Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Case for Stiff Upper Pips

It was a bit strange seeing the NZ On Air and NZ Film Commission logos pop up after the Paramount star fly-by as the opening credits for Mr Pip rolled by, but considering the source novel and the subject matter, perhaps that is not really that surprising.

The book Mr Pip is set in the late 80s and early 90s as civil unrest on the island of Bougainville has cut off supplies and contact from the outside world, and clashes between local militants and the Papua New Guinea military have robbed the village of most of its young men.   

As the teachers withdraw, Mr Watts (Hugh Laurie), a white man living on the island with his local wife, decides to reopen the school, with the focus of his lessons the Charles Dicken’s classic, Great Expectations, at the heart of his syllabus.  One of his students, the bright Matilda (played by the extraordinary Xzannjah), gets caught up in the story, much to the dismay of her pastor mother, Dolores, and then the conflict comes to town...  

I am not always a fan of these kinds of movies, where some inspiring teacher reads a classic Western novel and the local inhabitants fall under its spell, possibly as I have never really found myself so completely overwhelmed by any nineteenth century novel myself.  However, in the minds of the people imagining the minds of Matilda, all the characters are black and all the outfits brightly coloured and all the surroundings are tropical, and every time we were invited into this imaginary world, I had to smile at those touches.

There was less smiling at some of the goings on in the real world, mainly the chilling visitations by the military, though also some of the attempts at “yokel-ing” up the locals.  Perhaps it was just me, but the attempts at contrasting the local lore with the story telling prowess of Dickens seemed a little awkward, especially coming after a real battle of the books, between Great Expectations and the Bible.   

Throughout it all, things progress pretty much on island time.  There is a slow unfolding of events, only really shaken by Watt’s retelling of the tale and during the occasional visits by outsiders.  They are all seen through the incredibly large and soulful eyes of Matilda, and she really centres the film in a character that I think is relatable in almost any culture.

I won’t go into much more of the story, but suffice to say that the quality of the acting is superb throughout, even if the unhurried pace is occasionally on the draining side.  However, that languid pace just makes the violence, when it comes, seem all the more powerful and emotional.

Verdict: I enjoyed Mr Pip more than I thought I would, though not quite as much as the Orator.  The cast is all superb, even if I had to hide a smile when I saw some familiar Kiwi faces show up, and the subject matter is dark and intense, even if I wasn’t entirely sure by what Matilda really saw in the story.  7 pips out of 10. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Case for Gravitas 2

I have never read the books on which Wicked! is based.  For some reason, I thought it might have been in the same vein of the recent Oz The Great and Powerful film, but that notion was quickly proved wrong when, 10 minutes into the show, a green baby girl was born. 

Setting my scene: I had flown to Auckland on a very late Friday flight to catch the matinee (well, 2pm) performance of the hit Broadway musical Wicked!  The Civic Theatre was once again an amazing venue for the show, though even though I had bought slightly more expensive tickets, our position in the circle was still a little too high for us to view all the stage antics (the ones that were deliberately set at the back of the stage were almost invisible) and a little too far to make out the faces of most of the presumably very attractive cast – the green makeup of Elphaba somehow made all her features far more distinguishable from the rest.

The story itself starts off a little on the slow side.  The set up takes a little while featuring characters that are barely seen again, and even some of the young kiddies behind me got a little restless as a series of well performed but inconsequential songs set the scene.   

Then, a few years later, the scene shifts to school, where all true traumas are inflicted, and the main characters are introduced, if somewhat slowly, somewhat laboriously.  One song in particular, focusing on partying, felt particularly perfunctory and unengaging, probably due to the fact that it was meant to be the exact opposite – and also probably because it did not really feature the vocal talents of the two female leads.

Wicked! is designed for two women: Glinda, the Good Witch and
Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, and on their shoulders and larynxes lie the heavy lifting of the singing and the performances.  Suzie Mathers as Glinda was wonderful, every hair flick and titter and popular girl stereotype perfectly rendered in an entertaining and hilarious way.  Meanwhile, Jemma Rix as Elphaba manages to make the exact opposite equally compelling, her hair flicks exaggerated and awkward, her titters more cackles, and she could almost be an emo “outsider” were she not a lovely shade of green. 

Of the other characters, the gravel-voiced school marm Madame Morrible (Maggie Kirkpatrick) made a great impression during her brief appearances, and Jay Lagai’a as the Wizard was a welcome sight, though he must have spent some time under a sun lamp from his youth as he didn’t quite look the same as he did in the flashbacks.  The costumes were pretty good too, with the flying Monkeys looking disturbingly creepy, some of the littlies behind me, voices quivering, telling their parents that they found the whole thing a little scary. 

But the film is all about the Witches, and while the songs themselves might not have all been gold, with the standout “Defying Gravity” the catchiest of all the tunes by a long shot, the singing and the spectacle was mightily impressive.  

Verdict: Wicked! started off a little slowly, but the Australian cast gave incredible performances that kept me entertained until the real story, songs and action kicked off.  The vocal talents of the leads cannot be overstated, and at the end of the show, I was shocked and impressed in the realisation that the same cast would perform another show only a few hours later.  8 Gs out of 10.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Case for Gravitias

After rave reviews by… well, many sources, I decided to abandon plans to “just” go and see Sandra Bullock’s latest film Gravity in 2D and instead headed to one of the small, hobbit hole cinemas in the Embassy complex to see the film in its 3D version. 

But in 2D or 3D, the film is awesome.

As one of the less impressed members of the party observed, there’s not a lot of characterisation that goes on throughout the film.  From go to woah, it is a rollercoaster ride of action, with the odd lulls in between the major loops and twists that put the extreme danger and distance at which everything occurs into perspective.   

And considering it all (well, mostly) takes place in orbit around the Earth, the danger and distance and perspective are all awe inspiring.  Visually, the film is incredible, the special effects blending in so well with the live actors that it is hard to believe that they are not all out space walking.  The 3D throws debris at the audience, but once again, I kind of “forgot” that after a while, and was never really covering my eyes or anything – but that is not a criticism.  I think I was just so impressed with the effects that I was not going to look away for anything. 

Putting Bullock and the effortlessly charming George Clooney in the lead roles was also a stroke of genius.  Bullock is just brilliant for this role, and the film reminded me a lot of her earlier classic, Speed, although this time she didn’t have a Keanu Reeves to riff with (true, Clooney is much better, but this is not his film) and the film was not let down by a disappointing third act.  Everything gels, nothing is wasted, Bullock looks great and is completely engaging despite the lack of character development, as aforementioned. 

About the only thing that I had a slight quibble with was the set up: the USA does not currently have a shuttle programme, the Russians get the blame for everything that goes wrong, and I am not sure the Chinese space programme is really at the point the film implies (though this is apparently very smart marketing on the part of the filmmakers). 

But that is only a quibble – this is fiction after all, and someone has to get the blame for the accident that causes all the excitement (I was surprised the French / European Space Agency, but perhaps that was one space agency too may). 

Otherwise, the film is an action masterpiece, completely suited to a big screen presentation and totally worth the 3D admission price.  What I am saying is…

Verdict:  Action.  Bullock.  Clooney.  Disaster.  Excitement.  Five gravities out of 5. Gravity.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Case for Jasmine in Blue

I am not a fan of Sally Hawkins.  I have seen her in a few films, the first (and the one I cringe at) being Happy Go Lucky, in which she played a woman with no problems being abused and beaten and trod upon and who drove me up the wall with her ongoing optimism yet incredible lack of action considering everything that was thrown at her.  Since then, I have seen her in a few other films, and she is a decent actress, I admit, but whenever I view her, I initially cringe in anticipation of another Happy Go Lucky performance. 

I was therefore very distracted when her character in Blue Jasmine, the latest Woody Allen film, met her first abusive relationship with a nervous optimism akin to her Happy Go Lucky character, and that had me on edge for the rest of the film whenever she was on screen.

Luckily, she is not the principal character: sometimes Jasmine is played by the luminous Cate Blanchett, whose American accent I can never quite accept, but who goes through the emotional wringer and back again as a character whose cheating millionaire husband (a sleazy Alec Baldwin channelling a restrained Jack Donaghy) leaves her with no money and only a poor, distant adopted sister to fall back on.  Throughout the film, she recalls the life she had and tries to build a new one for herself that is as close to the high-flying lifestyle she had before.   

This story is a lot more fraught than Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and is a little the less enjoyable for it.  There is humour in some of the quirky characters (I do not associate “quirk” with “men with a predilection for domestic violence” so those scenes disturb me on several levels), and as usual, Allen elicits some great performances in actors as diverse as Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C K and Peter Sarsgard.  Altogether, the product ends up a lot more enjoyable than possibly it has the right to be, considering some of the physical abuse and the way it seems to almost ignore some mental health issues.   

As we left the Lighthouse on Cuba (which is not actually on Cuba), we chatted briefly with the perky and attractive staff who seemed to be high on life or a stimulant, or else were cinema majors or somesuch.  They admitted a lot of people had gone in to Blue Jasmine uncertain about what they were getting themselves into, but came out generally satisfied.  And I have to admit, I walked away thinking I had seen a well-crafted movie, just not one that I completely agreed with.

Verdict: Blue Jasmine has some amazing performances amidst an uncomfortable storyline.  Blanchett is amazing as per usual, and everyone else also brings their A-game (yes, even Hawkins), and they provide a fantastic base on which to build a sold movie.  6.5 jazz songs out of 10.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Case for Speed Racers

Rush is the latest movie from Ron Howard, all about racing superstar Niki Lauda and (for me) the relatively unknown James Hunt and their ambition and success in being Formula One racing drivers.

And it is good.

Not as good as Senna, which is an incredible documentary about the life and death of racing legend Ayrton Senna, but it holds its own as a “based on a true story” film. 

It helps that the leads are both amazing: Hunt is played by Chris “Thor” Hemsworth as a good looking blond god (so good casting there) and Lauder by an intense and focussed Daniel Bruhl, who is completely riveting and steals the scene whenever he is on screen.  Their lives are constantly contrasted: the effervescent Hunt with his string of lovers and party lifestyle; the single-minded Lauda who forsakes almost everything – vice, friendship, love – in the pursuit of his racing dream.  Their rivalry, the film shows, pushed each other to greatness, and beyond.

It’s a shame then when the film gets all preachy.  There are a few scenes where things feel completely unnatural, the “wrapping up” scene in a hanger after the end of the “main” race (I am giving nothing away here I don’t think) clunky and forced on so many levels, it feels completely contrived.  The film is at its best on the track and when the two are antagonistic towards each other – it is at its worst when it tries to force situations in which the two show a friendship that the film fails to convincingly portray.  Oddly enough, photos of the real Hunt and Lauda at the end of the film do seem to show that the two did get on quite well, their easy manner with each other a stark contrast to the stiffness the two characters have in the film. 

Away from each other, Hunt is shown as a hedonist, but despite this (and the “heavy lifting” in the bare naked butt scenes stakes), his story is a little less interesting than Lauda’s, though both actors do well with what they are given.  It’s a shame Lauda’s wife’s role (played by the stunningly graceful Alexandra Maria Lada) is basically mute after they first get together, as her reaction to some of what happens later in the film would have been interesting.  But the film seems to want to focus only on the two main guys at the expense of making three dimensional characters out of anyone else, and so it succeeds there on all fronts. 

This film also marked my return to the Embassy Cinema after a long absence, and as usual, it was magnificent.  The screening was not full, but the film has been out a while and there was a respectable sized audience nonetheless.  During the racing scenes, the tension in the cinemagoers was palpable (though it might just have been me), and while I felt it could have been edited better (removing some of those preachy scenes might have been nice), it was generally a great watch.  

Verdict: Rush told a story of competition and drive (pardon the pun) incredibly well, though for me it failed to inspire on an emotional level.  The 70s style shooting was fine, and some of the cars and fashion were a hoot (Hemsworth has the chest to pull off all those unbuttoned shirt fronts to be sure), and overall it was pretty good.  75 mph out of 100.