Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Case for Invading Earth in 2011 (Part 1?)

Aliens come to Earth, seeking to exploit its resources for their own (always nefarious) ends at the expense of the dominant species - humans. But humans fight back, offering armed resistance against the seemingly overwhelming odds, and, despite initial set backs, keep on with grim determination and the hope of victory over the enemy.

Now, to watch something that follows this story idea with intelligence and insight, intrigue and a few other nice words beginning with the letter "I", one has to turn to that fantastic 1980s miniseries (not so sure about the TV series - both of them) of
V. Sure, the effects were sometimes unspecial and the Visitor uniforms were a bright and easily spotted red, but those reptiles had real menace in that they used humanity's own weaknesses and vanities against it, and probably would have got away with it too if it hadn't been for those meddling kids.

However, for something that just uses the above storyline as an excuse for big explosions, the destruction of major monuments and the slaughter of thousands of a very uncontroversial ethnic minority (i.e., a made up one without any possibility of moral ambiguity in that they are Evil, Cannot be Negotiated With and Must Be Stopped) then you could do worse than see World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles.

The action is very action-y and explosions are very explosive. I knew what I was in for when I signed up to go see this film, and for the most part I got it in spades. A few minutes of superfluous scene setting to try and give a few of the hero/cannon fodder humans some sense of character started the film, but these quickly gave way to the raison d'etre for the film: bangs for my bucks.

The film may be spoken in English, but every scene is also subtitled in two subliminal languages in which I happen to be quite familiar (though I can't always claim fluency): Cliché and Bollocks. There is more Cliché than Bollocks spoken in the start of the film, as the heroic Marines and the small band of civilians meet up, get separated, get slaughtered, meet up again, and generally run around the ruined city trying to avoid the evil aliens and also avoid getting caught in friendly fire as well. This is all loads of fun, with lots of tightly paced action, and a satisfying number of people and material exploded in different ways. Only the unsteadycam shots made me feel a bit nauseous, and the incessant soundtrack sapped any tension or menace from scenes evidently meant to have me on the edge of my seat.

After about 90 minutes of that kind of action and destruction, the script writers apparently realised they weren't quite sure where to take things. So they choose this time to try and reintroduce personality and storylines for the remaining Marines (I say "try" as Generation Kill this is not), and shift the objective from something beyond immediate survival to the ultimate destruction of the enemy. Yup, Cliché takes second place to Bollocks, though the former's influence is still very strong.

So, the civilians are removed from the formulaic equation in about 2 minutes flat (it really was easy after all!) and the soldiers go off on their new mission, and prove their honour, mettle, guts, manliness (or in one case, womanliness) and Embody the Spirit of Humanity that will Never Be Oppressed and Never Surrender. yaddayadda, with the capitals writ large.

It was odd to see Aaron Eckhart in a film of this calibre (not so surprising to see Michelle Rodriguez; I always enjoy her bolshie attitude), but then it didn't really matter which actors were in the lead roles - acting chops were never going to be able to save this film from being anything other than rubbish.

The aliens themselves have some of the most ridiculous strategies and tactics ever, but then I can't really criticise a psychology that has only been created to serve plot - and at least these xenomorphs were not afraid of water, and their computer software did not seem to be Mac compatible (though I don't think anyone tried to control one of the alien ships with an i-phone app, so perhaps they were).

Yup, World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles is big, dumb action that is better seen on the big screen and with big sound that will overwhelm the more cognitive areas of your brain and force it to shut down so you can enjoy the explosions and gun fights - though, like me, you might struggle to keep it turned off whenever the action slows down and people do things like try and talk.

Verdict: World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles met all my expectations and, as my expectations were pretty low, that meant I was not disappointed, though I can't claim to have been pleasantly surprised. It's mostly a lot of fun, but probably only on the big screen and probably only just the once too. 4 games based on the movie of 10.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Case for Taking Star Sides

I went to one film in this year's Edge Documentary Film Festival, and chose the most amusing sounding one above all the other (and there were several) tempting options.
The People v George Lucas, with fanboys and the odd fangirl taking on the Phantom Menace that is the rather elusive auteur known as the Beard, was long but highly entertaining, with lots of internet rip offs interspersed amongst all the talking heads, and the odd few seconds from the widely known but rarely seen (and with good reason, from the sounds of it) Star Wars Christmas Special.

Like the Holy Trilogy itself (well, all 6 of them), the movie was broken up into sections each describing a different part of
Star Wars history. I can't recall the different parts myself, so I will only use three: the hook, the line and the sinker.

The hook is the beginning, briefly chronicling Lucas' beginnings, the conception of
Star Wars, and the cinematic and marketing phenomenon it became. All fairly straight forward stuff, really.

The line shows the difference between Lucas' idealistic youth and the reality of his actions today. Using quotes and clips of the man himself, the movie shows how what he originally wanted (to not be part of a corporate machine; that movie classics should be kept in their true form) runs contrary to what he currently is (
Star Wars merchandise anyone?) and what he does (with the Star Wars movies as they were originally released in the 1970s and 1980s now deemed "destroyed" in favour of those versions containing his more recent revisions). Lucas comes through looking like a complete control freak, perfectionist, and not a little like someone milking what he created for all its worth.

Finally, the sinker is the reaction of the fanboys and fangirls raised on the original versions, looking to Lucas to hold them as holy as they do themselves, and finding the creator does not live up to their expectations. It's really a crisis of faith for these people, with Lucas unable to live up to all that his worshippers wanted.

This is of course the most interesting, amusing and occasionally sad part of the film. There are some angry people out there, some apologists (not sure if there was some intended irony or double meaning in the fact the apologists were, for the most part, French), and some people who really should be on medication (though there was noone interviewed who appeared to require the levels of therapy of some of the hardcore
Star Trek fans who appeared in the film Trekkies. This may have been a conscious decision, as I am sure there are some almost unbalanced obsessed out there). There are people composing songs of hatred, others love ballads, and others Youtubing Misery-type videos of complaint to Lucas about how the latest movies have come out.

It's all a matter of perspective really: who owns
Star Wars? Well, when it comes to the film and the merchandise, there is no disagreement that it is Lucas. Who owns the ideas and the spirit of the film? Well, there may be some copyright infringement problems, but, for those who love the Original Form movies, they all belong to the people.

As well as being the most entertaining, the sinker is also the more disappointing part of an otherwise really well put together film. The "then versus now" discussion boiled down to quick lines about a particular character or scene being dumb. By relying on fanboys and fangirls to explain the cultural phenomenon of
Star Wars and not really allowing someone with a bigger perspective to try and analyse the new trilogy backlash, the film (to me anyway) comes across as something for fanboys and fangirls rather than a documentary actually trying to explain what is going on to the general public.

For example, do the toys of the new three films sell better than the classic ones? There is a bit of anecdotal evidence in the film that kids love the new three, but the anecdotes come from kids who have been surrounded by
Star Wars their entire lives so may have inherited some of their interest from their parents, so do the films really appeal to kids? If Star Wars is aimed at kids, then why is the infamous 1970s Christmas Special so reviled by Lucas, appealing as it does to a very undemanding (and possibly vegetative) audience? And really, are the new three as bad as they say, or are they just as good (or bad) compared to the originals?

But I had to laugh when the discussion dipped into the follies of the "reimagined" original trilogy, with some pointing to things that I would never have noticed in a million years (quicker opening credits?) to the outrage (shared, I admit) about the changes to the Han meets Gredo in the cantina scene. And who could fail to admire the lovely Japanese woman who had obtained (and wore) a snow storm trooper outfit in camouflage pink (for hunting rebel scum hiding on planets composed of frozen candy floss, one presumes).

Overall, the film is lots of fun, showing the depth (and occasional shallow) of talent of those who love
Star Wars through numerous video clips, songs and costume parades, and the international angle was welcome. But where was the interview with Star Wars nut Kevin Smith? Why was David Prowse the only Star Wars actor interviewed (or else screened)? These lacks made me feel this was a fanboy film for fanboys (and fangirls) rather than a documentary really seeking to enlighten, but overall, I can't really complain, as South Park again proved its
cultural relevance and I got to see what Wookies dream of...

Verdict: I was really glad I made it to the People Versus George Lucas. The occasional extreme reaction (the accusation of George Lucas having "r@ped my childhood" got me hooked) is tempered with the odd dose of reality, but the love of those who adore Star Wars (even if not the reincarnated versions) is what gives the film a strong beating heart. No one may be fond of the metachlorians (or whatever), but the force is strong with this one. Red 3 out of a Red 5.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Case for Morality Turns

Okay, an extra posting this week, inspired as I have been by some fond remembrances.

I mean, how could I really forget the Wheel of Morality?


Verdict: I really do love the Animaniacs, may they rest in peace. 3 Warner brothers and a sister out of 3.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Case for Secrecy

A second New Zealand rom com in short succession - what is going on?

Well, Love Birds and My Wedding and Other Secrets are very different films. The former has the look and feel of a fairly mainstream movie, and everything that entails. The latter has a distinctly smaller budget ambience and feels a bit more intimate and honest because of it.

That's not to say there aren't painful moments in
My Wedding and Other Secrets. The most earnest scenes - and there have to be some heart-to-hearts as traditional Chinese culture clashes with a New Zealand upbringing and the inter-racial love - had me occasionlly hiding my eyes behind my hands, as it's very obvious what is supposed to be going on, and to carry the story forward, they have to happen. It's just that occasionally... ow.

But that's getting the bad part out of the way. The rest is actually really charming, with the leads adorkably cute, though in a moviestar-good-looks-under-the-dorkish-cover way, of course. Their love blossoms incredibly quickly (doesn't it always?) after which the pace of the film slows remarkably, as the characters deal with the main theme of the story - keeping their relationship under wraps. And that's about it really, as James and Emily are really the only characters given any personality, but considering the other characters only fleetingly appear anyway, that's not really a problem.

It is all based on a true story, and so kind of has to have the odd awkward reference to the story making a good film. And it does, in an amateurish but heartfelt way. It also makes quite a few references to mid 90s University life which struck a chord, though I can't swear that all the props were based on that time. And it can't go wrong with a soundtrack mainly written and performed by Bic Runga. And I liked it.

Verdict: A feel good film showing a different side of modern day Kiwi life, My Wedding and Other Secrets is a lot of fun. It's not a revelation, not by a long shot, but it feels distinctly more a Kiwi story than some other romantic comedies out there. And the Chinese food throughout looks incredible, if occasionally intimidating. 7 live crabs out of 10.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Case for Uplifting in Down Times

It's a pretty depressing time at the moment.

Friday 18 March was a day of reflection in New Zealand, and once again the flag at the Beehive in Wellington was at half mast.

Considering the state of things, with natural disasters on the brink of causing unnatural ones, with uprisings causing some violent clampdowns, and with people distracting themselves from these super serious issues with worries about royal weddings and Charlie Sheen, I found it really hard to know what to put in my regular Weekend Edition blog posting.

Rather than dwell on all the sadness or ruminate on the inconsequential, I thought it was time for something... uplifting.

Verdict: It's a bit of a downer out there at the moment, and I don't really feel that I can write about things "out there" without appearing insensitive or just ignorant. Sometimes, the bigger things just overwhelm the little things, and this for me is one of those times. But I find some solace and joy in some of the little things, and I hope everyone else does too. A "getting back up" 3 out of a "back to normal" 10, but rising.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Case for Valentine's Day Blues

I had heard some pretty rave things about Blue Valentine, an indie-ish film starring the always awesome Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Actually, not only did they star in this film, they were also credited as being producers, which possibly gave them even more reason to give some excellent performances. And there is no doubt that they most definitely did.

They play Cynthia and Dean, a couple at a critical time in their marriage, and the movie follows them struggling through this time, as well as providing flashbacks on how they got together. Describing the plot in any more detail would unfortunately be giving a lot away, as there is not really much to the story. But the story is so emotional and at times raw that it is never boring, not even at a two hour running time.

The film can be uncomfortable to watch. I was sitting near a man who I thought had brought his mother to see the film, and during the more graphic love scenes, I thought I detected a distinct air of discomfort from that quarter, though whether it was from her or from him, I couldn't rightly say.

The film for the most part follows Cynthia, and while the viewer definitely feels for her character, I have to say I felt like I was more on Dean's "side" of the relationship. But the fact it wasn't clear cut, that the characters were not just black and white goodie and baddie, made the whole thing feel grittily real. Unlike Black Swan or True Grit or even The Kings Speech, this is a film about a very specific time and a very specific place in the lives or (relatively) ordinary people. There are no artistic or historical backdrops against which the story unfolds. It's mainly about two people and focuses on their problems, which may seem small and insignificant in comparison with some other stories, but means the world to these people and others in similar situations. It is small, unspectacular, graphic, moving, and real - for fiction, that is.

The only thing that knocked me slightly about the film was the ending. Perhaps I was a bit naïve to expect the film to end with everything resolved (I am trying to be deliberately vague here), but that didn't stop me from wanting it nonetheless.

So, in a league completely separate to all those other Oscar contenders, I definitely liked this film. That said, it is not one I would necessarily recommend to everyone. It has some incredible performances, some heart wrenching scenes and others that are beautiful to behold, but it is an intense movie that doesn't let special effects or subplots or miscellaneous characters interrupt the tale it is trying to tell. And if that kind of film appeals to you, then by gum, this is definitely one to watch.

Verdict: Blue Valentine is an amazing film showcasing the powerful acting talents of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. It's a "slice of life" film that rewards those who love good actors dealing with meaty roles, but the weight of what they undergo will probably not appeal to everyone. 8 valentines out of 10.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Case for Japanese Thoughts

Well, I was originally thinking of putting a fairly hotch potch posting up today, but I shall delay that considering the news from Japan.

Big thanks to Stratos for providing Al Jazeera coverage, superior to anything on TVNZ or TV3.

I am sure everyone's thoughts are with the Japanese and those other Pacific nations affected by the tsunami. It just doesn't seem fair, somehow.

Verdict: This is going down as a definite annus horribilis. 50 days out of 365.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Case for a Canterbury Quake Film

I would not normally go to a film like Love Birds as it looked like a pedestrian rom-com starring Sally Hawkins, whom I learned to loathe many years ago in the highly irritating film Happy-Go-Lucky. Combining these negative factors with a running time of nigh on 2 hours would be a further nail in my normal decision coffin. But, as this was for a good cause, I decided to bite the bullet, pay my money, and head along.

First off, let me say that the film was definitely appreciated: there were belly laughs, and surprised squeaks and Kiwi-culture-referencing knowing chuckles. There were smiles all around when the lights came up too - or at least there were from my companions, as I was struggling to recover from around 120 minutes of torture. So, it was not my thing, really.

No, about halfway through the film, I found myself curling up into a foetal position, thanks to the lovely 2 person couches that are a feature of the Lighthouse in Petone (I could not have done that at Readings, though I would have wanted to). Being in the front row meant that I was almost a part of the film, but after a while my eyes started narrowing as an automatic defence mechanism as my brain tried to protect itself, so the image got a bit less intense from then on.

And I am being a bit melodramatic to be sure. Rhys Darby as Doug is actually quite winning, and there are a couple of his trademark deadpan witticisms that actually did have me emit the odd chortle. But unfortunately he, and everyone else in the film, is outshone by Pierre – the Paradise Shelduck. I am sure there was more than one Paradise Shelduck involved in the shooting of the film, but if there had to be one award for this film for emerging talent, I think he would be the shoo-in victor.

Its not really because of the actors – I was surprised to find that even Sally Hawkins didn’t really repel me. It’s mainly because their parts aren’t really characters as such, more lines written and read to support Doug’s story. Not that there is anything wrong with that – it’s what rom-coms tends to be all about really. But normally supporting characters provide comic relief from the main story, whereas here Darby is the funniest actor by miles so that leaves those around him with almost nothing to do. And the story, an almost random assortment of scenes collected from other movies over the years, holds no surprises, and only the scenes (I can’t really call it a story) with the randy assistant zookeeper actually kept my interest.

However, what really tipped me over the edge was the incessant score, from the “now feel THIS” school of emotional prompting. Occasional musical accompaniment to generate emotions, fine – 127 Hours did this quite well; non stop, every scene, every emotion musical cues like in Love Birds are definitely not.

The final thing of note, and it is a big plus, is the use of many Queen songs throughout the movie. Played big and loud, it reminded me how awesomely enormous their music is, and how I am criminally negligent in not owning more of it than I do – something the film reminded me that I had to remedy. It’s a great thing that the Queen music is so good, as it transcends some of the more painful scenes in which it is used. Even the end credit lip synching song, another unimaginative “standard” this kind of light comedy movie, was raised above the cringe worthy by the use of another Queen anthem, though I felt transported to a Highland realm rather than being reminded about the movie I had just (quasi) watched set in scenic Auckland.

Verdict: Well, going to see Love Birds was for charity. 2 Anybodies out of 5 Somebodies to Love.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Case for Phone Cameras Pt2

I have very little to actually say today, so rather than commit another faux pas about Hitler's ethnic origins, I thought I would add some occasionally blurry photos about life in and around Wellington in the past few weeks:

Verdict: I definitely do not have the steadiest of hands, but its nice to always have a camera on me - except when I forget my phone, of course. 6 shutters out of 10.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Case for Wagnerianism

For a change, it was off to see a documentary this week. I'm a fan of Stephen Fry, and he in turn is a fan of Richard Wagner, legendary composer. Unfortunately, part of that legend is that Wagner was wildly anti semitic, and another part of that legend is linked to one of his fellow Germans, Mr Adolph Hitler, who adored Wagner's work and, indeed, could be said to have been inspired by it. As a man of Jewish stock, Fry's documentary, Wagner and Me, poses the question: is it right for Fry to like Wagner?

And Fry is really passionate about the man's work. We get the potted biopic history, of course, but Fry spends more of his time waxing lyrical about the power of the man's musical creations and the innovations he introduced, like having a conductor with his back to the audience. We ge treated to performances of some of Wagner's works in the places in which they were first played or where they were meant to be, with Fry occasionally inviting other people to share their own views.

The most interesting come from a Russian conductor staging one of the Ring operas and from a survivor of the holocaust, a woman (then a girl) spared because she could play the cello. The first dismisses the link between the Nazis and Wagner, saying the work supercedes what it was used for; but while the second has the same kind of attitude to the music, she appears decidedly less impressed with Fry's determination to see Wagner performed at the composer's musical "home" in Bayreuth for performances that have waiting lists of seven years.

For me, this was where the documentary kind of let itself down. Sure, it was about Fry's journey, but there was a hugely missed opportunity for not pursuing this train of thought with the cellist. If the music itself transcends politics, can the places it is performed even if those places are, again, strongly linked with Hitler? Unfortunately, we don't get down to the nitty gritty of this, though it is lots of fun to see how much Fry enjoys himself, even if occasionally it did leave me a trifle bored.

Verdict: A great idea for a movie, Wagner and Me explores whether it is right to appreciate the same thing that inspired Hitler. The answer was, I suppose, almost always going to be "yes", but it's a shame that there is less discussion of the issues involved in favour of lots of shots of Fry enjoying himself and the music enormously. 6.5 Valkyries out of 10.