20 September 2010

Sound & Rhythm

This week's 15 minute film review looks at the Wellington Film Society screening of Beyond Ipanema, which was shown Monday 13 September in conjunction with the Reel Brazil Film Festival, now in its second year. Unfortunately I missed last Monday's (20 Sept) screening of Belgian Bond parody OSS117: Cairo: Nest of Spies. So, start the clock...

Beyond Ipanema (2009)

It would be difficult not to make a reasonably entertaining and interesting documentary about the resurgent Brazilian music scene: the soundtrack's a given, Brazil has ample gorgeous vistas and gorgeous people, and there's 60 years of history and interest from world famous musicians (chiefly David Byrne). Filmmaker Guto Barra (along with co-producer and music director Béco Dranoff) manages to make a doco that's just that: interesting, entertaining, handsomely put together, and featuring great music.

It's a good documentary film, but it seemed lacking in enough detail, enough depth; there weren't many of those moments that make the audience feel like they are marvelling at an incite. The film was somewhat like a bus tour, with a better than average guide holding the mike. (A tour mostly around Rio and New York, which received much of Barra's focus.)

One of the best moments was when someone from the Bossa Nova scene explains the difference between his style and regular jazz. It was all conveyed in the way he gestured and mimicked the sound and rhythm of the two styles - that's what made the scene, what drew the laughs, what instilled the appreciation. It's really not something a written review can replicate, which surely is a sign of documentary film at its best - working with sound and vision to impart wisdom and effect not easy to summarise.

08 September 2010

The fog of war

Over the next few months I'm trying an experiment of sorts. I am attending the Wellington Film Society screenings on Monday nights, and would like to comment on the movies I see. However, I don't have the time to post a lengthy critique every week, so I've set myself the humble task of reviewing each week's screening in 15 minutes. The 15 minutes is for the main content, and does not include a little time afterwards for adding in links, tags and images, and proofreading for typos. I will post the comment after work on the day after the screening, so it should be up by around 6.30pm Tuesdays.

This first attempt is an exception: No Man's Land actually screened last week (30 August, I didn't go to this week's showing), and this review took longer than 15 minutes. It's a trail run...

No Man's Land (2001)

I went into the screening of No Man's Land (written and directed by Danis Tanovic) not knowing much about it. I'd heard of it, mostly because of the coverage it got from its 2001 Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film, but had little idea of the story other than that it was set in the Bosnian war (1992 to 1995). It's one of those films where this lack of knowledge helps, as its story telling makes effective moments from the unexpected. For example, the opening scene is set in a night fog, with a Bosnian patrol lost and about to hunker down till dawn. We seem to be getting to know the gang - this film's dirty dozen, or inglorious bastards - as they talk and joke with each other. Then with daybreak the gang finds that they're much too close to the Serbian lines and suddenly virtually everyone in the Bosnian group is brutally killed.

Eventually, we settle on two or three main characters in a predicament together in a trench in no man's land. The relationship of the Serb and Bosnian characters in the trench is fairly realistically drawn, and appropriately frustrating. It is here, and in the character of the head of the French UN unit trying to intervene, that the humanity of the story is at the fore. The wider shenanigans involving the UN peacekeepers, the British command, the two sides' respective leadership in the area, and the media is more satirical, at times even perhaps a touch over the top, and gives the film a strong parable feel.

I'm wary of actors turned directors when it comes to the visual aspect, and this is a good example of why. No Man's Land has fairly bland cinematography (the shot above is one of the more interesting). Apart from the effective opening scenes, Tanovic relies largely on a few establishing shots and a lot of "Um, I know, let's point the camera at the actors".

Despite that, No Man's Land does a competent job blending different genres and styles: effective as war movie, situation comedy, tragedy, satire, farce, and even thriller.

Criticism of the film includes that it seems to have little to say other than 'war is hell'. That's true to a point, but I think that of most war films. I've never been a big fan of war satires. The likes of Dr Strangelove and the movie version of Catch 22, supposed classics of the genre, are okay, but not hugely impressive. Maybe it's a 'shooting fish in a barrel' thing - war seems easy to satirize. No Man's Land is one of the better attempts. Even so, the absurdities and violence on display still seem only an indication of the complexity and brutality of the real conflict.

War may provoke the occasional good movie, but on balance, I'm against it.

05 September 2010

Lost on yer merry way

Ahem. I'm... a little late with this one. Lost's season finale was screened 30 May 2010.


So how about I cop out and refer to what others have written - after all, my thoughts are summed up nicely by much earlier comments and reviews, and, like the characters from Lost, I really need to move on. (In their case to the afterlife, in my case to reviewing No Man's Land and Inception.)

In regards to the finale itself, Charles Reece's Amoeblog commentary pretty well covers all the stuff I disliked, and the few aspects I liked, about The End.

I was particularly disappointed with the sentimentality (not to mention illogicality) of the 'Sideways Timeline' resolution, juxtaposed with the otherwise excellent final few 'real world' scenes on the Island.

I still feel the series overall was worth my time: often an almost perfect blend of the elements that make good science fiction/fantasy television drama. The flashbacks were well used early on (but not so much in season 2, where they were often wasted on characters who would turn out to have little real significance to the ongoing events), and the switch to flashforwards in season 3 was clever. The show was at its best during seasons 3 to 5.

Wellington's Dominion Post tv reviewer, Jane Bowron sums up:

What the show did do was throw action, science, myth, and retribution into the soup as it made acute observations on human nature in intriguingly drawn characters.

Above all, the show made us feel our loneliness, that we are all isolated in spite of Charlie's words at the very beginning when he assured Sayid: "They'll find us. They have satellites in space that can take pictures of your licence plates."

To which Sayid sarcastically replied: "If only we were all wearing licence plates."

Adios, Perdidos.

Off on a merry way, Often in a lotta days, Lost on yer merry way
Cause unrevealed and never known.

30 May 2010

Lost for words

Nope, I'm not about to review the final of Lost - not yet. I have to watch it first. We had to record the final episode, shown in NZ on Saturday, as we had a social engagement and I decided that my friend was (narrowly) more important than watching Lost as broadcast. In the meantime I've been giving some consideration to the title I'll give the the blog wherein I do comment on Lost, which I'll be watching tonight. There's the above, and...

Making up for Lost time

The Island of the day before and after

The Lost Boys and Girls

Hurley burley

One Lost chance (I came up with it independently, but Gene Phillips beat me to it. I also like his next post, 'The Last Lost Chance Saloon'.)

Lost in translation

You Lost me

Lost in spaces

Jack shit

Get Lost.

17 March 2010

Thank you Garielle McKone

The top 20 keyword searches that led people to Booksmart, so far this year.

I knew there had to be at least one porn searcher, but "booksmart porno"? And what's with "primetime live pizza hut"?


1. "gabrielle mckone"

2. follatio

3. nz comic name suppression

4. political spectrum results

5. "2010 oscar nominations"

6. "book smart on both"

7. "courtenay place park"

8. "left social libertarian"

9. book smart positive points

10. book smart positive views

11. booksmart porno

12. booksmart.net reputation

13. everyman and his blog

14. gabrielle mckone

15. gabrielle mckone courtenay place exhibition

16. primetime live pizza hut

17. rehmat khan squash natasha

18. good things about book smart

19. hello laziness hypertext

20. not book smart

25 February 2010

Laughing at fate

I know one shouldn't take the annual Academy Awards seriously. It has absurdities such as Avatar even being nominated for "Best Picture", let alone that it is more likely to win than, say, Inglourious Basterds. But come Oscar time I just can't help myself. Call it a guilty displeasure.

That said, the best picture nominee list this year is not bad. Had the Academy stuck to the usual five pictures for this category, and had they been Up in the Air, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, and Up I would have been very impressed. Every one of those films is recommended from me. (The Hurt Locker and The Blind Side have not yet been released in cinemas in NZ, and I missed An Education as it finished its cinema run before I found out it was one of the chosen few. I hope to catch Precious this weekend.)

Of the six nominated films I have seen so far, only Avatar has disappointed. However, initially I was also a little disappointed with A Serious Man.

[WARNING: This commentary is best read after viewing the movies discussed, A Serious Man and Up in the Air. Partly because it contains some spoilers (albeit vague ones), but mostly because I can't be bothered to summarise the plots.]

You could almost justify going to A Serious Man just to see the scene which gave us the brilliant still above. As is often the case with good films set in what are usually considered drab or uninteresting environments (rambler home studded bland suburbia in this case) the visuals are surprisingly engaging.

However, although it has largely been reviewed positively, I have sympathy with some of the criticism of the Coen brother's latest effort. I quite liked Joe Morgenstern's sly take on the question posed in the film: what does God want of us? "What do the Coen brothers want of us?" he wonders.

Sometimes I feel as if the Coen's use the "black comedy" label as an excuse to portray the sort of "repellent ... grotesque" caricatures Morgenstern has concerns with in his review. With the exception of the protagonist, physics teacher Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), no one is really likeable, and almost everyone is infuriatingly selfish. Characters like Gopnik's nemesis Sy Ableman are not evil in a straightforward Ming the Merciless way, but they aren't far off, being very nearly as flat and clichéd. They all serve largely as cogs in the plot machine for the Job-like journey of the protagonist (almost the opposite of the previous Coen film, No Country for Old Men).

Gopnik seems to maintain his faith throughout the trials of the story, such as his wife leaving him for the aforementioned Ableman, an absolutely repugnant fake of a human being. Yet his faith, honesty, and a portion of dignity remain, while he understandably questions what all that means.

But Gopnik rarely seems to give serious thought to anything else, other than asking "what does it all mean", or "why does this happen to me" and similar questions when things go wrong (which happens a lot).

As Morgenstern mentioned, Gopnik describes Heisenberg's uncertainty principle by explaining that it "means we can never know what's going on." When explaining to a desperate student why he has failed a term test, Gopnik says he failed the maths. The student responds by claiming to have understood the theory in the story of the cat (in reference to Schrodinger's cat). Gopnik brushes this off as mere metaphor - it's really just about the maths. "I mean, even I don't understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works."

In the end, Gopnik's maths washes over him like a Tsunami, as in the image above, perhaps representing his tenuous grasp on the domestic reality that is rapidly untangling around him. At the very end of the story, when things seem like they might be about to look up for Gopnik, he is presented with a moral dilemma - and lo, he is weak. In the context of all that has happened to him many will find his weakness here understandable. But not his God, it seems.

No, not me - I'm an island of such great complexity.
(Pavement - "Shady Lane".)

Another film from the Oscar list this year that could broadly be categorised in the same genre is Up in the Air, my favourite movie of those nominated. Another comedy, this is a sort of 'romantic comedy' rather than a 'black comedy'. However, at times its humour is equally dry.

George Clooney plays frequent flyer extraordinaire Ryan Bingham, who has the job of crossing flyover country in order to assist people in their transitional phase of life - that is, he tells people they no longer have a job. In the process he finally seems to meet that special someone. Also, his own job (at least as he thinks it should be done) may well be under threat.

The depiction of the lone traveller 'man-is-an-island' lifestyle that is practiced and preached by Bingham is done perfectly. The acting is excellent (nominations for Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick), the script is about as good as mainstream Hollywood romance gets, and the politics is fairly evenhandedly dealt with by libertarian Jason Reitman (director and co-scriptwriter, along with Sheldon Turner).

But it is myopic to see this film too much in terms of politics or even romance per se. As cheesy as it may sound, this film is a rare instance of Hollywood living up to its own promotion: it is about a man trying to make a connection, in a world increasingly built around superficial connectedness.

Both A Serious Man and Up in the Air are funny movies. Neither film gives us a particularly happy ending, but the former is, ironically, trapped by its own genre nature - forced to buy into its black-comedic biblical twist. Despite the bitter pill delivered at the climax of Up in the Air, it still offers at least the possibility of hope and change, even with its downbeat ending.

There are fewer flaws and problems with tone and intent in Up in the Air than in A Serious Man. They have in common protagonists that try to maintain a certain sense of dignity in the face of what happens around them (albeit more cynically so in the former). Both protagonists have some idea of a faith or philosophy of life that they hold on to, rightly or wrongly, for most of their story. Both betray that philosophy at a crucial point, and in both cases, be it though fate or contingency, they pay a price for that decision.

03 February 2010

Stephen to Academy: You Basterds

A couple of years ago I made a commitment to myself to watch every Oscar 'Best Picture' nominated film. It was an easy year to do so, with There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Juno, Micheal Clayton, and Atonement on the "Best" list. In the end, second best No Country won the Oscar.*

I failed to meet my commitment the following year, but I am determined to get back to the cinema to judge Oscar choices this year.

So fuck you, Academy.

Why? Because the 2010 Oscar nominations are out, and this year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has changed back to ten nominations for the Best Picture category.

Ten films in a short space of time. Okay, it's not so tough as that, because I've already seen four of them. Three of those were pretty darn good: Up, District 9, and Inglourious Basterds.

One, Avatar, was pretty darn crap.

And given the Academy's record of highly questionable taste, I'd be surprised if more than half of the remainder will be worth seeing.

Well, we'll see - I have until 7 March (US).


* There Will Be Blood was the best movie, but No Country for Old Men was also excellent. Juno and Atonement were not bad and had aspects of interest, and Micheal Clayton was somewhere in between.