Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Case for Fields of Clover

Well, witness Moosetastic has revealed how he would have done it, and another prime witness, Fisherman, has already covered the unsteady camerawork angle, so I guess all that leaves is for me to do is pass my usual judgment.

First to sum up the case: Take part of mega hit Blair Witch Project, mix it with mega bomb Godzilla and add a pinch of Days of Our Lives, and you end up with Cloverfield. So, it is not new material. But is it done well?

The special effects are well done (well, they seemed to be in between my bouts of motion-induced nausea) and the running around and mayhem is all very chaotic. The characters are all disposable with their various motivations all very pat (if Moosetastic's suggestions had been followed, that would definitely have upped the “care” factor), with my favourite bit of character development occurring when one explodes (now that was unexpected!).

But, the worst crime for an action movie, I got bored. The film seemed long. There may have been a hidden subtext about the impotence of the impressive American war machine in the face of an implacable enemy, but all we really got was one US soldier happy to let distraught yuppies go prancing around a disaster zone where a full-on military situation (Operation: City Shield, perhaps?) was underway.

Of course, a disaster film based in New York these days has to have some reference to the 9-11, and I noted the “homage” (if that is the right term) to the camera footage of a gale of debris passing by the window of a convenience store, though possibly this footage from a real tragedy was the inspiration for this film?

At any rate, Cloverfield is a cinema movie for me, as I probably needed the “confining” theatre environment to provide the impetus to concentrate.

Verdict: Not much to say really. Passable. A two leaf out of a four leaf clover.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Case for Great Train Journeys through Australia

This is the second in a series on Great Train Journeys I have undertaken.

Just last year (now, wow), I undertook another pan continental voyage, this one on the Australian island, from Adelaide in South Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory. The name given to the train that makes this journey: the Ghan.

Once again, the countryside outside the air-conditioned carriages were fairly featureless, rolling plains of small bushes on red earth as far as the eye could see, with the odd hill or dry river bed every so often for variety.

However, the class this time was cattle, though the seats themselves were more comfortable than flying the same class, with a bit more leg room and greater width for the more ample derriere. Also, this time the service was Australian, which meant almost as much disrespect as travelling in Russia, though a greater understanding of the insults being flung about. The journey legs were shorter, a shower (!) came with towels, and the dining car provided very reasonably priced meals, though the true find was one of the most divine chocolate mousses I have ever eaten. Actually, make that several.

Western service, enthusiastic fellow travellers who didn’t snore (well, I had ear plugs in so perhaps they did) and, while quite full between Adelaide and Alice Springs, remained comfortable throughout. The fact the train was no smoking but one enterprising and possibly marijuana-fuelled lad blatantly flouted this rule every half hour or so was a mild irritation though allowed a nice “bonding through shared disapproving” moment between the rest of the passengers at our end of the carriage. .

The voyage itself, though only over night, was slow, as the train trundled along at approximately 80 kilometres an hour to ensure that the danger posed by any warping of the tracks in the extreme heat was minimised. That sense of decided slowness led to a distinct restlessness in the passengers, though a good large book was my solution to this foreseen problem. The crew didn’t really try to alleviate that boredom, the odd snippet of commentary played at for about 10 minutes at a time but covering about 7 hours of travelling time and sites. However, the train did slow for the South AustraliaNorthern territory border and other sites of interest to allow some chance for clearer photographs for the snap happy amongst us.

Verdict: A convivial atmosphere on a fairly average kind of train led to another wonderful train experience. 4 dead kangaroos lying in the middle of the road after being hit by a Toyota Hilux out of 5.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Case for Zombie Legends

The first thing that struck me about I am Legend was the special effects and how obvious it was that they were special effects. And then it struck me – they were the same quality as the Xbox Game graphics that is bound to follow this zombie flick.

That is selling the movie a bit short. It is actually quite good, Will Smith putting on a fine performance as Man Alone, Robinson Crusoe stranded on the deserted island of New York with only a faithful dog (better than a football for companionship), 20 or so mannequins and a zillion zombies for company.

It’s really only the end of this film that lets it down. After quite a promising beginning, it kind of loses its way, going down the fairly tried and true zombie path (running around avoiding the hordes) rather than investigating a more interesting take on the genre that I had thought it was working towards (emerging sentience in a zombie). And the very final scene was… well, one of those wrap ups that made one want to throw things at the screen in a way – a very “and then I woke up” kind of ending.

28 Days Later
was more satisfying in that respect, though the use of real humans and a lot of blood and gore in that movie made it a bit more gritty than this, more “family friendly” film. But 28 Days Later didn’t have Will Smith in it; and when Will isn’t in I am Legend, the film suffers for it.

The funny thing is, I am really not a zombie flick person. In general, I don’t like the horror genre. But I do like an idea done well, and, for the most part, this film is.

Verdict: The end is nigh and in Will Smith’s hands. 6 zombies out of 10.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Case for a Police State

Well I shall try not to cover too much ground already so expertly recounted by the Fisherman about the Police concert of 17 January, but I will pass judgement and raise other observations nonetheless.

Once the Fisherman had procured our free upgrade from general “turf” admission to the seated stands, we were able to enjoy some vary differing and not always complementary musical styles: Fictionplane (grunge/rock sound; “Stand and Deliver” stage performance); followed by Fergie (R&B, “Stage Show” performance); and finally Police (80s reggae-ish sound, “Stand and Deliver” stage performance).

Fictionplane, headed by Sting’s son (if the hairline didn’t pin him as Sting’s issue, the occasional Sting-like wailing definitely did), started off with a very loud roar. And they stayed loud, roaring throughout their not dissimilar song set. A box was provided on stage for the lead singer to jump off melodramatically every so often. Not really my thing, but they had fun.

Next up, Fergie. Easier on the eye and ear than Fictionplane, and flanked by a squad of hip hop dancers (she even managed to find white boys who could dance! The woman is the Indiana Jones of the music world), though not without her share of wardrobe malfunctions (see the zipper article ), she ran up and down the stage, used props to send messages about handguns inappropriate for a New Zealand audience, swore a bit, and was actually quite engaging, whatever one might think of her musical offerings.

Her own stuff was her own stuff (I can listen to it, but not quite my thing, though more so than Fictionplane), but she also offered up a Black Eyed Peas medley and another medley of random songs of her choosing. However, as the Fisherman has pointed out, her tour de force was a cover of Heart’s girl-power anthem “Barracuda”, which her powerful lungs gave definite attitude.

She talked to the audience, delivered for her fans, but in the end, she knew that this show was the Police’s, and she left wishing us all fun for main event as the sun set spectacularly over the city.

Again, Fisherman has described the Police’s offering in fairly vivid detail, so I won’t go into more here. Their “Stand and Deliver” performance was illuminated by an amazing set that colourfully lit up the night; I drank to the “conserve fresh water” initiative advertised on the main screens; and the boys stood there and delivered their greatest hits in a fantastic fashion.

They didn’t try and converse with the audience the way Fergie did, but they didn’t really need to – everyone there (not a capacity crowd, but definitely a loud one) was singing away to their favourites and shimmying enthusiastically to the musical rhythm. Most of the hard-rock family next to me (Mum was a concert-goer from way back) were grooving with gusto, though the youngest would probably have preferred a Wiggles performance. There were no solo-Sting offerings; it was pure Police music, catchy and professionally delivered. We were wrapped around their finger (as it were), and they left me dee dee dee, da da da, and walking on the moon.

The number of people who tried to start up a version of "Roxanne" in the crowd crush on the way out was impressive, though the fact no-one knew the words after the first line kind of put the kibosh on the ad hoc performance after about 30 seconds per attempt. Quite a few people walked away in Police-issue t-shirts (some in police uniforms, not all of them sworn in), but everyone left with big smiles on their faces.

Verdict 1: Fictionplane – not my thing. A minor offence – probably deserves diversion. 1 Police Officers out of 5

Verdict 2: Fergie – amazing voice, incredible body, lots of attitude. Musically… A fairly serious crime (in a good way), though not a lot of evidence to convict (I am trying to be musically metaphoric here!). 2 and a half Police Officers out of 5

Verdict 3: The Police – back together and being very, very bad. Should be sent straight to the electric chair (in a good way). 4 and a half Police Officers out of 5 (even though there are but 3 in the band).

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Case for Pest Control

When we last left the Predator family, they were parked in orbit around Earth, ready to head back to the planet Koosbain. Fade in to the ship still around Earth, a domestic dispute leading to several dismemberments, some bitter clicks exchanged, and a delay to departure. Which is just as well really, as an Alien has snuck on board in the guise of a Predator, and is on everyone’s nerves. So the driver turns the spaceship uncontrollably back towards Earth.

Meanwhile, on the planet Koosbain, the deaf grandmother Predator is waiting for the family to come home. She is alone in her retirement village as everyone else on the entire planet has gone off to the Rugby 7s. So she is the only one there to pick up the call from her highly irritated family (luckily, the message service flashes as well as rings), and she decides to head off to Earth to give that pesky Alien-Predator hybrid a good piece of her mind, without leaving a note for anyone …

And thus begins the latest chapter in the filmic Aliens / Predator saga, Alien v Predator: Requiem. Actually, I think a more accurate description of this film is "Alien v Predator: Springfield", as most of the action takes place in a small American town with its own power plant (possibly nuclear) filled with stereotypical caricatures of people in your neighbourhood. They also borrowed heavily from the some of the action sequences in Aliens, sometimes almost shot for shot, which one could consider “homage”, though it could also be considered laziness.

I know, I know. Mocking this film is really like shooting fish in a barrel. I really did not expect a great deal out of this film and luckily, with a person beside me willing to put up with my sarcastic comments all the way through the film, I can at least say I was entertained.

The humans really were canon fodder: Homer took Lisa out on a hunting trip (I wonder what she learned?); Chief Wiggum lasted longer than I thought he would; the Criminal guy recently released from prison proved to be the “hero” of the flick; the misunderstood “Bart” character at least had a very hot woman throw herself at him before they were separated by death; soldier Marge (very much the Ripley of this film; she even got to drive an APC) steadfastly protected her little Maggie; and I am sure the obnoxious bully pointed to a person and laughed “Ha ha” at least once during the 95 minute running time.

There were some innovative (and quite disturbing) “Alien in the Maternity Ward” shinanegans, some (to my mind) misplaced faith in bullet-proof vests, some unconvincing moral dilemmas (lasting 10 seconds maximum) for the military big wigs, a Krull death (hopefully someone will get that reference), and a very cryptic (to the point of nonsensical) mystery villain appearance at the end.

But, with a willing ear beside me not averse to me making comments all the way through the film, the film passed smoothly enough. The “human element” was just a distraction. I was there for some Alien on alien brawling barbarity with the odd explosion and, through the darkness and obscurity, I think I occasionally glimpsed some of that. Here’s hoping there isn’t another sequel, as I will be forced to go see that too…

Verdict: So bad, but just bad. Just one flayed human skull out of five. An extra skull is awarded if one provides one’s own commentary a la Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Case for Great Train Journeys through Russia

My last film review got me in a recollecting mood.

I love travel, and have been surprised in recent years by how enjoyable travel by train is. Having spent a lot of my formative locomotive years on the Hutt Valley line of the Transmetro service, I was initially less than sold on train travel as anything other than a fairly incomfortable and noisy experience that did, on the positive side, allow one to get into work without having to experience the trauma of finding a car park and was an incredible opportunity to read.

While I don’t think much would change on a day to day experience level, I have rediscovered the joys of extended journeys by train, especially while on vacation. I have been on the ultra comfortable (my first first class experience was on the Eurostar to London) to the super cramped (the Hong Kong MTA); from the uber modern (a French TGV from Paris to Lille) to the prehistoric (NZ Rail’s carriages on a Taumarunui to Auckland adventure for primary school); from the speedy and direct (the Heathrow Express from Paddington) to the slow and meandering (Swiss trains around the Swiss lakes and mountains, though to be honest, they are actually fairly swift and incredibly punctual).

But the train itself is just a part of the journey. The ability to socialise, to view the world in a way that planes and even buses and cars don’t afford and arrive in the middle of new and exotic destinations, and just the possibility of relaxing, walking around and reading a book while travelling to those exotic destinations are, I have found, convincing reasons for planning more train adventures in the future.

At any rate, all this was by way of introduction to my judgement on some of the rail journeys I experienced whilst I was in Russia. Two continuous journeys in particular come to mind: 1) the Trans-Siberian trip between Moscow and Novosibirisk; 2) and a morning trip on the Moscow metro.

Case 1: The Trans-Siberian is an epic journey that I was lucky to enjoy through the organisational miracles conjured by KiwiinZurich. The Moscow to Novosibirisk leg was a 3 day voyage in first class over the flat expanse of Russia and into Siberia. The countryside was fascinating in its dull, empty sameness, though occasionally signs of civilisation appeared where the modern clashed with the traditional, and the communist juxtaposed with the individual.

When I say “first class” here, I am talking relatively. Fairly unfriendly attendants mixed with my own ignorance of Russian and a lack of any passenger-enlightening documentation to make this leg of the journey almost a complete mystery (some would say “surprise”). The cabin was comfortable enough, the hot water hot, the lack of shower facilities pungent, the toilet clean. We were allowed to disembark whenever the train
stopped, however briefly, though I almost missed the train once when a trip to a fairly well kept station market lasted a bit longer than I anticipated.

Even though we had our own cabins, socialisation with others proved fairly easy, as we were surrounded by others wanting to share the Trans-Siberian experience. That joie-de-vivre was not shared by the Russian Rail Service though, as touristy monuments (like the “border” between Europe and Asia) went past without a slowing for photographic opportunity, and the intercom system remained uninformatively silent.

Case 2: I braved the Moscow metro by myself one morning in an attempt to see the desiccated remains of Lenin’s corpse. That attempt proved futile as the queue snaked out of Red Square all the way to McDonald’s, but the trip back in the crowded train was one of my most pleasant experiences in Russia.

I managed to locate a seat while local Muscovites bustled around me, their expressions generally neutral to sour. Close proximity, a body-enhanced heat and a body-influenced odour tends to do that to people, and from my previous experience, the normal Russian state tends to be one of mild indifference to mild disdain.

At any rate, I found myself seated next to a shirtless man who had, by 10am, either not recovered from the previous night festivities or had started on the current day’s round. He was a bit thirsty, and asked for some of the Coke I was holding in my hand. I had taken my photo of it in Red Square and didn’t really want to finish it, so I gave him the bottle

Evidently, the way to a Russian’s heart is through his drinking stomach. We were soon the best of “common language impaired” friends. His knowledge of world geography did not extend to the South Pacific, but his pimping skills were unparalleled. And his keenness to marry me off to the nearby Russian ladies, and the glowing descriptions of the physical attributes of said ladies (I extrapolated from his hand gestures what his Russian probably meant) was the lubricant the otherwise grim passengers needed. The change was one of the most sudden and wonderful I have ever seen, with smiles erupting all around me, eyes rolling in shared mirth.

Verdict 1: The Russian Tourism industry – actually, the Russian customer service industry in general – is in need of a bit of Japanofication. The train journey was remarkable though. Three Red Stars out of five for the experience alone.

Verdict 2: One of the most heart-warming and human experiences I have ever had. Five Red Stars out of five.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Case for Great Train Journeys through India

A wealthy, fractured, odd-ball family get together to bond.

Sounds like
the Royal Tenanbaums, and it is. But it is also the Darjeeling Limited, which is the latest film by Wes Anderson who was also responsible for the Tenanbaum film. However, this time, the dysfunctional family members are traversing India in search of their mother and themselves.

Of course, the spiritual journey itself takes back seat to the bizarre antics of the three brothers and the various characters they encounter on their journey. The main movie was preceded by a short "prequel' with the stunning Nathalie Portman in a strange encounter with Jason Schwartzman. Considering he co-wrote the film, perhaps it is not surprising that his character was the one that "encountered" all the gorgeous women on this particular voyage of discovery.

As I write this, I seem to be getting more disillusioned with the film. While I liked the Royal Tenanbaums, and enjoy the humour of both of that film as well as this one, I don't think I was hugely enamoured with either of them. They are amusing, whimsical, slow, and have some incredible cameos and performances. But overall, they are wafers of films, thin and light and fairly forgettable afterwards, the Darjeeling Limited all the moreso. There are no great moments, no startling insights. Just a slow unwinding of amusing scenes linked by a shared journey of quite off-the-wall characters.

So I won't go on and on. Overall, it was a good film, entertaining, and I would recommend it to people who like the Royal Tenanbaums (or perhaps everyone, as the session I went to was quite packed and a few people in the audience - though not myself - found it all hysterical).

Verdict: A Dilmah of a Darjeeling.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Case for Northern Lights

After months of anxious anticipation, fuelled by the fantastical trailers, I finally made it to see the Golden Compass, based on the Northern Lights series of books.

The trailers promised an alternate world, where there were no hairy orcs or hippy fauns, but one where humans ruled (yeah!) in a quasi-Victorian era society, ruled by the all-powerful Majesterium.

And such promise was delivered. With more besides. With souls existing outside the body taking animal form (not human form, which could be confusing I suppose. I wonder if one could make it look like Twiki?). Where giant talking Ice Bears (they don’t have souls though, for obvious reasons) roam the Arctic (they may have had a kingdom, but humans don’t really seem to respect any boundaries). Where machinery is powered by whirling blue balls. And where the nexus to other realities resides.

A pity then that it was lumbered by a storyline that so closely resembled the Star Wars franchise: a youngster finds inner power to fight the evil Empire/ Majesterium, encountering weird and wonderful enemies and allies and magical forces, and finding parents in the most influential of places. There was the added ick factor associated with the whole ‘kids in peril” plot, and (for me) huge jumps in what the book must have revealed, as people magically either found each other or escaped from heavily fortified scientific facilities. And, just like Star Wars, the main character actually became quite annoying.

So, highly original it didn’t really seem to be, though I think the adaption for the screen really didn’t do the story a whole lot of favours by boiling down what seems a very interesting and well-developed world into fairly clich├ęd scenes. The ice bridge scene in particular, where a rickety bridge traversed a bottomless cavern with Ian McKellen warning of impending doom and danger had me yelling out “You shall not pass!” and “Run, you fools!” and, in the end, really didn’t add anything to the movie except time and the chance for the young heroine to scream a bit.

As you can probably tell by now, I was not overly impressed by the final result. It is not a bad film as such, but neither does it really seem to try to be a good film either. All the elements are there, the potential exists, and the sequels (if there are any, as this one seems to have got into a bit of trouble at the box office) may explore the more interesting aspects of the story in a bit more detail. The mysterious “dust” for instance, that has some sort of affect on adults (I must have missed the part that explained what this effect actually was, and why this was so threatening to the Majesterium); the cult of the Majesterium itself, based (apparently) on the Catholic Church – though I never really understood where it stood on a global stage on this world (are there Islamic states? Hindisteria? Judadom?); and also the whole idea of the soul existing outside the body too, apparently having a different personality and sex from the individual as well.

So, I will keep my eyes out for the sequels, should there be any, and may even read the books, should I find some, to get the uncensored anti-organised religion text in its full glory. But the movie itself?

Verdict: The compass guiding my thumb seems to be pointing towards the south. Two bags of dust out of five.

P.S. The Ascot theatre in Upper Hutt is quite nice too!