Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Case for Island Life

It’s a very strange name for a small land mass off the coast of Boston, but Shutter Island makes for a very good, if very disturbing movie. This is a Scorsese film, so one kind of expects excellence, and it is great to have that expectation met.

Okay, this movie is not going to be for everyone, and the premise did not really seem for me when I first saw the trailer. It’s a psychological thriller set in a mental institution, which for me is always a bit unnerving, with the problems differentiating between sane and insane and (in the movies anyway) the abuses and unhinged behaviour that will invariably need to be described – and shown.

Leonardo DiCaprio is enthralling as the Marshall at the heart of the film, once again fully flexing his well developed acting muscles. Following him around the asylum, Scorsese has assembled an impressive array of actors and movie-making professionals. A master craftsman, Scorsese frames the film with occasional jagged cuts between scenes and frames, with an overarching and initially overwhelming score adding to the unsettled, slightly unhinged feel of the film. Actually, especially when a major storm strikes the island, I thought the film felt quite Lynchian, the flashes of lightning illuminating everything but clarifying nothing. Luckily for the audience (I was looking at JudgeNot the NotKate from time to time), and unlike most Lynch films, Shutter Island actually does all make sense.

I am trying not to give away any of the plot or the story, as that would be mean. There are red, white and blue herrings galore, and lots of smoking. I will just say that it’s an uncomfortable story to watch, dealing as it does with several brutal acts, but so well put together that I barely noticed the 2+ hour running time. There is one scene that just baffled me after (though not in a “there is no real answer” Lynchian sense): why blow up the car?

Verdict: An incredibly atmospheric whodunit (and what did they do?) movie that had everyone in the audience enthralled for the entire running time. Intense but not too convoluted, its not for everyone, though for Scorsese fans, Shutter Island should definitely be a must-see. 60 patients out of 67.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Case for a Flag or Two

Debate rages in New Zealand (or at least on the Herald) on the redesign of a New Zealand flag.
My favourite shows a handsome politician swinging beer - what can be more Kiwi
than that?

That's not the only one with a key theme of Key:

Verdict: Why go traditional? Forge the 21st Century with a Flag of Farce.
3 emblems out of 5.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Case for Percy Potter

The film studios are getting desperate for another Harry Potter-esque franchise. The Golden Compass (seen it), Inkheart (not seen), Stormrider (not seen) and now Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief have all entered the fray. All of these have failed.

I am being a bit judgemental here (of course), as I am projecting my own dislike of the last of these without actually knowing how well it has been received globally. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief had the hallmarks of something great: I am a huge fan of the Greek gods (and so will have to go to the remake of Clash of the Titans, no matter what); a huge special effects budget; and the adult cast is full of heavy hitters, including one of my faves, Catherine Keener.

Before I take it apart though, it must be said that those with whom I saw the film seemed to enjoy it. The special effects are amazing, there is a dash of humour, and it all moves along at a fairly brisk pace. But even they admitted the story is very environmentally friendly, in a recycled and biodegradable way, whereas I viewed it more along the lines of excrement.

To summarise the setup to the story: about 17 years ago, all the Greek gods moved to the USA, but the move left them with a few hundred itches to scratch, and so a whole heap of demigods were spawned (hence why there appears to be a Hogwarts Academy full of them all around the same age). Then Zeus had a bad hair day and decreed that, while frolicking with humans was fine, spending quality time with the issue of these liaisons was not, and so forbade the gods from seeing their offspring. Poseidon’s progeny, Percy, is thus raised more sheltered than most but, when Zeus misplaces his lightning bolt one day, Percy gets blamed for the missing missile, and so his life becomes imperilled by those trying to take it from him, and the world becomes imperilled because…. well, because Zeus is having another bad hair day. From these humble beginnings, an adventure story as derivative and poorly acted as Eragon is regurgitated.

Harry Potter gets away with a lot of rubbish by having a sense of wonder and also some great relationships between the lead children, as well as fantastic actors in the adult roles. Percy Jackson does have some great adult casting, but it is lumbered with teenagers with zero chemistry who are burdened with atrocious direlogue and abundant stupidity. In a rarely seen display of thesping, love interest Annabeth receives Percy’s “let’s split up” suggestion with all the awe as if she was receiving the revelation of Christ.

There are some moments of brilliance: the casting (and costuming) of Hades is pure genius (I won’t spoil who and how here), though Roxanne Dawson’s skanky Persephone seems to have shopped for her outfit in Sin City; Catherine Keener is always a delight to watch, though I got the impression she may have preferred being banished to the hellish realm of the god of the underworld than return to the main action of the film; and Olympus is populated by a whole raft of slim and attractive (and quite tall) gods, like Sean Bean, speaking received pronunciation English to each other and talking about “irrevocable decisions” they could actually undo at any time – as they should.

But I was almost in physical pain whenever Percy and his chums decided to converse and attempt to emote with each other. It’s like watching a school play written by the school kids themselves after they have done a crash course in Greek legends, though this production has the magical powers of ILM at its disposal. Cannon fodder materialises and then is quickly dispensed with for minimal effect; popular music with lyrics that match snatches of the script is played loudly and then removed a few seconds later; and knowledge of Greek legend is haphazardly remembered by the cast when convenient to the plot. It’s a Frankenstein monster of formulaic and familiar pieces mushed together with bright lights and action sequences and then given life, only for the whole to add up to less than the sum of its parts.

So yes, no, it was not my cuppa. It was impressive on the big screen and all that, but hopefully Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief will be the last outing Percy Jackson will get. So of course, this means that there will probably be 5 sequels in the works…

Verdict: The awe and wonder of the legends of the Greek gods is given new and unholy life in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. The computer-generated size difference between the godly adults and their offspring is representative of the acting gulf between the two groups, and the film unfortunately sticks with the smaller. 4 heads of a hydra out of 10.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Case for Voce Populus

Last night, I took part in a phone survey. When I am not dashing out the door, I actually have a soft spot for those questing for the opinions of others and so tend to take the time to complete their structured questionnaire, though I do make a note of the “expected” time it takes to complete the survey and the “actual”.

As terrible as the phone line was (the person conducting the interview sounded like a Kiwi, though Colmar Brunton may be outsourcing their information gathering arm to the rising terminal part of the Philippines), I stuck with it, and was actually surprised when it turned out when it appeared that this survey was one of those political polls. Normally, I just get marketing and petrol companies asking me if Techron sounds more impressive than Yaksurine.

With that realisation, I decided not to hold back and pushed the leftopinkocommo agenda. Well, at first I tried to give more measured response to the economic questions that came my way, but these polls only measure yes and no, not the actual complexity of some of the realities of the issues involved. So, after unsuccessfully giving the questions due consideration, I belted out gut-reaction yes and no responses – and as a fairly cynical person, most of my reactions were quite negative.

One of the most satisfying sensations after completing a survey like this is the almost palpable sense of relief that emanates from the other end of the phone, as the conductor audibly sighs with the satisfaction of another tally mark in a sample size being struck off. And it only ran two minutes over the expected time too, which was a pleasant surprise.

The next step is how these responses will translate into one of the “voices of the people”. The ONE News or TV3 poll may suddenly show: an upswing in support for treason charges to be levelled at Fay Richwhite; the North Island will surrender to the South, and the new national flag will reflect the pre-eminence of the larger land mass; and Daniel Carter will come out of nowhere to be the preferred Prime Minister – imagine how far New Zealand’s plans for global domination would get if the man showed up to international conferences attired only in his well-fitting underwear, with Zoe Bell bringing along added intimidating muscle as a no-nonsense and easily riled Ministress of Defence?

Verdict: While it may be nice to feel like I am contributing a mildly deranged few words to the voice of the people, the real satisfaction from participating in these telephonic surveys is the sense that I have made someone else’s day just that little bit easier. Of course, they will report that New Zealand is on the verge of a communist revolution, but at least it will brighten Alison Mau’s day. 4 warm glows out of 5.

Aside 1: now that I have come to write it, the prospect of a ruling elite composed of sporting and ex pat movie stars has all sorts of fantastical possibilities, and would definitely push minorities into the forefront of New Zealand politics. Feel free to let me know your unqualified cabinet if you are similarly tickled.

Aside 2: after my post about national days, it seems the French are trying to encourage more patriotic fervour now – see the link.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Case for Norse Love

It is rare that I go to a movie that I have heard or read almost nothing about, but with the main cineplexes offering fare that I had either seen, was not on at the right time, or was (in my opinion anyway) drivel, I turned to the Paramount, saw a write up that looked interesting, and plunged into a world of Norwegian relationships – or, at least, one of them.

Gone with the Woman (take a wild guess at what the poster for the film looks like) is described as a Nordic Amelie, though I think this is mainly a fairly lazy comparison to attract an English audience to a subtitled film, as the story telling is a lot more straightforward, if still oddball, and so could really be described as a romantic comedy – and even as I write that, I can see why the Paramount publicity machine did not. It’s about a mildly eccentric man who finds himself in a relationship with a fairly eccentric woman, and follows the development of that relationship across time, the country and the continent.

And it is amusing. An older gentleman, who (I think) spoke Norwegian as he seemed to get the jokes before the subtitles appeared on screen, found the film hilariously funny; whereas I found myself smiling on many occasions but not at the point of bursting into laughter. It is hard not to like the bug-eyed lead, described as "Him" on IMDB, who seems perpetually perplexed by the ways of women and of relationships and of life in general, and his nemesis/lover Marianne is charming and tangential in an occasionally infuriating, redheaded way. Of course, that is the male perspective of their personalities, and perhaps the NotKate has a completely opposite view.

While the opening scenes gave me a false idea of how well I could follow Norwegian (the t-shirts and labels and brief utterances were fairly easy to follow), I quickly lost my way when real dialogue began. I was surprised to recognise one of Him’s buddies, until I realised I had seen him in a Scandanavian film fairly recently: the awesome World War 2 epic Black Book by Paul Verhoven. Norway itself seemed a very cold place to be, no matter the season, though to be honest, the film was not really going for an Oscar for cinematography, so there were not that many scenes that glamourised the countryside anyway.

As this is a rom-com, there are all sorts of coincidences and chance encounters that lead to awkward situations and romantic liaisons, the characters all have idiosyncratic foibles, and most scenes are played for laughs rather than for emotional depth. But this is definitely a story from a guy’s perspective, with women shown as baffling and flighty creatures, and, for Him anyway (perhaps due to his swimming-toned physique), very direct.

It seemed a much longer film than the 90 minute running time – not in a bad way, just in a scenes-are-short-and-a –lot-happens way – so I definitely felt I got my money’s worth, though I chose not to try and re-traumatise the person from whom I purchased the ticket to the movie by having a fairly random conversation with her again about the merits of the film. I didn’t come out with any grand revelations about life or relationships, but definitely had an epiphany about the wonders of Norwegian cinema.

Verdict: If you like romantic comedies and don’t mind reading a lot, Gone with the Woman is definitely worth your while. It is definitely shown more from a man’s perspective (though whether that is from what a woman thinks a man’s perspective is or whether it is actually a man’s perspective makes my small brain hurt), but it is daft enough that nobody will mind and the film can just be enjoyed instead. 7.5 tara-ta-tas out of 10.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Case for a National Weekend, Locally

Wellington in the days preceding Waitangi Day is an incredible place to be, alive with excitement, anticipation and enthusiasm. But not for Waitangi Day of course. The bulk of the energy has been stored and saved all year for the International Rugby Sevens, and Waitangi weekend is when all that thrift gets rewarded in spades – and probably a huge amount of alcohol.

Waitangi Day on the other hand is a more sombre affair. It is a call to reflect on what New Zealand is. For some, New Zealand is a sign of European oppression (here's a Stuff opinion piece on this subject - kind of); for others, New Zealand is a flag which is too similar to the ensigns of others (the NZ Herald has a lot of articles on this here); and for others (and dare I say the majority), it is a day off – though this year, the day falls on a weekend, so it doesn’t even have the public holiday aspect going for it.

While I could choose to see the arguments about the flag and about the rights of Maori or the complete antipathy about these as negative, I choose instead to see them as a sign of maturity, as we try and address issues which few other nations are willing or capable of doing. The USA may be all bombast on the Fourth of July, but there are huge social issues there, notwithstanding the treatment of the Native Americans; and the UK may be the home of the Anglo Saxon, but there are Welsh and Scot independence movements and of course issues between cultures caused by the large immigrant legacy from the glorious days of empire. In contrast, the French decree all citizens to be French, and expect them to behave accordingly, no matter their ethnic origins.

New Zealand at least tries to address it, and the apparent ambivalence to the national day could be viewed as a reflection of a fairly considered view of the mixed message of nationhood: we are all together one, no matter how much of our own blood we spilled to get here. There are no huge parades and fireworks displays because New Zealand is aware of the historic price paid to forge a country, perhaps more than any other that tries to bury the fractures that created – and are still in – their society. New Zealanders get lost instead in events that have no historical intellectual baggage, celebrating the trivial because it’s hard to celebrate the meaningful when so much of that meaning can be interpreted in different ways.

It’s unfortunate when so much discourse on the nature of New Zealand nationhood ends up in calls of racism on the sides involved – unfortunate in that, as the discussion tends to be based along ethnic lines, then it really goes without saying that the discussions will be based on race. It’s a silly, childish kind of cat call that shuts down real discussion as people get hung up on the word rather than addressing (and in the case of real prejudice, dismissing) the issues raised.

Again though, I choose to see the fact New Zealand does find a “New Zealand Day” a hard thing to celebrate as a positive thing. It is taking a while to get there, but then it is a very complicated thing to achieve. We can get behind our dead soldiers, but it’s much harder to get behind – and alongside – those we share this country with. We want our New Zealand day to mean not just something for all people, but a something that everyone can be proud of and participate in.

Verdict: Waitangi Day may be the national day, but the Sevens are what it is all about. For now anyway. 3 stars out of 4 for positivity’s sake.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Case for Cinema Italiano

I was a bit wary of going to Nine, but then there were a few reasons to give it a whirl:

1) (and most important) someone else invited me
2) The screening was at the Embassy
3) It was cheapskate Tuesday night, and we got leather seats as well
4) Sophia Loren
5) Judi Dench
6) Marion Cotillard
7) Italian locations
8) Italian cars from the 1960s
9) Italian fashion from the 1960s

And now, to give the reasons why the film was a real disappointment.

Oddly enough, the main complaint I had about it all was how dull it was. The songs are really quite bland, with only Fergie’s vocal power lifting “Be Italian” above all the fairly forgettable rest (though more on “Cinema Italiano” soon), and the story itself is fairly minimalist, about a cinematic writer/director (Daniel Day Lewis) searching for inspiration for his latest production from the nine “muses” in his life.

I can’t blame the actors for it all: Day Lewis may be annoying as Guido, but I think he is supposed to be; and Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz make even breathing interesting, so it’s not their fault. Acting wise, the real star is Marion Cotillard, who shines above even these incredible actors in her role as Guido’s wife, and she sings very well too.

The real blame I lay at the feet (oddly enough) of the director. For a film about the making of a movie, Nine sticks squarely to its stage roots, which is a huge shame considering what could have been done with some of the musical numbers. Only “Cinema Italiano”, sung with a huge amount of energy by Kate Hudson, uses the medium to any real effect. Nicole Kidman acts “cold elegance”, as I am sure she was supposed to, and so once again lacks real spark (she had it once in To Die For, I am sure, and a bit in Dogville too).

And then there is poor Sophia Loren, who is not given a lot to do, and whenever she does appear on screen, she is shot from such unflattering angles as to look like a female Frankenstein monster, all wrinkled lines and snarling lips. It’s a wonder the kids around her don’t run away in terror rather than to her for maternal comfort. Her final scene, staring down over a balcony, makes her look more like a vindictive harpy from the upcoming Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief than an image of parental approval.

I think this kind of inattention and lack of flair in a film tends to draw the cliché that it is “by the numbers”, ironic possibly given the film’s title. But then, I was probably not in the target audience, considering we also got an almost offensive trailer for Sex and the City 2 that made the first film seem like the work of Proust. The film not aiming for my demographic bulls-eye was further confirmed when a woman next to me found almost every utterance extraordinarily amusing and chortled her way through almost every non-sad scene with a mixture of snorts and guffaws that had me about to reach for an Italian stiletto shoe upon which to impale her. However, she was still alive by the end of the film though, as my mind, in an act of self preservation, slipped into a mild catatonic state at one point until Marion Cotillard showed up to revive me once more.

Verdict: The flaws in the original stage musical of Nine may have been obscured by an incredible cast, but they are still there just beneath the surface, and indeed exacerbated with a lack of cinematic style. Disappointing. 3 muses out of 9.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Case for Whiplash

Drew Barrymore, director. From pre-pubescent acting sensation to wild child to wholesome actor to savvy producer, the next step was inevitably going to be, I suppose, the director’s chair. And she kicked off this new stage in her career with Whip It, a film where a young Ellen Page, plays Bliss, an unpregnant Juno character, who finds herself in the wild womanly sport of roller derby.

Barrymore has lined up a lot of fearsome and fantastic female talent to assist her: beside Page, Juliette Lewis is back and badder than ever (whence did she go? And for what purpose? Whatever the reason, it’s just good to have her slurry speech and wonky smile back on screen after so long off my movie radar), and there is the wonderful Kristin Wiig playing Bliss’s mentor (though she is much more fun playing unbalanced, as she did in Knocked Up). Other dropped names are Marcia Gay Harden as the demanding Mum with a heart of stone-flecked gold, Zoe Bell as a super-buff Kiwi team mate (her solid and femininely muscular frame makes the local Americans look like flaccid stick insects) and Eve as the “token black” team member. On the male side, Andrew Wilson (any relation? He definitely acts like one!) shows up as an unhip hippy coach dedicated to the game and not to chasing skirt, while Jimmy Farrell plays the roller ringmaster and gets a few funny lines in while suffering constant rejection from the roller skating ladies.

It’s a very girly movie, which I kind of guessed from the previews (and from the NotKate saying she was keen to see a chick flick), but it’s fun nonetheless. More interesting is the way the roller derby is portrayed. In the USA, or at least in Texas, it seems that the crowd mainly consists of young alpha males yearning to see tough women with imposing names trip each other up and hurling abuse at each other in gloomy underground contests being run on the shy side of the law – though anyone under 22 needs parental permission to participate. Contrast this with the Wellington event I attended earlier this year, held in a clean, well lit events centre with a predominately female (and not altogether straight) crowd egging on the battling beauties and basically ignoring the inane banter on offer from the local commentators.

So it’s a fairly straight-laced version of the game and of life, even as it tries to be alternative. The plot does not demand a huge amount of brain power to understand, and, much like the roller derby course, you can see any bends in the path at fairly predictable and regular intervals. That said, the star wattage on display here – even with a token Drew Barrymore role that probably looked like lots of fun on paper but is actually quite annoying on film – makes up for what the plot and pacing themselves lack.

Verdict: Whip It is fairly easy fare for everyone to watch. Undemanding, not saccharinely sweet and sentimental, and also without a disgustingly syrupy love story (or one hundred, unlike the nauseating trailer for Valentine’s Day), this is a decent chick flick that more sports mad men can enjoy – if not necessarily love – as well. 13 whips out of 22.