Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Case for Train Spotting

Amy Schumer is an amazing comedic talent.  Trainwreck may not be the greatest film, as it is overlong and rather predictable and has some wild shifts in tone and a not altogether coherent plot, but it does have some amazing performances and featuring strongly amongst them is Amy herself.

Top performance awards however go to a surprisingly tanned and shallow Tilda Swinton (it takes an age to realise who the horrible boss actually is), normally pro wrestler John Cena a hulking, borderline personality disorder cross fit boyfriend, and basketball legend LeBron James who is actually incredibly funny as John Heder’s star patient.

As the leads, Schumer (as Amy) and Heder (as Aaron Conners) are winning enough and make a lovely couple.  They have the comic timing and rubber faces to make funny things hilarious, though they are lumbered with quite a bit of more mundane material, which adds a bit of realism to the movie in that not everything can be a joke or hilarious, but also slows things down tremendously and saps the movie of a bit of its energy as well as its momentum.

There is a whole subplot outside of Amy’s love life dealing with her father’s relationship with his daughters and them moving him into an old person’s facility.  There are occasional bouts of humour in this premise, and the actors involved in each scene are independently brilliant (Bree Larson playing Amy’s sister is awesome, but then I am biased since I saw District 13 from ages ago), but they have very little to do with the “trainwreck” of Amy’s love life and as such seem to be a bit of filler.  Sure, the story gives Amy’s character a bit of depth and provides motivation for some of her wild behaviour, but it seems overlong for what could be accomplished in just a few lines of dialogue or in an amusing montage flashback.

That said, there are moments that are just insanely funny.  Describing them here would be to ruin the jokes (and I am pretty bad at recounting them anyway), so I won’t do that.  But still, those moments make the film totally worthwhile, and if it hadn’t been for the “flab”, the film would have been totally amazing.

Verdict: Trainwreck is not a disaster at all, and actually gets you to the end in one piece and in very good condition.  However, the trip is delayed somewhat by some slow scenes and attempts at depth, which are actually unnecessary detours when all I really wanted was a high speed trip to the finish.  Hopefully I kept that metaphor together!  7 cheerleaders out of 10.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Case for FilmFest 2015 Part II

So the final films of my fest were, thankfully, much better than the ones I started off with.

My midweek movies ended up being documentaries.  While I sometimes think it’s a waste to see documentaries when there are so many good fiction films from around the world on offer, some of these documentaries can affect me in ways those other movies cannot, and I love to feel that challenge.

My Wednesday night documentary was called Merchants of Doubt, a film about how the tobacco industry began using the media and pressure groups to obfuscate around admitting they knew about the harmful effects of smoking, and also to shift blame from the side effects of smoking (such as house fires) to other areas which in turn spawned industries (like fire retardant chemicals) who likewise fought to keep their position against a tide of overwhelming evidence that they were harmful and unnecessary.  

This was the start of the film: the real target was the industry created by companies and the like to try and hide the scientific consensus around climate change.  It examined how scientists with no background in climate were enlisted to provide a “scientific dissent” from the mainstream scientific view; how think tanks were created to push particular points of view from the vast corporate powers that control them; how those brought in to provide “fair and balanced” debate are, in reality, not qualified in the science (“I am no expert but…”) but are experts in ad hominem attacks and undermining the credibility of their opponents, at least in the eyes of the public and the moderator, though pithy sound bites and dismissive and misleading comments.  They even interviewed one of the more successful “opposing views” (can’t call him an expert) who revealed that his success came from the fact he was quick with a put down and smart on his feet, not because he could actually refute the science he was opposing.

So yes, the film was highly aggravating, in a good way.  Or kind of.  While taking us through the stories and presenting us with some very amusing tales, there were two underlying issues that it kind of failed to address.  While they claimed that eventually the truth comes out and the “liars” are called to account, there was no actual evidence shown that anyone who was revealed to have a secret agenda or to be misleading the people or the US government actually suffered any consequences other than being exposed.  “They were found out” is not really a punishment; the film does nothing to make the audience feel like there is actually a cosmic karma or even a legal morality that will bring these people to justice.  The reality is, money talks, and the people behind the lies and deceits will get away with it.

The second issue that left one a little depressed was the visit to the Southern States radio programme where an anti climate change radio host interviewed a “born again” Congressman who lost his seat when he started to talk about climate change and his local electorate did not want to hear it.  The “facts” the host presented were nothing but opinion, and disagreeing with him did not challenge him, just made him get more steadfast.  Truly it was downheartening.

Verdict: Merchants of Doubt is an illuminating documentary about how many people do not want people to be illuminated, and how some people themselves do not want to be illuminated at all.  7 candles out of 10.

Thursday night saw me at another documentary, the wildly uneven and mostly bonkers I am Thor.  The film followed the semi-rise and quasi-fall of Thor, a bodybuilder who would be a heavy metal rock god, an actor, a man married, then back to a rock star again, and around and about a few other professions on the way as well.

The film starts off with a speedy trip through Thor’s early days of finding his feet in the metal world and working in strip clubs and then… there is a halt.  The career that seemed to be going sky high suddenly stalls as Thor is kidnapped, or disappears, or something.  The exact nature of the interruption is unclear, and remains so, as if there is some big mysterious, alien-neutralised memory hole that everyone seems to have and no one is willing to fill… and then it moves on.

At this judder bar, the film takes a different turn of tone.  It jumps forward a bit: Thor is no longer the ripped muscle man but a less toned strength athlete, still bending bars with his hands, but not wearing thongs or exposing an impressive pair of muscular pecs.  His life is now smaller, possibly sadder, and the film slows right down to take the time to know the man.

Which is all well and good, as the film at this stage turns into a Heavy Metal bodybuilder version of “The Wrestler”, with small venues and halls and life on the road.  But then the film slows down again as Thor and his original band members are invited to play at some heavy metal festivals in Scandanavia, and the focus of the film shifts away from Thor and begins to encompass some of his more outspoken band members again.  From a “life synopsis”, it turns into a fly on the wall documentary, losing pace and focus as it does.

Which is not to say that the film becomes bad, as really Thor and his crew, resting on faded laurels and trying to be as vigorous and energetic as they were in their youth (well, mainly Thor is to be honest), seem real sweeties.  But the flagging pace makes the second part of the film start to drag, and I was tempted to check my watch as things slowly, slowly crawled towards the final concert.

Verdict: I am Thor was an interesting subject told lovingly but unevenly.  The lack of a style kind of worked given the different source materials, but the interesting “controversial” points of Thor’s life were skipped over in favour of wanderings around concert venues, and there were very few revelations or intimate moments to really make the film feel worthwhile.  6 Moljinars out of 10.

The weekend brought me to my movie marathon, starting with two Saturday movies and my final one around midday on Sunday.

I was in a crowded Penthouse Cinema for Coming Home, the latest film from Chinese genius director Zhang Yimou and starring his muse, the always luminous Gong Li.  Compared to some of his earlier works (Raise the Red Lantern and To Live), Coming Home was much smaller in scale, about a man returning home from exile after the Cultural Revolution to a daughter who denounced him and a wife who is incapable of recognising him as her husband.  It’s the latter part of that story that drives the film, with some truly beautiful and heart breaking scenes as the family use visual cues, music, smell, and try trickery all to convince the wife that her husband has indeed returned.

The film, based in a train station and a small square of apartments, is beautifully shot, every character is convincing, and its all wonderfully put together.  About the least convincing part of the film is the make up artists’s struggle to try and make Gong Li look anything like dowdy, her incredible cheek bones and eyes radiating beauty no matter what attempts at ageing are applied.

Verdict: Coming Home was another brilliant film from this amazing director and another stellar performance by Gong Li.  I only wish the film weren’t quite so heartbreaking, as even To Live had some respites amongst the tragedy, but it is totally worth the watch.  9 lanterns out of 10.

It was a quick flit over to the Roxy for the final film of the night, Deathgasm.  It was really the perfect place to view this film: a smaller cinema, feeling more intimate than the huge Embassy for a small Kiwi film with a good dose of humour and huge amount of gore.

In a small Kiwi town, a young Metaller finds some outcast friends and the key to summoning a demon and a zombie horde upon the Earth, and so he does – not totally unwittingly. Mayhem and madness and quite a bit of mirth ensue. 

First off, the actors look like they left High School quite a few years ago, but elsewise, they fit their tropes as metal heads, gamers, jocks, unhip adults, and strong female warriors based on Buffy pretty well. 

The film has an off kilter sensibility, with extreme violence juxtaposed against extreme stupidity.  Of course, it all devolves into a bloody free for all at the end, with people dying left and right with more of a sense of silliness, and the final scene doesn’t quite fit right, but I laughed so hard and had such a good sense of fun for the rest of the film (helped by an audience who was likewise totally sold on the insanity) that I didn’t mind too much.

Verdict: Deathgasm reared its satanic head put in a great performance at the festival.  Not sure if it will get a general release, but it probably should, as it really hit the Kiwi funny bones – before ripping it out of our arms and hitting us over the head with it.  7.5 zombies out of 10.

My final film of the festival was Best of Enemies, a documentary about the style of television analysis pioneered during the debates of William H Buckley Junior and Gore Vidal, two men with staunchly opposing points of view and a dictionary (or two) of vocabulary to hurl at each other.

It was a very popular session, with a few media types also in attendance despite the session being about 11am on a cold Sunday.  And it was a fascinating documentary to watch, with the documentary claiming that the current “confrontational” style of political commentary owes its existence to the debates started by these men, back when ABC didn’t have the resources to cover the conferences in full.

That the two men kept relatively cool until the very final debate would seem to be something that would be contrived today, but back then, it all seemed to build naturally and the feud that continued out beyond the debates themselves shows that the animosity these two felt was quite real.  

The documentary itself then was well put together, funny and insightful though I have to say I left the cinema slightly underwhelmed.  It was more a taste thing (and possibly a tired thing) as objectively speaking it was a really good doco, and I was not upset I went and saw it, but I think I was a little cold and movie-d out by that point so I just wanted to go home.

Verdict:  Best of Enemies is a fascinating look into television before Fox news, when screaming hyperbole and hatred on the screen was not something commonplace, or necessarily manufactured.  8 Peabody Awards out of 10.