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Total Recall (2012)
Why I call it an unoriginal film: the idea has already been turned into a film 20 years ago (by a completely superior film-making team mind-you). The setting is borrowed from Blade Runner. The androids are borrowed from Star Wars. The main characters are pretty Hollywood actors (especially Kate Beckinsale). Hollywood memes like multiculturalism and the security state are perpetuated.
I watched the theatrical cut and even that felt overly long. They could have trimmed 10-20 minutes off the film but the film-makers probably thought they were creating a science fiction classic that people would want to watch over and over again. The more appropriate attitude would be to present the idea and get the film out of the way rather than make the audience sit through unnecessary scenes. I think some "bad" films are saved by not overstaying their welcome.
Despite all this going against it the film is done in a fairly competent fashion and has the benefit of Bryan Cranston playing a minor role. Despite low suspension of belief throughout (in my experience), it doesn't get to the stage where it starts to suck. It just has a lot of unnecessary scenes and CGI animation.
If you're like me and only want to see good films then give this a miss, or get the original version. If it happens to be showing then there are worse films, although prepare for the long running time.
The Way (2010)
Decent travel film
The Way follows a grieving father along a Spain-France border walking trail that seems to be well known among the backpacking community.
It is probably a travel documentary foremost with character development and travel stories included to put some meat on the bones of the basic concept. It is a pretty good concept in my opinion and works well on the big screen. I had not been to the cinema in around 6 years so this was a good re-introduction. Plus I avoided the crowds of The Avengers which has been released in Australia at the same time as The Way.
The Sheens prominence in the film interested me, I remember enjoying Men at Work which as it turns out is also directed by Emilio Estevez. Martin Sheen doesn't have a huge number of lead performances to his name so I enjoyed him having the lead role here. I think the directing might be a bit on the amateur side as my disbelief was not suspended on a number of occasions, most notably where James Nesbitt's character is introduced. The character itself, until towards the end comes across as being right out of a movie rather than a real person although I don't know who is to blame for that (the writer, actor or director?). Sheen's character did not look sleep deprived despite having consecutive nights of very little sleep which detracted from the realism.
The film has some minor flaws but the scenery alone is enough to make the film worth watching. I imagine that the film was probably more fun to make that it is to watch and I think this carries through with the actors. Altogether a successful film from the Estevezes/Sheens and I hope they do more while Martin is still in good physical and mental shape (he will be 72 in a few months at the time of writing).
Frozen River (2008)
Worth watching for Homicide: Life on the Street fans
I admit I only watched this because I heard that Melissa Leo (who played Detective Howard in Homicide) had won some sort of recognition for putting in a good performance. It sounded like a good film on that basis and I wasn't disappointed.
Frozen River offers a slice of life across the other side of the world (for me), it was appropriate watching it in the middle of a heatwave as others in the northern hemisphere (in certain regions) are experiencing these sorts of conditions at this time of year.
It ticks all the right boxes of being interesting the whole way through, being well casted and acted. Detective Howard was more of a peripheral character on Homicide so it was good to see what Leo could do with a lead role. Upham is a good supporting actor and doesn't ruin suspension of disbelief due to crappy acting or anything (same for the child actors).
The Native American aspect gives the film a unique flavour so in fact it is appealing from a number of different angles. It's fairly safe to watch with a general audience (no swearing that I can recall), some shots are fired and that's about as extreme as it gets.
John Safran's Race Relations (2009)
John Safran gets personal
John cut his teeth on short "video essays" made for the ABC and briefly channel 7. These have usually used black humour to get a point across. I became a fan of his after seeing the "Not the Sunscreen Song" video and thought that John Safran's Music Jamboree was an interesting insight into some aspects of the Australian music industry . John Safran versus god explored his main interest apart from music which was religion, having spent 12 or so years attending private Jewish school(s) in Melbourne.
His radio show on JJJ tends to have various guests with a slant toward religious themes. Speaking in Tongues on SBS was basically a televised version of the radio show which perhaps was a sign that Safran had run out of interests to explore. Since Speaking in Tongues Safran tried to break into the American market but without much success. Last year Safran took 6 months off from the radio show and John Safran's Race Relations on ABC is the result. There was of course a sneak preview in the newspapers after he got into trouble in the Philippines (what exactly happened has not been revealed to my knowledge).
The main theme of Race Relations seems to be his personal life as he roped what must be everyone he knows into the show in some way (parents, friends, ex-girlfriends). How he got as many people as he did to co-operate with his stunts and experiments must be a trade secret. I listened to the commentary for a couple of episodes but they struggled to find interesting things to talk about. After listening to the radio show for a couple of years I began to suspect that there was no real intellectual underpinning to Safran's comic persona, he's not widely read and probably doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about deeper issues. I think even Scottish-American TV host Craig Ferguson has more intellectual credentials than Safran.
John has picked a number of interesting places to visit but the things he does there mostly tend to miss the mark in terms of exploring the subject matter or be drawn out. At home he tends to take things too far. It's not all bad as there is enough interesting or funny material to get through the series but having fast-forward capability is advised as there is a lot of unnecessarily awkward moments thrown in. He casts aside his dignity and possibly burned some bridges so there might be something here for people who enjoy watching car wrecks.
Overall he has explored music, religion and now his personal life with a little race relations thrown in and he should probably change tack as I doubt he'd have anything interesting to film for a future 6-part series. Maybe he could go back to hosting a Speaking in Tongues type series as there's an endless amount of content there.
Chernobyl Heart (2003)
A full-on look at the young victims of the Chernobyl disaster
The Chernobyl reactor itself is seen briefly, and from a distance, to give you an idea of what this documentary is about. Some senior citizens living in the area are interviewed, and the rest of the time is spent in orphanages and hospitals in nearby Belarus, as radiation seems to take the greatest toll on growing or developing bodies. In line with another HBO documentary I've seen, Hacking Democracy, Chernobyl Heart does not have the production values of a HBO television series.
If you are easily disturbed by seeing deformities from radiation then it might be better to give this a miss, but even so it shows the disaster that has befallen Belarus (of which Chernobyl borders), which does not have enough funding of its healthcare system to handle all the victims. "Chernobyl Heart" is the name for a hole in the heart condition and the crew visit an American surgeon who repairs this condition with a $300 heart valve patch which Belarus can only afford a limited number of.
The timing is a little strange as W. was released while Bush was still in office, meaning that the story is unfinished and lacks the perspective a decade or two might give. Given Stone's age this is an acceptable oversight. Josh Brolin has certainly arrived as an actor with this role, however no actor no matter how good cannot capture every aspect of a real life person. Overall the casting could have been given a little more attention to help with believability, although I thought that James Cromwell was good enough as Bush Snr. despite lacking his soft-spoken nature.
The structure of the film highlights the contrast between Bush's life before and after getting into office as President. The cryptic dream sequences could refer to Bush wishing to have made different career choices or how he feels things are going (or both).
To me it seems apparent that Stone wanted to make a film that would attract as little criticism from Republicans as possible, and by pulling his punches he has (to my knowledge), but the film lacks any punch as it were.
It gets good marks in terms of entertainment, it is definitely not a waste of time in my opinion to sit down and watch this film.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
An actor's movie
This film was probably a lot more fun to make than it is to watch (for people not immersed in Hollywood culture anyway). Numerous actors get to ham it up, quite well on most occasions but the film serves as nothing more than an excuse for actors to commit the craziest stuff they can think of (and get away with) to film. Robert Downey Jr. playing a black character right out of the 70's? Ben Stiller playing a range of roles from a "full" retard to Charlie Sheen in Platoon? Tom Cruise playing an obnoxiously aggressive bald fat guy? It's all here but the question is, is it fun to watch? For me the answer was moderately so, so overall this collection of acting had little substance and made for an unsubstantial viewing experience. I've seen much less enjoyable comedies but from the IMDb rating and the cast, I couldn't help feeling that there should have been more in store. I will give it credit for being watchable, not sinking to any real lows and not running out of ideas 3/4 of the way through which gives it enough points to bring it up to an average comedy. Perhaps for me this is a lesson in having heightened expectations.
True Stories (1986)
Byrne's debut feature
I view this as Byrne's first feature film, except that he never made another (he stated in a recent AV Club interview that he would like to make another but isn't inclined to spend 5 years to get the ball rolling).
Byrne reminded me eerily of myself in how he interacts with people, I've read that he thinks he might have had Apsergers but I am certain it is social anxiety, however he didn't let it get in the way of the direction of this film.
I'm sure Byrne could have made a lot more commentary about society but as this is sort of in the "experimental" bin, it's padded with musical numbers (which might technically define it as a musical), a mock fashion show, a pageant (as the town is celebrating its sesquicentennial) and a local talent show performed on an outdoor stage fit for a rock band, climaxing with John Goodman performing "People Like Us".
As it's probably Byrne's natural inclination to observe the world around him and find out what makes it tick, I think a fully-fledged Byrne film could have potentially been much more meaty (for lack of a better term), however he is primarily a musician so it's understandable that he did not become a writer-director after the making of this film. And I'm guessing that this film only exists because of the success Byrne and the Talking Heads were enjoying at the time.
Overall it stands as a one-off, strangely dated curiosity but it is light weight, mostly enjoyable and is the only place to see David Byrne outside of a music video or interview.
The World's Fastest Indian (2005)
Inspired by real events.
After the comments that were circulating on the internet a year or so ago (inaccuracies etc.) I passed on this title, but after learning that The Bank Job was directed by Roger Donaldson I decided that The World's Fastest Indian was worth checking out.
I have to hand it to Donaldson he does know how to put an entertaining film together, and in the case of this film the less you know about it before seeing it the better. I was surprised to learn that it was a low budget film but from the cast, 60's setting and cinematography you wouldn't know it. There was no denouement though which was a mistake in my opinion (Donaldson says this was to avoid sentimentality but it seems more like he had to keep the film under 2 hours), it's the only departure from the otherwise fine storytelling on display throughout.
Regarding Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Burt Munro, I saw the 1971 documentary on the DVD and apart from a lack of physical similarity, he portrays Munro as borderline autistic whereas the real Munro came across as a tinkerer, someone with callouses on his hands who spent all of his time doing practical tasks (like a farmer, say).
I think what I will take away from the film will be the sequences shot on the Bonneville Salt Flats (the mountainous setting looks great) and Munro's achievement in building an extremely fast machine on a New Zealand pensioner's salary. It is deflating somewhat to learn that Munro was a frequent traveller to the USA (he visited ten times) and only started competing there when a local time trial held on a public road in Christchurch was discontinued.
Like I said the less you know about the film beforehand the better and even if it is loosely based on real events it's still a good film starring the dependable Anthony Hopkins.
Long Way Down (2007)
Charlie, Ewan and Co.'s second motorbike adventure.
The first adventure seemed to be an actor's version of travelling around the world. But the cameras and support team did allow us to be in on their great adventure to pretty much unseen (to non-locals) parts of the world.
Long Way Down re-unites the old team, now all good friends for a trip to another adventurous part of the world, Africa. Race to Dakar could be viewed almost as a scouting trip for this journey.
To begin with Charley and Ewan say that they don't want to do a three and a half-month journey again but curiously their second journey seems to be 3 months long. Their schedule is more compressed and less free-ranging, and they have been allotted less episodes to tell their story in (one less episode makes a noticeable difference). And affecting it even further is the unusual addition of a fourth rider, Ewan's wife, for 10 days of the journey, who up until a few months before the starting date had never ridden a motorbike.
The presentation is identical to Long Way Round due to being made by the same people, and the journey starts off fairly similar in the European leg (a more adventurous route along the Balkan peninsula was abandoned in the planning stages). Also they have again chosen to use large, heavy BMW motorbikes, but presumably due to the X5's fragility in Race to Dakar, the support vehicles are two Nissan Patrols.
The series starts to get interesting when they reach Libya where US citizens are not allowed. Minus two of the crew, Charlie and Ewan are shown around some Roman ruins that rival those in Rome. Until more equatorial latitudes are reached, Charlie and Ewan essentially complain about the tight schedule and not being able to enjoy the experience. They relax as the scenery turns green and they reach areas with more infrastructure, and essentially have a blast the rest of the way except for the frequent border crossings. By the time the scenery turns brown (but not desert) again they are trying to savour the last of their experience. However most of what we see only seems like scratching the surface, if the story was a little more in-depth it may have captured the feeling of adventure than the first journey had. As it is it only seems like an extended highlights reel and unfortunately in a few places has a home movie feel to it as it is essentially a gathering of friends and family.
Overall I think it's a good look at another less well-known part of the world, Africa, but it seems a little flat and forgettable in comparison. It is still (mostly) compelling viewing and makes me want to explore Africa myself.