Thursday, April 30, 2009

Peter Pan complex (Elegy)

So I realise I never did point anyone to my review of Elegy written for 3D World. You can check it out by clicking here. I liked it, if in a muted sense because of the film's obvious emotional manipulations. Certainly the most interesting element – aside a strong, though unchallenging, performance from Penelope Cruz – is as another example of Sir Ben Kingsley's recent exploration of character's with a Peter Pan complex. Tristan Burke wrote a great review of The Wackness which you can read here and I'm certainly curious to see whether Kingsley continues to explore this subject matter of white male identity crisis.

Elegy is still screening at the Dendy cinema in Newtown


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Looking for Shit to do?


April really has been a pretty poor month for film in Australia. Things started off bad with Pink Panther 2, got flabby round the mid-section with Race To Witch Mountain and Fast & Furious (I know I gave it a positive review but please), with the final slices of shit pie coming in the form of Tenderness and Defiance (both released this Friday 30 April). I've already offered my 1,700 cents on X-Men Origins Wolverine so I won't retread this already well-covered tectonic ground.

There was some welcome reprieve thanks to middling efforts thanks to Good, Elegy and two very decent films with tricky titles to write together in a sentence: Mary And Max and Wendy And Lucy. But nothing really got me going this month, and as such I must confess to have taken to catching up on some television I'd missed including the interesting Generation Kill, the disappointing seasons 3 and 4 of Weeds and finally my new favourite piece of quality drama Mad Men.

Whilst there may not be an abundance of releases, May is shaping up to be much more promising with several quality films worth you hard-earned bucks. I'm not going to get into those right now, but I did want to point you in the direction of a very special events hosted by Popcorn Taxi. Monday 11 May there will be an extremely rare theatrical screening of micro-budget Aussie drug dramedy Pure Shit, which was banned on its initial release in 1975. Andrew McKay of the Melbourne Herald dubbed Pure Shit “The most evil film ever made,” which may sound alarmist to some while the more twisted of us wring our hands in delight. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Bert Deling and various cast members and I highly recommend you check out the event page for more information an to book your tickets.

If you need more convincing take a read of Stephen Groenewegen's review at eFilmCritic.

It should be a busy week for the folks at Popcorn Taxi who are also hosting a screening of the much touted RiP: A Remix Manifesto followed by a Q&A with director Brett Gaylor (Wednesday 13 May). The film was a big hit at this year's SXSW so I'm really looking forward to this one. I'm hoping to interview Brett for 3D World... watch this space.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Film review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston
Country: USA


“I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice.” – Wolverine

The Wolverine of the X-Men Origins isn’t exactly the charismatically cantankerous anti-hero that always made the character so popular. He’s still a pretty tough bastard and can offer up feral snarls when the occasion demands, but he’s a generally bit more of a pussycat here, equipped with wisecracks that veer much closer to 80s action kiss offs when he's not crying and dashes of farce that reek of lazy comedy. But this isn’t Gavin Hood’s biggest problem; the very nature of this prequel means an end to the mystery of this enigmatic character’s history, and it’s for this reason in part that Wolverine is ultimately a largely underwhelming film.

Whatever ways Wolverine’s backstory has been told before I’m told it’s never been particularly satisfying, how could it though? Like the smoke monster in Lost, the less I see the more I’m fascinated. And so in that sense this movie was always going to be a big ask unless it was really nailed it in terms of character, but in the absence of that kind of depth the only other direction to go in is the big budget action flick route which Hood has blithely pursued with the watchful eyes of Fox peering over his shoulder and no doubt second guessing the film’s direction at every stage of production.

We know that it’s possible to make a great comic book movie that focuses on a single compelling character, just see The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan), Spider-man 2 (Sam Raimi) and I would add Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan) into that mix. But instead of taking a few leafs out of the pages of these films, Hood and the screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods (brought on to revise the script) merely copied their playbook from the existing X-Men movies and Heroes when this should have been a much more personal film. Instead they’ve gone Epic, rammed as many Colourful Characters into the 107-minute runtime as possible and diluted any moments of interesting personal development by punctuating them with some sort of explosion. It doesn’t take long to realise that this film is about as deep as a your average hipster.

There are many things to say about this, let's begin with the fact that clearly David Benioff is not cut out for writing action movies, first Troy and now Wolverine. Look the writing here is not terrible, but it is frequently poor, filled with exposition and clunky one-liners. That for a start just lowers the tone of everything to the point at which it felt like I was watching melodrama with family intrigue, revenge plots and a puke-inducing love story that wasn’t remotely believable. There’s a moment where were learn where Wolverine picked up his name from and I realised I was daydreaming about something completely different so meandering is the dialogue in the scene.

What’s disappointing about this is that Benioff can really write. I’m a big fan of 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002), which I’d recommend to anyone, and The Kite Runner was another excellent adaptation. Both films are small, personal dramas and I can’t understand why Benioff hasn’t or hasn’t been allowed to bring these sorts of credentials to Wolverine, it would surely have been suited to the concept of an intense character study. From Skip Woods, the man behind Hitman and Swordfish this is a far less surprising outcome. I would be very curious to see what kind of stages of development this film has undergone, where the cuts have been made and if it’s been dumbed down along the way.

So what have we got? Well, we meet young Logan/Wolverine and his brother (possibly half brother, it’s not exactly clear) Victor Creed/Sabretooth and the two flee home together after Logan murders a man with his newly discovered claws. This is the year 1845 and over the film’s credit sequence we see the two brothers fighting together in the Civil War, the trenches of World War I, on the beach of Normandy, and in Vietnam. Sabretooth shares similar powers of healing to Wolverine and so the two pretty much run amok in what is a highly stylised but erudite piece of storytelling where we see Wolverine’s distaste for killing and his brother’s growing addiction to carnage.

Their unique talents are discovered by William Stryker (Danny Huston) who recruits the pair into his mutant dirty dozen, complete with: Dominic Monaghan doing his best Matt Parkman; some guy called Zero who has escaped from Equilibrium; Ryan Reynold’s Deadpool aka, same schtick as Blade Trinity minus the beard; Will.i.am (as John Wraith) channeling Jesse Ventura’s Blain from Predator but with teleportation skills, and finally Kevin Durand (as The Blob) who’ll later be a fat joke stolen from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. And we still haven’t met Logan’s girlfriend or Gambit yet who each get a few minutes to take the limelight away from our main man.

Wolverine eventually abandons the mutant gang and his brother in pursuit of the quiet life making an honest living as a logger, chewing his cigars, sleeping in a wood cabin with his girl Kayla (Lynn Collins) and having nightmares about the wars. He can’t escape his past though and is soon tracked down by Stryker with news that someone’s killing his old crew and that he should probably think about getting his bones bonded with adamantium – the rest as they say is history.

While the action comes at regular intervals picking up the audience from the get go and briskly dashing through the narrative, the only set piece that wowed was a pretty thrilling takedown of a room filled with semi-automatics by Deadpool. Otherwise I really found the action sequences poorly devised on the whole, lacking a spacial awareness that left the editing feeling frantic to the point of confusion. Many of the fights reminded me of the opening chase in Quantum Of Solace, which boils down to a lack of experience and a non-instinctive eye for action.

Then there were the special effects, which for a movie that will have cost in excess of $100 million were a big disappointment. Within confined spaces of studio stunt work the production values were excellent and the fight involving the woefully underused Gambit (Taylor Kitsch not quite nailing the Cajun accent, perhaps they should’ve gone with Josh Holloway) looks great. Any fights between Wolverine and Sabretooth have an anti-climatic feel, mostly just the same two big blokes stabbing each other with their claws and spouting sibling rivalry taunts. No, it’s when the actions gets out in the open and requires some green screen work that the effects fall apart. In fact it’s odd because I can’t remember seeing another big budget film that looked so poor since maybe the kite surfing of glacial tidal waves incident in Die Another Day.

By the final act the movie has gotten somewhat tiresome as yet another a fight between guys who are all invincible so long as they can keep their heads as Deadpool returns as the film's end of level baddie. It barely warrants much talking about at this stage because it’s all the same problems repeated, poor action editing, sub-par effects and character’s who haven’t been drawn out in any meaningful way. And I should also add that the constant score throughout the entire film (it felt at least) was the most gnawingly annoying soundtrack I’ve heard in a while with every note telling me how I should feel, think and react at any given moment. Totally over the top and unnecessary.

Jackman is the cog in this malfunctioning machine of a movie that just barely holds it all together. When he’s having fun as Wolverine, you’re having fun watching him – it’s just a shame he’s given no meat to work with here. But this is the Wolverine movie they chose to make and in a sense it is successful in being a largely vacuous popcorn comic book blockbuster that not going to set the world alight, but keep this franchise ticking over and the dollars rolling in. What it does do is demonstrate the complete lack of ambition or imagination currently at work in the Fox production rooms. Whatever you say about Watchmen you can’t argue with how utterly daring Warner Bros was with such a valued property. Then here we have Wolverine, easily the most fascinating character of the Marvel universe wasted by turning his origin story into a Die Hard In A Comic Book Movie, complete with white singlet.

If you’ve ever watched J.J. Abrams' talk at TED about the magic box then let me just say that this is exactly what he was talking about. Wolverine is a fascinating character precisely because his history is a mystery. Feed us bits here and there sure, but I just don’t think stripping the character down like this serves any purpose. And to be honest in the process the filmmakers have criminally failed to explore his character in the lead up to his amnesia in any thought-provoking or insightful way. One minute he’s a child, the next he’s a fully formed adult with his principles and beliefs already in place, and quite frankly he’s a goody-two shoes. Instead of the Who, we got the What, Where and When. The Why should be important, but it is reduced to little more than a plot device.

Wolverine is a decent enough film, it’s certainly not a bad one and is much better than the abomination that was X3: The Last Stand. But I can’t bring myself to recommend it to you because films should be better than this and they should aspire to more, especially ones that carry the precious cargo that is character rarities like Wolverine. Sure he’s cool and tough enough to carry a mindless action movie like this one, but he’s also smart and complex enough to warrant a closer look at what really lies beneath that adamantium shell.

Scott Henderson

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is released in cinemas 30 April

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Film review: I Love You, Man

Cast: Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones,
Director: John Hamburg
Country: USA


"I've been trying to meet someone" – Peter Klaven

There’s a word that rhymes with flick that ought to be substituted with chick when referring to the new breed of so-called ‘bromance’. Unfortunately despite a certain charm that matches the intellectual age of most men no one is going to adopt it due to the easily misconstrued nature of unsaid phrase. Course in the age of the metrosexual such crudities don’t always fly, but as we discover in I Love You, Man that doesn’t necessarily mean modern metroman and Neanderthal man aren’t compatible.

Handed the leading man keys is Paul Rudd along with Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s comedy revelation Jason Segel for what is essentially a wafer thin a spin on the old boy meets girl formula. In director John Hamburg’s world the boy already won the girl and is getting set to marry her, the trick is he doesn’t have a best man to complete the wedding day package. Cue pretty hilarious story of boy meets boy, boy loses boy… well, you get the picture.

Peter Klaven (Rudd) has always been more into girlfriends according to his more macho gay brother (played by Andy Samberg) who offers an odd contrast to Rudd’s camped up nice guy estate agent. There’s no reason given for this, but we accept it in the face of convention and perhaps see some commentary on the status of 21st Century American manhood where guys don’t belong to bowling teams anymore and are more likely be found sat on the couch with their better half eating ice cream and watching Atonement.

After setting out to find the ‘perfect best man’ during which we get the predictable faux pas’ involving cases of mistaken sexuality and ‘worst man date ever’ scenarios Peter meets Sydney Fife and it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Sydney leads a bloke’s dream life with his dog in Venice Beach where his home includes a ‘man cave’, complete with full band rig, videogames, a bar, various memorabilia and a jerk off station. Sydney and Peter bond over their shared love of Rush and generally embark on a whirlwind bromantic affair that inevitable causes conflict at home for the groom to be.

With a gimmick this tenuous it takes two extremely talented and compelling leads to bring home the funny. With Rudd and Segel effortlessly riffing off each other so well that the script’s flimsier jokes and overplayed ones rarely eliciting much in the way of groans, I Love You, Man is better than any film of this sort has any right to be.

It’s a shame then that Hamburg fails to really nail the film’s more ‘traditional’ relationship between Peter and girlfriend Zooey, who is the film’s most short-changed character giving the talented Rashida Jones little to work with. It might be endearing to a fault and the film could do with loosing 15-minutes, but it would take a deeply cynical critic not to enjoy I Love You, Man.

I Love You, Man is released in Australia 23 April
This review also appears in 3D World magazine

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Film review: Fast And Furious

Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster
Director: Justin Lin
Country: USA

"Tell me it wasn't a mistake reinstating you" – FBI Boss

If you are even remotely taking seriously the fourth outing of a franchise that is essentially a petrol-fuelled bromance vehicle for himbo Paul Walker and his gimpy mate Vin Diesel then Fast & Furious is not the film you’re looking for. If you have delusions that the first movie was anything more than a b-movie bonanza walk away now. But if you’re happy watching these two lugs spouting joyously bad dialogue amidst a flurry of beautiful babes and colourful cars then be prepared to strap in and disengage your brain.

It’s been eight years since the whole gang originally starred together in surprise hit The Fast And The Furious. The interim saw a horrible follow-up starring Walker while Diesel priced himself out of the film went off to try his luck with xXx, Chronicles Of Riddick and, er, The Pacifier before returning to the series for a cameo for threequel Tokyo Drift.

Walker didn’t exactly fair much better with a blink-and-you’d-miss-it part in Flags Of Our Fathers followed by a starring role in Disney dog drama Eight Below. And we shouldn’t forget also-rans Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez, not that screenwriter Chris Morgan has paid them much more than lip service here.

Directed by Justin Lin, who gets another shot after shooting the Tokyo-leg, there’s a certain meathead charm about F&F. This one is a revenge story incorporating drug running across the US-Mexico border through a labyrinthine tunnel network to be negotiated at breakneck speeds in fast cars driven by faster drivers – namely Diesel’s Dom Toretto, Walker’s FBI agent Brian O’Connor and some Clubber Lang meets Once Were Warriors-type bad guy called Phoenix. Oh, and there’s an obligatory street racing scene for good measure.

The movie promises much in the way of action credentials from the opening gas tanker heist as featured in the trailer that is inventive if somewhat nonsensical (much like the tunnel that exists firmly outside of reason). Later chases lose their edge thanks to the heavy incorporation of CGI flying in the face of the kind of realism brought to the screen by Death Proof’s much more impressive musclecar thrill ride. What F&F lacks in the way of grit it more than makes up for with sheer narcissism and earnestness without a trace of irony in sight.

But what were you expecting? F&F does everything you’d expect from a film that effortlessly spews lines like “Maybe you’re the bad guy pretending to be the good guy,” and “I thought we signed on to do the right thing.” Big, dumb and bold as brass: much like old Vin himself.

Whether or not this will be the shot in the arm the leads’ careers could use remains to be seen, though it’s hard to imagine it’ll be anything other than a case of rinse and repeat.

Scott Henderson

Fast & Furious is in cinemas now
This review also appears in 3D World

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Mystery man: J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams is an allusive chap it must be said. I tried to get the Star Trek director on the record about his next project and he managed to mostly avoid my question twice by with a cheeky bit of vagueness. He did say that he would like to direct a script that he himself is writing but I couldn't get him to say what it was. I did manage him to talk about Lost and the fact that he would love to make a return in the final season.

After the bump you can read the extract from my interview on Abrams' plans for the future...

What your doing next always seems to have something of an air of mystery about it, there is the untitled Hunter Scott project, producing an earthquake movie, Mystery On Fifth Avenue, The Dark Tower and Cloverfield 2. Can you enlighten us on your next project and what is currently closest to your heart?

I’m playing around with an idea that hopefully will take root, and in the meantime we have a movie that we start shooting next month that we are producing with Harrison Ford and Rachel McAdams, Morning Glory (directed by Roger Michell), which is a comedy written by the woman who wrote The Devil Wears Prada.

What about directing and writing for yourself?

I’m working on a script right now again, hopefully it’ll happen. If it does then that’d be something I’d like to direct.

Is there any possibility that you will return to Lost before the show ends? Is that something that you’d like to do?

My guess is not. I would love to do it, but given the things I’m working on, and the fact is they have formed this family and Jack Bender who is the director/producer, he’s got to direct the finale, he has too. If there is time it would be a wonderful thing to come back. I miss those people and so many of them are new, since I was there working on the show the cast has grown enormously and there’s this whole other amazing group of actors there. I remain amazed at the work Damon, Carlton, Jack and the other do. Every time someone’s like ‘man, I loved last night’s Lost’ I’m like I’ll tell Damon, I’m so thrilled. It’s all about what those guys do.

It’s just the gift that keeps giving back…

It really is that I’m telling you. Makes me feel guilty.

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Film review: Mary And Max

Director: Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries
Country: Australia

"Sometimes those who find the world quite impossible, find each other" – Narrator

There is a joy to be had in watching Mary And Max, a bizarre black comedy about two penfriends who are loners in a world that is frequently cruel to them. To call it a black comedy probably does the film a disservice because this Australian film might just be one of the more charming dramadies of the year. Mary And Max also just so happens to come in the form of that animated rarity, claymation.

Painstakingly filmed using stop-motion, captured at four seconds a day for just over a year, it is with a sense of visual wonder that one experiences director Adam Elliot's creation. Sure part of the joy lies in watching this world brought to life as if touched by some sorcerer’s apprentice, but mostly it comes from a wonderful realisation of the human spirit as indomitable and affectionate portrayal of a relationship that is true as any real action pairing.

Elliot’s last outing was the 2003 Oscar-winning animated short Harvey Krumpet, an odd tale about a man with Tourettes Syndrome and chronic bad luck, a pattern that can be traced throughout the filmmaker's work. It should come as no surprise then that his first feature would be a biography of two social outcasts who form the unlikeliest of friendships.

In the small Australian town of Waverley bullied eight-year old schoolgirl Mary Daisy Dinkle spontaneously pulls a page from a New York telephone directory and randomly selects one Max Jerry Horovitz to be the recipient of a letter. Max, a 44-year old Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome overcomes his initial bewilderment and writes back to Mary; as fate would have it the two are kindred spirits.

Whilst Mary is a delight of a character wonderfully voiced as a child by Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette as an adult, it is Max who steals the show. Beneath the surface of the script filled with undeniable charm, oddball wit and whimsical humour is a character so fully brought to life by Philip Seymour Hoffman that he inspires such pathos to make this film endlessly enriching.

The story, accompanied by long and occasionally overcooked passages of Barry Humphries suitably gravely narration, meanders at times and it may be a little too despairing or maudlin in flavour for some. But Elliot spoils us not only with a keen cinematic experience, but an astute emotional one too. It is not a stretch to declare Mary And Max the best Australian feature film of the year to date.

Mary and Max opens 9 April.
This review also appears in 3D World

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Review: the World Premiere that wasn't (Star Trek XI)


Well that was a random 24 hours that just took place in the world of Star Trek, Paramount, Austin, Sydney, and me. Yesterday morning I headed down to Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel for the Star Trek XI junket hosted by Paramount Australia, in town was director J.J. Abrams, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, John Cho and, of course, Eric Bana. Bana was the only cast member I didn’t request an interview with mainly because he’d just done so much press for Love The Beast I wasn’t too fussed and was more focussed on getting time with Abrams. All my interviews went really well, Abrams was lovely and I got extra time with him thanks to those nice people at Paramount and the sheer amount of articles I’m writing on the film. But during my interview with Pine and Quinto something quite bizarre happened, something I’ve certainly never experienced before in the middle of an interview.

So there I am chatting away with the new Captain Kirk and Spock when Bryan Burk (producer) and a couple of random guys from the studio come in and sorta hijack my interview with news of a “standing O” in Austin. Everyone in the room is smiling cheek-to-cheek, slapping high-fives and hugging, the room is completely abuzz and I’m wondering what the hell is happening to my interview. Bryan Burk introduces himself to me and explains that they just premiered the new Star Trek movie at a surprise screening in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse (my beloved former local cinema), introduced by Leonard Nimoy, writers Orcia and Kurtzman and producer David Lindelof, and that it had been received with a spontaneous standing ovation. It’s awesome, I mean all-time outrageously awesome. Knowing the Drafthouse this is the exact kind of stunt I came to know and love from Tim League and the team there – though perhaps the coolest thing in this instance was that not even the town’s famous cinephile had any knowledge of the con going in to the screening (thinking instead they had programmed a screening of Wrath Of Kahn).

Once the moment had settled it occurred to me: ‘well I suppose that is technically the world premiere of Star Trek then’, sure enough seeing the introductions on Youtube from Nimoy and co calling it that and reports on the net from Wired to the New York Times doing the same. But what of the hugely lavish event at the Sydney Opera House? It was effectively ‘reduced’ to Awesome Red Carpet Australian Premiere of the film, which you better believe we should count our lucky stars to have been treated to. But it’s not the world premiere: that honour belongs to those lucky audiences members in Austin. I’ve been accused of being “astonishing negative” in this regard already, but when history looks back, it will be the surprise screening in Austin people will talk about, hence none of the international press I’ve read have so far covered the event in Sydney. Really I think it is a bit of a shame for Paramount Australia because the Opera House screening was nothing short of spectacular. Perhaps they don’t care, perhaps they knew what was happening all along, but considering what happened next I suspect not.

Hearing news of the Austin screening I knew that Aint It Cool News’ Harry Knowles would be in the house (accompanied by Quint as it would turn out), also most likely Film School Rejects’ Neil Miller and any number of other websites/bloggers. I kinda suspected that because of the nature of the screening no-one would have been asked to sign embargos that all the media in Australia had (21 April), myself included, and no doubt elsewhere internationally. Sure enough, upon getting home reviews of the new Star Trek movie were here, there and everywhere, they were of course uniformly gushing – hardly surprising giving the events of the evening and the likely audience of hardcore Trekkies. Opening my email this morning, heading off my objections at the pass was an email from head of publicity for Paramount in Australia stating: “Overnight, a review has been published in the US, without our prior knowledge. Given this, we have argued that it would be unfair to hold Australian media to the embargo. We have been advised that the review embargo has now been lifted.”

Having already had fingers pointed at me about my issues with this on Twitter I think it’s necessary to reiterate that the Opera House event was stunning, I went there with tickets given to me by my editor (I wasn’t actually invited personally I’m sorry to say), and it was my first time at Sydney’s world famous venue. However, I must confess that knowing it had already screened in Austin took a little magic out of the event for me. I’m a complete romantic at heart, one though with a strong streak of cynicism. Maybe I’m missing the point, but for me the world premiere – which is the first time a film screens publicly – took place in Austin. And in a way it does bother me that tickets were sold to people for the world premiere in Australia at $100 a pop and that people flew around the world to see it under that impression. Cynical indeed, but perhaps not as cynical as being in the Opera House having the film introduced as the world premiere after it screened to a public audience five hours earlier, which (call me a spoil-sport) is misleading at best and false advertising at worst.

Now, once again, let me say that I love that Paramount did this and I’m jealous like crazy I wasn’t there – though that is as much my heart yearning to move back to Austin as it is my opinions on the semantics of what makes a ‘world premiere’. Don’t know how much flak I’ll catch for this, but I suppose after so much hard work I kinda feel like Paramount Australia got the carpet pulled out from under them, whether or not it’s something they give a damn about having had all the talent over to start their world tour and a massively expensive red carpet affair at the Opera House.

To say a little more on the Opera House experience itself: there was an almost ethereal quality to seeing Star Trek in this most iconic of performing arts venue. First of all the shell roof evokes the Starfleet insignia which is a wonderful coincidence only enhanced by the projected lights everywhere of famous symbol. Having walked more than my fair share of red carpet in London’s Leicester Square I can confirm that the Opera House wins on length, width and steps. All of which added to the epic feel of the experience. Inside the reception hall glass windows frame the view of the Harbour Bridge, perhaps the visual cousin of the Golden Gate Bridge as featured in Star Trek by Starfleet HQ (which I think is so appropriately located in San Francisco, I mean of course it is at the centre of the high-tech corridor and American liberalism – though Star Trek is less liberal than it may seem, and more a example of liberal-imperialism), and night cityscape of Sydney and the habour itself which certainly inspires in its combination of the majesty of human technological ingenuity and the beauty of the natural world. Inside those wonderful expressionist corridors are vast concrete walls that look as though they belong in the Vulcan high council chambers, lacking only great statuettes of legends passed.

Okay, I kinda feel like I’m digressing badly into stuff no-one wants to read especially as I don’t have pictures. Allow me to lastly say this of the Concert Hall, getting the acoustics right took an unbelievable amount of work and boy did those guys succeed. From where I was sat in the lower hall, just below the cast and studio folks, the sounds of the movie was incredible (just remembered that I actually got swiped by a metal detector on the way in, which was new). Despite the huge ceiling and issues with echoing they have there the crew did a remarkable job of turning the Concert Hall into a movie theatre. The sound effects of explosions (yes, explosions in space) ripped through my body, phasers fizzled in my ears, and submarine pings echoed in my mind. Perhaps the biggest thrill though was hearing Michael Giacchino wonderful score, occasionally riffing off the original series music, boom out its epic orchestral tones inside this traditional musical coliseum.

And then there was the movie. Let me first say, depending on time allowance, this may or may not be my final review. I would like to offer you a few reactions having seen the film twice now, but considering this post cover the Opera House premiere it’s a time sensitive situation.

J.J. Abrams has broken the curse of the odd-numbered Star Trek movies and in the process made a film that I think ranks up there with First Contact as the next best Trek movie after Wrath Of Kahn. As a reboot it succeeds in arguably all it’s goals whilst never losing grasp of what made the series so beloved by so many over several generations. And as a piece of entertainment Abrams has delivered a movie that is every bit the popcorn, joyride spectacular demanded by audiences to achieve true blockbuster status.

From the moment we see the opening salvo involving the USS Kelvin and a massive rogue Romulan mining ship with a captain hell bend on revenge, Trek kicks into the high gears going from space battles to bar brawls to atmospheric sky dives to transporter trickery with dizzying ease. Abrams has certainly reached for a ‘roidy, warp injection of a movie after the at times lacklustre, dreary and formulaic formality of much of the series and in the process he has almost entirely reset the clock on Star Trek mythology.

Remember those humous Star Trek: 90210 comments a couple of months back? Forget about them. Abrams greatest success is the one that could so easily have been his greatest failure. Against all the odds really the director has managed to assemble a young cast of icon stand ins almost uniformly filling the shoes of the original Kirk, Spock, Bones, Ohura, Chekov, Scotty and Sulu in what could easily have been called Star Trek: Origins. Firstly the not so convincing: John Cho never quite convinces as Sulu, but then he’s really not given very much material in order to establish a character who was always on the periphery. It might be that knowing this Orci and Kurtzman decided not to spend much time with the Trek universe’s sole Asian-American representative. That said, Cho gets to show off his action chops and Sulu’s fencing skills even if the production team seems to have mistaken a rapier for a samurai sword.

The second misfire for me is Simon Pegg as Scotty. Being a Scotsman myself, James Doohan was always my favourite character on the show (I’ll never forget him trying to talk to the computer then through the mouse in Voyage Home, hilarious) and it just felt as though of all the actors Pegg was the one trying too hard. The accent isn’t really on the money and in the early scenes he’s given some peculiar alien umpaa lumpaa as a comedy sidekick that just doesn’t work.

Walter Koenig’s Chekov was of course another favourite for sheer comedy value and Anton Yelchin has a lot of fun swapping his ‘v’s with his ‘w’s. He has that look of innocent awe that I remember from Koenig accompanied by great comic timing. The other supporting success comes from Zoe Saldana as Ohura, she is never anything less than convincing as a strong natural foil for Pine’s Kirk. I didn’t know much (anything?) about Saldana prior to this but I’ll certainly be looking out in future – Hollywood could certainly do with hiring more talented young African-American actress because off the top of my head I can’t think of a single one featuring prominently in a film this year or of any significant names from last year.

Finally there is the trifecta of Kirk, Spock and Bones, the hardest and most important roles to fill. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all three are home runs, but I would be hard pressed to think of anyone better than messers Pine, Quinto and Urban. I think of all three it is Urban’s realisation of Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy that is the big winner here. From the moment McCoy sits down next to Kirk and threatens to puke on him as the disgruntled doctor expresses his dislike of technology before revealing his nickname's origin, Urban owns the cantankerous curmudgeon who would go on to be the third wheel in Kirk-Spock’s beautiful friendship.

Speaking of which, Pine and Quinto play off each other so well as Kirk and Spock in this changed universe. Pine is a youthful and damaged Kirk whose swagger veers closer to youthful arrogance and masochistic appetite to rebel. He is off course a Kirk whose father dies at the beginning of the movie as the Trek timeline is altered, robbing him of a guiding influence into Starfleet where he would famously pass the Kobayashi Maru test of the unwinnable situation. Pine’s Kirk retains the magnetic charisma of William Shatner whilst avoiding follies such as attempting to emulate his speech patterns. The physicality is there though and don’t doubt for a second the moment he slouches in that captains chair is anything less than a geek-thrill.

Quinto probably has the hardest job of all, not only attempting to take on Leonard Nimoy’s mantle, but doing so in a film which the great man appears as, well, Spock. Given Spock’s physical manner and logic-obsessed character it’s near impossible to completely avoid a high level of imitation in this role, but Quinto manages to convey those classic Spock traits whilst also inserting a real sense of conflict, of internal growing pains of a man who is has not yet come to terms with his human-vulcan lineage. Quinto does really solid work realising those little mannerisms and excellent job of sparring with Kirk.

Outside of the central cast the movies most underwhelming element is Eric Bana’s Nero who is never drawn out in a fashion that is discerning to a three-dimensional character. Some exposition explains his motivations for revenge, even though they’re not entirely logical and kind of extreme under the circumstances. The reasons for his anger are understandable, but his apportioning of blame not so much. He never really seems like a man on the edge of madness or someone who is ever close to Kirk’s equal (miles from the adversarial level of say Kahn or the Borg). Sure he’s got a massive, technologically advanced ship that is otherwise an outrageously formidable opponent – but is all brawn and no brain, a combination that’s never quite as satisfying. We know Kirk can take a beating, that he can brawl with the best of them, it’s when he uses his brilliant tactical instincts and creativity that we get excited. As such the film's climax is basically pretty muted, and in a way so is Kirk’ s elevation to captain – more the result of collective conspiring than divine destiny.

I hate that this reads entirely like a blogger review, but this really is a bit of an after thought on my post regarding the film’s premiere. I could go on to talk about the stunning CGI on display here (which is nothing short of jaw-dropping), or Abrams’ obsession with lens flare (which is constant), and his vision of the sci-fi future (which is truly aspirational), but I’ll save all that for something a little more formal as a review closer to the release date. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I really liked the red carpet premiere a lot, but my love remains with the Alamo Drafthouse. Congratulations on the Star Trek world premiere coup.

Star Trek is released worldwide 7 May, 2009

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Film review: Wendy And Lucy

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton, Will Patton
Country: USA


"I'm heading for Alaska, I hear they need people up there" Wendy

Filmed in August 2007 and making its debut at Cannes the following May, Wendy And Lucy has taken a long journey to get their story told. Yet this slice of life on the edge of society could hardly be more pertinent than it is today.

Director Kelly Reichardt replicates the subtle meditation of her last feature Old Joy (2006) and here combines it with something akin to the harsh reality of existence within the mundane and the disquieting amputation of margin for error. The result is a simple, elegant and affecting tale about a young girl who becomes stranded in a small Oregon town of the Northwest United States on her way to Alaska.

Michelle Williams plays the eponymous Wendy whilst Lucy is her canine companion, a gorgeous yellow mutt with more charisma in her few short scenes than most of 2009’s class of leading actors. Williams does some of her best ever work here as this delicate girl, with short brown hair and a pale complexion who manages to convey simultaneously a sense of browbeat stoicism and unflinching vulnerability.

With just 525 bucks left in her budget Wendy hits a streak of bad luck that snowballs as these things have a habit of doing when you think you’re at your lowest ebb. After her car breaks down, leaving her stranded in this tired washed-up town, one thing leading to another Wendy gets caught shoplifting dog food, arrested and loses Lucy. The young drifter finds herself contending not only with the loss of her companion but also the financial implications resulting from being arrested and the repairs to her crapped out Honda.

Reichardt explores small acts of kindness and the limits of generousity in her quiet disconnected observations of Wendy’s struggles. Like the local rent-a-cop who watches Wendy’s strife we witness from a distance as she searches everywhere for Lucy, following the dreariness of uncertainty and impending disaster that hangs over her precarious circumstance.

Even if you’ve never been in a situation where you find yourself holding onto to the best-case scenario despite knowing the worst is inevitable, you can imagine the fear that must grip Wendy’s fragile existence. Some will question how did she got herself into such a mess, others wonder what they would do in her shoes or if they would have helped her. These are the questions that Reichardt is dangles while Williams portrayal demands consideration.

At 80 minutes Wendy And Lucy is a snapshot, a perfectly balanced tale of a lost soul daydreaming their way to what is hoped a better place. The resolution is open-ended but you’d better believe this is a story that will reside meaningfully in your heart for a long time after.

Scott Henderson

This review first appeared in 3D World

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