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.

Irrational irritations and other unnecessary issues (2/2/16)

Jumping right into it this today, I’d like to say that one of my biggest pet peeves when I’m serving/waitering/bartending is customers who leave their shit in the way when I’m trying to put a plate down in front of them. It drives me absolutely (but still politely) mental. I’ll be approaching with three or more plates spread across my two hands, the customer will see the approach and put their phone or drink or faberge egg down in front of them, exactly where I intended to put the plate down. Then there’ll be this awkward moment where they just stare at me vacantly, waiting for me to place the food or whatever in front of them while I desperately (but still politely) try to indicate through limited body language that they need to move their phone, drink or faberge egg out of the fucking way.

Yeah, I know it would be faster if I simply asked them to move the obstacle away from the drop zone, but people always look really embarrassed when they need to actually be told they’re inconsiderate morons and that might affect my tip (not to mention there’s no challenge in just saying it out loud). More than likely though it’ll be whoever they’re dining with will notice the obstruction and be like, “Mom, move your phone,” or “For fuck’s sake dad! Put the goddamn egg away! I know you like to show it off but it’s very fragile and I doubt anyone here actually appreciates the exquisite Russian craftsmanship.” There’s an awkward laugh, maybe an apology and I thank them and (much more quietly) God because that one plate resting on the bare skin of my forearm had been sitting under the heat lamps for fucking ages and I could feel my flesh cooking and I’m extremely grateful to be able to put the bastard down and fang it back to the kitchen to run my arm under some mercifully cold water.

Thing you have to remember is that tables at most restaurants where you’re paying less than a hundred dollars a head for a main and single drink (another thirty for desert) is that they’re trying to maximise seating, so tables tend to be small. And small tables very quickly become cluttered. We do our best to keep clearing things up, and generally uncluttering, but we’re not about to start grabbing personal possessions and moving them without your permission and we’d like to minimise our contact with whatever you’re drinking out of (for your sake, as much as ours). We also don’t always have an arm free to move obstructions out of the way. So, when you see your server/waiter/foodrunner/bartender striding over with arms full of succulent morsels, do not just drop whatever you’d been distracting your hunger-ravaged mind with in the space in front of you. We need that space. Put it in your fucking pocket or handbag or whatever.

You shouldn’t have your phone out at the dinner table anyway. That’s fucking rude.

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.

Irrational irritations and other unnecessary issues (19/1/2016)

Bloody hell, tuesday already? Almost slipped by me. Changing work schedules have messed up what day of the week I think it is. Anyway. I wanna have a quick chat to you all about skateboarders.

Now, I have nothing against most skateboarders. I’ve known and been friends with a lot of skateboarders over the years I’ve been kicking around this planet. I have a lot of respect for a talented skateboarder, with their ollies and kick-flips and well-tuned senses of balance. Hell, I respect untalented skateboarders even more. Falling off a skateboard can be a hilarious affair for everyone else and anyone willing to still climb back onto that narrow piece of plywood (or whatever skateboards are made out of) after a plummet deserves a nod. What grinds me the wrong way, however, is people who simply must travel any distance, no matter how short, on their board. I mean, after a while it just becomes unpractical.

Case in point, a couple of nights ago I was getting off the skytrain (still the most pretentious name for a public transport system around) and there was this kid who got off at the same station, from the same carriage, using the same door as me. A kid with a skateboard. A kid who promptly dropped his skateboard to the ground and rolled on it over to the stairs down to the street, a distance of roughly three metres. No, really, three metres, maybe three and a half, at a painfully slow pace made slower by the fifteen or so people who’d climbed off the train with us and were also converging on the stairs. I was halfway down the stairs by the time the kid managed to pick up his board and start his own descent. And I couldn’t help but think, “why didn’t you just fuckin’ walk it?”

And I get that if you love doing something you want to do it whenever humanly possible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. You don’t see cyclists riding their bikes up and down the platforms (well, I did once, but he more just stood on one of the side pedals and pushed). Just because someone can parkour their way down the side of the building doesn’t mean that they don’t occasionally use the stairs. And sometimes just because you’ve got your skateboard handy doesn’t mean you have to use it. Fucking walk it.

And with that, I’ll take my leave. Have a good week everyone.

Reviewing the Old School: Labyrinth (1986)

There was this moment on Tuesday when I actually managed to be in the kitchen at the same time as a bunch of my housemates. Odd working hours, a fucked up sleeping and eating schedule and a propensity on my days off to eat out for meals that aren’t breakfast make this a rarer occurrence than it is for a lot of other people I know. But there we were, chatting in the kitchen while waiting for our turn to use the kitchen-top/stove/table. Inevitably, the conversation turned to David Bowie’s very recent, very unfortunate passing. We talked about the music. And we talked about the movies. He had an impressive number of roles, but the one that I think best covers what David Bowie was and remains to many is Labyrinth.

“Of course,” said my French housemate after a moment of what I can only assume were internal translations, “it’s a classic.”

And, rewatching it again with her yesterday evening, I can’t help but agree.

Released in 1986 it tells the story of Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, whose brother Toby, played by Toby Froud (who actually now apparently works in creature effects and design), is kidnapped by Jareth the Goblin King, played by none other than Ziggy Stardust himself. She’s then given thirteen hours to solve the titular Labyrinth or lose her brother forever (as he will be turned into a goblin himself, and they just have the worst manners).

This is one of those films that, in my occasionally humble opinion, just ticks so many of the right boxes. The creature designs are as clever and hilarious as everything done by Jim Henson era Jim Henson Company (and again, directed by the man himself), but still maintain a level of nightmare fuel that means they still feel like a threat to our intrepid heroes. The set designs are whimsical but surreal, always familiar but always something else. Something other. The characters are fantastic. The self-aware coward Hoggle who finds courage through friendship, the yeti(?) Ludo who commands the stones themselves, Sir Didymus and his frightened mount. David Bowie just rocking it as the Goblin King. Camp enough to pull off what was a bizarre hairdo even in the eighties, but with genuine sex-appeal and enough gravitas to be menacing. Playing a character like Jareth is such typical Bowie, with his many stage names and changing personalities, and he does it so well.

I feel like the best character, though one easily lost in the background of colourful and unique characters is Sarah. She immediately regrets her wish when the Goblin King steals her little brother, but doesn’t spend any time moping. She sees the Labyrinth and simply goes, “well, better get started then.” She’s kind, but not to a fault. Clever, imaginative and has a great deal of common sense. She starts the film an aggrieved teenager (one that the audience can see has no real reason to feel aggrieved), like all teenagers, obsessed with the childish things from a perceived better age. By the end of the film, she’s grown up and moved on, with a clearer view of life and fairness (or that a lack thereof is inevitable but not insurmountable). She also realises that becoming a grownup doesn’t mean giving up all her childish things and ways. There are some things you must do alone (like, y’know…), but not everything. It’s a coming of age story, but a far more subtle one than you see in a lot of coming of age stories these days (especially the ones meant for young women with their “THIS SOCIETY IS A METAPHOR FOR HIGH SCHOOL AND THE PROTAGONIST IS SPECIAL AND UNIQUE JUST LIKE YOU” messages being about subtle as a steel-cap boot to the crotch). Sarah neither starts or ends the film perfect, but she better than what she was by the final scene.

And lastly, but definitely not leastly, there’s the music. Good god there’s the music. I don’t talk about music very often in these posts, that’s something I’m trying to fix because it’s so often a vital part of what makes films so great, even if they’re not musicals like this. The score of the film is atmospheric and dark, punctuated by songs that are wonderfully bright. And it is the bright songs that stay in your head after the film is over, and sit there, bouncing up and down excitedly. Songs like Chilly Down and Magic Dance. The soundtrack is fantastic, but it is those songs that stick with you (and play through the ending and credits), a conscious choice I expect. Just, listen. It’s great.

It’s a classic film, a combination of talents that resulted in something that can be watched and enjoyed by everyone even thirty years on. Give it a watch.

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.

Irrational irritations and other unnecessary issues (5/1/2016)

Happy New Year everyone! And welcome to 2016. Hopefully it’ll be better than 2015. Well, I had a decent year last year (the excitement of moving to another country and all that) but it seems that much of the world seemed to have a pretty shitty time of it, with the terrorist attacks and police shootings and Donald Trump and more than a couple of natural disasters and endless civil war and all the places failing to handle the refugee crisis (Australia included, but I’m looking at you large swathes of Europe. Germany’s cool though). Others had a decent year as well. Change of leadership in Canada seems to spelling good things, everyone around here seems pretty excited. Change of leadership back in Oz as well (the lion got the boot and the tin man took over). Change of leadership in Myanmar. But regardless we should always hope that tomorrow is an improvement over today. ‘Cause that is progress and we don’t want to stop progressing no matter how great things are.

Anyway, NYE has come and gone and there’s plenty to get irritated and outraged about (unnecessarily of course). Like all the end of year “best of…” lists. And “worst of…” lists. And “I think I’m creative so I’m still gonna make a list but I’m gonna give it a stupid theme, ‘cause that’ll be hil-ar-i-ous!” lists. Or people talking up their New Years Resolutions. Or other people talking down New Years Resolutions in general ‘cause they aren’t into that conformist bullshit, man. What’s really getting to me this year has been the number of Facebook and Instagram posts talking about how this year is going to be all about themselves.

It’s the weirdest fucking thing. Like, they’re posting these pseudo-profound sounding statements and e-cards with “I am going to invest in myself” and “It will all be about improving myself” with the odd hint of “in loving myself more I will be able to love others better” on a few rare occasions. That last one’s got the air of “so I’m not going to be a completely selfish bastard.” Because that’s what a lot of these posts seem to be implying. That they’re going to be selfish bastards this year who only give a fuck about their own improvement and well-being.

Here’s the thing though, I know these people aren’t. I wouldn’t be friends with them if they were. Christ, who would? I mean, it’s something I saw a lot of in the tail end of 2015, posts on Facebook and Tumblr telling people to worry about themselves first and other people second. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering the number of anxious and generally-in-a-bad-situation people there are who need the boost to their confidence and self-esteem. Funny thing is a lot of those people making those posts are the types who very obviously care about the confidence, self-esteem and mental well-being of others. Certain irony to that, yeah? What’s more, saying that you’re going to take the time to work on your own physical and mental health is great, people need to do that regardless of what time of the year it is.

But please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t do this by bragging about what a self-centred arse you’re planning on being. ‘Cause I know you’re not a self-centred arse, but others might not.