Sunday, January 17, 2010

up in the air

Apparently what everyone’s talking about in reference to this movie is the fact that George Clooney’s playing someone very much like himself. Up in the Air is the tale of a professional bad news man—someone whose job it is to go to your workplace and fire you with all the love and care that talking to someone as dapper as George Clooney will entail. This is a man whose life is up in the air, travelling with all the luxury and benefits of a frequent member of all hotels and rental car agencies, and someone whose life goal is to reach the enormous, rarely attained target of ten million miles flown. While George Clooney is clearly a more likely to cause you to sigh dreamily than to terminate your employment, the fact is that he—like his character Ryan Bingham—is a dashing single man who lives a happy-go-lucky lifestyle with none of that pesky spouse-and-child business. Still, I don’t know much about George Clooney’s personal life apart from the fact that he seems pretty cheerful, so clearly this lifestyle is not causing him any pain. Therefore I will leave the similarities there. (Clooney himself has said of the comparisons, “We’re the same height and have the same hair.”)

Ryan Bingham is enjoying his fabulous lifestyle until two new women enter his life. One is the young and peppy business-minded Natalie, played by Twilight human Anna Kendrick and her manicured eyebrows, joins the company with a couple of businesslike phrases and a PowerPoint presentation that threatens the jetset life that Bingham holds dear. The other is elegant beauty and comrade in flying Alex, played with extra long legs by Vera Farmiga and out to be the girl who possibly makes Ryan reconsider his bachelorhood.

Just as Bingham’s life becomes as desirable as possible, with Alex and he crisscrossing American Airline* flight paths for a company-funded romp at the country’s many Hilton* hotels, Natalie is given the job of joining Bingham on a few terminations before her new program idea is initiated. Suddenly like a teenage babysitter who’s stuck with his little sister after inviting his cheerleader girlfriend over for some groping on the couch, he’s none too pleased. Along with his relatives, who are trying to drag him kicking and screaming back to family life for his sister’s wedding, he is suddenly surrounded by that horrible baggage known as Relationships.

The moral of the story seems to be something about people who need people being the luckiest people in the world. As someone in a long-term relationship, has a close family and a bunch of ace friends, I’m hardly someone who disagrees with the fact that life’s much easier with people to hug you when you’re sad or take you to the movies and predict the ending (not looking at anyone in particular who incessantly does this and is named Chris.) But when one character bitches Ryan out for not wanting to get married and have children, I can’t deny my hackles were raised.

I don’t want to get married. I also don’t want to be with anyone but Chris and we have planned a life together, with, yes, adorably-named children who will be terribly clever and never cry. I have friends who want to get married but don’t want children. I have friends who don’t want either marriage or children and are happy living carefree, Bingham-style lives. And I’m not talking about nineteen-year-olds who can’t foresee getting tied down—not to belittle nineteen-year-olds who really don’t ever want these things in life—but people who have been like this for a long time. And lately, movies that espouse marriage and children as the only way you can truly ever be happy really grind my gears. Representative of this for me a little was a pretty poor joke setup about the size of Bingham’s sister’s engagement ring, in which the entire cinema I was in laughed patronisingly at how small her diamond was.

Chris and I are at odds as to whether this is the movie’s message. It’s clear to both of us that the movie is saying that life’s better with people to share it with, which is a statement that I hold personally to be true. But I feel that the everyman family is held up as the One True Way in this. I also think the movie ends on a happy note, while Chris thinks it’s a sad ending. I’m no Susie Spoiler, so I won’t tell you more than that, but I should point out that I’m usually the one wailing repeatedly about how the world is doomed for hours after a movie ends.

Regardless of me letting my personal feelings about nuclear families get in the way of the movie, it was a sprightly, tightly-scripted movie with the added dash of having real people who had recently been fired to replay their emotions for the termination scenes, along with short scenes with highly billed but barely there actors Zach Galifianakis and my beloved J K Simmons, who should be in every movie anyway. The relationships were honest, and many of the actors realistic rather than conventionally pretty like movies are but life isn’t. Jason Bateman also has a part as Awkwardly Semi Jerky Boss and Melanie Lynskey, from Heavenly Creatures and more recently the unfathomably popular Three and a Half Men, plays her usual huggable self as Bingham’s soon-to-be-married sister Julie. A tiny exchange between Julie and older, cynical sister Kara conveys so much of family dynamics that I loved the movie for that alone. It’s also quite funny, and the rapport between Ryan and Alex is undeniably appealing, as is Alex’s butt in the one sex scene with far too little male nudity (and, before you get too overexcited and book your tickets online, not much more female nudity either).

It’s an interesting and well-crafted film that tackles the issue of mass downsizing and the heartbreak that accompanies it. It’s also a movie that at least discusses the concept of non-traditional families. I urge you to see it, at least so we can discuss the ending and you can all agree universally with my opinion and I can smugly say that I am right, because it is, alas, a not so regular occurrence.

For those who stay through the credits in the vain hope of something—a medal, perhaps?—this movie does not have bloopers or a different ending hidden at the close of the credits, but there is a song performed by recently “let go” Kevin Renick and written by him for the movie, which is a nice touch.

* I have to mention these because clearly the two companies forked out most of the movie’s budget due to the Join Our Loyalty Program For Fantastic Benefits! product placement in just about every scene.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

bran nue dae

As we waited impatiently in the queue at Hoyts Melbourne Central today to purchase our tickets for Bran Nue Dae, Chris asked me what the last Australian movie we’d seen was. After much contemplation, we drew a blank after the laugh-a-minute cheerfest The Proposition, which was such a long time ago in movie terms that I became quite astonished. Now, I’m not going to turn this into one of those insufferable lectures about How We Should All Go See Australian Movies Even If They Look Awful, because I don’t believe that to be true. But I was shocked to realise it had been so long since I’d last seen something Australian advertised and been actually excited to see it. And I was excited about Bran Nue Dae, even though it pains my spellcheck to say so.

Originally a stage musical first performed in the early nineties, Bran Nue Dae tells the story of Willie, a young man sent from his beloved Broome to boarding school in Perth, where he is training to be a priest. But in leaving behind the beautiful Rosie, played by one of Australian Idol’s few credible alumni in Jessica Mauboy, he realises perhaps he doesn’t want to be a priest, but in fact wants to live in the glorious place he calls home and have a few 1960s-clothed smooches with Rosie in the sand dunes. His escape from school is hindered by the tracking by the school’s head, a German-toned and camp Geoffrey Rush with an expression sufficiently crazed by power and religion and the theft of Cherry Ripes.

It’s great fun, this movie, full of good rockin’ songs and great acting by Rocky McKenzie as the adorable Willie. Magda Szubanski gets high billing but is in the movie for about forty seconds in total, and really what credit there is should go to her fabulous and distracting cleavage. Other well-known stars are the eternally endearing Ernie Dingo; Deborah Mailman as an alarming character who takes Willie to a tourist attraction neither he nor you will ever forget; a red-eyed Tom Budge, who’s in pretty much every Australian movie/show of the past decade; Missy Higgins, as a fairly insufferable hippie who is happy to jump on every bandwagon that pootles by; and musical smoothie Dan Sultan as Willie’s love rival and someone who needs a slap upside the head. I loved Bran Nue Dae, no doubt; it’s one of the better modern stage-to-screen musicals I’ve seen. (I specify “modern” as I haven’t really seen that many pre-1980s musicals. Please don’t judge me too harshly.) Where the appalling redo of The Producers made no use of sets, this had lush landscapes, dusty roads and was a festival for the eyes.

There is a part of me that doesn’t want to criticise the movie at all. Perhaps I’m secretly an Australia-lover after all underneath this cynical, emo shell. But I must resist this patriotic streak. A movie doesn’t have to be flawless to be good. And Bran Nue Dae is not flawless.

I’m not sure if it’s the dubbing, or what, but some of the musical numbers feel pasted on top of the actual movie in respect to audio. With no background sounds to accompany it, you can never pretend that they’re just naturally bursting into song in the middle of a classroom or in a car; it feels like someone’s playing the CD and everyone’s miming, sometimes not that well. The obsession with head/mid shots meant that occasionally when people were dancing, you couldn’t see their feet, just their hands flailing about—the framing and editing made the dance numbers much milder than expected. Some of the characters were a little two-dimensional, like Dan Sultan’s evil Lester with his grand total of no redeeming features, and Rush’s ragey and racist Father Benedictus. The scenery, while great, could still have been expanded upon to include more outback shots. Still, for a musical, it didn’t feel too constrained in that respect.

Despite the awkward framing, I loved a scene on the back of a truck when a bunch of rawther attractive young Aboriginal men splash white paint over each other and dance to, unexpectedly, the song Zorba the Greek. Jessica Mauboy’s hopeful confusion lights up the screen, and she is beautiful. The movie doesn’t pretend there isn’t a grittier side of an otherwise idyllically portrayed Aboriginal life, with alcohol addiction playing a supporting role, but it’s supposed to be an upbeat, feelgood type movie and it achieves that. Apart from an awkward, squicky little subplot ending with a disrespectful man shacking up with someone who appears to have little respect for herself, and us supposed to cheer for it, the movie—with a big explosion of surprise reveal after surprise reveal—ends on a chirpy, singalong high on the track “There’s nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine”, which you’ll find yourself singing quietly along to with the rest of the audience. And by the end, you’ll probably sincerely wish you were an Aborigine too, because it clearly brings some kind of singing talent that I for one have missed.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

vampire weekend, contra

As someone with a big collection of media in her house, I’m always pleased on the infrequent occasion when something matches. I don’t have a matching Harry Potter set because half are hardbacks and half paperbacks; my eight hundred (give or take) Agatha Christie books don’t match because they’re all second-hand and from different decades; I don’t have a matching set of the Buffy television series because I have the last season on DVD and the first six on that mythical format known as “VHS”. And bands are never known for having a theme with their releases; sometimes it’s a plastic case, sometimes a digipak, sometimes it comes in a gigantic house-shaped box (damn you, Peter Gabriel’s Steam single, for being completely inconvenient to shelve anywhere. Honestly, Pete, you’re lucky I like Genesis, though when I think about it, my favourite track is “Land of Confusion” and thus post-you.)

So it came as a great pleasure to find that Vampire Weekend’s newest album, Contra, has a Polaroid-type cover that matches their last, self-titled album perfectly. Vampire Weekend are going to find themselves in a Very Prominent Position on our shelves because of it. Oh, yeah, also because we love them. The first album was played repeatedly in our house, especially the tracks “Mansard Roof”, “A-Punk”, and “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)”, which I loathed but Chris adored. It’s indie pop, upbeat and full of fun times. While their new album follows a similar vein, where Vampire Weekend was indie-pop-rock, Contra is indie-pop-electronica.

“Horchata” opens the album; a beautiful track that smacks a little of Animal Collective in the lovely built-up-then-filled-out musical tornadoes that I love to hear. It’s a great song, I’m hardly one to complain when one good band journeys down the same road as another, and they arrive in different places, and much better ones than this analogy. It’s a good choice to open the album with, and is followed by more strong tracks. “White Sky” has a slightly dated synth line but the sung “oooooo”s are always welcome in my car’s cd player. “Holiday” is enjoyable, and not one of the most tropical of their tracks, which is surprising at least to me, as I always see the word “holiday” and think “palm trees!” even though I have yet to travel to Miami or Hawaii for my holidays. “California English” has a chorus that comes across as an early nineties Nintendo game soundtrack, possibly for a tropical-themed game; it’s basically 8-bit Caribbean tunes with vocalist Ezra Koenig singing in what appears to be fast forward over the track. It’s skewy, and doesn’t always match the mundane verse, but altogether a fun track. “Run” contains Ezra’s voice-breaker vocals that start the track as if it’s a version of “California English”, but it brightens into its own track. This track’s synths reminds me a little of the aforementioned Peter Gabriel, who the band do cite in two of the tracks on their previous album. Honestly though, I only discussed him earlier because he really does have the most awkward cd case in my collection. Not that it’s a sore point, of course, and not that I’m narrowing my eyes in its direction as I type. “Cousins” was the first single released from the album, a fast-paced track that feels a little like you’re listening to a track from the last album on 45 when it’s supposed to be on 33 1/3. Still, it’s a strong beginning for the album and was what motivated us to buy Contra, because we loved Vampire Weekend and wanted more. But is it more of the same? If it is, do I care in the least? No: I’d listen to their b-sides and everything because, for me, they’re a very solid and appealing band and their sprightly songs really do pep me up when I’m feeling down. Songs like “Taxi Cab” and “Giving Up the Gun” are moodier pieces, and while good, don’t quite have the frenetic cheerfulness that uplifts other tracks. “Taxi Cab” is replete with a tinkling keyboard line and more serious undertones, but quite lovely all the same.

“Giving Up The Gun” smacks a little of the eighties, which I survived most of once and am upset to see are having a revival when if I’m only twenty-seven and can recall it means that it is too new to be retro yet, surely, and still is in the land of abject humiliation. Regardless, the track doesn’t really appeal to me much, and when followed with flatter songs “Diplomat’s Sun” and semi-titular/wholly grammatically upsetting “I Think Ur a Contra”, leaves the album ending on a note that makes me say, “What a great album! I’ll listen to that again tomorrow,” which is a pretty thumbs-up thing to say, but is no, “What a great album! I’m going to put that on my iPod and listen to it obsessively for the next eight hours on my enormous and fantastic headphones whilst having a spiritual experience” which is the highest rating an album can get, and no, I’m not telling you what album elicited that response, and it was probably more like four hours anyway.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

fantastic mr fox

So I hear we have a major fox problem in Australia. I personally have only ever seen one single fox, as it dashed across a road on my way up to the Dandenongs one day about seven years ago. This interaction with a blurry vulpes vulpes means that, for all I know, Fantastic Mr Fox is a documentary and that foxes do actually wear sharp little suits and flowery housedresses. I really hope I never see a fox again so I can cultivate this delusion forever, because I really quite enjoyed it.

Fantastic Mr Fox is a pairing between premier pen-wielder Roald Dahl and directing/writing maestro Wes Anderson (I’m just going to ignore the disappointing Darjeeling Limited here, okay?) Anderson has slipped adorable little animated parts into his movies before, as with the beautiful underwater scene in The Life Aquatic, so it isn’t too strange that he chose to tackle an entirely animated movie. And now I am amazed at how well his directing style—little written asides, meticulous set design, extreme close-ups, pregnant pauses—suits the medium of animation, and I hope he does more of them. The stop-motion work in Fox is gorgeous, with the animals’ fur moving about breezily, their expressions convincing and priceless, and their tears genuinely moving. The humans look just as wonderful as their befurred counterparts, and Britain’s countryside and underground perfectly sculpted. The whole thing looked so good, that as the credits rolled, I had a big stupid smile on my face.

Mr Fox is cockily narrated by George Clooney, who lends his animal counterpart the right amounts of arrogance and charm. His wife Felicity is played sharp-tongued and agreeable by Meryl Streep; his son Ash by pinnacle of floppy hair Jason Schwartzman. It’s a stellar supporting cast, with Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, and Anderson old-boys Owen Wilson and Bill Murray helping the characters come alive without overwhelming them with their own star power. This last point is possibly not an accurate description of Clooney’s Mr Fox, who often smacks of Danny Ocean or similar and whose pipes are so recognisable that it is impossible to see Fox as separate from the actor. Still, if it was notorious actors or no one, Anderson and co. made the right choice in their casting.

As anyone who’s read Dahl’s book will know, the basic story is that the fantastic Mr Fox wants what farmers Boggins, Bunce and Bean have: food. Then we have a battle of wits between Mr Fox—and the family and friends he unwittingly involves in his fight—and the respectively short, fat and lean men who don’t appreciate having their poultry and cider nicked by something that by all rights doesn’t even have opposable thumbs. The film embellishes the book, by making everything to a larger scale; the mens’ farms, the animals’ tunnels, the revenge of the farmers, and then the payback by the angry wildlife. When Mr Fox’s badger pal (also a lawyer) offers his assistance as a demolitions expert in their scheme, you know it’s going to be a bit more Michael Bay than you originally expected. Except with, you know, a plot and character development and stuff.

With the scrapping of a few of the foxes’ literary offspring and the addition of a cinematic cousin, Mr Fox’s son, Ash, gets the opportunity to be suitably emo, upset at the arrival of his tall, talented cousin Kristofferson who trumps him at everything (including the hilariously baffling sport of Whackbat, as explained by Ash’s coach: “Basically, there’s three grabbers, three taggers, five twig runners, and a player at Whackbat. Center tagger lights a pine cone and chucks it over the basket and the whack-batter tries to hit the cedar stick off the cross rock. Then the twig runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox. Finally, you count up however many score-downs it adds up to and divide that by nine.”) Mr Fox, who can be a bit of a complete bastard in the father stakes, swoons over Kristofferson and neglects his own son, who, in a shocking revelation, is not well pleased. Kristofferson resists cliché by being fairly affable despite his cousin’s tetchiness, and Ash himself isn’t completely awful either because you do feel genuinely bad for him. Mr Fox is so wrapped up in his own self absorption that it is almost doubtful he will ever realise the needs of those around him.

There’s a few questions raised: do the humans realise that the foxes wear clothes? Why do the dogs in the film not talk? Can humans understand when Mr Fox speaks to them? These aren’t really flaws, because I didn’t really care until I was at home in a thunderstorm trying to think up negative things about the movie so I didn’t sound like I was fawning too much. Alas, I can’t think of much negative at all. Perhaps the bad guys could have a bit more time to develop, though again, I didn’t really mind at the time, as we get enough of lead bully Bean and his overwhelming need for vengeance and—as shown in an audience-pleasing scene with musician Petey, played perfectly by Jarvis Cocker—proper songwriting.

It’s not much of a morality tale; I think the moral could be, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, even if it endangers everyone around you, because you’re George Clooney Mr Fox and it’s okay.” But go see it; it’s great fun, and I’m ready to forgive Wes Anderson anything because of it.