Film review: Team America: World Police

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Team America

If you laugh just thinking about the funny puppet walk the Tracy family used to do on Thunderbirds, you’re in for a gut-bustingly hilarious treat. If you’re offended by obscene language and the complete destruction of the ridiculously pompous concept known as the ‘American Dream’ and think Top Gun was good cinema, go elsewhere (not that you’d be reading this blog anyway). As for me, as soon as those wobbly puppets came on the screen in the opening sequence of Team America: World Police, I started laughing my head off, and hardly got a breath in for the rest of the film.

All the things we’ve come to expect from the South Park team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone are here—the obscene language, the scattergun lampooning of anyone remotely famous, but you might be surprised at how much acting you can get out of a puppet, and how clearly this brings into focus the crap masquerading as entertainment we are served by Hollywood. In fact there’s even a few unexpected moments of pathos—who would have thought one could feel sorry for a bunch of drowned puppets (until the stiff drowned chickens float into view that is); and Kim Jong Il singing ‘I’m So Ronery’ almost brings a tear to the eye while you piss yourself laughing.

The songs and music are perfect and perfectly satirise showtunes, pop songs and even the over-the-top John Williamesque orchestration that comes standard with every blockbuster these days. I was chuckling to myself all the next day—much to my girlfriend’s frustration as she hadn’t seen it with me—as hilarious scenes kept popping back into my head. I won’t spoil the jokes; wobble as fast as you can to the nearest cinema and catch Team America. Required viewing.

Four and a half Susan Sarandons out of five.


Film review: Garden State

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Garden State

So Zach told me to tell all my friends to go see his film Garden State. Sure Zach, it’s cool.

OK, so there was a cinema full of people, but it was the first screening in Australia and Zach Braff, 29-year-old writer, director and star of his movie, was there to answer questions after the film. Effortlessly confident and funny, like a better-looking Joss Whedon, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Of course, it helped that we’d all just enjoyed his little gem of a film. (What’s it like to field questions from an audience on a press junket when your film is crap, I wonder?)

Garden State doesn’t set out to change the world, but it’s a beautiful film, simple, funny, well filmed and sensitively acted. Natalie Portman does one of her best acting turns as Sam, the girl who pops up like a bobbing cork in the life of Andrew Largeman, heavily-medicated actor returning to his home town in New Jersey for the funeral of his mother. Add some interesting characters, a brief bit of father-son reconciliation, a touch of tragedy, a great pop soundtrack, and sit back and enjoy the gentle journey. Braff loves a wide, still frame (often of his own face) but contrasts beautifully with sweeping emotive crane shots. Like Largeman’s medicated upbringing, there are very few rough edges here and things don’t always feel true to the real messiness that is life. But the film is no less enjoyable for that. We all want someone to appear in our lives and make it alright, and few of us are lucky enough to have that happen. Why not see it happen on the screen sometimes?

Four tears in a cup out of five.


Film review: Hero

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Hero

Unlike Tarantino and so many of his generation I never spent days in Chinatown film theatres soaking up triple martial arts bills, so I can’t namedrop directors, scenes or moves from Chinese or Hong Kong classics. In fact I hate to say it but the wire-work still looks a little silly to me. Ignorance aside however, surely the greatest expression of the genre has come with Zhang Yimou’s Hero, so much so that it doesn’t seem necessary to go back through Jet Li’s catalogue.

Here he stars as ‘Nameless’, a mysterious martial arts genius who appears at the court of Qin claiming to have rid the King (Chen Daomin) of three peerless assassins, Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Snow (Maggie Cheung Man Yuk). The setting is China of the 3rd century BC, when the land is ravaged by the wars between seven kingdoms.

If nothing else, go and see the film for meticulously crafted visuals. Almost every shot is perfection, perfectly composed and vibrant with colour. Perhaps there are some plot and style issues which would benefit from a greater understanding of Chinese cultural norms; the final moral behind the story was one I found difficult to come to terms with, some have said the film is a ringing endorsement of the current oppressive Chinese regime, and a Chinese audience might have connected better with some of the more melodramatic moments. But this is an epic story, so melodrama can be forgiven.

But putting all that aside, the film is stunning, and some scenes left me open-mouthed with wonder and amazed at the technical and artistic achievements of the filmakers. I have never seen colour used with such boldness and beauty. The one advantage of it coming so late to Australian screens is that we won’t have to wait long for the director’s next, supposedly even more impressive film, House of Flying Daggers.

Four autumn leaves out of five.


Film review: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

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Journey to the Centre of the Earth

It’s been many years since I enjoyed this 1959 classic from childhood Sunday afternoon television, so I was very excited to discover it again this weekend on DVD. This sci-fi gem is still as magical as I remember it, though it may make you a little nostalgic for that blissfully vivid imagination you had as a child that was free of cynicism and could easily fill in all the gaps.

A lot of the wonder of the film comes through the fully-committed performance of James Mason as Professor Oliver Lindenbrook, whose enthusiasm for treking towards the centre of the earth is catching. The film takes its time building up the excitement—we’re even treated to a bit of vocal serenading by then-hardthrob Pat Boone—so when finally the party gathers on the slopes of an extinct volcano and the dawn light shines onto the spot where they are to enter the Earth, you really want to don your hiking boots and join this bunch of loonies on their adventure.

Unlike the special-effects-heavy sci-fi of today, the film gives us memorable characters and relationships; you can’t help but enjoy the verbal sparring between Lindenbrook and the strong-willed Mrs. Carla Goetaborg (Arlene Dahl); or hate the slimy Count Saknussem (Thayer David) who you just know is going to meet a richly-deserved end; even Gertrude the Duck gets our sympathy (thanks to probably the best performance by a duck you’re ever likely to see).

The effects run the gamut from tacky (real lizards in slow motion with fins stuck on their backs are the giant dinosaurs) and the astounding (some beautiful classic-era matte painting, especially the views of the Underground Sea), and perhaps a little more real location work (some scenes were filmed in Carlsbad Caverns) rather than cardboard sets would have been better; but Journey still maintains it’s fascination throughout. A classic I’m very happy to have in my DVD collection.

Four and a half giant mushrooms out of five.


Film review: Shaun of the Dead

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Shaun of the Dead

Having been chewed up and spat out by London twice in my life, there’s nothing I like more than having a good laugh at the London slacker stereotype who spends his days down the pub. And before everyone starts groaning and feasting on flesh, the scenes where Shaun (Simon Pegg) goes about his normal routine are some of the best in this very funny ‘romantic comedy, with zombies’.

In fact, apart from the flesh-eating, the film makes plain there’s very little difference between your average Londoner going to work and a flesh-eating zombie. Shaun spends his days in a crap job, on the couch playing video games or down the pub with his disgusting mate Ed (Nick Frost), and it’s only a plague of animated dead people that gets him up off the couch to save his Mum and his recently-ex girlfriend. They’re joined by the excellent Dylan Moran Of TV’s Black Books playing an annoying yuppie and Lucy Davis of The Office as his ‘failed actress’ girlfriend.

I’ve seen many a horror film in my time (especially in my early twenties when I was seeing a very innocent-looking blonde who in fact had a strange obsession with gory horror videos that I never questioned at the time), but there was one scene in particular where my stomach turned over, and if I was a kid I’m sure would haunt me for years. It seems strange how this film gets an MA rating, but a bit of sex tips a film into R territory—but that’s a whole other subject.

It’s good to see some well-made English comedy making it to the big screen and while the film is a bit of a one-joke affair, it’s so well made that as much as possible is squeezed out of that joke. Thanks to a tight script, imaginative direction and good acting, Shaun of the Dead even manages to wring out a little social comment, pathos and real horror as well.

Three and a half darts out of five.


Film review: Big Fish

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Big Fish

I missed Tim Burton’s latest at the cinema but saw it the other night on DVD, and I can’t help but give it a good review since the tears were flowing at the end—and any film that gets the emotions churning that much must be doing something right. Sure, it has many flaws. It’s not as magical and other-worldly as Burton’s usual work (excepting the forgettable Planet of the Apes of course); Billy Crudup is a bit of a charismatic black hole, and to me Ewan McGregor is one of those actors who doesn’t become the character, but always just seems to be playing slight variations on himself.

But that said, I enjoyed the film and the comfortably sentimental journey it takes you on. I’m a sucker for the classic father-son redemption storyline, and the big themes of life and death, love and remembrance, and they are touched on lovingly. It’s a film full of storybook imagery and warmth and a welcome return to form.

Three and a half jumping spiders out of five.


Film review: I, Robot

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I, Robot

I’m beginning to think I need two film review scales: one for ‘summer blockbusters’ and another for ‘real films’. Can one really compare a special effects blockbuster to an emotional character piece, for example? Not really; so keep in mind my ratings are a function of the genre. In any event I’m scaling them down a tad so I have more room to move for those films that are really memorable.

As the credits rolled on I, Robot I felt as if I’d been quite entertained; until the vaguely apologetic sentence ‘inspired by Asimov’s book’ came up on the screen and I suddenly recalled how many blockbuster movie cliches had wended their weary way across my eyes.
Of course, abandon all hope of being true to Asimov all ye who enter: we all knew that from the first trailer.

I, Robot isn’t a bad film, though one wonders how much Alex Proyas was forced to include or leave out by the beancounting suits at Fox. No director puts four or more screen-filling shots of the Audi logo in his or her film by choice, surely, and the references to Smith’s ‘retro 2004 shoes’ must have muscled out some nice screentime filled with, oh say useless things like character development. It’s just frustrating how many boxes have to be checked these days for the studio to guarantee their millions of dollars on a film. Check, the car chase; check, the troubled cop with a past; check, the sweet old grandmother (with pie); check, the sexy but frigid scientist who at the end of the film sports tousled hair and leather pants.

The film looks great, the action is slick, there are some nice camera moves, and Will Smith does his Will Smith thing perfectly. Alan Tudyk does a nice job as the robot (check out his great work as Wash in the fantastic Firefly). The plot is even a little more complex than at first glance. You’ll feel entertained. And then the credits roll, and that ‘inspired by Asimov’s book’ line comes up, and you think “There’s so much fantastic sci-fi literature out there, years and years of it, great stories; why can’t they just stick to the story?”

Two and a half NS-5s out of five.


Film review: Spiderman 2

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Spiderman 2

Spiderman was one of my favourite superheros as a child, and not just because we both had the same first name (though that counted for a lot). Peter Parker was a real person struggling to deal with a normal life and a super-one, long before Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns made super heroes synonymous with psychology.

So it’s a pleasure to see Sam Raimi giving us films as rich as the source material, along with a playful sense of humour, the visual flair that first blew us away in Evil Dead, and a bunch of actors proving you don’t have to ham it up just because you spend a lot of the movie running around in primary colors or with four mechanical tentacles attached to your back. In fact, though the action scenes are incredible, it’s the subtlety of Tobey Maguire’s performance that defines the movie.

With Spiderman 2 Raimi, freed from the need to tell his back story, throws himself with obvious pleasure into making a classic Spidey tale. The film is a joy to watch from start to finish, and it feels like they had as almost as much fun making it; take for example some classic horror B-movie homage shots, the hilarious elevator scene, and the delight taken hammering in the pathetic state of Peter Parker’s life. Amazingly, the laugh-out-loud scenes are perfectly balanced by beautifully acted and emotional ones, some of which revel in the rich symbolism possible in this genre.

Watching a superhero blockbuster done so well throws into sharp relief how badly done they usually are. Spiderman 2 is a rollercoaster ride with action, emotion, laughs and, surprisingly, depth.

4 and a half web-slingers out of 5.


Film review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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Harry Potter

You’ve probably heard by now that the new Harry Potter film is the best of the three so far, and you’ve heard right. Alfonso Cuarón was an unusual choice for a director but an inspired one—he brings to the films almost everything Chris Columbus didn’t. For me however (and I can see Potter fans drawing their wands and readying a painful spell as I prepare to write this), it still lacks that certain something that would turn it into classic fantasy.

The first pleasant surprise is how much better Azkaban looks than its predecessors. Chris Columbus has that annoyingly safe way of making his films look like the sets are lit with thousand blub lights so we don’t miss the work of his clever art directors and set designers. Cuarón instead swallows his world in shadow and desaturated colour that perfectly suits the menace of the wraithlike Dementors. It’s most obvious in the Quidditch game, a setpiece that formerly has looked like one of those virtual reality rides at Vegas, and this time is played in the middle of a thunderstorm and makes you feel just how precarious it would be to fly around at 10,000 feet clutching a broomstick. In fact the flying scenes are all excellent—when Harry rides a hippogriff above Hogwarts you share in his fear and exhilaration.

I suppose the films are successfully reflecting the deeper and darker themes of the books as the series continues. But although I did really enjoy this film, I caught myself wishing I was more emotionally involved even as I was watching. Perhaps I’m asking too much of a ‘summer blockbuster’, perhaps it’s due to the forgettable score by John Williams, perhaps the scene when Gandalf and the Rohan charged down the hill to Helm’s Deep has spoilt me forever, but Harry Potter just missed the mark. Here’s hoping the next film delves even deeper into the dark shadows of Harry’s world.

3 and a half marauder’s maps out of 5.


Film review: Touching the Void

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Touching the Void

You know, I don’t get it. What drives people to risk their lives hanging off cliffs by nothing but an ice axe buried in powdery snow, while three thousand feet of empty space yawns under them? After watching Touching the Void from director Kevin MacDonald, I was no closer to an answer, but I was a lot closer to complete bodily exhaustion, and I hadn’t even left my seat for the late dash for a choc-top. This visceral, uncompromising docudrama puts you through the true-life struggles of two English climbers who tackled the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The dramatic visuals—so well done it took me a little while to realise it wasn’t actual footage of the expedition—are strongly counterpointed by a matter-of-fact narration by the actual climbers.

I have a strange fascination with disaster stories—”I’m just going outside and I may be some time” is one of my favourite quotes—and this one doesn’t disappoint. You’ll marvel at the arrogance of two men barely in their twenties setting off up an unclimbed mountain face alpine-style (no back up and only one rope between them) with no one at base camp except a backpacker who didn’t even know their last names. But no one can deny or fail to wonder at the incredible endurance, courage and sheer bloody-mindedness that some human beings are capable of. Without doubt you’ll leave the cinema with that same old question uppermost in your minds: “what would I have done?”

4 back up plans out of 5.


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