Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Case for Aquagirl

I have not had comments on my blog for quite a while now, it seems. Not surprising, considering I have not really said anything terribly controversial. Nor interesting either, I suppose! No problems – I am happy enough just to write. A future intended blog on the excellent series on the History channel, Racism: A History, may generate a response – but then again, maybe not.


Short and sweet. That was the idea behind seeing Ponyo, a guaranteed good film from the masters of Japanese animated movies Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

It says something when the English voice cast includes actors of the calibre of the legendary golden girl Betty White, the legendary comedienne Lilly Tomlin, the luminous Cate Blanchett, the tall Liam Neeson, the hilarious Tina Fey, the “Matt Damon” Matt Damon and Noah Cyrus (probably Miley’s brother – I can’t be bothered googling to see if that connection is true, as it would just depress me); and that something is that Miyazaki’s films, like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, have attracted a lot of attention and a lot of acclaim. Of course, the Paramount was decent enough to screen the Japanese version of the film – with subtitles for people as ignorant of the tongue as myself (I know (excuse my spelling) arigato, sayonara, mushi mushi and onigiri but that is about it), as I always think there is something… more when watching a film as it was intended. Even (or perhaps especially) with an animated film, there are cultural nuances that are hard to translate by dubbing, with actors stamping characters with a Western style, a style that might not really mesh with the one that was intended.

In the end, I was not really prepared for Ponyo. Howl’s Moving Castle was a long movie with some themes for more mature audiences, and the young girl being turned into an old woman struck me as particularly poignant. So I was a bit surprised when Ponyo turned out to be entirely aimed at children. There is no dark undercurrent, no disturbing imagery, and everyone turns out to be rather nice in the end. It’s not even as dark as the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale (that I adore) from which this film draws a lot of its inspiration.

What there is though is a beautifully crafted story of a young boy and a magical fish that wants to be a girl. And I can’t say much more than that, as there isn’t a huge amount more. The story is simple, and while the cynic in me sometimes thought of the darker or more disturbing implications of some of what goes on, the film stays light and bright, with childish wonder and innocence and niceness, and with a strong streak of universally understood humour. Of course, the childish, innocent side got a bit too much for myself and the audience as the theme song started playing over the final credits, the subtitles telling us the lyrics were all about rubbing Ponyo’s tummy, which we all found sweetly amusing, if on a “this is slightly wrong” level.

Verdict: A beautiful film of childish wonder and brilliant animation (if you like the Miyazaki style), Ponyo is definitely one the kids will enjoy, though they would probably prefer the dubbed English version. 7 fish out of 10.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Case for Outrage - Pt 2

A wee while ago, I complained about the quality of the MTV Movie Awards. By way of proof, check out the difference between the opening sketch of the 2009 MTV Movie Awards and the Dr Horrible sketch on the 2009 Emmy Awards. Notice the difference? One is actually funny.

Verdict: This tells me one of two things: its a sad day when the irreverent MTV Movie Awards is less funny and "edgy" than the Emmys; and I am probably just getting very, very old. Emmys: 8 razzies out of 10; MTV: 4 razzies out of 10.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Case for Diminishing Apatowic Returns

I went into Funny People a bit wary. I have not been a fan of Adam Sandler’s efforts for a while (and, if you take out the pairings with Drew Barrymore, I have not enjoyed his efforts for over a decade), and so I was betting on Seth Rogan to carry me through the movie should Adam let me down. But Rogan plays a very distant second fiddle to Sandler, and the movie follows (my perception of) Sandler’s career: starting on a high and descending into a mirthless mire by the end. Yeah, Funny People is really a movie of two halves: the first half, and then there’s the unfunny half. And unfortunately for the viewer (though Film3 did warn me beforehand), both halves add up to the running length of two movies.

In the first half, Sandler plays George Simmons, a stand up comic. Actually, almost everyone in the first half of the movie is a stand up comic, varying degrees of successful and varying degrees of funny. Some we are expected to laugh with; others we are expected to laugh at. Simmons is the big star bequeathing performing gems upon the comedy debutants, and finding in his rediscovery of his roots and his role as mentor both joy and a professional rejuvenation. All this is seen mainly through the eyes of Rogan’s character Ira Wright, and a lean Rogan provides the link between the superstar world and the existence of the ordinary(ish) pleb of his aspiring comedian and his show business friends.

And then, once Simmons has found himself, he decides to go and find love, and the focus shifts to Sandler. And the film nosedives. Comedy takes a back seat to a fairly dull re-finding love story. The performances are still all fairly good, with Eric Bana showing up to prove he is… well, a loud, strapping Australian. But it seems like the love story comes from a completely different movie, and not a very good one at that, while Rogan’s character is given either nothing or nothing sensible to do (what was he doing going to the airport? Really?). And by the time Wright does come back to centre stage, the scenes just feel token.

The laws of Roganomics dictate that the more Seth says and the less his eyebrows try to leap up above his hairline (which possibly could be a sign of him “acting”), the funnier he is, and the steeper my enjoyment trend line. Funny People follows these laws but in all the wrong ways, leading to a mini ecomedic crisis and short-changing the viewer – well me. There were some in my audience who laughed out loud, but only once or twice, and in 2.5 hours, that is not a good hit rate.

Verdict: The Judd Apatow line of comedy fashion is going out of style. As time goes by, bigger and more bloated vehicles provide fewer laughs for the audience, the film seeming more of an excuse to cater to the whims of those making the film, fulfilling some fantasies of people they would like to meet or acting range they would like to explore. One could call it experimental cinema, except the board of ethics thought this was a comedy. It tries, and for most of the first half, and parts of the second, it succeeds. But overall, Funny People is a lot less amusing than it could or should have been, and way too long. 4 funny bones out of 10.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Case for Ups and Downs

Going into a Pixar movie, you expect a lot. The House of Mouse may be gobbling up a lot of businesses these days, but one would imagine that the Mouseketeers would not mess with a formula that has created such amazing movies as the Toy Stories and Monster’s Inc. Pixar’s last movie was the wonderful Wall-E. So Up had a lot to live up to. Wall-E was good. Up is even better.

Up was preceded by another fantastic Pixar short, this one about storm clouds creating babies, which managed to be both funny, sad and uplifting. It set a high standard for the main feature. But Up scaled that mountain with ease.

Where Wall-E relied on a lot of physical comedy and whole lot of silence to get around the creepy robot-on-robot love aspects, Up does not have that problem. It is mainly talk, and grumpy old man talk as well, as old man Carl finds a cute little eager menace to try and get rid of. I personally found it great that Russell is visually Asian American, something not raised at all during the entire course of the film (looking back, the set up struck me as a bit of a family friendly Gran Torino). These two have great chemistry, and so I was a bit annoyed when more characters showed up, though it did not take long for me to grow very fond of Dug the dog.

As much as the dialogue is great, it is actually the talk-free montage scenes that pack the biggest wallop. I had heard that the “life passage” montage at the start was powerful – little did I know that I would be on the verge of tears as the simple images and sad music showed the sad toll of time.

And - of course, and hooray - John Ratzenberger is in there too.

It would have been a completely wonderful movie experience were it not for the unhinged woman behind me who shrieked in delight in terror at every little thing that happened on the screen. Luckily, Up kept me in spirits high enough that it didn't bother so much that I went on a homicidal rampage. She may not be so lucky next time.

Verdict: Up is heart warming, funny, sweet, wonderful. Sure, the final showdown is very kiddie movie, but all its fairly standard parts add up to a fantastic movie whole. 9 balloons out of 10.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Case for the Right to Know

Well, there is a right to know and then there is a right to know. Think of Caster Semenya, who finds out, in the public spotlight (thanks to Stuff (see the link) and many other news sources), that not only is she (apparently) a hermaphrodite, but also that she will never have children.

I wonder how sensitive the humourists out there will be with this?

Verdict: I understand why this is made public, but it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. 3 revelations out of 10.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Case for Inglory

First, some mathematical rules around the enjoyment of Inglourious Basterds:

1) Brad Pitt = Lt Raine = annoying character = a
2) Melanie Laurent = Shosanna Dreyfuss = beautiful intensity = b
3) Christoph Waltz = Col Landa = mesmerising character = c
4) Diane Kruger = Bridget van Hammersmark = so much better than in Troy = d

So, any scene with:

1) b + c = incredible tension
2) b + d = stunning beauty (none of these though, mores the pity)
3) c + d = uncomfortable brutality
4) a + c = uncomfortable pain, in a “this isn’t working” kind of way

From the above, you may be able to deduce I had a few issues with Inglourious Basterds, mainly with the Inglourious Basterds themselves. Basically, any time they were the focus of the film after the first few appearances, they became tedious to watch, their light “comic relief” just undermining the incredible scenes and development going on elsewhere in the film.

Now, as d > a, most of the scenes with these two characters in them work, and especially where (c + d) > a. However, c <>, which is a problem in their scenes together, and as there is never a b and a pairing, I will never know which of these is the greater.

But overall, there is not much of the Inglourious Basterds in the film. Mostly, there is an incredible amount of subtitles, which may put some people off, but I found fascinating. Hearing the polyglots go mad with their beautiful and flowing English, German and French (not so much the Italian) was a treasure to experience in what is, I suppose, an American film. I don’t speak German a jot, but it was great to hear so many languages spoken so well, with the acting and action on the screen sometimes making the need to read the subtitles redundant. Tarantino films have always required a bit of brainpower to keep up with the dialogue – this time, there is also the need for reading glasses.

Besides the main Jew Hunter and Cinematic Revenge stories, Mike Myers makes an unbelievably unfunny humourous cameo (again – how does he do it?), and some Churchill, Hitler and Goebbels lookalikes got a few days work. But when the movie focuses on the more quiet agonies, the more subtle revenges, that is when it is the best. I am not altogether sure that it is "classic" Tarantino, but I enjoyed - most of it anyway - immensely.

Verdict: While the violence is very much what one of expect, the classy dialogue in Inglourious Basterds is mainly in French or German and the most satisfying revenge is best served flame grilled. 8 swastikas out of 10.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Case for Half Bloods & Book Fair Attendees

First off, a big thank you to the Janetarium for arranging the meeting for the DCM Bookfair this year. As NotKate discovered, the Janetarium runs a spectacularly tight ship, where the non-synchronisation of watches can lead to catastrophe.

While the DCM is renowned for the "man with the mic", it also gave me the opportunity to discover a few more breeds of book fair goer - one which I unwittingly became myself, thanks to the NotKate.

Amateur Attendees

The Trafficker

These are the people who help those with only one or two books evade the queues to depart the venue by smuggling their chosens out amongst their own goodies. "Smuggling" in this sense does not mean not paying for it; perhaps "trafficking" is the better term.

The Ipoded

I was most surprised, bemused and partially frightened by the man who rocked up next to me, and then around me, with his MP3 playing a song I could not hear but which he obviously needed to rehearse for his karaoke try-outs. I think it must have been a hard rock track or something, as he appeared to be practicing his head-banging at the same time, but it could just have been him scanning the books in an "up and down" manner.

The Volunteers

The Unhelpful Helpers

Books get moved. The DCM this year, even after only a few hours of opening, seemed to have been ripped apart and books strewn everywhere. In came the DCM-bib wearing ramoras of the book fair shark, who helpfully rearranged books into a more friendly browsing configuration. The fact this rearranging occurred while people were actually browsing the books and was thus detrimental to the whole browsing experience seemed a bit lost on the kind hearted yet unsympathetic assistants. I think the lovely British term "bless" best sums up their contribution, though when they got in my way, there were a few other choice words that sprung to mind.

All up, the fair seemed a bit less good than last year, though I think I came away with more. The place seemed to have been ripped apart by the time the Janetarium bustled us in, and I am not sure if that is just because the Wellingtonians had pillaged the place already, or because there were fewer novels available this year than the last.

Verdict: Not so good, but still worthwhile. 6 books out of 10.

An odd weekend movie for me this week - I had delayed watching Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince long enough, but finally, after a near miss, I got around to it.

HP6 should really have been called "Hogwarts 90210", so much angst and teen love and lust was on display. The Philosophical kids of the first movie have grown up, and there are now love triangles and unrequited love and misdirected love spells and all sorts of things going on with Harry and his peers. But lurking behind the longing looks is the undercurrent of menace as Helena Bonham Carter and some creepy kids make evil look a lot more focussed than good, though none of them can generate the sheer horror in pink that was Delores Umbridge.

It has to be said that the special effects are spectacular and the story is what anyone who read the book would expect. This is the movie where Dumbledore actually does something rather than be all enigmatic in the background, and I have to say (if I have not before) that I really prefer Michael Gambon's interpretation of the character rather than the original, Richard Harris. I am also a fan of the character of Luna, though really most of the back-up cast are really just there to name or face check, as there is a lot to be covered and many memories to be recounted and refreshed.

In the end, this is a bridging film to the grand finale (which will actually be a tale told in two parts, if I understand how the final book is to be represented) and it feels like it. Not that it is a bad film, as I enjoyed it a lot, but the ending leaves you waiting for the next film - which was probably one of its main objectives.

Verdict: Achieving everything it sets out to do, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is another solid entry in the Harry Potter franchise, with all the acting pluses and minuses of previous films, and the J K Rowling's books to propel the story forward (for good or ill will obviously depend on what you think of those novels!). 7 Horcruxes (horcruxi?) out of 10.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Case for Alien Neighbours

Aliens arrive on Earth in a giant spaceship, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is no invasion or revelation from above: these aliens are lost, with no chance of going home, and the wondrous technology that brought them here is unfathomable. So, how will these visitors from another world live side by side with human society? What a great idea for a movie.

And it was, in the movie Alien Nation and TV series based on it. But now is the noughties, so, thanks to fancy computers, the aliens can actually look completely inhuman rather than just having funny heads, and where things foreign tend to be locked away rather than integrated.

And so District 9 brings some amazing looking special effects to play to a fairly grim story. The aliens have been locked away in a ghetto outside Johannesburg and the humans have decided a corporation can better manage these aliens’ affairs – which basically means moving them into a ghetto less in the unwelcoming human public eye.

The fact this is a South African film is a real boon – the fact the aliens are in a slum is not so surprising considering the slums already there, and the racist attitudes towards the aliens build on the (perceived) tensions between the various human groups already there. Amongst the mainly South African cast, I am sure I heard and saw a few New Zealanders in there, and its an amazingly well put together film.

Of course, I find fault with almost everything, and the fault with this movie is the story. I won’t go into too much depth as I can’t do that without revealing what happens, but suffice to say that one of the main contentions of the trailer is completely ignored in the movie and there are a few “we knew that all along” moments that just had me scratching my head.

But only for a wee while – once the documentary style presentation is (more or less) done away with (finishing half way through on a very “thank goodness it is going” note) for lots of splatter gore and of course (being a Peter Jackson produced film) at least one animal must be involved in an amusing death along the way.

The morality of the tale is not really the focus of this film – sure there are lessons learned and heart-strings pulled, but mostly the film is a change for peoples’ heads to explode. The love story between the lead character and his wife is completely unengaging and I was left completely uninterested in what the wife was on about, but then that is more a fault of the documentary style than any issue with the actors.

So, to wrap this one up, I found District 9 a highly flawed film. There are so many things against it when I think about it, I just don’t bother to think about them too much. Because, in the end, I enjoyed the film, revelled in the special effects, appreciated the fact I was watching a very accomplished South African film, and learned to just ignore the gaping holes in the plot we jumped over on the way.

Verdict: Lots of fun, but no Schindler’s List tale on man’s inhumanity to inhumans. 6 cans of cat food out of 10.

By the way – does anyone else hate the new Telecom mobile phone advertisements with Richard Hammond as much as I do? I like the Hamster in general, but he comes across as such a smug prick and the idea is such a complete turnoff I would not even consider switching to that network as a matter of principle. But then, I am like tha