Sunday, May 18, 2014

A look back at 2013

This year, I'm going to try and write a blog about the Auckland Film Festival. As a dry run, here are my personal favorites from last year's line up.

FRANCES HA (dir. Noah Baumbach) 

Everything about this movie seemed designed to turn me away: the mumble-core trappings, the polly anna protagonist, the New York hipster setting... For some reason however, I decided to go.

Everything I was afraid this movie was was there. And yet, all this stuff worked. This movie is a lovely little curio about a woman who remains determined to achieve her dreams while everyone around her  has made compromises to achieve something more realistic.

This film rides the edge of being an overly cutesy, self-indulgent eulogy to New York hipsterism. One move out of place and the whole structure could have collapsed, but somehow Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig never put a foot wrong, elevating FRANCES HA above most of the dross which constitutes the post-mumblecore indie scene.  After DAMSELS IN DISTRESS and now this, I am a big fan of Gerwig, and I look forward to checking out the rest of Baumbach's previous work.

PRINCE AVALANCHE (dir. David Gordon Green)

I've been a fan of David Gordon Green for awhile. My first exposure to him was PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. It's a good movie, but it wasn't till I saw SNOW ANGELS that I became a real fan. When I heard this movie was in the festival line up, I jumped at the chance.

This movie is the kind of indie I like. Small, loose, and set in a microcosm of reality. It's not a big story in any way, just two road workers re-painting the centre lines on a road after a major forest fire in the backroads of Texas.

As our central protagonists, Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd, still somewhat under the radar but relatively known quantities, establish a lo-fi, unpredictable, and intimate rapport that allows them to play off each other in ways that give them a chance to really stretch. Emile Hirsch, looking disconcertingly like a young Jack Black, delivers a loose, hilarious performance as a simple-minded party-animal in a quarter life crisis. Paul Rudd, still underrated, delivers an excellent performance as a man who tries to keep everything under control, but is just as lost and confused as his comrade.

With Green's mix of kitchen-sink realism and poetic mood-setting, PRINCE AVALANCHE is a great  boost to his creative mojo after a slew of increasingly moribund Hollywood ventures.

OTHER FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS: 


The Spectacular Now (dir. James Ponsoldt)

My third and final favorite of the festival. Great performances, a terrific script, and understated, empathetic direction combine to make a film that actually lives up to the overused term, 'coming of age'. 

Suspiria with live soundtrack by Goblin

I've seen Dario Argento's classic before, but watching this in the Civic on a massive screen with Goblin, the band behind the film's lauded soundtrack, blasting out the score right in front of me, took the whole thing to another level.

OTHER FAVS
Outside of the festival, I had a few other favorites.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

I actually saw this at the start of this year, but since it's a 2013 release and bloody brilliant, I had to say something about it.

Put aside the controversy over the director and its sexual content, this is a truly great film. Heck take away the lesbian angle, and it still stands as an achingly real and deeply visceral portrait of the life cycle of a relationship. There's nothing exceptional about the people involved, or the way they meet, or live, or how they break up, it just feels lived in.

An epic treatment of a mundane situation, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR is a truly superlative experience I cannot recommend enough.

NEW OLD FAV: 

Imitation of Life (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1959)

I've got a working version of a top ten of all time that's up to about 6 now. Whatever iteration I finally go with will definitely include this.

Telling the dual stories of two mothers and their daughters, IMITATION OF LIFE uses its parallel narratives to offer a terrifying commentary on race and class in fifties America. Words cannot begin to describe the sheer, subtle genius of this movie as both a traditional melodrama and a savage satire on the gap between Hollywood 'reality' and the social context outside the studio gates. 

It's rare for a 60 year old movie to feel like a punch in the gut, but IMITATION OF LIFE is a unique and multifaceted beast with a nasty sting in its tail. By the time the end credits roll, it will have you considering the words 'I'm dreaming of White Christmas' in a whole new light...

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Chronicles of Bill

New post! Switching things up a bit. 

I'm testing the waters with a book review. Now, this is not entirely new. I've taken an old review and re-jigged it a bit, but I'm going to try and include more reviews like this in the future. Enough from me, read on!   


MASTERING THE PRESIDENCY is a biography on US President Bill Clinton by respected English author Nigel Hamilton. He's written some other biographies on other famous people including an earlier book he'd done on Monty (the WWII general, not Python).

It's the story of Clinton's first term, and how he evolved into a respected world statesman. I sniggered at the last part (everyone remembers what happened in his SECOND term), but it did get me thinking. I had been nay but a youngling during Clinton's presidency. The only time I remember him existing was during the Lewinsky scandal. However, even without knowing that much about him, I realized something else.

While Clinton's personal failures were certainly detrimental to his image, compared to the colossal failures of his successor, he was almost saintly. Intrigued, I decided to invest in this doorstop of a book.

It was actually pretty good. First of all, Hamilton doesn't eulogize Clinton.The portrait he constructs is of a man with both great empathy and genius-level intelligence but compromised by a pathological desire to please everyone, hazy principles and a complete lack of personal discipline. The fact that Hamilton is not American helped make this book more appealing to me, since most American biographies seem to BLAST "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER" THROUGH YOUR BRAIN AS SOON AS YOU OPEN THE FIRST PAGE. Moving on...

The book describes events starting from the transition of power in 1992-1993 to Election night 1996, and is divided into both volumes and books. It sounds complicated but it really isn't. Quite frankly, it aided my reading immensely, as I can't help fiddling the pages and it gave me specific places to mark. Not to mention the fact that I could go back to remember a name or event I had forgotten which had popped up again. These separations also work dramatically, to signal the transition between both major events and the evolution of Hamilton's subject as both a man and a politician.

The book works as two halves, bisecting the four years between 1993 and 1996. The first half is interesting in showing how a government gets started, and this portion is probably the funniest, as the government is thrown into disarray by Clinton's indecisiveness. However, as 1993 rolls into 1994, the parade of snafus gets longer and more monotonous, and Clinton's inability to get his (White) house in order begins to get tedious.

By this point I was wondering how the hell Clinton won a second term. It would only be after I had finished the book that I realized this question was why Hamilton wrote it in the first place.

Objectively however, this section of the book suffers from a lack of real drama, and a lot of policy which will probably turn off readers. There are suspensful episodes, such as the well known events in Somalia, Waco, Haiti, the World Trade Centre bombing and Clinton's showdown with North Korea, which almost led to war.

The problem is, and this has more to do with history than with Hamilton's book, is Clinton's handling of most of the above. While the screw ups at Waco are well known, a few of the more successful crises, such as his dealings with North Korea, are not really because of him. By the time you're a quarter through the book you'll be wondering why Hamilton didn't write a book about ex-prez Jimmy Carter, after he manages to defuse both the Haiti and Korea situations.

Things pick up around the same time Clinton's healthcare bill gets sent down the gurgler. Then the shit really hits the proverbial fan - which is about the time I really started enjoying the book.

Every protagonist needs an antagonist, and history has provided Hamilton with a great one: Speaker of the House Newt Gingrinch. What's better is that his entrance is perfectly timed to coincide with Clinton's biggest problem: the loss of both Houses of Congress to the Republican Party. My understanding of the situation is pretty basic, but it basically meant that Clinton would have a VERY hard time passing any laws. It's pretty tame in light of the present Congress's (in)action and a sad reflection of how low the bar is now. 

The real dramatic meat of the book is the struggle between Clinton and Gingrinch. Super-smart and super-sexed,Gingrinch is like Clinton's doppleganger. He's a great antagonist and a worthy opponent to Clinton, lacking Clinton's humility (he asks his first wife for a divorce while she's undergoing cancer treatment), world view and, most critically, his media savvy.

Gingrinch's arrival on the scene seems to galvanize Clinton into action. If this were an action movie, Clinton would be tooling up with weapons in some glorious montage complete with some wonderfully overblown martial music while Gingrinch cackled in his evil lair. In real life, this involves alot of back room negotiation and the appointment of Leon Panetta as Clinton's Chief of Staff to instill a sense of structure and discipline over the woe-fully disorganized Clinton White House. More importantly, in regards to this book is that this battle of the political titans gives Hamilton's prose the steriodal energy boost it needs, and the rest of the book flies by. My lack of knowledge was beneficial at this point, since it meant I could enjoy their struggles without any fore-knowledge of the climax.

And then there's Monica...

I won't spoil the rest for you, but by the end of the book, I was pumped. Especially since Hamilton ends the book on a cliffhanger ending, with Clinton celebrating his re-election completely unaware of the shit storm of controversy his personal indiscretions were about to unleash.

The second half of the book is inarguably better than the first half, and this is one of the few books I've read (fiction or non-) that actually gets more exciting as it heads into the home stretch. While this heavy tome might be hard going at first (politics...), it's worth it just to see how Clinton turned his administration around and went toe to toe with the Grinch. From then on it's like the Rumble in the Jungle with Clinton as Ali and Gingrinch as Foreman, with better suits and flabbier pecs.

Another interesting bonus feature is comparing how Clinton did with how Obama's faring - a nice postscript to the book for me was watching Newt Gingrinch's failed presidential run in 2012. Oh sweet justice...

All in all, I really enjoyed the book. Nigel Hamilton was supposed to be working on a sequel ( I guess the working title for that would be 'Un-Mastering the Presidency'?). Based on the strength of the material he has to work with, CLINTON PART II ought to be both more dramatic (the impeachment) and funnier (the impeachment) than its predecessor. While there's been no new developments, hopefully this second tome comes to pass.

Original post: 11-8-2010

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A little tribute to one of Bollywood's finest

KAJOL

Okay, this one is a bit of a stretch since there's over a billion people around the globe who are well aware of this fine actress's considerable talents. However, Kajol remains an example of the kinds of acting talent that lie outside English language (not to mention, Western) cine-sphere.

While Hollywood (and any heterosexual man with a pulse) swoons over her contemporary Aishwarya Rai, Kajol remains under the radar.

A pity, since Kajol's range and gravitas would give the Winslets and Streeps (yes!) a serious run for their money. 

One of the most talented actresses to emerge from Bollywood in the Nineties, Kajol is best known for her pairings with superstar Shahrukh Khan, and their collective chemistry is always a joy to behold (and really helps during the really, really long song-and-dance numbers).

While most Bollywood films are weighed down by sentiment and melodramatic plotting (not to mention 3 hour running times and 6-12 song-and-dance numbers...), Kajol is the rare talent that can bring a film back to some semblance of (movie) reality.

With decent comic timing and a penchant for the zany, she is also a pretty good comedienne, as shown by her performance in KUCH KUCH HOTA HAI (1998), in which she comes close to channelling the spirit of screwball queen Carol Lombard (another fine talent awaiting rediscovery!). 

A character actress blessed with a movie star's looks, Kajol has played everything from villainous femmes to romantic heroines (check out her award-winning work as a blind lover in 2006's FANAA). 

She's also rather unique in India for not constantly working (a trait generally unheard of in Bollywood), choosing to spend time with her family while choosing roles that will stretch her talents. 

Still only in her thirties, Kajol is an exciting talent who continues to grow and develop as one of the world's most popular and respected thespians. 

Am I smitten? Of course, but my personal endorsement aside, take a look and you'll soon be convinced that Kajol is the real deal.

Original post 6-8-2010

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Die Hard. In a building


This is a post about movies in which a person or persons are trapped in a building by other persons. Kinda. Read on!

REAR WINDOW (1954)

Not really an action movie, but in many ways, the forerunner of every claustrophobic thriller from WAIT UNTIL DARK to DIE HARD. Enough has already been written about the virtues of this masterpiece. Go watch it. NOW.

THE MARAUDERS (1955)

I have not seen this movie in 12 years. It might be shit. But from what I remember it was about a lone farmer protecting a watering hole from a gang of unpleasant reprobates with only an immigrant woman and her little son to help. It also boasts one of my favorite genre cliches - the main villain who initiates the plot is taken out early and his place is taken by his insane and depraved subordinate. Thus a tense standoff is turned into a bloodbath. Or in this case, a dustup. Surprisingly dark for a mid 50s western, it boasts a memorably ironic climax. 


WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967)

Maybe the first proto-slasher movie, the climax to this tense thriller works just as well as a mini-action movie, with its disabled heroine using all her wits to MacGyver the baddies' attempts to break into her basement apartment.

Audrey Hepburn makes for an unlikely badass and Alan Arkin makes an equally strong impression as  her terrifying antagonist. Director Terrence Young, a veteran of the Bond films, earns his stripes with a cruel, ironic touch which turns a hoary premise into a truly hair-raising ride.

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

Scary as hell, this movie gets LA in a way I can relate to. It's the movie that put John Carpenter on the map, and it serves as an inspiration to low budget filmmakers everywhere on how to turn out a memorable genre film on limited resources.

DIE HARD (1988)

The macdaddy of 'people stuck in a something' action films. While movies like SPEED and THE RAID come close, DIE HARD's clockwork plotting, sense of verisimilitude and a cast of memorable characters elevate it beyond the realm of mere genre classic.


THE RAID (2011)

This movie is great. I'm not as high on it as a lot of other people, but it is great to see someone pick up the bloody mantle of John Carpenter and John McTiernan to deliver an action movie that feels like a genuine roller coaster ride. 

Some people say it's better than DIE HARD. It isn't. But on its own terms, it's excellent and boasts a final fight that stands with the best of them. 


DREDD (2012)

This feels like the kind of movie Walter Hill used to dash off in his late 70s/early 80s heyday. A stripped down vehicle for Mega City One's resident badass, every aspect of this film is pared to the bone, from the terse dialogue, action-speaks-louder character moments and the economical choice to keep the story contained to one mega-block.

While not as imaginative in its set pieces as THE RAID, DREDD is far from the poor second cousin some critics shrugged it off as. Like ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, DREDD is a tribute to the work of a talented group of filmmakers overcoming the economic constraints imposed by a low budget.

WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013)

Okay, so this movie is Die Hard. And it's set in the White House. But it is awesome.

If OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN felt like an 80s throwback (earnest, R rated, kinda racist), WHITE HOUSE DOWN feels like it just fell out of a time warp from 1996, sharing the same ironic bluster of Roland Emmerich's INDEPENDENCE DAY, the heavy hitter of that year's blockbusters.

Fast and funny, the makers of White House Down know exactly what kind of movie they are making. The kind where Channing Tatum threatens a squirrel with his gun, the President fires a rocket launcher and someone wears a necklace of hand grenades.

A breath of fresh air in a summer of grim'n'gritty misery (MAN OF STEEL, WORLD WAR Z), WHITE HOUSE DOWN did not get the love it deserved. But that love starts here, dammit! Go see it now!



Random post to show I am not dead

Rocket, SUCKER PUNCH [22-8-2011]

Jena Malone is a fine actress, with street cred up the wazoo, and a chin that remains an endless fascination to me. Which makes it all the more interesting when she takes on a more commercial project.

Sadly her instincts in these cases can be hit-and-miss. CONTACT was cool, apart from the crazy ending. STEP MOM was hokey, mawkish nonsense that'll make your grannie cry. Her last fling with Hollywood was jungle horror THE RUINS. She was pretty good in it, turning a token 'final girl' into an untrustworthy, mixed up twenty-something. THE RUINS  could have been great, but it was about killer weeds. So I laughed at it.

However, just as her performance in THE RUINS was rather better than it deserved, so it goes with Zack Snyder's idontknowhathehellitsabout movie.  

Now I'm not suggesting her performance is Oscar calibre, but she certainly made me care a damn sight more about Rocket than Emily Browning's Babydoll. A part of this is in the writing. Generally speaking, it sucks. HOWEVER, intentional or not (hey we can hope), Malone is considerably better served by the script (okay stop laughing) than most of the other actors. Her characterization and backstory are also better served by the fact that writer-director extraordinaire Sack, I mean, Zack Snyder does not show said backstory in flashback, thus allowing the viewer to imagine what could have landed her in a brothel/madhouse/whateverthehellitis, without the ridiculously over-stylized aesthetic he brings to Babydoll's "tragic" past (although I can understand how she's so traumatized. I'd be pretty screwed up too if the first twenty years of my life were telescoped into a music video).

Another factor is looks. Without meaning to sound cruel, Malone is not traditionally good-looking. Which is not to say she is not good-looking or sexy, she is just not as idealized. She stands out from the other actresses, who are a little more along the lines of classical notions of feminine beauty (certainly the kind you find in a brothel/comic book/video game/whathefuckisthispos). For this rather superficial reason (hey remember what we're dealing with here) Rocket comes off as a little bit more relatable. 

The final factor is the performance itself. As I said before, it ain't perfect. There are (quite) a few moments where she seems to strain with the "dire-logue" Snyder gives her. While I may be suffering from the delayed effects of some forgotten hallucinogen, here's my take on why Rocket works and the rest of the movie doesn't:

As I said before, while the script is poor, it does give Malone's character the barest pieces of an arc (or at least more of an arc than Browning), and the actress does manage, however inconsistently, to produce a more solid characterization than her peers. 

At first, Malone plays her as a sarcastic and less tough version of her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish). However, as the story progresses (READER: What story?) there are several key moments in which our perceptions of Rocket are forced to change. The moment after Babydoll rescues her from being raped is a great little character moment. She attempts to laugh it off and resume her sarcastic veneer, yet in the following scene we see her lose the fake smile as she turns to get a glass of water with deadened eyes. When she tells her sister that she can't "take much more of this", Malone utters the line with a tremulous voice, as though she fighting the mother of all panic attacks. There is a sense of fragility about Rocket which is lacking from the other girls. Rocket seems to be the only character with a believable reaction to being stuck in a brothel/WTFdontcarenomore - and that makes us (or me, at least) care.

I don't want to overburden Malone with too much praise. If the other actresses had been better served with more developed characters, and the whole fantasy action crap ripped out, I'm sure they would have delivered proper performances, instead of striking manga poses. However, as it stands, her performance makes SUCKER PUNCH just a mite more tolerable.