Friday, April 23, 2010

Movies Which I Have Done Seen Recently


A Serious Man

Here's the Coen brothers in full-on "weird" mode, as in more "Barton Fink" than "Raising Arizona." But what a strange, captivatingly weird one this is -- a kind of tangled meditation on fate, faith and the cruel whims of the universe, all cycling around one Larry Gopnik's tragic, slow downfall in 1960s Minnesota. Gopnik (a superb Michael Stuhlbarg) is a college professor who over the course of the movie battles infidelity, spoiled children, crazy neighbours and student blackmail. The theme is, as Roger Ebert says, "why, God, why?" It's the Coen brothers at their best -- comic in as black a fashion as possible, but also quizzical, with plenty to chew on afterwards. It may not have gotten quite as much acclaim, but in its wry way it's easily as good as "No Country For Old Men." It's also their most explicitly "Jewish" movie, meditating on whether God really cares. Stuhlbarg -- who looks like a nerdier Joaquin Phoenix -- is a marvel as Gopnik, who remains hopeful up to the very end of his trials. Of course if you're the kind of viewer who wants to shout at the television to characters "stop being such a doormat," you might find Gopnik's adventures irksome. But there's beauty, quirk and grace galore in this gem, particularly in its fragile, haunting ending. Grade: A

Where The Wild Things Are

It's a funny beast, this adaptation of Maurice Sendak's wonderful picture book. I'm a huge fan of director Spike Jonze, whose "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" are in my top movies of recent years. Visually, this movie is a marvel -- lovely, textured beasts, a sun-burnished island paradise, and the kid who plays Max is just perfect -- but yet, while I liked it, I didn't quite get swept away by it. It's hard work spinning out a 12-page story or so into a full movie, but Jonze gets too carried away by the sadder undertones of the story and turns it all into a rather emo ode for lost childhood. I knew going in this wasn't one for kids, really, but I don't see why this movie had to be so darned melancholy, basically -- there's just not a lot of joy to it, and everyone is rather mopey. Yes, childhood ending is sad and we all have feelings we can't articulate, but I feel like "Wild Things" just wasn't quite wild enough, that it missed the colourful (if slightly disturbing) feeling of Sendak's works. A little solemnity goes an awful long way. The beasts look perfect, though -- they aren't some CGI monstrosities, but have real depth and soul.

Grade: B-

The Blind Side

A wealthy white Southern woman (Sandra Bullock) takes in and basically adopts a poor black kid -- who then goes on to become a college football superstar and changes everyone's lives. Yeah, it's another Saintly Black People Make Uptight White Folks Feel Good movie. Yet hang on, because it is based on a true story, so that takes some of the sanctimonious feeling away, at least for me. The tale of Mike Oher and his harsh upbringing rings true, as does Lee Ann Tuohy's (Bullock) unplanned intervention in his dead-end life. Sometimes people do just do good things, and in its way "The Blind Side" is predictable and yet kind of sweet. Bullock is quite good -- Oscar-deserving good, I don't really agree, but she does really make you believe she's a certain type of steely-yet-soft Southern matriarch. But she does show more acting chops than she's generally known for. But the kid, Oher, is a bit too much of an empty vessel. This is a hugely "American" movie with people glued to college football and eating huge Thanksgiving dinners and so forth; it made me a bit homesick for the South and it amused me to see a movie where the entire plot turns upon a fellow being accepted to my old alma mater, Ole Miss. It's a bit overlong, but while you know where it's going, it's an OK movie for the kind of movie it is.

Grade: B-

Monday, April 19, 2010

Winding our way to Wellington

PhotobucketSo last week was school holidays and we packed up for a quick jaunt down to Wellington, New Zealand's illustrious capital city. I hadn't been there in 10 years, since my very first trip to NZ. It was good to get on an old-fashioned road trip, too. Geography here kind of means you can't drive most directions without hitting the sea before too long, but the 8-hour drive south to Wellington is one of the longest treks you can take on one island. And sometimes, this American just misses the lure of the open road.

Of all the NZ cities I've been to Wellington reminds me the most of my beloved San Francisco -- jammed into a tight bay, hilly, perched over the tempestous ocean, with lots of nifty architecture, narrow, charming timber structures wedged onto vertical spaces. And Wellington is WINDY. Not just mildly breezy but incredibly windy, with winds pouring into the U-shaped harbour at varying degrees of severity. It wasn't even particularly gusty while we were there but after a couple of days of it I thought yeah, this could be tiresome.

PhotobucketThat aside, though, Wellington is a fine place -- the city centre is compact and has that "government town" feeling most capitals do, with lots of folks in suits and ties. Compared to the 1.2 million or so people in the Auckland area, Wellington feels like a small town. You've got the Parliament (which I toured last time I was in town so we didn't go today), plus the huuuuuge national museum Te Papa, which we took the boy to. It's full of art, buttons to push, flashing lights, holographic maps and even a giant dead pickled colossal squid.

As I mentioned before, Wellington is VERY vertical (many houses have long steep steps going up to them, and some even have little motorized cable cars to carry them up). I love the steep scale of Wellington, with so much packed vertically into small space, it's got a cozy feeling. There's some excellent shopping -- big ups to Slowboat Records where I found a rare Alex Chilton CD I've been hunting, and the awesome Sweet Mother's Kitchen, a New Orleans-inspired restaurant where we ate twice in once day (and I had hush puppies for the first time in yeeeears). Another nifty spot to visit was Weta Studios' small museum/shop out in the burbs -- Weta is the special effects studio who work with Sir Peter Jackson on films such as "Lord of the Rings" and "King Kong" and they had tons of interesting props on show. We also drove along the Wellington peninsula which had marvelous views out into Cook Strait, and full of beautiful little isolated beach communities that don't feel like they're 10 minutes from downtown. You could even park at the edge of the airport and watch planes come down into the runway.

'Twas a swell trip down to NZ's second city, and I'm hoping it's not another 10 years before we make it down there again!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Movie Review: Kick-Ass


What if Quentin Tarantino had made "Spider-Man"?

The result might well be something like "Kick-Ass," an absurdly violent and profanity-filled romp that is definitely not a superhero movie for kids.

Dave Lizewsky (a nerdy-yet-heroic Aaron Johnson) is a typical New York teen, obsessed with superheroes.

One day, he decides to toss on a colourful wetsuit and patrol his neighbourhood as the superhero Kick-Ass. Unfortunately, Kick-Ass soon draws the attention of the local mob man (a sneering Mark Strong) and other vigilante heroes, including the menacing ex-cop Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his whirling dervish of a daughter, Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). Needless to say, things get out of control fast.

"Kick-Ass" prides itself on being a "realistic" look at superheroes -- nobody has strange powers, and Kick-Ass -- well, he spends a lot of the movie getting his ass (or arse, if you prefer) kicked.

Director Matthew Vaughan piles on the colorful carnage and comedy, with buckets of profanity, blood and slayings that are more for laughs than anything. But he also cleverly makes "Kick-Ass" feel topical with nods to Internet celebrity and televised terrorism.

"Kick-Ass" is a heck of a lot of fun, although it's kidding itself if it thinks it's really that revolutionary and "realistic." "Kick-Ass" at its core is no more realistic than Batman, really.

Confession and digression: I actually haven't read the "Kick Ass" comics the movie is based on yet, but this movie's whiz-bang shock-and-awe approach is pure Mark Millar, the comic's prolific creator. Millar can be an entertaining comics writer, but he's also hugely up himself when he blathers along on comments like "Watchmen isn't that realistic – there's a big blue guy with his dick out, you know?" Kick-Ass is hardly a model of realism either. Millar's work is all about the action-movie kick - which he does very well in stuff like "Wanted," "The Ultimates" and "The Authority." Frankly, I'm turned off by Millar's egocentric public persona, but his comics do deliver a punch. But Millar's flaw is that his work rarely engages the heart like it does the fanboy gut, and to me nothing Millar's ever written comes within the range of what Grant Morrison or Alan Moore have done with the genre.

Rant aside.
Johnson, in his first big role, makes a mark as Kick-Ass, making this rather clueless do-gooder believable. Cage is marvelous as "Big Daddy," doing a kind of twisted impression of Adam West as Batman in the 1960s TV series. And little Moretz as Hit-Girl just about steals the movie.

But if you find the notion of a 12-year-old girl swearing like a sailor and killing gangsters in assorted inventive ways offensive, "Kick Ass" is probably not the movie for you. It definitely pushes the edge of good taste, but never in a truly sadistic way.

The movie is best when it goes gleefully, goofily over the top, making fun of superheroes but also embracing them in all their colourful glory.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Like blogger, like son

PhotobucketI reckon I've been blogging on and off 6 years or so now and it's time to let the younger generation do their thing. Allow me to hype to you my wee boy's blog, showcasing the remarkable variety and creativity of his swell and nifty art creations! With a little help from Mum, it's Peter's Creations! Go check it out.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The answer is the question is the answer

PhotobucketIt's been our Wednesday night ritual now for the last six years to watch "Lost," and see where the twists and turns take us next. Now that it's in its final year, I honestly admit I have no idea where this show will end up. It started off as a "when will the castaways be rescued" drama, but that rescue ended up happening in Season 3. Now, it's some kind of time-travelly science fiction existential mythological epic that appears to be, in its last weeks, shaping up into a clash between good and evil god-figures. Not quite what one first expected when Oceanic Flight 815 went down!

The byzantine path the show has taken in the last six years is breathtaking. The closest comparisons to a TV show that I can make is "The Prisoner," or "Twin Peaks" but unlike those shows, which were elliptical and surreal from the start, "Lost" has gradually spun its web into something vast, mythological and occasionally overwrought (any time the series focuses too long on cliched Kate, the "hot girl led astray," for instance). In Series 6, "Lost" keeps spiraling its fractal story outwards, making you wonder how it can possibly all come together at the end in a few months. (We're a couple of weeks behind the show as it airs in the US, so no spoilers please!)

One big theme of "Lost" seems to be that nobody is quite what they seem. Jack, the ostensible "hero" of the show, has turned out to be frequently bungling, easily unmanned and troubled. Sawyer, the loveable rogue, has become the show's angry but steely man of action, while the most compelling character arc has been the one-time villain Ben's gradual redemption. Which might not pan out, of course.

PhotobucketBut is there a more fascinating character than the one who I think is the real focus of the series -- poor doomed, then resurrected John Locke. Locke is the man of constantly shattered faith, the endlessly questing philosopher who is always being proved wrong. Locke's dogged search for the answers and the heartbreaking end of this quest is by far "Lost's" most interesting storyline, I think. And in Series 6, it's taken a twist by the resurrection of "John Locke," now host to the mysterious adversary, Jacob's enemy, who appears to be the "main" villain of the series. Or is he a villain? Terry O'Quinn has been great throughout the series as Locke, who swings between clenched confidence and abject misery. Now, as "Not-Locke," O'Quinn makes an absolutely fascinating focus for "Lost's" endless twists. I don't know if the "real" John Locke will return or not -- dead doesn't always mean dead -- but even if he doesn't, John Locke's quest for meaning neatly sums up "Lost."

It's still a wild ride, even if several times an episode the wife and I have to turn to each other and say things like "who's that again?" and "where was Jin last time we saw him?" "Lost" has woven such a tangled web that I feel like I'll have to read some of the inevitable "Guide to Lost" books that will come out once the series concludes.

There will be those who inevitably complain that we didn't get all of the "answers" when "Lost" ends. I would say that a huge part of the story has actually become clear this year. But you know, even if every dangling subplot isn't resolved, I'm enjoying the questions just as much.