Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Case for a Trio of Docos

It has been a fortnight of movie documentaries, with two of them part of the Edge Documentary Film Festival and the last a general release documentary, released generally due to its general appeal.

Work Hard, Play Hard was a German documentary about the role of Human Resources in that working environment (yes, this is one related to my profession).  It started off examining the design of workspaces, moved to some team building exercises (bizarre as some of them seemed), then on to assessments of performance and career aspirations.  

I am not sure if it was the German styling or if it was an amateurish documentary, but whatever the cause of its coldness and lack of insight, it was very disappointing.  The most interesting one, the design of buildings and workspaces to make people want to come to work but, in the end, work was lacking one vital component - the reactions of the people who actually worked in those places.  The "star" of workplace design was the Unilever building, and when the design became a reality, the documentary took us on a trip through its shopping mall-like layout and offered almost no insight as to whether anyone liked it at all.  Perhaps this was meant to be a "damning with silence", as I found the new building appalling, but there was no conversation with anyone besides the designers.

And basically, the human touch, or the results focus, was completely absent.  Considering the number of assessments that were featured, the fact there was no assessment of the interventions themselves was a major oversight, and ultimately made the value of the documentary close to worthless. 

Not that there weren't some amusing bits: one woman who, after her performance she was assessed, was described as a cold woman with an inappropriate sense of humour, and her expression on receiving this news indicated she may also have had homicidal tendencies, though any murderous intent she may have put into action were, sadly, not shown.

Verdict 1: Work Hard, Play Hard was an attempt to shed light on what HR does, but ultimately, didn't work or play hard enough with the subject to make it worthwhile.  3 hotelling workspaces out of 10.

The Captains was Edge documentary number two, following William Shatner boldly visiting Captains of the Star Trek universe.  My favourite Patrick Stewart (Picard), Avery Brooks (Sisko), Kate Mulgrew (Janeway), Scott Bakula (Archer) and Chris Pine (Kirk again) were all sat down next to the Shat himself, and on occasion, even allowed to speak.  

That's a bit mean - Shatner did give everyone their chance to talk.  But as writer, producer, director and every other sort of executive on the documentary, Shatner was calling the shots.  Questions followed his unique style of questioning (sometimes badgering; poor Mulgrew); irritating music provided an overly emotional cue to every scene; and there was far too much singing despite the fact Shatner admitted that he was not much of one.


As expected, all the Captains seemed very nice people: Stewart was sincere (especially around his failed marriages); Mulgrew a tough cookie (though we got to see some cracks when she discussed the toll of her career on her family); Bakula was very laid back; and Pine was the most earnest in a "start of career" way.  However, while Brooks was undoubtedly the coolest, all jazz music and mystical utterances, it seems only his body ever returned from his encounter with the Prophets/Wormhole Aliens of Deep Space Nine as he seemed completely off his rocker.  Shatner failed to prise the man from his cold, dead piano, which was a mistake in getting anything sensible out of him.

Meanwhile, the Shat showed that he is every inch the Quincy Taggart at conventions, providing a show the audience would never forget, and also is a shameless sponsor plugger (who provided his private jet again?). 

Verdict 2: The Captains was a hit and miss then miss again affair.  There were some very interesting revelations in there, but the way the documentary was put together reminded me why no one went to see Star Trek V: the Final Frontier and the music was overwhelming, and Shatner loomed large over everything, his ego only occasionally allowing the others some time in the sun.  4 red shirts out of 10.

Finally, Shihad: Beautiful Machine followed the career of Wellington rock band Shihad, from humble beginnings to their chance to break into the US market, and their return to New Zealand following that disappointment.

I saw Shihad a while ago, and while I am not the biggest fan of their music, I do enjoy it.  The film I enjoyed more.  Funny, insightful, amusing, well put together, with appropriate use of music - the other documentaries could learn a lot about how to make an interesting documentary from this New Zealand offering.  

The Shihad movie was a general release, playing to a packed mini-cinema at the Embassy.  While one of the audience laughed like a man either unhinged (could it have been Avery Brooks?) or very familiar with the band, the rest of us laughed at the more obvious references and amusements, and the whole thing made me respect and enjoy the band even more. 

Verdict 3: A short review of the film, but then, the film Shihad: Beautiful Machine can be summed up in one word: choice.  9 pacifiers out of 10.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Case for Dictation

I went into Sasha Baron Cohen's latest offering, the Dictator, hoping it would not be same as his previous films. Not that it wouldn't cross the line of taste and political correctness many, many times, but more that it would do so in a completely scripted way, one where hapless victims were not either coerced into being offended or else given a gentle prod to let their own prejudices shine though.

In the end, I was relieved when the movie turned out to be an entirely acted affair, so any pain in the humour and observations were entirely deliberate.

Being the sort of comedy designed to offend, there are quite a few misses in amongst the hits. Shorn of his beard while visiting New York, Cohen's Admiral General is cast aside, unrecognizable, and he is forced to try and regain his position as brutal Dictator of a small, oil-rich North African nation. During his journey, he manages to offend, learn next to nothing, and have a few madcap adventures along the way.

Anna Farris and Ben Kingsley were the main supporting actors, and while Kingsley can make almost anything look dignified (almost), Farris was in her best Scary Movie, hapless heroine brand of "bad" acting so was both awful and strangely appropriate. But mostly, the lens was on Cohen and he pulled out any stops, including his own dignity, to get a laugh.

The Dictator is never going to go down as a comedy classic (say, as 40 Year Old Virgin is), but it did manage to elicit quite a few laughs along the way. There was lots of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and a whole lot of other -isms, all designed to amuse and offend through excess and sheer audacity.

Really, for once, the marketing, some aimed squarely at NZ, was on the money - the film gave what it promised, and there were good bits that were not put into the trailer. And, for a crowd "pleasing" shocker film, that was exactly what the doctor, or the dictator, ordered.

Verdict: The Dictator was always going to be a guilty pleasure movie, and it did make me laugh. Will I see it again? Probably not, unless I stumble across it. Would I recommend it? Probably not, unless you appreciate Cohen's style. And how do I rate it? 6 Saddams out of 10.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Case for Pale Shadows

It was a bit strange to walk away from a movie and feel like I had just watched a pilot for a TV series.

I mean, I know Dark Shadows is based on a TV series, and there are movies that are made to have sequels (like the awesome Avengers), but the ending of Dark Shadows and the (minor) revelations made in the last few minutes had me thinking that there would be more to come next week, and there was no guarantee that the next offering would be spectacular.

But then, the film itself was a bit of an odd one. The trailer focuses on the humourous parts of the film, mainly the culture clash of a 17th century man (well, Vampire) finding himself in the Hippie 70s, but the film is actually... well, not really that funny. It's light in places, but then dark in others; it's about true love and family, but also about the dark arts and there is a pretty high body count. The joys of the 1970s are played up to the hilt (the fashion, the hobbies, and there is a huge amount of era music), though ultimately there is no reason the film actually needs to be set in that decade at all (though it's probably because the TV series was).

Johnny Depp is as awesome as ever as leading man/vampire Barnabas Collins, but it is really Michelle Pfeiffer as his descendant Elizabeth Collins Stoddard who steals the show, despite her criminal under use. Helena Bonham Carter (as the wife of the director, Tim Burton perhaps?) is also along with a shocking red wig, and Eva Green vamps it up as a sultry yet scorned sorceress Angelique Bouchard. Meanwhile Chloe Moretz does a one-note disgruntled teenager (channeling Kristen Stewart, perhaps), and the rest of the supporting cast kind of get lost in the shadows (pun intended) of the big acting guns.

It all looks splendid. It all sounds splendid. And yet, it all feels a bit empty. There isn't much (pardon this pun) heart in the events that unfold, and therein lies the fairly so-so reaction. It's not bad, its just not particularly good, and, afterwards, it was more enjoyable to talk about other films once we had exhausted the discussion on how average Dark Shadows all seemed.

Verdict: Tim and Johnny get together and make another film that looks amazing, has some great performances and is... well, okay and not that special. I don't know how successful their last collaborations have been, but I was looking forward to Dark Shadows with a little wariness, and the film did nothing to make me any less wary about their next team effort. 6 fangs out of 10, with a few brownie points for almost getting through an entire Carpenters song.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Case for Method Acting

I am not entirely sure why A Dangerous Method did not appeal to me when I first saw the trailer for it.  It had a great cast (Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley in the main roles) and charted the relationship between Carl Jung (Fassbender), his mentor Freud (Mortensen) and his patient/protégé Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) in the newly developing field of psycho analysis.  But the trailer itself left me a little cold and uninspired.

And it did not get off to the best of starts.  Knightley arrives at the sanitarium a shrieking mess of jutting jaw and wild impulses, a condition that also seems to affect her accent.  While I am sure her portrayal is based on descriptions of the real behaviours of Spielrein, that degree of physical distress would seem unlikely to be resolved purely through talk (i.e., no drugs or physical therapies), though I speak obviously as someone unfamiliar with the case.

Meanwhile, Fassbender and Mortensen (what a nose!  Is that really Aragorn?) play things completely cool, while underneath their placid exteriors, they battle jealousy and conflicting points of view.  Both of these actors are excellent, even if their characters come across as aloof and distant.

The film is set and shot in beautiful buildings in the Swiss countryside and in sumptuous if cramped Vienna locations (and a very bad CGI steam ship too), but the film feels very intimate and small in scale, as it focuses intently on its main characters and their fairly Victorian styles of talking and comporting themselves.  It is therefore a little bit of a surprise when the odd scene of bondage slips in, as of course for Freud, everything stemmed from the $ex drive. 

We seemed to share the viewing with a couple of Psychology majors, who laughed loudly at the clash of ideologies, both philosophically (the whole Id, Ego and Superego trinity gets bandied about a couple of times) and physically, as Freud and Jung get more frosty and biting with each other.  In the end, the film was less about familiarizing people with the theories and treatments and more about the frosting relationship between the two greats of the field with the odd bit of hanky panky and Keira Knightley's boobs thrown in (and occasionally out) as well.

Verdict:  A Dangerous Method is not really about the dangers inherent in some of psychoanalysis's methods.  Rather than getting all technical and documentary-like, the film focuses on the lives and loves of Jung, and how he was both influenced by and influences the other greats in the field in which he made his name.  It's an oddly detached film that, while fascinating, is not completely engaging.  6 Rorschach shapes out of 10.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Case for Some Assembly Required

The Avengers was always going to be pretty good.

Perhaps that is a recipe for disappointment, going in with high expectations, but I had a few things that gave me a bit of confidence: a movie written and directed by Joss Whedon, starring Robert Downey Junior, and a great big budget full of special effects.  Still, I was a little nervous heading in to the Embassy cinema (not about the Embassy itself, as of course, I still adore it; though unlike some patrons, I was not dressed up as Iron Man), but those nerves were quickly relieved, even before the movie started.

Before launching into the movie proper, we were shown previews for the new Spiderman, Batman, Hobbit and Prometheus films, all of which got our taste buts salivating (actually, taste buds may not themselves salivate, now I think about it).  And then, the Avengers began.

The general thrust of the story is pretty straight forward for this genre: a big bad comes to Earth, and a team of superheroes is assembled to protect humanity from conquest and/or extinction.  The team consists of some of the mightiest Marvel heroes around, all of whom have been in movies recently: the big hitters of Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America backed up by Black Widow and Hawkeye.

Of course, first on the billing is Robert Downey Junior, as Tony Stark/Iron Man, who as expected, runs away with most of the film.  He and Scarlett Johansen as the Black Widow and Samuel L Jackson as Director Fury seem to be the characters with most of the screen time, and they all make their mark, albeit with Downey Junior's mark a lot higher than the others.  However, the "stand out" for the film is Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, his human Dr Bruce Banner a quiet but instantly likeable character whilst his big green alter ego gets all the best action and humour scenes.

That leaves the rest of the main cast to do a lot of heavy supporting.  Pin up boys Captain America and Thor (Chrises Evans and Hemsworth) provide the power and pecs.  They are also lumbered with some of the cheesiest dialogue, although Joss Whedon's penmanship gives them a couple of great lines that would be at home in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (see the exchange that leads to Thor saying, "Adopted", and you will see what I mean).  And Tom Hiddleston as Loki has proved in Thor that he can be a good bad guy, and he carries on in his generally evil though not always terribly menacing (or intelligent) way.  Meanwhile, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is... well, there.

I was thrilled to spot some familiar faces the "real" supporting cast.  Gwenyth Paltrow is back for a bit, as are some familiars from Thor, but more interestingly I spotted the stunning Cobie Smulders (from How I Met Your Mother) all skin tight outfit and bad attitude (and she has more lines than Thor, I think) as Director Fury's second in command Agent Maria Hill (poor Director Fury sure does have it hard), whilst I am sure one of the New York City Police Department's finest was a former Doll, Enver Gjokaj (and IMDB tells me that Alexis Denisof was in there too!  Huh!).  Of course, Stan Lee makes an ubiquitous guest appearance and the end credits pave the way for the next installment.

Overall, the film is funny and action-y and altogether likeable.  The film tries (and somewhat fails) to make those with non god-like powers or weapons credible Defenders of the Earth, but then, with the Hulk on the Avengers side, and Tony Stark on hand to deliver a quick-witted put down, who needs an army?  The Avengers was always going to be light froth rather than the dark introspection of the latest Batman movies, and as such, it hit all the right shallow buttons and made sure to leave the deep ones completely alone.  It starts off a little slowly as the group is formed, but this gives Loki plenty of time to sneer in all the right cameras and get his naughty plans together.  Once the main action gets going, and in particular, once someone gets Doctor Banner a bit angry, then the whole film really takes off, with explosions and arse-whuppings galore.  Which is what it is all about really.  Excelsior.

Verdict:  Joss Whedon gets everything right.  That is not to say this is a movie great, but The Avengers is definitely a great action movie that makes two and a half hours fly by.  Woe betide the Avengers if they actually encounter a really competent villain, but in the meantime, Hulk can smash as much as he likes.  8 out of 10.