Thursday, March 18, 2010

Normally there would be an entry here, but a storm of real world adventures means MaR will go on temporary hiatus! Until April(-ish).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


The following is entitled "Why I watched only an hour of Distant, and why that doesn't necessarily mean it's a failure."

Distant is interesting in that the title is both a description of the plot and a summary of the filming style of the work. Distant is, well, distant. It's filmed in predominantly static medium-length takes. It deliberately keeps you away from the characters and the events in their lives. It has this really bizarre effect of keeping the audience in the position of a voyeur, especially since what little movement the camera does do is akin to CCTV. It's an interesting effect.

The story too, is about distant people. Emin Toprak is Yusef, who needs a job but is generally unfocused. Muzaffer Özdemir is Mahmut, who has a job he finds unfulfilling. Together they solve crimes! No, they just live together for a while and gradually get on each others' nerves. And then I quit watching, so there's probably something else that happens to give the film a bit more dramatic thrust. It does capture the mild annoyance inherent in living with someone you don't like that much.

So, in effect, you're stalking boring people, and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has an interesting idea as a whole. He wants to capture light tension and remote people, and he does. He doesn't get under the character's skin, he just observes, which gives a lot more insight into their character than you might expect. It's an interesting attempt and certainly different

It's also really boring, and the hour I did watch felt like a decade. But, maybe that's the point? If it's intentionally boring, does that really count as a failure? I didn't enjoy a moment, but I did see what Ceylan was going for, and I actually think he did succeed. I just couldn't take it for another moment. It's strange, I genuinely didn't enjoy this movie, but I can't call it bad, it's too purposeful to be taken as crap.

Friday, March 12, 2010

All About Ah-Long

Sometimes, when you see a movie, you think it's fantastic. Sometimes, you think it's terrible. Other times, you think it's quite good, but is in dire need of a remake. In the third category is All About Ah-Long, which is in essence a very good movie, but has a couple of things wrong with it that could be easily fixed.

The story is, for the most part, not one of them. Chow Yun Fat is the titular character, a truck driver and failed motorcycle racer who is raising his slightly obnoxious son Porky (Kwan Yuen Wang) on his own. One day, Porky catches the eye of Sylvia (Sylvia Chang) who happens to be the casting director for a series of advertisements. Oh, and she's also Ah-Long's ex and the mother of Porky, as she finds out much to her surprise.

It's an interesting take on the bond between parents, as Porky begins to bond with his new found mother and unknowingly causes a bit of jealousy in the father he's known and cared about for the last ten years. The young actor in the role is pretty good at being an admittedly obnoxious little brat who remains quite likable. The film as a whole is quite emotionally complex, with characters having to deal with their resentment towards one another competing with their love of this little brat. It's the kind of thing that works partially because it's a universal concern, since everyone has parents, most have lovers and many have kids. The relationships here are strong, and as they make up the core of the movie, it could easily be remade to be even better.

So why do I want it remade? Well, first, it's the 80s, so the soundtrack's bad, and the film stock is poor. That's admittedly nitpicking, there's precisely one reason I want this film remade, and that's the ending. See, there's a scene immediately before the final scene that involves a plane taking off that has a nice bit of ambiguity, is slightly sad, and is the most appropriate way for the film to end up. Then, there's a tacked on motorcycle race, which just screws with the characters you've grown to like over the past hour and a half, makes stupid plays at big emotions, manufactures a rivalry seemingly out of thin air and generally makes the movie retroactively worse. The scene before was lightly melancholic, this tries way too hard to be sad and becomes almost comical in the process. The sheer amount of punishment Ah-Long receives is obnoxious, everyone gets a big emotional moment that's overdone, and it also happens to make the race look like the worst run motorcycle race in the history of racing. I'd like to forget it ever happened.

With a remake, I can! Get to it someone, make a film of Ah-Long but change that stupid ending and give the world a solid film. It's a mostly good movie, I'm sure that with the right script and the stupid motorcycle race excised forever, we can have one of the better examples of a film about the bonds of family, the way people change over the years, the conflict that happens when parents split, and so on. 90% of this film is genuinely fantastic. 10% is godawful. One little remake could change those percentages completely.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Disney is an odd beast. On one hand, pop in a DVD of one of their movies, and it becomes immediately apparent that they are a coldly commercial operation, using their brand to sell all manner of irredeemable garbage - including the awful direct to DVD sequels to this movie, Aladdin - to their constant attempts to squeak every dollar out of every film they make. On the other hand, they also happen to have earned that brand, by making some of the most beloved children's films of all time.

Aladdin, for example, came during an era when Disney had rediscovered how to make really good movies. The Littlest Mermaid, the Lion King and especially Beauty of the Beast managed to bring the Disney brand back to the forefront, win awards, and be genuinely fantastic films all at the same time. Not for 30 years had Disney had a winning streak like they did in the early 90s.

They did this by finding a good formula, which they use more often than not (though I think The Lion King avoided it). First step was finding a love story, often involving a headstrong young woman, an enraptured young man, someone evil and a bunch of magic on the periphery. So, we have princess Jasmine, who won't marry anyone even though it's an archaic law. In comes Aladdin, who lives on the street. Evil someone Jafar needs him to get a magic genie lamp for reasons that aren't entirely clear, and with the lamp Aladdin gets Robin Williams to grant him three wishes, mostly devoted to getting laid. Oh, and there's lots of catchy music, so buy the soundtrack, since it's Disney and your experience is not complete without an assortment of merchandise (ironically, the film opens with a man selling crap. Way to get back at corporate!)

Yeah, it's a formula, but Disney is really good at the formula. They've won Oscars with that formula, made millions of dollars, and then it helped them basically become the most irrelevant part of their own studio after Pixar figured out how to work outside it. It works here because you've got a hero and heroine that you root for, and Disney's so adept at making animation that you care. The animation here is beautiful, expressive and detailed. The visual gags keep it interesting and it's clear the studio gives a crap about the look of the film. This is good.

What isn't good, in this case, is how annoying the picture is. The blame for this can be placed squarely on two men - though the casting director who put them in the roles isn't innocent either. First, Gilbert Gottfried as Iago. On one hand, the voice suits the character, a slightly obnoxious evil parrot. On the other hand, Gilbert Gottfried sounds like a cat being assaulted while being dragged across a blackboard. He has the worst voice in the world, and should find a nice career where he never has to talk again. Nothing against the man, he's cursed with that sound, but god he should have been a mime or something.

Second, Robin Williams as the genie. Robin Williams can be a good actor, this is in the realm of possibility. Unfortunately, he's often allowed to go off and do a million impressions and wacky voices in a breathless free-associative ramble with the slightest encouragement. Some people find this amusing, I find it very annoying, and it's what he does here, with the help of animation to give a visual accompaniment. It is like what I imagine Robin Williams' head to be like, all flashing neon, bizarre pop culture cues and enough voices to fill a large sized truck. I hate it when that happens, and I found myself getting quite tired of the Genie's shtick very early on.

For a kids movie you can do worse, and it does have that trademark really beautiful animation to fall back on - plus, not every scene features the genie, which is nice. But, for a kids movie, even limiting yourself to Disney movies of the same era, you can also do a lot better.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Alex Rider: Stormbreaker

If one's taste can be skewered by their early experiences, there's no question James Bond changed mine. My love of British things, my love of action movies, my love of bombastic musical scores, my love of elaborate flash, all of it can be traced directly back at watching Bond films on CTV during their annual big marathons. As a result, at 14, I had the idea for an exciting action movie about the child of Bond, starring me! This was in spite of neither being athletic or an actor, but escapist fantasy is, by definition, mostly unrelated to reality. While it doesn't star me, someone did essentially make that movie, and they called it Alex Rider: Stormbreaker.

They called him Alex Rider - played by Alex Pettyfer - but he's the son of a James Bond-esque secret agent played by Ewan McGregor in a surprisingly brief role. Bond is killed, and Alex is brought in Alan Blunt (Bill Nighy, who is acting in bulk) and MI:6 (which includes Jimmy Carr, who as an actor, makes a great dead-eyed panel-show guest), which needs another way in to the compound of one Darrius Sayle (Mickey Rourke, in eyeliner and dressed like a pimp). Yes, it is irresponsible to send a 14 year old to be a super spy and possibly kill people - something pointed out by Alex's caretaker Jack, played by an Alicia Silverstone who is still, sadly, recovering from the career coma induced by appearing in Batman and Robin. The standard Bond tropes apply, there's a dastardly plan to kill everyone, big elaborate sets, ridiculous henchmen - albeit here played by actors who are hamming it up to the MAX - some decent action and plenty of great set pieces. Unlike Bond films, it also has a moral about bullying. Yes kids, if you bully someone they'll try to murder everyone, and you'll become really fat like Robbie Coltrane.

In some ways, it's basically a Roger Moore Bond film. Not completely serious, plenty of edits to make it acceptable for younger teens, and a plot that keeps rolling and provides lots of opportunities for good action and excitement. Some fight scenes are clearly edited to get a PG, but as James Bond's non-union equivalent, it does the job admirably. Since it has literally every actor working in Britain in a bit part, there are a lot of familiar faces and good performances - if Q returns to real Bonds, he should be Stephen Fry - and while some people get a bit ridiculous, I've seen real Bond films that are worse.

That's actually the best thing about Stormbreaker. It follows the formula to perfection, but there are entries in the actual series that don't do it as well. This has better pacing and more appropriate tone than Moonraker, Pettyfer is a better actor than George Lazenby, the evil plot is significantly more interesting, coherent, and better executed than Die Another Day, and the villains significantly more threatening and complex than anyone in The Man With The Golden Gun.

Another good thing is that it doesn't talk down to the kids. Fine, the moral of the story is a bit silly, but Rider is a smart, witty young man, the overall tone is catches that the kids it's being pitched at are starting to get more serious, and it does the dastardly plan thing as well as any other film with one. It's just a well paced, nicely made action film, except with a younger hero.

About the worst I can say about it is it's just another action movie, except pitched a bit younger. But, if I'm honest, it took me back to when I was 14, and I wanted nothing more than to be the centre of a massive action film with explosions, car chases, and guns. Bond films might have skewed my tastes a lot, but as a result, I can even appreciate the knockoffs. And hell, it doesn't hurt that the knockoff is just as good or better as some of the examples of the real thing.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Casino Royale

Reboots are basically an admission that you failed. A successful franchise doesn't need a reboot, and if you're going in that direction you're basically assuming that everyone agrees your franchise is dead in the water. So, after the awful Die Another Day, it was a welcome announcement to hear that the James Bond series would get a fresh approach and cease to suck. The reboot in question, Casino Royale did in fact manage to revitalize the series, and using a template from an unexpected source.

See, the Bond series had been rebooted before - though they didn't bother to get a new actor at that time - and in much the same way. Like Die Another Day, Moonraker was pants-on-head retarded, and someone in charge saw that, in spite of the decent numbers, something had to be done. You can't just go to space for no obvious reason and expect a series to top it. As a result, For Your Eyes Only took a gritty approach. The plot would be realistic, Bond would be crueler, and the filming style would abandon the lighthearted muckety muck of the last four Roger Moore installments. Yes, they didn't actually have enough balls to fire Moore, but it went grittier, darker, and better all around. Incidentally, it actually convinced me that Moore was a fairly good Bond overall, a position I maintained until watching every Moore film. Now, I believe he was good in For Your Eyes Only, but generally pretty awful.

While Die Another Day didn't go to space, it did have an invisible car, and once you go invisible you've reached that ridiculous wall, again. So, they went the For Your Eyes Only route, again, except they didn't pussyfoot around this time. Pierce Brosnan was out, replaced with the gruffer Daniel Craig. It would go from being about being about an experienced and suave spy to a cocksure amateur. They wouldn't get rid of Judi Dench - because Judi Dench is just plain awesome - but they would make the spy action a lot grittier, more realistic, and with a stripped down reliance on gadgets. The experiment worked, and the series was saved forever.

In fact, action movies were saved, because finally someone dared to make a film which didn't rely solely on CGI to replace practical stuntwork. The breathtaking parkour sequence, for example, was done with real people actually jumping from great heights. The human movement is something that CGI has consistently failed to achieve, and as a result we have a sequence that is genuinely tense. The knowledge that these are real people doing real stunts just enhances the program.

A strange thing is that it also proved that basing an entire film around a high stakes poker game could work, provided there were enough distractions on the way. It keeps the tension high, even though the premise as a whole is ridiculous and requires an exposition man to keep the audience on track with the rules of cards. The entire purpose is to have a backbone on which to build tension, and it succeeds in that.

That said, the film isn't perfect, and to be honest simply doesn't know where to end. It seems as though it should stop somewhere in the middle of the almost happy ending, but then the movie keeps going, barreling headfirst into a final big action sequence. Great, you might think, but for a good portion of the film before that it seems to be wrapping up. Perhaps it's a way to lull the audience into the same sense of complacency as the hero, but instead one feels the need to gather their jacket or find the DVD case, as the film is plainly over.

For myself, I can't help but think the entire last sequence would have been better placed at the beginning of the next movie, for it would be as much of a shock, and also remind the audience of the stakes of the game. Now, the next movie in general wasn't as well written or Casino Royale, and often seemed like a delivery system for action scenes rather than a coherent story - it's a rare film that works just as well if you replace the soundtrack with your own - but I think having the audience reminded again of who and why Bond was out for revenge would have been to it's merit.

Nonetheless, this is arguably one of the best action films of the decade. It justifies reboots, and it was the first time in a while it seemed like someone at the helm of the Bond series knew what they were doing. For a life long Bond fan, that didn't come a moment too soon, I don't think I could have taken another Die Another Day.