Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spud

I must admit, that when someone recommends a South African film, I am usually more than a little bit sceptical and also reluctant to give it a chance. Don't get me wrong,  I don't question the level of talent within the South African film industry – the problem comes with a lack of resources and proper infrastructure, something that is usually painfully evident in SA films, as the poor production values often detract from the overall impact.

But the last decade have produced some amazing SA films, like 'Yesterday', 'Tsotsi' and the more recent 'District 9' – all of which delivered the entire film package, presenting themselves as well-rounded and tight cinematic triumphs. Each of these films however had help from some overseas partners, a formula that seems to have worked splendidly for the latest SA film hit to join this list as well: Spud, based on the novel by John van de Ruit.

Written and directed by Donovan Marsh, Spud is a solid addition to the 'coming-of-age' drama as it successfully tackles always-relevant teenage issues like puberty; relationships with family, friends, mentors and lovers as well as more serious ones like alcohol addiction and how to deal with loss.

A solid cast (with a dangerous amount of child actors) delivers believable and spirited performances, imbuing the film with the same sense of cheekiness and humour that the novel itself is known for. John Cleese (best known for the Monthy Python series) gives this local production a decent amount of star appeal with a eccentric, but honest supporting performance. The star of the show is of course Spud himself, played with immense skill by Troye Sivan (Born in SA, but raised in Australia). Sivan seems perfect for the role (big ups to the casting director), playing his confused, but extremely comic character with an impressive level of insight and sensitivity. The rest of the ensemble cast do well to fill the gaps in Spud's crazy teenage world, as they all contribute in some way to Spud's development as a character.

The most poignant aspect of the movie however has to be the amazing, almost haunting cinematography, contributing to the film's overall impact immensely as emotional scenes (as well as the more humorous ones) are awarded a nice lingering sensation with beautiful close-ups.

Special mention must also be made of the movie's great understanding of comedy: I found myself astonished at how many times I couldn't help myself from bursting with laughter. My bursts were caused by a well-varied mixture of humour that ranges from humorous schoolboy antics to some very intellectual (and some less intellectual) inner contemplations as well as confrontations between Spud and the rest of the cast.

Even though I'm sure that international audience members will find more than enough here to enjoy, Spud will definitely ' hit home' stronger for South Africans, as the pre-Apartheid backdrop is used cleverly as a light basting, resulting in most scenes having a juicy, deeper meaning. Some of the jokes assumes the viewer has at least an average insight into SA's political history for them to be effective, but most are timed and explained well enough by the narrator to work for a much broader geographical audience as well.

With all of this said, there does seem to be one aspect of the film that could have been improved upon, namely the score. While the score isn't horrible, some techno-beats seem horribly out-of-place, whilst other pieces seem a bit too dramatic for them to gel properly with what is happening on screen.

Nevertheless, this is a small blemish in a beautifully serious film, that strangely enough manages to not take itself too seriously, resulting in a satisfying, but honest cinematic experience that is sure to resonate powerfully with most audience members – especially males who'll find a magnitude of experiences to relate to.

Highlight: As Spud learns more and more about girls, his fantasies also seem to become much more... well... 'adventurous'.

The 'Crazy 8' seem to be missing their most 'prominent' member...
Rating: 4 Meerkat Tails

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

After the slightly lackluster previous installment (The girl who played with fire), my hopes were high that 'The girl who kicked the hornet's nest' would redeem the Millennium trilogy. Luckily, my optimism played off in spades as the series' conlusion proves not only to be an excellent final act, but a riveting wrap-up of what has conspired since we first met Lisbeth, Micke and the rest of the Millennium team.

The hornet's nest takes off moments after the previous film's events, with both the main protagonist and antagonist in critical condition. With even more baddies scheming in the background, the situation seems the most dire it has ever been (this is quite a statement in a series where the protagonist has had her fair share of misencounters). Nonetheless, Lisbeth remains admiringly determined to overcome her circumstances as she steadily fights her way back to health.

Special mention must be made to Noomi Rapace's performance, which is the most poignant it has ever been. Even though Lisbeth utters nothing more than a few lines of dialogue through the course of the film, she acts as the film's main emotional connection as she portrays her feelings superbly by means of extremeley expressive facial cues and her revealing body language.


"the situation seems the most dire it has ever been – this is quite a statement in a series where the protagonist has had her fair share of misencounters"

The rest of the ensemble cast are once again nothing less than superb, with the Millennium editorial staff doing their best to get to the truth, as they gradually expose a secret government organisation. The team's search for truth quickly becomes central to the story, as viewers will find themselves unable not to root for a positive resolution to the characters' dire circumstances. But even at the film's most optimistic moments, there still exists a sense of sombre disposition, a trademark of the series since the first segment of the series.


The Hornet's greatest accomplishment however is its powerful thread of tension and suspense, lovingly spun by director Daniel Alfredson as the story starts to heat up considerably. This results in some excellent action sequences that play out with great impact, adding to the thick layer of tension that builds up to a glorious, but subtle climax. 

An extremely honest and abrupt ending comes highly welcomed, as it fits in perfectly with the expectations created by the series thus far. The lack of resolution between Micke and Lisbeth might be a bit disheartening, but manages to give the series that final sense of mystery – almost as if these two still have a mutual path to complete.


Lisbeth once again wears her 'war paint' proudly, as she confronts those who have wronged her.

Highlight: Lisbeth's court case near the end of the film is beautifully realised, acting as a type of synopsis for the series. Lisbeth finally achieves redemption as the painful truth behind her past comes to light. Lisbeth's sense of relief resonates, resulting in the biggest emotional release since Lisbeth was first introduced to audience members.

Rating: 4 Meerkat Tails

* Choosing the best film in the Millennium trilogy comes down to a choice between the first film's novelty value and the last films emotional impact. The tie-breaker, namely the technical excellence of each film however puts 'The girl with the dragon tattoo' firmly in first place, with the Hornet's nest second and the 'The girl who played with fire' in third position.

Overall Series rating: 4 Meerkat Tails

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Every now and then, a movie comes along that is virtually impossible to classify, as it shifts the boundaries of what one has come to expect from a cinematic experience. A successful "WTF?" (Yes, this is an actual film genre) movie can probably be regarded as one of a director's greatest accomplishments, as these daring and risky movie concepts are never easy to translate to screen. And even when the film works, there is no guarantee that audience members will appreciate the director's bold cinematic experiment.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's Comic book series) does not only 'work', but it has already managed to generate an impressive cult following, as it successfully encapsulates and portrays a world that many of the 'cool kids' might never have been introduced to: The universe of comics. This gives the film a very niche audience, seeing how an appreciation, or at least a positive acknowledgement of comic book literature is vital to the interpretation of the movie, as director Edgar Wright assumes that the viewer understands the mechanics and conventions typically used in comics.

The movie is littered with references to comic books and the culture that surrounds it, but Wright takes this a step further by shaping his movie as an actual comic book itself: Typical comic book sound effects jumping out of the screen; simple & sometimes incoherent bursts of dialogue and scenes that feel disjointed as if you were scanning through a comic book are but a few examples of the comic book structure used. The film's other huge influence, classic arcade gaming, is also injected into the very fabric of the film, with a soundtrack that could have worked just as well as the score to a video game like 'Megaman' and fight scenes that take direct inspiration from classic fighting games like Mortal Kombat, Tekken and King of Fighters.

"no character feels 'out of place' in this weirdly wonderful, jumbled-up geekfest."

This makes for an very interesting film, but luckily there's much more to Scott Pilgrim vs The World than its original concept. Fans of director Edgar Wright's previous work like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz will be glad to hear the movie is injected with the same sense of dry, sharp humour that made these movies runaway cult hits. There are more than a few laugh out loud moments, mixed in with generous helpings of sheer randomness and even a bit of typical teen comedy, resulting in a film that is astonishingly varied in terms of its comedic appeal. While the off-beat humour definitely won't strike a chord with all audience members, there's enough variation here to ensure even the most traditional movie goer will utter at least a few giggles before the final showdown.

But sharp lines are worth nothing without sharp actors to deliver them and Scott Pilgrim vs the World's impressive list of Indie stars do not disappoint. At the lead is the modern posterboy for untraditional comedy and boyish looks – the very funny Michael Cera, best known for his role in the TV series 'Arrested development' and his breakthrough role in Juno. Not only does it seem Cera was born for the role of Scott Pilgrim, but he also gets the opportunity to play a much more forward character than his fans are used to, showing that he has the capacity to play more confident characters with a surprising level of conviction.

Special mention must also be made of Kieran Culkin's (Igby goes down, The cider house rules) extremely powerful supportive role as Scott's GBF (Gay Best Friend). Culkin, like Cera, appears perfect for the role, resulting in a hard-hitting comic duo that delivers some of the film's best laughs as well as most touching moments. Phenomenal performances by the movie's female cast members accentuate the movie's central focus around relationships and how complex even the most simple ones can be. The most impressive thing about the cast is that no character feels 'out of place' in this weirdly wonderful, jumbled-up geekfest. Even though there are more than 20 characters that feature prominently, not one feels like a 'stage filler', as all contribute to the film's strong sense of uniqueness.

"...the weirdest fight scenes witnessed on screen, all of which benefit from the use of a colourful retro palette of special effects..."

But the acting/dialogue is only one part of this crazy & awesome mess. The gaps between dialogue are filled with brilliant, over-the-top action sequences that have a distinct 'cheesy' feel to them. Somehow, this turns out to work quite awesomely, as the movie's comic book influence is more than enough justification for some of the weirdest fight scenes witnessed on screen, all of which benefit from the use of a colourful retro palette of special effects that will never work so well outside of this context.

But...

With all the praise there is to shower on Scott Pilgrim vs The World, also comes the bitter realization that the movie is far from being something one can classify as 'accessible'. Not only is the context extremely niche orientated, but the weird comic book structure of the film makes it very challenging to follow. The fast moving pace and frequent cases of unexplained randomness is sure to confuse (and even irritate) many audience members. While this is all intentional, one cannot deny that certain traditional elements (that make most movies agreeable) are somewhat lacking. I also feel that the level of randomness could have been taken down a notch or two, as it does subtract from the overall impact of quite a few scenes (especially later in the movie).

Nonetheless, one cannot deny the film's courageous approach and even those who hate the film can't deny the very distinct imprint it leaves on your thoughts. While it's definitely no 'Social Network', I have a feeling that Scott Pilgrim will still be fondly remembered long after humanity stops poking each other...

*Sadly, as with most highly experimental films, the movie was not well received by American or International audiences, as the $60 million production budget was never reached, grossing a mere $31 million in North America and $14 million abroad. 


When Scott earns the 'Power of respect', he is rewarded with a flaming sword – Awesomeness.


Rating: 4 Meerkat Tails 

(Add half-a-star if you are a super geek, or subtract one if you haven't picked up a comic book in your life before)


Highlight: 1. The lesbian fight scene – nuff said. 2. The duel with the DJ Twins.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

The romantic comedy genre has been cursed with some horrible entries for the last few years, as directors not only settle for cheap genre gimmicks, but also stereotypical characters that keep the flock happy as they dough out enough cash to justify the making of the next stinker.

Taking this into account, it should be obvious why I was so delighted by 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day', a fresh, but familiar approach to the genre that does not settle for vulgar or slapstick humour to entertain its viewer. Even though the film is extremely light and fluffy, it never descends to levels of extreme cheesiness or melodrama, as director Bharat Nalluri goes to considerable lengths to give the movie solid presentation values and a great sense of theatre (as if you were watching a play on broadway).

"An adept ensemble cast fills up the screen with over-the-top performances that complement the film's stage-like feel perfectly."

Special mention must be made of the movie's set pieces that truly make the pre-World War II backdrop come alive as the rich and famous of London try to divert their attention from the pending doom by rather focusing on their glamorous lifestyles. A light, but fitting soundtrack also contributes to the film's sense of immersion and thick sense of irony that doesn't let go till the end.

An adept ensemble cast fills up the screen with over-the-top performances that complement the film's stage-like feel perfectly. At the steer of things is Frances McDormand (Burn After Reading, Something's gotta give) as Miss Pettigrew, delivering her role with great confidence as she gets caught up in a world very new to her.

The majority of the ensemble cast do a fantastic jobs with their strong, vibrant performances, accentuating the film's stage-like persona beautifully. Special mention goes out to Amy Adams (Julie & Julia, Enchanted), Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) and the relatively unknown Tom Payne who deliver the most memorable performances amongst the very well-casted group of actors.

The premise of a Romantic comedy with an old styled flair comes together just great, as the underlying message of hope for a brighter tomorrow never overshadows the film's obvious focus on finding one's true love. This superficialness is however handled in a very stylish manner, as the movie is ever aware of it's true intentions, making the soppy ending that much more bearable.

Fans of period pieces with a twist will find a lot to enjoy. Those who like their rom-coms more traditional and formulaic might also however find this little gem refreshing.

Highlight: Miss Pettigrew is at first very reluctant to accept the facade she has set-up for herself, but she soon realizes that she will not have an opportunity like this ever again.


Miss Pettigrew is out of her league, or is she?
Rating: 4 Meerkat Tails

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The third Chronicles of Narnia book-to-film adaptation (The Legend of the Dawn Treader) will seem positively familiar to fans of the series, but movie-goers who expect something new and fresh might leave the cinema yearning more.

Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) once again leads the group as the only lead cast member who has passed puberty and does a good job in giving the story some needed adult credibility. The rest of the main cast is remarkably smaller than in previous franchise entries, as the orphaned Prevensie family has been reduced in ranks; with only half of the original cast continuing their Narnia adventure this time around (the two older siblings have lost their sense of childish imagination and have learned all they can from the world of Narnia).

While this makes perfect sense in the context of the story, it does leave a noticeable void, as the two remaining orphans, Lucy and Edmund (Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes) seem to struggle to fill up the screen with their very subdued performances. Luckily, a new cast member, Lucy and Edmund’s cousin Eustace (played by Will Poulter) does a fantastic job as the latest ‘Narnian’. Will Poulter plays the role of the ‘evil, sarcastic stepbrother’ with a surprising level of sincerity and believability, as his character convincingly evolves into the next Narnian hero (ironically, the most likable one as of yet).

“Adding insult to injury, the film’s antagonist is so ill-defined and unoriginal that it makes it difficult to feel intimidated by its‘evil intentions’.” 


The rest of the ensemble includes some welcome return appearances from a very likeable Mouse/Swordsman, A soft-hearted Minotaur as well as some special flashbacks from the series’ greatest villain (Tilda Swinton) as well as its greatest hero (Liam Neeson). Nonetheless, there seems to be an obvious lack of strong performances, detracting from the movie experience quite a bit.

The very simple, lackluster storyline doesn’t help either, as the cast seem to be without an obvious sense of purposeful direction. Even the action sequences (although very pretty) just doesn’t seem to gel well with the look and feel set by the previous franchise installments. Adding insult to injury, the film’s antagonist is so ill-defined and unoriginal that it makes it difficult to feel intimidated by its ‘evil intentions’.  Nevertheless, this seems to be a problem with the source material (shame on you, C.S. Lewis) and not the movie itself – even though it does subtract from the film’s overall impact substantially.

Things do however start to pick-up right after the halfway mark (with some excellent CGI and interesting plot twists), but sadly it feels like a case of ‘too little, too late’, resulting in the worst entry of the franchise to date.


While the latest Narnia adventure could have been much better, it still delivers enough to recommend it to fans of the series. Newcomers should however stay away from Narnia till the following entry comes to redeem the franchise. Is the change of director (From Andrew Adamson to Michael Apted) to blame for the series' regression? I'm willing to bet it is...

The film's best performances are by a lizard and a rodent... Make your own conclusions.

Highlight: Eustace’s emotional farewell to his rodent friend.

Lowlight: All scenes with Lucy, Edmund and Prince Caspian (There are a few). 


Rating: 3 Meerkat Tails