Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Case for the International Film Festival 2012 – Weekend 1

Unlike with last year, I was in Wellington for the whole term of the International Film Festival this time around.  From the scores of films on offer, I chose 5 to arrange to go and see this year (I am not going to 88, like some), though quite a few more were sorely tempting.

The first film I managed to see was the intriguing Caesar Must Die, about the staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by a bunch of Italian inmates.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this film.  Actually, that’s not quite true: I had either expected a documentary or a more fictitious film where the play was set in a prison.  In the end, the actual film was a melange of the two, and a mix that did not necessarily sit well together.  

Most of the film was told in flashback and therefore in black and white, which was an interesting idea but seemed a bit pointless considering all but about 10 minutes of the film was not considered to be in the “now”.  The prison inmates (I eventually figured out they were actual inmates) were simply stunning in playing the various parts in the play, but the scenes that showed them as prisoners – so the ones closest to their actual selves – proved to be the least convincing.  This was possibly just a byproduct of the script, which tried to show the rehearsal in amongst normal prison life, but while the sets were incredible, for me it didn’t quite work, its fakeness detracting from the “reality’ of the prison.  Nonetheless, at the end, everyone was pretty impressed by the actors in their roles, though I was left wondering if the person who was pardoned (as the end credits told us) was one of those supposedly jailed for “life meaning life” (as they told us over the opening credits).

This film was preceded by a New Zealand short, which was mercifully short as, to be honest, without the director informing us beforehand what influenced her work, I would have had no idea what was going on. 

Verdict 1 (of 5): Caesar Must Die was a really interesting film, intense as one would expect, but faltering a little in how to blend the work itself with the origins of the actors, when perhaps a bit of documentary style would have worked better.  6 et tus out of 10.

The second film of the festival I saw later that night.  The Cabin in the Woods played to a sold out crowd at the Embassy Cinema, and as I had bought my tickets only two weeks before, my seat was way up in the deep dark recesses of the main theatre, next to a man who recognised a great many people in the audience, claiming they were all IT folk such as himself. 

It was evident there were a lot of fans of Whedon in the crowd.  The biggest star cheers of the evening came from regulars from previous Whedon television series, including the gorgeous Amy Acker (Fred in Angel and Doctor Saunders in Dollhouse) and the “cool geeks” from Dollhouse and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the actors who played Topher (Fran Kranz) and Andrew (Tom Lenk).  There were other cheers for other known actors, including those for Anna Hutchison, one of New Zealand’s Go Girls who did a respectable job of being a bit of a slapper.

The Cabin in the Woods is a dark comedy slash horror film, with five beautiful people (well, four stunningly beautiful and one good looking “screwball”) heading out to a cabin in the middle of nowhere and stumbling into a world of supernatural nastiness.  This being a Joss Whedon film, the script is tight and laced with a lot of jokes and pop culture references and only the truly quick witted and dedicated fan boys and girls will get them all (I may have some of the knowledge, but I am not smart enough to pick every single one of them as they go zooming by). 

Of course, in a film so expectedly funny, and with a crowd so diverse, some of the humour can grate.  Not in the sense that it is bad; more in the sense that there are some members of the audience who feel the need to let me know, in their loudest possible laughter, that they GET THE JOKE, even the ones that aren’t necessarily that clever.  It is nice to laugh along to a movie with people; I find it less entertaining to be struggling to hear ongoing dialogue drowned out by people dying of laughter over a passing reference to a fart.  At any rate, more often than not, I was laughing along with rather than grimacing through the parts most people found funny, so my head-exploding telekinetic powers were kept well in check.

As the teenagers (well, people in their early 20s I think) start to meet their grizzly fate in the woods, the humour and special effects ratchet up a couple of notches.  These pretty people are [spoiler alert] not just good looking; they are also nuclear physicists (actually, they are studying far more liberal subjects than that – perhaps that is why they deserve to die?) and all around top athletes.  Perhaps that is why the death of a pre-Thor and Avengers Chris Hemsworth was met with such howls of amusement – and, while I was not in fits of hysterics at the tragedy that befell him, I have to admit his end was rather funny.

Being a Whedon film, there is a bigger point and story to this localised tale of horror.  In fact, it kind of has a Buffy the Vampire Slayer feel to it all, though I won’t go into which particular storyline(s) it reminded me most of.  Suffice to say, as the crowd of obvious Whedon fans got deeper and deeper into the story, the joy and anticipation of the next reveal grew, and by the end, the whole audience seemed to be smiling, ready to head out into the cold midnight air and find a small cabin in the woods of their own, in which to build a small altar to Joss Whedon, worship him, and pray that the success of the Avengers will give this genius the chance to pursue a few more projects of his own, like this, and for them to last more than a series, or get a general release,

Verdict 2 (of 5): The Cabin in the Woods takes all the clich├ęs about teen slasher horror films and blends them with a wicked sense of humour and sprinkles a few knowing insider references as well.  While not just for fans of Whedon, the film definitely plays to the things that fans will know and love, and throws in a huge amount of blood and gore and all our grossness for good measure.  8.5 aquamen out of 10.

The final film for the weekend was the midday screening of Bernie, the latest Richard Linklater film starring Jack Black, Mathew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine.  This movie played to another sold out audience, though as it was at the Paramount theatre, this audience was not quite as big as the Cabin in the Woods screening. 

This film was also, as my colleague the NotKate pointed out, an “entry level” film to the International Film Festival.  This meant that, as the film was in English, starred Jack Black, was meant to be a comedy and wouldn’t be particularly challenging, the audience seemed to be half filled with people who would pick an “easy going” film to initiate themselves into the festival atmosphere, and so whose sense of humour might not be as… discriminating (yes, I am a comedy snob) as my own.  This in turn meant that I was, on occasion, distracted by the antics of a woman to my left who seemed completely shocked (and a trifle stunned) by anything that was presented to her, even if telegraphed a mile away, and seemed unable to deal with anything presented on the screen as something not real, cowering in fear if any scratch or injury was presented as if, though the magic of cinema, it was contagious.  I was half tempted to go to the pharmacy and find her some valium so that she would survive the film without becoming completely hysterical, but then decided waiting for a queue to form to deal with such an occasion and dealing with it in a Flying High! fashion would be a lot more entertaining.

Luckily, the film managed to keep me from getting too distracted.  Black is in his element in this film, his incredible vocal talents called upon to sing the praises of the Lord rather than of women’s anatomy as is his usual style as part of Tenacious D.  It wasn’t until the end of the film that I realised (or it was thrown in my face) that the majority of those not “well known” stars were actually involved in the events the film recalls, as it is a re-enactment of what happened to Bernie and his life in a small town in Texas. The reason I was a little confused is that the film plays like a film (the dark Nicole Kidman film To Die For, which I love, springs to mind) rather than a documentary, and the humour and twists and turns taken in the film seem a bit too scripted to be real – but then, some reality stories can be stranger than fiction. 

So, while Black is hypnotising, and MacLaine plays a horrible old woman incredibly well, it is McConaughey who surprises in his role as the town Distract Attorney.  Clark Kent-like, he hides his chiselled looks and physique behind glasses and baggy clothes, turning his natural charm to almost unbearable levels.  It’s a great role for him, though probably not one for which he will receive Oscar recognition (nor the recognition his shirtless turn in Magic Mike is bound to generate, but I digress).

The tale told is humourous and gentle, and I can imagine taking my mother along to it, such is the slow, warm pace at which the film unfolds.  That’s not to say the length is always appreciated: Black can definitely sing, but there were times I was hoping the songs would be cut a little shorter so that something might actually happen.  Nonetheless, he has an easy charm on film, though such a talent does not appear to be that rare, considering the jewels that Linklater discovers as he interviews and documents the reactions of the actual townsfolk who lived through the events described.  In fact, they are so comfortable with the camera, it made me wonder at times whether they were professional actors or not.

In the end, I learned to deal with the manic woman to my left (though I kept tabs on her throughout the screening) and settled in and thoroughly enjoyed Bernie.  As anticipated, it was a very leisurely, easy film that will probably get a general release later on.  And perhaps I will take my Mum to it in the end, now I think about it.

Verdict 3 (of 5): Bernie follows the twists and turns of a true tale of small town American life and presents it in a film that is both funny and sad.  Prejudices abound, but the people involved all seem to be, deep down, good, decent folk who care for their loved ones and community.  This film seems to celebrate that connectedness and spirit, and keeps the tone light and gentle throughout.  7.5 amazing graces out of 10.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Case for Rising Dark

The third film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman reign, the Dark Knight Rises, is a long one.  And, unlike the Avengers, this film is definitely not for kids – yes, the use of the word Dark does describe its nature.

Eight years after the Joker, Gotham is a quieter place thanks to harsh criminal sentencing laws.  Batman is almost just a memory, having retired taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s death.  On the surface, the city seems prosperous.  But a darkness is coming…

And it comes in the form of some pretty awesome thesps.  Christian Bale does the brooding Batman/Bruce well by now, though Michael Caine seems on the verge of hysteria in his appearances as the faithful Butler Alfred.  Gary Oldman is back again as well, though this time the main policing action belongs to the ever awesome Joseph Gordon-Levitt, taking a break from playing Cobra Commander to be a bit less maniacal as a beat cop.  Physical chameleon Tom Hardy takes on the broad shoulders of Bane (and has to wear a funny mask as well), and Anne Hathaway does a magnificent job as a sleek and sassy version of Catwoman, though Marion Cottillard takes the looker winnings as Bruce Wayne’s love interest.  And I am sure I spotted one of my Aussie faves, Ben Mendelsshon as the zero chinned Daggett.

The star wattage keeps the film glowing throughout its impressive 2.5 hour running time.  That is not to say that there isn’t any fat – there are many slowly paced scenes that mainly seek to ratchet up the tension but on occasion seem to drag a bit.  But overall, with Hardy’s assured menace and Wayne rediscovering his interventionist feet, the whole thing chugs along quite nicely, with many an exciting scene where the Bat’s marvellous toys get a good explosive workout, and where our hero ends up in some pretty perilous situations.

Pity then that, on reflection, the story doesn’t make a great deal of sense.  I am not really a follower of the comics, so I wasn’t sure how strictly the Bane storyline was followed, but while the film tries to tie up – or at least connect to – ends from other films, it does not do such a good job of explain quite why Batman leaves it until the very last moment to save Gotham, though still takes the time to paint several buildings with Bat images (hopefully, that does not give a lot away).

Nonetheless, despite the plotholes, the story itself is exciting (if long) and the Embassy audience seemed stunned and entertained – though the booming bass may have also induced a stunned reaction, as it certainly deadened my ears to some of the dialogue.  But, at the end of the film, despite the little niggles, I have to say I was totally entertained.  

Is this really the last?  In a way, I doubt it, but I am uncertain what form a sequel might take, and quite who would don the Bat outfit.

Verdict:  Things get beat up and explode, as do people.  The cartoony action has an action comic edge.  The Dark Knight Rises is a more mature superhero for an older audience, though not necessarily one concerned with logic.  And the cast is superb.  8.5 batarangs out of 10.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Case for Stuffed Friends

Considering Ted is by the people who did Family Guy, how could I not go?

And if, like me, you are a fan of the Family Guy, the style and structure of the film will feel very familiar.  There are the odd segues explaining (or redefining) the past; there is the ever lovely Mila Kunis (it is still so... awesome that she is Meg); there are guest stars galore (Patrick Stewart! Ryan Reynolds! And an awesomely creepy Giovani Ribisi!) to add to an impressive cast (Mark Wahlberg! Joel McHale!); there is lots of low brow humour; and of course, there is lots of Seth MacFarlane.

At least he doesn't sing. At least, not much. And the jokes and the ridiculous come thick and fast.  But what really can one expect from a movie based on the idea that a child's wish animates a teddy bear and they become buddies for life - or, they do, until a girl comes into the mix.

The story itself is not really that surprising.  Everything in it is pretty Hollywood, with the typical turns being taken along the road, but the trip there takes a whole lot of amusing diversions and, for any kid or fan of the 80s, has a huge number of references, nods and homages to that era that are bound to amuse and entertain. And the film is definitely aimed at a more mature audience anyway, with a high number of f bombs and references to lewd acts, most of them used to hilarious effect.

And... that's about it really!  It is actually pretty funny, and I don't want to give too much away, so I won't say much more.

About my only gripe with the film was its length.  It wasn't incredibly long or anything, but it did tend to drag in places, mainly in those where the Hollywood influences on the film overpowered the Family Guy principles.  And getting a little restless in a comedy film is never really a good thing.

Nonetheless, Wahlberg and Kunis have a very easy chemistry between them, and the film itself flows very easily.  I did wonder where all Ted's money went, considering his fame early on in the show, but then, this isn't really a film that requires or demands a huge amount of citicial thought.  Just sit back, relax and, on occasion, search the old mental memory banks to pick up what pop cultural reference they are making.

Verdict: Ted is a lot of fun in a very laid back way.  This isn't really a story about boy meets girl: the romance has already happened, and so this film explores the effect that romance has on a lifelong bromance, with a huge amount of swear words and drug taking thrown in for good measure.  So its more a rom-com for boys, with the emphasis more on the com than the rom, and that suited me just fine.  4 Plushies out of 5.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Case for Revised Spider Senses

The Amazing Spider-Man is, I think, a reboot of the franchise that was basically killed after the last, awful Tobey Maguire-starring film.  Gone are the old actors; in are  newer cast and in too is a retelling of the origin story.

Which is a shame really as the first Tobey Maguire Spiderman film was really great, and did a brilliant job of showing the lanky, gangly, geeky Peter Parker transform into the dynamic, muscular, web-slinging Spiderman, and the reasons for his mission to save New York.

The Amazing Spider-Man covers the same ground (albeit with the details changed), but does it in a very "by the numbers" way.  Boxes are checked, tragedy follows triumph, but the "beginning" takes a long time to get going and is done in a fairly lazy way.

It's lucky then that the cast for the Amazing Spider-Man is superb.  Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker is far too good looking (and has amazing hair that is unaffected by any sweat generated when he wears a mask for hours of cardio) to ever really be a convincing "super nerd" (the Maguire transformation was a lot more believable, and I don't think Maguire's Parker had the Braniac-level genius of this incarnation nor was awesome on a skateboard.  However, Garfield is an amazing actor who can stammer and cast nervous looks aside and look every inch a bit socially awkward - though he still looks either like he could model for Abercrombie and Fitch, or like a big haired, big eyed Japanese anime character .  

Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey is always awesome (have you seen Easy A?  If not, do so NOW) and is one of those actors that deserves unconditional love.  The role itself is not really that demanding and quite implausible in cases (a High School Student who not only works for a super science lab at Oscorp but also has security access to their computer system), but her big blue eyes outshine Garfield's huge brown ones, and her smile is completely infectious. 

Add Martin Sheen in with all his Presidential power as Parker's Uncle Ben, and with Sally Field, Rhys Ifans and Denis Leary in the mix as well, and you can't really fault the thesping talent at all.  The special effects are similarly spectacular, if a little nausea-inducing and (sometimes) a bit obvious.

The story is what kind of lets it down, though that is not to say it is bad.  It is unadventurous really, aiming for a very "family friendly" level, with only its occasional attempt at pulling heartstrings really striking a wrong note.  Spiderman's one-liners to the cops and crooks he encounters are routinely bad (perhaps a nod to the comic book) and I don't think I heard anyone even stir when they were uttered; whereas the more comedic moments of Parker were a lot better handled. 

At two and a half hours long, the movie takes its time telling its story, and it is not hard to see where the plot could be trimmed (*ahem* origin story), but the whole cast is likeable enough to carry the film the distance.  It doesn't pay to think a lot about the science and Peter's web-slingers too deeply, but then the Amazing Spider-Man is not designed to endure indepth analysis.  It is what it is: light, frothy fun with lots of action for the whole family, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Verdict:  A great cast make up for what the Amazing Spider-Man lacks in plot and pacing, and at two and a half hours long, it is a little... long.  What story there is is well told, and while the teaser for the sequel is a bit "huh?", I know I will still be keen to go and see it.  7 spider bites out of 10.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Case for Hunting Snow

Having seen the light froth of Julia Roberts' Mirror Mirror on the plane, I was expecting something a bit darker and more meaty from Charlize Theron's Snow White and the Huntsman. The preview promised dark, sinister powers combating magical creatures as a land battered by a dark ruler rises up against her.

What I ended up combating was instead a lot of boredom. The mighty Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman put aside his Thor hammer for an axe, but mainly wields the opening narration like a lethal scythe, cutting down anything resembling interest or pacing. He is not helped by a director who, too, does not really build any tension but instead just wallows in the black forest for what seems like hours while nothing really happens anywhere else.

But Hemsworth is actually fine in his manly, roguish role; it's up to Kristen Stewart to provide the black hole vortex of charisma into which the film is gradually sucked. She is perpetually pained, while the supporting characters are required again and again to provide some rational reason why anyone would think she was more attractive that Theron and a more inspirational figure than the family who has fought the evil queen for decades, as it is completely lost on anyone else.

Then there is the very Christian element added to the side of good which is completely at odds with the very pagan (and ineffectual) forces which rally behind Snow White in her struggle. At least the queen is meant to be an evil witch; Snow White appears to gain support from the pixies and fairies though ultimately they play no part whatsoever in the final confrontation or in providing anything useful whatsoever, though perhaps they helped line the wallets of a few CGI specialists.

And the love story... well, something really strange comes out of that (and here is a warning of an upcoming spoiler). I think there is meant to be a love triangle brewing in a very Twilight way, but the Huntsman's love for White seems be based on nothing (except perhaps a bit of lust?) and his heartfelt outpouring of devotion seems more about his wife than White herself; whereas the Duke's son William (the very pretty and underused Sam Claflin) has been enamoured with White from when they were little but yet his pure and very singular love is not deemed worthy of being "true" enough to waken White from her slumber.

Thank heaven Theron is there to as the wicked queen Ravenna to, if not save the day, at least brighten things up. She writhes and pouts and screams and complains like a real diva, special effects and an almost incestuous Game of Thrones-like brother swirling about her but paling beside her presence. Come the final showdown, I was completely rooting for her to take down the presumptuous little wench who tried to usurp the crown the queen had won through hard work and not a little bit of duplicity. 

But no: the ending to the story is the ending, though even that was stretched and painful, with (another spoiler) the Huntsman's dirt-laden bad boy presence amongst the rich red capes and shining armour of the court a completely groan worthy moment, though, on the bright side, there was only a minute of the film left after that.

Verdict: I was completely not the target audience for Snow White and Huntsman despite what I consider a fairly decent cast (for the most part). Failing on almost every level (pace, energy, interest) and full of terrible dire-logue and the most appalling story telling style, I was bitterly disappointed that I had made the effort to go and see it at the cinema. 2 rotten apples out of 10 - for Theron and Hemsworth alone.