Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Case for a Green Light

Well, there has been one recent major difference of opinion over Alice in Wonderland; now, will I get the same dissension following the judgement of the Green Zone?

JudgeNot the NotKate dismissed this as an action flick (and so spurned the film), and she was entirely correct: Matt Damon,as Miller, and his band of minions run, drive and shoot around a ruined Baghdad shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, tracking down elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and the odd high ranking official left over from Saddam’s regime. Tensions are high, with the invaders hailed both as heroes and villains, and the lack of WMD evidence despite numerous leads is beginning to leave a bad taste in the mouths of some. The film is all set before the justification for the invasion changed, and calls into question the role (complicity?) of the media and competing branches and objectives of the US government, with the military not always blindly following orders.

But that is to say the film is a deep and cynical analysis of the whole affair, which it is not. Matt Damon’s character touches on all these things, trying to find the truth and being appalled by what he does find, but there isn’t a huge amount of analysis behind what brought everyone to this point, nor a huge amount of character development for anyone. But it does set a very compelling background to a series of awesomely executed car chases, macho posturing and armed engagements. JudgeNot the NotKate would not have been amused.

Damon has proved he can do action and righteous indignation with the Bourne series, so he is great here, and as he is the only real character out there, he is a great actor to carry a film. There other roles are fairly minor and stereotypical (Greg Kinnear is eminently hittable as a slimy government official; Brendan Gleeson is a gruff and experienced CIA agent; and Jason Isaacs loses the white wig and super clipped English of Malfoy Snr but keeps the bad attitude and finds a monstrous Merv moustache to go with it), but it doesn’t really matter – the film is not one of surprises; at least for those who were not wholehearted supporters of the Iraqi invasion.

Not much else to say really, although I doubt the final scene would ever have played out well for Matt Damon’s character in reality. I did enjoy it though.

Verdict: Things go boom in a cynical Green Zone world with just a dash or two of idealism. Fun. 7 non-existent WMDs out of 10.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Case for Webnancies

I like a good documentary. And with the Documentary Film Festival now hitting Wellington, it was a chance to see less populist documentary fare – and considering there were only about 10 people in the Readings cinema to view Google Baby, it definitely lived up to being a niche market movie.

The crowd might not have been large, but the movie itself was fascinating – for me anyway. The documentary followed the stories of a doctor in India running a surrogacy clinic for people who cannot carry children themselves, and of an Israeli man, Donon, who, after successfully obtaining a surrogate baby through the USA, was looking to start a surrogacy business, using Indian surrogates to lower the cost of what is the most expensive part of the process.

It’s odd that a film that portrays something as win-win-win could still leave me with a sense of unease. The egg and sperm donors from the West were either involved or compensated for their time and effort (allowing one family to buy even more guns to give to their own children), the surrogates were similarly well compensated and cared for (earning money to buy their own homes and educate their own children), and the homes to which the children were going obviously wanted them (at a reasonable price).

But there were moments of insight that went unexplored in the film that were a bit… disturbing. The Indian doctor described the possible negative side effects (miscarriage, bleeding, and even death) for the surrogate, with no responsibility on the clinic or the people wanting the child (there was no information on how often these things actually occurred). A successful surrogate’s husband expressed his dreams of financing his son’s future on repeated successful surrogacies by his “unintelligent” wife. While the rules of the clinic make it clear that parents are to be there to receive the child once it is born, one couple decide they can’t make the birth date and ask the clinic to hold on the child for a week until they can get there. Dolon’s friends who wanted a “cheaper child” seemed disturbingly detached from the whole process, picking donors as if choosing paint, and making off-colour jokes that implied a lack of understanding of the seriousness and commitment of the task that they were about to undertake. Even Dolon himself, initially portrayed as a loving parent, is not shown spending any time with his child for the rest of the documentary, leaving her to the care of his parents (not even his partner) while he is off around the world trying to start up his internet business. Most of which are potential issues in any pregnancy, granted, but none of which not addressed in any way during the course of the film.

It’s not like there wasn’t the time. There is a lot of padding in there: the camera lingers over Indian children and invalids in the streets of Mumbai for… well, no real reason; we follow some of the chores of people connected to the clinic but not actually involved in the surrogacy; and we get to see an egg donor’s family playing with their aforementioned guns – which is quite amusing, but really not that relevant.

The documentary really just follows a process and the start of a business venture. For a film about surrogacy, it is surprisingly detached from any sense of a deeper humanity. The film does not portray the agonies and joys of the new parents; briefly flashes over the feelings of the surrogates and the decisions they have made to get to this point; and the fact the surrogates seem to be hidden from the rest of society begs the question of how the surrogacy programme is viewed in India and why.

In a way, it seemed less like an insightful documentary and more like an advertisement for two ways of surrogacy through India. And like in most infomercials, the total cost of the process and the amount the “arrangers” made as part of the deal was not really entered into.

Verdict: There are whole worlds out there with which I am unfamiliar, and, in a very superficial way, Google Baby takes me into one of them. Revealing if not always enlightening, the documentary’s attempt at impartiality leaves some questions asking, though in documentaries, the provocation of thought is sometimes the intent. 6 search criteria out of 10.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Case for a Summer Wonderland

Before I start: isn’t Sandra Bullock awesome? Accepting both a Razzie and an Oscar with a great sense of humour, if the odd choked tear in there too. She is great, even if I will only ever see a few of her films.

Some other names: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Putting those two names together, when linked to a movie project, leaves all my senses tingling in anticipation. True, Charlie and Chocolate Factory was a wee bit underwhelming, but then it was always going to be compared with the Gene Wilder version, which to my way of thinking, is the superior interpretation. Alice in Wonderland though was a greenfields kind of prospect. I was waiting to be impressed.

Visually, I was. The whole film looks absolutely stunning, and in 3D, the thing looks absolutely incredible. The Chesire Cat, voiced by Stephen Fry (oh yes, oh yes) floats all around the cinema and the action scenes use their added depth to great effect.

Not so deep though is the story itself. It’s a bit naff really. Underland is now ruled by the Red Queen and so the citizens are looking for a champion to save them from her dreaded Jabberwocky as the White Queen is too busy ballet dancing with her court – so really it’s like a mix of The Wizard of Oz and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Throughout these proceedings, Alice seems perpetually bored, though I think the idea is that she is meant to be stiff upper class Britishness. As she doesn’t seem terribly enthused by anything on screen, it is kind of hard to get the audience to feel a shared sense of wonder, though individually there are definitely events and scenes that stand out.

Unfortunately, Mr Depp’s Mad Hatter does not come to save the day. I found his half daft hatter/half William Wallace interpretation of the role irritating more than entertaining, and (spoiler alert) his little dance of joy at the end is embarrassing to all concerned, and I can’t even think of a film in which it would have been more appropriate though I can say that without doubt that it was completely out of place here.

On a brighter note, Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen is lots of fun and Crispin Glover continues his string of creepy roles – and does the man ever seem to age?

At any rate, I have kind of run out of puff with this review. I will recommend Alice in Wonderland as an amazing 3D experience, but really can’t recommend it for anything else. Pity.

Verdict: The Burton/Depp magic is wearing off on me. Off kilter performances are one thing, but a strong storyline (even if not necessarily a good one) and engaging characters are definitely needed to give any fantastic performance a medium in which to grow and flourish, neither of which Alice in Wonderland really possesses, for me anyway. 4 decapitations out of 10.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Case for Brian and Me

You know, I defended Brian Tamaki once. It was not something I was terribly proud of, and something I thought I would never do, but Moosetastic raised a matter of principle once that got me riled (official secularisation of New Zealand’s religious holidays, I think it boiled down to) and so I stuck up for Mr Tamaki’s side of the argument.

I can’t bring myself to call Mr Tamaki a Bishop. Decades of Catholic indoctrination and a cynicism about calling people by their job titles (For me, they are Mr Key, Mr Obama and Mr Sarkozy, thank you – I don’t call people Teacher Fish or Master of Awesomeness JudgeNotKate) makes it impossible for me to take that seriously, and I will call him that only as a point of polite conversation.

And I find the most known tenets of his church incompatible with my own beliefs. I won’t say that I find the church’s beliefs repugnant, as I would have to take them seriously for that. I once tried to buy a couple of “Enough is Enough” t-shirts for a gay Civil Union, but I think the person on the other end of the e-mail line twigged on to my intentions and found that all the church’s stocks were exhausted. People are allowed different world views, and if BT and the Destiny Church can provide a vision that others can have hope in, then who am I to stand in the way?

What does get my goat is stories like those currently coming out of the mouths of disgruntled Destiny churchgoers (reported in the NZ Herald, and more here, and of course there have been interviews on the telly). There always did seem to be two purposes to the church: to spread the world of God (as interpreted by Her slick-haired Polynesian representative), and to generate funds to support those ministering. The problem is that the latter now seems more important than the former, but the two are so powerfully linked that those in the church are unable to differentiate the two.

I could blame the followers of Destiny Church for being gullible, if not outright stupid. Who could fail to see that Mr Tamaki’s lavish lifestyle of motorbikes and daily TV appearances as the start of his demands rather than the end? Who would continue to stay with the church when the demands for money and signs of devotion (at a cost to the devoted, of course) escalated?

But in the end, the fault lies with Mr Tamaki, who has built (and I am sure he hates the phrase) a cult around himself. The church he founded is no longer about God, or Jesus, or the Bible or good works. Destiny Church, to all outward appearances (to my eyes at least), is now all about him. And the fact he can’t step back and see why so many people are criticising how his own church has developed to what it is now as a result of his desires rather than his interpretation of the Bible is the ultimate form of egocentrism and denial.

So, no longer do I see Mr Tamaki as a figure of mild mockery. Actually, that is not true – he is that, and he always was. But now, my perception of him is clouded by the presence of all those who now flock around him, like the sheep Jesus apparently so cherished but that so mindlessly will follow. Now, Mr Tamaki and the people of the Church of Destiny just scare me, so the quicker it collapses under the weight of its swollen head, the better.

Verdict: There is no point telling people wrapped up in a cult that they are following a narcissistic nutter, so I am thrilled to see the people within that cult are realising it for themselves. The sheep are awakening and will hopefully escape from their pen shortly. 6.5 shackles freed out of 10.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Case for 9 Luftballons

Tim Burton has a few things to his name this month: Alice in Wonderland comes out tantalisingly soon (and, in a coincidental kind of way, I just read about why the expression “mad as a hatter” came to be coined), but he also has producer credits on a short computer generated film called 9 as well.

This is not a big musical movie, though there is an incessant and, on more than one occasion, irritating score. 9 is about a gang of little sack-cloth creatures which are created by a lone scientist as the 1930s fascist Europe-inspired country crumbles under an unmerciful assault by another manmade mechanical marvel turned rogue. Together, they need to work out how to save themselves, and the world.

The whole look of the movie is wonderful, as is the design of the retro-technological marvels that populate it. The care and love that went into the imagery is apparent in every frame, and the incredible voice talents of Christopher “Von Trapp” Plummer and Martin Landau give depth to what are very externally beautiful creations.

It’s a pity that such attention was not really given to the story. To be honest, the final scenes had me scratching my head in complete confusion, wondering what on earth happened and then who brought out the very pungent cheese. As a set of action sequences, the whole thing moves along fairly nicely, but the driving force behind that is talking on his cellphone and so only occasionally paying attention to the road. Elijah Wood’s 9 and John C Reilly’s 5 are the main action heroes, though they aren’t really given a huge amount of dialogue to turn them into characters to care about, and the rest of the crew are even more neglected.

As with Avatar though, there were some who found the superficial attempts at depth highly entertaining, with one particularly vocal cinema goer in the row in front of me articulating enraptured utterances throughout most of the movie, though this only served as a counterpoint upon which to measure my own lack of appreciation.

What the film lacked in coherence though, it made up for in brevity. Besides the final cloying scene, the film moved along at a pace that kept me entertained if not necessarily understanding what was going on. It is a beautiful movie to see, but the visuals hide a fairly threadbare interior, though it must be said they do hide it very well.

Verdict: The beautiful world of 9 is amazing to see, but, much like the creatures that inhabit the world, the film lacks a certain something underneath. Not heart, as it has plenty of that, but actually more of a brain. 5 little toy people out of 9.