Saturday, 30 August 2014

Good Will Hunting

Lowdown: A uniquely talented youngster requires another unique character to unleash his talents.
We finished off our Robin Williams tributes with what is most definitely his best film ever. Yes, better than Aladdin, and yes, I’m talking about 1997’s Good Will Hunting. It’s strange that Williams’ best movie ever is not a comedy and it’s strange he does not act in the leading role, but who cares? I take good movies in any shape and size, thank you very much.
The star of the show is Matt Damon in his very first appearance. Damon is Will Hunting, a young guy from a rough part of Boston who has accumulated much roughness in his short history. Roughness which, as we witness, is still ongoing. However, we also bear witness to Will’s talents: at MIT, where he’s working as a cleaner, he’s the only one that manages to repeatedly solve the challenges offered to the proper students by their maths professor, a Fields Medal winner (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd).
Eventually, the professor manages to track Mr Hunting down in order to groom him and unleash the talent within. Alas, Will is not that compliant; it would take much more to achieve what the professor wants. It would take a Robin Williams on full throttle.
Thus we have ourselves a story about people and their need for trust, a story about loyalty. Offering support to the core story is the story of Will’s friends, headed by best mate (and Damon’s fellow script writer) Ben Affleck. His is the role of the “typical” rough neighbourhood boy, the one who does not have the talent to step up the rumoured meritocracy ladder but the one who is loyal to the death with his friends. Also there is the story of the romance developing between Will and Skyler (Minnie Driver), a rich Ivy League student who recognises the potential in Will despite all his pretend toughness.
If there is a down side to Good Will Hunting it’s the feeling that the script is too contrived, too extreme to pass as authentic. Can there really be a cleaner solving MIT’s challenges through self learning alone? Can there really be a cleaner with the means to afford such self learning in this neoliberal world of ours? Are there really the likes of Robin Williams’ character to make the effort made in the movie in order to help one unlikely guy? I hope so, but I don’t know. Perhaps this is the sort of thing that can only happen in the movies.
Overall: One of the best feel good movies of all time. 5 out of 5 crabs for Williams’ best ever effort.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Birdcage

Lowdown: A gay couple needs to pretend otherwise in order to win the conservative parents of their son’s would be wife.
Our Robin Williams festival continued with a big time favourite of mine, The Birdcage. Personal circumstances meant this movie holds much personal value: I’ve watched it at the cinemas shortly after cancer took its toll on my family, I’ve watched it in the company of a great date, and – more to the point – I laughed myself to tears. So hey, why shouldn’t I rewatch this 1996 classic?
Given the relevance of gay marriage in today’s politics, The Birdcage is a breath of fresh air to public debate. On the left corner, it pits the gay parents of a young guy wishing to get married, gay club owner Armand (Williams) and his partner and chief performer Albert (Nathan Lane). In the right corner it’s the conservative morality police and parents of the would be bride (Calista Flockhart), Republican Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman) and his obedient wife (Dianne Wiest). The gay couple’s son comes up with a simple request: arrange a "meet the parents" summit meeting, and – in order for the right to approve the left – pretend to be what the right would consider normal. Even if you're Jewish, gay, and you run/own/live in a gay club.
The loving gay parents do their best to support their child’s ambitions (because gay parents can do that, you know). They pretend. But can they get away with it? Can their maid Agador (Hank Azaria) pretend well enough to help them get away with it? Ultimately, this very liberal spirited movie makes a statement on what it thinks on Liberal Party values. Great comedy and fun aside, I’m fully on the side of The Birdcage.
Just as with the Williams festival predecessor, The Fisher King, The Birdcage relies on four key performances to deliver (Williams, Lane, Hackman and Azaria). Unlike Fisher King, director Mike Nichols steers viewers fluently along. The Birdcage is a movie I’d always be happy to revisit!
Overall: Light and serious at the same time, I just love The Birdcage. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Fisher King

Lowdown: A radio presenter who inspired a mass shooting event seeks redemption by helping one of its victims.
Like probably everyone else out there whose age is measured in two digits, I was touched by Robin Williams. True, Williams was never a favourite, and Mrs Doubtfire never managed to do anything but bore me, but still – between Aladdin’s Genie and seizures of the day, I got caught. Like everybody, I felt a loss upon hearing of Williams’ tragic premature death, a loss that is best addressed through celebrating his work.
Thus the first Williams movie we put our minds to was 1991’s The Fisher King. An odd movie to start with, but then again odd fits the occasion.
Jack (Jeff Bridges) is a New York radio host of the kind popular with the Liberal Party. The kind that mocks his audience and badmouths everything in that truly Young Liberal selfish kind of a way. Problem is, it turns out that one such honest piece of advice inspired a guy to take a shotgun with him to a restaurant and go Grand Theft Auto upon its inhabitants.
Fast forward two years later, and Jack’s a helpless nobody, relying and abusing the favours of Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). It’s unclear what Anne sees in Jack, but it is clear Anne is desperate for a loving man by her side. For some reason or another she thinks Jack might be him.
In between torments and alcohol, Jack bumps into a street bum that saves him from nasty vigilantes, Parry (Williams). Through this and that, it occurs to Jack that Parry used to be a someone once upon a time, someone with love in his life, until that love was blown away from him by that very same shotgun Jack has inspired. And all of a sudden, Jack has a way of redeeming himself: helping Parry. Specifically, helping him with the girl he keeps dreaming of in his deranged way, Lydia (Amanda Plummer).
Thus the scene is set for four tormented souls to recover/redeem themselves from mistakes caused by Liberal Party ideology. Naturally, the remedy to problems caused by Liberal Party ideology are all to do with opposite values: compassion, understanding, friendliness, being there for one another, and of course – love. Fisher King takes four people who, for one reason or another, lost all trust in humanity on a trip to regain it by putting their trust in one another.
The core problem with The Fisher King is that it’s a Terry Gilliam film. That is, it’s eccentric to the point of me often wondering aloud (yes, aloud): “why am I still watching this?” There’s just too much crazy in this movie, detracting from its core message.
Luckily, there are plenty of positives to compensate and then some. Aside of the overall feel good message of redemption, at the core of it The Fisher King is a summit meeting of four excellent actors doing an excellent collaboration work. Personally, I would firmly point at Ruehl as the top performer here: just as she did in Last Action Hero, she steals the show with her relatively brief performance.
Then there is the city of New York playing in the background. The Fisher King does not compliment that city, but I do think it well captures the look and the feel of the period. Not bad, as far as achievements go.
Memorable scene: A nude Williams takes Bridges out for a night at Central Park in your typical Gilliam crazy scene.
Overall: A bit of a mixed bag that’s won by its acting brigade. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Team America: World Police

Lowdown: A team of Americans saves the world from evil people, mostly by blowing it before they do.
Sometimes, a person has to do what a person has to do. This time, this person had to re-watch Team America: World Police, because how could I avoid doing so? Seriously, once our illustrious Prime Minister, the suppository of all knowledge, called on all Australian to join him on Team Australia there was no alternative. Especially as Tony Abbott’s Team Australia is all so similar to the 2004 movie’s Team America: a joke of a fabricated construct meant to divert the public from Abbott’s stupid & evil budget and into the familiar territory of “being tough on terror”.
As one can expect, I was not the only one entertaining this observation. Check this lovely piece of photoshopping, one of many others to grace our social networks this past two weeks:

Now that we’ve dispensed with the pleasantries, let us check Team America (the original movie, as opposed to Tony Abbott’s wet dream) under the hood.
Team America comes at us from the direction of the makers of South Park. In many respects it’s a similar affair: jokes that aim at everybody’s below the belt areas done in not so realistic a fashion. For this movie, however, South Park abandoned its crude animation in favour of Thunderbirds style live wire operated puppetry.
If you’re after a story, there is one in there (surprised?). A group of evil Muslims – and we know they’re evil because they repeatedly say “dirka dirka Mohammad Jihad” – puts its hand on weapons of mass destruction in some covert deal taking place at Paris. Team America comes in with its flashy jets and blazing guns, but – despite taking the better part of Paris down while trying to take the terrorists down – the baddies get away with their WMDs.
Our team only hope? Recruit a Hollywood actor, make him look like an Arab (by patching blobs of hair on his face), and send him to mingle with the terrorists. After all, anyone can hold a conversation with a group whose vocabulary is limited to “dirka dirka Mohammad Jihad”. Even a member of Team America.
Thus starts a chain of events that goes all over the world and runs extensive mockery over the USA’s self-claimed role of policing the world (and, as we’re witnessing in today’s Iraq, the particularly bad manner in which it executed this role). As mentioned, the filmmakers cannot leave the scene without thworing extensive mockery on the liberal side, too, which they do by mocking several Hollywood left wingers (e.g., Tim Robbins) and not so left wingers (Samuel Jackson). Seriously, though, the main event is the collection of vulgar jokes thrown everywhere – from songs like “America, fuck yeah, so lick my butt and suck my balls” to extensive barfing and multiple events of extreme misogyny.
Don’t get me wrong, though: given the context and the tone, I have found the whole affair incredibly effective at being hilarious. Ultimately, the scare factor here is not the result of this movie being the gross product that it is; the true terror is in the likes of Tony Abbott, a world leader and the democratically elected Prime Minister of a continent, actually mimicking the puppets in real life.
You can say a lot of bad things about Team America. I doubt, however, you’d be able to name many other movies that depict the Prime Minister of Australia in this certain light that Team America depicts him, and do so as effectively as Team America does. That takes true art.
P.S. Did I mention there are no dark skinned members in Team America?
Best scene: I always had me a soft spot for the montage scene that goes with the song “even Rocky had a montage”, as the Team America chief protagonist prepares for his ultimate mission at the heart of darkness.
Overall: Vulgar, silly but also an effective and too often too true a parody. 4 out of 5 drunk crabs.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Dragon Age: The Masked Empire by Patrick Weekes

Lowdown: Love, war and politics in the game of securing the throne to a fantastic realm.
By now I can safely say Patrick Weekes and I go a long way together. Not that he would know me, but I am a veteran consumer of Weekes’ work. Between his writing in all three Mass Effect games, as well as his novel The Palace Job, Weekes has had direct involvement is some of my most favourite works of fiction ever. Now, with Dragon Age: The Masked Empire, he confidently proves the point yet again.
I did approach The Masked Empire with significant apprehension, though. The book is one of several books already released to cover the Dragon Age swords and sorcery video game franchise, no doubt written to set the scene ahead of the third major game release coming this November, Dragon Age: Inquisition. My problem was my total lack of familiarity with anything Dragon Age: I never played any of the games nor read any of the books. Sure, I like Weekes’ other work, but what good will that do me if I was to pick up the best book ever but totally miss out on it by virtue of my ignorance in its background?
So I did what every normal person does nowadays. I tweeted the question to Patrick Weekes:

Honestly, he already had me by virtue of answering. Now that I’ve read the book I can say that perhaps I could have made more of his creation were I to read the prequels or play the first two games, but what I do know is that I never felt like I was missing out on anything.
Indeed, we start off with well familiar themes to Weekes veterans: female lead characters + same sex relationships. Clearly, Weekes is a person for whom equal rights and same sex marriage in particular represent topics very close to the heart. Me? I’m clapping as he goes along.
Thus we have ourselves Empress Celene, the human ruler of the empire in which our story takes place. Celene’s main pastime is playing The Game, the political game of wheeling and dealing with all those after her position. It’s a lot like Game of Thrones, only that Masked Empire players are more shrewd. Or rather, there’s less blatant sex and outright thuggery and more sophistication to the process, but it all still feels like an Henry the 8th type conundrum from Middle Age Europe.
In addition to magic wielding rings and a knight in shining armour as her official champion, Celene yields a very powerful weapon: her maid, Briala the elf. Elves are the realm’s poor cousins; consider them the niggers of the land (I do not doubt Weekes molded them in that particular shape). Briala may be an elf, she may be a seemingly weak woman – and a maid, at that – but she is also Celene’s secret lover and her main asset in The Game. Just like that Spy that wins you a game of Stratego without the other side knowing where it hit them from.
Together, the two have to deal with aristocrats thinking too highly of themselves, a rebellion of elves that turns into a mini Intifada for reasons very similar to what I have seen pouring through my Twitter stream out of Ferguson USA, and a war that breaks loose when a contender to the throne realises all of the above creates the best of constellations for his claim to the empire. The war, however, is fought over many things: some fight it for the title, some fight it for the status, while others are fighting it in order to gain the rights they deserve.
I started reading The Masked Empire expecting a simplistic D&D grade like story, a cheap fantasy tale like those I used to read in my teens. I thought there will be wizards forging lightning bolts, backstabbing thieves and knights on cavalry. I was right, all of those are present, but there is so much more to The Masked Empire. What starts with the plight for equal rights for gays and develops into the fight for equal rights for the elves goes on to develop into a sweeping political drama with significant depth. We have certain demographics rebelling against the "natural" order of things; we have characters realising that belonging to the same race does not necessarily mean being the same; we have characters having to deal with the collateral damage their seemingly just actions carry; and we have other characters having to make sacrifices in order to achieve their aspired goals. The morality and ethics of the way these characters lead themselves is constantly there for us to witness. More importantly, all these deliberations our characters go through are oh-so-relevant in today’s real life environment, from Gaza to Ferguson.
In particular I liked Masked Empire’s ending. Obviously, I am not about to say much about it, but I will mention it took me by surprise. I was expecting your typical fairy tale ending but instead got an ending worthy of the political drama at hand. No doubt this ending was meant to provide the setting for the video game that follows, but regardless – it’s rare for books to offer such superb endings to follow on such a complex setup. Weekes certainly learned from the Mass Effect 3 ending’s fiasco!
Coupled with its very rich language, a quality far from expected in the 4th book in a video game based book franchise, and you can say I was thoroughly impressed with Dragon Age: The Masked Empire. Or rather, I was very thoroughly impressed with Weekes’ repeat achievements.
From start to finish, I thoroughly enjoyed The Masked Empire. 4.5 out of 5 juicy crabs mean that Patrick Weekes is placing himself firmly in my shortlist of most favourite authors. More importantly, he won himself the title of Restorer of My Faith in the Fantasy Genre.
I very much look forward to his upcoming sequel to The Palace Job. If it’s half as good as this one then we’re in for a major treat!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Elizabeth (revisited)

This is the first time I re-review a movie I have previously reviewed here before. Hope you will find the comparison interesting.

Lowdown: The story of the first Queen Elizabeth's rise to power.
Our recent approach to Elizabeth is more than a bit twisted. Hunger for more Game of Thrones like material made us try Vikings. Vikings, it turns out, was written by a guy called Michael Hirst. Since we liked Viking’s recipe of fact based fiction we further pursued the exploits of Hirst, which sent us watching the TV series The Tudors. Once we finished with the semi historical affairs of King Henry the 8th we were hungry to see what happened afterwards, which – very naturally – sent us on a path to rewatch 1998’s Elizabeth and, for that matter, 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age. It was only in retrospect that we learned these last two were also written by the very same Michael Hirst.
The first time I watched Elizabeth, close to its release date, I did it on laserdisc. The main impressions I carried with me were of a bore-fest filled with dialog I could not properly make up. More notably, that was my first proper encounter with an actress called Cate Blanchett. This time around things are different; for a start, I know much more about Christianity, the division of the English churches, and the background setting (well, I did just watch close to 40 episodes of The Tudors). Logistically speaking, this time around I was also equipped with subtitles.
The result? What used to be a bore-fest has now turned into an intriguing, if often too slow for its own good, movie.
Although in many respect Elizabeth feels like a direct sequel to The Tudors (ignoring the fact the latter was produced later), it starts off a decade or so after The Tudors finished. Not only did Henry die, but his son Edward followed his steps already, too. We are now at the end of the reign of Queen Mary, King Henry’s oldest daughter and the result of his first marriage with a devout Spanish (and catholic) aristocrat. Mary took after her mother, and set forth “mending” the changes her father had made – that is, restoring Catholicism to England, and quite brutally so (which earned her the title “Bloody Mary”).
But things were not going well for Mary and her faith. Mary was suffering from cancer, and given her preferred religion’s preference to burn inquisitive minds rather than listening to them (lest we ever forget that aspect of Catholicism!), there was no cure for her despite a kingdom full of resources standing at her command. Worse, she was unable to provide an heir.
Thus, upon Mary's death, her title went over to Henry’s second daughter. That daughter was the product of Henry's second marriage to the protestant Anne Boleyn: Elizabeth (the First, not to be confused with Betty the Second, England’s current monarch).
Elizabeth the movie occupies itself with two core stories. First there is the story of how Elizabeth withheld her reign in the face of catholic noble adversaries who yearned for nothing less than her fall and the return of a ruler more sympathetic to their faith. Standing by Elizabeth's side is the ruthless yet loyal head of not-so-covert operations, Walsingham (portrayed by fellow Australian Geoffrey Rush).
The second core theme revolves around explaining why Elizabeth gained the title Virgin Queen (as manifested, amongst others, in the US state of Virginia, which was named after her). Elizabeth never married but, as the film tells us, had a bit of a crash on an Earl called Robert (Joseph Fiennes). Naturally, the romantic aspects of the queen’s life have direct impact on all other aspects of her rule.
Historically speaking, all this conniving around the crown is very relevant to a world commemorating the 100th “birthday” of World War 1. The connection is clear: the same meaningless plotting and fighting in the name of meaningless values were at hand with the break of the Great War. And meaningless they are, because the laymen do not care which of their alleged nobles is worthy of a crown; the laymen want to live, it’s the nobles that send them to die in the name of their internal power struggles. Differences between Catholicism and Protestantism might have seem profound 500 years ago, but in modern eyes they feel more like debating which of two farts smell worse once simultaneously released into a tight room. Yet these exact quarrels have sent millions to their untimely deaths.
My ignorance in the matters contended by Elizabeth and her peers now dissolved, I could concentrate on enjoying the movie at hand. However, one thing I could not do – a thing I could not do with any of the characters from The Tudors, either – was identify with any of them. So far are these people from us, 21st century folk.
Perhaps it is this peek into the workings of ancient times that is the true worth of Elizabeth?
Overall: A proper historical drama sporting fine actors and irrelevant conflicts, Elizabeth easily earns 3.5 out of 5 crabs and then some.