Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Case for DocoFest 2014

I quite like a good documentary!

Maori Television is doing a really good job of screening some interesting documentaries every Tuesday night, but I also thought I should support some of the films showing at the Edge Documentary Film Festival, especially when some of the films clash with the new Rugby Season and so are almost guaranteed to be sparsely attended.

Such was the case with the first film Bridegroom.  About 10 people were in the screening of the documentary about a couple, Shane and Tom, and the aftermath of Tom’s death.  The blurb hinted – actually, no, outright stated – that the film would be about the struggle Shane had in having his right’s as Tom’s partner recognised.  It didn’t quite turn out that way.

The documentary mainly tells the story of Shane and Tom respectively, how they grew up and how they got together.  Shane was a troubled teen with an amazing family who supported him when he finally came out (Shane’s mother, grandmother and great grandmother are all fierce and hilarious women); Tom was a golden boy who excelled at everything but whose parents never accepted his sexuality and never really accepted Shane.

The film spends about an hour setting up the back stories and generally showing the two guys as a loving, caring couple.  There are a lot of songs, name drops (Anne Hathaway!) and odd sorts of testimonials from various friends and family.  Basically, it came across as a particularly manipulative episode of 20/20.  And then the tragedy comes.

Tom’s best friend Alex retells the story of Tom’s accidental death, falling from a four storey apartment complex, and everyone’s reaction to the event is heart-breaking.  Shane rushed to the hospital but, as he was not considered family, he wasn’t technically allowed to visit Tom’s bedside.  He came across as completely at a loss when Tom’s mother came to claim the body, arrange for it to be shipped home for a burial, and then realised that he had not been invited for the funeral and was basically sidelined from every decision.  And it was here that I expected the film to focus.

But it didn’t.  In fact, while I was expecting things to be laid out, to be made absolutely clear what happened and what injustices occurred, the film kind of skipped over it all.  The problem at the hospital was an obvious issue, but the talking heads totally skipped over the funeral.  From the sounds of it, Shane wasn’t old much about what was going on, but it seemed some of Tom’s friends were, though they never really talked about it with Shane.  Alex and some of Tom’s friends were invited, but none of them appeared to have said or did anything at the funeral, not even ask a, “Where’s Shane?”.  Shane was actually in town, but he was being very discrete (which was very respectful of Tom’s parents’ wishes he not attend the funeral, I suppose) and appears never to have visited Tom’s family at all.  And there were a few talking heads, like the highly charismatic Sasha, another of Tom’s supposed great friends, who totally disappeared from the narrative around this stage too.

And from there on in, it all got very rushed: lots of Shane (unsurprisingly) distraught, lots more manipulative songs and montages, and then a trip to Tom’s grave, his tombstone distastefully placed in the middle of the tombstone of his parents, though neither of them are yet dead.

So it was interesting, but ultimately disappointing.  Even the end credits seemed a bit misleading: the list of people on the “thanks to” and “honourary executive producers” (what on earth is that?) seemed a wish list of people the fllm makers would like associated with the film rather than anyone who actually participated.  The point seemed to be lost in amongst all the people wanting to tell their story.  It seemed to become more about them than about the issue.  Which is fine I suppose, but not really something that left me talking about injustice afterwards, but more wondering why close friend Anne Hathaway hadn’t made an appearance…

Verdict: Bridegroom is an extended 20/20 story: long on the tears and musical montages; short on actual issues and analysis.  Definitely emotional and moving, but more a tribute than a true documentary.  6 Annes out of 10 Hathaways.

The second documentary film was Life Itself, recounting the life of influential film critic Roger Ebert as he was captured, quite by chance, in the final days of his life.

Going in, I knew this one would be hard.  Sure, Ebert had led a very colourful life, winning a Pulitzer prize for his insightful and well written reviews, and gaining global success with Gene Siskel in their decades-spanning movie review show, but it also showed his decline, struck by a cancer in recent years that had required the removal of his jawbone, rendering Ebert unable to speak though not, through his mastery of English and computers, to be silenced.

The film went backwards and forwards through time, using the words Ebert had written in his memoir (Life Itself) to retell the story of his life, stopping along the way to talk with friends and colleagues who knew him.  In the present, his incredibly strong wife, Chaz, deal with his day to day needs, remaining cheerful and chipper as she saw her husband getting weaker before her.

There was a huge amount of humour in his relationship with Siskel, with some scenes of shared mirth, though mostly we were entertained by some of their more famous disagreements, like Ebert giving the thumbs up to Benji the Hunted whilst giving the thumbs down to Full Metal Jacket, and their own behind the scenes spats that were filmed (if not aired) throughout the years.

Martin Scorcese also appeared regularly, giving a moving tribute to the man who pegged him as a future star of American cinema and who encouraged him through some of his darkest times to continue his craft and become one of cinema’s greatest directors. 

Missing from the list of colleagues and friends was any of Ebert’s later co-hosts, once Siskel passed away and the show they had starred in together for over 20 years evolved.  This seemed a strange oversight, and the documentary seemed to imply Ebert’s TV career ended after Siskel’s death (which it did not), though there were so many other people to get through, maybe there just wasn’t the time to include things from his later years, other than Ebert’s battle with cancer.

And what a toll it took on the man.  While appearing incredibly positive, we learned from Chaz the difficulties they had lived through as the disease and his treatments had progressed.  It was heartbreaking stuff, even as it sometimes inspired.

Overall then, the film is an emotional roller coaster.  Lovingly told, its hard not to laugh and cry at everything before you.  I was left wondering how old Chaz actually was (the woman seemed to be permanently stuck in her 30s) and being impressed by how much positive influence a critic could have.  Definitely worth missing the rugby for.

Verdict: Life Itself is an amazing tribute to a man who supported so much American cinema (even if he did co-write Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).  An amazing tale of strength and courage and love, it ultimately turns into a tragedy, but its an incredible journey nonetheless.  8 Pulitzers out of 10.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Case for Living on the Edge


One of the problems with Tom Cruise’s last science fiction blockbuster, Oblivion, was that it was all very serious.  There was action, there was adventure, and a bit of mystery, but it was all told in a rather humourless fashion.

The Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise’s latest flick in the same genre, rectifies this problem, and is all the better for it.

Hiring Bill Paxton as a loud mouthed Virginian Sergeant was a stroke of genius, and he steals the show in every scene he is in.  Cruise does solid, dependable work, and is a great serious central hero, Cage, who develops from chicken to kickarse throughout the course of the film.  However, as a personality, he doesn’t stand a chance next to the wisecracking, tough as nails Sergeant, who slowly finds his every word predictable in the face ofCage’s growing familiarity with the day.

It’s not spoiling anything by saying that the story is this: after dying on the battlefield of France in an encounter with an alien enemy, Cage finds himself reliving the same day over and over again, and sets about trying to use that experience to better himself and secure victory for the human race.

Helping him become a skilled warrior is Emily Blunt’s character Rita, the fearless poster child of mankind’s resistance forces.  Blunt appears to have a great time in her role, enjoying killing Cage at any slip up so he can learn to avoid being killed by Rita again next time.

The set up of the world is a little haphazard.  Apart from the mechanised suits and the odd holographic projector (and any other piece of techno-wizardry needed for the plot), the hardware on display looks fairly “now”.  NATO military forces seem to be combined into one force that has an eagle as an emblem, even though it does not appear the Americans are actually in charge. In fact, membership seems completely voluntary, given the very ethnically diverse companies that are put together, though by “ethnically diverse” I mean a collection of people from different English speaking nations (American, English, Australian) rather than a multilingual force including Spaniards and the like.

The alien creatures are… well, all tentacles and movement and screaming but all interchangeable, their strategic objectives are fairly obscure, and their command and control structure is, again, rather convenient to the plot.  They are pretty dull even if they have a great penchant for killing, but this film is not about interspecies diplomacy. 

The humour really carries it along at a brisk pace.  There are no pauses for deep reflections on the nature of the universe, the horrors of war, or bringing humanity together in common cause.  There is the odd pause to reflect on Blunt’s toned body though, and the jokes come thick and fast amongst the explosions and action pieces.  

I was very happily enjoying myself (and, by the sounds of laughter and the odd whooping from people around me, the rest of the audience loved it too) until it got to the very end, and then it kind of went of the rails a little.  To me, the conclusion didn’t really make a huge amount of sense and was all highly “convenient” in a completely unplanned way.  And, as it was told with almost a complete lack of the spark and humour from earlier in the film, it almost felt out of place.  On the bright side, the resolution was short – and then the Edge of Tomorrow was over.

Verdict: The Edge of Tomorrow is a great action film, with lots of explosions and action and, above all, amusing characters that are actually worth rooting for rather than unengaging characters that you wouldn’t mind seeing killed (see Godzilla, once Bryan Cranston disappears).  It ends more with a whimper than a bang, but the bangs in between the beginning and the end are brilliant and definitely worthwhile.  8.5 Alphas to 10 Omegas.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Case for WIcked Witches

Looking up Maleficent, I had learned that Angelina Jolie is meant to be fantastic in the lead role, and that the film is a bit rubbish.  So I was unsurprised when both of these turned out to be true.

It got off to a bad start when a condescending voiceover and two annoying youngsters opened the action.  Possibly in 3D, the images of the young fairy Maleficent flying amongst the magical creatures and improbable landscape would have been spectacular.  In 2D, the scenes were still impressive but dulled by the unengaging youth and lack of true wonder.

The years go by and Maleficent turns into Jolie and, betrayed by her beloved, Maleficent turns from eco warrior to evil despotic queen of the fairy realm, and then the story starts to intersect with the classic Disney version of Sleeping Beauty.

Except it kind of doesn’t.  Sure, the cursing scene happens, and Maleficent comes along to the christening of Aurora, the King’s daughter, to an eternity of sleep on her 16th birthday when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel (or whatever).  And this is truly the best scene in the film, Jolie all cheek bones and campy threats and magical power. 

But the scene is tweaked a bit.  The good fairies are now emissaries from the magical realm on a mission of peace, though as Maleficent is the Queen there, they don’t actually represent anyone in her government and, besides, the human King and his subjects have never respected magic or magical creatures either.  The third fairly doesn’t get to grant Aurora her superficial magical gift at all, as the “caveat” on the curse, about it being broken by true love’s kiss, is given to Maleficent, and so I am not altogether sure what she is there for.

And therein lies the main problem with the film.  EVERYTHING is given to Maleficent: action, characterisation, screen time.  While I would have thought that, after the curse, the story might have shifted to Aurora and her upbringing, still we stay with Maleficent, even as the King embarks on his mad quests to: destroy all spinning wheels by not destroying them but locking them in a room and kind of charring them a little; sends his daughter away to be looked after by three magical bumbling incompetents rather than keeping her until her 16th birthday (as she is almost guaranteed to live until then) and raising her in a loving home; and ignores his beloved Queen who (I presume) dies off screen in horrible agony of extreme neglect.

As a baby, Aurora is charming.  As Elle Fanning, Aurora becomes obnoxious, all wide-eyed smiles and innocence and completely ungrateful to the women who have dedicated 15 years of their lives raising her.  Only when the handsome prince comes along is her beautiful blandness and lack of screen presence matched.  Even when she returns to the King, he basically ignores her and anything that happens to her as he embarks on his own mad quest, meaning that she basically plays no role in the story at all.

The ending therefore is rubbish, people dying (always by their own fault) as you would expect them to, Maleficent’s side of the tale being that she is the heroine and only character of any interest whatsoever in the story.  And then Aurora is crowned queen of both realms (well three, as I presume the handsome prince she will be forced to marry even though he played no part in her rescue also has a realm and showed up only when needed by the classic story, not for any reason relating to this tale) and, as there were none from her father’s lands there for the coronation, I presume she ruled with an iron fist over the kingdom where humans lived as pets and slaves to their evil magical overlords.  If only.

Verdict: Maleficent is all about Angelina Jolie and she is amazing.  But she is amazing at the expense of everyone and everything else.  Luckily the film is only about 90 minutes long, but still I felt I should have left earlier.  3 magic wishes out of 10.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Case for X V

How can a movie bursting with so much thesping talent – nay, thesping ROYALTY! – be bad?  

Well, actually, Patrick Stewart and best pal Ian McKellan return as frenemies Professor X and Magneto, with Huge Jackedman back as Wolverine, Ellen Page as Shadowcat, Anna Paquin as Rogue (she gets higher billing that Page, though she is there for about 2 seconds of screentime compared to Page’s 10 minutes… well, True Blood will do that to you), Halle Berry as Storm (who must get her non geometric cape from the same place Magento goes) and a few others (no spoilers here!) have managed to make a bad film before (X-Men Last Stand anyone?).  But if you combine their acting powers with those of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor X and Magneto, the so hot right now Jennifer Lawrence as the so hot always Raven/Mystique and the incandescent Peter Dinklage as Trask… well, surely that will guarantee boffo box office and cinematic success?

And it looks like X-Men: Days of Future Past has!  Not that the screening I was in was particularly full (being a rather pointless 3D session at a rather early time just after a long weekend), but it has got generally good reviews and is seen in some circles as the best X-Men film yet.

Its starts off in the future for a little while for a lot of slam bang wallop, and then goes back to the past for a bit of a slow down, where the X-Men: First Class cast take over.  While Hugh Jackman gets to show off his well developed abs and butt, James McAvoy really takes over the proceedings, grounding and driving the film along.  Along the way, he is outshone by Evan Peters from American Horror Story as Peter/Quicksilver (who steals every scene he is in, and possibly is the best character in the movie), Lawrence and Dinklage too, but then, he is only human.  In the end though, he is the focus and, as a McAvoy fan, I was not unpleased about that.

I won’t go into the plot too much, but it is basically that an evil scientist creates evil robots that destroy mutants in the future so mutants go back to the past to stop him.  There are lots of unexplained bits and pieces (where did future Professor X come from again?  And time travel is always a little dodgy a device) amongst all the little jokes about 70s events and the fashion of the time (looked very comfortable!), and it all moves along at a fantastically brisk pace as there is quite a bit to get through.  Quite why Magneto is so important to the story is never really made clear, and the extent of his powers is both awesome and annoying at the same time – mainly annoying, especially come the final (well one of the final) showdown(s).  

And the Sentinels… well, they look rather dumb, the future versions looking very Thor-robot like and the older versions looking… not terribly 70s.  Ah well.

So… that’s about all I can go into really as I don’t want to give away too much (besides the after the credits trailer which is all about Apocalypse though its rather pointless for all that hype), save to say that the 3D was utterly pointless even though the visuals were spectacular.

Verdict: X-Men: Days of Future Past is more X-Men: First Class than X-Men: Last Stand, and thank Xavier for that!  Fast, witty, action packed, and all those great actors!  Definitely worth the entry fee, if not the extra from the 3D.  9 X marks the spot out of 10.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Case for Nuclear Nightmares

Godzilla can be done badly.  Hollywood has proved it before.  A film about a giant mutated sea monster that comes to save humanity from its radioactive hubris should be about big beasties battling it out and destroying skyscrapers whilst puny humans look on in shock and awe.  Kind of like Man of Steel, except with bigger creatures battling it out, and with a lot less yawning as the battle wages on… and on… and on…

It starts off small, Juliette Binoche lighting up the screen all too briefly, and the Bryan Cranston goes all Walter White as a nuclear power plant manager forced to deal with life altering events.  He doesn’t cope by making crystal meth though; he goes slightly nuts trying to figure out what really happened the day the Japanese nuclear power plant under his care collapsed.

His son, Ford Brody, the older version played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is… well, I suppose a typical Godzilla “main human” (not sure if he can be called a hero) in that he happens to be everything and everywhere that the plot requires.  This time around, he is a bomb disposal expert for the US Army (or was it Navy?), married to a beautiful woman (Elizabeth Olsen) and with an adorable son and living in San Francisco.  He goes to visit his father in Japan, but soon finds himself in the path of (well, he actually tends to lead) a giant flying monster that eats radiation and excretes electro magnetic pulses.

Joining the US Navy on a (presumably) nuclear powered aircraft carrier that (for some reason) is completely unnoticed by the radioactively ravenous Mothra (okay, it is not called that, but that is who “it” is), they set off in pursuit, following its trail of destruction, as it in turn is following Ford as he tries to make his way back to San Francisco… which of course, ends up as the ultimate destination for Mothra, and where the showdown between Mothra and its only “natural” predator, Godzilla, takes place.

Now, while the film looks amazing, the 3D is utterly pointless (the time worked out best) and the storyline itself is incredibly convenient (at best) and stupid (at worst).  The human plans to try and deal with the multiple threats are ridiculous, no one notices anything from the air even though these creatures are hundreds of metres tall and cannot be considered thin, and electronics have very peculiar and inconsistent ways of reacting to EMPs.  And I am pretty sure that a GPS on a boat does not usually give a boat auto pilot options, nor that a slowly moving boat carrying a large nuclear warhead can really get far enough away from the shore to stop the explosion vaporising at least part of the city, much less getting far away to avoid radioactive fallout contamination.

But you know what?  It doesn’t really matter, because Godzilla looks like a man in a rubber suit (great idea!  No Jurassic Park inspired dinosaur like creature here!) and most puny humans just don’t understand natures balance, whereas Godzilla, he does.  The action is easy to follow, well done, awesome even, whilst the military (including a commander with a seriously bizarre haircut) loses all sense of professionalism and experience when faced with the giant creatures before them.

I can’t say that I didn’t find the running time a little on the excessive time, as I did.  Ford’s family are a nice way to see what is going on around the world, but really, I didn’t care whether they lived or died, and was impatient for the credits to start rolling once it looked like the monster battles were at and end. 

But overall, I was quite impressed and quite enjoyed this latest version of Godzilla.  Not quite sure how a sequel would go, but I am curious to find out.

Verdict: Godzilla may be a load of cobblers, but its well done cobblers.  Great special effects, amazing sound, pointless 3D, mostly unengaging humans, destruction (if not necessary death) on a monumental scale.  All good elements, all brought together very well indeed.  7 creatures from our strange radioactive past out of 10.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Case for Serious Professions

First off, Sofia Vergara has the most incredible body (Vergara the Viagra?), and while, for the majority of the film, she is adorned in colourful, figure hugging clothes that show off her amazing curves, for the one scene in which she wears a t-shirt in a fast food fan, she still manages to look like she is in designer clothing made to emphasise her everything.

When I could rip your eyes away from her, I was able to appreciate the number of other famous faces appearing in Jon Favreau’s (relatively) low budget film Chef.  There is Favreau himself as the tattoo-adorned Chef Carl Casper who finds himself stifled working at a restaurant owned by Dustin Hoffman and so strikes out to re-find himself and to bond with his son in a Cuban food truck.  Along the way, they run into Robert Downey Jr (being himself, I think), Scarlett Johnansson (I love that, as the sexy, sultry, tattooed Maitre d’, she is seduced by cooking), and John Leguizamo as Casper’s loyal cooking aid, Martin.

The story is straight forward, told like it was prepared in a slow cooker, and it pays to eat before going in to a screening, considering the range of meats, pastas, sandwiches and desserts that are prepared and slowly cooked in front of you.  While embracing traditional and low-tech cooking techniques, the film also revels in the use of Twitter and a whole host of other IPhone Apps (I hope they got a lot of sponsorship from them!) and how they can be used to publicise and at times destroy a business.  Some of it went completely over my head (I am not a Tweeter and the whole flashmob thing I find a little distasteful for some reason), but for the purposes of the film, and as a tool to show how the son could really help his father, it worked incredibly well.

As mentioned, the film does not progress quickly, and while you know from the poster that Casper will end up in a food truck, it takes about an hour for him to get anywhere near one.  There are easy laughs throughout, a few painfully cliché moments (a group sing along to a song on the car radio rarely works, and it barely does here) and Vergara shows up every so often, upping the class factor whenever she does so.  There are visits to Miami, New Orleans, Texas on the way back to LA, and a strange, overlong encounter with a cop at Long Beach which probably could have been totally excised and you would never have known the difference.  There are also many shots of extras who seem to have very little acting training as fast food customers who occasionally look right into the camera or have the slightly worried look of a person who knows they are on camera, knows that they are not the centre of attention, and are self conscious of their presence nonetheless.

But overall it is hard to dislike this film.  It is a little slow, but there are no real dull moments.  There are a lot of big names, but they are well used (unlike Grand Budapest Hotel, not that I am dissing that film, but there were lots of more or less pointless cameos there).  There is lots of food, and it all looks scrumptious and I wish I was able to both cook and chop like that.  And there is lots of Vergara, though there could always be more.

Verdict: Chef is a great little film, completely different in pace from the big blockbuster films that are dominating the cineplexes at the moment and all the more refreshing for it.  With an amazing cast, and Favreau telling the tale he wants at the speed he wants, the film, like the food, comes across as a labour of love that everyone involved appreciated.  4 Michelin stars out of 5.