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Sunday, August 31, 2008

THE KING OF KONG (2007) - Seth Gordon

Documentaries can tend to be dour affairs, dealing with issues that provoke, shock and even enrage. Even Michael Moore’s documentaries, which go for laughs more than facts are about issues that show the worst in humanity. But occasionally you get something that is completely different in tone. Something that deals with something more light hearted than the war in Iraq or the state of the US health service. The King Of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, released last year is a documentary that deals with a gravely important issue: Who is the greatest person ever to play Donkey Kong?

On one hand, you would think that a documentary about two ‘athletes’ competing for a video game record wouldn’t exactly make for compelling watching. But, you’d be wrong. The King Of Kong isn’t simply about gaming. It’s about rivalry, jealousy, paranoia and the will to succeed. On one hand we have Billy Mitchell. He’s the number one Donkey Kong player of all time. He holds other records, but this one is the daddy of them all. He owns his own hot sauce company, wears a US flag tie and pulls his pants up towards his nipples. He is a legend in his field, has a cadre of lesser gamers who bow to his every whim. As the film starts, he is the king of Kong. And then we have the underdog. Steve Wiebe. Failed athlete, high-school teacher, with a loving family and a passion to succeed in Donkey Kong. And when these two go head to head, the drama comes thick and fast.

While it deals with a subculture, the drama caused by the rivalry is utterly compelling. The characters, who are real people are totally unique and how these people interact with each other makes for bizarre and amazing viewing. If the film were fiction, it’d be a fun, quirky comedy. The kind of film that would be similar to Napoleon Dynamite. The fact that the film is real is both amazing and baffling. From the get-go you’re drawn in by who these people are and why they’re so unique. You have the heroes and the villains. The winners and losers. And with that comes the drama. And comedy.

The film balances sentimentality in a way that gives you a real emotional investment in what happens. It’s easy to dismiss the whole idea of the Donkey Kong record as pointless. In the bigger scheme of things, it really means nothing to anyone but those with an interest. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from watching the film. While having an interest in games provides with a little more interest, there’s plenty for those who have no interest at all in Donkey Kong. After all, this is a film about human interaction.

The King Of Kong wont change the world. Nor does it ever seek to do that. It just presents a unique situation and the crazy characters who are involved with the situation. It’s a film that deals with universal themes within a small sub-culture. But it’s incredibly compelling and never for a second gets tedious or dull. One of the better documentaries I’ve seen, The King Of Kong will have you gripped from the moment it opens. It’s bizarre, hilarious and incredibly entertaining.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

GET SMART (2008) - Peter Segal

I have a vague recollection of watching Get Smart on television in the late 1980’s. It was one of those television shows channels here bought from the US and broadcast in the 6pm slot along with The A-Team, Night Rider and other safe for kids shows. I don’t remember much about the show other than the opening titles. And as for Maxwell Smart, Don Adams, well, people from my generation are more familiar with him for providing the voice of Inspector Gadget. So I went into the film adaptation of Get Smart with no investment to the television show what so ever.

Steve Carell plays Maxwell Smart, an analyst for the covert government operation, CONTROL. Max isn’t the brightest of agents, but he’s a superb analyst with a desire to become a field agent. After taking the field agent test for the eighth time, Max passes. But due to his skills as an analyst, he’s refused field agent status. However, CONTROL is infiltrated by the evil organisation, CHAOS, and almost all field agents are exposed. Max, and Agent 99 are the only two agents who still retain their secret status, so Max finally gets his chance to become the agent he’s always wanted to be. And thus, hilarity ensues.

Well, no so much hilarity, as mild amusement. Finding Get Smart funny depends on one vital factor. Whether or not you find Steve Carell funny. He’s the star of the show and as such, gets all the jokes. Literally, all of them. There are one or two jokes for the other characters in the film, but really, they’re just there to provide Carell with something to work off. And having said all this, you can really tell Carell had a hand in the writing to some degree. The comedy here is quite similar in ways to Carell’s work on The Office. Sure, there’s no reality TV element, but the general feel off the film is you’re watching Carell in Michael Scott mode.

It’s not that Carell can’t do anything other than Michael Scott. Carell was great in The 40 Year Old Virgin. And he showed that he can act in Little Miss Sunshine. But here, he’s just another version of Michael Scott. Which, for me, isn’t bad. The Office is a show which has ditched it’s ties to the original and classic British version and has found it’s own feet, largely down to the work of Carell. And when he’s funny in Get Smart, Carell is very funny. However, it’s a strange thing. While Maxwell Smart is somewhat dumb, he’s also quite intelligent, and it’s this which causes things to unravel somewhat. I don’t know if it’s because we’re predisposed as an audience as to comedy archetypes, or if it’s down to poor writing, but I just found myself unsure of how I was supposed to feel about Max. Something about his character didn’t quite fit.

The support cast don’t really get up to much. Alan Arkin, Carell’s co-star from Little Miss Sunshine get’s most of the support comedy, but it’s not exactly hilarious. Dwayne Johnson fills the role of the super-agent without breaking much of a sweat, but he also feels underused as comedy support. The Rock’s a big guy, and has that whole tough thing going on, and something could have been done with that, but alas no. Even General Zod himself, Terence Stamp is reduced to fleeting scenes. So much more could have been done with him. In fact, the best support part came from the criminally underused Patrick Warburton who turns up for a tiny cameo towards the end of the film. The man’s voice alone is hilarious. As for Anne Hathaway. She’s got nothing to do but look good and occasionally throw a punch. Hell, they even manage to provide Bill Murray with a cameo which isn't funny. HOW DO YOU MAKE BILL MURRAY UNFUNNY?!

Get Smart isn’t terrible. It’s got it’s moments. But these moments are reserved for Carell and there in lies the rub. If you like Carell, you will find plenty of laughs. If you don’t, avoid the film. You’ll find nothing here to keep you entertained.


Monday, August 25, 2008

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008) - Guillermo Del Toro

Guillermo Del Toro is an interesting case in the annals of Hollywood. He’s an arty, independent director who works in his native Spanish language. But on the other hand, he makes big-budget Hollywood spectaculars. And yet both aspects to his career make plenty of money and garner critical acclaim. It’s a good thing then, that Del Toro sticks to his artistic principles and never seems to compromise just to get the films he’s making done. Take Hellboy, for example. Nobody would have thought that casting Ron Perlman as the central character would work. But Del Toro, and Hellboy creator, Mike Mignola did. And they were right. Hellboy didn’t set the box-office alight, but it was a modest hit. And did well enough to warrant a sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army picks up where the previous film left off. In the opening few minutes we see Hellboy as a kid, watching Howdie Doody before he’s put to bed with a story telling of the creation of the Golden Army, a force created by Elves to destroy human kind. Young Hellboy assures himself it’s just a story. Years later, the prince of the Elves, Prince Nuada returns from exile to wage war on the humans once again. He wants to control the Golden Army, but his father and sister resist him. Far be it for Nuada to let a family squabble get in the way. He kills his father. His sister goes on the run with the last piece of the crown that will allow him control over the Golden Army. Meanwhile, Hellboy is having a rough time while working for The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development. He’s having a rough time with his girlfriend, Liz Sherman. The Bureau want to tighten control on Hellboy, while he craves attention and fame. And with Prince Nuada making things difficult for everyone, Hellboy’s life is about to get a whole lot more complicated.

Hellboy is one of those franchises that flies under the radar. It’s never going to have the success of Batman or Spiderman films. But at the same time, the quality of the films is as good as the higher profile films. Guillermo Del Toro’s flair for the visual does give the Hellboy films something over it’s rivals. The films are packed with crazy and inventive monsters and creatures. Del Toro’s fascinated by visually stimulating media and draws inspiration from everything from Goya paintings to fairy tales and it’s because of this that his films are so fascinating to watch. Pan’s Labyrinth was one of Del Toro’s most personal films. But at the same time, Hellboy II, despite it being a Hollywood blockbuster, retains a lot of the personality of Pan’s Labyrinth.

While Hellboy II deals with the fantastical, the character of Hellboy also has to deal with personal issues. He’s hungry for fame, but finds himself the subject of ridicule when he gets the fame. He’s in love with Liz Sherman, but he’s also responsible for the breakdown in the relationship. And he’s got a huge problem with his temper. So while on the face of it, Hellboy II is a big spectacle film, it also has a personal side. Having said this, the story is the weakest part of the film. A personal side to these films is what gives them the edge over brainless blockbusters. But the spectacle must be huge. And for some reason, Hellboy II just doesn’t seem big enough. I know this seems like a contradiction, but there was just something lacking in the film that made it feel bigger than the screen.

Ron Perlman seems to have been born to play Hellboy, and here, he’s once again great as the big Red one. He’s certainly tough enough. But he’s also got the comedy edge to Hellboy down, and is always entertaining. Doug Jones plays a number of characters in the film, but mostly Hellboy’s colleague and friend, Abe Sapien. Jones is a Del Toro regular and he’s amazing in the monsters he embodies. His movements are unique to each character, and you really just don’t think it’s a human creating these characters. Jones also gets to use his own voice for Sapien, this time. In Hellboy, Sapien was voiced by David Hyde Pierce. Luke Goss, yes, him from Bros, plays the villain, Prince Nuada. Goss does pretty well in the role, which, for a villain, isn’t entirely unsympathetic. He’s got a beef, but it stems from injustice in the past. Del Toro’s writing makes the character interesting, but Goss manages to pull the role off, despite some dodgy acting in the past. The rest of the cast, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, fill out the roles you’d come to expect from a film of this kind, but none really stand out. It’s just up to Perlman to do his thing, and he does it well.

While Hellboy II: The Golden Army won’t usurp The Dark Knight as the best comic book movie of the summer, it’s definitely very entertaining. The visual side of the film is fascinating, and the monsters are brilliantly designed. It’s not the greatest story in the world, but it’s funny, exciting and very entertaining. With Del Toro’s visual flair, and Peter Jackson working with him on the script, The Hobbit looks like a pant-wettingly exciting prospect. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is gives us a taste of what will come.


Friday, August 22, 2008

BATTLE FOR HADITHA (2007) - Nick Broomfield

In complete contrast to the just-reviewed In The Valley Of Elah is Nick Broomfield’s Battle For Haditha, a dramatisation of the massacre of 24 Iraqi people that happened in Iraq in 2005. While the actual event is part of a US Army cover-up, the events in The Battle For Haditha attempt to shed light on the situation. Broomfield, a controversial documentarian didn’t have access to all the facts. So in an attempt to fill in the gaps in information, Broomfield opted to shoot the film as a docudrama instead of the format he has used for such films as Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac.

Battle For Haditha is shot from a number of different perspectives. The people depicted in each point of view are not what you’d expect. On one hand we have the two men responsible for the IED that kills one marine and injures two others. They don’t realise the effect their actions will have. They’re not monsters, and when the impact of the attack is fully realised they express great remorse. On the other side of the coin, we see the marines responsible for the massacre in Haditha. Again, these men are not empty-headed killing machines. They’re led by Cpl. Ramirez, a young soldier who laments how he’s being treated by the military while at the same time, is enraged by seeing his fellow men killed by IEDs. And the final perspective is from that of the Iraqi citizens. We focus mostly on a young couple, about to bring a child into the world. They love and respect each other equally, different to the male-dominated relationship we’re led to believe is in that society.

The film opens with the marines answering the question that has haunted the conflict since the US re-entered Iraq in 2003- ‘Why are we here?’ While Broomfield doesn’t seek an answer to that question, he does seek a reason behind one of the darkest events of the war. It’d be very easy to paint either side of the situation as mindless, evil or fundamental. But the film never looks for this easy way out. There is no black and white view of the war in this film. There are many shades of gray.

The film is shot digitally, which adds to the documentary feel of the film. But it’s clear that this is a dramatisation. There is a clear structure to it. While Broomfield didn’t use a script, he did have an outline for scenes and let the actors improvise the dialogue. Because some of the actors are ex-marines, they do add to the authenticity of the events depicted on screen, even if at times, the dialogue is a little hampered by the inexperience of the actors. Having said that, the acting is pretty good all round. When things go bad, you feel them go bad. There is a real sense of tension that hangs over the film. In ways, it’s similar to Paul Greengrass’ United 93. The editing of the film is excellent, and you feel that all parties are on a collision course that is going to end in tragedy.

Battle For Haditha isn’t a film that will be widely seen. It’s a dark film. Not really a recruitment film for the US Army. But it does it’s best to fill in the pieces and depict an event that should not have happened. It tries to give the event a sense of history. And for that reason it must be admired.


IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (2007) - Paul Haggis

The Iraq war continues to provide filmmakers with difficult subject matter. Sure, there are many excellent documentaries that provide insight into the conflict which is perpetually in the news. But when it comes to drama, the conflict is rarely tackled head on. We’ve seen films that deal with the war on terror, films that deal with how the Coalition handles suspects in this war. And in In The Valley Of Elah, we have a film that deals, somewhat, with soldiers returning from the war.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired military investigator who’s son returns from Iraq, only to go AWOL days later. Deerfield takes it upon himself to investigate his son’s disappearance. It is very unlike his son Mike to take off without letting his parents know where he is. Hank tries to enlist the help of the police only to be told it is a military matter and he should seek help from military police. But eager to keep his son out of trouble, Hank looks for help from Detective Emily Sanders, a single mom fighting for recognition in a job dominated by men. When a body turns up that is revealed to be Mike, Hank and Emily begin the search for Mike’s murderers.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Paul Haggis’ work. While Crash was an interesting if unremarkable drama, I’ve found when Haggis gets behind the camera, the films he produce are a little dull. Haggis is a better writer on other peoples’ films than he is a director, and this is evident in In The Valley Of Elah. At face value, In The Valley Of Elah is a crime drama. A crime has been committed, and Tommy Lee Jones is determined to get to the bottom of it. Underpinning this drama are a bunch of morality statements about what happens to the soldiers sent to fight in Iraq. These two elements provide two different problems with the film. The first, the drama isn’t particularly engaging or compelling. You know the mystery will be solved, but it’s a bit of a long haul getting to the reveal. The second problem lies with Haggis’ determination to drive a point home.

Haggis’ screenplays are packed with morality and life lessons. The problem is though, he’s as subtle as a rusty chainsaw in how he delivers his little lessons. When he works with other directors, the morality is reeled in a little. But when Haggis goes it alone, his morality is incredibly ham-fisted. The closing moments of In The Valley Of Elah are so blunt in their delivery of morality that I found myself actually angered at the approach Haggis took. I felt like screaming ‘OKAY PAUL, I GET IT ALREADY!’ It’s one thing to teach a lesson in a film. It’s another thing
entirely to ram the point down someone’s throat.

The performances are very good in the film. Tommy Lee Jones is on top form as Hank Deerfield, a life-long military man who finds himself questioning something he’s stood for his entire life. Jones is at his best at the moment, and while his character’s development during the film could feel like too much too soon, Jones handles it well enough that it doesn’t seem that way. Charlize Theron is in Oscar mode as Detective Emily Sanders. She’s dressed down and glum looking. But it’s a shame her character is such a cliché to prevent her from really shining. The single mom fighting prejudice in the workplace? It was entirely unnecessary to write the character in such a way, and seems ridiculous in the context of the film. Susan Sarandon has what amounts to little more than a cameo as Hank’s wife.

The problems with In The Valley Of Elah prevent from becoming a great film. The dullness of the mystery added to the ham-fisted approach to lessons prevent it from becoming the film Haggis desperately wants it to be. The film is beautifully shot by Coens-regular, Roger Deakins, but it takes more that beautifully shot film to make a film interesting. Perhaps in the hands of another, more talented director and without the clichéd aspects to Detective Emily Sanders’ character, it would have been a better film. But as it is, it’s only just mediocre.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

MAN ON WIRE (2008) - James Marsh

While it was still standing, I had the opportunity and good fortune to stand on top of the World Trade Centre. It’s not exactly the most exhilarating thing for someone who has an intense fear of heights to do. It was terrifying. So frightened was I, that my legs stopped working properly and I had to be helped around the observation deck by my parents. So I know how high the World Trade Centre was. So you’d imagine seeing a film about a crazy Frenchman who had the insane ambition to tight-rope walk between the towers wouldn’t be something I’d jump at. However, James Marsh’s documentary, Man On Wire was released last week, so I checked it out.

In 1974, Frenchman Phillipe Petit and a few accomplices managed to find a way to sneak themselves and a load of equipment to the top of the almost complete World Trade Centre. Petit had the crazy ambition of setting up a wire between the towers and walking from one tower to the other. Having tight-rope walked between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, and two of the towers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, The World Trade Centre tight-rope walk was to be Petit’s most ambitious and dangerous stunt.

James Marsh’s documentary really is an inspirational piece of work. Through interviews with Petit and his friends and accomplices, we are given a picture of how crazy this stunt really was. It was a different time in the world. Something as dangerous and illegal as breaking into the towers and setting up a stunt over night could never be achieved with today’s strict security measures. This was a once in a lifetime attempt. If anything went wrong, if there was any mishap, the best the men could hope for was to be arrested. But even despite this, Petit’s friends had their doubts about the stunt. They feared for their friend’s life, and some abandoned the challenge, wanting no part in what could be his death.

Marsh recreates the events of the day in question very well. The fact that we know Petit survives in no way takes away from the suspense of the film. Petit’s quite an eccentric character and is extremely energetic in the way he recounts his adventure. And in this, you can’t quite help but like the guy. His accomplices, some French, some American, one Australian are a little more subdued in the way they tell their story, yet this just adds more to Petit’s character. Even in his sixties, Petit retains the energy of his thirties, gesticulating wildly, and leaping back onto the high wire.

While there is no actual footage of the high wire walk, there are plenty of photographs. And they are no less terrifying than footage. Suffering from an intense fear of heights, with every shot of the ground from the top of the tower, I felt a little wave of nausea. Every shot of Petit on the wire made me cringe. Marsh’s direction is absolutely successful in this respect. There’s no moment where the film becomes dull. Petit’s passion for not only his wire-walking but for life in general keeps the film fresh throughout the running time. And at ninety minutes, it’s brief, but rightfully so. We don’t feel bogged down in exposition or post-walk fame, despite both these aspects being covered.

While Man On Wire seems to be overlooked in terms of documentary this year, it’s a very interesting, compelling and inspirational film. And even though I had fears going in, it was great to see such a terrifying and daring stunt covered so extensively.


Friday, August 8, 2008

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (2007) - David Sington

In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. It was a monumental achievement. The Americans needed to one-up their Russian counterparts. To this end, in 1961, President Kennedy announced the Apollo program with the goal of putting the first man on the moon. Unfortunately, it was something the president would never live to see. But on July 20th 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon. David Sington’s documentary, In The Shadow Of The Moon charts the progress of the Apollo program, through a series of interviews with the men involved, spliced with footage of the program itself.

After I finished watching In The Shadow Of The Moon, I found myself realising how much we take this achievement for granted these days. In this age, the technological achievements are so many and happen so quickly, it’s easy to forget how little technology they had merely forty years ago. Yet they managed to fly three men over 380,000 miles and land them on that little glowing ball that sits in the night sky. As you watch the footage on the screen, and listen to the astronauts recount their tales, you really begin to appreciate what a monumental achievement it was.

The astronauts involved, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, Alan Bean, Jim Lovell, John Young, Harrison Schmitt, and most of the other astronauts involved in the Apollo program appear, telling of their experiences in the Apollo program, in space, and (for those who managed to get there) walking on the moon. They speak of the experience in awe, and you cant help but get sucked in. While, in terms of space, the moon is merely a small footstep away from us, in terms of human achievement, it’s a massive achievement, and none of these men take it for granted. There is a humorous section during the credits for the film where the astronauts present their rebuttal to the claims that the moon landing was faked. And watching the documentary just proves how ridiculous a claim this is.

Sadly missing from the documentary is the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. The reclusive astronaut refuses to promote his historic achievement and thus is missing from everything but archival footage. Yet the other astronauts tell his story through their own experiences. And thus, Armstrong seems even more of a legend. He seems to have some mythical status among these other legendary figures.

The footage from the period is astonishing. Despite the technological limitations, the footage is of extremely high quality, due to the measures take to preserve the film. And it’s a comforting thing to know that the footage will live on. The shots of Earth from the moon, and seeing how small it really is is a humbling thing. While on the moon, the white surface contrasting to the pitch black sky is gorgeous to observe. While it’s finished it’s run in the cinema, see this film on as large a screen as you can. The footage of the space flight is stunning and deserves a large canvas.

The documentary is a fascinating watch. In terms of human achievement, landing on the moon is really one of the greatest things we have done as humans. And despite it happening nearly forty years ago, it really is a monumental moment in human history. In The Shadow Of The Moon pretty much gives you a comprehensive look at the moon landing. It is humorous, tense, and fascinating to watch. A brillian documentary.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

First look at 'The Road'

John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road hits screens at the end of this year. The post-apocalyptic story tells of a man who strives to bring his son to safety after the US has been destroyed by an unknown disaster. The film stars Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearse and Robert Duvall. We've seen how badass Viggo can be in the past. Expect great amounts of self-sacrifice!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE (2008) - Chris Carter

The X-Files was one of those television shows that comes along once in a while and seems to bridge the gap between cult and mainstream. It was a very popular show, but as with all good things, it came to an end. In 2002, the show finished up, and the franchise seemed to be dead. Rumours of a second film (the first being The X-Files, released in 1998) floated about but it wasn’t until last year that something concrete came about. And so The X-Files: I Want To Believe is released.

The X-Files: I Want To Believe abandons the alien conspiracy that ran so heavily throughout the series and instead attempts to create a stand-alone film, similar to the episodes of the series. Mulder and Scully have left the FBI behind. Scully is now a doctor, Mulder continues to investigate the paranormal, but by himself. Scully is approached by FBI agents seeking to find Mulder. They need his help finding an agent who has gone missing. Mulder’s reluctant, but he agrees to help. A psychic paedophile priest has been having visions of the missing agent. But are these visions paranormal phenomenon or is the priest a charlatan. Scully thinks the later, but Mulder can’t help falling into old habits.

Where The X-Files: I Want To Believe fails as a movie is that it feels like nothing more than an extended episode of the series. I understand that the Chris Carter wants to create a movie franchise that is basically an extension of the ‘monster of the week’ episodes that were so popular in the series. But to give the series the big screen treatment warrants a story that deserves big screen treatment. And unfortunately, that’s not the case here. If this had been a double episode of The X-Files, I’d have not noticed otherwise.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed the series, and own up to season 6 on DVD. It’s great to see the wise-cracking Mulder and the serious and doubtful Scully back together again. But the film feels like a TV movie. There’s little in the way of special effects and the story isn’t anything that really needed to be projected onto the cinema screen. The acting is perfectly fine. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson slot back into their roles perfectly. The heart of the film lies with Gillian Anderson’s Scully, and she certainly carries this part of the film fine. Amanda Peet and Xzibit feel like nothing more than guest-stars, and Billy Connolly, while perfectly fine in his role, doesn’t really add anything in the way of a devastating performance to the whole affair.

The film just feels like it’s something rushed, just for the sake of getting Mulder and Scully back on the screen. I’d have preferred if they had waited a while and gotten a story with a bit more substance to it. As it is, the film doesn’t even stand up to the better episodes of the television series. It’s a bit of a wasted opportunity, to be honest. Because the poor box office of The X-Files: I Want To Believe means that a sequel is unlikely. Which is a shame. The series had some really excellent stand-alone episodes. Had Carter taken inspiration from them, instead of going down a route that really lacked something compelling, we might have been treated to some of the old magic of The X-Files.


Friday, August 1, 2008

Watchmen roundup

Since the San Diego Comic Con there's been quite a bit released about Zach Snyder's Watchmen adaptation. Here's the trailer and the posters that were released at the con-