Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Case for Competition

Of the four films I am seeing at the Wellington film festival, two are documentaries. And those two documentaries are all about competition and the desire to win.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster* was a brilliant movie about the use of performance enhancing drugs in competitive sport and in day to day life. It went into the culture of competition and the desire to be the best that typifies American (and to a similar extent, Western) life.

These themes were evident in The King of Kong, a documentary following the attempt to beat the world record score on the 80s arcade game Donkey Kong. On the one hand, there was the challenger striving to prove himself, and on the other, the defender determined to retain his title.

Unlike Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, The King of Kong was a fairly biased view, pitting the laidback family man Steve Weibe, a recently redundant man with a lifetime of disappointment behind him, against the self-important ultra-patriotic incumbent champion Billy Mitchell. The audience is in no doubt who we are to root for, with the portrayal of Mitchell as scheming, secretive and determined to retain his crown at all cost, pushing everyone firmly into underdog Weibe’s camp. Weibe gets more screen time, his family are involved more, his friends are consulted; Mitchell gets to utter a few self aggrandising lines, his wife’s pneumatic breasts get a few minutes to heave, and Mitchell’s workmates and co-gaming enthusiasts are all the character references he gets on screen.

Real insight comes not from the main “players”, but actually from Weibe’s family. Weibe’s wife is a complete trooper, supporting her husband through thick and thin; and his young daughter comes up with the most profound statement of the whole movie, one that isn’t really addressed by anyone over the age of ten.

It is hard not to like Weibe and to be behind his shot at the title, and even knowing of the blatant manipulation of the documentary does not stop one from finding Mitchell’s tactics a bit too devious, and the man himself a bit too slimy. However, the applause that broke out from the audience when it looked like Weibe had defeated his foe was, in my opinion, a sad reflection on the manipulability of the audience itself.

The Fisherman pointed out though how easily the audience found laughing at those who have dedicated their sporting lives to these arcade entertainments. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* and The King of Kong both presented extreme cases of people who were passionate about their pastimes and would do anything to maintain the dominance of themselves and their friends. However, laughing at “geeks” always seems to come easier than laughing at “jocks”, the physical and mental prowess required to succeed at computer games deemed less of an achievement than being able to run really fast or having big muscles.

But, for those incredibly passionate about something, the competitiveness and attitude of winning at all costs and the need to be right is universal, no matter what the sport or discipline. It’s not a validation of self these people want, but validation from others.

Weibe proves to be an incredible game player, but as his brother concedes, it’s the need to have that success recognised by others that pushes him to keep coming back to try and beat Mitchell; and I am sure the same could be said of Mitchell and his attempts to stay on top. It’s just a shame that the documentary makers really didn’t seem to want to chase up on Mitchell’s side of the story, contenting themselves with showing their everyman hero and his claim at the world Donkey Kong title.

Verdict: The struggles of both these men makes fascinating viewing, even through the lens of the “David v Goliath challenge” the documentary makers present. Amusing, emotional, brutal and very human, The King of Kong is very good. 2 lives out of 3.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Case for VHS

A crowded Embassy Cinema full of festivilians sat down to watch a film all about videos. Strange to think that video is a dying technology (from a rental perspective anyway), and so it is now with nostalgia that we can look upon the quirks of the medium (the need to rewind for one; the variable image quality for another) which at one point seemed to threaten the viability of the movie industry.

But Be Kind Rewind is not a deep metaphysical pondering on the changing nature of the “cutting edge”, but much like The Science of Sleep (by the same director) is a sentimental and off the wall look at people and the world in which we live.

The story is fairly simple: after a magnetic accident, the rental videos are erased, and only the quick improvisational skills of Mos Def and Jack Black and an RCA video camera can save the reputation and existence of their store. That simple premise lets the film be inventive and creative without a huge budget, in a charming and well meaning way.

Obviously, the films The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind gave the Director Michel Gondry a huge amount of respect, as the star wattage lighting up the screen during the film is impressive. Besides the two leads, Danny Glover shows up in his greying but otherwise unaging visage, Mia Farrow stars as the mother of a United Nations brood, and Sigourney Weaver shows up to destroy the remake of Ghostbusters. The rest of the cast were unknown to me, and some of them may have been unknown to acting classes too, but overall the whole cast work well together to give the impression of their greater New York suburb as a poor yet pleasant and community-minded place to live.

It’s hard to say too much more about the film. It is sweet, amusing, and Jack Black is Jack Black (take that as you will). It’s heart is very much on it’s sleeve, and there are no outright villains. There are just people, each with their own foible and idiosyncrasy. In the end, everyone seemed to enjoy seeing this film, which is not a bad recommendation then and there.

Verdict: Light and pleasant with a good heart. Be Kind Rewind is not hard hitting, not action packed, not special effects laden, and not a huge amount of anything. It is what it is, and is very happy with that. And I liked it too. 7 rewound cassettes out of 10.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Case for Being the Bestest

My first film at the 37th Wellington Film Festival was a documentary, the after-asterisked Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, the asterisk drawing attention to the sub-title *The Side Effects of Being American.

No surprise then that the film is a very Ameri-centric view of the world of taking performance enhancing drugs. Director Christopher Bell’s particular drug bug bear is the standard steroid, and while at first his movie seems to pursue the “is it really that dangerous” track, it slowly becomes clear that this is the wrong question.

Steroids are a drug, and like coffee, alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, its harmful effects depend on the amount taken and the biological and psychological makeup of the individual. “Almost everyone” is taking steroids, a handy pie graph (based on conjecture, I imagine) pointing out that there are plenty used in medications for the ill, lots used for personal performance improvement, and only a small wedge used by professional athletes. It is the final group that have made steroids “bad” in that they are used to cheat, to enhance the individual’s performance beyond what would be possible normally – and so it is little wonder that in competitive sports, there is the wide-held belief that everyone is on the junk.

The professionals either deny they take them, get around the tests (sometimes assisted), promote supplements and modes of living that only partly explain their performance or physique, and then blame everyone else for pushing them to it (or claiming everyone is naïve) when they get caught. But the rewards for taking them and not getting caught (and sometimes even after they get caught) are obvious, and incredibly enticing to those who look up to them.

Bell’s brothers are (or were) regular steroid users. They use(d) them to get bigger and stronger, to be the best. And during the course of the film, the same theme comes up again and again. Everyone loves a winner, and everyone aspires to be a winner. And to be a winner, you have to do what it takes.

Except, that’s not what the winners say. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the patron saint of bodybuilders, comes up again and again. His physique inspired a generation of young men to go to the gym and get buff. And when it was revealed that he was assisted in attaining that physique through the liberal use of steroids, then for those following in his trail, it is good enough for them too. But now Schwarzenegger says steroids are bad, even though they helped get him to where he is, and even though the bodybuilding competition named in his honour does not test for drugs.

It’s the hypocrisy of the whole scene which is fascinating, and saddening. Truly heartbreaking, though, are the emotional confessions of Bell’s brother and mother, and when Bell pauses to consider the mixed messages inherent in the support and unconditional love they provide to his younger brother using his steroidally-enhanced strength to attain a personal record.

From what I saw (and felt myself), the audience really enjoyed this film. Bell gives a fairly balanced and occasionally humorous view of the issues, though very few women or more impartial people seem to make it into his interviewing eye. The ending though is fairly sobering, calling to question Americans’ (in particular) and the USA’s (in general) obsession with winning through means fair or foul – though always claiming to be fair and honourable – and questioning what that says about the most powerful nation on earth.

Verdict: A really thought provoking film, Bigger, Stronger, Faster* makes one think about the powerful and ordinary people in new ways, just as a good documentary should. 4.5 milligrams of juice out of 5.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Case for CONTROL

“Would you believe Chuck Norris with a BB Gun?”

And would you believe that the revised Get Smart is actually really good? Well, it definitely struck my funny bone a couple of times, and those around me in the cinema seemed similarly stricken.

There are lots of nods to the original series, with the cars and the gadgets making guest spots, and the catch cries used to minimal yet spectacular effect. Even the odd original cast member shows up for a brief cameo (the one I noted was mercilessly dispatched seconds after recognition).

And the cast is great. Steve Carell raises the Maxwell Smart character from the bumbling idiot from the TV series to a bumbling braniac, and I can’t think of anyone who could make Agent 86 so appealing and play the character without shameless mugging and farce. Anne Hathaway makes a very girl power Agent 99, more Jane Bond than the knowing brains of the TV series; Alan Arkin plays a fantastic curmudgeonly, father-figurely Chief; and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson is really good as uber-agent 23, even though some would be disappointed he remains shirted throughout. The one “off” note for me was Terence Stamp as Siegfried, who seemed to only have one expression and be permanently set on “semi-shout”, but that wasn’t a biggie.

Though the plot is fairly straight forward (the identity of the “hidden evil one” was obvious to me the instant I realised there actually was a behind-the-scenes baddie), the script is sharp, with some very quick throw away lines, and it can’t resist swipes at a very George W Bush American President (“New-clee-AAR”). There is also a lot of physical comedy as well (this is Maxwell Smart, of course), and the mix between physical and dialogue humour is nicely done, so one never really gets sick of one or the other.

However, the film is possibly a bit longer than it needs to be, and CGI is again overly employed, rendering some action scenes disappointing through their sheer implausibility. But these are minor quibbles that did not seem to bother anyone else but me.

Overall then, and as you may have guessed, I really enjoyed Get Smart. The humour appealed, the performances appealed, it all just appealed really. Possibly not for everyone, as humour is a very subjective thing, but I think most audiences would love this film. Well, if they have any taste, of course...

Verdict: Don’t surrender to KAOS, and don’t miss it by that much. Get Smart was lots of fun, and a really pleasant way to spend an evening. 7 cones of silence out of 10.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Case for Hancock

I have a wee bit of a problem this time around. How can I mount a case "for" Hancock, the new superhero flick, when it is so damned bad?

Perhaps if I break it in two. That way I can describe the first half as a fun yet different take on superheroes, starring the ever-likable Will Smith and Jason Bateman, with Charlize Theron popping up every so often with a strange look in her face. And then there is the second part.

Well, what can I say? It didn't appeal to me. It made no sense. There was zero humour. On the other side, there was action and lots of special effects. But... oh, I really can't dwell on it. Only the fact I was in the comfy leather seats of the Embassy cinema made it anywhere near bearable.

Verdict: 2 tall buildings in a single bound out of 10

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Case for Hong Kong Fu

I went along to Kung Fu Panda with no expectations whatsoever. It looked like inoffensive, light-hearted, under 90 minute fun. But from the opening cartoon animation, with Jack Black intoning such inspired lines like “There is no repayment necessary for awesomeness”, I was entertained.

The cast for the show is simply incredible. Jack Black leads as the loser Panda, Dustin Hoffman grumbles as the sage Kung Fu Master, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan all lend voices to the kung fu elite warriors. But the fact I only recognised Jack and Angelina kind of left me feeling the star wattage was not really put to good use – what is the point of employing these big names if you can’t really tell it’s them and anyone would have sufficed?

After an opening that really appealed to my sense of humour, the movie itself settled into a more familiar, easily accessible, family-oriented style. The moral of the story was fairly straight forward, though it was told with panache and a few misdirections hither and thither. Jack Black’s crazy influence waned as the story took over and more characters were introduced, but there was enough fun to keep the (surprisingly large for Hoyts) audience, including myself, entertained. I actually think the few children scattered around the theatre appreciated it less than the many adults did in the end.

There is not too much else to say about it. It was a bit of light, frothy fun – not a must see classic, but enjoyable for the whole family.

Verdict: Kung Fu Panda strikes all the gongs with its deft martial art moves. Just right for a cold, wet winter, especially if one doesn’t expect Shakespeare. Or Shrek 1. 7 boards broken out of 10.