Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Case for Waltzing in the Twilight

Well, 2008 has about one day left in it. And, to finish off the year, I attended a couple of movies. And, befittingly, they were films from opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum.

First off, I indulged my serious side by attending a screening of A Waltz with Bashir, a festival film now on general release that has made many critics' "films of 2008" lists. The film, following the attempt by a few soldiers to recall their experiences in the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, was given added poignancy with the recent attacks by Israeli forces into Gaza. The film was less about the political motivations of the times (though it did dwell on some horrific events that occurred), but dwelt more on the nature of memory and the ability of people thrust into traumatic circumstances to protect themselves from the more troubling aspects of their actions.

The whole film was presented as an animated feature (which did not mean there was no nudity, far from it), and the style used was really impressive. The stories of those involved were told in Hebrew (so there were lots of lovely subtitles), though I have to admit that, due to the fluid nature of memory recollection and the subsequent translation of that nature to film meant that I had I hard time keeping track of what was "real". It is not a documentary about the events of that time, so the film was more an inspiration for further study than an informative piece that covered all the issues, but more a catharsis for the director and those he interviewed, a way for men to recall their experiences and share how they felt about what happened, or at least, what they remember happening, from their point of view.

Verdict: Overall, for what really is a "talking heads" movie, A Waltz with Bashir was really well told, very stylish, though definitely a hard slog and not a film for those seeking light entertainment. 7 Dances with the Stars out of 10.

Movie number two was in an entirely different (pardon the pun) vein. Twilight has been an international mega-success, though the audience for this film is very different from Waltz with Bashir. I was surrounded by young women (with some boyfriends in tow), and the Mills & Boon with Vampires film definitely sated their romatic bloodlust.

The plot is easy to summarise: Girl meets bad boy from the wrong side of the sun and romance ensues, though said romance is spoiled by those disapproving of live/undead relationships. Quite why these two are attracted to each other was completely lost on me (she was eternally mopey and depressive; he was uncommunicative and unpleasant), but then they experience quite a few montage scenes (definitely think the Team America: World Police montage song when I use that phrase) where I am sure their love and lust was meant to blossom amongst the lingering looks and soft rock ballads.

Yeah, I was definitely not in that teen girl target audience demographic, so it was a bit of a long disappointment for me. Being an American teen movie, every character was played by a fantastically good looking actor (Bella, by name and nature, was inducted into the "cool clique" at school for her looks alone, as she offered nothing else that I saw), which is always a shame, though to be expected. However, I also have issues with the portrayal of the Vampire life as a "perfect alternative" (an issue tackled on more than a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and quite well, in my opinion), so the fact this film presented that the undead lifestyle as a wealthy, exclusive club for a special beautiful elite annoyed me as well.

But, as the credits rolled, I reassessed the movie and realised Twilight really works as an introductory film to the sequels that are destined to follow. Characters were introduced and relationships established (if not necessarily believably) and motivations and backstories hinted at (though not elaborated upon), all paving the way for future elucidation. I actually think Twilight might work better as a TV series than a film (that is not necessarily a suggestion to the networks, by the way, though I would expect royalties if this came to pass), though I can see that the bookly nature of the original material would lend itself more to movie retelling.

Verdict: Twilight is a competent teen love story - looks good, makes all the right sounds - but is ultimately a bit shallow and lifeless for someone such as myself. 45105 out of 90210.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Case for the Year in Review

I like reviews of the year just gone. One of my favourite parts of the Listener is their annual round up of the year that was, a review that reminds me of most of the stuff that happened in the past twelve months, issues I thought were earth-shattering at the time but have subsequently slipped out of memory, or else just been dislodged from their place in history and consigned to the big holding pen that is the undefined "past".

Hard to believe that this was the same year that petrol prices spiked over $2, as they have now come crashing back down, saved from going under that $1 mark by not only the greed of the multinational oil companies but also the similarly tumbled New Zealand dollar. Stocks have similarly plunged to uninspiring levels, taking interest rates with them, though those of us not mortgaged are now waiting for the housing market to suffer a similar descent.

On more political news, George W Bush's successor is a buff black man rather than a derranged hockey mom, while back home, New Zealand's political colours have changed from red to blue and the head from female to male, though any other notable differences have yet to make themselves apparent over the furore caused by the global financial crisis.

But enough plot summaries, as you all know the score. Here then, from my point of view, are some of the highlights:

(Super) Human of the Year:

It has to be Dan Carter. Plaster his boyish mug and/or chiselled abs on anything, and it ha
s instant credibility as Kiwi, savvy, stylish, if not necessarily smart. It may be sacrilege to say it, but in 2008, Dan Carter was the All Blacks. He sells clothes, cameras, cars, and himself (in a purely sporting manner of course) and the media (and presumably the public at large) lap it up. One has to wish him every success, and marvel at the marketing machine that wants to make his success their own (et tu Nikon?) and ensure he never has to pay a cent for any of the products he actually endorses.

Sporting Event of the Year:

As they are every four years, the Olympics takes the top sporting spot. However, ask me to name one sporting event for me that stood out, and I draw a bit of a blank. I remember a New Zealand rower almost vomited over an incredibly annoying TVNZ sports presenter, but perhaps I am merging two events together there in a kind of wishful thinking. But the Olympics were grand. Really.

Performance of the Year:

The Olympic games again and the opening ceremony. Fake singer and fake fireworks. But they looked good. And while everyone does it, it is worse when the Chinese do it, somehow. If only there were an international fuss over those hideously dubbed advertisements they allow on NZ TV.

TV Show of the Year:

For me, it has to be Ugly Betty. This is TV doing its escapist best, and not letting anything (like reality) hold it back. It may jump the shark soon, but, amongst its normal insanity, will anyone really notice?

News of the Year:

Oddly enough, I still trust Al Jazeera more than anything else these days. It definitely has a slant, but it tends to be on when I want to watch the news. Their news is more than just their set (though theirs is awesome), and Dan Carter tends not to appear that often.

Intervention of the Year:

Can't go past Facebook, for successfully integrating itself into almost everyone's lives. A social event cannot be arranged without it, and keeping tabs on peoples lives and love lives has never been easier. I am not the biggest fan of it myself, but then, I never have been terribly trendy.

Kiwi Icon of the Year:

Well, Dan may be the man, but Flight of the Conchords are the boys. They bathe in pungent Kiwiana, but come up smelling of roses due to their superlative talent. I bow to their mastery.

Song of the Year:

I kissed a Girl by Katy Perry has to be the song of the year, doesn't it? The lesbianist cause has never been more popular with young boys.

Concert of the Year (of the ones I attended):

The Police. Better than I thought they would be and the best of the (admittedly limited) bunch I have seen this year. I would definitely go again.

Verdict: Well, this may only be part one, but thus far, 2008 had lots to be judgemental about - on a completely superficial level of course.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Case for Christmas Carols

I have been very lucky this year. Well, perhaps it has less to do with luck than a tendency to avoid the mainstream, and my own blinkered approach to what is going on around me.

But this year, I have been pleasantly surprised to realise that, with only a few days to go until Christmas, I have managed to avoid most (though not all) of the hideous, cloying and annoying Christmas Carols this festive season.

Perhaps "Christmas Carols" is actually not what I should be calling these Yuletide offerings. For me, a carol invokes some kind of religious element, which, besides a call to shop to save the global economy (which is badly in need of ressurrection, though that kind of thing tends to be celebrated around Easter), most of these popular songs do not possess.

A particular pet hare of mine is Snoopy's Christmas. No idea why, as it is a fairly banal song, but perhaps its supposed popularity puts my hackles up. I have heard this one a few times this year, and the line "why the Baron gave up, we'll never know" really annoys me considering, one verse later, the Baron and Snoopy are sharing Christmas Port, so surely Snoopy would have asked the guy why the Baron didn't kill Snoopy stone dead over France in a hail of German bullets.

A few others that snuck through have been bastardised remakes of "classic" Christmas songs. I heard an even blander re-recording of Wham!'s saccharinely sentimental Last Christmas, but managed to avoid the hideous remake of the only Christmas song worth its salt, the Pogue's Christmas in New York, where they attempt to make the song of drunken spousal abuse more "family friendly" by replacing the lines "you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot" with something like "you scumbag, you maggot, you're cheap and your haggard" - that's really telling him, love.

Of course, one that did slip in to my consciousness is Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas, the unbelievably 80s anthem of condescension to the starving masses in Africa who are probably not Christian (and so really should not be expected to know it is Christmas) and who live in a climate where snow at Christmas time would be the herald of a major global climatic catastrophe, rather than a sign of hot chocolates and misteletoe. Still, it is catchy, even with a pre-toilet George Michael, a pre-manacles Boy George, and no female or non-white artists deserving of a solo (that I can recall; please correct me if I am wrong).

However, today, I will be heading out towards the malls for a few final shopping stops. I expect there will be Christmas songs all around me, but I am hoping I can avoid paying them any heed whatsoever. Time to prepare myself with a song that can overpower almost anything else...

This is the song that doesn't end / it just goes on and on my friend...

Verdict: Jesus may be the reason for the season, but the visual signs are all in tinsel, and the aural indicators tend to involve over-earnest, screaming Americanand British pop artists. And Cliff Richard comes out to play. Christmas Carols/Songs contribution to musical credibility: - 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Case for (E)Motionlessness

Got to give it to Keanu Reeves - noone can play an eerily inhuman person quite like him.

He plays Klaatu, alien insect overlord of the Realm of Spheres, in the re-imagined The Day the Earth Stood Still. This time, the Earth is still in peril, but rather than from the threat of nuclear weapons, it is from the threat of humanity, and the other residents of the planet have called in the exterminator.

Between humanity and impending doom lies US bureauracy, in the terrifying form of Kathy Bates channelling Dick Cheney. Her power-hive hairdo alone is a shock, but her pompous America-first swaggering, ably echoed by her eye-goggling offsider Kyle Chandler (taking a break from a Texan accent from the superb TV series Friday Night Lights), is nigh on insufferable - as is, I am sure, the intention.

Doing a much better job at pleading mankind's case is Jennifer Connolly, though her character is lumbered with a highly annoying step child who is obviously intended to show humanity's heart, but had me reaching for a sick bucket and then a shot gun - I would not have made the best anti-annihilation ambassador, evidently.

The film looks great, but is really long, aiming for the "slow and ponderous, makes you think" tag, forgetting that you can add "makes you think of paint drying" to that too. Jennifer is dewy-eyed for most of the film, and the argument used to try to convince Klaatu takes all of two seconds to deliver and is then kind of forgotten. This film was obviously never really intended to be a deep philosophical discussion on society's technological progress and its impact on the Earth's environment.

I think I make it sound like I liked this film less than I actually did. I was expecting a hideous mishmash after the various reviews I had seen, but in the end, it was watchable, mainly for Jennifer Connolly and the special effects. Unfortunately, for a film based on one that was meant to make one think, it is advisable for this version to leave your brain at home and just enjoy the visuals instead.

Verdict: Side-stepping its ecological message in its desire to show Microsoft technology at its best, The Day the Earth Stood Still kind of forgets what it is all really about, which is fine if the audience does too. Three Klaatu Barada Niktos out of ten.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Case for Stepping Back in Time

Normally during the week I head off and see a movie. This week, I did something a wee bit different, heading to Auckland to enjoy a concert, Kylie X.

It was a sold out event at the Vectra arena, the precipitous seating configuration not resulting in any injuries (to my knowledge) though my mastery over vertigo was sorely tested. We had very decent seats (with the ticket price to prove them) where, unfortunately, a stalactitie speaker stack hung directly between us and the stage, and one woman who refused to sit down blocked the giant TV screens that displayed Kylie's close up image.

The show started a bit late, perhaps necessitated by a slow-entering crowd, and got off to a wobbly start with a few less inspiring songs from her new album, and a completely underwhelming attempt at the Manilow classic "Copacabana" (Barry, you were sorely needed), until the more classic Kylie dance tracks were whipped up, remixed and belted out. Then the crowd really got excited.

For some reason, I was expecting a bit more of a floor show. The light and sound were amazing, but the dancers (while good) seemed hampered by the motorcycle helmets they wore for almost every song, and Kylie herself could hardly be expected to dance too much in any of the metre-high boots she wore.

But as her hits came out, albeit in an altered but recognisable form, and the new songs became more interspersed, things got good and poppy. There were one or two dallies back to Stock, Aitken, Waterman territory, though the final "I Should be so Lucky" was the only song to be dragged out of the 80s. But, for me, the simple, dance hits and the early 90s pop were the highlights, and the rearrangements were fun and didn't mess too much with the original flavour of the songs.

Verdict: Kylie provided a great night, with light, frothy songs and a stage show to match. 7 Singing Budgies out of 10.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Case for More Morning Photography

Amazing what a wee bit of photo adjusting will do. But it still was a glorious morning, even if the colours and contrast in the image below weren't quite as they appeared on my camera. The real colours are lost in the mists of memory of course...

Verdict: A spectacular greeting from the world first thing on a Thursday morning. And it was all gone in about half an hour. 7 out of 10 on the lovely morning scale.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Case for Solace

Really, the Embassy Cinema is one of the most perfect places in the world to see a big screen flick like the latest James Bond entry, a Quantum of Solace. The size of the screen, the size and comfort of the chairs, the almost overwhelming sound system and the atmosphere of the place all add to make any movie an experience, and blockbusters feel worthy of the name.

A pity then that a Quantum of Solace is actually a fairly dull entry. There are lots of action sequences, but nothing as jaw-dropping as the "over the scaffolding" chase in Casino Royale; there is no real humanisation of the Bond character through a strong female off sider or love interest; and the humour is fairly sparse on the ground.

To be honest, the threat posed in the movie (I won't spill here, but it is very much not another deadly Goldeneye satellite) is no laughing matter, and is also not really a "last minute save" kind of issue either, so there is no real sense of urgency to things.

But that is not to say the film is bad - it is a great fairly brainless action flick, picking up threads loosened in the last film and building on those, and the action sequences themselves are still impressive. Daniel Craig as Bond is still brilliant, though Judi Dench still blows everyone else off the screen when she appears in her M glory. And, for better or worse, there are no seedy jokes about any of Bond's conquests.

So rating this one is going to be difficult. I have to say I enjoyed it, but a few days later, I can barely remember it. Mind candy perhaps, but lots of fun.

Verdict: No idea what the title of Quantum of Solace is meant to mean, but then, that kind of sums up the movie: fairly impressive sounding and looking, but with only a small bit of substance behind. 004 out of 007.