Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Film Review: Milk (23-01-09)

The centre piece of Gus Van Sant’s film Milk, is Harvey Milk himself; A forty year old gay man passionate about changing how his fellow citizens see his “people”, but at the same time unsatisfied with his current existence. Seizing the moment, Milk moves to San Francisco with his partner and sets up a camera shop. Seeing the place of his work and residence, Castro Street, become a growing hub for the gay community, as well as witnessing his friends beaten and killed whilst being ignored by the local police because of their lifestyle, Milk decides to try to make a difference. Eventually he and his team, along with the help of the community to which he finds himself the principal voice, create enough noise to have him elected into public office. As Harvey’s influence grows, so does disgust and confusion towards homosexuals in the San Francisco district and beyond.

The biopic of late has had a bit of resurgence thanks in part to the commercial success of films such as Ray, Walk the Line and The Aviator. All were decent films, but strictly on a mainstream appeal. The story of a celebrated gay rights activist’s last eight years alive is one that does not strike you as having as much conventional mainstream attraction, confirmed by it being very political in its chronicle and choosing not too show our central protagonist’s younger years for example. In the hands of curious, yet accomplished director Gus Van Sant however, the finished product, which resembles less a biopic of one man, than an account of a moment in time, is a film delivered in a way that it can be embraced by the broader audience, whilst retaining a bit of the director’s natural quirk.

To say Sean Penn inhabits the central role of Harvey Milk could almost be an understatement. The hardened performing veteran, with help from selective prosthetics, evolves into the personality with such ease and grace, you wouldn’t believe he was the same man behind a character such as the intimidating Jimmy Markum from 2003‘s Mystic River. Emile Hirsch and James Franco deserve mention for their equally passionate turns, but it is Josh Brolin as Milk’s political contemporary and eventual enemy, Dan White, who shines the most in the supporting roles. His portrayal is both subtle and unhinged. Plus it is an achievement provoking empathy over demonising someone who would be best described as ’the bad guy’ in a film.

Unique visual and sound editing helps the film greatly, giving it distinctive structure as we jump between Harvey documenting his thoughts on a tape recorder, to the actual events of the time. This device also helps distance Milk from being just another biopic. While it is still immensely watch able, the film is not without it‘s flaws. To be fair though, most of the concerns are unavoidable when working in such a genre, and being political by nature, Dustin Lance Black’s Oscar nominated screenplay still avoids getting bogged down with such jargon, allowing the emotion to filter in - although perhaps not enough to wholly satisfy. Overall, bringing such an important man and moment to life in what is seen as a medium more focused on entertaining than reporting, the combination of director, screenwriter and actor have given us the best we could have hoped for.

Mastodon's Crack the Skye Cover!

Mastodon's Crack the Skye artwork has been revealed!

Keeping a similar feeling to 2006's Blood Mountain, it's epic in everyway! Check out under the pic for a link to a huge 1000x1000 version. Current release date is March 24th with the first single, Divinations apparently coming out on the 27th of Jan in the States...so in just a few hours then.

Mastodon are one of my current top three favourite bands and have been since late 2005. CtS has been a long time coming. Blood mountain blew me away and if I had too choose, it would be a contender for my fav album in the 00's so far. Early reviews of CtS have pointed to a much more rock based, prog sound (which was always going to be the case), which just makes my expectations even higher.

Expect gushing and/or unapproved man-love for the lads as the album release date gets closer....How sweet would this look on a vinyl??

LARGE: http://albumart.mastodonrocks.com/

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Film Review: The Wrestler (18-01-09)

“Doc, I’m a professional wrestler” is the response from Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) when after just having bypass surgery following a heart attack, he is told by his doctor that he must stop putting steroids into his system and can only perform mild exercise. The significance of that assertion to Randy’s story of a once great wrestling icon, now twenty years later relegated to Community Hall matches and unsatisfying signing appearances, is cemented by it being said with such conviction and pride. He is a wrestler. That is what he does. That is what he knows. Rourke embodies Ram and all his flaws in such a sincere way; the authenticity of his colossal performance raises the bar for realism.

Unconventional director Darren Aronofsky has shaped a documentary-like film with The Wrestler, and like the central performance is unflinching, gritty and driven by severe emotion. It is debateable whether the character of Randy is a likeable one, but you are not really asked to choose anyhow. We follow him through his present day-to-day life and the film’s major achievement is that you cannot help but empathize with him - as if it was real life. As if The Ram is a wrestler in our world. In that sense too, the film avoids sentimentality but still manages to be profoundly affecting and at times, painful to watch.

It is clear Mickey Rourke has drawn on the parallels between his real-life erratic career and Randy’s. No doubt it has helped the performance, and it’s a tribute to our director for pushing the actor to dig deep. The reward is a fascinating, hugely immersive journey regardless of Ram’s motives, outcomes or choices. Evan Rachael-Wood and Marisa Tomei complete the roles of Randy’s estranged daughter and aging stripper cum-love interest respectively. Both shine in their emotional responsibility, but Tomei’s Cassidy, whose story mirrors Randy’s in many ways, is finely convincing.

The deft cutting is reminiscent of earlier Aronofsky films, Pi and Requiem for a Dream, and works well here to keep the pace brisk and break up potentially tedious dialogue-free scenes, as well as adding energy to ones such as when Randy is working behind a supermarket Deli counter. A subtle, precise acoustic score from Clint Mansell blends appropriately amongst the eighties hair metal Randy holds so dear, ultimately confirming that on a technical level, The Wrestler is scarcely flawed. The wrestling matches themselves flow with authenticity. It’s a credit to both Rourke and Aronofsky for not flinching during the handful of fights shown - making them feel real was essential, and they‘ve completely succeeded.

Exploring a relatively uncharted world in cinema, scriptwriter Robert D. Siegel gives us material that on the surface does resemble a clichéd story, but praise must be given to the eye for detail towards the underground wrestling circuit he demonstrates. It effectively kills any chance of formula pulling us out of Randy’s psyche of frustration and eventual acceptance of what he believes his life to amount too. Struggling to complete any relationship he has besides the ones he shares with his loyal fans, it’s seeing Randy risking his life trying to hold on to that what makes him feel human the most, which is genuinely heart-breaking. It's also what make The Wrestler an unmissable film.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

More of Spike's Wild Things revealed...!

So if there is anybody out there whose stumbled upon this hotchpotch of opinion known as a blog and is excited about Spike Jonze’s upcoming film adaptation of the children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, you’re in good company. It sits amongst my top five most anticipated films of ‘09 alongside Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synedoche New York and The Wolf man remake. The latter rest assured is simply the guilty pleasure of seeing top bloke Benico Del Toro as a lycanthrope - a creature I have a lot of time for.

Jonze’s vision has been under a cloud of “complications” it seems since it began production almost a good two years ago. This was always going to be a film with a heavy post-production period, but rumours of the studio initially rejecting the director’s first cut, requiring re-shoots and worst of all, potentially replacing Spike, seemed to have turned out to be just that; rumours. Even so, the film was pushed back too over a year from its initial release date. Jonze never commented, but words from the studio’s execs and one Forest Whittaker (he voices one of the Wild Things along side Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini) claiming all was well, was….well, reassuring.

Now….brand new pics have surfaced after only really seeing glimpses in the past and all I can say is that they do not disappoint. The Wild Things themselves look freakin' gorgeous. I dare say the puppet master, Jim Henson, would have been proud of this kind of work. Of course, if you have ever read or seen and interview with one Spike Jonze (or at the very least, seen one of his two films), you would know he is quite the quirky chap. Not content with just releasing pics, the man whose all about coolness and oddness equally, has decided to take advantage of the promotional opportunity and print these images on a limited edition run of skateboards from the boarding fanatic’s own company.

Is this the coolest shit or what? I think so.

Film Review: Bottle Shock (11-01-09)

Set in 1976, Alan Rickman is shop owner and wine connoisseur, Steven Spurrier, who looking to broaden the world’s palette and break the stranglehold French vinos had over the market at the time, heads to California in the perception that something ’big’ is happening amongst it’s vineyards. Not expecting major quality, he meets a variety of locals and decides their wine is actually good enough for a tasting competition he is holding back in France. The rest they say, is history.

For a film based on a seemingly important chapter in wine history, Bottle Shock’s major flaw is its almost forced elements of the relationships between its leads. It is not that padding such a distinctive story with dramatic liberties is bad, more that it is just not done that well here. A film like this does need something to keep the interest of non-wine aficionados in the audience, so the idea is acceptable, but the script fails to deliver a little more than a few solid moments of comedy and drama amongst a traditional Hollywood relationship arc. It is nothing you haven’t seen before, but its positives make it worth a watch (only once) with Rickman and wine fans certainly getting the most out of it.

Bill Pullman and Freddy Rodriquez add some convincing dramatic weight to their roles of stubborn father to Chris Pine’s Bo and Mexican cellar rat with wine making ambitions of his own respectively, but they’re never given really too much to work with. Pine is fine enough as our lead who needs to pull his attitude, but the surfer-hippy wig he dons was borderline overly distracting to be honest. Rachael Taylor’s character of Sam is performed well enough I suppose, but it would probably help if I felt she needed to be there at all. The love triangle between her, Bo and Rodriquez’s Gustavo is clearly the films weakest link. As expected, Rickman is playing to type, but he is so much fun, every scene he is in is the film’s highlights, particularly ones involving him and a slightly eccentric Dennis Farina.

Director Randall Miller follows suit with the standardized story by not really being overly inspiring, though the California scenery is on show in all its bright glory, which makes the experience easy on the eye, also dubiously allowing the script’s flaws to wash over a little easier. Comparisons to the superior Sideways (one of my favourite films of recent years) would be unfair to both films and even though Bottle Shock would have benefited expanding on the actual wine making process over the love triangle guff, as it stands it is predictable, enjoyable fare that you could do a lot worse than with your favourite chardonnay on a lazy afternoon.

Film Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (27-12-08)

I'd assume if one was to think about the technology and money that helped bring this affecting story to life, it would be almost intimidating. To have just about every other element of the film, technical or otherwise, bond so wonderfully that it makes you forget about how Brad Pitt’s face is on that old man’s body, and just see Pitt as an old man, is something that deserves praise. I hope Fincher didn’t have too many sleepless nights over it though, because from the opening oddity about a backwards clock and the man who invented it, we are transported into what resembles an intriguing modern fairy tale. It seems to have an aura that few films do or attempt to create anymore. Something that even if you did not enjoy it, it stays with you, but if you did, it is nothing short of utterly absorbing.

Themes of opportunity, love, growth, life and death are consistent as we follow the unambiguous linear storyline, constantly moving forward. Engaging and quirky characters interweave the film throughout, with roundly excellent performances from all involved. Beyond Pitt’s effortless essay of Benjamin, Blanchett again proving she is the best female actor working today, Taraji Henson’s Queenie and Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, deserve to be mentioned. The narration used to tell and introduce is delivered as well as one could have hoped with Pitt’s New Orleans’s drawl finely convincing.

I recoiled initially from the chosen narrative, of the journal being read by Daisy’s daughter to her on her deathbed. Beside the fact that this device brings unwanted comparisons to the vastly inferior, Forest Gump (note the same screenwriter here), a cut back to Daisy’s hospital room in present day, too rue or explain her regret about a certain situation, started to grow slightly tedious and almost into muddy cliché. Luckily Fincher pulls back before it becomes a nuisance or overly sentimental. It’s a close call, and I perhaps would rather have just seen the story unfold without it.

The film’s sword - the one for which it lives and dies by, is that for all it’s tear jerking storyline and emotional performances, it’s sentimentality is trod around like on a razor but declines to tip over, despite constantly threatening to do so - especially during those hospital scenes. There is no denying it is a sentimental film, but not in a groaning or manipulative way like other Hollywood films can be so guilty of. It’s a delicate boundary to dwell in, but Fincher’s steady hand coupled with its uniquely mature and darkly funny script, lifts the film above any of its peers and raises the bar for anything wanting to be in its company.

If you find yourself a bit too cynical too endure the message it provides of simply enjoying life and it’s never too late, it would not be so surprising, but you would be missing a wonderful experience. One that proves Fincher is someone who won’t be pigeon holed and without doubt, one the most interesting directors working out of Hollywood today.

Friday, January 16, 2009

An opinion on M.Night Shayamalan: Part Two - The Happening

It’s almost as if people were saying this before they even saw it, but the now clichéd, “nothing much happens in The Happening” comment is not that far from the truth - but as always with Shyamalan, there is something that makes his films unique, and much like I did in the superior, but widely unpopular, The Village, I almost found it in this one too. The hype machine certainly didn’t work in this film's favour, though. Building such a film up the way they did, and then have not much really materialize is bound to bring calls of “worst film ever” from the sadist IMDB crowd after all.

In no way are the films similar, but it can be at least said that The Happening is an improvement over Night’s last film - the bizarre and pretentious Lady in the Water - and a step in the right direction getting back to what he knows whilst NOT being the nail in the coffin of his career some would have you believe. Taking it in it’s stride, the film’s fairly preposterous concept of an airborne toxin that blocks out a chemical in the brain, one that prevents us from doing self harm, is chilling enough if you choose to accept it and the script is smarter than it probably should be given the Twilight Zone atmosphere. Not allowing a concrete explanation for the events which would take away some of the fun, supernatural element, we are still surrounded by math and science teachers constantly reminding us to think logically about the whole thing. The initial terrorist panic reaction is a fairly realistic one in a post 9-11 world, but that is soon done away with as more and more people off themselves allowing the theories to flood in. Night injects some much needed, but certainly odd humour as well. Working the paranoia effectively, the whole film is reminiscent (in a positive way) of classic B-grade efforts of the 1950s.

The horror is done pretty well overall too, and certain scenes that include the various ways people kill themselves, are effective and dripping with intensity without being overly blood splattered or corny. This is the film’s strength because as it goes on, it becomes clearer that our main characters don’t really have much to do besides run from the wind. That might sound peculiar and tedious, but Night has some old school style and he paints a bright looking film that takes advantages of using more of the actor’s physical emotions with some slightly startling (at first) framing. Zooey Daschanel (playing Elliott‘s estranged wife) and Mark Wahlberg (who plays our hero science teacher, Elliott) are fine despite not really getting to develop much given all the running away they do. I won’t deny it though, there are some moments of cringe worthy deliveries, and perhaps Wahlberg just wasn’t the right guy for the role. I like him, but there’s no argument here that the guy is a wooden performer. But, and besides a few disasters bit player wise, the acting overall is not as bad as some reviews have made it out to be.

The Happening is a good example of what Night does these days - he has great ideas and even though he can make the execution look and sound good, they all end up being fairly hollow and forgettable. It’s climax is a disappointment, but I suppose the plan was to be so invested in our lead couple we should appreciate the unexpected, slightly positive ending - a tacked on ‘it‘s not over’ moment should really have been left for after the credits though. Worth seeing if you’re a fan, it’s best to just make up your own mind. It’s purely glossy B-grade fun and I don’t think the director intended it to be much more than that. Everyone should just chill out with the ‘worse film of the year’ comments - this isn’t Date Movie people.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

An opinion on M.Night Shyamalan: Part One

It is a shame that M.Night Shyamalan painted himself into a bit of a corner early in his career, because the guy does have some talent. But by sticking to the same formula for so long and making the audience pin his film(s) on some big reveal he’s spent the whole movie laying out has alienated a lot of people - at least it did after refusing to drop the gimmick before it became overly predictable anyway. That has made him fairly unique however, because the expectations, both good and bad, heaped upon every new film he announces (still even after all these years) are heavier than most major genre directors, and in most cases, both extremes are never met. Yes, I am happy to give examples too.

With the exception of 2006’s Lady in the Water, they’re never as unpleasant as some claim to be (I'm talking to you, The Village haters), but at the same time and despite dropping the twist gimmick, he seems to have hit a major wall in the last few years when it comes to finalizing his pictures. His latest oeuvre, The Happening, does contain a fresh take on the epidemic idea (ludicrous or not - and if you say it is stupid, then you must also dismiss a bunch of now regarded 'classics' of similar ilk), but in the end it can only be considered ordinary at best. So it seems Night is well and truly unable to re-create what he achieved in his most impressive work, Unbreakable.

The big question is though, was his breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense, that good anyway? If you believed the critics, he was the second coming of both Spielberg and Hitchcock. While it was interesting and original, it hardly has replay value. Perhaps the man, who arguably set the re-invention in motion of ‘the twist’ in mainstream cinema, gets a bit too much attention then. Shouldn’t we just drop the bar for the little guy already? It could be people ripping him to shreds or tripping over themselves in overstated praise, but the bottom line is, he is only a genre director with "Hitchcockian" ambitions, so why can’t he just make films without such scrutiny? Being egotistic is not enough to justify it, because there are HEAPS of egotistical filmmakers in Hollywood who don't cop it as much.

I consider the guy a decent storyteller, so I always walk into one of his films with only really that in my mind. I don’t think Night has really done anything to permit the size of the spotlight that’s on him is my point, but he’s no hack either. Brett Ratner is a hack. Woody Allen is an auteur. Stanley Kubrick is a master filmmaker. M.Night Shyamalan is none of the three really, but I understand it is easier to criticise than to praise. Maybe he should just focus on his strong point - the idea and conception, and then let someone with their feet closer to the ground take over. But he’s afraid to fly! He should be the most grounded filmmaker working today!

Part Two, the Captain's review of The Happening coming soon..