Friday, December 12, 2014

Predestination Definitely Isn't the Film You Think It Is

Chances are you haven't seen - or maybe even heard of - Predestination. I'm not entirely sure when its planned release date is for wider markets, nor am I sure why it was released in New Zealand in mid-September, smack bang in the middle of an extreme dry spell at the multiplex. If you want a quick debrief on the film: its touted as a time-travel thriller directed by the Spierig Brothers (who last directed the equally underseen 2010 vampire flick Daybreakers) and stars man of the moment Ethan Hawke and breakout star Sarah Snook. I suggest watching the trailer so it becomes a little clearer as to why this movie is a little different and surprising, as it is the complete opposite to what they're selling.

It isn't a new phenomenon to have the trailer ramp up the intensity of the action to draw in the masses, nor is it new to have a trailer totally misrepresent a movie. What happens when a movie is totally unsellable, though? Because that's what Predestination is - something that can't be easily packaged into an appealing marketing ploy. Yes, it's a time travel thriller. But it has more in common with Philomena than Looper. So take that as you will.

For a relatively short 90 minute running time, the film spends the first hour explaining the story of someone who isn't Ethan Hawke - even though he is marketed as the main star of the film (again, not unusual for marketing to play up a star who has been around since the 90s, but you'd be surprised about how long it takes for his character to become anything important). Instead, we focus on the 'Unmarried Mother', played by Sarah Snook, who's story takes centre stage in the film and surprisingly isn't about time travel at all. The last half an hour finally gets to the time travel stuff you were wondering about originally, and all of a sudden the film transcends into a Looper-like, spirally thriller that eventuates into something that is a little predictable. You could say that the element of time travel - or just time itself (similar to what Interstellar did) - does gel together both of the different plots/different films and kind of makes it into something that undoes the cynicism the film begins with. It has been a little while since I saw it, but all I can remember saying about the film directly after walking out of the theatre was that it was 'a big ideas film.' Most of them centre around the character of the Unmarried Mother, some of them play with time, along with an element of revenge that is used to propel the plot. You could say that the film punches above its weight in its short running time, but it also manages to feel a lot longer than the 90 minutes. That's not to say that it is boring, it is just so unexpectedly strange.

The problem with the film isn't that it was marketed to be something that it wasn't. It certainly isn't that the film is completely unsellable from a marketing point of view. I just think this film is an interesting experiment on audience expectations. Time travel films usually always end up the same - and yes, this film does wind up being the same by the end - and Predestination throws a new element (or character) into the mix brings her centre stage. It probably wouldn't have worked had it not been for the masterful performance by Sarah Snook, who crafts such an intricately multi-faceted character with ease. Looking for that apparently elusive 'well-written female character'? Look no further than this, and be amazed by the stellar work by Snook. It's a performance so other-worldly that it doesn't feel like it belongs in a supposed simple film about time travel. Looking back on it, this highlighted again how I felt about the strangeness of this film. It is so unique, only to fall back into something so predictable. It is so close to being something great before it does a 180-degree flip into the same paradoxical loop of time travel tropes. I'd say that Predestination is an interesting experiment in genre-bending. It mostly works. But its willingness to easily fall into normal audience expectations after completely shattering them was a little disappointing.

So yes - I'm not exactly sure of how to easily sum up Predestination for an Ethan Hawke fan or someone looking for Looper 2.0 or anyone who wants to see some classic stylish gun-toting. In fact, I'm not sure of how I could sum up Predestination for anyone. Which I guess means that Predestination was pretty successful considering most films these days can be summed up by a simple sentence.

Friday, November 7, 2014

I Saw Interstellar, I am a Nolan Fan, It Is Not Perfect (and that's okay)

Of course, if you've been around these parts for a little while, you'll know that I've been a pretty huge Christopher Nolan fan since 2010. It has reached some pretty fanatical heights (why yes I do own two copies of Memento, a copy of the Inception shooting script and bought a special collectors edition of The Dark Knight Rises that came with little figurines), I may call him God from time to time and I do get exceptionally excited whenever I hear his name mentioned. So of course, once I heard he was doing a film with my favourite person ever Jessica Chastain, along with my other favourites Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, I was very excited. Levels of excitement included being a countdown for the film from April 6th, using procrastination time to watch the trailers over and over again and possibly just about amputating my boyfriend's hand whenever the trailer came on before the movies we saw at the cinemas.

You'd be expecting me to hightail into this movie with the "Nolan is God, he can do know wrong, #Nolanfangirl" attitude.

Thing is, Interstellar is not perfect. And that's okay.

I have a feeling there'll be a lot of talk about Interstellar over the next few days, so I'll keep this a little brief. I'd have to give this another watch to fully absorb it, particularly in the Xtremescreen format instead of just the normal cinema viewing (damn you, exams). But yes, everything you've heard about the technological achievements of this film are true - this film is probably one of the greatest visual experiences I have ever had. Nolan's new teaming with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (the guy behind the incredible cinematography of Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Her) has produced some pretty incredible results, giving this film this weird blend of independent sensibilities - think Memento-era Nolan, with the polished pride of something like Inception. The visual effects work on the space scenes, along with the real locations used to represent the other planets are all absolutely perfect.

In terms of being compared to Nolan's other work - and of course, I'll have to give it another watch considering I've seen each of his films at least three times, with The Dark Knight being viewed over 25 times - I wouldn't say that this is one of his best. It lacks the completed narrative of Memento (and to be honest, I would take a lot for that film to be topped for me), the general magic of The Dark Knight and the cleanness of Inception. I'd currently place it somewhere in between The Prestige and The Dark Knight Rises if I were ranking his films, but since it is a little too early to tell, here's what I will say: Interstellar is in no way like any of his other films. Yet, in saying that, it isn't like he is departing from the style of anything he's previously done - it just doesn't neatly fit with the rest of his trajectory. Or any cinematic trajectory for that matter. The thing that stands out most about Interstellar is that it shows incomparable ambition that is precisely the reason why I love film so much.

Let's just take a second to appreciate how damn ambitious Interstellar is and for that reason alone it should be counted as one of the greats. Every single frame is dripping with ambition. Nolan has brought out everything in full force, and where we think that he'll step back in fear of going too far, he chooses to go further. He goes much further with this film than what is generally 'required' by a film, and maybe that won't be to everyone's taste but I was utterly in awe of what he was doing. The emotional strain of this film is absolutely beautiful, mostly due to the wonderful performances by Matthew McConaughey along with Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain playing Murph at different ages. Apparently the scientific stuff was pretty interesting, but even though I didn't really understand some of it, it was still broken down in such a way that it was easy to swallow.

Again, the film isn't perfect - it is hard to pinpoint reasons why, but it is so very close to being a masterpiece. The really fanatical Nolan fanboys will tell you this movie is resoundingly perfect, and they could be right. The really fanatical Nolan haters will tell you that it is overlong and silly, and they could be right too. Even though I've been hyped up for this film for months, I am hesitant to say whether it lived up to my expectations, but I don't think they ever extended beyond me being generally excited to see my favourite actress in a film by my favourite director. It is going to generate some interesting discussion by being a bit divisive - and I think that's something we're lacking a little these days with films either being "good enough", "MASTERPIECE (that we'll inevitably forget about anyway)" or "wow that sucked". Above all, I'm still floored by the ambition and courage of this movie, but it isn't perfect by any means. And you know what? I'm not even disappointed that it wasn't perfect. I'm not even disappointed that it doesn't rank high among Nolan's best. I'm not even disappointed after months of waiting, it didn't completely change my world in a way that some of Nolan's films have. I'm grateful that it reminded me of love these stupid little things called film and want to make a career out of them - Interstellar is direct proof of how much ambition can be put into them.

If you really need proof of just how much I was affected by this film, I cried quite profusely four separate times during the film, characteristically cried at the sight of Christopher Nolan's name, then cried for a full fifteen minutes after the film. I'd like to say that I've grown out of Nolan's films emotionally wrecking me, but I haven't.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Whiplash, or: How a Movie About Drumming is Possibly the Scariest Movie of 2014

There's a scene in Whiplash where Andrew (Miles Teller, gradually building up a pretty great filmography with his best work so far) tells his would-be girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) that he can't date her because he is too focused on his drumming. He refuses to not only allow himself to resent her for wanting to interrupt this focus, but also to stop her for resenting him because she'll only be second best. He reasons that he is doing this not because he wants to be "great", instead wanting to be "one of the greats."

There was something so strange about this scene. At the beginning of the film, Andrew coyly asked Nicole out after months of going to the cinema where she worked and thinking he might have a shot with her. This happens midway through the film, where Nicole could be the only really positive connection (besides his father) he has in life, and yet he chooses to pursue his dreams of being one of the greats. Usually, we'll have a love interest helping the wannabe hero on his way, but the film doesn't have time to waste on human connections. It only has time to spare to tell a story of blood, sweat and tears.

No, this isn't some action/thriller a la The Equalizer. Instead, this is a drama about a first-year student at one of the top music schools in America hoping to achieve his dreams and aspirations of being the next big thing in drumming. Stripped away of a love interest, a highly dramatised back story explaining why Andrew must achieve his dream and a tear-filled speech about how he'll overcome adversity, this film leaves us with the raw, unflinching core of achieving something great: perseverance. This portrait of perseverance is splattered with hands covered in blood and blistered and sweat dripping off cymbals, and also the dark and intimidating figure of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who is terrifying and certainly deserves the Oscar buzz), a music instructor who will stop at nothing to achieve absolute perfection.

Whiplash is probably more terrifying and intense than your average horror fare. Who knew that a film about a guy drumming could have you coming out the other side feeling exhausted and hoping that your hands haven't spontaneously grown blisters like the ones that Andrew deals with. What you really come away with, though, is questioning what can truly make someone "one of the greats". We now live in a society where there are plenty of inspirational quotes to keep you going through life, all with the same kind of message: "just do it, don't let anyone get in the way of your dreams, you can do it no matter what." Whiplash presents a message that is somewhat the antithesis of that, showing a more discouraging side to achieving the big dream, mostly in the form of Fletcher. This is a guy who knows that musical perfection can exist out there, but this is only found by exceeding expectations. He isn't the guy that will tell you to practice until you physically can't take it any more, he's more interested in destroying you emotionally to see if you still want your dream.

The film begs the question: why would anyone keep going under the mentorship of Fletcher? He hurls chairs at Andrew while he's drumming, uses Andrew's own personal problems against him, he forces three drummers to drum non-stop for hours on end in order to find a tempo that seems unachievable. You can look at it this way: most of us would just give up and walk away, knowing that Fletcher's kind of discouragement is probably correct and maybe you're in the wrong career. Andrew sees Fletcher as a villain to conquer, perhaps as a human form of his own self-loathing. Andrew is driven to hell and back by Fletcher. Does it make him a better drummer? Maybe. Does it make him better as a person? No. Fletcher is the thing that Andrew must overcome, and is the real thing that keeps Andrew going. For that reason, the film is pretty conventional in its narrative, being a simple tale of the villain that must be overcome by the hero. Through the drumming context though, the film has a more unconventional way of telling an age old story.

Yet, the film carries a pretty heavy message. Andrew is so young and embarks on his new college life with plenty of ambition to be amazing, which I find is something that is severely lacking in people my age. This is a time when you're supposed to have lots of friends and get the girls and have fun, but Andrew is the person who ditches his one human connection for practising the drums into the wee hours of the morning. Perhaps he has a little too much of that fresh-faced optimism that people his age have, and that makes him such an easy target for Fletcher. But you have to wonder what writer/director Damien Chazelle is really trying to say about the power of being "one of the greats", particularly in the music industry, in times like these when anybody can become famous on YouTube or on any one of the many talent shows. Someone as young as Andrew isn't supposed to be great because he hasn't had a lot of experience, but with someone as discouraging as Fletcher, why would you want to get any more experience? Andrew doesn't seem to be a particularly great drummer at the beginning and is more in tune with his dreams rather than his raw talent, so will practising for hours on end help him achieve his dream or does he just lack the talent? What is it that makes someone one of the greats? Fletcher seems to think he knows, Andrew thinks that he has what it takes. The blood, sweat and tears are certainly indicative of Andrew earning his right to say "ya know what? I'm trying really hard and I'm putting in the effort to become great." And yes, we as an audience want to give him a gold star and yell at Fletcher for being too harsh on him. Because that's the society that we've become: one obsessed with rewarding people for looking the part and putting their participation flag up, instead of going beyond expectations.

I think what Chazelle is trying to say with Whiplash is that we're a society who barely allows someone to dream enough to become one of the greats, and because just being is enough. The ones who genuinely try, like Andrew, are destined to be discouraged by people like Fletcher who won't settle for enough in a society where you barely need to even be enough. He then punishes Andrew - who thinks he's enough - to the point where he longer wants to be any more than enough. Though the film doesn't stake a claim in showing how those who aim low will always succeed, it does show that those who aim high and destined to have a tougher time.

And that's what makes Whiplash possibly one of the scariest movies of 2014: why should my generation even bother having ambition or value a hard-working ethic? Why try too hard if it has little gain? Will we even be capable of producing "one of the greats"?

Pretty scary stuff.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Five Years Ago Today I Started This Blog (and now a soppy post ensues)

So here we are, at the five year anniversary of this little corner of the web. It is weird to think of this time five years ago where I would have been furiously tapping away at the big keys of my Dad's desktop PC to create my paragraph-long thinkpiece on Let the Right One In. Okay, so thinkpiece is a loose term for this very vague review. The ironic thing is, I wrote that review in my first year of high school. Just recently, I wrote an essay on the same film for my first year of university (which got an A, so apparently I'm smart). So why's this important?

Usually, I'd have some post to celebrate an anniversary with all of these thank yous and lists of movies that have meant a lot during the years. And believe me, I've thought about this five year anniversary and what I'd do for it for the last couple of years. But I've said it before, and I'll say it again: this blog has been a great way to track the way I've grown up. Through my changing movie tastes (hello not watching Hannah Montana: The Movie for 'fun') to the way my writing has developed to how my life went through all of these strange milestones. It was great for those formative high school years, figuring out all those weird questions of "who am I, what am I doing, what will I choose as my career when I can't even decide to have for breakfast this morning?"

Admittedly, this year has been a strange one where everything has changed in so many ways. Gone are the days of having to go 45 minutes to get to a cinema and instead I've been to the cinemas 37 times this year (so almost once a week). I've gone from only ever living in three different houses in my life to living in four different places in one year. I've learnt about the perils of referencing (can't we all just use one referencing style instead of jamming MLA, Harvard, APA and Chicago into one semester?!), how to put up with constant abuse from the engineers about the fact that my Arts degree 'will not get me a job', the weird feeling of being in a relationship with someone who is too good to be true. So while my blog has been the perfect thing through a whole lot of transitions, it hasn't been all that present this year as I've been making some of the biggest transitions in my life.

And believe me, it isn't like I haven't tried. I've written so many drafts for posts and just got to the point where it no longer makes sense, so I delete it. I would love to throw my hat into the rather expansive ring of thinkpieces about Gone Girl, but a) I'd just be fangirling over how perfect Rosamund Pike was and how David Fincher's direction was ON POINT, b) I'm still feeling guilty over dragging my boyfriend to see it twice and c) there's so much discussion on it, where do I even begin? I would love to tell y'all about how my life did not turn out like Before Sunrise or The Spectacular Now (actually, it kinda did...). I would love to write another post on how much I love Shame or how much I want Interstellar to be in my life right now or how much The Equalizer rubbed me up the wrong way.

Problem is, I don't. I'll always look back to posts I wrote in 2011/2012 and most likely think "damn, I was such a good writer, what happened?" Thing is, I'm not the same person I was back then. The blogging world is not the same sanctuary it was then. I used to be very clear about what I wanted this blog to be like when I wasn't so sure of what I wanted to do with my own life. I've kinda lost that now.

This makes it sound like I will finally cut the cords on this wee high school project, but that's something I don't really wish to do. Especially considering my degree is really all about writing and I'm happiest when I'm writing, this is a good little haven to come back to. It just might be that I'm ready to take a new direction and stop wishing that I could be at the same stage of blogging that I have been through the past five years. Yes, it is a great thing that I have an online record of how much I've changed throughout the years. And yes, it is a great thing that I managed to (loosely) keep up with it for five whole years. So even though this seems like I'm moving on, let's just see it as moving forward.

(allow for soppy story to ensue)

Through going to the cinemas so many times this year, it has easily become my absolute favourite thing to do. I admit to still looking up at the light coming from the projector like I used to do as a kid, loving the waft of buttery popcorn smell you get as you come up the escalator, and being so comfortable in the warmth of the glow from the screen. I've seen some bad films this year, and I've seen some great ones (behold the wonder that is Boyhood), but no matter what film it is, I always love this stuff. Especially having someone to share it with now. And something that I've found while being at university is that passion does matter and passion is the only thing that'll get you through. So of course, I'd hate to lose this little corner of the internet that allows to me to express my passion. I've been kind of awful at it in the last few months, and I may continue to be awful at it, but I'll still be here in some small way.

So finally, I'd like to thank the people who have come and gone or stayed at some stage through the past five years. It has been a great time growing up with you guys, and I look forward to sharing some more thinklings and discussions with you.

And if I don't, someone just kick me up the butt for some encouragement, huh?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

19th Birthday Post - My Favourite Films About Growing Up That I Watched While Growing Up

This is a really dark birthday candle picture but I think it's pretty and there's no 19th birthday photos anyway
Hi, I know, two posts in one week...damn the world must be headed for an apocalypse or something. Rather, it is my 19th birthday tomorrow. Which is interesting because I feel absolutely no excitement for this new age because it doesn't really mean anything. It is like being 17 - that awkward gap between sweet 16 and the big 18. So when it came time for me to think about doing a birthday post, I really didn't have anything to draw on because there's no such thing as R19 movies here (although there probably would be, considering that New Zealand's rating system is just ridiculous) and I've already "grown up" since I have to pay full adult price for everything now.

Seriously, it sucks having to draw my attention away from the kids menu at restaurants because I'm an adult so I have to get steak.

In my thinking, though, I came to the realisation that even though 19 isn't a particularly special milestone age, this is the first birthday in my "new life", you could say. Gone are the days of growing up in a small town, since now I've lived in Christchurch for over six months and passed my first semester of university. I no longer have to go grocery shopping with mum but I can buy chocolate whenever I want which is honestly the best part of growing up. Oh, and did I mention that I have a cinema five minutes bus ride away, with three others within a half an hour radius? If that's not cool, then I don't know what is.

In a way, 19 is a pretty important age to be. Whereas 18 is the age where you get slapped with the label "grown up", whether you're ready or not, by the time you're 19 you've done a spectacular amount of growing up. Well, I guess that's just how I feel now since a lot has changed since I turned 18 (I say this every year, but I could probably say now that just about every aspect of my life is so different from what it was last year). In celebration of that fact, here's a whole lot of films that taught me a bit about growing up while I was growing up. Don't expect John Hughes films (don't get me wrong, they had their influence), but more a bunch of films that came out at vital times in my life and gave me a bit of perspective. And yeah, things get mushy.

An Education - Earlier this year I outlined my intense love for this film, mainly because it shows the struggles of living up to unreasonable expectations in every way possible. I've always found myself to be a little bit of a Jenny, trying my best to do things that I don't really care for, working hard but hoping that there'll be a little bit of fun around the corner, and maybe being a little too 'pretentious' for my age (now I'm grown up and living with a whole lot of engineers, I'm just known as the weird Arts degree student). Just as the title suggests, it has always been a film that I go back to get an education, whether it be about getting a "real" education or an education from "the university of life".


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