Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Hateful Eight

Lowdown: Tarantino does a spaghetti western.
Review:
What it is that makes a movie into a Tarantino movie? I propose several answers.
1. Lots of nonsense talking, including potentially wasteful ones lasting way longer than other movies would allow (for the sake of flow). Exaggeration can take even more exaggerated form, like one character saying something, the other one being hard at hearing, and the first character repeating what the audience has already heard pretty clearly; it's rare for movies to implement such narrative tools. It takes much confidence.
2. Unnecessary levels of violence and gore. Perhaps unnecessary is the wrong word, since gore is the more realistic result of someone being shot in the head; it's just that other movies block such views from us while Tarantino celebrates them. Yet, it has to be said, he does so in a clearly artificial manner; a blown head contains more than just rivers of red fluid. I can only conclude that it is this artificial celebration of gore that is the actual Tarantino trademark.
3. The reintroduction of familiar movie stars whose stardom had waned over the years for no particular reason whereas their acting skills are quite fine, thank you.
The Hateful Eight, Tarantino's latest, ticks all of the above (and more). I guess Tarantino & Co had a lot of fun making his version of a spaghetti western; the inclusion of so many familiar Tarantino faces hints at that (Samuel Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen - to name a few). Then there are the new old faces, like Jennifer Jason Leigh, who - in my view - is the best thing to happen to this movie, which raises the question "where has she been all these years".
The story rings Tarantino, too (including the math that never really works up to eight). Two bounty hunters (Kurt Russell and Jackson) meet up and, given a pending snow storm, seek shelter at a remote cabin. As it happens, another coach sought shelter there just ahead of them. Jackson's character can notice some signs of malice at hand, but regardless all have to now to stick it out together in said cabin for the duration of the storm.
I shall put it this way: not everyone comes out alive. Everyone's a bad guy in this very Tarantino story. I was unable to find any particularly meaningful messages here, but there are running themes involving the usual racial tensions America has been blessed with.
Overall: Not Tarantino's best, but a classic Tarantino nevertheless. 3.5 out of 5 blood red crabs.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Zoolander 2

Lowdown: Years after being notoriously forgotten, Derek Zoolander makes a comeback to the world of fashion modelling.
Review:
Some 15 years ago, a silly comedy about a dumb male model called Zoolander flopped at the box office but rose like a phoenix out of the ashes to be recognised as the clever parody that it is. Is the world ready to have another dose of Zoolander, given all this time? Well, if Zoolander 2 is the evidence for the case, then the answer is no. I will add that, given a better script, the answer could have been different but then again who knows.
A quick exposition explains what happened to Zoolander (Ben Stiller, who is also the director) during those years. His education centre collapsed, a victim of his ignorance, in the process killing his wife and eventually separating him from his son. Zoolander therefore retires to a remote cabin in snowy New Jersey, disconnecting himself from the world. Hansel, his best friend (Owen Wilson) loses his face to the same accident, and is now living in remote Malibu and spending his time in group orgies with fellows such as Kiefer Sutherland and a goat.
The fate of the two changes when a blast from the past - Billy Zane - comes knocking on their doors with comeback invitations to a fashion show in Rome. Which turns out to be an evil plot from an old nemesis (Will Ferrell) and his aid (a very hard to recognise Kristen Wiig). Our Zoolander & Hansel duo is not alone, though: the Interpol's hottest detective (Penelope Cruz, probably the best thing to happen to this movie) stands by his side.
Problem is, there is very little originality in Zoolander 2; it's almost exclusively a repeat of the same old stuff from before, with the slight modern joke touch on the art of the selfie and how mobile phones have grown in size since the first Zoolander's trend for the tiny. There is a very thin line between clever and stupid when it comes to silly jokes, but whereas the first Zoolander knew how to navigate that area with much greatness this Zoolander tumbles and falls.
The franchise still has a reputation, though, which does explain the stupendous amount of celebrity cameos thrown all over the place in this hour and a half long flick. There's Bieber, Sting, Tommy Hilfiger, MC Hammer, Valentino and many many more - most of them actively accepting ridicule ("brought to you by white privilege", said with reference to Hilfiger). The award for best cameo, however, clearly goes to Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Overall: Despite all the names and all the good intentions, Zoolander 2 just doesn't click. What was supposed to be a parody on our tendency to worship the stupid while practicing the narcissistic turned out to be just plain stupid (and narcissistic) on its own rights. 2 out of 5 crabs.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Deadpool

Lowdown: An politically ibcorrect superhero likes to talk to the audience while fighting baddies.
Review:
In the now [over]crowded ranks of superheroes, a hero must come up with something unique in order to get noticed. In the case of Deadpool, that something is breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience with much sarcasm and heavy doses of NPC spicing throughout killing baddies. And that pretty much is it; otherwise, we are talking about a fairly ordinary superhero movie.
Set in the X Men universe, Deadpool starts with its hero Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) fighting a bunch of bad guys under very Matrix like choreography. Later on, with the aid of the almighty flashback, we learn of Deadpool's origins and his current struggle with the prostitute he fell in love with (Morena Baccarin, of V remake and Homeland fame). First, Deadpool doesn't know how to face her in his current superhero incarnation; and second, he needs to save her, too. Throw in some bad guys and you got yourself a movie.
The real question with regards to Deadpool is whether this whole breaking of the 4th wall is enough to make a movie great. My answer is that it definitely makes Deadpool unique in a sense that it rises above your average Iron Man 3 & Co lineup of mundane sequels. Great, however, it isn't; just fun. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
One thing Deadpool is wrong about is the song Careless Whisper, which it attributes to Wham!. Correction, Deadpool: it might have been filed in a Wham! album eventually, but the song is still a George Michael solo affair. [What wall am I breaking when I talk back to the movie?]
Overall: Not earth shatteringly good, but definitely fun. 3.5 out of 5 sarcastic crabs.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Spotlight

Lowdown: How a group of Boston investigative journalists uncovered decades of Catholic Church sexual child abuse.
Review:
For a movie dealing with real events and real people, Spotlight is fairly unique. This is not a movie trying to glorify its heroes or add fizzle to events; instead it tells its story straight, imperfections and what nots, letting the story pave the way. And what a story this is.
By now we all know the Catholic Church had decades, if not centuries, of covert but frequent sexual abuse. It's just that, up until recently (too recently: Spotlight takes place some 15 years ago) the extent of abuse and coverup was unimaginable. It's sort of like someone telling you the NSA/GCHQ listens in on calls and emails while also sweeping all call data; if you were to claim that is the case before the Snowden revelations, you'd immediately find yourself labelled a lunatic. After Snowden you're just a realist.
Our story takes place at the investigative journalism team of The Boston Globe, a team called Spotlight. Its leader (Michael Keaton) is tasked by the paper's new editor (Liev Schrieber) to look into a report of a case of sexual abuse, given there is a bit of a buzz coming in from the Church's direction. There is hesitation; Boston is very Catholic, and at least according to Spotlight (I wasn't there to check in person) holds its Catholicism in high regard. Perhaps this new Jewish editor is on some personal vendetta? Regardless, the Spotlight team (including Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams) starts investigating. We know what they are going to find.
So, yes, Spotlight tells its story extremely well. It is a long movie but it never, ever, bores or feels overlong. Credit is therefore due to, among others, our fine crew of actors that go for the authentic look and feel rather than the glamorous.
Most of all, though, credit has to be given to the moviemakers for letting the story do the talking. A significant part of Spotlight is dedicated to the fact everyone knew what's going on, to one extent or another, yet everyone felt too intimidated to offend the city's sacred institutions to do something about it (again the similarities to the Snowden case are striking).
I find that question of personal responsibility to extend from the movie's 2001 setting all the way to contemporary Australia: our government is funding pastors at state schools with hundreds of millions of dollars. Parents, on their side, regard Catholic schools as the cheaper alternative to private schools, therefore preferring to send their kids there. How does that work given the very firm, research derived, figure that specifies 6% of all Catholic priests have been engaging in sexual abuse? How stupid are we when we send our kids straight at them and let them into our schools?
Overall: I consider the "personal historical documentary" style of Spotlight a very effective way to both tell a story and push its messages through. 4 out of 5 very solid crabs.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Special Correspondents

Lowdown: A radio journalist and his sound technician stuck in the USA have to invent their news coverage from South America.
Review:
This blog is a big fan of Ricky Gervais, and in Special Correspondents this actor/director does not fail to deliver the kind of light entertainment experience [that can only work when one isn't expecting more than light entertainment].
The premises are simple, of the "haven't we seen this before" type: A radio journalist that thinks himself a hotshot (Eric Bana, whose late absence from my screen has been mourned) is sent on a mission to cover a South American Revolution together with a lacklustre sound technician (Gervais). Due to the latter's nature, they miss their flight and find themselves unable to enter their destination. So what does a journalist do?
They enclose themselves in the building across the street from their own radio station and make their news stories up, of course. Only that their escapades are, let us say, more influential than the two think they would be...
OK, we all know that in this age of the NSA tracking every breath you take and every move you make™, Special Correspondent could not really take place. Still, it is a funny story about relationships between people and how even the people we think less of can shine while others can reveal themselves true a-holes.
In other words, Bana and Gervais did well on my screen even if they brought nothing new with them.
Overall: 3 out of 5 light crabs.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Room

Lowdown: The story of a mother and her child, whose entire life was spent enclosed in a small room.
Review:
Room felt weird right from the start. We witness a mother and her four year old child whose entire lives are lived in the tight confines of a small room. Yep, it's an all in one toilet/bathroom/kitchen/bedroom//living room. Contact with the outside world is limited to short interactions with a man bringing him supplies and staying over on the night.
We're not told why that is the case. Clearly, Room feels like some existential wank affair of a movie.
It is not. If you let Room tell you its story you will be in for a treat, at least as far as movie appreciation is concerned. For a start, Brie Larson offers a great performance as the mother (while seeming to reveal herself to us under what seems to be makeup-less, fairly non flattering environments - not your typical Hollywood glamour).
I will go no further; the whole point of watching Room is learning what it is all about. I will simply sum it up as an optimistic yet realistic view of the human spirit when push comes to shove.
Overall: Unique in more than just taking its time to explain itself, Room is well worth viewing. 4 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Oddball

Lowdown: The story of an eccentric owner whose dog saves a small penguin colony.
Review:
As far as cute little Australian feel good movies are concerned, the type that doesn't require its audience to dedicate much mental capacity, Oddball is pretty much as far as the genre goes.
It starts with the Stars: Shane Jacobson, aka Kenny, as Swampy (yep, Swampy). Then there's Sarah Snook, the latest Aussie actress to show up everywhere (good on her!), as his daughter Emily. And third is the family Labrador dog, Oddball.
The foundations are set for a feel good story taking place at Warrnambool, a Victorian seaside regional centre type town lying a bit past the edge of The Great Ocean Road. As Australian regional centres go, it is a kind of a middle of nowhere place with an inferiority complex bundled with aspirations for greatness. Which is why it is seeking to increase its commercial tourism appeal while failing to defend the natural but not much of a money making beauty that is the penguin reservoir at its midst. No matter how much effort Emily, its keeper, makes.
Enter Oddball. By fluke, Swampy the chicken farmer realises Oddball has a natural instinct for protecting penguins from evil [imported!] foxes. So he goes out, field testing Oddball on that penguin reservoir. From that point onwards the outcome is clear and the only question is just how much effort it would take for human commercial endeavours to succumb to natural beauty.
Just don't take this movie too seriously. Even if it does claim to be based on true events. I mean, how true can it be when our dog owner keeps looking for his lost dog around the Twelve Apostles site? As magnificent as that area is, it is quite far for a dog to just pop over to by a whim. About 80 kilometres far (from Warrnambool). One gets the feeling true fact was abandoned on the altar of attracting tourists.
Overall: If you're willing to switch the brain off and "endure" a kid friendly feel good movie, this oh-so-Aussie you can chuck it on the barbie movie will certainly deliver. 3 out of 5 crabs, mate!

Monday, 16 May 2016

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

Lowdown: An open eye examination of today's worldwide dating scene, as told by a comedian.
Review:
As indication of these modern times we are living in, I learnt of the existence Aziz Ansari through Netflix. I watched a couple of this comedian's stand-ups but, frankly, he didn't tickle my toes; it was nice humour, but too American flavour PC for me. His more recent comedy series, Master of None, is a different story; sure, some of it was quite funny, but more importantly it was packed with wisdom and insight. Kind of what one would expect out of Seinfeld if it was done in this decade and if it was more humanist.
Having read about Modern Romance, the book by Ansari, through extensive coverage in Time (that epitome of bias in the name of American consumerism), I decided that Master of None was evidence enough I should give the book a go. After all, I am a veteran of the blind dating world Ansari is covering in his book myself. Might as well learn from an expert.
Modern Romance looks at today's dating scene. It is a scene driven by smartphones and instant messaging, and thus significantly different to the one I have experienced in my time. The insights are interesting not only from the point of view of those of us searching for romance or a fling, but to the anthropologists in us just the same. It's amazing to see what seemingly benign technological advances can make to the way we find and communicate with one another, but they do!
Ansari's is a pretty systematic look at affairs of dating. He examines today and he examines the past, conducting proper scientific research that includes surveys, group discussions and interviews (most notably involving the generations now populating old people's homes). One of the first and most notable conclusions presented to us, for example, is the fact that in the middle of the previous century people would mostly marry a neighbour whereas today people marry across states, countries and continents (space - the final frontier?). Back then marriage was a way for women to escape family prison, whereas today we tend to have an extra stage in life between leaving home and settling down that allows us to become more mature. That said, back then people would happily, more or less, settle with that next door neighbour; today we have to find Mr Perfect himself. That latter insight is what leads to the process dragging and for much disappointment along the way.
All these facts are presented by Ansari in an easy to read manner that clearly smells of his comedy style. I did not particularly like his stand up, but I do think that style is well suited for the documentary type book that Modern Romance is. Ansari does not shy from practicing science himself: for example, as part of his examination of romance around the world, he travels to Japan - the land of very little romance (read the book for further details) - and tries the popular [?] male replacement for female companionship that is wanking into an egg like contraption himself. And then, of course, he reports what it was like.
I will not say much of the conclusions Ansari's research arrives at. I will, however, state that in a similar manner to my own experience, he concludes that blind dating is not really about dating but rather about meeting people with whom one can potentially, later, date. In this way, and in many others, my own historical experience lives on, even if in my time blind dates were literally that - blind - whereas today one can utilise the marvels of technology to remove layers of obscurity prior to a face to face encounter. Some things will never change.
Overall:
More than just a book about the dating scene, Modern Romance is an insightful mirror on the way humans interact using the technology available to them and given the confines of the cultures they live in. And as insightful as it is, Modern Romance is presented in a very lightweight, easy to read, funny (!) manner.
In my book, Modern Romance is a big achievement. 4.5 out of 5 crab hearts.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Daddy's Home

Lowdown: A stepfather has to contend with the original father's comeback.
Review:
Let us make something clear: Daddy's Home is your classic Will Ferrell silly comedy, period. However, and an important however this is, there is more to this movie than that, or even than the constant plugs for Ford Flex car (about which existence I was very comfortably unaware till this move came along).
The story is as simple and as exaggerated as the sub genre suggests. Ferrell is happily married to a lovely wife, and together they're parenting two kids. However, he's not their biological father, and they definitely do not regard him as their father. Further, he cannot give his wife children of his own being that he's actually impotent (due to a dental accident, of course), so those step kids are the only kids in his life. And yes, he makes a hell of an effort to be a good daddy despite all the shit he has to take.
He's actually making headway when disaster happens. The real father (Mark Wahlberg) decides to come back home, and although he's not straight about it his goal of reclamation is dead obvious. Our loving daddy does his best to compete, but again and again he is outdone by muscle and sex appeal. What can he do to win his family back?
So yeah, silly comedy follows. And it is funny, in that Ferrell vulgar and non PC way. Sometimes very funny. The catch, in my opinion, is that the themes here are not hypothetical; I know many families made of collections of genes with way less than 50% of shared codes. The way things are going, this kind of a family is going to take the majority soon. I have no problem with that whatsoever; the happiness of the members is what really matters. It is therefore nice, and important, to see recognition for this reality coming from such a conservative establishment as Hollywood. That is the main achievement of Daddy's Home.
Overall: A nice comedy that deals with important things (as well as weird Ford models). 3 out of 5 step crabs.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Big Short

Lowdown: The personal story of three groups that saw the 2008 financial meltdown coming.
Review:
In his book The News, Alain de Botton laments the financial news section's dreary way of conveying its messages. I, and probably you, too, agree: unless we have some personal interest in a specific tidbit of financial news, most of us avoid that section in favour of the more saucy stuff. Yet finances, as anyone with a wallet could tell, matters. It matters a lot. Take, for example, the big worldwide financial meltdown of 2008, which started with the collapse of the USA mortgage market but ended up affecting the whole world. I think that in many way we still haven't recovered.
Question is, how does one take this particular financial subject matter and make a movie out of it? A non documentary movie, specifically. And how does one do it in an entertaining manner, the manner de Botton is alluding to?
The Big Short took applied a three pronged approach to address this problem.
The first is personalisation. Instead of dealing with big markets, we follow the personal stories of 3 groups (which amount to 4 people): a brilliant yet weird Asperger's guy, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who saw the meltdown coming years in advance by simply cracking the numbers; two young investors that figured it out, too, through their limited experience (just because it was so obvious once anyone bothered to put convention aside); and an eccentric Jewish investment banker, Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who, with his group and a lot of effort, figured it out too. All represent real people, by the way; to more than one extent or another, at least as far as can be corroborated through Wikipedia, the events and the people depicted in The Big Short are real.
The second, and as already hinted, is The Big Short's reliance on Big Names. There's Bale, there's Carell, but there are also numerous others in roles of various scope: Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Marisa Tomei to name a few.
And third, The Big Short implements a suspension of disbelief defying technique in order to explain the financial terminology one has to deal with in order for one to properly understand what really happened during that financial meltdown. Thus we take a short break so that a sexy Margot Robbie can explain to us, from the depths of her bubbly bath, some of the mad intricacies of the financial market. The stuff that would otherwise feel dreary and boring has a tendency to feel sexy when conveyed in this particular manner...
The beauty of it all is that it works. The Big Short, instead of being The Big Bore that one would expect given what passes for financial journalism, is a thrill despite being lengthy. And despite predictability, too (I mean, we all know what happened at the end). It delivers its message straight in our face and it does so without shame, getting away with it by virtue of doing it oh so well.
Best scene: Burry's closing statement is all about his personal confrontational, fact driven, approach. He tells us how he met his wife by joining an online dating service and stating in his profile that he's a student with one eye, social problems and huge debts; his would be wife picked him not because of the eye or the debt, but rather because of his honesty. Me, I wish the two all the best.
The even better scene: As the last minute or two of this movie play out, the unmistakable drumming of John Bonham in Led Zeppelin's When the Levee Breaks can be heard in the background. The narrator sums things up, and then we skip straight over to Robert Plant's singing (and the movie credits). I know this is nothing as far as the art of movie making is concerned, but I love this songs so much and it fits the occasion so well that it significantly uplifted my opinion of the movie.
Overall: Watch and learn. 4.5 out of 5 crabs and probably the best made movie I have seen in a while.

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Dressmaker

Lowdown: A woman bearing vengeance returns to the small Aussie town she left as a child.
Review:
The first time I watched First Blood I was quite impressed. Of course, at the time I was unaware that movie would usher a series of garbage sequels for its lead character, Rambo. It was just a good story turned into a groundbreaking action movie: the hero returns home to only to find himself surprisingly regarded as a villain; the locals trying to "take care" of said hero"; the hero fights back to show the locals where fish pee out of.
If you're asking me (and if you're reading this you are - thanks!), The Dressmaker is not that different a movie. The core differences are in the hero's sex - The Dressmaker is a woman, thank you very much [for another great opportunity to watch a movie whose lead is a female]; the weapons of choice are less violent, to do with dress making (a much welcome change to the Stallone way of life); and the setting is Australian through and through (a much welcome change to the same-same industrial crop coming out of Hollywood), featuring a lot of big name Aussie actors to boot.
Our hero[ine] (Kate Winslet), a professional dressmaker who studied and worked with Paris' best, comes back to the now post WW2 middle of nowhere town she grew up in. The town holds a secret; that secret has something to do with our pro dressmaker; for reasons that are probably to do with something that happened before said dressmaker left town, everybody holds a grudge against her. With the notable exception of the male interest character (Liam Hemsworth, who further emphasises the movie's girl power factor by offering a much younger counterpart to our lead).
So what's the story, morning glory? What's going on in this town? Stay tuned and watch as some unexpected twists come our way while The Dressmaker takes care of business and learns a thing or two about herself in the process, the tailor's way.
Overall: A fine comedy/drama whose main attractions are the trend defying strong female lead and its witty plot that leaves viewers with something to ponder. Me, I liked it 3 out of 5 crabs much; but I can clearly see how the more astute and less First Blood inclined viewer would appreciate the finer qualities of this movie much more that I did.