Thursday, 15 August 2013

MIFF 2013 - Part 2

Now that MIFF has come to a close for another year, let me shake off the rising melancholia by reminiscing about the films I saw in the second half of the festival. (There’s already a blog about the films I saw in the first half. How productive of me) I feel like I saw a bit of an eclectic mix at the festival this year, work shifts preventing me from buying tickets early meant that often what I wanted to see was sold out and I had to make do with what seemed the best on, but perhaps this is the best kind of festival viewing.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Easily the best thing I saw at MIFF this year. A Bonnie-and-Clyde-style outlaw film but one set after the point that most finish, where the couple have already been separated by 4 years of incarceration. It stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as the two leads and both do remarkable jobs; I completely forgot that I was watching two actors that I really like for the entire duration of the film. It would be really easy for me to struggle to empathise with these kind of characters but the writing here too is so good that I had no problems. The Texan landscape of the film too is gorgeously shot. It’s a relatively slow moving film but one that is completely engrossing. I’m fairly sure it’s having a release post-festival (even if only at the Nova), and would highly recommend.

Magic Magic
This was a film that it seemed no one was really sure of. I’d grown so accustomed to the way that people applaud at the conclusion of festivals films that the silence that followed this was deafening. It took a full 2 minutes before people started to clap, and even then it was fairly unenthusiastic. I don’t necessarily know if that’s because people hated it, or like me they just didn’t know what to think. A week on from seeing it I’m still not entirely sure if I liked it or not. The film follows the bizarre events that befall an American girl on holidays in Chile visiting her cousin and some of her cousin’s friends. It features scenes that are funny, and scenes that are disturbing in equal measure, and ultimately leaves it completely open to interpretation as to whether the protagonist is mentally-disturbed or sick, a drug addict, or afflicted by something supernatural. Michael Cera gives a performance that is at times reminiscent of his typical, socially awkward persona, but is even more so deeply unsettling.

Another documentary to add to the two that I saw last week. Exposed follows the lives of 8 men and women working in New York’s burlesque scene, exploring how they got into it and what they aim to get out of it. It really interestingly focuses on the political side of things; how these artists seek to challenge the dominant ideology through embodiment of the transgressive. Mostly this is a challenge to views on sexuality and gender, though other shows depicted in the film make comments on disability and consumerism too. For me as well, it showed me how little it was that I knew about burlesque and the diversity of acts within the art form. There were definitely some acts that I thought would be amazing to see, and others that looked only barely entertaining. Definitely an interesting insight on the whole, though not a film for anyone who has even the slightest of issues with nudity.

Thanks for Sharing
This was one of the special screenings on the last day of the festival, which meant I had the pleasure of a cinema only half full (after two weeks of feeling like I’m sitting on top of people in sold out sessions). A comedy about sex addiction from the writer of The Kids Are Alright sounded exactly like my cup of tea. Another film that has a release date set for after the festival, and would be worth a view once Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has had a watch. This film is nothing to rave about but is a solid watch, all the actors do decent jobs in the roles they have. This film features singer P!nk’s acting debut and though I was determined to hate it, as I do most of her music, she pulls it together for a convincing enough job.

Another year of MIFF gone, hopefully Melbourne’s other festivals will keep me entertained until next year rolls around.

Friday, 2 August 2013

MIFF Week 1

End of week 1 already, eep! I had huge plans for MIFF this year; something like 50 films highlighted in my guide and a plan to watch something every night that I wasn’t working. Unfortunately (of course) that was a bit of a pipe dream, but I still made it to 3 films in this opening week of the festival.

Drinking Buddies
My first film of the festival, a return to the glory of MIFF! A quirky pleasing romantic comedy from the mumblecore tradition that seems to dominating the festival circuit at the moment. The perfect thing to get me back in the festival mindset. Rom coms are usually just about my least favourite genre of cinema, but this one does alright. Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson play best friends working together in a microbrewery who clearly have a lot of chemistry but are both dating other people. I’ve read a few reviews of this one that seem to centre on the “terrible ending” but for me it totally worked. I’m trying for minimal spoilers here, so all I’ll say is that one of the things that puts me off most romantic comedies is an delirious, overly syrupy ending designed to encourage the masses to marry and reproduce. This such ending Drinking Buddies mercifully shies away from, providing instead an ending that is both realistic and complicated. My only real criticism is that I couldn’t really see what either of the leads saw in their respective partners to begin with, it was too obvious that the leads were much better suited to each other

The first thing that needs to be said about this film is that it is directed by Alex Winter, aka the-guy-who’s-not-Keanu-Reeves-in-Bill-and-Ted’s-Excellent-Adventure. I liked the film anyway, but liked it so much more once I discovered that fun fact. This solid documentary traces the rise and fall of Napster and its creators. As someone who has only really known a world where music is shared online, it was fascinating to explore the revolutionary thinking surrounded this program’s conception. My only real gripe is that I wish they spent a little less time looking at how everyone involved in Napster came to be so, and instead looking at the influence of Napster on social media communities like Friendster, Myspace and Facebook, as well as the influence on music distribution models like iTunes and Spotify. Those for me were two of the most interesting points raised in the film, and yet they were only really mentioned in passing.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
Arts degrees are really good at providing one with theorist’s names to drop when we want to sound smarter. Slavoj Zizek is near the top of my personal list for this purpose, so how could I resist a film where he talks about what films say about us. Zizek here inserts himself into the very sets of our favourite films to tear apart their ideology one at a time. This documentary is thought-provoking and unexpectedly funny, but most definitely also long and intense. He moves really quickly through the material, so while I found everything he had to say interesting and entertaining, I was struggling to see what the overall point of the film was. Zizek also drops the theories of Jacques Lacan and Immanuel Kant into his musings with little to no introduction to the material, leaving me to wonder if anyone who hadn’t completed a liberal arts degree would be able to follow (my friend and I who both had were still struggling at points). In any case, hearing Zizek talk about the ideological implications of a Kinder Surprise makes for at least a good movie.

Bring on the second half of MIFF!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

“Can’t Repeat the Past?” No Baz, You Can’t

The Average Gatsby would have been a more appropriate title. Not a terrible movie, but littered with a few too many flaws for me to even say it’s good. I’d re-read the book recently in anticipation and actually think Baz Luhrmann’s version is a pretty good adaptation in terms of plot and character, I just don’t think it’s the kind of book that works on screen to begin with, despite this being the 5th film version of the story. What’s changed from the novel to this version of the film is tone and style, which I think is almost inevitable given this era’s relationship with the 1920s.

The 1920s in the present-day consciousness have been exceedingly romanticised, and the film fails to break from this mould. It’s seen as a time of hedonism and sophistication, and while F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel certainly explores these things, the novel itself was written in the ‘20s and is thus understandably completely void of the nostalgia for that period that the film soaks itself in. For me Fitzgerald’s novel is highly cynical, a study of how the times shaped the flawed, self-absorbed characters in the story. Though featuring the same depressing plot, Luhrmann’s film is hopelessly romantic. The blind nostalgia for the era, combined with the day-glo, glitter-packed art direction, obnoxious in-your-face 3D, and temporally out-of-sync Jay-Z soundtrack makes the film feel, for me, far much more like a fantasy film than a period feature. (A note on the music here: I actually think the blend of contemporary pop and hip hop, ‘20s jazz and traditional film score worked amazingly with the vision of the film. It’s the vision itself that bothers me a little). The fantastic aesthetic makes the stylised party sequences throughout the film work far better, but it is to the detriment of the dramatic scenes.

The film's philosophy on wealth too differs from the novel and is the worse for it. The book features a struggle between new and old money, but ultimately is cynical about wealth generally. The film however, itself an exercise in excess, struggles to criticise wealth at all. It loses a dimension from this key theme in the story.

What the novel has in abundance, and what the film severely lacks is subtlety (not surprising given the director in question is Baz Luhrmann). In the book it is Nick’s descriptions of people and his musings about their motives that take up the bulk of the pages, while the major plot points are usually stated simply and stoically. This is in stark contrast to the film where every plot turn is choking with melodrama. While I understand that these scenes would require a heightened level of dramatic tension to make for an engaging film, it just feels like Luhrmann takes it too far. There are a couple of scenes toward the end that border on ludicrous.

Towards the end of the film (a scene closely mirroring the book) Gatsby discusses his future plans with Nick, telling him “Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can!” But what we see from Luhrmann’s adaptation here is that unfortunately you definitely can’t. While Luhrmann is no doubt committed to his source text, the film makes it obvious that he too viewed it with nostalgia for the era. What is up on screen is not the 1920s of Fitzgerald’s novel, but a very 21st century interpretation of the 1920s. In itself, that isn’t a bad thing, but the high degree of romanticism and nostalgia for the era serves to obliterate some of the story’s cynicism, making it feel flatter and without purpose.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Oz: The Less Than Great and Powerful

The year only just moved into April and here I am already having seen the worst film of the year (or so I seriously hope). Oz: The Great and Powerful is a film that has almost nothing going for and plenty going against, yet somewhat confusingly has managed to garner mediocre reviews from the public and critics alike that are far in excess of what this film deserves. Thankfully the other viewers in my cinema were not so forgiving, with about ¼ leaving before the film was over. I would have loved to have joined them, but figured I couldn’t fairly label this “The Worst Film of 2013 (probably)” if I didn’t sit through the whole thing.

There was a point about 20 minutes into this film where James Franco has landed in Oz, met Mila Kunis and the two begin their journey back to the Emerald City. They stop to camp overnight and I couldn’t help but think “surely Mila Kunis hasn’t been wandering in the wilderness for days. Why can’t they just go back to the city the way she came?” This was the point I lost my suspension of disbelief, and there was a lot more of the film to come.

This film has almost no plot to speak of. Because as far as I’m concerned a plot requires something to happen that advances the plot AND wasn’t obvious from the first frame of the film. Nothing that happens in this film fulfils both those criteria.

Among the many bafflingly stupid things that this film does, none is more so baffling to me than the way this film references the original Wizard of Oz movie. The start is in sepia which switches to colour when we enter Oz; Oz himself is transported by a twister; there’s a yellow brick road; references to scarecrows, tin men and lions; the list is endless. Clearly the film makers assume that we know and love the original film. Which is why it makes zero sense that they wait until the second half of the film to tell us that Glinda is actually a good guy. Seriously? That’s your big reveal? Anyone who has even the vaguest knowledge of the Wizard of Oz will have realised who was good and bad simply from looking at the posters. And yet the film treats this revelation like it’s a surprise.

Such a shame too that so many good actors do such terrible jobs with what they’re given in this film. Bad writing alone can’t explain this, there is some crappy acting at work here too. Michelle Williams is probably the best, but even she is left with a pretty one-dimensional character to work with. James Franco looks like he’s just doing it for the money. And Rachael Weisz and Mila Kunis are nothing short of embarrassing to watch on screen.

Dearest movie gods, I’ve already labelled this The Worst Film of 2013, please let this statement remain accurate. Firstly because I really don’t like being wrong, and secondly I don’t think my cinephile heart could take it to sit through another clunker like this one.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

85th Academy Awards Tips

The Oscars are on in less than 24 hours now and I think it's time for me to accept that I've seen as many of the nominated films as I'm going to in time to make my predictions. Without any further ado...

Best Picture - Argo
It will be a tough one between Argo and Lincoln, but having already swept the SAGs and the BAFTAs the smart money is on Argo.

Best Director - Steven Spielberg
Best Director more often than not goes to the same winner as Best Picture, though if I'm right with Best Picture, that's not possible this year. Ben Affleck is not a surpising omission given how new he is to the directing scene, so the directing award will instead go to a stalwart of the industry. It will be Spielberg's compensation award.

Best Actor - Daniel Day-Lewis
A legend playing a legend, the Academy loves this stuff. Between Lincoln and Django Unchained I feel there's a bit of white guilt going around at the Oscars this year, and what better way to assuage it than give an acting gong to Abe Lincoln.

Best Actress - Jessica Chastain
Jennifer Lawrence might just surpise me with this one, but I think it's Chastain's year. Chastain's performance is easily the best thing about Zero Dark 30, she is compelling in a film that otherwise would have bored me a little. The same can't be said of Silver Linings, plus Jennifer Lawrence just might be too young - the Academy loves to award people for a lifetime's work, and Chastain is already on her 2nd nomination.

Best Supporting Actor - Phillip Seymour Hoffman 
Of all the acting categories, this year’s best supporting actor is the hardest to pick. That being said I pick Hoffman, not just because the Academy loves him, but also as a representative award for ensemble casting. The Master’s greatest strength as a film was the stunning performance of all three leads, not just Hoffman but also Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams. Though the best supporting actress and best actor awards seem pretty much sewn up, awarding Hoffman best supporting actor would give the film some of the acting kudos it deserves.

Best Supporting Actress - Anne Hathaway
She's won everything else and the Academy loves 'beautiful woman takes on ugly role'.

Best Adapted Screenplay - Argo

Possibly the hardest to pick of all the key categories. This one could easily go to any nominated, though I feel the toughest battle will be between Argo and Lincoln. I give it to Argo by the barest of margins to give greater justification to its Best Picture win.

Best Original Screenplay - Django Unchained

This is the only one of the big awards that Django has any chance of walking away with. Tarantino’s too controversial to ever win a Best Picture, but this award would recognise that he’s one of the best writers going around today. He consistently writes screenplays that are original, make strong reference to Hollywood’s past (which the Academy loves) and feature dialogue that never falters. Not to mention that as a writer, even when he doesn’t direct, he commands a real sense of auteurship.

Other awards that are virtual guarantees:
Best Foreign Film to Amour
Best Song for Adele

Hope you all enjoy your viewing tomorrow :)

Sunday, 6 January 2013

2012: My Bests and Worsts

So a year of 2012 films comes to an end. I feel I must confess that with travels and all there was a bit of a lack of 2012 vintage films for me to choose from to make up these lists. Now that I’ve put them together it also seems that it was mostly mainstream Hollywood films I watched this year, or perhaps it was just that 2012 was a great year for Hollywood. Below are my picks for the best and worst films of the year. I hope you enjoyed (or derided) them as much as I did.

The Best (in no particular order)

An original screenplay is like an endangered species these days in a world of adaptations and sequels. A film that is not only original but also intelligent is such a rare beast it would be a crime not to make my best of list. The film doesn’t get bogged down in the specifics of time travel but instead simply uses it as a plot tool. Joseph Gordon Levitt (a man who can do no wrong IMO) does a fabulous job of being Bruce Willis. Bruce Willis does a pretty good job of being Bruce Willis too.

Like his previous outing The Town Ben Affleck shows us how great he can be behind the camera. In fact, he’s probably better behind it than in front of it. Argo does a remarkable job of keeping the audience on the edge of our seats and gripping the armrests in suspense when we already know exactly how the film ends. A solid supporting cast including Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin provide enough star power without detracting from the story. My only complaint is that with all the big lapels, moustaches, glasses and hair I got a couple of the characters confused at times.

Firstly let’s be honest, it’s no Alien. Ellie is no Ripley and the team as a whole don’t play off each other as well as in the earlier film. But the film is gorgeously shot right from the opening scenes (filmed in my favourite country, Iceland) with a plot that nods enough to Alien while still doing enough to be a great film on its own terms. Ellie’s caesarean scene holds its place in my mind as the most horrifying and squirm-inducing depiction of childbirth since the early work of David Cronenberg. Loved it.

Bond is back and Skyfall is Craig’s best. I was never as much a fan of Casino Royale as others (no-one really seems to be a fan of Quantum of Solace); it all just seemed a bit like Bond was trying to be Jason Bourne. I don’t want endless brooding, shaky camera and shadowy organisations as villains. I want insane, deformed baddies and double entendres galore. Skyfall was the best of both worlds. While still staying true to the style of the earlier Craig films, this was a more traditional Bond. Bardem is one of the best Bond bad guys in years and the homoerotic undertones between Silva and Bond are entrancing. Also great is the debate throughout the film on the relevance of MI6 and spies like Bond in the modern era.

Cabin in the Woods
A film that divided audiences it seems, but one that I loved. Like Wes Craven’s Scream (one of my favourite films), it delved into why it is we like horror and what we want from it. It turned a lot of people off who felt cheated that this wasn’t a horror movie, but I feel that this mis-marketing was intentional. The ending of the film itself is a reflection of audience response at being denied what they paid to see. The film anticipated its own reception. That’s so Joss Whedon.

The Worst (from bad to worst)

Magic Mike
Let’s be honest, I pretty much only watched this film because I knew it would either make my best or worst for the year. Wow. This film is completely unexpected boring. There were far too many scenes in which there was no stripping. It also probably doesn’t help that neither Channing Tatum nor Matthew McConaughey are my type. Only one of the plot points is resolved – the one where Channing Tatum has a crush on the grumpiest woman alive – everything else is just forgotten about.

Way too long with leads that are uncharismatic at best (the two guys) and rage-inducing at worst (Blake Lively). Probably the worst use of voice-over I’ve ever heard. Blake Lively plays a woman who’s received a tertiary education but needs to look up the dictionary definition of “savage”. Also she compares her sex life with one of her boyfriends to his experiences in Afghanistan thusly “I had orgasms, he had wargasms”. I think my IQ just dropped 10 points typing that.

Piranha 3DD
Perhaps some will see this and wonder why I bothered, but I was a genuine fan of Piranha 3D. Sure, it was no Citizen Kane, but it perfectly blended senseless gore, lots of boobies and just enough story to keep you caring about the characters. The sequel however did not. Its sole redeeming feature was 2 original songs by David Hasselhoff. There was no story, or at least none that even made sense in its own universe. The characters were so forgettable I’m not entirely sure why they bothered naming them. Also, the trailer promised me double the Ds, and if anything there were less Ds….but possibly more vagina.

Here’s looking forward to a great year of film for 2013. I eagerly anticipate bests that are better and worsts that are more ludicrous.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Hobbit: A Completely Expected Journey

I finish my viewing of The Hobbit Part 1 with totally mixed feelings. Chief among my disappointment however is that this is exactly the way I expected to feel following it. I wish that Peter Jackson had blown me away with a fantastic vision comparable to LOTR or left me outraged at his desecration of the text. Alas, to be somewhere in the middle, devoid of strong emotion is depressing.

Don’t get me wrong, on the whole The Hobbit was a viewing pleasure. Visually dazzling (and I only saw it in 2D, none of this 48FPS – I’m a traditionalist), amazing attention to detail with the art direction and costuming, an emotional and appropriate score (more on music later), and great performances from the leads. I had a few reservations about Martin Freeman as Bilbo but for me the guy nails it. The dwarves I admit were a little less impressive. Not so much in terms in terms of performance as character development. I know 13 is a large number of dwarves to create distinct characters for, but apart from a few they all seem to blend in to one another. You’ve got Thorin, the leader; Balin, the fatherly one; the fat one; then there’s one inexplicably good-looking one… he pretty much only has a 5 o’clock shadow compared to the other dwarves, he’s never shown using forced perspective (ie he’s never shown to look short and squat), he even fights with a bow and arrow rather than a traditional dwarf weapon like an axe or sword. It’s like Peter Jackson thought “we need a Aragorn/Legolas in this party”. It actually kind of distracts from the film he seems so out of place. The other 9 dwarves? I’ve kind of forgotten already.

Pictured: smouldering good looks not usually associated with the dwarf race

My number one complaint with the film is simply that it feels a little too much like LOTR: The Prequel. I appreciate the use of the same locations for places like The Shire and Rivendell, but other elements borrow too much from the previous films. The score, while spectacular, borrowed many themes from LOTR like it was trying to create the same emotions and perhaps recreate those films. I wish instead that Howard Shore had taken a chance and done something different with this one. I know it’s a little nit-picky, the score was really good, but it detracted from the film by making the audience constantly compare it to its predecessor. Perhaps too the film would have benefitted from a different director. I mourn the loss of Guillermo del Toro; whose vision I feel could only have altered this universe for the better and allowed The Hobbit to stand alone. With Peter Jackson at the helm An Unexpected Journey is just a little too expected.

Splitting the story into 3 films is another thing that I’m no less apprehensive about having seen the first one. I feel if they just stuck to the content of the book they could have made one great movie, but instead they’ve added a whole lot of extra content that doesn’t always gel. The best parts of the movie are undoubtedly the elements that come straight from the book. The scenes with Gollum are easily the highlight; Andy Serkis is a genius. The 3 parts also leaves me worried about what is to come in Part 2. I have no doubt it’s going to be another 3 hour long epic and I wouldn’t be surprised if the first 2 hours is a whole lotta wandering around Mirkwood. I seriously fear it might turn out a bit like Harry Potter and the Great Camping Trip (Deathly Hallows Part 1). At least with the title The Desolation of Smaug set in stone I’m guaranteed some dragon at the end. Part 1 was beautifully restrained with regards to Smaug. Jackson managed to show us a whole battle scene featuring Smaug while never showing us more than a claw or a tail. That anticipation for Smaug is the number one thing keeping me excited for Boxing Day this year.