Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Case for Outrage - Pt 1

Okay, I was going to launch straight into a long rant about the MTV Movie Awards- which will follow - but first, I have to report a sacreligious outrage: I went shopping today and saw that Big Uns are no longer sold in 200 gramme bags, but their largest size has been reduced to 180 grammes. In order to make it "look" more stuffed, the bags have been shrunk and thus appear to be bursting full of artificial evilness, but no, in fact, there is just less of it. Civilisation really is coming to an end.

I am not sure if I have presided over the case of the MTV Movie Awards before, but considering how much I used to look forward to them, I feel I must express my view on the subject.

A wee while ago, I looked up the “recent” MTV movie spoofs after going through a spate of checking the “classic” clips on YouTube.

Ah, the classics. Who can forget the Se7en send up, featuring multiple William Shatners channelling Being John Malkovich in his various TV incarnations? Or Lisa Kudrow attempting to prove her worth to a senile Yoda in the Phantom Menace’s Jedi Council scene? Or the delightful Janeane Garofalo driving along in a Twister truck pointing out the tire rushing towards their windscreen in a scene that was in the trailer but never actually appeared in the film itself? And of course, if you have the Special Edition Lord of the Rings DVDs, there are (as hidden extras) the MTV send ups with the incredible Jack Black and Sarah Michelle Gellar getting their particular pierced ring out at another Council, and then Andy Serkis and Gollum accepting their award a year later.

After the Lord of the Rings efforts, things started to go awry. The waning years did see some classics, such as Will Ferrell as the Architect screaming, “Ergo! Concordantly!” as responses to the Matrix-ish questions posed to him, but the mock ups got more self-referential and the “funny award categories” became more laboured, catering to the teen audience “mainstream” taste rather than to comedic gold (Best Kiss won by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair (and Sarah’s subsequent acceptance speech) has never really been topped).

My ability to view the awards was always a hit-and-miss affair on my televisual calendar, as the show appeared on random channels, especially affected whenever MTV surfaced as a channel in its own right. However, I did catch a few, with one with featuring the singing, dancing and comedic talents of Lyndsey Lohan, while another was presented by some hip teen rebels or youth-relevant comedians of whom I had never heard. From a celebration of movie mockery, the show seemed to have shifted to a showcase for the presenter’s many “talents”, though the majority of the time seemed to have shifted to musical performances by groups whose music may have tangentially appeared on one of the movies of the year.

And so, I turned to YouTube to bring me up to speed with the current crop of MTV Movie Award-generated humour. What I saw disheartened me. The spoofs, for me the main reason to show the film, seemed to end up as either a French and Saunders send up (where facets of the lives of the star were highlighted in a scene from a recent film, which kind of works for these two British comedy legends, but doesn’t really work for young Hollywood starlets); or else, if my YouTube search query is to be believed, a “write, film and send in your own” affair. I saw one mock Juno that I think should be used as a torture technique by Interrogation Artists rather than MTV material to amuse.

“What has happened?”, I ask myself. “Is my unappreciation a sign of the actual product’s decline, or of my own increasing age?” Possibly a combination of both – as mentioned earlier, I think the MTV Movie Awards are being pitched squarely at the youth market, with music the product to be sold and the lure of “MTV listening to your voice on the movies” as the reason to participate and watch.

If true, it’s a sad decline from the era when Lisa Kudrow (channelling Phoebe) scriptedly invited her Hollywood friends to ask her any questions on the industry and then shut down that idea after a few minutes when the questions got too hard. It may not be spontaneous, but it is hard enough for scripted material to be funny, let alone for off-the-cuff comments by actors not renowned for having sparklingly witty personalities to come across as amusing. But I suppose if that is not really the purpose of the show any more: if the life has been drained out of it so that the spirit of the Y generation could fill it, then I really am an old man, not in tune with the times.

Verdict: The time when the MTV Movie Awards were the awards show to watch, mercilessly mocking an industry sometimes so far up its own butt to see how far behind the times and how blind it really is, appears to be over as a new generation and/or ethos takes its helm. “Reality” TV and the people’s choice power MTV these days, making the Award spectacle an empty affair, stuck in its own time and place, leaving nothing for the future – nor for old farts like me. Two pieces of popcorn from a boxful.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Case for Death by Cleanliness

It is perhaps a bad sign of Readings arrogance now that it is the only real mainstream cinema on the inner Wellington block when the information board no longer tells you when movies are close to selling out, or indeed sold out, and upon learning that the movie you intended to see is sold out, you are required to descend down from the Candy Bar where the tickets are sold down to the ground floor where the actual movies and session times are advertised, just to return to the first floor once more once an alternate movie choice has been selected. Arrogance? Technical failure? We shall see what future movie screenings at Reading holds...

But, as mentioned (especially by the NotKate), when the plan to see District 9 fell through, one of my companions suggested the started-two-minutes ago movie Sunshine Cleaning. Luckily, Readings still has about 10 minutes of advertisements before the main feature starts, so we had plenty of time to get tickets and get to our seats and watch a few trailers for some Robert Downey Jr-starring features before the actual movie began.

Sunshine Cleaning comes from the same stable as Little Miss Sunshine (the title surely gives that away), and so, unsurprisingly, drips with sentimentality and quirkiness and Alan Arkin, playing the lovable off-kilter roguish grandparent of the previous film. Unlike Little Miss Sunshine though, this film is a lot more depressing. While Little Miss Sunshine had the odd moments of heartbreak (recall the teenage son realising he could not live his dream), Sunshine Cleaning wallows in melancholy. Amy Adams, as daughter number 1, used her clear, big, bambi-ish blue eyes to make me think she was either on the verge of bursting into tears or on the verge of bursting into Enchanted song, or perhaps a bit of both at the same time.

Amongst all the introspection and fond remembrances, there are many moments of humour and awkwardness, all familiar to those who would have seen
Little Miss Sunshine. On the plus side, there is no quasi-paedophilia going on; on the down side, the film is close to being a complete downer. A wee smidgeon of hope and happiness finishes off the film, rescuing it from the wreckage of the lives of the Lorkowski family. It takes a bit of effort to realise the film is actually mainly amusing whimsy, so overwhelming is the negativity. The NotKate mentions many unexplored subplots, and she is utterly right - its just a pity that the potential romances and inspirational journeys of self discovery are left unexplored while the more gut-wrenching storylines make the final cut.

There is great news in that Mary Lynn Rajskub is in this film, though her character is not really given a huge amount to do, and her character's romance is again one of those that is brutally played just for ultimate tragedy.

However, while it was (in my opinion) a fairly doom and gloom flick, it did have some very good moments, and considering it was a "back up" film, I really will not complain. For all its moodiness, the performances are great, the characters have a hint of being almost real about them, and its a (mostly) understated comedy film, and that is a fairly rare breed these days.

Verdict: A lot of the Little Miss Sunshine formula fuels the Sunshine Cleaning machine, so it ends up feeling like a newer but not superior model of the original, though the original was fairly good, and this one isn't bad either. 6 biohazards out of 10.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Case for Yet Another Era's End

Without warning, I came to the startling realisation on Saturday morning that yet another Wellington filmatic institution has departed Wellington: Hoyts no longer has an inner city presence, as Regent on Manners has joined Hoyts MidCity cinemas in shutting up shop (click the link for the unrevealing story). No more Rialto, no more Hoyts Lower Hutt... (more links to my blogspots about them). They are dropping like flies...

There was little to no fanfare heralding this ending, perhaps not surprising considering that the Regent on Manners was the neglected, smelly cousin of Readings down the road. Myself, I had always seen Regent on Manners as a “back up” to Readings, even if the tickets were marginally less expensive, the only thing really luring me there being either more agreeable viewing times or the knowledge that it would not be sold out for popular movies that people would have already grabbed all the tickets at Readings.

I remember seeing a movie many means ago on the same site, pre-upgrade to Hoyts standard, when it used to be the old Regent, a dark, labyrinthine set of 3 cinemas. It then underwent a Hoyts transformation, from large lounge-like chairs to plastic padded seats; from 3 large rooms to 5 smaller, hall like cinemas that only the now also defunct Rialto could beat for lack of cinematic character; from a smaller, independent picture palace into a generic cinema chain – and ultimately, an unsuccessful one.

I do have some strong memories of the place: of almost freezing to death during a hyper-long session of Pirates of the Carribean 3; of attending a packed-out session of Galaxy Quest where one movie-goer got an Aliens-referencing joke from Sigourney Weaver thirty seconds before anyone else in the theatre did; of receiving a free DVD as a Borat movie tie in; and really enjoying Kung Fu Panda in one of the smaller cinemas.

The movies were all main stream (although the Regent did indulge in Bollywood movies, near the end) and the cinema itself was built in the model of the worst kind of Cineplex, but it is a shame that yet another picture palace in Wellington is gone. It definitely filled a niche in my cinematic environment, though perhaps Hoyts will be back stronger than ever in a wee while. Perhaps.

Verdict: A sad departure, further reducing cinematic choice, but perhaps worse in the impact this may have on Readings, especially in the price it charges movie worshippers, will be interesting to see – though hopefully, it won’t be seen at all. 0 Hoyts out of 3.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Case for the Coast of Gold

On this particular trip to Australia, things did not got off to the best of starts. Firstly, I found that my change to a Vodafone plan meant that I was no longer “automatically” set up to send and receive calls and texts in Australia, meaning that I had to call Vodafone NZ from a payphone (which claimed to give 3 minutes to the dollar, but which on use proved to be a blatant fabrication) in order to get one very lovely lady to switch the feature on in a conversation that involved “please” and “thank you” and not much else. My Vodafone nightmare continued when a very zealous bus driver’s braking action threw my hip against the pillar, and the resulting inertial weight of my own bulk cracked my phone’s screen, rendering the handset useless and banishing some recently acquired phone numbers, texts and images into an electronic abyss. I was therefore required to obtain another, but local telecommunicable competition meant that handsets with SIM cards here are tuned to their “owner” network, meaning that not even a Vodafone Australia phone would serve me were I to take it back to NZ. Only the friendly advice of a local Vodafone rep pointed me in the direction of J B Hifi where an “unchained” Nokia handset was on offer. I am therefore now once more in a cellphonic state, though my phone is now much bulkier and less “pimped” than my previous beloved was.

I have been to Australia a few times now, and on each occasion have found it a fascinatingly familiar yet foreign experience. Things appear bigger, brighter and bolder: the cities more spread out and developed, the skies more expansive, the air (generally) warmer and more inviting, yet it is all couched in terms and reference points that don’t make them feel exotic, but more an extended version of what we have back home. These differences can sneak up on you, and then suddenly jump up and flash themselves. And being Australia, I think that kind of metaphor is fairly appropriate.

The Lucky Country is vast, explaining both the abundance of easily exploitable natural resources and the material wealth that flows enviously from that, and also the wide, open spaces in some of its cities. The Gold Coast in particular, my “home” for this particular trip, is a sprawling settlement along miles of glorious sandy beach, blending from New South Wales into Queensland in an unending, sun seeking development. It’s odd then that the new buildings and atmosphere of outdoor pursuit should feel so old. It may just be me, but the ostentatious desperation of the towering accommodation blocks (all of them ugly, though some manage to be uglier than others) and the tasteful homogeneity of the exclusive villas in the Gold Coast all contribute to an image of dignified aging, retirement money and a comfortable retreat while waiting for death. The state of the shopping backs up this idea: Pacific Fair, one of the more celebrated shopping complexes in the region, is startlingly limited in the wares on offer (perhaps not that surprising considering that K-Mart, Target and Coles are all owned by the same company), and while there are a few locally-owned shops run with love and enthusiasm (one second hand book store in Broadbeach comes to mind), in general, most either are large chains or cater to tourists in (again, in my opinion) the most unappealing way.

Don’t get me wrong: the coast is extremely beautiful, the weather a jealousy-generating marketing dream and the facilities are extraordinarily good. But taking a step back from admiring what is on offer, and it all feels like a place for transients, to enjoy then to move on rather than to experience and participate in. My own travelling bias is probably coming through here, as I am happiest when on the move, experiencing new things and people, discovering the new, odd and quirky, a need that the Gold Coast, with all its attractions and features, just doesn’t really “do”. One comes here to relax, be comfortable for a little while, and then to leave – and the whole place seems to be set up to encourage one to do so.

There is a languid blandness here that unfortunately is enhanced through Australian television, even if the networks themselves are not based on the Coast. While New Zealand television showcases a broad spectrum of local opinion and energy (e.g., Paul Henry), Australian presenters tend to be banally beautiful, empty vessels of unceasing smiles and well modulated voices of authority. [I will note that SBS is an exception to this rule, with (from a non-Australian standpoint) an exceptional evening bulletin presented by unplastic presenters and which has incredible programming, such as the wonderful Flight of the Conchords.]

While most places in Australia act as a loud, brash, energetic and “real” counterpoint to the broadcast impression, the Gold Coast seems to buy into that reality, which leaves someone like me enjoying the warmth and the beach, but disengaged from the human world around me.
Have I been too harsh? It is a beautiful, warm and sunny part of the world, and the places I have stayed have been comfortable and spacious in ways New Zealand just cannot and will not offer.

But as much as I find the Gold Coast a lovely place to visit, I doubt I could live here while I want variety and energy in my life. The image of the Coast is that of young blond surfers and skimpy swimsuits, but from what I have seen, those people are mainly visitors to this retired and wealthy land. There is an exclusive feel to a lot of the place, a begrudging acceptance of your presence but not really a welcoming embrace of (temporary) belonging. Everything smiles, is polite and friendly, and looks stunning, but remains a surface-level experience – one I could admittedly experience again and again, but only for short periods of time.

Verdict: It’s hard to find the perfect place, but. And while this place does an amazing job, it falls short a small yet important way: heart and soul. 6 Gold Coast Life Guards out of 10.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Case for Cobrafication

Hasbro has had a resurgence lately: the iconic toy manufacturer from the 1980s has taken its best selling products from that decade, updated and CGI’d them, and thrown these reimaged images up on screen with some live action actors and made some “big screen event” movies.

On the heels of the Transformers reboot comes the reinvention of G I Joe, from jingoistic American military propaganda machine to jingoistic NATO military propaganda machine. In the G I Joe world, large weapons and heavily armed futuristic vehicles reign supreme, utilised by men and women at the peak of physical perfection, serving the black and white causes of good (G I Joe) or evil (Cobra/M.A.R.S.) and protecting the real estate of the world from harm and destruction (civilians kind of get in the way).

There are no pretensions at real depth in G I Joe, though there are some fairly risible attempts at something called “acting”. Someone somewhere decided some of the characters required a modicum of fleshing out, and then someone else somewhere else decided that some of that fleshing could be done through talking and emoting. Luckily the “someone else somewhere else” was given very little credence, as most “fleshing” is done through flashback fight scenes and minimal dialogue which keeps in line with the main film. The attempts at real emotion are mercifully short, with even the actors realising nobody really wants to see that sort of thing going on in this sort of movie.

And they chose some perfect actors for the main parts. Dennis Quaid shouts his few lines of dialogue as General Hawk in his most manly, hands on hips pose, with Christopher Eccleston doing more or less the same for the other side; Joseph Gorden-Levitt makes a bold departure from quality indie film roles to embrace his inner 2 dimensional character acting skills; square-jawed Channing Tatum plays wooden perfectly as the buff and heroic Duke (though he can still Step Up and dance when need be); and Brendan Fraser makes a baffling 2 minute cameo as an unmotivating instructor (or perhaps he was just a random Joe?) that had me yearning for Sergeant Zim to appear and stab a knife into the back of my hand. With that much testosterone flowing around, as well as the extra barrels of testosterone of the other cast members, perhaps it is not surprising that the film can at times be nauseatingly macho.

But the star of the show is the action, and there is lots of it. Tranformers 2 suffered from the fact it was mainly people running around and talking, whereas G I Joe sticks to the formula that if it ain’t broke, blow it up. And considering the story moves around the world fairly rapidly, there is a lot that is not broken – well, until the Joes get there.

Of course, the story makes little to no sense: the Joes’ base would be rendered useless if a big sandstorm raged across the Sahara; one would think amongst the multi billion Euro M.A.R.S. underwater facility and associated vehicles and weapons that the Cobra Finance division would have been able to set a wee bit aside for at least one nuclear warhead or other weapon of mass destruction; and I doubt that the urban planners would ever really allow a kilometres long particle accelerator in the middle of Paris. But why quibble when G I Joe obviously knows that it is bollocks (not that I think the film, or any of the characters, are actually self aware), and just has fun with it?

And had fun with it I did as well. There were few boring moments, though some of the action scenes were quite hard to follow (the accelerator suits shown in the ads are as rubbish as they seem), and things kept rolling and exploding along from beginning to end. Not a good or remarkable film by any stretch of the imagination, but it hit an action spot that Transformers 2 failed to press, and in that respect, I enjoyed it immensely.

Verdict: No longer just a Real American Hero, now more a Real Coalition-of-the-Willing Hero, G I Joe leaps from the plastic to the live action in an explosive bound, bypassing anything to do with the complexities of reality and international politics in the process, all in pursuit of an evil foe to prove the Joes’ goodness. 6 nanobot missiles out of 10.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Case for Real American Heroes

I felt a bit like a gangster myself when, with the posse attending the Public Enemies screening, we stared down those who had sat in our allocated seats until they got the hint that we were invoking our ticketed rights and moved on, with few words exchanged and no apologies proffered. The surrender of our seats took us straight through to the start of the movie, and so then were plunged into a more violent world of gangster behaviour than the one we ourselves had briefly inhabited.

First off, let me rave about the cast: it is a fairly impressive line up of thesping talent and, given the state of the movie itself, they manage to do a huge amount with what little they are given. Johnny Depp and Billy Crudup manage to stand out from their minimal dialogue and least bring their dialogue off the page and inject some life into it. Marion Cotillard (who would ever recognise her from her Edith Piaf days?) is the only character given a range of emotions, and despite her limited screen time and dialogue, makes the most of what she is given.

The rest of the cast are impressive for their bad boy credentials if not their actual characters. Even Christian Bale, used to playing intense psychos, is kind of left in the cold as the “good guy” – Depp’s character gets all the good lines and action, and even then he is hard to like, so Bale doesn’t really stand much of a chance bringing any substance to his role. I also spotted Stephen “the” Dorff in the background, finally showing some signs of aging, and the fantastic Diana Krall makes a brief appearance, though her mighty lungs are heard several times on the soundtrack.

Ah, the soundtrack. While the visuals and action scenes are amazing, as one would expect from a Michael Mann movie, and the actual story is fairly thin (again something MM movies specialise in; see Heat), there is the oddest disconnect between the images and the score. The film is shot very starkly, with hand held cameras, and the action scenes are grittily realistic. In comparison, the music swings wildly from period jazz to an overly-emotional orchestral score, that seems to have been written and recorded in complete isolation to the movie, and just inserted randomly at the end. One final scene, where the orchestral score is swelling melodramatically in the background as it follows a character entering a room, is jarringly just ended as soon as dialogue begins – no transition, no sense of a purposeful “stop”. It just ends.

The soundtrack is thus a real distraction to the really good things in the film. It also emphasises the films flaws. A brilliant action film, beautiful (if occasionally gory) gun scenes, but a very shallow film character-wise, with a script empty of real passion and energy, the only real depth coming from what the actors bring with them. There are meaningless subplots and dead ends that may have been inserted to add context but are more just a distraction, so little do they actually bring to the main story. It’s a bit of a mess really, but a pretty one.

Verdict: Public Enemies makes it very hard to tell who to hate more: the Chicago criminal underground, or J Edgar Hoover’s fairly psychotic FBI. The real enemy though is an abysmal soundtrack. Perhaps a future DVD release will rectify this through a remixing of the sound – more Diana Krall please. Michael Mann does great action movies – its everything else around it that disappoints. 6 street shootouts out of 10.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Case for Sweaters

Not much to say, with the passing of 80s legend John Hughes today and all, but Moosetastic sent me a fantastic link to something truly horrendous that I feel I have to share, TNG fan that I am...

Verdict: So totally wrong. And yet I love it. 8 sweaters out of 10.

And now for something completely different - some images from my wander to work this morning: