoid of humanity – and all the better as soldiers for it. The speed with which they identify the Somalis is surprising considering how poor intelligence seems to work back in the US itself, but then they have been gathering a lot of information for a while now so perhaps I should have expected it.
The Somalis are shown as great improvisers and desperate, though not always the sharpest sticks in the forest. Their extreme skinniness and poor teeth are a stark contrast to the soft padding of the mostly white Alabama crew (or the heavily muscled and mostly white Navy SEALS for that matter too), and Phillips and Muse exchange the odd bit of banter that emphasise the differences between the two cultures, and the driving forces behind them.
Overall then, the film is really quite incredible. It does drag though. At over 2 hours long, and with the tension of the final confrontation drawn out for what seemed like half an hour, I reached a point where I went past entertained and into “just get it over with”. Trying not to give too much away, the quick cuts between scenes on the lifeboat and on the navy ships may make things seem more “action”, but I found it detrimental to the sense of tension, as there was more tension on the lifeboat than anywhere else, and the ending to the situation was inevitable.
Verdict: Captain Phillips is a tense film with amazing performances (Hanks crying is expected but also understandable, given the circumstances his character finds himself in), the Somali actors in particular making their characters both terrifying and sympathetic, while Max Martini also stands out as the Navy SEAL commander, portraying a Terminator in his complete robotic interpretation of the military. The film does drag in the end, Phillips character becoming a bit grating in the attempts to make him seem a good guy, and the tension bubble bursts a long time before the film draws the action to a close, but it is still a really good film. Not as good as Gravity though. 8 Captain’s pips out of 10.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
It was a bit strange seeing the NZ On Air and NZ Film Commission logos pop up after the Paramount star fly-by as the opening credits for Mr Pip rolled by, but considering the source novel and the subject matter, perhaps that is not really that surprising.
The book Mr Pip is set in the late 80s and early 90s as civil unrest on the island of Bougainville has cut off supplies and contact from the outside world, and clashes between local militants and the Papua New Guinea military have robbed the village of most of its young men.
As the teachers withdraw, Mr Watts (Hugh Laurie), a white man living on the island with his local wife, decides to reopen the school, with the focus of his lessons the Charles Dicken’s classic, Great Expectations, at the heart of his syllabus. One of his students, the bright Matilda (played by the extraordinary Xzannjah), gets caught up in the story, much to the dismay of her pastor mother, Dolores, and then the conflict comes to town...
I am not always a fan of these kinds of movies, where some inspiring teacher reads a classic Western novel and the local inhabitants fall under its spell, possibly as I have never really found myself so completely overwhelmed by any nineteenth century novel myself. However, in the minds of the people imagining the minds of Matilda, all the characters are black and all the outfits brightly coloured and all the surroundings are tropical, and every time we were invited into this imaginary world, I had to smile at those touches.
There was less smiling at some of the goings on in the real world, mainly the chilling visitations by the military, though also some of the attempts at “yokel-ing” up the locals. Perhaps it was just me, but the attempts at contrasting the local lore with the story telling prowess of Dickens seemed a little awkward, especially coming after a real battle of the books, between Great Expectations and the Bible.
Throughout it all, things progress pretty much on island time. There is a slow unfolding of events, only really shaken by Watt’s retelling of the tale and during the occasional visits by outsiders. They are all seen through the incredibly large and soulful eyes of Matilda, and she really centres the film in a character that I think is relatable in almost any culture.
I won’t go into much more of the story, but suffice to say that the quality of the acting is superb throughout, even if the unhurried pace is occasionally on the draining side. However, that languid pace just makes the violence, when it comes, seem all the more powerful and emotional.
Verdict: I enjoyed Mr Pip more than I thought I would, though not quite as much as the Orator. The cast is all superb, even if I had to hide a smile when I saw some familiar Kiwi faces show up, and the subject matter is dark and intense, even if I wasn’t entirely sure by what Matilda really saw in the story. 7 pips out of 10.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
I have never read the books on which Wicked! is based. For some reason, I thought it might have been in the same vein of the recent Oz The Great and Powerful film, but that notion was quickly proved wrong when, 10 minutes into the show, a green baby girl was born.
Setting my scene: I had flown to Auckland on a very late Friday flight to catch the matinee (well, 2pm) performance of the hit Broadway musical Wicked! The Civic Theatre was once again an amazing venue for the show, though even though I had bought slightly more expensive tickets, our position in the circle was still a little too high for us to view all the stage antics (the ones that were deliberately set at the back of the stage were almost invisible) and a little too far to make out the faces of most of the presumably very attractive cast – the green makeup of Elphaba somehow made all her features far more distinguishable from the rest.
The story itself starts off a little on the slow side. The set up takes a little while featuring characters that are barely seen again, and even some of the young kiddies behind me got a little restless as a series of well performed but inconsequential songs set the scene.
Then, a few years later, the scene shifts to school, where all true traumas are inflicted, and the main characters are introduced, if somewhat slowly, somewhat laboriously. One song in particular, focusing on partying, felt particularly perfunctory and unengaging, probably due to the fact that it was meant to be the exact opposite – and also probably because it did not really feature the vocal talents of the two female leads.
Wicked! is designed for two women: Glinda, the Good Witch and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, and on their shoulders and larynxes lie the heavy lifting of the singing and the performances. Suzie Mathers as Glinda was wonderful, every hair flick and titter and popular girl stereotype perfectly rendered in an entertaining and hilarious way. Meanwhile, Jemma Rix as Elphaba manages to make the exact opposite equally compelling, her hair flicks exaggerated and awkward, her titters more cackles, and she could almost be an emo “outsider” were she not a lovely shade of green.
Of the other characters, the gravel-voiced school marm Madame Morrible (Maggie Kirkpatrick) made a great impression during her brief appearances, and Jay Lagai’a as the Wizard was a welcome sight, though he must have spent some time under a sun lamp from his youth as he didn’t quite look the same as he did in the flashbacks. The costumes were pretty good too, with the flying Monkeys looking disturbingly creepy, some of the littlies behind me, voices quivering, telling their parents that they found the whole thing a little scary.
But the film is all about the Witches, and while the songs themselves might not have all been gold, with the standout “Defying Gravity” the catchiest of all the tunes by a long shot, the singing and the spectacle was mightily impressive.
Verdict: Wicked! started off a little slowly, but the Australian cast gave incredible performances that kept me entertained until the real story, songs and action kicked off. The vocal talents of the leads cannot be overstated, and at the end of the show, I was shocked and impressed in the realisation that the same cast would perform another show only a few hours later. 8 Gs out of 10.
Thursday, October 10, 2013
After rave reviews by… well, many sources, I decided to abandon plans to “just” go and see Sandra Bullock’s latest film Gravity in 2D and instead headed to one of the small, hobbit hole cinemas in the Embassy complex to see the film in its 3D version.
But in 2D or 3D, the film is awesome.
As one of the less impressed members of the party observed, there’s not a lot of characterisation that goes on throughout the film. From go to woah, it is a rollercoaster ride of action, with the odd lulls in between the major loops and twists that put the extreme danger and distance at which everything occurs into perspective.
And considering it all (well, mostly) takes place in orbit around the Earth, the danger and distance and perspective are all awe inspiring. Visually, the film is incredible, the special effects blending in so well with the live actors that it is hard to believe that they are not all out space walking. The 3D throws debris at the audience, but once again, I kind of “forgot” that after a while, and was never really covering my eyes or anything – but that is not a criticism. I think I was just so impressed with the effects that I was not going to look away for anything.
Putting Bullock and the effortlessly charming George Clooney in the lead roles was also a stroke of genius. Bullock is just brilliant for this role, and the film reminded me a lot of her earlier classic, Speed, although this time she didn’t have a Keanu Reeves to riff with (true, Clooney is much better, but this is not his film) and the film was not let down by a disappointing third act. Everything gels, nothing is wasted, Bullock looks great and is completely engaging despite the lack of character development, as aforementioned.
About the only thing that I had a slight quibble with was the set up: the USA does not currently have a shuttle programme, the Russians get the blame for everything that goes wrong, and I am not sure the Chinese space programme is really at the point the film implies (though this is apparently very smart marketing on the part of the filmmakers).
But that is only a quibble – this is fiction after all, and someone has to get the blame for the accident that causes all the excitement (I was surprised the French / European Space Agency, but perhaps that was one space agency too may).
Otherwise, the film is an action masterpiece, completely suited to a big screen presentation and totally worth the 3D admission price. What I am saying is…
Verdict: Action. Bullock. Clooney. Disaster. Excitement. Five gravities out of 5. Gravity.