Monday, December 8, 2008

[Movie Review] Wallace and Gromit: A matter of Loaf and Death

For those of you who don't know, the Wallace and Gromit franchise is a series of animated shorts and a feature length film, focused on the adventures on a man and his dog. A British claymation spawned in the late Eighties, the dumbfounded inventor, Wallace, and his long suffering canine, Gromit, stand as symbols of my childhood. They retain themes of love, loss and cheese and crackers. In this respect, they are very British to the point where stated that the pair have "[done] more to improve the image of the English world-wide than any officially appointed ambassadors". the shorts have been aired many times in my home country of Australia, despite the last one premiering in 1995. Until recently, that is. The latest in the collection of shorts aired on December the 3rd in my country, at eight o'clock. The film, entitled A matter of Loaf and Death, is a disappointment, in my opinion. It achieves fairly in its own right but, like the latest Bond flick, cannot hold it's head high in the company of its kin.

The film starts the same as its predecessors, with the camera panning across photographs, a device used to key the viewer in to the chronology of the central characters, this time giving hints that they have taken up baking. The camera cuts to a baker at night, turning to see what we assume is a familiar face, only to scream and raise his arms in defense. We then see Wallace and Gromit going about there morning ritual of delivering bread. During this drive, Wallace sees a hefty woman riding a bicycle, which he identifies as his heartthrob, the model for Bak-O-Lite, albeit a tad larger. Then, the less-than-dainty lass loses control of her bike, leading Wallace and Gromit to an impromptu rescue. After saving her, Wallace becomes infatuated with the woman, Piella. Though she often disappears for hours at a time, while the baker serial killer continues his reign of terror on the streets. The plot is not all too hard to predict, but keep in mind this is a children's program and such veins are expected.

I have many problems with this picture, firstly it's dark tone. The opening scenes involving the baker's murder are perhaps the most violent in the series, though this level of non-benevolence is far below that of many modern TV shows. However, the last few minutes are blacker that night (I'm talking one of the cute claymation characters attempting to kill itself). Its these dark themes that unnerve me whilst watching Wallace and Gromit. What's next? Wallace coming to grips with his loneliness, or perhaps Gromit tackling his substance abuse issues. I fear for my favorite claymates. Are there darker times ahead? Only time, and Nick Park, will tell. I don't like it, not only for the fact that the piece is quite somber, but the fact that it lacks many elements that I would consider staple. I swear that "cheese and crackers" was mentioned about once in the entire twenty nine minutes. The episode is also very Gromit-centric. In previous installments Gromit has been very much the plot driver, though it feels as if he is never off camera. My only explanation for this is that the darkness is a result of the creator trying to reach the older audience that saw his work at its birth. This is a step in the wrong direction. Does Nick Park not realize that kids watch his show til this day? I even found some subtle Yorkshire bashing, a brand of comedy aimed at adults or at least older kids.

Another gripe that ails me on this topic is the pacing. To be fair, I missed the story's opening five minutes, but when the Bake-O-Lite girl came onscreen I had no idea what I was supposed to recognize. That said, I understand it is hard to cram everything you want into such a small time frame. The final, and befittingly ultimate thing that Loaf and Death lacks is heart. Maybe hear is the wrong word... soul? I can't describe the feeling, I just felt that it was in deficit of something. One could argue that I've simply outgrown the series, though I checked, and I believe I still have innocence (it was in my desk drawer, a bit dusty, but still intact).

Despite it's scripting flaws, the claymation that Wallace and Gromit is presented in is great. Time has served the art form well, with charcters being greatly sculpted, tears and all.

Australia is the first to receive this helping of Wallace and Gromit (I knew there were advantages to being connected to the commonwealth), with it airing in the UK on Christmas day. With Britanians making up about a quarter of this blog's total lifetime readership, I wish you (yes, you) a merry Christmas, with a gift that's okay, but not all that good.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

[Movie Review] Lolita (1964)

Lolita is a 1964 film starring James Mason, Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers. It is directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the book of the same name by Russian author, Vladimir Nabokov. It's focus is the sexual relationship between Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). It was a controversial film for its time and, in my opinion, can be traced back as the influence to many cinematic masterpieces.

The film opens with the murder of a playwright, for none other reason than "the shaming of my daughter". The plot then cuts back four years and we see Humbert Humbert inquiring lodging at the house of Charlotte Haze (Winters). An intellectual man, Humbert is taken aback by the widowed Haze's self centered and frankly annoying demeanor. His decision is made, however, when he sees the woman's fourteen-year-old-daughter sunbathing in a bikini. Immediately finding her attractive, he chooses to stay with the family for none other reason than to watch over the girl. Being the flighty girl she is, she flirts with him and displays herself as somewhat of a nymph. As the weeks pass, he idolizes her from afar, torn when she is sent off to camp. In the weeks she is away, he is proposed to by the senior Haze woman. Though he finds the thought of loving her literally hysterical, he opts to wed as it will keep him close to the girl he desires. Weeks into the marriage, tragedy strikes and Mrs. Haze dies. Humbert revels in this fact and sees the opportunity to live alone with Lolita. Upon picking her up from camp, she flirts with him in their hotel room, enticing him into indulging in the feelings he held of her for so long. What follows is attempts to hide their relationship, as well as the drama of simply maintaining it.

Despite the film's subject matter, it is hardly erotic. In fact, it is quote tame, only making the slightest reference to the pair's sex life, which we assume is constant. This is mainly due to the censorship at the time, which found the idea shocking enough to earn it an R rating. It also contains a lot of blue humor, with adults openly suggesting foursomes and other promiscuity. Lolita's Summer camp is called Camp Climax which garnered many giggles from me. Humbert takes the innocent role in the relationship, remaining stately as his stepdaughter flays herself across his chest, suggesting they play "the game" that a boy played with her at Summer camp. Peter Seller's character is another suitor of Lolita, albeit the polar opposite of her stepfather. He represents the lustful side of Humbert, which is only revealed through the latter's narration.

The film is black and white, though this does nothing to detract from the experience. This is most due to the artistic brilliance that is Stanley Kubrick's direction. The film was produced after the epic Spartacus and Kubrick just keeps building momentum. With censorship so marring on such a film, he does a fantastic job of suggesting sexuality, yet keeping it brief enough so that one does not feel uncomfortable watching the film in the presence of one's family. The dialogue is perfectly handled,as with all Kubrick films. The running time of a little over two hours seems extensive but the film never slows, that said, the American release is some twenty seconds shorter than the UK's or Australia's. Each actor does a brilliant job of their part, with the obvious stand out of Peter Sellers. Sue Lyon is fantastic considering that this is her first outing on the silver screen. Ironically, she was unable to attend the film's premier due to it being rated R. Equally as sad, the part of Lolita carried with it a stigma which the young Miss Lyon was unable to shake, her acting career sinking in the late sixties.

I feel the movie is ahead of its time in many ways. If it were made today, it would be much more overtly sexual, however I think that would be a detraction. I think it may have had great influence on 1999's American Beauty, which has similar elements, though far more erotic. Lolita was the first commercial film to make pedophilia a main element. Though the subject is not really sex offense, other than misdirected lust. A movie with strong elements of this subversion is The Woodsman starring Kevin Bacon, which I recommend to anyone exploring the subject through film.

The book on which this film is based differs in many aspects of the story, or so I'm told. It reportedly focuses much more on the erotic side of the relationship and gives Humbert a reason to have his so-called fetish. The movie was remade in 1997, with a plot that stayed much truer to the book. Unfortunately, this was a box office disaster, pulling in only a dismal one million domestically. However i do intend to read both the book and see the other movie, if I can get my hands on either of them. I hear the book is relatively abundant.

So due to the groundbreaking subject matter and the artful, brilliant (as always) direction by Stanley Kubrick, I highly recommend this film. That said, parental discretion is advised, then again, my veiwing has never been censored.


Friday, November 21, 2008

The Ice Harvest (book review)

The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips is a dark tale about a small country town and its seedy underworld. The first novel by this author, it achieved high popularity in the year 2000 and was made into a feature film five years later. In my opinion, the movie is far superior to the book in almost all respects. Nonetheless, the novel captures more completely the noir genre, though it also feels as though I’m reading a fantastically well written, high-brow parody. With dark undertones, some great black humor and an awesome movie, The Ice Harvest should be read by all.

The plotline chronicles a night in the life of Charlie Arglist, a lawyer working for the local mobsters, whom tires to rob his employers blind. As the story progresses, we see the dark underbelly of the seemingly quiet town in which the novel is set. Throughout the book, we see a variety of, often violent, greedy and vindictive characters that all have an entertaining side story to tell. These tales all eventually amalgamate into Charlie’s plan to rob his boss of millions in dirty money with his partner, Vic. Of course, as with every heist, there’s a beautifully seductive femme fatale to throw a spanner in the works. All of a sudden, fellow mobsters are dying left right and centre, the boss has discovered the plan and Charlie’s wondering about the disappearance of a lap dancer named Desiray.

The story takes place on a snow riddled Christmas Eve of 1979, in the back water town of Wichita, Kansas. The town’s local entrepreneurs’ attempt to set up a chain of strip clubs, brothels and bars has garnered little success, and it’s these places of business which set the backdrop for the better half of the story. Through the eyes of the book’s protagonist, Charlie Arglist, the small town seems like a shade down from being Las Vegas. Even when Charlie makes a trip to see his ex wife and whish his children a merry Christmas, the air is full of cursing, violence and tension. Such a settings as a suburban house are few and far between in this novel, wherein Charlie bounces from one strip club to the next, talking to the owner for a few minutes before he realizes that he has to return to the club he just visited, only to repeat the process again in a seemingly unending cycle. Thankfully, the cycle dissipates as the novel begins its second stanza. From there on, Charlie moves away from the quiet little town and the novel, unsurprisingly, takes on a lighter mood. This mood, however, does not stop disaster from striking its characters.

The characters of the novel each have their own charms, but, with the with the exception of a few, they all follow the same formula. That is violence, seediness and lies. There’s an excess of dumb blonde exotic dancers, lovable but psychotic barkeeps and wives who can be just as moral lacking as their husbands. Charlie Arglist, the central character, seems at home in a world of beer and breasts and I don’t really see where his desire to screw it over stems from. His, literally, partner in crime, Vic Cavanaugh, is the worst of the worst type of people. His greedy, spiteful and just plain evil demeanor was captured effortlessly on screen by Billy Bob Thornton and is even more evident in the novel. Both these men, unbeknownst to each other, somehow become romantically involved with Renata, the beautiful owner of local gentleman’s club, the Sweet Cage. In this story, she acts as a catalyst, which of the two does she really love, and which does she plan to kill? After wading through the swamp of emotionally wanting characters in this, there are still glimpses of a lighter side. Charlie’s drunken ex brother-in-law, Pete, serves as some slight comic relief while dancing girl Rusti finds love by the end of that cold night.

All in all, the novel is a perfect example of noir being brought into the new millennium. Having the utmost skillful writing, Scott Philips shows his talent for the genre. However, whilst reading this I couldn’t shake the feeling I was reading a parody. Its pitch perfect; too much so, in fact. The characters, while the genre makes this unavoidable, are blatant cliché’s. Everything Charlie experiences has been done before; even the ending is all too formulaic. That said, the factor which sets this novel apart from mere noir emulators is the delivery. Its mood, timing and twists turn an otherwise mediocre book into something worth consideration.

Another thing that I found troublesome with this novel was the seediness. While I understand it is yet another unavoidable facet of the genre, the book is quite dirty. Take, example, this excerpt from page 26 “Francie had already dropped her G-string and she crouched awkwardly, concentrating hard, trying to take the five-dollar bill from Culligan’s palsied hand with her labia.” Now why does the writer feel he has to share that with his audience? It detaches the reader from the story, being unable to envision the highly unrealistic situation. It is in this alienation of the audience which lets the book down so. One feels no compassion for the smutty characters or their even smuttier lives.

Still, the book’s brilliant writing supports it all the way. The book is a great case study and an enjoyable read that should be experienced by the masses. It is, for all it’s fault, worthy of it’s
critical acclaim.

Quantum Of Solace Review (spoilers for Cas. Royale)

"Bond, James Bond."

A classic line by a hero of page and screen. Unfortunately, this piece of nostalgia has been omitted from the most recent installation in the series, Quantum of Solace. The movie derives it's title from that of a short story starring the same character. The two plots, while actually having some similarities are, for argument's sake, different. What results is a film that was good, but could have been much better.

For those of you who've seen Casino Royale, you'll know that James' first love, Vesper. The movie, and the novel, for that matter, ended in much the same way, with Bond telling his superiors that "the bitch is dead". In my view, this leaves them with two options for the next movie, Bond's heart can be hardened by her death and he begins another stand alone adventure, or that he seeks revenge against Le Chiffre and his associates. In what was by my opinion a bad move, the producers decided on the latter. This movie begins with a Bond hungry for vengeance, yet somehow already half way down his list of souls to render from their bodies.

The movie starts in an action sequence, as most in the series do. This is a car chase, which is fairly well directed. When those villains are slain and James emerges with not a scratch, he immediately meets with M and discusses his "next move". It turns out that he's already killed his previous aggressors and is now moving deeper down the rabbit hole, for seemingly no reason. This is a major flaw with the movie, it has a real lack of plot, while I understood the bad guy's evil plot, I failed to realize who they were exactly and if they had found justice. Bond kills a few, but it is apparently a massive company, surely with more heads than a hydra.

As the movie progresses,we see some people from the previous Bond flick, as well as seeing the new "Bond Girl". I was really impressed by this girl. No offence to the actress, but she is not jaw droppingly gorgeous, yet she has depth. She has a strong back story is well fleshed out, as much as a Bond Girl can be, that is. She fought villains for her own purposes and actually fought, instead of having sex with Bond and getting him to do it. The film's connection to it's predecessor is a double edged sword, on the one hand, it was like meeting old friends. On the other, I was like, "who is that again? Am I supposed to care?".

Action is a staple of the James Bond series and I expected it to be well used in this movie. My hopes were unfounded, unfortunately. The director, Marc Forster, seems to think the action lies purely in the chase. That's what most of the movie is, chases. Some plot, then some running. Plot, run, plot, run, run, run, plot. These chases are well done as far as chases though, but with all your characters in suits, it's hard to tell what's going on. Use of computer generated content is horrible, it looks all too fake, it almost made me sick to be perfectly honest. The editing of the film is also a weakness, I remember in one scene, Bond is running for the woman, Camille, one moment he is twenty metres away, the next he is holding her in his arms.

Despite all these let downs, the film is bolstered by the great performance of Judy Dench as M, and of course Daniel Craig's Bond is a great character. The production of this film was, for the most part, money well spent, and for that reason it's a good film, albeit a weak Bond film.