Monthly Archives: August 2008

Ben Stiller’s War

Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008)

Ben Stiller co-wrote, directed, and starred in Tropic Thunder, and the film’s big budget is a sign that studio heads still have confidence in Stiller to deliver a solid, audience-pleasing comedy, despite a somewhat mixed track record in recent years. And for the most part, he does. This is Stiller’s first effort as director since Zoolander, and it’s amongst the better of his recent films.

The concept is that a bunch of actors are making a Vietnam war film: the headline performers are Stiller, as an action hero; Robert Downey Jr as a self-important Australian actor (think Russell Crowe) who has had himself surgically altered to play an African American, and now never breaks character; and Jack Black, as an obnoxious lowbrow comedian. The film  is going disastrously over budget, so the director (Steve Coogan) decides to film it “guerrilla style,” with the actors under surveillance in the real jungle. Unfortunately the plans quickly go awry, and the actors find themselves in a real combat situation when they run foul of actual guerillas.

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A Clone of a Clone

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Dave Filoni, 2008)

The first thing you need to know is that this is not a proper movie. It’s three episodes of an animated TV show strung together and released in the cinemas.

The second thing you need to know is that this is going to get (and has already received) some terrible reviews. Reading the first reviews from the usual geeky corners of the internet, like Harry Knowles’ rant or Alexandra Du Pont’s similarly disillusioned but much better written dismissal, you see these Star Wars nerds exorcising some demons and finally going to town on a Star Wars film. Even amongst all the hate for the prequels, there was always an undercurrent of indulgence as fans went looking for the good things. A similarly forgiving attitude was taken to the first animated Star Wars series by Genndy Tartakovsky (confusingly, also called Clone Wars, only without a leading “The”), which was generally well received by Star Wars nerds, who appreciated its emphasis on action and adventure. Now, though, by taking what is basically a CG-revamp of Tartakovsky’s take and having the temerity to put it on the big screen, it’s like Lucasfilm has given a green light to expressions of completely unabashed fan hatred. Those who respected Lucas’ past achievements, or Tartakovsky’s qualified success with a difficult format, are not going to feel any allegiance to Dave Filoni’s copy of a copy. In this context, the hate Star Wars: The Clone Wars is going to receive is perfectly understandable.

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Coming of Age

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)

Even those who love animation are prone to dark speculation about its shortcomings as a medium. The lack of live actors and the associated hindrance to truly subtle performances, in particular, is often cited as limiting the potential for serious dramatic work in animated films. The fear is that the relative paucity of full length, adult-oriented dramatic features might not only be due to a lack of courage and imagination on the part of directors and studio executives, but might also reflect actual limitations of animation itself. Thank goodness, then, for Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

The film is an adaptation of Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, and tells the story of her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in Iran and Europe, set against the background of Iran’s turbulent politics. It’s difficult material, requiring sensitivity not just to the personal coming-of-age story, but also to the story of Iran through this period. The film is triumphant on both counts. Along the way it demonstrates that the medium of animation not only can overcome its limitations, but actually has some crucial advantages over live action in telling this story.

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Guided MIFFile

(Can I pass off my appalling MIFF puns as a tribute to the bad puns of old cartoon titles? No? Oh.)

Well, I’ve finished MIFF with three films back-to-back this afternoon; all good (or at least enjoyable), thankfully. I also saw two on Friday. So I might as well wrap them up briefly while the thoughts are fresh.

Persepolis (Marjana Satrapi, 2007)

I’ll do a fuller review of this in the next week or so (hopefully), so more on this later. But suffice to say it’s brilliant, and you absolutely should see it when it comes out.

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)

I didn’t dislike this to the same extent Mark Lavercombe at Hoopla did, but it was disappointing. Sharing more than a little in common with Herzog’s earlier science-fiction / documentary / head-scratcher The Wild Blue Yonder (which I covered at a previous MIFF, see here), it sees Herzog travel to Antarctica to talk to various research scientists. Herzog is, of course, an eccentric of long standing, and sometimes (most recently in Grizzly Man) his off-kilter perspective can be strangely brilliant. Here, though, he generally comes across as foolish. He has some interesting interview subjects, and certainly gets some great footage in the scenes of diving under ice (it’s here the film resembles Wild Blue Yonder – it may even reuse some of the same footage). But he consistently seems the least intelligent person in the room: his narration ruminates on humanity’s relationship with the environment, but his interview subjects are vastly more informed than he is on the topic. Funny, often beautiful, and Herzog is never a waste of time; but there’s a sense that Herzog is resting on his laurels as one of the great documentarians, rather than really chasing down a great story as he did back in Grizzly Man.

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I’ve seen only four MIFF films thus far (once again, my viewing seems loaded towards the end, with three films on the last day). This year, I’ve actually written slightly fuller reviews of two, which complicates the format of my usual MIFF round-up.

Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008)

Review here.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Marina Zenovich, 2008

Review here.

Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar Wei, 1994/2008)

Nobody likes to seem stupid, so there can sometimes be a reluctance by critics to admit they just didn’t get a film; and at an individual level, it can be hard to decide whether comprehension problems lie with the viewer or the film. So as I wandered, confused, out of Wong Kar Wei’s Ashes of Time Redux (I have not seen the 1994 cut) I wasn’t sure whether I hadn’t gotten into it because it was confusing, or if it was confusing because I hadn’t really gotten into it. (It’s a bad sign when you find yourself making a mental note of a photogenic camel). It was a bit of a relief to find even complimentary reviews (like this one) making reference to the confusing plot. The film always looks good, as you’d expect from one of the great director / cinematographer teams (Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle) but the disjointed narrative was inherently distancing. Apparently, it was a troubled production, and that’s ultimately what it feels like: confusing not out of pretension, but because it was an expensive epic that was never quite put together properly. I was going to suggest that in that sense it was like a Hong Kong Heaven’s Gate, but it’s not that bad: it says something that despite my disorientation, I remained interested throughout.

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The Real Warren Perso

Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008)

Mark Hartley’s documentary on “Ozploitation” – Australian exploitation movies of the 70s and early 80s – should find an enthusiastic audience. It is great fun, largely because it reproduces all the best moments form a body of work that is probably more a lot more enjoyable to reminisce about, and see highlights from, than it is to actually sit through in its entirety. After briefly setting the historical context, it starts with what I think are the best remembered sub-genre, the “ocker” and sex comedies from the 1970s (Stork, Alvin Purple, the Barry McKenzie films, and so on), and then works through horror films and action films (the films’ structure gives the impression that the filmmakers had an eye on being able to break the film up into separate episodes of a TV show). So we get basically all the sauciest and funniest moments from the sex comedies, followed by the most outrageous scenes from the horrors, and the best stunts from the action films. As a highlights package, it’s fabulous, and Hartley intersperses interviews with many key participants (plus Quentin Tarantino representing the fan’s perspective as only he can).

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Skipping Town

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Marina Zenovich, 2008)

The entry in the Melbourne International Film Festival program for Marina Zenovich’s documentary about the trial of Roman Polanksi for unlawful sex with a thirteen year old girl film poses the question: “Was Polanski guilty, or was it the case of a trial judge seeking personal notoriety?” It’s an idiotic question: of course Polanski was guilty. He plead guilty at the time, has always admitted to having sex with the girl, and there is no suggestion otherwise in the documentary.

This basic fact hangs uneasily over the whole film, and despite it being quite sympathetic to Polanski, there’s little doubt that he wouldn’t relish the case being thrust back into the public eye: I can’t think of anyone else who has been rehabilitated into public life like Polanski has been after such a crime. And while the documentary is entertaining and interesting for its full length, I felt uncomfortable in its first half at the apparent implication that Polanski had in some ways been a victim of the trial process. In the early stretches, Polanski’s difficulties seemed merely to be the expected firestorm of publicity and the obvious problems that would accompany being charged with a serious crime, and I was having trouble making sense of the allusions to Polanksi’s apparently unjust treatment.

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Renegade Planner Lives on the Edge

Press release: For Immediate Release

Premiering on Nine next Month, fresh from its Emmy award-winning debut season in the US, is the hit drama Material Detriment, set in the high stakes, high pressure world of urban planning. The series follows the life – and loves – of planners in a tough inner urban municipality, as they battle petty one-off developers and the larger, more sinister Mendoza Development Group (MDG).

Material Detriment centres on the tumultuous lives of its four leads:

  • Senior Planner Jack Detriment (Kiefer Sutherland) is a tough, street-wise planner. Abrasive and argumentative, he is committed to doing whatever it takes to keep his neighbourhood orderly and proper. He has little patience with the pen-pushing bureaucrats who seem to be emerging from Planning Academy, and just wants to get on with clearing the unresolved applications off his books. If he has to bend a few rules to get there, so be it.
  • Cadet Planner Dwight Rosewood (Jesse Spencer) is an idealistic rookie planner, straight out of the Academy. He graduated top of his class and his knowledge of the key planning texts is unparalleled. Strongly committed to appropriate statutory process, he is partnered with Detriment in the hope of reigning in his senior officer’s more extreme methods. Out in the “real world” for the first time, he learns a few lessons about life, loyalty… and love.
  • Team Leader John Taggart (Brian Dennehy) is the grizzled, cynical head of the branch, and the man responsible for pairing Detriment and Rosewood. Just 6 weeks from retirement, he is constantly exasperated by Detriment’s methods, warning him that one of these days, he’ll have to hand in his ID card. Yet he secretly respects his star officer, grudgingly acknowledging that without him, the branch’s processing times would be much longer. Gunned down in the 2 part series finale.
  • Junior Planner Tiffany Summers (Katherine Heigl) is the rising star of the branch, still fighting to make headway in the testosterone-filled halls of the Planning Branch. Raised in an exclusive suburb and the daughter of the Planning Minister, she constantly riles against the assumption that her wealth and connections got her the job, and that she plans on sleeping her way to the top. Her love / hate relationship with Detriment (source of much “will they or won’t they” discussion amongst the series’ fanbase) comes to a head when they attend an interstate Planning conference together.

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