Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Case for the Wilderness

The two and a half hour film, Into the Wild, has won rave reviews for its stunning cinematography and its true-life inspired story. Wanting to see what all the fuss about, it made a perfect evening DVD session.

Well, kind of. The film is undeniably gorgeous. The camera follows our hero, Christopher/Alexander (Emile Hirsch), across the United States on his way to Alaska, as he encounters lots of white people (including characters played by the incredible Catherine Keener, the always awesome Jena Malone and a very “Vince Vaughn-ey” Vince Vaughn) and passes through some of the most spectacular scenery the USA (and a wee bit of Mexico) has to offer.

It’s a voyage of discovery – both of the nation and of the self. But while the uncovering of the US is expertly and wonderfully done, I was less impressed with the whole voyage of self.

It is probably just my cynical nature, but the voiceovers that strung the main sequences together ended up feeling fairly pretentious. I reckon I should know, because on occasion (and I am sure on this blogsite), I have been known to overindulge in attempts at the poetic. As I am fairly brutal about this style when it is in my own writing, I can be similarly critical of it when employed by others. For example, in Into the Wild, the descriptions of Chris/Alex’s parents bordered on the melodramatic, and there were times when we in the audience were left with the impression that Chris/Alex was actually a bit of a spoiled prat.

However, my hack hackles were really raised when the “main message” of the film was revealed after about 140 minutes [spoiler alert!]. When Chris/Alex wrote in his papers [stop reading now if you don’t want to know] the words “Happiness is only real when shared“, I was ready to throw what remained of the popcorn at the screen. A lovely sentiment to be sure, but cheapened considerably by the fact the guy was utterly miserable at the time. It is one thing to realise in the throes of joy that one would be happier when sharing it with others; it is another thing entirely to have such a revelation when ill and depressed – so I was half-wanting to grab his paper and write “Misery loves company” in big angry letters to shake him out of this (to my way of thinking) self indulgence.

Again, it was probably just my cynical nature, but the quasi mysticism and undertones of depth got to me after a while. It is a beautifully shot film with well portrayed, believable characters throughout. But, for me, it never attains the “close to being a masterpiece” honour that the DVD cover says Margaret Pomeranz from the At the Movies bestows, for the simple reason that Into the Wild tries too hard to be deep and meaningful. Whereas, for me, meaning is a place we have to get to, for the most part, on our own.

Verdict: A beautiful film and a fabulous journey, though just a bit too thick with “meaning” for my tastes. 25 out of 50 states.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Case for a New Zealand Day

It is both curious and inspiring to witness the reverence with which New Zealanders commemorate ANZAC Day. People from all colours, creeds and faiths gather together to remember the deeds of earlier (and sometimes still current) generations in the name of their country, and for the benefit of the future.

Strange in a way to think how different this is to Waitangi Day. There, we remember the signing of the Treaty, the founding document for the creation of New Zealand as a nation. But how we remember that event is markedly different from how we revere our war dead.

Instead of unifying all ages and races, Waitangi Day points out our differences. Rather than being about an event and the spirit of a nation as ANZAC Day has become, Waitangi Day tends to end up as a forum for political point scoring. Rather than just reflecting on what was, Waitangi Day questions the what is, and seeks to create the what will be.

And so I have to ask myself: which of these is more like a national day? In other countries, the national day tends to be one of unquestioning celebration, of non-judgemental jingoistic nationalism. But in New Zealand, we do things differently: ANZAC Day is when we acknowledge the sacrifices made by others irrespective of the rightness of the cause, whereas Waitangi Day seems to be the time to revisit past injustices and contemplate all that is lacking in New Zealand society.

I am not intending to criticise either one. To be honest, I think it shows a sign of maturity to be able to look critically at the nation of New Zealand and to speak frankly about its failings. But having Waitangi Day as our national day is to put a uniquely New Zealand touch to what it that sort of celebration normally means. ANZAC Day, on the other hand, seems more in line with what, abroad, a day of national celebration tends to be, even if what is celebrated is the deaths of many of its citizens.

As an aside, around this time, I also tend to think of that excellent documentary War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us, about the experience of New Zealand women during the Second World War. An amazing movie, about women with incredible tales to tell.

Verdict: Both of these days define what it is to be a New Zealander. But what that definition might be, I will judge another time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Case for Old Time Passion

The offerings at the local cineplexes disappointed me this week (well, that and a course foiled my regular filmatic outing) and so I chose instead to indulge in the “classics”, one I had procured only days earlier: Don Juan de Marco.

It’s an oldie (featuring a 21 year old (?) Johnny Depp), but a definite goodie. How can it not be, with power-thesps Depp, a beefy Marlon Brando and the cheekbones of Faye Dunaway in the leads?

Yup, it’s all about the actors, though the plot is lots of fun as well. Don Juan de Marco recounts the story of a 20th century… well, Don Juan, and his tale of love and woe. The tale itself is deliciously silly and romantic, but the effect on the characters of Brando and Dunaway, igniting their retiring passions, is the most delightful to see. Not that there is a huge amount of depth given to the romantic renaissance, but the brief moments we do get to see are wonderful.

There is not a huge amount of depth as it is not really that kind of film, and it’s not that long a movie either. But, even about ten years after seeing it for the first time and finding myself enraptured, I was still delighted by the movie, even if the ending did seem a bit weak to my aged and jaded sensibilities.

Verdict: Don Juan de Marco runs away with my romantic side every time. 4 kisses out of 5.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Case for Gilmorisms

Any of you who know my music collection will know I have very little shame. So it is about time that I finally announce that, yes, I am now addicted to the
Gilmore Girls. The lovely S got me started, JudgeNot encouraged me, and now I have that damned Carol King opening theme song on "continuous playback" in my brain (as it has been for the past few hours), and it is torturing me into revealing my unexpressed addiction.

And why should I not? Last night, with the final few episodes of season two, I experienced some truly wonderful moments of pop cultural referencing and the truly bizarre: the whole "Oi with the poodles" exchange; the disturbing, yet usable, "I am so lonely that not even Animal Planet does it for me anymore"; and of course, another one from Kurt, his short filmatic debut (brilliant).

Of course, it can't all be brilliant dialogue featuring an eclectic blend of non-sequiturs and biting rebuttals, but the writing makes the more... melodramatic bits worth it. In other words, while the show makes no ground when it comes to plot development, it definitely breaks ground when it comes to the number of times British television shows and alternative rock groups can be mentioned in what is an otherwise mainstream television drama.

Do I sound like I am trying to justify myself? Yes, I think I do. Well, I shall stop it as there is really nothing to feel apologetic for. The show is damned good. Now, if only I can get that theme song out of my mind...

Verdict: Wonderful writing makes Gilmore Girls a brilliant show. Strange to think I am closer to Lorelai in age than Rory though... 4 pots of strong coffee out of 5.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Case for Plastic Companionship

The premise of Lars and the Real Girl is silly enough that C4 have taken to mocking it, and that it might seem to be more in the ilk of Superbad than a movie with any real emotional depth. But that is not the case.

Ryan Gosling plays the titular Lars, a painfully shy guy who hates being touched and prefers his own company, though he still goes to church. Then one day, he tells his brother and pregnant sister in law that he has brought home an internet girlfriend, and introduces them to Bianca, his life size silicon doll. The doll, it is quickly determined, is probably a crutch that he is (subconsciously) using to work through issues he currently has, so his relatives and the townsfolk in the small Alaskan village are asked to play along. And most do, besides those who think he is completely barking mad.

It sounds silly. And from time to time, especially with the “played for laughs” efforts made by the town to “accept” Bianca, it is. But despite that, the film is wonderful.

Gosling gets a lot of credit for playing the “damaged” Lars, but I reckon equal praise (if not more) should go to the supporting cast for playing the “normal” townsfolk in a completely believable and sympathetic way. In particular, Paul Schneider (as Lars’ brother Gus Lindstrom), Emily Mortimer (as Karin) and the always amazing Patricia Clarkson (as Doctor Dagmar) all act as credible anchors to the incredible main character(s). Paul Schneider in particular stands out, as showing emotional depth in a character designed to be every inch a “bloke” has got to be tough, but somehow he does it beautifully.

The packed Bergman theatre at the Paramount Cinema obviously loved the film as much as I did. We laughed, we occasionally sniffed, and we were all entranced. Believe the hype: this is a good film, though I am not sure it would be quite as enjoyable on a repeat viewing.

Verdict: Lars and the Real Girl is a wonderfully warm film, especially considering it all happens in the bleak Alaskan winter. There are some excesses with the townsfolk “buy in”, but then (I have to remind myself) this is a movie, not a documentary. Nine inflatable dolls out of ten.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Case for Space Hippies

Recently I made a bargain basement DVD purchase and picked myself up a copy of that ludicrous television series from the 1970s,
Space: 1999. You know the one: on the 13th of September, 1999, Martin Landau leads an international team of moonies as a nuclear explosion pushes our planetary companion out of orbit and off into the far reaches of space, with the moon occasionally travelling faster than light (to cover the interstellar differences) and then mercifully slowing to take in the scenery of the star systems they pass on the way. With special effects from the Gerry Anderson fold and outfits most decidedly from the 1970s, it was definitely a product of its time.

But, looking back, one thing that now fascinates me is the underlying ethos that comes through in the series. It's completely hippie. There are explosions galore, but when it comes to the characters and some of the underlying themes of the show, it's all about transcendental meditation, joss sticks and high human ideals, including responsibility for actions of the past. Very enlightened.

And it got me to thinking. Where has that thought of thinking gone? Compare this with the most incredible Sci Fi show of this decade, the new Battlestar Galactica, and witness how we view things now: not as a rosy future to be embraced and mistakes taken and dealt with, but more as an age much like now, rife with hatreds and prejudice and incredibly hot babes, where sins of the past come back to punish us. Very different.

When did we get so pessimistic? The positivity of the hippie 1970s, that the world could be a better, greener place by 1999 (though putting all the nuclear waste on the moon did have some negative side effects) seems to have been replaced by a much more negative, defeatist outlook. A "Bob the Builder" attitude seems to have given way to a bit of hand-wringing and battling each other rather than dealing with the bigger problems.

So what happened? The 1980s and the "me" decade, I reckon. The idealism of the commune of hippies saving the world was replaced by the me first mentality. And I think the problem is, as a society, we can never go back from that way of thinking. We still have some hippies left, fighting the good, idealistic fight, completely sure of their moral compass and living a "good" life as that is true to their moral beliefs, but they are rare. But they tend to battle alone.

It's a shame really. Though, if they had their way, we would no longer have a moon to guide us at night.

Verdict: Sci Fi has come a long way, from the light towards the darkness. Or from the hokey towards the damned good. Whichever way you want to see it. Space: 1999 gets 3 Eagles out of 5 for its sheer... self, and the new Battlestar Galactica gets 7 Vipers out of 5 for being so damned good, though it will be interesting to see how they end it...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Case for Being Deeply Delpy

2 Days in Paris is the first film written and directed by French actress (actor?) Julie Delpy. Considering the last film she assisted in putting together was Before Sunset, I was looking forward to a talky film about quirky people with lots to say and occasional depth. I was not disappointed.

But nor was I blown away. Evidently, foremost in Ms Delpy’s mind is strange $exual obsessions, transferred in this film to her character’s parents and to most of her friends. Meanwhile, the main characters are fairly paranoid, occasionally neurotic, and lots of fun if you can handle their self-obsession.

But for all that, I appreciated the assemblage of fairly random events strung together by the common thread of the examination of the lead characters’ relationship. Paris is the backdrop of the film and gives Delpy the chance to speak a whole lot of French and introduce American audiences to her view of her city. And the people they meet, from militant fairies to redneck taxi drivers, are all fascinating.

In the end, I left the cinema both ready to throttle the people next to me who arrived half an hour late and talked most of the way through the film, but also quite happy with the “slice of lifeishness” of the film. It’s not one I would rush out to see again, as it is far too unfocussed and lacking in magic moments for that, but it is one I am glad I went to see. I felt disappointed that the end resolved itself in a five minute monologue, but looking back, the monologue summed up what would usually take four hours or more to work through. And while the characters were all extreme to some extent, they were all shown as fairly flawed and felt all fairly human - a feat that is not always that easy to achieve.

Verdict: An enjoyable 100 minutes, though not for everyone. 36 hours out of 48.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Case for Real Fantasy

Recently, on one of those small trips I tend to write incredibly long e-mails about, I had the pleasure of having at my fingertips the funky new Air New Zealand entertainment system, the one that allows one to select the movie one wants to view and also allowing one to pause, rewind and fast-forward as required.

I had experienced this system once before and was most impressed by its flexibility. This time around, the system gave me the chance to see the film Enchanted (edited for a family audience of course), a film I had considered seeing as it had advertised itself as a Disney film that mocked Disney films, and looked entertaining to boot.

Well, the Disney company is nothing if not a master of spin. There may have been some mockery of the family movie conventions of huge song and dance numbers, “montage songs”, cutesy animal companions, and an outrageous villain, but more often than not the film revelled in these clichés, dragging out the songs to torturous length and showing the naïve characters from the realm of fantasy as people who could successfully integrate into modern society within a matter of hours rather than days. Perhaps the fact the animated, non-bestial characters were all white assisted with their assimilation…

Perhaps I am being overly cynical, especially considering I knew I was letting myself in for a Disney film, and the films released under the Disney banner are never really known for their dry wit (Pixar and Robin Williams collaborations excluded of course). But the film was slow, dull, filled with annoying characters (even the great Susan Sarandon began to grate my cheese), and a painful ending only saved by an animated wedding sequence (the Prince’s bride magically losing height relative to the Prince in the transition from the real to fantasy worlds) that showed sparkles of what the rest of the film could – and probably should – have been.

Oh, and the reason why I started this entry with the “scene setting” of watching this in a plane? The fast forward command was put to great use during the film, so much so that I hope the controller worked properly for its next user.

Verdict: Enchanted left me very dis. One painful, moralistic song and dance routine featuring random strangers and anthropomorphic animals out of ten. Ugh.