29 July, 2008

The importance of entertainment

So here's the thing.

I was planning to write about the festival films I see in viewing order, but I've decided to skip ahead for this one film. That way, I'm done with it and I never need think about it ever again.

I've previously written about seeing the original German-language version of Funny Games, and a couple of nights ago, I saw the English language remake (see the trailer here). And now that it's done, I'm just glad it's over, I can move on, and need never see that film again.

I was already not looking forward to the film. Before I even bought the tickets, I was debating with myself whether I should go. Having seen the original, I knew I would hate the experience, and yet in an act of extreme masochism I bought the ticket. My curiosity about the whole shot-by-shot-remake idea won out over my preference to actually find pleasure in watching movies.

When it came to the day, I was not able to cope with it at all. Just the thought of sitting through that experience again honestly made me feel ill. I don't know how many times I decided not to go. Even sitting in the cinema waiting for the film to start was a great internal struggle. But that was nothing compared to the fight once the film started. What made sitting through the film even harder was the fact that I could have left at any time and not inconvenienced anyone. For some reason, there was not one single person sitting in any of the right-side seats in my row - I could have left without pushing past anyone. I don't know how that happened - perhaps there was supposed to be a group in those seats and they wisely decided not to go, or perhaps it was God trying to give me an easy way to walk out of the film and I didn't take it. All I know is that I spent the entire film desperate for the film to end. And when it did, I didn't stay to the end of the credits (as I normally try to do). Instead I was out of the cinema, literally running, the second the credits started to roll. I just wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.

I guess the moral of the story is: watching Funny Games the second time is even worse than watching it the first time. Knowing what is coming does not make it any easier. It doesn't prepare you for the experience. If anything, it makes it worse. You know what's coming up, and every moment, you can see exactly where it's heading to, and it just makes you sick.

It was interesting watching the film on the big screen, because I watched the original at home on my not-as-big-as-I-would-like-it TV. And as harsh and as confrontational as that experience was, watching it on the big screen was a lot worse, because the big screen is ... well, big. There's no way to escape from the image, so it's that much harder to watch. And the sound, oh, the sound.

I went to the film curious about how small differences might affect a shot-by-shot remake. And in the case of Funny Games, not much at all. The experience would be much the same whichever version you watch. But what I found interesting was the way I started looking for differences between the films almost as a coping mechanism. If I can focus on looking for how the films vary, I don't have to think about what's actuall happening on screen. And there weren't many differences between the two. There were the odd shots (literally single shots) that seemed unfamiliar to me - and while I certainly don't expect to every shot after one viewing of the original, so much of the remake did feel so familiar that those occasions where I found myself thinking "was that shot in the original?" I don't know - they probably were in the original, but it was strange that they would seem so completely unfamiliar when I remembered pretty much every other shot. So perhaps they may have been a change, or perhaps not.

Some of these other changes I am more certain about. In the Hot/Cold scene, I'm pretty sure the car was originally head-on to the camera, because the passenger door had to be opened to find what was inside. This time, the car is actually side-on, allowing them to find the thing inside the car boot (a change that makes it easier - and more unpleasant - to see what falls out. That was a logical change). I'm also pretty certain that in the original the husband can't get the police on the phone but manages to call a friend, although he can't make himself heard. In the remake, he actually manages to get hold of the police, but he still can't be heard. If I'm correct about that change, one wonders why Haneke decided to make that change.

The most interesting change came after the "cat in the bag" scene. As with the original, there is no Naomi Watts nudity in the scene (or anywhere in the film, for that matter), but rather interestingly, where in the original the wife gets fully dressed again afterwards, in the remake Naomi Watts is only in her underwear when events progress. She then remains in her underwear for a long time - until the point where she gets dressed to go running down the road. And while I fully appreciate the enjoyment that one can ordinarily get from seeing Naomi Watts in her underwear, in this case it felt unnecessarily exploitative, even for this film - and frankly, if Michael Haneke is going to try to take the moral high ground with this film, I don't know that a change like that is actually going to help his case much.

(And incidentally, when she goes running down the road, she does wear that same weird poncho-jersey thing that was in the original film. Couldn't they have changed that at least? It looks just as awful on Naomi Watts.)

Anyway, I want to get this over and done with. Funny Games - a horrible horrible film by an extremely talented director. I honestly can't believe that I voluntarily sat through the film once, let alone (in effect) twice. I wish I could go back and stop myself, tell myself that it's not worth it. All I can hope is that, if anyone reads this, you will take what I have to say into account. Don't watch this film, in either version. If you do, you'll regret it. Much as I do.

Next post, we'll go back to the film festival screening order. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson go sightseeing In Bruges. There's a dwarf. And people die. It's very funny, and very violent. Michael Haneke would hate it.

25 July, 2008

In spring, one plants alone

So here's the thing.

I had this foolish idea of trying to keep up with writing posts about each of the festival films I see. But really, when you see 8 films in the opening weekend, and then see another film most following days, I was always going to be behind. And on those odd nights when I'm not at a film, I'm trying to catch up on other stuff I haven't had time for - I spend enough time in front of a computer at work, I don't want to sit in front of my computer at home as well. So what I'm saying is, I'll try to carry on with these posts, but I'll basically just be really behind my actual screenings (for the record - festival films seen so far, 12; films written about, 3 including this post). And when I do manage to write something, my posts may not be quite as detailed as I would normally write.

Anyway, to the subject at hand.

In 1978, 21-year-old New Zealand director Vincent Ward travelled up to Tuhoe country looking to make a short documentary about Maori still living in a traditional manner. He found the subject of his film in an 80-year-old woman named Puhi, a woman who still took care of her now adult son, who suffered from mental illness. Puhi died a couple of years later, and her son died some time later. But the memory of Puhi really seems to have stuck with Ward, and so 30 years later he returned to make Rain of the Children (see the trailer here), in an attempt to try and fully tell the story of Puhi's life and discover who she really was.

There's a haunting image early in the film, documentary footage from Ward's first filming, of Puhi travelling into town in Ward's van. She apparently insisted in sitting in the back of the van, even though there were no seats, and as she sat on the floor of the van she prayed, non-stop, for the entire trip. It's a fascinating, somehow troubling image that gains great importance as we discover just why she prays so much.

The film is essentially an extremely personal documentary by Ward. He is the first person we see in the film, telling us about his earlier film, and he provides the narration throughout the entire film. The rest of the film consists of numerous talking heads, footage from the earlier documentary, and reenactments of scenes dating back over a hundred years. And it was those earliest scenes that for me weren't terribly interesting - hearing about how the tribe moved from this location to that, or about the rise of a local prophet honestly just didn't engage me. There was just something a little abstract about the events. While Puhi, as the central character of the film, may have been present, she was a child and wasn't really involved. It wasn't until Puhi became a teenager, married and pregnant at the age of 14, that I found the film start to get its focus, which it held for the rest of the film.

Ultimately, the film becomes something of a tragedy, as Puhi loses husband after husband, and child after child after child, until she starts to see herself as cursed. It becomes clear that by the time Vincent Ward first met Puhi, her life had been completely subsumed into her son's life, desperately trying to protect him from the curse waiting to take him if she ever let her guard down. And it is heartbreaking as we see the consequences of this on her son, left after her death in a world he was completely unprepared for.

I've sadly only seen a couple of Vincent Ward films, but what I do know is that Ward, as a filmaker, has an extraordinary visual sense, presenting images that remain in the mind years later. And Rain of the Children is no exception , with images of pure beauty, of sheer terror, of haunting power. In some ways, I wish the entire film had been a complete dramatisation, rather than a documentary/dramatisation mix, because as fascinating as the documentary elements were, the restaged moments were so beautiful and powerful (in a way that talking heads or footage shot in the moment cannot be) that it almost seemed a shame to leave the recreations.

Anyway, fascinating, powerful, and moving movie. There's no doubt that it will make its way back to the cinemas, so keep an eye out for it.

21 July, 2008

It's funny what we do for love

So here's the thing.

I never notice when there's a filmmaker attending a film festival screening. So it was a surprise when the screening of Married Life started with someone introducing Ira Sachs, the co-writer and director of the film. I always feel a little uncomfortable when a filmmaker is present, largely because I worry "what if the film isn't good? How horrible will that be for the filmmaker?" Thankfully, it's not a problem we needed to worry about with Married Life (see the trailer here), which right from the opening title sequence (constructed out of images that could have been cut from a 1940s magazine) was clearly going to be a wonderful entertainment.

I'd not heard of the film before, nor the director, and solely went because of it had an interesting and talented cast (Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan, and Rachel McAdams) and the write-up in the festival programme sounded interesting. Chris Cooper, who is always worth watching, stars as a married man who starts an affair with a girl nearly half his age (McAdams, who is usually terribly beautiful, but is quite stunning in 1940s styles). Cooper does still care about his wife (Clarkson), so decides that leaving her will be too cruel. The only choice he has left is to find a painless way to kill her. Meanwhile, Cooper's best friend (Pierce Brosnan, playing a womaniser in a real stretch from his previous roles) tries to seduce the young McAdams.

It's a nice concept for a movie, with a strong film noir storyline combined with a fascinating domestic drama. Plus, Ira Sachs is clearly aware of the humour in the whole "husband tries to murder his wife to avoid hurting her" storyline, playing the laughs while managing to never actually go into black comedy. It's well-written, with some beautiful dialogue, a storyline that is genuinely suspenseful and, while plot developments are never really surprising, every time I thought I knew what would happen next I was wrong. Add to that the great design (the 1940s period is a visually rich period), and the film just comes alive.

(My only real problem with the film initially was with the casting of Rachel McAdams, an actress who I like and who absolutely looks perfect for the 1940s, and who does play the role extremely well, but who frankly seems a little too young for the role of a woman who married ten years and who was widowed by the war. Imagine my shock when I check the IMDb and discover McAdams was born in 1976. She's older than me! Which means she's pretty much the right age for the role. That's the problem with Hollywood getting people in their mid-20s to play high school students in films like Mean Girls - when you try to get them to actually play their age, they just seem too young.)

Anyway, I'd never heard of Ira Sachs before, but based on the strength of this film, I'm interesting in seeking out his earlier films. In the meantime, it seems the film is coming out next month. It's a wonderfully-crafted film, and well worth your time and money.

18 July, 2008

Hold me closer tightrope dancer

So here's the thing.

I started my 2008 Film Festival with Man On Wire (see the trailer here), a really enjoyable documentary.

A French tightrope-walker named Philippe Petit had seen an artist's impression of the World Trade Centre in a newspaper article in the early 1960s, when construction was just commencing, and apparently immediately had a dream of one day crossing between the twin towers. In the years since seeing that picture, he's tightrope-walked between the spires of Notre Dame, and between the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And then one night in 1974 his plan came together. The structure of the World Trade Centre was finished, the roof was on, the bottom 80-odd floors were occupied and functioning while the top 20-or-so floors had final construction work to be completed. A small group of people stole into the building, went to the roof, erected a wire between the two buildings, and then the next morning, Philippe walked out and spent 45 minutes crossing between the two buildings eight times.

It was a really enjoyable film. The documentary presents the events of his stunt, nicely interwoven with the larger story of Philippe's decade-long preparation for the event. Philippe has extraordinary charisma - it becomes clear how he was able to gather together a group of people to in effect break the law. He recreates moments from the events of that Above all, Philippe is an incredible performer. He doesn't just walk across, he kneels, he even lies down on this thin wire 400 metres above the ground. One of the cops on the roof trying to bring him down actually called him a tightrope dancer, since what he was doing certainly wasn't walking. I've always viewed tightrope walking as a stunt, but Philippe's performance definitely supports his view of it as an artform.

In a surprising (at least to me) way, the film turns out to be a bit of a heist film. Philippe watches gangster films constantly, imagining the preparation for the event as a bank robbery requiring careful planning, and in a funny way, he's right. After all, they're not allowed up there, so the exploit requires two groups of people in the two towers, fake IDs and disguises. And, as in any good heist film, problems arise (Philippe and another guy get trapped under a tarp for three hours, and in another moment play hide-and-seek with a guard checking the roof).

There are two things I'm disappointed by with the film. No film was apparently taken of the actual stunt from the roof-level, so we have to make do with (admittedly spectacular) photographs and footage from his earlier performances at Nortre Dame and the Harbour Bridge. But that couldn't be helped. The other disappointment was just that I would have liked to get to know a bit more about Philippe - how he actually got into tightrope walking would be a fascinating story.

But still it's a well-made documentary, nicely combining talking heads, footage from the time, recreations, and even Philippe enacting moments in his own house. Plus, it (thankfully) managed to avoid any mention of the towers' ultimate fate (which I was a bit worried about). It's just an enjoyable entertaining film, laugh-out-loud funny, and well worth trying to take the time to see.

17 July, 2008

Here we go

So here's the thing.

24 hours to go.

Tomorrow is the first day of the Wellington Film Festival, and at 7pm I will be sitting down in seat K26 of the Embassy, ready to enjoy Man On Wire, a documentary about a man tightrope-walking between the Twin Towers back in 1974.

Over the following 16 days, I'll have a further 20 festival films to attend (and, as if that weren't enough, a Saturday afternoon screening of The Dark Knight).

It's going to be an intense and exhausting two weeks, but it should also be a lot of fun. I'm excited.

Erased from existence

So here's the thing.

I'm a big fan of the Back To The Future films (BTTF was one of my most-watched films growing up). I always found it disappointing when Claudia Wells never came back to do the sequels, so the role of Marty's girlfriend Jennifer was filled by Elizabeth Shue. She does okay in the role, but she's not that great.

I've always thought they did a pretty good job in reshooting BTTF's final scene for the opening scene of BTTF2 with the new Jennifer. Which is why I thought it was pretty cool when I came across this rather great video on YouTube, presenting the final scene from BTTF and the opening BTTF2 scene simultaneously. And it's pretty interesting just to notice how much the pacing of the scene (subtly) changes between one version and the other - one film lags behind the other, then suddenly overtakes the other, and so on. It's also surprising to note that Michael J Fox actually introduces an extra use of the word "man" in the sequel.

Anyway, I just love that someone's done this - largely because it's the type of thing I wish I had thought of doing. Enjoy.

14 July, 2008

What do you think? Think they stand a chance?

So here's the thing.

I sat down a couple of weeks ago to watch Funny Games, the original German-language film by Austrian director Michael Haneke. My reason for watching it was quite simple - Haneke himself has recently made a shot-by-shot remake of the film, this time in English, with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. I quite liked the trailer - a nicely effective trailer that in its last half reminds me of the trailer for A Clockwork Orange (which is itself possibly the best trailer I've ever seen). And there is something appealing about a director trying to absolutely replicate his own film - obviously there have been directors who have remade their own films (Hitchcock made two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example), and there have been shot-by-shot remakes before (Gus Van Sant's remake of Hitchcock's Psycho, which was really awful, and which changed just enough in the film to even render its shot-by-shot status questionable). But the idea of someone returning to a 10-year-old work and trying to absolutely replicate every detail (probably in order to try and reach an audience that wouldn't watch a subtitled film) was interesting to me. Would different casting, different languages, even just an older director, cause the film to feel different to the original? It will be interesting to find out.

So, when the Film Festival programme came out, and the remake was in the listings, I knew I had to see the original film first. Especially since I'd started hearing comments that made me uncomfortable about seeing the film. I'd heard it compared to torture porn films like Saw or Hostel (a genre I find terribly offensive), comments about people feeling sick watching it, unable to watch it. On the other hand, I had heard reports about the violence in the film being largely off-screen or very fast, over before you even see it. Which made me curious as to how a film can be that disturbing if you don't even see it. Besides, I wasn't sure whether I would actually be able to watch this film once, let alone twice, and if I was to watch the original before the remake (which I wanted to), I had to watch the original film before festival tickets went on sale, because I didn't want to buy tickets for the remake and then discover I didn't want to sit through it again.

So I watched it.

And I thought it was ... interesting. It is a very challenging and disturbing film, and has stayed with me over the last few weeks. I don't really know whether I want to sit through the film (or at least a close facsimile of it) again, but I know I can make it through the film, so I did buy tickets for the remake. But the thing I found really interesting about the film wasn't actually in the film - it was actually an interview with Michael Haneke that was included on the DVD. And some of the things he said really bothered me.

The film is about this really nice family - a wife, husband, and young son. They're very happy together, live a good life, evidently fairly wealthy, and just generally have pretty much that any of us would want. Then one afternoon, they drive up to their holiday home looking forward to a week away. Not long after they arrive, a couple of polite, clean looking youths come around, initially asking to borrow some eggs. But it very quickly becomes evident that these people are planning to torrorise the family, betting that within twelve hours, all three family members will be dead. Let the games begin.

(Just a note - from this point, I'll be discussing the film's content. While I'm going to try and be as vague as possible about the details, there will be general spoilers how the film develops.)

Haneke starts to play his hand very early, working to make the audience complicit in the events of the film. At first you're not quite sure whether it is actually happening - the youths break the fourth wall for a split-second, seem to look at the camera (a big no-no in filmmaking) but it's so fast that you're not quite sure if you really saw that. Then, after the youths make their bet with the family, the lead youth actually addresses the audience, asking whether we think the family have a chance, noting that we're probably on their side. It's an unsettling moment, an indicator that the fourth wall will be broken fairly frequently throughout the film, constantly reminding us that this is a film.

But one of the problems the film has is that, because it is so well established within the film itself that it is a film, it stops working as a piece of drama. This really becomes evident takes place as we start the final third of the film. The youths vanish, actually leave the property, allowing one of the family members to try and escape. It's not much of a surprise that they recapture that person - what is surprising is how close they actually allow that person to get to being rescued. That person actually would have been rescued had they made one decision differently. There is no way that the youths would ever have done what they do - they basically surrender all control of the situation. It literally only works because it is scripted to work. And that really undercuts the film a lot. (Even moreso a later event, but I don't want to spoil that development for anyone that sees the film.)

But the other problem is that I'm not entirely certain that Haneke actually knows quite what he's done here. The film would be a lot worse, more harrowing, more disturbing, might actually achieve what he wants it to achieve, if he didn't have his characters making their aside comments to the camera. Because film to a large part is about forgetting that you're watching a film - you get drawn in, the people become real people, you empathise with their sufferings, you're happy when they're joyful. But with Funny Games, although Haneke is constantly trying to make us complicit in the torture - these events are only happening because we the viewers are watching them and are entertained by them - in fact what happens is that they stop being real people who are suffering, and instead become fictional people, and why should I be bothered by the suffering of people who don't exist? Haneke's efforts to make us complicit actually undercuts his whole message.

Haneke's attitude is basically that the film is almost a test. If you turn the film off then you pass the test. If you make it to the end of the film, then you need to hear what he's trying to say. And what he is trying to do is get us to question why we get so much enjoyment out of watching people suffer. Which is all very fine, but he's actually trying to criticise and condemn the viewer for watching the film that he made. In fact the film that he made was intended to cause us to suffer - Haneke has admitted trying to brutalise the viewer into realising how terrible it is that we watch this stuff. He has made a film to torture the viewer to tell us off for wanting the characters to suffer.

But what I'm not sure Haneke quite seems to get is that the violence, the parts of the film that he's criticising us for are not the parts that we enjoy. Now, I'm not talking about horror films here, largely because Haneke's film doesn't really feel like a horror film. Funny Games feels a lot more like a thriller, albeit a more extreme thriller. And in your typical thriller, there may very well be scenes where people are scared, people are hurt, people are even killed. But that's not really the point of the film. That's all just scene-setting, establishing the situation, confirming the threat. Instead the point of the film is the suspense around the person trying to fight back. They have their life taken over by some intruding force, but there will be some moment where they decide to take it back. And that is the moment when your typical thriller becomes interesting, because suddenly its not about one person inflicting pain on another, its about a battle of wits between two equally matched people, and the suspense around who will win. That's what this film constantly feels like it's about to become, but it never does. Instead, the family suffer through the torture and the killing, trying occasionally to take the initiative, actually succeeding (or almost) once or twice, but it never develops.

Now, what I'm just said is relevant in terms of a thriller, because to my mind that is the type of film that Haneke has made. I suspect he was actually thinking about horror films, in which the evil is never really vanquished, and if you do happen to survive the first film, you'll probably be killed off in the sequel, clearing the way for new flesh. And I think there he's got some legitimate criticsm of those films, but this film does not feel like those films, partly I suspect because the violence is all offscreen. A horror film would show you the killings, the deaths, would go to great lengths to invent new means of killing that we haven't seen. This film doesn't do that.

And having seen the original film, I think that's the really big failing with the idea of making a shot-by-shot remake. As an experiment, it's a fascinating idea - in fact, it was the thing that first caused me to be interested in the film. And I know Haneke actually wanted to make the original in America - he was speaking about American filmmaking - but he couldn't get the financing, so had to make it in German. Since he had some success in the US with Cache [Hidden], this has allowed him to try and make the film he originally want to make. But American filmmaking has moved on in the last ten years into ever more dark and scary areas. The rise of the torture-porn genre that really deal in the depths of human suffering and depravity, films in which the characters have no hope for anything but, if they're lucky, a quick death. To the degree that Haneke has a point in what he is trying to say, he's saying it to the people that watch this type of movie. The problem is that if you're trying to make a film to speak to the Saw audience, you need to be a lot more graphic, first to attract them, then to actually shock them enough to make your point. But since he's trying in effect to present an exact copy of the first film, that's a big constraint that limits his ability to do what needs to be done in order to achieve what he's trying to achieve.

Now, what the film does do, and do very well, is show you the true cost of what happens on the family. There is a scene immediately after one of the family is killed (off-screen). The blood is splattered all over the TV screen. The camera cuts to a wide shot, we can see about half the lounge, and in the far end over by the wall, we see one of the family members (I won't say who). That person sits still for a moment, afraid to move, then gets up and moves to the TV, rubs against it until they cut through their bonds. They then stand up and cross the room, the camera pans to follow them, still at a wide shot. They stop at the door, go back to the middle of the room, help the other surviving family member to stand up, and then walk back to the door and out of the room. That's all that happens in the shot. The shot takes just over ten minutes. Ten minutes. That is a long time for such a small amount of action to play out. But it's very realistic - they've just seen someone from their immediate family killed, they're traumatised by that, they're afraid that the killers might attack them at any moment, they're physically exhausted (it's been a long night), they're tired and sore, every step they take is agony, they feel on the verge of collapse. It's realistic that people in a situation like that would take that length of time. So what the film does do, and does really well, is present the emotional toll that these events would have on the people.

But I think the thing that really made me angry was a comment Haneke made about the audience's reaction to one scene. There's an incident late in the film where, for a moment, it seems like the family are going to get the upper hand. In fact, one of the youths is actually killed, on-screen. For real. Dead. And then ... something happens. I'm not going to tell you what, and you'd never guess what it is, but it's an astonishingly audacious thing for Haneke to do. David Lynch would reject the idea for being too out there. But here's the problem. Haneke talks about being in the movie audience when that death takes place. People cheered at that death, and then when this subsequent event takes place, they realised what had just happened. They had just cheered a murder. And the way Haneke talks about it, it's this whole attitude of how terrible that is. And that, I'll be honest, really made me mad. Because I don't like the idea of some European telling me how bad it is when someone kills someone else in self-defence. This was not an unprovoked murder. These people had already killed one person, they had openly stated their intention to kill the other two family members. And perhaps it's just me, but I can't conceive of how anyone could have any moral problem with that killing - it is the clearest situation of a justified killing that could be concieved. Kill or be killed. And if (as I would argue) there is no moral problem with that killing, then I don't see why there should be any problem with an audience being happy and relieved, even glad about the fact that it had taken place. Because we like these people, we're not actually enjoying watching them being tortured, we want them to make it out of the movie. And if them surviving requires that they kill the people who chose to inflict such treatment on them (which it does), then so be it. I see no problem with that.

But then, that's just me. And I'm generally pretty vindictive.

Haneke is a brilliant director, no doubt about it. He managed to make a phenomenally disturbing, harrowing, sickening film with barely any onscreen violence. Hell, the film had an R18 rating for "graphic violence", yet there was only one incident of actual violence I can think of in the entire film, it's over in a flash, and I've seen worse violence in lower rated films. The film feels a lot more violent than it is. I know I'll be able to make it through the festival screening of the remake, but I'm really not looking forward to it. A lot of it is the film itself, which really is an intense and unpleasant experience. But a lot of what I hated about the film came from Haneke and his whole attitude of judging the audience watching his film. I was talking to a friend at work who I knew had seen the original film, and he said he found Funny Games to be rather an immature work. He suggested that Cache was a more reasoned and honest exploration of many of the same issues, which sounds good - I must try to see that.

But Funny Games? It's a well-made film, but certainly one of the most difficult films I've ever seen. I'm just glad I'll have had four weeks to recover from the experience before seeing the remake.

I had a lot of other things I wanted to say about the film, but it's taken a few weeks for me to get this far into the post, and I honestly can't be bothered working any more on it. I might talk a bit more after seeing the remake, then again, I might not. We'll see.

09 July, 2008

I don't want to do this...

So here's the thing.

I'm looking at eT's Slightly Intrepid blog, and I see he's posted one of those "answer a bunch of questions" things. And, horror of horrors, he's tagged me to do it next. Now, I hate these things, and normally when someone emails me one of these things, I just ignore it. But this time the challenge is out there, in public, on the internet, for everyone to see. So I feel that I really do have to respond.

So here it goes...

What were you doing ten years ago?

I was halfway thought my third year of university, having just completed my final paper for my commerce degree, and with 1½ years to go on the law degree. Since we're talking about early July 1998, I suspect I was probably in Wanganui at the time, since it was would have been university holidays.

Five snacks I enjoy in a perfect, non weight-gaining world:

- Rocky Road icecream (strawberry or caramel, I'm not picky)

- Cadbury's Black Forest Chocolate

- Roast Chicken, Lemon, and Thyme chips (I forget the names of the people who make these, but they are good)

- Donuts (why is it so hard to find donuts anywhere in Wellington? I'll help eT open a Wendy's in Wellington, if he'll help me open a Dunkin' Donuts or Krispy Kreme)

- Mrs Higgins Raspberry and White Chocolate cookies

Five things I would do if I were a billionaire:

A few years ago, I know what my answer would have been - invest in movie versions of the Narnia books. But since they're being made now, that option is a bit pointless (although if the series ends before they film all seven books, as they probably will, I would invest in any unmade films).

I know I should use the money to do things for the benefit of all mankind, spreading the Gospel, etc, but if I'm honest with myself, it would probably be more along the lines of:

- Get a great home theatre setup - colossal screen, earth-shaking sound system, that type of thing.

- Buy a Porsche 911 (I'm not a car person at all, but after watching Top Gear for a while, I'm starting to realise the Porsche 911 is a beautiful car.

- Travel - particularly the UK, Europe, China, and I'd quite like to visit Israel as well. Plus I would keep going back to Disneyland again and again, just because it's Disneyland.

- You know how Daniel Plainview had his own bowling alley at the end of There Will Be Blood? My own bowling alley would be quite fun, only without the corpse lying across the lane.

- Carry on working (I hope), just because I think the idea of never working again actually sounds rather awful.

Three of my habits:

- Setting both my alarm clock and cellphone alarm for 7.00am, getting up, hitting snooze on both, getting up at 7.06am to hit snooze on my cellphone, getting up at 7.09am to hit snooze on my alarm clock, getting up at 7.12am to hit snooze on my cellphone, getting up at 7.18am to hit snooze on both my cellphone and my alarm, getting up at 7.24am to hit snooze on my cellphone, getting up at 7.27am to hit snooze on my alarm clock, getting up at 7.30am to hit snooze on my cellphone, getting up at 7.36am to hit snooze on both my cellphone and my alarm, getting up at 7.42am to hit snooze on my cellphone, getting up at 7.45am to hit snooze on my alarm clock, getting up at 7.48am when my cellphone goes off again, turning my cellphone off, finally up and ready for the day. Then having a shower, getting out to realise my alarm clock is still going since I last hit snooze on that one and forgot to turn it off. By which point I'm usually running late and end up having to run to catch the train. I hate mornings.

- Forgetting stuff. Lots of stuff. It's a rare conversation where I actually manage to make it through an entire conversation without at some point forgetting mid-sentence what I was saying, and usually even the whole topic of conversation. If I'm like this now, with a youthful alert mind, I hate to think what I'll be like when I'm old and senile.

- Telling a very long, complicated, and detailed story, only to realise at the end of the story that it was actually pretty boring and not much actually happened and if I'm bored by the story I'm telling how boring must it be to the person I just inflicted it on.

Five jobs that I have had:

Ignoring my current job, here is my entire work history

- Delivering Avon pamphlets every three weeks for my aunt.

- Woolworths checkout operator for six years.

- Health Benefits three times during university holidays - mostly data entry, prescription processing, and in my last year, warehouse worker (I was working in a building that stored every prescription written in New Zealand in the previous two years - they would send me a list of specific prescriptions they wanted, and I would have to find them)

- Some plastics factory - I can't even remember the name of the place, but we would make shoe soles and Kiwi Cricket tees. I was no good at the job, and was fired after two weeks - they said it was because one of their major purchasers had closed down, so they didn't have any work for me any more, but I never believed them, because I know how bad I was at the job.

- Six weeks as a painter at a (now closed-down) saw mill. The mill had been operating in the US, dismantled, shipped, and rebuilt in Wanganui by the owners. It was my job to paint all the machinery. Very hard job, long hours (11 hours a day, starting at 6.30am (I can't believe I did that?), plus a half-day on Saturday), all for minimum wage. Plus the guy I had to work with was the most unpleasant, ignorant, and stupid person I have ever met (I particularly remember one argument we had where he argued the time on his watch was more accurate because he used hs neighbour's sundial(!) to set the time.) Plus, he was extraordinarily lazy - I remember he used to take pride in managing to keep his overalls clean. And there's only one way a painter can not get paint on himself, and that's by not painting. I was very glad when the university year started again and I could leave, never having to see him again.

Five things to do today:

- Write these bloody reports (not very exciting, but it's what I need to do)

- Rewatch the Doctor Who finale, this time with the MP3 commentary track

- Do some more work on my Funny Games post - since I've already mentioned I'm writing it, I'm committed to actually finishing it, although it's a hard post to write since I just start getting angry every time I work on it.

- Yawn a lot, complain how I'm not getting enough sleep, then stay up until midnight playing Lego Star Wars because I'm still young and don't need to go to bed earlier. (This, incidently, also gives rise to one of my habits.)

- Feel extremely envious at eT for getting to go to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.

Five people I want to get to know more about:

- Terry Gilliam (Monty Python animator and great film director)

- Joel and Ethan Coen (it's very nice to be able to describe them as Oscar-winning directors)

- Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor, Little Britain narrator, and an entertaining storyteller)

- Ira Glass (host of the This American Life radio show)

- Edgar Wright (writer/director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz)

People to tag:

No-one - since I really do hate these things, I don't want to try to oblige anyone else to answer it. But if anyone reads this post and decides to do their own list, feel free to do so and post a comment pointing to it.

There we are. How did I do?

04 July, 2008


So here's the thing.

I just wanted to write a brief post about a couple of things I'm excited about.

Firstly, possibly the most important discovery in film history. I first saw Metropolis about five or six years ago, when the Film Festival showed the recently restored version. And the film, an extraordinary silent film from 1927 about a futuristic society, class divide, a worker uprising, and one of the most famous robots in cinematic history, just blew me away. Not only is it an enjoyable story, but the design and look of the film is incredible, and there is a scope and size to the film that is quite mindblowing, with some effect sequences that still hold up today.

The sad thing is that the film only played briefly in its complete version, before having cuts. The restored version that I first saw was still missing nearly a quarter of the original footage - they covered the gaps with cards detailing what happened in the missing scenes. It was an elegant solution that worked well - especially since, being a silent film, we're already watching cards for any dialogue, so no real adjustment is needed. But still, some of the scenes described sounded interesting, and so it was frustrating whenever one of those cards appeared because you would just find yourself thinking "I want to see that."

So you can understand why I'm excited. It was announced yesterday that a copy of the complete film with all the missing scenes has been discovered in a film museum in Buenos Aires. From the pictures available of the footage, it looks like it is badly scratched (and although there will obviously be restoration efforts, who knows how clean they'll be able to get it), and it is from a 16mm print (so there will be an obvious quality drop from the 35mm footage), but who cares. We'll be able to see Metropolis complete for the first time in 80 years. And that is exciting. Plus, Kino have since confirmed that they will be including the new footage in their already-announced Blu-Ray release, scheduled for next year. That's one release I'm really looking forward to.

(EDIT: It now seems it may not quite be complete. It seems there is still one scene missing - apparently it was at the end of a reel and was badly torn. But otherwise, complete!)

Now, did anyone check whether the Museo del Cine had a copy of The Magnificant Ambersons?

The other thing I'm excited by is just something cool I came across on on the Guardian website. It seems Channel 4 in the UK is having a season of showing Stanley Kubrick films. As a fan of Kubrick, I'm in favour of anything that allows people to discover the man's work. And they're clearly going all out to promote the season. Witness this ad, purporting to present Kubrick's point-of-view as he walks through the set of The Shining, past the twins, past someone painting REDRUM on a door, dodging extras practicing their ballroom dancing, through the snow-covered hedge-maze, to finally sit down at his chair, about to direct the very scary Danny-on-a-tricycle scene. And the recreation, to my eye at least, looks perfect. The attention to detail is stunning, the look-alike actors seem convincing, and the presentation of the behind-the-scenes world seems faithful to how it was presented in the documentary shot by Kubrick's daughter on the Shining set. It's a brilliant ad, and I hope it succeeds in bringing attention to the season, introducing Stanley Kubrick to many people who have never seen his films.

By the way, apparently they're starting with a new documentary, Citizen Kubrick. This interested me, and when I Googled the title for information, it seems it's based on this Guardian article from 2004. I've read the article a few times in the past, but it's always a delight to reread. Two years after Kubrick died, Jon Ronson was invited to the Kubrick house, and the story reveals Kubrick's obsessive attention to detail. (In my favourite part of the article, we discover that Kubrick keeps an archive of fan letters arranged by city, so that if one of his films is shown somewhere, Kubrick can arrange for one of those people to check the quality of the movie screen.) It's a fascinating insight into who Kubrick was, and the idea of a documentary based on that article is rather exciting.

03 July, 2008

There’s dangerous work to do

So here's the thing.

I went to see the new Speed Racer film in the weekend. And judging by the number of people in the cinema (maybe 20 people at the main Saturday night screening in the film's opening weekend) the film is going to bomb here just as much as it crashed and burned in the States.

Which is a shame, because Speed Racer is possibly the most insane film I’ve ever seen. I'm not really saying it’s a good film, but my gosh is it a lot of fun. It's an absolute must-see on the big screen, but since most people won't see it on the big screen, I'm just glad it has been made in the high-definition era where Blu-Ray can at least attempt to replicate the experience.

I will confess I wasn't all that interested in the film initially. I watched the show as a kid, but the only thing I remember of the show is the title character (if you showed me a picture of him, I would have recognised him) and the title song (Here he comes! Here comes Speed Racer! He's a demon on wheels!). None of the other characters remained in my memory; in fact I remembered the show so little that, after seeing the trailer, I had to check Wikipedia to discover that there really was a chimp in the TV show. Mainly I just remembered the show as a rather silly forgettable Japanese animated show, and the idea of a live action film seemed a little absurd.

That changed when I first saw the trailer. Here was a garish, hyperactive world in the brightest colours visible to the human eye. Here was an insane world unbound by any rule of physics. Here was an animated world brought to real life, and then completely reworked because it just wasn't sufficiently ridiculous. I fell in love with the trailer, and eagerly looked forward to the film. I wasn't surprised when the film got bad reviews, but I was disappointed when the film completely flopped on release in the States (costing $120 million, it made only $18.5 million in its opening weekend, and even now, nearly two months after release, its worldwide gross is still only $83 million).

And to some degree, I can understand it. There is no substance to the film – characters have all the depth of Saturday morning cartoon characters, and the plotline (Racer has his idealism shattered after discovering his beloved sport is filled with corruption) is not that impressive. As a result, you very quickly learn that any time away from the racetrack feels like wasted time. You never get a sense that it is actually devastating for Speed to discover his all-time-favourite race was fixed, so it's hard to really care. Plus there's the whole backstory of what happened to Speed's brother Rex, which is presented in small snippets through the film, until you want to scream "Just tell us already!" Plus there is the question of Racer X. Matthew Fox gives one of the best performances in the movie, but the film drags out the mystery of his identity far too long. Now, I admit that I knew going into the film who his character was (having discovered it when looking the show up on Wikipedia after seeing the trailer), but the way the film overplays the big mystery I suspect I would have figured it out long before the big reveal. So, to be honest, as storytelling the film is a failure.

But as an experience? As spectacle? The film is quite extraordinary. There's a bold quality to the look of the film – in fact, for the first five or ten minutes, while my eyes were adjusting, I was constantly rubbing my eyes, having difficulty coping with just how bright the film was (my gosh, I have old man eyes). I described it as "garish" earlier, but that term is a negative description that is actually unfair to the film. There is just a mess of colours in every frame, all competing with each other, that it becomes almost ... beautiful isn't the word. Striking, perhaps? Just look at this frame. There is no way it should work, but yet it does, somehow.

As for the action, the race scenes that are the core of the film? There the Wachowskis seem to be just taking the current popularity of the fast cut to extremes. With the kind of hyper-world they're presenting us with, it takes time to actually look at what they're presenting, actually just take in what we're looking at. But the Wachowskis seem determined to deny us this. Instead, they seem to be pushing to discover the shortest possible cut they can make to each shot without sacrificing cinematic coherency. I realise some have argued they don't succeed, but personally, I thought it worked. The film's race scenes always seem like they're about to collapse into incomprehensibility, but they never actually cross the line. The result is that the race scenes are actually enjoyable, in a strange way. I don't know why, but I liked them.

The film ultimately becomes an exercise in excess. The Wachowskis seem to be asking, "How much can we get away with." And the answer, at least from my point of view, is: a hell of a lot. It's big, absurd, and audacious. No-one's ever going to say they lacked imagination with this one. I'm not going to argue it's a great film. I'm not even going to argue that it's a good film. It just is what it is – a live-action Japanese cartoon for children. But, and I'm a bit ashamed to say this, I really enjoyed it. And don't be surprised if this time next year I own the film on Blu-Ray. I'll just tell people it's a demo disc ... yeah, that'll be my story.