Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Case for Middle States

Old people.  Black and white film.  Montana.  Nebraska.

These may not sound like a winning cinematic combination.  Where are the young beautiful things?  Where is the sun, sand, surf, or dense metropolis?  

“Not here,” is the answer, and for Nebraska, this is not a problem.

Sure, I was the youngest person in the smallest room up the top of the stairs in admittedly the elderly’s favourite cinema in Wellington, the Lighthouse Petone, but I gave this film a go and was all the better for the experience – even if the more… mature people in the audience would occasionally talk as if their hearing aids were switched off. 

The film follows Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) who is convinced he has won a million dollars from a magazine sweepstake, and so decides to go to their head office in Nebraska to collect.  At first he heads off on foot to collect it, but is brought back by the police or his frustrated family.  Eventually his son, David (Will Forte), decides that the only way to get this out of Woody’s system is to take him to Nebraska himself.  On the way there, they stop in at Woody’s old home town, and revisit his past.

There’s not much to it, but there is.  It’s about small town family values and misunderstandings; about sons getting to know their fathers and how much smarter the wives are than their husbands.  It’s about exploring the past and fearing the future.  And it’s great.

Dern is incredible as Woody, but Forte as David, with his long suffering eyes and downtrodden demeanour who is the most relatable character.  And June Squibb, as Dern’s unstoppable and long suffering wife, gets the choicest and dirtiest lines of them all.  

The black and white makes Midwest small town America look a depressing place to be, making the earth seem cold and dead rather than green (or even brown), and the fact everyone is wrapped up like midwinter (though there is no snow I saw) makes the scenery even bleaker and colder.  Harsh times have befallen the smaller towns, as with everywhere, and as the film focuses on the older generation, most seem relatively comfortable with their lot and make the most of things. 

But there is a darker side to life, some laced with humour, and there are revelations and emotions, not all of which are actually dealt with but all of which are handled with a natural sense of realism.

It’s hard to write a great deal about this film as there is really not a lot to it – well, not a lot if I want to steer away from spoiling anything.  It is funny; it is sad; and it also makes all of its characters relatable and understandable, if not always likeable.  And it is great seeing an older cast filling most of the roles, though not everyone is quite up to Dern’s level of acting competence.

Nebraska was a wonderful way to spend two hours, though I suppose, considering its subject matter, its black and white nature, and its small story, that few people will get the chance to enjoy it.

Verdict: Nebraska came along at the right time and left a warm fuzzy feeling in my Midwest.  I thought Dern and Forte were both incredible, Squibb a firecracker (as it were), and the whole film left me feeling, if not uplifted, definitely contented.   9 compressors out of 10.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Case for Roninja

The press for Keanu Reeve’s latest flick, 47 Ronin, has been brutal, with many expecting it to be the box office bomb of the year even though the year has barely begun. 

Still, the promise of a Japanese tale mixed with martial arts and samurai and magic did have an appeal, and the vehement exhortations of a few people that this would be an awesome film convinced me that I should at least give it a go.  And so, give it a go I did. 

And it was not that bad.  Well, not bad in that it was not painful and not laugh out loud terrible.  It started off moody and atmospheric, with Keanu’s bland expressionless acting as Kai mixing well with the tone of feudal Japan and its strict hierarchy and social mores.  A bit of confusing and rather dull backstory brought us through to today where a hunting party meets a wild and mythical creature on the rampage.  An exciting fight led to a slow return to town, the introduction of the love interest, and a whole lot of tedium… 

Yeah, it got very, very slow.  The bad people are introduced with no real flair or motive, the respected Shogun comes around and proves he is an idiot, samurai go rogue and very eventually get pointlessly mystical weapons, and then there are a few big fight scenes with the big baddies which end surprisingly quickly, and then there is an ending which drags on and on for what seems like even longer than the ending to Return of the King. 

There are nowhere near as many dragons as the trailer seemed to imply there was; some characters are clairvoyant at times and criminally stupid the next; and emotions appear to be only for women, and even then, it is just being mostly pathetic.   

But even though it is mostly flat, even if the jokes are mainly about fat people and are telegraphed a mile away, even if the martial arts and swordfighting is fairly minimal, still it has the atmosphere of a mythical Japan that probably never existed except in the minds of Japanese scribes.  The 47 Ronin of the title are more or less redundant in their own story (I can barely picture the faces of more than five…), but the Japanese atmosphere and the structure of the story are intriguing, even if the execution is fairly ordinary.  And then there is the bizarre 3D which looks okay but appears to put long red lines across the face of the main love interest – not a good look for Kai’s love interest. 

Considering how wonderful films like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were (even if the latter is not the quickest film either), its even more disappointing that 47 Ronin, with all the promise of fighting and adventure the title implies, is so relentlessly dull.  More fighting, less scenery should have been the battle cry, but instead the cry is a whimper, and the battle is mainly against sleep – and annoying people talking incessantly behind me.  Again.

Verdict: It wasn’t as bad as I was anticipating, but 47 Ronin was definitely not great.  White man comes to save Japan again, and does, though with a d!ck for a Shogun, I am not sure it really deserved it.  The film looks good but feels empty – an opportunity missed.  23 Ronin out of 47.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Case for Weighing Anchor 2

Sitting in a room filled with gangs of blokes or Hutt couples, I was expecting that the crowd at least would guffaw loudly if I didn’t manage to quite get into the second Anchorman film.  But if I was looking to them for amusement inspiration, I was searching in vain, as only mild mirth escaped their lips as the movie slowly, slowly trundled along. 

Anchorman 2 brings the cast of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy back ten years after the original for another look at the past.  Things have changed though, and it’s no longer the 70s and Farrah Fawcett hair.  No, now it’s the 80s, and the advent of 24 hour news, and Ron and his gang are there at the forefront.

It’s just a pity that the jokes aim for satire rather than for laughs.  Making well observed comments about the nature of the current news media through the infancy of non-stop coverage is very clever, but that intelligence does not really translate into laughs.  For that, the film relies on scenes about Black people, going blind, friendships with sharks and off screen anchor rivalry.  None of these are really that funny, with the most amusing interaction being that of Brick (Steve Carrell) and a potential girlfriend (played by the awesome Kristen Wiig), though even there, the pacing flags in what is meant to be slow and painful interactions. 

Part of the problem is also that Ron himself spends so much time out on his own, away from his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate – there was a disturbing lack of her there) and from his network news team.  Will Ferrell can be a funny guy, but he seems to be most amusing when he is interacting with others or in scenes where others can react to him; on his own, his overblown presence and shouting is just a bit annoying.   

Noone really shines in this film either.  There is a (perhaps intentional?) tired quality to the look and feel of the film and the performances.  The ridiculously good looking James Marsden seems to try his utmost in his small role, but it seems sad rather than funny.  The worst example however is Harrison Ford, in spectacularly grumpy form and who almost seems resentful at being forced to participate in this film – or at least, there is nothing charismatic or likeable in the flat performance he delivers. 

Still, there are the odd laughs.  The dinner scene is so stupidly offensive as to be occasionally hilarious, and some of the more insane news stories are plain crazy.  But overall, there is too much time spent on the slow stuff and not enough on building the world and the characters.  Even the obligatory news anchor team showdown outstays its welcome about 20 seconds into the first confrontation, even if the wonderful Marion Cottillard makes a welcome cameo. 

I left the cinema not waiting to see if the credits held any easter eggs, and from the slow movement of the rest of the audience, I could tell others didn’t want to stay either, but weren’t energised enough to get up quickly.  

Verdict:  Anchorman 2 is a film 10 years coming and unfortunately it’s not really that good.  Without the petty rivalries and one up manships and sexism of the original… well, it is obviously very hard to generate real laughs.  5 black panthers out of 10.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Case for Disney on Ice

There are a lot of songs in Disney’s latest movie Frozen.

And to be honest, as song followed song in rapid succession in the first few scenes of the film, I began to panic somewhat.  Not because the songs were bad or sung poorly (not in the least), but more that most of the songs seemed fairly unremarkable, and I hadn’t quite expected a musical.

But soon the rush of songs slowed, and the story came out, and little by little, my heart warmed to the story of a Princess, her sister who becomes Queen and then runs away as the common folk discover her ice powers, and their encounter with a whole bunch of men that help and hinder them along the way.

And I laughed.  Or at least smiled broadly.  When Olaf the Snowman finally appears, his sunny disposition and enjoyment of warm hugs had me completely in love with him, though that infatuation wore off as his character had less and less to do.  I was stunned into silence when Queen Elsa, voiced by Rachel’s Mom and Wicked! star Idina Menzel, belted out the most memorable song of the movie, "Let It Go".

I smiled again when Princess Anna (voiced by the amazing Kristen Bell) encountered the Nordic Sauna of doom.  And I warmed to Kristof (another Glee alumnus Jonathan Groff) as he talked with and for his mighty moose. 

Of course, there are quite a few things that have to happen in this kind of movie, and I was a little disappointed in the way (and I will try not to spoil too much here) the love triangle that develops, opting for a fairly story book kind of resolution instead of actually dealing with an emotional choice.  But then, perhaps I was just lulled into a false sense of “more” from all the wonderfulness that had come before.  Sure, the barrage of opening songs gave me pause, and the Rock Trolls are cuter than they are interesting (their song was probably the worst), but almost everything else in the film clicked with me – and I am pretty certain I am not the target audience. 

And the animation was amazing and everything was beautifully rendered, mainly in the scenery and the imaginary characters more than the supposed humans and animals.  The theme of snow meant there were some gorgeous crystalline structures, and the snow flurries as characters plowed through the countryside were incredible in how little they looked fake.

Overall then, and without carrying on for the sake of it, Frozen is a beautifully realised film, with fantastic performances and wonderful characters and… well, I loved it.

Verdict: Disney made me happy and, with Frozen, brought me a White Christmas tale I actually enjoyed.  4.5 carrott out of 10.