Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Grey

Lowdown: A suicidal man leads a group of airplane crash survivors through snow and angry wolves.
Liam Neeson continues his type cast journey through the potential options for the intellectual action hero in The Grey. This time around he’s an ex-soldier, divorced from his wife yet still unable to accept separation. His escape from the harshness of reality comes in the shape of working for an oil company that employs him at remote areas. His job? Protecting employees from the ravages of wolves.
Neeson’s character, Ottway, is pretty good at his job. It’s the rest of his life that’s in shambles, a point well made by him sticking his rifle in his mouth (but not daring to pull the trigger). Next thing we know he boards a plane together with many of his mates; alas, on their way back to civilization the plane crashes at a remote snowy area. Only a few survive the crash, Ottway amongst them.
In one of many challengeable decisions made by our Ottway during The Grey, he determines no one would find the plane before the survivors freeze or get eaten by a flock of annoying wolves. These are led by a particularly silly looking alpha (featuring props that seem to have come directly from The Never Ending Story). Thus the survivors go on an unexpected journey towards salvation, only that they don’t know where they really should be going and if there really is salvation to be found. The uncertainty causes much inner strife despite the immediate perils around, but as nature goes on killing men one by one Ottway’s leadership only solidifies. The guy that was about to kill himself is now the main source of hope for the stranded comrades.
On the face of it, The Grey’s is a survival story. Yet it is pretty clear the journey we are witnessing, Ottway’s, is one of religious nature. I started realizing this through the too frequent use of “Jesus Christ” as Ottway’s favourite form of bad mouthing. Then we hear him confess his agnostic views. However, the snowy/wolfy challenges that strike our hero one by one bring him to a critical point of desperation: Ottway looks up to the sky, begging for divine intervention. I was expecting this to be the lowest point of the movie; Hollywood has a tendency to come up with divine interventions to cheer the crowd up with. I am happy to report, though, that I was “disappointed”: after a brief wait where Ottway sits looking for the heavens’ reply, he pulls himself together, saying “Fuck it. I'll do it myself.” That's my boy!
It is rare for agnosticism to be as well served by Hollywood. Matters can thus be expanded: Ottway’s journey for survival is analogical to life in general. We are all surrounded by uncertainty, nasty elements, and people that seem bent on hurting us; we are all stranded in the snow for the duration of our lives, looking to make the most of the cards we’ve been dealt with.
On the face of it, The Grey makes an important statement through the guise of an action drama. I like the statement; what I did not like is the action drama part. I thought it was so badly done it totally disengaged me from Ottway & Co. The first post crash encounter with a wolf is portrayed so badly, shaking camera et al, I simply could not figure out what my TV was displaying on my behalf. Then there is the heroes' dubious decision making, the exaggerated personal deliberations that befit a TV series like Lost (seeking to span itself across as many seasons as possible) rather than a two hour movie. Throw in the leaps of logic (wolves show up and disappear rather too conveniently for the plot)… And you should understand why I was led to regard The Grey with contempt.
Interesting scene: The way The Gray chose to conclude its story. I will avoid details altogether, but I will say it is not the Hollywood conclusion we have been used to; there is no “closure” here. Sadly, The Gray’s innovative approach is somewhat hindered by a short scene coming at the very end of the credits.
Overall: I applaud what The Grey is trying to say, I just totally disliked the way the rest of the film was conducting itself. 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Any Questions for Ben?

Lowdown: A successful twenty something dude figures out the emptiness of his life.
I was attracted to Any Questions for Ben for all the wrong reasons. It’s Australian, it’s directed by the guy who did the legendary The Castle, it’s set in Melbourne, and it features Rachael Taylor. Therefore it must be good? To my surprise, it was. Very much so.
Any Questions for Ben? follows Ben (Josh Lawson), a 27 year old Melbournian about whom one has to say he has it all. He gets paid lots for doing essentially nothing (product branding); he’s got lots of friends and family; and girls flock at him, so much so he never had to ask one out and he never stays with the same one for more than three months. It doesn’t take long at all for us to figure out the guy’s an asshole that could not care less about the people and the world around him as he’s busy indulging life and taking it easy. He even built himself mechanisms to support this lifestyle of his, like surrounding himself with friends that tell him he’s the best and avoid any kind of responsibility or any other form of adult like thinking.
Ben starts to figure out there is something not quite right with his life at this night where he’s invited to talk about his achievements before his former high school. What an honor! However, the kids seem awfully interested in the deeds of Alex (Rachael Taylor) instead. Alex is a former classmate of Ben’s who uses to live in the unnoticeable shadows, but is now an activist lawyer working for the UN at Yemen to help out people with real problems. When question time comes, no one has any questions for Ben. You can probably guess where the drama would lead on from here. After all, unless your movie is called Red Dog you don’t cast an actress like Taylor for token roles.
So yes, I liked Any Questions for Ben quite a lot, probably much more than it deserves for its cinematic qualities. A lot of it has to do with being set in Melbourne and featuring, amongst others, areas I live, work and hang out at. There is more to it, though.
The problem at the core of Any Questions for Ben? is an authentic one that I see everywhere I go. I used to see it in the mirror, too, but I think my personal problem was solved upon meeting my partner (and definitely upon having a child). The issue at hand, as director Rob Sitch says on the Blu-ray’s supplementals, is that in our day and age there is no pressure on twenty somethings to settle down. Previous generations were too busy struggling to make ends meet to have this "problem"; we have this new age problem to deal with by virtue of being materialistically better off. So we just go a-drifting, and in our consumerism driven society this drifting usually takes us nowhere fast. Some people find their comfort in religion; yours truly took a while to figure that in an otherwise indifferent universe any meaning or substance in this life can only come from within through the meaning I myself create. In the movie it takes an Alex for Ben to realize where meaning can be derived from; he’s lucky there, too.
Yet another reason I liked and identified with Any Questions for Ben is its distinct similarity to my current favourite TV show, Chuck. Like Chuck, we have a hero trapped in a world that’s beneath him; like Chuck, it takes an extraordinary beautiful and talented woman to take him out of his misery (with Taylor performing the role previously reserved for another Aussie, Yvonne Strahovski). Like Chuck, it takes an agonizing while for the two to realize they are the answer to each other’s questions. Unlike Chuck, however, the character of the female is a strong one in the sense that she has a life by her own rights; she is not just your average Hollywood pretty face. That is probably my biggest problem with Chuck, but it’s not like Any Questions for Ben avoids criticism: early on, the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to give Taylor a geeky like look, working hard to hide Taylor's good looks (later on she transforms to full glamor mode). I guess it would take a while for feminism to be properly represented on the big screen, but Any Questions for Ben is surely better than most of everything else out there. Oh, I almost forgot: Any Questions for Ben's mix of feel good music is virtually indistinguishable from Chuck's.
Yes, my “patriotism” is showing, but I think I can justify it. It comes down to Hollywood’s stereotyping women while the rest of the world is trying to come of age, Ben style.
Best scene 1: One of Ben’s “friends” advises him the message to the school kids should be that life is all about winning and crushing your opponent in the process. He should know, he drives a Ferrari.
Best scene 2: Ben, who is now interested in Alex but is still too tied up to his meaningless ways, confronts an Alex armed with a Doctors Without Borders activist friend who was also an Olympian. That’s tough. That’s also a scene I found myself in once or twice (albeit against less formidable/admirable competition).
Overall: I enjoyed the drama, the acting, and the self-looking ponderings this Melbourne based movie eschewed. I’ll therefore risk life and limb and give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Tower Heist

Lowdown: The former manager of an elitists’ tower plans to rob it.
Brett Ratner might not be the best director of thrillers ever (see Red Dragon), but when it comes to action comedies he shines (see Rush Hour). In Tower Heist he stretches his boundaries from his humbler Rush Hour beginnings to include thriller elements with a heavy spicing of social statements. The result? A good movie, fantastic entertainment.
Ben Stiller stars as the building manager of The Tower, the most expensive residential building in Manhattan. That place does not only provide residence, it also caters for its payers’ every whim, and that’s where Kovaks (Stiller) comes in. Trouble erupts when one resident, a financial tycoon, turns out to be a corrupt scammer; not only is he looking like he’s going down, he's also going to take the Tower employees’ pension funds Kovaks gave him to manage with him for the ride. The dire news makes Kovaks lose it. He picks up the odd golf club and finds himself out of a job.
Kovaks may not be as rich as the residents of his former building, but he does have his discipline and sense of camaraderie intact. Together with fellow employees, a former resident gone bankrupt (Matthew Broderick) and a crook neighbor of his for extra inspiration (Eddie Murphy) he sets up on to implement this crazy plan of his. That is, the plan after which the movie is named. Kovaks has to be careful, though, because the police (in the shape of Téa Leoni) are snooping around and they might not like Robin Hoods.
One sorts of expects certain things out of a Ben Stiller movie, things like crazy comedy. Part of the reason I found Tower Heist to work so well is its “failure” to deliver on expectations: sure, parts of it are fun; sure, there is lots of good political incorrectness to enjoy; but ultimately, Tower Heist is more of a caper film than a comedy. A very good caper film at that, even if the caper details are not as well sealed as they normally are in proper caper films. We're talking about an Ocean's Eleven lookalike with a comic edge.
More than this, though, Tower Heist is a film with a clear socialist message on the need of the 99% to unite if they want to get their rightful share. A message on the incompetence of the authorities when it comes to the corrupt leaders of the financial industry that brought us the GFC. And perhaps a message to the revolutionaries amongst us to rise up and do what it takes to restore society’s health, even if the package comes with "breaking the law" included.
Best scene:
 Gabourey Sidibe (famous for her role in Precious), playing one of the Tower's staff, steals the limelight in pretty much every scene she takes part in. Particularly notable are her attempts to win the “heart” of Eddie Murphy through anal sex innuendos disguised as lessons on how to break a safe.
Disclaimer: by now I’m unsure whether the scene is part of the movie itself or the Blu-ray’s supplementals.
Overall: For a non serious fun filled film, Tower Heist is a pretty serious one. It’s also good entertainment. 3.5 out of 5 stars edging towards 4.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Amazing Spider-Man

Lowdown: Spider-Man receives another reboot.
I’ll make this a quick one. The Amazing Spider-Man is a 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man story. It tells us how Peter Parker’s parents left him, how Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) came to be out of said Parker, and how his uncle (Martin Sheen, aka The Illusive Man) died to leave him alone with his aunt (Sally Fields). It introduces Parker’s school love interest (Emma Stone), and it tells us how Spider-Man’s nemesis for the duration of the film (Rhys Ifans) turned from a lovely idealistic scientist into an evil lizard monster.
It’s all nice and everything, but there is nothing this new incarnation can offer above Sam Raimi’s trilogy. I considered Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 to best superhero film I ever had the pleasure of watching; the rest weren’t bad either. This new Amazing incarnation, however, proves anything but. Certain things do not make sense: Is Parker a high schooler? Is he in uni? Not to mention the regularly spaced construction sites featuring cranes that Spider-Man’s New York pops up rather too conveniently for a spider in need of assistance. Characters are less appealing, particularly a Sheen who was obviously forbidden from saying that with great powers come great responsibilities. Excitement is too far apart, and even the music is boring (a James Horner misfire).
Simply put, there is no reason for this film to exist in the first place. There is nothing this new version does that hasn't been done better by Raimi.
What’s to come after The Amazing Spider-Man? A reboot of Total Recall that tells the exact same story as the brilliant original but does everything else worse?
2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Words

Lowdown: A writer who stole someone else’s book to make his name with confronts the true author.
It is no big secret that I have a lot against the concept commonly known as “copyright” and the industry behind it. I very much oppose that industry and I will gladly argue against some of the core ideas it claims to stand for. However, one thing I will not dispute is the need for a basic sense of copyright: we need copyrights because having someone claim that a book I wrote is actually theirs is unacceptable. In other words, plagiarism is generally unacceptable, probably because none of us like being misled. On the other hand, hardly any of the ideas popping up in our heads are truly our own; as Newton claimed when he himself was accused of plagiarism, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. That is the whole meaning of civilization.
This was but one of the thoughts that went through my head as I watched The Words, a movie with plagiarism at the center of its tale but with many more ideas and themes around it.
We start the story rolling with a writer, Hammond (Dennis Quaid), reading excerpts from his new book aloud before a crowd of anticipating fans. Hammond’s readings, the story of Rory (Bradley Cooper) and Dora (Zoe Saldana), is portrayed to us viewers as a story inside a story; as it happens, this is where we will be spending most our hour and a half plus with. [Let us pause for a minute to cheer for a film that dares break a good old American taboo and dares casting a white/black couple!] Our fictional young and loving New York couple is at the stage of their lives where they seek to establish their careers, particularly Rory with his writing aspirations. Only that Rory, despite all the sacrifices he makes, does not seem to get a break; instead of fulfilling himself he finds himself running errands at the offices of a publishing company. That, I guess, is the price one pays for chasing dreams.
Luck strikes when Rory discovers someone else’s book in an antique bag the couple got during their Paris honeymoon. This story of post war Paris is, unlike Rory’s, an excellent one. Rory gives it to his office boss and forgets all about it; months later the book is discovered by an agent, quickly published, and Rory becomes the next J.K. Rowling. One problem remains, though: he did not write the book; and worse, this old man that follows him (Jeremy Irons) seems to know his secret, a secret he even kept from Dora. Life as Rory knows it is about to turn rather shaky.
As films go, The Word is one of those artistic and deep adventures. The Inception style clever telling of a story inside a story inside a story is interesting and touching. Then there are the thought proviking messages The Words is trying to make us ponder about: not only the relatively straight matter of plagiarism, but also the whole civilization at work habit of people copying one another; the question of living a lie; and the matter of being able to forgive, forget, and move on with life after a mistake has been made.
All of the above, coupled with marvellous acting – Cooper has more to offer than a pretty face, but it was Irons that mesmerized me – make for a wonderful, well made film. It’s a pity, though, that The Words feels a bit overstretched, as if the directors thought they need to fill up more time and make their work longer in order to gain appreciation for their effort.
Best personal scene:
The story of the young old man (Ben Barnes) coming back to his USA home from Paris after the war to find it smaller than he remembered. Indeed, too small to bear. A short while later he decides to go back to where he belongs.
This story reminded me of someone I know personally. This Israeli visited Australia for a relatively short visit, but upon returning to his old home he realized he returned to the wrong place. Within two weeks he started working on his permanent return to Australia.
Best cinematic scene:
The encounter between Cooper and Irons is very well done, especially the earlier parts of it (the whole encounter takes up an entire act).
Overall: This is quality cinema, but it was also just too slow for my liking; it felt as if the directors wanted to make sure we know this is high quality, thus producing the opposite effect instead. I wanted to love this but here and there I felt compelled to check my watch; here and there we had the occasional yawn. Thus The Words ends up receiving "only" 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Watch

Lowdown: A bunch of disturbed guys organize to form a neighbourhood watch in response to a murder at their Costco.
Ben Stiller, I love him; but the main reason for me wanting to watch The Watch? Richard Ayoade, the guy who gave us the immortal character of Moss in The IT Crowd. I was truly looking forward to seeing him in a big screen comedy role.
Were you to have a look at the two other big names in The Watch’s cast, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill, you should be able to figure out the essence of this movie. Yes, it is another improv like crazy comedy without much in the way of substance and where the stars seem as if they were able to let loose. Whether you actually find the result funny is another thing.
We start things with Evan (Stiller), a happily married and childless dude who got to the prestigious position of a Costco branch manager through hard work and persistence. Alas, a mysterious murder takes place at the shop, and our considerate manager would not take police incompetence lying down – he’s establishing a neighbourhood watch brotherhood! Only a few guys are interested, and they all do so because of personal issues. Bob (Vaughn) has a teenage daughter to deal with; Franklin (Hill) wants to kill someone but the police wouldn’t recruit him. And Jamarcus (Ayoade)? He’s English. Not that Evan is immune to issues: he’s sterile, but he’s afraid of telling his wife and ruining her plans to have children.
Together, these men unite to fight crime and injustice. Maybe, if they could throw their differences aside and focus on the alien invasion at hand.
There is not much substance at hand here. The Watch is simply a platform for its starts to shine their light, wasting the chance to make a proper statement on matters such as relationship transparency and the status of contemporary masculinity. If you like the type of jokes The Watch’s stars are famous for, political incorrectness and all, you will like this movie; otherwise it will be a bit more than an hour and a half of non serious entertainment.
Best scene: Jamarcus’ fantasy comes to life at a neighborhood orgy.
Overall: An easy watch film whose main contribution to my consciousness was in making me ponder the virtues of Costco. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Killing Them Softly

Lowdown: The tale of a mafia hired gun as the tale of the USA entire.
New Zealander and Melbournian Andrew Dominik has won all the credit a director could ever wish for with Chopper. Eric Bana didn’t suffer, either. Then came The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which showed potential across the pond at Hollywood; and recently, to much acclaim, comes Killing Them Softly (KTS).
Let’s hit the ball quickly: KTS is a basic gangster/mafia movie. A member of the gang that gathers for high stake card games (Ray Liotta) robs his own game and later admits it; when, later, someone else pulls the same trick, a killer is brought to sort things out (Brad Pitt). Pitt, by the way, likes to kill his victims softly, from afar, without them getting to him emotionally. That is really all there is to the plot; the trick is how this plot is done.
You can get the feel for it through the number of women in this movie (I think I saw one, briefly). Further clues can be derived from references to Scorsese style gangster film, and even further from Tarantino style lengthy conversations about existence and nothing. Mix it all up, shake it up a bit more, and you get KTS: a film that perhaps overdoes the Tarantino conversations, a film that is perhaps a bit weak in its mafia depictions, but nevertheless a film that’s pretty loyal to its roots. Perhaps the best depiction of those mixed up styles is Micky (James Gandolfini), a killer brought by Pitt’s character to help with the killings but who turns out to be an disrupted interruption that talks too much.
Whatever. Mafia and lengthy talks are not KTS’ main agenda. Its agenda is made very clear through it constantly playing us news segments discussing the GFC (these clips seem to be authentic). Every shot is calculated, and those news bits are well integrated; they do, however, take center stage. Clearly, KTS is here to tell us that the USA is a country that’s managed the same way the mafia is, and it makes its case through the analogy between Pitt & Co on one side and those news segments of Bush & Co on the other.
Best scene: In case you did not get the point of the film, Brad Pitt delivers a closing speech-
This guy [Obama] wants to tell me we're living in a community? Don't make me laugh. I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business. Now fuckin' pay me.
Overall: Occasionally boring, definitely too slow, the dialog is often hard to follow – but the message stands valid. 3 out of 5 stars.