Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Case for Chainlessness

I think it is a given that, going to a Quentin Tarantino film, one expects to see extreme violence, lots of talking peppered liberally with obscenities, and the obligatory cameo by the auteur himself.  Django Unchained has all of these elements, on the last of which is a bit disappointing.

Set in pre-Civil War USA, a travelling Doctor (the marvellous Christoph Waltz who wins every scene he is in, and those without him are the poorer for his absence) pairs up with a slave, Django, (Jamie Foxx) to catch crooks and win back Django’s woman.  The catching crooks involves a whole lot of gun slinging, and bullet shooting, which leads to a whole swimming pool of blood erupting from people’s bodies whenever the most minor of hits is palpable.  The getting to the crooks requires a great deal of talking and explanation (Don Johnson as Colonel Sanders and Leonardo DiCaprio as Mr Candie get a lot to say), though as its set in the Wild West, there aren’t too many pop culture references that Tarantino can put into their characters’ dialogue, so instead there are a whole heap of n*****rs thrown in for good measure, and when Samuel L Jackson gets a hold of that word, there are a millions shades of meaning that he is able to invoke.

And then there is the Tarantino cameo.  >Sigh<  At first I thought he was playing a South African, but after a few sentences and a conversation with another character with the same ethnic origins, it became apparent that he was meant to be Australian.  >Sigh<  Luckily, he is not around for long.

The film itself is long and occasionally meandering.  There is some amazing cinematography of the beautiful mountain and prairie landscapes of the continental USA, and the odd “woosh” shots into extreme close ups for Tarantino’s stars.  Only occasionally does meandering equal boring.  Along with some of the dialogue, the soundtrack suffers from the period as well, with most songs stuck in the Western style and none really evoking a sense of cool, more a sense of pulp.  

Despite all that, the film doesn’t drag – well, it does when the good Doctor is not on the screen.  As mentioned, his departure robs the movie of a sense of charm and wit, as most other characters are brooding or half insane (perhaps more than that).  Jamie Foxx plays dangerous pretty well (a torture scene in which he is the recipient implies he has the… balls and the abs to succeed Daniel Craig as the next James Bond), but his character is a little on the dull side, despite the movie having his name on it. 

That said, and as I have already said, the film itself is everything you would expect from a Tarantino oeuvre and so, for that reason, if you like his stuff, you should like this.  Things get completely unhinged in the last half hour or so, which is an odd change in tone from what has come before, but again, perhaps that is to be expected.  It’s not as brilliant as Inglorious Basterds, which I recall with amazing fondness mainly for the scene entirely in German, but it is an entertaining, if occasionally hyper violent and linguistically base, ride. 

Verdict: Django Unchained releases the talented Tarantino once more on the movie realm.  More of the same only different, a spaghetti Western where blood is trucked in by the supertanker, the film will probably appal anyone with any sense of decency, but is a lot of fun for anyone else.  More Christoph Waltz please!  6.5 Reservoirs out of 10.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Case for Les

The musical of Les Miserables as a movie?  Well, a lot of other musicals have made that transition, and some of them weren't too horrendous, but it seems a lot of people have wanted to go (the screening at the new Lighthouse on Cuba Street had to be moved into a bigger room to fit in all those wanting to attend) and see how this one came out.  And a lot of them have told me to beware of Hugh Jackman.

After seeing the film, I wasn't entirely sure why he came in for so much criticism.  I mean, I could see why - his role as Jean Valjean is pretty thankless musically, as he has to sing a lot of the "bridging dialogue" to pretty uninspiring tunes and doesn't really get a big stand out song of his own.  And, sure, his voice is of the wobbling variety, and is sometimes lost in his desire to emote, but otherwise, he's pretty good - if, after all that, there is anything left to praise.

As to the story, well, Valjean is a convicted criminal who flees parole and makes a new life for himself.  He is pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe, singing strongly but, for me, rather nasally) and eventually having to flee, taking Cosette, the daughter of the tragic Fantine (an amazing Anne Hathaway - wasn't she in Princess Diaries once upon a time?) who gets the show stopping "I dreamed a dream" song, during which the audience sat motionless, completely and utterly silent and mesmerised.

The story then shifts to Paris where a now grown up Cosette (sung like a chipmunk by Amanda Seyfried; thank goodness Cosette doesn't get too many songs as an adult) falls for the revolutionary Marius (a really impressive Eddie Redmayne), who is actually a bit of a prick considering how quickly he forgets the ideals of the revolution once all his friends are dead... but that's not important right now.

It's all pretty depressing stuff, but packed with some incredible songs along the way, even if I wasn't overly impressed by Samantha Barks' version of my favourite song, Eponine's "On My Own".

Of course, Barks probably was a bit distracted by the fact that whenever she sings in the movie, the director decided to drown her in fake rain.  Maybe that is also to show off her amazing body, with her incredibly small waist and plunging cleavage.

So the story and songs are incredible, and the performances are pretty good, especially considering they were all sung "live", as it were.  It's a pity then that the cinematography was so disappointing, though I did wonder if some of the extreme and disturbing close ups during the songs were so that the boom or the microphone or whatever wasn't in shot as the actors belted out the words. 

And the film is really, really long.  This is not helped by the very slow ending and a couple of uninspiring songs also bringing up the rear.  Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen (love those names) pop up regularly to provide some light relief from the otherwise unrelenting misery (in which I also include Seyfriend's singing), and they do make some of the slower scenes pass more swiftly, but that didn't stop me from fidgeting more and more as the end slowly came into sight.

Verdict: Les Miserables is an amazing stage show and the movie puts it on screen in a very competent way.  I was not overly impressed with the staging and some of the performances, but given the material, it was always going to be pretty good.  It is just not much more than that.  6.5 red flags out of 10.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Case for a Slice of Pi

I have one regret about seeing Life of Pi.  I did not see it in 3D.

Actually, there are a few other regrets, to do with the theatre at Readings with the terrible sound (cracking 20 seconds or so), the person next to me who kept texting throughout the session, the person who brought individually wrapped crisps and ceaselessly unwrapped them and then the evil people who sat in the wrong chairs… actually, that last one was me (by accident; I always mistake row K).  Actually, I was a little unimpressed by all those in the middle of the back rows who came in at the very last second as the trailers finished to tut admonishingly (I couldn’t see their faces to see them rolling their eyes, though I felt it) when they found people in their seats (like me, by accident, honest).

But the only regret I have about seeing the movie itself in the 2D version as, if the visuals throughout the film were any indication, it would have been breath-taking to behold.  As it was, in standard two dimensions, the visual were truly remarkable, the CGI animals rendered beautifully (only occasionally looking a bit animated) and the wide Pacific Ocean resplendent in the early morning hues or in the tempestuous cyclones of the different days of Pi’s journey on a lifeboat.

And that is, kind of, what the story is about.  Pi, a young man with a passion for religions, finds himself the sole survivor of a ship sinking – well, sole besides a few of the zoo animals that were travelling with him and his family, and some of the more unsavoury animals at that.

This story is wrapped around the meeting of an older Pi with an uninspired Canadian novelist looking for his next best seller, lured to Pi by the prospect of a story that will leave him believing in god.  Or God. 

There is no Coldplay.

Whether that is a sign of a deity or not, I was not sure.  However, I was unconvinced by this “promise” when the final credits rolled.  It kind of felt like a tacked on attempt at epiphany when all that really existed before was a very good story.

And it is good.  Ang Lee makes a sumptuous feast of a film, with beautiful images and characters (and animals) abounding.  There is animal violence (which elicited quite a few yelps from the person next to me) and Gerard Depardieu (not speaking Russian), and the whole “younger Pi” part of the film is superb.  The “older Pi” slice is a little less successful, though the two actors putting the rest of the film in context do a good fist of it.

I have heard people say that they found the film depressing rather than inspirational, and I can definitely see that perspective.  However, it struck me more as a bittersweet film, and a very well done one at that.

Verdict: Life of Pi was definitely not the life affirming movie the preview promised, but it was an entertaining and beautiful film nonetheless.  If I was ever stuck on a lifeboat myself, I doubt I would want the Life of Pi film on my solar powered tablet to keep me entertained, but if I had 3D goggle version… that might be a different story.  7 para para paradises out of 10.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Case for Ralphing

Now that Pixar is officially bought by Disney, I am not sure if Wreck It Ralph qualifies as one of their works.  I will say no, as overall, I was a little underwhelmed by this offering, but more on that later.

The usual “short” before the main feature provides additional evidence against this being a Pixar film.  First and foremost, the Paper Man is animated in the traditional, manual way and the main characters are portrayed in a very Disney style.  It starts off quite well and possibly edgy in a family friendly black and white way, but in the end deteriorates into a lazy, trite romance, albeit with great animation.

And then the feature starts (after several “this is Disney” logos).  Considering the film is drawing on video game greats through the ages (like Q-Bert, Pac Man, Street Fighter and the like), I would have thought there would be a hundred opportunities to make big jokes and subtle digs using the characters known to arcade fans of all ages.  And a few jokes there are, in the beginning, though they dry up when the main story kicks in and Ralph tries to be a hero.  

Ralph (voiced by Thomas C Reilly), you see, is a villain in Fit-It Felix (who looks and sounds like Kenneth from 30 Rock, probably because it voiced by the same actor) and feels underappreciated.  He wants feel like the hero for once, and so goes in search of an elusive hero medal, and then, in trying to keep it, learns what it takes to be a “real” hero. 

His first foray takes him into a first person shoot ‘em up under the command of a ballsy military commander Sergeant Calhoun voiced by Jane Lynch, whose penchant dry snide remarks instantly make her the most awesome character in the movie.  It’s a shame then when she is left behind in the back up story when Ralph moves to car racing game Sugar Rush and joins forces Penelope, voiced by the talented Sarah Silverman who can make any character incredibly annoying within two seconds.  Penelope wants to get back in the regular game racing roster, but the King (voiced by an unrecognisable Alan Tudyk) has other ideas.

Once the action shifts to the Sugar Rush, the movie lost a lot of the magic for me.  I found Penelope ridiculously annoying and cloying and so was not really impressed when she took centre stage.  Her final speech I found particularly irritating (SPOILER ALERT) where she denounces royalty in favour of Sugar Rush becoming a “democracy” shows that she doesn’t quite get that you can call yourself President if you like, but if no one votes for you as a leader, that is still like a monarchy (though is more likely called a dictatorship).

There is a lot more that goes on in the story that I will not touch on here.  But the animation and music are amazing, evoking the magic of the original video games (though I was not altogether sure why Ralph and Felix move a lot more “smoothly” than the rest of the characters from the game) and the violence and/or cutesy levels that games of now have achieved.  I am not sure if it convinced me to go back to the arcade, but it kind of made me want to play Street Fighter again – mainly to go all Ryo on the people in the row behind me who had the loudest and hardest to open chippie packet known and seem to pop a bottle of champagne at one stage as well.

Verdict:  If I view Wreck It Ralph as a Pixar film, I am disappointed, so I will instead see it as a Disney film and that means I see it from a completely different perspective.  Jane Lynch steals the movie, even though there is not much of her, and it’s a shame when things get stuck on “saccharine” in Sugar Rush.  But overall, there are some lovely classic game references (more at the beginning) and a few one liners to make one smile.  It’s just a shame there are large tracts of unremarkable storytelling in between.  6.5 Zurgs out of 10.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Case for Canada v US

Sometimes, I think it is just me, but then something like this comes along:

(Not sure if the embedding is giving me the one I want (Sports fans and Nationalism), but if not, click here)

Big thanks to KiwiinZurich for pointing me in the Angry Canadian's way.

Verdict: I agree with almost everything in this video.  Am I actually very twisted and bitter inside?  Probably...  10 Maple Leafs/Leaves out of 10.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Case for Southern Beasts

There are some movies that I go to because the reviews have been rave, even if the trailer I have seen does not really fire my enthusiasm.  Recently, that has worked out pretty well for me.  Until I struck Beasts of the Southern Wild, and that run of luck ran out.

Beasts of the Southern Wild follows the story of a young girl called Heffalump (its not actually; her name is Hushpuppy) who lives with her father in a place called Bathtub near New Orleans.  It’s a place inhabited by materially poor but spiritually free people, some of whom also happen to be mildly bonkers, and it is also a place prone to flooding – and Hurricane Katrina is on its way.  The impact of the storm on the lives of Bathtub’s inhabitants is profound, some refusing to leave their homes despite the severe flooding that hits.  As things get worse, Hushpuppy and those who stayed behind have to deal with the flooding’s legacy, and with trying to avoid assistance from the wider community, a community they don’t want to join.

The film is mostly shot in shaky vision, and I wonder if this is what drove some people from the cinema 10 minutes into the screening I saw, never to return.  It is really irritating, though for the most part I was able to look past the wobbliness and appreciate the beauty of the Southern Wilds.  

While there can be no doubting that Quvenzhan√© Wallis's performance as Hushpuppy is amazing, I personally found her neglectful and nigh on abusive father completely unsympathetic, and Hushpuppy’s “profound” utterances seem aimed more at the cinematic crowd than to actually reflect thoughts she would be entertaining.  Hushpuppy’s father seems so hell bent on keeping his independence that he seems to almost ignore the fact he has a young daughter in his care, leaving her to fend for herself a lot of the time and ignoring the impact that his own health and well being would have on her.

Likewise, the Bathtub community is full of quirky characters who are fiercely independent yet supportive of each other – except in the case where they completely ignore Hushpuppy’s poor treatment at the hands of her father.

These “cruelties” proved to hard a hurdle for me to leap over, and it ruined how I experienced the rest of the film.  My companions had no such trouble, or else did not see the issues that I saw, and so they had a great time and enjoyed the film immensely. 

And so, I will leave my review there.  Despite the film’s beauty and the freedom and strange other worldly existence it seems to love, I found that showing it all through the eyes of a young girl, born to the lifestyle but not choosing it and surrounded by people too wrapped up in themselves to care about what it meant to her, to be disturbing and unsettling. 

Verdict: I may have gone into Beasts of the Southern Wild in the wrong frame of mind, as I couldn’t bring myself to appreciate the joys that Hushpuppy experienced when all I could see was the hardship.  4 beasts out of 10.