Reviewing the Old School: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

So the story I heard was that way back when, by which I mean the late nineties-early naughts after their second renaissance (which began with The Little Mermaid), Disney was in the process of shifting all their animation towards CG-3D. They’d bought Pixar but weren’t completely done with the odd bit of 2D fair. So they told their Florida animation studio, whose job had been support up until that point, to go for their life. What we got out of that are some of the most unique animated films to have come out of the House of Mouse, and a real shame that it took them years to get back on the saddle (with Wreck-it Ralph) after they shut that studio in favour of strict 3D animation. One of those films was, as you might have guessed, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

What made this film so unique? A combination of things. Something you’ve got to remember about Disney’s renaissance in the nineties was that even their weirdest stuff was still pretty cliche (I’m using the word loosely here, bear with me). The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty were based on classic and well known fairy-tales (admittedly with much happier endings) and even The Lion King just takes the skeleton of Hamlet and goes, “but what if… LIONS!” and adds a soundtrack by Elton John. I mean, it’s all good shit, but they’re very basic, very old, very proven stories.

What Atlantis does is take the well-known legend of Plato’s fictionalised city (highly advanced city, destroyed in a day, sunk below the waves, possibly around the Straits of Gibraltar) but ignores the fictional tropes that the rest of us lowly mortals use when making up stories about the place. No, seriously, think about other stories regarding Atlantis. We think of mermaids floating around a still thriving kingdom or a crumbling city beneath the waves of the Atlantic. We don’t normally come up with a living community that is both sophisticated and primitive, intelligent but illiterate, with a culture that is both familiar and strange at the same time. We certainly don’t think about flying tuna fish.

Then there’s the rest of the aesthetic of the film. It’s set in 1914 and everything that the outsiders brings to the city reflects that. The trucks are recognisable for the era, the dress and digger are appropriately steampunk, as is the submarine. Bolt action rifles, belt-fed machines guns, British-style helmets and paper flying machines add a level of class to the action that actually keeps things grounded. And as I said the design of the city and clothes of the Atlanteans is excellent. A good mix of primitive but alien. You don’t have trouble believing this is where our culture came from.

The characters are excellent, both their designs and voices. I love Helga, Kida and Audrey (played by Claudia Christian, Cree Summer and Jacqueline Obradors respectively). Their designs are different to each other (shit, all the speaking characters have got a unique silhouette) and you never have trouble imagining that they were capable of fighting or working an engine. Helga is traditionally attractive but broad shouldered and speaks with an authoritative and deep voice. Audrey dresses practically and looks her age. Even Kida, the most traditionally designed since she’s the heroine and princess of the tale, has a long, triangular face that is both individual and expressive. Amongst the guys Sweet and Mole (Phil Morris and Corey Burton) are fun in different ways. Dr Sweet is both oblivious and empathetic, the Mole is just, well, the Mole. Milo Thatch, our hero excellently played by Michael J Fox, is excellent. He’s skinny and bookish, but not unfit. He’s brave when he has to be, stands up for his principles and his relationship with Kida is fantastic. They fall into friendship instead of falling in love right away (we never see them kiss, which is excellent), making it one of the healthiest romances in Disney as far as I can tell. As for Commander Rourke (James Garner)? Well, that would be spoiling it. My favourite by far would be Vinny, voiced by Don Novello. The flower shop owner turned demolitions expert. He has such a fantastic delivery of his lines and some of the most relaxed and conversational dialogue in the film. Love the guy.

The music is strong and memorable. The lines are great.

So yeah, great movie. Unique and interesting. Different to other fairy-tale fair. If you haven’t, grab someone younger and watch it. It’s good fun.

Reviewing the Old School: Lord of War (2005)

This film still stands as one of my all time favourites and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Released in 2005 and both written and directed by Andrew Niccol, Lord of War stars Nicolas Cage as Ukrainian-American arms-dealer Yuri Orlov in a cynically comical rags-to-riches story as he deals with warlords (most notable being Andre Baptiste and his son Andre Baptiste Jr, played excellently by Eamonn Walker and Sammi Rotibi respectively), business rivals (Simeon Weisz, played by Ian Holm) and law enforcement (the incorruptible Interpol agent Jack Valentine, played by Ethan Hawke who’s worked a great deal with the director). He marries the girl of his dreams (Ava Fontaine, played by Bridget Moynahan) and loves his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) and parents.

Perhaps I love this film because of the craftsmanship and acting. The script is excellent, the direction fantastic and the editing excellent. It’s paced so that a great deal happens without the film ever feeling rushed or overlong. Nicolas Cage is excellent in the role, as are all the others. Jared Leto plays Yuri’s limited moral compass led astray by a cocaine addiction exactly how you’d expect. Bridget Moynahan is loving and supportive yet obviously uncomfortable with the knowledge that Yuri does bad shit to support her in her own endeavours. Eamonn Walker is terrifying as the brutal dictator, able to convey barely restrained violence with a look then switching to good humour and laughter at the frightening drop of the hat, probably my favourite performance in the film. Sammi Rotibi is just crazy, but in a way where you’re not sure if his predictable predilection for violence is more or less of a threat than his father’s bare restraint. Ethan Hawke is earnest in his execution of the law and sincere in his belief in justice, you never have trouble believing him to be a character that Yuri respects.

Perhaps I like all the small details in the film. The way that the shadow of Colonel Oliver Southern (we never see more than his silhouette and parts of his uniform) is voiced by a different actor on the three occasions we see him, implying that the job is permanent even if the person filling it isn’t. Yuri revealing his lack of scruples by admitting the reason he never sold guns to Osama Bin Laden was because the Mujahadeen leader had atrocious credit. The use of loopholes and literal false flags to spirit weapons across the world and beneath imposed sanctions. Small details that build up the world in which Yuri lives and operates into something alive. Something real.

Perhaps I like the darkly comedic look at an industry that is fucking villainous if it isn’t outright evil. I love me some dark comedy. This film isn’t a laugh-out-loud kind of funny, rather it has an undercurrent of almost-surreal cynicism that surrounds Yuri’s life and worldview. His parents pretended to be Jews to escape the Soviets, and his father took to it better than most Rabbis. He hears cash register bells instead of gunshots as a mujahadeen lets rip at an unseen target with one of Yuri’s kalashnikovs. During a cocaine and gunpowder induced wander through the desert he has one of those kalashnikovs pointed at his head and fail to fire, then can’t stop apologising and offering to fix it. Andre Jr asking for “the gun of Rambo” and Yuri simply replying “Part One, Two or Three?” The flippant insanity of Andre Sr, who’ll shoot a man that displeases him on a whim and apologise for the dead man’s lack of discipline. Who jumbles up western words and idioms then smiles and says “Thank you, but I prefer it my way.”

Perhaps I love this film because of its honesty. The film shows the human cost of the arms trade, not just its victims (though  don’t worry, the movie never fails to remind us of the victims) but on the traders themselves. Yuri can’t stop, because he’s good at it and he likes being good at it, but it costs him everything else that he holds dear. His wife and child. His brother. His parents. He hates himself, but he can’t stop. It’s an addiction, cleverly paralleled by his brother Vitaly’s coke habit. And it is never glamorised. Well it is, but the film makes such glamorisation look superficial at best and crass at worst. Even when the film is being dishonest it is less an attempt to trick the audience and more like Yuri trying to trick himself. Excusing himself for sleeping around or trying to convince himself that he was merely a supplier, not responsible for the deaths his weapons reek. But we see this dishonesty, see the sincere lie, just like Yuri does when Vitaly tells him he’s a good brother, right after being provided by that good brother with one last hit before going to rehab. Yuri is an enabler, for his brother and for these warlords. And we all know it.

Maybe I just like the music. From the first song playing as we watch the life of a bullet (from twinkle in a factory’s eye to being fired into some poor kid’s head) to the final soft instrumental piece playing into the end credits every song is perfect and appropriate, affecting the mood of the moment.

Regardless I love this movie. You should really watch it.

Reviewing the Old School: The Siege (1998)

I wonder what this film would look like if it was made now. Would the villains be the same? Would the morals be the same? Would the heroes be as black and white? This is a pre-9/11 movie about terrorism after all (set in New York no less), and we live in a post-9/11 world.

Shit, we live in a post-a-lot-of-things world.

Released all the way back in 1998 The Siege stars Denzel Washington as FBI Assistant Special Agent Anthony ‘Hub’ Hubbard, essentially the bloke in charge of counter-terrorism operations in New York, as he and his team (most notably Tony Shalhoub as Lebanese-American FBI agent Frank Haddad) deal with with a series of escalating attacks in throughout New York, reprisals for the kidnapping of a major religious leader by US forces at the beginning of the film. They’re helped and hindered by CIA agent Elise Kraft/Sharon Bridger (starts with the former name, ends with the latter), played by Annette Benning, but as the situation grows worse, the FBI suffers casualties and they are unable to find the other terrorist cells martial law is declared and the army is sent in under the command of Major General William Devereaux.

This is not a perfect movie at all. The acting is solid and most of the characters are sympathetic if not likeable (I fucking love Tony Shalhoub, why doesn’t that guy get more roles?), with the sole exception of Annette Bening as the intruding CIA agent. She’s not bad in the role, and has some great moments, but the character comes off as whiny and annoying for most of the film, sounding for most of the movie like she’s on the verge of tears. Not great for the only female lead, even if it does play to a theme. There are some very action movie moments that are jarring against the realism that the rest of the film is trying to carry. When a bus is blown up at the beginning of the movie it is visceral and realistic. People well outside the blast range are thrown back and windows are shattered. Hub, who is halfway across the no-man’s land to the bus is far enough away that in most movies he’d usually just have to shield his eyes, is tossed around, deafened, blood vessels are ruptured (such as in his eye) and afterwards his nose begins to bleed in the middle of a briefing. It’s a good scene, and it seems weird when compared to moments later in the movie, such as when the army fucking blows up a building where Hub is trying to make an arrest. We’re talking grenades, machine guns and helicopter gunships launching hellfire missiles, and Hub making it out practically unscathed. It’s not a good scene.

Thing is though, The Siege still stands as one of the best examples I can think of when it comes to exploring terrorism and those who try to counter it. As I said, not perfect. I don’t think those of us over here in the relatively safe and peaceful west can possibly make a perfect film, but a decent one. The Islamic terrorists in the film have every right to be a bit miffed at the Americans. They were trained by the CIA to fight Saddam Hussein, then abandoned to be slaughtered. Many of them are from refugee camps and we are given the idea that the only hope many of them see for themselves and their families is through martyrdom. The attacks are triggered by the extrajudicial kidnapping of an important Islamic cleric by US forces. The film admits that the root causes of a great deal of modern terrorism can be traced back to American foreign policy (successes and failures), admits that these guys have the right to be pissed, though it never condones any of their actions. Blowing up innocent people is wrong regardless of the reasons.

It also shows the level of miscommunication and mistrust between the various branches of the American intelligence, counterintelligence and law enforcement services. Part of what makes Elise Kraft so annoying is her refusal to provide information to Hub and his team over the nature of the threat they faced or her sources. Devereaux makes a point of checking in on Hub and his team in the first half of the film, but otherwise is unwilling to share information with the FBI and, when martial law is declared, actively spies on the surviving members of the FBI. Getting information from other agencies is like pulling teeth, as they’re bounced from one organisation to another. Hub and his team still get the job done, but you get the distinct feeling that it could have been so much easier than it was.

The thing that got me about this film, however, is what it got wrong about us. Hub is a good guy. He cares about the law and judicial process. He privately berates a colleague for hitting a suspect. He waits for search warrants before assaulting a probable terrorist safe house. He believes that if you need to follow their rules to win, then you’ve already lost. Devereaux and Kraft disagree with him. They want to go in guns blazing, are willing to torture and fuck their way to the information they need. The film tells us this is bad. The film tells us, quite correctly, that this only makes things worse. The film tells us that polite society would not allow its morals to be eroded in the name of ‘safety and security.’

The film is wrong about that. At the end of the movie the combined multi-denominational might of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and whatever else protesters march upon the army lines chanting “No fear” in opposition to the Army’s detainment of thousands of young Muslim men for the crime of being young Muslim men. Hub is proved right, the law wins.

What happened in the real world? Well, Americans sacrificed many of those freedoms and protections the movie holds so dear to the Patriot Act after the Twin Towers fell. Guantanamo Bay is still open (the failure to close the prison down still stands as one of President Obama’s greatest failures). The Arab Spring seemed great at the time, but the failure of the USA and the rest of the West to follow it up with support and help has left the Middle East even messier than it already was, and ripe for an organisation like IS to become a legitimate power and threat. At home we’ve seen the rise of far-right arseholes and jingoistic nationalists, coming to power by spreading fear and anger. Extrajudicial killings and kidnappings are commonplace (just look at the Drone program or the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). And remember when those American nationals were illegally arrested and sent to countries like Egypt to be tortured? Yeah, that happened.

Pop-culture since then has reflected this. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t even blink at ‘enhanced interrogation’ or assassination, and doesn’t expect the audience to either. James Bond and Jack Bauer are tasked with getting the job done outside the law. A bullet to the head fixes the problems better than due process ever did. Guys like Hub are the weak-willed scrawny pencil pushers who haven’t been through what the heroes have been through and their adherence to the rules just gets in the way.

So would a movie like The Siege be made now? Yeah. Yeah it would. But I can’t say with any certainty that it would end the same way. Be as positive or hopeful. The good guys might not win. The law might not win.

That’s a shame. I wish a few more movies were like this.

Reviewing the Old School: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

I said hey!

Hey!

I said hey!

Hey!

I said trust Mel Brooks to make the best Robin Hood film since Errol Flynn donned the tights, strung his bow and swashbuckled his way through Prince John’s lackeys. Did you know that guy was born in Tasmania? Errol Flynn I mean. I’ve got an aunt who lives a couple of streets from where he went to school. Seriously, fucking Tasmania. I bet a lot of people don’t know where the bloody hell I’m talking about. Anyway. Robin Hood: Men in Tights. First released in 1993, produced by Brooksfilms. Directed by Mel Brooks who also shares the writing credit. Best Robin Hood film since Errol Flynn. Well, except maybe Disney’s Robin Hood. The one with the fox.

Men in Tights is a parody through and through, taking the traditional story of Robin Hood (Robin of Loxley comes back from the Crusades, discovers that Prince John has really gone to town on the peasantry while King Richard is away, so forms a merry gang of merry men to fight back against the prince and his henchman the Sherriff of Nottingham – also, he falls in love with Maid Marian) and takes the piss out of it (well, not the story so much as formulaic way the story is usually told) in typical Brooksian fashion (ironically enough following a formula).

The main lead and his sidekick (Cary Elwes as the titular Robin of Loxley and Dave Chappelle as Ahchoo) take turns playing the role of straight man, breaking the fourth wall often enough wink at the audience but not so often as to get annoying, while the rest of the cast is allowed to over-act to their hearts content. Dave Chappelle has some of the best line delivery in the film and Amy Yasbeck swoons around delicately in her iron undies. On the villainous side of things Richard Lewis over-reacts to bad news and offers snide comments from the sidelines as the cowardly Prince John, and Tracey Ullman twitches and growls as the hideous Latrine (whose family changed their name a few centuries back from ‘Shithouse’). The rest of the cast (Mark Blankfield as Blinkin, Eric Allan Kramer as Little John, Matthew Porretta as Will Scarlet O’hara, Megan Cavanagh as Broomhilde) are excellent, with particular props going to Mark Blankfield as the blind manservant.

Where the casting really shines is with its protagonist and antagonist, Cary Elwes and Roger Rees (the Sheriff of Rottingham) respectively. Elwes aims for a spot between ridiculous and self-aware and absolutely nails it. On the one hand he plays the swashbuckling and bombastic hero with believable earnestness, smiling his way through sword fights and laughing at comically defeated enemies. On the other hand he can clearly see stupidity and is unafraid to point it out with a clever retort, comment or brilliant facial expression. He also does a great Winston Churchill impression. Roger Rees (who I remember best as the eccentric but surprisingly competent UK ambassador in The West Wing) just seems to be having a great time as the campy, mincing Sheriff of Rottingham. He plays the role straighter than Elwes, all slimy, smarmy charm, cowardly but never snivelling, completely unthreatening. The perfect parody of the bloodless ‘bad for the sake of being bad’ antagonists that you get in adventure films up ’til the ’60s (the kind who made a comeback in the family films of the ’90s).

Obviously I enjoyed the film, but I’m a fan of Mel Brooks and his sense of humour. I admit not everybody is. It’s crass and simple and follows a formula, which might put some people off (fuckin’ snobs), but it’s great for what it is. The jokes hit their targets as accurately as one of Robin’s, such as how traditional musical serenades in classic films often involve the bloke bellowing in the bird’s face, or that the best attempts of the male cast members can’t stop a pervasive feeling of “it’s all a bit gay, ain’t it?” (more importantly, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, just look at this excellent choreography, especially Little John guiding Blinkin around), and of course the casual references to Kevin Costner’s American accented Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

What surprised me on the rewatch was how well it holds up, even compared with some of Brooks other films. Ask me what my favourite Brooks film is and I’ll tell you truthfully it’s Young FrankensteinMen in Tights is a close second though. A film that I didn’t enjoy as much on a recent rewatch was Blazing Saddles. A great film with some classic moments, but just not as funny as when I first watched it as a kid. If I ever do one of these reviews of Blazing Saddles I’ll go into it more, but I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the Westerns might not be as ripe for parody as adventure films or horror movies. Cultural differences maybe? Not sure. Worth further consideration in the future.

Anyway, classic comedy with a great cast. If you like Mel Brooks, you’ll like this. And who doesn’t like Mel Brooks? Fuckin’ snobs, that’s who.

Reviewing the Old School: The Dish (2000)

This is a movie that’s worth it for the ending, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The third film by Working Dog Productions (second if you don’t count documentaries, and honestly why would you?) and biggest box office success, The Dish was released back in 2000 is a comedy that tells the (‘inspired by true events’) story of the Parkes Observatory (a big bloody radio telescope located in the middle of a sheep farm about twenty kilometres from the town of Parkes) and its quirky Australian technicians in the lead up to the Apollo 11 moonlanding. As well as tracking and relaying signals and communications from the travelling spacecraft enroute to and from the moon, it would also act as the primary receiver of the television signals that allowed the whole world to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps upon its dusty surface.

This is a character comedy first and foremost and the characters are, for the most part, great. Unlike Working Dog’s previous film (and previous review fodder) The Castle, which really only included actors who were notable in Australia (it was Eric Bana’s film debut for Christ’s sake), The Dish‘s leads included notable Kiwi Sam ‘I-was-in-Jurassic-Park’ Neil as Cliff Buxton and American Patrick ‘I-have-one-of-the-most-recognised-voices-in-film-and-television’ Warburton as NASA representative Al Burnett. And they’re good. Neil as Cliff is calm and full of authority, puffing on his pipe, in complete control, trying to keep the peace. It means that on the rare occasion that he does tell someone to quit their bitching or loses his cool there genuine emotional impact. Warburton is quiet but obviously concerned as Al, he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders as NASA’s man on site but tries very hard to keep the stress from showing. Tom Long as Glenn is fantastic, playing a socially inept and slow nerd stereotype, but with such sincerity (I use that word way too much in these reviews, but I can’t be bothered grabbing a thesaurus) that you don’t mind. He gets the girl in the end (or at least asks her out) and it’s not some bullshit about her seeing ‘the real him’ behind the shy chitchat (most commonly in movies after the girl breaks up with some jock dickhead and realises that what she really wants is a nice guy who treats her alright). The girl in question, Eliza Szonert as Janine, is obviously attracted from the beginning of the movie to Glenn’s genuine sweetness and kind nature. Roy Billing as Mayor Bob MacIntyre takes the role seriously and has excellent comedic and dramatic timing, as does Genevieve Mooy as his wife. The only main character that I had an issue with was Kevin Harrington as Robert ‘Mitch’ Mitchell. Harrington’s a decent actor, and Mitch decent for the most part, but his character is the one that’s meant to be creating or experiencing conflict with Al, the American outsider, and I just never quite bought it. Lines yelled when they should have been spoken I think. This may have been actor, director, script or some combination of the three, but as a central character conflict I thought it just didn’t work. Having said that Harrington has excellent timing and delivered some of the best lines in the film.

The film has a large cast, possibly a little too large. All due respect to the actor but Billy Mitchell’s character, Cameron the over-zealous army cadet with a crush on the Mayor’s over-zealous (small L) liberal daughter seems superfluous in hindsight. I expect he’d there to represent a view of the Australian military (even with Australia starting to withdraw forces from the Vietnam War), but he doesn’t provide enough laughs to justify as much presence as he has in the film. Yet all the named characters can be justified, and I can’t really think of any that I’d really want culled. It makes for a cluttered cast-page, but doesn’t really make the film any worse for it. Just longer. I also like how they make an effort to give even the minor characters a little depth. Take the above mentioned Janine. She’s not just “girl who drops off lunch that Glenn has a crush on,” she’s also the security guard Rudy’s sister and a really awful driver. It’s not much, but it’s more than a lot of scripts would have given a character like her.

Rob Sitch does a good job directing, and I particularly loved scenes where the titular Dish and the men inside are simply doing their jobs. The choice of music is excellent, using some excellent 60s hits that never distract from what’s going on in the film, but will get you tapping your foot while it’s happening.

The pacing felt a little off. There are two climactic points in the film. The first takes place around the middle when a blackout briefly knocks out the Dish’s power and the backup generators weren’t primed possibly. Because this is the 1960s, this wipes all the data from the computer and for a whole day they ‘lose’ Apollo 11. They then desperately try and figure out where it is, while “bullshitting” NASA (and the American Ambassador who comes to visit). It’s a fun, desperate scene for the various characters but it drains away any tension for the second climax, where high speed winds threaten the broadcast of the actual moonwalk. I’m not sure how this could’ve been improved, but it never really feels like it was quite as dangerous a risk as they say it was.

Is the movie funny? Yes, yes it is. Not in a laugh-your-arse-off kind of way, more like a quiet chuckle and knowing smile. There are some fantastic moments that really sum up the Australian atmosphere of the film, like cricket on the satellite dish, the frequent cups of tea, the omnipresence of sheep and lamb. The Prime Minister (played by Billie Brown and only ever referred to as “Prime Minister” because John Gorton was not our most memorable PM) only appears for a few minutes overall but does a great job of portraying the well-spoken pub-brawl nature of Australian politics for most of the century. (“We’ve got a saying in the party: Don’t fuck up…” “And?” “That’s it.”)

Less of the humour than you’d expect, however, comes from any juxtaposition between the Yanks on site and the local country Aussies. Al is definitely different, is unused to working in professional environments without dress codes, formalities and chains of command, but he’s never anything but polite and is one of the most respectful people in the film. Similarly the US Ambassador, played by John McMartin, is never mocking in his attitude towards the locals and is simply a NASA-enthusiast is just bloody excited to visit Parkes and watch the landing. And that segues nicely into what this film is about.

Y’see, The Dish is not about culture clash, it’s about vindication. There’s the obvious ones. Al’s presence is vindicated in the eyes of Mitch when he helps them bullshit NASA. Mayor Bob McIntyre is vindicated for lobbying to get the Dish built in Parkes in the first place. There’s the less obvious ones. Bob’s daughter Marie (Lenka Kripac) is a teenage feminist spitting out opinions against chauvinism and imperialism without any real idea what she’s talking about (today she’d have a blog on Tumblr), and she’s surprised when Al tells her that it’s been a delight meeting and talking with her. It’s a small thing, but you get the feeling it’s the first time someone has shown any sort of approval for having strong opinions. The second half of The Dish is full of these vindicating moments, culminating right at the end with the moon walk.

The ending is wonderful. Everyone is gathered around television sets watching Neil Armstrong take the first few steps on the moon’s surface. You feel the emotion of the moment, that feeling of witnessing something truly monumental occurring, one of the greatest achievements in human history. The culmination of years of work, expense, stress, terror and hope, broadcast for six hundred million people to see, with that purest of goals: To prove that humanity could do it.

This movie is not perfect. It’s funny and clever, but there’s a list of flaws that I don’t even have time to get into, but it’s worth it for that ending. That feeling of elation and that feeling of achievement. This is a film about the Australian contribution to the television broadcast, not about NASA or the astronauts. The Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Space Race are never mentioned in the film. This is a movie not about an American achievement but a human achievement. In that final few minutes it makes you proud to be a human.

So, yeah, it’s worth it for the ending.

Review the Old School: Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Let me be absolutely clear about something right from the beginning. My most recent viewing was of the Director’s Cut. The glorious, three-hour-long Director’s Cut. Did this make a difference? No clue, I watched the original cut way back when it came out and I wasn’t about to rewatch the same movie just to find out what parts they cut out. I’m not that masochistic. I have a job. And other shit to write. Moving on.

Directed by Ridley Scott and released all the way back in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven stars Orlando Bloom as Balian (later de Ibelin), the blacksmith for a Lord in France who finds out he’s the bastard son of a well-regarded Crusader recently back from the Holy Land, Godfrey de Ibelin played by Liam Neeson, shortly after his child dies and his wife tops herself out of grief. At first seemingly angry that Liam Neeson is his father (God knows why), Balian soon decides to join dad in the family business of killing the enemies of the leper King of Jerusalem (voiced by Edward Norton). Him killing his half-brother priest may or may not have helped in the decision making. Dad doesn’t make it past Italy, unfortunately, but makes sure to make Balian his heir and a knight before carking it. Balian gets to the Holy Land, hijinks ensue. These included Balian bedding the King’s married sister Sibylla (played by Eva Green), sparing and impressing a Saracen Cavalier (played by Alexander Siddig), killing a decent number of Christians and Muslims, building a few wells and, of course, taking command of the defence of Jerusalem against Saladin’s overwhelming forces after the new King of Jerusalem (spoiler, Edward Norton dies) starts a war then promptly loses it, all while learning the true meaning of knighthood. Good times.

This is a good movie, but it’s far from a perfect one. Orlando Bloom plays the role surprisingly well. There were one or two moments where I felt he was channeling Legolas or Will Turner, but I’d blame some awkward and clumsy moments in the script more than anything (a moment before the final battle when he’s giving everyone a pep-talk stands out). His character was a little too perfect though. It was lampshaded at the beginning of the film that he’d fought for lords before joining his dad on horseback and in the engineers, had participated in the building of powerful siege weapons, but we see him the movie as one of the best fighters, a skilled tactician and an expert in irrigating deserts. I mean, is there anything this guy isn’t good at? Similarly the villains are cartoonishly bad. Or specifically Guy de Lusignan played by Marton Csokas, the man who would be king and fuck everything up. Don’t get me wrong, Csokas plays the role well enough, but he’s just such a fucking stereotype with no motivation beyond “I’m gonna start a war and kill me some Saracens.” This worked with Brendan Gleeson’s character, Reynald de Chatillon, the insane commander of the Knights Templar, but he’s played as the mad attack dog whose entire purpose is cutting down people who don’t deserve it for his twisted faith. Guy is supposed to be the one who stands to gain the most and lose the most, but we see no reason for him to be such an arsehole. He doesn’t seem to want to conquer, doesn’t seem to give any shits about the faith or crusades beyond providing him with support or troops. There’s some vague hope for winning glory on the battlefield, I guess, but it just seems shallow. Maybe I’m not reading enough into the character, but it seemed like he was acting the arsehole simply for the sake of being an arsehole who we can blame him when the Kingdom of Heaven all goes to hell, and the audience can say, “See? Should have listened to Balian.”

The direction is mostly good, Ridley Scott knows how to cut together an epic and visceral battle, the combat is clear, bloody and wider shots are used to great effect. Smaller skirmishes meanwhile are lonelier, more intimate affairs, but their setups (long shot of a single knight at an oasis) reminded me of showdowns in old westerns. There were a few moments where the editing made me cringe. One in particular, where Balian first meets the king of Jerusalem seemed badly and unnecessarily cut together. They start out talking over a chessboard then are suddenly looking at plans for a fort, which Balian gives his advice on, then awkwardly shifts to the king with him. It’s meant to feel like a long conversation but instead just feels like they decided to skip half a sentence. It’s weird and unnecessary. But not common. As for the music, well, the only time I really noticed it was during the big battles when I realised it was the same theme from The Mummy. Take that as you will.

Regardless, the cast is stellar. And I mean, really fantastic, putting excellent actors in even minor roles. Liam Neeson has a major role but doesn’t make it through a third of the film, Kevin McKidd has about three minutes of screentime before being killed off and is billed only as “English Sergeant” and Michael Sheen plays the priest I mentioned above. The one who gets stabbed by Balian not even ten minutes in. A special mention should go to The Hospitaller, played by David Thewlis. While remaining nameless, The Hospitaller actually manages to survive most of the film and plays a sort of mentor and father to Balian. He’s a man of faith if not religion, and acts as conscience for Balian in his harder moments with good humour and sincere kindness.

But the characters I really wanted to see more of were the Muslims. I remember when I first watched this not long after it came out for the first time on DVD feeling that the Muslims were treated unfairly, and they may have been. But rewatching it, I felt like this was one of the best possible portrayals of an Arab conquering Christians that we could’ve gotten out of 2005. The Christian folk who want peace always remark that it requires both the King of Jerusalem and Saladin to maintain the peace. Firuz, his retainer spared by Balian in the beginning of the film, is a good man and remarks that it was because Saladin was his teacher. Saladin, played excellently by Ghassan Massoud, does a solid job as the stoic general, who doesn’t really want to go through the trouble of taking Jerusalem but has his own fanatics to deal with. He shows disappointment when he meets a captured Guy, and good humour after treating with a worthy opponent. Not a perfect portrayal, but two years into the Iraq War and four years after 9/11 from an American director? Not bad. Not bad at all, and I wish we saw more of it.

Strange to think that this was directed by the same guy who’s now in so much trouble over fucking Exodus: Gods and Kings. What happened Ridley? You used to be cool.

Reviewing the old school: Thank You for Smoking (2005)

Do you remember this film? I didn’t remember this film until quite recently, and I can’t for the life of me think of why. Thinking back to when Thank You for Smoking was released all the way back in 2005, it was a pretty big deal. Not like in a blockbuster, Transformers or The Dark Knight kind of way, but, I mean, I was in fucking high school and I was hearing about what a brilliant film it was. That’s not normal, is it? I don’t think that’s normal. This film though, this film was special. This smart little indie film all about arguments and talking, without any explosions and only a little sex, had us teenage Aussie millennials talking or at least my circle of friends, and for good reason. Because my friends are weird. And it’s a great film. So why’s it so forgettable?

The film, fantastically written and directed by Jason Reitman, stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, the chief spokesman for what is essentially big tobacco. Nick is suave, charming, good at what he does and loves his job. Since his job is convincing as many people as possible to smoke cigarettes, in most other films he’d probably be the bad guy. And he sort of is. But he’s so rationally proud of it that you can’t help but cheer for him and his cohorts to win over that bastard senator from Vermont who’s only thinking of the children. The film follows Nick at his highest (getting the film industry involved in making cigarettes cool – cooler – again) and lowest (an article is released revealing all the secrets he’d told to the writer, who he’d been sleeping with… also kidnapping and attempted murder) points while clearly explaining how political argument and debate work, the art of lobbying and the importance of making informed decisions.

The acting is fantastic. Aaron Eckhart owns the role of Nick Naylor, and you never for a moment doubt his sincerity or self-awareness. Katie Holmes as the above mentioned reporter who really shouldn’t be trusted with sensitive information plays her role with a casual, professional glee. JK Simmons and William H Macy carry their roles with skill, as always, as Nick’s boss and sorta nemesis respectively and deliver some of the best lines in the movie, as do Maria Bello and David Koechner as Nick’s best friends Polly Bailey and Bobby Jay Bliss (alcohol and gun lobbies respectively). Smaller roles are perfectly cast, like Robert Duvall as The Captain and Rob Lowe as Hollywood fixer Jeff Megall. Even Cameron Bright, the (at the time) child actor playing Nick’s son Joey does a great job (though there was one or two moments that felt a little flat). Jason Reitman did a fantastic job with this. The dialogue is well written and the editing switches from long, drawn out moments to rabid flashes expertly. The music is excellent, and I loved the song playing over the opening credits.

What’s great about this film is the moral ambiguity of its theme: mainly, to make your own informed choices and come to your own conclusions. Nick Naylor may be working for the ostensible bad guys, a big corporation that cares more about profits than human lives, but he does so with surprising moral conviction and (I think mostly because of his frank narration) far more honesty than what we’d normally expect. He definitely seems more honest than the manipulative Senator Finistirre. But what I love about this film, what I really love about this excellent piece of satire, is that it is incredibly self-aware. The information it is providing is nothing new, and it knows that it’s nothing new. Admits to it cheerfully and wittily. At the end, at the climax of the movie when Nick sits in at a hearing about putting a skull and crossbones on all cigarette packs he acknowledges that he knows cigarettes are bad for you. In fact everybody knows cigarettes are bad for you. Similarly, the audience already knows about what the film is apparently revealing. We know that big corporate powers use films and celebrities to sell their products. We know that they use misleading scientific studies to continue lying to the consumer. We know that they have huge teams of lawyers to tie down opponents in legal red tape. We know that they lie, cheat and bribe. And the film knows we know. Thank You for Smoking is not about revealing the dangers of the world. It treats us more intelligently than that. The film is about the power of argument and persuasion, and whether you’re right or wrong depends on how convincing you are. Nick Naylor is the hero of this film because he is the best at arguing. That’s all. Mind you I’m a fan of arguing (love a good fight), so maybe I’m just reaching my own conclusions (see what I did there?)

So, you remembering this film now? Maybe saying I’d forgotten this film is going a bit too far. I don’t know what made me think of it the other day, but I remembered it immediately, and enough where I was able to start thinking about what I was gonna write down before the rewatch. But it still feels like it should be far better remembered than what it is, up there with other political satires like Wag the Dog or… shit… I can’t think of any similar enough examples at this exact moment. Point is, if you haven’t you should watch this film. If you have, watch it again. It’s an easy film to over-analyse and under-analyse, and it’s a great piece of smart cinema regardless. Funny too.

Reviewing the Old School: The Castle (1997)

It’s not just a house, it’s a home. Just like how this isn’t just any old movie, this is and likely will remain one of the most iconically Aussie movies you can possibly watch. At least that’s the conclusion that one of my best mates and I came to watching it on Tuesday afternoon, hungover from Monday’s Australia Day revels and trying to sufficiently recover for round two in the coming evening.

Released in 1997, The Castle tells the story of the Kerrigan family, led by patriarch Darryl (Michael Caton), and their fight against the corporate powers trying to seize and bulldoze their home in order to build a new runway at the nearby airport (as in literally right next door). Told through the narration of youngest son Dale (Steven Curry) this film both reflected and informed Australian culture. On the one hand, the Kerrigans and their neighbours are a collection of stereotypes of bogan culture in the late nineties (and now). They own five cars, make casually racist remarks without any malice, have generally atrocious hair, have no wish to move outside of their insular little community, gamble, spend more time reading the trading post than the newspaper and think that the only show funnier than Hey, Hey it’s Saturday is The Best of Hey, Hey it’s Saturday.

On the other hand, it’s also informed Australian culture. If an Aussie says you should “tell him he’s dreaming” or remarks upon the “serenity” of a particular location, they’re referencing The Castle. And we reference it a lot. Seriously. Y’know how much I talk about the Borderlands games? There’s a location in the Pre-Sequel called ‘So Much Serenity.’ That’s a reference to The Castle. Shit, while doing HSC English it made up the Australian required viewing on a syllabus that included Nobel Prize winning poets. Few other films have had such a lasting effect on Aussie culture. It makes you ask the question: why has this moderately funny and heartwarming film remained so important in the national consciousness while other moderately funny and heartwarming films fallen out of it?

I think it’s because of the sincerity of the script and cast. I think that while it isn’t exactly the prettiest reflection, we do like what we see. The Kerrigans are working class, unworldly, uneducated, the eldest son is in prison, and all of them are good people without question. The Kerrigans hold to principles of mateship and community that are often pushed as being quintessentially Australian. Darryl’s first thought upon finding out that the airport is seizing homes is to run to their neighbour Jack’s house, the oldest on the block. Their lawyer, Dennis Denuto (played wonderfully by Tiriel Mora) spends much of the film terrified and out of his depth. He knows he can’t win, knows how badly they’ll lose, even remarks that he’s “shitting himself” when they have a fighting chance, but he jumps into the ring anyway because his mate’s in trouble and asked him for help. Even the ending is something sincerely, positively Australian. They don’t Erin Brockovich or Miracle on 34th Street their way to victory, pouring through pages of legal notes themselves until they find a loophole or performing some gesture that warms the heart of the judge that’ll save their homes, like in so many American films. They win because Darryl meets a retired deus ex machina… I mean QC who was an expert in constitutional law named Lawrence Hammill (played also wonderfully by Charles Tingwell) and they bond over shared pride in their children. It falls upon the idea that Australia is an egalitarian society, that mateship crosses boundaries of class, wealth and education, and that when you see a mate down on his luck you do every fucking thing possible to help him. Darryl is a good bloke, and in Australia we help good blokes.

Now, is that necessarily true? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s part of how we like to think about ourselves. And the film plays it with a perfectly straight face. The acting helps. Everyone puts out a great performance, Michael Caton in particular bringing a lot of emotion to his character. Special props go to Stephen Curry as our narrator, youngest son Dale. Dale is a character who absorbs every detail and is bluntly obvious about things, and Stephen brings a fantastic and positive honesty to the role.

The script is excellent. The editing and camera work are solid. Rob Sitch, the director and one of the writers, know what he’s doing with this kind of comedy. The soundtrack was a bit forgettable. If there’s any flaws with the film, it’s that the few female characters occupy the background a little too much, and that the comparisons between the Kerrigans’ legal battle and the issues of Aboriginal land rights, the Mabo Decision and Terra Nullius varied between hamfisted and a little cringeworthy. They’re not huge flaws, especially when compared to other Australian films, but they’re worth mentioning (and if you think I’m underplaying them right now, drop a comment, the discussion would be great).

Anyway, long story short, great film. Iconically Australian. Definitely worth a watch even if you’re not from the land down under. At the very least it’s worth mentioning as being Eric Bana’s film debut.

Reviewing the old school: The Mummy (1999)

The first of two ‘Reviewing the old school’ posts this week, since I skipped the one before New Year.

One of the first questions that occurred to me when I sat down to write this was “do they make movies like this anymore?” Short answer is “yes” with a “but.” Long answer is the same except with a more drawn out “but.” Like a “but” that takes seven syllables to say.

I watched this movie so many times when I was a kid, alongside its sequel The Mummy Returns (which will eventually get its own review). For good reason. It’s an incredibly fun film and at the time I was too young to be concerned with little things like “cultural appropriation” and “white-washed casts” (now I’m too nostalgic to be overly concerned, if I’m being honest, and this film isn’t even close to the worst example. It is an example though, and that is always worth a mention). The story is largely what you’d expect it to be. High Priest has sex with Pharaoh’s mistress. High Priest murders Pharaoh. High Priest is turned into mummy. Three thousand years later he’s accidently brought back to life by a librarian, her brother and bodyguard/guide. He then proceeds to eat a bunch of cowboys, ’cause a half-dozen or so of the ten plagues of Egypt and kidnap the Librarian to bring back his dead girlfriend (the above mentioned Pharaoh’s mistress). Hijinks ensue.

The CGI and special effects hold up remarkably well considering that the age of the film. Most of the time when we actually see the titular mummy it’s at night, in the dark, hiding the worst of it. The instances where the mummy sucks out the cowboys soul juices occur off screen. We see the shadow against the wall, zoom in on a minions cringing face, hear a scream and the mummy’s roar, then get to see the practical effects results. Even the larger CGI set-pieces use practical effects and good common sense to great effect. A moment at the end has a computer generated sandstorm chasing a real-life biplane. A fight against the also-mummified priests of Imhotep (the mortal name of the immortal mummy) and reawakened warriors involves plenty of computer-animated characters leaping all over the place and crawling across the ceilings, but also some excellent costuming, simple animatronics and stuntwork. The result is a film that never takes you out of the moment, even at its most glaringly fakest.

What makes this ‘undead-boy meets girl and tries to sacrifice her to ancient gods’ tale so compelling is really the characters. Rachel Weisz is fantastic as Evy, the proud librarian who finds her self-confidence and saves the day at least twice by being the smartest, most educated person in the room. Brendan Fraser plays an excellent world-weary tough-guy in Rick O’Connell, with enough sarcasm to come off as witty but not so much that cynicism becomes his defining trait. John Hannah as Jonathan (Evy’s brother) again plays a well balanced character. As the good guys ongoing comic relief character, he’s a lying, cheating, thieving coward. He’s also loyal, quick-thinking, smart and obviously cares deeply for his sister (needing assurances from O’Connell that they’d rescue a recently captured Evy before escaping from a mob into the sewers). Oded Fehr, despite playing a Berber stereotype, does it with a great deal of gravitas and sincerity (he has a fantastically dramatic voice), but there’s also a moment when he’s strapped to the wing of an airplane grinning like a schoolboy. And you don’t doubt that grin for a moment, you don’t doubt that despite the danger he’s someone doing something incredibly, exhilaratingly novel and enjoying every second of it. On the other side of things Kevin J. O’Connor as the greedy, survive-at-the-expense-of-everyone-around-you Beni is easy enough to dislike, but you still sorta hope he makes it out at the end of the film.

The only character who didn’t work in my opinion was the villain, Imhotep, the titular mummy, played by Arnold Vosloo. I don’t know why. Nothing against Vosloo, he was competent enough, but I just never found him all that intimidating when he was in his human form. Might’ve been because costuming had him running around in just his budgie smugglers and a bathrobe for a lot of it. Hard to take a guy seriously when he looks like he’s just coming back from reading by the hotel pool.

Even the minor characters are great and memorable. The Americans have little to do aside from become fodder for the raging mummy and not a huge amount of screentime, but they’re each distinct and memorable. Erick Avari as Dr. Bey get’s only a few minutes and just a little bit of dialogue, but they’re good minutes and he receives an epic end. Bernard Fox plays an epically named, alcoholic Royal Air Force pilot who goes faces death with a maniacal laugh. Omid Djalili plays one of his more intentionally irritating characters, but doesn’t last long enough in the film to be a mark against it, showing a great deal of restraint by the writers and directors who could very well have decided they needed even more comedy relief. Enough time to be funny, not enough to become baggage.

So yeah, great film. Would recommend you watch.

And on that note, I want to segue back to the question I asked (and answered) at the beginning. Do they still make movies like this anymore? Fun action-adventures driven less by plot than by memorable characters and witty banter. Seems like these films hit their peak at the turn of the century then sorta died out (following a similar trajectory to Jackie Chan’s presence in Western films). But yeah, they do. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is still going strong. Thing is, the last PoC was pretty lousy, the next PoC is probably gonna be worse and of the original trilogy it’s only the first that’s really remembered fondly. Keeping with Johnny Depp vehicles, Alice in Wonderland and The Lone Ranger were both pretty terrible in their own ways. Prince of Persia was an attempt that was, ultimately, not memorable at all. A lot of G-rated stuff, I guess, but even then. Seems like a lot of the films that should be taking a similar tone to The Mummy are instead taking themselves way too seriously. And the ones that aren’t are made by people like Adam Sandler.

I guess you could look at the harder stuff. You could make the argument that Quentin Tarantino’s making some great action-adventures with memorable characters and snappy banter, but there’s a whole lot more violence and swearing. I got no fucking problem with that, but I’m disinclined to let kids I’m with watch Django Unchained ’til they’re old enough to understand what ‘revenge fantasy’ means.

Animation still scratches the itch, I guess. And now that I think about it, the superhero films (the MCU ones, not the DC/Warner Bros ones… yet) probably fit the bill pretty well. But still, it’s different. Y’know what? This requires more thought. I think this needs a post all its own. I’ll get back to you.

In the meantime watch The Mummy. It’s a fun film, good action, great characters. An easy way to kill an hour and half.

Dying to discuss: Or why I loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Did you know there’s a new Star Wars film in the cinemas right now? Of course you do. Aside from the massive multi-platform advertising campaign that can only be pulled of by a media super-power like Disney, it’s bloody Star Wars, arguably the biggest franchise ever with the kind of pop-culture influence that even a lot of actual wars could never compete with. I went and saw it last Monday. Highly recommend you go see it, even if for no other reason than so I can talk about it without spoiling something. Or everything. ‘Cause I really, really wanna. Talk about it that is, not spoil it. I’m not a bastard. Or am I? Maybe, sometimes.

It’s at this point that I’m gonna mention that I might be talking about events and characters in the film that probably count as spoilers. Nothing major but if you haven’t seen it yet and want to avoid all mention of the film before you do, well, you’ve been warned.

Yeah, so anyway, I get the feeling that this is gonna be one of those films we talk about for a while in a really good way. Y’see everyone who’s seen it agrees that this is a good film, but no one seems to agree on how good it is. A few people were disappointed, a few people were raving. I loved it, but Mad Max: Fury Road still stands as my favourite film of 2015. Thing is, there was a lot to talk about Mad Max as well.

What I mean is that there’s a lot to unpack with this film, a lot more going on than a shallow conversation would at first reveal. An example: one of the complaints I’ve heard is that The Force Awakens is essentially just A New Hope. Like it literally has all the same story beats. I’d argue though that this is a good thing. It keeps the film feeling familiar while the new characters and relationships (I’ve come to realise are actually the most important thing in a Star Wars story) means that it still feels fresh and new. It’s also a demonstration by the directors, writers and producers that they understand what made the original trilogy so great while setting the scene for their own (’cause I expect there will be parallels between Episode VIII and Empire Strikes Back, but I don’t think they’ll be as blatant as this one). Someone else had issue with villain Kylo Ren, that he was less ‘all powerful badarse’ and more ‘tantrum throwing bitch.’ Guy wasn’t a menacing character, especially following in the footsteps of Darth Vader. Meanwhile I think that’s the point. This guy wants to be Darth Vader so badly, but he isn’t and probably never will be. It seems to me that the film-makers themselves are pointing this out. After all, that’s a big fucking helmet to fill. But it’s also them saying that he’s a different villain. Yeah, he’s powerful, merciless, brutal and very, very dangerous, but he’s also morally conflicted and emotionally torn.

This isn’t even getting into theories about who and what are which. I’m of the belief that main character Rey, played fantastically by Daisy Ridley, is a descendant of Obi Wan Kenobi (the only other main character in either trilogy with an English accent, and with Ewan Mcgregor doing a quick bit of voiceover work telling her she’s taken the first few steps towards the Force).

Listen, she's new to the whole "Force" thing. It's a lot to take in all at once.
Listen, she’s new to the whole “Force” thing. It’s a lot to take in all at once.

Shit, there’s stuff to talk about with all the characters. John Boyega as Finn, the Stormtrooper turned hero who may or may not be force sensitive (I don’t reckon he is, but we’ll see in the next few movies) but clearly forges a unique bond with Rey and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. Following that up, what do we think Poe’s role is going to be in the future? He didn’t have a huge amount to do in The Force Awakens, though he was established as a key character moving forward (guessing surrogate son for General Leia). To be clear, the whole thing is well acted (Adam Driver goes from calm to enraged excellently as Kylo Ren and even Harrison Ford seems to be enjoying himself) and I loved all the characters in different ways.

You get what I’m saying though, right? There’s a lot to talk about with this film. Love it or merely like it, I think we’ll be discussing the characters, the intricacies and the story mechanics for a while. And we’ll probably start doing so in about a week’s time.

Y’know, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for films worth talking about long after they’d finished their theatrical run. The above-mentioned Mad Max, for instance. Wonder what 2016’s gonna be like.

So, yeah, go see Star Wars. Be part of the conversation.