AICN-Downunder: WALL STREET 2, THE OTHER GUYS, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, and much more!
Someone reminded me I once said "greed is good". Now it seems it's legal, because everyone is drinking the same Kool Aid.
So, Australia finally got itself a new government after over two weeks of kvetching, and although the result isn't particularly surprising or disappointing or inspiring, the process was pretty interesting. Was anyone else watching it thinking what a great film it would make? Or was that just me?
Okay, so this edition is extremely light on news, so I'm going to do a switch'n'bait on you, and start with a news item which actually will degenerate into pure speculation. As has been widely reported, Martin Freeman has apparently been offered the role of Bilbo in THE HOBBIT. This is nerdiest of the highest nature, but when THE HOBBIT was first mooted as a project, I simply assumed that Ian Holm would be back. After all, he looked suitably young in the flashback scene at the beginning of FELLOWSHIP, a scene that takes place during THE HOBBIT. So here's my thinking: the notable delay of the extended LORD OF THE RINGS on Blu-Ray, could it be because they're going to insert the Freeman scene into the LOTR Blu-Ray, linking the films and making them all the more consistent? Kind of like what Lucas did with Hayden Christiansen in RETURN OF THE JEDI, except less irritating. Theorising over.
AICN-Downunder's Follow Friday: (Drop me a line if there are any Australian or New Zealand films not mentioned here.) Read about the fascinating journeys Anti-podean films take from production through post-production and into release! Click to follow controversial Uighur documentary 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE, crime epic ANIMAL KINGDOM, science fiction-slash-horror THE DARK LURKING, reality television/terrorism satire ELIMINATED, superhero movie GRIFF THE INVISIBLE, self-described "womantic comedy" JUCY, intriguing-looking horror film THE LOVED ONES, the John Hurt/Emily Barclay-starring LOU, Nadia Tass's kids-with-leukemia romp MATCHING JACK, self-described "graphic novel-style bushranger adventure film" MOONLITE, the Joel Edgerton-starring SAY NOTHING, star-studded romantic drama SUMMER CODA, giant shark movie THE REEF, giant squid movie $QUID, long-awaited teen book adaptation TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN, Cannes's closing night film THE TREE, the crowdsourcing horror film THE TUNNEL, and Claire McCarthy's THE WAITING CITY. And for those still reading, this here is me.
AWARDS, FESTIVALS AND SCREENINGS
35th Toronto International Film Festival
Last column I mentioned the Australian films playing at this year's Toronto Film Festival. Now for the Kiwis: New Zealand films MATARIKI and TRACKER will play at the fest (note the trendy abbrev). MATARIKI is a drama about a rugby player who intervenes in a fight, causing a series of escalating and presumably-dramatic events. TRACKER is set in 1903, and follows a guerilla from the Boer war sent to track down a Maori accused of killing a British soldier. Both films will screen in the Contemporary World Cinema section.
54th London International Film Festival
VIA GORI is a film I'm still kicking myself for missing at MIFF this year. The Australian production filmed in Georgia, and is about the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. The film will screen at LIFF this October.
Brisbane International Film Festival 2010
Brisbane clearly wants to be just like Melbourne. Not only have they stolen our MIFF director (BIFF is now headed up by Richard Moore), but BUFF -- the Brisbane Underground Film Festival -- has just begun its inaugural year. Meanwhile, BIFF itself has now moved to a November slot to align itself with Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Documentary Edge Festival
New Zealand's Documentary Edge Festival is apparently the only international competitive film festival for docos in all of Australasia. The festival is open to veteran doco makers and newbies alike, so if you've got a great film burning a hole in your Final Cut Pro suite, burn it to a disc and get cracking. Submissions are closing soon, so be quick! Check out the festival's website here, and the submission info here.
TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN is getting a lot of very passionate critiques, but I'm yet to hear two that are even vaguely similar. Everyone has a different take on what's good/bad about the film, but it seems to have captured audiences' attentions, taking out the number one spot in both Australia and New Zealand. For all the attention THE DARK TOWER has been getting with its plans to do three movies and a TV show, it's TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN that'll achieve that goal first, particularly if this success keeps up.
1. TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN
2. DESPICABLE ME
5. GOING THE DISTANCE
6. VAMPIRES SUCK
7. THE EXPENDABLES
8. PIRANHA 3D
9. STEP UP 3D
10. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
RELEASED THIS PAST FORTNIGHT
The original Cole Porter version of this film was DE-SPICABLE ME, the original Cole Porter version of this film was DE-SAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED, the original Cole Porter version of this film was SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS, GOING THE DISTANCE looks to be the best romantic comedy based on an unearthly whisper from FIELD OF DREAMS since HE WILL COME, another disaster hits Christchurch, I think I'd have liked ALICE IN WONDERLAND more if Mia Wasikowska's parents in that had been played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, you have to scroll down or click on the link to discover just how passionately I feel about this film, Nicole Holofcener remains awesome, Joan Jett runs-away to New Zealand, Nicolas Cage's crazy hair can do magic, and I have this complex theory about Hugh Jackman and therefore Wolverine being Australian so TWTWB is most certainly RED DAWN, and
WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS
Australian/New Zealand release: September 23
Creating a sequel to a film that itself is dwarfed by its own legend cannot be easy. The fact that the quote "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good" has been replaced with the truncated "Greed is good" in the collective hive mind that is popular culture, is indicative of the film's runaway reputation. It doesn't matter how good the sequel is, it can never hope to capture the zeitgeist that the original did.
MONEY NEVER SLEEPS is a deceptively deft sequel. It captures the mood and tone of the original, mixes financial intrigue with its impact on personal lives, and creates a murky pond in which sharks and the morally righteous become almost indistinguishable. It does everything the original does, yet manages to avoid repeating the plot beats of the original film. It is, if nothing else, surprisingly good.
It's not great, though, and given how close it is the original, I can only assume that failing comes from the weighted expectations I alluded to earlier. The use of the worldwide financial collapse of 2008 as a looming backdrop is clever, albeit inevitable, and Gecko himself suggests that his crimes in the first film were nothing compared to the business-as-usual dealings of the 21st century. It's an apt comparison, as a recent re-viewing on my part of the first film made Gecko look like a sainted aunt in light of recent real-world events.
Gecko's inclusion in the film is brilliantly-handled. I was afraid they would make the mistake of thinking he was a lead character, and his lovable antagonist character would be forced into the role of cloyingly-redeemed protagonist. The film does not make this mistake. Just like WALL STREET was about Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox, MONEY NEVER SLEEPS focuses on Shia LaBeouf's Jacob Moore, and rather than echoing Fox's rise to the top, Moore is someone who's already there. He's a kid genius who, no matter how much hard work he's put in to get himself there, has still had far too much success for someone that young. He has everything he could possibly want, and the only direction for him to go is down: all he can ever do is lose it. If the 80s was about getting to the top, the 00s has been about plunging back down.
I've been hedging my bets about LaBeouf, never really hating or loving him in anything I've seen him in, but he's excellent as Jacob Moore. It's probably his best role to date, and he carries the film with ease. Carey Mulligan is great as always, and the various supporting actors -- Josh Brolin, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Frank Langella -- all do solid work. The characters themselves are a great piece of misdirection: Langella is the moralistic mentor and Brolin is the sleazy shark. With those roles covered, it remains a mystery throughout where they're going to take Douglas's Gecko. Is he going to get a subtle redemption, or turn out to be a bigger bastard than we originally knew? Is he coming back to his stomping ground bigger than before, or is he a pale shadow of his former self? Gecko is the biggest mystery in the film, and even though I'm not convinced his resolution is handled as well as it could have been, it's a far more interesting arc than I thought they were going to give him.
Oliver Stone's direction has never been in the same hemisphere as "subtle", and there are more than a few scenes that made me think I was watching SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD (or, to be fair to Stone, NATURAL BORN KILLERS), but more often than not, it works. The script's mix of the subtle and the obvious is eclectic, but it works.
The message that greed is bad is not as shocking as the original message that greed (for lack of a better word) is good. Although, that wasn't technically the message of the first film. But that lack of foundation-shaking will prevent this from being the shock to the system that the original film is, and it will not enter the public consciousness in the same way. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it an indictment of the film's quality. It's a damned good effort, and certainly worthy of its predecessor.
THE OTHER GUYS
Australian/New Zealand release: September 9
There's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that 5% of this film is pretty funny. The bad news is that if you doubled that number, then doubled that
number, then doubled that
number, then doubled that
number, that would still be a fairly piss-poor ratio.
THE OTHER GUYS adheres to the current trend of mainstream American comedy, in which jokes are considered unnecessary. Not just jokes; no one bothers to bring the funny here. The entire film is played at the same volume, with people free-associating at the top of their lungs at one another, interspersed with the occasional action scene or randomly-chosen song, presumably taken from whatever came up on Adam McKay's iPod that day.
The first five minutes are promising. When the film opens, it becomes clear that it is attempting to spoof the conventions of the action film. With the action film largely dead, this feels like a spoof twenty years too late, but it's still pretty entertaining, so I enjoyed it. You know those nameless police officers working away in the background in films about renegade, roguish cops? This is a film about them. At least, it purports to be. (Why we are following these guys is a mystery to me, as no film has ever made me wonder what those guys do when the camera isn't on them, but this paragraph is throwing up enough tangents as it is, so I'll leave this one for now.) The first five minutes are all about Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnston, who don't actually feel like a mismatched action film buddy duo, because they're both clearly cut from the same cloth. But that doesn't matter so much. Their scenes are funny enough, but once they're removed from the picture, the film stop being about "those guys in the background", because the background guys are moved to the foreground. When a film can't maintain its own unique premise for more than a few minutes, the danger sign lights up.
The interaction between Ferrell's character and Wahlberg's characters is flat and underdeveloped. It starts at a strangely-annoying antagonistic level, and stays there for the whole film. Worse than that, not a single character in this film is likable or believable, even believable within the overtly unbelievable context of the film. There's no character consistency even within the same scene, with every character a perpetual blank slate upon which any "crazy" action can be painted. As a buddy cop movie, it's a failure: neither of the main characters has any weight or fidelity, and there is no point at which we feel any sympathy or connection to either of them. As a spoof of buddy cop movies, it's also a failure: all the normal mores and practices of buddy cop movies are ignored outright, and no stereotype is turned on its head (save for a complaint about cops in movies who walk away from explosions, but one line doesn't save it).
The plot is the funniest thing about the film. It's competing with itself to see whether it can be more convoluted or more boring. There's so much packed into the plot, and none of it's interesting, and I have to wonder why they bothered. If you're going to have a purposefully-complicated plot, surely it would be to make fun of complicated plots? No, it doesn't do that. Maybe they thought it would be interesting on its own terms? It's not. Hey, maybe they didn't care about the plot, maybe they just wanted a straight-out comedy! Well, why is there so much of it taking up so much time and space? What the fuck is Anne Heche even doing there? I've tried to approach it from every angle, and every angle I find results in a big flashing "failure" sign.
It does have some promising setups. The theme of corrupt financial institutions is a potent one, and certainly one the characters seem suited to, given the pains at which they remind us repeatedly that Ferrell's character is an accountant. Ah, this will all pay off later! ...right? Oh, there's going to be zero connection between those strands? This whole financial thing is going to be resolved with a moderately dull car chase and a completely uninspired people-point-guns-at-one-another scene? The most misjudged part of the entire film is the end credits, in which infographics show us just how corrupt the US financial system is. This is hilarious, albeit for unintentional reasons: despite the setup, the film is never about the US financial system, nor does it cover the US bailouts in any way whatsoever. It looks like a rejected graphics sequence from a Michael Moore film, given to us with all the midjudged seriousness of "But, you know, there's a serious lesson to be had here, boys and girls". You can't put a credits sequence like this into your film unless you take yourself very, very seriously indeed.
The mainstream American comedy is at its nadir at the moment, and it's not because of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. In fact, you can pretty much ignore anyone who dismisses that pair but sings the praises of THE OTHER GUYS, because there's nary a gnat's hair between them. Much like Friedberg and Seltzer's "spoofs", in which their idea of making fun of recent and recognisable characters is to have them appear and wave at the camera, THE OTHER GUYS falls into the trap of thinking a laundry list of pop culture references is the same as comedy. Michael Keaton, in his most undignified appearance to date, keeps quoting TLC lyrics in a parade of scenes you can't believe made it past the first draft. "It's not funny any more," Ferrell tells him at the end, and you want to point out that any qualifier past the third word of that sentence is entirely irrelevant. If there is an added layer of context to the pop culture parade in THE OTHER GUYS, it's paper thin. But I just can't get upset about guys like Friedberg and Seltzer, because it's obvious that they can't do any better. The same is not true of Ferrell and McKay: they've made ANCHORMAN, so we know they're capable of making something genuinely funny and brilliant. More and more, though, that film is looking like one of the most extraordinary flukes in cinema history.
There's so much more to mention -- including Ray Stevenson's South African "Australian" accent, Ice T's ridiculous narration, and a worrying streak of misogyny that puts even LAND OF THE LOST to shame -- but I can't spend any more time talking about this piece of shit.
Yes, I found about 5% of it pretty funny, but by any standard of comedy, that is a pathetic figure. Avoid.
THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE
Australian release: September 23 // New Zealand release: July 23
I caught up with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO quite late into its local release, and found myself somewhat surprised that it was so popular. I enjoyed the film, and I think it does what it did quite well, but the adulations that have been heaped upon it seem a bit over the top. An interesting and sombre thriller turns into a bit of silly nonsense at the end, and the whole setup with the titular girl and her abusive guardian only makes sense if you go in knowing that there are two more films to come. It was a film that felt like it didn't quite know what it wanted to be, and the eclectic styles contained within it never seemed to coalesce in a satisfying manner.
THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is more of the same. It's still very well done, and it's more satisfying: a resolution to another film's setup is better to watch that a setup for another film's future resolution. It suffers the same problems as the first: it is constantly trying to ground you in a certain type of reality even as it introduces a variety of silly characters, plot twists, and absurd coincidences. There is a character who looks like he was rejected from a low-grade Bond film (expect to see this comparison a lot -- the two other critics I spoke to after the film had also arrived at that comparison), and there's a moment towards the end which makes no sense whatsoever. But it's a big twist, so I can't talk about it here. Still, what the hell were they thinking? It's impossible to feel any sort of emotional connection to the characters if the story doesn't take them seriously.
My feelings on this series are the same as my feelings on THE GHOST WRITER: it's well-made airport fiction, but it's still airport fiction. It errs on the side of silliness more than it does on the side of cleverness, and undercuts what could be a much more interesting story. It'll appeal to those who liked the first one.
THE LAST BATTLE (August 18, Region 4)
The film: Somehow, I'd managed to avoid hearing practically anything about Luc Besson's first film, including the fact that he had a first film called THE LAST BATTLE. Besson's almost-completely-dialogue-free debut is an extraordinary work, set as it is in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Post-apocalyptic wastelands are an interesting sub-genre unto themselves, and THE LAST BATTLE feels unlike any other entry, save for DELICATESSEN, a fact I discovered before realising the French connection. (Neither film, though, is anything like THE FRENCH CONNECTION.) Besson's tale is particularly unique in that it is not as much a story of survival as it is a story of finding love. Twee that description may sound, but his protagonist is lonely and desperate to find female companionship. His journey is something that should be experienced rather than laid out here, but it's certainly a captivating one, and antithetically (given its setting) displays the most humanity I've ever seen in a Besson film. It is marred, though, by an undeniable subtext; what I'd hoped was a comment on misogyny veers to far into actual misogyny to be dismissed or forgiven. Despite this, it is a tremendous debut effort, and a must-see.
The extras: A trailer, clearly made years afterwards, which is obviously the result of a long and painful brainstorming session: how the hell do we make a trailer for a film like this? It appears to be unrestored, making the restored high-def Blu-ray main feature (which I was viewing) seem all the more impressive.
Should you buy it: It's a strong and impressive film. Get it.
SUBWAY (August 18, Region 4)
The film: Besson's second film was SUBWAY, a strange and largely-undefinable action-ish film starring Christopher Lambert in his only on-screen appearance as a human being. It's immediately infectious, with Lambert playing a roguish anti-hero who is... well, that's not quite clear. In fact, the central premise of the film isn't really explained until over an hour in, and even then it leaves us with more questions than answers. There are wonderful characters, terrific set pieces, some extremely laugh-out-loud moments, and a great, energetic sense of propulsion, but even so, I don't really know what I was watching. The film revels in its obfuscation in its final moments, causing me to turn to my friend and query: "What the fuck is going on?" Oddness and sleight-of-hand is something I love when used appropriately, but here it feels misused. It's like watching DIE HARD, except the movie starts with John McClane on top of an elevator and at the end instead of killing Alan Rickman he becomes the booking manager for Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Still, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The extras: The original theatrical trailer, which really goes to town on the whole "Just edit the best moments into a two minute highlight reel" concept.
Should you buy it: I'm tempted to say yes, because Madman is putting out half of his career in the space of two months, and there's something wonderfully tempting about completing the set. Also, I really liked the film. But I'd suggest watching it before making the investment.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT (August 18, Region 4)
The film: Oh, you all know it by now. The perpetually-in-re-release THE FIFTH ELEMENT has held up remarkably well in the twelve years since it came out, even adjusting for Chris Tucker Annoyance inflation. (That was a cheap shot; I honestly think he fits right in, and anyone who thinks he's ruining the integrity of the film clearly isn't watching the rest of the film.) It is almost Besson's answer to BLADE RUNNER: they could so easily be set in the same world, but filtered through entirely different eyes. To Ridley Scott, the glass is half empty, but to Besson, the glass is half full of Milla Jovovich's nakedness. I loved this film when I saw it as a teen, and I still love it today.
The extras: I haven't gone through earlier releases, so I can't compare them to what may already be in your collection. The extras, of which there are many, range from the informative and voyeuristic behind-the-scenes, to the irritatingly tabloidy (ie: what little I was able to stomach of the feature on Bruce Willis proved it to be one of those ET-style "He's a superstar!" things).
Should you buy it: Absolutely, especially in hi-def. It looks and sounds amazing.
THE POWER OF EMOTION (August 18, Region 4)
The film: The Madman Director's Suite DVDs and Blu-Rays contain a lot of interesting information on the filmmakers they're covering. In this instance, we are informed that Alexander Kluge was originally inspired by Jean-Luc Godard. This could not be more relevant: Godard's recent FILM SOCIALISME was a pretentious, rambling, free-associating piece of nonsense, impossible to admire due to its intent to piss off its audience. Yet, Kluge had done this nearly thirty years earlier with THE POWER OF EMOTION. Stock footage, moments of documentary, and scripted sequences are blended together to create a fairly overt, on-the-nose point: Hollywood is stupid, people take advantage of other people, and isn't life terrible? This might well be the best example of this sort of film -- and having sat through FILM SOCIALISME and 1971's WR - MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM, I do think POWER OF EMOTION works best out of all of them -- but my problem with this genre is that the best examples are exactly the same as the worst examples. There is no inherent element that makes it necessarily good: any quality is there to be inferred by the audience. Is THE POWER OF EMOTION good or bad? Sadly, it is entirely up to us, and I cannot escape the conclusion that this is laziness on the part of the filmmaker. Making fun of Hollywood's traditional narratives is one thing, but even the questionable Hollywood films are cleverer at imparting their message.
The extras: As I've said many times before, I'm a sucker for an academic commentary, and the one by Dr Michelle Langford is a good one. She works hard to lend meaning to the film, and as a result, her commentary is a more satisfying experience than the act of watching the film itself.
Should you buy it: There are a lot of people who like weird for the sake of weird, and appreciate anything that goes against the norm, regardless of how good or bad the film actually is. If you're one of those people, then yes, you should.
THE 2000 YEAR OLD MAN: THE COMPLETE HISTORY (August 11, Region 4)
The film: It's not technically a film, but it's so good, I had to tell you about it. The 2000 Year Old Man sketch by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner is probably one of the top three classic American comedy sketches, up there with Abbott and Costello's Who's On First and the Marx Brothers' Sanity Clause bits. Brooks and Reiner made five comedy albums between 1961 and 1998, and all five are included on three discs. They are some of the finest comedy albums ever made, and I made the mistake of listening to them while I was driving; there are several moments that nearly caused me to drive off the road from the laughter.
The extras: This is one of those instances when the word "complete" is used very, very accurately. Not only are all five albums included in their entirety, but the series of radio commercials that Mel Brooks did with Dick Cavett for Ballantine Beer is put on the end of the third disc. There is a tremendously detailed 31 page booklet featuring photos, quotes from other comedians citing the genius of the duo, and a detailed history of the two comedians. But by far the best extra is fourth disc in the set, the DVD. Included on the DVD are clips from their appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, the Steve Allen Show, an animated special in which the first of the albums is turned into a half hour cartoon, and -- my favourite one -- Brooks and Reiner in August of 2009 sitting down for a half hour discussion about how the sketches came about. It's amazing stuff.
Should you buy it: Absolutely. I can't imagine another release this year having more quality and quantity.
- News of Michael Fassbender starring in a film directed by HUNGER's Steve McQueen only serves to remind cinephiles that Rainer Werner Fassbinder never directed a film with HUNTER's Steve McQueen
- Peter Morgan is brought on to rewrite the Ronald Reagan biopic, promising many juicy scenes between Reagan and Tony Blair
- Kevin Bacon and John Hamm will star in a remake of Porky's, promised to be the least-kosher film ever made in Hollywood