Friday, July 31, 2009

The Case for FilmFest Catchups

Right, have been very remiss in my reviewing the last wee while. JudgeNot the NotKate has managed to pronounce her judgements on all the movies we saw together before I was able to put digit to keyboard, and her judgements are as usual very well thought out and erudite decisions.


However, the first film on my review list is one that JudgeNot did not attend. The “blast from the past” Ocker shocker Wake in Fright was a 1970s film beautifully remastered into an incredibly clear and sharp print that sometimes had me forgetting the actual age of the movie.

The film is beautifully bleak, the Outback of Australia represented as both a dry and deserted part of hell, and, in the bigger towns, it comes across as a hard drinking, hard betting, hard living and hard hitting suburban part of hell. Into this hellish landscape comes a Sydney city boy forced to work as a teacher in the Outback as part of his bond, who gets sidetracked on his way back to Sydney for the Christmas holidays.

The movie revels in the “true blue” Aussie experience, but presents both the positive and negative side of that blokey culture. The mining town locals are shown as charming, open alcoholics but also erratic and slightly insane. The main character, John, is at first mortified by their antics, but warms to their openness and “quaint ways” only to be sucked in to the more unsavoury parts of that lifestyle – the kangaroo hunt has to be seen to be believed, and I can think of no circumstances where such a scene would ever be shot in a modern film, not even by Quentin Tarantino.

So the film is not easy to watch, even as it captures a “real” part of the Australian psyche. It shows the friendliness of small town Australia juxtaposed against the harshness of out Outback mining experience in the oppressive heat and lacking anything to do but drink and shoot things. It is a “classic” and slice of real Australian life in the way Once Were Warriors is a reflection of New Zealand, something powerful and revealing, yet shocking and depressing.

Verdict: The Fisherman recommended seeing Wake in Fright, and I am glad he did. Bold, brash, borderline and occasionally bad taste, it was a great chance to see an amazingly restored print of a defining Australian film, and to witness a kangaroo hunt in all its shocking, disturbing yet hypnotic glory. 6 kangaroos out of 10.


The fourth of my festival films this year became a must see purely by merit of its setting. Adventureland was touted as a 1980s movie, and considering how well films such as Dazed and Confused have captured other past eras, I was kind of hoping Adventureland would do the same.

It didn’t: the story was fairly generic and could be located anywhere in the time / space continuum, though of course the 80s setting gave the film makers the excuse to put together a really amazing sound track. But, while my preconceptions were shattered very early on in the film, I got into the story and the slow, jovial pace of the film and started to enjoy Adventureland for what it was.

Plotwise, it was boy meets girl in a summer job with a few ups and downs along the way. See, fairly generic. But it was done very well, with some fairly witty attempts at humour early on in the movie, though these tended to disappear as more characters came on board. I got the impression with certain unexplored story arcs (the Dad’s alcohol in the car, for example), that Adventureland was trying to make itself into a male-focussed Juno, wanting to be a bit deeper and a bit more meaningful than it actually was. The angst that was central to the main characters was well handled by the cast, but storywise they were sometimes dealt with in a way so quick and efficient way that they seemed to flare up and vanish for no real reason (the whole “I am not dating you because you are Jewish” issue seemed to be generated purely to give people a chance to shout at others for a few minutes).

But the characters were all very human, all flawed, the romance believable even if some of the situations the two leads found themselves in were a bit contrived.

Adventureland was preceded by a short film so completely out of kilter with the main feature, one had to wonder how that particular combination had ever been thrown together. A family falling apart on the death of the mother through alcoholism and depression is not really a “good” lead in to a romantic comedy, but luckily Adventureland overcame that handicap to leave me with a warm 80s glow for the rest of my Saturday.

Verdict: Nothing new, but done well and with a nice and occasionally quite sharp sense of humour. Adventureland was not so much a roller coaster ride as a relaxed, pleasant tram ride through 80s town. 7 tickets out of 10.


Okay, now this one was not a festival film, but rather a borrowed DVD viewed before going out to the cinema. I had seen On Golden Pond many, many moons ago, but took the chance to rewatch it when it was loaned to me by someone aware of my appreciation of Katharine Hepburn.

I have always been a big fan of strongly-written women on screen. It is rare to see a male “hero” lead given flaws or shown as weak, whereas characters such as Ellen Ripley (Aliens) and Laura Roslin (Battlestar Galactica) are written as fiercely intelligent, tough, powerful individuals still allowed to have emotions and to suffer from self doubt. And Katharine Hepburn’s career is built on such roles, reflecting the fierce independence of spirit she appeared to have in real life.

Such strength and charisma is evident in her portrayal as Ethel Thayer, acting alongside Henry and Jane from the Fonda acting dynasty. It’s an incredible cast, with some amazing performances that lifts a fairly predictable and oft-told story. Hepburn was evidently suffering from Parkinson’s disease at the time of filming the movie, adding to the respect I hold for her for putting such a great performance together. If both she and Henry Fonda only earned best supporting role Academy Awards, I would love to know who won the lead actor awards – and who the lead actor in On Golden Pond was meant to be,

Verdict: I don’t really know how I can be unbiased in this review, but I like On Golden Pond, the beautiful cinematography, the fact it stars two people above retirement age, and the fact it is awesome. Still, I will try and add some modicum of impartiality and rate it down a wee bit for a fairly common story. 8 Golds out of 10.


The NotKate and FilmSvend have already written very eloquently about We Live in Public, a documentary about Josh Harris, an internet visionary blind to humanity. He pioneered internet chatrooms, internet television, 24 hour Big Brother experiments both on groups and on more intimate scales, all the while appreciating the spectacle and the voyeurism of the act rather than actually being able to empathise in any way with what was happening to those who were his subjects, or even his lover.

After the documentary screened, the director took questions about the film clarifying why the torturously long scenes in the giant underground Quiet cage seemed to go on forever (the footage used was itself culled from a 2 hour documentary on the actual experiment that she had made but not released), and that certain scenes showing Harris dressed up in quasi-drag as “Luvvie” were shown to try and balance his more normal persona, as she admitted that his normal persona was actually quiet a bit of an @rsehole and hoped that showing this sign of him softened that dislike somewhat (not really).

While the film carried a warning that the internet is a Big Brother constantly watching you and then subtley directing you to what the Powers behind the scenes – normally corporations – want you to see and buy, and that there are some unscrupulous people out there willing to use people for their own nefarious ends, I was more interested in the fact that there were people who went into some of those decidedly dodgy situations with their eyes fully open. The Quiet experiment in particular, filled with self-indulgent extroverts (New York artists, including one “Interrogation Artist”, and believe me, I really wanted to ask what the hell that was, had I actually any guts whatsoever), spun out of control as the people inside did what they wanted until they did what the quasi-fascist guards told them to do, lost any inhibitions (one assumes) they might have had, and basically revelled and partied and accepted the blatant favouritism shown by Harris to his chosen.

That Harris got bored with Quiet is probably not that surprising considering his incredible narcissism. I am sure more people than just me slapped their head when he justified the breakup of his relationship to his incredibly intelligent, pretty and lovely girlfriend, with whom he lived in front of the cameras for months on end, to the fact it was all a fiction, rather than admit (as she did) that the pressure to perform for others got in the way of their relationship. He became suicidal when viewers flagged once his girlfriend ditched him, not really with the ditching itself.

Seeing this level of egocentrism, tinged with the paranoia that, through the internet, one can actually measure how “loved” one might be, was fascinating to behold. Should self worth come through the number of friends one has on Facebook, or the quality of those relationships? These days, quantity seems to matter more.

The film was really interesting in the questions it raised, in what it showed about ourselves and our society, even if focussed through an extreme and highly irritating lens. While the internet can be and is a powerful tool, it also has the ability to abuse and be abused by those who take things very, very seriously. It can be an attention grabbing tool, but it is just another medium to reach other people rather than a measure of self worth in and of itself. The internet can be a lot of things, and what we choose to make of it… well, its up to the pioneers to decide, I suppose.

Verdict: We Live in Public is a really interesting film, well told, if a bit slow and hard to watch at times. A film by extroverts for extroverts, with little in the way of impartial explanation as to what we were witnessing – but then, one is not really drawn to the lead character nor his vision anyway. Worthwhile, but hard going. 7 windows updates out of 10.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Case for Quenching

The Judgements are going to come thick and fast, now that I am in full Film Festival flight.

Last night’s taste of international film was a Korean meal, with the meat done very rare indeed. The idea of going to see a horror film is not usually the first thing that pops into my head, but I was lured by the welcoming invite of friends, so a bit warily, I headed around keen to experience something new. But in the end, we were all a bit surprised by what we saw.

Thirst is a vampire flick with a difference, in that it takes ages to get anywhere, and there is actually a very small body count. Instead of brutal slayings and dismemberment, most of the film is actually spent showing missionary scenes not seen since The Thorn Birds. Actually, even then, I think that there was a lot less suckling of toes and licking of armpits.

It was all very… bizarre, and instead of being a quivering yellow chicken, I ended up watching almost entirely the whole thing. I ended up looking at the actors and wondering how completely unerotic it actually was. The lead characters were almost completely charmless – it is rare that murdering psychotics get my empathy – their coupling scenes looked painful more than passionate, and I got completely bamboozled as things progressed, uncertain who was alive, who was dead, and who was undead.

However, if one ignores the plot, the film itself is absolutely stunning, with amazing visual effects and an incredibly beautiful and amusing ending. Its not quite enough to make up for the two and half hours I sat sitting there, marginally uncomfortable by the direction given to the actors at certain times, but then a lot of people caught the “spontaneous applause” bug that tends to afflict festival goers, especially at the Embassy cinema, so I suppose my own opinion was probably in the minority.

Verdict: Thirst was not really a horror, not really erotic, not really a thriller, and only occasionally funny. More often than not, it was just a bit disturbing. But it was definitely a beautiful sight to behold – though I would rather it not have taken so long in the beholding. 10 pints of blood out of 20.

Oh, and let me just plug the
blog of MovieSvend, which covers far more of the festival films that I ever would, and very well as well, I might add.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Case for Being Mooned

The International Film Festival (Wellington) is now on in full force, and as part of that force, I went to see a film called Moon, a film starring the fantastic Sam Rockwell, the disembodied voice of Kevin Spacey, some tunes from the 1990s I thought I would never hear again, and (according to the NotKate) is somehow linked to the Bowie dynasty.

As first films go, it was a very good start: while the film basically just has one character throughout its 90+ minute running time, it is not a boring film. This is a mystery set on a moonbase very reminiscent of Space: 1999's Alpha, as are the special effects (in a very refreshing change, the special effects seem (good) model-based rather than 100% CGI extravagance - there were no Eagles in sight though), leaving it up to Rockwell and a very helpful, smiley-face robot to take us through the running time.

And they do so very well. Without giving away a huge amount of plot, it is a mystery. There we are - hopefully that says enough. Some of the mystery comes from the mysterious 3rd moon buggy (where did they park it?) that shows up at some point, and trying to figure out afterwards who was where and when, but at the time, you don't really care - things crack along at an atmospheric, if not high speed, pace. With great SFX, a great cast and a very spacious set, I really enjoyed this film, and recommend it for "mystery in space" kind of people.

Verdict: A great start to the fest. 7 moon rocks out of 10.

And while I think about it, let me just comment on a review posted by the NotKate on a few docos, some I saw a while ago, some I have not seen, but one in particular I viewed and completely agree with the NotKate's assessment: Operation Filmmaker is a really annoying movie. It is touted as this great film, with the Iraqi budding film maker invited to work on an American film though on his arrival things start to go wrong, when in reality almost everyone involved in the film (apart from The Rock) seems to be a bit of a self-centred pr!ck.

While there is no doubt that the documentary makers did not get the grateful Iraqi they were expecting, the fact people's attitudes seemed to change the instant that Muthana Mohmed said that he was thankful for George Bush's invasion and that nobody really seemed to be able to tell him what he was expected to do on his secondment (and that he obviously was not told beforehand) kind of threw everyone off. The documentary makers kept going back, kept giving him things (even when they protested they shouldn't) and then went back again. And Muthana Mohmed then just seemed to learn that he could get almost anything he wanted (for a while anyway) by trotting out an "Iraqi abroad post invasion" sob story.

The biggest failure of the film (to me) is when the documentary makers themselves get too involved in the story, while trying to appear impartial. Michael Moore makes docos, but you know going in the line he will take; these people try and be flies on the wall, but end up being flies in the soup instead. As liberal as their intentions might have been, they, and this film, end up looking as "fair and balanced" as a Fox News programme.

Verdict: I agree with NotKate, in that Operation Filmmaker really got on my tits, and gets more so the more I write about it. So I will stop. 2 good deeds on the road to 10 hells.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Case for Boratio

There is no doubt that Sasha Baron Cohen is a scene stealer. The man loves to ham things up remarkably and while in Borat, he pushed the boundaries of taste with his bold shamelessness, in Bruno, it seems the man must have had his inhibitions surgically removed to perform half the acts he does, even in simulation.

However, the “charm” for me of Borat was not the lead character, but rather the reactions of those who encountered the Khazakstani reporter, seeing how much they could feign politeness by his improper behaviour, and to what outlandish statements they would agree with or state in this presence of this fairly misogynistic and racist person, especially knowing that they were being video taped at the time.

Bruno follows in Borat’s footsteps, though upping the offensive factor exponentially. The lead character is not a reporter in search of Pamela Anderson, but rather a failed Austrian fashionista in search of stardom in the USA, by any means necessary. But that shift in focus also brings a shift in perspective: a lot (too much?) of Bruno follows the fictional story of Bruno himself, the scene-setting and unreal interactions between him and his companions, rather than observing the reactions of those watching them.

Knowing that these characters are fictional made it easier for me to accept (it not always watch) some of the more… outrageous incidents as obvious shock factor 7 attempts (though these have apparently driven some people from the cinema, and I can definitely see why). But that knowledge also rendered those scenes somewhat uninteresting, the fact these things were pitched at me to push my buttons making me feel somewhat like a part of the social experiment I had just come to witness. It felt like the film was throwing things at me, daring me to walk out or be polite, to make me feel as perhaps those “subjects” actually involved in the film might have felt. The scenes also made me appreciate the character of Bruno less than perhaps I would have otherwise, the outrageousness we were seeing was not necessarily what the people were seeing at the time, thereby dulling the strength of the reactions of the “real people” in that, through what I had been shown, I had probably got there first and was thinking the same thing. It may have been done deliberately to allow the film makers to “cut” longer scenes where Bruno encounters the average public, so that all they really needed to show was the part where they finally get offended by Bruno’s antics.

There are still some classic encounters, though all are woefully short and the background disappointingly unexplored. The clueless PR specialists are given super brief screen time, though they appear to be quite successful in whatever it is they actually do; the hunting party folk are not really allowed to have personalities; and there must have been a lot more funny stuff to the Middle East peace talks that would have been more deserving of screen time than the final celebrity singalong.

But mainly, Bruno is designed to offend everyone and everything, and, disappointingly, though perhaps not unsurprisingly, to take centre stage.

Verdict: Bruno will occasionally make you laugh, but mainly it will shock and offend. And the shock to offense ratio will determine whether you can last the distance, or even enjoy this at all. I was more shocked than offended, but even then, I will just give this film 4 milis out of 10 vanilis. An opportunity squandered…

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Case for Uncivilisation

Every so often, I do the odd blog spot about a book I have read – mainly about a non fiction work that describes some aspect of the social, economic or political world in which we live. This is going to be another one of those times. And this time, the book is The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk.

Much like the book Mao by Jung Chang, this is a huge tome that can at times be a very hard slog to get through, though it is definitely a very enlightening and rewarding adventure in the process. It weighs in at 1283 pages, excluding bibliography and notes, and recounts the various conflicts in the Middle East throughout the 20th Century, ending with the Second Gulf War, and relating how lessons learned from the past have been studiously ignored by those in the present, probably deliberately.

It is a deeply disturbing book, unsettling in that it shows humanity – in the brutality of the extremists, the ignorance of colonial powers, the laxity of the media, or the wilful hypocrisy and manipulation of so-called open and democratic governments – as a species of deception, deceit, outright lies, self interest and slaughter.

The historical context for conflicts in the Middle East is told in a very compelling, informative and occasionally episodic (betraying the newspaper column origins, perhaps) way. The French, British and local regimes and those who have struggled against them all are portrayed in both positive and negative lights, though always related back to the human context in which they occur and the people who are directly impacted by what went on. Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan all are treated to at least a (relatively) brief synopsis of what has happened, is happening and, most importantly, Fisk tries to relate, to the best of his ability and knowledge, the why. The “why” is, of course, the bit most Western – and Middle East – politicians try to forget, or else just ignore.

Other targets are given less cover by historical precedent and injustice: The arms dealers and weapons manufacturers come under intensive fire near the end of the book, highlighting the way they have (for the most part) cloaked themselves in the blanket of “weapons that protect” when, of course, weapons only protect by killing (or threatening to kill) someone else, no matter how many times they may claim to be “anti tank” only. While the vehicles themselves are claimed “safe”, the weapons they project are accurate, devastating, but not necessarily described as “deadly”. And of course, they should only be used by responsible adults, who only intend to attack military equipment. Of course, Fisk brings to these harbingers proof that the latter is not always the case.

The book covers a huge amount of ground, and I found it unbelievably educational, so I was surprised when the last Gulf conflict, the Bush/Blair Offensive, dubiously linking Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden and thus the 9-11 attacks on US soil, and then shifting to the supposed (and now proved untrue) threat of Saddam and his Weapons of Mass Destruction, was covered fairly lightly. Perhaps this is because it is still ongoing history in the making, and the proximity of the book’s release to the actual events described, but does feel a bit underdone. However, considering everything else that has come before, the reader can kind of come to their own conclusions about the motivations of the aggressors, the role of the mainstream media and the impact on the lives of ordinary Iraqis of all of these events.

In the end, I did get the impression Fisk blamed the situation in Israel/Palestine and the Israeli government for far more than could actually be proved, though there can be little doubt that Israelis have not profited from their very unique relationship with the Western powers. It is perhaps easy to be hard on Israeli ambitions: listening to a report from the Middle East recently, I did note how the UN-mandated Palestinian territories under Israeli control were referred to as “disputed” rather than “occupied”, a small slight of tongue the significance of which I would not have picked up previously. Considering the Christian West’s past treatment of Jews, this “blind eye” can be perhaps understood as an appeasement of guilt (or, in the case of Christian Fundamentalists, to increase the speed of the Armageddon’s arrival), but the impact this has on the people it most affects does not really seem to enter into the equation - not very Christian at all.

What is condemned more in its deeds, if perhaps not quite so obviously by Fisk’s words, is the complete failure of the United Nations to act as an independent and impartial arbiter between nations. Once, I was a huge fan of the UN concept, but the reality of its “rubber stamping” of a Western agenda fraught with its inconsistencies and blatant hypocrisy has left me somewhat disillusioned. And the recent appointment of Tony Blair as Middle East Peace Envoy is, I suppose, going to cause an updating to the old saying that “Only Nixon could go to China”

Whatever, the end result is that the book left me with an extremely pessimistic view for the outlook for that Middle East region. Too much history, too much blood, too much religion, too many cooks and, of course, too much oil mean that I ended up feeling that there is no way that the Middle East problems can ever really be solved when there is so much self interest and self deception that gets in the way.

Verdict: As massive a tome it is, the book really only just begins to describe the complexities and realities of the situation in the Middle East, and the interests of the Western powers in the same region. It is an incredible introduction, especially for one such as myself not versed in the history of that region, though obviously told with a less FOX News and more Al Jazeera perspective on events, so perhaps not for those more conservatively inclined. 1000 out of 1283.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Case for Silver Steel

Clint Eastwood always has a particular look about him. Even when he is playing happy or introverted, his visage bears a similar scowling grimace, his real emotions displayed through his hands and whether or not they are brandishing a fairly powerful firearm.

Gran Turino is one of his gun-toting roles, and I have to say, as a plane movie, it works really well. The story is fairly straight forward (All American male confronts his prejudices and his demons when “those” sorts of people move in next door) and the story moves along at a leisurely pace, meaning the odd distraction through the accidental turbulent spillage of a beverage or random announcements from the flight crew did not really get in the way of understanding what was going on.

Eastwood is in fine, chiselled form, his aggressive bearing as intimidating now as it was back when he was a hard nose cop with the most powerful handgun in the world in his hand. Perhaps this is no different from a lot of his other roles, but, if that is the case, that practice has served him well. The rest of the cast were more or less unknown to me, but Eastwood (as director) managed to elicit some great – or at least convincing – performances and the whole thing came together like a well-oiled machine.

Oddly enough though, watching this movie and then seeing the original Karate Kid proved how well-oiled this particular style of movie is – it is not a new concept, merely with a mild twist on the delivery. This time, there was no Mr Miyagi preaching wisdom from the East to instil confidence and respect to the youngsters. In the 2000s, reality dictates that conflict is solved through someone holding a bigger gun than the other, or else has more of them.

So the story is kind of uplifting, in a fairly depressing kind of way. But on the surface, Gran Turino is a great film in which to watch Eastwood doing what he does, and doing it well.

Verdict: Nothing new, but this Magnum still packs a punch. 70 miles per hour in a 100 mile per hour zone.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Case for the Devastator

Actually, let me come right out and say this will not be a case for Devastator – I was not impressed by the return of the megalithic monster Decepticon. For one, he was not (and his components were not) coloured bright green and purple; nor did he stumble around in a loud, slow, thick voice droning “I am Devastator” and be easily beaten by the Autobots; and finally he sucked – literally.

The rest of the film did not suck so badly. At least, I don’t think it did – there are huge tracts of the time I spent in the movie theatre that I can no longer recall, possibly because I was asleep. To say I found this movie slow is not a good sign, given that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen should by definition be an action film. It got off to a fairly heart-pumping start, with Megan “the complete” Fox in uber short shorts straddling and waxing her large motorbike in a way inspirational to those who would be attending a different cinema later in the day. But from there, it all continued on with a multitude of lingering slow shots, Michael Bay relieving his attempts at artistry with the occasional big explosions and chase scenes.

The most successful character is Judy “Mom” Witwicky, her hysteria, histrionics and accidental drug taking adding many quick moments of levity to the glacial plot development, though she just has temporary insanity until John Turturro’s ex Federal Agent Simmons shows up to take over the crazy person role. The leads are all fairly dull, including (it has to be said) the Transformers themselves, who don’t actually get to say much – except for the highly annoying “twins” who must have been both voiced by Chris Tucker to be quite that irritating. The Fallen may have a voice deep enough to shake the theatre, but the Decepticons’ Master Plan is actually fairly dumb and poorly executed, and the whole leg hump scene is just disturbing. Rules of time, space, geography and logic are all abandoned in favour of trips for the crew to Egypt, the East and West Coasts of the USA and lots of orange.

On the bright side, the film is big, bold and bright and definite popcorn fodder, great for viewing with friends and not requiring a huge amount of concentration to follow what is going on (one is hard pressed to really call say the film has a “plot”). Not that this has stopped people from lapping it up, considering how popular it has been on release.

I was less impressed by Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen than I thought I would be, but then I remembered that the original Transformers movie seemed shorter and slicker as I had purged all the extraneous subplots and characters that never made it to this film, so perhaps the film is actually on a par.

It will be interesting to see what path number 3 will take: my bet will be that Megatron will avenge his fallen Fallen, first by interrupting Sam’s honeymoon (Megan Fox will of course be in an ultra mini bikini splashing in the Hawaiian waves for the first 30 minutes of the film) and holding him hostage in Angkor Wat, which happens to be an old Decepticon portaloo. After much slow motion soul searching, Optimus Prime will go against the foolish US Administration representatives and lead the brave US soldiers to Asia to rescue Sam, destroying many ancient buildings in the process.

Verdict: More of the same, with a bit less menace, humour and spark, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is less about revenge and more about adding more Transformers to the toy range. Six transformations out of 10.