Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Case for Star Wars Solo

BigGeek has already reviewed the One Man Star Wars show in a manner timely enough that, if anyone wanted to go based on his assessment, they actually could. Me, I have been a bit slow off the mark with my review, but here it is, albeit a bit late.

In brief, BigGeek is completely correct. One Man Star Wars is hilarious. One lone gunman, on stage for over an hour of hyperactivity, with ridiculously effective hand gestures and changes to tone denoting completely different characters from the Holy Trilogy. As the show continued, the asides directly to the audience increased, but the need to know the films on which the show is based did not diminish – to be honest, I don’t know how anyone could enjoy the show if they don’t know the source material that the show joyously mocks.

My heart was broken (in a laugh out loud way) during the recreated medal-presentation ceremony; amongst the imaginary trees of Endor, I pictured Leia’s mother as Nathalie Portman in movie trailer teasers; and on the red illuminated stage of the Death Star, it finally clicked that the Evil Emperor’s plan was one big trap – really a trap.

As was the show. A huge, welcome trap for those who love the films, but don’t take them too seriously. Charles Ross gave an incredible performance, and we enjoyed it perhaps slightly less than he did, even after his approximately 1000th time on stage.

Click on this link to go to a YouTube "Highlights" video and see for yourself...

Verdict: Hugely entertaining, and if I get the chance to go to his One Man Lord of the Rings, I am definitely there. Three movies out of three.

Oh, and as I am a bit more of a Trekkie, check out this Star Trek v Star Wars YouTube clip too.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Case for Indie Films

I do wonder if my appreciation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was marred by its disturbing similarities to the star-laden drivel that was National Treasure 2, because I warn you now, I am going to do a fair bit of griping.

The film itself is standard Indiana Jones fare: a hero, a quest, a girl, elaborate action sequences, the revelation, the end, interspersed with moments of humour. It is not meant to be deep and meaningful, just cotton candy action fare. Perhaps I went into the Embassy (wondrous cinema that it is!) without this frame of mind.

It started off with nods to actors and plots from movies past, and then got into the telling of the new Indie story. Harrison Ford played an older, more grizzled Indiana Jones, the years between Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and this film filled with Jones becoming a patriot and working for the CIA, and losing quite a bit of his roguish smarm. No ladies with tattooed eyelids in Professor Jones’ class these days – he is less swashbuckling hunk than reliable-yet-active Dad material now.

The other actors were fine, making the most out of the characters they were given. They were all believable (despite Karen Allen grinning her way through most of the movie), though not really engaging. I was left convinced that most of their interaction and character development happened off screen, perhaps in a different film. Only Cate Blanchett’s vile, diabolically-coiffed Communist bad girl was given the opportunity to shine alongside Indie – and grab that chance she did with scenery-chewing success. I waited with baited breath to see if “Evil (?) FBI Guy #2” (played by Scrubs’ Janitor) would come back into the movie at some or any stage and engage in some despicable acts of random lead character humiliation, but in the end Cate wound up with all the nefarious plans.

And then, along came the action sequences. The longest one was set deep in the heart of a surprisingly car-friendly jungle. Indiana Jones movies have to have huge, outrageous stunt scenes filled of improbable twists and turns, where everything goes the way of the hero and his team (mostly). This time around, the moviemakers had the added advantage of CGI. Huge, great wads of CGI. If CGI was sugar, then it would have been a cup of tea with a cup of sugar mixed in. So there was a lot of it. And, after the first 5 minutes, I got bored. Probably this is a me thing, but too much obvious CGI manipulating the actions of people really grates my “suspension of disbelief” cheese, as it’s one thing to make stunt people do incredible feats, but another thing entirely to get a computer to do it for you – and so obviously. James Bond's "back to basics" approach gets my thumbs up. But remember Legolas mounting the Warg and despair…

After the jungle fever, I needed the film to give me a bit of medicine, and it did, returning to the tried and true Indie formula. Humour-wise, the large Embassy crowd was noticeably quiet during the one-liners, though one could sense a familiar warm glow during the less patronising exchanges. And the end didn’t really make a whole lot of sense, which is definitely keeping with the Indiana Jones tradition. But I wasn’t blown away by anything, especially when the similarities to National Treasure 2 became even more pronounced.

I have tried to steer away from revealing too much of the plot, as I don’t want to give a blow by blow account of what happened so that anyone seeing the film after reading this can enjoy the film. Hopefully the generalisations I have used illustrate my particular point of view, without giving too much away. But, to summarise all my many words above, the film was every inch an Indiana Jones movie, though, disappointingly, with a bit of the exoticism and swagger removed in favour of studio lighting and hubris.

I suppose I was expecting something that I didn’t get from this Indiana Jones film, though from the sounds of it, I am in the minority. If you feel inclined to share, let me know what you think – perhaps you can convert me (though I somehow doubt it).

Verdict: Indie is back, but older and with computers in tow. 5 whips out of 10, with 2 extra snaps for old times’ sake.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Case for Another Era's End

Sad to see the demise of yet another cinema complex, though in a fairly Darwinian way, it is nice to see the survival of the most fit as the poorer contenders become extinct.

While the Rialto Wellington has always shown a great selection of non-mainstream fare, the Rialto was obviously never designed for comfort: the seats are hard and small; the cinemas small cold; and the walls mostly unadorned concrete slabs. Even when it's candy bar was paving the way with wine and coffee, the fact the Rialto's screens actually became smaller when the film came on (to give them the wide screen ratio for films, while the squarer advertisements filled the whole square screen) always gave me the impression the cinema was not destined for longevity - at least not without a major overhaul.

Now the site is getting a revamp, but not with the improvement of the Rialto in mind. No, the whole site is being turned into apartments. And soon the Rialto will be no more.

The fact the Rialto was never comfortable means I am not really going to shed a whole lot of tears for the complex's demise, especially considering the newly-multiplexed Paramount and the Lighthouses fill the "alternative film" role quite nicely. But I will remember the good times, much like with Hoyts Lower Hutt: I remember seeing the universally panned but shamelessly enjoyed
Tank Girl there; I remember being amazed, perplexed and totally amused by the off the wall Living in Oblivion, with the wonderful Katherine Keener; and I recall the old "view 9, get 1 film free" loyalty cards that were only around for about a year.

Now the Rialto is on its last legs: movies cannot screen during the day due to the noise from the construction next door, and, come early June, the doors will close for a final time.

Verdict: Another one bites the dust - almost literally. While it's heart and soul were in the right place, the Rialto's passing will not be mourned as much as perhaps I should due to the fact it was a damned uncomfortable place to watch movies. 3 Jaffas out of 5.

And while I am not quite in the Fisherman's league, I have been taking the odd snap on my way along the Wellington waterfront on the way to work in the mornings, and with the current weather, some of those autumn mornings have been utterly gorgeous...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Case for Being There

Actually, Being There is another movie (with Peter Sellers), but I’m Not There is the theme for this blog, a film about the many lives and faces of Bob Dylan.

The film takes the idea that everyone does show different faces, has different ideas and ideals, at different times in our lives and literally gives various phases of Bob Dylan’s life to different actors. Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett… those are the ones whose names I know off the top of my head, but the final 2 of these get the most screen time.

I had heard that Cate Blanchett gave an uncanny portrayal of Bob Dylan, but I have to admit, as I don’t really know Bob Dylan and his mannerisms, to me, she looked like Cate Blanchett acting like someone else. The same can be said for the rest of the actors, though perhaps that is more a reflection on my knowledge or lack thereof.

It was a long film, over 2 hours, and there were some more esoteric sequences that dragged because of it. Again, because of my lack of understanding of the life of Bob Dylan, I found the scattered recollections of his life very hard to pick up and thread together into a coherent picture. Chaos was one of the recurring themes in Dylan’s life (or at least, a part of one or two of his lives), and it was impressive seeing this much star wattage put together into a fairly fluid film by, from the number of “in association with” credits at the start of the movie (5 minutes duration right there), a fairly independent, non-mainstream crew.

But it wasn’t really my kind of movie. While the great idea about people changing into something we can sometimes scarcely recognise from before was well executed, I couldn’t really follow the life of Dylan. So while the music was wonderful, the performances stellar, and the cinematography great, I couldn’t really get into it.

Verdict: I wasn’t wishing that I wasn’t there during I’m Not There, but perhaps should have had a Bob Dylan potted biography on hand at the same time. 5 Times they are a Changing out of 10.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Case for Human Rights

There is one word I use to describe films like those at festivals like the Human Rights Film Festival 2008 : “worthy”. This is damning with faint praise, in that I expect the message to be very important and the spirit to be earnest, but that very same purpose can also blind the film-makers – and, at times, the audience – to the flaws of the movie.

The two short films I attended were both fascinating, in that they showed ways of life and international issues that I, for one, am not all too familiar with.

Bowling for Zimbabwe was, unsurprisingly, a brief documentary on current life in Zimbabwe under Mugabe, and interviewed several ordinary and extraordinary Zimbabweans. While the film was generally about Zimbabwe, overall, the film lacked cohesion as it literally was just a lot of “this is my life” and “these are some statistics” kind of talk with no narrative to help move from one person to the next.

The feature film though was an hour-long documentary called the Dictator Hunter. Once the film had finished, it was refreshing to hear one of the discussion panel say the film was a bit pompous, as it accurately summed up the excesses of the film. There was an entirely fabricated moment of “spontaneous” grief as widows swamped the "star", lawyer Reed Brody, on the burial site of their husbands, a site the film intoned the women had never visited before (for over 15 years…), that had my sceptical eyebrow in maximum lift mode, and just felt like a cheap emotional ploy on the part of the film makers.

For the most part though, we followed the first part of the journey to bring a former President of Chad, Hissène Habré, to trial (putting someone before a court, in my opinion at least, is never a guarantee of bringing someone to justice, so I prefer not to use the term the movie bandied about so happily), as Belgium asked for his extradition only to be met by the bureaucracy and blame-avoiding Senegalese government. In the end, a trial date was set, but the verdict is expected a few years from now.

We were also introduced to some of Habré’s victims. One in particular struck a chord with the audience when, to an American Congressman, he asked the question: how can governments, who have signed treaties upholding basic human rights and freedoms for individuals then fail to protect civilians or even to protest against inhumane treatment? The Congressman’s response showed that while the world of Human Rights is politics, not all politics is Human Rights.

While one never doubted Brody’s conviction or passion, and one applauded his drive and action, it became apparent that one of the man’s motivators was not just a sense of justice and righteous indignation but also a fairly healthy ego. It was a shame that the self-indulgence detracted from the cause, removing fact and the pursuit of justice for moments of hubris, attempting to humanising the hunter when, really, the film was not about him at all.

So yes, both the films were “worthy”. The quick discussion afterwards added extra context to the films, which to me showed that the films were missing some vital pieces of information, though perhaps that was intentional if the idea was to show them in this format.

Verdict: Very worthy films, and definitely interesting, but flawed and, in both cases, the stories are not yet finished. Five scalps out of ten.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Case for the Rainbow Connection

Yesterday, I heard that fabulous song from my childhood, the "Rainbow Connection", on Classic Hits as part of a tribute to Kermit the Frog, who was celebrating his 53rd birthday.

He hasn't really been the same since the passing of Jim Hensen, but the legacy lives on.

Someday, we'll find it.

Verdict: A big flipper up for the birthday Frog

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Case for Ironing

This one could be very short: Robert Downey Junior is Iron Man.

But I am not one for brevity or conciseness (or avoiding tautology). So let me elaborate.

Iron Man is a superhero action flick, where a man dons armour and fights baddies. It is like Batman but less dark and with more rockets and high tech wizardry.

It’s also similar to Batman in that it has a lead character who is an egocentric, quick-witted playboy multimillionaire. However, Robert Downey Junior plays Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) as a jittery, amusing, fast talking, flamboyant everyman – so basically, from what I read about him in the papers, he basically plays himself.

The other characters definitely pale in comparison, feeling like the two dimensional images they once were, and occasionally grating in their perfunctoriality. Only Gwenyth Paltrow brings a human, believable touch to her ridiculously named Pepper Potts, though she isn’t really given a huge amount to do except shuffle around in tight skirts.

The story is straight forward super hero fare. There were some things that made my eyebrow arch: I was surprised with some of the speed of technological innovation and the ability to build complex machinery and operating software, but then Stark Enterprises is a military-industrial complex, not local government; the global American military machine is portrayed as coordinated from a small computer lab in a polytech somewhere in Los Angeles (I am not saying this is untrue); and Stan Lee makes a cameo more amusing than some of his others in Marvel comic movie tie-ins, though I think I was the only one in the audience that night to spot him.

But, overall, I really quite enjoyed Iron Man. Robert Downey Junior though deserves all the credit for that – he makes the film, lives the character, and adds soul and charm to what otherwise could have been… Ghost Rider.

Verdict: Iron Man + Robert Downey Junior = 7.5 suits of power armour out of 10. Iron Man – Robert Downey Junior =… well, thankfully, I don’t need to speculate.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Case for One Vision

I think the overall message from John Pilger’s film, the War on Democracy, can be summed up in the graph below:

In words: the basic thrust, particularly in South America, the voice of the people is less important than the voice of America. It is great when both can be heard, but if only one sings out, the US makes damned sure it is Uncle Sam’s.

While no-one can claim Pilger is unbiased, and there are some claims that come across as unproven (the poor in Chile – sure, there are poor people, but interviewing two of them does not prove that there are more or less of them than in previous regimes), he definitely brings an interesting point of view to the state of the world.

And one of his interviews in particular, with an extremely patriotic ex-CIA chief, is very enlightening. The incensed interviewee states that Democracy abroad is only supported when in the interests of the USA, and actively undermined in countries where the will of the people is contrary to US interests. His rallying cry for unity is, of course, that such policies are aimed at ensuring the security for “you” (Pilger), little realising the irony in that such policies have a completely unsettling effect as, if you are not in the US itself, your democracy could be deemed contrary to US interests and thus the “enemy”.

This is Pilger’s film and his take on things prevails. But what comes through all that and through the interview with the CIA in particular is the fact that democracy and freedom, while great rallying cries, may be what America (and the West) stands for at home, but is not abroad. Abroad, democracy, the will of the people, matters little compared to what is in the National Interest. Those supporting the National Interest (like Chile’s General Pinochet) are painted as liberators and excused of atrocities because they act in the “interest of their nation”, which of course is the National Interest. Democracy and freedom that is not in the National Interest is therefore not in the nation’s interest, and is thus suppressed. Some of the French view the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in much the same light.

One of the points Pilger raises is that one has to realise that, through its actions, the USA acts an empire, with colonies abroad serving the homeland. The policies and pressures by Imperial nations on other governments may be done with the best of intentions, and it may be that the democracy in nations such as Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Guatemala and many others may lead to a “bad” administration, but the point again is that that is the whole point of democracy – it is the will of the people, for good or for ill.

For me, what attracts my anger is the underlying hypocrisy of the thing. Perhaps people like George Bush really do think they are acting for the best; that media commentators who compare Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with Hitler really see him as a bad man. But then why hide behind placards like “fighting communism” and “fighting terrorism” rather than claiming to actually “fight for democracy”, not as a by-product as fighting “evil”, but for its own sake? In the end, I would like to ask them one question and see how they would respond:

If Democracy is not in the National Interest, which would you support and why?

My two cents: Anyone who says they would support National Interest first, in my view, cannot claim to support democracy. People may choose the wrong thing, and may even choose Hitler, but the right to choose is the essence of democracy.

Verdict: The War on Democracy film itself is only so-so, but it does stop and make you think. Sometimes though, you kind of wish it wouldn’t. 6 hands up out of 10.