Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Case for Being Stellar

Okay, I have to admit in advance that I am a big fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I will admit it is slow, doesn’t always make sense (to me), but it is beautiful, imaginative, and completely blows my mind (when it is not putting me to sleep).

So when I say that Interstellar reminds me a lot of 2001: A Space Odyssey, that is a very, very good thing, especially as it reminds me of the good parts!

The music for a start harkens back to the theme from 2001, and the robots look bulky and awkward and completely impractical, in their blank monolithic way.  The space scenes are extraordinary (as were the ones in 2001 and remember they were done 50 years ago) and the special effects extraordinary, especially the images of different worlds.

But enough of that.  The plot: Matthew McConnoghey continues his McConaissance as a Dad, Cooper, who chooses to leave his family behind to save the human race.  The Earth is not dying, but has become a place where humans are finding it increasingly difficult to live, with food shortages and wild dust storms and not really specified disasters that have decimated the population.  But how to save mankind?  That is the question.  And Michael Caine has the answer – but can Cooper live with his decision when he knows that he may never come back and if he does, due effects of relativity, he may come back to an Earth where time has marched much further ahead than he has experienced it.

Much like 2001, the film tries to stay faithful to how science dictates technology could work, though there is still hypersleep and AI (including “70% humour” settings – what does that mean?) and the incredibly versatile appendages of the block like robots that defy any current explanation but make for better cinematic spectacle.

And there is nothing quite like seeing Cooper drive away from his farm in tears with the music blaring and a countdown to lift off swelling in the background to make you feel like you are seeing an emotionally powerful film.  And nothing like seeing the tiny speck of a space ship Endurance passing quickly by the massive sphere of Saturn with no sound whatsoever save for the silence of the others in the cinema also admiring the beauty.

The story line is not fast, but it is definitely engaging.  The cast is also excellent, with Anne Hathaway channelling a very dry Barbra Feldon as the younger Dr Brand, Jessica Chastain playing Cooper’s older daughter Murph and of course the remarkable John Lithgow who is just awesome.  

Things do get a bit hairier near the end, though I can’t go into too much detail here for obvious spoiler reasons.  Suffice to say that its not necessarily as satisfying or makes as much sense as I would have probably expected.  It doesn’t necessarily need to make sense to be satisfying, but in trying (perhaps?) to do both, it to me doesn’t succeed in either.  Nonetheless, while I definitely knew I had been in the cinema for a long time (nigh on 3 hours), I enjoyed myself throughout and so time itself flew by – another miracle of relativity perhaps.

Verdict: Interstellar is an amazing film, filled with visual splendour and an interesting and emotional storyline.  It doesn’t do everything exactly right, but it hits enough good notes and has such an impressive cast that I was riveted and enthralled throughout.  8 wormholes out of 10.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Case for the Way of the Warrior

Another New Zealand film hits the movie screens, this time in a very local language.

The Dead Lands is a feature where the dialogue is entirely in Maori, featuring a cast of well built Maori thesping talent and a strange 1980s sound track that at first had me thinking that a helicopter was going to fly into shot.

It’s a strange mix of elements that, while all quite slick and well done, don’t really mesh together.  The tale is one that is common enough: young chieftain’s son Hongi (James Rolleston) sees his family slaughtered before him and goes in search of revenge on Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) and his band of warriors from a neighbouring tribe.  He enlists the aid of the mythical killing machine "Warrior" (Lawrence Makoare) to help him in his quest, the two bonding as they inflict carnage.

All that seems straight forward enough, and it is fairly well done.  The violence is not gory but physical with liberal use of sound effects, and the talking is slow and quasi-profound and mystical. 

Inserted into this are the odd aside to the land of dreams where Hongi’s kuia (played by a fairly unconvincingly aged Rena Owen) provides cryptic and not so cryptic advice as to the path Hongi should follow, and once or twice there is a witchery scene that wouldn’t have seemed out of place with a soundtrack by Clannad as part of an episode of Robin of Sherwood.

So the story progresses well, jumping about jarringly every so often when it does try and be a bit more arty, until it gets to the final showdown and then things suddenly… stop.  Personally, I couldn’t quite figure out what really happened in the end – I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers but I got the impression that Hongi was meant to “win” though in reality I don’t quite think he did, or if he did, it was for reasons that were unclear and quite possibly were not going to last.

As Hongi, James Rolleston is very pretty, long eye lashes and serious face aiming for sadness and anger and achieving it in a vengeful teenaged kind of way.  The other cast members (including some of the women) are a lot rougher and more muscular, though some seem like they have stepped out of a Les Mills pump class rather than a neighbouring pa. 

Overall, the film kept me entertained throughout.  I had thought in my head that it would be a Maori Apocalypto, and it kind of was, in a less graphic and less coherent way.  Still, it was a good film, even if it probably was the weakest of the New Zealand films I have seen this year.

Verdict: The Dead Lands brings the Maori language to the big screen in a movie that you would find almost everywhere else.  The steps into Maori mysticism don’t always work, but it is hard to get a basic revenge story too wrong, and the cast make good work of the straight forward material.  7 tapu places out of 10.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The case for Pride in ones Work

It’s the feel good film of the year!!

Such is the kind of praise heaped upon Pride, the British film that has been such a success it is not showing in the main stream cinemas – that’s a bit of sarcasm there.

But the thing of it is, Pride is really a good and heartwarming film.  Where else can you see Imelda Staunton, know to Harry Potter fans as Dolores Umbridge, rolling around on a bed clutching an all male “magazine” roaring with laughter?  That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

The Lighthouse Cuba once again played movie host and once again the session was basically sold out.  There was laughter, there were tears, and there was a history lesson rolled in amongst all that as well.  What fun.

The film follows a group of G and L (no T) activists (I suppose) who find common cause in their struggle in 80s Thatcherite Britain with the coal miners who are on strike as the Iron Lady clamps down on the British economy.  TV footage from that time sets the troubled scene, and then things swoop down from London to a tiny Welsh Village where there conflict really begins.

It’s tempting to dismiss the story as a bit too predictable and “idealised” (straight boys wanting to learn how to dance when one of the activists shows everyone how it drives women wild, for example), except (as I understand it) the story is all (or mainly) actually true.  The support group did form and donate substantially to the miners.  There was a whole lot of resistance to the support from those people who were offering them aid (and, as one person puts it, possibly AIDS).  And, come the end of the strike, the contributions made were recognised by the miners who came out (pardon the pun) to support the Pride marches and to throw their weight in the Labour Party behind law reform.

The performances are all very good, but then it is hard to go wrong with a cast that includes Staunton, Bill Nighy and a whole raft of familiar British faces all doing their best not to look like they are constantly having a great time.  For me, Dominic West’s character was one bum note (as it were), not being quite as engaging as I presume it was meant to be, though that’s a small quibble and its sometimes nice when you find there are characters that seem more human in them being not evil or anything but just not likeable.  Meanwhile, the main activist, Mark (Ben Schnetzer), quite often struck me as Daffyd (I am not sure if that was what this person was aiming for with his affectation) crossed with Rik from the Young Ones, but that I didn’t mind a bit – I just found it a bit odd. 

Verdict: Pride really is the feel good film of the year.  It is full of heart warming moments and moments that will make your blood boil, scenes of intolerance and others of understanding.  Overall, despite the fact that (spoiler alert!) the miners lost their battle, it shows how everyone involved won (or is winning) the war for equality and fraternity.  9 Bronski Beats out of 10.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Case for Sainthood

It seems to be a very good year for New Zealand cinema, with lots of locally made films hitting the screens.  Not always the biggest of screens, and not always with a huge amount of promotion, but still, out there.

One of the lower flying entries is The Last Saint, a film set in Auckland and mainly about poverty and drugs.  The cast is mainly Polynesian, with the Saint himself, Minka, a young man of mixed Samoan and Maori heritage.  

Minka leads a hard life in inner city Auckland.  His mother has recently turned away from drugs and appears a manic depressive even without medication.  The father he barely knows comes back to help him with a job, which it turns out revolves around the world of providing muscle to strip clubs, local crime bosses, with the occasional free lancing and pursuit (and beating to a pulp) if his own interests as well.  On top of that, Minka is attracted to one of his neighbours, Zoe, who works at the local Countdown supermarket, but she comes with issues of her own.

The film starts off feeling very raw, both in the sense that it is punctuated by violence and poverty, but also in the sense that the production and direction feels a little uncertain.  , who plays Minka, seems a little unpolished as he portrays a young man trying to do good in the hard, bad world he lives in.  He seems much more confident with the more angry scenes with the quieter ones, which is perhaps not just due to himself as the film itself pulls off the loud, angry, drug fuelled and pumped up scenes much more convincingly than some of the quieter, story setting elements. 

As Minka’s mother and father, and are both sympathetic and terrifying, though their relationship seems to channel a bit too much Beth and Jake Heke to really feel like stand alone characters.  The supporting characters tend to vary from quietly realistic to outrageous caricatures.  For example, Zoe is played tough but vulnerable and comes across as (not necessarily likeable but) believable, whereas Jared Turner’s loud generic money grabbing bad guy seems to come from a much shoutier American film.  They aren’t all at those extremes though: heavies and a jacked have very different styles that still seem like they could be realistic, one quiet but deadly, the other a lot of bluster and seeming to rely more on intimidation and roid-fuelled rage than actual skill. 

Minka experiences different aspects of the inner city drug scene, from the brothels to the island-based tribal torture cells, from the fairly straightforward to the crazy people high on P and armed to the teeth.  It’s a disturbing world to be taken through for someone as relatively ignorant as myself, and I am hoping the experiences are more concocted than ripped from the headlines or the writers own personal lives.

The initial nauseating shaky cam becomes a bit more tolerable as the film progresses, and I can kind of forgive some of the more incredible coincidences that propel the plot, but the biggest issue for me was the film’s soundtrack.  There is a lot of music in the film, some oomsk oomsk dance music (in one scene the dialogue was completely drowned out in the sound and I had no idea what was being said, nor did anyone around me), but most is taken directly from Kiwi FM, and not all of it really goes with the characters involved.  I can understand a lot of Herbs and Ardijah for fairly straight forward reasons; I find it much harder to reconcile Minka’s Dad and his goon driving around listening to Split Enz (the song kind of fit the scene, but not the people involved!) and while Shihad is pretty awesome, again, and this might be stereotyping here, I doubt that would be what these men would listen to.  I suppose its also a way to set the scene in NZ, give some money to some local artists, and save money on international music licensing, but it really distracts from the gritty quasi realism of the film by anchoring the characters to music they may listen to only occasionally and even the possibly only in the privacy of their own homes.

The ending did not feel like it came organically from the rest of the film.  Certain events occurred that didn’t really seem to have points or stank of lazy coincidence, and relationships were formed that seemed to come out of nowhere.  That’s not to say it wasn’t affecting or gripping, far from it, but it did pose a lot of questions rather than tie everything neatly together. 

It is great to see a Polynesian-based film set in modern Auckland, showing the darker side of life to contrast with the church and festival-based events that tend to be shown on television.  As I said, I can’t vouch for its realism, and there were a lot of unpolished elements that lessened the impact of the storytelling (including some of the story itself), but I enjoyed the film quite a lot.  Its not for everyone, but it is interesting.

Verdict: The Last Saint is a good effort in a year of New Zealand films that I have quite enjoyed.  Some great acting talent is mixed in with some less seasoned performers, but they all come together to paint a world that is sad, dark and not really brimming with any hope whatsoever.  Which is a bit depressing, now I write it, but makes for a gripping story.  7 pinballs out of 10.