Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Case for Happy Endings

I'm having a bit of a mope-ish afternoon, so needed a bit of cynicism to carry me through.  And what better way than with How it Should Have

Verdict:  It does my heart good to see such fun.  Many starz out of starz.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Case for Songs About Rainbows

Of course, the biggest thing about the Muppets in some New Zealand circles is Bret McKenzie's involvement in the musical direction, including writing the very Conchordian Man or Muppet:

The songs are stupidly, catchily awesome, so McKenzie definitely captures the spirit of the Muppets musically.  But does the rest of the film succeed?

All in all, pretty much.  Jason Segel obviously loves the Muppets (though seems to have dismissed Sesame Street and its 40+ years of continuous production and ignored the whole Muppets Tonight experiment when he co-wrote this film) and, as Gary, lead human and brother to the diminutive Walter, he has a ball.  Amy Adams shows that she too is a big fan (and a better dancer than Segel), doing her best doe-eyed girl next door as Mary.  

But the film is not about the humans, despite a magnificent number of cameos: Jack Black is great, though Neil Patrick Harris gets the best line; Kristen Schaal brings some Conchord flavour on screen, though Emily Blunt gets the best female role (reprising her own from Devil Wears Prada) and brings along her real-life hubbie John Krasinski for a non speaking role; and there are Sarah Silverman, Donald Glover, David Grohl.  And there were more classic stars as well, with Whoopi Goldberg, Mickey Rooney and Alan Arkin all showing up briefly.

No, even with all these, the real stars are of course the Muppets themselves.  Most of them sound a bit funny, with their original voice actors having moved or passed on, and so they don't feel quite the same as they once did (the purist in me says), but they are classic characters nonetheless.  While Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie get most of the dialogue, and Animal gets most of the Muppet laughs, I was thrilled to see that some of my favourite minor characters (Rowlf in particular, but also Lew Zealand (of course) and Crazy Harry), getting their own few seconds, and the Wayne and Wanda snog session (and that was not misspelled) was hilarious.  But new character, 80s Robot, really tickled my funny bone, ear piercing connection to the internet sounds included.

And most of the humour is on key too, even if the voices aren't quite, and wannabe Muppet Walter is often on the annoying side.  It's all done with so much love and good humour it is hard not to be swept along with the joy that the makers of the movie obviously felt.  At two hours long (including a surprise Toy Story short) there is the room for some draggy bits, and there are some, but the draggy bits don't last too long, and it is on to something more familiar, or else an amusing song.  And there is nothing wrong with that. 

If they had chucked in a scene of Veterinarian's Hospital, then I really would have been in Muppet heaven. 

Verdict:  The Muppets gets most things right, and the kids in the audience laughed loud though not necessarily at the same time as I did.  A reminder of everything we have lost, in many senses (Jim Henson, you are missed), the film is a return to an age of wholesome non computer generated insanity - well, when Wayne and Wanda aren't steaming up the screen anyway.  9 lighting of lights out of 10.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Case for Rare Metal

No idea what the comment from espresso-cup was on about last post, but that's okay - the internet is like that.

Another journey to the mystical yet poorly laid out mini theatres at the Embassy took me to another Oscar worthy film (and indeed, it has already won a Golden Globe), The Iron Lady. Meryl Streep is always awesome to watch, and she eerily portrays Margaret Thatcher, the highly divisive former British Prime Minister.

The film itself has come in for some criticism for showing Lady Thatcher as she is "now", occasionally suffering from dementia. Having heard that there would be that element, I was not surprised when The Iron Lady started out in the "now", and indeed, I was quite liked that the films starts with Thatcher going out to buy milk in a very modern London, where she was the only white person in the store.

What I had not expected was how long the movie dwelt in the now. While there is no denying Streep's "old" performance is amazing, and Jim Broadbent has a bit of fun in his role as Dennis, I got a bit... perhaps not annoyed, but confused by why the film seemed to linger here when, as a biopic, I would have thought the bulk of the movie would have been concerned with Thatcher's controversial decade-long reign.

The Iron Lady is set around Thatcher coming to terms with her age, occasionally ruminating on "highlights" from her impressive career. From her humble beginnings as a grocer's daughter, we see how she meets her partner for life and has her children, we get an idea about her rise to office, and then Meryl takes over as Thatcher and we go through the "big events" in the life of Thatcher the politician: becoming Prime Minister, breaking the unions, IRA bombings, the Falklands War and of course, her ultimate demise.

Everything is shown with an amazing flair for the outfits, but it all feels a bit budget in a way; the sets are small and cramped, almost as if it was all shot inside a big manor, though perhaps the titanic performances just make everything else look small. As the story is told in flashback, we see things as Thatcher (supposedly) recalls them, but it does seem a bit disingenuous then to focus on what are the more obvious "big events" than making an emotional connection to events that might not have been so public (and relatively short), but which might have had more impact on her life. For example, there are several allusions to Thatcher sacrificing her family for her career, but there is scant time to reflect on these personal difficulties when Thatcher is contemplating going to war.

Similarly, the IRA bombings seem to be treated as uncontrollable events that destroy people or buildings prominent in Thatcher's life, and are basically ignored as an issue that can be addressed when Thatcher assumes power. For all the film portrays, the IRA could still be a potent terrorist force in the UK, though I suppose the Iron Lady is not really a film about the IRA.

After the Falklands War, things turn rosy for Thatcher (a short, successful war always seems to please the patriotic imperial public and make the war leaders more popular) and a montage takes care of her story from there until the afterglow of battle wears off and she is deposed. It seems a shame to gloss over the fall of Soviet-led communism (and the affairs of Europe in general) and the role of Thatcher, but again, perhaps those affairs weren't fast or public enough. And the extreme speed at which her fall from the leadership is charted doesn't really explain why the politics that worked so well in the past became toxic (was she really rolled because her personality became too abrasive more than her views became too unpalatable?), but then, as with most things in this film, the depth of the events is lost in the desire to show Thatcher in full, school-marmish flight.

Of course, Meryl Streep is and should be the centre of attention. Her Thatcher at the peak of her powers is incredible to behold, her older Thatcher still hypnotising but almost from a different film. As I said before, at times I was wondering if I was actually watching a film about dementia and old age rather than a biopic of the life and times of Margaret Thatcher. Films about ageing can be incredible (On Golden Pond is a Katharine Hepburn (suffering from Parkinson's, but still feisty and unstoppable) and Henry Fonda classic; and if you have not seen Away From Her with the luminous Julie Christie, it is worth the watch though I will admit that it is not the cheeriest of subject material), but I wasn't quite expecting a meditation on being elderly going into a film about Margaret Thatcher.

But overall, it is hard not to be impressed by the performances, especially Streep's of course, though the line up of British thesping talent lending their faces to members of parliament is equally noteworthy (Richard E Grant not hamming it up; John Sessions being boring; Anthony Head being an uncool nerd - these are not things one sees every day... unless one watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer I suppose, though Giles did have a past...). While the story might not quite be what I was expecting or perhaps hoping for, the people involved give amazing performances and definitely make The Iron Lady worth seeing.

Verdict: The Iron Lady will probably earn Streep another Oscar in her incredible portrayal of the United Kingdom's first (and so far only) female Prime Minister. Controversial in life, this film concentrates more on dealing with the death of her husband than dealing with unions, Argentines, the IRA and the Cold War, but even with that surprising slant, it is still a great movie. 8 strings of pearls out of 10.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Case for Free E-mail Love and Free View

I am a doctor in the United Kingdom apparently.

Once, a long time ago, my hotmail account was included in a group e-mail sent by a bunch of medical staff in some hospital in the north of England.  It was an invitation for the group to head off on holiday together on the continent somewhere.  As I thought the real recipient would want to receive that e-mail as I knew I could appreciate the idea of going abroad with a group of mates, I wrote back and had to, sadly, decline that invitation and suggested they check their e-mail addresses and resend it to the appropriate person.

I am sure I got an acknowledgement to that e-mail saying that, sorry, it wasn't intended for me (they admitted it was harder to plan a weekend trip to Europe from New Zealand) and that, yes, they would remove my e-mail from the list.  Except that they didn't.

Over the subsequent months, I got a few more e-mails from the adventurous group, and sent fewer e-mails in response denying that I was the droid that they were looking for.  But my Jedi mind tricks did not work, and so on that list I stayed.

Since then, I have been invited to many trips around Western Europe.  I have been asked several times if I would like to lend my medical skills to working different shifts, filling in for some of my colleagues who are off doing other things.  I have been informed that, because I worked over the weekend, I am entitled to quite a bit of overtime, and have been sent documents outlining what I should be able to claim.  And, in the latest of topic threads, I am now a keen poker player and have been invited several times to come over and clean house.

It is an interesting thing to be permanently included in such an e-mail list.  For a start, they really do seem a pretty awesome group, even I don't ever recall ever having met any of its members. 

And, it is also interesting as it makes me think of how I send my own e-mails.  I have a few default contact groups of my own, which I use every so often, and as I don't expect to hear back from everyone, I just have to presume that the people receiving them are all intended recipients.  I also have to admit that my own group e-mails are nowhere near as interesting as these from the UK.  [As an aside, I have also taken to blind copying people in on group e-mails after an incident also a long time ago where one person who did not appreciate being included on a group e-mail responded with a "Reply All" e-mail that was not particularly... civil].

But I also feel a bit bad still being on that list.  Should I go back and try to tell them (perhaps all of them) that mine is not the address they should be including?  I have been on that list for years now, so how would they react to learn that I had been listening in? 

It's kind of like Facebook, where (should there be an accidental friend request and acceptance) I could see the threads of other people whom I don't really know and so keep a track of what they are up to - though using Facebook, of course, they would also be able to keep tabs on me.

Perhaps one day, in another life, I will meet someone on that list, and I will learn that it was actually me they were inviting all that time and that they were bitterly disappointed that I never came along to anything that they had organised - which is pretty unlikely.  Perhaps the group will turn to lives of international intrigue and crime and realise that they have one of those unwelcome listeners in that will need to be tracked down and brutalised in a spectacularly unpleasant way - I do hope that this is not the case. 

In the end though, I think I will just continue to delete the e-mails and not raise any flags.  It is easy to tell when e-mails are from the group from the subject lines, meaning that I don't really need to open the e-mail itself to make that determination.  And so my e-mail life will go on as it has always done, and I will just smile a small smile when I see another e-mail from that group in my inbox.

Verdict:  Technology means we are more connected and in contact with people than ever before, even if we don't always know them at all.  Or perhaps that is the point?  This blog could probably attest to that...  Many electrons out of the ether.

Oh, and I have to mention this (better late than never): RIP Stratos televisionFreeview has lost one of its brightest stars.  Hopefully Al Jazeera English and/or some of the other channels that now no longer have a New Zealand audience will decide to join Freeview so we will get a decent 24 hour news channel on free to air.  Considering TVNZ7 is doomed to end this year as well, from memory, we desperately need one.  And Freeview itself?  Well they seem happy to let everyone join SKY as they seem unable or unwilling to be proactive in attracting channels to the Freeview platform, which really sucks.

Verdict:  Sorry to see you go Stratos; and I poke out my tongue in your general, uninterested direction Freeview.  2 radio waves out of 10.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Case for Mission in Action 4

You know, partway through seeing Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, I thought to myself that my review would end up being really positive.  I mean, there had been everything I had expected: car chases, explosions, gunfire, improbable dangling from the tallest building in the world (well, for now), international intrigue in exotic locations and with incredibly attractive people.  So basically, it was proving to be a huge dumb movie that didn't take itself too seriously.

But then... the final reel played (if they do, these days), showing what happened in the aftermath of all the mayhem.  And what happened was... boring.  No, it was worse than boring: it was stupid.  Because, despite some nice cameos for characters seen in earlier films, the final drink shared by the surviving members of the team was water boardingly painful in its dripping sentiment and brain numbing exposition.  And it seemed to take ages as well, and so my mind, running idly for most of the two hours running time of the film, suddenly flared to life to try and keep me from being thrown into a coma.

And, in that rush of adrenaline, so many aspects of the film that I had just glossed over as it had passed by were suddenly thrown into sharp focus.  The Apple and BMW product placement must surely have paid for the film (of the many, many gadgets that went wrong for this mission, none of them bore any identifying logo).  The BMW concept car was definitely cool, even if its windshield sat-nav looked incredibly dangerous to use in real life.  The Dubai and Mumbai tourism agencies were obviously less strict around guidelines for use of their locations than either Apple and BMW were for their products, and so seemed quite happy for their cities to be seen as havens for international terrorism and megawealthy megalomaniacs, probably due to the cities' ineffectual and disinterested security forces.  Jeremy Renner obviously didn't mind not have a lot to do, his tortured analyst character pretty... well, superfluous amongst the characters embodying comic relief, inspiring action leader and hot lady agent.  Speaking of which, my, but Paula Patton is a seriously stunning woman - why was there not more of her again? 

And yes, the harsh light of analysis showed that there were lots of glaring plot holes (which may also be spoilers - so skip this paragraph if you prefer not to know):  Why did super fit killing machine agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) have so much trouble running after and combating a Scandanavian professor at least 10 years his senior?  Did the "forces for good" really not know Cobalt's identity, or do the American intelligence agencies really have up to date movement profiles on every person in the world who has ever had anything to do with politics or a field at least tangentially related to nuclear physics?  Why did the Russian authorities decide it was in the public interest to open fire using high powered automatic weapons on an unmarked car travelling at sedate speed in the middle of Moscow?  If someone had blatantly lied to me for a long period of time and so was obviously using me to get to someone I knew, would I really be thrilled to have them back in my life?  And would the USA really wait until a ballistic missile detonates in the middle of a major continental city before retaliating in kind (as I must assume they would be aware of this kind of thing approaching)?    

But, thinking back, when I was in the middle of it all, the demands of logic or sense didn't really bother me.  It starts off with action, goes to undercover work, then action, then explosions, then a new exotic location, then undercover work, action... it's all pretty exciting and occasionally mildly amusing - until the final 20 excruciating minutes of course. 

Verdict:  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol succeeds in all the areas it should - action, adventure, style - and fails only when it tries to add depth and sense to proceedings.  It really should have stuck to its strengths.  6.5 fuses out of 10 (I feel I should give it more, but really, that ending... ugh).

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Case for the Second Element

There is a fairly simple equation in moviedom at the moment.
Robert Downey Junior + starring role + outrageous character + lots of screen time = awesome movie.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows follows this equation fairly closely, and unsurprisingly, it is box office gold.


(As an aside, one of the previews was for the Avengers movie, with Robert Downey Junior (RDJ) as Iron Man, and if the advertisement is anything to go by, the Marvel guys know the RDJ equation too, giving him huge amounts of speaking time and hopefully making him the centre of, well, everything).

I only saw the first Sherlock Holmes movie recently, but was bitten by the rough and tumble antics that turned Holmes from a detective that Miss Marple could have beaten in a brawl to a street fighter with an uncanny brain and an ego the size of a slightly odd planet.

Keeping Holmes in check is Watson, and Jude Law makes the same transformation for this staple character that RDJ does, though he makes sure to keep Watson well behind Holmes and let that character shine.  And in this movie, to add even more posturing and posing, Stephen Fry appears as Sherlock's (Shirley) brother Mycroft, using the power of his stiff upper lip and quite a bit of nudity to show that brains and a sense of entitlement run in the family.


This is very much a boys movie, and while there are some stunning females in Rachel McAdams and an untattooed Noomi Rapace, they don't really get a whole lot to do.  There is lots of running and shouting, explosions and bare knuckle brawls, and some very impressive camouflage outfits as well.

About the only thing that got to me was the length of the film.  At over 2 hours, I had a hard time keeping up my enthusiasm about two-thirds of the way through, but this might also have been because I was watching the late night session and so experienced the two-third mark at around 12.30am.  Such lateness could have also dulled my critical thinking, as could the fact I was watching it from the luxurious leather seats at the Embassy cinema, but I don't think so, as I could see some of its flaws.

A lot of the story and twists were fairly obvious.  Some of the action and adventures were pretty improbable.  Some of the humour was a bit unfunny.  But you know what?  I didn't really care.

Everything is so much fun, so much energy, that it doesn't matter that the film is completely bonkers.  Because RDJ and director Guy Ritchie make all of that insanity incredibly watchable, and therefore make Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows a great film to watch.  If a little long.

Verdict: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a huge amount of madcap energy made by and with people who seem to be having a fantastic time.  All that energy and talent is captured in the film, making it a wonderful if rather brainless film to be enjoyed by everyone.  9 bakers out of 10.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Case for Melacholic Meteoroids

In a week where I saw the Hollywood treatment of the end of the world in Armageddon, it was very sobering to see how Lars von Trier handles the same kind of subject.  Not for him an asteroid that can be cleft in twain by a well placed nuclear explosion.  Melancholia is instead a planet bigger than the Earth, hurtling towards us, threatening our very existence.

Odd to think that this peril is actually the backdrop to the bipolar character of Justine, played with incredible intensity by Kirsten Dunst.  After a very operatic opening, not dissimilar to parts of the Tree of Life (and all the slow, ponderous imagery that invokes), Melancholia focuses on Justine's marriage to her blond suitor (a very un-vampiric Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd).  Her sister Claire (a mildly pathetic Charlotte Gainsbourg) has put together an elaborate affair, inviting family members who can barely tolerate each other and workmates who seem determined to work Justine to the bone, but all that matters little: Justine is pretty much the instrument of her own destruction and the initial euphoria of the wedding slowly fades as life weighs heavily upon her.

The second part of the film, focusing on Claire, brings the depressed Justine and the impending global catastrophe together.  Keifer Sutherland, as Claire’s husband, is fairly calm considering his usual 24 hecticity, and his performance is all the more gripping because of it.

The merit of Lars von Trier films may elude many, and his comments of late have been… unwise, to say the least, but there can be little doubt that he does manage to elicit some amazing performances from his cast.  This film also doesn’t stick to his usual dogme style, but it is pretty hard to do so considering the natural disaster bent of the movie.  Indeed, the special effects are incredible, if a bit slow (tedious?), with a scene with two moons casting their own shadows over a deserted golf course sticks in my mind as an image of incredible beauty.

But, while beautiful, Melancholia is slow (of course) and the characters are not terribly sympathetic.  Dunst’s performance may be astonishing, but there are certain times I just wanted to slap her and scream at her to just get in the goddamned bath.


Understanding was not my friend that night, but it did not stop me from enjoying the film.  Of course, the fact I was viewing this film in the new mini-Embassy cinemas constructed underneath the main hall was a delight in itself – even if the architect put the aisle in the middle of the room, thus robbing anyone of the chance of seeing any film in that prized “pole” position.  Despite that small fault, I can't wait to see another movie there soon.

Verdict: That Melancholia will not be to everyone's taste should not really be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about von Trier's work.  But if you  don't mind a film with slow, brooding intensity, with some amazing performances, and with a threat to the Earth that a handful of Americans in a spaceship have very little chance of avoiding, then this might be a film for you.  7.5 Prozac pills out of 10.