Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Case for Unders and Overs

It is impressive to see a New Zealand television gem given the big screen Hollywood treatment. Endowed as it was with special effects generated by Weta and not by TVNZ from the 1980s, the big screen version of Under the Mountain looks like something that could have been made with by the House of Mouse, though it (mercifully) lacks a catchy tie-in theme song by Elton John. But then the big screen version also has to put up with comparison with its much beloved kidult TV series from the pre-Outrageous Fortune era of NZ TV (i.e., fairly naff), and of course with the original source material with people who (unlike me) have actually read the book by Maurice Gee.

Of course, any movie like this suffers from the requirement to play the “Spot the Shortie” game, but then this movie hinges on only a few characters, so the “what nurse/doctor/coffee store assistant was he/she again?” conversations did not last long. Though unfortunately, that was not the end of all discussion, as the giggling discussions and unrestrained shrieks by some ladies in the rows ahead of us for over half the film proved. It was lucky that we were at the back of the theatre and they were at the front, as I think there might have been a dust up otherwise.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra tried to compensate for that obnoxious distraction by being obnoxious itself. The opening scenes of the film are burdened with a loud, ominous and (considering nothing has yet happened) completely inappropriate score that is incredibly annoying. Eventually though, the story does develop to the point where the music actually matches what is going on visually.

As mentioned before, I have never really read the book, so my only point of reference for what the story should be about is the TV series, the details of which I am quite bad at recalling. However, even my shocking memory picks up on some fairly bold changes: the twins are much older; Mr Jones has a decidedly less active role in the twin’s recruitment to his cause; and of course soaring Auckland house prices mean that the Wilberforce’s dilapidated mansion looks like a large eyesore in what is obviously a very affluent lake-side suburb which would, I am sure, have brought down the fury of the local standards committee, led by a gaggle of property value-assuring harridans who would be more terrifying than a horde of slimy aliens bent on world domination 9 days out of 10.

Given the glorious visuals and the story’s history, it’s a shame that the characters are all fairly dull. Sam Neill is Sam Neill only crochety and the twins are passable as heroes as long as you aren't supposed to care about them. Only hormonally charged Ricky is really given a spark of personality (though he does lose his cool beach buggy for an ancient Datsun sunny – poor guy), and the movie loses its humanity whenever he and his long suffering girlfriend aren’t on the screen. Of course, the forces of Wilber, led by an Oliver Driver contemplating Sunrise’s ratings, are loads of slimy, tentacular fun, though again they don’t get a huge amount of screen time and disappear in a fairly uninspired fashion.

Ironically, the post victory shot is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch: Auckland after the volcanic apocalypse. It was a bit of a shame when the film ended with our heroes heading towards that maelstrom rather than showing us what Queen Street would look like under a layer of lava.

Verdict: Under the Mountain is a very pretty movie blessed with beautiful visuals but lumbered with a lack of inspiration and without the naffness of 80s memory to allow me to brush over its faults. 2.5 fairly inactive volcanoes out of 5.

As an aside, for the geeks out there (like me), check out The Middleman currently playing on TV2 at the video friendly time of 3.00pm on Saturdays. Lots of Gilmore Girl like pop cultural references and a silly Sci Fi flavour make this heaps of fun.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Case for Seriousness

The Coen brothers have had a glorious movie history. The JudgeNot the NotKate, a big fan (who has beat me to a review on her blog, in her speedy, efficient and insightful way), reminded me of some of their greatest hits: O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men. And so, fire fuelled by the reminiscences of amazing movies past, we settled into the Bergman theatre to watch their latest offering, A Serious Man.

The film is beautifully crafted. Every scene (except the opening subtitled scene that had me thinking I had perhaps wandered into a film on Jews in Europe in the Middle Ages) drips with 1960s memorabilia, every house and building looking new yet similar, in a very plush and orange and patterned way. The actors are just amazing, engrossing in their neuroses and character quirks and stereotypes.

The film is pitched as being completely unlike anything No Country for Old Men, and this is correct, except one should not be under the illusion that this is a happy film. Sure, there are moments of comedy as the Serious Man’s life starts to spiral out of control, but the spiral is relentless and pretty soon I was left feeling a bit uneasy.

It’s a very good film, but in the uncomfortable, depressing way that Mary and Max was a good film. The moments of humour are small rays of sunshine in a film dominated by brooding rain clouds. A Serious Man could well have been called Murphy’s Law, as calamity upon calamity befalls the main character, and he is left standing in the middle of a whirlwind of events that are beyond his control, with the local Rabbis unable to really help him understand why all this is happening to him.

At the end of the film, I kind of waited nervously for the NotKate’s reaction, and there was a slight pause before she delivered her qualified response. I think we agreed it was a technically brilliant film, but were less certain about the merits of the storyline (check out her view of it here). This is perhaps another movie that one should watch with a positive frame of mind from the outset.

Verdict: An incredible cast do amazing things with beautiful work by the Coens, but overall A Serious Man's story is of limited appeal - perhaps why it was banished to the Paramount. I am not quite sure to whom I would recommend this film, apart from Coen fans, but I do acknowledge its artistic merits. 6 degrees of seriousness out of 10.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Case for a Mac Attack

Mick brought a big set of drums and slim, attractive backup singers who dressed like Matrix refugees. Lindsey brought a large selection of guitars and an Art Garfunkle look. Stevie brought her portable wind generator, her tambourine and a few hundred outfits. New Plymouth brought the rain – especially for the concert.

Yup, basically as soon as Fleetwood Mac hit the stage (and the DomPost was there - the photo is theirs), the rains decided to join in the fun (ironically, the Sunday show, which was always meant to be wet, ended up quite dry - apparently). The rains played coy as we claimed our spot on the grassy hillside in New Plymouth’s Bowl of Brooklands, and they stayed away through the country and western warm up act (from Lyttleton!) though they may have been fighting queues to get food and t-shirts, but then they came back with a vengeance for the main act. But that didn’t really seem to bother anyone.

Even me, and I detest getting wet. We were lucky to have claimed a spot that was somewhat shaded by a tree, though still on the gentle slope in front of the stage rather than on one of the more precipitous banks around the venue. Our view of the stage and the screens (once everyone stood up) was incredible, and then of course there was the music itself.

I do not claim to have particularly distinguished music taste, as I know my preferences are fairly middle of the road. But everyone at the audience, from the nearby chain smokers to the nearby potheads, from the sensibly dressed women with wine in their hands to the rough and tumble buzzcutted lads with their ciggies and beer, and from those who remembered the 60s and 70s to those who barely remember the 90s, the entire crowd were thrilled to see this group, and revered the music they performed.

And the devotion was not misplaced. If we were worshippers of the band, Stevie Nicks was the high priestess, and her every word was met with a hush that poor Lindsey Buckingham never got during his pronouncements. But then, his words were not his most impressive contribution: I was almost ready to call CYFS, with the way he abused his wee guitar. The whole crowd sang along to the major hits, but stayed respectfully quiet as Ms Nicks performed her slower songs. I did not think she would perform “Landslide”, which is one of my favourites, so I was pleasantly surprised then it began, and while the Dixie Chicks version is incredible, the performance by just Ms Nicks and Mr Buckingham doing a guitar solo totally blew my mind. Others got more worked up over the other “surprise” inclusion an 80s effort (the name of which escapes me), which gave Ms Nicks yet another chance to change her outfit and twirl around the stage. They never did get around to playing “Seven Wonders”, which is one of my favourites, but with songs like “Gypsy”, “Rhiannon”, “Go Your Own Way”, “Say You Love Me”, “Sarah”, and “Don’t Stop” all performed amazingly, I really didn’t end up caring.

I seem destined to always enjoy major concerts in the rain (like Bowie), but New Plymouth’s rain was nowhere near as windswept and driving as the Wellington version (wimps). The band were very complimentary about the audience’s staying power and even started 15 minutes early, though they still expected two encores rather than just having one big finale set. But when one of those songs contained an incredible drum solo by Mr Fleetwood, when he earned his genial giant reputation by getting the audience somewhat involved (though he was hard to understand through all the sweat and energy he was putting into his efforts), then its really hard to feel annoyed.

And who am I to quibble or complain? The show was absolutely incredible. Leaving the event turned out to be a slip slide health hazard, and people were screaming animal calls rather than attempting to murder the songs we had just heard performed so expertly (a la “Roxanne” at the Police concert), but, sodden as I was, I left with a (potentially second hand pot fuelled) buzz that I still feel somewhat with the distance of time and space. It was a totally worthwhile experience, and one of the greatest pre-Christmas presents I could ever have wished for.

Verdict: Legends came to life in the ‘Naki and Fleetwood Mac did not disappoint. Should they come back again (as they promised to do), or Stevie tour solo again (I still kick myself for missing her last tour), I will have to make a pilgrimage to wherever to experience their magic again. 7 Wonders out of 7, no matter the weather.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Case for Wild South

From a beloved children’s book of few words to a movie of 2 hours length, Where the Wild Things Are was bound to arouse some criticism. Luckily, it has been ages since I read the book and I was actually mixing up the book with another in my head, so I was able to go into it without a huge amount of baggage (emotionally and intellectually rather than physically, that is).

A large group assembled in the almighty Embassy (thanks Moosetastic) one day after the Lovely Bones premiere to nestle our beloved bottoms in leather chairs and let the whimsy wash over us. Unfortunately, there were children in the row behind us, and the film, while based on a children’s story, was definitely not made with them totally in mind, and as the film went on, the kids got bored and restless. And annoying.

Which is just what the kid in the movie, Max, is at the beginning. He is meant to be shown as a bit of a brat, and the director delivered in spades, with me feeling huge amounts of sympathy for the delightful Catherine Keener (who I always love to watch) as Max’s Mum having to deal with a little pain like Max. But soon, the reality of Max’s existence is left behind as he heads off to the land of the Wild Things, for fun and life lessons aplenty.

The beauty of having a book with few words is how broadly you can interpret the meaning. Is it a story about isolation? Is it a story about discovering yourself? Is it a story about dealing with loss? Is it a story about moving on, and leaving things behind? Is it a story about love and relationships? Is it a story about responsibility? Is it a story about all of these, none of these, or even more? Luckily, the movie is in the hands of a director who loves that kind of ambiguity and able to translate that into a film for everyone.

But not for wee kiddies. As mentioned before, the kids who attended the screening were bored about half way through. This film may be full of big imaginary monsters (beautifully rendered by the way – I thought I saw a Hensen studio mention in the end credits, which might explain their stupendous-ness), and they may play kids games, but there are long tracks where fun and games are doused with the cold water of the ebb and flow relationships. There are some beautiful scenes that will have those with firm memories of the book smiling knowingly (I half smiled), but for kids not really given to that kind of reflection, there won’t really be the sense of appreciation.

Everyone came out of the film with something different. Some left desiring the repeal of the “anti smacking” bill (I hate that term, as it is not what it actually is, but it appears to be the more popular term for it), some left with a sense of warm fuzzies, but everyone left appreciating the film, albeit for different things.

Verdict: Where the Wild Things Are is a bit too adult to appeal to kids and (for me) a bit too kiddie to really have a huge emotional wallop, but it is an amazing looking film with a brilliant cast and characters and direction that took a small book and turned it into something… wild. 7.5 big scary monsters out of 10.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Case for V Glee

I have been wrong before. I look to what I initially thought of the revamped miniseries for Battlestar Galactica and soundly whip myself regularly for my early doubts considering its eventual greatness. But what I have seen so far of Glee and the revamped V have left me a little underwhelmed. So far.

Let’s start with V. I love the original miniseries, which I have also watched fairly recently, along with V: the Final Battle. Putting aside the dramatic change in tone between the two miniseries, the first 2 parter was a brilliant “aliens come to Earth, take over the government, undermine the scientific community, and then get on with their naughty plans” show with a definite Nazi feel. The story unfolded through the eyes of a few humans from different backgrounds and the impact of the increasing repression on them.

Fast forward 25 years to the new V, and the influence of 9-11 paranoia is clear in the fact the heroine is now a Federal agent, there is a Catholic priest wringing his hands over the spiritual aspect of it all, and the aliens have apparently been running everything – except the major news networks (like FOX, which is, in reality, obviously run by Beelzebub) – for years. The aliens do not work t
o woo governments, instead opening free health clinics the instant they appear – and I still have no idea what their “cover story need” is, besides perhaps needing a few hugs. It’s all brought down to such a micro level that the macro level seems to have been completely abandoned. Hmmn, let me see: huge motherships over several countries and the government or military from NONE of them have tried to come to some mutual agreements or form alliances?

And then there is Glee. Is it too much to expect something from a frothy comedy? It’s got a lot of cool credentials, and it seems Popular (pardon the pun) enough, but (and this may be showing my age) it’s a bit sad when all the kid characters are as dull as dishwater despite their clich├ędness, and the interesting characters are support characters like the mad wife, the chronically clean colleague and – the main reason to watch the show – the towering comedic colossus that is Jane Lynch in the guise of the psychotic cheerleading coach. Besides these characters, the song and dance routines are so slick (there is no denying that these people are great performers – well, I am not so sure about the “jock”, but then I could never do what any of them do) that it is perhaps natural that they have ended up on an album as they could never really be performed that way “live”, and the storylines are fairly… well, uninspired. I am expecting too much I think – I should really just be thankful for some brilliant dialogue and throwaway lines and enjoy the musical performances.

It’s a disappointing start for me to both of these shows. I am holding out hope that V, with its amazingly beautiful cast (Morena! Supergirl!) and the strong themes from the original, will become more than what it appears to be thus far; whereas I think that there is no hope for Glee to be anything other than what it is.

If there are any other shows that I should give a try, let me know.

Verdict: Song, dance and spectacle, but lacking a bit of heart, V and Glee show promise but have thus far not delivered. Here’s hoping for a bit of a kick to both of them. 2 Neilson ratings out of 5.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Case for This and That Land

I have seen Jesse Eisenberg in two movies recently. One was set in an amusement park where he was chasing a gorgeous brunette and succeeding despite his nerdish disposition. The other was set in an amusement park where he was chasing a gorgeous brunette and succeeding despite his nerdish disposition – while battling zombies. One was set at the end of the civilisation; the other was set to Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the movie’s titles are also quite similar: Adventureland (reviewed way back when) and the “undead sequel” Zombieland.

There isn’t really much of a plot in Zombieland. There are no deep moments of revelation or taut psychological encounters, not even of the flesh-eating kind. People meet, hang out, slay zombies. That’s really it. There doesn’t really need to be anything else.

It’s a fun movie, though the humour suffered in comparison to Shaun of the Dead which was on C4 on Sunday night (that one is much funnier, in a British way). But Zombieland makes up for its lack of wit through the use of large vehicles and an inventive array of weaponry, both hi and low tech, with which the heroes battle the brain-eating hordes.

To be honest, I was a bit worried when (warning: I have hopefully written this so that it does not spoil ANYTHING for ANYONE, but just in case you might want to skip this paragraph) XXXXXXXX* showed up, as the first few minutes of his appearance had me questioning quite where the movie was heading. But then the film recovered from the initial awkwardness in tone to produce what was (for me) one of the funniest scenes in the whole movie.

You have to like splatter humour though. The zombies are dispatched in a variety of extremely bloody ways that only works as “funny” if you can objectify what (if this were real) would be disease-ridden fellow human beings. Woody Harrelson obviously relishes his role as a gun-toting zombie-killing machine, but still manages to whip out the banjo like the one he played for My Prairie Home Companion, though this musical interlude is short lived and the banjo has to be put to more defensive uses.

At any rate, if you want a no-brainer action flick with a black sense of humour (like I was), then you can’t go wrong with Zombieland. Though I still reckon Shaun of the Dead is better.

By the way: there are apparently hilarious outtakes over the end credits that
the Bananaboat had to tell me about because I missed them. Don’t make the same mistake I did and leave as the credits start rolling.

Verdict: There’s not a whole lot new in Zombieland that one hasn’t seen a hundred times before. But one of the rules for surviving an undead apocalypse is to “Enjoy the little things”, and this little movie can definitely be enjoyed – well, by some people (and probably after a hard day or week at work) at least. 3 Twinkies out of 5.

* Name removed - see comments

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Case for Gating Again

The joys of the DVD age mean that remembering or catching up with series from yesterday is just a video store or obsessed friend away.

By these means, I have seen the brilliant Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (criminally axed after 1 season, though one could kind of feel it was doomed considering its fairly narrow appeal), have enjoyed the superlative Firefly, recalled the angst of the 90s with My So Called Life, and (of course) strained (and continue to strain) to make out the hastily hurled dialogue in the Gilmore Girls.

My latest trip down memory lane (on my own, so therefore, fairly quickly) is to the era of the original Stargate SG1. Surprisingly for me, I never really got into this series, as I must have missed a few episodes, the ones I did see never seemed particularly inspired and I found Richard Dean Anderson’s character a smarmy git.

Perhaps that is what it eventually degenerates into (until it morphs into Stargate Atlantis) because, as I re-watch series one and two, I am actually finding that I quite like it. Oddly enough, this time around, I am not determined to like the four main characters, and I think that this is adding to its appeal.

Because for me, the coolest character thus far is General Hammond. Unlike the smug Colonel O’Neill, he is every inch a military man, honourable and decent, though perhaps a bit more tolerant of the Colonel’s attitude than a real Air Force commander would be. Perhaps it’s the bald thing: Picard was always cooler than Riker, and Hammond and Picard have a similar follicle count. And, coming a close second, is the cool as a cucumber Doctor… whatever her name is. So cool, I can’t even remember what the character is called.

I am on to season two so far, and it is chugging along quite nicely. Whether it will remain at tolerable levels of smugness remains to be seen: the Gilmore Girls has a lot more Logan than I thought I could safely stand, but I am hanging in there, albeit just; but should it reach the noxious levels of self congratulatory self referencing seen on Stargate Atlantis (perhaps so overwhelming because I have not really followed that series either), then I may need to rethink my DVD adventure.

If there are any other series out there than any might suggest I try and experience (or re-experience), feel free to leave me the suggestion. For now, I have about a decade of Stargates to go through, but at the current rate of travel, that should not take me too long…

Verdict: Off to a light speed start through wormholes and normal space. But will my enjoyment of Stargate SG1 continue? 4 chevrons out of 5 – SO FAR!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Case for M&M

I still remember my reaction to Muriel’s Wedding, the 90s ocker flick that I acknowledged was hilarious with a vicious streak of tragedy that lingered long after the laughs had faded. Mary and Max, a claymation Australian film about two misfits, shares a similar comedy/tragedy mix, and also features the extremely talented Toni Collette.

By that introduction, I am trying to convey the shock with which I exited the film. It is good, if a bit long. It is recommendable. But it should come with a warning in big red letters: not for the depressed. The film starts off lightly enough, with Barry Humphries narrating a tale of a small girl in Australian suburbia, struggling with a strange family and horrible schoolmates, who searches for a pen pal. She finds one in the form of a New York bach
elor, struggling with his own issues, including his atheism and his weight.

Their stories and thoughts are beautifully illustrated by the fantastic claymation, and the film is a delight to watch, if occasionally the style did remind me of a monochromatic episode of Bob the Builder.
It toddles along in a great vein until, suddenly, it takes a turn into Paul Henry territory and the spectre of mental illness looms large. The subject is not handled awfully (there are laughs to be had, but they are not totally unsympathetic), but it brings the tone of the film down somewhat to a level that only plunges lower during the final, very dark reel.

I won’t go into the details – I will let those who watch it after reading this post discover how things end up so bleak by themselves. Much like Muriel’s Wedding, and Sunshine Cleaning for that matter, the almost relentless negativity near the end of the film is redeemed somewhat by a final scene or two that try to restore some balance, and at least end on an upbeat note. It succeeds somewhat, but (like Sunshine Cleaning) leaves it almost too late, and so I left the theatre with a bitter taste in my mouth f
or what was, from a more unfeeling perspective, a brilliant film.

All of which makes me sound like I am warning people away from Mary and Max. Which is not the case. Really, it is a quite a good film. I would just recommend that, when you go see it, you pack few positivity pills to take with you into the screening, to help you get through the darker moments that, unfortunately, pervade real life as well as this animated feature.

Verdict: Mary and Max is a great film about two lonely people finding commonalities despite their differences, speckle
d with moments of hilarity and strong streaks of sadness. Something to watch, definitely, but make sure to brace yourself for the troughs as well as the peaks. 3.5 chocolate hot dogs out of 5.